Movie reviews: All 10 Cinema One 2014 films

Now on its tenth year, the Cinema One Originals Film Festival brings renewed intensity to the independent film scene. From the mountaintops of Bontoc to the girly bars of Negros, audiences are treated to 10 unique films in this year's competition. Don't forget to check out our roundup of this year's lineup here

This year's most notable selections are Kanakan Balintagos' Esprit De Corps, Sigrid Bernardo's Lorna,  Remton Siega Zuasola's Soap Opera , Antoinette Jadaone's That Thing Called Tadhana , and Eduardo Dayao's Violator. Here are my thoughts on this year's lineup of films.

That Thing Called Tadhana Review: A trip worth taking

Where do broken hearts go? It’s a question that feels ripped from the pages of some discarded teenaged diary. But it’s also the central question of That Thing Called Tadhana.

Inspired by Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, That Thing Called Tadhana goes through similar motions. Two characters, Mace (Angelica Panganiban) and Anthony (JM De Guzman), meet in Rome, Italy through an rather inconvenient case of overweight luggage.

What starts out as an innocent gesture of kindness, ends up as a road trip across Luzon. Like Before Sunrise, the film is a simple observation of two conversing individuals. There is no elaborate romantic setup, and no arbitrary goal. But in the latest film by writer-director Antoinette Jadaone, the story simply relies on words, time and two people.

In a way, That Thing Called Tadhana feels derivative of Linklater’s work, but Jadaone wears that inspiration on her sleeve, and she isn’t afraid to admit it. The film meanders in parts, and admittedly lapses in some. But it speaks from a place that is honest, funny, and coincidentally painful.

Towards the end of That Thing Called Tadhana, Mace stands atop one of the mountain views in Bontoc and yells out to the sky. We don’t quite hear what she’s saying, but we don’t have to. We’ve all said it ourselves, one time or another.

“Ayoko na.” (I don’t want this anymore.)

That Thing Called Tadhana is the love story between Mace and Anthony, but in a way, it’s also the love story of every heart that’s ever been broken.

That Thing Called Tadhana is the anti-romantic comedy. It may be cut from the same fabric as mainstream films, but its fashioned in a way that leaves only the essentials. It is as honest as it is flawed. Like any love story, there are moments to love, hate, despise and admire. But like any good love story worth saving, it’s also one worth having.

The Babysitters: Made for the small screen

There is a clear, unspoken distinction between television and cinematic storytelling, and one that even a mainstream machine like Star Cinema is smart enough to recognize. While the nuances of each style are beyond the scope of this review, there are very clear reasons why television stories are told one way, while movies are told in another.

Unfortunately, The Babysitters seems perfectly content with settling for the small screen when it has all the opportunity to present something larger.

Directed by Paolo O’ Hara, the film follows the story of Rod (Jason Gainza) and Lucy (Katya Santos), two married hustlers who become the unlikely parents to a kidnapped child. But when they discover that their illegally adopted son Ben (Jhiz Deocareza) is a child prodigy, Rod begins working the young boy into his scams.

On paper, The Babysitters boasts a concept that fits perfectly into a local independent film festival. While not necessarily groundbreaking, the premise is at least a departure from run-of-the-mill dramas on commercial release. 

Unfortunately, The Babysitters feels disappointingly trite. It quickly falls into a humdrum rhythm of establishing shot, scene, and reaction shot, punctuated by overbearing flourishes of music. And though the film is a clear step above the rough visuals of television, there is a vapid predictability to how The Babysitters unfolds.

This isn’t to say that television-style storytelling has no place in the cinematic medium, but The Babysitters isn’t an example. And since its story lacks the overdramatic highs and lows of a teleserye, it isn’t able to provide the guilty pleasure of that type entertainment.

The Babysitters is a safe and polished film. It relies heavily on formula and convention, and does very little to stray from its established rhythm of structured storytelling. Despite these setbacks, Paolo O’ Hara’s love for stories is obviously genuine. And though this may be his first feature length film, it is almost certainly not his last. Hopefully, we’ll see more risks from O’ Hara in the future, when he finds new, unconventional ways to tell his stories.

Bitukang Manok Review: The road to nowhere

Storytellers are often thought of as sadistic, unforgiving gods, putting their characters in undesirable, horrible, and sometimes even fatal circumstances. But it’s all in an effort to express something real, and hopefully, insightful. But in the case of Bitukang Manok, this kind of narrative sadism is taken to a completely different level.

