Thursday, December 11, 2014

Big Hero 6 Assessment

HGTV, Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, Discovery, HBO and Sci-Fi

I’m just going to get my SPOILER ALERT out of the way up here. I should also mention that I almost never go spoiler-free in my assessments.

Before I watched the movie, my Oscar predictions went something like this:

The Lego Movie (will win)
How to Train Your Dragon 2 (might win)
Boxtrolls (too good for the Oscars)
Big Hero 6 (too Japanese for the Oscars)
Book of Life (too Mexican for the Oscars)
Song of the Sea (too Irish for the Oscars)
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (extremely too Japanese for the Oscars)

And, after seeing Big Hero 6, only one thing changed:

Big Hero 6 (too thin for the Oscars)

There are too reasons for this. One is that the movie doesn’t feel very Asian. As someone who watches anime regularly, I’m familiar with the tropes and style of Asian culture and this movie didn’t give off the same feeling of an anime at all.

This was really disappointing for me because I was looking forward to seeing a film for kids do something as well-paced and magical as a Ghibli film, but with a superhero twist. Instead, it turns out that setting it in “San Fransokyo” has absolutely no bearing on the plot, tone or style of the movie. It’s really just a Western movie with a backdrop of an Asian-like city. It makes me want to watch the film dubbed in Japanese, just to get some of that Asian feel that I wanted going into the movie.

The other reason is the incredibly thin plot of the movie. Other reviews have covered that extensively, so I won’t bother with it here, but yeah, it was a big problem for me. Why was it about revenge? Why give Hiro a revenge arc? Revenge arcs are tricky to pull off. It has to feel justified. You need to be with the protagonist in wanting revenge, surprised when they find it in their heart to forgive, and generally nodding along with every choice they make. I think there were a lot of problems with the way they handled this, though. In case you don't remember, the revenge story went something like this:

Hiro sees his brother Tadashi run into a building to save Professor Callaghan, and it explodes. Later, Hiro concludes that a person wearing a Bleach-like mask named Yokai stole his invention and tracks him down. When Yokai is revealed to be Callaghan, Hiro swears vengeance because his brother died in vain.

The problem with Big Hero 6’s revenge arc is that the event seems distant. Did Hiro see this guy kill Tadashi in front of his eyes? No. And the reason to be mad is as thin as the plot. Because his brother died in vain? Yeah, blame the survivor! Hiro isn’t an idiot. He’s smart. That’s why it annoyed me to see him channeling his anger like this. Why couldn’t he understand that Tadashi made a choice to stupidly run into a flaming building? And it disturbed me just how much Hiro seemed to want to brutally murder Yokai. I think less time should’ve been given to that and more time given to developing the other characters. Not to say that the other characters didn't make an impression, despite having nothing to do. I hope GoGo Tamago gets her own spinoff.

For all my gripes with this one, it’s harmless. It just feels too much like a How to Train Your Dragon expy for me to fully enjoy, and it’s disappointing how it doesn’t embrace the spirit of anime. Most of the problems will be fixed in the sequels, hopefully. Speaking of, what are they going to name them?
Big Hero 7? Big Hero 6 2? Big Hero VIII? Big Hero 6: Lost in New York? Big Hero 6: Now For Some Proper Character Development?

…wow I’m a bitter person.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Inside Out's Teaser is Disappointing

From left to right: Shaggy, Velma, Fred, Daphne and Scooby-Doo.

I was really looking forward to seeing Inside Out. The teaser, among other things, makes it less of a "Oh yes, this is going to be awesome" movie, and more of a "Fingers crossed it doesn't suck like everything leading up to its release has suggested so far" movie.

When I first heard about it, I thought it was going to be a really unique take on the human mind, but then I heard that they were going to personify emotions. Been there, done that. And very cleverly, I might add. Check out Brain Divided. Not only is it streamlined, (only four characters), it's full of visual gags, and the animation's pretty great too. We don't need a feature-length movie of that, it works fine as a short. Do I like the concept? Of course! It's a great concept! But Pixar hasn't done anything surprising with it so far. I thought it was going to be more abstract, watching beams of light travel through the cranium or something, and over time we'd learn how to spot what was going on when light was illuminating a particular tube.You know, something controversial and interesting.

Now, about the teaser. I don't care that they show clips from old movies, that's fine. They've done that for other teasers and if they released the teaser with just the material they have it'd be ten seconds long. But I do take issue with their choice of clips. Hey, remember what you love about Pixar! The touching moments, the brilliant writing, the incredible animation, the expert design and composition and lighting and of course, all the farting!


My favorite thing about Pixar is how much they downplay juvenile humor. When it appears, I cringe and carry on, knowing it's probably the only crude joke I'll have to sit through. Good job, Pixar, you made me disgusted. I sure hope that's what you wanted.

Also, am I the only one who doesn't like the emotion character design at all? They look like gumdrops. Why is their hair sparkling like that, do they all have dandruff or something? Why is Joy colored so terribly? Blue hair and orange skin?! And why is she glowing like a bad iMovie Bloom effect?! That's going to bug me throughout the whole movie. Remember, this is a studio that makes extensive color scripts for the entire film. COLOR SCRIPTS!

Okay, there's still some hope. From what little I saw of Riley, I can tell she's going to be an interesting main character. We'll probably get a contrast between the colorful world inside her head and the mundane world outside. Also, the fact that she has two male-looking emotions in her head is an interesting take on femininity/masculinity, (I doubt that's what they had in mind, but I'll remember that while I'm watching in case they point to it). I'm also curious to see how they're going to convey when one emotion is predominant over the others.

