Review: “Brave”

I love Pixar films.

Great animation, compelling storylines and wonderful characters. What’s not to love?

Aside from the mediocre “Cars 2,” the studio that can do no wrong has been pumping out hits for years. The stories themselves are diverse, ranging from the bottom of the ocean to the ends of space.

Pixar’s latest film, “Brave,” takes on the story of the princess of a mythical Scottish kingdom. Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald), the daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), struggles with the constraints of life as royalty. Instead of climbing mountains and honing her archery skills, Merida is forced to endure hours of queen preparation.

The premise of a daughter who disagrees with her parents is not exactly new, nor is the theme of arranged marriages in those disputes.Where the story takes this setup is what makes “Brave” a little more unique. I won’t spoil too much about that part of the film, but a magic spell is involved.

Pixar is known for producing near-perfect animation and this latest effort is no exception. The film opens and closes on beautiful landscapes. In between, there are wispy blue spirits, wild bears and Merida’s flowing red hair. From start to finish, “Brave” features some of Pixar’s best animation.

One of my biggest worries in the early parts of the film was that Merida would become a whining little girl who pouts until she gets what she wants. If you’ve seen “Flicka,” think of the way Alison Lohman’s character defies her parents over and over again until she gets her way and the parents are totally cool with it. I quickly learned that Merida is a much better character than that and I, along with parents of impressionable children, had nothing to worry about. In fact, aside from a scary scene or two and a little nudity (You could see worse on an episode of Spongebob), parents should have very little to worry about.

Merida’s parents are also pretty good characters. Fergus is almost a little too similar to Gerard Butler’s Stoick the Vast in “How to Train Your Dragon,” but his relationship with Merida provides enough of a difference. Elinor, on the other hand, is given nearly as much material as Merida for her character to grow throughout the film.

As good as “Brave” is at times, it’s lacking in something I can’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps its due to the film being a little less funny than most Pixar films (not that it needs to be). Or maybe it’s because the supporting characters are underused or less memorable. The conclusion of the film and its main conflict also seems to be a bit rushed, so that could be it.

Whatever it is, something is holding the film back from being as good as “The Incredibles” or the “Toy Story” franchise. The problem could even be just that I am comparing it to other Pixar films that have grown dear to me.

Since I’m comparing it anyways, I’ll share where I would rate it with other Pixar films. On a scale of “Wall-E” (my favorite, tied with “The Incredibles” and closely followed by “Up”) to “Cars 2,” I would put this film smack dab in the middle between “Monster’s Inc” and “A Bug’s Life.”

“Brave” may not be the best film Pixar has ever offered, but it shows a maturity in filmmaking and animation that has me excited for what comes next.

Grade: B

Happy viewing.

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Review: “Prometheus”

In space, no one can hear you scream (at numerous plot holes).

One of my most anticipated films for this summer was “Prometheus,” director Ridley Scott’s quasi-prequel to his 1979 film “Alien.”

It’s fair to say that my expectations were a little higher than where they should’ve been. I mean, the same guy found a way to make “Robin Hood” lackluster.

The film is about the exploratory vessel, Prometheus, and its crew of biologists, geologists and androids. Drs. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green, who attended my alma mater in Knoxville, TN) lead an expedition to the unknown reaches of space in order to discover the origin of life on earth. They believe that a race of “engineers” traveled across the galaxy to bring life, only to be remembered through cave paintings found in ancient civilizations long ago.

Also on board are Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), Janek (Idris Elba), a robot named David (Michael Fassbender) and a handful of Redshirts (expendable characters, for those of you unfamiliar with sci-fi).

Upon arriving at their destination, the crew discovers they would have been much better off just letting the mystery of our origins go.

Most people who have a problem with this film are upset for two reasons: First, they wanted the history of the Space Jockey kept as a secret. I can identify with this. I hated when Rob Zombie decided to give a sympathetic childhood to Michael Myers. Secondly, there are many instances where Damon Lindelof’s script creates plot holes or similarly annoying problems. One of these has to do with a character having abdominal surgery and then engaging in strenuous physical activities roughly an hour later.

While the first problem only exists in the minds of a few die-hard fanboys, the second is a real distraction for the film. Characters make all kinds of outrageous judgment calls that make little sense throughout the movie. MINOR SPOILERS: The guy who makes the map of the ruins for the team is literally the only person who gets lost in the film. Really? How does everyone else move around so easily? And don’t get me started on Vickers’ trouble with moving horizontally. END OF SPOILERS

Many of the characters in the film don’t get the layer of depth I would like, there are a couple of strong characters in the film. Rapace and Elba both do well with their parts, although I wish there was a little more story for Elba. The strongest performance comes from the amazing Michael Fassbender. His portrayal of the robot David is downright chilling. When I went to see the film a second time (after going back to watch the “Alien” films), I found myself loving the character and the actor’s performance.

