How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

In How to Train Your Dragon, a 3-D animated feature based on Cressida Cowell's book, a misfit Viking lad befriends a dragon, overturns centuries of prejudice, and proves to his hard-to-please dad that it takes more than muscle to save a village. Hiccup is not much of a name for a fearsome and fearless Viking. But Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is not very fearsome or fearless. He longs to be a brave and fierce dragon slayer, like his father, and his father's father, and every other father (and more than a few mothers) in the village of Berk, a tiny burg perched atop rugged cliffs, and regularly besieged by dragons. 

As an apprentice blacksmith in Berk, Hiccup is strictly a supporting player. The big, brawny, hairy Vikings, like his father Stoick (Gerard Butler), do all the dragon slaying while scrawny Hiccup stays in his workshop, working on brainy inventions that he hopes will make up for the brawn he lacks.

Truth is, though, Hiccup doesn't have it in him to kill a dragon, something he discovers when one of his contraptions injures one. The Night Fury is not just any dragon, however. In the annals of Berk, there are many dangerous dragons, but the Night Fury is the most mysterious and the most feared. It's so fast and dark that it's a mere inky shadow in the night sky -- and all the more terrifying because it is never seen.

Oh, but it is so darn cute, that Night Fury, like a big, sleek, jet-black kitten with huge green eyes. The dragon Hiccup shoots down is wounded and scared, and can't fly. Hiccup names the adorable beast Toothless, and fashions a contraption -- a prosthetic tail -- to help it fly again. (Turns out dragon fighting is a dangerous profession, and prosthetic limbs are a common sight, and a badge of honor, in Berk.) As the iconoclastic Hiccup comes to understand Toothless, and other species of dragons too, he realizes that his people had, for generations, been wrong about dragons. But try explaining that to Dad. As Hiccup observes, his Viking people "have stubbornness issues."

How to Train Your Dragon begins and ends with intense scenes of combat that will likely scare the more sensitive youngsters in the audience. But in between, the film, directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, is sweet and funny, and often evokes other quietly moving stories of human-animal bonding (particularly *The Black Stallion*) with its nearly wordless but endlessly expressive scenes of the developing, tentative trust and friendship between Toothless and Hiccup. There's also the usual crew of funny sidekicks -- a trio of wiscracking Viking adolescents, and a spunky love interest (America Ferrera)  -- and a colorful collection of dragons who vary in shape, size, and firepower.

High quality computer animation is the rule rather than the exception these days, but How to Train Your Dragon has an exceptionally lovely and lush quality, thanks in part to visual consultant Roger Deakins, an acclaimed cinematographer. Where computer animation tends to be bright and crisp and sharply focused, How to Train Your Dragon has a softness and depth that often mimics the visual quality of live action film. How to Train Your Dragon is dark around the edges of the warmly bronzed, candlelit interiors of Hiccup's home; It's foggy and sun dappled in the forest, and the glen where Hiccup and Toothless become friends. At the same time, an animated film isn't earthbound or tethered to reality the way that a live action film is, and How to Train Your Dragon swoops and soars and takes flight on dragon wings, above the fluffy clouds and beyond. The story in How to Train Your Dragon contains the familiar tropes of family-friendly lit and movies, but it's well worth seeing how the animators mix earth, air, water and fire (and scales and hair) to invent a richly textured, almost touchably dimensional new world and new creatures in this charming fable of a boy and his dragon.


Repo Men (2010)

Whatever forces were behind the coincidental alignment of the release of Repo Men with Congress's healthcare reform showdown this past weekend, the timing was perfect. Repo Men is set in a dystopic, post-war near future, but the premise is not so far-fetched that it can't serve as a pointed, gruesome satire of free market, pay-or-die healthcare.

