How To Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

HTTYD2It’s been five years since the denizens of Berk finally welcomed dragons into their midsts, ending a war that had raged for generations. Since then, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless have continued to explore the viking world, discovering new species and acting as ambassadors for human-dragon relations. After an encounter with a trapper named Eret (Kit Harrington), however, Hiccup is ordered by Stoic The Vast (Gerard Butler) to cease his activities and assist in safeguarding Berk against possible invaders — namely Eret’s master, Drago (Djimon Hounsou), with whom the chieftain has history. Confident of his outreach programme, Hiccup flees from Stoic only to end up in the company of his mother, Valka (Cate Blanchet), who he had long presumed dead. While Hiccup reconnects with his estranged parent, old classmates Astrid (America Ferrera), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (T. J. Miller) set out in search of their missing friend.

When How To Train Your Dragon was released in 2010 it took the box office by storm and audiences by surprise. DreamWorks had long been overshadowed by Pixar, and yet here was a film with as much heart, wit and spectacle as anything its rival had to offer. It promised a new dawn for DreamWorks Animation, with directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders enlisting the likes of Guillermo del Toro, Roger Deakin and John Powell to produce the studio’s first undisputed masterpiece. While it’s true that How To Train Your Dragon 2 doesn’t quite reach the same heights as its predecessor, it’s still ambitious enough to impress in its own right.

A more serious film than the first, How to Train Your Dragon 2 has aged its characters by half a decade and introduced an external threat that was much less pronounced the last time around. Older, wiser and rather more confident than before, Hiccup has begun to shed his awkward, adolescent angst to become something of a hero-figure. His relationship with Stoic has inevitably changed, and with the return of his mother it soon changes again. He may have lost a leg at the end of the first movie, but it didn’t seem to dampen his spirits or weaken his resolve. This time, however, his decisions may continue to have a cost but it’s the people around him that suffer the consequences, upping the stakes and giving the character a real sense of weight and responsibility.

That’s not to say that the film isn’t funny, just that the jokes don’t come quite as thick and fast as before. Hiccup and Toothless’ interactions continue to be a source of wit and warmth, as they work – often simultaneously — on both their synchronicity and independence. Gobber (Craig Ferguson), meanwhile, continues to entertain with his assortment of replacement limbs, while Ruffnut earns arguably the biggest laughs of all with her feelings for Eret — much to the chagrin of both Snotlout and Fishlegs, who have by now given up on finding favour with Astrid and refocused their attention at Tuffnut’s twin. As before, the dragons are almost as engaging as their riders, and there is often so much going on in the background that you suspect repeated viewings may be once again necessary to enjoy every gag.

It’s the film’s villain that lets it down. While Hiccup’s mother is a welcome addition to the cast (though Blanchet’s Scottish accent could do with a bit of work), the other newcomers are nowhere near as memorable. Whereas every character in the first film felt fleshed out and integral to the plot, Harrington’s rogue never really coheres (even despite Ruffnut’s affections for him) while the big bad never feels like that much of a threat. Previously the conflict came from Hiccup’s strained relationship with his father, and next to that the antagonism he shares with Drago feels tenuous and beside the point. How To Train Your Dragon 2 just doesn’t feel as sharp or as streamlined as the first; Hiccup’s narration feels clunky and unnecessary as he introduces every viking and his dragon; the dragon races feel like a hangover from the spin-off TV series; and the happy ending doesn’t feel deserved after what is otherwise a pointedly traumatic third act.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is still incredibly entertaining. The animation is even more astonishing than before, the flight scenes are just as stirring and though not quite as uplifting John Powell’s score is still a delight. It’s just a shame that in pushing for something bigger and broader DeBlois has lost track of the finer details that made the original such an unmitigated and unexpected success.

4-Stars

Advertisements

Bad Neighbours (2014)

Bad Neighbours

Mac Radner (Seth Rogen) and his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne) are looking to begin a new life as parents. Unfortunately, this means spending less time with best friends Jimmy Faldt (Ike Barinholtz) and Paula (Carla Gallo) in order to focus on the needs of their new-born daughter Stella. To begin with, Mac and Kelly aren’t particularly concerned when infamous fraternity Delta Psi move in next door, as they see themselves as cool parents still capable of having a good time, but when the antics of Teddy (Zac Efron), Pete (Dave Franco), Scoonie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and Assjuice (Craig Roberts) begin to threaten their suburban bliss they find themselves calling the police to complain. This breaks a pact they had made with Teddy, and soon it’s all-out war as the neighbours fight for their respective family homes.

