Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bookworm's progress report #1, 2009

Only 2 books in 2 months. Must pick up the slack if I'm to make good on my resolution to improve on the quantity and quality of my reading output this year.

* * *

The Post-birthday World tells not one, but two stories of the same woman, children's book illustrator Irina McGovern, and the lateral paths her life takes after choosing between two men. The chapters alternate from one to the other parallel universe: Irina stays faithful to her partner of 15 years, intelligent but emotionally distant political analyst Lawrence Trainer, or she leaves him for dashing but tempestuous snooker player Ramsey Acton.

Author Lionel Shriver's cute gimmick is amusing for about the first half of the book, but it gets a bit old past the midway mark, and there were points when I wished I could just skip every other chapter to complete one story already. Nevertheless, the concept serves its purpose in highlighting how
love is a choice, and whom we choose to love shapes our destiny. I liked how this theme is conveyed through Irina's dilemma, turning a seemingly superficial love triangle into a philosophical what-if scenario. Moreover, I could relate to how Irina is torn between Lawrence and Ramsey, who each appeal to very different aspects of her nature: the pragmatic intellectual, on the one hand, and the sensual romantic, on the other. It's the classic battle of practicality vs passion, familiarity vs excitement, domestic comfort vs carnal desire, warmth vs sizzle, and Shriver lays it out side by side for a better view of the resulting casualties.

The only other thing that I did not like about The Post-birthday World is Shriver's tendency to write in a stilted, strangely un-American English, like a Yank trying to sound British but just winding up sounding pretentious and ridiculous. Both Irina and Lawrence are American expats based in London, but the way Shriver narrates, the reader can easily forget this fact, which is actually a minor yet relevant plot point much later in the book. Between content and form, The Post-birthday World gets higher marks for the former, but to an extent it is still a well-crafted and engaging novel, either way it ends.

* * *

Hailed as "the most celebrated graphic novel" of all time, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen is a fascinating foray into the psyches of men and women who fight crime in costume. It would be grossly inaccurate to call this a comic book about superheroes; in Watchmen, there are no real heroes, only humans who try to be, but fail in one way or another. Written and set in 1985, it is also an eerily prescient depiction of the political and moral decline the world is currently in, and I can't help but marvel (pun not intended) at the sophistication and substance of the subjects dealt with in the novel.

In the alternate reality of Watchmen's 1985 America, Nixon is still president, Russia is invading Afghanistan, and all costumed vigilante crime-fighters have been outlawed by the Keene Act, save for 3: Dr. Jonathan Osterman, a.k.a. Dr. Manhattan, the lone superhero on the planet with real superpowers acquired from a freak lab accident, and who works for the US government as both guardian and weapon;
superhero-turned-government mercenary Edward Blake, a.k.a. The Comedian; and Walter Kovacs, a.k.a. Rorschach, who's just a wee bit crazy and doesn't give a shit about the Keene Act. When The Comedian is murdered, Rorschach investigates and begins to suspect that someone out there is on a superhero killing spree. His investigation leads him to old nemeses and allies, and triggers reminiscing and reflection among the latter, before things come to a head and the costumes have to come out of storage again.

Watchmen is told in a series of 12 issues, and in between each "chapter" is inserted a piece of text that serves as a backgrounder or profile, presented in the form of biography excerpts, newspaper clippings, and various correspondence, which lend a realism as well as a grim sobriety. Flashbacks also provide revelations about each character's history, and a better understanding of their individual reasons and motives for donning their masks and costumes. Watchmen is surprisingly philosophical and psychological, plumbing into the dark recesses of its characters' minds and souls, so much so that it makes Batman's angst seem sunshiny in comparison.
I admit I wasn't blown away by the art, though I don't exactly have an expert eye for this kind of thing. But the writing is even better than that of most "real" novels I've read. Goes to show that graphic novels can indeed be excellent literature, and shouldn't be dismissed as mere "comics".

Postscript: I really hope the film adaptation (to be released very soon in early March) does justice to Moore and Gibbons' visionary work, and that it doesn't turn into just another CGI-heavy action flick. With such rich material to work with, director Zack Snyder (of 300 fame) is practically duty-bound to deliver.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

B for victory

On my way to the office yesterday morning, I happened to notice some men repainting a post along the main road of our subdivision, when I saw something that made me do a double-take. Those infernal "yellow curve" signs that had been plaguing me for the past 3 months have finally been CORRECTED! After 2 faxed letters to our village association office, the traffic signs now read "No parking on yellow curb". Hmm. I guess it was too much to ask that they revise it to "No parking ALONG yellow curb". The grammar Nazi will have to content herself with this small triumph.

