Brave (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell, 2012) – If you want a joyfully entertaining blockbuster with some emotional weight, you may as well go to the folks at Pixar. Aside from last year’s absolutely dreadful Cars 2, the studio has been cranking out one classic after another since launching the first CGI animated feature Toy Story back in 1995. Their latest effort Brave might not be their most adventurous or ambitious outing, but it kicks in all the Pixar staples for a gorgeous slice of entertainment guaranteed to plaster a smile on rambunctious children and cynical adults alike. Even though the film doesn’t dare attempt to be as complex as Wall-E or Ratatouille, the fact that the Pixar wizards were able to create a princess title that doesn’t induce nausea like Disney’s last few failed attempts is an achievement in itself.
Boardwalk Empire’s Kelly MacDonald stars as Merida, a 10th century Scottish princess who in the opening scene is given a bow and arrow by her father Fergus (Billy Connolly) much to the dismay of her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson). Flash forward a few years and Merida has grown into a wild independent spirit and archery champion. Elinor invites rival clans to present Merida with a marriage suitor in accordance with tradition, but Merida despises the idea and the idiots who arrive. She shows up all of the suitors in an archery competition and flees, causing strife amongst the clan leaders (hilariously voiced by Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, and Craig Ferguson) that only a mountain of ale and food from Fergus can cure. Merida runs off into the woods where she encounters a witch who offers the princess a spell that will change her mother’s mind. Unfortunately that spell turns Elinor into a bear that all the Scotsmen instantly want to rip apart. So mother and daughter must run and hide while trying to break the spell that will become permanent in a few short hours.
This is the closest the Pixar team has come to producing a traditional fairy tale in their 17-year run and as a result it’s one of their most traditionally structured movies, but not in a bad way. The company didn’t just borrow the medieval magic aesthetic, but also the universal moral lesson at the heart of any good fairy tale. The scenes between Merida and her Bear/mother pack an emotional weight that shouldn’t be possible given the inherent absurdity of the situation. The gentle humor Pixar is known for shines through in the character designs and voice performances (particularly from the great Billy Connolly who rarely gets the chance to use his considerable comedy chops in films), while co-director Mark Andrews shows off his background storyboarding films like Spider-man with some spectacular action sequences and supervises some of the most remarkable design work Pixar has ever accomplished with lush Scottish landscapes that border on photorealism.
Predictably, those gorgeous visuals are perfectly rendered in high-def. Pixar movies have made for some of the finest Blu-ray presentations since the format was introduced and Brave is no exception, with the gorgeous earthy colors popping right off the screen. I suppose one of the benefits of a CGI production is that there’s no video transfer process, just port it right over and when the visuals are already as strong as they are in Brave, you’ve got yourself a showpiece Blu-ray Set (I can’t judge the 3D transfer without one of them fancy TVs, but let’s just assume it’s also awesome, shall we?). The five (that’s right, five) disc set comes overloaded with extras. If you want to know about the making of the film, how about a spectacular jokey commentary from Andrews and a few key collators or a two hour making of documentary covering every aspect of production and confirming that the Pixar offices are in the greatest place to work in the world? Not enough? Well, then there are a number of fascinating short animation tests and online making-of promos. Or maybe you’d like to sneak a peak at deleted scenes or watch the beautiful (and sure to be Oscar nominated) short film La Luna that played before Brave theatrically or a Blu-ray exclusive short that reveals the origin of Mor’Du the Demon Bear? Guess what? There are also art galleries and a hilarious guide to Scottish slang are when you’re done with all that. This has got to be the most extras-packed disc Pixar has ever produced with hours and hours of special features to consume. God bless those guys. They know what folks who love movies want.
The only unfortunate thing about Brave is that audiences and critics are so accustomed to this kind of excellence from Pixar that the film got a little soft peddled upon release simply because it wasn’t instantly their greatest accomplishment (somehow they managed to top themselves with every movie during the 2000s). Brave shouldn’t just be compared to titles like Toy Story and Finding Nemo, but also crap like Shrek The Third and Tangled. When stacked up against any other CGI feature being kicked around Hollywood, this thing is one hell of an achievement. Even when Pixar delivers a B effort, it’s better than most animation studios at their best. If Brave is what the Pixar artists produce on an off day, then we should all giddily count the days until their next masterpiece. It can’t be that far off. (Phil Brown)
The Amazing Spider-man (Marc Webb, 2012) - It’s just like the old saying goes: “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” The same story or adage can be told several different ways, but still take on a completely different tone. For those worrying that director Marc Webb’s re-boot of the Spider-Man franchise only ten years after the first of a three film franchise would seem somewhat redundant and unnecessary, fear not. The Amazing Spider-Man still faithfully tells the origin story of Marvel Comics’ famed web-slinger for the first half, but a stellar cast raises the material past the bar set by Sam Raimi’s franchise and the second half wisely becomes its own movie from that point onward, even if the more original second half has more problems than the part haters will probably unjustly dismiss as redundant.
Bullied everyday Queens high school teenager and photographer Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) finds himself abandoned by his parents at a young age and forced to live with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). One day while trying to track down one of his scientist father’s former co-workers Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) Peter stumbles into a nest of genetically modified spiders at the Oscorp building which gives him spider-like abilities to climb up walls, move heavy objects, sense when danger is coming, etc.
Webb and the writing staff clearly understand that after three successful movies in the past ten years that audiences generally know the mechanics of Spider-Man, and if they don’t the film adheres to the sound philosophy that it doesn’t really matter how and why these things work the way they do, but that the powers are used in clever and original ways. The actual heart of Peter’s backstory does get brought up almost beat for beat, but it’s a testament to this film’s surprisingly more talented cast that the material is able to feel fresh and new again. Only those living under a rock wouldn’t know that at some point Uncle Ben will have to die at the hands of a petty thief to make Peter into the masked vigilante he is today and that Peter will have to have a love interest of some sort to complicate matters. Here, instead of Mary Jane Watson, we get Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone), Peter Parker’s actual first love from the comics with a police chief father (Denis Leary) who disapproves of Spider-man’s one-man-army tactics against local thugs and isn’t too fond of the headstrong Peter as a person, either.
Garfield shines as a different kind of Peter Parker than audiences will probably be expecting since Webb isn’t going for the sort of campy, soap opera styled puberty parable that Raimi had in mind when he cast Tobey Maguire. Stone doesn’t really have much to do except appear worried and flirt with Peter, but she’s definitely putting her charisma and natural charm to great use here. She even gets to show off some of her trademark comedic timing in one of the film’s best throwaway scenes with her father. The film definitely also serves as a return to form for Leary and Sheen, both of whom haven’t had roles this great in years and they both convey gravitas and humour as the film’s resident authority figures. As the film’s villain, Ifans puts in some solid work, as well.
Webb drops the ball slightly once the action begins to pick up and the giant set pieces need to take centre stage. A high school hallway showdown between Spidey and Lizard steals the show, but it comes almost out of nowhere and with very little set up. The final act also manages some nice twists with regard to Leary and Garfield’s character motivations, but Stone feels forgotten about and a potentially interesting development involving Lizard’s use of the serum ends up going nowhere. It’s almost as if at an already lengthy running time of 138 minutes that Webb just didn’t know what to cut and simply threw up his hands at certain points to make sure all of the studio’s budget was up on the screen. There’s also a slightly annoying and illogical callback to Raimi’s curious “I Heart NY” sentiment that rankles a little, but overall the dénouement of this film comes across as being far more emotionally resonant and heartfelt than the previous franchise.
It’s still a worthy re-boot to the series brought home to possibly less nitpicky audiences (who will still get a sequel whether they like it or not) in a gorgeous looking and sounding package from the almost always reliable Blu-ray geniuses at Sony. The first disc of the two disc set comes with a wonderfully insightful commentary track from Webb and producers Avi Arad and Matt Tolmach that actually bothers to answer the hard questions of why and how one would reboot such a franchise in the first place. The disc also comes with a killer second screen component that allows viewers to watch supplementary materials on a tablet device without interrupting the film.
The second disc is a treasure trove of information on the film, including an almost two hour long, seven part making of documentary that intensely analyses every aspect of the production. If that weren’t enough behind the scenes stuff, there’s some great raw footage of the film’s stunt planning, image progression reels, a concept art gallery and 40 minutes of storyboards and animatics. There are also 17 minutes of deleted scenes that seem only cut due to length and not because they were necessarily unusable or redundant. It’s a great package for one of the more unsung blockbusters of the year. (Andrew Parker)
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (Lorene Scafaria, 2012) – It would be unfair to instantly dismiss Seeking a Friend for the End of the World as an outright bad movie, just like it would be unfair to pretend that it’s anything special. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) apocalypse comedy at least has its heart in the right place and an impressive cast, but as the movie meanders and stumbles along there’s never much sense of urgency or even many laughs. The tone is intriguing, approaching the apocalypse from the perspective of characters who have accepted that the world will end soon and aren’t particularly panicked about it (kind of like Don McKellsr’s Last Night only…no wait, it’s exactly like Last Night). Unfortunately Scafaria never really goes anywhere with it. Her movie is episodic by nature and does hit a few high points along the way, just not nearly enough.
Steve Carell stars as an insurance executive whose wife left the same night he learned the world would end once a fast approaching meteor smacked into our planet. While his friends played by the likes of Patton Oswalt and Rob Corddry, decide to whittle away their final days in an ever-lasting booze, sex, n’ drugs fueled party, Carell keeps going to his soul crushing job through some irrational sense of obligation. Eventually he decides to try and hook up with an old high school flame and travels across the country with an eccentric vinyl-clutching British 20something (Keira Knightley) who is hoping to find one last flight to Britain before the planet goes kaput. At that point the whole thing turns into a road movie with the leads stumbling into a comedic collection of people struggling to deal with this whole “end of the world” thing. And hey, since this is a quirky comedy starring a depressed, but nice man and a manic girl with zest for life, do you think there might be a love story in there as well? Hmmm….
Carell does that sad sack thing well, though it’s sad to see such a comedic talent consistently wasted on playing middle age straight men. Knightly is spunky and cute, but her character gets annoying over time rather than becoming increasingly appealing. Some comedic veterans wander in and out along the road to provide laughs, but nothing much sticks in this movie beyond the central concept. Scafaria came up with a setting and characters that are intriguing, but seems to have forgotten to do much with it beyond trudging through the most obvious road movie and mismatched love story plot beats.
The film slides onto Blu-ray with a very pleasing transfer that reveals all of the hidden details in Scafaria’s carefully cluttered frames of a dying world. It’s a nice presentation (including an immersive sound mix) and is one of the few comedies with enough going on visually to deserve an HD upgrade. The special features include a rather charming and hilarious commentary with Scafaria, her mother, producer Joy Gorman, Patton Oswalt, and Adam Brody that is definitely worth a listen. It’s a good thing that the commentary is so strong because other than that all the disc contains are a useless 5-minute making-of EPK and a two-minute feature with the cast describing their “end of the world playlist” that is just as obnoxious as it sounds. Enough of Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World works that it’s not a movie to inspire rage or hate. It’s just one of those movies that never seems to live up to its clear potential. (Phil Brown)
Arthur Christmas (Sarah Smith & Barry Cook, 2011) – While this year studios and rep houses seem to be offering up more holiday themed fare at the cinema, it’s great to see last year’s wholly underrated holiday success Arthur Christmas come to Blu-ray just in time for the yuletide season. Aardman Animations (Chicken Run, the Wallace and Gromit shorts) have come up with a sweet yuletide confection brimming with everything holiday aficionados crave: heart, big laughs, peace on Earth, and good will towards all.
The 20th Santa to accept the coveted position of the world’s largest gift giver (Jim Broadbent) is set to retire and hand over the business to his hyper-motivated, straight-laced tech nerd son, Steve (Hugh Laurie). None of this matters much to Steve’s eternally optimistic brother Arthur (James McAvoy) who seems more than content living out his days in a hideous green novelty sweater responding to children’s letters in the mailroom.
After Steve’s holiday machinery experiences a technical difficulty resulting in a young English girl not getting her present delivered, Santa himself is too tired to bother going out to deliver a single present and Steve is annoyed on two fronts after being passed up yet again by his glory hog father and the by the implication that his gift giving system is less than perfect. Arthur takes it upon himself to make sure that no present is left behind, and is aided in his quest by his bumbling, old school Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) and a renegade gift wrapping elf.
Much like previous Aardman efforts, there is a wealth of imagination and technical ingenuity on display in Arthur Christmas. Only the British studio’s second feature length foray into digital animation following the underrated Flushed Away, the film shows Santa’s workshop in two different lights: the NASA style mission control centre it’s become and the old school nuts and bolts factory it used to be. The scope of director Sarah Smith’s vision at the North Pole is filled with small details and hundreds of lovingly crafted elves, toys, and other small touches other films would’ve overlooked. Once Arthur and Grandsanta begin their quest, the film features some breathtaking action sequences in Africa and Toronto. It’s not everyday one sees Santa’s sleigh using Toronto’s City Hall as a halfpipe.
A lot of the film’s success can be attributed to the voice cast, as well. McAvoy has never sounded more (pardon the pun) animated. Effectively capturing the joy and clumsiness of Arthur, McAvoy does some of his best acting work without even being on screen. Laurie is effectively pompous and Broadbent plays Santa as a combination of befuddled, bored, and exhausted. The biggest scene stealer, however, has to be Nighy who doesn’t have a single unfunny line as the super British grandfather who always like to remind everyone just how tough it was to deliver presents during the war.
It might be a bit too British and a tad long for younger children and tots to stay interested (a problem rectified easily with home viewing), but that’s a small price to pay for something that will get a lot of rotation in the collections of seasonal viewers. Sony once again delivers an excellent looking and sounding transfer of the film, even if the extras packages are limited to some pretty standard promotional materials and a Justin Bieber video. Either way, it’s the movie and season that matters most in our hearts. (Andrew Parker)
Fire With Fire (David Barrett, 2012) – There’s no good way to fully explain just how entertaining the star studded direct-to-DVD Fire With Fire truly is. It’s an extremely cheeseball bit of low rent action garbage that’s just inherently likable because of how intensely wrong headed the whole thing is. It manages to get everything oh so wrong that it ends up feeling alright to say you had a good time watching it. There’s nothing in this ludicrous revenge thriller that can ever be taken seriously for a second, and it seems damned proud of it.
After witnessing the murder of a pair of convenience store clerks who don’t want to give in to a Long Beach Aryan mob heavy (Vincent D’Onofrio), firefighter Jeremy Coleman (Josh Duhamel) is shuttled off into witness protection to await testifying in a trial that Detective Mike Cella (Bruce Willis) thinks can finally put the guy away for good. Trouble catches up with Jeremy mere days before his testimony as a hit squad nearly takes him out and almost kills the FBI agent he’s fallen in love with (Rosario Dawson). On the run from both the mob and the feds who want him to go back into hiding, Jeremy returns to the LBC (from his time in New Orleans where there apparently aren’t any skinhead gangs whatsoever despite its deep south location) with his newly trained mind focused squarely on revenge and taking back his life.
The film goes a full fifteen minutes before getting to the titles like its some sort of Bond film and then the credits just repeat everything we already know with visuals. They also go on extra long because the film had a total of 25 various kinds of producers (including Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, who appears briefly here as a gang leader). This should be the first indication that the film isn’t exactly on solid ground, but depending on your disposition and ability to stomach this kind of film, it gets either better or worse from there.
Duhamel, despite not being that good of an actor, has charm and charisma enough to make us somehow want to go along with the fact that he only learned how to fire a gun on his last day in New Orleans, and that he has somehow overnight managed to become an international badass with no fears whatsoever. Willis, in a much smaller role, has line readings here that border on parody. He’s been bad in films where he hasn’t cared before, but somehow he seems to be having a laugh at what he’s gotten himself into. The real standout of the cast here, though, has to be D’Onofrio who leaves no scenery unchewed as the former skinhead turned crime lord.
Stuntman and TV director David Barrett has created a film as hardboiled and gloriously insane as these films are likely to get. It never once dwells on anything about such things as plot or nuance and instead focuses all of its energy on silly dialogue shouted at the top of ones lungs, a surprisingly high number of people getting shot in the Achilles, more than one scene of symbolic rainfall (one of which is indoors and almost unconscionably lengthy to the point of high comedy), and some of the worst ADR possibly imaginable. It’s overall really awful, but it’s a great kind of awful that will leave viewers in the right frame of mind with ear to ear grins.
The Blu-ray looks and sounds great, thanks to Barrett and DP Christopher Probst who deliver a way too serious commentary track that just proves how genuine their aims are overall. There’s also a 10 minute EPK styled making of that shouldn’t be watched, lest one spoil the mysteries of Fire With Fire. (Andrew Parker)
Maximum Conviction (Keoni Waxman, 2012) – On paper the teaming of aging action superstar Steven Segal and former wrestling superstar Steve Austin would seem too tantalizing an offer for any cheapo movie producer to pass up. To the credit of everyone involved with the making of Maximum Conviction, the teaming ultimately works simply because neither Segal nor Austin has to try very hard to make the film work. They’re simply playing themselves and getting paid to do it.
The dynamic duo star as a pair of private defence contractors stuck closing down a decommissioned maximum security military prison that now only holds a small handful of rotten degenerates and a pair of Asian women of interest to the CIA. When a band of thugs disguised as US Marshals begin to lay siege to the prison to take the women into custody, it’s up to the barebones staff to fight back.
The film mostly comes comprised of adequate shootouts and occasional bouts of kung-fu from Segal and stealth stabbings from Austin, and the two leads seems actually engaged by the material because neither is forced to give a performance. Segal is so laid back he practically says “man” or “buddy” to punctuate every sentence, and Austin gives the audience the typical gruff “fuck off” personality they came to enjoy. In those very basic aspects, Maximum Conviction delivers the goods, but that bar wasn’t set all that high to begin with. The only other things worth nothing here are that director Keoni Waxman relies way too heavily on security camera footage to transition between scenes to the point of it being annoying, and that it’s great to see Michael Pare as the villain here.
The Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack comes with the same good picture and sound quality and special features for both discs. There are interviews with the cast and crew, a brief making of look, some behind the scenes B-roll, and a commentary track from Waxman and producer Binh Dang. (Andrew Parker)