THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (*½)

Some films cannot escape comparisons, especially when they are reboots made so soon after the originals. So when Sony Pictures decided to film its do-over less than a decade after Spider-Man and its classic sequel Spider-Man 2, many comic book fans such as myself were perplexed. We could understand a need for sequels, but why mess with the success of a franchise that launched the golden age of superhero films? The Amazing Spider-Man won’t answer that question any time soon.

Its failings come right off the bat, setting up a supposed intrigue with Peter Parker’s past which is never fully exploited. We briefly meet Peter’s parents, Robert and Mary Parker, played by Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz. You’d think that with such terrific actors you’d get meatier context, but the first moment we see them is also the last. There is no heft that plays out of their short appearances. They feel more like gimmicks than true characters.

Besides, Spidey’s fans know that the crux of Peter’s family life lies with his beloved Aunt May and Uncle Ben. And yet despite being played by greats Sally Field and Martin Sheen, their scenes and relationships are sorely lacking compared to their predecessors. They being Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson, who embodied their roles completely in our minds to an almost mythical degree.

Then there is Peter’s love interest, this time in Gwen Stacy whose tragic importance to him is well known in comic book circles. But even this promising avenue is botched with meet cutes and contrived romantic situations, which is mind-boggling for such a canonical character. Emma Stone is a cinematic gift, and her misuse here is depressing. There is no comparison worth making to Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson.

There’s also the villain, played by Rhys Ifans, who is given no theatrical room for machiavellian menace the way his predecessors Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina were. And even if he was granted such leeway, those two are a tough act to follow anyway. Nonetheless, his CGI alger-ego the Lizard is effective as can be. But I would have much rather preferred seeing Irrfan Kahn, clearly with more gravitas, as the main baddie.

And lastly, there’s Peter Parker himself, portrayed by Andrew Garfield, taking on a role in that Tobey Maguire made his own, much in the same way Christopher Reeve made Superman his. Maguire’s Spider-Man may have lacked the smart-aleck-ness of the comic books, but he possessed an effortless transformation of naiveté into quiet strength and dignity that once seemed impossible to achieve in our jaded times. Garfield’s Spider-Man attempts to take on a vulnerable wisecracking edge, and succeeds all too well, turning our beloved web-head into Woody Allen. I believed him as an insecure teenager, but not as a centered youth capable of heroism. For me, this was a great miscalculation.

I could go on about how each perfunctory scene set up another one. Or how utterly dreadful the film’s soundtrack was, seemingly telegraphing each emotion, masking the film’s feeble storytelling. But it isn’t worth it. And that’s precisely what’s wrong with this movie. It’s unnecessary in almost every way.

If the film has any saving grace, it is in its action sequences, which among Spider-Man films are probably the richest in detail and the most convincing in terms of physical movement (at least from what I could tell). But everything else has been told better and felt truer elsewhere. I couldn’t help but shake my head through its entirety. The Amazing Spider-Man is a well-made agony.

BRAVE (****)

I always wanted a girl.

Before I had my darling Cate, I vividly remember a father wading through a swimming pool with his daughter riding piggy back with her arms wrapped around his neck. She screamed in delight, “Daddeee!”

I had always seen other fathers wrapped around their little girls’ fingers. My dad included. I didn’t mind. I thought it would have been the greatest deal in the world, having that kind of bond. And I still do. But I was also aware of how especially daunting it is to raise a woman in this world. Many of us don’t like to admit it, but men are acutely aware of how harsh the world is towards women. That’s probably why fathers become doubly compelled to be overly protective of our “precious and fragile” little girls. I’m proud to say that I’ve been guarding against this impulse as much as I can. So far all she longs for are super powers and rocket ships.

These thoughts echoed within me while watching Brenda Chapman’s Brave which I fell in love with just a few hours ago. It’s of a young woman’s coming of age story, but though Disney has had similar female protagonists in the past, whether of noble deeds (e.g. Mulan, Pocahontas) or royal blood (e.g. countless princesses), none are quite as headstrong or independent as Princess Merida (played with unceasing charm by Kelly Macdonald). She doesn’t belt out a tune in her moments of joy and isn’t supplied a young man to fall head over heels with. Her prowess rivals that of any white knight or fair prince. Even her hair is in defiance of stereotypes. No shampoo commercial straightened locks, just a fabulous firestorm of a coif. She isn’t even presented with a villain to defeat. but a choice whether to determine her fate. It may sound corny, but ask any woman whether that choice is taken lightly.

Yes, she is supplied with a somewhat overbearing mother in Queen Linora (Emma Thompson), but even this trope doesn’t follow the usual lines. Many animated parents merely exist to be proven wrong by their children, but in a virtuoso scene, Brave shows both sides in a heartfelt conversation between mother and daughter that never truly takes place; a sequence that highlights empathy and the hesitance to bridge the gap. And how about the refreshing King Fergus (the irresistible Billy Connolly) as Merida’s dad? When was the last time you saw an animated king not care about how his royal daughter should behave or be treated?

There were many other aspects that I adored about the film. Some more than others. Merida’s three baby brothers never speak, but their antics supply some terrific comic relief, especially with the use of shadow puppetry. I liked the Miyazaki-esque elements and influences. The witch (Julie Waters) who provides Merida’s turning point seems inspired by the old sage Oh-Baba of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The will-o’-the-wisps feel like they might come from the same family of the Kodomas in Princess Mononoke. Even sub-themes such as man’s relationship to nature and myth, as well as the lack of a true antagonist ring a bell. Like all Hayao Miyazaki’s films, the only true villain in Brave is the lack of understanding.

The film also pulsates with unbridled love for all things Scotland. The caricatures and digs at accents are there. But just like Scottish humor, it is done in fondness and without malice. And never have the Scottish highlands been more mythical in film, as the movie evokes vast misty forest-filled mountainsides with both dread and dreamy romance.

