Monday, December 31, 2007

Wanted: Cultural Champions

I recently spent some time in Cebu with my family. As a tourist attraction, it hadn't received the hype often lavished on choice tourist locations like Boracay, Palawan or, more recently Bohol, but it did boast the most development of any province outside of Manila.

Now I won't argue with the numbers that Cebu's denizens have proudly posted for the public at large; I won't argue that they're earning more as a province than any other, or that their development is at this stage or that, but I will say that whatever it is they're earning, they sure as hell aren't spending it beautifying their city.

I came to Cebu eager to see things like their cathedral and the legendary Magellan's cross, only to be profoundly disappointed by both. Magellan's cross in particular was a real let down; from the pictures I was inexplicably so certain that I would find the thing atop a hill or surrounded by something like a lavishly landscaped garden. Imagine how I felt when I found it sitting in the middle of some stinking (literally) square in front of Cebu City Hall. After the disappointment that the cathedral turned out to be, I had been buoyed by the well-maintained, sumptuously decorated Basilica de Santo Nino, and expected the romanticized vision of the cross that the pictures had inspired in my imagination.

So are we to understand that, for all this progress and money, the provincial government doesn't even see fit to preserve some of its greatest historical treasures?

I hope that's not the case.

Cebu could, with all of the richness of its history, definitely use its own version of the Intramuros administration, or even its own Carlos Celdran.

I love what Celdran has done for old Manila. I went on one of his tours in 2002 and was delighted to see how much ink he's gotten over the years; he seems to have become a fixture in the tourist scene. Here's a guy who, as far as I can tell, has literally made a living doing his own thing, and living out his obvious passion for the Philippines' oldest city.

My wife and I aren't exactly cultural slouches; aside from our shared love for Intramuros, we went on, like I said, Celdran's tour of the Escolta area in 2002, and did the rounds in the Ilocos, visiting nearly a dozen old churches from Vigan to Pagudpud (that's a lot of wishes, if you believe the superstitions about stepping into churches for the first time) and we made it a point to get a map of Cebu so we would know where to go for the sights and sounds beyond the local mall. We know that Cebu has just as much history behind it as Manila, and yet the only things that were even vaguely attractive about it to us were SM and the Ayala Mall.

To my mind, and I am loath to say this, it seems that this is because the people responsible for the upkeep of the city and its cultural monuments don't really seem to give a shit.

Cebuanos who should stumble on this may want to pillory me, but like I said, I don't dispute the numbers or the claims to prosperity; I only call it like I see it.

As the starting point of the Philippines' colonization by Spain, among other things, Cebu has a lot to attract people besides freaking Plantation Bay, and I think it's really sad that the local government hasn't thought to make the most out of it.

The Year That Was 2007

In the past, oddly enough, I've had years which I could categorically classify as "good," or "bad," based on my net satisfaction index (pretentious, isn't it?) with the way the year went. Simply put, if I was happy more often than I was miserable in the course of a year, it was good, and if not, it was bad. It didn't even depend on the things that would happen to me; just how I dealt with them.

1998, for example, was a bad year, though by rights it shouldn't have been considering that I graduated from college with honors that year. A bad romantic interlude followed by an even worse start to my law school life, however, made me a prisoner of my own angst and frustration. There was nothing in particular that happened to me that should have made me feel that that was a particularly bad year, but I took everything so badly that it turned out to be one, just for that reason.

2004, in contrast, was probably the best year I enjoyed in recent memory, even though I spent six months out of the year without gainful employment, even though it was the year I found out I would have to re-take (as I actually did re-take) the bar exams, even though my wife needed an operation to remove a baseball-sized cyst from one of her ovaries. I've said it before to others; I honestly felt that 2004 was the year that the 'reset' button was pushed, and all of my mistakes in judgment were simply washed away and I was allowed to start anew, which was particularly the case when I started working at the Supreme Court in October 2004 of that year.

Even by this standard, though, 2007 is a somewhat harder year to classify. Without going into the specifics, it's been a rather tumultuous year for me, but there's been so much good that has happened, and so many positive realizations and reflections on my part, that I can't readily pigeonhole it one way or the other.

