Sunday, June 24, 2012

Summer Movie Diary: Brave

Date: June 23, 2012
Time: 2:30 pm
Place: Cinemark NextGen Stone Hill Town Center
Company: Derrick, Grayson, Penelope, Grandma
Food:  large mixed red and blue Icee

Runtime: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Rating: PG
Directors: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman

Quick Impressions:
While we were standing in line for concessions, I heard someone say to her kids, “Looks like Brave is sold out.”

Oh no! I thought.  We’ve got to go get seats before it’s too late!  But it was already too late.  We ended up sitting in the second row.  Nobody sat in the first row.  (I don’t know if they don’t count those seats or if those people got refunds.)  My mom and I reminisced that we’d done basically the same thing at Tinsel Town opening weekend of The Incredibles.  But at Tinsel Town, the auditorium was slightly bigger, and the screen was slightly smaller.  I’ve got to be honest, this was not the way I envisioned seeing a movie full of sweeping Scottish landscapes.

All of us have been excited to see Brave, even though the early word has been that it’s good but not great.  Did we like it?  My husband, stepson, and I thought it was excellent.  My three-year-old found it scary but intriguing.  (She spent a long stretch near the beginning with her head bent to look straight up, her eyes wide, her jaw dropped, entranced.  Then she spent a long stretch near the end with her blanket over her head sobbing in horror until I moved her over onto my lap.) 

As the credits rolled, my mother said, “Well, I didn’t think that was very good.” 

My stepson asked incredulously, “You didn’t like it?” 

She replied, “Oh, I didn’t hate it.  I just didn’t think it was very good.  I mean, when you think of The Incredibles or Up, it wasn’t very good.”

My stepson said, “I thought it was way better than both of those.” 

Brave is really different from most Pixar Movies.  In fact, tonally, it’s not like any of them.  It’s an old-school fairy tale that has more in common with Sleeping Beauty than Tangled (both of which I love, incidentally).  It’s not a comedy although there are some genuinely funny moments, including many that are not spoiled by the trailer.  It’s also not some sweeping epic.  It’s like a fairy tale retold in a children’s picture book—but most of those are fairly scary, dark, and intense, and Brave is too.  I liked it, though, and found the part that comes after what you mostly see in the preview truly gripping.  (It must have been gripping because I twisted myself into a position I’d never normally even attempt and somehow got completely lost in the movie.)

The Good:
This story is not that complex, but I don’t think that’s a problem.  It feels very much like a carefully constructed picture book brought to the screen, a child’s bedtime story dramatized.  I really liked the grandeur and magic of the world.  The setting was so rich both visually—Scotland definitely has a dramatic landscape—and in terms of the imagination.  Right from the start, we get a spirit of childlike mischief coming face-to-face with genuine magic, a magic that seems less evil than Other—something dark and mysterious that exists outside our morality and just on the edges of our plane of existence.  This is a very thrilling setting for a story.

The characters are also quite engaging.  No offense to Reese Witherspoon, but I was quite delighted when she had to bow out of the project due to scheduling conflicts because I’ve long been a fan of Kelly Macdonald and also thought a Scottish princess ought to be…Scottish.  Macdonald indeed does a fine job voicing the spirited Merida, a character all the more likable because she comes across as just an ordinary girl.  Her desire not to marry any of the suitors suggested arises not from a contrary nature or a great ambition to do something incredible or bizarre.  She just enjoys her life as it is and doesn’t feel a connection to any of those guys.  Sometimes when a story gives you a “princess not looking to be rescued by a prince” character, that princess has an intense agenda that feels extremely contrived.  But Merida just seems like an ordinary girl who had the bad luck to be born a princess but the good fortune to have a father who encouraged her interest in archery.

I must admit, though, after going on for like two years about how happy I was to have a Scottish actress voicing the Scottish princess, I thought the best performance in the film belonged to the not-quite-Scottish Emma Thompson.  (I mean, obviously, Thompson is doing a Scottish accent, but I think she does live in Scotland part of the time, which makes her more Scottish than, say, me, but much less Scottish than Kelly Macdonald.)  Anyway, I thought Thompson was brilliant as Queen Elinor.  (Now I’m wondering if they spelled the character’s name that way as a nod to Thompson’s work in Sense and Sensibility, or if that’s just a particularly Scottish spelling of the name).  Anyway, I’ve always liked Thompson as an actress (and as an adaptress), and her performance here is wonderful.  Elinor is a great character—always regal, always graceful (except when suffering one of her brief “growly” spells).  She has beauty, grace, dignity, regality—and yet we can easily appreciate why she’s annoying to Merida.

The relationship between the mother and daughter is the heart of the film, and (for people who say that the movie doesn’t do enough), I can certainly think of more boring ways to explore tension in the mother/daughter bond, an issue that comes up over and over again on every sitcom and in countless Lifetime and Hallmark Hall of Fame made-for-TV movies.  I don’t recall too many bear attacks on Lifetime.

