31 July 2007

Review: Hairspray

Genre: Musical

Ah, Hairspray, Hairspray, Hairspray...what can I say? The at-root premier summer flick turns tricks and slides with quavering aplomb. The fantastical musical from the stage lights up the silver screen with a zesty array of colors whose over-ingestion can leave one feeling queasy. Or, the hot dazzler from the annals of C-movie (i. e., "fun movie") history fails to mark a great improvement over its previous versions. All of the above?
It strikes me, yes, strikes, to take this perhaps cruel but nevertheless playful tact in describing what I thought about the similarly light-hearted romp that is this summer's Hairspray, for the fact of making - no, not a comparison, but rather - a contrast. That is, whereas I can at least attempt a sparkling smile while I do maintain a strong undercurrent or grounding to my progression of story/argument, the film alas cannot. The film is frothy, bubbly, sometimes daring 'cloyingly effervescent,' but it is hardly ever strong, solidly grounded, a "tour-de-force." It is, as if the cast and crew, wanting so badly to lighten themselves with a great number of balloons, overdid it and/or forgot to calculate and thereafter as a result found themselves whisked away, not heavy enough to keep their feet on the ground. They just simply have no consistent plot; instead, they present merely a whisper of serious storyline (i. e., racial integration during a climate against such wholesomeness, which could expand to acceptance of everyone, whoever they be, despite opposition) sporadically, intermittently between fly-away musical numbers, perhaps just to remind the audience that they are indeed watching a film and not a musical revue.
Despite this fact, it is true that the musical numbers are for the most part incredibly infectious in their good spirits. The songs, taken directly from the Broadway version of the show, do reach a much fuller expression in the film, as (I suspect) they are now not limited by the capacities of an orchestra pit or of an orchestra for that matter; their symphonic convergences do exist to a radiantly refined state. The dancing as well, surprisingly fairly shot (unlike in Chicago), stands out as rhythmically break-out, involving the audience into the work and so demolishing the dividing wall. And the costumes, make-up, and art direction ice the cake, utilizing gorgeous contemporary colors and textures, to enliven and realize the 60s pop appeal.
However, I believe, it still remains the undermining flaw of the film, that there is no strong, grounded face to provide the pop with the necessary, contrasting bass. In short, there can be no true "pop," because there is hardly anything tranquil, somber, or regulating out from which the happy, bursting songs and dances can effectively pop. It's just not balanced. Thus, the film can hardly expect to garner sincere praise as being anything other than a 'feel-good,' 'sing-a-long' whipped cream and, thereafter, I can only determine that its attempts at being otherwise ultimately only detract from its quality: The racial tensions of the 60s look simply too serious, even silly, and definitely out of place in the context. The bottom line: I did enjoy Hairspray but I was too distracted by the extreme tilt of its mood, to actually appreciate what I assume it was trying to say. Egalitarian asseveration cannot come in "lite."

Grade: B-

29 July 2007

Discover (and Review): HBO's Voyeur Project

Tonight I happened to unwitting stumble across the vague interlacings that compose HBO's adventurous, dangerous, yet oddly admirable Voyeur Project, a very recent development/undertaking/entertainment experience/artwork that is tagged with the tenuous, come-hither one line about getting to see what people do when they think they're not being watched. Wittingly I came thither and what I learned was learned as it was designed to be: by gleaning, supposition, and immersive connection.
Indeed, the Project is a huge and intricate endeavour, a work that crosses media as easily as it crosses storylines. Various parts of the labyrinthine surreality - surreality, because that is exactly what it is: a strikingly quotidian yet still artificial layering on top of actual reality - have been broadcast, not only via television and the internet, but also via huge buildingside projections, surreptitiously circulated photographs and websites, promiscuously issued telephone numbers, and texts and dialogues of curious origins.
The Project broadly extends a tentacular reach; and, as I found out, anyone, who is piqued enough to grasp hold of one such tentacle, small though it be, and follow it where it lead, will certainly have already succumbed to thrall of the crescent shrouded mystery that is its root. Its many layered, almost surprisingly diverse yet nevertheless integrated consistency is quite a piece to behold, or rather to uncover; the trickle can pour into a great flood, well capable of taking the awed gaper by surprise, for so enthralling it may be that awed voyeur may find himself wet....

