Saturday, June 28, 2014

Summer Movie Diary: Transformers: Age of Extinction (2D)

Date: June 28, 2014
Time: 10:10 pm
Place: Cinemark NextGen Stone Hill Town Center
Company: Derrick, Gray, Penelope
Food:  Red & Blue Icee
Runtime:  2 hours, 45 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Director: Michael Bay

Quick Impressions:
At the very end of the movie, Optimus Prime intones sonorously, “I’m coming for you.”

Immediately my daughter turned to me and asked, “Yes, but who is you?” 

“That’s a very good question,” I said.

Shaking her head, she told me, “I don’t even know who they mean by you.  I don’t think they really ever explained that in the movie.”

That was a pretty spot-on bit of critique.  Probably by the time she starts kindergarten this August, my daughter will be writing these reviews instead of me.  She’s not afraid to be blunt when necessary.

As I see it, the identity of this mysterious you is such an egregious loose end that I found myself wondering, “Did Damon Lindelof write this script?”  (He didn’t, by the way.  It was Ehren Kruger.)  But he certainly could have.  At about four separate points during the film, I caught myself thinking, This reminds me a lot of Prometheus (the movie, not the myth).  Not only is it preoccupied with stuff like mysterious creators and world-seeding, but it also includes spell-binding action scenes that occur for no reason and serve no real purpose.

I’m sure they plan to address this “you” issue in the next Transformers movie, and when they do, I certainly hope they bring back Stanley Tucci, Bingbing Li, and Sophia Myles.  I’m going to be brutally honest.  Without them, the movie would have no redeeming qualities.  (Well, maybe that’s excessively harsh.  Let me say more gently, although I did not hate most of this movie, the parts with Tucci and his female sidekicks were the only scenes I actually actively liked.)

When I asked my eleven-year-old stepson, a huge fan of the Transformers franchise, how he thought this compared to the other movies, he answered immediately, “It was better.”
                                                           
Perhaps I seemed too incredulous as I squawked in disbelief, “Really??!”  I tried to dial back my extreme reaction a little too late.

Some fans may agree with him that Age of Extinction is the best Transformers movie so far.  I can think of only one thing to support this crazy notion.  This fourth movie is by far the most serious/least silly of the entire franchise.  Gone is Sam’s mom and all of her wacky, off-the-wall, over-the-top, zany humor.  The only problem for me is, I loved Sam’s mom.  I actually think the first Transformers is a pretty good movie (for what it is), and part of what makes it enjoyable is the goofy humor.  As far as I’m concerned, the original 2007 movie is by far the best of the series.  Yes, it’s tonally all over the place, often sacrificing realism for a laugh (though one might argue that any movie that shows the audience Shia LaBeouf acting like a maniac for no apparent reason is actually quite realistic).  But at least when the film does anything for a laugh, the audience sometimes laughs.  I mean, the movie is about a toyline of 80s robots from outer space.  It’s not exactly The Thin Red Line.  Plus the first movie has (by comparison) tons of character development and features a strong, compelling relationship between Sam Witwicky and Bumblebee, Optimus Prime, and the rest of the Autobots.

About two hours into this movie, my daughter (who had been shifting and complaining a lot) abruptly decided, “Hey I think I suddenly like this movie!  It just got good.”

The funny thing is, she was right.  Unlike all previous Transformers installments, this one gets better as it goes, so the last 30-45 minutes is the very best part.  (Maybe even—dare I say it?—the only good part.) 

Of course, it’s not ideal when you have to watch a movie for two hours before it starts getting good.  Then again, after two hours, most movies are over already.  But Transfomers: Age of Extinction bucks this trend by lasting approximately two thousand years.  Finally for the first time on the big screen, we learn the true reason that the dinosaurs died…somebody made them sit through Transformers…Age of Extinction.  (Just kidding—though we may never know for sure.)

The Good:
Although I won’t pretend this is my favorite movie, and it’s not one I would have chosen myself simply for my own viewing pleasure, and enduring the first two-thirds of it nearly killed my daughter, there are some things I liked about Transformers: Age of Extinction.

1) The visuals are exhilarating.  In essence, this movie is like a grave digger reflected in a funhouse mirror—much too long with a plot that’s all over the place.  But start to finish, the whole thing looks pretty awesome.  We get treated to a variety of exciting landscapes and dynamic filming techniques.  We soar through canyons, gaze into the sunset, or scale the side of a skyscraper.  Whether we’re looking at nature’s splendor or urban grandiosity, we usually like what we see (and there are always plenty of ads, so we know who it's all brought to us by).  Plus, for whatever reason, we get constantly disorienting camera angles to keep us on our toes.  I don’t know if it’s Michael Bay or his cinematographer, but somebody really likes to frame a scene by going low and looking way up at a subject.  (Maybe the cameramen were having a limbo contest.  It’s not impossible.)  And if all that’s not exciting enough, we also get treated to lens flare, dramatic explosions, and expensive cars.

2) The movie has several clear “morals” and presents some of them surprisingly artfully.  Yes, it’s pretty pointed when Mark Wahlberg lectures Optimus Prime that great things can come from human mistakes.  But there’s another idea in there, too, one that clearly reflects our society’s mood at the moment.  In previous Transformers outings, there have been good guys and bad guys, Autobots versus Decepticons.  This time around, morality is much murkier.  This time around, there really are no good guys.  Everyone’s looking out for his or her own interests.  The aliens are at best indifferent to us.  Our own elected officials are actively lying to us.  Big business is trying to cheat us.  Even children lie to their own parents.  In 2014, we’re starting to suspect that there are no good guys.  So what do we do?  In this movie, the answer is to pick someone to trust based on personal charisma and then follow that person loyally and blindly.  There’s a great scene when Optimus Prime takes a risk to find some more allies.  The other Autobots with him basically admit that even they don’t quite understand what’s going on at this point.  (The plot is that convoluted.  Not even the Transformers know what is going on.)  But they intend to follow Optimus and let him sort everything out.  One of them says pointedly that Optimus is such a great leader, such a motivational speaker.  Intellectually, I found this pervasive message surprisingly coherent and captivating.  Given how bloated this Michael Bay film is, I didn’t expect it to contain any insight nearly so thoughtful.

3)  The scenes in “Texas” really do look like Texas.  Watching, I thought, That looks like the Hill Country.  They could have shot it down the street from my house.  In fact, one of the movie’s filming locations is Austin, so maybe they did shoot it down the street from my house.  As a Texan, I love to see Texas accurately represented in movies.  Cinematically, there’s a long strange history of trying to pass off Arizona desert as Texas.  Hollywood apparently cannot tell the difference.  The only exception seems to be when something takes place in Dallas.  Then everybody is rich, wears a big white cowboy hat, and talks with a “Texan” accent that makes them sound like they’re from Atlanta.  I’m currently working on a trilogy set in and around Austin, so I really had fun looking at the beautiful scenery and imagining how great it would be if my books someday get adapted for the screen, and they decide to film in the real Texas.

4)  Mark Wahlberg is supposed to be a native Texan mad-scientist who makes robots in his barn.  I don’t care where you’re from.  That’s just funny.  It’s also kind of funny that he and his daughter are quickly joined by a “friend” who is, in fact, an Irish racecar driver, quickly dubbed “Lucky Charms” by Wahlberg’s character.  There’s just something so delightfully absurd about the whole thing.  It’s like the movies finally figured out where Texas is, but they still have no idea who lives there.

5)  Peter Cullen still voices Optimus Prime.  My daughter said after the movie that Optimus Prime was her favorite character, and I can definitely see the appeal.  He’s one of the strongest characters in this movie, one of the only easily identifiable “good guys.”  On the ride home, my husband and I were trying to impress on our kids how cool it is that the original voice of Optimus Prime from the old cartoons we watched as kids still voices him in all the movies.  (I remember when my stepson was four and sometimes called him Ultimus Crime.)  Honestly, this time around, the rest of the Transformers are disappointingly thinly drawn if you ask me.  He’s really the only worthwhile Transformer left.

6)  Stanley Tucci and the two women in his life are just so amazingly wonderful.  I swear Tucci and his scene partners must be doing some ad-libbing because his scenes are conspicuously more entertaining, especially the later in the movie we get.  In a smaller part, Kelsey Grammer is also not half bad.  Some of his lines are ridiculous, but he wins major points for delivering them with intensity and never acknowledging how silly they are.

Best Scene:
Like Optimus Prime when Wahlberg’s character finds him, the movie is incredibly slow starting.  The beginning is not exactly bad.  The opening scenes are quite high-energy and captivating, and then when we get to Texas, at least we really are in Texas. 

I like Mark Wahlberg in general.  And T.J. Miller is pretty good, too.  (I liked him as Hud in Cloverfield.)  Neither of them exactly screams, “I am from Texas!” of course.  But I’d rather see this kind of Texan onscreen than more overblown cowboy stereotypes like the ones we usually encounter.

Despite the pleasant scenery and competent actors, though, the movie really doesn’t find its legs until Stanley Tucci’s character goes to China.  And that’s truly unfortunate because these events happen quite late in the movie.  (Tucci’s Joshua Joyce isn’t even introduced, in fact, until what must be a solid hour into the film.)

So the best part of the movie takes place in China.  Perhaps not so coincidentally, Bingbing Li’s Su Yueming suddenly comes into her own as a character during this part of the film.  She’s in a few earlier scenes, but we mainly just see her face or barely notice her standing in the background.  But then we get ready to go to China, and suddenly, her character becomes increasingly fascinating.

The best part for me is when she and Tucci run off together, first on the motorcycle, then in the elevator.  I swear that scene on the bike seems like a self-conscious parody of The Bourne Legacy.  And after watching their brilliant work in the elevator, I’d be stunned to learn that Tucci and Li are not adlibbing and making more of their part than what’s written.  Whatever they’re doing, it’s working.

Besides Optimus Prime, Su Yueming was my five-year-old’s favorite character, and the scenes in China were the only ones in the entire movie she liked.  To be honest, I agree with her. 

When Yueming gradually began to get more and more screentime, I started wondering, Why exactly weren’t we following this character the entire time?  Why isn’t she the protagonist?  I would have loved to see a movie focusing more on the not-exactly-love-triangle occupied by Yueming, Tucci’s Joshua Joyce, and Darcy Tirrel (played by Sophia Myles).  Li, Tucci, and Myles had all better be back for the next Transfomers outing.

Best Action Sequence:
The crazy motorcycle escapade of Li and Tucci already reminded me of a Bourne Legacy parody.  The fight between Mark Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager and Titus Welliver’s James Savoy totally continued this impression.  Seriously it’s like they’re sending up the Bourne franchise, mocking Bourne style action by showing how ridiculous it looks when tried by ordinary people.  I don’t know if that’s the intention or not, but the fighting (and then the pursuit from window to window) definitely contains some of the most effective humor of the movie (besides looking very cool).

Best Scene Visually:
The whole movie looks good.  It sounds great, too, particularly if your heart thrills at the revving of a well-oiled engine. 

But the best scene visually is definitely that final battle/chase on the streets of Hong Kong, particularly the part where enormous ships keep falling all over the road.  I can only imagine how amazing this must look in 3D.  Newly engaged with the movie, my daughter found this scene delightful—even sometimes funny.  It’s a thrill to watch, for sure.

The scenes showing the Autobots standing around in front of a massive waterfall are quite appealing as well.  And my stepson really, really liked the dinobots.  (My daughter was less impressed.  They freaked her out.)

The Negatives:
Unlike Transformers: Age of Extinction, I know that sometimes, we need limits, so I realize that going on and on about what’s wrong with this movie for the next two hours and forty-five minutes would be completely excessive and out of the question.

For a minute, I’d like to beg you to be honest.  Did you expect Transfomer’s Four directed by Michael Bay to be a flawless masterpiece that made the nation's critics weep with transcendent joy?

It goes without saying that this movie has some serious flaws.  But I’ll limit myself to six.  I listed six good points, so naming that many of the movie’s failings seems reasonably fair.

1)  The plot is needlessly convoluted.  I disagree with people who say that the movie has no plot or that it makes no sense.  The plot of the movie does make sense.  It’s just extremely complicated, far more complicated than it needs to be.  I think the “makes no sense” complaint arises not from plot holes but from the fact that the characters behave in inconsistent, unrealistic, and unnecessary ways.  Basically the real issue is that nobody knows what’s going on.  Ever.  There’s one very pointed scene that clearly reveals to us that even the Transformers themselves don’t know what on earth is happening or what’s supposed to happen.  There are really no longer good guys.  Everybody is just kind of a jerk.  So instead of a series of essential phases in a coherent plan designed to by “good guys” to save the earth, we get this big, crazy free-for-all.  The selfish try to figure out how to get what they want and act in their own interests.  Meanwhile, the would-be heroes have no idea what needs to be done, so they just run around like crazy people haphazardly trying everything.  The results are—largely—boring.

