Sunday, October 21, 2007
Three short reviews
It seems as if I’ve been waiting for Ratatouille for years. Okay, a slight exaggeration but it certainly has been a long time coming. Pixar’s latest has only just got an Irish release (well, last week, but I only caught it today). It seems like an odd release date, perhaps timed hopefully to coincide with the up-coming half-term? It’s far from being a kids film, though - a lengthy running time and the absence of Finding Nemo-ish belly laughs take care of that. Indeed, in the cinema packed with kids that I attented, the film’s soundtrack was complemented by a continous stream of chatter from the seats surrounding me. The noise was only a temporary annoyance, though - I was soon well and truly hooked, the delicate aromas of Pixar’s stew drawing me in.
A truly lovely film, with the scenery the best we’ve seen yet. The grimey sewer water through which our snootily loveable protaganist Remy splutters and swims is rendered almost better than the underwater scenes in Finding Nemo; the CGI Paris glitters (okay, it’s hard to make Paris look bad, but they had to create one out of nothing) and there’s an impressive kinesis to it. The chase scenes are beautifully fluid with no Bourne-style jerkiness. Peter O’ Toole gets the best vocal part, having fun as the harsh food critic, Anton Ego (who is the image of Eamon de Valera. No? Anybody see that?). For Pixar devotees, there’s also a cute little self-referential sight gag; Remy straining to grab ahold of his brother’s paw as they hurtle down the river is strongly reminiscent of the ending to Toy Story.
Unfortunately, comparing it to Toy Story doesn’t do Ratatouille any favours. True, ToY Story came out of nowhere to charm and delight, nobody had any expectaions and therefore everyone was bowled over. It was shockingly good, and nobody could accuse Ratatouille of a similar effect - everyone expects it to be great, it’s Pixar! It’s definitely not as funny as it could be, the middle section drags a little and one could possibly accuse Pixar of resting on their laurels (oh goody, yet another anthromorphic buddy/outsider film!). I thought all of these criticisms whilst watching the film, but as the credits rolled I realised I was ready to forgive the film it’s missteps. There’s a scene where hundreds of rats converge on a restaurant kitchen and set to work cooking a meal. It’s a flurry of energy and joie de vivre, a huge undertaking of colour and movement and small significant details that’s carried off with such aplomb and verve that I was completely gob smacked. The teamwork (undertaken by both the rats as they frantically work to create the perfect dish and the animators as they carefully create the scene ) is astounding, and it was that moment that I finally caved in - Ratatouille is in it’s heart a good film and there are moments of brilliance. I’m looking forward to the studio’s next output - let’s hope they raise that bar.
Sometimes I’m kind of shocked that some films get made, especially ones as topical as Rendition. It’s title refers to the US governmental practice of transporting terror suspects to offshore locations where shady thugs are given reign to torture and coerce them, with the freedom of ignoring the US constitution. Here, we are presented with the story of Anwar el-Ibrahmi, a handsome and clever Egyptian who has built a comfortable life for himself in the States, happily married to Reese Witherspoon and working as a chemical engineer. On his way home from a conference in South Africa he is bundled onto a plane to an unknown destination and merciliously tortured. The torture scenes are undoubtedly nasty, he is electrofied, beaten, forced to squat naked in a tiny enclosed space for hours and subjected to the especially horrific technique of waterboarding. It’s hardly the most violence we’ve ever been subjected to, but the fact that it’s based in reality causes many a squirm.
There’s a discomforting double standard at play though; Anwar is well-educated, married to a white woman and Americanized and we are clearly on his side, yet Khalid (Mohammed Khouas), the main character in the Islamic subplot, is (naturally) part of a Jihadist group. Why? Well, the filmmakers wanted to siphon in a handy father-daughter relationship theme and needed to show a human side to the lead torturer, of course and Khalid was the perfect sacrifice. It feels slightly wrong footed, attempting to show a reason behind the malice of the torturer by pushing the sympathetic Khalid into a terrorist group.
At the end of the day, the film stumbles on one major point - we are never told if Anwar is guilty or not-guilty. Well, the film makes it fairly clear that he is, but then where did the allegations come from? The main pieces of evidence used against him are records of his phone calls, but these are quickly forgotten about at the film’s close witout giving us any dislosure. If the phonecalls were fabricated by the government, desperate to find a suspect, then why weren’t we told? It’s a final cop-out and I really, really wish they had taken the final plunge and said “Anwar was singled-out purely for the colour of his skin”, if that’s what they were hinting at. The maddeningly even-handed script makes it explicitly clear that the process isn’t a new thing (“It began under Clinton”) but doesn’t once mention Bush by name, the President who intensified it. Rendition could hardly be called a brave film; it highlights torture, but ultimately fails to condemn it.
I didn’t thoroughly dislike it, though. As a thriller, it’s very taut and engaging. With strong performances from liberal-Hollywood types (Streep, Witherspoon, Arkin, brothers-in-law Gyllenhaal and Sarsgaard) and relative unknowns (Omar Metwally in particular gives good performance in a rough role that requires him to spend most of the film sweaty and naked, begging for his life), Rendition has a worthy gravitas that ensures that it’s a good watch. Sarsgaard may be the best thing about it, but Gyllenhall is also suitably worried-looking throughout and the final scene caused tears in my eyes. Out of the number of Iraq-themed dramas coming our way, Rendition will be far from the worst; it’s enjoyable and well-crafted, yet that final failing lowers it in my estimation.
I’m finding it very hard to get excited about this film. Solid acting, fine directing, a moving story and it’s lovely to hear Irish spoken on the big screen. Maybe it’s just not emotionally engaging enough, or perhaps I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to see it (it’s quite depressing, but not in the flamboyant way I enjoy, more in the Ken Loach way). There really is nothing especially wrong with it, but the fact that it has been chosen as the Irish Oscar submission hasn’t got me holding my breath.