MOVIE REVIEW – ‘BRAVE’

I think it’s safe to say – given  the current cultural zeitgeist –  that the archery industry (is archery an industry? A hobby, perhaps? I digress), is currently experiencing an unprecedented spike in sales and interest in their ancient art. Well, at least the largest uptick since Kevin Costner gave audiences the “Arrow POV” cam in 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, anyway.

This renewed enthusiasm for strapping on a quiver and marching off into the woods began with Katniss Everdeen in the $400+ million grossing Hunger Games adaptation, was quickly followed up with the archery-themed superhero Hawkeye in the $600+ million mega-blockbuster Avengers, and now little tykes around the globe will be clamoring for a bow of their own thanks to the flame-mopped Princess Merida in Brave, Pixar’s latest CG-animated crowd pleaser.

And pleasing is probably the best way I can describe Brave. It’s a solid effort from Pixar, full of bright, larger than life characters in spectacular settings, with the prerequisite amount of slapstick humor, fun action sequences, and, naturally, a classic Disney morality lesson. No Country For Old Men‘s Kelly Macdonald delivers the feisty, rebellious Princess Merida that the trailers promise, but what Disney’s marketing department doesn’t reveal is that the central conflict of the film arises not from the actions of a primary antagonist  (though there is a scary, demonic bear  that hangs out on the fringes of the narrative), but from internal strife between Merida and her Mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). There is also a “twist” to the story that is subtly foreshadowed early on, which I won’t ruin here. Suffice it to say that this transformative twist is effective in a metaphorical sense, and eventually serves as the device by which the frayed bonds of mother and daughter are repaired.

Pixar delivers once again from a purely visual standpoint, proving that they are unmatched when it comes to character animation, textures, physics, hair, clothing, and scenery. Rolling Scottish highlands with sun-dappled waterfalls and mystical stone monoliths, are all rendered with elegance and sumptuous beauty. I can’t help but think I would’ve been even more impressed with Brave‘s visual aesthetic if the theater I saw the film in bothered to replace the projector bulbs from a prior 3D screening. (3D projector bulbs result in a very dim screen when projecting a 2D version.)  Lovely, soaring Celtic strings and haunting Scottish bagpipes accompany the eye candy, including a track by Mumford and Sons that’s a real standout.

For over a decade, Pixar was a golden child; an adorable, endearing baby that captivated us with every giggle, squeak, fart, and bat of its eyelashes. Now that the kid is getting older, the act  isn’t very cute anymore. The blemishes are starting to show, as are the growing pains and gawky, pre-teen awkwardness . We no longer instantly fawn over the babble that comes out if its mouth, yet we still expect to feel the same way we did when it was all so new. Brave is solid, entertaining, and absolutely gorgeous to look at; its storyline is just a wee bit too slight to rank among Pixar’s upper echelon, however.

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MOVIE REVIEW – ‘ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER’

Call me crazy, but if you’re going to make a film titled Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, you have a responsibility to the audience to embrace the absurdity of that premise and deliver a movie that’s fun, irreverent, and in no way serious.  Lincoln is unquestionably a very silly movie; the problem is Timur Bekmambetov – director of Wanted and the “Russian version of the Matrix,” Nightwatch – doesn’t know how silly his movie is, as he attempts to balance the ridiculous with the sacrosanct and fails miserably. For every ludicrous sequence of our 16th President brandishing a silver-dipped axe against the hordes of the undead, there’s a ponderous attempt to juxtapose monumental events in our nation’s history (utilizing actors in cheesy, glued-on chin beards) that completely sucks all the fun out if it.

This is a movie that features an incredibly insane sequence of Abraham Lincoln chasing down a vampire in the middle of a horse stampede, jumping and flipping off of the backs of the running horses! Then, thirty minutes later, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary Todd Lincoln imagines herself in a better, Oscar-baiting Lincoln biopic, bawling, screaming, and pounding on Abe’s chest as their 4-year-old child Willie lies dead next to them after a sneak vampire infiltration into the White House. (Willie’s age at the time of his death incidentally – is historically inaccurate. He was twelve when he died of Typhoid, and the film never bothers to mention any of Lincoln’s other children.) It’s moments like these – and the attempts to shoehorn in events like the Lincoln-Douglas debates – that curse the film with schizophrenic shifts in tone, dooming it to misguided novelty status.

