How To Train Your Dragon 2



Five years after convincing his fellow Vikings of the island of Berk that the dragons they once battled are actually intelligent, peaceful animals, Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel) has grown into an outstanding young man, and is no longer an embarrassment to his father, Stoick (voice of Gerard Butler), the ruler of Berk. Thanks to Hiccup (and his dragon, Toothless), everything is peaceful, and he must now face the possibility of leadership. His father wants him to be chief someday. Enter the caped, dreadlocked hunter Drago Bludvist (voice of Djimon Hounsou) – he poses a big threat to the dragons; basically, he amasses a nefarious dragon army for his world-conquering war. Hiccup also finds someone he never thought he would ever come across.

This is a PG-rated animated film, but an argument can be made that this movie is not really for kids. From a purely visual standpoint, it is colorful and kids may appreciate it the same way they would a beautiful illustration. But, there are a lot of mature aspects to this story. Drago, in particular, with his deep, gravely voice is a very fierce and intimidating presence. And he gets his war. Characters die. Personalities of dragons shift. One dragon falls under a spell and is controlled into doing a horrible thing. I noticed one kid at the showing I went to (purposely chose the 8:30 p.m. show hoping that there wouldn’t be any kids there) couldn’t stay seated  – maybe he was scared? Or bored?  But, then again, being traumatized as children formed us as grown-ups; it gave us the opportunity to understand loss.  I didn’t want to see Luke Skywalker lose his hand, nor did I want to see Bambi’s mother die.  ‘How To Train Your Dragon 2’ doesn’t shy away from the peril and moments of tragedy that an adventure story should have. I applaud the film for being daring (a word I use very infrequently for family-friendly entertainments because they are often trapped by the genre) and for respecting what kids (or at least more grown-up kids) are capable of dealing with.

I saw ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ in 2-D. I had seen the original film in 3-D and recall the sense of awe and wonderment from those magnificent flying sequences. I practically felt the slap of the wind and water. What I believe is missing in this sequel is that sense of awe. It could be because the canvas is more crowded this time around (most sequels exercise their more-is-more belief), but more than likely, it could be because I didn’t see the sequel in 3-D. I hate 3-D. That is why I went to the 2-D showing. But, there are exceptions and I had forgotten just how immersive (and non-gimmicky) the 3-D experience was for the original film. All I can say is: it might be worth the upcharge (though I don’t know for sure).

But, even in 2-D, the film is gorgeous to look at. Roger Deakins, my favorite cinematographer working today, served as visual consultant to both ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ movies and it shows – the lighting and texture of the film are gorgeous. There is a lot to look at.  For instance, consider Toothless as a creation – a glossy, leathery dragon of salamander length with panther-like eyes.  He wouldn’t be out of place in a ‘Star Wars’ film or in ‘Avatar’. Writer-director Dean DeBlois frolics in the grandiosity of it all.

Apart from appreciating the more mature storytelling aspects, I also appreciated the film as a sequel. Last week, I reviewed ’22 Jump Street’ – this was a sequel that surpassed the original by satirizing and deconstructing Hollywood’s favorite product – the blockbuster sequel. ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ is a sequel that is as effective as the first one. Sure, I wasn’t marveling at the scenes of flight this time around, but I was more swept up by the story – the characters progress and there are bold choices on the part of the filmmaker with plot developments that impact the continuations of this franchise. I haven’t read Cressida Cowell’s books, so I don’t know where this broader story is headed.

I really like these characters, and the voice cast is terrific. There is a great new character that I won’t reveal anything about even if the theatrical trailer gives the surprise away. You wouldn’t think Jay Baruchel would make a good voice actor, especially as the hero of an animated film, but it absolutely works – he can play a tough character more convincingly as a voice actor (though he was rough in ‘Goon’) but here, in all of his neurotic glory, he brings sweetness and warmth to Hiccup. Mr. Baruchel went to the same high school in Ottawa as William Shatner (also worked extensively as a voice actor), and Christopher Plummer (recognizably distinct rich smooth voice); I wonder what the drama program at this school must be like. Aside from Mr. Baurchel, other Judd Apatow crewmembers include Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Kristen Wiig.

If there is a weakness in the picture, it’s in the creation of the villain as a fully fleshed out character. Drago’s methods don’t entirely make sense; like the classic James Bond villains, he just seems hell-bent on world domination, but he lacks the strategic forward-minded thinking of say an Auric Goldfinger. Unlike the Bond films, however, the strength of this feature doesn’t rest on the shoulder of its villain, and the characters we are supposed to care about evolve wonderfully.

Toothless it is not. ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ is better than the last few Pixar movies (though the studio hasn’t released a great animated feature since ‘Toy Story 3’). It has the emotional, humorous, exciting sweep you hope for in a summer movie. But it also functions on a smaller scale and works as an effective coming-of-age story. I’d say it is on par with its predecessor; so, if you liked the first movie, you’ll like this one. If you didn’t like first one, there’s no talking to you. QED.

