Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Metro Manila Film Festival 2016

The organizers of this year's Metro Manila Film Festival, which began in 1975, promised a reinvigorated festival whose slate of competing films has been determined based on the quality of a complete script and not on box office potential of unfinished screenplays, as has been the questionable tradition in recent years. This decision, which ultimately resulted in the ineligibility of traditional fare (long-running comedy and drama franchises of doubtful quality), did not sit well with everyone, of course. However, there has been a general buzz of excitement especially among cineastes about the potential of a festival that actually celebrates the excellence of Filipino cinema and is worth missing foreign films for (there is a moratorium on these during the festival run). 

By and large, it is a success. This year's eclectic mix of mainstream and indie films is exciting and inspiring. Here are my thoughts on the films:

Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2: #ForeverIsNotEnough
Director: Marlon Rivera
Writer: Chris Martinez
Cast: Eugene Domingo, Kean Cipriano, Cai Cortez, Khalil Ramos, Joel Torre, Jericho Rosales, Agot Isidro

This is the sequel to Ang Babae sa Septic Tank, the country's entry to the Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film category some years ago. It's a laugh riot almost from start to finish, in part because its celebration and criticism of mainstream Pinoy cinema are so on point, but mostly because of the predictably spectacular performance of the brilliant Eugene Domingo. It's her show. Its technique is very similar to the first, where Domingo's casual conversations with the director (Cipriano) are interspersed with imaginary sequences of the film that they're setting out to make, and as with the first film, the transitions are flawless. Those who liked the first movie would also enjoy this a lot, probably more so. Because as fun as it is to poke fun at indie cinema, it's so much more fun to do so at mainstream movies even as we realize why we've been enjoying them all this time.

Die Beautiful
Director: Jun Lana
Writers: Jun Lana, Rody Vera
Cast: Paolo Ballesteros, Christan Bables, Joel Torre, Gladys Reyes, Luis Alandy

It's a touching film that benefits from fine pacing and direction (the non-linear approach works well), particularly the restraint in handling this subject matter, which could have certainly (and understandably) gone into camp territory. Having said that, just a tiny bit more campiness would have been welcome.
I was worried going in that Paolo Ballesteros's performance would be more style over substance despite the big award that he got in Tokyo, because we know that he performs these transformations in real life, but he handles dramatic scenes quite well. No histrionics, but the sadness and the pain get across. Still, Christian Bables, who plays his best friend Barbs, is the real scene-stealer. He should be in serious consideration for the Best Supporting Actor award.

Directors: Real Florido, Arturo Sam Agustin
Writer: Real Florido
Cast: Nora Aunor, Ricky Davao, JC de Vera, Jason Abalos, RJ Agustin, Victor Neri

It would be difficult to argue that there's a more important film to see among this year's MMFF film than Kabisera. I applaud the makers of the film for their strong, clear, and brave statement. That initiative is definitely lacking in mainstream media, especially among celebrities. The film unabashedly condemns extra judicial killings, and if only for that reason, it's a must see.
It's rather unfortunate that it's weighed down by trappings and cliches of Pinoy mainstream dramas, such as a lot of intense crying, a lot of unnecessary and sappy scoring, and a need for better trimming. It's a fine ensemble, though, with no weak spot among the actors. Nora Aunor is great as always, but don't expect anything particularly revelatory or game-changing with the performance.

Director: Alvin Yapan
Writer: Alvin Yapan
Cast: Joem Bascon, Irma Adlawan, Mercedes Cabral, Sue Prado, Sandino Martin

The film is meant to disturb its audiences, and that it did. The callousness and impunity of the corrupted and the helplessness of the oppressed take many forms in both real life and fiction. The film probably resonates now much more than it would have just a year ago because of the local and international socio-political climate. That's not to say that the film's message could have just been tacked on to any issue with the same effect. The economic and environmental issues of the mining industry (more to the point, how "protecting the environment" is used as an alibi for more nefarious, self-centered acts) are effectively tackled here and brought to life by a fine ensemble. Irma Adlawan and Mercedes Cabral are the standouts, as expected, and indie regular Sandino Martin lends solid support. Joem Bascon is ok but I can't help but wonder who else could have given the role more heft and authority. The villains of the piece are one-dimensional and quite loathsome, but I think that's intentional: these people are rotten to the core and there is need to justify their actions. That this is based on a true story (the "Caramoan Massacre" of 2014) and the case remains unresolved to this day is truly troubling.
I feel that something must be said about the last sequence of the film without giving away any plot detail. I'm inclined to think that it's unnecessary and lacks the subtlety that marked the imagery of past Alvin Yapan films. To be honest, it took a lot of power out of everything that preceded it. I'd love to hear what others think about it.

Saving Sally
Director: Avid Liongoren
Writer: Charlene Sawit-Esguerra
Cast: Enzo Marcos, Rhian Ramos, TJ Trinidad

Absolutely charming movie. And it's obvious with every frame that so much love was poured into making the film. There's so much geeky joy throughout the movie. The mix of live action and animation is organic and unobstrusive, and the animation itself is clean and adorable. It helps a lot that the lead, Enzo Marcos, is such a natural. He's just like that geeky friend that you have in school who's cooler than he thinks he is.
And Rhian Ramos? Never has her charm been put to better use. So adorkable. You know those cool independent tough geeky girls that guys into comics or gaming or anime wish they'd meet? Her Sally is one of those.
I've been supporting this film since it was first announced as a passion project many years ago. So glad to see it finally come to life and in such an awesome way.

