Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: How to Train Your Dragon 2

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It’s not often that we’re lucky enough to get two extremely well-made sequels in the same weekend. In this case, we managed to get 22 Jump Street and How to Train Your Dragon 2. Both take very different approaches in successfully continuing their original films.

While 22 Jump Street takes a somewhat meta approach to deconstructing sequels in general and tweaking the formula, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the epitome of the modern franchise film. Like Kung Fu Panda 2 before it, Dragon picks up where the previous film left off with nary an ounce of fat on it. There is no regurgitation of the first film here. We don’t have to sit by as Hiccup has to train yet another dragon or retrain his pet Night Fury Toothless. Nope. Whereas previously studios worried incessantly about making films accessible to new audiences who may not have seen the first or doing the exact same thing again, the new franchise model, as seen in films like this or the Marvel movies, simply tells the next chapter in the story of these characters. The audience, most likely having seen the movie twenty times (or more, as is likely with the original Dragon, knowing how kids love that movie) is expected to keep up, get the callbacks and in general know what’s going on. Home video has effectively forever changed how sequels are made for the better. Now if there isn’t a story worth telling that can be a problem, but fortunately for Dreamworks, Dean DuBois has definitely found something worth showing us.

The direction that Dragon 2 takes is largely the expansion of its mythology, introducing new types of dragons and literally increasing the world of the first film immeasurably. This is quickly established in a rather great bit of visual exposition as Hiccup and Toothless are out exploring to find new lands and new species, unfolding a rather unwieldy looking map.

If there’s one thing that bothers me about the film it is the relationship between Hiccup and his father, Stoic the Vast, which seems to have taken huge strides forward, yet still exhibits many of the problems they had in the first film. Maybe that simply makes it more realistic since even when people change, they still have their personality, but it also makes it frustrating. Stoic wants Hiccup to become the chief of Burke, their rocky little island village because of how he changed life for everyone. Hiccup simply wants to explore and do what he enjoys. His dad refuses to listen despite how the entire reason he wants his son to take over being because people listen to him. Do interpersonal relationships take that type of paradoxical sheen to them? Sure. But it still is maddening. On the plus side, you have Hiccup’s love interest from the first film, Astrid, who is a much more interesting character here simply because her relationship with Hiccup has changed in a big but understandable and ultimately believable way. Their chemistry together is far more palpable and their romance, at this point having gone on for years, is expertly written. If there’s one thing this film does especially well, it is lay out exposition in interesting ways and we learn everything we need to know about their feelings for each other as Astrid gently mocks Hiccup and his mannerisms, spilling over with playfulness and affection. At the same time, she is seeding important information on how things have changed in the five years that have passed since the last film. (The kids are supposed to be in their 20s now.) It’s a master-class in serving multiple functions with one scene.

The basic plot revolves around a couple of major tremors in Hiccup’s life. For anyone that managed to avoid having the surprise ruined for them by the trailers, I’ll just say that one is of a deeply personal nature that effects both him and his father. The other is the discovery of a long lost foe of Stoic’s, a mysterious figure that seeks to capture and control all of the dragons he can lay his hands on, simultaneously claiming to be protecting people from dragons while using them to conquer all who lay in his path. He definitely serves as an example in my theory that you should never trust a white dude with dreds. Despite the shallowness of his character, he manages to be a pretty impressive threat.

The voice work has only gotten stronger with the cast. Despite my misgivings about the way their relationship is portrayed, Jay Barruchel and Gerard Butler deliver outstanding performances. Butler especially delivers a kind of nuance that I don’t think I’ve experienced in his live action films. America Ferrera’s Astrid greatly improves on the original. The writing no doubt had a lot to do with it, but it would not succeed if she hadn’t stepped up her game. I’d be hard-pressed to say that the “kids” have much to do this time around with Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Jonah Hill pretty much doing the same things that they did last time to the same effect. The opening sequence with their characters playing a new sport that blows quidditch out of the water is an instant classic, however. If there’s one disappointment, it is that Craig Fergusen doesn’t have as much to do as Gobber, but there’s always next time.

If there’s a central theme to the first film, it almost seemed to be that sometimes tradition can be wrong and that new ideas can bring about prosperity and improvements. If there’s a theme to this film it would almost seem to be the opposite; your parents have been around and sometimes they know best based on their years of experience. It’s nice to see some balance and not just have another kids movie worshipping youth culture and declaring children are right about everything and those darned old adults are just stodgy dopes clinging to the past. There’s room for both sides to be right, sometimes even simultaneously. If it sounds like a complex idea, don’t worry. While it’s decidedly more intelligent than a lot of what purports to be family fare, it is not some preaching drag. It is full of action, lots of fun and some decidedly cool moments to go with the drama. (My friend I saw it with spent a great deal of the movie fangirling out, if that’s any indication.)

(Four damns given out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: 22 Jump Street

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The best thing about 22 Jump Street, besides the fact that it is very funny, very often, is that the way it so fluidly conforms, plays with and skewers the sequel formula in tandem. Time after time, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are told, “Just do the same thing as last time and everyone will be happy.”

That would usually be sound advice that would lead to the usual high box office and disappointed critical response of a hit comedy sequel. You know, like The Hangover Part II, which almost nobody I know enjoyed, but made approximately umptillion dollars at the box office. (Use of the word “umptillion” gets extra punch when it is read in the voice of an excited Jerry Lewis.)

What 22 Jump Street does is play to these expectations while injecting wry meta-commentary about the diminishing nature of sequels in general. The main storyline is actually pretty common; a nearly identical scenario plays out as the first film but with a subversion of the main character arc. Think Men in Black 2, though this movie is definitely better than that one. But it also manages to tweak that formula by realizing that simply reversing a scenario will not necessarily play out the same way because of the fundamentally different basic character flaws of the leads. So even when we see a familiar plot beat, it manages to put across a different idea.

In many ways the new Jump Street does play around with doing the same thing and who can blame it? The first movie was anarchic alchemy, which would seemingly make it so much harder to tackle a sequel given the impossibility of recreating that feeling of surprise. It took two performers I usually don’t care for and actually making me laugh steadily and hard. It introduced a new side to Channing Tatum that was far more interesting than the wooden performances that constituted his career up to that point. (I’m still dubious of hearing him try to use a Cajun accent, however.) Jonah Hill is the weak point of every film I’ve seen him in, but it’s the least I’d disliked him in any project. Their potent chemistry is still very much in effect.

Along with screenwriter Michael Bacall, we also have returning the directing team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who are rapidly becoming filmmakers that I have to watch carefully. 21 Jump Street was another in a long line of rubber-stamped TV show retreads looking to take advantage of a familiar name (and let’s be honest, most of which frankly haven’t done that well on either creative or financial levels, leading one to wonder why it continues to be a trend.) The Lego Movie was probably the worst example of a vapidly commercial “concept” ever conceived, taking the idea of name recognition to its greatest possible nadir, yet Lord and Miller managed to not just produce something viably entertaining, but something with heart, artistic integrity and an idea behind it. And now they’ve given us a comedy sequel that actually works on a level at or near the original while being very satisfying for the fans. I was not a big fan of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (I hated the animation and think it would have been a much more interesting film if they’d gone ahead and used the puppets they were obviously emulating) but it was hardly a disaster like a lot of expanded children’s books. If I was a Hollywood executive, these guys would be the first people on my speed dial for taking terrible concepts and spinning gold with them.

Even better, it doesn’t feel like they’re trying too hard, despite what had to be a very calculated structure that plays with the audience. They manage to have an uncanny knack of choosing just the right moments to stay the course or to zag off in another direction. The story contains lots of surprises, yes. But sometimes it plays right to expectations. In this way, the movie really does keep you guessing, wondering what decisions they will make at any given time. It also doesn’t feel like it’s pandering. They care much more about their characters and getting the jokes right than making a statement. I’ve heard at least one critic express that they should have been “brave” enough to simply make the Jenko character gay since the film’s character interaction plays out very much like a romantic comedy, apparently missing what I see as the point of the whole arc and the fact that it would be completely inconsistent with the characters, which are treated surprisingly seriously in their bid to keep them consistent. The farther they push the subtext, the funnier it gets. Changing the subtext to just plain “text” would ruin the joke. It’s for that reason, the consistency and the way things are held back just enough, that when one of the characters does let loose and go for an over the top, extended scene as Jenko and Ice Cube’s captain each get a chance to do in the later parts of the film, it absolutely kills.

Speaking of which, Ice Cube gets far more to do this go round. He’s used very well and very wisely and he practically steals the whole movie out from under the leads, which is no mean feat. In the first film he mostly served as an entertaining device to unload exposition. In the new film he actually gets to deliver a lot of the tweaks at the workings of a sequel under the guise of exposition. He really sinks his teeth in and I get the feeling he had more fun making this movie than all of the “Are We There Yet?” films combined.

