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Pesky dragons.  All they wanted was…

Well, I can’t spoil that point, can I?  Actually, I can, since you see it in the trailer.

Anyway, How to Train Your Dragon is the latest creation from Dreamworks, and coupled with Kung Fu Panda (I haven’t seen 2009’s Monsters vs Aliens, but given the lukewarm critical response to it (which, even at 72% on Rotten Tomatoes, it isn’t bad, but animated films generally tend to rate higher), I’m not missing too much), they have definitely stepped up their game.  They haven’t reached Pixar level yet in terms of overall animation and storytelling, but they’re getting there.

Then again, I imagine Dreamworks is the antithesis to Pixar: they aim for a target audience (primarily children) and they have a pop culture catalog that’s only good for six months (you see how quickly Shrek lost relevance?).  Disney is also like that, at least with their own computer animated features (though, unlike Dreamworks (and Pixar), Disney hasn’t had a solid self-produced hit yet).  Pixar, meanwhile, aim for the children, but storytelling trumps everything: see just about everything they did, from the mature romance in Wall-E to the opening fifteen minutes of Up to practically all of Ratatouille to… you got it, right?

Anyway, I digress.  Dreamworks is stepping up their game, and Dragon is clearly evident of that.  It’s not perfect (perfection obviously being Pixar), but it’s quite good, almost spectacular at times.

The animation is great, if I can begin with that (as in probably all animated movies, the first thing you have to consider (like I do now and what I did earlier this week with Secret of Kells) is the animation).  Everything moves fluidly, from the human and dragon interactions to the detailed hair animation on several of the characters (namely Hiccup and Astrid).  The dragon flying sequences are amazing, from the opening sequence in a clash between them and the Vikings to the final climactic battle (though… no, I won’t get into that, avoiding spoilers with this one).  The best one though comes around halfway through the film, when Hiccup and his dragon Toothless (a Night Fury, I think) are finally able to take to the skies.  Everything in this sequence is breathtaking: the diving through the clouds in the sky and the skimming of the ocean water, and the peril inherent at times when some things do go wrong.  A second one with Astrid doesn’t come as close, though that sequence also does advance the plot, so it has a purpose.

The dragons themselves come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and special tricks.  Though, while there are hints that there exists a broad variety of dragons, we only get to see six or seven unique types of them.  It’s enough, since anymore would overwhelm the screen.  The animators do quite a good job differentiating between the dragons, even if some of them don’t make much sense (like the small bug-like one or the two headed one, even if that does have a neat trick).

The story itself works: your typical growing up story with plenty of depth in it.  That’s probably what Dreamworks needed to do, was to add more to the story than just what was on the surface.  Hiccup is the skinny Viking who is a bumbling fool and doesn’t want to kill dragons.  He stumbles upon Toothless, injured in that opening clash, and they eventually gain a trust in each other which allows Hiccup to heal him and to successfully ride him.  Meanwhile, the big and burly Vikings, led by Hiccup’s dad Stoick, like to go off and kill dragons whenever they can.  Stoick doesn’t believe that Hiccup will amount to anything as a Viking, but allows him to train with Gobber and a batch of young Vikings in order to eventually join the village in hunting and killing dragons.  Hiccup, in all of this, as a crush on Astrid, who is more committed to being a true Viking than anything else.  She gets quite angry when Hiccup starts excelling in the dragon training: instead of killing the dragons (which is what the kids are supposed to do), he tames them with tricks he learns along the way.

There’s more, but I’ll stop there.  As you can tell, there’s a lot more than normal, and it’s greatly appreciated.  Some of the characters are sufficiently developed well enough to care about (Hiccup, Astrid, Gobber among others), though some are too flat that their overall plots don’t really work out too well (mainly Stoick: he’s almost completely one-dimensional).

The voice acting, I would say, is one area that Dreamworks can probably improve on.  Save for America Ferrera, I wasn’t completely convinced by anyone.  Jay Baruchel as Hiccup worked decently enough (he was pretty good at times), but Gerald Butler channeled too much King Leonidas, and other actors were only serviceable.  I’m wondering if it’s me: I’m so used to Pixar (hell, Disney as well, even when they do Ghibli films) getting the truly good character actors that it makes Dreamworks pale in comparison.  None of the primary actors used here are bad, mind you, but they just don’t work well for voice acting.

Oh, and the 3D worked for the most part.  I wasn’t irritated by it, and it wasn’t really gimmick-y either.  I imagine some background colors were flat, and some of the images didn’t pop out like they should, but I’m not complaining.  It worked.  Better than it did for Alice in Wonderland.

