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Tuesday, Jul 10, 2007


In a recent piece for Entertainment Weekly, bestselling author (and frequent contributor to the media mag) Stephen King made an interesting point about the entire Harry Potter series. When the final book is released later this month (July 2007), it will represent a nearly 10 year journey for the readers who first fell in love with the orphaned boy wizard and his outsized adventures. He suggests that an eight year old who was drawn into the world of Hogwarts and Quidditch, the Sorcerer’s Stone and the Prisoner of Azkaban will now be close to 18. They will have passed through grade school and may have even graduated. All now possess a world view radicalized by the onset of puberty and dating. While he admits that they should still be affected about the way creator J. K. Rowling ends the journey, he wonders if they haven’t moved beyond the emotions they associate with the character and his cohorts.


This may explain why the latest film in the ongoing cinematic interpretation of the novels – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – is so different from the other installments. There is something very intriguing going on here, a fascinating grown up subtext that suggests, as its fanbase has aged, so has the entire Potter mythology. Indeed, it’s time to stop dreaming and get down to the business at hand. Initially, such a shift is far more compelling than all the prophesying and enchantment. Almost like an espionage thriller from World War II, rebellion is in the air, both metaphorically and magically. And our hero Harry is at the center of an unpopular socio-political position. For those who’ve forgotten the previous narrative, the now notorious student tried to save a classmate from wicked Lord Valdemort’s deadly designs, and his failure has filled him with guilt. In the meantime, the Ministry of Magic (how very 1984) is downplaying the rumors of the Dark Lord’s return, and is setting up a behind the scenes plot to silence Harry once and for all.


Thus one walks, woozy and a tad paranormal punchdrunk, into this evocative entertainment, a movie meant to move away from the spectacle oriented elements of the series and into the emotional and interpersonal heft that transforms eye candy into epics. Trying to maneuver three major plotpoints at once – the ongoing battle with Voldemort, Harry’s decision to gather up a wizard’s army, and a newfound restrictive reign of terror at Hogwarts thanks to the arrival of Dark Arts instructor, the sweetly sinister Delores Umbridge – may seem like an impossible task, and many fans have worried how the longest book in the series would manage to make its multifaceted points. Even more disconcerting, longtime series screenwriter Steve Kloves (he did the adaptation on the previous four films) is not involved this time around. Indeed, both director David Yates and writer Michael Goldenburg are new to the Rowling realm.


As stated before, Harry is under close scrutiny by the Ministry. When he wards off an attack using a banned spell (he is not old enough to employ it), a witch’s witch hunt ensues. At a hearing before the board, our hero is defended by his loyal friend and Hogwart’s headmaster Dumbledore. Yet all this does is make the bureaucracy bitter. They bring in Umbridge to lay down order – and, some fear, pave the way for Voldemort’s eventual take over – turning her particularly important class into an ineffectual routine of rote memorization. Angered that they aren’t learning how to defend themselves, Harry is convince by longtime best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger to start teaching the others. Soon, a ragtag group of recruits are using a secret room to prepare for battle. As Harry is haunted by dreams of the Dark Lord, a confrontation between all three – the boy, the beast, and the battleaxe – looms large.


For full blown Potter heads, there is no need to worry about the infusion of new creative forces.  While some of the subtlety and depth from Phoenix’s fleshed out pages may be missing, this fifth installment is still immensely entertaining. Beginning with a bang and ending on an incredible display of martial magic, Yates is a director who understands cinematic shorthand. He gets lots of information across in clever newspaper montages, using the iconic Daily Prophet as a means of supplying backstory and subtext. Similarly, minor flashbacks for the previous films fill in informational blanks that a 129 minute movie can’t possibly afford to confront. Granted, anyone coming into this movie blind, without an inkling about what’s going on or where we are in the Potter paradigm will be wildly confused. Like walking into the middle of a play’s third act, number five is not the place to start your Muggle modification.


