How to Train Your Dragon

March 26, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Gerard Butler
Directed by: Dean DeBlois (“Lilo & Stich”) and Chris Sanders (“Lilo & Stitch”)
Written by: Dean DeBlois (“Lilo & Stich”) and Chris Sanders (“Lilo & Stitch”)

While most animation studios will probably be restless until June when Pixar unleashes the goliath that is “Toy Story 3,” that doesn’t mean any of them should raise their white flag just yet.

Sure, Pixar might still be considered the leader in its field (it’s picked up the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature the last three years in a row), but over the last few years other animation studios are getting the hint: no matter how spellbinding the computer-generated characters are, the narrative also has to be first-rate.

While DreamWorks Animation has had its ups and downs since branching off as its own entity in 2004,  the studio proved to have the talent necessary to deliver something as invigorating as 2008’s “Kung Fu Panda.” Of course, the “Shrek” franchise is still the studio’s moneymaker, so when something comes along like “How to Train Your Dragon,” a series of British children’s books that could possibly spawn a new string of movies, it’s not surprising that DreamWorks heads wanted to make sure they got the first one just right.

And to be quite honest, these fire-breathers definitely have some bite.

In “Dragon,” one of the books in a series written by Cressida Cowell, geek-for-hire Jay Baruchel (“She’s Out of My League”) lends his voice to the lead character, Hiccup, a scrawny little Viking who doesn’t look like his burly father Stoic (Gerard Butler) or any of the other savage warriors that make up his colony.

Hiccup might dream to one day slay a dragon (they’re apparently as rampant as roaches and destroy everything) but without the upper body strength to lift a sledgehammer or do anything else that makes a Viking a conquering force in medieval times, Hiccup is better left to tinker with his brainy inventions and teenage self-consciousness. He is, however, able to prove that enthusiasm is just as important as talent when he does the impossible and captures his own dragon.

Despite doing it in an unconventional way (and without anyone noticing his feat), Hiccup has done more that just bring down the beast; he has netted the most feared and mysterious dragons in all of the land: the Night Fury. This is one of the treats in “Dragon.” Not all of the dragons are designed in the same mold. Adapting Cowell’s story, directors/writers Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders give each breed of dragon their own distinct traits and personalities.

As Hiccup bonds with his new friend, who he names Toothless, he realizes dragon are not the horrible creatures Vikings thought they were. When the colony decides they should allow Hiccup his chance to demonstrate his warrior spirit by going through dragon training, which will later lead to making his first kill, he finds himself at a crossroad.

Now, with a deeper understanding of the species, Hiccup must find a way to make his father proud without bringing harm to the misunderstood dragons. With a team of misfit Viking peers training beside him, including love interest Astrid (America Ferrera), it’s only a matter of time before Hiccup’s secret becomes far too massive for him to keep silent.

While many of the elements are familiar, “Dragon” is a lively family action-comedy that shines especially when both Vikings and dragons share the screen. Whether it’s Hiccup and Toothless creating a friendship or the “Gladiator”-like sequences of fire-breathing dragons and risk-taking teenage Vikings fight it out on the battleground, “Dragon” is a neat adventure.

The 3-D animation also works in “Dragon” especially for those exhilarating scenes where Hiccup and his pet dragon sail across the infinite sky like the protagonists in “Avatar.” It’s a sight to behold for children and adults alike who are tired of unoriginal animation that barely flutters off the ground.

Our Family Wedding

March 12, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: America Ferrera, Forest Whitaker, Carlos Mencia
Directed by: Rick Famuyiwa (“Brown Sugar”)
Written by: Wayne Conley (“King’s Ransom”), Malcolm Spellman (debut), Rick Famuyiwa (“Brown Sugar”)

Movies featuring racially diverse casts and themes are hard to come by these days (unless you’re rubbing elbows with the overrated brand name known as Tyler Perry). But if future projects aimed at underrepresented minorities are anything like the grating “Our Family Wedding,” studios should keep them tucked away at least until George Lopez’s dubious “Speedy Gonzalez” idea comes to fruition.

Not only are the distasteful stereotypes what make “Wedding” a chore to sit through, director and co-writer Rick Famuyiwa (“Brown Sugar”) just doesn’t have the comedic chops to deliver entertaining material for an entire feature film. While a goat hopped up on Viagra is the unfunny low point of the movie, “Wedding” sinks close to that level before and after the farm animal starts dry-humping Forest Whitaker in the bathroom.

Using the same structure as 2005’s “Guess Who” (a less than stellar remake of the Oscar winning 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”), the film follows two families as they prepare for a big wedding celebration for their son and daughter.

Lucia Ramirez (America Ferrera) and Marcus Boyd (Lance Gross) may be in love, but that doesn’t mean their dads have to like each other. The animosity between father of the bride Miguel (Carlos Mencia) and father of the groom Marcus (Whitaker) begins when Miguel, the owner of an auto repair shop, impounds Marcus’s sports car and exchanges verbal jabs with his daughter’s future father-in-law even before he knows who he is.

The set up is a tired one. Most of the jokes play the race card without remorse and each one is less amusing than the last. When Lucia and Marcus break the news to their families about their interracial relationship, no one bothers to tell Lucia’s grandmother (Lupe Ontiveros) who falls over when she sees a black man walk into her kitchen. The racial profiling continues as Miguel calls Marcus “bro’” and Marcus retorts with “hombre.” The families bicker and clash about wedding traditions, culture, and religion while Lucia and Marcus stand idly by having claimed a nonsensical mantra to help them get through the weeks before the big day: “Our marriage, their wedding.”

