Tuesday, June 26, 2012

In Memory: Nora Ephron (1941-2012)

Nora Ephron died today. Hers was a private struggle. There was no weekly update in the entertainment columns about her condition, no prolonged battle with a longstanding disease playing out in the public spectrum. I am grateful that she was able to face this time without the intrusive cloud of public perception watching her every move. I hope that she was able to meet the end of her life with only those people around her that she wanted to be there. 

In a Nora Ephron film, there's a generosity of spirit that prevails. Regardless of it being a film she wrote for someone else or one that she wrote for herself to direct, there's a kindness and good-natured optimism present. Regardless of how many times one of her characters might get knocked down or how many times he or she might make the wrong decision, there's a pervasive sense that everything's going to turn out all right in the end, that the world will turn for the best. In many ways, you see yourself in her films. Maybe not yourself as you are now, but the way that your life might turn out to be, that maybe, just maybe, there might be a sense of order to the universe and everything's going to turn out all right for you too. I find it difficult to believe that this kind heart that beat so strongly through her life's work was something that only appeared in Nora Ephron, the artist.

More than anything else, my heart is heavy tonight because her family has lost her. There is no more difficult task than picking up the pieces of a life without a person that has filled so much of it. 

Love and respect to her memory and her family tonight and always.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Brave - An old, familiar tune

Brave is a somewhat unique entry to the Pixar pantheon in that it's not about talking toys, talking bugs, talking monsters, talking superheroes, talking cars, or talking animals (well, the last one's not entirely true, but is close enough). Ironically enough, a studio who's made bank time and time again by setting familiar stories in dazzlingly original settings is taking the up-til-now unfamiliar approach of setting a familiar story in a familiar setting. 

Borrowing more than a bit from The Little Mermaid, Brave is the story of Merida, a Scottish princess who'd rather ride around on horseback all day than live up to what her mother thinks a princess ought to be. When her parents invite the leaders of the realm's other 3 clans to present their sons in a competition for Merida's hand, things go a bit amok when she tries to take hold of her own fate.

Simply put, this is a good film, but not one of the great films that Pixar's proven capable of so many times in the past. That said, Brave is a perfectly fine, highly entertaining experience. So, it this bad thing? Not really. While I'd certainly love to have another instant classic on my hands, I can't deny that I had a good time with this one. While it might not hit the stunning heights of Finding Nemo, The Incredibles or Toy Story 3, it certainly doesn't come anywhere close to plumbing the dregs of last year's dead-on-arrival Cars 2.

Unsurprisingly, the animation is stunning. Merida's hair, in particular, is ridiculously lifelike. Much in the way that the wispy wonder that was Sully's body carpet amazed in 2001's Monsters, Inc., Merida's curly red mane flows, bounces, and goes in every direction at once with ease. In the past, the look of each new Pixar film resulted in a noticeable leap forward for CG animation. While that's certainly slowed down in recent times, as technology's kinda hit a plateau, there's usually one (at least!) standout element each time around, and this time, it's those pretty remarkable scarlet locks.

Brave is also wonderfully funny. In each Pixar film, there's usually a character or group of characters that are explicit comic relief, for better or worse. Let's just say that Merida has triplet brothers that are much too smart for their age, and I loved every second of screen time that they got. There are other ways that the film successfully subverts the traditional fairytale, often for comedic effect, but I won't go into detail for risk of spoiling anything.

Somewhat surprisingly, there's a fair bit of action that justify the MPAA's PG rating. While Pixar's films aren't necessarily all sunshine and rainbows, I was a bit taken aback at just how physical some of the film's battle sequences are. 

Speaking of spoilers, this is the first Pixar film I can think of with a genuine plot twist. In an age of trailers that reveal everything of interest about a film with the exception of those clearly labeled "THIS IS A FILM WITH A MAJOR TWIST. STAY OFF THE INTERNET," the direction that Brave takes truly surprised me. I'll just suggest that the film's original title, The Bear and the Bow, was perfectly fitting and shouldn't have been abandoned in the first place. 

So, why the hesitation? It's all about emotional investment. With Pixar's best films, there's an immediate hook that engages the viewer immediately that can come from a variety of places, be it a quirky character, ingenious setup, or beautiful moment. Then, when the conclusion rolls around, it hits like a hammer to the heart, because there's so much riding on the narrative from the viewer's perspective. To that point, Brave just isn't that creative from a narrative standpoint.

There's been a lot of hoopla about the fact that this is Pixar's first film with a female main protagonist, but I wonder if that's actually what's tipped the creative team toward a tried-and-true formula. If you're going to tell a story about a young woman, why not frame it in some way that's a bit different from the atypical freedom narrative? How about actually embracing her femininity by making her a typical young woman of the time, stranding her in the wilderness and forcing her to learn how to survive? It's a bit reductive to always play the "I'm a girl, but I'd rather be free like a boy!" card.

Simply put, this is a story you've heard before. It's a good story, and you'll probably like it. 

But you've heard it before.

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Podcasting: Prometheus

A few days ago, the good folks over at Out Now With Aaron and Abe invited me to be a part of their discussion of Prometheus. You can listen to the entire podcast by clicking HERE to go to the episode's official page or by clicking the ol' play button below. FYI: there is a spoiler section at the end of the episode, so proceed with caution. . .

This episode features: 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Prometheus - Be careful what you look for . . .

There’s been so much said about what Prometheus would be like that it’s a bit of a relief to finally have the film OUT. First, it’s Ridley Scott making an Alien prequel! Then, it’s Ridley Scott saying that (while he meant to at first) now he’s not making an Alien prequel! Then, the trailers hit and this thing looked all the world like the first chapter in one of cinema’s biggest science-fiction franchises.

