How to Train Your Dragon * * * 1/2

Genre: Fantasy / Animation

Directors:  Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois

Writers: Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois, based on the book How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell

Voice Cast: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Kristin Wiig, David Tennant

Running Length: 98 minutes

Synopsis: Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (Jay Baruchel) feels like a fish out of water in the Viking village of Berk. Although his father and village chief, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) is a veteran dragon hunter, Hiccup prefers to spend his time designing gadgets and pining for spunky village girl Astrid (America Ferrera). However, Stoick makes the decision to have Hiccup train with the blacksmith Gobber (Craig Ferguson) on attacking dragons, despite his protests. At the same time, Hiccup chances upon an injured dragon in the woods and attempts to bond with it. He soon learns that the Viking-dragon feud could be nothing more than a misunderstanding, and that dragons are not as fearsome as they are thought to be.

Review: Dreamworks Animation has almost always played second fiddle to Pixar in the realm of computer animated movies, and since the excellent Shrek, there has never really been another Dreamworks film that could come close to any of Pixar’s films. This changes with the release of How to Train Your Dragon, which is an excellent film in many aspects, and quite possibly a very strong contender for the best animated film of the year (yes, kind of a big statement given that both Shrek 4 and Toy Story 3 are due in cinemas soon).

How to Train Your Dragon is a quintessential family film – although it offers something for the kids (though there are certain scarier portions that may not be all that suitable for the very young), the film is also engaging enough for the parents and other adult audiences. The visuals are colourful and fun, and this is the first film that I’ve watched in 3D since Avatar that seems to be worth the price of admission, and really helps to make the experience a more immersive one. Coincidentally, there are some similarities to Avatar apart from the 3D experience, but none intentionally so, I am sure.

The storyline follows a basic formula – outcast kid makes good and allows others to see the error of their ways – but the story is well-told and the clichés don’t matter as much. It helps that the dragons, initially portrayed as vicious creatures, turn out to be rather harmless and adorable (one word: kittens!), greatly enhancing the cuteness quotient of the movie. The main voice cast is also rather accomplished, and despite the strange choice of having many of the characters speak with a Scottish accent, everything works very well together.

How to Train Your Dragon has ticks in almost every box of the checklist – the movie looks good in both 2D and 3D, there are some thrilling (but some running a tad long) action sequences, the voice acting ranges from good to great, and the “take-home” family values message is a very positive one that parents would certainly endorse.  In a sea of mediocre releases, How to Train Your Dragon stands head and shoulders above many recent films, and if you’re hankering for a good 3D experience, then this would probably be your best bet.

Rating:  * * * ½ (out of four stars)


Alice in Wonderland * * *

Genre: Fantasy

Director: Tim Burton

Writer: Linda Woolverton, based on the books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

Cast: Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover

Voice Cast: Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Christopher Lee 

Running Length: 108 minutes

Synopsis: Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now 19 years old, and it seems that she has completely forgotten about her first trip down the rabbit hole. However, when she’s practically coerced into a marriage, Alice decides to takes a time out from the proposal party, only to find herself falling down yet another rabbit hole, once again travelling to Wonderland. There, she finds the same cast of oddball characters – the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), Absolem the caterpillar (Alan Rickman), the Cheshire cat (Stephen Fry), and more. And of course there are the Wonderland queens – the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) wants to off Alice’s head, but the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) would like to regain her reign over Wonderland with Alice’s help. The way to do it? Get Alice to use the Vorpal Sword on Frabjous Day to kill the Jabberwocky (Christopher Lee).

Review: There’s no doubt that Tim Burton is a visual genius, and once again it shows in the weird and wonderful depiction of Wonderland in this film. It’s not really kid-friendly, but there’s no denying that the oddity of it all has a queer charm (see the Red Queen’s swollen head for a good example). One wonders how isolated the actors must have been because it seems almost the entire movie is composed of CG imagery.

The flora and fauna of Wonderland is quite possibly almost as detailed as the world of Avatar, but the one differentiating factor is that whilst 3D enhances the Avatar universe, sadly in this case watching the film in 3D will likely diminish the viewing experience. Yes, that’s right – if you have a choice, try not to watch the movie in 3D. The bright colours of the background end up looking muted and dull through 3D glasses, and the experience is not immersive at all. In fact, during the action sequences, 3D actually looks blurry and is not a particularly comfortable viewing experience. Perhaps it’s because Avatar has now set the standard so high, Alice in 3D feels nothing more than a poorly executed gimmick.

This is also a movie where the voice talents fare better than actors who are physically present. Whilst Mia Wasikowska is perfectly decent as Alice, her character is rather colourless to begin with and there’s little depth to speak of. And as always Johnny Depp is cast as yet another quirky Burton-esque reinterpretation of a classic character, though in this instance the performance feels a little perfunctory. My favourite in the movie is actually Helena Bonham Carter, and much as it is totally over the top and she spares no expense in chewing up the scenery, it’s a really fun performance to watch.

