Thursday, July 30, 2009

A life less lucid

As far as biopics go, Public Enemies was a bust. I didn't really learn much about the life of John Dillinger, nor did I get an appreciation of the allure of the infamous 1930s bank robber who fascinated the public and frustrated law enforcement for years. The film played out like a hastily sewn patchwork quilt: incoherent snatches of jailbreaks, bank heists, shootouts, and press cons given by J. Edgar Hoover, fabulously portrayed by a gorgeous Billy Crudup.

Indeed, the movie's sole strength was solid acting: when Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard topbill, very little can go wrong by way of dramatic performance. Depp is flawless as always, lending Dillinger an air of quiet danger, easy arrogance, and sexy charm, with just a vestige of vulnerability. I still maintain Depp is the most brilliant actor of our time, and like a stunning photograph, it doesn't matter how ugly the frame, your eyes are riveted on the beauty in the center. On the other hand, Christian "Crimefighter with Chiseled Cheekbones" Bale gave a more subdued turn as Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent tasked by Hoover to take down Dillinger and his gang. So subdued was his delivery that there were times when I'd actually forget Bale was even in the movie, but whenever he showed up in a scene, he was all smoldering intensity, a la Bruce Wayne/John Connor. Marion Cotillard, whom I adored in last year's La Vie En Rose, was magnifique as Billie Frechette, Dillinger's lady love. All the best scenes in the film were those shared by Depp and Cotillard, as the two made the renegade romance between Dillinger and Frechette come alive with a flirty, fiery passion.

With the exception of the 3 leads (and Billy Crudup's Hoover), the rest of the characters passed in and out in a blur of fedoras, trench coats and machine guns. I couldn't keep all the names and faces straight, and gave up trying half an hour into the movie. There wasn't much of a plot to keep track of, though; the thing with biopics is, everyone knows how they end anyway, so it's only a question of whether or not the story was presented in a creative, entertaining way (never mind the historical inaccuracies). Public Enemies was compelling in parts, but lacked the artistry of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the clarity of Milk, and the showbiz touch of Walk the Line. Because ultimately, that's what a biopic should be, not just a well-acted ensemble piece, but a well-drawn portrait of a life more extraordinary than most. John Dillinger deserved better.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Bookworm's progress report #4, 2009

Percy Jackson to the rescue! Since my last progress report, I managed to finish 4 books thanks to Rick Riordan's easy-to-read, entertaining series for young adults. Indeed, all 4 of the books I read in the past 2 months are young adult lit, and it's been refreshing indulging my inner teenage bookworm.

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist

I fell in love with this teenage love story just as a teenager would: hard, fast, and with all the kilig my jaded 28-year-old self is still capable of feeling. Told from the alternating points of view of the eponymous characters, the account of one night of crazy kismet kicks off with a kiss, and what follows is a wild ride through Manhattan filled with music, madness, making out, and moving on. I really enjoyed this book, primarily because of the authors' terrific writing styles. Rachel Cohn and David Levithan make Nick and Norah come alive using a language that is very now, very honest, and very real. It's intelligent writing, but in a slick, almost subversive way. These are not your pretentiously profound or insubstantially inane high schoolers; they're just a couple of kids with the usual hang-ups and the usual heartaches. Nick and Norah's "voices" are thoroughly believable as teenagers confused and scared by the awesome/awful concept of falling in love, and they remind the reader (at least this reader) that love is always confusing and scary at any age, but also very, very cool.

The Lightning Thief (Book One in the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series)

While I enjoyed the first installment in the Percy Jackson series, I did find it too Harry Potteresque for comfort. Young hero going through a rough childhood discovers he's special in a mythical way (magical in Harry's case), gets put in a summer camp for children the gods of Olympus sired with mortals (like a Grecian Hogwarts), and learns of a prophecy that may be singling him out as the chosen one who could either spell the doom or salvation of Olympus (just as "The Boy Who Lived" would bring down He Who Must Not Be Named). Fans of the HP series will either resent or appreciate the many parallels, and in my case I was constantly vacillating between the two.

