Brave


Brave

Merida takes aim at teen angst.

(2012) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Julie Walters, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane, Sally Kinghorn, Eilidh Fraser, Peigi Barker, Steven Cree, John Ratzenberger. Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman

 

Fate is a word we sometimes bandy around with negative connotations. There are those of us who believe that it implies that our destiny is set in stone, that we are doomed to live a certain type of life. Some believe that fate is not necessarily set in stone – it can be changed with the right impetus.

Merida (Macdonald) is of the latter sort. She is a spunky, willful princess – literally. She’s the daughter of King Fergus (Connolly) of Scotland, a gruff rough and tumble sort who’s leg was bitten off by a bear that attacked his family, including Queen Elinor (Thompson) who some years later delivered triplets – three wee devils who act as comic relief in the castle.

Merida finds nothing funny about life  though. She longs to go on adventures like her dad, and has become quite the archer. Her mother, though, wants her only daughter to be a proper princess, one who will grow up into a beautiful, regal Queen. And it’s about high time she did; while Elinor nags, Merida stews. And when Merida becomes of marriageable age, as is traditional among the clans a competition will be held to determine which Lord’s son will win the hand of the fair maiden – be it the sons of Lord Dingwall (Coltrane), Lord Macintosh (Ferguson) or Lord MacGuffin (McKidd) – all of whom have travelled to the castle of King Fergus for the games, feasting and tales of bear hunting.

Merida is having none of it. She is for one thing a far better archer than any of the scions of the clans. And for another, she doesn’t want to get married (and to be honest, she is nowhere near ready to be). She and her mother can barely hold a civil conversation and her Dad is too engrossed in the feasting and tale-telling to really notice. So Merida goes off for a ride and finds herself in a Stonehenge-like circle of sacred stones from whence the wills-o’-the-wisp lead her to the cottage of an eccentric witch (Walters) whom Merida asks to purchase a spell from – a spell that will allow her mother to change her mind and in doing so, changing Merida’s fate. However, like most spells that are selfish in origin, it doesn’t go exactly according to plan.

There is an air of mystery and mysticism here that is very welcome. Here we get to see Scotland as a magical land that is wild, beautiful and just a little bit off-kilter. Yes, pun intended. The animation here is gorgeous – quite possibly the best and most intricate that Pixar has accomplished up to now. The look is very much like classic Disney animation and that’s not by accident.

Thinking about it, this is quite the gathering of the clans if your clans are Scottish actors and actors of Scottish descent. It gives them a chance to air out their brogues a little. I have an affection for the accent and even though it can be hard to understand for those who aren’t used to it although to be fair it’s toned down here so it’s pretty easily understandable even for those who don’t have the ear for it.

There is quite a dynamic that goes on between Elinor and Merida – like many mother-daughter relationships it’s love-hate. And, like most teens and their parents, you have two sides talking and neither side listening. Elinor at first is a mom who has a vision in her head of what she wants her daughter to be – without taking into account what her daughter wants to make of herself. For Merida’s part, she’s willful and stubborn, openly defiant of her parents and quite a bit stubborn. Her means of communicating is to make pronouncements and that doesn’t go over well with her mum.

In fact, Merida’s spoiled behavior leads directly to some fairly savage consequences for her family. Now, as a parent I can tell you that tolerance is a great big survival skill for any parent of a teen – they are going to make mistakes no matter how much you try to warn them (pretty much the way we did when we were teens) but I have to admit, it is rare for any parent to have to deal with a mistake the magnitude that Merida makes. Yes, I’m being deliberately vague here because not knowing the nature of what Merida did and the consequences that ensued makes the movie so much more enjoyable, although I have seen a couple of reviews that have spoiled it – including the usually-reliable Roger Ebert, so take that into account when reading before seeing.

This is quite a departure for Pixar – straight into Disney territory. Think about all the elements you have here – a feisty princess, a witch who lives in an isolated cottage in the woods, danger, intrigue – all that is lacking here is true love’s kiss – but then Merida would much rather kiss a frog than a thousand princes. Still, after the lackluster effort that was Cars 2 this is a welcome return to form.

REASONS TO GO: Maybe the best animation in Pixar’s history. Goofy when it needs to be.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems to glorify willful, spoiled behavior.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sequences that might be frightening for toddlers, and there is a bit of rude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Pixar’s first film set in the past, the first to feature a female protagonist and Merida the first Pixar character to become a Disney princess.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100. The reviews are solid.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mulan

BEAR LOVERS: We see bears of all sorts in the film, including three little ones, a mama bear and a scary bear.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Ted

New Releases for the Week of June 22, 2012


June 22, 2012

BRAVE

(Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Julie Walters, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane, John Ratzenberger, Patrick Doyle. Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman

An Scottish princess yearns to prove her mettle but her mom the Queen wishes her to be more lady-like. When her actions cause chaos in the hitherto peaceful kingdom, she turns to a wise wisdom and inadvertently unleashes a curse that may cause even more damage to life and limb. It is one thing to play brave but quite another to be brave and that is precisely what she must do if she is to reverse the curse and bring peace back to Scotland.

See the trailer, promos, featurettes and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for some scary action and rude humor)

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

(20th Century Fox) Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell. Our beloved 16th president led a secret life before he became the Great Emancipator. Lincoln in addition to debating politics and practicing law was a killer of vampires, the scourge of the Earth who had murdered his own mother. Soon he is taking on a vampire curse that is intent on forming their own nation – the Confederate States of America.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Supernatural Thriller

Rating: R (for violence throughout and brief sexuality) 

Lola Versus

(Fox Searchlight) Greta Gerwig, Joel Kinnaman, Bill Pullman, Debra Winger. After being dumped by her fiancee just a few weeks before the wedding,  Lola, accompanied by her sympathetic friends, goes on a journey to discover her place in the world and what it means to be a single woman approaching 30. Which isn’t what it used to be.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: R (for language, sexuality and drug use) 

Moonrise Kingdom

(Focus) Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand. A pair of 12-year-olds living on an island off the coast of New England in 1965 decide to run away together into the wilderness. As the community turns the island upside-down trying to find them, a brewing storm off the coast puts more urgency into the search. From eclectic director Wes Anderson.

See the trailer, featurettes and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and smoking)

Seeking a Friend For the End of the World

(Focus) Steve Carell, Keira Knightley, Patton Oswalt, Melanie Lynskey. As the world winds down awaiting the final, fatal collision with an asteroid, a man and his comely neighbor take a journey for him to find his lost love and for her to be reunited with her family one last time before the end arrives. Along the way they find that the things they really need may not be that far away at all.

See the trailer and featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence)

Teri Meri Kahaani

(Eros International) Priyanka Chopra, Shahid Kapoor, Omar Khan, Greg Heffernan. Three different love stories. Three different couples (played by the same actors). All linked together, by history and by love. With settings in 1912, 1962 and 2012, the music of each story is of the period the story is set in. Sounds pretty interesting to me.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR 

Dog Soldiers


Dog Soldiers

Never wolf down your food.

(2002) Horror (Artisan) Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd, Emma Cleasby, Liam Cunningham, Thomas Lockyer, Darren Morfitt, Chris Robson, Leslie Simpson, Tina Landini, Craig Conway, Bryn Walters, Brian Claxton Payne, Ben Wright. Directed by Neil Marshall

 

If you were in the woods far away from civilization, where would the safest place to be? You would think among a troop of soldiers on training exercises. There are some things though an entire army wouldn’t even be able to protect you from.

Private Cooper (McKidd) looks to join the elite SAS unit and looks to have the skills to do it. However when he is ordered to kill a dog, he refuses. The commanding officer, Captain Ryan (Cunningham) shoots the dog himself and sends Cooper back to his unit.

A month later, Cooper’s squad, commanded by Sgt. Wells (Pertwee), is dropped into the Scottish highlands for training exercises. They’re supposed to attack a squad of SAS commandos but when they reach their encampment, the place has been torn to shreds. There are no bodies but plenty of bodies and bits of flesh and organ strew about. It looks like the scene of a massacre. There is just one survivor – Captain Ryan, who is grievously wounded and keeps muttering “there was only supposed to be one.”

Right about then the soldiers are attacked by unknown assailants. Corporal Bruce Campbell (Lockyer) is impaled on a tree branch and the rest of the squad make their way to an abandoned farmhouse with the help of a zoologist they encounter on the road, Maggie (Cleasby). They hole up there, thinking if they can hold out until morning the werewolves will revert to human form and they’d be safe.

Soon it appears that won’t be happening. One of the soldiers, Private Terry Milburn (Simpson) is abducted and their ammo is running low. It becomes obvious that they will need to find a way to escape before dawn or they just won’t survive.

Marshall has crafted an old-school kind of werewolf movie that eschews CGI for practical effects and with a script clever in its references to all sorts of movies, from Zulu to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to Night of the Living Dead. That sounds like a bit of a mishmash (and it is in a way) but it actually works really well. The movie has a clever sense of humor that is going to appeal to not just the fanboy but the casual horror fan as well.

Marshall apparently has a pretty good sense of how military units operate – he’s gotten praise for getting that aspect right. He also has a good sense of how soldiers talk – not like cliché machines but with a wide swagger, a hefty dose of macho but also a sense of precision. Military units thrive on precise communications; they would be pretty unsuccessful if they weren’t efficient that way.

The movie was produced on the cheap; in that sense from time to time the lack of a budget shows through although for the most part the movie looks more expensive than it was. The cast is solid and talented (although Jason Statham was offered a part in the movie he had to decline to commitments to other films) and gets the military jargon down, not to mention the swagger. There are a few twists and turns (although you should be able to guess what the “mission” of the SAS really was, what the significance of the farmhouse is and what the secret of the werewolf clan is) and even better, plenty of visceral thrills to deliver the discerning horror film fan to hog heaven.

The movie failed to get theatrical distribution in the United States as distributors labeled it as “too British” which just goes to show you how stupid distributors can be (just check the box office receipts for Shaun of the Dead if you don’t believe me). It was initially shown on the SyFy Channel (and it still turns up on cable regularly) before getting a home video release, including a bare-bones Blu-Ray release a couple of years ago. That’s a shame; I think someday this will be recognized as a classic in the genre and given the respect and treatment it deserves. Until then, it can be our little hidden gem.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best werewolf films of recent years. Practical-effect werewolves rock. Reminiscent of Evil Dead and An American Werewolf in London in tone. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cheap production values sometimes show through.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, lots of gore and lots of bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie is set in Scotland it was actually filmed in Luxembourg.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.5M on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie was slightly profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Ledge

The Last Legion


The Last Legion

"This island of Capri - I can't imagine anyone else ever wanting to visit. Why are you looking at me that way?"

(2007) Swords and Sandals Action/Adventure (Weinstein) Sir Ben Kingsley, Colin Firth, Aishwarya Rai, Thomas Sangster, John Hannah, Alexander Siddig, Peter Mullan, Kevin McKidd, Iain Glen, Rupert Friend, Nonso Anozie, Owen Teale, Harry van Gorkum, Robert Pugh. Directed by Doug Lefler.

With the success of Gladiator and 300, it stands to reason that we’ll be seeing more sword-and-sandal epics coming our way. Stacked up against the two movies previously mentioned, The Last Legion doesn’t really belong in that kind of company. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it should be relegated to the avoid-at-all-costs list.

Romulus (Sangster) is a young boy, the son of the last female descendent of Julius Caesar. His male relatives have ascended to the throne of Rome left and right and have been assassinated. Rome is beset from without by angry Goths, led by Odoacer (Mullan), who has been denied what he believed was his rightful due as defender of the Empire by Orestes (Glen), Romulus’ arrogant father and regent, and from within by greedy, weak-willed Romans.

Orestes gets one of his finest generals, Aurelius (Firth) to be the boy’s bodyguard. Aurelius is less than thrilled about the assignment, but has sworn an oath to defend the boy to his last breath – Aurelius, not the boy’s. Orestes also sends Romulus’ tutor Ambrosinus (Kingsley) packing for having the temerity to encourage the boy to think for himself. That’s simply not what emperors of the known world do.

On the night of his coronation, Rome is sacked by the Goths. Odoacer’s hyperactive second-in-command, Wulfila (McKidd) kills Romulus’ parents and captures the boy. He’s all for killing the last Caesar, but Ambrosinus shows up at the last moment and persuades Odoacer to keep the boy captive – on the isle of Capri. Tough gig.

Aurelius, with boyhood friend Nestor (Hannah) and Theodorus (Siddig), the ambassador of the Eastern Empire, plot to get the kid back. Only a few of Aurelius’ men survived the Goth attack, so Theodorus sends his best warrior to assist. The best warrior turns out to be a woman named Mira (Rai). Together, she and Aurelius rescue the boy and Ambrosinus only to discover that the boy has found ex caliburnus, the fabled sword of Julius Caesar. However, things have changed when they get back to Italy and it looks like Romulus is going to need an army just to survive in this hostile world. There is a legion that has not yet switched allegiance to Odoacer; the fabled Ninth, also known as the Dragon Legion. They, however, are all the way in Britannia, a long journey. Wulfila, having been maimed in the rescue of Romulus, is also hot on the chase and breathing fire of his own.

When you read the plot on paper, it sounds terribly cheesy and in many ways, it is. In all honesty, if you go in and try not to think about historical accuracy too much and accept this as a bit of a fantasy grounded in a few facts, it’s actually not a bad piece of entertainment. Much of the story will seem a bit familiar, and there are clichés up the yin yang but the story was entertaining enough to keep my interest, and the performances solid enough to not strain the bounds of credibility. Kingsley looks a bit like a hippie in his outfit here, but Firth makes a terrific Roman. Rai, one of the most beautiful women on Earth and one of the biggest stars in Bollywood, is pretty hot as a warrior and shows some skills with a sword. Director Lefler cut his teeth on the “Hercules” and “Xena” TV shows so he knows what he’s about in this genre.

In all honesty, I was surprised. Considering that the movie got almost zero publicity during its theatrical release and had its release date pushed back several times – usually the sign of a bad movie – it’s a pretty entertaining. Don’t kid yourself – The Last Legion didn’t make anybody’s top ten lists, but you won’t leave the couch feeling disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: Entertainment value. Lots of swordplay. Colin Firth. Aishwarya Rai.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Script riddled with clichés. Takes a few liberties with history. Cheap CGI.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some battle sequences and swordfights, but nothing gruesome. Overall, I’d say this is suitable for the entire family despite the PG-13 rating.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Doug Lefler used Thomas Sangster’s entire family as extras at various points in the film.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $25.3M on an unreported  budget. I’m guessing the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Bangkok Dangerous

Made of Honor


Made of Honor

Monaghan and Dempsey dance cheek to cheek.

(Columbia) Patrick Dempsey, Michelle Monaghan, Kevin McKidd, Kathleen Quinlan, Sydney Pollack, Kadeem Hardison, James Sikking, Busy Philipps, Whitney Cummings. Directed by Paul Weiland

The secret to a successful romantic relationship is to marry your best friend. Sometimes, that logic escapes even the brightest of us.

Tom (Dempsey) is a serial lady-killer who operates on a complicated but nonetheless rigid set of rules guaranteed to prevent a serious relationship from sprouting up from the sex. At a collegiate Halloween party during the Clinton era he accidentally climbs into the bed of Hannah (Moynahan), a bookish co-ed when he meant to get busy with her cousin Melissa (Philipps). He gets sprayed in the eyes for his trouble and Moynahan, finding him curiously fascinating despite his male chauvinist pig attitudes, nurses him back to sight and points him in the direction of her cousin, who doesn’t handle liquor very well.

