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titanic

My gateway drug into the hyperkinetic world of pop culture was Titanic. Yes, thatTitanic—yes, the $200-million James Cameron movie which also doubles as an approximation of his dick and ego. And here’s the most baduy thing about it: Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On was the reason I tuned in to MTV every freaking day. It may sound terribly jologs, but a blockbuster film like Titanic makes for a perfect introduction to pop culture. Its immensity covers all the great films that existed before it, sharing the weight of historical epics such as Ben Hur and the sweeping romance of classics like Gone with the Wind.

My Titanic years (which approximately lasted for two years) were pretty intense: I scoured newspapers and magazines and clipped any mention of the film — the ‘90s version of an aggregator or Twitter link (the news clippings are still kept in a red folder somewhere in our house). While waiting for Celine Dion on MTV, I got introduced to musicians like Tori Amos, Madonna (who was at her post-‘80s prime in 97’s “Ray of Light”), Bjork, U2 and Jewel. Everything else followed suit: Top 40 pop, American Film Institute’s 100 films (courtesy of the Newsweek special with the AFI 100 commemoration that featured a Martin Scorsese article mentioning Titanic), Academy Awards, film soundtracks, and magazines (Vanity Fairand Entertainment Weekly).

Four years after, this ridiculous cycle of obsession was repeated when The Lord of the Rings came out. This was a longer phase, marked by a close reading of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy and The Hobbit, learning to write and read in Elvish and other Middle Earth languages (the Cirth rune was a particular favorite), and visiting filmtracks.com for translations of the choir texts Howard Shore used in the trilogy’s soundtrack.LOTR ushered in the science fiction/horror/speculative fiction phase of my reading life. Unlike my Titanicphase, this was easier because there were blogs like Andrew Ty’s Atrocity Exhibition LiveJournal or Banzai Cat’s blog that referred me to authors like China Mieville, Iain M. Banks and Thomas Ligotti.

Because you kids arrived on this earth in the time of the Blessed Reign of the Holy Internet, getting access to all the cool and obscure pop culture stuff is pretty easy. Even a quick visit to a Wikipedia page of a film, book or album leads to a treasure trove of information via citations and footnotes. But the case here is all about careful curation of content. Your online existence will be relatively easy if you know which sites to go to for your pop cultural consumption. Going past The Daily What, I Can Haz Cheezburger, or Animals Talking in All Caps (probably the most intelligent animal-related meme blog on the web), here are four websites and an artist discography that has helped shaped my cultural consumption over the past decade or so. I hope this list will be helpful, particularly to those who want a different pop cultural perspective this 2013.

Slant Magazine

Combining excellent writing with sharp pop cultural observations, Slant champions the great and the underappreciated in film, music, television and (more recently) video games. Their 100 Essential Films list has Bela Tarr’s Satantango share sacred space with divisive cult classics like Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls. All their staff lists, like The 25 Best Horror Films of the Aughts and 100 Best Films of the 1990s are essential reading for film enthusiasts.

Brain Pickings

It may be a bit twee or over-enthusiastic for some but Maria Popova’s website is a repository of curiosities and interesting finds on science, history, literature, politics, and everything in between. Some of their interesting posts include The Best Science Books of 2012, Susan Sontag on Love, and “British vs American Politics in Minimalist Vintage Infographics.”

The discographies of Sufjan Stevens and The Decemberists

These folk rock contemporaries are commandeered by men who have painstakingly pored through little-known lore, urban legends and kilometric epic poems, as reflected in their respective discographies. Stevens, known for his ambitious Americana albums, mixes gritty narratives (his song John Wayne Gacy Jr. is about empathizing with the titular serial killer) and Christian-folk sensibilities (particularly on his album “Seven Swans” which featured a track about the transfiguration of Christ) while Colin Meloy, the lead singer and songwriter of The Decemberists, incorporates Japanese legends (such as “The Crane Wife”) and indie rock operas (in The Hazards of Love) as tributes to his literary heroes. Their albums and the succeeding unraveling of their influences and Easter Eggs are great introductions to lesser-known tales.

mental_floss 

Their website’s “about” page puts the reading experience succinctly: “mental_flossmagazine is an intelligent read, but not too intelligent. We’re the sort of intelligent that you hang out with for a while, enjoy our company, laugh a little, smile a lot and then we part ways.” The magazine poses questions and answers to things you never thought you’d be interested in: investigations on newt toxins, how paperbacks changed the way Americans read, and stories behind famous cocktails. You may not give a sh*t about these things but after reading mental_floss, you will want to tell everyone (i.e. your Facebook friends list and Twitter followers) about it.

Filmmaker Raya Martin’s Tumblr blog is a scrapbook of historical outtakes, obscure indie rock, and pop music. Basically, it’s a glimpse into the machinations that operate inside Martin’s cinematic mind.

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Three quarters into Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, one of his broken-down characters proclaims, “Lots of bad things happen once you start to get old.” It’s not quite as profound like the other chunks of wisdom Chabon scatters across his book but its basic, eleven-word grip hovers above the characters heads like a godforsaken slogan written in Dayglo colors. Chabon, who previously won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, splits this realization into the two halves of his story: one about fatherhood and the other about professional struggle.

Chabon builds Telegraph Avenue as a sprawling view of pre-Obama America. It’s 2004 in the titular NoCal avenue (which connects Berkeley and Oakland) and Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings find themselves in a battle against retail giant Dogpile, which threatens to eat up their independent vinyl record store, Brokeland Records. Their wives are also having a hard time as birth partners and will soon descend into some sort of professional limbo after birthing hiccup with one of their clients. These characters will soon hang out with then Senator Obama in one of his political fund raising gigs in Berkeley. His cameo sets off the signifier for change—something that will be faced with a good amount of reluctance and opposition.

Much of what Chabon mines here is the stuff of Obama’s promised wave of change: racial dynamics (Nat is Jewish and Archy is black), health care, corporate sleaze versus small businesses, communal development, and homosexuality. There’s even a little bit of immigration tucked here and there. Chabon frames all this in a Blaxploitation perspective, via Archy’s dad Luther who used to be a B-movie action star. He occasionally lapses into a mixtape of the African-American history, jazz and soul worship, violent outbursts, and the existential state that we share with our collectibles, mimicking the filmic stylishness and attribution of Quentin Tarantino, whose work figures widely in the book.

Telegraph Avenue towers with ambition. It hints at an exercise of making the new Great American Novel that approximates the socio-political climate of the era, an impression that is reinforced with each giddy reception of the book. Heavily immersive passages (watch out for the one-sentence chapter), pockmarked with bursts of obscure references may sometimes mar the reading experience but once Chabon unleashes a bevy of swift literary Kung Fu moves, he hooks you in from page to page, crackling with fetishistic brio and sense of direction. It may be a slow burner but Telegraph Avenue reveals itself as an unlikely field guide to pop cultural dreams and easing up into the complexities of adulthood.

This review originally appeared in Rogue Magazine (November 2012). Image from SFGate.

jodi

These days, Jodi Sta. Maria is walking on sunshine. Warm fuzzies roll on to her favor; an unstoppable force that lets her glide like a kite on a clear blue sky. It’s an imagery that anyone can easily associate with her, especially now that she’s been giving audiences healthy doses of optimism as Maya in the hit daytime show, Be Careful With My Heart. “When people see me now, parang they see me as walking good vibes,” she says with a chuckle. If ever Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote ‘She’s a Rainbow’ with a particular girl in mind, it would probably be someone like Maya, and in extension, Jodi herself.

The story of Be Careful With My Heart is hardly new stuff: a provincial lass finds her way into the city to help her family and, after a series of happy accidents, ends up as a helper in the household of a rich businessman. Yet, it became 2012’s biggest television phenomenon, boasting ratings that rival top-ranking primetime soaps. The tandem of Jodi and Richard Yap, who fans fondly refer to as Sir Chief, his nickname in the show, has become its beating core. In that sudden tip of a hat, Jodi and Richard are now household names.

The show’s success has led to its transforming into massive franchise, spawning numerous fan pages and blogs (teeming with gif sets of memorable kilig scenes), soundtracks, mall shows, and even a world tour. Originally slated for a one season run when it premiered July last year, it is now extended until mid-2013. A film starring Jodi and Richard is also said to be in the works. But more than its skyrocket to fame, Be Careful has stood as a tent pole for feel-good television, a moral guidebook that kids and adults alike can check whenever they find themselves in sticky situations, just like in Maya’s [mis]adventures.

“Siyempre sa umpisa naman ng show ay mere entertainment lang; to entertain people,” Jodi explains. “But then habang tumagal, we all realized, hindi lang siya naging basta entertainment para sa mga kababayan natin kundi naging source din siya ng inspiration and reminder para sa nakararami. Naging instrument lang kaming mga actors, our directors, production staff, and yung mga crew. We work hand in hand para makapag-send out ng magandang mensahe sa mga tao.”

Jodi Sta. Maria cover story for Preview Magazine March 2013. Read the rest of the story on Zinio

BMLove is just escape for two people who don’t know how to be alone,” says Jesse Wallace (Ethan Hawke) in Before Sunrise (1995), the first of Richard Linklater’s trilogy that centers on a couple as they go through European cities and discuss pretty much everything there is to be discussed. It’s easy to dismiss the films as ideations of Jesse’s escapist theory but in between dorm-room ramblings on gender studies, the cultural clash between Americans and Europeans, and wistful evocations on love and the fragile nature of relationships, Linklater’s long walks of romanticism touch on a familiar truth; a stripped-down form of love, something that inspired at least a generation of moviegoers to search for an elusive kind of love on trains, cafes, record stores, and second-hand bookshops.

Of course, here we’ll have to settle for alternatives: record shops in Cubao X, Book Sales, Starbucks, or the school library. It’s a search that’s First World and bohemian at best, teetering on the ridiculous notion that a chatty but good-looking Frenchie like Celine (or in Jesse’s case, an American) on the train might be the love of his life instead of a psychotic man-hater. At its most basic, the films operate on the template of Hollywood love, with a hefty serving of intellect and a dash of quirk (although never crossing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Side) but Linklater, who later collaborated with the actors in the screenplays of Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013), provides us with conversations that are believable enough to make love-struck wanderers out of us, hoping that we’ll strike up a conversation with someone who reads Kinsey or Georges Bataille. The closest thing that we can settle for here is someone with a dog-eared copy of Haruki Murakami or John Green.

It’s almost been 15 years since Before Sunrise and it took Jesse and Celine nine years to reunite in Paris in Before Sunset. Their initial meeting, brimming with bullshit theories that hallmark youthful musings, provided us with an ending that exposed the hopeful or the cynic in us: would they really meet six months later like they agreed to? Turns out, they didn’t. Celine’s grandmother died and was buried on their supposed meeting date but Jesse did fly to Vienna and stayed there for a week, hoping that Celine would eventually show up. They haven’t quite moved on after that, their one night in Vienna still their most vivid memory. Jesse then writes a novel about their encounter, a clever way to draw Celine’s attention and they eventually meet, nine years later at Jesse’s book reading in Paris. And they’ve done a little growing up, too.

Before Sunset shows a more hard-edged couple, jaded and a bit contemptuous after experiencing fallouts in their respective relationships. But at their core, they’re still those young drifters that met in Vienna. We ride in on that hope too, that they’ll finally pick up where they left off nine years ago, despite the fact that they only have an hour until Jesse flies back to New York. Then Linklater gives us what possibly is the best ending of the last decade.

Nine years later, we have Before Midnight, which premiered in Sundance last January to overwhelmingly positive reviews. Adjectives and phrases rained on the film range from “masterful,” “perfect” to “the best of the trilogy.” Its release was anticipated mostly by the teenagers who saw Before Sunset who have by now turned into battle-scarred 20- or 30-somethings, hoping to find an acceptable resolution to Jesse and Celine’s romance. With promo stills and rumors that hint at the relationship’s demise, Before Midnight gnaws on that paralyzing anxiety that we’ve been harboring all these years: that they’ve never really hit it off and that their romance is just kept alive by “brief encounters in European cities.”

Before Midnight finds Jesse and Celine in Greece, a rather ominous setting: a country that’s known for its ruins. The years haven’t been easy on Jesse and Celine and here, we find them tangled in the repercussions of their decisions from the last two decades. “How long has it been since we walked around bullshiting?” Celine asks Jesse. You can’t help but feel the last two films have afforded them a ruminative break over everything that they have been trying to escape. For a couple that you’ve projected on your ideas of what love is, Jesse and Celine make for a perfect substitute for a future you’ll hope to find yourself in. So for everyone who’s loved the last two films, Before Midnight is either that last dash to fulfillment or a heavy blow of betrayal.

It’s almost silly, of course, trying to pin your relationship woes on a fictional couple. But it almost seems too plausible since ours is a generation shaped by pop-cultural codes. The release of Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, a comedy film that chronicles the struggles of a couple in their 40s, and the second season Lena Dunham’s Girls, catalogue frustrations that come punching in when you’re grappling with quarter-life crisis. These films haven’t given us escape; they have been confrontational avenues where we can deal with our own shortcomings in whatever relationships we find ourselves in. We might be occasionally eaten up by fears, held up by streaks of optimism, and let down by sullied expectations, but our personal histories will always culminate in that moment of reprieve, that like Jesse and Celine, we’ve given ourselves chances to look on a future that we think we truly deserve.

Published February 9, 2013 in the Philippine Star’s Supreme

Photo by Arni Aclao

There is a certain trace of nihilism attached to the title of Marty Syjuco and Martin Collins’s documentary Give Up Tomorrow. After all, its subject is as bleak and hopeless as a Lars Von Trier film. As facts snowball into one apparent truth, the title emerges as a mantra, ushering in a degree of survival, especially for Paco Larrañaga, the documentary’s subject and the public face of the Chiong rape-murder case.

“I think when you leave this film, you’ll wonder how could he survive, how could someone innocent, not just Paco but all the other innocent people, survive (in prison)? And what we learned from Paco, living in the present moment and just getting through one more day, was just inspiring for us. Even though the title seemed very negative, when you watch the film you can see that it’s really a positive advice that kept him going,” says Collins.

This is the case: On the stormy night of July 16, 1997, sisters Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong were allegedly raped and murdered after they were kidnapped at a mall in Cebu City. The case became one the city’s most heinous crimes and the authorities were pressured to come up with suspects or at least a lead. The police then arrested eight men who were accused of the crime, one of whom was Paco Larrañaga, then a 19-year-old student at a culinary school in Manila. The trial went on for decades and became Cebu’s “mistrial of the century,” a public spectacle of our country’s faulty justice system and a catch-all of the media’s penchant for sensationalism.

