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Thursday, Jul 5, 2007


It’s overwhelmingly oppressive, and there’s no relief in sight. No, we’re not talking about the blistering July heat. We’re discussing the absolute dearth of entertainment options available for the interested audience member. Tinsel Town has a few more juicy bon mots waiting in the wings – including a beloved wizard whose fifth film opens one week from today (13 July) – and the basic broadcast networks are regurgitating old reality show faves (Big Brother) to spark excitement. But unless you missed most of last year’s popcorn movie season, the selections provided by the premium pay channels will feel like a severe case of redux déjà vu. Indeed, Saturday night will feel like August 2006 all over again what with the choices offered. Still, there’s some value here, especially the somewhat forced funny business of the SE&L selection. Indeed, you could do a lot worse for your 7 July jollies:


Premiere Pick
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby


There was a time there when supposed funnyman Will Ferrell was in danger of dropping far down the list of Hollywood humorists. After a very shaky start in cinema (A Night at the Roxbury, anyone?), the trifecta of Old School/Elf/Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy substantially shifted his big screen fortunes. But then bad script choices (Kicking and Screaming, Bewitched) threatened to unseat him once again. Turning to Burgundy’s creative team of Adam McKay (writer/director) and Judd Apatow (producer), he twisted the current fixations of NASCAR nation into a sly take on racing and the sport’s beer belly bravado. The result was a solid summer 2006 hit, a box office bonanza additionally aided by the appearance - and supporting performance - of soon to be Borat phenom Sacha Baron Cohen. Sure, some of the jokes are dumb and/or dopey, but the Method madness to the creation of this fictional hero is so detailed that you sometimes forget you are watching fiction – or Will Ferrell. (07 July, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Devil Wears Prada


Every season, a movie sneaks under the pre-hype radar and illustrates the truth about what audiences really want. In this case, they apparently required a witty, acerbic take on haughty New York couture featuring a fresh faced newcomer and a grand dame diva of the acting trade. And that’s actually what this undeniably charming movie delivered, much to their delight. (07 July, HBO, 8PM EST)

Miami Vice


You’ve got to give Michael Mann points for trying. Who else would take the important iconic elements of their own mid ‘80s TV series – pastel colors, fashion plate cool - and strip them away for a big screen revamp? Granted, Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx may be enough human eye candy for the neo-nostalgic audiences, but somehow, this is more South Florida Heat than an update of Crockett and Tubbs. (07 July, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

 


An American Haunting


It was advertised as the only true case of a ghost ever killing a man, and for a while, the trade paper ruse worked. Then viewers discovered that the storyline was set in the early 1800’s, and was based on that most unreliable of evidence – the anecdotal kind. And even then, the filmmakers still screwed it up. A powerhouse cast is wasted on a paltry PG-13 spook show. (07 July, ShowTOO, 9:50PM EST)

Indie Pick
Incident at Loch Ness


With his latest fiction film – Rescue Dawn – about to hit theaters, this oddball mock doc from 2004 gives fans and the unfamiliar a chance to see another, more satiric side of famed German auteur Werner Herzog. As a favor to neighbor Zak Penn (A-list Hollywood scribe and self promoter), the director lent his considerable cult of personality to a semi-success spoof about ego, excuses and exploration. Together, Penn and Herzog play themselves, and head out on an expedition to discover the secrets inside Scotland’s most famous lake. In between are staged conversations and conflict, lots of self deprecating humor, and an ending that doesn’t really satisfy. In fact, this is a frequently one note vanity project that trades on Herzog’s calculated cool to appear more substantive and sharp than it really is. Still, with his seductive German accent and well-earned gravitas, it’s always fun to see this Teutonic titan in action – even if the results are rather routine. (10 July, IFC, 2:25PM EST)

Additional Choices
Habit


Vampires don’t get a lot of cinematic respect. Whatever made solid stars of these bloodsucking members of the undead community has long since dissolved into pools of pointlessness and stereotypical slop. So it’s a relief to champion something different within the neckbiter genre, and this amiable indie effort from 1996 is just that. It’s disturbing, sexy, and most importantly, quite original. (08 July, IFC, 10:35PM EST)

Commune


When one thinks of the ‘60s, certain concepts instantly come to mind – The Beatles, free love, flower power, and the agricultural egalitarianism of the shared living community. In this fascinating documentary, writer/director Jonathan Berman explores the real life Black Bear Ranch, and how it was centered more on philosophy than fornication. Indeed, it remains a perfect depiction of the real counterculture.  (09 July, Sundance Channel, 9PM EST)

Fearless Freaks – The Flaming Lips


They’ve been around since 1983, and yet like their brothers in sonic arms, Guided by Voices, The Flaming Lips continuously fall outside the mainstream music scene. Hoping to increase their popular profile, filmmaker Bradley Beesley went about creating a documentary focusing on founder Wayne Coyne, and the dichotomy between his rock and roll and real life personas. It makes for fascinating viewing. (11 July, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Outsider Option
Barton Fink