I am pleased to report that Prometheus is, despite what Mr. Scott would have us believe, CLEARLY an Alien prequel (albeit one that goes reaches back a bit sideways), while it’s certainly a standalone story and can easily be enjoyed on its own merits. While you don’t have to know the Alien mythology to enjoy/understand this film, I’ll be the first to admit that it certainly helps. Ridley Scott hasn’t worked in science fiction since the early 1980’s and the prospect of him returning to a genre where I feel he’s done his best work is endlessly exciting.

Here’s the story. After discovering the same pictograph in numerous digs around the world, two archeologists convince a wealthy corporate head to send an expedition to a distant planet to respond to a supposed invitation from what they believe are the creators of all life on earth. Upon arrival, the crew finds a lot more than they bargained for and must fight for their lives against forces from without and within.

I hadn’t quite expected Prometheus to be such a beautiful film from a strictly visual perspective. From the opening sequence of a gorgeous earthlike planet in which intelligent life is about to be planted to the introduction of the alien world, the coloration is so much more lush than anything I’ve ever seen in an Alien film up to this point. There are oranges and purples and blues that really stand out, particularly when the action moves inside the dome, where it’s all grays and blacks. There are some shots here that would make lovely wall hangings, particularly moments where the little dune buggies/big truck are racing away from or toward the Prometheus. There’s a shot of the away team trying to make it back to the ship before a storm hits that’s just remarkable.

The performances are uniformly good, particularly Michael Fassbender’s turn as David, the android always at the center of the intrigue in Prometheus. David seems to have a completely different agenda than just about anyone else in the film, and I’m really not sure what’s going through his head. These androids that Weyland Corp. uses tend to be really cagey fellows with a way of hedging their bets and keeping you guessing as to what their true motives really are. At first, he seems to be working for Vickers (Charlize Theron), but then it’s apparent that he’s still getting instructions from some unnamed man. When we later learn who that person is, it’s not made much easier. As stranger and stranger things start to happen, it makes one wonder why David is taking matters into his own hands so drastically. I could go on and on about this, but then this would morph into a discussion more than a review. Let’s just say that I’m left to wonder if, on some level, David might be even more sinister than the ominous creatures the crew encounters.

I do think that the film would have benefited from being a bit longer. Certain themes  are presented and examined in such a perfunctory way that it shortchanges the film from becoming as compelling emotionally as it is visually. For example, Shaw (a strong Noomi Rapace) is a person of faith who comes to the planet fully believing that she’s going to have a chance to answer an invitation to converse with the beings that created intelligent life on earth. She’s on the verge of the most important scientific breakthrough in human history and she approaches it with the simple faith that it’s going to happen, and happen a certain way. When circumstances on the planet surface turn out to be drastically different than she’d anticipated, I wanted more. Let’s delve deep into what it means for Shaw to be a person of faith that’s being challenged by such an unexpectedly evil place. Let’s give her an extended scene where she really talks with someone (probably David) about what it means to her.

Think about it. It’d be perfect. Being an android, he does not understand what conviction of this kind is really like, and she would be able to explain what her faith means to her and how she reconciles it in the face of what seems closer and closer to certain doom. I think it would have really fleshed out the narrative more effectively, but, unfortunately, it’s not what we get. I think this might be a weakness of Scott’s in general. We tend to arrive at certain scenes thinking of how they might have affected us, instead of how they have affected us.

Much like the Nostromo in Alien, the crew of the Prometheus is mostly made up of working/middle class folks, which is a welcome change from the usual conventions of science fiction. They certainly haven’t got the endless poise of the crew of the Enterprise. They’re just a bunch of people that want to earn a paycheck without having to suddenly deal with a bunch of strange alien creatures that want to do all kinds of terrible things. I really like that about them, even if they’re sometimes saddled with pedestrian dialogue that’s clearly there because there’s a camera watching and witty things must be said.

Prometheus is also not as frightening as I’d expected, but that's not a bad thing. While I was prepared for the worst, and an almost immediate body count, the film takes its time to set things up in such a way that you stay on your toes when the punches start hitting. That said, the film’s single most effective sequence is terrifying. It’s the scariest do-it-yourself surgical procedure this side of 127 Hours that I’ve seen in a movie in a long, long time, and just about had me holding my breath. 

The subversion of expectation is one of this film’s strongest suits. Given where the franchise has been before, there are a few directions that you’d expect the film to head in that it neatly sidesteps. Even when there are nods to what’s come before, they’re done in surprisingly innovative ways. There are several narrative bombshells present here, and part of what makes some of them so effective comes with a knowledge of the franchise. “Well, he’s the same as THAT was, so THIS can’t happen.” Then, when it does happen and the rug is pulled out, you’re left to figure out what that means now.

Having seen the film in 3D, I’d argue that you’d do better stick to 2D and save the extra money. Personally, I don’t really have much of an interest in 3D unless it’s the work of an artist using the format with specific intentions, like Cameron’s Avatar or Scorsese’s Hugo, in which case 3D is a necessity. With Prometheus, the pedigree’s certainly there, but it didn’t take long for me to almost forget entirely that the film was in 3D at all. If it’s not enhancing the viewing experience, then it can be done without.

A lush, engaging look at a familiar mythos through new eyes, Prometheus is a strong piece that I’m almost positive will benefit from repeated viewings, and I'm certainly looking forward to trying to put the pieces together again. For a notorious one-and-done guy, that’s one of the highest compliments I’ve got. 

This one deserves it.

4 stars (out of 5)