Nate watches Risen

Yes I’m reviewing a religious movie.  Want the quick version? Quite good, especially compared to a lot of recent religious fare. Not the ending I would have picked, but an ending the movie earned.  My 2nd fave faith film after Book of Eli.  Suitable for families with older children, avoid if your kids still aren’t allowed to watch the nightly news.

Below be spoilers.

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The Obligatory Star Wars 7 Review

Well I have a blog on the internet, and as Al Gore pointed out to me, part of the terms & conditions for that is talking about Star Wars…

Spoiler Free Review

(seriously? you haven’t seen it yet?)

I’d rank it at least as good as Return of the Jedi and it’s definitely the best things JJ Abrams has ever directed.  Practical effects make the world feel real and people actually act this time instead of the wooden cutouts we had in the prequels.  Action is generally filmed well enough to keep track of what’s happening.  The plot… kind of as well.  All in all, an entertaining ride that an entire family could enjoy.

It’s a star wars film, what more do you want?

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Nate watches Amazing Spider-Man 2

I took a long time getting to this since I heard so much bad about it.  Still, I love Spider-man action sequences and finally thought: “Well, may as well see it for myself.”

So that was a great Superman movie.

(no seriously, listen to some of the soundtrack and see if it doesn’t sound just like what you’d expect in a supes movie – heck at one point Spidey even carries a car like Superman)

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Nate watches “Days of Future Past”

Well I got to watch the latest Xmen movie* this past Friday…

Without hyperbole, I say honestly this is THE best xmen movie we’ve had so far.  If we were to rank the best comic book movies of all time: Superman, the Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, the Avengers – this film is a serious contender for joining those ranks.

I say all this with no knowledge about the original source material too; though the movie was so good I ran to the bookstore immediately after and picked up a trade collection of the story (and might do a deeper compare/contrast once I’ve read it).  Maybe it fails as an adaption, maybe it completely betrays the source, but as someone with only the most casual knowledge of the xmen (gleamed mostly from the 90s cartoon and the movies), this remains a good film.

Spoilers are not really a concern.  If you have even the most basic awareness of story construction you can see where things are going.  That doesn’t detract from the experience as each beat within the story is perfectly executed to make the journey absorbing.  That said, part of what makes this movie stand out is the climax.  No spoilers, but of late, most comic films have grand, action-packed, city destroying set pieces at the end.  Not that there’s anything wrong with this in and of itself (yes, I loved the Avengers & Pacific Rim), but such can get tiring when you have it at the end of every-single-movie.  Part of what makes this one refreshing is that there’s very little destruction and action at the end, but instead the movie hinges on a moral choice.

The actors are all outstanding in this, with many of them bringing great operatic moments to the screen.  It brings to mind that comics may not be that separated from the Greek tragedies and comedies of old.  I know some might be concerned that Wolverine is going to take over this movie like he sort of did the first 3, but don’t worry about that.  In this he serves only as our viewpoint character so that we can see the worlds of past and future through familiar eyes.  The main focus of the movie remains Professor X, Magneto, and Mystique, and the actors playing them prove more than capable of carrying the narrative.

Continuity wise, the only requirement is that you have seen Xmen: First Class.  While there are treats and shout outs to the other movies (except for Wolverine: Origins, that’s pretty much forgotten) you don’t need to have seen them to enjoy this or follow the story.  Heck you don’t even need to have seen 1st Class, but the impact of a lot of the emotional points is greater on you if you’ve seen the build up from the previous movie.

Oh, and we get to see Jennifer Lawrence a lot in the Mystique makeup.  Hard to hate a movie that gives you that. 😉

EDIT: First, make sure you SIT THROUGH THE CREDITS!  Sequel bait for the next film follows.

Second, if you’re looking for an in depth, more spoiler-heavy review, I recommend Doug Ernst’s take.  He’s pretty spot on here.

