Oscar, Oscar…

February 14, 2011

First of all, Happy Valentine’s Day!  A day for love and romance or crass commercialism at its disgusting worst?  You decide.

Anyhow, I’ve spent the last ten days or so on a big movie kick.  Specifically, I’ve been watching the films up for the upcoming Academy Awards.  It all started when I kept hearing all the hype surrounding The Social Network and The King’s Speech, and I was curious to see which one I would like better.  And once I got my answer (see below), I figured I’d go ahead and watch the rest of the nominees to get fully Oscar-ized.  The only Best Picture nominee I decided to skip was Toy Story 3, as I’m not particularly big on animation (aside from The Simpsons, Galaxy Express 999, and Dumbo, which brought me to tears as a boy), and I didn’t want to have to watch through Parts 1&2.  So with no more ado, here are my thoughts and ruminations on the rest of the Best Picture nominees along with a couple more that are up for acting awards:

**Alert:  Yes, there are likely to be spoilers**

INCEPTION:  One of the three films I actually watched in a theater in 2010 (along with Salt & Eat Drink and Pray), and it was easily the best of the lot.  I usually end up finding big-budget, special effects-laden movies to be silly and paper-thin in terms of story, but this one was a welcome exception, successfully combining a complex, multi-faceted plot that challenges our notions of reality with action sequences that managed to be cool without patronizingly cartoonish.  Add in great acting performances all around (esp. from Mr. Dicaprio & Marion Cotillard, who I think should’ve WON for Best Supporting Actress but wasn’t even nominated) and a what-the-hellishly ambiguous ending (though I’m firmly in the “It began to wobble, so it must’ve fallen” camp), and it’s a great achievement all around.  TOMMYLAND GRADE=B+.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK:  Yes, this story about the origins of Facebook is well-constructed and well-acted (especially by the guy who played Marcus Zuckerberg), but I found it too cool for its own good.  Basically, I didn’t find myself caring about any of the characters, all of whom were clever, privileged, and intelligent but never displayed much humanity or sense of caring about anything besides themselves.  Ultimately, betrayal or not, they all ended up millionaires (billionaires?), and I found the whole thing just as impersonal and flippant as I often find Facebook itself.  TOMMYLAND GRADE=C.

THE KING’S SPEECH:  Surely the least epic film ever made about a king, and that sense of intimacy helps the movie succeed quite well in its quite modest goals.  Basically, royalty or not, it’s about a movie about a guy who tries to get over his stuttering problem, as simple as that.  Really, it’s not a whole lot different that “The Karate Kid,” with Colin Firth in the place of Ralph Macchio and Geoffrey Rush playing Mr. Miyagi.  The performances are really quite impeccable (Firth and Rush play off each other like virtuosos), and the story is pleasant and uplifting, but never quite provides that adrenaline rush of Daniel-san delivering his iconic crane kick.  TOMMYLAND GRADE=B.

THE BLACK SWAN:  This is an interesting one.  It’s really two movies thrown together in a cinematic blender.  One is a beautifully shot and acted character study on an artiste suffering for her work.  The other is a cheesy, campy thriller with an obligatory “shocking” ending that belongs on late-night cable.  The two parts are well-represented by two of its performances:  the first, by a never-smiling Natalie Portman who acts and dances with perfect precision throughout, and the second by a madcap, over-the-top Winona Ryder who camps it up with trashy, Mommie Dearest glee every time she appears.  It’s an odd mix all right, but it’s all so beautifully shot that I was buying into it right up to the final few scenes in which feathers began to sprout, blood began to flow, and any remaining sense of realism went out the window.  TOMMYLAND GRADE=B (Would’ve been an A with a more convincing ending).

127 Hours:  Poor guy.  Yikes.  Poor guy.  YIIIIKKKKEEESSSS!!!  Those are pretty much the only thoughts that ran through my mind as I watched this.  To put the story in a nutshell, James Franco (likable as always) gets his arm stuck under a rock while out exploring nature, suffers for the eponymous number of hours, then cuts his own arm with a cheap Swiss Army knife to finally escape (all based on a true story!).  It’s not usual film fare, and I’ve got to give the film credit for pulling it off (sorry, no pun intended), but I’m still not sure why anyone would willingly pay money to watch this.  TOMMYLAND GRADE=C.

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT:  Ever watch “Little Miss Sunshine”? (If you haven’t, I definitely recommend it)  This one’s got a very similar vibe with another likable yet mildy dysfunctional family.  Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are lesbian moms raising two teenagers, and then they come in contact with the guy who donated the sperm that spawned the two kids, which causes all kinds of trouble for the family.  It’s a fun, highly watchable film, but really, it’s all fairly standard (almost sitcom-ish at times) and nothing particularly new, lesbians or not.  In fact, the plot’s almost identical to Down and Out in Beverly Hills, in which a rich family “adopts” a homeless Nick Nolte, who unintentionally raises similar havoc in their lives.  Also, I’m a bit puzzled by all the praise being heaped on Annette Bening.  I thought she was good but didn’t have to do a whole lot; just speaking in a lower-than-normal voice and then act sad when she finds out her wife is having an affair with the sperm donor.  I don’t know; I didn’t even think she was the best actress in the film, as I found Julianne Moore more convincing.  I also didn’t care much for the ending and how shabbily the sperm donor character was dealt with (it’s not like he forced Moore to have an affair with him).  TOMMYLAND GRADE=B-.

THE FIGHTER:  Okay, now we’re talking.  This film is about a small-time boxer and his dysfunctional family, and it was the first one on the list that I found myself completely engrossed by.  And I even hate boxing!  But this film, like most boxing films, really uses the “sport” as an allegory for Man and Life, how we all have to suffer, and often bleed, to make our dreams into reality.  The acting by everyone in the cast is pitch perfect (by everyone from Marky Mark to the Handbag Girl from The Office!), and every scene feels so darn real.  Unfortunately, I was disappointed by the Rocky-esque ending, the only part that came off remotely cliched, but seeing that it was based on a true story and that’s what really happened, I couldn’t blame the movie too much. (In many ways, it reminded me of “The Wrestler,” which was even better)  TOMMYLAND GRADE=A-.

TRUE GRIT=I don’t really like Westerns, and this one didn’t change my opinion one iota.  It’s kind of like “The Kids Are All Right” in that aside from one twist, the basic story is one that’s been told time and time before.  Here, the twist is that the main character is a 14 year-old girl who’s trying to get a cowboy bounty hunter to find the villain that killed her father.  It was all fine as Westerns go, I guess, and I thought that the young girl gave one heck of a performance (movies need more girl characters like her), but I just couldn’t get into it.  And I don’t think Jeff Bridges should’ve been nominated for Best Actor; all he had to do was act “grizzly”!  TOMMYLAND GRADE=C-.

WINTER’S BONE:  I had never heard of Jennifer Lawrence, but wow, she made one heck of an impression.  She, like this movie, knows when to let silence tell the story.  The movie is about a teenaged girl living in a drug-addled community supporting her crazy mother and her younger siblings whose methhead father goes missing.  To keep the family from being evicted from their house (the father had put up the house for his bail bond), she has to somehow find him, dead or alive.  This is easily the bleakest film here (yes, even bleaker than the story about James Franco’s arm) with little hope or beauty found anywhere, but what IS there is the strength found in the human will to survive, and to help those we love to survive along with us.  It’s about being heroic in the best way possible, quietly and without a touch of self-aggrandizement.  TOMMYLAND GRADE=B+.

RABBIT HOLE:  This one’s not nominated for Best Picture, but Nicole Kidman is up for Best Actress, and deservedly so.  It must be tempting to get all mushy and dramatic when you’re playing a mother grieving the loss of a child, but she knows when and when not to pull the emotional trigger, making her performance all that more touching.  Unfortunately, the rest of the cast doesn’t really match up.  Aaron Eckhart is just okay, and the young guy who plays the driver who accidentally hit Nicole’s son gives such a lumpy performance that I’m surprised Nicole didn’t slap him and yell, “Can’t you even TRY to keep up with what I’m doing?”  TOMMYLAND GRADE=B-.

