(Netflix Streaming, December 2015) I wasn’t the biggest fan of the original How to Train your Dragon despite recognizing its many qualities, and I have similar feelings about its sequel as well: It’s competent fare, well-executed, warm and beautiful. As a sequel, How to Train a Dragon 2 does nearly everything right: it expands the scope of the universe, picks up the story at another stage of the protagonist’s evolution, delivers something like the first film without being the first film. Writer/director Dean DeBlois knows what he’s doing, and the result distinguishes itself from many animated sequel cash-ins. What seems quite a bit better this time around is the visual polish of the film, which is spectacularly animated from beginning to end, and far more visually interesting than it needed to be. Jay Baruchel’s voice performance still brings a lot of personality to the protagonist. This being said, I often wished that I’d like the result more: while watching the film, I often had the impression that it was hitting its targets but for a younger audience. At least I can recognize that How to Train a Dragon 2 works, and that it should please everyone who loved the original more than I did.
(On TV, June 2015) I quite like Jay Baruchel’s neurotic screen persona, but a little bit of it goes a long way, and with rare exceptions (I’m thinking about The Trotsky, itself far from being a conventional film), he’s best used in supporting roles than leading ones. She’s Out of my League can justify his presence by squarely tackling the issue of romantic partners with mismatched looks, but the sub-par quality of the script does Baruchel no favours despite his better-than-average comic timing. Torn between conventional (if gender-bent) romantic comedy trappings, raunchy comedy and attempts at observational wit, She’s Out of my League seems stuck in an uncomfortable place where the crass jokes (and there’s one of them that’s far better in the adulterated G-rated trailer than in the frank R-rated film) sabotage whatever else the film may be trying to say. I’m not entirely comfortable with the film’s conflation of middle-grade beauty and slovenliness (which plays along the common Apatowesque comedy construct of unattractive males attracting beautiful girls for unspecified reasons and not much work) or even, heck, the very notion of various levels of attractiveness. The film may deconstruct the notion of “levels” late in its running time, but it goes so half-heartedly… after basing near an hour’s worth of material on it. There’s definitely something in She’s Out of my League what could have been explored, but I’m not sure that what’s in the film qualifies as the best possible exploitation of it. To its credit, She’s Out of my League could have been much, much worse: it does have its heart at the right place, and avoids a lot of the misogyny that could have sprung from its premise. But the result still feels off-centre, superficial even when it aims for a bit of profundity.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) I’m a sucker for fast-moving crime comedies, and so it is that Canadian low-budget The Art of the Steal manages to hit all of the right buttons. From the get-go, it presents itself with narration-heavy stylish grace, zipping along its plot points while keeping a pleasantly cynical tone throughout. Kurt Russell stars as the protagonist/narrator, a master thief who’s been burnt once by an accomplice (Matt Dillon, as slickly slimy as he can be). When both of them are reunited for One Last Caper, you can guess where the story goes. Jay Baruchel becomes another good neurotic oddball (alongside veteran Terence Stamp for an added touch of class), but it’s writer/director Jonathan Sobol who delivers the most stylish performance. While The Art of the Steal liberally borrows from other similar films down to the expected twist ending, the result is pleasant enough to excuse any familiarity: sometimes, comfort is what we’re after, and fans of caper films should be more than happy with the result. Best of all; this is a cheerfully Canadian film both in origins and in setting: For something shown partially to fulfill CanCon requirements for home-grown cable channels, it’s surprisingly entertaining and slickly made as a bonus.
