Friday, November 30, 2012

Day 170: Killing Them Softly

"They're not happy." "Well I'm sorry to hear that, we aim to please."

One of the ten best films of the last decade was 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The film was gorgeous & elegiac all at the same time, and had me instantly on board for anything director Andrew Dominik did in the future. His latest film has him re-teaming with that film's star Brad Pitt for the crime drama Killing Them Softly based on the book "Cogan's Trade," and apart from a healthy obsession with masculinity & violence, the film's couldn't be more dissimilar.

Two low-level thugs Frankie (Scoot McNairy) & Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are given a seemingly fool proof opportunity by Johnny Squirrel (Vincent Curatola, best known as Johnny Sack from The Sopranos) to knock over a high stakes underground card game. The game is being run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta, wonderfully low key) who has a sad history of robbing his own card games, making him the perfect fall guy for these would-be criminals.

When the mobsters that got ripped off want vengeance, they call in Jackie Cogan (Pitt) to dole out justice. Cogan runs into a bit of a conundrum though when he realizes that he knows Squirrel, and therefore refuses to kill him himself. He asks the mobsters, represented by Richard Jenkins in a nameless role, to call in an old partner of Cogan's named Mickey (James Gandolfini) to make the hit. Problems arise when Mickey proves to be unreliable, and Cogan's plan seems like it's going to unravel.

If you didn't know that Jesse James & this film were directed by the same man, you'd never be able to guess it. Where the former film was methodically paced and elegantly shot, this film is brisk, gritty & dirty. That's not to say that it's an ugly film, quite the contrary, it's just a brilliant study in contrast. The violence that pervades both films is much more brutal here, but it's used just as sparingly. The film that most immediately jumped to mind when comparing this film to a recent release is last year's brilliant Drive, but where that film saved up all its violence for the third act, here it's spread throughout, yet no less graphic.

The film is very much akin to the crime films of the early to mid-70s, like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Charlie Varrick, or Get Carter, full of wonderful character actors & long takes. The film's structure is unique in that it is sparingly edited. It's revelatory in many ways, since virtually every scene plays out beginning to end before cutting another scene. The inter-cutting and cross-cutting that has taken hold in the post-MTV era is nowhere to be found here, and it's a breath of fresh air.

The film also owes a huge debt to the films of John Cassavettes, in particular The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. It's a much breezier affair than any of Cassavettes' films (clocking in at just over 90 minutes) but it feels like a kindred spirit to his films that focused on the seamy underbelly of life. There are very few characters worth rooting for in this film, yet you manage to find yourself sympathizing with multiple character at various times. In other words, it's a totally unique film to come out in 2012.

The performances are as good as can be expected from actors of this caliber. Pitt is the perfect actor for a role like this, making his character both stoic, funny, and somehow a decent guy in spite of his profession. Gandolfini & Liotta are two actors who have made their name playing heavies, and seeing them as broken down shells of the characters that made them famous is great. They both do solid work in just a handful of scenes. McNairy & Mendelsohn are also very good at playing the lowest of low lives, while also infusing their characters with tremendous empathy.

The script written by Dominik is spare and full of snappy dialogue, managing to make every line count. The cinematography by Greig Fraser is also outstanding, providing a wonderful contrast to the beautifully classic cinematography by Roger Deakins on Jesse James.

The only other thing worth mentioning as a potential roadblock for some audience members is the absolute dearth of female characters in the film. As far as I could tell there was only one female character with any dialogue, and that was a hooker (Linara Washington) who has a very brief scene with Pitt & Gandolfini. Anyone looking for strong female characters is not likely to find them here, but if that and the violence are not an obstacle to your enjoyment of the film, you'll find lots of other stuff here to enjoy.

The film is a meditation on masculinity and framing it in the context of the run up to the 2008 election will ground it firmly in that time frame, particularly in the years to come. Setting the film at a time when the country was falling apart and looking for hope & change gives the film an even more cynical edge to it, grounding the film in a time and place when everything and nothing seemed possible all at once. Killing Them Softly is one of the finest films of the year, and will likely stand the test of time as one of the great crime dramas of the decade.

GO Rating: 4.5/5

[Photos via Rotten Tomatoes]

Monday, November 26, 2012

Day 169: Life of Pi

"I didn't know Hindus say amen." "Catholic Hindus do. We get to feel guilty before hundreds of Gods."

The novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel is one of the most celebrated books of the last decade. It's also passed through many hands in an attempt to adapt it into a film, among them Alfonso Cuaron & M. Night Shyamalan. Thankfully, it fell to Ang Lee, no stranger to "unadaptable" books himself having worked similar magic with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon & The Ice Storm. So how did his adaptation of another "unfilmable" novel fare? Read on to find out...

The film uses a framing device not present in the novel, which worked brilliantly at first. Adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) is relating his life story to a novelist (Rafe Spall) who has encountered a bad spell of writer's block. Having met Pi's uncle, the novelist is connected with the man, who has a story to tell that will make anyone who hears it believe in God. Pi's family ran a zoo in Pondicherry, India, but circumstances have forced the family to leave the country and sell the animals to various buyers in North America.

En route to Canada, however, the cargo ship carrying the family & their animals capsizes in a storm, stranding Pi (Suraj Sharma) on a lifeboat with an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. The tiger's carnivorous instincts soon whittle the survivors down to just him and Pi, and the two unlikely companions must fight for survival on the open Pacific Ocean. 

The first thing that you'll be struck with when you see Life of Pi is how absolutely, breathtakingly gorgeous it is to look at. If you have the opportunity to see it in 3D, I highly recommend that you do, as it stands alongside Hugo & Avatar as one of the best live-action uses of the technology. The cinematography by Claudio Miranda is phenomenal, and the film's biggest asset by far. The sparseness of the open sea is used to wonderful effect for much of the film's running time, and the underwater 3D effects in particular were wondrous.

The film can get a bit tedious at times, particularly in the film's middle portions at sea. It runs just a hair over two hours, and you feel the weight of every minute once the castaways are left to fend for themselves. It's here where the film loses all the wonderful momentum it built up in the first portion of the film. It's in the final moments of the film that things really fell apart for me, however. Film is such a visual medium, and this film in particular is rife with lavish scenery, so it struck me as irritatingly odd that Lee chose to shoot a final story told in the film as nothing more than a static shot of Pi telling an alternate version of his story to two insurance adjusters that are investigating the shipwreck. It's so out of place and jarring, that it took me out of the film entirely. I suppose there were artistic reasons for doing it this way, or maybe even because of the violent nature of the story, there were concerns for securing a PG rating, but either way, it sucked all the air out of the film.

Even more unnerving, however, was the decision to have the writer & adult Pi then have a discussion where they very banally explain all of the metaphorical implications of the second version of the events. For a film that eschewed conventionality and easy answers for most of its running time, I don't know why they chose to spoon feed the audience in the home stretch. It was as if I was expecting Ang Lee to pop up in the corner of the screen and say "do you get it?"

Kudos must be given to Sharma for delivering a fantastic lead performance. For someone who had never acted in a film before, he was remarkable, conveying a range of deeply felt emotions. The film's other co-star is the, presumably, entirely CG Richard Parker. There were only maybe two moments where the rendering of this character took me out of the story, but the effects were stellar, and they made me fully believe that there was a real tiger on the boat with this boy. Khan is also very good as the adult Pi, as are Adil Hussain & Tabu as Pi's parents.

What it comes down to, for me, is that all of the goodwill the film earned in filming what certainly seemed impossible to put on film is squandered by a ham-fisted conclusion. The choice not to shoot the second version of Pi's story is mind-boggling to me, but not as much as essentially having the characters on screen spell out all of the metaphors of the story immediately after. If it weren't for the remarkable visuals and solid lead performance, it may have been enough to make me hate the film.

Life of Pi has a lot going for it, but it feels like it was a draft or two away from being a truly tight and even handed film. Whether that's the fault of Lee or his screenwriter David Magee is not for me to say, but it was sad that the film failed so horribly to stick the landing. What could have been a modern masterpiece becomes another squandered opportunity to do a book true justice on screen. When a film fails so basically in its final minutes to give you a sense of why it's a film in the first place, it becomes borderline impossible for me to do anything but admire it for what they tried to do.

I think it's worth your time for the visuals, the wonderful use of 3D, the fantastic score by Mychael Danna, and many other technical reasons. Just don't be surprised if it leaves you feeling as if you've been pandered to, because you have.

GO Rating: 2.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Friday, November 23, 2012

Day 168: Wreck-It Ralph

"What's the first rule of Hero's Duty?"
"No cuts, no buts, no coconuts?"