2)  All of the Transformers are jerks now.  Seriously, the humans have inexplicably lost all honor, and the government doesn’t seem functional.  (Of course, some people would just call that realism.)  But the Autobots aren’t really nice anymore, either.  Most of them are at best annoying, belligerent, and self-seeking.  Only Optimus Prime has any nobility.  (And by the way, there’s a moment with his character and Kelsey Grammer near the end that should have gotten much more attention.  We needed to linger there a bit.  Don’t tell me there wasn’t time.)  John Goodman’s Autobot is like a comic variation on his character in The Big Lebowski.  Ken Watanabe is basically wasted.  I guess Bumblebee is still reasonably likeable, but nobody has a special relationship with him anymore—unless you count some fans of the first movie in the audience.

3)  Nicola Peltz is easily the most boring, dull, lifeless girl they have tried out in a Transformers movie yet.  I remember last time around thinking that Carly was a big step down from Mikaela (whom I never even liked in the first place), but Tessa Yeager outdoes them all in blandness.  Now I’m not really familiar with Peltz’s work in general, so I don’t mean this as an attack on the actress.  I have no idea what she’s like outside this movie.  (Natalie Portman, for example, is a good actress, but is poorly directed in the Star Wars prequels.)  The Tessa character just seems very one dimensional and also vaguely dull and generic.  By comparison, both Bingbing Li and Sophia Myles are fantastic in the same movie.  Does Tessa really need so much screentime?  She does so little with it.  Li and Miles both seem more alluring than Peltz, too.  She just comes across as very boring, though I’m sure she could be pretty under the right circumstances.

4)  Now that I’ve bashed poor Nicola Peltz (who definitely has more fans than I do), I’d like to add that this movie struck me as having a sort of nasty undercurrent of misogyny, and normally I don’t complain about stuff like that.  I’m much more likely to let these things go, usually.  But over and over again in this movie, I found myself getting really annoyed.  And honestly, I’m not sure it’s only misogyny.  There’s a fair amount of general misanthropy, too, the portrayal of everyone as base and disgusting.  (John Goodman's character has a moment that's, frankly, disturbing precisely because it's needlessly awful.)  Maybe that’s supposed to be a statement about what war does to people.  I don’t know.  All sorts of little things began to add up for me, but one of the most obvious examples of lazy/ridiculous writing comes when Peltz’s character Tessa refuses to go forward on the cables with Cade and Shane.  I can understand that she might be afraid.  But come on.  Her behavior is ridiculous.  It’s like a scene from I Love Lucy, especially when she declares that she’d rather get back on the space ship and actually starts going backwards.  Now, to be fair, this scene probably isn’t any worse than a lot of other scenes in movies.  But the problem is, it’s not entertaining or funny.  It’s just annoying.  Maybe that’s because Peltz is not a very good actress.  (Certainly, she’s not given much to work with.)  I mean, how often have you seen something and laughed hysterically but then later realized, That was actually unrealistic and sort of insulting to women?  But this isn’t even funny.  It’s just the dumbest thing ever.

5)  This is a big one.  Over halfway through the movie, we suddenly get this big, new, exciting bombshell.  It’s the thing my daughter was asking about at the end of the movie.  Age of Extinction teases us with this tantalizing, revelatory idea, but then it promises new information that it never delivers.  Seriously you cannot imagine how surprised I was to realize that the movie might be going in this new direction.  For about ten seconds, I was on the edge of my seat.  But the movie never follows through with this (or many other) tease(s).  Also, talk about a huge pacing problem!  Again and again, the best stuff happens far too late in the movie when it can’t be explored thoroughly or seen through to its natural conclusions.

6)  You cannot truly understand the plot simply by watching the movie.  This flaw may sound strange, but it’s actually more common than you may realize.  Back when I was a kid, this kind of thing actually happened all the time.  Imagine that you’re a child in the 80s and you hear a bunch of kids raving about how awesome Boba Fett is.  Hoping for more information, you watch the original Star Wars trilogy.  Obviously, that’s not going to give you the answers you’re looking for.  Sometimes, to get a movie, you have to do more than just watch the movie.  Sometimes the answers you’re seeking are found in the little booklets that come with a toy line, or in other tie-in merchandising like cartoons or video games.  Or sometimes you have to listen to the director’s commentary or cast interviews.  About halfway through, I started to suspect that Age of Extinction was going to be this kind of movie.  And guess what?  After it was over on the ride home, my stepson started talking about how he’s watched the cartoon where they explain all about the topic that kept baffling Optimus Prime and my daughter.  I knew it!  But what does that say about this movie as a movie?  Nearly three hours long, and there’s not even time to fit in the plot?  Talk about poor clock management!

Okay, that’s enough.  If you want to find out all the other things horribly wrong with this movie, you’ll have to buy a ticket and watch it for yourself!

Overall:
Transformers: Age of Extinction is probably the second best Transformers movie after the original, which is not saying much.  (In my opinion, only the first is not terrible.  This fourth installment is the least terrible of the rest.)  My eleven-year-old stepson loved it, and my five-year-old daughter loved the antics of Stanley Tucci and Bingbing Li in the final forty minutes.

I will admit that much to my shock, I did end up liking the last part of Age of Extinction.  In the past, I’ve liked only the first two-thirds of each Transformers movie.  Then I zone out during the interminable final action sequence.  But this time, the last third of the movie was by far the best.

Fans of the movies who go in knowing they’ll love this one will almost certainly be right.  I didn’t love it, but at least I survived, which is more than I can say for the dinosaurs!  (Oh, and speaking of dinosaurs, I almost forgot to mention that the soundtrack contains some songs by Imagine Dragons that even my daughter found “so cool.”)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Summer Movie Diary: Jersey Boys

Date: June 25, 2014
Time: 6:15 pm
Place: Cinemark NextGen Stone Hill Town Center
Company: Derrick

Food:  none
Runtime:  2 hours, 14 minutes
Rating: R
Director: Clint Eastwood

Quick Impressions:
Our kids really like musicals, so when I first saw that Jersey Boys was coming to the big screen this summer, I planned to take the kids on opening weekend.  But then I saw that it was rated R and directed by Clint Eastwood.

Can you imagine taking children to Mystic River or Million Dollar Baby?  I’ve never seen the Broadway show, and I didn’t know much about the backstory of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, so with the R rating and Eastwood in the director’s chair, I just assumed the non-singing parts of the film would be gritty and intense with flashes of graphic violence and occasional nudity.

So when our five-year-old begged, “Please can I go to the movie with you tonight?” we had to tell her sorry, not this time.

But guess what?  Now that I’ve seen the movie, I know that she could have watched it, after all.  And her older brother would have loved it. 