(On Cable TV, January 2014) Now being comfortably in my late thirties, there’s a limit to the amount of amusement I can get from rough frat-boy humor, with its soft-drugs and penile references in-between copious swearing. Still, This is the End knows exactly what kind of laughs it wants to get, and it’s successful at what it does. The focus on the nature of young adult friendships in the face of trying circumstances may not be new (Seth Rogen alone has mined it for the past decade since Superbad) but it adds a little bit more substance to what would otherwise be a juvenile festival of phallic jokes, scatological references and drug humor. This is the End, by its very nature (six actors playing exaggerated version of themselves as the world around them is consumed by a biblical apocalypse) is intensely self-referential, and the corpus of movies and celebrity gossip you have to know before getting the most out of this one is lengthy –it’s best if you have a working knowledge of the live and films of Seth Rogan, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny MacBride, along with a passing familiarity with Michael Cena, Emma Watson, Rihanna and the cast of Freaks and Geeks. Sort of a silly Hollywood home movie writ large, This is the End still manages to get a few laughs and chuckles: Evan Goldberg’s direction is self-assured, there’s a sense that there are no self-imposed limits to the comedy, and the ensemble cast is simply remarkable, both for its presence but also for the lengths at which the performers will go in order to spoof their own screen persona and get their laughs. It also has the decency to end on a very high note, wrapping up a film that compensates for its own worst excesses. The result may not be particularly refined or subtle (although there is at least one laugh-aloud implicit joke when we realize that the heavenly rapture has passed by without claiming a single Hollywood partygoer), but This is the End has the strength of its own immaturity.
(On Cable TV, August 2013) What could be more Canadian than a comedy about hockey? Here, Seann William Scott turns in one of his best performances as Doug, a somewhat dim-witted bouncer who unexpectedly proves to be a more-than-competent hockey enforcer. The role of goons in hockey isn’t glamorous –essentially, they’re there to protect more talented players or to target opposing players–, making Goon’s frequently sweet-natured off-ice atmosphere seem all the more remarkable. While the film doesn’t shy away from bloody violence, Scott’s performance as Doug (a really nice guy who just happens to be good at fighting) is enough to balance the excessively profane comedy most frequently mouthed by co-writer Jay Baruchel. Goon is relatively well-shot, decently scripted (especially in the details) and benefits greatly from Liev Shreiber’s late-film appearance as a veteran goon. While the ending is abrupt, the romance less than convincing and some of the profanity/gore is excessive, Goon remains a bit of a pleasant surprise, and something that Canadians won’t be too embarrassed about.
(On DVD, December 2010) I’ll be one of the first to bemoan the increasing cooptation of geeks from social outcasts to lucrative market segment, but even I have to admit that Fanboys is a fun comedy aimed squarely at that audience. The story of four Star-Wars-loving friends racing to steal an early copy of The Phantom Meance from Skywalker ranch, Fanboys gleefully indulges in geek references, inside jokes and enough re-quoted dialogue to qualify as a derivative work. I’m not sure why I was expecting something cheap, because the end result is polished B-movie, low-budget but not necessarily unpleasant to look at. The actors do their best (Jay Baruchel shows up in a decent early role, even showing his maple leaf chest tattoo), but it’s really the geekery of the film that takes center-stage in reflecting in the state of fandom circa winter 1999, still hoping that George Lucas would pull off a new trilogy of classic Star Wars films. (Part of the film’s humour is in the knowing references to the post-1999 reputation of The Phantom Menace, Jar Jar Binks or Harrison Ford) The geek stereotypes are extreme, but good-natured and even endearing when it comes to the five heroes of the story. If nothing else, fans should see Fanboys for the succession of cameos and bit parts for notables such as William Shatner, Danny Trejo, Seth Rogen (in three different roles), Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams and many more. (Only Kevin Smith’s cameo feels rushed and incoherent.) There’s also a snappy pop soundtrack. Fanboys isn’t much of a comedy without the geek references (people without knowledge of the Star Wars universe, in particular, will miss out on much), but it’s good enough to exceed low expectations. [Classification note for metadata nerds: The film was shot in 2007, pushed back numerous times during the film’s troubled production history and eventually released in theaters and DVD in 2009. IMDB thinks it’s a 2008 film, but I’m listing it here as a 2009 release.]
