How To Train Your Dragon 2

Director: Dean DeBlois (2014)

This animated family-friendly sequel soars and roars in a fabulous flight of fantasy.

It’s a handsomely designed adventure with extraordinary animation that conjures up magical images – especially of dragons flying en masse.

The coming-of-age story of Hiccup and his fight to save his village is well-crafted and exciting but a lack of laughs is a major flaw.

Brave and resourceful viking Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is 20 and his home of Berk is living in harmony with the dragons. His dad, chief Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) expects him to take the throne but Hiccup is unsure about ruling or his own future.

So, armed with a fiery sword, he flies off on his dragon Toothless to discover himself and explore the northern lands.

There he meets mysterious Valka (Cate Blanchett) who warns him of warlord Drago’s plan to enslave all dragons. Meanwhile Hiccup’s adventurous girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) and her friends are captured by Drago and his pirate fleet.

The ensuing battle between dragons, vikings, pirates and bewilderbeasts – giant alpha dragons with mind-control powers – is spectacular but ends in the death of a loved one.

Hiccup must try to defeat Drago’s army, rescue the dragons, free his village and generally live up to his father’s expectations.

Dragon 2 is good natured and tender at times but the few jokes are mostly gentle slapstick, such as people falling into snow drifts or getting their faces licked by dragons.

While weak sidekick characters fail to provide enough fun and their amorous behaviour is ill-judged in a film aimed at younger kids.

The viking village has lots of nicely designed mechanical gizmos but no-one seems to realise the bat-suit wings that Hiccup sports to glide around may one day make the dragons redundant.

But Dragon 2’s lesson – that it’s never too late to start listening to your dad – is an important one that my son may learn… one day.

★★☆☆

Whiplash

Director: Damien Chazelle

Get ready yourself for duelling drumsticks in this blistering bee-bop battle that’s deservedly nominated for five Oscars – including Best Film.

When a menacing music master goes cymbal to cymbal with his drumming protégé, it’s as exhilarating and exhausting for us as for them.

Young Andrew Neiman, played by Miles Teller, is a scholar at the Shaffer Conservatory, the most highly respected music school in the US.

Inspired by the performances of the legendary band leader Buddy Rich, he dreams of being the greatest jazz drummer who ever lived.

But he’s tutored by the fearsome Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) who demands perfection and is infamous for his torturous teaching technique.

Always dressed immaculately in black, Fletcher is a door-slamming, cymbal-slinging monster who relishes humiliating individual students in front of their classmates.

Hilariously vicious and intense, JK Simmons will surely add a Best Supporting Oscar to the Golden Globe and SAG award he’s already collected for his electric performance.

Though Neiman’s increasingly selfish behaviour provides for a cringing dinner table scene, Neiman’s treatment of pretty cinema cashier Nicole (Melissa Benoist) is where our attitude towards the musician becomes more complex.

His father Jim (Paul Reiser) is also ill-served by his son’s ambition which rears it’s head ever higher, taking advantage of the misfortune of classmates in the pursuit of his dream.

As well as giving up buckets of sweat, blood and tears, he has a car crash while preparing for sharp-suited public competitions. A classroom confrontation ends badly for both of the combatants.

Yet one last contest before an audience of prestigious and influential movers and shakers allows for a final battle of wills. It is centred around Fletcher’s favoured performance piece, Whiplash.

This thrilling drama is sharp, cruel and incredibly foulmouthed and when the final note is sounded, the ferocious acting and a terrifically powerful percussive score will leave your nerves as shredded as the actors’ bloodied, blistered fingers.

★★★★★

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Director: Matthew Vaughn (2015)

This glossy smug spy spoof lacks much spark or charm, it’s as flat and laboured as the later Roger Moore Bond movies it offers homage to.

The Kingsmen are an aristocratic, super-rich secret spy agency who operate without any pesky political oversight or accountability.

They’re an exclusive and aspirational club for the Bullingdon boys only with nattier outfits. Putting great stock by personal grooming, they’re based in a Tailor’s shop in Savile Row.

Head of the outfitters is Michael Caine who played spy Harry Palmer. All the agents sport Palmer’s famous wide brimmed specs because the film can’t resist its little jokes. It also references The Man From UNCLE and The Men In Black.

Brolly carrying agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) sees the opportunity to atone for the death of a colleague by putting forward his son Eggsy (Taron Egerton) for recruitment.

Only he’s turned out to be a bit of baseball cap wearing chav and so must be properly attired, trained in espionage and taught to use violence to subjugate the working classes.

Although the script plays lip-service to meritocracy, Eggsy is chosen due to being of good stock and all the other potential recruits are public school types. The only female recruit of note is Roxy (Sophie Cookson) and she of course is a gorgeous lesbian.

