How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World review

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD

Director : Dean DeBlois
Cast : Jay Baruchel, America Ferrara, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, F. Murray Abraham, Jonah Hill, Kit Harington, Justin Rupple, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Gerard Butler
Genre : Animation/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 1 h 44 mins
Opens : 31 January 2019
Rating : PG

            Audiences have followed Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his dragon friend Toothless through thick and thin. The bond between the two has made the How to Train Your Dragon series one of the most resonant ‘a boy and his X’ tales of this generation. The journey taken by Hiccup and Toothless concludes in the final instalment in the trilogy.

It has been a year since the events of How to Train Your Dragon 2. Hiccup and his friends have been conducting rescue missions, freeing captured dragons and bringing them back to Berk. Berk has become a haven where humans and dragons live in harmony, just as Hiccup has always dreamed. However, Berk is becoming overcrowded. Meanwhile, Hiccup faces pressure from Gobber (Craig Ferguson) to marry Astrid (America Ferrara), becoming the fully-fledged chief Berk needs as its leader.

Toothless comes across a female Fury dragon, dubbed a ‘Light Fury’ by Astrid. He is immediately smitten with her, but she proves an elusive mate. Toothless and his prospective girlfriend are in grave danger, as the notorious dragon hunter Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) has made it his mission to slay every Night Fury in existence. Hiccup recalls the stories his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) told him of a mythical lost world populated entirely by dragons, dubbed ‘the Hidden World’. Hiccup and Toothless go off in search of the Hidden World, as the future of mankind’s coexistence with dragons hangs in the balance.

The How to Train Your Dragon film trilogy is a classic coming-of-age tale, and this film brings the story to a bittersweet-but-satisfying close. Audiences have grown up alongside Hiccup and Toothless – the first film was released nine years ago. Director Dean DeBlois expands the world and the mythos of the series but never loses sight of the bond between Hiccup and Toothless that is at its core.

The film is beautifully animated – the titular Hidden World is a breath-taking subterranean paradise, and the chaotic, bustling Berk bursts with inventive design elements that accommodate the coexistence of humans and dragons on the same island. The flight shared by Toothless and the Light Fury recalls the “Can You Read My Mind?” sequence from the 1978 Superman film. Since the film centres on Toothless falling in love, there’s more of a giddy romanticism to the spectacle and less emphasis on action than in the previous instalments.

The returning voice cast is excellent, with Baruchel portraying a Hiccup who has further come into his own. Hiccup’s life has been shaped by trauma and tragedy, but he is also surrounded by love and support. Audiences have stood at several crossroads alongside Hiccup and seeing his character arc complete in this film is expectedly emotional.

Ferrara’s Astrid is a badass who’s also an understanding partner and responsible leader. We see how Hiccup and Astrid complement each other and witness them reach adulthood, on the brink of a life together as chief and chieftess of Berk.

The film’s portrayal of the courtship between Toothless and the Light Fury is cute and filled with awkward relatable moments. There’s a slinky mystique to the Light Fury and seeing Toothless infatuated to the point where he can’t function normally is delightful. As the film progresses, Hiccup must come to terms with the possibility that he and Toothless must part ways. The Hidden World exhibits a maturity that continues this series’ penchant for being a little deeper and a little more honest about life’s ups and downs than many other animated film series are.

While Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Tuffnut (Justin Rupple), Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) all have their funny moments, these supporting comedic characters sometimes distract from the rest of the movie. The back-and-forth bickering dynamic among Hiccup and Astrid’s friends is the closest the film comes to feeling like some other Dreamworks Animation movies that use comic relief characters and smart aleck quips as a crutch.

