Monday, November 24, 2008

Book Review: Watchmen

I just finished reading “Watchmen”.

I found it to be a brilliant social and political commentary on the world then, and of the world today. It raised the question, “Who watches the watchmen?”, and that still rings true to this day. The fact is Alan Moore is just way too much ahead of his time.

Comics for me were too expensive an investment. I realized this at a young age. I may have been jealous of my friends’ stacks of comics, but I knew that engagement had a price, and I was not prepared for it. So I kept a pragmatic arms’ length at comics, even as I started to work and earn money to afford it. Eventually, I bought the critical favorites here and there, and they were all graphic novels, such as Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” series, Alan Moore’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, and Kia Asamiya’s “Batman: Child of Dreams”. And I loved them all. The graphic novel was a great comic innovation. Not only could people grow with the comics of their childhood. They allowed a form of insight and imagination that books could not. They showed a creative force that one cannot get from other literary works, a degree of fantasy rooted in something real. There was a visual to accompany your reading, and when it was done right, it became something amazing. The visual impact combined with the dramatic force that only words can give can astound.

“Watchmen” was no different. It was rooted in a reality that was both real and assumed at the same time. It was set in New York, during an uneasy political time. That part was real. But there were costumed heroes. That part was assumed. Then the whole premise becomes even more amazing.

These costumed heroes had no superpowers of their own, save for one Dr. Manhattan, whose backstory resembled that of Spider-Man’s powers origin tragedy. They were plagued with romance, backbiting, naivete, and immorality. Heck, even amorality. The Superfriends of old did not resemble the Minutemen, nor of the Crimebusters. The Watchmen costumed heroes were no different from vigilantes such as the Batman. They were cursed with the under-appreciated responsibility of looking after society. Their travails were the stuff of legends as well as villainy. The Comedian killing a pregnant woman without remorse. Rorschach living on the lawless fringe of society. Nite Owl committing a prison break. Heroes committing adultery, rape, murder, and torture, and living lies themselves. And Veidt… well, let’s not get into that yet.

In spite of every character's flaws, there is an innate likable quality about them. Murderous though he may be, I found Rorschach to be the most interesting of them all. And Dan's struggle to live the adventurer life again was amusing to some degree, and endearing at the same time. Dr. Manhattan's soullesness could have reached annoying proportions, and yet his tragic origins always lead you to sympathize. There is a ton of reasons to dislike every person in this story. Even the cops in "Watchmen" do not arouse our compassion. And the so-called villains are not entirely evil. Moloch was revealed to be just a pawn, AND he was dying of cancer. The "macguffin", Blake's death, is supposedly deserved, and yet at the end, we see Sally Jupiter still in grief for it. There is a lot of good versus evil, black-and-white structures in the story, and yet everyone is constantly changing sides and raises the question of who is really the most accountable in the very end. And that is the brilliance that lies in this story.

It’s not enough to say that “Watchmen” was a work of genius, made by geniuses in the format. It is a pretty amazing feat to complete a work that transcends the comic book genre, the literary field, and the sociological and political storytelling. Alan Moore creates firm foundations for fantasy, science fiction, realism, physics, genetics, and psychology in the narrative. There is a very creative use of a comic book within, the tale of the Black Freighter, which is both clever and vile at the same time. Even the cultural references titling each issue, and the literary samplings of each Watchmen character that end each issue are not immune to research. I am very impressed with the amount of work that Moore did here. (I have been impressed with the depth of Moore’s genius before, when I read his “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”. I mean, who would ever think of creating comic book characters out of Victorian literary characters??? And hand over the villain’s ropes to Professor Moriarty?? A genius, I tell you.)

At the beginning, I thought the art in comic books were all flash and razzle dazzle. But in Gibbons’ case of the “Watchmen”, it had a visual impact to the story. There are visual surprises if you look closely, and there are random nods to continuity that kept me flipping back to pages I have already read. It was an art that allowed me to savor the story and not just propel it. And the structural innovation they did on issue five with “Fearful Symmetry” should be applauded as well.

It was definitely a page-turner for me. The storytelling structure of “real-time” alternating with the “psychology of the origin story” was carried out with ease. Nothing seemed out of place, and everything seemed to collect together. The pirates’ story-within-a story, the disappearance of Max Shea, the disappearance of Hooded Justice, the B-plots of the Bernies and Dr. Malcolm Long. They were all rewardingly connected together in the end. And everyone was connected by a larger tale of humanity, and the other "watchmen" who were elected to serve. This larger tale proposes questions, and only one hero dared to come up with an answer.

In the end, the costumed heroes meet up in Antarctica to a mind-boggling and heart-breaking conclusion. Veidt successfully tore down a city in the guise of helping the world. The panel that shows Veidt jubilantly shouting “I DID IT!” had such great visual impact for me – and for a moment, I celebrated along with him. The lead-up to this panel was so thought-provoking and insightful, that I forgave Moore for giving Veidt the “villain’s role” in this story.

But murdering innocent civilians in the attempt to salve a global political crisis had no redemptive quality for Veidt. And none of the heroes made a bid for redemption, either. Their past sins will continue to haunt them. Even Dan and Laurie, who joined the felony of silence, had to keep their relationship under wraps. Doctor Manhattan exiled himself to Mars. Only Rorschach felt compelled to reveal the truth, and paid dearly for it with his death.

And Veidt? His euphoria was short-lived. For as Manhattan said to him just before teleporting his way out of the universe, “Nothing ever ends.”


Monday, November 17, 2008

Toni and Dallas

Well, tonight's Amazing Race episode just reaffirms my love for this mother-son team.

Toni and Dallas were a class act tonight. They were smart, and just appreciative of everything. Even though they were made to look like "fools" in the Detour. Dallas, bless his heart, was just a hoot to watch and just made the Detour look like a ton of fun. I think it is moments like these when a person is just lucky to be traveling with a kid (albeit a college-age kid) on TAR. He was mooing and skipping across the street, and had a pretty good sense of direction (despite being temporarily lost looking for the marked milk stand). And he was very supportive of his mother. Toni was also a great teammate. She rocked the Roadblocks, was surprisingly in great shape, was culturally sensitive, and really trusted Dallas with certain things. I really like this team.

Now if Dallas could just get his eye off Starr...


Monday, September 15, 2008

The Idols (particularly Jason Castro) in my backyard

The American Idol Tour ended yesterday, and I was lucky to catch the show when they rolled into Bridgeport, CT last week.

It was raining hard that day and I initially thought that they were going to cancel the show. But everyone came, girls with ironed-on Idol photos on their t-shirts, and moms with their digital camcorders, and dads holding umbrellas for their giddy kids. I was in line, waiting just like everyone else, and just as excited. I kept thinking, their tour bus is just around the corner. If it were better weather, I would have gone there and see if I could meet anybody. But it wasn't. And I wasn't about to risk getting pneumonia just to see Jason (besides, I cannot imagine his dreads getting wet!).

I sat towards the side of the stage, about three to four rows in front of a raised platform. I prayed that the Idols would swing by to the platform so we could at least take pictures. I sat beside a family of three – Mom, and her two daughters, all excited as heck. Something tells me that I was in for a lot of rushing and feet-stomping to come.

The lights dimmed and out came Chikezie to the delightful roar of the crowd. He sings that Eric Yamin staple, Donny Hathaway's "I Believe to My Soul". His three-song set is pretty much what you would get from him – a lot of soul, very solid vocals. He heads over to our side of the stage and gets on the platform, and just as I suspected, the two girls seated beside me rushed past me with their digital cameras out. "Sorry about that," their mother apologized. No problem, I said. Besides, I would have done just the same.

Sweet Chikezie told the crowd that it's Ramiele's birthday today and that we should greet her a Happy Birthday. We did, and I hope that she is motivated to perform really well tonight. Unfortunately, that was not the case. She came out in all her sparkly glory, performing a bit of choreography and singing Jackson 5. But it was all wrong, and none of the notes hit. I tried my darndest to act interested, but she left me slumping deeper into my chair. I looked across the crowd in front, and some of them were left open-mouthed, staring at her uncomfortably. I felt embarrassed for her. I really wanted to root for her, being Filipino and all, but she made it very difficult. Good thing she sang her second song a lot better, but she needs a lot of goodwill to make up for the first one.

And that goodwill? Just came in the form of Michael Johns. Seriously, I love this guy. He gets so much flak for his song choices, but he nabbed a few that were genius, IMO. He opened with the Queen medley, then the gorgeous "It's All Wrong But It's All Right", and ended with the only song that got me on my feet and singing along – "Dream On".

Then Kristy Lee Cook came out, and, although I am not a fan, I do admit she is lovely to look at, with her trademark tight jeans and sparkly tank top. I saw the guys in front and center just staring at her, transfixed.

Carly next came out in dramatic fashion, rising from a trapdoor at the top steps with a wind machine to great effect. As usual, she sounded great, although I prefer she sang "Alone" if she wanted to sing Heart. There was a cute Carly banner in the front row and I'm sure she noticed it.

Similar to Carly's entrance, Brooke White appeared from a trapdoor, but this time, from the front section of the stage and with a baby grand. She sang "Let It Be" and was just as heartfelt as when she first sang it on stage. She ended with her own version of "Yellow", which I was surprised to hear was included in the tour. The remake was part of her indie album, and it was obviously she who suggested it. I'm glad they included it because her version was really good.

It was time for the Bottom 6 U2 number, and Brooke ran to our side of the stage, where it was unlit, to put on shoes. We were screaming her name and waving to her, and she cutely waved back and put a finger to her lips, so we would not give her away. "Pride (In the Name of Love)" is a great number, and I actually wished that the rest of the Top 10 were there to sing it. But it featured a small duet between Michael and Carly, reprising that impressive number they did on the Ellen show in Chicago after they were both eliminated. It was a great way to end the first half of the show.

And then there was Jason…

I admit I was close to losing it during intermission.

Earlier, during Carly's set, while the lights were on, I saw Jason coming up the back steps, probably to talk to someone on the band. Only those people seated on our side could see the back steps, and I sort of lost it and yelled his name. I was not mistaken. His dreadlocks are too distinguishable to mistake him for anybody else. But just as he suddenly appeared, he quickly went. That was my first Jason sighting of the night and it simply whetted my appetite for more.

And at intermission, I knew Jason was up next, and I was bummed that people would be going in and out of their seats while he was singing and that I might get distracted. I also wanted to be closer to stage. Which is why I summoned the courage to ask the nearest security personnel and ask if I could hang out next to the raised platform just for Jason's set. I figured I could get a good view for pictures. He politely turned down my request to hang out beside him. But thank goodness for small miracles (and for asking nicely), because he then pointed to an empty seat beside him, which was also next to a little girl. He said "You may want to sit there as that one's empty". That seat was right smack in front of the raised platform. I was shocked to learn that no one was seated there, and asked the girl nicely if I could sit beside her for a while (her dad was seated behind her, so I really tried to be nice). She nodded her head, and my excitement just ratcheted up tenfold.

After some Guitar Hero promotions, the lights dimmed and Jason came out. Just like that. He sat on the stool in the center of the stage and began that sweet ukulele song of his. I didn't stand up and cheer. I didn't need to. He was there, albeit in the center. I could tell he was not the type to go from one side of the stage to another and reach an arm out to fans. But I was a lot closer than I originally was, and there he was, under a spotlight, eyes closed and singing with his heart on his sleeve.

I looked around and everyone acted the way those girls were in the Pit when Jason first sang this song: still and mesmerized. It was like listening to him sing in a coffeeshop, all intimate and warm inside. He ended the song and the crowd was rowdy with cheers and screams. But only for a while. He segued into the song that earned him a spot to Hollywood, and one that I have been waiting to hear – live, natch! – for a long time. "Crazy" was just as cool and fantastic as others have heard it. It was beautiful to listen to, and should really be a single on his album (should he come out with one – and he should!). He then sang "Daydream", the song that cemented him into the public consciousness for the very first time, and it sounded just as lovely as when I heard it the first time. When the song ended, there were smiles, a few waves, and then, just like that, Jason was gone.

It was nice to see that all the songs Jason sang showed him at key moments in his AI experience, as if he was telling a story. The song when he first broke through in brilliant fashion ("Somewhere Over the Rainbow"), the song when he first broke through to Hollywood ("Crazy"), and then the song when he first broke through publicly ("Daydream"). It was like, look at me and see what I've become. How am I doing?

Meanwhile, I was there, and, in contrast to some of the fan reports that I read on the Web about some rabid reception for Jason in other venues, Bridgeport's reception for Jason might sound a wee bit subdued. But I look at it differently.

It was the kind of reception I would love to see Jason get at the peak of his career. Not the screaming fangirly kind of reception, but a raucous cheer of respect at the end of each song. The silence during songs would be indicative of the desire to truly listen to whatever message Jason wants us to hear. Being mesmerized by his sound, his music, and being attentive to the gift of song that Jason is handing out to us. It was like being in a coffee shop the size of a football field. Jason's shows would be teeming with fans who just came for the music. That is how I see that night's show in Bridgeport. It may not be the noisy kind of fan support, and granted there are non-Jason supporters in the house, but I still felt a lot of Jason love that night. And it's that kind of love that made me focus more on the music, and made me appreciate him even more as a musician. That night showed that he will be all right playing in an intimate venue or in front of an arena crowd, that his voice and performing skills can handle either size. I now know that he will do just fine live.

I just wished I could hold on to him just a bit longer. Of all the Idols who performed that night, his was the set that seemed too short. And he left without fanfare, in the same way he came onstage. Like a thief in the night, was our Jason. But his songs live on, and that is how they will always be.

The other three

Syesha came out in an adorable afro, singing Rihanna and doing a great job of it. This being her city of birth, Bridgeport gave her a rousing welcome. And it seemed that Syesha put some extra intensity in her performances, most likely inspired by her family sitting front and center. She called them out after her first song, and they stood up like the proud family they were, which was too cute.

Syesha probably was my favorite female performer of the night. She was at ease, and displayed more emotion than she ever did in her full run on AI. Her vocals were strong and confident, loud and clear. She really changed my mind about her. I was never a fan, but hearing her sing that night made me rethink my feelings about her.

And then David Archuleta came out. I have never heard such loud screams before in my life as the ones I heard when this kid appeared, Brooke-style, from under the trapdoor in a haze of smoke and singing "Angels". He sounded the same as he always was on show – gaspy but otherwise decent. His attempt at in-between banter was charming, even though the amount of giggling kept doubling each minute. He did a bit of research, too, saying how lucky we were that John Mayer came by before they did. That impressed me.

He really seemed surprised at the amount of support he had. I must say I was charmed off my seat by this kid. I think you have to experience the Archuleta charm in person in order to understand what millions of tweens have known since the very first week in AI.

I was pretty sure I was going to be trampled on at some point, and I was bracing myself for it. But when David headed for the platform in front of me, I had no idea how big a surge it was going to be. Suffice to say, I nearly fell headlong into the crevice beneath the platform if it weren't for the security guy flinging an arm out toward me. Crazy but true. In fairness, it was partly my fault. Instinct told me to stand up to snap a picture as soon as David started walking towards us. Had I stayed seated, the worse I could get was a concussion from a slew of cameras whipping up behind my head. But it was hard to stay seated when you've got David a few inches in front of you. You simply have got to record it for posterity.

That went on a couple more times, since David would walk around with each new song. And I think I was better prepared each time. I did feel very proud of him. He seemed genuinely happy and he seemed to enjoy the experience. It was like watching your kid brother finally hit the big time. It was great.

He introduced David Cook quite hilariously, saying how great it was to "open for this guy" every night. And if you thought David Archuleta's screams were unlike anything I heard before, wait till you hear the screams for David Cook.

They were massive, and really shook the whole place up. I felt my heart vibrating in my chest. It was crazy. And David came out, similarly via trapdoor and amidst smoke machines. He sang "Hello", which I didn't really like. But you don't really think about that at all when you've got thousands of screaming fans trying to give you a heart attack.

The good thing about David Cook is that he knows how to put on a show. He's not just a good singer, but a great performer as well. He takes in the whole crowd, from side to side, he looks over at people, and puts a lot of energy into his guitar playing. He uses props, and can hold his own in terms of banter. He knows how to get the crowd to interact with his set, asking them to sing along with him or cheer harder. He is simply great, and I can tell he will have a long career after this.

At one point, he asked everyone to take out anything they have that lights up – cellphones, glow sticks, cameras – and just wave it in the air while he takes a snapshot of the arena all lit up and aglow. It was a great moment, and I took pictures while he took pictures. Then he asked about some crossword puzzles that were tossed up on stage for him, and I think there was a message of sorts scrawled on the cover that he thought was funny. And at one time, Michael Johns – in white shirt and tennis shorts – came onstage while David was addressing the crowd and Michael paused a bit and then kept right on going offstage. It was great.

He sang a few more songs, and I missed hearing his "Always Be My Baby", which to me was his best and most original performance. But I guess we'll be hearing it on his first album, then. Afterwards, everyone else turned up for the finale. It was great to see Michael doing his dork dance, and the two Davids doing a lame catwalk, David Cook wearing a funny-looking wig-slash-fro, and then Jason coming out and turning around to face us – the only time he did so. It was great, and it recapped a wonderful night that refused to let the rain dampen anybody's spirits. It may have rained outside, but inside was warm and full of love for music and personality.

When I stepped out of the venue, I saw that the rain had stopped and that people were all smiles. I love how music has that effect on people. Here's hoping that each and everyone of these Idols continue to induce that same effect for many years to come.

