Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Training Day: The Dragons Return in the Majestic “How to Train Your Dragon 2”

“How to Train Your Dragon” really surprised me when it was released four years ago. It featured such a delightful and sweet story about a young Viking boy as he befriends and attempts to tame a dragon. It was a huge hit so obviously we get the unneeded but equally surprising sequel. To be sure, this isn’t really a film that needed to be made, but it really explores more of the world and characters that we got to know in the first film and after a slightly meandering first act finally settles into a thrilling story about family and even some ecological issues as well.

Young Viking chief-to-be Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) has aged into a young man (an interesting development seeing as though many cartoon characters rarely age) and he’s still partnered with his dragon pal Toothless. Is Toothless just the cutest darned animated character ever? It’s possible. The film opens with a high flying dragon riding competition, but like Ariel in “The Little Mermaid,” Hiccup is out with his dragon friend exploring. He eventually comes across a strange ice world where wild dragons are abundant and looked after by a mysterious human figure, who just so happens to be someone from Hiccup’s past.

 Obviously things aren’t perfect otherwise there’d be no tension or plot to speak of. The evil conqueror named Drago (Djimon Hounsou) hates dragons and wants to hunt them unlike the villagers of Berk who have come to peace with the creatures (and use them in everyday life) since the last film. There’s also Eret (Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington), a dragon trapper who works for Drago, who will question his loyalty as the film progresses. Eventually we learn that a huge Alpha dragon can actually control all the other dragons which adds some real emotional tension to the proceedings. Hiccup must defy his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) yet again as he makes it his mission to help the dragons and Berk’s way of life.

I don’t really have much to complain about with “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” Although like a dragon missing an essential wing on its tail, the first act of the film felt like it was kind of meandering until it found its footing. After all, if all the dragons were successfully trained, isn’t that title sort of misleading? But I digress. The animation here is simply amazing; it’s probably the best work Dreamworks has ever done. And about 60 percent of why these movies are so great is because of the absolutely phenomenal music score by composer John Powell. This, like the first film, definitely has Oscar-worthy compositions. And the music supports the real heart of the film: the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless. They're simply a winning pair and I could easily watch five more films if it were just these two, as unnecessary as that would be.

It’s pretty simple. "How to Train Your Dragon" was a great movie, with all its delightful E.T.-like qualities and "How to Train Your Dragon 2" is just as good. It has tremendously gorgeous animation, music, and an inspired voice cast. The movie is emotionally resonant, has some pretty amazing flying and action sequences, though director Dean DeBois’ script takes a while to really get moving but once it does it doesn’t let go. It pretty much opens up the world that was so well established in the first film. There’s not much to complain about here, you should be dragon the kiddies to see it.  GRADE: B+

Trailer for How to Train Your Dragon 2 on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Undercover Brothers: The Über-Meta “22 Jump Street” is Thankfully More of the Same

“22 Jump Street” might as well be called “21 Jump Street: The College Years.” It’s literally everything like it’s surprisingly funny predecessor (itself a self-aware parody of buddy cop action movies) except it’s set in college instead of high school. But there’s something particularly special about it. It may even be the “Gremlins 2” of this franchise. Even though the first film was self-aware, this film completely outdoes the original in sheer parody-ripe self-reflexive meta-ness. It also helps that it’s pretty darn funny in places. A sequel is usually automatically inferior to the original film because not matter what it’s always got that “we’ve already seen this” feel to it. “22 Jump Street” is fully aware of the trappings of a sequel and just goes with it. It’s one of the most self-aware films since the “Scream” series. It has fun poking fun at itself while it tries to take itself seriously and the audience is having too much fun to even care that they literally recycle the same plot from the first movie, albeit with a few new twists.

In “21 Jump Street” (a film that no one, myself included, expected to be amazing) losers- turned-cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) pose as high school kids to find the supplier of a popular new drug. In “22 Jump Street losers turned cops Schmidt and Jenko pose as college kids to find the supplier of a popular new drug. See what I mean? Yeah it’s the same exact plot, but the characters know it. There are even references to having a bigger budget and how doing the same thing will end with the same results. That’s about right. This time Jenko ends up joining the college football team. After a funny meet-cute scene he befriends and then suspects blonde dumb jock Zook (Wyatt Russell). Jenko is way more in his element with the football/frat house crowd then he was in the science nerd crowd in the last movie. Schmidt, meanwhile, has befriended Maya (Amber Stevens) who lives across the hall from a girl who died after taking the drug being passed around. Her roommate Mercedes (Jillian Bell) hilariously isn’t buying that Schmidt is actually college-aged.