But what strikes me most is its strong voice for womanhood. Feminism is a word that gets tossed around a lot these days, connoting politics or agendas. But the term isn’t devoid of emotion or care. The film resonates especially in a time when women’s rights have come to the forefront of global consciousness and where fantastical film heroines haven’t been this prominent in ages. Dejah Thoris, Elizabeth Shaw, and Katniss Everdeen are Merida’s kindred spirits. Who would have thought that archery would become the weapon of choice for girl power?

Brenda Chapman directed The Prince of Egypt, a tremendously underrated animated spectacle that deftly handled its grand tale and emotions. She displays that same skill and purpose in Brave but with greater focus and conviction. Though she is listed as one of the film’s co-directors, watching the movie only reinforces the notion that it is her baby. It was inspired by her relationship with her daughter, and achieves more irony knowing that Pixar let her go from its production before its completion. A lady filmmaker getting only part of the credit for her story of female independence? One can only wonder.

No matter. Brave is a princess story that readily sheds all the fat from such folk or fairy tales, told with great skill and even greater spirit. And with Merida as its heroine, it gives us the embodiment of a strong-willed and free spirited lass, free to make her own fate. We can only wish the same for all our daughters.

What do we want Superhero Films to be?

With the unparalleled success of The Avengers at the box office, superheroes are back in the spotlight. Most comic book aficionados are delighted with the recognition. But believe it or not, there are those such as myself who are dismayed at how superhero films, though more popular than ever, seem to be losing their luster.

When I was in grade school, nothing seemed more interesting than comic books, with their amazing feats, super powers, hyper masculine (sexist) images and monumental battles. Their visual flair and storytelling style proved more vivid and effective than any textbook. But they also engrossed me in their attempts to personify concepts both political and abstract. I learned about discrimination from the X-Men, about eternity and death from the Secret Wars, about the trauma of war from Sgt. Rock. If anything, comic book heroes complemented my school education more than I could have imagined.

When I had finished the Secret Wars II series, there was nothing I wanted more than to see it as a film. I first imagined it in animation with Jim Lee (my favorite illustrator at the time) illustrating it to the minutest detail. Later I would envision it in live action, with Arnold Schwarzenegger playing Colossus, Jack Nicholson playing Wolverine, and Jean-Claude Van Damme playing Gambit.

The last decade or so was a phenomenal time for the superhero movie genre, both thematically and financially. It wasn’t uncommon to have four such films a year, grossing over a billion dollars annually. This period saw some of the most profitable film franchises of all time, as well as a few of the most ambitious and creative takes on our most memorable costumed crime fighters.

But as the decade came to a close, the genre started to have less lofty goals. Since 2008, when the great pairing of Iron Man and The Dark Knight bookended that year’s Summer Blockbuster season, there hasn’t been a single worthy successor mentioned in the same breath. Some might argue that Watchmen fits that bill, but depending on who you speak to, no superhero movie has captured the same kind of critical and commercial acceptance comic book fans have been searching for (that includes The Avengers, which I’ll get to in a minute).

This sentiment was encapsulated by A.O. Scott in his essay “How Many Superheroes Does It Take to Tire a Genre?” In it, Scott surmised that 2008 may have been the peak of the genre’s powers, noting the rules by which its films have to live by.

“The climax must be a fight with the villain, during which the symbiosis of good guy and bad guy, implicit throughout, must be articulated. The end must point forward to a sequel, and an aura of moral consequence must be sustained even as the killings, explosions and chases multiply. The allegorical stakes in a superhero are raised — it’s not just good guys fighting bad guys, but Righteousness against Evil, Order against Chaos — precisely to authorize a more intense level of violence.”

It’s these predictable conventions in Scott’s claims that ultimately restrict the genre. The over-reliance on elaborate special effects. The insistence on spelling things out.

The problem I see is not so much in the genre’s conventions, as they harken back to youthful and more innocent notions in all of us. My issue lies, especially with most superhero films of the last few years, in the lack of resonance and ambition. This ultimately leads to a question we fans have to ask ourselves: what do we want superhero films to be?

The Birth of the Genre

Such films entered the collective consciousness, as Saturday Movie Serials in the 1940s. Some of their earliest protagonists were Captain Marvel, Batman, The Phantom, Captain America, and Superman. Find these films on YouTube and you’ll discover how the heroes look anything but super in retrospect. Yet in their time, these movies provided an escape for millions of children during World War 2. They served their purpose well.

Politics, in the form of the Comics Code Authority, momentarily torpedoed the comic book industry, and with it went the serials that were inspired by them. Superheroes were only to be found on TV, most notably in Adam West’s Batman, which remained securely in the corners of camp comedy and children’s entertainment. But by the 70s, the children watching these shows had all grown up, and so did special effects. Richard Donner surely must have seen what Steven Spielberg and George Lucas did with summer blockbusters in Jaws and Star Wars. Thus arrived the Godfather of all superhero films, Superman.

What made Superman so great, aside from casting Christopher Reeve and utilizing John Williams’s immortal score, was that it evoked the almost mythological reverie young fans hold for their heroes. The first shot of a young hand turning a comic book page, while a child’s voice narrates the exploits of the Daily Planet, is passionate and perfect. The film’s ambitions were so grand that they couldn’t be contained, eventually spilling over to its equally majestic sequel (Richard Donner’s version).

It was also a product of great creativity, utilizing shots and techniques that maximized the capabilities of special effects despite the limitations of their time. So much so that no other contemporary of its genre in the following decade came close to it. That is until Tim Burton revolutionized the feel of the superhero film with his gothic vision of Batman (1989). Until then, superheroes had to live up to Kal-El’s sunlit glory. But Burton upended this notion with his dedication to darkness and shadow, reveling in the caped crusader’s menacing intimidation.

Both of these heroes set the bar well into the 80s and 90s, becoming the genre’s Yin and Yang, determining the stylistic paths their heirs would take. Superman’s children would be CondormanSupergirlCaptain America (1990) and The Phantom. Batman’s would be The PunisherDarkmanThe CrowThe ShadowSpawn, and Blade.

