La La Land — a film for the hopeful

I remember being so excited to catch Les Miserables back in 2012, but having to wait until 2013 to watch it in the movie house because in the Philippines, only Metro Manila Film Festival entries play on the theaters during Christmastime. I had a similar experience with Damien Chazelle’s La La Land.

The hype around the flick began way before December, and by January, I just had to watch it. The moment it hit Philippine cinemas, I begged my best friend to take me with him. And there we were.

For those who don’t know me, I am quite the fan of musicals. Really. Everything from Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera, to Next to Normal. Also, I spent a semester abroad in the City of Angels, no less. And so, La La Land really hit a soft spot in me. Let’s not even start talking about how much I resonated to the plight of these two creatives. Let’s do that later.

Whenever I make reviews, I just spill out all my thoughts on a certain film or book. I’ll try to make this one as systematic as possible. We’ve began with the hype around it, as well as my personal connection to it. Let’s now delve to how it fared in my eyes.

Perhaps all the hype around it, and how excited I was for the film, did not fully contribute to my enjoyment of it later on. It was just okay. I came in the cinema with a pack of tissues in hand, more than ready to cry my eyes out. I didn’t.

The film started with a shot of the many freeways in Los Angeles. I remember being one of those freeways before. Traffic was at a standstill, and then suddenly, everyone bursts into song.

I don’t know what to feel about this opening sequence. I tried so hard to listen to the lyrics of the song being played (Another Day of Sun), but aside from setting the tone, it doesn’t really serve much purpose. The song basically says… this is Los Angeles, it’s hot. Its reminiscent of many other ensemble performances in musicals, ones that do not even include the star players. For some reason, I can’t think of any other example aside from the opening song of 2012’s Frozen, Frozen Heart. The men were cutting ice while singing this folk song. That was basically it. It was telling the audience what story to expect, instead of actually contributing to the story. Out of the many songs in the film, maybe only one was able to really make an impact and be a story in itself, and it wouldn’t come in until later.

By the end of the first song and dance number though, we are finally introduced to Mia and Sebastian, who are coincidentally one after another, bumper to bumper on a Los Angeles freeway. With the little quirks and nuances Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling gave off in these first few minutes, we got a taste of who they were as people.

I was totally caught off-guard the moment that it hit me, La La Land is set today. 2016, perhaps. I never would have guessed based off all of the trailers I watched. And I watched a lot of them.

You wouldn’t feel it with how these characters live, though. Aside from being a way to know whether or not they got the callback, technology played a very little part in their lives. And so, it hit me. This is set in 2016, but it’s not set in Los Angeles. It’s set in La La Land, which is sort of Los Angeles, but not really.

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I had so many feelings every time a Los Angeles landmark would make an appearance. Griffith Park? I love that place. There’s no chance in hell they’ll be able to sneak in there after hours. And as far I know, Angel’s Knoll hasn’t been operational in years. But I’m just nitpicking.

Los Angeles may have been the backdrop, and La La Land may have been its title, but its not that essential to the story. The story was still all about Mia and Sebastian. And if you ask me, it could have been set anywhere.

There is nothing new about their story. I mean, really. A struggling actress? A struggling musician? We’ve all seen that before. How I wish we could have delved deeper into their craft and psyche like Whiplash and Black Swan did before them.

La La Land has been billed as a film for the romantics. Maybe it is. Well, it definitely is for the general romantics. Not the love-obsessed, but the hopeful. It’s a story about hope, and you’ll feel with Mia as she’s faced with rejection after rejection, and failure after failure. You’ll feel with Sebastian too as he steers further away from his dream to live a more stable life. You’ll feel for both of them because they’re dreamers. What ever happened to your dreams?

I will borrow a few words from one of the true filmic love letters to Los Angeles, (500) Days of Summer, in describing the other romantic aspect of La La Land. It’s not a love story. Okay, they meet, they fall in love, but it isn’t about them. It’s about their dreams. They just happen to be in love and in a relationship while they’re struggling with the idea of their dreams.

