Monday, April 19, 2010

Danny Tells You HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON ... Plus: Smallville, V, and More!

Back from the weekend and ready to get into it, with a new batch of reviews for your reading pleasure. This weekend, I was very much in a basketball mindset. I've been really bad about following the NBA this season, but, now that the Playoffs have started, it's game time, baby. There are some really interesting matchups this year - even in the first round, it feels like a free for all. Aside from one or two series, every first round matchup seems like it's anyone's game. Even titans like the Lakers and Celtics are vulnerable (C's more so now that KG has been suspended for Game 2 of the series vs. Miami). A couple of first-round matchups are real tossups. Phoenix vs. Portland, Dallas vs. San Antonio ... the bottom line is, this could be one hell of a playoffs.


- SMALLVILLE had another mediocre episode this week, lacking much in the way of excitement or freshness. Clark was exposed to Red K, leading to yet another mind-control storyline. Sure, "evil" Clark allows Tom Welling to be something other than brooding and mopey, but still, it's just such a cheap, easy plot device. I wish the show would just rely on clever writing and drama to escalate its character conflicts, not the deux ex machina of mind-altering crimson kryptonite. Meanwhile, the episode continued to inch forward with the overarching Zod storyline, and god, it is just moving along at a snail's pace. How many more scenes do we need of Zod and Tess going back and forth with their evil scheming and counterplotting? It really does feel like I'm watching Days of Our Lives sometimes rather than a show about a not-quite-Superman. The action quotient in this episode came from Brian Austin Green resuming his role as John Corben, aka Metallo, aka the man with the kryptonite heart. Green's take on Metallo is just one more example of how Smallville has a knack for taking all the fun out of classic comic book concepts. I mean - look at the Geoff Johns-penned "Absolute Justice." Part of the reason it worked so well was that it captured what made so many of those classic characters work in the first place, and didn't shy away from their colorful natures. Here, Metallo isn't an awesome cyborg like in the comics, he's just a guy who looks like a bad Tony Stark ripoff. Green proved himself to be a pretty awesome badass in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It was almost sad to see him so neutered here by Smallville's perpetually lame dialogue and soap operatics. This was one of those episodes where the series really showed its age, I thought. It speaks volumes that I now brace myself for the last ten minutes of every episode, where we get the inevitable heart-to-heart chats and emo brooding of Clark, Lois, Chloe, and in this case, Corben. I had to use all of my willpower to keep from hitting the fast-forward button. At this point, the end of the Zod storyline will be a mercy-killing.

My Grade: C

- I was a big fan of JUSTIFIED from this past week. The episode combined the standalone feel of earlier episodes with the long-awaited introduction of Raylan's criminal dad, and it made for a pretty crackling hour of southern-fried drama. Actor Raymond J. Berry was superb as Arlo, aka the slimeball dad that looks to have pushed his son into a life of law-enforcement. He was likable in a love-to-hate-him sort of way, but also clearly one mean sonofabitch. Timothy Olyphant continues to do a bang-up job as Raylan - quickly becoming one of TV's best and most badass heroes. And ths how just has a great feel to it - a modern Western noir with a dark sense of humor, memorable characters, and spot-on dialogue. Definitely one worth checking out if you haven't already gotten onboard.

My Grade: A-

- THE SIMPSONS had a fun premise last night - Homer and Chief Wiggum become best friends - but unfortunately, the jokes just weren't all that great. It's a shame, because it was nice to see a Simpsons ep that had such even pacing and a concept that felt like it had real potential. But hey, you can have th ebest premise in the world, but, if the jokes aren't there, it doesn't really matter. Actually, I thought a lot of the episode's funnierm oments came from the Bart subplot, in which he gets caught up in a Pokemon-style card game, even as Marge suspects that he's gotten into drugs. The card game storyline was responsible for some of the best lines in this one ("It's a Japanese card game, based on a cartoon, based on an ancient religion, based on a candy bar."), which was nice coming off a string of Simpsons eps with pretty terrible B-stories (last week's Bart and Lisa antfarm storyline still stings). Plus, at least the Wiggum storyline felt like the show was trying something new, even if it did go the predictable route of having Wiggum's friendship become overbearing and such. Still, a decently solid Simpsons ep.

