Book: Choco Chip Hips

"Choco Chip Hips"

Sixteen-year-old Jessie, a baking aficionado, is shy, overweight, and worries too much about what people think. One summer, a family emergency makes her realize that life is too short to live on autopilot. Taking her life by the reins, she embarks on a journey that involves ditching the apron for a tank top as she hip-hop dances her way to new friendships, stronger family ties, and into her school’s most elite club.

I love this. There is nothing in the book that made me want to put it down; nothing that made me scratch my head or question the characters motives; nothing in this that made me want to rewrite or restructure. I even love the back synopsis that sells the story: because it effectively encapsulates what the story is about, it doesn’t give anything away, and it doesn’t heavily feature something that turns out to only play a small part in the novel. Which a lot of local books are prone to doing.

Choco Chip Hips is one of the few books I’ve read that I love as is, and would recommend to all and any readers who are looking to read a Filipino work.

But what about the book is so special?

It has heart. The story of Jessie is something everyone can relate to–no matter the gender, the age, or the station in life. Sure, not all of us have family emergencies during a summer vacation that forces us to reevaluate our life choices– But we all feel the things she feels. Her insecurities, her doubts, and most importantly, her joys… They are universal. And author Agay Llanera taps into those things with a deft hand. Never does the book feel like it’s too preachy, but it’s never nonchalant about how it deals with Jessie’s very real issues.

I love how the romance we’re given doesn’t take center stage, with the book focusing more on Jessie’s character and struggles. Llanera’s writing celebrates Jessie as a character, and the love story is just one of the many things happening in her life. The love interest shares equal importance with her family and her best friend, showing a reality that’s often ignored in fictional books about coming of age: the love that pushes us to embrace who we are isn’t always romantic love.

So to everyone out there looking for a book to read: pick up Agay Llanera’s Choco Chip Hips. You will not regret it.

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Movie: Kaleidoscope World

"Kaleidoscope World"

Lando, a poor boy, meets a rich girl, Elsa, in an open audition for the number one local hip hop crew that is competing for an international dance event. Lando and Elsa make it to the team but as their life and love unfold their dance crumbles.

Deep breaths. Deep, deep breaths.

I wanted to like this film. Really, I did. It stars two actors who I really believe has the acting chops to pull off lead roles, and they do showcase their acting capabilities in this film well. Unfortunately, that’s the only good thing I can say about this film: Sef Cadayona and Yassi Pressman acted their asses off.

But the whole film was just bad. Really bad. So bad that I wanted to walk out in the middle of the film. I didn’t. Because I had to stick through the whole thing to see if it gets better.

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.

Let’s list down the things that was wrong in the film:

Number one is structure. We have two characters whose lives intertwine, but are given problems that don’t really have anything to do with each other. Until past the halfway mark, when the writer seemed to have realized that the audience will have no idea what would make them root for the our lead couple. So the lead female is forcibly made to bear the brunt of the male lead’s conflict.

I feel as if the writer of the screenplay fell into the trap of trying to keep the twists surprising. Which is not what you want to do with a love story. You want your audience to know what’s going to keep your couple apart. So they root for the couple. By keeping the conflict a secret, you’ve only made your viewers apathetic.

When nothing is standing in the way of your lovers, you don’t root for them to succeed. Having finished the film, I already know that there’s an obstacle. But by the time it is introduced, viewers would have already stopped caring… and the conflict is made to look like a last minute addition.

Which leads me to the second problem of the film: conflict. Sef Cadayona’s character has a very alienating conflict: he freezes up whenever he remembers what happened to his dad. And this is not revealed until near the end of the film. And this is never resolved.

Oh, wait, should I have warned that there will be spoilers? Well, there are spoilers here. You have been warned now.

Back to Sef Cadayona’s very internal conflict: we get flashes of it, bit by bit, throughout the film. And this will confuse the hell out of you. Especially near the end, when two characters involved with Yassi Pressman’s character are revealed to be integral to Sef Cadayona’s conflict–and yet they don’t recognize Sef’s character at all.

I am serious. It doesn’t make sense.

And let’s not even start on the conflict between Yassi’s aunt and uncle that keeps getting addressed, but gets dropped with nary a mention ever again after their one confrontation. Suddenly, everything is right with the two again.

That leads me to the third problem of the film: resolutions. There are none. I’m not looking for a happy ending. I’m not looking for a wrap-up with a nice bow. I just want to see that the stories introduced are actually going somewhere.

We have a story thread about a dance competition, a group story arc, that suddenly ends with a performance. There are problems introduced into this arc that gets resolved off screen–if they did get resolved at all.

We have a thread on Yassi Pressman’s criminal past, and the part dancing plays in it. This does not get resolved, because Yassi’s story is suddenly cut short.

There’s a thread on Sef Cadayona’s juggling act between taking classes, starting to nod off at his part-time work, practicing during all the free time he has left, and still finding time to go to different malls just so he could stalk Yassi’s character. Oh wait, that’s not so much a problem about resolution as it is a problem on logic, and maybe Sef’s ability to clone himself so he can be in different locations at the same time.

