Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Enter the panda, again

I distinctly remember having a precious LOL moment watching the first Kung Fu Panda movie, the bit where Po, the rotund eponymous protagonist, has this exchange with his dad Mr. Ping, a scrawny goose:

Po: "I don't know, Dad. Honestly, sometimes I can't believe I'm actually your son."
Mr. Ping: "Po, I think it's time I told you something I should've told you a long time ago..."
Po: "Okay..."
Mr. Ping: "The secret ingredient of my Secret Ingredient Soup."

It was that kind of smart, subtle humor that made Kung Fu Panda such a fun and funny film. I was expecting the same from its sequel, but Kung Fu Panda 2 turned out to be more... philosophical than funny. Yes, it elicited its fair share of giggles from the audience, and I had another genuine LOL moment toward the end (the second half of the movie turned out to be more enjoyable). But with its theme of searching for identity and inner peace, KFP2 had me reflecting, and even sniffling, instead of snickering. It's not necessarily a bad thing-- in fact, I'm a sucker for mo
vies that make me cry. I guess I was just expecting a movie that promised twice the awesomeness of the previous one to deliver the "awesome", not the "awws".

Don't get me wrong though, there is much to love about KFP2. For one thing, the
animation is visually stunning-- cartoon China comes to life in bright colors, dramatic landscapes, and beautiful details. For another, the characters are cute and charismatic-- I especially loved Master Shifu (redundant name notwithstanding) and Mr. Ping, who get some of the best lines of the script. I even appreciated the mad villain Lord Shen, a white peacock hellbent on conquering China (and destroying kungfu) using gunpowder and cannons. Shen's personality is threshed out quite well for a cartoon bad guy, and his connection to Po's wanting to find out who his birth parents were fits in quite nicely within the whole plot.

KFP2 boasts what is perhaps the most star-studded cast of voice talents ever assembled: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Gary Oldman, Michelle Yeoh, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, et al. Problem is, there are so many stars that their talents are not maximized, or in the case of some, they're barely utilized. Personally I would have liked to hear more of Jean-Claude Van Damme (Master Croc) if only because there was so much potential for self-deprecating meta-references right there.

As far as animated film franchises go, Kung Fu Panda seems to have gotten the right formula for both commercial and critical success, much like Dreamworks' other notable cartoon hit Shrek. So perhaps unsurprisingly, KFP2 ends with an assurance of a third movie, and I for one think that's awesome.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Why courtesy counts

At a time when NBA stars are hurling gay slurs and anti-RH Bill advocates are throwing punches, I am once more reminded that though we live in a supposedly enlightened modern age, people still show signs of being savages.

To me, it is staggering how many people don't seem to have even the most rudimentary grasp of common courtesy anymore. Most are so fixated on grand gestures and loud statements that they tend to overlook the little acts of decency that are actually more important. As I've written in this blog before, I firmly believe that respect-- that most basic acknowledgment of another person's human dignity-- should never be compromised. And respect is reflected in the simplest of ways that we often take for granted: switching our cellphones to silent mode inside a theater; wearing proper attire in a place of worship; speaking politely to elders or people in authority; returning a store clerk or security guard's greeting; saying "thank you" or "please" or "excuse me". All these are so ridiculously easy to do, yet for many it's easier to just not do them at all. Or worse, they are deemed insignificant, or inconvenient.

Those who do away with simple courtesies or throw etiquette out the window show a blatant disregard for others. The people around them are unimportant, undeserving of the effort it takes to be polite or proper. I can understand if they can't be nice to everyone all the time, but if they can't be nice, then at the very least be DECENT. No matter how intense the argument, how shitty the situation, how divided the loyalties, or how high emotions are running, there is no need to resort to fisticuffs, insults, mudslinging, or cussing. Classic examples are the boorish behavior one sees from rabid Ateneo fans, pro athletes or Philippine senators. There are countless cases of bad conduct from people who are inconsiderate of others' rights and insensitive to others' feelings, and it's dismaying to think that in an already fractured society, we can't even fall back on plain old decency.

In a world of varying values, contrasting beliefs, and clashing passions, it is unrealistic to expect everyone to get along. The only way we can all get by (even without getting along) is to behave like civilized human beings, and simply agree to disagree while still observing good manners. And perhaps, if it's not asking too much, a little compassion and kindness. Anyone incapable of that bare minimum shows either a sorry lack of breeding, or a sad deficiency in character. And people like that not only don't deserve to be heard, but they aren't worth any attention.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Jack's back

In 2008, I drew up a list of my 25 greatest movie characters, and Captain Jack Sparrow made it to number 14. As seeming validation of Johnny Depp's colorful character being bigger than the entire movie franchise, four years after the third (and what was presumably the last) Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Jack's back, this time sans ship and crew, but still swashbuckling and swaggering through hi-jinks on the high seas.

