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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Swifty Reviews 'Monster House'.

Monster House


I have no idea how I grew to dislike 3D animated films more and more in the past two years, to the point where I would become entirely indifferent to the majority of the 3D animated releases in the cinemas regardless of their box-office performance or critical reception. Pixar films remain a must-watch event for me, yet I would view anything else with scepticism.

Maybe it started with Shrek 2's record-breaking box-office performance back in 2004, a film which I enjoyed, yet could never understand why it would end up becoming one of the top five all-time top-grossing films ever.

Then there was Shark Tale, also released in 2004, a film I was mildly amused by because of the all-star voice cast, and how the characters were made to look as similar as their voice actors as possible. Yet it was ultimately an emotionally hollow film which generated laughter solely from its blatant pop-cultural references and crass humour. There are SOME moments that were enjoyable, but Finding Nemo it ain't.

Last year, I had the misfortune of watching Robots, an incredibly forgettable movie which I couldn't even remember reviewing in this site last year. Once again, the same formula of most 3D animated films were used: (1) Usage of famous Hollywood stars for voice-acting (2) Pop culture references and toilet humour (3) Another 'underdog' or 'fish out of water' tale.

Seeing that annoyingly stupid robot voiced by Robin Williams dancing to the tune of Britney Spears' 'Hit Me Baby One More Time' to destroy his enemies in the end was excruciating, not funny. I almost felt suicidal, and thus I stopped being interested in 3D animated films anymore. And yes, I skipped Madagascar because I was just too disgusted since then.

(All right, Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children is bloody fantastic, but I'm talking about Hollywood releases here)

Yet 3D animated films started becoming some kind of surefire bet for movie studios, any crap they churn out would easily gross more than $100 million in the US domestic box-office, and because of that, more 3D animated films than ever were released this year (to my consternation).

Sure, I don't exactly belong to the target audience, but if I'm not, then why the hell were they throwing in so many of those irritatingly smug pop cultural references if not to earn some cheap laughs from older viewers who are accompanying their kids? Thus I can't see why I cannot be entertained as well. I'm not so snobbish and highbrow to NOT like mainstream films, I normally admonish people who condemn Hollywood, or roll my eyes in annoyance when fellow film students begin telling me that they avoid commercial films completely because they embrace only Antonionis, the Goddards, the Fellinis, the Truffauts, the Tarkovskys, intellectually-stimulating for them, narrowing one's scope for me.

(And that explains why I can actually enjoy Nacho Libre... and even declare DOA: Dead Or Alive as the best videogame adaptation since Mortal Kombat, I don't really expect myself to be impressed that much when I go to the cinemas, especially not when I'm going to see such films.)

What annoyed me most about 3D animated films has to be the aforementioned formula. The desperate use of an all-star cast for voice-acting and your generic 'fish out of water' or 'underdog who triumphs over adversity' story. Never any variety.

Let me look at the 3D animated features I've seen thus far this year. Over The Hedge deviates (very) slightly from the formula, I found it passably entertaining, but ultimately forgettable. On the other hand, I think Cars may be one of the best films of summar 2006. The film was good based on its own merits, a rivetingly good story with a heart, a likable cast of characters which weren't driven solely by the big-name voice actors, it was the execution that was made the film so beautiful, not the amount of Hollywood stars they used to do the voice. Unsurprisingly, Cars is this year's second top-grossing film behind Pirates of the Caribbean 2.

So, the question is, is Monster House, directed by first-timer Gil Kenan, with Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis as executive producers, another one of those inferior non-Pixar 3D features that rely solely on the fame of its voice actors and toilet gags? Some references to pop culture and other films that stick out like a sore thumb and that you have to laugh at because other people in the cinemas were laughing? *sigh* Another underdog or fish out of water tale?

Thankfully, no.

Little girl in opening scene of Monster House, bad things will happen to her


It's a haunted house movie (critic James Berardinelli calls it the first animated haunted house movie ever), more similar to last year's Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-rabbit (except it's 3D, not stop-motion) than Robots. The story's about three kids, DJ (voice of Mitchel Musso), Chowder (Sam Lerner), and Jenny (Spencer Locke), trying to investigate and rid the neighbourhood of this possessed house right across the street from DJ's home. That possessed house has a nasty habit of 'eating' anything or anyone that ventured nearby, opening its front door and catching its victim with its carpet tongue, while the windows are staring balefully.

The three main kids seem to be some kind of parody of the main characters of Harry Potter. DJ, the hero, Chowder, the worthless comic relief/best buddy, Jenny, the smart gal. The interaction between the three are funny, as DJ and Chowder, about to hit puberty, attempt all kinds of silly things to impress Jenny, while Jenny would use it to her advantage.

The supporting characters are voiced by more familiar actors, but because of their brief appearances, they do not overwhelm the film completely. Maggie Gyllenhaal as their babysitter, Elizabeth. Jason Lee as her jerk boyfriend. Jon Heder as the greatest video game player on the face of the planet, who wears an adult diaper so he can keep on playing games without being interrupted by bathroom breaks. Steve Buscemi as the scary old man, Nebbercracker, who lives in the possessed house. Kathleen Turner is the voice of the house.

Now I won't say that the film is exactly mindblowingly awesome, yet it IS a breath of fresh air. I won't go around recommending it, but it's an entertaining film, exciting towards the end, and unexpectedly touching too. It definitely does not feel as manufactured and empty as most of those 3D animated films I had endured in the past few years, and that's good enough for me. Perhaps if this film is released in a year without a Pixar release, I would've been more affected by it. Still a commendable effort though.


Monster House trailer


You know, I really miss traditional 2D animation. Are the days of Don Bluth gone forever? Can there never be another Golden Era for Disney similar to the one they had in the 90s? I'm pretty tired of 3D animated features, really.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Swifty Reviews 'Nacho Libre'

Jack Black and Hector Jimenez in Nacho LibreI watched Napoleon Dynamite earlier late last year on DVD and enjoyed it, but it didn't exactly blow me away. I guess I didn't really 'get' the film. (Justin said that being an American would've maximized my enjoyment of the film, I probably agree). That film reminded me of Wes Anderson's films, but... not as good.

(Despite the many comparisons people have drawn between 'Napoleon Dynamite' director Jared Hess and Wes Anderson, he cited the Coen Brothers in this interview as a major influence)

So I wasn't sure what to expect from Nacho Libre, his second effort starring Jack Black. The trailer seemed funny, but I had worried that all the funny parts were in the trailer, and I would sit through the film, not 'getting' it again, and then exposing my lack of sophisticated wit and sense of humour amongst my readers here by writing a rambling, sourpussed review. Hoo boy.

Initially expecting just some minor laughs, I ended up having a much better time than expected.

Jack Black plays Brother Ignacio, a monk who works as a cook in an orphanage, with a funny-sounding Mexican accent that makes you giggle (or cringe, whatever) almost whenever he says something. He has big dreams, wanting to be a lucha libre wrestler worshipped by many, and also lusting after the very hot Sister EncarnaciĆ³n (played by the very hot Ana de la Reguera... she kinda looks like Penelope Cruz).

Ana de la Reguera in Nacho LibreIgnacio runs into a tall, scrawny beggar (Hector Jimenez) in a fight over a bag of tortilla chips in the back-alley, and is wrestled into submission. They later form a wrestling tag team and make money by getting their asses kicked in a weekly basis. Initially happy with their newfound wealth, Ignacio gradually grows tired of being a loser and starts trying to win a fight. And also, will he sacrifice personal glory for the good of the orphans? (unlike your conventional films, he doesn't really care that much about them...)

