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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.


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