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Top 12 Films of 2008

This was originally supposed to be just a Top 10 list, but since the world counts time in duodecimal, I threw in two more films and made it a Top 12 list.

I have seen quite a number of films this year, but still, I know some people who've seen a lot more than I have. So if one particular film is not in the list, it's probably because I haven't seen it. This list is limited only to those films which I have seen and reviewed in Da Couch Tomato.

Some films which were released in 2007 yet only made their theatrical run in the Philippines in 2008 are not included. This list is strictly limited to only those films released in 2008. Oh, and the list is also limited to foreign, more specifically, Hollywood films, as I don't believe I've seen at least twelve local films this year.

So without further ado, here are the Top 12 films of the year. Click on the title to view the original review as it appeared in Da Couch Tomato.

12. Horton Hears a Who

So far, this film is the closest Hollywood has ever come to bringing the essence of Dr. Seuss to life. Well, The Grinch was okay (it also starred Jim Carrey), but Mike Myers's live-action take on The Cat in the Hat was a terrible move, which prompted Dr. Seuss's widow to declare that henceforth, there shall be no more live-action adaptations of the children's stories. I always wondered why it took Hollywood so long to realize that the only way to breathe life into these stories, and do justice to them, is through the animated medium, and nothing else.

11. Pineapple Express

Viva la stoner flick. Well, even if this weren't a stoner flick, it would still probably be on the list, since Judd Apatow's comedies are one of the most intelligent comedies churned out by Hollywood today. Funny man Seth Rogen is in it, and so is James Franco, whose performance alone will make this film worth watching.

10. Iron Man

Probably one of the most decent Marvel Comics adaptations to come out, Iron Man puts the cherry back on top of Robert Downey, Jr.'s career. This goes on to prove that superheroes with no real superpowers (like Batman) tend to become the most successful in the box office. Normal human beings can really relate to guys like Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne. Plus the fact that they're both millionaire playboys probably adds to their appeal.

9. The Happening

M. Night Shyamalan is still one of the most talented visual storytellers in the industry today, yet he is often chided when he strays far away from his macabre style. Somehow, people always expect him to stick to The Sixth Sense formula, yet they don't realize that Shyamalan's diversity is one of his greatest strengths as a filmmaker. The Happening may disappoint some viewers, but its subtlety is what actually makes it work.

8. Burn After Reading

First of all, it's written and directed by the most recent Oscar winners, the brilliant Coen brothers. Second, it has a great cast. Third, Brad Pitt gives a terrific performance. The Coens do a terrific job of balancing darkness and humor, and the cast does an even better job of executing the directors's vision.

7. Kung Fu Panda

For capturing the spirit and essence of the eighties Chinese kung fu flicks, and successfully translating it into animated animals, this film deserves a lot of credit. Kung Fu Panda again showcases the power of the animated medium to go places where live-action dare not tread, and if you're not turned on by the excellent action sequences, then Jack Black's humor probably will.

6. Tropic Thunder

Ben Stiller's weird brand of comedy (he co-wrote and directed the film) is enhanced by a screwball cast of really talented comedians, including Jack Black and Robert Downey, Jr. (who's on a roll this year). The film-within-a-film type of movie is something viewers haven't seen for a long time, and with unexpected cameos from A-list actors, this film is sure to entertain from the time the cameras start rolling all the way to the DVD commentary.


Again, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone why a Pixar film appears on a list of the best movies of the year. What pushes the envelope this time is the film's minimal use of spoken dialogue (the dialogue comes only in the latter half of the film), which makes you appreciate how brilliant the animators are in letting a computer-generated robot do all its acting with just the eyes.

4. Vantage Point

The "whodunit" is one of the most entertaining genres of film, as it keeps you on the edge until the film's resolution. But more than an effective script, Vantage Point has excellent directing, a great play of great actors, terrific editing and sound designall the individual aspects of the film combine to form one action-packed suspense thriller. In the end, it doesn't really matter whodunit; it's the ride that counts.

3. Wanted

Adrenaline-pumping action and fantastic camerawork make this film a must-see, along with possibly the best action sequences of any film to come out this year. James McAvoy's convincing portrayal of an accountant-turned-assassin provides the glue that holds this entire comic book adaptation together, and director Timur Bekmambetov's filmmaking style, imported from across the Atlantic, should give the Hollywood studios a heads-up on the advantages of bringing European storytelling onto American soil.

2. The Dark Knight

I was deciding on whether to use Christian Bale's or Heath Ledger's picture, and although Mr. Man-Crush Bale's face looks more aesthetically pleasing, it's Ledger's Joker that captures the essence of The Dark Knight. Expect several Oscar nominations for this film, and I'm not just talking about Heath Ledger's performance. Christopher Nolan's filmmaking is excellent in all aspects, and he literally puts the word "dark" in The Dark Knight.

And finally, the best film of 2008 is...

1. U2 3D

Like I always keep telling people, 3D is the future of movie-going. This is the way movies are supposed to be seen. And if you've never seen a 3D film before, U2 3D would turn you on to the magic of 3D cinema. This film has broken new ground on several aspects of filmmaking, possibly re-writing the rulebook on how 3D films should be made. This is not a regular flick converted to 3D; this film was conceptualized and shot especially for the 3D medium, resulting in the best mind-blowing sensory experience without resulting to psychedelic drug use. The film itself is its own drug, and come Oscar time, expect several nominations for this, especially for Editing and Sound Design.


The Day the Earth Stood Still(1951) vs. The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

It's only been a few hours since I've seen the original 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Like a lot of people who have seen the remake, I thought the new film was okay with the regular amount of plot holes and exaggerations that always seem to hound Hollywood movies. I read some articles on the new movie and how they were disappointed with this version and how they longed for the older version. As it was, I watched the original version expecting a much better film than Keanu's version or at least a better movie overall.

So was it?

In a word, no.

Unlike a lot of movie fanatics, I am not swayed by the idea that the older version always trumps the new one. I do not care about thinking that the original had a lot better plot or had better actors or that they had to make do with what they have back in the day. To put it bluntly, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is a disappointment.

The two versions are actually two very different movies. The only thing that they truly shared are the title, character names, the idea of destroying mankind and the anti-climactic ending (the 1951 version trumping the new one on this aspect).

