How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Or, How to Do a Sequel Right)

There is a scene in the pilot episode of the critically acclaimed TV show Breaking Bad when Walter White describes the parallel between chemistry and life. “Chemistry,” he argues, “is the study of change…it is growth, then decay, then transformation.” While this acts as foreshadowing for Walter’s own arc in the series, and can be applied to any well-written story-arc for that matter, it is especially relevant to sequels, and more to the point, their critical success.

All too often movie sequels are shameless cash grabs, created more because their predecessor was a goldmine in the box office than because the story needed any sort of continuation. While the financial success of a film is not a problem in and of itself, it becomes a problem when the subsequent sequels do nothing to further the story in a significant way—in short, when there is no meaningful change.

Thankfully, How to Train Your Dragons 2, the sequel to 2010′s DreamWorks story of a Viking boy named Hiccup (played by Jay Baruchel) who befriends a dragon, knows this, and uses change as a running theme in a number of smart and logical ways.

Set five years after the events of the first film, Hiccup, who has now come of age, must deal with the pressure from his father, the village chief (played by Gerard Butler), of taking his place. A la Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, Hiccup is reluctant to embrace his birthright, feeling that he’s not meant to rule.

Without spoiling too much of the plot, as there are quite a few major reveals, I can say that this tension between forging one’s own path and accepting duty is made much more dramatic later on in the plot, resulting in a sequel with even more emotional complexity than the original.

Perhaps the biggest story addition to the How to Train Your Dragon franchise is that of the hermit-cum-dragon rider Valka (played by Cate Blanchett) who helps guide Hiccup. While her role was revealed in some of the trailers, I would imagine a viewer would find more delight in not knowing her identity until seeing the movie. Rest assured, both the character and the emotional implications of her are a highlight of the film.

Along with the changes that come with Hiccup’s newly entered stage in life and the introduction of Valka, the sequel adds in a number of “upgrades,” for the protagonist duo. Hiccup, shown to be an inventor in the first film with his makeshift dragon saddle, has added to his arsenal his own personal wing-suit and a flaming sword with a couple tricks up its sleeve that create some truly gorgeous animated sequences, sure to entertain both kids and adults alike.

Furthermore, Toothless, Hiccup’s inseparable dragon, discovers a hidden power within himself in the climax of the film, giving an already incredibly dynamic (despite silent) character more depth. It’s simple additions like these that add a satisfying layer of change to the formula that, for all intents and purposes, succeeded in the first film.

As I’ve glanced at several reviews, I’ve noticed a lot of reviewers making comparisons between How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and it’s not hard to see why. Perhaps the most famous of sequels, The Empire Strikes Back built upon the strengths of A New Hope in almost every way. It was more ambitious, more complex, and ultimately much better. Similarly, nearly every aspect of How To Train Your Dragon 2 builds upon the strengths of the first. The visuals and 3D are sleeker, the dialogue is wittier, and the story has an even deeper emotional hold.

One area of the sequel that unfortunately stands out negatively, however, is the villain. For a film that otherwise sets itself apart from other animated films through its originality and quality of storytelling and writing, Drago Bludvist is largely forgettable. His take-over-the-world goals are cliché and underdeveloped, and his final encounter with the village of Berk ends, as T.S. Eliot would say, “not with a bang but with a whimper.” All of this is made painfully obvious because it may just be the only weak aspect of an otherwise fantastic movie.

When the first How to Train Your Dragon hit theaters in 2010, it immediately won over the hearts of viewers and critics alike with its stunning visuals, witty dialogue, and uncommonly emotional story. In How to Train Your Dragon 2, director Dean DeBlois continues the success of its predecessor and builds upon it to create an even more emotional and thrilling experience that soars to even greater heights, and reminds us that the best animated films don’t necessary come from Pixar.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor.

Review: ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ Just Feels Good

Olympus Has Fallen is going to be a big hit.

There’s something about the narrative that hits a sweet spot in the zeitgeist. It’s the sense of America hit from without by barbarians. It’s feeling of America as Rome, battered and tested, but America finding deep within the courage and strength that made her great in the first place.

With lots and lots of explosions.

As the film opens, Mike Banning, a loyal and tough Secret Service agent, slaves away at a desk after a dark moment in his heroic but tragic career makes him a cause of sorrow to the President.

From his desk at the Treasury Department, Banning has a front row seat to watch the unexpected and highly coordinated attack of North Korean terrorists on the White House. Still crabby about that whole Korean War thing, they want to pay America back and force change, in that order.

Not while Mike Banning is on watch.

When the considerable smoke settles, he finds himself the only loyal American left alive and armed inside the White House. He must rescue the President’s son, save the President, and save the world from descent into war.

And make it home in time for dinner.

That’s pretty much the movie, but the makers don’t stint on the big booms.

The assault on the White House, which takes place in coordinated layers of attack, is a compilation of our deepest terrorist fears. From an airspace incursion that starts the event, to the apparent tourists who are packing heat under their visors and fannypacks, to the coordinated use of innocuous garbage trucks to seal the deal, the attack underscores how vulnerable freedom can be. Why, anyone could be a terrorist hacker with years of study of key government security systems.

TSA don’t catch that, now, do they, with all their tricky little pat-downs and superscanners?

I live in the DMV (That’s our super-fly nickname for the DC Metropolitan area. District, Maryland, Virginia. Get it?) and it’s always fun to see your town devastated in creative ways. While most of the action is centered on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Washington Monument, ordinary neighborhoods and the National Mall get in on the destructive action.

And when I say destructive, I mean that with a capital D.

If I had a pickle for every time a person went to meet his Maker in this film, I’d have a bulging full barrel.

Even counting the methods of dispatching souls to the hereafter quickly becomes impossible. Many are shot, mowed down by automatic weapons, or killed in explosions.

But that’s just warming up.

Let’s just say downtown DC is a bad place to be that day, what with all the flaming airplanes, the debris from a crumbling Washington Monument, the cars crushed by nefarious large vehicles, and helicopters spinning out of control.

You’d think with the arsenal of weapons used by both the Secret Service brigade and the invading terrorists, combatants would always be able to find something that fires a bullet, but quite frequently, they resort to hand-to-hand combat, knife fights, and even knocking each other over the head with busts of Abraham Lincoln.

All of this mayhem, plus constant salty language, earns the movie an R rating. There is no sexuality. The violence isn’t as gory as it could be, but there’s a fair amount of red mist and body shots.

But, as in one of my favorite cult movies, Red Dawn (the original, not the remake), there is the attitude that this is America, dammit. And even the most miffed, highest trained, extremely ruthless terrorist underestimates America.

It’s in those “America, dammit” moments that the movie is the most fun: When a cabinet member is dragged to her apparent death defiantly screaming the Pledge of Allegiance; When the President of the United States spits an expletive into the face of his torturer; When the Navy SEALs converge to take back their national house.

The movie isn’t perfect. There are quite a few little details that grate on anyone who knows DC. The process of succession making Speaker of the House Morgan Freeman temporarily President isn’t exactly protocol. Someone calls the White House the seat of American power when everyone who took high school civics should know that’s Congress. And a disgruntled American cites “Wall Street” as the source of his loathing of his own country. Seriously? Wall Street?

Most irksome was that after declaring that America does not negotiate with terrorists, it does just that. Morgan Freeman doesn’t make a very good President here, in my opinion. He caves at every opportunity. Don’t elect him if he ever runs.

But, luckily, it’s not Morgan Freeman’s story but Mike Banning’s. Gerard Butler, who has made a steady stream of truly bad movies recently, finds a role that suits him well. There’s not a lot of depth, just running, fighting, falling down, getting up, and fighting some more.

And America, dammit.

Some critics will surely hate the flag waving and simplicity that the movie projects. It lacks nuance. It’s too black and white. We never sense the depth of the bad guy’s suffering soul. Too rah-rah, patriotic, basic good versus evil.

They’re right. And that’s why you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.


Review: Don’t ‘Play for Keeps’

A star-studded cast and a good concept add up to less than nothing in Playing for Keeps, an attempt at a warm, family romantic comedy that, like the main character, succumbs to its vices.

Gerard Butler plays George, a former UK soccer great sidelined by injuries and age. Broke, alone, and rudderless, he comes into the town occupied by his his ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel) and young son Lewis (an adorable Noah Lomax). In an attempt to connect with his son, he reluctantly agrees to coach his youth league soccer team.

Only problem?

The team is riddled with soccer moms, from the rawly emotionally destitute divorcee (Judy Greer), the psycho sex bomb (Uma Thurman) and the self-assured cougar (Catherine Zeta Jones). All of them want a piece of the hot soccer coach.

And by piece, I mean that in the most sexual way possible.

It’s a wonder he has any time for coaching soccer.

This, of course, is the point. George has always been distracted by the beautiful females who constantly throw themselves into his bed. Will he grow up and be the dad his son needs him to be?

While this is a good starting point, the film gets bogged down in sexual trysts that should be funny but aren’t. Judy Greer is the one bright spot. She first came on the scene in the now-defunct TV show Arrested Development as Michael Bluth’s unhinged assistant (“Say goodbye to THESE, Michael!”) and later wowed us in last year’s The Descendants. She is pitch perfect here as a recently separated mom given to emotional meltdowns on the soccer field and solicits the only laughs from the movie. If there were any justice in the world, she would be getting leading roles.

However, between them, Uma Thurman and Catherine Zeta Jones must have kept several Beverly Hills plastic surgeons in Ferrari. Thurman, in particular, is almost unrecognizable. I spent the film unsure if it were really her or just someone who kind of looks like her. Their characters spring fully formed from nowhere, have little depth beyond a sexually-aggressive minx, and disappear from the script just as abruptly.

The script-writer objectifies and uses them as much as George does.

George is the real problem, however. After nominal resistance, presumably because we’re to believe he’s a good guy underneath, he regularly succumbs to the attentions of these females. The film gets bogged down in its second wayward path: The revival of the romance between George and his now-engaged ex. Then, in a twist, the ex discovers the one woman he did not sleep with rather than the several he did. So George is somehow both guilty and an innocent wrongfully accused.

It all feels manipulated and forced and not at all interesting.

George, in theory, has a change of heart that means everything. But by the time that change comes it feels so flat and irrelevant to all that went on before, it trivializes the very message the movie is trying to send. It rushes on to an ending so forced that it sets the viewer’s teeth on edge. Like George, it forgets the heart of the film, which is his relationship with Lewis.

Skip Playing for Keeps. George needs to grow up and this movie needs to be forgotten.

Muscular Christianity: The Machine Gun Preacher

Gerard Butler plays Sam Childers in "Machine Gun Preacher."

Sam Childers, the subject of the new movie “Machine Gun Preacher,” doesn’t exactly fit in at the swanky Georgetown hotel in which we had our interview. Clad in black leather, sporting biker mustache, and gnawing on a toothpick, he looked like an extra from the biker drama “Sons of Anarchy,” only tougher. Despite his appearance, however, he wouldn’t necessarily fit in at your neighborhood biker bar either because his talk centers on Biblical passages and God’s requirements of His people.

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