Geeks in a Camp
by Jansen Musico
D: Todd Graff
S: Daniel Letterle, Robin de Jesus, Joanna Chilcoat, Anna Kendrick, Tiffany Taylor, Alana Allen
Camp is a musical comedy about a summer camp for aspiring musical theater actors. The description alone narrows down its audience to musical theater geeks and some curious viewers here and there. It’s a film so absorbed in its own navel-gazing that it expects its audience to gaze along with it. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to see. But a few evenly placed breakouts make its unabashed cheesiness worthwhile.
Similar to many camp movies—the word camp pertaining to the setting, not the genre—Camp sacrifices an all-arching story for the sake of several mini character-driven plots. Michael (Robin de Jesus) takes refuge in Camp Ovation after his family rejects him. Jenna (Tiffany Taylor) struggles with her dad’s comments on her weight. Vlad (Daniel Letterle) goes on a flirting spree, treating other campers as collateral damage. Fritzi (Anna Kendrick) tries to prove herself against prima donna Jill (Alana Allen). And Bert (Don Dixon), a one-hit wonder composer, turns to booze to keep it together.
Released in 2003, the film is stuck in the twilight of the 90s, taking from the decade much of its musical sensibilities. Gospel and country numbers reminiscent of the decade, along with Broadway staples, perk up the maudlin conversations in between. “How Shall I See You Through My Tears” opens the film, juxtaposing the company’s performance with a montage of Michael in drag, getting beaten in a school hallway. A young Anna Kendrick steals the show, literally, performing Stephen Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch,” broken martini glass and all. Amusingly, Sondheim himself makes a cameo. But Tiffany Taylor’s “Here’s Where I Stand” leaves the strongest impression as the film’s torch song.
At times, the film can get too Disney, foreshadowing the horrors of High School Musical a few years ahead. But random inserts of sex and sexuality keep it from being too squeaky clean. Camp is a cocktail—one part optimistic shaken with shots of jadedness, artifice, and a lick of ferocity. It serves this straight, eschewing canned pep talk as much as it can. It gives its audience a buzz, a little hint of the bigger musical theater industry it both mocks and praises. Once this buzz wears off, the musical’s melodies, if they’re lucky, will stay with those who listened.
A Method to Madness: Mercedes Cabral
by Jansen Musico
Mercedes Cabral currently wears the sash that spells out her title in big bold letters: Queen of Pinoy Indie Cinema. It’s an honor passed on from actress to actress every few years or months, depending on the entertainment industry’s attention span. For a time, the throne was Eugene Domingo’s. Before that, it was shared by names like Cherry Pie Picache, Ina Feleo, Irma Adlawan, and Angel Aquino. Now that it’s hers, she’s still not quite sure if she wants it.
I spotted her highness leaning against a wall while balancing a bouquet of flowers bigger than her torso. She was wearing stilettos paired with a denim skirt that barely peeked out from under her loose red blouse. Her eyes formed smiles that wrinkled her face before her lips followed suit. With one hand, she clutched her tulips, with the other, she grabbed my palm. We had just walked out of the screening of her new film, a slasher movie of the B-rated kind, a guilty watch, the pleasure derived from which was debatable. Her character was a psycho who delighted in severed limbs and tortured screams.
“Shit!” she said, “That’s tough, man.” I had mimicked a line from Scream, asking her what her favorite scary movie was. She took a while biting her lip while rummaging through the DVD collection in her mind. “Orphan,” she answered. “Wait, The Orphanage pala.” She meant the Guilliermo del Toro-produced film, the one with the creepy kid who wore a sack on his head. It was the rawness of its visuals that made the scarce hair on her mocha skin stand up, and the illusion of reality that made her palpitate.
Though a fixture of film, Mercedes still considers herself a fan of the real. It’s quite ironic, taking in the nature of her work. In movies, reality is fabricated. Some stories may be based on true people and events, but all these become artificial once actors get in front of the camera to perform.
