Wednesday 12 June 2013

Man of Steel (Review)

Director: Zack Snyder

Music: Hans Zimmer
Screenplay: David S. Goyer

Henry Cavill: Clark Kent / Superman

Amy Adams: Lois Lane
Michael Shannon: General Zod

Russell Crowe: Jor-El
Ayelet Zurer: Lara Lor-Van

Laurence Fishburne: Perry White
Kevin Costner: Jonathan Kent

Diane Lane: Martha Kent

 Now for the movie (Spoilers Alert!)

This movie is big! It is bold! Fans of The Dark Knight will feel disappointed with the lack of Christopher Nolan's real world influence. From the gigantic, intricately designed set-pieces of Krypton in the opening scene to the numerous action scenes in the movie (Yes! Finally we get to see Superman kicking some serious butt!), Man of Steel quickly establishes itself as a movie of grand scale. However, Man of Steel manages to balance the magnitude of the scale of the movie with the intimacy of the story. This is the story of one man’s quest to find his place in a world that is not ready to accept him.
Firstly, after watching the movie, Man of Steel seems to be a more appropriate title than Superman. Man of Steel is about the man behind the suit. It is the story about him as Kal-El, as Clark Kent and as Superman. Simply naming the movie Superman will not do the story justice. 
Man of Steel is preoccupied with the duality in the nature and character of Kal-El / Clark Kent (Henry Cavill). Man of Steel is a Superman movie where the world first learns of his existence. Kal-El then has to grapple with some very tough choices with undesirable consequences.  He has to choose between Jor-El’s aspirations for him or the love and concern of his adopted parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). He has to choose between helping those in need at the risk of revealing his true alien nature or hide behind his human “mask”, enslaved in his isolation. He has to choose between helping a bus load of kids and be a victim of a xenophobic society or let them die. He has to decide if he wants to be Clark or if he wants to be Kal. He has to decide if he wants to abide by the moral guidelines of Krypton or the moral guidelines of earth (referring to all the complexities of what it means to be human).

Man of Steel departs from the canonical Superman template in significant ways. For starters, no one in the movie even utters the word “Superman” (at least, not until towards the end). I really like the contrasts portrayed in his character. He is surrounded by a loving family and not one, but two father figures yet, he is lonely, being an alien from another planet. He is a God among men yet fragile in his emotions, especially in the touching scene where he asks his dad (Kevin Costner), “Can’t I just keep pretending that I’m your son?”
I also like the 75-year background history of Krypton (never before seen on the big screen). A rigid caste system on Krypton resonates with the history of our own world. For instance, during the Jacobean period in England, people were born into their roles in society and there were laws (whether they were strictly enforced or not is another question) that prevented them from acting “above their stations”. The plays written during this period like “The Revenger’s Tragedy” and “Volpone” were preoccupied with protagonists donning disguises and coming up with schemes to escape the roles that they were born into.

