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This Week at the Movies

Pixar's 'Brave' and Woody Allen's 'To Rome With Love' are charming and fun, but 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter' is a misguided attempt at revisionist entertainment.

Neither Pixar’s “Brave” nor Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love” rank among the greatest in the oeuvres of their creators, and yet both films are better than most of the selections you’ll find screening at your local cinema.

“Brave” is a first in Pixar’s canon: it’s the only movie produced by the animation studio that features a female character as its lead.

The film tells the story of Scottish princess Merida (Kelly MacDonald), a plucky, red-haired girl who is expected to learn the ways of royalty and, once a teenager, be wedded to the suitor who most pleases the king and queen.

Merida, who would rather be practicing archery in the woods, clashes with her mother (Emma Thompson), the queen, on the matter.

“Brave” is a solid entertainment that is often rousing, funny and genuinely touching. Pixar hit its stride in the latter part of last decade with the terrific “Ratatouille,” “WALL-E” and “Up.”

Since then, the studio has produced two sequels, one very good (“Toy Story 3”) and one pretty good (“Cars 2”) and, now, “Brave.” The next endeavor will be another sequel – “Monsters University.”

I suppose what I’m trying to point out is that Pixar, which has long aspired to greatness, has eased off a little with producing the type of complex animated films that appeal just as much to adults as to children.

So, while “Brave” might not be as ambitious as, say, “WALL-E,” it’s still far superior to most films of its type.

And one element that makes the picture interesting is that it makes you believe its theme will involve a young woman trying to make it in a male-dominated world, but then ends up being more about mother-daughter relationships.

And it takes plot twists in its second half that you'd likely not expect. It’s a charming movie and a solid contender for this year’s animation Oscar.

Allen’s “To Rome With Love” is not as thematically driven or ambitious as last year’s “Midnight in Paris,” but it’s still a fun, breezy film. And it’s often very funny.

The picture is the director’s final European stop before returning to New York to shoot his next movie.

Rather than focusing on one story in Rome, Allen’s film links the tales of several characters, both American and Italian, dealing with fidelity (or the lack thereof) and creative inspiration.

One story follows a young Italian couple who gets separated in Rome, leading the husband to cross the path of a prostitute (Penelope Cruz), while the wife cavorts with an Italian movie star.

In another, Robert Benigni plays an everyman who rolls his eyes at the media frenzy surrounding an actor’s visit to Rome, only to find himself relentlessly pursued by photographers and reporters in one of the movie’s more farcical tales.

Then, there’s a love triangle involving Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page, during which Alec Baldwin plays both a famed architect and Eisenberg’s conscience – well, sort of.

My favorite story involves Woody himself as a – surprise – nebbish opera conductor who has traveled with his wife (Judy Davis) to meet their daughter’s fiancé. Once in Italy, he discovers that the young man’s father has a beautiful voice, but can only sing in the shower. Hilarity ensues.

During the past decade, Allen has made a handful of strong pictures – such as “Match Point,” “Midnight in Paris” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” – and others that just aim to be amusing.

“To Rome With Love” falls in that latter category, but I don’t intend this as a criticism. Yes, the film is lighter Woody Allen, but also a genuinely good time.

The same cannot be said for “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” which, perhaps, fools you into thinking that the film’s execution could not be as ridiculous as its title. Alas.

In Russian action director Timur Bekmambetov’s latest, we come to find out that the 16th president’s early days were spent hacking vampires to bits as a means to revenge his mother’s death at the hands of a bloodsucker.

In the Old South, vampires lead the slave trade and play a large role in the Civil War, especially during the battle of Gettysburg.

The film’s greatest sin is not its absurd plot, but rather that it’s an action film that tells its story by trivializing everything from slavery and the thousands of men lost during Gettysburg to the death of Lincoln’s young boy and the president’s own execution for the sake of entertainment.

In other words, “Vampire Hunter” presents a 19th century America in which slavery is not carried out by men keeping their fellow human being in bondage, but rather lets mankind off easy by spinning a tale in which vampires are responsible for the slave trade.

And, it’s a bit tasteless to exploit the death of Lincoln’s son, Willie, who died in 1862 of tuberculosis, by attributing his untimely demise to a vampire’s bite.

The film also hints that Lincoln’s own life could have been spared had he allowed the film’s one good vampire (Dominic Cooper) to change him into one of the undead. This offer is made just as the president and his wife are making their way to a fateful performance at the theater.

The picture’s action sequences are handled well enough and Benjamin Walker does his best with the film’s titular role. But these attributes are not enough to save an overall misguided effort.

“Brave” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” are playing at Douglaston’s Movie World, while “To Rome With Love” is screening at Manhattan’s Angelika Film Center.

Michael Feiner June 25, 2012 at 09:44 PM
Sounds like three movies worth skipping Nathan. I'll probably check out how much I could stand of the "Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter" movie when it comes to cable.

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