Where PJ veers away from HP though is the smart and playful use of figures from Greek mythology, which I really liked. The gods and goddesses of Olympus are given fresh, funky makeovers, along with other mythological figures and monsters from ancient Greek lore. The teenaged protagonists, Percy and his sidekicks Annabeth (a fellow half-blood) and Grover (a satyr), unlike the Rowling trio of Harry, Hermione and Ron, are just that, teenagers, speaking and behaving like normal 14-year-old kids would (as normal as offspring of immortals can be), with none of the unrealistic precociousness or artificial maturity young heroes in these kinds of books tend to possess.

In The Lightning Thief, Percy embarks on his first quest as a "hero" (in the tradition of Hercules, Jason, his namesake Perseus, et al), hurdles the usual and some unusual challenges along the way, faces enemies expected and unexpected, and comes to terms with his being the son of an Olympian. Again, there's a Potter flavor to it all, but discounting that, it is a fun, engaging literary romp, with memorable and genuinely likeable characters. As a bonus, Rick Riordan's writing style is better than J.K. Rowling's in that it's less stuffy (less British?), more consistent, and generally friendlier (more American?), and because of that I think it will appeal to younger, hipper readers. Book One of the PJ series was good enough to make me look forward to Book Two, namely...

The Sea of Monsters (Book Two in the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series)

The sea in the title refers to the same body of water sailed by my man Odysseus on his way home to Ithaca in Homer's immortal Odyssey. Percy Jackson and Annabeth Chase set out on a nautical mission to rescue their satyr friend Grover from the clutches of the cyclops Polyphemus, as well as to retrieve the Golden Fleece to help cure the poisoned tree protecting the borders of Camp Half-Blood. I enjoyed the many Odyssey references sprinkled throughout this 2nd volume in the PJ series, but I still couldn't shake the nagging feeling that I was reading a Harry Potter ripoff. Worse, I could no longer convince myself that Riordan's writing is good-- he may be better than Rowling, but his writing still comes off as flimsy and frivolous. I realize it IS a book for children, but I prefer my children's lit with better style and more substance.

Minus the novelty of The Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters is definitely the inferior book. Not only is the writing weaker, but a key character introduced, a young Cyclops named Tyson, is made to sound uncomfortably like a lumbering retard. Every time he appeared on a page I'd skim over his lines as quickly as I could just to avoid cringing. Again, perhaps I should be more forgiving of a book meant for younger readers, but I found myself getting disenchanted with the PJ series. Too bad I had already purchased the 3rd book, which was...

The Titan's Curse (Book Three in the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series)

Thankfully, Book 3 of the PJ series was an improvement over Book 2. A lot of new characters are introduced in The Titan's Curse, and some are interesting enough to make one forget about Riordan's unpolished writing style. Percy Jackson is on yet another quest, this time aided by Annabeth, Grover, and a half-blood named Thalia, a tough, street-smart Goth girl (I prefer to picture her as Goth rather than Riordan's choice of "punk", which is just so 90s). After they help rescue half-blood siblings Bianca and Nico Di Angelo, Percy and his posse join forces with the Hunters, a group of immortal Amazonian-like warriors serving the virgin goddess Artemis, to uncover and foil a plot that could lead to the undoing of Olympus. There is more action in this book, more humor, and generally more entertainment, and there were moments that reminded me why I actually like the series enough to keep reading it. There may not be the same emotional attachment to the characters as there was with the cast of the HP series, but they are sufficiently likeable, and while I don't really care about what happens to them, I am curious.

Shortly after finishing The Titan's Curse, I found out there's already a film adaptation of The Lightning Thief, so it gave me added incentive to purchase the 4th and penultimate book in the PJ series, The Battle of the Labyrinth. I'm hoping it will prove to be better than the previous 3 volumes, especially since I'm expecting the series to end with a bang, seeing as how the 5th and final book received a good review in the New York Times. Let's see if Percy Jackson will truly emerge a real hero.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


To sum it up succintly, Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince was a hot mess: Alan Rickman was hot, the rest was a mess.

