Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Simpsons Movie / *** (PG-13)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Homer/ Itchy/Barney/Grandpa/Krusty the Clown/Mayor Quimby/Sideshow Mel/various others: Dan Castellaneta
Marge: Julie Kavner
Bart/Ralph/Nelson/Todd Flanders/various others: Nancy Cartwright
Lisa: Yeardly Smith
Ned Flanders/President Schwarzenegger/Mr. Burns/Rev. Lovejoy/Scratchy/Lenny/Kent Brockman/Principal Skinner/Smithers/various others: Harry Shearer
Professor Frink/Comic Book Guy/Moe/Chief Wiggum/Carl/Lou/Cletus/Bumblebee Man/Apu/Sea Captain/various others: Hank Azaria
Russ Cargill: Albert Brooks

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by David Silverman. Written by James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, Ian Maxtone-Graham, George Meyer, David Mirkin, Mike Reiss, Mike Scully, Matt Selman, John Swartzwelder, and Jon Vitti, based on the television show created by Groening. Running time: 87 min. Rated PG-13 (for irreverent humor throughout).

“Why would anyone pay for what we can see on TV for free?” – Homer Simpson

That is an appropriate question for this movie. Yet 20th Century Fox seems to have little doubt that we will. And why not? Television has provided Hollywood with an endless supply of subject matter recently, and most of those films have been based on TV series we don’t even bother to watch anymore. Therefore, it makes sense that we might be willing to pay for something we have been watching for free for 18 years and will continue on into the foreseeable future.

This movie is a success for the same reasons that “The Simpsons” the one of the longest running sitcoms in television history. “The Simpsons Movie” is filled with the same irreverent humor. In fact, its irreverence seems to be the only reason why its been slapped with a PG-13 rating when the content barely differs from the TV version readily available during family viewing hours 7 days a week. Although when you see this movie you will finally get to see one hand-drawn yellow person’s private parts during a wonderfully clever sequence that pokes fun at the fact that a show that has become as universally accepted as “The Simpsons” can still face censorship.

As with most of the television episodes, the film’s plot revolves around the ignorance and stupidity of the Simpsons patriarch Homer (voiced by Dan Castellaneta). Needless to say, Homer gets the entire town of Springfield – which borders the states Ohio, Nevada, Maine and Kentucky (hardee, har, har!) – in trouble with the EPA. President Arnold Schwarzenegger (not voiced by the Governator himself) is talked into sealing the dysfunctional town into a protective dome by EPA head Russ Cargill (Albert Brooks, “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World”).

Even this short synopsis demonstrates that something other than the plot carries this cartoon’s success; it is the little jabs at our current events and even at the show’s own existence that give it life. Little is safe from ridicule in the Simpsons universe: environmentalists, video games, the violent nature of children’s cartoons, the more innocent cartoons of Disney, religion, law enforcement, the evening news, blind governmental leadership, and even recent cinematic fare like “Spider-Man” and “Harry Potter”.

Little effort is made to expand the scope of the “Simpsons” formula for the big screen. Graphically, the filmmakers (also the usual lineup of suspects from the television show) do try to outdo their weekly sitcom budget. This is the most magnificent “The Simpsons” or Springfield has ever looked. There is much more “camera” movement than can be found in the TV show, and much more of a sense of depth to the images. There’s some wonderful artwork to be found in the framing of this cartoon, especially during a sequence set in Alaska. But even the Alaskans have to take a blow from the Simpsons joke machine to warrant such glorious big screen representation.

This movie does prove just how little time a feature length film affords a cast of characters as long as that of “The Simpsons”. While just about every recurring character (that is still “alive”) from the television show makes an appearance, most of their screen time is limited to cameos at best. Many favorites, like Apu, Mayor Quimby, Krusty the Clown and Principal Skinner, barely have any role to play in the plot at all. This may disappoint some die hard fans, but 88 minutes is a lot less time than 22 episodes a year.

Is it necessary to see this movie in theaters? In no way whatsoever. If you don’t have a tendency to wear Homer Simpson’s likeness on your shirt, you might as well just wait another year or so until “The Simpsons Movie” is available for free at home. There will be plenty of new TV episodes to tide anyone over until then, and seventeen years worth of reruns as well. “D’OH!” indeed.

