Movie: Ready Player One

"Ready Player One"

In the year 2045, people can escape their harsh reality in the OASIS, an immersive virtual world where you can go anywhere, do anything, be anyone-the only limits are your own imagination. OASIS creator James Halliday left his immense fortune and control of the Oasis to the winner of a contest designed to find a worthy heir. When unlikely hero Wade Watts conquers the first challenge of the reality-bending treasure hunt, he and his friends–known as the High Five–are hurled into a fantastical universe of discovery and danger to save the OASIS and their world.

I’ve been sitting on this post for a couple of weeks now–not because I didn’t have anything to write about, but because I wanted to read the book first before I wrote down my thoughts about the movie. And I’m glad I did. Because now I can safely say that I prefer the film version to the source material.

Don’t get me wrong: Ready Player One is a good novel. It’s engaging, for the most part, and it has a great story structure. But the Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation is easier to like. And here are my reasons why:

The film is more pop-culture savvy. A lot of movie reviews have cited that the movie adaptation favored films in its quests and easter eggs. And it is true. But what a lot of them fail to mention is that the film is more aware of what’s popular to the mainstream audience. Not everyone is familiar with the old generation gaming platforms, much less their games. There were a lot of references in the book that flew over my head. So I believe that the film strikes a good balance of including what’s popular, while sticking in obscure references that feels like they were taken from the novel.

The characters are given more to do. The biggest difference between books and TV/film adaptations is the fact that the latter needs to cutaway to what’s happening elsewhere. Books have the luxury of pages, where they can focus on their main protagonist while slowly unraveling the development and objectives of other characters. With those pages, books can foreshadow and plant plot devices that they can harvest later on. TV and movies don’t have the same luxury–and are often restricted by budget and time.

With Ready Player One‘s source material, almost all decisive action comes from our protagonist Wade Watts. And, as such, most of the other characters feel half-baked. Love interest Art3mis doesn’t feel real–even during the final pages, when she and Wade finally meet in person. And there’s even less for players Aech, Daito, and Shoto to do. And here’s where the time constraints of a film worked in favor of the other characters. Because we can’t have hours upon hours of Wade just agonizing over clues, the movie utilized the other characters to figure things out faster than Wade does–or have them become a sounding board for Wade to talk things out with. And, in doing so, the characters feel more developed. Although, to be honest, they’re still not developed enough.

Pacing-wise, the film automatically wins because it’s only a couple of hours long. But more than that, it doesn’t fall into long periods of non-activity like the book. In the novel, when Wade is stuck on something, it feels like author Ernest Cline want us to feel just as stuck as he is. There were a handful of instances when I actually told the book to “get a move on” aloud.

Another thing I thought the film did better is the insertion of Ogden Morrow’s character. The reveal of his character felt like a brilliant move in the film–but in the novel, he quickly read as deus-ex-machina. That said, the book does get to expound more on who Ogden Morrow is, and who he became–but that’s the luxury of pages.

When it comes to the actual challenges though, I’m more split. I love that the movie made the challenges more visual and more personal… But I really liked the novel’s way of complicating the third quest. Both the film and the novel underlines the importance of relationships, but it’s the book that highlights its need better.

And speaking of what the book does better– I also think the novel was better at upping the stakes. The movie puts all the characters in one city, while the book has three of them living outside the US. And then there’s the tension. While the film shows early on how formidable the villains are, they become pretty tame as the rest of the movie unfolds. The book actually allows the villains to kill off one of the heroes.

Now with all this said… I feel like there’s enough of a distinction between the novel and the movie version of Ready Player One that they should be treated as separate entities. They have the same characters and premise, yes, and they do have a similar plot structure. But the things that happen in between? The hows and whys that push the story forward? They’re all pretty much different.

But I still like the movie better.