Similarly, the rigid caste system on Krypton and Jor-El’s (Russel Crowe) unwillingness for his son to have the life he was born into together with the inevitable destruction of Krypton looming in the near future prompts Jor-El to send Kal-El to Earth, where he can help to preserve the Kryptonian heritage and forge a new life of his own. Meanwhile, General Zod (Michael Shannon) embarks on a rebellion to overthrow a corrupt planetary Council which sends him banished into the Phantom Zone. We last hear him vowing to have his revenge on Jor-El’s son in the exposition before his character returns in the final act.
Superman is supposed to be an all-powerful superhero so where is a legitimate threat going to come from? All I can say is, there is a legitimate threat but more than that, the movie focuses on making the audience empathize with a character trapped in his isolation brought about by the tremendous responsibilities he has to bear. He has to make some terrible choices (that involves people getting hurt- Gasp!). This is a Superman who cannot do everything. He has to make tough choices and live with the consequences of his actions (pretty much, just like us, humans). This makes his character more relatable.
Man of Steel also succeeds in explaining to us what the other Superman movies failed to do so. In the other Superman movies, Clark Kent enters the Fortress of Solitude, emerges donning his iconic costume and is readily received by the world. Man of Steel, however, explores in detail what made him put on a costume and present himself as Superman to the world. Explanation is also provided for the change in the “S” symbol on his costume (it means hope on Krypton). The look of the suit and what it does is also explained in the movie (the missing red underpants will make a lot more sense after watching it).  
It also shows the ugly side of Xenophobia where people scatter and cower behind closed doors at the initial sight of him. In a way, this would be a more realistic reaction compared to doe-eyed females swooning over him. Imagine that in the news tomorrow, you read that an alien was found among us who looks like us but has special powers (flight, X-ray vision, strength, power). There will be a mass paranoia of fearful awe which is what is depicted in this movie. The fears of the people are realized with Zod’s appearance in the final act.
I must confess, I was a bit reluctant to jump in excitement at the new look of superman (new character, new suit, etc). I mean, who can replace the late Christopher Reeves as Superman right? Heck! Christopher Reeves was Superman (both on-screen and off).
Well, before The Dark Knight came out, I had similar doubts about Heath Ledger playing the iconic Joker (previously played by Jack Nicholson). After watching The Dark Knight however, I realized that the original Batman movies were comic-book type of films and Jack Nicholson’s Joker was a comic-book type of character. What Heath Ledger did to Joker was not. There was a lot of back story to his portrayal of The Joker’s complex character.
Similarly, the previous Superman movies were comic-book type of films but Man of Steel is not. It delves into the history and the complex characterization of Superman in an attempt to make him relatable to a 21st century audience in a way the other Superman films failed to do so.
Henry Cavill will never take the place of Christopher Reeves (IMHO) but he does present a side of Superman that we have never seen before. And, he does it well. He looks like he was born to play the role. I also like the performances of Dylan Sprayberry and Cooper Timberline. They play the younger version of Kal-El and bring the same sense of gravitas that Cavill brings to the character.
General Zod’s character is also well fleshed out and Michael Shannon portrays the evolution of his unbalanced mind to a tee. Don’t get me wrong. I liked Terrence Stamp’s portrayal of General Zod as well in the 80s but Shannon brings a side of Zod never seen before. In many ways, Shannon’s General Zod is a hero. He will do anything to save his people (Kryptonians) and the people of Earth are just an alien race (to him) who is standing in his way. He is unable to fathom Kal-El’s reluctance to join him in his cause and the audience is swayed to empathize with Kal-El’s confusion to fight for Krypton or to fight for Earth. To be Kal-El or to be Clark Kent. General Zod is  Kal-El’s mirror image in the movie. Both have valid causes and reasons for their actions. However, one is on a journey to gain control of others while the latter embarks on a journey to gain control over himself. In the end, Zod’s madness destroys him while Kal-El gains his well-deserved acceptance on Earth.
The women in Man of Steel are portrayed in the traditional maternal sense as well as in the modern feminist way. Martha Kent (Diane Lane) is a reassuring influence on Clark in his younger days. The fact that her comforting presence is felt (even in her absence) by Clark during his lowest points in the movie adds weight to her role in his life and in the movie instead of being merely a designated mother-figure required by the plot. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) crosses path with Clark Kent in her attempt to search for proof of extra-terrestrial life on earth.  She is the only feminist voice in the movie, with her career-driven ambitions and a go-getter attitude. She is driven by her own goals and ambitions in a male-dominated work place. Just like how Martha Kent is not merely a mother-figure but a significant presence in Kal-El’s life, Amy Adams plays Lois Lane as a well fleshed-out character instead of being simply the designated love interest of Superman like in the other Superman movies.  
Kevin Costner also brings a side to Jonathan Kent never seen before. He plays a father-figure who lets his concern for the safety of his son and how the world may receive him if they knew the truth override any noble values that he is supposed to instill in Clark. For instance, he darkly suggests that Clark should not have saved the bus load of children at the risk of revealing his true identity. However, he manages to instill his own moral guidelines on Clark because they are essentially a part of him. Kevin Costner is amazing in every scene in Man of Steel. He should appear in more movies. Russel Crowe as Jor-El plays an important role both on and off-screen. Just like Martha Kent, he is a significant influence on Kal-El’s life, giving him a sense of purpose and identity.
Han Zimmer’s powerful score evokes an emotional thrust in moments in the movie and his percussion provides much of the rhythm to the movie. It cannot be compared to John Williams’ original score which evoked awe and grandeur but it is memorable and appropriate to represent the new Superman.