A company called The Union has solved the chronic shortage of organs for transplant by developing an extensive line of artificial organs -- known as artiforgs -- to cure what ails you. Need a new heart? They've got one. And livers, kidneys, eyes, ears, vocal chords and even a brand new neural net in case your brain goes on the fritz. The bad news is that artiforgs aren't cheap. The good news is that The Union has several convenient financing packages. The bad news is that the interest rate is 19.6%, which is still better than some credit cards. The really bad news is that if you fall behind on your payments, The Union will repossess your vital artiforg, which, depending on how badly you need that heart to live, could significantly shorten your lifespan. Enter the repo men. Armed with stun guns, rubber gloves, and scalpels, they efficiently reclaim organs from the imprudent and insolvent.

Remy (Jude Law) is a repo man, and so is his lumbering chum Jake (Forest Whitaker). They both coolly and methodically track down deadbeats and turn them into dead meat. They work in a seedy megalopolis, but when the day is done Remy goes back home to the suburbs, where his wife is none too happy about his job. One night, while working late reclaiming a heart from a musician (RZA), Remy suffers a near-fatal mishap and, wouldn't you know it, the heartless knave wakes up to find a shiny new artiforg heart installed in his chest. He suddenly loses his taste for the repossession business. Irony of ironies, his change of heart has resulted in a change of heart. Punny. And that is the level of subtlety at which Repo Men operates, which is to say, not much.

The kinder (but not gentler) Remy can't do his job, so he's quickly in arrears on that compassionate new heart of his (is compassion a bug, or just an unintended feature?), and on the run with what turns out to be quite a lot of people trying to avoid the repo man. He finds a lady friend, a singer named Beth (Alice Braga) who has several implants she can't pay for, and the two of them try to escape with their hot organs. Things go pretty well until Remy's pal Jake is assigned to retrieve the company's property.

Anyone looking for intelligent debate of substantive issues related to organ transplantation or health insurance reform or universal healthcare should just keep on looking, because Repo Men offers none of the above. That's not to say that, in it's crazy way, Repo Men doesn't make a strong case for universal healthcare *and* universal organ donation. It does. It just does it with lots of guns and gore and very little thinking. Repo Men, directed by Miguel Sapochnik, and written by Garrett Lerner and Eric Garcia (based on Garcia's novel *The Repossession Mambo*) is a sci-fi action thriller slasher movie that's primarily interested in knife fights and splattering blood and gory impromptu surgery. This is a movie with one idea -- it's an interesting idea -- that inspires a whole lot of violence, butchery and bloodshed, with occasional outbursts of humor. The movie lacks a consistent vision of its dystopian future -- it's not so far in the future that the cars look any different, but the cities are *Bladerunner*-style ginormous, with slummy areas filled with squatters, and spacious, nearly empty freeways, and surrounding suburbs that look oddly, ordinarily suburban.

Repo Men is apparently a movie with a very deadpan satirical style that doesn't even bother to wink at the audience. Or maybe it's not meant to be funny, in which case, it actually turns out to be kind of funny, if you can stomach all the stomachs and livers and spleens and such. Liev Schreiber is quite funny as the heartless and humorless CEO of The Union. This is a bullets flying, knives slashing, axes flailing, hacksaws hacking, brain smashing, organ snatching movie that only pauses long enough to linger on the angry red blooming of parting flesh in the wake of a scalpel blade. This is a movie about pain and fear, and lots of it -- the pain and fear of facing death, the pain and fear of financial insolvency, and even the pain and fear of being a medical repo man. Turns out they can have hearts too. As long as they can pay for them.

Remember Me (2010)

Film critics, like movie audiences, are fairly optimistic when it comes to movies. They go in, hoping for the best, and not really expecting the worst. So when they encounter the worst -- as inevitably happens sometimes -- it is like stealing candy from a baby. Unexpected, dismaying, disappointing. You, filmmakers responsible for Remember Me, are candy thieves.

Quite honestly, I did not have lofty expectations for Remember Me, but neither did I expect to be enraged by a cheap stunt of an ending. Remember Me stars Robert Pattinson, better known to Harry Potter fans as the late Cedric Diggory, and to Twilight fans as Edward, the dreamy vampire. To fans of both movie series, he is probably bigger than Jesus. Pattinson once said that his hair is 75% of his performance in Twilight. I believe it. His hair is fantastic in Remember Me, a gravity-defying mop of carefully tousled bedhead hair. It's devil-may-care hair, rebel hair, the kind of hair James Dean would have if James Dean were young and brooding and poetic and in his early twenties right now. The rest of Remember Me does not live up to that hair, but for a while at least, it gives it a go.

The story begins in 1991, when young Ally Craig witnesses the murder of her mother. Ten years later, Ally (Emilie de Ravin) is a college student in New York City, and her father Neil Craig (Chris Cooper), a cop, is understandably overprotective. Craig's a bit of a hothead too. Hothead cop encounters Tyler Hawkins (Pattinson), who is barhopping and protesting injustice along with his pal Aidan (Tate Ellington). Craig throws them both in jail. This is not so bad, because Tyler's father Charles Hawkins (Pierce Brosnan) is a wealthy, powerful attorney. But Tyler hates his father for various reasons, mostly because he thinks the old man is cold and heartless and drove Tyler's older brother to suicide. And he's not terribly kind to Tyler's little sister Caroline (Ruby Jerins), who has a hard enough time with all the snooty kids at her private school. Tyler, has, accordingly, taken to living in squalor with Aidan, and dressing in vintage clothing to demonstrate his anti-bourgeois cred. He also smokes like a chimney, writes poetry, and works at The Strand bookstore, so you can be sure he is very tortured. 

And so, when Aidan figures out that Ally is the daughter of the cop who arrested them, he talks Tyler into asking her out, to get back at her pop the cop. There's no reason for Tyler to go along with this jerkwad scheme, really, except that later in the movie, when Ally finds out, it will give her a reason to get mad at Tyler and walk out on him. This will give Tyler another reason to feel alienated and mopey, in addition to the aforementioned. Remember Me is a love story about Tyler and Ally, and how two souls, one pretty tortured, and the other just a little traumatized, find happiness together in this crazy world and as a result, some good stuff happens. 

Remember Me, written by Will Fetters, has a labored and contrived plot, a chatty script, and a title that implies impending doom. And indeed, doom looms. But first, love blooms for Ally and Tyler, and Remember Me brings to mind Love Story, in which star-crossed young college-aged romantics dither and bicker and fall in love and so forth, and Ordinary People, with its family traumatized by the death of a son. Mostly, though, Remember Me pretty shamelessly rips off Rebel Without A Cause, with Pattinson as a faux James Dean doing everything except yell "You're tearing me apart!" He does yell at his dad, and broods and slouches quite a lot, and engages in fisticuffs more often than one would expect. I don't think anyone could have really made Tyler a convincing character -- he's a walking, talking collection of disaffected  youth cliches with a three day stubble. To his credit, Pattinson convincingly plays the part of cool, caring older brother in Tyler's scenes with Caroline. 

Director Allen Coulter does not manage to inject any realism into all the affected torment. Neither does he reign in the wandering Noo Yawk accents that the very un-New York actors gamely wrestle with. Cooper and Brosnan are both fine actors utterly undone by unfamiliar vowels. Pattinson doesn't bother, and neither does de Ravin (who is Australian), but both manage to sound American.

In addition to love and good stuff, a lot of bad stuff happens in Remember Me, but nothing as bad as what happens at the end, which pretty much pulls the rug out from under the movie in a big, cheap, manipulative, exploitative, infuriating twist. I'm not the sort to spoil a movie, although if ever a movie was spoilin' for a spoilin', it is this one. I'll just say this: terrible things happen in the world sometimes, and movies ought not exploit those terrible things for no good reason. And there was no good reason to exploit this particular terrible thing. There weren't even any bad reasons to use this particular terrible thing in this particular terrible (as it turns out) movie. The ending does serve one purpose: it turns an otherwise forgettable movie into one I will long remember, but not fondly.

