Saturday, October 25, 2014

3+1 Short Paragraphs: Un Prophete

2009, Jacques Audiard -- Netflix

I cannot remember why, but this movie has been on the edge of my radar for quite some time. I vaguely recall a positive review by Roger Ebert. Also on the periphery of my mind is a scene of a man looking out a small window, perched high in the room considering his confinement and the world beyond.

Un Prophète is a French prison drama, about a young Arab boy (his racial origins & France's racial tensions play a part in the movie) sent to prison, straight from streets that have not treated him well. His face is stitched up, his arms and back are criss-crossed with scars and his clothes are only worth being tossed in a bin. We never really know what crime he committed or what happened to him before, because it doesn't matter. This prison is where Malik El Djebena becomes someone.

Malik goes into the prison young and afraid. He is not like the stereotypical strutting street thug ready to prove himself a criminal to his peers. He is merely there because life has led him there. And when the local prison Don, a Corsican named Luciani, coerces him into murdering another prisoner, Malik is torn and forever changed. He becomes the errand boy, the guy who makes the instant coffees, the guy who delivers messages, all for the Corsican criminals who run the prison with the obvious and unchallenged help of the prison officials themselves. And with this exposure, Malik doesn't leave the prison young, or afraid.

What was fascinating about how all of this was played out was that we are never really sure if Malik is meant for this life. He is not a bad man, but nor is he a man to stand up against evil. There is some commentary about how prison makes criminals of its residents, but this movie is more about Malik finding a place, a family and a direction for himself. The prophetic allusions are  somewhat unbalanced, as he has the only meaningful conversations of the movie with absent characters, who might represent his own more intelligent personality emerging. It is never clear and really, it does not play a big part. That he leaves the prison, leader not follower, ascribes some mystical overtones to what led him there, but really, the movie is more a personal evolution not a grand one.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: X-Men: Days of Future Past

2014, Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Jack the Giant Slayer) -- download

That issue of The Uncanny X-Men, that one with the cover, that one this is inspired by! There was something about Wolverine with the gray in his sideburns and the crossed-out X-Men. Dystopia! Internment camps! Killer sentinels and time travel! That comic was one of the key points in building my fascination with dystopias. Also, one of the points for establishing my 'body count means plot weight' opinion. You would think I would have a lot invested in seeing the film adaptation. Maybe it was for that reason, that I was very meh about the coming of this movie. Or maybe it was my already deep seated meh for First Class that contributed. That said, I had no interest in seeing it in the cinemas and thus didn't suffer the usual anguish when I was forced to download it.

In Days of Future Past Bryan Singer returns to the franchise to connect the prequel First Class to his pair of X-Men movies. In a dark future where mutants are hunted down or thrown into detention camps, the remaining X-Men all embittered and determined, need to make use of a new power being used by Kitty Pryde, to send someone into the deep past and change history, thus eliminating this Darker Timeline. Of course, Wolverine is the best choice not just because he was there in the time period they need to go to, but also because his powers allow his to recover more quickly. And thus, with the help of Professor X (a completely unexplained, returned Patrick Stewart), Wolvie is sent back to talk with younger Professor X (James McAvoy).

Well, I'll be damned but this movie was a lot of fun. And its meaty, relying on the already established characterizations from the first three as well as the rebooted prequel cast. Its like they finally are finished with establishing movies and can just riff on their versions of characters I have known for thirty years or more. McAvoy and Fassbender are incredible together, the pain and anguish of each man's failings played out well against the confirmed dark future. And the flash forward battle scenes between morphing Sentinels and new/old X-Men is just ... colorful. With Wolverine tying the two stories together, a little mixed up but pretty much the same in each timeline, he pretty much plays observer as much as we do. If I can fault the movie for anything, it is the annoying bloodless PG ratings attached. Seriously, why have claws bone or metal, if you cannot spray blood as you delimb every foe you run into. He's too violent a character to revert to a cartoon version, in a movie that has such emotional weight to it.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: Transformers: Age of Extinction

2014, Michael Bay (The Rock, The Island) -- download

Age of Extinction doesn't pick up immediately after the last movie but does pick itself up in the world shattered after the War of Chicago, which is a nice bit of world continuity. And then it spends the next 3 hours being the same old same old. I commended the body count of the last movie and I commend the continuity of this movie having it mean something. But again, AGAIN, the movie has to toss in the idea that we not trust the alien robots who have fought and died to save our asses. So, as expected, Michael Bay knows some of the points of making good sequels but still always wants to seed his movies with easy expectations.. and bay-splosions.

The movie picks up not long after the battle in Chicago, about four years. Shia is out and Mark Wahlberg is in; he is a single dad and a failed inventor. Based on the way he interacts with his inventions, talking to them and hoping to coax them into working, instead of inspecting the wiring, circuit boards and software, its no wonder he's a failure. In fact, the whole personality he is assigned is rather dim --- he has a daughter he forbade from ever dating but seems to miss the fact she is super model hot. There is no reality where she is not dating, especially when you see the crowd she hangs with, all standard Bay-hotties. Meanwhile, Wahlberg has purchased a disabled Optimus Prime and nurses the guy back to health, just before he is betrayed by a co-worker and the government.

The next two and a half hours are running away, new autobots, dead autobots, explosions, a new comedic old guy character (Stanley Tucci who is a whole lot of fun), new style baddie robots (made by humans), the return of Megatron (duh) and another alien robot menace, again. Its, as they say, non-stop bay-splosions, car chases, battle scenes and deaths. We know there must be deaths but we only ever actually see one very visibly, the betraying co-worker. We knew he had to die but at least they make it count, kinda. Its all silly and over the top with tons of gramma screaming at the screen stupidities but, with a flick of the brain-switch, kinda fun. And there is Optimus Prime riding a fire breathing dinosaur robot while wielding a sword.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: The F Word

2013, Michael Dowse (Goon, It's All Gone Pete Tong) -- cinema

Otherwise known as What If in the rest of the world, the Canadian title of the movie says everything you need to know. No, its not about swearing, its an affable movie about being relegated to the friendzone and the troubles and responsibilities that come with that. To the average nice guy, this is the worst thing that can happen -- meet a nice girl, fall for her but hear those dastardly words, "Can we just be friends?" But being friendzoned comes with negative connotations, a sort of responsibility laid at the feet of the female side of the relationship, and this movie wants to sidestep this. The movie is about unrequited love, not sexual politics. For the most part.

Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) is a med school dropout, living with his sister and heartbroken about his ex. He runs into Chantry (Zoe Kazan) at a house party and the two click, in that snarky pop culture conversation sort of way. Part of me wants to rewatch some old youth movies to see if people talked this way in the pre-Buffy days. Clever, relevant and oh so intelligent, Chantry is the first woman to make Wallace think about someone other than his ex. And then she mentions her BF. But they shake hands and agree to be friends.  Allan (Adam Driver) thinks Wallace is being stupid, hiding his feelings for the sake of the gentlemanly friendship. Wallace is conflicted. But they are good as friends.

The first act of the movie is all short choppy walking scenes, that gives the watcher a tour of the cool spots in Toronto. Wallace and Chantry, Wallace and Allan, Wallace and his sister, Chantry and her sister, Chantry and her friends. There is some weird slapstick comedy and a few out of place, otherworldly scenes of animation come to life. I felt things were far too heavy handed on the quips and clips, but it did lead eventually into the actual turmoil of the movie -- how the two do not deal with the growing mutual feelings between them. There is real emotion bubbling to the surface tangled in real life decisions as the BF moves to Ireland for work and Chantry is offered animation work in Taiwan. When it all comes together the two have to dispense with the charming dialogue and just talk to each other about how they feel. There is plenty of time for charming dialogue after they get together, and sit on a roof watching the stars.

Friday, October 10, 2014

We Agree(ish) Guardians of the Galaxy

2014, James Gunn -- in theatre

All right, people, it's time.  It's time I either poop or get off the poop-pot.  I know you've been waiting for this review from me for so long, Mr. Comic Book Geek...some of you I'm sure have resisted the urge to see the film until such time as I shine my light on it and either bathe it in praise, or douse it with denunciation.  So here's the poop, I couldn't decide whether I loved Guardians of the Galaxy as a result of meeting and exceeding my expectations, or if I was, like David, somewhat underwhelmed by the film for the very same reason.

Certainly my anticipation was high, I was a huge fan of the surprisingly recent source material from which this team of characters sprang.  I've always had great love for the B- (and more for the C- and D-) characters from DC and Marvel comics, and this was a team comprised exclusively of characters and heroes largely forgotten by even many of the hardcore nerds.  That the next big Marvel film would take a risk on a talking, gun-toting, trash-talking raccoon, and a sentient tree who only speaks one phrase ever, and two more characters in full-body green make-up was an utter surprise, but not an unwelcome one.  The Guardians of the Galaxy comic (which weaved in and out of cosmic epic crossovers in its three years of publishing) was relentlessly entertaining, dizzyingly rich with creative concepts, and featured an engaging cast of mismatched characters who truly belonged together if only because they didn't belong anywhere else.  It was, for me at least, an endlessly exciting, and perfectly logical choice for a monster-budgeted motion picture.

I struggle with how I feel about the cinematic GOTG.  I know I came out of the film feeling entertained, as entertained as any film in recent memory.  GOTG features laughs, excitement, and some rather surprising character moments (particularly Rocket's drunken outburst had my eyes welling up in empathy), all enveloped in both the space opera oeuvre I intrinsically love as well as being embedded in a superhero universe I am 100% invested in.  The constant spectacle of seeing things on screen I never thought I would see (the Knowhere space station inside a Celestial's head, I mean COME ON!! Cosmo the Russian space dog, yesss!  More of him in the sequel please.  Nova Corps, wahoo!) propelled me excitedly through the movie, and seeing Chris Pratt, whom I've liked intensely for years as dopey Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation, in a lead role couldn't have had me more tuned in.

But for all that, for all the great special effects, for all the cheering and laughing and almost-crying, so much of the film fell flat.  And no it wasn't the cheesy soundtrack -- which managed to ground the film in an Earth-based reality, without really ever needing to touch the Earth, beyond its opening few minutes -- it was just the condensed, Reader's Digest-light version of what felt like it should be a much longer story.  Ronan the Accuser (a completely disguised Lee Pace) certainly looked the part, but the in story motivation was whisper-thin, as was his character development.  It's a problem Marvel movies are generally having, villains who are basically there for the heroes to fight, and not so much great characters on their own. Compare to Loki or Iron Man 3's the Mandarin, and you can see most of the baddies are not casting much shadow.

Beyond that, certain moments felt palely false, like Gamora being manhandled in prison, or having to be rescued on more than one occasion.  She's a premiere fighter and assassin in the universe, she shouldn't in any way feel threatened by a group of thugs or unable to escape her own demise. A romance with Peter Quill should also be totally beneath her, and at least in this film, it never makes it to the big payoff, which I do admire, but I get the feeling it's just a tease for more love-hate hijinks next film.

Nebula, Gamora's step-sister, is an incredible-looking character.  The make-up job on actress Karen Gillen is phenomenal, such that, for me, she's the standout visual of the film, beyond Groot and Rocket.  Unfortunately, Gillen is either given fairly flat dialogue to deliver, or just doesn't manage to hit the dialogue with the right gravitas, as such she feels like a wasted character.  I do hope she gets more screentime in the next film.

The Nova Corps seem like a nice inclusion in the film, but the stunt casting of John C. Reilley and Glenn Close are overly distracting, the same could be said for Benicio Del Toro as the Collector.  Their characters are perfunctory and really should've called for small-time character actors in the roles.  As is, these are a few big-name people in very minor roles, signifying they have more importance then they really do.

On the upside, former pro-wrestler David Bautista is the revelation of the film, delivering deadpan, literal line readings with precision timing, building Drax into a hilarious, yet still intimidating character.  It's a shame Drax is de-powered next to his comic book counterpart, as he should have been able to go toe-to-to with Ronan, but Bautista still gives him a life that stands on its own.  As well, Bradley Cooper delivers a surprising and masterful voice performance as Rocket Raccoon, which certainly builds him into the endearing character he should be.  Vin Diesel's gravelly croak delivers so much with merely the words "I am Groot".  Of anything in the translation I was wondering how that would play, and it plays brilliantly. Certainly the voice of the Iron Giant knows how to make the most out of sparse line readings.