I wrote this piece because I looked all over the internet, (or spent two minutes of my time searching "Inside Out terrible", whatever you choose to believe), and I didn't come up with an article expressing the same opinions I just expressed here. Maybe that means people are going to like it, maybe it means they're in for a fall. In the meantime, I'm going to wait it out for the next trailer, and decide whether I'll see it based on that.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Book of Life: An Extensive Assessment

Meet the incredibly wooden characters... yeah, you knew that pun was coming.

It really, really pains me to do this, because this movie SHOULD'VE been an awesome, quirky, dark but fun children's movie with an intricate and beautifully crafted world. I was definitely expecting more. In my How to Train Your Dragon 2 review, I predicted that it would be better than people expected. Well, it... wasn't.

Rotten Tomatoes' little description reads like this: "The Book of Life's gorgeous animation is a treat, but it's a pity that its story lacks the same level of craft and detail that its thrilling visuals provide."

Unfortunately, the reviews on the movie go into just about as much detail. I've read all of the rotten reviews, and they barely scratched the SURFACE of why this movie is a complete disaster. For every good thing, there's a bad thing, much like a certain celebration full of festivities and sugar skulls that constantly reminds you that someone you loved died.

Of course, I'm going to analyze every single aspect of this train-wreck and that means SPOILER ALERT.

Now without any further blabbing, let's start the fiesta, (more like the siesta), that is The Book of Life.

The story is actually the least of this movie's problems. I have no complaints about a simple romance story with an underworld twist. Simple is usually better, (the "usually" I put in that sentence is worth an entirely different discussion. Maybe some other time). I actually really like the premise, a good director could get a lot of mileage out of it. Just look at Corpse Bride, which is basically the same story and equally as visually appealing. I don't LOVE Corpse Bride but it's not the shot to the frontal lobe this atrocity is, so clearly they did something right. Anyway, note that I said GOOD director. I know it's the Jorge Gutierrez's first project, and Guillermo probably wanted his style to shine through, but that was total misstep. There's no doubt in my mind that if Del Toro had directed this flick than it would've been much quirkier, much smarter, more fun, and funnier then it turned out. But enough ranting out of context, here's why this movie misfires every step of the way.


I know "the animation" is the first thing anyone will praise about this movie, but what they're talking about is the visual element. I'm talking about the movements of the characters and how long the camera stays still. It's incredibly distracting how every character whips their limbs around faster than Johnny Test on Monster Energy. The camera doesn't linger very long on anything, either. Watching it in 3D was stressful. I think my eyes crossed during the second act because of how much was being shoved in my face.

I guess the movie doesn't trust its dialogue to carry a scene with subtlety and depth in the animated movements of the characters, (and with good reason, but I'll get to that in a moment), instead relying on the old: "Kids like action. All. The. Time," mantra. The weird thing is that the movement is inconsistent, but always distracting. Sometimes they'll be whipping about, during comedic moments or action fights scenes, in which case my eyes can barely register what's going on. Other times, they'll move like the story's taking place on the Moon. They look floaty and weightless, in other words.
Check out this scene for an illustration of that, and pay attention to the moment where Manolo and Joaquin are fighting.

Like I said earlier, for every bad thing there's a good thing. In this case, that would be the visuals, which ARE extremely well lit, composed, designed, etc. etc. I do have an issue with the textures though. If I said I bought that these characters were made of real wood I'd be lying, so I guess the aim was puppets as guideline, fun design as the rule. Sometimes a surface will look really, really... computer-y to me. But the majority of audiences won't notice.


Oh yes, the script. That little thing. My guess is that the visual style was the thing the movie was made for, because if you gave me this script and told me to pay you to make a movie out of it, I'd laugh in your face. And fire you.

This is the most pander-y, boring, unfunny, offensive, hypocritical script I've ever had the privilege of despising. What makes it worse is that kids won't care. They'll watch the movie and think "Wow! That was just as good as The Lego Movie!" Well, it's your opinion, hypothetical child, but I disagree with every fiber of my soul. I cringed so many times during this movie. I thought I was cured. I thought I could handle kid's movies now. I only cringed once during How to Train Your Dragon 2! Oh wait, sorry, did I just compare that script to this? My mistake. In my review of that particular movie, I chided the movie's insistence on "Oh yeah!"s and "Woo-hoo!"s. I'll take them over this movie's forced energetics and bland self-aware, reference-based humor.

It reminds me of the only thing I didn't like in The Lego Movie, which were some of it's less-than stellar jokes. In fact, they actually stole a joke from The Lego Movie when Manolo falls in the Land of the Remembered sequence. Basically, this kind of humor is what I call "Listless Awkward Antics And Manic Energy", which I will acronym to simply "LAAAME". Though that pretty much speaks for itself in regards to my opinion about this type of humor, let me describe why I hate it.

1. It excludes adults.
This kind of humor is so pandering, so dumb, and so hard to sit through that unless you're a "World's Number One Dad"-type I can't picture anyone over the age of seven enjoying it. This wouldn't be a problem if the movie was Carebears and made nothing but safe jokes that are clearly aimed at kids, but this movie has lots of adult jokes, some subtle, some not so much, so this is completely inexcusable. It's two extremes, there's no middle ground. One second there are men drooling over women, the next, meme references "cleverly" disguised with spastic animation. As someone who believes that children's films, especially animation, should be as smart, daring and interesting as adult films, this comes off as pathetic and irritating.

