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How to Train Your Dragon 2 review

On Saturday, 21 June 2014, Janice and I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for How to Train Your Dragon 2 at the recently renovated AMC Burlington Cinema 10. We enjoyed the computer-animated fantasy sequel, which had character development and visuals that were at least equal to those in James Cameron's Avatar or several recent Disney/Pixar films.

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Animated fantasy sequel

Plot: As with most sequels, viewers who skipped the first How to Train Your Dragon won't appreciate the new movie as fully as they might. Loosely based on Cressida Cowell's children's books, the movies (and the Nickelodeon TV series) focus on Hiccup, a scrawny Viking who breaks with tradition in learning to ride dragons rather than fight them.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 picks up a few years after the events of the first movie. Hiccup's hometown of Berk has learned to coexist with dragons, and we see a quidditch-like race involving his friends.

Restless Hiccup and his Night Fury steed Toothless explore ever farther from his home island and finds his long-lost mother (already "spoiled" in trailers), as well as ruthless pirates who share his gift for communicating with flying reptiles. As in the first movie, sacrifices must be made for the greater good.

Cast: Jay Baruchel returns as a slightly more mature Hiccup, with Gerard Butler as his gruff father and chieftain, Stoick. Cate Blanchett, who hasn't gotten to interact directly with monsters as Galadriel in Peter Jackson's Middle Earth movies, brings weariness and hope to Hiccup's mother Valka.

Other returning voice actors include Craig Ferguson as Stoick's counselor Gobber, America Ferrera as the winsome Astrid, and Jonah Hill as obnoxious Snotlout.

Christopher Mintz-Plasse is Fishlegs, who vies with Snotlout for Ruffnut's (Kristen Wiig) attentions while her twin Tuffnut (T.J. Miller) looks on and scoffs. The dynamics among Hiccup's family and friends are more fully explored in the television show, but there are many nods to them in the movie.

Newcomers include Djimon Hounsou as the pirate Drago and Game of Thrones' Kit Harrington as the swashbuckling Eret, who captures Ruffnut's eye during one of several narrow escapes from the pirates. Everyone is well-cast in their roles.

Direction: Dean DeBlois, who also co-wrote the screenplay, does a good job of building up the action while also providing some character moments. Any lack of originality in the story is more than made up for by the appealing characters, heartfelt story, and strong visual designs. (No, I haven't yet seen Frozen, but understand it's one of Disney's better recent efforts.)

Cinematography: Although I didn't see How to Train Your Dragon 2 in 3-D, the regular visual effects have continued to improve, with human skin, dragon scales, choppy seas, and fire all spectacularly rendered.

Hiccup's gliding scenes with Toothless early in the movie are particularly good, and even though the large-scale battles toward the end are familiar to fantasy fan, they manage not to completely overwhelm the viewer.

Soundtrack: The musical score echoes the themes from the first movie and the TV series, and it properly accompanies and builds with the action. As in Cowell's books, there is a Scottish lilt to the music, and the opening and closing credits drew us into the superficially slapstick setting.

Rating: I'd give How to Train Your Dragon 2, which is rated PG for action and "some rude humor," a solid 8 out of 10, four out of five stars, or a B+. I liked it about as much as its predecessor, if not as much as the TV show, which expands on all the characters.

Don't let the relatively disappointing box-office returns dissuade you from seeing it. I'd recommend this movie to fantasy fans, children looking for their summer cartoon fix, and those looking for comedy and drama in lighter measures.

In other family-friendly animation, I thought the third season premiere of Avatar: Legend of Korra was strong, and I look forward to The Boxtrolls. Janice and I also joined Thomas & Kai-Yin for dinner at Noodles & Co., which just opened in Burlington, Mass.

