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"How to Train Your Dragon" Is a Kinetic Kidflick

Directed by Chris Saunders, Dean DeBlois
Written by Will Davies, Deblois, Sanders, based on the book by Cressida Cowell
Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, T.J. Miller


There's amusing incongruity in this tale of Viking villagers regularly raided by fire-breathing dragons. Vikings, like pirates, have been romanticized and made cuddly, but the ones who went to sea and didn't stay home to mind the farm were bloodthirsty thugs who make biker gangs look like Mary Poppins. They didn't merely steal from peaceful villagers — they murdered wantonly, raped and kidnapped women, and burned whole settlements to the ground, including abbeys and churches. Also, they didn't really wear horned helmets.

Nor for that matter, did they ride dragons. So, How to Train Your Dragon, based on the 2003 children's novel that launched a series by British author Cressida Cowell, is clearly ensconced in cartoon-Viking land, and as such creates a colorful little self-contained world that might not always make logical sense but should delight pre-teens with its admirable imagination.

The movie serves as a not-quite prequel to the book, in which dragons are already domesticated. On the stony Isle of Berk, the smallish young Viking Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), who's 11 in the novel, is desperate to be a big, bad dragonslayer like his dad, chieftain Stoick (Gerard Butler). Dad defends the village with fellow Vikings like the blacksmith Gobbler (Craig Ferguson) and the more athletically inclined kids, including Snotlout (Jonah Hill), twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (T.J. Miller), feisty warrior-girl Astrid (America Ferrera), and the big though not fearsome Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).

Stoick loves his son, but is sorely disappointed in him, as is everyone else on the island. When one of Hiccup's inventions takes down a Night Fury, one of several disparate varieties of dragon, no one believes him. And when he finally finds the downed and injured dragon, Hiccup can't bring himself to kill the cat-like creature. But he gradually learns to ride the beast — he's a regular dragon whisperer — and create inventions to help him do so. Hiccup wants to domesticate the creatures, not kill them. That doesn't go over well with the raid-weary Vikings, setting up an exceptionally well-staged and inventive final battle between beast and man.

Aimed at a younger crowd than, say, The Lion King, the film is nonetheless a masterpiece of art direction and design, with some of the most beautiful landscapes ever animated and state-of-the-art rendering of things like strands of Hiccup's hair during flight. Details are dizzying, right down to the barnacles on the longboats. And one particularly harrowing flight that caps a training montage is breathtakingly graceful and kinetic. The 3-D in the press preview’s screening room was disappointing, however, except in an occasional shot.

Despite some genuinely moving father-son moments toward the end, and a remarkable, perhaps historic, final twist, the whole isn't quite the sum of its parts. Baruchel's voice seems too adult and sardonic for his put-upon character, whose innovative mechanical genius comes a bit out of nowhere. The coming-of-age story is lovely but overly familiar, and by and large, the supporting-character kids are given characteristics but not personalities.

It's also disconcerting to hear Vikings with heavy Scottish accents; Scotsmen Butler and Ferguson couldn't do comic Scandinavian? (The kids all speak generic mall-rat.) The bagpipes and what sound like Northumbrian pipes on the suitably stirring soundtrack indicate this was a deliberate choice. But as Vikings raided and killed all over the British Isles, it's a curious choice.

Oh, and watch the DreamWorks logo carefully at the start. If you don't blink, you may just see a Night Fury.

For more reviews by Frank Lovece: Film Journal International

The '70s Come Alive in "The Runaways"

Directed by Floria Sigismondi
Written by Floria Sigismondi, based on the book Neon Angel by Cherie Currie
Starring Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, Michael Shannon, Scout Taylor-Compton, Stella Maeve, Alia Shawkat, Tatum O'Neal

Italian-born writer-director Floria Sigismondi’s film about the short-lived, all-girl rock band The Runaways (and they really were girls, not women), sacrifices the fascinating details in the service of tidy dramatic structure. But captures a genuine sense of  what the 1970s were like — the real '70s, not the whacky, sitcom '70s of That '70s Show. Ingrained sexism coexisting uneasily with newfound sexual freedom; too-tight, too-shiny clothes — billowing caftans, clingy knits, sansabelt pants, jumpsuits, platform shoes, dingy clubs; retro prints and brown, brown, brown — and a pervasive feeling that the good times were over and all that lay ahead was diminished expectations.

Southern California, 1975: Restless teenager Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) worships Suzi Quatro and dreams of becoming a straight-up, balls-out guitar god, despite the prevailing wisdom that girls can’t play the electric guitar. Sandy West (Stella Maeve), hooked on drums from age nine, is on the prowl for other female musicians who want to <em>rock</em>. Hollywood-bred jack-of-all-trades Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), who at 33 could boast a solid 15 years of music-business experience, thinks a gaggle of hard-rocking jailbait chicks could be the next lucrative thing and introduces them. When West and Jett click, he recruits Bowie-worshiping singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), spawn of an alcoholic and a disillusioned actress (Tatum O’Neal) whose Hollywood dreams curdled after 10 years of B-movie bit parts; volatile guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) and bass player Robin Robins (Alia Shawkat, playing a composite of the bassists the band went through in four years). Fowley dubs them The Runaways and puts his fledgling proteges through rock 'n' roll boot camp. He hires local kids to pelt them with crap (literally) — the girls have to learn how to deal with rowdy crowds — encourages them with his own special brand of cheerleading ("You bitches are gonna be bigger than the fucking Beatles!"), and sends them out on a low-rent, make-or-break tour. The rest is straight from the Behind the Music playbook: Intoxicating success, drug- and booze-fueled squabbles and the inevitable flameout.