2. It's hard to laugh at unabashedly.
Like I said, unless you have no inhibitions, this humor won't work at all for you. You need smart jokes to balance the dumb jokes in order to not look like an idiot. As much as I don't like Dumb and Dumber, I know there are jokes in there that would make me laugh. The smart stuff and the dumb stuff is properly balanced. This is just high-fructose energy with no funny to back it up. It's the humor equivalent of a beggar in the street yelling random words at objects, in other words, it's more sad than amusing.

3. It has a wearing effect on the viewer.
Have you ever eaten only one thing for a month, like cereal or Chinese take-out? This humor is shallow, grating, and isn't diverse. There's no rest from the slog. It just keeps punching you in the face.

Can I find it in my heart to forgive the humor? Surely, there are people who enjoy it. Actually, at the screening I attended, there were kids genuinely laughing at some of the jokes. So why can't I let it slide? Because of one simple thing. It was CONFUSING.

The setting was ancient Mexico. The framing device, (which I'll get to in a second), established the story as being an old story, so all these modern day references felt extremely out of place. It's a classic example of sacrificing character-based humor for shallow gags.


The film opens in Mexico, just before the denizens of a little village begin to celebrate the Day of the Dead. The film's unique style of wooden characters is elegantly presented. The film trusts audiences to adjust to the style of the movie, without having to explain why anyone is made of wood. After all, did A Bug's Life need to explain why the characters were all bugs? Of course not. Audiences are smart. Kids don't care. Everyone's happy.

What? Who are we kidding?! American audiences don't understand that!! Let's add the gratuitous framing device of a field trip! Yes, because if there's anything kids want to see, it's an educational trip to the museum. Why, they won't have ever experienced that before! I'm so glad the magic of cinema stepped in, to highlight something we didn't even know we were missing. Romance? Adventure? They can't educate anyone!

Yeah, you know a children movie's script is bad when it panders to the parents. There's no reason to have this framing device. It ruins everything. The opening scene is supposed to set a tone for the entire movie. Apparently the tone of this movie is America Learns About Mexico, by the Education Agency.

For an example of a framing device gone right, see Princess Bride. When you look at the facts, these framing devices accomplish the same things, basically.

• They let the audience avatar step out of the story, to let the characters be characters without having to additionally take on the role of audience avatar.
• They allow for ironic/self-aware/lampshaded commentary on the events in the story being framed.
• They involve a grown-up telling a story to a kid, perhaps inspiring real life parents to do the same.
• They both end with a moral.

The reason why one sucks the life from the story and the other elevates it is because The Book of Life's framing device fails on every single point.

The Book of Life's audience avatars are nothing BUT avatars. The movie doesn't care about them, and you shouldn't either. Princess Bride's, on the other hand, are endearing and relatable. I think one of the reasons why the framing device characters appall me might be because they're clearly not having fun, and it's covered up by just making them talk really fast and energetically. Perhaps they're faking their enthusiasm. Anything to interrupt the terrible story.

The Book of Life's commentary is abysmal. These kids don't have any insight into what's happening. Why should I care what they have to say? It doesn't help that their characters are inconsistent. Why is that kid wearing a punk outfit and spikes scared of death and blood? You subverted the wrong expectation, movie! I guess it would've worked if he'd been a bit sensitive, but because of this movie's "Dial It Up" brand of LAAAME he violently overreacts to everything instead.

There's one little joke that works, which is that at one point he says something along the lines of, "What's up with all the death?! We're just kids!" I like how self-aware that is. But one joke doesn't save this shoddy framework. Why is Princess Bride's commentary better? For the same reason that that one little joke worked: because it's primarily character-based, with a pinch of irony. The kid in Princess Bride doesn't like romance. That's ironic, because he's in a romance movie. The kid in The Book of Life doesn't like death, which is ironic because he's in a movie about the Day of the Dead.

The Book of Life's teacher/student dynamic is disgustingly polished-apple saccharine, not to mention offensive. One of the kids keeps talking about how pretty the teacher is. Guess the animators needed an ego boost. I'm not familiar with Christina Applegate's body of work, so I don't know how much talent is being wasted, but I recognize her name so that's worth something. This part feels like it was written for a no-name voice actor. Anybody could've done it. What a waste of star power. It doesn't help that this teacher is written like a clerk at Hannaford's: "Good morning class, please proceed to the 14 items or fewer line." Compare Princess Bride's dynamic, which is grandfather/grandchild. It's not often explored, and the movie's excellent writing gives us a good reason to keep returning to the frame: it's just as witty and interesting as the rest of the movie.*

I'm not sure who would be inspired to read a story to their kids after The Book of Life. I mean, it's inspiring to a teacher, but not parents. The dynamic is just so impersonal. There's almost a visible boundary between the teacher and the students. The kids are kids and the teacher is a teacher. This isn't about bonding. This isn't about friendship. It's cold and professional.

Finally, there's the moral. How incredibly tacked on it feels. "Be Yourself". Yeah, so what?! That kind of moral is like telling me killing is bad! Oh wait, THEY DID! I wouldn't care if it was subtle, or if the movie showed HOW to be yourself, or WHY killing is bad, but of course they don't do that. Instead, I get the moral shoved in my face throughout the movie, and the one-dimensional main character constantly TELLS me how unsure of himself he is instead of BEING unsure of himself. He says he doesn't want to kill bulls when bullfighting. Oh, okay, so you're going to solve conflicts peacefully, right? Well, we sort of get that. At the end of the second act, Manolo faces off against a giant bull, and then gets him to back down by singing a sappy pop song on an acoustic guitar. Right afterwords, the characters fight a huge battle. What was the message again? Something about resolving conflict through - oh, never mind, FIGHT FIGHT ACTION TIMMMEEE!!!