From the NY Times' blog: "But HBO Voyeur is exactly the kind of thing that people do want to disseminate haphazardly. At least in some sense, HBO Voyeur is an ad. Sure, the HBO marketing person told me, 'it doesn't look like or smell like an ad campaign.' Right when she said that, of course, it dawned on me, for the first time, that HBO Voyeur is an ad campaign. It's way too much like art to be entertainment!
"[...] When I asked to speak to someone at HBO about HBO Voyeur, no one from programming came to the phone. No Larry David. No David Chase. No David Milch. No David Simon. No David David. HBO Voyeur is a product of the marketing department!
"But what are they selling? I asked and asked. Maybe in the rooms in the film, if you look closely, maybe there are Altoids and Alli diet pills? No, said the HBO marketing woman. That is not how sophisticated marketing works now. 'HBO Voyeur is about underscoring what HBO already does, its special "it's not TV" magic — how many tentacles HBO has, how deep into your life it already penetrates. HBO Voyeur,' she said, 'is about retention.'
"Yikes. HBO Voyeur is a Project with a captial P — or no, wait, it's a PROJECT with all caps. So enter if you dare: HBOvoyeur.com." It can be disarmingly creepy/enchanting/beguiling/fun/X.

From the mysterious Project blog: "A lot of people are thinking - which is what I think this project is supposed to do - get people thinking about what it means to be a watcher in a world where everything is on display in one way or another."

(A tricky-wonderful experiment that adapts, updates, expands, and vixenizes the likes of Mr. Hitchcock's classic Rear Window (especially the storyline that occurs on 41st street); that clearly belongs to the increasingly popular group of artistically inclined ventures that I like to call "life installations;" that well articulates and wields the great power of art, to break through the dividing frame and capture the audience/viewer into it; I only regret of it its choice of music, that at several points I distasted for its dragging dullness, its pallour in contrast against the at-several-points rapier-sharp ability for [the largely juxtapositionally induced] transcendence of its visual partner. Though I have yet to experience the entirety of the Project, despite the music, what I have seen definitely drew me, to let myself be carried inward and under...at least for a little while...and always with one questioning eye asunder from the spectacle for the hands that lie behind it.)

Grade: B+

27 July 2007

Review: The Simspons Movie

Genre: Comedy (Animated)

I am a long time fan of The Simpsons, a show that, regardless of what other people have said of it, I've always found to be endlessly smart and creative, a show of which I've always been able to find in each episode at least one redeeming quality, strength, or reason, to praise it. And, with this long anticipated feature-length film, I was sure that I'd be able to count on, not just one, but many such qualities, for (one would think) a project of such magnitude would, not only engender the want to present the strongest and best parts of the genius - yes, genius - that has endured the series for 18 years, but also and moreover actually pull through and deliver such a want in the most dedicated fashion possible. I was expecting triumph and deep-burning glow, but I was sorrowfully disappointed.
The approximately hour-and-a-half film seemed to merely sprawl on, in that completely eclectic, anarchic style that, while wonderful and more than appropriate as the motivation for the first twenty minutes, ceased to be so afterwards. It never gained secure footing, never lost its acclimatizing desultory playfulness that was its (necessary) start, to form a fully functional, thoughtful, and strong plot structure. The character arc that did occur felt only contrived, simply grafted on for the purpose of giving the writers and other contributive filmmakers license to continue spouting out (increasingly less witty) jokes in an "anything goes" style. And I do mean "anything goes," because the jokes rebelliously cut against their usual PG-TV limitations and often opted for the more forthright crudeness, seemingly just because they could. But what they (i. e., the filmmakers) have failed to recognize is that such limitations, holding back from the plunge, a flirtatious design is exactly what has made their art so clever and appealing; that, like undergarments for sex appeal, baring everything can easily diminish attractiveness; and that good storytelling and keen structure, though each a thing that (I'm guessing) the majority of their fan base cannot accurately recognize, are definitely some things that are acutely and unwittingly vital to quality, meaningful, significant fictions. Now do not, please, misunderstand me: I am all for an organic approach to creativity, all for letting things rise as they may as one goes along, all for the constructive stream of consciousness; but at the same time I know that raw passion, raw product without refinement, is practically never a piece that is also coherent, cohesive, and tight as a collective work, never - the bottom line - worthy of presentation as my end product (i. e., my best). And, needless to say, it saddened me then, to see such truly and earnestly good groundwork on the story, on the structure, and on the tenor of the film let be presented apparently just as it arose, without consideration of how its goodness could have been sharpened and/or its imperfections smoothened out. (As a fan, I also would have been more happy to see more beloved characters take the stage; Apu, Mr. Burns, and those delightful aliens [among others] were missed.)
Importantly, however, despite my misgivings, I have not turned and am not planning on turning my back on The Simpsons enterprise altogether; despite my disappointments, I shall still continue, respecting and enjoying the already classic series' unique blend of clever clarity as often and as well as I can. Also, despite my misgivings, I did not fail to find one or two redeeming qualities in the film: the framing and the skill of the animation that went into the work were favorable and clean and the musical score for the work - despite my unfulfilled preference for the original composer's, the talented Mr. Elfman's, return - was quite enjoyable and even generally noteworthy. (Green Day's cover of the famous theme was as well.)
Yet, I remain resolute in my judgement of this work, as it must receive it: grand ambitions too often fallen flat, persistent charm overruled by excessive brashnesses, and just a general dearth of that so near and dear Simpsons magic (i. e., that unmistakable ability to consistently engage complex American metaphysics with thoughtful irreverence, infectious aplomb, and an everyman's facility). So, to those of you who have yet to see it, enjoy the first twenty minutes; it just fails to glow afterwards.