If there’s one weakness in the film it’s the loss of certain players. Amber Stevens is very capable and as a plot device she’s practically essential, (one of the best gags in the movie wouldn’t be possible without her) but she simply doesn’t fit as well into the proceedings as Brie Larson. Of the people I miss, she’s the only one that actually could have been involved without going out of the way to justify their presence. While I’m sure Ellie Kemper, for example, could have been worked into the film, I have to figure there were simply other things they were more interested in doing than the narrative heavy lifting it would take to have her appear. As it is we get a few minutes with Rob Riggle and Dave Franco and, while funny, it is one of the few parts of the film that feel a little unnatural. Instead we get a few new folks making glorified cameos like Patton Oswalt and Jon H. Benjamin.

22 Jump Street isn’t Lord and Miller’s best film this year since Lego came out this winter, but it’s yet another solid entry into their repertoire. It simply feels like most of the choices they made are right on the money, something that so rarely happens in the entertainment industry when studio executives try to “fix” anything that comes out of nowhere to be a surprise hit by getting some fingerprints on future projects. If they’ve been able to parlay an amount of autonomy out of the success they’ve had so far, I am very interested to see what they have up their sleeves for the future. I would not bet on seeing more Jump Street films in that future (they pretty much nuke that option during the end credits to this one) but whatever it is, I’ll probably be in line for a ticket. As it is, I’m giving it the same grade I gave the first film and wouldn’t be surprised if it grows on me even more.

(Three and a half stars out of five)

Better Living Through Filmography Episode 1.4: Belle de Jour

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In Better Living Through Filmography, co-host Kent views classic films for the first time and discusses them through a lens of movies, pop culture and life. Episodes of the first season post every other Wednesday.

In Episode 4, Kent waxes pseudo-intellectual on the New Wave erotic film Belle de Jour, which inspired a generation of weekend sado-masochists and follows it up with some pointless conjecture. Enjoy!

Music:
Laurie Johnson– Happy-Go-Lively
Woolf Phillips and his Orchestra– Cocktails in Bermuda

Five (or Seven) Movies I (and Possibly I Alone) Want to See on Blu Ray

Just for fun, I thought I’d make a list of some movies that I, as an avowed physical media die hard, would love to see finally get pressed on that most sweet of plastic discs, the blu ray. This is probably the first of many of these lists. Though at least I don’t have to add Hercules and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad since Disney is finally down to the stuff that they’ve been putting off forever.

5. Tropic Thunder: The Theatrical Cut tropicthunder-bannerSure, we have the “director’s cut” of Ben Stiller’s masterpiece on blu ray, but damn it, I want the version that I originally fell in love with. The one that includes the immortal line, “When we get back to the world, I’ma finally teach you how to juggle.” Like most comedic director’s cuts, especially those from the post 40-Year-Old Virgin world, the recut slows down the great pacing and includes material that had originally been cut for a reason. Take Anchorman for example. I loved that film from the first time I saw it, but the “unrated” (aka R-rated for language) cut practically ruined the movie for me. I honestly don’t mind including unrated or director’s cuts on blu ray. Hey, it’s a great extra and simply adds value to your purchase. In fact, the ability to do that is one of the reasons I love the format and continue to support it. It still blows my mind a little bit having worked at a video store stocking VHSs for idiots who would complain about “them black bars” for widescreen titles that people can watch multiple seamless versions of movies. But it drives me absolutely bonkers on those few occasions when studios make a seemingly arbitrary decision to not include the original film you went to see. In this case, the one for which Robert Downey Jr. deservedly got nominated for an Oscar.

4. The (original) Star Wars Trilogy SWtrilogyThis one I know I’m not alone on, though I’m much, much less rabid about it than many fans. We did get the option of getting the original release trilogy on DVD after all, even if it wasn’t animorphic, so I don’t feel like Lucas was trying to screw fans as much as a lot of people. I’m not a fan of everything that was done in the Special Editions. The Sarlaac Pit in particular just felt like the wrong way to go. But I also feel like there were a lot of things that I would consider improvements. Like almost everything that was done in Empire. Still, having the original films, warts and all, makes for a fascinating historical record of what made people fall in love with these movies in the first place and it would be great to have them in the best format available. Lucas has claimed they no longer exist in those forms, but that’s undoubtably hyperbole. Good prints certainly are out there. Hell, the Library of Congress has at least one of Star Wars and one of Empire since they were both selected for preservation under the National Film Registry. Now that Disney is in charge of the materials, I have a surprising amount of optimism that they will partner with Fox to release them. Maybe it won’t be right away. They are concentrating on creating new content after all. But there’s too much money to be made from them to not see it through. If the Batman TV show rights can finally be hammered out, this definitely can.