Coming soon: More gaming updates, a Star Trek convention recap, and Byron V.O.'s visit…

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) review

Since the latest Godzilla flick, I've fallen behind with this year's genre movies. I haven't yet seen Chef or Edge of Tomorrow, which will probably have to wait for video, but I did catch X-Men: Days of Future Past. This Marvel Comics adaptation cleaned up some of the continuity problems of past films, but its appeal is probably limited to fans of the ever-growing mutant ensemble.

X-Men roundup

More mutants

Plot: For those not familiar with the original Chris Claremont and John Byrne storyline, in one bleak future (actually 2013 in the comics, but probably the near future in the movie), mutants and their allies are hunted by robotic Sentinels and put into concentration camps. This is a direct allegory of the Nazi death camps and U.S. internment of Nisei during World War II.

A few survivors are sent back in time (to 1980 in the comic, the early 1970s in the movie) to stop fellow mutant Mystique from assassinating someone and thereby preventing or at last delaying war between fearful humanity and the mutant minority.

This movie shifts the time traveler from Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat to the popular Logan/Wolverine, and the person who must not be killed changes from Sen. Robert Kelly (who has already appeared in other X-films) to Dr. Bolivar Trask, creator of the Sentinels, and Pres. Nixon.

While many details have changed, the overall story and tone of Days of Future Past are faithful to the source material. Like Watchmen and the Captain America films, this X-Men outing successfully juxtaposes different time periods, national crises, and superheroes.

Cast: Arguably, the best part of Days of Future Past is seeing the actors from the first batch of X-Men movies (from 2000 through 2009) plus the cast of X-Men: First Class (2011). Hugh Jackman's Wolverine is still burly and wry and serves as the glue holding Days of Future Past — and arguably, 20th Century Fox's whole franchise — together.

While I would have liked to see more of buddies Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as mutant leaders Prof. Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto, respectively, it made sense for them to pass the torch to younger actors James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender in the same roles.

In the dystopian future, we get glimpses of Halle Berry as Ororo Munroe/Storm, Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde, Daniel Cudmore as Piotr Rasputin/Colossus, and Shawn Ashmore as Bobby Drake/Iceman. Unfortunately, Anna Paquin's cameo as Anna Marie/Rogue was all but cut for time.

In addition, we see some impressive fight scenes between numerous tough Sentinels and acrobatic newcomers Omar Sy as Bishop, Bingbing Fan as Blink, Adan Canto as Sunspot, and Booboo Stewart as Warpath. With exotic names such as these (and I applaud more diverse casting), the X-Men should start a baseball team.

Most of the character development takes place in the past, however, with the aforementioned telepath Prof. X and master of magnetism Magneto. Jennifer Lawrence, who inherited the role from Rebecca Romijn, is again part of their triangle as the shapeshifting Raven Darkholme/Mystique.

Also noteworthy are Evan Peters as wiseguy speedster Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver and Game of Thrones' Peter Dinklage as the misguided Dr. Trask. There are too many characters and battles for a lot of character development, but that's typical for any non-print incarnation of the X-Men.

Direction: Bryan Singer, subject of troubling but as-yet unproven allegations, returns with a sure hand to direct the franchise he helped create. The action scenes, actors' performances, and overall pacing are solid.

While time travel can be an overused plot device, it's central to this story, in which Singer fixes some of the fictional history that was needlessly convoluted in past films in this series (to say more would give away "spoilers"). Days of Future Past did a better job than Star Trek: Into Darkness of straightening out continuity kinks.

Cinematography: As with Disney/Marvel's Avengers, the state of the art is kept high for visual effects, fight choreography, and recreating bits and pieces of Washington, D.C., in the 1970s. The dark future is less successful, featuring the same bombed-out urban centers, rainscapes, and computer-generated killer robots as many other dystopian films.

The scene with Quicksilver helping to break Magneto out of a cell beneath the Pentagon rivals Nightcrawler's attack on the White House in X2. In fact I missed Alan Cumming as teleporter Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler. 

Soundtrack: The musical score of Days of Future Past includes themes from previous X-Men movies, period songs, and the right level of punctuation for the action scenes. There were few really memorable moments, but I think this was a more fitting soundtrack than for several other recent superhero movies.

Rating: Overall, I'd give X-Men: Days of Future Past, which is rated PG-13 for violence, brief nudity, and language, four out of five stars, an 8.5 out of 10, or a B+. I found it a worthy continuation of Marvel's mutant saga, and here's how I'd rank it among its peers:

  • X-Men (2000) ***
  • X2 (2003) ****
  • X-Men: the Last Stand (2006) *
  • X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) **
  • X-Men: First Class (2011) ***
  • The Wolverine (2013) — I haven't yet seen this.
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) ****

Only longtime X-Men fans will recognize the allusions in the postcredits teaser for Age of Apocalypse, which will likely use a remixed version of the team. Other movies I'm looking forward to include over-the-top noir Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For and stop-motion The Boxtrolls. I'll try to post my favorable review of animated fantasy How to Train Your Dragon 2, which I saw this past weekend.

I'll also try to get around to my impressions of the past year in genre television soon.

Godzilla 2014 review

On Sunday, 1 June 2014, Thomas K.Y. and I caught an early matinee of Godzilla at the recently renovated Showcase Cinemas in Woburn, Mass. We liked the latest incarnation of the "big G," even if the film wasn't as satisfying as it could have been.

Gojira in San Francisco

Latest Godzilla

Plot

As with most of its kaiju (Japanese giant monster) movie predecessors, the first half of this Godzilla focuses on its human cast, including environmentally conscious scientists, grimly determined but often misguided military folks, and a young family in peril as huge monsters fight through multiple cities. That's all you ever need to know.

Acting

The mostly American cast plays it straight, with none of the camp of the fondly remembered Showa-era's monster mashups or the 1998 misfire. As you may have seen from Godzilla's trailers, Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche play nuclear physicists Joe and Sandra Brody, who are among the first to suffer from the kaiju emergence.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, who'll be playing mutant siblings in the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron, are young soldier Ford Brody and his wife Elle here. Alphas' David Strathairn and Ken Watanabe bring some gravitas as Adm. William Stenz and Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, respectively. Their roles are mostly two-dimensional, but they provide a human's-eye view to the massive destruction.

Direction

While the cast is solid, the pacing of the movie is not as steady. I expect kaiju movies to start slowly and build to big battles, but director Gareth Edwards teases full views of Godzilla and his "MUTO" (massive unidentified terrestrial organism) opponents for a bit too long. Yes, viewers should identify with the human cast, but I would have liked to see more of the fights and fewer teary people or futile small-arms firing.

Visual effects

That said, the monster designs are all good, and Godzilla's latest look is properly regal. As I mentioned to Thomas, the MUTOs show that this is the first post-Cloverfield Gojira flick. Pacific Rim might have been more fun, but the newest Godzilla restores the beasts as manifestations of nature's wrath and nuclear horrors. 

Unlike 1998's "GINO" ("Godzilla in name only"), I rooted for Godzilla even as he and the MUTOs stomped through Japan, Hawaii, Las Vegas, and San Francisco, which didn't look overly computer-animated or rely on shaky cam. The HALO jump seen in the trailer was also well-executed and actually had a connection to the story.

Like that movie and Cloverfield, however, there were subplots about reproduction, survival, and military secrets, and even a little humor might have helped relieve and build tension.

Soundtrack

Godzilla's roar and the music for this movie were decent, but nothing can top the ominous 1954 theme. (To be fair, as a longtime "G-fan," I also like Blue Oyster Cult's song and the late 1970s cartoon's song.)

Rating

Overall, I'd give the 2014 Godzilla, which is rated PG-13 for "mayhem," a 7.5 out of 10, three and a half out of five stars, or a B. I do think that some critics have been overly harsh, looking for subtle acting or political statements.

