Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Villain, Stay Villainous.

Great heroes need great villains to triumph over. Lately, whether because of the thin pickings of stories remaining to be told, or modern fascination with the roots and psychological causes of "evil", entertainment is showing us more and more why villains are villains. Personally, I occasionally enjoy a semi-sympathetic villain, especially when the character's history significantly adds to the story. In this case, I'm not talking about situations where the transformation of the character is shown in the initial story (such as Loki in Thor, Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, etc.), but back-tracking and either illuminating or retelling (such as Wicked, Maleficent, etc.). But there are times when I have to ask why we need to know, when knowing the whys eliminates the chill that effectively makes the villain formidable. There are very specific cases in which the exposition works well, but I would posit that for the darkest and most iconic villains of cinema, the story is best left in darkness. 

For example, in The Silence of the Lambs Dr. Hannibal Lecter relishes his depraved enjoyment in cannibalism. Then, Hannibal Rising explained what traumatic event initially put him on this path. I didn't see the movie, but somehow knowing why Dr. Lecter became a cannibal lessens his impact. Not that the man isn't still horrifying, but part of what put me on edge for The Silence of the Lambs was his unpredictability mixed with what seemed to be plain and pure evil incarnate. The explanation of his traumatic and horrifying past dulls the unpredictability slightly, and suggests that Dr. Lecter wasn't simply born evil. This is disappointing for the simple reason that Dr. Lecter is the kind of villain I don't want to see redeemed, or made in any way sympathetic. The mystery of his origins fueled the hatred and fear of the character, and the illuminating of this mystery somewhat lessens the darkness. 

On the flip side however, Harry Potter's Lord Voldemort is thoroughly explained in the course of eight movies. The difference however, is that the movies (and books) hold that he was always that way. Therefore, going back to his childhood at the orphanage or his days at Hogwarts only increase his resume of evil deeds, and reflect that from the time of his birth, he only grew in evil, rather than hitting a turning point that changed a sweet boy into a Dark Lord.  

The current trend in prequels doesn't cause me significant concern just yet, but there are certain stories I beg not to be told, simply because sometimes evil needs to just be evil. What follows is a half-serious, half-comical list of iconic movie villains whose backgrounds I never want to see onscreen. 

Jaws

I can hear the criticisms now, but this animal ranked #18 on the American Film Institute's list of 100 Greatest Villains. 

And it should be noted that this movie has been giving beach-goers pause since 1975. 

So why don't I want to see the origins of this iconic villain? 

Because I have a strong suspicion it would go something like this: 
"Fish are friends, not food.
Still not eating fish." 


Smaug
The great dragon of recent cinema hasn't made any official lists that I'm aware of, but this is another example of an antagonist that doesn't need to be explained. There is nothing, repeat nothing, about the old dragon that is remotely sympathetic, so exploring any background that would claim otherwise would be futile...

... and absurd. 
"Always resented being sent away"

Now getting a little more serious....

Captain Barbossa
It's true he's not the worst of villains, and most of the time he's really more comical than anything else. But I still don't want to know how he became a pirate, mostly because I don't want to see anyone but Geoffrey Rush play this role. 


Cruella DeVille
I can't imagine that any explanation for this woman's morbid obsession with dog fur would be appropriate for an animated character who debuted in a Disney movie. 















Borg Queen
This entry is here with the following caveat: I don't want to see this villain's backstory and know who she is at the get-go. I'd much rather the next Star Trek movie introduce a shady female character and then it be grandly revealed that she is destined to become the Borg Queen (in a manner similar to how Khan was introduced in Into Darkness). 





















Shere Khan
I like that he hates man, and I don't need a reason. Man probably killed his wife and son or some such thing, but he's just as magnificent without a known reason. 















Okay, I've been messing around up to this point, but here is the big one; the entire reason I was inspired to write this post. Here is one villain I don't EVER want to know the story of: 


The Joker

I don't want to know how he got those scars. I really don't. Not because I'm afraid of how it happened, but because the Joker is exactly the kind of villain who works because of the irrationality of his actions. The Joker is terrifying precisely because he can't be explained, and any attempt to do so would be doing a great disservice to the Joker shown in The Dark Knight. Therefore, number one of all villains that I hope never get their own movie is this one. The Joker doesn't need a movie to explain him-- it would completely ruin him. The Joker, like Lecter is better shrouded in darkness than reduced to a psychological explanation. He is a great villain because he appears from the darkness without reason or warning. The mystery of his origins only add to the chill and terror that he brings. Leave him in the darkness and  mystery where he belongs; where he thrives. 

Readers, what villains would you hope to not learn more about? 

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies

Here is the short version of what follows: sever ALL Tolkien's written works and The Lord of the Rings movies from this film, and you'll have a decent fantasy flick with some writing flaws to get over. Skip to the concluding paragraph of this review for the summation.

Here is the long version (and this is condensed to the highlights):

Despite riding the success of the enormously successful Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit is not a series that was made for fans of Tolkien. At most, The Hobbit appeals to casual fans of The Lord of the Rings movies, or fans of large-scale fantasy movies in general. That is not to say that the final movie is dreadful, though as much could be said if weighed by its source material. Since going into all the ways that The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies fails to represent Tolkien's work would require about four hours of discussion with purists, today I choose the easy route and will only judge the movie as a movie. That being said, I can't promise that my knowledge of the book and companion literature will not pop out every now and then.

Battle of the Five Armies picks up at the exact moment that The Desolation of Smaug leaves off. As such, the first ten minutes of the movie are wrought with glorious moments that reach heights of cinematic greatness. In this introductory sequence, the great dragon unapologetically lays waste to Laketown, sending its citizens into a frenzy. While the great dragon could not have been more beautifully portrayed, most memorable is Smaug's satanic taunting of the bowman Bard. One of my movie companions described this moment as "chilling" before going on to point out the absurdity of launching a harpoon from a weak makeshift catapult. As much as it is possible for a dragon to smile, Smaug smiles with unadulterated malice behind his flashing amber eyes as he seethes to Bard "you cannot save your son. He will BURN!" All at once there is reverence and utter terror at the great beast. And then a few scant moments later, it's over. The great dragon has been slain, yet two hours of movie lie ahead.

What could fill the next installment of The Hobbit when the dragon, a centerpiece of conflict, is dead before the movie's title displays onscreen?

Sadly, politics.

Word of the dragon's demise spreads faster than dragonfire, and before long the inevitable scuffle for the rights to the mountain begins. Bard and the people of Laketown ask for the prize that Thorin promised them, which they now desperately need to rebuild their lives following the ruin of their hometown. The serpentine elvish king Thranduil desires to reclaim some Elvish jewels hidden within Smaug's glorious riches. The dwarves want to move back into what was once their home, and Thorin wants to hole up there forever until he finds the Arkenstone-- an heirloom of his dynasty. Thorin's old nemesis Azog the Defiler is marching an army of orcs/goblins right towards them, while his lieutenant Bolg brings yet another foul army from a far region. Meanwhile, Lady Galadriel, Lord Elrond, and Saruman launch a rescue mission to save Gandalf from a most unfortunate captivity. Amid all this, one of Thorin's dwarves has fallen in love with an elf. It's all a grand mess.

