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Saturday, June 23, 2012

BRAVE (2012)

This thirteenth computer-animated feature from Pixar (yeah, Disney distributed it but who cares?) is set in 10th century Scotland and takes its viewers into a richly-realized world of tartanned clans, witches, enchanted forests, magic, and enough comedy and visual charm to dazzle even the most jaded of viewers. Which is good because BRAVE, while very entertaining, is definitely a mid-level work for this studio.

Tomboyish princess Merida of the kingdom of DuBroch (very effectively voiced by Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald) is feisty, independent and an archer with skills that would make Legolas nod with approval, but unfortunately for Merida he's not in this film and instead she faces the disapproval of her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), who relentlessly grooms Merida to be the very acme of all things princessly. Her mother loves her daughter but has zero consideration for her Merida's complete and utter disinterest in all that princess crap and makes nearly every waking hour of her daughter's time a living hell of comportment and courtly protocol. Neither understands the other, and thus are the seeds of mother/daughter frustration sown.

Then comes the day when Merida's father, the enormous, tough and sweet-natured King Fergus (Billy Connolly, who's perfect for this role), drops a bombshell: the princess must be betrothed to one of the sons of the three clan leaders with whom her father is allied, or the allegiances forged when Fergus and his former enemies banded together to drive back the Romans and Viking raiders will dissolve and the kingdom will find itself in a state of inter-tribal warfare. Hey, tradition's a bitch, and Merida wants none of it. Nonetheless she finds herself all prettied-up and presentably perfect when the suitors arrive and she is given the choice of what contest of strength or skill at arms the princes will compete at for her hand. Noting that her suitors must be firstborn to compete and that she herself is a firstborn, Merida chooses archery as the test and, much to her mother's horror and mortification, enters to shoot for her own hand once the princes have loosed their own arrows. With the ease of a possible ancestor of Oliver Queen, Merida decimates her suitors, launching perfect bullseyes with each shot, even splitting the only previously fired arrow to (accidentally) make a perfect score. Furious, the queen has a bitter row with her daughter that leads Merida to slash a tapestry depicting her family that her mother had crafted by hand, in angered response to which the queen throws her daughter's beloved bow into the fire, causing Merida to flee the castle in tears, borne by her trusty steed. (In a telling moment, once Merida has fled the room her mother immediately realizes she has attempted to destroy something her daughter treasures, so she hauls the scorched bow from the fireplace's flames and pats it out as her face clearly conveys her regret. It's beautiful piece of character animation.)

As her horse plunges headlong into the nearby forest, Merida encounters a trail of glowing Will O' the Wisps, sprites that purportedly lead one to their fate, and she follows them to the home of friendly wood-carving witch (Julie Walters) who specializes bear-themed tchotchkes. The desperate princess purchases a spell from the witch (along with her complete inventory) that is guaranteed to change her fate but, like damned near all stories where a magical bargain is struck, things do not go as Merida planned, and the rest of the narrative deals with the trials and tribulations that she and her mother must deal with once the spell works its unforeseen alterations to the proper order of things. (No, it doesn't create an alternate timeline or anything like that, and I ain't sayin' what happens.) Anyway, an ancient curse, the king's obsession with revenge for a long-ago encounter that cost him his left leg, ursine shenanigans, mother/daughter dysfunction and examinations of tradition, the pitfalls of pride-fueled impulsiveness and the need to respect one's kids' need to be who they are and not necessarily what their parents want to make them into all collide head-on before everything is resolved.

The kingdom of DuBroch's royal family: a gaggle of fun-loving gingers...and one well-meaning brunette killjoy.

BRAVE has all the elements one could possibly want from a fun, funny and unexpectedly somewhat-deep fairytale, but it's missing that certain intangible something that makes for the perfect Pixar cinematic experience, and for the life of me I cannot quite figure out what it is. The film is funny, visually sumptuous, features terrific voice acting and an evocative score, has no actual villain — well, yes and no, but I really can't discuss it without spoilers — yet it does not lack for conflict, and Merida's younger identical triplet brothers —Harris, Hubert and Hamish — steal any scene they're in, but despite all that BRAVE, out of Pixar's thirteen feature-length efforts, comes in for me somewhere in the mid-range. It's enjoyable, you won't be bored by it and it's definitely kid-friendly with a skew toward adventurous young girls, so definitely see it in the theater on as large a screen as you can find, and don't shell out the extra scratch for 3-D; I saw it in 2-D and it was just fine, so spend those extra bucks on some Goobers instead. Just don't go expecting the another THE INCREDIBLES or UP. Pixar's tremendous but nobody knocks it out of the park every single time. I mean, look at CARS, for god's sake! (BRAVE is waaaaaay better than either of the CARS movies, so don't even go there.)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

DEADGIRL (2008)

Initially wearing its indie/arthouse origins on its sleeve and getting off to a slightly slow start, DEADGIRL is the story of two high school-age friends, Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and JT (Noah Segan), both awkward losers, who, while ditching school, go to the local long-abandoned mental institution to drink warm beers and commit vandalism, and in its deepest tunnels they discover a beautiful naked woman (Jenny Spain), covered in plastic and chained to a medical gurney. The boys soon realize that the woman is undead (with no explanation given) and it’s a good bet that no one knows she’s there, so JT suggests they use the animate, bound corpse as their personal “fuck slut.” Conflicted but definitely not down with that plan, sensitive Rickie urges his friend to leave with him, but JT is a horny adolescent whose urges far outweigh any sense of morality or common decency, and he knows a good thing when he sees one. They have a falling out and from that point it’s clear that their friendship will never be the same, but they agree to keep the dead girl their little secret. But since when were teenagers any good at keeping secrets? Once the dead girl is no longer a commodity known solely to the two friends, things escalate into incredibly warped territory and offers up what may be the most disturbing coming of age story yet committed to celluloid.