BLUE VALENTINE:  Again, not a Best Picture nominee, but Michelle Williams is up for Best Actress, and I really wanted to watch this as I’m a sucker for movies about relationships gone bad.  And really, that’s pretty much all there is to this story:  Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love and get married, and then boy and girl start emotionally destroying each other little by little shortly thereafter.  It’s all very simple, but it’s also the most devastating movie I’ve seen since Schindler’s List.  Nothing really huge happens in the film, no big “twist,” no big fireworks, no happy ending with a chase to the airport or any other rom-com cliche.  It’s just one scene that leads into the next, each offering us a layer of how this couple fell in love and how far apart they’ve grown despite both being good, decent people underneath.  It’s sad, sad, sad, but oh so real, real, real, and I loved every minute of it.  Would I recommend it as a Valentine Day’s movie to watch with your significant other?  No, not unless you’re in the mood to break up with that person.  Still, for me, it was the best movie on this list, and my favorite film of 2010.  TOMMYLAND GRADE=A.

Best Picture Pick:  THE FIGHTER (Too bad Blue Valentine wasn’t nominated, though.)

Best Director Pick:  CHRISTOPHER DOLAN (Inception was such a difficult movie to pull off with all its different facets, and he succeeded admirably.)

Best Actor:  COLIN FIRTH (I thought he was kind of overrated in the overwrought “Single Man,” but here, he brings humanity and vulnerability that can come from the burden of having more power than you think you deserve.)

Best Actress:  MICHELLE WILLIAMS (She doesn’t make one false, pandering move.)

Best Supporting Actor:  GEOFFREY RUSH (Restrained yet all the more powerful for it; just brilliant.) 

Best Supporting Actress:  THE GIRL FROM TRUE GRIT (She totally carried that film with her moxie and riot (cow)girl power; she really should’ve been nominated for Best Actress.)

Finally, here’s the song that’s used perfectly and heartbreakingly in Blue Valentine:

You and Me – Penny & the Quarters

Diva-graphies (Book Reviews)

December 27, 2010

The Ciccione Siblings--Before the Literary Backstabbing

Hope everyone had a Merry Christmas.  Mine consisted mainly of sitting on the sofa watching the all-day Christmas Story marathon on TBS while my brother and his girlfriend grilled some ribs on the barbeque.  It was kinda dull, kinda awkward, but also awfully comfortable.  And the ribs turned out pretty darn good!

I woke up today (the 26th) and for the first time felt like I had completely gotten over my jetlag.  And with the weather finally California-esque, I hopped on my bike once again to hit the road (though not literally this time, thank God).

I knew I had to do it as soon as my hands were healed enough for me to grab the handlebars.  It’s like when Madonna fell off that horse and broke a zillion bones but got back on that horse the first chance she had.  She was quoted as saying that she knew she had to do it; otherwise, she’d be afraid to do it forever.  I took her words to heart, and fortunately, no more fear here, thank you very much.

It really shows that there is a whole lot one can learn from great divas, whether it be their courage, their style, their travails, or their triumphs.  So in their honor, here are my reviews on the diva biographies I’ve read in the last few months:

LIPS UNSEALED by Belinda Carlisle

You may remember Belinda in her bubbly, chubby Go-go incarnation or from her more sophisticated, redheaded solo days.  Well, it turns out she was high as a kite through it all.  “Mad About You” could’ve been about coke; “Heaven is a Place on Earth” was pretty much what she was thinking when was snorting it.  A particular “Yikes” moment is when she drops off her son at his school and then goes to the school restroom for a quick hit because she can’t even wait to go home first.   Full credit to Belinda for her unflinching honesty and willingness to take full responsibility for all her troubles.  GRADE:  B.


It’s interesting.  Despite her tough rocker chick persona, it turns out Pat Benatar was first and foremost a smart businesswoman.  There’s no drugs, no scandal to talk of here.  Rather, the conflict in her bio comes from the record industry itself.  She recounts the sexism she had to face through her career, from the execs who demanded she go out and do promos within days of a miscarriage to the radio DJs who’d make comments like “Why don’t you come over and sit on my lap, honey?”  It’s actually pretty interesting to read about, and Pat also gives a very detailed account of the recording process behind her best-known albums and songs.  Things get a bit too cheesy when she goes on (and on and on) about how wonderful her husband is, but ultimately, Pat shows that one can rock without being self-destructive.  GRADE:  B.