Where is Bilbo in all this? Really, this movie is less about the hobbit Bilbo, and more about the greater conflict. At times he almost seems relegated to the "best friend" category of relevance, relinquishing center stage to Thorin as the leading man. That is not to say that Bilbo is insignificant or that Thorin is not superb when in the spotlight. Quite the contrary, I would readily pronounce Martin Freeman's Bilbo and Richard Armitage's Thorin as the standout performances of this installment, along with Luke Evans as Bard and Smaug (at least for voice-acting). Freeman's impeccable portrayal of the quirky hobbit feels authentic and natural, true to Bilbo's somewhat comedic character, yet still leaves room for Bilbo's character development to be convincing. Thorin easily stands out for his perfect representation of consuming madness and obsession over the treasure. The movies grander moments come at the hands of one of these two characters. And make  no mistake, there are certainly striking moments in The Battle of the Five Armies, but...

...While there is no lack of good acting, it can't always cover weak writing. The "love story" emphasized here is born of a rather short conversation shown in The Desolation of Smaug. That exchange is truly the only foundation for what becomes a superfluous side-plot that distracts from the main conflict and stirs the sort of drama that echoes the worst sentiments of lesser literature (usually of the kind involving vampires). Kili, one of the youngest of the dwarves, has fallen hard for Tauriel, and is less than coy about it. Tauriel returns the sentiment, but due to racial issues instead chooses to go on a mission with Legolas, who has his own romantic inclinations towards Tauriel. In a strange and misguided effort to win her over through pity, he takes her to a desolate land where an evil army is gathering, and gives a dramatic line about his mother dying here. This pointless errand serves no purpose but to temporarily remove the pair from the central conflict so they can re-enter the story at the most convenient moment possible, and contribute to the saving of the day. Without giving away too much, suffice to say that the conclusion of this odd triangle merely confirms its irrelevance.

Books and source material aside, The Battle of the Five Armies is difficult to judge well if weighed against the Lord of the Rings movies. While in fairness they are different stories, The Hobbit trilogy takes great pains to tie itself to Lord of the Rings and be taken just as seriously, while trying to be distinct to itself. Yet it would seem that a chronological viewing of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings would weaken the gravitas of the latter, rather than strengthen it. Early in The Fellowship of the Ring the audience learns that Saruman has turned evil, but The Battle of the Five Armies eliminates the possibility of that being a surprise. Strider in The Fellowship of the Ring is introduced as a mysterious and perhaps shadowy character at first, but The Battle of the Five Armies' completely gratuitous reference to him lessens that uncertainty as well. Certain events and relationships involving Legolas in The Battle of the Five Armies undermine his character in the Lord of the Rings movies, reducing the long-held racial issues between dwarves and elves to a juvenile bitterness over a crush gone wrong. All in all, The Hobbit trilogy creates multiple issues of continuity and various implications on plot for The Lord of the Rings if taken as a whole, and creates more questions than it ever answers.

If The Hobbit movies could be entirely separated from The Lord of the Rings movies, detached from writings of Tolkien, and made an entirely independent fantasy franchise, it wouldn't be half-bad, but would still fail to stand out beyond its genre the way that The Lord of the Rings or Pan's Labyrinth do. Rather than expand upon this point I'll just summarize it to this: depending on how you define fantasy, it could be well-argued that the genre in general has had a tumultuous relationship with quality, and has not commanded much respect or necessarily reached great heights of movie-making. Therefore, to say that The Hobbit succeeds as a fantasy movie is actually mediocre praise.

Assuming the audience hasn't read the book, The Battle of the Five Armies is no more or less than entertaining on a summer-blockbuster level. Those expecting the sobriety and pathos of Lord of the Rings will be disappointed, but those looking for something more on the level of The Chronicles of Narnia will be impressed. Those looking for an exciting family movie will enjoy it, but those wanting epic battle and struggle will probably yawn. As a fantasy movie, The Battle of the Five Armies is not necessarily a paragon of its genre, but with a willingness to overlook certain missteps in writing, and closing one's eyes to the constant insistence that The Hobbit movies are part of Lord of the Rings, it is hardly the blight of its genre either. It's okay, but not nearly as great as it thinks itself to be. I'm not sure I'd be eager to see it again, but I'm not sorry to have seen it once.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Maleficent

Maleficent is the sort of movie that counts on the audience either being invested in the original Disney Sleeping Beauty, or unable to resist Angelina Jolie. I grew up on Sleeping Beauty, so I was more than a little curious to see what what Wicked would do with the classic story from a different perspective. Wait, I mean Maleficent.

For a movie that is meant to tell the backstory of a character who famously proclaimed herself to be the Mistress of All Evil and called upon the powers of Hell, this movie is strangely saccharine with a distinct lack of darkness. I'm not suggesting a completely grim Snow White and the Huntsman retelling, but a little less sparkle and shine might have served this movie well considering how it managed to be less dark than the animated version. Really, other than the whole curse of eternal slumber that can only be broken by true love's kiss, Maleficent never seemed all that bad-- just a woman scorned, and we all know what they say about that as regards Hell's fury. Seriously though, at no point did she seem like she was really the Mistress of All Evil. She just seemed really bitter and emotionally scarred from a traumatic event in her past.

Speaking of a traumatic event in her past, Angelina Jolie calls the clipping of Maleficent's wings "metaphorical of rape." In context, it makes perfect sense because of how it happens, and how she reacts to it. The disfiguring of her body by the loss of her wings is really symbolic of how the event disfigures her soul, as it is this event that ruthlessly crushes her innocence and forces her to an intimate acquaintance with the world of pain and evil. But once again, seen as a woman who has been marred by the man she loved, she really doesn't seem demonic as in the animated version, nor is her quest for vengeance all that convincing. Maybe this is because of how easily she is turned from hatred to love by her maternal protection of young Aurora. Predictably, the true love that breaks the spell isn't from the dashing prince. If you've seen Frozen, this twist should really not come as a surprise at all.

Back on point, I find that the backstory involving Maleficent and Stephan creates more inconsistency and weakness of plot than it adds any strength at all. For example, Maleficent casts a curse upon young Aurora to punish Stephan, but is unwavering in her kindness to Aurora throughout the girl's life. Considering the level of offense that initially transformed Maleficent from fairy to specter, her immediate attachment to Aurora undermines her alleged wickedness significantly, which then weakens the idea that her love for the girl had any real impact on Maleficent's renouncement of "evil." Basically, Maleficent comes off more as a woman playing evil rather than actually being evil.

In all reality, Jolie's version of the character Maleficent is so far removed from the villainess of Sleeping Beauty that had it not been for the references and imagery that tie the movies together, they could have passed for completely different stories. The backstory of Maleficent was clearly meant to add layers to her character and explain what is more or less the untold story from her perspective. Unfortunately, this movie's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: Angelina Jolie. Certainly Jolie has the acting skills to make the character work, and she does this extremely well given what she had to work with. However, the movie focuses so exclusively on her without any development to other characters, yet doesn't really deepen her character at all. I can only conclude that the film-makers assumed that her presence alone would negate the need for further development, or that she could somehow make something spectacular out of mediocre material. This turns out to be a loss all the way around, because the young audiences most likely to be entertained by the glimmering world of fantasy and nitwit fairies are least likely to care what actress plays Maleficent, while the more mature audiences aware of Jolie's acting capabilities won't walk away impressed.

In the end it's not a terrible movie, but really not all that great, and certainly unlikely to affect the opinion of any kid who was scared during Sleeping Beauty. 




Friday, December 19, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

If you leave this movie without an 80's anthem stuck in your head, you're doing something wrong. The key to enjoying this movie is to not take it too seriously, brush up on your 80's pop culture, and embrace the cheese as fully as you can.

When we first meet Peter Quill, aka Star-lord, he is mysteriously abducted by alien spacecraft after watching his mother quietly pass away. Fast forward a few yeas, Quill is a music-loving, sacred grounds-desecrating artifact thief. Think of him as a cross between Han Solo and Captain Jack Sparrow, with a dash of Indiana Jones, and you'll have it about right. Despite having been abducted by aliens in the middle of his grief from losing his mother, and then raised by a rogue band of miscreants who reportedly wanted to eat him, Quill isn't a tortured hero with deep emotional baggage, which I found extremely refreshing. Not only would such an archetype be painfully out of place in this movie's tone, it would have rendered Quill's entire devil-may-care attitude a complete farce. Did Han Solo mope about his life as a smuggler and the enemies out to get him? Of course not. Quill is a welcome return to that Han Solo style of anti-hero: scoundrel, but not without a heart (as shown by his attachment to his walk-man with the cassette of classic oldies. Yes, you read that right-- a guy who flies spaceships and steals artifacts from distant planets does so with a walk-man and a cassette tape).

Among the rest of the crew eventually dubbed "Guardians of the Galaxy" are Rocket and Groot-- arguably the most obscure members of this ragtag band. Rocket is a quick-talking, mischievous bounty-hunter of a raccoon with a tall pet tree as a bodyguard. Said tree can only say "I am Groot" with different inflections and expressions to communicate emotion. This is oddly more effective than you might think, actually. Meanwhile, Rocket has enough words for the both of them, and never holds back what he's thinking, no matter how tactless it may be. They're unlikely yet perfect partners, just like the team as a whole really.

Next up is the shapely Gamora-- the adopted daughter of Thanos. It turns out however, that she actually resents Thanos wiping out her entire family and then adopting her to be an assassin. For a big bad guy like Thanos, I'm not sure how that didn't cross his mind, but it's not that important. She's working for Ronan, but she's out to double-cross him too and make sure he never gets his hands on the infinity stone that Quill is carrying around. Meanwhile, teammate Drax is out for revenge on Ronan for the murder of his wife and daughter, which is a legitimate vendetta. What Drax lacks in quick smarts (or comprehension of sarcasm and metaphors), he makes up for in brute strength.

This crew of misfits make up the team Guardians of the Galaxy, and eventually they save an entire planet...on purpose! This is especially surprising when you consider that earlier in the movie they were about to hand over the infinity stone to The Collector--the sleezy pawnshop owner seen at the end of Thor 2. But in the inevitable moment when the team must decide to save their own skins, or fight an impossible foe, they do the right thing.

Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the few movies that actually does a decent job of walking the line between a sci-fi action movie and a spoof. It has too much of both sides to succeed as a representative of either genre, but the result of the even balance is deliberately cheesy, highly amusing piece of entertainment that glories in celebrating its own overdone moments. The success of this attitude can be largely attributed to the somewhat unknown source material, and lack of any major-name movie stars except in supporting roles. Without any major stars in the leading roles, and not many people familiar with the source material, expectations were ambiguous if not low. Yet this actually works to the movie's advantage, because despite its stupidity, it feels thoroughly genuine rather than forced.

I can think of no better way to conclude than to recall a sequence that perfectly captures the quirky spirit of the movie. After an ambitious and thrown-together prison break full of explosions and narrow escapes, Quill doubles back to retrieve some personal items while the others board the ship. Once they are on board and leaving the bay, someone asks "where's Quill?" No sooner has the question has been completed, that Drax looks theatrically to the side to see Quill zooming towards them with his jet-boots, hair rippling in the slow-motion splendor of absurdity against a galactic backdrop, complete with the classic song "Escape" accompanying his moment. It is the most perfect embrace of absolute cheese that doesn't take itself seriously, and doesn't get lazy.




And for those of you who didn't catch it, it's Howard the Duck.
I know. WHAT?! 



X-men: Days of Future Past

This may be hard to believe, but the X-men movies have been appearing in theaters for fourteen years. The very first movie debuted in 2000, and moviegoers have been given installments of various characters and story arcs ever since. If you go all the way back to the first movie, you won't find it that hard to believe how old it is based on the graphics and the ages of the actors. In some ways, reviewing X-Men: Days of Future Past is reviewing the entire franchise because the events of this most recent installment both set up and unravel everything that has been previously established. The movie did what JJ Abram's essentially did to Star Trek: created a way to tell completely new stories that are neither influenced nor hindered by previous material, while still finding a way to allow the old stories to remain. Only sci-fi can do this, and X-men: Days of Future Past takes full advantage of this device. But be warned, screwing with time is always a messy affair.

Wolverine and Sabertooth with William Stryker circa Vietnam
William Stryker in 1973
First off, X-Men: Days of Future Past is a decidedly marked improvement from First Class, most notably by getting away from the 1960's spy thriller motif that plagued the first movie. The absence of Kevin Bacon's absurd James Bond style villiany furthers this departure. Secondly and most importantly, Days of Future Past operates with the hope that the audience will forget about X-Men 3: The Last Stand and certain events in Wolverine, or at least imaginatively fill in the plot holes themselves. No bueno. For example, in Wolverine, Logan meets William Stryker during the Vietnam War, where Stryker is about forty or so. From here the infamous Weapon X project ensues where Logan's skeleton is grafted with adamantium, changing his bone claws to steel blades. In this movie, the past timeline unfolds around 1973, and William Stryker is in his twenties. Therefore, Weapon X hasn't happened yet, so younger Logan has not been grafted with adamantium.Since Stryker didn't meet up with Logan and company in Vietnam, we have no idea where Sabertooth, Deadpool, or any of those guys are either. Another example is that at the end of First Class, Xavier and Eric part ways and Xavier establishes his school. But in X-Men 3: the Last Stand, the two are shown as older men visiting a young Jean Grey together to recruit her to their school. By the end of Days of Future Past, young Eric and Xavier have not reconciled, and they part ways again. So... did they make up again after Days of Future Past and become co-administrators of the school for a while? Or is this another detail that is presumably undone by the time reset?

Days of Future Past takes place at an undisclosed time in the not-too-distant future wherein some of the youths from Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters are now constantly on the run from the Sentinels-- mutant-seeking and destroying war drones. Clearly, a lot has changed since the conclusion of The Last Stand where mutants were freely existing in society. The small band of rogue mutants has died several times already it would seem, but Kitty Pryde (Shadowcat) has rewound time again and again to give them a chance to escape. Well, technically she transferred someone's consciousness into their past self so that the past self could warn them and they can all escape. Nevermind that she could only ever walk through walls before-- she has this power now, and how she came by it is apparently unimportant. There may have been a passing reference to her "evolving", which is awfully convenient if you ask me. Professor Charles Xavier's on-again off-again friendship with Eric Lensher (Magneto) is on again, and they are working together to save mutant humanity from genocidal annihilation. Try and forget that Xavier was disintegrated in The Last Stand and Eric lost his powers of magnetism. Yes, yes, I remember the end of credits scenes wherein it was implied that Eric's powers may return and that Xavier had successfully transferred his consciousness to a brain-dead patient. How he got his original body back is exactly what the film-makers hope you won't wonder about. To be fair, there is a post-credits scene at the end of The Wolverine (not to be confused with its predecessor Wolverine) that introduces the resurrected Xavier, but it still doesn't explain anything. Just as well.

