Like many of you, I'd imagine, I applaud Pixar for finally giving audiences a strong female protagonist in Brave, and would've looked forward to the movie itself more had the trailers not been so resoundingly blah. But what I'd forgotten was that several of the animation studio's best outings - Finding Nemo, WALL·E, Toy Story 3 - were also promoted with weak previews, and so it's a pleasure to say that this Scotland-based adventure is one of Pixar's most involving and interesting achievements in years, partly because those generically jokey trailers give you almost no idea of what's actually in store.

Out of admiration for Brave's cagey marketing, I'll try to be just as circumspect. There's this princess named Merida, you see, who's fiercely independent and a whiz with a bow and arrow (and, to our benefit, voiced by the sublime Kelly Macdonald). Yet the young woman's parents (Emma Thompson and Billy Connolly) are eager to marry her off, a situation that doesn't sit well with the king's and queen's strong-willed daughter with the steely blue eyes and extraordinary explosion of red hair. (That hair, by the way, is so staggeringly well-animated that it's distracting; I missed out on more than a few passages of dialogue just watching it bounce and misbehave.) After besting a trio of potential suitors in an archery competition, the princess finally tells off her mother - a woman who can't comprehend why Merida might balk at matrimony with a Scottish dullard - and races to the woods. There, a collection of glowing will-o'-the-wisps lead Merida to a mysterious cottage housing a seemingly benign witch (Julie Walters), who strokes her chin whiskers and tells the girl that she just might have a potion that could solve her problems ... .

And here's where my synopsis must end, because it's here where Brave, despite its energy and visual splendor, morphs from a mildly engaging, blandly formulaic outing into something much, much better. For roughly the movie's first half hour, directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman keep the action and slapstick antics (beware the trio of ginger-haired toddlers) moving along swiftly, and they and their animators deliver one utterly astounding sequence in which Merida races on horseback and scales a mountain and spins beneath a waterfall; it's one of the purest expressions of unbridled joy in the entire Pixar canon. Too much of the movie's opening third, though, feels uninspired, and even remedial: the expected gags involving brogues and haggis and what men hide under their kilts; the generational battles of wills, familiar from any number of previous Disney-princess cartoons; Billy Connolly. (I like the actor and all, but a little of his über-jubilant blathering goes a long way.) Until the witch's appearance, Brave is enjoyable enough, yet also a significant comedown from the sublime Pixar short - the funny, enticing, evocative La Luna - that precedes the feature film.

Yet with the procurement and serving of that magic potion (or rather, magic tart), the movie starts to grow thematically rich and brilliantly textured, and ends up offering wonderfully thoughtful, welcome insights into mother/daughter relationships and parental responsibility and personal fulfillment without scrimping on the fun. As we've come to expect - nay, demand - from Pixar, Brave is filled with wizardly animation and marvelously inventive fringe touches and character commentary delivered through visual means; I loved that Merida's dad was more physically imposing than her Clydesdale. But what's always kept Pixar a cut above the norm (when its movies are above the norm, at any rate) is its dedication to story - to the ceaseless thrill of a gripping and well-told narrative. And it's in this film's clever and, ultimately, deeply touching narrative about parents and children that Pixar's latest finds its heart, and emerges as one of the studio's most unanticipated great times to date ... and all without its best elements being revealed in the previews. Talk about Brave.


Keira Knightley and Steve Carell in Seeking a Friend for the End of the WorldSEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World casts Steve Carell and Keira Knightley as a pair of mismatched souls who bond during the three weeks leading up to the Earth's destruction via an errant asteroid, and I can't say that I ever bought their relationship. With Carell giving his umpteenth screen performance as a mopey depressive, and Knightley striving for a Helena Bonham Carter-esque eccentricity that she can't quite pull off, the stars don't mesh either platonically or romantically; the actors read lines at each other, yet appear so disconnected that they barely seem to be in the same room together, let alone the same moment. Offhand, though, I can think of few other movies in which the leads' total lack of rapport mattered less than it does here, mostly because writer/director Lorene Scafaria has the nerve to treat her end-of-days narrative with the gravitas it deserves. (To misquote Casablanca: The problems of two movie stars don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy, soon-to-be-demolished world.)

That's not to say that Seeking a Friend ... isn't a frequent riot. The TV and radio updates on the crisis are delivered with fabulously inappropriate dryness and geniality, and Scafaria provides a number of hearty laughs involving a too-officious police officer, and the obnoxiously chipper (and really high) staff of a chain restaurant fittingly called Friendzy's, and Adam Brody as Knightley's worthless live-in boyfriend. ("Is this because you pay my rent?" he asks when Knightley finally dumps him. "I swallow a lot of pride letting you do that!") But for all of the film's comic mayhem and the sharply satirical portrayals by the likes of Rob Corddry, Connie Britton, and Patton Oswalt, Scafaria is wise enough to also show the full spectrum of personal responses to our impending doom, and most of them ain't funny. There are lootings and suicides and public prayers, mass weddings on beaches and state-of-the-art bomb shelters, and nearly every image that Scafaria captures feels truthful and entirely plausible - the Rapture as seen through a kaleidoscope. Carell and Knightley may be underwhelming, but I wound up adoring Seeking a Friend for the End of the World for its big-hearted empathy, and for its beautiful endorsement of normalcy amidst chaos, and, most of all, for its profound level-headedness. If we're ever informed that an asteroid is about to destroy all known life on Earth, I'm going to Martin Sheen's house, too.


Benjamin Walker and Dominic Cooper in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire HunterABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER

The latest action thriller by Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and despite its awesome, titter-worthy title, the problem with the film isn't that it's actually a deadly serious movie; it's that it's a really crummy deadly serious movie. To be sure, there are some fantastic effects; the climactic train ride across a burning bridge is a genuine showstopper, as is the scene that finds our heroic Mr. Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) chasing a nefarious blood-sucker, on foot, atop the backs of a stampede of horses. Yet even that giggly bit is undone by the atrocious continuity preceding it - one mere cut separates Abe's pursuit of the vamp on a riverside dock to their equine skirmish ... in Springfield, Illinois, mind you - and all throughout, the movie is portentous, and boring, to the nth degree. With its unimaginative decapitations and eviscerations all products of the Zack Snyder School of Lugubrious Slow-Motion Bloodshed, Vampire Hunter has no variety or wit, and it constantly thwarts your opportunities to either laugh with or at it. How do Bekmambetov and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (adapting his novel) stage Honest Abe digging graves while wearing a stovepipe hat and not recognize how hilarious the sight is? The more dramatic the movie got, the more I wanted to howl at it, but the leaden dialogue and misguidedly intense performances by Walker, Dominic Cooper, Rufus Sewell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Anthony Mackie, and others kill all potential mirth by exuding the same subtext: "We are not joking around here, people." The movie is so draining (vampire pun intended) that it absolutely didn't surprise me when I heard a fellow patron loudly snoring a half-hour into it; I'd say Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter felt like a four-score-and-seven-year experience, but that might be a low-ball estimate.


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