Archive for June, 2012

Brave

Monday, June 25th, 2012

Brave

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Pixar has passed the Bechdel Test before, perhaps most notably in “The Incredibles,” a movie that still contends with problematic gender norms and stereotyping, but “Brave” is the first of the studio’s features to place a female protagonist – and a mother-daughter relationship – at the very heart of the story. And while Pixar will likely never meet the track record of Hayao Miyazaki at Studio Ghibli (posting eight of nine films with a lead female character), hopefully “Brave” will mark the beginning of a period in which women in American animation are better represented on camera and behind it. The “creative differences” that initiated the ouster of original “Brave” story creator and director Brenda Chapman, who worked on the project for six years, serve as a telling reminder that the film industry still has a very long way to go.

Some hardliners have already criticized Merida’s station as a princess, but given the character’s refusal to acquiesce to arranged marriage, and the 10th century setting in a fairytale Scotland teeming with magic, “Brave” deserves the dispensation that separates its heroine from the ranks of boy-crazy royals or royals-to-be in so many Disney movies. One imagines that many girls, and plenty of boys, will be captivated by the archery contest in which Merida applies a technicality in the clan rulebook to announce, “…I’ll be shooting for my own hand.” Featured prominently in the film’s trailers, this sequence pays homage to the parallel scene in “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” and is staged with the same kind of lovely detail and charm that accompanied the moment in the classic 1938 swashbuckler.

Complementing Merida’s considerable skill with a bow and arrow, “Brave” also imbues the character and plot with echoes of Atalanta, the fierce warrior of Greek mythology who, after being abandoned at birth because she was not born male, was initially raised by a she-bear. “Brave” avoids overt pronouncements on the subject of gender disappointment, and King Fergus very clearly adores and encourages his first-born child, but with the inclusion of a competition in which Merida is a prize to be won, the film imitates the tale of Atalanta’s famous footrace. More intriguing yet is the link to the legend of Gelert, one of folklore’s most chilling and heartbreaking tales. The “Brave” variation cancels the unthinkable cruelty of Gelert’s martyrdom, but Merida’s horror at the thought of placing her mother in harm’s way resonates with the kind of guilt unique to the bonds of family.

As “Brave” unfolds, Queen Elinor emerges alongside Merida as a character of substantial dimension, and the depiction of the regal matriarch in her ursine form is a feat of technical brilliance that rivals the stunning singularity of Merida’s flaming orange curls. Initially, Merida’s privileged point-of-view serves to paint her mother as a strict killjoy and barrier to long-term happiness, but once the result of Merida’s foolhardy indiscretion occurs, both mother and daughter begin to alter their previous behavior, working together to prevent a backfired spell from turning into a permanent curse. Not everyone will applaud the movie’s conventional eagerness to neatly restore balance to a traditional portrait of social harmony and equilibrium, but keep in mind that at least the happily-ever-after of “Brave” does not include wedding bells.

Prometheus

Monday, June 18th, 2012

Prometheus

Movie review by Greg Carlson

When Ridley Scott disingenuously began claiming that “Prometheus” was not, in fact, a prologue to his much loved and imitated “Alien,” the desired result within the community of fanatics (to whom these things matter a great deal) was a steep increase in curiosity about the nature of his big-budget, large-scale return to science fiction. Whether prequel, reboot, or extension, “Prometheus” certainly exists in the same world as “Alien,” even if several differences and inconsistencies have raised the ire of the most intense geeks. Without tempered expectations, however, “Prometheus” unsurprisingly fails to live up to the promise of its mother – one of the tightest Old Dark House movies ever made, and alongside “Blade Runner,” Scott’s finest achievement as a filmmaker.

“Prometheus” is not the work of a hungry auteur as much as it is a played-safe recapitulation that loots the memorable riches of “Alien.” Of course, the asinine merger of the franchise with the “Predator” series was like putting sardines in a milkshake. Complete with a calm, erudite android, a crazy quilt crew introduced in stasis/hyper-sleep, a visit to a mysterious planet, a derelict spaceship, a chamber filled with ominous containers, sinister corporate overtones, aggressive monsters, flamethrowers, extreme body horror, iconography indebted to H.R. Giger’s biomechanical designs, and narrow shuttle escapes, “Prometheus” shares an awful lot with the 1979 classic. What it does not share is much interest in cultivating an air of discovery, and the metaphysical yearning expressed by central archeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) is somehow far less compelling than whatever motivated the keener instincts of Ellen Ripley.

