Belle's mom in Beauty and the Beast? Dead. Cinderella's mom? Deceased. Ariel's mom in The Little Mermaid? Nowhere to be found. Jasmine's mom in Aladdin? Kaput. And this is just a small sampling from the Disney universe, where mother-daughter dynamics rarely come into play because the storytellers have elected to deep-six Mom before the story proper even comes into focus.
Pixar, which of course is now under the auspices of the House That Walt Built, hasn't been much more charitable to Mommie Dearest, with only The Incredibles' Helen Parr/Elastigirl (and, if we're stretching, Andy's mom from the Toy Story trio) figuring into this conversation. And there isn't anything to even discuss when it comes to solo female protagonists, since no Pixar release has placed a woman front and center.
All of this has changed with Brave, which not only focuses on a memorable heroine but also takes the time to delve into a mother-daughter relationship. Couple this with the fact that this marks the first Pixar movie directed by a woman, and it all sounds like a forward step for this animated boys' club i at least until one examines the evidence. For one thing, director Brenda Chapman didn't finish making the film, replaced at some point by Mark Andrews. Was she fired? Did she walk off the set? Did she get struck down by some mysterious illness? To quote Robert Preston in S.O.B., "Is Batman a transvestite? Who knows?"
Chapman is also credited for coming up with the original story and screenplay for Brave, but as the movie subsequently went through three other writers, perhaps she was displeased with the direction the project took. I wouldn't be surprised: Brave is a perfectly pleasant outing, but for a Pixar release, it's frighteningly tame and conventional, with little of the complexity that has marked the majority of the studio's past efforts.
If nothing else, Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) makes for a vibrant heroine: With marble-smooth skin, flaming red hair seemingly modeled after early-90s Nicole Kidman, and archery skills to rival those of Robin Hood, she's a spirited Scottish lass who, in the best animated tradition, longs for independence and adventure. Her rambunctious father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), admires her earthiness and athletic abilities, but her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), ix nays such activities, insisting that Merida behave like a proper lady in order to land a suitable husband. Why Elinor would want her lovely daughter to marry any of the three clods presented as spousal material makes little sense, but never mind: After Merida shows up her suitors, the two women have it out, resulting in Merida storming out of the castle and right into a curse that will unite the pair in ways they couldn't have foreseen.
There's emotional resonance in the way the bond between Merida and Elinor evolves over the course of the picture, but it just barely compensates for the nonstarter nature of the big twist that propels all the second-half action. Honestly, this development (spurred by a visit to a witch's cottage) is presented in so slight a manner that I figured it was just an anecdotal interlude, not the central crux of the movie. This wouldn't matter if the filmmakers truly broke ground with the character of Merida, but while she's a memorable heroine, she's no more complicated than, say, Rapunzel in Tangled or Tiana in The Princess and the Frog. The hype declaring that Merida is the first animated heroine to not want a husband not only misinterprets the basic tenets of modern feminism but isn't even accurate (Belle, for one, didn't actively seek a partner; she was initially more interested in acquiring knowledge).
As with all Pixar efforts, this is visually outstanding, and there's plenty of rowdy humor to keep audiences entertained. But for a supposedly progressive film, Brave is marked by a notable amount of timidity.
SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD
Call it this summer's Garden State. Tag it this season's 500 Days of Summer. No matter what angle is adopted, it's clear that Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is the sort of topnotch humanist picture that's always appreciated at a time when most other movies are striving to be the biggest and the best.
Seeking a Friend, on the other hand, is small in scope and focus, even as it touches upon enormous issues. The narrative states that an asteroid is heading to Earth, and as we join the story, we learn that all hope is lost and the planet will only be inhabitable for another few weeks. The beauty of the screenplay by writer-director Lorene Scafaria (whose shallow script for Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist did not prepare me for this) is how it views the different ways in which people might react to their impending doom.
Every single avenue of action rings true. Some party 24/7, fueled by illegal, hardcore drugs. Others continue to show up for work, as if nothing were out of the ordinary. Some folks go on a destructive rampage, looting stores, breaking into homes and beating up people (even the prospect of end times won't stop certain people from remaining losers). Yet others have wild, unprotected sex, no longer bound by traditions of matrimony or fears of pregnancy or disease. The survivalists retreat into underground shelters, figuring they can wait out the impending ice age or whatever Nature has in store.
And then there's Dodge (Steve Carell), who merely mopes around after his adulterous wife leaves him. But she's not the one he misses at this point. Unable to be with his "true love," the college sweetheart that got away, Dodge pretty much just wants to be left alone, a desire that goes unfulfilled after he makes the acquaintance of his neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley). This British lass just wants to make it back to England to be with her family, which proves to be difficult since the major airlines have all shut down. Dodge suggests that an acquaintance who owns a small plane might be able to help, and so off they go, hitting the road with an abandoned mutt in tow.
Pairing a buttoned-down man with a quirky free spirit is a plot device that's been employed in hundreds - nay, thousands - of films, but Seeking a Friend takes care not to turn into a standard comedy about a mismatched odd couple. Dodge and Penny aren't presented as extremes, which makes it easier to believe that these two could emotionally and intellectually meet somewhere in the middle.
Carell and Knightley are excellent in their respective roles, never overplaying the sentiment and making us believe that their characters can go about their lives even when they know said lives will soon be ending.
