Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Borat in All of Us

I was actually planning on writing a double-review of Happy Feet and Borat, but after having just heard about the racially-charged outburst Michael Richards (a.k.a. Seinfeld's Kramer) directed towards a patron of the comedy club where he was performing, I feel that the film Borat is of particular moment and that Happy Feet really does feel rather silly in comparison.

The film Borat, which is the brainchild of star and creator Sacha Baron Cohen (of Talladega Nights fame), is brilliant in that in manages to effectively tackle a very serious issue, bigotry, without resorting to the usual harrowing imagery or story conventions. Apparently, bigotry can be the subject of a comedy, and it does work from a narrative perspective.

The movie's first triumph is how it turns the whole fish-out-of-water convention which we saw essayed by the likes of Robin Williams in Moscow on the Hudson and by other actors playing U.S. immigrants. This man who is new to American soil is not charmingly naive as most mainstream Hollywood immigrants are portrayed: he is racist, sexist, homophobic and insensitive to those who are mentally deficient. Cohen touches all the bases here, and plays the character with aplomb besides.

Borat is a Kazakhstani news reporter sent to United States to learn more about it (hence the movie's much longer actual title, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit of Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, or something like that), and his research is supposed to take him to New York. However, while in his hotel room, he watches Baywatch on TV and ends up driving across America in an ice cream truck with his producer (whom he tricks, naturally) to meet her. And it is here that the film's real odyssey begins.

It seems that Borat has resonated considerably with audiences in America, the very people of whose prejudices it pokes fun. I think this is of particular relevance because the truth about people, and not just Americans, is that we are, for all our pretensions to the contrary, still very much like Borat at heart. We all still harbor prejudices, many of them irrational, towards people who are different from us, whether it is because of their skin color, sexual orientation, religion or even their socio-economic status.

Michael Richards' outburst, as well as Mel Gibson's drunken rant have demonstrated that bigotry is hardly the monopoly of the redneck (a similarly pejorative, discriminatory term), and that Americans cannot blow off the lessons that Borat has to teach, considering that deep down, in some or possibly even many of them, a latent racist/sexist/homophobe still lurks.

Borat pretends to be a screwball comedy, complete with the most gross-out nudity you will ever see in your life, easily surpassing the sex scene of the obese in Sideways, but its agenda runs considerably deeper than that, and the satire, when you think about it, is really rather scathing. It essentially holds up a mirror, which, while primarily meant for Americans to gaze into, is there for everyone else to see, as well, and while it's not necessarily comfortable to look at, it sure is funny.

Monday, November 27, 2006


There isn't much I can say that hasn't already been said, with much more personal knowledge and insight, about the death of one of Philippine journalism's last true icons, Philippine Star Publisher Max Soliven. I am among the many who mourn his passing. While it's only in the last few years that I started reading his work, which spans several decades, I found him to be one of the better writers out there.

I only hope that young, or aspiring journalists and writers can live up to his legacy of sardonic writing and biting wit, as well as his insight into the state of Philippine affairs. Arguably, at 77, he could have had a few years left, but seeing as how he died of natural causes, it was simply his time to go.

Rest those weary hands, Mr. Soliven. You've earned some well-deserved rest.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Tangkilikin ang Sariling Atin!

A little over ten years ago I was thrilled when, riding on the crest of the wave that was the American comics industry (which eventually crashed on the shore with horrific consequences), a group of Filipino fanboys steeped in comics lore and full of talent attempted the monumental task of creating their own comics universe. These were people influenced more by X-Men and manga than by Kenkoy and Darna, so there was some assurance that their characters wouldn't laugh "hi hi hi" or cry "hu hu hu" but what was additionally fortunate was that these creators were college kids or fresh out of college at the least, who had a wonderfully hip and distinctly Filipino sensibility which they attempted to infuse in their comic books. Thus was born the Alamat universe.

Due to financial and time constraints, the only books that ever made it past Alamat 101 which was supposed to be the sampler anthology of various stories of the new universe were Batch 72 and Angel Ace with the other creations not getting very far thereafter. In fact, when the comics phenomenon crashed, Alamat followed suit, although it had not gotten that far off the ground to begin with, but not before Gerry Alanguilan was able to come up with the seminal series Wasted, which, whatever his intentions when creating it, seems to have evolved into the Watchmen of Filipino comics.

Fortunately the new millenium saw Budjette Tan and some of the architects of Alamat like Arnold Arre try again, launching a short-lived Batch 72 series as well as a series of graphic novels and anthologies, almost as if to say "we're still alive and kicking...sort of..."

