Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Lady (Film Review)

Every time a biopic of a famous person is made, it is usually met with negative reviews or harsh criticism. Recent example: “The Iron Lady”, based on the life of Margaret Thatcher starring Meryl Streep. Though the movie won Streep her third Oscar deservingly, the reviews were not too positive. How much can a 2-hour movie say about such an icon and her accomplishments... or failures? It can never say enough. Similarly, I can imagine how difficult it must be to make a movie about someone like Aung San Suu Kyi’s magnitude who has led such an extraordinary life filled with both triumphs and tragedies.  

Honestly, I have never been this excited about any movie. Any Burmese would say the same thing because finally there is a movie about us and this incredible woman we consider as our second mother. The reviews I had read before seeing the movie were scathing but it did not matter to me at all. Critics being critics plus it possibly cannot be that bad considering the man behind the film is Luc Besson whose film “The Fifth Element” is one of my all-time favorite movies.  

Touted as a love story rather than a life story, Luc Besson’s “The Lady” shines spotlight on Aung San Su Kyi, Burma’s democracy icon and her scholar husband, Michael Aris’s ill-fated love story. While I appreciate Besson’s effort and respect him immensely for having guts to do the impossible which is making the movie about Burma outside of Burma, “The Lady” has its flaws.

The script is either too ambitious or rather aimless. It fails to tell the story of Aung San Su Kyi’s personal sacrifices and her struggles to bring democracy to her beloved country without being clichéd and uninspiring. It also seems that the theme of the movie could not be decided therefore it ends up being a little bit of everything; a short history of Burma, her father’s assassination, her family life in Oxford, the 1988 riot of Burma, the oppressive nature of the ruling military junta, her accidental rise to the leadership, her tireless campaigning all over Burma, Michael Aris’s efforts to aid his wife’s political agenda and subsequently his death from cancer during their separation. If this project was done as a miniseries like “Mildred Pierce” (2011) starring Kate Winslet, it would have been able to give enough room for these many events to fully materialize. As a 2-hour plus movie, it is tiring, stiff and it feels as if these important facts about her life were being read out speedily rather than presented tastefully as a movie.

There are many unnecessarily repeated scenes such as the numerous visits made by her sons and husband from London or her speeches shot on different locations but saying more or less the same thing. The dialogues between the characters, especially of the evil army generals are clumsy and corny. A golfing general ordering one of his soldiers to clear off the field by firing a gun at the two dogs that are getting in the way is also laughable. And it cheapens the actual brutality of the Burmese military junta and their human rights abuses throughout the country for decades. The train wreck script comes to an abrupt end with the scene in which the monks leading the saffron revolution come to her house to pay respect and she emerges from her gate to greet the monks.  

The depiction of Yangon and her residence is quite accurate and convincing. David Thewlis’s Michael Aris is supportive, understanding and gentle to Yeoh’s stubborn, determined and courageous Su. Michelle Yeoh has the tremendous pressure playing a challenging role which is absolutely out of her comfort zone. While she has no problem pulling off a British accent, her Burmese makes me chuckle. But at least she tries and knowing my own language and its complexity, my hat is off to her. The phone conversations between Aris and Su during their separation are touching though the stereotypical dialogues could be improved. Physically, Yeoh’s embodiment of the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s grace and gentle manners is a success, particularly during the scenes of Su’s hunger strike but emotionally her portrayal does not quite get there, leaving me unmoved at times. To cast actors and extras who not only speak Burmese but also can act outside of Burma must be an arduous task. Therefore the secondary actors, including the two kid actors who play her sons and the Generals, obviously amateur actors, are the weakest link of the film. Their performances while minimal yet equally important fail to take the movie to where it should have been. The two hour plus movie is way too long and tedious with its ingredients not blending well.

