Saturday, May 29, 2010


Greenberg - Dir. Noah Baumbach (2010)

”Youth is wasted on the young.”
“I’d go further. I’d go, ‘Life is wasted on people.’”

Independent filmmaker Noah Baumbach has specialized in films about aimlessness, mid-life misanthropy and familial dysfunction. Greenberg is Baumbach’s latest, co-written with wife/actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. It’s a sequel in spirit to Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical The Squid and the Whale as one could easily picture Jesse Eisenberg’s Walt Berkman aging into Ben Stiller’s Roger Greenberg. The title character of Greenberg is just as self-involved and neurotic as the title character of Margot at the Wedding.

Stiller’s Greenberg is a former L.A. native transplanted to New York. In his youth, he was in a band, but torpedoed a record deal due to ego. He works as a carpenter nowadays and is fresh off a stint in a mental institute. Returning to Los Angeles, Greenberg housesits for his wealthier brother, Phillip (Chris Messina), who has taken his family on a vacation to Vietnam. Greenberg is somewhat proud of the fact that he’s mostly trying to do “nothing.” He does, however, write letters to Starbucks and NYC’s Mayor Bloomberg, complaining about minor inconveniences like traffic noise.

Back in town, Greenberg attempts to reconnect with his old girlfriend, Beth (Jason Leigh), and his best friend, Ivan (Rhys Ifans). Ivan was Greenberg’s guitarist and now works in computer repair. Though he doesn’t show it, there’s an underlying layer of bitterness on his part.

Greenberg manages to find a kindred spirit in Phillip’s personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig). She’s one of those college graduates without direction once their forced into the real world. The poster girl of the modern, mumblecore movement meets the disgruntled remnants of Generation X. Florence does the usual grunt work of an assistant such as grocery shopping and picking up laundry. At night, she sings at tiny hipster clubs to a crowd of two or three people. Florence takes Greenberg to her apartment where the latter’s awkward attempt at oral sex succinctly defines the future of their relationship.

Greenberg flies in the face of cinematic tenet that your protagonist must be likeable. He’s whiny, at best, and downright tactless and cruel, at worst. Having lunch with Ivan at Musso & Frank’s, Greenberg invites Florence and promptly calls Beth then throws a profane tantrum when the wait staff sings, “Happy Birthday” for him. He’s the kind of mopey, middle-aged, and white intellectual that independent films have been fascinated with for whatever reasons. Their 40 but haven’t grown up. Aside from Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages, the subject matter hasn’t made for gripping drama.

The film’s charm lies almost solely in the hands of Greta Gerwig. Her Florence is one of the most genuine female characters I’ve seen in recent memory. She just looks and feels real with her dirty blonde hair, a slouch, and a body with a little pinch of flab that belies the well-toned figures we come to expect from a leading lady. Florence feels she wandered in from another film and nearly hijacks Greenberg from Greenberg. The movie opens with Florence navigating through the streets of L.A., meekly murmuring to herself, ”Are you gonna let me in? No?”

Greenberg is a film that’s just as much about Los Angeles as it is it’s cast of disaffected characters. There’s an aura of disconnect that comes with living in L.A. I know I always felt it. Greenberg embodies that disconnect and stands as a polar opposite to the optimistic attitudes of sunny Southern California. This is never more apparent when the 41 year-old Greenberg partying and snorting coke with a house full of entitled 20-somethings. They listen to the old-timer with bemusement as he classifies them as all, ”…ADD and carpal tunnel.” Then, respond with disdain when Greenberg puts on Duran Duran.

Greenberg is an unlikely romantic comedy, one that’s neither romantic nor particularly comedic. It feels like a cynical film with a tinge of hope and centered around two marvelous performances by Greta Gerwig and Ben Stiller.

Rating: ** ½

Friday, May 28, 2010

Date Night

Date Night - Dir. Shawn Levy (2010)

Putting Steve Carell and Tina Fey together seems like an easy way to find comedic gold. With his work on The Daily Show and The Office, Carrell cemented his status as a bankable movie star following the success of The 40-Year Old Virgin. Fey has done the same on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. Though she wrote Mean Girls and took a supporting role, she has yet to find a star vehicle worthy of her talents. Date Night is definitely not it.

Carrell and Fey star as Phil and Claire Foster, married with two kids and living in suburban New Jersey. He’s an accountant and she’s a real estate agent. Hoping to shake up their stagnant relationship, the Fosters hope to get a table at a trendy new restaurant in Manhattan. They wind up stealing another couple’s reservations, which becomes a running gag throughout the movie. A case of mistaken identity sends them on the run from a pair of gun-toting thugs (Common and Jimmi Simpson) who are after a flash drive. That’s just the beginning of one crazy night that involves car chases, crooked cops, and mobsters.

Taraji P. Henson co-stars as a sympathetic police detective and Mark Wahlberg appears as a perennially shirtless securities expert. Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig have maybe one scene each as another married couple on the outs. James Franco and Mila Kunis round out the cast as a two low-rent crooks named Taste and Whippit who originally made the reservation. They almost manage to derail the picture into something livelier.

Those of you expecting Date Night to be a Hitchcockian edge of your seat thriller ala The Man Who Knew Too Much must have severe brain damage. The jokes come straight out of a bad 80’s sitcom with some labored slapstick gags thrown in for good measure. Fey and Carrell are never allowed to rise above the bland, cardboard characters they play, despite their best efforts. Date Night’s funniest moments don’t occur during the movie at all, but in the outtakes shown over the end credits. Given the freedom to adlib, they’re able to show off the natural wit that made them stars, coming up with funnier material than what was provided for them.

Rating: *

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland - Dir. Tim Burton (2010)

”Remember what the dormouse said; ‘Keep your head…keep your head.’”

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland has been sanitized over the years. Aside from Jan Svankmejer’s Alice, most versions lack the darker and tripper elements of the source material. Ironically, Disney (known for sanitizing many works of literature) decided to return to Carroll’s novels and wisely tapped Tim Burton to steer the ship. Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is part-remake, part-sequel with a script by Disney veteran Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King) that combines elements from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the sequel, Through the Looking Glass.