Despite its offbeat pacing and rhythm, the film is probably more conventional than Napoleon Dynamite, with a generic but affective climax in Ignacio's final showdown against champion wrestler Ramses. Jack Black's overacting is funny like hell (watch him sing just before the final showdown!), hell, not just his acting, even his present itself, seeing his pudgy frame, wearing that silly mask and cape is funny already. Quite refreshing after his asshole-ish turn in King Kong (love that movie, but can't really say much about his performance there), brings back memories of the (in my opinion) superior School of Rock.


Jack Black sings!


Time to see Jack Black in a serious dramatic role? (... King Kong doesn't count, and no, not Shallow Hal either) Or is he more probably a one-note actor? Hm.

So, what do you guys think of Jack Black? Would you want to see him in a serious drama? It'll be funny if he pulls a 'Jim Carrey' by delivering such a great dramatic performance that I don't even want to see him in a comedy anymore. (Jim Carrey did that with Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind)

As for Jared Hess, yes, I still feel that there are some resemblances between him and Wes Anderson, but I'm interested to see how he'll develop in his next film as well.


Nacho Libre trailer


Other reviews of Nacho Libre:


The Gallivantings of Daniel Franklin: That Girl, Ana Reguera (Nacho Libre)
Daniel Franklin gives Nacho Libre a 1 out of 10, (pretty harsh) and posts pictures of Ana de la Reguera whom he insists is the highlight of the film.

Embiggened! Nacho Libre: Reviewed
Embiggened ain't that impressed either, liking the idea and concept, conceding that it's a good ride, but questioning the shortcomings of the execution.

(Obviously, I'm one of the rare people in the world who actually enjoyed the movie...)

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Morning Musume: Tool of Nationalism?

Morning Musume


So I was catching up on my 1930's Japanese history the other day and something struck me: 'Morning Daughters' sounds suspiciously like one of the wartime Patriotic Women's groups that sent their sons and young husbands off to the front for the glory of the Yamato race.



Maybe this is in bad taste, maybe I've just been watching 'The Peace' too much and internalized its pseudo-fascist imagery, but...maybe I'm onto something. In the alternate universe where Japan won World War II, I'm sure the following songs would be getting heavy radio play:

WAR! Koi no Conquest

ATTACK! Pearl Harbor no Uta

Tenno Heika Banzai!

Suki na EMPEROR

HOW DO YOU LIKE JAPANESE IMPERIAL DOMINATION (Nihon wa donna kanji dekka)


Suggest your own!

Morning Musume




Swifty: Oh, and this is the blog's 700th entry...


Friday, September 22, 2006

Swifty Meets Jasper Fforde.

Last Friday, while I was at Perth city, I saw a sign in Dymocks bookshop telling me that Jasper Fforde's coming for a book signing session on the 22nd of September. Excited, I took a photo of the sign with my mobile phone, as a reminder.

Jasper Fforde sign in Dymocks


And today, I left classes early (after showing people an awesome one-minute preview of Girl Disconnected I shot last night), catching a bus to Perth to attend my very first book signing session*. Trying to catch a glimpse of Jasper Fforde, whose Thursday Next books (I've only read three though) I like verily.

Of course, when I reached Dymocks, people were already lining up getting their books signed. I looked hurriedly at the stocks, trying to get a Jasper Fforde book I haven't had for his autograph. The fourth Thursday Next book, Something Rotten, was out of stock. The first book from his new Nursery Crime Division series, The Big Over Easy, wasn't to be found either.

Only the first few Thursday Next books, which I already had, and his latest, The Fourth Bear, which was sold for 33 dollars.

I stared.

I frowned.

I sighed.

I ran off to the Borders (a regular hangout place for me these days) nearby, desperately trying to find myself the other books. Alas, they were all sold out as well, except for The Fourth Bear, which was also sold for 33 dollars. Noting that lack of differences in price, I sprinted back to Dymocks again.

Got myself a copy of The Fourth Bear, haggled for a discount (there is a long-forgotten student discount where all students get a 10% for anything they buy once they show their cards, apparently everyone has forgotten about it until I mentioned it). And then went to have my copy signed by Jasper Fforde as well.

We spoke briefly. I told him that I'm from Malaysia, and he told me that he actually stopped by Singapore for his book-signing tour, and also signed for the Malaysian market. (I wondered briefly how many other people in Malaysia are into his books, give me a holler... please?) Couldn't speak more since there were people behind me.

Oh, and I took a photo with him too (of course!) with my cellphone.

Jasper Fforde and me.


Right, and here's a photo of my autographed copy of Jasper Fforde's The Fourth Bear. See? It's for 'Edmund Yeo'!

Edmund Yeo's autographed copy of Jasper Fforde's The Fourth Bear


I showed Justin the book excitedly after I went home, telling him that THIS could be his future (if he doesn't use the veil of anonymity for his future writing career as he had long planned). Book-signing sessions, photos taken with excited fanboys, and said fanboys telling his friends about these book-signing sessions. Ah, the joy.

I'm going to quote the Wikipedia entry about Jasper Fforde for those who have no idea who I've been talking about all these while.
"Fforde's books are noted for the number of literary allusions, wordplay and the tightly scripted plot, and also the impossibility of deciding which genre they fit into. The simple answer is that they don't, although they all have elements of metafiction, parody, and fantasy. However, it does help to be widely read, especially with the Thursday Next books, set as they are within a police department that fights crime against literature. An example is this exchange between Next and her father: "That's a hell of a catch.""Second best there is". A reader not knowing the work of Joseph Heller may well miss the reference to the novel "Catch-22". This understanding that Fforde does not signpost all the jokes because the reader is intelligent and knowledgable enough to 'get it' follows the same idea as in the work of Terry Pratchett ("Who do you want to be remembered as the greatest horn player ever, you or some felonious monk?").

Fforde should also be noted for his use of the internet to add a different level to the books at ThursdayNext.com. He talks directly to his fans through comments on the Fforum, which has attracted a small community producing parodies and nonsense roughly connected to the 'Nextian Universe'. This is an alternate reality where the Crimean War is still being fought in 1985, the death of Winston Churchill at an early age (possibly due to Time Guerillas changing history) led to Britain being invaded by Nazi Germany before liberation in the 1950s, and where cloning is commonplace with Thursday sharing her world with dodos, thylacines, woolly mammoths, and neanderthals.

Another way to engage readers has been through the insertion of rogue postcards into copies of the books which now sell for not inconsiderable sums, as well as guerrilla signings, which often confuse purchasers of his books."
(I DID get a rogue postcard of a Ginja Assassin from him!!!!)

Anyway, check out Jasper Fforde's official website.

His books are definitely worth reading, but you can only enjoy them most if you're a hardcore book lover into those literary classics. When I first picked up 'The Eyre Affair'**, the first Thursday Next book, I haven't even read Jane Eyre before, and I had to do a quick research on the Jane Eyre story before I could proceed with reading the rest of the book. See? Who says fanfics*** are bad?

So, anyone else who has read Jasper Fforde's books?



* Despite having not attended a single book session, I do have two autographed books, one is Mick Foley's Foley Is Good, the other is Chris Welles Feder's (Orson Welles' eldest daughter) 'The Movie Director', a book of collected poems. Both are acquired through friends of my dad.


** quick summary of 'The Eyre Affair': In the alternative world of Thursday Next the heroine, the novel Jane Eyre actually has a sad ending, unlike ours, and then, literary detective Thursday follows the villain into the text of Jane Eyre, and during her mission, she accidentally alters the ending into the happy ending we all know and love, yeah!

