Film review – Brave (2012)

18 June 2012
Brave: Merida (voice by Kelly Macdonald)

Merida (voice by Kelly Macdonald)

The first Pixar fairy tale film, which is also the first Pixar film with a female protagonist, begins with a fantastic first act that is full of potential. Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a young Scottish princess and a skilled archer who is completely disinterested in living the life of a princess. She is the antitheses of the type of female lead that appears in most classic Disney and contemporary non-Pixar Disney feature animation films. Such female leads are mostly either princesses who have been denied their birthright or beautiful young girls whose good deeds are rewarded by them becoming princesses through marriage. Instead Merida hates the demands that come with the dubious honour of being born into royalty. Her tangled, matted and wild red hair is a constant reminder of her defiance against the restrictive and mannered lifestyle she is supposed to lead. In one scene where she is forced to look presentable, she protests against the tight and uncomfortable clothes, which hamper her archery, and she plucks out a strand of hair from her bonnet in protest. She stands up to her parents who are pushing her into an arranged marriage and more than holds her own against the suitors who are presented to her. Everything about the first act of Brave suggests a story of independence and following your own path, so it is disappointing when it instead becomes a moralising tale about the importance of obeying your parents.

The main source of conflict in Brave is between Merida and her mother Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson). Initially audience sympathies are with Merida for being pressured into an arranged marriage, with Elinor depicted as the driving force behind the arrangement. Merida’s father King Fergus (Billy Connolly) is portrayed as far more supportive of Merida’s freedom, although he does little to prevent the situation, but is nevertheless let off the hook and is represented as just a bit goofy rather than an actual threat. At the key turning point in Brave, the message of the film becomes extremely confused. While Merida seems to have every reason to be angry with her mother and justified in taking action, her major act of defiance is shown to be extremely severe and destructive. Brave then becomes a redemption story about Merida undoing the harm she has caused.

The resulting film is about the mother and daughter dynamic where Merida must learn that mother knows best and that she was wrong to act against her. While Brave offers the suggestion of a fun filled adventure film, and while some kind of heroic journey is more often that not the core of such coming-of-age stories, the action in Brave is located within the castle and its immediate surrounds making it more a domestic drama. The middle and final acts of the film not only lack spirit, but contain a mixed and contradictory message, made even more bewildering by how Merida’s and Elinor’s attitudes change during the film. Brave wants the audience to believe that it really is in favour of people choosing their own fate, but it makes Merida suffer guilt for trying to escape hers and it presents her arranged marriage as a necessity for social stability. It is astonishing just how much Brave presents Merida’s desire for independence as a selfish act that could destabilise society and potentially result in war.

The male characters in Brave are also presented in a way that gives off mixed messages. On the one hand, they are all comical and somewhat ineffective. King Fergus is loveable and kind, but ultimately a bit of a windbag. He begins as the one who most sticks up for Merida, but ends up as one of the biggest threats to the physical safety of the women – albeit unintentionally. The other rulers are all hotheaded and filled with petty rivalries while the three suitors are a preening Alpha Male, an inarticulate lug and one who appears to be severely mentally handicapped. Nevertheless, it is ultimately the word of the men that dictates how things eventuate. The women get to ‘manipulate’ behind the scenes, but the men get the final say. While Disney and Pixar haven’t been afraid to kill off a parent in male-centric stories (Bambi, The Lion King, Finding Nemo) they instead merely have Fergus lose his leg, which is then played throughout the film for laughs. It’s as if the filmmakers were afraid to commit to a fully female centric film and felt the need to include the rule of the father, even though the father is mostly redundant throughout the film.

Brave argues that it is good for young women to demand independence and free will, but warns that if they push too hard they will potentially do irrevocable damage to their family and possibly society. Girls can have freedom, but only if that is okay with their parents. This film has the veneer of feminism and a strong female protagonist, but it still reinforces a lot of patriarchal constructs. The resolution appears progressive on the surface, but it is only possible with several conditions that are ultimately very conservative. Brave is the equivalent of a man patting a woman on the head and saying, ‘Go and exercise your free-will sweetie, but just make sure you play by my rules. Isn’t self-determination cute!’

Pixar don’t really need to ever prove themselves again having produced a consecutive string of outstanding animations that include WALL·E, Up and Toy Story 3; three of the best feature animations ever made. However, after the bland Cars 2 and now Brave it does feel worryingly like the good times may be coming to an end. Brave is a much more coherent and engaging film than Cars 2, but its troubling subtext and limp narrative hold it back. And like Cars 2, it seems to be aiming for more of a younger audience and has lost the sophistication of the earlier films where the humour wasn’t disposable and could be enjoyed on several levels. While the animation is the most complex seen in a Pixar film to date, it simply doesn’t contain the necessary magic, awe or wonder required for the visual style to overcome the narrative weaknesses. Maybe it is unfair to be so harsh on Brave because Pixar films are held to such a high standard, but watching Brave is a frustrating experience and mostly because it began with so much promise.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Men in Black 3 (2012)

21 May 2012
Men in Black 3: Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Josh Brolin)

Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Josh Brolin)

Filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld returns to the Men in Black films ten years after the second part and fifteen years after the original. As there hasn’t been any real sense of demand for this franchise to be continued, it does feel like an odd move. Then again, Sonnenfeld has had an odd career beginning notably as a cinematographer for Joel and Ethan Coen (not to be confused with Men in Black 3 co-writer Etan Coen) and then frequently emulating other directors. His Addams Family films (1991 and 1993) feel a little like Tim Burton works, Get Shorty (1995) seems in Quentin Tarantino mode and the Men in Black films are a bit like something Joe Dante might do. Ironically the film where a ‘Sonnenfeldesque’ visual style most shines through is Wild Wild West (1999), an attempt at Western era steampunk that is a complete mess.

Men in Black 3 returns to the fictional world from Lowell Cunningham’s comic book series, where secret agents monitor and cover-up alien activity on Earth. This instalment introduces a time travel plot, where Agent J (Will Smith) travels back to 1969 to stop an alien from assassinating his partner Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones in 2012 and Josh Brolin in 1969). The very casual changing-the-future-by-changing-the-past narrative evokes Back to the Future (1985); this time suggesting Robert Zemeckis is the director whom Sonnenfeld is taking his cues from. And sadly, like many of Sonnenfeld’s films, it doesn’t hold up to its influences. While flawed logic can be found in Back to the Future and other time travel film narratives, they still possess a suspension of disbelief and internal logic that suits the context of the film. The very confused idea of what aspects of time travel affects what recalls the convoluted Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (Jay Roach, 1999), but without the knowing winks to the audience. There is even one moment in Men in Black 3 when the time travel device is used to reset a moment, which completely breaks the logic of the film.

Nevertheless, there is still a lot to like and aspects of the time travel narrative do work well. A character who exists in the 5th dimension and therefore can simultaneously see multiple realities and timelines is used both comically and in moments of poignancy. The previously unresolved explanation of why K recruited J in the first place is also finally explained, providing the film with an unexpected note of sentimentality that works surprisingly well even if it is overly foreshadowed. That moment plus the chance to have Josh Brolin play a younger version of Tommy Lee Jones provide the best justification for why this sequel was made. On the other hand, the promise of using the idea to send an elite African American agent back to 1969 to comment on the history of America’s civil rights movement is not fulfilled apart from one middling early scene where Agent J encounters a pair of racist cops. Missed opportunities to provide any real substance in this film are frustrating.

Otherwise, Men in Black 3 is a series of okay gags and okay action sequences, with enough elements to make it moderately enjoyable. Completely against type, Jemaine Clement is a lot of fun as the villainous Boris the Animal and Michael Stuhlbarg is great as Griffin, the creature who lives in the 5th dimension. Emma Thompson as Agent O is mostly underused, although she does get one fun moment where she maintains a completely straight face while speaking in an absurd alien language. All the elements are there for this to be a great science-fiction/comedy, but it never truly engages. Annoyingly it continues the gag that all slightly unusual or creative people are actually aliens, which hints at an underlying conservatism. Perhaps if the film celebrated difference and strangeness more, rather than always presenting it as something to laugh at or arrest, then Men in Black 3 could live up to the potential that Sonnenfeld has always showed, but never quite delivered.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – An Education (2009)

23 October 2009
Jenny (Carey Mulligan)

Jenny (Carey Mulligan)

Based on the autobiography of British journalist Lynn Barber and adapted by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy), An Education is a coming-of-age film about Jenny, a 16-year-old girl who starts a relationship with a much older man. An Education is the second English-language film directed by Danish director Lone Scherfig with the first being the very impressive romantic comedy/drama Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself – a film about a suicidal man. Scherfig is clearly drawn to highly unconventional feel-good material because despite the weird and uncomfortable dynamics at play in An Education it is a strangely seductive and sweet film.

Stylistically everything about An Education suggests that it is romance film. The soft lighting, gushing music and gorgeous 1960s London setting are all designed to conflict with the fact that the film is about a highly questionable relationship between a confident yet naive school-girl and an older man who is clearly not all that he seems. Jenny is played by Carey Mulligan, an emerging actor whose more prominent recent roles include a part in Public Enemies and playing Kitty Bennet in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice.  Mulligan is astonishing and commands the screen with the assured graceful vulnerability of a young Audrey Hepburn. As Jenny she is both sympathetic in her desire to break away from her routine existence to embrace life and infuriating in her recklessness. Jenny is a likeable, strong, intelligent and assured character who is still capable of making huge errors in judgement. She’s not too far removed from the titular character in Juno except Jenny speaks, behaves and rationalises far more convincingly.

David (Peter Sarsgaard) and Jenny (Carey Mulligan)

David (Peter Sarsgaard) and Jenny (Carey Mulligan)

The supporting cast in An Education is terrific and Peter Sarsgaard (Orphan, Elegy) gives what is possibly his best performance as the mysterious David. Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2) is wonderful as Jenny’s taskmaster father and Dominic Cooper (The Duchess) is suitably foppish as David’s playboy best friend. Emma Thompson has a couple of over-the-top yet very amusing scenes as the bigoted principal at Jenny’s school.

Scherfig is an intriguing director who is deceptively skilled at taking material that could be considered dark or unsettling and turning it into something very accessible.  There’s a lot going on under the surface of An Education but at face value it is simply a very warm, funny and enjoyable film.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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Film review – Last Chance Harvey (2008)

23 February 2009
Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman) and Kate Walker (Emma Thompson)

Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman) and Kate Walker (Emma Thompson)

Although they only had a few scenes together in Marc Forster’s wonderful Stranger Than Fiction, actors Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson established such a strong chemistry that they knew they had to do another film together.  When up-and-coming writer/director Joel Hopkins began discussing the idea of doing a love story starring Thompson, she recognised that this project was the ideal opportunity for her and Hoffman to work together again. The resulting film is Last Chance Harvey, a light romance set in London between local woman Kate Walker (Thompson) and an American man, Harvey Shine (Hoffman), who is in London to attend his daughter’s wedding. It turns out that Hoffman and Thompson really do have incredible onscreen chemistry as the dynamic they share in Last Chance Harvey is absolutely gorgeous.

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