The plot line of the original version is this: aliens arrive on Earth because of a couple of recent developments---Man's discovery of Atomic Energy (this is 1951 after all) and Man's recent fascination with rockets and going to space. The two combined is what troubles these aliens. They do not care about the planet and unlike the new film, talk about Earth only as a whole and almost never as Earth and Mankind. They fear that soon, Earth would be arming these rockets with atomic warheads and begin destroying other planets.

And so they bring in Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie, a rather less stoic or more human version of Keanu Reeves. The purpose, supposedly was that to tell the world leaders of this problem and that the world as a whole should accept their proposal or risk annihilation.

This is where the plot bogs down and yet gets glazed over by every single film critic I've read. The proposal is essentially to stop this scientific development because they would be considered as a threat to the peace and stability of the universe. In a modern day analogy, this is the same as when the US does not want other countries to develop nuclear weapons because they threaten the peace and stability of the world as a whole. While the idea may be good, it does not alter the fact that in both cases, the people (or aliens) ordering this shutdown in development have the exact same capability as that which they do not want others to have.

The hypocrisy of this alien is therefore omnipresent as they do not want us to develop these capabilities (which we are nowhere near having especially at that time) because we "might" destroy other civilizations (that we do not even know exists) or else we ourselves, the entire Earth, will be destroyed.

In a sense, the new version is even a plot upgrade from the old one as at least the new one makes more sense. In the new version, we are asked to reform our ways because we are destroying our planet and I suppose, these Aliens are life protectors or something. I personally do not like the moral posturing of the new version. While I like the idea that we should change our ways, I do not understand why the Aliens seem to care about what we do. It would have been a much better idea if the Aliens wanted to annihilate mankind because we are destroying our planet and that if we do succeed in killing Earth, it would cause some cosmic catastrophe of some sort (like a black hole) which would disrupt life on their planet. That would have been less preachy.

Back to the 1951 version, Klaatu just wants to talk to the people and say these things and in a sense, he was able to do so in the end. However, there is nothing that would show any resolution to the story. No, it's not not the kind of lack of resolution that makes you think "Hmm... what could possibly happen?" It's the kind of lack of resolution, that makes you think "WTF?"

The musical score of this 1951 movie is top notch from start to finish. They always put you in the right mood that seems to warn you of an impending doom which eventually never happens.

A lot of people think that Keanu's The Day The Earth Stood Still is a bad remake of an awesome film. In truth, 2008 is an okay version of a slightly below average 1951 version.

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951): Three Stars.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008): Three Stars.
At Gunpoint: 2008 over 1951.


And Introducing...

As a year-end treat, I have decided to extend some generosity to one of my good friends and high school buddies, who goes by the name of The Mayn Man.

After this post, my review blog Da Couch Tomato will now be a team blog. I have added Mayn Man as an author. Reviews are just opinions, and everyone's opinion is welcome (just keep them intelligent). With that said, anyone else with an itch to write their own film review/criticism is welcome to join. As if anyone else would be interested anyway.

So here we go. I actually don't care if anybody reads this blog anyway. I just love to write.


Anansi Boys

Question: Neil Gaiman is:
a) an alien;
b) a mythical creature in human form;
c) a god;
d) a literary genius;
e) a very close friend of Tori Amos;
f) a, b, and c only;
g) d and e only;
h) all of the above;
i) none of the above.

(That's how one of my favorite law school professors makes his multiple choice exams.)

Anyway, Anansi Boys is Gaiman's latest novel, although this review is three years late (the book came out in 2005). This more or less follows a similar reality with his earlier novel American Gods. The basic premise is that what if gods could be incarnated in human form? What happens to any offspring they might produce? And Gaiman shows us three possible answers as to what their children might be. They could be: a) half-human, half-god; b) either full human or full god; or c) both human and god at the same time. Anyway, that's delving too deep in the philosophy of Neil Gaiman's mythical universe. I'm sure all the author wants us to do is enjoy reading.

I commend the author on his willingness to break new ground, as he draws his characters this time from world mythology, specifically the folk tales of Ghana's Ashanti tribe. Western literary mythology should no longer be limited to Greek or Norse tales. This is already the new millennium, and it should be the duty of all human beings to familiarize themselves with the mythology of the rest of the planet.

And true to form, Neil Gaiman delivers an amazing read, which for me is much better crafted than American Gods. Of course, this is Gaiman's second take using the same reality, and with a four-year gap between the two novels, obviously Anansi Boys has already perfected the formula.

I wouldn't even try to attempt to write about Neil Gaiman's mythology, as that in itself can already be a full thesis for a Comparative LIterature major. Besides, words can barely describe the richness, and the strangeness, of Gaiman's universe. If a writer's word choice were like his or her literary DNA, then Neil Gaiman's genetic code would stand out like a gigantic, mutant sea monster. Only Gaiman can write like Gaiman, and if you haven't been introduced to his writing yet, this book would be a good book to start with.

Aside from the strangely beautiful universe spun by the author, this book's selling point would probably be its humor, as it is written in a noticeably more comical tone than American Gods. Humorous storytelling is definitely the most effective approach when telling a tale of gods and mortals, and Gaiman exploits this with great results.

Again, a salute to a great writer, whose works will still be read a hundred years from now. So to all you readers out there, start reading this book (if you haven't read it yet), as we all eagerly await the next book from "the rock star of literature" (it's probably the hair).

Rating: Four stars.


Mamma Mia!

Contrary to popular belief, males who like musicals are not gay.

Musical films have experienced a resurgence recently, and I'm not sure what brought about their new rise in popularity, but it seems that they're here to stay. I think it's the fusion between Holly- and Bollywood.

Anyway, this film is based on the musical of the same name, and as the title suggests, it is scored with music from the Swedish band Abba (the two male members of Abba in fact also make cameo appearances in the film).

Surprisingly, this film has now become the highest-grossing film musical of all time (how could it ever beat The Sound of Music?) and yet I do not consider this film a personal favorite.

