U.S.: Brenda Chapman/Mark Andrews/Steve Purcell, 2012, Buena Vista
Brave is a beautifully visualized, funny, sometimes blisteringly exciting Pixar cartoon fairytale about a wee Scottish lassie who grows up into a feisty, flame-haired adventuress who shoots off great big arrows and battles bears and witches and boisterous clansmen. It's Pixar's first venture into pop feminist myth-making (their first girl protagonist), and though the heroine Merida may be a Disney princess, in the lineage of Snow White and Cinderella (and Rapunzel), she's been given a modernist Pixar twist: She refuses to be shackled to one of the three doofus princes competing for her hand. She's her own gal, but she's also a cutie -- and, as far as I'm concerned, she and Pixar split the bull's-eye here.
Brave apparently had its production problems. Original writer-director Brenda Chapman was replaced mid-shoot by writer-director Mark Andrews. (Along with writer-director Steve Purcell, they all get credit.) But whoever did what, the results are mostly smashing. Brave was made with the innovation of classic Pixar, the rich visual beauty of classic Disney, some of the snap and snazz of a vintage Chuck Jones or Friz Freleng Looney Tune, and all the wit and intelligence and warmth we get fairly regularly these days from animated features.
Brave has been criticized for being too much like classic Disney, which is true, and what of it? Even so, the movie deliberately subverts and plays with the very traditions it celebrates. Brave's heroine, Merida, may be a princess, but she isn't waiting around for the someday her prince will come. (Not that they don't come anyway, in all their doofusness.) We see her first in the ravishing medieval Scottish highlands: an adorable semi-realistic cartoon child (voiced by Peigi Barker), scared of nothing -- not the huge bow and arrow her huge dad Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly) hands her, nor the behemoth of a horse she rides around on. Time passes and she becomes a tough but charming gal (voiced from then on by Kelly Macdonald, of Trainspotting and No Country for Old Men), with a great, frizzy, gorgeous tangle of wild red hair that flops and swirls around her face in true Disney cartoon grandeur as she happily rebels against convention -- sometimes assisted by her teensy triplet brothers.
There's something that does swerve her off course a little, and that's the list of proprieties demanded by her gentle but firm mother Queen Elinore (the great Emma Thompson), a strict maternalist who instructs her in all matters of princessy behavior. Elinore is responsible for those three stooges showing up to win her hand: the initially unappetizing sons of Lord Dingwall (Callum O'Neill), Lord Macintosh (Craig Ferguson) and Lord McGuffin (Kevin McKidd). Elinore is the un-enabler to this Daddy's Girl, besides being the apple of the eye of the fearsome huge boisterous Fergus. It's Elinor's mind that Merida is trying to change when she charges off on her gigantic steed to the deep forest, chases a conga line of shining will-of-the-wisps to a Stonehenge that suddenly morphs into a witch's hut, sneaky old witch (Julie Walters, spouting topical gags galore). The witch offers Merida what she wants: a potion that's supposed to change the queen's thinking.
This is a great-looking film, and funny too. The movie's Scotland looks fabulously heart's-in-the-Highlands-ish, even though it isn't the real Scotland, but somebody's dream Scotland. I had a fine, boisterous, high old time watching Brave, and a lot of others will too.
U. S.: Oliver Stone, 2012, Universal
Savages is Oliver Stone's adaptation of Don Winslow's very knowing and very violent crime thriller: a novel about contemporary drug wars in California and Mexico. Like most of Stone's crime thrillers, it's full of extreme violence, sex, bloodshed, socio-political expose and bizarre humor -- the kind of stuff that modern action movies usually try to give us, but executed with more style, punch and political consciousness. I liked it, except for an awful ending that I wish Stone would dump.
The movie, scripted by Stone, Winslow and Shane Salerno. is about an independent marijuana growing operation, run by two yin and yang best buddies -- Taylor Kitsch as Chon the tough, cynical Iraq War veteran and Aaron Johnson (of the John Lennon bio-drama Nowhere Boy) as Ben, the gentler, more idealistic botanist/business guy. Their shared blond girlfriend, rich-kid playgirl Ophelia, or "O," is played by Blake Lively, who also narrates the movie. And she informs us right away that just because she's telling us everything now, it doesn't mean that she will survive to the end of the story. Like William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, O may be narrating from beyond the grave.
These three lead a sort of idyllic hippie-outlaw-rich-druggie existence, with lots of money to spend, lots of ganja to smoke, and lots of sheets to muss up -- in paradisiacal surroundings on Laguna Beach, drenched in the blazing colors and the lush foliage of beachside life on the Pacific, as shot by cinematographer Dan Mindel. Then their dream world begins to crumble. The guys receive some videos of people who've had their heads chain-sawed off: independent growers who unwisely didn't heed an invitation/warning to join up with a powerful Mexican drug cartel run by a sultry-looking, cold-blooded boss-lady named Elena (Salma Hayek), her ruthless, sleepy-eyed chief enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro), and her mob mouthpiece (Demian Bichir).
These three -- along with John Travolta as a balding, pudgy two-faced snake of a Drug Enforement Agency agent named Dennis -- make up one of the most entertaining sets of movie villains in recent memory. Especially Del Toro -- who's so damned scary that you can't take your eyes off him -- unless it's to look at Salma, or unless it's to marvel at how seedy Travolta and his make-up men have made Dennis.
But the kids have their moments. Chon, the cynic, doesn't really trust any outsiders, and especially not Elena's crew. Ben, the dreamer, trusts too many people and wants to retire anyway. So they take a little too long answering the cartel's offer, and Lado gets trigger-happy. The war is on -- and eventually Elena and Lado have one hostage (O) and Ben and Chon have another: Elena's daughter Magda (Sandra Echevarria). And we're all set up for a final showdown and maybe even a Rio Bravo-style hostage exchange. Except that this is a meaner story and it has a meaner ending....
