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The Passion of the Christ

Nothing says Catholic more than Good Friday. And nothing says Good Friday more than The Passion.

We all have Mel Gibson to thank for that, for if it wasn't for his obsession for dead languages, we might never have had this work of art. Mel Gibson has created this cinematic technique, which I have dubbed "effective realism", which utilizes the original language of the dialogue in a historical narrative. So when you make a film about Hitler, it has to be in German; if it's about cavemen, it has to be in grunts; and if it's about Jesus, it has to be in Aramaic. Good luck.

The only drawback with using a dead language is that none of the actors can really speak it. This goes for Monica Bellucci (who plays the stereotypical slut Magdalene), Maia Morgenstern as Mary, and Hristo Jivkov as John, and heck, even for the rest of the Apostles. Even Jim Caviezel as Ieshua does not sound convincing. Their Aramaic sounds forced, unnatural, and their vocal stops indicate that they know the phonetic delivery, but they have no idea what it means. Hence, they cannot improvise. But anyway, who wants to improvise in Aramaic?

But the Romans, that's a different story. Hristo Shopov is effective as Pontius Pilate, and his Latin does sound convincingly authentic. But again, using dead languages may have more downs than ups, so unless you've got very talented speakers, this movie must fail in this category.

But suspend your disbelief and you should be fine, for this is one of the best Jesus Christ movies I have seen in my life. The cinematography is haunting, the make-up is excellent (how bloody did Jesus get?) and the special effects are first rate. I mean, how do you exactly scourge the Son of Man to within an inch of his life without really hurting him?

The only thing I found distracting was the use of Satan as a poetic device. Mel Gibson might have been a little too literal, assuming that his audience might need a nudge in the right direction. But actually, Mr. Gibson, the audience is smarter than you may think, and we don't need a Satan to show the good-evil dichotomy. But his efforts are laudable, and for this movie alone, he gets a pass from Saint Peter to enter heaven when he dies.

Rating: Four stars.


The Prestige

The prestige. The turn. The pledge. Those are the parts of a magic trick---in reverse.

And that is how director Christopher Nolan tells this story. In reverse. Well, not exactly in reverse, but definitely not in a linear fashion. This is of course Nolan's style, from Memento to Batman Begins, and he has become very good at it.

Adapted from the novel by Christopher Priest, this film follows the struggle of two of the top magicians in Victorian England. You have two great actors pitted against one another, Hugh Jackman as Robert Angier against Christian Bale as Alfred Borden, and the characterization is so effective that sometimes you don't know who to root for. But I of course rooted for Mr. Bale all the way.

The supporting actors are equally important, with Michael Caine as the "ingenieur" (such a sexy-sounding French word), once again reunited with Bale and Nolan after Batman Begins. Incidentally, the film has the same dark look from Batman Begins because even the cinematographer is back on Nolan's team. Andy Serkis is as un-Gollum like as ever, while David Bowie as Tesla all but steals the show away.

Of course, the ladies do a good job as well, with Piper Perabo's short screen time as Angier's wife, and Scarlett Johansson as the assistant Olivia. But the best female performance for me came from Rebecca Hall, who played Mrs. Borden. Her transformation throughout the film is very effective, and is so realistic that the audience may take it for granted.

And finally, just like a great magic trick, Christopher Nolan pulls a fast one. The storytelling is in itself a magic trick. There's the plot twist, then the other plot twist, and you go, "Wow." I remember watching this film in the theater when it came out. At first I wanted to see it because of Christian Bale, but after leaving the theater, I felt---how do you put it---entertained. This is genuine entertainment, and worth every cent you paid for. Just like a real magic trick.

Rating: Five stars.

See also: The Acting Hall of Fame.


Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Soundtrack

This album will have a maximum effect on those born before 1980.

Well, okay, so those born in 1980 might enjoy this too. The thing is, this album evokes nostalgia. At least it does in my case.

This is the killer soundtrack to the popular game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, released by Rockstar Games on October 27, 2002. It was a huge success, and as of July 2006, at least in America, Vice City became the best-selling PlayStation 2 game of all time. And a big part of its success was the soundtrack.

The complete soundtrack is a 7-disc set, with each disc representing the music for the seven radio stations in the game. There are actually eight stations, but only seven play music (K-Chat is devoted to senseless yet humorous studio conversations). The music covers all the popular genres of the eighties, from rock music (V-Rock), to old school rap (Wildstyle), to Latin (Radio Espantoso), to pop (Fever 105, Flash FM), to slow love songs (Emotion 98.3), and to new wave (Wave 103). Each and every disc is a great collection of songs, and as I said earlier, if you were born before 1980, you would be familiar with most if not all the songs here, and you'd have childhood memories associated with it also.

