Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Nine Weird Things About Me

Got tagged by Glenn, so I feel I have to do this. But other readers can relax - I'm not tagging anyone else.

Here are very strange things about me. Hope I don't scare you all away.

1. I can only eat oatmeal if it is uncooked and plain. I absolutely hate it when it becomes mushy and pasty - how is that appetizing at all? I actually feel sick to my stomach at the sight of it. The way I do it: pour the raw cereal into a bowl and add milk. Done. Simple. No microwaving, boiling, or addition of toppings (well, sometimes a dash of Splenda or cocoa powder is fun.) I didn't think this was that weird, but everyone I talk to about this feels the opposite way: they can't think of oatmeal beyond the mush.

2. I can only study if I have music in the background - but not just any type of music: film scores in particular. Next to my pile of readings and assignments is a stack of CDs; some titles that are in front of me right now: The Hours, Birth, American Beauty, Little Women, Lemony Snicket, Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth, Eyes Wide Shut, and Solaris. Clearly a lot of Thomas Newman. I suppose a possible explanation is that some people need worldless melodies or white noise in the background to block out distraction, but I actually start to daydream about movies while listening. Which gets in the way of studying. This is a peculiar one.

3. I am a very deep sleeper. This is not totally abnormal, except for the fact that I need to keep three alarm clocks set to make sure I wake up on time. I have this anxiety about sleeping through the set ringers. Because of this, I tend to stay up the entire night before a big day, whether it be about an exam, presentation, early flight, big trip, or show. I don't think I could go to bed even if I wanted to - this habit has become very ingrained.

4. I don't like wearing short-sleeved shirts. If I am stepping outside the house for any reason at all, I need a sweater or something long-sleeved to wear on top of a t-shirt. I can't really explain this one either - I guess I'm just overly self conscious. I broke this rule while in Dubai this summer though: it was just too damn hot. But otherwise, only the people in my house see my arms. Yeah.

5. I will not pick up the phone unless I know who it is (bless the person who invented caller i.d.) I don't like being caught off-guard or surprised. If you're not identified by my phone, you can talk to my machine or voice mail. And you'll like it that way.

6. I am obsessed with chocolate. I need it every. single. day. I think about it constantly, and without it, I cannot have closure with anything that happens during the day. I don't think I can impart how much the thought of chocolate consumes me. Especially dark chocolate (those 70% cocoa Lindt bars.) Even if I'm being healthy and working out and all, it's the one thing I can't give up. Plus, it's good for you. Excuse me for a second, I'm getting a craving.

7. When I'm broke, I want to spend money really badly. But when I'm not in a financial crisis and have extra cash to spend, I don't want to shop at all and feel like saving instead. Maybe this is not so strange.

8. As a child, I used to be a voracious reader. I won several reading awards and would be commended by my teachers for having such a strong foundation in writing. But now I struggle to commit to a book that is not assigned in my course readings. Stupid university.

9. When I was six, I... swallowed a battery. This story is so embarrassing that I'm going to leave it right there and leave the rest to your imagination.

Hurrah! I finished the list!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

My First Encounter with Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula

* Click the above link to direct yourself back to Nathaniel R's Vampire blog-a-thon hub. Also, this post is not so much about the film itself as it is about how it pushed me to take an unhealthy interest in vampire lore, ghost stories and everything else paranormal. Prepare for a widly inarticulate, brief post (and a tardy one... apologies.)

I seem to have a very shoddy capacity to retain memories from my childhood (actually, I have trouble with remembering what I did last week), but for some reason, I can recall my introduction to Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) with great clarity. I was on a trip to Canada to visit my relatives (my family lived in Dubai at that point), and a quiet, unoccupied Saturday night at home prompted the parentals of the house to visit the video store. Of course, two titles would have to be rented: something more suited to mature tastes, and also a film that would entertain (read: distract) the kiddies at another television. My five-year-old cousin and I were tagged along in the car ride over, and we were allowed entrance inside if we agreed to pick one cassette between the two of us and a candy treat each (no more.) The appearance of the shop itself is worth mentioning: instead of the requisite pornography section singled off in a secluded room, this "Jumbo Video" store had a corner dedicated solely to horror titles. The moderate-sized room resembled a movie set: cobwebs hung from the ceiling, grinning skulls leered from the brownish-green walls, and the video cassettes were lined up on a series of cascading shelves (resembling an old, decrepit library collection.) My cousin and I repeatedly approached and fled the scene, daring each other to see who could stay inside the ghoulish abode longer. Understandably, neither of us could spend more than a few seconds peeking at the chamber through our fingers. This may seem incidental to our discussion of vampires here, but the mood was immediately set for that night...

Back at the house, my cousin and I were given strict instructions: we were not to come downstairs to the basement (where the forbidden film was to be screened) at all, excepting an emergency. Although Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze was entertaining enough for my eight-year-old brain, I could not help but wonder what was so inappropriate for my eyes. Although I begged my mother to be included in the audience, she knew that the content would be too disturbing. This did not stop me, however, from sneaking down the steps of the staircase, peeking at the television screen; it was at least an hour before I was caught. In that span of time, my senses were assaulted unlike they had been before: the shocking and unrelenting display of gore, foreign sexuality, (un?)dead bodies, eroticism, violence and rage took me aback. Although I likely did not understand ninety percent of what was happening, I still carry vivid imprints of several scenes in my head: Renfield grotesquely munching on live spiders, Harker taking pleasure in that inhuman orgy, and Lucy finally meeting her grisly end at the teeth of Dracula's wolf form (can a burst jugular spray that much blood in so many directions?) It was a terrifying, but oddly thrilling experience - in a way, Coppola's film contained all things off-limits to a child my age. Actually, I remember re-watching the film with my sister months afterward, only a little more brave this time around, and asking her why Mina and Lucy kiss passionately (pictured above) during the supernatural thunderstorm heralding the Count's arrival in London ("But... they're girls!")

And thus, the spell was cast. Eiko Ishioka's Oscar-winning costumes, Wojciech Kilar's bone-chilling score and the performances of Gary Oldman and Sadie Frost in particular simply blew me away. Never had I encountered a movie so beautifully and meticulously crafted; such eye candy remains unmatched for me even today, perhaps with the exception of Tarsem's The Cell (also featuring stellar work by Ishioka.) But Coppola's film should be regarded as more than an otherwise frivolous platter of rich production values and shocking scenes. This adaptation of Stoker's text literally throbs with passion and intensity - yes, not unlike the flow of fresh blood through the veins of Dracula's victims. True, not all of its risks pay off in the end, but the film never fails to command my attention every time I revisit it.

Although I did not get to finish the film that night as a little boy, I still had nightmares for weeks afterwards about bloodthirsty wolves entering my bedroom to gnaw at my neck. At the same time, I was fascinated by the alien and exotic environments explored in the film. I was familiar with the character Dracula in the form of sanitized incarnations: Count Chocula of the sugary cereal and Sesame Street's Count von Count. But this was an introduction I would never forget.

Friday, October 27, 2006

"Little Children" Review

*Possible Spoilers*

How ironic it is that Mary Ann, an obnoxious secondary caricature skewed in Todd Field's Little Children, calls for the castration of a recently released sex offender, because that is exactly what the director has done to Tom Perrotta's wickedly funny 2004 satire: neutered it into a depressing shell of what it once was. To be sure, Field has already proven he has considerable expertise behind the camera, and as a skilled screenwriter: 2001's In the Bedroom was a chilling three-act masterpiece built on silences and pauses. Its power lay directly in its ability to suggest rather than to underline what was discernible to an engaged viewer. However, Little Children proves the complete anti-thesis to this approach: there is no spark, no subtlety at work here. Adapted for the screen, the novel loses all its hilarious observations about suburban life through its cutting voice. To account for this loss, Field employs lazy techniques by way of an off-screen narrator who comes in and out, essentializing every character motivation to a point of ungainliness. It was enough to make me long for the transparent monologues of David Hare's work on 2002's The Hours. The result is not unlike watching a play-by-play visualization of the text, with the book-on-tape running in the background.

This is not to suggest that Field should have been lavishly faithful to Perrotta's text; a film version can rarely approximate the richness and detail of a novel. But it can still paint layers of its own, doing more than to simply reiterate the most important plot points and spots of dialogue in the narrative. This is essentially what Field does here. There are a few changes to modernize the story to reflect the current post-9/11 American climate; for example, Kathy's documentary now focuses on the families of slain soldiers in Iraq instead of WWII POWs, and there is the unmistakable sense of shared community panic in the air (consider how a day at the swimming pool turns ominous, or how the catty moms respond to Sarah kissing a complete stranger in front of her daughter.) But these updated elements are mentioned trivially and then dropped, not built upon further in the overall film. To be frank, this was a story best left in its literary medium: nothing is arrived at here that was not more potently advanced by Perrotta himself (who, funnily enough, also contributes to the script here.) Undoubtedly, it is a handsomely-mounted film, with every frame looking as well as could be imagined (those sex scenes!). But this only serves to accentuate how the film simply goes through the motions - its glossy, painted exterior fails to obscure the hollowness within.

