How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World


A dragon and his boy.

(2019) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, America Ferrara, F. Murray Abraham, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, Kit Harrington, Justin Rupple, Robin Atkin Downes, Kieron Elliott, Julia Emelin, Ashley Jensen, AJ Kane, Olafur Darri Ólafsson, James Sie, David Tennant. Directed by Dean DeBlois

 

The DreamWorks animated franchise, based on the children’s books of Cressida Cowell, is neatly wrapped up with a big red bow in a satisfying if unoriginal conclusion. Hiccup (Baruchel) has turned Berk into a kind of sanctuary for dragons, who continue to be hunted down in the rest of the world, but the nefarious Grimmel (Abraham) is out to capture Toothless, Hiccup’s dragon and the alpha male of Berk.

=After a vicious attack brings the island village to its knees, Hiccup – now the leader of his incomprehensibly Scottish Vikings – decides the only way to truly protect the dragons is to lead them to The Hidden World, the place from which all dragon-kind has sprung. With Grimmel hot on their trail, they really have no choice if they are to save the dragons. Nobody’s ever actually been there and most consider it a fairy tale, but hey, this is a cartoon, no?

DeBlois does manage to go out with a bang, as the animation here puts nearly every other animated film to shame. Some of the sequences are actually moving (in a variety of ways) from scenes of sorrow to scenes of intense beauty and everywhere in between. Even jaded parents may well find themselves ooh-ing and ah-ing at the visuals here.

But the movie’s downside is essentially the same issue that has plagued the series from the beginning; a kind of standard plot of Hiccup lacking self-confidence when faced with a big challenge/major baddie and getting the confidence he needs from his buddy Toothless. Hiccup was never really a well-developed character to begin with; he’s fairly one-note and that makes the movie drag somewhat.

Nevertheless, it is gorgeous enough to be worth a family movie night. I’m not a huge fan of the franchise, but I will admit that if you’re going to bring a trilogy to a conclusion, this is the way to do it.

REASONS TO SEE: The strongest animation of the series by far.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels formulaic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is mild rude humor and cartoon action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The three movies in the trilogy were each distributed by different studios; the first one by Paramount, the second by Fox, this one by Universal.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Days of the Whale

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald


An expanding family portrait.

(2018) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Eddie Redmayne, Johnny Depp, Dan Fogler, Zoë Kravitz, Ezra Miller, Alison Sudol, Katherine Waterston, Jude Law, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, David Wilmot, Brontis Jodorowsky, Jessica Williams, Hugh Quarshie, Isaura Barbé-Brown, Victoria Yeates, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Ingvar Sigurdsson, Derek Riddell, Poppy Corby-Tuech. Directed by David Yates

 

The Harry Potter franchise has been nothing short of a cash cow for Warner Brothers. After Harry’s adventures came to an end, we looked forward with some eagerness to the adventures of New Scamander in a prequel of sorts. When Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them became the expected massive hit, the proposed trilogy was expanded into a five-film series.

Heavy on exposition, the second film in the series has turned out to be a bloated mess. The evil wizard Grindelwald (Depp) has escaped from captivity and looks to continue his quest to amass an army to take over the world and rule all muggles. He has seen a vision of the future and it includes a mushroom cloud, so one can hardly blame him there – we muggles certainly made a hash of things.

Newt Scamander (Redmayne) would rather continue to gather magical beasts from around the world but he is under a travel ban until his old teacher Albus Dumbledore (Law) gives him a new quest – to find Creedence (Miller), the emotionally abused young man from the first film. It turns out that the Ministry of Magic is also after him. And so is Grindelwald. Newt, aided by the woman he loves, American auror Tina Goldstein (Waterston), her ditzy sister Queenie (Sudol) and Queenie’s boyfriend (as well as Newt’s buddy from the first film) Jacob the Baker (Fogler) will have to step lively if they are to find the elusive Creedence, who is searching for his past so he may discover truly who and what he is. He is, for all intents and purposes, the crux of the show.

The tone is distinctly darker here, as most second films of fantasy series’ are. J.K. Rowling’s world-building skills are beyond reproach but I get the sense she was trying to accomplish too much with this film; in addition to the main characters from the first film there are also plenty of new ones running around, so much so that it becomes difficult to determine who’s who and what’s what. The movie gets bogged down in plot exposition and character development, eschewing action a little bit too much.