Post 9/11: The Cinematic Golden Age

Just as World War 2 ushered in the age of the comic book superhero, 9/11 ushered in the genre’s cinematic golden age. From then on, it wasn’t enough to herald a great champion or premise. The conflicts had to involve soul-searching. The stakes had to be grave.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) revealed the true nature of Batman’s dark notion of justice, digging deep behind Bruce Wayne’s trauma and patiently building the legend. Miraculously, The Dark Knight (2008) raised the stakes by presenting an equally determined anarchist who embodied our all-too grounded anxiety of complete chaos.

Ang Lee’s introspective Hulk (2003) contemplated immeasurable power as more of a curse than a blessing. It is also the most daring and artistic interpretation of any superhero adaptation, choosing very human conflicts (Bruce and Betty with their unreliable fathers) at the heart of the story, as well as depicting the green goliath not simply as a monstrous beast, but as a child.

Brad Bird’s The Incredibles (2004) never felt as grave as others from this era, yet it presented itself as a lighthearted ode to the fading ideal of the nuclear family. It was also the best “Superhero Team” movie ever made, with the ultimate team: mommy, daddy, brother and sister. The real fantastic four.

The X-Men films have always focused on discrimination, with their demigod cast-outs; Brett Ratner’s The Last Stand (2006) and Matthew Vaughn’s First Class (2011) also juxtapose the political and historical (respectively) more intimately than any other in the genre.

Many saw Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008) as a showcase of Robert Downey Jr.’s immense gifts, but it was also (unintentionally or not) a surprising and satisfying ode to America’s wish to finally use its unmatched corporate, technological and military might to do actual good.

Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy (2004) was amazing in its portrayal of a demon’s touching desire to do well by man. Of all the superheroes in film, this horned red-hided monstrosity is the most fun, relatable and humane. He wisecracks without malice, and has a soft spot for kittens. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) continued this sentiment, and added to it by ruminating on man’s distancing from myth, in a manner reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s films.

Of all superhero films, Spider-Man 2 (2004) is the genre’s conscience. Though Peter Parker wasn’t ordinary, his not so extraordinary abilities made him a more empathetic character compared to someone who can fly. Sam Raimi used a hero who wasn’t super-intelligent, wealthy or powerful to somehow convey the awesome responsibility and sacrifice of doing the right thing.

The Throwaways Return

As with any celebrated era, there is always an inevitable decline. Just as in the 90s, throwaways are coming back. Let’s face it, would anyone consider the personal dilemmas of The Green Hornet (spoiled brat), Thor (big dumb alcoholic blonde) and Green Lantern (a pilot afraid of admitting fear) worthy of heroism? Captain America (2011) might have brought back fuzzy nostalgia for the good ole’ days, but did it have to be fuzzy in hindsight, overlooking something like racism? Not only were these examples devoid of aspiration, they were also utterly predictable.

The same can be said about The Avengers, whose main claim to satisfaction is catering to known comic book lore. There is nothing interesting about Cap’s boring nobility, Thor’s one-dimensionality, or Loki’s whining theatricality. The film wants to meet our expectations, but not surpass them. It hits its targets, but aims low.

Yes, superheroes by their very nature are fantasies, originally conceived to make us feel good and have us suspend logic for the short time we have with them. But even we fanboys want our genre to be taken seriously too, don’t we? At what point do we stop sacrificing the aesthetics of interpretation, storytelling and characterization, at the altar of our often inflexible passion for youthful folklore? If fairy tales can be re-imagined, why not comic book characters?

And for those of us seeking that Superman or Batman moment, of seeing an awesome sight for the first time, those moments are going the way of the dodo. CGI has made the incredible familiar. The time has come for the genre to tantalize us not just with outlandish imagery, but new ideas.

Fertile ground is there for the taking. Look where James Bond went in Casino Royale (2006) exploring how he came to be and the roots behind his sexism. Take a look at Chronicle, which explored how teenagers deal with superhuman abilities with all their angst and insecurity. Recent Westerns grew out of their predictability, as they were able, “to find ambiguities and tensions buried in their own rigid paradigms,” as A.O. Scott noted.

Superhero films have grown and must continue to grow rather than simply being about simple themes or fanciful images. It wouldn’t hurt if they actually had something to say. In Superman Returns (2006), Kal-El flies into the highest reaches of the stratosphere, listening in on how to help mankind. It’s an inspiring scene followed by madness. Does he help resolve Middle Eastern conflicts? Help stop ethnic cleansing in Sudan? Rid North Korea of nukes? No. He stops a bank robbery.

Do we want the familiar? Or the new?

Camp Ebert

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Usually at this time of year, I am at the University of Illinois, taking in the sights, scents and sounds of Champaign Urbana. At this moment, I’d be waking up in the Illini Union, taking in the abundance of youth walking through its halls. Inspired by the vigor and hope I see in the students that I would see walk past me.

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I would walk out of the back entrance and be in awe at the Quadrangle, overcome by even more campus denizens walking through the grounds. I’d walk along with them, looking at the history in the green and mahogany around me. The architecture, the trees, the sheer space and Spring is intoxicating, if only for the short time that I would have it at UIUC.

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But I’m not there this year, not there to share in Ebertfest, where wondrous films will be seen in a secluded place far away from the world’s worries and concerns. I won’t be able to see dear friends I’ve made in the past two years, people who I’ve come to care for deeply because we care about the same things. These silly little treasures called movies, the kind that stay with you, grab you, and don’t let go. My heart aches.

The Far Flung Correspondents

The first time was the best. Speaking at panels, illuminating my world of film with foreigners curious about what lies beyond their borders. I share strange perspectives with fellow strangers from strange lands, but without the alienation. Just love and enthusiasm. We don’t speak in an auditorium down to an audience. We share in a room just paces away from those facing us. We see each other closely. We listen.

