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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Short Takes: Recently Seen, July 2007

Scene for scene, this is the most sheerly enjoyable of recent releases. If Zodiac is the feel-bad movie of the year, Ratatouille is the feel-good movie of the year. The story is fairly simple and nothing especially noteworthy in itself, but the execution is phenomenally good. Certainly the visuals are exceptional, even beautiful - and in addition, the slapstick timing is spot on, there is genuine wit in the dialogue, the vocal characterizations are marvelous, the dreamily romanticized notions of food and of Paris are transporting. But what really sets the film apart is its emotional impact – it manages to be really moving without icky sentimentality. I don’t pretend to understand how Pixar does it, turning computer programming into art, and I haven’t always been their biggest fan – the first several films were entertaining and well engineered while remaining mostly trivial. But this one, even more than The Incredibles, also directed by Brad Bird, has the kind of deeply satisfying arc that most current live-action movies don’t even approach. A home run.

Rescue Dawn
Werner Herzog’s belated first Hollywood movie may not be a total success, but it’s distinctive enough (and weird enough) to cut through all the potential clichés of the POW genre. Christian Bale is excellent, as usual, and Steve Zahn is just amazing as the saddest, most defeated character in recent films: a man without hope who still manages to be engaging and even, at first, quite funny. And I rather liked the much-criticized triumphal, stylized ending, which provides a needed release after the more-or-less realistic scenes in the Laotian/Viet Cong POW camp and in the surrounding jungle. Warning: there is some very harrowing, intense material here – but it never seems as hyped-up and exploitative as it would no doubt be in a typical American action movie.

Knocked Up
A one-night stand results in an unplanned pregnancy, and the consequences are played as both wildly profane verbal slapstick and sweet-natured sentiment. This may not sound very promising, but the movie is enormously entertaining, with a top-notch cast, although at 135 minutes it does eventually overstay its welcome. Director-writer Judd Apatow plays to the strengths and tones down the weaknesses of his earlier The Forty Year Old Virgin. Katherine Heigl is very winning as the mother-to-be, and Leslie Mann (with a deft, tightrope-walking turn in an often starkly unsympathetic role) and Paul Rudd provide sterling support. I’m somewhat less taken with Seth Rogen in the lead, but he has charming moments and is certainly in tune with the distinctive Apatow worldview. In the end, there is too much of the loudly chortling frat-boy in that worldview for my personal taste, and the balancing sweetness threatens to turn unpleasantly sticky at several points as well. But I had fun anyway, and you will too.

A good counterexample to 300, which is a Damn Loud Stupid Movie that serves only to dismay and depress. This is a Damn Loud Stupid Movie that exhilarates. Who would have thought that Michael Bay could manage a thoroughly entertaining junk-food movie? But this tempers the annoying qualities of his earlier awful epics (e.g. The Rock) with a rather light, deft touch. The Spielbergian plot elements involving a Suburban Boy And His Pet Robot/Camaro are probably what help the most, although of course they bring along their own clichés. Shia LaBeouf is very winning as the young protagonist, and in fact he provides the only real personality in the movie. Some of the “jokes” are sophomoric groaners, too. But the darn thing moves right along, and the action sequences are great fun.


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