Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Ratatouille (2007)

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Ratatouille is a success because like its main character, it never gives in. Disney Pixar comes through again with its story about a rat who wants to be a cook, and this may be its greatest achievement. Written and directed by Brad Bird, the story stars Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), a rat who aspires to be a chef despite family and peer pressures to stay with the clan and do what is safe. Ratatouille is loaded with allegory, fable, and life lessons but presents them in a fresh and funny way that never follows the beaten path. Another Pixar film enjoyable for both kids and adults, a viewer of any age can relate to the characters and situations in this film and can learn about themselves and others. There is equal doses of touching scenes involving decisions to be made and lives to be affected, and hilarious jokes, one-liners, and uncomfortable situations. Ratatouille never succumbs to gag jokes and never plays down to its intended young audience. The script and animation combine to yield some truly laugh-out-loud scenes and all of the voice-over work is spot-on. Somehow, beyond explanation, Pixar has yet again managed to make this film even more visually stunning than their previous efforts. The animation is remarkable and bring the viewer into a stunningly unique environment that is both engaging and entertaining. What makes this film important is the guts Bird, Pixar, and Disney had to stick to their instincts and make a movie that tackles issues ranging from leaving the family, pursuing goals, going against the grain, resisting peer pressure, and leaving a mark on the world without falling victim to cliche or using a preachy tone. The score sets the scene perfectly and the editing provides a fast-moving, appropriate length film that dashes fable, humor, and art like salt, pepper, and oregano. Ratoutouille approaches real-life issues facing children and adults through the eyes of an animated rat chasing his dream, and results in one of the best animated features of all time.

Good for: kids and adults of all ages, fans of Pixar's previous movies

Bad for: mean people, those afraid to go against the establishment

The Gallery
The Film Maker: * * * *
The Writer * * * * *

I Am Legend (2007)

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Will Smith's career has been a little unsatisfying. He is a veteran of big budget, box-office smashes, but has yet to become a staple of truly powerful films despite his surprisingly strong acting chops. I Am Legend, the story of the survival of the last man on Earth, had the potential to merge the two aspects of Smith's career, using a big budget to create a popular and meaningful film. For most of the film Smith is the only character on screen, so I Am Legend provided plenty of opportunity for him to shine. For the most part, Smith comes through, elevating a slightly-above average script and mediocre directing to a riveting character study on isolation and despair. As Dr. Robert Neville, Smith plays a scientist trying to find a cure in a post-apocalyptic New York City where he has been the only man alive for years. Except for a few scenes where the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Men in Black era-Smith shine through, he raises his game to what may be his best performance. There are several notable scenes that were both acted superbly by Smith and shot beautifully by director Francis Lawrence which truly take on the feelings of loneliness and grief. Lawrence's choice of CGI effects will likely bother some viewers, as nothing CGI is different from any other use of it in the past. But for what may be the first time, the CGI and special effects are not what make this Smith film worth watching. Science fiction fans will be interested by the attention to detail, and the plot isn't entirely predictable. As a whole, the film comes across as one of those cases in which the book was probably better than the movie. For those who haven't read the book, however, Smith has made I Am Legend a fun experience with a decent dose of suspense, humor, and creativity.

Good For: zombie movie fans, sci-fi fans, Will Smith fans

Bad For: people who don't like CGI, people who dislike big-budget films

The Gallery
The Economist: * *
The Surfer: * * *
The Writer * *

I'm Not There (2007)

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There are two approaches to disrupting the monotony possessing the current trend of musical biopics; mock the films like the upcoming "Walk Hard" film, or create something entirely and completely different. Todd Haynes has chosen the latter, and with I'm Not There, he has created a film that depicts the life and times of Bob Dylan in a thoroughly non-traditional sense. I'm Not There divides Dylan's life into distinct segments, and each Dylan, or each aspect of Dylan, is played by a different actor. Whereas Ray and Walk the Line reenacted the exact events as they occurred, I'm Not There creates a somewhat abstract image of periods of Dylan's life and the character's and themes of his songs. These include an 11-year old boy, played nicely by Marcus Carl Franklin, who calls himself Woody Guthrie, who may or may not represent the young Dylan striving to make his own image in the shadow of his heroes, and Jack Rollins, played by Christian Bale, who may or may not represent Dylan's rise to fame, treatment by the press, and strange Gospel period. Other actors include Ben Whishaw, Richard Gere, and Heath Ledger who all are captivating as their own piece of what Bob Dylan means. All of the portrayals are about equal, except for the one glaring exception of Cate Blanchett. Her performance as super-star Dylan, the creative genius growing up in front of America in his mid-twenties, is not only legendary, but perfect in its subtlety and honesty and deserving of awards and acclaim. It is breathtaking how completely she captures the essence of Dylan and how effortlessly she becomes a mythic figure. Haynes has both hits and misses in his first widely-released film. Hits include the great soundtrack compilation of Dylan songs covered by a multitude of artists which is great for both the artists and the placement of songs within scenes, the psychedelic feel to the editing, and the mixture of color, black-and-white, and superimposed graphics. Misses include the sometimes too fast and confusing cuts and jumps between characters, and the Behind the Music style presentation of the Christian Bale scenes. The direction, writing, and performances produce a work of art in its own, but those completely unfamiliar with Dylan will almost certainly be confused, and even some Dylan fans will be scratching their heads at times. But the film truly embodies the spirit of Bob Dylan, whose songs and personal life never really went as planned, and could never be read only at the surface, or the same way by more than one person. I'm Not There is an experiment that worked because of the clear devotion of Haynes and the great cast to the legacy and meaning of Bob Dylan.

Good For: Dylan fans, Blanchett fans, people who like art, people looking for something different

Bad For: those who know nothing about Dylan, people looking for a straight-forward story, the easily confused

The Gallery
The Surfer: * * * * *
The Film Maker: * * * *

No Country For Old Men (2007)

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The Coen brothers have done something truly remarkable with No Country for Old Men; they have made a film that is equally funny, original, and groundbreaking as Fargo, and topped it with a more suspenseful, artistic, and bizarre work of cinema. It's not often that great casting, iconic performances, masterful camera work, ingenious editing, and sound-work beyond description come together once in a career, let alone twice as the Coens have now achieved. Adapted from a novel of the same name, No Country tracks a hunter who stumbles across a treasure in the desert and his fugitive-like flee from the senseless murderer to whom it belongs. Josh Brolin, who has had an amazing 2007 with stand-out performances in Planet Terror and American Gangster, turns in the performance of his career as Llewelyn Moss. Brolin's portrayal reveals a man trying to take advantage of what he believes is a once-in-a-lifetime event to change his life, and the personal conflict of morals and values associated with making decisions about his own life and others'. We see Moss as brave, scared, confused, certain, clever, and dumbfounded, as Brolin and the Coens mix the spectrum of emotions through a sequence of unlikely events. Tommy Lee Jones, who has played numerous gritty characters, plays Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a cop near retirement who is unsure of his place in history and the value of his life to this point. The character is utterly human in relying on habit and past experience to solve problems all while feeling the uncertainty of having done the right thing. Almost anyone who watches the movie will relate to either Moss or Bell, or both. The most memorable character, however, is Anton Chigurh, as played by Javier Bardem. The combination of style, appearance, use of weapons, and delivery of dialogue are fantastic and sinister, and Chigurh is instantly a classic film villain. The Coens, who personally crafted the screenplay and film, pay attention to every minuscule detail, and in doing so create an atmosphere unlike any other. The suspense is so heavy you can feel it forcing you into your chair, and the emotions run so high the sound of a pin-drop could be heard in the theater. This is partly due to the superb sound-work done by the Coens, which is one of the best in that aspect of all time. There is no swelling music; actually, no music at all. No Country is one of those films that leaves the audience talking for days. The Coens leave something left on the table, respecting the audience's judgment and the viewer's role in cinema. The camera work, regular, everyday sound, and performances bring forth all that is needed from this, or any film. Script-writing, direction, and acting unite to create a beautifully twisted piece of art that is likely to be the film of the year.