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

In his adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, director Tim Burton has reimagined the fanciful tale. After umpteen variations on Lewis Carroll's story, something new is not a bad thing, although I'm not sure the story really needed to end in a desultory battle scene. Alice (Mia Wasikowski) is older in this version, written by Linda Woolverton and adapted from both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. She's a rebellious 19 year old, a young woman who has been plagued all her life by strange dreams of a land filled with eccentric weirdos. Just as she is about to become engaged -- to a man who shows her as little regard as she shows him -- a white rabbit in a waistcoat appears, and leads her down that fateful rabbit hole.

That Alice in Wonderland is a 3D movie necessitates, I suppose, that the fall down the rabbit hole be rendered in 3D, with miscellaneous detritus flying about and occasionally flying towards the front of the screen, but it cannot be said that Burton embraces 3D with anything like artistic enthusiasm. He's a director with a keen eye for design and a distinctive visual style, but the 3D feels like an aferthought in Alice in Wonderland, a tacked on and unnecessary contrivance. There's plenty enough to look at in Burton's movies, without having to see it in simulated 3D. The 3D technology tends to mute colors and darken the picture, and Alice in Wonderland, like most of Burton's films, is plenty dark enough.

This is a particular gloomy elaboration on the Alice in Wonderland tale, one in which Alice, according to Underland (for that is the place's actual name, we are told) prophecy, will slay the menacing Jabberwocky on the frabjous day. Alice would really rather not, but circumstances conspire to force her hand when her friends are captured by the wicked Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who, as she is wont to do, has decided to separate them from their heads. Alice spends much of the movie wandering about Underland, hiding from the Red Queen's henchman the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) and his toothy, frumious Bandersnatch. Alice shrinks and grows and shrinks and grows and interacts with the various oddities who live in Underland, most notably the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), a foppish milliner with horizontal tendrils of flaming red hair, very, very large green eyes, and a tendency to periodically lose what little bits of his mind are left. In time, Alice learns that she has been in Underland before, as a small girl, and that the Underlanders have all been waiting for her to return and end the Red Queen's reign of terror and wanton decapitation.

Now, the Red Queen is wicked indeed, with a gigantic noggin that's oddly reminiscent of Bette Davis in Queen Elizabeth. Which makes her that much more menacing. Her sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) waits for Alice, but Alice isn't terribly keen on battling the Jabberwocky, even though inevitability, and the story, apparently demand it. And there's the chief problem with Alice in Wonderland -- Alice is a bit wan and indecisive, a heroine pushed grudgingly along towards her destiny, but not really feeling it, despite the best efforts of the Mad Hatter and others to inspire her. The Red Queen plays croquet with a flamingo and a hedgehog -- she hits the hedgehog with the flamingo -- how evil does she have to be before Alice finally gives a whit? As Absolem, the hookah smoking blue caterpillar tells her, she's lost her "muchness." She could use some more muchness, to be sure. On the other hand, the Cheshire Cat (voiced with sly, silky slinkiness by Stephen Fry) is fantastic -- he's got some of that muchness Alice lacks, and so do several other more tangible critters who turn up to prod, assist, and generally run circles around Alice. This is a pretty grown up Alice in Wonderland, and this Alice has some growing up to do.

Alice in Wonderland looks great, as can be expected from a Burton movie. It's full of curiouser and curiouser sights, and many perils, and it whipsaws between visually arresting, candy-colored castles (tinged with menace) and dreary, bizarre, ominous hinterlands. The movie is, in its doleful, baleful, peculiar way also quite bewitching until it falls apart in a halfhearted, perfunctory, oddly uninspired action sequence, a battle scene that really offers not much as a story climax, and is every bit as uncertain and noncommittal as Alice. It's an ordinary, predictable ending to an offbeat movie that had been bursting with the unexpected. 


Cop Out (2010)

I'm not sure how the title of Cop Out actually refers to the movie, except that there are cops in it, and said cops are on the outs with their chief after they screw up a major drug investigation or something. But that's not really what "cop out" means, unless you're being punny, and then it still isn't what it means. But  whatever. Cop Out is this: it is the first major studio movie by filmmaker Kevin Smith, and the first time Smoth has directed a picture he didn't write. I can't say I'm a huge fan of Kevin Smith's movies, but I can accept that they fill a niche that is otherwise mostly empty: movies about potty-mouthed young people who mostly talk about sex and stuff that would titillate an 11 year old, and which often star Ben Affleck. Cop Out does not star Ben Affleck, but it does star Tracy Morgan and Bruce Willis. Morgan's character talks about sex, and his toilet habits, and likes to riff on movies. He also gets into a bruising fight with a foul-mouthed 11 year old car thief, which is really no way to treat the movie's key demographic.

Paul (Morgan) is half of a buddy cop duo; Willis's Jimmy is the other half. Paul is the goofy half. He thinks his wife (Rashida Jones) is cheating on him. Jimmy is the weary half. In *Lethal Weapon*, Jimmy would be the Danny Glover character, the one who always says he's too old for this stuff (although he doesn't say it in exactly those words). That would make Paul the Mel Gibson character: the mentally unstable live wire who does wacky, unpredictable things. And if Cop Out were Lethal Weapon... for one thing, it would be better. It's more like Lethal Weapon 4, in which we're all pretty tired of these buddy cops, and they're tired of each other too.

As Cop Out begins, we learn that Paul and Jimmy have been partners for nine years. In short order, they are suspended without pay and forced to turn in their badges and guns. Never mind that they use badges and guns throughout the rest of the movie, when they try to redeem themselves by busting up a vicious Mexican drug cartel. But that's just one of many plots in this overworked movie, written by Robb and Mark Cullen. Jimmy has a valuable baseball card, which he needs to sell to finance his daughter's expensive wedding, so that his ex-wife's new husband doesn't pay for it. The card is stolen by a goofy thief named Dave (Seann William Scott), who trades it to drug lord Poh Boy (Guillermo Diaz). Poh Boy, remarkably, is not only an avid baseball memorabilia collector, but he's also the brutal kingpin of the drug cartel that is being investigated by the police department. That's the investigation that Paul and Jimmy disrupt during a botched stakeout of something or other. It doesn't really matter. The point is, Paul and Jimmy want the baseball card back, and a whole bunch of other stuff happens while they try to retrieve it.

Meanwhile, they talk a lot. Talking a lot is something characters in a Kevin Smith movie do a lot, and Cop Out is no different. Most of the talking is done by Paul, who natters on about many things in that odd baby-voiced way that Tracy Morgan talks on *30 Rock*. His character in Cop Out is more or less the same as his character on *30 Rock*, which might just be the way Tracy Morgan is. The key difference is that in Cop Out, he has a gun, and a patient sidekick in Jimmy. Cop Out is a regular blabbathon, and it is one of the movie's saving graces that it is, because there are regular collisions of crude and pointless dialogue that is much enlivened by vivid, high-speed delivery and the way that nobody in the movie ever seems to care at all what anyone else says. The dialogue isn't especially funny, but the characters just keep yammering away in their own annoying little orbits, and that's okay because Cop Out doesn't have much else going for it.

Smith has never been what you might call a competent director, but in his smart alecky, seat-of-the-pants way, he has managed to keep making movies anyway. Cop Out is well above his pay grade, despite the interracial buddy cop movie one of the most played-out, predictable and reliable genres of movie. Smith doesn't do anything new or original with this one, and he's not much of an action director. Cop Out is serviceable, unsurprising, and good-natured, but not, however hard it tries, offensive. That makes it, all in all, pretty forgettable.