First of all, I find it problematic when writers try to craft a musical around a pop band's discography, like what they did with The Beatles in Across the Universe. I believe it limits the story that can be crafted out of it, and it would take a genius to pull it off perfectly. And for me, this film comes off as a bit forced. But Abba seems happy about it, so why bother?

Performance-wise, Meryl Streep delivers a great performance, and though she is getting older, she still has the vibrancy of youth. It's not something that can be altered by plastic surgery; I'm talking about the inner youth from within. Meryl Streep still has it in her. Amanda Seyfried's performance is okay, to put it bluntly. It didn't suck, but it didn't stand out either. But her three possible fathers in the film are another matter altogether.

Critics lamented the fact that three talented gentlemen not known for their singing abilities were cast in a musical of this caliber (this was actually produced by Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson). I mean sure, Colin Firth knows a little guitar, and Stellan Skarsgård has some moves, but I pity Pierce Brosnan, whose singing has been compared to "a braying donkey" (ouch).

Production-wise, the film's setting limited the production, as everything took place on the Greek island of Kalokairi. So all the dancing and singing was confined to that location. And it is my opinion that Abba's songs are too colorful to be limited to such a small space.

Finally, when reviewing a musical, one cannot avoid comparing it with other musicals of its time. And my standard for modern musicals is still Hairspray. At least Hairspray had all original songs. Like I said, it is a very difficult task to construct a decent musical out of an existing band's discography, and this film is no exception.

Rating: Three stars.


Avatar: The Last Airbender. Book Two: Earth

People tell me that at my age, I shouldn't be watching cartoons anymore. That's a real nasty stereotype, associating animation with age. If cartoons are supposed to be for kids only, then it should also be done by kids. Yet everyone knows that animators are adults who get paychecks and social security numbers, but no one's complaining, right?

Moving on. This is now the second book (or the second season) in the Emmy award-winning (yes, it won an Emmy) animated series, and the last airbender Aang continues on his quest to master the four elements. And as the title suggests, this time he masters the element Earth.

There are of course new characters, including Toph, the blind girl who happens to be an earthbending master. And there's also the beautiful Princess Azula (Prince Zuko's sister) and her two sidekicks Mai and Ty Lee. Princess Azula shows off her awesome power, a variation of firebending
she is able to shoot lightning, like the Sith Lords in Star Wars, but Uncle Iroh (who is now my favorite character) shows that he too can bend lightning.

The fight scenes are still a joy to behold, and they're even better than the fights in Book One. Of course, this is due to the limitless possibilities of the animated medium. Now we have anime fight scenes with slow-motion shots straight out of The Matrix. If you're not yet an Avatar fan, it might just be the fight scenes that will win you over.

Anyway, going back to my first argument, if you think that adults shouldn't watch cartoons, then check out this thread, and you'll see how many adults are hooked on this show. So who said cartoons are for kids? Grow up.

Rating: Five stars.


The Day the Earth Stood Still

I saw this film after the nauseating camera movement of Quarantine, and I thought to myself, "Finally, a proper movie."

But that's all this is---a proper movie. Not even a great movie. Just proper.

First of all, it's a sci-fi flick. Very few science fiction movies can come up with something original this day and age. Aliens and spaceships and aliens and saving the earth and more aliens---this is basically what this film is in a nutshell. Well, this actually is a remake of a 1951 film of the same title, directed by Robert Wise (who directed The Sound of Music). This 2008 version was directed by Scott Derrickson, and what he did was to update some themes in the old version to make it more relevant to today's audience.

Okay, let me stop pretending I know a lot about the original 1951 version, so for a comparative analysis between the two films, just read this excellent review.

Let's just go directly to the aspect that I love to criticize the most: acting. First of all, Keanu Reeves. It might be just me, but I really think that Keanu Reeves has a very limited acting style. I know he tries hard, God bless him, but somehow it seems his best performance was playing Ted "Theodore" Logan of the Bill and Ted films. Now Jennifer Connelly is another story. I've loved her since Labyrinth, and her Oscar win for A Beautiful Mind cemented her status as a really talented actress. I think it's in her eyes, which does half of her acting for her.

Another Oscar winner in this film is the wonderful Kathy Bates, but I believe her role in this film as the US Secretary of Defense downplays her acting abilities. Veteran John Cleese makes a very short appearance as some Nobel Prize-winning scientist, while Jaden Smith (son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett) gives an annoyingly good performance. His acting is so effective that you'd hate the brat.

Anyway, before the holiday lineup invades the movie theaters, go see this movie if you love effects-driven films, or if you want to see Keanu Reeves's handsome mug on the big screen. But for the true science fiction fans, the only thing worth waiting for right now would be the remake of Frank Herbert's Dune.

Rating: Three and a half stars.



Critics have mixed reactions about this film, most of them positive. I, however, will have to disagree.

Okay, let me start by giving the plot of the film. Some people get trapped inside a building when one woman, infected with some sort of rabies-like disease that infects other people like zombies, begins to infect the other tenants. This whole building is then quarantined by the government, hence the title, and more and more of those trapped inside get infected.

This film, by the way, is the American remake of the Spanish film REC. The treatment for this film was a reality-TV approach, told from the point of view of a reporter, played by Jennifer Carpenter, and her cameraman. The cinematography was tolerable, although it tried to focus too much on looking too realistic, sacrificing dramatic lighting in some scenes where I think it would've worked better. Sometimes the lighting was too dark, and I was really bothered by the jerky camera movements. Personally, I thought it was a good decision by director John Erick Dowdle to go hand-held all the way, but he doesn't seem to have made much use of the Steadycam. Bottom line is, it jerked too much, it was disorienting.

On the performances, I think the script limited everyone's acting. Veteran actor Rade Serbedzija was not given a chance to stretch his muscles, and even Jay Hernandez wasn't given the chance to showcase his pretty boy looks. And Jennifer Carpenter, talented actress that she is, does nothing but scream in this picture.

Now as a frightfest, the film is very, very effective. The only problem is, I watched it alone (oh, poor pathetic old me). Do not make the same mistake I did. Watch it with your buddies, or with your special someone, as frightfests are never meant to be seen alone.

Oh, and since it's almost the end of its theatrical run anyway, here's a spoiler for you people: everyone in the movie dies. So there.

Rating: Three stars.


