June 30, 2014

Shadowcon Mini-Views- How to Train Your Dragon 2

Alright, so a week late, but I finally saw How to Train Your Dragon 2 and I saw it with my cousin, Daniel, because he's staying here this week too, so that's pretty awesome. We'll be doing a joint one of these, which'll be interesting considering that I haven't done a co-written Mini-View before, so we'll see how this goes. I guess I'll talk about it first and then Dan will talk about it.

A quick note on how I felt about the first one: I loved that movie. That was the best movie Dreamworks has ever done, and it was so good that I actually didn't realize it was a Dreamworks film; it felt so much stronger than what they normally churn out, and it was such a welcome surprise and a breath of fresh air. The characters, the story, and the care put into the movie drew me in and held my attention, and I thought it was really good.

This one is a bit different. It's less of a character movie to me and more of an exploration of the world that these characters are in, which I found a little startling given that the first one was so character- and theme-focused. Certainly not a bad thing, and this one delivers a very good dosage of character development in the middle, and it builds on the world that the first one set up. Hiccup's journey this film is a little less prevalent or dramatic as the last one; here, he has to learn to become a leader in the face of adversity, but the interesting thing here is that his conflict with most of the other characters is internal. His dad wants to take the fight to Drogo, the main villain of the piece, believing that there is no other option, and his mom, whom we discover is alive and has been rescuing and harboring dragons, wants to fight Drogo to protect the dragons, thinking that all men are like Drogo as she has seen no evidence to the contrary.

Both of these characters want war, but they want it for different reasons, and I found that very interesting, and even more so because Hiccup must now convince both of them to settle for peace, but he must do so in two different ways. With his dad, he wants to convince him that Drogo can be reasoned with, and with his mom, he assures her that not all people are like Drogo and that Hiccup's people are just as good as his mom is. It was an interesting dynamic for the first half.

Sadly though, things quickly spiral away from that as we get a very weird villain introduction in that we finally meet Drogo and find out his plan to rule the world by taking control of the Alpha dragon, and then the whole movie almost completely drops the former character stuff in favor of action. It was certainly an interesting move; this wasn't really bad so much as startling.

The action in this one is very good; the dragons are colorful and lovable, and the antics that the human characters go through are fun and charming. The energy and pace of the movie are both engaging and effective, and I liked how animated and alive everything was here.

Drogo proves to be a rather one-dimensional villain, which I felt detracted from the overall story. Personally, I think it would have made the film stronger had the focus been on Hiccup convincing both his parents that dragons and humans could live in peace, and while they kind of did that between Hiccup and Drogo, things never really paid off. There was a great climactic moment when Hiccup is trying to pry Toothless away from the Alpha's hypnotic control, but the theme of bringing people together had been so lost by this point that the scene just didn't deliver the punch I thought it was supposed to give.

That aside, the first half of this thing was very strong. I loved the middle section of this when Hiccup finds his mom, and I did like the dynamic between his mom and dad; these two characters clearly love each other, and the writers worked with that brilliantly. I did think the relationship between the mom character and Hiccup could have been made stronger; instead of her just telling him over and over that he was just like her, I feel they could have had a scene with them bonding over something other than dragons, give them something to talk about as a family.

Overall, I liked this one. I don't think it's a successor to the original, but I do think it a good sequel despite some roads taken that I think detracted from the setup of the film in the first act or so. The dynamics between the characters work, the comedy works, and the action is ramped up to eleven for this one. It feels like more care was put into the first one, but this is still a very fun ride.

Here's Daniel's review of it:

I remember enjoying the first How to Train Your Dragon film quite a bit. I found it to be a lot of fun and enjoyed the fact that it didn't talk down to the audience...I am somewhat older than the intended audience of these films, but felt that the studio was working to keep my interest. A moment that really stood out to me was the scene were Hiccup discovers that he lost a foot during the climax. It was the sort of move that you don't see a lot of in films for a young audience. It wasn't there for shock value or anything of the sort; rather, it expressed that the actions which the characters take do have consequences, and more importantly, that those consequences can be dealt with.

Did the sequel manage the same trick? I would have to say that it did. Once again, the film takes risks that pay off. The climax of this film could be argued to be the fight at the end, but in my opinion it is a bit before that. I really enjoyed the scene between Hiccup and Toothless, but again, I don't feel that that was the climax. Rather, the movie seemed to hinge around the eulogy that Hiccup gives for his father.

Backing up a bit, this is probably one of the best families in a children's movie. (Don't worry, Incredibles. I still love you.) The scene where Hiccup's parents reunite and then bond over a song...it was fantastic. It simultaneously felt like something out of an old fairy tale and like something you could see between couples in the real world. Excellent acting, Blanchett and Butler.

Naturally, this meant that the father had to die. Familial bliss never lasts in these films. But before that, we got to see them working together. I got very nervous when Hiccup's mother ran out and saw the ships. Would she think that Hiccup had betrayed her? Would this ruin the reunion between the family members? Fortunately, it did not. With one line, "We're a team now," the unit was held strong. And then, even more surprisingly, the headstrong chief turns to his wife and asks her what she wants to do. There is no arguing over who knows what is better, or whether anyone is capable of handling any particular battle. All three know each other's abilities and trust each other...in this case, Valka knows the world better, so Stoick follows her lead. It was refreshing to see a lack of drama in the proceedings. It isn't that I don't love dysfunction, because I do...I just like seeing a family film that really celebrates the power of the family when they stand together. In fact, I think that this show of unity is what really made the death of Stoick so tragic.

Returning to the eulogy, it was a surprisingly powerful moment. This movie saw a clash between Hiccup and Stoick, as well as a bond between Hiccup and Valka. It was easy to understand; Valka is really, really cool, and basically was embracing Hiccup's life decades before he discovered it, while Stoick had to be brought around to a peaceful way of thought and is still struggling to trust his son's judgement. Hiccup spends the entire film running from his father, while he gets to show off his inventions and skills to his mother. The first is giving him a destiny he doesn't want while the second is embracing the life he currently loves. But there is more to it than that. As Hiccup says, he was so afraid of following in his father's footsteps because he never thought he could be him. It was clear that he could follow in his mother's footsteps...he was doing that before he met her. His father, on the other hand, has been present throughout his life, constantly better than him. The first film was really about his embracing a life different than his father's, and that attitude has carried over to this one. Even traits he shares with both his parents, like a sense of the dramatic, he attributes solely to his mother. It is only after Stoick's death that he is able to accept that he doesn't reject his father's life so much as he fears failing at it. He doesn't want to try doing what his father does because he might fail, and then he will have failed his father. Entirely rejecting that way of life seems safer, and so he does. Now that his father is dead, however, he has to take it on, because there is nobody else to do it. He accepts his father's credo, that a chief protects his own, and runs with it. He still uses the skills he got from his mother, but he merges them with his father's way of life as well. He has managed to embrace both his legacies, the one that came naturally and the one he struggled with, and is the stronger for it.

Another surprising aspect of the film was the emphasis on failure. I was bothered at first that Drogo was just a typical movie villain. After all, the whole film had seen Hiccup espousing his peaceful beliefs. Both his parents assured him that it wouldn't work, that Drogo could not be turned. And in the end, he couldn't. I am used to seeing heroes in these films be right, succeed in what they attempt. Hiccup does not. He has to realize at the funeral that, as many people as he has turned, even in this film, not everyone can be reasoned with. And, like it or not, he has to be proactive. Hiccup himself is not a fighter, and never will be, but he accepts that that way of life is, at times, necessary. He frees Toothless to fight the battle, and thus secures the safety of his village. This isn't exactly an optimistic message, but it isn't a pessimistic one either. It is simply realistic, like this film, and not something I was expecting out of children's entertainment.

All in all, the film had both strengths and weaknesses, things that bothered me and things that delighted me, and I could spend more time talking about them if I wanted. Instead, I'd just like to leave with stating again that this movie escapes the pigeonhole so often attributed to children's films. I think I enjoyed this more as a twenty-year-old than I would have as a child. (Though the kids in front of me sure clapped hard at the end, so who knows.) It isn't the only children's movie that I enjoyed, but I felt that this one really goes the extra mile in ambition. It felt like a story I might see in the mythology of ancient cultures, stories intended to be heard by everyone, without thought to age. It is a mature story, in the best of ways, one which presents both escapism and realism without diluting either. To call it a perfect movie would be absurd; my favourite movie isn't flawless either. But I enjoyed it, would recommend it to others, and hope to see other movies follow its lead. All in all, that's enough for me.

A fine review, Daniel (this is Luke, by the way). Well, I think it's fair to say we both liked it. I guess Daniel liked it a little more than I did, which is cool.

Tomorrow we're seeing Transformers: Age of Extinction. A very.... very different film than this one.

