How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World


How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Despite all the dragons, the Vikings, massive ships, and stealth rescue missions gone wrong, “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” written and directed by Dean DeBlois, excels during wordless moments when entertainment is created only through stunning animation and carefully crafted music. These instances, like a dragon courting another or longtime friends coming to terms with the inevitable, are beautiful and moving, appealing to both children and adults who appreciate storytelling more than empty and busy action. Although a third installment in a trilogy, the film is not bereft of introducing ways to dazzle.

This time, the central conflict revolves around Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) learning to become an effective leader of a community of Vikings who have grown reliant on dragons—so reliant that their island has gotten overcrowded. Due to the minute details of animation, we recognize that something has got to give from the moment we lay eyes on their island home of Berk. It is admirable that the answer to the main question is not simply moving to bigger, newer lands offering fresh resources. The screenplay offers long-term solutions both in terms of the needs of humans and dragons. As a result, there is finality to the story and it feels right.

Moving on with life is a recurring theme and it is executed with wonderful perspicuity. I think most important is the fact that the material assumes children are smart. For instance, when Toothless, Hiccup’s dragon companion, comes across a female dragon of the same species, their connection is not reduced to a silly love story or romance. Sure, there are cute moments which involve Toothless’ many attempts to impress the white dragon (with whom Astrid, Hiccup’s betrothed, voiced by America Ferrera, refers to as “Light Fury”), but the point is to generate laughter and to communicate a creature’s sheer joy for having discovered he is not the only one in the world of his kind, rather than to simply introduce a limp romance that merely functions as padding to the story.

Observe closely during these sequences. It is stunning how much range of emotions is communicated through the dragons’ eyes, their body language, how fast or slowly they move, how their nostrils flare at moments of surprise or curiosity, how their limbs relax when they hover the air. One could watch Toothless and Light Fury on mute and yet not much would be taken out of the experience. It is that effective in delivering precise thoughts and emotions. It is here that it becomes readily apparent the film is superior than most animated movies, especially those that rely too much on noise and color to create junk entertainment.

The villain is formidable. Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) is a dragon hunter who takes pride in killing dragons, especially Night Furies. He does not hate these creatures, but he enjoys playing games with them before going for the kill. On more than one occasion, the character is shown to be intelligent, always one step ahead, and experienced in the art of the hunt. However, the final confrontation with Grimmel lacks a certain level of catharsis. For such a detestable character, it would have been preferred if Grimmel had gotten his comeuppance. At the same time, however, an argument can be made that taking on a more expected approach surrounding heroes and villains might have lessened the point that the story is trying to make. It is not about good versus evil.

Demon


Demon (2015)
★ / ★★★★

The late Marcin Wrona’s debut picture “Demon” tells a story of a man from London named Piotr (Itay Tiran) who goes to a rural area of Poland to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) a woman he met online. The day before their wedding, while digging in the yard, the visitor comes across what appears to be human skeleton. Although alarmed by what he has seen, he decides to keep his discovery a secret out of fear that it might derail the wedding. Late that night, due to heavy rain and mud, Piotr manages to fall into the pit. He wakes up the next day in his car with no memory of what happened after he was swallowed whole.

Although it is obvious that Wrona wishes to make a respectable and low-key horror film about the Polish’ relationship with the Jews before and after World War II, the work is far from cinematic. It is a bore for the most part because the exposition is so drawn out—there are images on screen but none of them are particularly unique or interesting. We learn about the wedding and we are introduced to some colorful personalities, but we never get to know any of them, particularly Piotr, in a deep or meaningful way. And so when the usual razzle-dazzle regarding demonic possessions move toward the forefront, it comes across like another inert horror movie meant to be forgotten even before the end credits roll.

It is especially frustrating to sit through because the director proves to have an eye for capturing images so stark that at times it feels like looking at old forgotten photographs. Notice shots of the outdoors. For instance, we see miles of grass… but there is no cattle grazing on meadows. There aren’t even birds making their way across the sky. There is construction in the middle of walls of sand and rocks… but there is minimal human activity, if at all. A similar observation can be made indoors. The house Piotr is staying in looks extremely run down. It gives the impression that the place is being renovated… but there are actually pictures hung on walls and decorations sitting on various corners. This Polish town is a depressing place. I would go as far as to claim it is meant to be a dead place, where people go to die. If only the screenplay by Pawel Maslona and Marcin Wrona functioned on the same level as the latter’s observant photography.

Events happen during and around the wedding, but not one is particularly compelling. There is a lack of balance in tone. Right after the wedding ceremony, Piotr begins to experience visual hallucinations. Eventually, he starts to lose control of his own body. These are meant to be terrifying. Sandwiched in between Piotr’s suffering is Zaneta’s father (Andrzej Grabowski) and brother (Tomasz Schuchardt) trying to cover up Piotr’s “embarrassing mishaps,” like his seizure, which is supposed to be darkly comic. There are also tablespoons of absurdist humor in how wedding guests behave after having seen apparent medical emergencies.

However, there is no synergy established between horror and dark comedy. Usually, in order for the two to work together effectively, we must understand the characters thoroughly. In black comedies, for example, we laugh not at the events necessarily but at the people whom we know so well that we are tickled by their desperation. Within that desperation we recognize a part of ourselves. And so we laugh because perhaps we feel uncomfortable precisely because of that recognition. Here, the dark comedy is purely circumstantial. It becomes highly repetitive.

The spirit that possesses our protagonist is categorized eventually. I will not reveal it, but I can say that it has been introduced and explored in other, better horror movies. I enjoyed that the spirit is not the kind that inspires jump scares. In fact, it is treated as a rather sad entity. This is another avenue from which Wrona could have separated his work from other horror films. I’m afraid that by the time viewers get to this point—which is in the last twenty minutes of the picture—either they would be sleeping due boredom or given up completely that they’d have decided to walk out of it. And I wouldn’t blame them for doing either.

Mirai


Mirai (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Mirai” proves to be the kind of picture that sneaks up on you. Its plot did not impress or surprise me in any way: A four-year-old (voiced by Jaden Waldman) is unhappy with the fact that his parents (John Cho, Rebecca Hall) must now divide their attention between him and his newborn sister. It is a template from hundreds of movies aimed at or for children; during the first twenty minutes or so, I questioned whether the material would be daring enough to veer off into a different, unexpected, or more interesting direction. Somehow, almost miraculously, it did—not just in one direction but many. The work is written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda with insight, empathy, and perspicuity. Here is an example of a story with a simple plot but the depth of what it is actually about is filled with great emotions and wonder.

The story unfolds in an episodic manner—appropriate because 1) it captures how we, as adults, tend to remember our childhood and 2) how children can relate most to overpowering emotions, even when they do not necessarily comprehend them, particularly when in conflict with siblings or parents. In a way, Kun’s journey toward becoming a more self-aware individual must be executed precisely as such because our lives are composed of fluctuating and colorful impressions. And although the storytelling unfolds this way, there is a distinct rhythm to it, the pacing is constant, tension builds, and the wisdom it imparts are precise but never preachy.

There is magic in the film which comes in the form of an oak tree in the backyard. It has the power to send people into the past, present, and future. It seems to be triggered by intense conflict among family members, particularly the boy’s relationship with his parents and baby sister. Ironically, however, this is the least extraordinary element. More astounding is, for instance, how simply going through a family album demands curiosity despite the medium being animation.

Patience is employed, combined with a relaxed energy, when we must observe characters remembering who they were or loved ones who have died. When someone points at a face on a photograph, we cannot help but wonder about him or her because each picture is vivid with both details and personality. Even when a group photograph is shown, notice how each expression is different even just slightly. It feels like going through an actual photo album. Kun’s family history feels vibrant, alive. There is a moving sequence when Kun meets his great-grandfather as a young man who loves horses and motorcycles.

Perhaps the most enchanting chapters involve the boy realizing that his parents were once young, too. They had lives before he was born, they had dreams, they nurtured hobbies, they grappled with failures and sadness. Kun throws temper tantrums when he does not get his way—but not always. The decision to write the character in an unpredictable fashion forces us to anticipate how he might react given a set of challenges. The sharp screenplay possesses subtle ways of reminding us of his growth—incremental most of the time but with occasional leaps forward. The boy keeps silent about having the chance to peer into his parents’ youth, but we recognize the exact moments when he begins to regard them differently.

Told at a child’s eye level, figuratively and at times literally, “Mirai” inspires us to love our loved ones a little more, to consider why they are the way they are at times. It is a work that can be enjoyed by the entire family. I think children would not only enjoy it, it might inspire them to look through photo albums and ask about each person’s story. The film is a celebration of life.

Hustlers


Hustlers (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Inspired by a true story of strippers who became so desperate to lead financially comfortable lives that they decided eventually it would be an excellent idea to drug their clients unconscious and cash in, it is astounding that “Hustlers,” written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, is not a more savagely effective film. The reason is because elements are there to make compelling statements about the current economic state of America; how women are still considered to be the lesser gender—certainly one to be objectified; and how true upward mobility remains to be a dream for most working class Americans. It is like an essay with some good ideas sprinkled about, but these points are not tied together to make a strong thesis.

The work is not approached like a true crime story. On the contrary, the majority of the picture is composed of the strippers-turned-criminals celebrating their disgusting misdeeds: popping yet another bottle of champaign, going on shopping sprees, moving into another NYC apartment that is fancier than the last. It is necessary to show these peaks so that viewers may have an appreciation of how far these characters have fallen later on, but the intention from behind the camera must be clear as day—that the subjects’ actions are wrong and therefore must pay for risking others’ lives. Instead, during these celebratory scenes, we get the impression we are supposed to party right alongside the subjects. I felt sickened by it.

And so I wondered if this was the writer-director’s intention. I was not at all convinced; I think that because our current culture demands that we celebrate women, especially solidarity among women, Scafaria lost focus on the type of story that is begging to be told. Instead of exploring the nature of the crime, perhaps even the complexity of it, the screenplay spends so much time on Destiny (Constance Wu), a new stripper in 2007 just before the financial crisis hit, wishing to be close friends—sisters, even—with veteran stripper Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez). Notice how the role of cops and detectives who have discovered the scam is so conveniently brushed under the rug. As a result, there is a lack of tension during the final act. Resolutions are cobbled together in a most awkward fashion. For instance, the scene of a former stripper being held at gunpoint provides no catharsis whatsoever.

Despite watchable performances by Wu and Lopez, the more compelling angle of the drama remains just underneath the topsoil, rarely touched upon. I grew tired of the constant fashion show and slow motion. Clearly, Scafaria knows how to capture her stars’ faces and make them look breathtakingly beautiful. But we are not simply looking at pages of a magazine. This is supposed to be a rough and ugly story of people who are so tired of scraping by, so tired of feeling cheated by the current system, that one day they decide to come together and bet their morals and their freedom to reap big rewards. In a way, an argument can be made that the correct way to approach the story is through the perspective of a compulsive gambler. Perhaps then it would have embodied a certain intoxicating, self-destructive energy.

There is a compelling story in “Hustlers,” perhaps even an insightful one, but it is buried so deep precisely because the writer-director has failed to show her subjects under a critical lens. There is a constant disconnect between the movie and the viewer. We get the impression that she wishes to protect these women, or some vague feminist idea, that she ends up preaching to the choir instead of telling a specific story without all the flowery half-measures. Halfway through, I wished another filmmaker—one who is seasoned at seeing through the fog—helmed the project.

Aniara


Aniara (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Due to severe climate change, Earth has been rendered uninhabitable; it is time to colonize somewhere else. It is supposed to be a routine travel to Mars as a new batch of Earth citizens look forward to their new home on the Red Planet. The trip is supposed to take just over three weeks, but in an attempt to avoid space debris, the spacecraft Aniara is damaged and its fuel tanks ejected into the void of outer space. Off-course and without the means to set itself on the correct track, the captain (Arvin Kananian) informs his passengers it could take years for them to encounter the nearest celestial body so its gravity could be used to alter their current course.

