Friday, June 29, 2012

'Brave' ventures into the world of princesses with unexpected results

"Brave" marks the first film from animation juggernaut Pixar to have a female protagonist. Thanks to the strikingly beautiful visuals in the trailers and Pixar's nearly flawless track record, expectations for what the studio would do were huge.

Pixar's films are, with the exception of last year's "Cars 2," are of such high quality in terms of the visuals and sophistication of storytelling that nearly all other animated films pale in comparison. They tell well-worn stories in ways that feel orginal and emotional true. Even the lesser "Cars 2" is still of a higher quality than the average animated feature.

Many of Pixar's films have had strong female characters such as Dory in "Finding Nemo" or Elastigirl in "The Incredibles," but "Brave" is Pixar's first film to center the story on a heroine.

Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is a Scottish princess, which may let some audiences members down as it would appear that Pixar is heading down the path of a Disney-style princess film instead of doing something more unique.

Dismissing "Brave" as just another princess movie is too superficial a read of the film because the portrayal of Merida is refreshing. This is not the story of a love-sick girl waiting to find a man to sweep her off her feet. Merida has little desire to wed. She is fiercely independent, adventurous and a damn good shot with a bow and arrow.

This is also very much a mother-daughter story, which, unfortunately, we don't see enough of. There are plenty of stories of father-son bonding, but positive mother-daughter stories are too rare a commodity, particularly in the realm of animation. If you look at most of the Disney princess films they are either mother-less ("Little Mermaid, "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin") or stuck with an evil stepmother ("Cinderella," "Snow White").

Merida's father (Billy Connelly), who loses his leg to a bear in the prologue, is proud of his daughter's free spirit, but her mother (Emma Thompson) simply wants her to accept her duties and get married.

When Merida is being presented to potential suitors she takes a stand that greatly angers her mother. Merida flees to the stunningly rendered Scottish hills and forests and finds her way to the house of a witch (Julie Walters) where she asks for a spell to change her mother's mind.

Naturally, the spell doesn't work as expected and mother and daughter must work together to undo the magic. It wouldn't be fair to reveal how the spell goes awry, but it may lose some audience members who, given the title, are expecting something with high stakes adventure. The title refers to having the courage to stand up from what you believe, but to also have the nerve to admit your mistakes and right your wrongs.

Mother and daughter must discover how to truly listen to each other for the first time. They must learn to put someone else's wishes in front of their own while not sacrificing their own beliefs. It is an important lesson and one that is rarely done in a way that doesn't feel forced or heavy handed.

The writers and directors of "Brave" — Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, who developed the project, Steve Purcell and Irene Mecchi — have a created a story that is familiar, but tell it in a way that is sweet and emotionally honest.

Comic relief is provided by Merida's three mischievous siblings and from the antics of the various clansmen whose voices include the likes of Craig Ferguson and Robbie Coltrane. The glorious Connelly also brings a great deal of levity to the proceedings.

Macdonald gives a wonderful vocal performance as Merida. She makes the character plucky and fun rather than petulant and whiny. Thompson does a nice job portraying a mother who is frustrated, but loves her daughter and only wants what is best for her.

Pixar's best work, the "Toy Story" films, "Ratatouille," "Wall-E," "Monsters Inc.," "Finding Nemo" and "Up," resonate deeply. "Brave" isn't quite of that caliber, but does tell a moving story that is sure to strike an emotional chord with mothers and daughters who are having their own communications issues.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Cast makes 'Rock of Ages' a guilty pleasure

"Rock of Ages," a rock musical based on 1980s hair bands like Bon Jovi, Poison, Foreigner, Def Leppard and others, is a tricky film to review. Its central plot and lead characters are sleep inducingly dull, but they are surrounded by a supporting cast of interesting and colorful characters who help raise the film to a guilty pleasure status.

To call the film good would take a rewriting of the definition of that word, but "Rock of Ages" does have certain charms, chiefly a stellar performance by Tom Cruise as the fictional rocker Stacee Jaxx.

Cruise nails the rock star swagger, smarminess and ego. He trained extensively to be able to do his own singing, and the efforts pay off as he credibly belts out songs like "Wanted: Dead or Alive." It is quite a performance that is believable and funny. In a departure from the stage version, the character is given more dimension and growth, allowing Cruise to add unexpected shadings.

