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Archive for June, 2012

No weapons on the table: on the safe stories and mild morals of Pixar’s Brave

After countless years of heroes that have ranged from toys to old men, from fish to cars, Pixar finally unveils its first movie with a heroine.  This alone is exciting news, but add several Time Magazine articles building hype about the rise and fall of the movie, scrapping of the plot and starting over, a female director replaced by a male director – and suddenly, it feels like there’s a whole lot more at stake.

Within the first few moments, we see Merida, voiced amazingly by Kelly Macdonald, show her fierce personality.  I can only imagine the hundreds of people who must have worked night and day to bring the bounce to Merida’s fiery red hair, every individual strand curled, blowing in the wind.  She shows a stronger bond with the bow and arrow than with her mother’s teachings of propriety, and often shows her wild nature – we see her cantering in the woods, shooting targets (with proper bowmanship, according to Charles), and altogether being free and daring.  She’s a fine heroine for Pixar to start with, and the trailer certainly highlighted her stubborn nature at its best.

What the trailer doesn’t truly show is the true plot of the story – at its heart, Brave is about the tense relationship between Merida and her mother, the ever-proper Elinor.  With very little warning, Elinor is turned into a bear, and from there the actual story begins.  I liked Brave until it took this turn – it made sense that Merida would refuse her suitors, showing up to “shoot for [her] own hand [in marriage],” and otherwise playing the tough girl.  What I couldn’t get on board with was the choice to make this into a mother-daughter story, one that glossed over potentially complicated issues to make a movie about wild-daughter introduces proper-mother to nature.

As always, everything was beautiful.  Merida’s hair was gorgeous throughout, the textures of clothing were always detailed, the animals were cute and the woods were wonderfully brought to life.  Merida’s toddler triplet brothers provided adorable comic relief throughout the movie, though, as someone pointed out, it was completely unnecessary for furthering the plot.  The soundtrack was heartwarming, and the ending was surprisingly touching, though as adults the riddles were no longer puzzling, and so the film lacked a sense of suspense.

Overall, 4/5 – Honestly, I enjoyed Brave a good deal, but I just expected more out of Pixar.  Where was the magic from WALL-E?  The originality from The Incredibles?  The adventure from A Bug’s Life?  After the disappointment that was Cars 2, I expected Pixar to outdo itself with Brave.  While it created a story that was obviously tenderly crafted, Pixar fell short of its usual excellence here.  The sweetest moment was probably in the accompanying short, La Luna (though it also, unfortunately, was predictable).

Best regards,

Apple

What kind of bird are you? – on Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom

Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of my favorite movies of all time.  I love everything from its whimsy to its color palette, its sarcastic lines to heartfelt animation.  When I saw a preview for Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, I couldn’t wait for it to arrive at my local theatre, where, for one sweet, short week, it would run.  Interestingly, the Michigan Theatre is actually a real theatre, where one would expect plays and operas – a gentleman played on an organ while the moviegoers filed in.

Watching the preview for Moonrise Kingdom filled me with a warm, fuzzy feeling, and the movie did not disappoint.  All those cute moments are expanded, and there are some more mature moments as well.  The script was sharp, the colors and homes were vintage, and the story was sweet.  There was also a sense of tension building throughout the movie – we hear within the first few minutes that in three days, one of the worst hurricanes of all time will strike the small island town.

There’s something romantic about escaping into the wild to be with your love, and Moonrise Kingdom certain plucks at some heartstrings with its two young characters so certain of their undying love.  Yet, for some reason, I had a hard time believing the world of Moonrise.  Did I only like Fantastic Mr. Fox because it was about animals?  I do love animals.  Somehow, the animation and animal-centered story made it easier for me to fall in love with the characters, to forgive them any quirks that felt a bit too out of place.

It’s not to say that Moonrise was uncomfortable.  In fact, it was an extremely pleasant experience.  While Moonrise is not exactly a children’s film, it holds a nostalgic flavor of childhood, of simpler times and smaller things.  I do wish we had learned more about Sam and Suzy; I feel like too much of the film was filled with all the supporting characters, though all of them did an excellent job. The music was sweet, the scenery was lush, and the kitten was adorable.  I also loved little details like the children’s books that Suzy brought and read throughout the movie.

Overall, 4/5 – Moonrise Kingdom is an eccentric tale of young love, stylistically filmed and armed with a witty script.  If you watch the trailer and feel happy, then you will enjoy the movie.

“I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”—Orion on Moonrise Kingdom

ImageA funny story: having completely neglected the preview section on this very blog, I was looking up random movie times for the local movie theater when I saw this interesting title. I subsequently headed over to Rotten Tomatoes, which has it sitting at 94 percent AND has it ranked the best movie of the summer. After watching the film, I casted around in my head to see what other movies I could compare it to, and landed upon Fantastic Mr. Fox—curiously enough, the films share a director. Just goes to show that 1) I need to pay more attention to everything and 2) I still have a keen sense of directorial style.

This film provides a lush, rich landscape for its story, ranging from beaches to forests to cool lighthouse-like houses. Set on a quiet and quaint island off the coast of New England, the film captures the intimate yet isolated feel of life there. Aesthetically speaking, Moonrise Kingdom is gorgeous—that alone would warrant a viewing.

But Anderson and the cast go even further. The story, involving two lovers eloping, is as classic as Romeo and Juliet. Like the two star-crossed lovers, these two main characters are very young—12 years old, in fact. Sam and Susie meet during the cacophony of a local play and immediately connect, deciding to run away together after a long correspondence. But I won’t reveal any more: much of the joy in this film lies in watching the story unfold like a pale, fragile flower. Enchanting, ephemeral, and yes, genuine, this love is powerful in its honest awkwardness. Ah the charms (and horrors) of that first love, just as hormones begin flooding the system—how many of us have blotted those experiences from memory? Anderson shies away from none of it.

For even though these two characters are fundamentally different, in the way all people are different, they indulge in that naïve but wonderful belief that they can find a new life together in the wilderness. Their conversation is pitch-perfect, revealing the deep textures of language that we forget 12-year-olds have the capacity to use. Dreams, desires—why do we rob children of the experiences of life?

Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Bill Murray—these are big names, but they take on supporting roles, and do it well. Bruce Willis plays against the grain of his usual hard-nosed action hero. Here we see an aging, backwater cop, who can’t seem to get anything right. Anderson does this with all of his older characters—contrary to other films, in which it is the children without agency, in this film the adults must achieve agency in a long and torturous process, while children are able to seize their futures with their own hands.

That sense of agency is central. As I approach real adulthood I can see the ways in which my life is being planned out by my 12-year-old self. The future is locking itself around me: I am not afraid (I trust my 12-year-old self) but I can see how this is a frightening process. How much more so it must be for the 50-year-olds living out their lives because of the decisions they made when they were 20—the adults in the film quietly and inevitably suffer. So do the children—but their suffering can be alleviated by their own bold decisions to wander into a new life, to follow love into a new kingdom.

5/5 Waffles

—Orion

“Prometheus has landed” – on androids and creation

Prometheus is perhaps the most captivating film I have seen in a long time.  I completely forgot about everything, melting away before the IMAX 3D, and when the lights came on at the end, it took me a second to remember where I was.  Perhaps this was due to the suspense and scares, which I have been generally underexposed to, but any kind of experience like this is definitely good.  As the trailer explains, Prometheus tells the story of a crew that arrives at a faraway moon, seeking to find alien life forms that may have created humans.  However, they soon discover that the planet is filled with hostile creatures, and the fragile story of discovery degenerates into a rather inconsistent series of action shots.

Prometheus was beautiful, and the best use of 3D that I have encountered thus far.  The whole film was filled with magnificent structures and landscapes, and while I didn’t like being told what to focus my eyes on, on the whole I felt that the visual dimension added to rather than jarred the movie experience. And what of the tricky business of prequels?  I have not seen a single Alien film, but I have to say that I find Prometheus’ unanswered questions intriguing.

The most interesting character here was David, the android, who I thought served to explore a hefty array of questions about humanity.  The film devoted a good deal of screen time to David alone – we watch him watching the sleeping crew, biking around with a basketball, studying languages and old films (it’s interesting how he repeats language and film quotes in a similar manner).  He is more advanced and powerful than any of the humans, but is constantly reminded of his difference.  Peter Weylan, the trillionaire who funded the mission, describes David as the closest thing he has to a son but also continually reminds all that David has “no soul.”  David seems the quickest to grasp things, from fearlessly navigating alien terminals to understanding that the planet is not a place of gentle creators, but at the end, seems surprisingly human in his desire for life.