But if you’re invested in the whole wizard universe, Order of the Phoenix should provide untold personal pleasures. Aside from seeing your favorite characters again (Gary Oldman’s emblematic Sirius Black, Julie Walters’ jovial Mrs. Weasley), new recruits to the storyline also shine. For her part, Helena Bonham Carter is perfectly depraved as Death Eater Bellatrix Lastrange, and Evanna Lynch is defiantly ditzy as slightly loony loner girl Luna Lovegood. But the real secondary star here – after Daniel Radcliff’s dazzling turn as our Harry – is Imelda Staunton as the devilish Delores Umrbidge. Playing the part of underhanded villainess perfectly, she exudes a kind of pent up paranoia and dictatorial derangement. In her office outfitted with live kitten commemorate plates (tacky and terrifying), her preference for pink hides a soul as black as pitch. With the help of her Inquisition Squad – nothing subtle about this amoral administrator – she begins to undermine everything Dumbledore has done. Before long, she’s managed to turn Hogwarts into a stifling center of cold conformity.


Naturally, we demand a massive comeuppance, and one of the many joys in this thoroughly engaging film is watching Yates and Goldenburg build to her possible retribution. Following the continued quest to discover the truth about Voldemort and the title organization’s preparations for the eventual showdown, this is a movie that makes us aware of its intricacies, and asks us to pay close attention to what is going on. Of course, it helps to have read the four previous books (or at the very least, seen the other films), and yet Yates never allows things to tumble completely out of control. Those pining for all the meat in Rowling’s writing will probably be disappointed – its impossible to condense almost 800 pages into a little over 130 – but if they accept the film on its own terms, they will find a great deal to enjoy.


So will those just slightly outside the fervent fanbase. Yates has fun with his visuals here, rendering the familiar spaces of Hogwarts and the newer locales (like a Ministry mausoleum filled with crystal ball prophecies) into stunning cinematic backdrops. He also plays within the genre, referencing Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (which is ironic, considering that the ex-pat Python was the first director approached about helming the Potter franchise) and drops a foray into Lord of the Rings territory (as when Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid shares a ‘secret’ with Harry and Hermione). And King is partially right – this is a darker, more demanding Potter plot. Kids who’ve just been introduced to the wizard’s wonderstuff might not be ready to take on such adult material. Death and evil are in the air after all, and Harry’s fate definitely hangs in the balance.


While one might question the viability of the franchise once Rowling releases the last Potter tome (imagine how films six and seven will play out once all the beans are finally spilled), five finds the series settling in quite nicely. There will be complaints from completists, and without a foundation of familiarity with the serialized narratives basics, one could become instantly lost. But for full fledged fantasy that doesn’t skimp on the imagination or the intrigue, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a brave, exciting entertainment. It makes the impending end of the series all the sadder.



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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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Friday, Jun 29, 2007


Michael Bay may be one of the most misunderstood moviemakers in today’s Hollywood. This doesn’t mean he’s some manner of artist or auteur, nor is anyone suggesting that his track record is anything but scattershot. But he has helmed a couple of guilty popcorn pleasures (The Rock, Armageddon) that more or less balance out his exponential epics in concept extravagance (Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys 2). Yet he remains technically proficient and inherently energetic, filling his movies with the kind of excessive oomph that less successful action helmers like Bryan Singer and Mark Steven Johnson would die for. And still, he is considered on par with such motion picture pariahs as Uwe Boll and Paul W. S. Anderson. Frankly, it’s an unfair tag of talentlessness.


That being said, his latest turn behind the Panaflex, Transformers, is just terrific. Based on the Hasbro toy line from the ‘80s, it’s a bit brain dead in parts, a bit too married to said cartoon/geekoid origins. It also piles on the ancillary characters for what seems like purely demographic reasons. But at the end of the day, when all is said and done, this is the blockbuster destined to drive butts directly into the seat. It’s the most scrumptious of eye candy, the kind of overwhelming optical delight that only a big budget studio slamdunk can deliver. It’s loaded with humor, has startling setpieces to spare, and provides the perfect cinematic foundation for a gagillion sequels to come. For Bay, it’s a sort of redemption, a clever comeback from the disastrous dopiness of 2005’s Parts: The Clonus Horror – oops, sorry, The Island. It’s the kind of narrative that plays to all his strengths – steroided stuntwork, epic exaggeration, obvious characterization – while substantially reducing his tendency to trip over his own inflated mannerisms.


There are three main storylines running through the movie’s first 90 minutes, a trio of tales destined to intersect and basically go boom for another hour afterward. Part one finds a group of US soldiers in Qatar battling a scorpion-like beastie and a transmogrifying helicopter. The slaughter leaves behind a ragtag group desperate to report the robotic enemy to the Pentagon. Meanwhile, in the LA suburbs, a teenage boy named Sam Witwicky (a brilliant Shia LaBeouf) is looking to buy his first car. He ends up with a dingy yellow Camero that actually houses the good guy automaton Bubblebee. Sam soon learns of the threat to life on planet Earth, and hooks up with the rest of the Autobots (including the heroic Optimus Prime) to take on and defeat the Decepticons. Finally, Sector 7 a government shadow agency similar to MIB or Area 51 are hoping to discover the purpose behind a massive extraterrestrial cube (known as the All Spark) as well as what the previously captured evil Megatron wants with is.


Naturally, this leads to all kinds of large scale battles between our mutating machines, and it has to be said that the combined efforts of Industrial Light and Magic and K.N.B. EFX are simply mindblowing. This is the kind of movie unimaginable 10 years ago, the level of sophistication making the real and the imaginary merge with almost seamless authenticity. During the last act war between Optimus Prime and Megatron, the streets of LA – along with several skyscrapers – become the backdrop for a robot battle royale, previously unthinkable images bouncing off buildings and scaling the skyline with awe-inspiring ease. Something similar happens when the good gear guys survey Hoover Dam from a distance. The way they blend into the real life setting, their hulky bodies moving with ease up and down the façade, makes us believe in their viability. Likewise, thanks to the power of computers, the many transformations feel organic and planned, not just some shapeshifting shtick.


While this kind of oversized adventure is not necessarily known to be a performer’s paradise, many in the cast make a significant impact. In what amounts to minor cameo roles, Bernie Mac and Anthony Anderson are all rim shots and rib ticklers. Indeed, they seem purposefully placed in the film to bring funny whenever the chaos gets too heavy. Equally odd is Jon Voight, reduced to a kind of drawling Donald Rumsfeld clone as the Secretary of Defense. He’s a plot device pure and simple, and yet something about the way he essays the Southern fried bureaucrat is extremely engaging. On the other end of the government gangster paradigm is John Tuturro. Chewing up the scenery with his evil efficiency, it’s a wonderful turn for the indie icon. But the film really belongs to LaBeouf. Like Matthew Broderick in Wargames, or Henry Thomas in E. T., he is the adolescent anchor that lets the audience into this world of way out wonders. Forging a bond with Bumblebee, as well as helping the rest of the Autobots achieve their ends, he’s part hero, part hapless, and destined for young adult superstardom.


Unlike recent large scale sci-fi spectacles – like say Executive Producer Steven Spielberg’s War of the WorldsTransformers isn’t hiding some deeper social or political commentary. It’s not trying to represent our war on terror, or our failing fortunes in Iraq. True, many of the battle sequences have the feeling of actual armed conflict, but that has more to do with avoiding old school cartoon cock ups for the sake of some traditional cinematic combat. And Bay’s teens aren’t some high minded intellectuals. They are into beer and cars, girls and questions of cool. The only angst anyone feels occurs when LaBeouf’s Sam tries to avoid having his massive mechanical pals completely destroy his Dad’s carefully constructed garden. This is pure premised motion picture making, the full blown visual equivalent of the pitch line that reads “oversized robots fight for the fate of the Earth”. Thankfully, it was on Michael Bay’s watch that such a project was proposed.


Indeed, it may be time to give this maligned moviemaker his due. While some have argued over the film’s two plus hour running time and scrambled pace, Transformers needs this kind of extended rollercoaster rationale. It would not be cost (or future sequel) effective to have nothing but nonstop action, and the movie is based on a beloved animated series that was also known for its occasional quirkiness. So having passages where actual characters carry the story, to allow the downtime to emphasize the potency of the powerhouse material is all the work of Bay’s bravura behind the camera. He’s not out to merely make the celluloid equivalent of fireworks. He’s out for the whole package – the drama, the comedy, the suspense and the mental amusement park. Sure, you can sneer at all the product placement, or merchandising-mandated decisions, but this is an exhilarating thrill ride that actually steps up and delivers on its many predisposed promises.


In a summer that’s seen underperforming tre-quels and more than its fair share of warmed over sameness, Transformers is offering something similar, but in a much more exciting and evocative guise. It gives us the formulaic good vs. evil element, the team vs. individual ideal, the us vs. them/friend vs. foe foundation, and tweaks it all with technology only heard of a few years ago. Without the weight of an already formed franchise to pull it down, this filmic funhouse is allowed to spin wildly out of control. And like desperate devotees of Tinsel Town’s tricks, we simply sit back and enjoy the operatic ride.



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Tuesday, Jun 26, 2007


SiCKO is sensational. It’s perhaps the best movie Michael Moore has ever made. Granted, there will be those who view his anti-gun screed Bowling for Colombine as his most heartfelt effort (it did earn him an Oscar for Best Documentary) and now that the firestorm has died down, and the winds of change are basically blowing in his direction, Fahrenheit 9/11 looks more and more like a prescient populist prophecy. But those two amazing movies, along with the retro-reactionary Roger and Me and the rest of his confrontational canon really pale in comparison to this detailed dissection of the American Heath Care system. Looking at the problem from both the inside out and the international inward, Moore manages to do what his previous films have failed to accomplish. SiCKO, more than any other movie he’s made, is guaranteed to provide a cinematic catalyst for change.


Don’t think so? Unsure that people will rise up to challenge the substandard status quo of insurance coverage for the US population? Well, just remember this. A film is forever. Mock its methods or question its facts, but once it takes a stance, that statement is set in celluloid stone. From then on, it is up to others to redirect the dialogue, to challenge its veracity and pick apart the particulars. But at the end of the day, after all the agenda-based attacks and website scrutinizing, Moore will have delivered the first AND last word on the subject. And since the enemy he picks is well known and hated by a vast majority of the paying populace, it will survive the government threats, the industry lawsuits, and the brazen backlash from dozens of self-styled experts. In turn, Moore’s version of reality will become the JFK of the HMOs. The essentials may be specious, but the overall message is right on goddamn target.


During the film’s clever opening, we see immediately where Moore is going. He discusses the case of two people sans insurance, and immediately tosses their frightening fate aside. We can’t deal with this issue, you can hear the filmmaker thinking, it’s too much of a common man slam dunk. Instead, the focus of SiCKO is on people who actually have coverage, and how said supposed security blanket is actually a lifestyle (and life) threatening ruse. We get testimonials from individuals who’ve lost loved ones thanks to seemingly random decisions by blank corporate facades, and then Moore turns around and puts a mug onto those crass kill(er)joys. It’s this material that’s the most fascinating in SiCKO. Everyone has a horror story about being denied in a time of crisis, but when do we ever get to see the person behind the decision. Granted, these former insurance company workers are all miserable and overflowing with mea culpas. But no amount of forgiveness can erase the dollar oriented disasters that lay in their wake.


Throughout this initial half of the film, Moore sets up the first of his two main themes – that insurance companies are in it for the money, not the health care management. The resounding ‘D’uh” following said sentiment should argue against his success as a pundit. But Moore knows movies, and he understands that the right story can sidetrack an entire library of statistics and consulting reports. Thus, he presents the Smith family. Amiable, hard working, and dedicated followers of America’s Middle Class dream, we watch as Mom and Pop Smith are devastated by several personal problems (him – heart attacks, her – cancer) and slowly swallowed up by the bureaucratic bankruptcy of the system. The co-pays and deductibles, let alone the financial reality of dealing with six kids of their own, sends them into a downward spiral of money problems. Eventually, they must sell their home and move into a cramped basement computer room (with bunk beds!) in their daughter’s home.


Like the scene in Roger and Me where a kind-hearted sheriff’s deputy dispossess a distraught family, watching real people suffer in a ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ manner is the most effective way of getting your point across. This is not an issue of mismanaged funds or individual liability. The Smiths bought into a system (paid into it, actually) that never intended to indemnify them come crunch time. Imagine – your car insurance suddenly stops taking effect right in the middle of a post-accident repair job. Your life insurance annuity ceases paying at the discretion of the company, not the contract. You sign up for disaster insurance before boarding a plane, and as the engines start to fail and the stewardesses shout out final instructions, the head rest phone rings. It’s your company, suddenly cutting off your coverage as a ‘potential risk’. Along with the other examples he provides in this section, Moore’s makes SiCKO a strong case for massive corporate reforms.