The problem is Cruise is not the main character, but rather a supporting character, who is off-screen for too much of the film. Instead we have a tired story of a small town girl (Julianne Hough) taking a bus to Hollywood to follow her dream to become a singer.

Within five minutes of being in Los Angeles she is mugged. Within 10 minutes she meets her love interest (Diego Boneta), who gets her a job at the rock club the Bourbon Room. Clearly, things happen fast in L.A. What follows is a generic love story in which the couple breaks up over a misunderstanding and then gets back together to sing "Don't Stop Believing" in the climatic ending.

By removing characters and adding new ones and changing plot details, the film actually improves upon the stage version of "Rock of Ages," but that speaks more about the quality of stage version than the film. The script by Justin Theroux and Allan Loeb working with Chris D'Arienzo, the author of stage version, doesn't go far enough in making this more than just a serviceable plot to string a series of unrelated songs together.

It would've taken a complete rewrite to make this something truly engaging. That being said, Theroux and Loeb's additions keep "Rock of Ages" from being a complete waste. There's a lot of entertaining stuff happening on the fringes of the film.

Catherine Zeta-Jones plays a new character seemingly tailored after Tipper Gore, who in 1985 went before Congress to urge warning labels for records marketed to children. Zeta-Jones, the wife of a mayor, sets out to clean up Sunset Strip by shutting down the Bourbon Room much to the chagrin of club owner Alec Baldwin and his right-hand man, Russell Brand.

Zeta-Jones is great fun in the role, and her rendition of "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" is one of the movie's highlights. She also leads a version of "We're Not Going to Take It" pitted against a Russell Brand-led version of "We Built This City" that is one of the better moments in the movie.

Baldwin and Brand get some of the best lines in the film. They have an amusing dynamic and have great, loose energy singing together on "I Love Rock and Roll" and "I Can't Fight This Feeling."

Paul Giamatti is also fantastic as Stacee Jaxx's sleazy manager. This is the kind of role Giamatti does best and he's clearly enjoying being big, hammy and over-the-top. He even sings a bit too, and isn't half bad.

Zeta-Jones along with Mary J. Blige, as the owner of a strip club, are easily the best singers of the cast followed closely by Brand and, surprisingly, Cruise. Unfortunately, their vocals aren't spotlighted enough. Instead, Hough and Boneta sing the vast majority of the songs and they simply don't cut it.

Hough's voice has the strength to belt out the more powerhouse songs, but she is annoyingly high pitched. Boneta fares better, but his vocals lack personality. This may not even be entirely their fault as there seems to be heavy post-production polishing and sterilizing. Even Cruise's vocals come across too clean. It would've been nice to hear some imperfections.

Director Adam Shankman, who previously helmed the big-screen adaptation of "Hairspray," keeps things too sunny and focuses too much on that oh-so-boring love story.

This is supposed to be a light musical, so I'm not expecting soul searching from the characters, but every moment between Hough and Boneta is a cliche. We are given no reason to care about these characters.

A better director might have steered away from the lesser material to focus on the funnier and more compelling performances of Cruise, Baldwin, Brand, Zeta-Jones and Giamatti. It'll be a great movie to have on DVD where there is easy access to the skip button.

Friday, June 15, 2012

'Prometheus' — Ridley Scott's bold, ambitious return to sci-fi

"Prometheus" is director Ridley Scott's much anticipated return to the sci-fi genre. His films "Alien" and "Blade Runner" were hugely influential to the genre, so it is understandable that expectations for this new film are massive.

First and foremost, this is an extraordinary looking film. H.R. Giger, the Swedish surrealist artist who provided much of the design work for "Alien," has created new visuals and designs that are darkly beautiful.

Scott, ever a masterful filmmaker, has created a vivid world in which all of his special effects are seamlessly integrated. The film is heavy with effects, but at no point does the visual fabric of the film feel fake or false. This is a film worth seeing if only for its visuals.

Much like when "Blade Runner" was first released into theaters, "Prometheus" is proving to be a divisive film with some calling it brilliant and others dismissing it as a colossal misfire.

Reasons for the distinct divide in opinion tie into the knowledge that "Prometheus" takes place within the same universe as the "Alien" franchise and so many people have preconceived notions of what this film should be. Fans hoping to see carnage with the iconic xenomorph alien will be disappointed.