I’m honestly not exaggerating when I say that Jersey Boys has to be the softest R I have ever seen (well except maybe The King’s Speech.  Maybe).  Bleep out a few choice expletives, and this could literally air as is on network TV.

My husband and I speculated as we left the theater that this must be one of those movies that got an R just for saying the F-word more than whatever the arbitrary limit is now (once?  Three times?)  Honestly, though, you don’t notice the profanity.  It’s hardly non-stop, and I don’t recall anything particularly offensive.  And there’s no nudity (unless you count a guy pacing around in a towel yelling about needing more towels, and if you find that objectionable, how do you ever take your kids to the beach?)

Now maybe parents would want to steer their young children away from this.  Jersey Boys does include some less-than-kindergarten-ready aspects of life.  People sometimes cheat on their wives.  People die.  The Mafia exists.  And there is one jump scare “murder” scene that may temporarily alarm young children.  (But again, the average episode of CSI is scarier and more graphic.)

How in the world this didn’t end up PG-13 instead of R is beyond me.  I mean, yeah, Frankie Valli and his friends are mixed up with the mob, but the mob boss is their friend and protector.  Eastwood often gives us gritty, violent realism (or you might even argue hyper-realism since frequently in his movies, things are even more hopelessly grim than in real life).  But in Jersey Boys, we get this incredibly romanticized, nostalgic reimagining of the seedy underbelly of New Jersey in the 1950s.  It’s about as likely to corrupt and traumatize kids as that episode of the Simpsons where Bart joins the Mafia (although I guess that, too, caused a stir when it originally aired).  The early part of the movie is kind of like the first fifteen minutes of Sleepers.  The difference is, instead of getting their lives destroyed by a careening hot dog cart, these kids all join a boy band and become rich and famous.

I went into Jersey Boys with no particular expectations.  I usually enjoy Broadway musicals (and own a lot of soundtracks), but I hadn’t seen this one, and though I know (and like) most of Frankie Valli’s biggest hits (more of them than I’d realized, in fact), I’m not exactly a rabid fan of The Four Seasons.

I also usually like films directed by Clint Eastwood.  (Just because I’m weird, I guess, I’ve enjoyed some of his less warmly received films more than his hits.  Sean Penn and Laura Linney’s last scene in Mystic River left me with kind of a gross feeling, and I think the dilemma in Million Dollar Baby is frustratingly contrived, but I actually really loved Changeling and found far more redeeming qualities in J. Edgar than a lot of people.)

But the name Clint Eastwood doesn’t exactly scream “Broadway musical,” and a Broadway musical directed by Eastwood seems like an odd choice for a big summer release.  So I didn’t know what to expect and could easily have been talked out of going in favor of some other unknown movie.

I’m glad I went, though.  In fact, a part of me wants to see the movie again.  I know our eleven-year-old would love it, and I think my parents might enjoy it, too.

The Good:
When you go to the movies at least once a week, it’s hard to afford to see Broadway shows, too (particularly on Broadway).  I live right in the heart of Texas, so Broadway is not exactly convenient.  In fact, despite a love of musicals, I’ve never even been to New York.  (I’ve seen quite a lot of West End shows over the years, though.  And if you’re wondering why New York is inconvenient, but London’s not out of the way, the answer is how can I possibly afford to take a trip to New York if I’m going to London all the time?  It’s very expensive to visit London!)

Anyway, I usually love musicals and used to peruse the showtunes section of the music store regularly, searching for soundtracks and original cast recordings that I didn’t yet own for my collection (which is now collecting dust on an entertainment shelf in my bedroom dedicated exclusively to storing old CDs and millions of used plastic drinking straws.)  (Just don’t ask about the drinking straws.)

My point is, I didn’t know what to expect from Jersey Boys, and my lack of anticipation definitely worked in the film’s favor.  I was surprised to find it consistently engaging, often funny, and well-acted by almost everyone.

I was also amazed by how great the movie looked and sounded.  Clint Eastwood does not like bold colors.  If you ever wake up washed out and look around you to see a lot of pale, dull, muted blue tones, then it’s a pretty good bet you’re in a Clint Eastwood movie.  (How you got there is not my problem, and I don’t have time to address it here.)

The washed out look works well in a movie set in the past, though, and despite the pallor of the world, everything in Jersey Boys had a crisp, clear, desirable look to it.  I particularly loved the numerous establishing shots of cars driving up and down the street.  (We’d get these periodically to illustrate the passage of time or a change of location.)  I would always think, “Wow!  What a sleek, elegant, energizing time!  I wish I had lived then!”  (I did, actually, live in the 90s.  So when I saw those cars, I just missed riding around with my Grandpa.)

As you might expect, the music is really great, too.  It’s literally toe-tapping.  Some songs refuse to let the audience get away with not nodding their heads and tapping their toes.  And as I watched, I felt like a total idiot because I hadn’t realized until seeing Jersey Boys just how much the popular sound of the 1960s was influenced by The Four Seasons.  When I thought of Frankie Valli before the movie, I immediately called to mind “Walk Like a Man” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” but they sing a billion other songs, and (to my surprise) I knew all of those, too (most of them very well).  (The one song I didn’t know was “My Eyes Adored You.”  I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before.  Don’t ask me why.  Huge, inexplicable gaps like that are always surfacing in my pop culture knowledge.)

But the movie is more than just the songs.  It’s easy to believe that it came from a Broadway show because it still feels a lot like one.  Characters are always breaking the fourth wall and narrating.  Each one of  the Four Seasons spends some time talking to the audience.  I think this device works well even in the film because it prevents the movie from dragging.  With a few exceptions, the movie stays focused and moves forward at a brisk pace.  We don't have to see each mundane thing that happens because if we jump forward in time, one of the narrators can catch us up on what we’ve missed. 

Elements like Tommy and Nick’s limited stints in the revolving door prison serve as a reminder that the movie is adapted from a stage play.  I liked the artificiality of this structuring device.  Musicals aren’t really supposed to be realistic.  They’re as much their own genre as comedy or drama, and one of the markers of a musical is a structure that’s one step removed from ordinary reality.  Often song lyrics reveal and drive the plot.  In this case, the songs are realistic recreations of pop hits, but the speaking-to-the-camera device works like a song would in a more traditional stage musical.  For me, these confidential asides from our friendly narrators make the story far more engaging than it would be if presented more realistically.

The movie also features some fantastic performances, all from actors I’d barely (and in many cases never) heard of.  (The only big star in this movie is Christopher Walken. Everybody else is either unknown or next to unknown.  I don’t know where Eastwood found them all, but most of them are fantastic.)