Years have passed since a young Alice fell down the rabbit hole. Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now 20, practically a spinster according to her sister. About to be married off to a ridiculous looking ginger named Hamish (Leo Bill), Alice follows the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) once more and winds up back in Wonderland. However, this is the first time to her. Her original adventures have been reduced to the vaguest memories and a recurring nightmare. Alice is reunited with many of her old friends such as the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), and the twins Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas).

Wonderland (referred to by its inhabitants as Underland) has fallen under the tyrannical rule of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). She’s a petite woman with an enlarged head and fetishes for using animals as furniture and decapitations. The encephalitically enchanced Red Queen rules with fear due to her command of the monstrous Jabberwocky (Christopher Lee). Alice must find the mythical Vorpal Sword in order to slay the Jabberwocky and return the kingdom to its rightful monarch, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway).

As you’d expect, Burton has created a visually stunning film using a mixture of live-action, CGI, and motion capture. Burton’s vision of Wonderland is a gorgeous feast for the eyes. The film was shot in 2D then converted to 3D in post. The 3D effects are certainly stronger than those in Clash of the Titans, but the world doesn’t open up the way it does in Coraline. What’s missing from the film is heart. Without any sort of emotional pathos, Alice in Wonderland becomes an empty exercise in excess.

Burton has turned Carroll’s mythos into a superficial tale of girl power. As a result, Alice dips into the familiar conventions of fantasy epics like Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia. There’s a prophecy that must be fulfilled and Alice dons a suit of armor and clashes swords with the Red Queen’s army on a chess-themed battlefield. All of which feels out of place.

The performances are somewhat uneven. As Alice, Mia Wasikowska gives a strong showing even while her more fantastical cast mates attempt to steal every scene. In his seventh film with Burton, Depp creates yet another in a long line of eccentric characters. His Mad Hatter is a schizo speaking with a dandy lisp one moment and a deep Braveheart-style Scottish accent in another. Britsh comedian Stephen Fry gets some of the film’s best moments as the voice of an erudite Chesire Cat. Burton’s paramour Helena Bonham Carter makes for an excellent villain playing the Red Queen as an ill-tempered brat. This is in stark contrast to Anne Hathaway as the flighty White Queen. Gleaming in pure white, she’s an ultra-heightened rendition of the Disney Princess archetype.

An A-list cast and dazzling effects make Alice in Wonderland a worthwhile effort undone by a third act lacking in gravitas.

Rating: ** ½

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Gentlemen Broncos

Gentlemen Broncos - Dir. Jared Hess (2009)

The husband and wife team of Jared and Jerusha Hess made their feature film debut with Napoleon Dynamite. The low budget comedy became a quotable classic amongst indie hipsters and raked in over $46 million in worldwide grosses. Not bad for a movie that only cost $400,000. As with most young filmmakers, the Hesses were given access to a bigger budget and a bigger star with the underrated Nacho Libre, starring Jack Black as a priest/Mexican wrestler. Now, the Hesses solidify their status as poor man versions of Wes Anderson with another tale of small town weirdoes in Gentlemen Broncos.

Much like Napoleon Dynamite, Gentlemen Broncos opens with a unique title sequence utilizing mock-ups of vintage sci-fi novels. That’s about as clever as this movie is going to get.

Michael Angarano is Benjamin, a home-schooled geek with a passion for science fiction. He’s written his magnum opus in Yeast Lords which he enters into a contest judged by his hero, acclaimed author Dr. Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement). Chevalier has hit a slump and, desperate for another hit, steals Benjamin’s manuscript. Benjamin’s story is brought to life in a series of inexplicable intervals that would make Roger Corman proud. Shot as pure schlock, the Yeast Lords sequences feature Sam Rockwell as the macho Bronco who rides through the desert on a reindeer strapped with rocket launchers. That’s Benjamin’s version. In Chevalier’s plagiarized vision, he is re-imagined as the bleached blonde and effeminate Brutus. Benjamin has also sold his story to a wannabe director named Lonnie (Hector Jimenez) who shoots yet another version of Ben’s story as a glorified, no-budget home movie.

Gentlemen Broncos is a total misfire on every level with the film’s one-dimensional characters the most problematic. The Hesses fill Broncos with a cast of one-dimensional caricatures who are simply quirky for quirky’s sake. Worse yet, they are all positively insufferable. Benjamin and Chevalier are terrible writers. Lonnie is a horrible filmmaker. Benjamin’s mother (Jennifer Coolidge) designs hideous dresses and no one seems to have a clue. The Hesses fail to let us in on the joke. Are we supposed to laugh at them for being such losers? Or are we supposed to root for the losers to finally succeed? The latter is a difficult task considering the characters aren’t particularly sympathetic. Benjamin is about the most normal person in the film, but he’s such a naïve pushover that it’s hard to invest anything in his arc.

About the only redeeming quality to be found in Gentlemen Broncos is Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords fame. Clement manages to rise above the slight material with his arrogant demeanor and a velvety Tim Curry-esque voice.

Rating: *

Friday, May 21, 2010

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief - Dir. Chris Columbus (2010)

Percy Jackson is Clash of the Titans for the Harry Potter crowd. The latest teen-lit property to make its way to the big screen, The Lightning Thief is the first of a proposed franchise based on the best-selling series by Rick Riordan.

The title character, Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman), is a high school student who lives with his mother (Catherine Keener) and abusive stepfather (Joe Pantoliano). He has dyslexia and finds some measure of calm hiding underwater. Turns out, Percy’s father is Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), the Greek god of the seas. His best friend, Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), is a satyr charged with his protection. Percy’s teacher (Pierce Brosnan) is really a centaur named Chiron who is the head instructor for a drill camp filled with other godlings.

Percy learns the truth about his life when he is accused of stealing Zeus’s (Sean Bean) lightning bolt. A civil war is brewing between the gods and Percy’s mother is kidnapped by Hades (Steve Coogan who looks like a burnt out rocker in his leather pants). Percy and Grover embark on a quest to rescue her accompanied by Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), the daughter of Athena (Melina Kankaredes). The trio must gather the pearls of Persephone (Rosario Dawson) and do battle mythological creatures such as the Hydra and Medusa (Uma Thurman).

To kick off their new film series, Fox made a smart choice in choosing Chris Columbus who directed the first two Harry Potter films. The problem is those opening installments were the most pedestrian movies of the series. It wasn’t until the brought in more accomplished directors like Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell that the Potter films improved by leaps and bounds.

Is Percy Jackson a terrible movie? No, but it’s not an exceptional one either. It’s perfectly acceptable filmmaking. There’s nothing particularly stylish about the direction or production design and the characters are painted in very broad strokes.

Rating: **

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Clash of the Titans

Clash of the Titans - Dir. Louis Leterrier (2010)

”Release the Kraken!”

The original 1981 Clash of the Titans played fast and loose with Greek mythology and is more renowned for being the swan song for effects guru Ray Harryhausen. The master of stop motion effects, Harryhausen went on to inspire a generation of top filmmakers including Tim Burton, James Cameron, and Sam Raimi. But, his brand of special effects was put out to pasture by the rise of the modern day summer blockbuster heralded by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

With CGI and digital 3D in full effect, it was only a matter of time before Clash was remade and updated with today’s technology. Sam Worthington is Perseus, the son of a human mother and Zeus (Liam Neeson), the king of the gods. At the beginning of his journey, Perseus knows nothing of his parental lineage. He is abandoned at sea and found by a kindly fisherman (Pete Postlethwaite). Perseus’s life is forever changed when Hades (Ralph Fiennes), god of the underworld, kills his adopted family.

Perseus is taken to the city of Argos where its rules have incurred the wrath of the gods with their insults. Hades issues an ultimatum for Argos to sacrifice its princess, Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), or he will release the monstrous Kraken (”Release the Kraken!”) and destroy the city and all its inhabitants. Perseus is sent on a mission to find a way to stop the Kraken and is accompanied by Draco (Mads Mikkelsen), leader of the royal guard, and the beautiful demi-goddess Io (Gemma Arterton). From them, Perseus learns how to fight and be a hero. Being half god, he learns in no time and without the assistance of a montage set to 80’s power rock.

This version of Clash is definitely not your father’s Clash of the Titans. Fans of the original are made well aware of that fact when one of its stars, Bubo the mechanical owl, makes a quick cameo only to be tossed aside like a bit of refuse. Pegasus, the gleaming white and winged steed, is now a badass black stallion who scares away the other horses.

As the film’s hero, Worthington is slightly generic, but nowhere near as bland as the well-tanned Harry Hamlin. While the original featured Sir Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and Bond girl Ursula Andress among its pantheon. In the remake, the denizens of Mount Olympus are headed up by Liam Neeson who equates himself well to the overly bombastic dialogue that always seems to pop up in these period pieces. As Zeus’s brother, Fiennes is all dark and raspy voiced, not too far off from Lord Voldemort. Danny Huston’s Poseidon only gets a couple of lines while the rest of the gods are mostly reduced to just standing around in glowing armor.

Despite some shortcomings, Clash is a rousing popcorn movie. The majority of the action is fun even if director Louis Leterrier has trouble with letting the camera stand still. The film’s best sequence is a battle against a group of giant scorpions keeping in spirit with Harryhausen’s work. An exceedingly phony looking CG Medusa knocks things down a notch. There are also some odd characters new to the remake in the Djinn, desert dwellers who look like leprous versions of the Tusken Raiders from Star Wars.

If you get the chance to see Clash of the Titans in theaters, save your money and skip the 3D version. The picture was shot in 2D and quickly converted afterwards to cash in on the 3D craze. Much of the film is flat with scenes barely registering as 3D. Secondly, this is a very dark movie and the 3D glasses darken the movie even further. Finally, Leterrier’s frenetic shooting style does not lend itself to the 3D process. The constant camera movements during the action scenes negate it.

Rating: ***

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer - Dir. Roman Polanski (2010)

Two of the masters of film tried their hands at the thriller genre at the beginning of 2010. While Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island was undone by an M. Night Shyamalan style twist ending, Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer offers no such tricks. Based on the novel by Robert Harris, it relies on a strong cast of actors and old-fashioned storytelling.

Ewan McGregor stars as an unnamed ghost writer who is only referred to as The Ghost in credits. The Ghost lands a lucrative job handling the autobiography of former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). The Ghost’s predecessor was Lang’s long-time aide whose body was found washed ashore. In addition, Lang is accused of abducting two British citizens suspected of being terrorists and handing them over to the CIA for torture. The Ghost digs deeper into the mysterious death as well as the accusations leveled against Lang.

The allusions to today’s political landscape are obvious and sometimes hammered home too hard. Lang, played with a fierce bluster by Brosnan, is loosely based on Tony Blair with just a dash of Bill Clinton thrown in for good measure. Lang is having an affair with his assistant Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall) while his dutiful wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams) steadfastly stands by his side in public. He is portrayed as a glorified lackey to the American government with shady ties to a military-industrial conglomerate known as Hatherton. About as subtle as calling them Schmalliburton, I suppose.

Polanski instills a cold and sullen mood to the The Ghost Writer. The majority of the film is set in Martha’s Vineyard and there is a constant gloomy overcast, about as gloomy as the specter of scandal and death hanging over everyone’s head. Lang’s retreat is just as cold. It is an angular, ultra-modern hideaway ironically laden with expansive glass windows looking over the island coast.

The final verdict on The Ghost Writer hinges not on any on-screen happenings, but in Polanski’s own personal proclivities. While I certainly have no problem with separating the personal with the professional, it’s difficult to do so when it’s rubbed right in your face. Much of the story involves the International Criminal Court attempting to prosecute Lang as a war criminal. Lang must choose between fighting the charges in his native England and staying in America where he will not be extradited. If you know anything about Polanski, the parallels need no explanation. The subtext boils to an uneasy conclusion in which the accused is laid blameless and the fault is laid firmly at the feet of a woman.

Rating: **

Monday, May 17, 2010

Shutter Island

Shutter Island - Dir. Martin Scorsese (2010)

Martin Scorsese.