The Virginia Theater

Then come the movies in the Virginia Theatre. An actual Movie Theatre! Not one of those fancy multiplexes with cushy seats. It’s got history in it. Donald O’Connor of “Singin’ In The Rain” danced up on its stage in the age of Vaudeville. Would that be something you’d want to tear down just for a comfortable derriere?

The theatre is lush, with hues of rouge surrounding you. Taking my seat, I stepped back in time, recalling those old saturday matinees of my youth. The screen is majestic, wide in its breath, larger than most theaters without the overpowering feel of an IMAX screen.

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There is a balcony. An honest to goodness balcony that seems to have gone the way of the dodo everywhere else. There’s popcorn and snacks, but how I miss the sandwiches being cooked right outside the theatre. You can see the sausages smoking. You know it’s cooked.

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There’s the audience. That Midwestern small town feel that you never want to leave. Before and after screenings, people chalked up random conversations with me. “What do you think it will be like?” “What did you think?” The most common question I would always hear was, “Wasn’t that great?”

I’ve also been scolded for chatting during a screening. I welcomed it. These movie lovers don’t mess around.

These people around me weren’t merely an audience. For those five days, they were my neighbors, a concept that seems to be sadly disappearing. I would see many folks in the same seats day after day, coming to see overlooked films because they knew they weren’t going to be disrespected, and loved the communal moviegoing experience that might go extinct. They stay long afterwards to ask moviemakers questions, and the moviemakers are moved that we are moved.

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There are no movies that are being marketed or sold. No paparazzi chasing down stars for sound bytes. There is a trust that exists here that you can find nowhere else. It exists because Roger Ebert reaffirms that trust by what he selects and how he maintains this festival landscape.

As a film critic, I miss Ebertfest dearly for these reasons and more. I miss knowing that a major critic gets to ride in the trunk of a 4×4, just as I did. I miss finding out Chaz Ebert’s favorite karaoke song is Rapper’s Delight, and seeing her tearing up the mic. I miss the BBQ at Black Dog, the double guacamole steak burgers at Steak N’ Shake, chatting with David Bordwell (with him doing most of the chatting), hearing people in the know dishing out the dirt, and meeting some of my heroes, whether they write about films, or help make them.

I miss it because I learn something every time I set foot on its grounds. I miss meeting fellow movie lovers I’ve met online and off, who have gone on this pilgrimage with me. I miss disagreeing with my critic friends after a bad film, and smiling with them in quiet unison during a good one.

Most of all, I miss spending quiet moments with Roger, a friend and teacher who gave me so much. Who gave all of us so much. This is one of the very few things I can do for him in return. I think we should all call Ebertfest what it really is to all those who love him and film.

Camp Ebert.

The Avengers (**)

There are two kinds of superhero film fans. The first are those who have outgrown the familiarities of the genre and eager to see something new, be it a wonder and awe not seen or felt before, or an idea/theme that is ripe for the taking. The second are those who are content with supremely safe entertainment, with imagery reinforcing what they already know, wishing to see their special comic book lore acknowledged.

Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” falls squarely for those in the second category, pleased with itself and proud of it. Marvel fans who have wanted to see these heroes in the flesh will get their fill, but for those of us hoping for something more, such spirit is definitely weak.

We all saw it coming, beginning with “Iron Man,” which gamely reinvigorated Marvel’s line of heroes. With its post-credits teasing, it began a multi-threaded plot involving “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor,” “Captain America” and their sidekicks. Comic strip founding fathers resurrected for a whole new generation of kids to sell toys to.

But in the process of their assembly, there were only so many working parts they could reuse. They had Robert Downey Jr’s invaluable charm as Tony Stark, really the most valuable human presence of the film, whose intense eyes and irresistible snark draws us in every time we get a look inside his armor. But gone is the youthful energy infused by John Favreau’s direction. And the chemistry sparked by Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is in much too short supply.

Gone too is the serious aura of Edward Norton, which wasn’t needed for this Jekyll-esque incarnation of Dr. Banner. Now played by the great Mark Ruffalo, he exists mainly to provide science-speak with Stark. His CGI alter-id in the Hulk, upstages him with the movie’s best moments, punctuating its third act with immensely satisfying comic geek-out sequences and the biggest LOLs. Too bad it all comes way too late.

The Chris-es, Evans (Captain America) and Hemsworth (Thor), are two gifted young actors in a film that does them no favors. The former is a noble bore, while the latter is pretty much a big dumb blonde with a drinking problem (thankfully on hold here). They both deserve better roles and opportunities as none of their gifts, aside from their physical ones, are worth a damn here.

Two extras brought along for the ride do what they can. Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow is smart, fearsome, and insidious. But I wish she could have been cast as another character. You know, one that actually has super powers other than her skin-tight costume. She’s more than what I expected, but undeniably mostly a tease. And Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye shows once more that he’s the American version of Daniel Craig, capable of holding a masculine gravitas regardless of silly second billing. He’s another talent much too valuable for the part.

Even Samuel L. Jackson is under-utilized as he gets out of everyone’s way. His out-of-sight machinations only emphasizes his absence. And Tom Hiddleston, the Super-baddie Loki, is about as intimidating as Thor is interesting. What is it about Marvel’s film-adapted demigods that make them so… boring (save for Idris Elba’s Heimdall).

What the film does do very well is its climax, with Manhattan laid under siege by otherworldly invaders and beasts. It’s here where we finally see this titanic team fulfill visions of hero-loving boys and girls around the world. It isn’t as creative as that of Hellboy’s inter-dimensional account of hell, or the monumentally epic finale of “Dark City” (the gold standard of what a superhuman conflict would look like), but it does the job competently and skillfully.

But really, what took it so long? Its first act is one long predictable slog of trope after trope. Its second is a mixed bag of visual goodies waiting to burst forth (like the rise of the Hellcarrier) and confusing motives clashing against each other. “X-Men: First Class” handled multiple themes and characters with grace and heft that it feels like King Lear compared to this mishmash.

