Sunday, July 27, 2014

Le Chef

Alternate Title:  The Professional (Chef)

One sentence synopsis:    A talented young chef tries to earn a place at a world-famous restaurant whose head chef is engaged in a heated battle with the owner.

Things Havoc liked: Three facts that none of you knew about Jean Réno:

1: Jean Réno's real name is Juan Moreno y Herrera-Jiménez.
2: Jean Réno is a Moroccan of Spanish descent.
3: In France, Jean Réno is best known for his comedies.

That's right, Jean Réno, one of the only French action stars ever accepted in the United States (Van Damme was Belgian, you plebeians), famous here for films such as The Professional, Ronin, Mission Impossible, or The Da Vinci Code, is well-known in France as a comedic actor (though to be sure his action work remains popular there too), generally playing a straight-man in comedies such as Les Visiteurs, Wasabi, Décalage Horaire, and Tais-Toi. I didn't even know this last one until recently, when it came time for me to venture into the wacky world of French comedy once more and see a movie with, distressingly enough, the same title as a Jon Favreau comedy I saw less than two months ago.

French cinema has a reputation for being impenetrable, and there are certainly movies that earn that designation (most things by Truffaut for instance), but then that's no different than if you go cherry-picking through American indie films (consider Mallick). The vast bulk of French films are like the vast bulk of films everywhere, common-denominator fare designed to appeal to the widest possible audience. This sort of thing, not the black and white films of women wearing roofing materials reciting Chinese poetry while strangling ducks, is more akin to France's standard, and proof of that is in the performances that Réno and his co-star, Michaël Youn. The two play a fairly standard game of straight man/funny man throughout the film, with a bit of traditional madcap French flair. Réno plays Alexandre Vauclair, a classical, Michelin-starred chef of a five-star haute-cuisine restaurant, whose inspiration is flagging under a conflict with his new-wave boss Stanislas Matter (Julien Boisselier). Youn, playing Jackie, is a talented young chef of the same school, in desperate need of a job and of greatness, who comes to the attention of Vauclair and is enlisted to help him ward off the conversion of the restaurant into a cutting edge Molecular Gastronomy house. This is the core of the film, and when the movie is concentrating on these elements, it's actually quite funny, particularly anything involving Jackie, Alexandre, and Jackie's three disciples from an old-folks home, Chang, Titi, and Moussa, all three of whom are terrible chefs dreaming of achieving excellence in at least some field. Along the way, various adventures and hijinx ensue, in the best broad-comedy traditions, including an interlude with Spanish molecular chef Juan, whose concoctions seem to resemble explosives more than lunch, and another, highly-non-PC incident where both chefs visit a competing molecular restaurant in... shall we say "disguise"? The very concept of molecular cuisine, with its infusions and foams and "ideas of" that resemble chemistry experiments more than they do food, lends itself well to broad comedy, and the movie's almost slapstick-y approach is nothing if not broad. If that's your thing, this movie should appeal just fine.

Things Havoc disliked: If it's not however...

French film comedy, like I mentioned above, is often broad, stock stuff, derived from commedia del'arte and traditional continental European comedic disciplines. I'd hesitate to call it unsophisticated, but films like this unavoidably start feeling that way when you compare them to the more modern types of British or American comedy. Part of that is the subtitles, which by necessity have to dampen down the complexity of what we're dealing with, but even if you speak French fluently, the exaggerated gestures, the slapstick, the broad one-stroke characters and their instantly-obvious plot complications, these things all speak to a moviegoing audience that simply does not see the breadth of film that others might.

