Tuesday, June 17, 2014

22 Jump Street, How to Train Your Dragon 2 Reviews

22 Jump Street
Dir. Phil Lord & Chris Miller
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21 Jump Street was one of the biggest comedy surprises to come out of 2012.  Loosely based off of an 80's TV show with marginal marquee value, starring Step Up and Dear John actor Channing Tatum and a skinny Jonah Hill - it was completely blindsiding when that film was actually one of the better comedies of the year.  Since then co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have become a hot commodity in Hollywood, especially after the box office darling The LEGO Movie, leaving 22 Jump Street with high expectations (a polar opposite circumstance from the first).  The sequel, though not as egregiously cookie-cutter as The Hangover Part II, does tread similar ground as the first film, but is decidedly much more "meta," constantly self-referencing that we're watching a sequel, to both the film's benefit and detriment.  The laughs come fairly regularly in 22 Jump Street, but its perpetually winking eye can get tiresome.

As promised at the end of the first film, Morton Schmidt (Hill) and Greg Jenko (Tatum) head to college, essentially repeating the same drug-busting plot as before (the two guys look too old be in school, try to sniff out who's dealing the drugs, then get too comfortable in this new world, making friends with the enemy).  While the plot is nearly the same as before, both the Edgar Wright-esque kinetic direction from Lord and Miller and the snappy, joke-a-second script from screenwriters Michael Bacall (Scott Pilgrim vs The World), Rodney Rothman, and Oren Uziel kept things fresh.  Though I think the movie went way too overboard with its "meta" humor - relying on it more than using it thoughtfully - I found "22" to be an overall fun, smart action comedy.

One of the best aspects of the film is its interplay between the two leads. Hill and Tatum's chemistry together really works; the two have seen their star-power rise considerably since the original and you can almost feel it in the performances.  Tatum fits right in with a jock named Zook (Wyatt Russell - Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn's son) and joins the football team; Hill woos an art student named Maya (Amber Stevens) by "winging it" at a poetry slam.  What I loved about the first movie was that Tatum ended up with the nerds and Hill ended up with the "cool" kids, and I found 22 to place its leads in unfortunately more predictable roles (ironic, seeing as how their time in high school seems to be more "progressive" in terms of modern stereotypes).  Ice Cube also makes a return appearance, and proves himself once again to be a hilarious scene-stealer.  In short, the actors were all great, but essentially don't stray too far from the expected.

For whatever reason I've found myself at a disconnect with many critics with both of the sequels I review in this blog post; I found both to be satisfying films that don't reach anywhere close to their first entries.  I've never been a huge fan of "meta-humor," and can usually handle it for selected moments, but not an entire film.  22 Jump Street is pretty much one big meta-film, and what irritated me about it was it felt like a cop-out.  As long as it references that it's doing the same thing as the last film, the public seems to think it's "ok," but in my mind, that doesn't let it off the hook.  The first film had a sheer surprise factor going in which probably helped as well, and presented us with a fresh new relationship and a story about the origin of that relationship.  22 continues the fun and excitement of the first, but doesn't necessarily add anything new or fresh, other than the overbearing sense that the writers want us to know that they're "hip" to the movie they're making.

Rating: B-

How to Train Your Dragon 2
Dir. Dean DeBlois
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Since How to Train Your Dragon debuted in 2010, in only four years it has since spawned a TV show, a stage show, video games, tons of merchandising, and now this official sequel, taking place five years after the events of the first.  Hiccup and his pet dragon Toothless are now completely graceful flying partners, and Hiccup is slowly maturing into the leader his dad always dreamed of.  All seems right in the village of Berk, now that everyone seems to have taken to their newfound dragon friends, but outside of the village are dragon hunters, led by the mysterious Drago, who uses dragons not as companions, but as weapons.  Also, a monkey wrench is thrown in Hiccup's way when he finds his long-lost mother, and he seems to have taken on more of her side (she's a fellow dragon-lover).  The film is a more expansive (and expensive) film than the first, and the result is a satisfyingly fun, beautifully animated summer action movie, but in my mind never quite reaches the level of awe or emotion I felt during the first film.

What I loved about the first movie was that it was mostly a father-son story, with Hiccup basically going from a rejected son to a true leader.  It was a fun hero's journey, and as Hiccup discovered "how to train his dragon," Toothless, it was awe-inspiring to watch their relationship build and unfold as the story progressed.  The problem with the sequel (and sequels in general) is that now that we're at a place where father and son are happy, Hiccup is pretty much a Dragon Master, and now there's nowhere to go character-wise.  Sure Hiccup learns to be more of a leader here, but I felt as though I'd already seen that arc played through - and seeing as this film begins with Hiccup already pretty badass (with a flaming sword no less), it's much less satisfying when he saves the day at the end because the odds used to be less in his favor.

The villain of Dragon 2 was similarly disappointing - just your stock, scar-faced baddie, instead of having the very personal family conflict of the first, where the stakes felt much higher.  Plus, the villain's "power" of mind-controlling dragons felt very cliched to me, and remained unexplained by the end of the film.  Not helping things is that fact that Dean DeBlois has the third and fourth films already booked, meaning that he's "excused" for any plot points that are left unanswered (because "it will be in the sequel").  The inclusion of Hiccup's mother provided an interesting counterpoint and history to the characters, but ultimately didn't resonate with me as much as it should have; again, there's not much conflict involved with the mother's plotline, she merely makes up for lost time with her son and they immediately bond.

Although critics are lapping this one up, I found it to be a far lesser film than the original, which I consider to be one of the best non-Pixar animated films of the past ten years. I enjoyed How to Train Your Dragon 2 more on a pure spectacle, "ride" level.  It's a ton of fun, especially watching the top-notch aerial action scenes, but I was not nearly as emotionally wrapped up in the story as before (I don't want to give anything away, but I'll just say that this movie pulls a "Godzilla" with one of its characters).   It's a fun flick with gorgeous animation, but, and I might be alone on this, I think it doesn't live up to its predecessor.

Rating: B

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