*By the way, I know that there are some people who don't like Princess Bride. You still can't deny that it's extremely quotable. I didn't like Anchorman, but I can't deny the thousands of people typing "That escalated quickly" on the internet right now.


As I said before, the movie tries and fails to blend tradition with a modern twist, which unfortunately once again leads to a comparison with How to Train Your Dragon 2. I don't like the Americanized Vikings idea. It sucks. You know what? I forgive it. At least it's consistent. For some reason the voice actors can't decide whether to go with full-on Mexican accents or go with "modern", which for some reason means "American". Some of them even switch accents halfway through sentences! Aren't you glad that a Mexican movie, made by Mexicans, about Mexicans, with Mexican themes, about a Mexican holiday, stars... Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman and Christina Applegate? Go Mexico!
At least Deigo Luna's in this, that's all I have to say.


Ugh, electronic music? What an unpleasant surprise. Oh and, thanks for ruining "Just a Friend" for me. I thought that was an original song, (and therefore an original joke), when I first heard it in the trailer. You know what the worst part is? The majority of the audience will too.

The music also rips off a lot of other scores, and as such, has no life of its own. I found out recently that Jessica's theme from Who Framed Roger Rabbit was improvised by a jazz band. How cool would it have been to have had The Book of Life's score improvised by a mariachi band?


Manolo is your average loner. Except he's in an annoying comic relief band so I don't understand how he's alone, but anyway, his main motivation is this girl, Maria, (who needs a whole section of this review for herself, I'll get to it in a minute). He's also a bullfighter who doesn't want to kill the bull at the end of the fight. Oh, and he has some boring daddy issues. I guess my main problem with him is that he's as bland and corny as a corn tortilla. His approach to romance is simple: sing pop songs and light candles. His personality is The Hapless Lover. Wait, isn't that his motivation? Ha ha, of course it is, this movie doesn't care about giving our main protagonist a personality, even though the framing device sure as Underworld allowed it by already including an audience surrogate.

Joaquin is manly and boasts all the time. The ironic thing is, I think he's more deserving of Maria than Manolo. He constantly talks about himself, so what? At least he's honest! And just because he WANTS Maria in the kitchen doesn't mean she HAS to go there, because she's disobedient, remember? And who knows, maybe without the medal, he'd have learned some humility and lost that particular flaw. He saved Manolo's life without considering his own! I think that shows a step in the right direction.

Carlos Sanchéz is the disapproving father who wishes Manolo would kill the bull. There's not much else there, really. Apparently the sequel's going to focus on Carlos and Manolo, but given what I've seen of them is this movie, I'm not looking forward to it at all.

The Pig is a mascot character who should've acted as Maria's confidant, but instead he gets ugly and sidelined after the flashback's over because Maria is so one-dimensional that she doesn't have thoughts or feelings to express.

Chakal is this well-designed bandit guy who gets introduced at the end for the big battle. He's just as one-dimensional as everyone else but at least he's fun to look at.


La Muerte is actually pretty cool. Basically what Maria should've been. Nice relationship with Xibalba. They're honestly the only part of this movie that completely works.

Xibalba's design is a bit confusing. Why is his neck glowing? But I like the skull pupils and he has a great voice, thanks to Mr. Perlman.

The Candle Maker is a horrid black stereotype. It disturbs me to think that kids were meant to find this funny. Not cool, movie.

There are two cousins of Manolo's that he meets in the Underworld who I thought were pretty cool, at least until they started talking like Valley Girls. Why couldn't the story have been about them? Wasted opportunity.


Okay, so the whole plot of this movie revolves around Maria, basically. And that's where the trouble starts. She's completely boring! She's "read books". Okay, which books? She knows "how to fence". Then why is she using a sword and not a foil?!

As far as I can tell, the whole point is to protect the hand, not to look fancy.

The movie may have been well intentioned by including a feminist message, but it doesn't come off that way. The reason is that it's clearly not a feminist movie. The whole story is centered around a love triangle where the only people benefiting are men. Maria doesn't get anything out of a relationship with Manolo or Joaquin, they're both idiots! One brags about himself all the time, and the other pretends to care by singing sappy love songs! Neither of them actually spend time talking with Maria, or getting to know her. They're just high off a childhood crush, without any consideration as to who she is in the present. It's deeply ironic that the film makes a point about how only talking about yourself is wrong, when it never shows an alternative.

The fact that both the guys are idiots ruins the main focus of the movie — the romance. The pursuit of Maria has zero tension because I hate Manolo just as much as I hate Joaquin. Neither of them deserve Maria, frankly. In fact, they repulsed me so much I half expected Maria to walk off with some other guy entirely. Then, at the end of the movie, when Joaquin saves Manolo's worthless life, and I knew they were still going to have Manolo end up with Maria, I was incredibly disappointed. The movie clearly wanted me to want those two together, but it didn't work at all for me.

This movie would have been less offensive if it had unabashedly offered a love story with two idiotic men, and an idiotic women who they both loved. That way, it's all evenly dealt. Or, they could've made Manolo more intelligent, to connect to Maria on an intellectual level. Instead, it says "We have a strong female character! But don't worry, she doesn't do much and, deep down inside she's just the same weakling all women are." Yeah, check those little boxes, Mr. Executive.