Now, I realize that I spent a lot of time comparing Dreamworks to Pixar.  It’s not my full intent, though I’m sure you can understand why: Pixar is the pinnacle in terms of computer animated movies, and Dreamworks still has a ways to go to reach that benchmark.  Or maybe they don’t.  Who knows.  If they keep pumping out Shreks like they do (which I will not see, by the way) or other films that really don’t appeal to me, then I won’t bother with them.

Continue giving me something like How to Train Your Dragon though, and you got me hooked.

B+

Note: the Vikings were amusingly Scottish and not Scandinavian.  Don’t ask me why.  Maybe the accent was too thick or not funny enough?  I don’t know.

This little gem of a movie was practically unheard of until February 2nd, when the Academy nominated it for best animated feature.  I think I remembered my face dropping and speaking a very confused question about this film.  I went in search of the trailer shortly after that.

Then I decided, I must see this film.

The animation is excellent throughout.  It’s hard to pinpoint all of the different animation styles used in the film.  The main one is obviously traditional hand drawn.  Each character has a unique look to them that matches the time period the film is set in (9th century Ireland).  There is some use of CGI as well, mostly in some of the backgrounds, though the Vikings look CGI as well (but it’s really hard to tell with them, not that I’m complaining, they look appropriately menacing).  There is a sequence later with a monster that looks CGI’ed as well that looks fantastic.  Lastly, though I don’t think this is the last they used, there is a Flash media portion (at least that’s what I think it is) that is used mainly for back story, but also for great comedic effect.  There were times I felt my jaw dropping as how visually stunning the film was.  The only animator that has been able to do that before was Hayao Miyazaki (Pixar, probably, but I expect perfection every time with them and get it).  The team of animators that worked on this film created something special.

The story itself is simple enough, but the details are so complex at times that I was occasionally confused.  It’s not the fault of the creators of the film, but rather, it’s the history and lore they used in telling the story.  As I already mentioned, the story is set in 9th century Ireland.  It concerns Brendan, the nephew and apprentice to the Abbot Cellach.  Brendan is roughly twelve years old, and more concerned at times with investigating the world and enjoying life in general rather than helping with the building of the wall to protect the Abbey of Kells from the oncoming Northmen (the aforementioned Vikings).  They encounter Brother Aidan, a master illuminator who had just escaped from the island of Iona with his cat (the name I can’t find, but he has two different colored eyes and has a very affecting personality) and an important book, called the Book of Iona.  Aidan is still writing the book, but is in need of help in finishing the book.  Brendan is all too willing to help out, but he also has his fears to overcome that prevents him from helping as much as he could.

There is also a character Brendan encounters when he ventures out into the woods: Aisling (which sounds somewhat close to “Ashley”), a fairy with body length white hair and a curious transformation.  Being a fairy, she moves unlike anyone, appearing and reappearing in random places, and also being able to climb surfaces without having to grip them at all.  At first unwilling to trust Brendan, she eventually enjoys his company, willing to learn from him as much as he is willing to learn from her.  She’s visually inventive herself with her overall look.

The rest of the plot I’m sure you can gather from the trailer and what I laid out above.  The confusing part that I mentioned before involves the mixing of Celtic myth and culture with early Christian beliefs.  My confusion is mainly due to my lack of knowledge involving Celtic myth (which, because of this movie, I’m wanting to learn more).  The two are handled nicely enough: Kells is established as an early Christian community, with the Abbots and Brothers that everyone calls each other, and the references to prayer, both spoken and in hand language.  The forest that surrounds Kells is heavy in Celtic myth, primarily with Aisling, but also with a monster that fulfills one of the fears that Brendan must overcome.  The Book of Iona is also part of Celtic myth, but as the story becomes more focused on the completion of the book, the distinction between Celtic and Christianity blurs and mixes together seamlessly, creating a rich and rewarding – and wholly unique – storyline.  The ending drags a little bit, but it barely blemishes this all-too-impressive film.

Brilliant.  Try to see it in theaters (it is downtown at the Bourse right now, which looks like it’ll have it next week as well), but definitely rent it when it comes out on DVD as well.  No regrets on this one.

A

Sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  And alcohol, though that goes in line with the drugs.  Such is the life of a rocker, living large, yet reaching that dropping point sooner than one would think.