Take Réno's daughter, for instance, a graduate student who is annoyed that her father does not consider her upcoming thesis defense to be sufficiently important. Réno is obsessed with his restaurant and his cooking, to the point where even he recognizes he is simply tired of it all, and wants to spend more time with his daughter in a lower stress environment. So when he encounters a lovely rustic restaurant in rural Bourgogne run by a beautiful (and single) hostess whom he immediately begins making eyes towards, and also a young, brilliant, up-and-coming chef in desperate need of a job, who enthusiastically worships him and his recipes and proposes helping him create a menu to retain the Michelin stars that he is in jeopardy of losing, there's not a lot of room for doubt as to how all this is going to be resolved. And yet the filmmakers seem to think there is, pouring vast amounts of, frankly, melodrama, into questions that anyone who has ever seen a movie before will already know the answers to. Youn has lied to his fiance about his job, and she is mad at him. Will they reconnect? The arrogant, smarmy owner of the restaurant waxes eloquently about how he can't wait for Réno to get his comeuppance so that he can fire him and all his staff and turn the restaurant into a chemistry lab. Will he succeed? It's the night of the big critics' taste test and the young phenom must lead the brigade to produce food like they've never done it before? Will he manage it? If you are burning to know the answers to these profound, unsolvable mysteries, then you must immediately see this film, for that is all it consists of. But if you've seen more than six films in the entirety of your life, then you may, like me, be left wondering how it is that the only people in the room unable to determine by the five-minute-mark the resolution to every problem in the film, were apparently the director, writers, and producers.

Final thoughts:   I've honestly not been trying to badmouth the entire genre of French comedies in this review, for they, like any genre, can be as layered and witty and complicated as anything you'll find in English. I could cite Les Visiteurs, Diner de Cons, Ridicule, Rabbi Jacob, or 2012's runner up for MOTY (Movie of the Year) Les Intouchables. But there is a strong subset of broad comedy at work in French films, and you've gotta like that in order to get anything out of Le Chef. I do, and so I found the movie charming and reasonably funny, if nothing more, but one of the masterpieces of the genre it ain't. If you're looking for a foreign film that isn't going to make you wish for the relative accessibility of a Jim Jarmush piece, or simply want to see Jean Réno do something other than kill people, this movie might do the trick. Otherwise, there's plenty of stupid comedies in English to be had this time of year. One of them is probably just as good as this one.

... probably.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Monday, July 21, 2014


Alternate Title:  Off the Rails

One sentence synopsis:    A perpetual-motion, class-segregated train experiences a working-class uprising following the end of the world.

Things Havoc liked:  Despite my best efforts, it was probably inevitable that I would go to see this movie, the product of a South Korean filmmaker (Bong Joon-Ho) and a French graphic novelist (Jacques Lob), two things that, if you'll forgive a stereotype, typically are completely insane. French graphic novels, for whatever reason, tend towards the surreal and the nonsensical, while Korean action films, particularly sci-fi ones, bend in the same direction. Throw in a whole pile of A-list western actors I love (and a couple I don't), and it was probably predictable that I would eventually make my way through the door.

Seventeen years after an attempt to end global warming backfired disastrously and froze the entire planet, a train running on a perpetual motion machine circles the world once every year on an endless ride to nowhere. Locked within are literally all that's left of humanity and its works, from the upper class to the lower classes, strictly segregated by train car, with the rich living it up with their literally priceless luxuries and the poor crammed into the tail section to wither and die at the whim of their overlords. Among these poor have-nothings are Chris Evans, playing Curtiss, a rebel leader preparing the latest in a series of attempted uprisings to seize control of more of the train and force the front section group to equalize everything. I'm a big fan of Evans thanks to the Captain America/Avengers series, as you well know, and I've also been a fan of his in the non-Marvel stuff he's done, such as Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Sunshine. His character here is nothing to write home about, and has the unenviable task of basically getting no characterization until the very end of the film, where we get it all in one heap, but Evans knows how to play with material like this, and gets across everything he needs to with a few understated gestures and expressions. It is nice, admittedly, to see him get a bit dirtier than his Captain America persona would allow, chopping people apart with hatchets or blowing them away deadpan with firearms. John Hurt meanwhile is playing the exact same character that John Hurt plays these days, a wise, bewhiskered leader who serves as the surrogate commander to Evans' field officer, while Jamie Bell and The Help's Octavia Spencer turn in better performances than I'm accustomed to from either of them as secondary characters supporting the revolution.

