Thursday, 18 October 2007

Remy the Rat PWNs Puppet Angel and Cleveland Heep

Pull that fine thick hair of his, Remy, you adorable rodent, you! Make him dance! And cook! Preferably something without garlic. The smell of burning vampire flesh can put off the diners.

On Saturday we caught Ratatouille, a movie released in the US so long ago that the Region 1 DVD release is in a couple of weeks. That this made my summer movie viewing a bittersweet experience is a statement as accurate as it is devoid of the shouty fury I unleashed upon learning about the outrageously long wait I had ahead of me. Even if Disney's reason for delaying the release that much was that an orphanage was saved from being pulled down, I'd still be pissed beyond reason. How many ratless months? How much suffering Chez Canyoneck? And why, so some megacorp can make a few extra bucks? Don't care! Orphans saved from begging on the streets? Don't care! Me want rat movie pronto. Stupid Buena Vista. Me smash megacorp for tardy release, and hold grudge for rest of year. That show them!

Thankfully, it was worth the wait. Actually, that doesn't even cover our reaction. My eyelids were peeled back for the length of the movie, blinking only when tears poured forth, which they did with increasing frequency as the movie progressed. As a result, I have a bone to pick with genius director Brad Bird. I was already pointlessly annoyed that I would not be able to pick my favourite film of the year from the double whammy of excellence that was Zodiac and The Bourne Ultimatum, and now this comes along. Three totally different movies, but all of them absolutely perfect. Ratatouille is the pinnacle of computer animation, filled with remarkably fluid movement, beautiful colours, believable textures, and to top it all, it provides more food for thought than almost every other movie I've seen this year.

Damn, I'm so late to the party. All of this has already been said, but I have to chime in, because my love for this movie is so overwhelming. Technically, it is as good as movies get. I felt like the silver screen was kissing my eyeballs, and just to rub it in, the pitch-perfect voicework and Michael Giacchino's adorable soundtrack were nuzzling my ears. If a movie could hug you, that's what Ratatouille would do from the first frame to the last.

If that was all the movie did, it would be enough to put it high up on any self-respecting film watcher's top ten list for the year (if list-making is your bag; certain other contributors to this site are not so keen), but Brad Bird expands and clarifies some of the themes introduced in his masterpiece, The Incredibles. Though I'm more than a little unsure about some of the potential Objectivist, Ayn-Randian philosophies suggested by that film, I find the idea of celebrating excellence very appealing. When I heard that Ratatouille featured a similarly controversial message to that of The Incredibles, I was worried that a trend was developing that might retrospectively make the lesson of the earlier movie seem less endearing. Was Bird going to use all of his movies to espouse some awful, selfish, right-wing nonsense I would find it hard to get behind?

Thankfully, I'm convinced the movie is less about promoting devotion to the all-powerful uber-mensch, and more about celebrating excellence and intelligence. I took from it a message about having faith in yourself and doing everything you can to do what you do best, even in the face of indifference or lack of support. Early on in the film Remy's talent and curiosity and yearning for knowledge are treated by his family as a waste of time and energy. His rat brethren might come around by the end of the film (without ever being able to see the big picture the way Remy does), but at the start of the movie they are an ignorant mob who distrust intelligence. I could hate the movie for making them step into line at the end, but it's not presented as the actions of an automaton army governed by the confidence of a Objectivist right-wing control-freak, but as an expression of trust in a natural leader. Arguments can rage for years about whether Disney just funded a fun, vibrant, colourful, kid-friendly adaptation of The Fountainhead, but I thought it was about trusting someone you love to do what they need to do to be happy, and encouraging and helping them in achieving their goal. It's one of the most uplifting endings I've been lucky enough to see.

