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Dragons and Vikings—Orion’s Take of “How to Train Your Dragon”

The village of Berk is really something else.  Filled with Vikings and sheep and constantly harassed by dragons, this is not a quiet village by any means.  Yet in this village lives a gentle, if kind of crazy, boy named Hiccup.  Yes, Hiccup—apparently Vikings give their children horrible names to scare away trolls and the like.  Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is the son of the village chief, Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler), and an aspiring Viking warrior.  Unfortunately for Hiccup, he is thin, smart, and too sarcastic for most Vikings.  He also has the problematic ability to wreak havoc whenever he steps outside of the smithy, where he is apprenticed to Gobber (voiced by Craig Ferguson) the one-armed, one-legged blacksmith warrior.  For this reason, whenever dragons attack, Hiccup is told to stay put inside, even though slaying a dragon is a source of pride, and a way to attract the attention of Hiccup’s love interest, Astrid (voiced by America Ferrera), a tough, no-nonsense Viking girl warrior.

Hiccup’s brainier approach to things comes in handy when he manages to capture a dragon no Viking has ever encountered and survived: the Night Fury, or as Hiccup calls him, Toothless.  Through Toothless, Hiccup begins to understand the nature of dragons, and comes to the conclusion that they aren’t all that bad.  Unfortunately, the things he is learning brings attention to him during dragon-slaying-training, which leads to an impossible situation: Hiccup is selected to kill a dragon in front of the whole village—something he simply cannot do.

If you think the plot sounds cute, you are right.  However, this is a plot which though simple on the surface, reveals deep complexities upon further digging.  Hiccup has to face questions like whether it is permissible to kill dragons, whether it is better to change into something you are not or to do something that might hurt the whole village, and so on.  These are not easy questions to answer, and the conclusion of the film proves that.  There are real consequences—even though you know Hiccup isn’t going to die, watching him struggle makes your heart jump.

The cast of this film is excellent, imbuing computerized characters with real heart.  Each Viking has a quirky personality to match an equally quirky name: Fishlegs is a rotund child who knows the Dragon manual like the back of his hand, Snotlout is a braggart whose pursuit of Astrid is doomed to failure, Ruffnut and Tuffnut are fraternal twins with nasty tempers.  But I felt the best characterizations of this film had to do with the dragons: each breed had its own style of fighting as well as its own unique look and personality.  Toothless is perfectly portrayed as a cat-like creature, aggressive and affectionate in equal parts.

Before I give this movie the great score it deserves, I want to write about the small, almost insignificant problem in this particular movie: the lack of strong female characters.  Apple disagrees with me on this point, citing Astrid as an example of a strong female supporting character.  Though Apple readily admits that Astrid doesn’t have a major impact on the story, she insists that this is due to the fact that Hiccup is the hero. I disagree—I feel as if the major actors of this story were inevitably male, even when they didn’t necessarily have to be.  This was only mildly distracting—I could see that the writers had purposefully tried to create a role model female character, but I still felt a little uneasy about the way Astrid turns very quickly from a competent, tough Viking girl, to a supporting teammate without any real decision-making power.  Despite this, I found myself utterly charmed by the dragons and Vikings of this particular story.

5/5 Waffles

-Orion

“But you just pointed to all of me!” – On cuteness done correctly in “How to Train Your Dragon”

I have to say that this is the cutest, sweetest, most exciting movie I have seen in a long time.  Screw “Thor,” which was terrible; it’s all about children’s movies!  I know it’s been a year since it came out, but Orion and I just sat down to watch “How to Train Your Dragon” today, after it was highly recommended over a Seabury dinner by Will, so thanks for that!

The premise is simple – the village of Berk is plagued by a little problem…dragons come and raid their livestock!  In response, the Vikings try again and again to find the dragon nest, to destroy them once and for all.  Despite this rather violent-sounding idea, the movie is still intended for children, and so everything is funny looking – the dragons are either fat or cute, and the people are either huge or scrawny.  This works quite well, actually, and the main dragon, named Toothless, is ridiculously adorable.