Directed gracelessly by Famuyiwa, “Our Family Wedding” is an unfortunate mess of a movie that skips all the tender moments and authentic family ordeals for dull slapstick comedy and ham-fisted put-downs. If you’re looking for something as endearing as “Father of the Bride,” you’ve come to the wrong ceremony.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2

August 17, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Amber Tamblyn, America Ferrera, Alexis Bledel
Directed by: Sanaa Hamri (“Something New”)
Written by: Elizabeth Chandler (“The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”)

While I was not much of a fan of the first film released three years ago, there were, at least, some thematic elements that bordered on over-sentimentality, but generated strong life lessons. In “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2,” all those tween dreams are wasted away as the girly foursome is faced with a new set of problems, all of which are despairingly disjointed.

There is not much of a sisterhood in “Pants 2” as Tibby (Amber Tamblyn), Lena (Alexis Bledel), Carmen (America Ferrera), and Bridget (Blake Lively), graduate from high school and are now at different colleges. As in the first one, a pair of worn-out jeans they can all magically fit into, helps link them to one another as they plan to spend their summer apart.

Lena decides to take a sketching class at the Rhode Island School of Design where she stumbles into a relationship with one of the nude models. Filmmaker-wannabe Tibby takes up a job at a local video store and is presumably working on a screenplay while juggling a courteous boyfriend. Bridget has packed her bags for Turkey where she will dig up bones on an archeological expedition and sort out her life after the death of her mother. And Carmen, who was expecting all the girls to spend the summer together, ends up in Vermont auditioning (under duress) for a part in a Shakespeare play.

While away, the magic pants become a meaningless prop as the girls Fed Ex them back and forth to each other with notes about whether or not anything miraculous happened when they were worn. Forget miraculous. If something even remotely convincing happened to any of the four, it was quickly smothered by the clumsy direction of Sanaa Hamri, not to mention odd editing choices by Melissa Kent (“Something New”). It’s not so much that Kent cut it up like a daytime soap opera, it’s that it seems like when she returns to one of the girl’s stories 15 minutes later, she forgot where the bookmark was.

More distressing is that after an entire summer that these girls are supposed to be “finding themselves” in this pseudo-coming-of-age tale, they all seem to stay as baffled by life as they were from the beginning.

Still, it’s the boy problems (they all have them except for Bridget who is happily living the single life) that manage to swamp “Pants 2” the most, like any other formulaic teenage dramedy. The demographic it aims at will surely find the drippy stories innocent enough, but anyone not plugged into Miley Cyrus-type meltdowns should probably ask for a pass.

America Ferrera – Ugly Betty

August 14, 2006 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

Actress American Ferrera says everyone should be able to relate to her character, Betty Suarez, on the new ABC television show “Ugly Betty.” Betty, an assistant to the publisher of a prestigious fashion magazine, is a “fish-out-of-water” in the industry. Not only does she not look like the waifish models that are around her, her fashion sensibility would be considered questionable at best.

But that’s okay, says Ferrera, 22, who broke into the film industry with 2002’s “Real Women Have Curves.” For her, Betty is someone young women can learn something from. Ferrera says Betty is a female heroine that doesn’t have to rely on her looks to be noticed.

“[Betty] is a hero because she has more to offer than just her looks,” Ferrer told me during a phone call to promote the TV show. “This a wonderful message to send out to [young women]. I feel like too many young women get caught up in their lives chasing that one dream – to be as beautiful as possible. It’s such a waste of talent and life. It would be wonderful if they could learn that they can become heroes in society in a way that does not involve their appearance.”

Although Ferrer knew she would have to undergo a physical transformation to become Betty, the role was not one she worried would turn her into something she is not.

“There were really no hesitations (when accepting the role),” Ferrera said. “I understood what the role was. I know very well who I am on the outside. As an actor, it seemed like a wonderful, challenging opportunity to play something that was a lot different than who I was as a person. The physical transformation is what makes it exciting as an actor.”

After earning the role, Ferrer said she watched a few episodes of the original television show from Colombia (“Yo soy Betty, la fea” starring Ana Maria Orozco) to get an understanding of why it was received so warmly. The idea for “Ugly Betty” has also been remade in other countries, including
Germany, Russia, Spain and Mexico.

“Of course, on the outside, [Betty] doesn’t fit in,” Ferrera said. “But ultimately… she represents the best part of what a person can be. She’s pure and honest.”

Despite the show premiering in other countries over the last few years, Ferrera says she wants to give this rendition a style all its own.

“I definitely wanted to make sure that the American adaptation is tailored to the American sensibilities of television,” she said.

The show, she admits, is the most difficult project she has worked on in her five year career. She, however, looks forward to watching it grow into something that will be around for a long time.

“I’m working harder than I ever thought I would in my life,” Ferrera said. “Movies are a little bit of a sprint. But on a television series, you are working all year long, except for a short hiatus.

“The hours are long and the days are really packed. You want to get some sleep, but you also hope the show never ends. At the end of the day when I am so tired I can tell myself that I am working on something that I love.”