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Brother Bear

Frustrated by his efforts to become a person of worth in his tribe, Kenai (exquisitely voiced by Joaquin Phoenix) attempts to prove himself after a bear kills his brother while defending itself. When Kenai unexpectedly succeeds in getting revenge, the spirits of the land decide to replace the soul of the dead bear with Kenai’s; forcing him to confront life as the very enemy he swore to destroy. Given the chance to redeem himself, Kenai finds a pal in cub Koda (Jeremy Suarez, “The Bernie Mac Show”), an orphan who takes to Kenai instantly. As the two roam the land to Kenai’s possible redemption, the bears learns first hand the dangers of living in a world populated by man.

2003 finds Disney animation in quite a bind. Losing audiences to computer animated projects, and seeing independent producer Pixar steal the box office crown away from the Mouse’s own in-house product, “Brother Bear” comes to theaters as one of the last traditionally animated films to shoot down the once well-lubed pipeline for some time. What a shame, since “Bear” is a rare gem from Disney that, while lacking maybe in the essential cinematic desire to test new boundaries, is at least one of their more passionate and heartfelt animated pictures since the heyday of “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.”

The success of “Bear” comes at a distinct price, and that is, just how much can you tolerate watching Disney try to call their shotr “Brother Bear” is an elaborate amalgamation of almost every recent production that Disney has had to offer. There’s the animal kingdom playset from “The Lion King,” the environmental message as heard through wise Native Americans from “Pocahontas,” and the magical transformations from “The Little Mermaid.” Throw in some pronounced, tonally correct songs from “Tarzan’s” Phil Collins, and “Bear” ends up resembling a greatest hits version of a Disney animated “classic.” It will take some work to not be slightly disgusted by the reaching the production does to grab the good vibrations that glowed from the earlier pictures, but it all washes away when “Bear” starts to eventually cook under its own inviting heat.

Comparisons to the crackerjack look of “Finding Nemo” are unfair, but “Bear” offers its own impressive animation without much assistance from CGI. Bathed in forest greens and browns, and accented by autumnal pastels, “Bear” is an outright stunning visual feast. It’s Disney’s best looking film in a long time. Of course the story is no slouch either, providing rich teachings on understanding nature’s beasts and the importance of brotherhood. Uncharacteristically, none of the lessons are pounded too heavily on the audience. The morals are simply byproducts of the deeper emotional content provided by Kenai’s little discoveries of how his actions have affected the world around him.

Since there has to be a comedic sidekick, “Brother Bear” provides some in the form of two Canadian Moose named Rutt and Tuke, who sound suspiciously like the beer-swilling brothers Bob and Doug McKenzie, former stars of “SCTV” and their own film “Strange Brew,” and played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas. Kids aren’t going to have as much fun as adults will with the return of the McKenzie Brothers, but rest assured, it’s wonderful to hear the boys together again. Rutt and Tuke get the lion’s share of the laughs in “Bear,” and their routines might even be opening up a new generation to the ways of Bob and Doug, with kids I overheard leaving the theater saying, “beauty, ehr” Yes it is.

“Brother Bear” isn’t a marvel in terms of screenwriting urgency, but it proves the theory that if formula is handled with care and enthusiasm, it can still work delightfully.

Rating: A-

The Human Stain (BrianOrndorf)

The year is 1998, and the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal is lighting up the airwaves. In a small New England town, a classics professor, Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), has just had his career come to an abrupt end after allegedly uttering a racial epithet during class one day. Also reeling from the death of his wife, Silk finds comfort in the arms of Faunia (Nicole Kidman), a much younger woman who has seen her fair share of hell in her lifetime. As the two try to figure out a relationship with each other, Silk’s friend, Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) decides to research Silk’s past, and finds out that the professor denounced his African-American heritage long ago (seen in flashback to the 1950s), and has spent decades trying to overcome his web of lies and self-denial.

Based on the intricate novel by Philip Roth, “The Human Stain” examines the life that has been invented due to shame and fear. The film starts off with one huge whopper: that Anthony Hopkins is playing a light-skinned African-American. There’s no escaping the odd choice for the role by director Robert Benton (“Nobody’s Fool,” “Kramer Vs. Kramer”), but the film doesn’t make too big a deal out of it, letting actor Wentworth Miller (playing the younger Silk) bear the brunt of that subplot. Still, Hopkins is as controlled and defeated as he’s ever been, giving a fine performance up against the usual acting roadblock of miscasting.

“Stain” has lots to say about political correctness, and the very idea of integrity. The story uses the Monica Lewinsky scandal as a backdrop to Coleman Silk’s ordeal, drawing parallels on the vampire nature of P.C. thinking. “Stain” is really two movies in one (Coleman’s past and the present), with Benton attempting to connect the tales seamlessly, but often failing to do so. “Stain” is compelling, thoughtful drama, adapted with depth and ease by Nicholas Meyer (“Star Trek II”), but it does fall into melodramatic traps now and again.

A palatable sense of intimacy is what a veteran like Benton brings to “Stain.” The filmmaker takes time and measured effort in trying to bring Coleman and Faunia together. I will be the first to admit that this pairing is an unusual one. It bends the limits of disbelief even further with a rare unkind performance from Nicole Kidman that doesn’t quite make the grade in terms of believability. Cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffer (who recently passed away) bathes the cast in gorgeous golden hues, and Benton instructs the lovers to speak in hushed tones, creating a dreamlike atmosphere for the story’s integral post-coital revelations of secrets and longing. “Human Stain” is an emotionally charged film, allowing each character to have a theatrical outburst or two, but the best moments are the ones when the pace is slowed down, the clothes are removed, and the inner fire of lost souls begins to burn. That’s when the audience learns just what “The Human Stain” is all about.

Rating: B+

Pieces of April

In “Pieces of April,” April Burns (Holmes, who also starred in “The Gift”) is a New York bohemian living with her struggling boyfriend (Derek Luke, “Antwone Fisher”), and spending the day preparing a Thanksgiving feast for her estranged family. Not having much luck with her oven, April frantically searches for another apartment to cook her meal in, leading to unexpected results. Her family, including mother Joy (Patricia Clarkson) and father Jim (Oliver Platt), are packed in a car on their way to the big city, stopping every so often to deal with Joy’s cancer treatment exhaustion, along with the family’s general apprehension in seeing April again.

“Pieces Of April” embodies the tiresome side of independent filmmaking. Through its digital video camera lens we see a collection of cartoonish characters, a boring New York location, and a sitcomish screenplay that doesn’t have a focal point. “April” is a blessedly short (80 minutes) and simple character piece exploring the degenerative aftermath of a dysfunctional family trying to keep straight faces as they gather for the holiday season. The entire film is split between April’s odyssey to get her turkey cooked, and her family’s long ordeal driving up to April’s New York City apartment.

April’s side of the plot is where most of the success is found in the movie. While writer/director Peter Hedges teeters on that oh so precious “only in New York” vibe to the apartment complex microcosm, he does manage a loving portrayal of the many denizens of the building, and how some refuse April, and others are willing to help her. Comedy is provided by April’s lousy attempts to cook the dinner, working from box-top recipes and her own foggy memory of how a meal like this is prepared. Interspersed between the chunky mashed potatoes and canned cranberries are glimpses of the emotional damage that has been inflicted on April, swelling the film’s anticipation of what’s going to happen when the two sides meet.

The other half of the film is trapped in a car with the Burns clan, and it’s a pretty awkward journey. If a car ride with a dysfunctional family seems familiar to you, that’s because “April” comes uncomfortably close to Greg Mottola’s “The Daytrippers,” which was essentially the same concept – without the turkey and the stuffing. Whereas “Daytrippers” was a funny and a moving experience, “April” is a misfire, playing around with wildly diverging dramatic tones that never come together. There’s nothing wrong with trying to merge pathos with comedy, but Hedges can never find an equal weight in either side, resulting in an clumsy treatment of Joy’s attitude about her cancer, and a deeply tedious, sitcom-like appearance to the Burns’ travels.

The film’s main theme is the sense of obligation on both parties’ behalf when it comes to this dinner. Hedges doesn’t suitably pay this off, choosing subtle imagery over a true closure to the film. The ending is the very definition of the phrase, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” I would’ve liked those thousand words placed back into the film.

Rating: D+