Back in 2011 How to Train Your Dragon was cruelly robbed at the Academy Awards of the animation Oscar by the wonderfully sweet but gimmick-laden Toy Story 3, and Hollywood animation has yet to recover from it. (Actually Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist was better than the both of them, but that’s an argument for another time.) With sublime character design, rich humour and a character-driven plot most “grown-up” films should be envious of, Dragon become one of 2010’s biggest runaway hits following a rocky opening that generated sensational word-of-mouth.
Jump forward a few years, two seasons of the spin-off TV series and a number of stocking-filler direct-to-DVD shorts and the dragons of Berk return to the big screen for another adventure. Five years after uniting his Viking kindred with their reptilian enemy, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), now a young man, is eager to evade the responsibilities of assuming the title of chieftain from his now doting father Stoic the Vast (Gerard Butler), preferring to explore an expanding world on the back of his jet-black familiar Toothless.
When he and his lady friend Astrid (America Ferrera) encounter a gang of pirates who capture and sell dragons, Hiccup becomes aware of a villain named Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who is amassing an army of enslaved dragons. Rallying his friends to confront this new threat, Hiccup finds an unlikely ally in his long-lost mother, who was thought dead but is found to be a dragon-rider herself. Part Jane Goodall, part Shaka Zulu, Valka is the source of much of How to Train Your Dragon 2’s problems. Awkwardly forced into the story and failing utterly to excuse her absence (living on an island that in movie time appears to be barely an hour’s flight from Berk), Valka is a frustrating character whose story is ripped straight from The Simpsons episode ‘Mother Simpson’. Star-power helps naught, as Cate Blanchett voices the character with a garbled accent that sounds like Veronica Guerin with a mouth full of Australian haggis.
Glide of the Valkyrie: Hiccup’s mother Valka is introduced in the sequel
The rest of the voicecast fare better. Jay Baruchel remains an iconic performer as Hiccup, capturing a wide range of emotions with his stalling nearly-a-man voice. Butler excels also, and continues to find brilliant support in Craig Fergusson as Stoic’s no2 Gobber. Ferrera is sidelined, disappointing after such a strong role in the first film, but the comic love triangle between Vikings Snotlout, Fishlegs and Ruffnut (Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Kristen Wiig respectively) makes up for this. Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington joins the cast as a macho pirate, but no one ever claimed the most exciting thing about Jon Snow’s storylines was his voice. Hounsou does his best with an underwritten, underdeveloped and frankly racist villain – the only black man in all of Scandinavia is also the only tyrant.
Dealing with this new threat, the script shows itself to be politically schizophrenic, commending Hiccup’s quest for peace while ultimately championing military dominance. The film concludes with a call to arms that sounds straight out of a post-9/11 docudrama directed by Leni Riefenstahl.
Danger in a strange land: The villain Drago (actually his name) is confronted by stout Viking lass Astrid
The action, however, is even more thrilling than the first time around, with some brilliantly planned-out aerial stunts. The dragon and human designs are far richer in texture, with the polar leviathan the Bewilderbeast a mighty achievement of the creators’ imaginations. Much of the comedy lands, while Toothless, a veritable reptilian catdog of personality and energy, remains just about the cutest animated character since Fievel.
The greatest highlight of Dragon 1, John Powell’s heart-quickening, triumphant score, is repeated here, although the addition of a dance-pop version of the main theme with echoes of Owl City is frankly sinful; like a punk rock rendition of the Schindler’s List soundtrack. Indeed the film is trying to appeal to a cool audience a little too hard – Hiccup’s latest inventions include a winged glide-suit and a fiery lightsaber, while Toothless develops new powers borrowed heavily from another popular movie lizard. The first film achieved coolness without a pinch of effort.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 shares a lot in common with last year’s disappointing Despicable Me 2; both are sequels to surprisingly affecting movies, both feature slapdash-scripted and ultimately racist villains, and both reinforce conservative family norms that their predecessors had soared high without.
Gorgeous to behold but thematically frustrating and confused, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a worthy entertainment, but little more. The first film was a borderline masterpiece, this one is only just good.