2007 was the first time I saw the face of evil. I don't mean Pol-Pot, Adolf Hitler kind of evil, but more like the kind that infests our government. I'd never really had any enemies before this year, just people I didn't like or who didn't like me, rightly or wrongly. My life was a lot simpler this way, but this was the first year, to my knowledge anyway, that I have had someone actively seeking to harm me in any real way.

At the same time I made, about half a dozen new, very good friends for whom I am immeasurably grateful. These are friendships I hope and intend to nurture well after this year; some of these people I hope to count among my pantheon of my truly good friends.

I learned a lot of important things about life, too, about myself and the world in general, a lot of which I already knew but didn't fully appreciate until now.

There's a lot I want for myself in 2008, but I think I can name a few things here and now.

I think, the first and most important thing I want for myself is to be able to spend more quality time with my family, and I don't necessarily mean more time as much as I do better time, as it were. Anyone who knows me well knows that I have been pretty hands-on in my role as a father, but there's always room for improvement and considering how rapidly kids change as they grow older I should probably adapt as quickly as possible.

Another thing I want to do is explore the possibilities of my profession a little more closely. Up until today, being a lawyer has been a question of either "corporate or litigation," "law firm or government" or "employed or self-employed." I'm hoping to explore some different permutations of these concepts and be the richer for it, both in terms of experience and financial rewards.

Another thing I really, really want for myself is to find the inspiration to write creatively again, whether it's my long-gestating book about my bar experience to those short stories I used to churn out just for the fun of it, I want to express myself and to finally find an audience for that expression.

I also want to find more joy in things I don't have to buy, like the love of my wife and kids. 2007 was actually a step in that direction considering I watched something like six or seven movies in the theater last year as opposed to the nearly twenty (including multiple viewings) I used to do when I was younger. Sure, hobbies are fun (even though my current one of collecting toy cars has tapered off somewhat) but in the end I think the best times I've had this year were those spent with Theia, Apel and Tala, and that's something I was to cultivate even more.

In many ways, 2007 was the year I got closer to my family, and I want to continue to explore that in 2008. From what I see I have a couple of really sweet kids, and I really want to pay more attention to the way they're growing up, especially considering how fast it is.

At the same time, though, I want to well and truly start defining my career and its direction; though I don't plan to make the mistakes of Adam Sandler's character in Click, I do deserve to have a career and I hope to make the most out of it, especially if it means I'll be able to provide for my family.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't really want to go back to the way things were in 2004; I loved how safe and sound I felt back then, with my future still ahead of me as opposed to these days when I feel like I'm still treading water in what I had hoped was that future. But the truth is I can't live on the brink of something forever.

I guess if anything will change about this blog in 2008, it'll be that I'll be posting a little more about little vignettes of life than comic books, movies, or even more banal things like local politics.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Spider-Man According to Joe Quesada

With the conclusion of the J. Michael Straczynski swansong on the Amazing Spider-Man title entitled One More Day Marvel has boldly pushed the reset/retcon button on its most beloved character, Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man, in a plot twist so thin and threadbare that the issue can be summarized in one sentence.

Essentially, both Peter Parker and Mary Jane after a few pages of agonizing and soul-searching give in to Mephisto (Marvel's version of Satan) and agree to give up the very existence of their marriage in exchange for saving the dying Aunt May's life. As a result, Spider-Man continuity is so radically reset that not only are Peter and Mary Jane not married nor have they ever been married, but inexplicably, Harry Osborn, who died in the most poignant manner imaginable in 1993, is alive.

I have been a Spider-Man fan since reading The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man over twenty years ago, and began collecting intermittently in 1988, collecting whole runs of the series in the early 2000s, and I can say, categorically, that I simply cannot remember being more disappointed with a Spider-Man story in my life.

