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.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

On Atienza Becoming DENR Chief

Sometimes, no matter how I cram this blog with crap about movies and comics and other inanities, I can't help but let something relevant sneak in time and again.

I am not, nor have I ever been a resident of Manila (though I did work there for nearly two years, and may yet again someday), but I am one with many of them in their outrage over the appointment of their former Mayor Lito Atienza as the head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Five years ago, while I was still a law student, I held down a part-time job as an internet journalist. My 'beat' was Manila and three of its historic landmarks: Mehan Garden, the Metropolitan Theater, and the Arrocerros (sp?) Garden, all of which fell prey to Atienza's ambitions.

Mehan Garden, of significant historical value, especially in view of the recent excavation of pre-colonial implements and tools, was the first to suffer as a school campus was erected right smack on it (notably next to a shopping mall, an act which would have violated quite a few local ordinances). Ironically, the people working on the campus buildings resisted attempts by the DENR to get them to cease and desist the construction.

The Metropolitan Theater was next; Atienza's ambition was to erect a 'Park 'n' Ride' right next to one of the city's few remaining art-deco buildings. Conservationists opposed it because it would obscure the building, but at the end of the day, almighty Atienza prevailed again.

But his biggest sin, that which makes his appointment as DENR Secretary an absolute travesty, is how he handed over Arroceros park over to several public school teachers and allowed them to erect a 'teachers' camp.' By the time incumbent Mayor Alfredo Lim upon rescuing Manila from a potential dynasty spearheaded by Atienza's son Ali, turned Arrocerros back over to the conservationists, the damage had been done; 70% of its trees had been chopped down, and a lot more would have fallen had it not been returned to the people determined to save them.

It's not unlike making Jack the Ripper the chief of police, really. What's truly scary about that sentiment is that if he kissed GMA's ass as much as Atienza did while in office, quite frankly, she probably would make him chief of police and then some.

I don't know what there is to say other than that this really shouldn't be happening, but I understand the people of Manila aren't taking this sitting down. While I wouldn't really give much for their chances of success in getting the appointment revoked, I wish them all well.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Comeback Kids: A Review of World War Hulk #2

World War Hulk #2
By Greg Pak (W), John Romita Jr. (P) Klaus Janson (I) Christina Strain (C)

Talk about having your faith rewarded. Two posts ago I said I would be sticking around for the duration of World War Hulk because I was confident in the creative team's ability to make up for what I felt was a rather underwhelming first issue, and lo and behold, they have delivered, on all levels, it has to be said.

The story kicks off with Dr. Strange literally trying to conjure up someone who will "defeat and redeem" Hulk at the same time. In the meantime, the Hulk and his friends from Sakaar, known as his "Warbound" lay the smackdown on several members of the New and Mighty Avengers, then on the Fantastic Four as well (including new/interim members Storm and the Black Panther) but not after Reed makes a rather underhanded and, gratifyingly ill-fated attempt to deceive the Hulk. Rick Jones approaches the Hulk, calming him to the extent that Dr. Strange sees an opportunity to touch Hulk's psyche, which he is unable to consummate. At the end of the day, Hulk and his Warbound have just trashed three of Marvel's premier teams and General "Thunderbolt" Ross decides to have a go where they have failed.

Pak's script has some nice character moments (like Rick Jones' appearance) woven between some truly riveting action sequences, and Romita Jr.'s art...well, let me just say that suddenly his work on Eternals no longer feels like his best ever, in my opinion. Even Janson and Strain have upped their game. I know the second issue of this series was in the can long before I reviewed the first issue in this blog, but it almost feels as if art team in particular read what I had to say (and whoever else took issue with their work) and responded in kind. Christina Strain, if you're reading this, I feel you have done an astonishing job with this issue, and completely take back whatever I might have said about you not being appropriate for this book!

The stars of this show, however, are Pak and Romita, Jr.

For me, Pak's breakthrough here is how he manages to make me utterly despise Reed Richards.

I never hated Richards, no matter how badly Civil War went, because I felt he was being rather badly written. His callousness towards his family just seemed too much like a plot device to justify Sue and Johnny Storm defecting to the side of Captain America.

His decision to shoot Hulk into space, though he made it together with Iron Man and the rest of the Illuminati, however, feels like something that Reed, with his control-freak, I-know-better-than-everyone-else personality is entirely capable of, as is reflected not only in the currently ongoing miniseries starring the Illuminati but in key issues of Fantastic Four going as far back as Mark Waid's "Authoritative Action" run. Richards has a history of showing incredible hubris stemming from his intellect, and Pak taps into that with his particular take on the character. He's not evil; just arrogant to the point where it doesn't occur to him that he might be wrong. This makes him no less detestable in my eyes.