• A few poop jokes for the kiddies, shoved in the beginning there so we get that PG rating taken care of. √
• Lots of yelling. √
• Blah blah moral blah blah true to yourself or whatever. √
• Blah blah female doesn't want to be in the kitchen. √
• Oh, now that we've said that we're allowed to have some men drool over her as a joke, haha! √

This doesn't just tick me off, it's also degrading to the character. This was the final nail in the coffin for me, and that's the main reason why everything leading up to this point has been negatively flavored. To get something so integral to the movie so wrong is unforgivable.


I always save the positive stuff for last, it's like a dessert after a toxic waste main course. It softens the blow dealt by earlier attacks to the body. And there is some positive stuff to be had.

Xibalba and La Muerte have a good dynamic. I like their love/hate relationship. Also, even if I didn't like how Xibalba and La Muete were constantly teleporting around, it was still fun to see the poofing effect. There was also a very funny morbid joke that Xibalba made in the cemetery.

The film has a bunch of lame moral messages, but there was one that was important, which was the anti bull killing message. Apparently that's a real problem in Mexico.

There was a scene at the end where Manolo's family helped him climb up to a church's roof that I found very touching. There was also some religious symbolism going on, not only there, but also through the presence of a bunch of nuns, who were the only funny running gag in the film.

The visuals are very striking. This is probably what blinded most of the film's critics to the flaws. Either they didn't care or thought it was just light entertainment for kids and didn't make a big deal out of it. Well, I'm Sadly Thoughtful, and, sadly, I think about these things a lot. If something about this film was irking you and you didn't know what it was, maybe I've shed some light on it. That was the point of this review.

I don't want to see this film again, but if I did, I might be able to enjoy it a little more now that I've ranted about it. I understand that this film has fans, as does everything that looks pretty. But sometimes you have to go deeper than surface.

And there is one last good thing I have to say about this movie, which is that it's plot is fairly complex, which I like a great deal. In fact, it's what I wish I could say about Big Hero 6, but that's another review...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Hey Andrew Garfield, Here's What's Wrong With Spiderman 2!

Walloping webslingers!

I'm a big Spiderman fan. I've watched the original trilogy, and the Spectacular Spiderman TV show twice. I've read hundreds of old Spiderman comics, (I have about six or seven omnibuses).
What I've always loved about Spiderman is that A. He's not a sidekick, and he doesn't have one either, B. He's got a great, consistent power set that can mostly be explained by science, C. He's got one of the best rogues galleries, and D. He's relatable and funny, even when he's fighting.

 I felt like The Amazing Spiderman was a great adaptation. I didn't mind seeing the origin again, mostly because it was too cheesy and over the top for me in the original. Even the elements that I'd seen in other movies were fresh, new, and different feeling just because the character of Peter Parker was so much better. In the original, I never bought that he was a dorky, nebbish, or awkward. Tobey Maguire doesn't look like a nerd, at least to me. In the reboot, the awkwardness was there. Peter was always kind of a loner, and it made sense to transition him into that crowd, mostly because the negative connotations with geeks has gone away. But loners will always be outcasts, and in a way, the ultimate underdogs.

I was really looking forward to the sequel. And I was disappointed. Let me examine that.

First of all, I haven't eaten anything since the huge late breakfast I had at around eleven this morning. So if this sounds even the slightest bit cranky, you can blame that. I'll try to suppress the urge to rage. Oh, and... spoiler alert.

Amazing Spiderman 2 is a train wreck. It's a well built machine that tragically crashes, leaving all who boarded either dead or stranded. The elements at play here, the screenwriter's only friends: plot, characters, and tone, can help explain why this movie didn't work.

~ T H E   P L O T ~

I like complex plots. I don't mind multiple subplots either. It didn't bother me that Peter was attempting to figure out his father's past while his girlfriend was graduating and going off to college and the Rhino was building a suit and Harry Osborn and Peter got back together because Harry's father was dying and Harry needed Spiderman's blood because HE was dying and did I even mention Electro yet!? But yeah, none of that really bothered me. I could keep track of everything.
 What I think went wrong was the handling of these multiple stories.

I know material was cut from the film, just like it was from the last film. When is the studio going to cut it out, (excuse the pun)? When will they learn not to butcher every Amazing Spiderman film to death? But that aside, the sequences were arranged in some really odd ways. If you're going to cut out material, how about you cut that completely random opening with Peter's father? During the entire scene I was wondering if The November Man had been released several months early. I think it would've worked better as a flashback, or maybe it should've been cut and Spiderman action could've opened the film instead. The first scene sets the tone for the film. The tone of the film was not spy action thriller. It was supposed to be a fun Spidey adventure with dramatic elements.

So clearly, I have an issue with the beginning. But I also have an issue with the ending. I didn't really like the Incredibles-style Rhino battle. I got immediately what it was doing. It was trying to end on an exciting, anticipatory note, with Spidey swinging into action again. The problem is, in order to do that, it had to montage past Gwen's death. If you're going to have Gwen die in this one, which I guess was inevitable but there was a better way to do that, at least respect and hold that moment until the end. Give us a little hope, maybe. Like Peter looking over to his costume, then at the trashcan, and then getting up and leaving, unable to decide just yet. But having a full blown action scene didn't work, because it made it seem like Peter had gotten over it really fast. Remember, we didn't live through those months where he was getting over it because you skipped all of them! The only part about the death that worked was seeing that web try to snag her. I thought it was beautiful and well paced, and I felt some real tension there even though I knew that it was coming.

