Monthly Archives: March 2011

Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2010)

It’s one of those rare occasions when I let myself choose the movie adaptation over the book. I’ve seen the hardcovers often enough in bookshops, and my younger sister collects the series, but I’ve never felt the urge to peruse them. I wouldn’t even have downloaded the movie had Sean and Kevin not asked for it. Like in Jeff Kinney’s novel, Diary of a Wimpy Kid chronicles the adventures of sixth grader Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon). Together with his best friend Rowley (Robert Capron), he combats such daily antagonists as his terrorizing brother Rodrick, resident overachiever-slash-bully Patty, and Fregley—the school hygiene hazard with the “secret mole.” Despite contrary advice from seventh grader Angie (Chloë Moretz), Greg nurtures aspirations of landing as a class favorite in the yearbook; but his attempts at popularity end in disasters that test not only his friendships but also his understanding of himself.

Just as it promises, this movie takes us inside its protagonist’s private universe—a world governed by a volatile set of social norms, where the tiniest misunderstandings cause apocalyptic occurrences, and where mundane things like moldy cheese on cement is enough to fascinate an entire middle school population, sparking crazy “cheese touch” legends that make leprosy seem like a common allergy. Funny, entertaining, even occasionally insightful, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a good watch for kids and adults alike.

As far as children’s movies go, I obviously like this much more than The Lightning Thief, so other reviews surprised me. I don’t remember most of the complaints, except for one fault they cited: Greg Heffley’s lack of likeability. I do agree with this (the first half of the movie made me irritated with Rowley, while the second part directed my annoyance at the protagonist), but I do not understand why it should detract from my experience of the movie. True, I did not expect to hate the main character, but I think this fact allowed him a more successful redemption at the end. Flawed characters always get the viewer’s sympathy anyway, provided they don’t cross certain boundaries. (Of course, all this is rendered moot if the criticism draws from a comparison with the Greg Heffley of the book, which I haven’t read.) Regardless, from what I know of the movie, it’s enough to make me happy, and from what I know my siblings as well. Sean’s verdict: “Ahh, good film.”

‘…it’s our choices that make us who we are.’

‘…sometimes, when somebody’s worth it, you just have to put yourself out there.’

Armageddon in Retrospect

I will always associate Kurt Vonnegut with Mike. He’s the one who lent me The Sirens of Titan, and it’s his book I’m reviewing again now (or at least it used to be—he gave it to me for my birthday). Armageddon in Retrospect is not your usual Vonnegut novel. This collection includes a letter written by the author as a soldier in 1945, a copy of his last speech in 2007, a nonfiction essay, ten short stories, plus several of his own illustrations.

Vonnegut’s son Mark writes the introduction, but in it he hardly talks about the book. Instead (and more interestingly) he introduces the reader to his father. He paints this picture of Kurt Vonnegut: intensely private man, profound humanist, dedicated writer, enigma to everyone around him. The next pages reveal the author through his own writing. Vonnegut’s nonfiction—even when not meant for publication (like his 1945 letter)—displays a balance of humor and gravity. His letter to his family: a tongue-in-cheek narration of a common (albeit extremely lucky) soldier’s life. His last speech: a series of jokes interspersed with commentaries on world issues. “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets” offers more sobriety. It is an affecting memoir about the destruction of Dresden, which Vonnegut asserts was “surely among the World’s most lovely cities.” He describes the bombing’s depressing aftermath, with soldiers more interested in personal looting than salvage work, and ends his memoir with the following declaration: “I would have given my life to save Dresden for the World’s generations to come. That is how everyone should feel about every city on Earth.”

The succeeding ten stories share more than just thematic similarity. Judged as traditional fiction, they fail in terms of character (flat, one-sided), but what I like about them is their collective insistence to avert regular standards. Vonnegut’s fiction claims an appraisal based on idea: what it is trying to say and how it is expressed. Imbued with a sense of humor that prevents them from teetering into total seriousness, these stories explore nearly all aspects of war: past and future; us and them; American, German, civilian. But Vonnegut’s vision extends beyond fiction, even beyond words. It reaches into the minds of his readers, for ultimately what we take from this book is nothing but his perspective of the world: what it is, what it can be, what it should be.