Buy it: Simpsons merchandise

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Hairspray / **** (PG)

Tracy Turnblad: Nikki Blonsky
Edna Turnblad: John Travolta
Velma Von Tussle: Michelle Pfeiffer
Wilbur Turnblad: Christopher Walken
Penny Pingleton: Amanda Bynes
Amber Van Tussle: Brittany Snow
Link Larkin: Zac Efron
Seaweed: Elijah Kelley
Corny Collins: James Marsden
Motormouth Maybelle: Queen Latifah

New Line Cinema presents a film directed by Adam Schankman. Written by Leslie Dixon, based on the 1988 film by John Waters and the 2002 Broadway musical by Mark O’Donnell & Thomas Meehan with music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Running time: 117 min. Rated PG (for language, some suggestive content and momentary teen smoking).

If someone had told me at the beginning of the year that “Hairspray” would be one of my favorite films of 2007, it would have induced a whiplash-worthy double take. I am beside myself over how much I enjoyed this film. What an understatement to say that it is a rarity to find a film that is this fun and funny, smart and witty, rollicking and entertaining, and – dare I say it – intelligent. It almost doesn’t seem right that one film should contain so much of what makes movies magical.

I know it sounds crazy. This is a movie musical (in an age where the genre is all but dead) based on a hit Broadway play (of which no recent production has translated successfully to film), which itself was based on shock and schlock director John Waters’ subversive, exploitative independent film starring a transvestite. It all sounds like one of those Hollywood miracle stories where the kid from the wrong side of the tracks goes to some audition just to tag along with a friend and ends up becoming an overnight sensation but you just know there’s more to the story than meets the eye. Well, here’s what you may have never guessed about this movie—every millimeter of film and every second of soundtrack is filled with effervescent joy for life. And it also unleashes scathing social commentary, adding even more life and humor to the story without ever getting in the way of the good time to be had.

Tracy Turnblad is a girl in the mid-sixties who dreams of dancing on The Corny Collins Show, the local Baltimore teeny-bopper dance program, with her high school crush Link Larkin. Tracy is not your typical romantic heroine, however; she is short, overweight and enjoys singing to the rats in the streets. Newcomer Nikki Blonsky plays her with all the verve and spunk necessary to pull off a comedy as unlikely as this one.

Tracy has more to overcome than just her physical appearance. Her mother Edna, played in drag by John Travolta (“Wild Hogs”), is a shut-in who is willing to settle for dreams that have been truncated because of her own weight and the cruelty of others. She insists Tracy would find more fulfillment out of removing blood stains from car upholstery than pursuing her dreams to be famous. Christopher Walken (“Click”) plays Tracy’s dad Wilbur, who is supportive of his daughter’s need to enact change.

Although Corny Collins (James Marsden, the “X-Men” trilogy) is very progressive with his ideas of racial integration for the show along with spotlighting Tracy as a dancer, Tracy must get past his producer, the vicious Velma Van Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer, “I am Sam”). Velma is resistant to the show’s broader social acceptance of blacks and all people who aren’t “Nice White Kids”. She has also positioned her daughter Amber (Brittany Snow, “John Tucker Must Die”) to be both the reigning Hairspray Queen of the show and the girl of the talented Link (Zac Efron, Disney Channel’s “High School Musical”).

To spend anymore time hacking out the film’s plot would only serve to sully its luster. There is so much to enjoy that I almost want to save it all for you to discover on your own. But that won’t stop me from listing some of the film’s aspects that made me smile the most. I’m happy Queen Latifah crossed over from her hip hop career to lend her performance talents to movies like this one. I am glad family networks like Disney and Nickelodeon have graduated such gifted young actors as Zac Efron and Amanda Bynes for everyone to enjoy. Bynes (“She’s the Man”) is a particular joy to watch as Tracy’s bubble-headed friend Penny. It is also great to see veteran performers like Travolta, Pfeiffer and Walken return to their roots in musical film. Walken and Pfeiffer retain the viscous relationship they shared in “Batman Returns”, although they’ve swapped sides.

I regret that I don’t take notes while watching a picture. There are so many funny lines, both in the dialogue and lyrics, I could have filled an entire notebook. I would have to have had a pause button, however, since I was too busy laughing to take any notes. And the laugh count rises exponentially as the film goes on. Leslie Dixon’s adaptation is wonderfully witty and intelligent, spanning from the broad slapstick humor of Wilbur’s whoopee cushion mattress to the biting satire of the relationships between blacks and white and the subversive sexual innuendo sprinkled throughout.

