How to Train Your Dragon 2

June 13, 2014 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler
Directed by: Dean DeBlois (“How to Train Your Dragon”)
Written by: Dean DeBlois (“How to Train Your Dragon”)

It’s refreshing when an animation studio knows it has something special besides an easy way to package Happy Meal toys and video games. Sure, all that’s probably going to come along with “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” but when a kid’s film can actually prove it has a reason, in addition to raking in boatloads of cash, to peddle things like action figures and lunchboxes, it’s for the better.

Merchandising aside, “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” the follow-up to the 2010 animated Oscar nominee, has a reason and it’s a good one. Besides being just as funny, creative and exhilarating as its predecessor, the sequel also takes on some darker and more adult themes that steer this franchise in a meaningful way. Yes, there are still plenty of dragons as cute as a bowlful of puppies, but as the lead character in the series begins to mature into the man everyone knew he could become (despite his voice still cracking like a high school freshman), the narrative kicks the emotion and adventure to another level.

Based on the books by author Cressida Cowell, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” has less “training” to do and more beloved characters to establish and expand. Vikings and dragons have learned to live in harmony, but their happy days are numbered when all the dragons of the land are seriously threatened.

In the film, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a young Viking who befriends a rare dragon he names Toothless in the original movie, is still living in his village with his scaly companion, various Viking friends, girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) and father Stoick (Gerard Butler), the latter of whom wants to start prepping Hiccup to take over for him as chief. The future of his village’s dragons, however, is in danger of being stolen by the villainous Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who wants to create his own dragon army. Along the way, Hiccup is reunited with someone from his past, all while attempting to talk some sense into Drago before he starts plucking more and more dragons from the sky.

Beautifully rendered dragon characters and flight sequences make up the most exciting parts of this second trip with Hiccup and Toothless. As in the first, DreamWorks Animation really takes advantage of the 3-D imagery, something most animated films use to suck a couple more dollars out of patrons’ pockets. Here, the 3-D works miracles, especially when the dragons are the high-flying attraction. Director Dean DeBlois, who co-directed the first film with Chris Sanders but is going solo on this one, captures the wonderment of these fictional winged creatures and does so without surrendering any of its personality. Everyone knows sequels, especially animated ones, are basically made if the first one hit box-office gold. It’s nice to see another example of one that challenges itself to build on its clever storyline and actually come out with its head above the clouds.

This is the End

June 14, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill
Directed by: Seth Rogen (debut) and Evan Goldberg (debut)
Written by: Seth Rogen (“Superbad”) and Evan Goldberg (“Superbad”)

With the impending doom of the Mayan Apocalypse last year, Hollywood took a cue and started churning out apocalypse-themed movies. To the surprise of, well, nobody, we’re all still alive, yet the end of days films keep coming, with nearly a half-dozen in the past two years alone. Based off of a short film made in 2007, Seth Rogen (“Superbad”) makes his co-directorial debut with “This is the End,” a thriller/comedy where some of Hollywood’s funniest young actors get the opportunity to play themselves.

When Jay Baruchel (“She’s Out of My League”) arrives in Los Angeles to visit Rogen, he reluctantly goes with him to a housewarming party at James Franco’s house. While at the party, events of biblical proportion unfold and Baruchel, Rogen, Franco, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill and Danny McBride find themselves barricaded in the “127 Hours” star’s house. Friendships are tested and survival plans are initiated as the six actors try to stay alive.

Though the principal cast are playing themselves, they are exaggerated, fictitious versions. Hill, for example plays a overly nice people pleaser who is trying as hard as he can to get Baruchel to like him. Franco’s eccentricities are played up, especially with the design and set-up of his house. Just from a sheer laugh volume standpoint, McBride is probably the most successful of the bunch, something that is clearly by design. McBride nearly goes full Kenny Powers (his character on TV’s “Eastbound & Down”) as an insufferable and hilarious jerk and screenwriters Rogen and Evan Goldberg (and likely some well-executed improvisation) really highlight his fantastic ability to be a complete ass. Along with the main cast is an absurdly long list of cameos, almost all of which come from filmmaker Judd Apatow’s family tree. The best of these is a brief, but incredibly successful appearance by Michael Cera (“Superbad”), who spends every second of his screen time coked out of his mind.

