Wednesday, December 27, 2017

CHRISTMAS AT THE MOVIES: MMFF 2017

I had the privilege of screening all the eight movies selected as entries for this year's MetroManila Film Festival.

Even at the start, there was already controversy.

With the overhaul (again) of this year's Executive Committee came the rain of fire and brimstone due to the noticeable elimination of certain personalities identified as the reformists of the festival mounted the year before.  

For indeed, 2016 was a very different year for the annual fiesta of Philippine movies: movies like Avid Llongoren's Saving Sally or Baby Ruth Villarama's Sunday Beauty Queen would have never reached mainstream screens if not for the radical changes which were implemented.  

But going hand in hand with this is the unpreparedness of the audience to be served such genres as live action/animation mix or a documentary film to be part of what used to be a horror/romcom/fantasy Christmas smorgasbord.  

This unpreparedness translated into far much smaller box office receipts. Yes, the numbers still hit the hundreds of millions but not enough by certain standards. Although there was a relatively decent gross at the end of an abbreviated festival, the numbers did not come even close to the record breaking 2015 when the total amount earned by the eight entries grossed over a billion pesos.  

And to put it bluntly, business is business.

Movie making is a multi-million peso business. So is owning chains of theater outlets.  Christmas is that specific time of the year when people have extra cash (and kids, most especially) to spend on entertainment.  In our country, Christmas is a good time ... perhaps the only time for some to have families flock together and watch movies.

I do not think a P250-270 to now close to P300 per ticket is something easily affordable to somebody earning a salary on the minimum wage scale.  

Watching a movie has become a luxury for the masa so let us stop deluding ourselves into thinking that it is the madlang taongbayan who are actually filling Vice Ganda movies to the rafters. No, no, no: it is the middle class who can watch, re-watch and fill the cinemas because of their buying power and money reserved for amusement. The masa sets aside their Christmas money to watch the movie of their choice but perhaps one or at most two of the festival offerings.

There is great purpose, sense of mission and nobility in the crusade to reform and redirect the festival into a showcase of the best of Filipino movies.

The hope of some to bring back the glory days of the MMFF that produced films like Mike de Leon's Kisapmata, Marilou Diaz Abaya's Rizal or Laurice Guillen's Tanging Yaman seem so long ago and far away.  This is most especially after the Best Picture Category became tantamount to the Top Grosser among the entries. 

The commercialization of the December film festival has always been there (because it was still the Dolphy, Vic Sotto and other lighthearted films which bagged the top position in terms of earnings. But now commercialism has become more blatant, more in your face ... and, unfortunately, more uncontrollable because of the present structure of the movie industry and its sister businesses.

It should be made clear that the movie business is not only ruled by producers who create and market the products and content. It is more controlled if not dictated upon by movie theater owners who call the shots as to what movies may be shown --- or how long they will stay on the screen.  

Naturalmente the money generating movies will have the privilege of accommodation and increasing number of screening outlets while those with poor audience response will certainly give in to those with greater demand. (Note: turning on the air conditioning of an entire movie house with only two to three people watching is definitely a losing proposition.)

What applies here is the law of supply and demand. The greater the number of people flocking to your movie, the more cinemas you will get to accommodate the swelling crowd.  And when your film does not deliver the numbers, so sorry ... such is life.  That is when the producer is confronted with the fact that ---yes, that is business which is what the MetroManila Film Festival is all about.

But there is also an urgent need to address the issue of giving a chance to other films not to be pulled out of cinemas all that easily.  Somehow an opening day screening cannot be justice to enough to be tugged out of your venue just because one or two of the entries turned out to be juggernauts.  

Nothing can be done as far as the selection of what movies to screen during the December festival outside MetroManila because the mandate of the festival only covers a certain perimeter or domain of cinemas in the country. 

That is why certain movies are not showing in the provinces not because the MMFF is unfair in its distribution but because theater owners choose not to show the likes of Larawan or Siargao and opt to ride on the bandwagon of The Revenger Squad, Panday or Meant to Bae. These are the crowd drawers and the movie houses do not only want but need the crowds.  There is nothing illegal about that: it is the choice of theater owners and they are thinking in terms of what makes good business.

However all this does not say much about boosting the quality of Filipino movies or defining what is the true value of success in cinema.  This is exactly what the reformists are fighting for. 

Although millions of pesos are invested not only in the production but also in the marketing and promotions of movies, success nowadays has been simplified to earning more than P100M in the box office to qualify as a blockbuster.

