Monday, December 31, 2007

Wanted: Cultural Champions

I recently spent some time in Cebu with my family. As a tourist attraction, it hadn't received the hype often lavished on choice tourist locations like Boracay, Palawan or, more recently Bohol, but it did boast the most development of any province outside of Manila.

Now I won't argue with the numbers that Cebu's denizens have proudly posted for the public at large; I won't argue that they're earning more as a province than any other, or that their development is at this stage or that, but I will say that whatever it is they're earning, they sure as hell aren't spending it beautifying their city.

I came to Cebu eager to see things like their cathedral and the legendary Magellan's cross, only to be profoundly disappointed by both. Magellan's cross in particular was a real let down; from the pictures I was inexplicably so certain that I would find the thing atop a hill or surrounded by something like a lavishly landscaped garden. Imagine how I felt when I found it sitting in the middle of some stinking (literally) square in front of Cebu City Hall. After the disappointment that the cathedral turned out to be, I had been buoyed by the well-maintained, sumptuously decorated Basilica de Santo Nino, and expected the romanticized vision of the cross that the pictures had inspired in my imagination.

So are we to understand that, for all this progress and money, the provincial government doesn't even see fit to preserve some of its greatest historical treasures?

I hope that's not the case.

Cebu could, with all of the richness of its history, definitely use its own version of the Intramuros administration, or even its own Carlos Celdran.

I love what Celdran has done for old Manila. I went on one of his tours in 2002 and was delighted to see how much ink he's gotten over the years; he seems to have become a fixture in the tourist scene. Here's a guy who, as far as I can tell, has literally made a living doing his own thing, and living out his obvious passion for the Philippines' oldest city.

My wife and I aren't exactly cultural slouches; aside from our shared love for Intramuros, we went on, like I said, Celdran's tour of the Escolta area in 2002, and did the rounds in the Ilocos, visiting nearly a dozen old churches from Vigan to Pagudpud (that's a lot of wishes, if you believe the superstitions about stepping into churches for the first time) and we made it a point to get a map of Cebu so we would know where to go for the sights and sounds beyond the local mall. We know that Cebu has just as much history behind it as Manila, and yet the only things that were even vaguely attractive about it to us were SM and the Ayala Mall.

To my mind, and I am loath to say this, it seems that this is because the people responsible for the upkeep of the city and its cultural monuments don't really seem to give a shit.

Cebuanos who should stumble on this may want to pillory me, but like I said, I don't dispute the numbers or the claims to prosperity; I only call it like I see it.

As the starting point of the Philippines' colonization by Spain, among other things, Cebu has a lot to attract people besides freaking Plantation Bay, and I think it's really sad that the local government hasn't thought to make the most out of it.

The Year That Was 2007

In the past, oddly enough, I've had years which I could categorically classify as "good," or "bad," based on my net satisfaction index (pretentious, isn't it?) with the way the year went. Simply put, if I was happy more often than I was miserable in the course of a year, it was good, and if not, it was bad. It didn't even depend on the things that would happen to me; just how I dealt with them.

1998, for example, was a bad year, though by rights it shouldn't have been considering that I graduated from college with honors that year. A bad romantic interlude followed by an even worse start to my law school life, however, made me a prisoner of my own angst and frustration. There was nothing in particular that happened to me that should have made me feel that that was a particularly bad year, but I took everything so badly that it turned out to be one, just for that reason.

2004, in contrast, was probably the best year I enjoyed in recent memory, even though I spent six months out of the year without gainful employment, even though it was the year I found out I would have to re-take (as I actually did re-take) the bar exams, even though my wife needed an operation to remove a baseball-sized cyst from one of her ovaries. I've said it before to others; I honestly felt that 2004 was the year that the 'reset' button was pushed, and all of my mistakes in judgment were simply washed away and I was allowed to start anew, which was particularly the case when I started working at the Supreme Court in October 2004 of that year.

Even by this standard, though, 2007 is a somewhat harder year to classify. Without going into the specifics, it's been a rather tumultuous year for me, but there's been so much good that has happened, and so many positive realizations and reflections on my part, that I can't readily pigeonhole it one way or the other.

2007 was the first time I saw the face of evil. I don't mean Pol-Pot, Adolf Hitler kind of evil, but more like the kind that infests our government. I'd never really had any enemies before this year, just people I didn't like or who didn't like me, rightly or wrongly. My life was a lot simpler this way, but this was the first year, to my knowledge anyway, that I have had someone actively seeking to harm me in any real way.

At the same time I made, about half a dozen new, very good friends for whom I am immeasurably grateful. These are friendships I hope and intend to nurture well after this year; some of these people I hope to count among my pantheon of my truly good friends.

I learned a lot of important things about life, too, about myself and the world in general, a lot of which I already knew but didn't fully appreciate until now.

There's a lot I want for myself in 2008, but I think I can name a few things here and now.

I think, the first and most important thing I want for myself is to be able to spend more quality time with my family, and I don't necessarily mean more time as much as I do better time, as it were. Anyone who knows me well knows that I have been pretty hands-on in my role as a father, but there's always room for improvement and considering how rapidly kids change as they grow older I should probably adapt as quickly as possible.

Another thing I want to do is explore the possibilities of my profession a little more closely. Up until today, being a lawyer has been a question of either "corporate or litigation," "law firm or government" or "employed or self-employed." I'm hoping to explore some different permutations of these concepts and be the richer for it, both in terms of experience and financial rewards.

Another thing I really, really want for myself is to find the inspiration to write creatively again, whether it's my long-gestating book about my bar experience to those short stories I used to churn out just for the fun of it, I want to express myself and to finally find an audience for that expression.

I also want to find more joy in things I don't have to buy, like the love of my wife and kids. 2007 was actually a step in that direction considering I watched something like six or seven movies in the theater last year as opposed to the nearly twenty (including multiple viewings) I used to do when I was younger. Sure, hobbies are fun (even though my current one of collecting toy cars has tapered off somewhat) but in the end I think the best times I've had this year were those spent with Theia, Apel and Tala, and that's something I was to cultivate even more.

In many ways, 2007 was the year I got closer to my family, and I want to continue to explore that in 2008. From what I see I have a couple of really sweet kids, and I really want to pay more attention to the way they're growing up, especially considering how fast it is.

At the same time, though, I want to well and truly start defining my career and its direction; though I don't plan to make the mistakes of Adam Sandler's character in Click, I do deserve to have a career and I hope to make the most out of it, especially if it means I'll be able to provide for my family.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't really want to go back to the way things were in 2004; I loved how safe and sound I felt back then, with my future still ahead of me as opposed to these days when I feel like I'm still treading water in what I had hoped was that future. But the truth is I can't live on the brink of something forever.

I guess if anything will change about this blog in 2008, it'll be that I'll be posting a little more about little vignettes of life than comic books, movies, or even more banal things like local politics.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Spider-Man According to Joe Quesada

With the conclusion of the J. Michael Straczynski swansong on the Amazing Spider-Man title entitled One More Day Marvel has boldly pushed the reset/retcon button on its most beloved character, Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man, in a plot twist so thin and threadbare that the issue can be summarized in one sentence.

Essentially, both Peter Parker and Mary Jane after a few pages of agonizing and soul-searching give in to Mephisto (Marvel's version of Satan) and agree to give up the very existence of their marriage in exchange for saving the dying Aunt May's life. As a result, Spider-Man continuity is so radically reset that not only are Peter and Mary Jane not married nor have they ever been married, but inexplicably, Harry Osborn, who died in the most poignant manner imaginable in 1993, is alive.

I have been a Spider-Man fan since reading The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man over twenty years ago, and began collecting intermittently in 1988, collecting whole runs of the series in the early 2000s, and I can say, categorically, that I simply cannot remember being more disappointed with a Spider-Man story in my life.

This story is essentially undoing 90 percent of the stories I collected just so Joe Quesada can fulfill his dream of having Spider-Man "unmarried." I don't even want to dwell on how bad this idea is because right now I have so much else going on my life that quite frankly, the best way to deal with this is simply to drop Amazing Spider-Man altogether...but not before posting my two-cents on this storytelling debacle.

The funny thing about this story is how JMS seems to be fighting Joe Quesada every step of the way on how the whole thing turns out. His dialogue (which may not even entirely be his in my opinion considering that the weird "ah-heeeh," "ah-huuuh" speech tics used exclusively by Paul Jenkins somehow found their way into the script) in its most moving moment, talks about how the love that brought them together is stronger than any force that would strive to undo it, stronger than God or the devil...or, in the subtext, than Joe Quesada.

I foresee JMS leaving Marvel not too far down the line. He's always spoken out against micro-management of his writing, and with this having been rammed down his throat, as well as the Sins Past storyline which he had originally conceived as a way to have Peter's children come back to try and kill him, but which was rewritten to have NORMAN OSBORN sire children by GWEN STACY, he may well have been pushed past his breaking point, or just up to its brink.

What makes me even sadder is how this is, in my opinion, one of the best-illustrated Spider-Man stories EVER. Quesada pulls out all of the stops as an artist and channels, even while maintaining his own distinct style, Romita Sr., Todd McFarlane and some of the best artists of 45 years of Spider-Man's history. I'll always have a special place in my heart for John Romita Jr. as the best Spider-Man artist ever but in terms of sheer draftsmanship Joe is just in a class of his own. I guess it goes to show how profoundly Joe believes in the agenda he's pushing in this story, to the extent that he is credited as co-writer and is, I believe, responsible for the last eight or nine pages of the script which, incidentally, is godawful.

I honestly hope Spider-Man fans the world over let Joe Quesada know exactly how they feel about his selfish and rather heavy handed attempt to dictate how Spider-Man should be presented as a character. Unmarrying Spider-Man is one thing, but retconning dead characters into the mix? Joe has crossed even more lines than people were dreading he would.