The Coen Brothers stunned audiences at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival with this brilliant deconstruction of Hollywood hack commercialism and writer’s block. They won the Golden Palm (the highest honor) while Joel earned the best director nod. Even star John Turturro picked up praise – and an award – for his brilliant turn as the title character. Playing a self-important New York playwright whisked off to Tinsel Town to act as patsy to the standard studio merchandising machine (his charge – write wrestling pictures), Fink finds himself locked up in a decrepit hotel, visited frequently by his loud, lumbering next door neighbor (an equally genius turn by co-star John Goodman). When the inability to create becomes too overbearing, he tries to tap fellow scribe W. P. Mayhew for help. He soon learns that a life in service of schlock can kill you – literally. Among their many masterworks, this is one of the siblings most symbolic – and satisfying. (11 July, Indieplex, 7PM EST)

Additional Choices
Curse of the Demon


Symbolism is everything in horror. Give the audience good ghouls and you’ll win them over (almost) every time. Night of the Demon (the original title before a Tinsel Town reedit) offers a floating devil head that is still creepy fifty years later. The rest of the movie is fairly ordinary, but that disembodied fiend will haunt your nightmares for years to come. (6 July, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Jolly Roger: Massacre at Cutter’s Cover


How desperate is the slasher film, and those who make them, to rely on a zombie pirate to provide their slice and dice delights? And how derivative is an undead buccaneer, considering the entire plot of the initial Curse of the Black Pearl installment of Disney’s blockbuster franchise? Who knows, and with something this potentially cheesy, who cares? Here’s hoping it’s so bad, it’s good, instead of just plain awful. (08 July, Sci Fi Channel, 3AM EST)

American Gothic


This long forgotten cult creepfest deserves to be rediscovered. It has Oscar winner Rod Steiger and former Munster Yvonne DeCarlo chewing up the scenery as a sinister couple, and an unsettling premise about a backwards/woods family who don’t take kindly to strangers. So naturally, a group of misguided travelers land on their doorstep. Eep! (11 July, Drive-In Classics Canada, 7:15PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Jul 4, 2007

Basically, movie soundtracks are divided into three generic types. The first is the most recognizable and familiar - the basic score release, a composer-created set of cues that illustrate the basic sonic signatures in the film. Sometimes, an original number of two can be added to amplify the mercantile possibilities, but for the most part, it’s all instrumentals and mood. The second kind of collection was forged most successfully in the ‘80s. Call it the K-Tel conceit, or the packaging of potential hits, but these pop song laden albums are meant as slyly subtle tie-ins to the motion picture proper. Sometimes, the tunes featured are merely “suggested” by the title they are connected to (meaning they don’t actually appear in the movie itself). The last soundtrack standard is the one based on the actual movie musical. Prior to its death as a cultural commodity around 1975, original cast recordings from the song and dance epics were chart topping smashes. They ruled Billboard before The Beatles came along and realigned the entire notion of popularity.


In this first edition of SE&L’s revamp of the PopMatters’ Surround Sound brand (it will be a blog feature from now on), we get an interesting overview of all three concepts. First up is a mostly wordless workout on a terribly tired A-list entity. While it hopes to hint at hep-ness, it’s more vague than Vegas. Second, there’s a CG cartoon companion piece that often feels like the bumper tunes played at the Caribbean version of the Super Bowl. One amazing moment of artistic clarity stands out, though. And finally, one of the most anticipated movies of Summer 2007 delivers its pre-release set of shifted over showtunes. Oddly enough, it appears that something incredibly campy and busy found its way from the boards of Broadway to the encoded information of the aluminum disc. While perhaps not the best examples of movie music’s power and potential, the trio of albums here do a bang up job of illustrating the kind of releases the studios depend upon to heighten overall awareness.


Ocean’s 13 [rating: 5]


There is something very cold and calculated about the oh so hip ‘coolness’ composer/DJ David Holmes is putting forth on this, his third dip into Danny’s Ocean. The latest aural investigation of the Stephen Soderbergh Rat Pack redux finds Holmes still generating that old fashioned space age bachelor pad Muzak via some decidedly high tech toys, lost in a natty nostalgia that seems geared to those who get their sonic memories supersized via Starbucks.  The results sound oddly familiar and yet almost antiseptic, reminiscent of what robotic lounge lizards would generate if they were in charge of the party. There’s no denying the initial allure – jazzy horns and tumbling vibes always bring out one’s inner jet setting bon vivant – but Holmes is merely the student hoping to imitate a far more formidable set of masters. And then, just to make things a little more complicated, the studio tosses in tracks from Frank Sinatra (“This Town”) and Puccio Roelens (a rather dry version of the standard “Caravan”) just to show how far off base he really is.

