Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Fixing How to Train Your Dragon 2

I saw How to Train Your Dragon 2 recently and while it had good animation and action sequences, and was fairly interesting, there were weaknesses in the plot. Worse, it did not do a very good job of making me care. The problem is that the movie's themes were either uninspiring or incoherent. But rather than just saying what went wrong, I offer a solution. Below is how the movie should have gone (massive spoilers, obviously).
For the film to work, it needs to overcome several issues. In no particular order: it is explained why other dragons obey the alpha, but it is never explained why the alpha obeys Drago--a rather important point. The need to take responsibility for protecting the tribe is mentioned several times, but Hiccup has never actually disagreed with this position--he just wasn't sure he could be a good leader--so making this a major conflict leads to a lack of tension. The use of baby dragons (who don't listen to anyone) to get around the alpha's control, and Hiccup's message of peace to the world in the epilogue, thematically conflict with Hiccup's need to listen to those wiser than him (since they turn out to be right that Drago can't be negotiated with, and right that Hiccup needs to be the next leader), and his need to use deadly force to fight evil (see the battles in the film). Finally, Hiccup's mother seems to slot back rather neatly into his life, without sufficiently dealing with the whole "abandoning her child" bit--maybe Hiccup somehow has the emotional maturity not to resent her absence, but she still has repair work to do.
The first film successfully set up two opposing views: that dragons were deadly beasts to be killed on sight, or that they were harmless if treated kindly and not under control by an outside force. Hiccup and Toothless are eventually able to show that the latter view is correct and that dragons can be trained. What the sequel should have done is focus on a three-way conflict. The seeds of this conflict are in the film, but they are not properly used. In this conflict, all would agree that dragons and humans can co-exist, but the proper relationship between the species would be in question. Drago would embody the belief that dragons are to be dominated by man, using whatever brutality is necessary to make them serve his will. Valka would believe dragons are to be free and untamed, even held higher than man in many ways. Hiccup would believe that dragons ought to be ruled by man, but ruled with love and kindness for the mutual benefit of both.
My film goes roughly like this:
Hiccup is intended to be the next chief, and he is okay with this, but doesn't want to deal with some of the tough decisions and conflicts a chief has to deal with. He also prefers exploring to competing in dragon races, which makes some villagers unsure if he's the right sort to be chief, despite the fact no one can question his commitment to the village.
After encountering the dragon catchers and discovering there are other dragon riders in the world, as well as a dragon army, he returns to tell his father. His father wants to fortify the village immediately, but Hiccup disagrees. He thinks they need to explore and find out what they're up against. He'd also prefer to negotiate than fight, but not in the naive way presented in the original version of the film. He therefore defies his father to go out looking, and finds his mother. She is in love with dragons, more so than humans, and almost worships them--her bow before the alpha in the actual film would become emblematic of her overall attitude. She is glad to see Hiccup, and to find that he appreciates dragons, but she would rather have him live with her than return to human civilization. Her attitude to Stoick when he arrives is similar.
The flaws in her viewpoint become apparent when Drago arrives. Intercut with the scenes above, it has been shown that Astrid and company were captured by Drago while looking for Hiccup--Stoick and Gobber are the only ones who happened upon the dragon sanctuary. Astrid and company's meeting with Drago revealed that he can cow dragons through his immunity to fire (dragon-skin cloak), ability to easily pierce their hides (dragon's claw and tooth weapons), extreme combat skills, and dominating personality. A mysterious chain led underwater at his harbor.
When he arrives, although Hiccup's friends and their dragons are able to escape, Drago is able to draw out the alpha due to the disorganized defense of the sanctuary's dragons; he then reveals his own alpha. He climbs the chain attached to its neck and rides it as it challenges the dragon sanctuary's alpha. He strikes it with his weapon to urge it onward in the fight, and generally demonstrates his brutality. His alpha wins and the dragons flock to its side--all except Berk's dragons, who held no allegiance to the defeated alpha. When Drago sees this, he has his alpha try to dominate Toothless, since Hiccup and Toothless had led Berk's dragons. Hiccup is elsewhere on the battlefield at this point, having become separated during the fight (which gives him more opportunity to use his flame sword against the human portion of the army--always a good thing). Valka is angered at having lost her dragons, so she approaches to attack while Drago tries to control Toothless. He orders Toothless to kill her, and though she tries to use all her dragon knowledge to snap him out of it, he keeps approaching and prepares to kill. Just as he blasts, Stoick dives in front of her and is killed. Having made his point, Drago heads his army (and Toothless) toward Berk.
Valka realizes her mistakes: she treated the dragons as gods when in fact they are lesser creatures than man (they need organization to be an effective fighting force, for example), and she forgot her human connection and she has now lost her husband forever. Hiccup, meanwhile, realizes his decisions can have rapid consequences--he can't always just explore and learn, because sometimes the chief must take action even without knowing everything he'd like. Taking the few remaining dragons, they fly for Berk and arrive just as the assault begins.
The alpha is beginning to dominate dragons when Hiccup confronts Drago and Toothless. Drago orders Toothless to attack, but due to his loving connection to Hiccup, Toothless is able to refuse, break the domination and buck off Drago. At this, Hiccup returns to the saddle and the remainder of the battle happens much as in the actual film, with Toothless becoming the new alpha to rule the other dragons and Hiccup becoming chief. The monologue about peace blah blah blah is deleted, though.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Noah: A Review, More or Less

