Charlie Wilson's War (Mike Nichols, USA, 2007): The movie doesn't state its punchline, which is just as well given that it's 9/11. Aaron Sorkin's interest in politics has always had more to do with process than presentation, or (ha) policy. Election scorecard statheads might think he made the second-best choice, but Citizen Kane would suggest otherwise.B
Bug (William Friedkin, USA, 2006): Quite fascinating until the sex scene, and then everything goes south; by the end, it's pretty hilarious. Michael Shannon devours most of the scenery before Ashley Judd polishes off the rest -- you can't fault their workrate, but you must fault their choice of scripts. Harry Connick Jr is somewhat awesome, though. D PLUS
Many of the songs below are tracks that stood out upon end-of-year album relistening. Several are megahits I hadn't seriously thought about until recently. And one probably should've been song of the year last year.
1. Kleerup & Robyn, "With Every Heartbeat": Popjustice has been telling me to get to this hyperballad for a year and a half now; when the second video came out, I watched it once, thought "that's a terrific video", then forgot about it. On second listen, it's a masterpiece. It's the opposite of that other masterpiece, "Go West": the apparent pain, though great, masks a determination that's almost celebratory. "We could keep trying but things will never change" is slightly softened and greatly deepened by "I don't look back". Then, after the terrific synthetic string quartet has its moment: "it hurts with every heartbeat", as if the regular ba-bomp of the "it hurts with" can't be sustained for even a line. But though no longer heard, "I don't look back" still lingers, telling us that yes, I will survive even this. 2. Soulja Boy Tell 'Em, "Crank That (Soulja Boy)": For the benefit of you who are not up with the latest "hip hop" slang, I shall explain some related terms:
"Superman dat ho" - Take a young woman on a hot air balloon ride. "Batman dat ho" - Go spelunking with a young lady. "Spiderman dat ho" - Support a female friend at her appearance on American Gladiators. "Yuuuuuuu!" - I am in the process of ejaculating. 3. Britney Spears, "Piece of Me": Once again I worried she wouldn't keep up her streak of one great song every album, but just as "Anticipating" from Britney grew on me, so has "Piece of Me". The songs couldn't be more different: where "Anticipating" was one last hurrah for her kiddie pawn career, "Piece of Me" is grown-up, barely masking its desperation. She knows her value as a commodity, and flaunting that value is the only defence she has. 4. Lily Allen, "Knock 'Em Out": Upon reflection, her funniest is her best. It's incredibly hard to sustain a career in hilarious meanness, with harmlessness or unproductive depression easy traps to fall into. Hope she finds her phone. 5. Yo La Tengo, "Daphnia": Probably no proper album this year, but the last is stretching out a long way. This luscious nine minute instrumental is constructed around a repeating up/down guitar figure, coloured with piano and weird tremolos. Note to Panda Bear: Don't try to copy this, you're not up to it.
6. KAT-TUN, "Keep the faith": After all, the only problem with the Bon Jovi song of the same name is that it's over four minutes. Well, that and Jon sings (though his Not Rap bridge is kind of charming).
7. Taz, "Apna Sangeet": Coventrian chameleon Tarsame Singh rolls the dice, coming up with "bhangra hop" and "anti-racist statement of pride". Taz, I won't dis your roots and rhythm until the next time you roll "Bollywood strings" and "generic love plea".
8. Justice ft. Uffie, "Tthhee Ppaarrttyy": Justice's music is as shallow as Soulja Boy. But at least they know the point of getting hot girls drunk isn't to make them unconscious. 9. Nelly Furtado, "Say It Right": I actually like seven of the United World Chart's top eight songs of 2007, the exception being "The Sweet Escape", which I don't hate that much. (On the other hand, I do hate number nine, "Hey There Delilah", more than enough.) "Say It Right" came in second to "Umbrella", and while few besides Simon Reynolds would prefer them the other way around, its spookiness makes up for the unshapeliness of the lyric. 10. Donald Byrd & 125th St N.Y.C., "Love Has Come Around": I heard this every time I played the Larry Levan comp Journey into Paradise, but it didn't sink in until I heard James Murphy and Pat Mahoney's FabricLive.38 mix. They take out the cheesier bits, push the drums forward, and it sounds like, well, house.
Dude, go back to yr Collective: At twelve and a half minutes, Panda Bear's "Bros" is as long as "When Will I Be Famous?", "Drop the Boy" and "I Owe You Nothing" laid end-to-end and not as good as any of them. The Brothers Goss weren't great singers, but had enough chops to not have to have their vocals treated to the point of incomprehensibility. Plus they understood the concept of a chord change.
