Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Bulletproof (1988)

Full disclosure: I had never seen or heard of Bulletproof (1988) until I stumbled upon a collection of the best/worst movie insults of all time.  This caught my attention:
That's right, Gary Busey, perched in the rafters of a warehouse, called Danny Trejo a "butthorn."  Needless to say, that placed Bulletproof on the top of my to-do list.  But is it really worth it to track down this virtually unknown late-80s action movie, just to hear Gary Busey say "butthorn"?

Yes.  A thousand times, yes!  The glory of Bulletproof is not merely that single line, but 93 minutes of ridiculous action movie silliness that is blissfully unaware of how incredibly, laughably stupid it is.  You might worry that an entire movie's worth of enjoyment cannot come with just one "butthorn" comment.  You're wrong, but just to put your mind at ease, I'll let you in on a secret: it's not just the one comment.

So what is Bulletproof about, aside from butthorns?  It's the story of "Bulletproof" McBain (Gary Busey), a reckless cop who is also a semi-retired secret ops agent because of course he is.  The film opens with him on a stakeout with his older partner (Thalmus Rasulala), who implies that he is too old for this shit.  They're on the lookout for a potential illegal arms deal, and the first hint that the deal is going down comes from a limousine and an ice cream truck that drive into an abandoned warehouse.
Don't try to justify that logic.  You will hurt yourself.
Instead of calling for back-up, McBain decides to sneak into the warehouse and handle things on his own.  And by "sneak," I of course mean "take absolutely no cover in the rafters of the building."  A firefight ensues, one that features a lot of bad guys shooting automatic weapons and not hitting anything.  On the bright side, McBain kills someone every time he fires his revolver.  Over the next few minutes, the following things happen:
  • McBain avoids being inured by a rocket launcher that was fired at him from across a room.
  • "I think we blew him up!"  "You don't blow up a dude like McBain!"
  • A car chase involving an ice cream truck filled with weapons instead of ice cream.
  • Multiple 360° spins during the car chase.
  • The longest grenade fuse (or whatever determines when grenades explode) ever caught on film.
  • McBain's boss arriving at the crime scene, looking around and saying "Well, I guess you had to be there," before secretly complimenting McBain on his work.
Keep in mind that this is just the opening sequence, designed to give the audience subtle hints that McBain is awesomely bad-ass.  After a hard night's work, McBain comes home to rest, but instead finds his attractive quasi-girlfriend/hump buddy waiting for him.
"I'll be Ernie, if you'll be Bert.  Oh, rubber ducky, I'm awfully fond of you...sexually!"
You know what makes this scene great?  Well, yes, the gratuitous nudity.  But it's more than that.  Hump buddy's explanation for why she's there is, essentially, because she's crazy and wants to share that craziness with McBain's penis.  Also, I have to point out a few things in that picture.  How many candles, bubbles and flowers do you think "Bulletproof" McBain keeps in his bathroom?  That's right, none.  So this crazy woman A) made a copy of McBain's house key to get in B) brought in at least a bag's worth of her stuff to feminize his bathroom and C) anticipated waiting a while for him and brought her rubber ducky with.  Oh, and apparently McBain's bathroom has rooms inside it; while Sexy McCrazy is sudsing up, McBain goes to the next room so he can use the sink and mirror to pull out a bullet he caught in the shoulder that night.
Perhaps "Bullet Magnet" would have been a better title
Why am I going into such detail with this plot?  Because this particular plot has absolutely nothing to do with the bulk of the movie.  After an opening like this, I expected a Lethal Weapon knock-off, especially with the old, cranky black partner who loves to remind McBain that his ass is, in fact, black.  That is the beauty of Bulletproof.  Just when you think the movie is going to play it safe and predictable, it decides to make absolutely no sense.  At this point, it becomes an international spy story.  The US government has a super tank, code-named Thunderblast, which is ridiculously powerful.  Like, it's probably worth two, or maybe three tanks.  The government then makes the deliberate choice to allow the Thunderbolt to be captured by terrorists, as part of a larger master plan.  They make sure that McBain's former girlfriend (Darlanne Fluegel) was on the mission, to serve as bait.  So, what's the master plan?  The government wants McBain to recover the stolen tank...that they purposely allowed the terrorists to steal.  So...hmm.  That's a toughie, a point that the script wisely chooses to not address.  What about the terrorists?  Who is McBain fighting?  Cubans.  Nicaraguans.  Arabs.  Russians.  You know, the groups that typically work together and decide to invade America through Mexico, powered by a single tank.  My god, the 80s were hilarious.
I love that the Russian has to wear a fur hat in the Mexican desert so we know where he is from