Scott and his screenwriters, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, decided to focus on what fans refer to as the "space jockey," the fossilized creature found in "Alien." The scene in "Alien" was only a couple minutes long, but the origins of this character have been hotly discussed by fans over the years and thus were ripe for exploration by Scott.

The story sets out not only to explore the origins of this mysterious alien race, but of mankind itself. This brings the film closer in tone to Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" than Scott's "Alien."

Archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Repace) and her partner in digging and love Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have discovered cave paintings and carvings from across the globe and separated by centuries that depict a giant humanoid creature pointing to the stars.

They deduce that Earth was visited several times by these creatures they've dubbed "The Engineers" and that it is very possible that they created us. The duo convinces the dying head of Weyland Corp. (Guy Pearce under pounds of makeup) to fund the trillion dollar trip to hopefully discover their makers.

Upon arrival they find that a race of humanoid aliens is seemingly deceased, but danger comes in the form of a black substance with extraordinary adaptive and evolutionary abilities.

The crew is made up of fairly generic stock characters, but then again so was the crew of the Nostromo in "Alien." The standouts of the supporting cast include Charlize Theron as a representative of Weyland Corp., Idris Alba as the captain and, most interestingly, Michael Fassbender as David, an android, who patterns himself after Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia."

Fassbender, who last year appeared as Magneto in "X-Men: First Class," is extraordinary and, in terms of acting, is one of the primary reasons to see "Prometheus." Emotionless human-like robots are hardly a new concept, but Fassbender's performance is so precise that he makes the old idea compelling and new again.

Fassbender infuses David with a curiosity that sets off a disastrous chain of events. He gives David a sly, perhaps unintentional, wit that makes the character always interesting and hard to predict.

Repace, who was the original "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," gives a solid central performance that is very much in the tradition of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. Both Ripley and Shaw are forced to find a strength and survival instinct that they previously didn't know they had. Repace plays Shaw, a woman of faith, with an open mind hungering for answers.

Theron, on the heels of "Snow White and the Huntsman," gives another strong performance, but isn't given much in terms of multiple dimensions to work with. Even so she gives a forceful performance. Alba provides some comic relief, but, portraying a working stiff, he is able to see what is happening for exactly what is when others cannot.

Generally speaking, "Prometheus" doesn't follow the same story beats of either "Alien" or James Cameron's equally and justly beloved "Aliens." "Alien" was an extremely well made and suspenseful haunted house movie in space. "Aliens" took the approach of a taut, intense action film. "Prometheus" has elements of both, but a tone that is more cerebral and a pacing that is more about creating an ominous mood and atmosphere.

That being said, there are still plenty of icky, ooey-gooey visuals and sequences of suspense. There's a surgical scene involving Repace that is sure to induce seat squirming. It doesn't match the sheer shock value of the chest-bursting scene in "Alien," but it comes close.

The film has its flaws. Some of the dialogue between Repace and Marshall-Green is clunky and some characters do needlessly careless things. Even with its imperfections, this is a bold film. Within the framework of a summer sci-fi blockbuster, Scott has dared to make a film about ideas and present questions that go unanswered. It will surely frustrate many, but others will appreciate the ambiguity. It is an ambitious film that is worthy of exploration.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Revisionist 'Snow White' is darkly beautiful

"Snow White and the Huntsman," a revisionist take on the Brothers Grimm story, is one of the most faithful, at least in tone, adaptations of the tale.

Most fairy tales are sugar coated, so it is easy to forget that the works of the Brothers Grimm were dark and twisted parables. Even Disney's classic 1938 version of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," for all its sunniness and cheer, couldn't remove all the sinister qualities of the story.

In this version, the evil queen is Ravenna (Charlize Theron), a mystical woman obsessed with beauty, youth and subverting a cruel patriarchal society that uses women and then tosses them aside. This queen moves from kingdom to kingdom overthrowing kings. She preserves her beauty by sucking the souls of the young and pretty, and eating the hearts of animals.

Snow White (Kristen Stewart), the daughter of the last king to fall to Ravenna, is imprisoned in a tower for years. She eventually makes her escape into the dark forest. Ravenna has discovered that if she eats Snow White's pure heart she will be eternally beautiful. She sends the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to bring her back, but upon meeting the fair maiden he switches sides.

Naturally, Snow White and her new ally meet the dwarves, a motley collection of reliable English character actors including Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones and Nick Frost. Soon an army is formed with Snow White and the Huntsman leading the charge.