But the best of them all is unquestionably Tilda Swinton, an actress I've seen all over the place in the last year or so, and who seems to be desperately laboring to secure the title of "weirdest actor in the universe", (which given the competition she has for such a title, demands quite an effort). Swinton plays Mason, a loudspeaker-wielding martinet straight out of a Marx Brothers spoof, who marches imperiously into trian cars filled with filthy, starving families, and berates them like a whiny schoolteacher for being disorderly while soldiers steal their children and hack off their limbs. Her performance is so weird that it's almost fascinating, even by Tilda Swinton's admittedly elevated standards for this sort of thing, stitched up in a schoolmarm outfit with oversized sunglasses and a barely-functioning microphone. She adds, if nothing else, a modicum of interest to the generally basic workings of the film.

This is Bong Joon-Ho's first English language film, as well as the first one I've seen of his, but the man knows how to point cameras. The style of this movie is all its own, a strange, almost Burton-esque design for the varied and frankly absurd lineup of train cars that the heroes must battle their way through. Several sequences, including one where the two sides engage in a long-range gun battle between cars as the train goes round a large bend, are inventively enough done, and the frozen world beyond the train, only seen in brief glimpses through windows, has a stark, but colorful feel to it. The style carries over into the action sequences, particularly an early one which begins well lit, switches to night-vision, and then to torchlight, each transition accompanied by an interesting, and inventive series of visual devices. Say whatever you will about Bong's filmmaking, his visuals leave little to complain about.

Things Havoc disliked: But don't worry, there's plenty else for that.

This film is presently in the process of generating widespread critical acclaim, a fact I have literally no explanation for. Yes, the acting has high points, yes the visuals are inventive, but is that all that audiences nowadays require? A few nice images and a performance that manages to get beyond "mediocre"? Have standards slipped this low? Or am I just a curmudgeonly bastard who can't appreciate great art?

Snowpiercer is a profoundly stupid movie, this much is no surprise, but what is, or should be a surprise is that the stupidity is not merely in terms of its premise, nor even its story, but in the choices made by the director and writer of this mess. I alluded earlier to the fact that Chris Evans' characterization is left until the end of the film, whereupon it is all delivered to us in one big fat expo-dump, as if the writer realized four fifths of the way through his project that he had added no characterization whatsoever and so rather than back up, decided to simply devote five minutes to telling the audience what they were supposed to have been shown. I recognize that characterization is an afterthought in a movie like this, but given that the film actually dials the action back after the midway point of the film in order to focus on the "daring" social commentary at work here, I'm not entirely sure it was supposed to be one.

Oh and speaking of that daring social commentary, I recognize that a movie like this takes refuge in audacity by painting with a broad brush, but there's a difference between a broad brush and a steamroller. The villains are so evil as to be cartoonish, literally unable to perceive why someone might object to being forced to live in squalor, to surrender their children to lifetimes of drudgery, or to having their spouses beaten and crippled in front of their eyes. Again, nothing wrong with that in theory, except that the film tries to excuse the villains' myopia by painting them as some kind of cult dedicated to the worship of the train's leader, whose secret machinations are presented, the more things get surreal, as being set up for some kind of "big reveal". It's as if the movie is saying "Trust us, we're going somewhere with all this weirdness," trying to get us to buy into the fact that the villains are not as stupid as they're being characterized as.

What's the big reveal? Nothing. The villains are actually that stupid. In fact Ed Harris gets a lengthy, almost interminable scene wherein he monologues for ten minutes about the fact that he and the rest of the villains are precisely that stupid. Thanks for that.

That's the problem with the movie in a nutshell. The notion of all of humanity being locked on a perpetual train is one that is manifestly stupid and could be dealt with either by showing us how it is that this society is able to operate at all, or by dodging the question in favor of badass action sequences. This film basically decides to hint towards doing the former before pulling the rug out from under us at the last minute and revealing that they actually are doing the latter, except without any of the compensatory awesomeness that makes a movie like The Raid or The Lego Movie work despite the thinness of its plot. And when you take away a handful of decent action scenes or inventive shots, there's really nothing left except a handful of hints towards an actual explanation as to what the hell is going on that never comes. Action movies do not need a defense to exist, spectacle is its own justification after all, but this film omits most of the spectacle without replacing it with any sort of justification for its own existence. And so in the time-honored tradition of bad movies the world over, Snowpiercer, for all its promise and hype, becomes nothing more than a simple series of events which happen and then are over. Curtain up. Thanks for the money.