Still, there are elements here that really do set the proper playful tone for the film – which is all a score is supposed to do, at the end of the day. Indeed, the very first track, “Not Their Fight” will probably be absconded one day by Quentin Tarantino, so strong is it’s trippy throwback mentality. Driven by a particularly slinky bass, the kicky “Kensington Chump” is all burbles and undulating aural quirks. “Laptops”, only a minute long, sounds like the greatest unused opening riff in all of late ‘60s rock, while “Dice Men” could have been the backdrop to any number of Peace Generation acid casualty love ins – that is, until it breaks into a series of ‘70s cop show shout-outs, and more or less arrests itself. But the real standout inclusion is by another non-Holmes’ contributor. Motherhood, which can best be described as the real deal, delivers the dynamic “Soul Town”, a collection of concrete hooks and haunting female trills that literally sends the short hairs on the back of your neck craning upward for a listen. It has an electricity that Holmes himself and the rest of the Ocean 13 CD can barely muster.


Surf’s Up! [rating: 4]


As with most varying artist outtakes, b-sides, and popular hits compilations, the mood of the movie moment is clearly and loudly signaled by each and every song. Indeed, all throughout Up’s amiable track list, we can experience the film’s two overriding levels of honest emotion – call them “Let’s Party!” and “Let’s Chill”. On the side of sun and fun are random auditory clichés like the Romantics thoroughly overplayed Kinks vamp “What I Like About You” as well as retakes on time tested tunes like “Wipe Out” (by Big Nose) and “Reggae Got Soul” (by 311). But when the narrative needs to turn all pensive or prophetic, it pulls out the slow, languid acoustics of Nine Black Alp’s “Pocket Full of Stars” or Incubus’ “Drive”. In fact, you can almost set your internal emotional clock by the way this CD unfolds. Happiness leads to heartbreak as histrionics meld into heroism. By the end – a rather routine “Hawaiian War Chant (Ta-Hu-Wa-Hu-Wai) by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – you can just visualize the 3D cartoon characters walking into the computer generated sunset, story told and overall entertainment value confirmed.

There are some surprises here. Pearl Jam, a band one wouldn’t normally associate with a family film soundtrack, pops up to provide its standard angst-propelled passion for the appropriately titled “Big Wave”, while those lost superstars the New Radicals are revisited with their signature anthem “You Get What You Give”. A big surprise here is the inclusion of a track by Ms. Lauryn Hill. Absent from the charts since 2002’s MTV Unplugged No. 2, her inclusion – a gorgeous ghetto groove called “Lose Myself” – maintains her continuing status as an artist of infinite possibilities. The scratchy funk backdrop, met almost instantly by some spacey, ethereal ‘80s new wave keyboards, leads to a melodic and lyrical intensity that causes one’s jaw to drop…into an easy smile. In some ways, this is the former Fugees’ rewrite of Outkast’s “Hey Ya” – there’s the same pure pop conceit, but an undercurrent that downplays the inherent effervescence. Unfortunately, it’s a level of musical mastery that makes even the classic tracks on this hit-oriented collection blush in aesthetic embarrassment.


Hairspray the Musical [rating: 5]


To the unfamiliar ear, the score for the hit Broadway extravaganza based on John Waters’ far wittier coming of age comedy was like Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s Little Shop of Horrors fused to a determined devotee’s idea of what a Great White Way show should sound like. It’s big! It’s brassy! It’s beaming with all kinds of gonzo gay pride! And yet for some reason, the fevered pitch via which composer Marc Shaiman vamps his vision of Baltimore circa 1962 is both sincere and kind of shallow. There’s a crowdpleaser desperation buried at the base of each number, a ‘sell it to the balcony’ sense of showmanship that can be both glorious and grating. Similar to how Mel Brooks managed a Tony out of what is basically a bunch of forgettable, half-formed songs, Hairspray tries to walk the walk, but ends up drowning in its own disposability. Fifty years from now, when directors are hungry for solid shows to revive, this is one that won’t be tallying up those longevity royalties.


Indeed, without someone like South Park’s Trey Parker alongside to balance out the kitsch factor (the two collaborated on the Oscar nominated songs for the cartoon’s big screen debut), Shaiman is shameless. He borrows so much from the aural clichés of the era that you find yourself playing an internal guessing game over who he’s stealing from/homaging next. “Good Morning Baltimore”, the show’s (and movie’s) opening number is like a gigantic girl group tribute taken to tacky extremes. Sadly, Rachel Sweet did it much better when she crafted the title track to Waters’ film. Even the new songs, specifically fashioned for this release (and added Academy attention come awards time), are almost too familiar to be considered original. Indeed, the first ‘single’ from the soundtrack, Zac Efrom’s “Ladies Choice” is just “Hand Jive” with tween appropriate sentiments. While it’s a kick to hear star John Travolta croon alongside screen ‘hubby’ Christopher Walken on the number “(You’re) Timeless to Me”, this is one CD that needs the musical from whence it came, and all the goodwill associated with same, to overcome its ditzy desperation.