If there's any consolation I can derive from this, it's that there seems to be lot of room for yet another "reset" down the line, even without a whole lot of retconning. To use an analogy, it seems to have been designed as a knot that can be untied with a single tug, such that if the reaction of fandom is to well and truly reject this new status quo, it will unravel even more quickly than Peter's replacement by Ben Reilly during the infamous Clone Saga. Anyway, anything done magically in the Marvel U is fairly easily undone...I hope.

Until then, well, if I buy comic books, they won't be those starring Spider-Man. Steve McNiven of Civil War may...and only just may...keep me on board for three issues, but I'm not coming back unless and until the mess of One More Day is definitively undone.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Epics and Fairy Tales

The winter movie season is officially on in the U.S., with studios pulling out both their award contenders and their late year charges for box office supremacy. Last weekend I was able to catch two such offerings: Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf and Kevin Lima's Enchanted.

directed by Robert Zemeckis
starring (in motion capture and voice performances)
Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins and Robin Wright Penn

It seems to me that since the dawn of the iMax 3-D format, no other director of feature-length films has pushed the envelope further than Robert Zemeckis, who started out strong three years ago with The Polar Express, and who bludgeons audiences again this year with an adaptation of the old English epic, Beowulf.

I say this not because I actually saw the film in iMax 3-D, but because watching the story unfold it occurred to me how the fillmmaker's principal imperative was to string together a bunch of iconic images and action scenes, with character development and even story logic being secondary. I know this is an adaptation, but it is my understanding that the writers made certain interpretations of the text of the original poem that translate into liberties. As a I discuss the plot points, be advised that SPOILERS ABOUND.

The main players are all there, with Beowulf (voiced to gravelly perfection by Ray Winstone) arriving on the shores of Denmark to rid King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) of a monster, Grendel (Crispin Glover), who has slain many of his faithful subjects during a night of drunken debauchery. Quite simply, he gets the job done albeit in a rather unorthodox fashion by stripping naked and fighting the creature with nothing more than his bare hands, killing it by repeatedly punching what appears to be a cross-between its ear and its temple and then ripping its arm off, but not before Grendel is able to crawl home to his mother (Angelina Jolie) and tell her who killed him.

Enraged, the demon sorceress comes to Beowulf in a dream, disguised as Hrothgar's wife (Robin Wright Penn, in her first Zemeckis film since Forrest Gump) whom Beowulf has grown to fancy. When Beowulf awakes, he finds to his consternation that almost all of his men have been slain. Hrothgar informs him that Grendel's mother is responsible for the carnage, showing somewhat unusual knowledge about her which leads us to believe that it was, in fact, he who sired the creature.

Beowulf journey's to the creature's lair, only to find that she looks just like a naked Angelina Jolie, with the more sensitive parts obscured as she seduces him with not only her body but with promises of power and glory which Beowulf rather quickly swallows up. They end up having a one night stand, and her promises made to him of having his own kingdom, in exchange for giving her a son, come true after Hrothgar, who despite Beowulf's exclamations that he has slain her, divines the truth and then after declaring that "she is no longer my curse," kills himself.

Flash forward to what appears to be many, many years later, with Beowulf an aged and weary king, devoid of any purpose or happiness in life.

At one point, however, a crucial part of his bargain with Grendel's mother (who really doesn't go by any other name in the story) is broken, and suddenly, her vengeance, their son, descends upon Beowulf's kingdom. This time, rather than a grotesque humanoid monster, it is a dragon that seeks to destroy the kingdom. After a rather thrilling chase sequence which was, again, no doubt conceived for the benefit of 3D viewers, Beowulf performs an act of supreme self-sacrifice, which gruesomely involves self-mutilation through which he is able to slay the dragon by ripping out its heart. Having killed his own son, he has thus redeemed himself for his moment of weakness many years before.

Now, I would be a complete and utter liar if I didn't say I was rather unhappy with what happened next, considering it apparently wasn't the most literal interpretation of the poem's ending.

Essentially, Beowulf is given a hero's funeral, and suddenly, Grendel's mother, not only shows up, but then proceeds to tempt the man who has succeeded Beowulf as king, leaving the film somewhat open-ended.

The plot of both Hrothgar and Beowulf sleeping with Grendel's mother and siring children by her was apparently something added on by screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, and to my mind it isn't a particularly welcome one, especially since storywise, the destruction of Beowulf's kingdom by the dragon becomes his fault, when it isn't even so in the poem. Beowulf's heroism in slaying the dragon is then diminished; in the poem he dies saving his kingdom from a dragon, but in the movie he dies cleaning up his own mess.

And worst of all, this little plot device, avowedly intended to bridge the gap of 50 years from the time Beowulf kills Grendel to the time he fights the dragon, does not service the story particularly well.

This movie still suffers from the affliction of Polar Express which felt like a string of illogical action sequences meant to keep 3D audiences enthralled and obviously character development is the main casualty. And to think, I didn't even get to see it in 3D.

My problems with the film are mostly thematic and story-related, and I really did love the visualization of the movie. The dragon chase sequence at the end is particularly awesome to behold.

Now that Zemeckis, with three moderately successful motion-capture movies under his belt (including last year's Monster House, which he produced but didn't direct), I think it's safe to say that Hollywood now has a new, viable way of telling stories that are a little too daunting, budget-wise, for live-action filming. While I wasn't particularly excited about these films, I now eagerly await the release of Steven Spielberg's and Peter Jackson's Tintin trilogy, which, it is said, will be made using this same technique.

directed by Kevin Lima
starring Amy Adams, Patrick Dempsey and James Marsden

With the exception of The Little Mermaid, I am a huge fan of the Menken-era Disney musical. I loved the songs and the production numbers and in some cases their wonderful, tear jerker qualities.

While lately these films, and Disney films in general, have been thoroughly lampooned by the Shrek films (produced by ex-Disney honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg), Disney has, itself, decided to poke fun at some of its quainter storytelling conventions as well in the charming Enchanted.

Giselle (Adams) is a peasant girl dreaming of finding her prince charming. Prince Edward (Marsden), is a handsome prince with a penchant for taking down giants and ogres who is in search of a beautiful maiden to marry. They meet, fall in love, and decide to marry the next day.

This is the perfect setup for a Disney animated movie (and the first few minutes of the film are done in the traditional, hand-drawn style) and in true Disney tradition, the villain of the story, Edward's evil stepmother, the queen, steps into the picture, tricking Giselle and pushing her down a well (sort of) which is actually a magical portal to place where there are "no happily ever afters." That place just happens to be Manhattan, and it is at this point that the story ceases to be animated but instead takes place in live action.

Giselle, wandering through New York and thoroughly distraught and disoriented, then meets handsome but cynical divorce lawyer Robert Philips (Dempsey) who lives alone with his daughter. What follows is truly zany sequence of events, with Prince Edward jumping down the same "well" in pursuit of Giselle, with a chipmunk named Pip and a loyal manservant named Nathanael (Timothy Spall) in tow.

Of course, this is a love story, so it's pretty much a foregone conclusion who Giselle will fall in love with before the credits roll, but there are some wonderfully surprising character moments, such as when she gets fed up with Robert's cynicism and tells him so. There are a lot of wonderful little character insights, mostly to do with Giselle, that accompany her trip to happily ever after. And like any Disney movie, it's happily ever after for everyone, from Giselle and Robert, to Prince Edward and Robert's girlfriend Nancy (Idina Menzel of Rent, who apparently had a lovely song number with James Marsden that didn't make the final cut) and Nathanael. Of course, we all know what, in a Disney movie, happily ever after means for the villain...

Now, lampooning Disney cliches is nothing new and it was, quite frankly, done ad nauseam in three Shrek movies, but this movie doesn't quite beat the audience over the head with its tongue-in-cheek references. Rather, it pays homage to all of those creations of old, and transplants them, however absurdly, into the 'real world'. For example, the forest animals who help tidy up the cottage become a cadre of pigeons, rats, cockroaches and flies cleaning up Robert's apartment, all to the tune of an Alan Menken song! It's touches like this that set this movie apart from yet another would-be spoof.

Of course, the conceit would still have fallen flat on its face were it not for the conviction of Amy Adams' performance. To any extent, James Marsden as the literally and figuratively two-dimensional Prince Edward also adds a lot to the story's narrative pep, but this is wholly Adams' movie. Thank God Lima didn't go with Lindsay Lohan, who was whispered to have been considered for the part at one point.

The movie is just pure delight from start to finish, and not because there's anything particularly new or insightful about it, but that its execution is really magnificent. It's a deconstruction of the Disney musical without the toilet humor or blatant pop culture references. It's wonderful how, after years of being overshadowed by Dreamworks and their increasingly cookie-cutter computer generated cartoons, Disney has once again come out to show them the way creatively.

Not that the movie is without its flaws. For one thing, one unfortunate inevitability of a movie with characters as zany as Giselle and Prince Edward is that there has to be a 'straight man' to keep things on an even keel, and Dempsey plays Robert as straight as they come, largely because of a script that really doesn't give him anything to do but react to Giselle on one hand and be cynical on the other. Oh, and he's meant to look good in a suit for his legions of Grey's Anatomy fans. His character was somewhat condemned by, ironically enough, a Disney story convention, to not be very interesting, just like the princes Disney lampoons. I mean, at least James Marsden's Edward was laugh-out-loud funny. Idina Menzel is given an even more thankless role than Dempsey, and considering her song number was cut out one wonders why they even kept her character around. Also, I felt that both the cinematographer and makeup artist did Adams a true injustice; I remember seeing her only a year ago in Will Ferrell's Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and I distinctly remember that she looked pretty good there. Here, she looked disconcertingly old, and rather pallid. Fortunately, her performance transcends the shortcomings of the people who prepped and shot her scenes.