A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, USA, 2001): Talk about an insult to the intelligence. The problem isn't that it's unfaithful to John Nash's life, it's that it's not faithful to anyone's life. Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly work their asses off so that it's only the third or fourth least plausible movie romance of all time. C MINUS
Talk to Me (Kasi Lemmons, USA, 2007): Muddled both politically and chronolgically -- the whole thing seems stuck in the Seventies instead of spanning twenty years. That only matters a little, because the performers are Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor and the indomitable Taraji P. Henson, who, in total contrast to Hustle & Flow, is louder than her Pam Grier outfits: Tarantino should make her tribute now. B PLUS
Superbad (Greg Mottola, USA, 2007): Pretty funny, but it seems like it was written by teenage boys. What? It was? B PLUS
Hot Rod (Akiva Schaffer, USA, 2007): Yep, another movie where the man-child gets the girl because the man-man is an asshole or a lawyer or something. Funny, I remember my peers when I was fourteen being much dickwadier than my peers now (except you, Mike). C
Away from Her (Sarah Polley, Canada, 2006): Who was the last filmmaker who displayed such a command of narrative first time up -- Charles Laughton? Sure, it helps to be working from an Alice Munro story, but Polley neatly fills out the story of an Alzheimer's suffer (Julie Christie) and her husband (Gordon Pinsent), strengthening Munro's spiralling ironies with some sharp gags (the hockey commentator who can't give up his job, even in the nursing home, lets Polley get a wicked cheap shot in on Pinsent's character), though the movie's ending gnaws at you rather than crushing you. Christie is as exceptional as you've heard: many actresses could get the tics right, and the great ones could stand up to Polley's camera circling their tear-stained faces, but who else could sustain the perfect tone throughout the picture? Wise, frightened and sly, irresistible and unforgettable -- except there's no such thing. A
Office Space (Mike Judge, USA, 1999): Threatens to undermine capitalism for a few minutes. Soon wusses out into fantasies of Jennifer Aniston, but remains funny. B
The Warlords (Peter Chan, China, 2007): Watched it without subtitles and my Mandarin is non-existent, so no rating, but seemed good for what it was -- blood brotherhoods breaking and impalements galore. Jet Li looked strangely like a good actor.
Part of my continuing battle against early onset cultural irrelevance.
Fergie, "Clumsy": Fifth single, crikey: while this isn't one of the three good ones ("London Bridge", "Fergalicious", and hell, even a ballad -- "Big Girls Don't Cry"), they're all acceptable. In terms of quality-to-talent ratio, she's as high as anyone in recent years. To me, that's something to admire.
Flo Rida ft. T-Pain, "Low": There's no truth to the rumour that daft punk T-Pain is really a robot; I just wish he'd dance like one. But as his takeover of the music industry is all but complete, 2007 may seem to future generations a turning point in the cyborgification of Earth -- at least it will if next-gen femmebots have the gigantic booty as a standard feature. What's digital love got to do with it?
KAT-TUN, "Keep the faith": In the West, the boy band biz is cyclical; in Japan, they never go away -- hell, SMAP are still hitting number one after fifteen years. KAT-TUN might be the biggest at the moment, and "Keep the faith" shows that might be not entirely unjustified. Big drums and a smoked watery riff stay out of the way of the two-parts-and-change harmonies, while getting just enough in the way of the constipated rap bridge.
Rihanna, "Don't Stop the Music"; "Hate That I Love You" (ft. Ne-Yo): The other good song on the album besides "Umbrella" and "Shut Up and Drive" is "Breaking Dishes". Still, as far as time-killing singles to stretch out an album's run go, these are good generics. Of course, "dance floor filler" is a better genre than "not terribly clever romantic duet". They hate! how they love! each other. How terrible for them.
Over December and January, I went back to Auckland to visit my parents for almost a month. To my taste, Auckland isn't a world-class chow city yet: despite the high average quality of ingredients (especially seafood), there isn't yet the market for high-end small farm products. And chefs either try too hard to be creative, resulting in unfocused menus, or not hard enough, making some restaurants seem two generations behind the times. Nevertheless, the growing immigrant population means there's now a lot more good stuff than I could eat in a month. The highlights detailed below are, in my opinion, very good indeed.
HP8 (49 Nuffield St, Newmarket) New Sichuanese restaurant, hardcore even in the decor: my mother was happy to go on about the significance of this or that scroll. Mains were generally $18 except for the fish dishes; since everybody else was ordering the $48 water-boiled fish, we decided to shell out for that. Turned out to be the best dish I've had in a Chinese restaurant in years. We got a whole blue cod (including head, yum) chopped into chunks, swimming in a huge bowl of liquid, oily but not as oily as I've heard the dish can be. Incredibly fragrant, Sichuan peppercorn-spicy as well as chili-spicy (though we ordered mild and probably should've had medium), and yet the fish still tasted delicate and fresh.
We also had a cold appetiser plate (excellent), some blanched/stir-fried green bean dish (pretty good) and twice-cooked pork (OK but wouldn't recommend it for a party of 3). With a larger party and someone who knows how to order, you might get the best meal in Auckland here.
Matakana Patisserie (Matakana Valley Road, Matakana) We got totally lost trying to find Matakana (ending up halfway to Whangarei), and they'd sold most of their stock by the time we got there. But after my parents and I got home and tried our carrot cake and our copyright-challenging "Molengrain" loaf, we agreed this was the best bakery we'd been to in NZ. The carrot cake was moist without being greasy, with great crumb. The bread was so much better than Molenberg (one of the better supermarket loaves) it wasn't funny. Tasty, light interior, but what stood out was the seed-encrusted, firm yet flexible crust. In an average bread town like Auckland, this bakery's worth the occasional drive up north.
Satya (271 K Road, also in Sandringham) There are quite a few South Indian restaurants around Auckland now; someone interested should catalogue the thalis in probable goldmine Otahuhu. I only had time for an oversized snack at this canonical place. The dahi puri was much better than anything comparable I've had at the highly regarded chaat house I go to in Berkeley. The puris were housemade and fresh, and the presentation was really quite pretty, with the puris well-separated and the chickpea, yoghurt and chutney layers distinct. Sambar was very good, as was the masala tea. I've only scratched the surface: many more things to try here.
KK (463A Manukau Road, Epsom) My friend Derek, who's tried just about every Malaysian restaurant in town, thinks the best in Bunga Raya, out in New Lynn. We never get out that way, sticking to our old favourite. KK's long since been discovered by non-Malaysians (like me, but unlike my mother), but if it's slipped it's only an inch. The slightly pricy fried asam fish ($30) was especially good, the second-best fish dish I've had in recent months (see above). The KK special chicken, cooked in sort of a salt-and-pepper style, wasn't worth eating twice, but the beef rendang was good and the satay was as excellent as always. Still, I want to try Bunga Raya some time.
Grand Harbour (28 Customs St West) vs Grand Park (Alexandra Park Raceway, Manukau Road, Epsom) I went to yum cha (term used more than dim sum in NZ Chinese) twice at Grand Harbour and once at Grand Park. Grand Harbour is the more upscale place near the waterfront, more expensive though not by as much as you would think since the servings are reasonably big. Grand Park is less known outside the Chinese community and is thus less crowded, but consequently doesn't have nearly as wide a selection. Quality is similar at both places. The only dish where one restaurant had a significant advantage over the other was tripe: much better at Grand Park. Still, I'd choose Grand Harbour if somebody else paid.
The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1953): The bonus disc features a 1930 Vitaphone short, Jack Buchanan with the Glee Club Quartet, in which JB's expert mistiming gives you some idea why he was Britain's leading musical comedian of his era, though it's not apparent how he functioned as a romantic lead: surely endearing dithering can only go so far (take note, Hugh Grant). Then again, given the breadth of his performance as Jeffrey Cordova, I wouldn't put anything past him. He does a pretty decent Oedipus, has no trouble talking circles around James Mitchell, and edges Fred Astaire in the all-timer "Triplets" number (it's all in the facial expressions, which you can't really make out in the above YouTube clip), and all this with spinal arthritis. In a fairer world, he'd be remembered like we remember the dark-dancing Astaire: well, maybe ninety percent as much. A PLUS
Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, UK, 2007): Not as good as Shaun of the Dead, which had a moral or something, but the small town conspiracy premise provides some good cheap laughs: pistol-packing grandmamas and such. The series of unfortunate events does go on a bit, so you might be worn out by the time they get to the "which Clint flick are they pastiching now?" finale. B PLUS
Stealth (Rob Cohen, USA, 2005): While Michael Bay has now been deemed a fit subject for intellectual contemplation, those of us who actually watch and occasionally enjoy mechanised action movies prefer the company of Cohen. Stealth doesn't flukily crash into good movie territory like The Fast and the Furious did, but it has its awesome ludicrous moments, like Josh Lucas flying away from an airborne ring of flames, and Cohen respects every narrative cliche. By the time the Evil Robot Plane develops feelings and learns that collateral damage is wrong, you'll be wishing our real world storyline progressed so inevitably. C PLUS
Alice Notley, "Radical Feminist" (from Alma, or The Dead Women) I haven't come close to finishing Alma: 300 pages of one-faced gender critique is too much for me. But there's a sequence where the anger crystallises into one of the bitterest rages against violence ever written, and that sequence starts with "Radical Feminist", which deserves its title.