Plot-wise, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides stands independent of the first three films, with the only leftover premise being that Jack wants to take back his beloved ship The Black Pearl from Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, reprising the role of rapscallion with relish), who commandeered the vessel at the end of the previous Pirates installment. Barbossa is one of the few original characters who reappear in this fourth film-- joining Jack this time is former flame Angelica (played by my girl crush
Penelope Cruz), daughter of the infamous pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who enlists Jack's help in looking for the legendary Fountain of Youth. Aboard Blackbeard's ship the Queen Anne's Revenge, they race against both Barbossa, who is now serving the King's Navy and looking to exact revenge against Blackbeard, and the Spanish armada, who want to get to the Fountain before the British.

The plot is surprisingly straightforward (perhaps too straightforward, bordering on simplistic) considering the convoluted, sometimes otherworldly twists taken by the preceding movies. While Jack still gets into the usual sticky situations, he never seems to be in any real danger throughout the story. Nothing poses much of a threat to him-- no Kraken or pirate zombies this time, just... mermaids. And though the mermaids resemble the Odyssey's more menacing Sirens rather than Disney's kid-friendly Ariel, they're not exactly terrifying, even if the script tries to convince the audience they are. That the mermaids are key to exploiting the Fountain of Youth even seems a stretch, and throwing in a love angle between one of the mermaids and an implausibly good-looking Christian missionary (why hello there, Sam Claflin) is almost silly, really.

In spite of the shortcomings of the plot, the acting is faultless, and that's what keeps the movie afloat. It's impossible to go wrong with a cast headlined by the likes of Depp, Rush, Cruz and McShane, and luckily for new Pirates director Rob Marshall (who took over from Gore Verbinski) his stars delivered. Above all of course, Depp is perfection as Jack Sparrow, and the charisma of the character definitely does not get old even after four movies. Part of the credit goes to Depp for creating that charisma-- there is just something compelling about Jack (is it the guyliner?). And here I go back to the reasons he's one of the greatest movie characters of all time: both clueless and crafty, selfish and compassionate, dishonorable and noble, Jack is as amusing, sympathetic and entertaining as
the most memorable Disney cartoon characters who have been given forgettable TV series spinoffs (I'm talking to you, Timon and Pumbaa).

So even if On Stranger Tides is not the best Jack Sparrow movie of the lot, it is still very much Jack Sparrow's movie, and that by itself makes it worth watching.
And as a bonus, there is a priceless cameo by Dame Judi Dench, and an appearance by Keith Richards as Jack's dad, which tickled me to no end. Go see this fourth Pirates film if you love Jack Sparrow as much as I do, and stay after the credits for assurance that this won't be the last adventure for our favorite pirate of the Caribbean.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Begging my bloghounds' indulgence, but after months of letting my blog idle, my writing muscles have understandably atrophied, and I have only started flexing them again in the hopes of restoring their former fit condition. That said, I've decided to ease my way back into old blogging form gently and gradually, starting off with my review of Thor and now with a mostly cut-and-paste post. In the weeks to come there should be marked improvement (best effort), but should there be any complaints about the quality of my compositions, feel free to flood me with comments, if only to reassure me someone's still reading. :p

And now, on to my patchwork post.

Recently, I received an email from a former student who had just read an online article featuring an interview with Amy Chua, author of the controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. One line in particular had struck my student:

Chua’s Chinese education had gotten her through an elite schooling, but it left her unprepared for the real world.

My student went on to say that she "totally felt that way":

I mean don't get me wrong, I have nothing but fond memories of both ICA and Ateneo days, but I can't help but feel that Ateneo was an extended trip to Ash Creek or Promenade. Maybe it was my choice of school. Maybe it was going to school in the city (but in Manila, where else can you go really? Unless I wanted to study fisheries in UP Visayas, Manila is really all there is, right?) Maybe it was my course, or maybe it's where I am now. In the end I can't help but feel that something was lacking.

Something about this earnest email stirred me to composing a pithy response. I wrote:

I can understand where [you're] coming from (believe me, I was shortchanged by my high school in terms of academic content and quality). But I also believe that it applies to ALL types of education. Nothing can ever really fully prepare one for the real world but, well, being immersed in the real world. Education-- whether it's attained at a sheltered Catholic academy or a public school or an Ivy League university-- only attempts to equip one with the skills needed to survive the rat race. A diploma doesn't come with a guarantee that the bearer shall succeed at everything s/he undertakes after graduation, or will be ready to face anything the real world throws at him/her. It's only proof that the person is at the very least ready to TRY. And it is through the process of trying where most of us get our REAL education in life, in the school of hard knocks.

Let's face it... you probably don't even remember 10% of the stuff I taught you in 4th year English. Hell, I don't remember half of the stuff I taught! But that's not to say what you learned in my class wasn't important or didn't help your individual development. And none of you would have passed my class if I didn't think you were ready to move on to bigger and tougher things. Some of you may sometimes feel you're "lacking" in certain skills or qualifications, but that doesn't mean you were thrown out there to flounder in uncharted waters-- you can all stay afloat, it's just a question of which [of you] will stick to dog-paddling, and which [of you] will start actually swimming.