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Book: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

"Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet"

In 1986, Henry Lee joins a crowd outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has discovered the belongings of Japanese families who were sent to internment camps during World War II. As the owner displays and unfurls a Japanese parasol, Henry, a Chinese American, remembers a young Japanese American girl from his childhood in the 1940s–Keiko Okabe, with whom he forged a bond of friendship and innocent loe that transcended the prejudices of their Old World ancestors. After Keiko and her family were evacuated to the internment camps, she and Henry could only hope that their promise to each other would be kept. Now, forty years later, Henry explores the hotel’s basement for the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot even begin to measure. His search will take him on a journey to revisit the sacrifices he has made for family, for love, for country.

I sought this book out because of the title. I didn’t really know anything about it, except that it was about Asian Americans during the second world war–and that it’s a love story of sorts. But there was something about the title that told me I need to find a copy of the book… and I couldn’t find it anywhere locally. So I had it special-ordered through Fully Booked.

Honestly, the book starts very slowly. The only thing that pushed me to keep reading was the fact that I already invested so much time in getting a copy, that it would be a great waste if I stop reading. And I’m very grateful that it took me time to find the book, and that it took me time to get into the groove of the story.

Time made Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet all the more satisfying in the end.

Author Jamie Ford doesn’t rush anything: from the introduction of the characters, the way they develop, to the relationships they form. And while this pace was frustrating at first, it ultimately works best for the story he’s telling. Because Hotel on the Corner of Bitter Sweet is a love story that spans years. Heck, even the love story takes time to develop.

Henry, our main character, doesn’t see his love interest as one for most of the book. He sees her as a friend. And as his feelings for her develop, so does ours. Personally, my appreciation for the narrative grew just as Henry’s world expanded within the book. Author Ford begins the story with a very narrow window into Henry Lee’s life–and it’s probably the reason why the first part of the novel is so exhausting to read. Because our point-of-view is limited; we’re boxed in with Henry, and we’re yearning to get out. But we can’t go out until we get to know who Henry is, who the people in his life are. Because we need to understand him, and the people who are important to him, to understand the things he will do.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a beautiful story that’s not just about the love between races in the time of war; but also a powerful love story of a boy to the parents who he no longer understands, and to the son he doesn’t know as much as he would like.

And to end, I say: find a copy of the book. Take the time to read it. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is worth the effort.

Book: Don’t Tell My Mother

"Don't Tell My Mother"

With an overly zealous mother as her guide, 19-year-old Sam has never had problems navigating through Christian suburbia before. But all that changes when she befriends and becomes intrigued with Clara, her widowed neighbor and the village’s social outcast. When their friendship grows into the “unnatural,” Sam is forced to examine her upbringing and come to terms with who she really is.

Don’t tell the author, but I’m not completely in love with this book. I mean, it starts out well enough. Brigitte Bautista’s words have a nice melody that makes reading Don’t Tell My Mother a very enjoyable experience. I didn’t even notice that I was almost finished with the book until I got to the last few chapters.

So why don’t I love it? Because of the ending. Or the possibility that the ending promises. It’s pretty open-ended, yes, but it’s leaning heavily into the happily-ever-after that I feel doesn’t fit well with the narrative we were given.

Don’t get me wrong: I do want the characters of Sam and Clara to have happy endings. It’s just… Nothing in the book made me feel like they belonged together in the end. I felt like they were each other’s stepping stones to somewhere greater. Somewhere braver. But not somewhere together. It felt off.

Now, if you tell me that author Bautista has a sequel in the works where we see that the characters are still working their issues out, or where we see their relationship further develop, then I might change my mind about this book and just say that I love it and would recommend it to anyone–

But right now I’m treating Don’t Tell My Mother as a stand-alone romance novel. And that’s why, right now, I’m saying it’s a story that could have used a little bit more development. Or maybe a dozen more chapters to work on the relationships of the main character, and the plot, and the conflict… and the resolution.

All that said, I reiterate the fact that Bautista does have a gift with words. Having read a few LGBTQ novels now, I feel like she’s the first to have been able to convey the confusion of her main character well enough to make it palpable. And although Sam’s background isn’t very rare, Bautista does a great job at making it unique and interesting.

Unique and interesting doesn’t mask the fact that a relationship isn’t completely developed though. It’s not enough that the characters are. For readers to root for a couple, you need to make sure the readers understand what they are to each other, what they bring in each other’s life. And the promise of what could be is never enough.

Unless I completely missed the mark with this novel. I read it as a romance novel, as advertised; so if it’s about Sam’s journey of self-discovery and self-love, then… Nah. The ending we got would read even worse for me.

I’m sorry, but I don’t see myself recommending Don’t Tell My Mother to anyone.

Theater: ‘night, Mother

"'night, Mother"

A supposedly normal evening in the mother-daughter household is shattered when Jessie announces to her mother Thelma that she plans to kill herself before the night is over. The play happens in real time. Over the course of 90 minutes, Thelma desperately works to convince her daughter that life is worth living.

I didn’t know anything about ‘night, Mother when I came to watch it. I was told only two things: the actors were phenomenal and the story was ‘heavy.’ While waiting to get in the theater, my friend informed me that there was going to be a trigger-warning at the start of the production. Which, I admit, scared me.

Theater has always been an escape for me. More than television, more than movies or even books, it’s theater that allows me to let my mind loose. This is why I have a preference for musicals. Bright, loud, happy musicals that present a simple problem that they then resolve with a dozen or so songs. Sure there would be crying, some time’s there’s righteous indignation, but the end is almost always the same: you are given a semblance of a solution. You will be made to think, but you will also have closure.

Plays aren’t always as considerate.

‘night, Mother revolves around the relationship of one daughter with her mother–and, as the synopsis above says, her plan to kill herself before the night ends. Her matter-of-fact announcement is actually what jump starts the whole play. And ‘heavy’ is an understatement for the ninety minutes that follow her announcement.

But what makes ‘night, Mother heavy? Why is there a need for a trigger warning, and why are there mental health specialists at the end of the production to help the audience process what happens in the play?

The material was written in the early 80s. As shared by director Melvin Lee, ‘night, Mother was first produced in 1982. Back then, the daughter’s planned suicide is an inciting incident–not the focal point of the play. True enough, while watching, it is not the suicide that moves you from one emotion to another: it’s the relationship between the two characters.

There are many ways to read the play. Director Lee posits that it’s about two different mind sets, two generations trying to stay relevant in each other’s lives and failing. The difference is while one point-of-view is remaining stubborn and steadfast, the other is ready to throw in the towel. My own take is that it’s a commentary on societal expectations; that it scrutinizes the way other people want us to behave, as opposed to who we actually are.

The suicide as a symbol can be read as giving up–but it can also be about taking back power. It really depends on where you stand in society: are you the one making decisions and maintaining hierarchy? Or are you part of the generation that wants to break out of the box?

But, again as Director Lee points out, something has changed in the last almost forty years. In the last five years alone, actually. People are more aware about mental health issues now. And suddenly, the surface drama of a person committing suicide isn’t just a symbolism anymore. It’s a very real possibility. And this is what’s pushes the conversations about the production.

Sure, actresses Eugene Domingo and Sherry Lara are both astounding. The set design by Ben Padero is exceptional. And TJ Ramos provides a haunting tone that you don’t actually notice until the end, which means he did spectacular work. So many people should be getting recognition with PETA’s adaptation of Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother, and yet everyone is talking about only one aspect of the play:

Suicide. And depression, in connection to it.

Those are not topics I’m qualified to talk about, let’s be real. They are subjects that I, admittedly, have had thoughts about. But the bottom line is this: I’m not a specialist. I’m not an expert. I’m someone online who has read things about the two, who may have depression and is dealing with it. That still doesn’t mean I can write about these things in a way that would be of comfort to those who also deal with them.

So here’s my advice: talk to someone about it. Find help. Here in the Philippines, we supposedly have a suicide prevention hotline (+632 804-4673) but don’t rely on just that. Google for counselors near your area. Risk opening up to a trusted friend.

Beat the stigma.

Being depressed and having suicidal thoughts doesn’t make you any less of a person. You matter.

