Sunday, September 18, 2011

My coverage of SayAwit

Lea Salonga tribute highlights SayAwit
By Raymond de Asis Lo, L.A. Correspondent (The Philippine Star) Updated September 19, 2011 12:00 AM Comments (0) View comments

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Primitive chanting in SayAwit’s first act| Zoom
MANILA, Philippines - They opened the show with a chant and everyone inside the Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood hills was held in complete awe; the audience was enthralled by the unique sound emanating from the stage. The primitive ritual performed by the critically-acclaimed Los Angeles-based choir Philippine Chamber Singers evoked the creation of man based on the Filipino folklore of Si Malakas at si Maganda. It was a fitting start to a show that promised to showcase the best of Filipino songs and dances.

The lush scenery of the outdoor venue — with the late summer breeze providing a soft hum in the background — was the perfect stage for the opening tribute to Mother Nature. Music is not a modern-day discovery. Music, like every other form of art, traces its roots to our natural environment. Those primitive chanting are our ancestors’ way of imitating the sounds they hear from the rushing rivers, flapping leaves and howling winds; it was their way to commune with the gods. The shrieking, the high-pitched sound, was impeccably captured by the choir and for a few minutes the audience was transported back in time.

It was a difficult first act. It was more of a performance act than a musical act, but it was a welcome respite from the flashy and catchy pop tunes churned out every week for today’s teens noted for their short attention span. The experience was totally new for the audience that didn’t seem to know how to respond in the beginning. It was the ethnic portion of the show billed as SayAwit, a play on the Tagalog words for Dance (Sayaw) and Song (Awit). It was a great start — challenging and different but definitely interesting. Too bad, the production wasn’t able to sustain it.

After the promising start, the show became a mishmash of various musical forms and dances and a seemingly misplaced stand-upcomedy act in-between musical sets by noted thespian Bernardo Bernardo, who also served as the show’s writer and director.

Lea Salonga is honored as the ‘greatest Filipino musical talent ever’ – Photos by Dondi Quema
For a show that promised to showcase classic and contemporary Philippine choral music infused with excerpts from Filipino stage musicals, last weekend’s presentation did all that and so much more — so much more that, to my disappointment, it ended up becoming too overwhelming, a little bit jarring and just less memorable.

The outstanding first act included regional songs sung in various Filipino dialects and was capped by a prayer to the Virgin Mary. The Philippine Chamber Singers displayed the full array of talent that has already won them applause from all over Southern California. They were so great that I nearly forgot that the choir is composed of remarkable individuals who have their respective day jobs to attend to and it is only their passion for singing and incredible time management skills that keep the choir alive.

The second part of the show had more movement on stage but it was a rather standard, if not routine, musical show. “Kung hindi dumating ang mga Kastila sa Pilipinas malamang kamukha tayo lahat ni Nora Aunor,” was how Bernardo introduced the second act — and it set the tone for the rest of the show. He was undeniably funny but those jokes would have worked better in another show.

If I didn’t make any notes during the second act, I wouldn’t have remembered the beautiful tribute to the Filipino Sarsuwela by guest soloist Djoanna Garcia, who has retained her incredible voice, or LA’s top stand-up comic Joseph Gelito’s knockout performance in the naughty act that played on his manliness, or lack thereof.
Joseph Gelito with the Philippine Chamber Singers

And, if not for my notes, I would have still been thinking that the entire show was a tribute to Lea Salonga, who is, according to the show, the greatest Filipino musical talent ever. The Tony-winning singer made a surprise appearance after the confusing Broadway portion of the second act. It was baffling how songs from Miss Saigon and The King & I ended up in a show that was supposed to showcase the best in Filipino music.

My complaints aside, I must say it was still a solid show. Maybe less memorable but still an entertaining show. The first act, though it felt weird initially, was, interestingly enough, the best part of the show. The show had so many guest soloists during the second act that I nearly missed the Philippine Chamber Singers. Perhaps, next time, they will be on a show all their own. They deserve it.

Friday, September 09, 2011

My coverage of "Contagion"

A movie that will make you jump for cover
By Raymond de Asis Lo, L.A. Correspondent (The Philippine Star) Updated September 10, 2011 12:00 AM Comments (0) View comments

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Contagion director Steven Soderbergh (right) with Matt Damon, who’s part of the film’s powerhouse ensemble cast.
| Zoom
MANILA, Philippines - Midway through the press screening of Warner Bros.’ new movie Contagion, Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh’s taut and intense thriller about an unknown virus that’s spiraling out of control, the lady sitting next to me suddenly coughed and my instant reaction was rather embarrassing: I nearly jumped in surprise then I cautiously moved away from her afterwards.

Such was the power of Contagion that moviegoers are definitely going to step out of the cinemas more aware of how diseases are formed and how quickly and easily they can be transmitted — and the only hope of the filmmakers is that people don’t react in the way that this writer reacted.