How is the acting in Bulletproof?   Predictably ridiculous.  Gary Busey leads the way, and I found myself enjoying his over-the-top performance.  It isn't actually good, but it was fun to watch.  Some actors would look terrible in a role that required them to spout horrendous dialogue and be a complete asshole to any character they don't kill first.  Not Busey.  He was as believable in this role as anybody could be.
And yes, the urge you feel to punch his teeth in is perfectly normal
The rest of the cast is far less interesting and entertaining.  Honestly, I don't know why they bothered with any non-Busey scenes in this movie.  Of the good guy supporting cast, L.Q. Jones and Darlanne Fluegel were probably the most noteworthy, although that isn't saying much.  The cast of villains had a few unexpected surprises, though.  William Smith, who was born to play direct-to-video villains in the 80s, plays the evil Russian (oddly, he is credited as "Bill Smith"), and makes sure that there is no question about his character's poorly accented nationality.  Even better than Smith's Yakov Smirnoff impression was Henry Silva.  Silva frequently acted in bad movies and, for some reason, he was often chosen to portray some other ethnicity.  In Bulletproof (1988), he plays an Arabic terrorist with (I guess) Communist leanings and a penchant for rape and murder.  Thank goodness that's not racist at all.
"Nice costume.  The beret really sells the whole 'Arabic terrorist' thing"
One of the funnier things about Bulletproof is the fact that there are two great action movie bad guys in the cast, but they play bit parts.  Danny Trejo and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (who was left uncredited for some reason) were both just starting out in Hollywood, and this was the best work they could get. 

Steve Carver's direction is not too bad, from a technical standpoint.  I mean, sure, he edited out the explanation of why the US government wanted McBain to single-handedly attack terrorists on foreign soil.  And yes, he was responsible for some of the most unintentionally funny flashback scenes I have ever seen.  My favorite was the one where McBain's lying in bed, shirtless, cuddling with his saxophone, and then he flashes back to the time when he wooed his girlfriend by playing the sax on the beach --- and the soundtrack to his dream was clearly not what he was playing on the beach.
Boy, I certainly am convinced that Busey can play the saxophone
But I'm getting off the subject.  Steve Carver put as much stupid action as he could fit into Bulletproof.  One of the more obvious examples of that comes from the scene where the bad guys repeatedly fail to follow through on their threat to find out, once and for all, just how bulletproof McBain is.  I don't know why, but these terrorists, who are happy to kill any supporting character without provocation, treat the murder of McBain and his ex-girlfriend like a seven-year-old treats cleaning his room.  They're totally going to do it, just...not right now.  So, here's the setup.  McBain is tired and helpless, tied to a gigantic wooden spool.
Yes, you heard that right.  A spool.
The bad guys are (finally) going to execute him.  How does he escape?  Well, a grenade blows up and sends his spool rolling down the hillside.
That is absolutely Gary Busey.  I recognize that shirt.
The villains, who are numerous and have cars and trucks, can't seem to track the giant spool down, and McBain escapes.  Does that blow your mind?  It blew mine.