The film is a visual feast, though logic problems (like how various things survive various conflicts) plague the fallout of fight sequences, but overall Gunn produces a colourful and vivid Galaxy that makes the eyes pop, if not always stimulating the brain with ideas.

I have this feeling that a second viewing will either make or break the film for me, that I will either find too much flaw, or fall madly into like with it.  Given the strong public reaction and my already favourable disposition, I think I know which way I'll probably go, but it's not a foregone conclusion.  I'm certainly jazzed this renegade band of a-holes has made such a massive box-office splash, as a sequel is inevitable and I definitely want to spend more time in this neck of the Galaxy (more Cosmo, please).


3+1 Short Paragraphs: Divergent

2014, Neil Burger (Limitless, The Illusionist) -- download

For the time being, youth dystopian fiction is where it's at.  With the astounding popularity of The Hunger Games and the screen realizations of The Maze Runner and The Host, we have a few more years of teens against the Near Dark Future establishment coming. But, isn't it weird, when you think something is a thing and then you try and find examples, but realize they are so few? Its the opposite of finding out someone has a new car, and suddenly seeing that car everywhere on the road. Anywayz, its an easy stretch to see why today's youth would feel attached to fiction that has them up against cruel societies that care little for their people.

Now, despite my fondness for near future stories, I never cared to see this movie. The idea of a dark (near) future that is dominated by how it pre-defines its people, how it breaks everyone up into the group they are most suited for, didn't seem that dark to me. As a premise, it is not very alluring. OMG, they want you to be giving or martial or intellectual or whatever. AND you are actually allowed to go against the suggested group and choose. But what if you are the magical kid who has the connection to all the possible life directions / professions? Oooo dangerous. Even as I type it now, I cannot see how it would be considered a real issue. I imagined the movie would spend so much time convincing us this had an impact, I would end up rolling my eyes. But I was pleasantly surprised. The weight of the choices and how far outside she felt, is pretty apparent from the beginning.

Tris is raised in the "abnegation" tradition; those who are entirely giving. She doesn't feel it. During her 'aptitude test' the evaluator tells her the test fails but that she should tell them it said "abnegation". Instead Tris decides on the martial protectors called "dauntless". And thus begins her training at Hogw... the dauntless training arenas. Thus we get the cliches of The Hunger Games, or Harry Potter, or any other fiction where a young character has to spend most of the story training to not be the weak, unskilled, whiny version of themselves so they can blossom into the confident warrior that will set their people free. Inherently, I cannot fault that trend in fiction, having spent so much of my youth repeatedly reading the Band of Adventurers (i.e. Fellowship) trope.

But as training goes on, it becomes apparent why her being "divergent" (carrying traits from all the traditions) is so dangerous. She acts more independent than her peers, more thoughtful. So, despite being smaller and weaker than the other dauntless bullies, she rises through the training ranks. Meanwhile a conspiracy is going on around her, as the current leader of their people, an Erudite (smart people) played by Kate Winslet devises a way to control the dauntless like a suggestible zombie army. And the divergent are immune. As the story closes out, again we have to compare to The Hunger Games as our hero starts a rebellion against the leaders, for the betterment of her people. Let's assume it made enough money to move onto the rest of the series.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: Enemy

2013, Denis Villeneuve (Maelstrom, Incendies) -- download

Double. Doppelganger. Evil Twin. It must be unnerving to look into the eyes of someone and see yourself staring back. The mirror is within your realm of control; you can just look away. But to unexpectedly find your own face worn by a low grade actor in a B movie would be way beyond strange. Adam Bell is a teacher at U of T, a man who constantly teaches the same lecture over and over, one of history and totalitarian societies, Romans and Circuses. He is bored, bored of his life and his girlfriend and the dusky city of Toronto he lives in. But when, out of that simple boredom, he watches a movie recommended by a fellow boring teacher, he catches himself playing the bellhop. And boredom changes into an obsession with finding out who this double is.