In the past couple of years, something interesting has happened at Disney. Their in-house animation department was taken over by Pixar co-founder John Lasseter in an effort to revitalize it and make it the pinnacle of the industry again. In that time they've produced a rather impressive lineup that includes Bolt, The Princess & The Frog, Tangled, Winnie The Pooh and now Wreck-It Ralph. In that same period, Pixar films have actually gone down in quality in some respects, focusing their efforts on sequels, prequels and sub-par originals like Brave.

Wreck-It Ralph is a very good Disney animated film, but not one that's going to revolutionize the animation genre in any significant way. It's thoroughly clever, and the voice cast is brilliant, but I hate to say that it fails to bring anything new to the table. That's not reason enough to dismiss the film outright, especially when compared to the dearth of quality animated films that have been released this year, but I did find myself wanting there to be just a bit more to the film than was offered.

Ralph (John C. Reilly) is the villain of an old school arcade game by the name of Fix-It Felix Jr, a hybrid of Rampage & Donkey Kong, and thirty years of being a villain has taken its toll on poor old Ralph. He longs for friendship, compassion & a taste of the glory that's lavished upon the hero Felix (Jack McBrayer), and sets out to Game Central, the hub where all the video game characters hang out, i hopes of finding a game he can jump into and transform himself into a hero. If he can return to his game with a medal, than he's sure to find acceptance among the denizens of his game.

His game jumping adventures take him first to a game called Hero's Duty, a sort of Halo-esque shoot-em-up game, and then to Sugar Rush, a Mario Kart derivative, where he runs into a fellow outcast by the name of Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). Vanellope's dream is to win the race in Sugar Rush, but she is not allowed to participate in the game because she is a glitch that's not supposed to exist in the game world. When Ralph uncovers a nefarious scheme to keep Vanellope from racing, he sets out to help her fulfill her dream of winning the race, even though his own game is in jeopardy of being shut down for good due to the absence of both him and Felix, who has left in search of Ralph.

The film is full of inspired bits, such as Ralph's visit to the saloon from the game Tapper, but others feel derivative, such as the bad guy support group that Disney beat themselves to the punch with, with their short "Small Fry" that played before The Muppets. The design of the film is gorgeous and wonderfully textured, creating several beautifully realized worlds, and I loved the convention of having the minor characters in Ralph's game move like badly rendered 8-bit characters. The use of 3D was also very good, particularly when you would see the games from the perspectives of the characters as they pulled back from the arcade screen. It was an ingenious use of the technology.

The voice cast was also phenomenal. John C. Reilly has one of the best voices in the industry, and he is able to infuse his character with a ton of pathos, and make you genuinely care about Ralph and his plight. McBrayer is an actor I don't care for outside of his role as Kenneth on 30 Rock, but I thought he was used brilliantly here. Silverman is also used to great effect, and my daughter Clementine was thoroughly enchanted with her character. Alan Tudyk also does great work as King Candy in Sugar Rush, and Jane Lynch is at her Jane Lynch-iest as the battle-hardened commander from Hero's Duty.

There were ultimately two major gripes that I have with the film which kept me from loving it. First, they spent entirely too much time in the world of Sugar Rush. Unless there's a sequel, and we get to explore the other video game worlds in more depth and detail, it was a missed opportunity to focus almost the entire last hour of the film in this one video game world. Don't get me wrong, it was fully fleshed out, and the design of the game world was inspired, but it almost felt like a bit of a cheat to hint at all the other worlds out there and focus almost exclusively on this one.

My other complaint involves a minor spoiler, so beware if you haven't seen the film yet, but the climactic moment of the film was such a blatant rip-off of The Iron Giant. Granted the outcome is different (this is Disney after all), but everything from the composition of the shot, to the character's recitation of his lesson learned, really made me cringe at how thoroughly it was ripping off another film, and a pretty great one at that. In the end, it wasn't a full-on deal breaker for me, but it did make me wish they had gone down another road.

As I said earlier, Wreck-It Ralph likely looks and feels like a much better movie than it is because there have been very few quality animated films this year, but it could have been so much better than it is. In all honesty, if it weren't for John C. Reilly, I don't think I would have liked the movie as much as I did. It's a worthwhile film for children and is full of great messages for them like the power of friendship, believing in yourself, and questioning authority, but it's greatest faults lay in its unlived potential. I liked it a lot, but I really wanted to love it.

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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Day 167: Alone in the Dark

"This must be why his entire nervous system was compromised."