As my friend Angelo congratulated me: "Changin' the world o
ne sign at a time. Yes, you can!" Haha.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Oscars overview 2009: and the Ailee goes to...

...Kate Winslet for Best Dressed Female (Anne Hathaway and Penelope Cruz get my runner-up nods).

...Hugh Jackman for Best Dressed Male.

...Mr. and Mrs. Robert Downey Jr. for Best Dressed Couple.

...the Kodak Theater interior for Best Makeover (mad props to the guys behind this year's stage design for brilliantly transforming the huge theater into an intimate venue with a posh ballroom feel).

...for Best Move: transferring the orchestra from the pit to the stage, bandstand style.

...Hugh Jackman for Best Oscars Host since Billy Crystal (g'job, mate!).

...Tina Fey and Steve Martin for Most Hilarious Presenters.

...for Best New Gimmick: previous Oscar winners delivering personal tributes to introduce the acting nominees (and to reduce the Best Supporting Actress contenders to weepy wrecks).

...for Best Courtesy: the orchestra NOT rudely cutting short acceptance speeches with that annoying please-wrap-up music.

...Baz Luhrmann for the Sportsmanship Award, for directing a fabulous musical production number for an award-giving body that doesn't seem to appreciate his work as a director (remember Moulin Rouge, the incredible self-directing Best Picture nominee?).

...John Legend for Best Pinch Hitter (suck on that, drama queen Peter Gabriel).

...Dev Patel for Best I'm-Just-Thrilled-To-Be-Here Expression.

...Anne Hathaway for Best Person to Seat in the Front Row (not only did she make a disarmingly charming "plant" for Hugh Jackman's opening number, she was also grinning broadly, applauding warmly, laughing gaily, or welling up with tears whenever the camera zoomed in on her).

...Philippe Petit, subject of Best Documentary Feature Man on Wire, for Best Oscar Acceptance Stunt.

...Ben Stiller, for Best Gag of the Evening (spoofing Joaquin Phoenix's dazed and confused-- and heavily bearded-- guest appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman).

...Zac Efron's agent for Best Deal Wrangled for a Client (Zac got to perform AND present).

...Jennifer Aniston's agent for Best Way to Publicly Humiliate a Client (i.e. make her present an award with Brangelina sitting right under her nose in the very first row).

...whoever made Miley Cyrus and her horrifically hideous dress disappear for the rest of the evening, for Best Public Service.

...Kate Winslet's father for Best Audience Participation (obliging his daughter with a whistle to help her find him and her mum in the crowd from the stage as she delivered her acceptance speech for Best Actress).

...Heath Ledger's family for Best Composure, accepting the Best Supporting Actor Oscar on Heath's behalf without breaking down even when there wasn't a dry eye in the audience., for winning our Oscar betting pool this year. Yay me! (I dedicate this win to John Tan, who burned me copies of almost all the Oscar-nominated movies this year-- the preparation did help!)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

My Oscar predictions 2009

My bloghounds will have noticed that I've been on a reviewing rampage the past couple of weeks. This year I took it upon myself to watch as many Oscar-nominated movies as I can before the winners are announced, and for the first time ever, I've managed to watch all 5 movies nominated for Best Picture prior to awards night, a feat I didn't even manage to achieve 2 years ago when I was an Oscars panelist for (to this day I have yet to see Letters from Iwo Jima).

I admit a large part of my motivation in undertaking this time-consuming film-viewing task is the petty desire to win our annual Oscars betting pool. And before anyone sneers, I'd like to clarify that it's not about the money, it's about the gloating rights. I've beaten my siblings only ONCE in the 7 years we've been betting on the Oscars, and it was the same year of my BBC stint, when I had been forced to watch as many of the nominated pictures as possible so that I could write about them. So I figured if I prepare as thoroughly, I'd stand a better chance of winning. Of course the drawback to my ingenious plan is that my sister has watched all the same movies I have, which means she is just as prepared. But we'll see who prevails come February 23. *evil laugh*

