June 30, 2007

Ratatouille

Best movie of the year, the finest use of computer animation ever, and possibly the best Pixar movie. A completely delightful adventure into the world of creating for its own sake, bringing something into the world, a movie for aesthetes everywhere.

Co-writer and director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) has created a film with a surprisingly subtle premise, which still satisfies everyone from children to seniors. Yes, the movie's about a rat who wants to cook, but it's also about declining aesthetic values versus mediocrity and commerce. The Parisian restaurant where Remy the rat (Patton Oswalt) meets a aspiring garbage-boy Alfredo Linguini (Lou Romano) is a formerly five-star restaurant Gusteau's, which has slipped two stars since its eponymous chef (Brad Garrett) died. The new Chef Skinner (Ian Holm, channeling his Napoleon from Time Bandits) is happy to neglect the food quality, as long as the ignorant tourist trade keeps the receipts up, and he can continue to sell out the Gusteau name with frozen foods for Americans. The arrival of Linguini and Remy puts all this in jeopardy.

The movie makes a not-too subtle jab at American taste buds: all the French rats in the movie eat garbage indiscriminately, and love it, but they're all voiced by Americans. Only Remy tries to convince his brother and his father that there is merit in eating fresh food.

The animation looks effortless- the quality of light, water, bread and soup are all magnificent. The medium of CGI allows Bird to tell a story where most of the movie is shot from a rat's eye view: when Remy the rat is trapped under a colander, he peeks through a hole to see out, and we see his POV of the hole, the hand which is holding the colander down, we see up Linguini's sleeve, and we see the heated dialog between Linguini and Chef Skinner (Ian Holm). Obviously this "shot" could be accomplished with hand-drawn animation, but the CGI work puts you right in the action without the artifice of ink art.

One "if I didn't love the movie I wouldnt care this much" quibble: Janeane Garofalo voices Colette, the sole female chef in the kitchen. Her lengthy rant to Linguini on "the facts of kitchen life" was almost completely incomprehensible. In a movie full of French accents, hers was the only one I could not make out.

I try to save the highest grades for movies which make the Top Five, so here's me going out on a limb in June: I predict there won't be five better movies this year. My grade: A plus. (Entertainment Cinemas, Fresh Pond)

The Movie Theater at Fresh Pond Continues to Suck

I make a habit of staying away from the sad, sucky theater tucked behind the Fresh Pond Mall in Cambridge. When I pass within sight of it, I curse three times and gag on the bad memories of the House Where Dreams Go To Die, the Cursed Lantern, the noisy playpen where the parents of Cambridge send their unsupervised rugrats, the multiplex with "screens" so cruelly small Bono and Chris Martin have held benefit concerts to have the place torn down. That movie "1408" was based on one of the screening rooms. Iran evacuated their embassy and airlifted their ambassador off the roof. Get the idea? Only children, fools, masochists, and adults with depressingly low expectations pay $10 to spend 90 minutes inside.

I experienced the horror of Fresh Pond all too often in the mid 1990s. In the mid 1990s, there was no Boston Common or Fenway cinemas. If you lived in Somerville, your choices were a rat-infested hellhole (Assembly Square) or a hellhole without the rats, I chose the rat-free option. I stayed away from 1995 until 2003, when I saw View From The Top on a dare from my wife. The movie was terrible, I had a coupon, so the whole experience fit together. No one wants to see a terrible movie in a majestic movie house!

Now it's been 12 years since I last frequented the not-so-Fresh Pond. We went to see Ratatouille (what turned out to be the best movie of 2007) at Fresh Pond, only because it was ridiculously convenient. (My wife's parents and sister were in town, staying at the Hotel Tria, located in the same shopping plaza.) I admit Fresh Pond is a great location for a theater. North of Boston and inside of Route 128, your choices for first-run, non-art house fare are Fresh Pond, Revere, and that's it. They finally closed Assembly Square, ten years after I last set foot in that rat-infested hellhole.