Benjamin Walker plays it painfully straight in the titular role, buried under laughably bad facial prosthetics that make him look like a young Liam Neeson (strangely enough, Walker actually portrayed the 19-year old version of Liam Neeson’s Alfred Kinsey in the FOX Searchlight biopic). This choice was no doubt inspired by Steven Spielberg’s desire to cast Neeson in his long-in-development Lincoln film (Daniel Day Lewis has since taken the role). He seems affable enough, with a Eric Bana-esque charm, but would it have killed him to cock his stovepipe hat and deliver a snappy one-liner to a vampire about having his head “emancipated” from his shoulders, just one time? His trainer/mentor Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) brings a bit more life to the proceedings with an edgy, proto-punk/goth approach to counter Walker’s stodginess, but not enough to raise the movie out of its self-aggrandizing mire.

Despite the woodaxe-flashing, vampire shrieking, numerous cheap jump scares, and all the flipping, twirling, slashing, Civil War-Fu, the action in Abe Lincoln feels static and pedestrian; Bekmambetov is still too beholden to the now rote and tedious fight choreography of The Matrix films, going to the dramatic, slow-motion well once too often. Yet, there are some truly fun and original set pieces here, like the aforementioned utterly ludicrous horse stampede, and the whole thing wraps up with a very impressive and visually spectacular vampire assault on a cargo train carrying silver bullets and cannonballs to combat the vampiric Conferdate troops at the Battle of Gettysburg. (Did I really just write that sentence?) The perennially smarmy and sneering Rufus Sewell as the main baddie, “Adam,” sets fire to the wooden supports of  the railroad tracks during the attack, creating a fantastic, fiery blaze and sending Lincoln and his freed slave buddy Will (Anthony Mackie) leaping from plummeting, flaming train cars. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter also boasts a beautiful, sweeping helicopter shot at the opening that transitions from the current Washington monument, to its half-built state in the 1800’s. In fact, most of the digital effects work here is solid, featuring some truly epic Civil War battlefield scenes and nice glimpses into our nation’s past, like the under-construction White House and Capitol building.

Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Little did they know that one day, their legacy would be warped and used for Summer entertainment cannon-fodder for the masses,with a grating, thumping dubstep soundtrack and buckets of demon blood.

MOVIE REVIEW – ‘PROMETHEUS’

Prometheus is touted as director Ridley Scott’s first science-fiction film since the profoundly influential Blade Runner , and has had the Internet in a speculative tizzy for almost two years over the back-and-forth “is it a prequel to Alien or not?” hullabaloo. Because of this, moviegoers will enter the darkened theater with years of buildup and wildly varying expectations. Most of them will want to see the iconic, shiny black “xenomorphs” and the nightmarish facehuggers, hoping for a glimpse into the secrets of their creation. They’ll also want to know who or what the “space jockey” is, why he was in that chair on that crashed ship, and how it all leads up seamlessly to Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo stumbling upon all the madness on LV-426. If that’s the movie you’re expecting, prepare to be utterly crushed, because Prometheus features none of these things. Instead — perhaps in an unintentionally meta way — Damon Lindelof, a writer rapidly gaining infamy for perceived botched endings (See LOST) and providing unsatisfactory answers to questions,  has turned in a movie that’s essentially all about disappointing resolutions.

Make no mistake, Prometheus is clearly set in the universe of the Alien films, as we are quickly thrust back into a world where the immoral Weyland Corporation runs half the galaxy and the instantly recognizable techno-gothic grotesqueries of artist H.R. Giger populate a desolate alien landscape. We do get to see the enigmatic space jockeys, only here they are referred to as “Engineers,” whom scientist Elisabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her Tom Hardy doppelgänger boyfriend Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) believe are responsible for the creation of civilization after discovering the same cave scrawling in different parts of the world of an “alien astronaut” pointing to a group of planets.

Eventually, they figure out that the cave glyphs form a star map, which Shaw reads as an invitation from their creators to come for a visit, so the Weyland Corporation, under the leadership of Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce in old-age makeup), funds their journey to the alien system on the starship Prometheus, which is staffed by a blue-collar tough guy pilot (Idris Elba), a corporate ice queen with ulterior motives (Charlize Theron), and — since this is an Alien film — a lifelike android named David, played with brilliant creepiness by Michael Fassbender. David spends much of the early part of the film eerily pacing around the empty ship’s hallways watching the crew slumber in cryo-pods for the long journey to “LV-223,” spying on their dreams with a special monitoring device, and learning about humanity through films like Lawrence of Arabia. (In an amusing touch, David styles and colors his own hair to look like Peter O’ Toole.) Fassbender is heads and shoulders the best actor in the film, playing the role of a robot with a nuanced duality – he seems to want to be understood and accepted by humans, yet coldly sets things in motion that place them in harm’s way, and you’re never sure what his true agenda is until the final act.  Rapace’s perfomance starts off slow and pedestrian, but when the stakes escalate, she raises the bar on her own intensity level and effectively proivides the audience a rooting interest in a character driven by faith, yet emotionally destroyed by the discoveries she makes.

Frustratingly, what grabs Prometheus‘ ankles right before it can soar into space and become an epic genre classic,  is the structurally flawed script by Lindelof and Jon Spaihts that ultimately doesn’t provide enough answers and fails its supporting characters.  When things really start going wrong about 45 minutes into the film, the messy writing forces the crew into out-of-nowhere exposition dumps, baffling behavior, and idiotic decision-making (removing helmets in an alien atmosphere, haphazardly handling alien canisters filled with goo, reaching out to try to pet deadly alien snakes, etc.) in order to advance the  horrific creature carnage along and drive towards the climax, which, while fascinating, goes off the rails and wastes a golden opportunity to be truly meaningful.

Despite these flaws, Prometheus is riveting to watch. It’s a sumptuous, atmospheric visual feast with awesome design work and an intense, visceral musical score that keeps your pulse rate up and the hair on your arms at full alert at all times. The booming sound design was absolutely incredible to experience in the theater where I saw the film. I could feel the The low rumble of the star craft in the film vibrate through my chest. Every time I’m ready to call for the death knell of digital 3D, a true master comes along and proves why it’s a viable cinematic tool. It’s no surprise that three of the greatest 3D experiences have all come at the hands of  auteurs like James Cameron (Avatar), Martin Scorcese (Hugo), and now Scott with this lush and textured visual presentation. The 3D in Prometheus is simply breathtaking. The depth of field in the image is so tangible, it’s as if the movie screen itself slid up and out of view, revealing an open window peering out into a world of vast alien mountain ranges and endless star fields. I felt like I was on board the Prometheus, walking through its hallways, and later I almost instinctively raised my hands to cover my face as a flurry of mercurial shards from an environmental storm blasted through the foreground and background of the frame.

The creature design/fx, which features a nice blend of CGI and practical effects, is top-notch and produces some suitably creepy crawlies that cause agonizing deaths for the crew members.  The Engineers, in particular, are very disquieting in appearance —  impossibly muscled, with haunting red eyes and a waxy, pallid blue complexion. I hope we get to see more of these mysterious “space jockeys” in the future.

Mankind has spent eons trying to reconcile its existence, pondering the stars and asking the questions that are as old as time itself: “Why are we here?”, “Where did we come from?”, “What is our purpose?”  Prometheus is a film built on this quest for the secrets of creation, but ultimately it warns us that we might be better off not knowing for a myriad of reasons:  the answers may be spiritually insufficient, or they may only lead to more questions, or they are filled with existential horror beyond our comprehension. We’re a race that is constantly seeking the truth, but more of than not, the truth hurts. In the case of Prometheus, if the truth is that we are merely an experiment, created in the image of violent, planet-hopping deathbringers and their bio-engineered terrors, what does that say about our nature?

