The year of the dragon

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

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.

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