 

*Yes, I know the director has some troubling accusations against him right now.  But I have two values which I stand by: 1. Art, like children, should be judged apart from those who birthed them.  2. People are innocent until proven guilty.  If the director is guilty, then let him be punished to the fullest extent of the law, even if that means he’ll never make another movie again.

Nate watches ‘Man of Steel’

So, after all the talk about Superman, how did this story stack up?

Well… the best way I can explain it is that it’s a pretty good “Elseworlds” story.  A lot of the basics of Superman are there but there is a lot of “fiddling around” with it too.

Which I don’t mind.  Like his costume, you can make adjustments to the outer trappings, as long as it’s still recognizably Superman in the costume.  So is it?  …

Well some people still don’t want spoilers so I’ll put a thorough discussion past the grade.  Although there shouldn’t be any “surprises” in this movie if you’re at all familiar with Supes or story structure.

How attached you are to certain details of Superman will raise or lower your own score.  This really does feel like a Superman movie made for people who don’t know or like Superman, so keep that mind even if you normally dislike him.

ALSO NOTE (IMPORTANT): There are NO scenes post or during the credits.  Once those names role, feel free to head out.

Links to other reviews and my thoughts on them:

(coming soon)

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the General

Actually my biggest problem with this movie has nothing to do with the mythos but those things relating purely from a structural standpoint.

The first third/half of the movie is told in a very non-linear fashion.  Nothing wrong with that, like all story tools it’s not innately good or bad, just right or wrong for each individual case.  While not “bad” in this movie, one quickly gets the sense that a lot of these flashbacks are having trouble fitting in; they’re not organically growing from the story.  Which becomes ironic because they cease right as the proper structure for them is finally put in place.  At one point, Lois Lane joins a military arctic expedition.  While there she meets Clark/Superman (who was just working a job, seeing if a possibly alien discovery was related to him) then she begins investigating his past, trying to track him down.  Had the movie started there, then showed us flashbacks as Lois “hunted” Superman (and learned about his story) it would have been flawlessly executed.  Cliché?  A little, but then the reason things become cliché are because they work.  Note to writers: Don’t avoid a cliché ONLY because it’s a cliché.  If it fits and is the best option, embrace it!  This is especially apparent because the movie truly starts out on Krypton showing the story of Jor-El & Zod (ok, that’s like the original).  But then we sort of see it again when Supes is informed about his past.  Why they didn’t table the Krypton scene and then insert it as flashback under the guise of Russ-El teaching Clark about where he came from I have no idea.

The other large storytelling problem is that a lot of the movie hinges upon Superman’s birth.  See, in this universe Krypton has a bit of eugenics with each baby being a “designer one” created for an express purpose a la Brave New World.  Kal-El is the first “natural-born” Kryptonian in awhile meaning he has no pre-programmed purpose.  Later in the film, Zod, who claims that “defense of Krypton (and its people)” is his purpose, loses his “job/meaning” he pretty much goes into a manic rage.  I liked these ideas, but I didn’t find them well executed as it’s not reinforced much in the film and is a lot of “telling” us, not “showing” us.  But then how would you “show” something like that?  It’s not like you can do a scene of a Kryptonian “struggling” against his genes like the old trope of a robot struggling against its programming.  Part of it wasn’t helped with Russ-El’s admonishments to Superman, “You will give the people of earth something to aspire to.”  Uh… ‘dad’ whatever happened to a child being able to choose his own destiny?

The movie also has 3 Kryptonian ships involved in it which can get confusing for some people (even I lost track a few times).  There’s Kal-El’s ship, an old Kryptonian scout ship, and Zod’s ship.  Diferentating them can lead to weirdness at times. (Like where did Supes get his suit?  Did Russ-El have the ship assemble it while he lecturing?  Was it really onboard that ancient colony ship all this time?)

