Tag Archives: B+

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD

Producer: Brad Lewis and Bonnie Arnold
Director: Dean DeBlois
Writer: Dean DeBlois
Stars: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Cate Blanchett, F. Murray Abraham, Gerard Butler, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, Justin Rupple, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Craig Ferguson and Kit Harrington
Studio: Universal Pictures

B+

The third—and presumably final—installment of the animated franchise that began as long ago as 2010 and continued into a 2014 sequel (as well as a TV series) retains much of the charm and excitement of the first two films, and works hard, if not always successfully, to replicate their sense of wonder and humor. One can carp at a few of the choices writer-director Dean DeBlois makes, but overall “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” is a satisfying conclusion to one of the better animated series of recent years.

The film opens with young hero Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) having assumed the position of chief in Berk, now a happy place where humans and dragons live together in harmony (his departed father Stoick, voiced by Gerard Butler, appears occasionally in flashback). He and his crew of stalwart supporters, led by his obvious romantic interest Astrid (America Ferrera), are engaged in an assault on an enclave of dragon poachers in order to free the captive beasties and take them back to Berk where they’ll be safe.

That’s the first of the big set-pieces in the movie, and the weakest of them, being staged rather clumsily and shot in very dark hues. But things quickly improve visually and the later major visual sequences are handled with greater aplomb.

These are connected with the script’s overriding story threads. One is the intervention of master dragon hunter Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), who takes aim at Hiccup’s pet-partner Toothless, presumed to be the last of the male Night Furies—a species the villain is devoted to wiping out. His scheme to do that involves introducing Toothless to a female Light Fury that he’s already captured—thereby encouraging a romance that will divert Toothless from his bromance with Hiccup and induce both of them to make mistakes.

The dragon dalliance allows the animators to show off in a long courtship routine, some of it on land (where Toothless, with some silly Cyrano-like help from Hiccup, does a ridiculous dance) and some in the air, where the two dragons soar in tandem. Juxtaposed with the sequence is the periodic banter between Hiccup and Astrid, who are no less destined to be together.

The other memorable moment comes when Hiccup finally comes upon the secret valley where all the species of dragons live together in what appears to be absolute contentment and security—a place he wants to move Berk to. (How all the critters survive in such a closed environment in a question never posed, but set it aside.) The images of the place are absolutely resplendent, comparable to the shimmering, kaleidoscopic undersea world conjured up in “Aquaman.”

There’s one more big action sequence—the inevitable face-off between Hiccup and Grimmel—but it reverts to the more prosaic approach of the opening free-the-dragons sequence. It’s perfectly fine in its own way, but comes across as obligatory rather than inspired. Happily it’s followed by a conclusion that, while sentimental, serves to end the series on a note that shows the depth of the bond that has developed between boy and beast and the power of love. And it’s followed by an irresistible coda set in the not-too-distant future.

There are some elements to “Hidden World” that fall a mite short. While most of the secondary characters—including Hiccup’s mother Valka (Cate Blanchett), Eret (Kit Harrington), Gobber (Craig Ferguson), and even the little hobgobblers, the movie’s version of the minions—make solid contributions—others are given entirely too much screen time. Snotlout (Jonah Hill) is one of them, but even he pales beside the goofy twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple). All are meant to be irritating—there are even jokes about it; but the jibes prove all too accurate. The emphasis on them also leads to a slightly overlong running-time; editor John Carr might have considered a bit of trimming.

Even those characters’ all-too-frequent intrusions, however, can’t seriously damage the movie’s quality. From both a narrative and a visual perspective, “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” is a patent winner.

NEVER LOOK AWAY (WERK OHNE AUTOR)

Producer: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Jan Mojto, Quirin Berg, Max Wiedermann and Christiane Henckel von Donnersmarck
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Writer: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Stars: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl, Oliver Masucci, Cai Cohrs, Ina Weisse, Evgeny Sidikhin, Mark Zak, Ulrike C. Tscharre, Bastian Trost, Hans-Uwe Bauer, Hanno Koffler, David Schütter, Franz Pätzold, Hinnerk Schönemann, Jeanette Hain, Jörg Schüttauf, Johanna Gastdorf, Florian Bartholomäi and Jonas Dassler
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics

B+

Perhaps by accident, the English title of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film (the original German one translates as “Work Without An Author”), taken from a line of dialogue early on, fits it well: though at over three hours “Never Look Away” is of epic length, it tells so fascinating a story, at once personal, political and aesthetic, that it’s difficult to tear your eyes off the screen.

The script, which covers roughly three tumultuous decades of German history, is loosely based on the life of artist Gerhard Richter, who—according to a recent New Yorker article by Dana Goodyear—has criticized the finished film, though in terms that are rather opaque. It begins in the mid-1930s, when little Kurt Barnert (Cai Cohrs) is taken by his free-spirited aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) to an exhibit of so-called degenerate art in Dresden, where a pompous Nazi vilifies the works on display. Elizabeth confesses that she likes them, and after getting home proceeds to play the piano in the nude and bang her head until she draws blood.

She’s quickly carted off for a mental examination, after which gynecologist Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), an SS man, orders her to be committed and—per recent eugenics orders—terminated when the hospital space she’s occupying is needed for more important members of society. She and other so-called defectives are, in fact, killed in a fashion designed to mirror the death camp gas chambers—a fate juxtaposed with other horrors of World War II, including the bombing of Dresden and the deaths of family members on the front lines.

In the aftermath of the war, Kurt (now played by Tom Schilling) has obtained a job making stencils at a sign factory in the new East Germany. His talent, however, wins him a spot in the art academy, where his personal expression is submerged by the demand that all work subscribe to the dogma of socialist realism. There is, however, a positive element to his studies: he meets Ellie (Paula Beer), a high-spirited classmate, and the two become romantically involved. When their relationship becomes known to her imperious, well-connected father, however, he attempts—through the most brutal of means—to break it up. But he fails.

It’s the identity of Ellie’s father that provides the film’s major twist, though some might prefer to call it a melodramatic contrivance: he’s Seeband, who has won the protection of a prominent Russian general despite his Nazi past by assisting in his wife’s difficult delivery and is now an eminent member of the East German medical community.

The final act of the film shifts to West Germany in the 1960s, where Kurt and Ellie flee just before the construction of the Berlin wall. Though he’s admitted to the cutting-edge Dusseldorf art academy by its unconventional director Antonius van Verten (Oliver Masucci), who’s clearly modeled on Joseph Beuys, he struggles to find his artistic voice. Domestically, his life is no less difficult, as he and Elizabeth seem unable to start a family and Seeband, who has also come to the West after his Russian protector is called home, does all he can to humiliate his son-in-law by getting him a menial job as a janitor at the hospital over which he reigns. A resolution of sorts occurs when Kurt has an artistic breakthrough that, as a corollary, compels Seeband to realize that his past is closing in on him.

“Never Look Away” is about many things—the stifling effect of dogmatism on art, whether it comes from right or left, and the need to come to terms with history, however difficult it might be, among them. But it can be savored simply as an old-fashioned domestic drama set against the rush of uncontrollable events, given piquancy by its suggestions of biographical secrets. One might complain that its narrative turns are based too much on coincidence, or that it sometimes veers overmuch into melodramatic territory. But such criticisms are misplaced, as those are the very elements that carry this kind of story along, as are the rare humorous moments—the scene in which Kurt has to climb out Ellie’s second-storey window into a tree without his clothes, for instance, or the jocular encouragement of his fellow Dusseldorf classmate Gunther (Hanno Koffler).

The film is very well crafted. Silke Buhr’s production design features some imposing sets and furnishings, and Andreas Schön’s Richteresque paintings are impressive, while Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography gives everything a seductive glow; and though it can be insistent, Max Richter’s score adds to the effect.

As to the performances, Schilling can seem overly bland as Barnert, but Koch cuts a striking figure as the martinet Seeband, and Masucci a charismatic one as Van Verten. And while Beer isn’t given as much opportunity to shine as one might wish, Rosendahl is unforgettable as a girl who is at one point a Nordic Nazi favorite but becomes their victim.

Inevitably “Never Look Away” will be compared to Von Donnersmarck’s searing 2007 Oscar winner “The Lives of Others,” and it doesn’t match its power, being more diffuse and episodic. But it’s another perceptive, thought-provoking examination of the painful realities of Germany’s recent past, and certainly far superior to his 2010 Hollywood misfire “The Tourist.”