(In-flight, August 2010) I want a lot of people to see The Trotsky. It’s pleasant enough to discover a quirky comedy with wit and brainy allusions; but it’s even better when you realize that it has been filmed less than 200km away. So it is that the cheerfully Montréal-based The Trotsky is a comedy starring a young intellectual convinced that he’s the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky, fated to recreate his namesake’s biography. Hailing from the privileged ranks of Montréal Anglophones, our hero tries to organize workers at his father’s factory and ends up at a public school where he eventually leads a student revolution. The film is too long for its own good and takes a while to truly spark up, but when it’s good –it’s great. Jay Baruchel turns in one of his best performances yet as the Trotsky-obsessed hero, but he’s surrounded by capable actors (among them Liane Balaban, Geneviève Bujold, Colm Feore and Saul Rubinek) who each get a shining moment or two. The film is deep in historical allusions, but the script by Jacob Tierney (who also directs) is kind enough to let in most viewers on the jokes. The rest of The Trotsky doesn’t hesitate to tackle subversive issues of popular rights and authoritarian exploitation, making it a crowd favourite for anyone looking for high-school comedies with more ambitious goals than usual. The added bonus as far as I’m concerned is that the film is pure Montréal (down to familiar police cruisers) and highlights why it’s such a great city: The freedom to discuss social issues, the endearing mixture of French and English, the European influences in a North-American urban setting… it’s all there, and it couldn’t have been highlighted in a better showcase.
(Second viewing, on DVD, April 2011) I like the film even more after a second viewing: It’s fresh, funny, clever and endearing at once. The director and editor’s commentary track shows that the filmmakers fully intended the film’s political content (director Tierney has an… interesting background), and their anecdotes about how the film was shot are interesting. The making-of featurette is a bit thin, but the various deleted scenes each get a chuckle or two.
(In theaters, July 2010) There’s a lot of generic familiarity in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but don’t despair yet: Under Jon Turteltaub’s sure-footed direction, genre-aware script and quirky performances, this fantasy film actually manages to save itself from embarrassment. Nicolas Cage fans won’t be disappointed by his portrayal of an eccentric sorcerer, while Jay Baruchel more than holds his own as a sympathetic science nerd turned magician. (Plus: Monica Bellucci, even in a too-brief role.) There is a lot of special-effects eye candy, and as many different magic tricks as the first four Harry Potter movies combined. New York locations are effectively exploited, whereas the editing finds a good pace. But never mind the technical credentials: The real charm of the film is to be found in the script, which correctly assumes that we’ve seen a lot of movies of this type: as a result, a significant portion of the required exposition is sarcastically telescoped. (The best instance of this happens during the obligatory but well-handled car chase, as Cage’s character quickly deals with his apprentice’s questions without even waiting for him to ask them.) The one sequence that really doesn’t fit tonally with the rest of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a too-goofy clean-up scene that pays homage to the Fantasia animated segment of the same title without bothering to rein in the CGI excesses. Both Baruchel and Cage are oddball enough that they can do justice to their respective characters and if their delivery could occasionally be improved, the net effect is a film-long smile. Baruchel, in particular, has an irresistible puppy-dog charm –especially when he comes to enjoy his magical talents. Frankly, it’s hard to resist a protagonist who charges into the final battle shouting something like “I came armed with SCIENCE!” For a film that could have been considerably dourer, there’s a refreshing competence at play in this latest Bruckheimer vehicle that is enough to make us forget about the familiarity of it all.
(In theatres, April 2010) There really isn’t anything new or all that innovative about How to Train Your Dragon, at least from a first glance at the script: The story about a teen outcast discovering inner reserves of courage along with secrets about a terrible menace will feel intensely familiar to anyone over the age of ten. But it’s all in the execution, and once the end credits roll, the film feels like a satisfying success. While the film takes a while to accelerate, and too-often passes its time treading over familiar sequences, everything becomes better once we’re in the air along with the dragons. Jay Baruchel’s creaky voice performance adds a lot to the lead character; while the 3D is so well done that it looks fine even in 2D. While one may quibble about the pro-dragon propaganda, or the traumatic use of an amputation trope, this “boy and his pet dragon” is slight but competently made. Older viewers may not remember much of How to Train Your Dragon after a few days, but they’re not its target audience… and they’ll tolerate repeat viewings well enough.