HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON | Movie Review

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Reviewed by REGGIE WOLTZ

With an adorable (albeit fire-breathing) star and a formidable villain, the animated adventure How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World has a lot going for it. In this third installment of the series of films about Vikings and their dragons — based on books by Cressida Cowell — returning writer-director Dean DeBlois neatly ties up the threads of broken families that have dogged the franchise’s characters, delivering a message of hope and togetherness.

So why doesn’t this sequel fly as high as the other films in the trilogy?

When we last met our reluctant young hero, the dragon trainer Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), he had been reunited with his mother (Cate Blanchett), lost his father (Gerard Butler) and resolved the age-old conflict between humans and dragons.

Or had he?

The Hidden World opens on the Norse island of Berk, where Vikings live in harmony with gigantic flying lizards that have eyes like cats — and, like felines, are fond of nuzzling their human masters. Yet a new evil looms in the person of Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), a long-faced, blond-haired dragon trapper who is seeking fresh recruits for his winged army. When Grimmel learns of Hiccup’s black dragon Toothless — a member of the ferocious Night Fury species with which Grimmel has a vendetta — he sets out to exterminate the creature.

And what better way to bait a young male dragon than with the lure of a young female dragon? Grimmel sends out a second Night Fury — quickly dubbed “Light Fury,” for her albino coloration — to enchant Toothless, Soon, love turns the flying warrior to mush.

The trouble with the film is that this animal love story also saps some of the franchise’s main strength, which has always been the almost pet-like relationship between humans and dragons.

At first, it’s kind of sweet to watch Toothless (whose CGI eyes have grown more expressive with each film) swoon over Light Fury, a prancing, snow-white version of himself. But that sweetness doesn’t quite match the joy, in the previous installments, of seeing Hiccup and Toothless grow up together before our eyes.

The courtship of two dragons, which is all part of Grimmel’s strategy, is wordless, awkward and — briefly — delightful. But it stops the action dead in its tracks, which doesn’t bode well for the movie. Sure, love is universal. But these two particular lovers are — despite Toothless’s appealing “personality” — mostly surface. The new character of Light Fury, all coquettishness and purity, is little more than a Manic Pixie Dream Dragon.

What’s more, the nominal “hidden world” — a dragon utopia where the animals are said to be able to live free from fear and harm — is rendered as a fantastical, neon-colored mountain of kitsch, like something out of a prog-rock opera for kids.

Frankly, that aesthetic may have been part of the appeal of the previous two films. Yet the robust action sequences — and the corny dialogue about the strength we carry within us — just aren’t as thrilling this time around. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World still has the power to warm a cold heart, but the fire is less bright.

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ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL | Movie Review

Alita: Battle Angel

Reviewed by REGGIE WOLTZ

Heavenly visuals can’t compensate for a screenplay that languishes. In Alita: Battle Angel, a dystopian adventure that amounts to a high-concept exercise in spectacle over substance.

This lavish big-screen adaptation of the Japanese manga (by Yukito Kishiro) boasts an ambitious science-fiction scope and an impressive behind-the-scenes pedigree, including the involvement of James Cameron. However, it lacks emotional depth and complexity beneath its superficial thrills, slick gadgetry, cool weapons, and notoriously big-eyed protagonist.

The story is set 500 years in the future, after Earth was ravaged by an unexplained catastrophic war. Alita (Rosa Salazar) is a cyborg with human characteristics whose scientist creator, Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz), named his latest robotic creation after his late daughter.

Their relationship becomes complicated as Alita develops the characteristics of a human teenager complete with a boyfriend (Keean Johnson) while coming to terms with some secrets about her past as a female bounty hunter.

The film’s most exciting sequences revolve around a game called “motorball,” an intense competition that resembles a hybrid between basketball and roller derby, in which our tough-minded heroine proves tenaciously adept.

That also leads to Alita embracing her heroic calling and its associated dangers. She explores her potential as a lethal warrior following encounters with motorball’s overseer, the duplicitous Vector (Mahershala Ali) and his alleged lover (Jennifer Connelly), who happens to be Ido’s ex-wife and might hold the key to an evil empire.

The muddled screenplay by Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island) gradually fills in some contextual details for its character and setting, with the action picking up considerably after a dark first hour spent heavily on exposition.

Within its cyberpunk milieu, Alita: Battle Angel adopts a video-game mentality with a generic nod to female empowerment that waters down the source material for mainstream consumption.

As directed by Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), the film is quite a technical achievement, with visually stunning 3D cinematography and a meticulously rendered futuristic landscape. It seamlessly blends live action with motion-capture animation and special effects.

Unfortunately, this latest attempt to ride the wave of superhero origin stories is little more than a 21st century coming-of-age tale in a 26th century setting, which seems a dubious bet as a legitimate franchise starter in an oversaturated marketplace.