22 Jump Street



’22 Jump Street’ is the same movie as ’21 Jump Street’. This isn’t intended as criticism. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller know it’s a sequel; after all, they made the first one, which was a needless remake. And so, you know this one is a needless sequel.  They know you know it’s a needless sequel. This may seem like simple stuff, but it’s actually why the movie contains moments of comic brilliance.

There is a lot of two-things-going-on-at-the same-time on the part of the filmmakers: making fun of sequels whilst doing a cop story, establishing i as a gay couple but we’re not really a gay couple – there is a lot of parallel tracks and multiple meanings to lines here, and it is non-stop funny. Aside from a two-minute segment which transitions the first act into the second act, the pacing is spot on.

Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) have to pose as college students rather than high school kids in an effort to (pardon the pun) weed out the dealers of a new drug called WhyPhy (pronounced “Wi-Fi”). The masquerade doesn’t fool anyone. “I’m 19,” insists the 31-ish year-old Schdmit. Yeah, right. The plot is hardly of concern.

Jenko didn’t exactly fit into high school; it was more Schmidt’s place to shine; college, however, was tailor-made for him. In no time, he manages to become the football team’s star receiver and attends parties with the football player fraternity members. Apparently, all this socializing is for the sake of the investigation, but it affects the relationship between him and Schmidt, because the jocks don’t take as kindly to him.

The way ’22 Jump Street’ explores this fractured relationship, as well as the newly developing friendship between Jenko and the quarterback/frat president Zook (Wyatt Russell) isn’t just insightful, it is delicately handled. For several sequences, these characters play it, oh, pardon me, straight, even if the male bonding seems to have entered questionable territory. Jenko is essentially torn between two lovers, and the movie even goes as far as having its two main characters do some relationship workshopping over couple’s therapy.

But, ’22 Jump Street’ is kind and respectful to its characters and to the emotions involved within this complicated bromance. This movie takes the bromance idea as far as it can possibly go without any actual physicality. It can be seen as a statement of championing male friendships and acknowledging that the most devoted of male friendships can spill over into being perceived as a gay couple even if when it is entirely hetero. This was a surprise to me; while I gave ’21 Jump Street’ a positive review, I did have reservations with the mean-spiritedness of its homophobic slurs.

‘The Lego Movie’ which was extremely well received by critics and audience members earlier this year was also directed by Mr. Lord and Mr. Miller (no one hones in our modern need for irony like these two filmmakers). This was a movie that was equally self-aware and toyed with the way we view toys and the way toys view each other in movies and concluded on a high emotional note that made us feel like we learned something incredibly valuable during playtime. ‘Everything is Awesome’ is, yes, an awesome track by Tegan and Sara, but also serves as a commentary on the suffocating insipidity ingraining pop-culture. This speaks to my previous point about the filmmaking duo operating on multiple levels.

Furthermore, like ‘The Lego Movie’, ’22 Jump Street’ is the sort of movie I will be checking out a second time. I have a policy to limit repeat viewings to exceptional fare, but the truth is, a second viewing is pretty much mandatory in order to catch all the clever lines delivered in rapid-fire succession that were missed because I was laughing uncontrollably to the point where I thought I needed to be excused.  Most sequels are made simply to capitalize on the success of a brand name established by the first film; the formula is often repeated because filmmakers and the studio believe in giving more of what audience members were receptive to the first time around. Rarely are sequels as self-aware as this one; it hones in on just how unoriginal sequels are (and by definition, they are). Credit screenwriters Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman for concocting seemingly lazy script – one that, on the surface, doesn’t appear to be taking any risks; and yet, the results make it feel daring and effortlessly so.

’22 Jump Street’ occupies the same space that Edgar Wright’s ‘Cornetto’ trilogy does. Edgar Wright is really good at spoofing a certain genre whilst crafting a very effective movie of that very genre – i.e. giving us the entertainment we desire whilst we acknowledge our distrust of it. ‘Hot Fuzz’ is probably the best example of this – it spoofs all of the tropes of over-the-top action cop movies and is still a good over-the-top action cop movie. Consider ’22 Jump Street’ to be the American version of that.

Also, stay for the end credits, which contains a sequence imagining where things might go from here; a miniature sequel about sequels masterpiece in its own right.

I’m not giving the movie my full four stars, but if you’re judging a movie based on the target it is aiming for it, this film hits it square on. I don’t think stupid has ever seemed this smart at the movies. Is ’22 Jump Street’ merely a great bromance or the greatest bromance ever in the history of the cinema? You decide. I know where I stand on this. QED.

The Fault In Our Stars



Last week, I posted a rave review of ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ fairly hopeful that it would be able to make back its $190 million cost, and, at a minimum, be the box office champion of its opening weekend. How optimistic of me. Little did I know of the other weekend opener, ‘The Fault In Our Stars’. Other than the fact that it is based on a popular novel by John Green, which resides in my book collection but has remained unopened all this time. I was recently told that the ‘Fault In Our Stars’ is the most-liked movie trailer in YouTube history. And so, I suppose that it shouldn’t be a surprise that the picture made $48 million dollars quadrupling its budget.

The film’s contrivances don’t dilute its ambitions thanks to the beauty of its young actress Shailene Woodley and her portrayal of the heroine and narrator, Hazel Grace Lancaster.

Hazel tells it straight. She tells us in the prologue that she is depressed, but not because depression is, in locus communis, a side effect of cancer. “It’s a side effect of dying, which is happening to me.” She was diagnosed at 13; while an experimental drug has stabilized her, it has weakened her lungs and she literally can’t breathe without the oxygen tank she is tethered to. Before her first visit to the support group, Hazel checks herself out in the mirror and adjusts her nasal cannula (tube with one end splitting into two prongs that are placed into the nostrils from which oxygen flows) as if it were a fashion accessory.

The boy she meets at the support group is Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) – he is instantly smitten with Hazel and takes it on himself to lift her out of her depression. He is a talker; though verbal to the point of being sort of insufferable, there are glimmers of charm. He lost one leg below the knee to cancer, but that in no way diminishes his spirit about living. Eventually his vulnerability is revealed, and touchingly so, but prior to this, his obnoxious posturing makes him rather annoying. Mr. Elgort does, however, find good rhythms in the scenes where his character and Hazel turn into fast friends, with him hoping it will turn into something more romantic (and her being reluctant because she views her time as limited).

At one point in the picture, Anne Frank is used as a device to heighten our feelings about Hazel. Subtlety may not be in director Josh Boone’s vocabulary; but that isn’t a bad thing. What he is after is maximal emotional impact; it’s as if this movie was engineered as a mass production of tears. If that is the product he set out to build, he has succeeded admirably.

Working on an adaptation from Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who penned last year’s ‘The Spectacular Now’, an independent romantic comedy that also starred Shailene Woodley), Mr. Boone has created a movie filled with beautiful moments.

Laura Dern plays Hazel’s hopeful and always encouraging mother who spends every waking (and sleeping) moment on edge in the event of a setback for her daughter. Her defenses collapse during a mother-daughter confrontation about what happens if, or when, Hazel dies.

Hazel has another fierce confrontation with a reclusive novelist, played self-absorbedly by Willem Dafoe, who turns out to be everything but the man of wisdom she was expecting him to be. The resolution of this adds a nice emotional moment.

Ultimately, ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ is Hazel’s story, and this is Shailene Woodley’s movie for just about every moment she is on camera. Her wry wit admittedly leavens the heaviness of the theme, and though Mr. Boone celebrates the sentimentality, he doesn’t shy away from the moments of suffering. We see the painful moments. But, in such moments, there is a joy of watching a transcending, pure, and authentic performance. With ‘The Descendants’, ‘The Spectacular Now’, and now ‘The Fault In Our Stars’, it should be abundantly clear that this young actress is the real thing.

With every line of dialogue, and even dialogue-free moments involving her character texting Augustus, or her character coolly observing the people around her, every bit of Ms. Woodley’s graceful performance feels natural and fills the screen with warmth – it is as if we are getting to know a real person; there is nothing theatrical about this performance. It is only June, but I am making an early prediction that she will receive an Oscar nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Lead Role. Yes, seven months from now, Ms. Woodley’s performance will remain in the minds of Academy voters. And ours. What a lovely movie. QED.

Edge of Tomorrow



‘Edge of Tomorrow’ directed by Doug Liman is a total blast; a superbly entertaining, effects-driven black comedy. It isn’t so much a time travel movie as much as an experience. If that statement doesn’t make sense at the moment, give this ‘Groundhog Day’ meets ‘Independence Day’ flick a watch, and you will (hopefully) see what I mean.

Earth is under attack by alien invaders known as Mimics – they are destroying cities and killing millions. Special Forces soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) has become a figurehead for the resistance using specialized armor and weaponized suits; she is terrific for armed forces morale. The American Army’s PR Officer, Major Bill Cage (Tom Cruise), appears on news shows around the world to put a positive spin on the war from a safe distance. But, when the general (Brendan Gleeson) wants to send Cage into the movie’s version of D-Day to film the invasion, the officer attempts to blackmail his way out of seeing combat; a surprising choice for the role of hero – he has zero combat experience. Cage is arrested, and tasered; when he wakes up, he has the rank of private and is being mobilized out of Heathrow, with a cheerfully maniacal drill sergeant (Bill Paxton) preparing him from the glory of battle.

The supposed glory occurs the next morning, but it’s a disaster – the soldiers are ambushed. By total luck, Cage outlasts most of his comrades, even killing an unusually large alien, who bleeds all over him before killing him. At which point, he wakes up at Heathrow again.

Cage remains persistent at trying to change the sequence of events, but he keeps dying and waking up and dying and waking up over and over again. He always knows he has been here before, that he has met this person, said that line, did that thing, goofed up somewhere and died. Nobody else does, though. ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ mines this mechanic for dark humour as we see Cruise getting shot in the head over and over (pushing the bounds of its MPAA PG-13 rating; the violence is bloodless, but intense). After bumping into Rita a few times on the battlefield, she tells him “Find me when you wake up.”

It turns out Rita has experienced the same temporal dislocation that Cage is now experiencing until a blood transfusion stripped her of those abilities. Rita has to turn Cage into a solider so that the two can save humankind.

Science fiction movies have a tendency to fetishize military technology; and so, I found the “jackets” in ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ – ugly, bulky, bionic suits armed with machine guns and other weapons and worn by the ground forces of “tomorrow” to be a refreshing change of pace. Their controls aren’t the least bit intuitive and the batteries are crappy. The attack, subtitled Operation Downfall, is poorly strategized; ammo is scarce, and the transports end up killing more troops than they are able to deploy on the ground. Topological spaces consist of rough textures, and hulking machines, and mechanical creatures who speedily buzz around the frame.

Cage’s feelings for Rita are complicated by the fact that each time they meet, it’s for the first time. In such a relationship, their love for each other can only be expressed by killing the enemy. Or by fixing each other’s battle wounds. I am glad that they dialed the potential for this romance back.

It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Tom Cruise in this role. Sure, it’s not the performance of his career (that would be ‘Born on the Fourth of July’), but he seems to have mastered the ability to look great doing anything from any angle. Cruise has always been a likeable actor; it has been 28 years since ‘Top Gun’, he is almost 52 years old, and he is still an action star. But, age is finally bringing forth his vulnerability and this gives the film its poignancy. ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ is simultaneously about what it is about while also serving as a metaphor for the actor’s career: this is an actor you can’t bring down, even in Hollywood’s current universe of computer generated creatures, robotics, and explosions.

If the rest of the cast doesn’t give the same impression, it is only because this is Tom Cruise’s movie and he brings it (though the rest are still given enough to work with). Gleeson, as always, injects humanity into his stock character. Some of Paxton’s reactions and lines of dialogue made me laugh loudly. Blunt is convincing as the fearless super-soldier, and there’s even a little bit of heart to her fierce, no-nonsense character. Mr. Liman is in love with his entrance shot of this character; in which we see her rising from the floor of a combat facility in a vinyasa yoga pose over and over again.

Early in the picture, Cage starts out as a Jerry Maguire-type who will say or do anything to remain within his comfort zone. Later on, he gets to learn some amazing combat skills, learn humility, predict exact consequences of events, and gains an appreciation for the nobodies whose necessary sacrifice he had previously sold to the American public; as a result, he learns to be a good soldier and a good man. The Cage at the end of the film is almost unidentifiable from the Cage in the beginning.

Cruise isn’t the only one with déjà vu – regular moviegoers will undoubtedly derive plot elements not only from the aforementioned ‘Groundhog Dog’ and ‘Independence Day’, but also ‘Aliens’, ‘Starship Troopers’, ‘Children of Men’, ‘Saving Private Ryan’, ‘Total Recall’, ‘The Butterfly Effect’, ‘Back to the Future’, and ‘Source Code’. These callbacks never get in way of the fun and for a film about repetition, ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ always seems fresh; there is nothing tired about it.

This is an adaptation of Hiroshi Sikurazaka’s novel ‘All You Need Is Kill’, which I’m not the least bit familiar with, but the film version is true, highly conceptual science fiction. Credit screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie and Jez and John Henry Butterworth for a very smart screenplay.

Everything is of a piece and the results are dazzling – star, structure, set-up, script. This thing really moves, and it has a great sense of humour meaning that it doesn’t take its time-loop premise overly seriously.

What prevents the picture from a potential fourth star is the ending, which I’m not sure I fully understand, so I can’t really say if it works (a second viewing may have me feeling differently about this), and the use of 3-D which makes some of the dark settings in the back half of the picture even murkier. See it in bright, colourful 2-D if you can.

When Tom Cruise presented ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ at the Toronto premiere, he said “I hope you enjoy it because I make them for you.” I did. I suspect you will too. The Summer 2014 movie season is off to a terrific start, and I can’t imagine another summer blockbuster surpassing the heights established by both ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ and ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’. QED.