Sid & Aya (not a love story)


My blue heaven.

(2018) Romance (Viva) Dingdong Dantes, Anne Curtis, Gabby Elgenmann, Cholo Barretto, Bubbles Paraiso, Josef Elizalde, Pio Balbuena, Gab Lagman, Joey Marquez, Jobelle Salvador, Johnny Revilla. Directed by Irene Villamor

Some movie titles tell you exactly what the movie is about. Others are a little more sly. Occasionally, a title lies outright about what the movie is. This is one of those.

Sid (Dantes) is a Manila-based stockbroker with insomnia. He works for a corporation full of sharks – and is a shark himself – on the fast track to become partners in a company where the only partners are part of the same family. But at night, he wanders the streets, hangs out in bars and clubs until they close and then in coffee shops until he heads back to his swanky apartment for a couple hours of rest before he goes back into the salt mines. Sid’s girlfriend (Paraiso) is out of town for an extended people so he’s a bit lonely.

At one of the coffee shops he meets Aya (Curtis), an outgoing, pretty and fearless young woman. The two get to talking and eventually hit it off. The insomniac Sid enjoys hanging out with her – and is willing to pay for the privilege. Aya, who works three jobs to support her ailing father and her siblings who are looking to get a higher education, is at first skeptical but eventually agrees.

The two are from diametrically different social classes but they see something in each other that draws them closer together. The two end up headed in the direction you might expect – but the destination turns out to be a lot different than whatever expectation you might have.

This is not your typical romance, although it might seem to be developing in that direction at first. Villamor, who also wrote the film, shows a sharp mind and a good sense of changing things up when you least expect them. She also cast the leads just about perfectly; Aya comes off a little bit like a Filipina Zooey Deschanel. She’s absolutely delightful and it’s not hard to see why Sid was attracted to her.

And that’s not as easy a matter as you might think Sid is the sort of guy who pushes people away from him – unless he needs something from them. He is as self-absorbed as any human could imaginably be, and yet Dantes still infuses him with a certain amount of likability that as the film goes on we end up rooting for him. It takes a great deal of screen charm to do that and Dantes has that in abundance. I’m not sure his first name will play well in the States but with the right management he has the presence and the looks to go far.

The movie seems to have a fixation on wealth and on the trappings of it. I wondered for awhile if there was some wealth worshiping going on – although the end message is that money can’t buy the important things in life there and that it corrupts, it almost feels rote. There’s too much focus on the beautiful apartment, the fast cars, the ability to go and do anything, anytime you want. I found it a bit off-putting to be honest but that may be an overreaction on my part so take it with a grain of salt.

What you can take to the bank with more certainty is that there are a few rom-com clichés particularly in the last 30 minutes of the movie and what had once been a delightfully unpredictable movie settled into a typical rut. That’s a shame because if the last third of the movie had been as good as the first two thirds, this could have been a worldwide hit. Even so, it’s one of the strongest romantic dramas to come out of the Philippines in quite awhile.

REASONS TO GO: Aya is a Filipina version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Dantes has a ton of presence.
REASONS TO STAY: There are too many rom-com clichés. There is some wealth worship going on here as well.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, drug use and more than some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although this is the first time Dantes and Curtis have aappeared together in a feature film, they have worked on several projects together going back to their student days.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pretty Woman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls

 

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Respeto


Rapping is worldwide, son.

(2017) Drama (Arkeofilms) Abra, Dido de la Paz, Loonie, Kate Alejandrino, Silverster Bagadiong, Brian Arda, Thea Yrastorza, Nor Domingo, Yves Bagadion, Chai Fonacier. Directed by Treb Monteras II

The Philippines have had a rough go of it. After enduring years of dictatorship under Ferdinand Marcos, it seemed like they’d finally gotten past that and were on the right track – until they elected Rodrigo Duterte. Now it’s the bad old days all over again.

In the poverty-stricken Pandacan district of Manila, young Hendrix (Abra) aspires to be a rapper. He lives with his sister Connie (Yrastorza) and her drug-dealing boyfriend Mando (Arda). When Hendrix takes money from Mando without permission to use as an entry fee into a rap battle (and which he loses somewhat ignominiously), Hendrix and his posse Betchai (Fonacier) and Payaso (Bagadion) attempt to rob a local bookstore which ends up badly. Hendrix is ordered to help clean up the mess he made. Doc (de la Paz), the proprietor, is a poet himself and wrote protest poems during the Marcos regime. The two form an odd bond, as Doc becomes a mentor to the young would-be rapper.

There are parallels in their lives; Doc had to watch helplessly while his family was abused by Marcos’ thugs while Hendrix was forced to watch impotently while the object of his adolescent desire (Alejandrino) is raped by his biggest rival (Loonie). The frustrations of poverty in a crime-ridden world of drug lords, apathy and hopelessness lead to a shocking conclusion that even veteran moviegoers might not see coming.

First, the pluses; I was impressed with the social commentary here and frankly a little bit surprised; Duterte doesn’t exactly have a reputation of tolerating criticism very well. The film nonetheless got critical acclaim on the overseas festival circuit and even a brief theatrical release in the Philippines. I would expect that being compared to the rule of Marcos probably doesn’t sit well with Duterte.

Young Abra is also a very charismatic performer who on top of being ridiculously handsome also has a natural intensity that makes me think he could have a very distinguished career ahead of him. He keeps the audience’s attention whenever he’s on screen (which is most of the time). He stands out well above most of the rest of the cast, even de la Paz who has a couple of really good moments with the young actor.

