Tag Archives: Gerard Butler

Not Enough Good Words — “How to Train Your Dragon 2”

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I’m told by some older critics that we’re supposed to lead our readers for paragraphs on end about whether a movie is good or bad. I’m told we’re not supposed to use superlatives like “masterpiece.” Then I’m told, “Criticism’s a dying art.” Maybe it’s because we’re spending all our words building suspense over whether a movie’s good or not.

So let’s get this out of the way first and foremost: “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is good. Really good. One of the best American animated films good. I’d even call it a “masterpiece.”

That last paragraph is 35 words. That’s how quickly a critic can tell someone if a movie’s good, and I was being wordy. I’m much more concerned with why and how a movie’s good. In a film like “Dragon 2,” what does it communicate to your children? How does it reflect on our world?

“Dragon 2” picks up where the first “Dragon” left off, with a society of vikings having domesticated dragons they had once feared and fought. Everyone has one now, and dragon racing is the new sport. The pioneer of this new society, young Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), is uncomfortable with the concept of becoming his village’s chief. He would rather explore the world beyond his village’s borders with his dragon Toothless.

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This is the only family film I can think of that centers on two amputee heroes – Toothless uses an artificial tail fin and Hiccup has a prosthetic leg. Toothless’s bond to Hiccup often reflects that of a service animal. In a country engaged in wars for the past 13 years, I applaud “Dragon 2” for including heroes like these. Instead of being stigmatized as too damaged, we can look up to them as we might any other role model.

The movie stresses acceptance in a number of ways – including dragons, previously feared as too different or threatening to the Viking way of life, has made Hiccup’s village of Berk stronger, more efficient, and happier.

As he maps the unknown world, Hiccup encounters dragon trappers. These men work for the warlord and dragon slaver Drago, but they are harassed by a mysterious stranger they refer to as the Dragon Thief. She frees as many dragons as she can. Hiccup will doubtlessly meet her, and she proves to be one of the strongest, most unique female characters I’ve seen in a cartoon. His introduction to her above the clouds is a haunting, otherworldly scene, the kind we don’t expect from cartoons but that can burn itself into our minds as an iconic moment in cinema.

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“Dragon 2” folds mythology of all kinds into its story and its visuals. There are epic battles aplenty, but there is loss, too. In contrast to many of our blockbuster films, loss in “Dragon 2” is permanent; there’s no “retcon” to take away its sting and – in true mythological fashion – it can come at the hands of your most trusted friend. Children can handle this; death used to be a staple of the fairy tales we told. Handled properly, it can create both an emotional moment and a lesson in growing up. Testing our reactions to the loss of loved ones in fiction is one of the many ways we eventually learn to cope with it in our real lives. It’s one of the most primal reasons we tell stories – these are crucial lessons that need to remain in our fiction.

And the visuals…there aren’t enough superlatives in the world. In 2-D or 3-D, this is a feast for the eyes. Visual consultant Roger Deakins, who boasts 11 Oscar nominations as a cinematographer for films including “Skyfall,” “True Grit,” and “The Shawshank Redemption,” plays with color and shadow in a way that makes you feel as if you’ve glimpsed past the pages of a true Norse epic while still maintaining a cartoon sensibility.

Writer-director Dean DeBlois has crafted something deeply special, an exciting adventure that shows us “less able” isn’t the most accurate term, that celebrates inclusiveness, that treasures the tools of peace over war, that shows the kids and reminds the adults in the audience how we grow up, that works as a cartoon, an epic, a comedy, and an art film all in one. So, yes, it’s a masterpiece, but I told you that at the beginning. Why it’s a masterpiece, how it’s a masterpiece, that’s what will make it stick in your mind, what makes it so worth talking about, so worth celebrating. “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is rated PG for action and humor.

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“300: Rise of an Empire” a Colossal Disappointment

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The first 300 was, ostensibly, a movie about men in their underwear hacking at each other with swords in slow-motion. Needless to say, the girl I was dating at the time declared it her “new favorite movie ever.” It was also an art movie told through action scenes.

What I remember best from 300 isn’t any particular fight, though. I remember the field in which Sparta’s King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) says his goodbyes to Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) before heading off to battle. As much as that film glorified war, it also glorified a field of wheat in sunrise as the wind carried through it. It made going to battle a bittersweet, complex choice, and it glorified the reasons to stay home just as much. It was the rare action movie from which liberals and conservatives both lifted messages, and that both sides still argue is “theirs.”

300: BATTLE OF ARTEMESIUM

The sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire, is not an art movie. It’s an action movie that looks artful because if it didn’t, it couldn’t call itself 300. What it champions is warmongering. There’s not a single scene that shows us what’s at stake. Our Athenian hero Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), who dreams of a united Greece, treats Athens like his own private, military dictatorship. You might expect this in itself to be a strong political statement, but nope – it just hurries the plot along faster if the screenwriters don’t require anyone else to speak.

300: Rise of an Empire also makes its villain far more interesting than its hero, but commits the cardinal sin of not realizing this. We cheered for Leonidas in the first film because Butler knew a movie filmed entirely in front of a green screen needed an anchor. He needed to act like the audience was 1,000 feet away, so he had to shout and wink and chew every piece of nonexistent scenery just to match the tone of his CG surroundings. This time around, it’s Eva Green (Casino Royale) who snarls and sneers and stares piercingly through every line of dialogue. She plays the evil Persian general Artemisia as if Darth Vader found the goth section of Katy Perry’s wardrobe.

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The film gives Artemisia such a tragic backstory that you’d be a terrible person to root against such a survivor. I tire of boys in genre movies being captured and trained to be gruff and manly and fight as noble gladiators while the narrative equivalent for girls is to be sexually abused. It’s needless, lazy, and offensive. Combine such tragedy with Green acting circles around the rest of the cast and Themistokles’s incessant blandness, and I found myself rooting hard for Artemisia to win the day.

Yes, in the film, Greece represents democracy, Persia represents slavery, and Themistokles can’t sneeze without trumpeting the word “freedom,” but the movie does an awful job of championing any of these ideas or showing them in practice. When Themistokles isn’t outguiling bad guys, he spends all his time trying to get Mel Gibson’s Braveheart monologue right. I stopped counting at the sixth attempt. There’s some fresh air when Sparta’s Queen Gorgo finally gets involved (I’d much rather the movie had followed her into battle), but it’s too little too late.

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Some of the art direction is inspired – particularly in the first two battles when the actors are the focus. As more CG is involved, however, the mostly naval battles feel increasingly generic and fast-forwarded. Zack Snyder, who directed the first 300, was smart enough to treat his visual effects in a painterly way. Graphics were to add background and tone, to emphasize the human form or, at most, to create some unspeakable enemy. When there was blood and viscera, it was strangely beautiful, and clarified each move of the fight choreography by extending it into an arc of unreal color. In Noam Murro’s sequel, the effects increasingly take over the battles and play both hero and enemy. Blood gushes everywhere for the shock of it and, like most shocking effects, becomes quickly tiresome.

As for 3D, Murro often washes out his backgrounds with shafts of sunlight or flashes of light in darkness. These are nice effects in 2D, but have the tendency to blur out details and strain viewers’ eyes in 3D. 300: Rise of an Empire is rated R for pretty much everything – bloody violence, sex, nudity, and some language. The first 300 used these things to make a point. It’s hard to forgive its sequel for not bothering to have one.

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