That’s all you need to know. Emblazon that name on the marquee and you’ve got my ticket money. He’s tackled gritty crime films, Merchant-Ivory style drama, and documentaries. Scorsese delves into new territory with the gothic thriller, Shutter Island, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane whose novels Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone have also been adapted to film. Shutter Island can best be described as Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor by way of M. Night Shyamalan.

Scorsese collaborates with Leonardo DiCaprio for the fourth time. Still hanging on to his Departed Boston accent, Leo takes the lead as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels. Along with partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), Daniels is sent to Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of a patient at Ashecliff, a former Civil War fort turned into an asylum for the criminally insane.

Daniels is still haunted by his service during World War II in which his unit liberated a concentration camp. Not to mention his wife (Michelle Williams) was killed in a fire caused by an arsonist who was once a patient at Ashecliff. Investigating further, he discovers clues leading to a deeper conspiracy involving the doctors experimenting on left-wing radicals.

There is no denying Scorsese’s abilities as a master filmmaker. He sets an uneasy mood almost immediately with a style that is a cross between noir and Hitchcock. Scorses heightens the creepy atmosphere by filling the supporting cast with several equally creepy actors. Really, nobody does creepy better than Jackie Earle Haley, Elias Koteas, and Max von Sydow.

Shutter Island essentially lives and dies by the twist ending. You either buy it or don’t. There’s no in between. Personally, I couldn’t. It was like the rug was pulled out from under me. Whatever I had invested in the film feels as if it had been a waste. Every other element of the picture is strong and Scorsese has created an uneasy, claustrophobic mood to the story, but the sharp left turn in the resolution undoes all the hard work.

Rating: **

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Robin Hood

Robin Hood - Dir. Ridley Scott (2010)

”Rise and rise again until lambs become lions.”

Was there a dire need for yet another Robin Hood film? There have been dozens and dozens of iterations about the famed archer on film and television. One of the most well-regarded versions is The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn in a light-hearted, Technicolor adventure film. The garish color palette of the 1938 picture is in stark contrast to Robin and Marian with Sean Connery as an aging, world weary Robin Hood returning to England and his love Marian (Audrey Hepburn in her first film after a 9 year absence) who has since become a nun. A grimier and grounded approach was taken with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves starring Kevin Costner as the blandest version of the title character. Despite Costner’s vanilla performance and sad attempt at a British accent, Prince of Thieves was buoyed by the mere presence of Morgan Freeman and a deliciously over-the-top Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Notthingham. You can also toss Disney’s animated Robin Hood and Mel Brooks’ parody Robin Hood: Men in Tights into the mix.

So where does Ridley Scott’s vision of Robin Hood stack up against the competition? Even with a $200 million budget, this Robin Hood sinks to the bottom of the barrel.

Russell Crowe teams with Ridley Scott for the fifth time. They originally paired up in the historical epic Gladiator and surprisingly followed that up with the romantic comedy, A Good Year. Their collaboration continued with the gritty crime film, American Gangster, and the spy thriller, Body of Lies. Robin Hood is closest in spirit to Gladiator and acts as a pseudo-companion piece to Scott’s Crusades picture, Kingdom of Heaven. This is a down and dirty rendition with nary a buckle swashed.

The film kicks off during the tail end of the 12th century with Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston) attempting to make his way back to England following the folly of the Third Crusade. King Richard is killed by an arrow through the neck while ransacking a French castle. Among the king’s army is a skilled bowman by the name of Robin Longstride (Crowe) who quickly deserts the battlefield with his friends Little John (Kevin Durand), Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes), and Alan A’Dayle (Alan Doyle). Meanwhile, Richard’s right hand man, Sir Robert of Loxley (Douglas Hodge) leads a small band of knights to return the king’s crown to England. They are ambushed by the evil Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong) who conspires with King Philip of France (Jonathan Zaccai) to weaken England with civil war.

Robin and his Merry Men (though they are never called as such) come across the aftermath. Donning the knight’s chain mail, Robin poses as Loxley upon his return to England. He arrives at Loxley’s estate where Robert’s father, Sir Walter (Max von Sydow), requests that he continue the masquerade much to the chagrin of Robert’s widow, the Lady Marian (Cate Blanchett). While Robin undertakes the charade, Godfrey brutally and relentlessly gathers taxes from the people under the orders of Richard’s brother, the petulant King John (Oscar Isaac), a near-copycat of Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus.

The main cast also includes: William Hurt as the royal regent William Marshal, Mark Addy as Friar Tuck, and Matthew Macfadyen as an utterly inept Sheriff of Nottingham.

If that sounds like a lot to digest, it’s only the appetizer. There is a helluva lot more to come during the film’s daunting two and a half hour runtime. Robin Hood’s biggest strength lies in the spectacular production values. Scott and cinematographer John Mathieson (who also first collaborated on Gladiator) have created a gorgeous looking film that captures the majesty of the English landscape belonging to royalty and the squalidness of the world of the lower classes. CGI is effectively used to lend an added layer of authenticity. The acting isn’t particularly noteworthy, but the actors are fine in their roles. Honestly, the majority of them are capable of performing these parts in their sleep.

The weak link of the movie lies solely in the story. The screenplay was originally written by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris who also wrote Kung Fu Panda and…ugh…Bulletproof Monk. Working under the title of Nottingham, the project was intended to portray Robin Hood as the villain while his arch-enemy, the Sheriff, would be shown in a more sympathetic light. Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) was brought on board to rewrite the script. Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) was hired later on to perform script polishing while on-set. The filmmakers settled on telling the origin story of a character who has no definitive origin story. Thus, Scott has stripped Robin Hood of nearly everything that makes him Robin Hood.

The names and places may be the same, but the romance between Robin and Marian is only just blossoming. Robin doesn’t live in Sherwood Forest yet and he only robs from the rich and gives to the poor once. The film does postulate an interesting premise in making Robin, who has always been portrayed as a nobleman, a humble peasant and conning his way into the higher classes. However, that subplot is dropped soon after. See, Robin never knew his real father, but Sir Walter conveniently knew Daddy Longstride and reveals all to him. Oh, and Robin’s father apparently came up with the Magna Carta.

