U.S.: Carlos Saldanha, 2011, 20th Century Fox
Rio is a big, coruscatingly colorful feature-cartoon love-letter to Rio de Janeiro from Brazilian director/writer Carlos Saldanha (director and co-director on the Ice Age movies) -- and it's full of spectacular computer-cartoon images of Saldanha's legendary city of samba, aswarm with funny animals acting wild and crazy in Carnaval time.
Saldanha's movie, a gorgeous and obviously heartfelt tribute to his city, whirls and pulses and dances and pops with energy. At its most exciting and colorful, it soars through the skies 'round the Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado Mountain, and over Rio beaches of golden sand teeming with bikini-clad Brazilian dolls, the guys eyeing them, and suntan oil, and waving hips and multicolored beach umbrellas, all backed by hills rising to a sky filled with shacks and poor people (they dance too), rimmed by an ocean clear and blue as a piece of fallen sky (as Ross MacDonald would say).
In the movie, when we're not swooping though the skies on hang-gliders or on bird wing, we're dropping down below to the streets of the city: those hot, seething, spacious or half-mean streets swallowed in the frenzy of Carnaval in one of the world's favorite playgrounds: the city of Black Orpheus, the city of That Man in Rio, the city of Pixote and of City of God, here re-created visually at its torrid, rhythmic Carnaval Bossa Nova/big beat best.
As for the funny animals, Rio has 'em up the hip-shaking wazoo, including those ultimate funny animals called humans (sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes compassionate, sometimes greedy and sometimes money-mad and vicious). The good humans here include Linda the bookseller from Moose Lake, Minn. (Leslie Mann), and Tulio the animal scientist from Rio (Rodrigo Santorio).
More than that, we've got an evil Australian cockatoo named Nigel (Jemaine Clement). We've got bad-ass black-market marmosets. We've got a Big Daddy Toucan named Rafael voiced by George Lopez, a sensitive but slobbering bulldog named Luiz (Tracy Morgan), two frisky little birds, canary and cardinal, named Nico and Pedro (Jamie Foxx and will i. am) and lots and lots of monkeys. There's Chloe and Alice the Geese (Jane Lynch and Wanda Sykes), and, at the center of it all, there are those two precious blue macaws: neurotic, non-flying Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) originally smuggled out of Brazil but now a proud resident of Moose Lake and Linda's bookish pet, and also the free-spirited, high-flying Jewel (Anne Hathaway) an adventuress from the Brazilian rain forest, who may be Blu's destiny.
They're the last of their kind. And, of course, those two good, decent humans, Linda and Tulio, want to save the species by flying Blu down to Rio, bringing them together so they'll begin to know and like each other, and nature will take its course and blue macaws shall not perish from the earth.
As you can probably guess, this plan gets messed up. Instead of falling in love, Blu and Jewel squabble and then are kidnapped by the villains.
Subsequently there are a lot of chases involving almost everybody, but especially the malevolent Nigel, who puts a lot of cunning and malice into stealing the macaws, when he isn't stealing the movie.
Rio's digital re-creations of fur and feathers on the animals, or of the verdant riots of green and the cascades of flowers in the forest, and all the sights of the city, from the darkest alley to the line of posh tourist hotels towering above the sun-drenched beach, are both warmly glowing and phenomenally rich, saturated and ablaze with hot, hot colors and fiery images.
The cast is top-notch; Clement's Nigel, as mentioned, swipes the show. True, the story line isn't too original. But it's a cute movie and it's done with spectacular technical finesse. (Extras: deleted scenes; featurettes; music videos; digital copy; juke box; trailer.)
U.S.-U.K.: Mel Gibson/Ridley Scott, 1995-2000, Paramount
This is an excellent package, economical and satisfying, and it works whether you're a history buff, an action fanatic, or just plain a movie-lover. The contents: Two Best Picture Oscar-winning historical adventure films, Braveheart and Gladiator, with two Australian superstars, Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe, in full sword-slashing hero form. The scripts are literate, the underlying history is at least visible, the action is furious, the direction is stylish, and the casts are first-rate. I like them both.
Braveheart may not have deserved the 1995 best picture Oscar. (Many of the winners don't.) But this lavish period epic about the 13th-century Scottish revolt led by William Wallace (Gibson) is an exciting, chest-thumping Rob Roy of a show and still director-star Gibson's best movie.
The settings are lush, the action is exciting and brutal and the picture is as politically incorrect as you'd expect. The unusually good supporting cast includes Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan (as England's Edward I), Brendan Gleeson, Catherine McCormick, Ian Bannen, Alun Armstrong, Angus Macfadyen and Brian Cox.
Gladiator may not quite have deserved the Best Picture Oscar either, but it's as sweeping and entertaining a Hollywood historical adventure epic as you'll find, and classier in the visual department than Braveheart. (Of course; Ridley Scott was the director.)
The story is essentially the same one (or very similar) that director Anthony Mann and screenwriters Ben Barzman and Philip Yordan (a longtime black list victim and his longtime front) told in their 1964 Samuel Bronston epic, The Fall of the Roman Empire, but with more changes and more fictionalization. Russell Crowe is the warrior/gladiator/hero Maximus, where the equivalent in The Fall of the Roman Empire, played by Stephen Boyd is general/hero Livius. But Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen and Richard Harris play the same roles (loony emperor Commodus, heroine Lucilla and the meditative Marcus Aurelius) that Christopher Plummer, Sophia Loren and Alec Guinness did for Fall. The rest of the cast is stellar, noble and Roman (well, more stellar, noble and British, actually) as well: Derek Jacobi, David Hemmings, Oliver Reed (who died in mid-film) and Djimon Hounsou.
The Fall of the Roman Empire was underrated, and Gladiator a little overrated, but both of them are very entertaining ways to watch Rome fall.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Perfect Game (B)
U.S.; William Dear, 2010, Image
I admit it. I'm a sucker for inspirational sports movies. And this account of the historic 1957 Little League champions from Monterey, Mexico -- a warm-hearted picture directed by William Dear, written by the book's author, W. William Winokur, and starring Clifton Collins Jr. as the manager, Cheech Marin as the priest and Moises Arias, Jansen Panatierre, Ryan Ochoa and Jake T. Austin among the boy players (with cameos by Lou Gossett Jr., Frances Fisher and others) -- got my Hoosiers juices running. For all the movie's sometime clichés, it's a story worth telling. (Extras: commentary by director William Dear; featurette; trailer.)