Since my sibs and I have already sealed our Oscar ballots and we can no longer change our bets (and copy each other's), it's now safe to announce my picks for each major category. Feel free to comment and tell me if you think I made the right choices.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Why she will win: Her Maria Elena stole the thunder from Vicky AND Cristina, and Barcelona's beauty took a backseat to her intensity and iridescence. "GEENius! Not talent, GEENius!"
Whom I want to win: Penelope Cruz, my new girl crush

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Why he will win: Duh.
Whom I want to win: Heath Ledger, for single-handedly redefining the comic book villain archetype, and for the most kick-ass swan song of any actor of our generation

BEST ACTRESS: Kate Winslet, The Reader
Why she will win: She didn't really blow me away in this one, but the Academy will reward Kate for her impressive and heretofore unrecognized body of work over the past decade. And this should make up for the injustice of her not winning Best Supporting Actress for Sense and Sensibility 12 years ago (eat your heart out, Mira Sorvino!).
Whom I want to win: Meryl Streep, because there's no such thing as overrewarding greatness

BEST ACTOR: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Why he will win: Everyone loves a comeback kid, and a comeback kid playing a comeback kid with the combined control of a seasoned pro and raw vulnerability of a newbie is bound to win over Academy voters. They will want to give acting legend Rourke his redemption... even if he uglies up the red carpet.
Whom I want to win: Colin Farrell, who wasn't even nominated for his brilliant performance in In Bruges

Why it will win: Pixar owns this category. And those first 20-something dialogue-free minutes of WALL-E were truly beautiful.
Whom I want to win: Kung Fu Panda, just for kicks (pun not intended)

Why it will win: It's a classic rags-to-riches story given a modern Mumbai twist, which gives it both universal and international appeal. And who doesn't like a happy ending?
What I want to win: Frost/Nixon, so that it wins SOMEthing (it seems so wrong for such a good movie to not be awarded a single distinction)

Why it will win: The Academy will probably give Milk this consolation prize since Slumdog's pretty much sure to walk away with Best Picture.
What I want to win: In Bruges, the funniest and most smartly written movie among all the nominated films

BEST DIRECTOR: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Why he will win:
Shooting a movie in Mumbai is difficult enough, but shooting an outstanding movie in Mumbai is pretty damn amazing. Plus he drew wonderful performances from a cast of mostly unknown and first-time actors, especially the children.
Whom I want to win: Danny Boyle, hands down

BEST PICTURE: Slumdog Millionaire
Why it will win: In a cynical world and a cynical entertainment industry, it's a rare and welcome treat to come across a feel-good film that is in no way contrived or corny.
What I want to win: Slumdog Millionaire, just the breath of fresh air Hollywood has been needing

My other bets include Slumdog Millionaire for Best Cinematography, Original Score, Film Editing and Sound Mixing; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button for Best Art Direction, Makeup, and Visual Effects; The Dark Knight for Best Sound Editing; and WALL-E for Best Original Song.

This year's crop of nominees are quite an exceptionally awesome bunch, certainly far better than last year's contenders. I dare say that collectively, this year's batch is the best we've seen in the past 5 or so years. In particular, there was solid acting all around: from grizzled Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon to young David Kross in The Reader; to Sean Penn's tour de force in Milk to Taraji P. Henson's breakthrough performance in Benjamin Button; to the fabulous foursome of Doubt (who, sadly, will probably get shut out) right down to everyone in Slumdog Millionaire. It's a pity they can't hand out Oscars to everyone, but considering the outstanding and comparable quality of practically all the nominees, for once that whole "it's an honor just to be nominated" cliche will ring true.

But dammit, I want to win our betting pool.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Bad boy done good

I've never considered Colin Farrell to be a particularly good actor (even in the overblown epic movie Alexander), so I was surprised he had been nominated for, and then went on to win, the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy for In Bruges. I had never even heard of the film, and I didn't even know what the heck "Bruges" was, or how to pronounce it for that matter.

As it turns out, Bruges ("broozh") is a small town in Belgium, and In Bruges is one heck of a funny yet unexpectedly touching dark comedy. I can't recall the last time I watched something that had me laughing out loud, then welling up with tears 5 seconds later, more than once throughout the film, mostly thanks to Farrell's brilliant turn as rookie hitman Ray. When he botches his first assignment, Ray is ordered by his boss Harry (the very fine Ralph Fiennes, spewing invectives in an incongruous but impeccable Cockney accent) to hide out in Bruges along with veteran hitman Ken (Brendan Gleeson). The older, more mild-mannered Ken is enchanted by the fairy-tale medieval town, but high-strung Ray considers it hell on earth, especially since he is going through his own personal hell after he screwed up big-time in London. The odd couple's time together in quaint, tranquil Bruges becomes an opportunity for introspection and unlikely bonding, but when Harry comes to hunt them down, things spiral as crazily as the staircase of Bruge's belltower.