I liked Noah. It is not accurate to Scripture, and anyone expecting it to be knows nothing about movies. Further, it makes character changes that have really annoyed some Christian reviewers, and make this film not just inaccurate in detail, but different in broad strokes; it's also a fantasy film, in case you couldn't tell from the trailers depicting a massive wave of flame erupting from Methuselah's glowing sword. Still, I liked it.
This will not be a conventional review (and it will have spoilers). What I want to focus on are Darren Aronofsky's major themes and how they work in the film, because that is the biggest reason I find the film interesting. (I also like the magical/miraculous/crazy fantasy elements that are included, because that's the sort of thing I like in movies anyway.) I will mention one detail up front: the visuals that accompany Noah's retelling of the creation story look suspiciously like a depiction of stellar, planetary, and biological evolution, which doesn't quite fit the narration; it's one of the few times where I feel like the film is trying to have it both ways, rather than just making a decision and going with it. I do like the fact that Adam and Eve glow, however--it's a great way to show them as different from the animals and made in God's image.
On to the main focus: Noah is concerned with human wickedness and misuse of the earth, God's justice, and mercy and love. The film depicts the conflict over the dividing lines between good and evil, use and abuse, and justice and mercy in a number of ways. It is less interested in accurate historical portrayals of its characters, and more interested in using the characters to show different perspectives on these themes. Therefore, Tubal-Cain changes from a minor character in a genealogy to a king who argues for man's right to survive by any means necessary, even if some call it evil and it demonstrably damages the earth. Noah becomes focused entirely on carrying out God's plan to destroy evil while preserving innocent animals, even if the evil seems to inhabit his own family. His wife Naameh counters his views with her plea for mercy. Ham resists his father's extremism, seeing a lack of love, and also wondering if Tubal-Cain has a point in his single-minded focus on survival. You get the idea.
The primary character arc is Noah's. God's instructions in this film come through dreams and visions, some of which Noah has a hard time understanding. Arguing over different interpretations of God's Word is a time-honored part of Judaism, and Aronofsky seems to use the ambiguous visions from God as a parallel to the disputed texts about which God has not spoken directly in several thousand years. Noah at first seeks guidance from Methuselah about the visions, and so learns how they fit with (and differ from) Enoch's visions. But he becomes certain of his interpretation with time, and becomes ever more extreme in carrying out what he believes to be God's instructions. Noah accurately sees the evil of the line of Cain. (Incidentally, the movie focuses on their mistreatment of the earth, but this should not be seen as an environmental screed. All that Noah says about proper use of the earth's resources is Biblical.) He understands that the earth must be cleansed, and what remains good of God's creation must be preserved. At first he believes his three sons must begin humanity again, but in time his knowledge of their flaws convinces him that humanity must end with his family. So onto the ark he takes only a barren wife for Shem, and no wives for Ham and Japheth. When Shem's wife turns out not so barren as supposed, he is horrified, and comes to believe he must kill her child should it be a girl. Some have argued that the film makes God a monster with this turn, but the film portrays only Noah's perception of God's will. The viewer is intended to understand that his perception is wrong, as is made clear at the end.
In contrast to Noah, Naameh, though willing to follow her husband and believing he is following God, recoils when he determines that humanity must end with his family. She sees the good in her sons, and wants to protect their lives and their potential descendants. She cannot believe God intends his greatest creation to be destroyed, even if there is evil within all their hearts. Noah does not listen to her, but in the end, he cannot go through with the killing.
Meanwhile, Tubal-Cain speaks the language of man made in the image of God, intended to have dominion and subdue the earth, but he has no care for the creation. He knows the earth was cursed, and believes this justifies anything he does to survive, for God does not relate to humanity anymore. When Noah becomes increasingly extreme, Tubal-Cain is able to appeal to Ham, for he encourages Ham's natural feelings, rather than the unnatural discipline of Noah--it seems better to save a woman Ham cares for than to leave her to die with the wicked as Noah did. In the end, though, both preach killing. Tubal-Cain wants revenge, and tries to carry through with it, but Noah fails to meet his own ideological standard and lets the children live.
Noah's family nearly falls apart, but after the flood Noah eventually reconciles and comes to terms with his failures. It was love that prevented him from killing, he acknowledges, and he comes to realize that the children of Shem's wife are part of God's plan. It is only after this that the rainbow appears--still a message from God, but thematically changed to be a sign that they have finally come to a better balance of justice and mercy.
Also connecting with the conflict of justice and mercy, good and evil, is the plight of the Watchers. I enjoyed these crazy rock creature fallen angels, and I see how they are being used, even though I have theological issues with their end. What happens is that they protect Noah and the ark from assault, and as each one dies, the Watcher's angelic form returns to heaven. The first problem with this is that it implies salvation by their own efforts, not by grace. The second problem with this is that there is no evidence that fallen angels can or will return to God.
Aronofsky is not concerned with orthodoxy, however. He is exploring another facet of justice and mercy, though I think a bit less successfully than in the main plot. The angels fall because they have mercy on fallen humanity and go to help them contrary to God's wishes. Their help only allows the line of Cain better technology with which to kill and destroy, however. The line of Seth is nearly wiped out by the unjust actions of the angels, however kindly they were meant. When the Watchers meet with Noah and help him carry out his preparations for God's judgement, then kill those assaulting the ark, they are finally doing justice; the time for mercy for the wicked is over.
As you may have noticed, my thoughts are still a little disorganized; this is a movie that demands debate. Anyone who thinks the movie is perfect probably hasn't thought about it enough. Anyone who hates it could probably benefit from thinking about it more, too--though many good people will hate this film for its extreme liberties taken with the story. I myself may have more clarity in the future, but those are my initial thoughts.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Desecration of Smaug