Despite its obvious horrific elements, DEADGIRL is at its heart a realistic drama about the fears and disillusionment of adolescence, to say nothing of shedding light on the darker aspects of the young male psyche and how it can run rampant without supervision or guidance, providing a telling allegory about how some young men are raised to view and treat women. Rickie’s unrequited love for JoAnn (Candice Accola) is a heartbreaking plot point as he hopelessly pines for her, a wholesome and pretty girl who was his sweetheart during pre-pubescence but now won’t give him the time of day and dates a vicious jock. So on the one hand we have sleazy JT getting his hump on with a zombie that’s basically a piece of meat, there to serve as a receptacle for his seemingly endless supply of semen, while on the other we have Rickie’s exercise in romantic/emotional futility, and while those paths lead to a descent into grisly madness, the film is a strong examination of the agonizing teen years of the heterosexual male human condition. It’s all about the having of power or the complete lack thereof, and believe me when I say that it rings all too true.

Sick, dark, twisted, and highly morally questionable though it may be, DEADGIRL is an excellent piece of not-afraid-to-go-there cinema, and comes from out of nowhere to stand right next to the original DAWN OF THE DEAD as my favorite zombie movie. Not for all tastes and definitely not a date movie, this one is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Friday, June 8, 2012

PROMETHEUS (2012)


When Ridley Scott's ALIEN hit in 1979, it was a game-changer for the genre of cinematic science-fiction and earned classic status overnight for its blend of visually realistic and believable deep space adventure and outright horror. It also spawned a number of sequels, the second of which also quite rightly became a classic, and its creatures — known as "xenomorphs" — and their horrific life cycle became iconic, terrifying touchstones for the post-STAR WARS era. Having been sequelized to ever-escalating diminishing returns (especially in the case of the execrable ALIENS VS. PREDATOR flicks), it was only a matter of time before Hollywood's mania for re-imaginings/reboots/remakes got around to the whole ALIEN thing, so now we get the ambitious PROMETHEUS, helmed by the director of the original ALIEN, and it's definitely a re-imagining/reboot/remake and possibly the most anticipated of this summer's potential blockbusters.

Opening with an archaeological discovery in the year 2089, PROMETHEUS details an expedition to a distant planet whose location was determined from ancient cave paintings and stone carvings found all over the world, crafted by completely unrelated cultures. The two archaeologists who discovered the imagery believe it to be an invitation for the inhabitants of Earth to go and meet the depicted giant spacefarers whom the archaeologists believe to be the creators of the human species. Upon arriving at the planet in question, the expedition discovers the derelict spacecraft from ALIEN, only it's buried so they think it's just some sort of underground crypt. The place displays the bio-mechanical visual tropes established in the first film and features a couple of rooms housing thousands of upright containers filled with an ominous oozing black glop that the expedition's obligatory artificial human/robot sneakily obtains a sample of. The presumed crypt is also littered with the bodies of dead giant aliens — dubbed "Engineers" by the archaeologists — so the head of one is brought back to the ship for study. As expected, all hell eventually breaks loose and very bad things happen to the crew as a number of suspicious aspects of the voyage's agenda begin to crop up. Why is the ship's medical pod only equipped for male patients? Why is a representative of the corporation that funded the mission along for the ride and why are her quarters a large and luxuriously-appointed self-contained escape pod? Why is the ship's artificial human/robot committing very questionable acts that completely violate Asimov's Three Laws? And exactly why did the Engineers seed the Earth with their DNA (which is an exact match with human DNA) and what are they doing with all those containers?

