Film Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Stoking the Dragon-fires, this soaring sequel succeeds in surpassing its predecessor.

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This followup to Dreamworks’ breakout hit builds upon the interesting characters and story-world of the original.  Charting into untapped territory, Hiccup and Toothless break out of the cramped drama of the first film and explore the more exciting world beyond their island of Berk.  Expansive character building and a more epic scale provide the perfect setting for the film to spread its wings and craft an engaging coming-of-age story.  It keeps focus on its hero, though to the detriment of the remarkable new characters established.

The second How to grows beyond the necessary exposition of the first film.  Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) now stands at the top of the ranks, expected to take responsibility for the city – a task for which he does not feel prepared.  However, this decision takes a backseat as he comes across a long-forgotten foe threatening both his clan and his dragon allies.  Caught up in the battle, Hiccup must decide the best approach to deal with the threat, while discovering the identity of the mysterious Dragon Rider who appears out of the clouds.

Having already established the narrative universe and reconciled the simplistic “Us versus Them” plot in its predecessor, the sequel explores the larger world, focusing on Hiccup’s development as a leader and his relationships with fellow dragon pilots.  At the beginning, Jay Baruchel’s voice does not fit his new armor-clad image: an element smartly utilized to demonstrate his transition as a leader as he grows out of the voice and into the role as the film progresses.  Far superior to that of his first adventure, Hiccup’s journey examines not only becoming a commanding leader, but also one with a discerning mind. This is put to the test by an excellently performed Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), whose scheme both introduces a new depth to the dragon hierarchy and adds an undesired twinge of ethnocentric embattlement.

Furthermore, the newly introduced Dragon Rider is an interesting character, bringing a great twist to Hiccup’s world.  However, she is disappointingly underutilized, failing to live up to her established fighting proficiency when it is needed most.  Ultimately sitting out the climatic battles, she becoming another damsel for Hiccup to save, only finding purpose after the main conflict is resolved.  Thus, sequel follows the original: building strong female characters before having them to do nothing, allowing the male protagonist to achieve his due glory.

Despite a few unfortunate decisions of gender and ethnic stagnations, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the story this narrative world deserves.  Director Dean Dublois again proves he knows how to make an adorable creature relatable, and paces the movie well.  The film provides an engaging thrill ride that feels epic as one would expect from a story about dragon-riding vikings.  Hiccup’s journey is well designed, inviting the viewer to connect their own struggles with his high-flying capers. An appealing adventure flick, Dreamworks has yet again aimed high and landed snuggly amongst the clouds.

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https://www.howtotrainyourdragon.com/movies/how-to-train-your-dragon-2

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Film Review: The Boxtrolls

Delightful, The Boxtrolls packs a joyful thrill-ride into a short package.

Image from Collider.com
Image from Collider.com

This latest entry from Laika, makers of Coraline and ParaNorman, feels right at home delivering childish merriment with serious undertones.  Techniques have improved in the art of stop-motion filmmaking and this crew is at the top of their game.  Arriving at the slump of blockbuster season, Boxtrolls performed respectably its first weekend against falling incumbent Maze Runner and the Denzil Washington vehicle The Equalizer, reminding box office buffs that holiday season with its family-oriented audiences is right around the corner.

As is their fashion, Laika tell the tale of a pair of children misunderstood by their elders.  The city of Cheesebridge is beset by a nocturnal gang of villains, the titular Boxtrolls.  A none-too-subtle picture of class segregation sets the backdrop for Archibald Snatcher’s (Ben Kingsley) bid to join the upper crust.  He begins his campaign after a young boy is abducted by the Boxtrolls and he vows to eradicate the pests for a coveted White Hat and a seat at the top table.  Years on we find, unsurprisingly, that the Boxtrolls are in fact lovable little scamps surviving and thriving under the city streets recycling the citizens’ refuse and making fantastic machines with it.  All comes to a head when the boy, know as the Trubshaw Baby or subterraneanly as Egg (Isaac Wright), meets the daughter of Cheesebridge’s mayor, Winnie (Elle Fanning), and the race to save the vanishing Boxtrolls is on.

Boxtrolls provides a wonderful return to the simplistic designs of children’s pictures, while not being didactic enough to alienate the parental audience.  The narrative is tightly packed, bordering on too short, but delivers plenty of fun in its brief runtime.  Moreover, it is a story about Fatherhood – presenting a clear definition midway through for what that role entails and then supporting that ideology with a pair of counterexamples, though sadly missing the opportunity to laud the lovable surrogate dad.  A touch on the nose, it represents a message rarely spoken so outrightly in a Hollywood flick.

The film excels with the characters it builds and the casting behind it.  Isaac Wright makes a stunning debut voicing Egg;  Kingsley turns in an unrecognizable performance buried in the character of Snatcher.  Supporting characters are lovingly played up by the hilarious trio of Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, and Tracy Morgan.  Mainly though, Elle Fanning shines as a relatable Winnie, who despite appearing like a cross between Veruca Mark and Darla Dimple, wins our hearts with ease.

Coming from Graham Annabelle, personally a favorite artist, and Anthony Stacchi, The Boxtrolls is sweet as a bright piece of cheese.  The taste strikes the palette, lingers just long enough, then settles back into a refreshing flavor at the back of your tongue.  Delightfully witty and heartwarming, this latest work solidifies the notion that Laika is at the top of the stop-motion game.  A delicious watch for parents and children alike, Boxtrolls is one not to see on a small screen.

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http://www.theboxtrolls.com

Film Review: Ernest & Celestine

Delightfully charming, this Oscar podium-placer is a worthwhile watch for audiences of all ages.

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Once again, the animators of France and Belgium prove that the hard work of animating the old way can pay off in a beautiful work of art.  Les Armateurs and La Parti Productions have put together a watercolor dream of childhood fairytale.  The fanciful imagery perfectly pairs with the simple story and tinker-toy piano score, bottling up childhood innocence in a vision straight off the canvas of a Parisian street artist.

Ernest & Celestine is born of a children’s book series – the Paddington Bear or Winnie the Pooh of some French-speaking countries.  It is centered around societal misfits Celestine, a young orphaned mouse whose vision of the world belies a worldly wisdom beyond her handful of years, and Ernest, a world-weary bear who prefers solitude and slumber to community and hard work.  These two “fish-out-of-watercolor” find themselves more and more at odds with their societies and when their paths cross, a strong friendship is born around dodging police, making art, and their combined love of life.

How much more charming could a film be?   This movie’s optimism bleeds out through the art style and wraps the viewer in a warm blanket of comfort and hope.  The painted imagery is magical – both rough and elegant at the same time, capturing a pair of dark societies in light of the love underlying.   Furthermore, Forest Whitaker and Mackenzie Foy are perfectly cast as the big lovable bear and smart, adorable mouse, blending their talents flawlessly into the characters.  The film employs an excellent use of parallel storytelling, swapping back and forth between the two heroes as their journey plays out.  Only the rapid pacing and seemingly slapdash race to bring the plot together at the end detract from this otherwise charming picture.

Ernest & Celestine fits right in amongst the company of The Triplets of Belleville or My Neighbor Totoro, landing the same Oscar nomination as its Les Armateurs sister-film, in fact.  Though not possessing the sociological depth of competitor The Wind Risesthe film transcends the culture that produced it with broad appeal to audiences the world over.  The painstaking effort to produce this hand-painted animated flick would be worth picking up for a delectable banquet for the eyes.   Thankfully, Ernest & Celestine provides both a beautiful spectacle of color and an enchanting tale young and old can, and should, thoroughly enjoy.

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http://www.ernestandcelestine.com

Film Review: To the Wonder

Hard to imagine that Terrence Malick could create something so over-structured as a followup to his masterful Tree of Life – the formula does not always fit.

Castle

My abiding respect for Terrence Malick grows with each of his cinematic entries I devour.  However, this latest offering by the ethereal auteur lacks the powerful connection of his preceding cinematic canon.  To the Wonder browbeats – overly dictated in structure, presenting everything on the nose with less clarity – and meanders far less gracefully than its predecessors.

More linear than its spiritual and chronological forerunner Tree of Life, this film orients on a cross-continental romance.  Neil (Affleck) lives in France, courting radiant beauty Marina (Kurylenko) and her little gatekeeper, Tatiana.  There, they wander city and countryside, accompanied by the effervescent narration of mademoiselle’s ponderings on “amore”.

As the relationship progresses, the three travel to the American Midwest, where Neil works.  Here the film shifts to examine his perspective on the relationship, walking a thin line between tenderness and aggression.  Interspersed are sidebars: the experiences of Tatiana, observing her famille mélangé and assimilating with local students; and the journey of a priest battling doubt – examining the deistic side of love.  Questions of nationality, mercy, and loyalty are tested in a couple’s microcosm of love in all its facets.