This is an artistic movie, well shot full of wide scenes that make Toronto urbane yet chilling, institutional. Like Prisoners before it, it is quiet and bleak, even in the brightest sun, the skylines tainted with brown smog. There is an underlying tension to everything and every interaction in the movie. Adam meets his double, and its is not enlightening but scares him. Daniel St Claire, the stage name of Anthony, seems to be everything Adam is not -- confident, wealthy, stylish and intimidating. They are not twins, they are not uncannily alike -- they are exact doubles, down to matching scars. But this movie is not about finding out why, its about becoming aware of something more in the world, and being terrified of it. Villeneuve does such a good job of keeping this tension tight as a guide wire, while seeding us with curiosity.

When I see a movie that is enigmatic, as drawn from symbolism, I like to pretend everything is exactly what we see. They are not scenes of giant spiders because the spiders suggest we are caught in webs of control that we are unaware of. I like to envision a true web, an alternate Toronto that is under the dark, smoke tainted control of an unseen force. That these forces are playing with Adam, or perhaps Anthony, by giving him something to upset his life. There is a scene of the cityscape, with a gargantuan spider in the style of Louise Bourgeois's sculptures, roaming the horizon. It is merely cinematic (merely?) but my scifi mind scans the plot possibilities, seeking evil overlords that ride spiders, playing with their inhabitants who are wriggling flies in their web. If Villeneuve wants to conjure spiders as a thinly veiled comment on how we live urban lives, he can do so, but I see things more plainly, and likely more terrifyingly.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

We Agree: Life Itself

2014, d. David James (Hoop Dreams)

David's writeup of Life Itself is one of, if not the best review he has written for this site.  It's a heartfelt reaction to this man, Roger Ebert, who we never met, but who we knew intimately through his writing.  Ebert was, and remains, for David and myself and countless others, the inspiration for what we do, which is talk -- and think -- about movies in a way that engages the public, even if the public is only one other person.

David asked me after the film if it was a good documentary, pleading his own ignorance of documentaries and their form.  I said, at the time, that I couldn't tell, basically because I was so emotionally invested in the subject matter from the get go I wasn't able to be objective.  A good documentary, though, starts with a thesis, but will find the path that it does in spite of the thesis, not because of it, whether it backs it up or not.  A documentary lives its life and unfolds as such upon the screen, and you can tell when a film is being dishonest in this regard.  Life Itself began as a documentary on Roger Ebert's life, based of his similarly titled memoir, and very quickly turned into a chronicle of his remaining time on Earth.  That fits the bill.

What documentaries can often do that makes them distasteful or unsavoury is deify their subjects, but director Steve James made it clear from the beginning that this film isn't his alone but a joint effort with Ebert himself, and Ebert would not permit such aggrandizing of his character.  Ebert, we learn, was not a humble man, but he was confident of his place in the world, and that allowed him all the freedom and confidence to give his opinion and have it mean something.  When Ebert injured himself, and later fell ill once again, he seemed uniquely proud to have James document it, and fearless to have every painful moment put on screen.

And it is painful.  It's truly a film where I watch a loved one die before me.  I grieved when Ebert passed away the first time, and I sobbed in the theatre when it inevitably happened again.  Because for all his strength, there came a time where even he was too weak to face the camera, to put that face on screen.  But he was also strong enough to make the decision that it was his time, something that his incredible wife Chaz would have refused had she known.

Between the in-the-moment events, James recalls Ebert's past as culled from his memoirs, interviews with his old editors and friends, pictures of his past life as a raconteur and roustabout, as a know-it-all and driven journalist, as a boob-man and a family man.  Ebert's destiny may not have been writing about film directly, but he was headed for a Pulitzer one way or another, having started his own self-published and self-distributed rag at the age of 12... laser focused.

The highlights were naturally the Siskel years, Roger facing off against his appointed nemesis from across the street, and across the aisle.  The two were born enemies, who became natural brothers, and shared a bond that was deeper than either of them truly cared to admit.  There was passion in their shouting matches, their one-upsmanship, their put-downs, and such heartbreak (and a lesson so noted in how do deal with it) when Roger learned way too late that his polar opposite was closing in on death.

I was a rapt reader of in Eberts final years, his blog posts shining a light on his intelligence and world savvy in a way his reviews only so frequently implied.  They also took us deep within Ebert's personal journey through his illnesses, his treatments, losing his jaw and his voice, but taking to technology to retain it, if not speak even louder than before.  Life Itself takes us through this journey again, but instead of it being through Rogers eyes, it's through those that love him, friends, family, James, and Chaz most of all.  It's a bright film filled with sadness, but inspiring and uplifting.  It's an emotional piledriver, but one that feels rewarding all the same.  Everyone in the audience held their thumb up for Roger at the end as they wiped away their tears with the other hand.