Good For: all movie fans, fans of the Coens previous films, suspense fans, people who like art

Bad For: people who do not like violent movies, those who like to be told a film rather than presented a film

The Gallery
The Economist: * * * * *
The Surfer: * * * * *
The Film Maker: * * * * *
The Writer * * * * *

Fred Claus (2007)


Four years ago Elf came along and showed that a big-name actor, the right cast, and the right intentions could result in a timeless Christmas movie meant to make kids and their parents smile. Fred Claus has shown that given a star-studded cast, a putrid script, and three weeks, Hollywood can put Christmas presents under a few actors and some cast members' trees. Three weeks may be generous; it looks like it took about a week to make this film. The joke is on the audience here though, as the film is a solid thirty to forty minutes in before the first joke that even elicits a smirk comes across the screen. Vince Vaughn, as Santa's delinquent brother Fred, got paid for being himself, which after ten years isn't so funny anymore. While other high-profile comedians such as Will Ferrell and Steve Carell have shown great diversity and have achieved success across multiple genres, Vaughn is still playing the same character that made him a star in Swingers. Paul Giamatti does play a respectable Santa Claus, but the script is so typical and unfunny that his performance it doesn't matter. Rachel Weisz and Kathy Bates are irrelevant in throwaway roles that someone else could have played for millions less, and Kevin Spacey is surprisingly disappointing in a role you would expect an actor of his caliber to avoid. The plot can be predicted twenty minutes in advance by a 4 year-old on the nastiest Sour Patch Kids sugar high, and is borderline painful for adults. There is nothing clever, witty, or original in Fred Claus, which is based on a premise that had some potential. It is possible to make a family Christmas movie that becomes a staple of the holiday season years after it was made, and it is possible to rob parents of a few hard-earned dollars that could go toward little Bobby's Playstation 3.

Good For: Vince Vaughn fans

Bad For: anyone 3 years of age or older, people who like to laugh at funny jokes

American Gangster (2007)

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If you have the balls to name a movie American Gangster, it better be bad-ass. Ridley Scott, who teamed up with Russell Crowe to make another bad-ass movie, Gladiator, partners with Crowe again in Gangster, in a film that lives up to the hype and hits the audience with a .44 magnum blast to the side of the head. Crowe plays Det. Richie Roberts, a workaholic cop fighting through a divorce, studying for the Bar exam, and pursuing New York City's most wanted criminal, Frank Lucas. Scott used Crowe in Gladiator as a bottom-of-the-bucket warrior who used his wit, strength, and honor to rise above oppressive forces. But in Gangster, Scott's breadwinner is Denzel Washington who portrays the cunning, intelligent, ruthless Frank Lucas in his climb from a mindless muscle-man in the New York City crime ring to the king of the drug-trade. We should all be accustomed to Washington stealing the screen, but his chill-inducing turn as Lucas is a highlight in his legendary portfolio. Other noteworthy performances include Josh Brolin who is perfect as a rival cop to Crowe's character, and Ruby Dee as Frank Lucas's strong-willed mother. The film is one of the longest of the year at over two and a half hours, but the plot is constructed smoothly and never seems long. Scott develops the Lucas character so that we see how his personal and professional lives intersect and how his values determine his choice of actions. Unfortunately, the focus on Lucas leaves a little to be desired in terms of Crowe's character, Roberts. Crowe delivers a strong performance, but the lack of depth to support his character leave him standing in the shadow of Washington's menacing performance. American Gangster is clearly the crime film of the year and deserves substantial acclaim just for living up to the hype. The lack of character development separates it from being elevated from a crime hit to a crime classic on par with Good Fellas. And although there are a handful of memorable scenes and lines, the script isn't catchy enough to become a pop culture phenomenon like Scarface. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the twisted side of Frank Lucas never strays from a strangely human element unlike the over-the-top, cartoonish nature of Tony Montana. Gangster captures Washington at the prime of his career in one of the most bad-ass roles in recent memory.

Good For: Denzel fans, fans of crime movies

Bad For: people bothered by violent movies, people who dislike long movies

The Gallery
The Economist: * * * *
The Surfer: * * * *
The Writer * * * *