John Lloyd Young, who played Frankie Valli on Broadway reprises the role here.  That makes sense because it must be tricky to find someone who sings like Frankie Valli, especially if you want that person to look passably like Valli and to be within a certain age range.  Young does have a great voice (probably not as good as Valli’s, but still a million times better than mine), and he has some fine dramatic moments, too (although I think he’s the weakest of the four leads in terms of acting).

Erich Bergen makes a really captivating Bob Gaudio (and he looks so familiar.  At different moments his face reminded me of Toby Stephens, Tate Donovan, and even a little of Armie Hammer—though that’s more his expressions than his face.  He turned out not to be any of those guys, so I thought he must have been an original Broadway cast member.  Nope.  So who is Erich Bergen, anyway?  Apparently he did play the part of Bob Gaudio on stage in Vegas for a while but was fired.  That’s all I know about him, but I imagine I’ll know more in the future because he strikes me as a promising talent.

Meanwhile, Michael Lomenda played Nick Massi in a Canadian production of Jersey Boys (as well as on tour).  He’s very good, too and brings a lot of depth to a character who doesn’t have very many lines and even self-identifies as the Ringo of the group who mostly stays in the background and doesn’t pull focus.

Probably my favorite of the main cast members is Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito.  I’ve never watched Boardwalk Empire, so this performance was my introduction to Piazza, and I loved him.  He’s the only one of the four who has never played his character before on stage, but I think he’s the best actor of the bunch (by far).  His charisma makes him very appealing.  (I initially wrote, “He’s very handsome.”  But that’s not true because he looks like somebody smashed the hair and forehead of Edward Cullen on top of the face of Harry Potter.)  But he definitely has a spark.  Of course, Tommy DeVito is also the character I found the most interesting, so I’m not sure if Piazza is the best actor or if it just seems that way because he has the best part.  At that point, it becomes a vicious circle.

Only at the end of the movie did I realize that Valli and Gaudio were executive producers and also behind the original Broadway musical itself.  (Their handshake seems a lot more significant when you realize that they must have profited tremendously from the highly successful show.)  Given the tumultuous events depicted late in the film, thought, I was truly surprised in retrospect that Tommy is portrayed so sympathetically early on (in a project produced by Valli and Gaudio).  Tommy’s the first person we talk to, our very first narrator, and he definitely presents himself in a compelling way.  In the end, in fact, I thought of all the protagonists, only Tommy DeVito truly has depth and complexity.  You wouldn’t call him a hero.  He’s like a clever fish who has figured out how to swim successfully through his habitat.  Then suddenly he realizes that the body of water he’s in is much bigger than he ever dreamed, and now he’s out of his element, and his old survival skills no longer work.  Right from the beginning, you know this guy is going places, and you also know that when he gets there, he’s going to be so lost.  He seems to want to be like Frank Sinatra except that he knows he’s not a great singer.  That’s how you know his life is bound to go off the rails in a big way.  He does his best to live like Sinatra, and he can’t particularly sing.

Best Action Sequence:
Near the very beginning, there’s an antically zany scene in a getaway car that was like something out of an old cartoon.  I’m completely positive that our eleven-year-old would have found this scene hilarious and riveting.  It’s highly engaging without being at all disturbing or violent.  When this happened, I realized suddenly, Oh I see!  This movie is going to be a lot of fun.  It’s going to be a pleasure to watch.  I was quite gratified to realize that.

Best Scene:
I can’t defend this choice by arguing that it’s the most important scene in the movie (because clearly, it’s not) but my favorite part was Frankie’s first date with Mary Delgado, the restaurant scene.  I absolutely fell in love with Mary (as winningly portrayed by Renée Marino, who also played the role on Broadway).  She makes the character so feisty and fun and full-bodied and believable.  You’re completely sold that this woman really exists, and you totally get what Frankie sees in her.  At least, I did.  As I watched their lively conversation, I thought, Good grief!  A few more minutes of this, and I’m going to propose to her myself.

I know Renée Marino is mainly a stage actress, but I hope she makes more movies after this because I now think she’s fantastic.

Funniest Scene:
Despite what the Hollywood Foreign Press seems to think, musical is not synonymous with comedy, and I can think of quite a few musicals that are very dark without much humor at all.  Though I went in fully expecting Jersey Boys to be one of those, it’s actually extremely funny.  Of course, because it’s autobiographical, it’s much more a drama than a comedy, but there are plenty of genuine laughs throughout the entire thing.

To be honest, the first part of the movie (the scenes of Frankie’s teen years before the group gels and hits it big) was so delightful and charming that it made me want to travel back in time and visit the era.  Seriously I was sitting there feeling nostalgic for 1950s New Jersey!  Then I had to remind myself I was born in 1979, but a huge part of me was still like, Are you sure?  This world looks very vivid and delightful.  I’m pretty positive that I was there and have a lot of fond memories of those years.

For me, the funniest line of the movie belongs to Christopher Walken (which is hardly surprising).  At a moment of unusually high tension (the most stressful scene of the film, in fact) Walken’s Gyp DeCarlo has a throw-away line that’s far more hilarious than it ought to be.  Part of the humor surely lies in Christopher Walken’s delivery.  (He just has that rare and coveted ability to make anything a hundred times funnier.  I swear Walken could stand in front of a brick wall not talking and making no facial expressions for half an hour, and about fifteen minutes in, you’d suddenly burst out laughing for a minute or so and never be able to explain what he had done to provoke the outburst.)

The line itself is sort of witty, but what really makes us laugh, I think, is the unexpected timing of the joke.  Really, it’s a moment of such high stakes and high stress.  When the most important guy in the room opens up his mouth just then, we’re just not expecting a joke.  That makes it funnier. 

Best Scene Visually:
There’s a moment when the camera climbs a sky scraper that I absolutely love.  Watching, I thought with a thrill of excitement (and a rush of memories of our recent trip to Chicago), “Oh I love the city!  Big cities are the best!”  Then I swiftly realized, “Of course, I also love the country.  It would be really amazing to live out on a big piece of land under the stars and roam around all day through a field of wildflowers chasing butterflies!”  Then I realized, My problem is, I just love everything!  City, country, Broadway musicals, movies…

Life is too short, you know.

But the climb up the building is great as are the frequent scenes of period cars driving down the street to help us establish the era we’re in at the moment.

By far the most beautiful thing in this movie, however, is one of the child actresses who plays young Francine sitting on the stairs.  The girl has an ethereal beauty.  She’s absolutely breathtaking, like an actual angel doing a cameo.  My husband even remarked on her conspicuous beauty after the movie was over.  I believe this particular young Francine is named Elizabeth Hunter.  She is the loveliest child I have seen on screen in a long time.  I don’t know if it’s all just lighting, make-up, and camera tricks, or if she really has that stunning, perfect beauty in real life.  Part of me wants to scream, “Run, little girl!  You’re too beautiful!  Get out of Hollywood before they destroy you!”  I’m wondering if this extreme, dramatic beauty is intentional.  No one else in the movie looks so ethereal.  Maybe Frankie idealizes Francine, and that’s why she gets this treatment.

The Negatives:
The movie loses a lot of energy in the second half. 

What happens with Francine is tragic, but I found myself not caring in the way I thought I should.  Now don’t get me wrong.  If you’re the real Frankie Valli, you have my deepest sympathies, and I’m not trying to be disrespectful or trivialize your pain.  But I have two problems with the way the movie handles this plotline.

The biggest issue is, the character of Francine is really not revealed to us until it’s too late.  Throughout the movie, we know almost nothing about her at all.  Then suddenly we get an unexpected reference to her immense talent and her desire to become a professional singer herself.  This seems to come from out of nowhere.  Maybe the movie needs to slow down a little bit in the early part of the Francine subplot to let us get to know her character a bit better so we can connect with her more deeply.

A lesser but still relevant issue is that although John Lloyd Young has a fantastic singing voice and thoroughly convinces us he’s Frankie Valli, his dramatic acting is not what it might be.  To convey strong emotion, he merely gets silent and stares with tears in his eyes.  As I’m describing this tactic, I realize, But that ought to work.  That’s what a lot of truly marvelous actors do to convey strong emotion.  Well, I’m not a great actor, and I’m not a man, so don’t ask me to explain it.  All I can tell you is that he’s doing it wrong somehow.

Ultimately all of the characters are too shallow.  Even though I felt bad about it, I didn’t care enough (or know enough) about Frankie or Francine to really feel a cathartic connection to this part of the story.

After the big confrontation/meeting/intervention scene in Gyp’s office, the movie develops pacing problems and seems to lose its focus and forward momentum for a time.  It finishes strong, but until the big finish, it falters quite a bit.  I’m assuming that quite a bit of material had to be cut from the stage musical (because that’s usually the case), so maybe Jersey Boys is longer and works better as a Broadway show. 

As a movie, though, I find it curiously lacking in depth and development.  It tells the story of the rise (and decline) of the Four Seasons well enough, but the only character we truly learn anything worthwhile about is Tommy.  The rest of them don’t get as much development, not even Frankie.  (With him, we learn too little, too late.)  He’s very strong in the scene in Gyp’s office, but until that moment, he never really seems like his own person.  I think if we understood him a bit better (got more interiority from him) in the beginning, the ending of the movie would be more powerful.  As it is, there’s just not time to care enough.

Part of me wonders if perhaps Eastwood just wasn’t more interested in/enchanted by the early years of Frankie’s life than his later career and adulthood.

Of course, it can’t be the director’s fault that the film (quirky and colorful in the first half) becomes formulaic after the Four Seasons rise to fame.  Every time we get a biopic of an entertainer, we see an early marriage fall apart because the famous spouse is never there, and half the time, the remaining spouse descends into drug abuse/depression/alcoholism/some combination.  Usually it’s the wife who stays at home and goes insane.  And then the husband is always baffled by this and finds women so mysterious and keeps reflecting on it in later years and asking why the marriage fell apart.  And he usually expresses some sentiment like, “I just never could see why this was happening because I was busy being on tour 300 days a year,” and sitting in the audience, you just want to scream, “Oh, maybe you should have come home to look into that.”  Seriously, I don’t understand why the husbands never seem to get why the wives become depressed when they’re home alone with the kids for ten or eleven months out of every year and the husband is off with a string of girlfriends and his buddies on the road.  In life, there are many great, unfathomable mysteries, and I’m afraid that this is just not one of them.

Of course, maybe this just seems obvious to me because I’m a woman.  It’s very easy for me to comment on how ridiculous it is to mystify women’s motives needlessly, and yet I myself find men a constant source of mystery.  Early on in the film, when Tommy is giving Frankie advice about women, I found myself thinking, It seems so hard to be a man.  There are so many complicated rules and social conventions.  Of course, thoughts like that seemed particularly to apply to Tommy who so desperately wanted to learn how to navigate his world, behave properly, and rise to become something better.  Honestly I think Tommy is better written (and acted) than all of the other characters because what he’s doing and what he’s about is clear immediately, and we really don’t get that level of insight into any of the other characters.  (Well, I mean, we do get Tommy’s opinion of Mary, which is very interesting.)  I wonder if Tommy handles the bulk of the early narration because his real-life narration helped shape Frankie’s early perceptions of the world and how to behave in it.  The frustrating thing is, once Frankie steps out of Tommy’s shadow and finds his own voice, he doesn’t seem to have anything much to say.  That’s one of the disappointing things about this film.  Whether it’s the same way in the stage show, I don’t know.

One final word:  make-up.  Clint Eastwood should probably just stop making movies that requires young leads to put on tons of old age make-up in the final scenes because whomever he’s hiring to do it clearly does not know how.  The old age make-up at the end of Jersey Boys isn’t quite as bad as the make-up in J. Edgar.  Well, actually, yes it is.  It’s every bit as bad.  In fact, now that I think about it, it’s worse.

Overall:
I would be more than happy to watch Jersey Boys again, and if I had the money, I’d take my kids right now.  Like I said, it’s one of the softest Rs I’ve ever seen.  The rating, honestly, is ridiculous.  Families could enjoy this movie.  It’s a lot more fun than I expected, and the great soundtrack and top-notch performances make it engaging viewing start to finish, even if the second half is conspicuously weaker than the first. 

My only regret about the whole experience was that the theater showed at least eight (possibly ten) previews before the movie started.  Did they lose the film and throw on a second reel of previews while they scoured the projection box for it?  Maybe.  (It reminded me of an old SNL skit from a million years ago where they get locked in Lowe’s watching never-ending previews starring Shelley Long.)  All I know for sure is, I’d happily watch the movie again, but I think I’ll wait till it’s on blu-ray so I don’t have to sit through another twenty-five minutes of previews first.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Summer Movie Diary: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2D)

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2D)
Date: June 14, 2014
Time: 10:10 pm
Place: Cinemark NextGen Stone Hill Town Center
Company: Derrick, Grayson, Penelope
Food:  mixed red and blue Icee
Runtime:  1 hour, 45 minutes
Rating: PG
Director: Dean DeBlois

Quick Impressions:
How vividly I remember the day we took my then seven-year-old stepson to see How to Train Your Dragon back in the spring of 2010!  His little sister was only one and had to wait at my parents’ house instead of coming with us to the theater.  On the drive back to our place that night, my stepson sighed wistfully, “I wish there really were dragons!”