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Tuesday, Jul 3, 2007


With the bottle rocket’s red glare, and the cherry bombs bursting in air (at least, in those places where said celebration ammunition remains quasi-legal), the first half of the Summer Movie Season circa 2007 is officially over. Nine weeks, dozens of films, and lots of critical complaining, has made this annual parade of popcorn movies a little less exciting (theme for the season so far– the Year of the Underwhelming Disappointments). No one movie has broken out from the pack, becoming the “must see” event the warmer months typically demand, and while a few films have struck a chord of universal acclaim, audiences aren’t responding with the usual fiscal fall out. Instead, it looks like a kind of entertainment ennui has set in, viewers responding to the lack of legitimized excitement by satisfying themselves with a single viewing –- or even worse -– not showing up to the Cineplex at all.


It’s unclear whether the next nine weeks will change any of this. Michael Bay’s megawatt Transformers will give it a fiery Fourth try, but the deeply divided sentiments among reviewers won’t help the bottom line. Harry Potter is back for a fifth cinematic fling, but age –- and the soon to be released, spoiler filled final installment in the literary series –- may derail its popularity and profitability. The Simpsons could jumpstart (albeit belatedly) a nice turnstile tidal wave, but those who are banking on Hairspray to save the cinematic day could be overplaying the musical genre’s heft. After that, it’s one of the less impressive Augusts on record. To put things in perspective, SE&L has gone back over the 13 films it experienced since a certain webslinger arrived in theaters, and has ranked them from best to worst. Review links have also been provided in case you’d like to read more. Enjoy!


Ratatouille


Easily the winner when it comes to major releases. Brad Bird’s unbelievably dense narrative, combined with Pixar’s pristine animation, makes for one amazing visual journey. As we follow a wannabe rodent on his quest for culinary recognition, the artists and designers responsible for the film’s fascinating look constantly surprise us. But it’s the emotional elements in the narrative that truly astound.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


SiCKO


The know-it-alls like to beat up on Michael Moore for not getting every single solitary nuance of the facts 100% aligned with their particular view of things. This doesn’t mean that his latest documentary is a failure. In fact, it may just be the most potent piece of filmmaking the director has ever done.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Knocked Up


Finally! A comedy that’s actually funny! Judd Apatow deserves some sort of special place in the current industry hierarchy for delivering audiences from the scourge of humorless half-baked fare. In its place, the 40 Year Old Virgin auteur fashions a callous chick flick where geeks, gals and the occasional gross out gag can live in harmonious hilarity.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End


Somewhere between the decision to turn the Disney attraction into a feature film, and the concept of increasing the franchise to fill up a supposed trilogy, critics bailed on this set of stellar action/adventure romps. Destined to be viewed with new appreciation decades from now, this last installment truly represents the pinnacle of old fashioned blockbuster moviemaking.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Fido


Believe it or not, zombies actually make a wonderful metaphor for the corrosion of conformity that was the 1950s, but not because they represent the mindless mob mentality. No, they are the perfect mirror for Canadian filmmaker Andrew Currie’s clever take on intolerance and fear. The undead are only acting on instinct. It’s the corporate controlled suburbanites that pose the real threat.

+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Live Free or Die Hard


We know, we know; we picked this fading franchise to deliver one of Summer 2007’s biggest bombs. We may have been misguided. While not up to the level of the previous installments in this once influential action series, star Bruce Willis and director Len Wiseman still deliver spectacular stunt set pieces and enough bad ass machismo to satisfy filmgoers.

+ PopMatters Review


Hostel Part II


Don’t believe the agenda-based hype. Eli Roth’s return to the former Eastern Bloc is not the original film reconfigured with babes, or the most violent atrocity against the female species ever put on film. Instead, it’s a completely unique sequel, a revisit that totally rewrites everything about the initial ‘gorno’ classic… and finds equally effective fear factors.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


1408


It’s the antidote for the blood and guts gratuity of post-millennial horror, as well as a stunning tour de force by actor John Cusack. More an old fashioned thriller than a modern movie macabre, this delightful journey into dread proves that Stephen King is not cinematic poison. Instead, in the hands of the right creative team, he remains a formidable fright force.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Spider-man 3


The list of complaints is long, and the sense of disappointment palpable, but it seems silly to think that Sam Raimi and the rest of the Spidey set could repeat the bravura brilliance of Spider-man 2. While the villains are more than viable, and the new black suit mojo cleverly illustrated, the movie still feels scattered and strained.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


28 Weeks Later


Danny Boyle’s original was more about deconstructing society than rewriting the rules of zombie lore (all right, they’re NOT the living dead). But in Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s take on the material, it’s the US military that takes it on the chin – over and over again. The result is a fractured sense of fear, with the humans packing more precariousness than the Rage-infected horde.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Evan Almighty


Why this genial family comedy is not a bigger hit says more about the movie going habits of the general public than what the film itself has to offer. Sure, it’s cloying and incredibly mannered, the filmmakers avoid anything remotely serious or sacrilegious, but there is still enough here to easily entertain those so inclined. A truly perplexing commercial conundrum.

+ PopMatters Review


Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer


Aimed at the kiddies yet barely capable of sustaining such creative overreaching, director Tim Story once again argues for his place as the worst interpreter of comic book material out there. This time around, the title heroes are hampered by a cosmic planet killer, his slick metallic messenger…and tabloid fame. Oddly enough, the press comes across as the most threatening.

+ PopMatters Review


Shrek the Third


Like an old sitcom that just won’t die, this ongoing CG stupidity argues for its lack of viable funny business as well as the eventual death of 3D animation. Horribly dull and equally uninspired, what once seemed novel and ironic now feels like an extended advertisement for yet another installment (and it worked –- number four is in the works. Groan).

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


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Monday, Jul 2, 2007


Like the gourmet food it so exquisitely renders, one fears that the sensational Ratatouille will end up being a decidedly acquired commercial taste. Far too languid for sugar fried kid brains, but marketed in such a manner as to keep the more mature demographic it’s actually perfect for from lining up, it represents a brilliant step forward in Pixar’s continued domination of the 3D animation realm. It also proves that Brad Bird is the reigning king of outsider cartooning. From his pen and ink triumph The Iron Giant to the pumped up perfection of The Incredibles, he’s managed to become a genre genius by refusing to believe the artform’s inherent limits. Constantly pushing beyond its narrative and visual capacities, Ratatouille ends up one frighteningly effortless entertainment.


This is indeed the kind of film one gets lost in, a symbiotic showcase of story, design and execution. The tale begins with our hero, a rat named Remy, recounting the first time he realized his special gift – the ability to create fantastic cuisine via a highly acute sense of smell. To him, food is a sensory experience, not just an available pile of garbage out near the sewers. Of course, this does not go over well with his extended vermin family. His brother thinks Remy is acting spoiled, while his Dad doesn’t understand how any rodent can abandon his family. When a freak accident separates the clan, Remy ends up in Paris, and soon finds the famous five star restaurant Gusteau’s. Unfortunately, the eatery has fallen on hard times, losing much of its status and reputation, thanks in large part to new chef Skinner and cruel critic Anton Ego.


As luck would have it, Remy befriends garbage boy Linguini. He’s a meek manchild, working in the kitchen of the famed eatery out of desperation – and a debt to his dead mother. One night, he messes up the soup, and Remy runs in to try and save it. Turns out the potage is a hit, and Skinner is desperate to discover the secret. Before long, Remy and Linguini have teamed up, turning Gusteau’s fortunes around with the help of the refectory’s staff, including the commanding Colette. But forces are conspiring to foil this partnership. The rat’s family has returned, and they love the fact that their sibling in squalor lives in a neverending food bank. Our human hero is also hounded by his newfound reputation. It has even peaked the interest of Ego, who thought he had buried the business ages ago.


While this all sounds incredibly complex, the truth is that Ratatouille is breezy and basic. It exudes a kind of smoothness that causes all confusion to pass away simply and sincerely. It shows more imagination in its first five minutes than most crass commercial CGI excuses for family films. It resonates with a kind of emotion that causes you to root for the heroes, hiss the numerous villains, and wonder on whose side the various ancillary character’s loyalties rest. Bird takes his time telling his tale, letting sequences of silly slapstick monopolize as much time as quieter, more intimate moments. It has to be repeated here that the pacing is all wrong for the weaned on home video set. Ratatouille wants to create a legend, and such mythologizing takes time.


If you can get into the movie’s relaxed groove, you’ll be richly rewarded in ways that consistently surprise you. Remy’s struggles to find solace after seemingly losing his family are heartfelt and sad. Similarly, Linguini is not just the comic relief. He’s a sweet soul with a decent spirit – he just can’t help the fact that he’s unexceptional. Even the villains shock us with their subtle character layers. Peter O’Toole is absolutely splendid as Ego, giving each one of his lines the kind of acerbic ambience that makes them consistently sinister. But when he gets his comeuppance of sorts, the way the movie illustrates his feelings is enough to bring a tear of joy to your eye. While the theme of being true to yourself sort of gets lost in the shifting storyline – though the “anyone can cook” maxim is repeated incessantly – Bird makes sure that we understand how it applies to everyone. In fact, one of Linguini’s best lines is a simply affirmation: “”Tonight, I’m just your waiter.”