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LEGO MOVIE 2 | Movie Review

The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part

Reviewed by REGGIE WOLTZ

Towards the end of The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, the tiny bricks, in a moment of great despair, soak their sadness in a song: ‘Everything’s not awesome, everything’s not cool and I am so depressed’.

Later, a little pep talk from one of the main characters shines a new, hopeful light on their situation and they modify their song to ‘Everything is not awesome. Things can’t be awesome all of the time… But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make everything awesome in a less idealistic kind of a way.’ And those are basically my thoughts about the movie.

This sequel to The Lego Movie is just good enough when compared to its predecessor. There is still a lot of meta humor, washed down with a big gulp of pop culture references, with a sweet serving of a wholesomeness. However, the noisy, color-filled chain explosion does try your patience before it gets to the good bits.

The Second Part begins where the first ended. After saving the city, Emmet (Chris Pratt) and his friends are met with a new problem, the little sister wants to play with them and so do her unforgiving toys, who will munch on any peace offerings from the townspeople of Bricksburg.

We jump five years and the sweet town has been converted into a Mad Max-inspired post-apocalyptic world. Everything is hopeless and gloomy, but not for Emmet. He is still singing and believing that Everything Is Awesome.

His optimism seems childish to Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) and she demands that he should toughen up, be mature, grow up. So when terror strikes again and aliens from the nearby Systar System take Emmet’s friends hostage, it’s just the right opportunity for him to leave his sweet, innocent self behind and toughen up. Mentoring him into manhood is the manliest man brick in the universe, Rex Dangervest (also voiced by Pratt). The raptor-training-space hero-archeologist-cowboy-carpenter (an amalgamation of all of Pratt’s characters from Jurassic World, Guardians of the Galaxy, Parks and Recreation and others) helps Emmet rescue his friends from the clutches of evil queen Watevra Wa’nabi (Tiffany Haddish). She wants to marry Batman, by the way.

As you can tell, the movie begins on a messy and rather childish note, apparently with no other intention but to make kids laugh at the glitter-barfing brick and make adults laugh at sly digs at Marvel. It achieves that adequately well. Kids giggle at the exploding stars and are awestruck at Rex’s giant spaceship. Meanwhile, adults are kept entertained with Batman’s mention of Ben Affleck’s chiseled abs and Bruce Willis hanging out in air vents.

More hilarious bits include a nod to Avengers Infinity War’s gloomy ending and the genius play on words that will keep you hooked until the big twist and the big reveal. Upon the revelation, the entire last hour begins making more sense and doesn’t look as shallow as it did earlier.

The Everything Is Not Awesome song reminds of the despair the toys felt in Toy Story 3, as they held hands, headed towards the furnace, ready to die. Surely, nothing can beat the sullen sadness of that scene but The LEGO Movie 2 did come close.

Batman, played again by Will Arnette to a brooding perfection, is still the one to rake in maximum laughs and most kudos for his pop culture references, jealousy for Superman and the complete disdain for marriage. However, to watch him fall in love like a high school boy was just as fun.

The journey of Lego Movie 2 from the first minute to the happy ending was a steep upwards graph. It tests your patience at moments but rewards you just as well at the end. When I say the end, I mean the end credits. Don’t get off your seats until the screen fades to black; you won’t regret it.

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THE UPSIDE | Movie Review

The Upside

Reviewed by REGGIE WOLTZ

The Upside, a remake of the 2011 French film The Intouchables, which was inspired by the true story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, can’t help but feel a bit hackneyed at this point. (It’s actually the third remake of The Intouchables, following Indian and Argentinian versions.) It’s the kind of schmaltzy, feel-good movie Hollywood has been feeding audiences for decades, but sometimes they get it right. In the case of The Upside, the success is due almost entirely to the casting of Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston as the odd couple at its center.

Hart is recent parolee Dell, who’s looking to turn his life around and find a way to provide for his young son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) and ex (Aja Naomi King). When he enters a New York City high-rise and takes the elevator up to the penthouse, he thinks he’s there to see about a janitorial opening. It’s a job that, even in his desperate state, he doesn’t want, so his only aim is to collect a signature to prove to his parole officer that he’s actively seeking work.

As it turns out, the opening is for a “life auxiliary,” i.e. a live-in caregiver, for billionaire quadriplegic Phillip Lacasse (Cranston). After sitting through a parade of endlessly sunny and corny applicants, Philip, who’s still mourning his late wife and the life he was forced to abandon after a paragliding accident, offers the job to Dell. It doesn’t come from some altruistic drive to be the struggling man’s savior; it’s Philip’s act of personal rebellion, seizing what he believes is the only piece of agency he has left to hire the least qualified applicant — much to the dismay of his trusted assistant, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman).

