Saturday, June 23, 2012

Movie Review: Brave

As I write this, Brave's at 74% Fresh, with almost all precincts reporting. The 2010 film, How to Train Your Dragon is at 98%. What the hell is wrong with people?

Okay, let's start with this: Brave isn't a perfect film, nor is it on par with most of Pixar's work. This isn't the next Incredibles, Toy Story 2, Up, or Finding Nemo. Those were damn near flawless creations, and this is not.

But it's good. Really good. Brave is better than How to Train Your Dragon, and it deserves a hell of lot better than a tepid 74%. And I can't help wondering if Brave is taking heat for what it is or for what it's not.

Let's get this out of the way. Brave is a comedy, not a drama with comedic elements (Up) or an action movie with humor (The Incredibles) or a love story (Wall-E). It's a comedy about female empowerment, a mother-daughter relationship, and balancing tradition with finding one's own way.

And it's a kid's movie. More specifically, it's a movie made for young girls. This doesn't mean your son isn't going to love it, too, but the movie was constructed to play into girls' interests. You know, the way every other CG movie that's ever been made has been made for boys or men.

Merida is a princess, but I wouldn't call this "a princess movie," nor would I call it a fairy tale. Sure, there are echoes of Sleeping Beauty here and there, but I suspect The Jungle Book was a larger influence. A central plot point involves Merida's parents wanting her to marry a suitor from one of the other clans, and the movie never so much as introduces a love interest (this is a good thing, incidentally).

Most of the thematic elements are less complex than we're used to from Pixar and you don't have to look deep. You don't have to, but you probably should: there are some other ideas the movie plays with that aren't aimed at kids. None are subversive or inappropriate, but this movie has more to say on gender than a girl shooting arrows. While the kids are distracted by the admittedly tedious speeches about finding one's destiny, you'd do well to pay attention to Merida's mother and the power she wields. The film's last (and really only) fight sequence explores this on a very primal level, delving into the concept of strength in a surprisingly subtle way. It'll go right over the kid's heads - and apparently the critics', too - but it's worth giving some thought to what's going on there.

The movie's driven more by its jokes than anything else, so it's a good thing the humor's solid. Well, most of it is: there are a few cringe-inducing sequences with Merida's mother in denial of her... unfortunate situation. But other than that, the gags are entertaining. Yeah, it's mainly slapstick, but it's good slapstick.

So, what's with the relatively low rating? Are critics punishing Brave for being about mothers and daughters instead of fathers and sons? I wish I could dismiss this as paranoid, but I think there's a case to be made that in deviating from what critics are used to, Pixar may have lost some of them. Others may be irritated that Brave's a comedy and not the darker adventure the trailers hinted at. And I suspect a few have expectations for Pixar movies that are just too high to realistically be appeased.

Like I said before, this isn't a perfect movie. But it is a great animated comedy for boys and (especially) girls. And also for adults who can sit back and accept it for what it is. Yeah, I want another Incredibles, too. I want a badass female-driven action fantasy. And this is something different. That doesn't mean it's bad.

In fact, one of the movie's strengths lies in the fact it breaks Pixar's model. I love Pixar's work as much as anyone, but let's face it: the company's movies have started to feel eerily similar. This is mold breaking; it has a different voice and a different feel. That alone is reason to celebrate.

Don't listen to anyone claiming this is another critical failure on the heels of Cars 2: it's not. It's a great little animated movie with good jokes and a new point of view. Yeah, the messages are cliche and the movie skews young, but that's the case with ninety percent of animated movies that get made, including the overrated How to Train Your Dragon.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

DVD Review: Superman Vs. the Elite

Last week, Warner Bros. animation released yet another direct-to-DVD movie. These things are coming out at a rate of about three or four a year now and represent a wide range in terms of quality.
"Superman Vs. the Elite" is based on a single issue titled "What's so Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way," also known as one of "the greatest Superman stories ever told," which is in quotes because the issue in question isn't actually all that good.

Fortunately, like "Under the Red Hood," the movie is far better than its source material. The main problem with the comic was compression: it's too big a story to do it justice in one issue of one comic. The movie, which utilizes the original writer (again, like Red Hood), offers the space needed to sell the premise and characters.

The premise revolves around relevance. As a character, Superman's awfully old-fashioned. He adheres to a set of ethics that seem at best quaint and at worse hypocritical to many. He doesn't kill supervillains who inevitably break out of jail and murder hundreds: where's the justice in that?