Such is the case of the Runaways, an all-girl rock band formed in 1975, where Bowie was one such possible escape for drug-addled youth.  Joan Jett, a rhythm guitarist, partnered with Sandy West, a drummer, on the advice of Kim Fowler, a manager who continually looks for the next big thing.  The idea of an all-girl rock band excites him immensely.  They eventually add a guitarist and bass player (Lita Ford and a fictional bass player, as none of the original from the band signed their life story over for the movie), and all they needed was one final piece: a blond to front the band.  Enter Cherie Currie: a fifteen-year-old who has the look of a rock goddess.  Her stare is deadly.  Fowley wants her and has her, and now all that needs to be done is to mold her into the perfect lead singer for this rock and roll band.

The movie comes off as more or less a standard biopic of a band that came and went rather quickly: they formed in 1975 and broke up in 1979, and toured relentlessly until then.  The movie covers the band itself until Cherie leaves, shortly after the 1977 Japan tour, which caused a large amount of tension between Cherie and the rest of the band.  A photo-op for a Japanese magazine uses only Cherie that Fowley set up only for her and not the rest of the band, to which the band finds out while in Japan.  Tensions are heightened as well because of Cherie’s increasing drug addiction: she’s the only one who really couldn’t handle it.  She’s the fresh face to the music scene, and after an overdose in Japan, she’s had enough, at least of the band and the life on the road.  She’s almost become like her father: a constant alcoholic who sleeps in his car and never comes home.  At least Cherie has her sister, who’ll keep her going, even when she’s trying to get herself back on her feet.

Her story is contrasted with Joan Jett, who rocks hard and knows how to.  She has no family, save for the one on the streets and a random house she lives in.  She’s out there to prove herself as an electric guitarist: an early music teacher tells her that girls don’t play electric guitar (she proves him wrong in her own way).  The Runaways becomes her jumping point onto the world.  She rocks harder and more ferociously than any man she knows, and she has the all-female band to back it up.  She drinks and smokes, but she stays on her feet.  After the Runaways, she goes solo and sells millions, and on her own no less.  She becomes the success in the rock and roll mess, while Cherie becomes the failure, washed up on drugs and alcohol in too short a time.

Like I said, this is standard biopic fair.  The story is straightforward, and somewhat predictable, but it’s what you would expect from biographical movies.  The highlight of this movie though comes from the performances of Kristen Stewart (Joan Jett), Dakota Fanning (Cherie Currie), and Michael Shannon (Kim Fowley).  Stewart can act, that’s a no brainer (see Into the Wild and Adventureland for proof), and performs excellently as Joan Jett.  She plays guitar and sings quite well (if she does do so: the bands performances might have been scripted for the film, but when she’s on her own, she shreds hardcore).  Fanning is practically unrecognizable and is terrific throughout.  I’m continually amazed at how she takes chances with roles like this (she had another huge risk taker several years back, called Hounddog, where she plays a young girl who is continually abused and is actually raped towards the end of the movie).  She is definitely brave for taking these adult oriented roles.  And Shannon, as Fowley, is quite good.  He’s covered in make up the entire time and acts either drug-laced or just insane.  He pushes the girls hard to become rock and roll legends.

There is one other highlight to mention, and that’s the music.  The soundtrack is excellent throughout, from the use of the Runaways back catalog to other punk rock hits (plus the occasional 70s soft rock ballad that welcomes or ends Cherie’s innocence and introduces her to life as a rock star).

Not bad altogether.  See it for the music and the performances.

B

Somehow, you wonder, what exactly is the point of this movie?  Not in the sense of, does this movie have a point, which is does, in spades no less.  But, my asking of the question “what is the point of this movie” is in reference to, why was this movie made?

That’s not to say that this is a bad movie.  For what its worth, this movie is quite good.  Paul Greengrass is a terrific action director, despite his maniacal hand-held camera style.  The action scenes scattered throughout are visceral in design, and it makes you feel completely in the action the entire time.  The acting is decent, but this isn’t an acting movie.  Green Zone is very plot driven, and the characters respond to what happens next in the plot.  There are various maneuvers that lead the characters to the end game, and even then, the game isn’t over, as the game proceeds beyond the running time of the film.

The bulk of the movie takes place several weeks after the launch of the US-led invasion of Iraq in early 2003.  Chief Miller (Matt Damon in a not-a-Jason-Bourne role that so many people think he’s in) takes his company to various sites throughout Baghdag searching for those elusive WMDs (plot spoiler (if there was a need for one): there are no WMDs) but he keeps coming up empty handed.  He wanders around, looking for answers, but getting elusive ones, primarily from a Pentagon political person, Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), a former CIA operative turned adviser Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson, who I get to listen to in The Secret of Kells this week), and a persistent Wall Street Journal writer, Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), who all know something that Miller doesn’t know, but then again, only Poundstone knows the truth of everything and will keep quiet on that truth.

Make sense?  I tried to make sense of it.

That’s probably as far as I’ll go with the plot.  Now, back to my original question: what exactly is the point of this movie?  This movie attempts to explain why America went to war in Iraq in the first place (those pesky WMDs).  There is a definite leftist slant to the movie, which will greatly anger right wingers indeed.  I don’t find complete justification in the anti-American criticism in the movie though.  If anything, it’s anti-utilitarian (the ends justify the means perspective, or as Google led me to, Consequentialism): we want Saddam out of power, so we will use whatever means necessarily to justify why we’re booting him out, eff all to ethics and morals.  I can imagine (though research is warranted) utilitarianism drove the country forward in the immediate months and years after 9/11, which is fine to a certain extent, but if you reach a point where you sacrifice ethics and morals for the sake of the end, as this movie suggests, then you face a seriously question in conscience and character.

Is that the final point with it though?  Who knows.  A movie like this desires discussion, even though it’ll split your audience in half.  Then again, we already know what happens, or rather, what actually happened in Iraq with regards to WMDs.  So, the discussion is already over, isn’t it?  Maybe not.  We’re still in Iraq, but on our way out.

So why are we there in the first place?  Green Zone attempts to answer why, and it manages to do so in a reasonable enough way.  Not everyone will agree, but not everyone is supposed to.

B

2009 was definitely an excellent year in acting. Looking back at the recent Academy Awards, practically every performance, male and female alike, had the performer become something vastly different than their real life self. You didn’t see the actor, but you saw the person they inhabited, often blurring the lines between who they are and who they represented.

Some got left out of the mix, unfortunately, and this is one of them. Christian McKay is stellar as Orson Welles, whose perfectionist drive with regards to art and media (his art being the stage performance) makes him both revered and hated. McKay plays him perfectly. He practically steals and delivers on every single scene in the film. It’s one of those performances that makes you wonder why the Academy overlooked it. Certainly couldn’t be attendance and box office performance: The Messenger, the movie that got Woody Harrelson his best supporting actor nomination (McKay would have gotten the same nomination), has sold roughly the same amount of tickets as Me and Orson Welles did (which isn’t a lot at all). Harrelson’s nomination was well deserved though, and I think the same could have been said of McKay.

As for the movie itself, the story is set in late 1937, during the Great Depression, and Richard (Zac Efron), a high school senior, goes to New York with Hamlet in hand and finds himself outside of the Mercury Theatre, where Welles is working on a modern telling of Shakespeare’s Caesar. Richard gets the part of Lucas, a bard in the company of Brutus, played by Welles. He encounters the theatre’s secretary Sonja (Claire Danes), and they hit it off somehow, though, much like show business at times, things don’t always go so well.

The movie is at its best when it’s focused on the production of Caesar.  Welles went with a modern updating of the play (modern for 1937), with military costumes reminiscent of totalitarian leadership.  The players mix together quite well at times, usually getting along on stage despite Welles presence, though they also bicker as well, again because of Welles, though Welles sometimes doesn’t show up until much later.  Practicing the play becomes difficult at times, almost impossible.  Part of that lies in the decision to open the play in one week, often with little in the way of preparing.  But Welles believes (or doesn’t, he repeats the same supportive line often, almost rehearsed in a way to get the people to work better for him) in his players.  The show becomes a massive hit, solidifying Welles as a great stage actor and director.

The other plot that runs concurrent to the production is the romance between Richard and Sonja.  Efron is a decent enough actor, and plays the immature high school senior well enough.  His singing is much better than his acting, especially during the scene between Brutus and himself as the bard.  I can see why Disney loved him so much.  Given his acting though, Danes is able to carry the scenes between them.  Actually, their better scenes are ones that don’t involve Welles, as McKay just overwhelms them both.  But, that’s just Welles I suppose, right?

There’s also one other subplot that acts as a theme throughout the film the changes from the beginning to the end, something involving doing what you want to do and enjoying it.  I couldn’t exactly remember, though it was almost wasted.  It involved Richard and a young woman named Gretta, and her attempts at becoming a writer, either short story or play.  She has a short story published with help from Richard and Sonja, but that’s about it.  Like I said, it was a theme that connected the film together that just seemed not too necessary.

All in all though, this was a good film, usually at its best when Welles is in command (or not) of everything.  See it for McKay’s performance.

B+