But what’s the model we should use? Which countries have the best universal coverage – or at least, in Moore’s opinion, put the American system to shame. The answer to this question composes the second half of SiCKO, and will probably be the sequence viewed with the most cynicism. Providing us a USA-ridiculing walking tour of the Canadian, French and British health care arrangement, Moore plays dupe to a bunch of everyday citizens who can’t imagine living in a country that doesn’t provide some manner of socialized medicine. Our intrepid reporter asks the same question over and over again – “what did it cost you?” – and the look of disconnect and confusion on these foreigners’ faces is classic. Time and time again, the answer is “nothing”, and Moore mimics their disbelief by wondering “what’s the catch”. Well, exploring said specifics and restrictions is not what SiCKO is on about. Again, the big picture is important here. No matter what it says in the fine print, almost every industrialized Western country has some form of universal health coverage – except the US.


Of course, the devil is always in the details, and there will be those who harp on minor misconceptions and abject realities as a means of trying to deflate SiCKO’s strategies. Unfortunately, said potshots won’t make the movie any less entertaining. The reason people will pile on this film has nothing to do with its ideas and everything to do with its effectiveness. If Moore was a moviemaking incompetent, unable to maintain a level of interest in what is an inherently intriguing idea, then his efforts would tour a few underground film festivals and that’s it. But people will be lining up to learn the lessons this director wants to discuss, and it’s the intrinsic draw of film that has opponents flummoxed.


If Moore was inherently wrong with what he puts out in SiCKO, that would be one thing. He’s not using one or two rare instances to make a gross overgeneralization about the US Health Care system. Instead, he is avoiding the 10 or 20% of satisfied citizens to focus on the far more prevalent problems. It’s not a question of balance – if 10 people out of 100 get good, trouble free service, representing their viewpoint does not provide equilibrium to the situation with the other 90. Neither does pointing out the number of areas where America beats the rest of the world in medical technology. Saving lives is one thing. Having access to the science that does such rescuing is the issue at hand. It is conceivable that the citizens of the countries Moore champions would have varying versions of their socialized medicines success. But complaining that problems exist in an arguably imperfect system is like saying an inexact science is wrong now and again. Besides, what’s more important – the fact that everyone is covered, or that when such universal coverage is in place, flaws are inevitably found? 


There will be those who cannot forgive his histrionics, who see him standing on Cuban soil, chronically ill volunteers from 9/11 in tow, calling over to Guantanamo Bay and asking for the same health care that we are giving to the terrorists, and complain about the obvious exploitation. Others will attack the man and consider it a criticism of the movie. But in a nation of apathetic arrogance, that has begun to believe much of its own hyped hubris, SiCKO needs to be seen. It does the two most potent things any successful screed can – it enlightens while it entertains. In addition, it sets the tone for the rest of the debate, providing proof against all the industry apologists while offering potential solutions, no matter how suspect. It’s what any good discussion should encompass. It’s also the foundation for any masterful film…and SiCKO definitely falls into that category.


 


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Saturday, Jun 23, 2007


When someone says they don’t make movies like they used to, they are probably referring to a title like 1408. Reviving a lost subgenre like the psychological thriller is not an easy task, and when you consider the author of the source material is none other than cinematic hit or miss Stephen King, the odds are substantially stacked against you. Even worse, the release carries a PG-13 rating, which tells most dread die-hards that the narrative they’re about to see has been sanitized for the protection of the viewing public. The final nail in the nonevent coffin is the presence of Swedish unknown Mikael Håfström behind the lens. While his native language efforts have been well received, his 2005 disaster Derailed doesn’t speak well for his ability with suspense.


Luckily, the planets were all in alignment when stars Samuel L. Jackson and John Cusack decided to take on this basically two person drama, and the results more than speak for themselves. While not actually scary, 1408 is unsettling and intense, taking its own sweet time building to a truly disconcerting climax. Predating post-modern horror by a chainsaw or two, and delivering ample angst without having to resort to bloodshed or gratuity, Håfström helms the perfect antidote to all the ‘gorno’ currently claiming the creepshow mantel. His take on King’s sensational short story is a devious little mind game, an eerie examination of one man’s inner demons and how those pent up issues can do much more than haunt a human soul. They can take on an afterlife in the real world as well.