One of the biggest issues I have with this incarnation of Alice in Wonderland is how the reimagining has actually turned the movie into a generic fantasy movie starring well-loved characters from the Wonderland universe. This is particularly apparent in the showdown between Alice and the Jabberwocky – the only reasons (I feel) this entire segment exists is to make sure there’s enough fodder for spinoff video games to capitalize on, and to appease cinemagoers who demand action sequences in every movie they watch. Make no mistake – the movie is entertaining enough, and certainly worthy of a trip to the cinema, but there’s this nagging sensation that something had been lost in translation.

Rating:  * * * (out of four stars)


Oscar Predictions 2010

It’s that time of the year again where Hollywood rewards what they consider to be the best movies in 2009 with golden statuettes. The Academy has shaken things up a little this year with 10 Best Picture nominees, but apart from a huge upset, it will be a showdown between Avatar and The Hurt Locker for top honours. This is also a year where the major categories are likely to be without surprises, but who knows? These are my predictions for the year, and like last year I will not be predicting the documentary and the short films since I have not seen most of them.


Best Motion Picture of the Year


Avatar (2009): James Cameron, Jon Landau

The Blind Side (2009): Gil Netter, Andrew A. Kosove, Broderick Johnson

District 9 (2009): Peter Jackson, Carolynne Cunningham

An Education (2009): Finola Dwyer, Amanda Posey

The Hurt Locker (2008): Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Nicolas Chartier, Greg Shapiro

Inglourious Basterds (2009): Lawrence Bender

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009): Lee Daniels, Sarah Siegel-Magness, Gary Magness

A Serious Man (2009): Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Up (2009): Jonas Rivera

Up in the Air (2009/I): Daniel Dubiecki, Ivan Reitman, Jason Reitman

Should win: The Hurt Locker

Prediction: Avatar

Ten  nominees… five true contenders… and really only two films to consider (unless there are enough people who hate either Avatar and The Hurt Locker, and a third picture pips them both in a pure numbers game). Hurt Locker or Avatar? Personally I think aside from the visual spectacle, The Hurt Locker is truly the better made film. However, I also do not believe that the voters are going to ignore Avatar in the major categories since it’s truly a groundbreaking film. Since Kathryn Bigelow is almost a lock on the Best Director nod, Avatar should be getting Best Picture.


Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role


Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart (2009)

George Clooney for Up in the Air (2009/I)

Colin Firth for A Single Man (2009)

Morgan Freeman for Invictus (2009)

Jeremy Renner for The Hurt Locker (2008)

Should win: Jeff Bridges

Prediction: Jeff Bridges

Strangely, I don’t really think much of most of the performances that have been nominated in this category. All good, but really nothing much of a standout. I have not had a chance to see A Single Man yet (damn you distributors!) but my vote goes to Jeff Bridges, with Morgan Freeman as a very distant second.


Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role


Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side (2009)

Helen Mirren for The Last Station (2009)

Carey Mulligan for An Education (2009)

Gabourey Sidibe for Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009)

Meryl Streep for Julie & Julia (2009)

Should win: Carey Mulligan

Prediction: Meryl Streep

Of all the major categories this year, I had the hardest time to decide who to go with for Best Actress. My personal favourite performance of the lot is Carey Mulligan’s truly impressive turn in An Education, and while I think she has the best chance of a dark horse upset win, the true battle is between Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock. While it’s true that Bullockis getting more Oscar buzz, Streep has been nominated so many times in recent years and it’s only a matter of time before the voters would reward her with a third win. I have a feeling this will be her year, especially since Sandra Bullock has already won enough awards and voters may feel the Oscar may compensate Streep for her accumulated “losses”.


Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role


Matt Damon for Invictus (2009)

Woody Harrelson for The Messenger (2009/I)

Christopher Plummer for The Last Station (2009)

Stanley Tucci for The Lovely Bones (2009)

Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Should win: Christoph Waltz

Prediction: Christoph Waltz

No question at all – this will definitely go to Christoph Waltz and his super memorable performance in Inglourious Basterds. No one else comes close.


Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role


Penélope Cruz for Nine (2009)

Vera Farmiga for Up in the Air (2009/I)

Maggie Gyllenhaal for Crazy Heart (2009)

Anna Kendrick for Up in the Air (2009/I)

Mo’Nique for Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009)

Should win: Mo’Nique

Prediction: Mo’Nique

Another lock – and I have to say Mo’Nique’s performance was truly impressive. Everyone else nominated in this category had (to me) rather weak performances compared to her – in fact I don’t understand why Penelope Cruz was even nominated. I mean, when did sex kitten song and dance number constitute as great acting?