MOVIE REVIEW – MEN IN BLACK 3′

From the moment Men in Black 3 started, I immediately felt  like I was watching a relic from a bygone era; a movie that would’ve been a huge blockbuster in the days of the Lilith Fair and glittery Puff Daddy videos, but now seemed quaint and moldy next to bar-raising, budget-busting spectacles like The Avengers. There’s just something about director Barry Sonnenfeld’s style here that screamed 1990′s cinema, and though the first Men In Black was released only 15 years ago, it might as well have been 115 years.  The whole thing simply felt out-of-place in today’s cinematic climate.

Luckily, Will Smith’s Agent J is still very charismatic and charming, and his chemistry with the perennially surly Tommy Lee Jones as Agent K (and Josh Brolin as the younger Agent K) melted away enough of my cynicism to allow me to settle into Summer popcorn entertainment mode, and enjoy the breezy, airy, generally weightless nature of the movie which – in all fairness – is leaps and bounds better than its painfully awful predecessor from 2002.

MIB 3 features some truly fun sequences like a shootout with aliens and a giant alien fish beastie in a Chinese restaurant; a  fairly well-done time-travel aspect that helps freshen up some of the staleness of the franchise; and a great cast including Emma Thompson as the new head of the Agency, Alice Eve as the younger version of her character Agent O, and Michael Stuhlbarg as a very inventive and sweet character named Griffin, who is blessed and cursed with the ability to see all probabilities in all realities at once. The creature effects by the greatest makeup artist in movie history, Rick Baker, are imaginative and wonderful as usual — his best work  is on the always quirky and awesome Kiwi Jemaine Clement (building a nice little career out of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords), as the film’s gnarly antagonist Boris the Animal.

MIB 3 famously (or infamously) went into full-scale production without a completed screenplay, and it certainly shows, because every time the plot felt like it was gaining momentum, it stopped dead in its tracks to feature yet another neuralizer scene chock full of Smith’s mugging and snappy one-liners. It was as if the writers were actually typing out the script as the days went on, and just stuck these little “interrogation/wacky antics with Agent J” scenes in any time they got writer’s block and weren’t sure how to proceed to the next set piece. Still, it’s kind of astonishing how coherent the story turns out, given the potentially convoluted time-travel element.

Shifting the action back to 1969 accomplishes the most important thing in this movie: removing Tommy Lee Jones from the proceedings. His “performance,” if you can call it that, is mercifully short and completely bizarre. Jones clearly phones it in here, and genuinely feels like he’s just being a cranky asshole to everyone around him. Agent K is supposed to be a gruff, ornery son of a bitch, but it felt like Jones was actually behaving this way, and didn’t really want to be a part of the production at all. Fortunately for MIB3, Josh Brolin saves the day with his uncanny impersonation of a younger Tommy Lee Jones. I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of reports about how amazing his portrayal of  the 1969 Agent K is, and these reports are entirely accurate. It’s an astonishing (and fun) transformation.

Men in Black 3 is like a vanilla soft serve ice cream cone – bland, predictable, nondescript, and not really the high quality, flavorful hard ice cream with the luscious toppings you’re craving; yet it’s pleasing and familiar, and you’ll consume it because it’s there.

6 THINGS I’D LIKE TO SEE IN ‘AVENGERS 2’

In the biggest “Duh!” announcement of the century, Marvel Studios has greenlit a sequel to their record-shattering superhero blockbuster The Avengers. The film has already grossed over $700 million worldwide and had the biggest opening-weekend take in the history of American cinema with a gargantuan $207 million three-day haul.  While I am still reveling in my blind love and euphoria for Joss Whedon’s magnificent superhero spectacle, I did pause to think of  six things that I would like to see if he decides to get behind the lens of the sequel:

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