Movie Review: Never Not Love You is One of the Best Modern Takes on Love vs Career

TL;DR: Never Not Love You is a beautiful, grounded examination on how hard it is to choose between love & career, with excellent performances from James Reid & Nadine Lustre.

Countless movies have been made about the modern dilemma of choosing between love & career, yet only few of them feel as bracing or as heartbreaking as Never Not Love You. It arrives at a time where Filipinos are more receptive to emotionally realistic romance movies, & Antoinette Jadaone – who’s one of the key people who this style more palatable to audiences – delivers her most mature movie yet, backed up by one of the most popular love teams in the Philippines & real-life couple James Reid & Nadine Lustre.

The duo play Joanne & Gio, a couple who jumps somewhat recklessly into a loving relationship. Joanne is an ambitious marketing assistant who left the province for Makati City, dreaming of ascending the corporate ladder & making her parents proud. She meets Gio, a freelance artist passionate with tattoos known for his playboy streak, when he sold her a pack of stickers. It’s very clear that Gio fell hard for Joanne the moment he saw her, & since he’s the kind of person who chooses to pursue what makes him happy, he starts courting her unofficially. She tries her best to resist his charms due to his reputation, but soon they become so close they start living together; it’s fine if an unwed couple cohabitate, because c’mon guys, it’s 2018.

Here is where JaDine – the nickname for the duo – continues to prove why they are a huge Filipino phenomenon. It’s easy to root for them, since they’re just charming & charismatic as a couple. But this is a more intimate romance compared to their previous work – as much as you can be intimate in a PG-rated – that’s complemented by their childlike intensity. You can see it in how Mycko David & Carlos Mauricio shoot the movie, mostly with close-ups & handheld shots while Gio & Joanne are often bathe in bright, neon colors. Or how the wide shots capture the endless possibilities in front of them. It produces some of the most gorgeous visuals they’ve ever done, turning Makati & Zambales into a rural & urban sandbox they can freely explore. The most outstanding aspect though, is Jadaone’s rich, economical writing, as she explores their dynamic & following it thoroughly as it flourishes, while setting up possible roadblocks in their future without dragging the whole movie into a slog.

And trouble does arrive for the couple. When Gio’s father stops financially supporting him, he starts lashing out at everyone, including Joanne. He can’t live on the few, sporadic jobs alone, he doesn’t want Joanne to support him, nor does he want to work in a corporate environment for fear of losing the freedom to do what he wants. When his friend reveals that he received a job offer from one of his clients to work for their company in London with a huge salary, Joanne asks him why he didn’t take it. Leaving her behind isn’t an option for him, since he wants to have a future with her together. He asks her to go to London with him, but she doesn’t want to since she’s already up for a promotion to assistant brand manager. It causes a big fight, but in the end they both decided that moving to London is the best option for them.

That’s just the beginning of the hardships their relationship will face, & Jadaone details every facet of their journey. Gio & Joanne are clearly in a loving, supportive relationship, but they’re often at each other’s throats due to their neuroses, insecurities, & social backgrounds. Jadaone is trying to reveal something truthful & grounded without wrapping it around a unique hook – which isn’t a bad thing, considering she made some of her best work under that mode – & she mostly succeeds, revealing how frustrating it is to bridge the gap between their love for each other & what they want to achieve in life, while commenting about class & even race; even if the latter isn’t as subtle as it should be. (You can argue that putting JaDine in a serious romantic drama that’s also shot in London is a hook in itself, but I digress.)

It’s during this half of the movie where James Reid & Nadine Lustre clearly step up. James Reid is the obvious standout as the impulsive & temperamental Gio, whose intensity & devil-may-care attitude brings out the best & worst in him. Jadaone is careful not to write him as an awful jerk, but he could still be detestable in the wrong hands. Thankfully, James Reid uses the charismatic bad boy image he’s cultivated over the years to show the flawed, well-intentioned side underneath his cocky demeanor, & watching him grow emotionally over the course of the movie is engrossing to watch. That doesn’t mean Nadine Lustre is slacking off on the sidelines. Joanne is pragmatic & ambitious, & you can see Lustre carefully navigating their tricky relationship, as she moves from supporting Gio’s dreams & begrudging how further she is from achieving hers, with her resentment slowly simmer, until it completely boils over. She also has her own journey to take in the movie, & she reveals the subtle changes she made without her calling attention to it. Even the visuals become more sober & less frentic without losing its beauty, as the same visual language used earlier in the movie turned their world smaller, even as they travel & achieve more success.

