Star Wars VII: How Not to Sequel

Here’s my review and late-night rant about Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.  [Solid Spoiler Alert!]  There’s some profanity involved, and I believe it’s appropriate.

Star Wars: Episode VII, exploiting the audience…
Here is my review of Star Wars Episode VII, The Force Awakens.

Other links:
The original episode 7-9 stories are told (much better) in Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire series: This is how it SHOULD have gone, and how it DID go before Disney needed to betray the audience to get more cash, and hate families.
http://goo.gl/b6U4lU (Original story for Episode 7)
http://goo.gl/ATXOSM (Original story for Episode 8)
http://goo.gl/gZT0Tv (Original story for Episode 9)

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A Scaly Sequel [Non-Spoilers]

The second installment of How to Train Your Dragon hit theaters with a bang this weekend.

I enjoyed every moment of it.

Too many sequels attempt to make money by recreating the first movie as closely as possible on every point.  From a timid, money-seeking perspective there may be some weak arguments for that.  But the truly great stories continue on from the first movie, weaving what has happened before into a more enjoyable whole.  The Matrix trilogy (plus assorted anime and game elements) are a classic example, and though reactions are mixed as the journey went to the metaphorical digital underworld and back, it earned those reactions because it dared to continue to tell the tale.  Star Wars Episodes 4 – 6 (you know, the real movies that should be red along with the Timothy Zahn Heirs of the Empire trilogy and then left in a box) did the same thing.

How to Train Your Dragon  was a coming-of-age tale about an adolescent boy and dragon, both misfits, finding the powerful love of true friendship, and then through that power they transformed their war-torn village into a tiny little paradise.  That was an excellent story, but Dreamworks did not return to those elements.  The story picks up five years later with Hiccup and Toothless as young adults on the verge of complete independence.  Dragon-slaying has disappeared and dragon-racing is the primary pass-time, much to the terror of adorable and hilarious digital sheep used to keep score.

All the elements from the original movie that I loved are present.  The visual effects are fully worth the 3-D.  The voice acting is a constant treasure, frequently over the top in all the same glorious ways.  I particularly enjoyed the constant by-play in the background.  There is either snarky commentary by Gobber, eye-popping visuals, or entertaining dragon’s doing a puppy/kitten impersonation with their playful manners.

The film does an excellent job with character development.  With the cast at twenty, that fascinating age where young people seem to flip back and forth between thirteen and thirty like switches, there are some fun and sometimes heavy-handed attempts to make humor accessible to all audiences, which means that it has to be silly enough and blatant enough to entertain a seven-year-old.  There are a few romantic character issues (both the sexual kind and the asexual kind with love of friends, allies, and pets) that are there purely for the grown-ups in the audience.  When Hiccup and his girlfriend finish each others sentences for a scene at a time, it is obvious that their fates are sealed.

Creature design is excellent.  There is a slight inconsistency in the idea of shot count that was a critical point in the original film and does not appear to be a big deal here.  Perhaps the trained dragons have been working out?

Djimon Hansou has been a vocal presence since Gladiator and he services an excellent bad guy.  What gamers call power creep (the idea that every new adventure must have a higher level of power than the ones before it to maintain dramatic tension) is here in spades, but it makes sense as part of Burke’s expanding resources and mobility.

Now for a handful of awesome truths without too much in the way of spoilers.

1] There are things more important than family (see the Patriot and the Bible for starters) but family is always going to be critically important, and they pay a price when we must choose larger things over them.  It’s not impossible for this to be true, I mean the apostles left their homes and families to follow Jesus around, and soldiers are not all single bachelors.

2] True love, real, true love, has the power to overcome the most incredible pains in life.  There is no loss or hurt that love cannot overcome if you endure in love.  This was present in the first story as well.  Hiccup crippled Toothless for life when he didn’t understand the harm he was doing, and they grew together closer than brothers as they learned to accept and love one another afterwards.  I can’t say how this principle shows up in this film without spoiling anything.  Here on earth, it showed up as a cross.

3] Love appears a lot in romance, but there is a ton of love outside of romance, and Family is what we make it.  Stoick’s best friend Gobber is as much part of their family as the rest, the crazy uncle who is not actually related.  Then a pet-oriented movie is perhaps the best genre to explore non-sexual love and passion for our loved ones.  It is a truth that we lose too easily as adults to our great detriment.

