June 2007

‘Rat’ Packs Light, Easy Film

by Ian T. McFarland on June 29, 2007

in Movie Reviews 

Ratatouille might be the most disappointing film of the summer – when you can find the names of Pixar and Brad Bird in a film’s credits, you’re usually in a position to expect great things.  Though this rat can’t live up to those names like this writer was hoping, it’s still is Pixar and it still is Brad Bird, and that by itself should be enough to make the film enjoyable, if nothing else.

3 & 1/2 Stars

There’s no greater dynasty in Hollywood today than Pixar.  Since day one, they’ve been putting out good product that grosses well into nine digits, and despite the scores of other computer animated films trying to copy the studio’s ironclad formula, no one even comes close to making it work.  It’s because of this that, even when the studio puts out as fine as a film as Ratatouille, it’s still a let-down that leaves you thinking there should have been more.

Remy is a rat that wants to cook; so when he meets a no-talent chef in need of some help, it’s a match made in heaven.  Unsurprisingly, there are a few hurdles to get through before everyone’s all-smiles, but it’s a family movie where everyone is happy (except the bad guy, who totally deserved it anyway.)  Easy as pie, without ever getting too complicated.  But the dudes at Pixar know how to tell a story – from fresh and full character designs, delicate humor that’s hilarious without being offensive and enough detail and ambiance poured in the streets of Paris to fill a library, seeing a Pixar film has always been more of an experience than just about all of Hollywood’s output, and Ratatouille is no exception.

So what’s wrong with the film?  There are plenty fine ingredients that come together wonderfully in the movie, it’s just that nothing really sticks out.  The visuals and the humor are never enough to push this only decent and sometimes lackluster script through to the level of creating the great film that I’ve come to hope for out of Pixar.  Really, there doesn’t seem to be a thing wrong with the film in the slightest, but it’s only good, not great.

The Pixar machine, after a spotless streak, is starting to slow.  They followed Finding Nemo and The Incredibles with the half-there, half-not effort of Cars, and now there’s Ratatouille to add to the mix.  But what’s worth mentioning is that the guys are still at the absolute peak of computer animation in a world where it’s the flavor of the week.  As disappointing as Ratatouille may be for me, imagine what it would be like if it were produced by the guys behind the Shrek franchise – it’d probably just be another parade of fart jokes that the theater would unreasonably expect you to pay $10 for.  Pixar might not be the invincible studio it was not even five years ago, but it’s still bounds ahead of anyone else.

Ratatouille is damn charming.  I can’t say that it lives up to some of Pixar’s other films; but with a line of work so long and so successful, the studio is sure to be the next Disney of animation – Ratatouille just won’t be a highlight.

Leave No Patient Behind

by Alan Rapp on June 29, 2007

in Movie Reviews 

I have a friend who walked out of the screening of Sicko and pronounced it the best film of the year.  I won’t go that far, but I will say Michael Moore’s latest documentary is an eye-opener and a sad commentary on the American healthcare system as it exposes the a truth many in power don’t want you to realize: socialized medicine just may not be as evil as we have been led to believe.  Moore’s documentary will make you astonished and ashamed at just how willing insurance companies and the US Government, are to let their citizens die without proper medical coverage, which they could receive in a number of other countries, simply to make a fast buck.  Go see Sicko and then get organized people; this problem is not going away.

4 Stars

I like Michael Moore the filmmaker and respect him as a political advocate, but man can he get on my nerves!  Though I have enjoyed may of Moore’s films the one complaint I always come away disappointed with how he forces himself into the story and tends to showoff for the camera with crazy publicity stunts he forces into each film.  Sicko is no exception to that rule, though for the first time in a long time Moore takes on an important issue without clear-cut “heroes” and “villains” on either side of the political landscape.  The United States, he shows us, is one where Americans are guaranteed the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, just not always the right to live.  Though he paints a dark view of the insurance industry, they aren’t the real villains in the film.  The villains, and the victims, it seems are both the American people who tolerate the broken healthcare system because for so long they’ve been sold a bill of goods that there’s nothing better available and have been made so fearful of the government they don’t dare demand something better.  Well, for those people especially, here’s a look at how healthcare systems are flourishing in other countries and the devastating effect of America’s poor healthcare on its citizens.

The documentary is straightforward as Moore establishes his premise of examining the healthcare industry and spends the film showcasing those who are left behind, either to lack of health insurance or to the insurance companies which cover them refusing coverage for necessary, and possibly life-saving, treatment for their medical conditions.

For me the most interesting parts of the film are the travels to other countries including Canada, England, France, and Cuba and examining how the healthcare systems in those countries work.