There was a certain level of buzz around Bad Neighbours even before it opened to big box office and positive reviews in the US, facilitated by its strong cast and run of funny trailers. Here was a movie that borrowed from a number of different comedy sub-genres: its cast was sourced from films as diverse as Superbad, Bridesmaids and Submarine, it shared a director with Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him To The Greek, and — in a welcome change from the usual sex comedies and spoof movies — was the first frat-comedy to come along since Monsters University. (Nobody saw 21 & Over, so it doesn’t count.) By the usually low standards of the comedy genre it felt almost fresh and original.

Beneath the gross-out gags (Stella mistakes a condom for a balloon) and farcical violence (there’s a running joke involving stolen airbags) there is an underlying melancholy to Bad Neighbours which is incredibly endearing. It’s a film about growing up, accepting that your adolescence is over and moving on with your life. Mac and Kelly are ready to do this at the beginning of the movie, only to be temporarily tempted back to the party when a mob of students move in next door. They’re torn between wanting to seem cool and relevant, and wanting to get a good night’s sleep ahead of another day of bread-winning and breast-feeding; it’s a dilemma that most people will be able to sympathise with. Teddy, however, needs a little more convincing, though there are signs even among Delta Psi that adulthood is on the horizon.

The ensemble get some big laughs out of the material, and though the set pieces delight it’s the smaller moments that make the biggest impression. Nicholas Stoller knows how to stage a party, and you can completely understand why Mac and Kelly are tempted in, but he also knows the attraction of a quiet night in front of the TV. Where the film falters is in its balance of scripted jokes and improvised comedy; as charming as the interactions between characters are (particularly in the case of Rogen and Byrne) there comes a point when you realise that you’ve been smiling rather than laughing. A number of the set-pieces seem wasted, and you wonder whether a tighter script and more polished performances might have gotten to the heart of the scene where ad-libbing has only really scratched the surface. After all, some of the cast are better at it than others, and Efron — so funny in 17 Again and Liberal Arts — struggles most of all.

Nevertheless, Bad Neighbours is a funny, likeable and surprisingly touching piece of work. It’s hit and miss at times (Lisa Kudrow is squandered as the college dean) but ultimately pulls it all together for an almost note-perfect finale. The credits are great, too.

3-Stars

 

Dragons: Riders Of Berk (Part I)

Dragons Riders Of BerkFollowing the events of Dragon Island, in which Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless saved the residents of Berk from the Red Death, viking and dragon have learnt to live in relative harmony. Unlike his fellow villagers, however, Mildew (Stephen Root) is not too happy to be sharing his island with creatures that frighten his livestock and damage his property, and begins a campaign to disparage Hiccup and have the dragons expelled from Berk once and for all. In the meantime, Alvin The Treacherous (Mark Hamill) plots an attack on Berk in order to capture “The Dragon Conqueror”, something that will be much easier to accomplish if Mildew succeeds.

Not only is How To Train Your Dragon DreamWorks Animation’s best film to date, it’s one of the best animated films ever made. With a four year wait between the first and second movie, Cartoon Network acquired the rights to a weekly animated series aimed at bridging the gap between films. Unlike the series’ based on Madagascar and Kung-fu Panda, Dragons: Riders Of Berk intended to develop the themes established in the first film, which was praised for its relative depth and darkness, and explore the viking world in more detail than a 90 minute movie could ever allow.

Obviously, each medium has its own individual demands, and to begin with these differences are slightly more pronounced than any similarities. The animation is cruder, much of the soundtrack is obviously recycled and many of the original cast members have had to be replaced. Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson are most missed, with Chris Edgerly and Nolan North struggling with the necessary Scottish accents and drawing undue attention over the first few episodes. Persevere, however, and it becomes clear that the two have more in common than you might have thought — not least the unmistakable tones of Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Over the course of the series, as you become increasingly immersed in the story, such changes aren’t nearly so jarring.

