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.