With comics sales and exposure on the rise again courtesy of the rising sales of "event" books like Civil War and Infinite Crisis, it seems that the Alamat crew have yet another shot at glory and are making their case this time with another wave of comics, like Gerry Alanguilan's Elmer, which I reviewed in an earlier post, and some new stuff from Budjette Tan and a relatively new collaborator, Ka-Jo Baldisimo, like the ongoing Trese and the one-shot The Last Datu. In addition, an incredibly talented artist, Ian Sta. Maria, has now joined the fold, debuting his talent with the hyper-detailed Ultracops, which he is also co-writing with Bow Guerrero.

Now, having bought each and every issue of the Alamat comics I just enumerated in the previous paragraph, I must give my honest and objective assessment that these books are not exactly the best reads around.

For one thing, they can be rather derivative in some places, most evidently in terms of Ka-Jo Baldisimo's artwork which screams manga on many, if not most panels, although it's quite evident that he has talent which I feel could flourish if only he would develop a more distinctive style. The Ultracops' Digmaan, with his cybernetic arms and scarred face looks disconcertingly like Marvel Comics' Cable, and seems to have the war-freak personality to match (although I must say that Digmaan and the rest of the Ultracops are drawn better than a LOT of titles currently featuring Cable).

The dialogue, in addition, can be kind of clunky, especially when Tagalog is inserted. Now, I don't want to discourage the writers from infusing the national language into their dialogue, because that is one of the things that makes these works distinctly Filipino, albeit in English for the most part, but for some reason, the transition doesn't really work. Maybe I'm just not used to it.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed myself when reading all eight of these issues which I bought all at once for roughly the same amount that I would spend on two American comic books. These little "ashcans" restored a sense of fun to comics and a simplicity to enjoying them, as opposed to comics like Civil War, where the real-world parallels kind of smack me on the head. And for all of the influences, they still feel genuinely Filipino, particularly Trese. The writers and artists still have a way to go before their storytelling abilities can parallel that of their more experienced counterparts overseas, but the heart is there and so is the potential. They can't be expected to develop as writers if nobody reads their work and gives them feedback.

I was sad to see Alamat flounder in the 1990s, and so I am giving them all the business that I can, even though normally I am not a fan of "ashcans" (the only format Budjette and co. can afford to print them in), because this is the only way to keep the dream, that of a thriving, healthy Filipino comic book industry, alive.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

On Casino Royale

In the proud tradition of the remake, the sequel and prequel comes...the reboot. Trust Hollywood to add yet another species of regurgitation to the already insufferably long list. The "reboot" is a term of the computer age, aptly used to describe a new movie in an already-existing franchise which is being used to reinvigorate the said franchise. "Remake" is no longer an appropriate term because in this case the franchise is basically moribund, rather than actually dead. Planet of the Apes for example, was a re-make, while Casino Royale, the latest James Bond movie, is a re-boot. A re-make essentially re-tells the story told by the original movie, usually adding a contemporary twist. A re-boot acts like the original movie and everything that transpired therein never happened, and does not necessarily tell the events of the original movie.

Here's a little bit of trivia for anyone interested: while Batman Begins is undeniably the most successful "reboot" of a popular film franchise, it is not the first. That dubious distinction goes to The Sum of All Fears, based on Tom Clancy's popular Jack Ryan series of novels, in which Ben Affleck was cast the Ryan role previously essayed by the much older Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin. That movie, while a commercial success, didn't exactly set the box office on fire, and it was therefore the latest Batman movie that effectively institutionalized the reboot.

The producers of James Bond were right to tap into this relatively new concept. Over the last forty-four years, James Bond has gone from satire to farce to cartoon. While I loved seeing Pierce Brosnan drive his silver Aston Martin across an icy wasteland in the last Bond movie, I won't deny how silly the film's central premise (about a satellite that can wipe out all of the mines between North and South Korea) as well as various action set pieces were.

In this film, the Bond folk are true to their word that there will be no gadgets and no megalomaniacs out for world domination. There is, however, still lots of action, most of it quite brutal, more in the vein of Matt Damon's Jason Bourne movies than any 007 film of the last twenty-five years or so. This James Bond, played by the much reviled newcomer Daniel Craig, feels like an honest-to-God killer, which is basically what his character is.

As an action film, this film does not disappoint. There are awesome action sequences, like the extended chase across a construction site between Bond and an extraordinarily athletic black guy who could give Jacky Chan a run for his money in the stunts department, as well as shoot-outs and slug fests galore. Arguably, one advantage of an ugly Bond is that getting his face smashed up is not that big a loss (hehehe).

In all seriousness, though, and to reiterate an earlier point, Craig is enormously effective in creating the franchise's new atmosphere of a darker, more brutal 007, in no small part because of his looks, but also owing to his acting, which, while not exactly Oscar material, is still quite good. Craig's Bond is every inch a killer, not some ridiculous movie star (a la Roger Moore, whom I never liked, even though I grew up with his movies) pretending to be one. Not only that, but this is a killer who lets us into his head.

