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Jakarta, Indonesia
I lose important items constantly, and am a failed teetotalist.

Friday, 27 November 2009

The Twilight Saga: New Moon

The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009, Summit Entertainment, 130 minutes)
Directed by Chris Weitz Produced by Mark Morgan, Wyck Godfrey
Written by Stephenie Meyer (novel), Melissa Rosenberg (screenplay)
Starring Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner

In the year or so between Twilight and just-released sequel New Moon, the vampire romance craze has hit the stratosphere, afflicting women all over the world of all ages with OCD (Obsessive Cullen Disorder). Even normally sensible mothers who would have once rolled their eyes at their daughters’ Sweet Valley High collection and topless Backstreet Boys posters now devour Stephenie Meyer’s books feverishly and gaze at their husbands as if they’re wondering if they’d look good with sparkly skin and fangs.

For those of you who live in caves, the Twilight series focuses on the relationship between 100-year-old “vegetarian” vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and teenager Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) in Forks, a rainy little American town. In the first instalment, Bella slowly sussed out the moody dreamboat’s dark secret – he's vampire that only drinks animal blood and loves going to high school over and over again – and then had to escape from the sort of vampire that does enjoy chomping down on virginal maidens' sweet necks.

In New Moon, the two are still going strong; constantly competing with each other about who loves whom more. However, following a bloody incident, Edward decides it would be best if they broke up, for like, forever, and leaves town. Poor Bella sinks into a mega-depression, but things start looking up when she discovers she can hallucinate Edward when she puts herself at risk, which leads to her getting closer to childhood friend Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), who just might be concealing a toothy mystery of his own...

This time around, Chris Weitz has taken the directorial reins from Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen), despite his poor book-to-film transforming credentials – he mutilated the adaptation of The Golden Compass, the first of Philip Pullman’s excellent fantasy trilogy (my favourite), killing the potential film franchise in one fell swoop (for that, I will never forgive him). It’s evident that he’s tried very hard to please the fans, sticking like superglue to the book’s plot and providing plenty of eye candy for those on both Team Edward and Team Jacob.

But while the increased budget has led to prettier, shinier actors and effects, New Moon lacks the dreamy, atmospheric quality of the original – Weitz’s glossy end result is a film anyone could have made. All the rich potential for angst and sensuality has been stampeded over with heavy instrumental music (the appropriate emo soundtrack of the first film has not been emulated here) and gratuitous torso shots, with both elements often combined for the film’s most dramatic moments – like when Edward is about to commit suicide with a sunshine striptease. (Not that I'm complaining too much, more on that later.)

The film’s hollowness isn’t helped by the mechanical acting of the three leads. While the amazingly buff Lautner and beautifully dishevelled Pattinson are undeniably delicious, the former lacks depth and the latter seems rather bored with it all. Stewart, still woefully miscast, looks like she’d rather be somewhere else, probably in an edgier indie film. A warmer, spunkier and more accessible actress would have been better – when Bella is “depressed” it’s barely distinguishable from her usual laconic, heavy-lidded demeanour.

Stewart also fails to generate chemistry with either of her leading men, which will undoubtedly satisfy besotted fans. It’s hard to understand why Bella is so in demand with the two hotties. Then again, Forks’ teen girl population seems limited to shrill gossipmongers like Bella’s classmate Jessica (Anna Kendrick), and aloof vampire babes like Alice (Ashley Greene) and Rosalie (Nikki) who are related to Edward and thus automatically repulsive to the vampire-bigot Jacob by virtue of being bloodsuckers. Oh, I get it now. Ladies, let’s all move to Forks!

The supporting characters – the Cullen vampire family, bloodlusty nomadic vampires, pack of werewolves, evil Italian vampire council – all inject a lot more enthusiasm and life into their roles, but unfortunately, you don’t get to see much of them.

That’s how the film generally feels – despite the 130-minute running time, it feels like there’s not much of anything, especially not potentially tantalizing plot strands: Bella’s adrenaline junkie mission; the vampire Victoria’s quest for vengeance (against Bella, as Edward killed her mate in the first film); the growing friendship/romance between Bella and Jacob; the potentially stunning Italian citadel setting; Jacob’s brotherly camaraderie with his tribal peers, etc.

