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Ratatouille (2007)

by Steve Habrat

If I had to pick Pixar’s least accessible film, I would have to go with Brad Bird’s 2007 offering Ratatouille. Featuring some of their finest voice work, particularly from funnyguy Patton Oswalt as the rodent chef, clean animation, and a dreamy score, Ratatouille is one of Pixar’s artiest creations in their line of work. While it may not appeal as much to the kiddies, Ratatouille is crafted more for the adult viewer, featuring more adult humor rather than easy gags that will keep a ten year old howling at the screen. Personally, I find Ratatouille one of Pixar’s funniest films, yet the subtext, with it’s anybody-can-do-anything-if-you-set-your-mind-to-it message, is a little too simple minded, especially since Pixar is capable of infusing their films with some major real world weight. I did find the way the film skewers uptight critics, the ones who are so rooted to their opinion and refusing to alter that opinion extremely well executed. It seemed a bit personal too, since this is the film that was the follow-up to Cars, the first Pixar film that failed to run off with the imagination of some critics.

Ratatouille introduces us to Remy (Voiced by Oswalt), a rat who loves to cook and is blessed with a sharp sniffer that gets him the job of detecting rat poison in the food that the rest of his rat colony gathers. The colony is lead by Remy’s stern father Django (Voiced by Brain Dennehy) and his goofy brother Emilie (Voiced by Peter Sohn), both who voice disgust over Remy’s trust of humans. After having to make a hasty evacuation from their rural dwelling, Remy gets separated from the rest of the pack and ends up in downtown Paris, right at the doorstep of the famed fine dining restaurant Gusteau’s. Remy, who happens to a huge fan of the late Auguste Gusteau (Voiced by Brad Garrett), the chef behind the famous restaurant, fully believes in Gusteau’s message “anyone can cook.” After ending up in Gusteau’s kitchen, Remy crosses paths with newly hired garbage boy Alfredo Linguini (Voiced by Lou Romano), an uptight klutz who can’t cook to save his skin. While exploring the kitchen, Remy notices Linguini accidentally mess up a pot of soup, which he quickly tries to fix but is caught by Linguini. A bowl of the soup is served and the customer begins raving about how delicious the soup is. The rest of Gusteau’s staff believe that Linguini is responsible for the soup but Linguini knows that it was actually Remy that fixed it. Linguini soon grabs the attention of the cranky head chef Skinner (Voiced by Ian Holm) and an even crankier food critic Anton Ego (Voiced by Peter O’Toole), both eager to reveal him a fraud.

What makes Ratatouille such a delicious treat is the budding friendship between Linguini and Remy, both who realize that they ultimately need each other to succeed. Linguini needs Remy because he can’t loose another job and Remy needs Linguini to pursue his dream of becoming a chef. The film also develops a love story between Linguini and another member of Gusteau’s staff Colette (Voiced by Janeane Garofalo), who is forced into keeping an eye on the jumpy Linguini. The love story is fitting since the film is taking place in the city of love. The film also has Remy finding his father and brother, small little detours in the story that stress to Remy that he shouldn’t be so trusting of the humans. The film knows that Emile and Django are slightly bland characters so Bird smartly doesn’t focus on them too much. The film really gets moving when Remy discovers a way to control Linguini (pulling strands of his hair) so that they can continue to fool Skinner and Ego into thinking that Linguini is really cooking and not being controlled by a rat. This is where the film embraces some heavy physical comedy that will really appeal to the tots.

Ratatouille is a film that isn’t content with having one major villain but two antagonists to drive Linguini and Remy to the brink of madness. Skinner is a pint-sized terror as he tries to discover how Linguini is able to cook so well, especially since he is such a bumbling goofball. He is hilarious in his attempts to barge in to rooms to catch Linguni talking to Remy and he tries to get him drunk in the hopes that Linguini will spill the beans about his little helper. Skinner is also trying to capitalize on Gusteau’s name with a line of wretched frozen meals that he is eager to get into supermarket freezers. The skeletal Ego is also a pretentious nightmare as he spews his dislike for Gusteau’s motto and his restaurant, finding the food beneath his refined palette. He sits in his coffin shaped den typing away one negative review after another while sending shivers down his butler’s spine. Ego, who practically gags at the mention of Gusteau’s, gets a witty exchange late in the film with Linguini. Ego growls that if he doesn’t love the food he puts in his mouth, he “does not swallow.”

At nearly two hours, Ratatouille does run a bit long but it never ceases to tickle our imagination. The film gets far on such a simple premise and watching everything come full circle is delectable. The film is brimming with enough characters to hold the adult viewers attention for a good majority of the runtime. Halfway through Ratatouille, we get to meet the rest of Gusteau’s staff and they are all hilarious in their own individual way, even if the film then quickly forgets about them. The final rush to think of something to serve the impossible-to-please Ego will have you rolling on the floor in laughter, especially when you see who shows up to give Linguini and Remy a hand. You can’t shake the feeling that the portrayal if Ego is a jab at the critics who waved off Pixar’s previous offering Cars, a touch that I actually like even if I wasn’t the biggest fan of Cars myself. I was also impressed by how detailed the scenes of downtown Paris are, at times seeming almost real if glanced at from a distance. Overall, Ratatouille may send a simple, elementary message, which is somewhat disappointing, but it features enough “awe” moments and is spiced up with enough laughs to have you ordering up seconds and sending your compliments to the chef.