Introduction (Mark Vonnegut)

In my early-to-mid-twenties he let it slip that he was afraid that therapy might make him normal and well-adjusted, and that would be the end of his writing. I tried to reassure him that psychiatrists weren’t nearly that good.

Reading and writing are in themselves subversive acts. What they subvert is the notion that things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have.

Guns before Butter

‘Before the war, everybody was overweight, living to eat instead of eating to live. Germany has never been healthier.’

The Unicorn Trap

‘The wreckers against the builders! There’s the whole story of life!’

Unknown Soldier

If television refuses to look at something, it is as though it never happened.

Spoils

‘You’re the victors, you know, you’ve got a bloody good right to anything you like.’

The Commandant’s Desk

‘I feel almost as though being alive were something to be ashamed of.’

‘…those who can’t afford beautiful things love the idea of there being such things somewhere.’

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010)

So I’ve been watching a lot of Hollywood recently: Tangled, Love and Other Drugs, and now The Lightning Thief. Noticing this trend in my blog, I vowed to watch a not-so-popular film next, but this afternoon my little siblings Sean, Kevin and Althea coerced me to see this movie and I couldn’t refuse. I only downloaded it for them in the first place.

Based on the first book in Rick Riordan’s popular series, the movie invites viewers to enter a world where Greek mythology exists as reality. In this first installment, Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) accidentally discovers his identity as the son of Poseidon when Zeus accuses him of stealing his lightning bolt. To protect him from Hades (who wants the treasure for himself and believes the boy has it), his satyr-protector Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) leads him to a secret training camp for demigods. There he meets other half-mortals like Luke (Jake Abel) and Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), who aid him in his quest to prove his innocence to the gods and rescue his mother from the Underworld.

I will say it outright: I didn’t like this movie, and though I will try not to make this review a list of complaints, frankly I don’t think it will turn out any other way. My main problem with The Lightning Thief is that it’s not convincing enough: unimpressive acting, innumerable plot holes, stock characters. It’s easy to recognize the stereotypes: the funny sidekick, the smart-beautiful-strong lady-love (perfect, like the one in Eragon), the deceiving friend. The proliferation of happy coincidences didn’t help alleviate my consternation with this film. “That was convenient,” Sean said during one scene (I forgot which, the remark applies to so many). And it is true: so many coincidental things occur in this film, and yes, other movies have that too, but the problem is this one didn’t suspend my disbelief. At all.

I think I have to cite a few good points now. The fight scenes and special effects were okay, pretty standard. I appreciated the whole Greek mythology aspect of the movie as well as its occasionally successful attempts at hilarity, but overall I really, really didn’t like it. My siblings enjoyed it a lot though. It’s nice to know that at least kids can see past all my complaints, even though I obviously couldn’t.

‘Persephone! What could possibly be taking so long? Don’t ignore me!’ ‘Or what? What will you do? I’m already in hell.’

‘Just because you didn’t see me doesn’t mean I wasn’t there.’

‘You can receive all the training in the world but ultimately you have to follow your instincts.’

the curious incident of the dog in the night-time

Amazing. Poignant. Moving. Lovely. These are just some of the words critics use to describe this book (a random gift from Wilbert). Affecting. Convincing. Achingly sad. Here are some more. A staple in almost any bookstore, the curious incident of the dog in the night-time remains a widely available and easily recognizable novel. It starts out with a murder mystery: Christopher, a fifteen-year-old boy with autism, discovers the dead body of his neighbor’s dog and decides to investigate. He begins writing a detective novel, but ends up chronicling a much bigger adventure as he discovers that his life contains more unsolved mysteries than he had supposed.

At first Christopher reminded me of Charlie from the perks of being a wallflower, but that comparison didn’t last long. Christopher is a much more difficult character, in all possible ways. He lives by a set of rules completely different from our own. He is the kind of person who, after finding out that his mother has died, goes into a discussion about the different kinds of heart attacks and how they happen. I found it near-impossible to sympathize with him. But I remember this one scene when he looks up at the stars and comforts himself after a shocking discovery: “…if you have difficult things in your life it is nice to think that they are what is called negligible, which means that they are so small you don’t have to take them into account when you are calculating something.” Most of the time Christopher is rude, selfish, inconsiderate, and I know it’s not his fault, but still I did not like him. I felt sad for him. He overanalyzes life so much that he misses the most important things: family, friends, relationships. He does not know how to trust anybody, not even his own father. He lives a sad, sad life, and he doesn’t even know it.

