Monday, November 29, 2010

Astro Mayabang (2010, Jason Paul Laxamana)

I'm amazed at the increasing number of young filmmakers in the movie industry. With Cinemalaya and Cinema One Originals leveling the playing field, all the tyros need to do is present feasible good screenplays. Their shortlisted stories are so refreshing, daring, and original that you just had to forgive them when they come up with untrammeled, technically unpolished, and information-overloaded films.

Astro Mayabang does not have that glossy and slick look of a major studio film but its screenplay has a few noteworthy things to say. It tells the story of a Kapampangan lad named Astro who wears his patriotism on his sleeves literally. Part of his daily get-up is a Philippine flag-inspired jacket and Pinoy pride shirts and paraphernalia.

The film takes a swipe on Filipinos who passionately latches on to all Pinoy achievements, no matter how small, in order to mask their shameful and disgusting behavior. Patriotic Astro has a flipside attitude in that he is a racist and a xenophobic. He castigates a couple of foreigners for refusing to give alms to a beggar. Misdirected criticisms against the others reflect on the idleness and insecurities of Astro. He should ask himself what he has done to improve the lot of his dysfunctional family and poor countrymen. They are barely scraping by but show-off Astro still keeps on buying those colorful, expensive limited edition shirts and jackets. This reflects on the fiesta mentality of some Filipinos. The latter are willing to go to loan sharks in order to serve sumptuous food dishes that leave a deep impression on visitors. Di bale nang mabaon sa utang, basta may maipagmayabang lang sa kapwa.

Astro goes to great lengths to proclaim his love for Pinoy singers and music groups but he buys only pirated compact discs. He is like one of those Facebook fanatics who keep on liking films they haven't seen at all. The film aptly puts it: ‘Loving someone doesn't end in simply claiming that you love someone or something.’ You have to walk the talk. Don't just proclaim your love for the artists, show it. Support your favorite singers by buying original CDs. Watch their films on movie houses. More importantly, emulate those traits that help Pinoy achievers excel in their respective fields.

Insecure Astro is not so much suffering from what Nick Joaquin noted as Filipinos' heritage of smallness but more so from lack of solid knowledge about his country's history, arts, politics, and cultural heritage. Yes, Astro has a superficial, tiny amount of Filipino-ness in him. He yearns for those rare Pinoy pride moments that temporarily boost his self esteem. Astro even appropriates some foreigners in his small set of contemporary idols and icons. His concept of an idol is one carved out of colonial mentality and love for Hollywood. All across his room are pictures of 8-division world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, 'Glee' actress Charice Pempengco, Journey lead singer Arnel Pineda, wrestling icon Batista, Tony winner Lea Salonga, and even that of Cristeta Comerford. Cristeta who? She is the Executive Chef of US President Barack Obama.

Take away the temporary phenomenal effect of the Pacquiao fights and Astro will not be as happy and proud to be a Filipino. What if Pacquiao retires from boxing or, shudder the thought, loses a match? Who will then give a boost to the superficial Filipino-ness of the youth? Politicians? Entertainers? Indie filmmakers? The latter group has been a steady provider of good news to Filipinos. Their award-winning films have conquered film festivals around the world.

A character from the film remarked that Filipino films suck. Well, he might change his mind after watching the wonderful entries from the Cinema One Originals Digital Film Festival 2010. In an amazingly fruitful year, majority of the films are good enough to warrant repeat viewings. Astro Mayabang, marred somewhat by the repetitive use of footages, boasts of fine performances by Arron Villaflor and Megan Young. It received a special citation from the festival jury and nabbed the Audience Choice award, which seems to be based on box-office performance. Jason Laxamana must have been proud. Hmm, a popular hit and a critical citation for a debut film? Not bad for an undergrad student.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Layang Bilanggo (Mike Dagñalan, 2010)

There is much to admire in the early goings of Layang Bilanggo. The first 10 or so minutes are a study in storytelling restraint and concision, an opening sequence that redounds to great directorial promise. First, we are given to witness an assassin’s pinpoint precision as he executes a hit. The film then cuts to a jail office where a journalist and the chief warden discuss rumors of prisoner-assassins. The warden hems and haws, clearly concealing the truth. Subsequently, we get the assassin's vantage, his double life in prison... In a few precise and penetrating scenes that reflect and lay bare the urgency of what it dramatizes, the film sets up an absorbing premise and introduces the disturbing reality of the prisoner-for-hire.