Farrell and Gleeson make a delightful tandem, with Gleeson's Ken showing at first exasperation with, then protectiveness toward his young cohort, and Farrell's Ray being a smartass one minute and a vulnerable kid the next.
It's their chemistry that make their characters-- criminal as they are-- sympathetic and likeable. In Bruges is also an intriguing study of the twisted morality and principles of men who murder; even Fiennes' ruthless Harry adheres to a strange brand of honor that suggests the existence of a shred of human decency in even the most hardened killer. This film's Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay is well-deserved, but its punch might not pack as much oomph with Academy voters as Milk, also up for an Oscar in the same category.

Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed In Bruges. Like the town in which it's set, the movie is unassuming yet endearing, and deceptively simple, yet complex with layers of meaning. Similarly, and most significantly, it was refreshing to watch Colin Farrell deliver such a layered, prepossessing performance; I actually found him even better than Brad Pitt in Benjamin Button. It will be interesting to see how Farrell fares in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus as one of Heath Ledger's substitutes, now that I've seen how he shines in In Bruges.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The audacity of hope, and Harvey Milk

At some point in the middle of Milk, Sean Penn made me smile-- not just your run-of-the-mill smile, but one of those spontaneous, unsmotherable smiles that come from a warm place inside the gut. The scene was a birthday party for San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, the first gay man to be elected as a public official in California in 1977. A drag queen is belting out a disco tune, the room is packed with gyrating men and women (mostly men), and there in the thick of it all is Penn as Milk, who is pulled to the middle of the dance floor by the singer, and with a joyful girly scream starts dancing. By no means a significant scene in the movie, yet that brief moment captured what I found most wonderful about Penn's portrayal of Milk: it is so blithely natural, which is all the more impressive considering Penn's reputation as an actor who takes himself a bit too seriously.

Penn's Milk is lovable, funny, kind, generous, passionate, courageous, and inspiring, and Penn makes it easy to understand how Milk succeeded in leading the gay rights movement and giving a voice to the gay constituents of not just California, but across all the United States. It is just as easy to empathize with his frustration over losing several elections, his elation over finally winning, his anger over the injustices and prejudices against his fellow homosexuals, his fear over the death threats he receives, and his pain over lost loves.
This biopic tells us that Harvey Milk was someone who cared deeply and made a difference, at great personal sacrifice, and as a result opened the door for future generations of gay Americans. The underlying theme of hope (yes we can!) should resonate with contemporary audiences, and more than one scene had me teary-eyed with emotion stirred by the resilient spirit of those who believe in good, and a better tomorrow.

This is the 3rd Gus Van Sant film I've seen (Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester being the first 2), and so far he's 3 for 3 in giving me a memorable and enjoyable cinematic experience. As far as I can tell, Van Sant's take on Harvey Milk's life is both faithful and honest, and he is careful not to turn it into a fawning feel-good story. Even Milk's assassination is not made out to be martyrdom. Van Sant also gets some fantastic performances from his awesomely talented cast, including Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch (loved him in Speed Racer, adored him in this one), and Diego Luna, among others. I can't say what Van Sant's chances are at winning the Academy's vote this year (he faces stiff competition from Danny Boyle of Slumdog Millionaire), but I have a feeling he'll get an Oscar before the end of his directing career. As for Penn's chances of scoring Oscar gold this year, he'll have to duke it out with
The Wrestler's Mickey Rourke, and it's such a close fight that I can't call the winner with full confidence.

Penn's flawless portrayal and Van Sant's impeccable direction aside, ultimately, what sets Milk apart from other biopics is that it is a history lesson in humanity, both Harvey Milk's, and that of the people of his time. Though we now live in supposedly enlightened times, it does us well to be reminded of past battles against intolerance, and of the people who fought the good fight... people like Harvey Milk.
Milk is a fitting, beautiful tribute to a great civic leader, a sociocultural icon, and an extraordinary human being.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Packing (Latino) heat

Scarlett Johansson should really stop accepting roles in movies that pit her against far more talented actresses (such as Natalie Portman in The Other Boleyn Girl), because she just ends up looking pitifully inadequate. Even her looks, which she banks on more than her very limited range as a thespian, suffer from comparison with the likes of Penelope Cruz, who positively smolders in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and leaves Johansson-- and even co-star Rebecca Hall, who was radiant in Frost/Nixon-- looking pretty pathetic.

