I’m at the point where I can pretty much take or leave 3D. As a techie, I want to embrace any technology that’ll expand the cinemagoing experience, but even I have to concede that most of the time 3D is employed as little more than an add-on, just a way to charge extra for stuff that’d be the same with or without depth (visual, that is. We’ll save a discussion of dramatic depth for another day).
Which is why I’m usually jazzed to check out the latest release from DreamWorks Animation. More often than not, those folk go the extra distance with 3D, using it to enhance both the visual canvas and the dramatic impact of their films. That was definitely the case with the original HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, the 2010 fantasy adventure where the third dimension became an active player in an already entertaining and visually stunning film.
So, yeah, there I was at my local multiplex, shelling out the extra bucks for my 3D experience with the new HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2. Did this new adventure — in which the young, Viking dragon-rider Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) faces down a powerful warlord (Djimon Hounsou) and has a family reunion with his long-lost mother (Cate Blanchett) — pay back my investment? In a way, yes; in a way… welllll… Check out my HOUR OF THE WOLF review for the details. Click on the player to listen.
So, there, that’s one New Years resolution out of the way for me. A few months after the theatrical release of KUNG FU PANDA 2, I was able to score an interview with its director, Jennifer Yuh Nelson. With the home video release of the film (in just about every format available, including Amazon Instant Video and a Blu-ray boxed set that also includes the first KFP and a new short film, SECRETS OF THE MASTER), I felt it was time to raise some attention for this beautifully mounted, entertaining sequel.
KFP2 was, I felt, unjustly maligned in its original release. Thing is, what most critics seemed to feel was its greatest flaw — not enough focus on lovable doofus panda Po (Jack Black) — I saw as its greatest strength. Instead of the first film’s fish-out-of-water scenario, the sequel uses Po’s elevation to kung fu master to engage in a full embrace of Hong Kong action, casting him into a story that sees the panda facing off against a megalomaniacal peacock who has developed a weapon that may render martial arts obsolete: the cannon. It’s Jackie Chan enhanced with a lush, animation style — bridging over numerous formats, including 2D and shadow puppets — and highlighted with exquisitely choreographed battle scenes; exciting, funny, and a dazzling visual feast. For the love of martial arts, or pure, bravura animation, you need to see this.
Click on the player to hear my interview with Nelson.
A world where everyone remains young and pretty forever? No, it’s not the CW prime-time schedule, it’s IN TIME, Andrew Niccol’s latest weaving of science-fiction speculation and wry social commentary. Imagining a civilization in which time literally is money — minutes, hours, days are earned and spent, the poor living a genuine day-to-day existence while the rich are practically immortal — Niccol casts Amanda Seyfried and Justin Timberlake as a two souls from the opposite sides of the time-line who decide to right what they see as an inequitable system, by violent means, if necessary. Theofantastique.com‘s John W. Morehead joins Cinefantastique Online’s Dan Persons to look at how Niccol — who here produces, writes, and directs — brings this curious scenario to the screen, and discuss whether Occupy Wall Street should take time out from their protests in order to catch a screening.
Also: Dan delivers his verdict on the latest entry from the Shrekiverse, PUSS IN BOOTS.
Ready for another visit from the most awesome martial arts master ever? Well, ready or not, Po, the legendary Dragon Warrior (and roly-poly panda) is back in this follow up to the well-received KUNG FU PANDA. And this time Po (voice of Jack Black) and his compatriots, the Furious Five — Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross) — are facing a challenge that threatens the whole of China: Lord Chen, a power-mad peacock with abandonment issues and a well-stocked armory of newly-invented cannons to back up his claim to the throne. Can Po overcome this threat by confronting the secret of his past that binds him inextricably to Lord Shen? And will audiences find KUNG FU PANDA 2 an exciting and innovative blend of Hong Kong action with energetic CG animation, or is this just another sequel that’s satisfied to serve up more of the same? Join Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons as they debate the issue.