Best Achievement in Directing


Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2008)

James Cameron for Avatar (2009)

Lee Daniels for Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009)

Jason Reitman for Up in the Air (2009/I)

Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Should win: Kathryn Bigelow

Prediction: Kathryn Bigelow

I think all 5 directors deserved their nominations this year, but I lean towards Kathryn Bigelow on this one. This is particularly so because she has already won the most important precursor to the Oscars, the Directors Guild Award, and she will be the first woman to win the Oscar for this category. And The Hurt Locker featured masterful directorial work from her, even though James Cameron probably put in more effort overall (new technology, etc) for his work in Avatar.


Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen


The Hurt Locker (2008): Mark Boal

Inglourious Basterds (2009): Quentin Tarantino

The Messenger (2009/I): Alessandro Camon, Oren Moverman

A Serious Man (2009): Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Up (2009): Bob Peterson, Pete Docter, Thomas McCarthy

Should win: Inglourious Basterds

Prediction: The Hurt Locker

I think Inglourious Basterds had an excellent script, and apart from Christoph Waltz I don’t think the film has chance to win anything except cinematography and screenplay (one thing working against it is that Tarantino has already won in this category for Pulp Fiction previously). However, since I am going with Avatar to win Best Picture I think Hurt Locker will get this category as a “consolation”.


Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published


District 9 (2009): Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell

An Education (2009): Nick Hornby

In the Loop (2009): Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009): Geoffrey Fletcher

Up in the Air (2009/I): Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner

Should win: Up in the Air

Prediction: Up in the Air

Again, Up in the Air has no real feasible chance of taking home any awards apart from this one, and it’s quite an interesting screenplay so I feel Reitman and Turner have a really good shot at this category.


Best Achievement in Cinematography


Avatar (2009): Mauro Fiore

Das weisse Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (2009): Christian Berger

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009): Bruno Delbonnel

The Hurt Locker (2008): Barry Ackroyd

Inglourious Basterds (2009): Robert Richardson

Prediction: Inglourious Basterds

Unless The White Ribbon is not going to win Best Foreign Film (I think it will) and thus get this as a consolation, I think the odds are pretty good for Inglourious Basterds to clinch the statuette in this category. It’s quite an even category though, so I won’t be surprised if my prediction is wrong.


Best Achievement in Editing


Avatar (2009): Stephen E. Rivkin, John Refoua, James Cameron

District 9 (2009): Julian Clarke

The Hurt Locker (2008): Bob Murawski, Chris Innis

Inglourious Basterds (2009): Sally Menke

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009): Joe Klotz

Prediction: The Hurt Locker

I think one of the reasons why The Hurt Locker worked so well cinematically is due to its tight editing, so I am going to predict a win for the film in this category.  


Best Achievement in Art Direction


Avatar (2009): Rick Carter, Robert Stromberg, Kim Sinclair

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009): David Warren, Anastasia Masaro, Caroline Smith

Nine (2009): John Myhre, Gordon Sim

Sherlock Holmes (2009): Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer

The Young Victoria (2009): Patrice Vermette, Maggie Gray

Prediction: Avatar

I believe most of the technical awards are going to go to Avatar, deservedly so, except for the Sound awards which I think Hurt Locker may win out. Wonder if the Academy will start to include a “Best Achievement in 3D” award soon?


Best Achievement in Costume Design


Bright Star (2009): Janet Patterson

Coco avant Chanel (2009): Catherine Leterrier

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009): Monique Prudhomme

Nine (2009): Colleen Atwood

The Young Victoria (2009): Sandy Powell

Prediction: Nine

I am just going to go for Nine because I think Bright Star and The Young Victoria will split votes for those who like period costumes, and Nine will then take top spot for its Victoria’s Secret (not too young though, hur hur) inspired costumes.


Best Achievement in Makeup


Il divo (2008): Aldo Signoretti, Vittorio Sodano

Star Trek (2009): Barney Burman, Mindy Hall, Joel Harlow

The Young Victoria (2009): John Henry Gordon, Jenny Shircore

Prediction: The Young Victoria

I am guessing they won’t go for awarding a movie that uses makeup as blatantly as Star Trek, Vulcan ears and all, so The Young Victoria stands a better chance. Complete guesswork here though.


Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score


Avatar (2009): James Horner

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009): Alexandre Desplat

The Hurt Locker (2008): Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders

Sherlock Holmes (2009): Hans Zimmer

Up (2009): Michael Giacchino

Prediction: Up


Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song


Crazy Heart (2009): T-Bone Burnett, Ryan Bingham(“The Weary Kind”)

Faubourg 36 (2008): Reinhardt Wagner, Frank Thomas(“Loin de Paname”)

Nine (2009): Maury Yeston(“Take It All”)

The Princess and the Frog (2009): Randy Newman(“Almost There”)

The Princess and the Frog (2009): Randy Newman(“Down in New Orleans”)

Prediction: Crazy Heart


Best Achievement in Sound Mixing


Avatar (2009): Christopher Boyes, Gary Summers, Andy Nelson, Tony Johnson

The Hurt Locker (2008): Paul N.J. Ottosson, Ray Beckett

Inglourious Basterds (2009): Michael Minkler, Tony Lamberti, Mark Ulano

Star Trek (2009): Anna Behlmer, Andy Nelson, Peter J. Devlin

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009): Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, Geoffrey Patterson

Prediction: The Hurt Locker

Does anyone really care about these technical awards?