Most admirable about “Aniara,” based on the Swedish poem of the same name by Harry Martinson, is that it offers a future so bleak, one cannot help but feel fascinated with where the story might lead. Right from its opening minutes it is implied that the work will be a study of behavior: a cause (a story development) leading to an effect (passengers’ responses). There is even commentary that although humans can be taken out of their planet, they cannot help but take with them the very characteristics that destroyed their planet in the first place. It offers no apology, no forgiveness. I found its bitter perspective refreshing. The work is not without ambition. However, the film is not for everyone.

Our protagonist is Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson) but that is not actually her name. It is a title held by person in charge of a hall where a machine, Mima, is capable of showing, or reflecting, a participant’s memories of Earth. It helps with the anxiety of space travel. But notice that although we have a main character and that we follow her throughout the picture, the focus is actually on the collective. This is certain to alienate viewers because we do not get to know Mimaroben in a deeply personal way even though we spend ample time with her.

In fact, notice that her responses to the story’s events do not consistently reflect the majority of the passengers’ fears, depression, and anguish. Early in the film, she confesses to her roommate, an astronomer who is always scribbling on her journal (Anneli Martini), that there is nothing waiting for her on Mars anyway and so floating in space indefinitely does not really bother her. As expected, changes occur in our protagonist but these are subtle. And the script certainly does not follow a typical parabola of character development. In fact, people tend to speak in expository dialogue. I appreciated this approach; it contributes to the impression of an impressive but impersonal future.

Less effective is in how the picture is shot. Almost immediately noticeable is how characters are almost always framed from the waist up. The filmmakers are also fond of extreme close-ups. While it can be effective during the more dramatic moments, especially when characters begin to despair regarding their fates, it is distracting for the most part. The story is unfolding in a massive spacecraft where hundreds, possibly thousands, of passengers can survive for years. Why do we not see more of it? I would have loved a small tour of the place.

By not employing the occasional wide shot, it fails to capture the splendor of the living space… or even to provide contrast between the inside and the outside of the ship. One cannot help but consider that directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja are ashamed of the set or set decorations—which are not first-rate but at the same time not terrible by any means. There is an irony to the whole charade because the forced framing actually garners attention—negative attention.

Most maddening is the rushed final ten minutes. Instead of offering answers or bringing up even more questions, it dares to throw away everything it has worked toward for the sake of delivering confusion or shock. Without giving anything away, the ending is supposed to be bleak and haunting but it comes across as a sick joke. I found myself chuckling not because the ending is clever but because I felt tricked for having invested my time and mental capacity only to be handed something nearly without value.

Should you choose to see this curious film anyway, proceed with caution.

Love is Strange


Love is Strange (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) decide to get married after being together for thirty-nine years. But after the bishop learns about the union, George is fired from his job as a music teacher in St. Grace, claiming that he has defied the Christian Wellness Statement—a document he signed when he got the job decades ago. Rent is expensive in New York City and so the couple decide to sell their apartment and seek help from friends who might be willing to house them temporarily.

“Love is Strange” is a movie that is easy to like in concept but one that is difficult to admire in execution. Molina and Lithgow turn in wonderful performances but there are too many distracting and rather pointless subplots that could have been eliminated to make room for more interactions between the two lead characters. Although one might argue that the separation of the couple is the point of the story, their individual situations ought to have been equally interesting or engaging.

Ben gets to stay with his nephew’s family. We are supposed to notice that the family is not very close. The parents (Darren E. Burrows, Marisa Tomei) are so involved in their work that it seems as though every little thing serves only to distract them. They are barely even able to look at one another in bed. The teenage son (Charlie Tahan), meanwhile, becomes increasingly irate because of the new living situation.

The screenplay by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias fails to turn the family into one that is accessible and warm even for just a few instances. The contrast between the relationship of this family versus what Ben and George have is so heavy that it does not leave us the opportunity to simply absorb who these people are. In other words, they function too much as tools of the plot. Stories like this yearn to be told organically, painting the relationships among people with complex humanity.

The same observation is observed with George’s living situation. Although the material is right to focus on the character feeling out of place rather than judging a younger gay couple’s generation and lifestyle, we barely spend time in that apartment. We learn that the couple George is staying with likes to have people over and that is about it.

Lithgow and Molina play their characters as whole people. I always make a point that I have to be able to imagine a character’s history for me to completely believe that who I am watching is worth learning more about. Here, the two actors need not communicate with words. Take a look at the first scene when Ben gets out of the shower and George simply greets his partner with a smile instead of having to say, “Good morning.”

Not once do they say, “I love you” to one another either. Their feelings for one another are almost instinctual; they need not communicate or explain what they already know exactly because they have known each other for four decades. On this level, the picture is able to go above and beyond my expectations.

“Love is Strange,” directed by Ira Sachs, ends in a genuinely moving way. It is rare to see teenagers cry in movies where we are convinced they are really hurting. We watch from a respectful distance: we do not see his face or his tears. We hear his stifled sobs and notice him struggling to regain his composure before stepping out of the building. We feel that he has learned something of value—one that he can take with him for rest of his life.

Signs


Signs (2002)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a film with aliens in it, but they prove secondary to the story being told. Remove overt images of these extraterrestrials and notice how the drama remains highly potent. This is because M. Night Shyamalan’s masterful sci-fi horror-thriller “Signs” is actually about something. This is not the kind of movie in which otherworldly creatures visit our planet and humanity must wage war against them. Not one military tank or jet is shown, we hear not one rousing speech, not even a bullet is shot. The goal is to tell a personal story of a reverend who lost his faith six months ago following his wife’s death due to a tragic, senseless accident.

Shyamalan’s talent as a filmmaker and confidence as a storyteller is on full display here. He is fully aware that most viewers would likely be invested in the plot—at least initially—precisely because it involves extraterrestrials and so the work is equipped with curious scenes involving crop circles, baby monitors picking up bizarre trilling, and news broadcasts of what’s going on out in the world. But to tell an effective story, and for the viewers to be invested throughout, Shyamalan is also aware that it must be grounded in reality. Despite the fact that former reverend Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) was a man of religion, the material takes the time to discern between religion and faith often in subtle ways. And so by rooting the story in one man’s faith, or lack thereof, the subject commands universal appeal. Ultimately, it is a human story, specifically a story of loss, not an alien story or a religious story.

It terrorizes the viewers not with cheap jump scares but with increasing unease. When tension is no longer tolerable and something is finally is shown, it is precisely what we expect. A few examples: Graham and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) chasing off intruders around their farmhouse in the middle of the night, Graham going off on his own amongst the corn field with nothing but a flashlight, and Graham’s day time close encounter in front of a pantry door. Confirming our fears is itself the horror. It does not aim to blindside us, or trick us, or confuse us. It simply shows what we already suspect or know. Filmmakers who possess thorough understanding of what makes suspense-thrillers work employ this technique with confidence, like Alfred Hitchcock and Wes Craven. Get a beat even slightly wrong and the work is reduced to a sham. Pay attention to the excellent sound design—how it is used… and not used.

Even flashbacks are executed ever so carefully. It is the night when Father Graham was summoned to the scene of the accident so he could have a chance to speak to his wife (Patricia Kalember) for the last time. Although the flashback is broken into three segments, it is also a source of dramatic suspense. We already know that the wife would die given the central plot. But we do not know the following: the exact circumstances of Colleen’s death, who was responsible, and the final words between man and wife. Put these three segments together and the total length is a mere three to five minutes. However, there is such a wealth of information, one can argue it is actually necessary to divide this scene so viewers are given time to process. The pieces are provided during the right points in the story—one of them, daringly, shows up during the climax.

The movie is also terrifically funny at times. The approach is to allow a breath of humor amidst the mysterious goings-on so that we grow comfortable with the Hess family (Gibson, Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin). Through their sarcasm, dry wit, and self-deprecation, we come to understand how they think, how they perceive the world around them, how they solve problems. Conversely, we come to understand what hurts them most. And so when the observant and precise screenplay sets up confrontations among them, we feel the hurt they feel.