Who are you? Why, I am Number Four – or at least that’s what the title tells me. But I am not a number; I am a free man! No, wait – that’s THE PRISONER. This week’s topic of conversation on the newly re-christened Cinefantastique Spotlight Review Podcast is I AM NUMBER FOUR, the new teen-oriented science-fiction action flick from producer Michael Bay, distributed by DreamWorks. Why “Number Four,” you ask? Well, the film itself won’t tell you, so if you want to find out, you should listen in as guest commentator Andrea Lipinski (of the Chronic Rift) reveals all the details from the source novel that the screenplay not-so-cleverly left out. Also chiming in our CFQ podcast regulars Dan Persons (who remarks on the film’s debt to SMALLVILLE and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, by way of screenwriters Alfred Gough & Miles Millar and Marti Noxon) and Steve Biodrowski (who reveals that even the most disappointing films can be redeemed by cute animals such as lizards and dogs).
While there is no rule in Hollywood explicitly stating that screenwriters should avoid ripping off characters as legendary as Superman, the makers of Dreamworks’s I AM NUMBER FOUR should have at least been warned. Ironically coming from SMALLVILLE creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, I AM NUMBER FOURemploys all the usual tricks for developing a sci-fi franchise, without bothering to leave behind an original piece of work.
I AM NUMBER FOUR stars relative newcomer Alex Pettyfer (whose tweeny-sounding BEASTLY was held back from release last year) as the eponymous Number Four, one of a group of nine infant aliens sent to Earth to avoid being annihilated by the evil Mogadorians. Isn’t that a scary name for the villains? As the movie opens, the nine infants have either (a) grown to become high school age or (b) been murdered at the hands of the main bad guy, cleverly identified in the end credits and IMDB as “Mogadorian Commander” (Kevin Durand). It’s a very lucky plot device that allows the other Numbers to know automatically that their counterparts are dead; with the death of Number Three, Number Four is moved to Paradise, Ohio so he can be kept safe. We know this sucks because, like, there’s rain and bullies and stuff when he gets there.
I cannot provide expert commentary on the citizens of scenic Paradise, but I can say that they must have a lot of designer clothing outlets and outrageous real estate prices. As Number Four hides from the Mogadorians under the anonymous-sounding name of “John Smith”, cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (the artist behind 2006’s PAN’S LABYRINTH) takes us on a tour of a “miserable” town that includes natural waterfalls, a flowing river, bright sunlight, and of course, beautiful characters. One in particular catches John’s eye – the hipster-esque Sarah (Dianna Agron of GLEE) – because she enjoys taking photographs of people who don’t know she’s doing it.
Since when was this quality so attractive that it inspired complete the stupidity that John displays? Then again, John is not just “anybody”, but herein lies one of the lamest, most nonsensical plot developments in recent history. Number Four is meant to be keeping a low profile, staying indoors at all possible moments, and especially not talking to anyone with a camera and USB plug. No matter how much chemistry Pettyfer and Agron appear to have – and luckily for the film, there is undeniably some – there is no reasonable explanation for why these two people should be together. Consider this my objection for any and all future extraterrestrial weddings.
Director D.J. Caruso knows the film’s faults, however, and he encourages his actors to give every cliché and line of dialogue their best efforts. Durand, as the ridiculous-looking Mogadorian leader, has perfected the art of being scary; to date, I’ve seen him play a bounty hunter, an assassin, a military commander, and now, a Voldemort look-alike. Here, he allows every threat to seem like he’s spitting it out through his sharp teeth and begging for someone to hit him in the face. Pettyfer, new to me but apparently one of Hollywood’s new hot properties, has a chance to sculpt a career from this film. He’s given some terrible lines like, “I don’t want to be a prisoner” and “All I think about is you,” but I prefer his version of tortured non-human teen to that of, say, Robert Pattinson. Similarly, Agron’s character doesn’t have much to say, but when she says it, there is an oozing of sweetness.
Unfortunately, I AM NUMBER FOUR makes the mistake of employing the spectacular Timothy Olyphant as Number Four’s guardian, Henri, and giving him absolutely nothing to do. Olyphant is a good actor, one with two hit television leads under his belt and a sense of comic timing that makes the first half of the film tolerable. Nonetheless, it is an intolerable character he plays. Henri’s entire life is apparently based on protecting Number Four, transporting him, feeding him, and paying for all his human clothes, but if he had succeeded in any way, the film could not have been. If I was assigned to be the only bodyguard for someone whose legacy was to perpetuate a race of royal, beautiful, powerful creatures for future sequels, I would probably have other methods of monitoring my precious charge than with my iPhone.