Another year fades into memory. Remember how Argo didn’t surprise anyone but Life of Pi winning best director did? Remember how Seth MacFarlane had seen people’s boobs? No, me neither. Let’s move on with 2014 so
Rudely pushed from February by the Sochi Winter Olympics (which I totally watched a minute of, honest), March kicks off with the death knell of awards season, and supposedly the tightest race in recent Oscar memory. Awards have been split between three major players thus far; the relative outsider being Gravity (superb production, but a philosophic tabula rasa), while American Hustle (lively gloss with undercooked ideas) and 12 Years a Slave (harrowing majesty) will test the Academy’s love for art versus entertainment. It really could go either way.
Ellen DeGeneres hosts again, having put in a passable performance at the 2007 awards, but the big moment will likely come when the PowerPoint of the recently deceased plays, following a series of sad and shocking deaths in the American film industry in the past months. Much of the rest of the events are unpredictable, but that’s not gonna stop me from trying to guess the winners. Here goes.
His master’s voice: Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) listens to the cruel whispers of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) in 12 Years a Slave
Once more the line-up is nine, suggesting the Academy really can’t decide what to do with the expanded 10-position nomination hole it’s opened up for itself. Philomena, Nebraska and Captain Phillips are strong seat-holders. Her, Dallas Buyers Club and the cruelly maligned Wolf of Wall Street remain outside bets, that could’ve had great chances with bigger buzz and better campaigns behind them. Gravity is this year’s Avatar, although with the added benefit of being a great movie; it will likely choke in the airless vacuum of being too commercial. That leaves Hustle and Slave. The chance to make a little bit of history won’t be lost on the Academy.
Should win: 12 Years a Slave
Will win: 12 Years a Slave
Starman: Alfonso Cuarón directs Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Gravity
Alexander Payne did a solid, gentle job with Nebraska, but that film has been slid under the awards mat for months now. Scorsese has earned an Oscar for the first time in decades, but sure when has he ever been given an Oscar he deserved?! David O. Russell (American Hustle) has been lucky with the surge of positivity his film gotten, but it won’t get him anywhere in this race. It comes down to Cuarón (Gravity) or McQueen (12 Years) – either win would be historical. In such a tight year, a split seems likely.
Should win: Steve McQueen
Will win: Alfonso Cuarón
The man with the plan: Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof
Leonardo DiCaprio found a new peak in his career with The Wolf of Wall Street, but whether or not the Academy will reward him thus is uncertain given the often negative reaction that film has received. Chiwetel Ejiofor gave an overpowering performance in 12 Years a Slave, but his name remains unduly obscure in Hollywood, whereas Matthew McConaughey’s comeback, of which Dallas Buyers Club is but a brick, is now legendary.
Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio
Will win: Matthew McConaughey
Blue is the loneliest colour: Cate Blanchett as Jeanette Francis in Blue Jasmine
Should win: Cate Blanchett
Will win: Cate Blanchett
Best Supporting Actor
Trans-formation: Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club
Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) once more stands in the wing, as will Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street). No, unless there’s an unexpected surge for Michael Fassbender (12 Years) or Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), this one is in the bag for Jared Leto’s impressive but unexceptional performance in Dallas Buyers Club.
Should win: Michael Fassbender or Jonah Hill
Will win: Jared Leto
Best Supporting Actress
Darling of the Academy: Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn Rosenfeld in American Hustle
Last year’s Best Actress winner Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) was an early call for this one, but there is new energy behind Lupita Nyong’o for her astonishing role as an indoctrinated slave in 12 Years a Slave. As that film begins a late surge towards best picture, this award could clarify things right from the beginning of the night. Julia Roberts (August: Osage County), Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) and June Squibb (Nebraska) are all worthy but out of the race.
Should win: Lupita Nyong’o
Will win: Jennifer Lawrence
Best Original Screenplay
Recent allegations against Woody Allen have surely crippled Blue Jasmine here, while Nebraska and Dallas Buyers Club are likely to have to sit this one out. Spike Jonze’s Her has deserving energy behind it after a win at the Globes, but don’t rule out American Hustle just yet, especially if it targets a clean-up on the night.