The special effects are awesome! There is a lot of hand-held shots which creates a sense of immediacy. I especially loved the scene where you see Superman’s shadow on the rock formations below before the camera zooms out above his shoulder. His cape is also digitally tampered with to make it look more realistic.
Some viewers may find the exposition on Krypton a bit cumbersome and the movie just a tad too long. However, I feel that these subplots and back stories are essential in laying the foundations of the character and evoking a sense of realism in an otherwise typical superhero movie. They are also important if a sequel ever gets to be made (I have a nagging suspicion that it will be).
Man of Steel seems to fit together what everyone loves about Superman (and never got to see on the big screens) in a coherent way. Whether this movie leads up to the Justice League or even a Superman / Batman crossover still remains to be seen. But Man of Steel has laid the foundations for something amazing. I cannot wait to see what’s next!
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Friday 7 June 2013

Wat Arun - Temple of Dawn

What does Wat Arun mean?

Buddhist temples are called “wat” in Thai. “Arun” is derived from the Hindu God of Dawn, Aruna. Thus, put together, Wat Arun literally means the Temple of Dawn. Ironically, the magnificence of Wat Arun is seen during sunset (not at dawn) from the Chao Phraya River, where its striking silhouette captures your attention. 

Wat Arun, one of the few surviving legacies of the Chakri dynasty, sits on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River. Its architecture is supposed to represent Mount Meru. Tibetan Buddhists believe that Mount Meru exists beyond our realm of reality, in a realm of perfection and transcendence. It is the centre of the universe, a single-point of focus sought by adepts. Wat Arun houses images of the guardian gods of the four directions, seen in the four prangs (Khmer-style tower characteristic of Thai temple architecture), reinforcing this spiritual symbolism.
History of Wat Arun
Wat Arun was known as Wat Makok Nok. Sailors would stop at the junction of the Chao Phraya River (now known as Thonburi) to replenish their supplies right in front of the old temple during the Golden era of Ayutthaya.
It is believed that the royal fleet of King Taksin, who founded the former capital of Thonburi, arrived at Wat Makok Nok at dawn. He paid his respects to the holy relic inside the pagoda and so, it was subsequently renamed as Wat Chaeng (Temple of Dawn). It became the designated royal temple as it caught the first rays of the sun at dawn.
King Taksin had a tiff with the monks and expelled them. Even though the Emerald Buddha statue was relocated to Wat Phra Kaeo in 1785, Wat Arun remained revered among the people. Rama I, the first king of the Chakri dynasty, allowed the monks to return as Wat Makok Nok ceased to be the royal temple after Rama I relocated his capital to modern day Bangkok.
Rama I’s successor, Rama II, established the temple to its former glory and renamed it Wat Arun Rachatharam. During Rama III’s reign, the Prang (tower) was raised to 67 metres, making it the highest Prang in Thailand, even today. Rama III adorned the temple structure with pieces of fine China which glints in the sun. These aditions to the architecture can be seen today. The temple was subsequently renamed again as Wat Arun Ratchavararam.
Architecture of Wat Arun

The 79 meter high prang, is enclosed by four smaller prangs holding the statues of Phra Phai, the God of Wind. Together, they symbolize the terrestrial representation of the thirty-three heavens. It is decorated with ceramic tiles and fragments of multi colored porcelain obtained from the boats coming to Bangkok from China .
Wat Arun is replete with mosaic adornment, making it visually stunning against Bangkok’s skyline. Steep stairs bring you partially to the top of the main prang rewarding you with a view of the Chao Phraya river and the rest of Bangkok’s skyline. Two terraces, representing the different heavens and supported by Kinnaree (half-humans) and scary Yaksas (demon guards), break up the steep climb. While catching your breath, you can admire the invaluable statues of the Buddha at the most important stages of his life on the first terrace and be awed by the four statues of the Hindu god Indra (Erawan) and his thirty-three headed elephant that stands guard on the second terrace.
Personal Experience
Trust me. I am not kidding when I say the steps are steep. I was regretting not doing some kind of warm-ups before climbing those steps. My thigh muscles were sore for the next three days (which speaks a lot about my physical fitness pfft!). It is also not for the Acrophobic (people with a fear of heights). My better half sat down at the bottom while I made my own way to the top. The view at the top however, was rewarding. We were lucky enough to go on a day when some prayers were going on. There was a bunch of buddhist monks in their orange robes sitting under a make-shift shade, chanting. Their chants echoing off the ancient walls of Wat Arun in addition to the feeling of walking up the same steps that disciples used to walk on over 300 years ago made this a visit to remember.
Getting there
Most convenient: Get off at Saphan Taksin BTS and then take the Chao Phraya boat service to Wat Po
By boat: From Tha Tien Pier, near Wat Pho / By bus: 1, 25, 44, 47, 62 and 91 and stop on Maharat road / By taxi or car: By Arun Amarin Road (Most cabbies will know where to take you if you just say Wat Arun)
Opening hours: 8.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.
Fees: 30 THB for foreigners, Free for locals
Hotels near Wat Arun (walking distance)
Arun Residence, Sala Rattanakosin Bangkok, Sala Arun, Chetuphon Gate, Chakrabongse Villas, Sawasdee Khaosan Inn

