Oppressive poverty means the only way is up for the antihero of "Manila Skies."

Oppressive poverty means the only way is up for the antihero of “Manila Skies,” an inconsistent character study/crimer that’s partly bolstered by a strong central performance from Raul Arellano. Filipino indie director Raymond Red, a onetime fest favorite, creates an awkward blend of ’70s American touchstones and arthouse sensibilities on Manila’s mean streets but shows a lack of screenwriting discipline. HD effort looks commercially shaky.

Desperate for cash, laborer Raul (Arellano) dreams of traveling overseas for the increased wages he can get as a guest worker. He also needs money to fund an urgent return trip to his village to see his ill father.

Unable to fulfill either desire, and stretched by Manila’s grueling living conditions, Raul volunteers for a robbery. Chickening out at the last minute, he falls asleep in the getaway car, but upon waking suddenly discovers some heretofore missing courage.

Arellano’s performance is sterling in its authenticity, but his screen charisma isn’t enough to compensate for his character’s erratic, often implausible behavior. Writer-director Red creates many strong moments in short bursts, but can’t seem to weave them together into a consistent, feature-length yarn.

An opening title announces the story is inspired by real events. In fact, this is only true of last two reels, which draw on the widely reported May 2000 hijacking of a Manila-bound plane. A framing device is designed to subvert narrative expectations, but may leave auds feeling they’ve been conned.

Red also served as d.p., and his tendency toward wobblecam is mitigated by his strong compositional eye. Digital lensing is high-quality, and other technical contributions are solid. Original Tagalog title means “Sky.”

Manila Skies

Philippines

Production

A Pelikula Red production, in association with Ignite Media, Filmex, Pacific Film Partners. (International sales: Pelikula Red, San Isidro Village, Philippines.) Produced by Raymond Red, Dave Hukom. Executive producers, Raymond Red, David Hukom, Butch Jimenez, Roger Garcia. Directed, written by Raymond Red.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Red; editors, David Hukom, Jay Halili, Red; music, Diwa de Leon; production designer, Danny Red; sound, Ditoy Aguila. Reviewed at Tokyo Film Festival (competing), Oct. 18, 2009. (Also in Cinemanila Film Festival.) Running time: 110 MIN.
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