Dragons, Divas, Cold and Chaos in Theaters
It’s Oscar weekend, and the fun thing is that there is a brand new contender for next year’s Academy Awards on the big screen this weekend. In fact, for a quiet week at the multiplex, there’s a nice crop of flicks to see.
How to Train your Dragon: The Hidden World
by George Wolf
I usually like to steer clear of spoilers, but I really need to warn you…this film contains gratuitous dragon flirting.
And full-on nuzzling.
It’s cute, but The Hidden World offers so much more than just cute, and more than enough substance to solidify the entire Dragon saga as a top tier film trilogy.
Writer/director Dean DeBlois is back to finish what he started in 2010, and continued in 2014. He picks up the tale one year after the close of HTTYD 2, when our hero Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) finds that his pal Toothless isn’t the only Night Fury dragon, after all.
This new one is a Light Fury, she’s a charmer, and Toothless is in love.
But all of Hiccup’s dragon friends are in danger, none more than Toothless, thanks to the bloodthirsty Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) and his batallion of dragon hunters. To continue living in peace, Hiccup and his entire village must find mythical dragon birthplace The Hidden World before Grimmel does.
This franchise has delivered true visual wonder since the original film’s opening frame, and part 3, taking natural advantage of enhanced technology, ups the ante. The aerial gymnastics and high seas swashbuckling are propelled by animation that is deep and rich, while new details in the dragons’ faces bring wonderful nuance and expression.
There is real tension here, along with warm humor, thrilling action pieces and resonant themes backed by genuine emotion.
As you realize Hiccup is leading a group of wartime refugees, the bittersweet coming-of-age tale moves to the forefront. We’ve watched Hiccup move from losing his father (Gerard Buter) to finding his mother (Cate Blanchett) to becoming a father figure for the orphaned Toothless. Now, he may have to let his best friend go and remember that “with love comes loss, it’s part of the deal.”
These themes may not be new, but DeBlois handles them with an understated poignancy that hits the feels, leading to a breathless emotional high point reminiscent of Toy Story 3‘s classic “holding hands” throat-lumper.
Packed with excitement, sincerity and visual amazeballs, The Hidden World ties a can’t-miss ribbon on a wonderful trilogy.
Fighting with My Family
by Hope Madden
Rarely, if ever, has WWE PR been as charming as Stephen Marchant’s biopic Fighting with My Family.
A traditional underdog tale, the film is also savvy enough to know how to wield its source material to broaden its audience beyond your traditional WWE fanatic.
Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh) — or Britani or, later, Paige — takes part in her family’s business. Mornings, she hands out flyers to their wrestling events, mainly to passersby who look down their noses at the notion.
Afternoons she helps her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) coach local kids on the arts of grappling. Evenings, she gets in the ring with her brother, mum (Lena Headey) and dad (Nick Frost) to entertain amateur wrestling enthusiasts in Norwich, England.
Then the call comes inviting Saraya and Zak to audition for WWE at an upcoming London Smackdown event.
The set-up is there and, for any sports story, it is golden. Scrappy working class upbringing? Check! Sibling rivalry? Check! Opportunities for montage? Everywhere!
Better still is a madcap supporting cast you can’t help but love. Frost and Headey share a really lovely and incredibly goofy onscreen chemistry as the Mohawk-sporting ex-con patriarch and former homeless drug addict turned devoted mum. Merchant’s sharp direction and even sharper script avoids condescension or sentimentality.
The solid first act dovetails nicely into a less comedic journey for Saraya, the only sibling the WWE actually hires. Additional supporting players cannot live up to the charisma of Saraya’s family, but Dwayne Johnson plays himself and he has enough charisma for an entire cast.
Vince Vaughn, adding one more to a string of solid performances, plays the recruiter/drill sergeant/coach who helps Saraya find her individual strength for the journey to WWE Diva.
Pugh is the spark that makes the engines go, here. Though Saraya’s wigs are not always believable, her inner conflict and fighting spirit are.
While Fighting with My Family manages to sidestep or subvert a lot of genre clichés, it hardly breaks new ground. Instead, Merchant elevates the familiar with a more authentic feeling backstory and a winning cast.
by George Wolf
Arctic is a survival film that wastes no time getting to the survival.
