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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Reading at the Movies: World War Z

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Their presence in fiction mirrors the reality in which we reside; a reality that reflects the fact that zombies are everywhere. In fiction they’re a world wide threat bent on nothing in particular except eating people. In reality we just have an over saturated amount of TV shows, books, comic books and concept art that caters our cultures insatiable and weird appetite for these cannibalistic corpses. I’m part of the problem too, I love a good zombie movie and can appreciate the moral and logistical quandaries that they present to those attempting to survive in their world. World War Z is the best zombie story I have ever consumed. Let me be clear, I am currently talking about the novel by Max Brooks in which an unnamed (and certainly not Brad Pitt) UN worker travels around the world AFTER the big Zombie war interviewing survivors. Like anything that becomes remotely popular it demanded a cinematic representation! And so we got a film with the same title….and that’s about it.

 

World War Z (film) stars Brad Pitt as a UN worker by the name of Gerry Lane whose task it is to finds himself thrust into the center of a massive scale zombie epidemic. He is tasked with finding the origin of the disease with the hope of figuring out just what can be done to stop the spread of the infection. This takes him all around the world, where he observes a few different temporary solutions that various cultures have enacted to help protect themselves…all of which end up failing. It’s a sort of follow-the-bread-crumbs adventure in which Brad Pitt straps magazines to his forearms as a type of makeshift armor to prevent being bit. Honestly that was my favorite part.

 

World War Z (novel) is narrated by an unnamed UN worker that is tasked with traveling around the world to interview survivors of the zombie war. The novel starts out with the war being over. Humanity won the fight against the zombie threat, but just barely. Each chapter is an oral report of how a different culture or people group witnessed and consequently survived their particular encounter. The accounts range from a colony yuppie campers attempting to flee north in their caravan of luxury motorhomes to a Japanese teenage gamer who must figure out a way to escape from his skyscraper home. Major battles are discussed in great detail and the entire course of the fight is laid out in different styles and flavors for the reader to savor.

 

Brad Pitt’s starring vehicle hovered around the 200 million dollar mark to make. It was ok. It was an honest to goodness zombie fest in which millions of zombies ran very quickly towards the protagonist at almost every turn. The film managed to gloss over the intricate details laid out in the novel and replace them with faster enemies and bigger explosions. It was a visual effects feast that practically begged you to just switch off the part of your mind that yearns for a plot within a story. Sure there was a goal Gerry was trying to attain, and it had to be done quickly, but it is nestled safely under an enumerable amount of human corpses. It had it’s merits, and while the large scale attacks were impressive to look at, they had little effect on my emotional reaction to the film. It was the tight, claustrophobic scenes that amped up the suspense.

 

The Novel offered a large series of individual stories that, when combined painted a picture of the full scale that the fictional zombie plague had on a vast number of cultures and individuals. Each account has it’s own protagonist and their own setting. Some read like a pulp adventure novel while others are absolutely chilling in their dissection of human nature. While the zombie threat is ever present and the main focus of the novel, it isn’t the sole enemy. Some accounts take into account the psychological damage associated with seeing your loved ones turned into monsters, it looks at the depravity of humanity, at times allowing for very little room to distinguish between the real horrors of humanity and the fictional horror of the zombies. Unlike the film, the book uses the traditional “slow zombies” and manages to make them terrifying. The narrator of the book takes a back seat to the survivors, the everyday people that did what it took to survive.


The World War Z novel was so good it ought to have it’s own movie. As it stands it does not have that. Aside from a few, almost coincidental similarities, the novel and film that share a name are worlds apart (within the scope of the zombie genre). Where the film was your run-of-the-mill action film with a massive budget, the novel presents you with a great number of individual stories, each interesting and unique, but working together to form the most compelling Zombie story I’ve ever experienced.

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.

The Thing (2011) The Thing Anthology Part III

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We are in a constant state of ever expanding cinematic universes. Successful standalone films are few and far between these days, once something is found to be profitable, it only makes sense to milk that cash cow dry, critics and fans be hanged! If it makes money, you continue to grow the franchise, it’s the way Hollywood has been working. So, it came as no real surprise that in 2011 we were “treated” to a prequel to a very successful (and my personal favorite) sci-fi horror film from the 80’s. The Thing  replicated the same title as the 1980s iteration; an oddly appropriate move given the nature of the monster in the series. The Thing (2011) is the third installment in this quasi-franchise. It started with The Thing From Another World  in 1951, was remade in 31 years later with The Thing (1982) and a prequel to that film leaves us with what is now somewhat of a period piece of a 1980s scientific expedition gone awry. Maybe in 30 more years we’ll get a proper sequel, but I hope not.

The Thing doesn’t pluck it’s story from thin air, but actually has a very appropriate starting point. In the 1982 version, the scientists stumble upon a destroyed Norwegian camp and one huge spaceship encased in the antarctic ice. The Thing (2011) tells the story of just what happened at that Norwegian camp. While we know the events are probably very similar to the horrors that unfolded in the original film, we didn’t know the exact details until this film came out. Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is hired to aid the in the retrieval of an alien spaceship and life form that has been frozen for many millennia. To their horror, the life form is not only alive, but wanting to feed. In standard Thing fashion, it proceeds to eat and replicate the motley crew of scientists in the most horrific and gross ways possible. Paranoia and terror run rampant as the isolated group must attempt to sift the “thing” from the humans before it reaches the general population of the world.

While the plot is virtually indistinguishable from John Carpenter’s classic, they manage to throw in a few original ideas that work really well, and of course there are plenty of jump scenes. I especially liked the way they were able to distinguish the humans from the monster in this film. Without giving it away, it was completely different from the last film, but made complete sense in the scope of the universe. The acting was actually pretty top notch, Joel Edgerton in particular did a pretty great job as the American helicopter pilot, channeling Kurt Russell quite well while still managing to be his own character. It was spooky, it was fun but it wasn’t great. While The Thing (1982) was one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, this iteration lacked the claustrophobia and grit that it took to really leave the audience unsettled. The CGI, in particular couldn’t compare to the practical effects used in the 80s in it’s ability to make me queasy. The atmosphere managed to be more comforting as well. The original film used the environment, the dark and the cramped base to make you feel utterly unsafe the whole movie. The base in this film seemed much larger, the weather tamer and the thing itself was far more tangible than it was when it attacked the American base. Instead of revealing it’s monster form only while transforming or going in for the kill, the monster would hunt in the form of a mass of flesh and bones, crawling around on all fours while it actively searched for other people to kill. What made John Carpenter’s Thing so frightening was how it would try to get away unless it was threatened. It would do anything to get away from prying eyes and transform into human form, then try to trick the others.

This was a fun prequel that took new approaches to the similar storyline presented 30 years prior. With a fresh new cast and take on the cinematic legend, The Thing (2011) managed to give some mild scares and some genuinely suspenseful moments. Where it falls short is in it’s presentation of the monster itself. What was an intangible horror is reduced to something that looks like it hopped out of the latest Men in Black movie; also the fact that it’s atmosphere was not the proper material you need to conduct the type of horror that made The Thing as truly horrific as it was.

Part 1 Part 2

 

 

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.