How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a Terribly Long Name For Such A Good Movie.

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Animators have it rough. The amount of detail that goes into every frame of a modern animated film is astonishing, absolutely amazing. Often times that detail only exists for seconds, if that. With the misconception that animated films with low MPAA ratings are mostly for children, that level of detail can be lost. I’ll be the first to admit, I often times overlook animated films when deciding what to pay money to see in theaters. While on vacation, I went to a local discount theater and caught a showing of how To Train Your Dragon 2 and coincidentally watched one of my favorite movies of the year.

 

I need to rewatch How To Train your Dragon because when I rented it I wasn’t blown away. I know this franchise is loved by many, and it’s even revered above certain Pixar offerings. It was fun, but something that I was ok just watching once and calling it good. Not so with the sequel. How To Train Your Dragon 2 shows the inhabitants of Berk in a whole new light. Their entire society now revolves around dragons rather than fears them. Hiccup is reluctantly being primed to take over responsibility as the new chieftain, when he discovers a group of dragon catchers that are supplying a mad man with forces for his army of dragons that will be used as weapons to conquer the world. You can guess what the remainder of the film is about from there.

 

First off, the movie looks incredible. I don’t think I’ve had a movie appeal to my primal sense of adventure this way in years. The scenes of Toothless and hiccup flying over pristine landscapes, crystal oceans and through open sky were all it took to get me caught up in the movie. Add to that a heavy dose of accurate emotional weight and a hefty dose of dragons and you’ve got HTTYD2. Everything about the movie looked like familiar in the sense that we’ve been seeing dragons on film for decades, but it built on the uniqueness of the first film in just how different someone could interpret the beasts. It was fun just seeing how many variations of the fire breathing reptiles the animators could present. The environment only added to the aesthetic appeal and sense of adventure. Berk is a fairly wild city, but it pales in comparison to the harshness beyond it’s borders.

 

While a movie can be pretty to look at, if it falls flat it the story telling or in the character department then you’ve got a major problem. Fortunately this was not the case. Dreamworks hit a homerun with how they advanced their characters. We’re not dealing with the same set of problems or issues already dealt with in the first film, we’re dealing with new challenges, harder ones that carry more consequences and change the franchise in bolder ways than I anticipated. It was more than I had anticipated, and I found myself far more emotionally involved with the humans and dragons alike.


How To Train Your Dragon 2 manages to take the audience on a ride to another world filled with adventure, danger and unexpected beauty. The characters are flawed and believable, it packs an emotional wallop while still being appropriate and entertaining for a young audience. Despite the many offerings this year, I would rank this among the top in terms of just sheer fun adventure. Also, Toothless is still adorable.

 

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Returning to Video Game High School with season 2

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While I tend to focus the vast majority of this blog on feature films, I found myself bending slightly by reviewing the “movie” version of the web series Video Game High School. What was presented on Netflix as a feature film, was actually the entire first season of Rocket Jump Studios internet series. I was completely unaware that the series was in existence until stumbling across it on Netflix. While it took time for me to get into the cheesy, albeit enduring premise, I ended the evening in awe of the writing, acting and overall production. It has more cheese than nachos on the moon, but that’s part of what made the show. Imagine my surprise when the second season suddenly popped up on Netflix! It took very little time for me to consume the, considerably longer, next chapter.

The series picks up exactly where season one left us. “The Law” is shunned and trying to win back some cred, BrianD is still trying to prove himself and define his relationship with Jenny Matrix, who in turn has to deal with her mother becoming VGHS FPS coach. Ki and Ted also try to figure out both where they stand with each other and where they want their Video Gaming careers to head. The second season has a pretty great arch that encompasses each main character, while not compromising the individual storylines.

The show boasts the same sharp writing that made season 1 one of my favorite comedy series, and it only gets better with this recent addition. With the season consisting of longer episodes, it felt much more like a standard sit-com, as far as time was concerned, but the freedom that the creators have over their environment offers a chance for jokes to run so rampant that it’s near impossible to catch them all. Brian Firenzi returns to his role as “The Law”. He was the main villain in season 1, and returns as a… well I guess just a jerk. He’s often times a villain, sometimes a hero and almost always a loser. He’s also absolutely hilarious. The main characters are funny, but a ton of credit is due to the supporting cast. The video game references and gags come at you non-stop, it’s a show geared towards nerds and game lovers, but has a level of chemistry that can be enjoyed by anyone. Like I said, it’s incredibly cheesy, but well worth your time.

Reading at the Movies: Howl’s Moving Castle

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Hayao Miyazaki is arguably the greatest animator alive today. He has created some of the most intricately beautiful scenes and characters known to the art, and he makes it look effortless. He attends each of his films with masterful detail, placing each from under an artistic microscope and attending to the seemingly mundane details that he thinks are true to the nature of the characters he bestows life. Howl’s Moving Castle, while not my favorite Studio Ghibli production, boasts his signature animation, lovable and broken characters, and a soundtrack that is capable of sweeping the most dedicated realist into a land overflowing with wonder and magic. While it’s a very unique film, like many movies these days, it was first a book.

