Friday, June 29, 2007

Culinary Rat Pack | Ratatouille

Brad Bird who gave the world The Incredibles, returns with the hilarious story of a mouse who can only smell the sweet smell of cooking success in animated film, Ratatouille (*** ½ stars).

The film tells the delightful story of a rat named Remy. While his rat colony searches for food, Remy dreams of culinary delights. He spends his days poring over cookbooks and watching celebrated chef Gusteau cooking show. His fortunes take a turn for the better when he is separated from his family and friends escaping the home of an angry inhabitant.

Remy finds himself in the home of fine dining, Paris, and immediately is drawn to Chef Gusteau’s restaurant, where he hooks up with bistro’s new garbage boy, Linguini. He forms a friendship with the introverted boy using him as a human puppet to fulfill his culinary dreams. Linguini becomes the chef du jour, creating tasty dishes with the help of his four-legged friend. But when the bistro’s nosy and selfish proprietor senses that something is not right, the two outcasts form an unlikely friendship that will test Remy’s tolerance with humans and help Linguini find his true love.

While Ratatouille is delightful and fun-filled, one has to wonder who the target audience for this film is. The film possesses too much story for children but is not the type of movie that older audiences typically attend without them.

While this flick firmly establishes Bird as a rising-star director in animated films, it would be interesting to see him direct a live-action feature.

Discussing themes such as family acceptance and getting in touch with your “inner child,” Remy is probably the first rat since Ben that is sure to be embraced. Ratatouille is rah-rah fun!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Last Old-School Action Hero

In what must surely be a record for an action hero, Bruce Willis returns after twelve years giving life to his signature character, Detective John McClane in the fourth installment of the Die Hard franchise, Live Free or Die Hard (**½ stars). While the film features a strong setup, the finale returns to often-familiar territory.

A virtual terrorist, Thomas Gabriel (Tim Olyphant) has hired a group of the world’s best computer hackers to write a program that will assist him in shutting down various branches of the government. This “fire sale” (named because “everything must go;” in his mind, all areas of the government) will create panic, sending the country into chaos. To cover his tracks, Gabriel kills each of the hackers, but one, Matt Farrell (Apple Computer pitchman, Justin Long). Wanted for questioning by the government in DC, McClane has been assigned to bring him in. That’s where the trouble begins.

After a slow start where we see McClain showing his overprotective parental side, the becomes a fuel-driven adrenaline rush as McClane quickly fights the bad guys using everything within his disposal, even taking down a helicopter with a car. While Willis is unable to handle the stunts that were performed in the first three films, he more than compensates by using his razor sharp mind and quick wit. The generation gap between the nerdy Farrell and the grizzled veteran McClane is highlighted by a hilarious scene as they attempt to hi-jack a car. McClane wants to hotwire the stolen vehicle, but Farrell is successful using the OnStar system to get the vehicle moving.

McClane gets beat down by an Asian female adversary, performs a ridiculous stunt which finds him pursued by a military jet while driving a truck over a collapsing freeway and he manages to save the day. Although he is now considered an action-hero dinosaur, the film gives fans of the franchise exactly what they want and expect.

Although, Olyphant is the series’ smartest villain, he is far from the strongest. Die Hard is arguably one of the greatest action films ever made and has become the standard for all films of its genre are judged. The film is high on entertainment and thrills and does not pretend to exist in reality. With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagall and Sylvester Stallone retired; Willis truly is the Last Old-School Action Hero.

Audiences have a choice to either Live Free or Die Hard, but they may find the answer by engaging in the latter with no expectations but two hours of sheer action-packed entertainment.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Evil Effin’ Room | 1408

There’s just something spooky about hotel rooms. For the third time this year, Hollywood has shown us that bad things happen to White folks when they don’t respect the power of temporary lodging. While both Vacancy and Bug were just warm-ups, havoc and mayhem are in full effect in the delightfully evil, 1408 (*** stars).

Horror novelist, Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is a best-selling author who writes books disproving paranormal events. When the film opens, Enslin is checking into a supposed “haunted” hotel room for his latest book, Ten Nights in Haunted Hotel Rooms.” He exhibits a familiar been-there-done-that attitude about his work. Smug and arrogant, Enslin exhibits no fear because not only does he not believe in ghosts but has no respect for the subject he writes about. He is a man slowly ascending on life’s rollercoaster unaware that he is just about to take an incredibly steep plunge that will change his fortunes.

While going through his mail, Enslin discovers a cryptic postcard warning him to stay away from Room 1408. After researching the horrific history of the fateful room, Enslin’s interest is successfully piqued; he decides to pay a visit to the Dolphin Hotel. But before he can check in, he is quickly escorted to the office of the hotel’s manager, Mr. Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) who passionately tries to dissuade the author from staying in the room.

Initially, Olin tries to reason with Enslin by offering him a bribe, as well as $800 liquor. Finally, he shares photos of over 50 other people who all mysteriously died within an hour of checking in. After telling Enslin that he doesn’t care about his well-being or cleaning up the inevitable carnage, he shares his true reason – it’s just an evil f***** room! But Enslin is determined to be the one person who will survive and with supreme arrogance, he decides to stay.

All’s working out well for Enslin, until a series of minor occurrences begin to spook him. Suddenly, without warning, The Carpenter’s “We’ve Only Just Begun” begins to blare over the radio speakers and the clock flickers and begins the freaky 60 minute countdown; now he wants out. Remember that rollercoaster we spoke about earlier, well now he’s in the middle of a ride that will feature many strange twists and turns and just when he thought he was out, he is surely pulled back in, again and again.

The one thing that will thrill Black audiences is that they are well represented in this film. In addition to Jackson’s character, which wouldn’t get off the elevator on the 14th floor, there is incredibly insightful hotel maintenance man who refuses to go in the room to service the thermostat. “Any fool can fix one of those,” he barks out while giving Enslin maintenance instructions and quickly making himself scarce. Neither character displays buffoonish Hollywood fear characteristics, but both exercise true common sense – the type that Enslin should have used. The filmmaker’s handlings of these delicate issues as well as the psychological torture inflicted on Enslin are only a couple of the reasons that this film succeeds.

Cusack’s everyman demeanor makes him the perfect candidate for this role and his performance sells the film. Unsettling and uncomfortable, 1408 is high-style terror on a grand scale and one of the year’s scariest films.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Too Few Shades of Black | AFI's Top 100 Films

Earlier this week, my film brethren at the American Film Institute convened to announced their list of the 100 Greatest films of All-Time, AFI's 100 Years ... 100 Movies --10th Anniversary Edition. While I didn't watch the show, I was curious to see which films made the cut and which ones were excluded. But more importantly, I wanted to see if the list had any "Shades of Black.”

1,500 filmmakers, critics and historians compiled the list and while I was not among that number, I wondered if notable Black film historian Donald Bogle, writer/filmmaker Nelson George or even Black Filmmaker Foundation head Warrington Hudlin were consulted to contribute their opinions.

After perusing AFI's list, I must admit that there are some fantastic films included on the list. But what really jumps out is the number one, which represents the films on the list that have a Black star in the lead. One, wow! Coming in Number 99 is the 1967 interracial classic, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner. To put this in perspective, if the world were to suddenly stop spinning right now and a new civilization sprung up and they went through the history of film in this country for the past century, there would be no record of the rich achievements of thousands of talented black award-winning actors and filmmakers.

I know there will be those who will say simply that by not being a part of this project that I'm just "hatin'. While there may be a shred of proof in not being able to raise my voice for some films that I felt were worthy, the fact of the matter is that in the early 21st century, it's time to acknowledge that for many years the playing field in Hollywood was uneven (and still is to this day). For the first 50 years of the 20th Century, black men were coons, bucks and buffoons on the big screen. It wasn't until legendary actors such as Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge emerged in the 1950s to begin creating new possibilities for people of color on film.