Grade: B-

22 July 2007

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Genre: Drama / Fairy Tale

So, {exhale} I've just finished reading this, the very last installment in the famous and wildly anticipated Potter series, and I am simply exhilarated, not for the splendour of the craft of the book, but more for the tremendousness of the emotional range that Ms. Rowling is forever capable of conjuring. It is again completely a triumph of her art, that she remains so unwaveringly able to invest more than her characters (i. e., her readers) into her thrilling and tumultous fantasy world. For that ability and the swift, upward-curving spike of redemption for its predecessing chapters that was the span of 30-36, I praise the talents of the famed authoress; she truly well concluded her epic seven-part fairy tale about adolescence - a word all of whose definition's multitudinous applications I mean.
What I shall and must address now - and what die-hard fans of the series and its creatoress will seek to criticize me unabashedly for - are the evident and unfortunate flaws in the book, which indeed are plural in my eyes. Primarily, the book as a work of literature I feel suffers from a lack of balance. As a curve of emotion and action, it beautifully and gently begins its upward slant at the book's beginning, methodically reintroducing characters and circumstances with an agreeable range of highs and lows, but then, towards the book's middles, the curve tends to plateau all too often, dulling the nimble wit which so gainly has kept readers enthralled over the hours and years. Finally, as the book draws to its close, the curve suddenly ramps up exponentially to its zenith heighth, only to slip down again to a calming (sappy perhaps?) epilogue. Considered as a whole, it was as if Rowling had by chapters the late 20s suddenly remembered all the important plot elements and strings that had gone thus far neglected, limp, and untied and then, realizing this, hurriedly jumped to her figuring feet and attended to it all in one swift rush of brilliance and extremity. Now, whether she had intended the curve to be so, in order that the reader (who is forced constantly to remain within Harry's mind) should commiserate with him the despair for fecklessness felt during that whole middle part, is entirely unknown to me; but, even if she did intend such, she could have just as easily still balanced herself (i. e., her writing) perhaps - if sticking to Harry's limited perspective was absolutely necessary - by fleshing out in greater livelihood the but brief and flashing stints of Voldemort's journey, seen through Harry's mind, or even by expounding the then strained relationship between Hermione and Ron. She had balance before; though she still had that wonderfully brilliant ending rise and fall, she did an excellent job of the penultimate book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. That is, she worked wonders by the Pensieve there. Yet, alas, it is sadly a flaw that she could not fully replicate her ascended greatness in the ultimate episode.
A second flaw I found in the book was the incompletely realized inclusion of symbols, all of which I had initially thought to be incredibly ripe for power. The albino peacock, I was sure, would figure more critically into her writing, a solid white thread weaved ever so carefully and early into the tapestry of the novel; but I was solidly disappointed, when the lingering, wise applications of the inclusion were not brought to fruition later on in the frame. Instead, the symbol was forgotten, becoming a loose bit only partially connected with the main work. Meanwhile, the existence of a white peacock, lodged serenely within the bounds of the dark manor, could have so easily signified the quiet, almost unnoticed, but strikingly radiant, even iconic, force that rustled similary within our hero's mind. Or, it could have been also a ripe symbol for purity, innocence, fledging masculinity, and compassionate vision. Yet, it seemed to fulfill none of these expectations and possibilities and, instead, to only be two sidelong mentions within the ~750 page text. Other examples of similarly failed symbols are the life stage of the baby (e. g., baby Harry in the photograph, baby Voldemort at King's Cross, and Lupin and Tonks' newborn), the common quality of being ornament among almost all of the Horcruxes, the quality of brokenness, and the state of wandlessness. As I've adapted, in art - all art - it isn't about what one includes but, rather, about what one excludes; and excluding the fullness of symbolism definitely hampered the book from achieving its potential as a work of literature.
Thirdly, I was a bit dismayed by how closely Ms. Rowling came to the effects found in another popular fantasy series, The Lord of the Rings. This disappointment came more from the fact that she, flirting so closely, failed to recognize or take ownership of her allusions and comparisons (and instead preferred to masquerade them as her own) than the fact that she flirted so closely in the first place. A primary example of what I mean is the effect, she described, that wearing or becoming too close to one of the Horcruxes has on a character (e. g., Ron). Such an effect is strikingly similar to the effect, Mr. Tolkien penned, that wearing the ring has on one of his characters (e. g., Frodo). Now, again, it is not this similarity that disappoints me, as many great texts and parts of texts in literature have knowingly sidled occurrences, descriptions, or effects from other texts for their own particular uses. (Consider Ms. Rowling's own use of the looking glass.) What does disappoint me is that for this effect she does not create her own particular use; the effect is quite the same as that in Rings (i. e., desparation, irritability, and hallucinations) and she goes no further than that set. She wrote quite clearly a copy, without acknowledgement, for, even if she had done just as she did do (i. e., expropriated and recommitted an published idea) but had been aware enough to own up to it (e. g., had been sure to highlight the commonalities she used or even make an overt mention of the ring), there would be no issue here. But, to use it as if it had been her very own scratches at the credibility of her fiction as an authoress and her character as a person.