LIFE WITH MY SISTER MADONNA by Christopher Ciccione.

Obviously, there’s a moral dilemma here.  I’m not big on someone selling out a family member for a quick buck, which is what Madonna’s little brother is undeniably doing here.  But once you get over that, this is one heck of a fun read on the Material Girl.  Madonna’s life story has been told time and time before, but Christopher, having been a member of her inner circle for much of her career, offers up new, wacky stories for the very first time.  And to Christopher’s credit, he doesn’t do a “Sister Dearest” hatchet job; he gives her ample credit for the good she’s done while also describing the ways in which she’s hurt him (apparently Madonna can be a bit self-absorbed and temperamental at times–you don’t say!).  Ultimately, this book is gossipy, tawdry, sometimes even pathetic (Christopher’s insistence that his drug use–strongly frowned upon by Big Sis–was strictly “recreational” is worth a few eyerolls), but it’s just too much fun to resist in the end.  GRADE:  A.

KATE BUSH:  UNDER THE IVY by Graeme Thompson

With Kate Bush being notoriously private, it’s pretty much a sure thing that we’re never going to get an autobiography out of her.  (Seriously, even a new album seems like it may be asking for too much–we had to wait something like 15 years for Aerial.)  So this unauthorized bio is about as close a look into Kate’s life and work process that we’re probably ever going to get.  Thompson suceeds in presenting a meticulously researched career retrospective, and while clearly a fan, he manages to stay fairly objective throughout the book.  However, Kate Bush has been iron-determined to remain an enigma throughout her career, and Thompson never manages to shed any real light on just what’s been going on in that mysterious head (and heart) of hers.  He presents Kate’s genius, yes, but he doesn’t provide any glimpse into what lies behind it.  GRADE:  C.

OPRAH: A BIOGRAPHY by Kitty Kelley

Oprah may not be a pop star, but if she released a CD tomorrow, is there any doubt that it will go straight to #1 and break all sorts of records?  Oprah is Oprah, which means she can be anything she wants to be, basically.  From what I’ve heard, Kitty Kelley is known to be a “poison pen” biographer, but she actually stays pretty respectful here.  While she does suggest that Oprah isn’t quite as faultless as she seems (really, who could be?) and has exaggerated aspects of her rags-to-riches success story, she never drags Oprah through the mud outright and never tries to undermine Oprah’s philanthropy and achievements.  Similarly to the Kate Bush book, we don’t get a look into Oprah’s innermost thoughts and secrets, but a document on Oprah’s life is interesting enough in itself to deserve a read.  GRADE:  B+.

Norweigan Wood: The Movie!!!

November 18, 2010

Some random cross-referencing on Wikipedia brought me to this relevation: “Norweigan Wood,” one of my favorite books of all time, has been turned into a film, and it’s coming out in December. I was stunned at the news, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been. So many books I love have been turned into movies, all of them with one thing in common: they all turned into crap.

It’s uncanny how the film versions have time and time again sapped the magic from great books; apparently turning a book into a movie is reverse alchemy by nature. “Endless Love,” “Dying Young,” “The Great Gatsby,” “A Separate Peace,” the list goes on and on (I didn’t even like “The Accidental Tourist,” and that was nominated for a billion Oscars).

Still, there is no doubt I’ll be going out to the theatre to see “Norweigan Wood,” if only to grind my teeth every time they desecrate a scene from the book (I’m already irked by the trailer; there’s no way Wanatabe was such a pretty boy, and Midori seems to be missing the very spunk that defined her as a character). One must always hold on to hope, after all.

Tommyland Movie Reviews… (Inception, Let the Right One In, etc.)

July 22, 2010

INCEPTION:  I went to the movie theater for the first time in AGES to check out Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.”  I’m not really into big-budget, full-of-special-effects-wizardry blockbusters, but the concept (the line between reality and dreams) sounded interesting, and I wanted to check it out.  It definitely grabs your attention early on, that’s for sure.  The execution is every bit as grand as the concept, and the movie develops one layer after another, until it’s almost exhausting to watch all of them play out at the same time.  In the end, I’m glad I watched it.  The performances are great (Leonardo Dicaprio has officially grown up from a Boy Wonder into a bonafide Movie Star), the visuals are striking, and the story leaves you with a lot to think about, especially on how reality is a concept we create for ourselves, just like we do we in dreams.  The one thing that you may find either really interesting or as in my case (really annoying) is the ending.  Let’s just say it will probably leave your head spinning and spinning.  For me, I just decided to take the simplest explanation possible and just leave it at that.  TOMMYLAND RATING: B.