Going back to ‘night, Mother, if you think you can handle a play that deals with suicide and a person’s thought process in ending her life, then catch the final weekend of the play today (March 16) until Sunday (March 18, 2018) at the PETA Theater in Quezon City. Then stay, after the play, to talk about your concerns–or to listen to other people’s experiences.

Be open.

Theater: Kinky Boots

"Kinky Boots"

Winner of six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Kinky Boots features a joyous, Tony-winning score by Cyndi Lauper and a hilarious, uplifting book by four-time Tony winner, Harvey Fierstein.

Charlie Price has reluctantly inherited his father’s shoe factory, which is on the verge of bankruptcy. Trying to live up to his father’s legacy and save his family business, Charlie finds inspiration in the form of Lola. A fabulous entertainer in need of some sturdy stilettos, Lola turns out to be the one person who can help Charlie become the man that he is meant to be. As they work to turn the factory around, this unlikely pair finds that they have more in common than they ever dreamed possible… and discovers that, when you change your mind about someone, you can change your whole world.

Kinky Boots had its first Manila run last year, and I didn’t watch it then because of certain casting choices. But because my mom really wanted to see the show, we ended up watching it while we were in New York last August. But this post isn’t about the Broadway production.

Atlantis Theatrical decided that the first Manila run of Kinky Boots was successful enough to warrant another series of performances. Having seen the show in its full glory, I became very curious as to how the local production stages it. (The discounted tickets also helped a lot in my decision making, because the casting choice I disagreed with is still present in the current run.)

I have to say: Atlantis and director Bobby Garcia do a bang up job in putting up the musical.

For a show that features a drag queen who is loud and proud, Kinky Boots works best during its small moments. Because at its heart, the production’s main selling point is acceptance–not just of other people and their truth, but of one’s choices and self as well. And behind the big production numbers that feature splits, spread-eagles, back flips, flip-flops, one right after the other–the thorough-line of each line of dialogue, each lyric sung, and each choreography danced is the longing to be accepted. And as long as the actors can convey that longing, you can lessen the glitters, you can take away a few conveyor belts, you can subtract a door or two, and no one would notice.

In the case of scaled-down productions, it is the actors who have to unenviable task of making the audience believe the magic. It is the actors who have to fill in the missing set pieces, to stand out even when the lights fail to illuminate them–or when they’re burnt beyond recognition by too many spotlights, and to make us think that a pair of boots can indeed save a whole shoe factory.

Nyoy Volante and Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante both rise to the occasion as Lola/Simon and Lauren, respectively. Nyoy manages to balance Lola’s confidence and Simon’s vulnerability in every scene he’s in, and in every note he sings. Nyoy really has come a long way from his singer-songwriter roots. He is now a theater actor to be reckoned with.

Meanwhile, Mikkie infects her Lauren with so much happiness that she easily stands out as the best Lauren I’ve seen (which, so far, includes the original and the tour version of Lauren, on Youtube, and the one I saw last August on Broadway). Her charm is magnetic, and she draws the gaze even when she’s surrounded by larger-than-life drag queens.

Unfortunately, Lauren is just a supporting character. Lola’s actual co-star, Charlie Price, isn’t as impressive.

Laurence Mossman’s portrayl of the down-on-his-luck guy who doesn’t know what he wants in his life is memorable in all the wrong ways. Vocally, he can’t compete with his co-stars, and acting-wise… He comes off as whiny and spoiled instead of downtrodden and desperate. I found myself wishing for time to speed up during his scenes, just so we could move back to Lola, or anyone else.

All this said, Atlantis Theatricals production of Kinky Boots is a must-watch… just not for the price of their tickets. But if they decide to have a different actor playing leading man Charlie Price though, I might change my tune.