Burn After Reading

Trust the Coen brothers to come up with something fresh after their Oscar win.

A title like Burn After Reading immediately evokes some sort of spy thriller-mood, like Mission Impossible's "This message will self-destruct in five seconds." And that is indeed how this film was marketed, as a spy thriller slash comedy. But honestly, I thought the spy element was not really a major part of the narrative, but just a backdrop chosen for the characters to interact in.

The film mixes government bureaucracy, extra-marital affairs, and physical fitness into one slightly sick, slightly demented take on the nasty things that happen in the US capital. John Malkovich plays an ex-CIA agent who gets fired because of a drinking problem. Tilda Swinton plays his wife, who is actually having an affair with George Clooney. Clooney's wife, a writer of children's books, also has an affair with someone, and all this happens while Clooney screws Frances McDormand, a gym instructor who is obsessed with liposuction and who has a boss (played by Richard Jenkins) obsessed with her. And the cherry on top of this star-studded cake is none other than Brad Pitt himself, also a gym instructor, but a little on the slow side.

Everyone's acting was great, as the Coen brothers wrote all of the roles (except Tilda Swinton's) especially for the actors who played them. The cast can be considered quite a lucky bunch; how many actors actually get roles tailor-made for them from two of the most talented filmmakers in Hollywood today? Yet despite all the good performances, it's still Brad Pitt who steals the show. For people who've forgotten that Brad Pitt is not just another pretty face, remember that this man is more talented than most of the Hollywood hunks today.

Burn After Reading is one of those films that is either so dark it's funny, or it's so funny it's dark. And because of this characteristic, people might miss the darkness or the humor entirely. But it is both dark and funny, and when you watch it, just remember to soak in every second of Brad Pitt's screen time, as he doesn't grace the screen as much as the others.

Rating: Four stars.


The Sopranos. Season Two

The modern-day mobsters are back for the second season.

Well, we all know the premise of this series: The Sopranos is about a New Jersey crime family, and the life behind the gangster curtain─and all the domestic problems included with it.

Season Two sees the once-mighty Uncle Junior indicted, and he spends most of the season under house arrest
complete with the sensor strapped to his ankle. Because of this, his nephew Tony (played by James Gandolfini) now officially becomes the Don of New Jersey. We also see these mobsters dip their hands in anything that will make money, which include airline ticket scams and sales of bogus phone cards.

We also see some changes in the old characters. Aside from T running the show now, his shrink Dr. Melfi begins drinking vodka before their therapy sessions. AJ Soprano undergoes the normal confusion of puberty as he begins to question life after reading the works of Camus and Nietzsche, while Meadow Soprano graduates high school in the season finale. Chrissy Moltisanti (played by Michael Imperioli, who coincidentally wrote Episode 22 of this series) discovers his artistic side, and begins flirting with acting and the movies (watch out for cameo appearances by Janeane Garofalo and director Jon Favreau). But later on in the season, Chrissy encounters a near-death experience when two of his underlings make an attempt on his life. Silvio and Paulie are bumped up to the position of capo, and Tony finally breaks up with his hot Russian girlfriend Irina. And where is Pussy Bompensiero in all of this? He wasn't promoted, because he was a rat for the feds.

Of course, Season Two also has some new characters, including Richie Aprile, elder brother of former boss Jackie Aprile. Then there's Tony's sister Janice Soprano (who also goes by the name of "Parvati," part of some New Age name-change phase she's been going through). And then there's Furio Giunta, the ponytailed thug the Soprano crew brought home with them from Italy.

Season Two has love
Richie Aprile marries Janice Soprano; murderJanice Soprano kills Richie Aprile; and an executionTony, Sil, and Paulie execute their close friend-turned rat Pussy on a boat in the high seas. This is only the second part of the Soprano saga, and there will definitely be more to come.

Rating: Four stars.


Pineapple Express

I firmly believe that the so-called "stoner flick" can now be considered a legitimate genre of movies. But strangely, this type of film is only popular in America. Don't expect any stoner movies to come out of Philippine cinema anytime soon, as it won't happen. We are too traditional to even attempt to use drugs or drug-related humor in our entertainment. Sad but true.

Anyway, critics have been calling Pineapple Express as the Cheech and Chong of the new millenium. It's about time Hollywood veered away from the stereotypical Mexican pothead to the more politically correct stonersomeone from everyday life. Seth Rogen (who co-wrote the screenplay with Evan Goldberg) plays a process server here (one who summons people to court) who, incidentally, is a pothead. James Franco, on the other hand, abandons his pretty boy-image and plays the drug dealer with such finesse that he was actually nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance.

The story starts out as an ordinary stoner flick, where we viewers are bombarded with images of weed, weed, and nothing but weed. So the real potheads in the audience will either have smoked some shit before watching, or will not be able to wait to roll one and blaze it up. Anyway, as the movie progresses, it starts to leave the path of the pure stoner flick and becomes more action and buddy-oriented. But the humor, drug-related or not, is consistent, which is what I would've expected from any comedy produced by Judd Apatow.

Pineapple Express, sadly, did not make a regular theatrical run in local cinemas. Distributors probably thought that movies like this will only click with the rebellious crowd, which is only a small percentage of our not-so-liberated movie-going countrymen. Anyway, they should've looked past that and invested in it not because it's a weed movie, but because James Franco is in it. So just catch it on DVD. At least you potheads can get to roll one and light it up while you're watching it at home.

Rating: Four stars.


Oasis. Dig Out Your Soul

Hooray for Brit rock!

Christmas time once again, and it's time for the traditional exchange gift, which is just a glorified way of buying yourself your own gift. This year though, no one's complaining, as my brother got for himself Oasis's new album Dig Out Your Soul. Well, it's not really brand new (it came out late September), but it is their latest one this year.

The thing with this album is their sound has evolved (as should all bands), yet the only disappointing thing is that there are only eleven songs. There still are heavy guitar riffs, and this time Noel Gallagher doesn't hold back on the electronics, sprinkling heavy doses of it, especially on my favorite track, "The Shock of the Lightning" (oh man I love this song). Still heavily Beatle-influenced, the eleven tracks are not penned by Noel alone: three tracks are by his brother Liam, while the other musicians Gem and Andy Bell share one track each, which adds to the diversity. Zak Starkey (first-born child of that cute Beatle Ringo) plays drums on all tracks except the last track.