This likely stems from Weitz and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg trying to pack as much of the book’s details as possible, as well as the copious amounts of photos and discussions on all the film’s aspects before its release.

Yet despite these shortcomings, New Moon definitely achieves guilty pleasure status, mainly due to the aforementioned gratuitous torso shots - it’s a sumptuous cinematic celebration of the male form, a refreshing antidote to the usual objectification of female bodies.

Gorgeous teenaged torsos every which way you could imagine – dripping with rain and sweat, sparkling in sunlight, covered in chocolate (ok, maybe not that last one) – have the lion’s share of screen time, surpassing dialogue. In contrast, all females remain modestly clad – Bella barely even wears a dress apart from a brief, hilarious dream/premonition sequence where she and Edward are running about in the woods all sparkly.

What’s more, when the owners of the torsos do speak, it’s to say the things every woman wants to hear. These fine male specimens are all one-woman kind of guys, desiring nothing more than meaningful stares and occasional kisses (Edward: “Bella, you give me everything just by breathing”).

Even when Bella gets cruelly dumped, it’s only because Edward loves her so much. Yes girls, if your man acts like a massive jerk, it means he IS just that into you – forget the lessons learned from that Jennifer Aniston flick.

All jibes aside, much has been made of the Twilight series’ disturbing elements: Bella’s sadomasochistic and co-dependent romances with both Jacob and Edward, sexually frustrated Puritan values, paedophilic overtones, etc. All these are present in the film and are all the more disturbing with the addition of video and audio, but it’s a faithful interpretation of the source material, so that has to be a plus for Twihards.

Another positive is the light humor threaded throughout the film - intentional moments like Jacob admitting he's too young to buy his own cinema tickets (Bella's doing it for him) and the self-involved Jessica prattling on about how her life is hard too, as well as seemingly unintentional (or else, highly tongue in cheek) comedy that arises from more ludicrous moments - i.e. Edward trying to kill himself by taking his shirt off; Bella and Edward skipping about the forest in that dream sequence; Bella finding nonsensical reasons to brush her fingers against Jacob's torso.

The Twilight Saga is more than mere books and films; it’s a pop culture phenomenon. Most would agree that the books have little literary merit, but they are certainly addictive, with a romantic fantasy that deeply taps into the female psyche. It would be difficult for any movie to transcend this obscene amount of hype and overexposure, however good or bad it actually was.

So although New Moon is far from perfect, Twilight fans are bound to love it, and those yet to be indoctrinated might enjoy the film for its gloss, thrills, light laughs, yummy manboy treats and the fact they’ll know what they’re talking about when they tease their OCD friends.

Eclipse, the third chapter due next summer, is in the hands of the indie filmmaker David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night), who may just be able to inject a little more oomph into the whole production. So, Mr. Slade, if you’re listening, I’d like to put in a request for more atmosphere, more sizzle and a better soundtrack – but don’t forget the torsos either.

Three out of five stars. (Two stars for the movie plus an extra one for the torsos).


PS: Enjoy the eye candy below...

The Wolf (Six) Pack

The Cullens (the males are sadly dressed but you can tell there is some nice torso action under there!)

Jacob Black in the rain

Saturday, 14 November 2009

NaNoWriMo N-sanity

I am certifiably insane. Despite the fact I have an already heavy schedule of copy-editing, feature-writing and recently added gymming to all this... I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo - National November Writing Month - a worldwide competition in which professional and amateur writers attempt to complete 50,000 words of a fiction novel between Nov. 1-30. Starting from scratch, writing-wise, although character sketches/outlines were allowed. I started last Sunday, 8 days late to the party, and with only a vague idea in mind.

There are no judges and no prizes... just the magical motivation of a deadline. Which is pretty much the only way I ever get anything written...

Although today I'm having a really uninspiring day... and writing utter, depressing drivel... and my chances of completing this are actually quite slim... I think I like this activity, I think it will be a good exercise.

Because I know what I want to do most in life is be a novelist... I've known it since I was four... but I have kept putting it off.