Moving on, Wolverine essentially goes back in time to find a younger Xavier and Eric, to convince them to stop Mystique from doing something that will ultimately set in motion the demise of all mutants. At this juncture, a few years have passed since First Class. Xavier is in a constant drunken stupor, leaving Hank (Beast) to take care of him, and Eric is in maximum security prison for allegedly assassinating Kennedy. None of them are quite sure where Mystique is, but it is essential that they find her before she kills Dr. Trask-- the man ultimately responsible for the Sentinels. If they succeed, an unknown but presumably more optimistic future will write itself to replace the certain future that awaits them now. Yet herein lies another continuity problem. Eric explains that the catalyst to the Sentinel project was Mystique's botched murder attempt on Dr. Trask. She was captured, experimented on, and samples of her DNA, bone marrow, brain tissue, etc. were all used in the development of the Sentinel's ability to adapt against threat. If this had occurred in the way that Eric describes, Mystique wouldn't have been his sidekick in the original trilogy-- she would be either dead from experimentation, or at least in captivity. But beyond that, the idea that the Sentinel project was underway during the events of the original X-Men trilogy is completely incompatible with the legislative conflicts that are presented in those films. Why would there be a Mutant Registration Act, Stryker's raid on Xavier's school, or the entire war at Alcatraz if the Sentinel project was already functional? The conclusion of The Last Stand implied that mutants were free to live and operate in society. While I would understand that harmony turning sour after a few years, it makes no sense that the Sentinels have been operational and advancing in development since the 70's, but not used before the future events of Days of Future Past. 

Needless to say, this movie is laden with an extremely thick and ambitious plot that is only smooth for casual fans who won't stare at a blank wall when the movie is over, trying to wrap their minds around the implications of the conclusion (as I did). In many ways, Days of Future Past seemed to be director Bryan Singer's way of discrediting the events of all the movies he didn't direct. At the very least the movie made a very zealous attempt to undo various plot lines that may have written them into corners. My mind is still reeling over everything that was "undone" by this movie, and it really created more questions than it answered. Chief among these questions is, does the Logan shown at the end of the movie have adamantium? Aka, did Weapon X even happen? Least of these questions is, how did Bolivar Trask go from being a middle-aged dwarfed white guy in 1973, to an average height middle-aged black man in 2006 (as shown in The Last Stand)?

For a movie that exists in the same universe as previous X-Men movies, this one is riddled with plot holes large enough to run the whole thing through. The last two movies featuring younger versions of the cast are neither reboot nor retelling-- they are pieces that don't fit their own puzzle. To be entirely fair, as a movie, it's really pretty good as long as you either have minimal to no knowledge of previous movies and events. The younger and older versions of the characters are at least consistent with themselves, especially Michael Fassbender's supremely convincing performance as a young Magneto. James McAvoy's young Charles Xavier is not exactly the regal Professor X that we know and love, but then it is amusing to imagine that Professor X wasn't born a stalwart schoolmaster. As a comic book movie, the action sequences are stylish and entertaining, Easter eggs abound without being too blatant, and in the end all is well. In fact, in the end, all is arguably more well than it has ever been at the conclusion of any X-Men movie. As a movie by itself, it's fully satisfying. As part of a series... well clearly there are some problems.

The hardest thing to swallow about the whole movie is how much history has now been erased, and all the complications this creates. We don't know if Logan ever participated in Weapon X, if Dark Phoenix still lays dormant in Jean, what became of Magneto and Mystique, or any number of other things. And judging by current rumors about future movies, we won't know. Instead, we're asked to just accept that everything after 1973 was rewritten into a book we will never read, and be content that we've seen the last page.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Captain Phillips

I don't remember the last time that I was so tense as I was during Captain Phillips. And that is saying something when you consider that I already knew enough about the story to know how it was going to end.

So what could make a popularized and well-known story so perfectly engaging?

Two words: Tom Hanks.

Yet it would be unjust not to give credit to the absolutely excellent work of the actors portraying the Somali pirates, especially Barkhad Abdi. Their erratic, frightening behavior is so realistic that it's chilling. They have no thought of right or wrong, no sense of reason, no qualms about killing a man on the spot. Watching the three main Somali pirates had a maddeningly tense quality to it--the entire movie you just wait for them to completely snap and rip Captain Phillips to pieces. They walk the line and unpredictably leap from one side of sanity to the other, and at no moment are you ever finding yourself breathing easily. This tension, uncertainty, and anxiety fuels the pace of the movie more than any of the action does. The pirates are so realistic and believable, that even as the audience, I felt unsafe.

Admirably, Phillips keeps his cool despite the crazed looks in the eyes of the pirates, but when the man gets desperate, you get desperate watching. When he starts to sweat, so do you. When he panics, you REALLY do. And when he starts screaming for help as he's about to be executed point-blank, you hold your breath.

Such is the mastery of the directing and acting of Captain Phillips, that even when I knew what would ultimately happen, I could. Not. Relax. It would have felt irresponsible. The last half of the movie or so takes place on an escape pod, therefore the visuals are extremely limited and confined. Most of what is seen for that segment is the inside of the pod, where Phillips and the pirates bake, and they all become increasingly more desperate and overwhelmed by heat exhaustion and panic. With these limited camera shots, the claustrophobic feeling was very real, even in an air-conditioned theater.  However, even prior to the extended sequence aboard the closed escape pod, the camera angles remained tight and close wherever possible, keeping the focus on the sparks of madness in the eyes of the pirates, or the beads of sweat on the forehead of Phillips. The cinematography was hugely successful in keeping me feeling trapped in the story, to the point that when the movie ended, I felt dreadfully thirsty from having been aboard the escape pod for so long in such high heat.

In my personal opinion, there is simply nothing that Tom Hanks can't do. His resume might have bad movies somewhere on it, but I can't recall a single time that even one of his lesser movies involved bad acting. Captain Phillips is no exception to this, and may in fact be one of Hank's finer performances in recent years. Although his performance is sterling throughout the movie, the true standout moment is when, finally rescued and aboard a safe vessel, Phillips starts going into shock. His trembling, stuttering, sudden emotional collapse is absolutely masterful.

While I'm not sure that I would see Captain Phillips again, it was certainly an excellent movie choice for an evening, and I've recommended it several times. Every award that Captain Phillips was nominated for, whether at the Golden Globes or the Oscars, was well-deserved.


Frozen: A long delayed review and opinion

Part of me really wants to write some sort of scathing review of Disney's latest mega-hit, just to be a dissenter. There was so much hype surrounding this movie that I purposely waited until May to see it, just so I could enjoy it somewhat free of the saccharine squeals, endless quotes usurping adult conversation, and repeated renditions of "Let it Go" everywhere from the Oscars to YouTube and everywhere in between. By the time I finally did see it, there were no surprises left because all social media and entertainment news centered around the ins and outs, Easter eggs, conspiracy theories, hidden agendas, and every other angle imaginable in Frozen. I'm serious when I say there is nothing stemming from Frozen that can surprise me.


