Hey guys. This is Bryan, and I’m still trying to come up with a name for this damn column. “Bryan Babbles Bullshit” was only ever a joke, and seeing it bowdlerized on the main page into “Bryan Babbles BS” left me feeling a little dead inside. To more accurately reflect my persona, I considered going with “Easily Amused, Rarely Impressed”, but goddamn does that one sound snotty and elitist. I thought about calling myself the Couch Critic; not because I critique different brands of sofas, but to reflect my purely amateur status as the movie equivalent to a Monday-morning quarterback. Alas, upon a Google search, it turns out that someone already took that name. Time-traveling thieving bastard! How dare he steal my idea before I even had it. Along similar lines, Armchair Critic is taken as well; and Recliner Reviewer is just freakin’ clunky and has too many syllables.
For the moment, we’ll go with an in-joke and just call this blog Working Title Reviews. But clearly, that ain’t a permanent solution. So what else is there? Help me, readers, I need suggestions. Something with a bit more flair and pizzazz than something like “Just One Guy’s Opinion”, although that’s what this totally is. It needs to be self-deprecating, yet slightly pretentious; informative, yet succinct. And as I’m writing this at 4:00 on a weekday morning, I’m not anywhere near sharp enough at the moment to come up with anything good.
But enough of that, on with the content. Some of you might notice that every film I’ve done so far has been fairly recent, with none of them from before 2000. That’s because I’m participating in a “Best of the 2000s Decade” poll on another website, and almost every movie I’ve been watching for the past several months has been from that timeframe. The project will be finished in a week or two, so I’ll soon enough get on to reviewing obscure 70s horror flicks or silent comedies or whatever. But for right now, let’s take a look at two very different films which came HIGHLY recommended from some of my peers (for ENTIRELY different reasons) and see if they stand up to the hype.
The Secret of Kells (2009, directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey): 8/10
The first and foremost thing that needs to be discussed here is: holy SHIT, but this is one BEAUTIFUL movie. In a visual sense, I mean; The Secret of Kells is an animated feature (that’s “a cartoon” to non-snobby people) done in a style like none other I’ve seen before. Oh, I can sit here all day and name other animated works with certain similarities: like The Thief and the Cobbler, or some of Genndy Tartakovsky’s stuff like Samurai Jack, or even a little bit of Hayao Miyazaki influence. But none of that really describes how this movie looks. It’s done in a very stylized manner, based heavily upon the medieval illuminated manuscripts which figure into the story, with each frame packed with striking little details from corner to corner. I want to just say “you have to see it to understand it”, but that’s a damn copout and it’s my damn job to describe this stuff, no matter how inadequate I am to that task. Add that to a soundtrack full of that type of mournful, soulful Celtic music which makes you feel like breaking into a weeping fit upon hearing it, and the end result is that this film is delightfully sensual (in the classical sense of the word, I mean, not the dirty sexy one).
The story is set in 8th-century Ireland, in the village of Kells. A young apprentice monk named Brendan (voice of Evan McGuire) is our standard fantasy protagonist, The Starry-Eyed Young Dreamer Who Has Hidden Greatness Within Him, And Oh Yeah He’s An Orphan Too. As ancient and tired as this stock character is, it reminds me that sometimes clichés become clichés for a good fucking reason, because they work. Brendan is constantly being hounded for his daydreaming tendencies by his uncle, Abbott Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) who is obsessed with building a giant wall around the village to defend against Viking raiders. The monks in the local scriptorium just want to be left alone with their books, but Cellach sternly demands that every man must help with the wall’s construction from dawn til dusk.
Meanwhile, an old master artist, Brother Aidan (Mick Lally) who was the sole survivor of a Viking massacre in his own village, has come to Kells for refuge. He brings with him an unfinished book full of gorgeous illustrations, and inflames Brendan’s creativity and desire to become a master illuminator himself. There’s more story, actually a lot more, considering how short the movie is. Brendan eventually befriends both a practically-sentient white cat named Pangur Ban and a woodland fairy named Aisling (Christen Moony) (and it’s pronounced mostly like “Ashley”), and has various harrowing adventures in the primeval forest surrounding Kells. And I’m not even spoiling anything by recapping all that damn plot, since all of that stuff happens in the first fifteen or twenty minutes.
In fact, I think that’s the movie’s one real flaw: I just wanted more of it, damnation! The Secret of Kells runs a scrawny 75 minutes, including the lengthy opening and ending credits, so the movie itself is barely an hour long. There’s good reason for that, being that they simply didn’t have the money to make any more. This film was put together over nearly a decade, with a pretty small $8,000,000 budget. I know, eight million bucks sounds like a hell of a lot of money; but compare it to Disney’s last non-CGI cartoon film, The Princess and the Frog, which spent over a hundred million dollars before it came to a theater near you. Traditional animation is a hideously expensive practice, especially in today’s filmmaking world of runaway cost inflation, and 75 minutes is all they could afford to make. But it’s still a shame, since the movie really could’ve used a little more time to be fleshed out; the last ten minutes seem all bunched up, in a rush to get it over with before the end. In particular, Aisling is just sort of dropped from the story without much resolution to her subplot, which is a little heartbreaking because she’s such a lovable little character.
The weirdest thing is, the movie is kinda-sorta based on a true story. It’s based on a real, legendary work called The Book Of Kells, a painstakingly drawn and illustrated manuscript which might’ve been created in the real village of Kells (maybe, long story, check Wikipedia for more details if you‘re interested in this sort of thing) and housed there for centuries afterwards, surviving countless Viking raids and other violence and strife over the centuries. That giant, phallic tower which contains the abbey really exists, even today, and is just as tall and imposing as it looks in the movie. The book itself is still on display in Dublin, open to the public (under bulletproof safety glass) and still inspiring people, as the existence of this movie shows.
Although oddly, The Secret of Kells leaves out one important detail: what the book actually is. In short, it’s a Bible. Not the entire Christian Bible, just the four Gospels and a few other little addendums. But the movie is bizarrely silent on the actual content of the book; we never see any of the words (which are in Latin and so heavily stylized as to be nearly unreadable, but still) and the movie never even mentions the words “Jesus” or “God” or anything of the sort. Instead, we’re just told that the Book is something which can bring light to the darkness, education and comfort to the ignorant and the wicked, etcetera. Maybe the filmmakers were just trying to be politically correct? I dunno, but it does seem peculiar that a movie which is essentially about the power of religious faith goes so far out of its way to avoid the actual religion.
But even with all the odd issues of pacing and brevity and jittering terror of saying the word “Christ” or “Bible”, it’s still a damn fine film which I’d recommend to anyone. Especially history or literature buffs, since there’s a metric fuckton of little hidden shout-outs and in-jokes for those types of folks. And finally, one last thought: what is exactly the titular Secret of this place Kells, anyway? It seems like a misnomer at first glance, since the town itself is pretty open and holds no secrets. But after thinking about it, even though it doesn’t make logical sense, the title still feels appropriate. The village and the woods feel like their own little pocket universe, hidden away from the rest of the world, only reachable by a long journey through the trackless wilderness. There’s a sense of yearning in this place; you’ve never been anywhere quite like that, but you wish you could go there. It’s a secret sanctuary, distant from our time and space, a sparkling little jewel on the edge of the world. It’s fuckin’ magic, bitches.
Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2008, directed by James Nguyen): 0/10
What. The FUCK. Was that?!
Well, it’s official. The Room is no longer the most incompetent movie made in the 21st century. that I’ve seen. Birdemic is unbelievably fucking bad, a miserable holocaust on every conceivable level that never looks like anything but the cheapest of home movies. Now, let me get one thing straight up front: this is hardly my first rodeo when it comes to shot-on-video, zero-budget films. Most of them, well, tend to goddamn suck a big dead rotting hippopotamus penis. But it’s not mandatory! Look at the videos made by folks like the guys at College Humor or That Guy With The Glasses, who fight back against their crushing poverty and total lack of budget with sheer energy and creativity. It’s totally possible to do this stuff in an entertaining manner, one that can be genuinely enjoyed. Birdemic comes nowhere near that goal, unless (like me) you’re thoroughly amused by filmmakers who show every symptom of being legitimately retarded with every incomprehensible second of the amateur shitstain they dared to call “a movie“.
I’m gonna try to at least give you a little taste of what it’s like to watch this jaw-dropping atrocity, but it will be difficult. You see, when most people talk about “bad movies”, their perspective is fairly limited. I’ve known folks who would claim such mundane titles as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace or Batman & Robin to be “the worst movie ever made”. To anyone who’s ever delved a bit deeper, that’s obviously nowhere near true. There’s a certain level of basic technical competence which even the absolute shittiest of big-budget Hollywood movies always have. They make sure to cover the little details, like having the camera properly in focus, correctly recording the dialogue in an audible fashion, and avoiding the more blatant continuity errors. That’s where the true turdburgers like Birdemic: Shock and Terror stand up and shine, because the filmmakers were SO talentless that they couldn’t even manage that bare-minimum level of ability.
I’m basically stalling now. I don’t wanna describe this fucking excuse for a plot, but I must, so here goes. Birdemic is a below-the-bargain-basement ripoff of Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary masterpiece, The Birds. But oh no, wait, we can’t get to those birds too soon! Literally half this movie (it’s dragged out to an indefensible 95 minutes) is spent merely setting up our characters. Which is amazing, considering that by the end of the movie I couldn’t tell you any of their names. Upon looking it up on IMDB, it seems the movie is about Rod (Alan Bagh, don‘t bother looking him up, he‘s never done anything), a salesman at a software company. He’s great at his job! Allegedly. We see him landing a “one million dollar sale” by offering a 50% discount. Yeah. Anyway, he happens to run into an old high school flame, Nathalie (Whitney Moore, and don’t bother looking her up either) who is allegedly a supermodel, and they very very slowly begin a very tepid romance. I hope you love poorly-filmed sequences of people chattering about nothing at restaurant tables, because oh Jesus there’s a lot of it.
Hey guys, weren’t there supposed to be some birds in this movie called Birdemic, and allegedly some shock and terror too? Yeah, about fifty endless minutes into this, suddenly a bunch of vultures and eagles start attacking and killing everyone. Rod and Nathalie band together with some survivors, and go off on a road trip. Because it’s easier to defend against maniacal birds on the open road. Or something. Look, don’t start asking for logic every time this movie does something amazingly stupid, or we’ll be here all fucking week. It then turns into every single “characters wander through a postapocalyptic world as they’re slowly killed one-by-one” movie you’ve ever seen, except worse. Yes, even worse than Resident Evil: Extinction in that department.
The special effects in this movie… cannot be properly described in words. Oh, I can SAY things about them, sure. Things like “wow, that looks like shit” and “I’ve seen better graphics on Super Nintendo” and “no, seriously, you expected people to pay real money to watch this?” and etcetera. But there’s no way to really get across how awful the nonexistent digital birds look: hovering in place, incredibly pixilated, moving at about six frames per second. A constant screeching sound effect announces their presence, as the “eagles” mostly sound like seagulls. Occasionally, one will explode like a water balloon, after some human has waved a laughably fake toy gun around and a “gunshot” effect goes off.
The only thing worse than the lousy effects are, well, everything else. Movies like The Room have bad actors, but I’m pretty convinced that this movie had no actors. If anyone here has ever starred in so much as a local used car dealership commercial, then you coulda fooled me. Of course, nobody could succeed under these circumstances; stick Laurence Olivier and Meryl Streep in the lead roles of this movie, and they’d suck too. But the human actors sometimes don’t even seem to be trying, like they know exactly how awful the movie is and they’re not putting forth any more effort than strictly necessary. Seeing a crowd of people slowly and clumsily lower themselves to the ground in order to simulate “being killed by birds” goes past being funny, and is just downright sad.
If I were to catalog every mistake this movie does, well, this review would be longer than the ones that Scott Foy writes over at his fine Foywonder site. This movie does not merely insult your intelligence. This movie is calling your intelligence’s mother a skanky disease-ridden whore. It is cancerously terrible, and I’d recommend it INSTANTLY to any old fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 or similar presentations of funny-bad material. So let’s sign off with one final thought: here’s a piece of free advice to amateur filmmakers. You know what the #1 most common symptom of a REALLY incompetent movie is? Parking. We spend lots of time watching cars pulling into and out of parking lots, into and out of traffic, and watching people get into and out of the vehicles. That shit seems to happen frequently in the very worst amateur zero-budget schlockfests, and Birdemic: Shock and Terror makes no effort to buck the trend. “This looks like a DMV safety video” is, indeed, pretty much the very worst pejorative you could ever hurl at anything which claims to be a fictional narrative work of cinema. It fucking blows.
That’s all for now, folks. Join me next week, where hopefully we’ll cover something which was made in a year beginning in “19”.