And so we come to the end of another summer season of block busting movies. Undeniably, the summer of 2012 will go down as having started with a bang and thankfully ended in pretty much the same way.
It was Steve’s 21st on Thursday, August 30 and in line with tradition being that we tend not to bother with much in the way of alcohol, he chose the venue and the activities. So it was that we found ourselves in Liverpool, a city I hadn’t visited in 22 years for some shopping, some exploring and a double bill of films. The movies were chosen ahead of time, but sadly neither was showing in the IMAX format we were hoping to catch at the Odeon.
Steve’s film choices and tastes over the years have seemingly morphed with my own, so it was no surprise when he announced that the first film of two he wanted to watch on the day was Pixar’s Brave. (We are a bunch of animation freaks in this family.)
Pixar is, to me, the closest we have today to Disney in their heyday. They are currently and consistently the best animation production facility on the planet, though they can have the occasional misstep. Case in point would be last year’s Cars 2, an amazing looking film with visuals that were never less than jaw droppingly awesome. But the story left me cold. The characters were out of character in a spy spoof and from that aspect, it just didn’t work. But still, it looked better than any other animation that was released last year. (Except maybe for Rango.)
So, as Cars 2 was running out of gas, the question was whether Pixar itself having enjoyed a good long run of producing hit after hit was similarly beginning to run dry. It was the second straight year that their release was a sequel, though in all fairness 2010’s Toy Story 3 was light years away from Cars 2 in terms of story line. It had been a while since we’d seen a new story with new, original characters. The last time was 2009’s Up, which packed more emotional resonance in its first fifteen minutes than the Twilight saga has managed in the past four films.
Other than seeing the teaser trailer, I had kept away from all plot spoilers for Brave. All I knew was that it was a historical medieval drama set in Scotland and there seemed to be a bear involved. Not really much to go on, and conducive to going in with an open mind. As it happened, none of the footage from the teaser trailer was in the finished film anyway so that worked out pretty well.
The location is a gorgeously rendered 12th century Scotland, and the central protagonist is, for the first time in a Pixar film, female. Princess Merida is a headstrong tomboy who resists her preordained fate of having to marry a worthy suitor who has won her hand by winning s tournament. Her father is King Fergus voiced by Billy Connoly who has lost a leg in combat with a huge black demonic bear named Mor’du when defending his family from the bear’s attack. Fergus is now understandably obsessive about tracking down and killing in a Captain Ahab/Moby Dick kind of way. Her mother, Queen Elinor, like every mother worth her salt, just wants what’s best for everybody.
When Merida enters the Highland Games herself and outscores the suitors who are the first born sons of each of the neighbouring clans, Elinor is outraged and the mother and daughter argue and have a falling out, as parents and headstrong teenagers are wont to do.
Merida leaves the castle and following a magical trail, finds herself in the house of a witch who reluctantly agrees to a bargain to change Elinor, by means of an enchanted cake but naturally you just can’t trust crazy old witches, they always have something other than a boney arm up their sleeve and when Elinor eats the cake, she changes - into a bear. Merida now has until the second sunrise to reverse the spell before it becomes permanent.
All in all, I’d say that it’s the most Disneyesque of Pixar’s films to date as far as the plot goes, but thankfully there are no singing animals, nor talking ones for that matter. When Elinor transforms into a bear, she can’t speak and the lack of communication brings a host of problems. What Pixar have achieved particularly well are the expressions on the bear’s face. Confusion, fear and anguish are all evident in the character’s face and eyes. Other emotions and states of mind are effectively communicated to the audience through mime, be it the pantomime sight gags of Elinor not being used to being in the body of a bear or the ferocity of Elinor’s personality being overwhelmed by the animalistic traits as the bear’s feral instincts begin to dominate. All this happening while Merida tries to hide the bear from her father who will kill it on sight with Mor’du also skulking in the vicinity.
Unashamedly, I had a great time watching this. It reminded me of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in many ways, as well as Brother Bear. Any nagging doubts about Pixar were dispelled from the opening short, La Luna and there’s no questioning that Pixar pretty much rule the Magic Kingdom these days.
My one small niggle with the film lies with the Odeon screening rather than anything to do with Pixar. We opted to see the movie in 3D (and yes, I’m still convinced it’s a gimmick rather than a lasting means of watching films). Much as I enjoy 3D ( when used creatively and effectively like the shots of Spider-Man swinging over Manhattan in The Amazing Spider-Man or the Transformers levelling Chicago) it can enhance a movie, but here I noticed a problem that I’ve seen discussed on several online forums.
The picture was very dark. Add to that we’re wearing dark tinted glasses for the screening. The problem seems to be that certain cinema chains (Odeon, hang your heads in shame) are using lower wattage bulbs and/or are purposely dimming their projectors to prolong the life of their bulbs as an economy measure. This makes night time scenes hard to follow because the picture’s darker than the director intended. This was the case to a certain degree with the screening I saw, but not to worry - the next time I see the film, and there will be a next time, will be in the comfort of the study on my big screen and I’ll see every last detail. Even the dark ones.
So, time to grab a bite to eat, do some shopping at Forbidden Planet (I picked up a couple of their signed books at cover price. Not a bad deal - I now have comics legend Grant Morrison’s autograph. For those of you who don’t know, he is a Scottish writer who has worked for both Marvel and DC on titles like X-Men, Fantastic Four, All-Star Superman, and lately has been basically the head writer on Batman.)
It was soon time for the second half of the day’s big screen entertainment.
The Expendables 2
Here’s a film that I’ve been eagerly anticipating all summer long. The first was kind of an action movie fan’s best ever dream cast. The kind of cast you never, ever actually believe will get together in a single movie but somehow they did. For the sequel, joining Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren and Jet Li are Jean Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris with expanded roles for Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. What could possibly go wrong with that cast?
Short answer - nothing.
Expendables 2 is an exhilarating roller coaster of an action movie. Unapologetically loud, brash and brimming over with undiluted testosterone. The plot is simple, our heroes are on a mission to retrieve a bewildering amount of Russian weapons grade plutonium from Jean Claude Van Damme. When the newest and youngest member of the Expendables (played by Liam Hemsworth, brother of Thor actor Chris Hemsworth) is executed in cold blood by Van Damme, the mission becomes motivated by vengeance, and it’s personal.
I’ve been hearing a lot of stories from the set about Chuck Norris making various demands that he wanted the film to have a PG rating and that he was threatening to walk if any swearing was in the film. I don’t know if any of these stories were actually true, but there is profanity in the film amid the action, the shoot outs and crazy stunts and the comedic camaraderie. There is NO WAY that this movie could ever have passed as a PG. No way on Earth. In fact, to dilute it to pass as suitable for a younger audience would’ve meant pulling its teeth altogether. As it stands, my guess is that there’ll be a different "uncut" version released on DVD as happened with the fist Expendables. (I’m curious to see if we’ll actually get more footage of whatever torture newcomer and first female Expendable "Maggie" (Nan Yu) used to get the information she needed. That seemed to be a hasty jump cut from that scene)
As for Mister Norris, I was a big fan of his movies in the eighties, my favourite being Lone Wolf McQuade. When he makes his first appearance in this movie, his McQuade character is definitely being channelled, even to the point of the others referring to him as Lone Wolf. Interestingly, his character’s name is actually "Booker" - which was Norris’s name in Good Guys Wear Black (1978). He’s obviously having fun here, using his martial arts skills and blasting away with machine guns and it really is good to see him back on the screen.
But not as good as it was to see Arnold Schwarzenegger striding around, firing a gun so big that no normal man could even lift it, or ripping the door clean off one of those stupid little Smart cars which nobody can take seriously, with Bruce Willis at the wheel, complaining "my shoe is bigger than this".
So as the blockbuster season is over and there’s been a change in my top three movies of the summer. Still leading the way is The Avengers, but The Dark Knight Rises has incredibly been nudged to third place by Expendables 2. If my favourite line of the summer is "Puny God" then the runner up must surely be "I’m back!"
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