British bands rarely disappoint, as they are not as musically limited as the American bands, willing to experiment more with new sounds and new directions. Let me warn you though, that this album is nothing like (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, if that's the kind of Oasis sound you're looking for. It's 2008, for crying out loud. This is the new Oasis, and this is their new sound.

*Warning: Track 4, "The Shock of the Lightning," gets better the more you listen to it. It takes several listens before it hooks you, but once it does...

Rating: Four and a half stars.


Avatar: The Last Airbender. Book One: Water

Children's shows change with each generation.

In my generation, it was The Transformers. The generation before me had Voltes V. The kids of the new millenium are quite lucky. They have Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Rarely does a post-2000 cartoon series dwell on some serious stuff like this. We actually have a postmodern mix of Eastern and Western influences. First of all is the style. This cartoon series is produced by Nickelodeon, but the animation style is unmistakably derived from Japanese anime.The reason for that is because this series involves a lot of fighting. And when I say a lot, I mean a lot. Almost every episode (and Book One has twenty episodes) has at least one action sequence. And of course, no one can do animated fight scenes better than the Japanese. Although the fights are not as rough and tumble as that in, say, Dragon Ball Z, Avatar's fight scenes are more toned down (from the influence of Zen Buddhism and Tai Chi), but they still retain the beauty of the moves. Just imagine them in a sort of dance, with fire and water being thrown around, and with a lot of people getting hurt.

The concept of having the four elements (Earth, Wind, Fire, and Air) dates back farther than Captain Planet and the Planeteers, and even farther back than the 70s band called Earth, Wind and Fire. This is a popular motif in storytelling, where the mere mention of the four elements conjures up a world of magic and wonder. And the magical world of Avatar is also a mix of different world cultures. The Water Tribes look like Eskimos and Native Americans, the Earth Kingdoms look like Chinese peasants, the Air Nomads look like Buddhist monks, and the Fire Nation looks like the mighty Japanese Imperial Army. And almost everyone in this mythical world speaks in an American accent (but that shouldn't really bother anyone).

In this TV series, an entire season is called a "book," and each episode is called a "chapter." This of course adds again to the mysticism and the feel of the huge epic narrative that the producers intend this show to be. Now I myself never thought I'd be watching this. I used to sneer at this series, thinking to myself "Oh, it's just another one of those trying-to-be-Japanese-but-unmistakably-American shows." But once I got to watch the first episode, I was hooked. So let me warn you, if you are a really busy person, do not even attempt to watch this, because it might hook you as well.

Rating: Five stars.


The Sopranos. Season One.

Critics call The Sopranos as the most beloved T.V. series of all time. Well, you can't call a series "beloved" after watching only the first season, but let me tell you that the first season is usually an indicator of how good a series is, and this show already displays signs of immortality.

Created by Italian-American David Chase, The Sopranos started out as a joke: What would happen if a mobster went to see a shrink? But more than this premise, the show actually gives deeper meaning to the word "family"─first, there's the organized crime family, obviously, of which Anthony "Tony" Soprano (portrayed naturally by James Gandolfini) is one of the top capos. Season One tells the story of the power shift, deciding who takes the place of acting boss Giacomo "Jackie" Aprile after he dies of cancer; the two likeliest candidates are either Tony Soprano, or his uncle Corrado "Junior" Soprano. Second, of course, is Tony's biological family. There's his Uncle Junior, of course, his main rival as the Don of New Jersey; there's his wife Carmela, and their non-mob-related kids; then of course there's his mother, slightly demented but still an ominous presence in Tony's life. It's his struggle between these two families that provides the fuel for the entire show.

The first season will make or break a show. It decides if a second season will follow. The Sopranos has everything people look for in gangster films
lies, deceit, murder, and Italian cuisineand this show will hook gangster fans, and will create new fans as well. HBO shows are always a treat, and this first season will have you anticipating the second.

Rating: Five stars.



Children's animated films may be designed purely for children's entertainment, and very few manage to transcend to the level of "work of art." This film is not one of them.

First of all, there's the star-studded voice cast. Now it is a general rule in Hollywood that the number of famous names in an animated film voice cast is inversely proportional to the quality of the animated film. So if you know more than five well-known names doing the character voices, there's a huge chance that the film will not give you your money's worth. You may be entertained for two hours, but the true test of a film's entertainment value is its ability to entertain you well after you leave the theater.

John Cusack plays Igor, a stereotypical hunchback assistant to a raving mad scientist. The whole movie can be summarized in the caption on the movie poster: All men are not created evil. Of course they're not. This is simply a story about someone confronted with a choice between doing good and doing evil. And we all know how this turns out in children's films.

The funniest lines from the movie, strangely, do not come from Igor, nor from his huge monstrous creation Eva, but from his two sidekicks Scamper and Brain (misspelled as "Brian"), who are voiced by Steve Buscemi and Sean Hayes, respectively. Buscemi's annoying whiny voice is perfect for the witty Scamper, while Hayes's senseless remarks will delight both kids and adults.

The thing that disappoints me in this movie is the fact that it looked too much like a Tim Burton rip-off, especially with the character of King Malbert (voiced by Jay Leno), who looks uncomfortably like the Mayor from The Nightmare Before Christmas. Also, the characters are designed in a very Burton-esque style. It may be understandable if we consider that this is the first animated venture of Exodus Productions, but in order for this budding company to take on the likes of giants Pixar and Dreamworks, it has to break new ground. Yet despite the superb animation provided by the French studio Sparx, this film hardly impresses us with anything original.

And to count off the famous names doing the voices: There's John Cusack, Steve Buscemi, John Cleese as the evil scientist Doctor Glickenstein, Jay Leno, and Christian Slater as another Igor. That's five. And then there's Arsenio Hall as the invisible Carl Cristall. That makes six. And like I said, more than five famous voices usually means that the film will not be good. Usually, but not always though. There are exceptions. And this film is not one of those exceptions.

Rating: Three stars.


Dearly Devoted Dexter

This is the second book in the Dexter series, but admittedly, the story is quite lame compared to the first one.