Even better than that is the arc of Anton Ego, the curmudgeonly critic who haunts the movie as a passive antagonist until the final few minutes of the movie. I don't wish to ruin the end of the movie for those of you who have yet to see it (and if you read this and have any sense, you will rush to a cinema immediately), but there is a scene involving him that is filled with such simple, honest beauty that I blarted hot tears all over Canyon, who was in a similar situation, from what she told me later. My heart, it melted.

The see-sawing negative and positive treatment of Anton Ego and the art of criticism sadly reminded me of M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water, which is one of the bitterest films I've ever seen. Stung by the reviews of The Village, Shyamalan and his very thin skin went all out to get his own back on critics. In the middle of his preposterous, badly-thought out, dreary tale of Scrunts (dog/lawn hybrids), Narfs (Bryce Dallas Howard after an injection of creepy), Tartutics (angry monkey warriors, and no, they're not as cool as that sounds), and Great Eatlons (just a really big eagle), Shyamalan introduces Harry Farber, a film critic (played by Bob Balaban), who thinks there is no originality left, and as a result is incapable of joy or empathy or anything. He treats everyone like dirt (including adorable semi-hero Cleveland Heep, played with typical intensity and commitment by Paul Giamatti), and his confidence in his own ability to parse the mechanics of story-telling nearly dooms Bryce Dallas Howard to death by LawnDog when he inaccurately interprets some unnecessarily complex rules of Narfdom conveyed in obnoxiously grandiose and slow-moving scenes of ear-tugging and, and, and... Ugh! It's too complicated, contrived, and stupid to go into in full detail. Just believe me, it's horrible horrible storytelling.

If anyone here has the DVD and has seen the deleted scenes, please tell me if there are any featuring Farber throwing kittens off his balcony, or making baby stew. He's practically that villainous and unpleasant in the movie. It's an even worse directorial decision than basing the plot around a writer who will save the world by writing the most important book ever, and then deciding that the only person qualified to play that part is, well, M. Night Shyamalan himself. Actually, it's a toss-up. Both decisions are monumentally wrongheaded.

The worst scene in the film (or in any film that year except for certain unsavoury scenes in Neil LaBute's ode to woman-hating, The Wicker Man) comes when Farber gets killed by Shyamalan's instrument of justice, the Rogue Scrunt. Farber is cornered as in the photo above, and has watched so many dull and uninspiring movies (unlike Shyamalan's, of course), that he now see everything through a Robert-McKee-Story prism. This is his external monologue prior to being eaten:

Farber: Hello? Is the bathroom on this level working? [Scrunt walks into view and menaces Farber] A dog inside the building! Go! Shoo! Why you're not a dog at all. My god, this is like a moment from a horror movie. This is precisely the moment where the mutation or beast will attempt to kill an unlikable side character. But, in stories where there has been no prior cursing, violence, nudity or death, such as in a family film, the unlikable character will escape his encounter, and be referenced later in the story, having learned valuable lessons. He may even be given a humorous moment to allow the audience to feel good about him. This is where I turn to run. You will leap for me, I will shut the door, and you will land a fraction of a second too late. [turns to walk away]
Scrunt: [Leaps onto Farber and starts eating him] Growl! This is for saying the twist in The Village was obvious! Rend! Tear! Signs was a masterpiece, you nasty hurtful meanies, and not an hour and a half of genius followed by twenty minutes of potentially career-killing stupidity! Chomp! I'm the best director in the world, and not the patron saint of arrogance and hubris like what you said! Slurp! You taste like poo, you poo man! And you smell like poo! Glurp! Who's laughing now? I just made a movie about how poo you are! [finishes eating, runs off into the night, sobbing]

It's literally jaw-dropping. I know executives told him he would never get away with filming that scene, but to still go ahead with it takes brass balls. (Confession; I might have added the Scrunt dialogue. Or I might not. You'll have to rent the movie and find out, won't you?) In case I come across as someone harbouring a grudge against Shyamalan, I will add a disclaimer. His style is one of the most distinctive in Hollywood, and though he could stand to speed his movies up just a bit, that style can work amazingly well. He has a directorial eye that is second to none. The Farber death scene might be monumentally dumb, but it's framed in such an original way and shot with such ravishing style and precision that the stupidity of it seems even worse in comparison. As for his other films, I liked The Sixth Sense a lot, and absolutely adored Unbreakable, which I think is his best movie. Even his dreck hasn't put me off his next movie, The Happening, which sounds fantastic.