Prisoner-for-hire. That criminal mutation born out of extreme state impunity and corruption, on the payroll and protection of penitentiaries that are supposed to reform him. In Mike Dagñalan’s sophomore film, the focus falls on one such assassin named Paul, a man who is caught on the horns of a dilemma. He wants to turn his life around, but he is helpless. For him, there is no exit: middle-aged and all, he must keep on killing to remain useful to his sponsors, to whom the diminishment of his abilities might spell expendability. Death. His is a cheapened life whose fate is not his to decide.

There are two parallel strands that interweave to tell this man’s story. One strand traces his apparent past as an assassin who gets instructions from a warden named Adamos and a shadowy godfather. Even in the confines of such irregular circumstances, there are still other irregularities: power struggles among penitentiary officials, and machinations for his criminal services. Which is where the film starts to lose it. These sequences comprise some of the subplots that unnecessarily complicate the film, where a little narrative restraint would have been to the point.

The other strand of Paul’s story is his search for his daughter and his admission into Anawim, an institution for the aged. Here he is a curious presence. While the real denizens of Anawim grapple with dementia and second childhoods, Paul turns out fine portraits. We soon realize why he is here: why he noticeably has a close rapport with the home's art teacher. She is his abandoned daughter. He has found her. There is no outright reunion, but that doesn’t stop the film from approximating it. Suffice it to say: she soon calls him father.

Such is the suspect dramatic roundedness of Layang Bilanggo. It is crammed with all the melodramatic elements beloved to Filipino tastes. Listen to its twist-a-minute delights: The sad, elderly stories in Anawim. The alliance of a cop and a criminal. The formidable foe in a woman assassin. A father and daughter’s de facto, if momentary, reunion. The high-body-count finale: What more can a casual filmgoer want?

Quick eventfulness seems to be the filmmakers' overriding credo and Layang Bilanggo's ultimate undoing. The film, it turns out, credits four scriptwriters. Throw in a script consultant in the person of Bing Lao, who must have wielded little veto power, and you have the makings of an over-determined and overwritten story. Where a more direct expose on a disturbing criminal reality would have sufficed in making a powerful and unforgettable and relevant statement, Dagñalan stubbornly elects to tell a story chockful of popular and sensational action and drama. Layang Bilanggo may have romped off with the top prizes at the recent Cinema One Film Festival but it remains the work of a callow filmmaker. This is not yet Kubrador or Kinatay or Bakal Boys. This is glorified soap opera.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ishmael (Richard Somes, 2010)

Richard Somes knows how to hardsell his latest film. Ishmael, he declares, is a homage to the Filipino western. A salute to a long-lamented genre, a shout-out to the pantheon of cowboy icons of the past. He rattles off the names one by one: Lito Lapid, Dante Varona, and Ramon Revilla Sr. Ah names to remember, he sighs, and his words whet our appetite, treble our expectation of impending fun. Expectation, perhaps, of a humorous spoof, or a deadpan tribute.

Alas, for all its declared heritage, for all the hoopla around this new film by the celebrated director of Yanggaw, Ishmael is a paradox of a failure. There is little to none of our own spaghetti lore revisited in this film. None of the director’s mustachioed heroes. (The mustache seems to be his fetish.) None of the genre’s tropes and trademarks. (Sure it features the trope of revenge, but so does any kung fu film.) None of the wide-brimmed hat; the skittish horses, the hot, sandy deserts.