First, the good news: Twilight's sullen Stewart, former child-star Fanning and one-time Oscar-nominee Shannon are terrific; their performances are 100% snark-free. Both Fanning and Stewart nail the particular desperation born of living on the wrong side of a shatterproof wall that separates wealth, glamour and celebrity from parched despair, and they can sing. Jett, one of the film’s executive producers, claims she mistook a tape of Stewart for one of herself.

The bad news is that The Runaways consistently sacrifices the  unique and messy to the sleekly formulaic; the film’s look is as grungy and deglamorized as the narrative is neat and familiar. And that’s a shame, because the marvel of The Runaways is that they transcended their pre-fab (albeit scruffy) origins and forged a genuine rock ‘n’ roll identity. 

For more by Maitland McDonagh:

Kevin's Digital Week 17: Comic (But Serious) Docs

Blu-Ray of the WeekCapitalism Blu Ray

Capitalism: A Love Story
(Anchor Bay)

In Michael Moore’s latest cinematic screed, the entire economic system of the United States is on trial and, if Moore’s thesis is chosen more by his heart than his head--junking capitalism seems a knee-jerk reaction--he makes relevant points along the way. As always, Moore gives valuable face-time to unfortunate victims of the latest Wall Street fiasco, and these intimate character sketches are the most compelling parts of the movie. And when he brings in his retired father to reminisce about working at the auto plant in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, Capitalism: A Love Story becomes quite touching.

But his film will ultimately be remembered for its stunts, like putting yellow crime scene tape around the responsible (or irresponsible) firms’ Manhattan headquarters, which reinforce Moore’s rep as a prankster. On Blu-ray, the movie looks vibrant if visually underwhelming. Extras include additional interviews and sequences, along with Jimmy Carter‘s infamous 1979 speech about the economy that Moore references in the film.

DVD of the WeekGood Hair DVD
Good Hair
Chris Rock
’s documentary about the impact on the black community of the ongoing quest to have “good hair” is as explosively funny as the shorts he used to do on his old HBO show -- but there's an underlying seriousness that keeps the discussion from ever turning frivolous. Not only does Rock interview celebrities (Maya Angelou, Ice-T, Nia Long, Eve, Salt-n-Pepa) about their attempts to deal with naturally “nappy” hair, but he also explores the multi-million dollar industry that has grown up around products that help black women “relax” their hair to make it palatable for both themselves and others.

Some of the most insightful moments come when Rock talks with ordinary men and women in beauty salons and barber shops, as we hear off-the-cuff, revealing remarks about this unique phenomenon, pro and con. The lone extra is a sidesplitting riff of an audio commentary by Rock, with producer Nelson George.

"Repo Men" an Organ Groaner

Directed by Miguel Sapochnik
Written by Eric Garcia, Garrett Lerner, based on the novel The Repossession Mambo by Garcia
Starring Jude Law, Forest Whitaker, Liev Schreiber, Alice Braga, Carice Van Houten, Chandler Canterbury, Joe Pingue, RZA (Robert Fitzgerald Diggs)

Repo Men, right to its remarkably telegraphed ending, follows a map of Brazil as it tries to juxtapose carefree Latin music and arch satire with a Dystopian future where killing people is just bureaucratic business-as-usual. Only where Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985) made the agents of bureaucracy those of a totalitarian government, this adaptation of Eric Garcia's 2009 paperback novel The Repossession Mambo makes them those of a corporation literally able to get away with murder. The problem is that where Brazil created a world all of a piece to make its points with surreal abandon, Repo Men shifts its tone jarringly from action thriller to cautionary drama to black comedy, while ultimately having nothing to say other than maybe, "Pay your bills."

It's not good when the futuristic super-science of everyday artificial-organ transplantation is the easiest thing with which to suspend disbelief. Screenwriters Garcia and Garrett Lerner and first-time feature director Miguel Sapochnik, a former storyboard artist, present a standard blue-neon Blade Runner city in which salespeople for a megacorporation called The Union sweet-talk terminally ill family men and others to buy organs costing hundreds of thousands of dollars — pooh-poohing rumors "you may have heard on the 6 o'clock news" (as if there were still a 6 o'clock news in the future) about repo men who come and take back your organs if you're 90 days past due. And so, all through the movie, you somehow have several corpses a day littering a single city alone, all with organs removed, and these are just "rumors"? Forget about police — there apparently aren't even any blogs or forum postings wondering why all these dead people keep popping up like mushrooms after a rain. The waiting room at The Union sales office has a steady stream of customers who never notice all this, or know anybody that it happened to?

The lack of logic starts right off, as repo man Remy (Jude Law) talks about having become work-partners with Jake (Forest Whitaker), the kid who used to beat him up in fourth grade in this clearly North American city – even though Remy inexplicably has a British accent as thick as Marmite. Where is this, exactly? Because somehow in this town, everyone, not just rich folks, are buying $600,000 organs — even down-and-out singers and the big, fat, sloppy guy eating a chili dog in the bad part of town.

This isn't just about the ridiculous milieu. It's about a disjointed and unfocused idea, which doesn't seem to be anything more than the bare concept of, "Hey, would happen if corporations got so powerful they could repossess organs?" But a concept is not a movie, and without anything rational to say, it's also not a story.


For more by Frank Lovece:


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