And the third act, though entertaining, is entirely on autopilot. Not once do we feel anything at stake. Not once do we feel the overwhelming odds. The one-liners and sight-gags are fantastic, but I don’t want to remember my superhero movies solely for the jokes. The many colossal monsters which they face fail to raise the kind of awesome thrill of a single gigantic serpent in “How To Train Your Dragon.”

Gone are the times when superhero films dared to take a risk, especially with directors of great imagination. It gives production companies mixed results. With the financial successes of Guillermo Del Toro (the “Hellboy” movies), we have the box office letdown of Ang Lee (“Hulk”), despite both being remarkably creative narratively and visually. Disney is in charge now. And unless Pixar is at the helm (Hey! There’s an idea!), they’ll be pitching safe profit over craftsmanship more often than not.

So there you have it. If you’re a longtime comic book fan who is happy to be reassured with the familiar, or a child who has never heard or seen of these heroes, you’re in for a treat. But if your imagination is waiting to stirred, “The Avengers” is an all too familiar disappointment.

Do I really need to tell you to stay after the credits?

Being a Jackass behind the Wheel

A lot of people who know me of late know about the car crash I endured just over a year ago in Saudi Arabia. A bus driver hit the car I was in full force at an intersection while neglecting to slow down or even notice the “Stop” sign where he should have yielded. I suffered some cuts and bruises. My friend Ed who was driving got it a bit worse. My friend Lito who was sitting in the back suffered grave injuries. He didn’t make it later that day. It was a fate that I wouldn’t wish on anybody.

Only my family knows of the time when I was irresponsible driver. Nearly every young adult male has probably gone through this stage, getting behind the wheel full of excitement and testosterone. It’s only reinforced by culture and marketing, bombarded with insinuations that you’re more of a man when you go faster.

I was definitely one of those guys; treating Manila highways as racetracks; familiarizing myself with every exit, stretch, and turn to take any advantage of getting ahead while on the way to school, work, or home. I’ve felt the exhilaration getting “there” first, of weaving through traffic, of near-misses and risky maneuvers.

There was one evening I was speeding down a long two-way road with my 50-year old uncle beside me. We treated each other as buds back then, and he was too kind to let me have it if I was misbehaving. I was overtaking slower cars every so often. Then as three cars in front of me were in my way, I boldly tried to pass them all. And as I shifted to the opposite lane, a cement truck was coming towards me.

Knowing my speed and how much road I had left, I knew I could make it, but I also knew that there would be room for no error, as cars who were following behind me had closed the gap I had left. I swerved ahead of those three cars just at the right moment, and though I had a wide grin on my face, my uncle was dead silent the rest of the way. I didn’t need to look at his face to know what he was thinking.

But the rest of the way home, I could only think of one thing. I was lucky to be alive. Every other time I had remembered that night, I kept on recoiling at that near-miss moment. “What the hell were you thinking? I’ll never do that again!” Or so I thought.

A few years later, I was coming home from a friend’s birthday bash. Though I wasn’t drinking, my mind was pumped up with the verve of electronica blasting in the car. I was driving a 1994 Honda Civic, the kind of you see among rice rockets frequently pimped on the streets of LA. But it wasn’t my car. It wasn’t customized or juiced in any way. But o did my juvenile imagination shine through. I thought I was the king of the road.

A blue Mistubishi “Adventure” came up from behind, and off us idiots went weaving through the bright-lit highway. As I was behind him crossing underneath a bridge, I decided to make my move, changing lanes to overtake on the slower lane, and once again I found myself about to hit another oncoming object, this time being a slower car. I hit the breaks, but my tires couldn’t take control, and so I spun.

That was the first time in a vehicle when I felt everything slow down, just like that moment in Saudi Arabia where I saw that bus about to hit us from the driver side. As the car spun, I thought, “Brace yourself!” I didn’t know whether I was going to hit another car, or be slammed from the back.

I hit a guardrail, and spun a bit faster, but soon came to a halt. I was in shock, waiting for something to happen. Nothing did. The front tire on the right was smashed, and so went my steering. Cars slowed down behind me as I made my way to the side of the road.

My brain shouted, “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! What if I got hit? What if I hit someone else?” I was shaken. My heart-pounding. I called Claire, who was then my girlfriend and soon my mom to tell them I was ok.

I never drove with much bravado after that. Partly because my confidence was shattered, and mostly because my perspective had changed. It was a few years after my dad had passed away. We didn’t have much, and now I had wrecked my mom’s way of getting around. My mom was grateful nothing happened to me, but later on she joked, “Next time you want to speed, wreck your own car.”

Usually with age comes wisdom. I never saw roads as racetracks ever again. And by the time I owned my own car, I had a daughter to take care of, so now I drive like an old lady, and am happy to do so.

One of the first people who wished me well after my car crash in Saudi Arabia was Roger Ebert. I’ve been fortunate to know him as a friend. And as one, I can say that there isn’t a malicious bone in his body. When he tweeted, “Friends don’t let jackasses drink and drive.” he was exactly right. Yes it may have been too soon, and of course it hurt Ryan’s friends and family. But the truth is, it would be a lot more irresponsible letting Ryan’s behavior slide that night, and Roger pointed that out. In many ways, I was in the same position he was. And I’d gladly stop anyone from repeating my gloriously moronic mistakes.

Ryan Dunn did some obscene things as a stuntman on his show, but of course that does not define him as a bad person, any more than my past dangerous driving shenanigans define me. But as someone who nearly got killed behind the wheel and in front of it, I can say this: If I had irresponsibly caused someone else’s death, and my own, I deserve to be called a jackass. But I beg you, never let it get that far.