4] The pursuit of peace is very brave and noble.  The statement from First Knight that “There is a peace that can only be found on the other side of war.” is also true.  It is weaker to never make peace, and weaker to hold to pacifism beyond rationality like a child clinging to a worn out safety blanket that has no real power to banish the monsters in the world.  I love this film because it is about dragon-riding Viking warriors who seek peace first, and can really kick some butt without crying about it later when they need to.  Even Stoick the Vast, who seems to be the warmonger in this film, turns out to be a peacemaker who has a better read on the situation than his less-experienced son.

5] Hormones fire fast but they frequently miss the target.  (Right, twins?)

Right.  There is a lot more to say about this, but I will dig into the film some more with spoilers next weekend.

Edge of Tomorrow

Groundhog’s Day does Starship Troopers.

That is the fundamental idea behind Doug Liman’s film Edge of Tomorrow, an adaptation of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel All You Need is Kill (A literal interpretation of the high concept but loses something in translation, I think).  The sci-fi action tale is set in the near future when an alien invasion has conquered Europe and power-armored troops are sent out to re-fight the battle of Normandy, but things go terribly wrong.  For Major Cage, his death is only the start of his problems.  He relives the invasion again and again, only to die and reset.  The only way out of his hellish cycle is to single-handedly win the war against an impossible foe.

Anyone who has seen the trailer knows to look out for amazing CGI work from a dream team of graphics and special effects groups (Nvizible, The Third Floor, Sony Pictures Imageworks, and more).  It makes sense.  This films has the busiest aliens that I have ever seen, flowing liquid metal glowing octopi death-tops are an overachievement of sorts, frequently too vizually spastic to be appreciated,which makes for a whole lot of wasted rendering in my humble opinion.

Tom Cruize may be a nutball off-screen but he steps once more into his life’s calling as a sci-fi/fantasy action hero, and Emily Blunt’s Rita, his time-traveling love interest, is a physical and dramatic presence on screen.  There is a smorgasbord of action-adventure faces in the supporting cast.  Jonas Armstrong from BBC’s Robin Hood acts along Bill Paxton of Aliens fame, and Brendan Gleeson does a solid performance as the general in charge of the united Earth armies.

This film was released around D-Day for a reason, and the homages are obvious.  I have no problem with that.  A military film could do worse than to emulate one of the greatest military actions of the past century.

There is some solid character growth to chew on.  Cruise’s character begins as a manipulative scumbag and turns into an honorable man and a good soldier, an element of Groundhog Day essential to the reboot sci-fi format.  He learns courage, loyalty, and becomes a leader of men instead of a tool.  That payoff is a fair portion of what makes this film work.

Like many sci-fi films based on novels NOT written by L. Ron Hubbard, this action flick has solid grounding in thought.  The reason for the reboot is explained, logical, and the seemingly invincible power to repeat a day until victory is tied to the aliens, and has some surprising vulnerabilities as well.  There is solid logical consistency, the technology has limits that are comprehensible and stable.  Romance is about a lot more than sex, and the ending is perfectly consistent with the premise of the film.

I would love to say more, but spoilers would abound.

My medieval Christian nature found a lot to like about this film as well.  There is the concept of loyalty, and a deeper courage of daring to love and open up in life after great pain and loss.  The losers of J-Squad start off as comic relief and eventually show the value in the undervalued, something that I appreciate.  Dedication to a higher goal with the knowledge of self-sacrifice plays a delightful tension with the desire to protect one’s loved ones.  But what does one do when the loved one is another soldier?  That question of how to love someone whose life is a risk, without destroying their life by overprotecting or destroying the love in self-protection is a true and honest question that shows up in this film as it has shown up in literature since the American Civil War and before it.

I won’t tell the answers.

Go see it yourself.

I think the visual effects were nice, but too busy to justify the 3D.  If you want to watch it frame by frame on a 3D TV when it comes out, there will be many things to enjoy, but it is not really worth the extra money and not needed for the story.

(How to Train Your Dragon II will be an entirely different story.)

I highly recommend this original and engaging bit of sci-fi.

Dash-Cam Noah

Hey everyone.

I don’t have a lot of time.  (The job interview went well but now I have a 75-hour a week job, which has me experimenting with formatting.)

The youth leader at my church asked me to expand on my ideas on Noah.  I currently don’t have more than five hours a day to sleep much less type so I found this compromise.

It is a little rambling but I have put my thoughts on dash cam.  Enjoy the theological break-down of my earlier summary, combined with even MORE proof of global warming!!!