 

Diana Wynne Jones was an author of fantasy novels, and in the case of Howl’s Moving Castle possessed a dry wit that translated spectacularly on the page, but seems to have been watered down for the screen. The novel version of Howl is wrought with play-on-words, twists, this was something not entirely lost in the film, but was a much larger tone. Her usage of words was to the plot like the perfect amount of spices to your favorite dish. Jones’ craft shines through at each turn of the page, not as a heavy handed fantasy that pervades the market today, nor as a light and substanceless young adult novel. Rather she finds a happy medium where magic is neither silly nor cataclysmic. It is an element that is neither rare nor extremely prevalent

 

The novel boasted a whimsical, albeit odd, tone with memorable characters and something that made the fantastical workings of an eccentric young wizard feel almost ordinary and apart of everyday life. Miyazaki has proven to excel at portraying the whimsical on screen, but he’s also proven to be exceptional at finding the beauty in the ordinary. Howl was the perfect fit for an adaptation. The truest bond to the book that the animated feature has is in the two main protagonists. Sophie, a teenaged girl that finds herself cursed so she looks and feels like an old woman. And the titular wizard Howl; a young wizard feared by the locals as a ruthless evil warlock, but in actuality is no more than an adolescent teenager himself. The two characters in both novel and movie bring out the best and worst in each other. The two artifacts of literature and film stay amazingly true to each other until about halfway through. The book focuses on the witch of the waste as the main villain, while the film focuses on a war between kingdoms and the destructive power of Howl’s powers. This was a mistake. While I love the movie, the direction that the book takes is more fun, it’s more interesting and it’s far less confusing.

 

You’ve probably seen Howl’s Moving Castle, and if you haven’t you should. It’s beautiful and one of the best animated films to come out in the last 10 years. That being said, the source that it gleans it’s inspiration is an even tastier morsel to consume. My friend and fellow writer, Paul Boyne, creates posts in which he compares and contrasts two films into a “double feature” his most recent also focused on my favorite Miyazaki film : Spirited Away

26 Movies That Made Me Laugh

My friend, Paul Boyne recently posted on his blog a list of his “25 Funniest Movie Scenes”. If you haven’t popped on over to Infinite Crescendo, I highly recommend it, if for nothing more than his fantastic lists. Anyway, that particular post gave me an itch to put together one of those newfangled “supercuts” where you take scenes from a bunch of different movies and cram them into a youtube video. So I did. While I can’t give a definite list of my 25 funniest scenes, I simply present to you: 26 Movies That Made Me Laugh.

 

I don’t thinkg it’s going to happen; Waking Ned Devine

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Cosmic irony is a very important comedic element in regards to film. One can’t help but laugh, despite how painful it may be to a character when something good is expected and something bad is given. For the most part, comedy relies on reversals of expectations. For instance, what would think that your entire life would just be starting had you won the lottery. The possibilities are completely endless, you’ve got a fortune at your hands and no one to tell you how to spend it. So, it would be truly ironic if, after having played the lottery your whole life, you died from the shock of finally winning it. And so goes the story of Waking Ned Divine.

In the small Irish town of Tully More there resides only 52 people. It’s a close knit community consisting of mostly older folk. Some of the residents play the lottery and dream of the riches it could bring them, among these are Jack O’Shea (Ian Bannen) and Michael O’Sullivan (David Kelly) two lifelong friends that make it their business to find who in the town was the sole winner of the last lottery. The news papers have announced that the winner comes from Tully More, but none of the residence fess up. It isn’t until Jack makes a house call to his last suspect that he realizes the winner, one Ned Devine, has passed away from the shock of victory. The rest of the movie the two friends come up attempt to claim the prize money, fooling the representative from the National Lottery Association, a feat that will take the cooperation of all of Tully More.

Ned Devine is similar to the town of Tully More, in that it is quaint, kind and darkly humorous. Death is a strong theme in this film, obviously, but it’s displayed in a way, not lightly, but unflinching. We all die, there is no backing away from that fact, and the residents of Tully More make the best of a bad situation, which sometimes results in funny, albeit morbid situations. For instance, Jack and Michael attempt to change the expression on poor deceased Ned’s face, and in doing so knock out his dentures and are forced to comically put them back in. The characters are the backbone of the story. Within the small confines of the town are numerous stories, a few of which are explored in depth. Life, love and death fill the screen for a genuinely feel good movie with plenty of charm. The cast is superb, particularly the two old friends, they completely encompass the roles in a seamless transition from actor to character.

I had heard of Waking Ned Devine but had never taken the time to sit down and watch it. For whatever reason, I am often times reluctant to watch movies with small stories and small characters. The events are not world altering, they affect only a small group of people in Ireland. It’s not necessarily exciting or thrilling, but it is genuine and heart warming. I make the mistake of assuming something with a small story will have a small heart, whereas this is showed me quite the opposite.