Whereas Tree of Life uses non-linear narrative and emphasis on themes to erect an engrossing examination of existence and ultimate purpose, this followup suffers from simplicity of theme and disjointed structure.  Love is an interesting topic, but is handled as a stepped progression of morals rather than a freeform observation of the whole.

Occasionally it flows with non-narrative rhythms that direct viewers towards contemplation, only to be routed by overbearing plot transitioning to the next aspect.  For instance, the Mont Saint-Michel sequence drips of Malick’s unique sense for location and natural metaphor, which is then crammed through an Act break – loudly revealing the questions and motifs being raised.  Whereas Tree of Life found ways to maintain the natural progression and believability of everyday life, To the Wonder‘s moments feel contrived and created.

Save for the wonderful Javier Bardem as Father Quintana and the mystical depth of Olga Kurylenko, the other characters flounder solo.  Affleck turns in an appropriately distant performance for a male Malick protagonist, but moments away from Kurylenko reveal the woodenness he is sometimes known for.  And while the work of Tatiana Chiline is respectable, she is underutilized – failing to compare to her spiritual older brother, Hunter McCracken.

Ultimately To the Wonder falls short, rushed to follow up the success of Malick’s Oscar nomination the previous year.  Poised on the edge of brilliance like Tree of Life – rustic and thematic in all the right ways – the film chokes under a firm plot.  Perhaps this spells the end of motif non-narratives from Malick, as his next work shows promise to highlight character development similar to prior work.  All the better for him, and all the better for his work.

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http://www.magpictures.com/tothewonder/

E3 2014: Day 1 Wrap-Up

e3-future

**UPDATE**

It seems I spoke too rashly!  Nintendo brought a very fun and exciting conference which perfectly addressed everything people wanted to see from them.  By integrating the Robot Chicken sketches, they showed their intentionality in connecting to hardcore gamers as well as their typical casual markets.  And they presented or teased practically everything people wanted to hear about – Smash Bros innovations, new and promising uses for the Wii U, the new open world Zelda, a few new IPs, no mention of Pikmen (thank God!), and what has been revealed to be a first teaser that Star Fox is on the way.  Perhaps because my expectations were so low, Nintendo so thoroughly shocked me and got me excited for the future of their company, despite several recent pratfalls financially.  E3 2014 goes to Nintendo!

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The time is upon us again.  Every year, E3 rolls around and delivers the most incredible innovations in the video gaming market, the best new IPs, and a glimpse at the future of the tech industry as a whole.  For years I have maintained that interactive media is the way of the future and this E3 helped me feel confident saying it for another year.

Each year, questions fly about what games will surface, what new hardware will be debuted, and the ever present question: who will win the conference.  This year I had the very distinct privilege of having a day off to sit on my couch with a nice cup of coffee and live-Tweet all four press conferences of day one.  Not nearly as glamorous as being there, I know, but I was able to enjoy each showing in turn and critique them for the how well they presented their case.  Below are the detailed analysis of each contributors strengths and failings, which I hope you’ll enjoy.

Microsoft

The biggest question I had coming into this E3 was how would Microsoft bounce back from their floundering performance last year, in which they spent more time backtracking and promoting non-gamer focused materials.  This year, they came prepared and brought it straight to Sony’s front door, keeping a laser-guided focus on gaming and challenging the thus-far lackluster lineup for the Playstation 4.

Skipping the expected announcement of the Kinect-less Xbox One, Phil Spencer set the bar early, claiming they would focus on the entirety of their time on games.  And they showed off an incredible lineup of games coming up very soon.  Sunset Overdrive in particular showed some fascinating promise, as did the now four player Co-op Assassin’s Creed Unity.  As well, the introduction of Halo Master Chief Collection and more Halo 5 Guardians information came with the interesting focus on keeping things “exactly as they launched ten years ago.”  If anything could be said to have been odd or a poor choice, it would be the surprise announcement that Conkers will make his return in Dev-friendly Project Spark.

Overall, the team at Microsoft gambled on gamers and came up in a big way, setting the bar high.  Focusing on Co-op gameplay and “dedicated servers”, and maintaining a good blend of cinematic trailers and gameplay demos, Microsoft hit the perfect tone for the audience in front of them.  They started the conference on the right note and reminded everyone (rather than Being reminded themselves) that this is a gaming conference.  A solid, if not entirely spectacular, start.

EA

Electronic Arts, to this reviewer at least, disappoints consistently year in, year out.  It seems like they always miss the mark, and I for one attribute this to one simple idea:  they do not think about who they are talking to.