***
Characters of pre-existing literary works do appear in Jasper Fforde's works, which makes him pretty much a fanficcer as well, as noted in a comment on one of our older entries... you know, the famous one where Justin posted a rebuttal against fantasy writer Robin Hobb. Of course, the more rigid anti-fanfiction body will say that Fforde's forgivable because he is writing about, well, characters that belong to a public domain, or maybe a more twisted argument that his works cannot be considered fanfiction because they are published. Damn, I hate people who hate the very existence of fanfiction. But this is unrelated, so I'm not going to dwell into that.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Koda Kumi

Koda Kumi


Justin: Koda Kumi's gimmick is that she's a slut.

While most current idols are content to preserve at least a modicum of purported chastity, KK has a tendency to go much further. Watching her, it can be refreshing not to see things dumbed down to the level of a young teenager. Still, this is Japan we're talking about, a nation where 'serious adult female sexuality' is about as acceptable as child porn. (Okay, actually...it's much less acceptable - you can always count on a culture gap to kill analogies). So, Kumi's stripping and grinding has the approximate titillation value of a fifteen year old wearing her big sister's clothes and posing in front of a mirror - you can't take it all that seriously.

Koda KumiKumi's biggest asset, apart from her, um, assets, is a rich, husky voice. Now, this might not sound that distinctive, but consider that this takes place in the same country where her biggest rival and labelmate, Otsuka Ai*, sings like a squirrel on meth, and women in their late twenties will try to affect a ten year old's pitch and intonations. So, her deeper register, which might even be termed soulful at times, immediately calls her out. Songs like "D.D.D" and "No Tricks" were the closest thing to actual R & B that J-pop had come in ages - you could listen to them without having to 'explain' the voice. She also had some nice gimmicks, such as releasing what was essentially a full album (Best Second Session) song-by-song, each with its own single. She's currently 'top of the class' as it were, set to win a number of industry awards again.

But as much as I love Koda Kumi's style, I can't embrace her wholeheartedly, just because the solid musical core isn't there. She just doesn't have enough songs to make a lasting impression, and I couldn't enjoy her as much without her pictures and videos constantly in the periphery - something eminently possible with a true talent like Utada Hikaru or Ken Hirai*. I also can't see her lasting long - once her gimmick runs its course, she doesn't have the personality to hang in for the long haul. J-pop artists who've been around for more than five years (Ayumi, Hikki, etc.) have gone beyond just setting fashions to the extent of creating and inhabiting their own world fans can enter, with a distinctive set of emotions, themes, images, and - dare I say it - musical growth. Even Hello! Project is less a production team than a way of life. Koda Kumi is just a voice and a body, and while that can make for some great singles*, it isn't inclined to last.

* Otsuka, memorably, referred to Kumi as "a cheap nightclub hostess." - bitch SLAP!

*just kidding.

*her stuff's probably better to hear in a club context than to just sit down and listen to - important to note in assessing it. I can't think of anyone else besides maybe Namie who could get away with saying 'bounce wit me bounce wit me' in a song.




Swifty: I first heard about Koda Kumi through the two songs from Final Fantasy X-2 (an underrated game with horribly disappointing 'PERFECT' ending that I spent hours trying to achieve), Real Emotion and 1000 Words. I liked the latter, but wasn't really expecting to hear much from her again since, honestly, the singers of previous Final Fantasy games never really attained mainstream success.


Koda Kumi's live performance of 1000 Words


Then, I saw her name appearing again, this time for the theme song of Cutie Honey. Thought she was hot, and assumed that the gal's carving a niche for herself by singing theme songs for anime and video games. Maybe she's kinda different from FF9 singer, Emiko Shiratori (of course, she belonged to a different generation, singing for the 70s Winter Olympics and stuff) and FF10 singer, Rikki (actually a folk singer, so probably not aiming for mainstream success) did!


Koda Kumi's live performance of Cutie Honey


Koda Kumi... and then, back in April, I found out that Koda Kumi actually became big in Japan (I had cut myself off from Jpop news in the past two years until recently) and was rather surprised. Checking out some of her hit singles on Youtube, I stumbled upon the series of videos which I would later name as the You Feel Lies Someday Tetralogy (yes, I NAMED IT!!!!) and did an entry showing and talking briefly about each video (CHECK IT OUT! It's my most criminally underrated entries ever).

So yeah, I loved (some of) her videos, enjoy her purely from a superficial level when she's slutting out (Japan's equivalent of I don't know, Christina Aguilera? Or Shakira?). Some of her songs are good but her voice doesn't really do it for me, and her best songs don't really blow me away like rival Ai Otsuka's ballads (Kingyo Hanabi... *sob*). But like I said, as long as she looks hot, I don't really care about the songs.

... yes, I'm shallow, but hey, at least I'm honest.

Justin and Swifty like Koda Kumi


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Donald Barthelme - '60 Stories'

Book cover of Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme


Donald Barthelme is not afraid to be stupid. If you're expecting to open this book, read it from start to finish, and for there to be recognizeable characters and epiphanies and 'human dilemmas' and other sorts of things you've come to expect from 'literary fiction', then you're going in with the wrong mindset. No, serious. It's not just nonlinearity. Sometimes Barthelme's writing is retarded. You can see it trying to be funny and failing, or just plain showing off, dropping names. But then, just as you're about to put the book aside, Barthelme will toss off some random, memorable line or image.

Let me give you an example, from the story "The Party" :

I want to a party and corrected a pronunciation. The man whose voice I had adjusted fell back into the kitchen. I praised a Bonnard. It was not a Bonnard. My new glasses, I explained, and I'm terribly sorry, but significant variations elude me, vodka exhausts me, I was young once, essential services are being maintained. Drums, drums, drums outside the windows. I thought that if I could persuade you to say 'No,' then my own responsibility would be limited, or changed, another sort of life would be possible, different from the life we had previously, somewhat skeptically, enjoyed together. But you had wandered off into another room, testing the effect on members of the audience of your ruffled blouse, your long magenta skirt. Giant hands, black, thick with fur, reaching in through the windows. Yes, it was King Kong, back in action, and all of the guests uttered loud exclamations of fatigue and disgust, examining the situation in the light of their own needs and emotions, hoping that the ape was real or papier-mache according to their temperaments, or wondering whether other excitements were possible out in the crisp, white night.

Donald BarthelmeNotice that King Kong doesn't come in until halfway down the page, and doesn't even seem to be the biggest thing happening. A less talented writer would blow their Kong-wad in the first sentence and make a big deal of it: but here, the ape's presence is almost incidental to the story, which somehow makes it a thousand times funnier. This is harder to pull off than it looks.

Here's some more, from 'Report'

"We could, of course, release thousands upon thousands of self-powered crawling-along-the-ground lengths of titanium wire eighteen inches long with a diameter of .0005 centimeters (that is to say, invisible) which, scenting an enemy, climb up his trouser leg and wrap themselves around his neck. We have developed those. They are within our capabilities. We could, of course, release in the arena of the upper air our new improved pufferfish toxin which precipitates an identity crisis. No special technical problems there. That is almost laughably easy. We could, of course, place up to two million maggots in their rice within twenty-four hours. The maggots are ready, massed in secret staging areas in Alabama. We have hypdermic darts capable of piebalding the enemy's pigmentation. We have rots, blights, and rusts capable of attacking his alphabet. Those are dandies. We have a hut-shrinking chemical which penetrates the fibers of the bamboo, causing it, the hut, to strangle its occupants. This operates only after 10 P.M., when people are sleeping. Their mathematics are at the mercy of a suppurating surd we have invented. We have a family of fishes trained to attack their fishes. We have the deadly testicle-destroying telegram. The cable companies are cooperating. We have a green substance that, well, I'd rather not talk about. We have a secret word that, if pronounced, produces multiple fractures in all living things in an area the size of four football fields."
"That's why-"
"Yes. Some damned fool couldn't keep his mouth shut."