Hall and Johansson play best friends Vicky and Cristina, respectively, who while spending a summer in Barcelona get swept off their feet by seductive Spanish artist Juan Antonio (the muy talentoso, muy caliente Javier Bardem). But Vicky is engaged and too principled-- and scared-- to acknowledge her feelings, and Cristina's whirlwind romance with Juan Antonio is disrupted by the arrival of his dangerously volatile ex-wife Maria Elena (Cruz). As soon as Maria Elena enters the picture, the whole movie comes to life with passion, humor, and wild beauty. I was absolutely delighted with Cruz's performance and how her character manages to be a fierce firebrand, self-destructive loose cannon, and soulful artist all in one sultry, gorgeous package (Johansson and Hall look like stale white bread next to her).

I also loved how every time real-life paramours Bardem and Cruz are in a scene together, the screen threatens to burst into flame with the heat generated by their fiery exchanges, especially when they launch into their native Spanish, which sounds even sexier during a heated argument. The audience doesn't need either Vicky or Cristina to point out the obvious that Juan Antonio is still in love with his ex-wife, nor is it a stretch to imagine that Bardem and Cruz are just as in love with each other when the cameras stop rolling.

If Cruz is the soul of VCB, then Bardem is its heart. His Juan Antonio is no mere Latino hottie; there is a depth to his charm (also on display in the film adaptation of Love in the Time of Cholera) that makes it totally believable that even someone as level-headed as Vicky could fall for him. All 3 female protagonists play off his character, and while only Cruz really succeeds in creating anything larger-than-life from that dynamic, the masterful Bardem still draws some fairly credible acting from both Hall and Johansson. However, left to their own devices, Vicky and Cristina combined are less interesting than the stunning Barcelona sights highlighted to full effect throughout the movie.

I've never fully appreciated Woody Allen as a filmmaker, and it baffles me how Scarlett Johansson seems to be his muse, having already starred in several of his movies. But thanks primarily to Penelope Cruz (who fully deserved her BAFTA win for Best Supporting Actress), I found VCB sensually captivating and an enjoyable film overall. I give VCB three and 3/4 stars... deducting 1/4 for Johansson's predictably blah presence.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Down for the count, but up for an Oscar?

Maybe it's because I used to be a fan of the WWF (shout-out to my jabroni Mike!), but I really enjoyed Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, the story of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, an aging, washed-up professional wrestler who's struggling to make ends meet. The genius of this film lies in the casting of Mickey Rourke, an aging, washed-up actor, in the title role. Admittedly, the sight of the unkempt (and seemingly unwashed) Rourke on the red carpet makes my nose crinkle in distaste, but after watching The Wrestler, I understand why he's won both the Golden Globe and BAFTA awards for Best Actor. He delivers a helluva performance as The Ram, embodying every inch and aspect of the tired, lonely man who's abused his body for decades, neglected his family, and basically screwed up his life. The raw emotions of physical and emotional pain play across Rourke's lined face with more eloquence than one would expect of the greaseball he appears to be, and his Ram comes through as gruff yet gentle, brutish yet broken, the contradictions working rather beautifully.

In spite of being a professional has-been, a deadbeat dad and a junkie to boot, Ram is very much a sympathetic character, and I found myself wincing not only when he takes a steel chair to the head or a staple gun to the chest, or when he cuts himself open with a razor blade, but also when he is locked out of his trailer by the park manager because he can't cough up the month's rent, or when his attempts to reconnect are rebuffed by his estranged daughter (
the frighteningly pale Evan Rachel Wood, who surprises with dramatic prowess belying an ex-girlfriend of Marilyn Manson). Rourke's best scene is one with Wood, where the tears flow openly and honestly without a hint of overacting or melodrama.

That lovely moment aside, Rourke is at his finest whenever he shares screentime with Marisa Tomei, who plays Ram's favorite stripper at his regular strip joint. Tomei, also staging a cinematic comeback of sorts, is age-defyingly hot as single mom Cassidy, whose fondness for Ram conflicts with her policy of not getting attached to customers. Like Ram, Cassidy is past her prime and knows it, and this common angst draws the two together. Tomei certainly earned her Best Supporting Actress nominations not only for bringing heart to an otherwise soulless role, but also for working the strip pole like a pro.