For some reason I had expected this book to be cute and heartwarming. It wasn’t. But in a way that’s better. It’s a more honest depiction of the burdens of a life affected by autism, not just for the one struggling with it, but for all those around him. I was not bowled over by this book, but I found it okay. That’s actually rather disappointing given how much I had looked forward to it but: what else can I say? It’s just okay.

I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them.

I find people confusing.

…sometimes I look up into the sky and I think that there are molecules of Mother up there, or in clouds over Africa or the Antarctic, or coming down as rain in the rain forests in Brazil, or in snow somewhere.

…the largest bit of the sky is always on the other side of the earth.

‘You have to learn to trust me… And I don’t care how long it takes… If it’s one minute one day and two minutes the next and three minutes the next and it takes years I don’t care. Because this is important. This is more important than anything else.’

Love and Other Drugs (2010)

Here’s another movie I should have watched weeks earlier. I’ve had it since February (Valentine’s Day, I remember!), but I only got around to watching it after Danica convinced me to last Sunday. Two lives collide in Love and Other Drugs. Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal): an electronics-salesman-turned-pharmaceutical-sales-representative. Maggie (Anne Hathaway): a coffee house waitress with early-onset Parkinson’s disease. He, a med school dropout: charming, attractive, carefree. She, a volatile artist: guarded, cynical, noncommittal.  In this confluence of lives, they meet and begin a relationship based entirely on casual sex—until they both realize that they need something more than that, and that they may have found it in each other.

This movie starts out like any good romantic comedy, with the right mix of charm and conflict, humor and catchy music. Jake Gyllenhaal dominates this first part, until Anne Hathaway enters the scene to beguile us with her flippant character and, later on, her superb acting. The two actors’ onscreen chemistry produces a middle part that’s romantic and convincing enough to capture the viewer’s sympathy by the time everything crashes down toward the end. This last part paints a more dismal picture of their relationship, marred as it is by the burden of Maggie’s incurable disease. I remember this one scene when Jamie leaves her after a breakup, and even as his figure walked away, a part of me silently screamed: You should have fought harder!

I generally like this movie, so I can forgive its flaws. For main characters, Jamie and Maggie remain strangely one-dimensional, but at least they have a charming self-awareness: “Does this generally work for you? This whole misunderstood-by-Dad-I’m-a-vulnerable-guy-thing?” “Does that work for you, generally? Self-pity?” I also found the ending a tad too cheesy, with its too-perfect lines and sappy background music. At that point it felt like just another idealistic romance flick saying: When you meet the One, everything will fall in place. I could almost hear Jamie telling Maggie, “It’s you and me against the world” (in this case Parkinson’s disease). Not that I’m making light of their problem, but the middle part did a much better job of convincing me than the end. Still: unusual take on adult romance? Interesting glimpses into the drug industry? Appealing minor characters? Not bad, not bad at all.

‘So are you always this mean?’ ‘Actually this is me being nice.’

‘This isn’t about connection for you. This isn’t even about sex for you.  This is about finding an hour or two of relief from the pain of being you, and that’s fine with me, see, because all I want’s the exact same thing.’

‘Apparently you need to know that I’ll get better in order to love me.’

‘Nobody wants to be the one who runs away.’

‘We don’t have to do this.’ ‘Goodbye.’

‘You need someone to take care of you.’ ‘No, I don’t.’ ‘Everybody does.’

‘I want us. You. This.’

Tangled (2010)

Surprisingly, one of the most debated movies in recent weeks. Some of my friends love it, while others deem it disappointing. I know I’m probably too late for this, but here I am finally writing my bit after watching it three nights ago with my little brothers Sean and Kevin. Based on the original tale, Tangled tells the story of Princess Rapunzel, whose magical hair compels a scheming Gothel to steal her from the castle and raise her in a hidden tower, kept away from all humanity. There Rapunzel remains until her eighteenth birthday, when she ventures outside for the first time with the help of wanted bandit Flynn Rider. Together, they pursue her dream of seeing the yearly lantern ritual her kingdom holds in her memory.