At that exact moment, my husband and I gasped in unison as an unexpected shooting star spontaneously whizzed across the night sky.  It was all extremely exciting, particularly because its streaky descent coincided perfectly with my son’s wish.

After that, the three of us joked for the rest of the summer that the real dragons were almost certain to arrive any day.

Well, it’s been four years now, and no real-life dragons have shown up on our doorstep yet, but at least How to Train Your Dragon 2 is finally in theaters.  (Given how long we had to wait for the sequel, its arrival feels like wish come true enough!)

On paper, this year’s summer movie line-up looks weaker (or at least thinner) than usual to me.  This is a very frontloaded summer with all the most anticipated movies coming out before the solstice even hits.  By the time spring is over, all the biggest movies will have already premiered.

Still if the movies that do come out are even half as good as this one, you won’t hear me complain.

Start to finish, How to Train Your Dragon 2 really is a fantastic film.  It exceeded my expectations for sure.  It’s even better than the first film, and, if you’ll recall, the original How to Train Your Dragon was itself excellent.  Had Toy Story 3 come out any other year, the first How to Train Your Dragon would easily have won Best Animated Feature at the 2011 Oscars.  There’s no doubt.  This gorgeous, exhilarating, moving sequel will definitely be a serious Oscar contender, too.

Even better, it’s a hugely entertaining and emotionally rewarding film that the whole family can enjoy together. 

The Good:
I’ve been looking forward to this movie, and I expected it to be good, but it honestly surprised me by being much more exciting than I ever imagined.

Some of the animation is just breath-taking.  Combine that with a fast-paced, well-acted, emotionally resonant story, and you’re left with a film that is simply exhilarating.

Even better, the pacing never falters, and despite the insane volume of new characters introduced (among other things, there’s an entire dragon army), the story never becomes messy or unfocused.  All major characters from the first film return, and they’re given a fair amount of screentime and (in some cases) development.  And still the movie manages to introduce quite a few new characters (some incredibly central and prominent).

Though Kit Harington (Jon Snow from Game of Thrones) perfectly voices the cocky dragon trapper Eret, and Djimon Hounsou evocatively brings to life a villain who is sure to resurface hundreds of years later as Rasputin, the best new addition to the film is definitely Valka (voiced brilliantly by Cate Blanchett).

Blanchett’s performance is superb (obviously), but in any film, that’s basically a given, so what really impressed me was how thrillingly her character was drawn and animated.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more brilliant, chilling, gorgeous, creepy, lovely, suspenseful introduction of a character.  Her costume is simply stunning, and her posture and stance not only fit her perfectly but also surely send shivers down every spine in the audience.

In perfect pairing with the visually arresting scenes, the movie also hits all the high notes musically.  John Powell’s score is perfect, and there’s one song in particular that definitely deserves an Oscar nomination.

By now, everyone in the entire movie-watching world should know that Dreamworks only produces beautiful-looking animation.  For as long as I can remember, Dreamworks has been the best at rendering realistic looking water and wind-tousled hair.  Even back when Pixar was on its seemingly endless streak of captivating, well told stories on screen, Dreamworks still had the edge visually.  Their art work has always been superior, in my opinion.  (And that’s coming from someone who strongly preferred Pixar to Dreamworks until just a few years ago.)  In recent years, Dreamworks has started carefully building stories compelling enough (either because of humor or heart) to match its gorgeous artwork.  That’s good news for animation lovers.  When I was a kid, if you loved animation or fantasy, you pretty much took what you could get and were glad for it, even if it wasn’t perfect.  Today, we’re offered such a constant, fabulous buffet of gorgeous animation and well-presented fantasy stories on the big screen that we can afford to be more picky.  But even the pickiest viewer should be thoroughly won over by the lovely and enchanting How to Train Your Dragon 2.

Best Scene Visually:
As far as I’m concerned, the best element of the entire movie is the way the character of Valka looked and moved.  Seriously, the moment when she was first introduced was so exciting (even to me, a jaded movie buff of 35).  The way she looked, the way she moved—I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.  It was horrifying and captivating all at once.  In a way, her first interactions with Hiccup reminded me of something out of a Star Wars movie.  Her mannerisms also made me call to mind that creepy guy in the movie Pan’s Labyrinth who keeps his eyeballs in his hands.  She was so spooky and awesome, like her every gesture was a part of some sinister, spooky ballet featuring eerie music that she alone could hear.

And her superbly singular mannerisms and posture continued for the duration of the movie.  The character definitely distinguished herself through movement and carriage, not something you always get in an animated feature.

The movie looks amazing enough as Hiccup’s flying along just before he meets her.  Then she shows up in what has to be one of the most spectacularly, chillingly cool movie entrances ever.  And then once Hiccup meets Valka, she goes on to show him the rest of her beautiful home.  Good grief is the place where she lives a visual feast!  It’s hard to blame her for lingering.  I’d have stayed there for twenty years myself!

And the visuals only get better and better as the story continues.  Just a bit later in the "fishing scene," the stunning visuals and the epic music pair perfectly.  The resulting product lights up the screen and electrifies the audience.

Most Touching/Gross Scene:
My daughter liked the reunion between two characters a lot.  As she teared up watching, she sighed, “Ooh, Mom!  This is sad.  It’s sweet, but it’s sad.  It’s what I’d call sweet sad.”  Then came a kiss, and her tone dramatically changed as she cried in five-year-old disgust, “Ewww, Mommy!”

I enjoyed the “sweet sad” moment very much myself.  It’s such a powerful scene, unexpectedly touching and beautiful.  I’d say it works so well because of excellent performances by Gerard Butler and Cate Blanchett, but he isn’t really even talking much, so I’ve got to give some credit to the animators.  I’m not sure how much the actors’ line readings influenced the movement of the animated characters.  Did Butler and Blanchett contribute mannerisms to this moving scene as well as their voices?  I’m not sure.

At one point, my daughter asked me, “How did they make all those little dragons?  Did they put puppies in dragon suits?”

I replied, “Well, the people just tamed the dragons, but the big dragons gave birth to the little ones.”

Exasperated, she replied with a groan, “No I mean the people making the movie!  You know how they brought lions in to help them draw the characters in Lion King.  Well where could they possibly get dragons to watch?  Did they dress up puppies in dragon suits or what?”