Graig and David Sometimes Disagree started out with bigger ambitions, but has settled into what it is because of life, itself.  Would we like it to be more collaborative, more engaged, more back-and-forth? Certainly.  We're not Gene and Roger, but when we get going, pulling apart a film the other liked, or just gushing together over a film we both loved (especially those films that get lambasted by the more mainstream reviewers) we can really have something unique to say (our back-of-the-streetcar post-mortem on Source Code was epic... if only we had something to record it on).  We kind of wanted this blog to be a hybrid of At The Movies debate and Ebert's incredible archive of film analysis and love, fully aware that it would pale in comparison to both, like a pale imitation of a pale imitation.  But Ebert, though departed, still sits firmly in the seat behind us every time we write (more thumbs down than thumbs up, I'm sure, but I'm still happy he's there).  In the end, we may be writing for you, dear reader, but even more we're writing for each other, and, moreover, in Ebert's image, we're writing for ourselves.  I miss Roger Ebert all the damn time.  There's some great movie reviewers worth paying attention to out there still (Nathin Rabin, I'm looking at you), but few come close to Roger, and they all owe him a debt of gratitude for elevating the conversation.

3+1 Short Paragraphs: Brick Mansions

2014, Camille Delamarre -- download

You have to wonder why American producers recreate movies that were already a hit in their own right. Banlieue 13, written by Luc Besson and directed by Pierre Morel (Taken), was an action hit in more countries than its home of France. The rather cheeky lifting of the base plot of Escape from New York had a cop and a criminal breaking into the walled off District 13 (Paris deals with its highly criminal neighbourhoods by walling them off) to rescue a ... bomb. Fluffy plot aside, it was known for its incredible parkour meets the martial arts of Ong Bak. David Belle not only starred, but also choreographed all the chase / fight scenes, which is not surprising since he is considered the founder of parkour as a movement.  See what I did there? It really is an amazing movie to watch, feeling as groundbreaking in action as The Bourne Identity did for fight scenes at its time.

David Belle returns in the remake as the criminal hero living in the walled-off city of New... I mean Detroit. Again, the walled-off area doesn't make too much literal sense. Both are trying to recreate the lack of building codes and the jammed-in feeling you get when you see images of Hong Kong, but apply it to a western location. If anything, Detroit lent itself easily for the use of abandoned buildings, gone completely lawless, if but for the fact that much of the filming happened in Montreal.

In the original there was some connection to the reality of certain neighbourhoods in Paris that had become completely controlled by the criminal element, in the extreme, where the police never visited, ever. The underlying opinion was that they were just abandoning the immigrant neighbourhoods they didn't want to bother policing. That isn't present in Detroit (that I am aware of), so it would be just the underclasses that cling to those areas of the city that look more bombed out then lived in. In both Belle's character is not so much a criminal as a Robin Hood hero trying to protect the average folk who were trapped inside the walls when they were erected. They may have been abandoned by the rest of the city, but not by Belle who wages a one man war against the criminals that control his home.

Again, the star of the movie is the parkour and quick paced action scenes. They are at least aware that Paul Walker cannot keep up with Belle, with a few fun scenes of him taking alternate routes. But other than the parkour, the movie is average action, average characterization and not very exciting. As I expected, all the pizazz was in the original, but I gather someone who had never seen it might like this one. As Walker's last movie, there is already a built in audience but I doubt this one made much of an impact anywhere.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

How To Train Your Dragon 2

2014, d. Dean DeBlois (he's Canadian)
I used to be a Pixar snob.  Years back.  I just thought every other studio producing cgi-animated movies was just churning out pap for the masses.  Oh sure, Dreamworks`first effort, Antz, was decent enough, perhaps in some respects a more daring film than A Bug`s Life, but it doesn`t quite have the same allure as the Disney branch.  I mean, those tedious monsters Shrek and Ice Age that kept getting churned out every other year were such a grotesque, average bore, and ever other studio`s offering seemed like they were written for the brain dead.  