“The Lady” is a thoughtful tribute to Aung San Su Kyi, our national heroine. I am truly grateful that the ongoing struggle of Burma’s democracy is eventually well-documented and presented to the world. As much as I applaud the good deed and noble intention I just wish I could do the same for the movie. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

American Idol Season 11: The Top Seven

American Idol Season 11:  Seven remaining contestants 

Season 11!!!!!!!!!!! It is incredible for any show to be lasting this long. In American Idol’s case. It’s still going strong after 10 long years. Despite the appearances of new talent shows on TV such as The Voice or X Factor, I still love Idol and I watch it every week. I like the show’s format and the incredible talents discovered each year in America although I do miss the presence of Simon Cowell and his filthy mouth when it comes to criticizing bad performances. That’s what is missing these days on Idol. The current judges, Jennifer- It’s crazy-You-give-me-goosies-Lopez and Randy Jackson with his favorite lines: Yo, I don’t know what to say, man!(well, you are the judge. Say something but not that!) This is THE most dopest thing I have ever seen on Idol stage in years. IN YEARS!!!  (Errrrm, seriously, Randy?) , are boring me tremendously with an exception of Steven Tyler who always manages to give me chuckles with his knack for funny lines and quotes. The addition of the mentor Jimmy Lovine, while I like him for his honesty and great ideas he gives which usually contradict with the ones given by the judges, only further confuses the poor contestants.

At this stage in the competition, there are 7 hopefuls still remaining and here’s what I think......... because it matters.

Elise Testone
The rock diva with a sour attitude. Her voice reminds me of Anastasia and her looks often bring Mariah Carey to mind. She tends to oversing a lot even to a point the actual melody of the song is lost. While I am a fan of her smoky tone and her incredible riffs & runs, something about her does not warm up to the audience. She does not seem to take the criticism from the judges that well too and it simply shows. That could be the reason why she is a bottom 3 staple and her days in the run are numbered.

Phillip Phillips
That cool dude with a t-shirt with holes. One of the cuties of the competition that the girls will vote for no matter what. His only competition is Colton Dixon who is equally cute.  To me, he’s quite dull and predictable. This free-spirited street musician look he is going for might find him audience in the Jason Maraz/Jack Johnson sort of genre but it’s getting a little boring. Judges seem to love whatever he sings though. He gets standing O every week. I understand he is all about the music, not about the way he looks or other stage hooplas but I am frankly not excited. His way of singing (I do praise his mad vocals) works better in live pubs or open mic nights at the street corner, I don’t see many people flocking to buy his records even if he eventually wins due to female votes.

Jessica Sanchez
The High-school sweetheart with a big black woman living inside. She’s always gracious, humble and consistently good . I can’t get over her version of “The Prayer” during the preliminary rounds. Control. Range. Clarity. Power. Agility. Texture. Tone;  all checked! Technically, she’s the best singer in the competition. Besides, she often succeeds by incorporating soul into her performances.  At sixteen, her stage presence, showmanship, precision and delivery are astonishing. She’s la petite Beyonce with a touch of Jennifer Hudson.

Hollie Cavanagh
The girl-next-door with golden pipes.  Her clean-cut sweet girl image has kept her in the competition this far. She reminds me of a young Christina Aguilera. But she needs to work on her stage craft and live vocals which often are noticeably shaky especially when she sings low and during movements. Her soaring mammoth notes though are always spot on and crystal clear. This performance is my favorite of hers. That note she holds towards the end, I'm sure, makes Christina proud. 

Joshua Ladet
Just another church singer. While I admire his powerhouse growls and praise-the-lord shouts, he is predictable. Every week, he does the same thing, yeah-yeah-yeah and ends with tears in the corners of his puppy eyes which according to the judges, “Soulful”. Fantasia screamed her way through the top in season three and there have been many African American church singers in the past seasons. I just do not see him win this year unfortunately. His mad vocals though should have secured him a corner in the gospel genre by now. You’ve got a friend, Mandisa!

Skylar Laine
Mini Miranda Lambert with a huge Reba-personality. America loves this big-voiced country crooner with a whole-lotta-personality y’all and I do too. I just can’t bear the thought of yet another country singer taking the crown. Then again it’s American idol. It’s about America and the music it loves. It’s only fair. I therefore won’t be surprised if she ends up becoming the eventual winner. She’s got all it takes it win. Wholesome attitude, southern twang, sky-high country vocals and guitar playing.  

