At The Movies

How To Train Your Dragon

Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
Opens March 26, Esquire IMAX and general release

Jay Baruchel is having a great year. He’s the winning lead in the hilarious and touching small-scale comedy “She’s Out of My League,” and now the voice of the main character in the delightful “How To Train Your Dragon.” With the title role in the Disney/Bruckheimer live action “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” slated for this summer, this could be a transformative year for the versatile geek hero.

I liked this movie. A lot. More than “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland.” Simple and unpretentious, it’s another in the current crop of 3D animations but it never fails to remember that at its core it’s a simple and well-told story about a kid who feels out of place and unappreciated. I probably enjoyed it as much as any kids’ fantasy movie stretching back to “The NeverEnding Story” – and I hold that in very high regard.

It tells the story of Hiccup, the puny son of a long line of not-so-puny Vikings. The surprisingly large clan lives in a coastal village that is routinely besieged by dragons of every shape and size, including the elusive and legendary Night Fury. It’s a story that is pleasantly free of heavy-handed politics disguised for children – unless you count the basic idea of understanding one’s enemies and stopping to see the world from their perspective rather than believing the bad hype about them.   

It’s similarly free of huge big-budget stars in voiceover roles. Hiccup’s father is voiced by Gerard Butler, who along with Baruchel is also doing double-duty in theaters with the new “Bounty Hunter.” Hiccup’s mentor and employer, the town blacksmith, is voiced by Craig Ferguson, who remains the wittiest and perhaps the smartest of the late night talk show hosts, routinely pulling out entertaining shows with a fraction of the budget of his counterparts. Much as assorted British accents were once used to portray Eastern European villains in movies, the trick to portraying Vikings is to have the manly men sound inappropriately Scottish.

Even with one or two plot holes, “How To Train Your Dragon” remains fresh and fun. The character development among the humans works nicely, and the character animation of the main dragon is as fun to watch as any recent cartoon animal. Somebody behind this is a cat lover, or at least a cat watcher, and perhaps it’s the cat owner in me who was won over.
Back to Baruchel. I’ve been a fan of his for a while, both in supporting roles in larger movies (e.g. “Knocked Up” and “Tropic Thunder”) and lead roles in smaller indie films (“I’m Reed Fish”). His current two films represent the most pure fun I’ve had so far this year.

Green Zone

Directed by Paul Greengrass

Set in the early days of the Iraq War, “Green Zone” could be a fictional companion piece to the much heralded documentary “No End in Sight.” The story here is simplified, and each character is like a surrogate for multiple parties or factions. The experience is enhanced by details about the living conditions of troops inspired by the book “Life in the Emerald City” by Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran. The look of the film is probably more authentic than the thematically accurate but blatantly truncated and partisan plot.  

“The Hurt Locker” succeeded by being a small-scale character study in a large scale conflict. By contrast, “Green Zone” falls into the trap of multiple other more ambitious Iraq War movies, such as “In the Valley of Elah,” “Lions for Lambs” and “Rendition,” in playing the political angles and ending up with little to no audience. The folks who don’t agree with the movies’ perspectives probably won’t watch, and the folks who do agree don’t need to hear what they hear on CNN all over again at the theater.

And while re-teaming Matt Damon and his two-time Bourne director, Paul Greengrass (also “United 93”), may seem appealing from an action perspective, it can’t overcome this inherent handicap. The end result is fast-paced, overtly self-righteous, and not much fun.

Un Prophète

Directed by Jacques Audiard
At a time when California faces massive budget shortfalls, this French movie is an object lesson in how not to deal with relatively minor offenders. Every casual drug user we send to prison costs us tens of thousands of dollars a year that could have been used to send several students to college.

Nominated for a best foreign language Academy Award, “Un Prophète” tells the story of a young prisoner. Unrelentingly violent and consistently excellent, the film reflects an existence caught between two ethnicities and accepted by neither. Accused of being a dirty Arab by the Corsicans and a dirty Corsican by the Arabs, he moves between them both, never fully trusted by either. The outcome is years spent in a system that expertly rehabilitates casual and amateur offenders into talented and self-reliant career criminals. It’s a powerful film, but not one for the faint-hearted.  (Opens March 26)

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