September 29, 2009

Ratatouille (2007)

LET ME PREFACE this review by saying that I love the stand-up comedy of Patton Oswalt. His material and delivery make him accessible yet intelligent and, above all, funny as hell.

I’m also a fan of director Brad Bird. Specifically, I’m a major fan of his animated movies. After his terrific films The Incredibles and The Iron Giant, he could retire and no one would fault him.

So when I heard in early 2007 that Oswalt would be the lead voice in Ratatouille, a Pixar film directed by Bird, I was ecstatic. My favorite comedian, a genius of animated film, and inarguably the powerhouse in animated storytelling? I couldn’t wait.

A rat named Remy (Oswalt) dreams of breaking free from his family’s pack of scrounging rats and becoming a gourmet chef, following his idol Gusteau (Brad Garrett).


I really, really wanted to love Ratatouille. I was ready to follow Remy for two hours on his quest for something more than stealing garbage to survive…to rise above the stigma of being a rat and live his dream of being a great chef.

But 30 minutes in, the story detours from Remy’s quest and to the trials of Linguine (Lou Romano), a garbage boy at Gusteau’s restaurant who’s mistakenly praised for a terrific soup that Remy made and is forced to repeat his success (with a large assist from Remy, who hides under Linguine’s chef hat and pulls his hair to move Linguine’s arms).

So for the middle third of the film, it’s all about the humans: Linguine trying to repeat his earlier, accidental success; fellow chef Colette (a terrific yet unrecognizable Janeane Garofalo) begrudgingly helping him; and the surly head chef (Ian Holm) trying to stop him.

And frankly, the whole gimmick of Remy sitting under Linguine’s chef hat and working him like a puppet feels beneath Bird – and for a Pixar film, it smacks of laziness.

I hate to be simplistic, but with Disney and Pixar, I want – and expect – escapism. Bring on the talking animals or objects, not a cast of animated humans. (For the record, The Incredibles were superhumans, so they get a pass.) I mean, think of the Disney animated films with predominately human casts: Pocahontas. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hercules. Tarzan. All largely forgotten.

Still, it’s unfair to fault Bird for all of Ratatouille’s shortcomings. According to the excellent book The Pixar Touch, Bird inherited the project from Pixar brass after they felt original director and story creator Jan Pinkava’s vision was lacking.

On the plus side, the way Ratatouille treats food and cooking is irresistible. You will want to eat rich, delicious meals after the movie ends. And as usual with Pixar, the animation is flawless. (Can we officially take this as a given from now on?) The movements, the expressions, the scenery, the Paris skyline…simply amazing.

Going into Ratatouille, I was really hoping (and was quite confident) that based on the talent involved, it would be my favorite Pixar movie. Unfortunately, it rests just above A Bug’s Life as my least favorite.


Will your kids like it?
If you're kids are like Dash, they’ll probably be less critical of Ratatouille than adult Pixar snobs like myself – though with a 111-minute running time and long stretches of dialogue without action, I wouldn’t be surprised if they lose interest before the end.

And even though Ratatouille is rated G, there are some elements which make you wonder why it wasn’t rated PG, including:
• Comic gunplay as an old lady shoots at the rats infesting her home
• Skinner tells Linguine “welcome to hell” on his first day as a chef
• Skinner gets Linguine drunk to get the truth about how he cooks so well
• A whole subplot of whether Linguine is Gusteau’s illegitimate son
• Rows of dead rats hang in a storefront window of a pest control company

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
My wife was as underwhelmed with Ratatouille as I was. If you’re looking for a Pixar film to enjoy together, there so many better ones to choose from. May I suggest: The Incredibles, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo

Step away from the soup...

• Director: Brad Bird
• Screenwriter: Brad Bird
• Stars: Patton Oswalt, Ian Holm, Lou Romano, Brian Dennehy, Peter Sohn, Peter O'Toole, Brad Garrett, Janeane Garofalo
• MPAA Rating: G

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September 24, 2009

Secrecy (2008)

AT WHAT PRICE FREEDOM? In these days of the Patriot Act and suspect profiling, it’s something we all wonder on occasion.

In Secrecy, directors Peter Galison and Robb Moss explore when American citizens should ask for transparency from their government – and maybe, when they shouldn’t.

Secrecy's plot can be summed up as a question: Where is the line drawn between telling the American public what they have the right to know, and what needs to be kept secret for the sake of national security?


Galison and Moss fill Secrecy with interviews of people who have first-hand experience with the touchy subject of government secrecy: journalists, former government agents, even lawyers who defended accused terrorists.