One of the biggest lies ever told in the history of this country is that socialized medicine could never work and that government run healthcare would be too expensive and less reliable that privatized healthcare.  Moore’s documentary proves this to be a bald-faced lie as he looks at the creation of the insurance industry and the reasoning behind it, and presents a refreshing realization that there may indeed be a better way.

One of the most intriguing moments is when Moore sits down for dinner with a group of Americans living and working in Paris.  Together they discuss the ease and high-level of medical care and wellness and sick prevention given to them by their companies.  It seems so implausible given the American system it will leave many Americans stunned.  Along with the sobering realization that Americans, due to its current broken system, are falling further and further behind in terms of health and life expectancy.  We’re getting sicker and dying as others are flourishing under systems deemed too expensive and impractical, and politicians still tout our healthcare system?  That takes some kind of nerve, or a great deal of stupidity.

Moore does stumble once or twice while trying to showboat by rounding up a large group of Americans in need of healthcare, all ignored by their own insurance companies for treatment they have paid premiums for, and renting boats to take them to Guantanamo Bay.  Why Guantanamo you ask?  Well, it seems the worst terrorists in the world get better healthcare than any average American citizen can ever hope to achieve, no matter the policy.  While it makes a good point, Moore, as he is often prone to do it these stunts, goes too far in showboating for the camera.  Thankfully it is one of the few moments where it occurs.  By comparison, taking a small group into a Cuban hospital to get the care they need is a remarkable and touching scene that shows both the level of competence and training in their doctors, but also the need and responsibility to help those who are sick which seems to be missing in many US hospitals.  Compared to the horror stories Moore relays from many thousands of Americans, including 9/11 workers denied benefits for years, it will leave you ashamed.

Let them eat asprin. Heh, heh, heh.

In a world where Republicans shout “No Child Left Behind” we are leaving millions of Americans, many who are children, at a terrible disadvantage by refusing them the proper medical treatment they need, and would receive in other countries.  Could socialized medicine work it this country?  Yes, though it would mean paying taxes which many are reluctant to do.  However, imagine the alternative of sending the money you currently spend on your health insurance directly to taxes, and then when you need medical care getting anything and everything you need free of charge.  No charge for the hospital stay.  No charge for aspirin or medication, no charge for test or surgery.  No charge for an emergency room visit or a ride in an ambulance.  No hassle of bargaining or threatening an insurance agency who refuses or balks to pay for treatment.  No hassle, just walk in, get the medical care you need and walk out.  So simple; it’s hard to believe we aren’t willing to give it a try.

Government run healthcare works in many developed countries around the world and their citizens are healthier and with longer life expectancies than current Americans.  The truth is that Americans have a guaranteed right not only to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but also to life and until they are willing to fight for the right to adequate health resources that citizens from other countries are given simply by paying taxes rather than putting our faith into an insurance industry that wants to bleed us dry and kill us without ever putting up money for expensive procedures, we will be a sick country for a long time.


by Alan Rapp on June 29, 2007

in Movie Reviews 

I’m not a big anime fan, but the idea behind this film of a machine that could invade your dreams brought the sci-fi geek ready and willing to give this film a a shot.  Paprika isn’t a great film, but it is an entertaining one with terrific animation, a strong story, and some intriguing ideas about dreams and reality.  For fans of the genre should be pleased, and it might even satisfy a few others, who like me, aren’t big fans of anime but are just looking for new and interesting stories told in a compelling way.

3 & 1/2 Stars

“This is your brain on anime.”

Scientists have created a new experimental dream machine which allows therapists to enter a person’s dreams in an attempt to help them with their problems from inside their own mind.  When several of the machines are stolen, however, everyone who has ever used the machine becomes susceptible to its influence, whether asleep or awake, and the walls between reality and dreams break down.

Attempting to retreive the device and stop the criminal are a beautiful scientist (Megumi Hayashibara) who lives as ‘Paprika” a sort of guide and savior for those trying to understand and overcome their fears and doubts in their dreams, and a cop (Akio Otsuka) who is haunted by dreams of a recent case.

The film is a more straightforward mystery than many anime films, which is probably why I enjoyed more than most.  In the final act however as the walls between reality and dreams breakdown it marches proudly into crazywackofuntown as the higher ideas and discussions of the film are lost in unleashed chaos.

The ideas of invading one’s dreams and then having the ability to inflict others with the fevered dreams and nightmaes of strangers is a terrific hook for the film.  A dream machine might be a wonderful thing, but, as shown here, in the hands of the wrong person it could a terrible weapon.  The film succeeds as a sci-fi film and as mystery, and although I got a little bored when the story started to drag as the craziness took over in the final third of the film, it comes together in a satisfactory ending.  It is not a must-see, but for fans of something different and more thought-provoking than the usual summer fare you might want to invite Paprika into your dreams.