So I'm trying something new tonight. I'm calling it "Shitty Movie Drunk Review" for now, and the plan is for me to watch a shitty movie, in this case Uwe Boll's 2005 sci-fi action flick Alone in the Dark, and write along while I'm simultaneously watching the film and getting progressively drunker. This may be a total failure, but let's see how it plays out...

First things first, the movie opens with an absolutely interminable scroll about the film's mythology, and in a stroke of misguided genius, Boll decided to have someone narrate along with the scroll. So we're like four seconds into the movie and he's already treating us like children. It's only a minute and a half, but it feels like five. I wish I was drunk already.

Boll's idea of good acting is, "this guy has an indistinguishable European accent that actually elevates my awful dialogue to the level of minimal listenability." Low-rent F. Murray Abraham here is of indeterminate origin, but his accent makes me think he was likely the first and only actor to read for the role.

And our hero (Christian Slater) makes his big entrance, saying the titular line of the film within his first three lines of dialogue. So that's what we're dealing with here. Voiceover is effective when used by some filmmakers, but here it's an excuse to explain plot points they were too lazy to incorporate into dialogue such as exposition or character development.

So it appears as if Slate is a paranormal investigator, which means he gets to be unkempt and slovenly in appearance I guess. The line "pull into this market up here," needs to be incorporated into more car chase scenes in film, I have decreed it to be so. The action scenes are so mind-numbingly bad, it's unbelievable. There are two modes in every action scene, "unwatchable and hard-to-follow handheld," or "thoroughly unnecessary slow motion." Most slow-motion is unnecessary, but Boll manages to elevate its uselessness to an art form unto itself. He seems to think that slowing down time makes everything cool, even stupid shit like a guy running out of a doorway. He took all the wrong lessons from The Matrix.

As if the bounds of believability had not already been stretched to the breaking point, we are introduced to Tara Reid playing the Assistant Curator at a Natural History Museum. This involves putting a pair of glasses and an ancient looking amulet around her neck. That's apparently all we need to buy her as someone operating on a level of intelligence high above that of mere mortals.

Boll uses a lot of top down aerial shots of the city to try and convince us that he shot the film in The US and not Vancouver. Yeah, not so much. The Slate's apartment is chockablock with ancient artifacts that help us simpletons to understand that this ain't his first rodeo, so to speak. I also sincerely hope that his tattoos were the misguided decisions of some poor, underpaid makeup artist, and not actual ink that Slate chose to adorn his body with. I'm only 17 minutes into this shit-fest, I should try not typing so much, lest I risk this being unreadable.

Another thing that pushes the limit of believability, there was a scene in a video store just now, and it was exclusively stocked with VHS tapes. This film was made in 2004, and while VHS wasn't extinct yet, it certainly no longer had a corner on the market. The soundtrack for this film is unrelenting. There has not been even a moment in this film's first twenty that was not underscored by some bombastic synth-pop bullshit.

And now we have Stephen Dorff, and I'm hard pressed to say whether this is a high or low point for him. Slate appears to be wearing one of those balance bracelets. Not necessarily a criticism, just an observation.

There's been no narration since Slate's first scene, leading me to think that they just forgot that they could keep doing it throughout the film. It's funny, I would have thought that after twenty some years in the business that Slate would stop the Nicholson routine, but he's still trying to keep it going. My guess is that he watched Chinatown every night when he left the set, foolishly thinking he could carry some of that film's genius into this one.

Tara Reid appears to have punched Slate with the heel of her hand. She certainly punches like a museum curator, too bad she's made no further attempt to look like one. You know what game I never understood was POGS. What exactly was the point of POGS? Hell if I can remember. Opinion poll, who would win in a fight: Corey Feldman or Slate? My money's on Slate.

There are so many characters walking around with flashlights, I half expect one of them to be Nic Cage. Why hasn't Nic Cage done an Uwe Boll film yet? Our first look at the creatures from this film, and they're exactly the sort of unimaginative, HR Giger rip-offs you'd expect them to be. Also, Tara Reid knows the name of the night watchman? Not bloody likely.

The commentary track for this film is awesome, if you get a chance to listen to it sometime. A high point is when Uwe Boll laments Tara Reid's adversity towards "losing her bra" in the less-than-steamy love scene later in the film. He also compares Slate (unfavorably) to Keanu Reeves. It's well worth your time.

As much as I love using both Slater and Dorff as punching bags, I doubt that anyone could have done much with this asinine material that they were given. Having said that, they don't really attempt to do anything with it at all. "This must be why his entire nervous system was compromised." Who writes this shit?

So, the aforementioned love scene is so clumsily filmed, it's ridiculous. It comes out of nowhere, and it's set to a song that sounds like it was sung by Boll himself called, I believe, "Seven Seconds Away." It's also notable for its chasteness. It wouldn't be out of place in one of the Atlas Shrugged movies it's so bland and thoroughly unimaginative.

This whole movie is such a hodgepodge of attempted grittiness, ridiculous special effects, and characters I couldn't give two shits about, I can't believe this is the fourth time I've seen it. I love bad movies, but this one is just so awful it's hard to find anything enjoyable in it. Even the novelty of Tara Reid as a curator has worn off. There's also no attempt to explain things. They'll be looking at a computer screen, talking about how all the pieces fit together, and then a bunch of dudes with machine guns show up and start shooting at monsters while Boll cranks up the shitty nu-metal soundtrack.

Okay, so that's about all I have to say about Alone in the Dark. It's asinine, inept, and I feel stupider for having watched it again. It's probably a lot of drunk regret that I'm sifting through at the moment, but I don't feel good about my decision to do this to myself. Let me know if you like this format, and if you think I should continue it.

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Friday, November 16, 2012

Day 166: Lincoln

"No one has ever been loved so much by the people. Don't waste that power."

With an astounding pedigree in front of and behind the camera, Steven Spielberg's latest historical epic storms into theaters with a crushing weight of expectation. With the possible exception of John Ford's fictional Young Mr. Lincoln, there really hasn't been a definitive screen biopic of our sixteenth President, and surprisingly enough, neither is Spielberg's Lincoln. Rather than condensing his whole life into one film, he focuses essentially on one month at the beginning of his second term in office. Does that make the film better or worse as a result? Read on to find out...

Opening with a battle sequence that plays like a watered down version of his opening to Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln wastes no time getting the title character in front of the camera. This is not a film interested in keeping Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) at arm's length, or buried behind a facade of mystery. It attempts to give the audience some insight into the inner workings of his mind and political process. The film settles quickly into its main plot, the attempt by Lincoln to get the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed by the House of Representatives before the South surrenders to the North, ending the Civil War.

Time is of the essence, as rumors of the South's surrender are eminent, and The Emancipation Proclamation only provides the slaves their freedom under the conditions of war. Therefore, they must adopt the 13th Amendment, which would grant them unequivocal freedom, in under a month. And that is, essentially, all that the film is about. Yes, there are other subplots and minor dalliances to some of the more personal drama in Lincoln's life, but for the most part, the film is focused squarely on the back door political dealings that were done to end slavery in America.

I don't say any of that to be catty, it's just an unusual amount of focus on so short a time for a film that calls itself Lincoln. Granted, it presents his presidency in microcosm, and I have no issue with that, it's just an awfully long winded 150 minutes, and at times plays out as if it were in real time. Having said that, there is a ton to admire about the film, not least of which is the epic restraint being exercised by several people not necessarily known for quiet restraint. Spielberg, in particular, doesn't crowd the film with the pompously self-important imagery that has bogged down other films of his (I'm looking at you Amistad.) That being said, the moments in which he does do this, such as Lincoln's son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) watching some men burying the limbs of wounded soldiers, stand out more for their heavy handedness than they would in most other Spielberg films from the last two decades.

Kudos must also go to John Williams, a composer that I have no shortage of gripes with, for his equally restrained and melancholy soundtrack. Some tracks are just a lone piano, and he saves his sweeping melody for the end credits, which makes it all the more effective by not instructing the audience on how to feel at a given moment. This is his finest work since Schindler's List, and the kind of score that goes unnoticed for most of the film, the true mark of a great score.

Ditto the cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, which was elegantly understated. It did strike me as a bit odd that Spielberg shot the film in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, particularly since he almost always works in 1.85:1. The film is very much a chamber piece, and opening up the frame like that was a strange choice, but his composition is almost always solid, and never distracting. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the script by Tony Kushner, which is jam-packed with quotable lines and authentic dialogue that doesn't sound like it was cribbed from Bartlett's.

The performances are as good as you could hope for from this cast. Day-Lewis is fantastic, as always, and in a much more relaxed and calmer mode than we're used to seeing him operate. He commands the screen with a quiet intensity that is in every way as effective as his more operatic performances in the past. Sally Field is also wonderful as Mary Todd Lincoln, reminding us how fantastic she can be when given good material.

