Sunday, March 28, 2010

Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon

Every aspect of How to Train Your Dragon is good, but there's very little here that's excellent.  In a world without Pixar - and make no mistake, in the infinite sea of alternate dimensions, such a world exists (there are, oddly enough, no shrimp there) - How to Train Your Dragon would be heralded as one of the greatest CG films ever made, alongside Kung Fu Panda and Monster House.  But, unfortunately for Dreamworks, Earth-Prime does have a Pixar, so we've seen better.

Before going on, we have a confession to make: we did not see this in its intended three dimensions.  This was a mistake: the flying sequences were the high point of the film, and we expect they're even more stunning while filtered through polarized lenses.  Perhaps, in time, we will see this a second time.  If so, we will certainly try the 3D experience.

Although we did not enjoy How to Train Your Dragon as much as Kung Fu Panda, this movie was not as flawed.  How to Train Your Dragon actually serves as an important milestone.  This is the first non-Pixar CG animated motion picture with no serious flaws.  This does not pander to the youngest members of the audience, nor does it interrupt its story for comic relief or pop music.  There are no characters who drag down the film or serve to distract the audience.

But, overall, the high points of How to Train Your Dragon were not as spectacular as those in Kung Fu Panda.  Its world, while certainly interesting, was not as engrossing or intriguing.  And, most importantly, there's less that's stayed with us.

The one accusation we can bring against How to Train Your Dragon is that it felt timid.  For all the implied violence, we never see a dragon or viking kill the other.  There is talk of death, but no blood makes it to the screen.  The movie poses some difficult questions about war and honor, about family and trust, obedience and rebellion, but its answers are simplistic and cheap.

Even the movie's sole sacrifice feels hollow and painless.  We aren't demanding a tragic conclusion, but we needed something to offer resonance, to make us feel something beyond the awe of flight.

But at least it gave us that.  The flight sequences are on par with any you've seen, approaching at times even the brilliance of Miyazaki.  The characters were likewise interesting.  The three leads (the boy, the girl, and the dragon) were always entertaining without feeling cliche.  More surprising, the vikings came across as three-dimensional and deeper than we'd expect.  Sure, they used violence as a crutch for their problems, but their motivations and goals felt - dare we say - layered and complex.

We mentioned earlier that How to Train Your Dragon had passed a milestone.  We applaud Dreamworks for finally beating its demons and managing to put together a movie without deep routed problems or structural flaws.  Even so, this was unable to pass a more significant milestone.  We are still waiting for a CG movie that's better than Pixar's worst film.  We're waiting for Dreamworks - or anyone else - to make a CG movie that was better than Cars.

Of course, our scale needs to be set on a steeper curve.  If The Incredibles is defined as a five star picture, this would earn a solid three.  While it's no Pixar movie, How to Train Your Dragon is solidly enjoyable and worth both your time and money.  Just be sure to learn from our mistake and see this in 3D.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland

We were struck, watching Tim Burton's take on Wonderland, by just how dark it was.  We'd assumed, as is only natural, that Disney's previews had played up this aspect and that the movie would be less disturbing than it appeared.

In fact, the opposite was true: the previews made the movie seem lighter than it wound up being.  Some of the film is surprisingly horrific.

Obviously, we were pleased by this discovery.  Unfortunately, being dark and being good are two different things.  And Alice in Wonderland is not, strictly speaking, a good movie.

But it's not a bad movie either.  It is, ultimately, a Tim Burton movie, with all that entails.  The simple fact of the matter is that Burton isn't actually much of a director.  He's a phenomenal artist, a decent producer, and one of the most spectacular designers out there.  It's just directing he seems to have problems with.  Well, that and writing, though it looks as though he wasn't involved with the screenplay this time around.

As a filmmaker, Tim Burton transformed the medium, fusing art house, genre, and big budget production into a single style.  Without the work he did in the eighties, it's unlikely that the current superhero renaissance would have occurred.  Twenty years ago, he was inspiring a generation of genre directors to strive for something better.

But the movies that inspired them, movies we love, like Batman, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands, are deeply flawed.  The best movie he ever made - The Nightmare Before Christmas - wasn't actually made by him.

The point of this aside isn't to denigrate Burton, but rather to offer some perspective.  His movies have never been good, per se.  That simply isn't his style.  Rather, Tim Burton makes movies no one else can, and the world is richer for them.

Ultimately, therein lies the conundrum of Alice in Wonderland.  This is a movie someone else should have made, but no one else could have.  We refer not to artistic vision - there are many who could have conceived of such a movie - but rather to a more concrete issue.  No one else could have possibly gotten the funding to make this movie happen.

If you hadn't yet picked up on that concept, this is not a retelling of Alice, but rather a sequel.  Of course, this isn't exactly a novel idea.  American McGee's Alice, a video game from several years back, told a similar story.  The game was nothing exceptional, though the trailer was somewhat more impressive.