It’s not as if Somes is aiming for something more cerebrally unique, more intricately intertextual. Somes himself declares, at the outset, how Ishmael is little more than a genre exercise. Leaving aside this authorial self-deprecation, one regrets to report that the writer-director is not wide of the mark. And worse. What Somes perhaps believes to be new and innovative is the persistent referencing of films outside the genre of the western – as if to do so is to transfuse new blood and resuscitate this dead category. Epic fail. The effect is plain pastiche. All the allusions point to are the viewing habits of Somes: Anglo-American, sure. While at it, Somes does not disguise his filmic methods and modalities: he quotes generously and flagrantly.

Notice The Night of the Hunter knuckle tattoos on Ishmael. Disappointingly, the tattoos on this ex-convict, returning to a town ruled by a messianic cult figure, tell no story. They are not so much palimpsestic layers but so much like badly done graffiti. Notice the scripture-quoting character from Pulp Fiction, the megalomaniac who counterpoints Ishmael’s down-and-out figure. This film drips with so much Tarantino obsession that it’s hard to shake off the image of Samuel L. Jackson quoting chapter and verse. Notice towards the end the Edward Scissorhands’ weaponry at work, part and parcel of a character who resurrects from the dead to unleash his inner Rambo, his murderous rampage.

That may be the most intriguing moment in Somes’ film -- its sudden, last-ditch flight from realism, the last-second departure from the predictable. We have been waiting for the irreverence, the impiety at the expense of the conventions of this double-dead genre to kick in and here it is…But too little, too late. Everything that came before bleeds into it, engulfed by our ennui and indifference.

Ishmael remains very good to look at, but hardly disguises its architectonic flaws. It is sumptuously photographed and well put-together from latter-day film techniques, the handiwork of an accomplished and au-courant filmmaker, but the screenplay is scantily, too safely written. A script doctor would have helped a lot. As it stands, the script is severely wanting, perhaps the element of the sustained send-up, or perhaps a modicum of tension that could propel it through the swathes of expendable exposition. Expendable exposition is what happens when a film is meant to be a vehicle for its acting talents. The speaking parts here are not particularly piquant but just plain redundant.

The compelling villain also eludes this film. Not even Mark Gil’s efforts at camp and tongue-in-cheek delivery deflect and redeem the Tarantino borrowings: the effect is neither chilling nor humorous. His figure is an ironic Messiah, a Pontius Pilate and lecher rolled into one, and still seems not evil enough. His minions always do his bidding, even when we like our villains rough-and-tumble, their dastardly deeds not overheard but evident. Yet the little touches could have sufficed. The lone telling moment about him is his choice of a serenade piece: atonal music on the piano a la Arnold Schoenberg. Good one.

Ishmael, in the end, is not even close to imitating the western. What it parallels better is the samurai. This is no better exemplified than by the fight scenes at the film’s climax, with one man, strapped with bolo blades at both hands, taking on a townful of religious cultists. Reverberations of Masaki Kobayashi’s Hara Kiri or Kihachi Okamoto’s Sword of Doom are set off. He is like an avenging, exterminating angel. Coming back from the dead, he may be staking a claim to the mantle of the real messiah. Or maybe just staking a claim to redemption, a little of dignity.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Third World Happy (2010, EJ Salcedo)

This smart and competent film of Edward James Salcedo was the third consecutive good film I saw at the Cinema One Originals Digital Film Festival, which is ongoing at the Shangri-la Plaza Mall. The sixth edition of the film festival promises to be the best ever yet in terms of higher-than-average quality of competing films and exhibition films such as Confessional, Wanted: Border, Hesus Rebolusyonaryo, and Serafin Geronimo: Ang Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion. The last two films were shown last weekend on cable channel Cinema One as part of the film festival's tribute to maverick indie director Lav Diaz.

Third World Happy is the best Sam Milby film I've seen yet. The acting ensemble, the direction, and the screenplay are all superb. The dashing actor still speaks in an American accent but this time it fits his character Wesley Tecson, a gifted painter based in the USA who comes back to the Philippines because of the death of a loved one. In the course of his stay here, he encounters what it is like to be happy and contented.