Just When Gravity Made Me Believe in Movies Again, Peter Jackson Made Me an Atheist

I will begin with an equation: (M. Night Shyamalan + Michael Bay)George Lucas = Peter Jackson, 2013.
My proof follows.
Shyamalan first burst onto the scene with The Sixth Sense, a brilliant movie; as he continued making movies, no one told him no, and he became an exemplar of solemnly ridiculous movie-making. It is increasingly apparent that Fellowship of the Ring is Jackson's best work. Everything since then has been downhill, though the next two parts of that trilogy weren't terribly far down. Michael Bay never found a nonsensical action sequence he didn't like, nor a way to add more CGI he wouldn't use; Peter Jackson now follows in his footsteps. All this is compounded by Jackson's screenplay, which might have better dialogue than George Lucas, but makes up for it by having stupider character motivations. The only thing that remains is to laugh so that we may not cry. What follows is my attempt.
Question: Which of the following events actually happens in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug?
A. Bilbo takes off his ring while staring directly into Smaug's face.
B. Smaug is unable to crawl fast enough to catch the dwarves he wishes he could kill, apparently forgetting he can breathe fire.
C. Beorn dislikes dwarves so much that when he finds out they have broken into his house while he was away, he gives them ponies.
D. Gandalf goes to Dol Goldur with Radagast. After determining their enemy is not yet ready to attack, but that entering would certainly put him in a trap, he tells Radagast to leave while he goes in alone.
E. All of the above.
The answer, of course, is E. I would say that having multiple idiot balls* for characters to pass around is the worst thing about this movie, except that there is so much else wrong with it. Let us start with the dragon. The animation is excellent, and he looks pretty real--a pity they never let him do anything interesting. Oh, you thought there was an awesome dragon fight in this film? No no no. That has to wait for the third film. In this film you get a lot of running around and the occasional nonsensical attempt to defeat him, all while the film broadly telegraphs There Is Only One Way To Defeat The Dragon,** then hides the magic black arrow of deadly power in some random boat, while the one true archer of destiny runs around elsewhere. Sure hope he finds it again by 2014.
Moving on, the dragon's voice actor is enCumbered with a batch of nonsense to say. He speaks well, as his name would suggest, but now, writing a few hours after seeing the movie, I can only remember one good line. He claims to be intelligent, but the ease with which the dwarves confuse him suggests that he is kind of stupid. That's a good thing, too, since otherwise he would be able to kill all the other stupid people in the movie. Maybe his intelligence takes the form of telepathy, since he soon seems to know everything there is to know about Bilbo and his companions. The movie fails to explain where he gets his information--maybe he read the book?
There are other villains, too. Azog (Kratos, in Elvish) is back, and now he has a son named Bulge, who appears to have been created in an accident involving steroids and industrial equipment. There is also of course, Sauron the Necromancer. None of them are very interesting, which makes them fit right in with most of the heroes. Thinking about the number of villains in this film reminds me of an even bigger problem than anything mentioned so far: there is practically no plot. Perhaps you are skeptical. Wouldn't a short book turned into three films have to contain not only the entire plot of the book, but also some extras? Not when Peter Jackson is in charge! Beorn barely bearly has any screen time, the dwarves are literally in Mirkwood for about five minutes--just enough time to get lost and find some spiders, and most of the other events from the book are replaced with similar-looking events invented for the movie. And those other events manage to accomplish approximately nothing. Consider the fights/confrontations in the film and their results in this convenient list.
1. Orcs/Beorn chase everyone. Nothing happens.
2. Bilbo, dwarves, and elves fight spiders. Spiders actually die.
3. Legolas and Tauriel kill anonymous orcs. The ones with names survive.
4. Orcs attack three kids and a poisoned dwarf. No one dies until Tauriel shows up. Even then, no one with a name dies.
5. Legolas fights Bulge. No one dies.
6. Gandalf fights Kratos. No one dies.
7. Gandalf fights Sauron (seriously). No one dies.
8. Smaug chases everyone. No one dies.
9. Somewhere in the midst of all this, Bard fights a bunch of city officials. I don't recall anyone dying, and if they did, they certainly didn't have names.
10. I have undoubtedly forgotten a bunch of other orc deaths. But they're demonstrably forgettable.
There are non-fight events in the "plot" as well, but none of them accomplish much either, except for the whole "opening the door to the Lonely Mountain" bit.
With all those problems, the only good things left in the movie are the lovely New Zealand scenery (except there isn't much left after all the CGI), the beautiful score (which is a retread of all the previous scores), the lived-in world Peter Jackson is so known for creating (come to think of it, only Laketown looked lived-in), and the special effects (which could be seen a lot better if the camera would focus on them). Er, I guess that's not much. Oh well. It's a good thing Peter Jackson didn't also repeat all the mistakes he ever made with his previous four movies, remove all evidence of Christian worldview from Tolkien's work, and add in the stupidest love triangle in the history of fantasy movies. Except he did.
Curse you, Peter Jackson, and may the sun take you, for now you are just trolling.