It’s a complicated position to be put in, yet Never Not Love You never takes the easy way out. While the events leading up to its conclusion could’ve been tighter, it takes a more realistic stance. Being in a committed relationship is a constant act of negotiation, & as long as the love that brought them together doesn’t curdle into bitterness, they’ll survive any obstacle in their way.

Movie Review: Amnesia Love’s Likability Keeps It From Being Forgettable

TL;DR: Amnesia Love may be good-natured & respectful to its characters, but it’s not funny or clever enough to rise above mediocrity.

It’s disappointing that Amnesia Love isn’t as great as it should’ve been. It has a promising conceit that could’ve explored the complexities of gender & sexuality in a cheery, hilarious manner, but the whole movie just isn’t up to the task.

Kimmer (Paolo Ballesteros) is a famous social media blogger with an abrasive attitude. He is overwhelmed by work, causing him to lash out at others. His boyfriend Macky (Polo Ravales) suggested he should go on a hiking trip to clear his mind. But while trying to pick a wildflower blooming near the edge of a cliff, he falls through the sea & washes ashore on a faraway island bereft of internet access. A group of kids rescue him & bring him to Ka Andeng (Lander Vera-Perez) & Aling Mareng (Maricel Morales); a friendly, highly respected couple on the island. He survived the fall, but he is afflicted with amnesia. While adapting to his new life on the island, Ka Andeng & Aling Mareng’s daughter Doray (Yam Concepcion) arrives at their home during her college break. She’s  deeply suspicious of Kimmer’s motives, but they form a romantic bond once they get to know each other better; where he’s even fighting her annoying suitor Edwin (Vandolph Quizon). But flashes of his past life keep haunting him, including an attraction to a hunky fisherman Isdanny (Sinon Loresca) that he keeps hiding.

Amnesia Love is a broad romantic comedy that plays with the idea of gay man struggling with his sexuality caused by his amnesia for laughs, but it does so without being cruel. It never demonizes Kimmer for being gay & his relationship with Macky is never treated as a joke. Even Kimmer’s attraction to Doray is even treated seriously, even as Kimmer has doubts about his sexuality; subtly supporting the idea that gender is a spectrum. The humor stems from contrasting Kimmer’s life before & after being beset with amnesia on an island with very traditional gender norms.

Unfortunately, the movie just isn’t funny or clever. Most of the jokes are hacky & clichéd & the situations Kimmer finds himself in aren’t clever. It’s stuck using stereotypes as a source of its humor, & while it retains its genial tone, it’s just shallow & tired. It also has an annoying tendency to use overbearing music to punctuate some of the jokes, which makes it worse. It can also be needlessly contrived at times as it tries to come up with ways to keep Kimmer from staying on the island, including a third act twist that never makes an impact besides making the movie’s running time longer. Amnesia Love may be amiable, but the whole movie coasts on its charms to deliver a movie that is completely mediocre.

Movie Review: Meet Me in St. Gallen Makes It Hurt So Good

TL;DR: Meet Me in St. Gallen is a wistful romantic comedy that’s not afraid to look at the cost of choices we make to become adults.

Celeste (Bela Padilla) is a graphic artist working under an abusive manager who dreams of becoming a successful artist. Jesse (Carlo Aquino) is a college student who moonlights as a frontman of a fledgling band without his parents’ approval. After he was caught by his parents performing at a concert, they scold him & demand that he finish his studies. He’s left feeling frustrated, but when he inadvertently listens to Celeste quitting her job over her boss’ unreasonable demands on the phone, he decides to follow her. Celeste notices & doesn’t take it lightly that someone is tailing her. But when she finds out that he’s a harmless man looking for someone to bond with his failing artistic ambitions, she calms down & they bond over the course of one night; talking about their childhood & the similarities of their name to the movie Celeste & Jesse Forever. Their lovely night is even capped off with a passionate kiss.

But Celeste decides it would be better not to ruin the moment & leaves Jesse without exchanging their personal details & promising not to add each other on Facebook. From there, Meet Me in St. Gallen becomes a wistful romantic comedy about chance encounters, missed opportunities, & the compromises we make as we find ourselves. It takes the “Before Sunrise” template – two people who found each other & slowly falling in love in the process – that’s been so popular nowadays & takes it even further, injecting it with a heavy dose of melancholy & pragmatism that’s comparable to the rest of the Before Trilogy. That makes it sound like a downer – and it is! – but it doesn’t lose the witty, captivating discussions & great performances that makes romantic two-handers like this so enjoyable. Bela Padilla is once again the blunt, guarded, yet compassionate artist full of ambition & resentment, similar to her role as Stella in 100 Tula ni Stella, but instead of Stella’s recklessness, she ingrains Celeste with maturity. Carlo Aquino is charming as the equally ambitious & friendly Jesse, whose pained expressions reveal the depth of his regrets in life. Both have a cackling chemistry that makes it easy to understand how quickly they’re pulled in each other’s orbit.