When three groups of strangers lose their way in the long winding road connecting Quezon and Bicol, they discover that they are unable to leave due to unexplained, supernatural forces. They realize that the road loops endlessly, and that their only other companions are those trapped along with them. As they quickly run short of food and water, the strangers begin to turn on each other.

It’s a rather familiar thought experiment, but it’s the film’s localized setting that makes the film especially novel. Written and directed by Alec Figuracion, Bitukang Manok has an intriguing premise that has all the opportunity to become a strong, if not disturbing, character study.

Unfortunately, Bitukang Manok plays puppeteer with its characters. It pushes them like pawns across a seemingly circular chess board, and even then, the film cheats at its own game. It forces one move after the next in a clear and obvious effort to incite conflict where there shouldn’t be any.

Characters are transformed into caricatures, fighting and fornicating to fulfill a greater narrative agenda rather than adhere to good old common sense. And instead of allowing the characters to devolve naturally into their own basic insticts, the film throws them together like action figures in a child’s play pen.

Bitukang Manok isn’t sadistic because of its use of violent imagery or disturbing scenes. Instead, it’s sadistic because it pushes and pulls characters in ways that are more convenient than convincing. And without a strong enough foundation to understand the characters motives, dilemmas and concerns, Bitukang Manok loses itself in its own winding road.

Despite its compelling premise, the film isn’t able to craft scenes that are strong enough to let the characters collide on their own. The result is a ride that goes nowhere for both its audience and its characters.

Esprit De Corps Review:  Substance over scale

Independent filmmaking has become its own arms race in recent years. As local filmmakers push to break new ground, independent films have become more daring in both subject and scale. The result has been a cinematic renaissance of sorts – a gradual emergence of inspired, courageous storytelling. But it has also tempted less experienced filmmakers to aspire for scale instead of substance. 

But in Esprit De Corps, writer-director Kanakan-Balintagos is anything but inexperienced. More popularly known as acclaimed filmmaker Auraeus Solito, Balintagos looks inward instead of outward.

Set during the final weeks of training in an all-boy military academy, Esprit De Corps spends a majority of its time in a single interrogation room. There, Balintagos transforms the spartan military quarters into both his stage and his prison.

Childhood friends Abel Sarmiento (Sandino Martin) and Cain Fujioka (Lharby Policarpio) are military cadets competing for the position of commanding officer Major Mac Favila (JC Santos). Favila grills the cadets individually, subjecting them to both physical and mental tests. Favila's methods are harsh but seemingly just. But when Favila’s interview becomes intimate, Abel and Cain are forced to prove just how much they desire their commanding officer’s position.

Based on the play by Kanakan-Balintagos himself, Balintagos makes skilled use of the cinematic medium. The interrogation scenes are executed over lengthy, unobstructed takes, successfully mimicking the immersion of live theater. Esprit De Corps has a seemingly copious amount of nudity, but in the context of the film’s exploration of sexuality and innocence, it is neither gratuitous nor superfluous.

Esprit De Corps is an intimate exploration of desire, aspiration and self-worth. And in spite of its thematic ambitions, the film trades scope for depth. It takes a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer to its characters, and pushes hard to make more out of less. While it’s heartening to see the independent scene grow more ambitious with its stories and concepts, theres something to be said about a film that realizes that ambition is as much about substance than it is about scale.

Hindi Sila Tatanda Review: Far out in space

There are aliens in Zamabales. At least, that’s what Diwa (Kean Cipriano) and Andrea (Dawn Jimenez) would like to think. But when they take a trip with their friends Mona (Mara Lopez) and Ryan (Ketchup Eusebio), they find something else entirely.

Hindi Sila Tatanda tackles the follies of youth and the tenuous nature of friendship. But none of its themes are explored in convincing enough fashion to warrant real discussion. We soon discover the intersecting relationships between the four friends. In turn, old ties are dug up and new ones are burned down.

Writer-director Malay Javier uses science fiction as an intruiging backdrop for what could have been an illuminating exploration of youth. Instead, Hindi Sila Tatanda seems too preoccupied with its drug-addled visuals and short-sighted characters to maximize its admittedly intruiging premise. Even when the 4 friends are faced with extraterrestrial life, Javier doesn’t feel compelled to utilize that opportunity to deepen the story.

