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10.14.2019

A THIRD WAVE






































Wrote a piece for the Japan Foundation about the tip of the iceberg that is domestic experimental cinema. Didn't have enough space to cover everything but it's a start. Lots of terrific writers in the roster, too, including a handful of friends. (Tara FT Sering, Babyruth Villarama, Jaja Armupac, Patrick Campos, who roped me in to do this. Thanks Patrick!) Art Archive 02: A Collection of Philippine Contemporary Literature and Film is available in the link.

10.04.2019

BREAK IT TO ME GENTLY

Richard Bolisay and I met literally in the comments sections of our respective film blogs. I didn't know Chard but I had been voraciously reading his work. We eventually met in the flesh, the same year I met Oggs Cruz in the flesh, too, the same year Tarantino visited Cinemanila, a year or so before Alexis lumped the three of us together in his wishlist and fed our so-called film critic careers vitamins, and even more years before we became a collective object of troll ire. (Ang Bakla, Ang Barko at Ang Madungis, I think, we were called) When I transitioned to filmmaking, in deference to a possibly imaginary conflict of interest, I divested myself of possibly even more imaginary film critic credentials (I never made money from my blog anyway), and took a different slant in my film writing, as the three of us went from being colleagues to being the sort of friends that go to your father's wake, which was the last time the three of us spent a significant amount of time together. Chard and I had long talked about self-publishing books, we had ideas for several, some were on film, some weren't. I actually started writing my first one many years ago, partly in response to an exhortation from a filmmaker friend to own my shit and put it out before I lost time to the breakdown of my own biology and to the obsolescence social media and this industry likes to dole out to anyone who commits the sin of not trending. But I kept getting distracted. Chard soldiered on and eventually finished his, which has become, in the months since I found out it was for real, both an impetus and an inspiration to soldier on and finish too, not to mention a pleasure to look forward to. Of course I read the book, voraciously from cover to cover, even if the version I read had no covers, and I wrote something at the back of it, mostly as a longtime friend. I'm pimping the book now, though, mostly as a longtime fan.

Click here to pre-order.








2.13.2018

UNDERRATED ASIAN HORRORS








What Asian horror cinema seemed to understand a lot better than Hollywood horror ever will is that fear is irrational and the more irrational things get, the more terrifying things are. The pull Asian horror always had with me, aside from obligatory defiance to the hegemonic narratives, are the specific varieties of irrational unease that have become rough ordinance with most Asian horror cinema but which Hollywood has nothing but disdain for, perhaps residue from how Eastern cultures have a more pervasive, more insidious spiritual firmament than America: the spatial displacement, the overhang of dread, the dreamlike languor and casual surrealism, the often brutal lack of closure and this gnawing sense that the supernatural was a matter of fact. Asian horror isn’t above solving its own mysteries, sure, but Hollywood horror seems in the grip of a compulsion to constantly whip the mask off the monster to reveal a backstory. Indian burial grounds, Scooby Doo endings, whistling past graveyards, all that. Western critics gregariously upheld the heady, volcanic surge of Asian horror films in the 90s as a “new wave” poised to rehabilitate and reinvigorate the genre, which it was and which it did, even if the exaltation smacked of hegemony and hubris, if only for the implication that Asian horror had somehow “caught up” and that Hollywood was somehow “in charge” of the genre to waylay it, circumventing the fact that Asian horror has been trumping Hollywood horror for decades, and still does. I’d go so far as argue that the two 90s horror films that game-changed the genre didn’t come out of Hollywood, Myrick and Sanchez’s Blair Witch Project and Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, and that most post-90s horror films run on the modified engines of either of these two films, and sometimes, oftentimes a confluence of both. Japan, Thailand and Korea has been undergoing fluctuations in quality since. The combined output of Hong Kong, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia is still occasional at best. The Philippines, meanwhile, remains stupidly, stubbornly determined to bash out the same old wine without even bothering to put it in new bottles, mainly vengeful spirits terrorizing young actors that no amount of workshopping can make worthy of being called one.

Despite this, Asian horror cinema is still an embarrassment of riches, if you know where to look and what to look for. The list below is meant to be a spanner in the works, throwing props long overdue and much deserved, but also as an index of possible new pleasures. Obviously, they barely scratch the surface, but if you’ve had it with the same old and your curiosity is piqued by the list, here’s a few more to look up, of varying quality and flavors and temperaments: Mystics In Bali (H. Tjut Djalil), Wild Zero (Tetsuro Takeuchi), Pasiyam (Erik Matti), Exte: Hair Extensions (Sion Sono), How To Disappear Completely (Raya Martin), The Red Shoes (Kim Yong Gyun), The Forbidden Door (Joko Anwar), Pridyider (Rico Ilarde), Salvage (Sherad Sanchez), Matangtubig (Jet Leyco), Dream Home (Pang Ho Cheung) and Noroi (Koji Shiraishi).

 Akumu Tantei (Nightmare Detective) (Shinya Tsukamoto, 2005, Japan) Pivots on the pulpiest of setups: an emotionally crippled and borderline suicidal young man who has the ability to walk into people’s dreams and somehow fix them is recruited by the police to thwart a creepy serial killer who has the ability to walk into people’s dreams and coerce them into suicide. The surprise here is not that Shinya Tsukamoto would take on such relatively straightforward material. Nor is it in the way he finds much to mine within the parameters of his outlandish premise, not least being its discomfiting overlaps between waking life and dream state. But rather, it’s the fearful symmetry he strikes between his usual transgressive surrealism and his newfound pop efficiency. Tsumakoto, of course, also made the Tetsuo movies, which is to say that the few times he does, he makes the sort of superhero movies we deserve: deranged, chaotic, resonant, thrilling as fuck.

 Di Ingon Nato (Brandon Relucio and Ivan Zaldarriaga, 2011, Philippines) Rough around the edges, sure, but you can argue that it’s more appropriately primitive because of it, given how everything hinges on its transposition of First World zombie tropes into far-flung Third World boondocks, where people get around on cheap mopeds, an under-manned and under-equipped clinic passes for a hospital, combat-readiness boils down to jungle knives and single-shot rifles and no one knows zombie lore enough to go for a head shot, not to mention that the zombies here are not the undead of legend, the sort these superstitious folk have names for and dispatch with magic, but rather the ones borne of contagion, the sort these medically naïve folk can’t quite fathom. The first half, set in a remote forest, is all bucolic desolation. The second, almost meta-recursive apocalyptic desperation. For all their social-realist pontifications, I can’t think of a single poverty porn indie that has tapped as potently into how fatally ill-prepared we are for calamity quite like this under-seen zombie riff has. 

Marebito (Takashi Shimizu, 2004, Japan) . No pun intended but I slot this in here grudgingly if only because the nonchalant misogyny bugs me still but also because it is a terribly flawed and terribly shallow work and one I hesitate to recommend heartily. Approach with caution, then. But after thrashing this the first time I saw it, calling Takashi Shimzu the Gore Verbinski of J-Horror of all things, though I’m not sure if that’s unfair to Shimizu or to Verbinski, I’ve reconsidered my position and now go as far as claiming that I might actually prefer its Lovecraftian dissonance to the routine spookiness of his beloved, and certainly more polished, Ju-on/ Grudge films. The anxiety and displacement evoked by the subterranean world the perverted cameraman hero stumbles on remains every bit as distressing as the last time I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

Pascalina (Pam Miras, 2012, Philippines) Pascalina, the eponymous social klutz, is a fuck-up of the poignant sort, well-meaning and down on her luck. Her aunt is the only one who loves her enough to say it, but is not only dying but may or may not be a monster, which means she may or may not be a monster, too. Pam Miras tends to rub her fluency with the genre against her bigger fish to fry, harnessing horror tropes to slant the realities she wants to confront at an angle, for a view that’s oddly purer and truer the more heightened it gets. Shooting with a toy camera comes off as outlaw impulse at first blush, but the jittery muck it attains becomes both verisimilitude and metaphor, elucidating the dance her stumblebum heroine does with the devil she knows, as she comes into her own by springing the catch on her own secret monstrosity. The film won a Best Picture prize then all but vanished without a trace. That’s one way to boost your underrated stock. Another is to be as good a debut feature as it is.

 The Unseeable (Wisit Sasanatieng, 2006, Thailand) Atypical Wisit Sasanatieng but only if you go by the velocity with which his candyland visuals ran riot in his last two films before this. But look at Tears of the Black Tiger and Citizen Dog again and you realize what he really has a knack for is the way he twists over-familiar environments into weird off-key shapes, like balloon animals. If this rather traditional ghost story is a lot more sedated, the mood dripping rather than shouting, that’s mostly out of how ghost stories are supposed to get by on the sedated drip of mood alone. The gorgeous crumble of that haunted countryside manse, and its sprawling garden, may be a calmer palette than we’re used to from Wisit but is every bit as florid and intoxicating an artifice as any he's ever manipulated. Oldfangled but thick with feed.

Uzumaki (Higuchinsky, 2000, Japan) Lazy as it sometimes is to brand Junji Ito as the Japanese Lovecraft, it’s also rather apt, right down to how much of a bitch it is to adapt his work to film. Those ubiquitous Tomie films, about a dead schoolgirl who regenerates over the centuries to wreak all manner of revenge, often feel homogenized, and as gorgeous as Kakashi was, it was a little too complacent, even for a film about haunted scarecrows. Uzumaki is by far the only film taken from his work that perfectly nails all his potencies: the bleak nihilism, the demented strangeness, the psychedelic rot. This is the one about the seaside town driven mad by an invasion of spirals, and there really is no way to approach any work that boils down to that synopsis except to take it literally.

*Originally published by CNN.

HORRORS IN THE SLIPSTREAM










What’s a slipstream? A category, but one that constantly resists being one, reaching to go beyond making one necessary. The science fiction writer Bruce Sterling coined it to codify the interstices, mongrel works that hover between speculative and realist fiction, that mash up genre tropes with mainstream temperaments.

There’s a surge of interstitial activity in horror cinema of late, its own neither-here-nor-there slipstream hovering between genre and arthouse, and someone less clever and less adept with words went and gave it names, too: Post Horror, Elevated Horror, all that. Like any genre, horror is bordered by its own perimeter fence, rigid with protocols, The Rules, as they’re called. But Post/Elevated Horror isn’t some new strain, all it means is horror that doesn’t play by The Rules, and it’s been going on for decades: Lang, Roeg, Teshigahara, Bergman, Lynch. The new films are fine: It Comes At Night, A Ghost Story, Personal Shopper, Beyond The Hills, Neon Demon. OK, maybe not Neon Demon. The tinge of condescension does bug me, the implication that horror needs “elevating”, but then again, when asked why I make horror films, my answer was how porous and fluid and pliant it was, how I could bend it to any shape I saw fit, how it lends itself to be , ummm. . .elevated. Yeah. I should talk.

But it’s a different sort of interstitial horror film I want to talk about here, the sort Clive Barker and Peter Atkins were talking about when they sought to expand the genre, finding trace elements of horror in films that were ostensibly not, settling on the intent to horrify and make us complicit in the perversity of that intent as the crucial pre-condition. They name-checked Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Fassbinder’s Fox And His Friends and Bergman’s Shame as tangential horror films. I agree. You don’t gauge your responses to these films the way you would, say, The Exorcist. But anyone familiar with the genre is bound to taste similar flavours in the soup. Here are five more.


 A Field In England (Ben Wheatley, 2013): A war film, a period film, a drug film, a fever dream, a hallucination. By virtue of Wheatley being a “horror” filmmaker, some circles make no bones over slapping the label on this. Suffice to say, it isn’t The Conjuring. That’s a sales pitch, incidentally, not a disclaimer. Also, I like how the title is also its location brief.

Kynodontas (Dogtooth) (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009): You can see this through the cracked prisms of its metaphors, sure, and it has many, from the claustrophobia of families to the subtle totalitarianism of home schooling, but better to come in without blinders and let the weirdness snowball in all its excruciating languor until it smothers you. The last shot still gets under my skin in ways few horror films can.

Leviathan (Lucien Castiang-Taylor, Veronica Pevel, 2012): A documentary that fulfills the terms of the form, immersing itself thoroughly in the environment it’s observing, but by doing so to the degree that it does, planting cameras in the oddest crannies of a fishing trawler, discarding the annotative comforts of talking heads and an editorial that holds your hand as it walks you through, it leaves us open to harm, making a routine night of fishing in the open sea feel like a descent into Hell.

Medusae (Pam Miras, 2017): A young documentarist and her cranky albino son go to an island to make a film about a mysterious cult that summons firstborns as offerings to the ocean. Two thirds of the way in is the point where you recognize Pam Miras, when the strangeness seeps into the mundane with disarming stealth, and disarming poetry, and inexorably takes over the piece. The horror was a lot more overt in her Pascalina, though, perhaps out of how this has a lot more on its mind, and perhaps, too, out of how it taps into a horror that’s too real for her: the horrors of motherhood. Misunderstood and uncategorizable. In other words, totally slipstream.

Mula sa Kung Ano Ang Noon (Lav Diaz, 2014): Lav Diaz has incurred debts to the genre throughout his career in spurts but here, as if to buffer us from the palpable horror that was Martial Law, his allusive, lo-fi parable, perhaps the most daring, and certainly the most poignant, of his post-Norte renaissance, comes suffused with strange goings-on: a constant hum of existential dread, mysterious cattle mutilations, rumors of an aswang on the prowl and a town that eats itself. . .sort of. The quietly spine-tingling ending to his short Nang Matapos Ang Ulan evoked a quality of unease horror filmmakers would kill to evoke. The sequence here with the mentally-challenged girl writhing while the windows move by themselves one-ups that.


 *Originally published by Esquire

3.12.2017

ALTERED STATE







Almost three years ago,  I dragged myself out of the soft bed at the Hotel Palacky in Karlovy Vary earlier than I should have  and, without sufficient doses of coffee, took in a late morning screening of James Benning’s natural history, and left the cinema famished but giddy with what has by now become a familiar sensation of uplift.

Like every Benning film I've had the pleasure of seeing, natural history, set inside the Vienna Museum of Natural History, frees you up from your fixation on pre-determined narrative shapes while sneaking in a new way, or ways, of seeing a story.  The images are intoxicating in and of themselves, but what’s delightful is the almost musical syncopation of the piece, from the asymmetrical editing, with some cuts lingering while others gone before you can blink almost, to its sound design, the industrial hum of the museum’s veins (storage rooms, boiler rooms, etc.) acting almost as a melodic counterpoint to the relatively hallowed quiet of the museum spaces. Benning's films are ruminations on duration, not merely the passage of time but also the passage of space, and natural history is in many ways the same, but obviously Benning's playing around with his normally rigorous structuralist maneuvers.

We tend to consign the capacity of art to change our lives to our formative years as connoisseurs of whatever culture we consume, when it really should be, and often is, an ongoing proposition. “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” is the weak shit of the time-trapped. Needless to say, the effect natural history had on me was exactly the same as the effect Benning’s Twenty Cigarettes had on me five years ago: life-altering.

A year ago, my head was swimming in more than its usual soup of anxieties, thinking of time mostly and the speed in which it steals days and people and love and dreams. Then I wake to a Facebook algorithm reminding me it’s been a year since I was a third world country hick at the other end of the first world  and time and love and dreams were my allies. Time flies. Then you die, right. That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is that: it’s ONLY been a year. Or, rather, it's ONLY been three years give or take. I’m not quite sure why I find that oddly soothing nor why I find this film oddly hopeful still. I know it’s only a movie, and a strange one to attach such emotional and existential baggage to,  but sometimes it’s all I’ve got and some days, man, some days, it’s all I need.

5.06.2016

THE GHOSTS OF WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN

December 2015. I land in Singapore a little past midnight and recognize nothing. The last time I was here was also the first time I was here. That was twenty years ago. Of course, everything had changed. I don’t think I’d recognize the person I was back then anymore either. He was flying out of the country for the first time, a poor boy doing rich boy things. He gaped a lot, if I remember right, mostly at his luck. But then I’ve been gaping a lot lately. Last year was the year Violator underwrote a wanderlust i never thought I had. I flew everywhere with it. Thinking about those seven cities now, I feel a specific permutation of pure, unfettered joy for each. But coming as I do from a middle-class third world household that toes the poverty line on a daily basis, the inept prisms through which I processed them were primarily cultural but also mostly economic. I was still, in many ways, that poor boy. I felt like a country hick bombarded with city awe every single time.

This was different. I flinch a little as the cab leaves the airport and enters the city on the way to Jalan Besar, where my hostel was. The reflux of what felt like nostalgia was so immediate, and so glancing. I wasn’t quite sure why. Not at that moment, at least. This is my second time here but it’s changed so much it might as well be the first. It was like having memories of a place I’ve never been. It only got more severe over the next few days.




The sentient city is a useful myth I milk when I travel. The only foreign city I’ve been to more than twice is Hong Kong.  Hong Kong feels like a favorite chair. The city-tourist give and take is hinged on a warm, worn familiarity. New places feel different, and each new place feels different from the others. No patterns of habit have calcified yet. But the give and take is there. Every bit as intoxicating. As it was now. Only odder.

Oh, nothing extraordinary happened during my five days in Singapore. Yet here I am, looking back and swooning a little. I was determined to make it my eighth and last stop before the holidays. I had my reasons. It was my first foreign city, after all. I have friends coming here with me, too. I  have friends who live here and promised to come and watch then later ply me with drinks, which they did. Then there was the matter of promises I never made but squandered anyway.

People who mean a lot to me had come here in the middle of the noughties, to seek their fortunes, to run away, all that. I almost lived here myself. I always hoped to come around and pay them visits. It was so close. But I did none of that. Now I can’t. And here I am anyway. Wandering around between duties, soaking up the city like I would any other city, only this one seemed more haunted than the others, tinged with a luscious, unforgettable bittersweetness. Nothing was familiar yet somehow everything was. The hawkers, the museums, the galleries, the vinyl shops, the bookstores, the hipster cinema, the vine-encrusted university, the ornate restaurant, the colossal hotel, the posh shoe stores, the posher after-party, the videoke lounge, the old buildings, the prickly heat. I realize it's the itinerary of the visit that never was but should have been. Turns out it wasn’t nostalgia after all. Singapore used to embody the first time I rose above my station. Years later, it embodies instead the time of my life that got away.

4.10.2016

BLADE OF GRASS

















The last film of a dear old friend who is sorely missed is screening tonight (April 10), 7 PM at the Green Papaya for free. Please come if you are.

1.01.2016

LET'S KILL MAINDIE: MY YEAR IN CINEMA




2015 was like a crack den for cinephiles. On a more personal note, a lot of my friends made films, debuts and otherwise, and am proud of them all, at least those that I was able to see. I was nominally "involved" in a couple and even "acted" in one. I did miss a lot, domestic and foreign both (All three Arabian Nights and Journey To The Shore are my gravest sins of omission but there's more). I did somehow see more than I usually do on any given year, despite moving around a lot, most of them in cinemas, most of them in Manila. I was awed by some, entertained by the rest, don't remember hating anything.

The films on the list below go beyond petty star ratings and the usual dichotomies of good/bad. I don't necessarily love all of them. Most of them am wildly ambivalent about. Some, in fact, I have a lot of issues with. Issues that I'm still grappling with. They're just the ones that, months later, still cling to me and won't shut up. Not my favorite trait in people but what I usually look for in my favorite films. The only other thing they have in common is that I saw them in a cinema. No torrents here.

The Benning film (in picture) stays permanently on top. God, what a beautiful, beautiful film that was/is. The rest tend to shuffle in preference, and at such a skittish rate as to make the ranking moot. I'll probably write at length about the domestic ones on the list (and a few more from this year) at some point. But for now, this'll do.

1. Natural History (James Benning, USA, KVIFF)
2. The Treasure (Corneliu Porumbuoi, Romania, Cinema One Originals)
3. Right Now Wrong Then (Hong Sang Soo, Korea, Cinema One Originals)
4. Cyber D3Vil X Ahas (Timmy Harn, Philippines, Cinema One Originals) / Ruined Heart (Khavn De La Cruz, Philippines, Special Screening)
5. Sicario (Denis De Villeneuve, USA, Domestic Release)
6. Apocalypse Child (Mario Cornejo, Philippines,QCinema)
7. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, Australia, Domestic Release)
8. Honor Thy Father (Erik Matti, Philippines, MMFF) / Dayang Asu (Dog Nation) (Bor Ocampo, Philippines, Cinema One Originals)
9. 100 Yen Love (Masaharu Take, Japan, BiFan)
10. The Fourth Direction (Gurvinder Singh, India, SGIFF)
11. The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (Ben Rivers, UK, Jio Mami)
12. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, USA, Domestic Release) / The Witch (Robert Eggers, USA, KVIFF)
13. Matangtubig (Jet Leyco, Philippines, QCinema) / Kapatiran (Pepe Diokno, Phiilippines, QCinema)

11.24.2015

PHANTOM POWER IN TAIPEI CITY










On my last day in Taipei, we had started showing each other pictures of our family on our phones. We being festival volunteers Lily and Daniel and myself.

It has come to this.

“You’re strange,” Daniel tells me. He meant it as a compliment. “I think I’m going to miss you.”  Likewise, man.

I almost didn’t make it here. I missed my flight on Monday, thanks in part to the epic disruption APEC smugly wreaked on all our lives. Come Tuesday, though, it was all sorted out, but at the expense of a forfeited ticket and with only three whole days to take in as much of Taipei, the city, and Taipei, the film festival, as I could.

But time in other countries turns to jelly, the way it becomes slower and faster at the same time. And Lily, it turns out, was the consummate guide. She had mapped out a wall-to-wall, and off the wall, itinerary that had us steering clear of the beaten tourist tracks and instead taking in, among others, the new Tsai Ming Liang short, an artist space with a balloon floor, an election campaign headquarters that looked more like a design boutique, a 24 hour bookstore, a calligraphy lesson, a secondhand vinyl shop, a Hou Hsiao Hsien exhibit, Hou Hsiao Hsien himself, endless walls of vibrant graffiti and an odd detour talking about The Act of Killing on the rooftop of a bar run by a beer gourmet named Brandon who had bicycled around the world and had the book to prove it. That night at the bar alone would have sealed this trip. But on my last night, we went to a gig at a local livehouse (the Taiwanese term for club) called Sappho where a young fusion band tore through a scorching cover of Herbie Hancock’s Butterfly. If Mumbai was all seduction and opulence, Taipei was pop-up and agog.













In a world where life is measured by what you have to show for living it,  this has become the only currency left to me: the soaking up of experience for the sake of soaking up experience and the soft, often sentimental, traction of strangers you meet and connect with and who are gone before your friendship calcifies into permanence.

This is not the life I was used to. Soul-delay and displacement, brief encounters and magical thinking. Half the time, I feel like a ghost haunting myself. But I don’t want it to end.  It will end, of course, but knowing that can be its own phantom power, too. If nothing else, it blurs the future enough that I don’t live in it as much.

Not that I don’t fear the future anymore, its inevitability and the disease it carries. Every night, when all the noise dwindles, I give in to my anxieties. This is, I suppose, the inescapable fate of the chronic, aging over-thinker. But the cosmos has thrown me a bone. All this started from an irrational fear that I was going to die soon, and two years since my inadequate prophecy, everything remains in blissful function. My dead-of-night bartering these days is ultimately out of some greed for continuance. I asked for renewed vigor so I could keep working. Because, at fucking last, work has become a font of joy.

I feel myself getting older but also sort of growing older. I hope that this is somehow enough. I hope, too, that when all this ends, it will end well, away from the crowd and with grace and composure and a lack of complaint.

We left Sappho with the lush, sexy strains of Feel Like Making Love still ringing in my ears. Lily asks to have one last cigarette in the rain before we parted ways. She was going off to meet her boyfriend. Daniel was taking me back to the hotel.

“You tired?” Lily asks me.

“No.”

“You’re lying.” She laughs.

It was half past midnight. I had been up since 6. We had been walking since 2. I had an early flight and needed to be up by 5. I was tired, sure.  But I also wasn’t lying. This was, I realize, the time of my life. I wanted to be awake for every minute of it.

6.29.2014

THE DAPPER BOND








Call me weird but in the speculative frenzy over who the next James Bond was going to be after Pierce Brosnan broke loose from the franchise, my draft pick was never the crowd favorite Clive Owen but rather Tilda Swindon. Tilda had the bone structure and the sartorial cunning and the acting chops for it. If Cate Blanchett can pull off a convincing Bob Dylan, 007 would be a piece of cake for Tilda. And an androgynous Bond might just be precisely the sort of trangressive endorphin the franchise needs. In my wildly, wishfully hallucinating mind, I pictured Grant Morrison writing the script, Portishead scoring, John Woo directing and Tilda totally rocking the ubiquitous tux, the de facto uniform of Bond. If she got the job, this entire piece would have been all about her.

Roger Moore, though, he never did quite rock that tux, did he? I bring him up first because I really liked his Bond, possibly a bit more than Sean Connery. Moore had a tinge of smarmy perv uncle to his look, and I always thought he should come back to the franchise as a villain. His Bond films are the Bond films I seem to go back to the most.  Live And Let Die, The Man With the Golden Gun, The Spy Who Loved Me, even Moonraker. They were the most fun, the most self-aware, at least. And that’s mostly out of how Moore always had a comic mischief about him, a sense almost of his own silliness, and if nothing else, it fed a unique current through his run, and somehow neutralized the potential horrors his horrible wardrobe might have wrought had he been on the wrong side of dour. A function of era, perhaps, his dress code, but there is a reason he’s almost always singled out as the worst-dressed Bond. It wasn’t just all those leisure suits. But they sure didn’t help. Specially that blue one.

Connery, on the other hand, gets the good grooming thumbs up almost by default, perhaps as a testament to the wonders of Brylcreem, perhaps as a concession to his universal exalting as the Bond to beat. The first two Connerys, Dr. No and From Russia With Love are superlative, sure, both filmwise and fashionwise, but it was his third, Goldfinger, that broke through the roof, but it also had that horrifying blue toweling playsuit (see picture) which no amount of nostalgia can re-assess, not even forcibly. Connery did have the advantage of having the sort of lean frame on which any piece of apparel will hang with some measure of style. But there’s an anonymity to his suavity, a dapperness without flair, almost generic, by-the-numbers.  Years later, and Pierce Brosnan would have the same dilemma, which isn’t surprising given how his fundamental approach to playing Bond was to channel as much of Connery as he can, despite being the one Bond actor who feels as if he was born to play the part.

I’m not being merely contrarian, then, when I say I proclaim affinity for the remaining three Bonds, in terms of what they brought to the films and in terms of what they brought to the styling. I’ve always rooted for Timothy Dalton, but his brief two-film run was saddled largely by indifference: lackluster scripts and even less enthusiastic filmmaking. Daniel Craig was, in a nutshell, Jason-Statham-As-Bond, and did take getting used to but if nothing else, his Bond is a visceral upgrade and with  Skyfall, gave the world the only other Sam Mendes film that’s actually any good. (after Road To Perdition) Also, the man can wear anything. But it’s the one-off Bond, George Lazenby, that gets the maddest props from me and this is no underdog vote,  On Her Majesty’s Secret Service just happens to be my favorite Bond. Lazenby’s disadvantage was that, for more than half of the film, he was undercover, pretending to be a character that was the diametric opposite of Bond, at one point even wearing a kilt.  But none of the Bonds before and after him gave that tux as much justice as he did and when he abandoned his disguise just before the climactic ski chase scene, it may have been a sleek jet-blue ski suit he changed into, but he made it feel like a badass superhero costume.


*Originally published in Vault

ORIENT PEARLS






Hong Kong was the first kiss in my eventual, and undying, romance with all cinemas Asian. I call it a romance because that’s precisely what it is, a love affair. And because, well, there are women involved. I’m talking about movie star women, of course, opulent peacocks, dream girls on parade. My first movie star crush was Nora Miao, whom I’ve only seen in the Bruce Lee film Return of the Dragon and nowhere else. I should’ve known that was the start of something. Much later, there was Joey Wong and Shu Qui and Zhao Wei and Karen Mok and Gigi Leung and Miriam Yeung and Jo Kuk and Kelly Chen. There was Sammi Cheng bustling through the Johnnie To/Wai Kai Fai office rom-com Needing You. And Cecilia Cheung grieving her way back to love in Derek Yee’s tearjerky Lost In Time. Some of them were ghosts, as all women you love eventually become. Some of them could take me in a fight. Some of them melt you with a gaze. And some of them flew.

Brigitte Lin did a lot of transgender flying, and fighting, in Tsui Hark’s hectic and wondrous 1986 wu xia inversion Peking Opera Blues. When Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon emerged in 2000, it all but brokered the mainstreaming of wu xia cinema outside of Asia and the cinephile fringes, but you only thought hoary old paradigms of the Asian leading lady shifted in its wake. That was really nothing more than the flex and fallout of American hegemony. Brigitte, and really, Michelle Yeoh, among many others, had, at this point, been doing it for years. Ang Lee himself was merely riffing off King Hu’s 1966 masterpiece Come Drink With Me, going as far as casting its feisty leading lady Chang Pei-Pei as Jade Fox. China, and HK, and really Japan and South Korea and the Philippines, have long-standing traditions when it came to the prominence of their leading ladies, a lot of their films tend to be centered by women as a result. Peking Opera Blues had no less than three.

Before she retired, in a canny bit of stunt casting, Brigitte Lin gleefully subverted her own image as HK showbiz royalty, by putting on a trashy blonde wig and an even trashier raincoat straight out of John Cassavetes’ Gloria for Wong Kar Wai. It was an iconic last bow. But Chungking Express, if you press me to a corner, was all about Faye Wong, whose character, also named Faye and arguably the prototype for Sinitta Boonyasak’s Noy  and Apinya Sakujaroensuk’s Ploy in Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life In The Universe and Ploy, respectively, as well as Jun Ji Hyun’s nameless girl in Jae-young Kwak’s My Sassy Girl, was every bit the Manic Pixie Dream Girl before Hollywood coined the term and claimed it for their own. Only none of them had the self-aware affectation that makes it such a grating trope. Faye, hair shorn to that of a boy and making pink gloves sexy as she sneaks into heartbroken cop Tony Leung’s apartment and stealthily insinuates herself in the minutiae of his life before turning it on its head, was, aside from being almost intolerably cute, effortless and unfussy and fresh.

 You could tease a meta throb from the casting of Brigitte Lin and Faye Wong as two halves of a diptych, a sense of a torch being passed perhaps, with Brigitte being the last of her generation of leading ladies and Faye being the first of hers. When Joseph Campbell said the condition of a movie star is also the condition of a deity, he was mostly talking about Hollywood movie stars and how they can exist in several places at once, that is, on the screen and in real life. But he was also talking about this heightened, almost otherworldly, glamour you associate with them, how they were larger than life abstracts. Asian movie stars were, by refreshing contrast, life-sized. I’m not just talking about Faye here, of course, or for that matter, Hong Kong, but also of Japan’s Chiyaki Kuriyama and Taiwan’s Chieng Shiang Chyi and Korea’s Lee Young Ae and Yunjin Kim and our own Angeli Bayani and Alessandra De Rossi. These are women with presence, stars with wattage, but with a girl next door vulnerability and naturalism.

Even Gong Li and Maggie Cheung had this earthy quality. These two, were, for a time, the Western embodiment of the Asian leading lady. Gong Li’s work with Zhang Ymou and Chen Kaige were world cinema game-changers. And Maggie Cheung had her own formidable arthouse cachet with Stanley Kwan’s Actress, Peter Chan’s Comrades: Almost A Love Story and, more prominently, Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood for Love. Despite the profile and the overtures, Maggie never succumbed to the Hollywood cross-over that all but dismantles the careers of Asian filmmakers and actors, with the possible exception of Ang Lee. She did make one Hollywood art film with Gong, Wayne Wang’s middling Chinese Box, but that was as far as she got. Gong Li, too, had said no to Michael Mann the first time. She said no, in fact, to Heat, because she didn’t want to be a prop, which may come off a little harsh, except she totally would’ve been one. She did eventually say yes, to Mann’s reboot of his own Miami Vice, and to a part that was more fulsome, had more consequence. The film was thoroughly excellent if sadly misunderstood, but her dalliance with the refurbished Crockett and Tubbs was unnecessary. The only thing it proved, apart from the impeccable taste Mann has in actresses, was that she didn’t need Hollywood. None of them ever did.












1. Faye Wong : I’m biased. And tremendously so. Chungking Express happens to be my favorite film. Of all time.  Oh, but Faye is so puckish and adorable here as to be almost indelible. She was last seen in 2046 and has since focused more on her music than on films, realizing perhaps that she can never outshine this with any other film role. Even one that’s directed by Wong Kar Wai.

2. Sammi Cheng :  Sammi’s acumen for screwball makes her a shoo-in for rom-coms. That’s her winning streak, all those Johnnie To comedies, of which Love On A Diet, where she acted through a fat suit, was the funniest, and Romancing In Thin Air, from just a couple of years ago, the most sublime.

3. Angeli Bayani  and  4. Alessandra De Rossi :  The only time they were together was in Ka Oryang playing embattled activists.  But they’ve cut their own respective swaths through domestic independent cinema on their own, not to mention laid claim to serious Cannes pedigrees: Alessandra, significantly, in Raya Martin’s Independencia and Auraeus Solito’s Busong, and Angeli, as a semi-regular member of Lav Diaz’s rotating ensemble last seen at the center of his exuberantly-praised Cannes film Norte.

5. Cecilia Cheung : For my money, HK cinema’s prettiest face.  That she has the acting chops, too, seals it. Her work in the Korean drama Failan was her calling card to the world. But I’m a huger fan of her heartbroken single mother in Lost in Time.

6. Chen Shiang Chyi : Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Girl flies to Paris. Boy starts changing all the clocks in Taiwan to Paris time. What Time Is It There? is another lifelong favorite. Which is to say I’m tremendously biased here, too. But she’s only been in nearly every film by Tsai Ming Liang, and one with Edward Yang.  Tough to argue with credentials like that.

 7. Jun Jy Hyun:  Last time we see her was part of the massive all-star ensemble of  The Thieves but sometimes all it takes is one iconic role to seal your fate. She had two: My Sassy Girl and Il Mare, classics of modern Korean cinema made more essential by the dreadful American remakes.

8. Chiyaki Kuriyama  : As Go Go Yibari, she was Kill Bill's entire surfeit of cool. But you’re really better off going to Sion Sono’s Exte Hair Extensions, Takashi Miike's The Great Yokai War and Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale.

9 .Maggie Cheung and 10. Gong Li : Before she wore all those opulent cheongsams in In The Mood For Love, I succumbed to Maggie Cheung when she walked on the rooftops of Paris dressed as the cat burglar Irma Vep. And much as Zhang Ymou had a hand in it, Gong Li converted me to Chinese period drama as the longsuffering wife in To Live.  A little predictable to name-check them, perhaps, but ultimately foolish to omit.


*Originally published in Vault

ZERO FOR CONDUCT


Apologies. This is terribly late and worse, this isn't even how I usually write these year-end pieces. I never expected the other writing I'm doing to take up  as much of my time as it did. My only consolation, for those seeking some, is that most of the films on this list have been written about more exhaustively elsewhere and don’t need my endorsement. I was also going to rant at length about the culture of versus that domestic cinema flies like a flag and flaunts like a cause and continues to retard us in  far worse ways than nostalgia does, out of how it draws and quarters the holistic joy of cinephilia into a rigid picking of sides, a sports rivalry, if you will, between arthouse and commercial, independent and mainstream, genre and non-genre, narrative and experimental, this festival and that festival, this studio and that studio, this filmmaker and that filmmaker, this batch of filmmakers and that batch of filmmakers, filmmakers and film critics, digital and analog, Golden Age and New Wave, Nora and Vilma. But I’ll leave the bulk of it for another, more exhaustive piece except to say that if our sensibilities, as an audience and as a culture, don't have the latitude to make room for all of the above, then dumbed-down really is an understatement.

My rules are stringent and geographical. Everything considered for the list must have been shown publicly in Manila during the year, be it a domestic release, a brief festival run or a special screening. And both local and foreign films must share the same list. Recently, for fun, I've even ranked the films, although the ranking tends to be a lark that's open to change and is, in all likelihood, inconsequential. Part of why I made these rules up is as a deterrent to the cloying sameness with which (predominantly Western) lists lapse into every time the year ends. The other reason is to force me to watch as many Hollywood and local studio films that saw a domestic release as I can, to level the field, if you will. And this year, I saw , if not everything, a lot more than I have on any given year, and if they're not here, that means I have no opinion on them, or they were awful. I was as visible as I ever was at all five film festivals in Manila. And last year was a terribly exciting time at the movies, specially locally. But through some mishap of time and traffic and life, there were a few films I meant to see but was not able to, my annual sins of omission, if you will. Which is to say that the only reason no mention of Ang Huling Cha Cha Ni Anita, The Guerilla Is A Poet, Ang Turkey Man Ay Pabo Rin, Purok 7, Porno, Babagwa, Woman of the Ruins, Otso or Shift is made here is because I didn't see them.




A few shout-outs are in order, for the films that, for some reason or the other,  I didn't have space for, and some of which have found their own measure of traction and their own measure of love and fandom and which deserve a second look. My honorable mentions, then, most are flawed, some terribly so, but they were nevertheless, for various reasons, bright spots. Alphabetically: Alamat Ni China Doll (Adolfo Alix Jr.),  Kabisera (Borgy Torre),  Man of Steel (Zack Snyder), Pantomina Sa Mga Anyong Ikinubli Ng Alon (Jon Lazam), Puti (Mike Alcazaren), Sana Dati (Jerrold Tarrog), The Search For Weng Weng (Andrew Leavold) and The Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell).

Oh, and I do realize that #4 on the list below constitutes a glaring conflict of interest. But what can I do? I loved the film, despite my involvement. So fuck it. My  best films of 2013, then. Intolerably overdue and in an order that tends to change every day.

1. LEVIATHAN (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, USA, Fete De La WSK!)

2. ISKALAWAGS (Keith Deligero, Philippines, Cinema One Originals)

3. NEIGHBORING SOUNDS (Kleber Mendonça Filho, Brazil, Cinemanila)

4. LUKAS NINO (John Torres, Philippines, QCinema)

5. OTJ (Erik Matti, Philippines, Domestic Release)

6. NORTE END OF HISTORY (Lav Diaz, Philippines, Cinemanila)

7. ANG PAGBABALAT NG AHAS (Timmy Harn, Philippines, Cinema One Originals)

8. HOW TO DISAPPEAR COMPLETELY (Raya Martin, Philippines, Cinemanila)

9. BUKAS NA LANG SAPAGKAT GABI NA (Jet Leyco, Philippines, Cinema One Originals)

10. HELI (Amat Escalante, Mexico, Cinemanila)

11. THE ACT OF KILLING (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark, Cinamanila)

12. BEFORE MIDNIGHT (Richard Linklater, USA, Domestic Release)

13. THE HOBBIT: DESOLATION OF SMAUG (Peter Jackson, New Zealand, Domestic Release)

3.18.2014

ALL TOMORROW'S SIRENS







Daniel Faraday called it a constant. Daniel Faraday being the jittery physicist from Lost. And the reason he was so jittery may well be Desmond, who’s about to go back in time, and run the risk of getting lost in it. Unless, of course, he has a constant, a recurring event perhaps, or better yet a recurring person to whom he had an emotional attachment of such ferocity it acts as hook, as coordinate, as way back. In Terry Gillam’s grandiose remake, Twelve Monkeys, her name was Kathryn Reilly, but in Chris Marker’s original La Jetee (The Pier) from 1962, she had no name, but the woman Helene Chatelain played was quite possibly the first constant. And consequently, my top pick for science-fiction cinema siren.

My picks are highly subjective, of course. Some you can see coming, because how can you not slot Jane Fonda’s Barbarella in for quintessence,  not to mention Sigourney Weaver’s entire run as Ripley in the Alien quadrilogy  for will to power,  and the eponymous troika of superwomen from The Heroic Trio played by Michelle Yeoh and Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung, for sheer resplendence? All draw from my own tastes in women and from how high I regard the work said women appear in, guided by how a siren is defined by her specific effect on men. And Chatelain only seems like an outlier choice until we start going by how one dictionary definition boils that effect down to “beguiling”. La Jetee  may well be the greatest science fiction film full stop and Chatelain’s crucial function may have been to keep the time-travelling soldier from going insane. But that’s only if you don’t count the burning love that drove him to return to the past and save the future again and again and again as a sort of insanity, too.  It’s the same effect Kate Winslet’s Clementine has on Jim Carrey in Michel Gondry’s (and Charlie Kaufman’s) mesmerizing grafting of Philip K. Dick with Alain Resnais, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, that is, the desire to repeatedly go through any strait no matter how dire with someone. Both feature, too, a man whose destiny is ultimately shaped by a woman. No other definition of beguilement holds a candle.

And this is really the prevailing dynamic for most of the more obvious choices, even Elsa Lanchester’s Bride of Frankenstein, undisputedly the first siren of science-fiction cinema, who did sooth the savage beast.  Despite the dominance of the male hormone in science-fiction and despite that dominance verging on obsolescence, the presence of a woman in a piece of science-fiction cinema can still be wonderfully disruptive. Grace Park’s feisty engineer Boomer in Ronald Moore’s gritty re-jig of Battlestar Galactica had several men wriggling under her thumb. Megumi Hayashibara’s Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop, Diana Rigg’s Mrs. Peel from The Avengers and Karen Gillen’s Amelia Pond from the last two seasons of Doctor Who all had a habit of constantly upstaging the men they were supposed to be mere foils to, and those men would include a bounty hunter, a crack secret agent and a Time Lord, respectively. And no amount of new age gibberish would’ve sold Neo into entering The Matrix had Trinity been any less alluring.

Trinity, of course, is a mash-up built from parts of Ghost in the Shell’s Major Kusanagi and Peter Chung’s Aeon Flux and Molly from William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Selina Kyle from the Batman comics and Irma Vep from Louis Feuillade’s epic proto-noir serial Les Vampires. But she's also the embodiment of that other genre’s archetype. The femme fatale of noir is “a mysterious alluring woman who leads men into dangerous situations”. And when Trinity goes acrobat all over those cops and agents and buildings at the start of The Matrix, like a two-gun fetish-wear wu xia angel of doom, your first impulse may be a hormonal swoon, but the next and more fatal one, is to follow her wherever she leads.







1. Helene Chatelain as The Woman from La Jetee (Chris Marker): She had no name, she said nothing, but not only was she a time traveler’s object of desire but eventually the shaper of his destiny, which is essentially what all women are.

2. Megumi Hayashibara as Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop (Shinichiro Watanabe): She’s a cartoon, deal with it. And futuristic bounty hunters don’t come any spunkier or sexier.

3. Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel from The Avengers (Brian Clemens): The proto-Scully no less. First and fairer. Sorry Gillian, but we are talking about the only woman James Bond saw fit to marry.

4. Karen Gillen as Amelia Pond from Doctor Who (Series 5-6) (Steven Moffatt): No companion of the Doctor made me swoon so bad it broke my heart the way Amy did.

5. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley from Alien (Ridley Scott): Not just for the fact that she fought the eponymous nasty in nothing but her underwear but I’d be lying if I said that had no bearing.

6. Kate Winslet as Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry): The damaged girlfriend we all know and we all would probably go through recurring cycles of relationship hell. even in a future where romantic bliss was within reach. 

7. Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung as the Heroic Trio from The Heroic Trio (Johnnie To) :  The first ladies of HK cinema together in one film as wu xia superheroes saving a pulpy HK of the future. It had me at “the first ladies of HK cinema in one film”.

8. Jane Fonda as Barbarella from Barbarella (Roger Vadim): Nobody outside of the Europeans could touch Jane Fonda in the 60s. Strap her into a skimpy superhero costume and it’s game over.

9. Carrie Anne Moss as Trinity from The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers):  The sci-fic/noir mashup that is cyberpunk doesn’t have a deep bench in terms of cinema but Trinity is hands down its sovereign femme fatale.

10. Grace Park as Boomer from Battlestar Galactica (Ronald Moore): Excuse the gushing but she did tend to light up the darkest, nastiest longform sci-fic series so far. That has got to count. 


11. Elsa Lanchester as The Bride from The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale):  The first science-fiction cinema siren, no less. Stupid to omit lest you want her “husband” on your case.



*originally published in Vault

1.05.2014

CRAWLING BACK TO YOU: MY 2013 IN MUSIC

Turns out, despite promises to the contrary, this year's disclaimer is last year's disclaimer but then, you don't even have to scroll down the page to parse that: nope, there are still no annotations to the songs, that's two years in a row and my excuse is similarly, embarrassingly, boringly the same. But hey, at least there's a list of albums, which I didn't have last year and which I've never annotated and only recently ranked, and which demands a disclaimer all its own pertaining to how mutable said ranking is. That's out of how I listened to a lot of them late in the year and often casually at that. Without intending to, for instance, I ignored Yeesuz for months. I'm still listening to the bottom five now and I'm fighting the urge to shuffle the order. I stand by my love for all 13, though, as I do the others that didn't quite make the cut but I now feel should have (Nick Cave, Foxygen, Ariana Grande), and as I do, too, the 40 tracks (not singles, though some of them are) in the list that follows.

Both lists, incidentally, are dominated by one band. That's another significant alteration of the rules, the spilling over from one list to the next, which I disallowed from the get-go, and which, up until the first draft of this year's list, I stringently adhered to. The Monkeys' AM prowls familiar ground lyrically but the teenage kicks have been superseded by an after-party melancholia (more than half the songs are love songs) even as the music surges with libido and swagger. Bowie, in all his permutations, is its spiritual gunk, but fed through the urgent tropes of hip hop, although it's really not as simple as that. And as ardent a fan as I am, and as high as my hopes were, I never saw the record coming and certainly couldn’t ignore Knee Socks. The push and pull between the lyric’s romantic/sexual confusion/ frustration and the slinky guile of the music is really the perfect distillation of what may well be the record’s overriding theme: the yearning for intimacy against a backdrop of perpetual nightlife.

Having the Monkeys on my list is a no-brainer. If memory serves, I’ve had them on every list I’ve made. That’s another disclaimer for this year though. I lacked the time and energy, and really, the enthusiasm, for my usual modes of adventurism, relying entirely on a system not too far removed from the Similar Artist feature of music sites, which should account for the smattering of R&B inversions (Autre Ne Veut, Blood Orance, Inc) and girls with synths (Kate Boy, ChVrches). I also threw back a lot, literally. A larger chunk of last year's listening were old records I only recently stumbled onto for the first time, with this year's highlights being Van Morrison's Veedon Fleece, Bill Withers' +Justments, Townes Van Zandt's High LowAnd In Between  and everything by Jedi Mind Tricks.  But then again, save perhaps for PSY and Kanye and Beyonce and These New Puritans, nearly everything on this year’s list, and nearly everything I listened to, seemed, if not staunchly retro, then willfully derivative and referential. 2013 really was the year pop music threw back, too.

Bored Nothing's Shit For Brains wafts through like the ghost of a lost Alex Chilton single. Fitz and the Tantrums at last discarded their retro-soul preoccupations and full-hogged the mantle of this generation's Hall & Oates in terms of kitchen-sink pop gene-splicing.  Ducktails and Pure Bathing Culture were channeling Prefab Sprout with enough acumen and eloquence to seal the year but then Prefab Sprout itself emerged seemingly out of nowhere, and with a spring in its step, too. God bless you, Paddy MacAloon. Ariana Grande was similarly referencing pre-Emancipation Mariah and matching her early slew of singles strength for strength, until Mariah herself threw back to the days when she had no street cred and pretty much didn't need any, and the ecstatic result is quite possibly her most joyous single since Dreamlover.  And much as the laser-precise hubris of one coinage called Haim a mash-up of Fleetwood Mac and En Vogue, it was when they tapped instead into Long Run-era Eagles, right down to the bombastic drum figure that gave Heartache Tonight balls, that they had their catchiest, most sublime moment, which was also the second catchiest, most sublime, moment in all of last year's pop music. The first, of course, belonged to last year's queen of pop sleaze and who doesn't nearly deserve half the grief she's been getting from media wimps.   For the record, and for my money, Bangerz was solid. But We Can't Stop, overt drug references and hedonistic will to power and all, is a stone classic. Hang in there, Miley. And no, that wasn't a Wrecking Ball pun.


1. Arctic Monkeys, AM
2. John Murry, THE GRACELESS AGE
3. These New Puritans, FIELD OF REEDS
4. Yo La Tengo, FADE
5. Beyonce, BEYONCE
6. Blood Orange, CUPID DELUXE
7. The National, TROUBLE WILL FIND ME
8. Ducktails, THE FLOWER LANE
9. Justin Timberlake, THE 20/20 EXPERIENCE
10. Mayer Hawthorne, WHERE DOES THIS DOOR GO?
11. Kanye West, YEESUZ
12. My Bloody Valentine, MBV
13. Fitz And The Tantrums, MORE THAN JUST A DREAM







1. Arctic Monkeys, Knee Socks

2. Suede, It Starts And Ends With You

3. PSY, Gentleman

4. John Murry, ¿No Te Da Ganas De Reir

5. Summer Camp, Pink Summer

6. Bored Nothing, Shit for Brains

7. Ducktails, Letter of Intent

8. Justin Timberlake, Blue Ocean Floor 

9. Prefab Sprout, Billy

10. Phosphorescent, Ride On Right On

11. Miley Cyrus, We Can't Stop 

12. ChVrches, Gun

13. The National, Don't Swallow The Cap

14. Beyonce, XO

15. Kanye West, Blood on the Leaves

16. Okkervil River, Pink Slips

17. Mariah Carey with Miguel, Beautiful

18. Fitz And The Tantrums, Fool's Gold

19. Rose Elinor Dougall, Strange Warnings

20. Daughter, Smother

21. Daft Punk, Giorgio By Moroder

22. Let's Buy Happiness, Run

23. Tegan And Sara, I Was A Fool

24. Pure Bathing Culture, Pendulum

25. Ariana Grande, Almost Is Never Enough

26. Haim, The Wire

27. Autre Ne Veut, World War

28. Mayer Hawthorne, Wine Glass Woman

29. Blood Orange, It Is What It Is

30. Majical Cloudz, Turns Turns Turns

31. Kate Boy, The Way You Are

32. Foxygen, No Destruction

33. AlunaGeorge, Best Be Believing

34. Yo La Tengo, Ohm

35. Savages, Shut Up

36. Pearl Jam, Sirens

37. These New Puritans, Fragment Two

38. Dawn Richards, 86

39. Matt Berry, Medicine

40. Inc.,Angel

11.16.2013

ALL THE BOYS THINK SHE'S A SPY






"Ideologically, none of us should like the Bond films. They are sexist, heterosexist, xenophobic, everything that is not politically correct." (Professor James Chapman)

He was the flamboyant antithesis to the sober, conflicted British real world working class spooks embodied by Harry Palmer and George Smiley and Tom Quinn. Bond, that is. James Bond. Not so much a spy but a superspy, but really, The Superspy.  With an iconography that has exploded and calcified into its own self-contained rubric. Every James Bond film had a status quo to safeguard, from the voluptuous tremolo of its theme music to the softcore chic of its credit sequences, but it would also include at some point an ungainly, often unfortunate fondness for silly sight gags and sillier tech. At some point, Bond had become this jokey anachronism, a cash cow still but coasting on nostalgia more than anything else. Johnny English was having a go at James Bond, of course.  But Bond, at least in the films, eventually became his own Johnny English, a caricature of what was vaguely one already.

Dean Martin’s Matt Helm was having a go at Bond, too.  Having a go, specifically, at the lothario in him.  Bond slept around, sure. That singular trait almost superseded every other facet of his character. But much as the Bond films did objectify women to a point, one can argue that it isn't any more sexist than that laptop wallpaper of Ryan Gosling with his shirt off. Kingsley Amis generously described Bond's attitude toward women as “Protective, not dominating or combative.”  But Alan Moore, who appropriated the Bond character under a thinly-veiled disguise in his League of Extraordinary Gentleman comics, says otherwise:  “The overriding factor in James Bond's psychological makeup is his utter hatred and contempt for women.” And there is a sinister thrill in re-visiting the series with a firm grasp of this particular, and rather subversive, kink in his persona. Bond Girl is the collective by which these women are known, and they have in common, if nothing else, a latent exotica and a double entendre name, with Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore from Goldfinger being the juiciest of them all. “My name is Pussy Galore.” she tells Bond, who retorts “I must be dreaming.”

But it’s Ursula Andres’ Amazonian Honey Ryder from Dr. No whom the world regards as the sovereign Bond Girl. And there’s no denying the charge of that first time we see her, emerging from the ocean in nothing but a white bikini. “What are you doing here, looking for shells?” she asks Bond. “No” , Bond quips, “Just looking.” Oddly enough, the Bond Girl never did adhere to this look. In the next film, From Russia With Love, Danielle Bianchi‘s Tatyana Romanova was neither as robust or statuesque, and was in fact, almost aggressively feminine, her strength being her demeanor, less of a co-dependent damsel in distress but more a pro-active ally.

The films pulled back on the history of sexual violence the Bond Girls shared in Ian Fleming’s novels. Pulled back almost to the point of ignoring it, their film counterparts having less turbulent backstories.   Significantly, too, in the first two films, both the swashbuckle and the promiscuity were also pulled back, not yet succumbing to the pulp tendencies and the tongue-in-cheek, outlandish vibe, nor to the alleged misogyny and xenophobia and sexism. The clause we sometimes unwittingly invoke to take pleasure in the Bond films without qualifiers was that they were espionage fantasies as fetish cartoons, that they were not to be taken that seriously. Because, seen one way, the Professor was right.  And so was Paul Johnson, whose scathing review of the Dr. No novel, boiled Bond down to “the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanical two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude snob-cravings of a suburban adult.” Still. Drives fancy cars, has a battery of science-fiction gadgets at his disposal, sleeps with every beautiful woman he happens to run into. Being Bond, even for a day, is the ultimate male power fantasy.

But if we persist in the argument that he was a remorseless Casanova, who only saw women as a means to an end, as necessary collateral damage to getting the job done, then we can break the Bond Girl down to two types.  Those who succumb to his wiles and often seal their doom when they do, like Solange from Casino Royale or Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger or Andrea Anders from The Man With The Golden Gun.  And those whose wiles he succumbs to or the ones where he meets his match, like Michele Yeoh’s Wai Lin from Tomorrow Never Dies , who not once felt she needed Bond’s help to save the day.

There are gray areas, the Bond Girls that are neither one or the other, and are consequently  the least interesting ones, if only because they were passive, a little ditzy at times and amounted to little more than eye candy, with Denise Richards’ Christmas Jones from The World Is Not Enough being the most vacuous of the lot. Jane Seymour’s mysterious Solitaire from Live And Let Die  does tend to fall into this limbo but she gets a reprieve out of how she seemed to genuinely throw Bond on a loop.  Grace Jones’ May Day in A View To A Kill  started  out as a foe, one who could power lift a grown man and parachute off the Eiffel Tower, and finished up on Bond’s side but suffering for it, becoming quite possibly the only Bond Girl to embody both types. Like Pussy Galore, except Pussy Galore managed to get out unscathed. They were both, of course, henchwomen. Sophie Marceau’s Elektra King from The World Is Not Enough was, significantly, the one calling the shots, the first, and so far only, female evil mastermind in the entire franchise, and canny enough to know what would break a man like Bond and almost did.

Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale was the bolt from the blue, the smite of no return for Bond. The Daniel Craig reboot was revisionism by risk management, sure, but it also meant to prop the sag in the franchise by realigning it with the real world, with its powderkeg urgency, with its existential angst, with its apocalyptic melancholia. With its Jason Bournes and Jack Ryans, really. Gone was the suavity of Connery , the cheekiness of Moore, the earnestness of Brosnan, and in its place was something a little darker, a little wounded, a little more vulnerable. Craig played Bond as brash, brutish, and verging on everything they tried to pin on him all these years. And the chink in the armors of men as fortified as he is here is always love  At one point, he tells Vesper “I have no armour left. You’ve stripped it from me. Whatever is left of me, whatever I am, I’m yours.” and that he intends to quit and run away with her. She, of course, sees to it that it never happens.

If we go by the chronology of the films, rather than the novels, Vesper is not the first girl Bond falls in love with. That honor belongs to Diana Rigg’s Teresa Draco in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the only girl Bond went so far as to marry.  Their wedding is quite possibly the most joyous sequence in a Bond film ever.  And in the penultimate scene that comes after, as the newlyweds drive off to their ever after, you get to feel something you rarely feel in a Bond film, a genuine sense of empathy and a genuine sense of threat. Here is Bond. The misogynist, the xenophobe, the heterosexist,  the superspy.  Rehabilitated by love but also made impervious to harm by it,  just before he is ultimately destroyed by the only thing that could: a heart broken in half by true love and an assassin's bullet.

*Originally published in Vault

10.24.2013

CATHOLIC GIRLS





Giuseppe Tornatore’s Malena was, in hindsight, far less than its reputation would have you believe, and whose exaltation I’ve always regarded with mild bewilderment and pin on whatever residual goodwill there was left for its auteur, who claimed the world as his oyster 12 years before, after Cinema Paradiso somehow nudged Italian cinema back into the spotlight, becoming the universally-beloved arthouse film for people who don’t like arthouse films. Prey as it was to a gnawing sentimentality, Cinema Paradiso was nevertheless seized by this confluence of mischief and wonderment that gave it a litheness and buoyancy that was nowhere to be found in the middling, ham-fisted predictability of Malena. You can argue, of course, and to be fair, Malena has retained a coterie of die-hards to this day, but the only aspect of it that’s resistant to argument, or indeed, to dissent, was, and still is, the intoxicating smolder of its star , Monica Bellucci.