As with most Pixar product, the voice acting is uniformly outstanding. Patton Oswalt is an odd choice to voice Remy, especially given his less than family friendly stand up comedy career (parents – don’t go running out to buy his CD and DVD catalog for the wee ones just yet). But here, the comedian does what he’s mastered on stage. He draws us in, using an amiable ‘aw shucks’ quality to counter his frequently blue bombshells. On the other end of the spectrum, Ian Holm is all Napoleonic complex as the tiny, terrified head chef of Gusteau’s. Making a fortune whoring out the restaurant’s reputation, Skinner is indeed panicked that Linguini’s fame will foul his plans, and Holm’s captures that paranoia perfectly. As Colette, a barely recognizable Janeane Garofalo is all Parisian girl power. Through her delicate accent, she exudes both determination and romance. Other standouts include Brad Garrett as the voice of friendly ghost Gusteau and Lou Romano as Linguini.


But the true stars here are the many artists and designers who toiled endlessly to realize the magnificent gleam of Paris. There are several shots that appear lifted directly from a photorealistic rendering of the skyline, and when Remy races through many of the city’s streets and byways, the attention to detail is maddening. It’s the same inside Gusteau’s kitchen. As with most interior spaces, Pixar amplifies the nooks and crannies, coming up with more and more ingenious ways of working our characters through the maze-like mayhem. This is definitely the kind of movie you have to see twice – once just to get the basics down, and the second time to drink in all the particulars. Unlike The Incredibles, which was simply the best comic book super hero movie ever made, Ratatouille wants to compete, optically, with the other wonders created by its corporate namesake. It does so magnificently.


Oddly enough, there are those wary of the film because it contains, at least for them, a decided ‘ick’ factor. Granted, for people who hate spiders, a film like Eight Legged Freaks of Arachnophobia might be a bit much to handle. Similar, the Empire State showdown between Peter Jackson’s Kong and that armada of bi-planes was so expertly visualized that anyone with a hatred of heights got instant vertigo. But to be put off by cartoon mice in a make believe restaurant seems a tad…specious. After all, this is animation, not real life, and while Remy and his clan are given the full blown bubonic plague treatment (some of these creatures are, well, ratty), they also speak and exhibit sophisticated motor skills. When was the last time you saw a lice ridden rodent whip up a delicious looking omelet. Besides, if you could make Mouse Hunt a sizable hit with a lifelike CG pest, you can handle these animated animals.


And yet, one can’t help but feel that this fantastic film will eventually underperform. Parents of antsy offspring will tell their SUV subordinates of their progeny’s predicable inability to sit still, and glumly conclude “It’s no Finding Nemo”. Others will be desperate to look for the instant hook of likeability and argue that Bird bypasses such shallowness for something more meaty. Whatever the case may be, don’t let the ennui-laced word of mouth dissuade you from seeing one of the best movies of the Summer. Proving once again that only Pixar can consistently make animated movie magic, Ratatouille is destined to go down as one of their best. And when you consider the canon it must compare to, that’s some statement.


 


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Sunday, Jul 1, 2007


The headlines were so bizarre as to be hilarious. The German government, or more specifically, the department in charge of the nation’s motion picture production approvals and locations, was refusing to let Tom Cruise make his new movie, Valkyrie, in their country. It had nothing to do with the storyline—a failed WWII plot among Nazi officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Though still a slightly tenuous subject, the German people have become less sensitive on the subject. No, the stated rationale was that Cruise, as a member of the controversial Church of Scientology, was a prominent member of a ‘dangerous cult’. The country would have no part in his presence. The firestorm surrounding the decision caused the standard back peddling, and within days, Valkyrie was welcomed with open arms. Oddly enough, if the nation wanted a more legitimate reason for banning the movie, they need look no further than the director in charge.


That’s because Bryan Singer is a hack. In a flummoxing fanboy realm where every movie he’s helmed has been deemed an instant classic, he’s barely better than a dozen far more despised directors. What, for example, makes Singer better than Mark Steven Johnson? Both have overseen half-baked comic book movies, and yet everything Mr. Ghost Rider and Daredevil does is condemned. The same lame characterization and average action sequences also appear regularly in Singer’s sloppy oeuvre. For that matter, why does our X-Man get labeled a true devotee of the funny book artform when Sam Raimi holds a similar Spidey stature? Could it be that Singer fails to own an Evil Dead like cult constantly circling its unwelcome wagons around its maker’s many moves? Indeed, you’d think Raimi would rate higher than this wannabe auteur, and yet so many give big Bry a pass that you’d swear they were on his personal payroll.


