Thursday, August 30, 2012

Oros (Paul Sta. Ana, Cinemalaya 2012 New Breed Finalist)

It is with amusement that I read articles and comments about the Manila scenes from the disappointing film Bourne Legacy. Several people harped over the impoverished, ‘stinky’ images of the city. However, I didn’t find anything ugly and demeaning at all. Well, the foreign movie is quite talky, but noisy and busy Manila is just like what locals (and tourists) see everyday. The horrendous traffic is replicated throughout the day in various parts of Metro Manila. What surprised me were the gorgeous nighttime aerial shots of Manila. There’s still nothing as seductive and alluring as the city after dark.

Meanwhile, Paul Sta. Ana’s Oros treads the darker, gritty side of Manila. In the claws of the funeral lights, a group of gamblers play the sakla, an illegal cards game. Compassionate local officials turn a blind eye if the sakla is done during wakes. The huge amount of money earned from the players can be of big help to the surviving family members. The lure of big bucks naturally attracts shady characters.

Makoy (Kristofer King) is having a hard time convincing his younger brother Abet (Kristoffer Martin) to help him manage his sakla operations. Business is booming and he needs all the hands he can find to man the games. He just ignores the entry of a saklaan competitor by reasoning that there are lots of dead people to be shared by two groups.

Indeed, Makoy easily buys an unclaimed corpse from a funeral parlor and uses it for his fake wakes. He then cooks up a background story that the ‘surviving family’ can tell to nosey neighbors and authorities. The film is a handy blueprint for those planning to enter the lucrative sakla business. All the things you need to know are there. Vivid details like the need to apply formalin to the corpse and the collection of protection money are shown.

Paul Sta. Ana did wonders with a well-researched story on the world of sakla. He is so confident with his material that he didn’t flinch from using clichéd poverty porn images. His first scene mockingly apes the beginning of Ang Babae sa Septic Tank, a successful film that pilloried makers of ‘poverty porn’ movies. He then goes on to pay homage or simply refers to other notable films and directors. There’s humor as a man fails miserably in doing a Gloc 9 rap song. The off-key singing segues to Abel doing a passable rap like the young gangsta rappers of Tribu. A stinky turd scene recalls scenes from the films of Jeffrey Jeturian. There’s just a slight misstep in the Kubrador/Tirador scene. Abel outruns a man without experiencing any trouble with his pair of slippers. Maybe, the slippers get to be a perfect fit when the user is running scared instead of walking leisurely.

Kristofer King won the Best Actor award for his convincing role as a small-time hands-on businessman. The way he delivers his lines especially the throwaway lines is so natural. His Makoy is hard on irresponsible employees but has a soft spot for family members. King and Kristoffer Martin came up with memorable characters that are a perfect fit for the movie’s version of Manila. They seem to be real-life denizens of the city’s edgier side. In the end, the strong performances and the nitty-gritty details of the saklaan business stays with you and not the so-called poverty porn images. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ang Mga Kidnaper Ni Ronnie Lazaro (Sigfreid Barros Sanchez, Sineng Pambansa 2012 Best Picture)

Soliman Cruz. Dwight Gaston. Hector Macaso. Raul Morit.

Any of the names ring a bell? Those are names of character actors, who are regular fixtures in indie films. But, sadly, very few viewers know their faces. They are just like Lilia Cuntapay, that is, way before she became an award-winning star in a Cinema One Originals film. You need to describe their characters before a fellow viewer can identify them.

Soliman Cruz is the calm funeral manager in Bwakaw. Yes, the 'mabuhay po kayo' guy. Raul Morit is the creepy taxi driver in The Animals. Siya iyung balbas-saradong rapist-killer. See? These guys appear for mere seconds or minutes but they can leave a big impression on viewers.

They have done a variety of marked roles in local films. Criminal. Good guy. Crooked cop. Barkada. Add two more roles to that list.

Kidnapper. Filmmaker.

The four usual suspects are joined in by Noni Buencamino, and Epy Quizon as filmmakers/kidnappers in Sigfreid Barros Sanchez’s laugh-a-thon Ang Mga Kidnaper ni Ronnie Lazaro. The six filmmakers are so desperate to cast the elusive Ronnie Lazaro in an indie film that they are forced to abduct him.

If you’re wondering about the overall feel of this film, then think of The King of Comedy. Whether it is Martin Scorsese’s black comedy or the late Dolphy that crops up in your mind, you’re partly right because both, amazingly, figure prominently in the film. Unknown actors are given the chance to shine and entertain viewers and, in the end, be at par with legendary comics.

Locally-made action films get mostly skewered in this film. Action films ceased to become a box-office draw after audiences got tired of familiar plots and over-the-top set pieces bordering on ridiculousness. Star complex and its sky-high effect on talent fees and production costs further doomed the action film.

Much hyped-about saviors but ultimately lame action films such as Ishmael and Hitman came into my mind when the ‘film within a film’ is being played out. The lengthy kilometric exchange of words by the bida and kontrabida is played for comic purposes. The use of biblical scriptures and the ubiquitous bodega hideout also get their fair share of laughs. There’s the hilarious nod to Lito Lapid’s amazing splitting of bullet wizardry. 

The laughs come freely because of the extraordinary rapport of the seven actors. The give-and-take and impeccable timing of the actors put the spotlight on the jokes. No one tries to upstage their fellow actors. Ronnie Lazaro was on the verge of breaking out into laughter several times in the movie. He can’t help it because his poker-faced colleagues are truly funny. They are so good that the ensemble cast was awarded the Best Actor(s) award at the Sineng Pambansa 2012. The film nabbed the Best Picture award.

Ang Mga Kidnaper ni Ronnie Lazaro doesn’t only entertain viewers but also points out several problems (and solutions) in the film industry. Producers of action films should try to inject new things and concepts. Scenema Concepts International did right with Manila Kingpin but did wrong with Tikoy Aguiluz. Technically proficient filmmakers need to focus more on improving their story-telling skills and not rely solely on flashy, slick editing and gorgeous cinematography. Passion and determination can overcome yearly script rejections, which Sanchez endured with Cinemalaya organizers.

Director Sanchez, during the Luzon premiere of the film, said the hilarious film was his tribute to the comedy king, Rodolfo Dolphy Vera Quizon. It was something that he is so proud of that he regrets not being able to show to the late actor. Those were big words which he was able to back up. The film delivered torrential hearty laughter just like the old Dolphy movies I used to watch on Channel 9 and at Galaxy and Odeon theaters in Avenida. I ambled out of the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Little Theatre with a joyous smile and singing ‘hey, hey, hey…hey, hey, hey.’

One more time, let’s sing… ‘And here’s to you, Dolphy Quizon…’

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Recuerdo of Two Sundays and Two Roads that Lead to the Sea (Romy Vitug, Emmanuel Torres, & Bibsy Carballo, 1969)

Paraphrasing Forrest Gump, a Cinemalaya festival pass is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.

There were lots of good treats at the recent fest. After all, it is already the eighth edition of the film competition. So, quality is quite high and cineastes had a hard time selecting a standout from a bountiful harvest of good, new films. But, sadly, there exists a Cinemalaya finalist that is so badly written that it stands out for its mediocrity. Instead of inspiring viewers, the film manages to make the audience squirm due to its heavy-handed handling of President Manuel Quezon’s legacy. If the best film I’ve seen starred Ronnie Lazaro (Ang Mga Kidnaper ni Ronnie Lazaro), then the worst film also featured Ronnie Lazaro (Ang Katiwala). Rare is an awful film that manages to get a foothold in the Cinemalaya competition.

Rarer is this cinematic gem that Nick Deocampo rightly described as a classic. Recuerdo of Two Sundays and Two Roads that Lead to the Sea is the film find of the last two years. Forgotten for more than four decades, the film was rediscovered in New York City. If you’ve seen Kamera Obskura, then you’ll recall the joy of film archivists who stumbled over a rare Filipino silent film. That incandescent joy is the same thing I saw in the beaming face of Deocampo. He is obviously happy to share the film to an audience who haven’t had a clue on what the film is.

Producer and editor Bibsy Carballo gave us a few tidbits on the genesis of the documentary film. Cinematographer Romy Vitug scraped up short ends of films for a side project. He spent his Sundays shooting film footages in a Navotas cemetery. Poet Emmanuel Torres came in later to write the narration, which was recorded by Ray Pedroche.

The visual virtuosity of Vitug is in full force in this black & white documentary about four funerals and a feasting. There’s an unforgettable image of moving shadows cast by jeepneys on a wall. The elegiac shadows seem to depict burning, floating coffins at sea. Then, there’s the image of crushing waves knocking on the edges of the cemetery. The sumptuous, seductive cinematography is complemented by Torres’ succinct observations.

