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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D23 EXPO LINKS/RECAP

The D23 Expo, “Disney’s Ultimate Fan Event,” was held this past weekend in Anaheim, California. This year’s event made a huge blip on nerd radar, as it featured news, exhibits and footage from Marvel for the first time since they were acquired by Disney. The biggest news to come out of the Expo was the four minutes of Avengers footage that was screened for attendees, which by all accounts was mind-blowingly awesome. Here are some links to the major stories about D23, since I wasn’t able to attend, or I was just too lazy to write an extensive piece. I’ll leave it up to you to decide.

Blastr has a full rundown of The Avengers footage.

Collider has a nice piece on several live-action projects including The Muppets, Oz: The Great & Powerful, John Carter of Mars, and more.

FirstShowing.net has a great description of the footage screened of Wreck It Ralph, a new animated film that is set in the world of 8-bit video game characters.

Hitfix addresses Ten Unanswered Questions from Disney and Marvel’s D23 Preview.

Finally, here’s Entertainment Weekly’s recap of Pixar’s presentations.

MOVIE REVIEW – ‘PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES’

Before I get into discussing On Stranger Tides, let me just state for the record that I have never cared about any of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. I’ve never been  caught up in the worldwide hype; never been enamored of Johnny Depp’s drunken Keith Richards-as-a-pirate shtick;  never been emotionally invested in the romance between Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom; and hell, after the first movie, I’ve never been very clear on what exactly any of the characters are doing or what they’re after. The third film, At World’s End, had so many curses, compasses, dream sequences, and double and triple-crosses amongst the characters, that it became laughable.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with making epic pirate films; a good tale of skullduggery and adventure on the high seas should be epic. What they shouldn’t be, is pretentious, plodding, and overly convoluted to the point of incoherence. The Disney execs, realizing this, set out to scrape the barnacles off the hull of their quickly sinking ship by slashing the budget, scaling down the CGI, and stripping the story down to focus more on character. The result is a PoC movie that, despite being instantly forgettable, is more coherent and entertaining  than its predecessors.

Clocking it at 137 minutes;  On Stranger Tides is the leanest and meanest of the Pirates films, which says a lot about how overstuffed and ostentatious the other installments truly were. The main thrust of the film  finds Johnny Depp’s  now-iconic Captain Jack Sparrow and a number of other characters including Blackbeard (Ian McShane), his daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz), Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and a detachment of  the Spanish Navy, searching for the fabled Fountain of Youth. In order to unlock the secrets of the Fountain, they need a map, two silver chalices (last seen with the Fountain’s discoverer, Ponce De Leon), and the magical tear of a captured Mermaid. Yes, really.

It becomes obvious right away that new franchise helmer  Rob Marshall  (Chicago, Nine)doesn’t shoot action as well as Verbinski, but there are some fun scenes, like Jack’s clever and frenetic escape from the heart of King George’s palace to a rousing carriage chase on the streets of London, and a terrific set piece where Blackbeard’s crew  are first enraptured, then assaulted by beautiful but vicious mermaids. Marshall does do quite well reproducing the scope and cinematography of the previous films, despite the reduced budget and lack of CGI monsters.

The sets and costumes are particularly excellent, especially Blackbeard’s  monstrous and ornate ship, The Queen Anne’s Revenge.   And speaking of Blackbeard,  Deadwood’s Ian McShane cuts a menacing  figure as “The pirate all pirates fear”, employing zombified buccaneers as crew, and using his enchanted cutlass to command  the ship’s rigging to come to life and ensnare  mutinous sailors in its ropes. Sadly, the menace of Blackbeard is never truly realized, and ultimately the character is wasted in a climactic sequence that is essentially a rip off of the last ten minutes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The absolute low point in Stranger Tides is an utterly superfluous love story between Philip (Sam Claflin),a Bible-toting man of faith,  and the captured Mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). The flow of the movie comes to a grinding halt whenever we are forced to watch these two vapid,  low-rent replacements for Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley befoul the screen with their overwhelming dullness. It’s a pandering, clumsy attempt at a star-crossed romance shoehorned into the script to appeal to the female quotient in the audience looking for their fix of cheap, bodice-ripping Harlequin storytelling. The time wasted on these bores would’ve been better spent on the relationship between Jack and Angelica –  a romantic story that actually showed some spark in the early goings, but was brushed away in favor of the aforementioned 18th century Splash nonsense and silly sequences of Jack hopping on palm trees, dropping coconuts on Spanish sailors’ heads.

And what about Mr. Depp?  Does his  fourth turn as Jack Sparrow crackle, or is he just collecting another seven-figure Disney paycheck? How does Jack Sparrow function as a protagonist without Bloom and Knightley around to bounce off of? Well, Depp isn’t visibly phoning it in here, but it’s clear to anyone who has seen the Curse of the Black Pearl, that the shine is wearing off for him. The film also doesn’t suffer from the absence of Knightley and Bloom at all, thanks in most part to Geoffrey Rush nearly stealing the show with his performance as the always enjoyable salty scaliwag, Captain Barbossa. Rush chews the scenery here masterfully, both as a foil and as an ally to Jack Sparrow. His character’s arc is the most interesting one in the film, and has the most satisfying resolution.

I read recently that the character of Jack Sparrow is  the closest thing the current movie-going generation has to an icon like Indiana Jones.  If that’s true, I smell a Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on the winds. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise isn’t a bloated, barnacle-covered corpse washed up on the shores of Tortuga Bay just yet, but that time is rapidly approaching.

MOVIE REVIEW: “TRON LEGACY”

One part Oedipal father-son journey, one part commentary on man’s need to obsessively achieve perfection, and one part descent into a stunning digital universe of light cycles, disc battles, and neon-trimmed cityscapes, Tron Legacy is a satisfying, only slightly flawed Holiday blockbuster.

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“PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES” TRAILER

I’ve never been a huge fan of this franchise (The third film is an absolute mess), but this fourth installment looks pretty entertaining, mostly because it seems like it has a more coherent storyline and they scaled the CGI shenanigans back quite a bit. Plus, Ian McShane is a total badass here as Blackbeard. Look for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides in theaters on May 20th, 2011.