So how was this moviegoing experience? It was like watching a movie on a TV in an E.R. waiting room...and by the way, you're horribly injured. I don't recall the last time I had to focus so hard on the action onscreen. It took all my will to screen out all the distractions. We had a row of chatty teenagers behind us. I suspect they are aware that "there's no talking allowed in a theater", but they didn't care. The kid directly behind me silently belched his dinner on my neck twice. A group of children across the aisle, who are too young to know better, talked through the whole movie, asking their mother questions. Mom, of course, just shushes them, in a voice even louder than her kids. The picture quality was good but the sound was only OK. The entrance to the theater includes a shiny plaque SONY DIGITAL DYNAMIC SOUND but I don't believe it. I know what you're thinking: it's a kids' movie, and you went to a 7:35 show, what did you expect? That's a good point, but I have been to plenty of movies with teenagers and children, but nobody ever belched on the back of my head before. Twice.

June 9, 2007

Knocked Up

Another funny and human comedy from Judd Apatow, the writer-director of The Forty-Year OId Virgin. Alison (Katherine Heigl) is a gorgeous PA on the E! cable network who gets a breakout promotion to on-air personality. She's about to become a big TV star, so to celebrate, she goes out clubbing and gets drunk. She gets pregnant during a drunken 3am hookup with Ben (Seth Rogen), a sweet, furry, occasionally charming slacker. In the classic knocked up scenario, the man ditches his responsibility and fucks over the woman. In this story, the guy is the ugly duckling who's always been fucked over by women. Ben's the one who wants to stick around, but will Alison agree to give him a chance?

The more Alison learns about Ben, the more conflicted she is. On the original hookup night, he only made it into her bed thanks to a brief moment of charm, a "completely harmless guy" vibe, and a lot of tequila. The next morning, she views his soft ass in her bed and immediately starts regretting her non-choice. Over a brutal cup of coffee, she learns that besides being sweet and thoughtful, he's also crude, penniless, and unemployed.

So why does Alison decide to give Ben a chance? Apatow crafted this part of the movie very carefully, to make it plausible that a gorgeous blonde with money and fame around the corner would try and invite this unpromising stranger into her life. Apatow tries to play it as if Alison starts falling in love with Ben, but when Alison first says "I love you", we didn't buy it.

Alison's living in her sister's guest house (much like Kato Kaelin, and Matthew on The New Adventures of Old Christine), therefore, this gestating relationship takes place under the judging eyes of Debbie, played with great humor, finesse, and sadness by Leslie Mann.

Debbie and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd) are Alison and Ben's cautionary tale: they're the prototypical unhappy married couple. Debbie and Pete got married because Debbie got pregnant, and 10 years later, they're both dissatisfied. They love their kids, but its a daily grind to live with each other. Apatow reportedly based this relationship on his own marriage to actress Leslie Mann (who plays Debbie!), and their children play Pete and Debbie's kids in the movie. Their relationship is so well drawn, it's almost uncomfortably realistic at times.

I am so impressed with the care and thoughtfulness that went into making this movie, that I have neglected to talk about how funny it is. It is funny, and crude, and ridiculously rude. But it's all those things in a uniquely mature adult kind of way. I didn't feel like I do when I watch American Pie and that class of comedy- with those films, I feel like an old man watching jokes for 16-year olds. In Knocked Up, I feel like the fart jokes are for the 30-plus club!

Rogen and Heigl are so busy carrying the story that they don't get to be funny very often. Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd are both wonderfully funny. Not only is Mann funny when she's barking at people, but also when she breaks down later on the movie. Calling a babysitter a c*** was never so well delivered. Paul Rudd's character shares some of the fatalistic 'what does it all mean" attitude of his character from The Forty-Year Old Virgin: instead of dwelling on his departed girlfriend and his self-imposed celibacy, Pete dwells on his complete inability to feel anything. While watching his kids play with soap bubbles, he remarks "I wish I cared about anything as much as my kids care about bubbles."

Ben lives in a run-down marijuana den with four fellow stoned slackers. Their comic riffing forms the base of comic relief on which the movie rests. Apatow reportedly films hours and hours of footage with this quintet joking around, and through endless preview testing, picked the bits with the best reactions for the movie.

I am holding this movie to quite a high standard, so if it sounds like I didn't like the movie, let me reassure you, I really enjoyed it. I'm just being tough and examining the film with the kind of scrutiny that the latest Ashton Kutcher or Tara Reid comedy doesn't deserve. I happily award an A grade and I look forward to more from Mr Apatow. Next up: Superbad (co-written by Rogen and co-produced by Apatow). (Regal Fenway Stadium 13, with my friend Eve)

June 5, 2007

Spider-Man 3

The most expensive movie ever made is a fantastic, gripping, emotional thrill ride...buried in a overlong and needlessly cluttered 140 minute movie. If the first two movies weren't so good, I would not be holding this movie to such a high standard. Once again, the core relationships between Peter, MJ, and Harry are thoughtfully portrayed by Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, and James Franco. The love triangle they were given to portray smelled a little soapy to me, but I really felt strong connections between the characters.
Why do moviemakers feel the need to pile on an excessive number of villains in movie sequels? I first noticed this phenomenon in Batman Returns (do we really need Catwoman and The Penguin?) Now Spider-Man 3 includes Sandman and Venom and Harry "Green Goblin, Jr" Osborn. The movie would have made more sense, been much better, and a half hour shorter, if they'd saved Sandman for Episode 4, and expanded the Venom character. As it is, they had to contort the realm of possibility to fit them in: they had to rewrite Uncle Ben's murder to fit Sandman in, and sprain my suspension of disbelief to fit in Venom.
How unlikely are these new relationships? It turns out that Ben wasn't shot by that carjacker with the bad haircut after all, it was petty thief Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), who's now escaped from Rikers. Meanwhile, rival photojournalist Eddie Brock (the criminally underused and underrated Topher Grace) is dating Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard, with blonde hair, new boobs, and unreal blue eyes, looking weirder than ever), who's one of Peter's fellow physics students, who also happens to be a model in her spare time. Stacy is doing a photoshoot on top of a photocopier(?) high up in an office building (??) when she is saved from certain death in a runaway crane accident by Spider-Man. Did I mention her father is the chief of police, who is hunting Flint Marko? Seven million New Yorkers, and these five people are all connected.
Meanwhile, Peter Parker discovers that it feels good to be bad, when his suit is infected with a malicious oily goo which removes all inhibition and sets free your dark id. I am tempted to complain how ludicrous the arrival of this goo is, but it's not wise to question superpower origin stories, because none of them make any sense. When Parker wears his new black suit, he starts strutting like Tony Manero, letting his hair flop over like he's in The Killers, and picking fights with his rivals. This is a fine metaphor for his conflicted feelings about his super-heroic duties, much like his semi-retirement in Spider-Man 2. It's shocking and satisfying to see Spider-Man pick a fight with Harry Osborn, as we have only seen Spidey fight defensively for most of the trilogy.
The first two Spider-Man movies get an A minus and A grades, respectively, and this third installment gets an A minus grade, because I don't have the stomach to give out a B plus to a movie costing $300,000,000.

Theater Notes

Emily and I invited the whole gang for what we hoped would be the best movie of the summer. We were thrilled at the turnout- our guest list included Jon & Bobbi, Jed and Seneca & Chris, Amy & Adam, Angus, and Phil. At $10 per ticket, that's $110 in tickets from our group. Spider-Man 3 grossed over $148,000,000 over the opening weekend (the largest weekend gross since the last Pirates movie), which means our little group contributed .00007 percent of the receipts. (Regal Fenway Stadium 13)
Yes Peter, this is the same bridge from Highlander.

Stray Observations 2013

Six years later we watched most of the middle of the movie on TV:
  • When Harry finally awakes from his amnesia and becomes evil again, he forces Mary Jane to break up with Peter. She meets Peter in the middle of Bow Bridge in Central Park, the same rendezvous spot Connor MacLeod chose to meet up with Sunda Kastagir in Highlander (1986)!
  • A favored meeting spot for superhumans.
  • James Franco looks really weird with no facial hair. He's one of those actors who stops shaving the moment they stop filming (along with Jon Hamm, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Johnny Depp)
Clean Shaven James Franco



Summer Sequels & Remakes: The Worst

My C plus grade for Pirates 3 inspired me to review the last 10 summers and collect the 10 most disappointing sequels and remakes. Just think of the billions of dollars spent to create these 10 films. Worse yet, think of the billions spent on tickets! When my will to live returns, I'll compile a list of the most satisfying summer sequels and remakes...
  • 1998: Godzilla
  • 1999: Star Wars Episode 1
  • 2001: Jurassic Park 3
  • 2002: Men In Black 2
  • 2002: Austin Powers 3
  • 2002: Star Wars Episode 2
  • 2003: The Matrix 2
  • 2005: Star Wars Episode 3
  • 2006: Superman Returns
  • 2007: Pirates 3