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: The Greatest Showman

"The Greatest Showman"

“The Greatest Showman” is a bold and original musical that celebrates the birth of show business and the sense of wonder we feel when dreams come to life. Inspired by the ambition and imagination of P.T. Barnum, “The Greatest Showman” tells the story of a visionary who rose from nothing to create a mesmerizing spectacle that became a worldwide sensation.

Ever since I saw the teaser for The Greatest Showman, I knew I wanted to watch the film. I love musicals, and it has been so long since a proper movie musical was made, so I knew this was a film I’m going to want to watch in a theater.

And I was not disappointed.

I guess it helped that my expectations were managed. The film came out last year in the United States, and the reviews were less than phenomenal. People didn’t like the fact that The Greatest Showman glossed over the less-than-desirable characteristics of P.T. Barnum. Some thought the film was shoddily edited, and certain story threads were dropped and picked up willy-nilly. And a lot people said it just wasn’t that good. They were all correct.

The Greatest Showman wasn’t good, because it was something else. It was… transcendent.

Don’t get me wrong; the film could use a lot more fixing. Especially when it comes to how the story is told.

The film suffers from having to follow two separate threads from the moment Zac Efron’s character is introduced. Suddenly, on top of the P.T. Barnum main storyline that wanted to deal with inclusivity, acceptance, humility, and contentment–you also had to follow an interracial romance that was completely separate from the already-full Barnum plate.

The characters’ emotions don’t have a linear development; they provide what the script wants to happen, rather than the script following what the characters are feeling. And as such, there are a lot of character development that are waylaid because the film would rather barrel through the plot lines it wants to hit.

There are a thousand and one things you can point out where the film was lacking. Mostly in the storyline, in the character progression, and even in the directing. But there are just as many things to love about the film–mostly because of the cast and their passion for the film they made.

Hugh Jackman, Zendaya, and Keala Settle are truly exceptional in The Greatest Showman. The life they bring to the characters fill out what is lacking in their characters’ emotional development. Zac Efron and Michelle Williams complement their respective partners exceptionally, providing grace and elegance to the turmoil that is the conflict of the film.

The characters breathe because the actors behind them are giving them life. And because of their portrayals, you don’t notice until after the film has ended that said characters aren’t really fully-formed. The cast–all of them, not just the ones I enumerated–are the ones informing the audience of who their characters are; Not the story, nor their decisions in the story, but their acting.

I would also say it’s the cast that brings the songs to life. They inject their vulnerabilities into the songs, making them something more than just the words that accompany the melody. Listen to the dozens of “This Is Me” covers on YouTube, and then listen to Keala Settle’s version. The mix of fear, of uncertainty, and of strength she imbues the song elevates it into an anthem. So much so that you don’t notice how the emotional reprise within the song is abruptly cut short just so the song could go back to being a call to arms.

And then there’s Zac Efron and Zendaya’s “Rewrite the Stars.” There is restraint in the way the sing the song, a restraint that becomes heartbreaking when you see how it is directed on screen. And I mean that in a good way.

If you watch the film, you can see how director Michael Gracey pours love into his staging of the musical numbers. His direction heightens the emotions of the songs that pepper the movie musical. If only he had done the same for the transition scenes, the ones in between the singing.

But there’s not point in focusing on what might have been. The film is made. It is out in theaters. And if you’re looking for a reason to watch The Greatest Showman, watch it for the passion–of the cast, of the director, the choreographers, the costume designers, the production designers, and everyone else involved in the project.

Let their passion inspire you to dream, to accept, and to come alive.

Movie: Honor Thy Father

"Honor Thy Father"

After years of financial struggle, Kaye and Edgar are finally on a roll. Kaye has made millions promoting her father’s investment scheme to her friends and fellow Pentecostal parishioners at the Church of Yeshua. But their world unravels instantaneously one day when Edgar swings by his father-in-law’s house to find the place ransacked and the old man gone. It doesn’t take long for Kaye’s friends to turn on the couple, who go to the fiery bishop for help. But he’s not exactly generous, preoccupied as he is with raising money for a new temple (and with the promise of extravagant kickbacks). The parishioners continue to demand their money back, and Kaye and Edgar start receiving death threats. When the tension erupts in violence, Edgar decides to seek the aid of his criminally inclined family.

What is there to say about Honor Thy Father other than the fact that it was beautifully made? Director Erik Matti and Cinematographer Ber Cruz made even the tightest and dirtiest look cinematic. The first thought in my head coming out of the cinema was that this is the film that will become part of film class curriculum.

Meryll Soriano and Krystal Brimner were the standouts when it came to acting, delivering nuanced performances that made their characters feel strikingly real. Perla Bautista and Boom Labrusca both delivered solid support as well, making their presence felt without taking away the focus from the lead actors.

And then there’s John Lloyd Cruz.

I’m not a fan of John Lloyd, to be honest, but there’s something about his ticking-time-bomb performance that I felt really captured the essence of the film. That said, I like him better in the scenes where he doesn’t have lines, the ones where he lets his actions and reactions speak for him.

If you have seen and enjoyed Heneral Luna, you have to watch this film. It has the core of an independently-produced film with the budget of a mainstream movie–so we get the best of both worlds. And all I have left to say is that, I think Honor Thy Father is the best film off the past year’s Metro Manila Film Festival. So watch it.

Show the mainstream media that there is room for films like this. For stories that aren’t cookie-cutter romances, and aren’t trope-filled horrors, and aren’t slapstick comedies. We’re always lamenting the dying movie industry because it’s inundated with movies that cater to the escapist nature of the Filipinos, and yet most of those complaining don’t even bother watching films like this when they come out.

The movie industry will stay in its deathbed unless we support the films we want more of. If we want more quality films, it’s time to put money where our mouths are.

Book: Mga Tala sa Dagat

"Mga Tala sa Dagat"

Isang pag-iibigan ang nabuo sa pagitan ng prinsesa at ng isang mangingisda. Isang bata ang kailangan isuko ang paglalaro at pag-aaral, alang-alang sa pagiging pinakamahusay na mangingisda ng bayan. Nauugnay ang lahat ng ito sa isang pangako, isang pangako tungkol sa higanteng-dagat na may dala-dalang mga tala.

Translated, the synopsis reads as follows: “Love blooms between a princess and a fisherman. A child sacrifices his childhood to become the best fisherman in town. And all three of them are beholden to a promise: their promise to the giant of the sea, the one who holds the stars.

Annette Acacio Flores’s story is a haunting love story between a child and his parents, as much as it is about the sea-giant who doesn’t really become a part of the story until much later. I haven’t read the original text, but Nanoy Rafael’s translation of Mga Tala sa Dagat is a beautiful telling that really touches the heart.

To those who are thinking of picking this book up, a warning: the narrative is not linear. To tell the story effectively, Flores (and Rafael, in his translation) weaves her love story through time–with mostly the same characters–to effectively strengthen the characeterizations, and to make an already likeable character, a hero amongst his contemporaries, into an even more tragic figure.

Also, Mga Tala sa Dagat is not a children’s book, but it’s something you can read with children. The story deals with themes of responsibility, personal and social, and the importance of happiness in life. Lessons that, goodness knows, children need nowadays.

And for those who doesn’t want to pick the book up– I won’t question your taste, but I implore you to just give the book a try.

Because in Mga Tala sa Dagat, I found the book I’ll be nominating for the Filipino Readers’ Choice Awards next year.

Which reminds me– Voting for this year’s Filipino Readers’ Choice Awards is still open. Do check out the nominees at the Filipino Readers’ Choice website and vote!

Movie: Veronica Mars

"Veronica Mars"

Years after walking away from her past as a teenage private eye, Veronica Mars gets pulled back to her hometown – just in time for her high school reunion – in order to help her old flame Logan Echolls, who’s embroiled in a murder mystery.

If you weren’t a fan of the television series while it was on the air, I don’t know how you’re going to like the film. Because, as a fan, it’s everything I wanted–but that might not be what casual viewers are looking for.

See, Veronica Mars is a series built on nostalgia. Not just for us fans, but for the characters as well. Events unfold in a place where everyone knows everyone’s business–where one character’s history ties in very much with another character’s. And the film even capitalizes on this, bringing back characters from the television series for one last victory lap, bring the characters back for a mystery that hinges quite strongly on events that have happened almost a decade ago.

Veronica has turned her back on the life of a private investigator. At the end of the series, Veronica cast her vote for Keith Mars to be the replacement Sheriff after the death of Don Lamb. But her dad lost. And she flew off the coop. She got out of Neptune to become a resident in a house of lies.

But a call from Logan changes everything.

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

As a fan of the series, I know that Veronica wouldn’t have been able to stay away. Although, I must admit at being impressed she was able to stay away for nine years. For casual viewers though? Veronica looks like she’s doing something half-assed.

And she is. The difference between fans and non-fans is that we’re actually expecting this.

And Veronica falls right into step when she comes back to Neptune. Even picking the phone up at her dad’s private investigator’s office.

I missed this. While I love Veronica Mars, and while I thought Piz was a great addition to the show, I wasn’t a big fan of the final season. As I said, Veronica Mars is built on nostalgia. The third season of the program introduced too many new things. It wasn’t the same. And the film learned from this.

And so we see Veronica and the characters we love grow, mature, and be different people–and yet have that familiarity permeate their existence. Regardless of the years that had passed, these characters remain the same at their core.

Let’s face the facts: Veronica Mars is no Nancy Drew. Sure she can solve a mystery like the best of them, but it’s Veronica’s resourcefulness in the Neptune setting that actually elevates her to become something more than Nancy Drew could ever be: Veronica is as real a person as you can get in the world of television…and video-on-demand.

Which is why I think the film succeeded–even if reports of the weekend box-office say otherwise. Veronica Mars came back, delivered a doozy of a story, and kicked ass.

And she did it her way.

Whether or not we get another film, or if we’re just going to continue her adventures in the novels that were announced…I don’t really care. I will continue to support. I will continue to be a fan.

Because I don’t want to sing the lyrics of the Veronica Mars theme song and actually mean the words.

Book: Are We There Yet?

"Are We There Yet?"

Elijah and Danny don’t think they have anything in common except their parents. Danny thinks Elijah is a lazy, slacking, clueless dreamer who doesn’t know how to make a living. Elijah thinks Danny is a workaholic, stuck-up, soulless drone who doesn’t know how to make a life. Yes, they’re brothers.

Then their parents trick them into taking a trip to Italy together. Nine days of escape. Nine days of somewhere else.

Elijah and Danny aren’t sure it’s going to work. Until they each meet a girl–the same girl. Julia. And nothing will ever be the same again.

I didn’t like this book as much as I did the other David Levithan books, but this is still way, way better than Every You, Every Me. So least favorite then? I guess.

What I really liked about Are We There Yet? is its focus on brothers. Which is also the reason why I didn’t like the book as much as I did the other Levithan books. Because I was expecting something more from the brothers’ story lines, and it kind of fell flat for me.

A girl was introduced, widened the rift between brothers, and then they were okay in the end. And then they were better brothers. I call bull.

It doesn’t come left of field though. There is development. Except, most of it happens on the side of the older brother. You can actually see him evolve from being a douche to someone who is trying to be better. The other brother just is. He gets pushed around by plot, and doesn’t become a better character for it. Which is frustrating. Really frustrating.

Are We There Yet? has all the ingredients that make a good book. And I feel like it got squandered because the book had an itinerary it wanted to stick to. And instead of enjoying the journey, we get snapshots of possible moments instead.

So did I like it? Enough to actually try understanding why the book wasn’t better. But not enough for me to recommend it to other people. Still, I’m just one person. See what others have to say about the book:
Hiding in the Stacks
Books and Sensibility
Tower of Books

Book: It’s Kind of a Funny Story

"It's Kind of a Funny Story"

Ambitious New York City teenager Craig Gilner is determined to succeed at life–which means getting into the right high school to get into the right college to get the right job. But once Craig aces his way into Manhattan’s Executive Pre-Professional High School, the pressure becomes unbearable. He stops eating and sleeping until, one night, he nearly kills himself.

Craig’s suicidal episode gets him checked into a mental hospital, where his new neighbors include a transsexual sex addict, a girl who has scarred her own face with scissors, and the self-elected President Armelio. There, Craig is finally able to confront the sources of his anxiety.

Ned Vizzini, who himself spent time in a psychiatric hospital, has created a remarkably moving tale about the sometimes unexpected road to happiness.

I normally don’t include the last bit when I type up the book synopsis, but I feel like I should here. I feel that it is important for the readers of this book to find out (whether before or after) that the author also spent time in a psychiatric hospital.

Why?

Because some readers might just see fiction, and think that this is all made up. Because those readers might think that the people characterized in the book are too quirky to really exist. Because some readers might just read the book, like it, and then move on. I think this novel deserves more than that.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a book about depression, but it’s also a book that teaches us how to interact with people like Craig, people with problems, and people like his friend Aaron, whose problem might not be the fact that he has a problem–

It teaches us to be compassionate, understanding–to listen. It teaches us not to treat them differently from other people, and I mean that in both ways.

Words hurt. It, some times, hurt more than actual physical blows. And hurting words don’t always come from insults, from complaints, from irrational thought. Some times, these words that hurt come from expectations. Camaraderie. It’s this type of bullying that never really gets talked about. Bullying that comes from your own family, your own peers–it’s the way they expect you to be the you they think you are, it’s the way they want you to be better–but really, what they mean is they want you to be more like them.

And this is the type of bullying we see in It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Craig bullies himself into aspiring for something people expect him to aspire for. His friends bully him by making fun of him, by talking about him behind his back, by forcing him to do things he doesn’t want to do. His parents bully him by giving him everything he wants, by setting an unreal expectation of the world, and never expecting anything from him.

In the novel, Craig looks for order. His inner voice is a commanding officer from the army! He is looking for order as his inner world is falling apart, and no one from his family or his friends see this. It takes other people like him, people who also have problems, to see that he needs not to be babied, he needs not to be forced into doing something he doesn’t want to do, to find that balance of giving him what he wants and letting him fend for himself.

It’s hard to explain.

People have read this book and liked it for its content and message. For giving a voice to a group of people who normally gets looked down upon because they couldn’t deal. But I think this book has done more than that. I think this book shows us that the fault isn’t that they can’t handle pressure or reality. It’s that they’ve been made to believe that they can’t handle it.

They can, if we would just let them.

Depression is a real thing. But it’s only really a problem when we make the ones who suffer from it believe that it’s unnatural, and that it’s crippling. It shouldn’t be.