“Ayaw kong kapag pinanood ako ng tao, makikita nilang umaarte lang ako, na inaarte ko lang ‘tong character na ‘to. Gusto ko, binubuhay ko siya,” she says, a telltale sign of a student of Stanislavski. Mercedes is a method actor, I discovered. She’s a scavenger of facts and experiences, a hoarder of the nitty-gritty. For an unfinished Ralston Jover film, she had to get mentally retarded, and not in a cute Budoy way. Over seven days, she lived with the person her character was based on, taking note of her every move. “Pinagaaralan ko kung paano siya magsalita, paano siya kumain, paano siya humawak ng kutsara’t tinidor or kung nagkakape siya.”
Over her costumes, she puts on layer after layer of her character’s tics, quirks, and mannerisms until her audience no longer sees the actress inside. Perhaps this is why she has no issue baring all on screen? Her backside filled shots of Ligo na U, Lapit na Me. Her breasts made cameos in Serbis. Her body, in its full glory, frolicked in the woods for Liberacion. Mercedes is never really naked. She’s clothed by the skin of every character she plays. The problems arise when she forgets whose skin she’s in.
“Mahirap, after the shoot, kapag dala-dala ko pa rin yung character,” Mercedes says, recalling her latest stint as a homicidal nut job. “For weeks nahirapan akong tanggalin siya sa sistema ko kasi sobrang bigat. Mahirap din para sa boyfriend ko kasi minsan umiiyak na lang ako ng walang rason. Pero naiintindihan naman niya… sana,” she cracks a smile, “Ineexplain ko naman na may mga mangyayaring ganito.”
For film, she’s done what most dedicated actors have sworn to do, lose their egos for the sake of the story, lose their clothes for the sake of art, and lose their minds for the sake of bringing a character to life. But there must be something that she wouldn’t do, I thought. What was this Superwoman’s kryptonite? “I don’t know,” was her response. “Cut off my hands?” Her morbid answer forced an uncomfortable laugh to linger between us.
“As actors, tools kami na ginagamit ng mga director at writers para magkuwento. Willing ako na magpakalbo habang ginagawa yung pelikula, as long as kailangan…” she trailed off for a few seconds. “Pero siguro, yeah, hindi ko lang siguro gagawin yung penetration. Kunwari may bed scene and then kailangan may penetration, hindi ko talaga gagawin.” Finally, a limit. Actual sex on film is of another industry altogether, one that a queen of her stature won’t ever sign up for.
Necromancing the Genre
by Jansen Musico
Warm Bodies (2013)
D: Jonathan Levine
S: Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Analeigh Tipton, Rob Coddry, Dave Franco, John Malkovich
Numerous zombie movies have been made ever since the genre crossed mediums. Some notable mentions include George A. Romero’s Living Dead series, Danny Boyle’s 28 series, and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead. Through these, we’ve been introduced to a comprehensive cinematic almanac containing details of every zombie species created. There are slow-moving and fast-moving zombies. There are also the undead revived by a voodoo curse and those infected by a viral disease. No matter their classification or genesis, zombies have always been looked at as “the others,” those that exist to terrorize our desperate protagonists. The only fleshing out these creatures receive are shotgun shells to the face or machetes to the neck. They’re nothing more but over-sized vermin that the main characters have to avoid or eradicate completely. Warm Bodies is a movie that aims to change all that.
Originally a novel by Isaac Martin, Warm Bodies turned the tables and gave a chance for zombies to be the good guys. This introduced something new, a splash of vibrant red to a congested genre that was slowly turning into a monotonous shade of gray. He gave the undead dimension, revealing reasons behind what is normally accepted as typical behavior. For instance he explains why zombies go for the brains, why they hunt in packs, or if they do die of natural deaths. Martin then went a step further and wove a love story into his exploration of the mythology. He exhumed the classic Romeo and Juliet narrative and breathed it new life. The result was successful piece of pop literature ripe for film adaptation.
The film follows R (Nicholas Hoult), a fresh-faced zombie who tries to make sense of his peculiar immortality. He spends his days roaming an airport until it’s time for him and his fellow zombies to feed. During one of their routine hunts, R meets Julie (Teresa Palmer), a living human. He takes her back to the airport as his refugee, and the two form an unlikely bond that drives both their kind into a frenzy. Gags, grunts, and a whole lot of PG gore arise, and R is smack in the middle of it.