The last time I really created fiction was after I finished my BA, and when I had a boring secretarial job, which forced me to find some way to fill my time in front of the computer that didn't involve Facebook.

And since then I've found a million reasons to put it off... Masters, job, sadness, whatever... and so far, this exercise has taught me that if you want to be a fiction writer... you have to... WRITE FICTION. Even if its bad, just do it. So I'll get back to that now...

Click below to see the Wordle of my 7,825 words so far...

Wordle: The Witch's Weed

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Singapore Writers' Festival 2009

Last weekend, Nanzo and I attended the final weekend of the 13th biennial Singapore Writers' Festival, where I got to ineptly interview a few wonderful writers and Nanzo got to pimp out her faux pro-photography skills.

The event was so well organized, it was scary, particularly after Jakarta's insanity, of which I am becoming increasingly tolerant... We got excellent treatment from the public relations team, with front row seats at all the events we attended and even scabbed a couple of meals.

Let me share a few of the highlights, via Nanzo's photos...

This is John Ajvide Lindqvist, a Swedish novelist who wrote Let the Right One In, which is about a boy who falls in love with his vampire next-door neighbour (and absolutely nothing like Twilight).

He used to be a stand-up comedian and a magician, which was quite apparent in his charisma and confidence.

I really enjoyed talking to him, even though I was so unbelievably tired(too much writing and attempts to keep up with gymming) and kept forgetting what I wanted to say (not looking forward to listening to the recording!!)... I may have also given him the inspiration for his next novel... watch this space...

The next person I got to interview was Chart Korbjitti, one of Thailand's most respected and well-known authors... it was especially cool because I got to study two of his novels (No Way Out and The Judgment) during my BA, and I feel like actually getting to interview him is great continuity between my academic studies and current journalistic aspirations.

He had an interpreter so our conversation wasn't quite as organic as with the others, but he seemed like a lovely person, very laidback yet forthright.

I got a bit annoyed during his "Meet with the author" sesh tho because several of the attendants kept asking him what he thought of expat writing and about him trying to challenge expat writers' portrayal of Thailand as this tawdry place of sex and drugs... he answered he didn't think much about it, but they just kept at it, like dogs with a bone.

I also got to meet Mohammed Hanif, Pakistani BBC journalist and writer of the Man Booker-prize longlisted A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

I was quite worried because I didn't manage to finish his novel (after a Saturday of 12 hours of interviews, seminars, discussion etc I felt all booked-out!) and I know nothing about Pakistani politics (whereas with Lindqist and Korbjitti I could rely a little on my horror/vampires/SEA trivia)... but our chat was fun anyway, he was very frank and seemed genuinely interested in both me and Nanzo as people... then again he is a journalist too!

I didn't get to interview NEIL GAIMAN (pictured here with girlfriend Amanda Palmer) individually, instead got to attend a mini press session, which to be honest, I was quite alright with, as its so hard to know what to ask someone that's been asked so many things... he really is a literary rock star, and pretty much dominated the event.

I am really glad I got to see him in person... and I don't think everything I've read by him (which is a mere smidgen of his ma-hu-sive body of work) is that brilliant, but there a few of his stories I've really taken to heart, especially those in the Smoke & Mirrors collection.

In person, he is a constant storyteller, full of anecdotes and a warm view on life... I think I'm going to be quoting him for weeks to come because he just said so much that was interesting! (And I listened to him for about 3 hrs in total!)

This is just a small amount of the people lining up for his final signing last Sunday... there were at least 900, but I suspect could have even been more than 1000.

He was very kind and patient to submit himself to that signing... from experience I know not all authors would (yes YOU Salman Rushdie)... and more than that, remain cheerful and attentive to each individual fan throughout, ensuring each got their Moment.

Which is, after all, what signings are all about - the brief one-on-one between artist and fan. That's what you really treasure, why you're willing to line up for so long - the signed memento is just a receipt.

I needed some photos to illustrate the SWF write up so we accosted a costumed Gaiman fan in the queue, she was meant to be Dream/Sandgirl from the Sandman comics (which I haven't read). The Gaiman fans were dressed cooler (or simply weirder) the day before, which was fittingly also Halloween.

The beautiful Arts House at night - really, the ideal venue. It used to be Singapore's parliament house, which added a sense of history to the whole event.

All in all, a very full-on, but inspiring weekend - and for me, a tantalizing sample of what it would be like to be a full time freelance journalist, getting to fly into places for a few days and to interrogate loads of fascinating people. Getting to talk to writers also made me more determined to focus more on fiction. This is definitely the kind of work I want to do.

Friday, 16 October 2009

The No Woman

Sigh. I've missed this blog! Since I last wrote, life has gotten really busy, solely to do with writing. My film review was accepted and published, now I'm writing one pretty much every week. The magazine editor noticed my productivity and has been giving me cool assignments (i.e. best brunch spots) that have been encouraging me to explore more of Jakarta!

I've been juggling so many articles for both the daily paper and the magazine that I needed to make one of my beloved spreadsheets to keep on top of it! Oh, and I turned 24 more than a month ago, which served to remind me how I must get a move on with everything I want to do... so must keep busy busy.

It's both bad and good, because I often feel super stressed out, but more and more, sitting and writing and completing an article is my ultimate idea of bliss, particularly in a cafe with light buzz and big pot of tea. I am working everyday on the work-life balance to try and minimise burnout. I might be allowing myself to slip into my OCD tendencies again... but I think this is what I need to do. The best thing in my life right now is that I feel I know what I want to do, and I am working towards it.

My current goal is to become a completely freelance journalist (imagine the freedom!), and every day is like training in that direction. I think you definitely need to have to some savings (enough for about four months of living at least) before you jump into that deep end... getting paid for articles is like pulling teeth, so if you have to count on it too much, you'll probably go crazy. You also need to build your reputation so editors will want to take your stuff and throw assignments your way.

I got so excited about the interest and assignments I was getting, that I felt I had to say yes to everything, for fear of missing out on better assignments later on. But I've learned that I should really start saying no... got so many half-baked assignments I'm not that passionate about... so the goal for this month is to clear this backlog, and from now on pick my assignments more judiciously. It's no good publishing a lot of articles I'm not that proud of... the quality won't be as good as with articles that come from the heart.

The not-so-great things remain the same, but I don't have as much time to dwell on them. Jakarta still drives me crazy. Copy-editing is getting ever more tedious, especially with the added annoyance of office politics finally drawing me in. I generally feel like I'm getting to be quite a dull and bitter person, but maybe this has to be the trade-off for now... I'm truly realising simply can't have it all.

Like a year ago, I had some of the things I miss now: lots of fun times with friends, my own place, a life in a city with comprehensible public transport, parks and shoes in my size, plenty of wine and cheese, romantic (ish) prospects ... but I was also unemployed, and getting increasingly stressed by living with Sketchy. I had just returned from two weeks in Jakarta. Looking in my moleskine diary, I actually see that exactly a year ago to the day, was when Amber Eyes tried it on with me (a seriously weird moment considering our history), before jumping into Sketchy's bed in a huff. Ha! It's kinda terrible, but I also enjoyed that sort of drama... silly things like that seemed to be appropriate young twenty-something behaviour... now, everything seems awfully serious and grown-up.

And not just when it comes to me either. The "global economic downturn" (an overused phrase in The Jakarta Post) seems to have led to a widespread depression, particularly among those of my generation (or maybe it just seems that way from my perspective, as mine are the ones attempting to find jobs in this tense economic climate). So many challenges are being thrown at my friends. I'm struggling to think of purely good news that anyone's been able to share... there's always a flipside... if one thing goes well, like career, it follows or is followed by heartbreak.

So in the absence of many real-life delights, I'm having to rely on books and TV for some delicious escapism. Glee, a new musical-dramedy from Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy is rather hitting the spot...

Friday, 21 August 2009

Up - An Uplifting Adventure

Hoping to convince the Sunday editor to let me do a weekly movie column, harking back to my halcyon days in Dar... so I did a sample review of Up, another instant Pixar classic...

Up (PG, Walt Disney Pictures)
Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson
Featuring the voices of Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer

Pixar have done it again. Their latest offering, Up, the tale of a lonely old man who decides to pursue his childhood dreams and fly his home to South America, is a visually and emotionally satisfying treat for all ages that will leave you with a smile on your face long afterwards.