It`s only since my daughter`s been around, so the past 5 years or so, that I`ve truly given the other studios a shot.  Oh, sure, I dosed her heavily on Pixar in the first two years, but there`s only so many times one can watch Monsters Inc. before he needs a change of pace.  And let`s face it, Pixar hasn`t really been holding up their end, either, these past few years.  Brave, Cars 2, Monsters University, all not without their charms, but decidedly second-rate when compared to Up, WALL-E, or Toy Story 3.

I warmed to Dreamworks` a bit because of Kung-Fu Panda, but How To Train Your Dragon was the true softening blow, coming to that film only in the past 2 years.  It`s a beautiful boy-and-his-dog story mixed with a "nobody understands me, least of all my father" sub plot that is utterly affecting.  In ramping up for the second motion picture, Dreamworks produced a series, Dragonriders of Berk, which further expanded the world and its characters, maintaining much of the film's voice cast (which is rare for TV spinoffs), which has become my mother's favourite show.  So I was prepped, as were my kids, to see the sequel in theatre, but the experience was sullied when my daughter freaked out before the film started.  So I sent her packing back home with her grandmother (thus denying my mother a viewing of her favourite show on the big screen), and tried to not brood about it while the film was playing.

But I brooded nonetheless.  I enjoyed the movie, but it had obvious flaws, particularly around its villain, the role of Hiccup's mother, and the necessity of the demise of another character.  The death in particular is an affecting an emotional sweep, on the one hand, but it also feels very story/plot driven and not true to the situation or the characters.  The film's upbeat finale feels grotesquely hollow and unearned in the wake of the character's death, and really has me question whether it was truly necessary.  Disney films have long had death in them, exposing children to the mortality of their elders seems to be a mandate of film, but this was less than necessary for this movie.

The introduction of Hiccup's mother, which is a bit of a spoiler, provides a great moment for Hiccup, and Valka (voiced by the always awesome Cate Blanchett) is a great character.  Living in hiding, wrangling dragons, providing sanctuary, she's kind of a nutbar having lived in seclusion from any other humans so long.  Her humanity has kind of escaped her, and she's fiercely against the society that she's left, but given the changes that Hiccup introduced she should be welcome back home.  Naturally she's wary, and her reincorporation into society and reintroduction to her family should provide great drama, but the film unfortunately scuttles her and her story to the side to have the BIG FIGHT SEQUENCE which all summer movies must have.  Her story would be much better served on Dragonriders of Berk.

Drago (Djimon Hounsou) is the first non-white (human) character introduced into the HTTYD cinematic world, and it would be great if we could just look past it and not think anything of it, but that he's also the bad guy, stubborn, violent, and ultimately evil, it does seem an unfortunate choice from the filmmakers (as David also points out in his review).  True, vikings and Scandanavians are depicted as Caucasians traditionally, but there's no reason fiction, and fantasy more specifically, can't be more inclusive.  Beyond that, Drago is a painfully thin character.  He's basically on the scene to be menacing, filled with hate, rage, and puffed up with power... his deep, croaking voice meant to inspire fear in children.  The other new addition, Eret (Kit Harrington), gets more to do, and, despite being a poacher and working for Drago, gets his redemption.

The other Dragonriders besides Hiccup get the short shrift here, which I'm unsure whether it matters or not.  I found the same true of the Kung-Fu Panda sequel, where the focus is on the main character and perhaps a secondary character and all the great supporting cast gets scuttled further into the background.  They get reduced to quip machines or exposition talkers, and don't really feel like the ensemble they do on Berk or in the first film.

Story aside, the animation is stunning.  The flying sequence are breathtaking on the big screen, while the introduction of Valka's sanctuary finds the screen chock-a-block with dragons.  Hiccup's affection for Valka's main dragon yields some charming physical comedy, while the epic scope of the Alpha dragon fight which often eats up the entire background, was worth the price of admission alone.  We were treated to Pacific Rim last year, and Godzilla at around the same time as this... it's been a good 12 months-ish for giant monster fighting.

Though the story isn't quite as thoroughly solid as it could have been (rumours say that originally Valka was to be the villain of the piece, which would have made for an even more enticing film, and surely a tighter story) it's still vastly entertaining.