Flaws aside, though, and there are, mercifully, very few of them, this is easily one of the most enjoyable movies I've seen all year, and I heartily recommend it to whoever reads this.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Reset Button

This past week, part 3 of J. Michael Straczynski's Spider-Man swansong, One More Day, finally hit stores, and finally settled the question of just how Marvel, through artist and editor-in-chief Joe Quesada was planning to put a sledgehammer to Peter Parker's marriage to Mary Jane Watson, (not that it was that much of a mystery leading up to this issue): Peter and Mary Jane make a deal with the devil, known in the Marvel Universe as Mephisto, to save the dying Aunt May.

There's really not much to say about this issue other than that it is among the most heavy-handed, clunkily-narrated comic books starring Spider-Man which I have ever had the misfortune of reading. In this issue the reader can see the all-powerful hand of Marvel's editorial, led by Quesada himself, guiding Straczynski's pen, and it's come out that JMS himself wanted to remove his name from the last two books altogether. Well, when he has to write lines as utterly putrid as "I want that which gives you joy...I want your marriage," it's hard to blame him. The story would have worked better at this point had Joe Quesada simply drawn his own face instead of Mephisto's; everyone knows this was pretty much his idea.

Now, I understand the logic behind "undoing" the marriage; marrying two young leads is something best done at the end of a movie or movie franchise, or even at the end of a long-running TV series. It's not something someone should do in the context of a serialized comic book with an indefinite shelf-life. Spider-Man was introduced to his first generation of readers as young and single, and Quesada's beef, like that of editors that came before him, was that rather than remain as such for succeeding generations, which can actually be accomplished in the comic book world, he aged along with that first audience, to the point where he got married and was, at one point, about to have a kid. There is a point to this argument; Peter and Mary Jane may always be eternally young, but once they're married they will not eternally be newlyweds. In short, it can be argued that the decision to have them get married was a mistake.

But like the old saying goes, "two wrongs don't make a right," and this story is most definitely, indubitably wrong.

This is, in my opinion a crying shame because each issue of this book boasts some of the best artwork I've ever seen in any of Spider-Man's books, and Joe Quesada's best work EVER. I liked his work on the latter issues of Daredevil: Father with the sixth issue being one of my favorites, and this series just completely eclipses that one in terms of the sheer quality of the draftsmanship. If I may wax cliche, Joe is on top of his game artwise.

However, just as Todd McFarlane's art couldn't save the piss-poor writing in his fifteen-issue run on the Spider-Man title he launched nearly two decades ago, Quesada's art simply cannot redeem a story so bad that not even its writer wants to be identified with it.

Brand New Day had better be really, really good and even then I only plan on buying the stuff Steve McNiven draws...

Thursday, November 29, 2007

15 Minutes

Filipino activists with blogs the world over are probably atwitter with yesterday's events, but for my part, all I can do is shake my head at the stupidity of everyone involved.

Trillanes' stunt (and let's be honest, that's really all it was) worked pretty well in that he basically wrapped both the local media around his finger and got Malacanang to declare a curfew, something that hasn't been done since the Marcos days, but to my mind he really didn't do himself any favors by walking out of his trial and basically putting himself squarely in contempt of court taking over a posh hotel with no real plan as to what he was going to do. If he had hoped to walk out of that hotel the newly-appointed President of the Philippines, then he's even stupider and more deluded than people have given him credit for.

There isn't really much to say about the clumsiest attempt to unseat the administration that hasn't already been discussed ad nauseam in newspaper, radio and television editorials, other than that it's given the government another opportunity to shoot itself in the foot by declaring another curfew (though that's been quite healthily discussed as well).

What I find funny about all these "expressions of outrage" is while everyone knows what the disease is, nobody, and this has been the case for nearly three years now, has presented a cure, in no small part due to the fact that the opposition cannot even agree on what that is.

Trillanes and his motley cadre of supporters looked downright foolish in last Thursday's escapade, with some of the people presented rapidly distancing themselves from him when it all went south, such as the bishop who claim that he just happened to be in the hotel at the time of the incident. Riiiiight...

But equally foolish was the Arroyo administration, with its drastic midnight to five a.m. curfew summoning up images of martial law more dramatically than all three of its ill-advised Executive Orders and issuances last year which the Supreme Court slam-dunked.

If they keep this up, along with their own infighting (such as the latest Arroyo-De Venecia imbroglio), it wouldn't be hard to see the administration imploding the way Erap's did when Chavit Singson ratted him out. The only question is who'll be around to pick up the pieces, because currently no one seems to be properly positioned to do this.

The way I see it, it isn't that hard to get the people behind a personality; there's really too much shit going on for people to not want some kind of change. The lack of any concerted mass action is not attributable to exclusively to apathy, the way I see things. I've said this before, and I'll say it again: those idiotic activists pontificating on the radio, on TV and in their newspaper columns all miss the point; it's not about not wanting things to get better. Our problem is we don't want to hitch our stars to people like Antonio Trillanes. Some idiot columnist whom I've already taken the time to lambast in the past described Trillanes as a hero and a martyr or something like that, but I have to say; what kind of hero knowingly puts people, like media men and other civilians, in harm's way?

I agree that the Filipino people do need a hero, but one thing's for sure, we won't find it among the crop of buffoons just jockeying for their 15 minutes in the spotlight.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Spider-Man Re-Masked.

When Spider-Man was publicly unmasked in the pages of Civil War in the middle of last year, it was a question of when, not if, Marvel would come up with a story device that would effectively reverse this status quo and return his civilian identity to secrecy.

It was widely expected among the comics community that this switchover would take place in the pages of Joe Straczynski's and Joe Quesada's One More Day storyline, already touted as the story meant to undo Peter Parker's marriage to Mary Jane.

Marvel, however, decided to come out of left field and pulled the feat in the pages of Avengers: The Initiative #7, in a story written, appropriately enough, by upcoming Amazing Spider-Man writer Dan Slott.

Essentially, the Initiative's three Scarlet Spiders, heretofore reserved only for covert operations, go public in an attempt to retrieve sensitive government documents from three mercenaries dressed like the Vulture, known, prosaically enough, as the Vulturions. The chase happens to pass by Peter Parker, who is on a rooftop feeling sorry for himself while his Aunt May is dying in a hospital (this story is said to take place just before the star of One More Day), and he is so incensed that Tony Stark has recycled the "Iron Spider" armor for three copycats that he attacks them. The tide of battle is drastically altered as Peter takes on two of the Scarlet Spiders, while the remaining one is left to fend for himself as the three Vulturions leap at the prospect of an unfair fight.

In the course of the fight, the media picks up on several Spider-Men slugging it out, and so the public broadcast required to cast doubts anew on Spider-Man's secret identify is conveniently set up.

The Scarlet Spiders are able to prick Peter's conscience into helping him out, and eventually the three of them are able to subdue the Vulturions, although the documents they stole are in Peter's hands. Peter, however, has trepidations about handing them the said documents, and so in a gesture of goodwill they all camouflage their costumes to look like him and then explain to the press that he (Peter) was part of a government-sponsored program to mimic Spider-Man using high-tech exo-suits, thereby casting doubt on whether or not he was actually Spider-Man.

At first I have to admit I was actually pretty impressed by this idea, though upon re-reading the issue I've seen just too many holes in the story's logic to really enjoy its contribution to the canon. The premise was well-conceived, though it bears some similarities to the manner in which Ed Brubaker reversed the "outing" of Matt Murdock's secret identity as Daredevil, but the execution was, to my mind, somewhat wanting. I loved the art, but there was just too much wrong with the story, enough to convince me that I won't be following this series anymore, considering the most important of the twists involves a crucial ongoing plot point in The Initiative.

Nor is this a case of my "outgrowing" comics; I submit that a better writer could have pulled this off with a lot more panache, like the aforementioned Brubaker, for instance.

It's kind of a shame Marvel didn't hold out a bit longer before pulling the reversal, especially considering Daredevil's "outing" lasted for over four years before they finally pulled the old switcheroo, with Iron Fist parading around as Daredevil while Matt Murdock was in prison, and known by the public to be so incarcerated. I guess it comes down to Spider-Man being a much more popular character.

At any rate, it still feels like a cop out. Good thing they're putting Steve McNiven on Spider-Man and Ed McGuinness on Hulk next year or I'd be bailing out of comics altogether with the end of One More Day.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Three Days, Four Movies Part II

A few days ago I reviewed a couple of movies I had seen over the All Saints weekend, and now I'd like to review the ones I enjoyed most.