“There was a responsibility in taking a subject matter like this — to do it realistically,” Steven said during the Los Angeles junket for the movie last week. The director indicated that what he hoped to achieve was for moviegoers to not just gain awareness of the possibilities of another global pandemic (similar to the havoc brought by SARS several years ago and H1N1 a couple of years ago) but be mindful of how to react responsibly and rationally should a scenario similar to what was depicted in the movie occurs in real-life. “If all you get out of it was that, when this happens, you don’t immediately panic; that you count to 11 before you do something stupid, then that would be great.”

“I was aware of the difference between a subject matter like this and something like Traffic,” he added, referring to his landmark film on illegal drugs that won four Oscars in 2000. And he wants to set off the same conversation on the potential threats of diseases in Contagion that Traffic did on drugs. “When you start talking about drugs, there’s an immediate political aspect to it because some people have very strong feelings about drugs in both directions. So right out of the gate, you are polarizing the audience potentially.”

The film stars Oscar Best Actress winners, including Gwyneth Paltrow
But just because the movie is about a deadly virus, it doesn’t mean that the movie lacks the social and political commentary that Steven regularly hints in his movies. “You can avoid drugs but you can’t avoid germs,” he quipped when asked about it. “There was certainly an idea at the back of our minds that this movie could do for elevator buttons what Jaws did for the beach.”

If you find yourself not immediately shaking hands with other people after seeing the movie, then the movie did its part — but moviegoers need to remind themselves that events presented in the movie, though based on intensive research, constitute one big “what if” scenario — a plausible scenario, that is.

Contagion begins with a seemingly routine medical situation: An international traveler, exhibiting flu-like symptoms, reaches into a snack bowl at an airport. She hands her credit card to a waiter before boarding her plane. She gets home, signs something then hands the pen to her chauffeur, and she dies the next day. Soon, others start to exhibit the same mysterious symptoms then, like her, they all quickly die.

The origin of the outbreak is so simple that it will be totally understandable for people to really get scared — and be a little bit paranoid. Matt Damon, who portrays one of the central characters in the movie, shared that when he received a copy of the script, there was a note attached to it that read: “Read this and then go wash your hands.”

But Matt, who lives in New York City with his family, said that being exposed to germs is not entirely a bad thing. “Definitely, we do a lot of hand washing. When kids come back from the park we wash our hands but on a day-to-day basis, germs is a good thing and I want my kids to build their immunity.” The actor, whose head was completely bald during our interview, portrays a man whose wife and son fall victim to the disease.

In addition to Matt, the director also tapped an array of award-winning actors and actresses to portray essential characters in the movie. The stellar cast includes Oscar Best Actress winners Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard. Oscar nominees Laurence Fishburne and Jude Law are also in the cast together with Emmy-winner Bryan Cranston and Tony-winner Jennifer Ehle who was still reeling from excitement at being in the same movie with such a formidable ensemble of Hollywood superstars.

“It was amazing!” the British actress exclaimed. She revealed that she was so honored to be in the movie only to be cut short by Matt who teasingly added, “You are honored to be in a movie with me, I know, I know.” Matt’s unexpected attempt at humor was met with laughter in the room.

“I was so honored to be asked to be a part of it,” Jennifer continued after recovering from Matt’s playful antic. “I assumed that she (her character in the movie) would be cut because people are usually not fascinated with the science in the movie and I also assumed that there would be no time for the story of somebody who wasn’t one of the stellar members of the cast,” she humbly stated.

Jennifer most recently appeared in last year’s Oscar Best Picture winner The King’s Speech. She’s a two-time Tony winner and was a BAFTA award recipient for her performance as Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice. She portrays one of the crucial epidemiology experts in Contagion.

Matt’s jokes and Jennifer’s earnestness are what saved the 40-minute cast interview from turning into a monotonous Q&A on the specifics of the disease highlighted in the movie, the relationship of the movie to real events that took place in Mexico during last year’s H1N1 scare, and whether the cast had altered anything in the way they interact with people after doing this movie.

Oscar-nominee Laurence Fishburne, who was also at the junket, disclosed that he didn’t do anything different after doing the movie. “I’d take a flu shot but other than that, I am not really that much different from most people who’d go and say, ‘Oh yeah, there’s something going around? I hope I don’t get it.’”

Matt, Jennifer and Laurence were the only cast members present at the junket but the bigger celebrity at the event was the film’s director, Steven, who is considered as one of the finest American directors working today.
Sometime last year, reports surfaced that Steven was retiring from making movies and the source of the story was no less than Matt himself. Interestingly, that story spread just like a contagious disease and left many film fans disappointed. At the junket, Matt and Steven decided to set the record straight: Both were drunk when said quote was uttered.

“You know, I was really drunk and so was Matt and I thought that there’s this sort of tacit agreement that exists in most advanced societies that, when you are both drunk, your conversation won’t be in USA Today,” Steven lightheartedly explained how the erroneous story started. “Clearly, Matt didn’t share that philosophy and is about as discreet as a 14-year-old girl.”

Matt, all red, but still laughing very hard, responded by saying, “Yeah, yeah, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so liberal with my spreading of that information.” He also added that he now ”acknowledge that things said in that state will be kept in confidence in the future.”

Contagion, hailed by many critics as one of the best movies of the year, is now showing in theaters nationwide.

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