Monday, July 02, 2007

At the Movies

After several weeks of absence from the multiplex I dragged myself out to no fewer than three movies this weekend. One of them (“Knocked-Up”) I had already seen, but I was presented with the opportunity to see it again and I liked that movie a lot. I can’t actually remember the last time I liked a movie enough to see it twice in the theater. Though one of this weekend’s other two films is a strong contender.

"Live Free or Die Hard":
This movie was supremely entertaining. It entertained me with a steady precision that I can only describe as “workman like.” If the original Die Hard is the Antikythera mechanism, ingenious and unprecedented in its design and construction, then “Live Free or Die Hard” is a Timex; functional, reliable, a hair better than “just good enough.” I had been expecting this movie to be a complete train wreck and was genuinely surprised last Friday when the almost unanimously positive reviews came rolling in, not just from critics, but from friends who’s opinions I value and trust. All of them, however, prefaced their remarks with some equivalent of “I had NO expectations so I was pleasantly surprised.” By Saturday afternoon, when I saw the film, I had heard this caveat so many times that I began to worry that my expectations had been elevated just enough to be disappointed. Fortunately this wasn’t the case. The movie is an efficient whiz-bang awesome machine that kept me consistently entertained. That’s more I can say for most action movies released in the last year.

Brad Bird is one of my favorite filmmakers working today. In a scant two and a half years, when this ridiculous decade finally draws to a close, I will be shocked if “The Incredibles” does not end up on my best movies of the oughts list. Basically it would require three or four movies to be released in rapid succession that instantly became my favorite films of all time. That said, “Ratatouille” is not as good as “The Incredibles”, but it is still a delight from start to finish, and a major step up from “Cars” which remains Pixar’s weakest effort to date. I have read that Bard Bird was brought on to “Rattatouille” late in the game, as a sort of relief pitcher after the film’s original director wasn’t able to pull to project together. Supposedly Bird himself described the task as akin to jumping out of a plane with only a pair of knitting needles and having to knit a parachute on the way down. If that quip is true then it really illuminates Bird’s talent as a storyteller and filmmaker. Even under sever constraints he’s managed to make one of the best films I’ve seen this year. The secret, as it is with all of Pixar’s movies, is a solid, well-told story that feels like it was discussed, outlined, written, re-written, and tightened long before anybody started thinking about Burger King tie-ins or a “Ratatouille: Live on Ice!” tour. With all of the dazzling animation it's easy to loose sight of the fact that Ratatouille is built on the foundation of a wonderful screenplay (also credited to Bird). Peter O'Toole delivers a monologue near the end of the film that manges to be both heartbreakling and uplifting at the same time. I was smiling like a goon while tears welled up in my eyes. It's one of the most affecting bits of screenwriting I've seen in a long time, made all the more powerful by O'Toole's iconic voice and cadence. Thinking about it, the last scene in a movie that inspired a similar reaction in me may have been the climatic "Superman" scene from Brad Bird's "The Iron Giant."

Speaking of O'Toole, another thing I really have to applaud Pixar for is their impeccable and unconventional voice casting. Rather than casting big name celebs (‘cause, really, it’s animation, you can’t see them, who gives a fuck?) they cast actors whose voices and performances best fit the part. Dreamworks would never, in a million years, have cast Sara Vowell as Violet in “The Incredibles” but it was an inspired casting choice and the movie is better for it. The same goes for Patton Oswalt as Remy, the lead rat in “Rattatouille.” Oswalt has long been one of the sharpest stand-up comics out there, and even with his recurring role on ‘The King of Queens” he is hardly a household name, but he works perfectly as Remy.

If you watch the special features on DVDs you might know that Pixar often does a “proof of concept” for these crazy casting decisions. they will take a pre-recorded sound byte from their potential voice actor and animate the character to that clip. It lets the director and animators see what a given actor’s voice will look like coming out of the animated character. I only hope that when the Pixar fellows did this for Patton Oswalt as the food snob rat Remy, this was the clip they used:

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