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Films I Neglected To Review: The Legend Continues
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "How to Train Your Dragon 2," "Lullaby," "The Signal" and "Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon."

Set five years after the events of the surprise 2010 smash hit, "How to Train Your Dragon 2" opens in the mythical land of Berk, where Vikings and dragons are now friends instead on enemies and where future leader Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is less interested in impressing his father (Gerard Butler) in the incessant dragon races than in exploring the neighboring lands with his beloved dragon Toothless. On one of his sojourns, he learns of the existence of Drago (Djimon Hounsou), a fearsome hunter who is gathering all the dragons in the land to transform them into an unstoppable army. Against his father's wishes, Hiccup and Toothless set off to find Drago in a naive attempt to reason with him and along the way discover a magical realm populated with hundreds of dragons, including the all-powerful ice-breathing Bewilderbeast , that are tended to by a mysterious Dragon Rider that turns out to be--Spoiler Alert! if you have somehow managed to avoid the incessant commercials and trailers over the last few months--Hiccup's long-lost and presumed dead mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett). From that point on, there are tearful reconciliations, shocking developments involving the fates of major characters and yes, more dragons than you could possibly shake a stick at, if that is your idea of a good time.

While I can't say that the details of the original "How to Train Your Dragon" fall trippingly off of my tongue, I do recall that it was somewhat better than the formulaic fantasy that I was expecting, thanks to its strong visual style, mature storytelling and the blessed lack of talking dragons--seriously, don't ever get me started on the loathsome nature of talking dragons because I will be venting for hours on end. And yet, while all the key personnel from the first film are back, including director Dean DeBlois and supporting voices America Ferrara, Jonah Hill, Craig Ferguson and Kristin Wiig, I just could not get into this one for some reason. Maybe it is because this one inevitably lacks the welcome surprise provided by the original. Maybe it has something to do with preferring the straightforward simplicity of the first film's narrative to the more ambitious but occasionally klunky storyline this time around. Maybe it is because I saw the first one in the miracle of 2-D and was better able to appreciate its visual stylings than watching the new one under the brightness-reducing circumstances of 3-D projection. Of course, kids will most likely adore it (though some of it may be a little too frenetic for those on the younger side of the scale) but while older viewers will most likely find it passable--at this point, any kid movie that isn't "Frozen" has to be looking pretty good to parents--it almost certainly will not appeal to them in the same way that the original apparently did.

The new melodrama "Lullaby" begins as a musician (Garrett Hedlund) is traveling home to see his estranged father (Richard Jenkins), who is dying of terminal cancer, only to discover that not only has the old man pretty much given away all of his money--leaving him, his mother (Anne Archer) and sister (Jessica Brown Findlay) with virtually no inheritance--but is demanding that he be allowed to die with some measure of dignity rather than ride out what is expected to be no more than six months in increasing agony. While his lawyer sister sues to prevent her father from carrying out his wishes, the debate rages on about whether Dad's decision is right or wrong while his son struggles to come to terms with his own past in a way that will allow him to get on with his own life.

Because it deals in part with the subject of terminal cancer, there is the temptation to compare the otherwise unrelated "Lullaby" with the current hit "The Fault in Our Stars" but while "Lullaby" is slightly better than that cynically constructed monstrosity--largely because the lack of field trips to the attic of the Anne Frank house for inspirational make-out sessions, this effort from debuting writer-director Andrew Levitas is still pretty dreadful all on its own. The script is a plodding collection of unbelievable grand symbolic gestures, achingly pretentious dialogue, cardboard characters and unconvincing story developments (Amy Adams turns up in unnecessary flashbacks as Hedlund's ex and Jessica Barden plays an ailing teen whom he agrees to escort to a faux prom) and Levitas throws it all on the screen with little grace and no sense of pace. There are a number of strong actors on hand here (besides those mentioned, Terrence Howard and Jennifer Hudson turn up as helpful medical personnel/repositories of homespun wisdom) but since they have been given so little of substance to do here, one wonders exactly how Levitas managed to lure them into this project in the first place. Like so many indie films these days, "Lullaby" is opening simultaneously in theaters and on VOD but regardless of the delivery format, there is no particular reason to waste any time watching it.

The opening 20 minutes or so of the new sci-fi thriller "The Signal," in which a trio of college friends (Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke and Beau Knapp) on a road trip that finds them trying to track down a master computer hacker, are intriguing enough to make one think that this could be the unsung genre gem that comes out of nowhere to show the big boys how things are done. Alas, as is often the case in real life, the minute that the characters end up in a mysterious basement with Laurence Fishburne, the whole thing quickly spirals out of control into an increasingly ridiculous collection of elements that director/co-writer William Eubank has blatantly stolen for other, better sources and stitched together into an incoherent semi-whole. What really makes it unwatchable, however, is that this is one of those films that is nowhere near as clever or original as it clearly thinks that it is--my guess is that most audiences will figure out its allegedly mind-blowing ending long before it wheezes its way past the finish line and will instead spend their time cataloguing the numerous plot holes and other inexplicable moments. Unless you are in the mood for unintentional laughs--and it indeed contains a virtual bushel of bad laughs--your best move is to let "The Signal" fade into the distance as it so richly deserves to do.

"Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon" is a documentary of a behind-the-scene power player in the entertainment world whose career is so unlikely and covers so many bases that I have the feeling that some viewers may just assume that it is a fake documentary in the poker-faced vein of "This is Spinal Tap." It tells the story of Shep Gordon, an ordinary guy who came out to L.A. in the late Sixties fresh out of college and found himself selling drugs to the people hanging out at the seedy hotel where he was staying--people like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Before long, he decided to get into talent management and after a few hiccups (such as working for Pink Floyd for just over a week), his roster of stars included top performers of the Seventies ranging from Alice Cooper to Anne Murray to Teddy Pendergrass. In the Eighties, he shifted into film production and helped make such films as "Koyannasqatsi," "Stop Making Sense" and "Trouble in Mind." Later on, he became fascinated with the world of cooking and helped introduce the notion of the celebrity chef through his client Emeril Lagasse.

The film marks the directorial debut of Mike Myers--who first encountered Gordon during a contentious negotiation over the use of an Alice Cooper song in the "Wayne's World" movie--and while Myers does not exactly reinvent the documentary wheel here, the end result is such an entertaining mix of archival clips and talking head interviews with Gordon's extended list of friends and colleagues that only a churl would complain about the lack of originality. Of course, the most compelling of the interview subjects on display is Gordon himself, who recounts the ups and downs of his career with a combination of wry humor and humility that is surprisingly ingratiating. Honestly, I kind of wish that Myers had delved a little further into Gordon's excursions into the film world and while it may be true that there is no one out there with a bad word to say about his subject, it might have helped if Myers had been able to find a couple that would allow a look at the tougher side that Gordon presumably needed to survive in the business for so long. Nevertheless, "Supermensch" is a wildly entertaining film that is pretty much a must-see for anyone with an interest in late 20th-century popular culture and worth a look for everyone else.

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originally posted: 06/13/14 12:37:33
last updated: 06/13/14 13:14:05
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