Final thoughts:   I get the sense that I'm not making my case particularly well here, but Snowpiercer is a movie that is bad in a way all its own. I have seen plenty of films that did not leave up to the hype of their trailers, but this is perhaps the first film I've ever seen that did not live up to the hype of its own script. Implicitly promising depth that does not exist as a means of excusing the fact that we do not get the spectacle we were initially promised in the trailers, the movie winds up coming across, at least to me, as a shaggy dog story, so transparently a waste of time as to seem almost cynical. One should always assume good faith in the production of movies of course, so perhaps there's a cultural thing at work here, but the result, ultimately, is a movie I could not wait to see the end of in all the worst ways.

My neighbors in viewing this film made the decision to bring copious quantities of liquor into the theater (they offered me a bottle of whiskey partway through), and at the end of the film, asked me if it had actually been as bad as their drunken perceptions told them it was. When I assured them that it was, they expressed total mystification at the fact that friends of theirs had recommended this film to them. I told them that any friends that did so clearly did not like them very much.

In my case, it was fellow critics that informed me of this film's qualities, and whom I must consequently conclude are out to get me. But then that's not new information.

Final Score:  3.5/10

Monday, July 14, 2014

Life Itself

Alternate Title:  Plaudite, Amici. Comedia Finita Est.

One sentence synopsis:    A documentarian covers the last few months of Roger Ebert's life with retrospectives on his career, relationships, and personality.

Things Havoc liked:  When one thinks of movie critics, one thinks inevitably of Roger Ebert. A pulitzer-winning, populist movie critic without parallel, Ebert's influence on the state of film criticism, and for that matter film itself, is hard to sum up. Without Roger Ebert, I would probably not be writing this blog, but then that's true of a vast number of people. And for all the scorn I heaped upon several of his less-than-cogent opinions for movies like The Artist or The Flowers of War, there is a reason that it was his opinion, and not that of other critics, that I took to task. The most powerful movie critic in the world, the first, and to my knowledge, only one to ever win a Pulitzer, he shaped my tastes in ways I'm sure I cannot even begin to speak to. And now he is gone, and all we have are his reviews, and the memories of those who knew him.

Life Itself, by Prefontaine and Hoop Dreams' director Steve James, is a biographical documentary, nothing more, nothing less. Filmed in the main during the last four months of Ebert's life, as he was battling cancer, pneumonia, and the aftereffects of having his jaw amputated, it chronicles Ebert's career from college to the Chicago Sun-Times, from Cannes to Siskel & Ebert. Much of this stuff is standard biographical material, but the movie refrains from becoming nothing but a record of awards won and milestones achieved by relying heavily on the reminiscences of people who knew Ebert, his skills and his flaws, his giant ego and his manifest personability. We follow his career through thick and thin, from winning national awards and being courted by world-class newspapers such as the Washington Post or New York Times, to the travails associated with his alcoholism, to his ongoing love-hate feud/relationship with fellow critic Gene Siskel. All the while, there are intercut sequences with the Roger Ebert of "today", his face scarred by a series of terribly invasive cancer surgeries, and interviews with his wife and family, who are all putting on a brave front as they patiently await what they know to be the end.

And that's really all the movie is, and all it needs to be, as anyone who has the slightest interest in the subject of the life of Roger Ebert should find all manner of tidbits within this story to make them smile. One of the best sequences, in the midst of a discussion of their work together, involves several behind-the-scenes sequences of Ebert and Siskel trying to film a promo for their show, intercut after (and even during) every take with bitter, sarcastic sniping at one another that sounds like the sort of thing people tolerate only when they've grown so accustomed to such treatment that it's no longer worth fighting over. Yet a second clip, later on, has them embarking on a collective, extemporaneous rant about how Jews (like Siskel) and Catholics (like Ebert) are the only people who actually give a damn about their religion, and that protestantism and WASPs in particular are people who want "a little faith... maybe." In Ebert's own words, "we were killing each other for thousands of years before they showed up." Ebert remarked once that the answer to the question of whether he and Siskel hated each other and whether they were best friends were both Yes, and the hints of the greater relationship he had with his famous co-host are there to be seen for any fan of the great movie duo.