The special effects are wondrous, of course, as you would expect. There are plenty of amazing creature effects here, both CGI and practical. The cast does it’s level best but I got the sense that they, too, were confused by what was going on behind them. The third film, after the disappointing reviews and box office of this film, is being retooled but hopefully it will right the course for the series which has made a most definite misstep.

REASONS TO SEE: The beasties continue to be nifty.
REASONS TO AVOID: Underwhelming performances and plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Newt Scamander’s basement, where he keeps his beasts, was inspired by an M.C. Escher print (Relativity).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews, Metacritic: 52/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eragon
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Mowgli

The Spy Who Dumped Me


Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon shouldn’t need to crawl for anybody.

(2018) Spy Comedy (LionsgateMila Kunis, Kate McKinnon, Justin Theroux, Gillian Anderson, Hassan Minhaj, Ivanna Sakhno, Sam Heughan, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Fred Melamed, Justine Wachsberger, Dustin Demri-Burns, Kev Adams, Mirjam Novak, Jane Curtin, Paul Reiser, James Fleet, Carolyn Pickles, Tom Stourton, Lolly Adefope, Ruby Kammer. Directed by Susanna Fogel

 

Getting dumped is a bummer. Then again, getting shot at by assassins who are after your ex because he’s really a spy – something that apparently didn’t come up in conversation. Then, having to complete his last mission by flying to Vienna with a plastic trophy to give to some mysterious figure…not cool.

But that’s what happens to Audrey (Kunis) whose boyfriend (Theroux) had already 86ed her by the time the movie starts. Audrey’s less-than-responsible friend Morgan (McKinnon) tries to cheer Audrey up to no avail but when the rubber hits the road – and the bullets start to fly – she’s got her bestie’s back.

Buddy spy movies have been done both on the big screen and small over the years although distaff versions are rare indeed, so writer-director Fogel gets points for that. She also gets points for casting Kunis, a gifted comedic actress who takes a fairly colorless character and makes her relatable, no easy task. However, she completely wastes McKinnon, so effective on Saturday Night Live who hasn’t really found a role on the big screen that really captures her talents well. Here, Morgan is extremely overbearing but not in a funny way and in fact so much so that we end up wondering why Audrey would want to hang out with her.

Then again, Morgan is at least a loyal friend and that’s not always an easy trait to find, so there’s that. There are some halfway decent action sequences – some which are unusually bloody for this genre. Sadly, the plot is kinda predictable too. The relationship between Morgan and Audrey, as well as Kunis’ screen charm are what save this film. Otherwise it’s one of those you might well see only if you’re bored and stoned out of your mind.

REASONS TO SEE: Kunis does her best considering the material
REASONS TO AVOID: McKinnon is overbearing
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, some crude sexual material, graphic nudity and pervasive profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McKinnon once won a Halloween costume contest by dressing up as Scully, Gillian Anderson’s character from The X-Files.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews: Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spy
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Overlord

The BFG (2016)


This is giant country.

This is giant country.

(2016) Family (Disney) Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Adam Godley, Michael David Adamthwaite, Daniel Bacon, Jonathan Holmes, Chris Gibbs, Paul Moritz de Sa, Marilyn Norry, Callum Seagram Airlie, Haig Sutherland, Shauna Hansen, Denise Jones, Gabrielle Rose. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

What dreams may come are the ones that spark our imaginations and inspire our journeys. No matter how small and insignificant we are, our dreams make giants of us all.

Sophie (Barnhill) is a level-headed young girl living in a London orphanage. Her life is a dull routine of rules (that she routinely breaks) and drudgery. Her only joy comes after everyone is in bed asleep. She then finds books to read, that transport her out of her dreary surroundings to places of luxury, adventure and excitement.