HARD CANDY:  A couple of days before seeing “Inception,” I watched this film at home, and it took me some time before I realized the same actress–Ellen Page–starred in both (she’s a couple of years older and her hair’s a lot longer in “Inception”).  In “Hard Candy,” she’s not creating dream landscapes.  No, sir.  Instead, she’s creating a hellish trap for a hotshot photographer whom she believes to be a child molester, using herself as bait.  Basically, it’s like a fictional version of those Dateline NBC specials where they get a sexual predator to show up at some house and then take them away in handcuffs (it was great television in a train-wreck-can’t-help-but-look kind of way).  It’s an interesting idea, but it turns into a paper-thin cartoon pretty early on and never recovers.  Ellen Page’s character is some sort of a pre-teen version of Linda Hamilton in “Terminator 2,” and I never bought her fully as a true-to-life character.  And the whole, will-it-ever-end “castration” scene is just painful to endure.  I mean, not as bad as castration itself, I grant you, but still!  TOMMYLAND REVIEW:  C-.

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN:  Vampires and teen romance.  Thinking of “Twilight” yet?  Well, forget that, because this Swedish film kicks “Twilight”s ass in every way possible.  The story here is both familiar and simple.  Young Swedish boy slowly develops a friendship with an unusually pale neighbor kid who’s kind of weird but can solve the Rubik’s Cube with no problem.  Before too long, he wants to be her boyfriend, but then it turns out she’s a vampire with all the ensuing baggage (drinks blood, can’t eat candy, has to stay out of sunlight, etc.).  So far, this sounds like every cliche-filled vampire movie ever made.  But “Let the Right One In” somehow turns it all into poetry, mixing in a sweet, honest coming-of-age story with the requisitie gore and bloodletting.  It really gets to the human (and apparently also vampiric) need for love and acceptance, and I couldn’t help but cheer for the young couple, despite all the obvious compatibility problems they’ll have down the line.  TOMMYLAND REVIEW:  A+.

VALENTINE’S DAY:  This collection of bite-sized love stories is the American equivalent of “Love Actually.”  Of course, a couple of changes have been made.  The characters have all become annoying and paper-thin caricatures.  And every situation has become a walking sitcom cliche to be resolved in a nice, oh-so-cute-let’s-now-all-throw-up manner to make us all feel cuddly inside.  Please.  I kept thinking to myself, ‘This is a movie made either for stupid people or to make smart people feel stupid.’   Either way, it’s pure drivel.  TOMMYLAND REVIEW:  F.

I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS:  Jim Carrey plays a gay (or as he calls it, “Gay, gay, gay!”) con man who steals and lies his way to living the good life.  He ends up in the slammer, where he comes across sweet-and-innocent-can-be Ewan MacGregor and falls head over heels in love.  After that, there’s lie after lie, con after con, and escape after escape.  It’s all meant to be a gee-whiz-what-a-character study along the lines of “Catch Me If You Can,” but the big problem is that the main character is just too damn annoying.  Jim Carrey’s capable of subtle, nuanced dramatic performances (The Truman Show, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), but here, he’s been allowed to overact and make all kinds of goofy faces to his heart’s content, and it leaves you wishing, if not the death penalty, at least for a court-mandated vow of silence.  TOMMYLAND RATING:  D.