My Grade: B

- I'll also talk for a second about V. I'm not going to review the latest episode, because I didn't watch it. Instead, I am dropping V - it's time had come, and the show just wasn't worth watching anymore. It's sad, V is the second high-profile ABC sci-fi show that I got onboard with after an intriguing pilot, but then dropped after several subpar and hard-to-get-through episodes (Flash Forward being the first such series). But I was really holding out hope for V, because the premise just seemed too good to mess up this badly. Aliens invading earth is basically a no-brainer. And yet, the show moved along at a crawl, and was consistently one of the most boring and uneventful series on the air. The one thing a series like this has to nail is the characters, and V failed to create more than one or two intriguing characters for us to get behind week in and week out. Every hero on the show was bland and boring, and everyone seemed miscast to boot. Scott Wolf as America's most trusted broadcast journalist? Never bought it. Elizabeth Mitchell as a crusading FBI Agent and the leader of the anti-V rebellion? Never worked. Anna, the mysterious leader of the V's, was probably the show's single breakout character. But throughout the series' run to date, she hasn't actually *done* anything. A show about an alien invasion should not have this much standing around and talking. It needs thrills, action, twists, great heroes, great villains. V started out with a hint of promise - certainly, it was one of my most anticipated new shows going into this past Fall - but it completely fizzled in the subsequent weeks. Add V to the long, long list of serialized sci-fi shows that tried and failed to match the creative and commercial success of LOST. The inability of the networks to get this type of show right (with FRINGE, I think, being a notable exception), is pretty pathetic.

- I did really enjoy this past week's return of GLEE. The show has been so hyped that it's easy to want to be annoyed with it and just hate it on principle, but the fact is that the show came back from its long hiatus with a darn good episode. I do really appreciate that Glee retains a very dark and subversive undercurrent beneath its bright and shiny veneer, and that was very much evident in this week's episode - with Rachel still a loser who gets regular slushees-to-the-face, Will struggling with his new post-marriage-collapse relationship situation, and Sue Slyvester as darkly hilarious and mean as ever. I know some people just love Glee for its over-the-top musical numbers, but for me, I could almost do without them more often than not. Instead, I enjoy the fact that the show is such a unique, black-comedy look at high school.

My Grade: A-

- Okay, I've been meaning to review this one for a while now, so, without further ado, a look at the film that was once again #1 at the box office this week ...


- I wasn't expecting it, but Dreamworks' How To Train Your Dragon is one of the best animated films in years. You wouldn't necesarrily glean this from the cutesy advertising campaign or from Dreamworks' spotty track record of animated films, but the fact is that this is a film on par with just about anything that's come from Disney, Pixar, or anyone else in recent years. In some ways, I'd say it's a purer film than some of Pixar's - it's not necessarilly trying to work on multiple levels or to go over and above the heads of kids. Instead, it's simply a classic fable, imbued with absolutely astonishing visuals and exhilerating action scenes. I know there's been a lot of grumbling lately about movies retrofitted for 3D and such, but this is a movie to see in IMAX 3D, a movie that raises the bar for fully-animated CGI visuals. It's a movie filled with soaring scenes of flight, with astonishing landscapes and jaw-dropping locales. What's more, the story is simple but effective, with great characters who each get their moment to shine. In some ways, I feel like How to Train Your Dragon is the first movie to really blend the classic Disney storytelling sensibilities with the rollercoaster-ride-aesthetics that modern audiences expect from 3D and CGI. I think that's why it's been so successful at the box office to date, and I think it's success that's well-deserved.