It's not so much because the 6th installment in the Harry Potter movie franchise sucked any more than the 5 that came before it (The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix were worse). The problem is with the whole movie franchise itself: it might have been a mistake to begin with. J.K. Rowling's beloved book series, one of the most sensational pop culture phenomena of our time, is simply too unwieldy for film adaptation. The magic of Rowling's fictional universe lies in the careful, creative, curious, and cute details, and none of the movies have been able to capture and contain them to satisfy any self-respecting Potterphile. The producers who bought the film rights to the HP books definitely made a sound financial decision; however, from an artistic and logistical standpoint, they did not think it through.

By the time Half-Blood Prince rolled into theaters, one now gets the sense that the HP movies are like a speeding train that's lost its brakes. It started slow, gained momentum (gracias, Alfonso Cuaron), and is now careening wildly toward derailment or a spectacular crash. But I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the crash will be more of finishing with a bang, if only to do justice to the final book in the HP series (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), which I truly loved. The film adaptation of HBP just felt too all over the place: hardly any context for even HP fans to follow the complicated storyline; abrupt shifts from scene to scene and mood to mood; and characters popping up for what first seems like a significant moment, only to disappear for the rest of the movie (and what, only 2 scenes with the Weasley twins?? outrageous!!). It pained me to see such eminent English acting talents like Julie Walters, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, and David Thewlis get so little screen time. Indeed, the saving grace of this mess of a movie was the superb acting from Michael Gambon as the awesome, adorable Albus Dumbledore, Jim Broadbent as the grubby but good-hearted Horace Slughorn, Helena Bonham-Carter as the malevolent, barking mad Bellatrix LeStrange, and Alan Rickman as the sinister, sexy-in-a-sleazy-way Severus Snape (every word, look, pause and movement from Rickman screamed TARAY, it was brilliant to behold).

I wish I could rave similarly about the performances of the younger actors, but I was disappointed with the lot. Even after 6 movies, Daniel Radcliffe still fails to impress me with his lukewarm delivery of emotions, particularly rage and grief; Rupert Grint still tends to overact when he's called to be comic, and comes off as a ham (and the kid can do SO much better, as I've seen in the delightful Driving Lessons); and Emma Watson, while still outacting her 2 male co-stars, seems to have lost the spunk she had as a child and has settled into the role of pretty, skinny female lead with not much personality. Of all the younger cast members, the ones who gave more convincing performances were actually the girl who played the irritating, infatuated Lavender Brown, and the guy who played the cute but cocky Cormac McLaggen. Tom Felton was pretty good too as Draco Malfoy, but dude looks like crap with his sunken, almost skeletal face-- put some meat on those bones man!

HBP did have some entertaining bits (mostly the light-hearted parts involving teenage romance), and it did have me welling up at the end because of its tragic ending, but ultimately the tragedy is that for all the wizardry going on within it, the movie sorely lacked the magic Rowling's books have. I'm certainly not harboring any high hopes for films #7 and #8, but at this point, I've traveled too far on the speeding train to jump off. Might as well see it through to the bitter(sweet?) end.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Gotta believe in magic

There were many, many moments in the nail-biting, pulse-pounding, heart-stopping Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick when I genuinely feared my darling Roge wasn't going to make it. Roddick was playing some awesome, awesome tennis, and his booming serve seemed unstoppable, even for the Mighty Fed, who failed to break A-Rod throughout the entire match... until the very end.

In a tightly contested, interminable 5th set that finished at 16-14, Federer fended off the very focused, very ferocious Roddick, and more than anything, I felt sheer relief surge through me as the match was finally won. No question about it, Andy had played better tennis, but destiny seemed to insist on having its way. Tonight, Federer claimed 3 things: his 6th Wimbledon title, a record 15th Grand Slam championship, and a place in history as arguably the greatest who's played the sport. With this win, he will also be reclaiming the world #1 ranking from Rafael Nadal (sorry Tommy!). And though I was more emotional when Roger won the French Open last month, I feel even more proud of him now, especially since he overcame such a formidable opponent. At one point during the 2nd set, which Federer won in a tie break where he was down 5-1, a single word kept running through my head: MAGIC. There really is something about the way the man plays that almost appears otherworldly, and even when it looked like he was going to be thwarted by his favorite whipping boy (their head-to-head record now stands at 19-2), the Swiss Maestro managed to hang in there and in a matira-ang-matibay showdown, made the American blink first.

That being said, I would like to give mad, mad props to Roddick, who was simply smashing, not just in the final against Federer, but in his semis match against Andy Murray and quarterfinal against Lleyton Hewitt. I have never been a Roddick fan, but this is a new and improved A-Rod, no longer the cocksure hothead he was before. I was blown away by the spectacular skills he put on display at Wimbledon, and during the 5th set tonight I even actually found myself on the verge of relenting and saying "let him have it", he's worked so hard to get to where he is.

But my heart is too loyal to Roger, and I am ecstatic that he survived this closely contested, sensational slugfest. I don't know if this victory at Wimbledon was written in the stars, or the workings of that old Swiss magic. In any case, I'm glad I kept my faith in FedEx (though I came dangerously close to cardiac arrest), and I'm glad I witnessed one of the most amazing feats in tennis achieved by a living legend I love.

Friday, July 03, 2009

How the mighty have fallen

It's no shocker that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is pumped with as much testosterone as a professional wrestler. After all, this is a movie directed by Michael Bay (who can't seem to make a movie without at least a dozen explosions per scene), featuring warring alien robots (who morph into sports cars and fighter jets and the odd kitchen appliance), macho military men (who brandish big guns and drive big tanks and blow up stuff on Michael Bay's cue), and Megan Fox (who shows off her ample assets to maximum effect from all possible angles).

But maybe partly because I had loved the first Transformers movie so much, this sequel was a bit of a relative disappointment. For one thing, it lacked the novelty of the previous film: the thrill of seeing the Autobots transform for the first time, recognizing familiar characters from the cartoon series, and generally feeling like a wide-eyed kid again. For another, everything in ROTF felt like a caricature: the alpha males in the army, Sam Witwicky's loopy (and hella annoying) mother, his nutty roommate, the token government suit who makes an ass of himself, even the ancient Decepticon-turned-Autobot Jetfire, depicted as a doddering old bucket of bolts. And was it just me, or was there one I'm-here-to-provide-comic-relief sidekick too many (did they really need the nutty roommate, the controversial twin Autobots Skids and Mudflap, AND John Turturro)? I should also mention that the romantic interludes between Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox came off as contrived, in terms of both timing and temper. I seem to recall them having better chemistry in the first movie... or maybe Megan Fox really is just way too hot for SLB.

I'm not even going to go into the plot, which was equal parts convoluted and corny. But whereas the first Transformers film got by on characterization, ROTF fell flat in that department. The most believable and compelling character in the entire movie was Optimus Prime, and he's a CGI! As long as Optimus was in a scene, I was happy. I WASN'T happy about the other Autobots not getting enough screen time, with the exception of Bumblebee and the twins. Plus, they did include my favorite Deception Soundwave in this sequel, but he didn't really get to do-- and more critically, say-- much.

I can see how most people enjoyed ROTF: it's mindless entertainment at its most explosive (literally-- I haven't seen so much shrapnel in one movie!). But you will have to excuse me if I don't join in the chorus of raving, or the clamoring for a third Transformers film. This one felt pretty much like a dead end to me.

Postscript: If you've seen ROTF, or haven't seen it but don't care about spoilers, check out this list of the movie's flaws in logic from It's not that I wanna nitpick. I just like my movies to make sense, even the mindless ones.