Scotland is front and centre of the new film by those supreme animators Pixar, and can be extremely pleased with the results. Scottish mettle and humour, along with the country's natural beauty, make Brave one of the sweetest of the company's films to date.
Set historically in the ballpark of a certain Braveheart, this involves a handful of once-warring Highland clans enjoying a tentative peace. However, the story is not about war but family, and in particular a mother and teenage daughter struggling to negotiate their relationship. The film is very straightforward, in fact, with the recognisable emotional terrain of light drama or Hollywood teen comedy, only with big swords, kilts, bears and a witch thrown in for good measure.
Kelly Macdonald lends her gorgeously distinctive voice to the young heroine, Merida, a flame-haired princess bored out of her mind with the strict regime of her mother the queen (Emma Thompson), who is grooming her for royal duties and marriage into a rival clan. Dad, aka King Fergus (a typically rumbustious Billy Connolly) panders to his spirited daughter's nature, happy when she is galloping through forests, climbing mountains and practising archery skills that would easily secure an Olympic medal.
When the queen invites three decidedly odious young suitors to vie for her daughter's hand at a Highland Games, Merida turns to a witch (amusingly voiced by Julie Walters) to secure her freedom, with unexpected results.
Pixar has functioned under the Disney umbrella for a number of years and, in terms of its slight story, smoothly dispensed sentiment and overtly young target audience, Brave plays more like a traditional Disney movie than a Pixar: it doesn't have the script sophistication of the Toy Stories, Wall-E or Up.
That said, it is engaging, very funny and beautifully animated. A sequence in which Merida demonstrates her bow skills, the arrow nipping her cheek as it passes, is just one indication that Pixar's mastering of CGI is still worthy of gold. And it's good to see Scottish dialect, sometimes of the unintelligibly thick Doric variety, in such a mainstream American film.
Unlike Brave, and despite the presence of a talking teddy bear, Ted is most certainly not a children's film. And its hero may refuse to grow up, but he's no Peter Pan.
Mark Wahlberg stars as John Bennett, a 35-year-old Boston slacker who still keeps his childhood teddy by his side, for good reason: the bear is alive, conjured into existence by a wish on a shooting star, and the pair have grown up together as inseparable friends. Once a celebrity (for obvious reasons), Ted is now like a child star gone to seed, tied to his bong on the sofa, and is the worst possible influence on his human friend. And when she comes home one night to see Ted surrounded by prostitutes, John's girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) hands down an ultimatum.
Ted is the brainchild of Seth MacFarlane, and is as lewd, crude and politically incorrect as you'd expect from the creator of Family Guy. Sometimes the humour is too culturally specific, or just too crass to be appreciated; at others – such as the running theme on the kitsch classic Flash Gordon, and a man-on-bear fist fight – it is inspired.
On paper, the premise sparks memories of the 1950 comedy Harvey, but whereas that film's giant rabbit was a figment of James Stewart's imagination, the bold move here is to make Ted real and casually acknowledged by the world – a factor that only magnifies our own surprise at the cuddly toy's ribald human properties. I also marvelled at the CGI animation, which gives the unwavering and eerie impression that the actors are really sharing scenes with a talking bear.
Earlier this year, Martha Marcy May Marlene dealt with the issue of quasi-religious cults in America. The film was essentially a thriller, as a young woman escapes a sinister cult, only to be plagued by the fear that its members are in pursuit. Though chillingly well-made, the scenario didn't feel particularly surprising – after all, we expect cults to be sinister.
In contrast, Sound Of My Voice leaves us guessing from beginning to end, and beyond. A young LA couple, teacher and wannabe filmmaker Peter and his girlfriend Lorna (Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius) infiltrate a cult in the city, with a view to filming their experiences with a secret camera and exposing its leader, Maggie (Brit Marling) as a charlatan. Meetings are held in a basement, where the group practises a secret handshake, the complexity of which would fry any sane person's brain. As for Maggie, she claims she's from the future, which is where she plans to take her followers.
Tension is ratcheted up by the couple's constant fear of discovery, especially in an inventively icky scene involving Peter's hidden camera. But what's more interesting is the ebb and flow of the couple's scepticism and resolve, as the charismatic Maggie starts to get under their skin, which leads in turn to our own growing ambivalence about her.
Not content with disturbing one's usually secure disdain for the cult phenomenon, the film has a few other tricks up its sleeve. Some may recognise Marling as the star of the equally micro-budgeted science fiction film Another Earth. The actress also co-wrote both films, and is fast becoming one of the most distinctive voices in American independent cinema. She certainly knows how to defy our expectations.
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