Dell bumbles his way through his early days on the job while gradually bonding with Philip and genuinely caring for him. It’s a reciprocal relationship, with Philip encouraging Dell to follow his dreams, whether they are to come up with an idea for a business startup or pursuing art, while Dell gives Philip the push he needs to find his way back out into the world again.

Directed by Neil Burger (Limitless) and written by Jon Hartmere, the amiable film has a few true laugh-out-loud moments, including a “that’s what she said” joke delivered by Cranston with impeccable comic timing and a cringe-worthy catheter-changing scene.

In his most dramatic role to date, Hart shows off some real acting chops instead of just mugging for the camera, while Cranston isn’t at all limited by Philip’s lack of movement; if anything, the stillness amplifies all of his emotions. On the downside, Kidman spends most of her time on screen doing little other than scowling at Hart, which seems like a waste of her talents.

Though it would have been more compelling had the filmmakers found a way to fit Yvonne into it more effectively, the upside is that the central relationship succeeds. Hart and Cranston play off each other nicely, and the movie works to the extent it does because they work so well together.

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THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING | Movie Review

The Kid Who Would Be King

Reviewed by REGGIE WOLTZ

In our darkest hour, King Arthur will return to save the world. Or, so the legend goes. With Tom Brady in the Super Bowl yet again, now seems an opportune time for some saving. In The Kid Who Would Be King, writer-director Joe Cornish has updated the classic story of Camelot, spinning an allegory for our fractured world.

London boy Alex Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of Andy) and his best friend (Dean Chaumoo) are constantly bullied at school. One day, Alex wanders into a vacant lot (where luxury condos are set to be built, because of course they are, it’s 2019) and finds a sword stuck in a stone. Intrigued, he extracts the blade and begins to suspect that he’s the modern-day Arthur. His hunch is confirmed when an excitable boy, claiming to be the fabled wizard, Merlin, suddenly appears at his school. 

The wizard — who switches between a young form (Angus Imrie) and an older (Patrick Stewart) — proves his bona fides by casting powerful spells via a frantic series of hand slaps that look like a Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly bit.

Centuries ago, Arthur and Merlin bested the evil witch Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), imprisoning her in an underground lair so dank and stuffy, you expect the R train to rumble through any moment. Now that the aboveground world is leaderless and bitterly divided — the weaker we are, the stronger she gets — the time is ripe for Morgana’s return. She hopes to claim the magic sword, Excalibur, and presumably land a lucrative contract screaming in a corner box on CNN.

To counter Margana and her undead army, Alex builds his own roundtable, recruiting his one-time bullies (Rhianna Dorris and Tom Taylor) to the cause. Surprisingly affective lessons on the chivalric code and the importance of civility soon follow.

Cornish, who hasn’t directed a film since the excellent 2011 teens-versus-aliens movie Attack the Block, has created a movie with the goofy charm of 1980s kids adventure flicks, such as The Goonies or The NeverEnding Story. It’s gentle — and almost completely bloodless. During the climax, a fire-breathing Morgana battles an army of school kids and none appears to get even an eyebrow singed. 

In the end, the premise of the world needing Arthur’s return may not be so farfetched. With the blend of wholesomeness, humor, and classic adventure that Cornish infuses, the audience is easily enabled to escape into this alternate universe. Alas, after two hours, everyone must return to a reality where it might take magic more powerful than Merlin’s just to reopen the government.

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GLASS | Movie Review

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GLASS

Reviewed by REGGIE WOLTZ

Glass brings an end to a saga over 19 years in the making. M. Night Shyamalan’s “Eastrail 177” trilogy started with Unbreakable in 2000 and picked up with Split in 2016. For the past few years, many have wondered how Shyamalan was going to merge the narratives of two of his arguably best films.

Picking up shortly after Split, the many personalities inside Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) have wasted no time in showing the world their true sinister potential. The criminal activities have caught the attention of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who has increased his heroic status since the events of Unbreakable. One thing leads to another, and they find themselves locked in a mental institution alongside Elijah Price a.k.a. Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson). The trio becomes part of a study led by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) and her goal is to prove to them that they possess no supernatural abilities, and are like nothing seen in the average comic book. This primary thread serves as an interesting follow-up to the previous two films, considering one was a heroic origin story and the other a villainous one.

Not only is this gist interesting enough to keep one’s attention, but the cast could not be more invested. Jackson and Willis slip naturally back into their respective roles and make it seem like they’ve been longing for this return. McAvoy continues to steal scenes, and even adds more surprises and depth that was not previously seen in Split. Returning supporting characters from the previous two films are just as committed and excited to finally collaborate with each other’s narratives. Shyamalan deserves credit for naturally merging the cast and tone of these two films 16 years apart. No one’s involvement in this crossover feels forced or out of touch with Shyamalan’s vision.

The only element that feels jarring within the cast is that of Paulson’s Dr. Staple. Paulson is a superb actress, and she connects with viewers throughout the majority of the film, but it becomes stagnant. Paulson has major screen time, but her talent feels somewhat wasted due to the lack of range she is granted by the script. However, she reminds the audience of her expertise by making the best of it, thus allowing her crucial role to stay relevant.

On the topic of the script, viewers may start to feel divided. Besides featuring a sometimes underwhelming antagonist, many will find Shyamalan guilty of diving too deep into the nostalgia pool. Nostalgia is always going to have some sort of presence in a sequel, relating to an older favorite, and Glass displays some of the basic forms of sentimentality such as re-spoken lines, visual callbacks, and glorified cameos. However, it’s so frequent that some nods start to feel repetitive. The nostalgia in Glass works best for those who are very familiar with Shyamalan’s trilogy. Unfortunately, for those who are not, and for those who are less sentimental, they’ll likely find some moments cliched.

One’s first viewing of Glass can be best described as riding a rollercoaster without a safety bar. Exhilarating and fun at times, but one sharp twist or turn can result in flying off the ride. Those who manage to stay on for the entire journey will probably favor the experience more than those who fell off. Even then, they still might question why they didn’t go over the edge.  There are plenty of other thrills though, such as sleek visuals by cinematographer Mike Gioulakis and a superb score by West Dylan Thordson. It’s unfortunate that the rocky script will prevent many from giving enough praise to those elements.

Through its many ups and downs, Glass still stands as a decent sequel to two of Shyamalan’s best entries. For being such an unconventional filmmaker, a lot of what works in the film is quite conventional by today’s comic book movie standards. The more unconventional will surely find its audience. Even with this being the case, one may still be left feeling slightly disappointed and wondering what more this could have been considering its vast potential.

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IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK | Movie Review

If Beale Street Could Talk

Reviewed by REGGIE WOLTZ

Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk is a story about injustice, about institutional racism, and about the cycles of poverty. But above all it’s a love story, a celebration of romance and family connections in the face of constant adversity. The romance between childhood friends Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) is so overwhelmingly beautiful that it nearly makes all the forces aligned against them fall away. And even though their love is not strong enough to actually defeat those seemingly immutable forces, Jenkins never lets his film be similarly overpowered.

Set in Harlem in 1974 (the same year Baldwin’s novel was published), Beale Street starts with Tish telling Fonny that they’re about to have a baby. A nonlinear tale, jumping back and forth between their blissful early courtship and the more trying times as Fonny is in jail awaiting trial for a crime he didn’t commit, the story twists and turns. At just 19, Tish finds herself carrying the burden of their burgeoning family disproportionately on her own, although Fonny is far from a deadbeat dad. 

One of the most refreshing and joyful aspects of the story is the way that Tish’s unplanned pregnancy at such a young age is largely treated as a blessing, regardless of the circumstances. A new life is about to be brought into the world, and Tish, Fonny and Tish’s family all embrace the prospect with affection and hope.

That doesn’t mean they don’t agonize over the challenges ahead of them, though. Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King) travels all the way to Puerto Rico to track down Fonny’s accuser, a woman who’s been coerced into going along with a racist police officer’s preferred (false) narrative, and Jenkins makes sure to give the victim a chance to speak her piece. Fonny’s own mother and sisters aren’t particularly sympathetic to his plight, although his short-tempered father (Michael Beach) makes some hard sacrifices for his son. An early scene showing the contrast between how Tish’s and Fonny’s families take the pregnancy news provides an elegant illustration of their different upbringings.

James (most recently seen in the Amazon series Homecoming) and newcomer Layne make for a wonderful central couple, with a heartfelt, relaxed chemistry, and they’re aided by an excellent supporting cast, especially King as the steely, unflappable Sharon, who takes every setback and unexpected development in stride. 

Dave Franco (as a Jewish landlord who tries to give Tish and Fonny a break) and Brian Tyree Henry (as an old friend of Fonny’s who’s recently been released from prison) make memorable impressions in their brief appearances. Jenkins depicts every minor character with care and understanding.

As he did in his Oscar-winning Moonlight, Jenkins captures romantic longing with warm sensuality, conveying the bond between Tish and Fonny even in scenes that just feature them looking at each other. He retains a substantial amount of Baldwin’s prose via voiceover narration from Tish, which can sound a little florid in comparison to the more grounded realism onscreen, but which contributes to the lyrical timelessness of the central romance. 

Baldwin’s work always balances artistry and activism in its exploration of the black experience in America, and with Beale Street, Jenkins does the same. It’s impossible to watch these tender, fragile, indomitable characters and not empathize with their experience, whether that’s falling in love or facing injustices that persist to this day.

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