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The Treatment

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Remember a few months back, when cameras captured a Village KFC teeming with rats? The new Pixar film Ratatouille raises the possibility that the rats might have improved KFC’s food. Our Parisian rat hero, Remy, does not share his family’s taste for garbage. He loves fresh, local ingredients combined in new and unexpected ways. He wants to cook, and his inspiration is a famous chef named Gusteau whose motto was “Anyone can cook”—but who was driven to his grave by the condemnation of a cadaverous critic (the Grim Eater). It’s an archetypal story: a young person—rodent—who insists on going his own way in the face of a disapproving dad and a society that can see him in only one role. What makes the tale seem less sentimental, less wearyingly familiar, is the fundamental visceral disconnect of its happiest images: rat in kitchen … rat on stovetop … rat in walk-in fridge with pink nose sniffing food … ewwwww …

Brad Bird wrote and directed Ratatouille and tops his previous work. Since his work includes The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, this puts him somewhere between Chuck Jones and Michelangelo. He uses dimensionality the way Spielberg does: His characters seize the foreground, making you sit up like a rat catching a whiff of cheese—maybe Parmigiano-Reggiano shaved lightly over truffle-scented … sorry. Ratatouille is Pinocchio for foodies. It’s Anthony Bourdain and Bill Buford with chases. Jaw-dropping chases: With a hero who’s a rat and enchantingly light on his feet, the space is endlessly subdivided. The world is constantly opening up and whizzing by. Now we’re dropping to the floor, flipping under a table, bursting through a crack, racing along a pipe …

Bird clearly knows the great silent clowns: The slapstick he devises is balletic. Remy hooks up with a floppy young garbage hauler called Linguini who gets credit for the rat’s first, triumphant culinary improvisation. (“You know how to cook and I know how to appear human,” enthuses Linguini.) The rat can’t speak (at least so humans in the movie can understand; we hear the vocal stylings of Patton Oswalt, who has the snap of a young Richard Dreyfuss)—so he crouches under the youth’s toque and pulls his red hair to signal left or right.

I’ve dwelt on Bird, but this is a high-water mark for everyone at Pixar—and for the refreshingly unbilled vocalists, who include Brian Dennehy and Janeane Garofalo. As the critic, a sepulchral figure out of Charles Addams, Peter O’Toole drops his voice to inhuman depths. Critics get less respect than rats.

After making the 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly—which recounted the life of German-American pilot Dieter Dengler shot down in 1966 on a secret bombing raid over Laos and held by the Viet Cong under near–Deer Hunter conditions—Werner Herzog decided to try it again with actors, among them Christian Bale. The film, Rescue Dawn, is so good it makes you wish that Herzog had gone Hollywood earlier in his career. His pet theme is here: man tested against nature, his sanity more precarious than his body. But you don’t get Herzog’s usual loitering camera or Teutonic musings. The movie is lean and wiry, the artistry camouflaged. Bale catches Dengler’s restlessness, his bravery as much the upshot of impatience as nobility of soul. The other Americans in the prison camp are played by Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies. As their fear and hunger grow, Zahn burrows down into himself, Davies sprouts dementia like werewolf hair. The primal dependence—and, at times, primal repulsion—of these men matches the mythic jungle landscape, with those almost laughably oversize leaves. Rescue Dawn is terrific by itself, but it’s enriched by its documentary counterpart. See them back-to-back with a bowl of rice in between.

Cinematographers like to gush about the magic hour—near sunset or sunrise, when the light burnishes instead of bruises. Everything in Evening has that magic-hour glow. Vanessa Redgrave plays Ann, a woman dying of cancer in her bedroom, floating between the present and the past. The light makes her look pretty good, though. She tells her daughter (Toni Collette), “You look peaked”—but her daughter looks positively rosy. In the past, Ann is Claire Danes, who shows up for the wedding of a friend in a baronial beach house where life is a perpetual sunset. But a burnish is not what this movie needed. The film is based on a novel by Susan Minot—one of those books where the author doesn’t deign to put dialogue in quotation marks for fear of dispelling the dreamlike mood. It works on paper, but Minot, who shares credit for the adaptation with fellow novelist Michael Cunningham, doesn’t understand that screenwriting is the art of taking away. People here don’t just talk too much; they say, “There’s something I have to tell you” first. Evening only bestirs itself when Meryl Streep in old-lady makeup pays Redgrave a visit: The way these two great actresses breathe the same air and adjust their rhythms to each other seems almost holy.

Mamie Gummer, Streep’s daughter, plays her as a young woman, and they have the same lilt and the same singular nose. But Danes and Redgrave are a howling disconnect. It’s not just that their features don’t match, it’s that they embody two different styles of acting: one coquettish, darting, playful; the other transparent, guileless, a little blah (in this context). It’s the closest thing in Evening to a real existential crisis.

Sicko
Directed by Michael Moore. The Weinstein Company. PG-13.

Ratatouille
Directed by Brad Bird. Disney. G.

Rescue Dawn
Directed by Werner Herzog. MGM. PG-13.

Evening
Directed by Lajos Koltai. Focus Features. PG-13.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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