Well first off, I won't deny that it actually is a pretty good movie, even if did feel like a shameless Disney scheme to make new princesses to add to their marketing collection. But don't get me started on Disney's marketing schemes. Anyway, this latest installment features a princess and a rarity: a queen that wants to be good. Generally speaking Disney queens are evil, and Elsa goes a little dark, but not evil. Although I'm going to guess that Elsa will still be marketed as a princess.

So assuming that any readers either saw the movie or suffered my same fate, I won't bother explaining the plot. But I'll admit I liked it. I respectfully but heartily disagree that it's the "finest Disney movie ever" as some have implied, but that's an opinion and they're entitled to it. Here's the thing: I liked it, but I didn't love it. And maybe that's because by the time I saw it, I felt like it had been shoved in my face (and ears) everywhere I went. The movie simply couldn't live up to that much hype, and even now I find it difficult to really assess the quality of the movie from a clear angle because I feel like all the hype surrounding the movie was orchestrating a pre-made opinion for me that I need only walk into, and be part of the collective.

With all that in mind, I'm doing my best to think objectively.

The music was pretty good, and it was nice to see a return to the "sing-along" styles of earlier Disney pieces in songs like "In Summer", "Do You Wanna Build a Snowman", and a few others. Certainly "Let it Go" is catchy and feels empowering. In context, it's a song that celebrates independence, freedom, and escape from social oppression, but with great cost: total isolation.  Some would argue that Elsa's decision to be in a self-imposed exile is to protect people from her powers. However, her complete glee in doing so seems to somewhat contradict that point, and opens a psychological box that I'm not sure I'm qualified to get into, but I'm going to try because I think that it has some very interesting implications.

  • Although inadvertently, I would posit that Elsa was emotionally abused. Her parents were well-meaning, but their insistence to "conceal, don't feel" did not teach her control-- it imprisoned her in fear. 
  • Going off the above point, Elsa flees her responsibility out of fear, and then experiences a freedom that drives her to...isolation. Not so different from her years of solitary confinement when you think about it, except that now in her ice castle there's no one she need fear hurting, if that was what she really was afraid of in the first place.  

With the above points in consideration, it's interesting that Elsa's freedom so closely resembles her years of concealment, and that she so enthusiastically embraces it. I suppose it's some sort of metaphor about hurt people choosing to stay isolated, and deluding themselves into believing it to be the best thing. She evolves from the attitude of "I have to do this for others" to "I want to do this for me." In Elsa's defense, she really did not know who she could have turned to for help. Her parents should have provided this support, so her choice to be isolated is understandable when weighed against her years of conditioning. Eventually Elsa figures out that learning to control her powers and daring to love will hurt much less than continuing to isolate herself in safety. For that reason, it might have been interesting to see "Let It Go" have a reappearance in the movie after Elsa's enlightenment, showing her actually letting go of her fears, rather than just unleashing her pent-up powers.

Onto lighter topics! I'll just talk about Olaf because he was my favorite. Josh Gad, who voiced the lovable snowman based his inspiration of Olaf on the iconic Genie. Reportedly, Gad wanted to create a character that could be just as unpredictable and unconfined by normal barriers as the Genie was in Aladdin. As a result, we have a snowman who is almost indestructible, more or less fearless, witty, and whose greatest desire is entirely incompatible with his nature (not unlike the Genie's longing for freedom). Without Olaf, Frozen would have really just been a dark and depressing tale, but Olaf's presence keeps things buoyant in the right moments. His wide-eyed childlike wonder at the world is endearing and amusing. Olaf has significant symbolic value, but getting into that would be laborious, so go and google it instead. Someone else has probably already written about it.

All in all, Frozen was a well-made and entertaining movie that proves Disney has still got a few tricks up its sleeve. It took a unique spin on the true love concept, appropriately transferring it to be between sisters, rather than a hasty romantic love. Furthermore, Frozen somewhat gives a smack in the face to previous princess tales that do involve a love-at-first sight occurrence. Anna and Hans meet, connect, and want to be together forever; it's really not all that different from Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, or any number of other stories. It turned out fine for them, but Frozen takes a more practical, cautious approach to this cliche, and directly points out the foolishness of acting hastily on the euphoria of new love. For that, Frozen gets some extra points. I'm not one to say that stories of this nature need to be realistic, but it is nice to see a little cautionary reality thrown in every now and then as regards relationships. So my closing note is that Frozen was good and quite enjoyable, but I am ready to get back to the days when I could say "just let it go" without inspiring a chorus bursting forth from surrounding eavesdroppers.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

I am so behind on current movies I have more than once considered forgoing blogging altogether. But then a slow day happens and I feel so inspired that I come back. And nothing fuels my inspiration like a good superhero movie.

So, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 picks up pretty much where the first one left off, with Peter (James Garfield) and Gwen (Emma Stone) enjoying their youthful romance in between Peter's crime-fighting missions. The chemistry between the two is one of the movie's strongest points, which is unexpected, but true. Their dialogue and interactions would be painfully groan-worthy in any other setting, with any other characters, but here the actors embrace the awkwardness and nerdiness of it so thoroughly that it comes off as endearing instead. Although Peter and Gwen have serious moments, most of their time is characterized by awkward moments, flirtatious smiles, and playful exchanges, rather than trying to convey a deep, star-crossed, impenetrable bond that inspires soap-opera style monologue and dramatic breathing. I'm looking at you, Twilight!


For Peter Parker, Spider-Man is a mask-- not an expression of his real self. He has his secrets, but in general Peter is unsure of himself, shy, and deeply sensitive. This is a stark contrast to the persona of Spider-Man, who is cocky, risky, and seemingly invincible. Spider-Man lives on the edge, and Peter deals with the consequences of Spider-Man's choices. Peter is still haunted by the broken promise he made to Gwen's father not to involve her in his dangerous life, and that guilt eats him up inside knowing that Gwen too could be hurt by Spider-Man's choices. Yet for all this angst, James Garfield's delivery of Peter (thankfully) doesn't come off as just a whiny youth; he's just burdened down with more responsibility than he is mature enough to handle. Gwen for her part is no damsel in distress, which is extremely refreshing. She is a strong character with youthful emotions, but doesn't ignorantly stray into trouble every minute, which is also a nice change. In fact, any time Gwen ends up in some sort of dangerous situation, it is almost always because she herself chose to get involved, and to her credit, she doesn't generally dive into anything that's over her head. That theme of choice becomes important later when Peter must deal with his loved ones' choices and consequences.

Every superhero movie needs a really good villain, and this is where Amazing 2 falls a bit short. At first, Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) just seems like a lonely and under-appreciated joe shmo who needs some recognition, appreciation, and friends. Although his obsession with Spider Man is a bit unsettling, he's a fairly sympathetic character that just wants to be noticed, which you can't really blame him for. Once he transforms into Electro, he has a brief taste of fame and glory, and then it is ripped away as quickly as it came. Sadly, this is where he lost me. Max/Electro was relatively sympathetic up to that point (albeit in need of some mental health counseling), and might have remained so if his devastation at the mob's reaction to him had been handled differently. But because his immediate response to the mass rejection is murderous outrage, anything remotely identifiable about his character vanishes, and I ceased to feel sorry for him at all. From that point onward, he operates as little more than an impressive special effect, with motives so completely lacking in complexity and depth that he not only fails to be sympathetic, he also fails to be entirely loathsome. As a villain he's just mediocre. Impressive powers most certainly, but not at all striking or unique in terms of character or purpose. Unfortunately, true to the nature of Max Dillon, he'll be forgotten as soon another villain comes around. Electro is already an inconsequential memory before the movie even ends, having already been upstaged by the next villain. Unless he was only temporarily disintegrated, and not killed, which is also a possibility...