3. Fiend without a Face fiend lobby
One of my favorite old horror films, I want to see this atmospheric Cold War creature feature in hi def. Especially from Criterion, since they put out a great DVD of it. It would make a great companion piece to the fantastic Blob release they did. I love the brain monsters with their spinal chord tails and slug-like eye stalks. I love the creepy stop motion they use for them when we finally see them in the end. I love the jelly-like blood that comes out of them when they get shot. And I love the nonsensical but awesome origin for them. Blu is mostly known for producing fantastic color images, but I honestly feel it sometimes is even more impressive when it’s used for a great black and white transfer that makes the shadows inky and the whites pop. I long to see many, many classic monster/horror/sci-fi films on blu. I also would enjoy seeing Cat People, Them, War of the Worlds, The Thing From Another World… the list goes on. Fiend could be seen as a placeholder for them. But it is near the top of the heap for me and hopefully because of its association with Criterion it’ll see release someday.

2. The Iron Giant the-iron-giant-posterSpeaking of the Cold War, IG may have tanked at the box office due to the poor efforts of a confused Warner Bros marketing team, but it is widely beloved by those who’ve fallen under its spell. Besides simply being the most gorgeous animated film to come out of Warner Bros’ short-lived animation department with its wonderfully stylized character design and beautiful 2D animation (with some CGI assistance that is not overpowering), the film is important for being the debut feature of Brad Bird, who went on to create Pixar classics and direct the best Mission: Impossible film. So you’ve got exactly what blu-ray was made for: fantastic visuals, historical and artistic significance and a great story all coalescing to be worthy of a truly special release. Sure, if Warners releases the film as a bare-bones disc people would probably just be happy to have it. (Assuming it has a top-notch transfer.) But given how important it is and how underappreciated it was, it screams for context. Give us some commentaries! Give us some deleted scenes in hi-def! Give us production art! Give us features that are actually special and don’t just put it out as a kiddie title. Please. This film deserves more.

1. Baseketball Baseketball
This movie did not do very well when it was released to theaters, though I went and was immediately a fan. I don’t know that it did that well when it was released on DVD, though I bought it. I haven’t seen the sales figures. But dammit, this weird little attempt to turn Matt Stone and Trey Parker into live action stars is the Top Secret of it’s era. A Zucker parody film that actually sticks it to a genre instead of slapping together disparate scenes and/or characters from other movies in unclever mash-up scenarios like most everything we’ve gotten lately. In addition to the South Park guys being widely involved in something they didn’t create for what feels like the first and only time, you are basically getting the only anti-bro sports movie ever made. You have a host of great character actors appearing, some of which we’ve now lost. Ernest Borgnine, Robert Stack and Robert Vaughn among them. There’s Yasmine Bleeth showing she’s better at comedy than fake lifeguarding. I had a poster of her pretty much because of this movie. You have Jenny McCarthy back when MTV was determined to make her a star and she was game to do some impressively weird and crude stuff. And thankfully was not yet a crazy anti-vaxer.baketl
The appearances of Reel Big Fish as the Milwaukee Beers’ house band immediately sealed its legendary status with us third-wave ska kids. But mostly, the movie is actually really funny. While not everything has aged well (does anyone still remember Women Who Run with the Wolves?) I still quote lines from it. “No you don’t, you like Taco Bell” and “It certainly does seem to be raining sh@t on Joe Cooper right now” being a couple of notable examples. It’s a perfect encapsulation of who I was and what I loved when I was 18 years old. Some people have Animal House. Some people have Breakfast Club. But for me, it is calling people in khakis “cock,” jamming to Beer and dicking around in the driveway playing games with your friends.

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Edge of Tomorrow

A Blunt gets smoked

My first thoughts upon exiting Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow was, regrettably, “Judging by these girls in the lobby who have just come out of The Fault in Our Stars, a lot of teenage boys are gonna use this movie to try and get laid.”

My SECOND thought was that, just as with the last two Mission: Impossible movies, Tom Cruise’s ability to work with the right director and story can trump his utter unlikability.

My third reaction, upon coming home, was the feeling of relief washing over my brain when I finally figured out the guy I knew and couldn’t place was Sparky from the Speed Racer movie.

Now I can finally get down to the business of a review.  Edge of Tomorrow is not spectacularly original. It shares DNA with several different movies. Though when you actually put down on paper that it is essentially a video game crossed with Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day, it does sound a little bit more interesting. (If only they’d had Cruise waking up to the soothing sounds of “I Got You, Babe.”) The plot is based on a  novel named All You Need is Kill, thus ensuring I now have a need to read it. If they’d kept that bit of awesomeness instead of renaming it to sound like an exhibit at the 1942 World’s Fair, I think people would be a bit more interested in finding out what it’s about. What happens is essentially this: after a Starship Troopers-style opening that manages to eliminate a lot of exposition, Tom Cruise gets shanghaied into a dangerous assignment by a general (Brendon Gleeson) using what I am pretty sure is an illegal transfer from one army to another. But hey. FUTURE! So we’ll let it go. When he balks at it, the general basically sends him off to be murdered. One would think he would be regarded as kind of a creep about this, but since it’s Tom Cruise and he’s being weasely, we let it go.

I don’t think it can completely be a coincidence that the film’s release coincides with the 70th anniversary of D-Day since it involves the wanton slaughter of troops on a French beach. This time the bad guys aren’t Nazis, however. They are Sentinels from the Matrix movies. …wait, wait, I’ve just been informed that they are, in fact, called Mimics. Sure they are. And they’re extraterrestrials from another planet that seem to exhibit an insect-like structure with different classes within their species, but are full of alien crazy DNA. When Cruise dies on that beach, he wakes up the previous day no worse for the wear, but understandably confused. And then he respawns again. And again.

I won’t go into the details from there as I’d like it to still have some surprises for folks. (I’m not sure how much the trailers gave away.) But Emily Blunt figures heavily into the plot and if there’s someone in the film that makes it work most, it’s probably her. Dubbed the “Full Metal Bitch,” she is practically a super-soldier against the Mimics and with her physicality in the film, it feels believable. She is sold as their post-modern Captain America and propped up as a propaganda figure that will sell the war effort. Hers is the most difficult role in the movie. She is able to portray her character as starting from scratch every time in terms of an emotional arc, but it feels like she also carries an emotional thruline over the course of the entire movie. Yet they don’t feel contradictory. I’m sure editing and a good script have a lot to do with this, but it really is a masterful job by the three elements to combine into one great performance.

The other major cog making things work is Liman. He’s had, let’s call it an interesting career path. He’s still got to be best known for The Bourne Identity where he ironically saved the Bond franchise without even knowing it. I am a fan of Swingers and the underrated Go as well. Since then he’s done movies that are basically middling though. This is definitely a return to form for him and his best film since he kicked off the Bourne franchise. The thing about Liman is that he’s a stylish director, but he’s never had a clear enough signature to make up for a lack of material at his fingertips. That’s not a problem here. One gets the feeling he really wanted to tear into this material. (And if not, he does a great job of faking it.)  His work on the combat scenes is extremely well done, proving to be adequately harrowing in a way that a lot of sci-fi combat does not prove to be. The cartoonish aspects where we see Cruise getting maimed over and over also work surprisingly well. The fact that they work together given that for most of the runtime there are little in the way of immediate consequences is a testament to how well it is put together.

Would I have liked to have seen a more hardcore version of the movie? Sure. But we get a surprisingly rough and tumble time as it is, considering who Warners is undoubtably selling it to. The violence level is somewhere along the line of the Matrix. I’m a little surprised to see it walking away with a PG-13, but I can’t blame them for going with it if they could get it. Must be the Tom and Jerry aspects of it that softened it for the MPAA. Just one cut away and everything is fine.

These elements are put together into an extremely solid package that, despite feeling cobbled together from various sources, comes across on the screen as something of an antidote to big, dumb tentpole films by offering both style AND substance. Despite some rather standard nonsensical sci-fi cliches, it does not feel like a stupid film where a viewer is forced to turn their brain off, at least as long as they are able to use the central concept as a springboard to get to the more meaty material. Sort of like, say, Back to the Future. If you actually try to figure out the physics of it, you may go mad. But the physics aren’t the point.

As I am sure it has already been made clear through my pointed commentary, I have a dislike of Tom Cruise’s personality that he displays in every movie he does that borders on being comical. So if I can see a film like Edge of Tomorrow and come out saying it is one of the best crowd-pleasers of the summer, I think it carries some weight. And that is exactly what I’m saying.

(Four damns given out of five)

Better Living Through Filmography Episode 1.3: Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo

Good ol' slice n dice

In Better Living Through Filmography, co-host Kent views classic films for the first time and discusses them through a lens of movies, pop culture and life. Episodes of the first season post every other Wednesday.

In Episode 3, we get a lesson on the history of the Zatoichi film series, talk about its longevity, success and how this particular entry stands out for a number of reasons. And for the first of probably many times, there’s some butt kissing for the Criterion Collection.

Music:
Laurie Johnson– Happy-Go-Lively
Woolf Phillips and his Orchestra– Cocktails in Bermuda