Monday, June 25, 2007

Review: Live Free Or Die Hard (2007)

Live Free Or Die Hard
126 minutes
Rated PG-13

By Scott Mendelson

For the last two months, the story around Live Free Or Die Hard (aka Die Hard IV) has been Fox's decision to rework the film for the sake of getting a PG-13 rating. Of course, the original three Die Hard films were hard-R, with graphic violence, pervasive profanity, and a general rough-and-tumble quality that were (along with the Lethal Weapon films) the standard bearers of adult action entertainment for about a decade. Having now seen the film, I now ask Fox what exactly it was thinking, but not for the reason you think.

The film is still brutally violent, with an on screen body count that nearly exceeds the combined totals of parts 1 and 3 (part 2, with its two passenger airplane crashes, is still the
record holder). There are point-blank executions galore, and many vicious fight scenes, gruesome explosions, and fatal car wrecks. Point being, fans of the series should know that this is still a rough, profane, and violent adult action film. On the other hand, it's a sorry state for the MPAA when this is considered more appropriate for children than the previous entries just because there is less blood and no one says the 'f' word (the way they work in McClane's catchphrase within these confines is surprisingly effective).

However, for those who are old enough to attend middle school or drive a car, this is a surprisingly effective large-scale adventure picture. The plot involves Timothy Olyphant as a rogue ex-government agent attempting to shut down the country by hacking into our electrical systems. Ironically, the story progression in the first act often resembles Willis's terrific 16 Blocks from last year, albeit with emotional heft traded in for elaborate shootouts and fights. The action scenes are set-up in a way to mirror the claustrophobia and vulnerability of the original film. With the exception of a third act True Lies rip-off, the action bits are relatively creative and the filmmakers were smart to fill the villain roster with notable sidekicks and thugs. Maggie Q does king-fu and District B-13's Cyril Raffaelli does his 'parkour' wall-bouncing thing, alas all too briefly.

As for our star, a bald Bruce Willis slides back into his signature role with a minimum of fuss. The main qualms come with the heavy-handed treatment of the generation gap between McClane and the villain, as well as Willis's accidental sidekick (Justin Long plays a computer geek who's apparently too young to have heard of the classic song 'Fortunate Son'). Also, the screenplay goes a little overboard in re-establishing McClane as a bitter pill who only reluctantly saves the day (the opening scene is also a little creepy as McClane is shown basically stalking his college-aged daughter). Justin Long comes off better than expected, thanks to a subplot that deals with his guilt for having inadvertently helped cause the chaos that unfolds. For most of the film, he is not hip or cool, but scared and slightly ashamed.

Speaking of that college-aged daughter, the third act stumbles by allowing Lucy McClane to be abducted by the villains, which is unfortunate, as the character has been kidnapped in at least two Die Hard video games. Since the conflict between McClane and the evil Gabriel is established and Long spends much of the film in mortal peril, there is no reason to pull out this most tired of clichés.

Regardless of past whiffs (the Underworld films), director Len Wiseman proves capable of pulling together a solid, crowd-pleasing action vehicle that showcases authentic top-notch stunt work and quality fight choreography. As a bonus, the supporting cast is filled with reliable character actors. Cliff Curtis is solid as the head government agent dealing with the mess, although Zeljko Ivanek is so wasted that I was sure he was going to be revealed as a traitor in the third act.

I still question Fox's decision to dub out the f-words in order to get that PG-13 (the bad dubbing is pretty funny at times), since they've now created a film that is still inappropriate for younger
children but whose rating may scare off or offend hard-action junkies. And, if Fox wants the family audience, why are they opening this against Pixar's Ratatouille?

Studio politics aside, Live Free Or Die Hard is a fun, well-crafted adult action film. So far, with this and Rocky Balboa, we're 2 for 2 in 80s nostalgia revamps. This gives me hope for Rambo IV (which will be a hard-R), to say nothing of the much anticipated (and somewhat feared) fourth Indiana Jones film. It's not a patch on the original, or the underrated Die Hard 2: Die Harder, but it is about as good as Die Hard With A Vengeance. It doesn't "Die Hardest", but it doesn't "Die Hardly" either.

Grade: B

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Review: Ratatouille (2007)

110 minutes
Rated G

By Scott Mendelson

One of the tragic consequences of our hurried age is our acceptance of less. We are too busy to pay attention to current events, so we demand our news be delivered in easily digestible sound bites that often obscure the real issues. We are too busy to truly enjoy dining, so we settle for fast food and chain restaurants that use the same frozen ingredients that can be found in a grocery store. Never mind smelling the roses, we are often too busy or stressed to even acknowledge those roses.

Pixar and Disney's Ratatouille is a celebration of that which is better than expected, finer than demanded, and a cut above to that which we settle for. Of course, all of those adjectives can be used to describe the movie itself, as it validates excellence by being embarrassingly superior to other 'acceptable' cartoons. It is, along with the stunningly overachieving Meet The Robinsons, a call to arms from Disney to all of its rivals in the realm of the cartoon feature. It shames the makers of the pedestrian Shrek The Third and does unmentionable horrors to Happily N'Ever After. Disney has rebounded from three years of mediocrity (Cars, Chicken Little, The Wild) and it is a joyous revival. Disney is back in prime form and lovers of quality can rejoice.

Some plot, in brief... Set in modern day Paris, France, this charming cartoon concerns the hopes and dreams of a single rat named Remy (Patton Oswald). He lives with his rat family, yet scorns the low-quality dining options that are available (i.e.- garbage). For Remy, food is not just fuel, but art to be savored and appreciated. He yearns to cook like the late, fabled chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett), who once ran the finest restaurant in Paris but died brokenhearted when his restaurant was ruined by a review from a scolding, influential critic (Peter O'Toole, doing his best Vincent Price impression). By happenstance, Remy quickly finds his way inside the kitchen of the legendary eatery and his arrival is simultaneous with that of Linguini (Lou Romano), a nervous would-be dishwasher who also yearns for better things.

That's all you get, for the wonderfully literate screenplay is full of genuine surprises. That the film is peerlessly drawn and richly animated is a given; yet the work should not go unnoticed. Like Meet The Robinsons, the cast is filled with real voice over talent with only a token amount of celebrities (all of whom deliver real performances of warmth and passion). The score by Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles, Lost) is lively and completely different from his previous stellar work. The technical credits are all peerless and they only serve to supplement a wonderfully clever story.

The film is perhaps the first mainstream American cartoon that is truly intended for adults. Yes, kids will enjoy it, but this celebration of talent over luck and high class dining versus frozen microwaved meals is aimed at intelligent adults' pleasure center. The manic mayhem is kept to a minimum and the comedy is subtle and sharp. At its base, it is a character drama about those who refuse to settle for their place in society, not because they can't fit in, but because they want to contribute more. It is also, in a fashion, about the joys of discovering that glorious 'superior'. There is a monologue towards the end that is stunningly beautiful, an ode to the joys of finding new treasures and new wonders to behold. Nothing beats finding something that, to paraphrase Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, you love so much that it hurts.

The film is also a declarative yelp against the acceptance of mediocrity. Why shouldn't we demand better food, better movies and better politicians? Pixar, as a company, has always been a stand-in for Hollywood's best-case scenario (talent + resources + heart + commitment to character and story = success!). Director Brad Bird asks: why shouldn't every movie be as good as this? And if they are not, why should we give them a pass? Ratatouille demands better by being much better than we are accustomed to. Ratatouille IS a movie that is so good that it hurts.

Grade: A

Note - If you can arrange it, make sure you have dining reservations after the movie, preferably somewhere you've never tried before. And for another food-related masterpiece, track down Big Night, a 1996 comedy starring Tony Shaloub and Stanley Tucci as brothers attempting to operate a small restaurant.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Review: Sunshine (2007)

105 minutes
Rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Sunshine is a movie that really denies a reason for its own existence. It knows what it wants to be, but fails to truly follow through with its intentions. Like 28 Days Later, director Danny Boyle's previous genre picture (the charming Millions was a family film of the best kind), Sunshine yearns to be a genre film pared down to its core and with plausibility as the primary mechanism of suspense or terror. But, like former film, it lacks the courage of its convictions and cops out in the most insulting way possible as its second act comes to a close. And, since the first two acts do little to differentiate this film from its ancestors, it invalidates itself by its own failure of imagination.

The plot, in brief: It is the year 2057 and the Earth is dying. No, there is not a giant asteroid or comet heading for Earth, nor has global warming remade the world, nor even has the Earth's axis stopped spinning. No, this time the culprit of our destruction is the Sun itself. The Sun has stopped burning and the Earth has been doomed by a dark ice age ever since. The Icarus II is the second vessel to attempt salvation, via dropping a nuclear bomb into the Sun. As this frazzled crew (containing, among others, Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Cliff Curtis, and Chris Evans) nears completion of their mission, they come upon a signal that is apparently being sent by the first Icarus, which disappeared seven years ago. Ok, next time interstellar journeymen encounter a long lost ship, might they consider investigating this ship and its mysteries AFTER they complete their mission, on the way back home perhaps?

Sunshine basically attempts to be an art house version of the 'we must journey into space or into Earth to save Earth' picture. But the Incredible Journey-type film has been done indie-style before. If you want ponderous, pretentious art-house discussions about the nature of love and humanity, try the Solaris remake (2002). If you want the quirky-character-driven version, try the severely underrated and ridiculously entertaining The Core (2003), which imagines character-actors like Hillary Swank, Aaron Eckhart, Delroy Lindo, and Stanley Tucci as world-saving geniuses. Sunshine offers very little that is new and interesting.

The characters are cardboard, with only the goodwill for these worthy actors anchoring our emotional investment. Even 1997's Event Horizon (itself a horror remake of the original Solaris) had more fleshed out characters than this allegedly high-class sci-fi picture. Fair warning... spoiler-phobes may want to skip the next paragraph as I discuss the fatally misguided third act.

I bring up Event Horizon (an underrated and supremely terrifying theater experience) because there is a third-act development that completely kills any interest. Yes the characters are nearly thin but the production values are sharp, the dialogue is crisp, and there is a token amount of excitement during the set pieces. Alas, at about the 70-minute mark, Danny Boyle again shoots himself in the foot by deciding to end his picture in the most generic, superficial, and overwrought manner possible. Just as 28 Days Later went from grimly realistic zombie epic to a 'shirtless and buff he-man storms the castle to save the helpless females from lustful villains' dud, Sunshine goes from contemplative 'save the world from itself' fable to 'and then there were none' horror show. Heck, a character even makes a joke about that cliché halfway through the film, to no avail it seems. Furthermore, the final scenes are shot in super claustrophobic and tight-angles where we never even get a good look at the antagonist. We become geographically lost as to where our heroes are, where the villain lurks, and what still needs to be done if the original mission is to succeed. It's just a mess.

Without the courage of its convictions, Sunshine has no real reason to exist. Its generic finale negates its appeal as a clinical space epic, while it fails to terrify or intrigue as a pure science- fiction picture. Regardless of its flaws, 28 Days Later still somewhat worked as a reinvention of the long-dormant zombie picture. But Sunshine belongs to a film-type that has many, many variations, depending on your poison. For a pure pulpy horror show, go with Event Horizon (and be reminded again, why you should never, ever travel with Sam Neill). For a character-driven almost comedic approach, try The Core. For a somber, empathetic look at the looming end of the world, try Deep Impact. For a gung-ho pure action adventure variation, there's always, um... Armageddon. Without a vision and follow-through all its own, Sunshine has no reason to rise.

Grade: C


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