Friday, March 26, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon

Movie: How to Train Your Dragon

The title pretty much explains everything about the story. The only thing I didn't know was that it was about "Vikings" (I put that in quotes since they are so modern they're hardly Viking at all). So it's a Viking sea village that's always had problems with dragon attacks, and there's the spindly chief's son who wants to be a warrior but is more of a wimpy inventor instead, and after he accidentally captures a dragon, they become friends, and duh, save the village. Storywise, there's little going on here. It's competent and pleasant, but not a Pixar story. Animiation-wise, I wasn't impressed: except for the landscapes, which are fantastic, the people and animals are much too cartoony. What makes this work are the three-dimensional flying sequences. I will say that this is the first 3D film I've seen where the 3D is actually worth it (yes, that includes Avatar). When the boy is learning to fly the dragon it really feels like a roller coaster ride, like you're on the dragon with him, whizzing past rocky cliffs and swooping through the clouds. Fortunately, there's quite of bit of this sort of action (perhaps as much as half the film), which makes up for the ordinary story and duller parts where the 3D is meaningless. Overall, that makes this film a win. It's pleasant and harmless otherwise, but in 3D it's extraordinary and worth seeing.


Friday, March 26, 2010


Movie: Twilight

I missed this in theatres and never rented it, but a Showtime preview started this weekend and I finally got to see it. I've been trying to read the book (it's incredibly dull) and thought I'd like movie better. It is pretty good, but it has some bizarre flaws. The vampire special effects are totally hokey -- it's like there's no physics involved. People fly through the air or climb trees like magic. Incredibly lame. (Worse, these supernatural events are set up dramatically by the director so that the audience can sense them coming, and when they do, they are invariably weak. I much prefer more subtle effects, like seeing a vampire across the room and when you turn away, he's somehow right beside you. That's far more creepy than seeing him run in blurry high-speed.) There's other weird stuff done direction-wise (odd camerawork, jarring music choices, confusingly shot fight scenes), but the Washingon landscape is gorgeously photographed. There are also occasional moments of movie magic, either excellent chemistry between the leads or a scene or two that worked really well. I'm still uncomfortable with the casting of Pattinson as the lead vampire: his accent is all over the place, he looks weird to me (I'm surprised he's considered good-looking), and I totally fail to see his charm. (Admittedly, I did like him more by the end than at the beginning, but that's not saying much.) But Kristen Stewart is really good as Bella, and the supporting cast is excellent (though they aren't given much to do). Scriptwise, I can't compare to the book since I haven't finished it, but there were several choppy scenes that felt shortened or out of context. The relationship between the two main characters at the beginning, for instance, was weakly handled, and some of the action stuff toward the end seemed to all blur together without a lot of explanation (like they leave Washington state and end up in Phoenix like thirty seconds later). Most bizarre to me was that the core love story happened out of nothing. It starts off with the two as antagonists, then suddenly they are in love. And not just ordinary teen love, but give-up-life love. There was no point when Bella "fell in love" with Edward, or vice versa. They were just magically destined for each other, apparently. Very odd. I wanted to understand why they were attracted to each other but it wasn't explained. Another problem was the shallow relationship of Bella with her parents. I believe it must be deeper in the book, but on film it's so sketchy that when it becomes important later, it feels weird, as though we skipped a chapter. But I'm probably overanalyzing this film. It's not meant to be this deep in the first place. It's a silly teen romance with vampires, and as such, it's not terrible. It didn't live up to the hype for me. I'd give it a six out of ten.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Movie: Diary of a Wimpy Kid

The best indicator of how good this movie was is that not a single person left the theatre when the animated closing credits began. Everyone was having too good a time, adults and children alike! I was surprised and delighted. It's a terrific family film. The story is about a boy nervous about entering middle school. (I gather that's sixth grade -- they had junior high when I was growing up.) The boy thinks he's smarter than everyone else and is positive he's going to be king of the school. Instead, everything he does to become popular sinks him lower and lower on the popularity scale. It's fun, funny, and charming. I had feared from the trailer that there would be too much childish gross-out humor, but it's only occasional, and mild, and only in places where it makes sense for the kids' ages and the story. The film-making is well-done as well, with a nice blend of animation sequences mixed into the live action. The cast is phenomenal: the children are classic stereotypes but full of personality so that even the weird ones are hilarious charming. The film has a few slow moments and would have been even better trimmed by ten minutes, but mostly it's excellent. Nothing too earthshattering or remarkable, I suppose, as the theme of "weird kid struggles to be accepted" has been done to death, but pleasant and certainly entertaining. It's very family friendly, too (almost retro), which is somewhat remarkable in this day and age. Highly recommended.


Friday, March 19, 2010

Repo Men

Movie: Repo Men

This is an unpleasant movie. I didn't know much about it going in, but it looked science-fictiony and has some big stars (Jude Law, Forest Whitaker). Unfortunately, it has no story. Or rather, no focus. The story is little more than the gimmick of a future society where expensive artificial organs are commonplace and if you stop making payments on your heart or liver, some "repo" men will come and yank it out of you. If it so happens that you can't live without the organ, well, that's just too bad for you. The producers of this film seem to think this is the best idea ever and hammer home the whole concept incessantly. There is a slight plot, in that our lead repo guy ends up with an artificial heart himself and can't pay and his former partner must hunt him down (gee, I never saw that coming), and I guess we're supposed to be moved by this jerk's sudden role reversal as he changes his view when he's suddenly at the other end of the repossessing, but everything's so ham-handled and pointless that we really don't care. The film is far more violent and bloody than I expected, with gory surgeries on living people and graphic blood splatters and chaotic shootings. As far as science fiction, the sets and look of the film is mildly interesting, but the lack of story and the predictable characters makes it hardly worth it. The film also has lame multiple endings, and a lot of stuff toward the end doesn't make sense until later. There are a few interesting ideas, but little is developed, the characters are nothing more than stereotypes, and the entire experience is unpleasant. Avoid.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Lost Symbol

Book: The Lost Symbol
Writer(s): Dan Brown

This is a strange book. I guess that should be expected, considering the author, but I still found it unusual. It doesn't quite know what it is: a thriller with pseudo-science/religious overtones? Is it an agenda piece? What's the point of it?