Michael Fassbender performs most excellently, maintaining a terribly polite demeanor, yet also consistently dropping malicious sentiments.  There’s an interesting conversation while the crew is suiting up to explore the planet – David suits up along with everyone else.  When asked why he needs a suit when he has no need to breathe, David explains that humans created androids to look a certain way, and that if he did not gear up like everyone else, it would defeat this purpose.  He represents the third generation of creation – the aliens in the film, called Engineers, supposedly created humanity, who then went on to create androids.  At one point, David asks archaeologist Charlie Holloway, “Why did your people make me?”  To which Charlie replies, “Because we could.”  David then points out, “And how would you feel if your makers said the same to you?”

There are many interesting points like this, and while the film maintains an aura of mystery, the plot feels stringy.  We can almost make out where things should connect, but there are too many holes and unexplained pieces.  There’s a rather humorous attempt to educate the moviegoers about mutating DNA, and the science is sketchy at best.  The acting wasn’t bad, per se – Noomi Rapace brought forth her Girl with the Dragon Tattoo grit, exhibiting “extraordinary survival instincts” that I suppose should call forth Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley.  Charlize Theron had a rather minor role, but played it well.  Idris Elba was likable, and the rest of the crew was quirky and cute enough.

Overall, 3.5/5 – While visually magnificent, with strong performances by Rapace and Fassbender, Prometheus unfortunately falls prey to Hollywood temptations, its plot crumbling near the end under the pressure of action scenes and thrills.  Still, it was immensely enjoyable and a nice kick-start to dying Alien franchise; I look forward to a sequel of equally epic proportions.

Apple

The Aladeen review of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “The Dictator “

I remember one lazy weekend afternoon in high school, where one of my roommates proposed watching Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat.  I was hesitant, having heard some pretty outrageous things about it, but was assured by my roommate that it was no big deal; that it was not that crazy a movie.  How wrong we were.  I remember sitting on our makeshift sofa – a twin-sized bed with the long side flush against the wall – shocked time after time at the completely ridiculous things that happened.  And while I didn’t particularly agree with Cohen’s methods, I had to give him credit for being astoundingly provocative.

Compared with Borat, The Dictator is almost disappointingly tame.  Cohen stars as Admiral General Supreme Leader Aladeen, dictator of North African country Wadiya, who goes before the UN after countries have threatened to take military action in response to Wadiya supposedly developing nuclear weapons.  However, Aladeen is kidnapped and replaced by his body double, so that his uncle Tamir may democratize Wadiya and sell its oil to some very eager buyers.  The Dictator shared Borat’s outrageous characters, but wasn’t near as cutting.

Underneath the stunts and political messages, The Dictator is at heart a love story.  Aladeen meets Zoey, a fem-lit studying, extreme left-wing, alternative co-op managing activist.  Anna Faris actually does a great job as Zoey, perhaps the most convincing acting here.  Aladeen falls in love with Zoey when she bitches out a police officer for arresting Aladeen and his sidekick after they accidentally drop a few choice words (Osama, 9/11, explosions) during a helicopter tour of New York City.  Compared to Borat’s huge infatuation with Pamela Anderson, this was flimsy and awkwardly fluffy.

For some reason, very little of the humor in The Dictator was jarring.  Everything just felt too planned, too forced, and while there were quite a few outrageous things that happened, nothing seemed surprising.  Rather than raising the bar, Cohen seemed to resort to repeating stunts of the past, with a crudeness that is no longer shocking and just plain unappetizing.  As for political messages, there are maybe three minutes at the end when Aladeen gives a speech about dictatorship that accidentally pretty much sums up the US’s current state: he says how dictatorship is great, allowing the 1% to grow richer while everyone else grows poorer, allowing leaders to declare war and violate civil liberties.  At one point, Aladeen takes over kind, liberal Zoey’s grocery store and turns it into a personality cult and essential dictatorship (employees are required to refer to Aladeen as “Supreme Grocer Aladeen”).  Ironically, his underhand tactics and controlling methods not only make the company efficient, but in fact, makes it excel for once.

There’s a well-scripted scene on a helicopter, and also a brief mimed scene at the beginning, but unfortunately, there is very little else to The Dictator worth laughing over.  I’ve included them at the end of this review, so you can just skip the movie without missing out on any jokes or references your friends might make to it.

Best regards,

Apple

Snow White and the Huntsman: on reimagination, beauty, and special effects

Why do we have remakes and adaptations?  What is the point of hearing a story that we have all already heard before?  Some new versions have been lovely – just consider the Wicked reimagination of The Wizard of Oz.  It took an older story and examined it from the villain’s viewpoint, adding in a pretty impressive history and an original source of political unrest.  Snow White is a story that has been redone countless times, though not recently by Hollywood according to my memory.  Just this year, the 200th anniversary of the original Brothers Grimm tale, two remakes of Snow White have been released: Mirror, Mirror, a comedy with Julia Roberts, and Snow White and the Huntsman, a darker version with Kristin Stewart, Charlize Theron, and Liam Hemsworth.

While this film did introduce some original elements to the fairy tale, the film as a whole was unfortunately disjointed and undeveloped.  The film appeared to sway back and forth, unable to decide whether to be completely unique or more faithful to well-known versions, namely Disney’s 1937 hit.  SWATH’s eponymous Huntsman had a larger role, but with little meaning; Stewart again dallied in a love triangle, all the time expressing her emotions through heavy breathing (thank you, med students, for diagnosing her use of accessory muscles as COPD); the princess donned mail and fought for her kingdom, but will little lead-up and not enough screen time to seem natural.

Yet, despite all this, and despite the fact that everyone seemed to hate the movie, I sat through scene after scene of stilted Stewart and random mystical encounters actually enjoying myself.  It’s true that I went into the movie with extremely low expectations, but I couldn’t help smiling as Snow White met a white stag on a lake while fairies and mythical creatures swarmed around (did this remind anyone else of Princess Mononoke?).  I couldn’t help startling when the evil stepmother, an extraordinarily dynamic Queen Ravenna played by Charlize Theron, screamed at her servants.  And I couldn’t help feeling a rush of excitement when the princess rallies the troops with, “Who will ride with me?  Who will be my brother?”  When I sit down and think, I know that this was a terrible film; perhaps I have simply reverted to the naiveté of a young moviegoer in my current film-starved state.

I was most intrigued by the continued mention of beauty.  Queen Ravenna says to Snow White’s Father that men will discard beautiful women once they are old, and she is constantly consuming beautiful youth in order to stay young and magnificent herself.  In a flashback, it is revealed that Ravenna’s own mother cast the spell in desperation while their village was being raided, saying that only her beauty would save her.  Snow White and the Huntsman come across a small settlement of river women, who all have strange scars on their faces.  “This is a sacrifice we make so that we can raise our daughters in peace,” one of the women explains, “We are of no use to the Queen without beauty.”  I thought this thin line of exploration was interesting, and wished there was more contrast between the Queen and Snow White, but I think the directors were too busy making Stewart appear grungy and tough to massage out any details.  There were also several scenes when Snow White is forced to make sacrifices and run on – she first leaves her prison-mate while escaping the castle, she leaves her horse while running into the Dark Forest, then she leaves the river people behind.  I would have liked to see more of this idea explored as well – how does a princess feel, knowing that to save a kingdom, she must first save herself?

As a small note – I often don’t notice costuming and special effects, but here, I was constantly admiring whoever designed the Queen’s wardrobe.  The constant aging/rejuvenating effects on the Queen were especially well done, and I liked the image of a castle by the sea.  The hallucinatory effects were convincing, the sanctuary was calm and nature-y, and the Queen always had this sticky, liquid feeling to her. I also have to applaud whoever did the Queen’s Brother’s haircut, which was the most hideous thing I’ve seen since Javier Bardem’s floppy mop in No Country for Old Men.  It makes you wonder, since the Queen’s brother is so hideous, if she too wasn’t initially ugly, or why she chose not to make him look better.  Or maybe the film just needed him to be ugly because he was a villain.  One almost feels bad for him when he begs, “Sister, heal me,” but then he’s just too despicable for the feeling to last.

Overall, 2/5 – an enjoyable introduction to summer, but there is unfortunately nothing special to this new branch on the tree of Snow White tales.  Not even Theron and excellent special effects could save this movie from mediocrity.  There can be many versions of a story, but people will only remember the version that cannot be retold.  Snow White and the Huntsman, unfortunately, will be forgotten as soon as Prometheus comes out next week.

Regards,

Apple

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