Roger and Me

I rarely mark down memorable dates on my email inbox. But Jan 13, 2010 is one I’ll never forget. It’s when I received this email from Roger Ebert:

Dear Michael,

Do you think it would be possible for you to come to Urbana-Champaign to attend Ebertfest 2010? …

We would like you to appear on a panel discussion, “Film lovers in the age of the internet,” on the morning of April 23. …

I hope you can accept. Your writing on films and other subjects has greatly impressed me. …

Here was my panicked reply:

My jaw dropped. My heart stopped. I’ll have to think about this very carefully. But if I am given the go signal, I’ll go in a heartbeat. …

I was living at the time in Saudi Arabia. In the first quarter of 2009 my company in Malaysia let me go because of the global economic crisis (it’s not just Americans who have a beef with the buffoons of Wall Street). My wife became the breadwinner at that point, but our income was not the same, and our savings were at risk of being hit. After looking for two months, every scarce job opening was fought for tooth and nail, and opportunities for expats were next to nil. An opportunity opened up in Saudi Arabia, one of the few places not affected by the financial crisis.

I would have been a fool not to accept. I did and off I went by myself.

Being in Saudi Arabia was… interesting (that’s another blog entry). It pays incredibly well, but if money’s all you want, that’s all you’ll get. I dealt with a culture and norms that went against my very principles, but you do what have to do to survive.

Living there was a blow to my movie-going habits. The only film I saw in my time there was AVATAR (and I had to go all the way to Bahrain to see it). My film awareness was on life support, and Roger’s film reviews and commentary were my IV. I came to know Roger a bit better after he mentioned my blog among “The blogs of his blogs”, which stunned me. I’m a regular on his, and never did I think he would take the time to really delve into my interests. It shows how open-minded and generous he really is.

Then came my traffic accident (which I blogged about here and here), one of the worst experiences of my life. It took me about a month to fully recuperate. When Roger learned of it, I was touched by his concern.

So imagine my succeeding astonishment when he asked me to be one of his foreign correspondents:

December 21, 2009

By the way, what do you think about the Foreign Correspondents? Do you want to be in or out?

As usual, my scaredy cat reply:

O man, I would love to be in, But if I need to be on video, I think I’d crap all over myself.

What would I need to be in that doesn’t involve my double chin?

And then came my “What the hell are you doing? Are you crazy?” reply:

On 2nd thought. I’ll give it a shot. I’m just nervous, but what the hell. 🙂

So far I’ve done 6 pieces for the Foreign Correspondents page, all of which I put a lot of work in and am very proud of (rehearsal is king). Because of Roger’s belief in me, I’ve rediscovered my passion for movies again (the classics especially). I hadn’t written about film for what seemed to be the longest time, because it wasn’t what put food on the table. I found my voice again, which I thought I had lost for good. Though it’s not my day job, I’m trying to bring back film criticism back into my life again. I understand now fully what A.O. Scott told me: Criticism is a way of life. Without it, I’m not whole.

As for Roger’s invitation to attend Ebertfest, as of now, I have been writing this piece since 3am in the morning at The Illini Union where I will be staying until the festival ends, too giddy to sleep, with too many thoughts running through me. I have left my job in Saudi Arabia, and will be working again in Malaysia next month. I’ll be serving as a panelist and getting a chance to discuss a film with the great film critic David Bordwell (Yes, I’m OMG-ing in anticipation and mostly fright). I’ll also be blogging about Roger Ebert’s Film Festival from here on.

This is the first time I’ve written an entry like this. I was immensely concerned that this would come across as arrogant, “tooting” my horn so to speak. It’s not my style to be write so much about myself, as I like to keep low key.

Asking for advice, fellow Filipino film critic Francis “Oggs” Cruz (among others) told me to just do it, and not to be too modest. “You worked hard for it.”

In my own way, yes I did. But I’ll never forget Roger’s kindness in helping me get here. From a near-death event, I’m now seeing my dream come true. He has become in his own way, a dear friend to me.

Roger wrote me after my accident:

December 10, 2009

Heal. Calm. Rededicate your life which has been given back to you.

Thanks to you Roger, I will.

Car Crash: Epilogue and Reflections

The car crash which I survived this past December 5, was a day after which my father passed away 11 years ago. Though I don’t usually look into such coincidences with much fanfare, I do today with a certain reverie.

As I was on my way to work today, my transport for whatever reason decided to take the same route Ed, Lito, and I used to take during the several months I’ve been here. It was the first time I had revisited that route since the crash.

Today is my dad’s birthday.

The intersection was as I remember it before the accident. How strange it now seems that a common work of concrete and asphalt is now personally imbued with such grim significance. My mother, a devout Catholic (not a religious nut) is a true spiritual follower, focusing on the goodness that thoughtful, soulful reflection can bring to oneself and to others. She’d probably remind me how an intersection is a cross (let’s not go there), but it’s just a measure of how much she loves and thinks about me I’m sure.

Dad passed away in pain. He suffered an aneurysm just as he was leaving work. Remembering him today surrounded by the memories of my recent accident, I can somehow imagine what he might have been thinking at the time. My sister and I were still finishing college while he was the sole breadwinner. I now have a child and my wife and I work to put food on the table.

It’s a horrible thing to worry about how your family will survive without you, so near to the precipice. To feel that you might never see them again. I know that dad must have thought those thoughts. HIs driver and family friend Jun was with him as he rushed him to the nearest hospital. As he was taken into the ICU, Jun told us that his last words were, “Study hard. Study hard.”

They could just have easily been my own.

Besides the bus driver who hit us, I was the only one who remembered the entire thing. Ed suffered head injuries, and though thank heavens they weren’t really serious, he couldn’t remember what happened when it did. Both of us were admitted for 3 days, and in that time, I was the one recounting the entire incident to officemates, friends and family (both Ed’s and mine). We both were released the same day, suffering the same aches and pains, receiving the same kind of medication. Ed of course has the worse scars, but if you seem him today (of course with a baseball cap), you wouldn’t know anything had happened to him.

It took about two weeks to really get over the pain from my contusion, bruises and neck pains. I’ve pretty much completely recovered. The only thing I have left is a very small mass (blood clot) around my right pelvis area caused by the seatbelt that is fading by the day. On the day I was released, it was about the size of a small banana. The nurses might have thought I was happy to see them.