The pacing is as annoyingly Dan Brown as ever, with ultra-short chapters each ending on an overly dramatic suspense point (i.e. in the middle of a sentence). What I found most frustrating is the way he deliberately withholds information just to milk the suspense. Most writers do this to an extent, but only with one or two key secrets that are the core of the novel -- like the identity of the killer. Brown does it with everything. It makes the novel grating to read. Every chapter ends with, "And then he uncovered the shocking text. He stared in disbelief, unable to fathom what he was seeing. Could this really say what he thought it said? This was going to change the world!"

It would be one thing if the deep dark secrets hidden were actually deep dark secrets, but most of the time they aren't. Either the clues are fairly obvious, or we're so manipulated as a reader by Brown's information withholding that there's no possible way we could figure anything out. It feels like a cheat. The most egregious of these is when Brown actually goes back to an earlier telephone conversation, which we thought we had listened to verbatim, and reveals that there was more conversation we hadn't heard. WTF? That's traitorous on the part of the author, as far as I'm concerned.

Speaking of going back in time, Brown makes heavy use of that technique, too, with perhaps 80 percent of the novel being flashbacks. He presumably does this to provide "insight" to his characters, doing things like having a character remember his first meeting with another character. This often happens when the reader first meets the characters, with the result that the reader is left confused about time. Is this fifteen years ago? Is this today? Even worse, sometimes Dan flashes back within a flashback or re-flashes back to reveal new and different information he withheld from us the first time! Arrgh!

All this said, Dan still manages to create a somewhat compelling novel. There are moments of brilliance, in terms of plot, and some of the action sequences are surprisingly well done. There are several surprising events that as I read them, I thought he'd blown it, as they seemed farfetched or over-the-top, but his explanations proved surprisingly logical. And I really liked the secret twist at the end -- the identity of the bad guy -- which wasn't contrived and actually made sense.

The plot itself is fairly simple, though elaborately drawn out. It basically involves a bad guy kidnapping a friend of Robert Langdon, the symbologist from Brown's other novels, with Langdon forced to solve ancient clues left by the Masons to reveal the location of the knowledge of the "ancient mysteries" which supposedly would give a person incredible power. There's a time crunch involved with this task that's nothing short of absurd, with weeks worth of events happening within a few hours (apparently no one gets tired or overwhelmed by circumstance in Dan Brown's universe). The actual puzzles Langdon solves are not bad, though it's highly questionable they would have survived so many years unrevealed and mechanical things still in working order.

Brown sort of tones down the anti-religious rhetoric in this one, though that gets heavier (and more absurd) toward the end. While the plot is wrapped up sufficiently, his non-plot conclusion is awful, especially considering the hyped build-up since page one. After hundreds of pages of emphasizing the power of the "ancient mysteries" and how this knowledge would revolutionize the planet, he reveals it's nothing more than "humans are gods." Lame.


Friday, March 5, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Movie: Alice in Wonderland
Director(s): Tim Burton

I went into this knowing only that Tim Burton was at the helm (that was enough for me). I was a bit worried that it would be more style than substance, but I am delighted to report that it's an excellent film. I loved the period setting, which establishes Alice as hampered by the restrictions of society at that time, and the visuals within Wonderland are excellent. (The 3D is well-done as well; not essential, but pleasing.) The story terrific: Alice is nearly twenty and doesn't remember being in Wonderland before (she thought those were childish dreams), so she experiences things for the first time (again) making most of this film aspects of the original story. It's definitely a character-driven piece, with Alice struggling to find her identity, both literally and figuratively, and that makes the story terrifically compelling. When she finally stands up for herself and pushes back, you want to stand up and cheer for her. The supporting characters are also wonderful, with Depp mesmerizing as the Mad Hatter, and Helena Bonham-Carter fantastic as the Red Queen. The animals are also incredible, especially the rabbit and the Chesire Cat. The story concludes with a little more action than was properly appropriate (I did not buy Alice as a sword-carrying action hero), but at that point I was so into the thing I didn't much care. It's fun, wacky, a faithful homage, and visually striking. Go see it!


Monday, March 1, 2010

The Stand

Movie: The Stand (1994)
Writer(s): Stephen King (book)

This is the old mini-series from 1994. I'd heard good things of it and even read part of the book, but had never seen it. It was on SciFi channel over the weekend and I thought I'd fast-forward through most of it, but I found it compelling and ended up watching it. The series has an odd 80s feel to it (music, clothing, language, etc.) for a film from the 90s, and there's overuse of digital morphing (showing the chief bad guy as a demon). The story is familiar -- a government-created biological weapon escapes a lab and kills most of the people on the planet -- but Stephen King does something different than the mere fight for survival by introducing an interesting spiritual element. Basically the survivors are split into two groups (good and evil), each with their own leader who recruits via dreams. Ultimately, there's a battle between these two forces that will determine the future of the human race. It sounds hokey and at times it is, but many times it comes across as sincere, and it ads depth and a metaphorical richness to the drama. Surprisingly good.