THE RAMEN GIRL:  Brittany Murphy (rest in peace) stars in this one as a young American woman who follows her boyfriend to Japan only to see him cut her loose at the first chance possible, leaving her high and dry in a foreign land.  After all the requisite crying and moping, she ends up at the little noodles restaurant across the street, where a bowl of ramen brings her much-needed joy and spirit (hey, it’s worked for me on many a cold winter night!).  She promptly decides that ramen noodles are her future and her calling, and she pesters the gruff Japanese chef into becoming her ramen sensei.  Nothing from then on is all that surprising.  Brittany and the chef squabble on and on and fret about not understanding each other’s language (this gets old pretty fast), and of course she ends up learning that ramen cooking has to come “from the heart,” and in the end, in true Mr. Miyagi fashion, they become lifelong friends and teach each other a lesson about life and all that.  Still, despite all the cliches, there’s a charm to the story that elevates it from being just a “Lost in Translation” wanna-be.  Maybe it’s because the film never tries to pretend it’s any more important than it is.  Or maybe it’s Brittany’s plucky, googly-eyed performance.  Or most likely, it’s because I just love ramen myself.  After watching this movie, I went right out for some ramen of my own, and that’s got to count for something, right?  TOMMYLAND RATING:  C+.

(Top 101 Countdown) #57. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana

February 28, 2010

First off, please let me say this: Holy &#$@, she did it! Yes, Yu-Na Kim has won the Olympic gold medal with a perfect, record-breaking free program. She was awesome, shrugging off any nerves like “Pressure? What pressure?” She must have icewater in her veins; I mean that in the best way possible. Anyhow, there were actually about eight solid-to-excellent programs that night (especially enjoyed spunky Akiko Suzuki, saucy Laura Lepisto, and the ever-smiling-when-she’s-not-crying-or-having-an-untimely-nosebleed Mirai Nagasu), but Yu-Na still managed to stand in a class of her own. Well done, indeed.

Okay, now time for some movie mini-reviews. I’ve actually stayed away from movies for some time, because when I want to really focus on something, I find books to be more rewarding, and when I want to be entertained, TV shows are shorter and simpler. But in the last week, I found myself returning to the days when I was a geeky college student working at a video store who made a point of devouring just about every movie that came in, especially the indies. I think maybe it was because I wanted to get the bad taste out of my mouth after watching the live American Idol performances (my goodness, they sucked; note to Korean-American brother John Park: John, it’s not a funeral).

First movie I watched was “I Love You Man,” and it’s a sweet “bromance” (I can’t believe I actually typed that word) about a soon-to-be-married guy (played by the guy whose name escapes me at the moment but played Alicia Silverstone’s stepbrother-than-boyfriend in Clueless) who realizes he doesn’t have any real guy friends and goes out looking for one. It’s actually all kind of sweet and earnest, and it makes a good point: it really IS hard to make good friends once you’re out of school. It actually looks to be simpler when you’re in Korea, where you’re pretty much friends with anyone once you’ve gone drinking together a couple of times, but really, it’s the same BS as in the U.S., with most so-called friends just using you as an audience to talk about how great they are. Their idea of friendship is having you clap and cheer while you watch them masturbate, and to be honest, I’d rather have no friends at all rather than partake, which I suppose is pretty close to the truth, but I digress.

After that, it was time for “The Hangover,” which is a real GUY movie. Usually, I hate, hate, hate guy movies, but this one offers twists galore, and you’re never quite what the heck will happen next. Overall, it was fun and clever (especially loved the Mike Tyson cameo), although I never really cared too much about what would happen to the characters (if they had all died in a car crash on their way to the wedding, I would’ve went, ‘Huh, that was kind of unexpected,’ and that would’ve been it).

Finally, I watched “An Education” since I heard so many good reviews for it, and I’m usually a sucker for a good coming-of-age story. Well, this one was… well, it’s actually my favorite out of the three films I saw last week, but I also had some mixed feelings about it. I’ll start with the bad. Basically, the story is about how a British schoolgirl gets wooed and conned by an older guy. The girl is smart and appealing, BUT when she finds out just what the guy and his partner do to make money (it’s not good), she makes a bit of a fuss but then gets over it in less than a minute. I found that part really troubling, making me want to scream “Are you daft?” at my TV screen in a faux-British accent. Fortunately, the movie re-grounded itself after that, and I really appreciated the fact that education really was portrayed as the girl’s way to find redemption (as opposed to, for example, a makeover). The lead actress–whose name also escapes me at the moment, and I want to say “Casey,” but that can’t be right, can it?–does a great job of creating a very real, earthy character. Her love interest also gives a capable performance, but I knew from the get-go he would be trouble in the end, remembering him as the psycho killer in “Boys Don’t Cry.” Again, I was proven right, ha ha.

Speaking of coming of age, let’s go to our Top 101 Countdown. What’s left to be said about the landmark single that is Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit?” Yes, it’s a classic. Yes, it’s an anthem for angry, horny, dissatisfied youths (and youths at heart) all over the world. I’ll just add that there was a time when it truly felt like popular music could change the world. Maybe it was even more like than in the 60’s and the 70’s, but I was either too young or non-existent, so I can’t comment. But in the 80’s, artists like Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Prince weren’t just creating music; they were creating dreams that people could hold on to and believe in. And then came the 90’s grunge movement, and Nirvana’s nihilistic screams offered another dream altogether, one that felt just as strong and even more authentic. But of course, it couldn’t last. With a blast and a bullet, Kurt ended the dream forever, and we all woke up. It turned out music was just music, and it had to be enough. R.I.P.

57. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana

Book Reviews: The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Foreign Student, Open

November 27, 2009

Freedom, it does taste so sweet. My aunt and I are now safe and sound back home. The sky has never seemed so blue. The TV has never been more interesting. The floor that I sleep upon (not unusual in Korea) has never felt so comfortable.

My mother is here as well, staying at Aunt #3’s house (my mom came to get knee surgery since operations are a whole lot cheaper in Korea). We all gathered for lunch yesterday, and my mom prepared the shrimp and roast beef that she had smuggled in from the U.S. Yum, yum, indeed.

After getting more than hours of sleep last night, the whole hospital sojourn is already starting to feel like a faraway dream we all had. And now that I’m no longer there, it doesn’t seem so bad in retrospect. I did feel very useful, especially with my current unemployed-bum status. And I did get in some quality reading on that tiny green bed next to my aunt’s. So, I present the latest edition of the Tommyland Book Reviews!

** THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY – Thorton Wilder **

Okay, I actually read this book back when I was in California. It was the last book I read before getting on the plane; sorry for the late review. It’s kind of a theological treatise, as a Peruvian friar analyzes the circumstances of a purely random, tragic accident (the collapse of the eponymous bridge and the resulting deaths of five people that happened to be on it) to see if he couldn’t discern a deeper reason that would indicate God’s will at play. The story essentially boils down to the whole free will vs. determinism debate that people have wondered about for ages (personally, I’m not sure, but I tend to think that in this world, it’s pretty much ‘S*it happens,’ but God makes it up to us big-time in the afterlife).

So does the book shed light on this age-old issue? To be honest, I have to say a big, fat “No.” The friar never fully comes to understand why the victims had to die–especially a female assistant and a young boy whose voices are pretty much neglected altogether. So that came as a big letdown. However, the three main stories that make up the book are fascinating once you stop looking for philosophical enlightenment and just look at them as mere stories. Wilder has a way with characterization and describing complex relationships–his depiction of a mother that loves her daughter so much that the daughter ends up hating her is painfully on point. So, to sum up the book: Enlightenment 0, Engrossment 1.

** THE FOREIGN STUDENT – Susan Choi **

A mysterious foreigner with dark secrets from his homeland. A young woman whose flightiness is a front for a penchant for making rash and destructive decisions. They meet on a college campus, and their lives intertwine in a way neither of them ever expected. The set-up sounds pretty awesome, exactly the kind of book that I would be drawn to. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work. I like Choi’s writing style, which is a bit eerie almost, lending a lot of scenes a cool, dreamlike quality. But the main character of Chang (aka “Chuck”) never quite fully takes shape. He is supposed to be haunted by his horrific experiences (torture, upheaval, betrayal during the Korean War), but he comes off a timid simpleton too much of the time to grab your interest. The woman and her back story (dysfunctional family, statutory rape) are far more interesting, and the unbalance leaves the two characters’ relationship rather unfulfilling.

** OPEN – Andre Agassi (and one gosh-darn good ghostwriter) **

My mom brought this one from America and gave me to me at the hospital. It’s pretty sizable, but I ended up finishing it in a day. Yes, it is indeed that good. Up to this point, I thought Martina Navratilova’s autobiography, Martina, was the best tennis biography ever, but it’s time to move over, Martina. Shockingly, Andre Agassi–yes, THE Andre famous for crowing “Image is everything”–casts all caution to the wind and lays everything out there for the world to judge.