This story is essentially undoing 90 percent of the stories I collected just so Joe Quesada can fulfill his dream of having Spider-Man "unmarried." I don't even want to dwell on how bad this idea is because right now I have so much else going on my life that quite frankly, the best way to deal with this is simply to drop Amazing Spider-Man altogether...but not before posting my two-cents on this storytelling debacle.

The funny thing about this story is how JMS seems to be fighting Joe Quesada every step of the way on how the whole thing turns out. His dialogue (which may not even entirely be his in my opinion considering that the weird "ah-heeeh," "ah-huuuh" speech tics used exclusively by Paul Jenkins somehow found their way into the script) in its most moving moment, talks about how the love that brought them together is stronger than any force that would strive to undo it, stronger than God or the devil...or, in the subtext, than Joe Quesada.

I foresee JMS leaving Marvel not too far down the line. He's always spoken out against micro-management of his writing, and with this having been rammed down his throat, as well as the Sins Past storyline which he had originally conceived as a way to have Peter's children come back to try and kill him, but which was rewritten to have NORMAN OSBORN sire children by GWEN STACY, he may well have been pushed past his breaking point, or just up to its brink.

What makes me even sadder is how this is, in my opinion, one of the best-illustrated Spider-Man stories EVER. Quesada pulls out all of the stops as an artist and channels, even while maintaining his own distinct style, Romita Sr., Todd McFarlane and some of the best artists of 45 years of Spider-Man's history. I'll always have a special place in my heart for John Romita Jr. as the best Spider-Man artist ever but in terms of sheer draftsmanship Joe is just in a class of his own. I guess it goes to show how profoundly Joe believes in the agenda he's pushing in this story, to the extent that he is credited as co-writer and is, I believe, responsible for the last eight or nine pages of the script which, incidentally, is godawful.

I honestly hope Spider-Man fans the world over let Joe Quesada know exactly how they feel about his selfish and rather heavy handed attempt to dictate how Spider-Man should be presented as a character. Unmarrying Spider-Man is one thing, but retconning dead characters into the mix? Joe has crossed even more lines than people were dreading he would.

If there's any consolation I can derive from this, it's that there seems to be lot of room for yet another "reset" down the line, even without a whole lot of retconning. To use an analogy, it seems to have been designed as a knot that can be untied with a single tug, such that if the reaction of fandom is to well and truly reject this new status quo, it will unravel even more quickly than Peter's replacement by Ben Reilly during the infamous Clone Saga. Anyway, anything done magically in the Marvel U is fairly easily undone...I hope.

Until then, well, if I buy comic books, they won't be those starring Spider-Man. Steve McNiven of Civil War may...and only just may...keep me on board for three issues, but I'm not coming back unless and until the mess of One More Day is definitively undone.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Epics and Fairy Tales

The winter movie season is officially on in the U.S., with studios pulling out both their award contenders and their late year charges for box office supremacy. Last weekend I was able to catch two such offerings: Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf and Kevin Lima's Enchanted.

directed by Robert Zemeckis
starring (in motion capture and voice performances)
Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins and Robin Wright Penn

It seems to me that since the dawn of the iMax 3-D format, no other director of feature-length films has pushed the envelope further than Robert Zemeckis, who started out strong three years ago with The Polar Express, and who bludgeons audiences again this year with an adaptation of the old English epic, Beowulf.

I say this not because I actually saw the film in iMax 3-D, but because watching the story unfold it occurred to me how the fillmmaker's principal imperative was to string together a bunch of iconic images and action scenes, with character development and even story logic being secondary. I know this is an adaptation, but it is my understanding that the writers made certain interpretations of the text of the original poem that translate into liberties. As a I discuss the plot points, be advised that SPOILERS ABOUND.

The main players are all there, with Beowulf (voiced to gravelly perfection by Ray Winstone) arriving on the shores of Denmark to rid King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) of a monster, Grendel (Crispin Glover), who has slain many of his faithful subjects during a night of drunken debauchery. Quite simply, he gets the job done albeit in a rather unorthodox fashion by stripping naked and fighting the creature with nothing more than his bare hands, killing it by repeatedly punching what appears to be a cross-between its ear and its temple and then ripping its arm off, but not before Grendel is able to crawl home to his mother (Angelina Jolie) and tell her who killed him.