Give Up Tomorrow shines light on a huge chunk of the story that was never told back then. The media, and in turn the public, had a part in convicting Larrañaga and his co-accused. They were made out as monsters capable of killing two girls out of lust and petty reasons. The film assembles hundreds of interviews and evidence that point out the glaring truth about the case that was overlooked by the prosecutors and the media: the innocence of everyone convicted of a crime interlinked with the most corrupt depths of our society. A haze of facts and shady evidence clouds the real nature of the case. And this is what Give Up Tomorrow addresses: a view of the Chiong case that spotlights an outrageous example of bullying stemming from racial tension.

“We wanted to try to clearly show all sides of the story, to give voice to some who hadn’t had a voice yet in the reporting that had been done on this, to show something fair and let the audience make their own decision. That was always our goal. We also didn’t want it to be a news piece. We wanted it to be a film. We wanted people to connect with the characters emotionally onscreen,” Collins explains.

“When we started digging deeper and learning details of the case, we realized you can’t make this stuff up. Nobody can write this up because it’s too crazy, it’s too unbelievable, and the only way to tell this story is to make a documentary,” adds Syjuco.

Stoking racial tension

Even before the conviction was handed out, Larrañaga was already guilty in the eyes of the public. He was a conyo, a privileged delinquent who happened to be a great-grandson of the late Philippine president Sergio Osmeña. His roots were the very ropes that strapped him helpless even though evidence proved that he wasn’t even in Cebu the night the crime took place, a fact that was pointed out by defense witnesses (all 35 of them) using logbooks, school records, and even photographs. The evidence and testimonies were dismissed, saying that these were from friends of the accused.

“The media presented Paco as this mestizo. It was no longer about the facts of this case but about what Paco represented: the whole history of being mestizo, a colonial past, and being related to the OsmeñasThat was the story that was selling headlines and much more interesting so people were just stoking that ethnic and racial tension constantly and facts were just getting buried,” Collins shares.

But with years of research, clarity and brevity, Give Up Tomorrow lets the people involved in the case speak for themselves. It refrains from being an overarching piece of didacticism or unleashing a torrent of information that dumps “facts” readily available for decades. From the opening scene that establishes Larrañaga’s take on the case up to his transfer to Spain to serve the remainder of his life sentence, the filmmakers painstakingly filter voices that eventually mold into a singular perspective of the case. But most of all, it challenges a nation whose notions of guilt and justice were twisted by unfair and biased reportage.

Personal slant

The film teeters, though, on a side that could render its effort useless: Syjuco’s brother is married to Larrañaga’s sister so accusations of bias emerged from some prior to the screening.

“I distanced myself mostly in the edit. The editing was really just Michael and our editor, Eric (Daniel Metzgar),” Syjuco says. “With the 400 hours of footage, it took them two years to edit. For me, I felt this was an opportunity, because I had this guilt, this was happening and I didn’t do anything. I guess I used the camera as a weapon. The true story was never out there. I also didn’t know Paco’s family very well. It’s just now that the film is done and they went to the premiere in Tribeca and we were together in some Spanish festivals, that I got to know them and spend real time with them.”

In a country that perceives personal connection to a subject as a form of corruption, Syjuco and Collins were just focused on doing their jobs as filmmakers, as champions and crusaders of truth.

“Our intention in making this film was to present the truth. We knew that once we did our job and once the people saw the film it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter if this film was made by his brother. The facts of the case were just showing the truth. It’s easy to say, if you haven’t seen the film, that there’s a family relation so it’s propaganda. But people who walk into the theater with that in mind always leave and say, ‘You know what it doesn’t matter anymore that you’re related to (Paco), because it’s presenting the truth,’” Collins says.

And as filmmakers who dedicated seven years of their lives working on this film, it’s encouraging to know that Syjuco and Collins don’t just see the controversial subject as a starting mark in their careers.

“We worked on this for seven years and we’re going to see it through the end. From distribution to outreach and eventually creating an impact,” says Syjuco.

ripe time for change

After decades of discrepancies, doubts and disparaging images, the case is still an erroneous landmark in the face of our justice system. The Chiong case has been a playground for men and women acting gods, serving up crooked justice as they see fit. But ultimately, Give Up Tomorrow is about injustice, regardless of its form and who it takes in its undertow. After all, the Chiong family only looked for justice for their daughters and Paco’s family strived to undo the wrongs committed against him.

Like all the great documentaries that preceded it, Give Up Tomorrow is a manifestation of how the medium can serve as an instrument for social change, how it can create a spark that will ignite an impact greater than what the filmmakers realized. And with the changing social climate and the emergence of new voices in the media, maybe it’s about time that we looked back on a more tumultuous version of ourselves and reassessed our faults, prejudices, and accountability.

* * *

For more information about Give Up Tomorrow, visit pacodocu.com where you can contact the filmmakers for screenings and interviews.

This article was originally published in The Philippine Star

Unknown to many, Philippine Cinema has prospered despite the flagging support of the general viewing public. Since the early 2000s, brave storytellers like Lav Diaz and Raya Martin have released a steady stream of films that have carved out a distinct perspective of our myths and stories. Producers and filmmakers like Raymond Lee and Jade Castro shun mainstream and indie categorization for the sake of clear-cut narratives that are both accessible and more endearing than most big studio drivel, as depicted in films like Endo and last year’s hit Zombadings:1 Patayin sa Shokot si Remington.

