Monday, June 10, 2013

Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty

Author: Libba Bray
Genre: Gothic, young adult, paranormal, mystery
My Rating: ★★★

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The year is 1895. After witnessing the suicide of her mother and being smothered by cryptic visions, sixteen-year-old Gemma Doyle was transported from India to Spence, an all-girls academy where she receives a chilly reception. Her terror-meter didn’t drop even a single notch however; the visions kept their claws on her, and there’s a mysterious Indian boy following her around. These things refuse to be pushed into the backburner even as she adapts to the world that will supposedly prepare her as a lady worthy of acceptance into the society. She juggles these two worlds, trying to understand both—making friends, unveiling secrets, treading the ground where the society’s leash leads her. When Gemma and her pseudo-rebellious clique find a way to eschew their plights regarding their freedom, they make an irrevocable choice. Is the freedom they opt for worthy of the consequences they have to face?

Before picking up A Great and Terrible Beauty, the fact that Libba Bray is a force to reckon with is already embedded in my head. I vowed to read more from her after I turned the last pages of Going Bovine. Picking up the first book in the Gemma Doyle trilogy seems to be the next best move, since the series has quite a huge following both on- and offline. The premise sounds promising too: a coming-of-age, Victorian gothic treat with rebellious femmes in the forefront. However, what I got after opening the package is totally different from what I expected. (Hint: it’s a mix of good and bad news.)

I’m going out on a limb here: for me, Gemma isn’t much of a likable character. Save for the vague visions, she’s akin to any ordinary teenage girl—na├»ve, stubborn, and prone to throes of angst-ridden musings. Having read a lot of YA books, I remember liking narrators with the same qualities. There is just something about her that I couldn’t quite grasp, like she filled the ‘character container’ only to a quarter. Half-baked is the right word, as she hasn’t reached the three-dimensional stage yet. “That’s why the sequels exist,” one might tell me. But doesn’t that only prove the first book fails in being the foundation-setter of the whole trilogy?

Theme-wise, I commend Bray for tackling the issue of refusing to be pigeonholed in the era the novel is set in. Women here are groomed to be perfect housewives for rich men; they are “programmed” to take the submissive role. Bray’s clique of girls shakes off the leash. They don’t want to be treated like wind-up dolls whose value lies only in how good their male partners would look with them hanging off their arms. I like how Bray explored the topic, how her heroines find a new option when they came to know what the other Realms are and what can happen inside, and how they deal with the consequences of their actions.
I also love how the theme of the famous Spider-Man line, “With great power comes great responsibility,” plays a big role in the story. It’s nothing new even with all the supernatural thingamajigs, but I guess reading it in a YA noir lit is a breath of fresh air.

Aside from those—and I will not lie—a big chunk of the novel seems a bit underwhelming for me. The whole thing is chock-full of tropes, which I have no problem about if they’re toyed with unconventionally to come up with something new. I enjoyed the atmospheric prose (I’m a big fan of world-building) and some o f the witty banters, but I find myself constantly checking the page numbers and wondering when I will finish the book. The second part was peppered with more action, mystery, and twists, but nothing happens that I couldn’t have seen coming toward me in a fog.

I also would have liked it better if Bray chose not to execute elements of her “fusion cooking.” I understand that women will always be women and feelings are timeless, but I’d rather hear them talk like real girls in early 1890s than characters in some kind of a Mean Girls parody.

But don’t get me wrong—I don’t think this book is bad, I think it is just not for me. As of now I have no plans of reading the sequels, but hey, I have a fickle brain. If my curiosity gets the better of me, I might pick up Rebel Angels and A Sweet Far Thing in the future.

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Photo by Simone Becque

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Flick Backtrack: Looper

Directed by: Rian Johnson
Written by: Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis

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Popcorns for the hungry mind are easy to find in today’s slew of science fiction flicks. Harder to seek out are those that aren’t too caught in the complex technicalities of metaphysics or any other weird branch of science. Too much explanation, too much action, and what you get is a cold story that doesn’t do much aside from driving you bonkers. Can’t we get at least one intelligent movie this year that actually has a heart?

Enter Rian Johnson’s Looper, a sci-fi thriller that touches on the topic of time travel. In the year 2074, time travel will be invented, but dangerous possibilities of messing with history prompted the authorities to outlaw the practice. In an era of economic collapse and black markets, crime bosses made use of time travel to be their easiest murder-and-disposal method. Tracking system in the future is so advanced that they couldn’t hide bodies, so what they do is send their targets 30 years back and have a “looper” kill the victim. Needless to say, loopers are special kinds of assassins. The reason they are named as such is the way their employers end their contracts: they have to kill future versions of themselves, aka “closing a loop.” This is because crime bosses don’t want any trace of the murder or a relationship with a looper to be connected to them.