Given the subject matter, a delicious irony peeks through, since films about the end of the world often tend to be bloated, boring spectacles wherein the characters get lost amidst all the effects (exhibit A: Armageddon). This seriocomedy isn't like that, instead positing that the world will probably end not with a bang and not even with a whimper, but rather with a whisper - one most likely shared between two people whose decency and compassion cannot be snuffed out.
ROCK OF AGES
As someone who came of age in the 1980s, I'm forever coming to the defense of the music of that period, using classic tunes by the likes of (among many) Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Talking Heads and the criminally underrated (except by serious rock critics, thankfully) Cyndi Lauper as weapons in my defense. But then along comes something like Rock of Ages, which, aside from a little Joan Jett here, a lot of Def Leppard there, plays right into the hands of 80s detractors by showcasing the low-rent likes of REO Speedwagon, Poison and - seriously, folks? - Journey. Heck, why not rub some Lionel Richie mediocrity or Phil Collins' "Sussudio" into the wound while they're at it?
Based on the popular Broadway show, Rock of Ages isn't good enough to recommend and isn't bad enough to qualify as a worthwhile guilty pleasure. Instead, it's a sanitized pop show that makes rock & roll seem about as raw, reckless and dangerous as a class of kindergartners singing "Itsy Bitsy Spider." If real rock were as toothless as what's presented here, Tipper Gore would never have bothered to launch her Holy Crusade back circa the time of the film's 1987 setting.
Al's wife can be spotted in Rock of Ages, in spirit if not actual presence. There's a Tipper surrogate in the form of Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the conservative wife of the Los Angeles mayor (Bryan Cranston) who's determined to use their combined political clout to clean up the city. She plans to start with the Bourbon Room, a struggling nightclub owned by Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin). The Bourbon Room will close if Dennis can't come up with a lot of cash fast, and he pins all his hopes on an appearance by Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), a perpetually wasted rock star who pals around with a monkey named Hey Man and stresses out his oily manager (Paul Giamatti) to no end. Stacee Jaxx treats everyone like dirt, a character flaw which doesn't go unnoticed by a Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman) who nevertheless finds herself attracted to this bad-boy rocker.
All this activity on screen, and none of it even represents the central plot line. No, that would be reserved for the incredibly banal story about Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough), a small-town girl who arrives in LA seeking fame and fortune. She instead finds Drew (Diego Boneta), a nice guy who's working at the Bourbon Room but hopes to break out some day to taste his own slice of the fame & fortune pie. It's all so very trite, mawkish and dull, and neither Hough nor Boneta can muster up anything resembling screen presence.
Some of the veterans don't fare much better. Zeta-Jones, so compelling in her Oscar-winning Chicago turn, looks uncomfortable lurching her way through musical numbers set to Pat Benatar's "Hit Me with Your Best Shot" and Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It." Russell Brand is largely wasted as Dennis' right-hand man, while Baldwin sings about as well as I figure skate. Others, like Giamatti and Akerman, fare better, although Hall of Fame honors clearly go to Cruise for his radical performance.
Boozy and bilious, he's the only one who admirably wallows in the mire, and it's no coincidence that his renditions (both opposite Ackerman's journalist) of Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" and Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is" are the film's best numbers. They pump up the volume as desired; the rest of the time, the movie suggests that, in this instance anyway, rock & roll is noise pollution.
THAT'S MY BOY
In the name of full disclosure, I missed the first 15 minutes of the 115-minute That's My Boy. (Traffic; what can ya do?)
I bring this up because I've heard from at least two sources that the first 15 minutes are the best part of That's My Boy. In other words, had I witnessed this merriment firsthand, I might have willfully ignored the pathetic 100 minutes that followed and handed this a perfect 4-star rating. But that would have required a lot of willful ignorance on my part.
At least the theatrical trailer had already thoroughly prepared me for the central thrust of the picture (I mean, we're not talking Chinatown complexity here). While a teenager, Donny is seduced by a lusty teacher and ends up impregnating her. The 13-year-old lad is left to raise the child, named Han Solo (ho ho), as a single parent; once the kid becomes an adult (played by Andy Samberg), he understandably changes his name to Todd and severs all ties with his dad. But on the eve of his wedding to the lovely Jamie (Leighton Meester), Todd is aghast when Donny (Adam Sandler) suddenly reenters his life, hoping to make amends but instead leading his son into all manner of trouble.
That's My Boy is pretty unbearable, but it's impossible to completely bomb a comedy that sparkles like Chaplin's City Lights when compared to Sandler's cinematic outhouses Jack and Jill and Grown Ups. Regular co-stars Rob Schneider and David Spade are thankfully missing, although screen irritant Nick Swardson is still on hand, here playing a striptease patron who tells an obese dancer to "use my face as your toilet!"
There's one beautifully staged sequence set on a baseball field, and Todd Bridges of Diff'rent Strokes actually scores with his bit part. But the rest reeks of R-rated desperation: Samberg's Todd simultaneously screwing and barfing on a mannequin wearing his fiancee's wedding dress; Sandler's Donny masturbating over a photo of 88-year-old Grandma Delores (Peggy Stewart); Donny and Vanilla Ice gangbanging the lascivious Grandma Delores; and even a gag about incest.
On reflection, I suddenly don't mind so much about those missing 15 minutes. I would rather have the other 100 back.