How to Train Your Dragon

How to Train Your Dragon

Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, and America Ferrera
Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (Lilo and Stitch)
Rated PG for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language
Appropriate for all ages

    A scrawny young viking wants desperately to follow in his father’s footsteps and kill the nasty dragons that attack his village from time to time.  Because of his build he is pegged as someone who cannot kill dragons, but rather sentenced to a life fashioning weapons for those who can.  But what he lacks in brawn he makes up for in brains and he invents a weapon able to take down the most fierce of dragons: the never-before-seen Night Fury.  But when he finds the dragon he shot down he doesn’t have the heart to kill it, and rather fixes it’s tail that he managed to destroy in the first place, creating a special bond between he and the creature.  Knowing that his people will consider him a traitor for his relationship with his new friend, he visits it in secret hoping that no one will discover.

    While Pixar is still the reigning champ of high quality animation these days, every now and then Dreamworks comes up with something special like Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, and now this.  In fact, I would put this on the top of that list.  As far as storytelling goes, the screenplay, based on the book by Cresseda Cowell is a sweeping epic that can be enjoyed by both young and old.  It is imaginative, funny, emotional, awe-inspiring, and full of edge-of-your seat action/adventure.  The hero is exactly what you want in a film like this, full of courage, bright, and ambitious to change his people.  His relationship to his chieftain/father is something that most will be able to relate to with the father disappointed in the son not knowing what his son is truly capable of.  The romantic relationship, while played down because of their age, is cute and just enough.  And most importantly, the relationship with the dragon is perfect.  A less worthy writer would have had the dragon make instant friends with the boy, but it takes time to get the relationship going and that time spent brings the audience on the journey with him, allowing them to experience his mistakes and successes. 

    With such an importance placed on the aesthetics of a film, especially in light of the craze of 3D and IMAX technology, Dragon is almost right up there with Avatar as far as pure impressive filmmaking goes.  DeBlois and Sanders did a fine job with their last outing Lilo and Stitch, but they’ve really outdone themselves with this newest creation and should give Pixar a run for their money come awards time.  The film is outrageously gorgeous to look at, is incredibly well-paced, highly original and will no doubt be a big winner at the box office as well. 

    I was a little in doubt hearing Jay Baruchel’s voice in the trailer, but I have to admit that his casting was perfect, as was the rest of the voice talent.     
    As I am writing this, I just had to purchase the beautiful score by John Powell to listen to, which provides not only a great backdrop for the film, but is terrific to listen to independently as well.

    So from the spectacular beginning to the somewhat bittersweet but realistic ending, How to Train Your Dragon will go down as a monstrous animated classic.  A+

New on DVD

New on DVD

Sherlock Holmes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some startling images and scene of suggestive material
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Golden Globe winner Robert Downey Jr. and director Guy Ritchie (Snatch) give a crazy interpretation of the classic detective tale where the eclectic sleuth and his sidekick Dr. Watson (Jude Law) attempt to figure out how to stop a man that has come back from the grave from wreaking havoc over London.  While many Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts were turned off by the overly adventurous script, many new fans were brought into the fold as the movie brought in over a half a billion worldwide, and all this while competing against the behemoth Avatar.  For sure the movie is worth watching, but the Blu-ray itself is just as innovative as the film.  Warner Brothers is consistently churning out the highest quality Blu-ray product, especially when they bring in their Maximum Movie Mode.  Here, Guy Ritchie does a fascinating lecture-style picture-in-picture look at the movie while you are watching it, complete with storyboard comparisons, focus points, production information, and basically a compact little film school on disc.  A-

The Baader Meinhof Complex
Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing images, sexual content, graphic nudity, and language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
German with English Subtitles

This extensively researched true story takes place in Germany over the 60’s and 70’s when young people obsessed with revolution started a violent crusade that sprang up throughout the world.  While many who lived through the 60’s might have a deeper knowledge of these events, my historical knowledge of the Vietnam era sprang directly from American tales from my parents and movies, so I found this story of the European reaction to be at first interesting, but then shocking and finally downright frightening.  To say this movie is engaging is an understatement.  Nominated for both the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, The Baader Meinhof Complex is a disturbing look at what can happen when an emotional society gets out of control.   Brilliantly written and directed by Uli Edel (Last Exit to Brooklyn), and terrifically acted by an exceptional cast, this picture is exemplary historical filmmaking.  But one fair warning for parents, pay attention to the rating as it was lucky to have only gotten an R and not an NC-17.  A

