Friday, August 3, 2012

Review: Brave

Pixar has had a stellar track record in producing some of the best animated movies in cinematic history over the past few decades.  Some believe that their run of hits ended last year with Cars 2.  I enjoyed Cars 2 (I have a soft spot for the original) and still think their record is basically unblemished (well I didn't really like Up).  The 13th effort from the studio that Jobs built is Brave, a story of a Scottish kingdom ruled by a giant boisterous King Fergus, his wife Elinor and their ambitious young daughter Princess Merida.  The movie chronicles Merida's reluctance to go through the traditional betrothal process and her struggles with coming of age and keeping a strong relationship with her mother.

Kelly Macdonald (the Scottish actress from Trainspotting and Boardwalk Empire) plays the lead role of Merida and does an excellent job of letting loose with her thick and authentic accent.  She plays well against her parents in the film (portrayed by Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson).  Late night talk show host Craig Ferguson answers the Scottish casting call by lending his voice to one of the three lords who try to have their sons win the hand of the princess.  The excellent casting is paired by an equally strong soundtrack that features several Scottish musicians including Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis.

The actual star of this film is not Merida herself, but her vibrant intricate head of orange curly hair.  The nerds at Pixar have outdone themselves in creating amazingly realistic flowing hair that seems more reactive and authentic than ACTUAL hair.  It's hard to explain but when you see Merida bouncing all over the kingdom, her hair just stands out and seems to react perfectly with the surrounding environment.  The animators seem to be showing off their hair-rendering skills by building several scenes that let the hair interact organically with wind, rain, water and other natural elements.  It may sound strange but Merida's hair may be one of Pixar's best technical milestones.

The real problem with Brave, however, is the plot twist that happens about 30 minutes into the movie.  I won't give it away but it really does change the dynamics of the story and makes it seem a little cheesy and far fetched.  I just couldn't relate to the characters as well as I do in a traditional Pixar film.  With movies like Wall-E and Toy Story, the audience is given a chance to become fully invested in the key characters on the screen.  I felt like the plot twist in Brave became overwhelming and bizarre and took the focus away from the characters.

Overall, Brave manages to amaze visually but disappoint from a story perspective.  This is on the low end of the Pixar spectrum but is definitely worth a rental, especially if you have kids (and ESPECIALLY if you are a Mother and have a Daughter).  3 out of 5 JRs for Brave which brings me to my rapid-fire quick list of my personal top 5 Pixar films in order:

1. Wall-E
2. Cars (most people hate this one, but as a NASCAR fan I loved it)
3. The Incredibles
4. Finding Nemo
5. Toy Story 1/2/3

Get ready for a promising Pixar sequel next summer with Monsters University.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Review: The Dark Knight Rises

As I've written many times, the best filmmaker working today is Christopher Nolan.  With such amazing films in his repertoire as Memento, Insomnia, Inception, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, he has cemented himself as an expert in creating the thinking man's action movie.  Both TDK and Inception are probably two of my favorite 50 movies of ALL TIME.  Therefore, you can imagine how high my expectations were going into this final film of the Nolan Batman trilogy (even after the terrible event in Colorado).  I ended up seeing the movie in a packed afternoon show with several co-workers on opening day.

The Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after the events of The Dark Knight.  Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale once again in the role he will most be remembered for when his acting career ends) is in recluse and Gotham finds itself under a new reign of terror as the menacing Bane (Tom Hardy taking over for Heath Ledger's Joker without hardly skipping a beat) imposes his will on the city.  Back to assist Wayne/Batman once again are police commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), Michael Caine's Alfred and Morgan Freeman's version of Agent Q, Lucious Fox.  Nolan manages to weave in his Inception veterans Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Detective John Blake) and Marion Cotillard (Wayne's love interest Miranda) into the all-star cast which includes Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle (she's actually never referred to as Cat Woman in the movie).

The 2:45 run-time of this movie combined with the mega-budget effects (with hardly any CGI effects - a Nolan staple) and the high quality of acting all add up to a very epic feel throughout.  There are several fight scenes that are just incredibly intense and the overall character arc of Wayne (especially a mid-film trip to a remote prison) is fascinating to watch play out.  Not once did I think of looking at my watch nor find myself bored at any time during the movie.  Nolan is able to build up the tension throughout and pair it beautifully with a methodically thrilling musical score from frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer.

Bale is solid as usual in both portraying brash confidence as Wayne, and in exuding bravado and heroism as Batman.  This trilogy just wouldn't quite be the same without him.  Hardy steps up to the plate and hits it out of the park as Bane.  The goofy Bane from Batman and Robin is a distant afterthought after witnessing this masked menacing performance.  The opening scene alone (which depicts a fantastic mid-air heist) both introduces the audience to Bane and instantly makes us feel fearful of his large than life intensity.  The strange sing-songy gruff tone of Hardy's muffled voice adds to his sinister presence.  Mark my words, Tom Hardy is about to blow up in Hollywood and will hopefully use the boost this role gives him that Heath Ledger missed out on with his untimely death.  Hathaway manages to fill the boots of "Cat Woman" without going too much over the top with the cheesy-ness factor.  I'm not sure if I totally bought the love-connection between her and Bale, but she definitely added to the story and did not distract from it (with the exception of some distracting skin-tight outfits).

The ending of TDKR is slightly open-ended but reveals several possible outcomes that could either extend the series (with a new director - Nolan has repeatedly said that he's done with the Bat) or close the book on this version of the caped crusader.  Although the actual outcome is not clearly spelled out, but we do get a good sense of closure and this trilogy wraps up very well while featuring several effective plot points that tie back to Batman Begins.  In looking back on the three films, TDKR falls JUST short of TDK in overall quality.  Ledger is just a tad bit more memorable as a villain than Hardy's Bane (although Hardy totally owns this movie).  I liked TDKR better than Batman Begins though and the trilogy as a whole is actually right up there with the original Star Wars trilogy.  (Sorry but nothing comes close to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings masterpiece)  This is without a doubt one of the best movie experiences of the year and I hope this gets recognized come Oscar time as a Best Picture candidate.  Totally gripping from start to finish with a great supporting score from Zimmer, The Dark Knight Rises brings out the quality craftsmanship of a master (Nolan) at the top of his game.  5 out of 5 JR's for a worthy successor to The Dark Knight.