It burned me up to see Reed making yet another, last-ditch attempt into hoodwinking the Hulk and enthralled me to see the green goliath give Mr. Fantastic the pounding he has long deserved. It's a given that some fans will quibble about Richards' elasticity enabling him to take a whole world of punishment, but that's their problem. At least Marvel made it a point to emphasize at the end of Planet Hulk (and even during this issue) how much stronger he became as a result of the warp core explosion that killed his queen, Caera the Oldstrong and their unborn child.

What made the FF fight that even more engaging was the Hulk/Thing showdown, easily one of the best action sequences I have ever seen committed to paper.

Another thing that made me enjoy this issue exponentially more than I did the first was something fairly simple: they showed Mr. Fantastic getting beaten up, as well as the result of the beating, with his face looking like hamburger. This was a huge contrast to the off-panel thrashing of Black Bolt (with that admittedly killer splash page serving as the prelude) and the pulping of Iron Man in his new Hulkbuster armor (after his irritating, self-righteous speech) which didn't show a battered, bloodied and defeated Tony Stark.

Stark, in particular, really deserved to be beaten within an inch of his life, and while I'm sure his punishment from Hulk will go beyond a mere slugfest (as strongly suggested by future solicitations showing the Illuminati going up against each other as gladiators), I would really have liked to see him drawn as only Romita, Jr. can draw folks who've been beaten up. One of my favorite things about JR, Jr., not only does he draw the best fights in the business, but the best aftermaths of fights as well.

I'm a little disappointed in the appearance of General Ross (who I was sure was dead up until this issue) because I can't help but wonder what he hopes to achieve that Marvel's heroes, who have time and again made short work of military technology could not. And it's not like the Hulk hasn't made mincemeat out of them before.

Still, Pak promises excitement in the next issue and, considering what he pulled out of the bag with this one, I completely believe him.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Big, Loud, Colorful and Stupid

I grew up on The Transformers back in the '80s. I had several of the toys and watched the animated "movie" on home video over twenty times. I was well and truly hooked on those toys. When I outgrew them, it was rather abrupt, and I ended up giving away the toys to my younger cousin, something, in retrospect, I regret doing considering that most of them would have been worth a fortune now had I saved them then.

Even as a one-time fan, however, I had little to no expectations of the Transformers live-action feature film when it was announced that Steven Spielberg would be producing it, and less so when Spielberg tapped Michael Bay to direct it.

It wasn't even the fact that I had very little respect for Bay as a filmmaker. My problem with the film, conceptually, was that I wasn't entirely sure it would translate, not just visually, but from a storytelling point of view.

When I saw the trailers, I had a couple of problems with how ungainly the digital robots assembled by Industrial Light and Magic looked. Of course, Bay's lightning-quick cutting style ensured that I didn't get that good a look at them.

Still, I will admit I felt a bit optimistic about some early good reviews I picked up here and there, with even Roger Ebert, a critic with whom I often agree giving the film a thumbs up.

When I finally got to see it in theaters last night, I found, a bit to my dismay, that the concept did not translate very well at all.

First of all, I would like to give ILM their due for an absolutely heroic effort in bringing Hasbro's famous toy line to life. I don't know who signed off on the final designs for the robots, but they do look fantastic onscreen, especially the colorful autobots, both standing still and in the action sequences. Bay's films, for better or worse, work best when they're zooming along at two hundred miles per hour. The man crafts very effective chase sequences, even if that's just about all that he does well.

Another high point of the film for me was Peter Cullen's distinctly gravelly rumble, which brought back wonderful childhood memories, even if his dialogue still sounded somewhat cartoony (more the fault of the scriptwriters than Cullen himself).

Speaking of cartoony, that's the best way I can describe the plot, the script, and most the characterizations involved, not including the CGI robots. I won't even bother with a synopsis here, other than to say that the heroic Autobots came to earth to save humanity from the evil Decepticons. In true Bay fashion, there are a couple of gaping holes in the story that just had me shaking my head throughout the entire third act. The robots look cool, but Bay does nothing to convince me that they could possibly live in the real world, because to this viewer his movie doesn't play with even a semblance of verisimilitude.

This movie's script simply does not stand up to scrutiny, just as it will not stand up, down the line, to accusations of being one big General Motors/toy commercial.

Oh, and I cannot, cannot conclude this review without lamenting how Hugo Weaving was utterly wasted in the role of Megatron, considering (1) his fleeting screen time and (2) the heavy filtration his voice was subjected to, which rendered him completely unrecognizable but for a couple of inflections in his delivery. There are dozens of throwaway voice actors they could have hired for this tiny role, even if cartoon series original Frank Welker sounds too old by now. A throwaway role deserves a throwaway actor.

Overall, this movie looks cool, and that's pretty much the only good thing I can say about it.