But that’s not enough to commit to a relationship. Meet Me in St. Gallen understands that the weight of all of our decisions in life will leave us reeling if we made the right choice, haunting us even as we’ve already carved a space for ourselves in the world. It doesn’t shy away from the realities of adulthood, even as it takes the form of a romantic comedy, which makes for a very satisfying watch. That’s why even as the movie presses on to its inevitable conclusion, it hurts so good.

Mr. & Mrs. Cruz & How We Define Happy Endings

Contains spoilers for Mr. & Mrs. Cruz. If you’re looking for a spoiler-free review, you can read it here.

Romantic comedies carry a lot of expectations about what kind of movies they’ll be. They will almost always feature two young, gorgeous people who, slowly but surely, will fall in love & get the happy ending they deserve; both of whom will presumably have a happy relationship once the credits roll. It’s a formula that works for a good reason: It’s fun, escapist, somewhat idealistic entertainment & there’s nothing wrong with that.

Mr. & Mrs. Cruz seems like it would be a traditional romantic comedy updated for current audiences. That’s not a problem, because it’s a masterful execution of the genre thanks to Sigrid Andrea Bernardo & the lovely performances from Ryza Cenon & JC Santos. But the movie has more in its mind, pushing beyond its initial premise that somehow makes it more human & fanciful at the same time.

Both Raffy (JC Santos) & Gela (Ryza Cenon) have valid reasons to get away from the city & take a tour of Palawan. Initially we’re only told that Raffy finds a letter from her fiance breaking off the engagement with the ring near it before the wedding, while Gela hugs her wedding dress, clearly dreading the idea of going through the wedding. But once they both start drinking at a bar after a day of bonding together, they finally share the reasons why they took their vacation. Raffy’s fiancee left him at the altar after being with him for three years, while Gela left his husband after they got married for three months; whom she’s been with for eight years. Raffy is still wounded by this, especially since he proposed to his fiancee on Palawan three years ago. Gela feels hurt & guilty for leaving her husband, who gave her everything she wanted when they were together for eight years; even if she needed to do so because she’s losing herself in their relationship.

Their drunken, hilarious, heart-to-heart talk helped them gain a mutual understanding on one’s heartbreak. Raffy now understands why her fiancee left, while he assures Gela that she did the right thing. This leads to the couple trying to make out while completely wasted on alcohol, which ends with Gela puking on Raffy, Gela trying to find Nemo of Finding Nemo in her vomit, & feeding some of it to Raffy, a disgusting but hilarious ending to their fun, heartfelt night.

After they’ve woken up & had a contentious misunderstanding about last night’s events, it’s clear that they’ve become even closer & more enamored of each other. They are freed from their issues thanks to one another. When they found out that the tour they joined left them, they decide to explore the sights of Palawan together. It even inspired Raffy to show Gela a video of his engagement from his ex-fiancee & delete it afterwards. Gela is shocked to find out that Gela & her ex-husband were also in Palawan back when they weren’t married when Raffy proposed to his ex-fiancee. She decides not to tell him, as they continue to enjoy each other’s company.

It’s at this point you’d expect the movie to end, with both of them presumably having a long, happy relationship after they leave the island. Why couldn’t it? They’re clearly in love, they comforted & supported each other, & the movie even implies that they’re destined to be together.

But Gela doesn’t want to pursue a relationship with Raffy. She thinks they’re both at different points in their life, & they need more time to find their place in the world. Even she finds their whole situation to be unreal, commenting that it’s something out of a romantic comedy. And she thinks they might see each other someday. Raffy asks her to reconsider & trade contact details, but she declines, leaving him alone in Palawan. After she left, Raffy finds her copy of Romeo & Juliet. He opens it & reads her parting message, with her incomplete cellphone number scribbled in the book’s first page. He also finds a picture of Gela, ripped from a photo taken by the newlywed couple who joined their tour.