The other subplots were handled pretty well, save two, but I'll get to THAT in the characters section.

~ T H E   C H A R A C T E R S ~

Peter Parker. He's just as good as the last movie, and he has some great obstacles to overcome and new types of relationships to showcase, like the friendship he has with Harry. No problems there.

Gwen's also as great as before, with character growth revolving around her decision to leave Peter to go to college, and a few funny lines.

Harry's great. Norman's great.

Aunt May's okay, I'm surprised there was time for her to be in the movie, but there was and it's actually kind of fun to see her and Peter's relationship after Ben died, since the last movie had to skip some of that to get to Spidey action.

But enough about what works, back to what's wrong.

So. Electro. Spiderman has a great rogue's gallery, as I mentioned above. His movie franchises have great, tragic villains. I liked Lizard from the last movie. Yeah, we got that stupid Gollum moment again, (what is up with that?!), but he wasn't that forgettable, really, and I like how they handled his nose and gradual transformation. Here we get Electro. This should've been awesome, but I think they tried to inject too much character here. What I mean is that they tried TOO hard to make him sympathetic, almost to the point where it was like watching a cartoon. The one moment that worked was when he snapped at the Oscorp employee, and then we see that it was just in his head. A lot of screen time was devoted to Max Dillon and Electro, but honestly when I try to remember Electro's scenes all I can remember is Max opening a fridge and seeing a cake, Max internally snapping at the Oscorp guy, Max getting shocked, Electro in Times Square, and Itsy Bitsy Spider, (which by the way, I didn't recognize at all when I first heard it in the movie). So basically, the stuff I remember is the IMPORTANT stuff. The stuff that should've been kept in and everything else cut out. If you must have Electro, Rhino, and Green Goblin in your movie, please make way for them. Which brings me to my second character gripe.

Green Goblin. I didn't like that Green Goblin was in the movie at all. I think having subplots about Harry and then maybe a tease at the very end would've untangled a lot of the subplot problems. Furthermore, I think Gwen should've been done in by Electro, not Green Goblin. Who cares if the fans get on your back about it, Gwen's death didn't need the complexity of having to introduce Green Goblin to the final battle. Keep it simple.

And finally, Rhino. I mentioned before that I didn't like the ending. It wasn't just because Rhino was ruining the aftermath of Gwen's death,  it was also because... the mech suit didn't look that great. Mech suits need to be properly balanced looking. I understand that maybe they were going for a rough prototype look, but still. Even if Rhinos have tiny arms and legs and huge heads, tweak the anatomy for crying out loud! It looks really weird, guys. Maybe take a look at some of the comic versions of the suit, I'm sure someone's done an awesome mech version of it before.

Like this one!

...this one looks kind of fat, guys.

 ~ T O N E ~

The sad thing is, like a train wreck, there are pieces of the film that still work, like the parts of the train that are still functional after the crash. Unfortunately, the most important parts of the train broke. What this admittedly bad metaphor is trying to illustrate is how there is some genuinely good stuff trying to alleviate the bad. And it almost works. The scene where Peter's distracting the guards surprised me. I thought it was really funny. The closet scene was pretty funny. It seemed improvised, which made it feel a bit amateurish to me, however, I think the charm of the actors showed through enough to salvage it.
I liked Peter missing the graduation, that was kind of a callback to the comics, which I appreciated. I liked all the Gwen/Peter chemistry and the Peter/Harry chemistry, and yes, even the Harry/Norman chemistry. The main actors were great, the script was clearly the problem.
There was a scene during the movie that made the entire movie ten times worse for me, though, and is the reason why my overall feeling with the film is "Ehhh." The Ravencroft scene. I don't know why the movie suddenly tried to go Young Frankenstein-esque goofy, but it REALLY didn't work. The over-the-top scientist was almost unbearable to watch. It ruined the tone of the movie. Other, small things that ruined the tone were some of the jokes around Max Dillon and how goofy evil Green Goblin was. But I could forgive those if the Ravencroft scene had been scrapped, or at least made more serious. This is supposed to be a gritty reboot of Spiderman, (though it usually manages to shake that off and be lots of fun in spite of itself), so when you can go darker, the idea is to go darker, not to flip the switch and give us a Disney prison!

~ I N   S U M M A R Y ~

Cut opening scene, have Spiderman chase scene open the movie. It was fun and funny. Don't fast forward over Gwen's death. Either make the Rhino awesome or cut out that ending. Eliminate all the goofiness. Give us less Electro back story and more Electro. Don't just give Electro puns to say. Give him some awesome, quotable lines to say too. Don't make Harry Green Goblin yet, just establish Peter and Harry's relationship for now.

And, while I'm at it, in the next movie... Don't introduce Mary Jane right away. That's cold and contrived after what just happened to Gwen. Upgrade that Rhino suit, or make the arms bigger at least. Give J.K. Simmons the role of James Jonah Jameson, nobody cares if it's the same actor from the other movies. He was born to play that role! And please, don't do the Clone Saga or the Black Suit Saga. And don't introduce Black Cat yet unless the Sinister Six movie covers Green Goblin.

So there you go, that's what's wrong, in my opinion. I tried to include everything, but chances are I missed something, so I'll probably edit this post in the future. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Should Writers Distance Themselves From Characters?

I've been thinking recently about that gender swapping exercise for screenwriters. The idea is to write your entire script and then flip the genders of all your characters around, without tweaking dialogue unless it specifies gender, in which case you also swap that. Therefore:

(entering through door)
Yum yum! What's that you're making, honey?