Milby doesn't bare his abs but gets to effectively bare the angst of his character. Wes is a Fullbright scholar who ends up as a lowly assistant in an art gallery in New York. He shies away from contact with his family and friends in the Philippines. One of those he left behind is his ex-girlfriend Aylynn (Jodi Sta. Maria). The scene showing the initial meeting of the two after 12 years of separation was well directed by Salcedo. The characterization of the two former lovers were so fleshed out that the audience gets to empathize with both of them. Sta. Maria was so good in portraying a jilted woman trying to put up a brave front. Giving ample support to the leads are Melissa Mendez, Archie Alemania, and a host of other actors.

New filmmaker Edward James Salcedo based the film's story from his life experiences. A proud Thomasian, having graduated from dear old UST Elementary in 1983, Salcedo finished high school and college in the United States. Racism changed his world viewpoint. Life in the First World is not as happy as in the Third World. He persevered in the competitive world of advertising, where he encountered similar people stuck in their day jobs because of the need to pay the bills. Most have given up on their dreams to become comic book artists and filmmakers. The death of his uncle led EJ back to the Philippines where he eventually got to fulfill his dream of being a filmmaker. In 2007, the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino nominated EJ Salcedo's short feature Talahib, which dealt with faded dreams.

The theme of lost dreams also crops up in Third World Happy. Much expectations were borne by Wes in the United States. Everybody expected him to conquer the art world. But, not everybody can be a Juan Luna.

I like the character Achi in the film. She is first seen reading the book Ilustrado, which suggests that the dead is not who you expect it to be. She envies author Miguel Syjuco for having conquered the literary world. Wes asks her why she doesn't pursue her writing. Achi replies that she had to take over managing their family's funeral business. On the day of Wes' departure, she is able to make Wes proud of her writing. She may not have been a Syjuco but at least her well-written obituaries can still make a huge difference.

Wes realizes that he doesn't have to live to the expectations of people. He doesn't have to create a Spoliarium or an Ilustrado to make people proud of him or to make them happy. They are already happy. He just needs to do what is important and joyful for him to do. At the end of the film, he goes home.

I loved the last frame of the movie. Wesley's miniature painting looms big in Aylynn's room. Yes, bigger than Juan Luna's Spoliarium.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Cinema of Celso Ad Castillo (2009, Produced by Byron Ron Bryant)

A lot of movie industry people were interviewed for this documentary on the legacy of filmmaker Celso Ad Castillo. Some of them call him Maestro. Others look up to him as a genius. Lav Diaz affectionately describes him as a madman. But, I tend to agree most with their observations that Castillo is a visual artist par excellence.

One of the best visual stylists in local cinema, Castillo was aptly described by Peque Gallaga as a lucky cinematic animal. The heavens and the weather conspire to create a picturesque moment every time he shoots a film. Castillo admits to having fits over the setting up of his first ever camera placement. But, once he got over it, he goes on to utilize his being a former comic book illustrator to paint beautifully-framed stories.

Check out the odd camera angles of his horror classic Patayin Mo Sa Sindak Si Barbara. The coffin being carried out of the hearse seems to have a 3-D effect of trying to break through the screen. The eerie mirror reflection of Ruth's diabolical glare still brings shiver to the spine. The haunting visuals and spooky soundtrack bolster the film's reputation as a scary terrifying flick.

There's a story behind the famous wet look popularized by beauty queen Gloria Diaz in Ang Pinakamagandang Hayop sa Balat ng Lupa. She narrates how she was showered with lots of movie contracts after her return from the United States. From those offers, she chooses Castillo's. She was so impressed with the filmmaker's Patayin Mo Sa Sindak Si Barbara that she promptly said yes. New and still naive in the film industry, she hikes off to location shooting with nary a change of clothing and underwear. The film crew accompanies her to a nearby town to look for a bra. The available ones for sale are so bad Diaz decides not to wear a bra in the movie. Since the movie is set along the sea coast, there are shots of Diaz in a wet, see-through dress. The catfight between Diaz and Elizabeth Oropesa on the coastline is the stuff that wet dreams are made of.

Castillo went on to do much more revealing films for the Manila International Film Festival and the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. His films Virgin People and Snake Sisters emerged as top-grossing flicks. There is a clip from Snake Sisters that shows Castillo's wicked sense of framing. We see a young scantily-clad female hunter searching for a prey. With her body crouched low, her posterior is prominently seen and surrounding it are dozens of erect phallic sticks.

I remember reading an article that says that of all the sex films shown at the Manila Film Center during the Marcos era, Castillo's Isla was said to have had the horniest effect on the audience. The story seems to imply that the Film Center insider based his assessment on the sticky state of the theater after a full-house screening of the film. A tantalizingly nude Maria Isabel Lopez frolicking in the sands and sea is simply too much to handle for itching viewers.

Castillo loves casting beautiful women in his films. He also adores the sea and the rain. Almost always there is a scene in his films set along the waters or set during a rainy day. Ron Bryant, a protege of Castillo, indirectly paid tribute by directing a Cinema One Originals film titled Alon, a story of a pretty, nubile girl vacationing at a seacoast village. Bryant upped the ante by helping create this eye-opening documentary.

The best visual revelation I'd discovered from the documentary was seeing traces of Fernando Amorsolo in Castillo's agrarian film Ang Alamat ni Julian Makabayan. The enchanting sunlight bathing the fields, the colorful attire of the farmers, and the framing of the daily rituals allude to several paintings of Amorsolo. Aside from the visual references to Amorsolo, the film is also memorable for those shots of farmers seemingly bonded to the lands. From a distance, a group of farmers are busy doing planting chores. Most of the time we see them with only their upper body half visible. The missing legs say a lot about rural bondage and feudalism in our country.

I'm extremely thankful to Cinema One Originals 2010 for giving moviegoers a rare chance to view bits of Castillo's works at Shang Cineplex's Premiere Theatre, a top-tier luxurious movie theater with excellent sound system. Castillo and Lav Diaz are this year's worthy recipients of a tribute by the annual competition for independent filmmakers. Cinema One Originals 2010 is ongoing at the Shangri-la Plaza Mall until Tuesday, November 17.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Andrew Leavold's Search for Weng-Weng (or, the Story of the Pinoy Grindhouse Cinema)

Blood (red, green, and splattered all over). Boobies (perky, taut, and free from silicone implants). Bullets (and bamboo spears and lots of bombings).

These are the elements of the B-movies, which were the focus of Andrew Leavold’s November 4, 2010 lecture at UP Videotheque. Popular fare in drive-in theaters, these movies also end up as the second, lesser film in a twin-bill offering. Ranging from horror films, women-in-prison dramas, post-apocalyptic revenge flicks, they have been described as trash, crass, and low class. But, to those hordes of people who grew up watching them in Betamax or VHS tapes, these films have been wonderful guilty pleasures. Judging from the audience response to a preview of Mark Hartley's documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed, a new generation of moviegoers is ready to partake of the sumptuous silliness of Philippine-made grindhouse movies.

Some of the more memorable cheesy exploitation films were made and produced in our country. Quentin Tarantino remarked that the Philippines is unique in being a filmmaking country with two distinct industries. There is a film industry that caters to local audiences. LVN Films, Regal Films, and Star Cinema belong to this group. There is another film industry that caters exclusively to international viewers. This segment is responsible for the Roger Corman-produced horror films, Eddie Romero's Blood Island trilogy, and the Chuck Norris actioners.

Leavold spoke of how Filipino visionaries and businessmen such as Conrado ‘Boy’ Puzon, Bobby Suarez, and Cirio Santiago dabbled into this goldmine of exporting films. Puzon bought local films for a pittance. He refurbished and dubbed them into foreign languages. He made lots of money selling them to video and film distributors all over the world. The Anthony Alonzo-starrer W is War made it to Europe. An IMDB reviewer described the film as ‘one of the bizarre masterpieces’ from Europe. Suarez initially started dubbing Chinese films into English. He then made a couple of films such as Cleopatra Wong and The One-Armed Executioner, both of which penetrated the almost-impregnable North American market.

Cirio Santiago is a name I grew up with. As a teenager I used to borrow tapes from the neighborhood Betamax rental store twice a month. There came a time when I have watched all the famous films (read: award-winners and commercial hits). I started venturing out with unknown titles. One of those obscure titles I saw was Cirio Santiago’s Stryker.

Theatrically released in the Philippines as Battle Truck, Stryker tells the story of a loner in a post-apocalyptic world. Good guys and bad guys fight it out over scarce water. They ride in armored-clad cars, gas-guzzling motorcycles, and a heavily-fortified truck. It had been years since that fateful viewing but I still remember the midget pissing on the lead character’s face, the scantily-clad girls, and the truck magically evading all sorts of obstacles (Shoot the wheels! Shoot the wheels! Aah, idiots). I didn’t know then that it was a rip-off of Road Warrior. I was just a high school kid having lots of fun watching it. My enjoyment of the film was amplified because the film was made in the Philippines. Wow! I became more proud because the international film was directed by a Pinoy filmmaker. Little did I know that those exported films will reach, and profoundly affect, other kids like Quentin Tarantino, who ended up as an ardent fan.

On the other side of the world, an Australian boy in Bahrain makes do with pirated tapes of films. He encounters some outlandish films with actors of unknown nationality. They don’t look like Chinese and they neither resemble Mexicans. A close encounter with a 2.9 feet midget named Weng Weng sets the young Leavold to begin probing the origin of those films. Having identified them to be Philippine-made, he scours for more of those weirdly-attractive films. The decades-long passion for Pinoy B-movies resulted in a documentary, a doctoral thesis, and a humongous, to-die-for collection of 700 tapes/videos of obscure Philippine-made films.

Leavold is an engaging speaker with lots of stories to tell. He narrates how Cirio Santiago would usually bring a jeepney at Malate and hauls aboard a troop of almost drunk, sleepy Caucasians willing to join the day’s shoot. He also speaks of how marketing savvy people pushed up the name of local actor/s to top billing even if he/she appears only for a few minutes in the international film.

Leavold’s inexhaustible love and respect for those Pinoy B-movies has a magical way of rubbing on to his listeners. A UP Film graduate complained that she had a hard time getting access to those B-movies. Leavold then spoke of a magical place where nearly all the rare stuff that film buffs want to view is available. Quiapo is the place where he finally got a copy of Romero's The Ravagers. The pretty graduate then remarked that she may have to break her vow of not buying pirated DVDs. Those B-movies seem to be so irresistibly fun.

A Caucasian friend of Leavold told of how scared he was during their sojourn to Quiapo. On the day major western countries issued travel advisories, there they were in crowded Quiapo. He kept hearing 'Americans, Americans' in the utterances of the people. He might have been a new visitor who mistook the people's hospitality and over-eagerness to help for hostile acts. What about Leavold? Well, he didn't mention any untoward incidents. He just mentioned that he wants to learn Filipino in order to better understand the films of Chiquito. In fact, he will return to the Philippines in 2011 to shoot an action film with the members of what he affectionately calls the goon community of local cinema.

In 2007, Quentin Tarantino brought his stash of Pinoy B-films for screening at the Cinemanila festival. He also rode a pedicab in going to Malacañang Palace. In 2010, Andrew Leavold braved the throng in Quiapo to get his loot of priceless pirated DVDs. If these distinguished people were willing to risk their limbs just to put the spotlight on Pinoy B-movies, then those films must have been worth viewing.

Haven't seen a B-movie? Take the plunge and explore the fascinating flipside of Philippine cinema. The films are outrageously funny and adventurous, and just like comfort food, they are nice to devour once in a while.