Honore de BalzacOr this from 'Eugenie Grandet', in which Barthelme simply summarizes an entire Balzac novel in a few pages:

"Mother, have you noticed that this society we're in tends to be a little...repressive?"
"What does that mean, Eugenie? What does that mean, that strange new word, 'repressive,' that I have never heard before?"
"It means...it's like when you decide to do something, and you get up out of your chair to do it, and you take a step, and then become aware of frosty glances being directed at you from every side."
"Frosty glances?"
"Your desires are stifled."
"What desires are you talking about?"
"Just desires in general. Any desires. It's a whole...I guess atmosphere is the word...a tendency on the part of the society..."
"You'd better sew some more pillow cases, Eugenie."


After reading this, you can't look at Balzac the same or even read him again (if you ever could). I wish someone was around to do the same sort of thing to the Balzacs of today. (Barthelme also rips on Balzac in 'The Rise of Capitalism' - even funnier the second time round).

When you consider that stuff like this came out in the 60's, just after the ponderous over-earnestness of the Beats, you get the sense that the culture really NEEDED writing like this. The problem is that Barthelme only manages this sort of thing maybe 30 or 40% of the time: I'd have cut this book at least in half, maybe quartered it to get down to the essentials. Or maybe that's wrong, maybe the appeal of Barthelme is in the diffusion of details, the flood of random crap: certainly his imitators have taken it upon themselves to inflict 1000+ page piles of shit on us, many of them remaindered within months. However, while sixty stories may sound like a lot, at the individual level, Barthelme is concise: stories tend to be three or four pages tops, with little excess detail. Of course, depending on your point of view, this material is *all* excess - an excess variously pretentious, monotonous, and brilliant - often in the same piece. I say 'piece' because, with a few exceptions, I can't classify most of 60 Stories' contents as 'short stories' - they're more like sketches, drafts, improvisations, shots in the dark.

In this sense, Barthelme prefigured all of what was to come. When post-modern fiction comes up, Nabokov's name* is often mentioned. But what generally gets tagged as that now comes off more like a combination of Barthelme and Borges: Borges, for the constructedness and references, Barthelme for the humor, random crap, and 'flat' constructed effect. Of the two, Borges is the better writer, but Barthelme, though lesser-known, has probably had more influence: you can just SEE kids reading this stuff and wanting to go out and do it for themselves (David Foster Wallace has admitted that Barthelme's story 'The Balloon', included here, is what made him want to be a writer). Although their approaches couldn't be more different, Barthelme is, like Hemingway or H.P. Lovecraft, the kind of idiosyncratic writer who immediately gave rise to a cult of 'Shit that's awesome now let me see if I can do it too' ripoff-writers who aren't so much influenced as directly trying to carry the line. The difference (again) is that Barthelme-imitators are still getting tagged as 'avant-garde' or 'daring' or whatever, despite working in a genre (and yes, metafiction of this sort is a genre just as much as epic fantasy or dimestore romance) that reached its apex at least thirty years ago. Simply put: without Sixty Stories, there could be no McSweeney's. Before Barthelme, literature just wasn't like this. You couldn't just dick around, make jokes, and reference movies and still expect to get published by Penguin. Barthelme made it so you could. Whether that was an improvement or not is for everyone to decide. However, not everyone can come up with something like 'A Manuel for Sons', which discourses on dandling, calcium candy, and 'the tunneling father.'

Barthelme tries for profundities from time to time, or at least closing lines that let you know he's onto Deeper Things - but these are mostly ruses; in fact he's like the literary equivalent of King Crimson or some other prog band who release five-disc boxes of live improvisation: looked at one way it's just dicking around, but dicking of a very high caliber indeed.

The best way to read this book, then, is to just flip through it and see whatever interests you. I read it from start to finish, yes, but not before I'd already skimmed most of the stories, cracked up a few times, read various parts over, ignored the boring bits, and marked my place with a crayon. It's that kind of book, and Barthelme is that kind of writer. Unlike his derivatives' work, there is real anarchy here, struggling to get out: as much freedom as writing affords, Barthelme at his best managed to get: in stories like "A Shower of Gold," , you feel as if anything could happen from sentence to sentence, but more than that, you want it to happen. Barthelme is not big on paragraphic unity: his sentences often seem to have come together by accident, or resulted from the cut-up method. "Alice" is just stream-of-consciousness, and boring stream-of-consciousness at that (although it does contain the phrase 'chaos is tasty AND USEFUL TOO'). But elsewhere, "A Shower of Gold" and "The Falling Dog" are full of old-school absurdity, with nonsensical plots, characters reduced to functions and inexplicable, hilarious references (look up the 'cat piano' from the former story; Barthelme didn't just invent that). Some of the stories, perhaps inevitably given Barthelme's roll-the-dice mentality, are more traditional, even conventional: "Game" is a kind of Cold War Twilight Zone episode, with two military men in a bunker trying (unsuccessfully) to stave off insanity. "The Leap" is straight-up Waiting for Godot, format and everything. "Me and Miss Mandible" is based on an absurdity - a 30 year old is sent back to grade school due to a clerical error and ends up fucking his teacher - but still kicks along in fairly linear, comprehensible fashion.

Barthelme sometimes degenerates into lectures ("On Angels", "Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel"), a pedantic tendency he has in common with lesser Borges, but his tangents are usually interesting enough to make you keep reading. I'm not sure you could call some of this stuff 'fiction', even; it's more like speculation: still, it's better than a Cheever story, or something. At his best here, Barthelme pushes things in ways none of his derivatives could hope to: a thousand more pages of something like Infinite Jest could never equal the flash of the programmable ocean in "Paraguay", or the 'suppurating surd'. Barthelme knew this, and kept it short: this is the only book of his you'll need, and most of the stories are only a few pages.

So, read this book, retain it, and remember: the better you know it, the less likely it is that you'll ever be impressed by any hype about metafiction or nonlinear storytelling: Barthelme wrote the book.

Check out some of these stories full-length here.

* Yeah, all right, look: Barthelme kills Nabokov dead. Don't give me that shit; Lolita was overwritten and obnoxious, and the kind of technical gimmickry in Pale Fire, well, Barthelme pulls that off on more or less every other page. Serious, how many times does Nabokov make you laugh out loud, and I don't mean 'laugh-out-loud', I mean actually physically laugh or think 'holy shit' ? As much as Barthelme fucks up sometimes, he has the ability to do that.




Swifty: Apparently, Barthelme's short story, Margins, inspired a Wordpress layout named after him too (download it here).

And here's a video of actor Timothy Hutton reading from Sixty Stories:



Monday, September 18, 2006

Swifty Reviews 'DOA: Dead Or Alive', The Best Video Game Adaptation Since Mortal Kombat

I have long given up hope on video game adaptations. There was a time when I looked forward to every single one of them like any naive video gamer would, begging my long-suffering dad to bring me to the cinemas for such classics like, ah, Super Mario Brothers (we were in Washington then, 1993), Street Fighter (1994, even though I was only 10 then, the film embarrassed the crap out of me, my dad was traumatized) and Double Dragon: The Movie (1994, I got a FREE ACTION FIGURE of Billy Lee from the cinemas! It was the highlight of the entire night, I think it was my dad's too, til this very day, I have it displayed proudly in my room, a badge of honour that I survived the film).