Fast-forward a decade and the two have become best buddies. His collegiate tendencies have blossomed into a full-blown lifestyle; he is able to afford this because he invented the coffee cup holder, which has made him rich. She works as an art buyer and is heading for Scotland on business. Tom still has the company of his buddies, including pal Felix (Hardison), and boasts that he has the best of all worlds; a different woman in his bed every night and Hannah during the day to hang out with. However, Tom realizes the longer that she’s gone that he really likes hanging out with Hannah and that he wants more than a platonic buddy relationship with her. He resolves to tell her so, but unfortunately for him, she returns with Colin (McKidd) in tow, the near-perfect man – a Scottish noble with medals for valor and achievement on his perfect manly chest, and a nice guy to boot. She informs a shocked Tom that the two have set a date to be married and she wants him – Tom – to be her maid of honor. Tom does what all men in that situation should do; knock over a waiter with a full tray of food. Ah, hilarity.

Tom is reluctant to go to Scotland to watch the woman he now knows he loves wed another man but Felix convinces him that the best way to subvert her nuptials is from the inside. He decides to go ahead with the plan, not realizing that among the bridesmaids is grown-up cousin Melissa who has an absolute hate on for Tom, and who secretly thinks she should be the maid of honor.

Tom tries to prove himself the best man for Hannah by being as perfect at everything as Colin is but as is usually the case in romantic comedies, events (and the very vindictive Melissa) conspire against him. Will true love triumph in the end?

Romantic comedies are a kind of fantasy, particularly as practiced by Hollywood. The formula is pretty much the same; an unlikely couple gets together and discovers a growing feeling for one another. Things go well until one of them makes a critical error and the two are separated. Usually a third party becomes involved and one of them looks headed for a lifetime relationship with the wrong person until the one he/she should be with saves the day.

That’s all fine and good for the movies but it doesn’t really work that way in real life. Now, I’m all for escapism but I just wish that Hollywood rom-com writers could put some variation in the formula to make these just a tad more interesting. After all, the plot here sounds suspiciously like My Best Friend’s Wedding, except that movie had Julia Roberts and Dermot Mulroney as a couple and there was more chemistry between those two than Dempsey and Monaghan any day of the week.

There really isn’t much here that makes this movie worth seeing, other than a pretty good-looking cast and the beautiful scenery of Scotland. One notable exception is director Sydney Pollack in his last acting role before his death in 2008 from stomach cancer. He plays Tom’s oft-married dad (undergoing wedding number six to American Idol Kelly Clarkson) who is negotiating a pre-nuptial agreement that is essentially a license for prostitution. It’s one of the few sequences that really stand out.

It’s hard to buy why the allegedly bright Hannah would find anything remotely in common with the terminally shallow Tom, who seems to represent everything in life she is against. I guess that the odd couple formula had to be filled out one way or another.

I will be the first to admit I have a great deal of fondness for a good romantic comedy. Some of my favorite movies of all time – Love, Actually comes to mind right off the top of my head – fall into that genre. However, the sad truth is that the studios seem incapable of making a good one and it’s been a bloody long time since I saw anything better than average come out in the genre from a Hollywood studio. It seems that Hollywood can churn out the special effects to make you believe an alien planet is real but can’t find a writer that will make you believe a romance is real. How sad is that?

WHY RENT THIS: Another harmless rom-com without ambition to be much more than that. The fine-looking cast is easy on the eyes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If your expectations are slightly higher, there are movies with similar themes done far better.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mild sexuality and a bit of harsh language but otherwise suitable for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the filming was done at Dunvegan Castle on the Island of Skye, the oldest continuously-inhabited castle in Scotland and the ancient home of the chiefs of Clan MacLeod. The Highland Games sequence was filmed here, as well as a sentimental scene between Hannah and Tom.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Gigantic