Aside from great songs, each disc also has a few minutes of DJ talk, as well as some fictional yet hilarious commercials. My personal favorite is of course, DJ Fernando Martinez. If you hear him talk with his smooth Latino accent, you'll know why.

Rating: Five stars.


Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

This is one of the best computer games of this generation.

If Pac-Man ruled the eighties, and Street Fighter ruled the nineties, then I would say the millennium belongs to Grand Theft Auto. And we have Rockstar Games to thank for that.

Vice City is sort of like an improvement of its predecessor, Grand Theft Auto III, which was also a 3-D improvement of its two-dimensional bird's eye-view predecessor, the original Grand Theft Auto game. In GTA III, you play an escaped convict, and you have to complete missions which involve driving cars. And you aren't provided with a car of your own---you have to steal one. Once inside a vehicle, radio music starts playing, and you can even change stations. The beauty of this is that when you get down from your vehicle, hit someone on the head with a lead pipe, and then get back on the driver's seat, the radio song will still be playing, like it was a real radio song.

Vice City takes GTA III one step further because while GTA III uses original music by unknown artists, Vice City gives you a blast from the past---all eighties music. Imagine driving around town with Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" blasting from the car stereo. That's because the game is set in 1986, in a city heavily inspired by Miami Vice, where the lead character Tommy Vercetti (voiced by Ray Liotta---yes, the Hollywood actor) is just one of the many colorful yet shady characters in the Florida underworld.

Vice City has set the standard for the soundtrack possibilities in video gaming, and its sequel Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas fast forwards a decade into the future, with nineties rock on the soundtrack this time. Playing video games has never been this fun, and sometimes you'd just find yourself sitting inside the car, waiting for the song "Africa" by Toto to finish.

Rating: Masterpiece.


Vantage Point

This is what I call a "non-linear whodunit".

Writer Barry Levy gives us a spectacular script (those of you attuned to the intricacies of scriptwriting will agree that Levy has done a brilliant job), and it is this script that glues the whole story together. It also helped to have great actors in front of the cameras, who basically just followed the script and did their thing. Vantage Point is a work of art in terms of storytelling and directing, with Barry Levy and director Pete Travis providing the one-two punch.

Dennis Quaid plays the high-strung hero who gets a little too physical in the stunts (seems Mr. Quaid isn't as old as I thought he was), while the ever-serene William Hurt plays the "number one terrorist", a.k.a. the president of the United States. Oscar winner Forest Whitaker does his fair share of running around the streets of Spain, while Sigourney Weaver's very short screen time makes her virtually unnoticeable to younger fans who've never seen her in Ghostbusters. And of course let's give a shout-out to a great supporting cast.

A masterpiece is made when several elements come together to form something which will blow your mind away. This is one such example. The use of non-linear storytelling, great directing, great editing (watch the car scenes, it'll pump up your adrenaline), great sound effects, and actors who do not try to upstage each other all come together to give us one excellent story---and way up to the end you'll still be asking whodunit.

Rating: Five stars.


10,000 B.C.

Nothing but prehistoric eye-candy.

This movie is aesthetically pleasing, and yet somehow I am not convinced about its accuracy. This is all Mel Gibson's fault, with the effective realism technique he began with The Passion and continued with Apocalypto. Now I expect every historical movie to be delivered in its original language. There is something quite jarring about hearing American English spoken in 10,000 BC.

The costumes were great, especially the dreadlocks of the mammoth hunters (it makes them look really filthy). The casting did a great job of casting virtual unknowns in the movie (Camilla Belle is probably the only familiar name here, as well as the soothing voice of Omar Sharif as the narrator), because if they cast some Hollywood bigshot, then the film would've been more unbelievable. But for now, it's just the sabre-tooth tiger that doesn't look believable at all. Who would've thought that after thousands of years of evolution, they still couldn't come up with a realistic creature.

One more thing: I don't remember having read anything that said they used woolly mammoths to build the Pyramids.

Rating: Three stars.



Simple storytelling goes a long way.

Oscar season is over, and yet people are still raving about this coming-of-age drama that also pulls a few laughs.

Ellen Page shows extraordinary brilliance, a remarkable metamorphosis from Kitty Pride of the X-Men days. You will totally feel for Juno, from her pregnancy test all the way to her delivery, and you will also realize your concept of parenthood changing.