In addition to covering the current debate over government secrecy, the film gives earlier instances:
• Woven throughout the film is the 1948 “Reynolds Case,” where a top-secret B-29 bomber crashed over Waycross, Georgia. (The government wouldn’t provide essential documents to the widows of the dead, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court.)
• The reasons behind the secrecy of the Manhattan Project and the development of nuclear weapons in the US was interesting, to say the least.

For each pro-secrecy opinion offered, an anti-secrecy one is also provided. Some examples:
• A former chief of information for the National Security Agency (NSA) blames the 1983 bombings of the US Embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon on media leaks discussing how the NSA was tracking the terrorists before the attacks (he even implies that media people who leak sensitive information are “traitors”).
• A Washington Post journalist uses the absence of WMDs in Iraq to prove his point that the people have a right to know what their government is doing.
• A former CIA exec says that prior to 9/11, press reports on how the government was tracking Osama bin Laden’s communications caused bin Laden to change his methods, and the CIA’s surveillance dried up.
• Providing a media openness for the Unabomber, by publishing his screeds in major newspapers, is what caught the attention of his brother and led to the Unabomber’s arrest.

The film shows many angles to the argument – providing one head-shaking instance after another where secrecy, either kept or leaked, caused an unfavorable incident for the US or its people. All the subjects interviewed provide clear, articulate reasons for their cause, which makes it that much harder to come down on one side (though one expert’s declaration that these secrecies have a sexual connotation feels like a bit of a stretch).

In Secrecy, a lot of questions are asked; no easy answers are offered. And that’s a large part of what makes this film so compelling.

Secrecy is available on DVD Tuesday, September 29.


Will your kids want to watch it?
Secrecy’s subject matter doesn’t seem like something that would capture children’s attention, which is fine because there are some grim images and footage – including the aftermaths of 9/11, Pearl Harbor, and the US Embassy and Marine barracks bombings; a couple of shots of dead US soldiers; and pictures of the torture of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Much like Escape from Suburbia, Secrecy makes for great debate. I’d say not only have your FilmMother watch it, but make it a group viewing with friends or colleagues. Talks may get heated afterward, but it’ll simply be a testament to Secrecy’s material.


• Directors: Peter Galison, Robb Moss
• Stars: Mike Levin, Tom Blanton, Melissa Boyle Mahle, Ben Wizner, James B. Bruce, Barton Gellman, Steve Garfinkel, Patricia J. Herring, Wilson Brown, Siegfried Hecker, Steven Aftergood, Neal Katyal, Charles Swift, Judy (Palya) Loether
• MPAA Rating: N/A

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September 17, 2009

High Plains Drifter (1973)

THROUGH THE HAZE of a desert plain, a stranger (Clint Eastwood) on horseback appears in the distance. He makes his way across the plain, down a hillside, past a graveyard, and into the small lakeside desert town of Lago.

The stranger stops in Lago’s saloon for a drink, and here’s the greeting he gets:

Oh, and after the above mayhem, he proceeds to rape the insulting town tramp (Marianna Hill).

Welcome to the first 10 minutes of High Plains Drifter.

The people of Lago hire the nameless stranger to protect them from a returning trio of outlaws (led by Eastwood regular Geoffrey Lewis) who have a score to settle with the town. While many of the townsfolk want the stranger to protect their town, several others (who want the secrets of the town preserved) scheme to have him removed…permanently.


There are many elements that make High Plains Drifter such a powerful film. The strong script by Ernest Tidyman (The French Connection, Shaft). The eerie, piercing, foreboding musical score by Dee Barton. The performances of the ensemble cast. But a large amount of the film’s success belongs to the superb direction by Eastwood.

High Plains Drifter was only Eastwood’s second film as director (and his first western), but already he was showing his skills behind the camera. In addition to a strong use of point-of-view camerawork, Eastwood fills the film with masterful shots using angles, reveals, foregrounds, backgrounds, mirrors, lighting, and shadows. He spends exactly the right amount of time with each shot; not a second is wasted on any given scene.

A thesis could be written about how Lago is an allegory for Hell. (Tidyman’s script is truly on a literary level.) Some examples:
• The stranger rides down a hillside to enter Lago (a descent into hell)
• The following passages of dialogue after the stranger demands every building in town be painted red…
o Preacher (Robert Donner): “You can’t mean the church, too!” Stranger: “I mean especially the church.”
o Bartender (Paul Brinegar): “When we get done, this place is gonna look like hell.”
o Later, after the hotel owner (Ted Hartley) declares, “200 gallons of blood-red paint…it couldn’t be worse if the devil himself had ridden right into Lago!” – we cut immediately to the stranger sleeping in bed.
• And when you see him backlit during the fiery climax, wielding his bullwhip, you’d swear the stranger is the devil himself.

Eastwood’s stranger is an antihero for the ages, and High Plains Drifter is a dark morality tale that just happens to be a western. As the story unfolds, it becomes all too clear who the stranger embodies – an “avenging devil” who’s come to collect on the sins of the town’s past.

High Plains Drifter often gets dismissed or lumped in with Eastwood’s “spaghetti westerns” (A Fistful of Dollars, The Good The Bad & The Ugly) or lackluster efforts like Hang ‘em High. I admit, I was guilty of this perception until I actually watched High Plains Drifter years ago. It’s now one of my top 25 favorite films of all time. (See the others on my profile page or my reviews under the label “filmfather favorite.”)

• “Lago Averno” was the entrance to Hell in Dante's Inferno.
• Shortly after the film's release, Eastwood wrote to John Wayne, suggesting they make a western together. Wayne sent back an angry letter, denouncing High Plains Drifter for its violence and revisionist portrayal of the Old West. Eastwood didn’t reply back, and they never worked together.


Will your kids want to watch it?
High Plains Drifter may be a western, and kids may love cowboys, but this is one dark, R-rated western that young’ins shouldn’t see till they’re older. Many people are shot, a woman is raped, two men are whipped to death, and another is hung by a bullwhip. There are also a couple of morning-after bedroom scenes with Eastwood and a lady friend. And to top it off, a horse is shot and a little person (The Wizard of Oz’s Billy Curtis) gets punched out by a full-sized man.

Will your FilmMother like it?
The perception (correct or not) is that girls don’t like westerns. Well, I often say that High Plains Drifter is a western for people who don’t like westerns – but love a good tale of morality, revenge, and the price for covering sins of the past. Also, push the literary angle if you think that’ll play to her intellect; I’m still trying to get it to work on my English-teacher wife. (How about tonight, honey?)

Dammit, I said RED. This is clearly mauve. That’s it, I’m off the project.

High Plains Drifter
• Director: Clint Eastwood
• Screenwriter: Ernest Tidyman
• Stars: Clint Eastwood, Verna Bloom, Marianna Hill, Mitch Ryan, Jack Ging, Stefan Gierasch, Ted Hartley, Billy Curtis, Geoffrey Lewis, Walter Barnes
• MPAA Rating: R

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September 14, 2009

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

ON A CERTAIN LEVEL, I feel ashamed that as a film lover and part-time critic, I’m not more familiar with the work of Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki.

I know that animation buffs love his work, and Disney/Pixar chief creative officer John Lassetter idolizes him (Disney is the US distributor for Miyazaki’s films, including the recent Ponyo). However, the one Miyazaki film I did see, Spirited Away, left me underwhelmed and confused.

So I convinced Dash we should watch what’s considered to be one of Miyazaki’s best films, My Neighbor Totoro.

Sisters Satsuki (Dakota Fanning) and Mei (Elle Fanning) move into a new home in the countryside with their father (Tim Daly), while their mother (Alexandra Kenworthy) recovers from an illness at a nearby hospital. The sisters soon find they have a magical new neighbor, Totoro – a forest spirit whose creatures can only be seen by the children.


• The first and most pronounced aspect of My Neighbor Totoro is the rich, amazing scenery: green forests, wide landscapes, and sprawling fields – each looking as if they were taken from a painting.

• With sisters Satsuki and Mei, Miyazaki totally nails the older/younger sibling relationship as the girls alternately play and bicker while discovering their new home and debating what to do about the Totoro.

The titular Totoro have limited screen time – maybe only a third of the film’s 86 minutes. However, in a way it makes their appearances that much more special, especially when the Totoro and the girls take a ride in the magical cat bus.

• The large Totoro creature is voiced by animation legend Frank Welker (Scooby-Doo) – though since his work consists of nothing but growls and roars, you wouldn’t know it’s him (similar to his work in The Legend of Sasquatch).

My Neighbor Totoro is a fun adventure – a nice detour from a lot of today’s frenetic animated features. Check it out if you’re given the chance.


What did Dash think?
I was worried Dash may not give My Neighbor Totoro a chance, for several reasons:
• He’s not used to the Japanese style of animation (the less-than-fluid style where it seems like they skipped every other frame)
• The movie’s not jam-packed with action
• He was put off by a couple of scary shots early in the film (a dark, foreboding staircase, cracks in walls)
However, he stayed with the movie intently. He laughed at the antics in the opening credits, listened to the sisters’ dialogue, and cracked up several times when the Totoro made their appearances (especially at the way the smaller ones scurried about).