Special effects wise, the movie is beautiful to look at.  I do like how one gets a sense of impact and things really being flung around.  When a train is thrown at Superman, it has a feeling of weight and power.  However, because the movie wants to keep things somewhat realistic, when the Kryptonians fight, it starts going “shaky cam” though I don’t believe it’s an action choice as much as just the “camera” trying to keep up with how fast things are moving.  This is where I wish they had utilized the effects of Jet Li’s movie the One (note: NOT a romcom) whereby the rest of the world slows down and the fighters move normal speed, or actually used ramping.  Yes, I know Zack Synder WAY over used it in 300 (he may also have overused it in Sucker Punch but I haven’t seen that movie yet) but here it was actually needed to give us “mere mortals” in the audience a chance to catch up (as well as allow the story to establish the action) before resuming things at superspeed.

Finally, let me just say, the church scene just PISSED me off.  Look, I admit that I would like to see more religion in movies/tv, but not if it’s going to be done this poorly.  Seriously the priest there tells Clark to “go with his gut”?  He doesn’t have ANYTHING else to offer?  Not a single quote or reference to how the last visitor who came to earth from above was killed by us in a brutal way?  Well… that probably wouldn’t have been a good pep talk but that’s why I’m not a preacher.  There are thousands who turn the “downer” of the cross into a “good message” (one might even call it a ‘gospel’ if you will) and the script writers couldn’t even find ONE to consult with on what the priest should say in this scene?  “Listen to your gut”?  Really?  Not even the slightest, “Doesn’t matter what people deserve, it matters what’s right”?  Argh!  (Oh, and making Superman “33” in the film?  Rarely have I wanted to slap someone so much.)

the Super

Oh canon….  Let’s start with characters.  Only those within Superman’s immediate circle are given much screen time in this so some of the other characters (like Perry White) I’m going to gloss over since we saw very little about them.

CK/SM – Henry Cavill does pretty good, even if he is missing the curl on his forehead.  We don’t see much of him as traditional “Clark Kent” secret identity so no ruling yet on how convincingly he can separate the identities.  Some may call him a bit broody but I disagree.  Yeah, he’s a big serious if you think Supes should ALWAYS be happy but allowing the character some emotional range does not automatically make him “dark”.  Except as a kid, he’s almost competing with Batman on brooding during the flashbacks.  He works convincingly enough as an action star as my usual rule (“You’re not an action star if you don’t get your face injured on screen, even if it’s just effects.”) does not quite apply when dealing with Superman.  It’s somewhat meta as this movie is a lot about Superman “finding himself” so there is a sense that Henry is trying to find his take on the role as well.  Not a bad start, I’d like to see where he takes it if there is a future in this franchise.

Lois – Well it’s no secret that I love Amy Adams (redheads are my kryptonite) but even setting that aside, I thought she did pretty good as Lois.  I’ve seen some complaining that she “gave up” some stories in this movie but to be fair, I think Lois Lane’s pursuit of stories has become flanderized over the years.  While she did pull a few foolish stunts in this movie in pursuit of said stories, she was at least a human being lots of other times and didn’t allow such a simple-minded goal blind her to things like… people’s feelings.  I also liked that they gave her SOME things to help out with in the movie, even if the biggest was not adequately capitalized on.  When Zod “takes” Superman, he demands Lois Lane come along as well.  Why?  Well we can guess it might be to act as a “leash” for the big blue but since they don’t do any more with it, that all falls flat and ventures into plot hole territory.

Zod – I wasn’t liking Michael Shannon’s performance during the first part of the movie as he didn’t seem to be able to pull off the operatic threat that Terence Stamp could (btw, if we were to do a contest, no question, MS would kneel before TS).  But later in the movie where he begins to become more of a quiet, slow boiling threat, it works much much better.  I ended up liking his take a lot.

Jor-El – For a guy that’s dead most of it, we get a surprising amount of Russell Crowe in this film.  I didn’t mind it and thought he did a pretty good job though I wish they had allowed him to talk more about the whole “we’ve given you freedom, son” than “we’ve given earth, hope” during his scenes with Supes.

