“Brave” – 3.5 STARS

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Does anyone even question the amazing filmmaking that comes out of Pixar Studios anymore? Well, “Cars 2” didn’t do them any favors, but still Pixar has evolved into one of the most impressive filmmaking teams in cinema. Me, I’m not the biggest animated movie guy. But even I can appreciate their amazing knack for good quality storytelling. That knack is once again on display with “Brave”. Once again Pixar gives us another solid animated feature mainly by following their proven formula. They take meatier subject matter and cover it with a beautiful and playful animated wrapping. They hire the perfect voice talent, create beautiful visuals, and throw in some fantastic music. This tried and true formula once again really pays off here even for a tepid animation guy like me.

“Brave”starts off with the perfect approach. The first thing it does is give us a true sense of location via some of the greatest uses of scenery and surroundings I have seen. Even though I knew it was animated, I was amazed by the huge, sprawling, panoramic shots of the Scottish Highlands. The film creates a breathtaking natural canvas that quickly places us within the story’s location and environment. Tall trees, grassy meadows, jagged mountains, and beautiful streams grab us and submerge us into this beautiful land. This gorgeous landscape is the home of a young princess-to-be named Merida who lives with her brave but playful father King Fergus and her stern and often times overbearing mother Queen Elinor.

Merida is an adventurous free spirit who loves archery and riding her horse through the countryside with her long, bright red locks of hair flowing in the wind. But her mother has quite a different vision for her. Queen Eleanor is infatuated with tradition and feels she knows what’s best for a young princess. A strong tension develops between the mother and daughter and it all boils over during a customary competition between three awkward princes from other clans vying for Merida’s hand in marriage. Merida wants no part of it so she hops on her horse and takes off. This infuriates the queen and sets in motion the events of the rest of the film.

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The tension soaked relationship between mother and daughter is at the heart of the story. Something takes place later in the film, and I don’t want to give away what it is, that causes both of them to reevaluate their relationship. This is one place where I give Pixar a lot of credit. This isn’t shallow stuff. This is pretty real and heavy subject matter and they tackle it with sensitivity and smarts. And once again they’re able to walk that line between being faithful to the weighty material and keeping it within the bounds of a fun animated family feature.

But it’s not like this is a drab and overly serious film. This is a Pixar movie which means there’s a lot of fun and playfulness. King Fergus’ ‘typical male’ personality is a lot of fun. Even funnier are Merida’s rambunctious and mischievous little brothers – three little red-headed terrors who are always getting into something. I also loved the three Clan’s leaders and their sons. Talk about wacky! This peculiar bunch offered up some if the movie’s funniest moments. All of this worked for me but I have to admit that the heavy dose of slapstick silliness near the middle of the film began to wear me down. It seemed a bit monotonous and was pretty typical stuff. But this is a small part of the movie and things pick up on its way to its tender and rather satisfying ending.

“Brave” is another winner from Pixar Studios. It’s a powerful and relevant story wrapped up in gorgeous animation and one of the best soundtracks of the year. The characters come to life through great voice work particularly from Kelly MacDonald, Billy Connolly, and Emma Thompson. All of these components come together to form an entertaining whole and even though it does contain some of the standard cartoony moments, its impossible to watch this movie and not have a great time. This isn’t the best Pixar film but it’s certainly a very good one.

Want more great animation from 2012? Check out my review of the spectacular “Frankenweenie” .

REVIEW : “No Country for Old Men”

Joel and Ethan Coen have established themselves as some of the best filmmakers in the business. Their wide creative range and unique storytelling style has given us great films from several genres. Yet there are several common threads woven throughout a Coen brothers picture and one of the greatest compliments I can give them is that you know a Coen brothers movie when you see it. “No Country for Old Men” is my personal favorite of all of their films and that’s saying a lot. Winner of four Oscars including Best Picture, “No Country for Old Men” examines several themes that the brothers frequently explore while incorporating their familiar quirkiness, dark humor, and gritty violence. But the film is also unlike any of the Coen’s other work and that uniqueness gives it its own special voice.

Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, “No Country for Old Men” stays pretty faithful to the book. It could be called a crime thriller or even a modern-day western. It’s rugged look and tone gives this modern tale of violence an almost old west feel. But that plays to one fascinating subtext to the film. It is a movie about the evolution of violence and the moral callousness at its root. It says “things aren’t like the used to be” but from a more broken and defeated point of view. But there is much more to the film than that. It’s also a story of choices and consequences, old versus new, and chance versus fate. I’m being rather vague on all of these but let’s just say the ideas are interwoven throughout the movie.

Set in West Texas during the early 1980’s, the story opens with Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbling across a drug deal gone wrong while hunting one day. Among the blood-soaked bodies and bullet-riddled pickup trucks, he finds a lone but wounded survivor begging for water. Having no water Llewelyn leaves him. Before leaving he finds another body with a satchel full of money. Faced with the first of many key decisions that drive the story, he grabs the satchel and leaves the scene. Several ill-advised decisions later, Llewelyn finds himself on the run from the Mexican cartel and more notably a psychopathic hired hitman named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Tommy Lee Jones plays Ed Tom Bell, a small town Texas sheriff following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He and his deputy find the busted drug deal and Llewelyn’s abandoned truck and start trying to put the pieces together. The rest of the story focuses on the triangle of Llewelyn, Chigurh, and Sheriff Bell. And even though they share practically no screen time together, their lives slowly become intricately connected.

As with every Coen brothers film the casting is impeccable. Almost every performance is pitch-perfect and there is rarely a moment where the characters feel false. Josh Brolin not only looks the part of Llewelyn Moss but his flawless accent, the delivery of his lines, and west Texas mannerisms nail his character. He is perfectly complimented by a subtle and reserved performance by Kelly Macdonald who plays his wife Carla Jean. She’s simple but sweet and you are drawn to her as she’s drawn into Llewelyn’s situation. I also loved Tommy Lee Jones’ work as Ed Tom Bell. He’s the perfect choice for a small town Texas sheriff and I was enthralled with how he flawlessly embodied his character. Even Woody Harrelson has a small but great role as a rival hired gun looking for the missing drug money. But the best performance may be from Javier Bardem (who captured the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role). He may sport the worst haircut in film history but he’s also one of the most chilling and brutal villains on film . Even with his amoral propensity for violence, he’s fascinating to watch and the film’s best moments are when he’s on-screen.

“No Country for Old Men” is also a technical gem. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, a long-time Coen collaborator, uses his camera to create a dark and dirty world but one grounded in a true sense of realism. The sparse, dusty landscapes provide the perfect canvas for the Coens to create their violent world. The action scenes are ferocious but even in their brutality they never seem gratuitous. Instead they feel perfectly in context. I also loved the Coen’s use of sound, or in many instances their lack of it. Many scenes feature no background music instead relying on natural ambience. Several intense scenes feature no music or dialogue yet it’s the silence that really thickens the tension. While the Coen’s can sometimes be a little, for lack of a better word, wild with their filmmaking, every thing here feels a little more tightly structured and controlled.

The Coens have made many good films and they have a style that’s undeniable. You may like or dislike their approach to filmmaking but you have to respect it. Their unique vision is stamped all over this film. The violence is startling, the pacing is perfect, and there is just the right amount of dark comedy. You’ll wince in one scene and laugh out loud in the next one. “No Country for Old Men” is a brilliantly written adaptation and a beautifully crafted film. It’s one of those movies that features several scenes that will always stick with me. It’s also helped by some truly searing performances led by Bardem’s memorable work. I understand that this film may not appeal to everyone but for me this is a masterpiece. It’s a lesson in expert filmmaking and cinematic creativity. It’s also a movie I can watch over and over and never grow tired of it. Yes, it’s one of my favorite movies of all time. There, I said it!

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5 STARSs

5STAR K&M