Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

September 13, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Little boys just love training their dragons. Following the relatively successful How To Train Your Dragon from 2010, Dreamworks is back to milk that cash cow, or more accurately, that cash dragon, with the sequel, How To Train Your Dragon 2.

I actually really enjoyed the original (review here), which was an entertaining, sweet little story about the friendship between a kid viking called Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his cute but powerful dragon Toothless. It’s not one of the more memorable animated features in recent years, but it’s in the upper echelons in terms of quality, excitement and fun.

In the sequel, Hiccup and Toothless are back, five years older and closer than ever. Pretty much all the old cast is back too, with Gerard Butler playing Hiccup’s father, Craig Ferguson as Butler’s right hand man, America Ferrera as Hiccup’s girlfriend and Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as fellow viking friends. Cate Blanchett also joins the cast as a female viking whom I won’t spoil.

Since learning about prejudice and making peace with the dragons in the first film, everyone in Hiccup’s village of Berk has changed for the better. But of course there is a brand new villain (Djimon Hounsou) hell bent on conquering all dragons for his own benefit, and it is up to Hiccup and Toothless to try and stop him with the help of their family and friends.

I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by How To Train Your Dragon 2, which is as good as its predecessor when it comes to visual thrills and tugging the heart strings. The story itself is relatively stock standard, predictable even, so film’s biggest strength lies in the stunning visuals from all the dragon-riding action sequences that make fine use of some creative and skilled camera work. The dragon designs, and especially all the beautiful mix of colours, really added to the visual feast the film provides.

It’s more or less a continuation of both Hiccup and Toothless’s coming of age, and I’m glad to say that the title is not misleading because there actually is more legitimate dragon training in the film. Like its predecessor, it’s not the funniest animated film out there, but How To Train Your Dragon 2 more than makes up for the dearth of laughs with the exciting action sequences and emotional resonance.

Last word: A good film for the family that builds upon the solid foundations of the original by taking things to a new level.

4 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: 22 Jump Street (2014)

August 13, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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21 Jump Street, the big screen adaptation of the late-80s TV series that made Johnny Depp famous, is somewhat of a minor miracle. Everybody expected it to suck, and suck badly,  and yet it somehow became one of the surprise hits of 2012, featuring irreverent and self referential humor fueled by the seamless chemistry between the two leads, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.

The film’s unexpected fortune is a fact that the inevitable and obligatory sequel, 22 Jump Street, makes fun of very early on, and it goes even further than that by dishing out pessimistic predictions for what will happen the second time around.

It’s the type of humor and wit that made the first film so enjoyable, but at the same time, it also serves as a self fulfilling prophecy — because admittedly, 22 Jump Street genuinely isn’t as good as its predecessor. That’s not to say that the film is not still significantly better than most comedies that get turned out these days. In fact, there’s a good chance it will end up as one of the better comedies of the year. 

Hill and Tatum return has the ultimate odd couple — one physically challenged and the other mentally — who are thrust back into the undercover business because it’s the only thing they haven’t yet screwed up. And so their superior, Ice Cube, sends them to college to figure out who has been selling a dangerous new drug to students.

The central premise is almost exactly the same except it is set in college, and the writers know only too well the pitfalls of such a by-the-numbers sequel. But instead of trying something drastically different, the film embraces its destiny.

In 21 Jump Street, the film made fun of how high schoolers these days are different to what they were back in the 80s, and it also flipped what we had expected to happen to the characters, making Hill popular and Tatum miserable. Of course, in 22 Jump Street, the roles are predictably reversed once again, with Tatum becoming a football star and Hill failing to catch up because of his physical shortcomings. It’s the old “we know that you know that we know what should happen” joke, if that makes any sense.

Apart from this one big in-joke, the strengths of the sequel are almost identical to that of its predecessor. Hill and Tatum have a legitimate bromance; their chemistry and the weight they feed off each other come across as effortless and genuine. I’m guessing that some of the biggest laughs in the film were probably improvised. There’s also some solid slapstick, farcical action, and of course a lot of trippy craziness. Those who understand Hill’s brand of awkward, outrageous and random humour will likely get the most out of it.

The supporting cast is also very solid, with Ice Cube seemingly (I say seemingly because I can’t remember) given a bigger role this time around, and newcomers such as Peter Stromare, Amber Stevens and Nick Offerman, with cameos from Queen Latifah, Dave Franco and Rob Riggle. The standout, though, has to be Jillian Bell, basically a psychotic anti-version of Jonah Hill. Former pro hockey player Wyatt Russell, who has been in This is 40 and Arrested Development, also does a great job channeling his inner Owen Wilson as Tatum’s new BFF.

There are no major problems with 22 Jump Street except that some of the jokes don’t work or come across as a little repetitive, and the unfortunate thing with having such a great introduction (which this film did) is that there is inevitable disappointment when the rest of the movie fails to live up to it. 22 Jump Street opened with a bang, but there was a lengthy portion in the middle — primarily college life — that sagged, though luckily shifting the scene to Spring Break in Mexico towards the end breathed some much-needed fresh life back into its system.

The verdict? It may not be as witty as it thinks it is and the edges may be somewhat rough and coarse, but 22 Jump Street is definitely still funny and enjoyable enough to warrant a viewing. Considering how badly it could have gone, the end result also passes as a minor miracle.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

January 27, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I had no idea The Wolf of Wall Street was a comedy until it won the Best Motion Picture in the Musical or Comedy category at the recent Golden Globes. Leo DiCaprio plus Martin Scorcese usually equal serious, violent, gritty flicks like The Departed or Gangs of New York, but this time, they’ve teamed up to give us one of the funniest movies of the year, an epic black comedy with a bite that goes right down to the bone. Oh, and it’s a supposed true story based on a memoir of the same name.

It’s 1987. Leo plays Jordan Belfort, a handsome, charismatic and ambitious young man with a natural gift for sales. Give him anything and he will sell it. After taking a few life lessons on Wall Street from his boss, played by Matthew McConaughey (in a small but hilarious and memorable role), Belfort grabs a few mates and branches out to start his own firm, Stratton Oakmont, which is more or less a scam — but one that will make them loads and loads and loads of money.

The Wolf of Wall Street is without a doubt a polarizing film. It has earned the dubious distinction of the motion picture with the most “F bombs” in cinematic history, topping the list with 569 times (or 3.18 times per minute!). It is also full of debauchery and morally corrupt behaviour, including but not limited to fraud, alcohol abuse, drug-taking, extra-marital relations, mass orgies, beating off in public and tossing midgets around for office amusement. I can understand why a lot of people have been turned off this film and accuse it of glamourising the excess it depicts and painting douchebags like Belfort as heroes while completely ignoring the pain and suffering of his victims. On the other hand, the cast and crew of the film will argue otherwise, saying that it is a cautionary tale about excess. It’s a valid debate, and at the end of the day, it is up to the individual viewer to decide what the message of the movie is — for them.

For me, the underlying message is not a big deal. The Wolf of Wall Street is just a really really funny movie that I enjoyed immensely. The film’s comedic tone is pitch black; seeped in satire. The pace is frenetic and the dialogue is edgy and razor sharp — and more often than not incredibly and unapologetically politically incorrect. I’m sure some critics have already labelled it misogynistic. But importantly, it does not come across as mean-spirited. It’s just a bunch of smug, self-righteous dickheads who think they are smarter than everyone else boasting about their success through excess. They’re certainly not likable but they’re also not so unlikable that you find their antics unfunny. It comes as no surprise why so many people back in the late 80s and early 90s wanted to work for them and be like them.

Much of the credit goes to Scorsese’s masterful direction and the witty screenplay adaptation from Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos). Excess in itself is not funny. Debauchery in itself is not funny. F bombs in themselves are not funny. Doing stupid things after getting drunk and getting high in itself is not funny. That’s why I thought Project X was one of the worst movies ever made, Get Him to the Greek was really bad, and The Hangover was overrated. But put it in the hands of Scorsese and Winter and get talented actors like Leo to act it out, and all of a sudden it becomes freaking hilarious.  They key, I think, is that the characters are not in on the jokes. They are dead serious about the stupid things they do and do it with such bravado and conviction — which is why we, the audience, can find the humour in it.

