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Tuesday, July 16

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SiCKO

If you've already made up your mind not to see Michael Moore's latest work exposing the dangerous, sometimes deadly, shortcomings of the American health care system, that's a real shame. Sure, SiCKO is as biased and angry as all of Moore's other work (Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11), but the film also shows a remarkably more savvy Moore, who not only points out the problem but offers up several possible solutions. Reports of Moore being less of a presence in this movie are false. He may show up on camera a little later than usual, but he's on screen plenty; and his humorous and often moving narration is with us throughout.

What's perhaps different in his approach to assembling SiCKO is the de-politicizing of the subject. Granted, he still finds time to stick it to Congressmen and the president for taking huge campaign contributions from the health care industry, but that’s a small part of this movie. Instead, Moore spends time with people, dozens of insured people whose profit-minded health insurance companies refused to cover or reimburse often life-saving procedures. As you're probably heard, this is not a film about Americans without health insurance; this is about those folks lulled into a false sense of security because they think they're fully covered. It's also about how insurance providers are publicly traded companies with boards of directors and shareholders looking for these companies to turn a profit, and the easiest way to do so in that industry is to find clever ways of denying coverage.

These are the elements of a Michael Moore movie that you expect. What came as a pleasant surprise to me was the time the filmmaker spent outside of the U.S., investigating how other industrialized, first-world nations take care of their sick. Moore visits Canada, the UK, France and, as you may have heard, Cuba. All of these visits offer one shocking revelation after another not only about how universal health care works and is paid for, but how the government views its citizens. Moore makes a statement I had never considered about why America is in the mess that it is: the governments of these other countries (with the exception of Cuba, probably) are afraid of its citizens, of work-stopping protests, and of public opinion, while Americans are scared of our government. It may seem obvious to some, but it hit me in the face like a brick. This simple logic explains so much. And that is seriously fucked up.

Moore never forgets to make his packaged anger amusing and entertaining, but aside from his now-legendary attempt to get three 9/11 rescue workers the same top-notch medical treatment being given to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, he has largely abandoned the in-your-face stunts that made him famous and feared. There are no home visits to corporate CEOs or Charlton Heston. In SiCKO, he pretty much only goes where he's invited.

And how about that little unscheduled trip to Cuba? There are a lot of sad stories in SiCKO, but the only time I also lost control of my emotions was during a sequence in a Cuban firehouse. We'll see if you have the same reaction. It's tough not getting emotionally wrapped up with repeated stories of sick children, dead spouses, and cancer-ridden mothers and father, but most of you will likely go in prepared for that part of the film. What will get you off guard is the rest of what Moore delivers: a well-constructed, intelligent--sometimes heavy handed and manipulative--profile of a nation that has been sold on a lie. And for those who doubt the rosy picture Moore paints of life in foreign countries with a national medical plan, that's fine. I'm a bit skeptical on that point myself. But what he says about the situation in the United States is 100 percent accurate, and that's the real shame. At one point during the film, Moore simply asks, "Who are we?" It's a question that passed through my head on more than one occasion while watching this devastating piece of filmmaking.

Live Free or Die Hard

As I enter every summer movie season, there's always one major release that I have a tough time generating any advanced enthusiasm for. Many people are telling me Transformers is that movie for them this summer, and while I never had any great love for Transformers as a toy or cartoon, what I've seen of the film has made me at least curious to sample it. No, for me the film I have yet to garner any lever of excitement about is Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth entry in the Bruce Willis action series. Now don't get me wrong, just because I can't drum up any early self-buzz for a movie doesn't mean I won't like it. Last holiday season, I could not have cared less about the new Rocky film, but I truly enjoyed the nostalgia ride of Rocky Balboa. But seeing the decidedly low-tech John McClane (Willis) go against an army of cyber-terrorists didn't exactly get my juices flowing like Die Hard movies of the past.

A dozen years have passed since John McClane last graced movie screens, but Live Free barely acknowledges the missing years. There are one or two lines of dialog that allude to past one-man adventures, and yes, McClane does have a daughter in college now. But beyond that, it's business as usual. This time around New York Detective McClane is assigned to pick up one of the nation's greatest hackers, a youngster named Matt played appropriately enough by the "Mac guy" himself, Justin Long. Matthew worked on an algorithm for a secret project, so secret in fact that even he didn't know who he was working for. But soon other hacker buddies of Matt's start showing up dead, and were it not for McClane just coincidentally being off his beat in New Jersey (where his daughter goes to school), Matthew would have been yet another victim. McClane and Matt travel from Jersey to D.C., where they find out from an FBI contact (Cliff Curtis) that invisible villains have started what is referred to as a "fire sale," as in everything must go, as in knock out all computer-controlled communications, financial institutions, transportation grids, power, security, everything that makes our fine nation run and keep running.