Adam Schankman (“Cheaper by the Dozen 2”) assembles a top notch production staff as well. David Gropman’s production design and Rita Ryack’s costumes simultaneously transport the audience to the vibrant colors and styles of the mid ‘60s while evoking a fantastical quality that makes you ponder how wonderful it would be to really look the way these people do. Schankman carries the fantasy into his direction, which whimsically utilizes the environment these characters find themselves in as an active element in expressing their own dreams. Notice how still pictures come alive during the “Without Love” and “Welcome to the 60s” numbers, or how Edna’s and Wilbur’s costumes change along with their song styles in the “(You’re) Timeless to Me” sequence.

“Hairspray” is a wall-to-wall musical. The songs barely stop to allow for the brief snippets of dialogue that keep the story running. Even most of the social commentary is carried through the song lyrics. Oh, and those lyrics are so yummy if you listen.

This movie works on so many levels. If you just want a fun time tapping your toes to the wonderful music and laughing at the silly people on screen, this movie is for you. If your tastes tend toward the darker, more perverse elements of Water’s original material, this film is even more successful than the original since his biting satire is presented in such a delicious candy coating.

To think I almost didn’t go to the movies this weekend. If you made that mistake, please take the time to go see “Hairspray” tonight.

Buy it: John Waters movies

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix / *** (PG-13)

Harry Potter: Daniel Radcliff
Hermione Granger: Emma Watson
Ron Weasley: Rupert Grint
Dolores Umbridge: Imelda Staunton
Luna Lovegood: Evanna Lynch
Neville Longbottm: Matthew Lewis
Ginny Weasley: Bonnie Wright
Sirius Black: Gary Oldman
Albus Dumbledor: Michael Gambon
Lucius Malfoy: Jason Isaacs
Severus Snape: Alan Rickman
Bellatrix Lestrange: Helena Bonham Carter
Lord Voldemort: Ralph Fiennes

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by David Yates. Written by Michael Goldenberg, based on the book by J.K. Rowling. Running time: 138 min. Rated PG-13 (for fantasy violence and frightening images).

“Based on the book…” This phrase can be such a difficult burden for a movie to carry; especially for such a popular literary phenomenon as J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series. And in the frenzy of the controversy that surrounds this popular series of films and books (including such troublesome questions as: “Are the actors getting too old for their parts?”, “Will the latest book really be the last?”, “Will releasing the final book just after the latest film increase sales for both?” and, of course, “Is Harry going to die?”) it can become easy to loose track of the simple entertainment involved in watching the movie.

I’ve never gotten too caught up in the “Harry Potter” phenomenon and never expected too much in advance. However, I’ve been quite pleasantly surprised by the engaging nature of the films and the thrill of their adventure. Most importantly, I have avoided reading the books before seeing the films. I don’t feel this is a requirement for every movie adapted from a book, but Rowling’s series of books have developed such an intricate mythology within them that no movie can possibly encompass all of the delights she has created in her world of wizards and wonders—not without the running times jumping as exponentially as the page counts.

The fifth film in the series, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”, comes from the longest book in the series up to this point, and yet clocks in three minutes shorter than any of the previous films. Of course, to fans of the books this means some serious editing down from the source material. For someone who hasn’t read the book, it means simply another adventure at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

As the picture opens, Harry (Daniel Radcliff) finds himself under trial for breaking the law against casting spells in the presence of a muggle (a normal human) as a minor. The Ministry of Magic has launched a smear campaign against Harry and the Headmaster of Hogwarts School, Prof. Albus Dumbledor (Michael Gambon, “Amazing Grace”), for their claims that the dark Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, “The Constant Gardner”) has returned from the dead. In their efforts to discredit Harry and Dumbledor, the Ministry assigns a liaison to the school, Dolores Umbridge, in the much maligned teaching position for Defense Against the Dark Arts. Umbridge is delightfully portrayed by one time Oscar nominee Imelda Staunton (“Vera Drake”).

The film acts as a reunion of sorts for characters from the previous films. Many of the good wizards have gathered with concern over the possible reemergence of Voldemort, including Harry’s godfather and frequent scapegoat for the Ministry of Magic, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman, “Batman Begins”). Sirius tells Harry of a secret order of wizards that formed to attempt to defeat Voldemort the last time he rose to power, known as the Order of the Phoenix.

While it is nice to see so many of these talented adult British performers reprise their roles, however briefly, it is the teen heroes who take the forefront in this adventure. The Ministry of Magic soon manipulates Dumbledor out of his headmaster position at Hogwarts, and with the encouragement of his two best friends, Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), Harry decides to form his own Order of the Phoenix to train young wizards in Dark Arts Defense in preparation for Voldemort’s uprising.

Joining our heroes in their group are the ever present Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), Ron’s younger sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright), and newcomer Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), who seems to be vying for Harry’s heart along with Cho Chang (Katie Leung) despite her odd nature. But which one will betray Harry?

However, the heroes aren’t the only side bolstered by new blood. Voldemort liberates Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) from Azkaban Prison to help Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs, “Friends with Money”) retrieve an important tool to use against Harry.

Wow! Did that exhaust you too?

I’ve heard rumblings from some fans that the story was so chopped down in the film that it’s incomprehensible, but as someone who hasn’t read the book, I didn’t have any problem keeping up with the plot. In fact, I found the third film installment, “Prisoner of Azkaban”, to be much harder to follow than this one.

Still others have said that this film isn’t as spirited as the others, and I will admit that it lacks some spark that the previous films contained; however, this one is dealing with far more complex emotions. Gone is that impression of wonderment from Harry. In its place are feelings of dread, doubt and despair. As a teenager, everything becomes more serious, and even joyful events, such as a first kiss, can be clouded with confusion and misconception. This series has always done a wonderful job of portraying the age of its main characters accurately, with a great awareness of the emotional changes they are going through.

“The Order of the Phoenix” is probably the weakest film in the series so far, but it is still entertaining and enlightening in respect to its heroes’ emotional growth. The ongoing story of Harry’s battle with Lord Voldemort is as engaging as it ever was, and the filmmakers continue to do a fine job capturing the scope and imagination of Rowling’s mythological universe. And so, I remain a mild-mannered fan.

Buy it: Harry Potter books & dvds

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Transformers / *½ (PG-13)

Sam Witwicky: Shia LaBeouf
Mikaela Banes: Megan Fox
Captain Lennox: Josh Duhamel
USAF Tech Sergeant Epps: Tyrese Gibson
Maggie Madsen: Rachael Taylor
Glen Whitmann: Anthony Anderson
Defense Secretary John Keller: Jon Voight
Agent Simmons: John Turturro

And featuring the voice talents of:
Optimus Prime: Peter Cullen
Megatron: Hugo Weaving

Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks SKG present a film directed by Michael Bay. Written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman and John Rogers, based on the Hasbro toys. Running time: 144 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, brief sexual humor, and language).

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that I was never a fan of “Transformers”. The toys were cool enough, but I could never get into the cartoon as a kid. I mean it really wasn’t any different than “G.I Joe” – just substitute the Joes vs. COBRA for the Autobots vs. the Decepticons – but I just never really cared about those machines. So going into the live action film based on the Hasbro line of toys, my expectations were low. Upon viewing the sure-fire summer blockbuster, I found those expectations were met.

“Tranformers” is a giant clunking behemoth of a film that never breaks free of its technological mastery to form anything resembling coherence or humanity. It has a giant cast that is never allowed the chance to connect with each other, giants robots that never seem to be more than toys despite the weight their “live action” CGI rendering supposedly lends them, giants gobs of testosterone that spurt out as if from a high pressured hose chopped in two, giants action sequences that are actually quite stunning despite their sloppy editing, and two women that are ridiculously good looking for the situations in which they find themselves.

Has director Michael Bay (“Bad Boys II”) ever opened a film without showing slow motion shots of sweaty men with guns? This one opens at a military base in Qatar, which is attacked by a helicopter that had gone missing several months earlier. The really strange part is that the helicopter attacks the base on its own two legs.

Like a good summer action/disaster flick, the film then takes us without explanation to a kid, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf, “Disturbia”), giving a genealogy report in high school. He is a typical nerd hero who can’t get through a sentence of his report without drawing the paper clip fire of the stereotypical movie jockhead. Do you think there is any chance he will not steal said jockhead’s main squeeze, Mikaela (aka hot chick #1; Megan Fox, “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen”), by the third or fourth reel?

Sam has a deal with his dad that if he receives an ‘A’ for his report on an ancestor who discovered a giant metal man in Antarctica several hundred years ago, his dad will help him buy a car. At some grease-monkey sleazoid dealership where he can’t afford to buy a beat up VW Bug, he discovers a custom-built Camero, which the dealer sells to him after some convincing from the car itself. What the car does would have convinced me to close my doors and leave the state rather than sell the car.

The car is an alien Transformer robot sent to protect Sam, because he holds the secret location of the Allspark, a power source that started a war between the alien robot races the Autobots and Decepticons, in his ancestor’s artifacts. Oh yes, and then there is Maggie Madsen, (aka hot chick #2; Rachael Taylor, “See No Evil”), and Glen, the snappy-comeback black guy (Anthony Anderson, “The Departed”); they’re two computer hackers recruited by the NSA to find out how that walking helicopter hacked into the Defense Department. And the surviving soldiers from the Qatar attack must fight off a giant robot scorpion in the desert to get a photo to the DOD that will solve all the mysteries. And the mysterious Sector 7, lead by Agent Simmons (John Turturro, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”), a strange man in charge of government secrets.

Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (TV’s “Alias”) alternate the mood back and forth from overwrought melodrama to silly satire. Not only do the performers face the difficult task of having to act alongside non-existent special effects, but they are given little character development and even less interaction with their fellow performers. While most of the dialogue seems right in line with a typical disaster flick (filled with technical jargon and sappy emotional clich├ęs), the lines uttered by the Transformers themselves seem lifted directly from the juvenile scripts of the cartoon series. It is a nice throwback, however, to hear Peter Cullen reprise his vocalizations of Optimus Prime’s words. Yet, Hugo Weaving (“The Matrix” series), whose vocal performance as V in “V for Vedetta” was so effective, is sadly underutilized as Megatron’s voice.

If anything good can be said about “Transformers”, it is that it looks amazing. These are some of the best CGI effects integrated into live action settings I’ve ever seen. Perhaps the mechanical nature of the robots gave the animators an easier time in rendering them realistically, but they are glorious to behold on the silver screen. Unfortunately, the script meanders its way through a fairly simple plot, almost like it’s dragging its feet when it should just be racing to the big fight at the end. By the time we get to that spectacular battle, I found I no longer cared.

While a lack of investment in the script severely cripples this film, it’s weakest point is in the editing. Never have so many scenes, most of which were created virtually, fit together so poorly. Often times with CGI, the filmmakers use low lighting to help hide some of the special effects. “Transformers” is wonderfully lit, and yet the action still doesn’t flow together smoothly. There are continuity differences in many of the different set ups for the same scene, pacing is thrown off in several places where the shots are held too long or not long enough, and even the structure of the film has flaws that could have been fixed in editing. Some storylines, which could have been intercut with existing action, are lost for a good twenty or thirty minutes. The hackers working for the NSA are missing for so long at one point that when they reappeared I’d forgotten how they ended up where they were.

Since all this comes from someone who is admittedly not a fan of giant talking robot aliens who choose to take the form of transportation vehicles for a theoretically inferior race, all you hardcore “Transformer” fans can take it with a few grains of salt. But I am a person who is more than willing to suspend his disbelief. I’ve already welcomed a man who can shoot spider webs out of his wrists, a pirate who came back from the dead, a rat who cooks, surfing penguins, and Lindsay Lohan as a serious actress—all in the past couple of months. I’m willing to accept these giant transforming protectors. But to enjoy such technological wonders, I need a film that isn’t such a technical tragedy.

Buy it: Transformers movies, games & toys

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Ratatouille / ***½ (G)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Remy: Patton Oswalt
Linguini: Lou Romano
Skinner: Ian Holm
Colette: Janeane Garofalo
Django: Brian Dennehy
Emile: Peter Sohn
Gusteau: Brad Garrett
Anton Ego: Peter O’Toole

Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios present a film written and directed by Brad Bird. Running time: 110 min. Rated G.

I probably sound like a broken record, bowing as I do to the technical and artistic triumphs of Pixar Animation Studios every time they release a new film, but… Gosh darn it! Those guys are good!

“Ratatouille” marks Pixar’s first release under their new contract with Walt Disney Pictures, and although some employees in Disney’s recently formed CGI division are upset to be looking for work again, these companies couldn’t be a more perfect match together. Disney is returning to the 2-D animation that they revolutionized cinema with some 70 years ago, and Pixar is continuing to provide the best quality family entertainment in the CGI market.