I don't know if it will be enough to reignite interest in the 60-year-old franchise, but I liked it more than other recent monster movies, and I'd love to see Godzilla take on new versions of Mothra, King Ghidra, MechaGodzilla, and evil aliens in potential sequels! Long may he reign!

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 review

On Sunday, 4 May 2014, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. and Bruce K. at the Landmark Embassy Cinema in downtown Waltham, Mass., for The Amazing Spider-Man 2. We enjoyed lunch at The Grill on Pine St. and the latest superhero sequel.

Amazing Spider-Man 2

Spidey swings back into action

Plot: Amazing Spider-Man 2 takes place shortly after the events of 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man, which rebooted Sony's franchise of the 2000s. Our friendly neighborhood wall-crawler has successfully defeated Dr. Curt Connors/the Lizard but at the cost of the life of NYPD Capt. Stacy, the father of Peter Parker's girlfriend Gwen.

Haunted by tragedy, Spidey isn't able to rest for long, when a Russian gang member, a onetime fan and industrial accident victim, and an old friend challenge his vow to protect his fellow New Yorkers, especially Gwen.

Peter also learns more about the mystery surrounding his parents' disappearance years before. I didn't think it was necessary to tie Spider-Man's origin so tightly to his parents or to the creation of various villains, but superhero movies tend to do that.

Acting: Since Amazing Spider Man 2 focuses on Peter more than his costumed alter ego, it's good that Brit Andrew Garfield is a strong anchor to the film. Despite his lanky frame, he conveys both Peter's world weariness and Spidey's joy in swinging through Manhattan's steel canyons.

Garfield is again ably supported by winsome Emma Stone (his real-life girlfriend) as Gwen Stacy and Sally Field as hard-working Aunt May. Jamie Foxx gets the most screen time of the villains as dweeby Max Dillon, who becomes Electro, but Chronicle's Dane DeHaan provides more emotional resonance as Peter's wealthy childhood pal Harry Osborn.

I'll try to avoid "spoilers" beyond what you may have seen in posters and previews, but any Spidey fan knows what happens to troubled Harry. Of course, creator Stan Lee has a brief cameo. Paul Giamatti's appearances as Aleksei Stytsevich/the Rhino are almost as brief and clearly setup for the inevitable "Sinister Six" sequels.

Direction and cinematography: Marc Webb, who directed this film's predecessor, clearly understands the characters, and he wisely focuses on Peter's relationship with Gwen, his Aunt May, his absent parents, and Harry. Amazing Spider Man 2 starts out a little slow, with a few set-piece battles, and it gradually picks up speed.

The web-slinging and fight scenes are very good, but not ground-breaking. I'm glad to see Spidey's classic costume restored. As much as I appreciate the occasional slow-motion scene, showcasing poses from the original Marvel Comics pages, audiences have become a bit jaded by plentiful computer-generated visual effects and pyrotechnics.

As a native New Yorker, it was nice to see an upbeat portrayal of my hometown despite all the destruction, as well as the celebration of everyday heroism provided by police, firefighters, and brave civilians. While Disney/Marvel has little to fear, it's the one area where Spidey complements and competes with the four-color Avengers.

Soundtrack: The Amazing Spider-Man 2's musical score is good, with optimistic themes that Man of Steel could have used. It's not quite as stirring as for the earlier Spider-Man flicks, but I noticed it more than for several other recent films. Peter's cell phone ring tone also harkens back to the 1960s cartoons.

Rating: Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which has gotten mixed reviews. Yes, like most superhero sequels, there are too many villains and leaps of logic, but the acting and dialogue make up for obligatory fisticuffs.

I'd give The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which is rated PG-13 for violence, a B or B+, a 7.5 out of 10, or three and a half out of five stars. I liked the first Spider-Man 2 and Captain America [2]: the Winter Soldier slightly more, but this is a solid entry for Spider-Man fans and certainly better than Spider-Man 3.

