May 28, 2011

The Romantics (2010)

Dianna Agron, Rebecca Lawrence, and Malin Ackerman play bridesmaids to Anna Paquin's bride in The Romantics.

The Romantics is one of those films I would watch out of curiosity, but others would dismiss without a second thought. In this indie drama, a group of friends in their late twenties reunite for a wedding that involves two of their own. The cast, led by Katie Holmes, is adamantly B-list -- Josh Duhamel as the groom, Anna Paquin as the bride Lila, Malin Ackerman and Adam Brody as their friends, "Glee"’s Dianna Agron as Paquin’s little sister, and a hilariously miscast and unnecessary Elijah Wood as her older brother.

Katie Holmes as protagonist Laura.

From the Futura-font credit sequence to the shaky, often handheld lensing and cool grey tones (not to mention the tinkly, indie-posturing soundtrack), the film may seem self-conscious, but it also betrays a thoughtfulness you wouldn't expect from such a generic story. The film is anchored, also surprisingly, by Katie Holmes' performance as Laura, a modestly successful writer who is forced to be maid of honor to Lila, the frenemy who stole her boyfriend Tom in university. Still harboring a passion for this man, Holmes projects a quiet, all-too relatable anguish at not being the chosen one. And later, when Tom confesses that he chose Lila over her because he found that his extreme compatibility with Laura left him with too much to live up to, she showers him with indignant exasperation. Yet, even their arguing reveals how they could be each other's equal -- not the most intelligent or interesting people, but thoughtful and on each other's level. In their best scenes together, Holmes and Duhamel give as good as they get, shooting brutal lines at each other with precision.

Holmes may be limited in range, but her strength as an actress is her resolute averageness. This ordinariness served her well on "Dawson’s Creek", an even in subsequent roles, such as the town slut in the thriller The Gift, her small-town-level charms were a large part of her appeal. As Laura, she is not so beautiful and put-together that you can't imagine a man not choosing her. She looks frazzled, and her hair is an afterthought. It’s nice to know that despite being whisked away to live a life of what appears to be a trophy wife, Holmes is still very capable of portraying a normal woman.

                                                        Anna Paquin's Lila, an evil witch.

In what makes for the film's most maddening quality, the other characters are not so well etched. There is an odd feeling of disconnect you get when watching the film, perhaps because the actors often lack rapport with one another. As a man who cannot handle the pressure of being with his intellectual and emotional equal, Duhamel's character an unusually illuminating conflicted boyfriend role. Yet, while we hear why he chose Lila (richer, less complicated, more confident, etc.), the two fail to give any sense of affection for one another. Meanwhile, Paquin's bitch bride act is razor sharp, but Holmes and Paquin impart no sense of history -- surely at some point their friendship was defined by something other than this man?

The third surprise comes in the form of Dianna Agron, who plays Lila's baby sister, Minnow. Due to the unbelievably sloppy storytelling of "Glee", her acting on the show has only two modes: scheming bitch and wounded girl who knows that high school will be the high point of her life. While she can't survive the erratic character arcs, in her best scenes on the show, she imparts a sense of gravity that distinguishes her (if only momentarily) from all the other blandly pretty blonde actresses.

Minnow (Dianna Agron) tries on her sister's wedding dress.

That grave quality presents itself in The Romantics as well. In a heartbreaking scene, she sits on her sister's bed and asks quietly, "Does he make you feel beautiful? Does he make you feel safe? Does he make you feel special?" An innocent and an idealist, she represents everything her sister is not. Her scenes are brief, but she imbues them with such wistful longing, it's a shame to see those emotions fade as the film cedes space to other characters that, ultimately, seem to serve no purpose.

The Romantics

According to the film's IMDb page, The Romantics only played in US theaters for three weeks, and earned an incredibly paltry $103,280 during its theatrical run. With its recognizable cast and small-scale storytelling, however, perhaps it's much better suited to TV or DVD viewings. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's worth seeing, but if you do, you might find yourself intrigued by its very modest charms.

May 25, 2011

Cactus Flower

Did you know that dragon fruit (that hot-pink fruit with black-and-white peppered insides that's becoming increasingly noticeable in restaurants and supermarkets) is from the flower of a cactus? Workers have to pollinate the flowers manually during the night, since the flowers remain closed during the day. Here is a nice New York Times article on the trend.

I remember being surprised when I first found out the facts behind dragon fruit, but looking at this cactus and its gigantic flower, the whole biological process became easier to imagine: just color this white flower hot pink in your mind.

May 23, 2011

A Cheshire Cat Materializes

If you walk down the steps of Takuzoshu Inari Shrine in Koishikawa, you a greeted by a Cheshire Cat. With the cemetery in the foreground, it was exactly as creepy as it appears.

Apropos of nothing, a shot of a beautiful aronia tree. The ground floor of this building was actually much below street level, so you could walk by and have the top of the tree right in your face.

Rounding out the impromptu flower lesson with some columbine flowers.

A Panda's Rep

There is a grassy space next to the Toppan office in Edogawabashi that seems to double as a playing area for the neighborhood kids. This area is demarcated by some of the least cuddliest animals you will ever see in a space ostensibly for kids:

The panda in particular was apparently voted "the scariest-looking panda in Japan". (Source: unreliable, as my dad claims to have seen this on TV.) But I can attest to the unnerving expression on the panda's face.

But if we're casting votes, I nominate the panda in Toyama Park (between Waseda and Takatanobaba). That is one shifty-looking creature.

May 22, 2011

The Rockabilly Dancers of Yoyogi Koen

The rockabilly dancers of Yoyogi Koen are the stuff of Tokyo lore, but quite curiously, it's virtually impossible to find recent information on them (from a respected source). The basic facts: there is a group of aging greasers and slightly younger women who, every Sunday, dress up like extras in a Japanese remake of Rebel Without a Cause, gather near the Harajuku entrance of Yoyogi Koen, and dance/pose their way through old rockabilly records.

New York Times article from 1988 describes the situation thusly: "Spectators head toward Yoyogi Park at the end of Omote-Sando, where young Japanese enact a weekly ritual. They bring rock music and costumes -1950's bouffant skirts, denim jackets - and dance in disciplined, well-rehearsed routines, for a bemused crowd." All you have to do is substitute "young" for "middle-aged"; they've grown up in the last 25 years.

This isn't an inclusive group; I've heard that they frown upon tourists and regular folk who try to join in on the dancing. (Photo-taking and videotaping are thankfully tolerated.) But many bring their wives, girlfriends, and even their kids.

I love the coordinated leopard print of these two siblings. When your family Sunday consists of your norm-ignoring dad greasing his hair back to go off and dance in public and you wearing a leopard-print poodle skirt with saddle shoes to join him, your teenage rebellion would probably mean dressing like a bore and staying in all weekend. 

I'll bet all the kids in this boy's class are scared of him.
I got to see a rare group meeting, led by the boss seen in the second photo. One of the items on the agenda was an announcement that one of their own had gotten married. On cue, a couple of kids came out, small bouquets in hand.
They don't make biker boots like they used to, so you just have to keep taping up the old ones.

The ecstatic photographer on the right was just as colorful as the dancers.

A straight-laced schnauzer wearing a backpack stands, transfixed.

This woman was so in character as a greaser's moll. Even her face was made up like an old-school actress'.

I'd like to believe this man simply wanted to write "Levels", not "Rebels". Talk about ruining the effect.

May 21, 2011

Lazy Sunday in Yoyogi Koen

(A juggling team practices in Yoyogi Koen.)

Yoyogi Koen (Yoyogi Park) may be the fourth biggest park in Tokyo, but it's the biggest in the Tokyo Metropolitan area. It's Japan's Central Park, and in true Japanese fashion, it is tiny for what it is -- one-sixth the size of Central Park.

(An old man meditates in the sun.)

Like all great Tokyo parks on a good day, it's crowded as hell and a great source for people-watching. You can see happy babies in strollers, students drinking in large groups, couples on dates, and old people having a quiet stroll.  

Even nicer are the various groups partaking in their hobbies, like these drummers. Despite being a fairly small band, the beats they made could be heard halfway across the park.

This old man parked his Great Dane near the pond and waited for the fascinated to gingerly make their way to him. Large dogs are a rarity in Japan, so seeing this extra-large dog made people's day. When the dog let out a bark, everyone in the vicinity jumped.

A Dalmatian/Great Dane?

One drawback of Yoyogi Koen is the crows. They are a little bit too big and a little bit too plentiful for comfort. Here, they were trying to eat up all the tadpoles in the lake.

Not a tadpole, not yet a frog: the tail is still very much visible.

I hope they grow up to be cute green frogs.

Like all Japanese gatherings, there is a slight freakshow component. Like the Papillon owners at Showa Kinen Park, last Sunday was take-your-pet-rabbit-to-Yoyogi-Koen Day. A rabbit! In a jacket! In a stroller! With Peter Rabbit for a stuffed animal!

Rabbit owners, hangers-on, and fans. The strollers and boxes all contain rabbits.

Awwww. One rabbit was actually hopping around without a leash, not 200 meters from the Doberman by the pond. I was a bit scared for the rabbit's sake.

It was almost anticlimactic to see a woman walking her pet turtle.

But it was just ambling along at its own pace, oblivious to the staring bystanders.

May 19, 2011


Phase, an architecture/interior design firm near Denzuin Temple in Koishikawa.

It's a bit too self-consciously designed for my taste, but its colorfulness was definitely eye-catching.

A tiny little furry critter shuffling around on a bush nearby. It looks like pipe cleaner fluff. 

May 18, 2011

Kahapapa Fishpond/Kuuali Fishpond

The above photo, along with the following two, were taken last summer at Kahahpapa Fishpond, near the Waikoloa Marriot Beach Resort. These ancient fishponds are said to date back to 250 BC. From around the 14th century to the 19th century, they served as aquariums for the native aristocracy, providing food supply but also functioning as an indication of power. Today, these archaeological remains are protected by the county and nearby hotels.

A word as simple as "fishpond" doesn't do justice to how uniquely beautiful these ponds are. Lava rock, so prevalent in Hawaii, can seem inhospitable, but here they surround water tinged in shades of green and blue and even orange, making for vivid scenery.

Despite the color of the ponds, the water is never clouded or scummy; it's so clear you can see straight through to the bottom. Small fish make their way to and from the ocean, and if your eyes can make them out, you may see shrimp as well.

However, this year, I was surprised to see that some of the ponds looked as if they had been neglected. But it wasn't human activity that had led to the ponds' decline -- it was the March 11th tsunami that hit the Big Island after devastating the Tohoku area of Japan. (I'd gone on vacation looking forward to escaping Japan, but had not gone far enough, it seems.)

Fortunately, some on the ponds, such as this one, were still as pristine as ever. 

Walking through the paths near the fishponds, you come out to the beach near the Marriott.