Granted, you probably need to be in the right mood for a lot of the jokes (the scene where the discuss hiring midgets for office amusement is a prime example), though if you are, you might get stomach cramps from laughing so hard. That sequence where Leo and Jonah Hill take these precious banned prescription drugs to get high is, in my opinion, an all-time classic.

Leo won Best Actor — Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes and is one of the favourites to capture his first Oscar next month. I’m not sure if he will win with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance in 12 Years a Slave blowing everyone’s socks off, including mine, but if he does it will be a deserving victory. Leo has had some wonderful performances in the past, though I don’t think anyone ever expected his comedic chops to be this strong. Here he was utterly convincing as the Wolf of Wall Street, a narcissistic smooth talker and salesman, a little naive when he had to be at the beginning, electrifying when giving motivational speeches to excited crowds, and downright pitiful when he hit rock bottom — and he did it all with a stoic straight face. I was particularly impressed with the passion, energy and extent to which he was willing to go to embarrass himself, which is completely at odds with the heartthrob Leo we’ve become accustomed to over the years.

The supporting cast was also excellent. I’ve said many times that I don’t care much for Jonah Hill or Matthew McConaughey, but even I can’t deny that both guys were awesome in this. The rest of Leo’s founding partners in his scam, including The Walking Dead alumnus Jon Bernthal, were also solid, as was Kyle Chandler as the smuggish FBI agent determined to bring the Wolf down. Like everyone else, my eyebrows were raised when the smoking Margot Robbie came on screen as Leo’s future second wife — little did I know she’s yet another Aussie from Neighbours! Anyway, she’s got a great future ahead of her. And I haven’t even mentioned a bunch of other big names, such as Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau and Jean Dujardin.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an acquired taste. At 3 hours it is of course too long, but not by as much as you might think. There’s too much golden material for this to be a  2-hour film, but I think a 15-20 trim could have been beneficial as the film becomes more serious and less funny as it nears its conclusion. There were times when I almost felt like I should dislike the film on principle because of all the nasty people doing nasty things in it. The story is messy (though I think by design), dirty and just plain wrong on so many levels, and it makes you guilty for laughing at some of the jokes. But in the end, I loved it. I think it’s one of the best movies of the year.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: This is the End (2013)

September 29, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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While I’m not the biggest fan of Seth Rogen, I was really looking forward to This is the End,  an apocalypse movie featuring a bunch of comedic actors as parodied versions of themselves. The list of celebrities in the film is long — the leads include Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride, with cameos from the likes of Emma Watson, Michael Cera, Rihanna, Paul Rudd, Kevin Hart, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, David Krumholtz, Channing Tatum and Aziz Ansari. The film has received mixed reviews, and I can see why. It’s undoubtedly a good time and funny, albeit a little too hit-and-miss, and could have and probably should have been a lot funnier.

The central character of the whole thing is actually Jay Baruchel (She’s Out of My League, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and How to Train Your Dragon), who arrives in LA to catch up with his buddy Seth Rogen as they head off to a house party at James Franco’s house attended by all the above stars. Midway through the party the biblical End of Days (as depicted in the Arnie movie of the same name) descends upon them and the surviving celebs must find a way to deal with the terrifying aftermath, one that involves demonic monsters and possession.

It’s such an obvious idea, but as you can imagine, it’s also brimming with potential for laughs. I imagine the writers, Rogen and buddy Evan Goldberg, were likely stoned when they wrote this loose script, and it shows. There isn’t much of a plot, and the majority of the movie involves moronic, childish and sexually explicit banter and one-liners from the cast that serve to lampoon themselves.

Each of the actors plays a version of their real-life persona, one that corresponds with the public perception of them. Rogen, for example, is the same goofball you see in all his films, while McBride is the obnoxious slacker he portrayed in Your Highness. James Franco is interesting as a pretentious, sexually ambiguous nerd, though the funniest (and also most obvious) one is Michael Cera, whose has played this over-the-top douchebag version of himself so many times now that it has to make you wonder…

With so many comedians given free rein to show what they can do, you can expect at least some laughs, though how funny you find This is the End will likely depend on how much you like the particular brand of comedy of the six lead characters — ie, loud, profane, occasionally sharp, random, politically incorrect stoner comedy. I’ve always found this type of comedy a bit of a mixed bag. For instance, I really enjoyed Pineapple Express but hated Your Highness and thought films like Superbad and Knocked Up were overrated. I would place this film near the higher end the spectrum, mainly because no particular actor dominates and it was fun watching them play off each other. A couple of clever ideas had me laughing out loud pretty hard.

That said, I think it could have been funnier — perhaps with more scripted jokes, or less, or more editing to refine the material down to just the best parts. There were just too many jokes wasted for missing the mark or being too obvious.

Still, This is the End has enough quality stuff packed into it to make it one of the more memorable comedies of the year. Strangely, even though the story becomes more farcical as it progressed, it did not feel as though there was a mismatch with the “reality” TV style of comedy they were trying to make. That probably says more about reality TV than it does about this film.

3.5 stars out of 5

PS: Excellent ending sequence, so stick around for the surprise.

Movie Review: Moneyball (2011)

March 19, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

To me, there is simply something romantic about the sport of baseball.  It really is the only sport where anything can happen until the last out and sometimes does.

The biographical sports drama, Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller (Capote) and starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman, does an outstanding job of capturing the essence of that romance.  Based on the Michael Lewis’s book of the same name, it tells the true story of Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane (Pitt) and his attempt to use sabermetrics (basically statistical observations) to build a winning baseball team with limited money. It sounds kinda lame, I know — I thought it would be a boring movie too — but somehow, Moneyball works as a moving drama that hits all the right emotional notes.

Moneyball is, at its heart, an underdog story. Beane was a high school standout that made it to the majors but failed to live up to expectations, and as GM of the Athletics, he constantly faced an uphill battle with one of the smallest budgets in the MLB and constantly losing good players because they can’t afford them. By chance, he comes across Peter Brand (Hill), a young Yale economics grad who introduces him to sabermetrics, a system of player selection that was ridiculed and almost regarded as blasphemous amongst Beane’s old (in experience and age) staff.

Personally, I knew very little about what actually happened in real life, which made Moneyball an exhilarating experience to watch. If it wasn’t a true story I would assumed it was too good to be true — you really can’t make this kind of drama up. And full credit to Miller for approaching the story with a steady hand and the requisite subtlety, without overplaying things too much, something a lesser director easily could have done. It’s not so much the baseball action as it is the action behind the baseball, if you know what I mean.

As a result, Moneyball achieves the rare feat of being a sports movie that doesn’t feel bogged down by cliches. It helps that the baseball action looks incredibly authentic, and you could have fooled me into believing that what I was watching was real game footage.

The screenplay by Steve Zaillian and Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) also plays a big part in the film’s success. As is typical of Sorkin’s writing, Moneyball‘s screenplay is witty and sharp, with awesome dialogue and no wasted words.

But of course, it’s the terrific performance of Brad Pitt that anchors the film from start to finish. I’m not sure about an Oscar win, but the nomination was certainly well-deserved. I can’t say I can agree with Jonah Hill’s nomination for best supporting actor though. Sure, it’s one of the rare times he isn’t playing an obnoxious bozo, but was his supporting performance really one of the top five of the year?

The only other minor complaint I have is the slightly over long 133 minute running time, but given the amount of things that happen throughout the film I didn’t find it that big of a deal.

I’m not sure if you need to be a baseball fan to appreciate film, but for me, Moneyball was a personal delight — a film about taking chances, believing in yourself, and ultimately, knowing what is important.

4.5 stars out of 5!

PS: Young Kerris Dorsey, who plays Pitt’s daughter, almost steals the show with her few scenes. I am currently hooked on her rendition of Lenka’s The Show, which has a key role in the film.