Thursday, July 12, 2007

Movies I've Seen: A Long-Overdue Update, Part I

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - My internship is going well, but today I felt like taking a break from updates about the Wall Street Journal to (finally!) put in some words about some of the films I've been watching recently. Yes, I'm still watching those, and trying to do my best to keep up a one-movie-a-day quota. I've seen some interesting stuff (though I highly doubt I'll get to all of them today).

Unfortunately, Live Free or Die Hard (** out of ****) can't be said to be one of them. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. As can be evidenced by this piece I wrote for the film blog The House Next Door last year, I am a big fan of the original 1988 Die Hard; as far as modern-day action films go, I haven't really seen a more effectively thrilling fusion of high-tech special effects, suspense, character development, emotion and witty humor. But as far as its sequels go, only Die Hard With a Vengeance---tellingly, directed by the same man who took the helm of Die Hard, the underrated John McTiernan---has come close to recapturing that magical fusion. This most recent third sequel strikes me as more aligned with the breathless---if rather soulless---action pyrotechnics of Die Hard 2: the action pretty much never stops from the word "go. "(At least Len Wiseman, the director of Die Hard 4, has enough human decency not to feel the need to kill off 200+ innocent people in a tragedy---and then barely make a mention of it afterwards---as Renny Harlin does in Die Hard 2 just to show us what a coldblooded asshole the villain is.)

Even more so than in Die Hard 2 or Vengeance, however, Live Free or Die Hard feels more like an action cartoon than ever, and though Bruce Willis's wisecracking cop has acquired some welcome world-weariness over the years since No. 3 (in 1995), he's even more of a superhero than one might remember from the original. So while the original film made a point of seeing McClane bruised and bloodied as he tried to keep himself alive---in one memorable scene, he was forced to walk on glass in order to escape from Hans Gruber's clutches, and a few shots later we saw him crawling on his back into a bathroom with blood coming out of his cut-up foot---he barely seems to sustain any life-threatening injuries in this new incarnation of Die Hard. Surprising, indeed, considering that he has to duck from cars flying in the air, fight a baddie while trapped in a car in an elevator shaft, fly a helicopter on only a few lessons' experience, and more. In short---and this should be properly credited to Matt Zoller Seitz from his review of the film on the aforementioned House Next Door---he seems more like Superman and less like everyman. And McClane's ordinary-guy nature was part of what seemed so disarmingly fresh about him in 1988, especially in the midst of the pandering macho action cartoons of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in the '80s up to then. Not that McClane has quite become as cartoonish as John Rambo, but everything that happens to him in Live Free or Die Hard has a cartoon weightlessness that takes it far away from the McClane I knew and loved in the original.

Many people are giving backhanded praise to this film for basically being an old-school action flick reliant on stunts rather than CGI to dazzle. Certainly I'd sit through Die Hard 4 again rather than sit through Pirates of the Caribbean 3 once. But the movie, on a whole, struck me as fairly generic stuff, and while some of the action is quite amazing to see---particularly one towards the end where McClane, driving a truck, has to face off against a fighter jet on a highway---without the emotional weight behind the action to make us really care all that much about what happens to anyone onscreen except in the most perfunctory ways, there isn't much to remember from this film except mechanical pleasures (of which there are certainly a few). And as for its topical hacker-shuts-down-parts-of-America plot: despite some interesting twists and turns, I couldn't help but feeling that this kind of comic-book exploitation of real-world fears felt like too little, too late especially after sitting through six seasons' worth of ever-worse terrorist plots on 24, a TV show which certainly owes something of its existence to Die Hard, John McClane, and maybe to 20th Century Fox. (Like McClane in this new film, Jack Bauer seems to get no personal satisfaction even as he's saving the world on a consistent basis.) Besides, the typical summer action-movie ethos---more bang for your buck---eventually takes over and leaves whatever tantalizing threads there are in the plot pretty much buried.

You mostly get what you pay for in Live Free or Die Hard (although, yes, because of the PG-13 rating, McClane's immortal "Yippee-kayyay, motherfucker" line gets muffled when it gets to the f-bomb part---a slight disappointment, because aren't you allowed one "fuck" even in a PG-13 movie?), but not much more than that. I got more overall pleasure, then, out of Brad Bird's new animated feature, Ratatouille (***½ out of ****)---which, believe it or not, uses its story about a rat with a love of cooking as a springboard for a meditation on art-making, the agonies and ecstasies that go with it.

"Anybody can cook," claims Chef Gusteau (voiced by Brad Garrett), the cook that inspires Remy the rat (voiced by Patton Oswalt) to become a passionate food connoisseur and wannabe chef. But, if Brad Bird's previous feature The Incredibles indicated anything, it's that Bird is not one to necessarily subscribe to that view. Clearly, there are some people that can cook---and, by extension, create good art---better than others. Remy is obviously a better cook than the hapless human Linguini (voiced by Lou Romano), who's really only looking for a steady job and becomes known as a great cook by accident (thanks to Remy, who helps him create a satisfying soup while Linguini only tries to cover up a spill early on in the film). Certainly, that doesn't mean that only the great chefs deserve to be cooking food; it's just that the great ones deserve to be pointed out and celebrated, just like the superhero family at the heart of The Incredibles, most of whom suffered when their naturally heroic instincts were stifled in bland, ordinary suburbia.

And professional critics, Ratatouille suggests, don't necessarily have a monopoly on good taste. This tendency toward arrogance is exemplified by Anton Ego (voiced, sublimely as usual, by Peter O'Toole), who is at first presented as a classic kid's-movie cartoon villain, bathed in chiaroscuro shadows and given a scary stare as he discovers, to his displeasure, that the restaurant he panned---Gusteau's---is now re-emerging as a major force in the Parisian restaurant scene. He is initially quite fearsome in his stubbornness, in his belief that he has the power to influence public opinion above anyone else, that he has greater taste than anyone. But Bird---who also wrote the screenplay---reveals his trump card in the concluding moments of this film when Ego finds out the truth about who's been making the food at Gusteau's that he now enjoys so much. Ego, in voiceover, ends the film with a beautiful, multifaceted speech that can be read either as a celebration or as a criticism of critics. Indeed, what right do we have to judge the works of others, since we basically just sit in judgment and some of us---myself included---do not actually create art ourselves? And yet---if the rest of Ratatouille suggests anything---isn't the search for beauty and pleasure something worth pursuing? For all of us, not just the professional critics?

Obviously, that's the part that sealed my absolute love of this movie for me, speaking to me as a moviegoer who likes to think he's part of that pursuit. Of course, a movie that dares to take on the subject of art---doing it through a story set in the cooking world, and creating characters that suggest the various ways art and commerce may intertwine (one of the main chefs, for instance, wants to create a Gusteau's franchise, a proposition of which Linguini inadvertently gets in the way)---risks viewers asking the question of whether the film itself could be considered art. I guess, then, I'll just wimp out by saying that it might be too early to speculate on that point, that time usually determines the lasting value of a work (heck, I wasn't even willing to call Inland Empire "art," as much as I loved and admired it). Let's just say that Ratatouille is not only beautifully animated and pleasurable to look at (though in a less immediate Pop Art way than The Incredibles), but it also strikes me as admirably unpretentious itself---a movie about the pleasures of art that doesn't knock you over the head with its own artistry. In a way, its near-total lack of pretension works hand-in-hand with Brad Bird's view of art: perhaps not everyone could make a movie like Ratatouille, but anyone can certainly enjoy it.

I think I'll leave it at that for now. Sicko, Black Book and Mario Bava perhaps await Part II.

No comments: