How To Train Your Dragon 2 – SPOILER WARNING

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I don’t like the term political correctness, nor do I appreciate commentary that is solely or even primarily motivated by it. So here it is: How To Train Your Dragon 2 is sexist. I’ve commented on problematic gender politics before in reference to Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Skyfall, but in those cases there was plenty of high quality material to engage with so the sexism was less prominent. The fact that the sexism in HTTYD2 was such a problem highlights the weaknesses in the film overall. The film has a number of great set pieces, including dragon aerobatics, battles between new villain Drago Bloodfist (Djimon Hounsou) and our heroes, and the death of a major character that delivers genuine emotional impact. Furthermore, the central relationship between Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless is warm, engaging and affecting. But the introduction of an important female character, Valka (Cate Blanchett), is an expansion of the promising female element provided by Astrid (America Ferrera) and suggests the importance of the feminine in Hiccup’s development as well as the film’s world as a whole. Valka is as accomplished a dragon-rider, not to mention as compassionate, as Hiccup, and as fierce a warrior as Stoick (Gerard Butler), so to have her side-lined and ultimately subordinated is a rather depressing conservatism on the part of the filmmakers. Children’s animated films have long propagated the ideal female character as a passive princess who waits to be rescued from some form of imprisonment, and while there have been some progressive alternatives (Fiona in the Shrek franchise, Elsa and Anna in Frozen), HTTYD2 seems to take one step forward and then two steps back. This is disappointing as the film’s promotion of patriarchy is neither necessary nor consistent – Hiccup’s dramatic arc could have easily continued on its initial trajectory with a more prominent role for Valka. Instead, we are left with a few impressive set pieces that add up to less than the sum of their parts, undercut by a discouraging assertion of patriarchy.

Expanding and Continuing Part Three: Transforming to Extinction

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I always like to see the positive in movies. Whereas others bemoan the death of narrative cinema (which is nonsense) and complain about overreliance on CGI (which is overly simplistic) or whinge that sequels and remakes have squashed originality, I find plenty to enjoy in mainstream cinema and rarely leave the movie theatre disappointed. But I confess that Michael Bay’s latest entry in the Transformers franchise did that rarest of things – left me bored.

I’ve been a fan of Transformers since I was a child (although I was a bigger fan of M.A.S.K. and Centurions – can we get a big screen adaptation of one of those please), and this has made me sympathetic to the current film franchise. In fact, I loved 2007’s Transformers, which combined 80s nostalgia with contemporary aesthetics and delivered some of the most blistering action sequences of that year (which also included The Bourne Ultimatum, Spider-Man 3, Die Hard 4.0, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End). Since then, the franchise dipped with Revenge of the Fallen (2009) that not only featured racist stereotypes but pointless mysticism and a story that went all over the place before collapsing into incoherent noise (even the director described it as “crap”). Things got slightly better with Dark of the Moon (2011) that was at least more coherent but still suffered from too much in its final (hour long!) battle sequence. Age of Extinction continues the trend of ever-longer films (respectively, the four movies have lasted 144 minutes, 150 minutes, 154 minutes, 165 minutes), and demonstrates the law of diminishing returns as more proves to be less.

I went into Age of Extinction with low expectations because of poor to mediocre reviews, and often find that low expectations are surpassed. I wanted to enjoy the film and it certainly delivers on scale, with huge spaceships looming over Earth and the return of favourites Optimus Prime (voiced again by Peter Cullen) and Bumblebee. These are combined with some decent new Transformers including Hound (John Goodman) and Lockdown (Mark Ryan), although I could have done without the horrible Japanese stereotype Drift (Ken Watanabe). An alien robot with a personality out of human samurai culture, including swords and helmet, that speaks in haikus and calls his leader “Sensei”? Really? If anything, this was more offensive that Skids and Mudflaps in Revenge of the Fallen. The much-touted appearance of the Dinobots was pleasing when it arrived, but they only turned up in the last half hour by which time I’d stopped caring.