Then, in 1995, Mortal Kombat arrived. My dad and I went to see it (with my then-toddler little sister, whose only contribution throughout the movie was to wail about going to the toilet repeatedly, thanks a lot, Sandra). It was a magical experience that reinforced the fragile bond between father and son, since we finally saw a GOOD video game movie!

Mortal Kombat is the Citizen Kane of video game adaptations, unsurpassed until this very day. Magical because of its sheer campiness and fun fighting scenes, and hey, Johnny Cage rules. Besides, I got to witness the greatness that is Robin Shou, who remains the most underrated Chinese actor of his generation. Guy should've been a superstar.

Many video game adaptations followed since then, neither of them emulating the greatness that is Mortal Kombat. Mortal Kombat: Annihilation should never have existed. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, shamed me as a Final Fantasy fan. The Tomb Raider films made me hate Angelina Jolie. The Resident Evil films? Well, I'm one of the rare few who liked the second one more than the first one, maybe because it's sillier, to the point where I could giggle and snicker through the absurdities of the action scenes.

Other than that, I ceased putting myself through the torture of video game adaptations. No, I didn't watch Doom. And no, I haven't seen a single Uwe Boll film. (seeing them will most probably make me appreciate the existences of non-Uwe Boll films more, obviously, but I would rather indulge in my angst than to remedy it by torturing myself further).

Then, DOA: Dead Or Alive, made a surprise advanced worldwide premiere over in Australia (solely because Australian singer Holly Valance is among the main cast members) last week. Overwhelmed by curiosity, and the chance to hold bragging rights that I've seen the DOA film earlier than everyone in America, I went to see it with my flatmate, Duane. And walked out of the cinema, shellshocked.

After eleven years of waiting, I think I saw the best video game adaptation since the first Mortal Kombat. If Mortal Kombat is Citizen Kane, then DOA: Dead Or Alive is Lawrence of Arabia, or Casablanca. It's campy, it's silly, and it doesn't take itself as seriously as say, the Tomb Raider, Resident Evil and (ESPECIALLY) Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Without the heavy-handed pretentiousness and attempt to be a 'good film' like the aforementioned movie, DOA: Dead Or Alive was refreshingly stupid, yet stupid in an endearing way.

Maybe it had to do with the babes. But I doubt I am such a superficial person.

(Having Eric Roberts, yes, ERIC ROBERTS, as the bad guy was already a sign that you should NOT take this film seriously. And in this comeback performance of his, I immediately liked him more than I ever liked his sister, Julia.)

Unfortunately for me, I had a horrible time convincing anyone that DOA: Dead Or Alive is actually a good film.

I told Hui Jing, a junior of mine, about it, and her reply was:

"Please, don't ruin my impression of you."

Not intending to ruin her impression of mine (which is probably godlike), I snapped my mouth shut.

Then, I told Josh about it, and his reply was:

"Hahhaha! Right, that's a funny one. DOA, a good film, HAHAHA!"

Basically, my declaration of the film's greatness for the past week was treated with skepticism and disbelief. My attempt to spread some love for the film was greeted with derisive snorts. Why? WHYYYY? DOA: Dead Or Alive is the kind of film the forgettable Snakes On A Plane should've been.

Of course, I was just as dismissive as everyone when I first saw the trailer, shaking my head in disbelief when I realized that Devon Aoki was casted as Kasumi. I don't want to be mean, and she doesn't really suck in this film, but Devon Aoki never really struck me as someone who has the flawless CG beauty of Kasumi.


Devon Aoki as Kasumi in DOA: Dead Or Alive
The actual Kasumi from Dead Or Alive video games

Kasumi, my favourite character in the game, is meant to possess a fragile beauty, an aura of vulnerability, to contrast her actual kickassness.

A more suitable candidate would've been this unknown cosplayer chick whose photo I featured in Justin's important Sea of Fertility article.


Beautiful Kasumi cosplayer


Unfortunately, she's an unknown...

Having the babelicious Yu Yamada as Kasumi would've been great too.

Yu Yamada should be Kasumi


... never mind.

But then, casting Devon Aoki ain't bad, did I mention that a white chick played the supposedly Japanese Ayane? For comic purposes, obviously.

Natassia Malthe as Ayane


Other than that, the film is pretty damned entertaining. And while watching it, I was struck by how similar its fighting scenes were to the Hong Kong films, So Close, or the Charlie's Angels films, until I realized that the film IS directed by Corey Yuen, director of So Close, and martial arts fight choreographer of those Charlie's Angels films.

Okay, here's another reason why you MUST watch this film, ROBIN SHOU has a cameo in it! That's like, the greatest thing ever! I mean, I couldn't believe that it was him when I first saw the film, thinking that it was just some lookalike, but after checking on IMDB, I realized that it was HIM! There is no better stamp of approval than to see the appearance of Liu Kang himself!

Robin Shou is god


Enough said, I'm starting to seem more and more desperate in trying to prove that I'm not lying about this film. The video below of Holly Valance in action as Christie (hehe) WILL convince you (especially if you're a teen).



P. S. I enjoyed DOA: Dead or Alive more than I enjoyed Superman Returns.

P. P. S. I'm not counting Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children as a video game adaptation. Don't ask me why, I'm too lazy to explain.

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Orange Range

Orange Range


On paper, Orange Range sound like a shit sundae. To demonstrate why this is so, let's gather up the following list of unappetizing musical ingredients

1) Plodding bass-driven alt-metal riffage
2) Rapping
3) Sentimentality
4) A tendency to steal from influences in a way that screams less mashup than 'come on, get some taste.'

and then stir them into a glutinous mixture of Pro Tools-produced sludge. A real unit-shifter, no? Although J-music isn't exactly known for its restraint and ironic detachment, a Japanese Linkin Park is no one's idea of a good time. WTF are you talking about, Justin? you ask. Why not just end the review now?

It gets worse.

Orange RangeAre you ready?

They covered the Locomotion.

And they have a b-side about soy sauce whose refrain is 'SOY! SOY! SOY! SOY!' Didn't this used to be a joke on everything2.com? Wasn't the band paying attention?

I'm sorry for giving Orange Range grief. But I needed to get it out of the way before going on with the review. I genuinely like their music, albeit in a 'lock the door and make sure no one else is around' way. We here at The Great Swifty Speaketh! believe in full disclosure, and if you're going to put on a disc and expect anything other than a horribly Engrish-mangled pop-punk version of the 'locolotion', well...don't say we didn't warn you.

Formed in Okinawa, OR's stated modus operandi was, according to Wikipedia, to "mix "Hip-hop" and "Rock" style music, as can be heard by the vocals and the instrumentals. Their style is also made up of many different cultures and musical styles from around the world. This is attributed to their hometown being Okinawa, a well known station for American military bases and thus cultures and different styles often blend."

Of course, for someone like me 'different styles often blend' means you come out with something truly original and ageneric like Mr. Bungle (second time I've mentioned them recently) or the Boredoms (also Japanese: check them out if you've never heard of them); not something that sounds like it would have been popular on Ozzfest circa 1999.

