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.