I commented to several friends that none of the bystanders seemed to be willing to help. Most of them were gawking at the scene if not getting on their phones. But they along with other expats have told me that there are local considerations to be made. Many of the onlookers were maintenance crew, engineers, and other expats working in surrounding industries. And at the scene of an accident, the local police have free rein in rounding up nearby ‘suspects.’ Locals are usually spared, but if you’re a foreigner, you’ll usually be singled out and be brought in for questioning. So there are risks that you could even be accused of causing the accident if you happen to help. Compare that to Good Samaritan laws in France where you are required to help victims at the scene of a serious accident.

Speaking of culpability, the guy who caused our misfortune was a Pakistani driver working his usual bus route rushing to bring a few workers to their office. Many bus services here work several companies on tight schedules, so it’s not uncommon to see their vehicles rushing here and there at the expense of ‘minor’ traffic infractions. Their training here is rushed by their employers, so basic signs, like the one that said STOP on his lane, was most likely an afterthought.

When I exited the smashed car, I noticed three fellows exit their bus. I had no idea which of them was the driver. Now I don’t think I want to know. I don’t know his name, what he looks like, or how long he’ll be in jail, as he already is. The investigation was quick as I was informed there there’s a law where if the front of your vehicle is damaged, the accident is ruled automatically against you, regardless of the circumstances. Though I am satisfied that he is behind bars, there is a part of me that pities him. He is most likely from an impoverished background as most drivers here I know are, slaving away to save money for his family, not being able to go home often due to travel costs. Part of me wanted to know if he was given a just sentence; if he’ll be treated fairly.

That of course must be of little concern to Lito’s family. His full name was Angelito Asperec, and he worked as an administrative assistant in my uncle’s procurement division. He is survived by his wife Liezel and his two children. My heart goes out to them. I was told that she learned of accident while at a party. As she was told to go home, her relatives were contacted as well to proceed to her place to help her through what she would be told next.

My mom got that same sort of news when my dad passed away. I cannot describe to you how a mother has to prepare her children for the loss of their father. It’s something you wish on no one.

There was small solace that my great friend and uncle Samir, Lito’s boss, had been meeting with the company’s chairman that same day of the accident. The chairman rarely gets to visit the company, as he last visited several months before. When someone mentioned to him that Samir had lost a valued friend and employee, the chairman offered a year’s worth of Lito’s salary as compensation (the usual is 3 months). It was a generous heartfelt gesture considering that the company we work for is going through a tough time.

Lito was a short, quiet kind of guy, but whenever I saw him he was always smiling. All of us Pinoys in the office would get together for lunch (all the nationalities have their own table groups, like cliques at a high school canteen). During Ramadan, where non-Muslims have to scurry away from the majority just to have lunch, we would all gather in the drivers’ quarters and, for lack of a better phrase, “shoot the shit,” talking about current events and politics, but never anything really personal.

My last memories of Lito are of us sharing emails and chats over Pacquiao’s success over Miguel Cotto. Greeting him every morning when Ed picked us up, and wishing him well as left at the same spot. I once walked with him as he went to a nearby remittance center, preparing to send support to his family no doubt. I didn’t know him long, but he was a decent man.

When Samir arrived at our accident, he said, “Thank God nothing happened to you.” If you were there you would see why. Death was pretty much outside the driver’s door. But oddly enough, I can’t really say I’ve been traumatized by the event. Or perhaps I am and don’t know it (subconscious denial?). I was lucid when it was all happening, systematically going through what needed to be done (as far as I knew) without giving a seconds notice. I can’t say that I’ve been preparing for this all my life, I can’t describe what my thought process was like. It was automatic.

Perhaps it’s because from time to time, I intentionally go through my worst fears and think through them. Not as a form of masochism, but just to understand. I consider myself a very empathetic person, trying to comprehend thoroughly what other people go through. There are times where I have gone through what a loved one’s loss, what disastrous experience, or even my own demise, would ensue. It can be quite painful at times, but you’ll be surprised at what realizations you’d come to. Some consider it morbid, I consider it strangely necessary.

I am grateful that I am still breathing, experiencing pain as it tells me that I am still alive. I definitely thank seat belts. But I am especially thankful for those people (associates, strangers, nurses, doctors, friends and family) who have contacted with genuine concern and care for my safety and well-being. Especially mom and Claire whose feelings for me need not be explained. It is true what they say here in Saudi that relationships are very important. Once you really get to know someone here, they really do care for you, as my circle here has shown.

And dad, Happy Birthday. I hear you loud and clear.

I was in a car crash

About quarter to 7 this past Saturday morning (the start of the workweek here in Saudi Arabia), the car I was riding was hit by a bus. It was the most violent incident I’ve ever experienced firsthand; the kind of crash you only see in movies. I survived with some minor cuts and bruises, while two of those with me suffered different fates.

The three of us (me, Ed and Lito) were on our way to work, approaching the last intersection towards the office. That intersection had been the scene of an accident before, which morbidly enough, also involved a car and a bus. It has no traffic lights, save for say a stop sign for vehicles to yield to the main road. Clearly, that sign had no bearing to the driver that smashed into our car. Smashed is the right word.

Picture for a minute our car heading north. Nearing the intersection, a white passenger bus heading in the same direction was ahead of us (think to our left, northwest). It was slowing down preparing to turn left. Ed, who was driving, naturally moved aside to pass it. In perfect yet deadly sequence, a green bus (Mercedes passenger type) was going east on that intersection.

That white bus must have been the catalyst for the crash. It blocked Ed’s view of the green one before he could anticipate, and surely, if for a moment, must have blocked the green bus’s view of us.

As we passed the white bus I saw the oncoming green one. It must have been 2 full seconds before impact. And in those miliseconds, I can recall perfectly the simultaneous thoughts raging through my mind. Succinctly, “Holy Shit! That green bus is not slowing down! We are going to get hit! Ed!”