Therein lays another weak point in the script, the uneven hodgepodge of historical fact and fiction. Real-life figures and events feel shoehorned into the legends and myths of Robin Hood. The movie maintains a self-serious tone which is completely undone during the climactic battle when the transport ships from Saving Private Ryan arrive. It only gets more ludicrous when Marian arrives in battle armor with an army of wild boys who look like they wandered off the set of Lord of the Flies.

Imagine going to see Batman Begins only to discover Bruce Wayne doesn’t don the Bat-costume until the final minute of the film. Robin Hood makes us sit through a 140 minute prologue that ends at the exact moment when it should have begun.

Rating: * ½

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Losers

The Losers - Dir. Sylvain White (2010)

I’m not really sure how I should feel about an action film that uses “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey as its theme song.

2010 is a big year for comic book movies (Kick-Ass, Iron Man 2) and movies about elite military units (The A-Team and The Expendables). Well, The Losers fits into both categories. Published by DC Comics, the original incarnation of the Losers was created in 1970 by Robert Kanigher who also co-created Sgt. Rock with legendary artist Joe Kubert. They were a Special Forces group that operated during WWII. In 2004, the concept was revamped for DC’s mature readers imprint, Vertigo.

The titular team is comprised of several colorful individuals each with specialized abilities. The Losers are under the command of Col. Franklin Clay, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan with the same gruff and rough edges that he brought to the Comedian in Watchmen. Clay’s second-in-command is Roque (Idris Elba) who seems to be equally as gruff. Rounding out the team are fast-talking tech-head Jensen (Chris Evans), pilot/driver Pooch (Columbus Short), and the silent sniper Cougar (Oscar Jaenada).

The Losers are sent on a mission in Central America to mark the compound of a big-time drug lord for an air strike. When they see children in the compound being used as mules, they disobey orders and go in to rescue them. The Losers load the kids onto their extraction chopper only to watch helplessly as it’s blown to pieces. Presumed dead, the Losers lay low while Clay seethes with anger at the betrayal of their mysterious handler known only as Max (Jason Patric). They are approached by a woman named Aisha (Zoe Saldana) who claims she can hand them Max on a silver platter. Smuggled back into the U.S. in caskets, the Losers plan a series of intricate heists to bring down Max and get back their lives.

The Losers is a movie about good-looking people getting together, blowing shit up then saying a bunch of witty one-liners. There aren’t many nuances beyond that in the script by Peter Berg (who was previously attached to direct) and James Vanderbilt (Zodiac). The opening of the film really goes for the jugular in a cheesy way by going into a close-up of a burning teddy bear in the aftermath of the crash. Despite all the wreckage, we don’t see any dismembered limbs or kiddie corpses. It’s a lot like an old episode of G.I. Joe where planes crash constantly, but the pilots always parachute out at the last second.

Since the screenplay uses nearly every corny, action movie cliché in the story, Sylvain White apparently felt the need to employ nearly every corny, action movie cliché in his direction. The movie is littered with slow motion, fast motion, jump cuts, whip pans, and zooms. Characters stand dramatically in various positions as if they were posing for an album cover. We get at least two or three variations of the standard ‘good guys walk away from an explosion in slow motion without looking back’ sequences.

However, the film is so breezy and cartoonish that it’s hard not to sit back and check your brain at the door. Most of the fun comes from the chemistry and interplay between the characters. Especially noteworthy is Chris Evans who seems to be having a ton of fun as the smart aleck to end all smart alecks. He was one of the only highlights of the atrocious Fantastic Four movies and he’s one of the highlights here, including belting out a really obnoxious rendition of the above mentioned Journey tune. Evans seems to be gunning for Ryan Reynolds’ spot as Mr. Comic Book Movie. In addition to both Fantastic Four pictures and The Losers, he’ll be seen in the upcoming Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and was recently cast as Captain America for Marvel Studios. Also hamming it up is Jason Patric as the evil Max. Patric understands that he’s been cast firmly in a B-movie and takes every opportunity to chew his scenes and spit them out.

The Losers won’t be widely regarded in the canon of comic book films the way Iron Man or The Dark Knight are. It’s blunt and one-dimensional, but it’s a fun popcorn flick. Besides, any movie where Zoe Saldana fires a rocket launcher can’t be all bad.

Rating: ** ½

Saturday, May 8, 2010


Kick-Ass - Dir. Matthew Vaughn (2010)

”With no power, comes no responsibility.”

Comic book superheroes in a real world setting have been a hot topic for many recent action films. Iron Man and Christopher Nolan’s Bat-films have attempted to ground larger-than-life heroes in a more realistic setting. Watchmen took a heady approach in its depiction of the socio-political impact of costumed individuals while Hancock went a more comedic route. Now, Kick-Ass brings us a hero for today’s MySpace generation.

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is your everyday, run-of-the-mill comic book fanboy. He’s geeky, gawky, and dutifully hits his local comic shop every week with the only two friends he’s got. Dave’s only superpower is the self-described ability to be invisible to girls, especially his long-time crush, Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca). One day, Dave orders a green scuba suit off eBay and fashions himself a pair of batons in order to fight crime as a masked vigilante. Thus, Kick-Ass is born, not out of a childhood trauma or intricate revenge fantasy, but merely out of an idle musing.

As Kick-Ass, Dave’s first foray into crime fighting leads to him being stabbed and struck by a car. Unperturbed, dons the outfit once more to defend the victim of a gang beating. This time around, eyewitnesses record the fight via camera phones and upload the footage to YouTube. Suddenly, Kick-Ass is a viral sensation inspiring others to follow suit, no pun intended. Chief among them is former cop Damon Macready and his pig-tailed daughter Mindy who become the dynamic duo of Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. Together, they wage a brutal war against mob boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong). With a pair of caped crusaders taking apart his drug operation, D’Amico turns to his nebbish son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who becomes the Red Mist in order to lure the other heroes out into the open.