Up opens with a black-and-white “documentary” about infamous adventurer Charlez Muntz who travels all over the world in his airship The Spirit of Adventure. Just like us, a little boy, Carl Frederickson, watches rapt in the cinema audience, refusing to lose faith when Muntz is accused of faking the discovery of a mythical bird and stripped of all his honours. He wanders the streets of his neighbourhood, searching for his own adventure, and finds it in the form of toothy chatterbox Ellie who also idolizes Muntz. After bombarding the quiet boy with her plans and dreams, she announces, “You don’t talk much! I like you!” She makes him promise that one day he’ll somehow fly them to Paradise Falls in South America, following in the footsteps of their shared hero.

The ensuing wordless montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together succinctly conveys how their loving marriage is marred by two profound disappointments; never being able to have children nor the adventure of their dreams. By the time we catch up to the present day, where a now alone and bitter Carl (voice by Ed Asner) is stubbornly trying to protect his home from contractors, we know him well. Despite his typical grumpy old man demeanour, we empathise with his deeply buried regrets and broken heart.

Luckily there’s not much time to dwell on sadness, because Up quickly kicks into high gear, as Carl defiantly propels his home into the air with the aid of a veritable rainbow of balloons, and with Boy-Scoutesque “Wilderness Explorer” Russell (Jordan Nagai) as an accidental hitchhiker. The unlikely adventurers are soon facing various trials and tribulations, from lightning storms to talking dogs, in Carl’s quest to move his home to the top of Paradise Falls, and Russell’s mission to earn his final Wilderness Explorer badge by assisting Carl.

Pixar breaks new visual ground with every film – i.e. the lush underwater environment in Finding Nemo – this time it’s the weather and aging effects. Unlike in other special effects-laden films that seem to be simply showing off (yes Star Wars 1-3 and Matrix Reloaded/Revolutions, I mean you), these aesthetic touches enhance the story. When Carl and Russell get caught in a vicious storm, the thunder and lightning serve to crank up the suspense, instilling vertigo in every viewer. The crinkles on Carl’s face and the creaking of his joints amplify his expressions and add comedy, especially when he engages in a walking-stick attack against a similarly arthritic nemesis.

Even more impressive than the visuals, is way Up deftly tackles a difficult topic: losing a loved one. Up is not afraid to make you cry, but rather than lapsing into emotional manipulation, it strikes the right balance, threading its dramatic heart with plenty of action and humor. This successfully comes together particularly due to the spot-on characterisation of Carl and Russell and their developing relationship.

It’s refreshing for an animated film to focus on an elderly character, and crotchety Carl is the perfect blend of comic and tragic. Despite his sky-high fantasy, he is down-to-earth, and viewers young and old will be able to relate to him. Russell starts off as the usual, annoying “Are-we-there-yet?” little-brother type, but soon evolves into the hero of the piece, unwittingly leading Carl into the very quest his inner child wanted, by virtue of his good heart and Wilderness Explorer values.

The villainous Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) is the only other main human character, with the rest of the cast nicely rounded out with a bunch of quirky, expressive creatures, including Kevin, a colourful Dodo-like “Snipe” who forms a reciprocated attachment to Russell and Dug (Bob Peterson), a dopey, would-be-kidnapper canine who talks with the aid of a hi-tech collar and decides to devote himself to an unwilling Carl.

Plus, despite the fact that there are a number of cinematic luminaries offering their vocal talents these do not at all distract from the characterisation. Far too many animated films these days rely on stunt vocal casting (see Angelina Jolie cameo-voicing a fish in A Shark’s Tale and a tiger in Kung Fu Panda) that seems to serve little purpose other than to boost ticket sales.

The only problem with Up is that most of the emotional punch is packed into the introduction and that after a novel first half, it unfolded rather predictably. However, even when it becomes clear where it’s going… you’ll still enjoy the ride. And make sure you’re not late to a showing, as it is preceded by a truly delightful short, Partly Cloudy, which well complements the main feature. Up is among Pixar’s very best, ranking up there with Wall-E, Finding Nemo and Toy Story.

**** 4 out of 5 stars
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