The defining moment of Orange Range's career was their single 'Hana', contributed to score the film 'Ima ai ni yukimasu' or for English-speakers, 'Be With You Now.' In the film, a dead woman is resurrected and meets her husband and young son (read: little kid of the Ke Huy Quan variety), but her memory is gone, so she has to learn to love them again during her allotted time on Earth. Now, just to recap: mainstream Asian cinema in general has a tendency to be rather...um...unguarded when it comes to emotion, and 'Be With You Now' is no exception: the over-the-top strings soundtrack has already reared its head before the titles even comes up, and by the time the father and son have returned to the woods to escort the mother off (they're never going to see her again! Or are they?) the drama has reached total, sleeve-staining proportions. I watched this movie with my girlfriend the day before she returned to Tokyo for six months, and I still remember her hot, gloppy tears soaking my shirt as the film cut forward ten years to show some serious father-son bonding just before the fade to black unleashed Miyamori Ryo's tepid flow:

Hanabira no youni chiriyuku naka de
Yume mitai ni
kimi ni deaeta kiseki
Aishiatte
Kenka shite
Ironna kabe futari de norikoete
Umare kawatte mo
anata no soba de
hana ni narou


The words seared into my mind. It was ridiculous. Heart-rending. Almost...Korean in its intensity.


Hana music video


"PLAY SONG AGAIN!" my girlfriend demanded, petulantly rewinding to the credits. You can't buy that kind of emo - unless you have a really big recording contract with Sony and a tendency to alternate Westlife's greatest hits with Mr. Children in the disc-changer. Don't let it happen to you, reader. The saccharine pull of Japanese cinema and turgid power balladry can reduce even the most firmly-constitutioned souls to maudlin excess. The only way to be safe is to limit yourself to Miike Takashi and Thee Michelle Gun Elephant.

Orange Range will probably never top 'Hana'; nor would I have them do so. The nation seems to have concurred; while they continue to make the Oricon charts with their singles, I doubt they'll be able to maintain the high of their third release, 'Natural', for long. They're too dependent on tie-ins; apart from the film, their tracks have also been used as anime opening themes ('Shanghai Honey', 'Viva Rock' for Naruto, etc.), and they sound like it: generically upbeat and depthless. They have about three songs: the 'Hana' derivative rap-ballad; the 'barnstormer' Korn-lite rocker, and the 'sunny' Okinawan pop-punk-rock. Over the course of their (to date) two albums, these three have been alternated in sequence and sometimes cross-pollinated, with generally underwhelming results. Unlike Puffy, whose shameless stealing make you exclaim 'fuck yeah', putting on the newest Orange Range single usually provokes responses of 'Oh my God...they're not trying to do a MEXICAN song...are they!?' ('Onegai Senorita' - IT'S REAL. FEAR.)

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Swifty Reviews 'Clerks 2' And Talks About Kevin Smith

Clerks 2 poster


Get this: My name, yes, MY NAME, is in the credits of Clerks 2. Just sit through the normal credits, wait for the tens and thousands of names listed as 'Mooby's (MYSPACE) Friends' to appear, the names are arranged in alphabetical order (based on the last names), so it does take quite a while until my name (EDMUND YEO, if you're the type who surfs at sites without looking at sidebars) pops up. I didn't really expect that to happen when I saw this with Justin two week ago, in fact, I have already forgotten about this 'Clerks 2 Get In The Credits Contest' on Myspace, so it was a pleasant surprise, just like the movie itself.

I started collecting Kevin Smith's films back in 2002-2003, not long after watching 'Jay And Silent Bob Strikes Back, I was intrigued by the fact that all his films take place in the same universe, and Jay and Silent Bob were in every single one of it. pAfter watching all of them with Alex (he's Professor Alan Wong in my webcomics), I decided that I liked them. Of course, like most people (including Kevin himself), I think Kevin Smith's a better writer than a director, and his films belong to the love it (you love its humour, and you like how the characters seem to speak out to you) or hate it (you are offended by the gross-out sex jokes, you felt that his works are definitely too lowbrow) variety. On the other hand, the best performances of Ben Affleck's career had often been in Kevin Smith films.

Just some quick reviews on what I've thought of his previous films:

CLERKS = Yeap, great film. Introduced to Kevin Smith and the View Askewniverse for the very first time.

MALLRATS = Meh, pretty forgettable. Has some funny moments, but never bothered rewatching it. My least favourite Kevin Smith film (... yes, I like it even less than JERSEY GIRL)

CHASING AMY = Generally regarded as his best film. Tied with CLERKS as my favourite Kevin Smith film. Has surprising emotional depth and poignant moments. Definitely Ben Affleck's best film.

DOGMA = Funny like hell. But admittedly forgettable. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are great as the renegade angels (one reckless and murderous, the other kind and timid... until a very awesome sudden role-reversal towards the end). Alanis Morrisette plays God!

JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKES BACK = It's the first Kevin Smith film I've seen. Unfortunately, my memory of it is pretty hazy since i've only seen it once. Obviously, I like it, otherwise, I wouldn't start tracking down the other Kevin Smith films, right?

JERSEY GIRL = No, this is not a good film, but I don't think it's THAT horrible either. The problem with it is that it's a bit too conventional and Hollywood-ish. Lacks the edge you usually expect from Kevin Smith. But hey, he killed Jennifer Lopez in the first ten minutes of the film, that's a cool. (of course, this film feels empty since Jay and Silent Bob weren't in it)

Now, this brings us back to CLERKS 2, a film I admittedly have mixed feelings on when its production was announced. Can Kevin Smith recapture the magic? Or will this be another one of those god-awful sequels which not only make you want to weep, but also taint the memories of the original?

Thankfully, for me, this is one of the better Kevin Smith films, and the most emotional one since Chasing Amy. It was great to see Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) again, they remain just as likeable as they were in the first film. After Randal accidentally set the Quick Stop convenience store on fire, the two ended up working in a MOOBY'S fastfood restaurant for a year (Jay and Silent Bob are still around, selling marijuana). This film focuses on Dante's very last day in the restaurant before moving out to Florida with his domineering fiancee. But is that really what he wants? Indecisive and weak-willed, Dante had not matured much since the first film, the improvements he wanted to bring upon his life are superficial at best. Is he willing to leave New Jersey? Leaving his lifelong buddy, Randal, and Becky (Rosario Dawson), Dante's boss, whom he was very close to, behind?

Of course, what is a Kevin Smith film without some pop-cultural references? Rounding up the main cast is 19-year-old isolated home-schooled Christian Transformer geek Elias (Trevor Fehrman). And being a hardcore Lord of the Rings fan, Elias did get into an intense Star Wars vs. Lord of the Rings debate with Randal (a Star Wars fan). Although gay Lord of the Rings jokes aren't fresh (come on, even I myself am convinced that Frodo left in the end because the heartache he suffered was more figurative than literal, watching Sam marry another woman was too much for him), neither are those complaints about the endlessness of Return of the King, it's still funny like hell to see those on an actual film.

Oh, a here's a video of the debate:



And yes, the sex jokes are back, and this time, it involves bestiality interspecies erotica! So it's not for the faint-hearted. There are cameos of Ben Affleck and Jason Lee too, unfortunately, they weren't playing characters of previous View Askewniverse films.

But like I said, underneath its crass jokes and gross out humour, it's still a film with a heart, and this is what makes Clerks 2 so good. The nostalgic elements that bring back memories of the previous films, the two main characters becoming more complex than viewers believed them to be, maturing before our eyes. It's sentimental and sweet, and unexpectedly touching towards the end, and it proved my point that Kevin Smith's a fine writer (and also maturing as a director... since he did, er, stage a big-scale musical dance sequence).

(However, the sentimentality MIGHT turn you off, since I have a friend of mine complaining that Kevin Smith had become too tame in Clerks 2.)

This film made me crave for more View Askewniverse films, I definitely want to see more of Jay and Silent Bob. However, if this is truly going to be the epilogue (I believe Kevin Smith said that Jay And Silent Bob Strikes Back is the 'conclusion', while Clerks 2 is the 'epilogue' of the View Askewniverse series), it's a good way to go.

In my opinion, Kevin Smith's greatest achievement is not his creative works, but the relationship he has forged with his fans by using the Internet as a medium. Definitely more personal and down-to-earth than most big-named bloggers you can think of, his blogs (this is his official one, this is his Myspace one, both have the same content, just a matter of whether you want to post your feedback on his official forums, or via Myspace) are regularly updated, and their entries concerning mostly his personal life, filmmaking, the film business and many other things are really insightful. While it won't guarantee immediate mainstream success, it's still effective marketing.

It also makes me wonder whether I should cross-post my entries here onto my Myspace blog (and even my Friendster one). Hmmmmm...

Here's a trailer of Clerks 2



By the way... Here's JASON MEWES' (Jay) MYSPACE PAGE!

Here's how I currently rank the Kevin Smith films.

1. (tied) Clerks
1. (tied) Chasing Amy
2. Clerks 2
3. Dogma
4. Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back
5. Jersey Girl
6. Mallrats.

So, what do you guys think of Kevin Smith? Don't horrify me by telling me this review of mine is the first time you've ever heard of him!

Friday, September 15, 2006

SPEED

[On behalf of my little sister, I would like to thank Mossie (the guy has lotsa good anime and film reviews :D), DMJewelle (she makes the anime cosplaying community seem more entertaining than it really is with her incisively-written entries!), Plastic (one of the very first SPEED fans I got to know over the Internet years ago), Cousin Jun Qi (you're my cousin, which means you're cool!), Eeleen The Angel (the beautiful layout of her site is, well, beautiful!), Alynna (one of the rare bloggers I speak regularly to on the MSN :D), Dawnie-poo (er, she's Dawn Yang, do I need to say more?), Athena (a long-time net friend I got to know during my fanfic-writing days), Wingz (for intense Malaysian humour, go to his site), Jayelle (a really nice girl with a soul beautiful like the majestic snowy mountains), Jee (he has lots of things to ponder about), Craig (heh, lots of stuff about underaged Jpop artistes), Bryan (The Undead Dragon!) and Arashi-chan for their warm birthday wishes on the night of her birthday. You guys made my sister's 17th birthday a very memorable one.]




Japanese pop girl group SPEED


Well, after Justin had written so much about Japanese artistes in the past few weeks, I think it's definitely my turn to do so. This time, I shall educate you all, my dear Swiftyholics, about the nearly-forgotten greatness of SPEED, arguably the most influential and successful Japanese girl pop group of their generation (1996-2000).

Compared to Justin, it's much difficult for me to write about their songs as I don't have any of their albums with me right now, nor any of their songs in my hard drive (it was my own policy that I would never ever download a single SPEED MP3). Hence I can only attempt to conjure the sounds of their unforgettable songs from my own memories. (After all, through my teenage years, I've listened to them so much that they have long engraved themselves deep within my mind.)

How did I first know about SPEED? It all occurred during a vacation in Japan during the last few days of 1998, on a wintry afternoon, when I entered the Tower Records (R.I.P.) of Shinjuku, attempting to buy myself a Jpop album as a souvenir. Utada Hikaru had just released her debut single, Automatic, Ayumi Hamasaki had just released her debut album, A Song For XX, but neither of them would dominate the Japanese music scene until many months later. At that very moment, the one album ruling the Oricon charts was SPEED's MOMENT, a compilation album featuring their greatest hits from their two albums, Starting Over and Rise.

Despite my initial scepticism (I didn't want people to laugh at me for buying something from Japan's version of, er, Spice Girls, it's utterly 'uncool'). Yet one listen to the first minute of White Love, their top-selling single ever, and I was immediately won over.

White Love was my obvious favourite, but other songs in the album, like Alive, Starting Over, Steady, My Graduation and All My True Love etc. left quite a deep impression for me then as well. Perhaps it was because they were so different from one another, so unique that each will never be mistaken with another. Like the members themselves.

Each member, Shimabukuro Hiroko, Uehara Takako, Imai Eriko and Arakaki Hitoe had a clear defining role in the group, neither of them expendable or superfluous. As American Wota had put it in his old blog entry, each of them had such distinctive features that they were like the Fantastic Four of Jpop, combining to create a strange sort of chemistry you seldom see in pop groups, be it from the West or the East.

Hiro and Eriko dominated the vocals. Hiro's voice were high and nasal (kinda like... Ayumi), Eriko low and sultry (kinda like... Misia). Yet they would never take the limelight away from Takako or Hitoe (who did the backup vocals), since Takako would always be considered as the 'really hot one', while Hitoe was universally-considered by all fans to be the best dancer of them all, like a female version of Usher (unsurprising, since she was an Usher fan), yet unfortunately the most overlooked one as she lacked the conventional beauty of the other three. A pity.

In many ways, SPEED is the exact opposite of Morning Musume. Instead of trying to blow listeners away by being as insane as possible, throwing a cacophony of annoyingly loud noises at people, flaunting their ridiculous cuteness in swimsuit photoshoots, SPEED had always been more about substance than style. More about the actual merits of their songs than colourful gimmick. The SPEED members were never mere sex symbols meant to be objectified, but real humans fans can relate to, possessing some sort of 'girls-next-door' quality that allowed fans to feel close to. They felt so authentic, real and sincere that if they had belonged to this era, they would've been similar to the kinds of Myspace bands who would reply to comments individually whilst updating their blogs daily. The kind of Myspace bands you would send messages or comments to knowing that they would read them. A random image: I remember the female host of Pop Jam weeping during SPEED's very last appearance on that show, she was inconsolable, crying even more than the four members.

Japanese pop girl group SpeedAnd because of their normal-ness, their careers lacked the longevity of Morning Musume, their popularity declining as both Ayumi Hamasaki and Utada Hikaru started to reign over the Jpop scene. Singer songwriters began their dominance. The fans grew bored, shifting their allegiances to the more gimmicky Morning Musume (yet the most comforting thing is that, neither of MM's albums sold as much as MOMENT did, hah!). SPEED's subsequent album and singles (Breakin' out to The Morning and Long Way Home released after MOMENT, despite maintaining their quality (or even arguably better), posted disappointing sales during their initial releases. MOMENT, aptly-titled, became SPEED's greatest moment of glory, the pinnacle of their short but illustrious career.

My love for SPEED during my teenage years was so intense that I started a mailing list on 1999 for them hoping to know people around the world who shared my love. Hence the creation of Precious Speed Mailing List, which shot to more than a thousand members in a couple of months. Yet after the group disbanded, members left the mailing list in droves, the lack of attention on the girls' solo careers was apparent. This was the very first time I experienced the true fickleness of Jpop fandom. Reeling in disgust when people who annoyingly declared their everlasting love for SPEED one day would jump over to the Morning Musume bandwagon in another.

Anyway, the girls did team up again for charity reasons on 2001 and 2003, but their efforts were mostly forgettable (even to me).

With growing disenchantment towards the mediocre reception and also the blandness of their solo projects, my interest in Jpop dwindled slowly, and eventually, what I had were merely faded memories (like I said, I would just buy the latest albums of Utada Hikaru, or Nakashima Mika). Though this had somewhat been rekindled recently with my newfound abilities to acquire the newest Japanese releases, I doubt I would ever have the passion I had for Jpop in general like I had during my teenage days, but then, those were driven mostly by interest in SPEED.

Oh well, the following are six important SPEED songs you must listen to.

1) White Love - If there's only one SPEED song you'll ever going to listen to, then White Love should be it. It's beautiful. It's the defining song of their career.