Gamers came into this press conference hoping to hear about three titles, and three titles only.  Instead of focusing on these consumer desires, EA opened their show by breezing past Star Wars: Battlefront 3 and diving straight into their sports staples.  Then later, they gave the much anticipated Mirror’s Edge 2 the same rapid, blow-by treatment, showing nothing new or titillating for the DICE title.  EA finally got their act together when they ended their show on the leaked Battlefield: Hardline.  At long last, they showed off a very interesting looking game that leads the franchise into new and better directions from the Brown, Military Shooter.  Whether one could say that a heist destroying skyscrapers and freeways haphazardly leads the series into more “realistic” material, I leave up to debate.

However, the one thing that maintains from year to year is the myriad of micro-technical adjustments to their licensed sports games.  This year was particularly egregious because early on, Brian Hayes of the UFC15 unwittingly set a tone of separation between sports fans and gamers, implying that gamers could live out their best sports fantasies “Virtually, of course” – a slight suggesting our inability to do so in real life.  Very subtly, this turned the conversation from “join us in this fun thing” to a reminder of stereotypes wedging the gamer and jock subgroups.

It did not help that EA spent the rest of they conference focusing on Sports and trying to reach sports fans.  Every year, EA misses a perfect opportunity to reach the audience in front of them.  Instead of talking about how important Defense is to football players.  Why not show wireframe models colliding with each other to highlight the technical development of the new material?  Why not focus the technically minded audience on the technical side of their new games?

If I can say anything for them, I will give them credit for their bizarrely strong focus on Development teams.  Instead of talking about the games, they focused on devs – Star Wars: Battlefront team traveling and checking out old props (instead of making the game); DICE new office in Mirror’s Edge 2 trailer (instead of making the game); Bioware not saying ANYTHING AT ALL about the new Mass Effect and whatever their new IP is (instead of making the game).  That’s it.  The abrupt, air-cannon ending was the best part of the conference because it signaled the folly was over.

Ubisoft

Balls-to-the-wall as usual, Ubisoft kicked down the door with plenty of swearing and wackiness to spare, suffering only from the tonal undulation required from having such a varied clientele.  They showed off some incredible games, demoed some exciting IP’s, and tried out some interesting new ideas.

Ubisoft captured the essence of the conference by remembering something that EA forgot:  E3 is a gaming convention.  They came out strong with a new introduction to Far Cry 4, laying out a fascinating game world that is sure to be fun.  From their, they kept the focus solidly on games and gameplay, showcasing their wide range of projects, from Assassin’s Creed Unity to Just Dance 2015, and the surprise reveal of Rainbow Six: Siege.

However, as usual, this did lead to some awkward moments.  Because Ubisoft creates games not only for the deeply committed gamer, but also for the casual gaming market, tone and mood were rapidly shaken by things like the Just Dance performance, followed by serious focus on The Division.  Worse than that, it seemed a massive misstep to spend so much time highlighting their Shape Up.  While the effort made sense and seemed to fit well with the Just Dance audience, and I certainly see the influence of the recently dictionary-inducted “gamification”, but it came off as pandering to the gamer audience.

Despite this, they clearly showed up ready to play and brought it big time.  With awesome new games and a good balance of new and sequelled IPs, Ubisoft provided another fun conference which makes me excited for their coming lineup.

Sony

Capping off the first day was Sony, and it was clear that it was theirs to win or lose.  They needed to provide some big showstoppers on top of a solid lineup in order to edge out their Xbox rivals.  And bring it they did, but was it enough?

Someone with Sony made the right call by focusing on the biggest concern for the new Playstation 4 – the opening line up of games has been decent but not spectacular and the wellspring had seemed to run dry until 2015.  Yet, from the get-go, Sony came out with a list of PS4/Vita exclusives that range from immediate release to late this year and a few that show the bright future ahead of the 8th gen console.  Of special note is the remastering of DoubleFine’s classic Grim Fandango which drew the loudest applause of the day.

However, as the show entered it’s second half, Sony turned its focus towards hardware and there things began to slip.  Andrew House showed up and spend a beautifully short time reminding us about Project Morpheus.  But then he turned it over to Sony America CEO Shawn Layden – a man who talked like a gamer but whose every statement (and $3000 suit) oozed of business mentality.  And when he started talking about Free to Play games as “free”, I knew we were in trouble.

While I don’t think any individual unveiling was poor or uninteresting, it was simply too much with too little focus.  The PSN, PSNow, and PSTV announcements could each have been cut down to spend half as much time on them without losing any information, and worse yet was the misguided floundering of the Powers announcement.  Brian Michael Bendis could not have appeared more like a Hollywood Fat Cat, not a wise choice for a crowd that had just been cheering for indie developer Hello Games fascinating new IP No Man’s Sky.  And no matter how jazzed I was to see my favorite game franchise, Ratchet & Clank, turned big screen, that could not make up for the horribly avoidable mistake of entirely spoiling Last of Us for generations of audiences.

Further, while we saw some of the best gameplay demos, including Far Cry 4 and Batman Arkham Knight, we also saw very little of several large IPs that gamers came hoping to hear about – namely Metal Gear Solid 5: Phantom Pain and The Order 1886.  Both of these received very limited trailer which did not show much more than what we already knew.

However, with clear focus on “Dev-otion” and using fan feedback to improve their produced content, Sony presented a solid (though loose) conference and ended on the high note of debuting the full reveal of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.  They did a great job amping up their fans, presenting another well-rounded yet not extraordinary conference.

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Wrap-Up

Overall, it was a much stronger showing than last year all around.  Both of the Big 2 came in with reasons to celebrate and swinging strong.  The two distributors showed as expected, though the content they brought to the table was above average to begin with.  When looking over the spectrum of games coming up over the next two years, one can only be excited for the myriad of possibilities out there.

However, someone has to win, and ultimately, because of their strong showing, their great lineup of games, and their focused presentation, I have to concede this years E3 Day One to Microsoft.  Sony simply wandered to much in the middle and failed to produce the knockout blow to put them over the edge.  And while Nintendo is just moments away from presenting their conference, ask yourself: When was the last time they won an E3?

E3 is well underway and it kicked off with a marvelous first day.  I look forward to Nintendo’s showing here soon.  Enjoy the rest of E3 2014 and let me know what you thought of all four press conferences today!

Film Review: Captain America – The Winter Soldier

A decent toss from the Marvel Cap, but it feels more like a midseason episode than a standalone feature film.

WinterSoldier

A polished and structured entry into the popular Superhero film genre, Captain America: The Winter Soldier suggests that the Marvel phases are reaching the peak of the Bel Curve and are beginning to rely on their own internal structure more than a single entry can handle.  Though it possesses a brilliantly chosen tone and performances which raise the bar, the film dilutes its suspense with a secret everyone knew and stakes that flounder on their own.

The Winter Soldier brings Captain America out of the war to end all wars, and drops him straight into the drama of the Cold War.  Starting two years after the events of Avengers, Steve Rogers (Evans) struggles to find purpose in his efforts as he questions his trust of Nick Fury and SHIELD.  Just as his doubts reach a head, a mysterious assassin from the East arises and threatens to take down the whole establishment.  Rogers becomes a fugitive of his own organization when a meeting with Defense Secretary Alexander Pierce (Redford) goes south.  Trust and loyalty are tested as the Captain and Black Widow (Johansson) go on the run to discover the identity of the Winter Soldier and the source of the discord in SHIELD’s ranks.

Born with one of the most open secrets in Superhero movies to date, this film fails to bring normal audiences on a mysterious journey of discovering who the villain is.  The wonderful tension and build up of the political drama forming at SHIELD is dampened by the clunky exposition needed to set up a reveal most came into the film knowing – comic book fan or otherwise.  Further, without the extended reach of this narrative into other films and the Agents of SHIELD television series, the stakes fall rapidly as they become self-contained, leaving the film in the superhero tar pit of knowing the hero will win.

However, the decision to lift the Captain out of his greatest generation and drop him into the suspense of Cold War trust issues and modern day surveillance worries was a brilliant move.  Capitalizing on current technology concerns, the film smartly keeps the Captain in his element while allowing for some Revisionist questions to be asked of the hero organization. Redford gives a wonderful performance, perfectly cast to lend the film credit towards that era’s suspenseful tone.  Further, the integration of Anthony Mackie as the Falcon was tactfully handled and felt organic to the narrative.

Yet, this film ultimately leaves the impression of being episode two in a miniseries, only part of a larger narrative being spelled out as the Marvel Phases.  While a structurally sound film with good performances and decent writing, one cannot help but doubt that it would matter much without its ties to other franchises and mediums, making this reviewer wonder how many people came for the Captain and how many only for the post-credits stingers?

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http://marvel.com/captainamerica#/home