Friday, February 18, 2011

really bad movies --Dragon Wars

As a part of my on-going program to inflict my loyal readers with all of my Netflix experiences, I present a review of Dragon Wars. This is the kind of movie that I would normally love. I mean, it's got ancient prophesies, dragons, battles between mythological creatures and modern US military forces, a reincarnated hero, and a babe. What's not to love about this movie? Well, before I tell you that, let me add that the realistic animated scenes are terrific.

There are huge masterfully-done battle scenes between tanks and and giant Horned-toad-like creatures with ancient Korean rockets strapped to their backs. There are flying dragonets battling in the air with helicopters. There is a scene stolen from King Kong with a serpent-like dragon chasing a pair of people up a sky scraper instead of a giant ape carrying a girl up a sky scraper. Then the dragon goes tearing through the city ripping up the streets and bashing the cars to the side. The realistic 3D is absolutely amazing; it's A-movie special effects in a B movie.

So what makes it a B movie? The first hint is the scene stolen from King Kong. Half of the movie seems to have been stolen from other movies. Time and again as I watched it, I thought, "Oh, that scene was stolen from X" or "Oh, that plot element was stolen from Y".

Still, the derivative screenplay wouldn't necessarily make it a bad movie if it not for the terrible, unendurable, worse-than-Chuck-Norris-in-his-first-few-movies bad acting. And it was not just the hero, but almost all of the American actors who just stunk up the screen whenever we weren't watching those titanic special-effects scenes. Oddly enough, the first twenty minutes or so of the movie takes place in ancient Korea and the Korean actors seemed to be pretty good (it's a little harder to judge since it was in Korean with subtitles) but the American actors were awful.

Yet in all fairness to the American actors --the dialog that they had to work with was pound-your-head-against the wall horrible. No one could have done anything non-humiliating with that dialog. It was beyond bad; it was ... well ... really, really bad. Words have failed me.

My advice on this movie: if you are a fan of realistic 3D animation involving mythological creatures getting shot up by modern auto cannons, and you have great tolerance for really, really bad movies, it is worth your time. If you are a fan of realistic 3D and don't have the requisite tolerance then Netflix has a way to skip forward; just watch the battle scenes. If you aren't any particular fan of 3D animations then I recommend that you watch something else.

UPDATE: Oh! Oh! I forgot! The most annoying thing about the movie? The "hero" does absolutely nothing effective through the whole film. Everything he tries to do fails and someone always has to rescue him. This pattern hold all the way through to the climax where the hero tries something to defeat the evil dragon, fails, and is then rescued one more time. The hero accomplishes nothing. No victory over his external enemies, no victory over internal struggles, no victories, no growth, no accomplishment.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

old TV -- Avatar

Avatar is a Japanese animated series (the first season of this series was made into the movie The Last Airbender).

[UPDATE: oops. Donald points out in the comments that although the animation is anime-style, it was not made in Japan and I verified that he is correct. I thought that I recalled someone saying during the controversy over the movie that it was made in Japan, but I must be mistaken. Actually, this helps explain Aang's pacifism, which I thought was more characteristic for a US production than an Asian one.]

The premise of Avatar is a world populated by four nations, one for each of the four elements: earth, air, fire, water. In each nation some of the people are benders --people with an innate ability control the element of their nation.

Bending is not just a matter of mental control; it also requires the use of body actions. The interesting thing is that the actions for controlling the elements are not patterned on Western-style hokus-pokus magical incantations, but on Asian martial arts. I fancied that I could see various differences in martial-arts styles. The air and water benders seemed to use the more subtle, flowing Chinese styles with lots of large circular movements for attack and evasion for defense. By contrast the earth and fire benders used the hard, driving Japanese and Korean styles based on straight-line attacks and hard blocking for defense.

Overall, I thought the bending was well-done dramatically, but it was lacking in ... let's call it "strategic value". What I mean by this is that there turned out to be little difference in what the benders could do in a battle. All benders could hurl chunks or sprays of their own stuff at the enemy and block the stuff that the enemy hurled. An air or fire bender could put up a wall of air or fire to deflect a huge rock that an earth bender threw at him. It would have been more interesting if the various elements had more dramatic strengths and weaknesses that had to be taken into account.

But you can only expect so much in a children's TV series. Avatar is really a children's comedy/adventure, but don't let that discourage you from watching it. The characters are very engaging and if the humor gets a bit silly at times, the silliness is usually short-lived and quickly followed by dramatic events to keep the interest of a grownup. Also, the fact that this is really intended for children and has a comedic element means that I didn't mind the childish plot devices like the two or three impossible coincidences per episode that would normally annoy me.

One thing that did annoy me was the main character's enduring faith that he could save the world from a cruel despot without hurting anyone. Such pacifist beliefs may be admirable in people who have some rational theory to back it up --say a belief in an omnipotent God-- but in this character it simply comes across as an arbitrary convention. You can't expect too much philosophy in a children's show but it would be nice to see some attempt at justifying the moral calculation that says, "better millions of people suffer horrors and murder under a brutal dictator than that I should sully my pure hands with any blood."

Fortunately, there was only one pacifist in the show (among major characters at any rate). There are a huge number of great characters and great villains. There is a demon that steals faces, a moon goddess, an evil blood bender, an ancient toothless earth-bending king with the energy and enthusiasm of a teenager, a giant flying bison, and much more. The imagination behind this series is tremendous.

The plot takes you all over the globe, from the Antarctic to the Arctic and from the great Eastern Continent to the Western Continent. The characters include everyone from village nomads to the royalty of the greatest civilizations on the planet. One of the things that I value most in a story is its ability to invoke a sense of wonder and Avatar does a very good job at that.