It’s an ending that is at odds with itself, falling outside of the typical “happy ending” demanded by the genre while embracing the tropes of the genre. However, it makes complete sense. While their story has the makings of a fantastic romantic-comedy – and I’d agree because the movie is fantastic – they still have a lot to work on. Both of them still need to figure out what to do next; especially Gela, who’s trying to learn who she is after staying in a relationship for eight years. Staying together would worsen whatever hangups they have. Finding someone to love & reciprocates that feeling may be the usual conclusion we get in romantic comedies, but Mr. & Mrs. Cruz suggests that prioritizing our self-improvement is more important. Maybe after we find ourselves, it’ll be easier to find the “happy ending” we deserve.

Movie Review: Mr. & Mrs. Cruz is a Hilarious, Resonant Tale About Moving On

TL;DR: Mr. & Mrs. Cruz embraces the genre’s tropes & executes them masterfully, but it becomes more heartfelt once it leaves them behind.

It should be obvious from the trailers that Mr. & Mrs. Cruz is another hugot-infused “Before Sunrise” riff in a picturesque locale that’s sure to inspire lots of swooning romantics & broken-hearted cynics to go soul-searching on Palawan to find themselves. It’s a formula on the verge of becoming banal & repetitive, as numerous Filipino movies have used the template by the influential That Thing Called Tadhana (That Thing Called Destiny), but riffed on it in different ways. The latest movie from Sigrid Andrea Bernardo, the director of Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita (Anita’s Last Cha-Cha) & the highest-grossing Filipino indie Kita Kita (I See You), might lean closer to the formula compared to others, but it’s done brilliantly, while coming up with its own ideas.

Gela Cruz (Ryza Cenon) & Raffy Cruz (JC Santos) are two tourists who went to Palawan in order to find themselves on their own after both experienced a wedding-related snafu. Neither of them have met before, but people keep confusing them for a married couple thanks to their similar, yet ridiculously common surname; including an old couple celebrating their golden anniversary & newlywed couple who are grouped with them in the tour. At first, they try their best to stick to their plans of enjoying this trip alone, but they easily hit it off; even if they had a huge fight about the importance of marriage. What they slowly realize is they each have something to impart that will help them move past their heartbreak.

What makes Mr. & Mrs. Cruz stand out from the rest is how it sharpens the film’s elements at its most effective. The movie mostly sticks with Gela & Raffy for the rest of the movie talking to each other, & it never grinds to a complete halt. Bernardo has always had a great ear for memorable dialogue & that quality shines through. The conversations Gela & Raffy have range from the silly, mundane, & hugot-related, but it’s always witty & engaging. They’ll be riffing on the implications of eating El Nido soup, how Romeo & Juliet isn’t aspirational once you look at it during adulthood, & their heated exchange about the need for marriage. Even those outside Gela & Raffy are amusing & memorable, giving the main couple a chance to interact with others. It isn’t above indulging in scenes outside its grounded tone if it will lead to something remarkable, including a funny gag involving dry-fit shorts & moments of whimsy that’s one of Bernardo’s trademarks. All of it is stirkingly shot, capturing how Gela & Raffy are slowly becoming closer to each other from the exquisite beaches of Palawan to its clean hotel rooms.

But the movie wouldn’t work without Ryza Cenon & JC Santos at its center. Their initial awkwardness quickly give way to a comfortable looseness they easily exude. It’s so enthralling to carry themselves well to Bernardo’s snappy dialogue. JC Santos is more aggressive & slightly reckless as Raffy, while Ryza Cenon is more composed as Gela, but willing to banter or fight back at Raffy’s repartee.

But starting from the night Raffy & Gela get drunk at a bar, it becomes clear Ryza Cenon is the instant standout. She becomes an emotional trainwreck as Raffy & Gela dig deeper about their issues. Cenon switches from laughing, drinking, crying, & laugh-crying while drinking, turning into a manifestation of a heartbroken id who drowns her sorrow with alcohol, but no matter how hard she tries, her broken heart always wins out; so she might as well have fun. JC Santos plays the much needed equally heartbroken, but more levelheaded drunken straight man, reacting to Gela’s ramblings while trying to make sure she’s safe. As they return to their hotel room, they reciprocate each others feelings in clumsy, awkward yet romantic fashion that inevitably turns into a literal mess.

Its heavy use of tropes appears to be purposeful though. Bernardo keeps propelling the narrative to something more emotionally true, even as it includes a twist that seems out of place. It’s a neat trick that makes it even more insightful & human. At the end, Mr. & Mrs. Cruz reveals what it truly is: a story of two people making sense of each other’s pain & sorrow.