Film critic Philip Cheah even noticed the strong lead of the Philippines in the new wave of Southeast Asian films. “Filipinos themselves don’t realize the nexus of creativity that they exist in. They groan at the thought of how far behind their cinema is. But any outsider would be rendered breathless at the amazing power of their independent spirit. I know I was blown away when I watched last year’s crop of new indie films at the Seventh Cinemalaya film festival. There were tons of new films and after the regional wave of 2010, you could say that the empire (or the country’s center) struck back! The Manila-based directors rallied and released a surge of great films. But it’s not a real competition anyway. Filipinos know that they were born to create.”

With the emergence of films like Yam Laranas’s The Road in the international circuit as well as screenings of small-budget gems like Antoinette Jadaone’s Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (the most critically acclaimed local film of 2011) in film festivals abroad, it’s truly an exciting time for Philippine cinema. The numbers of local releases may have dwindled but it’s undeniable that there are more quality films being produced.

Just in case you need more convincing, here is a list of recent films, including shorts and full-length, that deserve a wider audience not just locally but elsewhere in the world.

Tundong Magiliw (Tundo Beloved)

Dir: Jewel Maranan

Unlike other films that deal with poverty, Jewel Maranan’s Tundong Magiliw refuses to slither down Tundo’s infamous image. Instead, she captures an intimate portrait of a family struggling to make ends meet, and witnesses a birth that foretells a future riddled with its own emotional baggage and promises.

Mapang-akit

Dir: John Torres

Torres’s take on the aswang myth wanders from the idyllic into a poetic play of the supernatural. Made from outtakes of a collaboration with a Danish filmmaker, Mapang-akit creates its own language while still grounded in cultural quirks of a hushed town haunted by a grim spell.

Big Boy

Dir: Shireen Seno

Big Boy approximates the glories and pitfalls of childhood in a swirl of hallucinatory images. Seno’s film, based on the experiences of her father, evokes the traps of our labyrinthine remembrances, where faces and names blur but the emotional resonance resounds stronger than ever. Timmy Harn and Gym Lumbera’s Class Picture, a short film that recaptures the fading pleasures of the titular photograph, should serve as a companion piece.

Sakay sa Hangin (Windblown)

Dir: Regiben Romana

Sakay sa Hangin immerses us into the rich culture of the Talaandig tribe as we follow the tribe’s musician on his quest to save his dying heritage. Romana’s film reminds us that our country holds more riches than what our school textbooks have shown us and that music will always be a universal vessel of peace.

Lawas Kan Pinabli (Forever Loved)

Dir: Christopher Gozum

Mixing fiction and documentary, Lawas Kan Pinabli shatters the heroic notions about overseas Filipino workers. The film is divided into several interviews with OFWs in the Middle East whose harrowing experiences stem from their dream of better lives. But the film also shows how some Filipinos knowingly break rules and cultural norms to fit their misguided intentions, not realizing there are realities far bigger than themselves until they eventually hit rock bottom.

Originally published in The Philippine Star Supreme (May 26, 2012)

Image

It’s strange how Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way Ball” can be both a celebration of oneness and a paean to the perils of individuality. As an outspoken advocate of the LGBT community (“I cannot respect homophobia and intolerance of the gay community!” she bellows during the Manila leg of her tour), Gaga has embraced the rainbow connection like a currency, something she has conflated in Born This Way and its title track. “The Born This Way Ball” is a celebration of this virtue, a spectacle of pomp, grace and aggressiveness that has earned her the adulation of her “little monsters,” and the ire of conservatives around the world. But it’s this kind of pelting that makes her even stronger.

By now, Gaga’s spiels from the concert have circulated around Twitter and Facebook like an infectious chain of text messages, punctuated by the proclamation of “I am certainly not a creature of your government!” People are quick to jump on this as her way of wagging her middle finger to the protests that surrounded her arrival but it’s, more or less, her elaboration of the manifesto that she blabbers on all throughout the show. She mixes ‘80s kitsch with goth/medieval sensibilities and Golden Age science fiction to catapult the rise of a “new race”: a population distilling her advocacy that ultimately stems from the Bible, no matter how hard the fundies crucify her as devil incarnate. Gaga, after all, was schooled in a convent.

When armed with her love-yourself ammunition, Gaga becomes a strikingly commandeering presence; a high priestess of pop music. She is the honey badger of the music industry: she really doesn’t give a sh*t. She preaches what she wants and she does it like no other prefabricated starlet. The “Born This Way Ball,” she says, isn’t just a big-ass promotional platform, it’s a venue for her beloved fans to celebrate their true selves under the banner of empathy and togetherness; a prayer rally for those inflicted with low self-esteem. And with anthems like Born This WayBad Kids, and Hair, she can make anyone feel like they’re up there with her, living their childhood dreams. If you’ve been cheated on, duped or cast off, Gaga’s songs can be her way of braiding your hair and giving you a pat on the back. “It’s okay,” she’ll say. “They’re all replaceable anyway. Look at my couch, it’s all man meat. They’re more useful this way.” And for that moment, while you sing along to her ridiculous turns of phrase, you believe her.

Without the cultivated persona, Gaga is at her strongest. The Fame era songs remind us how once she was obsessed with boys, blinding lights, and proving her detractors wrong, how her glitter-guzzling former self has given the world turbo-powered fusions of Eurotrash and electronica without the baggage of empowerment. Syllables turn into tics; gummy earworms that lounge in your head for days. Songs like Poker Face, Just Dance and Love Game are proof of how her old pop star image has helped catapult her into a larger-than-life performer. And when she hit the Born This Way era, she threw off the sequined gloves and put on a Versace-designed habit and launched into a mission to preach her gospel to whoever wants to listen and be enlightened.

But at her most vulnerable, Gaga is most believable. As she performs the stripped-down version of Hair, she turns it into a powerful weapon; a highlighted passage in a John Green book that morphs into a moment of self-actualization. Your hair may be a ridiculous metaphor for self-expression and freedom but it does make sense.

In the end, when all the bass lines and camp have all been blown into the spotlight, she’ll turn off the lights, stow away her costume and close her book. You’ll walk out, into the antiseptic lights of the arena, humming the chorus line of Marry the Night, assimilating the last two hours in your head. It’s an intense experience, hammered with pop’s greatest transgressions; something that bears a close resemblance to a religious experience. Now go forth and spread the word.

Originally published in The Philippine Star Supreme (May 26, 2012)

The lack of outstanding full-length releases this year can be quite bothering. In a year which saw the release of Anne Curtis’s Annebisyosa, one would think that an antithesis would exist, as if to maintain the balance of The Force. There’s also the curious case of Somedaydreamwho has been hailed as the future of the local music industry but whose lack of actual singing talent and fractured musical sensibilites (latching on the autotune hysteria way after its impact has died already) has people almost dying in fits of convulsive laughter whenever the messiah proclamation comes up. If indeed he is, then our music industry is seriously retarded.

Tags are shady anyway. They fulfill the need for neat categorization. But if there’s one thing that should rightly be marked as the hope for local music, it should be Number Line Records. Featuring a sonically diverse line-up of artists, Number Line’s 2011 releases make up much of this year-ender list, signifying a burning torch that foretells a glimmer of a brighter future.

1. Indak – Up Dharma Down (Listen)

For some weird, otherworldly reason, a YouTube commenter chose to call UDD vocalist Armi Millare as the Filipino version of Adele, citing perhaps both singer’s remarkable vocal prowess and their predilection to championing the woes of broken hearts. It’s still amazing how Up Dharma Down can put out vastly different songs centering on heartbreak. Lingering in the vein of ‘Oo’, ‘Sana’ and last year’s ‘Tadhana’, ‘Indak’ tracks the shoddiness of uncertainty, where the only thing you can do is to dance along to it.

2. Pagsamba -Vic Robinson III)

In Alvin Yapan’s Gayuma, Mercedes Cabral braces herself for an uphill climb, carrying her comatose lover on her back, dragging him along to a mystical waterfall in the hopes of waking him up until the effects of his love potion reveals the truth behind their sweet words. ‘Pagsamba’ accompanies this pilgrimage, forming a haunting plea for a love grounded by a conviction as strong as a fundamentalist’s faith.

3. Spectre – Modulogeek (Listen)

‘Spectre’ skitters with warm happies that take the form of soft, pitter-pattering beats that bounce off the walls. There are no menacing apparitions here, only Joon Guillen’s impressive articulations that border between waking and starry-eyed dreaming.”

4. Anarchy in the Ukay-Ukay – Tarsius ft. Evil Scientists 

Basically, reveling on the cheap kicks of ukay-ukay finds, ‘Anarchy in the Ukay-Ukay’ is a stroke of mad genius, with Evil Scientists ruminating on the life of a strapping young lad courtesy of secondhand goods. Ukay is swag indeed.

5. This is Our City – Taken By Cars (Listen)

Whether it’s really ‘This is our fall’ or ‘This is our home’, Taken by Cars’s opening salvo for their sophomore release Dualist breaks their trendy shoegaze shackles. ‘This is our City’ is awash with a recognizably muscular sonic direction, zooming off into a pedal-pumping frenzy of crunching guitars, shifting effects and turbo-powered precision.

6. D.R.U.G.S. – The Strangeness (Listen)

‘D.R.U.G.S.’ is The Strangeness shaking hands with a dark entity. It’s not exactly Beelzebub but maybe you can actually hear his maniacal laugh amid the distortions and substance-aided cries of longing and anguish. This is a two-minute trip into a lost highway somewhere in David Lynch’s imaginings. Desire, despair, desire and disrepair.

7. Casual Fridays – Multo (Listen)

Multo comes around the local gig scene, seemingly unannounced from the land of hipsterdom (Portland, OR). ‘Casual Fridays’ represents Alan Lumba at his best, where the warm fizzles break out into riffs that demand a closer listen, inviting you in its confusion until you just find yourself shuffling along.

8. 20/20 – Pupil (Listen)

More than anything else, 20/20 will always be remembered for its car-free EDSA music video, something that actually happened in an alternate universe. ‘20/20’ drifts until it collapses in itself, zipping through the stars “in a silver shopping cart” while Ely Buendia waxes poetic about some being probably responsible for that miraculous quasi-post-apocalyptic vision of EDSA.

9. Cold Turkey – Slow Hello (Listen)

‘Cold Turkey’ ends abruptly, the way it begins with a mantra-like repetition of an acceptance of an ending. Selena Salang buries her frustrations and disappointments in the song’s lo-fi backdrop, an act that echoes in the wail of guitars and the stomping of percussion.

10. Fish Song – Arigato, Hato! (Listen)

Arigato Hato’s ‘Fish Song’ thrums and escalates while vocalist Cat Cortes croons as though she were swimming in Bjork’s mother Oceania. Heartsongs humming and thriving in the glimmering promise of a newfound love.

Honorable mentions:  

  • Stereo Light – Japuski
  • Escape – Techy Romantics
  • Muli – Ebe Dancel
  • Panorama – Some Gorgeous Accident
  • Fizzy Good Make Feel Nice – Don’t Bogart the Can…Man
  • Missionaries on Rural Transit – The Treblinka Love Scene

Originally published on Phil Charts

It’s a proclamation that heralds a new hope for the Philippine film industry: 2011 has been a pretty good year for Filipino films. Whether it’s the triumph of films like Zombadings 1: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington over mindlessly offensive big studio productions, the success of Cinemalaya 7, or the spilling of independent filmmakers into the mainstream, these signs of life are indicative of a growing audience awareness that there is more to local cinema than formula films (read: taking a teenybopper love team to a banner movie with a title from a song that’s sure to be in every karaoke machine).

Apart from Cinemalaya, Cinema One Originals, and Cinemanila, smaller film festivals were also held this year, including Khavn’s .MOV Film Festival, which paid tribute to Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc, and Sine Rehiyon, which proved that filmmaking is alive and well in different parts of the Philippines. The Metro Manila Film Festival proved to be the cinematic claptrap that it still is, with this year’s entries just as mind-baffling a display of big studio mind-fuckery as last year’s were. They also continued their indie/new breed category, which ran for almost a week but featured such hackneyed films with only one or two deserving to be seen.

The closing of Mogwai Cinematheque dismayed many, with rumors saying that it was all because of managerial dispute. But other film screening venues also cropped up, such as John Torres and Shireen Seno’s As In Shop and Jewel Maranan and co.’s Cinema is Incomplete. Both venues have no door charge and only ask you to share your love for local cinema. Up north, there’s Baguio Cinematheque, which screens both classic and contemporary masterworks of Philippine cinema.

Local films have also made it to several international film festivals. Auraeus Solito’s Busong(Palawan Fate) opened at Cannes Director’s Fortnight. Adolf Alix’s Isda (Fable of the Fish) and Lav Diaz’s six-hour opus, Siglo ng Pagluwal (Century of Birthing), both had their international premieres in the Toronto International Film Festival. Alvin Yapan’s Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa (The Dance of Two Left Feet), Loy Arcenas’s Niño and Jeffrey Jeturian’s Bisperas(Eve) all garnered accolades in several international film festivals.

The largely praised box office smash hit Ang Babae sa Septic Tank (The Woman in the Septic Tank) by Marlon Rivera emerged as, what one film critic calls, “the indie film for those who don’t usually watch indie films”. Its cinematic misgivings however displeased many, hitting all the wrong spots in a culture where envy is a common mark of trade.

This year’s crop of Filipino films certainly yielded an encouraging result, enough to persuade us to devote an entire list for them.

10. X-Deal (Lawrence Fajardo)

That silhouette of John Hall’s massive erection means serious business. After the death of agricultural bomb flicks and the rise of gay sexploitation films, X-Deal’s sexual games and statement tee-worthy one liners (“Masama bang pagpahingahin ang kepyas ko?”) give us a new perspective on the dominance and volatility of the femal psyche. And hey, it’s not every day that we get a lead character that blogs for a living.

9. Isda (Fable of the Fish, Adolf Alix Jr.)

It’s a plot that could have turned for the worse: a mother (Cherry Pie Picache) believing that the fish she apparently gave birth to is her real son, a gift from God. The film’s strange sense of humor doesn’t cloud the point that this is a mother struggling her way through the strife, battling insurmountable odds without losing her sanity in the first place. Driven by Picache’s heartbreaking performance as a woman on the verge, Isda questions the normalcies of motherhood which in the end boils down to the need to love and be loved.

8. Sakay sa Hangin (Windblown, Regiben Romana)

Just like Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio’s sea-faring charmer, Alamar (To The Sea), Sakay sa Hanginblurs the line between truth and fiction. Romana gives us a sublimely engaging immersion to the music and rituals of the Talaandig tribe where a simple crafting of a flute or a guitar transcends the mythic and the conflict brewing around them. Sakay sa Hangin prods us to think that our country is far larger than what our school textbooks have taught us and that music will always be the universal vessel of peace.