The whole movie is shot in the style of a mockumentary, providing a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the world of professional wrestling, which any WWF/WWE fan would get a kick out of. There are fleeting bits of levity, and some rather graphic shots of bloody injuries, but most striking is the sense of woeful wretchedness that permeates an industry known for its pomp and braggadocio. It's hard thinking of the likes of Hulk Hogan or the Rock or Stone Cold Steve Austin as tragic heroes, but as seen in The Wrestler, these modern-day gladiators are no less human once they step outside their squared arena.

Overall I was suitably impressed by the quality of this movie, from the directing to the cinematography to the screenplay to the outstanding acting, right down to the deliberately "bitin" ending. That it made me nostalgic for the good old days of professional wrestling was a bonus. Moreover, I have newfound respect for Mickey Rourke-- the man could show up on Oscar night looking like an oily Vegas street pimp, but if he walks away with Best Actor honors, it would only be his due. And that's the bottom line, because Ailee said so.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Oh, the humanity

As of this writing, I have yet to watch Rachel Getting Married, Changeling and Frozen River, so I can't say whether or not Anne Hathaway, Angelina Jolie and Melissa Leo deserve the Best Actress Oscar more than this year's clear favorite, the wonderfully consistent Kate Winslet, but based on my viewings of Doubt and The Reader, I actually preferred Meryl Streep in the former over Ms. Winslet in the latter. While Meryl may have benefited from superb supporting performances from her castmates, Kate, in my eyes, was simply overshadowed by her young co-star David Kross.

Kross plays Michael Berg, a boy in post-war Germany who gets swept up in a whirlwind affair with a much older woman (Winslet) hiding more than one shameful secret. Kross is thoroughly believable as a teenager discovering the joys of sex and the pains of love with a woman twice his age. During their afternoons trysts, Michael reads to Hanna from books assigned to him in school, and it's during these tender moments when the poignancy of their unseemly relationship is best felt. As tram conductor Hanna, Winslet is both stern and gentle, guarded and vulnerable, and though I wasn't blown away by her, she does demonstrate the kind of class and command usually seen in more mature actresses. And that's the kind of stuff the Academy loves rewarding with shiny gold bald man statuettes, especially if the recipient has a respectable body of work to back her up, as Winslet does (not to mention the Academy might be suffering from Meryl Streep fatigue).

But like I said, David Kross impressed me more with his performance as Michael, seeming to be able to cry on cue, conveying a multitude of battling emotions in one facial expression, and totally owning all the most heart-rending scenes: his breakdown after a lover's quarrel with Hanna, his shock when he stumbles upon the horrible secret from her past, his anguish over the fate Hanna ultimately chooses for herself. I thought Kross breathed even more soul into his Michael than the divine Ralph Fiennes did with adult Michael, which is saying a LOT.

Top-notch acting aside, The Reader is a beautiful film because its deceptively simple story is at once scandalous, sweet, stirring, and profoundly sad. The protagonists are all too human: flawed, weak, proud, but also strong, compassionate, and capable of love. And at the end of it all, the movie reminds us that the line between right and wrong, between good and evil, between innocence and guilt, is not always as clearly marked as we would need or like it to be.

(4 and a half stars, the half coming solely from the thrill I got hearing Ralph Fiennes read aloud from The Odyssey. If I could give him an Oscar for that alone I would.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Laws of attraction

Way back in high school, I co-wrote and edited a "He Said, She Said" piece for our school paper. The topic was the age-old debate of "Opposites Attract" vs "Birds of a Feather..." I don't even recall which side I wrote for, but I do know I used to be of the "Opposites Attract" inclination, believing people tend to be drawn to others who possess qualities they lack, to balance both their weaknesses and strengths.

To a certain extent, I still think some relationships involving disparate personalities or characteristics work precisely because of the yin-and-yang dynamic, but now I'm more of the "Birds of a Feather" persuasion. Over the years I've seen too many volatile relationships combust precisely because of so-called irreconcilable differences, and in my own relationships I find that the richest ones I have are those with individuals very similar to myself. It's not even so much a shared history or a common background, but a set of like traits that contribute to a mutual understanding, which in turn leads to a mutual appreciation, and later, affection.

