Three Star

By this point in the summer, explosions and car chases are often losing their appeal. It takes a special action movie to go beyond one week atop the box office (such as Guardians of the Galaxy – more on that in my next post). There’s a place for a movie that bucks the big budget trend, and The Hundred Foot Journey fills that slot nicely.

Very Important: if you’ve seen the trailer, you might think you already know what will happen. You may have decided this film is just a clone of Chocolat, especially since they share the same director, Lasse Hallstrom. Hallstrom, though, doesn’t make movies that fit assumptions. He also directed The Cider House Rules, Salmon Fishing in Yemen, and had his first international hit 30 years ago with My Life as a Dog. The Hundred Foot Journey is no exception.

The beauty of Hundred Foot is the character interaction. Helen Mirren is excellent – as always – as Madame Mallory, whose restaurant in a small French town possesses one Michelin star. She covets a second star, but she’s use to doing things in the traditional way. Of equal delight is watching actor Om Puri. He’s a pillar of the Indian film community with over 250 credits, though he’s only appeared in a few Western films, such as Charlie Wilson’s War, The Ghost and the Darkness, and Ghandi. Here he plays Papa, the head of the Kadam family, who have come to Europe after a tragedy in their native India. While there’s a comedic element to the character, he also presents Papa with dignity and pride.

The main characters, though, are Hassan (Manish Dayal) and Margeurite (Charlotte Le Bon). Dayal is from North Carolina, and has appeared in TV series such as “The Good Wife,” “Law and Order” (both “S.V.U.” and “Criminal Intent”), and the reboot of “90210.” This is his first starring role in a major picture. Le Bon, who is from Quebec, is more of an ingénue, with a couple of movies to her credit. It’s a joy to watch them on the screen.

The movie’s based on a novel by Richard C, Morais and was adapted by Steven Knight. Knight has an eclectic résumé, having done David Cronenberg’s thriller Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things (which starred Audrey Tautou and Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Amazing Grace, which told the story of slavery abolitionist William Wilberforce. Recently he wrote the well-received Locke, starring Tom Hardy. Knight also created the original English version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” While the adaptation has plenty of humor, it is spiced with pathos and leavened with humanity.

Hallstrom is assisted by Linus Sandgren, whose cinematography infuses the film with the warmth of the southern French countryside. Sandgren’s mostly worked in his native Sweden, but last year he did the photography for the excellent American Hustle. The movie also boasts two major players in Hollywood as producers – Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey – who know a bit about making quality films.

The Hundred Foot Journey chronicles the Kadam family’s long journey to find a new home, as well as Madame Mallory’s journey to understanding others. Sometimes, though we may think there are vast differences between ourselves and others, when we actually make the effort it isn’t such a long trip after all.

 

Plot Twists

It may seem unbelievable these days, but footage of actual tornados was almost non-existent back as late as the 1980s. Then video equipment got smaller and portable so storm chasers could record tornados while they were on the ground. With the digital revolution, now there might be dozens of shots of one storm. Digital technology also changed how twisters appeared in motion pictures. The tornado in The Wizard of Oz was created by filming a thirty-five foot long muslin sock, similar to the wind socks you find at airports. In 1996, computer graphics were used for the second major movie involving tornados, Twister. However, quite a few scenes were still filmed with old-fashion effects, like the truck driving through the rolling house. The two formats didn’t blended well, since there were the dark CGI storms and then bright sunshine in the next shot, like when Bill Pullman and Helen Hunt dodged combines dropping from the sky. Now, 18 years later, comes the next major film dealing with tornados, Into The Storm.

The movie is set up as a “found footage” film, similar to Chronicle or the grandfather of the genre, The Blair Witch Project. Here, though, director Steven Quale gives a nod to our digital society in that there are so many cameras involved that every angle is covered. (He does sneak in a shot or two that couldn’t have been caught by someone’s camera, but the pace of the movie is such you won’t notice until after it’s over.) Most effective are scenes purporting to be surveillance video. With the absence of sound, they look like they’ve been culled from YouTube rather than filmed specifically for the movie.