A little late for a scare, but here it is!: The American Scream

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Observing an individuals interaction with their hobby is one of the most transparent windows into the type of person they are. It doesn’t particularly matter what type of hobby they have, should you find yourself in a position to witness the process of someone laboring at something they love to do, you’re going to get to know them a little bit better. This could apply to anything from building model airplanes to playing in a city softball league. The principles remain the same. There are countless documentaries that follow enthusiastic hobbyists in their pursuit of perfection towards odd practices, but one that was recently recommended to me was especially interesting, and equally fun. It was an opportunity to watch varying levels of Do-It-Yourselfers in action slaving away at making haunted mazes for trick-or-treaters each year.

 

The American Scream follows three families as they prepare for Halloween. Each of these families has an annual tradition of setting up incredibly elaborate haunted mazes in their backyard and homes. The first family we see shows an obsessed father that works as a software engineer by day and spends the majority of his spare time designing props and scenes for the upcoming holiday. His family helps him and for the most part enjoys the hobby, but it’s not without it’s toll. Next we see a grown father son duo that are kind hearted, albeit slightly odd. Their approach to scaring is not nearly as professional as the first family, but they eagerly piece together props with instructions they’ve found on the internet. Finally we meet a man that, along with the help of his children, chooses quantity over quality for his maze, building props out of just about anything he can get his hands on. We observe these three families as the days count down to Halloween. We observe them as they interact with their passion, and it’s a blast.

 

The film itself is fairly generic for a documentary. Switching between interviews and fly-on -the-wall style shots, we get to both observe the creation of the mazes in action and hear the families discuss the emotional implications that these mazes represent. But the real fun comes towards the end of the film when the three mazes open up for one night. The entire neighborhood comes out to try the three mazes, and the creators reap the fruits of their labor by basking in the screams of their community.

 

The entire “haunting” culture is interesting. What is often viewed as weird on the surface can be linked to more “normal” human traits. The fascination can certainly come off as macabre, but it’s not without it’s charm, and that charm lies solely in the individuals that choose to put their strength and effort into a passion project like this. One thing that was brought up was the communal aspect of Halloween. Thanksgiving and Christmas are more family holidays, whereas Halloween is about the community. Behind the makeup and the blood lies a surprisingly warm tale of human kindness.

Revisiting the Patriarch: The Muppet Movie

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The Muppet empire was created by a group of incredibly ambitious dreamers that strove to perfect the art of puppeteering, making it something far more than an easy, cheap go-to children’s entertainment option. Jim Henson, known for being an avid perfectionist, was the mastermind behind the ordeal, and it’s thanks to him that some of my all time favorite movies have been made. The Muppets themselves have had a fantastic career in the film industry over the past few decades, most recently with their comeback hit The Muppets. The Muppets was a fun and lovingly crafted piece of work that pays tribute to the origins of the group, but it lacked two major components that can never truly be replaced; Frank Oz and Jim Henson.

The Muppet Movie was the beginning of the road for the motley crew of fabric puppets. Like quite a few movies I’ve watched recently, the overall tone is very self-aware. We quickly realize that we, the audience, are watching the screening of a film that tells the story of how the Muppets ended up in Hollywood (approximately). We’re introduced to Kermit as he sings and plays his banjo in the swamp. He’s accidentally discovered by a lost Hollywood agent who convinces him to audition for a movie role. Kermit then embarks on a cross-country adventure that gives a back story to the majority of the cast of the much beloved Muppet Show. Although filled to the brim with musical numbers and cameos, the movie really shined in it’s masterful use of the puppets that run the show.

As I mentioned before, Jim Henson was a perfectionist. He had a vision and he wanted to make sure that his vision was accomplished exactly as his mind saw it. So, when we watch the opening musical number that shows Kermit sitting on a log in a swamp playing his banjo and singing we think very little of what it took to accomplish a feat like that at the time. In truth, the scene took five days to film. Jim Henson was submerged under the water in a small metal container with an air hose and a monitor so he could watch his actions with the puppet. While watching it today may not have the same aw-inspiring effect he originally intended, this was the first time a hand puppet had performed on screen with its entire body showing. The intention of the film, aside from making people smile with fun music bits, corny puns and tons of guest appearances, was to wow the audience with what could be done with puppets. Little things were huge successes, particularly the scene where Kermit rides his bike down the street. It’s not a close up shot, it’s not cutting off his legs with the shot, it’s showing him riding down the street in full view. The ingenuity and creativity of Jim Henson is seen in full force in their first ever feature film.

Some might argue with my opinion that the pacing of the film is a bit slow thanks mostly to some less that incredible songs. Visually and technically it is a masterpiece, and most of the music in the movie is fun and engaging in the way it draws the audience closer to the story and the characters. However, some of the songs seemed a little out of place an unnecessary, proving to detract from the overall pace of the movie. It’s a very small gripe in comparison to the whole. The Muppet Movie has, and always will be able to impress me. It’s the original, the beginning to one of the most beloved media empires in our history, an empire headed up by a felt frog.