Colton Dixon
The Emo heartthrob with Edward Cullen stares.  He’s quite creative and versatile on stage and yes, I can see why teenage girls go gaga on him. Yet still, these girls are fickle. It is clinically-proven. They are known for their tendency to move from Biber fever to Taylor Lautner syndrome within a few seconds. Pretty boy contestants of the past can stand in line and share their testimonies one by one. Starting with the season 1’s Justin Guarini, Casey James of Season 9 to Jason Castro in Season 7 and the list goes on. Now you are like “Who are these people?” Exactly my point. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

A little piece of Melbourne (Photo Journal)


Sydney and Melbourne are like the Minogue sisters, Kylie and Dannii. Both extremely talented and beautiful yet Kylie is more popular globally. Similarly, these two major metropolises of Australia are celebrated for their vibrant, energetic and multicultural atmospheres, not to mention the naturally blessed geographical locations. Even so, Melbourne sometimes gets upstaged in popularity by its bigger and more prominent sister, Sydney.

I fell in love with Sydney when I was there two years ago for Christmas and New Year and I very much looked forward to seeing Melbourne one day. Besides, I hear only wonderful things from those who have visited the city. They compliment on its friendly residents, the dynamic food culture, the ever-eventful arts scene and the stunning landscape of Victoria. So when I finally had the chance to visit Melbourne, I was ecstatic.

Eureka Tower and SBS buliding at The Federation Square

Situated in the state of Victoria, Melbourne was ranked as the world’s most livable city in 2011. While Sydney may be renowned as the fashion capital, Melbourne is indeed the cultural capital of Australia where Australian Film, television and the Australian Impressionist art movement originated.  4 million Melbournians, 35.8% were born overseas and Nguyen, a Vietnamese surname, is the second most common name in the phone book, I could imagine how diverse and multicultural Melbourne is.  They say the city’s cultural diversity is hugely reflected in its restaurants which serve various international cuisines. Therefore, worrying about fitting in is out of question in this city.
The retro tram in front of Flinders Street station

On my first day, riding around the city center on the little tram, I admired the city’s architecture, an eclectic mix of modern and Victorian buildings. Many of the classic and modern buildings coexist elegantly, without clashing each other’s style and grandeur, forming a very impressive and varied skyline. However, the federation square which ironically is considered one of the world’s ugliest buildings and hugely disliked by the locals does look very odd, in my humble opinion, especially when standing next to the gorgeous Flinders Street Station and St Paul’s Cathedral. While the square is a perfect place for people watching and aimless wandering, I simply do not understand the concept of its architectural details and the choice of gloomy colors. As a piazza in the middle of the city, it somehow fails to lift the spirits of its visitors. To make it worse, the square is poorly lit at night probably for the sake of saving energy.

SBS building at The Federation Sqare
Fed Square, Melbourne

I am a huge fan of architecture from the past but I get a little skeptical when it comes to contemporary style buildings. Most of them, not just in Australia, are usually spacious, masculine, and futuristic with heavy focus on sharp lines and edges but not so much on the aesthetics.  To me, they are cold, unfriendly and monochrome. While they may turn one’s head due to their hip and cool look-at-me structures, I wonder if they in the long run would be treasured in the way we do for those Gothic, Baroque or Neo-classical buildings despite their old age.

Many had warned me about the notoriously moody Melbourne weather. After two straight sunny days, the rain dropped in to say “hello” but not for long. The nights were chilly too but I was happy to be able to don my designer blazer and jean trousers. If I wanted to, I could even get away with a lovely scarf wrapped around my neck like a movie star. Hey, I could never pull that look in humid Bali. So if you ask me, I did not mind the ever-changing weather conditions at all. At least for a week, I could do with all four seasons in one day.