One night, she spies a giant man (Rylance) striding through London. Unfortunately, he spots her and so he plucks her out of her bed and carries her home with him to Giant Country. There, Sophie discovers that her Giant is a gentle one, so she names him (since he has no name) BFG, standing for Big Friendly Giant. She also discovers that there are nine other much larger giants who bully BFG and who are not so nice; they eat human flesh (BFG turns out to be a vegetarian) and are always hungry. They also have figured out how to travel to our world, where they pluck little children away from their homes and eat them. They’re led by the water-phobic Fleshlumpeater (Clement) and include such worthies as Bloodbottler (Hader) and Maidmasher (Olafsson).

The BFG also has an important function; every night while the Giants sleep, he strides over to Dream Country where on a gigantic tree dreams are formed. He captures the dreams (which flit around like multi-colored fireflies) and stores them, eventually making his nightly rounds in London to give people the dreams he’s caught. It’s a very taxing job but one that the BFG seems well-suited for.

Despite being 24 feet tall, the BFG is actually a runt as far as the other giants are concerned (they are at least double his height) and he is bullied endlessly, used as a bowling ball. Sophie knows that the bad giants must be stopped and the only one who can do it is the Queen of England (Wilton) which shows that Sophie can use a lot of work in her civics lessons.

Spielberg alone other than maybe Walt Disney understands how to tap in to the wonder and magic that children see the world as. His movies are classics that understand how to access the child in all of us; what made E.T. such an indelible classic is that he first of all doesn’t talk down to children, nor does he surround the kids in his movies with incompetent, bumbling adults. In fact, he gives credit to kids much more than a lot of the family film makers of the 21st century do.

Some were hoping that this would be a return to E.T. inasmuch as he was using the Amblin Entertainment team that was largely responsible for the iconic 1982 hit. The mood is a bit darker here, although Spielberg remains a master of evoking wonder – the dream tree sequence is vintage Spielberg. However, this isn’t to the level of some of his more beloved work.

Part of why that is may have to do with the difference in my age in Spielberg’s golden years and now. Perhaps I’m just being more of a curmudgeon, but I found myself getting annoyed with the BFG’s constant malapropisms and bizarre words (“figglers” instead of fingers, “strawbucklers” instead of strawberries) that make him sound like he has some sort of severe mental illness.

Barnhill’s character also rubs me the wrong way. She’s been getting much critical praise for her performance, but quite frankly I just felt…annoyed by her. It’s not that she’s doing anything particularly wrong as an actress and the character is, I suppose, well within the parameters that we should expect our plucky British heroines to be. She just felt condescending and sort of twee. I just felt like I’d just had a thousand Pixie Stix poured down my throat at once whenever she was onscreen.

Don’t get me wrong; there is every reason to go see this movie this summer and to take the family with you. Flawed or not, this is still Steven Spielberg and he knows how to make an entertaining movie that inspires amazement. This isn’t his best work, but his less-than-stellar efforts blow nearly everybody out of the water. There is also the possibility that I simply have outgrown him and that might be the most horrible contemplation of all.

REASONS TO GO: It does have plenty of charm and imagination.
REASONS TO STAY: The giant-speak gets incredibly annoying as does Barnhill’s plucky kid performance.
FAMILY VALUES: The very young may find this a bit frightening; otherwise there’s just some mildly rude humor to contend with.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the last produced screenplay by Melissa Matheson prior to her passing away in late 2015. The film is dedicated to her memory.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Iron Giant
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Happening

A Walk Among the Tombstones


No more cracks about being too old for this.

No more cracks about being too old for this.

(2014) Mystery (Universal) Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Boyd Holbrook, Adam David Thompson, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Sebastian Roche, Danielle Rose Russell, Natia Dune, David Anzuelo, Whitney Able, Maurice Compte, Laura Birn, Razane Jammal, Eric Nelsen, Frank De Julio, Mark Consuelos, Marielle Heller, Novella Nelson. Directed by Scott Frank

They don’t make ’em like Sam Spade anymore. Or Lew Archer. Or Philip Marlowe. Or Humphrey Bogart for that matter. Noir detectives – hard bitten, hard drinking tough guys who were often knights in tarnished armor, strong men with stronger codes. Life has kicked the crap out of them – it’s a dog eat dog world after all – but if the weak or the helpless are threatened, well, get ready for a fight.