As with most disaster movies, the main focus is the action, and the plot revolves around it, rather than the action illustrating the plot. Into The Storm features three main threads. The central one deals with Gary Fuller (Richard Armitage), the vice-principal of the Silverton, Oklahoma, high school, and his two sons Donnie (Max Deacon) and Trey (Nathan Kress). Both Donnie and Trey help Gary with AV projects for the school, including the current one of interviews for a 25-year video time capsule. Donnie is infatuated with Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam Carey), and when she’s in need of help with a video, Donnie cuts out on the school’s graduation ceremony, leaving Trey to record the event.

Of matching importance is the plot thread involving storm chasing Team Titus, who pursue storms in a tank-like vehicle while a van outfitted with computerized weather gear provides support. After a year with no results, Pete (Matt Walsh), the team leader, finds his funding has just been cut. But he sees a chance to re-establish it when a huge storm front comes into the area. His meteorologist, Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies), points him toward Silverton, even though he wants to go to another town. When that other town is hit, Pete explodes at Allison, but he’s interrupted by a thunderstorm with golf-ball size hail. In the van they discover the storm has reestablished itself and is heading directly toward Silverton.

As comic relief – and this film is intense enough that comic relief is a requirement – there is self-styled YouTube stuntman Donk (Kyle Davis) and his i-Phone cameraman Reevis (Jon Reep). When they see Team Titus drive by, they’re inspired in their half-functioning brains to become storm chasers themselves. They paint a sign on the side of their pickup truck, grab their cameras, and head off after Team Titus.

After a brief preface that establishes the found footage premise – and gives a major jolt of adrenalin – Director Quale takes a while to establish the stories. Once the storm hits, though, the pace of the movie shoots into high gear. Quale had served as second unit director for both Titanic and Avatar, before his first chance to direct with the 5th installment of the Final Destination series. This is his sophomore effort, and it’s clear he’s a good student. Twister was a bit pretentious, with its script by Michael Crichton, director Jan de Bont coming off his triumph with Speed, and Steven Spielberg as executive producer. In contrast Into The Storm is a lean 89 minutes (24 minutes shorter than Twister) and was made for half the earlier film’s budget. Yet visually it puts Twister to shame. Granted, neither will be singled out as great examples of film as high art, but Into The Storm is a very effective B-movie.

I would give a word of caution to anyone who has dealt with the aftermath of an actual tornado. This film may be too emotionally impacting, and could bring back horrible memories. It probably won’t do any business in Joplin, MO. On the other hand, it does reflect a new reality in our relationship to the weather. “It seems like once-in-a-century storms are now happening every year,” Allison says early in the film. While it aims for thrills, Into The Storm may also be prescient.

10 Best Robin Williams Films

Sometimes the Mask of Comedy hides the Mask of Tragedy beneath it. The news of Robin Williams’ death by suicide at age 63 came as a shock to his multitude of fans. He was beloved for the laughter he brought with his rapid-fire, stream of consciousness delivery, beginning with the alien Mork on “Mork and Mindy.” He was a Tony away from winning all of the major awards, though three out of four is still quite an accomplishment. (It didn’t win a Tony, but his one-man Broadway Show, which was broadcast live by HBO, won a Grammy as the best comedy album in 2002.) On the big screen, the projects he appeared in didn’t always match his talent. Movies like Bicentenial Man, RV, License to Wed and Old Dogs will be forgotten, but he also amassed credits of which any actor would be proud. Below are my choices of his ten best movies, in chronological order.

The World According to Garp (1982)

Williams’ first foray into the movies, Robert Altman’s 1980 live-action version of Popeye was savaged by critics, but he had better luck the second time around. George Roy Hill (The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) directed this adaptation of the John Irving bestseller. The film is also known as a launching point for the career of another very funny actor, John Lithgow.

Good Morning Vietnam (1987)

It wouldn’t be until this film that Williams’ wild comedy style was set free in a film role. Playing real-life DJ Adrian Cronauer, Williams got to shake up the radio air waves during the Vietnam War. All of the radio broadcast material was improvised by Williams. The real Cronauer, who was a life-long Republican, was not pleased by the anti-war message of the film, but fans flocked to see the movie and it was the 4th highest grossing movie that year. The role led to Williams’ first Oscar nomination, and the movie also brought notice to Forest Whitaker, in one of his first major roles. (They’d work together again last year, when Williams played Dwight Eisenhower in Lee Daniel’s The Butler.)