And, lest I forget, here's hoping that Jason outlasts them all :)

An Idol Tour Postscript:

Because this Tour was strangely lacking in collaboration (and no, the Guitar Hero promo spot does not count), I have decided to create my own Fantasy setlist. This is not a wishlist, since the tour is already over. But it would be like Fantasy football of sorts. So, in honor of the nixed "Barracuda" number, here is my Fantasy Collaboration Setlist:

* Chikezie and Syesha duet on "One Sweet Day"
* Chikezie and Ramiele and possibly (yes, I know) Archuleta singing and dancing to Ne Yo's "Closer"
* Brooke and Michael Johns singing "Dream On" together
* Jason featured on drums for "Whisper to a Scream" or "Take Me Out" with Michael Johns and maybe even Cook on vocals
* Carly and Syesha duet on "Why"
* Jason and Brooke on guitars singing "Orange Sky"
* "Call Me" in lieu of "Barracuda" for Carly, Jason, and David
* "Solsbury Hill" for the guys on instruments and vocals
* a rocking number of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" with Jason on drums, Cook on guitar, Archuleta on keyboards, and everybody on vocals
*"All These Things That I Have Done" for everybody

There are some performers that are featured more often in my setlist (I am a Jason fan, after all). But I did come up with some really great suggestions. I guess it's back to dreaming for me.


Post-Olympic commentary

It's been a while since the Olympics. My memories of the Olympics usually involve staying up late at night just to watch the games live. But I also remember my very first Olympics experience, when my relatives in the US sent us Betamax tapes of the 1984 Los Angeles games, complete with American commercials. I remember being enamored of gymnastics, and swimming, and diving, track and field, and basketball. Bouginskaya, Kristin Otto (and her unshaven pits), Popov, Carl Lewis, and Louganis were my idols. I rooted for Larry Bird and his Dream Team. And I discovered a lot of obscure sports, back before there were cable TV and professional leagues for just about everything. I watched archery, and water polo, and cycling, Greco-roman wrestling, and rowing. I watched them all, and I watched them in the dark with the glare of the TV to keep me company.

The Barcelona Games in 1992 were my favorite. The opening ceremony was glorious, and it still provided the most spectacular and breath-taking Olympic flame-lighting ever, when a Spanish archer, from the middle of the Olympic field, with raised bow and enflamed arrow, shot and lit a cauldron at the top of the stadium. It gave me goosebumps and sighs for days.

This year's Olympics was a big deal for me, and not just for the reasons why China being host was lauded for. To me, it meant a return of the Games to Asia. Only three Asian cities have hosted the Summer Games so far – Tokyo, Seoul, and now Beijing. So it was a big deal to me, despite the fact that it meant scheduling nightmares for US broadcasters.

We rarely broadcast the Games live. NBC would spotlight those high-profile sports, and relegate the rest to Internet streaming or to their roster or obscure cable channels. Which was not so bad, considering just how many sports there are on the Olympic roster nowadays. I saw the Philippine efforts in taekwondo live over the Internet, at around 10PM. I saw the Redeem Team finally capture the gold at 4 in the morning. Live telecasts were not so bad. But forcing all the games to air at primetime was kind of a nightmare for all of us who had work (or school) the next morning.

And there was the specter of Michael Phelps all throughout the Olympics. It was understandable. He is an American, a decent boy from a decent family. He displayed incomparable work ethic, and a charming humility up to the end. He was also a team player. But most importantly, all humility aside, he was competitive and insanely ambitious. Eight golds in a single Games? That was Mark Spitz's bailiwick. And yet he did it. The eighth gold was rather anti-climactic. But it was, if I recall correctly, the fourth and seventh golds that were won in dramatic fashion. A split second tag at the wall. A fortunate break in the relay that was won, not by Michael, but by a superhuman named Lezak.

So Michael Phelps was the face of the Americans' glory at the Olympics, and probably the face of the international athlete. And it became all too much to bear as the Games went on. Swimming was over, and yet commentators continued to sneak in Michael's name in the most inane way possible. At track and field events, at diving, basketball, and even beach volleyball. It started to get old reeeeeally really quickly.

And there was too much emphasis on too few games. I grew sick and tired of beach volleyball and Kelly Walsh's kinetic tape. Of Usain Bolt's fancy posturings. Where were the martial arts, the BMX debut? I wanted to see the drama unfold amidst wind and rain-battered sails. I wanted to see the over-the-top jubilation that was the staple of fencing. There were none of those.

But there were some moments. Like tiny Henry Cejudo literally wrestling the gold away from his opponent. Or the very gorgeous-looking Aussie Matthew Mitcham coming from nowhere to snatch the platform diving gold medal and preventing a Chinese sweep of the events. Or the Redeem Team piling on their gold medals around Coach K's neck – a beautiful tribute to the unsung heroes of the Olympics, the coaches. And my very favorite Olympic moment of all in Beijing – seemingly undefeatable Roger Federer finally winning his very first Olympic gold medal in tennis doubles. The sight of him on the podium during the awarding ceremony, all teeth and grin, a bit teary-eyed, and simply loving the moment. It was that scene that showed that the Olympics is still something to aspire for, even if you have every Grand Slam title in the books and earned millions. A gold medal is seemingly worth more than that.

Sadly, there was more to dramatic glory. There was also, as they usually say, "agony in defeat". The US relay runners dropping their batons. Gymnast Sacramone repeatedly falling on her bum during the Team event. And the lovely Dara Torres just barely losing in her final bid for an individual gold medal. Hopefully, we will see them back in London in four years. If not, may they realize that everything's not lost.

I cannot wait to see the London Summer Games in 2012.


Saturday, July 26, 2008

Still missing my pocket b-boy

Well, I can't say I'm surprised, but for the first time in a reality show competition, when I say I'm-not-going-to-watch-the-show-again-because-so-and-so-got-booted, I really did not watch at all.

I was watching Project Runway and halfway through the show when I suddenly realized that SYTYCD was on. But for some reason (Gev), I wasn't compelled to change the channel. During the commercial break, however, I decided to see what was going on on Fox and found myself looking at Mark's solo. That was it. Then I changed the channel back to Bravo and watched all the way through Shear Genius.

I just wasn't interested anymore. Not without Gev.

Last night, since America's Best Dance Crew wasn't on till an hour later, I decided to just watch the SYTYCD results show. The opening number, however, did not serve to dispel any lingering sad feelings over Gev's ouster. Seeing how Chuck Maldonado's choreography showcased a lot of individual moments made me yearn to see how Gev would do. But I guess the show did have some nice moments.

Such as the Los Angeles Ballet. And Will's boot.

Well, Will fans. Now you know what it's like to have a very talented dancer get eliminated. Come and commiserate with us. (And also, because this hasn’t been said enough - SUCK IT NIGEL LYTHGOE.

Before I end this post, I just want to say a lovely THANK YOU to all those sweet Gev fans who commented on my blog post. It's nice to share the burden, and even nicer that we all believe that Gev will go on to great things in the near future. Thanks!


Movie Review: The Dark Knight

I have never been so proud of Heath Ledger as I was with The Dark Knight. It was everything they hailed it to be, and everything we expected it to be. It was respectful of Heath's memory, and to the fans of the Batman comics. It might just be one of the best summer movies this year, and possibly the whole of 2008.

Kudos to director Christopher Nolan for projecting an image of Gotham City unlike its predecessors so far: it was surreal but not fantastic. Its grittiness, particularly the violence, was mired in reality and not cartoon. For all intents and purposes, it should have been given a rating other than PG. But Nolan's careful direction steered the violence in quick cuts, enabling us to focus on the story and the underlying psychosis instead of the graphic nature of the act. When the Joker proposes a "magic trick" on one of Gamble's henchmen by slamming a pencil into his eye, the deed was quick and seemingly painless, and the action simply establishes his control over the group of mobsters, allowing him to move on to negotiations. When the Joker threatens Gamble with a knife, you find yourself cringing in anticipation, and yet the eventual slash seemed blood-free, and you find yourself focusing on the intent of the scene itself – which was to provide a brief backgrounder on how the Joker got his scars and why he uses a knife (because guns are too quick – an eerie yet logical argument). When the Batman drops Maroni on the curb three stories down with dispassionate indifference, we gasp but only briefly as the Batman realizes that the Joker's random acts of evil serve an actual purpose. And when we find Harvey Dent in the hospital, it was like a tango on whether they were going to show the burns or not. And when it was eventually revealed, the shock is all the more disturbing given the emotional scars and angst Dent had verbalized previously. At this time of year, Christopher Nolan should be worthy of an Oscar directorial nomination. His take on the Batman franchise – psychology, villains, Gotham City all – was daring and unique and very well-done.

It must be admitted that much of the film's brilliance also rested on Heath Ledger's fanatical and maniacal performance as the Joker. Congratulations are also in store to the wardrobe and makeup team for being up to par with the actor's performance. As was mentioned in several interviews with the crew, the wardrobe was able to not just replicate the comic villain's persona (with the dashes of purple on the clothes), but also bring out the evilness of the character with the scruffiness and the grunginess of the overall look (as they said, as if you could "smell" him).