Hindi Sila Tatanda tackles issues that feel too juvenile to be universal, and too undercooked to be appreciated. Despite the film’s best efforts to build conflict from its characters, all it does is nick skin. Javier provides a great premise for his characters to interact, but shies away from digging hard when it counts. And though it’s obvious that Javier is avoiding melodramatic controntation, the alternative, sadly, is no confrontation at all.

Despite being set on the earthly countryside of Zambales, Hindi Sila Tatanda may have its head just too far out in space.

Lorna Review: The truth about growing old

Lorna is looking for love. At 60 years of age, it’s easy to think that Lorna (Shamaine Buencamino) may be 10 to 20 years too late. But in writer-director Sigrid Berardo’s latest film, it seems that age really is just a number.

Despite the Lorna’s familiar premise, Bernardo tackles her material with a charming sincerity that cuts right through convention. Heartbreak is depicted through gunshots to the chest, while passion is portrayed as smoke from Lorna’s loins. But while Bernardo may be keen to entertain, she never loses track of the emotion meant to sustain the film.

Helping Lorna find true love are Miriam (Racquel Villavicencio) and Elvie (Maria Isabel Lopez), two long time friends who have just as much reason to smile while struggling with old age. But when Lorna connects with her old high-school flame, Rocky (Lav Diaz), the film opens up in ways that are both hilarious and insightful. The chemistry between Buencamino and Diaz is undeniable, and serves as the film’s meat and potatoes.

Lorna occassionally meanders by running long on a number of its scenes. But it’s all part of an effort to paint a clearer picture of Lorna’s life. The film lacks the restraint to keep its story from bursting at the seams, but it’s presented in a way that is so satisfyingly entertaining, Lorna’s many indulgences feel almost negligble.

It may be easy to laugh at Lorna’s antics and frequent mishaps, but as her story unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that buried underneath her punchlines is a woman riddled by deep melancholy. Her fear of growing older alone and unloved acts as the film’s emotional turbine and churns unceasingly despite the film’s continuous onslaught of gags. It becomes quickly apparent that it is just as easy to relate to Lorna as it is to laugh at her.

Lorna is a charming piece on love, age and time. And while it is a film that will be enjoyed for its comedy, it will most likely be remembered for its sincerity.

Red Review: Getting the story straight 

Rumor has it that Red (Jericho Rosales), a charming local fixer, has blood on his hands. When he’s framed for murder by a rich congressman’s son, Red’s best friend Milton (Nico Antonio) tries desperately to concoct a story to save his friend’s life and reputation.

At least, that’s supposedly how the story goes.

Red is an ambitious drama about gossip and storytelling that’s half love story and half thriller. Unfortunately, these two halves don’t come together in a very coherent whole. On one hand, there is the story of Red and his childhood love Mai (Mercedes Cabral). On the other, there is the story of the rich Art (JM Rodriguez) and his attempt to have Red take the fall for a drug bust gone bad. It’s all told through the eyes of Milton, a voice actor whose knack for storytelling is matched only by his loyalty to Red. Unfortunately, it’s all part of a story that is as about as hard to follow as it is to understand.

The film’s story is a complex tale of love and betrayal, but Red struggles to distill its narrative into something even remotely intelligible. Red swings wildly from one time period to another, and relies heavily on exposition instead of action, voiceover instead of conversation.

However, Red is easily one of the best-looking films to come out this year.  Beautifully shot and styled, Red is so visually engaging it’s tempting to forgive the film for its many narrative transgressions. But without a coherent story to accompany the film’s strong visuals, Red falls short of its grand cinematic ambitions.

For a film about storytelling, Red struggles to gets its story straight. Its ambition may be worth commending, but it is sadly, about as difficult to appreciate as it is to follow.

Seoul Mates Review: The High price of comedy

Alice (Mimi Juareza) is a transgender woman who decides to end it all when she discovers her boyfriend with another girl. But her suicidal plans are postponed when she meets a Korean musician named Joon (Jisoo Kim) who has the exact same intentions.

Seoul Mates employs romantic comedy tropes and sitcom clichés with the noble intent to entertain. But when Mimi Juareza’s gender identity becomes the butt of jokes, the film ends up mostly crass if not cheap.