Jonathan & Martha Kent – Say what you will about it, but I still say Smallville had the best Pa of any Supes medium so far (though several have put in very respectable performances).  Kevin Costner is no John Schneider and while the former does put in a lot of effort… I just didn’t connect with him.  And I’m usually a sucker for father/son stuff (cry every time during Finding Nemo & Taken).  I liked that his death was a bit sacrificing for Clark’s sake but it was a little over cliché this time (yes, I realize how that sounds considering what I said earlier).  And I know about that trope “women in refrigerators” but what about “fathers in fridges”?  If one of his earth parents are going to die, why is it always Jonathan?  Why not keep both alive or let both die?  Now if he had been killed standing up to Zod, THAT would have been awesome and fitting for the character.  Ma Kent was ok, not really much of a role there for Diane Lane to work with.  Really with their arcs it feels less like Superman was turned into Batman with this film as much as he was turned into the Amazing Spider-man. (yes, not the ORIGINAL trilogy, the recent reboot)

So… now to the big issue…  I think agony booth put it best:

So the fact that Superman smashes stuff isn’t the issue. The issue is that they got so focused on Superman smashing stuff that they neglected the larger implications of Superman smashing stuff. The film has two major battlefields in which Superman engages Zod’s men: Smallville and Metropolis. Both of which are filled with people, and both of which are so thoroughly decimated that it’s impossible to buy that, at minimum, dozens and likely thousands of people weren’t killed in the ensuing carnage. But the film consistently ignores this very real tragedy in favor of focusing on just making Superman punching stuff look really cool. Sure, there’s a handful of moments where he stops to catch someone falling, but they’re few and far between, and thus feel very token. It’s like they knew they had to show Superman saving people, but they were reluctant to do so. Superman makes no real effort to move the fight away from the city, and it’s a while before anyone tries evacuating the area, and even then there’s always plenty of people waiting around to flee from falling debris.

That is the single BIGGEST issue with this film, and what handicaps it from being one of the truly greatest movies of at least this year (if not in recent years).  Superman, the very KEY to him, is about saving people.  Say what you will about his 2nd movie, or even the arc where he died, but my favorite parts of both were when he was having to put off the fight to try and help people caught in the middle of it.  Even if it allowed the villains to get in a sucker punch.  It annoyed me even more when we see some Daily Planet staff trapped by some rubble, a deadly gravity wave getting closer, making the attack & tragedy more personal, human and real; only to then NOT have Superman help them out.  Yes I can understand being distracted with Amy Adams in your arms, clinging to you but… dammit that’s what makes him Superman!  Every time, EVER. TIME. in media we are shown a civilian or someone else in trouble, we also get to see Superman save them.

That really hurt this film.  Which is ironic because the climax, where Superman snaps Zod’s neck, while it was written great from a story perspective, the impact of the moment is lost because we haven’t seen Superman working that hard to save people.  It wasn’t properly reinforced.  And that is the biggest failing of this movie.

Brave – what’s in a title

(I can’t believe I didn’t review this movie back when I first saw it in theaters but some people* have been interested in my thoughts on the movie so here they are)

I was prepared to like this movie.  Cars 2 had certainly been mediocre.  My father’s line is from Scotland so I always have a fondness for stories taking place there and the star is a redhead, my favorite flavor.  Yes the trailers made me a little concerned that the movie would be rife with clichés, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with those.  Besides, Pixar is pretty good at taking the same ‘ole same ‘ole and turning it on its head.

charlie-sigh

To really explain how/why this movie bugged me, I”ll have to compare it to one of my favorite movies – How to Train Your Dragon. (and probably a first that Dreamworks outdid Pixar)

Set Ups

The start of each movie could not be more different.  Now Brave’s opening is beautiful and awesome and sweet.  I do like it but it is quite idyllic, opening on a family picnic outing. Meanwhile, H2TYD has a harsh opening in the midst of a pitched battle. Already we can see that Brave will have a more lighthearted, relaxed tone while H2TYD is more oriented towards conflict with the main character nearly dying a couple of times. Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with either set up. However it does show how one could wonder how “Brave” got its title. (unless “brave” is meant as a term for “warrior” as it was once used for native american fighters)

