Ratatouille, Sicko, Live Free or Die Hard

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The French have a word to describe Ratatouille, the tale of a provincial rat named Remy who becomes a great Parisian chef. The word is "génial." Not genial as in cheerful, though Pixar's latest animated feature is certainly that, but génial with an accent, as in brilliant, or inspired. The characters are irresistible -- why would anyone want to resist a hero who so gallantly transcends his rattiness? -- the animation is astonishing and this fantasy version of a foodie rhapsody sustains a level of joyous invention that hasn't been seen in family entertainment since The Incredibles.

The uncommon denominator of both productions is the writer-director -- Brad Bird. There's the same unerring showmanship, which makes a complex story seem luminously logical, the same delight in hurtling motion, sophisticated comedy and copious detail. Instead of using the kitchen of a fancy French restaurant as a picturesque background, Ratatouille explores the workplace and its frenzied rituals -- and intricate hierarchy -- with a screwball zest worthy of the sainted Julia Child. Remy slices, dices and cooks with thrilling ingenuity that overcomes his dual deficits in standing and stature. And he's a classic underdog -- underrat -- who's reviled at first by the very people who end up lionizing him.

But is the world ready for a movie that sees a rat in a kitchen as a cause for celebration, rather than extermination? Once you've met the rat in question, and registered the high preposterousness of the premise -- not to mention the elegance of the execution -- the answer is yes. C'est à dire oui.

When the government stripped Mr. Incredible of his superhero status in The Incredibles, he was reduced to working in the claims department of an HMO, where his job was to deny claims. His testimony would have been a worthy addition to Sicko, although Michael Moore's argumentative blogumentary about health care is shockingly funny without him. Moore sees the United States as a nation in denial, so much so that we've slipped to number 37 in a World Health Organization ranking, just ahead of Slovenia. He lashes out with Swiftian scorn at a system that leaves almost 50 million Americans uninsured, and he gives us horrifying stories told not only by the uninsured but by people whose insurance companies failed or betrayed them.

But -- and yes, with a Michael Moore film there's always a but -- he can't leave ill enough alone. With hardly a nod toward critical thinking, he represents the universal health care systems in Canada, Britain and France as essentially flawless through the use of ardent interview subjects, extravagant praise and slippery rhetorical devices.

And the jaunty provocateur turns earnest propagandist when he discovers health-care heaven in Cuba. Lots of Sicko stands as boffo political theater, but its major domo lost me by losing his sense of humor.

Don't judge Live Free or Die Hard by its title, which sounds like a license plate motto, or make snide assumptions, as I did, about the impending death of the Die Hard franchise. John McClane, the New York cop played by Bruce Willis, may be long in the tooth, but he hasn't lost his bite. This fourth iteration of a series that first burst upon the world in 1988 turns out to be terrific entertainment, and startlingly shrewd in the bargain. It's a combination of minimalist performances -- interestingly minimalist -- and maximalist stunts that make you laugh, as you gape, at their extravagance.