I have now seen something that makes the fuss over 3-D worthwhile. That would be the fiery red hair of Merida, the young heroine of director Mark Andrews' Brave, the latest animated film from Pixar/Disney.
Merida, voiced by the talented actress Kelly Macdonald (TV's Boardwalk Empire, the film Gosford Park, etc.) doesn't just have red hairshe sports a mane that would have put a young Kate Bush to shame. Flecked with strands of orange, gold and rust, Merida's flowing mass of corkscrew curls is a thing of beauty that catches the sun and darkens in the shadows. It moves with a life of its owntrying, it would seem to keep up with its ownerwho, in true Disney fashion, is a rebellious princess dashing about and getting into big trouble.
Brave is the first fairy tale from Pixar, and with Disney as its parent company one wonders what took so long. Set in the 10th century in the highlands of a Scotland kingdom called DunBroch, the movie is a familiar yet very delightful hybrid of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. It's not a musical like those two but the dilemma for the plucky princess isn't far off from Ariel's and Belle'snor Cinderella's or scores of other fairytale protagonists', for that matter.
Merida, a champion archer and dedicated tomboy, is horrified to learn that Queen Elinoher very proper, tradition-bound motherhas invited the sons of the heads of the other three clans to vie for her hand in marriage. Our gal, naturally, wants to hold out for lovealthough whether with a man or woman isn't made clear (and speculating on this adds to the fun for queer movie audiences).
In the meantimeuntil her indulgent, comically violent father (hilariously voiced by Billy Connolly) or exasperated mother reins her inMerida will continue indulging in her free spirit (hence the untamable hair, a vivid symbol of her independence). So she flaunts tradition and, in the process, goes to war with mum (voiced with the expected linguistic expertise of Emma Thompson). Soon, she strikes a bargain with a not-so-friendly witch that goes completely and horribly awry. This being Disneyer, Pixar, of courseall will be put to rights before the fade-out.
The picture is light in the plot departmentall the better to keep the fidgety kiddies engagedbut there's plenty of clever tongue-in-cheek dialogue; adorable and wacky characters (Merida has three younger brothers who cause havoc at every turn and also sport ginger locks); and copious amounts of the expected cartoon violence.
Best, the animation department has really gone to town to show the gorgeous Scottish countryside with its lush, verdant hills, dotted with mysterious rock formations. That, and the fact that the script manages to work in seemingly every beloved Scottish tradition ("Eat your haggis," mum tells her boys), should make the country's tourism bureau very, very happy.
Brave is a charming and vibrant new member of the Disney/Pixar stable, and certainly could be musicalized and join its forebears with a Broadway run. Whether that happens or not, in its depiction of the fractious though ultimately loving relationship between Merida and Queen Elinor, Brave also makes for a smashing addition to the mother's day movie canon.
Of Related Interest: Tomboy, French writer-director Celine Sciamma's fascinating study of 10-year-old Laure (played by the fearless Zoe Heran)who passes herself off as a boy to the other kids when her family moves to a new neighborhoodis one of the most carefully observed studies of adolescence caught in the throes of gender confusion that I've seen. The film, which made my Top 10 LGBT films of 2011, is now out on DVD and digital download from Wolfe Video.
Universal has partnered with Turner Classic Movies on several boxed sets of interesting and highly coveted material by classic fans. The recently issued Women in Danger setwhich includes four little-known titles on separate discsis just such a release. The quartet stars four actresses who had seen better days at the box office yet retained enough of their former glory and high-wattage glamour to warrant heading these terse and highly entertaining B pictures.
For LGBT fans, the inclusion of 1955's Female on the Beach, with star Joan Crawford (at one point she suntans wearing stilettos, short-shorts and a high-collared, long sleeve shirt) being romanced by hunky (and often shirtless) Jeff Chandler, will be a reason to immediately add the set to the collection. And it's not a bad reason: The film, which skirts both the noir and camp genres, is at times a howler with Crawford being hard, coy and then frightened when faced with the rapacious advances of Chandler, who makes little pretense of being anything more than a male escort.
The grouping also includes three lesser known but just as satisfying potboilers. In 1950's Woman in Hiding, Ida Lupino plays the daughter of a factory owner who marries the no-good but good-looking plant manager, who doesn't waste any time trying to kill her (like on their wedding night). With the help of real-life husband Howard Duff, Lupino sets about convincing the rest of the world that her husband is a baddie.
Esther Williams, she of the swimming pool musicals ("Wet she was a star," produce Joe Levine said of her appeal) takes an unusual dramatic (though rather interesting) detour in 1956's The Unguarded Moment. Williams portrays a high school teacher who is stalked by a peeping Tom and sexual predatora very provocative subject for its day. Lastly, Merle Oberon plays a duplicitous businesswoman in 1956's The Price of Fear. She is involved in a hit-and-run accident that leads her down a very dark path with an underworld crime boss and the dreamy Lex Barker (the one-time Tarzan), a dog-track owner the mob is after and who falls hard for Oberson's line. All in all, they're a terrifically entertaining foursome.
One More Woman: Speaking of rotten-egg ladies, they don't come much nastier than the revenge-seeking ghost in The Woman in Black, the Edwardian ghost thriller recently released on DVD that was Daniel Radcliffe's first starring role after saying goodbye to the Harry Potter series.
Radcliffe plays a young widower who heads to a remote area of England to settle the estate of a rich woman who resided in a rotting, decayed mansion accessible only during low tide. Everyone in the audience knows that the frozen reception young Daniel receives upon entering the nearby village has more than a little to do with the previous resident of said rotting mansion, the source of plenty of heartache (not to mention death).
Slowly, Daniel knows it as well. The avenging harpy of the title is creepily realized, and the picture's terrific production design (the house is a triumph for the art department) and the above-average ghost story the movie relatesnot to mention Radcliffe's nicely shaded performance (ably assisted by Ciaran Hinds, Janet McTeer and others)more than compensates for a minimum of genuine scares.
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