I'm looking forward to the latest incarnation of Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past (which got a non-sequitur of a teaser during Spidey's end credits), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (I recently saw and liked Rise of Planet of the Apes), and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Captain America: the Winter Soldier review

On Saturday, 12 April 2014, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H., Beruk A., and Ken N. at the Apple Cinemas in Cambridge, Mass., for Captain America [2]: the Winter Soldier. We all enjoyed Disney/Marvel's latest superhero sequel, as well as dinner with Matt J. at Summer Shack afterward.

The Winter Soldier wallpaper

Captain America 2

Plot: The Winter Soldier mostly takes place after the events of the 2011 Captain America film and The Avengers, both of which should be seen to understand this movie. Super soldier Steve Rogers is still a man out of time but has adapted enough to work for covert ops agency SHIELD thwarting terrorists. His patriotic idealism is tested, however, when he learns of a scheme to pre-empt crime that is hijacked by an old enemy….

Marvel Comics readers will recognize much of the story from Ed Brubaker's strong run, while more casual viewers will notice the change in tone from the World War II heroics of the first movie and the superhero team-up of The Avengers to an action/thriller in The Winter Soldier. I'm pleased to see Marvel showing its range, from straightforward costumed crime fighters to cosmic comedy (Thor 2, the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy).

There are some minor plot holes, such as why would Washington, D.C., rely on just one agency for security or why more of the other Avengers aren't mentioned during crisis situations, but the direction and pacing move quickly enough to ignore most of them. ABC's Agents of SHIELD, which has suffered in comparison with Arrow and other shows for much of the current television season, is affected by continuity changes from The Winter Soldier.

Acting: Comic book movie veteran Chris Evans continues to do solid work as Rogers/Capt. America, who is both weary of still fighting after decades (some of which were spent on ice) and resolute in his defense of truth, justice, and the American way (even if that's another hero's catchphrase).

He is joined by Scarlett Johansson, who gets a decent amount to do as fellow Avenger Natalia Romanova/Black Widow. As the Lucy preview showed, it's about time a superheroine leads a feature film — don't get me started on WB/DC's foot dragging with Wonder Woman.

Samuel L. Jackson shows some vulnerability as superspy Nick Fury, supported by Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill. It was nice to glimpse Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, Stan Lee as a Smithsonian guard, and Jenny Agutter as World Security Council member Hawley.

Robert Redford, who starred in some of the best political thrillers of the '70s, brings smarmy gravitas as council leader Alexander Pierce. Like the character Rhodey in the Iron Man movies, Anthony Mackie represents African-American heroes and is (we hope) more than a sidekick as Sam Wilson/Falcon.

I have many fond memories of Captain America fighting villains alongside the winged Falcon. The cameos by Batroc the Leaper and other villains are also amusing for those in the know. I won't "spoil" the identity of the so-called Winter Soldier, but note that this movie serves more to introduce the cybernetic assassin as an antagonist than to resolve that plot thread.

Direction: Shane Black, whose Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang helped revive Robert Downey Jr.'s career, does a good job juggling comic book, espionage, and action elements in The Winter Soldier. The dialogue is rarely stilted, and he successfully introduces or reintroduces an ever-increasing number of characters.

The stealthy infiltrations and fight choreography with Capt. America or Black Widow are nicely done, although I do wish that some of the scenes on the helicarriers (no "spoiler" there; they're in the trailers) were clearer. The visual effects were pretty good, and it was refreshing to see a major cinematic battle in which an entire city wasn't trashed for a change.

The opening and closing credits were decent, and the soundtrack was also good, if not as memorable as for other superhero movies. Overall, I'd give Captain America: the Winter Soldier, which is rated PG-13 for violence and occasional language, four out of five stars, an 8 out of 10, or a B+/A-. I still like Captain America: the First Avenger and The Avengers more, but this is another solid Disney/Marvel superhero flick.