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This was the main problem with Age of Extinction, as, despite my goodwill, the film failed to maintain my engagement. My attention wandered over its 165 minute running time, my reactions reduced to “Uh-huh”, “Uh-huh”, “Yes”, “Um-hum”, “How long have we been here?”, “Why did you do that?”, “Hmm”, “There’s still half an hour to go?!” There are some nice concepts, but again and again Ehren Kruger’s script and Michael Bay’s direction flog ideas to death, resurrect them and beat them to death again, or just abandon them. Early in the film, the Transformers are presented as illegal immigrants being pursued by nasty government agents, and this demonstrates that you can include political parallels in mainstream entertainment cinema. Similarly, the financial troubles of the Yaeger family, father Cade (Mark Wahlberg) and daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), allow for real world resonance. But these ideas are quickly abandoned in favour of over-designed alien robots that waste your time messing about. The bickering between the Autobots is tedious and serves no purpose, and the number of moving parts on the Transformers quickly becomes distracting. A robot that transforms into a vehicle is fine, but to have every little piece of them in constant motion actually becomes annoying. Worse, there is a bizarre attempt to humanise the robots and make them somehow biological, which includes blinking, breathing and bleeding. I don’t need Optimus Prime to leak green fluid to know he is injured – he has large holes in his body and has difficulty standing. That makes it pretty clear. This excess reaches its apex during the second act aboard Lockdown’s ship, which features some sort of robot guard dog-hyena type creatures. When those appeared all I could think was “Why, why, why?” Minions fair enough, but savage robot beasts is going way too far.

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Repeatedly, the film suffers in comparison with 2007’s Transformers, which featured running battles that kept things moving. In Age of Extinction, battles occur, chases occur, and they go on and on and on and on. It is always very easy for a film critic, or indeed viewer, to say what would make the film better. It’s incredibly arrogant and presumptuous to assume that I know better than a professional filmmaker about how to do his job. But there is a glaring moment in Age of Extinction when the film could have moved into its climax. Instead, that is only the end of the second act and we have a torturous extension into China (which comes off as remarkably benevolent, clearly the producers had an eye on the lucrative Chinese market). I will not go so far as to say the film should have ended in Chicago (like the last one did), but I would have been happier if it had. I was already bored by the Chicago act, but that may have been because I knew there was more to come so the stakes were too low to excite me. More can be more – I will happily watch the three-hour cut of Avatar – but Transformers: Age of Extinction can best be described as a tedious, bloated, messy headache of a film.

Top Five of 0.5

We’re half way through 2014 so it’s time to see what’s impressed me the most in the last six months. As always, many films come and go that are doubtless entertaining, but did not quite necessitate shelling out for them. The following are the five films that impressed and entertained me the most. Will they be in my top films of the year in six months’ time? Come back then and find out!

To clarify, “Films of 2014” are defined in this case as films that went on general UK theatrical release from January 2014. While some of the films I discuss are officially recognised as 2013 releases, they only played at festivals are previews and therefore the majority of cinema-goers could only see them in 2014. Release dates are taken from the IMDb.

5. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (release date 16 April 2014)

TMSM posterThis was a genuine surprise for me. After 2012’s reboot was decidedly less than amazing, I went in with fairly low expectations. They were significantly exceeded as Marc Webb’s follow-up provided a touching central relationship, explored questions of esteem and choice and even prompted tears. Other superhero outings (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past) failed to successfully merge their disparate elements, but much like the web-slinger himself, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 came out on top.

4. The Raid 2 (release date 11 April 2014)

The-Raid-2-Mosaic-PosterAnother sequel that surpassed its original, Gareth Evans’ epic crime tale combined a complex plot with the brutal ballet of its fight sequences, while also incorporating themes of honour, loyalty, courage and ambition. I anticipated much of what I got in The Raid, and The Raid 2 not only provided this but so much more. If there’s a more intense visual ride this year, I look forward to seeing it.

3. Godzilla (release date 15 May 2014)

Godzilla_(2014)_posterGodzilla has long been a favourite of mine, and the character’s 60 year history has had its ups and downs. This was a triumphant up, as Gareth Edwards’ reboot pays homage to the original while also declaring its own identity. Operating both on a macro and micro scale, Godzilla 2014 is not only a bombastic disaster movie with a looming sense of dread and gigantic battle sequences, but also a intriguing exploration of humanity’s need to commune with nature. Any film that features monsters beating seven bells out of each other and incorporates philosophy is OK with me!

2. The Wolf of Wall Street (release date 17 January 2014)

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Easily the funniest film I’ve seen this year, and also a slightly terrifying one. Martin Scorsese’s biopic of Jordan Belfort is a rip-roaring rollercoaster of debauchery, debasement, drugs and money, money, money. It boasts a career-best performance from Leonardo DiCaprio as well as magnificent supporting players Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie, and uses its relatively sedate visual style to draw the audience in and encourage self-reflection.