Sadly, Signs was good, up to a point, and after that, he's disappointed me repeatedly. His style may be distinctive and his films may be beautiful, but only when he reins himself in. As soon as he goes too far with his stylistic tics, it falls apart. Critics who said The Village was nothing more than a Twilight Zone episode were not wrong. It's a 45 minute story padded out to over twice that length with lots of slow walking and ponderous dialogue scenes, albeit shot with typical beauty by the wondrous Roger Deakins, and performed with immense conviction by a talented cast.

Lady in the Water too has glorious, award-worthy photography by Christopher Doyle, and features some great performances, but takes forever to tell an absurd and badly worked out story, featuring fantasy characters forced to adhere to nonsensical behavioural rules that serve only to drag a thin story out to feature length. Why can't Narfs talk about their world and their relationship with Scrunts? Because Shyamalan says fairy tales are like that, so shut up and deal with the fact that that little arbitrary rule just added 20 very slow scenes to a movie that otherwise would have been over in half an hour. Why do all the Korean and Italian characters spend the movie shrieking and freaking out like a bunch of lazily written caricatures? Just say no to racial stereotyping, Shyamalan. And what was with Freddy Rodriquez's pointless rubber arm?

That just made me laugh every time it turned up. Small comfort, though. It broke my heart to see Lady in the Water, not just because it's an overlong and dreary vanity piece that's as technically perfect and beautiful as it is moronic, but because it's so so nasty, and confirmed reports of Shyamalan losing the plot while pitching the movie to Disney production president Nina Jacobson. I mean, I can kind of see why he reacted so badly. I've got a thin skin too, and I know if I got reviews that are half as severe as those received by Shyamalan (a notoriously criticism averse perfectionist), I'd cry for months. What I wouldn't do, though, is build an entire movie around that anger and upset. That's a hell of a complicated and expensive rattle to throw out of the pram.

Compare that to Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava's creation, Anton Ego. At first I thought Bird was also demonising critics with many unsubtle directorial choices: making Ego look like a cross between a vampire and an undertaker; hinting that he is somehow accidentally responsible for the death of Gusteau; designing a study for him that is shaped like a coffin; making his motivation a desire to destroy the restaurant for no other reason than that he enjoys giving bad reviews. I was seriously beginning to flash back to Harry Farber being mauled by a Rogue ShyamaScrunt. If Bird had gone that way for the entire film, it would have ruined Ratatouille for me completely. Remember I said I didn't want to ruin the film if you haven't seen it? Let's just leave it like this; bearing in mind what I think the worst finale of the film could have been, and how unsubtly the character was set up earlier, I was surprised at the direction Bird went in. Deliriously, joyously, tear-inducingly surprised. Shyamalan should be dragged from the set of The Happening and made to watch Ratatouille. Hopefully he will learn something about what criticism is, or can be. You never know, his heart might even melt.


Jaredan said...

I also loved the film, saw it a while back and was glad to be reminded of it. Brad Bird can have my children. They're wearing me out /snare drum.

sjwoo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sjwoo said...

We just watched this, too, Admiral. That scene where Ego tastes the ratatouille and goes back to his really got me. The only other time a work of animation touched me like that was in Toy Story 2, that scene in the car where the doll sees the sky and clouds passing by, with Sarah McLachlan singing in the background.

On a completely different note, why is it that objectivism elicits such a strong reaction from some people? It's not like Ayn Rand is the second coming of the Third Reich, you know? Seems like even if a touch, a mere whiff, of her philosophy is possibly being integrated into a film or a novel, people just go ballistic.