I had to admit that I had no idea the methods the animators used to create the characters' looks and mannerisms in this film.

Best Scene/Funniest Scene:
I absolutely love the song performed by Valka and Stoick.  Watching them sing it together was by far my favorite part of the movie.  I sense a Best Song nomination in this lovely ditty’s future.  I had no idea I would be so into this love story.  When I went to the movie, I was expecting dragons, father/son bonding, and jokes, but I never anticipated a romance with this intensity.  I’m not always a big fan of love stories told on screen, but this one felt strangely believable to me. 

I also loved the way Gobber (hilariously voiced by Craig Ferguson) found himself unable to help bursting into song, too.  (Ferguson has another great moment as he tries to follow Stoick around on the battlefield.)  The subplot involving the tangled and disappointing love life of Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) is consistently amusing, as well.  But I think some of the funniest bits belong to Gobber.

While I’m on the subject of love stories, I also particularly enjoyed the dynamic of Hiccup and Astrid in this film.  It felt like a very realistic, growing romance.  America Ferrera also has a great part in this movie and gives an excellent supporting performance.

Best Action Sequence:
When asked, my stepson revealed that his favorite part of the movie was the showdown between the film’s two largest (in size) characters.  I agree with him that the visual design of these creatures was absolutely captivating. 

My daughter liked watching Valka fight Drago.  At one point she burst out (in a whisper), “Wouldn’t it be so funny if she ripped all his clothes off and chopped him up into potatoes, then squished him back together?  And he would be like, ‘Hey!  You give me back my clothes!’”

The moment just after this was probably the most distressing in the entire film for my daughter.  She became completely emotionally unglued and dissolved into tears.  I tried to comfort her, but finally she went to sit on her father’s lap where she continued to mutter about how disappointed she was with this turn of events and how she had wanted things to work out so differently.

As action sequences go, I was also really pleased to see everyone rally around Hiccup (voiced again by Jay Baruchel) late in the film.  They’re certainly lucky they have him.

The Negatives:
I’d be happy to watch this film again.  Start to finish, it was strong and is probably the best movie I’ve seen all summer to this point.  (It had the captivating characters and fast pacing of X-Men and the emotional resonance and satisfying family drama of Chef.  And plus it had cool looking dragons.)

Still I suppose it did have a few weaknesses.  To me, the most glaring issue was the film’s failure to explain how Drago gained his powers over the dragons.  He certainly comes across as villainous, bitter, formidable, and larger than life.  He’s kind of like Rasputin, Captain Ahab, The Pied Piper, Andre the Giant as the Dread Pirate Roberts, and some lesser known Sith Lord all rolled into one.  He’s one creepy dude, made even creepier by the embarrassing fact that he thinks he’s Batman (as reimagined by Christopher Nolan, of course).  Listen carefully to his little spiel about his need to overcome dragons, and you’ll quickly see that he’s clearly watched Batman Begins one time too many and thinks he can overcome dragons by becoming a dragon. 

Like most people who think they’re Batman, Drago is completely nuts. But I totally understand why he’d want to use a dragon army to take over the world.  Isn’t that what evil people always want?  I mean, who wouldn’t want a dragon army?  And if you’re evil, surely abusing the dragons to achieve world domination is the obvious course to take.

But how exactly does he control the dragons?  Unless I’m very much mistaken, the movie never really explains that.  He’s very swarthy with dark, greasy hair, so I’m kind of doubting he’s a long, lost Targaryen prince.  I’m not sure this aspect of the film is explained as clearly as it could be.  It doesn’t matter much, anyway, because Drago is the most boring of the new characters and most useful as a catalyst/plot device leading more interesting characters to come together/split apart/reimagine themselves. But still.

I also think this movie has kind of an odd moral for kids to take home.  The moral seems to be, “You must always strive for peace—unless some lunatic attacks you.  Then you should blow him to hell as violently as possible.”  In other words, it presents the idea that one of the most effective methods for sustaining peace is making war on all those who disturb it.

I guess you could just call that pragmatism.  It’s true that we can all control only our own actions, and I agree that if somebody attacks someone vulnerable in your charge, you must protect the vulnerable person, through violence if necessary.  But this seems like a strange message for a children’s movie, and I wonder where it’s coming from.

Obviously the material about good dragons doing bad things when they’re controlled by bad people is a thinly veiled exploration of post-traumatic stress disorder and the struggle of those who have served in the military to reconcile “evil” deeds they may have been forced to do while following orders.  I don’t think it’s bad to point out that while it’s evil to form and control a dragon army to achieve world domination, it’s not evil to serve in a dragon army.  I do, however, think it’s curious that the film is so interested in this concept.  Its meditation on war and peace is right at the story’s center, and watching, I kept thinking, Why is the movie so interested in this?  Why now?  I’m still not sure.

My daughter, meanwhile, developed a strange fixation of her own.  During the movie’s opening scenes, she whispered to me wisely, “They’re Vikings.  What if I’m really Egyptian?  Wouldn’t it be crazy if I’ve really been Egyptian all this time, but somehow I ended up being born in America and believing in God, when really this whole time all my organs are in a jar some place?”

Hearing all this, I realized that I need to have a talk with my daughter about what Egypt is like today, and how it’s changed since the reign of King Tut.  That is one thing to be cautious about when taking young children to How to Train Your Dragon 2.  After the movie, you’ll want to explain that although Vikings are real, they didn’t actually ride around on flying dragons like in the movie—unless you believe that they did.  (And if that’s the case, may I please see the proof, because I’d love to be convinced that as recently as Viking times, humans rode around on flying dragons.  That just sounds so awesome.)

Overall:
As of this moment, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is at the top of my short list for best movie of the summer.  My husband and both our kids loved it as much as I did.  It’s full of meaningful action, fantastic characters, moments that are “sad sweet” as my daughter would say, and some of the most exhilarating animation I think I’ve ever seen.

Also the Father's Day weekend release date is definitely no accident.  If you love your dad, and you want to spend half an hour weeping about all the ways he's touched your life, then you should definitely buy him a ticket to How to Train Your Dragon 2 and celebrate Father's Day together with a couple of hours of shared animated catharsis in the dark.

Best of all, the movie really does deliver on the promise of its title by giving the audience even more helpful tips on how to train a dragon.  If you have a dragon, and you’ve been wondering how to train it, then this movie is probably a very good place to begin.  Start with the PG movie suitable for children, and don’t even attempt to copy anything Emilia Clarke does on Game of Thrones until you’re much more advanced (and the kids are in bed for the night).