Supporting Ellen Page in this film is Michael Cera of Superbad, once again playing his trademark soft-spoken character, but this time donning gold shorts. J.K. Simmons also shows a more subdued side, playing Juno's supportive father. Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner, fresh from their team-up in The Kingdom, play the adoptive parents, Garner actually displaying brilliant acting as an expectant mother who will finally get what she wants.

In fact, everyone's acting is subdued except Ellen Page, and this was probably intentional to let her fiery character stand out. And it does.

Rating: Four and a half stars.


The Kingdom

One of the best films about the greateset conflict of modern times.

With a spectacular opening sequence, audiences will be primed for the big show with a brief visual history of Arab-American relations. It is indeed a funky way to explain how all this shit started.

Most of the action (more than 90%) happens in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the richest places on the planet, and director Peter Berg does a great job of transporting us to the Arab world. Western audiences will need this immersion into the alien Arab culture. This works in establishing everything, because the authenticity of life in the Middle East is one of this film's selling points. This is not like the other movies that portray Americans and Arabs in black and white.

Jamie Foxx gives a good performace as the FBI special agent assigned to investigate a suicide bombing (check out the scene where the terrorist explodes). The ever-brilliant Chris Cooper plays the experienced old-timer on the team, while Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman (who will team up later in Juno) play the serious forensic scientist and the comic relief, respectively. Ashraf Barhoum also gives a very convincing performance, showing the American audiences that there is such a thing as a good Arab.

There truly is never a dull moment when you're an infidel in Arab land. Especially with bullets flying and bombs exploding.

Rating: Four and a half stars.


The Bucket List

Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson---two acting veterans just having a blast.

Do not take anything too seriously in life, life ends, we all die, blah-blah-blah---that's the whole point of this movie. Two old timers about to kick the bucket (yes, that's where the title comes from) write up a list of things they want to do before they snuff it out.

Family-man Freeman and billionaire Nicholson seem like an unlikely pair at first, but their chemistry on and off-screen is truly captivating. It's like you'd never doubt that they could really be friends.

Watching this movie might make you want to write a bucket list of your own. Now that might seem pretty morbid at first, but as someone said, only two things in life are certain: death and taxes. And there's nothing wrong with being prepared.

Not really a tear-jerker, but the more emotional people might need to have something to wipe their eyes with.

Rating: Three and a half stars.


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Not as excellent as it was hyped up to be.

Let's take the strengths first. Johnny Depp as always shows terrific acting, and his singing voice is not bad. Mrs. Tim Burton is also great in belting out those tunes, although frankly I'm wondering when Tim Burton will stop using her in his films. Alan Rickman too fleshes out the despicable judge, and one will not feel sorry once Todd slits his throat. And Sacha Baron Cohen's brief appearance is one of the film's redeeming moments.

Cinematically, the film is a sight to behold. Burton masterfully paints the visual mood of the story, with bright crimson blood contrasting the cinematography's de-saturated tones. Production design is also good, especially the meat shop, where the filthy kitchen (with all its roaches) sends shudders up your spine and takes away your appetite.

And now, the weaknesses. Well, there is only one basic weakness: the songs sucked. A musical film must excel on two grounds: visually, and musically. Tim Burton took care of the visual part, but frankly the songs were not even good enough to creep into my head and subconsciously plant themselves as a last-song syndrome.

Bottom line is, the music wasn't great, and the songs weren't catchy. It therefore fails as a musical.

Rating: Three and a half stars.


National Treasure: Book of Secrets

Another action-packed holiday family movie from entertainment giants Jerry Bruckheimer and Walt Disney Pictures, this is the second installment in the National Treasure franchise, a weird mix of treasure hunts, conspiracy theories, and American history.

John Bartha is hilarious as Ripley Poole, once again stealing the show from Nicholas Cage and the lovely Dianne Kruger, while Jon Voight too reprises his role as Ben Gates's agitated father. Throw in Helen Mirren as the semi-bitchy mom, and you've got yourself a family reunion.

Of course, us older audiences will know better than to accept the story with no questions asked, but again the line between fact and fiction may not be clear to the kids. These children might develop a false interest in American history, suddenly listening attentively in history class, hoping for a clue to a hidden treasure. But kids, there is no such thing. It's just a movie. But then again, to a child, movies are the bearers of truth, and no one can tell them to believe otherwise.

Rating: Three stars.


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