What makes Bulletproof more than just a bad movie is the incomprehensible script.  This story was written by the team that brought us Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, but doesn't make quite as much sense.  This movie doesn't feel like something written by completely sane adults.  It's more like the fever ramblings of a six-year-old, doped up on Nyquil.  What else can explain the fact that Gary Busey is more deadly with a revolver than with a tank (that, for some reason, has cubicle chairs and a coffee maker)?
And why would anybody go to the trouble of giving McBain such ridiculous obstacles and then waste precious time showing McBain trying to figure out the tank's control system?  Reality left this movie before the first butthorn sounded, so this late development was bewildering.  Do you want some more examples of the writing excellence on display in Bulletproof?  Of course you do.
  • The password to let McBain know who to team up with in Mexico, on his quest to recapture the Thunderblast, is...wait for it..."Thunderblast."
  • Actual comeback, part 1: "Yeah...your FACE!"
  • Actual comeback, part 2: the Arabic terrorist is told to go "fuck his camel."
  • The Russians recognize McBain by his nickname, "Bulletproof."
  • After it's all over, McBain has to drive the tank back to America, though the border patrol.  And they just look confused.
There's a lot more than that, but I don't want to spoil everything.  I would totally buy enough copies of Bulletproof to give to all of my friends, but the only DVD pressing of it is truly awful.  It's in 4:3 aspect ratio and looks like it was recorded directly from a VHS tape.  That wouldn't be a deal-breaker, but the damn thing is still fetching $14-$50 on Amazon.
"What the hell, butthorns?  You know this is worth $5, MAX!"
As a legitimate movie, Bulletproof is not very good, but it is filled with action and is makes sense, if you are incapable of coherent thought.

From the completely unreasonable perspective of Lefty Gold, Bulletproof is so hilariously bad that I watched it twice, back-to-back, before returning the rental.  If you're in the mood for stupid, I cannot recommend this any higher.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Crow

Here's a little background on me.  I've always been excited for Christmas.  It is the one day all year I will wake up at an ungodly hour without setting an alarm because, apparently, I am seven years old.  When I was old enough for my parents to yell at when I woke them up at 4:30AM on Christmas morning, I had a choice to make.  I could either be an adult and sleep in until a reasonable hour, or I could find something to keep me occupied until dawn.  And so I began my tradition of watching movies in the pre-dawn hours of Christmas morning.  The first entry in this series was The Crow.  I was unfortunate enough to be a teenager when The Crow came out, which means that I have seen no fewer than 6000 people dressed up as The Crow for Halloween.  This movie has always had a weird appeal.  There are all sorts of people who will dress up as The Crow for Halloween: dudes who like action movies, guys who want an excuse to show off their abs, Goth kids, poor people who happen to own a black shirt and black jeans, bondage enthusiasts, people who love to pout, etc.
Yeah, like that, but less awesome.  And with more practical pants.
Anyway, back to Christmas.  I was lucky enough to have very permissive parents who realized that I was not going to kill people because of the music, video games, or movies I absorbed.  However, my mom happened to walk into the room as the climactic scene was finishing and she saw this:
Bizarrely, her reaction was not "That's totally bitchin', son!"
Yes, a guy impaled on a gargoyle, which is funneling his blood out of its mouth.  Merry Christmas.  I hadn't watched The Crow in many years, so I was wondering how well it held up.  The answer?  About as well as can be expected.

The Crow is the story of Eric Draven (Brandon Lee).  Eric and his fiancé, Shelly, were brutally murdered on October 30th, the day before their wedding.  Why?  Because October 30th is Devil's Night in Detroit, and Detroit is run by complete scumbags (NOTE: that probably means that The Crow takes place before Robocop and is, therefore, a prequel).  A year later, Eric crawls out of his grave  For whatever reason, a crow tapped on his grave and Eric woke up.  Not surprisingly, he was traumatized by memories of his death and the rape and murder of his soon-to-be-wife.  Quite a bit more surprising, though, was Eric's new-found ability to heal from any wound --- oh, and the fact that his body apparently healed from the sharp fall that killed him while he was rotting in the grave.  Like anyone else who has risen from the dead, Eric preached to others decided to share his experience with the people who killed him.  And by "share his experience," I of course mean "murder the hell out of."  But before he can wreak his terrible vengeance, he needs to put on makeup. his identity...or something.
That's a sad clown
Once he put on his face, Eric --- now The Crow --- hunted down each of the men responsible for his and Shelly's deaths.  As he works his way up the criminal food chain, The Crow's murderous ways have an unexpected effect on a young girl and a disillusioned cop; he gives them hope...which probably means they're pretty messed up in the head.

The Crow was undoubtedly Brandon Lee's best movie before his untimely death during filming.  However, his career up to this point was highlighted by his prominent chin and that time he complimented Dolph Lundgren's penis in Showdown in Little Tokyo.  Was Lee any good?  He turns in a solid action performance, but his acting is hit and miss.  He is suitably cool when playing the invulnerable Crow, but is wretched when trying to convey any emotions; when he is moaning for Shelly, Lee sounded like a drunk with a mouth full of marbles.  What really makes The Crow work is not Brandon Lee, but the surprisingly solid supporting cast of villains.  Michael Wincott played the unfortunately named Top Dollar, the lead baddie, and he was a lot of fun to watch.  Wincott has a fantastic villain voice, and it absolutely fits the ridiculous level of evil this character requires. 
Long hair and no tie?  This Top Dollar fellow is quite the rebel!
His right hand man was none other than Tony Todd, who simply is incapable of playing a nice guy.  You know you've got a solid bad guy cast when the Candyman is a henchman.  There are a few other minor bad guys, but the most important one is David Patrick Kelly, who managed to rock a Caesar cut and a ponytail at the same time.  Kelly is one of my all-time favorite baddies, and he has some choice moments here.  My favorite is when he orders an underling to grab some cigarettes and "road beers" because he's so evil that he makes drunk driving a priority.  A close second is his "Fire it up!" chant with his gang members.  It is totally intimidating and not at all comedic.
And it definitely doesn't look like a terrible Boy Band dance
The last of the noteworthy baddies is Bai Ling, who was suitably creepy as a weird witch-like lady.  She didn't act great, but Ling's natural smile looks genuinely frightening, so she came across pretty well in her small role.  Ernie Hudson got to swear and point out how ridiculous the rest of the cast was acting.  Rochelle Davis played little Sarah, and she was pretty bad.  On the plus side, she had a terrible and very 1990s haircut that you don't see too often in films.  This was also in that brief period where Anna Levine got to play almost every trashy whore character that Juliette Lewis turned down.  Levine has a tragic quality to her, and I thought she was surprisingly good in a role that wasn't very well-written.

The Crow was directed by Alex Proyas, and was his first widely-released film. If absolutely nothing else, he took a story that could have been laughably cheesy and added enough edge to it to make it pretty cool.  Proyas wasn't too impressive from a technical standpoint, but he played it pretty smart.  Why mess with fancy angles or try to milk a great dramatic performance from this cast, when it is far easier to go for spectacle and overlook its inherent stupidity?  My favorite instance of that comes from this scene:
Heroes/antiheroes leaving a calling card is a long-honored comic book tradition, so it's not shocking that The Crow decides to let the police know that he is the one, um, murdering scumbags.  The effect that this scene has on Ernie Hudson's character is to make him roll with it; if a victim wants to kill the city's biggest scumbags that the law can't seem to prosecute, he's willing to light a cigarette and enjoy the show.  But think about this scene for a moment.  This isn't Spider-Man leaving a purse snatcher somewhere for a beat cop to find and arrest.  This is someone who is murdering people who, in a strictly legal point of view, are innocent.  From that perspective, The Crow is a lot closer to a serial killer than a hero.
"Ha!  Logic!"
Of course, nobody watching the movie actually comes to that conclusion but me.  And no, I don't really give a rat's ass that the bad guys are being killed.  That's all good clean fun in my mind.  What I would like to know is how The Crow managed to pour the gasoline so precisely to make his flame art.  The city always looks wet, he operates at night, and I don't see any streetlights in the area.  Is that a superpower from beyond the grave?  Sure, why not?

Most of the time, movies with antiheroes rely on the main character to draw the audience in.  What's the difference between the murderous Punisher (1989) and the murderous Punisher (2004)?  Thomas Jane is actually sympathetic and Dolph Lundgren deserves everything he gets because he's a godless Communist (that is a continuation of the Ivan Drago story, right?).  The Crow doesn't work that way.  Brandon Lee is just too much of a ham to be truly appealing.  What makes his work look good is how evil the bad guys are by comparison.  When your villains are crazy bastards who live to rape and murder, you don't really need an awesome hero, as long as the bad guys pay.
Although, let's be honest.  How long were these jerks going to live, anyway?
That's really what separates The Crow from the rest of its comic book movie ilk.  This is a whole lot less about the protagonist avenging a single crime and more about the need for bad people to die horribly.  And that's okay.  This is a ridiculous story that gets juuust the right amount of edgy attitude without going overboard, and The Crow winds up being a lot of fun to watch.  That is a delicate balance, though, so it isn't terribly surprising that the sequels didn't quite hit the mark.
"If you mention the sequels again, I will stab your face in!"

So, yeah.  The Crow is not a legitimately great movie, even with action movie standards.  It is, however, a unique blend of violence, melodrama, and villainy that somehow manages to take itself seriously.  That is what makes this movie work; if the characters were winking at the camera or camping it up, The Crow would be unbearable to watch.  And's actually still pretty cool.

The Crow soundtrack was also a pretty good sampling of moody, mid-90s "alternative" rock.  Nine Inch Nails and Stone Temple Pilots got most of the attention with their contributions, but my favorite track also happens to be the unofficial theme song to the film.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


I was worried there for a while.  I am a pretty big fan of James Bond, and I was pleasantly surprised by how good Casino Royale turned out.  After the pretty-good-as-a-sequel-not-so-good-as-a-Bond-pic Quantum of Solace came out, I was hoping for another Bond movie right away, so Daniel Craig could finally get out of his "James Bond Begins" mode and start carving his own identity as the suave super-spy/complete bastard.  But then MGM had money problems and went bankrupt in 2010, which made another Craig Bond outing seem unlikely.  But then somebody somewhere said, "Hey, if we need money, why don't we make another James Bond movie?"  Even better, they decided to get an Oscar-winning director to helm the film and an Oscar-winning actor to play the villain.  That's important, folks.  The gap between Quantum of Solace and Skyfall is the second-longest in 007 film history, after the last Dalton pic and the first Brosnan --- this needed to be worth the wait, like Goldeneye was.  The first hint that they got it right was with the theme song.
When was the last time a Bond theme came from an artist that was still relevant in popular music?  I'm pretty sure the answer is A View to a Kill's Duran Duran theme.  Yeesh.  Way to take 30 years off, Bond producers.  What I liked better than the choice of a popular artist, though, was the fact that Adele clearly fits with what fans identify as that classic Bond theme sound; I'm not saying that this was better or any more ridiculous than anything from Shirley Bassey or Lulu ("Skyfall" isn't the silliest Bond theme chorus --- I vote "Thunderball" for that --- but it's way up there), but Adele singing with brass and an orchestra behind her?  Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.  The filmmakers deserve some extra kudos for piecing together a pretty cool credit montage to coincide with the music, as well as the first (I think) Bond credit sequence to actually show the faces of the actors, instead of just silhouettes.  But enough about the music!  What about the movie?

When we last left James Bond (Daniel Craig) --- it doesn't matter what happened before, he's chasing a bad guy now!  Apparently, some nasty man has stolen the computer files that hold the identities of every MI6 agent that is currently working undercover, throughout the world.  Not only does that spill the beans on a number of double agents spying on other nations, but it throws everybody working in deep undercover within terrorist organizations under the proverbial bus.  Who do you send to re-capture these files?  James Bond, 00-bleepin'-7, of course.
Eyes on the prize, gun pointed at your heart.  Or junk.  Whichever works.
But what if Bond doesn't grab the files?  In a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't scenario, Bond's superior, M (Judi Dench) ordered Bond's supporting agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), to shoot at the bad guy, even as he tussled with Bond.  The shot missed the baddie, hit Bond, and he fell into the ocean, presumed dead, while the bad guy escaped.
But not until he straightened his cufflinks, like a true badass
Time passes.  Bond lies low and licks his wounds with a tongue that probably still has tequila on it.  Meanwhile, M finds herself under pressure to retire for allowing the secret files to escape.  That's when things start to get ugly.  Half a dozen undercover agents have their identities blown, with more promised in the coming days, and those agents are summarily executed.  As M heads back to her office to (presumably) drink copious amounts of scotch, her office gets a little explode-y, and several other agents die.
Realizing that he's needed, James Bond, super spy, decides to reenlist.  He pops up in London, looking haggard as all hell, and is approved for duty, despite a wretched performance analysis.
Ugh.  Gross.  Roger Moore didn't look this old and bloated in A View to a Kill.
Eventually, after meeting with the new Q (Ben Whishaw) and a sexy dragon lady (Bérénice Marlohe), Bond finds himself face-to-face with the mastermind behind this nefarious plot: former MI6 agent Sean Bean Silva (Javier Bardem).  Can James save MI6 and M from someone who is a shadowy reflection of himself?  If so, can he do it in a way that explains the title of the film satisfactorily?  Yes and yes.

The acting in Skyfall is some of the best the 007 series has ever seen.  That's not saying a lot, given that most of the actresses in the series had their lines dubbed over, but it is pretty darn good.  This is the most emotional James Bond viewers have ever seen, and Daniel Craig does a wonderful job.  It may be worth arguing whether or not his emotions are truly Bond-ian, but Craig managed to be super-cool, dangerous, whistful and angst-y, all while playing an icon.  Not bad.  Javier Bardem was easily my favorite Bond villain in at least 30 years.  Bardem --- who has consistently impressed me since Before Night Falls --- manages to do the nearly impossible.  He manages not to be sexy here.  Instead, he channels a blend of The Joker and Phillip Seymour Hoffman from Mission: Impossible III.  Is he a crazy, evil genius?  Obviously.  But he's also tired of having to prove it to everyone, and that somehow makes him a magnetic presence on the screen.  He's a little ridiculous and over-the-top, but Bardem embraces the role and winds up being the most memorable villain since...well, I'll get into that later.
It's like a caveman bleached his hair and bought ugly clothes
Skyfall is the first Bond movie to make any real use of M, Bond's MI6 director; ever since Judi Dench took the role, she had gotten significantly more screen time than any previous M, but this was the first film that actually required her to act.  Since Judi Dench is a British national treasure, it shouldn't be surprising that she was easily up to the challenge.  This film also served as a passing of the torch, of sorts, to Ralph Fiennes, who seems to enjoy playing small parts in ridiculously popular franchises (that's an interesting, if condescending, look at his recent career) instead of taking on roles worthy of his talent.  For what it's worth, Fiennes is pretty good as the kind-not-really nasty politician-type.  The new Q is Ben Whishaw, and he was suitably nerdy, and his nerdiness was directed away from ridiculous gadgets and toward computers.  That makes sense, and Whishaw was actually pretty charming, but I was a little disappointed that he was so...practical. 
"I don't need gadgets, I need and anti-STD spray"
Albert Finney played an elderly groundskeeper with ties to the Bond family and a truly impressive beard.  I don't think I need to explain this, but Finney was more than a match for his bit role.  The Bond girls in this picture took the traditional good and bad girl parts.  This was the first time I had seen Naomie Harris (of 28 Days Later and the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels fame) in a while, and she was pretty good.  My wife totally called the "twist" on her role early in the film, but I have no problem with her having a recurring role in the series. 
SPOILER ALERT: she's Bond's barber
The more classic Bond girl was played by Bérénice Marlohe, and she was sexy and dangerous.  Sadly, her character did not have a ridiculous or punny name to go along with her tragic-but-completely-boneable persona, but Marlohe was fairly decent in her part.
With a look like that, how is her character's name not Ivana Hatefukyoo?

Skyfall may just be the best-acted Bond movie of all time.  Since this is the 24th entry in the franchise, that sounds more impressive than it really is.  I will argue that this performance solidifies Daniel Craig as the best Bond since Sean Connery.  That's a loaded statement, I know, but I am more than willing to argue the point.  Javier Bardem also gave one of the best Bond villain performances ever.  His is easily the best villain since the 1970s (with Sean Bean as a distant second), and arguably fits comfortably within the top 5 of all time.  Even more astounding, the supporting cast is actually decent!  This is not one of those Bond movies where you scoff at Denise Richards being as nuclear physicist --- the lesser roles are played capably and realistically.
Assuming, of course, that people sail into neon dragon mouths to gamble