"how will we dead women avenge ourselves now when there will be nothing but vengeance transpiring. oh these distractions says one. we intend that you keep on the subject says another. keeping on the subject is part of our vengeance. i am touched by men's love says the third but it isn't a world. men have died too someone says. they can take care of themselves someone else says but don't let one come near me again in the name of care. i want a chance to care for myself, perhaps i finally have that being a dead woman."
Christopher Middleton, "Orbiana" (from The Tenor on Horseback) When he's at his best, which is quite often in The Tenor on Horseback, Middleton still writes more prettily than anyone. At other times he just writes pettily (calling Rafael Nadal a baboon; fortunately he's not under the jurisdiction of the ICC). The linked Shearsman 67/68 conveniently features three prime poems. "The First Portrait" and especially "Orbiana" show that historical drama in verse is only as dead as it always was.
Jen Tynes, "Suspension" (from The Hat 7) The Hat 7 was the best journal issue I read last year, or least the only one I read all the way through. "Suspension" is my fave in there by a whisker from a Rae Armantrout miniture ("One lizard/jammed headfirst//down the throat/of a second.")
"...Everyone looks into my hollow and hollers their own names. I give it all back in pieces."
Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Miyazaki Hayao, Japan, 1986): One of Miyazaki's best: this is where Ghibli first get their animation style down to a T. It doesn't have the thematic depth of Princess Mononoke: it's definitely a kid's movie, but with a sense of wonder, which if I must choose, I prefer to a sense of weirdness. Unlike Mononoke, better in Japanese. A
Invisible Target (Benny Chan, Hong Kong, 2007): In mid-chase, Nicholas Tse gets hit by a bus. Impressive enough to replay from an alternative angle, not damaging enough to delay him more than a couple of seconds. C PLUS
Broken Blossoms (D.W. Griffith, USA, 1919): The difference Griffith perceives between the Chinaman and the Negro seems to be the comparatively low risk of miscegenation posed by the former, though he sets the action in London to be safe. Still, the movie has as much to say about race and class relations (and domestic violence) today as it did in 1919, which is a little. More than that, it's Lillian Gish's graduation from great presence to great actress, as she incidentally creates the template for every horror movie victim ever. The rest of the time, it's all Richard Bathelmess can do to gaze in wonder. A
Last 15 mins of Flash Point (Wilson Yip, Hong Kong, 2007): Weird to see MMA and worked shoot spots like joint holds and suplexes (there's even a powerbomb counter to an armbar) in the climactic fight scene. In the sequel: Donnie Yen spends five minutes trying to pass half-guard. B MINUS
The Pursuit of Happyness (Gabriele Muccino, USA, 2006): I'll believe the Dem rhetoric about a $9.50 minimum wage when it happens, since liberalism sez it's not slavery if you do it voluntarily. Fortunately for mu opinion of this movie, Will Smith has a more concrete sales pitch than Barack Obama. B PLUS
1. This might be my last year in the Bay Area, and there are still so many neighbourhoods I've never been to. So this year, I want to visit every BART station. I reserve the right to abandon this resolution if it seems like it'll get me killed.
2. The Hit List: Last year I called out ten movies I should've seen:
Andrei Rublev Barry Lyndon The Conformist Ikiru The Mirror The Night of the Hunter Ordet Rio Bravo La Strada Viridiana
Well, I got three out of ten. Ikiru is tiresome, Rio Bravo is a lot of fun and The Night of the Hunter is a masterpiece. For this year, let's add Letter from a Unknown Woman, Notorious and Sansho the Bailiff to the list.
3. Finish my thesis. This is important too, I suppose.