The year of the dragon
HICCUP and Toothless are back, and if you know what that means, chances are you have a child or children who were entranced by DreamWorks Animation’s 2010 3D computer-generated action fantasy How to Train Your Dragon. Inspired by the series of British young adult books by author Cressida Cowell, the film tells of the conflict, then friendship, between young Viking Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his dragon, Toothless.
The film was an immense worldwide hit, earning the studio $500,000 and spawning an Oscar nomination (it lost the best animated film award to Toy Story 3), video game, television series and, now, the inevitable sequel.
It is five years after the events of the first film, and the Vikings of the seaside village Berk have come to embrace dragons of all stripes. In
a far more confident Hiccup is now the boyfriend of athletic tomboy Astrid (America Ferrera), and it is on one of their explorations of the world beyond Berk that they discover the fearsome and hostile Bewilderbeast, a gigantic one-of-a-kind species that breathes chunks of green ice instead of fire.
Also along for the ride are Hiccup’s dad, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), and his comic relief mate Gobber (Craig Ferguson), as well as Hiccup’s chums Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and the twins Tuffnut (TJ Miller) and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig).
The expansion of the franchise’s universe also includes the mysterious loner Valka (Cate Blanchett), whose lush eyrie provides another safe haven for dragons and is the setting for some surprises that will change Hiccup’s life.
The storyline introduces a good v evil story arc missing from the original in the form of evil dragon hunter Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), and their conflict sets up the film’s climactic and sprawling epic battle. “I get to kick a few dragons’ butts,” Blanchett told a sold-out house when she introduced the film’s recent Sydney Film Festival premiere, and that she does.
The animation and action are beautiful, imaginative and propulsive. Yet for all its undeniable technical magic, as well as the vigorous direction and rousing script by Dean DeBlois, who co-directed the original with executive producer Chris Sanders, there are corporate fingerprints aplenty on the finished product. Those inclined to do so may find references to such action fantasy touchstones as the Harry Potter franchise, The Empire Strikes Back, Game of Thrones and, of course, Avatar.
Perhaps the most egregious of these thematic links occurs during that needlessly com- plicated and borderline violent final battle, which seems inspired by that clanking monstrosity, the Transformers franchise.
In the end, however, those who made How to Train Your Dragon 2 know the kids who adored the original have grown since they met Hiccup and Dragon, and they’re trying mightily to grow with them. That certainly counts for something in today’s popular culture universe, even if they often seem to be trying awfully hard. FEW advocates of freedom and human rights in Cold War-era Eastern Europe had such a strong impact on the outcome and captured the imagination of the West as Polish electrician turned social justice firebrand Lech Walesa.
During his long tenure at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk, Walesa advocated workers’ rights and participated in strikes and other activities that led to the Solidarity movement and, eventually, democracy in Poland.
Many films have been made about Walesa, both documentaries and features. Walesa even played himself in internationally renowned director Andrzej Wajda’s 1981 Solidarity saga Man of Iron (a sequel to the 1976 Man of Marble).
For his part, the now 88-year-old Wajda, who has been making acclaimed films in his home country since the mid-1950s, when his triptych of A Generation (1955), Kanal (1956) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958) placed him firmly on the international map, first met Walesa during the latter’s pivotal negotiations with the government. “I just don’t see any other director making a movie about Lech that I would find satisfying,” he explains in the press kit of his superb new film And then, echoing the phrase Walesa himself repeated to explain his lifelong commitment to social justice, “I have no other choice.”
The screenplay, by veteran writer Janusz Glowacki, frames the evolution of Walesa’s activism around a 1981 interview he granted to Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci. The two butt heads immediately, with Walesa coming off as arrogantly pompous and Fallaci seemingly happy to goad him on. This serves as an illuminating dramatic device to observe the development of his obstinate yet commonsense approach to effecting change, which begins in 1970 and takes the viewer all the way to the toppling of the communist leadership.
The film is anchored by Robert Wickiewicz’s extraordinary performance as Walesa, an immersive and nuanced achievement that transcends the language barrier to recreate the social strengths and personal foibles of a natural-born leader and conflicted family man.
Filmed biographies can often lapse into perfunctory listlessness in their quest to tick all the boxes that render their subjects important to begin with, but Wajda’s remarkably fresh and vigorous filmmaking never even goes near that trap, much less falls into it.
Director of photography Pawel Edelman ( The Pianist), employs numerous stocks and image processing (this was shot on 35mm film) to seamlessly link the look of dramatic footage to newsreel images, which are cut together skil- fully by editors Grazyna Gradon and Milenia Fiedler. So, too, composer Pawel Mykietyn’s impetuous score is punctuated by blasts of vintage Polish punk rock to create an air of vigour and veracity that elevates the film well beyond the routine.
As bold and brash as its historic subject, Walesa: Man of Hope is a masterclass in ennobling and vivid biographical filmmaking. EARNEST and informative without being particularly engaging beyond the certainly urgent human rights issues and clear appeal to cyclists, the documentary is the story of a couple of accomplished American riders who relocate to Rwanda in 2007 with ambitions to train five young local athletes, children during the horrible 1994 genocide in that country, to become disciplined and accomplished road and mountain bikers.
That they succeed in shepherding one of that number, Adrien Niyonshuti, to a competition slot at the 2012 London Olympics, is a testament to their commitment and tenacity as well as the raw talent of Rwandan athletes. Yet in focusing on Jonathan “Jock” Boyer, the first American to participate in the Tour de France and one of the two coaches, director and cowriter TC Johnstone have chosen an aloof and seemingly uncomfortable on-camera interlocutor whose shocking early indifference to the country’s war-torn recent history (recounted in voiceover by the film’s executive producer, actor Forest Whitaker) and own troubled past prove an impediment to viewer involvement. So while the subjects explored in Rising from Ashes are worthy of contemplation, the methodology of doing so puts the brakes on the film’s ability to inspire and persuade.