The Great Ocean Road Tour

I initially was quite reluctant to do The Great Ocean Road tour as it is a 3 hour drive out of Melbourne.  This 243-kilometer long road, an Australian National Heritage, was built by the returned soldiers of World War I between 1919 and 1932. The famous twelve apostles, the limestone rock stacks formed by erosion, are of course the main attraction of this tour. The bus driver, a very gracious man, also served as the tourist guide during the tour delivering interesting stories and some historical bits about the road tirelessly. In between my short dozes and necessary Facebook updates, I managed to take in the breathtaking views of the ocean on my left from the bus window as much as I could. The road was long but we were pleasantly entertained by the driver’s commentary and the interruptions of various photo stops. The helicopter ride to view the apostles, only 8 of them are left standing today, was pricey but for a magical 10 minutes, I thought the money was well-spent. Fantastic shots of the magnificent coastline to cherish both in my memory and my camera’s memory stick; priceless.   
Twelve Apostles

It’s Australia after all! It would be a sin if I did not make effort to go down to the beach to witness Australia’s much celebrated beach culture.  St Kilda, Melbourne’s answer to Sydney’s Bondi but less crowded and more laidback is more than just a long stretch of beach. The neighborhood is occupied and made colorful by the bohemians, artists, musicians, punks and LGBT community. St Kilda hosts the annual gay pride called “Midsumma Festival Parade” and many of the gay bars and pubs are located on the Fitzroy Street. Driving around St Kilda, I couldn’t help but marvel at the beautiful beach front properties which I am sure are worth millions. Some of these massive structures, obviously belonged to the rich and famous are built merely to be used either for summer or as weekend homes. I can also see why this area is one of the most sought-after and priciest on the market. The streets are lined with leafy green trees, small public parks, cute little churches and sports facilities:  a perfect place for families to raise children. Plus it is only 30 minutes away from the central business district (CBD) and a walkable distance to the beach.  The nearby Brighton beach is the home to the 82 rainbow-colored bathing boxes which are of course popular tourist attraction. These boxes may be small and obviously lacking amenities but their selling prices can go up to A$200,000. And you have to be the resident to purchase them. Indeedy Wowza!  

St Kilda Beach and Melbourne's skyline
Bathing Boxes at Brighton Beach

Since I could not bear to be called a fool for not visiting any winery while I was on holiday in a wine-producing country, I made my way down to the best one, Domaine Chandon. Under the clear blue sky, at their stylish wine bar with the view of their neatly manicured garden and grape vines, wine tasting began. My favorite ones are their Chardonnay and sparkling rose.  Usually I do not like the oaky, buttery and heavy flavor of Chardonnay. But theirs is refreshing, aromatic, crisp and very well-balanced. Wine tasting usually turns into wine binging in my world but Australia’s stringent road rules are no laughing matter. The police are always on the watch both day and night to catch drunk drivers. Lucky for me, I was kindly chauffeured by M, my dear one who could only participate in spirit whenever alcohol was involved. I had to keep reminding him to not drink more than the amount allowed all throughout this trip. The penalties for drunk driving include heavy fines to the cancellation of one’s driving license. Well… I now know why many Australians come to Bali; to break rules. From public intoxication, drunk driving to storming the streets of Kuta and Seminyak on their motorbikes wearing no helmets, they sure do love their temporary liberty in Bali. No one bothers them here. If they do get caught, they can pay up some small money to the police and get away.
Domaine Chandon winery

The Melbourne food scene, as everyone who has been there raves about, is spectacular. The two Italian restaurants I tried, “Italy 1” and “The Merchant” at the Intercontinental hotel, were great restaurants especially, the latter, my personal favorite for its rowdy atmosphere and scrumptious risotto. But I must admit I was a little disappointed with the famous Japanese restaurant, “Nobu”.  The service was impeccable yet I expected more on their sushi and sashimi especially when it cost a fortune.  It was nothing but ordinary from presentation, quality of the fish to the taste. That being said, the main courses were beyond my expectation: slow cooked pork belly and baby squid salad; Mouthwatering indeed! Also staying in China Town, I was spoilt for choice in terms of food. Asian cuisines in abundance, I had a ball eating Char-Siu pork, beef noodles, crispy duck, dim-sum and Japanese bento boxes. There is also one restaurant, oddly named, “Ginger Boy”. At first from outside, I thought it was a gay club where the red-headed boys or those who love them go. What a fabulous restaurant it was! I loved the interior, décor and stunning Asian food on their menu. One of the best meals I had in Melbourne; delicious, creative and very urban. 
The restaurant "Ginger Boy"

