Friday, June 29, 2007

3 Movies in Brief

In the last couple of weeks, I have seen three movies on the big screen. They all did what they meant to do, and did it quite well.

First I saw 1408, based on a story by Stephen King. I haven't been a big fan of Stephen King's for quite a while. Between the ages of 13 and 16 or so, I read most of his books and story collections that had been written up to that time. I found his writing very uneven and, after a while, mannered and predictable. When he was at the top of his form, he could be really terrifying. The Shining, for example, cost me a week's worth of sleep. Other times, his work struck me as trashy and exploitative. The movies based on his work have tended to highlight the latter tendency, I think. Besides which, I have fallen out of love with being scared stiff as a form of entertainment. I only subject myself to it now and then, for a change of pace. So I appreciate that 1408 scared a high percentage of the heck out of me, without leaving me feeling as if I had been psychologically abused and manipulated.

It's a story of terror about a writer (played by John Cusack) who specializes in books about haunted tourist traps. He doesn't believe in ghosts, but he writes about them and helps historic, "haunted hotels" hawk their wares. One day he gets an anonymous postcard advising him to stay in room 1408 at New York's Dolphin Hotel. Even after his publisher's lawyer forces the hotel to let him stay there, the hotel manager (an uncharacteristically dapper and soft-spoken Samuel L. Jackson) tries to dissuade Cusack from staying in room 1408, where dozens of people have died - and where no one has ever made it through a night alive.

Long story short, the room is evil, and it plays with Cusack the way a cat plays with a mouse, ransacking him mentally, physically, and spiritually. In case you like a good spooking, I won't spoil any more of it. Mostly a one-man show, and mostly played out in the confines of a hotel suite, this movie nevertheless puts both its star and its set through an emotional and structural wringer, making it hard to watch and hard to look away at the same time.

To lighten my mood after seeing this last week, I went back for another show and saw Evan Almighty. This is a sequel to the Jim Carrey flick Bruce Almighty, which God (Morgan Freeman) gives a TV news reporter (Carrey) a chance to prove whether he can run the world better than the Almighty Himself. In this follow-up flick, a minor (but memorable) character from the first movie takes center stage. Steve Carell's anchorman character, last seen losing his ability to string two words together in front of a live TV audience, has somehow gotten elected to Congress and vows to "change the world." Instead his wife and three sons quickly find out that he is the same Dad as ever (too busy to spend time with them) and a congressional crook (John Goodman) finds Evan easy to manipulate into supporting his bill to develop national parks. Things start to get difficult for Evan when God tells him to build an ark, and won't take no for an answer.

It's a nice, clean, fun-for-the-whole-family type of film. Both Jim Carrey and Steve Carell have made a career out of making flagrantly offensive and tasteless movies, but this series is a surprising exception. The theology is not specifically Christian (one of the few references to the faith of the New Testament is, for example, a sight gag where a theatre marquee says "Now Showing: The 40-Year-Old Virgin Mary"). It is more the kind of inoffensive, vanilla, popular religion one used to see on the TV series Touched By An Angel. God says, "I love you." He smiles gently and gives heart-warming advice. He turns out to be completely right, and all the characters learn a lesson. It says nothing that anyone could disagree with, though churchgoers will be pleased that at least (for a change) a movie isn't flat-out insulting everyone who believes in God. Which is pretty faint praise from a theologian, but hey - it's all done with a light touch and plenty of humor, including a montage of Steve Carell repeatedly hitting his thumb with a hammer and, miraculously, not saying anything unsuitable for general audiences.

Finally, today I went to see Ratatouille. This is one of this summer's movies that I have awaited most eagerly: a Pixar computer-animated feature directed by Brad Bird, who previously directed two of my favorite animated movies, The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. This one was about a rat named Remy who finds his way to Paris and aspires to become a great chef. The jerk who put together the trailer for this movie should be whipped (flagellated, not pureed) with linguine, because the trailer gave away way too much of the film. Nevertheless it was a delightful comedy, full of appetizing imagery, romance, friendship, belly-laughs, and a good variant of the old "kid tells his Dad off and makes something special of himself against all odds" storyline.

The chefs, critics, and rats in this movie are voiced by such actors as Ian Holm (a.k.a. "Bilbo Baggins"), Peter O'Toole, Brian Dennehy, Janeane Garofalo, and Brad Garrett. It's a fast-moving, visually engaging tale, enhanced by beautiful Parisian skylines, expressive animated characters, and moments of brilliant visual storytelling (my favorite being the food critic's reaction when he tastes the titular dish). In short, Brad Bird proves once again to be either a filmmaking genius, or at least the team leader of a collective genius. The ratio of adults to kids in the audience (for a 7:10 p.m. show on Friday night, mind you) was far higher than most animated films, but this was a very responsive audience that shared many good-natured laughs and, as the end credits rolled, applauded the screen. The last film I saw that had such a warm reception was...let's see...The Incredibles!

OK, maybe there was a Harry Potter movie since then, but you know Harry Potter fans; just seeing the Warner Bros. logo accompanied by Hedwig's Theme drives them bonkers with joy. I'll have more to say on this subject in a couple of weeks.

Finally, there was a short movie preceding the main feature tonight. This has been Pixar's standard practice, and sometimes the short is just as memorable as the feature. Their new animated short was titled Lifted. It begins with a flying saucer appearing over a lonely farmhouse; a beam shines down on the bedroom window where a farmer is fast asleep; an alien abduction is about to take place. But almost immediately, it takes a wacky turn. Entirely without dialogue, the short subject was nevertheless full of wit and warmth.

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