When I finished my reply, I took a figurative step back to mull over what I had just written. My mind turned to my batchmates from both Jubilee and Ateneo (we're 10 years out of college now, eek), and how far we have all come since graduation. Certainly none of us had felt fully prepared to venture into the so-called real world after college, yet here we are today, flourishing in our respective industries and fields, making our mark in little or big ways. I don't know how much of a factor our education has been in helping us achieve what we have, and some of us may even claim they don't get to apply the knowledge acquired from their schooling, but I think it would be safe to say that our college degrees opened doors that would otherwise have been closed to us-- or made it easier for us to find any doors at all.

There is a lot left to be desired about the educational system in our country, that much is obvious. But even in the pathetic state it's in, the products of our academic institutions aren't all failures. Whether that speaks of the success of the school or the student is up for debate, but either way no one can dismiss the value of a decent education and how it helps one get by in life. As nice as the concept behind "all I reallly need to know I learned in kindergarten" is, we all know "nice" doesn't cut it in the real world.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Hunk with a hammer

It's almost laughable, the idea of Kenneth Branagh directing a Marvel movie. After all, Branagh is more often associated with Shakespeare films, not action flicks, and certainly not action flicks featuring costumed, muscle-bound superheroes. But when the Marvel superhero in question is Thor, the god of thunder from Norse mythology, it can work. And forsooth, it does.

I don't know if it's the Branagh treatment, but there's something distinctly Macbethical (Macbethy?) about Thor, not just in the plot (conflict of royal succession, treachery within the palace, exile of rightful heir, etc.) but in the characterization as well. The protagonists are not completely virtuous and noble, and the antagonists are not absolutely evil and cruel. Thor himself is portrayed as arrogant, brash, and not extremely intelligent-- flaws offset by his bravery, loyalty, and strong sense of justice. But it is his arrogance that dissuades his father Odin, king of Asgard, from relinquishing the throne to him, and pushes the wise old ruler to banish his headstrong son from their realm.

Thor crash-lands on Midgard, a.k.a. Earth, stripped of his powers and his mighty hammer Mjolnir, and is promptly hit by a van conveying astrophysicist Jane Foster, her kooky assistant Darcy, and her mentor Dr. Erik Selvig. Thus begins Thor's journey of redemption, to prove himself worthy of wielding Mjolnir and ruling Asgard by learning humility and compassion amongst mere mortals. Meanwhile, back in Asgard, his devious brother Loki, the god of mischief, schemes to take over the kingdom in Thor's absence. Like I said, it's a Marvelized Macbeth-- less tragic, more macho; Shakespeare on steroids, if you will. And it's definitely packs a solid punch in terms of entertainment value.

For me (and undoubtedly legions of other female viewers), the real marvel (pun intended) of the movie was Aussie hottie (really, there should be a word hotter than "hottie" to describe this smokin' specimen of hunkhood) Chris Hemsworth. All twinkly blue eyes and rippling muscles, Hemsworth makes a breakthrough superstar turn as the eponymous hero. The guy whom we last remember playing James Kirk's dad in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek totally owns this far more high-profile role, oozing sex appeal, and more importantly charisma, whether he's bashing in the head of a Frost Giant or making eyes at Jane Foster (the loveliest and luckiest astrophysicist in Midgard). Thank Odin the right Hemsworth brother was cast (otherwise, as my student Jo said, "Thor's ex would've been

Not to be (too) distracted by Hemsworth's hotness, I must give due credit to the supporting cast as well. Tom Hiddleston, who oddly reminds me of both Alan Cumming and Alan Rickman, made a terrific Loki, wily and weasely, almost reptilian in his sly subversiveness. The always-reliable Stellan Skarsgard contributed a reassuringly sensible yet amusingly wry presence as Dr. Selvig, and the always-regal Anthony Hopkins delivered the goods as Odin, managing to be forceful and frail as called for. And it was refreshing to see Natalie Portman in a "light" role after her heavily emotional performance in Black Swan. When her Jane Foster giggles like a schoolgirl, charmed by Thor's old world... errr, charm, it is both delightful and believable (even of a supposed-to-be brilliant astrophysicist).

Props also to the quartet who played Thor's combat buddies: Ray Stevenson as Volstagg, Tadanobu Asano as Hogun, Josh Dallas as Fandral, and Jaimie Alexander as Sif. The posse never seemed like just the requisite sidekick element, nor were they utilized as mere comic relief.
Alexander in particular stood out as the confident, capable warrior woman of the group. Indeed, the only real disappointment among the cast was Rene Russo, who not only seemed out of place, but superfluous, in her role as Frigga, Odin's wife.

All things considered, the first Iron Man movie is still the superior Avenger film, if only because the script was better, the dialogue wittier, and the star, well, bad-asser. However, it will be interesting to see how Hemsworth stacks up against the likes of Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans in next year's Marvel mega-production The Avengers. As far as I can see now, he can definitely hold his own, if not as an actor then certainly as eye candy.

And as promised to my friend Yang, I cannot end my review of Thor without posting this gratuitous screen cap of a shirtless Chris Hemsworth: