Friday, December 5, 2014

My favourite rat

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2007)

I think I might have enjoyed Brad Bird’s Ratatouille more than any other movie so far this year. And even though it’s a G-rated animated feature from the Disney/Pixar label, I don’t think it’s that it appealed to the “child in me.” Well, I guess we could attribute all capacity for spontaneous delight to some inner juvenile, but my pleasure in the film felt completely mature. People often say that movies like Shrek are “really for adults,” and my reaction is always to wonder then who, say, Ingmar Bergman can possibly be for. Extra-terrestrials I guess. But it shows you how lame the notion of mature entertainment has become, that people are so turned on by glib references to popular culture, as if this served to illuminate (much less to critique) anything at all.


I don’t think Ratatouille has a single glib reference to popular culture, and the film’s miracle is in creating an entertainment that seems to me (although I can’t analyze the pre-teen perspective on this) massively, torrentially accessible, while radiating constant artistic integrity. It’s the story of a French rat, Remy, who while the rest of the pack scrounges in the garbage, develops a passion for gourmet cooking. Circumstances take him to the kitchen of a premiere French restaurant, where he teams up with a kitchen boy to prepare unprecedented meals – the rat supplies the know-how, the boy supplies the hands. But human prejudice against rats (especially in kitchens) prevents Remy from getting the acclaim he deserves, and the malign forces of commercialization, and lousy packaged food, loom large as well.

I don’t know how persuasive such a plot summary will be. Let me just say that Ratatouille is a staggering visual achievement, sending its unconstrained camera on journeys of impossibly intricate choreography – from the depths of sewers out to the glories of Paris in one mesmerizing journey, or through the frantic perils of a busy kitchen from a rat’s eye view. The animation of the human characters is sophisticatedly stylized, whereas Remy is simply one of the all-time triumphs of anthropomorphism – immensely sympathetic, but always very plainly a rat. The movie orchestrates familiar, comforting cycles of highs and lows, but it avoids cheap gags, and it’s always as much of a pleasure to listen to as to watch (by the way, there are no goofy songs either).

And most of all, apart from doing a stellar job of promoting the merits of good, natural food, it’s transcendent in its insistence that artistic achievement can spring from the least likely of sources – a validation provided through a sour food critic voiced by Peter O’Toole (giving, for my money, a more Oscar-worthy performance than he did in Venus). In this regard, Ratatouille is a perfect marriage of form and content – for doubters like me, it’s not quite as miraculous as a dreamy meal cooked up by a rodent, but it’s in the ballpark.


George Ratliff’s Joshua works on the opposite premise, to convince us that malign intent, or outright evil, can also exist where we least expect it. Unless that is we’ve seen The Omen series or Birth or the other movies that tune us into the perils of soft-spoken dark-haired boys. Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga play well-to-do Manhattan parents of such a boy, and a new baby girl, whose arrival triggers all kinds of escalating trauma

There’s nothing overtly supernatural about the premise, which of course makes it even more unsettling – it’s a cautionary tale in the perils of a slight maladjustment in a mostly exemplary nurturing process. I don’t have kids and I still found it pretty unsettling – parents of anything less than fortress-like self-confidence might not sleep afterwards. The movie’s especially wicked in fingering females – from old to very very young – as the key sources of imbalance. The movie doesn’t try to move much beyond its genre, but certainly suggests that Ratliff (formerly known as a documentarian) could pull off some pretty subtle work.

A Mighty Heart is Michael Winterbottom’s telling of the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who disappeared in Pakistan in 2002, on the way to a perilous interview with a Taliban activist: he was ultimately beheaded. Mariane, his strong, sympathetic wife (who was pregnant at the time) is played here by Angelina Jolie, which has inevitably dominated the coverage of the film; her performance is noble and astute and need be neither raved over nor condescended to.

The film is primarily interesting for Winterbottom’s customary facility in conveying the guts of a complex situation – it seems convincing on the chaos of Pakistan, both socially and politically, and it feels like it’s giving us a reasonable approximation of the complexity of the search for Pearl, with all sorts of interests and leads and concerns tumbling over each other. It’s a pretty neutral work of reconstruction, staying away from the big politics, and ends up feeling satisfying but minor. As such it’s typical of Winterbottom, whose energy and resourcefulness are consistently more academically interesting than actually exciting and engaging. His film leaves you feeling sad and well informed, but somehow yields virtually nothing to talk over afterwards.

You Kill Me

John Dahl’s You Kill Me is a trivial concoction about an alcoholic New Jersey hitman who is sent to San Francisco to get his act together. The star Ben Kingsley bragged in an interview about how the cast and director took pride in finding a unique approach to every scene, but the mild resulting quirkiness can’t overcome the broader familiarity. If we believe Hollywood, hitman is second only to cop as a flourishing career choice, and the associated well of studied incongruity is plain dry. Despite some good performances (including Tea Leoni as a highly attractive and capable-seeming woman who, for no good reason whatsoever, falls for the taciturn killer), there’s zero reason for this movie to exist.  

Lars von Trier’s The Boss of it All is a comedy about a corporate owner who’s long hidden his identity, posing as just another manager – when he wants to sell the company, he must hire an actor to play the part of big boss. Von Trier provides an occasional voice-over to insist on the dispensable nature of what we’re watching, and the movie is certainly lightweight – it’s shot in a technique called “Automavision” which apparently limited the director’s control over the camera. As always, he’s a smoother artist than he likes to pretend, so the movie is a pretty good satire of corporate attitudes (not that another one was really necessary) and, more lumberingly, of the pretensions of art. I also note it’s the kind of movie in which a senior female employee has sex with the “boss” within a day of meeting him, just to prove a point. Maybe that’s satire, or maybe certain aspects of von Trier’s worldview run on Auto too.

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