Finally, however, most importantly I was utterly broken by the appalling chastity of the book. As one initially is expected to understand the series, it is clearly meant to be a conceit for adolescence, seven books written to track the commonalities of growth and maturity of that o-so-special time in a person's life through the allegorical magic of in this case more actual magic. So, by the end of the series, one should expected that the books would have covered every kind of growth and development: from the heady and abstracted emotional and psychological to the raw and occasionally downright dirty social and physical - translation: sex. Where was the sex?? The preceding three(!) books made a good run at Harry's burgeoning sexual identity, from the innocent yet cheeky sidlings of Moaning Myrtle in the prefects' pool in Goblet of Fire to the tumults and angst of fledgling relationships in both Order of the Phoenix (i. e., Harry and Cho) and Half-Blood Prince. I mean, doesn't anyone understand the intense premise of courtship behind the Yule Ball? So, then why did Ms. Rowling seem to revert the characters back to their presexual selves, instead of forging on ahead as she should have, in the ultimate chapters?? And, no, I'm not advocating that she might have turned it into a romance novella or another tawdry affair as any cheap ballustrade of $.99 bins and, no, nor am I advocating that she might have attended to random acts of perversions, simply to make the dollars. I simply argue that making-out scenes more toward the torrid, dalliances - even metaphorical - into what academics today like to call 'petting', or even the mere venture into masturbation or the incredibly easily integrable 'wet dream' could have greatly enhanced both the reality and the literature that the book, as both an individual text and the end of series, proposes. After all, isn't one prominent historical conception of sex that it is a complete surrendering, an essential death of sorts, especially for virgins? And, I say, at the very least sex is always about extremities of passion. So, where the misalignment, where the error in including it? Nay, no error in including, but rather error in excluding it. Threats of imminent death, the ending of an epic with a battle, and the very life of the protagonist on the verge of a recognized manhood as the stage, and all the authoress provides the reader are a some mere few chaste and brief - so brief! - pecks from one set of lips to another - almost anemotional! - and perhaps a sidelong and surreptitious hand-holding?!? It is laughable, and what worsens the matter further is that she does not choose to exclude sexual conduct from the book in its entirety, no: instead, she pushes it away until, not once but, twice(!) - former at the book's middle and latter in the epilogue - she juttingly implies it (i. e., by the existences of the children), lest are we all to think that in the world of Harry Potter birthings too are magical such, that it must be a coy mystification of the stork or the cabbage patch that brings babies into the world? And, no, I absolutely do not and will not ever give credence to the idea that there was pressure on her from her publishers, to erase all the 'too sexual' episodes in the book for 'the innocence of the children' - whatever that be - and I believe it not for two reasons: (1) the book was both the most anticipated printing in the history of man - excluding perhaps the advent of the press itself - and the very last in the immensely popular series and, so, there could have been no worry about public backlash and the ensuing ramifications, be they present or future, fiscal or literary, on the part of the publishers and (2) the authoress herself has become so successful from the previous books, that there could also have been no worry on her part about her future financing or her future in the publishing world. No, the entire onus of this weakness must be placed entirely on the unadventurous, caving spirit of the authoress herself, her choice making her consequences.
Now, having perhaps harshly critiqued Ms. Rowling for these several aforementioned failings and weaknesses, I must now reiterate that, despite them, her end product was not half-bad. In fact, it was good, thoroughly enjoyable and completely satisfactory as a closing. Maudlin epilogues, latent prudishness, attempted filching, and a lack of comfort in balance aside, Ms. Rowling has done what she, from those early days of napkin scribblings, had set out to do: she ended Harry Potter and did so admirably, successfully, and plainly for the world to see; and for that as well as for the unexpected side achievements that that mission has brought her and the readers of her world, to her I must, regardless of misgivings, endlessly tip my hat.