Things Havoc disliked: But only hints.

It was ludicrously hard to write this review (which is why it has been so delayed), partly because documentaries are always a difficult topic to write subjectively about, but also partly because there just wasn't that much to say, and that itself is the problem. The movie is billed as a biographical documentary on Roger Ebert's life and career, but what it actually winds up as is something extremely macabre, and the reason for that is that the film chooses, for reasons that I'm sure made sense at the time, to focus with almost laser-like exclusivity, on Roger Ebert's death.

I mean, I get it. Ebert died while the film was being made (we see his last, fleeting answers to the filmmakers' Emails as he was dying in the hospital), and his disability was so extreme as to exert an almost ghoulish fascination, and yet rather than resist this urge, the filmmakers decided for some reason to make Ebert's inevitable death from cancer and pneumonia the center of their film. Perhaps they thought they were replicating Citizen Kane, I don't know, but the movie, by the end, becomes almost morbid, as the filmmakers use all their considerable talents to try and wring pathos over the end of a great man. They succeed, of course, but the endless succession of sequences concerning Ebert's disability, his efforts to resume some fleeting fragment of his normal life, his decline and ultimately his death, accompanied by the tearful exclamations of his wife, led me, at least, to wonder if any of this was appropriate at all. Ebert, like all public figures, lived his life in the glare of spotlights, by his own choice as much as any, but to reduce half a film about a great man to the details of his final decrepitude seems almost voyeuristic, to say nothing of the notion that this is time that might be better spent regaling us with the stories of his works and deeds and thoughts and beliefs.

And part of the reason I am left wondering if we couldn't use more of those things is because, to be frank, we don't get all that much of it. Despite being produced by Martin Scorsese and featuring interviews from several major figures in cinema such as Werner Herzog, the movie is astonishingly light on details concerning a man who popularized film theory and film criticism for the mainstream audience. Precious little is heard from Ebert's actual reviews, the reviews that made him famous, won him a Pulitzer, changed the nature of American film, and serve as the reason we're watching the movie in the first place. We see him go to Cannes, go to Telluride, see movies and lead lectures about them, but we have no idea what his own personal theories were, what his perspective for criticism was, why he felt one movie was better than another. We are told that he was a fine lecturer and a witty storyteller, but not shown or given the opportunity to hear a single story or excerpt from a lecture of any sort, and when later in the film the filmmakers contrast his critical style with that of legendary New Yorker/New Republic critic Pauline Kael, we are presented the fact that his style and hers were different in a vacuum, without the slightest idea of what his style consisted of, or how it was different from hers. I appreciate that my tolerance for the ins and outs of film theory is probably higher than most people, but we are sitting in a documentary about one of the greatest film critics of all time, it's okay to talk shop. Worst of all though, not a single one of Ebert's biting, cutting negative quips, the ones so good that he compiled them into books, makes it into the film, denying us all the chance to admire the quality of the man's writing, even though we're watching a movie ostensibly about that very fact.

Final thoughts:  The irony of me reviewing a film about the greatest film critic in history is not lost on me, and yet I still have a job to do here. This movie is not badly made, nor is it an unfitting tribute to a great man, and yet is was, to me, deeply unsatisfying. It is arguable that the reason I found it so was because I have particular interests that weren't met, but I regard it as eminently reasonable to assume that a movie lionizing the life of a famous film critic might have a thing or two to say about film criticism. And while the material that IS here is valuable, there simply isn't enough of it to sustain my interest through the two hours that the movie runs. The obvious point of comparison here is last year's Iron Lady, a biopic that was so busy displaying the life of a great woman in her decline that it forgot to show her to us while she was actually in her prime.