Like most of Stone's better movies -- Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Natural Born Killers, and Any Given Sunday -- Savages shows an American Dream (of sorts) taking an edgy dive into an American Nightmare. And it's written and directed with wild bursts of energy and eroticism and savagery, wrapped around a vision of the dark side of American and Mexican life, with a crime-thriller plot that explodes on screen like a tabloid bomb. Here, he seems to be in the kind of territory he knows and does best, with a cast that can deliver the goods. And they do.
The Amazing Spider-Man (B)
U.S.: Marc Webb, 2012, Sony
Pity poor Spider-Man: He gets old, his webs get worn, and the movie guys just keep originating him, over and over. Ten years after the Marvel Comics movie that told the original "origin story" (based on the original Stan Lee-Steve Ditko '60s comics) of how the original angst-ridden teenager Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) lost his original parents, pursued his sexy high school girlfriend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), and ultimately (and originally) became the web-slinging, skyscraper-scaling, spider-costumed superhero Spider-Man, catapulting himself through the wildly popular kickoff for the original wildly popular spider-trilogy of Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Spider-Man 3 (2007) -- now he has to go though it all over again.
So Tobey Maguire gets sent off to the Old Superheroes' home, to be replaced by 28-year-old brooding British cutie-pie and critic's pet Andrew Garfield, who played Mark Zuckerberg's (Jesse Eisenberg's) college chum/partner Eduardo in The Social Network -- not my idea of an American teenager, but we'll let that pass. And we get a different girlfriend (salty Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, instead of Kirsten as M.J.), and a new super-villain (the versatile Rhys Ifans as tormented amputee Dr. Curt Connors a.k.a. The Lizard, Peter's dad's old partner and a mad lizard amputation researcher) and a new Aunt May and Uncle Ben (Sally Field and Martin Sheen), and Denis Leary as Gwen's suspicious dad, Police Captain Stacy, who thinks Spidey is a vigilante and wants him behind bars, and a new secondary villain, the incredibly boring Rajit Ratha (Irfan Kahn).
We also get a new, appropriately-named Spider-director, Marc Webb, a canny Madison West alumnus and rock-video specialist whose previous feature was the very clever, chronology-shattering romantic comedy, (500) Days of Summer. The writers, happily, are veterans and a very good team.
Since these Spider-movies cost a lot and sometimes seem almost as technologically complex as a space launch, you can't do a sequel every two years or so, which would seem to make more sense and would have gotten more mileage out of Maguire. So we're watching a movie that's already been done just 10 years ago, albeit with lots of variations. And the basic reason is that the lead actors have aged, and there's more Spider-money to be squeezed out of the franchise.
This is the movie they wanted to make, though, and that much of the audience apparently wants to see. Besides, 10 years or so down the pike, Andrew and Emma will be 38 and 33, and they'll have to cope with new Spider-kids and Web-snappers coming up. True, we've heard the story before, but so have the younger fans, who've probably caught the original trilogy and don't mind secret identities on skateboards.
But, you know, I remember how excited I used to get back in the '60s, when a new Spider-Man comic book would come out. What was the ingredient those books had that's kind of missing here? Well, humor, for one thing. Personality, for another. Economy for a third. And also, they were more... original. (Extras: commentary with Marc Webb and others; featurettes; second screen; production art gallery; deleted scenes.)
The Watch (C)
U.S.: Akiva Schaffer, 2012 (20th Century Fox)
In this chore, bore and genuine nightmare of a movie -- which was first called Neighborhood Watch, then changed after the Trayvon Martin case for reasons of bad taste (Taste? This movie?) -- the world is invaded by bloodthirsty extraterrestrial monsters and our only defenders are four hopeless idiots in an amateur suburban neighborhood watch, who kept trying to be funny and failing miserably. The entire show seems to be an attempt to put Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and a British comedian named Richard Ayoade -- together in a big dumb funny, trigger-happy comedy with a lot of guns and blood and guts and dirty jokes about penises. But all they seem to be able to manage are the big and dumb and trigger-happy and blood and guts and penises parts. Funny somehow eludes them.
The plot is borrowed (sloppily) from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and bits and pieces of every goofball-buddy comedy you can think of. Star Stiller plays the standard Ben Stiller part of Evan, a troubled suburban schmo in "Glenview, Ohio," here trying and failing to have a baby with wife Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt). Evan manages the local Costco warehouse store, where one night the night watchman Guzman (Joe Nunez), who just became an American citizen, gets killed, skinned and splattered by some mysterious maniac, probably from outer space. Since the police are mysteriously unhelpful, Evan decides to harangue the local high school football game and put up posters and recruit some neighbors for a neighborhood watch.
Three civic-spirited chaps, all seemingly strangers to Evan, though they live nearby, show up at his house: Vaughn in the standard Vince Vaughn part of Bob, a fast-talking Good Time Charlie, who just wants to hang out with the guys; Hill in a standard Jonah Hill part as sullen Franklin, a would-be cop who flunked his tests and has his own private gun collection; and Ayoade, an amiable British TV star who does relatively little except smile engagingly, do reaction shots, make one weird confession and wait for all the good reviews he's getting from reviewers who have seen his apparently very funny British TV shows and films. (I haven't.)
The biggest problems with most failed Hollywood comedies these days are the crummy scripts; The Watch has one of the crummier ones. It was manufactured by Jared Stern (The Princess and the Frog) and Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Superbad), but however they divided up the labor here, it's a lousy, lazy job.