Director: Erik Matti
Writer: Anton C. Santamaria
Cast: Ronnie Alonte, Rhed Bustamante, Neil Ryan Sese

The reason why I think Mike de Leon's Itim is the best Filipino horror film of all time is its use of religion and religious imagery--so ingrained in our culture--to evoke a sense of the sinister and otherworldly. So as soon as I saw the trailer of Seklusyon, I began to really look forward to it. Anyone who has seen Itim would have had some sort of reaction to a particular scene in the trailer involving a statue...
Seklusyon is creepy in parts, diabolical in others, and chilling all throughout. There is no joy in this movie. Which is not to say that it's not a beautiful film. It is in fact visually stunning. Aurally as well (topnotch score reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-winning score for The Omen).
Most importantly, it is SUBVERSIVE. That, I believe, is the word that encapsulates its theme. I can't say too much without giving away the main plot, but its subversion of religion and the Catholic Church is insidious.
The main gripe I have with the film, however, is the casting. Setting aside the slightly distracting fact that the four deacons look more like a boyband than priests-in-training, their acting ranges from uninspired to wooden. Too bad that they got Ronnie Alonte for the central role. I could only imagine what a Sid Lucero or Sandino Martin or Paulo Avelino could have done with it.
However, they DID get something VERY RIGHT with the casting, and that's Rhed Bustamante. I'm generally not impressed with child actors of the Philippines. It's scary how great and mature her acting in this movie is, and that's just right because it's a huge role.

Sunday Beauty Queen
Director: Baby Ruth Villarama

Truly wonderful. Moving, beautifully lensed, and finely edited. A lot of films about overseas contract workers (OFWs) have been made, but few can be as poignant as a documentary. The medium isn't very popular here outside of news documentaries on local television, but I hope this film has shown enough people here that it can be powerful and even very entertaining, as this one was. A definite must-see especially to those who personally know OFWs.

Vince & Kath & James
Director: Theodore Boborol
Cast: Julia Barretto, Joshua Garcia, Ronnie Alonte

I admit it: I only decided to see this film because I wanted to complete the set of eight competing films. I tried not to come into the theater with any expectations, though the trailer didn't impress me at all.
Through the first fourth of the film, I was thinking to myself, this is cute. Not bad. A little formulaic, but not bad. But then as the film progressed, I felt more of my defenses break down, and so I just let myself enjoy it. And it's really a fun, charming film that isn't so formulaic after all, and in large part that's because of the truly affecting side-story of the character Vince. I'm not ashamed to say that I cried over several parts of the movie because of that. The actor who plays Vince, Joshua Garcia, is a revelation. Was I the only one who thought he sounds and acts somewhat like a younger John Lloyd Cruz? I hope this kid gets a lot of opportunities to show his acting chops because he's got a lot of that.
Also, Julia Barretto. She's also very good in this movie, effective in both the dramatic and the comedic scenes. And just like Rhian Ramos in Saving Sally, she's the quintessential cinematic dream girlfriend: pretty and simple and just a bit tomboyish. I mean, she works in an auto repair shop for crying out loud! I also hope she gets a lot of good roles.
The weak link in the cast: yeah, it's Ronnie Alonte again. Granted, he's got the self-centered but not altogether bad varsity player shtick down pat, but he can't get a lot of emotions across in his performance, and that sticks out like a sore thumb in the presence of Garcia and Barretto.
Still, a very charming and "kilig" film.

My choices for the top awards:

1. Saving Sally
2. Seklusyon
3. Sunday Beauty Queen
4. Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2: #ForeverIsNotEnough
5. Die Beautiful

1. Erik Matti (Seklusyon)
2. Avid Liongoren (Saving Sally)
3. Jun Lana (Die Beautiful)
4. Alvin Yapan (Oro)
5. Marlon Rivera (Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2: #ForeverIsNotEnough)

1. Eugene Domingo (Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2: #ForeverIsNotEnough)
2. Rhed Bustamante (Seklusyon)
3. Irma Adlawan (Oro)
4. Rhian Ramos (Saving Sally)
5. Julia Barretto (Vince & Kath & James)

1. Paolo Ballesteros (Die Beautiful)
2. Joshua Garcia (Vince & Kath & James)
3. Enzo Marcos (Saving Sally)
4. Ricky Davao (Kabisera)

1. Mercedes Cabral (Oro)
2. Shamaine Buencamino (Vince & Kath & James)
3. Sue Prado (Oro)

1. Christian Bables (Die Beautiful)
2. Jericho Rosales (Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2: #ForeverIsNotEnough)
3. Sandino Martin (Oro)
4. RJ Agustin (Kabisera)
5. Neil Ryan Sese (Seklusyon)

1. Charlene Sawit-Esguerra (Saving Sally)
2. Chris Martinez (Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2: #ForeverIsNotEnough)
3. Anton C. Santamaria (Seklusyon)
4. Alvin Yapan (Oro)
5. Jun Lana, Rody Vera (Die Beautiful)

1. Neil Bion (Seklusyon)
2. Dexter Dela Peña (Sunday Beauty Queen)
3. Carlo Mendoza (Die Beautiful)

1. Jay Halili (Seklusyon)
2. Chuck Gutierrez (Sunday Beauty Queen)
3. Saving Sally*

1. Die Beautiful*

1. Francis de Veyra (Seklusyon)
2. Emerzon Texon (Sunday Beauty Queen)
3. Saving Sally*

1. Ericson Navarro (Seklusyon)
2. Saving Sally*
3. Angel B. Diesta (Die Beautiful)

1. Saving Sally*
2. Seklusyon*

Rhed Bustamante (Seklusyon)

1. "Mga Bitoon sa Siyudad"
2. "Mitatang"
3. "Momo"
4. "Birds"

5. "Passage of Life"

*not listed in IMDb

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