Dead Poets Society (1989)

Peter Weir’s film continues to gather fans 25 years after its release. It is one of those movies that, once you’ve seen it, it will stay with you forever, especially the climax. Williams plays John Keating, an English teacher who encourages his students not to conform and to find inspiration in poetry. The movie was blessed with a cast of young actors who went on to success, including Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles. The movie added “Captain, my Captain” and “Carpe diem – sieze the day” to the litany of famous movie quotes. Williams’ second Oscar nomination came for this film, though he lost out to Daniel Day Lewis for My Left Foot.

Awakenings (1990)

In Penny Marshall’s movie, Williams plays it straight as Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a fictionalized version of Psychiatrist Oliver Sacks who wrote the non-fiction book on which the movie is based. He holds his own with Robert De Niro, who portrays one of the patients who awakens from a catatonic state thanks to an experimental drug. One bit of trivia – another of the patients is played by famed jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who passed away before the movie was released.

The Fisher King (1991)

Terry Gillam’s film takes a much different tack on Arthurian mythology than did Gillam’s other directing project, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Jeff Bridges plays Jack, a former DJ who seeks redemption by helping a homeless man, played by Williams. Williams’ character, Parry, is a former college professor who’s become unhinged after witnessing his wife’s murder in a bar shooting – an act unwittingly inspired by Jack. They play out the Fisher King legend in modern New York City, in a powerful tale of loss and redemption. Williams received his third Oscar nomination for this film, but this was also the year that Silence of the Lambs was released.

Aladdin (1992)

Once again Williams’ incredible improvisational comedic skills are on display, and it takes this animated film to a whole different level. When the Genie appears, the energy of the film goes into hyper-drive. It seems unbelievable that Williams hadn’t done an animated film before Aladdin, since the medium is perfect for illustrating his wild flights of comedy fancy.

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

Director Chris Columbus’ high concept comedy stars Williams as Daniel Hillard, an actor who has gone through a bitter divorce. In order to stay close to his children, he has his gay makeup artist brother Frank, played by Harvey Fierstein, help him become Mrs. Doubtfire, a Scottish nanny. The movie was the greatest financial success of Williams’ career, breaking the $200 million mark at the box office. (It was number 2 that year, behind the juggernaut Jurassic Park.)

The Birdcage (1996)

This was definitely not playing it straight. Mike Nichols’ adaptation of the French film La Cage aux Folles has Williams and Nathan Lane as a gay couple whose son informs them that he’s marrying the daughter of a conservative US Congressman, portrayed by Gene Hackman. The film was a solid hit – #9 at the box office that year – and launched Broadway actor Lane as a film star. Originally, though, Williams was cast in Lane’s role, with Steve Martin in the role Williams eventually played. A scheduling conflict kept Martin out of the film, and opened the door for Lane.

Good Will Hunting (1997)

The fourth time was the charm for Williams, as he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the South Boston psychologist who’s brought in to help Matt Damon’s damaged genius. The film was written by Damon and Ben Affleck, but Williams was able to insert several ad libs, including the final line of the film, “Son of a bitch, he stole my line.”

Insomnia (2002)

This was Christopher Nolan’s follow-up film to his classic debut, Memento, and it’s the only film Nolan’s directed that he didn’t write. Instead it’s an adaptation of a 1997 Norwegian film that starred Stellan Skarsgard (who worked with Williams in Good Will Hunting). Williams plays a killer who is at first hunted by Al Pacino’s LAPD Detective, who’s been imported to Alaska to help solve a murder. Things get strange when Pacino accidentally kills his partner and covers it up, leading to a truce between the two men. Hillary Swank portrays a local officer who throws a wrench in their plans. It’s a cat-and-mouse thriller, where you’re never sure who’s the mouse and who’s the cat.

Robin Williams (1951-2014). “Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

The 10 Best Professional Killers in the Movies

These are the roles to make someone else die for. Ever since the days of Murder, Inc in the 1940s and ‘50s, and the revelations about government involvement in assassination attempts in the ‘60s and ‘70s, movie goers have seen professional killers portrayed on the big screen. Rather than being a crime of passion or hatred, these killers are like small-business people, motivated by profit, even if some of them are government contractors. I’ve left off some good performances, like Avner (Eric Bana) in Munich, who is more of a soldier in small battles, and Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey) in The Manchurian Candidate, since it wasn’t his conscious choice to kill. While in a couple of the films the character “changes their ways,” they were first people who killed because they chose to do it.

10) Leon in Leon: The Professional (1994)

French director Luc Besson, who most recently did Lucy, has two characters he created on this list. The first is Leon, played by Jean Reno. Leon is a “cleaner” who works for a crime boss in NYC. He’s pretty much illiterate and his only real relationship is with a house plant. That changes when a corrupt DEA agent (Gary Oldman) and his team wreak havoc on a family in Leon’s apartment building. The only survivor is 12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman in her movie debut) who seeks shelter with Leon. The two work out a complex relationship – part parent-child, part mentor-student. In the end, when the agents seek to eliminate the only witness to their crime, Leon must use his skills to protect Mathilda.

9) Martin Blank in Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

John Cusack co-produced and collaborated on the screenplay for this movie, as well as playing Martin Blank in this comedy about a hit man who winds up at his 10 year high school reunion. The movie features Minnie Driver as Martin’s droll high school sweetheart, John’s sister Joan as his secretary, and Dan Ackroyd as a competing assassin. It’s not exactly black comedy, but it’s definitely dark gray, and Cusack’s a perfect fit for the character.

8) Rowley in Foreign Correspondent (1940)

In this Alfred Hitchcock thriller, there are two instances of casting against type. George Saunders, usually cast as a rogue, plays good guy ffolliot who helps Joel McCrea unearth a Nazi plot right before the outbreak of WWII. The other casting is Edmund Gwen, known mostly these days as Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street, as the hired killer Rowley. While the movies had shown political assassins and gangster killers plenty of times, this is one of the first hired hit men to be featured in a film.

7) Nikita in Nikita (a.k.a. La Femme Nikita) (1990)

Besson’s second character on this list is from his breakout movie. Anne Parillard plays a nihilistic teen who is captured after a drug-fueled robbery goes wrong. Rather than being sent to prison, Nikita is pulled out by a secret government agency called “The Centre” and trained as an assassin. After her training and her initial hit, she’s allowed to live on her own, but she finds the worlds she’s straddling keep coming into conflict. This movie was remade in the US as Point of No Return, with Bridget Fonda as Nikita, though they make her more of a victim of circumstance. It also spawned two TV series, with Peta Wilson then Maggie Q in the title role.

6) G. Joubert in Three Days of the Condor (1975)

This Sydney Pollack thriller was based on the book “Six Days of the Condor” by James Grady. They picked up the pace for the movie. The main focus is on intelligence operative Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) who tries to figure out why everyone was murdered at the think-tank where he worked. Joe had snuck out the back way because of rain and wasn’t seen by the team of assassins before they struck. The leader of the team is G. Joubert, played with cool aplomb by Max von Sydow. He takes a contract and completes it, but it isn’t personal for him, and if a contract supersedes his original one, that’s fine with him.

5) Vincent in Collateral (2004)

Michael Mann’s movie is a pas de deux between taxi cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx) and Vincent (Tom Cruise), a hit man hired by South American drug lords to make a government case go away by wiping out the government’s witnesses, informants, and the prosecutor. The movie takes place in classic tragedy style over the course of one long night as Vincent makes his rounds across Los Angeles. In between the hits he spouts his philosophy of life to Max, who must try to find some way to stop Vincent if he is to survive. It’s one of Cruise’s better performances, playing against type.

4) The Bride in Kill Bill Parts 1 & 2 (2003-4)

This role began with Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman brainstorming together during down time while making Pulp Fiction and grew into a four-hour .44 magnum opus with Thurman, whose character is only identified as The Bride until midway through the second movie, taking revenge on the team of assassins she once belonged to after they wipe out the participants at her wedding, put her into a coma, and steal her child. (She does have some motivation.) You could give honorable mentions in this category to Vivica A.Fox, Darryl Hannah, Lucy Liu, and David Carradine, each of them assassins in their own right, but to the winner goes the spoils.

3) The Jackal in The Day of The Jackal (1973)

This faithful adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s thriller stars Edward Fox as an English assassin known only as the Jackal. He’s hired by a group of former French military officers to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. The movie begins with a recreation of an actual attempt on de Gaulle’s life in 1962. When it fails, the group behind it decides to bring in a professional. Fox is excellent as the Jackal, operating with ice water in his veins as he pursues his target. Do not confuse this excellent movie with the awful Bruce Willis/Richard Gere 1997 movie The Jackal that purports to be based on the book.

2) Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (2007)

Javier Bardem deservedly won an Oscar for his performance as Chigurh, a merciless killer – unless you call a coin flip correctly. With his page-boy haircut and deadly shark eyes, he’s riveting to watch. Chigurh’s weapon of choice is a captive bolt pistol, normally used to kill cows in slaughter houses to eliminate the risk of flying bullets. Bardem’s Oscar win was the first by a Spanish actor over the Academy’s 80 year history at that time.

1) Jason Bourne in The Bourne Trilogy (2002-2007)

What happens when a contract killer no longer remembers who he is or what he’s done, but retains his skills? The series is based on Robert Ludlum’s bestseller from the 1970s, but in updating the story for the new millennium the screenwriters masterfully reworked the plot. The Bourne Identity, along with Supremacy and Ultimatum, completely changed the thriller genre. Matt Damon is brilliant in the role, convincingly handling the physical action as well as making the audience emotionally involved with the character and his struggles.

If you have other professional killer roles that you’ve think are deserving, please add a comment. I’d enjoy the input.

 

An Odyssey – with Guns and Car Chases

Luc Besson should have been born in Hong Kong. Although he’s from France, he is the spiritual child of John Woo and delivers the high-body-count cinema that began in that city. His first major hit as a writer and director was La Femme Nikita, which spawned an American remake (Point of No Return) and two TV series. From there he wrote, directed and/or produced Leon: The Professional (which was 13-year-old Natalie Portman’s feature film debut), The Fifth Element, The Transporter, and Taken, among others. Now Besson has written and directed Lucy

“Life was given to us a billion years ago,” Scarlett Johansson says in a voice-over of the CGI image of Australopithecus afarensis drinking water from a prehistoric pool. “What have we done with it?” The image jumps to the modern world with skyscrapers, traffic jams and crowds. Especially early on in the film, Besson throws in nature footage to equate the actions of the characters with that of wild animals. It makes you feel like you’re constantly flipping between HBO and an Animal Planet documentary. Having Morgan Freeman as a main character adds to the documentary feel in light of the voice-over narration he’s done on films like March of the Penguins. Strangely enough, the imagery works well in the context of the story.

Lucy (Johansson) is a student in Taiwan who’s been more focused on partying than studying. Her current week-long boyfriend tries to talk her into delivering a briefcase for him to Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). She refuses politely, but then the boyfriend handcuffs the case to her wrist and tells her Jang is the only one who can take it off. The boyfriend is dispatched of by Jang’s men and Lucy is dragged up to his office. Inside the case are four packets of a blue crystalline substance. Lucy is knocked out, and when she awakens she finds they’ve surgically placed one of the packages in her stomach cavity. She and three other drug mules are given passports and plane tickets and are sent to deliver the drugs to Jang’s men in Europe.

Lucy is taken to a holding cell to await her flight. Some of Jang’s men beat her and threaten much worse. The beating causes the packet to rupture, spilling a huge dose of the drug into her body. Lucy finds the drug has jumpstarted her mental capacity so that it’s growing at an exponential rate. With her new intelligence Lucy escapes the cell and gets to a hospital to have the package removed. In doing so, she leaves a trail of bodies in her wake. She tracks down Professor Samuel Norman (Freeman), an expert on brain function and evolution who is lecturing in Paris. (His lecture has been interspersed with Lucy’s actions in Taiwan as well as the nature video footage.) She arranges to meet him, and works with a French Surete captain, Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked) to round up the other drug mules. But Jang follows her, and is determined to kill Lucy.

Besson keeps the sleek movie roaring along at a race-car pace through its 89 minute running time, gliding over erroneous technical details. For instance, a large part of the story revolves around the old saw that humans only use a small percentage of their brain, something that’s been disproved by MRI imaging. Besson admitted in an interview that he knew this was incorrect, but he kept it because it made such a great jumping-off point for the movie.

