Monthly Archives: February 2019

Dragon Tales

A heartwarming end to a high-flying, two-decade franchise

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, F. Murray Abraham, Kristen Wiig & Jonah Hill
Directed by Dean DeBlois

Ever seen a dragon fly?

They crop up all along our pop-cultural pantheon—there’s Smaug from The Lord of the Rings, Peter Paul and Mary’s “Puff, the Magic Dragon” and the magnificent airborne beasts in Game of Thrones.

And there’s Toothless, the sleek, black “Night Fury” first introduced in DreamWorks’ acclaimed, animated How to Train Your Dragon back in 2010. Now the third and final installment of Toothless’ tale comes to the screen with most of the original vocal cast again aboard, and new visual wonders to behold.

Writer and director Dean DeBlois, who also directed and wrote the first two films, returns as well, giving the movie and its characters a sense of seamless continuity, even though the “trilogy” and its timeline are spread out across nearly a decade.

The Hidden World is a warmhearted, high-spirted, coming-of-age adventure about the young Viking-heir chief Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his faithful dragon, living in the dragon utopia that Hiccup and his clan have built on the island of Berk. Vikings—as fans of the franchise know, and other viewers are quickly brought up to speed—once feared and fought dragons, but now coexist with them in peace and harmony.

Hiccup has taken on his leadership role since the death of his kindly father, Stoick (Gerard Butler, seen in flashbacks). Other characters who flock and flitter around him for support (and a steady, mead-like flow of comedy) are his mother (Cate Blanchett), the hulking blacksmith Gobbler the Belch (Craig Ferguson); his strong, confident, warrior-sidekick sweetie, Astrid (America Ferrera); and his fellow dragon-riding Viking buds Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Eret (Kit Harington) and the twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple).   

Everyone rallies when Berk comes under attack by the villainous dragon slayer Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), who sees Berk’s “toxic notion” of dragon domestication as “the undoing of civilization.” Grimmel especially wants to capture—and destroy—the Night Fury, Toothless, the last of its kind, and he “baits” him with another dragon, a female.

The pure white “Light Fury” is the exact opposite of Toothless—bright where he is dark, day where he is night, yin where he is yang. Guess what? Toothless falls in love.

Most of the story has to do with Hiccup’s decision to vacate Berk and seek a new home—the so-called “Hidden World,” the legendary origin of all dragons, as rumored to exist in ancient mariners’ myths. There they’d be safe forever from Grimmel and other dragon-haters. But there’s also an overriding, unmistakable, bittersweet theme of growing up and letting go, as both Hiccup and Toothless embrace the emotions that come with being older, wiser and ready for the next stages of their lives.

The film is awash in color, texture and eye-popping computer-generated effects, immersing viewers in an explosively imaginative world of wildly creative locations, creatures and characters. A “courtship” ritual between Toothless and the Light Fury is both humorous and heartfelt, and their romantic night flight, through the heart of a thundercloud and across the shimmering sea, hits emotional and visual high notes.

The movie—and the entire franchise—belongs to Hiccup and Toothless, but props have to be given to the bite and bile F. Murray Abraham puts into Grimmel, the maleficent dragon slayer. In a make-believe movie—and one intended, in large part, for a younger audience—he creates a character with chilling, very grownup undertones of the constant threat of hate in the real world, be ye Viking, dragon or otherwise.

And the ever-dependable Kristin Wiig gets to shine especially for few knockout moments in a spotlight scene when the constantly chattering Ruffnut is taken prisoner by Grimmel—but only temporarily. It’s a reminder about just how impressive her comedy chops are, even when it’s only her voice, coming through a character that it took an army of illustrators and visual-effects artists to bring to lanky life.    

But the thing that might impress you most about all the impressive things, in this most impressive movie, full of modern, high-tech movie magic and dynamic digital mojo, is how you might find yourself dabbing a very real tear or two away from your eyes when it’s over.

Just keep reminding yourself: It’s only—sniff—a movie about dragons, after all. And dragons aren’t real…are they?

For the final, closing, soaring chapter of this popular, successful franchise about a Viking boy and his faithful, flying dragon, the third time is definitely a charm—and a charmer.