Grade: A-

Ratatouille is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Alien (1979)

by Steve Habrat

Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction/horror classic Alien is a film that truly understands how showing very little can scare us beyond belief. Taking place aboard the claustrophobic spaceship Nostromo, Scott terrorizes his audience by leaving basically no place for the crew to run, no place to barricade themselves in to wait out the sudden attacks by this slimy creature, and no weapon that can banish the beast to the fiery depths of Hell. While on the outside Scott has made a claustrophobic nightmare of narrow hallways and futuristic gunmetal wires, it is what Scott is doing on the inside that really gets under the viewers skin. Scott has made a film in which he reverses the sexual roles within the film. We don’t have some macho male hero to root for in Alien, one who resembles a bodybuilder with a buzz cut. Instead we have Sigourney Weaver’s feminist hero Ripley, a tough and stone-faced chick who finds herself being the last one standing against a goopy phallic creature that burst forth from a man’s chest.

Alien follows the crew aboard the commercial towing spaceship Nostromo, who are currently hauling twenty million tons of mineral ore back to good old Earth. The crew soon discovers what they believe to be a distress call from a nearby planetoid, causing them to take a detour to check out what exactly is the signal is. When they land on the craggy, windy, and gloomy planetoid, Captain Dallas (Played by Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (Played by John Hurt), and Navigator Lambert (Played by Veronica Cartwright) discover a strange ship that contains several bizarre eggs. One egg breaks open and the organism inside attaches to the face of Kane. On board the Nostromo, Warrant Officer Ripley (Played by Sigourney Weaver), Science Officer Ash (Played by Ian Holm), and Engineers Brett (Played by Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Played by Yaphet Kotto) fear allowing Kane back on the ship, but Ash is excited about the discover of this new alien life form. As they begin attempting to dissect the organism, they realize they are dealing with something extremely dangerous. Without warning, a new life form bursts from Kane’s chest, fleeing into the ship and rapidly growing to a gigantic size. As the crew is bumped off one by one by the hungry creature, they have to quickly figure out how to get this bloodthirsty alien off their ship and make it home alive.

Perhaps my favorite trait that Alien possesses is the way Scott blends the alien in with the Nostromo itself. I always found it so eerie the way the alien would suddenly pop out, having been in plain sight but we the viewer oblivious to the fact that it was right in front of us. It gives Alien the feel that this twisting labyrinth of a ship is coming alive and claiming victims one by one. My two favorite sequences have to be when Captain Dallas faces the alien in a tight space, the alien’s arms shooting out of the darkness but appearing almost like a tangle of wires and hardware until we see its gaping jaw as it goes in for a penetrating kill. My other favorite scene is when Ripley is in the escape pod in the final minutes of the film, the alien crouched in the fetal position inside a darkened crevice. The creature’s phallic head resembling part of the ship until it suddenly moves and roars at Ripley. Talk about a neat effect!

The alien itself, conceived by artist H.R. Giger, ranks as one of the most iconic movie monsters in the long history of the genre. Show a picture of it to anyone and they can instantly identify what the creature is. The beast, which is kept mostly in the shadows throughout Alien, is a true marvel, one that is a skin crawling vision while also having a faint phallic look to it. The creature grows more horrifying with each small reveal that Scott places strategically throughout the runtime of Alien, revealing the entire beast at the climax but blasting it with strobe lights, a blue glow, and blurred camera angles to keep some layer of mystery to it. Scott doesn’t simply use the alien to scare us, but applies it as a thought provoking monster that is used to make comments on the male fear of childbirth (as a baby, it is flesh colored and vaguely erect, burst forth in a shower of gore fro Kane’s chest) and used to make a comment on the battle between the sexes. At the end, the empowered Ripley strips down to just her underwear and an ill fitting t-shirt as the phallic alien, with a stinger that resembles an erect penis shooting from its mouth, bears down on her. It’s a classic sequence that is both memorable for its events and the underlying subject matter, suggesting attempted rape and penetration.

Any discussion of Alien would not be complete without praising the work of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, the empowered, no nonsense heroine who finds herself being the last woman standing in the battle between the crew and the alien. She is unrepressed and liberated, finding herself in charge of the ship in the wake of the deaths of the two men who ranked above her. Yet even from the first time she is introduced to us, she overshadows the men, all who seem slightly weak and unable to protect themselves from this monster bearing down on them. One male victim just stares in horror and disbelief as it shoots its erect stinger out of its mouth at the wide-eyed pile of flesh. Yet Ripley never falls apart, instead owning every scene she is in, even when she is placed next to Cartwright’s Lambert, who is reduced to shrieks and tears when the alien closes in. She is one tough broad and she is proud of it. Looking at the time in which Alien was made, released in 1979, right in the midst of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Ripley stands for tough and uncompromising feminism, looking this phallic monstrosity in the face and refusing to back down from it. She was a far throw from the female cliché that ran rampant in mainstream horror films at the time, the ones who ran away from the monster, the caricatures that Lambert appears to represent.

Alien is an incredibly powerful and thought provoking exercise in horror. It is an industrial mash-up of futuristic science fiction and dramatic slasher horror. Much has been made about the sexual undertones, many critics pointing out male fear of rape and penetration, the most recognizable being the fear of childbirth with the show stopping chest burst sequence, a scene that is glaringly obvious. Each and every scene has an epic gusto that tears right through it, yet each scene works in synch with the next, culminating in a strobe-like burst of seething feminism. The cut-off feeling, soggy claustrophobia, and lack of a thorough explanation of the alien all make Alien a classic among the science-fiction horror genre. Alien ultimately turns out to be B-movie material approached with an A-list touch and an extreme confidence in itself. This is an intelligent must-see horror masterpiece from the heyday of the genre.

Grade: A-

Alien is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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