We bring this up, in part, because there had been talk at one point of developing that into a film of its own.  The movie obviously fell through, which wasn't a huge surprise.  If it had been produced, it would likely either have evolved into either a horror movie with only a passing resemblance to Lewis Carol's original or it would have been eroded by studio notes until it turned into something much more horrible: a dull and uninspired children's film.  While it's not entirely a waste of film, the world certainly doesn't need another Hook.

What Burton managed was to create an Alice movie that walked a line between a Disnified fairy tale and a twisted nightmare.  The movie lacks any real emotional resonance, there are numerous plot holes and unresolved questions, and contains more missteps than we can easily count... but, on some level, such complaints are a 'glass half-empty' approach.  You can choose to focus on the flaws or the merits.  You can choose whether you want to like or dislike this movie.

There is a real sense, that if this had been made in 1987 on a hair string budget, it would have been heralded by fans as the greatest movie ever made.  Now, many of those people will dismiss as computer-generated crap, despite the fact the movie is no worse for its use of technology.

Actually, it uses that technology well.  The real and CG characters are integrated masterfully.  The 3D is somewhat uneven - it's clearly Burton's first attempt - but it's still worth seeing in the third dimension.

A review of Alice in Wonderland wouldn't be complete without mentioning the parallels between this and Narnia.  In particular, we were often reminded of the Prince Caspian adaptation from a few years back.  At the time, we mentioned enjoying the juxtaposition between the adorable animals and the brutality they displayed on the battlefield.  Well, Prince Caspian has been outdone.

While many of the characters were mediocre, we were highly impressed with the dormouse.  Burton wisely scaled her to actual size, but still provided her with some of the best action scenes in the movie.  She wasn't on camera often, but we felt she managed to steal the show regardless.  Likewise, the Cheshire Cat and Bandersnatch were also greatly appreciated.

The movie was a bizarre experience, but not an unpleasant one.  Sure, the frame story was pointless, and Alice's character arc was forced.  Sure, several scenes felt like they were shot on location in the ruins of Osgiliath or in Rivendell.  But who cares?  Burton gave us a post-apocalyptic version of Disney's Wonderland, and we had fun.

When fairytale fuses with horror, we think of Coraline.  With that film wearing a crown of five stars, we'll offer Alice in Wonderland a relative three.

This isn't a great movie, but it has enough great things in it to be worth your time and money.  Just be sure to spring for a 3D showing.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Catching Up - The Battle for Terra

In our retrospective for the summer of 2009, we mused it was unlikely we would ever get around to watching The Battle for Terra.  It seems we may have been mistaken, as chance has offered us the opportunity to gaze upon the film at no cost.  We have uncovered a place where one might acquire DVDs for a limited amount of time then return them without penalty.
While such an institution may seem the stuff of dream or fancy, we assure you it is nevertheless real.  It is a strange place, antiquated and anachronistic, dealing in bound paper copies rather than Kindles or iPads.
They call it a "library."  Being students of history, we are not unfamiliar with the term, but we'd thought the last such temples dedicated to reason and knowledge were destroyed in the Crusades.  Apparently though, a few have survived, and they now deal in DVDs as well as books and scrolls.
At any rate, we viewed The Battle for Terra in its entirety.  While there were a few interesting aspects to the film, overall it was far from spectacular.  At every turn, the film avoided engaging the intriguing questions it should have been asking.  It seemed as though it might approach questions such as, "What are the limits to a species right to exist?" and "Is extinction preferable to surviving in a cage?"  It could have faced such ideas - should have done so - but ultimately was simply too timid, too weak.
The movie's saving grace, if it can be called that, is in the visuals.  The space ships, while not particularly original, are still cool, and the wildlife on the alien world is fairly interesting.
The alien creatures, however, are not.  We will be gracious and say they look like a cross between tadpoles and smurfs.  In addition, they are so sickeningly gentle and corny, it's impossible to look at their drum circles without wanting to see them get vaporized.
We must confess some affection, however, for the variation on Area 51 on the alien world.  It was a simple twist, but far more clever than anything else the movie had to offer.
The movie touches on some dark themes, but only lightly.  There is too much horror, we suspect, for a very young audience, but far too little for adults.
There was just enough in the film to keep us mildly amused for its short run time.  Though if it had been more than an hour and a half rather than less, we're not sure we could have stomached it.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Back in Town

The Middle Room is pleased to announce that we have conclusive evidence that Bruce Wayne is alive.

For months now, rumors have circulated claiming an upcoming miniseries will chronicle Batman's return to the present.  But rumors alone aren't enough to convince us.  No, for us to truly believe that Wayne survived Darkseid's Omega Sanction at point blank range we require something more tangible.

Then, about a week ago, a copy of Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman, was sold for a million dollars.  This set a new record as the highest amount paid for a single issue.

Almost immediately, the record was broken.  Detective Comics #27, which introduced Batman to the DC Universe, sold for slightly more than a million, casting doubt on the very assumption of the comics' respective values.

Who had the funds to afford such a purchase?  Who would have wanted to see Batman's first appearance enshrined as the most valuable comic ever created, thus humiliating the Man of Steel.

There is only one possible conclusion.