Grade: B+

19 July 2007

Aaa! Post-age

It's over. @fas is officially over. I no longer exist in the fas universe; I am post. And I never even thought to migrate all my mail. Maybe I didn't want to do it, like I feared its being yet another confirmation of the end. Now I'm all angst-y. Shit.
Relatedly: Why do delicate, urban, from-the-car(riage)--montaged film scenes, accompanied by airy, ethereal songs by people like The Radio Dept., seem to resonate so strongly with me all the time?
I have to go fall asleep to the resonatingly comforting Lost in Translation now. (See; I tied in film.)

13 July 2007

Hype: The Simpsons Movie

Kwik-E-Marts are real!!!

As the latest phase in what I'm considering the brilliant The Simpsons Movie advertising campaign, there have been transformed many unassuming little 7-11s across the nation into actual, 3-D, interactive, in your very own neighborhoods Kwik-E-Marts! Yes, it's true. You too can visit the local and beloved delicatessen for whatever your immersive/fantastically indulged heart desire. The participating stores have, not only decked themselves out fully in tried and true Simpsons regalia, but also veritably installed into your potential the purchase of Krusty-Os, Buzz Colas, Squishees, and pink doughnuts! Now, while I can't advise regarding the health impact of consuming these various treats, I can say that their very existence is beyond cool. Why cool? Because such existence, not only adds to one's not-so-secret trove of pop-culture keepsakes, but also and moreover realizes the direction in which all media have always been and are continually heading: the breakdown of the division of the real and everyday from the surreal and magical. In short, it is the zenith of media's spearhead, at the extreme forefront - even leaps beyond any competing advertising campaign - of creativity. Immersion: the 'end-all and be-all' of art!! And Kwik-E-Marts are the best, currently possible example of it!! (Needless to say, if this campaign were the film, I'd give it an A+.)

O, and I haven't forgotten the classic boysenberry couches in theater foyers either...