Protagonists

This is probably the biggest difference. Quite frankly, Merida is a spoiled brat. (I found it especially funny that Confused Matthew found her likable when a majority of his complaints about Simba in part 1 apply equally to her.) What does she complain about? Going to school! (fundamentally, that’s what it is) Don’t get me wrong, I hated school as much as anyone, but nobody is making a movie about my childhood (and nobody should). Contrariwise, what does Hiccup complain about? Nearly getting killed. Nearly DYING.

With this in mind, compare the actions of the two. Merida whines about not being able to do anything and everything she wants while ignoring the wants and needs of others around her. On her “weekend” we see Merida run out of the castle without so much as a polite “excuse me” to the servants and ordinary workers she disturbs on her mad dash. Heck, with the crash of the candelabra, we know she’s actually making more work for those helping out her household, but not a care in her head about it.  She does get some pastries for her brothers… about a minute after complaining about how spoiled they are (way to contribute to the problem).  Meanwhile, Hiccup is actually putting in effort to help his people. We see that he feels guilt and shame at the extra messes he causes, not by heedless dashes but by the awkwardness inherent to his being. He wants to help out his people and improve their lives. Yes, it does have a bit of that selfish/selflessness motive that teenagers struggle with at that age, but it’s at least a step beyond being entirely wrapped up in self.

The Culture

This… certainly did not help my acceptance of Brave. The movie uses “fate/destiny” throughout but what are they in this movie, really? Cultural. Expectations. It’s not entirely unfair to call culture forces “fate/destiny” but the terms have been used so much in our collective consciousness as mystical, magical parts of our lives. They are the edicts of the gods. Not just peer pressure. The repeated use of “fate” in this movie instead of “expectations” feels like a sleight of hand effort to make the movie seem deeper than it is. (seriously, watch it again replacing those two terms with just ‘expectations’ or similar and see if it plays as well)

Still, both movies do revolve around this cultural expectation. H2TYD? Hiccup must become a warrior that can defend his village and kill lots of dragons. Brave? Merida has to… get married and lead the people (you know: rule as royalty). One is an actual plot for a movie. The other is an after-school special. Really, what are the consequences for either of them to follow their cultural mandates? Merida: can’t do whatever she wants whenever she wants. Hiccup: dead. That’s what is so disappointing. Usually with Pixar, the stakes are grand and important – or at least, they are relative to the protagonists. Exception? The Cars movies (oh right, their WORST ones).

The Conflict & Solutions

Hiccup is in a bind.  His culture is asking something of him which he cannot be, yet this is a culture which failing to fit in, will result in death (because it’s in a constant, total war state).  His efforts to fit in are actually a source of the constant disasters that could easily lead to an actual disaster in the conflict that gets several of all of them killed.  So really, Hiccup has no choice: he must fit into his society or die.  Thus he applies his mind to figuring out solutions to his lack of strength and later applies that same mind to actually learning and revolutionizing his society.