Even if “22 Jump Street” follows the same formula as the last movie it still overs a few new touches. Directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord, who are hot off the success of the phenomenon that is “The LEGO Movie” offers just as many great random pop culture references in Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman’s sharp and enjoyably progressive script. I counted references including everything from Benny Hill to Maya Angelou to “The Golden Girls” and even a clever nod to “Annie Hall” that most likely flew over the heads of the film’s target audience but we cinephiles would never miss it. Heck there was even a subtle reference to Tatum’s own terrible “White House Down.” And I still can’t believe the few plot twists that were as unexpected as they were entertaining – things that just can’t be mentioned here. And let’s not forget the film’s epic, must-see end credit sequence that puts to shame all other end credit sequences.

“22 Jump Street” is as much a surprise as the first film was. It satirizes everything from action films to cop films and anything else worth poking fun at. It could have been just awful but it’s remarkably funny, touching, and smart, even if it feels a tad overlong and overly ridiculous at times. I’m not sure it’s necessarily funnier than the first movie, but both of these films have set a new standard for TV-to-film adaptations. I’m not really sure how much any of this stuff is actually like the show it’s based on, but a new standard of action-packed comedy has been set and the chemistry-rich Hill and Tatum are easily today’s Abbott and Costello.  GRADE: B+

Trailer for 22 Jump Street on TrailerAddict.

Friday, June 06, 2014

In the Loop: “Edge of Tomorrow” is a Surprisingly Spectacular Sci-Fi Thriller

The outlook on Tom Cruise’s latest big screen adventure didn’t look promising. His last film “Oblivion” (which, for the record, I actually enjoyed) wasn’t quite the big hit the mega star was used to. Many complained about the film borrowing too heavily from other, better sci-fi films. And now we have “Edge of Tomorrow” which, from its not-that-amazing marketing campaign seemed like “Groundhog Day” meets “Battle: Los Angles.” The latter wasn’t exactly the type of movie I would want to see get the “do over” plot treatment. So I was pleasantly surprised, along with whoever nervously shelled out money this past weekend, when “Edge of Tomorrow” turned out to be a real hoot: it’s a completely solid sci-fi film with great action, characters, and a plot, while not completely original, that works even with the sometimes problematic time travel plot mechanics. In other words, I really loved it.

“Edge of Tomorrow” doesn’t quite have the plot that is easy to describe, but the basic gist involves a future in which aliens have invaded earth. They’re squid-like creatures who move fast and are pretty lethal. They’re referred to as Mimics. Tom Cruise plays Major William Cage, who has no previous combat training. He’s forced into a European-set invasion battle not unlike the Battle of Normandy. What was supposed to be a surprise attack on the enemy is anything but as the invasion goes horribly wrong; it’s as if the aliens knew they were coming. Cage is killed but not before a Mimic’s blood gets all over him; but then wakes up the day before, as if nothing had happened, where he repeats all of the previous day’s events leading up to his death in battle. He eventually seeks out super soldier Rita Vrataski (a bad-ass Emily Blunt) who just may know what’s going on. While things seem confusing at first, things begin to clear up as each day repeats more is revealed about why and what can be done with it. It’s pretty cool.

All I can say about “Edge of Tomorrow” is that it is a must-see for anyone who even remotely likes this genre. Cruise and Blunt have an amazing chemistry together and they both create believable characters that are unlike anything they have played before. Doug Liman, who is a sort of hit-or-miss director these days, really takes control here and has a great time with a really fun script by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth. The design of the alien creatures is also top notch. They don’t seem like something we’ve previously seen before. I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t jump out of my seat a few times. These things are frightening. And the military aspect of this alien-invasion plot takes plenty of cues from “Aliens.” The action, even if we see the same events multiple times, never feels boring or repetitive. And the editing here is outstanding especially once we realize a completely new scene that’s taking place is actually the fifth or even tenth time it’s happened to the characters.

