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Tuesday, Jul 17, 2007


When Hairspray is good, it’s fantastic. It radiates an energy and a joy that’s beyond infectious. As a matter of fact, it’s safe to say that the pleasure one derives from the first fifteen minutes of this movie should be made illegal, it’s so superbly addictive. On the other hand, when Hairspray is only mediocre, it’s…aw heck, who cares! In fact, whatever minor flaws this movie may have (and they’re barely recognizable against the sunshine daze) are frivolous in comparison to the triumph taking shape before our eyes. Fans of the John Waters original – more a celebration of youth and dance than race and social commentary – have worried that the Broadway version of the ‘60s Baltimore spree would forget what made the prince of puke’s PG perfection so much fun. Instead, this amazing musical has found its own level of exhilaration, and the delights are palpable indeed.


With some minor changes here and there, the story has basically stayed the same. Tubby Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky) lives with her joke shop owning father (Christopher Walken) and laundress mother (John Travolta). She hates school, and along with best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes), she rushes home every day to catch the locally produced dance extravaganza, The Corny Collins Show. Among the series regulars are The Council, a group of talented teens that are supposed to symbolize clean cut American values. But under the surface, Station Manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfieffer) is forwarding two private agendas. The first, and least noxious, is her daughter Amber’s future career. The other, more loathsome design, is the continued segregation of on-air programming. African Americans in the area only get one day a month on Corny’s show, and substitute host (and record shop owner) Motormouth Mabel (Queen Latifah) barely tolerates such treatment.


Anyway, Tracy’s dream is to be part of the show’s elusive clique, but her audition is nixed by Ms. Van Tussle. A stint in detention along with Motormouth’s son Seaweed (Elijah Kelly) improves the plump gal’s hoofing skills. Before you know it, she’s part of the Council, wooing the male star of the show (a teen idol wannabe named Link – Zac Efron) and getting into hot water over her views on integration. With the Miss Hairspray crown up for grabs, Amber’s mother will do anything to see that her child wins, and she comes up with several subversive plots to guarantee victory. But Tracy’s indomitable spirit, along with Mabel’s desire to stand up for her people lead to a march on the station, and an arrest warrant for our heroine. Naturally, it all comes down to the night of the big pageant. If Tracy shows up, she’ll be arrested. If she doesn’t Amber, will win the crown – much to the chagrin of almost everyone involved.


Bubbling over with entertainment effervescence and a wealth of award wining performances, Hairspray is the perfect example of cinematic synchronicity – flawless casting, amazing material, brilliant production design, stellar songs and directorial magic all rolled up into one big wad of motion picture cotton candy. Far more effective than Dreamgirls or Chicago, what has been accomplished here is nothing short of a miracle. For many, the last great example of this kind of effortless exuberance was Frank Oz’s adaptation of the Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s smash Little Shop of Horrors. There, as here, the combination of motion picture parts produced a movie musical engine that purred like a well creamed kitten…with just enough quirk to keep things safely off the sappy side. Hairspray mimics that sort of success, selling its unapologetic philosophies with expertly tempered heart and soul.


Major kudos must go to whomever decided to hire this remarkable company. Every performer here is faultless, adding to the overall feeling of comedy and camaraderie. Even the two main villains – Amber and her mother Velma Von Tussle - are more to be laughed at then feared. Their stances are so outrageous and their sense of self so ludicrous that their eventual tumble is bound to be a treat. Of course, what makes this even better is Michelle Pfieffer’s return – after a five year absence – to big screen prominence as Velma. She’s an aged ice queen so accurately archetyped that all she’s missing is the dangle of a cigarette and a coarse, cancerous croak to turn her into the ghoul that’s hiding inside. Even though we had to wait for the actress’s return from self-imposed exile, it was well worth it.


Similarly, Queen Latifah shows that the Oscar nod for Chicago was no fluke. In Hairspray, she finds the ideal combination of groove and grace, making her both a viable disc jockey and voice of reason. She’s matched by James Marsden, who finally gets a chance to crawl out of Cyclops’ shades and deliver a knock ‘em dead turn as the eternally preening Corny Collins. Throughout the course of this toe-tapping, smile mapping spectacle, brilliant supporting performances by Zach Efron, Elijah Kelley, Amanda Bynes, and Allison Janney really help to flesh out the fabulousness. Of course, the biggest kudos will be saved for formidable newcomer Nikki Blonsky. A portly little fireplug, this is one plus size gal who can swing and sway. She belts out her songs with steadfast determination, and moves her body with undeniable agility. As the glue required to hold all the cheerfulness and mirth together, she’s great.