For all that we did not agree, Roger Ebert was a great man, and a great critic. I can only hope to one day match the breadth of his skill, wit, and love of films. He deserved a better tribute than this. And the nature of film being what it is, God willing, he may one day receive it.

Final Score:  5.5/10

Sunday, July 6, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Alternate Title:  How to Make More Money

One sentence synopsis:    Hiccup and Toothless must stop a megalomaniacal warlord from destroying Burk and enslaving its dragons.

Things Havoc liked:  It was, in retrospect, inevitable that Pixar's run of amazing films would eventually come to an end. No studio, not Pixar, not Disney, not even Marvel can keep up the quality level forever. And yet what annoyed me about Pixar's decline over the last few years wasn't that they simply didn't keep to their high standards with disappointing films like Brave, but because having had a slip up, they decided to switch over to nothing but sequels of low quality and high marketability. I can think of no other reason why movies like Cars 2, Planes, and Monsters University came to exist. Yet as Pixar has slipped, it has provided an opportunity for their earstwhile rivals to shine, be they parent company Disney with Frozen (their best movie since Lion King), or their Speilbergian arch-rivals Dreamworks. And how better to showcase their talent with a highly marketable sequel?

... wait.

I kid. How to Train Your Dragon 2, a film I initially had made no plans on seeing due to a couple of fairly poor trailers, is not a sequel conceived of solely to sell toys, but a sequel conceived of for the much more acceptable reason of desiring to make vast amounts of money by replicating the success of a previous critical and box office smash. 2010's How to Train Your Dragon was just such a smash, of course, a massive, sprawling animated adventure flick in the best traditions of its predecessors, a movie kids adored, and I respected a great deal. It had world-class animation, wonderful art design, excellent voice-work, a beautiful score, superb writing, and wicked timing, and without giving the game away too early, the sequel has all six of the above in spades, so how bad do you really think it can be? Flight sequences, though perhaps not quite as groundbreaking as the last time round (the first film was the only movie I've ever seen to out-do Avatar in 3D) are still breathtaking exercises in joyous freedom, complete with (I'm assured of this by my local ornithologist) proper physical movement and wing construction to lend the entire thing an air of verisimilitude. The animation is gorgeous and varied, from bright, colorful sequences of adventure and battle, to burnt forests and somber funerals. The original film's art style was what I called "detailed caricature" and it remains intact for this film, alternating incredible texture and depth with broad-canvas splashes of deep-field color. The dragons themselves remain as adorable as ever, their behavior some absurd mishmash of cats and dogs sized upwards for gigantic lizards, and the film's habit of placing their antics in the background of every scene, regardless of content, makes for all manner of hillarity. The score, by returning composer John Powell, is more of the first movie's, with period and region-appropriate instruments turning out a Disney-style orchestral overture, studded with actual songs at proper moments.  All of this is supported by a top-tier voice cast, mostly returned from the first movie, with standouts being Jay Baruchel (whom I last saw in last year's This is the End), and Gerard Butler, (who for once is using an accent that's appropriate). New additions include Kate Blanchett, doing a spot-perfect Emma Thompson impression (seriously, I thought it was Thompson) as Hiccup's mother Valka, and Djimon Hounsou, of Amistad and Gladiator, as raving psychotic Drago Bludvist.

