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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Spending Quality Time with “Mama”

Mama

Thanks to the magic of the movies, we’ve become accustomed to all manner of spectres, ghouls and monsters. It takes far more to spook an audience today than it did in the golden age of the original Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and  Dracula. Blood is simply corn syrup or CGI, and we, the audience, know that. We understand there is no actual danger on the screen that can harm us, so we’ve required more to scare us. This has cheapened the genre into shocking the audience (which certainly has it’s place) or by using cheap “jump scares” to achieve that coveted cash cow genre tag that has become horror. The PG-13 horror movie has become a novelty. It has morphed into the stepping stone for young children to acquire a taste for the more gruesome offerings in the R rating. This wasn’t always the case, and while the things that scare each individual person are as polarizing as the comedy genre, there are some decent PG-13 movies that manage to elicit that icy tingle that crawls uninvited up your spine. Mama is a movie that remained solidly in it’s PG-13 rating, but still gave me that tinge of adrenaline and discomfort that I absolutely love while watching a movie that’s supposed to scare me.

 

Moma tells the story of a two sisters who survive a tragedy that leaves both parents dead. The two spend (off screen) five years in the woods, being cared for by an entity known as “Moma”. When they are found the two girls are almost completely feral. They have lived like animals through some very critical years of their development. Their uncle and his girlfriend take the two in to raise them as their own, with consequences far more dire than they anticipated.

 

Guillermo del Toro has a knack for seeking out spooky projects to fund. The Orphanage is one of my favorites in the genre, and was also produced by del Toro. For this film he hands the reigns to Andrés Muschietti allowing them to expand upon the short film he and his sister, Barbara Muschietti  (who co-wrote the film) created. For his first full length directorial movie he created a sleek, spooky and visually fulfilling little dark fantasy feature. Jessica Chastain plays the punk-rock girlfriend to Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Lucas, the uncle to the two girls. Seeing Chastain as a “punk rocker” was kind of a strange role, but as the film progressed she made it work, and her character arch was probably the most compelling in the movie. Isabelle Nélisseplays Victoria, the younger of the two sisters and the one most attached to the entity that raised them. She is fantastically creepy. She’s not like your typical scary-movie-evil-child. She’s a little girl that was raised to have animal-like mannerisms and is devoutly attached to her mother figure…who just so happens to be a ghostly and violent apparition. Speaking of the titular monster; Javier Botet manages to pull off some of the freakiest movements since The Exorcist. He is capable of moving his body so dramatically that the only CG needed for the monster was to make the hair flow through the air. The movie employs a fantastic blend of CG and practical effects.

 

I alluded to the fact that I considered this movie more of a dark fantasy than a horror. I stick by that judgement. It’s an interesting movie, and it’s entertaining but it also manages to spook me at all the right times. It’s fantastically creepy and beautifully crafted. While not the crowning jewel of the horror genre, Moma manages to lend more credibility to the milder horror genre without compromising on it’s premise and execution.

 

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

Web Slinging with “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”

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This weekend I watched my fifth Spider-man movie in theaters. I had no real intention of seeing it, but was invited at the last minute by a friend that had an extra ticket, so I, naturally agreed. There are few movies that I would pass up to see for free in theaters, and Spider-man anything would never be on that list. I had decided not to spend money on it because of the recent poor reviews, most of which stated that this was a disaster not unlike the unfortunate Spider-Man 3 that Sam Raimi dissapointed audiences with in 2007. The Spider-Man character is just about on everyone’s top ten favorite super heroes list, which is exactly why they keep making these movies. The recent reboot of the series seemed unnecessary, but proved to be quite good, despite similarities to the last series. And so, with a positive results the creative forces decided to jam pack as much as they could into the sequel. While not detrimental, it proved, at the very least, distracting.

 

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 starts off with a flash back to Peter’s parents escaping from, we-aren’t-sure-what. There is a big spectacle as Peter’s father struggles to upload a mysterious file while fighting a villanous man that intends to bring their jet crashing to the ground. The file is uploaded. With that distraction gone we jump directly into the life of present day Spider-Man, which is really all we wanted anyway. Peter, during the opening spidey-sequence rescues an engineer from being run over, and in doing so introduces us to the movies big villain. This engineer, a nobody by the name of Max, becomes Electro. Electro is basically electric force in human form. Peter then must wrestle with the death of his Gwen Stacy’s father, the return of a child hood friend who is dying of a genetic disease and the unknown reasons his parents abandoned him. The movie throws around more plots than the vials of plutonium that are stolen at the start of the film… which is a lot.

 

First, the good: Visually, the movie is fantastic. The action sequences are well produced, smooth and exciting. The actors gave it their all, with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone absolutely killing it with their chemistry. Jamie Foxx was almost a little too cartoon like with his character… but it worked. This was a step away from the darker hero movies of late and a step back about two decades into a more fantastical hero universe. I particularly loved the score and sound effects associated with Electro. Albeit a little corny, the music had me grinning. Garfield presents a fantastic Peter Parker, one that encapsulates the youth of today. Even though the Raimi series doesn’t seem to be much of a distant memory, Garfield pulls the character into 2014 flawlessly.

 

The bad: There was too much trying to be accomplished in this movie, and because of that issues got muddled and things didn’t make sense. In particular, Peter’s search for why his parents left him was a waste of time. There was a large portion of time and emotion devoted to Peter discovering what his parents were doing and what happened to them for very little pay off. The second plot I took issue with was the Green Goblin. Dane DeHaan did a fine job playing Harry Osborn and the Green Goblin, but it felt rushed and unplanned. We go from meeting the cahracter for the first time, and having him be a good friend of Peter’s to a murderous goblin a little too quick and with too little explanation.

 

The Spider-Man curse is packing the stories too tightly. Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a blast to watch, but it was bogged down by confusing plot points and unexplained circumstances. That being said, what it got right was keeping the pace exciting and visuals stunning. Also I loved the return to a more fantastic, amazing heart of the super hero genre.

JUMPJUMPJUMPJUMP with Speed Racer

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Adaptations are a funny business. Taking an original artifact, something that’s well loved and already has a fan base and then tweaking it in a way that makes it appeal to a broader audience. Too often the resulting re-translation will alienate those that love the original most. The is an almost indistinguishable line for those running the film industry, a line between a great adaptation and a cold dead husk of a what used to be beloved idea. Adaptations from animation to live action can be particularly difficult and are just terrible when done poorly; as was the case with The Last Air Bender. The difficulty is that you’re changing from a medium that doesn’t have to share the same physics or even social norms as real life and your trying to interpret it in a much harder lined reality. The beauty of Speed Racer is that it doesn’t try to be a live action movie, it’s true to the source, and, consequently, stars a cast made up of flesh and blood. I had the pleasure of re-watching this movie again, after reading Ryan Partlow’s review.

Speed Racer takes it’s story and characters from the 1960s anime of the same name. The story centers around the Racer family and their insatiable thirst for racing automobiles. Now, this is far closer to MarioKart than NASCAR, as far as automobile racing goes. When the Racer’s son, Speed, is given a chance to race under the banner of the mega corporation Royalton Industries he must decide weather to continue racing solely for his father’s small auto shop, or take it to the next level. When he learns the dirty secret of the racing industry, Speed is thrown into a highly stylized duel to the death on a number of eye popping racetracks.

There aren’t many movies out there that stick so close to their animated source materiel. The cartoon that this is based on had lots of races, lots of action and some goofy characters. This film has all of those, and rather than try to take a simple concept and “drama it up” for a live action release, it gives us what we least expect: a live action cartoon. The story is interesting, and it serves it’s purpose of propelling the hero into life threatening, breath taking races. Everything about this movie oozes classic anime tropes, from the dramatic hand motions to the bright colors of the surroundings. This movie is nothing if it isn’t vibrant. After watching this movie I felt like my eyes were restricting me from absorbing the colors that were bursting out of my TV. I had to mentally change the lense that I was watching the movie with. Looking at it as a cartoon made it far more enjoyable than trying to rationalize it as a live action movie.

While the film looked and sounded fantastic (something the Wachowskis are very good at) the editing of the film managed to keep the pace of the movie soaring, even with a longer than expected run time. The climax of the movie in particular was absolutely thrilling. It simultaneously pulled the the emotional strings of the story, and showed the end of the biggest race in the movie in such a flawless way that it was easily the best scene in the movie.

With a superb cast that managed to pull off a cartoon persona, good direction and of course the brightest visuals legally allowed on a screen (that last one is probably not true), the Wachowskis manage to give their full effort to something that a small group held dear, in an effort to introduce it to a larger group. And man, what a ride.

John Carter? Never heard of him.

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When visualizing the sci-fi film genre, I picture it as a large grumble of pugs (a grumble is in fact the correct term for a group of pugs) vying for the undying attention of the general public. They’ll do anything to please the masses, if only they’d be taken to a good home. Science Fiction, when done correctly, can be a massive money maker for movie studios. But they’re fighting against all the other cute little pugs attempting to grab your attention. So, in the scuffle of being cute, a lot of people overlook some rather pleasant and well behaved pugs for ones that, although initially cute, turn out to be impossible to train not to poop on your favorite chair once you bring them home.