Melbourne seen from Eureka Tower's Sky Deck

Watching the city from Melbourne’s tallest building which is also the sixth tallest in the world, Eureka tower, I could see why it was considered the most livable city in the world. Through the tower’s sky deck glass windows, I admired how the city is strategically planned with public parks, libraries and galleries, hospitals, shopping arcades and sport stadiums. It is a big city so what about transportation? Melbourne has the world’s largest tram network although surprisingly the statistics are saying that most people here prefer to use private cars. There is even a free retro tram that runs around CBD and talks like a tourist guide. I thought it was fabulous. It is not all. To beautify the city even further, a river runs through it. Yes! Yarra River is really where it all began. It was the life line for indigenous Australians during prehistoric times and then the early European settlers used it as the main agricultural source. Subsequently, gold was first discovered near the river and the Victorian Gold rush era further established the place into what we now see, Melbourne. Along this river, Melbournians can be seen enjoying their bicycle rides or jogging any time of the day and at weekends the practice of the rowing teams.
Yarra River 

The chilly wind occasionally blows across the river making me cling on to my jacket which barely could save me from shivering but I am enjoying this stroll at South Warf. The city’s lights are glowing against the clear sky and its skyline reflected in the smooth-running Yarra river, a picture-perfect moment. Today is my last day. I take a good look at Melbourne at twilight. The city life is what I miss the most when I am on Bali. But I guess I have managed to soak in the incredible energy of a big city during my short stay here. I walked the malls, watched movies in an actual cinema (not DVDs!), took pleasure in taking public transport (which believe it or not was exciting!), got stuck in traffic, had a fight with the auto-pay parking machine and most importantly visited so many great highlights of Melbourne. Tomorrow is another day and I am on my way home to my little island.  I came, I saw and now I’ve got to go.

So the question is!  Kylie or Danni? Errrrrrrrrrrrrrrm….Can I have them both please?

Sunset in Melbourne, South Warf

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Lana Del Rey ~ Born To Die (Album Review)

There’s a new girl in town with an invented name that sounds so exotic and the look of a young American suburban wife from the 60’s. Her singing voice is captivating indeed as she switches between femme-fatale icy coos and sex-kitten purrs, effectively naïve and dangerous at the same time. (Check out hip-hop flavored “Off To The Races” and melodramatic “Carmen”). Her seductive warbling brings artists like Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Gwen Stefani to mind but hers is rather unique.
The interesting thing about Lana is that you can’t really pinpoint or pigeonhole her music. Some call it Indie Pop. Some label it as Alternative. She describes herself as a gangsta Nancy Sinatra and her music, “Hollywood Sadcore” (whatever that means!) The album sounds as if it is a soundtrack made for some tragic-themed indie movie. (“Summertime Sadness”, “Diet Mountain Dew”, “Without You”, “Dark Paradise”). Her singles, “Videogames”, “Born To Die” and “Blue Jeans” are notable songs that will establish Lana Del Rey, the brand.  However, her songs are way too similar that one can’t really tell which is which. It would be interesting to see how she would perform these songs in a full-length concert without driving the audience go zzzzzzzzzzzz. Some tracks (“Lucky Ones”, “Lolita”, “National Anthem”) are overproduced because their melodies are somewhat weak and uninspiring. "Born To Die" is nevertheless a cohesive album that unfortunately falls victim to its own repetitiveness.

It is an era where things from the past are all coming back and being rebranded as some cool chic urban things. Therefore retro-loving crowd will definitely embrace this album. It is early to tell whether she’s nothing but a one-trick pony. “Born To Die” plays well as lounge music. Play it in the background when you are hosting a dinner but make sure that the food you are serving is scrumptious and the conversation, stimulating. Should Adele be warned?  Not quite yet.