And the makeup crew was simply amazing in deciding to go into a different direction for the Joker. Instead of the campy clown look that the Batman franchises were known for, in The Dark Knight, the makeup on the Joker went beyond the signature look. It depicted the raving psychotic within and followed the peaks and the downward spiral of his villainy. As the Joker slowly descended into madness and randomness, so did the makeup – slowly peeling and melting into a frenzied, unruly mess by the time he goes to jail. It's an excellent way of propelling a story forward and shares credit for characterizing the Joker fully. In fact, in the initial scenes, instead of referring to the Joker's look as a clown makeup, it was referred to as "war paint", instantly portraying him as a more frightening figure. In addition, the makeup given Two-Face was perfect, just as it was in the comics. The real-life video reincarnations of Harvey Dent never fully lived up to the scarred mess of burns as depicted in the comics and The Dark Knight cartoons. And for this, I also feel that the makeup team needs to be commended with an Oscar nomination.

But back to Heath Ledger. It was truly a magnificent, albeit sad, performance. It was magnificent because he was amazingly wicked and malicious, and gave off a powerfully unpleasant aura. It was a good decision of Nolan to rein in the Joker backstory because the mere randomness of his appearance as a vile criminal coming from nowhere lends to his crazed malevolence. Even without makeup, when the Joker masqueraded as an honor guard, he seemed just as evil. When the camera pans to him, it was a quick display of his intensity, and the scars on his face flashed to us in an instant, giving us a disturbing image of the man underneath the wickedness. Heath Ledger gave us all that and more.

And of the few best, most engaging and challenging scenes of the film, Heath Ledger shone. His monologue to Harvey Dent in the hospital was magnificent and frightening at the same time, both because it made insane sense, about introducing anarchy to the world that had failed him and his Rachel. Here, the Joker displays his uncanny ability to watch his own back, as he ensures the ruin of Gotham City by manipulating and corrupting another to join him in his villainy. The gradual transformation from Harvey to Two-Face was evident with each word uttered and it was just fantastic acting from both characters.

The scenes in the jail after the Joker's capture were the best, in my opinion. I had no idea that his sardonic applause after Jim Gordon was promoted to Commissioner was unscripted, and kudos to Nolan for keeping the scene as it emphasized the Joker's disrespect for authority. In fact, the whole Joker persona has evolved from evil playfulness (as had been the case for all Batman franchises) to amoral irony – which makes it even more upsetting. And that scene behind bars was a great display of that.

The interrogation scene between the Batman and the Joker was the best in the film. Here are two dark characters, each wrestling with their inner demons – the Batman's urge to kill, and the Joker's desire to break an opponent. Both had no interest to follow through (particularly the Joker because, as he said in another scene, "What would I do without you? You complete me…"), and yet the conflict – not just the physical conflict between the two individuals, but the mental conflict in their heads – is palpable. When the Joker finally gives him a choice, between saving the hero of his beloved Gotham City or simply saving his beloved, the conflict shifts and rises and we are treated to an excellent morality tale.

I am not a comic book fan, although I appreciate the old-school comics as a kid (Superman and Batman, mostly). And what I loved about Batman is the fact that he is not a straightforward superhero. He was never put on a pedestal by adoring constituents, and had no superhuman powers. He relied on his gadgetry and his billions. And he wasn't moral. Sure, he never killed for the sake of it. But he was always cursed with a vague moral compass, even as Bruce Wayne. He was a misunderstood masked vigilante, which that in itself shows that he was never committed to do the right thing. He used violent and underhanded means to dispense his own brand of justice, and he was always faced with complex choices that damned him if he did, and damned him if he didn’t. The Batman was complicated and human, and I liked that aspect of him. He was extraordinarily human.

Christian Bale was great as Bruce Wayne and the Batman. His past movies have given him a mysterious and complicated aura as an actor that lends itself well to The Dark Knight. Plus, he is talented himself, and ably went toe-to-toe with Ledger and Eckhart in their memorable confrontation scenes. I am still uncomfortable with the rasp that he takes on whenever he is in the Batsuit, and I miss his nonchalant playboy air from Batman Begins. But he succeeds in this sequel because his gravitas suits the movie's anti-camp direction very well.

Aaron Eckhart is another standout actor in this film. His complete turnaround as Two-Face is brilliant, and completely factors in within the Joker's story. Initially, I was concerned that having two villains would compete for the audience's attention and weaken the plot structure, but it was carefully well-executed. I was introduced to Two-Face in the Dark Knight cartoons, and even on that childish level, he had an emotional backstory that pulled at me. He had a similar complicated moral compass that was completely dependent on his coin. He was one of the very few Batman villains that I liked (the others being the Joker and Clayface), and it was great that this film portrayed him with no strings attached. He was the consummate good guy gone bad. And the honest thing was that he was only a few rungs lower than the Batman himself, whose memory of his murdered parents kept him from being murderous himself.

The whole cast acquitted themselves really well in this film. Michael Caine's fatherly but snarky Alfred, Morgan Freeman's classy and tough Lucius, and Maggie Gyllenhaal's emphatic Rachel. Even B-lister Eric Roberts found his luck with a nice turn as Sal Maroni (although he never got to throw acid at Harvey Dent's face, the scene in the courtroom with Falcone's henchman was a good indirect nod to that). I also loved the cameo by Cillian Murphy as Scarecrow. It gave a comic-y feel to the whole film by providing us with a random rogue appearance.

While the direction was superb, the script had some plot holes and overall could use a bit more tightening up. There were some unanswered questions, such as: how did the Joker got hold of the DNA traces? Who actually pulled off the Harvey-Rachel abduction and setup? And it would help to clarify whether Det. Ramirez really was a dirty cop and how she went there. It was all too vague for me. Plus, there was also a feeling that the movie stretched on for too long. But while the gasoline explosion and Rachel's death made for an exciting climax, the scenes that followed hold up well in terms of substance (even though they were not up to par with the former). And the eventual ending gave us even more misery on top of the anticipation for more of Batman's (and Two-Face's) story. In addition, the script held some little verbal gems, such as Harvey's (and eventually, Bruce Wayne's) "You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain." There was also Alfred's succinct yet insightful observation of anarchy: "Some men just want to watch the world burn." And of course, there was the Joker's fear-provoking line: "Why so serious, son?"

The film, in all its dark gravitas, provided some unexpected humor, too. I say unexpected because, for all the weight given to the Joker in this film, there was very little humor coming directly from him. There was the humorous appearance of the RPG during the famous tunnel chase scene, and the delayed explosion of Gotham General. But there was also that short scene in Wayne Manor, as Bruce was getting ready to deal with the Joker as Batman, when he stumbles upon a couple obviously post-coitus in the sanctity of his own home. In true playboy fashion, Christian flashes a believable smirk (which lit up the screen for me) and proceeds to go into his "Bat lair" (no longer a Batcave anymore, I guess). It was funny how the woman expected Bruce to usher them into the "panic room" and how disappointed they were when he disappeared into it without a second glance in their direction. That was completely unexpected and hilariously subtle.

Heath Ledger's performance was definitely magnificent, because it transcended his death for a brief moment. In those two-and something-hours that he was the Joker, he was maniacally alive and resplendently vile. His death only entered my mind while he was dangling from the building, laughing in that mad and possessed way of his. I was aware that it was his final scene, that he will be sent to an asylum as it always had been in the comics. He did not die, and should live to torment the Batman again. He even tells Batman that the two of them are destined to fight each other forever. The sad thing was that Heath himself will never be the Joker again.

What was also sad was how the whole film seemed to foreshadow the impending importance of a new roster of rogues for the next sequels. With Two-Face's criminal evolution taking the emotional center stage, audiences will likely prefer to see a continuation of this story. And this sadly makes perfect sense with Heath Ledger's death. With the Joker's capture, this franchise's most perfect and brilliant villain has given us the closure we need, and the anticipation of looking forward to that other villain with whom we grew interested in as his character got fleshed out more and more.

But in the event that the Joker will make a comeback in some sequel further down the road, you wonder whether another actor can step up and have the dubious distinction of following Heath's masterful portrayal of the Joker. Only time will tell. As of now, Heath should be proud that he was able to finish this deliriously exciting character, as befits the beautiful legacy he left us with. As a fan since his Patriot and Ten Things days, I myself am so proud of it. I do miss him, but I'm glad I can remember him with this.


Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Pocket B-Boy That Could

My favorite So You Think You Can Dancer was eliminated this week.

I have always been amazed at Gev Manoukian. He may be tiny, but he always danced BIG. He was an explosive b-boy with an innovative way of breakdancing AND choreographing. He was one of the very few contestants (probably the ONLY ONE) who knew how to put together a complete solo and charm an audience at the same time. It will really be hard for me to watch the show without him.

I first saw him when he auditioned for Season 4. I was new to the show and did not see him audition in Season 2 (and yet I saw his Youtube'd audition and it was a FANTASTIC routine set to James Brown). Although he was classified as a breaker, he was careful to add that he took additional dance classes, too, such as ballet and jazz. And that right there got me interested in him because it showed initiative and desire to learn and improve. Ballet and jazz are certainly distinct enough to gain him more skills and provide him with a carriage and class that can propel him beyond his street dancing. And it helped that he had such a kickass choreography to an uber-cool song.