Maybe I don't mind it so much because I absolutely adored The Fountainhead. It was full of passion and lust and hate and love, all the perfect ingredients of a page-turner.

I have met some Rand fanatics, but I've never let them dissuade me from the core value of her work. Like most fanatics, they're just single-minded drones, and therefore eminently dismissable.

Do you have any theories on why this might be the case? I wonder if it's just the normal run-of-the-mill thing that happens with philosophies in general...

Admiral Neck said...

jaredan, don't give up the day job. ;-)

Mr. Woo, don't remind me of the Toy Story 2 scene! Earlier generations might have had the death of Bambi's mom; I had that scene and that song. I think I broke my head, I cried so hard, and even on repeated viewings I have to skip that scene for fear of breaking it again. The scene in Ratatouille hit me almost as hard, and with far more economy. The shot was so quick and so simple, but I choked up instantly. The entire point of the movie was hammered home in 3 seconds. That's just miraculous filmmaking, and if Brad Bird doesn't get an Oscar nomination for Best Director or Best Screenwriting next year, I'll be livid.

As for Ayn Rand, I've not read The Fountainhead, so I can only speculate a bit about it, which is not good, but my feeling is that in a world where power is becoming ever more concentrated in the hands of a few, it's dangerous to espouse a philosophy that condones accruing ever more power at the expense of others. Of course, as I've not read the book I can't say whether Rand's core idea is that the unimaginative masses be used and exploited in that manner, but it does seem to be a consequence of the heirarchical structure of society at the moment, and it's not a good thing at all.

Okay, please bear with me while I generalise massively and incompetently and get all conspiratorial on yer ass. For example, the world's media is dominated by a few companies, political parties are headed up by the same few people who come from the same few schools or are taught by the same few people (I'm thinking the Neo-Cons and their seemingly uniform faith in the teachings of Leo Strauss); it's the whole Bilderberg Group/Bohemian Grove thing. Which might be nonsense, and I would hate to advocate belief in that without more info, but just looking at the Musical Chairs being played in media and political circles, you do tend to wonder.

Lefties will rebel against such thoughts as they want a more collective society, with responsibility shared, and often people who rave about Rand talk about how that cannot be possible because there are always going to be wasters who cannot pull their weight, which is just a downer thing to say. Why can't we try the collective thing? It would be fraught with problems, and certainly no one has come up with a convincing explanation of how it would work, but things are bad now, and they're getting worse. Isn't it perhaps time for a paradigm shift?

Modern thought is slowly heading that way, but then the ruling classes, who would be threatened by this, push propaganda that talks of the individual over the collective, and Rand's views, rightly or wrongly, follow that tack. So are The Incredibles and Ratatouille helping to hold back the brave new world by teaching kids to think of themselves over the needs of the collective, thus ensuring that the next generation continues to protect the vested interests of the ruling classes, just like Thomas Frank suspects in What's The Matter With Kansas/America?, which I wholeheartedly recommend you read if you haven't already?

I worry about that kind of interpretation, but then I don't think Bird is saying that at all. Linguini, Clyde and Remy's dad are all either useless or have their own agenda, but Remy's vision of excellence wins them over and they join in because not only is it in their best interest, but he inspires them. Perhaps Rand does that too. I wouldn't know for sure until I read her books. All I know is, Bird inspired me too. Both of those films make my head and my heart dance.

BTW, I have very little experience in theorising about political movements, and I admit I could be way off base here. I just thought you should know that's what I think is the reason behind the Rand-Fear. I know I worry about those things, but I appreciate I should give her a chance. I've got Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, and have intended to read them for years, but whenever I pick them up and see they're over 1000 pages long, with the tiny tiny typeset, my heart sinks. So yeah, I'm not an expert.

Jaredan said...

Atlas Shrugged is on my list of things to read, partly due to a few people I read getting uppity about its symbolism being included in the game Bioshock.
Not being up on Rand I'm not going to comment.