Knocked Up

directed by Judd Apatow
starring Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl

Having enjoyed Apatow's last movie, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, I was happy to give him repeat business when I heard about this movie, particularly considering that most of the cast and crew of Virgin remained intact with some delightful new additions.
Knocked Up doesn't benefit from quite an original a premise as Virgin, but Apatow's true gift is in the execution. The story is about an upwardly mobile employee of E! named Alison Scott (Heigl) who, upon being promoted from a behind-the-camera job to full-time E! reporter goes out to celebrate one night, where she meets Ben Stone (Rogen) a part-time web-page designer, most-of-the-time bum and stoner living illegally in the States (he's Canadian). Several drinks later, the pair end up in bed, and thanks to some rather comical miscommunication, without any contraception. The morning after, a now sober Alison discovers that she can't stand Ben. Eight weeks later, however, when Alison starts getting morning sickness, and learns, after several dozen home pregnancy tests, that she is, in fact, pregnant, she gives Ben a call.
The movie is essentially Ben's and Alison's seven month journey on the way to parenthood. They don't spend all of it together, and this makes for some wonderful interplay with Alison's elder sister Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow's wife) and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd, also from Virgin), who, in contrast to the struggling new couple, have been married for ten years now. The contrast between the longtime couple and the new one is played out very nicely.
The movie is chock-full of belly laughs, which is pretty much to be expected, but what makes this outing really special, like Virgin, is that it has heart, on top of the biting wit of its script. I don't mean the treacly, virtually condescending "heart" of Adam Sandler movies, I mean real and honest-to-God heart courtesy of some truly wonderful chemistry between Heigl's Alison and Rogen's Ben and some genuinely touching acting even when they aren't onscreen together.
There's a lot of authenticity to the movie as well, with just about every character dropping F-bombs in a somewhat appropriate context (though I could have done with fewer of them) and Apatow going as far as to sneak in footage of an actual mother's vagina giving birth to stand in for Alison's moment of truth. It was a bit extreme, and in fact the knowledge that such footage would be used caused the original choice for Alison, Anne Hathaway, to drop out of the role, but having seen such a phenomenon up close and personally (sorry Theia), I can tell you it works for anyone who's ever had kids.
Knocked Up is a great movie, and although there have been some snide suggestions that its success was more the product of shock value than anything else I say nay. This is a movie that completely succeeds on its own merits.
For anyone who's into belly laughs, relationships, pregnancy, childbirth, raunchy sex humor, the DVD running time of celebrity sex scenes, or repeated references to Spider-Man 3, this movie is for you. As long as you're over 18, of course...


directed by Matthew Vaughn
starring Claire Danes, Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert DeNiro

I never saw The Princess Bride in its entirety, so I cannot say for certain, but part of me strongly believes that Stardust is, in spirit, its sequel, or at least is meant to be.
Stardust is the story Tristan Thorne (Cox), a country boy from the village of Wall who sets out on a journey to recover a falling star for the lovely Victoria (Sienna Miller) in exchange for her hand in marriage. This would be rather simple, except that the falling star is, in fact, a human being played by Claire Danes, and has landed in a magical realm known as Stormhold which lies just beyond the fringes of Wall, where she catches quite a bit of attention from three witches and the princes of Stormhold, whose father (Peter O' Toole) threw the Stormhold birthstone at the star that caused it to fall in the first place..
Pfeiffer camps it up as the lead witch, who sets out to find the star and cut out her heart (which is supposed to make her and her sisters young again, at least for the next hundred years) and is a delight to watch, as are the murderous princely siblings who have set out on their quest to recover the stone, for any of them to recover in order to claim the throne of Stormhold.
Although Tristan gets to her first, courtesy of a magic candle, the hard part is getting her back to Wall. And the fun/mayhem ensues, with transformations, swordfights, a transvestite pirate (DeNiro in a deliciously different turn) and generous helpings of magic both of the eldritch kind and the very human kind.
The movie is, all things considered a romance, so although Tristan starts the movie enamored with the self-absorbed Victoria, it doesn't take a rocket scientist who he'll fall for before the movie's running time is through, even without having read the book. The movie doesn't pretend to hold any real surprises, though, and this is actually part of its charm.
Though I bought, read and enjoyed the Neil Gaiman/Charles Vess illustrated fantasy novel from which this film was adapted (and yes, it is more like a novel than a comic book, so in this case the term graphic novel is much more apt than it usually is), I can't say I was particularly looking forward to this film, primarily because of my (silent) objections to the casting of Claire Danes as Yvaine, the lead female.
It turns out my apprehensions were, for the most part, unfounded. The movie is quite enjoyable, and even though quite a few liberties were taken with the original work, in many cases they are rather welcome changes and made for a more satisfying viewing experience than a straight adaptation would have been. I particularly liked the camping up of Victoria into a spoiled, self-absorbed brat rather than the annoyingly distant character she was in the graphic novel; it made for more engaging, if not slightly more caricatured storytelling. Although the addition of some swashbuckling elements seemed a little forced at times, I daresay I truly enjoyed the expansion of DeNiro's character Captain Shakespeare, who wasn't nearly as enjoyable in the book. I was also glad that some of the more adult aspects of the book were toned down, because really, this is a story a younger audience should be allowed to enjoy.
It's really quite a shame Stardust was one of this year's box-office disappointments. While not one of my all-time favorite movies, it was certainly a better movie than a whole lot of the other fare this year that have been killing at the tills; it certainly was a lot better than the trashy Transformers which was released by the same studio, and deserved a lot more than the feeble marketing push it got from Paramount, which treated it like gum on its shoe, all things considered.
Well, I take solace in knowing that its thematic predecessor, The Princess Bride, also did poorly during its box-office run, only to become a cult favorite on cable and home video. I hope this movie is able to flourish similarly.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Three Days, Four Movies Part I

Up until Halloween, I had gone for over two months without watching a single movie in the theater. It was a bit of a sacrifice considering how fond I am of movies in general, and there were a couple that I had wanted to see, but in general it was not that big a loss on my part. There just wasn't enough time or money.

With the long holiday that began last Thursday, though, during payday, that little problem was solved (though I admit I did stretch the budget a little bit). I got to see, in no particular order, Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, Judd Apatow's Knocked Up, the adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Stardust, and a gloriously silly little sports/martial arts spoof entitled Balls of Fury.

It would feel wrong if, having enjoyed a virtual smorgasbord, I didn't review at least two of them. I've decided to review all four, though in two installments.

Lust, Caution

directed by Ang Lee
starring Tang Wei, Tony Leung

Of the bunch, this was the film I enjoyed least, though it was arguably one of the best made. It was the heaviest of the four movies I watched, and nearly devoid of any humor which really made it stand out considering the other films were decidedly comedic in tone.

The movie is basically about a Chinese student who, during World War II, essentially lures a collaborator into bed in the hopes of helping the Chinese resistance find an opportunity to blow his brains out. It's a long, excruciating process that is, admittedly, helped along by some really riveting storytelling, and about two hours into the movie, the most explicit sex scenes I've ever seen outside of a porn movie.

Now the movie is a love story between a spy and the man she is setting up for assassination, so it's essentially a no-brainer that the story will end very badly for one or both of them and the movie does not disappoint in that respect. It's weighty, deliberately paced storytelling, which is another way of saying that Ang Lee well and truly takes his sweet time setting things up, which is not necessarily a good thing. His tendency to overcook his exposition is what bogged down The Hulk (a movie I still managed to like, being one of the very few people I know that did) and blunted the green goliath's first appearance, which didn't happen until halfway into the movie.

Arguably, it's necessary in this film to show how Wong, the spy/lover goes from wide-eyed, innocent student to would be femme-fatale, and there are quite a number tension-inducing scenes throughout the movie, so one certainly cannot accuse Lee of being boring, for the most part, but ultimately it still feels like the movie drags out too long.

Now, most of the attention this movie has gotten has been for its three highly explicit sex scenes. While I won't debate how graphic they were, I have to say at the outset that this movie doesn't qualify as pornography for a number of reasons, the first being that the sex doesn't take place until about an hour and a half (I checked) into the film, after the premise and the characters have been rather firmly established. The second is that if Lee had wanted nothing more than to titillate, he could have done a lot better than casting Tang Wei. There are women out there with bigger boobs and longer legs who probably shave their armpits. Thirdly, I feel it would be hard for a viewer to truly get into the scenes because for me all I could think about was what would happen to Wong if she ever got caught. They were certainly gratuitous, but I still don't think they qualify as pornography.

Finally, I don't think I could ever bring myself to see that movie again. It was just too heavy, and as a love story, it didn't particularly do anything for me considering how brutal the Chinese collaborator was.

I'm curious, though; can Lee ever tell a "normal" love story between people that doesn't involve tragic death, homosexuality, wartime massacres, or transformation into a green monster? I'd really like to see how he pulls it off.

Balls of Fury

directed by Ben Garrant
starring Dan Fogler, Christopher Walken

Now here's a movie I really enjoyed! Loud, self-deprecating and devoid of any intelligence, this one basically had me (and the guy beside me) howling with laughter from start to finish.

It's a basic riff on the martial arts "tournament to the death" movies of old, with Ping Pong being the "martial art" of choice.

The story begins in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, where pingpong prodigy Randy Daytona, whose dad is apparently a compulsive gambler, loses the table tennis finals to a rival, causing his father to lose his life to the Chinese Triad led by the mysterious Feng.

Twenty-years later, a washed-up Randy (Fogler) is approached by an FBI agent (George Lopez) with a mission; infiltrate Feng's lair by joining his underground pingpong tournament and provide the FBI with evidence to put him away for good. Of course, as rusty as he is, Randy must learn how to be a ping-pong master, and he gets the best tutelage around from a Master Wong (James Hong) and his sexy niece Maggie (Maggie Q). After he defeats the fearsome "Dragon" (whose appearance is good for quite a few laughs), Randy is drafted into Feng's tournament via a "golden ping pong paddle" delivered to him by Feng's henchmen. Feng turns out to be none other than Christopher Walken, taking an absurdly flamboyant turn as Wong's best pupil who never finished his training.

The story takes a turn for the predictable from there and suffice it to say there's never any doubt that we're in for a happy ending.

A lot of the martial arts references were unfortunately lost on me, but none of the low-brow humor was, and it was practically therapeutic to howl in laughter at the non-stop stupidity. Fogler clearly has aspirations of being the next Jack Black, and although I don't see that happening, he's certainly funny enough here. As Wong, Hong is good for a lot of slapstick jokes at blind people's expense, as well as a lot of gross-out humor, but for my money the real star of this show is Walken, whose mock-serious visage on the poster was what got me to the see the movie in the first place. There is nothing to reflect on after this movie is done, no commentary on the human condition, but at the end of the day, I honestly felt I'd gotten my money's worth.