Looking back over the six full length features he’s helmed—and discounting the independent effort Public Access for now—it is clear that Singer lucked into a situation that, once it occurred, he found almost impossible to repeat. Said circumstance was the happenstance of buddying up with screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. A high school friend, the two budding filmmakers collaborated on a pair of projects, one of which would go on to skyrocket the duo to instant Tinsel Town fame. Its name was The Usual Suspects, and thanks to a critical community desperate for something different in the standard crime/caper genre, the talky, showboating cinematic stunt became a sleeper hit. It also gained the pair unexpected Hollywood clout, thanks to many appearances on year-end lists and a pair of Oscars (neither for Singer).


Yet the next step for both seemed highly unusual. McQuarrie, who actually owned one of those two Academy Awards, worked on a failed television pilot (something called The Underworld) while Singer took over the adaptation of one of Stephen King’s beloved Different Seasons stories, Apt Pupil. In fact, he had long wanted to tackle the project, and sent the famed horror author a copy of Suspects as kind of an audition reel. Bringing in another childhood buddy—Brandon Boyce—to write the script, Singer made sure to walk as carefully to the edge of the story’s controversial narrative (a young boy discovers a nasty Nazi war criminal in his neighborhood, and picks up his violent mantel) without ruining his mainstream mandate. Unfortunately, a specific artistic choice got the entire production in hot water (Singer filmed a non-sexual shower sequence featuring several unclothed male minors), and in the end, the movie was only mildly successful.


All the while, another friend named Tom DeSanto was planting the seeds for the filmmaker’s first mega-success. A lifelong comic book geek, the production executive desperately wanted Singer to take on the big screen adaptation of the fabled Marvel characters, the X-Men. With its obvious undercurrents of racism and intolerance, it was a project that intrigued the director. Numerous scripts were floating around, many of which were quite faithful to the characters origins and attitudes. Singer, however, wanted to somehow bridge the gap between the fictional and real worlds, and he imposed changes on the property to ‘modernize’ its approach. Devotees of the characters were instantly up in arms (Issue #1—the new black ‘Batman’ like suits) and many feared Singer couldn’t appreciate the importance of this long delayed adaptation.


It was clear that, in the end, he really didn’t. X-Men stands as the sloppiest of big screen comic book movies, a leap in artistic logic that believes in manipulating material to fit both the demographic and business model the film is forged within. Thanks to advances in special effects, the various mutant powers owned by the characters are convincingly realized, but Singer fails to find actual personalities within each supposed hero and/or villain. In fact, he seems to think that backstory (Magneto as Holocaust survivor) and the stench of abject racism (the narrative revolves around a politician who wants to expose the mutant population as a possible threat to society) will fill in the obvious blanks. Suffering from average action scenes, an excess of explanatory exposition, and way too many players to properly manage, the movie remains an ineffectual mess. While there are those who find it almost flawless (especially compared to the plethora of similarly styled movies that it spawned), it’s really nothing more than a magnified misfire.


Still, money talks in the BS world of moviemaking, and with nearly $300 million at the box office, X-Men was viewed as an unqualified success. Singer was heralded as the new voice of comic book cinema (soon to be overtaken by others more deserving, including Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan and Guillermo Del Toro) and he tried to parlay that professional delineation into his next few creative choices. But Hollywood loves to lock artists into previous payoffs, making sure that their triumphs are owned outright and reliably repeatable. Contractually obligated to make X-Men 2, Singer had to drop out of a couple of high profile projects in order to accommodate the studio’s sequel needs. Wanting to take a more ‘human approach’—i.e., focusing on the reactions of society against the unusual and the different—the director drew up a new motion picture battle plan. Of course, he ran directly into the suits desire for more of the same, and it wasn’t long before X2 (as the newest installment was called) arrived, easily following the dollar-based directive.


While a step up artistically, especially in the epic scope and size of the storyline (an almost unlimited budget will do that for you), X2 shows that Singer still has no idea how to combine heroics with emotion. The main characters remain icons, unable to break out of the special skills that more or less define who they are, and without Ian McKellan as prime villain Magneto and Patrick Stewart as good guy Dr. Charles Xavier, the central conflict of the film would have no performance power or potency. Actresses Halle Berry and Famke Janssen lobbied hard for more significant screen time, and the balance between male and female mutants frequently feels shifted based on star quality, not storyline needs. With the action only slightly improved from the first film, and an inconclusive finale that simply sets up the next installment in the series, X2 was a preachy, arrogant attention whore. Naturally, the viewing public ate it up, twisting the turnstiles to the tune of nearly $400 million.


It’s at this point where Singer starts throwing his movie franchise muscle around. In 2004, his TV medical drama House, M.D. , found a home at Fox. Later that year, negotiations began for X-Men 3. But Warner Brothers, desperate to get back into the superhero game, were looking for someone to helm their Superman revamp. A long dormant disaster, everyone from Kevin Smith to Tim Burton had taken a swipe at reviving the Man of Steel, and with moneymen behind the mutants balking at Singer’s latest demands, Kal-El’s keepers saw a chance to get one of the two main names in the genre (Raimi, the auteur behind the ridiculously popular Spider-man series being the other). Singer jumped at the chance to reimagine Kyrpton’s last son, and Fox responded by handing over the reigns of X-Men: The Last Stand, to the Rush Hour reject, Brett Ratner.