Cynical as hell and falsely heroic, Cusack is Mike Enslin, a writer of horror-themed travel guides. He visits supposedly haunted locales and writes up reviews, Michelin style, of their significant scare factors. Of course, he doesn’t believe in ghosts. He’s a dyed in the wool skeptic and blames desperate hotel owners for concocting – and in some cases, creating – the spook shows for the benefit of their lagging bottom line. One day, Enslin receives a postcard warning him away from the title room, a particularly evil space in New York’s old money Dolphin Hotel. Only problem is, the establishment won’t let him in. After confronting manager Gerald Olin (a smooth and suave Samuel L.) over occupancy, Enslin gets his wish – and a warning. No one has ever lasted more than an hour in the room, the result being death, or dementia. It’s the kind of challenge Enslin can’t pass up. Once he’s inside 1408, however, he realizes he should have heeded Olin’s advice.


To go any further in the plot summary would ruin 1408’s many macabre moments (though, as usual, the preview trailers have happily spoiled more than one). To his credit, Håfström doesn’t rush his prologue. We get to know Mike Enslin very well, his superstitious little quirks, the stinging sarcasm covering up for deep personal pain, and as he moves ever so steadily toward his confrontation with the name terror, we begin to build up a lot of sympathy and caring for him. True, this is your typical King protagonist – self destructive and markedly egotistic, requiring a kind of metaphysical just deserts to reset his stagnant priorities – but thanks to Cusack’s ability to humanize Enslin’s hubris, we find ourselves on the world weary writer’s side. On the other hand, Sam Jackson is not given much to do, but what he has to work with is choice. His initial meeting with Cusack is so classic in its performance potency, it’s like the Closer’s Contest pitch made by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry, Glen Ross.


While there are other famous names in the cast – Tony Shalhoub as Enslin’s publisher, Mary McCormack as his distant wife – they are more like cameos. This is Cusack’s show almost exclusively and your reactions will be wholly based on how you connect with him. He gives an amazing turn, on screen alone for minutes at a time and capturing completely a man caught off guard by circumstances he didn’t anticipate. Nothing is more deliciously enjoyable than watching a know it all proven unprepared, and the initial scenes where room 1408 starts to take on a life of its own offers the actor at his best. Later on, Cusack must turn on the waterworks and the histrionics, and for the most part, he keeps his obvious emotions in check. It’s a tour de force, and the production couldn’t have picked a better star to handle it.


On the other hand, Håfström’s work is much more subtle. There are riffs to many previous King adaptations (The Shining and The Dark Half for starters) and this Swedish cinephile understands the basic elements of suspense. There are several edge of the seat sequences in 1408, moments where we fear, along with our hero, what’s around the next corner, or waiting for us in the shadows of the ceiling vent. This is not a film that wants to quicken your pulse or send shockwaves through your spine so much as deliberately dig down just beneath the top layers of your flesh to settle in under your skin. For every set piece of rushing water, freezing interior spaces and grue-gushing walls, there are small, seemingly insignificant beats which tend to amplify the angst. There are even a couple of epic CG shots to spice up the spectacle. But by constantly keeping the film founded in the personal, Håfström’s paranormal excesses work that much better.


It has to be said that the last few decades, a time that literally redefined and reconfigured the thriller/chiller genre, will render 1408 inconsequential to some fright fans. For them, nothing says fear like flowing rivers of bodily fluids, along with the occasional misplaced organ. Others need the celluloid rollercoaster simulation – build-up/release, build-up/release – of the genres more extreme examples. But when you look at how well made and managed this movie is, when you recognize that the seemingly random scenes all have a logical reason to exist (and potentially payoff in the end) you can’t deny 1408’s effectiveness. You can mock its casual style and lack of aggressive arterial spray, but the refreshing nature of such a narrative twist will end up annoying only the most narrow-minded of macabre mavens.


For everyone else, 1408 will be a nostalgic callback to a time when films used ideas and invention to sell its scares. There is nary a moment of snuff stunt showboating or special effects sluice to be seen. In its place are tight construction, tripwire direction, superb acting, and an uncomfortable sense of the sinister. While it may not answer the near half century old debate regarding subtlety vs. splatter as the most successful fear factor, Håfström’s engaging experiment in unforced fright is well worth a look. It definitely defines the kind of movies old fashioned film fans pine for – and may even capture the imagination of the contemporary doom and gloom crowd as well.


7 out of 10


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