Yes, it was completely predictable and the plot was without any depth, real or imagined, from start to finish, but that's not the point. The point is that I was laughing all the way there.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

And It Begins Again...

I wasn't born when martial law was declared. In fact, my eldest brother, who is four years and three months older than I am, was scarcely a year and a half when the infamous Plaza Miranda bomb went off. Finally, I'm not the most avid student of Philippine history.

All of these personal limitations notwithstanding, I cannot help but see the parallels between that bombing, which served as the advent for one of the darkest eras in Philippine history, and the latest alleged "terrorist" bombing which took place in the Glorietta Mall Area of Makati City.

The timing, for one thing, is extremely suspect, with the bombing coming just as clamor for Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's resignation has begun anew in the wake of indignation of the ZTE telecommunications contract scandal.

The sudden appearance of a heretofore (mostly) unheard of "terrorist" group claiming responsibility for the bombing also seems pretty convenient, considering that none of the "big" players such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Abu Sayyaf have stepped forward. The group (the name of which escapes me) is either determined to milk some free publicity for itself or is basically a figment of somebody's imagination. I'm no bomb expert, but it seems to me that a bomb this meticulously placed seems like a job a wee bit too big for some two-bit group that hardly gets any front page ink.

Of course, aside from this declaration, everything else has been a series of denials and whodunits, with both the administration and the opposition acting true to character, the former pooh-poohing any involvement in the blast, and the latter saying pretty much what I hinted at
a couple of paragraphs above.

The sad thing is that, as much as I think the opposition, especially that guy Trillanes who shot his mouth off about about a government conspiracy, are really nothing more than a bunch of opportunistic hypocrites whose only genuine beef with the administration is that they're the ones raking in the big bucks, I cannot for the life of me dismiss this particular conspiracy theory, however little my opinion might matter.

Since the last time the opposition made it's last big push, I've had a little encounter with what I call, in a word, evil. I've seen what people are ready to do to hang onto their power, or to protect their interest, including throwing someone directly into the line of fire, figuratively speaking.

Of course, there's always the other school of thought that the people might have overlooked; that people like Trillanes, (or indirectly Trillanes himself) may have been responsible for the bombing for the sole purpose of discrediting the government, so that they could invoke images of martial law and stir up a "people power"-like sentiment. It may well explain why no credible admission of responsibility has surfaced; maybe whoever's responsible wants people to believe that the government did it, and is banking on the middle class' appetite for conspiracy theories.

And then of course there's the theory, albeit far-fetched, that no one really seems interested in: that this was all just an accident. Ayala, of course, wouldn't hear of it considering it would be a direct testimony to how safe their mall area really is.

Though there haven't exactly been any declarations of martial law or any constitutionally objectionable executive orders or presidential issuances since this occurrence, either contrary to or because of the strident rantings of activists and self-righteous media-men, that doesn't mean anyone is more comfortable with the situation. Try walking into Gateway from the walkway leading from the MRT and you'll know what I mean. Customers are let into the mall in two single-file lines while security guards "search" their bags for anything "suspicious." Of course, the agencies the malls have hired HAVE to be able to say their guards are tightening up their search, even though in reality they remain as perfunctory as ever.

If I recall correctly, a similarly stringent "security" system was in place at Glorietta, now known as Ground Zero.

Until it is determined that this is a bombing, and that there is someone, whether a terrorist group, the administration, or even the opposition, pushing an agenda through this act, there's only one real culprit to blame thus far: the Filipino's addiction to malls.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Who Exactly is Uneducated?

The brutalization of Filipinos by Hollywood and its personalities is actually nothing new, from our depiction as cute little savages in Return of the Jedi, to Tom Selleck's cook's Tagalog monologue in Her Alibi to Claire Danes' brutal comments about Manila while filming Brokedown Palace to just about any Rob Schneider movie you can think of. Even Tina Fey recently took a jab at President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's fashion sense in an episode of 30 Rock.

I think what makes the comments of Teri Hatcher's character in Desperate Housewives truly despicable and even more racist than any of the aforementioned jabs is how
they essentially belittle our professionals, who constitute, at the moment, our most prized export. I know people who break their backs here just to get their medical degrees and pass their board, whose achievements have just been belittled by an aging borderline has-been and the smart-alecky, creatively-challenged writer whose dialogue she regurgitated. I mean, what kind of asshole resorts to racism for laughs these days, after what happened with Michael Richards?

It seems clear to me that there was a directive among the writers to come up with a third world country for that "clever little line." I can just imagine them thinking of what third world country would be least likely to kick up a fuss with the remark. "Why not the Philippines?" I can just imagine someone saying or thinking. "The people there worship us anyway."

As far as I'm concerned, though, that we were the object of yet another dig from those pricks at Hollywood is only half of what's objectionable; my problem is that Hollywood, and America, in general, should really stop taking cracks at the intelligence quotient of other cultures, considering their own track record in the last several years.

For one thing, this is the country that elected George W. Bush their President twice in a row. If people will bellyache that he cheated, well, they were still stupid enough to let it slide because he's approaching the last year of his term in office and there hasn't even been so much as an impeachment case filed against him.

In relation to that, these complete and utter morons let Bush and his cronies trick them into believing in a war that is without any justification, and, which, unbelievably, some of them still support to this day.

Moving on from their politics, let's look at Hollywood itself. In any given year, the highest grossing movies churned out by Hollywood are sequels, remakes, sequels to remakes, or the latest member of the species, "reboots." Most of the dreck polluting movie screens these days aren't even the products of screenwriters' original ideas anymore, they're derived from everything to books, comic books, TV shows, toylines, and now video games, the single most creatively bankrupt form of storytelling imaginable, especially considering that most video games rip off their plots from movies!

And let's not forget TV, where the offensive utterance occurred. American TV is now dominated by "reality" shows which seem to get progressively worse with each new show launched.

Finally, there is the Americans' fascination with rich, stupid people like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears, all of whom they've managed to make rich in one way or another.

Come to think of it, Americans are some of the stupidest people on the face of the earth, when one weighs the sum total of everything they've done in the last ten years alone and as such I don't think they're in any position to cast aspersions on the quality of education in anyone else's country. You people are supposed to be smart, right? How is it a chimpanzee has been running your country for nearly eight years now?

I don't actually watch Desperate Housewives, and am now glad I don't, but I seriously hope the writers, producers and cast of that piece of primetime garbage have, at the very least, to endure a whole world of grief for that little indiscretion, which was completely uncalled for and unabashedly racist.
I wouldn't even mind if the show got cancelled, so Teri Hatcher can go back to being a has-been, except now she can be a racist has-been. She and Michael Richards can form a club.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


This is my blog, and as such is a venue for me write about pretty much anything I want, no matter how detached from the concerns of society at large. It's my online diary, where I get to share anything from my views on politics to my thoughts on my hobbies, or, if I want to, what my toenail dirt looks like. I carry no social responsibility for the things I say here (for as long as I don't write anything libelous, I guess), and any "relevant" posts I happen to write are not saddled with any sense of obligation, but just because I want to write about them.

Catholic priests, I believe, are different.

I go to mass just about everyday (ironically enough, except for Saturday and Sunday). It's how I prefer to spend my lunch break. I hear mass at the EDSA shrine, spending every noon and early afternoon in a nice, air-conditioned chapel hearing mass while glancing at a wall painting depicting the Filipino's one truly shining moment in world history, which has long since lost any real meaning.

I've come to know the priests a little; there are about four or five of them who rotate, and of course, what makes any priest unique is the sermons he gives.

Some of them give pleasant, uplifting sermons, one of them gives barely comprehensible sermons considering he mumbles his English and cannot speak proper Tagalog (making me wonder exactly what province he's from), and one of them, the object of my ire in this post, gives some of the most condescending, cornball, and, dare I say it...inane homilies it is my displeasure to have to hear. If I could only be sure they had regular schedules I'd know to avoid this git, but unfortunately they shuffle them every week.

I wouldn't have written this but for the fact that last Tuesday, the chaos in Burma was weighing heavily on my mind (being splashed all over the news and all), when this priest gave his homily. He mentioned that Tuesday was the feast day of guardian angels, which was well and good, and started off with one of his ridiculous, forced "turn to the person next to you and..." and then talked about guardian angels in terms of how they look or don't look ("they don't all look like Marimar. Do you watch Marimar?") and how gossiping neighbors are not exactly angels.

It was at this point that I literally walked out of the church. I had wanted to pay my phone bill, and decided that was the perfect time to do it. I go to church for upliftment, not to have my stomach turned.

While I'm not the biggest fan of pontificating priests (even though they're the people for whom the word was coined), I recognize that, considering they have captive audiences, priests carry some form of responsibility to their flock. I would think that part of their service to God is calling for the prayers of their faithful for worthy causes, like the fight for democracy in Burma as a good, recent example.

When priests only dabble in "current affairs" when it's to comment on our own political circus here in the Philippines, they basically betray how parochially-minded they are and even reveal their own irrelevance in the grand scheme of things. What, do the monks in Burma not merit any mention because they're not Christians? I certainly hope this isn't the case.

The local Catholic Church looked like literal-minded fools when they were unduly agitated by the widely acknowledged work of fiction, The Da Vinci Code. The movie has come and gone, and the Church is still standing, so it would appear that all of the hullabaloo was for nothing at all. Priests like this idiot don't help things by showing how detached they are from things that matter in this world.

I'm glad I never became a priest. Aside from the more obvious reasons, (poverty, chastity, etc.), I feel I don't think I could bear the social responsibility they inevitably must carry as spiritual leaders of their communities.

But as for the men who choose to bear this mantle, they should realize that the spirits of the faithful do not exist in a vacuum. Even the Bible says it's not enough to just pray and profess one's love for God; faith is a way of life, not just a belief, and caring about other people's plight, to the extent of doing something about it, is an integral part of that way of life. Priests should encourage people to be socially conscious, if not necessarily activist in their orientation.

People say that one of the biggest problems of the Filipino of late is his apathy. That may be partly true, and I submit that one possible reason for this is that maybe not enough priests are telling people about the numerous outrages being perpetrated in this world day after day.

There is fear that the Church, as an institution is losing its relevancy. Well, if they do, I think that at the rate some of their priests are going, they will have no one but themselves to blame.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


I've hit a new stage in my whole collector-of-toy-cars phase: the sudden and insatiable desire to unload a big fat chunk of my collection on eBay.

Yes, the pile of over one dozen blister-pack sealed cars sitting in the top shelf of my wardrobe seems to practically be begging me to put it online and eventually into the hands of better owners whose ardor for them won't cool into indifference as quickly as mine has.

It really was all about the hunt, when I think about it; after I'd put them away in my closet and forgotten about them, there wasn't much else to say or do, especially considering I couldn't take them out of their blister packs and play with them.

There were a number of things that have brought about this feeling, but I think the first one is that I feel lately that I hit a different level last month when I picked up a couple of considerably pricier cars; I ventured into 1/43 territory, and with it acrylic cases, stunning details, and somewhat eyebrow raising prices that come with it.

I could put these cars, one red Mercedes Benz SLR McLaren and one silver Porsche Carrera GT, beside each other on the headboard of my bed and stare at them until I'd literally pass out. They kept me company when I was home sick all of this week and everyone was out. The other two cars that I "hung out with" were two of my four 1:18 scale cars: a silver Ferrari F430 and a silver SLR McLaren.

Looking at them, I eventually got to thinking "there are so few of these, but I get so much more satisfaction out of them than out of the dozens and dozens of little cars I've accumulated like lint in the last ten months or so. They cost a little more, but I enjoy them so much more, from the details, to the acrylic cases, to the way they just capture the essence of the cars after which they were modeled."

The perfect analogy, I believe, is a gastronomical one. A rib eye steak with potatoes and vegetables on the side definitely costs more than a small bag of nachos, but on the other hand it is so...much...more... filling, so much more satisfying.

Those little cars in their huge plastic casings have been my small bags of chips, which I'd buy on a whim, not really thinking much about them once they were stowed away. Now they're stacked in a pile, and all I can see of them is their packaging unless I make the effort to extract them from their hiding place. It was thus that I also came to realize that my new 1/43 cars, with their no-nonsense, rectangular, sturdy acrylic display cases, were much easier to store than those cumbersome Jada 1/64 Shelby Cobras and Ford GTs, with their preposterous blister packaging which, in true American tradition, occupies five times the space the actual car does. I realized that eighty percent of the ridiculous things is packaging.

My first impulse was to think: I'll hawk these 1/64s on eBay or at my forum and then use the money to buy a couple more 1/43s!

But then sobriety prevailed, and I wasn't about to just go out and spend the equivalent of thirty to sixty dollars on one or two cars, not when there are other immediate uses for the money.

The idea of selling the 1/64s has still stuck, though, and as soon as I reinstall the software that enables me to upload pictures from my camera, the toy pushing begins.

The nice thing about those 1/43s is that, near as I can tell anyway, the folks at the stores that carry them maintain a fairly generous stock, and because they're kind of pricey they aren't sold out in a hurry. So for the first time in a while, since I started collecting, I feel I can take my time, something I haven't felt since I first missed out on buying that silver Shelby Cobra so many months ago.

In short, I've made a resolution to swap quantity...for quality.

(I'm still hanging onto my garden-variety Matchboxes and Hot Wheels, though; they're pretty easy to stack and stow).

Monday, September 10, 2007

Children of War

While Marvel's Civil War was based in part on Mark Millar's idea of a superhero team in every one of America's fifty states, this did not actually play out in the miniseries itself. Instead it was used as the groundwork for a new series to be entitled Avengers: The Initiative, the story of young super-powered individuals who have to sign up with the government and train in order to be properly licensed as superheroes.

I am of the opinion that this title is the most compelling argument for staging the civil war within the Marvel universe, as it has provided both the perfect venue for launching fresh characters.

I skipped the first couple of issues with their "boot camp" theme, which seemed a re-tread of too many war movies, but when the ball started rolling with the third issue, I came on board.

The members of the core team (so far) are, in no particular order other than those I can name: Cloud 9, Hardball, Komodo, Trauma, Ultra Girl and Thor Girl. The veteran Avengers who appear in these pages include Yellowjacket, Justice and War Machine.

The fairly eclectic mix makes for very interesting reading, even though none of the new heroes has a particularly original power, but superpowers, as with most Marvel books, are not this book's main draw. No, what's special here is the layers that slowly unfold as the series goes on. There are shadow teams and dirty secrets galore from the lowest members on the totem pole to the guys on the very top; in short, the stuff of pretty compelling drama for at least several months to come.

Issue #3 was, at least in part, about an attempt to hunt down superheroes on the run, specifically Spider-Man, while issues #4 and #5 dealt squarely with the events of World War Hulk.

The situations are so well conceived that neither they nor the characters' reactions thereto feel particularly contrived.

Writer Dan Slott shows he has the chops to handle such an important assignment as fleshing out Millar's idea. He and artist Stefano Caselli take the baton from Millar and absolutely sprint with it. Caselli's work is cartoony but wonderfully expressive.

I don't doubt that The Initiative as a concept has limited story mileage, but for now, there is just so much that can be done with these characters and the creative team seems perfectly poised to do it.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

A Spidey Swansong by Joe and Joe

When J. Michael Straczynski started writing The Amazing Spider-Man back in 2001, I welcomed him with open arms, considering I had stopped buying the title for some months before of the hopelessly unreadable stories. I welcomed the high profile JMS seemed to bring to the book, which got star treatment that previously only the x-books had enjoyed, in the form of a star-caliber cover artist J. Scott Campbell and a significant upgrade in the palette of colors used.

As time dragged on, though, JMS's run became kind of hit-and-miss for me. I almost uniformly liked the first two years' worth of issues, but after that the quality in both the storytelling and the art seemed to dip, to the extent that when John Romta Jr. left to pursue other projects, I found myself dropping the book altogether, only to pick it up again when Spider-Man donned the "Iron Spider" armor.

Considering, however, that the story with which JMS is ending his run (at least for now) on Spider-Man, entitled One More Day, is hyped as one of the most drastic status quo alterations of recent memory, and considering it boasts art by Marvel's editor-in-chief Joe Quesada, I decided to give JMS a proper "send-off."

OMD, which springs out of the events of Civil War, marks something of a return by JMS to the form with which he drew me in as a fan over half a decade ago, before he got caught up in the ramifications of all his story ideas and subplots and before he decided to retcon a character who had been dead for three decades.

In a nutshell, this is about Peter trying to get help for Aunt May, who is dying from a sniper's bullet. He goes to Tony Stark, whom he betrayed during the Civil War by switching sides mid-war, and the predictable fight ensues. The story doesn't progress all that well, the only real events going on being the fight between Peter and Tony, but JMS' writing here feels a lot more like writing I enjoyed so much at the beginning of his run than the muddled mess it had become by the time I decided to take time off from the title.

The star of this book, however, would have to be Joe Quesada. From the expressiveness of his characters to the explosive nature of Peter's fight with Iron Man, Quesada perfectly justifies his presence on these pages, and they are wondrous to behold. Since he became EIC of Marvel it's always been a treat to see JQ's art, whether on various covers or on interior pages, such as the underrated Daredevil: Father series, which for all its late shipping back in the day, was magnificently illustrated. Seeing JQ on a Spider-Man book is something I have wanted to see for a loooong time, ever since Spidey made a guest appearance in issue #8 of Kevin Smith's Daredevil relaunch. The final page-and-a-half splash which has Spidey swinging off to visit Dr. Strange feels particularly rewarding. That Marvel are following this up by putting Steve McNiven on the book for a spell makes me feel all warm and tingly inside.

It doesn't really matter to me which way Spider-Man's status quo is headed; what I really want is a good story with good art, and I'm happy to say that Amazing Spider-Man #544, the first chapter of OMD, delivers on both fronts.

Here's hoping the rest of the storyline plays out well.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Stan Ain't My Man

My dad once told me that if you were to cut out an entire storyline of the newspaper comic strip "The Amazing Spider-Man," the only Spider-Man serial still written by co-creator Stan Lee, and read all of the strips in succession, they would be absolutely unreadable.

Nonsense, I thought to myself; this is Stan Lee we're talking about! The man whose imagination gave birth to an entire universe of colorful characters! .

Yesterday, I bought a copy of The Last Fantastic Four story, the latest thing Lee's written for Marvel Comics, and holy crap, my dad was right.

In a nutshell, it's about a virtually omnipotent race of beings that decides the human race's time is up because of all of humanity's evil, and how the Fantastic Four figures out how to stop them. That's pretty much it. It doesn't merit much of a review, because in truth, with the exception of John Romita Jr.'s sterling art, it's one of the worst comic books I've had the misfortune of ever reading. From the plot to the dialogue to the ultimate resolution of the story, the whole thing is a disaster.

The painful part is that Lee's old writing still holds up pretty well, dated dialogue aside. Having re-read the tattered 1966 issue of Fantastic Four I inherited from my uncle, I can say for sure that back then, Lee knew how to tell a story with some flair. The dialogue isn't even that distracting.

The problem between then and now is that Lee has become something of an icon; he used to write because he wanted to tell a story. In this particular comic book he seems to be playing to the crowd, writing hamfisted heroics and Shatner-esque dialogue ("Bolts of fire! Melting our weapons!") because he figures that's what people have come to expect from him. There no longer seems to be any inspiration in his writing.

Between this and the painfully terrible "Who Wants to Be a Superhero," I'm now convinced that Stan should just limit himself to cameos in the movies based on his characters, and stick to non-speaking roles.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Conspiracy Theory Made in China

The conspiracy theory is uncharted territory for me, but with the whole Mattel recall thing just stinking to the high heavens of, at the very least, a corporate cover-up, I thought I'd throw my two-cents in.

Recalls of and advisories on products made in China are all the rage these days: from the announcement in local media that White Rabbit candies (a favorite of mine from childhood) contain formaldehyde to globe-spanning news of massive recalls made by one of the world's biggest toy companies, Mattel, of millions of its products, China and its manufacturing industry are currently among the media's favorite whipping boys. Their shoddy manufacturing processes made the cover of Time magazine, no less.

Now, the more seasoned conspiracy theorists (and I've done a wee bit of surfing to check them out) are quick to nail Mattel to the wall for their whole recall snafu, citing corporate incompetency and corruption, among other things. They ask perfectly legitimate questions like: whose idea was it to subcontract anyway? What happened to all of their quality control?

These are all legitimate questions, to which I would like to add a couple of my own:

To start off, why does the slant in most of the news reports I've read lay the blame on the doorstep of the Chinese subcontractors?

Why, after soooooo many years of having several of their product lines manufactured in China (somewhere between the last two decades, at least) has not only Mattel, but at least one other prominent American toy manufactuer (Hasbro), found enough defects in their products to justify the recall of millions upon millions of items?

Product recall is hardly a new phenomenon, but in a day and age where quality control should be absolutely cutting edge, one wonders how such fundamental aspects of manufacturing as what kind of paint gets put on their toys can slip right under the noses of the quality control inspectors of some of the biggest toy companies in the world.

If anything, this debacle should serve as an indictment of the American way of doing business: always trying to get more for less, cutting corners, and putting out a cheap, profitable product at the expense of public safety.

So, why, oh why has this turned into a discussion of China's unsafe manufacturing processes, to the extent that Mattel and Hasbro and made to look more like the victims than like the villains that they really are here?

I suspect I know why, and I'm certainly not the first person to adopt this theory: these are all the products of a systematic effort to undermine China's attempts to establish itself as a world power.

I am no fan of China or the way they do things: the 1989 Tianmen Square Massacre, by itself, has forever turned me off to them, especially considering they don't seem to be doing things any differently since then. I won't discount that there are shady practices going on in terms of how they manufacture their foodstuffs, their plastics, and whatnot. It is entirely possible and even likely.

But I submit that the media campaign that has been going on for the last several months to "expose" these practices, which has come to a head with the whole Mattel scandal, seems, on its face, extremely heavy-handed, and not very even-handed. It just does not seem credible that an industry giant like Mattel would be so oblivious to the processes employed by its sub-contractors that it would release finished products bearing its own badging before the lapse would be discovered.

And so my theory of a concerted media effort to put a big black smear on the burgeoning economic giant that is China is born. Personally, it seems to me a VERY convenient coincidence that the biggest 'victims' of China's shoddy manufacturing processes are extremely prominent American companies. And of course, the banner headline of many an American periodical seem intent to emphasize that it was products made in China that were hazardous, not products of Mattel or Hasbro.

Hey, if the world is to blame a country full of shitty, sub-standard manufacturing practices, we should equally blame the people who contract people from this country and who make use of these sub-standard manufacturing processes without imposing their own quality-control which, one would think after over THIRTY years in the manufacturing business, they would have perfected by now. You want to crucify China? Well, include the "two thieves" (and possibly more) as well: the idiots who had their products made there and left the Chinese to their own devices without a hint of quality control.

I don't pretend to know all the facts here, and that's precisely why I ask these questions and encourage people to ask their own. The knee-jerk reaction to all is to conclude that products made in China are bad. Period. I think a problem as serious as millions of defective consumer products deserves a more intelligent response than that, and certainly a more intelligent response than what we have been getting in the media so far.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

On Untimely Death

I doubt a whole lot of people who happen upon this blog and read it even know who Mike Wieringo was; like I said in a previous post, I didn't know him personally. From the information that was available, though, I gathered a few things: he was a health buff, a well-liked person and apparently a very gentle person. Learnings these things about this person really got me thinking about the nature of death and how it can really catch people off guard at the worst possible time, and how it never seems to take the people that deserve it the most at the time it is most needed.

Yes, I know that last part was a bit brutal, but it cuts to the theme of this particular post, which is how completely mystified I am by the whole concept of "who gets chosen" to die. We all die, eventually, and I for one believe that when we find ourselves on the verge of the afterlife we are measured by how we lived our lives before. But clearly, some of us have to die before others.

In most cases the order of death is a fairly logical affair; the people who are old and/or infirm die first, and the people who are young and healthy die later, after they have become old and infirm. There are things that upset this balance, like wars, accidents and murders, and they are tragic, but to an extent they are understandable. The human hand behind these occurrences often rears its head, and even when it doesn't, depending on the circumstances, somehow people can bring themselves to accept these unfortunate facts of life.

I submit, though, that what truly boggles the mind is the occurrence of deaths like that of Mr. Wieringo, an avid vegetarian and regular exercise buff, dead of a heart attack, of all things, at the very young age of 44. Killed in an accident? Sad, but sure. Murdered in his apartment by a mugger? Terrible, but at the very least attributable to the evil of man. But dead of a heart attack? Considering the way he lived his life and considering how young he was? On its face it just doesn't add up.

I mean, this was essentially an act of God that took this guy's life, and I for one, can't help but ask why? The guy was a comic book artist, and a pretty good one in not only my opinion but those of his fans. He made people happy. He provided something valuable in its own way. And from all indications, he was a nice guy, not the egomaniac that so many comic-book professionals inevitably become.

There are millions of other candidates for what happened to him. Off the top of my head and enumerating the Filipino demographic alone I can think of more than a few, politicians, appointed government officials living on the take, Abu Sayyaf brigands, drug pushers...and the list simply goes on, ranging from the cliche to the more, um, personal choices. I mean, a lot of people on this list often live life to excess, abusing their bodies with food, alcohol, exposure to sexually-transmitted disease, and yet show up time and again on our TV screens and front page headlines in all their corrupt, often corpulent glory. They give nothing of any sort of worth to society; they only live to take, and taking is all they ever do up until the time they die, which in most cases can simply not come soon enough.

I may not have lost a direct relative in so untimely a fashion, but I've had enough of my friends die before ever hitting the age of 30 to feel truly embittered at the seeming arbitrariness of it all.

Marvel editor Tom Brevoort made a good point about living life to the fullest because there simply are no guarantees, and I won't refute that, but my gripe is that so many of the people who form a blight on humanity are living life to the fullest; how come they're still here?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Taking a Moment of Pause

I'd like to dedicate this post to comic book artist Mike Wieringo, who passed away yesterday at 44. Here's the link:

I don't have much of his stuff in my collection, but Wieringo is an artist who work I have always liked; I always found it to be crisp and clean. I have a few issues of his seminal Fantastic Four run with Mark Waid, including the very last issue of that run, as well as almost all of his issues of Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man with Peter David. Really enjoyable stuff. I was also a huge fan of his blog at, where every new post came with a lovely sketch.

I didn't know the man personally, nor was I his biggest fan, so I haven't that much to say, but I would like to offer my condolences to all his friends and loved ones.

The comics community, creator and fan alike, has just suffered a terrible loss.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Finally, a Threequel that Gets It Right

I've made no secret of how disappointed I was with Spider-Man 3, or how much I loathed Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. The former I saw out of love for the franchise, and the latter out of a sense of completism considering that the second movie was left dangling; having no such reasons to see the other 'threequels,' namely Shrek the Third and Ocean's Thirteen, I happily saved myself the trouble and the money of going to see them.

I am a huge fan of both 2002's The Bourne Identity and its 2004 sequel, The Bourne Supremacy, and have both of them on DVD. The impetus to see The Bourne Ultimatum, therefore, was quite strong. Then, in a rare move by the a local distributor these days, Solar Films elected to release the movie a full two weeks after its American start date, and as a result I was able to catch a lot of spoiler-free, absolutely glowing reviews, which filled me with hope for what was hyped as the concluding chapter of the Bourne trilogy. By the time I actually saw the movie last night, my expectations were soaring.

Not only did the film, starring Damon and directed by his Supremacy collaborator Paul Greengrass, meet my expectations; it blew them away.

The movie basically picks up about five minutes before the second movie ends (in a brilliant piece of writing and editing I will expound on later) with the Russian police chasing Jason Bourne through Moscow scant moments after he has given a heartfelt apology to the daughter of his first targets.

What follows is a little bit of exposition, as few new characters are introduced, such as the British investigative reporter named Simon Ross (played by Paddy Considine) whose insatiable curiosity about Bourne and the covert government agency that spawned him serves as the catalyst for the entire story. Bourne reads one of Ross's articles about him and decides to track him down. Around the same time, Ross himself makes a cell-phone call to his editor and mentions 'Blackbriar' the name of the program created to replace the Treadstone program under which, many years before, Bourne had been created. Upon his very mention of the word 'Blackbriar,' the virtually omnipotent CIA, headed up this time by slimy Assistant Director Noah Vosen (a truly malevolent portayal by Oscar nominee David Stathairn), pinpoints Ross through the magic of surveillance technology and targets him for termination.

What ensues is a relentless chase across the world, with Bourne tracking down important clues to understanding his past. His relentless search takes him from London to Madrid to Tangier, where he must survive bombs, bone-crunching fistfights and neck-breaking car chases. At the end of it all, his dogged efforts culminate in an ominous confrontation in New York with the man who was effectively his maker, a chilling Dr. Mengele-like behavior modification specialist played by Albert Finney who answers every single question that has been festering in Bourne's (and every interested viewer's) mind since the first movie.

The casual action movie fan will come away satisfied with the various action set pieces, easily the best of any movie of the last several years. The climactic hand-to-hand fight between Bourne and a younger, equally formidable CIA asset (Joey Ansah) is the easily the most gripping of the entire franchise, and comes at the tail-end of a similarly thrilling rooftop chase sequence which has Bourne jumping from rooftops into windows. The end result leaves the audience gasping for breath. Of course, no Bourne movie would be complete without a mind-blowing car chase sequence, and this one doesn't disappoint. James Bond may have his Aston Martin, but in terms of sheer driving prowess he has absolutely nothing on Jason Bourne. In the same vein, the James Bond films, even the latest installment Casino Royale, have nothing on the Bourne movies in terms of balls-to-the-wall action. Yes, action movie fans from all walks of life should be comprehensively satisfied.

On top of all of this, however, an even nicer reward awaits the people who have patiently pieced together Bourne's history from the first two movies. Not only was I absolutely thrilled to have every imaginable loose end tied up with this installment, but I loved all of the little visual and narrative nods to the first and second movies that Greengrass sneaked in to let us know that finally, Bourne's about to come full circle. It was also a nice storytelling touch to give Bourne allies from within the CIA for the first time in the franchise's history; Bourne veterans Joan Allen and Julia Stiles reprise their roles as Assistant Director Pamela Landy and Logistics Operative Nicky Parsons, both of whom are now playing for Bourne's team. It gives the series a real sense of progression from the way things were in the beginning.

When Nicky, about to go on the run after helping Bourne and nearly paying for it with her life, washes the blond highlights out of her hair just before cutting it short, followers of the series instantly detect an homage to the first movie, in which Bourne washes and then cuts the hair of his then-love interest Marie, to change her appearance. Marie, by now, has been killed, and Nicky, it is revealed, once shared a past with Bourne. In this instance, however, rather than end up making love to Nicky as he did to Marie, Bourne sees her off to the bus station rather stoically. There's a touch of tragedy to the moment as we see in his eyes just how indifferent Bourne is to Nicky even after it's been revealed that they once shared something. The question is: is he genuinely indifferent to her, or has he trained himself to be completely cold again after having lost Marie to an assassin's bullet? It's an interesting little tidbit for fans of the series to chew on for a moment just before the final act rolls around.

(Spoiler alert)

The single most blatant visual homage, of course, is the shot of Bourne floating in the East River just moments before swimming off to his freedom and the end credits start to roll. A shot of Bourne floating unconscious in the Mediterranean is, of course, how the entire series began.

But what also gave me an honest-to-God nerdgasm was how brilliantly the last two sequences from the second movie were written and cut into the story of the third installment.

The second movie actually ended with Bourne placing a call to Landy while she's in New York. There had, in the film, been a bit of a time lapse between his time in Russia and the phone call to Landyk, and as a result when the third film opens with Bourne still in Moscow, one wonders what happened to his phone call to Landy. The answer? It's woven seamlessly into the narrative. The phone call actually begins the third act of Ultimatum, in what feels like a scriptwriting masterstroke. Whether this was deliberately done by the filmmakers when writing the second film or a clever idea on the part of screenwriters Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi, it was executed to absolute perfection.

The Bourne Ultimatum wraps up what has been a truly splendid cinematic trilogy, and while the door is still open for more, I left the theater feeling thoroughly satisfied with how everything had been resolved.

I would, however, be lying if I said I didn't want to see more of Jason Bourne's adventures.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Another Civil War Ending in the Making

I just picked up World War Hulk #3 (and two weeks after the release of #2, at that!), and although I enjoyed the artwork, I find myself having a problem with the progression of the story, so rather than go into the specifics of the issue (other than the art), I thought I'd discuss my misgivings about the direction of the story.

It's no secret that many were disappointed by the way Civil War turned out, with Captain America surrendering to the U.S. government even after he had Iron Man on the ropes, both physically and ideologically. All things considered, however, it must be said that the ending did give rise to a new and potentially very interesting status quo for the Marvel Universe, a development that was categorically promised by everyone at Marvel from the day the project was announced (as they do with every event).

What makes WWH different, and to my mind, worrisome, is that Joe Quesada has practically gone out of his way to say that this series is nothing more than a straight-up slugfest, a "light green sorbet." In short, it seems quite clear that this is not meant to be a status-quo shattering event; nobody's going to die, and nothing that occurs here is meant to have any serious ramifications for the rest of the Marvel line. Quesada and company have already said that WWH does not result in the post-Civil War status quo being reset in any way. Registration of superheroes will still be the norm.

So, when Hulk and his Warbound kick the collective ass of the Marvel Universe, round up all of the Marvel heroes and fit them with "obedience disks" and set them all up to do gladiatorial battle in Madison Square Garden, we the readers know that every single Marvel hero featured in these pages is walking out of there just fine.

So where does that leave the Hulk and the vengeance he has intended to wreak on Mr. Fantastic, Black Bolt, Dr. Strange and Iron Man?

I only hope Pak's imagination offers this story a resolution that doesn't feel like a cop-out or as anticlimactic as Captain America's surrender, because I don't see this ending well for the Hulk at all, and after everything the Hulk has been through, that just wouldn't feel right.

I am actually enjoying this series, but frankly I see Pak writing himself into a bit of a corner here, a trajectory that started as early as last year's Planet Hulk.

Well, as much as I hope the journey has a better end than that which I foresee, at least this series can boast some of the best art of any of the recent events. I submit that, all things being equal, meaning if there were no such thing as exclusive contracts or artists who couldn't meet deadlines, John Romita Jr. would still be the best artist for this project, so at the end of the day, Marvel can still put that feather in their cap.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Chasing Your Dream: A Review of Ratatouille

In 1999, as the traditional, hand-drawn animation feature film began its slow descent to oblivion, there was one particular film that really stood out; even amidst such thoroughly entertaining fare as Tarzan and Toy Story 2: Brad Bird's The Iron Giant. A critical darling, it nonetheless disappointed at the box office.

Five years later, Brad Bird would finally have his day, as his follow-up work, The Incredibles, made in collaboration with Pixar this time, proved to be not only a critical and box-office smash; it won him a well-deserved Oscar for best animated feature.

Two and a half years later, he's at it again for Pixar with Ratatouille, a strikingly original story about a rat who dreams of becoming, of all things, a gourmet chef!

This is the story of Remy, a rat with a highly evolved sense of smell and taste who lives in a rural hut in France with his family. Early on he discovers his great love: cooking. It is, in fact, his insatiable desire to concoct new and better preparations of food that, in a hilariously madcap sequence, leads to his clan's exile from their countryside home into the sewers of Paris. During this chaotic escape, which involves the rats fleeing into the sewers on makeshift boats, Remy who carts off a cookbook written by his idol, the late lamented chef August Gusteau is separated from his family.

When he finds himself in Paris, however, through a creatively bizarre turn of events, he is able to live his dream of becoming a chef, thanks to a human co-conspirator named Linguini, who works in no less than Gusteau's once-renowned restaurant! Of course, the requisite villain of the piece, an evil chef named Skinner, has his eye on Linguini for fear of usurpation, for reasons made clear in the film. In short, we have, pardon the pun, the perfect recipe for disaster.

It all adds up to a madcap comedy, with a skillful blending of laugh out loud slapstick moments and rapier wit.

All of this is carried brilliantly by the voice cast, led by comedian Patton Oswalt as Remy, and featuring a healthy selection of very credible actors such as Peter o' Toole as food critic Anton Ego, Ian Holm as the evil chef Skinner, Janeane Garofalo as tough-as-nails lady chef Colette and Brian Dennehy as Remy's dad. Pixar animator Lou Romano does a wonderful job as the bumbling Linguini.

What makes Bird such a master auteur is his mastery of both substance and style. He writes brilliant screenplays and is no less prodigious in bringing them to life, wringing every last trick out of Pixar's book to firmly plant the audience in Paris, France, and to make them believe that a rat could prepare such masterful culinary pieces. The other Pixar creators are geniuses in their own right, but as someone who's seen them all at least twice I can say with certainty that Bird really and truly stands out as the most compleat. The fact that the only Pixar film between Ratatouille and his last one, the Oscar-winning The Incredibles, was the surprisingly mediocre Cars helmed by Pixar vet John Lasseter, only highlights Bird's talent.

I have to admit that conceptually, I still have a problem with the thought of sewer rats preparing my food ("don't they have to get de-wormed?" I gasped to myself, even after a legion of Remy's rat clan had gone through a steam wash in order to cook a feast), but it's no fault of the filmmakers that I was unable to get over my squeamishness. If anything, it's a testimony to how convincing they were able to make this rats appear onscreen.

It's funny how, in a way, Remy is reminiscent of Bird in his hubris; he is actually rather overbearing when he is in his element. At one point, Linguini reprimands him by saying "your opinion isn't the only one that matters" but as the movie unfolds, both the audience and Linguini learn that, au contraire, in the preparation of great food, it is. This may be a bit of projection on Bird's part, considering there were several hints dropped in the featurettes in the The Incredibles DVD just how difficult Bird could be on the "set" sometimes.

Enough of this armchair psychology; with this movie, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.