Will your kids like it?
My Neighbor Totoro is an enjoyable film for all ages. Even what may seem like questionable content (a couple of scary scenes, a sick mother, a girl goes missing) shouldn’t be too much for younger kids to handle.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
My Neighbor Totoro is a cute, original story that emphasizes the importance of family and believing in your children. I think she would find it a fun flick to watch with the kids.

My Neighbor Totoro
• Director: Hayao Miyazaki
• Screenwriter: Hayao Miyazaki
• Stars: Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning, Tim Daly, Alexandra Kenworthy, Frank Welker
• MPAA Rating: G

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September 10, 2009

Escape from Suburbia (2007)

IN HIS 2004 DOCUMENTARY The End of Suburbia, director Gregory Greene examined the connection between the impending shortage of cheap oil and the end of the American dream (i.e., mass consumption in suburbia).

With his follow-up, Escape from Suburbia, Greene takes a harder look at the cost (literally and figuratively) of the problem surrounding “peak oil” – the point when half the oil that’s usable in the world has been, well, used.


According to experts in Escape, prices will skyrocket after peak oil due to limited supply, essentially putting an end to the idea of cheap oil. Scary stat: The experts believe the era of peak oil to be between 2005 and 2015. (In other words, we’re in it right now.)

Amidst the slew of these doom-and-gloom talking heads (politicians, authors, industry experts, government agents) declaring peak oil’s aftershocks as inevitable, Greene also follows several people trying to make their future less reliant on their current lifestyle of consumption:
Carol & Jan, “eco pioneers” moving from Oregon to Canada to live in a more positive environment. (“Running toward the light rather than running away from the darkness,” says Jan.)
Tom & Phil, a gay couple who have decided to leave New York City because living there doesn’t seem sustainable.
Kate, a single mom and avid part of the green movement, living in Toronto with her teenage son and making speaking engagements for her cause.

Green also intersperses Escape with retro newsreels and animated vignettes showing how earlier generations were promised a world of unlimited resources. We also get a glimpse of news segments from the ‘70s on that decade’s energy crisis, showing us that we basically learned nothing from what happened 30 years ago.


Escape from Suburbia can be hard to watch for two main reasons:
1. It’s scary as hell to think of the ramifications of an energy crisis that we’ve chosen to ignore – and which will most definitely happen soon.
2. The solutions proposed by those in the film – be they global solutions or backyard activism – seem like they’ll take much more support, participation, and legislation to make them effective.

Not only does Escape tell us that our future needs more involvement from everybody, it also needs a lot less resistance from corporations. Jan ruefully admits that no amount of campaign reform can match the power of these behemoths, while an expert speaking with him puts it best: “For every solution that’s out there, there’s a company trying to sabotage it.”

Greene uses a large portion of Escape covering the possible solution of localizing economies, community farms in particular. (The segment about a 14-acre community farm in South Central LA is amazing…and ultimately heartbreaking.)

The second half of Escape from Suburbia is filled with stories and interviews of people who have done as the title suggests – left the suburbs and cities to literally live off the land through community farms and eco-villages.

A couple nits:
• At times, watching Escape from Suburbia does seem a bit like homework. There are countless opinions and hypothetical solutions offered, and so many experts are interviewed that when one of them is reintroduced later in the film, you need a minute to remember his name or credentials, let alone his stance on the peak oil problem.
• My attention began to wane near the end, having been inundated with professional opinions and personal stories surrounding the peak oil problem. With some deft editing, all the key elements of Escape could have been told concisely in about two-thirds of its 95-minute running time.

Whether you believe none, some, most, or all of it, Escape from Suburbia is a thought-provoking film about a problem most of America has disregarded. The movie’s opening quote, from the Sufi mystic Rumi, may symbolize our current situation best:

“Sit, be still, and listen…for you are drunk and we are at the edge of the roof.”


Will your kids want to watch it?
While there’s nothing offensive in Escape from Suburbia, I doubt children would have the capacity to understand it all, nor the patience to sit through it. However, it might be a good wake-up call for teenagers to see the world they will most likely inherit as adults – perhaps giving them incentive to make a better place for their and future generations.

Will your FilmMother like it?
While Escape from Suburbia isn’t exactly a movie to save for a date/movie night at home, it is something you should urge her to watch. It’ll definitely make for an engaging conversation after you’ve both seen it.