In addition to being the Huntsman, the character now essentially fills the role of Prince Charming, so it is odd that there is also a prince (Sam Claflin) thrown into the mix. Like the Huntsman he is a worthy warrior, but he is also dull and wooden as performed by Clafin. The character is entirely unnecessary and seems to only exist to create a "Twilight"-like love triangle since the film stars Bella herself.

Perhaps Stewart has been playing Bella too long or perhaps she simply has no range, but she gives the same flat, pouty faced performance that she's been given in the puerile "Twilight" series.

Stewart plays everything on the same note. We're supposed to believe that people are drawn to Snow White's beauty and her vibrant, warm personality, but Stewart brings none of that across. Thankfully, Stewart isn't asked to speak much. She does have one supposedly rousing speech to the troops before battle, but it is hard to imagine anyone being moved to follow Stewart into a kitchen let alone onto a battlefield.

In contrast, Theron's performance is fierce and frightening. She also manages to create some sympathy for the character in spite of her villainous way. Theron creates a fully dimensional character that is far more interesting than Stewart's bland Snow White.

Hemsworth, who is best known to audiences as Thor, continues to showcase a masculine charisma paired with a sensitive soul. He is believable in both action scenes and in the more tender moments.

The dwarves, a gruffer bunch than the familiar Disney versions, don't arrive until about an hour in, but are wonderfully acted particularly by the always splendid Hoskins. The film could've used more of them.

Director Rupert Sanders, making his feature film debut following a career directing commercials, creates an extraordinary looking film with striking visuals that have power to linger in the mind. Most directors that come from a background in commercials have a tendency to rely heavily on quick, chaotic editing, but Sanders actually allows for shots of some length. His scenes often have a poetic beauty to them and fluid pacing.

Sanders, along with his extensive art direction team, have created a bleak, but vivid world that favorably recalls Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth." Snow White's first venture into the dark forest is truly nightmarish as she deals with a mushroom spore induced trip. On the flip side there is the brightly designed land of the fairies which includes turtles gathered in grass and mushrooms with eyes.

It is a credit to the strength of everything else around Stewart that the film still works in spite of her painfully uninteresting lead performance. The film is worth seeing for Theron's compelling characterization and the memorable visual splendor on display.

'Little Shop' — Laughs, blood and doo-wop

The Leura Hill Eastman Performing Arts Center in Fryeburg, Maine has been invaded by a carnivorous alien plant bent on nothing short of world domination in Arts in Motion Theater Company's enjoyable production of "Little Shop of Horrors."

"Little Shop of Horrors," which opened June 1 and is continuing its run Friday, June 8, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, June 9, at 1 and 7 p.m., is based on a 1960 black comedy of the same name produced and directed by B-movie master Roger Corman.

The musical, a parody of 1950s sci-fi, written by Howard Ashman with music by Alan Menken (who went on to do Academy Award-winning work on Disney's "Little Mermaid," "Aladdin" and "Beauty and the Beast"), made its off Broadway debut in 1982. Four years later the musical got the Hollywood treatment featuring such comedy superstars as Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, Bill Murray and John Candy.

That's quite a pedigree to live up to, but Arts in Motion does so admirably thanks to crisp direction by director Barbara Spofford and musical director Ben McNaboe, and a cast that is lively and fun.

Chris Madura stars as Seymour Krelbourn, a klutzy nerd, who works at a Skid Row flower shop along with Audrey (Taylor Hill) and shop owner Mushnik (Craig Holden). Business is bad until Seymour begins displaying an unusual plant he has named Audrey II. Suddenly, people are flocking to the store to look at the plant and spend money. The problem is Audrey II's diet is exclusively human blood and Seymour has run out of fingers to prick.

As Audrey II gets bigger, the plant becomes a foul mouthed R&B singing monster who is increasingly more hungry and manipulative. While Seymour is contending with Audrey II, Audrey I is contending with her sadistic dentist boyfriend (Reed Van Rossum). A better candidate for plant food never existed.

Eric Andrews provides the voice of Audrey II and Keith Force puppets the ever growing plant. It is an impressive bit of teamwork as nearly every line of dialogue or music is perfectly in sync.

Madura is strong in the lead role. He brings the nerdiness of the character across, but also manages to be a confident stage presence with a commanding singing voice. He is his best when singing with the Audreys. "Suddenly, Seymour" is Seymour's sweet proclamation of love to Audrey. "Feed Me (Git It)" is a raucous, tongue-in-cheek duet with Audrey II.

Hill is sweet and lovable as Audrey and has an easy chemistry with Madura. Her powerhouse voice shines on "Somewhere That's Green," a ballad lampooning the 1950s idea of a perfect life.

Van Rossum is a bit flat as Audrey's cruel boyfriend and on his big number "Dentist!" seems to be trying too hard to emulate Steve Martin's performance in the film. He fares better on "(Now) It's Just the Gas."

Courtney Rae Phelps, Natasha Repass and Shannon Oliver form a doo-wop singing Greek chorus that provides narration and commentary throughout the show. They steal several scenes with Phelps and Repass particularly standing out.

Choreography by Nancy Shappell leaves something to be desired with the exception of "Skid Row (Downtown)," a complex musical number with lots of extras. In terms of the staging, it is perhaps the most challenging song of the show, so kudos to Shappell, McNaboe and Spofford for nailing it.

Live music is ably provided by a band consisting of McNaboe, Graeme Gengrass, Al Hosper, Chuck O'Connor and Rafe Matregrano. Set design by Colleen Bousquet, costume and wig design by Patricia Hibbert and makeup design by Lori Cashman are all impressive

The show itself is top heavy with the script shoving nearly all of its best songs and moments in the first act leaving only "Suddenly, Seymour" to make an impression during the muddled second act.

But flaws in the script aside, Arts in Motion has provided is a bright, fun production of this popular offbeat show.

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Friday, June 01, 2012

Third 'Men' has surprising wit, charm and heart

"Men in Black 3" is quite remarkable. It is the second sequel to a film that came out 15 years earlier — heck the first sequel came out a decade ago — that actually manages to match and, in some ways, surpass the original.

The first "Men in Black" presented the idea that aliens are among us. A secret government agency makes sure the public doesn't learn this and protects against the more hostile extraterrestrials. Essentially, it is "Ghostbusters" with aliens.

Featuring a clever script, imaginative visuals and great chemistry between stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, "Men in Black" was an immensely entertaining film. The same could not be said of the forgettable "Men in Black 2," which merely recycled the dynamic between Smith and Jones, but added nothing to it. It is telling that the best laughs in that film came from supporting characters.

Things don't look very promising in the all-too-familiar opening scenes of "Men in Black 3" with Partners J (Smith) and K (Jones) still battling aliens and bantering the whole time. We've seen Smith and Jones do this schtick before and, in those initial scenes, the screenplay by Etan Cohen offers little to justify a third go around with these characters.

Thankfully, things get shaken up in a big way when Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), one of K's former adversaries, breaks out of his moon prison, travels back to 1969 and kills K. It is now up to J to travel back and save the young K (Josh Brolin) and prevent an alien invasion in the present.

Once things shift back to 1969 things become interesting, thanks largely to an inspired performance by Brolin as a young Tommy Lee Jones. It is an extraordinary bit of mimicry. Brolin has Jones' voice, mannerism and demeanor down cold. It is worth the price of admission just for him.

Giving the ever charming Smith a new person to play off of makes things feel fresh again, and the dynamic between young K and J has a different tone than the one between Jones and Smith.

Clement, of the New Zealand comedy music duo Flight of the Conchords, is buried under makeup, but gives a funny and frightening performance. "Men in Black" had a formidable villain in the form of Vincent D'Onofrio. Laura Flynn Boyle in "Men in Black 2" didn't cut it. Clement delivers a memorable baddie and that's central for making a film like this work.

Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), an alien with the ability to see every possible variation of the future at once, is the other major character that gives the film a comedic, whimsical boast. Stuhlbarg makes Griffin sweet, naive and slightly absent minded, but at the same time wise and knowing. It is a wonderful performance that is rather special.

There's also nice, but too brief, supporting performances from Emma Thompson, as the new head of Men in Black, and the invaluable Bill Hader as Andy Warhol.

Once again director Barry Sonnenfield, returning for the third time, creates a zippy pace. He nicely showcases his special effects, which successfully blend computer-generated visuals with practical effects and makeup.

As the film races to its conclusion there's a great sense of fun, but an unexpected emotional turn in the final scenes adds a depth to the film that no one will see coming. These concluding moments even improve upon the opening scenes. For the first time in the series, there's a real sense of poignancy that makes the film so much more than just a quickie cash-in sequel.