Kick-Ass was based on a creator-owned mini-series published by Marvel, written by Mark Millar (who also wrote Wanted) with art by John Romita Jr. Anyone familiar with Millar’s work will recognize his fingerprints all over the property, which was originally pitched as Spider-Man meets Superbad. Employing shock and awe tactics in his writing techniques, Kick-Ass is profane and unrepentantly violent. So much so that director Matthew Vaughn financed the picture independently after being turned down by every major studio. After raising the $30 million budget himself, footage was screened at Comic-Con to an overwhelmingly positive response and the film was picked up for distribution by Lionsgate.

At the center of the controversy is the character of Hit-Girl, played by a then 11-year old Chloe Moretz. She’s a scene-stealer with a confident presence rare in such a young actress. Plenty of comparisons to Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver have been made. She’s a pint-size, death dealing dynamo. She’s Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, but small enough to fit in your pocket. The fact that someone so one is inflicting violence and having violence inflicted upon her has gotten many in an uproar. Roger Ebert has labeled the film as “morally reprehensible” for its depiction of Hit-Girl. It may churn some stomachs, but it’s hard for me to take any of it seriously when she’s hacking and slashing baddies to the theme song from The Banana Splits Adventure Hour.

Hit-Girl is a logical extension of the slightly creepy comic book tradition of the kid sidekick. DC Comics introduced the first kid sidekick in 1940 as a way to include a character for children to identify with. Never made sense to me, why would anyone want to be Robin when they could be Batman? In any event, Robin was a huge hit and pretty soon nearly every superhero leapt into action with a pre-pubescent costumed cohort with names like Sandy the Golden Boy and Stuff the Chinatown Kid. Kick-Ass brings the idea of reckless child endangerment into the 21st century with a young girl raised completely on comics, violent video games, and John Woo movies. The point is hammered home during one of Hit-Girl’s flurries as the film switches to the POV of a first-person shooter.

Most of the actors understand the over-the-top tone of the film and play it so, especially Nicolas Cage and Mark Strong. The always idiosyncratic Cage brings his own flourishes to the character. In his civilian guise, he’s Damon MacCready, an ex-cop bent on revenge. Rather than playing him as Dirty Harry, Cage gives him a Ward Cleaver quality with a Revenge of the Nerds-like laugh and a penchant for referring to his daughter as “child” and “baby doll.” As Big Daddy, he speaks with a deliberate, uneven staccato in a clear-cut homage to Adam West. The go-to-guy for villains, Mark Strong is excellent once again as the bad guy. He’s everything you expect from a mob boss.

The action sequences are handled well. Vaughn doesn’t rely on the usual quick cuts and tight close-ups that only manage to obscure the on-screen action. Vaughn had previously been attached to direct X-Men: The Last Stand and Thor, but finally gets to cut loose on a comic book movie with Kick-Ass. Vaughn formerly worked as Guy Ritchie’s producer on Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch before making his directorial debut on Layer Cake (after Ritchie declined). He’s become a far more versatile director than Ritchie.

The main weakness of Kick-Ass lies in the love story between Dave and Katie. Under the false assumption that he is gay, Dave becomes Katie’s BFF and the pair engage in ludicrous activities like rubbing tanning lotion on each other while nearly nude. The end result is equally unbelievable and departs from the source material. A light spoiler for the comic, but the hero does not get the girl.

Kick-Ass subverts the trappings of the superhero genre then revels in them becoming pure nerd wish fulfillment in the end.

Rating: *** ½

Friday, May 7, 2010

Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 - Dir. Jon Favreau (2010)

”If you make God bleed, people will cease to believe in him. There will be blood in the water and the sharks will come. All I have to do is sit here and watch as the world consumes you.”

Iron Man was never Marvel’s premiere superhero on the comic book page, but on the big screen he’s their centerpiece. 2008’s Iron Man was a rousing success and set the foundation for creating a singular cinematic universe where Marvel’s heroes exist side-by-side. As with the majority of sequels, Iron Man 2 ups the ante with more action, more FX, and more characters as Marvel Studios marches ever closer to the magnum opus of The Avengers.

Set a mere six months after the original film, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is riding high on a wave of newfound fame as Iron Man. He’s more than eager to feed our ultra-modern society’s hunger for celebrity. He stages the Stark Expo, an elaborate science fair, appearing in front of thousands of adoring fans and backed up by a bevy of gorgeous Ironette dancers. But, underneath that flippant, care-free demeanor, all is not well in the House of Stark.

The power core within Tony Stark’s chest is keeping his heart pumping, but is also poisoning his blood, the toxicity levels increasing with each usage of the Iron Man armor. A government subcommittee headed up by the officious Sen. Stern (Garry Shandling) demand that Stark turn over the Iron Man technology to them. Meanwhile, in Russia, a downtrodden physicist named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) builds his own miniaturized reactor feeding energy into a pair of tendrils. Turns out, Vanko’s father Anton helped Tony’s father, Howard (John Slattery), build the original Arc reactor before being deported back to Russia to live and die in abject poverty.

Vanko fails to kill Stark on a Monaco racetrack, but manages to attract the attention of rival industrialist Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). Hammer desperately wants to be Tony Stark, except he lacks the smarts. So he hires Vanko to build him an army of armored warriors and make Iron Man “look like an antique.” Taking hits on all sides, Tony shirks responsibility, handing the company over to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and finding solace at the bottom of a bottle. After Tony shows up drunk in full armor at his birthday party, his best friend Rhodey (Don Cheadle) steals the Mark II suit and turns it over to the military. Fanboys will giggle with glee as it’s pimped out with an arsenal of weapons into War Machine.

Bolstering this cavalcade of characters is Scarlett Johansson as Tony’s new personal assistant who is actually an undercover SHIELD agent. Fans will know her as the Black Widow. Scarlett busts out an array of MMA and Lucha Libre maneuvers while almost busting out of her skin-tight leather leotards. Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury (who first appeared in a post-credits scene in the preceding film) gets a meatier role as does director Jon Favreau as Tony’s driver/bodyguard Happy Hogan.

Clark Gregg returns as SHIELD Agent Coulson as do Leslie Bibb as reporter Christine Everhart and Paul Bettany as the voice of Tony’s artificial intelligence, JARVIS. Kate Mara makes a one scene appearance as a federal marshal and not as Bethany Cabe as previously rumored. Plus, there’s the obligatory cameo by Stan Lee (one of the best yet).

An ensemble of A-list actors were gathered together for the Iron Man and Iron Man 2 is no different. Mickey Rourke already looks like a comic book character so casting him as Ivan Vanko (a combination of supervillains Whiplash and Crimson Dynamo) was a no-brainer. A tried and true method actor, Rourke researched his role by visiting a Russian gulag and speaking with gangsters and criminals. As Vanko, he’s covered in tattoos and sports a shit-eating grin full of gold teeth. He just may be the most bad-ass physicist to walk the planet. Yes, even more than Stephen Hawking.

Sam Rockwell, who was once in the running to play Tony Stark, is another welcome addition. A master of the art of the smarmy, Rockwell absolutely excels as the underhanded Hammer. He’s one of the few actors who can go tit-for-tat with both Downey and Rourke. Also thrown into the mix is Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard amidst rumors of dissention on the set and an escalating salary. Cheadle fits seamlessly into the cast, confronting Tony at the senate hearing with the meta-textual line, ”I’m here now. Deal with it and move on.”

The excellent performances are not just due to a talented cast, but also to a talented director. As a writer/director/actor, Favreau cut his teeth on the independent film Swingers, which he starred in and wrote. Owning to those indie roots, he knows the importance of story and characters above all else. Favreau has also cited Robert Altman as an influence for giving his actors free reign to improvise during filming. The improvisation is never more evident than in the Howard Hawksian interplay between Tony and Pepper. That freedom has allowed Robert Downey Jr. to bring Tony Stark to life as a deep and fully realized character. He’s also kept Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux on their toes with both men having to rewrite the script on the fly throughout production. Theroux is also an actor turned writer. He made a memorable appearance playing a filmmaker in David Lynch’s mindbender Mulholland Drive. He also co-wrote Tropic Thunder which impressed Downey enough to bring him on to the sequel.

The use of such a multitude of actors and characters may be a little worrisome. The downfall of many superhero sequels (Spider-Man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand) is throwing in too many characters and too many plotlines. Thankfully, Iron Man 2 isn’t muddied up by an unwieldy amount of personalities. Each character and subplot is melded into the central narrative and converges towards the climax and resolution. They do not all get the appropriate screen time they deserve, but it works. Well, for the most part…

If Iron Man 2 has any faults, they lie in the saggy middle section. After a rousing racetrack battle between Iron Man and Vanko, the film pumps on the brakes for the second act. Tony alienates those around him while dealing with his illness and issues with his later father who appears in vintage film reels like a hybrid of Howard Hughes and Walt Disney. Whenever superhero sequels come along, those involve always mention how the second movie will be even better because they’ve gotten the origin story “out of the way.” However, Iron Man deftly weaved the origin story into the picture thus making the hero’s journey of Tony Stark making it every bit as important as the action scenes. With the origin out of the way, it seems the filmmakers were unclear as to where to go with Tony Stark. The second act of the sequel treads familiar territory as Tony works in his lab while his enemies scheme behind his back. It unfolds a little too much like the original film.

Favreau may not have the greatest command over action, but what he does here gets the job done. For a big-budget spectacle, Iron Man 2 is surprisingly light on action with only three major set pieces in the film. The opening fight on the racetrack is pulled off well and the final showdown is a wondrous multi-tiered battle with a picture perfect melding of practical and CG effects. The only drawbacks with each sequence are the anti-climactic endings. They build and build then fizzle out at the finish. Iron Man has yet to face a foe that is on equal footing. I suppose we have to wait for inevitable debut of arch-nemesis, the Mandarin, in Iron Man 3 to finally find someone who can really menace our hero.

Iron Man is the crown jewel of the Marvel movie oeuvre. Along with The Dark Knight, it made 2008 the pinnacle year for the comic book movie. If it is all downhill from there, Iron Man 2 makes sure it isn’t a steep drop, but a slight stumble. By the lofty standards of the original film, the sequel doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor. Iron Man 2 feels more like a stepping stone to further the Marvel’s movie universe (which I’ll spoil below) rather than a film to stand on its own. However, it’s still damned good entertainment. Damn, damn good entertainment.

Rating; *** ½


Want to find out what all that talk about New Mexico meant? Stick around until after the credits for a glimpse of Mjolnir, the mighty hammer of Thor.

There are more Easter Eggs to be found in Iron Man 2. The most obvious is the appearance of an incomplete version of Captain America’s shield which could be glimpsed very briefly in the first film.

Look closely at the news report Tony Stark is watching in the SHIELD briefing room. It’s the same report from The Incredible Hulk following his clash with the army on the college campus. Even better, re-watch Hulk and you’ll notice the reporter mentions something about thunderstorms. Hmm…

Thursday, May 6, 2010


2012 - Dir. Roland Emmerich (2009)

Truly the most important things destroyed during 2012 are your brain cells.

Emmerich is the modern day Irwin Allen, the producer/director of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, released during the 1970’s, the golden era for the disaster film. Allen’s name was synonymous with the genre which featured all-star casts and multiple storylines revolving around catastrophe. Emmerich has certainly topped Allen’s excess using the latest in special effects. He’s destroyed the world with aliens, giant lizards, and ice. Now, he’s done away with any kind of pretense at all. The world will end in 2012 and there’s no need to explain any further than that.

The film begins with geologist Dr. Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) discovering solar flares are causing the planet’s core to overheat which will lead to a series of unbelievable natural disasters. Usually, nobody listens to the scientist. Not this time. White House Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt) takes Helmsley’s reports seriously. Along with President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover), they begin secretly constructing massive arks to safely house the world’s leaders as well as the most wealthy and influential people of the world. The average Joe? He’s pretty much screwed.

The everyman point of view here is from the perspective of Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a former sci-fi writer now working as a limo driver. His boss is obnoxious Russian millionaire Yuri Karpov (Zlatko Buric) who just happens to be one of the few to buy a ticket to salvation. Curtis is divorced from wife Kate (Amanda Peet) who now lives with plastic surgeon Dr. Gordon Silberman (Thomas McCarthy). Dr. Silberman just happens to have worked on Karpov’s mistress Tamara (Beatrice Rosen). Yes, this is one of those movies where out of billions upon billions of people, a select few run into each other over and over again.