F. Murray Abraham sounds like he’s having a fun time conjuring up a little bit of Salieri from Amadeus as the villainous Grimmel. However, it’s clear that the villain isn’t the focus of the film, and as such he come off feeling like a middling Marvel Cinematic Universe villain. Like the second film’s villain Drago, Grimmel is a dragon hunter, because the human villain in a How to Train Your Dragon film is unlikely to be a Lex Luthor-esque CEO.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World does reuse certain story and visual elements from earlier in the series, but it also gives us rich character development and a Toothless who falls in love. There will be tears and the film’s final scene is a perfectly-calibrated blend of closure and a sense of longing for more. It’s a great note to leave the series; one can only hope any potential spinoffs don’t tamper with how The Hidden World wraps things up.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Glass review

GLASS

Director : M. Night Shyamalan
Cast : James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard
Genre : Thriller/ horror
Run Time : 2 h 9 mins
Opens : 17 January 2019
Rating : PG13

Every studio wants a cinematic universe. M. Night Shyamalan sprung a surprise on viewers, as is his wont, with the reveal at the end of 2017’s Split that the film took place in the same shared universe as 2000’s Unbreakable. The ‘Eastrail #177 trilogy’ culminates with Glass.

Kevin Crumb/The Horde (James McAvoy), a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder who harbours 24 distinct personalities including the animalistic Beast, is still at large after the events of Split. When the vigilante David Dunn/The Overseer (Bruce Willis) attempts to capture Kevin, both are inadvertently caught and placed in Raven Hill Memorial Hospital. At the hospital, Dr Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), believing Kevin and David to have delusions of grandeur, attempts to rehabilitate them. She has a third patient: Elijah Price/Mr Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), a self-styled supervillain and former comic book gallery owner with brittle bone disease.

Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), a girl who was captured by Kevin but let go; David’s son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) and Elijah’s mother Mrs Price (Charlayne Woodard) band together to discover the truth behind what afflicts the three characters. Dr Staple is convinced that there are rational, non-fantastical explanations for the ‘powers’ manifested by Kevin, David and Elijah, despite appearances to the contrary. Elijah, who has been feigning catatonia the whole time, hatches a plan of escape, a plan that involves both Kevin and David. The stage for a showdown between two supervillains and a superhero is set.

At the time of Unbreakable’s release, the comic book movie boom was still around a decade away. General audiences were not yet as well-versed in the tropes of comic book storytelling as they are today, so now seems like a good time to release a follow-up to Unbreakable. Unfortunately, Glass squanders this opportunity, winding up as a colossal disappointment that seems to get in its own way at every conceivable turn.

It’s a shame because Glass isn’t a mess from the outset: we see the glimmers of potential, then watch as they are dulled, until the film seems like a big smear. The movie sets up a dynamic clash between three fascinating characters, but they feel like shadows of the people we met in earlier films. McAvoy is more annoying than unsettling as Kevin, Willis’ David is straight-up boring, and Jackson’s portrayal of a conniving mastermind is serviceable but nothing captivating.

Shyamalan gets a few pleasingly tense moments in but is unable to sustain the viewers’ attention. The film feels hemmed in by its mental hospital setting, promising a set-piece finale that winds up severely underwhelming. This undercuts the promise of a grand, explosive conclusion to the trilogy. The dialogue is unbearably clunky in spots, with Shyamalan struggling to weave in references to story arcs and devices commonly found in comic books. His trademark cameo is also entirely awkward.

Split deservedly drew flack for its use of mental illness to signal life-threatening villainy. This reviewer’s friend compared it to a Universal Monsters film, except Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy aren’t real and Dissociative Identity Disorder is a real thing. While McAvoy sinks his teeth into the challenging role, the hints of hammy over-acting in Split have all come to the surface. As a result, Kevin is never truly scary and is sometimes unintentionally funny, and it just blends into a mass of silly voices.

While it is nice to see Willis back as David Dunn and there’s also strong continuity in seeing Spencer Treat Clark reprise his role as David’s son Joseph, the character just isn’t that interesting. Perhaps it’s a side effect of how Willis has spent much of his recent career sleep-walking through many direct-to-DVD action movies. The sense of inner turmoil and the compelling nature of an ordinary man coming to terms with extraordinary gifts drew audiences to David in Unbreakable, but here, Willis just shuffles along.

Samuel L. Jackson was by no means an unknown in 2000, but now he’s just ubiquitous, and perhaps that takes away some of Elijah Price’s mystique. The character’s gimmick, that he was a self-styled supervillain, seemed novel when Unbreakable was released, but Glass does surprisingly little with it. While there’s an attempt to flesh out the relationship between Elijah and his mother, with Charlayne Woodard delivering a heartfelt performance, it seems rote rather than adding to the mythos.

Sarah Paulson is typically reliable, but seems unnatural and stiff, hamstrung by sub-par material. Anya Taylor-Joy puts her very emotive eyes to great use as Casey, but the character’s bond to Kevin feels forced, even coming off Split.

There was every opportunity for Glass to be an original, unorthodox, engaging exploration of what it means to be a hero or a villain, and of the implications of superpowers being real. Just when he seemed on the verge of a credible comeback, Shyamalan blows it with an excruciatingly clumsy movie that breaks every promise of a thrilling threequel hinted at before.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Upside review

THE UPSIDE

Director : Neil Burger
Cast : Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman, Aja Naomi King, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Genevieve Angelson, Juliana Marguiles, Golshifteh Farahani, Tate Donovan
Genre : Drama/Comedy
Run Time : 2 h 6 mins
Opens : 17 January 2019
Rating : PG13

There’s a specificity to the ‘unlikely buddy comedy-drama’ subgenre: the movies in this category like Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester or Scent of a Woman aren’t typical buddy movies. They’re often required to have an element of uplift and inspiration, in addition to humour arising from mismatched leads who might not get along at first. At the end of the day, each party learns something unexpected from the other. The 2011 French film The Intouchables is one of the more memorable recent entries in this subgenre, and The Upside is the Hollywood remake of it.

Phillip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston) is a wealthy venture capitalist and investment guru who became a quadriplegic after a paragliding accident. His assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) is helping him vet applicants to be his auxiliary nurse, helping him with everyday tasks. Ex-convict Dell Scott (Kevin Hart) applies for the job not because he wants it, but because he needs to show his parole officer that he has been looking for work. Against Yvonne’s wishes, Phillip takes a liking to Dell.

While Dell is unqualified for the position, he and Phillip gradually warm to each other. Phillip introduces Dell to art and opera, while Dell bounces his ideas for businesses off Phillip. Dell tries to make amends with his ex-wife Latrice (Aja Naomi King) and his young son Anthony (Jahi Di’Allo). However, it’s not all smooth sailing, as Phillip and Dell have their disagreements and must evaluate what each want out of life, finding themselves at a crossroads together despite their very different backgrounds.

The Upside has been getting a lot of flack from fans of The Intouchables, who have readily written it off as a rip-off.  The French film was inspired by the true story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, a wealthy hotelier who became friends with his ex-convict carer Abdel Sellou. The film has already been remade: in Spanish as Inseparables and in Telugu and Tamil as Oopiri/ Thozha, with a Hindi remake in development.

Being a remake is not one of The Upside’s biggest problems. The Intouchables has received its share of criticism for its problematic handling of race, and for falling back on stereotypes – even if it was based on a true story. With this remake, there was an opportunity to recontextualise the story and explore the sensitive subjects of race, privilege, social inequality and disability within an American setting. Unfortunately, while the film hints at these themes, it is not astute or deft enough to handle them in an insightful manner. The movie wants to be a feel-good inspirational drama, but in keeping the social issues key to the story at arm’s length, it often feels shallow.

Director Neil Burger, working from a screenplay by Jon Hartmere, appears to have trouble depicting the progression of the friendship between Phillip and Dell in a way that makes sense. They have disagreements, get over them, then have more disagreements, but each seems to react disproportionately to key incidences in the story. Dell starts out confrontational and obnoxious, while Phillip is patient, until he suddenly isn’t. It’s hard to get a handle on the two main characters even though they get a lot of screen time, because there isn’t a lot of flow in the development of their relationship.

Cranston is excellent as expected, finding the quiet sadness and ironic sense of humour in a character who has everything but mobility from the neck down. While there is a debate to be had about able-bodied actors playing disabled characters, Cranston plays the role with enough care that Phillip is sympathetic even though he’s incredibly wealthy, and not just because he is a quadriplegic.

Kevin Hart is staggeringly miscast. There’s no rule that says comedians cannot try their hand at drama, and there are many comedians who have excelled in dramatic roles, but Hart’s smart-mouth persona and shrillness threaten to smother the character, even though he is trying to dial it down here. When Dell is rude and confrontational, it feels like he’s just out to get a rise of others, rather than it coming from a place of real struggle.