For a movie that’s mainly about the tension in the mother/daughter bond as the daughter becomes a woman, Brave certainly has a lot of action.  My stepson—a nine-year-old boy—found it totally engrossing, action packed, and completely awesome.  (My three-year-old found the same scenes incredibly distressing, but that’s just because the stakes are so high and hit so close to home.)  This movie features action and violence and magic and death, but it manages to be dark and sort of spooky without crossing over into evil/bloodthirsty territory. 

What amazes me most about Brave, quite honestlyis that it’s a movie without a villain.  Consider the sheer amount of violent conflict, the incredibly high stakes, the use of actual magic.  All that menace and mayhem without a clear-cut villain?  What an achievement!

The closest thing to a villain comes in the form of the terrifying grizzled bear who attacks Merida’s father in the beginning of the film. In that sense, the villain of the story is nature—or dark forces beyond our control. As we learn more about the bear, we begin to see that these dark forces may originate inside of us. That’s some heavy stuff when you think about it. Again and again, Merida blames “the witch” for what has gone wrong, but by the end of the movie, it’s perfectly clear that the witch is just a convenient scapegoat, a shorthand way of referring to all forces beyond our control—even those that originate within us. The story delivering the message is simple. As I said before, it’s like a lovely picture book. But that message really is pretty deep.

Plus, all the Scottish guys are so funny!  My husband later remarked that he laughed at just about everything Merida’s father, King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly) said or did.  Fergus also feels particularly real (if larger than life).  (You kind of get the idea that cartoon King Fergus is probably how the real King Fergus would animate himself if given the opportunity.)  And the triplets are not only amusing, they’re actually involved in the plot.

If you’re a lover of all things Scottish, Brave is worth seeing for the Celtic music and culture alone.

Best Scene Visually:
My seat in the second row didn’t provide the best vantage point for appreciating the soaring visuals, but I can say that despite being difficult to watch (from that angle) everything that I could see on the screen was gorgeous.  There’s tremendous depth and seemingly organic variety in Merida’s world.  Two of my favorite things to look at throughout were flowing water and Merida’s kinky red hair, often unkempt and usually in motion like the rest of her.

I thought the first scene had an eerie resonance that made me really excited to watch the rest of the movie.   When my husband and I discussed the power of the scene afterwards, we noticed that Pixar movies often include a tough-act-to-follow type opening scene that ends up being the greatest part of the entire film.  This happens most notably in Wall-E and Up.

I loved the dark, mysterious magic promised by the beautifully spooky will-o’-the-wisps, and dramatic and violent ending of this opening sequence perfectly set the tone for the movie to follow.  As the title appeared across the screen, I thought with satisfaction, Yes, this is definitely something I want to watch.

Funniest Scene:
The scene in the home of the “wood carver” had so much whimsy.  I loved what they did with that character (voiced with kooky perfection by Julie Walters).  I had expected something darker, but what they did actually fit the story much better.  This character is actually quite unlike anyone I recall seeing in a Disney animated feature (and certainly in a Pixar one) ever before.  The scene itself reminded by a bit of the pervasively whimsical feel throughout The Sword in the Stone, but this particular character seemed so innocent and non-malicious.  That was an unusual spin on such a figure, I thought.

Best Scene:
My favorite scene was what happened right after Queen Elinor’s unfortunate snack.  Not only was the queen’s behavior amusing, but the intensity of the people running through the castle gave me a visceral rush.  Suddenly—it’s hard to explain why—I thought of being at Disneyland inside Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.  (But trust me when I say, Sleeping Beauty’s castle tour is nowhere near as exciting as what was happening on the screen in Brave, so I’m not sure why I made that association.)  Was the animation just awesome?  Was it the spectacular sound?  Was the effect intensified because I was sitting so close to the screen?  I don’t know.  I just know that I felt strangely excited during this sequence (which was also quite funny at moments) and like I’d been sucked into the action myself.

Best Action Sequence:
This movie has an unusual amount of serious action, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.  (It was too much for my three-year-old who assured me many times during the movie that she would never feed me anything she got from a witch.)  In the final sequence of the movie, all the elements of the story come together in a dramatic showdown, and Merida must find a way to undo the harm she has caused before the worst happens.  That is extremely intense.  All eyes were glued to the screen (except the ones hiding under a blanket).

The Negatives:
My mother’s main complaint was that she had expected more—more to happen, more from Pixar.  She thought the story was too simple.

Well.  The story is simple.  I can’t deny that.  But it’s awfully well done.  Recently, my daughter and I have worked Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are into our regular rotation of bedtime stories.  Each time I read it, I marvel at what a masterpiece it is.  But it’s very simple. 

I’m not sure that Brave is a masterpiece.  Personally, I found more resonating profundity in the beginning of Wall-E (particularly that long first scene before the title).  And, of course, you get the complete human existence (or at least the life of a couple) in the opening sequence of Up.  I’m not going to pretend that Brave delivers a similar lasting punch.  But Brave is a different kind of story.  It appeals to a different part of me.  It reaches out with spectral fingers made of the magic of childhood and pulls you into a tightly woven story told in a series of beautifully illustrated scenes. 

Childhood is a magical time, and leaving childhood behind requires cultivating equally mysterious powers, powers beyond the imaginative reach of children.  Brave is a movie about the wonder of childhood and the greater sense of wonder you feel as you grow up and realize that you must make your own magic.

I thought it was great, and I’m thinking of seeing it in the theater again—hopefully from a seat located a little further from the screen.  Oh, and by the way, La Luna, the short that plays before the feature is a work of art in its own right.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Penelope's First Haircut (for my Birthday Back in April)

I just found these pictures Derrick took with his phone of Penelope's first professional haircut!  We both got haircuts from Visible Changes back in April for my birthday, and I asked Derrick to take pictures, but I hadn't seen them until now.

At Will's Birthday Party

Hearing there would be sprinklers, I opted not to take my camera.  Wish I'd had it!  But we used both phones!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Making Cookies with Grayson and Penelope

This past weekend, we picked up Gray on Sunday evening to celebrate Father's Day with a little grilling and a classic Simpsons Marathon.  On Monday, "Father" had to go back to work, but the kids and I had a lot of fun.  First we made some chocolate chip cookies.  (I'll give us a 3 for efficiency, -100 for cleanliness, and 150,000 for enthusiasm.) I was amazed the cookies actually baked normally since we were less than careful with the dry ingredients.  

Here's a recap of what happened that day...

Cookie Bite #1:
While making chocolate chip cookies...
Penelope: (spooning out a huge clump of dough on to the sheet and trying to fix it with her fingers) This one is almost perfect. It's just this freaking piece.
Me: (surprised and feigning consternation) Did you say "this freaking piece"?
Penelope (lies brazenly) No, I said this f**king piece! [said without asterisks]
Grayson: (dies laughing, almost falls down, breathlessly) That's awesome!

Me (sneaking into Derrick's office): Here are some milk and cookies for you.
Derrick: They look delicious.
Me: We made them with lots of love...and a little explicit profanity!

Not sure that Grayson and I handled that in the most effective way discipline wise. I think I've found a way to prevent my toddler from shocking people with profanity in public. I won't let her leave the house until she's eighteen! Brilliant, right?
3:25 pm

Above:  Just about the time Penelope couldn't fix that "f**king piece."

Below: Grayson still can't wipe the smile off his face, thinking about his sister's "awesome" profanity

Cookie Bite #2:
Penelope (with one cookie in her mouth and one in her hand, coming into the kitchen urgently): I think I need some more cookies. 
Me: Penelope, there are plenty of cookies in here. I'm even all done eating cookies. Eat the cookies you have now first and stop worrying about future cookies.
Grayson (from the living room, mischievously): Future cookies? Those sound much better than the cookies you have right now!
Me: Stop making trouble!
Grayson (lets out an insane, high pitched cakcle then covers his mouth and looks theatrically embarrassed): Ooh, sorry. (with a grin) I've got a little witch in me!
3:28 pm

Cookie Bite #3:
Grayson (examining the cookie batter): There's a big lump of brown sugar in there. (poking it with a spoon) Hey, break it up ladies. That's what I say at school when two boys are fighting. Then they break up because I called them ladies. Hey!
Penelope (crawling between his legs on the floor smacking her lips): Sorry! I was just eating this brown sugar I found.
Grayson: Don't eat it off the floor!
Moments later...
Grayson: (mixing the dough, peering down between the beaters) I've got to mix this until it's creamy.
Penelope: I'll smell it. Oooh. It's smelling pretty good, Bubby. It's smelling almost ready. (to me) Little girls can smell, right?
Me: Everybody can smell.
Grandma: (wandering through suddenly) And some people stink!
3:33 pm

Cookie Bite #4:
We had quite a time making cookies. I'm amazed they turned out, given our technique. As we started, Grayson was shaking the brown sugar canister to "break up the lumps" and to amuse his sister. Suddenly, the lid popped off, and brown sugar flew all over the kitchen! It was very exciting. Like me and the non-pareils, Merry. Right away, Grayson was like, "AAAH! I'm out of here!" and ran away (to wash his hands, I later learned). I got rid of most of it by rolling up the rug and shaking it on the back porch, but later we discovered tons of clumps of brown sugar on the top of Penelope's head and sprinkled throughout her hair. We had similar incidents with the dry ingredients, and basically just non-stop incidents throughout the process. When my mom appeared and walked through the kitchen to say good-bye before work, my first instinct was to panic. But then I remembered this is my house, so I can destroy the kitchen if I want to!
3:37 pm

Cookie Bite #5:
Grayson (sweetly): I'll help you because you don't know quite what you're doing.
Penelope (to Grayson): I'm almost a big girl, and you're just a itty teeny brother!
3:39 pm

Cookie Bite #5:
Penelope (while we were making cookies, very loudly and out of nowhere): But skeletons can't walk around by themselves!
Grayson: That was random!
3:40 pm

Photos From Our Playdates with Will