I admit, I spoiled myself earlier on and read the Wikipedia summary. I knew they weren’t going to end up together. It didn’t make the revelation of it hurt less, but I didn’t really care. It wasn’t about them. Whether or not they did end up together did not and would not have contributed to the story. It would just be an epilogue, and it served that purpose.

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Of course, it was heartbreaking watching Mia enter Sebastian’s club to find the logo she designed for him many years back in neon lights. The fantasy sequence as Sebastian played the piano and imagined what their lives could have been like if they held on to each other hurt like it supposed to, but their smiles and nods at the end as Mia left the club made it clear – they were where they were supposed to be, and that was enough for them. That was also enough for me as a viewer.

I was expecting so much more, but at the end of the day, La La Land is a sweet film. It will make you feel things, most definitely. But is it worth the hype? Not really. Will it win an Oscar? It might. But I think there are many other films that go deeper and harder than La La Land, and I’m looking forward to these films bagging their well-deserved golden statuettes at this year’s Academy Awards.

#MMFF2016: Seklusyon – a Horror Flick That Makes You Think

Just when I thought it was too late to catch anymore #MMFF2016 films, the festival extends just a little, and there I am in the cinema with the first friend I could find. Our friends raved about Seklusyon on an out-of-town trip, and a girlfriend and I felt bad for not having watched it yet. And so, we did.

It’s a weird feeling to watch a horror flick during the Metro Manila Film Fest (MMFF) that’s not Shake, Rattle & Roll. That horror film series has been on for so long, it’s almost as old as I am. Almost.

In line with the new guidelines that set forth this year’s MMFF, it was only Seklusyon that made the cut for this year’s horror lineup. It sits pretty among romantic comedies and films far from what it is. Is it worth it? Well, let’s see.

Having watched a number of Shake, Rattle & Roll films myself, I was expecting to get myself scared like crazy with Seklusyon. It has been a long time since any horror film has actually been scary during the MMFF, and so I just assumed that Seklusyon would do the trick.

Don’t come into the cinema like I did that afternoon. My friend and I were holding each other, wondering how we’d get to sleep that night. I slept like a baby. Seklusyon was not scary at all. For my standards, at least. I’m pretty much devoid of feelings at this point.

It was not scary, so don’t come into the cinema expecting for a jump-scare extravaganza. That’s not going to happen. But, I assure you, Seklusyon will make you think.

It was a relatively short film, less than an hour and a half. Its story goes this way. Miguel (Ronnie Alonte) is a priest about to be ordained. Before he can be ordained though, he has to undergo seven days of seclusion (thus, the title) at a faraway retreat house with three other would-be priests. This is because it is believed that temptation is at its strongest right before a man enters priesthood.

On the flipside of things, there was a returning priest, Father Ricardo, (Neil Ryan Sese) who was sent to investigate the miracles being performed by the child healer, Anghela (Rhed Bustamante). She could cure any illness or injury, and thus has created quite a following for herself. The priest was skeptical of her, even more so when her parents died and she was left in the arms of a suspicious nun, Madre Cecilia (Phoebe Walker).

By some twist of fate, Anghela and Madre Cecilia ended up in the same retreat house Miguel and his fellow would-be priests were residing, and that was when chaos ensued. The dark pasts of each of these young men were slowly uncovered, and so was the truth about the child.

It was repeated all throughout the film that Anghela was God’s gift to us, but in reality, she was a false prophet. How she controlled the people around her with her allure and power was what was really mesmerizing about the film. We, like the players in the horror flick, are so easily controlled, it led me to question the state of our religion nowadays.

There are so many questions that Seklusyon left unanswered, and those may have been what ruined the film for me. I was so invested in the story of Madre Cecilia, but I only got to catch glimpses of it through Father Ricardo’s research.

I am so used to just laughing at horror films (even foreign ones) because that’s what they usually illicit from me. I expect the moments that attempt to shock me, and so I just laugh them off when they do arrive. I did not have those moments in Seklusyon, although I really yearned for them. Instead, I had questions.