Meanwhile billionaire Richmond Valentino (a lisping Samuel L. Jackson) is plotting to create a new world order involving the murder of millions using micro-chips.

Politicians can’t be trusted to hang on to their integrity in the face of Valentino’s money, though a supple-buttocked Scandinavian Princess holds firm. Because she’s royal you see.

Valentino is assisted by a decorative blade-footed assassin called Gazelle (Sofia Boutella). Having demonstrated her ability early doors, she’s mostly there to look pretty.

Poison pens, explosive cigarette lighters, jet packs and underground bases add to the retro atmosphere of the 1970’s sexual politics.

In the absence of decent jokes, obscenities are used as punchlines to scenes, the action set pieces are all too familiar and aside from a colourful moment of pomp and circumstance, there’s little that will raise an eyebrow.

Based on comic book by Mark Millar who also wrote the Vaughn directed Kick Ass, it’s the fifth script collaboration between Vaughn and Jane Goldman (Stardust, Kick Ass, X-Men: First Class, The Debt).

It’s most similar in tone but lacks the fresh energy and originality of the uproariously violent and funny Kick Ass.

Roger Moore single-handedly mocked his own image with far more grace, talent, charm and wit than is mustered here. Check out North Sea Hijack for a rather better service.

★★☆☆☆

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo (2014)

Loyalty, friendship and the freedom of world are tested to destruction as Captain America returns in this action packed and hugely exciting Marvel comic-book sequel.

Dynamic duo Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson power this breakneck thrill ride which will be followed in 2016 by Captain America: Civil War.

Blue-eyed, lantern-jawed Steve Rogers (Evans), aka Captain America, punches his way through a series of brilliant action sequences, including a rescue of hostages on the high seas and a marvellous mayhem-filled fight on a freeway.

Samuel L. Jackson returns as S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Nick Fury and introduces superhero The Falcon (Anthony Mackie).

Robert Redford is his smooth-talking superior Alexander Pierce, bringing a knowing cinematic echo of his earlier roles in 1970’s conspiracy thrillers Three Days of the Condor (1975) and All the President’s Men (1976).

Rogers, who struggles to cope in the modern world, is framed for the shooting of Fury and goes on the run with Natasha Romanoff, aka super-assassin Black Widow (Johansson).

Facing terrible adversity, he’s armed only with his indestructible shield and she a pair of perfectly calibrated pistols – yet still they find time to flirt while evading squadrons of fighter jets, convoys of trucks and legions of Swat teams packing the latest in futuristic military weapons.

People are brutally stabbed, shot, punched, kicked and thrown off buildings as they’re also pursued by the mysterious Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a relentless super-villain with a robotic arm and secret past.

Helped by Falcon, the duo must stop the sinister Hydra group, which infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ long ago, from imposing a new and deadly world order.

Considering the patriotic conservatism of the central character, Captain America is a far richer experience than could have been hoped for and excluding the Avengers, my favourite franchise in the canon.

Now all the Marvel Cinematic Universe is missing is a Black Widow standalone movie.

The Lego Movie

Director: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller (2014)

Despite the astonishing Oscar snub, this is a brilliant, witty, inventive animation which kids will enjoy almost as much as their parents will.

As the opening song says, ‘Everything is Awesome!!!’. And it is. It’s stupid in a clever way, clever in a funny way and is continually exciting, hilarious and even subversive.

Assembled with huge energy and a wicked sense of fun, every brick of the plot is correctly placed to support the dizzying flights of imagination and yet more jokes.

During the ferocious chase scenes random street parts are rapidly fashioned into vehicles, destroyed and rebuilt into  succession of err, other vehicles.

Among the mayhem it even manages to visually referencing sci-fi classics such as Tron and The Matrix.

Brickburg is a modern plastic city with busy roads, extortionately priced of coffee and constant CCTC surveillance. Everyone and everything fits together and works correctly.

When construction worker Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) has an accident, he loses his vital rule book but discovers the Piece of Resistance.

Arrested by Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) he is freed by Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) who believes him to be the prophesied ‘special’.

Only the Piece of Resistance can prevent the tyrannical President Business (Will Ferrell) from using his super-weapon called the Kragle to destroy the Lego universe.

Emmet and Wyldstyle set out to to prevent the President’s evil plan and are helped by Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) and other Master Builders.

They include famous lego–made characters who help make this the second best Batman movie and the fourth best Star Wars film.

Naturally enough the film emphasises the importance of invention and bonding but to say more will spoil the fantastic and emotional twist towards the end.

In a word, awesome.