11 July 2007

Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Genre: Drama / Fantasy

It's 3:15am and I've just returned home, as (I'm sure) many thousands of others have, from the midnight premiere screening of this film, the latest installment filmic in the Potter series. Now, it is no secret, I was extremely disappointed and dismayed by the vast number of flaws and faults apparent in the previous installment and, so, as I marched into the theater earlier tonight, I was set upon by that recollective, familiar feeling of dashed expectant hopes for brilliance out of what has come to be a box-office-smashing, fiscally driven series. Yet, I am extremely pleased and proud to say, such doubts and feelings were quickly hurried away. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was a majorly solid piece, possessive of effective writing, apt to excellent acting, and marvellously strong visuals.
Adapted from Rowling's massive ~800-page tome, the screenplay was no doubt a monstrously complex beast to tame for the slim and comparatively brief exhibition that is the contemporary movie. So, any adaptation that does so well to include the near-perfect entirety of everything important in such a huge original source, while also to maintain a smooth and trim pacing and structure, is very good work. Condensation and filmic translation (as opposed to transliteration) were of course expected, but not to such a swift and graceful degree. And the balanced intermingling of the epic between the gloriously adolescent everyday was fresh for the series, refreshing for the film, and absolutely spot on. To tell the truth, I was only significantly disappointed personally, by the lack of the inclusion in the final scene in the department of mysteries of the curio of the bluebird hatchling, attempting to be born and fly away but doing so all in vain, endlessly in repetition, for the effect of the time vacuum of its surrounding container, a parcel which I think may be the most fantastic and profound symbol in the Potter canon to date. However, do not misunderstand me; the screenplay was not otherwise for the bird completely flawless. Yet, it was certainly great enough to allow the rest of the aspects of the film to flourish, a task which is crucial to any ambitious film's foundation, and so it was, as I say, very good work.
Now, of those other aspects of the film, which the solid play allowed to flourish, I must here specifically cite the acting, which was to me the best that we've seen of the collective group yet. Mr. Radcliffe has, either by the capable hand of the director or of his own maturity, well shaken off most of the pathetic and unripe puling that overruled most of his former acting in this series - I specifically call to mind the winter's crying scene from Azkaban - and well shaped up, to deliver an honestly good performance. Much can be said in the same manner of Ms. Watson, whose turn in Goblet of Fire can best be described as execrable. (Mr. Grint retains his awkward charms, as always.) The rest of the returning cast too seems to have shaped up, Mr. Oldman fitting his part better than ever; and the incumbent ensemble shone magnificently. Both Ms. Staunton (who, if she hadn't lost some of her terrific dynamism as the film progressed, could have turned up a Supporting Actress Oscar nom.) and Ms. Bonham Carter (who, despite her brief inclusion, towered) were joys to watch. I even took a great liking to the young Ms. Lynch, whose ethereal Luna Lovegood was beautifully captivating when watched. All in all, again, very good work.
But the truly outstanding notes must go to the visual arts workers, whose inventive and meticulous designs were spectacular. Quickly, the visual effects were perfect, the costumes quite correct, the make-up even, the art direction superb, and the cinematography surprisingly strong - it was truly excellent, to see a man pull back on the camera, away from drowning suddenness of too many closes-up (which, it is well known, tend to plague very many fast-paced, action-fraught works) and really take in the scenes, him even hitting several great moments of framing and photography throughout the film. And all of this mastery worked within the sure and tight control of the color palette, whose shadows, hues, and contrasts impressed upon the film a level of skill beyond even the good work done in this area in Azkaban.
Supreme credit for all these achievements to the director, Mr. Yates, who, I sensed, must have really communed with, not only the primary text, but also the entire Potter canon, to deliver such a rich final product.
Despite all this fawning praise that - no mistake - is well deserved, however, in the spirit of fairness I must make at least a brief note and mention the one significant shortcoming that, I felt, the film did have. Despite the witty and apt inclusion of the track "Boys Will Be Boys" by The Ordinary Boys, the musical score left me feeling unfulfilled. Perhaps it was the unfortunately comparative genius of a predecessor's, Mr. Williams', work or the aspects of the composition that made me believe it to be too forthright oftentimes, that gave me that unfulfilled feeling; but, whatever the cause, the truth remains that, while sufficient, the musical work did lack the salience that the majority of the rest of the film did have (quite in spades really). It is regrettable for me to say so, especially considering the vast improvement that this score has made over its direct predecessor (i. e., that flimsy, awkward brute by Mr. Doyle) but, much like that bird which I mentioned earlier in this piece, Mr. Hooper's attempt, though admirable, ultimately falls short and fails to be born, despite its several propitious opportunities. (Sound mixing was great nevertheless.)

And, with only ten days remaining until the details of the final chapter of the Potter series are revealed with the release of the final book, one can only hope that the future of the enterprise will continue to so pique.

Grade: B+/A-

01 July 2007

Review: Ratatouille

Genre: Drama (Animated)

