Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole (2010)

It can be a great distraction to have read the book when you see a movie adaptation, and I don't often do it. But the youngster and I have read Kathryn Lasky's fine Guardians of Ga'Hoole: The Capture, the first book in a 15 volume series about an heroic young barn owl named Soren. The first three books have been adapted into the animated movie Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole. The movie is sufficiently different from the books that it's best judged on its own terms -- the characters have the same names, but the story is stripped of much of its psychological depth and horror, to make for a zippier, streamlined adventure movie that ends with an epic, violent battle. The first book is dark and bleak, but hopeful, with a sophisticated socio-political theme. The tone of the movie is quite different. It is still frequently dark and menacing, but considerably simpler, and the timeline far shorter, so as to pack three book's worth of story into a 90 minute film.

Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess) is a young barn owlet who lives with his parents, his older brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten), and his adorable fluffball of a baby sister Eglantine (Adrienne DeFaria). One day, Soren and Kludd fall from the family's tree, and are kidnapped by patrols from St. Aegolius Academy for Orphaned Owls. They're taken to a barren canyon, where they and hundreds of owlets of many species are held captive and "moon-blinked," a form of brainwashing, and forced to work. St. Aggie's is a concentration camp for the Pure Ones, evil owls with a delusions of superiority bent on destroying all the inferior owl kingdoms. Kludd sides with his captors, but Soren and a tiny Elf owl named Gylfie (Emily Barclay) escape and seek help from the legendary Guardians, a mythical band of noble protector owls said to live in a vast Ga'Hoole tree. Their traveling companions are a snooty, singing grey owl named Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia), and goofy burrowing owl Digger (David Wenham). Kids who like knock-knock jokes will think Digger's a hoot.

Legend of the Guardians is beautifully and vibrantly animated, and creates a really nice, immersive, bird's-eye-view sense of flight with its effective use of 3-D. The characters (most with Australian accents and mostly voiced by Aussie actors) are nicely expressive, although they've got more visual depth than psychological depth. Excellent CG animation is the rule rather than the exception these days, so the visual quality of the movie alone is not enough to recommend it. On the other hand, the CG *Roadrunner* cartoon short that precedes the movie is pretty comprehensively lousy and artistically pointless. It looks like a poorly rendered video game. (I've never been a fan of that pesky bird anyway.) 

Director Zack Snyder has a strong and original visual style, as demonstrated in 300 and Watchmen (although both of those movies, which blended live actors and CG, looked a lot better than they were, taken as a whole). Legend of the Guardians is Snyder's first fully animated movie, and it exhibits some of the director's stylistic flourishes, including ample use of slow motion, and an emphasis on bold action over conceptual or symbolic content. The story as told in Legend of the Guardians moves briskly, motivated more by plot than ideas -- older and more sophisticated youngsters with a sense of history might appreciate the political subtext, but it is not particularly prominent or important in the progress of the story, so younger viewers will have no trouble keeping up, and will be charmed by the heroic characters and funny sidekicks. The movie doesn't particularly dwell on the emotional impact of the rather distressing developments in Soren's young life, and regularly lightens things up with humorous interludes. The drawn-out climax, however, while not visibly bloody, is violent enough to warrant parental caution.

26Sep 2010

Going the Distance (2010)

Going the Distance combines the bromantic comedy and the romantic comedy in a snappy, unsappy package that is a refreshing change for the genre. Romantic comedies typically go one of two ways, divided (supposedly) along gender lines. The "chick flicks" are sweet and slapsticky, with a cute, bickering couple who don't know how right they are for each other. The bromances are rude and crude, but deep down kinda sorta sincere, and, I suppose, meant to get the guys into the theatres without too much fuss. Team Apatow specializes in the latter, and Adam Sandler dabbles in them. Going the Distance manages to successfully combine the bromance and romance, with a cute couple (Justin Long and Drew Barrymore) who are kept apart not by some manufactured, only-in-the-movies plot development, but rather by something uncomfortably familiar and real: their jobs.

Garrett (Long) works for a record company. He loves music, but hates his job (because he loves *good* music). (There's a lot of good music on the movie soundtrack, by the by.) Erin (Barrymore) is a summer intern and aspiring newspaper reporter at a New York City newspaper. She's getting a late start in her career, and has apparently hit her stride just as newspapers are massively downsizing. When she and Garrett meet, she is just weeks away from going back to San Francisco to finish grad school, and he is fresh off his latest breakup (apparently he has commitement issues). They meet drunk and surly, but are brought together by their mutual love of vintage video arcade games and cheesy 1980s movies (and dope). Next thing you know, he's running through the airport to tell her... well, just to tell her he hopes he can see her again sometime. Post-9/11 airport security has really taken all the rainbows and unicorns out of airports. Erin and Garrett have their heart to heart chat at the check-in line, the uninspiring threshold that is the scene of the modern day airport farewell.

Going the Distance is enough of a genre-bender to get the airport scene out of the way early in the movie, and to make it but a teaser for the real complications that follow from this hopeful, against the odds romance.

And the odds are bad. Erin wants to live in New York, wants to be with Garrett, but economic forces beyond her control (the recession, the job market, the slow dying of old media) keep her in California, where she lives with her clean-freak sister (the hilarious Christina Applegate). Garrett is tethered to New York by his job, but also by his close relationships with Box (Jason Sudelkis) and Dan (Charlie Day), his weird, potty-mouthed buddies (for her part, Erin can swear like a sailor -- and drink like one -- too). 

The movie, directed by Nanette Burstein and scripted by Geoff LaTulippe, takes the classic romantic comedy conundrum -- Will they or won't they? Can they or can't they? -- and makes it meaningful and realistic. A continent is a big distance to travel, but the more difficult terrain Garrett and Erin have to navigate is vastly more significant: it's the land where you follow your dreams (in an individualistic, uncompromising way), and make a living, and find your true love, and live happily ever after. Having your cake and eating it too (and never getting fat from eating all that cake) is the American dream, and it's just the sort of dream that a reporter like Erin might write a nice feature about. Of course, it'll be about how that dream is dead, or dying, or something like that. Going the Distance is smart enough to take that dream seriously, but also to recognize it for the quixotic fantasy it is, and to recognize, as well, the way movies push that delicously sweet, cakey ideal. Going the Distance ices the cake with a big dollop of reality, but it's also charming and funny, and the characters are appealing enough that, gosh darn it, you really hope those two crazy kids can find that happy ending, even if it means racking up the frequent flier miles.


The American (2010)

George Clooney specializes in two kinds of roles of late: rascals (see Ocean's Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen), and a-man's-gotta-do-what-a-man's-gotta-do types (Up in the Air, Michael Clayton), and sometimes both (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Burn After Reading).  In The American, he's a man's-gotta-do type, an assassin, a lone gunslinger, and an artisanal gunsmith who goes by several names, including Mr. Butterfly. 

He works for a slippery character named Pavel (Johan Leysen), who sends him an assassin named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) who needs a very special rifle for a job. He doesn't know what the job is, and doesn't care, but he plans to quit the business when the assignment is finished. Unknown assassins are gunning for him, so he hides out in an Italian mountain village where he meets a nosy priest (Paolo Bonacelli), drinks coffee, exercises, works on the rifle, and eases his loneliness with a prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido). He's understandably paranoid, given that someone is trying to kill him. 

The American is directed by Anton Corbijn (Control), and adapted from the Martin Booth novel A Very Private Gentleman. Corbijn, a photographer and music video director, has an artistic sensibility when it comes to lighting and composition. There's a beautiful visual precision to the movie. The languorous pace of the film, and the unnerving way the camera tracks through lovely, lonely landscapes, enhances its menace. It slowly and subtly builds tension throughout, creating a sense of something sinister lurking in the cobbled alleyways of Mr. Butterfly's village hideaway, in the sun-dappled forests, in a quiet (too quiet?) cafe. Some of these places are utterly benign, but the movie is disquieting, discomfiting in a way that makes the viewer uneasy, like Mr. Butterfly, of things that are too perfect, too tranquil, too picturesque. 

The American is quiet, contemplative, and meticulously crafted, much as Mr. Butterfly is quiet and contemplative, and a meticulous craftsman. What is never entirely clear is what Mr. Butterfly, or the movie for that matter, is really contemplating. He says little, and little is betrayed by Clooney, who plays this role as a mostly grim-faced, scowling, strong but silent type. The American is a character study disguised as a tense yet leisurely thriller, but by the end of the film, not that much is really known about the character under study, except the obvious. This is perhaps by design. Mr. Butterfly's survival depends on his ability to be anonymous, to blend in, to disappear, but his camouflage may be too good. What he lacks, and what he longs for, is human connection, yet the movie holds him at arm's length. This may be a perfect example of a movie that is aesthetically and narratively indistinguishable from its protagonist: attractive, taciturn, anxious, polished, proficient, distant. 


Get Low (2010)

In a movie career of nearly five decades, Robert Duvall has gone from playing a menacing, mysterious hermit (Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird) to playing a menacing, mysterious hermit In Get Low. And everything in between, of course: cops, robbers, cowboys, soldiers, astronauts, doctors, Joseph Pulitzer and Josef Stalin. In Get Low, Duvall delivers another memorable performance as Felix Bush, a Tennessee recluse who decides to throw himself a funeral.

Get Low is based on a true, unlikely story that has become the stuff of legend. Felix "Bush" Breazeale was a Tennessee farmer who, in 1938, made headlines when he decided to have a funeral party while he was still alive to enjoy it. Thousands attended. Life Magazine covered the event.

In the hands of Aaron Schneider, a cinematographer directing his first feature, and screenwriters Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, Get Low is part backwoods tall tale, part solemn tale of redemption, part low-key comedy, and part mystery.

Bush lives in a rustic log cabin in the woods, with only his mule Gracie for company. He's feared by the locals who take seriously his threat to shoot trespassers. He's a mysterious bogeyman about whom little is known. When he receives news that an old acquaintance has died, it gives him something to think about. He decides to throw himself a funeral party, and invites the entire county to come and tell their stories about him. He finds a desperate funeral parlor director named Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), who is happy to take Bush's "hermit money" and throw him a grand soiree. Quinn and his assistant Buddy (Lucas Black) become Bush's party planners, publicity agents, stylists, and chauffeurs, but not his confidants. Bush keeps his motives close to his vest, even with Mattie (Sissy Spacek), an old flame who knew him before he was a secretive loner. As the story unfolds, the mystery deepens, but it becomes apparent that Bush has his own story to tell, and he's looking for a way to tell it. In his pre-death, Bush leaves his solitude, and rejoins the community -- the life -- he so long shunned. 

Get Low is unexpectedly offbeat, charming, and funny as it meanders along towards a sentimental and not entirely unexpected conclusion, dropping numerous hints along the way of the coming revelation, of a distant tragedy, and a lost love, and Bush's redemption. The performances by Duvall and Murray save the movie from mawkishness -- both men bring ornery, lively wit to their characters. Duvall is fascinating as Bush, a man of few but carefully chosen words. Duvall teases out the quirky, twinkling sense of humor, the deep old hurt, and the emotional volatility behind the ZZ Top beard. Even though the movie can't help but telegraph, well in advance, where it's going, Duvall makes Bush a character who is captivating enough to make it worth following him. Murray is dodgy and sly as ever -- Quinn is almost as mysterious as Bush, and to the very end, it's impossible to know if he's on the level, or up to no good. Both men bring an acerbic edge, and a measure of authenticity and richly human complexity to their performances, which elevate the movie and pull it back from its occasional cornball tendencies.