And then there’s the weird cousin of Yassi’s character and her desire to dance. That goes nowhere fast.

But the worst offender of this is the main love thread. Yassi takes off from her aunt’s house, goes to Sef’s neighborhood, gets stabbed–apparently, to death, and yet appears to hug her group mates in the dance competition abroad.

What now?

I wanted to support Kaleidoscope World because it’s different from the usual fare. Also, I want to support Yassi and Sef’s career. But I can not, on good conscience, recommend this film to anyone.

Because the biggest problem I have with this film is that it masqueraded as a dance film. The characters dance, yes. But this is not a dance film. Street Dance is a dance film. Save the Last Dance, Center Stage, heck even I Do Bidoo Bidoo is a dance film. The Step Up franchise, even when the story is at its flimsiest, are dance films. Kaleidoscope World is a an acting reel masquearading as a film, much less a dance film.

Dance films feature dance prominently. Dance films have good music. Dance films do not use stock, royalty-free music during montages. Dance films will not just pile together different dances just to show the characters dancing. Dance is the most important part of a dance film. You do not give it the short end of the deal.

A dance film can get away with a threadbare story if the dance is good. And the biggest crime Kaleidoscope World commits is casting good dancers and never featuring them properly.

Kaleidoscope World isn’t just a waste of time and money. It also wastes the talent of the actors and dancers involved. And I’m not surprised that the director seem to have had his name stricken out of the credits.

Movie: Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa

"Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa" by Vim YapanAng Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa explores the intersection and divergence between feminist and gay concerns in the third world context.  When Marlon, a college student, stalks Karen, his literature professor, he finds out that she moonlights as a choreographer and dance teacher in a dance studio.  Frustrated over his performance in her literature class, he plans to impress her instead by learning to poeticize his body movements and enroll in her dance class.  He hires his classmate to teach him the basics of dancing.  As Dennis, his tutor, teaches him how his body should move, Marlon begins to understand the intersections between the art of poetry and dance.

Unlike my previous Cinemalaya blog posts where I posted the synopsis made available by the official website prior to talking about the movie, I chose to cut the one they provided for Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa. One, because it’s very long; and two, because it contains scenes that never actually happens in the movie. Unless it happened after the credits stopped rolling, and the audience members have already left the venue.

Writing about my first three Cinemalaya 2011 films was a blast–because I completely enjoyed them. I wish I could say the same for this movie.

Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa exists on subtext: glaringly loud, neon-colored subtext emblazoned on billboards with flashing lights. Each line of dialogue, each framed shot screams its subtext with such obviousness that I actually don’t want to call it subtext anymore–but what else can you call the things that are left unsaid?

Now, understand that this is just the opinion of one person. I could be reading the whole film wrong, so feel free to surf the net for other reactions to the film. I’m sure there would be people who’d rave about the film and say it’s the best of this year’s batch. But for me, it wasn’t. And I sort of blame the material.

One of the important things I learned in the world of Philippine television is that your work must be able to transcend bad direction and bad acting. So when the acting of two of your three main actors (that of Miss Jean Garcia and Rocco Nacino) were well done and suitably understated, and the direction was good (if a bit common and full of tropes, complete with still framed shots of people going up and down the stairs), then there must be something in the material that isn’t connecting with the viewers. Well, with one particular viewer: me.

In the story, we have a woman who speaks cryptically–unless when the story dictates for her to be blunt; we have a male lead who is in love with an older woman, but not really because he’s only discovering his sexuality through the poetry of words and dance; and then we have a guy who is in love with our male lead, but only gets focus in the second half of the film before being cut off by an abrupt ending.

I feel as if the movie wants to say something profound, but got so caught up with the juxtaposition of word poetry and dance poetry that it forgot the story it wanted to tell. We lose our handle on our persona when our anchor in our male lead gets passed on to the older woman in a few sequences, before it is passed on to the pining guy–before it decides that it needs a more omniscient point-of-view. So that in the end, we get a confused story about the confusion of two guys and their confused feelings for each other and their teacher.

I wanted to enjoy the film. I really did. But when I started writing my reaction, I couldn’t find a reason to justify why I would say that the movie is good. It was okay, but it was dismaying compared to the three films I watched prior to this–and I only saw the latter half of the movie I watched before this.

But who knows? Maybe you’ll like it better than I did. You still have today and tomorrow (Saturday, July 23) to catch this film in CCP or Greenbelt. Why don’t you watch it for yourself and tell me if you disagree with my reaction.

Edited to add: There will be a screening of this movie at SM Megamall on August 23, at 7 in the evening.

movie: step up

"step up" directed by anne fletcher, "step up 2" directed by jon chui’m actually going to cheat here and write about both STEP UP and STEP UP 2 THE STREETS.

STEP UP is centered on a guy who does wrong, is sentenced to work at the maryland school of arts, and discovers that all he needed was a little focus in his life. which he finds by integrating his freestyle dance background to a more structured one taught at the school.