It’s testament to the quality of How To Train Your Dragon that it can even support a television series, for Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois — using Cressida Cowell’s source material — have created a world of almost limitless potential. There are a few elements that fail to take off, occasional filler episodes that have the characters herding animals or hosting flying competitions. but for the most part the series manages to build on what has come before, coming into its own with its first two-parter and the introduction of Alvin The Treacherous. Only time will tell how many of these developments feed into future instalments, but Dragons: Riders Of Berk has successfully fleshed out the village of Berk, introduced new creatures and established growing tensions between the villagers and the dragons.

Part I brings together the first eleven episodes of Dragons: Riders Of Berk, in addition to a number of special features including “Dragon Tracker Part I” and “Evolution Of Thunderdrum”. Until How To Train Your Dragon 2 lands in 2014, the series is sufficient substitute for another cinematic outing to Berk, making excellent use of the memorable characters, unforgettable leitmotifs and quickfire sense of humour that made the first film such a resounding success.

4-Stars

Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

Kick Ass 2It’s been several years since Dave “Kick-Ass” Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) blew Chris D’Amico’s (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) crime boss father up with a rocket launcher, and he has spent that time training in hand-to-hand combat with Mindy “Hit-Girl” Macready (Chloë Grace Moretz). Their costumed antics have meanwhile inspired imitators, and when Mindy renounces crime-fighting at her step-father’s behest to focus on her studies, Dave joins Justice Forever in order to stop Chris’ own super team, The Toxic Mega-C*nts, from blowing up the city. As useful as Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey) and Doctor Gravity (Donald Faison) are in a fight, however, Dave will need Mindy back if he is to succeed.

When Kick-Ass opened back in 2010, a full decade into the recent superhero resurgence, it famously subverted the genre to shocking effect, leading The Daily Mail to denounce it as twisted and cynical. Audiences had seen Doctor Octopus massacre a room full of surgeons, Doctor Manhattan reduce helpless people to wallpaper paste and the absolute horror that was 2005’s Elektra, but they still weren’t ready to hear a little girl say a naughty word. Didn’t South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut teach us anything?

Kick-Ass 2 is likely to prove just as controversial, if not more so, but for slightly different reasons. If anything the genre as a whole has become even more far removed from reality than it already was, with the once typical violence now being toned down to ludicrous degrees. The superhero movies of the last three years have seen gods skirmish, robots clash and aliens invade with nary a casualty in sight. Christopher Nolan traded ideas instead of blows, while the writers of Man Of Steel have spent the months since its release reassuring audiences that while the bad guy may have leveled an entire city nobody was actually hurt.

In a landscape in which good and evil have become almost meaningless concepts (in X-Men: First Class characters changed sides faster than they could change costumes), it’s once again up to comic book creator Mark Miller to put things right. Justice Forever is comprised of people wanting to help others — Remembering Tommy are a mother/father duo disillusioned by the police’s efforts to find their missing son; Insect Man is taking the fight against homophobia a little more literally than most — while The Toxic Mega-C*nts are genuinely, disgustingly vile — they torture, rape and murder, and they’re serious enough about it not to call themselves Toad or The Abomination.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz and Christopher Mintz-Plasse return as Kick-Ass, Hit-Girl and Red Mist (now The Motherf*cker) respectively, and though their characters have apparently been treading water for the last few years they each slot straight back into their roles, and have new arcs to keep them busy for the duration of the sequel. Taylor-Johnson — now married with kids — somehow still convinces as a hapless teen, unlucky in love and even unluckier in a fight, but once again it is Moretz and Mintz-Plasse who steal the show, the former shining during a slumber-party subplot (a veritable warm-up for Carrie) while the latter gamely hides his McLovin’ persona under layers and layers of his mother’s PVC.

But while Kick-Ass 2 is just as subversive, sick and well-stocked as the original, it is nowhere near as surprising. Wadlow’s script has all of the foul-mouthed one-liners and fan-sating pop-culture references that you could want from a Kick-Ass movie, but elsewhere it falls completely flat, stumbling over exposition and resorting to repetition when it seems to run out of things to say. There are a few exchanges between Dave and Mindy that don’t make any sense at all, while the new additions to the cast get little more to work with than their admittedly amazing names (Night Bitch being a personal favourite), which of course were provided by Millar.

Kick-Ass 2 is a very entertaining movie; it has the same colourful characters, the same bloody action sequences and the same scrappy spirit, once again succeeding in making the most realistic superhero movie possible, right down to the scene in which Dave recognises his friend, even despite the mask. That said, there’s no getting away from the fact that the sequel is not as punchy, well-conceived or revelatory as Matthew Vaughn’s original.  But then it doesn’t have to be, just so long as it kicks ass.

3.5-Stars

Pitch Perfect (2012)

Pitch PerfectForced to attend Barden University under the watchful eye of her professor father, wannabe music producer Beca (Anna Kendrick) joins the college’s all-female a cappella group after being bribed with a all-expenses-paid trip to LA. The Bellas, fresh from a humiliating defeat at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella in which one of their number threw up over the audience, could benefit greatly from Beca’s skills, if only group leader Aubrey would break from tradition and allow input from others. Read more of this post

ParaNorman (2012)

Able to commune with the dead, horror nut Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has been ostracised by his parents, his peers and his community of historic witch-hunters; a state of affairs that he rather prefers. When he is informed by his dead uncle (John Goodman) that it is his duty to perform an ancient ritual to keep the dead from walking the earth — by overruling a legendary witch — Norman sets off for the local graveyard to undo the age-old curse. Followed by his sister (Anna Kendrick), the school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), friendly student Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) and Neil’s older jock brother (Casey Affleck), they soon find themselves confronted not only by the zombified remains of the town’s puritan founders, but a mob of terrified townsfolk desperate for answers. Read more of this post

Fright Night (2011)

Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) has a new neighbour; a night owl with very literal boundary issues. When cornered by his ex-friend and one-time fellow dresser upper, Ed Lee (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Charley is forced to consider that the strange disappearances slowly robbing his school of pupils might in fact be the handiwork of his potentially vampiric neighbour. With Jerry Dandrige (Colin Farrell) on to him, and alleged vampire expert Peter Vincent (David Tennant) proving less helpful than hoped, Charley must stake-up if he is to protect his mother (Toni Collette) and girlfriend (Imogen Poots) from almost certain undeath.

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I freakin’ LOVE Buffy the Vampire Slayer; you might even say I’m a bit of a Buffy buff, if you’re one of those people anyway. It seems Craig Gillespie does too. Having never actually seen the original Fright Night, then (eh, what are you going to do?), I am going to pad out the next paragraph with the few potentially arbitrary comparisons I can make.

Now, I realise that if we do ever see a Buffy movie it will most likely be a Godless, Whedon-less affair courtesy of  the Kuzui heathens, but a part of me nevertheless refuses to surrender the dwindling hope that I will see a smart, good-humoured vampire flick on the big screen. Who knew that what I was actually waiting for was not Sarah Michelle Gellar’s long overdue comeback (come on, we both know Ringer‘s never going to take off), but the decidedly less blonde spectacle of McLovin the Vampire Slayer.

As a self-confessed Christopher Mintz-Plasse hater (hater might be a bit strong actually, let’s say ‘not-getter’), I was as surprised as anyone when I found myself strangely allured by the prospect of seeing Kick-Ass‘ Red Mist wielding a stake. In a film that boasts a hugely bearable Mintz-Plasse, Gillespie could have been forgiven giving himself a good old pat on the back and having a nice, long rest on his laurels. But no, Fright Night has almost too much going for it, with a winning sense of self-awareness poking fun at everything from Twilight to more traditional, archaic vampire lore, while also being an accomplished and hugely engaging genre film in its own right. Take a bow, Ms. Marti Noxon – I knew that Buffy talk was going somewhere.

Anton Yelchin is fantastic as the ex-geek, troubled teenager-turned vampire hunter, bringing the same intensity with which he rather admirably saved Terminator Salvation from old mardy pants to the role of Charlie Brewster. Mum Toni Collette and love interest Imogen Poots provide admiral support, but the real praise should go out to Colin Farrell and David Tennant, who ham it up beautifully as infamous vampire and celebrity weirdo respectively. In sacrificing sobriety for a sense of joviality, all involved have ensured that Fright Night escapes any bad-will currently felt towards the genre, simultaneously distancing it from the less sardonic original. Or so I’m told.

With a great script, some brilliant performances, a good few dustings and some effective 3D, Fright Night is an absolute delight. A welcome dose of vampire slaying and a genuine, ostensible, bona fidely decent remake, this might be as anti-Let The Right One In as it is the anti-Twilight, but it is a balance that nevertheless works magnificently.