Director/co-writer Joe Penna drops us somewhere in the Arctic Circle long enough after a place crash that lone survivor Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen) has had time to construct a makeshift camp. We get no backstory, no thrilling crash effects and no time to assess the situation, which is perfect on two fronts.
1) The situation is pretty damn clear, and 2) so are the film’s unflinching parameters. There’ll be no spoon-feeding here, are you in or are you out?
Mikkelsen is all in, with a supremely committed performance full of both strength and vulnerability. In a film that’s nearly dialog-free, Mikkelsen sparks a curiosity about his character that the film is in no hurry to indulge. Overgård is clearly meticulous and intelligent, cautious and resourceful, but it is after an early rescue attempt goes awry that Mikkelsen delivers the layers of humanity that add an ethereal beauty to the sterile, potentially deadly climate.
Suddenly, there is the safety of a badly injured woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) to consider. As Overgård weighs the options of waiting for another rescue or striking out on foot, Mikkelson excels in making the emotional weight authentic, along with some simple joys that come from supplies found in the woman’s downed helicopter.
While it might be tempting to label this a snow-covered Castaway, the experience is closer to Robert Redford’s 2013 vehicle All is Lost. In his feature debut, Penna displays majestic wide-angle vistas without any photographic glamour that might betray what Overgård is up against. In trimming away all excess narrative, he immerses you only in the often gut-wrenching journey.
The result is never less than believable, a no muss, plenty of frigid fuss endurance tale that feels real.
And real cold.
Lords of Chaos
by Hope Madden
“Based on truth and lies and what actually happened.”
One of the founders of Norway’s black metal sound and scene, Mayhem benefited and eventually suffered from a series of very black metal-ish crimes and misdemeanors—mostly crimes, including arson and murder. A cross between punk rock ethos and early metal imagery, Norwegian black metal espoused a love of Satan and a deep and fiery hatred of Christianity and the Christian moral framework. In keeping with those philosophies, Mayhem became known for far edgier behavior than, say, biting the head off a bat.
Director (and former drummer for Swedish black metal band Bathory) Jonas Åkerlund’s image of art and commerce, fanaticism, metal and death follows Mayhem’s ascension to global notoriety.
Rory Culkin anchors the film as band leader and spinmeister Øystein Aarseth, AKA Euronymous. He narrates with some of Åkerlund and co-writer Dennis Magnusson’s least convincing material—not to mention an absurdly American accent—but the performance itself is the perfect blend of bored teen and insecure leader vulnerable to attack. Inside Culkin’s quietly convincing performance, deadpan cynicism battles with genuine tenderness in a way that gives the film an affecting yet appropriately faulty soul.
Did Euronymous take advantage of early tragedy to create a persona, or did he live his message?
In its smarter moments, Lords of Chaos is a film about poseurs. Who is and who isn’t? And what do you do if you find that you have become the poseur in the circle of your own creation?
How much of it was all for show? Maybe a lot, but when you become a magnet for those who embrace your bullshit, hopefully that bullshit does not require a lot of bloodshed.
Enter Varg (Emery Cohen), a novice and admirer who would become a disenchanted disciple. Cohen’s arc from sycophantic insecurity to narcissistic sociopathy impresses, and as Euronymous’s grasp on the position of Alpha weakens, the dynamic between the two actors sparks.
Culkin’s slippery performance in these scenes works well within the true crime context, but Åkerlund has trouble as he shifts back and forth between crime drama and comedy of manners. There is a consistent “kids sure are stupid” theme a la Alpha Dog or River’s Edge that he can’t fit into his larger themes. While most scenes taken on their own work (if you can forgive the unexplained and hard-to-miss cacophony of accents), Åkerlund can’t pull them together for a cohesive whole.
In recreating a series of increasingly more unfortunate events, Åkerlund never manages to shed new light on the crimes at hand. And maybe he can’t—maybe that’s the point. Perhaps it’s impossible to entirely differentiate between philosophy and promotion, but what the filmmaker was trying to accomplish is just as tough to tease out.
Also screening in Columbus:
The Changeover (NR)
Of Fathers and Sons (NR)
Total Dhamaal (NR)