Owls and Rats

Man, when the weather turns and we have to go back to regular theaters, it's going to be quite a shock. We made another trip to the drive-in last night. When you're getting a double feature and smuggling in booze is as easy as putting a bottle of wine in the car, it's tough to want to go to the regular theaters. So, another double feature for us, another double feature movie review for y'all.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: As I've mentioned before, Phoenix was not my favorite of the Potter books. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that I think they've matched Prisoner of Azkaban as the best of the movie adaptations. How did they accomplish this?

Editing, first and foremost. Or perhaps "condensing" is a better word. I generally like the extra detail and curious little side-trips and sub-plots of the books, but Book 5's interminable quidditch scenes, among others, bored the crap out of me. They're gone in the movie, much to its benefit. Some things are missed - the full-scale rebellion against Dolores Umbridge, for example, is shortened to the Weasley Twins' dramatic exit. Still, most of the cuts make a lot of sense, and what was a little bloated becomes a tight, fast-paced story.

Secondly, casting. The producers of the Potter movies have always managed to find the exact right actor for the role, and they continue that here. I think the adult actors want to do it because it's fun and the movies have become a sort of who's who of this era's British actors; if you're a British actor and not appearing in a Potter movie, you're not much of a British actor at all. Imelda Staunton is pitch-perfect as Dolores Umbridge, conveying the perfect thin veneer of sugar-and-spice over pure petty nastiness. Helena Bonham-Carter's appearance is more of a cameo, but it's fun and she's got the right look for the role. The casting is just right for the kids, too. Evanna Lynch embodies Luna Lovegood with eerie perfection, spacey but sweet.

With the films being a Parade of Special Guest Stars, it's easy to overlook the main cast. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson have grown into their roles wonderfully. They are perfectly at home with these characters, and more importantly, have developed an easy, unforced chemistry with one another over the course of five movies. Radcliffe, especially, has grown as an actor to the point where he can really carry these movies, easily holding his own with Gary Oldman and Michael Gambon. It would be easy to get lost in the Parade, but Radcliffe really stands out.

The movie is, of course, just the undercard to the summer's Big Potter Event coming in another week - but it's good enough to stand on its own merits, too.


Ratatouille: I still haven't seen Cars...but I feel safe in saying this anyway: Pixar can do no wrong. More importantly, Brad Bird can do no wrong. If this idea was in other hands - the hacks at DreamWorks or Sony, some other writer or director, it couldn't possibly work. If you stop and think about it, this concept - a rat who dreams of being a gourmet chef - shouldn't work at all. But it does, and beautifully.

It's full of appealing and charismatic voice work, not just from Patton Oswalt as Remy, but also Brad Garrett (who sounds here nothing like his deep-voiced monotone from "Everybody Loves Raymond"; in fact, I mistook him for Kelsey Grammer at first), Ian Holm, Peter O'Toole, Janeane Garofalo and the relative unknown Lou Romano voicing Linguini, the human chef through whom Remy works.

Unlike most other movies that revolve around cooking and kitchens, it's not really food porn (e.g. Big Night, Like Water for Chocolate) because, well, the idea of a rat cooking is silly and if you think about it too much, disgusting. But it properly captures the love and passion that cooking and food often inspire, both in cooks and appreciative audiences. Remy's fellow rats' indifference to what they eat is amusing as well, as everyone who cooks and loves food is often frustrated by encountering that unrefined palate that just doesn't care what it eats.

The writing is sly and clever, full of little throw-away jokes. Bird must have worked in restaurants early in his life, because he nails the character of every head chef I've ever encountered by making Skinner a domineering asshole with a Napoleon complex. He also skewers the modern "celebrity chef" trend - Skinner is more concerned with branding and selling frozen burritos than with cooking and good food.

Above all, like all Pixar productions, this movie is simply gorgeous to look at. We were watching Toy Story 2 the other night, and I commented about how primitive the original Toy Story looks in comparison. And in comparison to this, Toy Story 2 might as well be cave paintings. The Pixar animators have advanced immensely in recreating human movement. And the rats are simply brilliant - they manage to be not only convincingly rat-like but cute and appealing as well. It's a fascinating blend of the cartoonish and the realistic. Remy is clearly not a real rat, but is covered in realistic fur. More impressive still is the depiction of wet fur.

And it continues a long, proud cinematic tradition, too. As with every movie set in Paris ever, there is a breathtaking view of the Eiffel Tower from every single window.