Thursday, September 30, 2010

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole

Movie: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole

The previews of this didn't make me want to watch it. It looked feeble and reviews were negative. But I really wanted to like it. It's about owls, which are cool; it's based on a book series, which is good; and it's directed by Zack Snyder (who did 300 and Watchmen) so the visuals and action would be good. Unfortunately the film makes so many elementary mistakes it ruins itself before it gets a chance.

The most critical mistake is one of confusion. The filmmakers were adapting dense books of a complex owl society so there's a lot of information the audience needs to know about this unfamiliar world. They should have bent over backwards to make sure that we understood what was going on, who was who, and how this world worked. Instead, they seem to have gone out of their way to make things more difficult and challenging. For instance, all the owls of the same species look alike. Sure, their are minor differences, but they are too subtle, especially for audiences seeing the film for the first time. (After 90 minutes, I still had trouble identifying the main character!) Even worse, the choice to use all Australia actors for the voices was a fatal one, because they all sound alike (not true for Australians, I'm sure, but the rest of the world just hears the Australian accents and can't hear anything else). So now we've got characters that look and sound alike, and they're talking about owl-things we know nothing about and referring to silly-named places like Ga'hoole, and they're not introducing any of this to us gradually but all at once, throwing us right into the deep end of the pool and expecting us to swim.

Another critical mistake is one of size. Size is all about proportion: we need to see owls next to something else to get a feel for the owl's size, but here the owls live in nature, so all we have for comparison are trees and other owls. I didn't even realize the main character was a child-owl until a good way through the film, and throughout I kept revising my estimation of his age: a baby, a child, a teenager, a young adult? I really have no idea! In one sequence he learns to fly, but I would think owls learn to fly at a pretty young age, so that would make much too young to do some of the other things he does. He's referred to as young by older owls but he's obviously older than the chicks they show, so I guess maybe he's the equivalent of a tweenager, but I don't know. That confused me, making the story more difficult to follow because I couldn't tell if the kid was doing something impressive or normal.

The bottom line is that the story ends up being a convoluted mess. I found myself distanced and put off. I didn't care much about any of the characters (okay, the comic relief owl was amusing) which meant I didn't care about the story. The story itself was both too bizarre (weird magical aspects that didn't seem to find the rest of the world) and too slight (young hero owl stops bad owls). I wanted more depth, more character. Instead the film spends much of its time attempting to present an interesting owl world, but it does it in such a convoluted manner that we just end up bewildered.

The film is beautiful, and some of the fighting action in the battle scenes is impressive. But I never once felt the least bit worried about any of the main characters, nor did I find anything about the film compelling. I feel sad because obviously tremendous effort went into this, but it was all in the wrong direction. The most interesting part for me were the closing credits, which had fantastic silhouette-style sketch animation. That was actually innovative and cool. All that said, I wouldn't necessarily advise against seeing this. It's probably worth it just for the visuals (though I wasn't at all impressed by the 3D -- it's decent, but not worth an extra penny). However, it's heartbreaking that so much potential was wasted as this could have been a classic.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Town

Movie: The Town
Director(s): Ben Affleck

The first trailer of this I saw was a bewildering mess. I saw zero that interested me. There was no story, or action, or anything. But then I started hearing the critics raving and then that the public liked it as well (it was the number one movie last weekend). That surprised me, so I watched the trailer. I don't know if it was different or I just noticed more, but this time I found something intriguing. It wasn't much: the whole bank robbery aspect seemed to be played down in such a way as to not be intriguing at all. What caught my attention was the subplot of Affleck's character falling in love with the bank manager he kidnaps during the robbery. He wore a mask so she doesn't know Ben was one of the gang that robbed her. That sounded fascinating, so I went and saw it today. It turns out to be an excellent film. I had worried that a lot of the Boston stuff would be too alien to me but other than a couple of scenes where I couldn't understand what heavily accented actors said, that wasn't an issue at all. The story is really about how hard it is to escape the criminal lifestyle when all your friends and family are trapped in that world. It's a repeating cycle, with our leading man's father already in prison and his son following his path. The romance with the girl helps change the man who wants out, but his pals don't want to let him. He owes them and feels obligated, but being a criminal is going to ruin his life. While the film feels a little long and is sluggish at times, there were some action and chase sequences that I hadn't expected. I also really liked the way the FBI guy tracking down the gang was presented, showing how he was, in his own way, just as ruthless as them. I really liked the ending, which was realistic and yet did not end the way I anticipated. Overall, an excellent film with solid performances, writing, and directing. I don't know if it's a great film -- it seems lacking some depth that would take it there -- but it's definitely above average and well worth seeing. A solid B+ in my book.