The story concerns several adults living in a secluded suburban town, responding to the intrusion of a convicted pedophile into the community. His name is Ronald McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), and he has recently moved in with his elderly mother May (Phylis Somerville), who loves her son despite his actions. His presence in the neighborhood enrages several residents, none more so than than Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich), an unemployed ex-cop who dedicates his time to harassing McGorvey with threats and slurs. Meanwhile, the majority of the film's running time focuses on Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet), a stay-at-home mother who feels distanced from the life she now finds herself leading. Enter Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), a gorgeous house-husband dubbed "The Prom King" by the moms that frequent the playground: Sarah and the hunk begin an affair that escalates from playing out fantasy to something much more serious. Meanwhile, Brad's wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) suspects something is "off" about their relationship, and takes a keener interest in this new friendship. Meanwhile, McGorvey finds it more and more difficult to fit in with the rest of the townsfolk (a date gone disturbingly sour proves all is not right in his head), and one tragic event sends him spiraling into darkness. To show how all these threads merge together is the primary aim of Little Children, indeed revealing that the title of the piece refers not to the toddlers of these unhappy parents, but to the immature and neglectful adults themselves.

However, the manner in which Field arrives at this conclusion is depressingly obvious: the ending goes the route of spelling out every lesson learned, giving each character their moment of recognition and epiphany. In the book, Perrotta avoids such moralizing - in fact, the conclusion mirrors the darkly funny tone the author was building throughout. The film throws all this out the window, showing us that Sarah finally accepts her maternal role, while Brad realizes that he should treasure what he already has. The worst change from the book is how the pathetic McGorvey ultimately resolves his guilt and sadness, and then how the vigilante Hedges responds to this shocking act of reparation. In the Bedroom's use of metaphor in the final scene was hardly abstract, but it still suggested more ambivalence and complexity about the film's themes than this unappealing turn. It is as if Field does not trust his audience enough to make the connection for themselves, so he makes the film's running motif literal. This complaint extends to the film overall: see how Field intercuts between a women's book club discussion of the title figure in Flaubert's Madame Bovary and an anal sex scene with Sarah and Brad - clearly, Winslet's expressive, troubled face is not enough to clue us in that she sees herself in the controversial character!

One area in which the film fully deserves its rave reviews is the casting: this is an eerily perfect ensemble enacting these parts, and two actors stand out in particular. Kate Winslet is, needless to say, astonishing as a once-Ph.D scholar who now feels completely disconnected from her new life as a wife and mother. The way in which she internalizes this sense of self-consciousness about herself and her body is just extraordinary. One scene that remains with me even now is Sarah's reaction to seeing Brad's bombshell wife Kathy for the first time: she immediately bursts into tears, horrified that she has to compare to such a effortlessly sexy ideal. On the flipside, Sarah can have her moments of boldness too: her scene at the pool when she tries to catch Brad's eye with her body-hugging red swimsuit is terribly amusing. This is the kind of introspective, unfussy turn that truly deserves awards attention: the problem is that Winslet is so convincing as a bad mother that it might turn voters off such an unsympathetic character. Additionally, Jane Adams (who played Joy in Todd Solondz's Happiness, and appeared quickly in another Winslet film Eternal Sunshine...) has two short but memorable scenes as Sheila, the unfortunate woman who has dinner with McGorvey one night. Deeply miserable and carrying the weight of several breakdowns on her shoulders, Adams is heartbreaking as she tries to make light conversation, speaking and squinting at her date as though she were trying to communicate through a blanket of thick fog. Wilson, Connelly, Earle Haley, Somerville, and Emmerich are all brilliant as well, not one miscast individual in the group.

Who is included and excluded in definitions of community? How do we respond when encountering the "other"? Is happiness situated in the American dream of suburban bliss? These are the questions Little Children attempts to grapple with and explore through the stories of these naïve and foolish characters. However, the film still comes up short as a three-dimensional satire, actually saying quite little. Especially in relation to the source material, the film seems simply unnecessary in all respects except for featuring several fine performances. As an acting showcase (especially for the super-talented Kate Winslet), it's right on the mark. As for a successful adaptation or even a dramedy on its own terms, I cannot say I feel the same way. C

Friday, October 13, 2006

I think I busted a gut.

Cookie Monster & FOOD

This is what I do sometimes. I haven't laughed that hard in months, I think.