Another poetic image is that of a poor father cuddling the coffin of his child on the way to the cemetery. Unlike Pol of Sta. Niña he is determined to decently bury the kid. The spare funeral is in stark contrast with the lavish funerals captured on the documentary. The rich families are able to hire a band and feed countless people. From birth to death, food figures prominently in these significant events.

A Filipino funeral rite depicted in the film is still being done today. Kids are being passed over the coffin to keep them from being haunted by the dead.

The documentary is one of two short films that still haunt me with great images about mortality and mourning. The other is Richard Legaspi’s moving short film Manenaya. The latter is a nice companion piece to Lav Diaz's Melancholia. Both deal with the massive cross borne by kin of desaparecidos.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Posas (Lawrence Fajardo, Cinemalaya 2012 Directors Showcase Best Picture)

Those damned discs almost ruined the film for me. It is a good thing that the film has the midas touch of its producer and creative/script consultant.

An early scene shows a shady character (Art Acuña) waiting for someone. A guy, along with his kid, comes in and gives the man a wad of money and at least three amaray cases of DVDs. I’ve made a mental note of those DVDs because they seem valuable. I’m not even sure if they are DVDs. It might be CDs or Blu-Ray discs in them. All I know are those discs are important because of the way they are presented onscreen.

Lawrence Fajardo’s Posas then proceeds to tell a straightforward account of the experiences of a beauteous call center agent, Ma. Grace Rosuello (Bangs Garcia). She seeks the help of the police after a man took off with her cell phone. Partnering with a policeman, she scours the nooks and cranny of Quiapo in search of the snatcher. Grace eventually points out the culprit to the policeman.

The film takes on a different texture and pace as the high-gear chase is on. The drug enhanced-like texture conveys the snatcher's adrenaline rush. From the streets up to the fire escape exits and down once again to the streets, the action feels like it blazed through from the Bourne Legacy shoot. It is a well-directed set-piece showing a veteran snatcher's mastery of his surroundings. It took the help of a second policeman to nab the pesky parkour enthusiast.

The film slows down to a documentary-like feel after the arrest of the shifty-eyed kid, Jestoni Biag (Nico Antonio). We get to peep into what goes on inside a police station. This should have been an ordinary criminal case. But, with shady characters in the police force, Rosuello's search for justice turns into a hellish nightmare for Biag. Red tape, graphic police brutality, excruciatingly long wait for justice, and the perversion of justice are shown in full glory. Posas joins Last Supper No. 3 and Anatomiya ng Korupsiyon in the list of notable films dealing with corruption in the police and judiciary ranks and the Filipinos' long wait for justice.

The midas touch of producer Josabeth Alonso is still there. In two years of Cinemalaya competitions, she has garnered three best picture awards for the films Bisperas, Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank, and now, with Posas. The latter's winning of the Best Picture award might have been the most cherished by Alonso because of her involvement as the film's creative consultant. From the arrest up to the eventual fate of Biag, the film is full of eye-opening legal details that only a person privy to criminal cases and police bureaucracy can provide. 

Now, what about the DVDs? As the film went on, I thought that they will have some connection with the main concern of Rosuello. She desperately wants to get back her stolen cellphone because a scandalous sex video of hers is in it. The movie in my mind went overboard when the phone's SIM card was missing. But, all for naught. The real film ended without tackling sex videos. (Sayang. Bangs Garcia sana iyun, eh.So, what was the point of showing the cases of DVDs? 

If you're fortunate enough to have ignored them at the start, then you've had a better viewing experience than me. Despite the minor quirk about the errant DVDs, the lean and mean Posas is the best Fajardo film yet.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Ang Nawawala (Marie Jamora, Cinemalaya 2012 New Breed Finalist)

Of all the finalists in the New Breed category of Cinemalaya, Ang Nawawala is the one that can be called a comic book. It is colorful and has lots of issues. There's a feeling of deja vu with every major plot twists. Haven't we seen those things before in Cinemalaya and Cinema One Originals films?

However, the film by Marie Jamora packs a mean wallop of an ending. She made good on what a character said, 'Everything will be alright in the end.' The main characters, or make that the engaging lead actors especially Dominic Roco and Annicka Dolonius, help us get through all those bouts with deja vu.

Gibson Bonifacio (Dominic Roco) just came back from a three-year study/rehabilitation abroad. His mother is aghast to learn that he still do not speak despite the long absence. This extreme reticence is the result of a traumatic past. He communicates mostly through Iphone notes and picture postcards.