In theaters Friday, Feb. 22, 2019

The Dead Zone

Death comes to us all—sometimes in a big, goofy baby mask and a hoodie, again and again again

Film Title: Happy Death Day 2U

Happy Death Day 2U
Starring Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard & Phi Vu
Directed by Christopher Landon

So you think you’re stuck in a same-old, same-old kind of rut?

Consider the Sisyphean circumstances of Theresa “Tree” Gelbman, a young coed who not only can’t seem to get out of college, but who keeps dying—murdered, to be exact—on her birthday, over and over and over again.


That was the premise of Happy Death Day, a modest little horror hit in 2017. In that movie, Tree kept waking up on her birthday anew, reliving its experiences Groundhog Day-style, each day capped by another unfortunate encounter with the Grim Reaper. This was her fate, repeatedly, until she figured out who was behind her murder(s), and why, and how she could finally break the sequence.

It was a taut, wickedly engaging funhouse puzzle with a unique twist on the time-honored genre of “attractive young women in peril.”

And we know that Hollywood can’t let a good thing just slip away.

In this frightfully fun, cheekily self-aware sequel, when one of her campus mates, Ryan (Phi Vu), has a freak-out deja-vu “death” experience, Tree (Jessica Rothe, reprising her role) knows exactly what’s happening—her birthday curse has somehow returned. And it’s spread to other people now. The killer again wears the creepy, snaggle-toothed, big-baby mascot mask of their university, which makes it easy for him (or her) to hide, disguised, in plain sight.

Film Title: Happy Death Day 2U

Jessica Rothe with Israel Broussard—and a quantum time machine

Tree discovers that the cause of all the trouble is a quantum time machine, a thesis project built by Ryan and some of his fellow science-nerd students. (Ah, those meddling scientists!) The Big Bang Theory-ish doohickey is a cooling reactor that slows down time on a molecular level and allows multiple dimensions to overlap and interloop.

That “explains” why people keep getting killed over and over again—they’re stuck in a multi-dimensional loop. “Do I look like I know what a multi-dimension is?!” asks an exasperated Tree, when one of the science students attempts to enlighten her.

Eventually Tree gets stuck in the loop again, too, and has to work with Ryan to find a way to stop the killer, close the loop and end the die-wake-repeat cycle—and tie up a couple of other loose ends with her family, her boyfriend (Israel Broussard) and her sorority pal (Ruby Modine).

Director Christopher Landon, who also returns to the job, stirs a brisk streak of send-up humor, and outright comedy, into the killer mix—this isn’t a bloody slasher film, by any stretch. It’s more Scooby Doo than Scream, and it’s also got a potent undercurrent of real emotion, as Tree has to make some hard decisions and choices about her past, present and future. “Every day is a chance to be someone better,” she says.

HDD2U 4Death can be a drag, but when it’s an everyday thing, you might as well get some laughs out of it, right? In in one darkly whimsical montage sequence, Tree takes matters into her own hands, causing her own demise in several creative ways to explore various loops—seeking the “right” one to close—without having to wait to be murdered.

Look her up on IMDB and you’ll see that the actress who plays Tree was one of the roommates of Emma Stone’s character in the Oscar-sweeping La La Land. They all sang and danced together in the big go-out-on-the-town number, “Someone in the Crowd.”

That’s the way it is in Hollywood, and in life. One day you’re singing and dancing and painting the town, the next you’re gleefully diving headfirst into a wood chipper or getting chased off the top of skyscraper, plunging to the pavement below.

As Happy Death Day 2U impishly reminds us, life is rich and rewarding, but death comes to us all—and if you’re Tree Gelbman, it just keeps coming, in a big, goofy baby mask, with a big, shiny knife, again and again and again.

In theaters Friday, Feb. 15, 2019


Mind Games

Taraji P. Henson gets inside guys’ noggins, but there’s not much there


What Men Want
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Richard Roundtree & Tracy Morgan
Directed by Adam Shankman

It’s a man’s, man’s, man’s world, according to James Brown’s hit single from 1967.

And that still rings all too true for Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson, the star of TV’s Empire), a go-get-’em sports agent for an elite corporation repping the upper crust of NFL, NBA and MLB superstars. But Ali’s gone about as far as she can go within the ranks of the male-dominated, bro-centric culture of her company.