The re-boot really rears its head here as Bond's entire history is revamped and set in the present day. Judi Dench's M suddenly becomes the M that hired him, rather than the replacement M she started out as in 1995's Goldeneye. Effectively, there never was a male M.
There are some other details that get whitewashed, too, like the origin of his misogyny, which was explained at some point in the past. Well, without giving too much away, let's just say that according to this new, revised canon, his eternal mistrust and objectification of women stems from something one woman did to him. Still, just as Batman Begins shed off all the unwanted cheese that had built up from two Joel Schumacher movies, the Bond production team has successfully shed the corniness from several decades of bad flicks.

At the end of the day, while Craig is surprisingly impressive as the new James Bond, this is still director Martin Campbell's movie. Just as he gave the franchise a badly needed shot in the arm 11 years ago with Goldeneye (which also featured James Bond "in love" contrary to all the hype that we the movie viewers had never seen this happen before), so he masterfully reinvents the franchise here. A lesser director (name any other from the last dozen Bond movies) could have sent the franchise crashing and burning, especially with an ugly Bond.

And it was refreshing to end the movie without him bedding some barely legal nymphette like some D.O.M. from hell. It was a nice change of pace.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The End is Near...But It Doesn't Have to Be

I borrowed the following passage, paraphrased it, actually, from Punisher: The End, a comic book written by Garth Ennis featuring an aged Punisher wandering around a post-apocalyptic earth, dealing death to the businessmen and capitalists whose greed essentially brought Armageddon about.

"Once upon a time there was a bunch of evil fucks. Nobody knew it, because they were so good at keeping it quiet, but this particular bunch of evil fucks ran the world. And they made the world a cruel and terrible place. They ran the great industries that poisoned the air. They started wars for profit. The money they made could have fed and healed the population of the world twice over, but all they could think to do with it was hoard it. Eventually they came to believe there was nothing they couldn't do, so one day, eventually, they pushed the planet's luck too far."

And this summarizes the trajectory the world is on with its own destruction. Greed drives the large industries to plunder the world's resources, whether oil or mineral, to sate the desires of the very, very few at the expense of the needy many. Oil companies, arms manufacturers, car companies, to name a few, are among those who are really behind the last few wars, mainly because they stand to gain the most from them.

As a child of the seventies and eighties, I'm familiar to an extent with cold war paranoia, with the residual fear carried over from the fifties that the long standing detente between the then super powers the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. could escalate into a nuclear holocaust. I even saw a couple of movies and T.V. miniseries (told from the American point-of-view, to be sure) expounding on the idea of that paranoia. Most of George Romero's zombie movies (and their clones) of the 70s and early 80s seem to have a common nuclear holocaust story thread running through them. Of course, this rather contrived conflict fueled the need for an arms race, and had a whole industry thriving with the need to develop newer, more expensive weapons of mass destruction.

Today, in this post-glasnost environment, there doesn't seem to be as much concern over the world being engulfed in nuclear fire, but the sad thing is there are so many other things that can end mankind's existence, like global warming, for example. The funny thing is that because this genuine threat is not something that the major American capitalists can make money off of, they aren't using their puppets in the government to push any paranoia about it, leaving it instead to the activists.

And so the denizens of the first world (read: right-wing America) continue to drive around in their SUVs and to live like hedonists, mindless of the future, secure in the knowledge that Dubya is keeping them safe from terrorists by putting their soldiers in Iraq. After all, aside from terrorists, what is there to worry about?

I find it funny how people hail works like Dawn of the Dead as wonderful satire and turn movies like The Day After Tomorrow into blockbuster hits, but at the same time seem completely oblivious to what it is they're trying to say. It is as though they think the apocalypse is sometime away, and that there's nothing to worry about.

Americans seem hell-bent on driving their SUVs, even if their government has to colonize--excuse me, democratize--a whole freaking country for them to be able to continue to afford it. Granted, oil certainly isn't the only issue that drove the now floundering Bush administration to send troops to Iraq, but does his government seriously think people are stupid enough not to realize it's one of the MAJOR reasons?

The saddest part is that science and technology has caught up with us and we as a race now have all kinds of alternatives to finite resources like fossil fuels. Solar and wind power are ours to harness, and the technology for doing so efficiently can only continue to improve. Hybrid electric cars are proving to be eminently drivable, and the recent documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? just goes to show that at some point we can do away with internal combustion engines altogether.

Whenever the next war does come around, it's not likely to be fought over any ideology, but over control of the world's rapidly dwindling resources. Take a look at the last two wars that America entered, both under a George Bush. They can sentence Saddam Hussein to death a thousand times on television, but they still won't fool anyone with half a brain as to why they really started those wars.

We can stop those wars by tapping into resources that aren't scarce, that are available for everyone, so that there's no need to fight for anything. We just have to put our collective foot down against the evil fucks currently running the world.