Should win: Spike Jonze
Will win: Spike Jonze
Best Adapted Screenplay
Despite everything, Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke don’t stand a chance for their superb Before Midnight. Billy Ray’s Captain Phillips screenplay sticks out here like a sore thumb, while Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s Philomena is just too slight to win this one. The split comes down to Slave (John Ridley) and Wolf of Wall Street (Terence Winter). It can really only go one way I think…
Should win: Terence Winter
Will win: John Ridley
Best Animated Feature
Snow chance of losing: Disney’s Frozen
Despicable Me 2 was too slight (and racist?), while The Croods was too inconsistent; neither has the buzz behind them to pull this one off. Speaking of buzz, there’s been so little word on Benjamin Renner and Didier Brunner’s Ernest & Celestine that I’d be shocked if a single member of the Academy even watched their screener of it (assuming they received it). Miyazaki’s final film The Wind Rises is truly deserving and it would be a glorious capstone to his career, but the public adoration behind Frozen will surely propel it to victory. And in fairness, Miyazaki’s already won this Oscar; Disney has not!
Should win: The Wind Rises or Frozen
Will win: Frozen
Best Animated Short
Of this lot I must confess I have only seen Disney’s Get a Horse!, and while amusing I daren’t think of it as an Oscar competitor. The other nominees are Feral, Mr. Hublot, Possessions and Room on the Broom. I shall make a monumental guess.
Should win: Not Get a Horse!?
Will win: Room on the Broom (only because I once read my niece the book and it was lovely)
Best Foreign Language Film
La Dolce Via: Tony Servillo in The Great Beauty
Some strange nominees here, with films from Palestine (Omar) and Cambodia (The Missing Picture) in the running. The Broken Circle Breakdown is Belgium’s entry, but there’s no energy behind it. Thomas Vinterberg’s superb The Hunt has become little more than a Netflix blip, meaning Paolo Sorrentino, outrageously overlooked years back for his sensational Il Divo, will now win for his stunning but over-indulgent/rated The Great Beauty.
Should win: The Hunt
Will win: The Great Beauty
Best Documentary Feature
Hearts of darkness, minds of light: Anwar Congo and Herman Koto re-enact their dreams in The Act of Killing
Honest to god if The Act of Killing doesn’t win I will break something. Cutie and the Boxer winning might appease my wrath. The Square winning will make me break a person. Dirty Wars and 20 Feet From Stardom are also nominated.
Should win: The Act of Killing
Will win: The Act of Killing
Had better win: The Act of Killing
Best Documentary Short
Two years in a row I have succeeded in not seeing any of these! Why do I draw such attention to my own failings?
Should win: ?
Will win: CaveDigger (has the best title)
Best Original Score
This is an odd selection, with Her (William Butler and Owen Pallett) and Saving Mr. Banks (Thomas Newman) surely in the running in any other year. But in Gravity Steven Price created an aural blast that has not been experienced since Strauss was sampled in 2001. A sure-fire winner.
Should win: Steven Price
Will win: Steven Price
Best Original Song
When U2’s ‘Ordinary Love’ from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom won at the Globes, there was outrage. Frozen’s ‘Let It Go’ is not just a superb piece of music with clever lyrics, it is also a fantastic piece of storytelling in and of itself. Surely the Academy will recognise this.
Should win: ‘Let It Go’
Will win: ‘Let It Go’
Best Sound Editing
Last year I joked that nobody cared about the sound categories. But then Best Sound Editing was split between Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty and the world nearly imploded in confusion. So, let’s be serious here. Um… no, let’s just give it to Gravity.
Should win: Gravity
Will win: Gravity
Best Sound Mixing
I still can never quite work out what this award is for. But the sound in The Hobbit was pretty great, so let’s say it’ll win, if Gravity doesn’t.
Should win: Depends on what exactly is being judged…
Will win: Gravity
Best Production Design
Letting the ’20s roar: The incredible design of Baz Luhrmann’s largely misguided take on The Great Gatsby
Her and 12 Years a Slave would be very worthy winners here, but the options are so grand. Gravity is so heavily digital it should rule itself out, leaving the fight between the ultra-’70s sheen of American Hustle or the outlandish brilliance of The Great Gatsby. It’s very tight.
Should win: The Great Gatsby or Her
Will win: The Great Gatsby
Cinema software: The digital cinematography of Gravity astounds, but is it really cinematography?
Much like Avatar a few years back, I have no respect for Gravity’s inclusion here. Bruno Delbonnel should be in the running for Inside Llewyn Davis, but that film has gone down with the Academy about as well as discussions of Zionist hoodlums. This could go just about anywhere.
Should win: Roger Deakins (Prisoners) or Bruno Delbonnel
Will win: Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity)
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Styling AIDS: Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club
Good lord am I still here writing this. Um… Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa winning would be funny for all kinds of reasons. No one wants The Lone Ranger to win any awards, so it’s out. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto did, admittedly, look like they had AIDS. That beats William Fichtner with a dodgy hairlip any day.
Should win: Dallas Buyers Club
Will win: Dallas Buyers Club
Best Costume Design
That ’70s glow: Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence all looking très chic in American Hustle
Once again it’s Gatsby versus Hustle. The former was outlandish, but the latter had more sideboob.
Should win: The Great Gatsby
Will win: American Hustle
Best Film Editing
The two big deserving films are Dallas Buyers Club and Captain Phillips, but it’s never been clear to me that the Academy understands what editing is. Will they just give it to Gravity because it didn’t need editing due to long takes? Who knows…?
Should win: Dallas Buyers Club or Captain Phillips
Will win: American Hustle
Best Visual Effects
Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble: Satellites and space stations are shredded apart in Gravity
Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness… hell, even The Lone Ranger! These are all deserving films. But Gravity is the one that made special effects shine this year, so it’d be an absolute shock if it didn’t take the gold.
Should win: Gravity (or Smaug)
Will win: Gravity
So those are my calls. We’ll see how right I was in about 36 hours. I’ll be live-blogging the event as always, this year from a hotel somewhere in the middle of Virginia. Don’t ask. I’ll see you then.
Pub trouble – Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Simon Pegg, Paddy Considine and Martin Freeman
Who doesn’t love a good thematic trilogy? Three Colours? Rosselini’s Post-War trilogy? Fassbinder’s BRD? Filmmakers can explore ideas of genre and the era in which they live through loose thematic constructs that somehow inform upon one another. Often a filmmaker, like Antonioni, will cast the same actor in different roles in each film, playing with concepts of identity and performance.
The Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy may have emerged through a joke cracked by Edgar Wright in a press conference, but there’s no doubt it caught the imagination. Wright’s Shaun of the Dead had garnered quite the (deserved) cult following, and his follow-up film Hot Fuzz was a rollicking, hysterical, if somewhat messily executed comedy hit. The concept of a trilogy featuring the superb comedy duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in differing roles, each deconstructing the pulpiest of genres – horror, action and science-fiction – seemed too good to be true. And it was.
Crashing into the final hurdle like a wooden fence Simon Pegg just can’t leap, The World’s End is like eating a mint Cornetto only to find the bottom of the cone is not filled with chocolate, only blue goo and disappointment. Like Hot Fuzz, which suddenly switches genre with every passing act (from odd couple/fish out of water comedy, to slasher movie, to high-octane action flick), The World’s End switches tack midway through. Here, its Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? plot mutates into a clunky, misdirected Invasion of the Body Snatchers parody so suddenly that you’d swear you had just left the cinema and entered another movie entirely. And neither movie was very good.
Pegg, who has almost perfected the role of the likeable loser, here plays the unlikeable loser, Gary King. In the late ’80s Gary was the leader of the pack; not the coolest guy in school maybe, but certainly the most confident. Over the years his friends moved on and grew up, but he never changed, and is now a pathetic manchild, still dressing the same, driving the same car and listening to all the same music. An alcoholic and a drug addict, it is far less believable that he survived the 1990s than that his home town has been taken over by aliens.