June 25, 2014

Transformers Robots in Disguise Eartly Thoughts

This is kind of old news to most, but there's been an article about the new Transformers series that sheds some light as to the setup and cast, and I figured I'd share my thoughts on that, the project as a whole, and maybe bitch about Predacons Rising for a bit too.

So, basically, Hasbro is gearing up to bring us a new Transformers series in the Spring of 2015, which is awesome. They also said it's going to be a sequel to Transformers Prime, which is pretty awesome too! And then I remembered that the Predacons Rising movie thing happened and I was like "damn, that means Optimus is dead, Bumblebee is in charge, and Knock Out of all people is an Autobot (spoilers)". Now, to be fair to that ending of the series, this did leave us with the distinct impression that things were changing, which I was happy about if only because Prime by that point had become known as that show that kinda played it too safe (one need only look at the end of "Rebellion" to know what I'm talking about). With Megatron going off on his own and effectively disbanding the Decepticons, Optimus sacrificing himself, Cybertron restored, and Unicron gone, things seemed ripe for a sequel of sorts, a chance to explore the ramifications of Megatron's decision to no longer be a part of the Decepticons and the Autobots now having to rebuild and reestablish Cybertron as a planet.

The problem was the way the movie got to its ending. Things felt very rushed, storylines and plot threads were introduced and done away with in five minutes, we didn't need any more world-building for the Transformers so getting the All Spark in there was a pretty stupid idea in my opinion, characterizations were all over the place; everything just felt like it was undermining the great finale that had come before it. So I'm sitting here reading this article about the new Transformers series, and as I read, I began to suspect that perhaps this might be the sequel to Prime that could clean up some of the mistakes of Rising, because the outline for this looks pretty good.

Basically, there's a new faction of Decepticons on Earth and Bumblebee must step into the position of commander and round up a rag-tag group of Autobots (and a Mini Con) to take them down. The final statement on the plot was what really caught my eye:

"Each new bot is a fully capable action hero but inexperienced in working together in a team, forcing Bumblebee to become both squad leader and coach, Hasbro said."

See, this feels like kind of a mix between Transformers Animated and Firefly to me. I get the Animated vibe because of Bumblebee's position being not too dissimilar to Animated's Optimus in that he must work these people into becoming a team. I get the Firefly vibe because of the "fully capable" bit there in the beginning. I get the sense that each of these characters is going to have a secret buried in their past to add dimension to their character, and if that's the case, then this could prove to be as character driven a show as Prime or Animated ever were, and that would be awesome.

The animation studio that helmed Prime, Polygon Pictures, is doing this one as well. I loved the animation style of Prime, and while 2D animation isn't really my thing, I do like the mix of Animated and Prime styles going into these characters. Also, while we haven't gotten any word on who will be writing the show (though like Prime, I do hope they have their own in-house writing staff), we have gotten word on the story editor, Steven Melching: he wrote for Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and several episodes of both Beast Wars and Prime, so he should be right at home with this. Jeff Kline and Adam Beechen will be producers too, so this looks like a home-grown project that is sure to breathe more life into the universe of Prime.

While I've pretty much regurgitated the article for you already given how short the article is, here's the link if you want to read it. Robots in Disguise looks to be a neat sequel idea to Prime, and while I'm firmly behind Prime's more adult attitude, I welcome this shift in tone that the new series is taking; a more kid-friendly show might be just what this universe needs to keep flourishing, and hey, it did wonders for Animated, so I'm very hopeful for this series!

June 21, 2014

Stuff That I Like- 6/21/14

Alright, so I've been a little inactive on the blog lately, and part of that is because of tour (which I'll talk about, don't worry), but also because I haven't really had much to write about for the blog, and I haven't decided what my next review is going to be. But some things have been happening, so I figured I'd just write up this short thing if only to produce new content for you to read.

First, let's talk AYS tour! Okay, so this... this came so close, so close, to making up for all the BS of the last year. It didn't, but tour was obviously the highlight of my AYS experience, and what a highlight it was! First, I have to say that seeing the New York Philharmonic live was just mind-bogglingly insanely awesome! They performed two Beethoven piano concertos and a premier piece that was very modern and stuff; I didn't like that one, but the Beethoven stuff was superb!

Second, we all got to see different plays on Broadway after eating at a really awesome restaurant, and my play of choice was Phantom of the Opera! Holy hell, was that an experience! This was my first time seeing the play (I'd of course seen the film), and it did not disappoint! The acting, the singing, the effects... nothing was out of place here. And the man playing the Phantom was actually the guy who played Phantom for the Broadway premier all those years ago, and that was really cool. Just wonderful voices, and very good effects; that chandelier was just remarkable!

