It’s an educational piece. A lesson in linguistics. Ron Morale’s GRACELAND will have you speaking a second tongue in ninety minutes flat. A language replete with gasps, gulps, and groans of remorse at the spectacle on the screen. You’ll be fluent in tragedy in no time.
Unassuming and all-around everyman Marlon Villar (Arnold Reyes) is pitched into a fiendish scenario of corruption and retribution. His daughter is kidnapped and he’s charged with the nigh impossible task of finding her all the while keeping hectoring crooked cops, bent politicians, and unsavory gangsters snarling at bay. It’s a daunting task that promises high octane thrills and an acrobatic narrative that launches the audience into an explosive final climax.
But lo those promises fall tragically short. It’s a solid concept and a lush location that was cobbled together into an ultimately lackluster product. Although that’s not to say the picture didn’t have its gleaming moments of achievement. Those moments are few and far between but rest assured they’re there. One just has to have the patience and fortitude to diligently pan through it all like a gold prospector to loose them.
The filmmakers do a capable job establishing a discernable tone and atmospheric style. There’s a pungent grittiness that pervades the plot. The first act has an unmistakable TAXI DRIVER feel to it. The cinematography manages to wrench our ankle causing us to tumble into this chiaroscuro realm of depravity and morally bankrupt values. It’s a weathered and treacherous journey into the Heart of Darkness. And Marlon is our timid and capable Marlow.
It consistently looked good. I’ll accede that. It’s a valiant visual effort given the pittance of a budget the filmmakers had to operate with. We’re perpetually treated to polished camera movement and a distinguished flair for nuanced and considered visual storytelling. Although it’s not quite a buffet of memorable images. More of an enchilada found in a coat pocket offering. And those stale (yet filling) morsels include some great imagery of a seamy and uncouth midnight Manila. Smokey shots of spiders sparring in a bar and the blanching green fluorescent lights on a brothel sign. It’s high caliber stuff in terms of ocular ostentation.
The characters, conversely, weren’t too terribly cinematically nourishing unfortunately. It was a little thin in that department. Over the course of the story we’re introduced to a bevy of personalities (term used charitably) that don’t leave any lingering impression on the audience. Manual Chango (Menggie Cobarrubias) is the only morally thwarted character that undergoes any marked trajectory in terms of growth and self-revelation in the story. Chango is a reprobate politician that expresses a degree of contrition and regret after his daughter, too, is abducted. His is the only noteworthy instance of character development within the entire piece. The others are relegated to one-dimensional presences usually accentuated by one defining characteristic. Examples include: Wife; Dour. Cop; Grizzled. Villain; Gun.
The acting. This might be the lowest card in an already pretty weak hand. A majority of sequences play out like stilted soap operas. It strikes a tony and affectedly histrionic tone. Everyone seems to be playing to the back row. Almost to the point of pastiche or caricature. Arnold Reyes is the Filipino equivalent of Anne Hathaway, it seems. His performance is largely a series of close-ups of him hyperventilating and having a conniption. The film predicates that sobbing and hand wringing is a suitable substitute for substance and emotional depth. But waterworks, unfortunately, drama does not make.
There’s also a persnickety issue with the pacing. The film has a problem sustaining any semblance of tension or ratcheting sense of narrative momentum. It lurches and shudders along at an exasperating gait. It doesn’t ever really get out of first gear. It keeps circling the block at a leisurely pace with its blinker unintentional left on. Basically the film takes its editorial cues from Floridian traffic. We’re never really floored. There’s a twist in the third act that’s delivered with the vapid force of a feather duster. What should’ve been a wallop was rendered a laughable finger flick.
The sum of it: It’s a rock skimming across the surface. GRACELAND doesn’t have much ambition beyond the surface blips of a conventional thriller. It doesn’t delve into the socio-political implications of the rampant corruption, the underage flesh trade, or the exigent poverty that is gripping the country. These are themes and concepts that could’ve served to really assign some substantive cinematic ballast to the picture. But, still, under the extensive artifice there’s some merit to be found. You just have to dive into the brackish waters to trawl for them.
Jump right in. The water’s filthy.
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Director Ron Morales
Writer Ron Morales
Starring Arnold Reyes
Dido De La Paz
Distributed By Drafthouse Films
Running Time 84 minutes
Release Date VOD March 28th 2013