Desperate to rekindle the magic of the “best night of his life”, an aborted pub crawl taking in all of Newton Haven’s 12 pubs, Gary monstrously manipulates his one-time friends into giving it another shot. There’s Steven (Paddy Considine), the quietly confident one; Oliver (Martin Freeman), the geeky professional one; Peter (Eddie Marsan), the one who was bullied in school and now feels bullied by life; and Andrew (Frost), the one who has suffered the most from trying to give Gary the benefit of the doubt.
Obnoxiously mirroring all the events of their first pub crawl so that we always know exactly what is about to happen, the quintet work their way along the ‘Golden Mile’, before an encounter with some humourless teens in a pub toilet reveals that many of the locals have been replaced by literally blue-blooded alien replicants. Fearful the malevolent powers that be might target people doing anything out of sorts, the group decide the discreet thing to do is politely finish the pub crawl and get thoroughly annihilated, then get thoroughly out of town.
Nightmare in Newton Haven: Simon Pegg, Paddy Considine and Nick Frost on the run from who the hell cares
Most of the faults with The World’s End land in Gary’s lap. He may be a believable character, but he is a despicable one, and nostalgic attempts to redeem him are repeatedly undone as he time and again proves himself to be beyond saving, and beyond worth saving. In Shaun of the Dead Shaun learned (like Spaced’s Tim Bisley) that it was possible to take responsibility for his life while also maintaining a childishness that allowed him to be himself. Here Gary never even begins to grow up, he just betrays himself and his friends again and again. For those who found Wright’s take on Scott Pilgrim obnoxious, you’ve seen nothing yet.
Worse still though, Wright and Pegg’s screenplay just isn’t funny. The jokes aren’t here. Oliver’s geekiness is highlighted through his repeated utterance of “WTF?” instead of actually swearing – it pays off in one decent joke, but by then you’re so irritated with the character it’s just too little too late. The classic Wright wordplay is present, but the style is tired from overuse, and there’s nothing to match the banter of “Dogs can’t look up” from Shaun or the farmers and their mothers exchange from Hot Fuzz.
Perhaps the finest element of Shaun, the pre-drinking speech that foreshadows the film to come, is here done to death. Not only does the film’s preamble give the entire game away, but in every pub the name of the establishment somehow relates to the events that occur there. By the time you get to pub 11, ‘The Hole in the Wall’, you’re not paying attention to the ‘drama’ unfolding but rather waiting for the damn wall to fall down. You wind up frustrated at the characters for not realising they’re so clearly in an Edgar Wright movie. The whole project feels self-aware and self-important, reeking of Wright’s comedic egomania.
Bizarre music choices aside, the big disappointment here is the film’s uninspired look, which never shows any of the energy of the earlier films in the trilogy. The fight scenes have a kinetic bar brawling energy, but they’re so distractingly choreographed that they never become thrilling, more puzzling. The alien robot designs, while original, come off looking cheap.
Pegg and Frost appear bored with their roles, with only Paddy Considine really giving all he’s got. Freeman, perhaps exhausted from all his Hobbit-ing and Sherlock-ing is hardly present, phoning his whole performance in via a Bluetooth. Marsan proves he has mettle for comedy, but he’s not given much to work with. As Oliver’s sister and a romantic distraction for both Gary and Steven, Rosamund Pike excuses herself well. A brilliant stroke of casting for the villain in Hot Fuzz is repeated here with a similar casting, but it’s far less successful.
The World’s End is at its best when it’s dissecting British drinking culture. Sterilised Starbucks-like pubs and school discos are featured and given the ribbing they deserve. But the film never settles on what it feels about alcohol as social lubricant versus social epidemic. In one of the finest dialogue scenes in the film Andrew gives a speech about how brave it is to be a teetotaller, turning down pints with the lads and standing up for himself. Not long after he is downing shots because the story demands it. It’s quite a shameful cop-out.