It's your favorite. You know the one.

Well, I'm going to go watch television and then, after consuming the dinner you made me, refuse to help with the dishes.

That sounds great! Just like every other time it happens, which is always!


(entering through door)
Yum yum! What's that you're making, honey?

It's your favorite. You know the one.

Well, I'm going to go watch television and then, after consuming the dinner you made me, refuse to help with the dishes.

That sounds great! Just like every other time it happens, which is always!

This is supposed to be handy for male writers, who can't write women without putting them in traditional roles that are boring, cliché and aggravating to watch. I can't help but think that you aren't very attached to your characters to be able to simply switch them around like that. Not that I think you shouldn't, but doesn't that say something about how much you care about them?

There's another common phrase: "Kill your darlings." It's a good thing to learn how to do, because it weeds out moments that might otherwise stick out like sore thumbs. For instance, a moment you've been planning for days, where the main character flips coffee cups in the air, doesn't seem to fit anywhere but you simply MUST have it in because it's "flipping cool!" That needs to be cut. But again, isn't the point to care about what you're writing too? This seems like it conflicts with what may be the only thing getting you inspired about your project.

Often I'm faced with boring protagonists that I hate and cannot relate to, don't surprise me, or who suffer from Plothead Syndrome, (that is, they can only take actions that calculatingly help the writer's plans for them instead of themselves. I'm sure there's a TV Tropes page for that already, but I'm lazy so I just made up another term for it). Is this because the writer cared too much about their protagonist, so they took away the things that made them interesting, or because they cared so little that they lazily wrote a bland character?

I think that if you're confident that you can write strong female characters and male characters, swap the genders when you're done. Chances are, you're actually bad at writing them. People who are more unsure of their abilities to preform something tend to be more careful and deliberate when preforming that something. And yes, kill your darlings. But keep surprising yourself while writing, and maybe you'll discover new darlings that fit in better with your story.

Why am I writing all this? Well I just found out that there's an all-female version of the Expendables coming out called the Expendabelles. I really, really want it to be awesome, but I'm terrified that it'll just be another Charlie's Angels, which nobody wants or really needs. I think they should take that script for Expendables 4, (I know they've got it around somewhere), and swap the genders and make THAT the Expendabelles script. Then they'd turn the Expendabelles script into the Expendables 4 script. How hilarious would it be if Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham and Terry Crews started yodeling? Pretty hilarious, if you ask me.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 Assessment

From left to right: Scylla, an endangered blue macaw, Totoro + Catbus, Smaug and Jim Henson's Creature Workshop Disaster.

Let me just say this before I start the review: this is not a negative review. I appreciate How to Train Your Dragon 2 for not playing it safe and being a watchable sequel overall. But it’s only “good” and doesn’t quite reach “great” and here’s my argument for why.

I believe that when critiquing a movie you should note how you were feeling while watching it and reviewing it. When I watched this movie yesterday I was a little travel-weary, having just come back from a five day vacation, which may have affected my viewing experience. I also watched it in an empty theater, and I’m sure it would’ve been more enjoyable if I’d seen it with an appreciative audience. When watching the movie, sometimes my focus would snap and I would start thinking about whether I was enjoying the movie, which usually happens on my first viewing.
As for how I’m feeling as I type this, I’m a bit hot temperature wise, because summer time is here. I also am simultaneously eating my first meal of the day, which is chickpeas fried in oil with tamari sauce, garnished with sesame seeds and hot pepper flakes. Taking this into account, my review may be slightly negative at the start due to hunger and then get more positive when I’m full; who knows.

By the way, spoiler alert.

Speaking of spoilers, let me address something that I feel like I need to get out of the way. Before I saw this movie, I’d read a review that spoiled an important part of the movie for me, (they don’t make those spoiler warnings big enough nowadays). The review said that in the movie, Toothless kills someone. I was intrigued, surprised, and excited. I went into the theater expecting something other than what I got, which was Toothless killing Hiccup’s father Stoic while under mind control. This certainly helped move the plot along - in fact, it felt almost like a mechanical decision given how Hiccup needed to become the chief of the Viking tribe - but I felt like an opportunity was lost.
When I’d first read that spoiler, it made it sound like Toothless had accidentally killed a random bystander - maybe someone from the village. Just think about the moral themes that that could’ve implicated. The Vikings are living with these creatures that are just as dangerous as a pet tiger, hyena or rattlesnake. Considering how much of the plot is about the Viking/dragon harmony, the dark twist would’ve really hit home about how these things are powerful, dangerous animals.
I’m going to let this one go, though, because dark stuff like this wouldn’t have fit with the demographic they were aiming for, and the twist worked as far as addressing some of the moral issues without being outright adult. My only other problem with Stoic’s death is that we had to sit through the same fire-arrow-lights-up-boat scene from last year’s Thor: The Dark World.

Now that that’s out of the way, characters.

Hiccup is as white-male-protagonist-y as ever, except now he has anime hair, which is awesome but occasionally distracting. For some reason I didn’t feel like he had much of an arc. I guess he accepted his role as chief, but that choice was made for him by Stoic’s death and there wasn’t much else he could’ve done. Wouldn’t it have been cool if he disowned himself from the royal line, handed off the role of chief to Astrid and rode off into the sunset with his mother to live among the dragons? Maybe not that, but just something that would’ve told me he was making decisions that came from his character and not as a way to serve the plot.