Who cares if members of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino go into epileptic fits from the sheer torture of sitting through a particularly bad movie? 

Critics are there to be ... uh, critics. Yet as one of my colleagues in the academe resignedly told me, "Who cares what critics say? I do not think your legendary Aleng Tacing who is addicted to tired and beaten plots of telenovelas read what critics opine in their popular blogs."  The proof of the pudding is in the tasting: the multi-million earnings of the studio justify the choice, style or substance of the products they field out during Christmas.

You cannot argue with more than half a billion earnings to qualify as success.  So let that be.  

In the meantime what is important is to find ways of pushing other films in the consciousness of the Filipino moviegoer --- not only during Christmas time but throughout the other eleven months of the year. In a free-for-all set-up like the December festival, every producer clamors for a position to make the most out of an end-of-the-year profit. So it is expected that big time companies will muscle their way to find a slot in the MMFF.

Christmas time is when the biggest local blockbusters of the year are fielded --- a do or die situation for some major film studios to achieve their quota of annual profits or to provide icing to their proverbial year long cake. No amount of argumentation about the "significance of art" or "uplifting the taste of the Filipino moviegoers" will receive a predictable reply of, "Oh, come on. Get real" as studio executives are hosting their victory parties after their thanksgiving mass.

But let's get real indeed.  

Yes, you get your more than half a billion movies to boost the annual income of a studio ... not necessarily locking out all other alternatives or diminishing the choices of the audience.  There is still a chunk of the movie going public (like the ones who provided the P400M+ earnings of 2016) who want something different, something a little bit more substantial than fantasy or horror movies --- and Punch and Judy shows.

If commerce should be the principal consideration for the MMFF, then let it be so. We understand.  However, what other producers need is a fighting chance that should be given to other forms of filmmaking aside from those railroaded by the giant studios. That is the only other consolation the Filipino audience can get from the December movie fiesta of local films.

Like in this year's festival, two movies should be given due attention and importance because of what they aspired to achieve.

"Ang Larawan" by its very nature is a film that is not only worth watching. This should be part of one's repertoire of films that must be seen in your lifetime together with other must-see Filipino movies that define who we are, what we have become and the possibilities of what is to come.

Based on a play by a national artist with a book at libretto by another national artist and set to music by someone who will soon be another national artist, there is no way that this film directed by Loy Arcenas lacks gravitas. It is the heart and soul of this year's festival ... and perhaps one of the two reasons that this December will be remembered.

The film is not perfect: at times it does not feel like a film at all but a theater piece captured by a camera. 

But glossing over that and focusing on the love and passion given by the director and everyone else in the making of this movie should be reason enough to commend its very act of creation.  

The original film version of Nick Joaquin's Portrait of the Artist as Filipino was produced in 1965 by Manuel de Leon and directed by another national artist, Lamberto Avellana with an adaptation for the screen by Trinidad Reyes and Donato Valentin.  Portrait starred Daisy Avellana and Naty Crame-Rogers as Candida and Paula Marasigan with Vic Silayan as Bitoy Camacho and Conrad Parham as Tony Javier.  This was a direct adaptation of Joaquin's English play about the burden of tradition and the death of an era, a elegy in three acts as he so described.

Portrait also saw its Pilipino translation when it was mounted by the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) with the incomparable Lolita Rodriguez portraying Paula to Rita Gomez' Candida (directed by PETA Founder, Cecille Guidote). Then Rodriguez took the role of Candida with Charito Solis appearing as Paula  directed by yet another National Artist, Lino Brocka.

Thus the burden of creating a 2017 version of this play now transformed into a musical with book and lyrics by (here we go again) National Artist Rolando Tinio is of the tallest order.  Celeste Legaspi, Girlie Rodis and her team together with Arcenas and Ryan Cayabyab can be literally personified as the young man carrying his old father on his back as they escape from a burning city.  The burden is the expectations of the public and the weight of the history of this material to be brought to the screen in the age of social media.

Admittedly, Rodis and company realized that Ang Larawan as a sang-through musical would  not elicit the kind of frenzied response of the Vice Ganda movies.  Neither does it have the privilege of strength of a franchise like Shake, Rattle and Roll.  

The director and producers were aware that theirs was an uphill battle, a high brow film translation of a play that verges on the operatic. How can this possibly compete with the magic of special effects and the commonness of familiar comedy bar humor?  Is there a place for an intelligent material meant for the literati in a festival meant for the madlang people crowding malls and queuing for the first showing of their much awaited fantasy flick?