STEP UP 2 THE STREETS follows a girl who has too much focus on one thing: the streets competition. and it is only when she’s brought to the maryland school of arts that she begins to rediscover why she started dancing in the first place: expressing who she is through her movements.

to tell you the truth, after watching the two films, i have to say i like STEP UP 3 best. with STEP UP 3, i said that the dance came first and the story just followed. and i stick by that assessment. but having seen the first two movies, i see now that STEP UP 3 was the balance between the two.

if you’re looking for story, watch STEP UP. it’s structured as a story, using dance as a way to get from one point to another. and for what it’s worth, the story of STEP UP is sound. you see the characters develop from point a to point b, and you see how their actions affect what happens next.

in STEP UP 2 THE STREETS, it’s dancing with a bit of story to push it from one dance performance to the next. i’ve heard that people like the sequel better than the original, and i get why. as i said in my STEP UP 3 post, people watch dance movies for the dancing. and STEP UP 2 THE STREETS is a movie with a lot of dancing. the actual story is flimsy at best, with one main character battling with three conflicts — all of which get resolved in the last thirty minutes of the movie.

and having seen all three movies now, STEP UP 3 seems to have found the right balance between the two to make a very enjoyable movie: with a lot of dancing to satisfy those who came for the dance, and with the right amount of storytelling to keep people like me quiet.

oh look what i did there, i talked about all three movies instead.

in the end, both STEP UP and STEP UP 2 THE STREETS is a one-time watch for me. of course, i’m not saying “never”, but for now, i think i’m done with both movies. unlike STEP UP 3 which i wanted to watch again because the dance performances were mind-blowing.

each movie certainly leveled their dance pieces up. i just hope that if there’s another STEP UP movie, the story aspect of the movie would level up too.

step up 3D

"step up 3D" by jon chui love to dance, and i love to watch movies. but i’ve never been a fan of dance movies, i don’t know why. if my memory serves me right, the last one i watched was CENTER STAGE — and that was on cable television.

but ever since i got exposed to the genius of harry shum, jr. on GLEE, i became more interested in dance stories. there’s the LXD (LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY DANCERS) on the internet, but it’s only available in certain areas. so i haven’t seen that. but then, there’s also STEP UP 3D, from the director (and creator?) of LXD — featuring a cameo appearance by harry shum, jr.

STEP UP 3D focuses on the lives of three characters: moose, a crossover character from the second movie, and camille (from the first movie) establish the new milieu: new york. which isn’t so new for me, since this is the first STEP UP movie i’ve seen. but of the two, it’s moose’s progression that we will be following.

moose meets luke, the leader of the house of pirates, a dance group that takes in dancers who have nowhere else to go. luke is our second story thread, and is our male lead. throughout the story, he films his friends, colleagues–his family. he is established as the guy who finds people who are born to dance. and in the beginning of the movie, it is also established that there’s this girl he sees in their in-house club that he wants to approach, but never seems to catch.

that girl is revealed to be natalie, our third story thread, whose past is shrouded in mystery. she is a classically-trained dancer who loves to compete — but doesn’t have a place to call home. luke takes her into his home, and into his heart.

luke and natalie’s story threads are intertwined, with a predictable twist that would make you go, and i quote wash of FIREFLY, “curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!”

moose’s thread, on the other hand, is almost completely separate. he has to find the balance between his school life and his dance life. of the three threads, this is most interesting for me. sadly, because moose is not the male lead, not much focus is given to this story thread.

to be quite honest, not much focus is given to any of the stories. and, you know what? it works for STEP UP 3D. after all, you go into a dance movie not wanting to watch a story. you come in to watch people dance. and dance, they did.

"step up 3D"the best parts of the movie was the dancing. obviously. jon chu, the director, definitely knows his way around dance. i’m not a dancer, though (as i already mentioned) i love to dance. so i’m watching these dance performances through the eyes of an audience member — and jon chu definitely captures the performances in the best light possible.

when you watch dance performances live, you get that sense of awe: everything feels very now. but when you watch it on a television screen, or on the silver screen, this sense of awe is somehow diminished. that’s because the material is edited, spliced together, to tell the best possible story.

jon chu manages to do this and not diminish the material. in fact, in some parts, he even manages to enhance the dance to make it pop more. probably because the movie was made for 3D theaters. but i prefer to think it’s because he loves dance as much as the dancers love it.

i have two favorite dance performances in the movie: one done with a flooding dance floor (see included picture), and another done broadway/old-movie style. the latter felt very set up, but by the time you reach that part of the movie, you wouldn’t really care. you’re just there to enjoy.

over all, STEP UP 3D deserves repeat viewing — not for the story, but for the wonderful, amazing, extraordinary dance performances. i wasn’t able to watch it in 3D, because i didn’t have the time to wait for the next showing in 3D — but i’m definitely looking forward to catching this in 3D, when i find the time. and i’m also buying the dvd, so i can watch the performances again and again.

i might even go out and purchase the first two movies on dvd, just because i enjoyed this one so much.