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

War Dogs

For F*** Magazine

WAR DOGS 

Director: Todd Phillips
Cast :  Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, J.B. Blanc, Bradley Cooper, Barry Livingston, Kevin Pollak
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 1 hr 54 mins
Opens : 1 September 2016
Rating : M18 (Coarse Language and Drug Use)

War Dogs posterWar, what is it good for? If you play your cards right, raking in the dough. It’s 2005, and the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan is in full swing. David Packouz (Teller) is a directionless twenty-something living in Miami, reluctantly working as a massage therapist. When his childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Hill) shows back up in town for a mutual friend’s funeral, the two do some catching up. It turns out that Efraim has founded AEY Inc., an arms dealership, and has managed to secure several contracts supplying weapons and other equipment to the U.S. government. David goes behind the back of his pregnant girlfriend Iz (de Armas), who is against the war, and goes into business with Efraim. The pair soon find themselves in way over their heads, travelling to Jordan, Iraq and Albania as they chase lucrative deals. Is it just a matter of time before the dog that is success turns around to bite them?

War Dogs is based on Guy Lawson’s Rolling Stone article Arms and the Dudes, which he expanded into a book. Screenwriter Stephen Chin called on his own experience, having travelled to Iraq while trying to buy the rights to the story of two American businessmen who were setting up a radio station there. With War Dogs, director Todd Phillips of the Hangover trilogy fame faces the challenge of making the audience root for inherently unlikeable characters. Both Efraim and David idolize Tony Montana, with a huge poster of the Scarface protagonist decorating their office. They’re simultaneously scrappy underdogs and shady wheeler-dealers. Multiple artistic liberties are taken in the name of making things more exciting, and Alex Podrizki, the third partner, doesn’t feature in the film at all. That said, it does feel like the audience is getting a peek behind the curtain of a world most of us know nothing about. The technicalities of how Efraim and David go about their business are explained clearly enough without being too dry.

War Dogs Miles Teller and Jonah Hill 1

The narrative conceit is that David is the strait-laced one while Efraim is the brash go-getter, and as such, David is our way in and is the narrator of the story. It might actually be that way in real life, but it definitely seems like character traits have been greatly exaggerated to keep things interesting. Jesse Eisenberg and Shia LaBeouf were initially considered for the lead roles, presumably Eisenberg for David and LaBeouf for Efraim. Instead, we have Teller and Hill. The two generate watchable buddy chemistry, and there’s an undercurrent of tension because we know it’s somehow all going to implode in the end.

Few can play dazed and confused like Teller, who for most of the film, is unwittingly being strung along. Of the two main characters, David is ostensibly closer to the traditional ideal of a movie hero, and the real David Packouz has a cameo as a singer at a nursing home. The real Efraim Diveroli wanted nothing to do with the movie. It makes sense that Teller is given the lower-key role, with Hill having the time of his life playing a character who is as boorish as he is savvy. Hill doesn’t have to be endearing or charming, and he steals the show with much gusto on multiple occasions. As expected, de Armas is relegated to the playing the stock nagging girlfriend who actually has a point, but is mainly in the movie to look pretty, since the two male leads don’t.

War Dogs Miles Teller, Ana de Armas and Jonah Hill

The world of “grey market” arms dealing offers plenty of dramatic storytelling possibilities, with room for sanctimonious finger-wagging as well – the compelling Lord of War comes to mind. Phillips tries to play down the seriousness of the subject matter, instead playing up the goofy absurdity of the premise. Just as Efraim and David find themselves in over their heads, it seems Phillips does as well, since the consequences here are graver than any of the mishaps that befell the Hangover Wolfpack. Speaking of those guys, Bradley Cooper makes a brief but memorable appearance as a notorious gun runner. Also, celebrity poker player and infamous playboy Dan Bilzerian cameos as himself. It seems the kind of people who idolize Bilzerian are exactly the target audience for this film.

War Dogs Jonah Hill, Miles Teller and Bradley Cooper

War Dogs mostly steers away from insightful satire, instead taking the “have your cake and eat it too” tack of glamourizing its subjects while also mocking them. It’s inevitable that impressionable younger viewers will aspire to be just like Efraim and David: who cares if it’s moral or even legal if there’s a payday to be made? It seems the takeaway is “if these stoner dude-bros could wriggle their way into multi-million dollar contracts, why can’t I?”

War Dogs Jonah Hill and Miles Teller in Albanian arms warehouse

It is entertaining and intermittently fascinating, but it’s hard to shake the sense that Phillips’ lowbrow slacker dude comedic sensibilities might not be the best fit for the true story. Yes, there’s comedy to be mined, but diving headfirst into the can of worms and actually making a statement about the implications of war profiteering might’ve been a more worthwhile enterprise.

Summary:  War Dogs plays to the strengths of both its stars, but in playing squarely to the dude-bro demographic, it passes up the chance to be searing and impactful.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Hail, Caesar!

For F*** Magazine

HAIL, CAESAR!

Director : Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast : Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 106 mins
Opens : 10 March 2016
Rating : PG

The Coen Brothers peel back the curtain on the turning cogs of the ‘50s Hollywood studio system machine in this comedy. Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is a fixer employed by Capitol Pictures, who has to ensure that celebrities’ dirty laundry remains in the hamper. When Baird Whitlock (Clooney), the star of the blockbuster Biblical epic Hail, Caesar!, is abducted, it’s up to Mannix to procure the $100 000 ransom and rescue the actor. Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich), another one of Mannix’s clients, is a “singing cowboy” actor who is cast in a period drama helmed by prestigious director Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes) in the studio’s attempt to push him as a big star. He is drawn into Mannix’s mission to find Whitlock. Other figures working on the Capitol Pictures soundstages include actress/synchronised swimmer DeeAnna Moran (Johansson) and song-and-dance man Burt Gurney (Tatum), who harbours a dark secret.

            At the time of writing, Hail, Caesar! has an 82% score from film critics but only a 45% audience score on review aggregating site Rotten Tomatoes. The Coens’ tribute to 50s Hollywood is certainly geared towards cinephiles and packs in plenty of nostalgic period detail, with plenty of homages to the tropes and styles of that era’s moviemaking business. There’s a freewheeling frivolity to the film that might alienate those unfamiliar with the historical context in which the Hail, Caesar! is set. There are Easter Eggs and references galore, most of which were lost on this reviewer. In addition to drawing on the films of Old Hollywood, the Coens reference their own back catalogue: the fictional Capitol Pictures studio also featured in Barton Fink.

The Coens have written and directed some startlingly bleak black comedies, and in contrast, Hail, Caesar! is a frothy and frolicsome enterprise. By having the main character be a studio fixer, whose job it is to keep everyone in line and on brand, the Coens have the opportunity to satirise the iron grip the Old Hollywood studio system had on its contract stars. We do get some of that, to be sure, but the film favours silliness over bite at every turn.



            Because of the clout the Coens have built up over their career, they have access to some big names and many of the cast members in Hail, Caesar! are returning Coen Brothers alumni. Eddie Mannix is a fictionalisation of the real-life Hollywood fixer-turned producer of the same name. Brolin captures the character’s strong work ethic and is a reliable straight man of the “comically serious” variety, trudging through the over-the-top shenanigans that occur throughout the film. In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty and Hail, Caesar!, Clooney plays characters who aren’t too bright, forming the so-called “numbskull trilogy”. Here, Clooney’s Baird Whitlock is modelled after Kirk Douglas; his character in the film-within-a-film being a Roman centurion who is eventually moved by the power of Jesus Christ. Clooney’s lackadaisical charm shines through; Clooney clearly very comfortable working with the Coens.

            A selection of famous faces pop up in extended cameos that could be described as “gratuitous” if one isn’t in a particularly charitable mood – but we’ll be darned if the casting isn’t spot on. Swinton hams it up in a dual role as rival gossip columnists who happen to be twin sisters. Coens oft-collaborator Frances McDormand is a film editor who has a scarf-related mishap and Jonah Hill shows up as a surety agent. Johansson plays an Esther Williams-esque actress and participates in a lavishly choreographed synchronised swimming sequence. Her character is perceived as sweet and elegant, when she’s actually a surly, irascible chain-smoker. Tatum is absolutely hilarious here, while also getting to show off some very fancy footwork in a tap dance number that’s a tribute to Gene Kelly. Ehrenreich may not be as well-known as his co-stars, but he’s plenty likeable as the unrefined singing cowboy who has his life taken over by the studio.

            Hail, Caesar!is plenty of very broadly played fun and is sure to appeal to viewers who have an affinity with the movies of 50s Hollywood and the behind-the-scenes gossip that came with them. Alas, it’s far from the Coens’ sharpest material and there are instances where they seem to be caught up in the minutiae and get a little carried away with their elaborate odes to this bygone era of filmmaking. This can be viewed as something of a companion piece to Trumbo, set against the same political climate in Hollywood but played straight, natch. If it’s nostalgia, whimsy and a couple of intricately staged musical numbers that you’re after, the Coens have got you covered.

Summary: A light-hearted romp through 50s Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! is packed with loving homages but does play a little too “inside baseball” for non-initiates to get into.

RATING: 3.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

How To Train Your Dragon 2

As published in Issue #53 of F*** Magazine

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 

Director: Dean DeBlois
Cast: Jay Baruchel, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Cate Blanchett, Djimon Hounsou, Kit Harington, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller
Genre: Action, Adventure, Animation,
Run Time: 103 mins
Rating: PG
Opens: 12 June 2014

From the Mother of Dragons to Smaug the Terrible, those mythical winged reptiles we know, love and sometimes fear have re-entered pop culture in a big way. 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon, inspired by Cressida Cowell’s book series, had a part to play in it as well. Five years have passed since the events of that film, humans now living peacefully alongside dragons in the Nordic island village of Berk. Hiccup (Baruchel), poised to inherit the role of chieftain from his father Stoick (Butler), has grown inseparable from his beloved Night Fury dragon, Toothless. Hiccup and Toothless stumble across a remote ice cavern, a secret dragon haven and home to Valka (Blanchett), a mysterious, feral dragon master. They also come into conflict with the fearsome dragon hunter Drago Bludvist (Hounsou), with whom Stoick had a treacherous encounter in the past.  


            The first How to Train Your Dragon is one of the best “A boy and his X” tales ever put on screen, right up there with the likes of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrialand Iron Giant. It was also a breath-taking visual feast and in that regard, the sequel ups the ante. The flying sequences are as exhilarating as ever and the 3D effects are stunning, particularly when large ice structures break apart and fall towards the camera. The action sequences are fluid and dynamic and the character animation is lively and detailed. If you were struck by how adorable Toothless was in the first film (and really, who wasn’t) prepare to go “d’aww” and giggle more times than you can care to count. The animators optimise every inch of the cuddly Night Fury to convey his emotions: he’s swift and nimble one minute and friendly and silly the next. Oh, how we’ve missed Toothless on the big screen. This film also boasts a career best musical score from composer John Powell, who snagged his first Oscar nomination for How to Train Your Dragon.

            It pains us a little to say this, but when it comes to the story, How to Train Your Dragon 2 has a mild case of sequilitis. How to Train Your Dragon ended with such an equilibrium, the relationships between Hiccup and his father, between Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid (Ferrera) and between Hiccup and Toothless all arriving at a satisfying place. We’re sure DreamWorks fully intended for it to spawn a franchise, but it concluded so neatly that there didn’t seem to be too many places to go in a sequel. The interactions between the characters are still fun to watch and there are still genuine emotional moments, but this just lacks the warmth and drive of its predecessor. We’ve also got a villain who’s simply kind of there, Drago’s design strongly reminiscent of Shan Yu from Disney’s Mulan. An attempt is made to connect him with Stoick’s past and Djimon Hounsou sounds sufficiently gruff and menacing, but Drago ends up being little more than a generic physically imposing bad guy, complete with scars and dreadlocks. His flame-retardant dragon skin cape is pretty cool, though.

            This reviewer’s theory as to why How to Train Your Dragon is one of the best movies in the DreamWorks Animation oeuvre is that it feels the most Pixar-like. This may sound like a back-handed compliment, but DreamWorks’ trademark all-star voice cast and hip, pop culture referencing humour did wear on many moviegoers’ nerves. How to Train Your Dragon didn’t have a gaggle of marquee name A-listers in the recording booth and was all the better for it. All of the major cast members from the first one, including Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, America Ferrera and Craig Ferguson, return here. Baruchel doesn’t have a typically heroic voice, and it works for Hiccup. Here, we get a Hiccup who has matured, Baruchel adjusting his performance accordingly. Cate Blanchett is an excellent addition to the cast, her delivery at once ethereal and earthy. Apparently, DreamWorks didn’t want a spoiler regarding her character Valka to be revealed, but marketing pushed its inclusion in the trailers anyway. It really does work better if you go into the film blind, hence our beating around the bush in this review. 

            Fans of the first film are unlikely to find anything to hate with the continuing adventures of Hiccup and Toothless. However, given how heartfelt How to Train Your Dragon was and how riveting the story of Hiccup and Toothless’ mutual bond was, one can’t help but feel let down by the sequel. There’s also a fair bit of mood whiplash going on, we get lots of pleasant humour but the transition to the rather heavy and dramatic climax is a tad sudden. Still, there are worse cinematic locales to return to than the island of Berk, and we have to admit we derived some glee from seeing those poor frightened sheep in jeopardy during the Quidditch-like dragon race at the beginning of the film.


Summary: How to Train Your Dragon 2 has sweeping visuals, great music and more of Toothless being cute, but also suffers from a weaker story, treading water in places.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong