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Written and directed by Arnel Mardoquio
Cast: Fe Virtudazo-Hyde, Glorypearl Dy, Irish Karl Monsanto, Perry Dizon
In many ways Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim is Arnel Mardoquio’s first great work. But in saying that, one runs the risk of devaluing the strength of his previous films, especially Sheika, which may be messy and untempered as a whole but has moments that offer a kind of hopeless desolation that its subject deserves to have. His movies are always conscious of his background. Hailing from Davao, he has long been exposed to the problems that people from Mindanao face, his stories taking shape from first-hand observations and experiences. He isn’t young: he is 42 and his hair has turned gray over the years. In addition to being a film writer and director, fields that he has decided to focus on fairly recently, he is a prolific and prizewinning playwright, theater director, actor, poet, and librettist. This involvement in various disciplines has given him a certain ripeness, a kind of wisdom that comes with age and maturity, aware that art is more or less an expression of misery. Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim is his fifth feature in four years, and his growth as a filmmaker, if he has a quality that needs to be emphasized, couldn’t be anything but remarkable. Instead of turning another screw, the movie is a statement that refuses to be quoted in simple terms, and its seemingly subdued surface allows more water to flow in its forked paths until there’s nothing left to corrode.
Much of its power comes from the deliberate control of sound. Its investment in silence is difficult not to notice because the story, which involves three Muslim insurgents and a kid trying to escape from their captors, needs a lot of time to breathe. It alternates between sucking in air and exhaling it because it happens to be the metaphor for its actual premise, how some people caught in the conflict in Mindanao contend with their everyday life, always finding themselves running and staying put. Mardoquio addresses the complexities of the armed conflict, but he does not explain why violence remains and why war and peace have become too abstract to understand. He does not pursue the whys and the wherefores; instead he creates sequences, particularly the brilliantly executed opening, in which the whys and the wherefores have come to be pointless, knowing that life goes on regardless of reasons, whether the revolution succeeds or not. What the film accomplishes in its subtlety is a drama that is effective and moving, not to mention having the ability to conceal its propaganda very well—Mardoquio losing the habit of staging sloppy spectacles, something that he was wont to do in his earlier work—and the screen is filled with images that take the plot into surprising directions. At some point in the film there is that beautiful shot of the hill where a man is seen with a water buffalo, and then a few seconds later a troop of bandits emerges on top, seven of them, as if referencing either Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai or Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven, and for a brief moment the narrative has an air of a Western movie, which makes the hostile environment even more strangely horrifying. There is no denying that Mardoquio is in love with his visuals, as there are instances when the film will intentionally pause to show a lovely view of the falls or the orange sky, but he knows when to cut them: he takes them away just when the viewer begins to fall in love with them as well.
Despite the many chasms it can fall into, Ang Paglalakbay ng Bituin sa Gabing Madilim never gets carried away by its sentiments. The anger and frustration that seep through its story are levelheaded, and its perspectives are grounded in consequences and not in platitudes. When the lesbian angle is finally confronted, it unfolds naturally, Amrayda and Fatima kissing each other as if it’s the last time, a kiss that connotes passion and resignation as much as bravery and cowardice. Amrayda is tired of the revolution, but she does not speak of its futility. It is still necessary, if not downright indispensable. She believes in a kind of life where her religion and her personal preferences could coexist, a life that would allow her to be a Muslim and marry Fatima at the same time, a life that is impossible to happen yet it’s something that she fervently holds onto. Mardoquio shares her weariness, closing the film on a bleak and uncertain note, but what is fate but bleak and uncertain? Where does the struggle actually end? How can a film address these issues without limning the blood in the frontiers and the dead bodies under the ground, without bringing up the cause and losing oneself in the maze of its contradictions? There are no simple answers, but more appropriately: there are no answers. Clearly, the revolution has already happened some time ago. It is still taking place. It will never cease. And there will be more corpses.
Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (Antoinette Jadaone, 2011) November 19, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Noypi.
Written and directed by Antoinette Jadaone
Cast: Lilia Cuntapay, Geraldine Villamil, Joel Sarracho, Bella Mercado
Several months ago, at an awards ceremony that ended up highlighting not only the winners but also the people who selected them, the Urian decided to give the best actress prize to Maja Salvador for Thelma. It was an upsetting gesture, a charade that did nothing to distinguish the Urian, probably the most respected group of film critics in the country, from other award-giving bodies that recognize piles of rubbish every year. To start with, its standards seem questionable. If its idea of superlative acting is one that revels in monotony and triteness, then there is something laughable about the credence that its members think they have. Salvador’s attack on drama offers nothing new: it’s a heavy-handed performance that pokes too much and expects to be noticed for it. Choosing her over Cherry Pie Picache’s immensely nuanced work in Isda or Fides Cuyugan Asensio’s moving turn in Niño, both of whom portray mothers with remarkable nuance and intensity, indicates a lapse in judgment that’s too glaring to be defended by subjectivity. What makes this decision even more disappointing is that the plate offered to the Urian does not lack good options; on the contrary, the serving of nominees in the category is quite generous. The jury members, whatever terrible reasons they may have, reckon that the most delicious food in the dish is the parsley, and consequently Salvador’s name is chewed on by the press like a tasteless garnish, making the other winners pale in comparison. Sad to say, this confirms the Urian’s need to butter up the mainstream to sustain its personal network, a compromise that exposes the weakness of the culture developed in this type of environment, a situation that’s not unique in Philippine cinema but whose repercussions are exclusive to it.
To each his own, of course, but a wiser decision would have been to bestow the prize to Lilia Cuntapay. She is the subject of Antoinette Jadaone’s debut film entitled Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay, a mockumentary in which she plays herself and a fictional version of herself. It’s an unlikely concept brought to life—a renowned movie extra finally given the opportunity to top the bill and carry a full-length feature—but its more striking feat is that Cuntapay, at a ripe age of 76, is able to complete the film and leave an impression of delight in doing it. Obviously she has waited long enough for this. She is jumpy and self-conscious about the attention given to her, enjoying the limelight and the certainty of not being edited out of the movie, reined in by her director whenever she becomes too eager to please. Her face lights up and frowns exaggeratedly when she finds herself cornered by a question, a manner that reflects her actual personality and adds to the charm of the film. She delivers a flawed yet unforgettable performance, a distinction that owes more to her presence than to the people showering her with compliments, her time onscreen conveying a sense of timelessness, a feeling that this recognition won’t ever happen again. On numerous occasions, Cuntapay acts as though she were always being reminded that the movie, after many years of fruitless search, had finally found her, and this consciousness allows her to create a portrait of herself that looks exactly like her but in many ways also resembles a lot of people, bit players who only exist in a two-hour movie for five seconds, actors whose mere idea of contentment is getting paid and being attributed correctly in the closing credits. Surely, the esteemed members of the Urian have taken these things into consideration, but how could they have weighed Cuntapay and still found her wanting?
Well, there are no easy answers, but interestingly the Urian is not alone. In Six Degrees of Separation, Cuntapay is nominated for best supporting actress and fails to win the prize. A huge portion of the movie is spent on following her as she drafts a speech, including a couple of dream sequences (shot in film) where she is dressed in elegant gowns, holding a trophy and addressing an unseen crowd. For someone of her rank, understandably, this high praise means elation and anxiety, and Jadaone is quick to establish that foothold. After introducing the audience to several celebrities and ordinary people who seem clueless about Cuntapay, the director visits her house in Manila and talks to her neighbors, who, as the story progresses, turn out to be as fascinating as Cuntapay herself, made evident in that hilarious series of scenes as they wait for her interview on television. Except for her assistant Myra, these supporting characters make up the main weakness of the movie—their lines are too sensible, their curiosity doesn’t seem natural, and their day-to-day activities in relation to Cuntapay are rather indefinite—but they are also crucial in providing the main character an emotionally credible foundation. Without them the narrative will hardly move forward, but their actions affect the believability of the mockumentary as a storytelling device. The film loses its natural feel as it carries on, its plot points becoming more scripted than improvised, but Jadaone compensates for it by executing a fine drama of Cuntapay’s life. When she arrives at a film location hours before the call time and asks permission to use the toilet, only to be denied because it can only be used by the main actors, one feels that this is a situation that has happened to her many times in the past. There is that vicarious clutch of ache and sadness, like a paper cut that stings for the first time, but then the next scene shows Cuntapay peeing in the grass, hidden behind Myra’s garment, and the sight couldn’t be anything but sidesplitting. Just when the film is about to get too indulgent in its sentiments, Jadaone will find a way to come up with random bursts of humor, scenes that make Cuntapay’s situation painfully absurd and amusing at the same time.
“She is one filmmaker whose work I seriously believe would make for good commercial cinema. Here’s to hoping she gets her break soon and is given the freedom she deserves to make it in the manner she wants,” said Alexis Tioseco about Jadaone in 2006. The late critic had openly expressed his fondness for her student work, seeing in “’Plano,” “Saling Pusa,” and “Ang Pinakamagandang Pelikula” a certain potential that could go beyond the confines of the short film medium, a young and passionate mind whose sensibilities leaned on the mainstream but away from the stale formulas of most studio releases. Six Degrees of Separation happens to be the break that Tioseco was waiting for, and the rejection from Cinemalaya turned out to be a blessing since it’s likely that Laurice Guillen and Robbie Tan would insist on changing some aspects of the script that were too atypical. One could only speculate on the extent of their intervention: Would Cuntapay have bigger and more outrageous scenes to showcase her acting? Would she be given less screen time considering Guillen didn’t find her face too endearing? Would her poverty and lack of husband and children be emphasized, as well as being a lonely old maid about to bite the dust? The creative freedom given by Cinema One Originals has allowed Jadaone to make a film that teems with personality, letting her linger in a kind of adolescence that never loses sight and perspective of how this industry works and how cruel it can be even in the littlest of circumstances. The title may not match the zest of its material, but it totally makes sense in the context of Cuntapay’s fate, both as a seasoned actor and an aged woman whom the viewers are familiar with but have watched from an indeterminable distance, the separation leaping from professional to personal. In hindsight, Tioseco’s greatest legacy is the impression he left on the people he believed in, and Jadaone is one of them. She has turned that encouragement into a challenge not just to please him but also to continue what he so passionately did in his short life, helping out people in the industry who deserve more but receive less, proving that he was right in having faith in her.
In one of his interviews in the film, Peque Gallaga drives across a meaningful point. He mentions that getting an award is important for an artist because it raises her talent fee and improves her work condition. In an ideal world this should be true, but an ideal world is also full of disappointments. Although Cuntapay would have preferred to have these belated perquisites in the twilight of her career, she is motivated by another reason, and that is to show everyone that she is worthy of such praise, that the events in her life have naturally led to this, to a genuine appreciation of her craft by her peers. This explains her earnestness to come up with a good speech. She looks forward to having a perfect moment in case luck stays on her side, but unfortunately it decides to perch on someone else’s. Jadaone’s camera doesn’t show how the wrinkles on Cuntapay’s face have suddenly gone deeper or how her heart has skipped more than a beat. Instead it shows her hand crumpling the speech she has painstakingly prepared for days, acknowledging defeat. Despite not having seen the film she’s in, the audience members feel that Cuntapay deserves it, a sentiment that Jadaone has cleverly conditioned them to feel, so when Rio Locsin asks her to come up onstage and share the prize with her, the gesture draws attention to the softness of the narrative, succumbing to the necessity of a cathartic finish. In real life, as what happened in the Urian this year, Cuntapay is not expected to receive an award, and even if she does she is likely to share it with someone (with Maricar Reyes, for instance, at the Cinema One Originals ceremony). By way of an uncanny prescience, Jadaone has seen this coming and figured a much finer tribute: presenting this film to the public and making sure that it will be remembered for its star more than anyone or anything else. She succeeds and Cuntapay takes a bow, overwhelmed and lost in thought.
On Homeland. October 25, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Oh You Know, TV.
At the time of writing, Homeland is airing its second season, just a few days after the fourth episode, and it demands to be written because that particular episode, wittingly called “New Car Smell,” illustrates how political thrillers should be made. It’s no doubt a masterclass in writing and direction, its pacing like a live wire waiting to be touched, and when touched explodes in the end, which actually happens in its mind-blowing conclusion that feels like an early but by no means premature season finale. The brilliance of Homeland lies in its unpredictability, and this is not just unpredictability for the sake of suspense but also of something that reveals a kind of fearlessness that its pool of ace writers has managed to deliver since the first season, making the viewers feel as if the episodes are conceived and taped at that very moment, the plot turns never random but always impulsive, the narrative arcs of Carrie and Brody, as well as their family baggage, meeting without actually seeing each other, their emotional intensities equaled by no one but themselves. For a show that features two main characters that rarely meet in person, Homeland knows when to hurl its most deafening grenades. That particular sequence when Carrie and Brody meet at a hotel bar is quite similar to the time they spent in the cabin one weekend, only the former is more taxing because neither is drunk and both are more frightening when they’re not under the influence of alcohol, especially Carrie because she has a plan in mind that she’s going to carry through no matter what, regardless of instructions given by Saul, Estes or Quinn, and simply because she is a manic and ruthless intelligence officer. Claire Danes portrays her with massive keenness, displaying a kind of demeanor that leaves the viewer in awe of her dramatic range, too focused to be bothered by anything trivial yet too sensitive to miss the complexity of casual details. She’s like a plane that always experiences turbulence, and unfortunately for the people around her she refuses to put her seat belt on. Any one or any thing that can make her feel uncomfortable or can loosen the screws in her head is welcome, and Brody, episode after episode, does so on various levels of terrifying intensity. Damian Lewis provides him with human and beastly qualities that shred the character in little pieces, only to be picked up and put together again. At this point, who cares about the logic of madness? At the rate it’s going, Homeland doesn’t seem to care for its audience’s nerves. Wherever its story turns up, in the Middle East or in the woods in Gettysburg, one can only expect brilliant anomalies, and in the crazy scheme of things, those fractures can easily suffice.
Marilou Diaz-Abaya: IMPRESSIONS October 23, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi, RIP.
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Director Marilou Diaz-Abaya and Cesar Montano on the set of ”Jose Rizal”
In almost every field of interest between arts and science there seems to be a pressing need to represent women. It’s a kind of consciousness established in societies where campaigns for sexual equality are strong and pervasive. Certainly, the world would be a better place when everyone’s rights are respected, but sometimes there is that danger of doing it as a token effort, considering men in general don’t find it necessary to be part of every thing. Representation happens to them naturally and with much less bother. This business of glorifying women and their achievements—the media making a fuss about the first female president, the first woman to climb a tallest mountain, the first female Nobel Prize winner, and so on and so forth, and focusing on the subject voraciously—is rarely an innocent gesture. It’s a display of obscene generosity in situations that only call for an honest but dispassionate recognition, one that refuses to pander to women but still maintains its sincere admiration.
Hence, it only feels appropriate to honor Marilou Diaz-Abaya, whose career in film, television, and the academe spanned three decades, without too much emphasis on her gender. Obviously, being a woman did not limit her to tackle themes of her choice. Yes, her first few films (Tanikala, Brutal, Moral, Karnal, and Alyas Baby Tsina) feature women, but they aren’t ideal: they are dazed and confused, damaged by their personal decisions and impaired by their vulnerabilities. During that time, Abaya made films in the company of talented men, women, and gay men—Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Mike de Leon, Mario O’Hara, Laurice Guillen, Lupita Kashiwahara, Peque Gallaga, and Celso Ad. Castillo—and she belonged. She was not the finest filmmaker of her generation, nor she deliberately aspired to be one, but she slowly made a name for herself, her modesty and seemliness eclipsing the dark nature of her early movies.
Looking back, it makes sense that a number of people consider Brutal, Moral, and Karnal a trilogy of some sort, as their titles clearly indicate their parallel stories. These three films do not intersect but they share a world where misfortunes happen and fracture the lives of their characters. They present tragedies of varying intensities, placing women not only at the center but also in the periphery. Brutaltells the story of a young woman who murders her husband and his friends. A female journalist writes about her case and meets another woman who takes pride in selling her body. Moral features four university students who find themselves at a crossroads, yearning for love and chasing their dreams. Karnal enters a much sinister territory, depicting a couple living in a remote town shrouded by secrets, narrated by an old lady whose frightening voice is a character in itself. All three movies were written by acclaimed writer Ricky Lee, his scripts heavy on research and rich in characterization, and Abaya did not only handle them maturely: she grasped them with force and confidence. Clearly, she felt challenged by her contemporaries.
While there is a palpable sense of femininity in these movies, Abaya abstains from sanctimonious pageantry and puts things in perspective. She raises concerns of women and the violence committed to them, but she also recognizes their shortcomings and susceptibility to moral hypnosis, their fates determined by their resolve or lack thereof. The world is unfair to women, but so is to men.Karnal, for instance, has a strong and suffocating depiction of patriarchy, the overbearing father played by Vic Silayan controlling not just the women of the house but also the men. It’s a horrifying picture of a family maddened by circumstances, and the woman whose importance in the story is emphasized leaves a disturbing impression of subsistence, coming out alive in the end but bereft of spirit. By contrast, Moral is a lighter but sharper piece, one whose observations on the struggles of present-day women, lost in the mazes they create for themselves, are relevant up to now. WhereasBrutal and Alyas Baby Tsina dwell on the criminal and psychological, overplaying hopelessness and suffering, Moral rims its characters by emphasizing their faulty nature, placing them in more realistic situations but with less defined solutions to their problems.
Abaya gave into expectations, which could be extremely hard when you’re twenty-something, principled, and pressured by the task of working with some of the local industry’s renowned actors. She confronted the need to have a so-called female voice in a business dominated by male egos, but she didn’t make a huge deal out of it. Filmmaking, after all, requires the flair for sucking up to the system and turning the tide in the shortest time possible. As her reputation grew, Abaya started to swerve and change direction. Overshadowing the remarkable scripts of Kung Ako’y Iiwan Mo (written by Amado Lacuesta), Milagros (written by Rolando Tinio), and May Nagmamahal Sa ‘Yo (written by Ricky Lee) are epic productions she took charge of near the end of the ‘90s. After working with GMA Films for Sa Pusod ng Dagat, she embarked on an ambitious project of directing the life of Jose Rizal, which turned out to be one of the movies that people would fondly remember her for. Running for almost three hours, Jose Rizal is by all means impressive in scale, from its cast and locations to its wardrobe and production design. Having been given the financial liberty to interpret history, Abaya took on the challenge and pleased her producers, the box-office success of the movie owing to its relevance (1998 is the 100th year of Philippine independence) and inclusion in the annual Metro Manila Film Festival. Abaya managed to repeat this feat, although in a much smaller scale, with the release of Muro-ami the following year. Cesar Montano credited her for advancing his acting career, as the movie also made the rounds in foreign film festivals.
The palette on which Abaya decided to situate herself and her characters broadened and leaned on the populist side, but this was neither for the benefit nor detriment of her career, since her films in the ‘90s and ‘00s, well-made most of them might be, weren’t faultless, and only upon recognizing the nature of these lapses that her entire body of work could be fully appreciated. In this period she no longer seemed as self-conscious as she was when she began, yet in this settled state she also lost that spark of youth, preferring to address larger social issues by way of narratives poached in television drama, resorting to truisms instead of the whys and wherefores. She presented social ills with beaming optimism, an attitude she had until her final years. In Bagong Buwan, for instance, she avoided stereotyping Muslims and Christians, but did so with an off-putting blatancy that stood out as the movie progressed. By placing the carefully executed drama at the center, Abaya wasn’t in control of her characters; on the contrary, they were in control of her. It’s a movie that shows an angry face but not an angry heart, lacking any kind of subversiveness that may have made it leap out of the ordinary.
Not to put too fine a point on it: she softened, and her voice lost its ire. One could attribute it to the type of projects she took on, but clearly it’s natural for artists to change, and she did so (intentionally or not) as personal life caught up on her, settling down and having two kids to tend to. Another reason could be time. Several years before digital cinema boomed, her contemporaries in the ‘80s were either dead or inactive. Slow years, so to speak, went by. She became more involved in socio-civic work and teaching, helping out various organizations and honing hungry young minds at Ateneo. Her passion was channeled to people who needed her, and she obliged. Cancer didn’t stop her. In 2007, shortly after the diagnosis, she founded the Marilou Diaz-Abaya Film Institute and Arts Center and established programs for aspiring filmmakers. It was a very emotional time, but she managed to shoot and finish Ikaw ang Pag-ibig, which would turn out to be her last hurrah. A tribute to Our Lady of Peñafrancia, the film is a farewell and love letter to a generation she is about to leave behind, a piece of work that understandably shows her frailness. Like most of us, she was living and dying at the same time, and in those two hours came her final breaths in her homeland, submitting to the industry she served for 30 years, cinema being the only homeland of filmmakers who fought their wars until the very end.
But what is death if not cruel and kind, if not an amalgam of strange contradictions, discoveries, and dead-ends? Where does one find consolation but in grief? Where does one turn to when silence starts to idle? Philippine cinema lost three of its beloved children this year—Dolphy, Mario O’Hara, and Marilou Diaz-Abaya—and their quietus is not only a reminder of mortalities that happen between parentheses but also of the crumbs they took with them, their departures an indication of life in an industry that’s always been rumored to be dead. She spent her last five years in pain and resignation, the latter casting a shadow on the former, blanketed in optimism and bent on sharing every bit of herself with old and new friends, family and acquaintances. She was mourned and missed by people who knew her, and even those who didn’t felt a kind of affection towards her, a familiar but distant feeling of knowing her, of being moved by her passion. More than her body of work, which had its highs and lows, she created a path to follow, an existence devoted to art and spiritual work, left to the tender mercies of time, which could also be as cruel and kind as death. In this industry, what remain are the impressions made by the brave and generous, and books, should they be fortunate enough to be printed, would certainly have her name.
Cinemalaya 2012 (Part 3) October 11, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Indie Sine.
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APARISYON (Vincent Sandoval, 2012)
There is something suspicious about Sister Lourdes the moment she steps into the monastery. You know, the way nuns tend to be: extremely pleasant on the outside but sharp on edges, with one eye closed and one eye open, one hand holding a rosary and one hand holding a knife. But basing on Jodi Sta. Maria’s performance and Vincent Sandoval’s direction, tellingly, she happens to be nothing more than a blank slate. In most instances, Sister Lourdes accepts apples as apples and oranges as oranges, curious and spirited but never unreasonable. She is fostered by nuns of diverse personalities, upright characters that emphasize her inexperience. They create the tension around her, and she submits herself willingly to their severity.
With a setting like this, though, it is likely that she bites into one of those poisoned apples. This kind of breaking point is rather unsurprising, as the movie, in its firm structure, builds up to it consciously, the drama afterwards becoming tighter and more internal. Jay Abello’s subtle framing and Teresa Barrozo’s low-key music act as effective accomplices to this stifling atmosphere. But it doesn’t stop there. Sandoval takes advantage of a room full of horrors and decides not to open any window, creating a Martial Law movie without the bombardment of the usual elements that define it, for instance, people rallying on EDSA or faces of Marcos, Ninoy, Ramos, and Enrile. He is very generous when it comes to staging emotional scenes, careful not to lose their weight. However, a number of crucial sequences, especially those that happen after the crime, bank too much on mystery that they lose balance. As a result, the the narrative tips over and reveals some cracks.
Aparisyon shows abuse and guilt, the fringes of evil, the misfortune of the years lived in danger. For the most part it’s an absorbing experience, but one couldn’t help feeling that the movie could have flown much further, up and away, out of its box. It lounges in its ambiguity and pain, over the hushed tones of fearful women, in the remote forest where suffering is shared and isolated at the same time. It’s a siege film void of an escape plan, and at the center of it is not the group of nuns but Sandoval, overexerting his characters’ emotions, restrained by his own motives, a victim of his own ideas. Its strengths are also its weaknesses, and Sister Lourdes, despite her pointless prayers, knows that she can only do so much. B
Cinemalaya 2012 (Part 2) August 17, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
ANG NAWAWALA (Marie Jamora, 2012)
When all this clamor surrounding Ang Nawawala dies down, it would be interesting to ponder on ideas that will broaden the horizon of the movie, as opposed to those that limit it, hoping that people will refrain from embarrassing themselves by expressing empty and baseless sentiments. For instance, when a writer claims that Ang Nawawala shares “a humanity that transcends class boundaries” and that “not all movies have to be a commentary on the sociopolitical status of the country,” the film might find itself in a very dangerous position, one that requires justifying itself more than it needs to, thereby falling into the clutches of an indiscreet clique.
To some extent, most of the arguments online, which are neither polarizing nor progressive, are more fascinating than the film itself, tending to magnify its intentions and worship its makers, its supporters passionate to nail their point by proving others wrong. They create the loudest noise, always defensive of the movie’s merits and wary of people who make a fuss about class, trying to undermine the luxury that the characters can afford. Discussions are generally healthy, but it is a mistake to believe that just because a piece of work invites a heavy amount of attention, it becomes a movie of certain importance. As it is, Ang Nawawala presents nothing that is hard to understand. It is shrouded by a mist so thick that once the story is told and its peculiarities are exhausted, all that is left to do is turn the wiper on and drive away.
The story is set at Christmastime. Gibson (Dominic Roco) has stopped talking after a terrible childhood accident. After several years abroad, he returns home and is welcomed by his family, with whom his relationship has become cold and distant. His close friend Teddy (Alchris Galura) reaches out to him and they go out to seek fun and romance. The latter he finds in Enid (Annicka Dolonius), an attractive young woman who enjoys attending art exhibits and gigs, and they strike up a friendship, Enid aware of Gibson’s forbearance to speak. He falls in love with her, only to find out that she comes with strings attached. Having opened himself recklessly to Enid, Gibson turns to someone who’s been with him all along, winding up a chapter of his life that has long been needing closure, and leaps in the dark with eyes open.
All of these are presented nice and cozy, except that at some point in the movie, obvious questions begin to crop up: why are people, young and old alike, so keen on liking this? Where is the huge torrent of enthusiasm coming from? Haven’t they seen anything better, stories with richer characters and finer rhythm, films with more striking personalities driven by a kind of energy that characterizes youth and being at a crossroads? Because seriously, with the intense way it’s being received, Ang Nawawala is a size 6 being given a size 10, being asked to sport higher heels than it can manage.
Clearly, there’s no use arguing about two things: (1) that the movie has connected well with many audience members, and (2) that writers Marie Jamora and Ramon de Veyra have a sincere intention, which shows in its undeniably pleasant appeal. However, from a conflicting perspective, Ang Nawawala has problems translating that genuine objective into a language that’s defined and discerning. Jamora overlooks a number of saggy sequences that could have provided Gibson a dimension outside his discomfort zone. She could have done away with all the gloss and replace it with layers, seeing that she prefers inertia to gravity, and come up with a way of highlighting emotional authenticity aside from glorifying despair. She lets a lot of good narrative opportunities pass—Dawn Zulueta and Buboy Garovillo’s characters could have been anything but flat, and Enid could have been more than just a pretty, dolled-up face. But as the story is told, it is apparent that Jamora wants to capture that limbo, that feeling of being forced to mature, that train of adulthood that one wants so badly to miss, only perhaps unknown to her, she is filling everything with haze. By showing heartbreak with more emphasis on break than heart, the film drowns in its whiny and generic indulgence.
Many elements are just there for their prettiness and they suck whatever little the movie is trying to say. It’s so rich in material possessions but so poor in nuances, and clearly it makes a point about class because it strives so hard to ignore it. Suffice it to say, depiction is rarely an innocent and harmless act. The iPhones, the vintage cameras, the Mac computers, the posters of Mike de Leon movies, even the turntable and stacks of vinyl that have now become an obsession of the wealthy because of their worth (nostalgia being such an expensive commodity)—they parade Gibson’s family’s ability to afford the luxuries of both the old and the new, riches that it is never embarrassed about, riches that of course it takes for granted. More than presenting an honest-to-goodness story, Ang Nawawala illuminates these certainties, the middle class holding a sense of absolute entitlement to freedom, and chooses to use an enfeebled love story as a pretext, as an apology in fact, to say that the well-off also suffers, that fortunate people may have earned their comfortable life but they also agonize, even worse.
Whereas the movie depicts Gibson with a lot of options at hand, having choices and second chances, many of which he is too indisposed to notice, it also validates, incongruously, how limited the thought given in the creation of his character. He never extends his hand—he wants you to extend your hand for him. And if that’s not enough, the filmmakers also want you to extend even your heart for him. If, in Jerrold Tarog’s words, Gibson is “an upper middle class kid who grows up a little,” then it’s the same case for the film. Ang Nawawala plays the game in every imaginable way: it appeals to the youth of today, it is hip and friendly, it embraces and high-fives everyone. But when all is said and done, it only revels in the distance it has created. And as a token of appreciation, it passes on a cigarette it feels so privileged to share. C+
Cinemalaya 2012 (Part 1) August 1, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
POSAS (Lawrence Fajardo, 2012)
Posas feels like a reprise of Amok, from the chaotic spectacle of violence to the harsher realities borne out of its multi-character plots, except that the former’s treatment is wholly different, preferring tedium to brevity, repeating its surficial and figurative points instead of reinforcing them through riskier expositions. Nothing in the movie is fresh, which is a minor complaint considering Fajardo’s strong directorial control in his previous work, Amok being able to prove that predictability can also be thrilling, something that Posas loses sight of the moment it spreads its dirty limbs. The narrative is unable to build up steam, oblivious to how and why stereotypes work, failing to view the social problem from a perspective that makes it worth the scrutiny. Fajardo lets it slip from his hand many times, and though the result isn’t exactly disastrous, it shows his skepticism about the material, a script lacking in meaningful insight, resorting to premature ideas and half-baked executions. Therefore, the actors can hardly be blamed for the limitations of their dialogues, although the nuances that some of them display can easily be appreciated. In fact, as one leaves the theater feeling dissatisfied, it becomes obvious that Art Acuña’s presence leaves a bigger impression than the movie itself, his ability to create tension out of body language alone hounding the viewer, his sense of authority so palpable and menacing that even his fingers act when he sends a text message or when he closes a door. His performance may come across as too focused and calculated, but Acuña never shows any hint of ambiguity or contradiction: his stare cuts through without leaving blood, his shadow lingers without making a sound. C
REQUIEME! (Loy Arcenas, 2012)
Written by renowned actor and playwright Rody Vera, the script of Requieme! is rife with observations on a society whose incongruities define it, articulated through a number of sketches that rely heavily on several punch lines, delivered subtly and flamboyantly, oftentimes discomfortingly hilarious, only the punch lines do not really signify the end of a joke because the whole movie is a continuous course of events whose impact intensifies at every turn, a tragicomedy that bites the hand that feeds it. The movie is hardly a farce: there is more to it than the penchant for sensationalism, the over-the-top situations that cross the line but are never unlikely, considering that the breadth of Filipino sensibility isn’t exactly graspable or comprehensible, and Vera yields to that, foregoing unnecessary apologies, employing some sort of realism that is neither magical nor kitchen sink, the luck and misfortune of the characters seemingly interchangeable. However, Arcenas misses the crucial placement of these literary refinements, quite a few of what could have been wonderful scenes losing their force due to structural discord, the humor being stretched to the point of sagging, either falling short or not getting there at all. Similar to Last Supper #3, Requieme! tracks down the roots of the filthy bureaucratic system that strangle and lock the masses in their unfortunate fates, flaunting a way life that is distinctly Filipino, a kind of misery that is exclusive to its struggling breed. B-
MGA MUMUNTING LIHIM (Jose Javier Reyes, 2012)
It would be quite amusing to suppose that the premise of Mga Mumunting Lihim is lifted from Judy Ann Santos’s landmark TV series in the 90s, where her diary plays a crucial role in establishing a jaw-dropping turning point, exposing another misdeed that will eventually lead to a nasty cliffhanger, a formidable storytelling device that’s surely one of that decade’s greatest legacies. In Joey Reyes’s film it is a collection of diaries, and it is central in providing the narrative some explosives, particularly when the people involved in the journal entries are provoked, Juday’s circle of friends played by Janice de Belen, Iza Calzado, and Agot Isidro, doing verbal Olympics as their little secrets are uncovered, rowdy confrontations being Reyes’s strongest trait as a writer. These earsplitting arguments are the most entertaining aspect of the movie: they are exaggerated, hysterical, and overdramatic—absolutely pleasurable. But take those chunks of fireworks away and what’s left is a clearly identifiable teleplay, lazily told through a succession of flashbacks, its frames filled with excessive vanity shots, the construction of the film trying so hard to be young and hip and ending up like a fool. C
DIABLO (Mes de Guzman, 2012)
In Oscar Wilde’s words, “The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible,” and Mes de Guzman takes that to heart. Diablo is possibly his most beautifully photographed movie to date, a feat considering that it doesn’t feature as much landscape backdrops as his previous movies, which has now become a motif of his work. In his latest film, the compositions of interior locations, often clad in darkness, carry so much weight and ambivalence that at some point they begin to suffocate. The severity of his pace is quite a matter of contention, one that doesn’t steer away completely from his style but gives rise to doubts as regards his purpose, the mystery working on the assumption that there is something to be revealed, some expectations to be satisfied and knots to be untied. But this is Mes de Guzman after all—he lets you wait, regardless of result. To some extent, judging by the sight of Carlo Aquino’s picture at Nanay Lusing’s desk at the beginning and the way the impregnable matriarch shows her strongest emotion upon discovering the death of her radio, Diablo is also de Guzman’s cleverest work, poking fun at the seriousness of it all. Is this because Cinemalaya considers him New Breed despite having six features under his belt? B-
KAMERA OBSKURA (Raymond Red, 2012)
Yes, Raymond Red’s highly divisive Kamera Obskura will work even without its bookends—respected archivists Teddy Co, Cesar Hernando, and Ricky Orellana discussing the discovery of the silent movie in front of the media, and later on assessing its merits—but the film, without this fictional setup, will lose the advocacy that might have been the reason for its existence in the first place. People make a fuss about this lack of subtlety, about the blatant and didactic framework that envelops the movie, but this criticism, despite being valid, will easily be trampled on once the merits of the film, aesthetically and fundamentally, are considered. There is no experiment in form: it is simply a film within a film, and more than anyone in local cinema, Red knows how to play with form, and in Kamera Obskura he does so with boyish grace.
The silent film touches on many things: from the exile of a man to his discovery of a mysterious light, from his newly-found freedom to his possession of a magical camera, from the politicians trying to get hold of him to the sight of flying bicycles over buildings, from the political pastiche to the theatrical embellishments—Red is so eager to pile textures upon textures, layers upon layers, garnish upon garnish, like he’s trying to collect pieces of the past long neglected, the smell of places, the scars of history, trinkets of personal memory left in the gutter. To the disappointment of many, Red makes it clear that the whole thing is artificial, that the extent he has gone through to make a reproduction of the lost movie will in fact work to the disadvantage of Kamera Obskura, and he is aware of this, the imitation proving that all that’s lost can never be recovered. As he leaves the viewer with that final image, Pen Medina staring at his massive sculpture, recalling Ferdinand Marcos’s bust, everything being drowned by the weepy music, Red becomes that kid who wants to make a difference regardless of recognition, that kid finally being able to watch the fruit of his handsome imagination in the comfort of his own room. A-
MNL 143 (Emerson Reyes, 2012) July 14, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
Written by Emerson Reyes and Ade Perillo
Directed by Emerson Reyes
Cast: Allan Paule, Joy Viado, Gardo Versoza, Che Ramos
The best thing about MNL 143 is that Emerson Reyes is able to finish it. Despite the turn of events after its disqualification from Cinemalaya, he managed to raise money, hire the actors and crew he wanted, and complete the movie as he deemed fit. The worst thing about it is that the outcome, preceded by hype and expectations, is awfully lackluster. The disappointment is purely based on the weakness of its storytelling: the movie is unable to build a strong emotional core and falls into the trap of mistaking simplicity for emptiness. Had Reyes tried to take a leap and deliver the story it promised well on paper, he could have achieved something remarkable, not only for himself but also for the community that fought for his freedom of choice. Regrettably, MNL 143 displays a lack of ambition that can easily be confused with modesty, failing to strike a chord and take notice of the city that it wears proudly on its sleeve.
For a narrative that uses a device to take advantage of the many characters it brings together, the material should at least make the viewer curious. Commonplace issues of FX passengers are fine as long as their telling is motivated by a kind of inconsequence that stirs and creates a ripple effect—a movement that is faint at first sight but becomes perceptible as the film progresses. Sadly, Reyes does not encourage that setup to happen. He allows his characters to carry their stories and let them be known; however, there is no crucial dramatic arc that links them, no water that runs through that provides a nice flow. A number of stories start and end without any foothold on the past, sounding so written and perfunctory that they crash and burn upon delivery. As a viewer it’s like eavesdropping on people and realizing that you already know what they’re talking about: it validates the story but it doesn’t make it any more interesting. The only connection among the characters is the FX ride, not the everyday struggle of making it through the day alive and at ease, which could have made the token portraits more effective.
Making up for the lack of spontaneity and texture is the romance between Ramil, the FX driver, and Mila, the girlfriend he lost when he worked overseas. In what seems to be the handy slice of cake near the end of the movie, Mila becomes Ramil’s passenger, and the two engage in a conversation they have long wanted to have. Mila is now a widow, and as their sides are explained, it is obvious that Ramil is the only one holding onto their past. She’s content with her present life, but he wants her back. Several hours before they meet, he looked at her picture and cried inside the vehicle. It’s a flimsy scene that anticipates their meeting, handled absentmindedly and without interest, helpful in establishing his purpose but lacking in punch to drive the narrative into a tunnel of certainty. Ramil and Mila’s encounter could have provided some sort of deliverance from the monotony that permeates all throughout, but even this dramatic peak is conveyed unremarkably, bereft of something magical, of a warm and touching feeling that situations like this call for. The movie aspires so much to be artless and unsophisticated that it ends up dull, dry, and dreary.
On top of everything else, for a piece of work that considers itself deserving of the name of the city in its title, that city has been set aside. Yes, the commute from Buendia to Fairview shows Metro Manila—the poor infrastructure, the noisy streets, the polluted surroundings, and the cramped space in which people find themselves stuck—but the city, regardless of its peripheral presence, is never shown to be of any significance. It acts like a standee: it’s there, you see it, but it’s only a cardboard representation of the real thing. The most obvious question Reyes does not answer is: why is Manila special? Where is the relationship between the city and its characters? MNL 143 misses its context and subtexts, carrying on until its fuel runs out: a mere short distance, a few meters the farthest. It could have been set elsewhere and spared Manila the trouble of being given a tiny compliment, but it decides to show its toothless grin. It is proof that good intentions, however humbly they are expressed, are always inclined to mislead.
Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959) July 7, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Alliance Française, European Films.
1 comment so far
Written and directed by Robert Bresson
Cast: Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Jean Pelegri
“The film is not a thriller,” a note at the beginning of Pickpocket tells. “Using image and sound, the filmmaker strives to express the nightmare of a young man whose weaknesses lead him to commit acts of theft for which nothing destined him.” The filmmaker is Robert Bresson and the young man is Michel, both of whom have experienced life in prison, Bresson for 18 months at a German camp and Michel by the end of the movie. The dynamics between the two—the creator and the creation—speaks volumes about the perfectionist nature of Bresson and his style that is anything but ostentatious. His approach defines a kind of severity that is easier explained than done: the economy of shots, the carefully-timed fadeouts, and the voiceover that provides a sturdier description of the characters than the short dialogues themselves. Like a professional butcher, Bresson gets rid of the fat and serves only the finest, laying Michel’s story, a pickpocket with a dying mother and questionable principles, as simple as possible on the surface, illustrating his detachment not only from the people around him but also from the corrupt and blasé society that he willingly submits himself to. Michel is aware of the consequences of his actions, but his motivation is no longer grounded in material needs but in adventure, something that rationalizes his lack of meaningful relationships, and his dependence on thrill and danger.
Bresson’s language can alienate the unacquainted but it bears gifts to those who are patient. There are breathtaking moments of tension, those that happen vaguely in the movie but mostly in the viewer’s mind, and they are accomplished with such ease that one wonders if the French are really that oblivious to their surroundings. That sequence at the train station more than halfway through the film displays Bresson’s ability to stun with the simplest of weapons. Michel and his two partners take turns in sliding hands into passengers’ suits and pockets, taking cash out of purses and bags, grabbing arms and filching prized watches, and Bresson shows fingers and faces, nonchalant looks and quick strides, person after person, trick after trick, all dry and terse, everything going smooth for the three thieves. It’s an organized crime in a public place, and Bresson wastes no time in shooting the scenes in a calculated manner—not in slow motion but in slow, larger-than-life contact—being able to situate Michel in the backdrop of the life he chooses to have, knowing that sooner or later the authorities are going to catch up on him and bare their handcuffs. “You’re not in the real world. You share no interests with others,” Jeanne, the kind neighbor who takes care of his ill mother, says. Later on Michel realizes the truth of this observation. She fancies him and visits him in prison. Like the doors that he always leaves open, she waits until he comes back because he always does, guided by guilt and comprehension, struggling from solitude. Bresson offers sympathy and Michel does not refuse.
Aswang (Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes, 1992) June 18, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Lagarista, Noypi.
Directed by Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes
Written by Pen Medina and Jerry Lopez Sineneng
Cast: Alma Moreno. Manilyn Reynes, Aiza Seguerra
At the onset of Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes’s genre-defining work, it is clear that the so-called creature of the night is real. The moment it shows Alma Moreno in her black dress and shawl, only the ill-advised will not be convinced of her moonlighting activities. She walks ominously, pacing back and forth like an animal following its prey, and fixes her stare on people that strike her fancy. She transforms into a cat or snake or bird and appears in suspicious places. Despite her strangeness to the surroundings, she rarely raises the doubt of the townspeople because of her pleasing appearance. Such literary device works well in the film, and its writers, Pen Medina and Jerry Lopez Sineneng, tease the audience by playing with stereotypes and breaking them. Rarely does the movie pander to its viewers by resorting to cheap schlock gimmicks; on the contrary, it takes its time before finally revealing its fangs of brilliance.
Gallaga and Reyes are aware that the key to pulling off a horror movie is the establishment of its story, and they succeed in doing so by weaving a pair of carefully developed plots. Joey Marquez’s cameo at the beginning, in which he plays the aswang’s first victim, lured by her mysterious and sexual beauty, forms the first plot, one that reinforces the belief of the folks in Talisay that the aswang is by no means a figment of their imagination. The second concerns Catlyn (Aiza Seguerra), her nanny, Veron (Manilyn Reynes), and her driver, Dudoy (Berting Labra). They arrive at Catlyn’s house and witness a bloody robbery and murder. Catlyn’s mother is killed and the kid sees the faces of the criminals. Afraid that their identities will be revealed to the police, the thugs come after them but the three manage to escape and hide in the town where Dudoy’s sister lives, in Talisay where, incidentally, the aswang is notoriously making her comeback. Unburdened by the confines of an instructive morality tale, the film allows its two plots to meet and its two villains, the aswang borne out of myth and the aswang borne out of a corrupt society, to pay for their wrongdoings.
Like some prized wine kept in the cellar, Aswang still tastes exquisite almost twenty years later. It sure looks dated, but that’s more a sign of strength than of weakness. It foregoes the typical too-stupid-to-live characters that permeate recent episodes of Shake Rattle and Roll and strikes a balance between horror and comedy. Sometimes this proclivity to overdo cracks and one-liners thwarts the suspense, disabling the nicely-built thrill to achieve its full force, but that’s a minor concern. Aiza Seguerra, at an age when she reached her peak as a gifted child actor, is adorable, delivering her smart lines with a perfect mix of charm and acuity. She provides comic entertainment, but when it’s time to do serious drama, she can easily break into tears. Manilyn Reynes screams gratingly, but that’s part of her job. The great Berting Labra does a Karl Malden circa A Streetcar Named Desire and delivers a hefty monologue against the aswang, but it obviously pays no heed to him because it devours him several sequences later. Also worthy of note is Lilia Cuntapay’s bit role as Alma Moreno’s old self, stealing the scene in the short minutes she appears in.
Don Escudero’s production design helps a lot to make Aswang a good-looking fright piece. He has given the creature a face, a house, and a pair of wings, as well as some little details that make her existence credible. These elements allow the film’s suspension of disbelief to endure. When the aswang shows her real face, she looks more fascinating than fearsome. There’s a feeling of curiosity upon discovering how the filmmakers have chosen to interpret the myth. Moreover, the camera work by Joe Tutanes is impressive, prohibiting any room for sloppy shots and wasted angles. For instance, the short sequence of Alma Moreno peeping through the roof and slipping her tongue into the hole to eat Janice de Belen’s baby has gone down in local cinema history as one of its most memorable moments. Aswang does not confound—it confronts, and it has the skill to dissolve its shortcomings and let its surprises stand out. Film critic Pio de Castro III believes that the film owes its success to Gallaga’s “third eye,” and that “eye” is never shut from start to finish.
Captive (Brillante Mendoza, 2012) June 15, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, French Spring.
Directed by Brillante Mendoza
Written by Brillante Mendoza, Patrick Bancarel, Boots Agbayani Pastor, and Arlyn dela Cruz
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Kathy Mulville, Mark Zanetta, Maria Isabel Lopez, Mercedes Cabral, Ronnie Lazaro
There is hardly anything in Captive that puts the Philippines in a positive light, but director Brillante Mendoza makes it clear that he doesn’t give a fuck. Reading his interviews, it is obvious that he chooses to present these ugly situations because no other filmmaker is brave enough to confront them, and as someone positioned in the forefront of Philippine cinema—being the first Filipino to compete in three of the world’s most prestigious film festivals: Cannes, Venice, and Berlin—his voice is certainly one to be reckoned with, a privilege that, regardless of your perception of his work, he has earned through the years. However, being an established international filmmaker entails greater responsibilities, and his inability to fulfill some of them leaves him in a dangerous terrain. Lola poses doubts regarding his opportunistic tendency, but Captive confirms it—in fact it commits the biggest blunder of his career, one that shatters all his good credentials, exposes his sickening imprudence, and makes him deserving of many harsh judgments.
When you watch Captive, you are never drawn to it: it paints a repulsive picture and you accept it as it is. You sit there and allow it to rape you. You won’t have any moment to process its images and understand what they mean because they don’t mean anything else aside from what’s there. The visuals are arresting as much as they are hollow. From start to finish, Mendoza has not considered the possibility of letting go of his shock and awe treatment. Every sequence has to be a spectacle, every scene has to grab your attention, and every turn of event has to add to the chaos. The film is so preoccupied by this sense of entitlement that it actually strangles you, a ploy that disables you to assess its worth. He shows Muslim rebels throwing a box of bibles at the water and hitting a Catholic statue with a gun, but he doesn’t want you to ponder on those. Instead he wants you to notice the parallelism he makes with the presence of wild animals: the snake eating a chick, the bats hanging from the tree branches, the hornets disturbing a funeral, the mythical bird that Isabelle Huppert sees flying around the forest. This goes on for at least two hours. As a viewer, how can you not be offended by this setup?
Amid the uproar provided by the encounters between the military and the insurgents, the movie’s quiet moments stand out the most. There’s that scene where Isabelle eats a cracker and looks distraught, her face sweaty and numb from all the day’s events, trying hard to make sense of everything. The interview with the American couple—Martin and Gracia Burnham?—and Isabelle lights up a number of emotional fuses, connecting realities that have gradually become hazy as the movie progresses. There’s another sequence where Isabelle spends time with one of his captors, a teenager whose early life is exposed to violence. They talk about their personal lives, Isabelle remembering her children in France and the kid, though hesitant at first, eventually opening up his thoughts on his religion. It’s supposed to feel like a gloomy mother-and-child portrait, a taste of water in the desert, only it does the opposite because Mendoza handles the dynamics carelessly. When the boy puts his head on Isabelle’s lap there is some sort of gesture that suggests sexual tension, an awkwardness that may be natural in some cases, but in the movie looks so gross, leaving an incomprehensibly bad aftertaste.
Of course, Mendoza is a clever craftsman. Some of the observations mentioned above do not sink in fully as you watch the film. You stay in your seat until it becomes clear that there is nothing in it that will stop its penchant for sadism. The film may thrive on filth and noise but it is never void of perspective. Sloppily, it unfolds the story and presents several contradictions. You can feel the material push through methodically, with every bit of violence and anger shoved down your throat, as the characters are reduced to lousy caricatures of good and evil. The hostage-takers and hostages stay with you but only as cardboard cutouts: they are victims of misrepresentation, the writers failing to provide them with a sincere emotional side that holds up until the end. Captive is based on true events—the infamous Dos Palmas kidnappings in May 2001, whose duration intersected with the September 11 attacks in the US—but not on true sentiments. Mendoza simplifies the whole Mindanao issue, heedless of its historical and political complexity, and dismisses the nitty-gritty of the armed conflict. Should the producers decide to show this film in Mindanao, it’s like waiting for a bomb to explode and wreak havoc.
Furthermore, it is not a question of faithfulness to the material. It is a matter of presenting a narrative without taking advantage of its multifaceted nature, without subscribing to the ideas that promote aggression based on differences, and without affronting a piece of history that is bigger than whatever the movie is trying to say. Mendoza could have fictionalized the details of the kidnappings and done away with the dates and places, and manage to achieve a much thoughtful view of the situation—one that could have started with an honest admission that he is not above it—but instead he illustrates in depth his insubstantial assessments and conclusions. It is a film that skates on polemics and cacophony, a political movie without a respectable principle, a traveling circus filled with shows that offer cheap thrills. What’s worse than a badly made film is an egotistical movie that cannot hide its posturing, and Mendoza, who has made enough movies to deserve scrutiny from head to toe, is again oblivious to the fact that the personal is always political, that his intentions are clear regardless of his press statements.
Having considered its merits, you may ask: is Captive an experience worth having? Where do you draw the line between its Machiavellian vanity and actual involvement? When do you realize that the discussions it provokes are never really meant to enrich one’s understanding of the war in Mindanao but to emphasize the director’s shady and astigmatic view of it? Arguments will be made and piled on top of one another, but the answers, depending on your sensibilities as a moviegoer, cannot be anything but well defined. You cannot be halfhearted about it. Perhaps even its initial three-hour running time cannot hide its stink. Its trickery is calculated, and it’s acceptable that the urge to throw up is triggered not by the film but by the filmmaking.
Now My Heart is Full: My Top 20 Songs by Morrissey May 12, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Music.
Artwork by Megan Diño
Some people tend to overlook the fact that Morrissey has actually released more successful singles as a solo artist than as the vocalist of The Smiths. Fans will always remember him as that charming man who appeared on Top of the Pops sometime in 1983 holding a bunch of flowers, moving awkwardly onstage, and doing a lip-sync of sparklingly beautiful lyrics that left an effortless smile in everyone’s faces. His accomplishment as the band’s lead songwriter and singer, not to mention his status as an icon for the lonely and the loveless, is a feat he has never attempted to surpass nor forget: nostalgia hasn’t got the better of him. In fact, nostalgia has made him even more vulnerable, encouraging him to compose songs he couldn’t have written if he were in a band. Morrissey loses Johnny Marr and the jangly guitar riffs that turned the emotions in “What Difference Does It Make” and “Hand in Glove” sweetly deceitful, but he gains something in return—the pleasure of aloneness, the courage to say “I find I’m OK by myself and I don’t need you or your morality to save me,” that spark of genius to create timeless, unconventional, and unabashedly pop songs that capture the nature of his enigma.
As luck would have it, Morrissey is set to perform in Manila tomorrow night. But that luck is laced with fear and anxiety, of emotions tangled in cobwebs of apprehension, of constipated excitement. Where are these feelings coming from? Why is Morrissey capable of evoking such morose sentiments from the most fervent of his supporters? Why can’t the wait for the concert just be something utterly pleasant? Well, we’re all boys and girls with thorns in our sides. This moment formed in our heads some years before, and now seeing the reality of it take shape is simply insane. We all long for a Smiths reunion, but this is the closest way to that dream. Morrissey includes at least five Smiths songs in his recent set lists, and as he mentions in an interview, “I do sing the songs, and I will sing the songs. They stand the test of time.”
Furthermore, the range and immensity of his catalog from Viva Hate to Years of Refusal disposes the myth of the nosedive that people expected to happen when The Smiths called it quits; on the contrary, his career path from the late 80s to present is one paved with overwhelming unpredictability and imperfection. His attempts at ambitious storytelling (“Late Night, Maudlin Street,” “Life is a Pigsty”) works even more strangely than before, redefining artistic subtlety by way of unsubtle words and arrangements. He matures after every record, yet still stays pretty much the same.
Therefore, making a list is both timely and unnecessary, but on account of childishness, I have decided to create one, and the labor in doing so makes me regret it in the end. Morrissey is literature, music, and cinema rolled into one, and those three arts are the most precious to me, so it’s a tough job. Another thing is that the list is ranked—to challenge myself and to cause discomfort every time I think of it. But here you go, without further ado, as deceivingly plain and simple as this idea of writing about Morrissey came to me this morning, my favorite songs by Morrissey, all twenty of them dear to my heart, always offering a spare blanket in times of need, almost interchangeable with those unmentioned.
20. “The Youngest Was The Most Loved”
Ringleader of the Tormentors
How come Morrissey can write a song about a killer and make it sound like he is the most attractive person in the world? Also, have you ever pondered on the idea of Mozza being a father after singing about rearing a child? Every time he sings that line “there is no such thing in life as normal,” a flock of birds flies freely in the sky.
The youngest was the most loved / The youngest was the cherub / We kept him from the world’s glare / And then he turned into a killer
19. “The Boy Racer”
This is another one of Morrissey’s compositions that fashions his fixation on the male psyche, this time purportedly about James Dean. The buildup towards the refrain is sumptuous, the arrangement teems with energy, and everything is rounded out by Morrissey’s amusing words and passionate singing.
Boy racer! Boy racer! We’re gonna kill this pretty thing
18. “Please Help the Cause Against Loneliness”
Morrissey and Stephen Street wrote this song for British singer Sandie Shaw, and she released it as a single in 1988. Without letting a good opportunity pass, Morrissey recorded a demo of this for Viva Hate, which hasn’t been officially public until the release of Bona Drag’s expanded edition in 2010. As expected, Morrissey’s version brims with youthful angst and torment, sung in beautiful carefreeness.
I don’t mind what time you come round / If it’s a weekend then I just might be dead, oh / I’m so very young I am so really, really young
17. “People Are The Same Everywhere”
This is one of the new songs he performs at recent gigs. Complemented by heavy drums and jaunty guitar riffs, Morrissey derides critics who accuse him of racism in the past. The line “land of the free and home of the brave exists nowhere” is nothing short of brave, considering his popularity in America, and at some point he starts to howl and everything becomes surreal.
Set me aside, you’ll find, people are the same everywhere / Hoist me from the herd and people are the same everywhere / Then our creator had to stumble and stall and our creator had to make the biggest mistake of all / Yeah, yeah, yeah
16. “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris”
Years of Refusal
It’s a simple ditty that opens with a beautiful riff before Morrissey dives into a sad figure of speech. Eventually it becomes an earworm, the candor of his delivery as delightful as ever, his tongue-in-cheek wit never missing a mark.
I’m throwing my arms around / around Paris because only stone and steel accept my love
15. “Glamorous Glue”
Is it really about sniffing glue…from a jar…in L.A.? No one knows. Politics is written all over, but the rhythm of the song, not to mention the jumpy vibe, is gonna get ya first, for sure.
London is dead London is dead London is dead London is dead / Now I’m too much in love / I’m too much in love
14. “Satan Rejected My Soul”
How can you resist the idea of Morrissey talking to Satan, offering his soul, begging for acceptance, and being refused? Wow, Satan must be so picky.
Satan rejected my soul / He knows my kind / He won’t be dragged down / He’s seen my face around / He knows heaven doesn’t seem to be my home
13. “The Last of the Famous International Playboys”
Andy Rourke, Mike Joyce, and Craig Gannon are featured in this track, a collaboration which makes it sound like a Smiths single, and it really does sound like one: suave and hooky. Make no mistake: the title is not Morrissey’s reference to himself, but to this notorious pair of gangsters from London in the 60s, a theme also present in “First of the Gang to Die.”
I never wanted to kill, I am not naturally evil / Such things I do to make myself more attractive to you / Have I failed?
World of Morrissey
You’d feel how obsessed Morrissey was with the sport and its players, and nothing gets in his way of telling a story tinged with weary sadness. It’s a bit different from most of his hits—the theme, the dispassionate feeling, the machismo—but how could you not be charmed?
Losing in front of your hometown, the crowd call your name, they love you all the same / The sound, the smell, and the spray / You will take them all away / And they’ll stay till the grave
It contains one of the happiest hooks ever arranged, in which Morrissey laughs with cheery derision. Also, I can’t help but agree how perfect that title is.
We hate it when our friends become successful / And if they’re Northern, that makes it even worse / And if we can destroy them / You bet your life we will destroy them
10. “First of the Gang to Die”
You are the Quarry
It is easy to understand why this is one of Morrissey’s most popular songs: the words are arrestingly visual, the melody is compelling, and the sentiments are heart-tugging. Who wouldn’t like someone named Hector after hearing this?
And he stole from the rich and the poor and the not very rich and the very poor / And he stole our hearts away
9. “Bengali in Platforms”
It’s funny when someone speaks of race and makes a remark that doesn’t seem fair to everyone concerned, some people are quick to jump to a conclusion that the statements made are racist, while in fact race-related comments are what enrich the understanding of cultures in the first place. If I were a Bengali and Morrissey tells me that life is hard when I belong there and asks me to shelve my Western plans, well, wouldn’t I consider the truthfulness of that? There is more to the song than the issue of race: there’s migration, work equality, stereotypes, Westernization, nationality, an awful load of things. The complexity of it should have eclipsed the accusation of Morrissey’s alleged racism.
Bengali in platforms / He only wants to embrace your culture / And to be your friend forever / Forever
8. “There’s A Place in Hell for Me and My Friends”
Accompanied by an ominous piano piece, Morrissey talks about hell in such a positive light it doesn’t seem like a place of doom and suffering. It’s short and sweet (clocking at less than two minutes) and pours its emotions so smoothly the final note feels like divine intervention.
Oh, there is a place a place in hell reserved for me and my friends / And if ever I just wanted to cry, then I will because I can
7. “I Have Forgiven Jesus”
You are the Quarry
In “You Have Killed Me” Morrissey references the great Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, who directed The Gospel According to St. Matthew, arguably the best retelling of Jesus Christ’s story. It couldn’t have been more appropriate: in “I Have Forgiven Jesus” Morrissey makes some of the sharpest statements not only on religion but also on his ever-talked-about sexuality. It doesn’t help that in the music video, in which he wears clerical clothing, he exudes sexiness that is very sinful to look at.
Why did you give me so much desire when there is nowhere I can go to offload this desire / And why did you give me so much love in a loveless world when there is no one I can turn to / To unlock all this love
6. “Everyday Is Like Sunday”
An image in mind: Morrissey drives into a seaside town, pulls over, and sits on a bench. He observes tourists walk by, munches on a sandwich, feels bored by the view, and returns to his car. He speeds away with thoughts on nuclear war and greased tea, pulls a fancy pen from his pocket, and writes this song.
This is the coastal town that they forgot to close down / Armageddon, come Armageddon! / Come, Armageddon, come!
5. “Life is A Pigsty”
Ringleader of the Tormentors
Without a doubt the outstanding centerpiece of the album, “Life is a Pigsty” is an epic and powerful piece of work, not just lyrically but sonically: the 80s synths, thunderstorms, and cannonballs add to the sinister feel of the entire track. Morrissey conveys misery at its most wounding, and it’s an opus that illustrates how commanding his voice can be.
I feel too cold / And now I feel too warm again / Can you stop this pain? / Can you stop this pain? / Even now in the final hour of my life / I’m falling in love again
4. “Let The Right One Slip In”
If this list depends on how much I pattern my life after a Morrissey song, this would be on the top spot. He may be a douche, but he gives the damnedest piece of advice.
Let the right one in / Let the old dreams die / Let the wrong ones go / They cannot / They cannot / They cannot do what you want them to do
3. “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get”
Vauxhall and I
Is there any love song as creepily brilliant as this? Yes, there is. But none with the mesmerizing charisma that Morrissey injects all throughout. The tenderness puts you in a spell, like downing a glass of vodka straight on one hand and holding an unsent love letter on the other. It’s flawless.
I am now a central part of your mind’s landscape / Whether you care or do not / Yeah, I’ve made up your mind
2. “Late Night, Maudlin Street”
It’s a confessional, a masterful piece of prose filled with self-pitying lyrics that only Morrissey can piece together, a depiction of a man in various states of misery, struggling with “sixteen stitches all around his head,” remembering many things as he sits alone, talking to a loved one no longer with him. Haven’t we all experienced this? Has Morrissey sneaked into our diaries and written a story of us? Needless to say, it’s sweepingly sullen and hits the sorest part of our hearts.
When I sleep / With that picture of you framed beside my bed / Oh it’s childish and silly / But I think it’s you in my room, by the bed
Vauxhall and I
Drama is something Morrissey is closely associated with, and the drama in this song, the heaving sentimentality of hurt and understanding, the way he speaks to his fans, the hammer he sends across to people trying to bring him down, the mad beauty of it all—by all means, the storming temper present here has never been equaled since.
And when you try to break my spirit / It won’t work because there’s nothing left to break / Anymore
Honorable mention: “Alma Matters,” “I Will See You in Far-Off Places,” “Dagenham Dave,” “Now My Heart is Full,” “Suedehead,” “I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me,” “Something is Squeezing My Skull,” “That’s How People Grow Up,” “Irish Blood, English Heart,” “The World is Full of Crashing Bores, “The National Front Disco,” “You’re the One for Me, Fatty,” “Seaside, Still Docked,” “Jack the Ripper”
The Amazing Sounds of Orgy: Toe in Manila March 25, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Music.
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“I sat in the dark and thought: There’s no big apocalypse. Just an endless procession of little ones,” Neil Gaiman writes in Signal to Noise. What do we call them then—those will-o’-the-wisps resting on tree branches, flickering and bullying fireflies that pass through needle holes, struggling to escape from cobwebs before landing on our skin? Little apocalypses? Epiphanies, astral projections, out-of-body experiences? What’s sadder than the fleetingness of them all?
Toe playing in Manila is one of those telltale signs that the world is indeed ending, though from the looks of it there’s nothing frightening about the looming possibility. On the contrary, every moment is highlighted by occasional fireworks, every song building up to an explosive midsection and cathartic end, every climax bursting into a blaze. Toe’s stage is located at the center of the venue, and though this setup has its shortcomings, it’s hard not to be impressed by their boldness. With barely a word between songs, Toe members busy themselves with their instruments and give everyone a fantastic time, unleashing an army of sonic spectacles that fly high like a G6.
Photography was not allowed, so I kept my point-and-shoot camera inside my bag for the duration of the show. However, as much as I was enthralled by the music, not to mention the weightlessness of the night rubbing in like a sweet cat’s head, I wanted to steal some keepsakes. The bouncers were on the lookout for people with bulky cameras, spinning their flashlights and hauling those who didn’t take heed out of the venue. All my shots were blurry and out of focus, but didn’t they perfectly capture the experience? The exhilarating cacophony, the rousing change of moods, the invisible cups of strong coffee? These photos were taken a few minutes before the band finally left the stage. I was still shaking.
Sleepwalk Circus opened the night. They were good, but the second band, Encounters with a Yeti, was undeniably better. Tersely put, they were nothing short of amazing. They were as close to a fitting front act that we could ask for. Almost an hour later (the show started at 10 instead of 8) Toe stepped onstage. Every one of them was in the zone. The combination of the three guitars provided textures of indescribable rhythm, the syncopations progressing and flying out to different places. It felt like listening to the songs for the first time, their freshness and rawness cutting through like a hot knife.
The most exceptional sight of the night belonged to Kashikura Takashi: he was banging the drum kit like he was sexing it. He was incredibly tense and vehement, never wavering from start to finish. I bet even the official photographers had a hard time taking a steady shot of him as he performed.
I probably had issues with the stage design and lighting, but they were compensated by the music. Standing close to the stage, I could see how each band member uniquely reacted to the uproar, how their dynamic movements added to the overwhelming energy of the show, how their fingers eagerly twiddled with the guitar strings. It was a night of joyful beauty, and with my ears still ringing several hours later in my bed, I was just happy with these tangible souvenirs:
Come, Armageddon. Come, Armageddon, come.
The set list:
2. “I Dance Alone”
3. “I Do Still Wrong”
4. “Tremolo + Delay”
5. “Kodoku no Hatsumei”
7. “Long Tomorrow”
8. “Last Night”
10. “After Image”
11. “Ordinary Days”
13. “Past and Language”
14. “New Sentimentality”
Film Log #1 February 10, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Hollywood, Oscars.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (David Fincher, 2011)
This is the Fincher of Benjamin Button—epicurean, long-winded, and predictable—armed with such skill in creating a deceitful sweep that bores as much as it hypnotizes. He makes it clear that length is permissible as long as the characters onscreen are mystifyingly troubled, willfully suggesting that Erika Berger, Holger Palmgren, Dragan Armansky, or Millenium, whose head office and staff members are crucial elements in the book, are of little use as far as movie spectacle is concerned. His ability to deliver has been put to test by the structural complexity of the material, made even harder by Larsson’s lack of restraint. But Fincher, with a flashlight in hand, lets the flames glow in every corner, acknowledging the prosaic quality of the book by translating it into frosty visuals, and even frostier characterizations by Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig. The trilogy has attracted film producers not because of its subject (men who hate women, how new!) but because of its lead character, Lisbeth Salander, and the challenge of portraying her onscreen. Mara makes some impressive nuances, her offscreen presence in particular is wisely calculated, but her case falls into the category of the whole not being greater than the sum of its parts. Craig complements her a lot, and she heats his beef very well. Fincher makes the bedlam less chaotic and struggles when the third act comes in, losing his grip when the detectives find the missing piece. The opening credits and the use of Enya are by all means brilliant, but the sight of Craig’s butt crack is the most nerve-racking moment in the film. B-
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE- GHOST PROTOCOL (Brad Bird, 2011)
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol opens up in all sorts of unexpected directions and the type of mess it leaks works surprisingly well because Brad Bird allows the action sequences to breathe, the buildup and follow through providing some sort of polish, punctuating the series of over-the-top stunts and the exhilarating sheen they produce. There are dangerous edges, most of which are served as desserts and appetizers, but they are in fact the meatiest aspect of the movie—the impossibility of the mission addressed rather than ignored, making the sketchy minutiae throttle even to the unimpressionable. Stress is written all over Tom Cruise’s face, and it’s not a tiring sight to look at. Like a drowning man rising to the surface for the last time, he is unmoved by anything, unfazed by an almost non-existent threat, and unimpressed even by the Burj Khalifa or an impending sandstorm. Paula Patton fits the part, Jeremy Renner does some hilarious stretches, and Simon Pegg is uncontrollably smart and funny. So who needs meat and potatoes when one is caught like a deer in the headlights? B+
HAYWIRE (Steven Soderbergh, 2011)
In this age of expensively-made movies that rely heavily on unnecessary noise and dizzying visual effects, a film like Haywire feels like a joke, and holy shit what a good joke it is. Steven Soderbergh shows again his penchant for multi-character narratives, and though he’s working on a very conventional story, he still manages to tell it adventurously, one that looks so old-fashioned even its disruptive flashbacks still seem rational. Soderbergh toys with the storytelling, moving to and fro as the main character, an undercover agent played by martial artist Gina Carano, seeks the truth about a mission that eventually puts her between a rock and a hard place. The movie reaches its peak whenever Carano finds herself in a fight. All the running and boxing and thumping provide a sense of frightening reality in her dilemma, the exchange of blows sounding brutally raw and authentic, the lack of blood making it even more startling. Too bad these sequences are just few—Soderbergh should have made them the movie’s main attraction—but props go to Carano for kicking all the guys’ arses. She even shoots a steamy Michael Fassbender in the face. Blimey! What a man-eater! B+
DRIVE (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)
For a crime movie, Drive doesn’t feature gripping car chases—the ones in it don’t even come close to the terrifying road pursuit in James Gray’s We Own the Night—but it has Ryan Gosling, and girls know that his presence makes a huge difference. He delivers a fine performance, all right, but it’s an aspect of the film that most people tend to overrate. He is a charmer, but with that lick-worthy, puppy face it is hard to believe that he works as a stuntman, mechanic, and getaway driver all at once. Although on second thought, it’s completely possible that he drives the wheel with his dick, or he punches every suspicious-looking guy he sees in the elevator. He’s the movie’s windshield wiper—once he’s on, the landscape becomes clear. The old-school neon-bright opening credits set the tone for the film, which are probably meant to downplay the melodrama, but several elements of the film (the use of slow-motion and somber ambient music) emphasize it even more. The movie mixes genres that glorify men in heist movies, B-movies, westerns, and revisionist forms of them, especially in the amount of explicit and implicit details given to Gosling’s character. Everything about Drive is driven by tastefulness: orgasmic for arty moviegoers but distressing for people looking forward to flirting with Gosling’s abs. B
THE TREE OF LIFE (Terrence Malick, 2011)
Never in his forty-year career as a filmmaker has Terrence Malick preferred the easy way. Like Kubrick and Pynchon, he’s a slow burner, and The Tree of Life, his fifth feature film that had its early roots after the release of Days of Heaven, reveals more of himself than he might have intended, details that could have added to the film’s divisive and polarizing nature. Given the landscape of world cinema nowadays, it’s one of those art pieces that’s almost impossible to make, both in financial and ideological terms, because which producer would gamble on filming compassionate dinosaurs and beautiful jellyfish? With the exception of Godard, who among the legends of the 60s and 70s is still alive to partake in mindblowing existential sports? The film can be interpreted in innumerable and immeasurable ways, so terrifying that it feels like a summation of many things from the world and beyond, a Moebius strip of ideas containing the totality of nothing and everything, and Malick, owing to his overwhelming talent and humility, allows his audience to take a look at the instrument he created, something that provides a microscopical and telescopical view of humanity. What do you see? What do you not see? What do you feel? What do you not feel? Are moviegoers too comfortable with parsimony that The Tree of Life is regarded as some sort of insult, a movie whose all-encompassing knowledge and spiritual ambition become its bane? A-
Walking with Spiders: A Night with The National February 8, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Music, Oh You Know.
In one of Alligator’s rapturous moments, Matt Berninger takes a walk in the clouds and sweeps them away, narrating a story purportedly inspired by a low-key neighborhood in New York City. He sings in “Daughter of the Soho Riots”: You were right about the end / It didn’t make a difference / Everything I can remember / I remember wrong. He talks less about the place than the relationship he associates with it, his words sounding very affectionate, lodging small stabs in the chest every time he utters, Break my arms around the one I love, and be forgiven by the time my lover comes. More than once I asked myself during the concert, who must have known I’d do this someday? Here watching them live?
The experience has brought about several realizations. One is that I bring music with me everywhere I go. I can’t imagine my life without it. I associate people and places and things with songs, and every time I hear a familiar tune my face either lights up or frowns upon remembrance of an event or moments spent with someone. The National, for one, has provided me with an awful lot of memories. In fact, if I were to make a list of bands that have left an indelible mark on my life, they would be on it, alongside Radiohead, Blur, The Clash, The Smiths, and The Beatles.
The night before the concert, Jade, Mario, and I agreed that among the artists that became popular in the 2000s, it was really The National that hit us the hardest. They may not be as huge as U2 or Coldplay or Arcade Fire, but they are huge—we just don’t know how to approximate it. Out of the blue we started singing, poking fun at misheard lyrics—Corinne, Monster, and Raymond joining our conversations—and we couldn’t hide how excited we were for tomorrow, like kids waiting for their dates on prom night.
And the night came. Three days before my birthday. November 6, 2011. 8 P.M. at the Esplanade. I dressed up for the occasion. I planned wearing a tie to match my long-sleeved polo but hell, it would just make me feel uncomfortable. I saw some friends while Kriz and I were lining up to buy merchandise. Carina, Sarie, Luis, Kathy, Khavn. I went to the bathroom and someone was humming “Fake Empire.” We hurried to our seats and saw another batch of friends. The theater, which reminded me of a more sophisticated CCP Main Theater, started to be filled up, stall by stall, row by row, seat by seat. It was sold out. And we were lucky to be seated near the stage, right in the middle.
Well, “seated” is not exactly right. When the band came onstage, people rushed towards the front row and occupied the space there. I didn’t think twice about running—it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience! Standing for the entirety of the show, which ran for almost two hours, wasn’t bad at all. In fact, that’s how I imagined it to be: full of dancing, swaying, and shouting. And that’s what happened.
Matt was sipping beer or wine between songs and he joked about it, which made everyone in the audience chuckle. The band sounded excellent the whole freaking time. I looked around. People were everywhere, almost my age, young and alive, numbed by happiness, and their thought balloons read “!!!!!!!!!!!!!” There were some elderly couples too, enjoying the euphoria of the event, which ironically was brought about by songs about grief and sadness. I looked around and all I saw were happy faces in tears. Ninety percent of the photographs I took were out of focus, but every one of them made me remember the feeling, that formidable feeling of exhilaration, that thrill of seeing your favorite artists perform in front of you, carry your heart, and caress it.
As I write this, three months have already passed, but I still recall things very clearly. I must have said “Oh my god” over a hundred times. Kriz was right about the opening song, and I couldn’t have been more thankful that it was “Runaway” since it’s the track from High Violet that I first loved. The guy to my left kept looking daggers at me because I was flailing around every time a new song came in, but the girl to my right was cool—she didn’t even notice it when I shook her shoulders the moment “England” ended. A bunch of Asian dudes in my row was shouting “All the wine! All the wine!” during breaks and unfortunately for them the song wasn’t played.
“Slow Show” took me by surprise because it had a different arrangement. It was the first time I cried that night. There were horns! We were clapping in unison! And they transitioned smoothly to “Squalor Victoria,” which had a spectacular intro that encouraged some of us to whistle. When silence came after “Apartment Story,” I managed to shout “That’s my favorite song!” and Matt responded with a smile. I burst into tears, which lasted only for five seconds because “Abel” started playing and it made me leap. I’m guessing they were smoking pot when they arranged the set list. It was a roller coaster of emotions.
They returned with four more songs, and Matt was probably tipsier than he thought. In the middle of “Terrible Love” he waded through the crowd, walked his way through the seats until he reached the end of the room, turned left, and was hounded by fans, myself included. I touched him, making myself believe that this was truly happening, and unconvinced, I pinched him. What could be gayer than that?
Back onstage, he sang one last song, this time only Aaron and Bryce’s acoustic guitars accompanying him, with several moments of violin playing. It was a stripped-down version of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” a perfect song to close a wonderful night. Matt sang with his eyes closed, and so were most of us. I sang along and my voice was quivering. Everything became so clear and images flashed before me. I was out of breath, and I thought, “Shit! I must not die now!” Recognizing the weight of the entire experience made me weep, and I didn’t have the drugs to sort everything out.
The stage lighting, among other things, is fantastic.
I was afraid.. I’d eat your brains.
It’s hard to take a picture of Bryce, but here he is.
On a bloodbuzz, all through the night.
All the very best of us! String ourselves up for love!
The set list:
2. “Anyone’s Ghost”
3. “Mistaken for Strangers”
4. “Bloodbuzz Ohio”
5. “Slow Show”
6. “Squalor Victoria”
7. “Afraid of Everyone”
8. “Conversation 16”
11. “Apartment Story”
13. “Daughters of the Soho Riots”
15. “Fake Empire”
16. “Lucky You”
17. “Mr. November”
18. “Terrible Love”
19. “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”
<EVERYTHING WAS BEAUTIFUL AND NOTHING HURT>
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Directed by Archie Dimaculangan, Cheska Ramos, and Jose Antonio de Rivera
Cast: Aleera Montalla, Jao Mapa, Shielbert Manuel. Alex Vincent Medina
One of these days you might find yourself watching Balang Araw and pondering on the same thing: is there anything discerning that can be said about the film? Indulgence will give way to a finer thought: are the nice things about it enough to come up with an insight? More importantly, would it matter? Sure, it has a decent story and a respectable set of actors as its limbs. The storytelling may not be fresh, but the visuals are engaging, and if not for a small geographical glitch, the attempt at presenting an organized chaos would have been somewhat credible. But discerning? Not really. It’s a tolerable movie, like one of those colorful marbles that’s always kept inside the “not bad, not great” jar. Unlike Suntok sa Buwan and its inconsiderate length, Balang Araw recognizes that it doesn’t have much to say, too little in fact that a huge chunk of the film is devoted to deliberately building the tension towards its climax. For a work that values technique over content, pulling a surprise is the least of its concern: telling something new is minor. The gathering of characters at a convenience store adds to the anxiety, but the execution falls short at its peak, especially when you realize that the twenty-something gunman/gamer is ruining the film’s final minutes. In light of this whole SM Bigshot shebang, and “its continuing efforts to champion the advancement of film literacy in the country and to promote Philippine cinema as a vehicle for cultural identity,” you might also wonder, is the term “modern hero” just a slippery catchphrase that gets triter and triter over time? Do we always have to encourage this stagnant facet of our culture? “Hope is the dream of a waking man,” Aristotle once said, but he also told everyone that “youth is easily deceived because it is quick to hope.” He’s just saying: go ahead and choose a quote to blindfold you.
Suntok sa Buwan (Bianca Catbagan and Jose Antonio de Rivera, 2012) January 26, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi.
Directed by Bianca Catbagan and Jose Antonio de Rivera
Cast: Joem Bascon, Daniel Fernando, Nonie Buencamino
Less than thirty minutes through the film, the narrative of Suntok sa Buwan has already been established. By the time the two boxers have bitten the bullet, it’s already clear where the film is going: to a momentous fight that both of them need to win. Through a series of dramatic turning points, it also becomes obvious that the movie is fumbling for something to say. It stagnates and chooses only to advance for the sake of revealing details that add to its drama. It suffers from predictability, which is fine if the atmosphere is intense, but the script is unable to go places because it lacks muscle—it only manages to show off how ill-nourished it is. The thinness of the material limits the characters, disabling them to breathe and travel far, and boxes them in a claustrophobic yet unexciting environment. The shots inside the ring are handled with skill but with little imagination—the characters move, but the entire sequence isn’t kinetic. Watching it is like sitting by the window and staring at a beautiful view that never changes. The scenery is lovely to look at, but it also tires the spectator sooner or later. Directors Bianca Catbagan and Jose Antonio de Rivera have fallen in love excessively with their subject and failed to recognize its rarely touched areas, which is hardly a question of depth and originality but of misguided decisions, of disregard for risks, and of not being able to deliver punches that hurt more inside than out. Their film teems with foolhardy youth: too much bokeh but too little flesh to feast on.
The Top 50 Albums of 2011 January 23, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Music, Yearender.
Truth: it was the year when I listened to too many albums. I checked my notebook and realized that I listened to five new albums every week in 2011. I couldn’t help it. I needed things to occupy my time and found these records. I devoured them like a madman, re-listening to them on my way to the office or back home, when I had my lunch, waited at airports, traveled on a bus or jeepney, took the train, walked to nowhere. These albums had been wonderful companions through the good and the bad, carrying me through the rough times and keeping me sane. I neglected books and movies because of them, and to what end? A certain kind of happiness, bittersweet, heavy, and forgiving. In Peter Silberman’s words, I was “pulled together but about to burst apart, rolled together with a burning paper heart.” Sappy yet true.
Below is a summary of the finest records I loved and continue to love from last year. Links to songs are provided, as well as a few notes on other stuff. Do listen to them if you have the time.
WOLFROY GOES TO TOWN, Bonnie “Prince” Billy
NO TIME FOR DREAMING, Charles Bradley
LAST SUMMER, Eleanor Friedberger
SOUND KAPITAL, Handsome Furs
HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART 2, Beastie Boys
LA JOVEN DOLORES, Christina Rosenvinge
NOSTALGIA, ULTRA, Frank Ocean
EL CAMINO, The Black Keys
THE KING IS DEAD, The Decemberists
50. NO COLOR, Dodos
49. HEARTS, I Break Horses
48. UNDUN, The Roots
47. OPUS EPONYMOUS, Ghost
46. TAMER ANIMALS, Other Lives
45. 12 DESPERATE STRAIGHT LINES, Telekinesis
44. DYE IT BLONDE, Smith Westerns
43. ONEIROLOGY, CunninLynguists
42. SAFARI DISCO CLUB, Yelle
41. IMPOSSIBLE SPACES, Sandro Perri
40. TOMBOY, Panda Bear
39. TAKE CARE, TAKE CARE, TAKE CARE, Explosions in the Sky
38. GLOSS DROP, Battles
37. CIRCUITAL, My Morning Jacket
36. LAST NIGHT ON EARTH, Noah and the Whale
35. BLANCK MASS, Blanck Mass
34. FADING PARADE, Papercuts
33. SMOTHER, Wild Beasts
32. STRANGE NEGOTIATIONS, David Bazan
31. HELPLESSNESS BLUES, Fleet Foxes
30. THE MAGIC PLACE, Julianna Barwick
29. ARABIA MOUNTAIN, Black Lips
28. TURTLENECK & CHAIN, The Lonely Island
27. SKY FULL OF HOLES, Fountains of Wayne
26. PARALLAX, Atlas Sound
25. A CREATURE I DON’T KNOW, Laura Marling
24. BLACK UP, Shabazz Palaces
23. NOTHING IS WRONG, Dawes
22. SKYING, The Horrors
21. HURRY UP, WE’RE DREAMING, M83
20. THE KING OF LIMBS
19. LEAVE HOME
18. WIT’S END
17. WASTING LIGHT
15. SUCK IT AND SEE
13. DAVID COMES TO LIFE
12. RAVEDEATH, 1972
11. NINE TYPES OF LIGHT
TV on the Radio
10. ECHOES OF SILENCE
7. COIN COIN CHAPTER ONE: GENS DE COULEUR LIBRES
6. TAPE CLUB
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin
5. NEW BRIGADE
[What's Your Rupture?]
3. PAST LIFE MARTYRED SAINTS
2. BURST APART
1. LET ENGLAND SHAKE
HALLS EP, Halls
AN ARGUMENT WITH MYSELF, Jens Lekman
OH SUNSHINE, Oh Sunshine
GUARDS EP, Guards
WHAT A PLEASURE, Beach Fossils
QUADRUPLE SINGLE EP, Big Business
DRIVE, Cliff Martinez
SUBMARINE, Alex Turner
THEY’RE OK, BUT….
BON IVER, Bon Iver
FATHER SON HOLY GHOST, Girls
GO TELL FIRE TO THE MOUNTAIN, Wu Lyf
LOOPING STATE OF MIND, The Field
WATCH THE THRONE, Jay-Z and Kanye West
DAYS, Real Estate
THE ENGLISH RIVIERA, Metronomy
EYE CONTACT, Gang Gang Dance
BEST SONGS NOT ON THE ALBUMS LIST
“SOMEBODY THAT I USED TO KNOW,” Gotye feat. Kimbra
“MEASUREMENTS,” James Blake
“LOTS SOMETIMES,” Glasvegas
“THE DAILY MAIL,” Radiohead
“MEET ME IN MIRAMAS,” Matthew Friedberger
“BABY MISSILES,” The War on Drugs
“QUANTUM LEAP,” John Maus
“ROMANCE,” Wild Flag
“WHERE I’M WAKING,” Slow Club
“I FOLLOW RIVERS,” Lykke Li
“ORIGINAL SPIN,” Mother Mother
“LIPPY KIDS,” Elbow
“BRAIN ON A TABLE,” An Horse
“HOW CAN YOU LUV ME,” Unknown Mortal Orchestra
“SHOULDA,” Jamie Woon
“BUBBLE POP!” Hyuna
“HOW DEEP IS YOUR LOVE,” The Rapture
“SANTA FE,” Beirut
“UNDERNEATH THE SYCAMORE,” Death Cab for Cutie
“WAKE AND BE FINE,” Okkervil River
“ME AND LAZARUS,” Iron and Wine
“BLUE EYES,” Destroyer
BEST CONCERT ATTENDED
THE NATIONAL at the Esplanade in Singapore, November 6, 2011. A trip worth taking and a dream come true. Everything about it is made of happiness and fun and sad memories and getting high.
So lighten up, Squirt. January 20, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Music, Oh You Know.
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See you in July, I guess?
The Top 20 Songs of 2011 January 18, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Music, Yearender.
Pop music is my drug, and the more I withdraw from it the more I suffer. No matter how many folk or dubstep or black metal albums I listen to, a song full of irresistible hooks will always turn me into that mindless six-year-old kid dancing to Backstreet Boys and weeping to the tune of Westlife’s songs. Pop music has forever taken me hostage, and what do I get? Joy. Thrill. Fixation. That juvenile feeling of keeping a treasured secret. That accomplishment in being able to appreciate nuances of a song that most people think is junk. That delight in acknowledging the stupidity of it all but not being able to walk away from it. What else is there to get? Instead of pleading freedom, why not embrace it?
In a seminal essay, writer Tom Ewing talks about pop music and says, “[...] the primary tactic of the new pop critic was to bypass that and twitch back the showbiz curtain to locate these records in a production system. What made the tracks important wasn’t how they made you feel, but the innovative tricks creators used to get those effects. Intricate drum patterns, Bollywood samples, fake-harpsichord frills, or brutal minimalism—anything with an angle got love.” The first impulse is always one of love, of course, so why exempt feelings? Isn’t how music affects you more significant than how it is made, and consequently, how you respond to it?
Locally, 2011 is a year dominated by “Teach Me How to Dougie,” “Super Bass,” Adele, and Anne Curtis, each one of them inescapable, straightforward, and confrontational, and their ubiquity on television and radio easily switches between charming and annoying. Two of them appear below, and the other eighteen are for you to find out.
How about a nice shuffle before you read through the list?
20. “THE SHOW GOES ON”
The song that announced the arrival of Lupe Fiasco’s third album was ripe with risks. The much talked-about fight he had with his producers who insisted on controlling every aspect of the record resulted in the delay of its release, but it only made the song’s title even more fitting. Lupe gets away with the dull lyrics and lousy rhymes because they are wrapped in a nice, shiny flow that gets better every time the chorus kicks in, owing its flaps and bounces to Modest Mouse’s “Float On,” carrying his rough disappointments in a sleigh ride and pulling a neat pop song from a hat caked with filth.
19. “DON’T HOLD YOUR BREATH”
The Pussycat Dolls are second rate and trying hard, and it takes Nicole Scherzinger’s second single from her first solo record to prove that. She doesn’t need the girls—she can nail a smashing hit single of her own. “Don’t Hold Your Breath” splashes with an ear-friendly mix of synths, bass, and piano, and on top of it is Scherzinger’s breathy vocals, steamrollering with lyrical punches and hip-shaking conviction. When she sings, You can’t touch me now, there’s no feeling left, imagine, how can a guy ever think of laying a hand on her again?
18. “BEFORE IT EXPLODES”
By now Charice should have graduated from doing covers and started performing songs of her own, but these matters are clearly beyond her control. It would take a while before people get used to her without a song or two from Momma Celine and Whitney. Her image is fragile, and appropriate songs have yet to come her way. “Pyramid” helped her immensely, and though club music wasn’t something that fit her puniness, it displayed her potential as a well-rounded recording artist, given a proper team of writers and producers.
“Before It Explodes,” the first single from her sophomore record, fulfills the promise of a pop star Charice who is not only confident in her vocal abilities but also in her shortcomings, as she becomes more disciplined in adding dramatic shifts to her singing. For someone who earns praise for excessiveness, she has managed to lose the fat and lop off the curls from her routine. Her voice lives up to the woman that Bruno Mars has envisioned for the song, and every time she hits the line, let’s stop the madness before it explodes, she roars with cockiness made even more impressive by the way she rolls herself around the bridge.
All right, all right, it’s a pain in the ass. But this musical monolith deserves a spot on a list that glorifies the popular and the dumb, and more so because “Friday” is a mix of the divisive and the comical and the ubiquitous—everything a pop song should be.
16. “HELENA BEAT”
Foster the People
After the massive success of “Pumped Up Kicks,” it seems that Foster the People have nothing much to worry about. Three or four tracks from Torches carry the same thump and wallop, and one or two of them are potential chart-toppers. However, there’s a fat chance that any of them will be played on Gossip Girl, Homeland, Entourage, or CSI: NY and be covered by The Kooks or Weezer. Being in the shadow of a kid in a shooting spree singing You better run, run run sucks big time, but “Helena Beat,” which vaguely speaks of alcoholism and drug addiction, possesses the earworm qualities that made its predecessor click: remarkable hooks, gutsy synth arrangements, androgynous vocals, and a slideshow of disturbing images. The glee that comes from “Pumped Up Kicks” spills right through here, filtered and moderated, which makes the song longer but tighter and loonier. It’s tough being a follow-up single, but apparently these trigger-happy guys from L.A. have more upsetting stories to tell and they send them in colorful boxes of sweets.
15. “SINO NGA BA SIYA”
All things considered, Sarah Geronimo should be thankful for Rayver Cruz. If not for him, she won’t have someone to throw virtual darts at every time she sings about heartbreak. “Forever’s Not Enough” is a superior song on all levels, but “Sino Nga Ba Siya” depicts her at her most wounded, and no one connects to listeners better than a woman who got hurt by her first love. Her words aren’t only clear—they are sharp, razor-sharp, cutthroat sharp. Her questions aren’t only straightforward—they are candid, honest, and undemanding. In fact, she might have been talking to Siri and asking for advice. It’s the song in Sarah’s catalog that may be the hardest for her to perform, but it captures her frailty and defenseless that her other hits cannot match.
14. “CHARLIE BROWN”
The best song from their weakest album, hardly because of the fuzziness of the songwriting—Took a car downtown where the lost boys meet, Took a car downtown and took what they offered me, lines which Chris Martin can scribble in his sleep—but by virtue of a rare kind of magic that their instruments manage to muddle up, the audio tracks that leap from everywhere, most especially the wailing guitars that burn the mawkishness and make the song frosty, slowly Zooropa-ing the mush away.
13. “THE EDGE OF GLORY”
[Born This Way]
A large portion of Lady Gaga’s persona is smokes and mirrors. Subtlety is never her strong suit, but she easily uses that to her advantage by channeling her diverse musical influences to her compositions. On Born This Way, she offers such huge servings of rock, metal, opera, and disco that listening to it becomes thoroughly exhausting. By the time the record hits the final track it’s all hot and heavy, and “The Edge of Glory” seems to add more weight with its slosh of techno synths that befits her larger-than-life ambitions. It’s a monster quite different from “Bad Romance,” “Poker Face” and “Born This Way”—it’s softer, richer, riskier in terms of structure, and her voice is fuller and fiercer. It’s a dance anthem for the weepies—it’s mad, manic, and maudlin, like the feeling of downing consecutive shots of vodka—and Gaga’s eclecticism has finally found an appropriate direction to go to. She never believes in “less is more,” so she asks Clarence Clemons to fashion a sax solo towards the end, batter the heart even harder, and pour more syrup.
Taken By Cars
Taken by Cars manage to refine their sound in Dualist, yet what stands out in their sophomore release is the unabashed dedication to hooks, specifically the eye-squinting polish and smoother texture that each song exudes. “Unidentified” follows the gleam of album opener, “This Is Our City,” and throws all the energy at the dance floor, punching holes in hearts as Sarah Marco spreads disco fever with her infectious singing. It’s more hypnotic than erotic, preferring spins and glides as the verses, chorus, and bridge seem to outrun each other’s slickness. There are no wasted seconds on the track—a cunningly seamless production is as scarce as hen’s teeth nowadays— and like every untouchable pop song, it pulls the ripcord at the most unexpected and breathtaking.
11. “WHO SAYS”
Selena Gomez and The Scene
[When The Sun Goes Down]
“Who Says” is Selena’s response to Facebook and Twitter haters who hounded her after she started dating Justin Bieber, and it’s wise of her to turn such torment into something sweet, into a celebration of individuality and self-worth. Hitting two birds with one stone, she is not only able to inspire her fans but also establish and reiterate, by dropping the word “beauty” countless times, how pretty she is, as if referencing to herself provides an impression of experience, an authority to speak on every girl’s behalf. Every time she repeats the verse, I’m no beauty queen, I’m just beautiful me, who can blame her self-confidence? Who dares to cringe after that figure of speech, It’s like a work of art that never gets to see the light? And who cares if the most expressive line in this song is Na na na na na na na na na na na?
[2NE1 2nd Mini Album]
Far from the feisty and gutsy techno-warfare singles the group is known for, “Lonely” wallows in simplicity. It takes away the Auto-tune, bombastic beats, and rap intrusions and lets the girls’ vocal abilities shine—the absence making its presence felt deeply—and such risky undertaking pays off in many exuberant ways. Invisible is the transition among the singers, and it shows how confident and comfortable they are in slow tempo. Stripped down, “Lonely” leaves 2NE1 in a state of utter nakedness, but there’s nothing to hide here but talent, which reveals the glitter and teeth marks of sadness.
[Limiters of Infinity Pool]
Ambivalence doesn’t work all the time, but in Ely Buendia’s case, when he drops words like a threatened man who finds comfort in poetry, it kills the monotony of a predictably dark and dull atmosphere. “TNT,” the lead single from Pupil’s Limiters of the Infinity Pool, starts with a flaming guitar riff that signals the clash of instruments about to inundate Ely’s vocals, peeling the layers until they reveal a door of sonic surprises. One can’t help but make a Teeth comparison after the nifty bridge, but that only adds to the song’s charming mysteriousness, which builds a fortress before finally drawing the curtains in a split second.
8. “TELL ME IT’S LOVE”
There was one touching moment during the Westlife concert in Manila when Nicky Byrne recounted a conversation with a Filipino staff member at the hotel they stayed in. The woman came up to him and said that she was a huge fan of the band and that their songs helped her get through elementary school. After making fun of his mates’ age, Nicky asked who among the audience was listening to their songs during elementary and more than half of the crowd raised their hands, which made the band members chuckle even louder. Shane started to sing words from “My Love” in a cappella and Nicky grabbed his camera to film the people singing along, and for the nth time the night was drowned in memories, all coursing through from the bright stage.
“Tell Me It’s Love” was never sung in the concert, but it was tucked somewhere in the band’s tenth and final studio album, Gravity. A throwback to their early singles, it is as generic as any Westlife song can get, alternating between Mark and Shane’s sweeping vocals, building up towards a chorus that looks back as much as it looks forward. Wrapped up by Nicky’s maudlin bridge and Mark’s trademark torch singing, the rendition of the song is close to perfect, which explains why the band’s breakup is a little hard to embrace.
7. “PATULOY ANG PANGARAP”
Angeline Quinto came at the time when the local music industry was consciously and unconsciously looking for someone as good as Sarah Geronimo. With the arguable exception of Christian Bautista, whose popularity is only hyped by his international fan base, Sarah’s contemporaries have all been passé—Erik Santos, Sheryn Regis, Rachelle Ann Go, and Mark Bautista are still out there but they’re only as negligible as anybody—and even she has been making constant efforts to reinvent herself to avoid the sharp fangs of oblivion. ABS-CBN knows that the solution is to come up with another talent search, even if it means producing another mediocre show.
Angeline bags the title among the hordes of Sharon wannabes , wins a recording contract, and eventually becomes the reliable provider of soundtracks for soap operas. Her breakthrough single, “Patuloy ang Pangarap,” maps out her journey, from dreaming dreams to finally realizing them, imbued with banalities that fail to make her flinch. Angeline’s careful singing gives her away: she means all the words she says. The song is about her, for her, and by her. By the time she reaches the peak of the song, she has nothing left to do but hold all her aces, flap her wings, and soar.
6. “ROLLING IN THE DEEP”
In the year that witnessed a tug of war between Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, Adele just stood in the middle: she took the cake and ate it by herself. She’s the corporal opposite of Amy Winehouse, but she shares the late singer’s knack for emotional lift, vulnerable to every proof that love is indeed a losing game. But unlike Amy, Adele prefers screams and histrionics, favoring drama and towering arrangements in lieu of sublimity, her quivering voice a reminder of hurt and willingness to suffer. From the guitar strums in the beginning to the thunderous claps in the bridge, “Rolling in the Deep” describes Adele at her most sorrowful, glimpsing at her healing heart before patching the holes of regret and despair. But the song also depicts her strength and sobriety. She takes all the pain in and lets it all out, her soul emptied out and filled again, showing everyone her breathtaking needlework.
[Araw, Oras, Tagpuan]
It is possible that the members of Spongecola, who have long been creating some of the most vexing pop songs in the past few years, are not aware that they have released their finest composition, lyrically and melodically, this year. “Tambay” is not a risky undertaking—it still makes use of the band’s trite songwriting and ostentatious chord arrangements—but now it is fine-tuned from start to end, progressing from a run-of-the-mill ditty to an irresistibly catchy courtship song that stands alongside the best of Parokya ni Edgar and Kamikazee. Yael Yuzon gives up the overbearing screams and delivers well-adjusted bellows, accompanied by guitar screeches and eager beats that fit the teenage vibe nicely, flashing a three-minute wonder worthy of numerous repeats.
4. “SUPER BASS”
Nicki Minaj (feat. Ester Dean)
In the past two years, a Nicki Minaj verse means gold. Whenever she makes a guest appearance, she turns a so-so song into something remarkable (“Up Out My Face”) and a good song much, much better (“Woohoo,” “Raining Men”). Sadly her own songs from Pink Friday lack the pump and kick of her collaborations, and if it weren’t for Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez, to whom “Super Bass” owes its break, she’d be quickly reduced to a novelty, a trinket to be discarded over time. In a span of three minutes and a series of wild verses, fortunately, she changed all that. “Super Bass” is one of the year’s loudest and proudest turning points, an arsenal of all things weird and wonderful made even weirder and more wonderful by Nicki’s skill at catapulting, robbing every word and stuffing all of them into her mouth before launching an impeccable chorus. How the song turns affection into something worth sinning for is no easy feat, but the way she declares her fondness for a guy and sugarcoats it to the point of intoxication, there seems to be no other feeling happier than that.
3. “WE FOUND LOVE”
Rihanna (feat. Calvin Harris)
[Talk That Talk]
There’s something very hormonal about Rihanna’s songs that liking them equates to being instinctive and juvenile, her tunes teeming with immediate vibrancy that burst with force and color the moment the chorus hits and repeats. What makes “We Found Love” different, however, is that the listener’s expectations are only as good as the surprises she pulls, something which producer Calvin Harris has structured so slickly the sparseness of the words works surprisingly well to the song’s advantage, the blaring synths even catchier than the hook line itself. We found love in a hopeless place shines with peerless ebullience—it’s 2011’s tallest skyscraper as far as earworms are concerned, and Rihanna, who feeds on sadomasochism and doom, chants it with a mix of lust and despair, throwing daggers with her eyes closed. Knowing that she suckles on excesses, Harris gives her less, and one of the most trifling pieces she has been asked to work on turns out to be an exceptional gem.
Jay-Z and Kanye West
[Watch the Throne]
The kind of lifestyle that Jay-Z and Kanye promote doesn’t come close to the kind of lifestyle that the two lead in real life. Their richness goes beyond money, fame, and luxury. They no longer need a territory to conquer and a culture of contradictions to turn upside down. “Otis” seems purposely arranged to sound like an effortless exercise—the two rap titans trading verses that show off and underline their skill and influence—but in all its tremendous superciliousness there hovers a luster that never wears off despite the lack of anything that resembles a chorus, apart from the sample of “Try A Little Tenderness” that provides the song a charming pockmark. It’s a pronouncement of fortune, a statement of infinite assets and zero liabilities that no longer sees the sky as the limit. Nothing in it breaks new grounds except for Jay-Z and Kanye breakdancing on top of their careers with no one to challenge them but their own vanities, the throne left to no one but to their shadows.
Sasha Frere-Jones describes Beyoncé as “a quiet meritocrat, celebrating the pleasure of doing things well and not making a particularly big deal of it.” She dashes from one huge triumph to another without making a fuss, a diva and a hustler at the peak of her career who never runs out of novelties to offer, challenging herself in every career move she makes. After successfully headlining Glastonbury last June, she is now a proud mother at 30, giving birth not only to her first child but also to a number of songs that would soon inspire and make up her subsequent albums. Filled with references to her happy married life, 4 captures Beyoncé’s finest form as a singer, gracefully bending genres from soul to RnB, supported by an excellent team of producers that enables her to sharpen what’s already sharp and churn new classics.
“Countdown” stands out in the record’s stream of blues and spikes. In pure “Crazy in Love” fashion, Beyoncé delivers a maniacal confession of love that bleeds as much as it thrills, a song whose only idea of rest is a beaming smile. It is built on Beyoncé’s temper, a kinetic ball that rolls far and fast regardless of the flight of stairs it needs to climb, the topnotch quality of her voice complementing the mad instrumental crescendos. It champs at the bit, it tosses and turns, it jumps and sizzles—there are so many things happening in the song that it’s impressive how she manages to keep up and march along, but that’s her gift: being able to hold out her hand and touch numerous places at once. She sweetly talks about her relationship with Jay-Z, telling it like a school girl reminiscing a first kiss, and she is backed up by a cathedral of beats and colorful syncopation that lift her from the storm. Never has Beyoncé shown any sign of wavering; on the contrary, she goes up and up. polishing the structure of the song before returning to its centerpiece, rarely pausing for breath, hovering in midair for three and a half minutes, and then poof: she disappears.
NEXT: The Top 50 Albums of 2011