1. 12 Years A Slave (release date 10 January 2014)

12-years-posterA worthy winner of its Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Oscars, Steve McQueen’s third film is a searing portrait of cruelty, resilience and humanity/inhumanity. Both mesmerising and at times extremely hard to watch, 12 Years A Slave features great performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o as well as the rest of its case, and shows the sheer raw power that cinema is capable of. A story of historical importance, a superbly crafted piece of cinema, and the finest film so far this year.

The Fault in Our Stars

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As a 35 year-old male, I am not the assumed audience for The Fault in Our Stars, much as I am not the assumed audience for P.S. I Love You, 10 Things I Hate About You, Definitely, Maybe, Crazy, Stupid, Love, or indeed Titanic (which I rate as one of my favourite top ten films). Despite belonging to a different demographic, according to some at least, I loved all of these films, including Josh Boone’s adaptation of John Green’s tear-jerker. This tale of two cancer-ridden teenagers makes no secret of its goal to draw water from its viewers’ eyes, and does so through slow, careful development of its characters, their relationship and their predicament. I have said before that character engagement is not a major concern for me, but when the focus of the drama is the characters themselves (which is not always the case), it certainly helps if they are engaging. Shailene Woodley as Hazel and Ansel Elgort as Augustus are a sweet and plausible pair of protagonists to spend two hours with, and their relationship is all the more charming for the looming spectre that never goes away. While the plot developments are not surprising, when they occur they are effective, thanks to the time and care the film has spent crafting the relationship to make it plausible and emotionally felt. As I have noted before, a year ago crying was not nothing something I did at films, but since Captain Phillips, I have shed tears at 12 Years A Slave and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and now The Fault in Our Stars. I have no shame in this, indeed I applaud the film for affecting me so much.

Edge of Tomorrow

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The challenge for science fiction film is that viewers have probably seen it before. When I reviewed Looper in 2012, I listed the various films that it references, intentionally or otherwise. A similar familiarity is found in Edge of Tomorrow, which feels like a combination of Groundhog Day, Starship Troopers, Source Code and The Matrix, with a bit of Saving Private Ryan, yet still manages to declare its own identity. This is partly due to director Doug Liman blending the comedic and dramatic elements of Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth’s script, making the film’s first act very funny. Secondly, Liman gives the film a fast, urgent, visceral energy, placing the viewer in the midst of the action sequences that are both explosive and suspenseful. Tom Cruise’s star image receives a playful treatment, as his character William Cage is initially a hopeless coward who must learn both courage and comradeship. Emily Blunt makes for a convincing badass, her presence as well as the motley squad Cage is drafted into (especially Bill Paxton) resonating with Aliens. But rather than feeling derivative, Edge of Tomorrow evokes these other films with a sense of fun (without being overly referential), inviting the viewer to share its knowledge and understanding. Just as Cage sees each repetition of the same day afresh, so do we see these familiar elements with fresh enjoyment.

eXpanding and Continuing Part Two: X-Men: Days of Future Past

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X-Men: Days of Future Past pulls off the remarkable feat of being sequel, prequel and reboot all at once. It continues plotlines of X-Men: First Class, while also referring to the events of X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine. But it also performs a remarkable piece of internal resetting, making an alternative title X-Men: Restoration. Whereas other franchises have delivered reboots that simply play out as though earlier incarnations never happened (see Batman Begins, The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spider-Man, Man of Steel), X-Men: DOFP uses its time travel conceit to have its cake and eat it, featuring elements that, in any other narrative, would never work. In doing so, it echoes Star Trek (2009), which also created an alternative timeline to run parallel, rather than separately, from that established in earlier instalments.

Much of the pleasure of X-Men: Days of Future Past comes from its knowing engagement with the franchise’s established history. Most obviously, we see new and old versions of familiar characters, especially Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier as well as Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto. The differences between the young and old versions of Xavier are highlighted in a sequence that sees McAvoy and Stewart play against each other, McAvoy a burned-out drug addict who has given up, Stewart a grizzled war veteran who, despite everything he has seen, still has hope and urges his younger self to rediscover his hope. Hope is perhaps the central conceit of all superhero movies, and is especially important given the bleak future that occupies the film’s early scenes (reminiscent of Terminator 2: Judgment Day), including a genuinely shocking battle sequence between Sentinels and mutants. In a previous post, I criticised The Wolverine for the low stakes of its drama, and that problem is easily avoided in X-Men: DOFP as Stewart’s ominous voiceover informs us that mutants cannot win this war. On an intimate level, we see familiar characters cut down mercilessly, demonstrating that everyone is at risk in this grim vision of the future.

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At times, the grim seriousness of the future sequences does not gel with the humour of the 1973 portion of the narrative, which leaves the film feeling rather flimsy overall. However, the intertextual/intra-franchise references are a lot of fun and well-judged as the film never tips too far into wink-nudge territory. Furthermore, director Bryan Singer shows the same flair for visualising superpowers on screen that made his earlier X-Men films such a delight. A much celebrated scene features Quicksilver (Evan Peters) literally moving faster than a speeding bullet as he darts around a shootout scene, while Magneto’s manipulation of metal as well as Xavier’s telepathy continue to provide visually arresting scenes, as do the abilities of Blink in the future. Overall, the film is like the X-Men themselves – a motley assemblage of disparate elements that do not always harmonise, but an assemblage that is nonetheless engaging and compelling.

Unity

Expression in Editing

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In the space of two days, I recently saw two films that could not be more different. The first was The Raid 2, Gareth Evans’ sequel to his explosive 2012 martial arts adventure. The second was A Story of Children and Film, a documentary by Mark Cousins that merges the conceits of his last previous works, The Story of Film: An Odyssey and The First Movie. The Raid 2 is a fictional drama, a martial arts/crime thriller that delivers a blistering ballet of brutality. Cousins’ documentary is lyrical, free associative and meandering. Both excel at what they do and each film offers particular delights and pleasures, and serve to highlight one of the most important tools in filmmaking – editing.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that the three most important components of any film were script, script and script. While this is a convenient soundbite for the critic who decries overreliance on special effects or glamorous actors, it is overly simplistic to describe cinema as being based primarily on the written word (and besides, Hitch could have been referring to screenplay, shooting script and another form of script). For sure, the written screenplay is important, but many a filmmaker subscribes to the belief that films are made in the editing room, in the assembly of otherwise disparate images. Small wonder that directors form lasting and productive collaborations with their editors, such as Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, Michael Mann and Dov Hoenig, and some, including James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh and Gareth Evans, edit their films themselves.

Sergei Eisenstein argued that the power of cinema lay in the juxtaposition of images rather than the sustained shot, hence his development of montage in such classics as The Battleship Potemkin (1925). Similarly, Evans uses fast cutting to express both the swift blows and dizzying impact of martial arts combat. Films like The Raid 2 are a testament to the merging of combat performance and editing, as the skills of performers like Iko Uwais and Julie Estelle are displayed to dazzling effect, while the cuts between different shots express the physical impact of the blows, leading to a visceral experience. Long takes of athletic prowess are impressive, and frequent in The Raid 2 as well, such as sustained pan shots of a prison yard during a riot as well as a warehouse towards the end of the film. Such shots, however, are generally at a distance, wide angle and encompass much of the cinematic space. Fast editing of close quarters combat helps to create a sense of being in the thick of combat, a vicarious experience for the viewer that gives us the experience of being in the ferocious fights of the film (without the inconvenience of pain).

By contrast, Mark Cousins uses editing to link together seemingly disparate scenes. Early in A Story of Children and Film, Cousins explains that he will not progress through films chronologically, but will be guided by how the behaviour of his niece and nephew reminds him of children in other films. The range of films referenced by Cousins is extraordinary, including An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990) and The White Balloon (Jafar Panahi, 1995). I consider myself reasonably familiar with cinema, but the only films referenced in Cousins’ documentary that I had seen were E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982) and The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955), making the film something of an education. I was a little disappointed at the omission of films about children and film, such as Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011) and Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings, 2007), but Cousins is interested in how film presents children, identifies and extrapolates their shyness, their defiance, their performativity. Editing enables Cousins to draw together his seemingly disparate examples, taking us from Japanese boys chasing dogs to an Iranian girl having a “strop” about goldfish. Cousins’ finale brings together films from various countries about kids with balloons, linking these unrelated movies in a moving and thought-provoking way.

Cousins’ cinematography favours a static camera, both of his niece and nephew in his living room as well as wide angle exterior shots of the Isle of Skye. Evans’ camera is more mobile, taking the viewer into the cinematic space of his drama and, as mentioned above, thrusting us into the thick of battle. Cousins’ camera also creates intimacy through dwelling on the events before it, both in his own footage and the scenes from other films that he refers to. The techniques of these filmmakers serve to draw the viewer in, and invite us to interpret meaning from the assembly of images, the editing both presenting meaning and allowing us to infer from the spaces between the shots.

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