As she’s shown in The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Scarlett Johansson can kick-ass with the best of them, like Angelina Jolie in Laura Croft: Tomb Raider or Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Actually, during the ten years it took Besson to get the film made, Jolie was cast as Lucy, but she had to drop out before Besson began filming. As important as the action, Johansson makes Lucy sympathetic from the beginning, She gets the audience rooting for the character, and that connection continues throughout the film. Freeman is given the unenviable role of explaining the pseudo-science of the film, but with his voice and gravitas he makes it compelling. Min-sik Choi is a veteran of Korean cinema, and was the title character in the original version of Old Boy. His embodiment of Jang blends both world-weariness with complete ruthlessness, and makes him a compelling villain for the piece.

The movie throws action, science fiction and nature documentary elements into a blender and purees them, and the smoothie that’s created somehow has a pleasant taste. Think of Lucy as a remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but with guns and car chases as a substitute for the space and the odyssey, and with 2001’s glacial pace turned up to eleven.

Darkness at Dawn

If ever there was a movie series that has reaped the benefit of modern technology, it’s Planet of the Apes. While the makeup in the original 1968 move was quite impressive for its day, you never forgot that you were watching actors in heavy latex prosthetics. The movie’s theme and its killer twist overcame the prosthetics – and allowed the film to become a five-movie series. There were some makeup improvements in the Tim Burton reboot, but the rest of the film was such a mess you hardly noticed them, and it looked like the series was dead. But then came 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, using motion capture technology and the genius of Andy Serkis’ embodiment of Caesar. For the first time, the intelligence-enhanced apes were believable, and fascinating. The success of Rise led to the newest film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The end of Rise foreshadowed a nasty plague caused by the Gen-Sys anti-Alzheimer’s drug ALZ 113, the treatment that gave Caesar (Serkis) and the other apes their intelligence. In a simple but effective sequence, the plague – called the Simian Flu because of its tie to ape testing – is tracked to its final devastation of mankind. Ten years have passed since Caesar led his apes north of San Francisco to Muir Woods where they set up their own society. During a hunt for food, Caesar and another of the original tribe, Koba (Toby Kebbell) must save Caesar’s son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) from a rampaging bear. They return to the settlement where Caesar’s wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) presents him with a new child. Cornelia, though, shows signs of illness.

Later while walking through the woods, Blue Eyes and a friend come face to face with a human. The man’s both armed and paranoid about apes, and he shoots Blue Eyes’ friend out of fear. The man is part of a small group under the leadership of Malcolm (Jason Clarke) that wants to find and restore a hydro power plant to give electricity to an outpost of humans still living in San Francisco. Caesar at first refuses the request, forcefully telling the leader of the outpost, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) to forget the plan. But Malcolm, along with his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his partner Ellie (Keri Russell), return to the forest and are able to change Caesar’s mind. While they make progress toward peaceful co-existence, both Dreyfus and Koba prepare for war.

Jason Clarke has a wonderful ability to communicate both physical strength as well as sensitive intelligence. His role as Dan, the CIA agent in charge of enhanced interrogations in Zero Dark Thirty, played up how quietly imposing he can be, while in Dawn he is the hope for understanding, following in the footsteps of James Franco’s role in Rise. Oldman is effective as always as the less-than-trusting Dreyfus, while Russell and Smit-McPhee provide good support for the story.

Toby Kebbell’s Koba rises almost to the level of Shakespeare’s Iago or Richard III. He’s fearsome, and the physical manifestation is truly frightening, yet he’ll pull on a mask and act the fool when he must. The moment when he drops the mask, though, is starkly powerful. A strong antagonist is needed to make a story memorable, and Kebbell provides that strength.

Caesar remains the central character, a leader trying to balance power and mercy. While the embodiment is incredible, what sets it apart is when the camera focuses on Serkis’ eyes and you read his thoughts. While he’ll never be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar – the prejudice against technology is too strong – in both Rise and Dawn Serkis does Oscar-caliber work. Serkis continues to be busy, with Avengers: Age of Ultron coming next year to be followed by a new Tintin movie as well as Star Wars 7.

Director Matt Reeves had worked in television (including several episodes of “Felicity” with Keri Russell) before moving to the big screen with Cloverfield and Let Me In. While those movies were a solid start, with Dawn he reaches blockbuster success. He’s assisted by production designer James Chinlund (The Avengers) who creates a post-human world where nature has taken charge again. Also, one particular kudo to the movie for not destroying the Golden Gate Bridge as a cheap post-apocalyptic visual. It’s become so common (Godzilla destroyed it two months ago) that leaving the bridge intact stands out.

With Rise and now Dawn, screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, assisted by Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard, Unstoppable) on the new film, have not just rebooted the series but have completely reimagined it, adding depth and emotional heart that was absent in the original movies. Dawn made more in its initial weekend than Rise, and it has topped the weekend box office for two weeks straight. According to IMDb, another movie is in the works with Reeves directing as well as collaborating on the script with Bomback. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

 

A Soaring Sequel

Dreamworks Animation was Disney Lite for many years. They had the Shrek and Madagascar series, and stand alones like Monsters vs. Aliens and Megamind – decent movies, all of them, but they didn’t reach the emotional depth of the Toy Story series, or Beauty and the Beast, or Up. That changed in 2010 with How to Train Your Dragon. Based on the series of books by Cressida Crowell, Dragon was wonderfully funny yet it had an emotional resonance with the conflict between Hiccup and his father Stoick, the chief of the Viking village plagued by dragons. The movie also did a service for all the soldiers who have returned home from recent wars with lost limbs when Hiccup lost a foot in the climatic battle while heroically saving the warriors of the village. It gave children a way to understand when that happened to people they knew – perhaps their own mothers and fathers. In How to Train Your Dragon 2, screenwriter/director Dean DeBlois builds on what he accomplished in the first movie.

A couple of years have passed since the first movie, and the dragons have become completely incorporated into the village. Hiccup’s friends Astrid (voice by America Ferrera), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and the twins Tuffnut and Ruffnut (TJ Miller and Kristen Wiig) are well into their teenaged years now, and with that change have come romantic feelings. Both Snotlout and Fishlegs are pining for Ruffnut, who isn’t impressed with either of them, while Astrid’s feelings for Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) have deepened. Hiccup and Toothless spend their days soaring far from the village, mapping the surrounding world. They come upon a group of dragon hunters led by Eret (Kit Harrington) who are gathering the beasts for the dragon army of Drago (Djimon Hounsou). The hunters had recently been hunted themselves by another dragon rider who has a dragon that can spit ice.

Stoick (Gerard Butler) has had experience with Drago and begins to prepare for war, but Hiccup wants to try to reason with Drago. Hiccup sets off to find him, but instead he discovers someone he never thought he’d ever see – his mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), who has become a dragon rider herself and the protector of a nest of dragons.

Dragon 2 keeps the comedic tone of the first movie intact, especially with the interplay between Hiccup’s friends. The embodiment of Valka is fascinating, as her time among the dragons has led to almost feral movements. The vocal talents of all the actors are excellent, so that during the movie you don’t picture them as they are in real life, but only as the characters. DeBlois and his illustrators match the beauty of the first film with the rich, deep illustrations. The flying and battle sequences in both Dragon movies justify the use of 3D technology, as they capture the joy of flight.

But it goes beyond the first movie to emotionally raw places as it develops the theme of facing maturity and the responsibilities that come with it. It’s a movie about growing up, similar to The Lion King and Bambi, and just like those movies there is a devastating sequence of loss and sadness on the road to maturity.

There is one complaint about Dragon 2, and that is the racefail presentation of Drago as a black, dreadlocked character. It goes back to the worse stereotypes, as well as being jarring amid the Viking world. DeBlois and his team have filled this world with vibrant characters, but Drago feels like an afterthought, and doesn’t match the reality of the others. Djimon Hounsou’s voice does carry the malevolence of the role, but the image is a failure.

But that is the only complaint. The other aspects of the movie are top-notch, and it is a satisfying experience. If Dreamworks can produce other projects that match the quality of the Dragon films, they can challenge Disney/Pixar for supremacy in the field of animated movies.