The main plot concerns, of course, a serial killer, and Dexter Morgan finds himself once more confronted with worthy competition. Dr. Danco, as the serial killer is called, is actually connected with Sgt. Doakes, in his stint during the Civil War in El Salvador. The Doctor's slice-and-dice method is pretty gruesome, but where it fails is the characterization of the Doctor. There was no shortage in characterization with the other characters, but the main antagonist himself was not fully fleshed out (pun not intended).

Jeff Lindsay, on the other hand, still entertains me with his writing style, which is comparable to a male version of Helen Fielding, author of Bridget Jones's Diary. Dexter Morgan's humor is, strangely, quite a contrast from his murderous personality, and what Lindsay does is to actually blend humor and murder into one solid believable character. The Jekyll-and-Hyde angle between Dexter and his Dark Passenger (which is what he calls his bloodthirsty inner voice) was fully realized in the book, yet this angle was not even attempted in the TV series.

This is not a book about serial killers. This is a detective story, in the same line as Sherlock Holmes, but the detective just happens to be a serial killer. And like any detective book, you'd have to read it for yourself, because the surprise is everything.

Rating: Three and a half stars.


Tropic Thunder

If you're on serious mode, go watch Body of Lies. If you're on kiddie mode, watch Igor. But if you just want to laugh, then go see Tropic Thunder.

Of course, the premise is not new. Other films have been done before using the "film-within-a-film" approach, like Living in Oblivion for example. But I think Tropic Thunder takes the humor to a whole new level.

The story is just about some movie stars filming a movie set in the jungles of Vietnam. That's it. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's go to the cast.

A film like this, meaning a movie-within-a-movie type, will not be as effective if there is no all-star cast. And that's what Tropic Thunder has─a powerhouse cast. Jack Black, Robert Downey, Jr., Nick Nolte, Matthew McConaughey, and Tom Cruise himself, just to start the ball rolling. And those are just the A-list stars. There are lots of other known actors in this film; too many, in fact, that if I name some of them, I'd have to name all of them just to be fair.

Jack Black is hilarious as Jeff Portnoy, the actor slash addict, and Jack Black does what Jack Black does best: act weird. Try to imagine a toned-down version of his role in Orange County (the film, not the TV series), only here, there is no actual drug use, but withdrawal symptoms. And Jack Black does a great job of playing a really obnoxious character without upstaging the others.

Now of course, there's Robert Downey, Jr., who plays Kirk Lazarus, method actor extraordinaire. Nobody doubts Downey's acting abilities, and here he cements his status as one of the best method actors in the business today. And one of the best quotes from Downey: "I don't drop character until I've done the DVD commentary."

Tom Cruise of course surprises us all with his terrific performance as Les Grossman, the potty-mouth studio mogul who swears at a rate of probably thirty profanities per minute. Mr. Cruise had to wear some prosthetic make-up for the role, and he comes off as practically unnoticeable, unless you know the sound of his voice. Well, he may sound like Tom Cruise, but he sure doesn't act like Tom Cruise. This is in fact one of those rare moments where Cruise sheds his poster-boy image and unleashes his funny side.

And last but not the least, Mr. Ben Stiller himself. Stiller is in fact pretty comfortable just staying in the background while the rest of his co-stars do the dirty work. But he sort of glues the whole movie together with his presence, which is of course a given, seeing as he co-wrote, produced, and directed the entire film. Ben Stiller's directing ability has never been in question; it's just that most of the recent films he's acted in haven't done too good in the box office. But this film redeems him, and let's hope he sustains this lucky streak.

There are several elements of a movie-within-a-movie type of film. These are 1) a star-studded cast, or at least a lot of known actors; 2) homage to previous blockbuster hits (I said homage, not parody); 3) constant references to other films; and 4) an insight into the world of movie-making or show business in general. This film has all of these elements, and it also has lots of humor without crossing over to the realm of spoof movies like the Scary Movie franchise. All in all, great movie, great direction, great cast.

Rating: Four and a half stars.


The Songbird is an Alien

I would like to apologize in advance if I should offend some die-hard fans of Asia's songbird.

Last Sunday, I caught Regine Velasquez on the tube, in that show where they had Mark Anthony Fernandez answering some personal questions while strapped to a lie detector.

Now first, let me comment on that. I think that Philippine showbiz has gone so low that they consider a celebrity in the hot seat, answering some personal (and mostly private) questions about their personal lives (which they have every right to withhold from the general public), as a pretty high form of entertainment. More and more, our showbiz celebrities are treated like circus animals, if not circus freaks.

Now to get to my main point. On that same show, Regine Velasquez was present as one of the panel of stars that bombarded Mark Anthony with those questions. And my brother was shocked at how much Regine was starting to look like an alien.

I don't know how you're going to construe that remark, but to qualify, Regine is beginning to look more and more like a character from Star Wars. Not one of the human characters, but one of the humanoid ones -- those who are almost human, but not quite.

First of all, she is a modified human. It may be just me, but I do not believe in any form of alteration on one's body if it is for the sake of beautification. I am an admirer of beautiful people who are beautiful au naturelle, making them stand out like diamonds among us unsightly mortals. Anyone who undergoes the plastic surgeon's knife for the sake of vanity receives the rank of "modified human" from me. In this case, Regine modified her nose, her skin color, and her breasts (though I admit I'm not entirely sure about the breasts). Add to this her slowly disappearing chin, or her enlarging neck, and there you have it -- a Star Wars alien.

Anyway, I have nothing against her voice. She has a million-dollar vioce, but I really cannot comprehend what made her want to morph physically into what she is right now. I am strangely reminded of Michael Jackson, and I don't think it's because of the voice.

If you want a list of modified humans who dwell among us in Philippine showbiz, check out retokado.blogspot.com. Take note, that is only a partial list. There are more of them out there, and their numbers are growing.


Cartoon Crushes

A conversation with my brother yesterday inspired this post. I do not mean to be audience-selective, nor gender-insensitive, but this post will probably be appreciated most by heterosexual males who grew up in the 80s.

I am of course talking about Saturday morning cartoon heroines (and some villains). This was back in the day, when the Friday afternoon school bell was the greatest sound on earth, which meant that you had absolutely nothing to worry about for two days. And when you were young, two whole days in front of the tube was nothing short of paradise.

Here is a list (in no particular order) of the most beautiful women on Saturday morning TV in the eighties. These ladies were my first crushes, back when my idea of a date was crossing some sort of portal to the cartoon world and joining them in their adventures. It was only in retrospect where I realized how pathetic those fantasies were.

1. Sheila, the Thief. Dungeons and Dragons.

Sheila is that carrot-topped girl in Dungeons and Dragons with the invisibility cloak. She's also the elder sister of that pesky barbarian brat Bobby. She is one of those types of girls that you'd always imagine as someone really accessible. Like your next-door neighbor perhaps, or your cousin's cousin.

2. Princess Lana. Captain N: The Game Master.

Who wouldn't love the costume? The cute dress, the shapely figure, the colorful headdress---Princess Lana represents the adventurous sporty chick who, although of royal blood, will not hesitate to sleep in a haystack.

3. Baroness. G.I.Joe.

G.I. Joe, despite being a testosterone-filled show, also has its share of beautiful female characters. Yet despite the sophistication of Scarlett, and the rugged good looks of Lady Jaye, I still had eyes only for the Baroness. She comes off as a really hot villain, someone who would probably torture you with seduction before killing you. In one word: dominatrix. Dark hair, Eastern European accent, plus glasses---what a killer combo. Mmm...Baroness...

4. Teela. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

Teela has that fierce look on her face, possibly the result of being the only daughter of the brave warrior Man-At-Arms. She dresses in a specific color motif, all earth tones, which suggests her affinity with fighting and combat. Ooh, these warrior chicks are such a real turn-on.

5. Judy Jetson. The Jetsons.

Judy Jetson is definitely the most realistic girl on the list. She is not an Amazon queen-type woman, nor is she a princess from a distant land. She's just a regular chick, but a chick nonetheless. You can think of Judy Jetson as your classmate's pretty elder sister who was in high school when you were in grade school, or who was in college when you were in high school. Either way, older sister chicks always turn on the younger brother's friends.

6. Cheetara. ThunderCats.

Obviously one of the most popular of the cartoon heroines, Cheetara comes from a family of Saturday morning cartoons whose character composition is several males, some kids, and one sole female. What makes Cheetara hot is her gymnastics ability, her almost naked outfit, and her exotic make-up. One of the funniest anecdotes I can associate with Cheetara was from my friend Archie Uy. He mentioned that in the fifth grade, while on a class field trip, one of his classmates was caught jacking off at the back of the bus. When asked who he was fantasizing about, he admitted, "Cheetara."

7. Princess Zelda. The Legend of Zelda.

By now, you will see a pattern emerging in Saturday morning cartoon heroines. Most of them are princesses who have bad boys as their love interest. Princess Zelda is no exception. The only difference is: the costume. Take a look at the picture above. She was possibly the first cartoon princess to expose her midriff.

8. Princess Adora. She-Ra: Princess of Power.

Maybe it's just me, but I like She-Ra more when she is in her human form, Princess Adora, who is Prince Adam's twin sister. I find her She-Ra character just a bit too strong for me, like an ultra-strict disciplinarian. As Adora, she is just right, gentle, and not too commanding. You could call it innocence if you want, but it seems she couldn't hurt a fly, whereas her alter-ego could slice you open with her sword if she wanted to.

9. Jaime Robinson. Voltes V.

Jaime Robinson pilots Lander V, the spacecraft that looks like a pair of shoes (and which in fact transforms into Voltes V's two feet), and is the daughter of Commander Robinson. This is of course in the English version. Her Japanese name is Megumi Oka (how exotic!). Again you will notice she follows the same mold as Teela, who is also the daughter of a high-ranking soldier. These types of girls are known as "the general's daughter." Go figure.

10. Zandra. Voltes V.

Also from the same series, her Japanese name is Katherine Rii. Though she belongs to the bad side as a trusted servant of Prince Zardos, she redeems herself in the end by catching a bullet for her prince. But I didn't have a crush on her because she took a bullet. She just has that evil scowl on her face that makes her look even more beautiful.

11. Galadria. Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light.

There is nothing pretty remarkable about Galadria, apart from the fact that she can project herself as an astral dolphin, but she did stand out by being the sole female in an all-male group, like Cheetara. But she still is pretty, though.

12. Linka. Captain Planet and the Planeteers.

Technically, Linka shouldn't be on this list, because it should only cover cartoons during the eighties, while the series Captain Planet and the Planeteers began in 1990. Linka only got on the list because she always wore shorts, she had a sexy Russian accent, and she was prettier than Gi, the other girl who controlled Water (Linka controlled Air). But now that I'm older, I realized that she had terrible hair. Probably because the air keeps blowing it around.

13 Daphne Blake. Scooby-Doo.

Undoubtedly one of the hottest of the cartoon females, Daphne is my third favorite character after Scooby-Doo and Shaggy. That's because she's smart, beautiful, and sexy. And she's a redhead.

14. Wonder Woman. Super Friends.

Finally, although not one of the prettiest, she is definitely one of the strongest. She comes from a show that possibly started the "all-male-one-female-and-a-pair-of-kids" formula, which later shows like ThunderCats followed. However, she sometimes comes off as too serious, like a strict preschool teacher. But her costume is perfect. I wonder how many kids ever wished they were under her invisible jet while she was starting the engine.

* * *

These ladies were omitted from the list because I could not find any decent pictures of them on the net: Octavia of TigerSharks, and Debbie Callahan of Police Academy.

* * *

Of course the sexiest cartoon female is Jessica Rabbit, no contest. Only she appeared in a movie, not a T.V. show.

*Thanks to cinderellaariel.blogspot.com for some of the photos here.



Owing to the drought in good movies right now, while waiting for Tropic Thunder to hit the local screens, I turn my attention once more to books. After all, a couch tomato also dabbles in literature.

Sorry to say that I am a fan of the fantasy genre, but somehow this book does not read like high fantasy. Of course I'm not denying the author Christopher Paolini's talent, but it's just raw talent. He has the seeds of a good story, but he does not tell it the way a fantasy story is supposed to be told.