Finally, and most importantly, we played in Carnegie Hall. I'll just say this (and then go on to elaborate because I'm not a succinct person): I haven't smiled more broadly when playing the violin than I did during that whole thing. This was a magical experience for me, something that I know I'll only have the fortune of doing once in my life, but God damn, was that worth all the shit heaped onto the program for the last year! We rehearsed in the hall before concert, obviously, and when we got all set up and struck that first D Major chord of the Tchaikovsky, it was like the heavens opened up and sang! The acoustics were that good! And our balance was pretty good too (though the hall was so echoey that for the violins, it sounded like the percussion was a full beat off), and the trumpets just nailed the opening of the 2nd movement of the New World Symphony! That made all of us smile even more! And what energy we had! Just this feeling that we were here in an historically significant music hall and that we had made it! We made it, and we were here, and we were all smiles! The natural high you got from being up there was remarkable; everything fell into place during our concert, and we were all just so excited to be up there that that kind of fueled our playing ability to churn out the best rendition of this concert that I think we could have! What a superb experience, and one that I won't soon forget!

While on tour, I had the chance to read the bulk of a new book I got recently called Reading Joss Whedon, a collection of academic essays analyzing and critiquing the works of Whedon from Buffy to The Avengers. It's so great! Two essays stuck out to me in particular, both relating Joss shows to Ovid. The first looks at the Buffy character through the lens of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and this was really fascinating! The second looked at Dollhouse and related the show to the myth of Echo and Narcissus! That was the more interesting of the two because not much has been written about Dollhouse, and this was a unique look at a show that has often come under fire from feminists and scholars for being somewhat antithetical to what Joss Whedon is trying to do with his shows. But this essay addresses that and then supplements that with interpretations of the show that really lend themselves well to the Ovid relation, and the stuff that the writer draws between the two stories is just awesome and very eye-opening. The rest of these essays in here are all good (I think this is the first book to really have an academic essay about The Avengers), and the uniqueness of the subject matter and what the authors do with it is a wonder to read. If you're into this corner of academia, no doubt you'll have already read this (and more that I have not because I'm just beginning to take the dive into this realm), but read this especially if you're a Whedon fan! It's damn good.

So, I've been cleaning out my room of all the Transformers crap I've had lying around for like thirteen years, throwing away about 70% of my "collection", most of that being broken, worn out, exploded pieces of plastic that can't really be sold nor restored, so they've hit the scrapyard. I did manage to reassemble and refurbish a good fifty or so 'Bots and 'Cons, so that was very good! I also now have a whole assortment of weapons that has essentially turned my room into a little armory! Anyway, this whole endeavor has been very good because I now have more space in my room because I don't have these huge bins with plastic crap in them getting in the way! And I have essentially fifty new Transformers in my collection now, so that's a bonus!

I've just started in on watching Falling Skies! I'm on the fourth episode now, and I have to say that it's already pretty good. I can see this becoming much like The Walking Dead, with this being a character piece with an alien invasion backdrop, but right now it's really about the aliens. Still, character development does happen, I like the diversity in the groups of people (race, ethnicity, gender, etc), and I like also that this has a very "real" understanding of what a post-apocalyptic scenario would be like: you have actual civilians, the civilians outnumber the soldiers, the people have some working cars, guns, food, they don't live in caves. In essence, unlike most PA stories, humanity hasn't lost all sense of who we used to be, either in materials or in social functions. I particularly like that at the end of the first episode, this kid gets a skateboard and rides around before letting others take a turn while the rest watch. It's a small victory in the wake of a devastating invasion, and it brings this back around to the human side of things. This show is starting out to be very good, and I'm hoping that this gets more character-focussed and interesting as it goes on (and from what I've read, it does).

So, that's all I wanted to talk about. My cousin is coming over in a week, so we might do some joint thing on here, who knows. For now, that's it. Hoping to see How to Train Your Dragon 2 this weekend and do a Mini-View on it!

June 7, 2014

Shadowcon Mini-Views- Edge of Tomorrow

I'll say this to start: this is a damn good movie! Far smarter than it needs to be to be in the company of summer blockbuster popcorn flicks, Edge of Tomorrow delivers a solid sci-fi action piece with more heart than I would have ever expected from this. The trailers made this look to be a typical one-note action ride, and while it certainly is that, it's a little deeper than that as well.

