Wednesday, 25 June 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2 - A Parent's review (SPOILER ALERT)

For those who know the first movie, it's about a boy who was different from the others in his village, more of a pacifist than an aggressor, who went against the way of thinking and befriended, rather than slaughtered a dragon.  In the second movie, Hiccup is 5 years older and dragons are now a way of life on the far flung island of Berk. In this movie we find that there are many others out there interested in dragons, but in different ways.

There are pirates who capture dragons to take back to Drago, the villain in this movie, who is amassing a dragon army.  Stoick, Hiccup's father and chief of the village of Berk, tells him that Drago is a madman, bent on conquest.  There is also a Dragon Rider, who has been releasing captured dragons with whom Hiccup meets, and it turns out it is his own mother, Valka (voiced by Cate Blanchett).  She tells Hiccup that dragons are controlled by an Alpha dragon, who protects them all.

Drago comes with his own Alpha dragon, and the two Alphas fight, with Drago's coming out victorious, taking control of ALL the dragons.  Toothless comes under the control of Drago's Alpha, and turns on Hiccup, but Stoick leaps in to save Hiccup, and gets killed in the process.  Hiccup is devastated, and when Toothless regains control of his senses, Hiccup pushes him away, and Toothless leaves with Drago, who takes his army to conquer Berk.

Hiccup, having now to assume the mantle of chief, takes his friends to ride baby dragons (who are immune to the mind control of the alpha, because babies don't listen to anyone), and head to Berk.  Hiccup's friends distract the Alpha, whilst Hiccup tries to break through the mind control with love and kindness to his dear friend Toothless.  Toothless eventually overcomes the mind control and challenges the Alpha, and the distraction breaks the mind control the Alpha had on the other dragons, and all the dragons of Berk turn on the Alpha and he is defeated.

My thoughts:

As a parent who has children of both sexes, I have been trying to ensure my children grow up self confident, emotionally astute young people, and I have spent my time looking at movies they watch with a more critical eye.

People often talk about the Bechdel test, which was named after Alison Bechdel, a cartoonist, which evaluated gender bias in works of fiction (eg movies).

I struggled to see if this movie would pass!  There were 3 female characters in the movie - Valka, Astrid (Hiccup's girlfriend) and Ruffnut, one of the twins who was part of Hiccup's group of friends.  Though all had speaking roles, I can't quite recall if they spoke to each other!  They MAY have - the girls during the dragon games - but because I can't really remember it, it means it fails the Bechdel test!

Also, because I went with young children, I watched it in 2D.  I hear the 3D was amazing, and I would probably have to watch it again on 3D Blu-Ray to get the experience.

Another thing that I found irritating, was Valka became a little bit wimpy after Stoick found her.  She was knowledgeable and formidable when Hiccup first met her but once Stoick arrived, she did not seem to participate much - which was unusual considering she had been aggressive previously, freeing captured dragons from dragon capturers. Perhaps it was because she was grieving for the fallen Alpha, or perhaps because she had lost ALL her dragons to Drago's Alpha that she was lost for ideas.

However, I have always found Hiccup inspiring.  Hiccup, who says that fighting and killing is not necessary to be great (Astrid is the fighter, Hiccup's strength is in compassion).  Hiccup is also on the slight, smaller side, which also shows that being physically strong is NOT what makes a man.  He's also lost a foot, which shows he has a handicap, but that it doesn't hinder him in any way.  Hiccup was aiming for peace, and he won the day through love and trust of his dragon, Toothless. At the end of the day, loyalty and love and kindness won the day, though the dragons did almost all of the fighting.

The movie overall was excellent, which was surprising for a sequel.  The emotions were real, the dialogue fresh and the characters engaging. Naturally the dragons were a great attraction and the death of his father a necessary tragedy to allow Hiccup the room to grow into the leader he was supposed to be. Astrid and Hiccup had a very mature relationship, and even Fishlegs and Snotlout competing for Ruffnut's affections were hilarious (even though she did the stereotypical thing and fell head over heals for the good looking dragon pirate Eret).  It's aimed at an older audience, I think, but still retains the charm that will interest the younger ones - I certainly enjoyed it, it was as good as the first one!  It's like Toy Story - where the characters and voices are all the same, but it's a different story yet still as engrossing as the first.

I hope that in the next film, part of Hiccup remains that awkward and slight young man, whose leadership comes from the ability to see what is right no matter what the old habits may be, in that Toy Story tradition (though this movie is Dreamworks, not Pixar)  It's a movie that I think teaches some great values to my children and I can't wait to get it on Blu-Ray so I can watch it again!

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Transcendence - WARNING SPOILERS!

I had watched the trailer for Transcendence and it looked interesting and had a good cast - but the internet reviews I had glanced at had abyssmal reviews, so despite those reviews, I went to see it and felt that I had to write about it.

I don't know what debuting director Wally Pfister, a gifted cinematographer in his films with Christopher Nolan, was hoping to extract from the surprise-free script by Jack Paglen. But all I can cull is: don't mess with Mother Nature and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Fortune-cookie stuff. Erase All.
- Peter Traves, Rolling Stone

After a cool, subdued, intellectually stimulating first act, the film offers an idea so impossible to digest, a concept that so obviously should have been poisoned at the script stage, that it beggars belief (literally) – and then bases the rest of the film around it. It doesn’t recover.
- CJ Johnson, ABC radio Australia

This is like a heavy-handed and humourless version of Spike Jonze's postmodern comedy Her, mulched in with the old sci-fi novel Donovan's Brain, about keeping someone's brain alive in a tank. We are invited to believe in Johnny Depp as a mathematical genius in the field of artificial intelligence.
- Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

Yet there were also some positive reviews

TRANSCENDENCE, scripted by Jack Paglen, isn't your average sci-fi thriller, but a terrifically exciting exploration into the corruption of total power. The plotting is clever if, at times, not easy to follow, and the characters are given more complex motives than you find in lesser sci-fi movies. Johnny Depp is impressive as the quiet but increasingly fanatical genius whose evolution is the film's core, and the strong supporting cast includes Morgan Freeman as a more sceptical scientist, Kate Mara as the leader of the violent resistance, and Cillian Murphy as a CIA agent. Visually and dramatically, TRANSCENDENCE is a cut above the average, a film of ideas as well as thrills.
- At the Movies with Margaret and David

For the moment, anyone with a fondness for broad canvas, ideas-heavy sci-fi should ignore the negative scuttle and give Transcendence the benefit of the doubt. It may not be perfect, but it's a sincerely ambitious first feature from a film-maker who has both the technical skill and artistic vision to aim for the stars.
- Mark Kermode, The Observer

So what did I think?

Scathing reviews always prepare you for disappointment, so it was a pleasant surprise to see that I actually ENJOYED the film.  It is not an action packed techno-thriller, but a science fiction and love story.

Dr Will Caster (Depp) is an inspirational researcher into Artificial Intelligence, and his wife Evelyn Caster is a researcher in her own right.  Their good friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany), who is another scientist with a basis in programming ad philosophy joins with them to do a presentation on Artificial Intelligence in the hope they will be given a grant to continue their research.  The presentation appears to be a success, but Will is shot by anti-technology terrorists with a bullet that leaves him with radiation poisoning, and he is given a month to live.  These terrorists had also simultaneously hit AI labs across the globe, bringing their agenda to the forefront.

One lab had successfully managed to upload a Rhesus monkey's consciousness into a computer, and Evelyn decides she wants to do this for Will.  He agrees, and in his dying days Will is hooked up to the machines and the electrical data from his brain is uploaded to the giant mega computer that Will had built as part of his AI project.

Eventually Will dies and Evelyn and is consumed with trying to make the AI work.  She's about to throw it all in when there is a response and they realise that the transfer worked.  Will wants more knowledge, he needs access to the internet, be global.  Max has his hesitations, but he seems happy at the time that the procedure was a success.

As he leaves and having a drink, the anti-technology group approaches him, appealing to him to see what an abomination he has made, and how it is a threat to them all.  He tries to leave, but they kidnap him.  They initiate an attack to try to stop Will's upload into the internet, but were unsuccessful.  Now he is out there, global, in every system, all over the world.

Will and Evelyn need more power.  So they move to desert town and build up a massive underground server complex and massive solar farm to power it.  Will begins to use nanotechnology to heal human diseases, revive dead plants - in fact, to change the world.  The technology is amazing and a little scary.

As the movie moves on Max converts to the terrorists way of thinking and designs a virus to bring Will down.  This would mean that technology all over the world would be affected, shutting down technology would set civilisation back a century.

Evelyn begins to believe Max and offers herself as the carrier of the virus.  But at the end, you see that Will sees that everyone is afraid of him, though that was not the intention and he uploads the virus into himself via Evelyn and essentially kills himself.

I really enjoyed this film. The concept is not new - of a human-like AI - but the exploration of how we humans think how a machine would behave and how they would think.  The fear of how we, as less intellectual and less than perfect beings would exist in a world where a logical sentient being has the ability to run our existence like a god - it was entertaining, and thought provoking.  There was criticism that the end of the film, that an omnipotent computer brain was able to be undone by a simple virus that it knew about and did not undertake measures to preserve itself.  That however, was the clutch of the story - throughout the whole movie there was a fear that the new AI was going to destroy mankind and turn everyone into networked slaves (I'm thinking Star Trek Borg), but in the end, the AI was still the essence of the human, who loved his wife, and was trying to make her dream come true (which was to heal the world, eradicate disease) and he accepted that humanity was not ready for the revolution that he was bringing, and so accepted his death.  Much more human than computer.  I found that really evocative.  As expected with an academy award winner for cinematography, the movie is beautiful.

Another criticism is that the storyline was not believable.  I think they're referring to the nanotechnology. I admit that nanotech scares me because if they are like programs, or a virus, then they can mutate into something else, divert from their purpose.  The nanites were reapiring everything from the materials in the ground, using organic matter to reconstruct organic matter (like dead leaves or damaged eyes).  It may sound outrageous now but in the future that may really be how technology works.

This is a work of science fiction.  It's not meant to be a blockbuster.  I think it left a lot of food for thought especially in the post apocalyptic period.  I felt that the scathing reviews did the movie no justice.  But I recommend that you see it for yourself and decide - it's not the bitter disappointment that everyone has made it out to be.