As previously stated, PROMETHEUS is a series reboot, and it takes the ideas and basic universe of the ALIEN films and plays with them in a number of ways, but for me it came off as a visually stunning hollow shell that failed to grab me. I did not connect with or have even the slightest interest in any of the bland scientist characters that meandered about during its running time, and more than once I looked at my watch and wondered when it would all finally end. In fact, about a third of the way through the film I was so underwhelmed that I seriously contemplated getting up and leaving. I'll try to stay as spoiler-free as possible, but here are the pertinent points:
  • For an attempted reboot of the franchise that pretty much defined the blended science-fiction/horror genre, there is absolutely no suspense and only the most minimal horror.
  • We do get creatures that are intended to be scary, but these re-imagined versions of the larval and adult versions of the xenomorphs and what looks like a fused proto-version of a facehugger and an eel fail to deliver in the scares department. There's also a creature that starts out resembling a sort of four-tentacled octopus wiggly (a "quatropus," if you will) and ends up as the biggest goddamned kinda-sorta facehugger you've ever seen. It would have been right at home in a Sinbad movie.
An Engineer ends up on the wrong end of an encounter with the biggest face-hugger ever.
  • And speaking of the quatropus, it's the end result of a ridiculous and dire Caesarian surgical procedure in which the previously-infertile female archaeologist (Noomi Rapace) finds herself in an advanced state of pregnancy after getting it on with her husband following the artificial human slipping him a sample of the black alien glop while he was on a booze-fueled bender. (pauses to catch breath) The terrified mom-to-be hauls ass to the aforementioned automated medical pod, dopes herself up and straps in as the unit carves her open, removes the wildly squirming quatropus and seals her gaping abdominal wound with surgical staples.
Apparently, having just endured an automated C-section to remove a rapidly-gestating extraterrestrial horror does nothing to hamper one's ability to take care of business.



All suited up, running away from imminent disaster and confronting extraterrestrial mayhem with a firefighting axe while traipsing about with a gut held together by surgical staples.

Literally at the moment this procedure is completed, she leaves the med-lab and spends the rest of the film running around in a full spacesuit and getting bumped about and bounced off of very hard surfaces and objects like she hadn't just had an unnatural horror ripped from her womb not even a half hour earlier. I can suspend a hell of a lot of disbelief for a science-fiction story, but I just couldn't buy that.
  • I may be looking at this from a cynical point of view, but this reboot appears to me to be a convenient way of ditching the majority of ALIEN visualist H.R. Giger's designs in favor of more predictable and generic creatures in a concerted effort to not have to pay or credit the groundbreaking Swiss artist for his indelible contributions to the look and feel of the franchise. The creepy and slime-laden look of Giger's concepts are utterly stripped away and the xenomorph eggs have even been reduced from fleshy oversized "footballs" to mass-produced, character-void containers. I'm guessing the prestige name of Ridley Scott will attract droves of ALIEN fans in hope of rendering this a hit and thus generating sequels to be passed off to any convenient hack director and equally hackish designers, and that prospect just fills me with inertia.
  • Among the many nonsensical examples of how people act put forth in the film's script, the most egregious are the numerous times wherein professional scientists proceed in handling what is the most important scientific discovery in all of human experience with not a lick of common sense or anything resembling considered procedure. There's little thought given to possible contamination from previously un-encountered micro-organisms on A GODDAMNED ALIEN PLANET other than a couple of token decontamination sequences, which are either forgotten about or not, depending on what the sloppy script calls for. Needless to say, this stupidity comes back to bite this crew of alleged professionals on the ass on several eye-rolling occasions. There are also several examples where no caution whatsoever is exercised in handling various extraterrestrial remains and compounds, and anyone with even half a brain will be astonished by those lapses.
  • The black goo that occupies the containers on the Engineers' ship is inconsistent in its effect on those who come in contact with it or ingest it, a fault that should have been dealt with before the final shooting script was approved. It causes different "cool stuff" to happen as the script dictates, and this occurs with no rhyme or reason.
  • The film utterly wastes beautiful and talented Oscar-winner Charlise Theron in the thankless role of the aforementioned corporate rep. She turns in her most lifeless performance since the title character in the live-action adaptation of AEON FLUX (and bad though that film was, it was a lot livelier and more visually imaginative than PROMETHEUS). She does have one fun character bit with ship's captain Idris Elba (aka Heimdall from THOR), but it's one minuscule moment of personality in a desert of ciphers.
  • The sole character that I gave a shit about was David, the ship's artificial human, well-played by Michael Fassbender.
He pretty much performs the same plot function as Ian Holm's Ash in ALIEN, but he's far more charming and sympathetic because he's essentially a slave who's got no choice in his actions.
  • Never show excerpts from a much better film in a mediocre movie, since that could serve to remind viewers of how there's much better fare out there to be had. In the case of this film, they unwisely and unnecessarily included a sequence from David Lean's LAWRENCE OF ARABIA that made me think of how much I would have preferred to be watching that instead.
  • Perhaps most dishearteningly, PROMETHEUS is highly derivative of a good number of science-fiction stories found in books, television shows and films, not just what came before in the ALIEN franchise, and as a result there's nothing here that we have not seen done somewhere else and usually in a much more interesting/engaging fashion.
The audience opinion at the screening I saw was hotly divided, with some declaring PROMETHEUS "a science-fiction masterpiece" while others disappointedly groused and one patron loudly exclaimed "BOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!" when the credits rolled (with a hearty Bronx cheer thrown in by Yours Truly). I've certainly seen worse movies but I was hugely disappointed and occasionally bored by PROMETHEUS, though your mileage may vary. If all you're interested in is great special effects and production design, you'll do just fine. (I did not see it in 3-D, though I've been told that the 3-D is exceptional.) Those who need more than that may end up feeling gypped, so if you're in that camp I suggest you see it with your expectations kept as low as possible.

No, this isn't Melody, Alan and Josie in a live-action re-imagining/reboot/remake of JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS IN OUTER SPACE (unfortunately).