Divergent Movie

Director Niel Burger had a unique challenge and some great opportunities with his movie adaptation of Veronica Roth’s novel, Divergent.  I thought highly of the novel, and Mr. Burger did an impressive job with the film.

Divergent is visually impressive.  The cinematography is sweeping, grand, and tinged with the decay Mrs.  Roth depicted so well in her novel.  I was pleased to find so much diversity in faction dress, living quarters… some things were cut for time, but the real-world visuals were stunning.  Divergent‘s story relies heavily on simulations, computer-controlled drug hallucinations that test a person’s character and abilities.  If there was one part of the story that was custom-made for the big screen, the simulations were a make-or-break portion of the storyline.  The simulations are cut down for time, but all of the points come through.  The visions are fantastic while still rooted in the visuals of the real world.  This deft touch made the fantastic visions all the more believable, exactly what someone who grew up in their world would have imagined.

I have a single point against the casting in this film.  Once again the stories of kids in their middle teens are portrayed by actors between twenty-three and thirty.  This provides a bit of a buffer to the shock I felt reading the book, where terrible things happen to children, and the film where someone imagines it for us.

That minor point aside, no one is going to get critical praise for their acting which is a pity because the roles were amazing.  Every actor stepped into character and turned the dial up to eleven.  I loathed Eric (Jai Courtney) in the books, but I spent half the film fighting the urge to reach through the screen and strangle him.  That is the mark of a great pulp villain.  Miles Teller’s portrayal of Peter was equally loathsome, another success for an actor I expect great things from when he hits thirty and can start playing adult roles consistently.  Shailene Woodley plays Beatrice, the main character who undergoes a credible and level transformation from a fearful child to a young warrior over the course of two hours.  Theo James (Four) and Ashley Judd (Natalie) also turn in solid performances.

Hollywood has done great justice to a number of YA books over the past few years (Mortal Instruments, Host, and Hunger Games top the list), with a big enough budget to give largely moral tales the cast and effects that they deserve.  Divergent holds its own with the rest of these, and I like it better than any but Host.  There are some flaws with the fight choreography.  The gun play is occasionally ridiculous, with supposedly trained people running as far as possible from any possible cover, jogging instead of sprinting when people are about to shoot them, etc.  Junkie XL makes up for some of that with an excellent soundtrack that I am going to have to

To dig into the film a little deeper, this film embodies a quote by Margaret Thatcher: “Socialists cry “Power to the people”, and raise the clenched fist as they say it. We all know what they really mean — power over people, power to the State.”  The government has organized all people into Factions, based on the government-administered hallucination.  “Faction before family,” the government says, and enforces the change with death or banishment to the factionless, forbidden to buy, sell, or work.  Does anyone in the audience recognize the exact description of the antichrist’s methods from the book of Revelation?

Everything that was hard to watch in this film I can point to in the actual history of socialism, which has committed as many atrocities in the past century to match most every religious war I have ever heard of, combined.  Only the government having weapons?  Excellent.  Now who can defy you?  Train the children to trust the government (Factions) above all family or love?  It’s in here.  Humanity is the openly confessed enemy of those in power.  Human nature is to be destroyed.  Whoever does not fit in must be defamed, murdered, or massacred.  At the heart level socialist systems believe that people must not have freedom, because they would misuse it, so those who control the government and are wiser and smarter than the masses, and they will kill the masses to make sure their superior vision is followed.

The only difference is in what way the soul (the core of human nature) must be destroyed.  Dauntless will beat the soul from you, like the wolf-pack mentality of Nazi Germany.  Abnegation will strip it from you with false piety like the worst caricature of the monastic ideal.  Amity will drown it in false kindness at the cost of all individual thought, like the lock-step ideals of our own nation’s Hippie movement.  Erudite will starve it on a cold steel plate of heartless science, like the rationalists Dickens loved to eviscerate.  Candor will stab the soul to death with a thousand verbal wounds in the name of truth without love.

Part of the reason the Divergent trilogy resonates so strongly with me is because it addresses the dominant evil of the last hundred years, painted in bright colors, the advancement of collective vision over the individual.  And if the collective does not value you, then die.  The God-given desire to be free (not freedom from an authority, for true freedom can only flourish with loyalty and compassion) rises up with genuine anger at these abuses, and this passion taps into the story, and leaves us with a good lesson.

Generations ago, George Orwell’s Animal Farm attacked socialism through caricature.  Divergent takes the rhetorical approach reductio ad absurdum, painting so boldly that I hope another generation learns the potential evils of socialism in film and steer their lives and perhaps their nations clear of it in the future.

