Sunday, September 26, 2010

Movie Review: "Legend of the Guardians--The Owls of Ga'Hoole"

With "Legends of the Guardians," Hollywood has finally delivered a movie about anthropomorphic animals that is exciting, visually sumptuous and features nary a poop joke.

Reminiscent of Disney's attempts to deliver more serious fare with "The Black Cauldron" or Don Bluth's "Secret of Nimh" in the 1980s, "Legends of the Guardians" may be about talking owls, but don't mistake it for an avian "Happy Feet." Helmed by director Zack Snyder ("300," "Watchmen"), "Guardians" is, at heart, a fantasy-adventure more interested in high-flying battles than clever pop culture references.

Based on a series of young adult novels, the film follows Soren (Jim Sturgess), a young, idealistic owl who revels in stories about the legendary Guardians of Ga'hoole - warrior owls who fought for the weak. When Soren is kidnapped along with thousands of other owlets and made to labor for a wicked queen (Helen Mirren) bent on overthrowing the owl kingdom, it is up to him to track down the Guardians, led by noble warrior Allomere (Sam Neill), and rescue the enslaved birds.

It's a fairly straightforward adventure, but one of "Guardians'" charms is the way it celebrates cultural myth-making. No one is really sure whether or not the Guardians of Ga'hoole exist; Soren only has heard of them in his father's (Hugo Weaving) tales. But it's the hope that these stories are true that fuel Soren to find rescue. In an age where most children's films rush to ape the latest pop culture fad or a timely gag, it's refreshing to see a film that celebrates our heritage of creating heroic tales to pass down to our children.

The film feels charmingly old-fashioned, right down to the cadre of friends that accompany Soren on his journey, from a lute-playing old bird (Anthony LaPaglia) to a care-taking snake (Miriam Margolyes). It's a charming and funny group, and each character is given a distinctive personality - the crazy old bird, the motherly nanny, the gung-ho best friend. They're the character types seen in earlier animated films and children's stories, crafted with gentleness and whimsy, free of the annoying catchphrase spouting and slapstick shenanigans.

Snyder, whose work has been decidedly aimed at adults for his directorial career, makes the wise decision not to pander. He knows children can handle serious, adventurous fare and treats his audience with respect. He's not afraid to have a story full of shifting alliances, dangerous escapes and scary villains, such as this film's Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton). His cast also treats the material seriously, particularly Mirren, who is wonderful as the film's villainess. The film is pleasantly missing the manic, gag-a-minute noise of recent family fare and could almost be viewed as a gateway into more epic fantasy; once children have handled 'The Guardians,' might Harry Potter or "The Hobbit" be the next logical step?

Snyder's biggest asset has always been his visual flair. "300" and "Watchmen" have their detractors, but few could deny the visual feast Snyder reliably brings to the table. "Guardians'" photo-realistic computer images are breathtaking - every feather, drop of rain or blade of grass is meticulously crafted; only the expressive eyes give away that these are animated characters. The film's numerous flight and battle scenes are some of the most amazingly realized animated sequences I've ever seen. Snyder's love for slow motion is on full display here, but I didn't mind - it gave more time to admire the art on display.

Snyder's refusal to pander to kids, however, should provide a caution to parents. The film's battle sequences are often dark and intense for a PG-rated children's film, and it's likely that many younger viewers will view the movie's final act through their fingers. Then again, kids of the 1980s grew up with "Poltergeist" and "Indiana Jones," so maybe children are more resilient than I like to think.

But an over-reliance of battle sequences keeps the film from presenting any real depth or insight. Soren learns that the Guardians are real, of course, but is never taught to develop any unique skill of his own; his success at the end is to simply fight and defeat Metal Beak. For a film that begins with the intentions to craft an old-fashioned myth, and is filled with such ingenuity and whimsy, ending with a fight seems shallow.

I would love to pronounce "Legend of the Guardians" as a new children's classic, but missteps like that keep it just off that shelf. While the majority of the film is free of pop culture inanity, Snyder does make the mistake of resorting to a pop music montage - made all the more cringe-inducing by the fact that the music is by Owl City (seriously?). Also, the film's 90-minute runtime means the story is rushed at a few points; it's hard to keep some of the main characters straight, and some motivations and intentions are lost in the shuffle.

Still, it's rare to see a children's film showcasing this much heart, charm and ambition. The visuals alone make the film worth a look on the big screen and it's the rare time you'll hear me urge you to see a movie in 3D. Hopefully it's the start of pushing the boundaries of what a family film can actually be, and we'll see more epic fantasies and adventures for children on the big screen.

Until then, this isn't a bad flight to take.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Movie Review: "The Town"

In 2007, Ben Affleck took many by surprise with his nuanced and gritty directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone.”

The adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s best-selling novel was a tough and twisty examination of crime in a Boston neighborhood. It earned Amy Ryan a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination and convinced several critics that Affleck’s skill behind the camera might be strong enough to put the “Gigli” jokes to rest once and for all.

With his sophomore follow up “The Town,” Affleck may have also earned the right to have “Jersey Girl,” “Paycheck” and the Animal Crackers scene in “Armageddon” stricken from his record. Keeping his eyes on Beantown, Affleck crafts one of the most riveting crime thrillers in years and delivers one of the strongest performances of his career.

The film is set in Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood, an area known for having more bank robberies than any area in the country. Heists are a way of life to Charlestown boys, who seem to inherit it from their fathers the way others take on the family hardware store.

Doug MacRay (Affleck) is one of those boys. His father in prison for a murder-robbery, MacRay is a washed up hockey player and drug addict who now organizes robberies for an Irish crime boss (Pete Postlethwaite). As the film opens, MacRay and his crew commit a brutal bank heist, taking manager Claire (Rebecca Hall) hostage before leaving her stranded by the ocean.

Upon learning that Claire lives only four blocks from the gang, MacRay’s hot-headed partner Jem (Jeremy Renner) suggests silencing the witness. MacRay, hoping to keep the situation from turning violent, offers to follower her and see what she knows. The two strike up a relationship that has Doug beginning to reconsider his criminal ways, all while Jem tries to convince him to take on a big score and an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) pieces together the new string of robberies plaguing Boston.

This is all well-tread territory and Affleck doesn’t try to reinvent the genre. What “The Town” may lack in originality, it makes up for in reliability.

I was one of the reviewers impressed with “Gone Baby Gone,” but Affleck outdoes himself here. The film, beautifully photographed by Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood”) is a slick, energetic affair. The action sequences move with an electricity reminiscent of Michael Mann or William Friedkin, particularly a chase through Boston and a blistering climax inside Fenway Park.

It’s easy to crash cars, shoot guns and blow things up, but Affleck also knows how to play out the film’s quieter scenes, knowing just how long to hold a shot and deliver the suspense and emotion the moment calls for. An encounter between Doug, Claire and Jem at an outdoor bistro is fraught with tension, with the entire scene hinging on whether Claire will notice a tattoo on the back of Jem’ neck. The scene plays out with delicious suspense, thanks to both nimble directing and strong performances by Affleck, Renner and Hall.

Despite some unfortunate career choices earlier a few years back, Affleck has always had a strong screen presence, delivering solid performances in films like “Chasing Amy” and “Changing Lanes.” As Doug, Affleck ably captures the weariness of a man born into crime, raised by criminals and proceeding fatefully into the underworld. Claire provides a glimmer of goodness, intelligence and humanity into Doug’s world, forcing him to think that change might be possible. But his convict father (Chris Cooper) and Jem serve as reminders that Doug is a street kid and that leaving behind the crime-ridden Charlestown streets would not be seen as escape, but abandonment. In a way, it’s the anti-“Good Will Hunting.”

Hall is solid as Claire, and Hamm is terrific as the driven as the FBI agent on Doug’s trail whose ethics may be slimier than Doug’s. Cooper, relegated to one scene, still manages to impress and bring a gravity to the film. But it’s Renner, hot off “The Hurt Locker,” who steals the show, taking the cliché “live-wire” character and giving him a sense of misguided honor and a willingness to do anything at all to stay out of jail and keep his friends nearby. It’s a fantastic performance and Renner creates a terrifying character.

Affleck loves his hometown and, as in “Gone Baby Gone,” he makes Boston a central character in the film. His characters are defined by their settings, wearied and beaten-down by family histories that have played out in the city for years. Elswit’s photography captures Beantown in all of its glory; Boston hasn’t looked this good since “The Departed.”

The film balances its action sequences and relationships well, rarely bogging down in exposition and keeping the breakneck scenes plausible and comprehensible. Affleck allows his characters to breathe and grow without sacrificing the film’s pacing. Only in the final moments does the tone slip from his grasp, turning what should have been a hard and gritty ending into something a bit too cheesy and sentimental. As much as I love “The Shawshank Redemption,” that’s the last film I should have been thinking of at the end of “The Town.”

There’s nothing about “The Town” that hasn’t been done before. Where it succeeds, however, is in taking those familiar elements—the robber with one last job, a chance at redemption and a vicious partner—and playing them out with tension, skill and drama. You may have seen it all before, but rarely is it done this well.


About Me

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.