The consensus reality among cineastes was that, after WWII, neo-realism begun to progressively exhaust its surplus. Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 Umberto D. was sort of its last bow and more or less the point when Italian cinema began to splinter and diversify, into pink neo-realism, into Spaghetti Westerns, into giallos, into the vibrant climate under which the hormonal phenomenon known as the Italian Goddess would emerge and hold sway, tapering off in the 1980s and becoming, in 2000,  little more than remaindered exotica many times re-purposed by advertising into pop cultural iconicity. But here was Monica, on the screen, in the now, a few years before she posed on the cover of an American magazine wearing nothing but Iranian caviar, embodying its quintessence, rekindling its fervor, evoking on one hand, the earthy sultriness of Anna Magnani in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma and on the other, the robust sensuality of Daniela Silverio in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Identification of a Woman.

Movie stars, of course, routinely undergo being clustered, some would say objectified, into collective, and predominantly physical, stereotypes. It’s branding. Boil it down and the Italian Goddess comes from the same fetishizing impulses that infect us today with Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Or, to bring it to closer and less annoying iterations, the Hitchcock Blonde and the French ingénue, both of which proliferated in pretty much the same 50s/60s period of overlap. But where the Hitchcock Blonde was all about icy mystery and the French ingénue about swoony obliviousness, the Italian Goddess was about a sharpness of feature so fierce it refused to succumb to either enigma or doubt, statuesque glories but leavened by vulnerability, feeding a fantasy of indomitable yet attainable beauty, navigating their way in a world sticky with the wiles of men. You think of Claudia Cardinale’s tragic bride being engulfed by the town in her first masterful sequence in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West, of Elsa Martinelli’s wildlife photographer turning the jaunty safari she joins on its head, and softening crusty old John Wayne while she’s at it, in Howard Hawks’  Hatari!. You think, too, of  Asia Argento’s call girl brokering a dangerous defection in Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel, and of Isabela Rosellini’s torch singer embroiled in the prickly suburban malaise of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.

Asia and Isabella were the other two Italian actresses in the first glimmers of the noughties that had achieved similar measures of profile as Monica. Coincidentally, both were legacies, daughters of Italian cinema’s two most ubiquitous auteurs. Between the three of them, they managed to represent the various permutations that fall under the Italian Goddess subgenus.  Asia came on like a feisty iteration of her father’s giallo damsels in distress. And the parallels drawn between Isabella and Giulietta Masina, the waifish prostitute in Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria and his eventual wife and muse, more than make continual sense. And Monica, you trace her back to the Italian Goddess of Italian Goddesses: Sophia Loren, Italian cinema’s crossover superstar, whose allure managed to upstage even the shadowy elegance of Carol Reed’s optics in his criminally under-seen The Key.  Resplendent, ominous, heartbreaking Sophia.

But Italian Goddess  pre-eminence is something I ultimately reserve for and cede to the impossibly beautiful Monica Vitti, if only for the work she did with Michelangelo Antonioni. In Il Deserto Rosso, their fourth film together, the suffocation of human connection, the slow poisoning of whatever tenuous interstices transpire between its characters, is poeticized through blasted images of encroaching industrialization: a sudden shout of color turning out to be a small flower in an indifferent field of grey waste, a cargo ship passing through a line of trees, two men dwarfed by a gigantic and seemingly sentient plume of smoke. The fragile beauty overwhelmed by her surroundings and forced to burn through it is, in many ways, the précis of the Italian Goddess journey. And centering things here is the spectacle of Monica as a lonely housewife seemingly spiraling into madness. But is she really going mad? Or is she, in her colossal frustration from fighting a losing battle against this consensual deadening of emotions, the only one coming to her senses? In the film’s quasi-famous "orgy" scene, where everybody can't/won't/don't know how to articulate their hard-ons, Monica is the only one who opposes the torpor and pops those allegedly aphrodisiac eggs. She rolls them in her mouth, savoring it, before turning around to face everyone else and proclaiming ,with equal parts sarcasm and seduction, disgust and defiance: "I feel like making love." 


*originally published in Vault


SUICIDE BLONDE








Consider the Blonde. In the context of American beauty, specifically Hollywood beauty, the Blonde has always laid claim to the uppermost tier in the hierarchy, its fabled mystique perpetually holding sway, if only because the misguided perception of eternal youth it summons is the sole grist for the myth mill of Absolute Celebrity, and never mind the connotations of dimness and cruelty that go with the hair. Blondes, dumb or not, not only have more shelf life, but they do have more fun in the eyes of the world, more so in its far-out post-colonial Third World corners where blondes do not exist without liberal amounts of hair dye and therefore gain a sense of the exotic, of the ungraspable. And Old Hollywood had its own deep bench of Blondes, from Jean Harlow to Mae West to Veronica Lake to Marlene Dietrich to Jayne Mansfield to Hitchcock’s own little mini-pantheon, Kim Novak and Janet Leigh and Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman and Tippi Hedren, whom he collectively described to Francois Truffaut, in that epic interview book of theirs, as “the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they’re in the bedroom.” 

None, though, had quite the singular ferocity of presence Marilyn Monroe had, what Billy Wilder called that “certain indefinable magic”. And , as it is with any star of similarly iconic charge, the James Deans and Bruce Lees, that is often enough. You can, of course, mine just the bookends of her short career and strike enough ore to justify the way she embodies the icon of the Hollywood Blonde. Her first role, in John Huston’s terse heist thriller The Asphalt Jungle, may have been tiny but it nearly upset the film’s balance of predominantly male energies. Her last , as a wayward divorcee in Arthur Miller’s misunderstood Western The Misfits  (see picture), was shot while she was in the ballistic throes of her raging addictions, mostly to alcohol and barbiturates, looking a little filled out and more than a little lived-in. And yet, even as the glare of her impossible prettiness had significantly weakened to expose some of her damage and most of her vulnerabilities, there she was still, at her most beautiful. You can make a case for the rest of her work as an actress, really, something that’s been undervalued and overlooked in the immense shadow of her fame.

Only Marilyn died a year after The Misfits came out, in 1962. And the icon she had become has since grown so colossal and so distant, so pervasive and so co-opted into the pop cultural parlance, that it’s been leeched of meaning, of nuance , of anything to do with who she really was or even what she really did, fetishized so thoroughly as to verge almost on caricature, on anachronism. Sure, everybody knows that shot of her standing over a subway grate with her white dress billowing, but how many have actually sat through Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch let alone know that’s where the scene came from? And yes, everybody remembers she sang Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend but are we remembering Madonna paying hommage in her Material Girl video or the original number from Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? This is what happens when stars get supernova-bright that they eclipse themselves.

Everybody recognizes Marilyn. But which Marilyn do they recognize? The little orphan who got bounced from foster home to foster home? The feisty ingénue who took it upon herself to rescue the dumb blonde from its stereotype by refusing to play any? The sex symbol who not only challenged whatever prudish conceits about sexuality prevailed in her time but turned them on their heads? The country girl who made her fallibility a facet of her persona? The global superstar inevitably beset and eventually damaged by the usual confluence of demons that come with being famous? The sultry temptress? The ditzy comedienne? The fashion icon? The brand? Because that’s what Marilyn has always been, at the height of her career and decades into the commodification of her myth. A brand that represented, superficially, an over-romanticized ideal of glamour, but also and ultimately empowerment and self-worth.

JFK was apparently the last person Marilyn called before her fatal overdose. And rumors that she was put to death, some say by Kennedy minions, some say by the mob, have always swirled around her death. Outrageous as the conspiracy theories tend to get, they do have a darkly poetic tingle to them, as if she were this fire who had raged too wildly and had to be snuffed. Whether it was assassination or accident or whether it was self-inflicted, her claim to the icon was sealed on that August day. Just as dying her brown hair blonde was a canny way to spin her career into motion, dying in the heat of her moment was an unwittingly canny way to end it, ceding her the one thing any of Hollywood Blondes never had: relief from obsolescence and with it, immortality.



*Originally published in Vault.