And then there is John Travolta. From the moment that a musical version of John Water’s nostalgic knock-off was announced, the main question on everyone lips was who would – or possible could/dare – replace Divine. That magically effete phenom, that late great drag dime store diva left some mighty big shoes (and other garments) to fill as sheltered mouse mother Edna Turnblad. On the Great White Way, the solution was simple – another larger than life gay performer, Harvey Firestein. But movies require superstars, and for a while, an unusual collection of actors was considered. But once you see Travolta inside the fascinating fat suit and utilizing what has to be one of the most bizarrely authentic Baltimore accents ever, you’ll realize that his was more than stunt casting. This is a fully realized performance, an acting tour de force that requires and earns your unbridled attention. Sure, he can sing and dance like a dream – we’ve always known that about him. But there is a depth to what Travolta does here, an unnerving authenticity that makes us forget the façade and see the fragile female inside. It’s a stunning, award worthy piece of work.


But perhaps the biggest shock overall is the surprisingly solid direction from the otherwise average Adam Shankman. Known previously for such uninspired, generic dogs as The Pacifier and Cheaper by the Dozen 2, Hairspray makes it appear as if the filmmaker has been holding back all along. Case in point – the opening number “Good Morning, Baltimore!” As Tracy’s sonic celebration of her city, Shankman wisely opens up the number, taking us up and down the streets and shops of her neighborhood. But then, he adds little visual gags and some hilarious physical comedy along the way. By the time Tracy is riding the garbage truck to school, our hearts are in our throats. As a former choreographer, Shankman “gets” movement. Unlike other helmers of recent song and dance cinema, Hairspray is a movie that understands staging without relying on MTV like variables to save its strategies.


Which brings us to the final facet of the film – Marc Shaiman’s ‘60s suggesting songs. One of the most interesting aspects of his score is how important context really is. When heard outside their setting, when played as mere souvenirs of the show, lyrical larks like “(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs”, “Big, Blond and Beautiful”, and “(You’re) Timeless To Me” really have a hard time resonating. They need setting, circumstance, and perspective to play properly. Here, Shankman gives the composer just that, and what sounds trite and cloying outside the silver screen comes alive with undeniable potency. You’ll be snapping along with “The Nicest Kids in Town” and clapping along with “You Can’t Stop the Beat”. Even the more dramatic numbers – the racial call to arms “I Know Where I’ve Been” – echo more effectively thanks to the film.


Indeed, Hairspray stands as one of 2007’s great films. It dares to reach for the stratosphere and manages to move far beyond said stars. It’s intoxicating and invigorating, jumpstarting your long dead belief in the art of the movie picture while systematically saving the summer from such standard operating ordinariness as sequels and remakes. Of course, purists will palpitate over the a few missing numbers (got to add new material to get the Academy’s attention) and there will be the naysayers who can’t cotton to a musical made outside the defining era of 1930 – 1950. But this is one time when you can easily believe the hype. Hairspray is one brazen bouffant of a film. It’s very high and oh so mighty. 


 


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Friday, Jul 13, 2007


Call it geek chic or designer dorkiness, but nerds have become quite the pop culture cause celeb. Perhaps it has something to do with our growing tech savvy demographic, or the PC pronouncements against being cliquish, bullying or superior. Indeed, in a world where everyone is considered equal, smarts offset by social awkwardness is one of the few ways to significantly stand out. Thanks in large part to the cult phenomenon Napoleon Dynamite and its quintessential quote heavy narrative, the uber dweeb has spread his and/or her entertainment possibilities worldwide. Even far off and secluded New Zealand has come up with their own cinematic celebration of the communal outsider. Unfortunately, while quite engaging, the enigmatically named Eagle vs. Shark forgets a couple of the key rules for navigating the weirdo waters.


Our story centers around two misguided losers. Lily works at a greasy spoon burger joint, her attempts to fit in constantly thwarted by the blond hair and buxom set. But everyday, around noon, she stops pouting and perks up. You see, Jarrod from down the local media palace enjoys taking his lunch at Lily’s place of employment, and she’s desperate to catch his eye. Naturally, he’s oblivious. However, an invitation to his animal costume party provides our heroine her in. Over the course of the affair, the two fall for each other as only the insular and sheltered can – over a Mortal Combat like video game – and before we know it, they are off on an adventure to Jarrod’s hometown. Seems Mr. Misfit has been training to get revenge on the bully who picked on him all throughout high school. Thanks to Lily – and her brother’s available car – the couple can kill two confrontations with one trip. The first being Jarrod’s tormentor. The second is his dramatically dysfunctional family.