I’m not sure exactly why this movie was so good – it seems so simple, yet every aspect was done well.  The story moved at a reasonable pace, the characters were likable, and the animation was superb.  Very exciting, albeit silly, details make the movie even better.  (It turns out dragons hate eels and love grass, that they will chase reflected lights like cats chase laser pointers; who’d have thunk?)  Actually, the look of the dragons reminded me of an adorable children’s book, which I’m sure some of you must have read: “My Father’s Dragon”?  That book was adorable!

At the same time, the movie has a simple maturity about it.  It’s not particularly dark, but there are serious repercussions to messing with dragons, and in terms of a bildungsroman, our main little Viking Hiccup does seem to have learned by the end of the movie.  His rather funny relationship with his father Stoick the Vast, his friends, and also his dragon companion Toothless, are all reasonably (though by no means thoroughly) fleshed out.  It’s enough to drive the movie, anyway, and a very good one at that!

Overall – 5/5; this is an example of a movie that has everything done right.  Maybe this is because children’s movies have a smaller target audience (you’re only a child for a couple years; you’re an adult for a lot longer), but I feel that children’s movies have more thought put into them, more details considered and addressed.  It’s a shame the same can’t be said for older-audience movies – there are too many terrible ones to count!

Best regards,

Apple

“Do not mistake my appetite for apathy!”—Orion’s Take on Thor

May 7, 2011 3 comments

Bad movies can sometimes be good.  Stilted acting, corny costumes, and a little kitsch can act to render an otherwise terrible film quite enjoyable.  However, when a film transcends this kind of enjoyable terribleness, it plunges into the abyss of irredeemable stupidity.  Even the golden god of thunder can’t save this film from the trash can.

I don’t know how it is possible to make a movie like Eclipse look good.  Somehow, despite the formidable presence of a legend like Anthony Hopkins, this movie just sucked.  Maybe it was the utter incoherence of the plot—it’s as if the director couldn’t decide which angle to take (fantasy, sci-fi, comedy, romance?) so everything is smashed up into something that resembles a pile of sludge.  Though Chris Hemsworth does the best he can with a character that doesn’t do more than smirk and flex his muscles, but that simply is not enough.  What happened to Natalie Portman?  Watching her play an astrophysicist was as painful as getting teeth pulled.

The good parts?  What good parts?  No, ok, there were some redeemable scenes.  The scenes in which Thor beats some humans up is fun, but all the mystical/magical/fantasy fight scenes are an exercise choppy editing and more incoherency.  The humor is offbeat and often quite funny, but it simply can’t justify a terrible plot and even worse character development.  I don’t know what to say to such incompetency.

I guess all we can do is wait for Captain America and cross our fingers.

1.5/5 Waffles

Orion

This mortal form grows weak! I require sustenance! – on ridiculous attempts in “Thor”

It was down to “Thor” and “Fast Five” this week, and because I love Norse mythology, “Thor” won out.  Bad decision!  Hopefully, this terrible film doesn’t forever taint my memories of Thor, Odin, Loki, and all the rest.  In this movie, Thor is banished to Earth from Asgard for violating a truce between the frost giants and the Asgardians.  There, he meets astrophysicist Natalie Portman, falls in love, and learns (how exactly he learns, and from what, we’re not quite sure).

Giant Chris Hemsworth again dwarfs Portman, and the supposedly love that develops between the two is entirely ridiculous.  I don’t even know what the directors/writers were trying to go for when they made this happen.  It doesn’t help that the setup takes an incredibly long time to even get the story rolling, thereby cutting into valuable relationship-development time; actually, what am I talking about?  There was no relationship development.

While the drama in Asgard was okay, shot against a neat-looking background of gold and rainbows, the scenes on earth were just terrible.  This feels like one of those ideas that work really well in comic books, but a lot less so in movies.  This is especially bad because the movie kept cutting back and forth from Asgard to the New Mexico desert.  The fight scenes were also mediocre; after all, Thor has been deprived on his powers as part of his exile punishment, and keeps getting knocked out by silly things (I’m talking tasers here).

Overall – 2/5.  How in the world did “Thor” get such high approval ratings on Rotten Tomatoes?