Seklusyon is a good film. I will not go on to say that it’s great. It could have been, but it didn’t exert enough effort to get there. But, it is quite refreshing to see another kind of horror film in the Philippine arena. Horror films are often rooted in the things we fear, and the things we want. I love that Seklusyon made the conscious effort to delve into those things. Had it took enough time to fill in the holes it left open, it could’ve been great.

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I have nothing but props for its director, Erik Matti, who keeps on delivering hard-hitting films despite the overly commercial playing field recent Philippine cinema has been known for. Thus, I’m curious about Dan Villegas’ Ilawod, the next horror film being built up. It looks like the Philippine horror scene is growing and no longer merely relying on the shock and ‘takot’ factor that has kept it alive for years.

#MMFF2016: Vince & Kath & James, and the Romantic Comedy that Works

The Vince and Kath text-serye took the internet by storm earlier last year. I unwittingly went along with the ride. At first, I dismissed it as something so cliché it was unbelievable. But then again, I almost – almost! – read through the entire thing.

In this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival, the only big budget film to make the list is Star Cinema’s adaptation of this viral text-serye, Vince & Kath & James (VKJ). After Saving Sally, it was next on my list of must-watch films for this year’s festival. And so, I made time for the flick this afternoon.

shes-dating-the-gangster-official-posterIt really has been a long while since mainstream Philippine cinema has focused on the nostalgic and heartbreaking era of adolescence. I’m pretty sure She’s Dating the Gangster (which also hailed from a story that went viral online) was the last good one, and youth wasn’t even really the focus of that.

Neither was it the focus in VKJ, but damn can you feel it.

Star Cinema is known for its inescapable formula. Throw two attractive leads together. Build up their chemistry. Shower them with family issues, conflict. Make them up. Almost all Star Cinema productions have those elements squished in them. VKJ is not different.

Vince (Joshua Garcia) is a hardworking engineering student with a penchant for writing. He’s been hopelessly in love with his classmate, Kath (Julia Barretto). But, as Filipino as he is, he has no guts to say it. Instead, he operates a blog called #DaVinciQuotes, and relentlessly text messages her until she agrees to meet up with him. The latter one of his tactics was complicated with the involvement of James (Ronnie Alonte), his cousin, and basically his adoptive brother, whose family took him in when his mother refused to care for him. James, the star basketball player of their university, became attracted to Kath. And so, he asked for his ever-reliable, and perennially indebted cousin for help. Woo her through messages until she agrees to meet up with him, and then he’ll take care of the rest.

We all know that Vince and Kath are going to end up together, and watching them get there was a nice ride to tag along to. Watching them as interns having fun and bickering truly will truly illicit the same comment a co-worker of theirs spurted out, “Ganyang-ganyan nagkatuluyan ang lolo at lola ko.” (That’s exactly how my grandparents ended up together.)

There’s a reason why there is a tried and tested formula for romantic comedies, emaxresdefaultspecially ones involving the younger generation. It’s because it works, and VKJ proves that. And I just love how VKJ paid homage to what’s possibly the greatest romantic comedy Star Cinema has churned out in its decades of existence, Olivia Lamasan’s Got 2 Believe starring Julia’s aunt Claudine Barretto, and the late, great Rico Yan. I love how that heartbreaking moment of when Lorenz (Rico Yan) sees Toni (Claudine Barretto) waltz inside the surprise he had waiting for her only to be eclipsed by Perry (Dominic Ochoa) was alluded to by Vince, Kath, and James in a similar fashion.

 

What I didn’t like about VKJ was the family issues that plagued its heroes. I just couldn’t believe the insanity of their situation. Vince was living with his aunt and her family because his mother’s new husband cannot accept him. It happens everyday, but I just didn’t find it real. I ultimately found, though, that these back stories are absolutely essential. Kath would not have truly softened up to Vince had she not witnessed the fiasco that was his mother rejecting him. Kath would never have opened up her eyes to how much Vince cared for her had she not ran away upon her father’s return.