"What's so Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way" attempted to confront this issue head on by introducing a new team of superheroes who bore more than a passing resemblance to The Authority, a series published by Wildstorm about a quasi-parody of the JLA who used lethal force when they deemed it necessary (which was pretty much all the time).

So "Superman Vs. the Elite" is an adaptation of an issue about Superman confronting a parody of a team who were themselves a parody of the JLA to confront issues about the use of excessive force.

Fortunately, you don't need to know any of that to enjoy this story. It's not actually significant that The Elite are based on The Authority: only that there's a new team in town who aren't afraid to kill.

Nor is it required knowledge that DC folded the Wildstorm characters into the DC Universe last fall, a fact that raises some interesting questions of its own. Was the release date of "Superman Vs. the Elite" coincidence, or was it produced in part as a quiet protest against imposing the lethal Wildstorm characters into a setting which has always been built around more traditional morals?

Either way, it's a great little movie. The use of tension is topnotch, and the character work is fantastic. I'm pretty sure this is coolest version of Lois Lane we've seen outside of the comics, and Manchester Black, the leader of The Elite, is well developed and surprisingly sympathetic. Until the last ten minutes, this isn't a black-and-white situation.

It's those last ten minutes that feel a little off. They're still definitely cool, but there's something a bit "overboard" about the movie's finale. The Elite go from anti-heroes to villains in a heartbeat, a fact which undermines the story's credibility. I'd have liked more deviation from the source material in the climax.

Nevertheless, this is still a great film, both for longtime DC fans and for everyone out there who's ever asked, "Why doesn't Superman (or Batman) just kill the bad guy?" Actually, if you're in that second group, this movie is REQUIRED viewing. Seriously, I am so damn tired of answering that question....

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Movie Review: Prometheus

I've been looking forward to being disappointed by this movie for months now. The premise always struck me as an incredibly ambitious direction with some real potential, and the trailers were nothing short of fantastic. But, like I said a few months ago, it's been three decades since Ridley Scott made a movie I like, so I couldn't shake the feeling this could go south.

Not surprisingly, this movie has some serious problems. Fortunately, it's also got a few strengths.

Let's start with the positive. This movie maintains Scott's track record with tone and atmosphere: there's a palpable sense of dread on Prometheus, just like there was on the Nostromo. For the most part, the suspense and horror delivers. Likewise, most of the effects are topnotch, though the CG stood out in a few sequences. Still, this may be the first movie I've ever seen in 2D where I've regretted not upgrading.

The horror aspect of Prometheus worked; I can't say the same for the science fiction.

The thing is, this isn't a movie where the SF stays relegated to the background: this film is less about horror and action and more about posing questions and expanding on the mythology of the Alien franchise. These are fantastic aspirations; it's a real shame the movie fails spectacularly in the attempt.

Spoilers follow, dear reader. Proceed at your peril.

The mythology it offers - mainly around the infamous "space jockey" from the original film - is relatively underwhelming. If you've seen the trailer, you've probably already figured out what they're driving at. On this account, the movie mainly just succeeded in removing any mystery from the strange dead giant. None of the details they filled in were satisfying, and the areas left unanswered lacked the mystique.

As for the more cognitive aspects of the production, if you're familiar with the genre, you're familiar with the ideas and questions it poses. They've played with variations on Star Trek TNG and X-Files, not to mention countless comics, novels, and short stories. This tends to be the case with most science fiction, which is why the best SF movies don't try to compete with with more than a hundred years of idea-driven speculative fiction and instead complement it visually.

The movie's real weakness, though, is in its characters and structure. The actors all do a fine job with what they're given, but in many cases what they've been given is utter tripe. Do we really care that the main character lost her father to disease as a child? Do we need to spend time dealing with her cliche psychological issues of inadequacy due to her inability to have children? There's an alien bio-weapons plant outside, people: get your goddamn priorities in order!  Do we really need yet another movie about holding on to one's faith when God turns out to be a dick from outer space?

In space, no one can hear you retell the story of Job.

Yeah, that's what this thing really boils down to. It's not an awful idea on its own, I guess, but if you're going that route, you need to make sure your dialogue is pitch-perfect, your characters are well-rounded and fascinating, and your story flows seamlessly. And Prometheus delivered on none of these things.

That said, the vast majority of this movie is engrossing while you're in the theater. It pulls you into its world, and the actors trick you into staying interested, even as their characters make baffling, irrational decisions at every turn. You'll love the horror when the film stops pontificating on faith long enough to return to the interesting stuff.

In short, if you're a fan of the genre, you'll enjoy the experience. But, as the closing credits roll, you're going to feel shortchanged by how much of the movie was pissed away on meaningless drivel. And you're especially going to feel ripped off by the last twenty minutes: the ending was downright awful. It's not actually a bad way to spend a few hours; just go in knowing it's going to make you more angry than intrigued.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Movie Review: Snow White and the Huntsman

About ten minutes into Snow White and the Huntsman, it became abundantly clear the movie was going to fail. But I'd gone into that theater looking to be entertained - let the record reflect that - and I was going to give it every chance. Sure, it was clearly going to be a bad movie, but maybe, I allowed myself to hope, it was going to be gloriously bad. It clearly wasn't going to be Chronicles of Riddick, but maybe it could still turn around and match Underworld: Rise of the Lycans or Dungeons and Dragons. But it soon became apparent this was less Dungeons & Dragons and more Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God. In the end, a handful of interesting moments - almost all of which were in the trailer - kept it more interesting than last summer's dreadful Robin Hood... but not by much.

The movie had several major flaws, but the central was lack of energy. There was nothing driving this forward or pulling the audience in, nothing to keep us engaged or amused. Now I'm going to say something controversial, something that will shock many of you.

I don't think it was Kristen Stewart's fault.

Don't get me wrong: she was miscast and didn't add much, but she actually manages a passable accent (unlike, say, Taylor Kitsch in John Carter). Yes, Stewart lacks range, but she has so little to play with here, it doesn't matter. Hell, her constant underacting was far less distracting than Theron's overacting: at least Stewart was consistent.

The real culprit behind the movie's failure is the screenplay, which makes no goddamn sense on any level. I'm not sure how many drafts they went through before filming, but I'm betting quite a few. There's garbage in the script that feels like it was written for entirely different movies. During the obligatory - not to mention painfully drawn out - sequence following the poisoned apple incident, the huntsman goes to fawn over the body of Snow White. He tells her that he keeps expecting her to get up and give him more "grief". That would be fine, except it didn't remotely fit their (mostly non-existent) relationship. The movie's full of random cliches like that. It's feels like someone cut up random scripts and pasted them together. The lines mostly work in a trailer capacity, but nothing really makes any sense in context. The "I've seen what she sees. I can kill her" line from the trailer is a perfect example. In the trailer, you understand this completely: it's clearly referencing the fact that the Queen and Snow White share some sort of psychic bond, like Harry and Voldemort. The only problem is that no one bothered to include anything like that in the movie: at no point in this film does Snow White see what she saw. THAT DOESN'T HAPPEN.

I don't want to make anyone think this was a one-time error. I'm describing nearly every line of dialogue in the film. Most Youtube mashup videos have more cohesion than this thing.

It's kind of fitting then that the director omitted any internal consistency. Snow White (lacking any martial training or ability) leads an army consisting entirely of calvary across a battle field. Next scene, she's fighting alongside her infantry. Where'd it come from? How did it get there? Who cares: Snow White's got a shield bearing the crest of Gondor.

On every level, this thing's a disjointed mess. Is it a dark retelling of a fairy tale or a fantasy movie loosely tied to an old story? I didn't get the impression the director would even understand that question, let alone be able to answer it.

Yeah, there are a few cool effects in this, but nowhere near as many as you'd expect from watching the trailer. That troll? Way cooler in the trailer - the CG's pretty crappy on the big screen. That weird nazgul/bat-creature? That's a hallucination: you've already seen every second of screen time they give it. The mirror soldiers? Again, the trailers pretty much give everything away. Same goes for the milk-bath and the golden guy who comes out of the mirror: nothing else to see here. The raven-transformation?

Actually, there's a pretty cool sequence where the queen turns back that wasn't in the trailers. You know what? Look it up on Youtube in six months if you still care.

Sure, there's some stuff that wasn't in the trailers, included what may be remembered as the worst version of fairies ever put on film. Also, there's a stag that wandered in from Princess Mononoke that turns into butterflies. I'm not entirely sure why.

In case you skipped down to this point just to get a summary, I'll make this clear: Avengers is still in the theaters, so there's no reason anyone should be wasting their time or money on this tripe. I don't care how many times you've already seen Avengers: you're far better off going again. Or, if you simply must watch a dark retelling of Snow White, there's a version from 1997 with Sigourney Weaver as the queen streaming on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video (it's labeled "Snow White: a Tale of Terror", in a bizarre attempt to sound intense or extreme or something, but the movie's actually just called "Snow White"). It's seriously flawed, but it's about a billion times more engaging than Snow White and the Huntsman. And it's free if you've got Netflix or Amazon Prime.