That being the case, it now stands to presume that I actually look for myself in the men I date, because I seriously doubt I could ever commit to a romantic relationship with someone vastly unlike me. An occasionally wise man once pointed out to me that men and women are already so different by nature that we should be looking for someone as similar to ourselves as possible to form any sort of harmonious pairing. That whole "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" bit is all too true, and it takes much work to bridge the interplanetary divide, so to speak, without having to deal with a slew of interpersonal differences. Sure, the odd surprising quirk won't hurt, and some friction can create both bad and good sparks (*ahem*), but for the most part, I would put more stock in a relationship laid on a foundation of same personalities, behavioral traits, beliefs, principles and values. After all, isn't that why they call it a "match"?

Of course this makes my prospects all the more dim and depressing. Unfortunately (or fortunately, for the good of mankind) I seem to be a rare breed of sorts: an imposingly tall Chinese-FIlipino girl from a neo-conservative family, yet is somewhat of a liberal intellectual; who'd rather earn a paltry salary teaching high school than be forever tied to the family business; who can be both a cynical, cold-hearted bitch and a sentimental closet sap; who's well-read and well-traveled; who's a grammar Nazi, frustrated writer, film buff, and incurable shoe addict/bagaholic;
who eschews Friendster and Facebook but embraces blogging and camwhoring; who loves her Star Trek and Star Wars and Broadway musicals and ice hockey and UAAP basketball; who's a dutiful daughter, protective sister, loyal friend, outspoken know-it-all, unforgiving critic, and arrogant Atenean (pardon the redundancy) all in one. To find a guy remotely similar to myself, someone who would be physically, mentally, emotionally and recreationally compatible, is a tall (pun not intended) order indeed.

In spite of the daunting and wearying search for a "bird of the same feather", I'd like to think I haven't been going about it the wrong way, looking for someone like me, when I should have been looking for someone NOT like me all along. But I could be wrong. Maybe I should reconsider that whole "Opposites Attract" thing. Or maybe I should just stop looking for Martians all together and move the search to Jupiter instead.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Quietly disquieting

Too often we associate the film genre drama with either hysterics or depression, or a combination of both extremes, communicated through various forms of screaming, sobbing, sighing, and long, impassioned soliloquys. Doubt reminds us that a drama need not be loud to be compelling or entertaining. In fact, as far as Hollywood dramas go, Doubt is very subdued, but like a well-tuned vehicle, its quiet engine belies the force that propels the car forward.

Perhaps it's already a given that any movie with Meryl Streep in it can't possibly suck, but in this case the queen of contemporary cinema is aided adeptly by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis, who all deliver performances worthy of their Oscar nominations. Streep plays Sister Aloysius, the steely, super-strict principal of a Catholic school, whose dislike of parish priest Father Flynn (Hoffman) leads her to suspect, then accuse him of questionable behavior involving a student. Caught in the middle is the young and naive Sister James (Adams), whose reports Sister Aloysius uses to strengthen her case against Father Flynn, in spite of the absence of hard proof. Director John Patrick Shanley, who wrote both the Pulitzer-winning play on which this film is based as well as its screenplay (also nominated for an Oscar), uses the theme of doubt to draw a parallel between the questions surrounding Father Flynn's guilt and the uncertainties clouding the protagonists' faith. That Shanley manages to get the audience fully immersed in that same doubt throughout and even after the movie is testament (pun not intended) to the power of his work.

As always, I am in awe of Meryl Streep, who is pitch-perfect as Sister Aloysius, giving the fearsome nun an accessible humanity through her formidable exterior. But maybe because we all expect such perfection from Ms. Streep, I found Philip Seymour Hoffman more riveting in this film. The best actors are the ones who make the viewer forget they're acting, and PSH belongs in that category. His Father Flynn is not only wholly believable (or should I say unbelievable?), but also seemingly effortless. In one scene, as he narrates a story during a homily he's delivering, he switches back and forth from a New York accent to an Irish brogue, and the fluidity, plus the sheer absence of grandstanding, are simply amazing. With such talent onboard, I imagine not many retakes were required in the filming of this movie. Aside from pros Streep and Hoffman, Amy Adams also impresses with her controlled and convincing portrayal of the wide-eyed Sister James (although it's hard not to be reminded of her role in Enchanted, a similarly good-natured and guileless girl), and Viola Davis makes the most out of her short screen time as the distressed mother of the student Father Flynn has allegedly taken advantage of.