The film is worthwhile.  There is enough left out that the book will be a treat if you have only read the movie, and there is enough truth to make this story virtuous as well as entertaining.

Highly recommended.

Need for Speed

One of my oldest friends was a Need for Speed video game fan when he was fourteen through sixteen, and in memory of his adolescent enthusiasm I took a spin through the movie incarnation of the racing game series.  I am not a huge racing fan for racing’s sake.  A good race can be a great thing to watch, and there were many race scenes in the original Star Wars series, for example, that were done quite well.

There is definitely a late-adolescent feel to the Need for Speed movie, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.  Any style, even Young Adult racing fantasy like this, can be enjoyable if it is done well.  And I have to say that Need for Speed is done very well.

The aspects of adolescent male fantasy are all there:  Million dollar cars, bright colors, an excellent sample of music, and pretty women in the background are only the most obvious draws.  Computer graphics (I hope) allow them to do things to multimillion-dollar cars that gave me flashbacks to how The Dukes of Hazard went broke replacing chassis on expensive cars.  The relationships are also juvenile.  Grown men really expect beautiful women to like them because of their car, and not based on how they speak to or treat them.  People in the military are willing to give buddies joyrides in helicopters, those people then get chased down by fighter jets, etc.

It is a fantasy.  Accept that and the rest is gravy.

Accept that this is a sixteen-year-old’s take on reality, and the movie becomes awesome.  I am not a car guy, but the cars are beautiful, powerful, and great to watch in action.  Everything that folks enjoyed from the video games in in here.  Dodging cops?  Check.  Someone flying overhead simultaneously staying in the air and relaying critical instructions?  You betcha.  A wise-acre pit crew to make a running commentary?  Absolutely.

This is the sort of film that critics will hate and the target audience will love.  There are no controversial social issues, no overt political statements, and no advancement of a particular agenda.  It is, however, a glorious bit of fan service for a long-established video game franchise.  The boys and girls who grew up playing the racing games have budgets and transportation in their adult years to see what happened to their childhood memories.  I have no doubt that those fans will find their money rewarded.

Non-gamers will get plenty to enjoy.  Amusing banter alternates with roaring engines.  None of the characters break new dramatic ground, but they are pleasant stock personalities easy to like because we have seen their type a hundred times in film and television.  The computer graphics are pleasant if not ground-breaking.  The guided tour to roadside scenery of the continental US was a treat as well.  Wind-washed mesas contrast with metal canyons of New York.  Motor City gets a cameo.  The writers definitely know that their audience includes video game kids recently grown up, as there is a great I quit! scene at the start of act three.

I enjoyed watching old friends banter and share and adventure.  I am not a car guy but the visuals stunned me.  There are elements of a chase story on top of the race/competition bit.

That is not to say that I love everything about the film.  I like the film just fine as fantasy, but I cringe a little bit that some stupid kid will take the fantasy and think it is reality.  First, cars do not do that, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars worth of repair bills, and jails are not as fun or brief as the film depicts.  Multiple felonies rack up and only get a few months, not five or ten years, to say nothing about what the armed forces would do to someone who absconded with a military aircraft to help some friends with a joyride.

Those criticisms aside, this film was a fun bit of escapist adventure, and I recommend it.

A little rape with your 300?

I went to see 300: Rise of an Empire, the movie adaptation of… it is hard to say.  Technically the film is the movie adaptation of the graphic novel Xerxes by Frank Miller of comic book legend, but the graphic novel is itself a sequel to the graphic novel turned into a movie we know as 300.  Then it should be stated that both graphic novels are theoretically based on the defense of Greece from Persian invasion that actually happened.  It is at about that point where I get dizzy and stop trying to maintain my attribution.  It was a movie, sort of.

300: Rise of an Empire is a stunning collage of visual effects, but it is difficult to say that it is quite a movie.  I counted more than five minutes of 4-second establishing shots in a row, which makes this much more like a moving comic book than what I would normally think of as a film.

Let me hit the highlights first:  The raw graphical design work involved in this film does not beggar the imagination, it replaces it.  Every shot has something beautiful, artful, or deliberately terrible to see.  I was constantly awestruck by the visual medium.  There were cuts and establishing shots of King Leonidas and the 300 Spartans who died with him at Thermopylae that were nice to see.  The fighting was like watching a ballet as interpreted by WWE and Akira Kurosawa with three thousand buckets of digital blood thrown in.