So for most of Live Free or Die Hard, Willis and Long are running all over the place attempting to locate and stop the cyber-terrorists (led by the sufficiently menacing Timothy Olyphant as Thomas Gabriel) from executing their ultimate plan, which I will not reveal here. And boy let me tell you, there is nothing more terrifying than a bunch of guys tapping away on a keyboard. Gives me goose bumps just thinking about it. Granted, the stunts are a little flashier and the stakes are a bit higher, but beyond that the film is average. Not terrible, just so-so. Part of it is that it's really been fun watching Willis take chances and grow as an actor since the one-liner days of John McClane. His work with M. Night Shyamalan and Robert Rodriguez alone has been worth getting thrilled about. So to see him retreat into something comfortable (that will undoubtedly be successful on some level, I'm sure) is a bit of a disappointment. And if you are going to return to familiar ground, give us something new in the character, not just in the story or the weapons. And no, the cameo by Kevin Smith as another hacker (an idea that sounds great when you hear it, but is executed poorly) does not count.

Director Len Wiseman (who made both Underworld films) does as good a job as he can with the screenplay from Mark Bomback, but in the end, the plot might have worked better as an episode of "24." That's certainly what this Die Hard entry feels like, and I'm fairly certain that's roughly the time span that passes here. I've had worse ideas. Look, it's the summer. I know that standards decline as temperatures increase; I accept that. But bringing back John McClane and the Die Hard franchise is a big deal. The only problem is Live Free or Die Hard doesn't feel like a big deal; it feels like a paint-by-number action movie with a lead actor delivering some stunted dialog and going through the motions we've come to expect.

Ratatouille

Director Brad Bird has single handedly made it impossible to lump all Pixar movies into one category. Sure, Pixar works are all varying degrees of great, but with his last film, The Incredibles, Bird took the kid-centric animation house and allowed older kids and adults into the fold a little easier. In fact, it almost seems that he's more concerned with appealing to a slightly older crowd by populating all his films (including his first, The Iron Giant) with almost entirely human characters. I'm sure kids will find a whole lot to love about Bird's latest, Ratatouille. The images and energy are as strong as anything the Pixar crew has done to this point. But beyond that, the story about a rat living Paris who is obsessed with eating and creating fine cuisine is clearly a theme that adults can embrace and get the most out of in terms of the full movie-going experience. Even the idea that a character would dream of living in Paris just for the food is something that might not make the most sense to an 8-year-old, but I've been there.

Ratatouille's star is a rat named Remy (voiced by stand-up comic Patton Oswalt), who seems all-too willing to leave his comfortable rat colony family (including his father, voiced by Brian Dennehy) and life of rummaging for garbage to eat. What he wants more than anything is to create meals like those in the cookbook of his hero, renowned French chef Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garrett), whose theory about cooking is "Anyone can cook." After his rat hive is forced to leave their cozy confines, Remy finds himself swept away in the local sewer system only to pop up in the heart of downtown Paris, directly in front of Gusteau's famed restaurant. Although Gusteau has recently passed away, that doesn't stop the ghost of the great chef (or at least a figment of Remy's imagination) from advising Remy on his life choices from time to time.

Around the time of Remy's arrival in the kitchen of Gusteau's dining establishment, a young man named Linguini (Lou Romano) also arrives looking for a job in the kitchen. It's clear early on that the man in charge, a little Napoleon of a dictator named Skinner (Ian Holm), is a right bastard, but he hires Linguini as a garbage boy and dishwasher. It doesn't take long for Linguini and Remy to find each other, and the pair form an unlikely alliance as Remy's skills as a cook (driven primarily by his heightened sense of smell) are put to use with Linguini as his hands. Remy literally lives under Linguini's hat and directs his actions like a puppet by tugging on certain strands of hair.

There are several dramas building up heads of steam at the same time in Ratatouille, some more welcome than others. Linguini develops a sweet crush on fellow chef Colette (voiced almost unrecognizably by Janeane Garofalo), but his Remy-driven creations actually threaten her getting a promotion in the kitchen; Skinner suspects Remy's creations are rat inspired; Remy's family discovers his whereabouts and show up on the restaurant's doorstep looking for food; the ownership of the restaurant is in jeopardy; and a terrifying food critic (and one-time enemy of Gusteau) has decided to pay a return visit to the establishment, which has been generating buzz in town thanks to a certain new chef. The food critics name is Anton Ego, and thanks to a downright evil voice provided by Peter O'Toole, he might be my favorite Pixar character ever. O'Toole lends an almost Vincent Price quality to his performance; Ego belongs in whatever the next Tim Burton animated film might be. But the only thing more inspired than how nasty the man can be is his character's brief but complete story arc. And his reaction to his first bite of Remy's cooking is funnier than anything I've seen in ages.

It should almost go without saying that the attention to detail in the animation style is flawless. People are going to go on about how perfectly the Remy's hair is rendered, but I also loved the way he looked after getting wet, that sort of sheen that wet rats get. I also liked that technically Remy and his fellow rats are not talking animals. They understand each other (as do we), but to the human characters, all they hear are squeaks. But more than anything the lessons learned in Ratatouille are well worth the extended running time. This is film about accepting who you are, never forgetting where you come from, and staying true to your calling. This is easily one of my top three favorite Pixar films, and I promise you will eat this one up as well.

And in case you hadn't heard, as a little Pixar bonus, Ratatouille is prefaced by the studio's Oscar-nominated short Lifted, a funny little nugget about a pair of extraterrestrials attempting to use a tractor beam to take a man from his bed without waking him. You'll never think of alien abductions quite the same again.

Evening

On paper, looking at the cast list and creative team behind this adaptation of Susan Minot's novel, Evening appears to be a sure-fire melodrama about a long-gone era forgotten by most. And for all of its gentle touches and attempts to make us care about the trials and tribulations of rich white people living in or visiting Newport, Rhode Island for a wedding that probably should never happen, I never got pulled in despite the obvious talent on display. The screenplay from Minot and author Michael Cunningham (The Hours) never plumbs the potential for emotional depth that this story probably had in book form. Instead, what results is a period soap opera filled with snooty young men destined for plush yet vapid lives and the unfulfilled debs lined up to marry them.

The story begins in the present. Ann Grant Lord (Vanessa Redgrave) is on her death bed, and her two grown daughters (played by Toni Collette and Redgrave's real-life daughter Natasha Richardson) are with her to make her as comfortable as possible. It's never explicitly said what Ann is dying from, but whatever it is, it's releasing a flood of emotion and long-forgotten memories into her head that appear to be mild delusionary behavior. In fact, she is flashing back to her first love and her long-ago time in Newport with her friend Lila (played as a young woman by Mamie Gummer, whose real-life mother--Meryl Streep--appears as the older Lila). Ann (played young by Claire Daines) is an outsider to the Newport world. She and Lila went to college together, but she lives in Greenwich Village, New York, and doesn't dress or think the way the Newport girls do. They aren't cruel to Ann, but she never feels quite at home with them, thanks in large part of Lila's mother (Glenn Close), whose nose is always firmly pointed in the air.

The event for which Ann has made the journey to Newport is Lila's wedding. She's not marrying a bad man, but she is marrying the wrong man. Her heart belongs to her childhood friend, now a doctor, Harris (Patrick Wilson), who takes an immediate liking to Ann. And then there's Lila's probably bi-sexual brother Buddy (Hugh Darcy), who seems to have a crush on everybody. As at all weddings, emotions are high and those who arrived single have likely paired off with someone for the night. There are drunken confessions, unwanted passes, sex, jealousy and even a little death.

Meanwhile back in the present, Ann's children have their own troubled lives to cope with. In other words, everyone here is suffering and that made me suffer too. The film certainly looks about a lovely as any film could, thanks largely to Hungarian director and legendary cinematographer Lajos Koltai, whose previous directing effort, Fateless, was absolutely extraordinary. His eye for what makes a place or object or person appealing is flawless. But he's saddled with a story that would make some romance novelists choke on the fluff in the air. The film has two or three nice exchanges, but largely the conversations are reduced to one person whining to another about some shortcoming in their otherwise overly privileged life. Boo hoo.

When the older Lila (Streep) shows up to visit her dying friend Ann, I'll admit I was moved. Streep and Redgrave deserve to share this great moment on screen. They are among the greatest the acting world has ever seen, and you can't help but just sit back and marvel the way they work together. Danes is likable, as she often is, and of all of these characters, I suppose she has the most depth, which isn't saying much with the Newport crowd. Still, she looks pretty and is wearing cute vintage outfits, so we'll give her a pass. Gummer's quiet desperation is also quite believable, and I didn't know anything about her parentage until after I watched Evening. Her acting talents are solid if not mind-blowing, but she's young and has many years to prove her worth on screen.

I blame the film's many shortcomings on the script. It just wears on the viewer after a while, and I can only handle so much petty weeping for so long. I look forward to director Koltai's next work eagerly; he's a great talent with the right story. But this one doesn't cut it.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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