The idea of Dragons and Riders may even be original, but insofar as the other elements of the story are concerned, they seem to have been culled directly from Joseph Campbell's archetypes. We have the protagonist youth, the journey, the wise old man-turned-mentor---and the list goes on. I believe the idea should have been extremely brilliant for it to override the rehashed narrative template Paolini used to structure his story.

One more problematic aspect of the book is the language. I've always been a sucker for language precision, in the sense that the dialogue should be accurate 1) according to the character's psychology, and 2) according to the time and place of the narrative. This story happens in a faraway mythical land, but the dialogue smacks of modern-day American English. Paolini still lacks the ability to create words that never existed before, like what Tolkien does, or even Dr. Seuss. And the universe he spins is too thin, too flimsy; not a solid believable universe, but something that seems to rely on the reader's previous knowledge of what a fantasy universe is like.

There was something pretty off about the writing and the language which I couldn't quite put my finger on. But then I later learned that Christopher Paolini was actually only fifteen or sixteen when he wrote this book, which explained a lot. Although I did not enjoy the book, I would have to admit that the boy's got raw talent plus rich parents, and now he also has several books in his name. And I'm stuck here reviewing his work. Bummer.

Original rating: Two and a half stars.


Eagle Eye

Hooray for Steven Spielberg's new poster boy.

Shia LaBeouf stretches his acting muscles, and he does in fact give a great performance. Of course Steven Spielberg wouldn't waste time with LaBeouf if he wasn't good enough.

Story-wise, Eagle Eye is just another one of those movies about the dark side of technology, the centuries-old conflict between man and machine. In fact, during the first part of the film, I couldn't help but notice the similarities with The Matrix, and was half expecting someone to offer Shia LaBeouf to choose between the red pill and the blue pill.

This film isn't a whodunit; in a whodunit, the storyteller lays out a list of suspects, and you try to figure out which one is guilty, based on the clues laid out. So it in fact becomes character-driven, as the characters are fleshed out in the hope that the viewer might put two and two together. This story is actually plot-driven, as from the start, the antagonist is already established, so everybody knows whodunit; the question now becomes howhedunit (okay, that sounded forced).

Director D.J. Caruso does a great job behind the helm, especially with the car chase sequences, which was the most tension-filled car chase I've seen so far. It's actually an interplay of great storyboarding, precise pacing, and excellent editing. Plus, Caruso didn't yield to the temptation of exploiting the sexual tension between LaBeouf and Michelle Monaghan.

Notable performances from Michael Chiklis as the Secretary of Defense, who plays it subtle, Rosario Dawson as the fiery government agent, and of course Billy Bob Thornton, as Thomas Morgan, head of homeland security, who is probably the most colorful character in the film. Michelle Monaghan's acting, so-so. Mr. LaBeouf's acting---excellent. And we all thought he'd always be like Even Steven.

Original rating: Three and a half stars.

I had been itching since last week for a good Hollywood movie, owing to the slump in foreign movies after the summer season until Thanksgiving weekend, and apparently, Eagle Eye was shown first in Cebu before it was shown in Manila. And it opened on a Friday, which is not usual. And it wasn't showing in Megamall. Now how the hell did that happen?


Colorado Avenue

This is Finland's entry to this year's Cine Europa, and definitely not one of the better films in the line-up.

This film is a melodrama, if my powers of classification serve me right, and I have nothing against melodramas. It's just that this particular film lacks that X-factor that I have come to associate with European films.

Quite honestly, there is nothing really riveting about the narrative.
The story just tells about Dollar-Hanna and her not-so-epic journey to the American west, then back to Finland, and also the sub-plots of the other minor characters. I believe that the film would have shown more promise if it was treated like a war film, instead of this melodrama that reminds me so much of the drama shows on cable TV.

On the good side, the film did employ excellent cinematography, truthfully capturing the mood and feel of the narrative itself. But the best aspect of the film is definitely the production design, with believable sets (of course, they could have improved on the Colorado set) and convincingly accurate costumes. I guess if you have zero-percent CGI, most of the budget should go to production design.

In my effort not to end on a bad note, I'd just like to say that I know there is more to Finnish cinema than this, and that is what I am looking for. Well, probably next year.

Rating: Two stars.

*You can catch the last hurrah of Cine Europa until Sunday, September 21, 2008, at Shangri-La Cinema.


Righteous Kill

Two great actors and one not-so-great story.

By now, you all know my philosophy: try to give a fair review without giving anything away. Especially in this case, since this is a whodunit, so if I give anything away, nobody would probably watch the film anymore.

Basic plot is this: the two former Corleones (of course I'm talking about Pacino and De Niro) play two detectives, who are out to hunt a serial killer. Two younger cops, the brilliant tandem of John Leguizamo and Donnie wahlberg, think the serial killer is one of their own. So everybody is out to find who did it; hence the name whodunit. There's just one problem: either the story was okay and the directing was weak (in which case I'd have to blame director Jon Avnet for the flimsy storytelling), or the script was terrible to begin with (then writer Russel Gewertz would have to take the blame). Anyway, I don't think it was an effective whodunit, as my girlfriend already knew whodidit in the first twenty minutes of the film (she always does that to annoy me).

Let's just focus on the acting, which is this film's strongest selling point. Fans would love to see Pacino and De Niro onscreen together, as their only two movie credits together were 1995's Heat, and before that, 1974's The Godfather Part II, which I wouldn't really count, as they were never actually onscreen together. So this is one of those rare instances when two Oscar winners of this caliber share the same frame.

The acting is spruced up by Wahlberg and Leguizamo, who are two great actors who deserve a break, and they portray the rookie cop-old cop friction just right, practically limiting the show to the four of them. All the other actors didn't really add anything significant. Rapper 50 Cent appears as the gangster Spider, but I could've sworn he just played himself.

There are only three films where Pacino and De Niro acted together, and it's a shame this latest one pairs lousy storytelling with great acting. I hope the producers pair them up again, as both of them are getting old, and they may not have another shot.

*Thanks to Maynard Maleon for the tickets. Good luck on your Bar Exam bro.

Rating: Two and a half stars.


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