Pixar's latest film, needless to say, I think, keeps up their now substantial tradition of beautiful 3-D computer animation. A wonderful display of what it and its members can do, Ratatouille however and unfortunately is not also ripe for other celebration and praise. Its beautiful sets, refined lines, and smooth characters are sadly hampered first and foremost by a weak sense of cinematography; awkward framings, disproportionate emphases, and shots with a tendency to get too close are splotched intermittently (and with no indication of pointed style) between breathtaking scenics that in consideration of the whole seem mere strokes of luck. While cinematography has never been a particularly strong suit of theirs, it has to my present recollection never before suffered such a handicapping masque on their work as it does in this, their latest piece.
The film also suffers from a jerkily structured screenplay, that most egregiously casts in a love story and a - borrowing video-game language - mid-stage villain to fill in its blanks. A greater confidence in its own ideas and choice of story would have probably saved the writers at Pixar a lot of that filling in and would have bolstered what I perceived to be the main heart of the story to be able to stand on its own, much in the way the heart of Finding Nemo did. Specifically for a moment addressing the villainy concern: it is of course important to have in a film, especially in one about an underdog or unlikely hero of sorts, to have a definite and present villain, or counter or antagonist, throughout, because - as in all art and argument - the best way to elucidate one's point is by chiaroscuro (i. e., illuminating it by arguing down the opposing perspective). I was extremely excited at the film's opening, to discover the quick and definite establishment of such a character in the marvellously executed Anton Ego, voiced by the incomparable Peter O'Toole. (It was this, O'Toole's character, whose being and scenes I enjoyed most out of everything in this film.) Yet, as the film progressed, Ego's plotline became subdued and almost forgotten due to the establishment of a new opposing force in the wretchedly obnoxious, almost slapstick head chef of Gusteau's. This duplicity in villiany, not only obscured the focus and heart of the film as an art piece and argument, but also generally destabilized and discredited the entire film from its proposed identity as an art piece, by its secondary villain's cheap-entertainment, slapstick nature. Now, admittedly an animated film, traditionally within the recent past marketed exclusively toward children, must in good business sense appeal to children and also admittedly slapstick, physical comedy is a good way to do so. I'll even go so far as to say that such comedy can be an excellent relief in good film from the mullings of the central drama. However, its use, like that of some spices, must be controlled, rarified, appropriated to the right degrees, lest it run away possibly literally with the dignity and respectability of the film. Pixar, I thought, understood this, as again I allude to Finding Nemo, but in Ratatouille they at Pixar seem to have forgotten, if they ever did understand, as such a large portion of the film is devoted solely to such haphazard tries at comedy that it undercut the film's aim (and also lost its ability to be funny in that way). Though children may laugh at it all, is that jejune laughter truly Pixar's ultimate aim? I shudder to think so, preferring instead to believe that Pixar aims at producing focused art that indeed can and perhaps even should be fun and funny but that remains sharp all the same. Blurry writing can never suffice.
Along similar lines, the attempts there were visible, of the intent to establish the film as art and to break out of the flat, static, stagnant medium of film, were dull fizzles when they should have been radiant explosions. The sequences of this nature that are the most outstanding were those in which Remi tries to explain taste and the audience is shown a black null space on top of which colorful, dancing illustrations of taste are animated. These sequences showed a significant lack of artistry, as they were too firmly grounded in the physical of both the reality of the film and the reality general. Planting an oafish Emile in front of those illustrations is far too tethering and restrictive, to allow anything of interest or beauty to truly manifest itself. The tastes are supposed to be revelatory experiences, gifted to characters who had never known or even suspected of them before. Why does Pixar fall so short in creativity by trying so inadequately and literally to express such revelations to its audience? A sequence that blended such dancing colors with perhaps metamorphoses of various foods, perhaps like the sequence in which Remi fixes the soup by throwing in all the ingredients (which is about the farthest extent to which the film breaks out of itself), probably would have communicated/expressed their goal a lot better.
Which brings me to a great point I had about film in general: the power, beauty, and quality of a film is determined primarily, as film is a visual medium, by how well the film-makers and contributors can construct an argument that is solely visual, not dialoguical or in any way audial, in their film product. (That is why voice-over narration is so often frowned upon in serious film-making.) Ratatouille, a film that could have made extensive usage of the disjunct in communication of rats from humans, instead is strongly dialogue-based, practically each new turn of the story negotiated across to the audience by direct verbal cues, a hugely unfortunate crutch of film-making.
The film finally lacks a strong score, that despite the visuals' lacking would have beefed up the work to a respectable level. Mr. Giacchino's score is fatuous and seemingly redundant of his Incredibles work, only with Parisiennes accordions tossed into the mix. A stronger, more original work could have helped sequences like the ones on taste break out into moments of greatness.
All in all, though, Ratatouille isn't an abysmal piece of work from the Pixar studios. Though not revelatory, original, dynamic, or capable in many aspects, it's still decent theater fare, especially considering its current competition. So, go see it, I guess, if only to increase your admiration for the fantastic Mr. O'Toole.

Grade: C