Alice in Wonderland: Classic Film Collection
Available on DVD

If you are Alice-crazy after the latest Tim Burton hit, Infinity has released this collection of rare Alice in Wonderland films including the two shorts directed by Walt Disney in 1925 starring four-year-old Virginia Davis, years before there was ever a Walt Disney Studios.  Also included here is the first ever Alice in Wonderland from 1915 starring Viola Savoy, which was thought to be lost, the French animated Alice of Wonderland in Paris from 1966 with the voice of Carl Reiner and the 1972 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland musical theatrical film starring Michael Crawford, Peter Sellers, and Dudley Moore.  It’s a lot of Alice, and while it’s not all great filmmaking, there is a historical value to this set that can be appreciated by any fan of the Lewis Carrol.  B

Hot Tub Time Machine

Hot Tub Time Machine

Starring John Cusack, Rob Corddry, and Craig Robinson
Directed by Steve Pink (Accepted)
Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, nudity, drug use and pervasive language

    A group of friends whose lives have hit the skids head out to their favorite ski lodge for a crazy weekend.  When a mystical hot tub takes them back to the 80s, they have to either find their way back to the present, or decide to make changes in their past. 

    Just from the title alone you can tell that this an absurd film and you should know exactly what to expect.  So to put it mildly – this film delivers.  It is crude, raunchy, full of bad behavior, and extremely funny.  Making fun of the 80s in this way is both hilarious and nostalgic.  The soundtrack, the clothes and hairstyles, and this sense of humor are a combination bound for success.    

    The casting choice of John Cusack is terrific as this is the kind of movie you just can’t see him in, but he does it so well.  Corddry and Robinson are also equally impressive and should see a boost to their careers here.  The real scene stealer here is Crispin Glover who plays a one-armed bellman who in the past has two arms and you just can’t wait to see how he meets his fate.  The dud of the cast is hot tub repairman Chevy Chase who is supposed to be like the Don Knotts character in Pleasantville, but ends up being a wasted time killer. 

    With a film that is this over-the-top, you get a lot of plot holes that you are just supposed to forget about because after all – the movie is called Hot Tub Time Machine.  But that’s just not quite a good enough excuse.  They tried to do a Back to the Future thing with Cusack’s nephew that was very predictable and didn’t quite work.  Also the resolution was cute but you can’t think about it for more than a minute because it will hurt your brain on how much it doesn’t make sense.  And the trick they used when they needed to explain away something – throw in a squirrel.  It’s all very random, again, just like a time machine in a hot tub.  B+

New on DVD

New on DVD

Breaking Bad: The Complete Second Season

Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Bryan Cranston has already won two Emmys for his portrayal of a high school chemistry teacher who after a diagnosis of lung cancer, uses his chemistry skills to cook and sell high quality meth in order to make enough to pay for his chemo and maybe leave his family something when he dies.  The first season was very good, but the second kicks it up a notch with an incredibly well-written storyline that leaves you absolutely devastated after the last episode.  With season three starting this week, it’s a great time to catch up or get acquainted with this groundbreaking, nail-biter of television series.  A

Toy Story and Toy Story 2
Both Rated G
Available on Blu-ray/DVD Combos

With Toy Story 3 just a couple of months away, Disney is releasing Woody, Buzz Lightyear and gang for the first time on Blu-ray and with all new special features in addition to the old special features.  It has been 15 years since Toy Story hit theaters and changed animation forever.  Before Toy Story, hand-drawn and stop-motion animated films were the only way to make an animated film, and now they are the exception rather than the norm.  While many advancements have been made since these two films hit the screen, they still look absolutely gorgeous on Blu-ray and the stories are both truly timeless tales that will be cherished for generations.  The only negative criticism I have here is that lately all of the Pixar films have come with digital copy so you can put a copy on your iPod/iPhone, but for some reason, these sets lack it.  The funny thing is, they advertise it for the other films on the special features section, but don’t include it on their own.  A

The Blind Side
Rated PG-13 for one scene involving brief violence, drug and sexual references
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Based on a true story, The Blind Side tells the story of Michael Oher, a very large, under-privileged teenager in Memphis that is adopted by a well-to-do family who pushes him to become an all-star college and pro football player.  Now while I don’t think she necessarily deserved the Oscar for her performance here, Sandra Bullock does an admirable job of portraying the adopted mother and the film has a nice feel-good quality to it.  That being said it is also incredibly manipulative and custom-designed to make you cry throughout.  Most disappointing here are the contrived football sequences that should annoy anyone that knows anything about high school football is played.  So while I liked the story, I just couldn’t stand how it was represented.  C+

New Moon
Rated PG-13 for some violence and action
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

This second in the Twilight series tells the continuing saga of Bella Swan as she makes her decision of who to love.  Her vampire lover Edward has left her and never wants to see her again.  Her werewolf friend Jacob wants to take Edward’s place in Bella’s heart, but Bella is not ready for that.  The whole thing is just way too melodramatic for me.  The one positive thing I can say about this vampire chick flick is that the production values are a million times better than the original film.  I was blown away by how badly made the first film was and at least Chris Weitz (American Pie) knows how to make a movie without including ten shots with the camera men in plain view.  So while the story is not up my alley, it’s not quite as painful of an experience.  C

Broken Embraces
Rated R for sexual content, language and some drug material
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Spanish with English subtitles

A blind screenwriter must face his past when the son of a dead businessman pays him a visit.  Written and directed by the always interesting Pedro Almodovar (Volver) and starring Penelope Cruz, this is yet another quirky and complicated drama which keeps you engaged and thoroughly entertained.  I will admit that the plot is a little confusing, although I cheated and watched it a second time which cleared things up nicely.  Winner of the 2009 Critic’s Choice Award and BAFTA for Best Foreign Film, this is regarded as one of Almodovar’s best works.  B+  

The African Queen
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

The last film on the AFI top 100 list to be released on DVD has gotten a nice touch up here for this special release.  Set during WWII, Bogey and Hepburn take a journey through the wilds of Africa on a beat up old boat in the hopes of putting a torpedo in the hull of a wandering German ship. I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of the film.  After all, it’s a pretty cheesy love story when you think about it and the plot is absurd.  But it’s not too hard to see its importance in film history, and I found the new documentary on the making of the movie to be better made and far more interesting than the movie itself.  C+

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Starring Zachary Gordon, Robert Capron, and Steve Zahn
Directed by Thor Freudenthal (Hotel for Dogs)
Rated PG for some rude humor and language
Appropriate for all ages

    Based on the Jeff Kinney book, Diary tells the story of Greg (Gordon), an undergrown, yet-to-achieve greatness pre-teen that desperately wants to find his place to fit in.  Together with his best friend, the far too friendly and eager Rowley (Capron) the two set off to make their way through the history of their middle school.

    Having never read or even heard of the book, the only preconceived notion I had going into this film was that I hoped it ended quickly and painlessly.  But then something came over me and I found myself kind of liking it.  The story is written to be mostly enjoyed by kids, but is also put together so it can be appreciated and even somewhat enjoyed by adults as well. 

    That’s not to say it’s a great film.  There are lots of silly, eye-rolling moments that I would have loved to have not seen, most notably a Beastie Boys dance sequence involving Rowly and his mother that will leave a permanent scar in my psyche.

    What really works most is the great chemistry between Gordon and Capron.  This very talented duo stirred up thoughts of what Steve Martin and John Candy might have been like had they teamed up long ago as twelve-year-old boys.  

    The real litmus test though is with the kids in the audience and the theater I was in was full of them.  They seemed to be having a ball.  They were fully engaged, laughing, and all the while convincing me that kids are going to love this film.  B

New on DVD

New on DVD

The Princess and the Frog
Rated G
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Set in Jazz Age-era New Orleans, young Tiana dreams of opening up her own restaurant, to the point where she allows a frog prince to convince her to kiss him to make her dream come true.  But rather than getting her wish, she turns into a frog herself and the two amphibians set off on a journey to undo their curse.  Disney took a real risk with this work by going back to what made them famous to begin with: beautiful hand-drawn animation.  Now that we are in the age of computer animated films, it is so refreshing to see that this quality of filmmaking and storytelling can still be made.  This is a fun, whimsical tale that can be enjoyed by almost anyone.  The musical numbers aren’t quite up to the level of Beauty or Aladdin, but still good enough to win two Oscar nominations.  The characters are all terrifically conceived.  I especially loved the villain, who might just be one of the scariest Disney has ever created.  And while it didn’t make a monster box office, it did bring home enough to hopefully convince the boys that cut the checks at the mouse house that this art form is far from dead.  A

South Park: The Complete Thirteenth Season
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Not quite Disney, and much more crudely animated, the boys from Colorado are back for Season 13 and the show is still as relevant as ever.  This season saw them win an Emmy with their episode Margaritaville which focused on the recession.  Also in this season the boys took on Kanye (months before he pulled his stunt at the MTV Video Awards) they took on Avatar and Glenn Beck in the same massive episode, and even did their part to expose the Japanese ala The Cove style in their whaling practices.  This season also saw a couple of really lame episodes that were nothing but toilet humor (and I mean nothing but), but overall they are still knocking it out of the park and I can’t wait for season 14 to start up this month!  A-

Available on DVD and Blu-ray

French with English subtitles

In a style similar to Love, Actually, several intersecting storylines converge to make one coherent film about several people who live in Paris.  While not nearly the romantic film that Love, Actually was, this is an extremely interesting movie focusing mostly on the life of a social worker, played by Juliette Binoche, and her brother who has just been told by his cardiologist that he needs a heart transplant.  This and many other stories being told hold a lot of gravity and drama combined with many light and funny moments to break the tension.  While it’s not exactly a love letter to the city, like Paris, Je T’aime, which also starred Juliette Binoche, it does serve as a fair representation for those that actually call the city home.  A-

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
Unrated Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Based on the book by David Foster Wallace, a graduate student copes with a break up by holding intimate interviews with various men.  John Krasinski (The Office) makes his directorial debut with this piece that is almost too intellectual for it’s own good.  You can tell a lot of heart and soul went into this project, but there gets to be a point when the film stops entertaining and that point came very early here.  After that I couldn’t help but find it to be anything but a verbal mess.  Almost like a Kevin Smith film without the jokes.  Krasinski is so likable that you want to ignore the fact that you don’t like it, but after it’s all said and done, you are really glad it’s over.  C-

Ninja Assassin

Rated R for strong bloody stylized violence throughout, and language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

A young ninja hiding from his estranged clan attempts to protect a woman trying to discover the clan’s secrets.  If you are going into this film wanting to see deadly ninjas violently killing everyone in sight, you have the right movie here.  This is a vile, disgusting, yet kind of thrilling movie set in the world of the ever secretive ninja.  Sure it’s silly, and it takes itself way too seriously, but if you are in the right frame of mind, and I guess I was when I watched it, it can be a pretty entertaining 90 minutes.  B-

The Fourth Kind
Rated PG-13 for violent/disturbing images, some terror, thematic elements and brief sexuality
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Trying to capitalize on scraps that Paranormal Activity left behind, The Fourth Kind tells the story of alien activity that has gone on in Nome, Alaska recently using both supposed actual footage and recordings, and staged reenactments.  The problem is that it never does get very scary and any shivers you did get won’t last once you google the thing afterward.  Worse than that though is the buffet of bad acting that I blame almost solely on the horrible directing.  D

Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland

Starring Mia Wasakowska, Johnny Depp, and Helena Bonham Carter
Directed by Tim Burton
Rated PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar
Appropriate for ages 8+

    Set many years after the events of the first Alice tale, Alice is now twenty and on the verge of being proposed to by a boorish, snobbish Englishman at a party being held in her honor.  When put on the spot, she runs off into the countryside and follows a rabbit down a hole.  Upon entering the new magical dreamworld, she discovers that the inhabitants of this Underland have all been impatiently awaiting her arrival and desperately need her help in defeating the dreaded Red Queen.

    I doubt there are many movie fans out there that weren’t looking forward to this new Burton/Depp teaming and the early indications all showed that it had masterpiece potential written all over it.  Certainly the new Wonderland has a fresh look that is remarkable and bizarre, just as you would expect from a Burton film.  But we saw that in the trailers, commercials, and in half of the magazines and papers we’ve been reading over the last two months.  Where Burton could really win was in the script, and here he didn’t.  The story is straight forward, predictable, and completely disappointing.  Rather than a quirky, fun, innovative Alice, we get Alice goes to Narnia.

    My question is – why didn’t Burton and crew choose to just simply do a Burtonesque remake of the original material?  I just don’t get this new incarnation from Disney screenwriter Linda Woolverton (The Lion King).  It fits the Disney mold, but frankly, I didn’t want to see Burton make a Disney girl power film.  I wanted to see Burton make a film that was merely bankrolled by the mouse house, who would then leave him alone.   This creation is nice to look at but lacks energy, curiosity, or any kind of emotional draw.