Okay, let's get this thing straighten out. He moves around here and abroad so he must somehow speak, right? The first time we see him speak is with a sibling. Hmm, that looks similar to a Cinema One Originals film of Sam Milby. Then, we get to see glimpses of Cinemalaya films like Dinig Sana Kita, and Rakenrol. The latter is the peg of Jamora for the randy jokes and energetic concert scenes. There's even a poster of the Hapipaks group from Rakenrol on a concert site.

We also see several Mike de Leon posters on Gibson's room. Is there a connection with Gibson's behavior? The kid is reticent and not a recluse... Ohh. There's the connection. Both men are with movie cameras. 

Jamora's life turn around when she was given a Video 8 by her father. It's been a circuitous journey for her filmmaking life. Home movies. Music videos. Commercials. And, back to her grand home movie, Ang Nawawala. Included in the cast is her real sister. Found in Gibson's room, which is likely the director's', are DVDs such as Basquiat, and graphic novels such as Elmer, a chicken who ironically speaks.  

Show-offy filmmakers turn me off. But, Jamora is a unique case. She is not showing off. She is sharing her world to us and I'm glad she did. Her film Ang Nawawala and Gino Santos' film The Animals are a refreshing whiff of air in an indie scene polluted with poverty porn films. Their surprisingly-good stories about upper middle class kids resonated well with the mostly young Cinemalaya crowd. Ang Nawawala even won the Audience Choice's award in the New Breed category. 

While it may have some issues, there are certain positive things cited by fans of Ang Nawawala.  Some admired the young actors. Others loved the soundtrack. The best of them is the satisfying, fireworks-in-the-sky ending. No more explanation is needed. The heart-tugging ending should be experienced than retold. My lips are sealed but my heart is bursting with gladness.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Diablo (Mes de Guzman, Cinemalaya 2012 New Breed Best Picture)

‘Ewan ko nga kung bakit nilagay ako sa New Breed.’

Award-winning director Mes de Guzman submitted his Diablo script for the Directors Showcase category of Cinemalaya. But, even though he has made seven films, he still hasn’t met a crucial requirement. The veteran director doesn’t have at least three full-length commercial feature films to his name.

Fortunately, the guys at Cinemalaya decided to include his script as one of the 10 New Breed finalists. It was a big surprise, a pleasant one at that, to read about his inclusion at Cinemalaya. Cineastes and knowledgeable film buffs eagerly awaited his film.

Diablo didn’t disappoint. The film deservedly won five awards, including Best Picture and Best Direction. It is so good that it can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the top films from the Directors Showcase category.

The film soaks the viewers in an atmosphere of dread. The early shots of a miner possessed by the demon sets the stage for a creepy, chills-filled viewing. A creaky gate and an old house bathed in darkness add suspense to the film. Anything, paranormal or not, can happen any time.

But, having spooked his viewers, de Guzman applies the effective, Richard Somes-style of familial horror. The devil is not some hideous monster but takes the form of a flattering, deceptive human being. Family members are slowly introduced along with mischievous characters. Nana Lusing (Ama Quiambao) is a religious matriarch not unlike Rosa Rosal’s character in Biyaya ng Lupa. Both widows show unconditional love for their wayward sons. They are shown scrounging for coins to give to their sons. Both mothers had a breakdown in which they embraced things that helped them kept their sanity and faith. Both breakdowns end up as bookends for the excellent award-winning performances of Quiambao and Rosal.

Mes de Guzman is an actor’s director. He has an uncanny ability to bring out the best from his bevy of veteran actors and young performers. Maybe the picnic-like atmosphere during shooting helps build up rapport amongst the crew and cast. Arnold Reyes remarked that the shoot up north was quite memorable. Quiambao narrated how the director guided her in tackling her strong character. She was getting impatient with a long scene but de Guzman wasn’t keen on halting it. Those long takes capture the solitary life of the old mother.

Nana Lusing, a fervent radio listener, reminds me of my elders in Nueva Vizcaya. Several of them have acute hearing like that of Marvel superhero Daredevil. They know who is up and about the house just by the sounds they make. Creepy? Not if you’re not doing anything naughty.

When Loy Arcenas made a strong debut with his Niño film, I was one of those who wished for him to compete once more in the Cinemalaya competition. Now, I hope de Guzman try once more to enter a festival competition. He gets better and more confident with every film he makes. I, for one, am eagerly anticipating the last film of his Earth trilogy. Will the film be worth celebrating at Leonides restaurant? Let’s wait and see.