How to Train Your Dragon takes place in a fantasy version of history loosely based on Norse mythology. In this world, a village of hearty and stout viking warriors is constantly at war with an army of invading dragons. The dragons, who come in all types of fearsome varieties, routinely attack the village, and so the villagers are trained from a young age in the art of dragon combat. In such a society, it stands to reason that the most valued qualities are toughness, combat prowess, and a warrior's spirit - all things that seem to have eluded young Hiccup, a thin, gawky kid who's dad happens to be his village's most fearsome and respected dragon fighter. However, just as Hiccup begins his formal dragon-combat training, his life takes an unexpected turn. He meets and secretly befriends an injured dragon. And this isn't just any dragon, but a Night Fury, thought to be the most vicious and elusive sort of dragon in existence - so much so that no one is even quite sure what one actually looks like. While the relationship between Hiccup and his dragon (whom he names Toothless due to his, well, lack of teeth) takes a while to really blossom, soon enough, Hiccup has become the first person ever to develop a relationship with a dragon that doesn't involve trying to kill them. Things escalate from there, but the story, while somewhat predictable, really does evolve into a pretty poignant fable about war and peace and learning to coexist rather than living in a constant state of conflict.

The movie's great characters also help to make the story come alive. At first, I was a little weary of Hiccup being such a modern sort of character (as voiced by Jay Baruchel, he feels like something of an anachronism in this version of ancient history, to be sure). But, the movie does such a nice job of creating this world, in which the kids seem more modern and contemporary, while the adults more old-world, that it all sort of fits together in service of the story. And there's just a really fun dynamic at work between the characters. The other kids in the village are an entertaining bunch, voiced by such talents as America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Kristin Wiig. It's a veritable Judd Apatow movie, and their comic timing really comes in handy in many key scenes. There's a lot of great banter between the kids - Hill's overeager Snotlout, Ferrera's tough-girl Astrid, and Mintz-Plasse's dorky Fishlegs. It's funny, because one of the most obvious complaints about the recent Clash of the Titans was how lifeless the supporting characters were. Here, it's a great ensemble. And like I said, everyone gets their big moment to shine.

There is also really strong work from Gerard Butler as Hiccup's dragon-crushing dad, Stoick, and Craig Ferguson is another standout as the gruff but kind-hearted, one-legged combat trainer, Gobber. Again, one oddity is that everyone in the movie has different accents. For some reason, all the older viking characters have pronounced Scottish dialects, whereas all the kids sound American. It sort of annoyed me at first, but after a while I just went with it and accepted that in this universe you somehow acquire a Scottish brogue as you age. Overall though, it's a really amazing, well thought-through world that's presented to us. I loved all the imagination that went into creating the various types of dragons, and the overall geography of the film is pretty stunning. Visually, I have rarely seen a film so awe-inspiring - sweeping vistas, dragon-filled caves, endless blue oceans, and armadas of viking ships. The movie may be marketed as cutesy, but man, there are some really intense, hardcore visuals and action in this one. It's definitely a boys movie, in the sense that it treats its actions scenes with extreme attention to detail and makes them a focal point of the film. There's a videogame-like sense of kinetic energy to the action, and honestly, the movie has some of the most exciting, epic battles I've seen on-screen. Again, hate to use Clash as the whipping boy, but the animated How to Train Your Dragon makes the supposedly more hardcore Clash look second-rate. Suffice it to say, Dragon's climactic battle is absolutely insane. Forget the Kraken, THIS is how you do large-scale action.

How to Train Your Dragon is a jaw-dropping visual tour de force, but it's also a timeless tale of a boy and his dragon, in the mold of movies like E.T.. It combines great storytelling with fun characters, pulse-pounding action, a great message for kids (and adults), and plenty of heart. In short, it really took me by surprise and in some ways sort of blew me away. If this had come out a few months ago, I'd put it right up there with the best animated films of 2009, and I think it will undoubtedly be in contention for those same bragging rights in 2010. A few minor criticisms aside, I think How To Train Your Dragon - as a movie and as a theatrical experience - stands tall as one of the year's best films to date.

My Grade: A-

Next: Stay tuned for a ninja-powered review of KICK-ASS!

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