First, let’s talk about the serious stuff. Andre’s father was, and presumably is, pretty much a psycho who decided before Andre was born that Andre would be a tennis player, don’t question me and do what I tell you, son. Andre, while obviously talented, hated, hated, hated living his life for tennis, and it led him to have all kinds of issues. Fortunately, he went on to find a new father figure in trainer Gil Reyes, and Andre later found his greatest happinesses by becoming a father and building a school for underprivileged children.

It all makes for fascinating stuff, but what makes Open great and not just good is in the surreal, often gossipy details of Andre’s superstar life. I won’t spill too many details, but Andre’s stories of his teenage pranks at the Bolletieri Tennis Academy, reasons why he couldn’t stand rivals Becker, Chang, and Connors, his hairpiece issues, Gil laying the whoop-ass on people who dare smack about Andre, his seemingly pre-destined union with Steffi Graf, and my personal favorite story of what happened when Andre’s dad and Steffi’s equally combative father finally met each other for the first time. Trust me, the pages are practically gonna turn themselves (I should also mention Andre’s ex, Brooke Shields, who comes off a poignant and surprisingly perceptive figure).

I was never a big fan of Andre (he did do and say a lot of bratty-stupid things back in the days he had hair), but I have to say, I did develop a new respect for him. He’s being pretty much slaughtered in the press for his crystal meth use, but I’d urge people to read the whole book before they come to any judgment. It’s definitely a troubling aspect of his journey, but no one could deny that it’s a journey well worth writing (and reading) about.

Film Review: This Is It

October 31, 2009


Just finished reading Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” this morning. It’s a tough book to read, both for its great amount of exposition and its fatalistic tone, but its classic status is definitely well-deserved. Quasimodo, what a character. One thing that impresses me about books like this is how there’s absolutely no doubt from the characters when it comes to love. Frollo loves Esmeralda. Esmeralda loves Phoebus. Quasimodo loves Esmeralda, too. All of them never waver in their love, and they never have a moment when they ask themselves, ‘Is this right?’ ‘Should I really be doing this?’ ‘Can’t I do better?’ For each of them, their love simply is. Sigh, it’s been a while…

But I digress. Let’s get to “This Is It,” aka The Michael Jackson Movie. My family and I went to see it yesterday, and I’m glad to say that we all enjoyed it. I think your reaction to the movie really depends on what your expectation is. If you’re expecting to get any new info about MJ or insight into how and why he died, then you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. The “behind-the-scenes” info pretty much comes down to: he loves his fans and he is a perfectionist when it comes to details. As interesting as it is to see Michael talking to the cast and arranging the show, the interest comes from the mere fact that he’s no longer with us and the show will never take place the way he intended. It’s the interest of watching a ghost; it comes from a place of eeriness, not illumination.

With that being said, “This Is It” really boils down to one thing: the music. That was really the whole point of the show, and it’s also the point of the film. If you like MJ’s music, you’ll most likely like “This Is It.” If you don’t, you won’t. For me and my family, we found it to be a “thriller,” pardon the pun. The music and the accompanying dance routines–even with Michael clearly holding back to save his voice and energy (spoiler: he never does the moonwalk)–prove to be just as exhilirating as they were back in Michael’s heyday.

Back in the 80s, not long after I first came to the States (I was eight at the time), my family and I were given tickets to a Jackson 5 show (from the Victory tour). It was my first-ever concert, and I don’t remember much of the details (I do remember Michael took off his shirt at one point and the crowd went crazy), only that it was incredibly exciting. Even my mom, not exactly the most relaxed of people, was dancing and shaking her shoulders. To be in the movie theatre yesterday with my dad, mom, and brother beholding Michael’s greatness once again, it was a very bittersweet moment. After all, we were still here together, having gone through a lot–seriously, I mean a LOT–of ups and downs and various detours and earthquakes. Through it all, we have survived. Michael hasn’t. May he rest in peace.

Thriller – Michael Jackson