While Poitier won an Oscar for Lilies of the Field, he distinguished himself in two earlier films, The Defiant Ones and A Raisin in the Sun, performances that were superior to his Oscar win. For my money, Raisin is not only one of the top Black films of all-time, but one of the top 100 for sure.

Other films that should merit serious consideration are 1964's Nothing But A Man with Ivan Dixon and Abby Lincoln, the historic In the Heat of the Night, 1972's Sounder and Lady Sings the Blues, as well as 1974's Claudine. Films from the 1980's include 11-time Oscar nominee, The Color Purple as well as Spike Lee's riveting look at a sweltering cauldron of racial activity in Do the Right Thing.

What about Glory? Where's Malcolm X? Don't forget Boyz 'N the Hood. What's Love Got To Do With It, The Hurricane, Ray and Ali all are candidates for recognition. Don't get me wrong, I've seen about 85 of AFI's Top 100 and I enjoyed them all. While those films are good, you'd have to admit that having only ONE film with a Black lead from the past 100 is just short-sighted and plain wrong.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? Not a Black film on AFI's list, that who. Until organizations such as the American Film Institute can recognize the proud heritage and contribution of Black actors and filmmakers, we should treat their list like they treat Black films, to borrow a phrase from Rhett Butler, "frankly AFI we don't give a damn!" That's "Black"atcha!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A "Mighty" Love | A Mighty Heart

In 2002, Wall Street journalist Daniel Pearl was abducted and beheaded while on assignment in Pakistan. That horrific ordeal is lovingly recreated in the new film, A Mighty Heart (**** stars). Sure to be remembered later this year during awards season, this film could bring its star Angelina Jolie her second Academy Awards.

Based on the memoirs of Marianne Pearl, the film recreates the final days of Daniel's life as he was preparing to interview a Muslim Sheik when he was abducted. Marianne, six months pregnant at the time, enlists the aide of the Pakistanian as well as U.S. government to try to secure his release. The film takes viewers through the grueling process that ultimately led to Daniel's demise.

It has been such a long time since audiences have seen Jolie flex her dramatic acting muscles that she is known primarily as half of the Hollywood power couple, “Bradgelina,” as opposed to the Oscar winning actress from Girl, Interrupted. But her performance in this film is layered and multi-dimensional and finds her hitting every emotional note -- and scoring big time. She gives a quiet, retrained performance that draws audiences to her and allows them to wrap themselves in her emotional pain and subsequent loss. If eyes are the windows of the soul, Jolie's lets the audience swim in her irises and feel her joy and pain while enduring this terrible ordeal. She is brilliant and even in early in the summer, Jolie feels like a certain Best Actress Oscar nominee.

Dan Futterman stars as doomed journalist Daniel Pearl, who in a limited amount of screen time and several flashbacks conveys his burning love for his wife and unborn child. For people who may not be familiar with the story, screenwriter John Orloff infuses the story with enough suspense and hope to keep audiences riveted to this heartbreaking story.

There has been a campaign for African-Americans to boycott the film because of the casting of Jolie as Marianne. With a mixed heritage that consists of Dutch-Jewish, Afro-Latino-Cuban, French and Chinese-Cuban bloodlines, the casting of Jolie works as well as says, Thandie Newtwon. The simple fact of the matter is that Jolie and her companion Brad Pitt's names and visibility help get the film made and widely distributed.

Historically, the summer movie season is about the big-budget blockbusters with A-list talent living out their super dreams. Well Jolie's film may not have a huge budget or explosions, but it is an emotional blockbuster that is a fitting tribute to journalists worldwide -- and that’s a mighty love.

"Evan" Can Wait | Evan Almighty

The Lord may work in mysterious ways, but the filmmakers behind Evan Almighty (* ½ stars) show no imagination in this modern-day retelling of Noah’s Ark. Even the mighty Morgan Freeman can’t save this tired sequel to the successful Bruce Almighty.

Former news anchor Evan Baxter (Steve Carrell) has been elected to Congress. With a lofty campaign promise, “to change the world,” Baxter is determined to make a difference. But his success at work has created a rift at home between him and his kids as he continually chooses work over them.