As far as Bird's philosophy in The Incredibles goes, yes he could be seen as espousing the power of the individual, but he also has the core use of that power as to protect those weaker than themselves.
Plus its the perfect Fantastic Four film so nothing will taint it :)

My day job of intentionally bad jokes is at an end. I blame you Neck!

Admiral Neck said...

Yeah, I heard about the Bioshock connection, though I gather it's a refutation of her philosophy. I could be wrong, though. I just want to play the damn thing, you know?

I know of people connecting Firefly with Ayn Rand's work (do a Google search for firefly rand if you're curious). I can see the show might have that "one man against The Man!" philosophy, and I get that. That's cool. I can get behind that. My problem is the philosophy of "The Man against all men" can also be taken from her work, and that shit ain't cool.

sjwoo said...

Admiral -- for someone who hasn't read the two Rand tomes, I think you've done a remarkable job of writing up some really insightful theories of your own. I haven't read Atlas Shrugged, but from having read The Fountainhead, I guess what I find almost hilarious is that anybody in their right mind would actually take those archetypical characters and say, "Man, that's exactly what I want to be!" They're CHARACTERS. Not real, not even close. I suppose there's nothing wrong with striving to live up to those characters' traits, but it's sort of a silly goal to have. To me, those characters (Howard Roarke definitely, Gail Wynand and Dominique Francon to a lesser degree) are no different than Superman or Batman; they are so far beyond anything capable by human beings that they are, in essense, superheroes.

Don't be afraid of the size of The Fountainhead -- that book reads like the bastard novel-child of Stephen King and Danielle Steele. It's a total beach read. (Sorry, Ayn -- I can hear you rolling in your grave -- but it's true!)

I suppose the reason why I don't object to Objectivism is because I don't take it so seriously. That goes across the board for me, though, for everything -- I try my best to not take any single philosophy wholeheartedly. If there is something I do subscribe to 100%, it's to stay as flexible as possible.

BioShock (which is quite a good game -- so is Portal!) is definitely a Rand-gone-wrong scenario. The Randian character's name is [A]ndrew [R]yan.

As far as Brad Bird possibly channeling Rand, I agree with you. If he is, he's just taking the "good" parts of her philosophy. It's not like Remy ends up destroying everything he loves for his art, which seems to be a prerequisite for Rand's heroes. The point of the movie, which it makes over and over again, is that anyone can cook. Even a rat. It took me pretty much the whole movie to get over the fact that a rat is cooking the food, but in the end, I did. Now that's amazing.

Ratatouille is the best Pixar movie to date. How do they manage to top themselves over and over again? There must be a whole lot of Rand disciples at that studio. :)

Admiral Neck said...

John Lasseter is John Galt! ZOMG!

Thank you for not destroying my arguments about Rand, which I'm sure would be easy. I really have no first-hand knowledge of her work, but I will read The Fountainhead. I'm determined. I'd also like to see the film, though it never shows up on TV. I see your point about not taking it seriously. Sadly, lots of people do, and it's the Crazies you have to watch out for.

As for Ratatouille's position as Pixar's best film, I don't know. In time perhaps I will think that; its central message is so appealing, it's hilariously funny, and there are so many amazing sequences I can't pick a single one out (perhaps the final kitchen set-piece, which made me want to stand up and applaud). However, I ADORE The Incredibles, like SO MUCH, and I think Toy Story is a masterpiece (and Monsters Inc. needs to be reappraised, and pronto). It's in the top three for sure, though.

The only Pixar director I don't like much is Andrew Stanton. Technically he knows what he's doing, but Finding Nemo is so mawkish and mechanical I just can't get behind it. That said, Wall-E sounds brave and amazing. If Stanton proves me wrong, I'll be so happy. It can't come soon enough (i.e. June 2008 in the US, probably September 2012 in the UK. Grumble grumble).