The plot here is that an alien race known as "Mimics" have invaded Earth and are essentially in control of Europe and want to take over the rest of the world. We've been fighting a five-year war with these things with no hope of victory. But recently we've been making a little headway, and are making our final push to see this through, launching a full D-Day-like assault on Normandy to finish these things off with everything we have. It's essentially the Battle of Normandy with aliens. The main character Cage is stripped of his command as Colonel and put in with a bunch of Privates to be sent in with the first wave, but upon landing on the beach, he's attacked by a Mimic Alpha and the blood of the alien gets into Cage's body and he now possesses the unique ability to relive the same day over and over again, changing outcomes and becoming more badass as he does so. Every time he dies, the loop starts over. It's similar to Source Code and Groundhog Day, but this is not all about the time-travel stuff. The plot thickens from here, but what I really liked about this is that the time loop stuff was played both as comedy and then later as a means for us to get to connect with the Cage character better.

During this, Cage meets up with Rita Vretaski, another person like Cage who used to have the Mimic Alpha's blood in her allowing her to relive the same day over and over, but after a fight she lost a large amount of blood and that made her lose the Mimc's blood as well, thus making her lose her time-looping abilities. The two characters play very well off each other; Cage has the power but is inexperienced and untrained, while Vretaski is trained and badass but lacks the time-traveling power. What makes this more interesting is that Vretaski also knows what Cage is going through, and seeing the two plan and work with each other in combat and working around the constraints of time is very nice. I like that from Vrateski's point of view, she's only known Cage for like a few hours, but for Cage, he's known Vrateski for far longer, and this makes their relationship dynamic and interesting because both know the catch of time-looping, of getting attached to people who don't really know you. It's a neat dynamic that I think was explored very well, especially in the last third of the movie.

This movie is very good at balancing the time-travel elements with a story about love and loss, as well as blending all of that with satisfying action. The mech suits are cool to look at and the many times we see the assault on the beach are always a treat. I particularly like in the beginning how all the soldiers are making fun of Cage's suit and then saying that "there's a dead guy in it". This was said for laughs, but then after Cage has gone through the loop of dying several times, seeing Vrateski die and several of his soldier buddies die around him, this line is given more weight and meaning, and I really liked that. The time-travel stuff allows for character introspection and meaning, something that is oft forgotten in normal time-travel/action films. I also like that the climax of the film comes about in such a way to where Cage can't time loop anymore, meaning that the stakes now really do matter; the stakes aren't higher just because the script gods say so, but because Cage can really now die and be dead. The climax was pretty good and there's been some debate about the ending of whether or not it's a paradox (and it kinda is, but in a respectable way).

Overall, Edge of Tomorrow is very good. The time-travel stuff is second to character dynamics and interactions, which is of course why I like this film so much. It puts me into the action, but never leaves me there being bored after five minutes. The pace is good with heart and themes being at the forefront of the film's agenda rather than just being another sci-fi action flick, and Tom Cruise delivers a fine performance. This is a testament to good science fiction: this provides commentary on the human condition while delivering a solid time-travel action story along the way. A very good outing indeed.

June 3, 2014

Shadowcon Reviews- Rebellion

         Shadowcon Reviews: Transformers Prime season 3, episode 4: “Rebellion”

So, here we are again looking at the final part of the Season Three premier. This episode actually aired about a month after the first three because who the hell knows; Prime would normally take breaks between episodes occurring in the same season, probably for rendering of all that fancy animation. Anyway, it’s interesting that they took a break after the penultimate part of the first arc of the story; I’d think it would make more sense to just have all the parts come out and then take a break after that, especially because the new title sequence doesn’t appear until the next episode, and so it feels weird the way they decided to do it… but then I’m not a scheduling person, I’m just a Transformers fan with a blog.

June 1, 2014

Shadowcon Reviews- Prey

         Shadowcon Reviews: Transformers Prime season 3, episode 3: “Prey”

While last episode was a rather sluggish affair, I can safely say that this episode makes up for everything wrong with that one. The pace is quick, the action well planned and thought out, and everything moves in this one. There’s far less attention spent on the Decepticons, which means that the Autobots finally get to have their share of the spotlight, and in all honesty, this episode is where everything starts to pick up for me. What’s more, there are no plot holes here (at least none that are not carried over from previous ones), so that’s awesome! Let’s jump right in!