You dirty rat you cooked my brother

We’re catching up on a lot this week, including a handful of movies we finally got around to seeing, either in the theaters or on DVD this past two weeks. Some were good, some not so much.

ratatouille.jpgRatatouille (Brad Bird)
It’s almost impossible for any movie to live up to its hype. I’m afraid to see Juno and There Will Be Blood for these very reasons, better to wait until the brouhaha dies down.

That’s the case with the latest Pixar release, which some are calling the best movie of 2007. I’m not sure I agree with that assessment, however, Ratatouille is yet another solid release in a long line of solid movies from Pixar.

What makes the movie special, like all Pixar films, is the way in which a simple parable can move you on an emotional level as few movies do. Remy the rat wants to be a cook, but his family expects him to be something else. Circumstances allow Remy to become the chef he knows he has in him. In the end his determination to do something wins over his family and even one pesky food critic.

The genius of Pixar is not that they’ve invented the wheel, though when it comes to computer animation they’ve certainly done that, it’s that they craft emotional stories which resonate with their familiarity.

shoot_em_up.jpgShoot ‘Em Up (Michael Davis)
Absurdist action film. I can see why this film would divide a lot of people. Early in Shoot’em Up, literally not figuratively, Clive Owen kills a man by jamming a carrot through his eye socket, this is of course, while he’s delivering a child into the world.

Now, you probably couldn’t kill someone in this way, but I’m guessing there might be the faintest possibility that someone could. If you can accept that scene, then the rest of this often hilarious, violent and action-filled movie will be a pleasure romp. If not, then don’t bother.

Clive Owen stars as Smith, some sort of expert marksman, who gets caught up in a dastardly plot when he delivers said child with bullets zooming past him. Paul Giamatti hams it up as the villain trying to kill the baby. At some point a plot develops concerning the baby but it’s not that important, what is important is how much this movie loves action movies from the 80’s, in a very different but equally as much way as the guys behind Hot Fuzz.

american-gangster.jpgAmerican Gangster (Ridley Scott)
More than Denzel’s steely resolve or Russell Crowe’s schleppy cop, what makes the most impression from American Gangster is how director Ridley Scott manages to evoke a certain period in New York’s history. It seems, in many ways, an ancient thing.

Like the vastly superior Heat, audiences don’t get to see the two actors match wits, at least not until the very end of the movie, and that might have been a conscious decision. Someone needs to say it: Denzel Washington mailed in his performance, like the past four or five movies he’s been in. That he’s such an amazing actor merely helps him cover up this fact.

Unfortunately, the movie is more concerned about the rise of “honorable” Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas (Washington) and less so with the “conflicted” cops intent on catching him. Russell Crowe’s Ritchie Roberts is a far more interesting character and the story of his working against the machinations of crooked cops to catch a far more crooked person is a much more compelling story. Sadly, we don’t get that, well we do, just not enough of it.

national_treasure_book_of_secrets.jpgNational Treasure: Book of Secrets (Jon Turteltaub)
By comparing the first and second movies in this scavenger hunt cum adventure series, it’s easy to see just how precipitous the fall can be from fun, enjoyable romp to trite crap. It’s a small slope, and unfortunately the second time around in the National Treasure series the movie slid down the side of that slope headfirst.

Much of the success of the first movie depended on geeky American history and a subtle believability, however, that’s been tossed out to keep the pace of the second movie trudging briskly along so that we don’t have to think much about it. What I gather from Book of Secrets is that it’s easy to break into Buckingham Palace and The White House. Perhaps the only unbelievable scene that works this time around is the one scene which is the least believable – the kidnapping of the President, played amiably by Bruce Greenwood. That scene was filled with geeky American history and the way that Nic Cage and Greenwood play the absurdness, well, let’s just say they sell how much in love both characters are with that geekiness in them.

Sadly, not that scene, nor the additions of Ed Harris and gulp, Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren can raise this mediocrity to the level of escapist fun.

zodiac1.jpgZodiac (David Fincher)
Man this was a long movie, it probably took me about three separate sittings to watch it entirely, but don’t let that deter you from maybe this year’s finest acting clinics and one of the best movies too. David Fincher has assembled one of the strongest ensembles in recent memory. And despite the movie feeling like the director’s cut, rather than a tighter theatrical one, days later it’s still under my skin.

Fincher nails the paranoia and general craziness of the case and the time, which seems preposterous that something like this could happen and not have been solved. Such was the time of the early 70’s, I guess. Robert Downey Jr. proves why he belongs in the same conversation as Daniel Day-Lewis and Johnny Depp, while Mark Ruffalo and even Jake Gyllenhaal demonstrate their chops.

Oddly, characters come and go in this one and it’s not until they reappear that you realize they haven’t been on screen for a good 15 or 20 minutes. Fincher keeps, what is essentially, a slow moving plot seem vital because the audience is along for the discovery with the detectives and reporters.

If you wanted a class on filmmaking then Zodiac would not be a bad place to start.

hostel-_part_ii.jpegHostel Part II (Eli Roth)
Coming from someone who absolutely loved Hostel, the palpable suspence and horrifying tension more than the torture, the second time at the buffet wasn’t as satisfying. I suspect that had to do with the rushed feeling of the picture, the studio surely wanted to capitalize on the first one’s suprise success quickly. A few more passes on the script would have worked miracles.

We pick up where the first one left off, with the unsettling aftermath for Paxton. He can’t sleep and he’s worried the torture organization is coming after him and he’s right! They totally chop his head off within ten minutes. We then switch to three stupid, slutty American college girls studying in Italy. They get sucked away to the hostel and then we’re off for more goodness. Except, the twist is that we also get some tasty scenes with the shallow American business man who pay for the right to stab and cut other people. The blood spills as we roll along to our inevitable conclusion.

More focus please! This one also would have benefitted from focussing on just one group of people. After seeing the effects on the tortured, maybe seeing the effects on the torturer would have made for something surprisingly different. How to you get up for sticking a drill into someone’s shoulder? Ya know? What’s that like? But we don’t get much of that and then the movie ends all too quickly after a tiding 1.5 hours.

I guess what I was missing was a little bit of the messiness from the first one.

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