It was an absolute spectacle.

But I cannot recommend it as more than that.

Frank Miller, whose story this really is, was at one point the pinnacle of graphic novel and comic book storytelling.  He single-handedly revived the Daredevil and the Batman franchises.  It you enjoyed Watchmen you know another of his most famous works.  But word is out in the industry that Miller is past his prime.

I was skeptical because I loved his work so much, but if this film is anything close to his graphic novel I now believe it.

This story is ripped right out of a sick fourteen-year-old’s fantasies.  In truly latent homosexual fashion the Greek outfits seem to have gotten even more thong-like, and waxed chests are everywhere you look.  There is a token woman, who apparently wants to get involved in the most revolting scene of sexual violence I have seen in years, as the two main characters simultaneously try and rape the other in what only a socially maladjusted virgin could possibly conceive of as sex, and how it scraped by under an NC-17 rating may be the most incredible part of this film.

Obviously there is very little to do with actual history going on.  I was able to hang in there believing in the story until the very first Persian iron-clad oil tanker showed up on screen, at which point I was just done.The few intelligent portions of 300 are gone.  Yes, I just said that.  Remember how Lena Headey played a valiant warrior’s wife, who had to deal with a male-dominated political system to try and rally support for her husband’s cause?  It turns out she was actually the sole ruling dictator and everything she went through has disappeared.  She has entire armies and navies to order wherever she wants.  That’s right.  Her husband died for no reason, but you aren’t supposed to remember that because there is lots of blood and mostly naked men wrestling around together (never mind that the warriors of the time wore about eighty pounds of bronze armor that covered as much of their bodies as possible).

Also missing is piety.  Frank Miller presents Athenian democracy as an alternative to superstition and religion, as he puts pretty much that line in Themistocles’ mouth talking to Sparta.  The Greeks and the Romans after them were fundamentally, persistently religious.  Read their writings, listen to their epic poems like Homer’s.  I do not even remotely agree with their religion and I had to shake my  head at the total lack of gods-fearing of a single character.  (Remember the controversial oracle scene from the first film, the oracle, the one who talks for the gods?  I remember it being slightly… um… important to the whole freaking plot?!)  Who needs plots or motivations?  We can just flex and hack.  That is all the audience cares about.  And in a disturbing twist the half-naked dudes are even younger, or have a younger person in the screen.  Does anyone find the rush to put barely-legal-appearing young men half-naked a bit troubling?  If they were barely-legal-appearing half-naked women, as the oracle was in the first film, there would be a great uproar.

If you are the type of person who really enjoys watching people torn apart with loud screams and buckets of blood, doing so will make your enemy women want you to rape them, then this is the sort of movie for you.  You won’t care about the ridiculous idea that the narrating character could not possibly know a tenth of what she describes.  The writers don’t think you can remember the story from the last movie, as long as it has as much or more skin, blood, and mutilation.

I’m all for stories about defending your homeland, fighting for freedom, and standing against impossible odds.  I even thought the tiny little nods here and there to fighting for the man next to you were good points.  They take up about half of one percent of the story.  If you want honor, courage, and camaraderie I suggest getting a copy of Lone Survivor.  If you want something about faith (and the Greeks cared a lot about the Gods,) supporting you in the face of death, look elsewhere as well.  I find that strange since knowing one is about to die magnifies the significance of the afterlife just a tad.

For the second time this month I find myself in the rare case of having to completely down-check a bit of media.  I far prefer offering up reviews of things worthwhile, trolling through media to point out the bright spots.

This is not one of them.  I even sort of liked the first film.  I would rather read Like a Mighty Army out loud than re-watch this film.  Just like Weber’s book, it is all the worse because it had the potential to be so much more.  Without Themistocles the battle of Thermopylae would have been meaningless, and I value Themistocles more because his naval contribution was the result of years of forethought and discipline, while the actual Spartans’ sacrifice, however noble, was not much different from what they trained for all the time.

I’m afraid that search engine optimization will make it difficult for you to dig up the real story of Themistocles of Athens, or even Thermopylae, since these films have used history for toilet paper, but there is some good military history avoided by these films, and some patriotic heroism well worth remembering.  If you cannot find it online, a trip to the library will bring an excellent lesson in military preparedness.  By the time the crisis comes it is too late to build up your defenses.  Themistocles of Athens embodied this lesson, and saved his whole region, much less his country, because of it.