7. Buenas Noches, Espana (Raya Martin)

The nuances of history hide in the flickering colors of Buenas Noches, España. Its seemingly endless loop of images exacts the inherent difficulties of our past, forcing us to grapple along with its shifts and meanderings. Owel Alvero and Pat Sarabia’s skittering soundscape serves as the film’s ignition point, using a map where teleportation and Juan Luna paintings form a pocket guide to our history’s netherworld.

6. Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa (The Dance of Two Left Feet, Alvin Yapan)

Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa glides in elegant rhythms, dispelling the shackles of gender roles and artistic notions through the subtle guidance of the poetry of dance and glances teeming with possibilities. More than an unspoken love affair between its two leads (Paulo Avelino and Rocco Nacino), what Sayaw distills is an understanding of the place of art in our society and how we form and break values and traditions based on its heavy-handed maneuverings.

5. Big Boy (Shireen Seno)

Big Boy ebbs and flows like the static hum of our own memories. Parcels of recollections flood its stream of consciousness, where faces and voices dissolve and become disembodied. What unravels is a complex mapping of our own past and how we are led, however broken-limbed, to the present. Shireen Seno’s debut film sifts through unreliability that provokes our shattered reminiscences, evoking a hazy trip into the blueprint of our dreams.

4. Zombadings 1: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington (Zombadings 1: Kill Remington with Fear, Jade Castro)

It happened. An upending of a woolly mammoth, proving that Filipino moviegoers are capable of flocking to a film with a solid story, little known stars and non-formula shtick. Zombadings 1 is born out of a sincere desire of the filmmakers to craft a film that challenges our cinematic perceptions while mining pressing issues (gay discrimination) that are put aside by banal big studio releases where life is always fluffy and ends with the swelling of a second-hand theme song. Through the guise of comedy and horror Zombadings 1 becomes a triumph in many different ways. And most of all, it makes audiences think, prodding them to reassess their pre-conceived (mostly Catholicized) ideas about homosexuality and how gay men and women shape our society as we know it.

3. Tundong Magiliw (Tundo Beloved, Jewel Maranan)

Tundong Magiliw’s strength is its refusal to ram the shitty side of slum dwelling down the audience’s throats. As a continuing documentary, the film unfolds precariously, taking time to familiarize itself into the life of a family deadlocked into Tondo’s inescapable labyrinth. It finds life in the family’s most intimate moments, as they chuckle at Hilary Clinton’s most controversial moments and construct films of their own through covers of pirated DVDs. Tundong Magiliwshows us that there is more to Tundo than its decades-old notoriety and that these people are just like us, looking for something to hold on to in the unlikeliest of places.

2. Lawas Kan Pinabli (Forever Loved, Christopher Gozum)

Lawas Kan Pinabli opens with a case of hopelessness: a statistic saying that an estimated six million documented and one million undocumented migrant Filipino workers are scattered all over the world and some four thousand more join their ranks every day. What follows is a bitter picture of the lives of overseas Filipino workers abroad. But instead of depicting OFWs in the usual light, as the new heroes of this era, Lawas Kan Pinabli shows how the hardships of some of our fellowmen abroad are mostly due to their own making.

Christopher Gozum paints two sides of the picture, presenting interviews with real OFWs (Gozum himself is an OFW working in the Middle East), detailing the ordeals that they went through, and discussions with OFW group leaders offering insights about the laws and regulations that Filipinos should abide to while working abroad, or at least in the middle east. Knowingly breaking rules and traversing ethical and cultural standards with reckless abandon, these Filipinos deal with realities that are far bigger than simply just realizing their dreams of giving their families the lives that they deserve.

1. Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (Antoinette Jadaone)

What else is there to say about Antoinette Jadaone’s brilliant, meta-loving film about the most famous but nameless extra in Philippine cinema? A lot, really, especially on how it encapsulates the Filipino Dream into the life of its lead actress. But what we should mention is how it deserves to be seen by every Filipino, especially those who grew up with the toothless face of ‘Nay Lilia stalking them in their dreams after watching the Halloween edition ofMagandang Gabi Bayan or re-runs of Filipino horror films.

Taking a chance on an actress who is used to slinking into roles that demand mere minutes (or even seconds) of screen time, Jadaone creates a fascinating study of celebrity culture and how a community builds itself around a person who has represented their dreams of making it big one day. But more importantly, Six Degrees stems from a sincere, gimmick-free desire to recognize the life and legacy of an actress who has worked out of an earnest passion for the craft that she has dedicated herself in all her life.

Honorable Mentions: Mapang-akit (John Torres), Mga Anino sa Tanghaling Tapat (Ivy Universe Baldoza), Elehiya sa Bumibisita Mula sa Himagsikan (Lav Diaz), Boundary (Benito Bautista), Niño (Loy Arcenas), Busong (Auraeus Solito)

Originally published on Pelikula Tumblr 

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