While the plotting of “Prometheus” mimics “Alien,” many of the movie’s central thematic concerns dovetail with those present in “Blade Runner.” An obsession with the very essence of human creation informs both titles, and “Prometheus” quotes “Blade Runner” dialogue about meeting one’s maker more than once. Like Eldon Tyrell’s bottomless, Frankensteinian hubris at the achievement of genetically engineering replicants that are “more human than human,” Peter Weyland sees robot David as a son, inspiring a jealous reaction from Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers, who ends a scene with “father” enunciated in a manner that echoes Roy Batty’s famous “fucker/father” epithet to Tyrell. As the “Lawrence of Arabia”-loving David, Michael Fassbender has described drawing on Sean Young’s Rachael, and the actor’s presence is the highlight of the movie.

Beyond Scott’s self-borrowing, “Prometheus” claims an assortment of influences. Original “Alien” screenwriter Dan O’Bannon freely admitted the breadth of his inspirations, and “Prometheus” is no less dependent upon some of the usual suspects. While a complete chronicle may be impossible to tally (see Govindini Murty’s impressive account for “The Atlantic”), John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” H.P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” Mario Bava’s “Planet of the Vampires” (which in turn was based on Renato Pestriniero’s story “One Night of 21 Hours”), Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and several classic tales and myths that touch on the theme of obtaining something forbidden and paying for it (Prometheus, Faust, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and “Frankenstein”) form the beginning of a long list. Disappointingly, Scott’s film, in spite of the grandeur of its arresting visuals, cannot fully measure up to the allure of all these stimuli, hampered as it is by the frustrating folly of inexplicably illogical actions and mouthfuls of subpar dialogue.

Moonrise Kingdom

Monday, June 11th, 2012

Moonrisekingdom

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A beautiful, wistful, half-real, half-imagined love affair between a pair of twelve-year-olds, “Moonrise Kingdom” is Wes Anderson’s seventh feature film and one of the finest movies of the year. Distilling nearly every one of the director’s principal thematic and stylistic concerns, “Moonrise Kingdom” matches the bittersweet blend of comedy and melancholy that surges through “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” while adding a commanding new chapter to Anderson’s impressive filmography. Set in 1965 on an Atlantic coast island called New Penzance, where the local church hosts a fully mounted production of Benjamin Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde” and a Khaki Scout troop hones its outdoor survival skills in the rugged terrain, “Moonrise Kingdom” rapidly establishes both its peculiar, singular perspective and a well-supplied outpost in the viewer’s heart.

Using the classic motif of a gathering storm to hint at the tumultuous emotional upheavals experienced by the protagonists, Anderson and co-screenwriter Roman Coppola open up “Moonrise Kingdom” to take advantage of the tempestuous relationship between island dwellers and unpredictable, unstoppable nature. Anderson has always expertly situated his characters within settings that operate as fully formed personalities, and the scale of “Moonrise Kingdom” is simultaneously microcosmic and expansive. Anderson has previously acknowledged the inspirational allure of E.L. Konigsburg’s “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” and like his closer echo depicting Margot and Richie Tenenbaum running away from home to hide out in the public archives, the inciting action of “Moonrise Kingdom” arises from the mutual decision of Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) to flee their circumstances for a new life together.

Once again, Anderson’s fastidious eye for detail envisions frames filled with glorious reminders of the past, some concrete (like the 45 of Francoise Hardy’s “Le temps de l’amour” spinning on a portable record player in a beguiling and awesome dance interlude) and some invented (like the beautifully illustrated covers of Suzy’s library books with titles including “Shelly and the Secret Universe” and “The Francine Odysseys”). Captured on lovely, vibrant Super 16mm film by Robert Yeoman, who has photographed all of Anderson’s features with the exception of “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Moonrise Kingdom” exploits its sumptuous locations with the aid of narrator Bob Balaban, a presence who exists within the universe of the movie but also omnisciently beyond it. Balaban was also enlisted to play the same role in the film’s engrossing website, a trove of supplemental information that will keep Anderson disciples busy for hours.

While longtime Anderson MVP Bill Murray makes simmering frustration look so easy (“I’m going to find a tree to chop down”), the addition of Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, and Bruce Willis brings as much value to “Moonrise Kingdom” as Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston and Danny Glover added to “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Anderson’s abiding respect for his underage protagonists – played by unknowns – evinces a confidence in which newcomers share the screen with Academy Award winners, nominees, and box office heavyweights willing to surrender their status and ego as part of an egalitarian ensemble. It’s also an electric delight to watch Jason Schwartzman, our once-upon-a-time Max Fischer, as the wily fixer Cousin Ben, an Anderson character for the ages.

Of the many joys to be found in “Moonrise Kingdom,” the delirious, frank, and affectionate letters between devoted pen pals Sam and Suzy provide abundant pleasure. “Moonrise Kingdom” features Anderson’s most extensive use of epistolary voicing to date, and the notes are occasionally glimpsed but often read only in excerpt. Combined with the actions of their authors, the cherished salutations serve as a sharp reminder of the precarious tipping point where childhood innocence and idealization gives way to adolescent awareness that the grown-up world can be complicated, frustrating, and filled with disappointment. That intersection, so lovingly captured in Sam and Suzy’s impossibly serious, improbably wise commitment to one another, might not last very long, but it stays with you forever.

Snow White and the Huntsman

Monday, June 4th, 2012

Snowwhiteandthehuntsman

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Following Tarsem Singh’s “Mirror Mirror” as the second live-action adaptation of the classic fairy tale to be released in 2012, “Snow White and the Huntsman” musters very little novelty in what turns out to be an unnecessary, unlovable slog through the enchanted forest. Dressed up as an epic adventure that envisions the famous heroine as an armor-clad Joan of Arc warrior in the skin of Kristen Stewart, filmmaker Rupert Sanders’ assemblage drops too many characters in the poisonous brew, from the wicked queen Ravenna’s (Charlize Theron) Prince Valiant-coiffed brother to an extraneous Prince Charming who cannot compete with other title character Chris Hemsworth, stepping out as the longest side of a scalene love triangle.

Kristen Stewart has already been described by any number of critics as miscast, but the young performer is hardly to blame for the lion’s share of the film’s problems. An advertisement director making his feature debut, Sanders fails to translate the vision of his short spots for the likes of the “Halo” videogame franchise into a compelling tale worthy of 127 minutes. His pacing and rhythm are done in by numbing, mechanical crosscutting between Theron – delivering what always feels like monologue, even if other actors are present in the scene – and Snow White on the run from danger. Worst of all, Sanders takes everything as seriously as a funeral, and the film’s near complete lack of humor turns into a serious liability.

Three screenwriters, including Hossein Amini (Academy Award-nominated for “The Wings of the Dove” and hot from the success of “Drive”), struggle to freshen the core elements found in the Grimm story, botching something at practically every turn. Humanizing the evil stepmother by sharing her point of view may have been a valid move, but as soon as Ravenna’s vague gender/revenge business is dispensed in an extraneous flashback, Theron is drained of all complexity. Festooned with scales and feathers in Colleen Atwood get-ups that should make Bob Mackie drool, Theron tiresomely overtakes Stewart as front-runner for delivering the movie’s most disappointing performance.

While “Snow White and the Huntsman” is bereft of much captivating onscreen drama, actor Danny Woodburn’s criticism of the filmmakers for their decision to digitally position the visages of well-known “average size” actors including Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, and Nick Frost on the bodies of little people once again raises a legitimate ethical question in the era of photorealistic computer effects. Woodburn, who appeared in “Mirror Mirror,” commented to “The New York Post” that the practice was “akin to blackface.” His viewpoint was supported by Leah Smith of Little People of America, who argued that little people should be cast in roles written for little people.

Woodburn’s frustration points to a longstanding conundrum within the entertainment industry: the overwhelming tendency for dwarfs to be included in stories almost exclusively as novel representations of otherness.  The fantastic Peter Dinklage, whose recent “Rolling Stone” cover interview touched on the pitfalls of maintaining dignity in the selection and acceptance of roles while trying to pay the bills as an actor, nailed it in Tom DeCillo’s “Living in Oblivion.” Dinklage’s exasperated actor Tito sticks it to Steve Buscemi’s indie filmmaker Nick Reve, saying “The only place I’ve seen dwarfs in dreams is in stupid movies like this.” “Snow White and the Huntsman” may not be a stupid movie for quite the same reason, but it’s still far from bright.