Seoul Mates is a film so focused on easy punchlines and mass market entertainment, it misses the clear opportunity to tackle something far more substantial. This isn’t to say that cinema need only cater to academics and intellectuals, but when the subject matter is as pressingly relevant as gender identity and cultural oppression, it becomes particularly disappointing when a film trivializes those very issues.

Seoul Mates ends with a blanket statement that being true to oneself is the secret to happiness. And while there is an undeniable if clichéd truth in that statement, the film presents it in a way that feels oversimplified and uncomplicated. It’s anything but. 

Regardless of the circumstances today, there’s an unmistakable callousness to Seoul Mates that didn’t sit well. This doesn’t mean that Seoul Mates shouldn’t have been made. On the contrary, it’s even more reason for it to have been. Gender issues demand more active, public discussion, and entertainment is an effective way to open up dialogue to a larger market. But it misses the mark. Seoul Mates is a film that is occassionally funny and frequently absurd. But the laughs come at a very high price, and often at the expense of a community it is supposed to support.

Soap Opera Review: Primetime viewing

To the disdain of local intellectuals, melodramas have long been embedded in the DNA of Filipino entertainment. But instead of shunning our local obsession with soap operas and teleseryes, director Remton Siega Zuasola puts it under a microscope.

In Soap Opera, Zuasola mirrors the lives of Liza (Natileigh Sitoy) and Noel (Matt Daclan) through the fictional television shows they follow. But Liza and Noel live no small screen fairytale. When their son falls sick, the couple hatches an elaborate plan to get an unsuspecting foreigner to act as their cash cow. But as their well-intentioned con job begins to claw at their marriage, their lives start to mimic the tragic tales onscreen.

Zuasola makes a clear distinction between fantasy and reality, employing big name stars like Lovi Poe and Rocco Nacino to contrast against Sitoy and Daclan. But unlike the polished aesthetic of their beloved television dramas, Noel and Liza’s lives are raw and unrefined. In their world, there are no commercial breaks, no villains, and no lengthy speeches.

Zuasola employs soap opera elements of jealousy, betrayal and surprise to push Noel and Liza’s story forward. But when the film concludes with a preposterous climax, Soap Opera becomes as absurd as the television dramas it comments on. Soap Opera’s outlandish climax fits well with its themes, but it reduces Noel and Liza to nothing more than pawn pieces in a primetime soap.

But by the end of the film, Soap Opera strikes a tenuous balance. We discover that each of the characters are far removed from the fantasy land of television fiction.

Soap Opera makes no damning accusations of teleseryes, nor does it call them out as a commercialized sedatives for the masses. Instead, it is a tragic exploration of story and reality, and how one influences the other, and vice versa. 

Violator Review: Preview the apocalypse

Violator is a sneak preview of the end times. When a storm threatens to sweep Metro Manila, the city begins to swallow itself whole. And although Violator is a horror film in the most fundamental sense, it tackles the genre with a certain sharp-eyed confidence that breaks free from its often predictable mold.

The film opens with a series of vignettes. A young girl strips naked before jumping to her death, a man wears the head of a pig before being found dead inside a classroom, and two men burn themselves to death as they run across hills of stone and gravel. Each vignette stands well own its own, but they all set the tone for armageddon, an appetizer for the apocalypse.

But the real story lies when 5 men (played by Joel Lamangan, Victor Neri, RK Bagatsing, Anthony Falcon and Andy Bais) are stranded in a police station by the severe storm. There, they are confronted by a seemingly harmless prisoner, (Timothy Mabalot) a boy who, the men suspect, could be the devil.

Violator is a horror film that aims to subvert as much as it aims to scare. But what makes Violator so impressively engaging is how it strips down the nuts and bolts of a horror film and builds it back up again.

Like his vignettes, writer-director Eduardo Dayao eases us into his detoriating world. But right at the very end, he pulls the rug right from under it. Violator may lack the narrative propulsion of a conventional horror film, but Dayao seems intent on actively avoiding it.

Violator is perfectly aware of more traditional entrants to the genre. And in an effort to break free from convention, Violator reskins itself with razors and teeth while keeping most of its bones intact. In the end, there is only darkness and chaos, and Violator delivers on both those fronts. – Rappler.com