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.