Don't ask me what my favorite film is. It's like asking a parent which child is the favorite.

Welcome to my film blog. I strive for a synthesis of good/bad and theoretical criticism.

Monday, June 16, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Super Hiccup

A Review of How to Train Your Dragon 2

By Daniel Carstens

There's a scene in How to Train Your Dragon 2 where Hiccup, Astrid, and their dragons, in their exploration of new lands, discover a ship, shattered and penetrated by giant ice crystals. In an undoubtedly conscious design decision, these giant ice crystals are strikingly reminiscent of those that comprise Superman's fortress of solitude. At this moment, having destroyed the ship, they particularly resemble the destructive employment of the crystals by Lex Luthor in Superman Returns. If the resemblance was questionable at first, minutes later Hiccup discovers a sort of fortress of solitude for dragons, surrounded by the ice crystals. Visually, besides referencing Superman, this is one of many truly beautiful moments in the film. Dragons of many colors swirl around the hidden paradise. Like the first Dragon, the strongest aspect of the film is the animation. Even in 2D, the film is gorgeous.

Also inhabiting the fortress of dragon solitude is Hiccup's long lost mother (voiced with an aura of haunting mystery by Cate Blanchett). She invites Hiccup to join her and live in the fortress to protect the dragons he adores. Ultimately, Hiccup cannot stay isolated. His duties remain with his people as well as the dragons who with they have become intertwined. Like Superman, he cannot stay in the fortress of solitude, but must save the people who need help. In Dragon 2, Hiccup even flies solo, Superman-style. In the end, of course, Hiccup defeats the villain and saves his people.

In the first Dragon, Hiccup succeeds in changing the mind of his hard-headed Viking father and the entire dragon-fighting culture of his town. At the age of fifteen, Hiccup was supposed to kill a dragon as part of his entrance into adulthood. Instead, he shows his father and the town that dragons are inherently peaceful creatures. Even Superman needs help, however. In Superman Returns, Lois Lane saves Superman's life. Likewise, Hiccup needs his friends to help change the anti-dragon culture in the town. In Dragon 2, Hiccup and friends are twenty years old. The new generation is preparing to take over leadership and defense of the town. They must save their people and dragon companions from the forces of evil that seek to destroy them.

Both Dragon films center on this group of youth who enact great social change in their town. It is a strong message for today's young people. During the Civil Rights Movement, many high school youth took to the streets in nonviolent protest. Some were beaten and many were arrested. These images shocked the nation and contributed to the advances toward equality. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was a key organization in the movement, one whose members were near the age of Hiccup and friends in Dragon 2.

Dragon 2's message of the power and influence of young people, that was once present in the United States through Vietnam, has been lost in recent decades. Perhaps the Reagan-era return to 50's values helped diffuse the fighting spirit of American youth. In 2014, this spirit is needed perhaps more than any time since Vietnam. Utter political polarization has rendered Congress virtually useless on most issues. Civil Rights problems still exist, particularly in education and economics. The income gap between wealthy and poor is exponentially increasing, to the detriment of the backbone of the economy, the shrinking middle class. Social Security is being depleted, and the changing climate threatens the future stability of our planet. These are all issues that will affect young people the most, yet the aged who hold political office largely ignore these problems, leaving them for the next generation, when much damage will have already been done.

The How to Train Your Dragon films convey an incredibly important message to today's youth: Young people have power. They have voices, and if these voices are united, they can spark change. They can influence parents as well as politicians if they so choose to make themselves heard. Young people will take over official power in due time, but, as Hiccup learned, even now they can be influential and cause change in a troubled society. Hiccup may resemble Superman in several ways, but one key difference stands out, which he shares with real young people everywhere: He has no super powers. He uses his own ingenuity and passion to save his people and create a better society for future generations.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Watergate: Mutant Conspiracy?

A Review of X-Men: Days of Future Past

By Daniel Carstens

The most popular scene in X-Men: Days of Future Past, according to internet buzz, features young Xavier, Magneto, and Wolverine being shot at. The seemingly hopeless situation turns to super slow motion, and Quicksilver, moving super fast, changes bullet trajectory, steals hats, and positions the shooters' fists to punch themselves. The scene tainted the film for me, because from that point I realized Quicksilver could have taken care of the original problem, as well as each subsequent problem, and my mind was no longer entrenched in the film from that point on.

That aside, the scene illustrates the importance of a good director. After a hiatus, Brian Singer makes his return to the stale franchise. The Quicksilver scene is well crafted, the perfect combination of action, humor, suspense, and pacing that has people buzzing all over the internet. Brian Singer has returned X-Men to the high degree of cinematic creativity of the first two films.

The long-running series features the struggle of mutants vs. non-mutants, and in some cases, mutants vs. other mutants with more radical ideologies. The mutants are the vast minority, and face oppression and even violence from non-mutants. In Days of Future Past, Wolverine travels back in time to 1973 to prevent the complete eradication of mutants. 1973, the year of Watergate, and the height of blaxploitation and Black Power.

The struggle of mutants vs. non-mutants very much mirrors the struggle between blacks and whites in the era. While violence against blacks had decreased by 1973, discrimination was very much alive. The conflict within the mutant race mirrors that between non-violent blacks and the Black Power movement. Magneto, feeling that non-violent measures were ineffective, called for war against non-mutants, much similar to factions of the Black Power movement. In many ways, the X-Men film franchise is an allegory for the race struggle of the late mid-20th century.

Days of Future Past features a prominent role for Mystique. This prominence may be due to Jennifer Lawrence's casting in the role. At the very least, Lawrence's popularity influenced the filmmakers' decision to feature her physique on several occasions. Mystique changes form to any person, and often she changes to Jennifer Lawrence's blonde hair and light skin.

Mystique changes her appearance to any person she chooses, to hide her real self. Despite her seductive form, she morphs her blue exterior into Lawrence's blonde hair and light skin, or a middle aged woman, or a security guard. Mystique hides her dark skin, always taking the form of a white-skinned person. While changing her appearance usually serves to sneak her way into a highly secure area or to hide from a pursuer, perhaps turning white expresses a much deeper meaning, if not for Mystique, then for the film itself.

Though the franchise is about a struggle against racial oppression, almost everyone in the film is white. There are only a few non-white mutants, some of which are racial stereotypes, such as the martial artist Asian mutant. All non-white mutants are very minor characters. Storm (Halle Berry) was a major role in previous films, but despite several screen appearances, only has a few insignificant lines in Days of Future Past. Usually, she is silent. Paradoxically, in a film about a struggle against racial oppression, the minority roles are repressed by the filmmakers. It's an ideological flaw that few audience members will notice or care about, but in a way it contradicts the basic premise of the franchise.

The Quicksilver scene sums up the film: loved by audiences, problematic in my own opinion, but showing creativity that was lacking in the non-Brian Singer films. The highlight, in my opinion, is Nixon, particularly when he shuts off the tape recorder. Perhaps the film should have been centered around Watergate. Nixon could have been a mutant.