 ★★

Guardians of the Galaxy

Director: James Gunn (2014)

The strangest group of heroes Marvel comics ever created blast off into space in this visually sensational sci-fi action adventure.

They’re a mismatched motley alien crew consisting of an Earthling called Peter (Chris Pratt), a beautiful green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a genetically-engineered raccoon called Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and tree-like humanoid Groot (Vin Diesel).

It is a fun-filled knockabout romp with stellar design, tremendous special effects and CGI characters blending seamlessly with the real actors.

But it’s gratingly pleased with itself but nowhere near as funny or as smart as it believes itself to be.

It takes far too much juvenile pleasure in rude words and drowning scenes with 1970’s pop tunes quickly wears thin – an unusually needy and heavy-handed attempt at cross-audience, all quadrant appeal by the mighty Marvel studio.

The self styled Star-lord and deluded scoundrel Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) was abducted from Earth as a kid and raised by intergalactic thieves known as the Ravagers.

He hasn’t a lot of experience fighting or leading or coming up with plans. Or having ideas in general. In fact, he’s not all that smart. Plus, generally unskilled.

Nevertheless he manages to steal an orb of mysterious power which is also wanted by the psychotic Ronan (Lee Pace) who secretly works for the powerful Thanos (Josh Brolin). who wants the orb to wage war on his enemies.

Quill is thrown into a space-prison called The Kyln where he meets a warrior called Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) who has sworn vengeance on Ronan.

In a fantastic action sequence they break out alongside Gamora, Rocket, Groot and a spare leg but the script shoots itself in the foot in a space-walk sequence which drains the rest of the film of tension.

When Quill discovers the true danger of the orb he discovers the hero inside himself and cajoles the squabbling misfits to fight a desperate and spectacular battle to guard the galaxy against destruction.

Much like the Hulk in Avengers Assemble, Groot steals every scene he’s in, despite only being able to say the words ‘I am Groot’ – which to be fair, is as much as the Hulk ever managed.

British actress and former Dr Who star Karen Gillan is impressively agile and deliciously villainous and shares a history and a terrific fight scene with Gamora.

Pratt is less endearing than the film supposes and his reprising of a peril-inspired song and dance routine similar to which he performed in The Lego Movie wears thin here.

Guardians of the Galaxy is entertaining enough though not Marvel’s finest hour; after The Winter Soldier it’s not even Marvel’s best film of 2014.

And the joke at the end of the film’s credits isn’t worth hanging around for.

☆☆

Interstellar

Director: Christopher Nolan (2014)

This plodding, muddled and bombastic sci-fi flick doesn’t fly – despite having talented Matthew McConaughey at the controls.

Even the star’s rocket-fuelled charisma can’t stop the space-travel, dimension-hopping, time-twisting tale from drifting aimlessly.

Cooper is working as a farmer, the sort who is cheerily content to cruise a truck through his own crops.

His daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) is left coded messages by a ghost.

Solving this riddle leads them to a super secret Nasa base run by Professor Brand (Michael Caine).

He’s fond of quoting Dylan Thomas while scribbling equations on a blackboard in a sciency manner. Normally in Nolan films it’s Morgan Freeman‘s job to do that.

Despite having hugely limited resources – what with the break down of civilisation due to the crops not growing – Brand decides Cooper is the man they’ve been waiting for to pilot a spacecraft into a plothole, sorry, wormhole, near Saturn.

It’s tunnel to another galaxy where three astronauts are lost. Cooper is to rescue them if possible while scouting for worlds that could support human life.

He returns home to say a guilt-ridden goodbye to Murph but she’s not best pleased.

In Cooper’s crew are Brand’s scientist daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and a robot called TARS; a cross between a giant iPod and a Swiss army knife.

It’s unusual and impractical design seems only for the purpose of demonstrating director Nolan is familiar with the work of Stanley Kubrick. TARS jokes are misplaced among the grim solemnity.

Hibernating en route they awake to hear a signal from one of the lost men and investigating they encounter the effect gravity has on time.

There is courage, sacrifice and stupidity. When the crew land on a watery world they are surprised by an enormous laws of physics-defying wave. Twice.

A betrayal results in a shortage of fuel means Cooper has to choose between returning home to his daughter or saving the world.

In space no-one can hear you scream because of the ear-piercing soundtrack. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema conjures up spectacular images but Nolan offers but no depth or mystery to accompany them.

While the dialogue is functional at best and occasionally laughable in it’s portentousness, the weak script signposts the twist which is possible to see from light-years away.

Later the galaxy’s most intelligent man repeatedly yells “override” to a password-protected computer. Which is showy but not very clever – like this film.

★★☆☆☆