Escape from Suburbia
• Director: Gregory Greene
• Screenwriter: Gregory Greene
• MPAA Rating: N/A

Rent Escape from Suburbia from Netflix >>

September 4, 2009

The Hangover (2009)

IT WAS HARD – really hard – to ignore the success of The Hangover.

A comedy with a simple premise, and no marquee stars, blows up through strong word of mouth and good reviews to become the highest grossing R-rated film in history ($270 million as of this writing).

So, much like Let The Right One In, I had to blot out everything I saw or heard that raved about The Hangover so I could objectively review it myself.

• The big wedding day is near for Doug (Justin Bartha), but first he’s being taken to Las Vegas for his bachelor party by his groomsmen: party guy Phil (Bradley Cooper), henpecked boyfriend Stu (The Office’s Ed Helms), and odd, future brother-in-law Alan (Zach Galifianakis).
• They check in to Caesar’s, then sneak to the rooftop for an amazing view of Sin City and a toast to the upcoming evening. Alan breaks out a bottle of Jagermeister…which, as those of you who have partaken can attest, is a sign that the evening is not going to end well.
• The rooftop scene fades, and we next find Phil, Stu, and Alan in their hotel room the following morning – with a chicken, a tiger, and a baby as guests. Also, Doug is nowhere to be found. Unfortunately, the groomsmen have no recollection of the prior evening, so they spend the remainder of the film backtracking their steps – and being confronted by all sorts of people from the night before, for reasons the guys can’t understand or remember.


I’m not going to pontificate about the cinematography, lighting, or mise en scene of The Hangover, since you probably just want to know: Is it as funny as everyone says it is?

In a word, yes. There are loads of hilarious antics, scenarios, and dialogue in the first hour alone – enough to fill three times as many of the so-so “best comedies of the year” we’ve been assaulted with recently. (I’m looking at you, Knocked Up.)

While credit for the comedy starts with the script by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, a huge amount of the success rests squarely with Cooper, Helms, and Galifianakis. Each one is perfectly cast in their role, playing an entirely different character from the other two – yet the trio interact amazingly well on screen.

Director Todd Phillips (the overrated Old School) does a great job of balancing the real and the ridiculous to create an ideal blend for an outrageously funny film. Naysayers may claim it’s all too unrealistic, but part of the beauty is that there is a chance, however slim, that the events of The Hangover could actually happen to these guys.

Some nits to pick: I can’t decide whether the appearance of Mike Tyson (as the owner of the aforementioned tiger) is funny or forced. Ken Jeong’s role as a gay Asian mob boss is clichéd, stereotypical, and worst of all, unfunny. And the way the guys finally find Doug (what, you thought they wouldn’t?) is a bit anticlimactic, compared to everything that transpired beforehand.

Like most comedies, the third act tapers a bit because plots need to be resolved, so time for comedy is sacrificed. But never mind: The Hangover is a very funny, unapologetic, un-PC, R-rated comedy starring grownups, about grownups, without a high concept. I haven’t laughed out loud this much since Superbad.

The Hangover is still playing in some theaters. I highly recommend you track it down, or be sure to check it out when it hits home video or On Demand. (And be sure to watch the end credits.)

Awesome post-script: To get The Hangover made with the actors he wanted, director Todd Phillips waived his salary and received part ownership of the film instead. With the movie’s killer box office, you probably don’t need a calculator to figure out it was a wise gamble. From Variety:

Because Phillips insisted on his cast, [he was given] a budget ceiling of $34 million, and the only way he could make that number was to work for scale and use salary and gross to buy his way into being an equity investor…That puts Phillips on track to earn $35 million or more on "The Hangover."

Like I said: awesome.


Will your kids want to see it?
Doesn’t matter; they shouldn’t. While The Hangover is hilarious, it’s justifiably rated R. There are tons of F-bombs (amongst many other profanities), plus copious amounts of nudity, drug references, and several scenes of a baby in comedic distress. I’d say high schoolers should be the youngest age group for viewing The Hangover, and even then I’d say only upperclassmen.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
I would think The Hangover’s humor would play to both genders, but you’ll have to judge for yourself. Like I said earlier, it’s a pretty good balance of real-life comedy and outrageous antics. Look, it ain’t Hamlet; as long as she goes in looking for laughs and not high art, I think you’ll both like it a lot.

Hello...AAA? You're not gonna believe this.

The Hangover
• Director: Todd Phillips
• Screenwriters: Jon Lucas, Scott Moore
• Stars: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Heather Graham
• MPAA Rating: R (pervasive language, sexual content including nudity, and some drug material)

Buy The Hangover for less at >>
Netflix >>


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