*With Jackson, one of something is never enough. Sometimes even two is not enough, which explains why there is another movie coming out next year.
**Spoiler: the same way as in the book, except presumably from the mounted bolt launcher that has been sitting in the town for the last several decades.

Monday, November 11, 2013

King Solomon's Mines (and a note on Thor and Legend of Korra)

Before I get to the main subject of this post, I have a question: How did it happen that Thor: The Dark World ended up with the exact same plot as the second season of Legend of Korra? Both have a (Harmonic) Convergence returning after thousands of years, a Dark Elf (Thor)/ Dark Spirit (Korra) that wants to bring the world into darkness, essentially destroying it, a mistake by a main character that makes this possible, etc., etc. I like both stories, but this is seriously weird.
So. On to King Solomon's Mines. This book is by H. Rider Haggard, was written in the Victorian Era, and was recommended by C. S. Lewis. It concerns an elephant hunter named Allan Quatermain who is hired to help a fellow Englishman find his brother, who has apparently gone in search of the legendary mines of King Solomon. I will not go through the plot in detail. Much of it is standard "adventure with primitive tribes" stuff, though I gather that this book is one of the reasons some of these things became standard. (The book's solar eclipse, for example, is clearly borrowed for the Tintin comic book Prisoners of the Sun, and Wikipedia informs me that this book was a major influence on 1930s Republic adventure serials--which of course inspired Indiana Jones.) There are also the sort of regrettable racial and colonial attitudes one might expect to find in much Victorian literature (though Haggard does have his main character explicitly reject the use of the term "nigger").
The book intrigued me early on with its description of the legend, and the ancient Portuguese manuscript--written, of course, in blood--in which a dying man tells of the riches and dangers to be found in a hidden African kingdom. Then for some time I wondered what Lewis had liked so much. The events that follow are enjoyable and exciting, but it is not till the book nears its climax that I understood what made the book so great. What had been hinted at earlier in the book comes to full flowering in the journey to the actual mines and to the Place of Death: a sense of ancient awe and mystery, a feeling that cannot be put into words, but only created by reading the words of Haggard. For that reason, this book is a great accomplishment.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The World's End: Finally, a Good Movie

This has been a disappointing year for movies, at least for the type of movies I'm interested in. The best thing I had seen was Joss Whedon's home-movie version of Much Ado About Nothing.* But now that one finally has competition: The World's End.
This is the third film in a sequence of movies variously called the Cornetto trilogy or the Blood and Ice Cream trilogy. I have seen neither Shaun of the Dead nor Hot Fuzz, but since this is a "trilogy" sharing actors, director, and sensibility, not plot, that doesn't really matter except for missing a few inside jokes that the Internet can explain for anyone interested. What matters is that this film is good. And The World's End is not merely good. It is a film that makes me interested in watching other films directed by Edgar Wright, whose work I had previously never seen.
Better reviewers than I can talk about the quality of the film's plot, shot construction, or whatever else. I will just mention a few things that stood out to me. First, the premise itself. I first learned about this film upon seeing the trailer. It started out looking like a more-clever than average comedy about drunks and man-children. Then evil robots showed up and attacked. When I realized the film was an apocalyptic British sci-fi man-child comedy, I got very interested. I am pretty sure no other film in the history of the world fits in that combination of genres.
Second, the dialogue in this film is great. I suspect a second viewing might be funnier than the first, just because the drunks in this film sound smarter than the geeks in most other films--and even when they're being dumb, they're dumb in a cleverly-written way. So some of the humor takes a moment to process, though there is also plenty of instantly understandable humor.
Third, the ending to this film is unexpected and wonderfully appropriate. I cannot say anything about it, because that would spoil it for everyone else.
Fourth, though the film is a comedy, it has quite a dark subtext--two of them, in fact. It critiques the sameness of mass culture, especially in relation to our technology, and it sticks a dagger in mindless nostalgia and displays the dangers of trying to relive the past. With this film, sometimes you can't laugh for cringing, and sometimes you only avoid cringing because you are laughing.
Why can't we have more films like this?
*If you're interested, the other movies I've seen have been the imperfect, but enjoyable, From Up On Poppy Hill; Shane Black's terrible mockery of an Iron Man movie; the self-contradicting Man of Steel; and the good but unfunny Billy Crystal-starring Monsters University.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

