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How to Train Your Dragon StubHow to Train Your Dragon is the second non-Shrek Dreamworks Animation film that I’ve enjoyed (the first was Kung Fu Panda). In both cases, I didn’t want to see the film based on the preview and went only due to good word of mouth. Well, let me now join the chorus of other voices and say that How to Train Your Dragon is a fun, easy-to-watch adventure that, while not revolutionary, represents another nice step into non-gimmicky storytelling for Dreamworks Animation that is delightfully free of Smashmouth songs and out-of-place pop-culture references.

The story is predictable but effective: A wimpy Viking boy, with the pejorative name of Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), flies in the face of his town’s dragon-slaughtering ways, secretly befriending a wounded Night Terror dragon–the most dangerous of all dragons and one not yet seen by human eyes. Hiccup is a bit of an inventor, and when he realizes the dragon needs new tail feathers in order to fly again, he fires up the kiln and builds a rig that soon has him flying his very own pet dragon. The dragon, which he names Toothless, needs Hiccup to fly; Hiccup needs Toothless to help him find a way toward more compassionate Viking/Dragon relations. Hijinks and culture clashes ensue, dragons are flown, and a lot of stuff ends up engulfed in flames.

So the story is pretty much a given from the first general characterizations. There’s a competent nod to the Chicks-Can-Kick-Ass-Too school of feminism in the character of Astrid (America Ferrera), who is the fiercest of the other children warriors and part-love-interest, part-competitor for Hiccup–but it’s all a little too easily unraveled. Astrid still ends up being cast into the role of support structure for the heroic, dragon-riding male. I think this dynamic was done much better recently in Kick-Ass, but I understand that this film is meant to be lighter in spirit. Not every movie has to have some sort of tragedy, but it would be nice if there were just a tiny bit more bite to this dragon fable. There’s a sort of uneven vibe to the danger, especially when the characters are training to fight dragons, that often left me confused: were the children actually risking their lives in practice, or did their teacher always have it under control? It’s perplexing, because I feel like there was both too much danger and not enough danger in the encounters with these fire-breathing creatures.

Where the film shines is in the gorgeous cinematography, which is often surprisingly artistic and witty. There’s a wonderful aerial battle in the final act that observers on the ground see as a lightning storm in the clouds, complete with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shadows of warring dragons. Water, too, looks the best I’ve ever seen it look in a computer animated film. The flying scenes are effective, although I wanted more of them. Finally, I found myself remarking more than once at what a great, dynamic job the filmmakers did with Hiccup’s hair, which is reshaped in nicely authentic ways by his many flights.

My favorite visual, however, was Toothless, whose design was unique and successfully vacillated between intimidating and adorable. The dragon design in How to Train Your Dragon outdoes the dragon design in other recent attempts, such as Alice in Wonderland, or even Eragon, a film in which the dragons also unfortunately talked. There’s no talking here, which is welcome. Without the crutch of blathering conversation, the filmmakers adopt more purely cinematic storytelling techniques, which always draws me in. This film is not as good as Wall*E, but I like the dialogue-free beginning of that movie, and I like the dialogue-free scenes between Toothless and Hiccup here. Both films drew me into their stories with interesting scenes between two characters from different worlds. It’s a nice way to ground the film in some real heart before flying off into more effects-heavy wizardry.


How to Train Your Dragon, directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois. Written by William Davies, Peter Tolan, Sanders and DeBlois. Based on the book by Cressida Cowell. Running time: 98 minutes. Rated PG (for sequences of intense action, some scary images and brief mild language).

… But hold on, why did I go to see that movie this weekend?

Okay, so here’s a little sidenote that I feel compelled to add, so I hope you’ll spare me another paragraph or so.

Aspiring horror novelist though I may be, I’d like it noted that I went to see a fun kid’s adventure movie instead of the new remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street. I don’t approve of this remake mania, and I will not support it. How hard is it to come up with your own original mythology? I’m doing it. Why can’t these professionals do likewise? I dislike both the Saw and the Final Destination franchises, but at least they created their own gimmicks. So, please, can I get some more horror films that are 1.) not remakes, 2.) not vampire movies, and 3.) not zombie flicks.

Please? Anyone? Is it really that hard to come up with something that wants to eat people that you have to make go back to the freaking Wolfman? Until I’ve seen The Deerman, you aren’t trying hard enough!

The title translates to The Secret in Their Eyes, or so we’re told, because it’s actually a non-specific pronoun in Spanish. It translates just as well to ‘his eyes,’ ‘her eyes,’ or even ‘your eyes,’ if you like, and it’s a clever title, because the secret is passion itself, and the theme of the film is the secret passions of various people. One character at one point tells another that while you can change a lot of things about yourself, you’ll never be able to change your passion. It’s a good line, easily the best in the film, and it rings true.

Unfortunately, that’s more or less as far as my enjoyment of this film goes.

That this overrated Oscar-winner (Best Foreign Language Film, 2010) becomes a meditation on the different passions of a handful of people connected by the rape and murder of a young woman makes it a rather muddled affair. While thematically consistent, the secret love two characters have for each other seems a little beside the point in a film that’s really little more than a handsome police procedural. I found myself impatient with the pieces of the movie that didn’t seem to be very well connected to the main thrust of the plot, and I was impatient a lot. The movie felt long to me, and it’s because of all the tangential scenes used to beef up the movie’s self-important mission.

I also found myself wondering just how many mysteries end with reveals that incorporate copious redundant flashbacks to all the clues you may have missed if you don’t really like paying attention to what you’re watching. El Secreto de Sus Ojos ends with just such a sequence of repeated lines, and worse–some of the lines are repeated multiple times! I said multiple times! More than once! As in, multiple times!

Ay de mi. I do like to pay attention to what I watch, and so I found these scenes unnecessary and insulting.

If a story is properly constructed, I don’t think the audience will need such repetitive flashes. Work your exposition properly, writers, and stop it with the lazy recaps. I’m adding this to my rules for mystery films.

None of which is to mention that I saw the twist (if you can even call it that and respect yourself in the morning) coming a mile away. There is one malevolent detail that I loved about it that I didn’t see coming. I can’t spoil it for those that see this movie, but you’ll be able to guess it when you see it, I think. It’s quite mean, and it made the horror writer in me giggle.

There’s also a charged police interrogation scene in the middle of the film that plays like a dressed-up version of a scene you could see any day of the week on the dozens of primetime cop shows–apart from its graphic finale that would only make it suitable for HBO or Showtime. The writer/director of El Secreto is not someone I was familiar with, so, I confess, I looked him up on IMDb. I was shocked and a little horrified to find he has done extensive work on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and House: M.D. These are all shows I hate for their schlocky disingenuous nature (I am a devoted, passionate fan of The Wire, if that tells you anything at all), and while I feel like El Secreto isn’t that bad, it is similar in a lot of ways–it is just a touch classier and a smidge more thoughtful.

Chalk this one up to yet another overrated film from last year.


El Secreto de Sus Ojos, written and directed by Juan Jose Campanella. Based on the novel by Eduardo Sacheri. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 129 minutes. Rated R (for a rape scene, violent images, some graphic nudity and language).