2) Body & Soul - Their debut single. Nuf' said.



3) Alive - A sad ballad that's used as the theme song for the SPEED movie, Andromedia, directed by Takashi Miike. A movie that had, well, cinematographer Christopher Doyle (!!!!) playing the baddie!



4) Steady - An early song from SPEED. Used as the theme song for the Japanese classic Japanese TV drama (well, it wasn't really highly regarded in Japan, but it was a huge hit everywhere else in Asia), It Started With A Kiss (which was recently remade into a Taiwanese serial). Giving you all a more recent (2003) live performance of the song.



5) My Graduation - I once remembered someone saying that My Graduation is about the girls' graduation from childhood to womanhood. Or was it about their graduation from junior high? Not sure.



6) April - Not exactly a favourite. But it's an important song, being the so-called 'main theme' of their very last album Dear Friends 2 (the Dear Friends series is a two-part compilation album released shortly before the separation. I refused to buy them til this very day as I felt that AVEX was merely cashing in their disband, besides, what was the point of buying them when they only had ONE song not in my collection?). The following music video is emotional since it shows various footages of their concerts and performances.



What happened since then?

hiro or coco d'or or Hiroko Shimabukuro


Hiro, she who once haunted my many dreams when I was an ignorant teenager, inspiring countless written works from me, continues her moderately successful solo career. She does covers of classic jazz songs under the name Coco D'or (I wasn't aware that Coco D'or was an ongoing project until recently). Dated a comedian 21 years older than she is, and will most probably appear in a film I make in the future. Hah.

Arakaki Hitoe


Hitoe, perpetually underappreciated and underrated, is now staying in New York, occasionally working on her art projects, and working to get her Yoga license. The world needs to know her more.

Eriko Imai


Eriko, outspoken enough to throw a thinly-veiled insult at Morning Musume ("many artistes these days succeed by popularity, not by hard work!"), suffered waves of criticisms upon herself, affecting her solo career. She then married Shogo, lead vocalist of 175R in a shotgun marriage, and gave birth to her son Raimu in October 2004. After that, she renamed herself as elly and embarked upon an indie singing career. Her latest album, Neverland, will be released on 27th of September, 2006.

Takako Uehara


Takako, the beautiful one, has a moderately successful singing, acting and modelling career, appearing in numerous commercials.

(Note: Eriko and Hiro have rather lengthy entries on Wikipedia, go have look if you're interested)

And thus, I attempt to immortalize SPEED with this blog entry. Will they be rediscovered again? Will their memories live on? Time will tell.
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Japanese girl group SPEED


(UPDATED (28 MAY 2011): In 2008, I moved to Tokyo. SPEED came back together. In 2009, I directed an award-winning short film called KINGYO. One of the two cinematographers of KINGYO, Josha Yukibumi, would end up also shooting the music video of SPEED's Yubiwa)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

It's Swifty's Little Sister's Birthday. Her Existence Is Important To ALL OF YOU!

On the 13th of September, 1989, seventeen years ago, when I was 5, I remembered being pick up from the kindergarten early by my dad and being rushed to the hospital so that we can wait for the birth of my little sister. My grandmother was there too.

My memories of that day are hazy, I could only remember the nurses carrying my little sister out after a few hours of waiting, and, well, being a tiny little baby, she looked more like a guy than a girl. (And I am proud to say that over the years, my sister had filled in the void of a little brother too, which is absolutely cool.)


Posing whilst newborn sister is sleeping.

I fell asleep in the end.

My sister. 4 days old.


Carrying my newborn sister.
My sister. Nearly two weeks old.

Anyway, there's not much to say. My cute little sister, despite turning seventeen today, is still sickeningly cute, and looks way younger than her age. Just look at her chubby CHUBBY cheeks! OMFG!

Happy Birthday!

And now, I will unleash the sheer cuteness of my little sister by displaying photos of her over the years.


Little Sister Carrying A Snake.
Born in the Year of the Snake, my little sister, even as a toddler, never had any fear for snakes. She was even thinking of tearing the one she was holding into half. Not even Samuel L Jackson can be cooler.

Tiptoeing Little Sister.
Taken last year at Wuyishan, China, she was skipping through the rocks, not even afraid of the piranhas waiting for her.

Little Sister in a Kimono
And this is my little sister, wearing a kimono last year, right before she went off to assassinate someone.

I will now tell you why my little sister's existence is important.

If she had chosen to be a blogger, she would've been easily bigger than the likes of Xiaxue, Dawn Yang (honestly, Dawnie-poo would never have known about me if it weren't for my little sister), Kenny Sia put together with the use of her sheer sickening cuteness. A picture of her puffing up her chubby cheeks would have shot her to instant stardom without any need to start a controversy or be funny. Now, forget Malaysia and Singapore, she would've easily dominated the Technorati rankings, so powerful that she would've made Michelle Malkin (political blogger from US, No. 12) and Xu Jing Lei (actress/filmmaker from China, currently No. 1) jealous. The only BoingBoing in the world would be the sound of her chubby cheeks were being poked. Her daily traffic would've been insane, as each and every single one of her blog entry would be Dugg, Reddited, or Slashdotted, because no one can deny the usefulness of her worlds. No one. Not even those who are illiterate.

If my little sister had chosen to be a Youtube vlogger, she would've been easily bigger than the likes of LonelyGirl15 (yes, I know she's not real, and had just been uncovered today as an actress of a filmmaker's project named Jessica Rose, but hey, if my sister's that crazy for fame, she would've done the same by enlisting the help of her genius filmmaker brother) or Cutiemish (so yeah, she can play the Tetris song on the piano, big deal, my little sister's so hardcore that if both of her hands were cut off, she could've easily played the song with her tongue).

If my little sister had chosen to dominate Myspace. She would've been easily Vanity Fair's Queen of Myspace, not Christine Dolce. Teenage boys would weep and kneel in reverence solely because my sister existed. Myspace's membership would quadruple in mere days because every Tom, Dick and Harry, many of them Hollywood celebrities, some of them the world's most powerful politicians, and also the Pope and the Queen of England themselves, would like to add her to their friends list.

If my little sister had chosen to be a writer. Even if her entire novel has only a single word, she would've gained a much larger following than JK Rowling, Neil Gaiman, or, er, L. Ron Hubbard, with her book outselling the entire Harry Potter series in two days, and the Bible in a week. Guestblogger Justin would've been even more suicidal, realizing that even if he could be Akutagawa, Kawabata and Mishima at once in his writings, my sister could've easily redefine the literary scene, churning out twenty sonnets, ten haikus and a Nobel Prize-worthy novella in a day, so prolific she would be that she could achieve more in a minute than Justin could achieve in a lifetime.

If my little sister had chosen to be a filmmaker. This time, I would be the one feeling suicidal, knowing that all the film awards, film festivals, box-office receipts in the world would've dominated only by my sister. The entire Hollywood system would collapse. The indie directors would gouge their eyes out, realizing that they lack the indie cred my sister has, they lack the creativity, the technical skills, the sincerity, the passion, the drive.

Yet she chose none of them.

Preferring to live a low-profile Zen-like existence, disregarding fame and glory, denying the outside world a chance to witness her greatness. My little sister seeks normalcy, living her own life in seclusion, allowing others the opportunity to write history, start religions, to become celebrities, to attain ungodly fame and wealth, to amass their own army of rabid fans. Yet know this, whatever you have achieved, you achieved it because my little sister allowed you to.

And that is why my little sister's existence is important.

Believe it.

Sandra Frowns

Happy Birthday!

... now, wish her a happy birthday too, y'all!

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