Matt Scudder (Neeson) is a throwback to those kinds of guys. He used to be a hard-bitten hard-drinking tough guy on the NYPD until a particularly bad day at the office. These days – which happen to be 1999 – he’s an unlicensed private investigator which he describes as “Sometimes I do people favors. Sometimes they give me gifts.”

He’s not too picky about his clientele. When Peter Kristo (Holbrook), who attends AA meetings with Matt, approaches him on behalf of his brother Kenny (Stevens), Matt is wary at first. Kenny is a drug dealer whose wife Carrie (Jammal) was kidnapped. Finding her isn’t the problem – Kenny’s already found her. In pieces. After he paid the ransom.

This doesn’t sit well with him. He wants the guys who did it found and brought to him, preferably alive. Matt doesn’t want any part of a revenge killing – until he hears the audio tape the killers left for Kenny. Once he hears that he’s all in.

As he investigates he discovers that Carrie Kristo wasn’t the first victim and she’s probably not going to be the last. His investigations take him to a graveyard groundskeeper (Olafsson) who found the first body and to the seamy side of New York. He is assisted by TJ (Bradley), a tough-talking African-American street kid who wants to be a P.I. just like in the books he’s read at the public library where he essentially hangs out all the time. However, the killers (Harbour, Thompson) have selected another victim and this time she’s a true innocent. Time is running out.

The movie is based on the tenth in a series of 17 (and counting) books by crime author Lawrence Block. The fifth, 8 Million Ways to Die, was brought to the silver screen back in 1986 with Jeff Bridges taking on the Scudder role. I haven’t seen that one in ages (it used to be in regular rotation on cable) but I do appreciate Neeson’s take on the role better; he conveys the inner darkness of the character much better.

Frank, who exhibited a good deal of potential in the thriller genre with the Joseph Gordon-Levitt film The Lookout continues to impress at his ability to deliver that dark, noir-ish mood while keeping the movie essentially modern despite its setting of 15 years ago. The Y2K undercurrent seems a bit quaint these days – and boy does it bring back memories.

This is definitely Neeson’s film and he carries it with both dignity and toughness. He’s the kind of guy who will punch a guy through a glass window but will buy a street urchin pancakes. He’s made some awful, awful choices in his life and other people have paid for some of his mistakes. He’s trying the straight and narrow but he seems to exist mostly in the grey area between there and the dark and lawless. Neeson is the perfect choice for Scudder.

Now about TJ. Let me first give full disclosure by asserting that I haven’t read any of the books in the series. The character of TJ is introduced in the ninth book in the series. I have read elsewhere that he doesn’t appear in this particular installment. Quite frankly, I found his presence unnecessary and distracting. During the climax of the movie, the character commits the cardinal kid sin by going exactly to the wrong place at the wrong time to be in the most peril. It derailed the movie for me and made me want to find the nearest wall and bang my head against it. Sorry guys, but this cliche is older than the original noir pics and it was just as unwelcome back then. The young actor that plays TJ is engaging – but again, it seems kind of gimmicky and unnecessary to have him in the movie.

There are some really great moments in the movie – sadly several of them are on display in the trailer. There would have been some franchise potential here although the box office numbers sadly don’t seem to justify it so chances are this is the last of Matt Scudder we’re going to see for awhile. I have to say I’m glad to see that noir films are making a bit of a comeback with this and the much better Cold in July both hitting the multiplex this year. Now if we could only get screwball comedies to make a comeback.

REASONS TO GO: Neeson perfect as the brooding action anti-hero. Grim and gritty.
REASONS TO STAY: The TJ character completely unnecessary and gets in the way.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some pretty intense violence, themes and images, sexuality and brief nudity and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ruth Wilson was cast as Matt Scudder’s partner Joe Durkin (male in the book) but director Scott Frank felt that the character was essentially a loner and a partner would only confuse things, so the role was eliminated and all the scenes filmed with Wilson were cut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Se7en
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Maze Runner

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)


Walter Mitty doesn't exactly stand out in a crowd.

Walter Mitty doesn’t exactly stand out in a crowd.

(2013) Adventure (20th Century Fox) Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Adrian Martinez, Patton Oswalt, Jonathan C. Daly, Terence Bernie Hines, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Gunnar Helgason, Kai Lennox, Conan O’Brien, Andy Richter, Haroon Nawabi, Marcus Antturi, Paul Fitzgerald, Grace Rex. Directed by Ben Stiller

There is a real difference between the lives we lead and the lives we lead in our heads. In our own worlds, we’re beautiful, smart, popular, courageous, daring, heroic and irresistible to our preferred sex. We are saviors of the weak and protectors of the helpless.

For Walter Mitty (Stiller) the disconnect is more than most. He is a shy and somewhat socially clumsy man who works at Life Magazine as a negative assets manager (i.e. he is in charge of the negatives of the photographs for the iconic magazine) and often his daydreams stop him dead in his tracks. His sister (Hahn) calls it zoning out.

Walter crushes on the lovely Cheryl Melhoff (Wiig), recently hired in the accounting department but is too unselfconfident to approach her. What’s worse is that Life is about to be shut down, as announced by the somewhat petty transition manager (Scott) who also says the very last issue will have a cover photo by the magazine’s most famous photographer, Sean O’Connell (Penn). The problem is that the negative for the cover isn’t with the rest of O’Connell’s submissions.

O’Connell, a rootless sort who travels the world looking for that perfect shot isn’t exactly easy to get hold of – he doesn’t even own a cell phone (the teenagers in the audience couldn’t believe their ears). So the only way to get that cover for the last issue is to go out there and fine the reclusive photographer. However that’s easier said than done. The only clues to Sean’s whereabouts lay in the galley sheet of the same set of photos as the missing negative and those clues are pretty vague at best.

While ostensibly based on the beloved James Thurber short story of the same name, the title, the lead character and his daydreaming conceit are basically all that the short story and this movie have in common. Thurber’s short story is much darker in tone and even the Danny Kaye version from 1947 which wasn’t all that much of a match for the short story either was much less uplifting than the Ben Stiller interpretation. It’s all about seizing the day and living life while you still can.

Stiller is a likable enough lead and he has just enough schlubbiness to invest the characters he normally plays with a kind of underdog situation and that is true here as well. Walter is a good-hearted sort who doesn’t have enough go-getter in him to fill a thimble. He is well-liked but not well-respected if you get my drift. People dismiss him as a hopeless dreamer. Stiller fills this role well.

Veteran Shirley MacLaine makes a rare but welcome screen appearance as Walter’s mom but isn’t really given a lot to do – still, she’s always worth the added effort to see her. Comic Patton Oswalt also puts in an appearance as an eHarmony phone representative (mostly we hear his voice in phone conversations) and I’m reminded at how good he can be onscreen as he was in the Charlize Theron black comedy Young Adult.

Stiller the director also makes some interesting moves, nicely going from reality to fantasy and uses graphics within the film to advance the story. It’s a visually clever film. The soundtrack is awfully nice to with Swedish indie artist Jose Gonzalez supplying songs. So why didn’t I like this movie more?

The movie lacked soul, in my opinion, which is a different thing than heart which it has a lot of. I just didn’t get that spark of joy that the film should have produced. Sure one roots for Walter to find Sean and to get the girl but there are too many cliché moves and not enough genuine passion to make the movie more memorable. That’s not to say that it isn’t a pleasant diversion – you can do worse than to spend your entertainment dollar on Walter Mitty. It just let me down a bit so I feel justified in rating it perhaps lower than I would have liked given the source material and the talent involved.

The overall message of doing instead of dreaming is a tricky one to navigate. There is nothing wrong with dreaming big – every action begins as a dream more or less – but it shouldn’t happen at the expense of living life to the fullest. Not all of us can get on a plane to the middle of nowhere and embark on an epic adventure but that doesn’t mean we can’t embark on the epic adventures that are already around us.

REASONS TO GO: Inventive use of graphics and effects. Always a joy to see MacLaine.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks spark.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of crude language and some action violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the fishing boat lands in Iceland, Walter is urged to grab the lone bicycle before a group of “horny Chileans” from a different trawler gets the bike to use to get to the strip club. Those Chileans would be sorely disappointed because strip clubs have been essentially illegal in Iceland since 2010

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bedtime Stories

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Her