How many times do you get to hear Lupe Fiasco on this show? And his choreography was stellar and certainly showcased all his skills in just under a minute and a half. He started with some strutting, gliding, a glorious handstand, a leap and some lovely contemporary moves. When the rap part came on, he exploded in some expansive b-boying that was just fabulous. In that short routine, he showed his athleticism, strength, musicality, grace, and contemporary technique. My favorite part of the audition, and I must credit the camerawork done here, is when after gliding a bit on stage, he suddenly goes into a reverse handstand. What was great about it was that it timed perfectly to the music, and his face had on a nonchalant look on it that made it seem like a sudden and unexpected move that even Nigel had busted out a "Nice!" and you could hear Mary and Mandy's gentle sighs when he did that. It was a gentle segue into a power move and a display of strength. Beautiful choreography and beautiful execution. I knew who I was going to root for after that. The Vegas auditions did not show him very often, but seeing him make the top 20 was enough to make me happy.

He was paired with Courtney for the first few weeks. Courtney's a lovely girl. I saw her audition and her grandparents came along and they are just lovely people. Plus Courtney seemed to be one of the better contemporary dancers among the ladies. Gev is lucky that he was given such a pretty, strong, and graceful partner. He knows it, too, and every week, we see him work hard to make them both look great. Unfortunately, she does not seem to be as grateful to be paired with him. I'm not sure what the real story is behind those two, but it definitely seemed to me that Gev had to work harder than Courtney to keep the partnership on equal footing.

I do not mean that Gev was the weaker dancer of the two of them. What I meant that Gev had to work harder to make them LOOK good. If there is one thing that is unpleasant about this season, is that the judging biases are way too blatant. And it was very apparent that Gev was never going to get any favors. If he did, they were given begrudgingly. Always, Courtney was given the praise, and Gev was left with the critique. I never really agreed with any of them, save for last week's Jive. I thought Gev really did make some errors, and it was his luck that he got such a wonderful partner in Chelsie who made those quick handholds work. But in his other dances, he was never really given high praise and I felt sorry for him that the viewers won't get to hear how awesome he was at just getting the choreography down.

For instance, his Mandy Moore contemporary was lovely (and nicely-lit, I might add). He nailed all the lifts and the emotion required. The rumba was hot and sexy without looking trashy. He certainly did not do a Dom because he nailed the feeling of the piece. He may not have done the necessary hip gyrations, but I thought he did fantastic. And who cares if Courtney outdanced him in the hip hop? I thought it was a smooth number that didn't need the grit of the West Coast style. He certainly had the right attitude for it, but the judges never brought that up.

For all the talk about Gev having a crush on Courtney, I always looked at it as Gev working harder, and his passion for dancing was having an effect on his relationships with the others around him. If making Courtney look good and looking like she was a great partner translated as a crush on TV, then so be it.

However, I do want to say that his final week with Courtney was just STELLAR, with a fun and sexy Cha-cha and an amazing and funky jazz. That week just showed how much Gev has improved without losing his street dancer cred. He has improved his footwork (see his Jive), his hip action, and his hand extensions that translated into wonderful lines (see his Sonya Tayeh contemporary). He has developed a ballroom sexiness and a penchant for fun whenever he would inject b-boy moves into any routine. And that latter part I loved. I love how every choreographer he worked with would incorporate his b-boying skills in his routines, whether it be a handstand or some form of strong-armed lift. To be honest, ANY girl in the competition should be thrilled to have Gev as a partner because he could work out ANY hold. I would like to think that choreographers have an admiration deep down for Gev because he could handle choreography really really well. He was one of very few dancers on the show who could transcend his specialty. He was agile, versatile, committed, and was never hindered by his height.

The latter, of course, was never shared by the producers of the show. For all his gifts, all they could see of Gev was his lack of height. I like to think that what he lacked in length, he made up for with exciting shapes and a unique groove. But the judges continually tagged him as the short guy who can breakdance and possibly nothing else. They keep ignoring his versatility and growth as a dancer – until this week.

Due to the blatant pimpage (some of it deserved, but it took away the competitive nature of the show so early on it's sad), I knew I had to just count down the days until Gev was eliminated. And it seemed like this week was it. Mary finally acknowledged his improvement and how he's been the dark horse all this time. Lil C finally acknowledged his heart and passion. And Nigel finally discovered Gev's personality. It was like watching a funeral and everyone was saying good things about you before they kicked you to the curb. I could feel the bus revving up and directed towards Gev a million miles away.

And yet, when Cat finally eliminated him, I could not help but hear my heart crack a bit. My favorite contestant had been eliminated and I could not find anyone else to root for after him. I suppose my motherly and protective instincts took over. Gev has been such a sweet, gentle, and good-natured person on the show. And seeing him eliminated made me want to hug him and tell him he will be all right. In fact, I did hug the TV set! But the good thing going for him is that now, he has all these amazing skills and experiences to take with him and make him a better dancer. He has already worked with such acclaimed choreographers, including Andy Blankenbuehler and Sonya Tayeh. And he has been sincerely appreciated by Desmond Richardson. How lucky can you get? When they showed Sonya wigging out of her seat with Desmond Richardson raring to clap for them in the foreground, I wigged out as well. Desmond Richardson? Showing Gev and Chelsie some love? Unbelievable. And yet understandable.

And his solos will live in the minds of dance lovers everywhere. His audition pieces. His death-defying tumble after a heavily interactive solo set to Fatboy Slim. Him taking his shirt off to Lupe Fiasco. And his solo to Michael Bublé. Seriously? Michael Bublé? But it was fantastic, out of this world, brilliant, and just all around terrific. I am profoundly impressed at such creative risk-taking and innovativeness. I really have no words for it. His great taste in music mirrors his great choreography. The tricks, and being in tune with the instrumentation and the phrasing. Just absolutely mind blowing. His solos, all of them well-planned and well-thought out, are among the best, if not probably the best, in the history of this show. They all made you want to see more of it. If they could give out Emmys to the solos done on this show, they should send a tape with Gev on it. It's not just the partner dances that are being choreographed on the show, you know.

And yet, after all is said and done, I believe Gev will do just fine. He will be fine because he has learned so much and will give just as much. In an interview, he said he hopes that his turn on the show will give him the opportunity to set up his own dance studio so he can teach. How amazing is that? Instead of the usual, this-is-my-stepping-stone-to-an-onstage-dance-career, all Gev wants is to teach. How can you not love a guy like that? After everything that has happened, he still thinks of other people, wanting them to LOOK good. Like what he has been doing these past weeks on the show.

I will continue to root for him beyond the show. SYTYCD has awakened the dance lover in me, and I will look to him for inspiration. As the street dancer who kept an open mind, kept jumping outside of his box, and kept doing the extraordinary. I will miss him and hope that, eventually, he will realize that he looked great out there dancing all this time.



An All-Star Pastime

That was one hell of an All-Star baseball game.

I mistakenly thought I was going to watch the performance night of So You Think You Can Dance but caught the pre-game introductions of the MLB All-Star game instead (don't know why that was in my head the all afternoon, but there you go). I had a late night at work and came home running towards the elevator at around 8:05 pm when the doorman at my apartment building called out "Just in time for the baseball game!" I was momentarily confused and soon discovered why when I turned my television on.

I was looking at an assemblage of baseball heroes past on the Yankee Stadium diamond. After the momentous occasion that was the Home Run Derby the night before, I decided to stick around and watch a full game of baseball. My first since the Boston Red Sox won their first world series championship. Little did I know that I was in for a really looong night.

But I didn't mind. I had forgotten how great the game was. I watched basketball more often, but I appreciated every single sport and tried to watch all of them. When I was younger, I used to endure sleepless nights just staying up late to watch sports on ESPN. It didn't matter what sport it was – basketball, golf, hockey, football, NFL, baseball, tennis, billiards, gymnastics, even dressage. Baseball was probably one of those sports that people – non-Americans, especially – find hard to appreciate. Particularly when you are not familiar with half the people that are on the field, and nothing seems to be going on for several innings. But this was probably the only game when you didn't care who else what out there (seriously, who kept track of the outfielders?), and the only game when good defense made it even more exciting and more fascinating to watch. (Offense worked, too, and I remember seeing my all-time favorite baseball player, Blue Jays' John Olerud, for the first time and loving him rip one every time he came up to bat.)

Baseball's first line of defense is always the pitcher. And in last night's All Star game, pitching was ON FIRE. There were strikeouts aplenty, and the first five or six innings flew by very fast as the defense dominated. Sure there were a couple of hits – homers even – but it was such great fun seeing all these great baseball players struggle to score a run. There were groundouts, flyouts, a bunt, two sacrifice flies (one of which helped decide the game), and at one point, a stream of forceouts at the HOME PLATE with the bases loaded. How the heck did that happen?!? And how the heck did the NL not win after that!?!?