Best Achievement in Sound Editing


Avatar (2009): Christopher Boyes, Gwendolyn Yates Whittle

The Hurt Locker (2008): Paul N.J. Ottosson

Inglourious Basterds (2009): Wylie Stateman

Star Trek (2009): Mark P. Stoeckinger, Alan Rankin

Up (2009): Michael Silvers, Tom Myers

Prediction: The Hurt Locker


Best Achievement in Visual Effects


Avatar (2009): Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Baneham, Andy Jones

District 9 (2009): Dan Kaufman, Peter Muyzers, Robert Habros, Matt Aitken

Star Trek (2009): Roger Guyett, Russell Earl, Paul Kavanagh, Burt Dalton

Prediction: Avatar (of course)


Best Animated Feature Film of the Year


Coraline (2009): Henry Selick

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009): Wes Anderson

The Princess and the Frog (2009): John Musker, Ron Clements

The Secret of Kells (2009): Tomm Moore

Up (2009): Pete Docter

Prediction: Up

Honestly apart from the first ten minutes Up is quite a run of the mill Pixar film, but we all know even run of the mill Pixar films will usually be able to pick up the award in this category. I really enjoyed the films in this category though (apart from The Secret of Kells which I had not watched).


Best Foreign Language Film of the Year


Ajami (2009)(Israel)

Das weisse Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (2009)(Germany)

El secreto de sus ojos (2009)(Argentina)

Un prophète (2009)(France)

La teta asustada (2009)(Peru)

Prediction: The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte)


Nine * 1/2

Genre: Musical

Director:  Rob Marshall

Writers: Michael Tolkin and Anthony Mingella

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, Sophia Loren, Fergie

Running Length: 115 minutes

Synopsis: Set in Italy in the 60s, Nine details a week (give or take) in the life of famous Italian film director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) who is about to embark on his ninth film project, titled Italia. There is a slight problem – Guido is actually suffering from writer’s block, and despite the production being in place and almost ready to go, not a single line has been written for the screenplay. As he awaits the arrival of his muse, Claudia (Nicole Kidman), who has agreed to appear in Italia, Guido tries to escape the paparazzi and checks into a spa-hotel. Unfortunately, a bevy of women and problems follow – his mistress Carla (Penelope Cruz) shows up, as does his wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard). His marriage with Luisa is on the rocks due to Guido’s philandering, but Guido is desperate to try and keep the relationship alive. Also present is his friend and costume designer Lilli (Judi Dench), who tries to offer her advice to little avail, and American journalist Stephanie (Kate Hudson) who expresses her interest in Guido. Guido also has flashbacks to his childhood, where he meets his mother (Sophia Loren) and observes the erotic dance of Saraghina (Fergie), a prostitute. As the days wear on it soon becomes apparent that Guido is headed towards a breakdown and that the production of Italia may grind to a halt.

Review: It may be Rob Marshall’s second musical-to-movie adaptation (the first being the Academy Award-winning Chicago), but Nine is testament to the phrase “lightning doesn’t strike twice”. Perhaps it’s because Nine the musical is itself adapted from Federico Fellini’s 8½, and like the game of “Telephone”, too much was lost the third time round.

And whilst all the ten songs featured in Nine are big production numbers, the singing is barely passable for most and some of the numbers lean a little too much towards burlesque, actually coming across as being quite sleazy. The songs are not memorable either, and apart from Fergie’s strong performance on “Be Italian” and the totally anachronistic but quite enjoyable performance from Kate Hudson in “Cinema Italiano”, the rest of the songs simply meld into one large burlesque blur.

It doesn’t help that Daniel Day-Lewis is slightly miscast for this role, and despite his totally decent acting, Guido is a very unlikeable protagonist that not many audiences will be able to root for. Coupled with the fact that the women save one – Marion Cotillard has the only meaty female role and does a good job in portraying Guido’s long suffering wife – are one-dimensional walk on roles, seemingly only there to up the glam and sexiness factors, the whole film is thus comprised of famous faces with barely passable singing voices playing unengaging characters. That is as far from a winning formula as it could possibly be, and the result is clear. Watching Nine is akin to watching paint dry – a terribly soporific experience, and even the song and dance numbers only help to alleviate the tedium momentarily.

Rating:  * ½ (out of four stars)