She can take the off-color humor, the “locker-room talk” and the constant stream of chest-puffed, testosterone-fueled camaraderie. But when she’s passed over—again—for a promotion to full partnership, she blows a gasket.

“How am I supposed to fight a system that’s rigged against me?” she rails to her father (Richard Roundtree), a boxing coach. Roundtree knows a thing or two about fighting a rigged system. As the prototypical black detective in Shaft, back in 1971, he fought the system, the Man, the black mob and the white mob to find a crime lord’s kidnapped daughter.

But Ali finds her answer at a bachelorette party, where she drinks a fortune teller’s funky tea, then falls and bonks her head. When she wakes up, she discovers she can hear men’s thoughts. At first, it totally freaks her out. But then she realizes she can use her new “gift” to get inside guys’ noggins to get a real leg up on her competition at work—particularly to woo aboard a new young basketball hotshot (Shane Paul McGhie) and his helicopter dad (Tracy Morgan).

Director Adam Shankman, whose previous films include the musicals Hairspray and Rock of Ages, plus the comedies The Pacifier with Vin Diesel and Adam Sandler’s Bedtime Stories, pours on the yuks. But he doesn’t seem to have much of a feel about how to make this raunchy comedy about workplace inequality much more than a broad, lazy swipe at an easy, timely target.

The f-bombs fly. There are jokes about gays, Christians, farts, various styles of sex and all kinds of body parts. In a movie like this, when you hear “nuts,” you can assume it’s not a reference to Super Bowl munchies. There are inflated phalluses, phallus necklaces, a bong shaped like a phallus. We get it: Ali is “surrounded” by phalluses. When she “accidentally” calls her boss “Dick” instead of his real name, Nick, it’s supposed to be really funny.

The movie, a gender flip on the 2000 Mel Gibson comedy What Women Want, presents almost everything as a punchline. But if a human resources director could hear the “thoughts” Ali hears when she walks through a thicket of her male coworkers—well, it would probably be more “actionable” than laughable.


Shaquille O’Neal

There are sports figures peppered throughout. Former Seattle Seahawks star Brian Bosworth plays Nick; there’s a high-stakes poker game with NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, former NCAA All Pro player Grant Hill, Minnesota Timberwolves player Karl-Anthony Towns and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

A subplot involves Ali’s gaggle of girlfriends (Wendi McLendon-Covey, Lisa Leslie, Phoebe Robinson, Tamala Jones) and how her ability to hear the thoughts of their husbands and boyfriends isn’t always such a good thing. A wedding scene becomes a raucous free-for-all when Ali decides she can no longer hold in the truth about the men in the wedding party.


Pete Davidson

Singer Erykah Badu hams it up as the kooky shaman who cooks up the concoction that expands Ali’s mind, and you’ll see a host of other familiar faces—most notably Josh Brener from HBO’s Silicon Valley as Ali’s swishy man Friday, Brandon; Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson; Max Greenfield of New Girl; The Detour’s Jason Jones; and Kellan Lutz, best known as Emmet from the Twilight movie series, as a hunky-hot neighbor.

What do men want? “To get paid and get laid,” says Ali. Seems like she’s after the same thing, especially when she’s in the hay doing the wild thing with Will (Aldis Hodge, who starred on TV’s Leverage). But maybe she wants something more, like a serious relationship, and perhaps a family…

Ali’s widower father, we find out, wanted a son, instead of a daughter. And he named her Ali after his favorite fighter, Mohammed Ali. We see a photo of the legendary prizefighter in the very first shot of the film, behind Ali as she’s working out on a treadmill, barking orders into her cellphone, swatting down text messages, sweating up a storm.

We get it: She’s a fighter.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee—that’s what Muhammad Ali said. Too bad this featherweight movie, too focused on easy, cheap laughs, is only content to float above the serious issues, at a very serious time. It skirts toxic workplace environments, racism, sexism, and wage discrimination and bias without ever sinking a flag into a solid statement about any of them.

Muhammad Ali knew you could dance around, but you had to land the punch, especially the big one. What Men Want has no such sting.

In theaters Feb. 8, 2019