Just as I was about to utter those very words. Boom.

The side where I was sitting. on Twitpic The bus which hit us in the background on Twitpic The driver's side. on Twitpic

One sees those car crashes in the movies and becomes amazed at the spectacle of it all, but what never occurred to me is how overwhelming the sound is from within the vehicles. The physical and aural assault was so complete and instantaneous, that for a full second everything seemed black, every sense deadened, and then slowly faded back into focus.

My environment was transformed. Comfortable seats and clear glass turned to wreckage and debris. There was silence, and then there was groaning and gasping, my own mostly. I was totally out of breath, so I wondered, do I have a collapsed lung? Just keep breathing. Breathe. Breathe.

My lungs seemed to be ok, so I started moving my limbs to check if anything was broken. Nothing was in pain, so I felt myself for blood. No blood no foul.

I took off my beloved seatbelt and could see bystanders starting to walk in our direction. I could hear Ed groaning like I was. His head was streaked with blood pouring down his face but I didn’t know what to expect from him at the time. I exited the car.

I kept on shouting for help, but nobody seemed to understand what I was saying. As I exited the car, Ed asked me to help him out. I asked him if anything was broken, but he didn’t answer. Miraculously he had the strength to push himself out of his seat as I gave him a hand. No one else did despite them surrounding the car.

I went to look in the back to check on Lito, and seeing him will stay with me ’til the end. He was slumped somewhat facedown on the seat, which was drenched in blood, about a liter’s worth.

I saw the side of his face. I knew right then it was badly fractured. His left side had a crack in the middle and it was impacted. There was another on the top of his head, which was as drenched as the seat. Lito was murmuring; all I could make out was “Tulong…” (Help).

I wanted to get him out, but I was so frightened that moving him would make his condition worse. All I could do was touch his shoulder and say, “Lito, huwag kang gumalaw. Huwag kang gumalaw.” (Lito, don’t move. Don’t move).

Ed and I were screaming for help, but the locals weren’t doing anything except gawking at the mess. I spotted an officemate whom I didn’t know, and he started calling the medics. I called my uncle. Ed called his wife. While Ed was on the phone he kept asking me what happened repeatedly. Each time I told him not to think about it now and just rest. It worried me that he asked each time as if it were a new question. He also asked me where the blood was coming from his head. I pointed it out to him (from the top).

I then started to feel a slight sting near the back of my head, and sure enough it was bleeding, but nowhere near as bad as I thought it was at the time (about half an inch long, and not deep). It turns out I must have hit my head on the right hand window as I was looking left towards the green bus. Good thing I was wearing my seatbelt. Lito was not.

The crash sent the car probably 20 meters into the intersection road heading east. We could have been sent flying into another vehicle, or barrel rolling several times. Heavens be praised. My uncle arrived and told me “Thank God nothing happened to you.” I recognized more people from the office, where there was supposed to be a party that morning celebrating Eid al-Adha. It was cancelled.

The ambulance must have arrived 15-20 minutes after the crash. I got in, Ed next, and then Lito was brought in on a stretcher, with his head the most heavily bandaged of all. The trip must have taken 10 minutes to get there. Ed and I were facing each other as I was continuing to point out which spot on his head he should keep pressure on. Lito was groaning the whole trip. God knows how much agony his head injuries were causing him. His right hand was fractured, and he kept on using his left to remove his oxygen mask, which must’ve have been causing him much pain. The attendant in the ambulance with us was also Filipino, and told Lito that he needed the oxygen. He also put in tubes to remove blood from Lito’s mouth in case it was hindering his breathing.

We got to the hospital which gave us all the prompt attention. I was attended to last because I was the luckiest. I was shipped from room to room on a wheelchair, encountering officemates I knew and didn’t know, not knowing where Ed and Lito were around the facility. As I finished having my x-rays taken in the ICU, I saw Lito in his stretcher, and I spotted him blinking and breathing. Heavens be praised, he looks like he’s going to be alright.

In what seemed like an hour later, I was in another room for my ultrasound scans, I overheard some Filipino nurses and technicians speaking.

“May namatay na Pinoy sa ICU kanina.” (A Filipino died in the ICU a while ago). I asked who it was, it was Lito.

It couldn’t have been! I saw him minutes ago! He looked like he was going to make it!

It was just what they heard. I asked them what the cause was as if that mattered; it was a massive car crash. As the day went on, I got different causes. Head trauma. Hemorrhaging. Cardiac Arrest. He might have had them all. The last one was the official cause.

I have some ugly hematomas around my waist and a contusion around my left ribs because of the seatbelt (It’s what caused my loss of breath). I have multiple tiny blood scars on the back of my left hand because of the minute glass debris. Even after a day after the crash, I accidentally bit on those little shards every time I winced in pain. When I undressed the first time after the accident, bits of glass fell out of my clothes and shoes.

I was given a neck brace in the first two days mainly for precautionary measures. I didn’t feel pain in my neck for about an hour after the accident, but that’s normal because of the shock from whiplash. Even today I have stiff neck symptoms.

The contusion made it difficult to breathe even after the accident. It didn’t help that my uncle Samir (God bless him) kept on making me laugh even while I was being evaluated. Comedy is the best medicine.

Ed thank goodness is ok, and was ok even in the hospital, despite the great pain he felt understandably. I was almost certain that he was seriously injured when the crash happened. He also feels some back pain while walking, but x-rays revealed no broken bones whatsoever. His wife Cynthia is one tough cookie, bringing humor and strength for both of us while we were in the hospital. I would like to have that reservoir of resolve wherever she gets it. Ed and I were released on the same day.

I’m the only one who remembers the whole thing. And strangely enough, though I can recall pretty much every detail of what went on, it was only today I relived the whole incident when I was riding in my boss’s car today as he came to visit me. It wasn’t that he wasn’t driving safely (He was), it’s that for whatever reason, I was only ready to process what it felt like.

It was a terrifying day. A day I thought I was going to die.