Monday 3 June 2013

Erawan Shrine, Bangkok

Address: 494 Rajdamri Road, Bangkok, Thailand.

Background Information

The Erawan Shrine is a Hindu Shrine that houses the god of creation, Brahma. It is known as San Phra Phrom among the locals. This unassuming shrine is shrouded with a history of strange incidences and mystery. The intersection where it is located used to be a place where criminals were put on public display. The Thais believe that to appease the spirits occupying the land, they have to build a shrine to house the spirit before laying the foundation stone. However, the foundation stone of the Erawan Hyatt Hotel was laid on an inauspicious date. This was followed by a series of mishaps and events that spooked the Thai workers so much that further construction was halted.

On 9 November 1956, a date carefully chosen this time, the Erawan Shrine was erected to counter and negative (supernatural?) influences on the place. Construction work continued without anymore incidences.

The shrine was however destroyed by a mentally disabled person on 26 March 2006. The destruction of the shrine was linked to the political unrest that ensued. The shrine that we can see today was constructed and 21 May 2006. Witnesses say that the sun was shining right at the shrine during its reincarnation. The political landscape in Thailand began to stabilize soon after.

The shrine is now a popular tourist attraction and thousands of tourists visit the shrine on a daily basis  and are willing to swear by its power to answer your prayers.

Getting There

The Erawan Shrine shares its premises with the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel which is located at 494 Rajdamri Road, Bangkok, Thailand. You can get off at Ratchadamri BTS (Bangkok’s Skytrain service) and take a five minute walk to the shrine. It is located at the intersection of Ratchadamri Road in Pathum Wan district.

What to Do There

You could just take pictures of the shrine and strike off your list of things to do in Bangkok or you could partake in the rituals and hope for your prayers to be answered. Testimonies from personal friends of mine and the throngs of visitors who visit the Erawan Shrine on a daily basis makes me think that there could be a higher power at work here somehow. I am still a skeptic though.

You would need to purchase a garland and some joss sticks (it comes in a set) for around 30 THB. Then you have to pay for Thai dancers who will dance and chant behind you to help you get your prayers to be answered. The more Thai dancers you hire, the higher are your chances of having your prayers answered. It will set you back around 100 THB per dancer and you can hire up to a maximum of 12 dancers.

You will then be issued a receipt with your name on it. You will then be invited to kneel in front of the shrine and pray while the dancers dance and chant behind you appealing to Brahma to answer your prayers. You will know when you are done when they tell you “finish” in heavily Thai-accented English. You will then need to light your incense sticks and place them in front of Brahma and hang your garland anywhere you can find space.

Personal Experience

I was at the crossroads of my life with a wedding and a new house looming in my future. I just prayed that I would be financially secure in the future and everything will go without a hitch. Yea, I know I am supposed to pray for something like world peace or what not, but I have been told to pray for something I would personally want to accomplish. So, I could not help being selfish. Besides, I do not really believe in a supernatural power. I believe that I am accountable for my own actions and what not. So, I just took this as a way of getting to experience the Thai culture and also as an experiment to see if what I prayed for would come true.

Well, the receipt I was given had a 4-digit number on it - 0314.  I do not gamble and play 4-D and stuff. However, I was thinking that maybe I should try playing the number the following week when I returned to Singapore. For all you know, I might have beginner’s luck.

However, when I returned back to Singapore, I had to throw myself in my work and soon forgot about my plan to buy 4-D. When I checked the results the following weekend, I realised that the number, 0314, had struck 3rd prize. To put things into perspective, if I had bought $20 small and $20 big for the 4-D draw, I would have won $25, 000! This would have come in handy to either my wedding fund or my down payment for my new house! So, Erawan Shrine? Powerful? I don’t know. The verdict is still out.
I have done a review of this on and got paid their bulk rate of $0.83. For more information on, just click on the hyperlink.