Since the cast is a virtual six degrees of separation with Apatow, most of these actors have worked with each other in the past. The most noticeable are Rogen, Franco, McBride and Robinson who starred together in “Pineapple Express.” There is a certain ease in which these actors, all legitimate real-life friends, interact and play off of each other. Though there is a concern that things might become one giant inside joke, Rogen and company are able to keep the humor pretty broad for the most part. Still, there are plenty of cut-downs and references to lesser-received movies in the various actors’ careers that require a little bit of knowledge of their filmographies.

The laughs are relatively steady throughout the film, though there is a lull towards the middle and end. As more is revealed about what is actually happening, special effects come into play and the results are a bit mixed. While the CGI itself isn’t bad, the jokes that come from them don’t always hit their target. As the characters figure out what must be done to survive, the film begins to return to form a little bit. It does, however, play out more predictable than probably intended. It all builds up to a final scene that is incredibly bizarre and underwhelming.

Despite a pretty decent laugh ratio, the film as a whole feels a bit piecemeal. A few sections are oddly divided, edited and directed. As a meta-comedy, it’s successful and should give audiences fun looks at real life friends stuck in a life or death situation. The heartfelt parts of the story as well as the actual apocalyptic events, however, don’t work as well and feel a bit hollow.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

July 16, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

NOTE: This movie review was written by film critic apprentice Cody Villafana, who won the Film Critic Apprentice-for-a-Day contest last week.

Starring: Nicholas Cage, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina
Directed by: John Turteltaub (“National Treasure: Book of Secrets”)
Written by: Lawrence Konner (“Flicka”), Mark Rosenthal (“Flicka”), Matt Lopez (“Bedtime Stories”)

In an attempt to tap into the well-established “Harry Potter” market, Disney has unearthed a 200-year-old story most recently manifested in their 1940 classic film “Fantasia” and created a film that will likely make people pine for the cartoon’s timeless simplicity. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and company have taken the famous mopping scene from “Fantasia” and expanded and re-imagined the story to create a film that taps into the world of magic and sorcery. Although it provides some entertainment through special effects, ”The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is a mostly unbalanced film that fails to conjure up anything substantial in the way of story, plot, or memorable moments.

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” opens with a quick trip back into history recapping the story of Merlin and his three apprentices. One of Merlin’s apprentices, Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina) turns against Merlin and joins forces with the evil sorceress Morgana before eventually being captured in a nesting doll-type object called a grimhold. As Merlin is dying, he gives another one of his apprentices, Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage) a ring with a dragon on it that will one day determine who will succeed Merlin.

The audience then skips to the year 2000, where young Dave Stutler (played in kid form by Dave Cherry) stumbles into what appears to be an antique store where he finds the enigmatic Balthazar. Balthazar quickly notices something about Dave that prompts him to grab the dragon ring, which perfectly grips and attaches to Dave’s finger. While wandering around the store, Dave accidentally releases the evil Horvath, leading to an extended battle which leaves Horvath and Balthazar trapped inside a vase. Dave throws away the grimhold and is met by his teacher, who finds only Dave and an empty antique store.

In a final jump to present-day New York City, the audience finds Dave (Jay Baruchel), the now 20-year-old self-proclaimed physics nerd, offering help to Becky (Teresa Palmer), his elementary school crush, in their physics class. Meanwhile, Horvath and Balthazar reappear from the vase, now just an artifact in an old couple’s home. Horvath immediately visits Dave in search of the grimhold. Balthazar is able to appear to save Dave in the nick of time, and recruits Dave to help him find the grimhold. Dave and Balthazar then engage in a series of battles with Horvath, while Balthazar uses every opportunity to train Dave to be the sorcerer he is destined to become – the only one who can defeat Morgana, should she be released.

The film suffers from uninspiring performances from most of its leads. Jay Baruchel fails to display the charm he showed in “She’s Out of My League” and turns in an unconvincing performance as a newly post-teenage physics nerd. Nicolas Cage sleepwalks through his role as the wise, but slightly neurotic Balthazar and adds virtually nothing but a name to plaster on a movie poster to help bring in bigger box office numbers. Alfred Molina gives the best performance of the leads in his role as the evil Horvath. It is a performance that is evil enough to make him a convincing villain, however, fans of Molina’s will surely recognize this is not his best work.

One of the major downfalls of this film is its over-reliance on special effects. While the first couple of battles provide amusing effects as the Sorcerers throw plasma balls and move objects with the wave of a hand, the concept begins to repeat itself and wear thin. The entire movie presents a repeating cat and mouse game between Horvath and the duo of Balthazar and Dave and by the third time we see characters hurling transforming objects at one another, the effects have lost their luster.

The large majority of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice takes place in a physics lab and focuses on Balthazar’s efforts to train Dave and turn him into a true sorcerer. This leaves almost no room to grow for any of the relationships beyond that of Dave and Balthazar. The relationship between Dave and Becky isn’t given enough time to develop, lacks believability and fails to evoke any sort of emotional response from the viewer.

Perhaps the most criminal of cinematic offenses comes in the movie’s final act, which is the end battle that the entire film leads towards. In a this final sequence Dave suddenly does things that he wasn’t capable of five minutes prior, other characters perform acts that are either not completely shown on screen or are not explained. The sequence becomes so convoluted that it reiterates the banality and lack of substance of the film and once again leaves the viewer’s enjoyment at the mercy of the special effects.

Serving as a Sunday afternoon time passer at best, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” isn’t entertaining enough to cover up its plethora of plot holes, lack of character development and dull story line.

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.

She’s Out of My League

March 12, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jay Baruchel, Alice Eve, T.J. Miller
Directed by: Jim Field Smith (debut)
Written by: Sean Anders (“Sex Drive”) and John Morris (“Sex Drive”)

While it might remind you of the reality show “Beauty and the Geek,” there is a lot more heart and plenty of hilarious moments in “She’s Out of My League” that propels it past mindless TV fare and similar types of recent comedies like “I Love You, Beth Cooper.” It actually feels more like 1987’s “Can’t Buy Me Love” with rougher edges.

In “League,” Jay Baruchel (“Tropic Thunder”) plays Kirk, a nerdy airport security officer who gets the shock of his life when Molly (Alice Eve), a gorgeous blonde bombshell genuinely takes an interest in him. His buddies – Stainer (T.J. Miller), Jack (Mike Vogel), and Devon (Nate Torrence) – can’t believe a girl like Molly (described here as a “hard 10”) would lower her physical standards and give Kirk (a 5 or 6 depending on who you ask) a chance.

Kirk is a nice enough guy, but aside from his average looks he’s not very aspiring or self-confident. Molly, on the other hand, doesn’t just flaunt her outer beauty. She’s an all-around girl who likes sports, has a law degree, and owns her own event-planning business. It’s a dream come true for Kirk from the start until his mind starts playing games with him. He is begins to wonder how long something this good can actually last. More importantly, how can he live up to this fantasy when everyone around him is dumbfounded by his new relationship?

While there is enough frat-boy humor to keep the R-rating fresh, “League” packs more than just lowbrow antics you’d normally get from a juvenile comedy like this. Sean Anders and John Morris, who penned 2008’s surprisingly funny “Sex Drive,” might not be the next Judd Apatow just yet, but there’s a lot to be admired in a story that refuses to take the easy route and run over all the obvious clichés time and time again.

Instead, the comedy hits a couple of potholes and moves on smoothly. With a lead character that you can root for in Kirk, it’s easy to be charmed by “League” no matter how unrealistic the geek in all of us knows it really is.