Well, passion knows no logic. It defies warnings and hopefully creates miracles. 

This passion is so very evident in Ang Larawan: there was great reverence given to the words of Tinio so that what we see on screen is an edited version of the book and libretto then shot by Arcenas.  Unlike the first movie version of Portrait, this musical utilized no screenplay as adaptation... and it showed in the treatment of the material. Neither is there a real musical score because what we experience is the beautiful music of Ryan Cayabyab as material for the play.

Nonetheless, the power of the musical play is preserved as its sense of history and insistence on significance. 

But, as I have written before, there are four reasons why this version of the play is important: Joaquin, Tinio, Cayabyab and Joanna Ampil. I repeat and cannot emphasize enough: Joanna Ampil.

For the past two decades Joanna Ampil has been a theater star, hailed in the West End.  She is one of the handful of of true Filipino international stars whose name is more recognizable abroad than she is here in her native land.  Thus after all these years she landed the role of Candida Marasigan and rendered a truly remarkable performance. Not only in her singing did Ampil show incomparable excellence but in the nuances of her acting for the camera for the very first time.

In a year of very lean notable performances of actresses (include Angeli Bayani in Zig Dulay's Bagahe and Iza Calzado in Jerrold Tarog's Bliss), Ampil gives the hands down performance of the year. 

Ably supported by her Paula, Rachel Alejandro --- and a cast that includes a thespian like Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo or a veteran theater, television and film actor like Nonie Buencamino, Ampil and this cast has turned yet another version of Portrait of the Artist as Filipino as unquestionably significant and important.

Then there is the other entry, the smaller film.

After twelve months of insatiable romcoms with occasional delights (like Bernardo's Kita Kita), this year's MMFF has a relationship movie that is not overdosing on saccharine, not playing for cute and dated to be sharp, edgy and down to earth real.  

There was almost real pain in watching Derek Ramsay and Jennelyn Mercado in All of You. 

The film confined itself to two characters --- Gab and Gabbi --- whose relationship traversed a volatile arc from a chance meeting using a dating app down through that long and complicated process of self-discovery and rediscovery.

What makes this Dan Villegas movie special is that it dares to be unapologetic. 

There is a very disturbing yet delicious rawness about the imperfection of the lovers.  He is ever self-doubting yet stubborn, bratty yet sincere while she is a passive-aggressive girl who has a superb talent of inflicting guilt on her lovers as she plays the role of drama queen and victim.

Because of this courage not to romanticize characters into those color-by-number romcom stereotypes, All of You is a little gem that may not be for everybody but certainly challenges the audiences to think while they feel.  

Defying expectations, this love story is not an anesthesia. It does not provide a hundred minutes of lovey-dovey fast-tracked by a sugary theme song. Yet this movie can create kilig moments that are mature, not inane or formulaic. More important than that, they are real scenes in a couple's life with the audience as voyeur observing the build-up and deterioration of a relationship.

After English Only Please, Jennelyn Mercado was rediscovered by the audience. Here is one of the most versatile and competent actresses we have around --- still underrated as she deserves portrayals as challenging as what she did in this Dan Villegas project.

We may have had our doubts about Derek Ramsay's capacity to embrace roles because we are more preoccupied with his triceps and abs. Or we may have thought his Best Actor trophy in English Only ... is a fluke. But this time we are quite sure about what we are getting.

Ramsay is excellent as Gab and mano-a-mano, he delivers perhaps his best performance ever. His rendition of Gab as a wounded man trying to put together a life is so familiar, so reachable that we all know a guy like this sometime or the other in our lives.  

The premium offered by All of You is its honesty and its refusal to be brought down to the level of formula. It boasts not only of first rate performances from its cast but also a screenplay that stands to be perhaps one of the best for the entire year.  For this,  the movie is worth celebrating this December.

Regardless of what we feel or think of the MetroManila Filmfest, it has become so much a part of the popular cultural tradition of the country.  Even if through the years the all-Filipino movie festival has generated too many questions and controversies, it has still proven to be a viable source of some of our best cinematic pieces.

And so, another year has come to pass ... and it is not enough we stomp our feet whether in applause or in protest.  What is important is that we go out and watch all these Filipino movies ... both flippant and great, both amusing and intriguing.  There is no point screaming our lungs out saying we want better films if we do not go out of our way to watch them.

For the record, folks: we get the movies we deserve because of those who choose to watch them in movie houses. Enough said.




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