Some may be put off with Doubt's slow pacing or its lack of action (in the form of
screaming or sobbing), but those who don't mind watching a film of introspection will appreciate how Doubt prompts one to search for answers not only within the movie, but within one's own doubting self.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

I don't need another hero

I just saw Roger Federer break down after losing to Rafael Nadal in a tense, grueling match to determine the champion of this year's Australian Open. Federer had been gunning to equal Pete Sampras' record 14 Grand Slam wins, but instead fell to his younger opponent, who claimed his very first AO championship. As Roge received his runner-up plate and stepped up to the mic to address his horde of supporters in Rod Laver Arena, he dissolved into tears. The sight of the normally perfectly poised Swiss weeping openly stunned me into silence, and I could feel my heart breaking along with his. And dammit, I loved him all the more for showing he's actually human.

I am a fan of both Roge and Rafa, but between the rivals, I have always been more partial to Federer. Since their thrilling Wimbledon showdown in 2007, I have been convinced that I will forever be a Fed fangirl. To Nadal's credit, he has matured a lot in the past 2 years, and truly deserves his current spot at number 1
in the world rankings, previously occupied by Federer for a record 237 consecutive weeks. Even when Rafa dethroned my beloved Roge, I came to develop a respect and a liking for the Spaniard (it helps that I saw him in person and realized just how hot he is, haha). Today, as he accepted his trophy, he turned to the distraught Federer and sincerely said, "Roge, sorry for today," knowing full well how badly Roge had wanted to get Grand Slam #14. I never thought I'd ever use the word "sweet" to describe Nadal, but the gracious way he comported himself won me over.

When you have come to expect nothing short of greatness from someone you idolize, and they fail to deliver, there's disappointment, and there's also the compulsion to create excuses on their behalf. But even to my untrained eye, Rafa was the more consistent, confident and focused player throughout the entire match. His speed and stamina were amazing, especially considering he only got a day of rest after a doozy of a semifinal in which he prevailed over compatriot Fernando Verdasco in a gritty 5-hour long slugfest. On the other hand, Roge seemed but a shadow of his self, playing tentatively, committing unforced errors, and eventually collapsing in the final set, 2 games to 6. It appeared the pressure had gotten to him, and it almost never does. Sure, he still played some excellent tennis, but despite being trimmer and more well-rested, it was obvious his best efforts weren't enough to defeat Nadal.

My dad pointed out that age is a big factor. 27 is already considered ancient for an athlete, and I'm guessing that very thought hit Roger as well and must have helped trigger the waterworks. Perhaps he was thinking Grand Slam #14 may already be out of reach, the way Rafa is steadily improving, even as he himself is perilously teetering on the edge of decline. Perhaps he was already seeing a future where other younger players would be besting him and making him look pathetic. Perhaps the phrase "washed up" was echoing hauntingly, mockingly in his head. Perhaps he was sensing this was the beginning of the end for him. "God, it's killing me," he managed to choke out, before his face crumpled in anguish. It killed me as well.

As I was watching the match, it occured to me that while Roger is my age (28 this year), Rafa is the same age (22 going on 23) as my first batch of students. The age difference may not seem much, but it was a big enough difference for Nadal to outlast and overcome Federer, and big enough for me to feel outdated and plain OLD relative to my students. That realization heightened my empathy toward Federer, and made it all the more agonizing when I saw how hard he took today's loss. The dread of being put out to pasture, of being dismissed as past one's prime, of being forgotten together with yesterday's news-- it gets worse with each passing year. It would be nice to believe one's heroes are immune from such a cruel thing as age, but teachers and tennis players and screen actors and favorite authors (rest in peace, John Updike) are not superhuman nor immortal.

However, what is also nice about heroes is their ability to acknowledge when they have come up short, and when their time has passed. After taking a few minutes to collect himself, Federer made it a point to go back to center stage before Nadal was awarded, and like the gentleman and class act he is, told the crowd he didn't want to have the last word when it belonged to Ra
fa. He then congratulated Nadal and wished him luck for the rest of the year, and thanked the audience for their support. For all his emotion, he was not asking for pity. For all his pain, he was not taking anything away from his rival's glory.

And though Rafa had been the better man on court today, Roge showed that he could still be as good a man off-court. He may never reach Grand Slam #14, he may never beat Nadal again, or he could retire from tennis tomorrow, but I'd still be a Federer fangirl for life.