While Harry Osborne was not much more interesting than Electro, he will be remembered a little longer for a variety of reasons. One is that his actions are directly responsible for a major event that changed comic books forever (skip down to my spoiler section below the last picture). Another is that his final moments onscreen hint that he will be instrumental in bringing about a great villain uprising in the next installment. Like Peter, Harry has more to deal with than he is mature enough to handle. Unlike Peter however, his response is not reluctance and moral reflection about the risks, but outrage and animalistic self-preservation at all costs, with all things being worth the risk. Really, it is only this attitude that makes Harry at all dangerous. He's young, small of stature, and lean of frame, so he's hardly intimidating before his transformation into the creepy Goblin. Yet because nothing is too great a risk to save his life, there are no lines he is not willing to cross, even if it means he figuratively gives up his life to have life. Ultimately the citizens of New York City don't feel much devastation at the Goblin's hands-- only a select few get the full blast of his evil determination. But judging by his piece at the end of the film, I would venture to guess that he returns as a minor villain in the next movie. As a side-note, Dane DeHaan reminds me of a very young Leonardo DiCaprio, and to my recollection, the latter wasn't very good when he was very young. It's not just the Jack-on-the-Titanic hairdo either; his mannerisms and expressions are all reminiscent of DiCaprio. DeHaan isn't bad necessarily, but I also can't say I thought his performance stuck out as particularly memorable, but I will give him credit for making an appropriately maniacal Goblin.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 came dangerously close to overloading the script with too many villains, and although I think they narrowly avoided that pitfall (I already know others disagree), the inevitable part three already seems set up to go that direction. I hope I'm wrong, because I greatly enjoy the direction that this franchise has taken, but I must bitterly admit that most superhero trilogies usually have a weak point, and there has been something of a pattern in the part threes. Speculation and nervousness about the future of the franchise aside, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was an exceptionally enjoyable comic book movie that has a good dose of humor and comedy with its drama, action, and heart-ripping emotion. Although there has not yet been a villain of any Spider-Man universe that stands out to the level of say, Loki or Magneto, perhaps there is still hope. And despite my love of good villains and undeniable lack of striking ones in Amazing 2, I can't deny I really enjoyed the movie. Maybe I'm a sucker for some superhero movies, but I'm okay with not always having a deep spiritual, emotional, or artistic reason for enjoying the things that I do.



SPOILER SECTION
By this point I'm not sure it's such a big spoiler, but just in case, you have been warned. The Amazing Spider-Man comic series had a pivotal, striking event that ended what is called the Silver Age of comic books. That event was the death of Gwen Stacy, shown artfully, beautifully, and tragically in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 movie. In the books, this event completely shattered the innocence and optimism that accompanied the comic book world. To that point, good triumphed over evil, and no matter how close the scrape, your main characters lived to fight another day with a shining hope that evil would fall. Then, in "the snap heard round the comic book world-- the startling, sickening snap of bone that heralded the death of Gwen Stacy" (Blumberg), that world changed. I knew this when The Amazing Spider-Man 2 went into production, and I hoped against hope that they wouldn't do it, but I already knew before the movie began that they were going to stick to the canon and carry out Gwen's demise. And sure enough, they did. Dramatically, emotionally, hopelessly... crack. The full impact of this tragic event is unknown, but I would venture to guess that Peter is about to reach new depths of darkness, and new heights of determination as a result. Part three will tell. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Jurassic Park 4: I Knew it was Coming

I can't be credited with special powers of prediction for this one, because Jurassic Park 4 has been rumored about for the better part of ten years. I do however want credit for special powers of prediction when I said that Cate Blanchett should play an evil stepmother in a Cinderella adaptation, because guess who is now playing Lady Tremaine aka Evil Stepmother in a Cinderella adaptation? Called it.

But anyway that's irrelevant to the subject at hand. What I'm talking about today is the fact that the studio finally did what they've been threatening for ten years or more: actually work on a Jurassic Park part 4, now named Jurassic World. 


With the details that have already been leaked, this isn't looking good. In the original Jurassic Park, your location was something of a game reserve like you would see in various parts of Africa. The animals roam about and you drive through and observe. Jurassic World seems to make the whole experience a theme park, and there are really only so many directions that can go, and all of them end with carnage. But Universal is fairly certain they can give us something new and unique. On that note, here is what we can expect from Jurassic World so far: 

1. Hey, look! Kids!
 
Oh good, because we didn't see kids in any of these previous Jurassic Park movies: 

Jurassic Park
Lex and Tim

The Lost World: Jurassic Park
Kelly

Jurassic Park III
Eric

2. A redheaded female scientist who looks unlikable

 

Because that's never happened before either. 
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
Dr. Sarah Harding

3. Some guy on a motorcycle.

 No one knows who this guy below is, but the point is, he rode a motorcycle with dinosaurs first, so he gets some sort of credit for that. 

Disposable unnamed character from The Lost World: Jurassic Park

4. An island (although I will admit that the settlement over the water there in the front concerns me significantly...)

But in all fairness, an island is really the only plausible way to contain the artificially generated wildlife, as shown in every other JP movie: 
Isla Nublar

5. And of course, a big terrifying T-Rex


Unlike the beast seen here: 
Jurassic Park
 And the bonus two of them here:
The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Until the mighty T-rex was unceremoniously disposed of by the Spinosaurus here:
Jurassic Park 3
     Judging by the rumors about the genetically engineered super-dino that combines the DNA of a T-rex, velociraptor, cuttlefish, and snake, I'd say that if old T-rex features in Jurassic World, we probably shouldn't get attached to it.

     Sorry Universal, you're not convincing me of anything, least of all originality. Then again, I don't know if I can fault anyone for that since that seems to be the rarest commodity these days. It also doesn't help that I barely recognize anyone in the cast, and if you know me, you know that's saying something. 

     I'm still waiting on some sort of positive news that would excite me about this whole thing. However, I'm glad to hear that of the leaked plot details, at least the one about raptors being tamed to the point of assisting humans was disqualified. That is such a relief, because I was really afraid of you going this direction: 

Beast Wars! 
Or worse....



For some of my other thoughts on sequels and part fours, see Sequels, The Movie Murderer, and The Gamble of Part Four. I know; I'm beating a dead horse. I wouldn't have to if they'd just learn their lessons... 

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Redeemed Jean Valjean

Jean Valjean is nothing now! Another story must begin!

When Valjean (Hugh Jackman) wails this line, a story has already taken place that sets the tone for the rest of the story. After living twenty years under the ruthless eye of Inspector Javert (Crowe), Valjean is a hardened and forgotten man. "I have learned to hate the world, the world that always hated me... this is all I have lived for, this is all I have known..." he sings. In one transforming act of mercy at the hands of a noble bishop, Valjean is crushed and made new. Now given the chance at redemption, Valjean rejoins the miserable world a free man with new determination. But what a miserable world it is.


Without giving away too much, by the time the credits roll and tomorrow comes, Jean Valjean has behaved selflessly from the moment of his conversion to the last sweeping musical note of the movie. Two characters play an enormous role in his transformation, the most obvious being the bishop. The bishop (tenderly played by Colm Wilkinson) sees Valjean as a desperate man in need of grace instead of a soulless convict. He treats Valjean with love and respect, and when Valjean wrongs him, the bishop covers Valjeans sins and offers him another chance, calling him brother. For all real intents and purposes, the bishop represents the voice of God in a truly beautiful way that is sealed when he surprisingly appears a second time at the end of the movie. Generally speaking, movies have not been kind to clergy. But the bishop of Les Miserables is a man of warmth, tenderness, and hospitality, whose love and grace are a glorious reflection of the God he serves. Valjean sees God in the bishop, and he is permanently and irrevocably changed. Because of the actions of the bishop, Valjean puts his past behind him and becomes a picture of grace and redemption ("I"ll escape now from that world... from the world of Jean Valjean...Jean Valjean is nothing now! Another story must begin!"), never forgetting the kindness that saved his soul. Later it is clear that as a result of this transformation, Valjean will extend grace and mercy to others who are not unlike what he was.

A second more subtle influence on the heart of Jean Valjean is Cosette, the girl who becomes his daughter. In a selfless act, Valjean seeks out the orphaned daughter of a prostitute and saves her from the sordid innkeeper she has been in the "care" of. Cosette's innocence and immediate love for him move Valjean. He indicates that she has touched his heart in a way that he has seemingly never been touched before ("you have brought the gift of life and love so long denied me..."). Suddenly Valjean is no longer alone. From this point onward, Valjean dedicates his life to protecting hers, and placing her happiness before his own, to the point of standing in the way of harm to protect the man she loves. Despite her abusive background, Cosette embodies innocence, and Valjean strives to protect the fragility of it in the wretched world they live in. Although at times Valjean comes off as overprotective, it becomes understandable when one considers everything that Valjean has been through, and how he longs to protect his only loved one from the gross realities of the world.

By the end of the story, Cosette, the bishop, and others commend Valjean for living according to love rather than succumbing to the many opportunities he had to take an easier way. At every turn, the stone-hearted Javert tempts Valjean to take revenge or slip back into a life of crime, taking every opportunity to remind Valjean of who he was. Javert is for this story, the Great Accuser, but is also a mirror of what Valjean could be if he succumbed to the pressure of bitterness and callousness. Yet from the moment of his conversion to the day when he breaks past the earthly barricades, Valjean refuses to ever be 24601 ever again no matter how strong the temptation.

Time and time again, Valjean could make his own life so much easier by doing something easy. Most of the time, these choices are so grey that most people wouldn't have condemned him for taking the easier road. Yet he does not. In fact, not once does he take the easier road to save himself. He strives to keep himself alive, but that is the extent of his self-interest. He adopts the illegitimate daughter of a prostitute. He willingly identifies himself as a former convict to save someone else from being imprisoned in his place. He carries his daughter's love through the sewers of the city. He spares his enemy when he had the power of life or death over him.

Jean Valjean is a redeemed man who refuses to revert back to his old self. This is the power of mercy and love, and it is portrayed beautifully in the character of Jean Valjean. Hugh Jackman's heartfelt performance as the protagonist shows Valjean not as a saint; merely a man who has seen undeserved mercy and is changed by it. Rarely has a picture of redemption ever graced the silver screen so clearly and eloquently, with such engagement and captivation. Jean Valjean encapsulates the depths of desperation and the heights of grace, and Jackman masterfully pulls the audience along this journey with every beautiful, miserable, desperate, heavenly note.


How to Train Your Dragon 2

I officially want my own dragon.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 was one of my most anticipated movies of the summer, possibly of the year, so I'm not going to miss an opportunity to review this one.  The first Dragon is a favorite among my animated movies, and I've been waiting with anticipation and nervousness for the inevitable sequel. Personally I'm not sure how you can really dislike these movies unless you just reject animation in general. How to Train Your Dragon made Vikings an affable people! If you know a little history, JUST a little, you know that Vikings are a really unlikely choice for a movie that will attract children. Vikings on dragons might sound a little too ridiculous for the unimaginative, but if the Vikings had mastered the art of dragon-riding, our world would be a very different place today.

But anyway I digress. So How to Train Your Dragon 2 starts up a few years after the first installment has left off. You can surmise this from the dragon-friendly modifications to the village of Berk, and the grey hairs that Stoick has sprouted. As usual Hiccup is off with Toothless being very un-Vikingly, peacefully exploring and mapping the surrounding world, without intent of conquest. Stoick has decided that Hiccup will be the next chief of Berk, but Hiccup just wants to keep being an explorer and inventor leading a peaceful but adventurous life. But as so often happens in life, things happen, and life doesn't go according to plan.

First off, Toothless is one of the most lovable characters to grace the animated screen in recent years. His big green-yellow eyes, facial expressions, and body language are more communicative than all the spoken words in the entire script.  He doesn't need to talk-- it's all clear with a little dragonly grumbling. Toothless is like a big, playful, sonic burst-spitting puppy, with a few cat-like tendencies.  The way he bounces, wags, rolls over, plays, and even smiles is positively endearing. Toothless has all the intelligence, emotions, nobility, courage, and honor of a real warrior, but is still just....sorry, adorable. He's a pet worthy of a Viking, but also fits the youthful adventurous spirit of his rider Hiccup.

By this point in time, Hiccup himself seems less worthy of his name than he once was. He's less bumbling and clumsy, though not a shred less adventurous. Hiccup has no interest in becoming the next chief, but it should be noted that it's really less to do with shirking responsibility, and a lot more to do with his desire to continue being an explorer... and a lot to do with some insecurity about being able to fill his father's boots. But Hiccup has grown up a lot since the first installment, being more confident in himself that ever before, even to a fault. Example, despite repeated warnings and evidence to the contrary, Hiccup is convinced that he can talk the evil Drago out of his nefarious plans.

As much as I loved Toothless and Hiccup, what really stuck with me was Stoick and Valka. The tender reunion and rekindled love between Stoick and his long-lost wife was sweeter and more emotional than Hiccup meeting his mother for the first time. In genres such as this, young love is usually the centerpiece, but here the older, constant love takes the stage and steals the show in two exquisite moments with a look and a dance. Initially I wasn't sure what to think of Valka, who had been alive all this time, willingly abandoning her husband and child, but it's clear that she deeply regrets this decision and longs to start over with her family. Furthermore, seeing the mighty Stoick suddenly melted to butter at the sight of Valka, taking her back without any question at all, and loving and protecting her as if she never left, was simply beautiful.

Yet would this movie be worthy of its predecessor without the fantastic humor that accompanied the first movie? Of course not, and this one delivers plenty of chuckle-worthy moments, mostly at the hands of the (seemingly) last single girl in Berk, Ruffnut. Personally I would have liked more of Craig Ferguson's Gobber, but the humor surrounding Ruffnut delivers plenty of laughs. Furthermore the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless has always been one that is light-hearted and playful, and that is as much the case here as it was in the first film.