The film is also very strong in the visuals department. The special effects may be from a different aproach than “Alien,” but between the creatures and the foreign world’s landscape, it is very well-crafted.

Did “Prometheus” live up to my high expectations? Not really. I loved certain things about the movie, but some of the writing problems are just too much to overlook. In the end, Ridley Scott settles on making a good movie instead of what could have been a modern classic.

Grade: B-

Happy viewing.

Review: “Snow White and the Huntsman”

Fairies, dwarves, and trolls. Oddly enough, no vampires. I thought this was a Kristen Stewart movie.

In the latest installment of competitive studios banking on the same idea, “Snow White and the Huntsman” sets out to prove itself superior to this year’s other Snow White offering, “Mirror Mirror.” While the latter was a light-hearted family film, “Snow White and the Huntsman” aims more for the gothic fairy tale angle.

After an evil witch named Ravenna (Charlize Theron) takes over her father’s kingdom, Snow White (Kristen Stewart) is imprisoned in a tower. Upon escaping years later, she retreats into the dark forest where Ravenna sends the skillful Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to retrieve her. Spoiler alert: Things don’t go the way the now-queen planned.

Between the dangers of the dark forest and the more magical world of the fairies and dwarves, the film is incredibly well-designed. The darkness is darker and the light is brighter, as each scene’s design communicates the right tone.

Unfortunately, appearances can only get you so far. The film is deeply flawed once you get past the set designer’s imagination. It’s not a good sign that director Rupert Sanders’ IMDB page shows a big goose egg for previously directed features. Also, there were 3 writers working on this film who, between the 3 of them, have written maybe 2-3 good scripts.

Flaws in the writing come in all shapes and sizes. The weakest love triangle in recent memory, a cringe-worthy battle speech by Kristen Stewart and miles of loose ends inflict a lot of damage on the film as a whole. It’s hard to care for characters who are only skin deep, which is most of them.

For what it’s worth, the actors try their hardest to overcome the lackluster script. Stewart is better than her “Twilight” reputation, but that isn’t saying a whole lot. The best work is given by Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth. They are also the ones with the best backstory/development. Funny how that works.

One of the most bothersome things about the film is that there were obviously scenes cut from the finished product, some are even in the majority of trailers. Did these characters have more development left on the cutting room floor? Were storylines more conclusively drawn together? The film simply had too many unnecessary scenes. At just over 2 hours, it feels about 15-20 minutes too long already.

At the end of the day, “Snow White and the Huntsman” is a painfully average film. It’ll get you through a rainy afternoon, but it suffers the same problem many other films face these days: it is unmemorable.

Grade: C+

I’ll try to write a review for “Prometheus” in the next day or two. Watching it the other night has triggered my need to re-watch the original Alien films, and I am currently addicted to Battlestar Galactica so that’s turning me into a Netflix junkie.

Happy viewing.

Review: “Men in Black III”

For the first time since 2008, Will Smith is back on the silver screen. Personally speaking, the break has been….therapeutic. The actor, who is one of the biggest moneymakers in Hollywood, was starting to wear me down.

One of my favorite movies growing up was 1997’s “Men in Black.” After its disappointing sequel 10 years ago, I haven’t really thought of the series much. Unitl now, anyway.

The third installment picks up years after Lara Flynn Boyle and Johnny Knoxville had a run-in with the intergalactic agency. Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) are still keeping peace on earth and rounding up rogue aliens. After Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) escapes from his solitary cell on the moon, he travels back in time to kill K in 1969. J must follow him back in order to save his partner and the world.

“Men in Black III” is a return to the light-hearted entertainment that made the original such a hit.And better yet, it corrects the mistakes of the 2002 film.

First of all, the villain is powerful and at least somewhat scary. One of the biggest problems with the previous film was that the bad guys were laughable at best: a two-headed Knoxville and a walking Victoria’s Secret ad? Give me a break. While Boris doesn’t quite meet the creepiness of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Edgar character, he does shoot spikes out of his hand and drives a Harley from hell.

Also, J and K are back in full form. K with his grumpy demeanor and J with his (usually) funny remarks. The second film didn’t have the same chemistry because so much time was taken in trying to get K’s memory back.

The best addition to the film is Josh Brolin as a young Agent K. Full of hope and enjoying life, it provides a stark contrast to the portrayal of the character by Jones. Brolin has conquered the voice and mannerisms well, but his character is unique enough for it to be appreciated on its own.

Although most people who have seen more than one movie involving time travel will raise some complaints, the use of it does provide a fresh angle on the film. We get to see things like Bill Hader dressed as Andy Warhol and of course a racial joke about Will Smith driving a nice car during the 60’s.

The film isn’t perfect, as many of the jokes fall flat, but it is a very fun time at the movies. Let’s just hope the studios have the decency to let the series go out on a successful third installment, rather than driving it all into the ground.

Grade: B-

Happy viewing.