One Disappointing Evening

by Alan Rapp on June 28, 2007

in Movie Reviews 

Evening isn’t a disaster.  It contains several good performances from its talented cast and does a fair job of recreating the time period of the 1950’s.  I know that I’m not exactly the target audience for this film, which I assume is white women over the age of 60 with much more time and patience than I was willing to give, but the film wastes its talent, and the audience’s time, on a long, tedious, and drawn-out story that just left me bored.

2 Stars

The late great film critic Gene Siskel had a simple standard he held all films to when he judged whether or not they were worth seeing.  He would simply ask himself, “Is this film more or less interesting than watching the same people (the actors in the film) eat dinner?”  Well, according to that criteria, and others, Evening is a real letdown.

The untold story of Ann Grant (Claire Danes) is told to us through a series of flashbacks to the 1950’s and a fateful weekend which changed her life forever.  Balanced against the past events is the present where a much older Ann (Vanessa Redgrave) is dying and being cared for by her two daughters, the responsible married mother Constance (Natasha Richardson) and the spirited screw-up Nina (Toni Collette).  The pair seem to only agree on one thing, that they don’t agree.

The balance of the film is odd, as much of the middle of the film is one long flashback ignoring the life and death struggle of Ann, and the individual struggles of her daughters.  The whole set-up seems strange as we are allowed to view Ann’s past, but her daughters are not.  Ann doesn’t tell them the story of her life; she only dreams it in her drug induced state.  Also troubling is the drama unfolding in the present, which finally comes to fruition in the films closing moments, is much more interesting than any of the flashbacks.

This film feels like a book which was adapted by someone unwilling to accept the necessary changes in the format.  The story may work well in the original novel by Susan Minot, but comes off here unfocused and more than a tad boring on screen.

Even with these problems there are several nice performances, mostly by the women in the cast including Danes, Collette, Regrave, and Mamie GummerGlenn Close and Meryl Streep also stop by in what are little more than cameos with little to no impact on the main plot of the film.  One huge casting fault is to cast a pair of leading men in Patrick Wilson and Hugh Dancy who are about as exciting as watching paint dry.  No, paint drying would be a party to these guys.  Nor do either fit their roles particularily well, though the each give a respectable performance.  Dancy, as the madcap alcoholic, provides some cheap laughs but is impossible to take seriously, and nothing about Wilson’s character gives us any clue to why the women find him so charming or desirable.

A final note about the script which calls for Danes’ character to be a nightclub singer.  Danes’ has a nice enough voice, but hardly one that would generate the oohs and ahhs she receives when performing or would allow her to make a career out of doing so.  The flashbacks are meant to imply she was a good singer who never made it because of her life’s tragedies, but due to Danes limited singing ability it comes off quite differently.

Evening isn’t a bad film, and I have no doubt that there will be many who will look past its obvious flaws and enjoy the movie for the strong female performances and the overall style and look at the film.  I appreciate both, but no film this drab and boring, no matter how well dressed or performed, is one I can recommend.  Although I enjoyed moments in the film, mostly in the final twenty-five minutes, overall I was left with a sense of disappointment and regret that the film couldn’t find a way to engage me in any real way.

Tube Watch

by Alan Rapp on June 28, 2007

in Television Reviews , Uncategorized

Tonight on NBC at 10:00/9:00 Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the show which both Ian and I have championed all year long, airs its series finale.  Despite a talented cast and some damn good writing Aaron Sorkin‘s show behind a show received the axe from NBC execs earlier this year.  With a style and grace Sorkin attacked television, the liberal left, the religious right, advertisers, “reality”-TV, and explored relationships of some memorable characters (continue reading in the Full Diagnosis)

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Tonight on NBC at 10:00/9:00 Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the show which both Ian and I have championed all year long, airs its series finale.  Despite a talented cast and some damn good writing Aaron Sorkin‘s show behind a show received the axe from NBC execs earlier this year.  With a style and grace Sorkin attacked television, the liberal left, the religious right, advertisers, “reality”-TV, and explored relationships of some memorable characters given life by terrific performers such as Matthew Perry, Amanda Peet, Bradley Whitford, Sarah Paulson, and many others.  It was the only show from this last year I made sure to catch every week and failed, in no small part, for being correct about the type of television which networks can sell to American audiences (NBC has decided instead to go with a cheaper karaoke-themed “reality”-TV show for next year).  Simply put, it was too smart and too well-made and thus doomed to cancellation.  To the talented cast and crew, thanks for the memories of your all too brief time on the air; we barely got to know you, but know that you were appreciated and will be missed.