Astrid has a bit more to do this time around than she did in the first movie, mostly involving the interrogation of the big bad’s main bad henchman. There’s a scene where she follows Hiccup through the door as he’s making his “I follow my own path” hero exit, which I was surprised by and appreciated. I think she still needed more character development to elevate her from the role of “Hiccup’s tomboy girlfriend” and become more like a person instead of an archetype. Astrid was also the character I was getting the most uncanny valley from. It’s especially noticeable in the scene where she’s talking to Hiccup on a cliff at the beginning.

Snotlout and Fishlegs are mostly here for comic relief and as continuity from the first movie, and they weren’t given arcs or subplots. I’m a bit disappointed in Fishleg’s portrayal in these movies. In the books he was skinny and weak, like Hiccup, and was Hiccup’s only friend. The comedy from his end was more about how when he got angry, he went berserk in a sort of pathetic but effective way. Here, I’m not sure where the humor’s coming from and overall he’s not very well-rounded, (irony).

Ruffnut is oddly, given an arc, which is good. There were points where I wished that they were taking her subplot more seriously. I get that the movie needed more humor, but they turned her into a a joke instead of a character, which, at least for me, made the joke more uncomfortable than funny, and the resolution to the subplot - where she’s ignored by Snotlout and Fishlegs just as she realizes that they really care about her and aren’t just being stupid - is cruel, looking back on it.

Valka, Hiccup’s mother, is a welcome addition to the cast - but she feels wasted here because the movie doesn’t use her to her full potential. During the battle scenes, she’s mostly ineffective and not only fails to have a proper fight with Drago, but also somehow doesn’t stop the two Alphas from fighting. She then mostly appears to tell Hiccup she’s proud of him. When your movie’s theme is “family”, I guess that means that you kill off the father, reduce the mother to the side character, and make the son and his dragon do all the work.

Drago is, sadly, disappointing. Why did they need an original character? Would it have killed them to bring in Alvin the Treacherous or Madguts the Murderous from the books? Drago needed more screen time and he needed to be more of a threat. He’s missing from most of the movie, and he never fully establishes himself as a legitimate source of conflict, which is pretty much his only function as a character in the movie. Yes, he technically kills Stoic the Vast, but it’s a remote killing, and his control of the Alpha never felt justified. Why is this huge monster taking orders from him? Because he yells at it a lot? There’s a story left untold there. Why isn’t his army more effective? At least his character design is cool.

I feel like if your movie’s main plot is as simple as this one’s is, the depth should lie in the characters, but the characters with the most “depth” are the dragons and not the humans. I should mention that I found the Stoic/Valka scenes to be unmoving, as they felt slightly forced and awkward, but that may just be me.

The music, by John Powell, isn’t quite as refreshing as the first movie but it introduces many new elements. There was a particular sequence that I felt was scored oddly, when Hiccup and Toothless see the broken remains of Drago’s fort. I think a slower, more “wonderment” type of music would’ve worked better, because the exciting drums felt at odds with the pace and nature of the scene. But that’s my only nitpick, really. I’m glad he didn’t rely on the great melody from the first movie too often, and while the new tunes aren’t as memorable, they aren’t cheesy either.

The animation is okay. Sometimes I felt like the characters were ragdolls being puppeted around by the animators, and Hiccup's hair defied gravity unrealistically. There are occasionally moments of uncanny valley, which is weird because the characters aren't realistic. As far as looks go, it's not as pretty as WALL•E, nor as stylish and sleek as The Incredibles, but the Alphas are cool and Drago's dreadlocks are rendered really well.

Before I wrap up, I have a bit of a rant to get through. When are movies going to learn that having their characters shout tired one-liners like “Oh, yeah!” and “Woohoo!” and “This is amazing!” during action scenes doesn’t make them any more exciting? I’ve never felt like that kind of dialogue added anything to a scene, and it’s embarrassing to have a script with a lines of dialogue like:

Take that!

That’ll teach you! Make way for the dragon riders!

(interrupted by a rock)
Let’s kick some - !

Am I the only one annoyed by this? I feel like I’ve heard these lines over and over and they don’t make me more invested in the action or the characters. I guess the only way we’ll get rid of them is by having a cast of mute action heroes, (which would be really awesome, please get on that, Hollywood). Speaking of "Let's kick some -", this movie was filled with environmental expletive censoring. If you're going to censor it, why imply it? There were so many lines like this that it felt like the writers had tried to make it PG-13 at a certain point during production.

So in summary, this movie is more intelligent and mature then anything from Blue Sky, but it doesn’t have quite the emotional oomph that it wants you to think it has and the payoff isn’t as good as it could’ve been. If I may make a ridiculously early Oscar prediction now:

Will be nominated for its animation, but won’t win because it’s too “underground”.

The Lego Movie
Will be nominated because it’s way better then it could’ve been, but won’t win because the Oscars don’t want to seem like a toy advertisement.

How to Train Your Dragon 2
Will be nominated because it’s hard to hate, but won’t win because it’s made by Dreamworks and not Pixar.

Big Hero 6
Will be nominated and deserves to win just because they messed up last year by accidentally giving the Oscar to Brave instead of Wreck-It-Ralph, but it won’t win because all the main characters are foreign.

Book of Life
Will be nominated because it will be better than people expected, but it won’t win because it’s about a holiday, ala Arthur Christmas.

Rio 2
Won’t be nominated. There are just too many good animated films this year for a mediocre one to make it in.

Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return
Will be nominated and will win because the Oscars suck.