I can’t recommend “Edge of Tomorrow” enough. It takes everything you love about other movies in this genre and tweaks it enough so it doesn’t feel like it’s just a rip-off. The actors are really good, including brief appearances by Bill Paxton and Brendan Gleeson, and have created memorable genre characters who have interesting arcs. The movie is fun, surprisingly funny, action-packed, and tightly-paced; it is certainly worthy of any science-fiction fan’s time.  GRADE: A-

Trailer for Edge of Tomorrow on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Secret of the Snooze: The Misguided “Maleficent” Doesn’t Even Compare to Disney’s Classic Sleeping Beauty

Listen well, all of you. It’s extremely difficult to see a film called “Maleficent” and not compare every moment to the classic 1959 animated Disney film that inspired it. While initially the prospect of the popular villain getting her own film and storyline seemed like a win-win situation, unfortunately it is anything but. Since so little is actually known about Maleficent, any kind of backstory instantly erases all of the wondrous villainy and iconic mysteriousness of the character. Learning that Maleficent once had wings seems cool on paper but seeing her fly around just seems silly. Maybe because since she’s portrayed by Angelina Jolie (who is good in the role but even she can’t save this thing) she just seems like a human being with curved horns and wings. “Maleficent” isn’t the story about how this iconic Disney villain became evil, instead it’s a retroactive story which makes her sympathetic and tragic; it takes away everything that was even remotely fascinating about her. And that’s a shame.

Instead of taking place before the events of “Sleeping Beauty” the film is set before, during, and after that film. The film works sort of as a behind the scenes of what really was going on during the events of the film much like “Wicked” was the truth behind what we didn’t get to see in “The Wizard of Oz.” While that hit musical played with what we knew from Dorothy’s story, it didn’t change the fundamental elements that we all know so well. “Maleficent” sets out to not only tell us things we didn’t know, but to change everything as we know it.

Maleficent is a fairy and she has magical powers. She resides over the fairy world which doesn’t quite get along with the human world. As a teen she falls in love with a peasant boy but when he sees an opportunity to become king he betrays her, cuts off her wings (instead of killing her), presents them to the king and he’s eventually given the entire kingdom. This is King Stefon (portrayed as an adult by District 9’s Sharlto Copley). Understandably hurt by the betrayal, later, Maleficent seizes the opportunity to curse Stefan’s new infant daughter Aurora. She’s foresees a prophecy that will have the sixteen year old Aurora prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a deep sleep but throws in a clause that says she can be awoken by true love’s kiss (since she believes that true love doesn’t exist). This has already deviated way too much from the original story. Of course we remember that it is the third good fairy that changes the prophecy to include the true love’s kiss option.

We’ve seen plenty of alternate versions of true loves kiss in everything from “Enchanted” to last year’s “Frozen.” And since Maleficent spends the next sixteen years actually watching over and interacting with young Aurora while the three good yet disturbingly incompetent – and obnoxious – fairies (which were really the best thing about “Sleeping Beauty” besides Maleficent) supposedly have her in hiding from Maleficent and her evil curse. Then while we wait for Maleficent to become more and more evil and villainous – even shape-shifting her not all that evil either raven Diaval (Sam Riley) to help carry out her dirty deeds – she becomes more and more sympathetic as she and Aurora bond and have a fairy godmother relationship! The film really doesn't convince us that Maleficent would do something so bad as to curse Aurora and then become her mother figure in one act alone. I just couldn’t get past the film’s last two acts as it deviated further and further from the original story to a point where it seemed unrecognizable; including Aurora (Elle Fanning) in a deep sleep for about five minutes of screen time. More like a nap if you ask me.

Everything I loved about this evil character got flushed down the proverbial toilet. And for what reason exactly? I have no idea. They had such a great character to work from and didn’t do anything new or exciting with her. The film’s screenwriter also butchered Disney’s recent “Alice in Wonderland” so I guess it makes perfect sense. Director Robert Stromberg, who makes his feature debut after a successful run as a production designer, fills every scene with either unrealistic CGI sets or unrealistic sound stage sets. Has a production designer ever successfully directed a film that didn’t look like a box of crayons barfed onscreen? I’m not that disappointed that the film isn’t all that great. I’m just disappointed that Maleficent didn’t get the big screen treatment she deserved.  GRADE: C-

Feature Trailer for Maleficent on TrailerAddict.