On a chance camping trip, Curtis runs into Dr. Helmsley as well as Charlie Frost, a nutty conspiracy theorist played by the equally nutty Woody Harrelson. Frost informs Curtis of the Mayan’s predictions about the end of the world in 2012. Clued in, Curtis quickly gets to his family to miraculously escape just as L.A. crumbles into the Pacific.

2012 is disaster porn at its finest. Emmerich leaves no stone unturned. He blew up the White House in Independence Day, Upping the ante, he destroys the White House again along with all of D.C., Vatican City, Yellowstone, and the Eiffel Tower. Two cute kids and a dog are tossed in to really tug at your heartstrings. Don’t bother to inject any type of logic or deeper thought into the proceedings. 2012 is pure, dumb shlock, jam packed with cheap thrills. Well, not so cheap for Sony who coughed up over $200 million for the budget. 2012’s overinflated budget and excessive 2 and a half hour runtime are indicative of the bloated blockbusters being churned out by Hollywood.

Rating: *

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Edge of Darkness

Edge of Darkness - Dir. Martin Campbell (2010)

”You had better decide whether you’re hangin’ on the cross or bangin’ in the nails.”

Edge of Darkness marks Mel Gibson’s big return to acting since his last starring role in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. In between, Gibson directed The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto while making controversial headlines over drunken arrests and anti-Semitic remarks. You’re ability to view the film may depend entirely on your ability to separate Gibson’s off-screen antics with his on-screen persona.

Gibson is Thomas Craven, a veteran of the Boston Police Department. He is having dinner with his daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic), when she becomes violently ill with vomiting and nosebleeds. Before they can even rush to the hospital, a masked gunman blows Emma away with a shotgun blast. Originally working under the assumption that he was the target, Craven soon discovers they were after his daughter. Craven learns that Emma may have been exposed to radiation while working for an energy corporation called Northmoor. His investigation uncovers a vast conspiracy involving corrupt senators, left-wing radicals, and illegal nuclear weapons. Along the way, Craven receives some vague assistance from Jedburgh (Ray Winstone), a shadowy fix-it man who chooses to help Craven rather than kill him as initially tasked.

Much like Traffic and State of Play, Edge of Darkness is based on a BBC mini-series directed by Martin Campbell. Campbell returns as director and was adapted by William Monahan, the screenwriter behind The Departed, which itself was a remake of Hong Kong film, Infernal Affairs. Monahan’s fingerprints can be seen throughout the picture with its Boston setting and hardboiled dialogue. Having already helmed Goldeneye and Casino Royale, Campbell has proven to be a capable action director. There aren’t any elaborate Bond-like set pieces here, but Edge is sometimes suddenly and shockingly violent.

In his mid-50’s, Gibson is noticeably haggard, a far cry from the matinee idol looks of his younger days. Despite laying on the Bostonian accent a little thick, the role fits Gibson like a glove. No surprise since Gibson is no stranger to playing cops and his star-making role was in the revenge-themed Mad Max.

Edge of Darkness mixes those same revenge themes with elements of the 70’s-style political thrillers such as The Parallax View. But, Darkness is not nearly as nuanced. The twists and turns in the narrative are predictable and the characters are one-dimensional. No one is more than they appear to be. We know Northmoor CEO Jack Bennett, played by Danny Huston, is the big bad for no other reason than he’s played by Danny Huston.

Muddying things up are a series of dream sequences in which Craven sees visions of his daughter as a child. These, along with a rather preposterous third act, are the film’s biggest shortcomings.

Rating: **

Saturday, May 1, 2010

How To Train Your Dragon

How to Train Your Dragon - Dirs. Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders (2010)

Dreamworks Animation has always played second fiddle to Pixar. Films like Antz and Shark Tale haven’t come close to matching the quality of A Bug’s Life or Finding Nemo. Kung Fu Panda and the first Shrek were good though the latter has become a franchise of diminishing returns. It’s taken a long time, but Dreamworks has produced their best movie to date in How to Train Your Dragon.

On the island of Berk is a village of Vikings constantly under siege by dragons. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is the son of the village’s leader Stoick (Gerard Butler). While Stoick is the biggest, burliest of the Vikings, Hiccup is an awkward, neurotic beanpole. Hiccup apprentices for a one-handed blacksmith named Gobber (Craig Ferguson) though his gadgets are never taken seriously. Using a catapult of his invention, Hiccup manages to bring down the most dangerous of all dragons, the Night Fury.

Hiccup finds the injured dragon, but cannot bring himself to kill the feline-like creature. Naming him Toothless, the pair bond quickly and Hiccup begins cataloguing all manner of dragon behavior. All of these new facts conflict with everything the Vikings are taught about dragons being utterly savage. Hiccup and a band of young warriors must protect the dragons’ nest when Stoick leads the others on a mission to wipe them all out.

How to Train Your Dragon bares many superficial similarities to Avatar. Both films feature protagonists that embark on almost identical hero’s journeys. However, Dragon manages to capture the wonders of flight in a slightly better manner. The 3D here gives you a slight sensation of flying without any nauseous side effects. The film even has a Superman-like moment when Hiccup takes love interest Astrid (America Ferrera) for her first dragon ride. It’s not essential to see it in 3D since the process does dull the vivid colors of the animated world.

What works best for Dragon isn’t some fancy new gimmick, but the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless which is the heart of the film. In lesser hands, Dragon would have been filled with anachronistic pop cultural references and the dragon would have been voiced by a high-priced celebrity. Remember Dragonheart? No? There’s a reason. Co-directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders previously worked on Lilo & Stitch which dealt with comparable themes. They manage to convey all the right emotions without being bogged down by on-the-nose dialogue. DeBlois and Sanders also bring some of the same irreverent humor exemplified by a gag in which Stoick presents his son with matching Viking helmets made from their late mother’s breastplates.

Wonderfully animated, How to Train Your Dragon is worth catching in the theaters.

Rating: ***1/2