It’s a standard fairytale recipe: a beautiful princess, a swashbuckling rogue-prince, and an evil hag hankering for immortal youth; but frankly I cannot hate the movie for that. True, as Jason said, Disney has offered us far more memorable princesses like Jasmine and Ariel, but that does not mean Rapunzel is altogether un-quirky. She will never rank among my favorite princesses, but that does not mean she is altogether forgettable.

Character isn’t really this movie’s strongest point, and neither is it plot (though I did like one unexpected reversal involving the final cutting of Rapunzel’s hair). It’s not the music either: Angel once remarked that the soundtrack does not really impress on its own. So what is it that makes this film work? In one word: glitter. The colors and lights, the animation, the golden hair—visually, the movie does not fall short of amazing. At first I couldn’t believe I fell for all that glitter, but in retrospect: so what?

I have to share a story. While watching, I asked, “Why do they always have just one child?” Sean answered, “So it would be dramatic.” Apparently, at nine, kids already know all about manipulation, but they still manage to enjoy themselves. Unlike them, most of us choose to focus on the predictable resolution, the unexplained epiphany, the inevitable plot holes. Disney makes millions while we sulk and complain: who gets the shorter end of the stick? So Tangled isn’t the best animated movie out there, and yes, it is overrated, but it’s still pretty good. Watch it with kids: at least for ninety minutes, you’ll love it.

‘And for that one moment, everything was perfect. And then that moment ended.’

‘A fake reputation is all a man has.’

‘You were wrong about the world. And you were wrong about me!’

‘No! I won’t stop! For every minute, of the rest of my life, I will fight! I will never stop trying to get away from you!’

A Personal Matter

Some books you read because of its title, because its reputation has exceeded the reaches of its back cover and has enticed you, the avid reader. Others attract your attention through flattering blurbs or eye-catching covers. Then there are those books you pick up because you’ve heard the author namedropped so many times that you want to check him out for yourself. My reading of this novel—my first Kenzaburo Oe—falls under the last category. Partly based on the author’s own experience, A Personal Matter deals with a parent’s dilemma: the birth of an abnormal baby. Bird, a first-time father, struggles with moral issues and the repercussions of raising a brain hernia baby, and through this crisis attains a better grasp of his own identity.

Bird discovers his baby’s deformity in the second chapter, but it takes him all of the next 140 pages to make a final decision. Chained by his passivity, Bird suffers from chronic dissatisfaction: “And then, all over again, the same dissatisfaction, the same desires unrealized, Africa the same vast distance away…” In this novel Africa represents the ultimate escape from reality, along with the more temporary pleasures of alcohol and sex. This escapist tendency results from the protagonist’s deep-rooted self-loathing. Because of this, he finds orgasmic pleasure in defilement: “I’m capable of all that’s meanest and most vile, I’m shame itself…”

Torn between the shame of infanticide and his own sense of preservation, Bird resorts to the easy alternative of self-deception, until a chance meeting with an old friend provokes a piercing realization: “I’ve been running the whole time, running and running…” After that, decisions come quickly to him—within the last four pages, in fact. Although I have no problems with the ending (it’s a refreshing change from the novel’s constant gloom and it challenges the idea that all good stories should end unhappily), I wish it was eased into the story better. As it is, the narrative does not prepare for it at all.

A Personal Matter is not the kind of book that you will not be able to put down, but the thing is, it doesn’t try to be. It’s a different kind of novel, with its own aesthetics. And barring a few jarring transitions (plus my aforementioned qualms about the ending), it is a good one, brimming with memorable characters and casual insights that make it a worthy read.

But Bird was still dazed: his feelings of anger and grief, the minute they had crystallized, shattered.

Trembling, Bird fled the apartment with his eyes on the floor, fled down the stairs, fled through the hall, straddled his bicycle and fled everything behind him. He would have liked to flee his own body.

‘In this age of ours it’s hard to say with certainty that having lived was better than not having been born in the first place.’

‘…the worlds that contain us are constantly multiplying.’

‘We understand each other always in silence.’

Bird stared at the girl and was stricken by something like a sense of destiny: never again would he cross paths with a person suited so perfectly to himself.

‘Even if you do leave eventually, stay for a while, will you, Bird?’

Provide the monster with a name and from that instant it would seem more human, probably it would begin asserting itself in a human way.

‘You always feel that a baby’s cry is full of meaning. … For all we know it may contain all the meaning of all of man’s words.’ … ‘It’s a lucky thing we don’t have the ability to understand.’