All of this might sound like fodder for some sort of hilarious comedy of mis-manners, but the truth is far more telling. Eagle vs. Shark is more interested in whimsy than wit, and when it comes to milking its characters for a little goofball charm, we are stuck with mostly peculiarities vs. personalities. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Movies that comprehend the difference between bringing dimension and merely mocking its principles usually end up winning the quirkiness war. But in the case of Eagle vs. Shark, the people behind the production just don’t know when to quit. Unlike our leads, who seem purposefully oblique and ambiguous, the rest of the surrounding support is overwritten to the point of near distraction. It’s as if the script (touted as workshopped at the exclusive Sundance Director’s and Screenwriter’s Labs) was purposefully fused over to add more than the average daily requirement of eccentricities.


Oddly enough, it’s not a novice mistake. Writer/director Taika Cohen was nominated in 2005 for a Best Short Film, Live Action Oscar (for his love in a pub Two Cars, One Night) and even though Eagle vs. Shark is his first feature, he’s someone assured of his style and overall approach. He’s also a filmmaker that wears his influences obviously and proudly. Michel Gondry gets a visual shout out via some slyly compelling stop motion sequences, and Jared Hess’s flat plane symmetry is present in abundance. You can even see snatches of the Coen Brothers and Wes Anderson among the frequent flights of originality. Granted, all of this works in Cohen’s favor, fostering an optical richness and filmic texture that is hard to deny. Doubt its occupants, but we can sense – and sometimes smell - the environment these outcasts exist in.


This doesn’t mean however that Cohen gets everything right. There are a couple of minor missteps in Eagle vs. Shark, elements both internal and external that prevent us from completely enjoying the joke. On the inside is actor Jermaine Clement. One of two leads in the highly publicized HBO Summer series Flight of the Conchords, this part-Maori performer is very irritating as Jarrod. It’s not just his behavior - a good way to describe him would be as a glorified gasbag – it’s his entire tact. Jarrod has absolutely no redeeming qualities. He is jealous, petty, spiteful, arrogant, deluded, dull, and incapable of any real human emotion. And the sad thing is, Cohen never once tries to redeem him. As a matter of fact, this is another instance where you can feel the filmmaker pushing the material further and further into the extreme. When Jarrod finally faces his bully, the joke may be rather obvious, but the follow-up is borderline cruel.


Which leads to the other outer element. If Napoleon Dynamite is indeed part of Cohen’s blueprint for this project, he forgot to take into account one of Jared Hess’ greatest gifts – comedic context. All the characters in the 2004 title are not desperate or disposable. No, part of the joy in said film was the fact that Napoleon and his family/friends were blissfully unaware of their loser status. They never once acted like the dregs of humanity’s pecking order. In fact, they stood proud and defiant in the face of constant rejection and ridicule. In Eagle vs. Shark, everyone is sour and dour, ready to wallow in enormous vats of self-pity for the sake of their own selfish designs. Kip and Napoleon fight because they believe each is better than the other. Jarrod lives like a lox in his dead brother’s shadow, convinced he can never be as good as him. Naturally, his equally depressed family only aids and abets his misery.


By this point you must be wondering, is there any reason to visit this frequently funny pity party. Luckily, the answer is a resounding yes – and her name is Loren Horsley. With a face always screwed up like she’s afraid to breath, and an accent so thick its like listening to the countryside speak, her Lily is a light in what is sometimes a very dark and disturbed arena. True, she herself is a mess of issues, but she’s also hopelessly optimistic, and when cheerfulness won’t do, she perseveres with the best of them. Her role is key to whatever success Eagle vs. Shark generates, mostly because we find ourselves identifying with and rooting for her happiness. Even when we see that the ultimate end may be as part of Jarrod’s jaundiced existence, we still have hope that Lily is the one that can turn him around. While it’s rare for a single performer or performance to save an entire movie, Ms. Horsley does so – with a little help from a few of the stalwart supporting cast.


And again, she’s enough to get us over some of the film’s more problematic gaffs. In fact, in the battle between the Eagle (Jarrod’s favorite animal) and Shark (Lily’s power creature), the Discovery Channel’s favorite man eater wins every time. This is really a chick flick redesign of the Napoleon Dynamite formula, a movie that many will find far more satisfying and deep than the mannered adventures of Pedro’s mop topped campaign manager. But sometimes, the wrong tone can completely undermine a well meaning movie, and in conjunction with an aggravating male lead, Taika Cohen may have found a real recipe for rejection. But thanks to a delicate little flower who believes herself to be a ‘dangerous person’, there is more to love than loathe about this New Zealand zaniness. And feebs of the world will have a new geek goddess to worship.


 


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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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