Friday, June 20, 2014

Cinema in the Dark: Double-Feature
Reviews by Anthony Servante

Featuring "How to Train Your Dragon 2" (2014) and "Edge of Tomorrow" (2014)

Film #1: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

Director: Dean DeBlois

Cast: Jay Baruchel Hiccup, Gerard Butler Stoick, America Ferrera Astrid, Cate Blanchett Valka.

Summary: Five years have passed since Hiccup and Toothless united the dragons and Vikings of Berk. Now, they spend their time charting the island's unmapped territories. During one of their adventures, the pair discover a secret cave that houses hundreds of wild dragons -- and a mysterious dragon rider who turns out to be Hiccup's long-lost mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett) . Hiccup and Toothless then find themselves at the center of a battle to protect Berk from a power-hungry warrior named Drago.

Review: I sang the praises of "How to Train Your Dragon" (2010). Great protagonist in Hiccup and a great villain in that super dragon in the fantastic battle finale. The old cast is back, only now we have Hiccup's mother Valka (voiced by Cate Blanchett) and two villains: a super dragon and a dragon "herder" for lack of a better word. In the original movie, the tension lay between father Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler) and son Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), the former a warrior, the latter an inventor, but in Dragon 2, the tension has shifted to Hiccup's refusal to take over his father's role as chieftain of the tribe.

As Hiccup avoids his father by mapping the surrounding country and sea, courtesy of his flying dragon Toothless, he encounters his long lost mother, who was spirited away by dragons when he was but a wee baby in the crib. He also finds that his mother has become the Jane Goodall of dragons, so it is no surprise when we learn that Hiccup takes after his mother.

Enter the bad guys. Dragon hunters, who work for the villain Drago (voiced by Djimon Hounsou). He plans to conquer Hiccup's tribe by trapping and controlling all the village's dragons. And yes, he does have the means to control the dragons. So you thought the giant dragon in the first movie was big; wait till you see the two, yes, two, giants battling for alpha status over all the dragons. Godzilla is a Chihuahua compared to these behemoths.

So, all the ingredients are there for me to love this movie as much as the first film. What happened? For one, the supporting cast, the youngsters, were relegated to cheerleaders for Hiccup rather than fellow warriors. They were also given one too many jokes to tell the kids in the audience. Why is it that only Hiccup can grow older without acting the buffoon?! I mean, these characters have grown five years older, yet they still behave like preteens on a sugar-rush. Another thing: Valka, when we first meet her, is a kick-ass dragon rider who outmaneuvers Hiccup and Toothless. By the second half of the movie, she becomes a damsel in distress. What gives? I thought Ripley in the movie Alien (1979) left that stereotype behind; she showed women can be heroes and created the model for movie heroines to follow (including Sarah Conners from Terminator Two).  But these are minor annoyances, and most fans of the movie probably won't even notice them.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 was lots of fun, but the laughs were forced this time out. (I did like the joke about the old woman of the village surrounded by little dragons like the cat lady from The Simpsons). The action, however, makes up for the bad jokes as there are some dragon battles that alone are worth the price of admission. I gave the first film a grade of A, so I'd put an A- on the second Dragon. And with Dragon 3 on its way, I can only hope that the trilogy ends with an A+.

Film #2: Edge of Tomorrow

Director: Doug Liman

Cast: Tom Cruise Lt. Col. Bill Cage, Emily Blunt Rita Vrataski

Summary:  Lt. Col. Bill Cage is an officer who has never seen a day of combat when he is unceremoniously dropped into what amounts to a suicide mission. Killed within minutes, Cage now finds himself inexplicably thrown into a time loop - forcing him to live out the same brutal combat over and over, fighting and dying again - and again. But with each battle, Cage becomes able to engage the adversaries with increasing skill, alongside Special Forces warrior Rita Vrataski. And, as Cage and Rita take the fight to the aliens, each repeated encounter gets them one step closer to defeating the enemy.

Review: In The Outer Limits, the original series, there was an episode called "Controlled Experiment", wherein two aliens with a time machine replay a murder scene over and over trying to understand this brutal human act. It is one of my least favorite episodes. It plays the same scene so many times, in slow-motion, in fast-forward, rewind, and freeze-frame, that it becomes monotonous. The story made murder boring. Part of the problem was the technology in the 1960s was very modest and the special effects amounted to the same functions we would later have on a basic VHS player. 

Then came "Groundhog Day (1993). The Bill Murray film used the basic premise of a recurring event, only the hero, newsman Phil Conners, can alter the turnout of circumstances as the same day starts anew. This extension of the premise allowed Phil to change himself until the day was in harmony with his new character. Then a new day begins and time moves forward. 

In "Edge of Tomorrow", the repeating day premise goes way beyond Groundhog Day. Now only must Bill Cage find the perfect balance with the day's events, he must destroy an alien enemy, called mimics, that has the same power he has: They can repeat the day as well in order to anticipate their foe's strengths and plans and defeat the humans who believe this is old-fashioned warfare. Little do they realize the aliens have changed the paradigm of war and the humans are doomed to failure. Thus, when Cage acquires the aliens' ability to replay time, he becomes the humans' only hope to stop the aliens. Too bad as each day repeats itself, no one believes him.

This is where the movie picks up the pace from a Groundhog Day repetition. Cage finds a soldier (Emily Blunt) who had and lost the same power he now has, and she must help him finish what she couldn't finish: the mission to destroy the aliens at their own game. 

What we have instead of montage after montage of training are twists in the plot. Each day is like a piece in a game of chess between Cage and the mimics. The key for the alien creatures is to stop Cage, and the mission for Cage changes so many times that he realizes that this might be a game that he can't win. 

The fun aspect of the movie is that to reset the day Cage must die. Vrataski understands this and constantly kills Cage in order to advance his training. But as I said, the training isn't enough to sustain the plot. Cage must gather an army for the final invasion. The endgame is do or die. So pay attention to every detail, every character, for they'll play a role later in that endgame, a battle that is a perfect denouement for this search for the perfect day when the humans are down to one chance to win.

Edge of Tomorrow is the best movie out there this year, and I can't see any movie topping it for sheer originality and intelligence. This is not the Avengers banging you over the head with Thor's hammer. This is a film that can be added proudly to the time travel genre, but as a movie overall, I can't imagine anything coming out soon that will be half as entertaining and thought-provoking. Even if you could reset the day. 

Thank you, readers, for joining us for our double-feature. Whether you pick one or the other to watch, or both if you have the time and inclination, you will have one grand time that only the cinema darkness can deliver. See you next time. 

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