Hiccup is back in computer-animated sequel How to Train Your Dragon 2
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 (PG)
Based on the book by Cressida Cowell, the 2010 computer-animated adventure How To Train Your Dragon soared tantalisingly close to perfection.
Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois’ brilliantly executed story of one boy’s remarkable friendship with a supposedly fearsome dragon was deeply touching, distinguished by richly detailed visuals and an intelligent script.
The sequel, directed solely by DeBlois, expands the narrative arcs of the characters, testing their mettle in the aftermath of tragedy and conflict.
Boys cross the rubicon to manhood, parents make selfless sacrifices to protect their brood and evil poisons an innocent heart.
As a wise woman in the film proclaims, “Good dragons under the control of bad people do bad things”.
Five years have passed since Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) befriended Toothless and the inhabitants of the village of Berk now live in harmony with the dragons.
Hiccup’s father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) continues to preside over the people.
He hopes Hiccup will accept his destiny as the next tribal chief but the boy prefers to soar through the clouds astride his trusty Night Fury.
During a regular sortie with Toothless, Hiccup stumbles upon a lost world of rescued dragons and a valiant rider named Valka (Cate Blanchett), who turns out to be a long-lost face from the past.
“It’s not every day you find out your mother is some kind of crazy, feral, vigilante dragon lady!” whoops Hiccup.
A tearful family reunion with Stoick is cut short by diabolical dragon hunter Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), who storms this lost world and takes control of the majestic fire-breathing creatures using a gargantuan Alpha dragon.
World domination beckons and all that stands in Drago’s way are Hiccup, Toothless and the boy’s plucky friends Astrid (America Ferrara), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Snotlout (Jonah Hill) and the twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (TJ Miller).
In almost every aspect, How To Train Your Dragon 2 matches its polished predecessor... except one.
The addition of Oscar winner Blanchett to the vocal fold is a calamitous misjudgement.
From the outset, the Australian actress is engaged in a futile tug-of-war with her Scottish accent that initially roams the British Isles and eventually strays across the entire Commonwealth.
Her verbal strangulations are horribly distracting and undermine some of the film’s most emotionally charged moments of reconciliation and remembrance.
For his part, writer-director DeBlois charts a breathless course between drama, action and comedy, the latter delivered with scenery-chewing gusto by Craig Ferguson as Stoick’s best friend Gobber the Belch.
“[Valka’s] meatballs could kill more beasts than a battle axe. I still got a few knocking around in here!” he grimaces, pointing to his belly.
Flying sequences deliver a vertiginous thrill, especially in 3D, including a couple of death-defying battles that slalom and swoop at dizzying speed.
Blanchett aside, lightning nearly strikes twice.
TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION (12A)
If Michael Bay, director of Transformers: Age Of Extinction, were immortalised on-screen as a “robot in disguise”, his mechanised alter-ego might be Maximus Kaboom.
For two decades, the Californian film-maker has been elevating wanton destruction to a blockbusting art form.
In Armageddon, he pitted Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck against a gigantic asteroid on a collision course with earth and orchestrated destruction to the sonic booms of Aerosmith’s I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor provided Bay with a turbulent backdrop to his 2001 war opus.
Since 2007, he has been ensconced in the Transformers fold, bringing bombast to live-action adventures of the bestselling Hasbro toys.
This fourth instalment is crammed with Bay’s usual visual excesses and motifs, including gleaming cars and a pouting female protagonist in hilariously short denim shorts.
Five years have passed since the Battle Of Chicago, which provided the pyrotechnic-laden climax to Transformers: Dark Of The Moon.
The alliance between humans and robots lies in tatters and an elite CIA unit named Cemetery Wind under the control of Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) hunts Transformers without mercy.
On a family ranch, struggling inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) discovers that a rusty truck he has just purchased is battle-scarred Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen).
Agents from Cemetery Wind descend on the homestead and Optimus protects Cade, his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), her secret boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) and Cade’s mechanic sidekick Lucas (TJ Miller) in the ensuing gun fight.
The humans join forces with Optimus to reunite the Autobots – Bumblebee, Crosshairs (John DiMaggio), Drift (Ken Watanabe) and Hound (John Goodman) – and the rebellion plots a swift response to inventor Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), who has created his own Transformer army led by the mighty Galvatron (Frank Welker).
Transformers: Age Of Extinction opens with Cade and Lucas scouring an abandoned cinema for scrap metal.
“Sequels and remakes – bunch of crap!” growls the grizzled owner as he surveys memorabilia from bygone blockbusters that litter the tumble-down building.
Never has a truer word been spoken in one of Bay’s exercises in hyperkinetic style over substance.
Screenwriter Ehren Kruger repeatedly defies logic to contrive outlandish scenarios for pyrotechnics and carnage, including an alien spaceship that sucks up metal then drops magnetically charged cars and boats on to terra firma.
Wahlberg punches and leaps through gaping plot holes, trotting out the concerned father routine as younger members of the cast perform gravity-defying gymnastics to emerge from clouds of razor-sharp shrapnel without a graze or smudged lip-gloss.
Action sequences are visual vomit: an incomprehensible spew of glistening metal and explosions that hurt the eyes, especially in the large-scale IMAX format.
“The war will be over soon,” barks Grammer’s Machiavellian politician during a momentary lull.
The buttock-numbing 165-minute running time says otherwise.
BEGIN AGAIN (15)
Some film-makers spend entire careers striving in vain for one moment of cinematic perfection.
Others, like Irish director John Carney, strike gold early and face the daunting prospect of living up to giddy expectation.
In 2007, Carney sent audiences and critics into a collective swoon with his micro-budget fourth feature, Once.
Shot for a paltry 160,000 euros, the modern-day romance between a Dublin busker and a Czech flower girl sparked a real-life relationship between actors Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.
The subsequent stage adaptation won eight coveted Tony Awards including Best Musical and continues to play to packed audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.
Begin Again - which was originally titled Can A Song Save Your Life? but should perhaps have been re-christened Once Again - sees Carney orchestrate another musical collaboration between emotionally damaged misfits.
Shot against the backdrop of New York’s iconic landmarks, this hugely entertaining romantic comedy is blessed with strong performances and an infectious soundtrack.
Greta (Keira Knightley) comes to Manhattan with her boyfriend Dave Kohl (Adam Levine), who has just landed a major recording contract.
“We don’t want anything to stand in your way,” a record exec tells Dave, casting a wary glance at Greta.
“I’m just tagging along,” she smiles soothingly.
Touring and promotion put a strain on the relationship and Dave succumbs to his new-found celebrity by cheating on Greta.
She flees their swanky apartment in tears and crashes at the apartment of old friend Steve (James Corden), who busks for his supper.
Soon after, Greta crosses paths with down-on-his-luck record executive Dan (Mark Ruffalo), who has just been fired by his business partner (Mos Def).
Dan is transfixed by Greta and boldly tells her, “I want to make records with you”.
He comes up with a simple concept - recording an album in different locations around the city - and ropes in various musicians to enrich Greta’s sound including good friend Trouble Gum (CeeLo Green).
As the project gathers momentum, Greta reassesses her failed relationship and Dan rebuilds bridges with his teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and estranged wife (Catherine Keener).
Begin Again dances to the same beat as Once, albeit with a starrier cast including Maroon 5 frontman Levine, who makes a solid acting debut.
Knightley and Ruffalo are an attractive pairing, the latter giving parenting a bad name when he takes his daughter to a bar and asks her to pick up his beer tab with her pocket money.
“I spent that on condoms,” she tells him, enjoying her father’s embarrassment.
Corden provides additional comic relief.
Musical sequences are full of energy including a blistering guitar solo from Steinfeld on a rooftop rendition of the film’s best song, Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home.