Animated sequels have a bad reputation for a number of reasons, and one is that such films (especially anything Disney) tend to be nothing but the same film done over again, either with the children of the original cast or some contrivance to force things back to square one. As such I was surprised that for this one, the filmmakers decided to skip the lessons of the last movie entirely and set us on a new path. Five years have passed since the previous movie, and vikings and dragons are now fully integrated together, with viking warriors sailing into battle on the backs of assorted flying lizards. Far from being the outcast nerd of the previous film, only grudgingly listened to by his father and ignored by the macho warrior vikings, Hiccup (Baruchel) commences this film as something of a village hero, the prospective successor to his father Stoick the Vast (Butler), whose words are given weight by those around him and who has been given license to indulge in his love of contraptions and inventions, including several actually inventive designs (it's hard to go wrong with a flaming sword). Rather than having to relearn the same lessons as the last movie and once more embark on proving his worth to the community at large, this film deals with Hiccup's actual limits, be they of his ideals or of his ability to improvise his way out of bad scrapes. As in Brave, I do occasionally find it refreshing in a film when a hotheaded young protagonist defies all convention and goes off on his own to set things right only to discover that the conventions in question existed for a reason, and while this movie certainly isn't about the death of ambition or anything so weighty, it does recognize that hopes and dreams are not always enough in the face of determined, fanatical violence. But what struck me the most was simply that the characters have been permitted to grow, to age even, up from teenagers to young adults for the majority of the cast, and their behavior to change to match. There's a tad bit less awkwardness, a bit more maturity even to the absurd adventuring, just hints of alterations from the last time, all without falling into the trap of sitting down and explaining to the audience just why people are acting differently. Even Stoick, the villain (sort of) of the last film, has been permitted permanent change, and one of the better character moments of the entire affair is a sequence halfway through when, confronted with an earth-shattering revelation, the entire cast waits for him to explode with viking outrage, only for him to do nothing of the sort.

Things Havoc disliked: It's a kids' film guys, you have to accept certain things as given. One of these things is that the climax is going to be a bit rushed, as kids do not have the patience for lingering on dark and dour cruelties for as long as us jaded adults do. I don't mind, really, as I think some movies (the Batman films for instance) go way too far to the other direction, but it's true that things get awful convenient by the end when it comes time to claw back from the inevitable nadir to the inevitable triumph. This was true of Frozen and it's true of this film as well, so perhaps it's just an element of the genre.

What is not an element of the genre though is an unfocused script, and How to Train Your Dragon 2 (god that title is long) has one, while its predecessor did not. Part of the problem is that the plot is more central to this film than it was to the last one. The first film had a plot, of sorts, but the plot was really kept in the background, as the focus of the film was Hiccup and Toothless (and to an extent Astrid), which allowed the movie to focus quite closely on these characters and their relationship as it evolved. I understand changing that this time, as said relationship has been established, but the problem really is that those elements brought in to replace that laser-like focus are not, by themselves, that compelling. Characters such as Velka (Blanchett) are the occasion for several striking images and set-pieces, but don't actually have a lot to do with anything, nor are their relationships with our main characters explored all that much. A similar problem bedevils Eret, played by Jon Snow himself, Kit Harington, who, and I hope you'll forgive me, knows nothing, particularly not what his role in the film is supposed to be. Yes, the movie does play around a bit with his "stern brooding young badass" archetype, mostly by turning him into eye candy for the female supporting cast (why not), but nobody, probably not even the little kids whom this film is intended for, can possibly fail to realize what his character arc is likely to be within minutes of encountering him, nor is that obligatory character arc actually important insofar as the film goes. Not every character in every film needs to be plot-critical of course, but there has to be some reason to have them in it, and the reasoning for several of these additions is specious to the point of invisibility. They're not bad characters, nor are they badly voiced or animated, nor do they interact badly with the rest of the cast. But they just seem to... sit there. And every moment the movie spends with them is a moment they're not spending with the characters we came here to see.

Final thoughts:  I don't want to make this sound like a bigger problem than it is, because the base fact is that How to Train Your Dragon 2 is an excellent film, funny, high-tempo, well-written, and gorgeous to look upon and hear. Is it as good as its predecessor? No, but then what sequel ever is (besides Godfather and Hunger Games and Hobbit and Captain America and oh shut up!)? The original film was a masterpiece, and if this movie is slightly off the mark insofar as those things go, it's not the end of the world, nor is it a reason to skip a film that is, in almost every way, a superbly-crafted animated piece. With Pixar having fallen off the wagon, it's good to see the other players in the realm of animation stepping in to compensate, but then that should be no surprise, as the nature of major American film, irrespective of genre, has always been thus. If Pixar returns to the superb-quality work that they were famous for even three or four years ago, then so much the better. And if not, there is always someone else. One studio falls. Another steps forth and takes its place.

Such is Hollywood.

Final Score:  8/10

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

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