It was a good film, and perhaps that’s the reason they had let it join the ranks of this year’s MMFF. It was honest, as how movies should be. I fell in love with Joshua Garcia in the few minutes that I watched him portray a character on the screen. He reminded me so much of John Lloyd Cruz, and how earnest his characters would always be.

Two out of eight down for this year’s MMFF, and I don’t know if I still have the chance to catch anymore of them. Again, VKJ would not win any awards (and I believe it didn’t?), but it was a good watch. It made you feel good without killing your brain cells. It made you remember what it was like to be young and to feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, but still ultimately be very infatuated with your crush as though everything will cease to end if they did not look your way.

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Perhaps this is the start for Star Cinema. Maybe they’re going back to these kinds of movies – honest, heartbreaking, real. I sure hope so.

A Long Ride with Ramil: A Review on Emerson Reyes’ MNL 143

Emerson Reyes’ MNL 143 is a story about an FX driver preparing to go back abroad after years of a forsaken search for his long lost love. Expect for this film to quite literally bring you along the ride with Ramil, as he traverses the streets of Metro Manila, from Taft Avenue, all the way to PhilCoa, for one last time.

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A commute, whether you’re the driver or the passenger, is more often than not grueling. A commute spent on the streets of Metro Manila, even more so. What makes these often draining trips more bearable is the soundtrack people listen to while on the road.

MNL 143’s soundtrack is nothing less than amazing. It showcases new Original Pilipino Music unlike the new releases we hear in the radios today. The film’s theme song, “Umpisa” by Jensen Gomez, for example, brings back a melody reminiscent of OPM during the early 2000’s. It is soothing to the ears, it is lyrically beautiful, and it practically told the plea of the main character through its music. All of the songs, in their own little ways, contributed more to the storyline of the film, and what would normally be an insufferable almost-two-hour-long car ride became tolerable, and perhaps even pleasant, because of them.

Car rides can be a lot of things. In wide open roads, it can be an adventure. In the midst of heavy traffic, it can be suffocating. You are trapped within the confines of a vehicle, at the mercy of whoever is in front of you. Being that the setting of MNL 143 is Metro Manila, which never opens up its roads even on a good day, the film as a ride, unfortunately, fell into the latter category.

In MNL 143, the audience is at the mercy of the screen. The cinematography at its core is meant to impart the feeling of a passenger on the FX being driven by Ramil. That, indeed it did, and it made the film stuffy and dragging. As commuters are gifted with, the audience is also given a few glimpses of the world outside. However, most of the film still remained within the Ramil’s vehicle itself, as seen through a fish-eye point-of-view that contributed little to the progression of his story.

Some scenes contributed more to the feeling of tediousness that an FX ride exudes, rather than to the story of Ramil that, like the film itself, takes quite the amount of time to unravel. These include the subplots featuring Ramil’s passengers, the various scenes used to establish the setting, and the more or less three-minute long scene of Ramil merely crying to a song on the radio as its lyrics tell the audience what the film could have shown.

MNL 143 definitely had its moments. Some made the crowd burst in laughter. Others garnered collective oohs and ahhs. But again, the film’s supposed focus is the love story of Ramil and his long lost love, Mila. This was only presented towards the end. Because of how long the film took for it to reach that point, it was hard to appreciate their long-awaited reunion. The entire ride had already become tiresome at that point, and any sane passenger would rather just opt to focus on getting off of the vehicle.

The director Emerson Reyes admitted that the entirety of the film took a total of only two weeks to shoot and edit. He has to be given credit for having been able to create such a work with only that amount of time in his hand. Perhaps had he poured more time and effort into it, it would have been a better ride to hop on to. Nonetheless, it is an agreeable addition to the growing list of indie films being produced in the country. It breaks no walls. It did not even break past the door of the FX once Ramil got on. Yet, it was enjoyable.

If anyone would like to experience a commute in Metro Manila without all of the high degree of frustration that such would normally entail, but rather with a sweet story and a couple of laughs, MNL 143 will deliver.