Enraged, the demon sorceress comes to Beowulf in a dream, disguised as Hrothgar's wife (Robin Wright Penn, in her first Zemeckis film since Forrest Gump) whom Beowulf has grown to fancy. When Beowulf awakes, he finds to his consternation that almost all of his men have been slain. Hrothgar informs him that Grendel's mother is responsible for the carnage, showing somewhat unusual knowledge about her which leads us to believe that it was, in fact, he who sired the creature.

Beowulf journey's to the creature's lair, only to find that she looks just like a naked Angelina Jolie, with the more sensitive parts obscured as she seduces him with not only her body but with promises of power and glory which Beowulf rather quickly swallows up. They end up having a one night stand, and her promises made to him of having his own kingdom, in exchange for giving her a son, come true after Hrothgar, who despite Beowulf's exclamations that he has slain her, divines the truth and then after declaring that "she is no longer my curse," kills himself.

Flash forward to what appears to be many, many years later, with Beowulf an aged and weary king, devoid of any purpose or happiness in life.

At one point, however, a crucial part of his bargain with Grendel's mother (who really doesn't go by any other name in the story) is broken, and suddenly, her vengeance, their son, descends upon Beowulf's kingdom. This time, rather than a grotesque humanoid monster, it is a dragon that seeks to destroy the kingdom. After a rather thrilling chase sequence which was, again, no doubt conceived for the benefit of 3D viewers, Beowulf performs an act of supreme self-sacrifice, which gruesomely involves self-mutilation through which he is able to slay the dragon by ripping out its heart. Having killed his own son, he has thus redeemed himself for his moment of weakness many years before.

Now, I would be a complete and utter liar if I didn't say I was rather unhappy with what happened next, considering it apparently wasn't the most literal interpretation of the poem's ending.

Essentially, Beowulf is given a hero's funeral, and suddenly, Grendel's mother, not only shows up, but then proceeds to tempt the man who has succeeded Beowulf as king, leaving the film somewhat open-ended.

The plot of both Hrothgar and Beowulf sleeping with Grendel's mother and siring children by her was apparently something added on by screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, and to my mind it isn't a particularly welcome one, especially since storywise, the destruction of Beowulf's kingdom by the dragon becomes his fault, when it isn't even so in the poem. Beowulf's heroism in slaying the dragon is then diminished; in the poem he dies saving his kingdom from a dragon, but in the movie he dies cleaning up his own mess.

And worst of all, this little plot device, avowedly intended to bridge the gap of 50 years from the time Beowulf kills Grendel to the time he fights the dragon, does not service the story particularly well.

This movie still suffers from the affliction of Polar Express which felt like a string of illogical action sequences meant to keep 3D audiences enthralled and obviously character development is the main casualty. And to think, I didn't even get to see it in 3D.

My problems with the film are mostly thematic and story-related, and I really did love the visualization of the movie. The dragon chase sequence at the end is particularly awesome to behold.

Now that Zemeckis, with three moderately successful motion-capture movies under his belt (including last year's Monster House, which he produced but didn't direct), I think it's safe to say that Hollywood now has a new, viable way of telling stories that are a little too daunting, budget-wise, for live-action filming. While I wasn't particularly excited about these films, I now eagerly await the release of Steven Spielberg's and Peter Jackson's Tintin trilogy, which, it is said, will be made using this same technique.

directed by Kevin Lima
starring Amy Adams, Patrick Dempsey and James Marsden

With the exception of The Little Mermaid, I am a huge fan of the Menken-era Disney musical. I loved the songs and the production numbers and in some cases their wonderful, tear jerker qualities.

While lately these films, and Disney films in general, have been thoroughly lampooned by the Shrek films (produced by ex-Disney honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg), Disney has, itself, decided to poke fun at some of its quainter storytelling conventions as well in the charming Enchanted.

Giselle (Adams) is a peasant girl dreaming of finding her prince charming. Prince Edward (Marsden), is a handsome prince with a penchant for taking down giants and ogres who is in search of a beautiful maiden to marry. They meet, fall in love, and decide to marry the next day.

This is the perfect setup for a Disney animated movie (and the first few minutes of the film are done in the traditional, hand-drawn style) and in true Disney tradition, the villain of the story, Edward's evil stepmother, the queen, steps into the picture, tricking Giselle and pushing her down a well (sort of) which is actually a magical portal to place where there are "no happily ever afters." That place just happens to be Manhattan, and it is at this point that the story ceases to be animated but instead takes place in live action.

Giselle, wandering through New York and thoroughly distraught and disoriented, then meets handsome but cynical divorce lawyer Robert Philips (Dempsey) who lives alone with his daughter. What follows is truly zany sequence of events, with Prince Edward jumping down the same "well" in pursuit of Giselle, with a chipmunk named Pip and a loyal manservant named Nathanael (Timothy Spall) in tow.

Of course, this is a love story, so it's pretty much a foregone conclusion who Giselle will fall in love with before the credits roll, but there are some wonderfully surprising character moments, such as when she gets fed up with Robert's cynicism and tells him so. There are a lot of wonderful little character insights, mostly to do with Giselle, that accompany her trip to happily ever after. And like any Disney movie, it's happily ever after for everyone, from Giselle and Robert, to Prince Edward and Robert's girlfriend Nancy (Idina Menzel of Rent, who apparently had a lovely song number with James Marsden that didn't make the final cut) and Nathanael. Of course, we all know what, in a Disney movie, happily ever after means for the villain...

Now, lampooning Disney cliches is nothing new and it was, quite frankly, done ad nauseam in three Shrek movies, but this movie doesn't quite beat the audience over the head with its tongue-in-cheek references. Rather, it pays homage to all of those creations of old, and transplants them, however absurdly, into the 'real world'. For example, the forest animals who help tidy up the cottage become a cadre of pigeons, rats, cockroaches and flies cleaning up Robert's apartment, all to the tune of an Alan Menken song! It's touches like this that set this movie apart from yet another would-be spoof.

Of course, the conceit would still have fallen flat on its face were it not for the conviction of Amy Adams' performance. To any extent, James Marsden as the literally and figuratively two-dimensional Prince Edward also adds a lot to the story's narrative pep, but this is wholly Adams' movie. Thank God Lima didn't go with Lindsay Lohan, who was whispered to have been considered for the part at one point.

The movie is just pure delight from start to finish, and not because there's anything particularly new or insightful about it, but that its execution is really magnificent. It's a deconstruction of the Disney musical without the toilet humor or blatant pop culture references. It's wonderful how, after years of being overshadowed by Dreamworks and their increasingly cookie-cutter computer generated cartoons, Disney has once again come out to show them the way creatively.

Not that the movie is without its flaws. For one thing, one unfortunate inevitability of a movie with characters as zany as Giselle and Prince Edward is that there has to be a 'straight man' to keep things on an even keel, and Dempsey plays Robert as straight as they come, largely because of a script that really doesn't give him anything to do but react to Giselle on one hand and be cynical on the other. Oh, and he's meant to look good in a suit for his legions of Grey's Anatomy fans. His character was somewhat condemned by, ironically enough, a Disney story convention, to not be very interesting, just like the princes Disney lampoons. I mean, at least James Marsden's Edward was laugh-out-loud funny. Idina Menzel is given an even more thankless role than Dempsey, and considering her song number was cut out one wonders why they even kept her character around. Also, I felt that both the cinematographer and makeup artist did Adams a true injustice; I remember seeing her only a year ago in Will Ferrell's Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and I distinctly remember that she looked pretty good there. Here, she looked disconcertingly old, and rather pallid. Fortunately, her performance transcends the shortcomings of the people who prepped and shot her scenes.

Flaws aside, though, and there are, mercifully, very few of them, this is easily one of the most enjoyable movies I've seen all year, and I heartily recommend it to whoever reads this.