Dianna Agron and Alex Pettyfer
I AM NUMBER FOUR (February 18, 20100). Directed by: D.J. Caruso. Written by: Alfred Gough & Miles Millar and Marti Noxon, based on the novel by James Frey & Jobie Hughes. Cast & Characters:
According to The Hollywood Reporter, the script for a film adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s SF novel Ender’s Game is making a lot of buzz in filmland.
The script is “packaged” with screenwriter Gavin Hood (X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE) attached as director, with STAR TREK’s Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci set to produce, along with OddLot Entertainment’s Gigi Pritzker.
Apparently, almost every studio and a number of film finance companies have received the package, and several follow-up meetings have already been scheduled.
Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel is set on a future Earth, which has barely survived two attacks by the Formics (or Buggers), an insectoid race. To train soliders the Battle and Command schools have been formed where children are immersed in virtual reality “games”, which have greater signifgance than suspected.
The protagonist is Ender Wiggins, a bullied and abused boy, who becomes an unorthodox master of these vital skills, and put on a path towards leading the International Fleet.
A deal was in place at Warner Brothers in the 1990’s to make a movie version of the Hugo and Nebula Award winner, under director Wolfgang Peterson (ENEMY MINE), but production never came to pass.
The article speculates that Warner Bros. might be interested in reacquiring the project, as might Paramount/DreamWorks where Kurtzman and Orci already have strong ties.
NOTE: The Yahoo Movies trailer appears to have been pulled — here’s one via YouTube. Here’s the trailer and synopsis for DreamWorks’s upcoming animated film MEGAMIND:
“Megamind is the most brilliant supervillain the world has ever known. And the least successful. Over the years, he has tried to conquer Metro City in every imaginable way. Each attempt, a colossal failure thanks to the caped superhero known as ‘Metro Man,’ an invincible hero until the day Megamind actually kills him in the throes of one of his botched evil plans.
Suddenly, Megamind has no purpose. A supervillain without a superhero. He realizes that achieving his life’s ambition is the worst thing that ever happened to him. Megamind decides that the only way out of his rut is to create a new hero opponent called ‘Titan,’ who promises to be bigger, better and stronger than Metro Man ever was.
Pretty quickly Titan starts to think it’s much more fun to be a villain than a good guy. Except Titan doesn’t just want to rule the world, he wants to destroy it.
Now, Megamind must decide: can he defeat his own diabolical creation? Can the world’s smartest man make the smart decision for once? Can the evil genius become the unlikely hero of his own story?”
MEGAMIND stars the voices of Will Ferrell as Megamind, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill (EVAN ALMIGHTY) and Brad Pitt as Metro Man.
A Red Hour Films production from DreamWorks Animation.
Written by: Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons
Directed by Tom McGrath (MADAGASCAR)
Due out November 5th, 2010 by Paramount
MTV.com reports that Sam Worthington – who hit big in two science fiction films last year, AVATAR and TERMINATOR SALVATION – will produce and star in QUATERMAIN, a sci-fi updating of H. Rider Haggard’s Victorian adventurer Allan Quatermain, who served as the inspiration for numerous cinematic action heroes (I’m looking at you, Indiana Jones!). According to Hollywood Reporter, the story has Quatermain returning to Earth from a mission in outer space, only to find that humanity is no more, leading to adventure on a “planetwide scale.”
The QUATERMAIN script is by Mark Verheiden (TIME COP). Worthington will produce, along with Miles Millar and Alfred Gough (SMALLVILLE) for DreamWorks.
Allan Quatermain was born in Haggard’s young-adult novel King Solomon’s Mines, helping an English lord search for his brother, who has disappeared in an uncharted section of Africa, searching for the titular treasure. The story was a hit that spawned sequels and influenced such films as 1933’s KING KONG (which also features an uncivilized modern tribe of dark-skinned savages living in the remnants of a lost civilization). Eventually, Quatermain met up with Haggard’s other famous literary creation, the immortal Ayesha, in She and Allan.
On screen, Quatermain has been played by actors as diverse as Stewart Granger, Richard Chamberlain, and Patrick Swayze. Even former James Bond Sean Connery had a go at the role, giving an impressive performance in the otherwise overblown THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (2003).
If Worthington has anything going against him, it is his youth, as we first meet Quatermain as a somewhat world-weary man, who inevitably finds himself in life-or-death situations – not a gung-ho thrill-seeker looking for action. On the other hand, later Quatermain books were prequels, filling in the character’s early years, so perhaps Worthington is a good fit.
That’s a quote by Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) from DreamWorks’ new CGI animated film HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON. And I, uh, have to fess up and admit that those words were similar to my sentiments when I first saw the trailer for this one. I didn’t care for the look of the animation and the story seemed pretty run-of-the-mill if one swaps out the dragon for a dog or some other kind of pet. In fact, the main reason I went to see it was because my wife wanted to go.
Okay, that there’s the full admission of my…well, judgmental attitude toward HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON. But hey, I’m big enough to admit it publicly. You see, if I’d been right I’d probably be boasting about the strength of my senses. But instead, I’m having to pull my foot out of my mouth. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, as it turns out, is a thoroughly enjoyable movie. It’s also got a nice, thoughtful message for young and old alike (even though it’s far from new, it plays out well). So there it is: John 0, DreamWorks team 1. And I’m happy to say so.
It’s a funny thing, but while watching DRAGON it felt as if it’s central message of “Hey, these beasties aren’t at all what we thought they were.” was poking me in the chest and saying, “Get it? This pre-judging thing ain’t so hot.” Okay, okay, I got it. Still, in my defense I’d just like to say that I was softening up and coming around during the first two minutes. I found myself having fun with Hiccup’s style of narration, and the animation style was already beginning to work for me. In the context of the production design and story, it was coming together nicely.
The story itself, which is based on the 2004 book of the same name by Cressida Cowell, is all about our young Viking friend Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, who’s not so Vikingy as he and dear old dad (Gerard Butler) wish he was. You see, dad is the ueber-brave sort and a famed dragon slayer (the winged creatures are thought to be evil and nasty wretches), not to mention the leader of the Viking clan; while junior falls into the woebegone category. He desperately wishes to become a respected dragon slayer in his own right. His dream is to become the first Viking to bring down a member of the oh-so elusive and dangerous Night Fury breed. Surely this would cement his desired stature within the clan. To that end he develops a weapon to help him do just that. And he does! Trouble is, no one sees the dragon go down, and certainly no one is willing to listen to him about his accomplishment.
He knows he saw it go down, however, and sets out to find the evidence of his triumph. Eventually he does come across the beast – which crashed thunderously in the woods – and finds it still ensnared in the rope webbing from his weapon. He summons up the nerve to examine it and “take its heart back to dad,” but he just can’t bring himself to kill it. Instead he helps it out, Androcles-and-the-Lion-style and cuts it loose from its trappings. The dragon quickly pins him down, but does not kill him either. It merely snarls and darts off, smashing into things as it tries to make its getaway.
Eventually, Hiccup realizes that its tail was damaged and that it cannot fly properly any longer. Feeling pity and guilt – and a certain sense of curiosity – he tries to befriend and help creature. The two wind up bonding, and Hiccup discovers that dragons are not at all what everyone has thought them to be.
If you’ve seen the trailer, yes, Hiccup has a crush on a young lass (voiced by America Ferrera) and there’s a subplot involving their relationship. Needless to say, she’s supposed to be cute in her own way – hip, tough and all the rest of it – but this is one of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON’s more conventional aspects, so I won’t belabor it here, except to say that even it was likeable enough to be rather merry.
There are also some fun dragon facts that Hiccup learns and uses to non-violently subdue his winged attackers during some dragon slaying classes that he finds himself in. But I’ve given you enough spoilers so we’ll end the synopsis right here.
All you really need to know is that if your attitude toward HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON was similar to mine, then drop it and go see this entertaining, smart, and even quaintly wise little movie. Oh, and don’t skimp out on the 3-D because you think the film’s not worth it. It is. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (DreamWorks/Paramount Pictures 2010; 98 min.) Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders. Screenplay by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders. Additional writing by Adam F. Goldberg and Peter Tolan. Based on the book by Cressida Cowell. Produced by Bonnie Arnold. Co-Produced by Michael A. Connolly. Executive produced by Kristine Belson and Tim Johnson. Production Design by Kathy Altieri. Art Direction by Piere-Olivier Vincent. Visual Effects Supervision by Craig Ring. Music Composed by John Powell. Edited By Maryann Brandon. Cast of Voices: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, Robin Atkin Downes, Philip McGrade, Kieron Elliott, and Ashley Jensen. MPAA Rating: PG for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language.