The character’s surnames – King, Knightley, Prince, etc – hint at a fantasy idea that has no place in this film, and is unfortunately repeated near the film’s denouement. You’re left wondering if Wright has even made the film he wanted to, or got lost somewhere in the process. There are clever ideas at play once the characters arrive at The World’s End pub, but they don’t even begin to make up for the drudgery of the film to that point.
Recently Despicable Me 2 had a better Body Snatchers joke in it than anything Wright and Pegg conjure up here, and the whole film suffers from a bipolar uncertainty as to what exactly it is. Sadly, the only thing it definitely is is a panegyric to Gary King, perhaps the most hate-worthy protagonist in modern cinema. He’s a King nobody should want. An act of regicide would be thoroughly welcome.
A Love Song of Ice and Fire: Gru meets Agent Wilde
What is going on with Al Pacino? Apparently doing a dance to sell Dunkin’ Donuts in Jack & Jill isn’t beneath him, but he’s above a little ethnic stereotyping in a children’s cartoon? Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself here…
The original Despicable Me was the first feature from Illumination Entertainment, and taking in more than $500 million dollars worldwide in 2010 threw down a gauntlet to the likes of Pixar and especially DreamWorks, whose similarly themed Megamind, also out in 2010, took in little more than half that sum. The surprise success of Despicable Me was only surprising to those who didn’t see it. While the animation was nothing spectacular, the film’s extraordinary wit and heart made it a favourite for kids young and old.
Despicable Me 2 follows on in the fashion of its predecessor, as hapless supervillain Gru continues to balance his hi-tech exploits with raising three adorable but troublesome girls. Now retired from evil, Gru and his army of yellow Tic Tac Minions dedicate themselves to raising the children. But when a mysterious supervillain steals a dangerous mutagen, Gru is taken on by the Anti-Villain League to weed out the culprit. It’s the old hire a supervillain to catch a supervillain trick.
The story, what there is of one, is terribly light, with Gru and AVL agent Lucy Wilde having to pose as pastry chefs at a local mall to work out which shop owner is behind the plot. It is played like a whodunit, except we are only ever given two candidates to choose from: Mexican restaurant owner Eduardo and Asian wigmaker Floyd Eagle-san. Elsewhere oldest daughter Margo discovers boys, youngest daughter Agnes tries to encourage a romance between Gru and Lucy and middle child Edith gets utterly sidelined. When the story slackens, the Minions are wheeled out for more of their delightful gibberish-filled antics. The word “gelato” has never brought so many smiles.
There was something so “modern family” about the first film, with a (camp? gay?) single dad raising three girls and discovering he could manage, that really made it stand out. This time around it’s all about finding Gru a girlfriend, and thus finding the girls a mother. It’s an unfortunate step towards a heteronormative family unit that kids’ movies just don’t need right now. Gru is better off a single dad! It also doesn’t help that for much of the film Lucy Wilde is excruciatingly annoying – voiced by Kristen Wiig, she plays it like her role in Bridesmaids but without any of the tragicomic charm.
Swing and a miss: The Minions are always an easy laugh
It also doesn’t help that the racial stereotyping is even worse this time around. Steve Carell gets away with playing Gru as a mad Slav by filling the role with enough soul to excuse it. But having Ken Jeong voice yet another flamboyant Asian man while Steve Coogan plays a British toff with a silly name is all too easy. The character of Eduardo, all flamenco dancing and body hair, was originally to be voiced by Al Pacino, who left the project among some whispered controversy – it’s not hard to see why, Pacino has never been very convincing with his Latino accents.
Despite these problems and the various abandoned subplots (Margo’s love life goes nowhere), there is a good bit to like here, and plenty of proper laughs. The Minions get most of them with their ridiculous singing, inappropriate costumes and general over-eagerness at performing tasks, but Gru and Agnes don’t disappoint. A fun reference to Alien may be a little obvious, but a later allusion to the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is deliciously obscure for a family movie.
Fans of the original will be disappointed if they expect film two to be of the same standard, but they should be able to enjoy it as just an extra adventure for characters they loved. In the meantime, we can all look forward to next year’s Minions spin-off movie, because let’s face it, they’re all we really want to see.