Merida’s marriage… Ok, let’s back up.  As Stuart Schneiderman pointed out in a recent blog post, arranged marriages were not quite the boogeyman they have been portrayed for so long in media.  Now it can work somewhat if there are outside forces affecting the situation (like Jafar’s evilness and hypnotizing of the king in Aladdin) but that isn’t here.  The conflict, doesn’t work within the movie’s own internal logic.  No, I’m dead serious.  First, because it is made very clear that both parents were in an arranged marriage as well, yet we see throughout the movie a demonstration that they have a fairly happy and decent relationship.  Oh yeah, and if they hadn’t married, Merida wouldn’t have been born! (seems to me that if you want to tear down a social institution, you might consider it just a bit more if it was responsible for your existence)  Second, it’s not even that arranged!  The three prospective suitors are shown and demonstrate a quick skill.  Merida gets to pick the contest for the three.  Easy enough to see that if she did like one of them (as she seems to at first with the 3rd prospect before the fake-out is revealed), she could choose the contest that he would most likely win.  Oh wait, that’s what she DID do (only for herself).  Which means that the whole “conflict” of this movie is just a red herring.  Of course Merida’s political faux pas in the archery contest could have been excused as youthful exuberance and foolishness if she hadn’t already made herself an unlikable selfish brat in the first place.  Then when things go worse she… just goes running off into the woods.  She has to have some wisps show her where to go so she can bully a little old lady who’s just minding her own business (literally) into doing something the lady doesn’t want to.  Oh, and that nearly gets her mother killed or worse.  Even when her mother is acting sick, Merida has to make it all about “me me me”. What’s worse?  There was an easy solution to this.  To Tom Woods quotes in an article:

As Anna Krueger writes, “The issue of child labor is vexing: there are legitimate issues of intolerable working conditions, but employment of children may provide food that prevents a family from starving. In some instances, also, it may provide girls with an alternative to forced early marriages.”

Yes, the movie might have been more interesting and bearable had Merida actually run out and got a job.  Wait, I think that’s what Jasmine was trying to do (another reason why she rocked).  The climax and ultimate solution to Brave, however, was Merida becoming humbled and learning to think about someone else for a change.

Knowledge

This is what broke me.  I was pretty forgiving of the film until this point.

See, what has made humanity the “top” of planet Earth** is our ability to gather and share information.  I spend several hours/years figuring something out or creating a new device, I can pass that on to other people so they can spend less time learning/creating the same thing.

Now H2TYD does this BEAUTIFULLY.  There is knowledge among the vikings.  They pass it on.  Hiccup’s journey is brought on by him realizing he is treading territory nobody else has.  Nobody knows anything about the Nightfury, he’s the first to even look at it.  Other bits about dragon lore are things that people in a total war situation would not be able to learn, especially as a spy network is impossible to install among that enemy.  Even still, Hiccup learns everything he can (he actually seeks it out) and then builds upon it.  In the end, it is a combination of the new and old information combined that allow the vikings to triumph at last.

Brave… apparently in that universe you are born with all the knowledge in the world, then lose it as you get older.  Merida has to tell her mother that the berries she picks as a bear are poisonous.  Even though we saw said mother out on a picnic with her daughter at the beginning of the movie.  Let that sink in minute.  How did Merida know the berries were bad?  Only 2 ways: she tried one once and got sick (at which point she would have been cared for by… her mother! who probably would have found out why her daughter was ill) or she learned it from somebody else.  Now who did we see at the beginning of the movie that was responsible for all of Merida’s teaching?  Her.  Mother. (actually I was going to laugh if it turned out that as a bear, the berries wouldn’t bother her like they would if she was still human)  Then you have the chase through the castle which I will give 2 props: 1) it was a bit funny and 2) some things would probably be overlooked in a stressful moment.  Still, we never once see the adult males apply a modicum of tactics or coordination that you would expect of the same group of warriors at the end of the movie who do use coordinated attacks.  They never try splitting up to corner the “bear” or realize that if it’s trapped on the roof, some should go corner it while the others remain behind in case it runs again.  The whole “adults are clueless” trope doesn’t innately bother me, but I do request that some effort is put in explaining why.

Secondary Characters

The village blacksmith in H2TYD actually seems to like Hiccup and even makes a case for the boy to the kid’s father.  The 3 brothers in Brave, had to be bribed to help their sister save their mother’s life.

Conclusion:

While Cars 1 & 2 might be objectively worse movies, I would rather sit through any of them any day than sit through this again.  Cars(s) were just dumb.  Brave was offensive.  I’m hoping this is only a one off for Pixar and not a herald of a slump to come.

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*2 of them I mean

**Yes it is debatable