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The American

Movie: The American

The trailers actually turned me off of this one, but then I read about the conflicting opinions of critics (highly positive) and audiences (highly negative). Apparently normal people hated it because the trailers led them to expect a big action thriller while this is a thoughtful, slow-moving art film. Aspects of the latter tempted me to see it, and I'm glad I did as I like it a great deal. It's not perfect, but it is a intriguing film. The best way to describe this film is to detail one scene: a woman approaches a staircase carrying a gun and as she climbs up, we see in the blurry background behind, almost as an afterthought, a body lying in a pool of red blood. There is no explanation of what happened to the man. What movie skips a chance to show the action of a kill? But this was far creepier, letting the mystery haunt us and raising our opinion of the woman's killing skills. It was brilliant and subtle and embodies the entire movie, which often eschews action for thought-provoking drama. In terms of story, there isn't much of one. Basically it's about a hit-man having qualms of conscience while hiding out in rural Italy. I had worried I'd be bored, but the European environment is so beautiful and real (ancient stone buildings, cobblestone walks, garden-like landscapes, outdoor cafes, and street markets), and scenes are shot with grim tension of mystery and something about to happen (an homage to Sergio Leone's amazing Westerns), that I was alert almost the entire time. A huge reason for that feeling is a shocking and unexpected event that happens minutes into the film that sets a tone for the unexpected. On top of great cinematography we have fantastic performances from the excellent cast: George Clooney in the lead does some of the best work I've seen from him, with huge stretches of him merely thinking and yet we can tell what's going on in his inscrutable mind. Impressive. Yes, the film is languid-paced and artfully photographed and there is little explained directly (the audience is expected to think), but if you're the type to see those as good things rather than negatives, you'll like this film. If they turn you off, you'll hate it. I will say I agree that the marketing of the film is completely wrong and the title is horrible as it implies a political thriller and this has nothing to do with that at all (in fact, we are never even told who the target of the assassin, or who is paying for it). I vastly prefer the book's title of "A Very Private Gentleman." I don't know why they changed it as the current title sets up expectations it can't deliver.


Friday, September 17, 2010


Movie: Devil

The trailer and premise didn't interest me at all (nor did M. Night's involvement), but then I read some positive reviews and heard that the script was written by Brian Nelson, the guy who did fantastic work on Hard Candy. The kicker was that the movie was only 80-minutes and I didn't feel like a long movie today. So I gave it a go and came home happy. It's nothing remarkable, but a solid B- or C+. The premise is gimmicky -- a group of strangers are trapped in an elevator as one by one they are murdered by the devil who is one of the group -- but it surprisingly works. It's actually impressive they are able to pull it off. However, it is a strain to do it. One of the ways the film does it is by having a great deal of the story be set outside the elevator, detailing the rescue attempt and the police detective trying to solve he murders via the elevator's video feed. Unfortunately, that external viewpoint takes away from the claustrophobic atmosphere that I expected: this could have been a much more intriguing film if it felt more like we, the audience, were also trapped in the elevator with the tiny group and a murderous devil among us. I didn't feel it was scary at all. (As a side note, I thought the filming of the elevator sequences was poor as there was often little indication of the size of the room. Especially late on when there are few people left and the tiny room is full of dead bodies, it should have been incredibly confining and creepy, but from the camerawork it might as well have been a spacious hotel room.) Overall, this is a gimmick film, not particularly original and though some reviews thought the resolution clever, it was predictable and nothing more than a "Ten Little Indians" rehash for me. That doesn't negate the whole experience as there are some interesting aspects I enjoyed (the themes of crime and forgiveness are neat), but just don't expect awesomeness.


Friday, September 10, 2010

Talent is Overrated

Book: Talent is Overrated
Writer(s): Geoff Colvin

Cool book with a simple premise: that what makes great performers -- in any field -- isn't innate "talent" but hard work. Lots of evidence and research is cited to prove this point, showing how even child prodigies aren't so prodigious when we really examine them. For instance, Tiger Woods' father starting teaching his son golf when the boy was 18 months old! Is it any wonder he was a "prodigy" by age five? The reality is simply that by that age Tiger had already had more golf experience and training than most of us do in our entire life, and by the time he was an adult, he'd been working extremely hard at his craft his whole life. Of course Tiger had drive and a keen interest in golf. If he hadn't, he wouldn't have kept up with his training. But basically any of us could be a great performer in any field we want simply by working really hard at it.

I like this premise because it makes more sense to me than the idea that some people are just born with a genetic disposition to do something like write or make music or trade stocks. The truth is we're born with no skills at all. We might have certain physical gifts that help us or family that lean us in a direction (i.e. literary parents are more likely to read to their young children who will grow up with stronger verbal skills), but it's up to us to do the work.

The book's well-written but takes a lot of pages to make its simple point. I suppose if you're inclined to disagree with the point you may need the additional convincing, but I really like the idea that there is no such thing as talent, only skill, so I didn't need much convincing. The good thing about the book is the way it has changed my thinking: I am literally deleting the word "talent" from my vocabulary. I will replace it with "skill." Think how that changes your perspective. If I say to you, "You don't have any talent for singing" versus "You don't have any skill for singing." With the first phrase, you're likely to just give up and not try. But with the second, you might think, "Hey! I could _learn_ that skill." In other words, this book is inspiring and empowering. Well worth the read.


Friday, September 10, 2010

Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D

Movie: Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D

Typical of these kinds of films, this is less of a movie than a series of set pieces. They don't always join together or make much sense (the beginning sequence is especially bewildering), but often they are quite fun and entertaining. The hyped 3D in this isn't much: a few of the slow-motion action scenes include 3D bullets shooting toward you. I did like the 3D rain in a couple of scenes. But I wouldn't recommend you pay extra for the 3D. The film itself is not bad. It's not great, even among the others in this series, but it does have a few terrific moments, some nice action scenes, a few scares, and some interesting scenery. The plot is... well, nonsensical would be charitable. But then these movies don't really need a plot more that "a group of people trapped by killer zombies." That the film tries to be more than that is reaching and comes across as pretentious. I also wasn't too impressed with the ending, which is one of those annoying "stop in the middle of a sentence and wait for the sequel" endings. But overall, a fun film if you like zombie movies. If you like the previous ones, you'll probably like this one.


Friday, September 3, 2010


Movie: Machete
Director(s): Robert Rodriguez

Probably not for everyone's taste, but I enjoyed this a lot. If you liked Grindhouse you'll like this (you'll remember this film came from one of the fake movie trailers within that film). It's ultra-everything -- violence, sex, acting -- it's just over-the-top fun. It's like the coolest late night movie ever. The plot surprised me by being more complicated than I expected. I thought it was a simple revenge flick (Machete going after the people who killed his family), but the story involves a corrupt politician and the Texas border war. It's really too convoluted at times and the film's probably 20-30 minutes too long. There are also strange gaps in logic and some characters magically seem to know everything that happened to other characters even though they weren't there. But you don't see a film like this for the plot. This is all about crazy stunts, cool badass killers, and hot chicks. Some of the stuff that happens is so outrageous as to be absurd -- like the film's tongue-in-cheek homage to Die Hard -- hilarious! Unfortunately the film isn't quite up to the Grindhouse standard: some of the acting is downright horrible (e.g. Steven Segal), and after all the build-up, the ending is a letdown (nothing too dramatic or outrageous happens). I think the filmmakers got distracted by the complex plot and immigration politics and got too serious at the end. The bottom line is that his is a film of moments: tons of hilarious and terrific set pieces and scenes, mixed in with a few awkward ones that don't work, and the sum total isn't great art. It's fun, stylish, and I'm sure it'll be a cult classic (like Grindhouse), but it falls a little short of my high expectations. That said, it's worth seeing if you're into this type of film. Like Piranha 3D, it's a blast.