Now that I have that terrible analogy out of the way, I’d like to introduce you to an overlooked pug, as it were. John Carter was a flop. Disney blamed Carter for the majority of it’s $84 million loss in it’s quarter ending in March of 2012. The movie had everything going for it, a good cast and a proven director, yet it was raked across the coals by critics and proved to have one of the worst marketing plans in recent memory. For this reason, I completely ignored it and focused on most of the other Sci-Fi films that year, of which there were many. On a whim I checked John Carter out from the library. The only way I ended up spending money on this movie is by accruing a late fee because I lacked the motivation to watch it in a timely fashion. Imagine my surprise when I sat down and observed a well rounded, beautifully filmed action adventure piece that took place on mars.
The visuals alone prove an exciting experience, introducing alien landscapes in ways that, although familiar, are fresh in their potential for hazard and peril. The creature creation with some of the alien life forms was a lot of fun, and having Carter himself be a Civil War era soldier thrown into the futuristic Martian war zone was fun. Taylor Kitsch does a decent job as the titular hero. While I was kind of leery of his portrayal of the character on Earth, once he hit martian shores and we began our fish-out-of-water story, he carried my attention and my allegiance the entire film. While it’s more or less a standard adventure story, John Carter manages to be engaging and far more entertaining than I had anticipated. Carter embarks on the, all too familiar, reluctant heroes journey. Though we’ve seen it before, he does it well. Andrew Stanton shows his directorial chops once again by creating a convincing atmosphere despite the alien nature of the world.
It’s a shame John Carter did so poorly. I had almost no intention of ever seeing what was a solidly produced and very entertaining movie. It was just another example of an adorably well behaved pug being outshined by a misbehaving chair pooping one.

I think it’s time for Wonder Woman to get the blockbuster treatment.

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One major complaint in the super hero saturated movie market is the lack of female protagonists. Sure, we’ve got Pepper Potts, in Iron Man, Black Widow in The Avengers, and Catwoman in the latest Batman movie; but it’s blatantly obvious that women, for the most part, take a back seat to their male counterparts in the majority of comic book adaptations. This truth makes the glaringly obvious omission of a blockbuster scale Wonder Woman movie that much more conspicuous. It’s a risky step, for sure. I mean, as far as comic book movies go, there are the tent-pole figures that sell the most tickets. Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Wolverine etc. etc. X-Men may be the biggest “equal opportunity” franchise for women in the  superhero business to date, but after watching 2009’s animated Wonder Woman, I can’t help but feel like studios and audiences are missing out on something pretty big.

    To be honest, Wonder Woman wasn’t particularly on my “to watch” radar until Ryan Partlow recommended it. It was available for free streaming on my Amazon Prime account, so I bit. Wonder Woman is, unsurprisingly, an origins tale. Which was good, because I knew very little about her. The Amazonians, after a pretty sweet battle with Aries, are granted an island where they can be safe from the depravity of man. Centuries later, a fighter pilot crash lands in their midst and, long story short, Diana (voiced by Keri Russell), the princess of Themyscira Island is chosen to escort him back to his homeland. About the same time, Aries escapes from his prison and begins wreaking havoc on earth as he attempts to gain power in order to take over Mount Olympus. What begins as a simple escort mission, quickly becomes a bid to save humanity. But they never explained her invisible jet. Not even a little.

    With a short 74 minute run-time, Wonder Woman uses the time to efficiently tell a compelling origin story and discuss themes largely overlooked by the genre. The tone of the movie is largely focused on the role of women in society, taking shots at the chauvinistic “nature of man”. It’s a discussion that is surprisingly balanced with the use of  Dianna’s male counterpart, modern day fighter pilot  Steve Trevor (Nathan Fillion). Steve Trevor serves as a vessel to showcase the best and worst of what mankind as a societal whole has to offer. What makes the Amazonian women weak is the very thing that sets them apart from humanity, their solitude from the outside world. Diana serves as a bridge between the two worlds, protecting both from stronger forces.

    The film itself looks like a weekly Saturday morning cartoon. That being said, it’s quite a bit more violent than what you’ll catch on the Cartoon Network on the weekends. The action sequences are intense, but not overshadowing to the overall plot. The story is concise and simple, but feels very fresh coming from an entirely new perspective. The voice casting was dead on, Fillion in particular is proving quite proficient in this type of role. Wonder Woman is absolute proof that you can make a superhero film with a strong female lead and have it be successful.