Over the years, Hoult has grown into a fine actor, and his maturity is evidenced here. Being a zombie limits his facial expressions and body movement, but much like his Shaun of the Dead predecessors, he uses this crutch to deliver a funny performance, plus create a believable enough chemistry with Palmer. It also helped that his makeup was terrific. The changes in his hue and color throughout the film were very subtle and effective.
Jonathan Levine took over the reins as writer-director and reworked Martin’s novel into something easier to digest. He cut away the all fat and stuck to the novel’s fleshy core. The novel’s purists might groan from the film’s dismissal of symbols, scenes, and characters. They might even show disgust for the drastic changes to the second half. What they can’t fault, though, was the intentional change in music. Though the novel championed the vinyl versions of Lennon-McCartney and Sinatra, the onscreen use of Guns N’ Roses and Dylan were truly inspired. To some extent, the alterations make the film thin and predictable, but nevertheless, Warm Bodies ends up being a morbidly charming romantic comedy that stays true to Martin’s intentions and enriches the zombie genre for good.
The Queerness of Normalcy
by Jansen Musico
D: Chris Butler, Sam Fell
S: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Casey Affleck, Tucker Albrizzi, John Goodman
Barely making a blip on the radar last year was Paranorman, an animated film whose existence was as overlooked as the themes it aims to champion. Since contemporary media’s obsession with the “Born This Way” mantra flourished, the subjects of diversity and embracing once quirks have become commonplace. The way these themes are used as cogs in the media marketing machine have drastically diluted them and the noble goals they push forth into mere ploys. Paranorman aims to rectify this wrong by pulling the themes away from the fad and bringing back the heart it lost.
It’s about Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a queer 11-year-old with the innate ability to talk to the dead. The only problem, though, is that everybody else thinks he’s either being weird or making it up. This makes him a target for bullying at school and the black sheep of the family. His biggest detractor is his own dad, who constantly scolds him for not trying to fit in. Despite being misunderstood, Norman finds solace in being alone or hanging out with his newfound friend, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). Things get a little crazy once his estranged and equally gifted uncle (John Goodman) shows up and leaves him a mission that will save their town from a witch’s curse.
The film treats Norman’s ability as coincidental. It just happens that he’s one of the few who has it. Paranorman doesn’t pander to diversity. It doesn’t go to severe lengths to celebrate difference. What it does promote is understanding, a call to accept what can’t be understood immediately. Its story is not really about Norman, but about the people around him and how they act toward those who are different.
The film doesn’t get crushed by the weight of its intention. Smartly written, the story plays like a classic fairy tale made for the new generation. There is magic, heroes and heroines, and a fantastic denouement that leads to a satisfying ending. Produced by Laika Entertainment, the same studio responsible for 2009’s Coraline, the animation and character designs are a bit more off-kilter. Though not as polished as Pixar, this welcome difference suits the story well and further drives the point that, sometimes, it’s the peculiarities that make something just right.
The Overdue Twist
by Jansen Musico
The Strangers (2012)
D: Lawrence Fajardo
S: Enchong Dee, Julia Montes, Cherry Pie Picache, Janice de Belen, Enrique Gil, JM De Guzman
There is something unsettling about Lawrence Fajardo’s The Strangers that has nothing to do with the horror it tries to create, but has everything to do with the way it is drawn out. Following the template of road trips gone awry, the film introduces a squabbling family stranded in the woods of rural Luzon on the birthday of biological twins Pat (Julia Montes) and Max (Enrique Gil). There is danger lurking in the dark, they are repeatedly told. What it is becomes the film’s central mystery.
Fajardo creates a lush yet suffocating labyrinth filled with suspicious townsfolk, an even more suspicious straggler (Enchong Dee), crude booby traps, and quadrupedal monsters. He leaves just enough room for the family to move around and fills the remaining void with an air of uncertainty. For a while, this sticks, as Fajardo introduces clue after misleading clue and scare after cheap scare, elicited from shock cuts and an overbearing soundtrack. But the suspense doesn’t hold well as the film’s gimmicks begin to give way to its too thinly stretched twist, betrayed by too many foreshadowing devices.
When the twist is finally revealed, there are no surprises. There is just the question of how it will end. Gory sequences are thrown in, followed by a few moments of flair from Cherry Pie Picache and Janice de Belen. Once the finale is reached, we are left with nothing but botched expectations and a vat full of surplus filler.