One day he receives a mysterious shipment of tools in the mail. Huge bundles of wood also begin to appear on his property. The Lord (Morgan Freeman) appears to him asking him to build an ark, which of course Baxter dismisses. Only when the Lord sends the entire animal kingdom to his work and home, in pairs of two no less, does he finally agree to follow God’s word.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, Baxter is recruited by a corrupt congressman who hopes to use him to pass a piece of faulty legislation. All the while, the once fastidious Baxter is growing a biblical beard and walks around in Old Testament fashion. Funny right? Not exactly.

In Bruce, Jim Carrey was given a much better supporting cast and script. Surrounded by Jennifer Anniston, Carell, Freeman, as well as Carrey’s amazing physical comedy, Bruce was hokey, yet heartwarming and very funny. That film presented a moral dilemma (God giving Bruce his powers for a short time) that is missing from Evan. In addition, Wanda Sykes is wasted in a performance that felt like she had no lines, but was given a green light to insert a joke whenever one was needed. This stripped-down version of the Noah’s Ark tale ultimately falls flat because it relies far too much on Carrell and Freeman – and cheesy special effects.

God is good all the time, too bad the same can’t be said for this disappointing sequel. Bruce truly was almighty, but Evan still needs work.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Silver Surfer's Up | Fantastic Four 2

It can be argued that The Fantastic Four are the least interesting of all of the Marvel comic book characters brought to the big screen. Their latest adventure, The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, hits theatres this weekend. While this second attempt is miles ahead of the first film, it is saved only by the aerodynamic appearance and special effects wizardry of The Silver Surfer.

When last we saw the foursome, they had vanquished Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon) and saved the world, from total annihilation. Frozen stiff, Dr. Doom was last seen on a crowed merchant ship, cast away for eternity, or so we thought. As this film begins, wedding preparations are underway for Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) and Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd). The paparazzi camp out below their residence, trying to get the scoop of the “social event of the season.” But while the foursome prepares for this festive event, there are ominous signs of impending trouble occurring far, far away.

Flying across the galaxy is a small, fast meteor-type object that is seen, initially, fleeing from a exploding planet as it makes its way to earth. Everywhere the object goes, it changes the temperature and weather pattern of that location; whether freezing water in Japan, snow in the desert or sucking the ocean dry in London. If that’s not bad enough, the object forms craters that within eight days will explode, destroying the planet.

Dr. Richards’ wedding plans are interrupted by a sudden visit from Army General Hager (Andre Braugher), who needs the scientist’s help to stop the object. Secretly, Richards agrees to build a tracking mechanism that would help them identify the mysterious object. Lo and behold, during his wedding ceremony, we finally get an up close look at the mysterious object that is none other than the dynamic Silver Surfer.

At first glance, this gleaming silver visitor with the underwear model’s body and balanced perfectly on a board seems striking, but only when he leads Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) in hot pursuit, do we really marvel at his unique skill (which include the ability to ride above or below his board, while either eluding objects or flying through solid matter, all at supersonic speed). His surfboard doubles not only as a flying device, but also an energy source as well as a weapon that can absorb all forms of solid matter. Blessed with the authoritative voice of Morpheus, Laurence Fishburne, the surfer is doing the bidding of Galactus, who seeks to destroy the planet.

Wow, there’s a whole lot going on and thankfully for the audience, The Silver Surfer diverts the audience’s attention away from one of the most boring groups of superheroes onscreen. Far from Fantastic, this bickering foursome grows more annoying from scene to scene. Sue and Reed want a normal life, Ben and Johnny resent them wanting to break up the group, Dr. Doom returns after an encounter with the Silver Surfer wanting to assist, and blah, blah, blah.

With a runtime of 90 minutes and some “fantastic” special effects, The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is easily digested like a light summer snack. While I still question the wisdom of making a sequel after such a lackluster first film, it is apparent that if there is to be a third film for our foursome, they will definitely need to find another guest star with “wow-ability” like our shiny silver friend. He is worth the price of admission and the only thing that makes this film a “fantastic” viewing experience.