While it’s not a focal point of the movie, it’s also hard not to wince at a scene in which Dell baulks at changing Phillip’s catheter, freaks out over Phillip’s accidental erection and can’t even bring himself to say the word “penis”, given former future Oscar host Hart’s history of homophobic remarks.

Nicole Kidman puts in a respectable low-key performance – it’s clear she’s looking for depth in the limited material she has but figured early on that she didn’t have to do too much. The subplot about Dell’s ex-wife and son could’ve done with more development, but the film is right to place the focus on Dell and Phillip’s relationship. Juliana Marguiles shows up for one scene, that is one of the film’s better scenes because Hart isn’t in it.

The filmmakers of The Upside must’ve known they were stepping into a minefield, given that the politics of disability, race and inequality are central to the story. In aiming for a safe, crowd-pleasing feel-good drama, The Upside does not fall into outright shameful sentimentality, but still suffers from a lack of nuance and passes up the opportunity to reframe the original story against the backdrop of urban American society.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Mule review

THE MULE

Director : Clint Eastwood
Cast : Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña, Laurence Fishburne, Allison Eastwood, Taissa Farmiga, Dianne Wiest, Andy García, Clifton Collins Jr., Eugene Cordero, Noel Gugliemi
Genre : Crime/Drama/Mystery
Run Time : 1 h 56 mins
Opens : 10 January 2019
Rating : M18

Clint Eastwood is 88-years-old and has been working steadily since the 50s, so it makes sense that some of his recent films deal with aging. In this drama, his character’s old age is an asset, because it makes him less suspicious – as a drug mule.

Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a nonagenarian horticulturist and Vietnam War veteran who has fallen on hard times after his house and farm is foreclosed upon. Earl is estranged from his family, including his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest), his daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood) and his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). Earl comes across what he thinks will be a one-off opportunity as a drug runner for a Mexican cartel. Because the work is easy and pays extremely well, Earl finds himself coming back, unexpectedly becoming one of the cartel’s top mules.

DEA Agents Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (Michael Peña) learn through an informant about a mule the cartel refers to as “Tata”, Spanish for “grandfather”. The deliveries are being brought into Chicago, with the agents closing in on the elusive mule. Back in Mexico, cartel kingpin Laton (Andy García) is pleased with Earl’s performance, but his lieutenants are spooked by the increasing DEA activity, taking issue with Earl’s penchant for unscheduled stops. Earl knows his successful run working for the cartel cannot last forever and faces the inevitable: he will either be killed by cartel enforcers or captured by the DEA.

The Mule is based on an article in The New York Times by Sam Dolnick, entitled The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule. Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk, who got his big break penning Eastwood’s Gran Torino, have taken loose inspiration from the life of Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran who became a drug runner for the cartel run by El Chapo. Eastwood’s presence as director, producer and star means that it’s obvious that he has projected himself onto the Earl Stone character, who is drawn as a well-meaning, good-hearted man who just isn’t properly appreciated by his family and winds up doing bad things even though he is not a bad person.

Eastwood is too in love with the character, who functions as an avatar of himself, for the movie to accomplish very much. Having directed 34 movies, Eastwood more than knows what he’s doing on the technical front and draws out good performances from his talented cast. However, he is squarely the centre of attention. Earl berates younger people for constantly being on their smartphones and functions as a stubborn guardian of a bygone age, an old-fashioned stalwart who doesn’t get the respect he deserves. He also has at least two threesomes with prostitutes, scenes which one imagines Eastwood doing multiple takes of just to be sure.

Cooper and Peña are given underwritten roles, but Cooper does get one good scene set in a Waffle House in which he gets to do a bit more than chase after Clint Eastwood. Dianne Wiest is the standout in the cast as Earl’s ex-wife, who harbours less ill-will towards Earl than his daughter Iris (played by Eastwood’s real daughter Alison) but who still wishes things could’ve been different. The skill with which Wiest conveys quiet sadness ensures the relationship is not overly treacly.

The scenes in which Earl is friendly towards the cartel members lower on the ladder who warm to him are quite endearing. Both Andy García and Laurence Fishburne are on hand to lend additional gravitas in relatively small roles as a cartel boss and a senior DEA agent respectively.

The Mule is not an instant classic the way some of Eastwood’s films are, and it is more obviously a vanity project than several other late-period Eastwood movies. There are moments when it’s charming and the Earl Stone character is not the worst person to spend a couple of hours with, but the movie fundamentally lacks any urgency or drive. The moments of tension, when it feels like Earl’s Faustian bargain is catching up to him, are too few and far between. It is ultimately saved by the compelling nature of the true story and Eastwood’s unquestionable competence as a director but is not one of the more essential entries in his oeuvre.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Escape Room review

ESCAPE ROOM

Director : Adam Robitel
Cast : Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine, Jay Ellis, Nik Dodani
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 99 mins
Opens : 10 January 2019
Rating : PG13

       Stress and panic are thing most people instinctively try to avoid, but there’s a long history of people inducing stress and panic in themselves in the name of entertainment. Horror movies and roller coasters serve this purpose, and so do escape rooms, in which participants are trapped until they can find a way out by solving puzzles, the clues to which are hidden in the room. A little bit of pressure under controlled circumstances can be invigorating. In this horror thriller, the participants of an escape room find those circumstances going terrifyingly out of control.

College student Zoey (Taylor Russell), grocery store stockist Ben (Logan Miller), military veteran Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), stock trader Jason (Jay Ellis), trucker Mike (Tyler Labine) and escape room enthusiast Danny (Nik Dodani) find themselves in the waiting room of the Minos Escape Room in Chicago. They were each given a puzzle box by someone they know, with the promise of a $10 000 cash prize if they solve the puzzles and escape the room.

However, as they undergo a literal trial by fire and brave a host of other deadly traps, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary escape room. Each stage contains specific references to the participants’ personal histories, indicating that a vast conspiracy lies behind their predicament. The five strangers must cooperate to find a way out or face their deaths at the hands of whatever sinister force has set up this twisted game.

           Escape Room takes on a bit of an eerie quality given the very recent tragedy in which five girls in Poland died in an escape room as the result of apparent arson. An escape room as a setting for a horror film seems like a natural idea, and two unrelated low-budget horror movie both also called ‘Escape Room’ were released in 2017.

There is appeal in the idea of a PG-13 take on Saw (specifically the second film onwards, when traps became more of a feature), a horror thriller that places an emphasis on puzzle-solving and trap design instead of excessive gore. In addition to Saw, there are shades of Cube, The Game and Final Destination, yet Escape Room is not as derivative as many other disposable horror flicks – or at least that’s how it starts.

Despite some extremely clunky dialogue and broadly-drawn characters, the film starts off engrossingly enough. Director Adam Robitel stages reasonably tense set-pieces within production designer Edward Thomas’ sets. Even without graphic violence, the stakes are established, and audiences begin to fear for the characters. There are little touches like the name ‘Minos’ being an allusion to the Greek myth of the Minotaur in the labyrinth. However, it’s not long before everything falls apart.

The actors dutifully occupy each of the stock types and there is some fun to be had in guessing the order in which the characters are killed off. Taylor Russell’s withdrawn genius student is a protagonist who’s easy to root for, while Logan Miller manages to give a little depth to the sullen, antisocial Ben. Deborah Ann Woll showcases some physicality as the ex-military Amanda, while Jay Ellis relishes playing a slime-ball finance guy.

Tyler Labine probably gets the least to do as the blue-collar guy who’s out of his depth, while Nik Dodani’s enthusiastic Danny is intentionally grating. It’s not the worst collection of six characters to show up in a horror movie, but it’s far from the most memorable.

Most negative reviews of Escape Room single out the ending, and with good reason. The conclusion of the film is equivalent to an escape room employee shuffling into the room mid-puzzle, telling the participants there never was a solution from the start, and then chasing everyone out before turning off the lights. Whatever riveting intensity the preceding scenes possessed is squandered by the extremely unsatisfying ending, which appears to set up a sequel and leaving nothing resolved.

With a better script, Escape Room seems like something that David Fincher could’ve made earlier in his career. Robitel, who also directed Insidious: The Last Key, is no David Fincher, but several set-pieces are executed with sufficient flair. Thanks to a competent cast, decent production values and passable amounts of invention in the traps and riddles, Escape Room is a safe distance from the bottom-of-the-barrel horror movies that typically get January releases, but the payoff leaves a lot to be desired.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong