Sunday, June 24, 2012

Reel To Reel: Brave

A brave heart demands freedom!

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Voices of Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Kevin McKidd, Robbie Coltrane
Rated: PG (too intense for the wee ones)
Red Flags: A few brief bare unkilted bums, some scary scenes

Some full disclosure: I love wearing kilts. I love Scottish culture, primarily the dancing. So now you know that I am going into Brave with warm predispositions. But lose the plaids and the Highland airs, and Brave is fairy tale mashed up with a teen angst flick. It works because it's colorful and heartfelt, not because it breaks any new ground. Some people demand Pixar be smarter than competing CGI animation studios; I'm not one of them.

Princess Merida (Macdonald) would rather be a tomboy in flaming red locks than a heir to the throne. While her mother Queen Elinor (Thompson) hectors and natters her on how a proper princess should behave, she longs to dart out into the glens and bullseye targets with her bow and arrow. Her father Fergus (Connolly) is an oaf who rests on the laurels of his showdown with the bear that took part of his leg. Even though he gave Merida her first bow, he's not much of a presence in her life. Her three kid brothers are too busy stealing desserts.

Queen Elinor is micromanaging her daughter's betrothal, as is tradition, to the first-born from one of three bickering clans, led by Lord MacGuffin (McKidd), Lord Dingwall (Coltrane), and Lord Macintosh (Ferguson). I'll wager you that last clan was named in honor of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who bought Pixar from founder George Lucas and receives a dedication at the end. None of the three suitors is particularly dashing, but you know kids these days.

Merida, realizing she is also first-born of her clan, decides to upend everything by becoming one of the competitors in an archery competition for her hand. She's a great shot but a lousy diplomat. Queen Mum is incensed, and Merida wants to just get away from it all. Escaping into the woods once more, she comes across a witch (Walters) who offers her a spell to change Mum's disposition, but it comes with a huge side effect.

Brave is that kind of movie that mothers and young daughters will want to watch together. Most families don't do arranged marriages anymore, but you can substitute any number of issues that drive a wedge between mother and child: driving, dating, make-up, clothes, boyfriends, money. Then there's that familiar refrain: "Mom, you never listen to me!" I'm sure a few families will find some uncomfortable moments watching art imitate family life, but as I have seen with Fireproof and Courageous, a great movie will spur us to examine our lives outside the theater.

Another advisory for parents: the PG rating is no joke. Pixar pushes some lines with animated brief bare bottoms, but it also contains some scary scenes involving bears which are definitely not for young children. The maturity level of your kids will vary, so I am not going to give a guideline age.

Pixar overhauled its animation system for Brave, and you see it in the beauty of the Scottish Highlands. It is lovingly faithful to its Celtic roots, including many jigs and reels in the soundtrack. I am hoping Brave reignites interest in all things Scottish just as Braveheart did many years ago. All right, I'll admit it: anything that gets more men wearing kilts can't be all bad.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Reel To Reel: Prometheus

In space, nobody can hear you say, "Don't go there!"

Going Rate: Worth matinee price admission in 3D
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Logan Marshall-Green
Rated: R
Red Flags: Gross aliens, gross alien violence, mild language

Prometheus is a prequel to Alien, the 1979 sci-fi classic that effectively blended horror and science fiction. But as my Queen Mother points out, knowing it's a prequel dilutes its effectiveness. Indeed, Prometheus feels like an Alien remake at times. Both films even come from the same director, Ridley Scott. So why see this movie? It's nice to see the same director remixing his own material.

The film follows a team of explorers led by Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace) and Peter Weyland (Pearce) on a journey to a distant planet to find a lifeform supposedly connected to early civilizations on Earth. There goes that theory of evolution. They wake up from a long hibernation and get down to the grunt work of exploring a desolate rock with an unbreathable atmosphere. Their commanders, more or less, are starchy corporate liason Meredith (Theron) and a souless android David (Fassbender). The Royal Father noted David reminded him of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I kept expecting David to unplug somebody's sleep chamber.

Now on a wasteland of a planet, you can expect whatever these explorers find to be up to no good. This alien race has somehow created its own sustainable atmosphere, but it has run into something that has also killed it off. None of this seems to matter much to Shaw, who's consumed with answering that basic question: "Where did we come from?" She wears a cross around her next, so I gather she knows part of the answer. But she wants to know more.