A lot of the credit for Skyfall's success belongs to director Sam Mendes.  It's been a quiet dozen years for Mendes, following American Beauty --- he hasn't been idle, but the acclaim hasn't matched that of his debut.  In a lot of ways, it feels odd watching a James Bond movie filmed by a capable director.  There are not a lot of clearly show-boat-y action sequences in Skyfall.  There are, though, several scenes with impressive cinematography.
Yes, this scene was cool
There was also quite a bit of character development in this film.  Bond movies are not really built for "development" --- does anyone really want to listen to Bond lamenting all the lives he's taken? --- but this was handled extremely well and turned out to be pretty interesting.  Obviously, the high quality of acting is a reflection of the best direction the series has seen to date, but I was also impressed at how well Mendes was able to capture the action and destruction scenes.
He didn't aim small
With directors known for character work, showy action and spectacular stunt scenes can sometimes feel contrived or poorly executed, but I though  Sam Mendes did a great job behind the camera in Skyfall.

As a longtime fan of Bond movies, I have to briefly address a few of the homages in Skyfall.  I liked the deprecating remarks toward Q branch when Craig finally met his Quartermaster.  Q has long been a source of the more ridiculous moments in a series known for silliness, and I liked the understated Q weapons this time around, especially when coupled with the goofier ones in the classic Aston Martin.  That's right; Skyfall somehow calls back to the Connery days by having Craig Bond own the classic Connery Bond car, complete with ejector seat.  It makes no logical sense, given the reboot, but continuity has always taken a back seat to fun in this series, so why sweat the details?
Only James Bond can sulk while standing by an Aston Martin DB5

Alright, so I liked this entry in the James Bond series.  That means that it is fun, but not necessarily good.  However, Skyfall surprised me by being genuinely, objectively enjoyable.  Like, conceivably-Oscar-nominated good, not a let's-have-fun-with-it good.  This is easily the best Bond movie in ages and deserves to be watched multiple times.  Great direction, great villain, and multi-layered lead performance means...

Monday, November 12, 2012

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

After an entire month of horror movie reviews, what better way to cleanse the palette than an animated feature for children?  I opted to go with a movie that I had always been curious about, but never went to see because...well...I don't have kids, so I can pick and choose my animated movie experiences.  Aside from the fact that the CG animation looks amazing in this trailer, this is also Zack Snyder's first effort at directing an animated movie (although I would argue that Watchmen and 300 come pretty darn close), and I've always liked his visual touch, so hopefully this is pretty awesome.

In a throwback to 80s "children" movies like The Dark Crystal, The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole opens with a kidnapping.  After all, who says that children's movies shouldn't make your children cry?  Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess) is an owl that was goofing off with his little brother, Kludd (Ryan Kwanten), when Kludd kicks Soren out of the nest, before he could fly.  And, because nature abhors terrible siblings, Kludd also lost his balance and fell to the base of their maghty home tree, with Soren.  Instead of getting eaten by Tasamanian Devils, which was apparently an option, the pair was rescued/kidnapped by a couple of dim-witted adult owls.  These scary-looking creatures take young Soren and Kludd to a distant land, where they are presented with an interesting choice.  They can either follow the racist/speciesist teachings of Nyra (Helen Mirren), queen of the Pure Ones, or they can become mindless slaves.
Alternate title: White (Owl) Power
Kludd opts to follow the obvious villain, while Soren rebels and tries to escape.  The strange thing about the Pure Ones is that they're supposed to be the stuff of legend; Soren and Kludd grew up to takes of them being the villains in a long battle against the heroic Guardians.  If the Pure Ones are real, I wonder if the Guardians could be real, too?
Above: an owl realizing that someone wrote sixteen books about owl racism

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole could not be a modern animated movie without a ridiculously famous cast of voice actors.  The most effective in their roles were probably Helen Mirren and Geoffrey Rush; both have wonderfully emotive voices and did a fine job as important, but ultimately peripheral, characters.  Rush plays a great grouch, so it was nice to see that talent being utilized.  Hugo Weaving had a double role, although his voice talents are not exactly what I would call "audibly versatile."  He fine fine in both parts, but anyone who knows his voice can instantly recognize him in both roles.  Joel Edgerton was pretty good as the head bad guy, but it seems odd in retrospect that he was the cast member chosen for the villain role, and not Weaving or Rush.
Maybe he got the role thanks to his physical presence
Sam Neill was well-cast in a bit part, where his lovely voice was meant to be a contrast to his character's actions, and that was nicely done.  But those are just the most notable supporting voice actors.  Jim Sturgess played the main character, a young and idealistic owl who sometimes gets the benefits of super-slow motion shots.
Sturgess was fine, but this is a pretty generic character and he didn't really add anything special to the part.  An odd thing about this cast (that I just noticed) is that it is predominantly Australian, with a few Brits  sprinkled here and there.  I didn't realize that owls needed to speak the Queen's English.  Ryan Kwanten, Anthony LaPaglia, Richard Roxburgh, Leigh Whannell, David Wenham, Essie Davis, Abbie Cornish, and Angus Sampson, Aussies one and all, had roles of varying importance.  Most of their voices were recognizable, but I guess that's point when you fill your voice cast with actual actors.  None of them were bad, but none were too impressive.  As for the non-Australian supporting cast, I thought Miriam Margolyes was suitably cartoonish as a snake nanny and Emily Barclay was suitably bland as the romantic interest for Jim Sturgess.
Romantic owl eyes are slightly unsettling

What about Zack Snyder's direction?  It's no secret that Snyder likes to aim for "epic" as a director, and he did a solid job framing Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole in an epic fashion.  It is interesting watching Snyder's direction in a film where he can get exactly the visuals he wants.  It's not too different from his normal style.  The visuals are stunning.  The slow-motion is prominent and occasionally questionable.
Or, as Snyder likes to call it, "The speed at which all things should happen"
There are large-scale battles, where a small cast of heroes faces down a large number of interchangeable villains.
They're like Storm Troopers that cough up pellets
Snyder tells the story ably enough, but he doesn't get great performances out of his most important characters.  The ideas of love and betrayal have never been prominent in any of Snyder's other films, so seeing him ignore them in a children's story might not be as surprising as it should be.  Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole has all the basic elements of an entertaining animated film, but there's no emotional core to it. Part of the problem is with the writing, which spends little time on characterization, but the director should notice a little thing like entirely two-dimensional characters and have it changed.
I'm guessing he focused more on eye reflections than the script

My other problem with Legend of the Guardians is that it feels very, very familiar.  If you're familiar with Star Wars or the Chronicles of Narnia, or just about any other epic tale with children as an intended audience, then you've seen this plot before.  A lot of kid's movies are like that, but this feels like a Frankenstein of epic childhood fiction, with the only new addition being the owls.
This scene actually dubs in dialogue from Attack of the Clones
I take that back.  Making some of the child characters into mindless slaves is somewhat unique, especially in a movie aimed at children.

The moment that crystallized my feelings toward Legend of the Guardians came toward the end.  After growing up with tales of the Guardians of Ga'Hoole, Soren is happy to tell his father that the Guardians are not just legend, but are real.  His father's response was, "You made them real."  At first glance, it looks like the meaningless "kids rawk" fluff that often pops up in animated movies.  But this was so blatantly wrong that my wife got seriously irritated.  She actually raised her voice to ask, "HOW?  They already exist!"  My wife doesn't like every movie, but she doesn't loudly question movies very often.  To put that in perspective, the last time she watched an animated feature and wasn't happy with it was G-Force.  Congrats, Legend of the Guardians, you are in elite company.  Apparently, there was not enough cute to counteract the dull and stupid here.
Sorry kid, not cute enough

Let's be honest, though.  This is a movie for kids, and the standards of entertainment for children are comically low.  Sadly, Legend of the Guardians doesn't quite meet those unimpressive standards.  There are a few moments that truly "wow" the viewer --- yes, they are in slow motion --- but they are not the most important or memorable parts of the plot.
This scene > rain flying
However, thanks to the dull story, these inconsequential scenes are what I remember most about this film.  The story is too dark to be cutesy, but there are characters clearly designed to just be cute.  And yet, the story is not dark enough to be frightening or to make the story less predictable.  Even the primary staple of animated movies, the goofy supporting character, is absent for most of this movie.  Yes, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole looks nice, but it is genuinely uninteresting and charmless.