Movie: Tomb Raider

"Tomb Raider"

Lara Croft is the fiercely independent daughter of an eccentric adventurer who vanished when she was scarcely a teen. Determined to forge her own path, she refuses to take the reins of her father’s global empire just as staunchly as she rejects the idea that he’s truly gone. Advised to face the facts and move forward after seven years without him, even Lara can’t understand what drives her to finally solve the puzzle of his mysterious death. Going explicitly against his final wishes, she leaves everything she knows behind in search of her dad’s last-known destination: a fabled tomb on a mythical island that might be somewhere off the coast of Hong Kong. If she survives this perilous adventure, it could be the making of her, earning her the name tomb raider.

If you’re a video game fan, it’s highly likely that WB’s reboot of Tomb Raider‘s film franchise is something you might enjoy. Unless you’re a Tomb Raider fan. Then, it’s either you will love the film they produced–or immensely dislike it.

I can’t say I’m a gamer; and although I am familiar with the Tomb Raider franchise (both the games and the Angelina Jolie films), I can’t say I’m a fan. But, that said, I did enjoy this new iteration of Tomb Raider for the thrills it provided. All I had to do was shut off all logical and critical thinking, because that’s when the problems come in.

Warner Brothers’ Tomb Raider plays off like a video game. Like a Tomb Raider video game, actually. You have puzzles, you have bad guys, you have adventures, and you have heroine Lara Croft hanging off edges and climbing things. Over and over. Unfortunately it also has something the Tomb Raider franchise usually don’t allow: accountability.

The entire plot of the film hinges on the fact that Lara Croft’s father obsesses over a piece of Japanese myth. And the film only moves because of Lara’s drive to find her father. Everything that goes wrong afterwards is because of their accountability. And while it is good for heroes to be held accountable for their actions, it is extremely frustrating for a moviegoer to have a heroine who causes the film’s conflicts in the first place.

I’m sure the film’s writers did their best to make the film grounded, and for Lara Croft to not come out of the movie a two-dimensional caricature of her video game persona. On top of the brains and brawn that was inherent in the character, they also gave Lara heart and flaws. But it’s one thing for a character to overcome their flaws to save the world, and a completely different thing for the character’s flaws to be the reason the world needs saving in the first place. And there lies the one reason I can’t fully get on board with this new Tomb Raider film:

Lara Croft’s flaws don’t make her human–they make her a problem.

If you’re not the type of moviegoer who scrutinizes plot and character details though, Tomb Raider is still a fun action-adventure film. Roar Uthaug does a great job making the film feel like a video game–in a very good way. Alicia Vikander is no Angelina Jolie–which is also a good thing–and delivers a Lara Croft unlike any other.

Bottom line: Tomb Raider is a good enough film with lots of exhilarating action sequences, but I’ll probably pass on a sequel if they make one.

Big thanks, by the way, to Chris Cantada for inviting me to the premiere. Watch out for his review soon on his Cantada Force Reviews channel on YouTube.

Book: They Both Die at the End

"They Both Die at the End"

On September 5, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: They’re going to die today. Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. The good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure–to live a lifetime in a single day.

What do you do when you’re told you’re going to die within the day? It’s a great question, and I love that They Both Die at the End tries to answer it in multiple ways. We have two main characters that are very different from each other, who then fate brings together to help them grow. I love that author Adam Silvera doesn’t go for the saccharine and goes deep into thoughts that most people probably have had, about what to do when confronted with the idea that they are about to die.

I love the book… but I’m not in love with it. Probably because it veered into romance territory near the end.

Spoiler alert?

I’m not going to say much. It’s just– I thought the book was amazing, and the way Silvera handled the multiple points-of-view was particularly outstanding. I love the way he threaded the stories together, and how passing characters in the beginning make quite an impact in the latter chapters.

But the love story felt out of place for me.

I understand that the characters would grow to care for each other. That they would grow to love each other. And there were hints throughout the book about the eventual… relationship development. It was not sprung on us. I just felt like, if the book really wanted to go there, they could have prepared the readers better. Or have been more upfront about it. As it was… the romance in the latter part of the book made me like it less.

Still– I do still love the book enough to recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a great story. Maybe other readers don’t (or won’t) feel the same way I do about the love story in the end.