Though slightly hurt, Singer couldn’t have cared less. He had Clark Kent’s alter ego to deal with, and the problems were paramount. The project had little believability or bearing and the graphic novel basis for much of the jumpstart was forged out of publicity ploys (the Death of Superman) and Dark Knight style stunts. Looking over the character’s cinematic arc, Singer proposed something radical. He would forget everything and anything that came after Richard Donner and Richard Lester’s ‘70s interpretation of the material, and make a movie that picked up where Superman 2 left off. While fans were flummoxed, Warners was sold. The new direction was approved and casting commenced. Chalk one up for Singer’s sense of what would sell. Unfortunately, it would be the last cognizant decision he would make as director.


His first significant stumble came with his choice of actors. No, Brandon Routh would turn out to be a wonderful choice (he’s a great Man of Steel), and old pal Kevin Spacey (who won one of his two Oscars under Singer’s guidance in The Usual Suspects) was an obvious - and rather easy - Lex Luthor. But Kate Bosworth is a hideous Lois Lane, incapable of bringing anything remotely realistic to her portrayal of a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. She’s a lousy damsel in distress and an even worse example of self-sufficiency. In this post-modern, post-feminist world, she crumbles the minute danger rears its routine head. She is supposed to illustrate the broken dream of Superman’s disappearance, but she’s really nothing more than an un-pretty pie face playing with the big boys.


Then there is the overall art design. Somewhere along the line, Singer fell in love with the notion of tweaking the image as far over into the blue spectrum of color as possible. Noticeable even to the untrained eye, the azure tint to everything from cars to clothes is oddly unsettling. Perhaps he thought it would give the entire production a more comic panel feel. Instead, it frequently feels like someone has purposefully fiddled with your retina’s rods and cones. As for the action, the opening space shuttle crash is wonderfully executed, and when the Daily Planet’s trademark globe is dislodged from the top of the skyscraper, Superman’s rescue of said object is powerful in its impact. But the rest of the movie is undermined by a real lack of focus—specifically, in what Lex Luthor plans on doing with his newfound appreciation for crystals and kryptonite.


From a sloppy haired super offspring (who looks about as threatening as a Little Rascal’s waif) to a finale that’s all spectacle and no substance, Superman Returns was not the pinnacle of Singer’s production powers. Indeed, it once again highlighted all of his inherent flaws. Unlike Raimi, who perfectly balanced emotion with excess in Spider-man 2, or Nolan, who found a flawless combination of psychological and physical conflict in Batman Begins, Singer’s characters are all flash. They appear to be reaching for depth, but unless they are capable of seeing beneath the surface (like Routh did for his turn as Superman), they end up coming across as flat and totally dimensionless. Even the heroes he chose to highlight in the X-Men series—Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm—are more outer shells than insular individuals, defined almost exclusively by their special skills. The intriguing thing about Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne is that, at least in their current cinematic incarnation, they are people first, pillars of super heroism second.


This is why Singer sucks. He’s all about the surface, his constant concerns about subtext all smoke and unskilled mirrors. Outside the genre, he’s had limited direct success (Suspects was McQuarrie and Spacey’s baby, the vast majority of House is helmed by others) and so few people have seen his Sundance winner Public Access that it really doesn’t count. Any other filmmaker would be called a wounded one trick pony, especially since the X-Men have now been largely overshadowed by other, better comic book movies. This doesn’t mean that we should write off Bryan Singer for the near future. It merely indicates that, as some kind of savior, as a go to guy for every epic idea that comes down the pipeline, he should have to wait in line like dozens of derivative others. He’s not the greatest director of kinetic eye candy, and his films can’t compare to the efforts of those who’ve followed.


Valkyrie could change all that, and if it does, he will once again have a lot of significant help. McQuarrie is back penning the script, and Cruise still holds some clout, even if his pre-War of the Worlds/Mission Impossible III antics cost him some demographic percentage points. But having the German government diss you before a single frame a film is shot (granted, it now seems like a massive miscommunication) is not the most promising of possible omens. And yet, when Bryan Singer is involved in a project, it seems that something has to be slightly askew. It helps explain his ineffectualness come opening day, providing a built in excuse where something more personal is definitely the issue. How this translates into his status as an A-list director is still astounding. He’s no different than a dozen mediocre moviemakers (Tim Story, are you listening?) who get lucky tapping into an uninformed audience zeitgeist. He not special—he’s substandard. This makes his continued ascension into the ranks of motion picture powerhouses as puzzling as ever.


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