I'd like to congratulate the American people for taking the first step towards taking some of the power away from the aforementioned evil fucks by voting their puppets out of power, but instead, all I have to say is: WHAT THE HELL TOOK YOU SO LONG?!?

Friday, November 03, 2006

On Gerry Alanguilan's Elmer

As I understand it, there was a time when Filipino komiks were a bit like Japanese manga in that they pervaded our local pop culture. In a a way, there's still some degree of pervasiveness, but I think it says something about the state of the art form that, from all indications, being a komiks writer or artist isn't something anyone in this country does as a full-time job. A lot of comic books being locally produced now are self-published and done by people who have made it their advocacy to keep the komiks industry alive, not necessarily people who are doing it for a living. There are some people, to my knowledge, who do work for American comic book companies so they can continue to afford to produce local stuff.

Anyway, I'm glad the local comic book industry has its champions, people who are out there trying to put out original, distinctly Filipino, top-notch illustrated entertainment. Probably foremost among these advocates is artist/writer/inker Gerry Alanguilan (of Wasted fame), who's set up an online museum of art of Filipino komiks legends like Nestor Redondo and Alfredo Alcala, to name a couple. In my opinion, Gerry's on his way to becoming a legend in his own right, especially considering the degree of recognition he achieved with Wasted, which caused even the foreign comic book community to sit up and take notice.

His latest work, Elmer, is, to put it mildly departure from Wasted, in that it moves from the extreme to the absurd; instead of a world in which an angry jilted lover vents his rage on everything he feels is wrong with the world, it envisions a world filled with talking chickens, including the eponymous Elmer, and the lead character, his son, Jake. It's the story of someone going back to his roots, as Jake leaves his not-too-successful life in the city to go home to the province and visit the ailing Elmer. The series takes a bit of a sci-fi twist from this point onwards as Alanguilan explains, through a diary kept by Elmer and through an old family friend named Farmer Ben how chickens came to talk in the first place.

Elmer, first and foremost, is a breath of fresh air in a marketplace dominated by superheroes and their derivatives. It's nice to see that Alanguilan is building on the success he achieved with Wasted by trying to come up with even more original and fresh concepts for storytelling. The premise is solid, and has a nice, Kafkaesque texture to it, whether or not that was his intention.

There are some problems in the execution of this premise, however. The idea of chickens walking and talking is actually rather priceless, and I honestly feel that to narrate this story, straight-faced, with talking chickens somehow existing in a human world adds a quirky, tongue-in-cheek inventiveness to the whole concept which would elevate the story even past the slap-in-the-face political incorrectness of Wasted.

Instead, Alanguilan tries a more "realistic" approach to the situation and devotes a bit of time to explaining how the world came to be this way, with chickens talking and walking. He throws in topical issues like racial prejudice which I view as another issue that wasn't handled very well for reasons I am about to explain. Although the history he has crafted for the talking chickens is admittedly quite intriguing and has me hanging on to see the next issue, I still feel that the story would be better served by exploring the themes of family ties which also seem to serve as one of Elmer's central story threads, rather than putting so much premium on this "White Event" that gave the chickens of the world their "powers."

Another problem is the persona through whose eyes we see this world. Just as the lead of Wasted was an angry young man, Jake is an angry young, well, chicken. The former did the things he did because he was extremely embittered about things that happened, and the latter is basically carries a chip on his shoulder-er-wing because he's a chicken in a man's world.

The thing about Jake's anger is that it feels a lot more nebulous. One would think he hates the humans for having once eaten his species, and this is the objection he voices when he finds out his sister is engaged to one (!), but then it seems as if the real reason he hates mankind is that he feels like an outsider, in that he identifies himself with them (even going to the extent of masturbating to a human "bold star") but never feels accepted by them.

Ultimately, whatever the reason for his angst, Jake comes across more as obnoxious than as sympathetic. It doesn't help that his dialogue is punctuated by what I feel is a lot of needless profanity. That kind of language was well-suited to the atmosphere of Wasted, but feels out of place here, especially coming from the mouth-er-beak of a chicken. There's nothing wrong with angry characters per se, but I honestly feel that this one could have been done better.

Though the script may in some respects fall short, however, the art does not. I remember Alanguilan's fantastic rendering from a short story he did featuring his Timawa character back in the 90s, and it's absolutely glorious to see two full-length issues of his artwork (so far) rendered with as much care and effort as he put into that little vignette. In an industry (especially the local one) dominated by manga rip-off artists, it's really wonderful to see someone developing and maintaining his own distinct approach to comic book art. It really gives me hope for the future of komiks.

I know a lot of my friends choose to read their comics off the web, and in the case of top-selling, foreign comics, that's perfectly fine, but please do me and the komiks industry a favor by buying Elmer at the nearest comic book store. It only costs about P50 an issue, and I can assure you all it's well-worth it.