“Ratatouille” itself feels like a throwback to a purer era in American animation. Writer/director Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”) doesn’t rely on the pop culture referencing and crude bathroom humor that prevails in what passes for family entertainment these days. Instead, he tells a good, warm-hearted story with genuine wit and a moral message at its core.

Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt of TV’s “King of Queens”) is a rat—a highly unusual rat. While his brother Emile (Peter Sohn) and father Django (Brian Dennehy, “Everyone’s Hero”) and their entire colony dig through the garbage, Remy explores the inner workings of an old farmhouse kitchen. He discovers a unique ability to appreciate flavors and smells, and a gift for combining them. His fellow rats put up with his eccentricities because his gift makes him a great rat poison detector, but Remy yearns to break free of his scavenger existence and cook like the once-great Parisian chef Gustaeu (Brad Garrett, TV’s “Everybody Loves Raymond”).

It is obvious that Bird is a fan of Don Bluth’s classic “The Secret of NIMH”. During the opening sequence and throughout the film he shows us the rats in silhouette with only their eyes glowing orange, just as the rats of NIMH appeared. But like those rats, the rodents here are not the evil vermin which they appear to be to human eyes. They are simply trying to survive in a world that has pigeonholed them into a certain stereotype. Do you see the moral theme forming here?

Remy is separated from his colony in a spectacular sequence involving a crazy old woman with a shotgun and a wild ride down the rapids of the Paris sewer system. He winds up at Gusteau’s restaurant, which has fallen out of favor since the chef’s death. Remy seizes his chance to live his dream when he helps a garbage boy named Linguini (Lou Romano), who becomes the toast of the town by taking credit for the recipes that Remy prepares. Of course, the world of fine eateries would be horrified to learn that a rat had infiltrated their ranks.

Chef Skinner (Ian Holm, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy), the heir apparent of the Gusteau Empire, begins seeing a rat around the kitchen and suspects something is not right with the formally untrained Linguini. Skinner’s concerns run deeper when he learns that Linguini is actually Gusteau’s illegitimate son and true heir, thus threatening his chances of profiting off the Gusteau name through a line of frozen foods.

Two other characters are significant to the plot. The first is Collette (Janeane Garofalo, TV’s “The West Wing”), the only female chef in Gusteau’s kitchen. She develops a relationship with Linguini, struggling with the fact that she has had to work so hard to get where she is, while it seems to have just fallen in his lap. The other is the food critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole, “Venus”), also known as “The Grim Eater.” Everyone’s fates will eventually rest on his judgment of the food.

Perhaps I have gone too deeply into the plot, but reliving the memory of this film is such a pleasure. What makes the filmmakers at Pixar so special is their astute attention to detail. There is one moment in particular that illuminates the intense sense of observation that goes into the crafting of their films. Remy runs from Linguini in fear when they first meet but decides to give the kid a chance. In that moment when the rat decides to go back, I noticed something so subtle that it would have been easy to miss. You can actually see his heart pounding through his fur at the very same accelerated pace that a rodent’s heart would beat. You might think that this sort of detail would not matter in the end, but it exemplifies the filmmakers’ passions to get every detail right.

But even Pixar’s successes are not solely a product of amazing attention to detail; they also involve incredibly intelligent storytelling. Bird is not content to confine his theme of never judging a book by its cover to just Remy and Linguini; all the main character’s are included in this lesson. The rats are filled with love for their fellow colony members. Collette is not simply some girl who gained favoritism from her fierce nature, nor is she the perfect chef. Even the food critic is discovered to have a heart.

The only drawback might be the lack of action; there’s a lot of talking in this film. But it is nice to see writing and direction that doesn’t depend on action and laughter to carry the piece. Again, this is where the film seems to be a throwback to a simpler time in filmmaking. There doesn’t seem to be any urgency on Bird’s part to force thrilling situations and humor upon the audience, and yet my five-year old sat there just as enthralled as he was watching “Night at the Museum”. With this film, he gets a much more rewarding experience.

Buy it: Pixar movies

Monday, July 02, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard / **½ (PG-13)

John McClane: Bruce Willis
Thomas Gabriel: Timothy Olyphant
Matt Farrell: Justin Long
Lucy McClane: Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Mai Lihn: Maggie Q
Bowman: Cliff Curtis
Warlock: Kevin Smith

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Len Wiseman. Written by Matt Bomback, based on the article “A Farewell to Arms” by John Carlin. Running time: 130 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, language and a brief sexual situation).

Walking out of the latest “Die Hard” adventure, I ran into an increasingly frequent problem. I was with several members of my family and they were expressing their mostly positive reactions to the film when the Shadow of the Critic fell over us all. It was no accident that I was the last person whose opinion of the film was picked from the group. They know I’m a Critic, and everyone knows that a Critic loves nothing more than to pick on, tear apart and over-analyze what is essentially just a good time. My wife reminded me that even critics need to keep in mind that a movie is supposed to be a good time, and critics are supposed to have as much fun at the movies as anyone else. Still, the best I could muster was, “Well, I’m conflicted.”

I’m conflicted because “Live Free or Die Hard” is essentially a good time. But even a film that is supposed to be nothing but fun can have varying degrees of success. So far in this summer of sequels, just about every one of them has succeeded as entertainment but pushed the envelope too far in one way or another compared to their predecessors. “Pirates of the Caribbean” tried to squeeze too much into what was already a bloated running time. “Shrek the Third” relied too heavily on juvenile humor and more obscure pop culture references, while forgetting the series’ originality. “Ocean’s Thirteen” gave us the beautiful faces and flashy execution we desired, but forgot to provide a compelling heist. And “Spider-Man 3” supplied more villains and less substance.

“Live Free or Die Hard” does provide exactly what any audience member should expect—Bruce Willis’s no-nonsense cowboy way of cutting through all the procedural BS and just shooting all the bad guys until the last one falls so we can all go home and feel safe again. It sticks to all the “Die Hard” signatures like fast-paced action, snappy one-liners, and an over-involved plot that turns out to be just a distraction from a much simpler crime by the villain.

Reprising his career-making role as NYPD cop John McClane, Willis is joined in his battle against the bad guys by Justin Long (the Mac guy from the PC vs. Mac commercials), as (fittingly) a computer hacker who inadvertently helps the villain in his plan to disable all technological resources throughout the United States. Thomas Gabriel is played with typical “Die Hard” villain slickery by Timothy Olyphant (HBO’s “Deadwood”). Gabriel comes armed with countless henchmen, allowing McClane to rack up a miraculous body count.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead (“Final Destination 3”) also appears in the film as Lucy, McClane’s daughter who prefers his estranged wife’s name to her dad’s. She seems to exist mostly as a reference to past “Die Hard” films and doesn’t really come into play until the final act. Instead, the relationship between McClane and Long’s hacker carries the action. Long acts as a great foil to Willis’ one-time everyman hero, representing the everyman of the new age, the techno-brat. Long even lands a few classic one-liners of his own.

Screenwriter Mark Bomback (“Godsend”) does a good job realizing the technical horror that John Carlin theorized in his 1997 “Wired” article. And there is certainly a good deal of irony in the fact that McClane, the technologically impaired dinosaur of a hero, must go up against a virtual terrorist in this fourth installment. But as usual, the focus of the film is the action and the physical beating McClane will take to win the day.

Like any “Die Hard” film, this one takes the action over the top. Director Len Wiseman (“Underworld”) puts the audience back into McClane’s violent world quickly, with early action sequences that set the nonstop pace. But it was as the action sequences became more grandiose, that my feelings began to be conflicted. Can a “Die Hard” movie go too far over the top? The answer to that is probably, “No.” But the way in which it goes over the top can greatly affect the success of even a “just a good time” film.

By the final act, McClane finds himself rolling across the wings of a fighter jet in a sequence not unlike the climax in James Cameron’s “True Lies”. But that film was itself a parody of over the top action films. Is “Live Free or Die Hard” supposed to be a self-parody? Probably not, but at times that’s exactly what it is. While parodies aren’t necessarily bad, they require a detachment from the “reality” of the film that doesn’t quite mesh with an established action model, like “Die Hard”.

But again, I don’t really know. Like I said, I’m conflicted. I mean, this film sure would look great on my new widescreen HDTV, so I’ll probably see it again. If you really want to know what I think, get back to me then.

Read John Carlin's "A Farewell to Arms" article here.

Buy it: Die Hard movies