On Man of Steel

There are a number of things to like about Man of Steel, but it has its flaws. Interestingly, both its greatest virtues and its greatest flaws concern the nature of the title character. On the negative side, I could discuss the generic nature of Hans Zimmer's soundtrack, the annoying documentary-style camera zooms, or the occasionally-confusing action. On the positive side, I could mention excellent performances from Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, and Amy Adams, or the film's intelligent use of flashbacks. But none of these thing are as interesting as working out what's right and what's wrong with Kal-El himself.
Henry Cavill does a good job playing his part. He is physically convincing as Superman, and emotionally convincing as Clark Kent/Kal-El. (It remains to be seen in the sequel whether he can match Christopher Reeve when playing the reporter disguise of "Clark Kent.") The script gives him some nice Christological parallels, as a Superman movie should--listen for the line from his adoptive father about how elsewhere Clark has another father who sent him to earth for a reason. It is also nice to see that the film is not embarrassed to present him as an American, so his can be seen as something of the ultimate immigrant story. There is also no attempt to muddy him up or make him morally questionable.
So what's the problem? Carelessness. Superman is said to care about helping others. He is once shown snatching a pilot out of midair to prevent him from falling to his death. But for all the rest of his fights, he seems to ignore the multiple skyscrapers falling down, the city-destroying explosions, etc., that his fights with General Zod occasion. Does he (or the screenwriter) not realize that thousands of people are undoubtedly dying from all this? On a similar note, when Superman shows his displeasure with drone surveillance, does he have to destroy the whole drone? Sure, it's funny, but there are less expensive ways to tell the army you would rather not be spied on.
I won't go point-by-point through the whole movie, but you see the central problem: Superman is described in all the right ways, and sometimes demonstrates his virtue through action, but too often there is a disconnect between what is said and what is actually done. I still rather enjoyed the film, but it certainly will not be knocking Captain America: The First Avenger off its pedestal as best moral paragon superhero movie.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

From Up on Poppy Hill + Blog Update

This blog is not entirely dead, despite appearances--even last year I was posting infrequently, and this is my first post of 2013. There are several reasons for this. First, I started this blog partly to keep in practice with my writing, and that is no longer necessary, since I'm writing stories for publication. Second, I have mainly been writing about movies I have seen, and I did not go to the theater for the past three months. Finally, I have simply gotten busy with other things.
So if you're one of the five or six people in the world that reads this, expect occasional posts over the next few months, since I'll be going to the movies more, but don't expect the posting to ever be frequent again. For now, I'll give a few words on From Up on Poppy Hill.
This film is from Studio Ghibli, but is directed by Hayao Miyazaki's son Goro, rather than his more famous father. Goro Miyazaki's first film, Tales from Earthsea, was not an excellent film, but this one is rather better. It is currently in limited release in the U.S.--I had to go to an art-house theater in Fairfax called the Angelika Film Center to find it.
The storyline of this film is reasonably good, though even one of the characters admits it's a little melodramatic. It takes place while Japan is preparing for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and is set in a high school not far from Tokyo. The film focuses on a high school girl who balances schoolwork with helping her grandmother with their boarding house on Poppy Hill, and a high school boy who is trying to preserve an old, decrepit clubhouse that various boys' clubs make use of.
Where the film shines is the animation and characterization. Studio Ghibli always has beautiful animation, especially with their attention to detail in their backgrounds. This film adds some deliberately over-the-top character animation for comic effect (rivers of tears, and that sort of thing), which works well. The dialogue of the film combines with the animation to do an excellent job of delineating the characters, whether a ridiculous would-be philosopher, a sleepy and zoned-out artist, or the heroine of the film, a responsible but lonely student who still mourns her dead father.
The film has many funny moments, including some that are easy to miss if you're not listening closely to the background dialogue. Overall, it is quite enjoyable, even if lacking the (both literal and metaphorical) magic of Hayao Miyazaki's best work.