Where there are pluses, there are often minuses and this being the debut feature for Monteras there are some of those. The most glaring of these is that in any ways this feels like an urban rap drama from the 1990s; it has a lot of the same clichés and while the ending of the film really rescues it, the rest of the movie feels very much like we’ve seen it all before. The movie also starts out a little bit bumpy as the plot feels a bit disjointed. Finally, the friendship between Hendrix and Doc feels very forced and while the characters have a lot in common, I never get the sense that Hendrix has the emotional maturity to befriend someone so much older. It just doesn’t feel natural.

Folks who aren’t into rap should be warned that there’s an awful lot of it on the soundtrack although to my definitely unpracticed ear it sounded pretty authentic and pretty good. This will be playing the New York Asian Film Festival on the 24th of July; while there are no immediate plans for an American release this may well eventually get something if a fearless distributor is willing to take a chance on it. There is certainly a market for this kind of film and even though I found it very flawed there is a lot that’s positive about it as well, if for nothing else to learn more about Filipino culture in the era of Duterte and Abra could well be a star in the making.

REASONS TO GO: Abra has a compelling screen presence.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie feels a bit dated. The friendship between Hendrix and Doc doesn’t feel organic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual references, a rape and some other disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the rap battle sequences, actual underground Pinoy rappers are used.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 8 Mile
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Age of Blood

Birdshot


What better time to hunt with your dog than dawn?

(2016) Thriller (CJ Entertainment) Mary Joy Apostol, Manuel Aquino, John Arcilla, Arnold Reyes. Directed by Mikhail Red

The world is a hard and often cruel place. Sometimes it feels like the powers that be are far more interested in symbols than in people. For those who live on the fringes of society, eking out an existence as best they can, getting caught in the machinations of the powerful is a daily struggle to survive.

Maya (Apostol) is a young teenage girl whose father Diego (Aquino) is the caretaker for a nature preserve in the rural Philippines. He is trying to teach her how to hunt so that she can one day fend for herself if something happens to him. She has difficulties with pulling the trigger and killing a helpless animal, much to the frustration of her dad.

Mendoza (Arcilla) is a cop and relatively new to the force. He has been partnered with Domingo (Reyes), a cynical veteran who doesn’t mind bending the rules every so often. The big news around that part of the Philippines is a bus full of farmers that disappeared on their way to Manila. Domingo interrogates a low-level criminal who might know something about the missing bus. The interrogation is a bit too brutal for Mendoza but he backs his partner, especially when the information he gets leads to the discovery of the bus in the wildlife preserve that Diego takes care of. Of the passengers there is no sign except for a piece of cloth from a shirt near the edge of the jungle.

Maya goes into the preserve to prove herself to her dad and she finally finds success, shooting a large bird. The bird turns out to be a Philippine eagle which is on the endangered species list; the preserve’s rangers keep careful count of the number of them left in the preserve. Diego is understandably upset. He makes Maya bury the bird and the gun that it was shot with and awaits the arrival of the police.

The investigation into the disappearance of the bus has met with official resistance, much to Mendoza’s surprise. The two cops are ordered to discontinue their efforts to find the missing passengers and instead look into a missing Philippine eagle from the wildlife preserve. Domingo urges Mendoza to give up on the case having seen what happens to cops who disobey their superior officers but Mendoza can’t give up the case, having spoken with the wife of one of the missing who beseeches him to find out what happened to her husband. The two cops go out to interview Diego about the missing eagle; Mendoza notices that Maya is wearing an eagle claw on a makeshift necklace. Domingo resolves to bring in Diego for questioning.

Diego knows he is about to be taken in and assumes that he’ll be back by the end of the evening; he urges his daughter to stay out of sight until he comes home. Mendoza receives a threat to his family that changes his outlook. The interrogation of Diego becomes more brutal and suddenly Diego is locked up overnight with hardened criminals who are plotting an escape. When the escape is successful but the criminals commit a horrific act in getting away, Diego is forced to flee. He makes his way home with the cops hot on his trail; a reckoning is bound to occur.

Red is an emerging talent in Filipino filmmaking. He has only made two films in his nascent career but both have been highly acclaimed and won film festival awards. His latest is a genre mash-up that starts out with two seemingly disparate stories – one a police procedural, the other a rural coming-of-age tale – that are slowly weaved into a single tale. Red who also co-wrote the film skillfully merges the two stories into one, a feat that is attempted pretty regularly in indie cinema these days but rarely as successfully as seen here.

There is a good deal of social commentary to be had here. Red makes clear that he feels that society values the lives of the rural residents less than the life of a bird. There is also a look at the corruption that is rampant in the law enforcement of the Philippines; considering that the war on drugs undertaken by the dictatorial president of the Philippines has led to the deaths and disappearances of thousands of Filipinos, the film is timely indeed.

The vistas of the rural Philippines are beautifully shot and make an excellent background to the ugliness of the souls of those who are in power. Red makes good use of the landscapes in the Philippine backwaters and crafts an extraordinarily beautiful movie. Unfortunately, the movie does move at a somewhat elephantine pace and is probably a good 15 minutes too long; some of the action here is redundant and unnecessary. The shocking ending is quite depressing as well.

Still, there is a lot going for the film for more patient viewers. Red is definitely a voice who has something valid to say and a talent we’re very likely to hear a lot more from in the future. If he keeps on making films like this, you might just be seeing his name on big Hollywood features in the not-too-distant future.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is gorgeous. It’s a very interesting view on corruption in the Philippines in an era in which they are being run by a dictator.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is slow and the movie is a bit on the long side. The ending is a bit of a downer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity and a scene of dog peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at last year’s Tokyo Film festival where it won Best Asian Futures Film, an award given to directors who have the most potential to shape filmmaking in Asia in the coming decade.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hell or High Water
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Jane