Among the supporting cast, there are a number of stand-outs. The comedic trio of James Spader, John Hawkes, & Tim Blake Nelson are great as the men hired to try and persuade some of the lame duck Democrats to vote for the amendment. Jared Harris has never looked or sounded more like his father, and rises to the task of playing Ulysses S. Grant. Lee Pace shines in a small role, oozing villainous overtones. Tommy Lee Jones is equally effective as Thaddeus Stevens, though he's not quite as good as David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, who is probably the star of the supporting cast. And special mention should also be made for Gulliver McGrath as young Tad Lincoln. His scene when he learns of his father's death is soul-shattering and really struck a chord. 

While it's certainly not the sappy, white-washed version of history that the trailers would lead you to believe, Lincoln is not without its faults. To focus in on such a small period of time, they should have shaved about thirty minutes off the running time, or opened up the world a bit more. As is, it's a flawed film that just misses the mark. There's a ton to admire, and I would be willing to bet that you'll likely enjoy the film, but I would be hard pressed to say that it's an easy film to love.

GO Rating: 3/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Day 165: Ratatouille

"Change is nature, dad. The part that we can influence."

Pixar's winning streak has been well-documented before, even by me in some of my other reviews, so I will only bring it up as a point of illustration in regards to their 2007 film Ratatouille. Directed by Brad Bird (The Incredibles), Ratatouille is one of the more overtly Disney-esque concepts for a Pixar film, yet it strangely works in ways it has no right to. Anthropomorphic animals, outcasts overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end, slapstick humor, it's got all the hallmarks, but it manages to transcend them brilliantly.

Opening in a French countryside farm house, we meet Remy (Patton Oswalt), a rat with an affinity for good food and combining food like his favorite human chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett). When his colony is discovered by the human of the house, they flee, and Remy is separated from his father (Brian Dennehy) and ends up at Gusteau's restaurant in Paris. He is discovered by a plongeur named Linguini (Lou Romano) fixing a pot of soup, and when the head chef Skinner (Ian Holm) thinks it was Linguini that made the soup, the two must team up to achieve their dreams.

It sounds ridiculous, but it works really well. There's no convention in which Remy can speak to Linguini, and apart from the disbelief suspension surrounding the way that Remy is able to "control" Linguini in the kitchen, everything is pretty well rooted in reality. There's also some intrigue involving Linguini being the long lost son of Gusteau and Skinner's attempt to hide that as Linguini's star is on the rise, and some push and pull with Remy's family rediscovering him and warning him against spending time with humans.

The plot really comes to a head, however, when the most famous food critic in Paris, Anton Ego (a brilliant Peter O'Toole) throws down the gauntlet to Linguini, challenging him to make him a meal that will convince him that he's as good a chef as everyone seems to think he is. The climactic meal preparation scene is a symphony of genius where all of the thematic elements that have been in play throughout the film come to a head. It's a masterful display of screenwriting prowess, bringing everything together in one centralized location and paying off on all the multitude of story lines and themes.

For me, however, the most resonant theme in this final scene is about the nature of criticism. Ego is forced to confront all of his long held beliefs about his line of work when he's presented not just with his meal, but with the real chef that prepared it, a rat. His review that runs after the meal is a remarkable piece of writing, with a fantastic delivery by O'Toole. It calls in to play the eternal struggle of artist versus critic in a way that's both even handed and eloquent. Other filmmakers have tried to articulate their issues with critics in the past and failed almost every time. One of the more egregious examples of this is Bob Balaban's character in Lady in the Water, a film that was asinine enough without it's ham-fisted moralizing over the "evil film critic."

The animation is gorgeous. This was one of the first films put on blu-ray, and the transfer remains one of the gold standards of the format. The attention to detail is unparalleled, but never garish and never calls attention to itself, it's all in service of the story. Brad Bird is a visual genius as well as a storytelling one, and he brings the best of both of those worlds together in this film.

If you've somehow managed to not see Ratatouille, I can't recommend it enough. It's one of the best animated films of the last decade, and does not disappoint on multiple viewings. It also plays like gangbusters to young children. It's been one of Clementine's favorite films since she was very young, and watching it again with her for the first time in over a year, she loves it just as much as I do. And isn't that what the best animated films are all about, providing a satisfying and complete viewing experience for every audience member imaginable? Ratatouille is a wonder.

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Friday, November 2, 2012

Day 164: Flight

"You're a rock star, man! You will never pay for another drink as long as you live."

Blessed with one of the best trailers in recent memory, Robert Zemeckis' Flight arrives just in time to officially kick off the Fall prestige award movie season. A number of smaller films with awards ambitions have already come (Argo) and gone (The Master), but Flight is riding high with lots of positive buzz and excitement about it being Zemeckis' first live action film in 12 years. So, can it possibly live up to the hype?

Flight opens with a brilliant sequence that would be most effective to anyone walking into the film with no knowledge of what the film is about. We meet Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) after a night of heavy boozing, sex & drugs, talking to his ex-wife on the phone about flying to Atlanta in two hours. In the next scene, we see that he's the one piloting said flight to Atlanta, and things are only going to get worse for Whip from here. After an equipment malfunction causes the plane to go into an uncontrollable nosedive, Whip goes into full blown Han Solo mode, and pulls some daredevil stunts that allow him to guide the plane away from a populated area, and make a crash landing.

Waking up in the hospital, he finds out that he saved the lives of all but six people on board the plane, and the media is hyping him as a hero. However, his union representative (Bruce Greenwood) brings him to meet with a lawyer (Don Cheadle), as a blood sample drawn from Whip at the crash site showed his blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit, as well as showing he had cocaine in his system. The reality of the situation begins to sink in, and Whip tries to get his life together, but, like so many alcoholics in real life, has a hard time beating his demons.

First and foremost, this film should be praised for its unflinching portrayal of addiction and the co-dependency that often springs either from it or as a result of it. Washington's performance is brilliant in depicting a man who thinks he's only in control of his life when he's drunk or high, but really has no control over anything. The film's writer, John Gatins, deserves all the credit in the world for bringing a very brutal and honest portrayal of addiction to the screen, and the film truly shines in the smaller moments when Whip loses control.

I had mentioned the film's trailer earlier, and I want to touch on two ways in which it is misleading. The trailer shows bits and pieces of the plane crash throughout, as if it's going to be pieced together over the course of the film, and that is not the case at all. The story is told in a completely linear way, and the crash happens around twenty minutes into the film. This is not necessarily a complaint, more of an observation.

The trailer also completely and totally omits the film's secondary lead, Nicole (Kelly Reilly). It's a bit confusing when you're not only introduced to this character in a story that runs parallel to the plane crash, but the more we learn about her character, the more she seems superfluous to the events of the film. Nicole and Whip meet in the hospital (she's in for a drug overdose) and they have a really good scene in a stairwell with another patient (James Badge Dale, in a fantastic cameo), but the more they build their relationship, the more she feels like a plot device than an actual character. In other words, her function to Whip's story is just a bit too on the nose to make it seem like a believable relationship would form between them. She serves a definite purpose in the story, but it could have functioned as well without her, particularly considering what drives Whip to make the final decision he makes in the film (which I won't spoil here).

Zemeckis is always at his best when he's dealing with intimate character studies in the midst of chaos. Films like Back to the Future, Contact & Cast Away are at their best when they harness in on what makes their main character tick, but can also zoom out and show some major spectacle action sequences. The crash early in this film is harrowing, nail-biting, and phenomenally well executed, and the film's other bright spots mainly focus on Whip coming to terms with what his life has become.

Where the film falters is in its multiple subplots and characters that seem to do nothing but inflate the film's running time. The film could have stood to lose probably 20 of its 138 minutes, as it began to feel a bit bloated near the end. It was never boring, but it definitely lost momentum around the start of the third act. The film's soundtrack choices tend to be a bit too precocious (Joe Cocker's "Feelin' Alright" kicks in after a hit of cocaine, or "Under the Bridge" fading in right before Nicole's heroin overdose) but based on Zemeckis' penchant for choosing music that fits perfectly with on screen events, it was to be expected.

Ultimately, like Icarus, Flight ends up being a good film that flies too high to be a great film. It's not short on ambition, but it tries too hard to be great, and ends up falling short. Washington's performance is incredible, and I would recommend the film for his performance alone. He will likely get a Best Actor nomination, and it's well earned. I suppose there are worse things in this world than being a good film that tries too hard, but if some of the more heavy handed elements had been trimmed, it could have been a truly great film. At the end of the day though, it's still a worthy effort, and it's nice to have Zemeckis and Washington back in top form.

GO Rating: 3.5/5

[All photos via BoxOfficeMojo]