The team she leads runs into trouble as they walk deeper into an underground shaft. The alien race they find has left them warnings and clues, but are they hostile or friendly? I dunno, what do you think?

Prometheus wants to be broader than just another sci-fi action horror film where aliens eat people. Yes, they do that here. I can also tell you we see an alien come out from somebody's stomach, but at least the way it's handled here is a bit more creative. The film makes a stab at questions of faith and creation, but it doesn't spend much time on them. It also doesn't spend much time on charazterization, either, beyond Shaw, Weyland, and their two supervisors. We know Shaw's faith and tenatiousness drive her forward. Still, when ghouly aliens are killing your crew off, shouldn't your overriding desire be getting the heck off the planet?

The movie is scary and gross in the places I expected it to be, although I still had a few seat-jumping moments. "Definitely not for children," as my Queen Mother observed. It works well in 3D, with copious holographic computer display images. It would work even better if the film seemed fresher, but stale it's not.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Reel To Reel: For Greater Glory

Praise the LORD and pass the ammo.

Going Rate: Worth matinee price.
Starring: Andy Garcia, Eva Longoria, Peter O'Toole
Rated: R
Red Flags: Intense war violence, including multiple hangings and atrocities against children

I wonder what a director like Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez would have done with this story of Mexico's Cristero War, an uprising against institutionalized Catholic persecution that claimed more than 90,000 lives and led to a wave of immigration into the U.S. back when nobody was talking about border fences. The conflict has the elements of a neo-Spaghetti Western: bloody violence and ambiguous morality. This production, which was largely funded by the Knights of Columbus, is more of a tribute film to the Cristeros which pulls emotional strings without giving us enough emotional base.

The movie picks up the story in 1926, when Mexican president and atheist Plutarco Elías Calles (Rubén Blades) institutes several laws to curb the Catholic Church's power. The "Calles Laws," as they're called, forbid priests from wearing religious garments in public, expel foreign clergy, and close Catholic schools. We get no background on why Mexico is taking this drastic step. We're barely told of the anti-Church sentiment stemming from the 1910 Mexican Revolution. The film omits a critical point for understanding it: Church-backed counterrevolutionary Victoriano Huerta overthrew and executed President Francisco Madero after the revolution. As I have told people in my re-enacting pursuits, history is complicated.

While we're trying to figure out why Mexico's government is acting like a secular Taliban, it starts laying emotional pipe. We meet José (Mauricio Kuri), a rascally boy pushed into serving Father Christopher (O'Toole) after playing a practical joke on him. The lovable old padre thinks Joselito will make a good altar boy, if the Federales don't shut his church down and kill him first -- which they do. Non-violent resistance against the Calles Laws fails, and another revolution erupts as Catholics are drawn to war in the face of seeing clergy and parishioners harassed and killed.

Shift to Enrique Gorostieta (Garcia), a secular retired general now running a soap factory. The Cristero forces need his expertise for organization and tactics. Going back to war -- especially for the Catholic cause -- doesn't particularly interest him, but a good paycheck helps. The new jefe insists on fighting with honor. Try selling that one to bands of guerrilla banditos who don't need no stinkin' badges.

The film nearly forgets about José until it needs more dramatic pull. He runs off to join the rebels and ends up under the general's wing. This is when the film starts finding some velocity. Gorostieta gets a few victories and wins respect from a reluctant bandito leader. And somehow, he starts drawing closer to GOD. Behind the scenes, U.S.-Mexican relations get a discussion over breakfast and adult beverages as American ambassador Dwight Morrow (Bruce Greenwood) is more interested in protecting U.S. oil interests than ending a conflict he's clueless about.

For Greater Glory's problem is that it displays too many tendencies of a propaganda film: distilling the conflict down into a straight morality play. The film does devote one brief scene to a Cristero atrocity of burning innocent civilians on a train, but it also leaves out the assassination of Mexican President-elect Álvaro Obregón by a Catholic radical, who was set to become President Calles successor.

The film works when it sticks to the innocence of José and the religious epiphany of Gorostieta. It really works when its characters try to understand where GOD is in any of this. My favorite sequence shows a rebel leader -- who is also a priest -- explaining to the general why bad things happen to good people. Hollywood doesn't do well in explaining that. But this film wasn't made in Hollywood; hecho en Mexico.