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of the loopers in the year 2044. The time to finally terminate his contract has come, but his older version (Bruce Willis) ends up escaping him. To avoid getting in trouble with his boss, Joe dashes after Old Joe to clean up the mess. But it seems like escaping isn’t only the mission Old Joe has in mind. Apparently, he is determined to kill the child that will be the abominable ganglord Rainmaker in the future, who becomes responsible for the death of countless loopers and Old Joe’s wife. In a world where cleaning up actually means stuffing your closet with more skeletons than it could possibly hold—and when being a looper is synonymous to being both a murderer and a suicide-committer—can Joe do the right thing? And what exactly is the right thing for someone whose hands were stained with too much blood and amorality?

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the most simplified explanation for the film Looper. But despite how it sounds, steeling your brain for a potential battering wouldn’t be necessary. Yes, it can make you scrunch your brow, but its plot wasn’t fashioned in a way that would give you migraines. There’s a scene where Old Joe grumpily refuses to discuss time travel, saying that “if we start, we're going to be here all day, making diagrams with straws." It’s Johnson’s subtle way of telling us to turn our focus on the film’s well-told story instead on the scientific mechanics lying beneath its premise.

What was supposed to be a generic time travel flick turned out to be an in-depth character portrait—a story of salvation, sacrifices, and changing destinies. It’s a film that isn’t afraid to take its own sweet time to flesh out its characters and develop the plot. Gordon-Levitt was powerful in his depiction of the grim Joe. In fact, the way he made the character palpably human was worth a standing ovation. Joe may be a drug addict that perfectly blends in with the movie’s seedy setting, but he’s really just a man who longs for a normal life—something that, even after his plans of resigning as a looper, he probably wouldn’t get. Willis’ performance as the anti-villain was commendable, too. His character effectively showed that just because you’re older doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wiser.

The film’s second half is vital in its own way, telling the Rainmaker’s origin and how irony catches Old Joe in its mischievous net. Emily Blunt’s Sarah was all heart and (metaphorical) brawns, and she’s as three-dimensional as a secondary character could get.

While the ending wasn’t entirely unexpected, it was potent enough to elicit heartfelt reactions from the audience. The basic nugget of wisdom is easy to grasp: tinkering with the past to change the future is a pipedream even in Looper’s world, but changing your present to make the next minute better is possible, if only you’re selfless enough to make the right decision.

As a whole, Looper contains a rare story that gets the exact formula for a real reel treat. There were many dashes of futurism—hover bikes and telekinetic mutation, anyone?—but it manages to establish connections to our present through copious references to the “past,” the 20th century. That’s not counting the emotional links it hooks into the audience. It’s a proof that no matter how interesting an intelligent movie may be, it couldn’t lend itself much to memory muscles if it doesn’t have a heart.

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Published in Gala magazine.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

State of the Barrow Jane Address :)

Many posts ago, I blogged about the time I christened my part of the bedroom as the Barrow Jane. I got it from Mike Carey’s Lucifer graphic novels, a chunk of home floating in a wide vast of nothingness. (Hokey time! I’m not saying that our house’s other parts are not home, because they are, but the Barrow Jane is special as I’ve made it  an extension of myself.)

Anyway, I reckoned last week that the whole thing needed some kind of renovation. Here’s what it looks like at the foot of the bed:

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There are more than a hundred books there, heaped up in such a way that they won’t take up so much space. My father scrapped the idea of furnishing the bunk with a hanging shelf; it if it would contain that number of books, the shelf has to stretch all the way to the other side of the room. The shelves in the living room (which are originally intended for CDs and DVDs), were crammed with my older books now. For the mean time, I think these babies will stay there for a while.

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Excuse the riotous mess of the Barrow Jane. Those walls are going bared in the coming days as I plan to tape my “updated life” on them through pictures and posters. I’m going to retain a few, probably those Gundam Wing official art print-outs, the Bazooka Rocks poster, and the Devil May Cry poster that a friend gave me when we went out to try the videogame reboot in a mall. The band photos have all but faded so they need to go. I’m still thinking about what I should do with doodles…probably keep them in my drawers, where my mighty realm of art supplies and artworks reside (which reminds me—I still have to name the place. Shut up, that’s how I roll.)

Except for the obvious fact that I should clean the whole place, I’d appreciate a few more suggestions as to how I can “beautify” my beloved abode-in-an-abode. Anyone? ;)