The How To Train Your Dragon series has been quite a ride, filled with quality storytelling, humour and heart, breathtaking animation and gorgeous music. It caps off the trilogy with The Hidden World, a rollicking third chapter and conclusion to this legend that sees Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his beloved companion Toothless searching for a new home to migrate to, a kingdom beyond the end of the world where dragons originally came from and a place he heard in tales from his father (Gerard Butler in brief flashbacks). Out to stop them is dragon hunting guru Grimmel, played by a sassy F. Murray Abraham who has just about as much fun with his voiceover role as he could without actually physically being there. Grimmel wants to eradicate all Night Furys from the world, and it’s a race against time, the elements and the reliable stupidity of Hiccup’s endearing childhood buddies to seek out this new home. Hiccup is a fantastic hero because he started out as anything but that, a sensitive, bullied youngster who grew into the strong leader he is today but is still full of self doubt and has never lost his softer side, people like him always make the best leaders. Cate Blanchett is around again as his mom, but sort of takes a spectator’s seat to her son and his rapscallions, including wife to be Astrid (America Ferrera). The real magic here is the relationship between Toothless and a newfound love, a beautiful white female Night Fury who flirts, plays heard to get and frolics with him all across the oceans and skies in a display of animation that’s hard to believe, especially when they reach the fabled Hidden World that looks like something out of Avatar. These films share a wonderful message of love towards the animal kingdom, teaching that if you show trust, admiration and kindness to these creatures, the lives of both species can be enriched. I love the symbiosis between humans and dragons in this series, the variety and personality of each different breed and the pure imagination employed in bringing such designs to life. Highly recommended.
I’ve reviewed The Art Of The Steal before, but it constantly kills me how underrated this banging heist comedy is, so here goes again. Imagine a wickedly funny, smartly written all star art thievery caper starring Kurt Russell, Matt Dillon and a host of others at the top of their game and you’ll have some idea. It’s strange that it’s so unheard of with this pedigree of actors involved, but it’s a joint Canadian production so that may have had an effect on marketing, or lack thereof. In any case, it’s the funniest, smartest heist flick since Ocean’s Eleven, and maybe tops it too. Russell is Crunch Calhoun, an Evel Kneval type ruffian who moonlights as a driver for a crew of fine art pilferers he leads. He’s hard up for cash and fresh out of a stretch in polish jail after his brother and second command Nicky (Matt Dillon, sleazy as ever) rats him out as a fall guy. Now back in Canada, he reluctantly agrees to work with brother dearest, as well as his old crew, for one last job, the theft of an obscure gospel manuscript. Their plan involves swerves, dekes, double-crosses, cons, conniving, hysterical fuck ups, roper dopes and double entendres, so much so that one marvels all that’s in this goody bag of a narrative can fit into a ninety minute film, a testament to both editing and direction. Crunch’s crew is is a roll call of varied talent, including twitchy rookie Jay Baruchel, wily old dog Paddy (Kenneth Welsh), Crunch’s sexy wife (Kathryn Winnick) and their flamboyant French forger (Chris Diamantopoulos). The real treat is Terence Stamp as a weary ex thief working with an Interpol snot-rag (Jason Jones) to lift time off his sentence. Stamp doesn’t show up too often in films these days but he’s comic gold here and has a surprisingly touching bit that brings a bit of reverence and gravity to the world of grand-theft-art amidst the mostly madcap tone. It’s sad that films like this don’t get a theatrical run anymore these days, because they end up on Netflix or wherever and the only way they get mass exposure is through word of mouth, chance or crazed cinephiliac zealots like me shamelessly plugging them on blogs. So go fucking watch it..now.
How To Train Your Dragon 2 takes what made the first adventure so special and blasts it even further into the stratosphere of animated thrills and creature comforts, all set to one of the finest scores I’ve heard in recent years, in a cartoon or otherwise. Sometimes sequels forget the ‘less is more’ adage and pile on way too much in order to outdo their predecessor, but this one gets the formula, adding in all the right places while keeping the core of the story alive. There’s also impressive and eye boggling new dragons, which let’s face it, are the reason we show up to these movies anyway. We rejoin again with Hiccup (wiry Jay Baruchel) after he has tamed the gorgeous night fury dragon Toothless, earned the respect of his grouchy father Stoick (Gerard Butler) and proved to his entire viking settlement that dragons are useful friends when treated kindly and understood on their own terms. Life is good, but not for long, as the pair of them discover a mysterious ice cave far on the border of their lands, home to thousands of new breeds of dragons, and watched over by the Dragon Rider (Cate Blanchett), who has a connection to Hiccup’s past. They are all of them under threat by tyrannical warlord Drago (a fearsome Djimon Hounsou) who commands an army and operates out of fear, putting everything the Vikings hold dear in danger. Hiccup must rally all his friends, family and every dragon in their land to fight this menace, all captured in devastatingly beautiful CGI animation that really is a marvel in the medium. Craig Ferguson returns as crusty Gobber the stable master, as do Jonah Hill, America Ferrara, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, T.J. Miller and newcomer Kit Harington. The best part for me was seeing Toothless again. She’s a stunning, adorable little viper of a rascal who won me over fully in the first film, and it was a joy to see her return. There’s all manner of elaboratly rendered dragons on display, and they’re fantastic no doubt, but she just has that winning charm and unique appearance, not to mention flawless efforts by animators in bringing her to life. This sequel, dare I say, tops the first in many ways, without ever overshadowing it or resorting to show-boating. It’s the perfect companion piece.
Heist flicks are sneaky affairs, but that doesn’t mean that awesome ones like The Art Of The Steal should just tiptoe past everyone’s radar with no hubbub. When subpar stuff like Now You See Me is breaking waves and this one collects dust before a year since it’s release, you know somethin ain’t right. It’s actually probably just budgeting and marketing, to chalk it up simply. Despite the cast (what a lineup) this one barely made a blip on the sonar when it came out a couple years ago. It’s great fun, with a crusty lead performance from Kurt Russell as Crunch Calhoun, an ageing motorcycle daredevil who used to moonlight as an art thief. He is lured out of ‘retirement’ by his sleazy brother Nicky (Matt Dillon crosses off another notch on the old scumbag belt with this role) with the proposition of one last score, involving his old crew and the theft of a historical artifact owned by a hilarious Terence Stamp. Other members of their crew include a crafty Jay Baruchel and Kenneth Welsh as salty ladies man Uncle Paddy. Twists and turns lace the plot, as they should in these types of films, but it’s the bawdy sense of humour that won me over. More than anything else this is a comedy, situational in nature and willing to give each weirdo of the bunch their own demented moment to shine. It’s Russel’s show though, a burnt out Evel Knievel type of dude who gets a face full of nonsense from his brother, edging him to the end of his rope. Russell owns it, egged on by the raucous chorus of characters accompanying him, and the nasty arc from Dillon that is the only piece which subverts the mostly lighthearted tone. Fun, little seen stuff that deserves a wider audience.