Ah, but the AL kept it close. With nary a Yankee in sight, and only one Red Sox player on the field, and all of them non-starters, the game took a strange turn as it headed into the wee hours of the morning. Managers all over the league had their worst nightmares confirmed as Francona and Hurdle used up every pitcher on their roster, many for more than two innings. For closers and one-inning relief pitchers with the competitive post-season looming, it was their worst fears realized as they sat and stood for innings on end, warming up endlessly, and throwing too many pitches. (Poor Lidge; at least Francona ably used Mariano Rivera when he only pitched 2 innings.) And as the game pushed further into the dawn, position players were being recruited in contingency plans as relief pitchers themselves – a thought too strange to comprehend but may most likely be an interesting visual.

However, in the 15th and FINAL inning, the AL finally broke through with a Mike Young sac fly and Justin Morneau, Home Run Derby winner and consistent batter, slid into home plat and narrowly missing the tag.

It was a great end to a great (albeit long) night. And a fitting farewell to that "Cathedral of Baseball" Yankee Stadium. As if the ghosts of Yankees would not bear to see their beloved game end on their turf. 2008 was a pitcher's year (see Sabathia, Harden, Santana) and this all-star game showed it.


Thursday, June 19, 2008

And Boston Beats L.A.!

The Boston Celtics just beat the Los Angeles Lakers.

After more than two decades of waiting fruitlessly. After seeing Larry Bird and Kevin McHale play their last games and get sent off without a championship. After seeing Reggie Lewis crumple to the floor and die a few months later. After learning Paul Pierce had been stabbed. After seeing Rick Pitino bully his way off the coaching roster. After countless and meaningless trades. The one pre-season trade that mattered finally bore fruit. This era’s Big Three – Pierce, Garnett, and Allen – finally have a championship ring to call their own.

And it was not just those Three who played their hearts out. It was Kendrick Perkins and his massive defensive presence in the paint. Rajon Rondo and his fearless attack off the opponent’s dribble penetration. Eddie House and his three-pointers that brought down the, well, house. James Posey and his reliable shooting. Leon Powe and his repeated moments of brilliance (particularly in Game 2). Sam Cassell and his reassuring offensive presence. PJ Brown and his defensive stops. (And the odd thing was I never really liked those last two players. And now I admit they were phenomenal during this Finals series.)

People said Kevin Garnett single-handedly remade the team into a mean defensive machine. And that may be true. He transformed the Celtics culture into one that was defense-oriented. They got together in very early mornings to practice their pick and roll plays, their screens, and their defensive positions. John Thibodeau, the team’s assistant coach, was also instrumental in helping the team turn the defensive corner.

And Paul Pierce, that magnificent franchise player, finally got his due. He and the team made their own history, hung up their own banner. In time, he might get his number retired and hung from the rafters, too. And he definitely earned it. As the Finals MVP, he clawed his way through the Lakers’ defense and shot impressively from the field. He worked the perimeter, the paint, the three-point area. He played with heart and passion. He has certainly defined his role in the team and everyone in Boston are just so proud of this man who morphed from rookie who tried to do everything, into an All-Star player who could do anything.

But no one made my heart swell that night than Ray Allen. Despite his inclusion into the Big Three, he was constantly ragged on his inconsistent offense. His shooting was erratic, and he was seemingly absent from the playoffs. Analysts said he had the most to sacrifice from the trade – from being the star player of the Bucks and the Sonics, to the third shooter on a team that was just full of superstars and potential stars. He seemed to always be adjusting to how the ball was rotated, and he had to buckle down and start polishing up on defense if he couldn’t get the ball himself.

Come the first two rounds of the playoffs, Allen played miserably. But when the Finals against the Lakers rolled in, he became a different player. On two nights when Garnett and Pierce were less than impressive, Allen stepped up and became the only constant among the Big Three. In the Celtics’ first loss in Los Angeles, Allen was the only player who made his shots. And in Game Six, he tied the NBA Finals record for most three pointers made. He was hot and he was money, and he never let up even when the lead was padded up to an astronomical 40 points. And he was terrific on defense, too. He was able to guard Kobe Bryant, the one player this season whose greatness was unquestionable, and shut him down on several occasions. He was closest to Larry Bird for me – a terrific scorer and defender who quietly did his role and stepped above it. He was way too classy to get physical in the paint, but he penetrated the inside as fearlessly as Kevin or Paul. Remember his mismatch with Sasha Vujacic, whom he lost on his way to the basket? Or him getting poked in the eye by Lamar Odom? His success at the three-point area has made people forget that he could play the inside, too.

But the fans knew. When Ray Allen came back from his eye injury, the fans rewarded him with a rousing cheer and a standing ovation. But he simply nudged his teammates aside and sat on the bench and kept an eye on the game. He didn’t swagger into the court; he got there quick and seemed to make a mental note as to how to help. I love his quiet passion, and I am so happy that he was rewarded for it. He got a lot of love from the fans that night. And from me. I am so so SO GLAD he won.

And Doc Rivers. The man who almost got his ass handed to him last season. He turned the team around with his Tutu mantra of “ubuntu”. And the whole team listened. He and Danny Ainge, that Celtics point guard who was easy to hate during those days – they both turned the team around this season. My hat’s off to Danny Ainge, who really looked at the big picture and stuck with it. And big props to him for sticking with Doc Rivers.

My favorite moment of the championship celebration happened twice. Once, during the immediate on-court celebrations after the clock expired, Michelle Tafoya encountered Garnett in near tears and asked how he felt. Garnett immediately thanked, among other things, Minnesota. The one city who welcomed him when he first arrived as a pro player fresh out of high school. And on the podium, when Pierce and Allen gave their speeches. Like Garnett, they both thanked a city. Both of them thanked Boston. Pierce thanked Boston for sticking with him, even on the not-so-great years. And Allen thanked Boston for having him. I’ll say. Boston, the city with the most pride to give, THANKS YOU, Allen and Pierce and Garnett and Rivers and Ainge and the rest of the Celtics. And thank you for keeping the Auerbach love (and win record) alive.

We’ll see you guys again next year.


Monday, June 16, 2008

A Father's Day post

I wrote this on January 19, 2007 on another blog. It was - to me - an emotional piece. Today, in celebration of Father's Day, and because I have a new home for my writing, I am going to re-post this. May everyone understand the importance of family in our lives.

Last night, Mr. Harold O'Malley died.

To those of you who don’t know, Mr. O’Malley is a fictional character. On a television show. He was played by a most wonderful actor named George Dzundza, and he played George O’Malley’s father on Grey’s Anatomy. He died on my television screen last night, and it was the saddest thing I have ever watched. Why does his death, his on-screen death, affect me so much?

My father had a heart attack at 2:30 am on November 1. Ironically, All Saints’ Day – also known as the day Filipinos remember the dead. Also ironically, on my side of the world, it was Halloween – also known as the day Americans celebrate spirits. I learned about it the next day, however, after the consternation of taking him to the hospital had gone and my family made sure he was stabilized before they could call me with good news, at least. I was in the middle of studying that night, when my mother called. She started out nicely, and then said to me, “Hazel, ang Papa mo…” ("Hazel, your Papa..."). She completely lost it. I kept my head. I told her to calm down, but she wouldn’t, and had to pass the telephone to my older sister. The news stunned me, but I kept a brave face throughout the conversation. I remember putting the telephone down, and looking at my hands. They were shaking. And then I cried.

The next day, I needed to be in school for an errand. I met two people that day, and to both I broke the news. I felt that it was unnecessary, considering that I was close to neither of them. But I did. I think it was because I needed an outlet of some kind. To vent. Not to rant. But to somehow tell them that I am sad today, nothing else. To be honest, nothing else mattered to me. I went through the day smiling at people and making conversation, but deep down inside, I was terrified. This persisted many weeks after. One time, I met with a faculty adviser about my plans to get a Ph.D. I had the most difficult time talking to her because I could not get my father out of my head. In fact, the first time I broke the news two years ago about earning a scholarship to UMass, he hugged me tight and whispered in my ear, “Baka gusto mo na rin mag-Ph.D. Ituluy-tuloy mo na.” ("You might want to get a Ph.D. You might as well go all the way.") I broke down and wept in my adviser’s office. Professionalism be damned, I guess.

I kept in constant touch with my family, particularly my oldest sister who is a doctor. Thank heavens that she went through medical school, because now, more than ever, we need her. As much as doctors need to be objective, sometimes, we need a little more than just the facts from them. My sister gave my mother and siblings the truth about my father, but she also held their hands. One of my father’s cardiologists was a classmate of my sister from medical school, whom we’ve known for a long time. He, too, held our hands and faced the truth with us. I am so grateful for the extra emotion she put in it. It gives her and my father’s team of doctors, the opportunity to do right by us. They would have thought, this is Ivy’s father, and we should take care of him.

On December 5 at 7 pm, EST time, my father went into the OR for quintuple bypass surgery. I had a class that day, and the whole time, my mind was elsewhere. I went to Mass every day, prayed the rosary, begged for my father’s health, and would not sleep nor study. I kept looking at my cellphone for text messages. Then, finally, at 2 am the next day, my brother called me with good news. “You can go to sleep now,” he said to me.

My father, thank God, is doing fine. He is walking, talking, and eating alright, even though he gets cranky whenever he could not eat the same food as he did before. Which was why on Christmas’ Noche Buena, everyone back home pared down the food on the table and ate food that he would have eaten. It was a gesture of solidarity with him, and I found it very touching. My mother tells me that he now goes out into our garden every day, looking at the flowers and orchids my mother tends to. She said he loves looking at them. I imagine my father, after his life flashed before him during the weeks leading to surgery, stopping to smell the roses now that he has been given a second chance. Even I would have kissed the grass and smelt the roses.

The worst part about the experience has been not living with it. I was here, in the US, alone and lonely and worried to freaking hell and I could not do a thing about my father except to talk to him on the telephone and pray for him. I have read the Grey's Anatomy message boards in the hours after that episode aired, and the writer’s blog… It is amazing, that blog. The whole episode is dedicated to the writer's father, who died under similar circumstances years ago. Everything, down to the fart joke in the middle of surgery, happened to her many years ago. It is both heartbreaking and inspiring, simply because it told me that I am not alone in feeling the pain. And the blog entry unleashed a torrent of comments from fans who have all experienced a death in the family in some form or another. And while the comments about the pain were numerous, I felt a different kind of pain that was never brought up. To me, worse than the thought of your father dying back home, is the pain of not being there. The pain is not shared; it is simply bottled up inside, and you end up crying on your pillow at night. It is the worst kind of pain, to not be there and actually SEE your father fight, and SEE your mother fight for him, and SEE your siblings fight for him. My father’s recovery was as much a testament to my family’s determination as it was a testament to the expertise of his doctors. My mother and brothers and sisters were by his side the whole time, and I... am here. I am not there. While I do not discount the power of my prayers and my comforting words which traveled through telephone lines, I am still not there. For a child to not be at her parent’s side is the worst kind of feeling. My obligation has been to my family and I failed that. I wished like hell that I went back home, but I couldn’t. My family has been understanding through it all, but I beat myself up about it. Because in the end, when all is said and done, I still was not there.

Watching the O’Malleys go through the excruciating pain of a impending family death made me relive my own excruciating pain. The “What if I was there?” question loomed in my head as I watched George obsess about his father’s condition. For weeks, anger lit up the internet forums as people criticized George for acting like a jerk. I wrote back, “What he is feeling is understandable. I certainly felt the whole world on my shoulders at the prospect of a sick parent. I know the feeling. I KNOW.” And then, after Mr. O’Malley had surgery for his esophageal cancer and his family was coming in his room to visit him, George’s reaction to seeing his father all scarred with tubes coming out of his body was similar to my reaction when my brother emailed me pictures of my father in his hospital bed. He looked so WEAK. It was the most depressing thing to see my father like that when I know him as a strong man who gave me piggyback rides, fixed the tires on our cars, and carried heavy things. I felt so sad for him. George’s reaction, clinging on to Meredith’s arm and repeating over and over again “He’s my Dad”, was the same as mine. He’s my Dad, he’s my Dad. My Dad, with the tubes and the scars and the bruises. He’s my Dad.

Before the surgery, George and his dad were playing cards, and Mr. O’Malley confessed to lying about running over his pet dog. He apologized. George realized what he was trying to do, and told him not to act as if he was dying. When the realization hit him that his father is never going to wake up, George, while giving his sleeping father a shave, confessed to another childhood sin that he lied about. “I lied to you; and you thought I never lied.” He said sorry, just like that time when his father said he was sorry about running over the dog. I remember the day my father came home from the hospital following his heart attack and before bypass surgery. He told me on the telephone that he loved me and was so proud of me for being where I am, and I broke down. Again. On the telephone. If you had seen Babel, and saw Brad Pitt sobbing on the telephone while his son was talking on the other line, that was pretty much how I was. My father cooed at me, and told me everything was fine, but I kept right on sobbing. “I love you!” I kept saying over and over again. You never really know when you need to say it, and I said it.

The scene where the doctors were advising the O’Malley family of the option of keeping the father on life support or not was very sad. The brothers and the mother all deferred to George’s opinion, whether he thinks it is time to “let him go”. I can only imagine that, when the time comes, it will be my physician sister who will also make that choice. She was there when my father was rushed to the hospital the first time, and was there during his surgery, and was there during his recovery and checkups. She will know. And I will count on her to know. She will be the rock of the family, and I am just grateful that she is there.

My tears flowed non-stop when Mr. O’Malley was finally unplugged from the life support system. I had seen a family member die, and the sad repercussions that followed it. My brother and his wife lost a baby a few years ago, and I thought that was the saddest thing to happen to our family. To see my brother, my big, strong brother, crying and railing against the hospital staff after my nephew died, was just heart-rending. It is something I do not want to experience again, and the fact that my father was on the verge of it – it was just too much. And so I watched that scene play out and relive my worst fears and I just cried again.

In the end, Cristina had the best words to say about it to George. “There’s a club. A Dead Dad’s Club, and you can’t be in it until you’re in it. They can try and understand, they can sympathize, but until you feel that loss … My dad died when I was nine. George, I’m really sorry you had to join the club.” George, appreciating her saying that, but also feeling sad as hell, tells her “I don’t know how to exist in a world where my Dad doesn’t.” And Cristina, her face betraying her uncharacteristic empathy and sadness, said “Yeah, that never really changes.”

I dread that moment. And I never will imagine how I can exist in a world where my Dad doesn’t. But until I join the club, I can feel at least happy in the thought that my father is many many miles away, sitting on a chair at home in the middle of my mother’s garden, writing away on a crossword puzzle. He is my Dad, and that is how I will always remember him.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

American Idol Highs and Lows

Yeah, still working on getting the recently-concluded AI season out of my system. Here are the highs and lows of Season Seven.


No American Idol season wrap-up would be complete without a list of some kind. So I made two of them: my favorites, and my least favorites. I decided to include all the performances starting with the Hollywood Round, and I've included Finale and sing-outs as well. Unfortunately, no audition piece made my jaw drop this year, unlike in season five, the only season to do so (see Taylor Hicks and Paris Bennett, both of whom sang twice and were amazing in both). But I found out that I am easy to please and so, without further ado:

Michael Johns – Bohemian Rhapsody (Hollywood Round)

I missed Michael's audition, and with my sister's constant buzz about him, I was prepared to hate him. Imagine my surprise when he sang Bohemian Rhapsody with conviction, and hit all the right notes.

Carly Smithson – Alone (Hollywood Round)

I was never a fan of Carly, she of the constant screech and wail. But I must say I liked her take on a song that Carrie Underwood IMPRESSED ME SO MUCH with. The fact was she phrased the song her own way, and that made all the difference.

Josiah Lemming – Grace Kelly (Hollywood Round)

There was so much hype about this kid that, even though I missed his audition, I was compelled to seek it on Youtube. I thought the British singing accent would grate, but I found it endearing (especially since he said he knew no other way to sing). I loved his rendition of Grace Kelly. It was vocally interesting and, by accompanying himself on keyboards, made himself adorable. Unfortunately, he got cut at the Chair, and that made me sad! But I think he's doing well on his own. I heard he got signed, so I'm looking forward to that.

David Hernandez – In The Midnight Hour (60s Week)

David H was the AI type that usually does well on the show, since he had the typical big voice that many of the other male finalists this season did not have. Except that he was my least favorite. Not only was he not likeable enough, he had this irritating tendency to slow down the tempo of a song even though it was a fast number (see "I Saw Her Standing There" on the first finals week). But judging on performances, this one was my favorite of his. Apart from it being a terrific song choice for his kind of voice, his slowed-down type of singing was perfect for this song, as he drew out the chorus to sweet effect.

Garrett Haley – Breaking Up Is Hard To Do (60s Week)

He may have been one of the first ones eliminated in the semifinals, but I will admit that I loved this rendition of his. He stood out to me on the basis of personality (despite having only heard from him that week), and by being among the first to connect to the emotion of a song – a recurring theme for this season. I was really sad to see him go so early (sort of like how I felt when Judd Harris was voted off in week one in season 4).

Jason Castro – Daydream (60s Week)

His performance captivated me instantly. Add to that, his video package showcased his good nature, and the show's very first guitar appearance made an impact. Need I say more? See earlier blog post on this.

Jason Castro – Hallelujah (80s Week)

As I mentioned before, he sang Jeff Buckley and went straight for my heart. The praise from the judges made my heart swell. To me, this was his best performance throughout the whole season, and the best performance of the season BY ANY CONTESTANT. It had the beautiful vocal, depth of emotion, and solid stage presence that is required of any American Idol showstopper (see Fantasia's Summertime, and Bo's Whipping Post). Plus the fact that he had EVERYONE, from the studio audience to those in front of their televisions, pleasantly surprised to even hear that song sung on American Idol. His performance was both an unexpected surprise and a beautiful revelation.

Brooke White – Love Is A Battlefield (80s Week)

Her unplugged version of this Pat Benatar rock song was a pleasant surprise. And her unique voice that broke in all the right places gave it a beautiful twist.

Brooke White – Let It Be (Lennon-McCartney Week)

On a week where the finalists were sweating out over how to make these iconic songs "their own", Brooke showed them that sometimes it is best to just "let it be". David Cook said it best when he complimented the performance, saying it was "organic". The raw emotion that she displayed in the last moments of her performance was deeply touching, and added to the power of the song.

Chikezie – I Saw A Face (Beatles Week)

This was one of my favorite Beatles songs EVER, and it got Chikezie in my good graces for the time being. He gave it a unique spin (bluegrass! punk!) that complemented the song's tempo, even though his vocals faltered towards the end. It did sound familiar, coming off the wildly successful bluegrass rendition of She's A Woman the week before. But I loved this one because I love the song, and his version did not take anything away from the original.

Michael Johns – It's All Wrong But It's All Right (Dolly Parton Week)

One of the sexiest vocal performances ever on American Idol (neck-and-neck with Mandisa's I Don't Hurt Anymore)! It was bluesy and soulful – two words that were never used on Michael Johns before. He turned a sentimental country song into something more sophisticated and desirous.

Michael Johns – Dream On (IGB Week)

My favorite Aerosmith song ever. Despite what the judges thought of it, I thought it was an amazing vocal. Of course there was a problem with the falsetto scream. Even Steve Tyler had problems with it! And to try to perform such an iconic scream just invited comparisons to the original. But I listen to it over and over and I it still amazes me. And he gets points from me just by choosing the song itself.

Jason Castro – Somewhere Over The Rainbow (IGB Week)

The week the Swaybots fell captive to the ukulele. It's hard to imagine that he just learned how to play it that week. But such are the powers of Jason Castro. This was the week (apart from the Semifinals 80s Week) where his was the best performance of the night. Although it was a night when seemingly everyone else brought their D- and even F-games, this performance still wowed me.

David Cook – Always Be My Baby (Mariah Carey Week)

This was my favorite Mariah Carey song, and I was really skeptical how a guy could sing it. Especially if that guy was David Cook. But he literally blew me away with an awesome emo rendition of the song. It showcased his performing smarts: he managed to hide his vocal deficiencies in the first part of the song by immediately going into it with the electric guitar, and he built up to an emotional crescendo towards the end, inviting all of us to soar with him. While he was known for covers of covers, this time, he was his original self and he was damn good. I liked him after that.

Jason Castro – I Don't Want To Cry (Mariah Carey Week)

I, too, was afraid as to how Jason was going to perform that week. And when I realized he was in the pimp spot AND going after the brilliance that was Always Be My Baby, I got even more nervous. But the performance was magic and beautiful and, most importantly, clever. Jason didn't try to go after the bells and whistles; he made up his own. And he succeeded. The best part was in his video package, when he said he chose the song because he liked the melody. It revealed to us for the first time that Jason does not choose songs based on what he could do with it (i.e. suit his voice, was in his range, etcetera). He chose songs because he liked them. And that explained why he was able to be so emotionally invested in all of his performances. He finally revealed that he's a musical snob. And a genius.

Jason Castro – Forever In Blue Jeans (Neil Diamond Week)

Like Paula said (before the gates of hell was unleashed), Jason showed a BEAUTIFUL lower register. And the song was perfect for him – it was quirky, and it had great guitar lines.

Brooke White – I Am I Said (Neil Diamond Week)

Her time was obviously up, but she awed us one last time with a pretty piano performance of this song. It was not in the league of Let It Be, but it did show us why we love her in the first place.

Syesha Mercado – Hello Again (Neil Diamond Week)

For the first time in so many weeks, Syesha managed to impress me with a performance. Sure, it was inconsistent in spots. But I remember being genuinely surprised with the very first line. She sang it straight, and strong, and clear, and precise. There was a hint of emotion underneath that slowly faded away as she gave in to her usual theatrics. But the initial part of her performance was admittedly lovely. That strong first impression never really left my mind for a while.

Jason Castro – I Shot The Sheriff Reprise (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Week)

My heart was slowly breaking while he did this. And I think his was, too, when he sang about them taking him home. But it reminded me of the attitude and pluck that he displayed the night before, to Simon's genuine consternation (and Jason's genuine bafflement as to why Simon would even question his song choice). His reprise was the only sing-out I liked, due to the emotion behind it, and the bravado before it ("We're doing the Marley one, what's going on?").

Jason Castro – Hallelujah Reprise (Finale)

People thought it was a backhanded compliment to let Jason sing solo on the Finale (either they love him for it, or they just couldn't find someone else to sing a duet with him). But I am thankful for small joys such as this. He reprised his best performance ever to an even LARGER crowd, reminding everyone why he got this far. And I'd like to think of it as the show reaffirming my choice of Hallelujah as the single best performance of any contestant this season.

I noticed that my favorite performances were mostly based on my favorite songs by certain artists. It seems that I really took song choice seriously when I decided if I liked a performance or not.

Anyway, I didn't like to rank my favorites, since there were so many that I could easily get bogged down with the details, and since some really don't compare with each other. But I can easily choose my top four based on the criteria of vocal, emotional intensity, and stage presence. Ranked from absolute best to fourth: Jason Castro's Hallelujah (Semifinals 80s Week), Michael Johns' It's All Wrong But It's All Right, David Cook's Always Be My Baby, and Brooke White's Let It Be. (Yep, there’s my ideal Final Four right there.)


Because they are human, I will desist from further criticism. But this is a list that I have thought about, and I really tried very hard not to skew the list, but it really can’t be helped. Some of the performances were rather good vocally, and that the real issue lay with something else entirely (e.g., the intention, or what happened immediately following the performance). At any rate, I’m not expecting many to agree with my choices here. These are my opinions, and mine only:

David Archuleta – We Can Work It Out (Lennon-McCartney Week)

Kristy Lee Cook – 8 Days A Week (Lennon-McCartney Week)

Kristy Lee Cook – God Bless the USA (IGB Week)

All of Andrew Lloyd Webber Week

David Cook – Baba O' Reilly (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Week)

Syesha Mercado – A Change Is Gonna Come (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Week)

David Archuleta – With You (Top 3 Week)


Castro Bump! Who's Right Fucking On? Me! And Jason's Fans Aplenty!

Would you look at that? I get a Castrocopia award! Yay!

I am just starting my blog, and it’s already made a friend. How cool is that? My very own Permalink!

I love the folks over at Castrocopia. Whenever I felt unduly harassed by non-Castro fans, whenever my AI-loving self got no love from TPTB, whenever I’d read up on some very misleading press about Jason, I’d head over on to Castrocopia for my dose of Castro comfort.

It is a virtual community that was full of laughs and genuine musical appreciation. We appreciate and celebrate the guy who, and the music that, brought us all together. And to take the camaraderie a little further, CUSP was born. That Castro movement that promises to make the world a little better.

The fact is that Jason Castro has the BEST FANS IN THE WHOLE WORLD. People who would set aside time to volunteer, after giving the gentlest and sweetest of nudges to a guy who deserves to be heard in public more often. Some AI fans would settle for simply waiting for an album to come out. Not the Castrocopians, the Dreadheads, the Castrofans, the musical souls of this planet. They looked at what Jason represents, and sought to follow his lead. Of course, they will wait for that much-anticipated solo album. But they can do more than that. And this is why I love this community of Jason lovers. We have the maturity and the grace to look at the world beyond us and see how we can give ourselves to it. Much like Jason has done the whole time AI was on air.

It reminded me of that little “mixup” a while back. When the charity that was supposedly Jason’s “pet” charity was not the actual one. And yet people still gave. And Jason’s reaction to all this? “There are no accidents. Everything happens for a reason.”


You wonder… what can the Archey Angels do? Those Cougars for Cook? What if they banded together and planted trees? Or collectively shut off the lights when they leave a room? That would have made a difference. Despite the flash and panache of an Idol Gives Back, there is still much to do. And more often than not, people don’t have the money to give. But they have time to give. And that is something to think about.

But back to the best fans in the world. Jason’s. Isn't it amazing how someone’s music can turn his listeners into change-seekers and do-gooders? How someone’s personal convictions can be filtered into the mindsets of those who think and love alike? Isn’t it great? Musician and listeners become one. I don’t care what the others think of us who have proudly stood by Jason all these weeks. It is not just the pants, you know. The universe is a much better place with us in it.

Note to Liz Lemon, McLovin, and spinningwheel: Thank you.


Okay... I gotta say it again. Jason's fans are the best ones ever! I nearly forgot to check for comments, so it was quite overwhelming to see a lot of them. Here's hoping it's not the same Anonymous person writing something different each time! The comments are sweet and great to read through. Thanks so much!

To the person who felt bad about me criticizing the other contestants. I guess, being in the public eye, they are fair game - just as Jason was for so many weeks. And he will continue to be fair game, mark my words. Unfortunately for me, my attempts at sarcasm and snark got lost in translation. I'm no David Cook or Michael Johns. In this instance, I wish I was. But thank you for that. I think I got too caught up in my thoughts. After all, the other contestants are his friends, too. My apologies to those who found it a little unpleasant to read through.