Best regards,

Apple

It’s an easy B+! – on tributes in “Easy A”

“Easy A” begins with a montage of classic scenes from 80s movies – a teenage boy at your window holding up a boombox, driving a lawnmower, and pumping one’s fist into the air.  The film itself makes no effort to conceal its motifs to the typical teen-girl movie – these motifs could even be interpreted as tributes: we have a pop soundtrack, quirky parents, high school drama, and lots of snarky dialogue.   We even have a heroine with bright red hair, a la Lindsay Lohan from “Mean Girls.”

The premise behind “Easy A” is simple – Olive is a high school girl who gets caught up in the rumor mill.  Rather than feel ashamed, Olive basks in the attention and flaunts her newfound notoriety, even going so far as to embroider a crimson A on her clothes (the class is reading “The Scarlet Letter”).  This is a cute setup, and Olive is a refreshingly intelligent and relatively tough protagonist who at the same time has a compassionate side.  She’s willing to lie about what she’s done, and even willing to accept payment…

What sets “Easy A” apart from the slew of lamer high school comedy-dramas, (“John Tucker Must Die,” I’m looking at you,) is the charismatic Olive, for whom we must thank an excellent, quick-to-retort Emma Stone.  Penn Badgley is believably nice and sweet as “Woodchuck” Todd, the boy Olive’s had a crush on since eighth grade.  The rest of the supporting cast is nothing spectacular, but Stone brings energy to all the interactions in the movie.

There were quite a few parts of the film that could have been better – Olive goes through several uncharacteristic weak scenes, and the antagonist, super-religious Marianne Bryant (a plastic, fluffy Amanda Bynes), felt too staple.  As expected in a high school drama, there’s a side story involving teachers, (“Mrs. Norris is a pusher!” comes to mind), but the one here felt a little forced, a little misplaced; it was too serious to go with the light-hearted tone of the rest of the movie.

Overall – 3.5/5; fun and refreshing!  After getting so caught up in Starcraft lately, I’ve been skipping out on movies, and this reminded me how fun they can be!

Best regards,

Apple

Hanna–Orion’s Take

April 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Watching Eric Heller (Eric Bana) dismantle four agents is very much a pleasurable experience.  I do not use the word dismantle lightly.  While James Bond might be charming, watching him beat up thugs is like watching a man try to take a watch apart by slamming it on the ground.  Watching Eric Heller, on the other hand, is like watching a watchmaker deliberately separate all the pieces.  His movements waste no motion, no energy.  His sole intent is the disabling of his pursuers, and when he’s done with them, they don’t even twitch.

When the movie opens, we see Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) in brief flashes amid the snowy landscape.  She’s hunting a reindeer, and so moves quickly and silently from one location to another.  When the deer goes down, Hanna is there to cut it open.  She’s like her father—deadly, efficient, and merciless.  She’s been trained that way so that when the time comes she can find and kill Marissa Wiegler (played chillingly by Cate Blanchett).  But she’s also a young girl with a fascination with everything and everyone, her young exuberance shining through at every moment.  You can train a girl to be an assassin, but she’s still going to have the heart of a young girl.

This naïve wonder, this curiosity towards the world, is handled brilliantly by Saoirse Ronan.  Much of the movie involves not only Hanna’s hunt for Marissa Wiegler but also her growth in a world she has never seen.  For me, this character development was handled well, maybe not perfectly, but with an amount of competence.  There is a certain charm to the way Hanna responds to questions (when asked about what her mother died of, Hanna simply says, “Three bullets”) and her strength makes that charm all the more endearing.

I don’t know if it’s because we’ve been watching movies with heroines that are kind of weird (Jane Eyre, Babydoll from Sucker Punch) but Hanna really appealed to me as a truly strong girl.  She’s not a falsely steely-eyed assassin like Marissa Wiegler.  Her heart, despite everything, is pure.  This purity is what I loved most about the film, the way her heart is free and full of light, the way that despite everything she has to do to survive, she can still admire a run-down amusement park as magical.  This is especially striking when one considers the two counter characters of Marissa Wiegler and Eric Heller.  Eric is a weary soul, just tired of it all, while Marissa Wiegler is a woman afraid—but we are not really given a glimpse of what that fear is.

Before I start complaining, I want to spend some time praising the acting.  Every single member of the case was exemplary, but Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana are especially worth noting because they manage to hold their own against the marvelous lightness of Saoirse Ronan’s performance.  Cate Blanchett adopts a southern drawl that grates against Wiegler’s steel spine—Wiegler’s affected sweetness is brutally drowned in her vicious movements.  In one scene, she angrily screws on a silencer in preparation for a cold-blooded assassination.  She’s angry because her target is not afraid, and that anger is not satisfied until the victim in lying in a pool of blood.  Then a hint of pleasure shivers through her voice, as she says in German, “Just like her mother.”

Eric Bana is simply cool, in all senses of the word.  When fighting, his actions are smooth, brutal to the point of beauty.  When he speaks, though, we get the hint of gentleness that is so missing in Wiegler’s character.  In one pivotal scene, after a long fight, we see his weary face brighten with pride as he says something about Hanna.  From the very beginning, we see his connection with Hanna, the desire to protect her conflicting with his desire to set her free.

But despite the excellent acting, something about the story simply does not ring true.  I believe the characters—as they are in the time depicted in the movie.  But I can’t accept their motivations.  What drives Wiegler?  Shame?  Guilt?  Fear?  Why does Eric Heller hide in the first place?

The ending, cycling back, will be immediately recognizable.  The time in between—the growth and the interaction of characters, was worthwhile, a little world contained.  I just wish I could believe the world outside those borders.

4.5/5 Waffles

-Orion

PS—There is more to say, but just watch the movie first.

I just missed your heart: On tension and incoherent histories in “Hanna”

April 15, 2011 2 comments

Because it had the most votes on our monthly poll, and because it looked damn badass, Orion and I went to see “Hanna” this week.  The trailer summarizes the premise pretty well: Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is a young girl trained to kill a woman named Marissa Viegler (Cate Blanchett); she has grown up her whole life in the Arctic forests with father figure Erik Heller (Eric Bana).  Now, set loose into the world to kill Marissa, she struggles to come to terms with the brave new world around her, and is constantly on the run from men who want to capture her.

The best part of “Hanna” was undoubtedly the action scenes.  A quick tempo, heart pounding music, and crispy choreographed fighting all led to a level of tension that I could barely believe.  Reminiscent of fights from “The Bourne Identity,” “Hanna” is full of chase scenes that truly inspire adrenaline.  If “Hanna” were nothing but these action scenes, it would be an undoubted 5/5.

Unfortunately, the pure speed and rhythm of action scenes are constantly interrupted by a vain attempt to show Hanna’s integration into normal society.  She meets a touring family, and briefly befriends the tween daughter, who takes her out and uses words like “vomitorium.”  I think that alone makes it clear that whoever wrote the story wasn’t in his right head.  Furthermore, the film attempts to sketch in a science fiction backstory, with something being strange about Hanna’s DNA.  This backstory is terrible, filled with weak points and feels last minute, as if writers were barreling through the script the night before their deadline.  These poorly drawn stories then cast doubt onto otherwise excellent characters, and corrupt great performances with nonsensical and incoherent histories.

In terms of the performances, everyone was great. Eric Bana was likewise great as Erik Heller, coming off as ultracompetent in some senses, while weak in others; what faults the character has comes, as aforementioned, from the thin design.  At one moment, Erik Heller is far-seeing, knowing that one day Hanna will grow up and become unsatisfied with the solitary, woodsy lifestyle that Erik has built for her.  At the next moment, he fails to see what obvious obstacles Hanna would have integrating into the world.  Again, this is not Bana’s fault, and I think he did his best with what he had.

Cate Blanchett played CIA agent Marissa Viegler, and her personality reminded me of Tilda Swinton’s role in “Michael Clayton.”  She had an excellent witch-smile, fitting the Brothers Grimm fairy-tale theme that director Joe Wright struggled to work in.  As expected, Saoirse Ronan was an excellent cold, ruthless yet naïve assassin.  She has the same nuance and believability we saw in “Atonement,” although her character’s actual situation borders on absurd.  The fact that she was able to convince us to like Hanna in lieu of the terrible story really says a lot.

I really, really wish the story of “Hanna” were better – I want so much to like the movie, to be able to recommend it for more than just excellent action.  I wanted Hanna to grow as a character, and I wanted strong themes to weave through the movie, growing themselves into lessons for viewers to reap.  Unfortunately, all attempts at meaning fall through: in the beginning of the movie, Erik reads to Hanna from an encyclopedia about “music,” and Hanna replies that she wants to see it for herself.  Each time Hanna hears music, we are reminded of this statement; likewise, a scene at the end parallels a scene from the beginning, but it is just too exactly.  Such heavy-handedness is intolerable to me, because it gives no credit to the movie-viewer.

Overall – 4/5, the action scenes are so good that they balance out the terrible storyline, but just barely so.  I recommend it!

Best regards,

Apple

I must keep in good health and not die: on the sheer boringness of “Jane Eyre”

I wanted to see “Jane Eyre” since I first saw its preview last winter.  Unfortunately, Orion adamantly refused, having read and hated the book in high school.  We finally got to see it this week, and by the time the movie was over, Orion was singing its praises while I was so bored I could barely rouse myself from the theatre seats.  Go figure.  (I remember my roommate being assigned “Wuthering Heights” in high school, written by a different Bronte sister, Emily.  I picked up the book and read the whole thing, regarding it as the funniest things I had ever read.  I began reading Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” but couldn’t get through the first chapter.)  But the movie looked good, and I especially liked the slight tinge of mysterious, dark, gothic elements.  There are hints of the supernatural, of secrets being kept, and of haunting ghosts – these felt surprisingly in an otherwise period piece, but were well received by our audience.

I’m not exactly sure why this movie was so boring, and I’m not exactly sure why I disliked Jane Eyre so much.  She was great at first, being strong but reserved, fierce but quiet, but then she had to go and FALL IN LOVE.  I couldn’t get into her after that.  She seemed so strong for the beginning of the movie, so plucky despite her misfortunes – I just couldn’t forgive her for falling in love with the first man she met.  It was almost as bad as Grushenka’s change of heart in The Brothers Karamazov.  I don’t know if the book handled this in a convincing manner, but the movie certainly didn’t.  There were barely five conversations before Rochester declares outright to Jane, “You rare, unearthly thing, I must have you!”  (I later misremembered him as saying, “You weird, unusual creature!”  That’s just the vibe I get from Michael Fassbender’s Rochester.)

Speaking of the actors, Mia Wasikowska was wonderfully plain, which I felt fit Jane Eyre very well.  I guess it wasn’t her fault the story/movie took a turn for the worse.  Judi Dench plays a supporting character, Mrs. Fairfax the housekeeper, and I just couldn’t get over how miscast this felt.  I thought Dench was far too strong an actress to be written into this old woman’s personality.  As for Rochester, like I said earlier, I thought Fassbender was just strange.

Overall, 1.5/5.  This was seriously the lamest movie I’ve seen this year.  I’m sorry for the terribly boring review, but really, I didn’t feel like the movie had any material for me to work with.  Orion claims this is because I am immature, but I think some movies just aren’t to my tastes.

Best regards,

Apple

Jane Eyre–Orion’s Take

April 10, 2011 Leave a comment

Full disclosure: I hated Jane Eyre when I read it in high school.  It was the ending that frustrated me: a happy ending to a story wreathed in darkness and fear.  I found it utterly unbelievable, so much so that I ended up rewriting the ending for my final project (I got an A-).  My ending was depressing, but in my rather biased estimation, more realistic.

The film has all of the novel’s weaknesses, but beautifully renders its strengths on the screen.  The first shot, darkness opening unto light, brought me back so viscerally into a story I had forgotten that I literally caught my breath.  As the story of a cruel childhood unfolded and I remembered what I had read several years ago, I marveled at how much I had despised the novel.  I was attracted to Jane Eyre’s quiet fire, the spunk and emotion of her youth, and the dignified sarcasm of her adulthood.  I felt myself hoping for her happiness, for love to bloom and grace her face with a smile.  To tell the truth, I was surprised at how sentimental I was being, which speaks to both the strength of the plot as penned by Charlotte Bronte and the strength of the acting.  Amelia Clarkson is great as a young Jane Eyre, her strength dancing undaunted in her eyes when she declares to her stepmother that she is not a liar.  Mia Wasikowska, a very young Australian actress (just 21!) is a marvel, stiff and reserved when necessary, but exploding into a sarcastic biting wit when bantering.  Judie Dench, a legend, brings strength and dignity to the character of Mrs. Fairfax (where, to be fair, strength probably was hard to find).  Michael Fassbender is excellent as the rather grumpy Mr. Rochester.  I can gush on and on about the cast, but I think you get the point.

One of many great aspects of this film is the way in which it conveys not only the central romance of the book but also the gothic, creepiness of the story.  Mr. Rochester doesn’t just brood because he’s a brooding person.  There is a darkness behind him that is wonderfully captured.  Jane Eyre’s own troubled past is explored in full detail.  And this is all done absolutely beautifully: the film looks gorgeous.  The lush greens of a rich countryside, the darkness that existed before the invention of electric lights, the gleam of rich wood, the bleakness of stone is all captured and expressed in a way that is hard for novels.

But, and there must be a but, the ending is still unsatisfying for your brain.  However, I accepted it in my heart.  This is a true adaptation, one that captures the soul of the novel in a way that I admire.  The ending, as bad as it remains, was one that I appreciated.  I needed a happy ending and hopefully so will you.

4.5/5 Waffles

–Orion

Sucker Punch–A Rambling Review by Orion

Watching several scantily-attired women kill zombie Nazis with swords and guns while a hot Asian chick sucking on a sucker pilots a mecha-suit (or something of that nature) was…interesting.  Or at least it appealed to my brute senses in a very primitive way.  The skeleton of the story was far more appealing than I had been led to believe by the trailers, the emotion raw but strangely compelling, the actresses oozing both sexuality and vulnerability.  The structure, a fantasy within a fantasy, explored issues of escapism and empowerment, albeit in a very crude way.  But I felt that there was something there, something deeper that remained woefully distant, a depth that could have, might have, saved this movie from…from what, exactly, I can’t say.  I can’t help but like this film more than a similarly ridiculous one (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World).  Whereas Scott Pilgrim had a sort of nerdy polish but no real depth, Sucker Punch is a wild and messy film that aspires to something great.

If you couldn’t tell this movie is straining to hold itself together.  The responses to this film have ranged from a kind of exploitative pleasure to disgust (I heard a man and a woman speaking about this film—“It was awesome!”-man.  “Oh, shut up, you just liked it because of the costumes, which were, by the way, terrible.  It would be so impractical to fight in those clothes.”-woman) and I ran the gamut in terms of emotions.  I couldn’t help but like the style of the film, the flashiness that Zach Snyder brings to the table, but I would have liked a gentler touch with the overarching plot.  At some points the action scenes distracted from the real emotion that is involved in this story of a girl wronged and assigned to a mental asylum.  This distraction was compounded at some points by the structure of the film—most of the film takes place in a fantasy world one level removed from the actuality of the plot, and the action scenes take place one level further from reality.  While at some points this distance works, at other times this extended metaphor/fantasy is just confusing.

It’s hard to explain the structure, especially since the movie itself fails to clear up some points, but in essence there are three levels of the film:

LEVEL 1—this is reality, where the story is that of a girl, Baby Doll, whose stepfather places her in a mental institution and bribes an orderly to have her lobotomized.  It is revealed here that the doctor who will do the lobotomy won’t come for five days.

LEVEL 2—A fantasy that puts Baby Doll in a different prison, a bordello, where she plans an escape.  On this level, Baby Doll is capable of completely distracting men with her dance.

LEVEL 3—A further fantasy world in which all battles occur.  When Baby Doll dances on Level 2, this is where the girls are transported.

There are so many ideas I appreciated in this film.  Simple touches, like a story behind dragon’s fire, like off-screen violence that hits you hard, like the damn twist at the end, all these things make me want to like this film.  But there’s simply too much here, too much stupidity mixed in with ambition, too much trash mixed in with the gold.  I just can’t stomach the mix.

3.5/5 Waffles

–Orion

P.S.  If you want a better written and smarter exploration of Sucker Punch, check out this article: http://www.salon.com/entertainment/movies/our_picks/index.html?story=/ent/movies/andrew_ohehir/2011/03/24/sucker_punch

 

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