The first movie's villain was tradition and prejudice, but here the antagonist is a real person with disturbing powers that yield serious consequences. To say that Drago is a powermonger would be a serious understatement. Drago wants worship and sovereignty. Not in the religious sense necessarily (though he does at one point command a posture of bowing down), but in the sense that he wants all people and dragons to fear him, and he is ruled by this lust. The power he already possesses leaves absolutely no barriers for him to do as he chooses, and he does just this without a second thought, making him a rather disturbing figure.

In many ways, How to Train Your Dragon 2 follows the formula for a sequel by being bigger, darker, and more explosive, but in other ways it dodges some of the woes that Part Two's are prone to. While the movie certainly does increase its levels of action and suspense, it doesn't overload itself with such sequences, but is sure to make these moments impressive. But leaving the theater, it was not the battle moments that left the greatest visual impression. The visually impacting moments were the ones that captured the magic and wonder of adventure: when Hiccup is flying with his mother and she walks effortlessly from dragon to dragon in mid-air; when Hiccup shows off his newest invention that allows him to fly independently of Toothless, while Toothless keeps him aloft by firing heat-bursts in front of him; the moments of sheer splendor where dragons dance like butterflies in a hidden refuge, break the surface of the water like dolphins, or suddenly appear from the clouds in peaceful but majestic glory. This is where How to Train Your Dragon 2 embraces its world, revels in its beauty, and makes you so jealous that you're not on that dragon, soaring above the clouds.

All in all, How to Train Your Dragon 2 was just as enjoyable as the first movie, bringing a perfect blend of comedy, drama, and action to the screen, with plenty of awe-inspiring moments. The only things I found remotely disappointing were that one of the biggest showdowns is over too quickly, and one character will definitely not be returning for the inevitable Part Three. For this review, I have ever so considerately put one spoiler-ish analysis in the postscript under the picture, so you won't read it accidentally. But in conclusion, I would say whole-heartedly that How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a sequel worthy of its excellent predecessor.



For all the dragons and evil villains and Godzilla vs. Godzilla showdowns, there was one area that How to Train Your Dragon 2 significantly surprised me by the time the credits rolled. At the start of the movie we are shown that Stoick is ready to pass the chieftainship to Hiccup, but Hiccup doesn't really want it. Astrid on the other hand can think of no greater honor. Considering the advancement of time, I somewhat expected that Hiccup and Astrid would tie the knot and Astrid would assume the chieftainship while Hiccup resumed being an explorer and peacemaker to outlying regions. A little later I wondered if the movie was setting up newcomer Eret to take this position. What was surprising to me was that eventually, it is in fact Hiccup that takes the honor. After a great battle and a huge loss, Hiccup acknowledges that being a chief isn't about being born with the right look or having intimidating strength-- it's about character. "I was so afraid of becoming my dad. Mostly because I thought I never could. How do you become someone that great, that brave, that selfless? ... I guess you can only try... A chief protects his own." In the end Hiccup steps up to the position, proving that leadership can come in many forms, and a good leader doesn't always fit the mold of a strong and mighty chief.


Friday, June 27, 2014

Man of Steel

More than a character, Superman is a symbol of the power of goodness to ultimately overcome evil. Superman represents a childlike fantasy to have the power to change things in mighty ways. Superman is an imaginative ideal in which one man really can do everything, save the world, and get the girl. And yet, it's hard to identify with a guy whose greatest challenge is an allergy to a rock from an extinct planet. And to some degree, that is where Man of Steel succeeds where no other Superman has.

While it may not be difficult to imagine that a young Clark would have difficulty with the necessity of hiding his abilities from the world, rarely have we seen how Clark is forced into heart-breaking dilemmas right alongside common juvenile temptations. Before Clark is fully realized as the Man of Steel, he has two life-defining moments in which he must make the choice to protect his identity, or let others die while he stands by. Clark responds differently to the two situations, and the outcomes are invariably affected, as is Clark. One situation proves to him that as one who has the ability to save lives, he has the responsibility. The second scenario shows him that while failure to act can (and does) result in someone else's death, he must be able to act without compromising his cover.

Thanks to creative writing and good acting, Clark is finally a fairly sympathetic character. His loneliness is incurable, and his desire for belonging can never be met. As far as Clark knows, he is the last survivor of a world he never even knew, the only son of a family whose love he can never remember. His emptiness is more than just a lack of identity, but a penetrating lonesomeness in every sense, and that is what I found most personable about Clark. It's not that he doesn't fit in because he's hiding who is, he doesn't fit in because he is a stranger in a strange land.

In more technical areas, it should be noted that Man of Steel differs from previous Superman adaptations in some significant ways.

1. No Kryptonite. Clark's only true weakness is that he has adapted a little too much to the atmosphere of earth, which complicates his energy and breathing when he visits General Zod aboard the spacecraft.

2. Krypton's fate is not natural. In other Superman movies, Krypton seems to be the unfortunate recipient of a natural apocalypse. In Man of Steel however, Krypton is reaping the consequences of harvesting the planet core for resources, therefore making the core unstable.

3. No Lois-Clark romance. It's well-known that Lois has complicated feelings for both Superman and Clark, completely oblivious to the fact that they are one in the same. In this version of the story however, Lois never meets Clark as just Clark. She meets him because she knows that he is something different, and he is thus the mysterious man from moment one.

4. Spoiler! Superman kills. That's a spoiler by the way. Though it should be noted that he had no choice, and that he expresses great remorse for it. All the same, this was apparently seen as highly controversial by the purists.

These differences made for interesting viewing, but all in all I would give Man of Steel a seven out of ten, which is far more generous than any adaptation I've ever given any Superman movie previously.   I will say without hesitation that this is the finest Superman adaptation I have ever seen, and I thoroughly enjoyed the more in-depth origin story from both the Kryptonian side, as well as the Kansas side. The modified technology that allowed Kal-El (Russell Crowe) to be part of the movie long after his character's demise was a nice variation on Marlon Brando's Fortress of Solitude appearances. Lois Lane finally has some sense, though still remains true to her character by giving in to dangerous curiosity.

So why not a ten out of ten?

Well, the fact is, Superman as a symbol, icon, and superhero is no longer an untold story, and to a large degree there is not much more that can be untold before it strays into the territory of complete rebirth. Yes it's true that Man of Steel delivered a few things we haven't seen before, and General Zod managed to give a few twists, but at it's heart, we know Clark too well. So well in fact that there really can't be very many surprises.  Eventually he will always do the right thing, save Lois from an impossibly precarious situation, and then go back to his thankless job as a reporter. And I'm not saying that I would really want to see these vital aspects of Clark's character changed necessarily, because he does embody a goodness that is admirable and seemingly unattainable at times. At times I would like to see him wrestle a little more with the nature of right and wrong, such as his reluctant decision to kill Zod. But therein lies my point: the greatest surprise to his character or to the story in general is that he kills the bad guy.

For Superman, this might be groundbreaking. For a superhero, it's common responsibility.

Man of Steel was thoroughly entertaining and interesting, and it did manage to make things as new and fresh as it possibly could have without reinventing the wheel entirely. For that, I applaud them. Clark, as a thoroughly good and untouchable power may be one of the most difficult alter-egos ever written, yet here he is just about human, and that is a good thing.