    Where the film does impress is in the special effects, especially when viewed in 3D.  They didn’t push the limitations, like Avatar succeeded in doing, but there is eye candy galore to be found on screen.  Also, the closing credit sequence was probably my favorite five minutes of the film, and I’m not being sarcastic.  While the names are posting in the center, there is a frame of vines and flowers growing and blooming progressively off of the screen, all set to Danny Elfman’s beautiful and haunting score.  The look is surreal and one of the most amazing effects I’ve seen in a movie.  C+

New on DVD

New on DVD

Cold Souls
Rated R for nudity and brief strong language
Available on DVD

Paul Giamatti, playing himself, is on the verge of performing Chekov’s play Uncle Vanya when he comes to the realization that his soul is too heavy and getting in the way of performing the part.  In an attempt to lighten his load, he removes his soul at a soul storage facility and has it securely locked away.  When he realizes that he needs his soul in order to properly continue on, he discovers it has been stolen by a Russian soul trafficker in St. Petersburg.  Deeply influenced by Charlie Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich, Cold Souls is a unique and bizarre experience that does more philosophical questioning than entertaining.  There are some terrific comedic moments here and Giamatti is an amazing actor, but while the film is strange it is not as quirky as you would expect.  It also feels like a movie with a great premise, a promising story, but then no way to end it or form resolution.  It’s likable and somewhat memorable, but not distinguished.  B

Gentlemen Broncos
Rated PG-13 for some crude humor
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

From Napoleon Dynamite director Jared Hess comes this oddball comedy about a high school sci-fi writer whose book is plagiarized by a pseudo-famous author who has run out of ideas.  With the same amateurish look and feel of Napoleon Dynamite, the artistry of the filmmaking is a step backward for Hess, but the weirdness of the picture at least keeps everything interesting enough to get you through the 90 minutes without hating it.  Flight of the Conchord’s Jemaine Clement is perfectly cast as the conniving writer and has some very funny moments, although the rest of the actors look a little uncomfortable with the filming style.  C-

Old Dogs
Rated PG for some mild rude humor
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

John Travolta and Robin Williams are two best friends who are charged with the care of seven-year-old twins, right as they are on the verge of a huge business deal.  If the core of 6% doesn’t scare you away, then just watch the trailer for this horrific waste of talent and money.  Old Dogs takes a tired formula and gives two uninterested actors a paycheck to perform it.  The film is not as bad as it looks in the two minute trailer – it’s worse.  Those were the good parts used to try to sell the film.  And for those of you insisting that you just need a good clean family film – there are plenty of other decent options.  Showing bad films like this to kids just because their clean ultimately leads to creating an undiscerning audience that eventually can’t tell a good movie from bad.  My advice – skip this one and wait for the next two weeks when Princess and the Frog and the Fantastic Mr. Fox hit video shelves.  You may not care what kinds of movies your kids like – but I certainly do.  F

Cop Out

Cop Out

Starring Bruce Willis, Tracy Morgan, and Seann William Scott
Directed by Kevin Smith (Clerks)
Rated R for pervasive language including sexual references, violence and brief sexuality
Appropriate for ages 18+
    Bruce Willis is a cop whose prize baseball card is stolen just as he was about to sell it to pay for his daughter’s wedding.  Although they were both suspended, he recruits his partner, Tracy Morgan, to help track down the memorabilia-obsessed drug kingpin that possesses it.  

    I am still puzzled as to what exactly this film is.  There are times when it takes itself seriously, but then there are many scenes that are straight out parody, so much so that I thought it should have been called Cop Movie instead of the chosen title.  Now if the film had stuck with this formula, and kept Bruce Willis in the lead, it could have been pretty decent, but when it suddenly tries to take itself seriously and make itself into a cop action comedy, it becomes too ridiculous to work.  Whether it’s the interrogation where Morgan pretends he is in the movie Jaws or when he is sitting in his chief’s office wearing a cell phone suit, the stupidity works if you stick with it and keep making fun of films like Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop, but when the consistency drops, the whole thing doesn’t make sense.  Unfortunately, this movie just kept a horrendous plot with an ill-conceived storyline and the hope that the laughs would keep the seats filled.

    Fortunately for the movie, there are some funny moments.  Morgan is a really talented comedian and probably deserves a leading role, maybe one better than this, but he is basically a gun-toting version of the Tracy you know from 30 Rock.  The real scene stealer in this film is Seann William Scott who turns in a great performance as a thief they have interactions with.  He gets most of the laughs in the film and really comes across as one of the stars, although he puts out very little screen time.  Also good for the comedy here is director Kevin Smith, who knows how to craft a joke better than he knows how to craft a story.  While he didn’t write this film, it feels like one he could have written, aside from the stronger production values. C