How to train your expectations for the concluding chapter in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise: step one, lower them. I was dispirited to discover what a disappointing final chapter The Hidden World comes across, especially considering the previous movies, including the 2014 sequel, are good to great. At its core it’s always been a tale of prejudice and family, dressing up a simple boy-and-his-dog story with fantasy elements. It also presents a world with danger and cost; even the fist film ended with the main character, Hiccup, losing a freaking foot. He loses his father in the second film. It’s a series that has grown naturally with heart, imagination, and a real sense of stakes. This is why I’m sad to report that the third film feels like a different creative team made it. The villain is a repeat of the second film, a dragon hunter with little to be memorable over. The plot is very redundant, stuck in an endless loop of capture, escape, capture, escape, etc. The addition of the new lady dragon is a perfunctory means to drive a wedge between Hiccup and toothless, his dragon. The lady dragon has no personality and needs rescuing too often. Her inclusion relates to a rather regressive emphasis on the need for coupling and marriage. The titular Hidden World amounts to a grand total of five minutes of screen time. The action starts off well involving the various colorful side characters but misses out on that sense of danger that defined the other movies. It feels goofy and safe and listless. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is a sizeable disappointment and coasts on the emotional investment of the first two movies. You’ll feel something by the end, sure, but it’s because of the hard work of others and not this movie.
Nate’s Grade: C
David Ayer has written seven movies and directed three, and almost all of them have followed the Los Angeles police department. The man wrote a character that got Denzel Washington a Best Actor Oscar, and from there it’s been all cops all the time, some dirty, some noble, but all residing in the LAPD. I suppose Ayer knows what he does best and is sticking to his wheelhouse. End of Watch is Ayer’s newest tale featuring one of the protagonists recording his activities on the force to put together for a documentary. And with that flimsy excuse, we have ourselves the first found footage cop drama.
Officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) are two young police officers patrolling the mean streets of Los Angeles. Rather than dark and brooding, these guys are often quick with a joke and get along peachy. That doesn’t mean they don’t take their jobs seriously, and we watch them take down suspects, save children from burning buildings, and discover horrible mass slayings by Mexican cartels. During their off duty time, Taylor is dating a spunky woman (Anna Kendrick) whereas Mike has a wife (Natalie Martinez) and children of his own. The guys are honorable cops and run afoul of the local gang leader Big Evil (Maurice Compte), a man with connections to those dangerous cartels.
The best reason to watch End of Watch is the ebullient yet natural chemistry between Pena (World Trade Center) and Gyllenhaal (Source Code). These guys really come across like partners that have been through thick and thin. Their interaction is arguably the best part of the movie, watching two guys who defy cop movie stereotypes. First off, neither is naïve or world-weary; they’re idealistic but grounded. Both men get to be complex individuals, each funny, each warm, each flinty when called upon, each dealing with the heavy toll of protecting and serving, each an honorable police officer trying his best. These guys feel like real-life partners and not just Movie Partners, and that is a great testament to Ayer’s script and the performances by Pena and Gyllenhaal. I also appreciated that the guys are presented as co-leads; I would have assumed Gyllenhaal was going to anchor the movie. These guys really love one another and you understand their camaraderie. The actors went on ride alongs for a solid five months before shooting, and that must have been an invaluable tool for an actor because these guys are so natural with one another. They can bicker but it’s mostly playful, and the dialogue feels authentic and crisp. The performances are measured and meaty and we emotionally invest in these characters and fear for their welfare. These guys are great together and so you worry that we may not see them both live by the end credits.
These guys are such pals, you’ll start to ask yourself, “Hey, shouldn’t there be like some conflict some time?” For almost tow full acts, we are immersed in police procedure details, routines, mundane realities, with the occasional burst of action. Except it takes until the very end of Act Two before there’s a real conflict, one that lasts beyond an individual sequence. These guys are so chummy, so lovingly buddy-buddy, so there’s no tangible conflict between the two of them. The LAPD seems mostly supportive despite some paranoid warnings that do not bear fruit. Even the local thug, Big Evil, doesn’t prove to be an active threat until the Mexican cartel pays him to kill our lead cops (the cartel also wants an expense report of the hit). But this threat doesn’t emerge until well into the film, so much so that the plot feels rather aimless, like we’re on one eternal ride along with our boys in blue. It’s a good thing I enjoy their company.
Here’s why I speculate why Ayer chose to tell his story through the guise of found footage. I don’t out rightly see it as a cash grab, Ayer’s attempt to repackage something old with something new (that is quickly becoming something old). Ayer is not particularly dogmatic about the found footage approach; often we’ll get first-person angles, gun POV angles, or just general angles that could not have been captured through the found footage mechanics. I think Ayer chose this route because he felt it afforded him greater latitude to craft a realistic depiction of the daily grind of the embattled LAPD officer. This approach allows Ayer more freedom to flout cop movie clichés we’ve become well accustomed to. There are no wildly mismatched partners, no long gun heroics, and no long-suffering personal relationships. Though I find it extremely unbelievable that the LAPD would be so casual and blasé about an officer recording his activities and internal workings. That seems like an open invitation for a lawsuit or a subpoena especially if a criminal attorney gets wind. To a degree, the found footage edict works and the authenticity of End of Watch is never in question, but it also seems like Ayer’s convenient go-to excuse when you’re looking for that missing conflict. It is a fictional movie after all.
The visceral nature of the camerawork, and the extra emotional attachment we feel for the leads, makes for some pretty nail-biting suspense, though only after the cartel issues their hit. The movie teases you with a gutsy ending, one that exemplifies the men’s sense of brotherhood in arms and the fatalistic prospect of protecting the City of Angels. It felt fitting and poignant. I was surprised that Ayer was taking an audience in this direction… and then he didn’t. The film chickens out and gives us a miraculous plot turn that also reinforces the Hollywood pecking order of racial significance. It’s a misstep and one that costs End of Watch from being more emotionally resonant.
As a side note, I’m not a prude when it comes to the use of salty language. Films that reflect certain realities should not curtail the way people genuinely speak. Some people just have filthy mouths. However, the profanity level in End of Watch is off the chart, notably concerning the character of Big Evil. I am dead certain that every second or third word out of this guy’s mouth is some variation of the f-word. If you catalogued all of his dialogue, I bet over 75% of total words would be profanity. It starts to get ridiculous and even funny when you hear nothing but the same three words during an angry outburst. And this is no David Mamet or Kevin Smith poetic composition of vulgarity and the profane; this is just lazy dialogue, like Ayer told his actor that, when in doubt, let loose a litany of f-bombs. Perhaps Big Evil would be less evil if people just helped him with his limited vocabulary.
End of Watch is an involving police procedural with some gripping moments of tension thanks to the stellar performances from its pair of police officers, Pena and Gyllenhaal. Ayer’s found footage motif gets some visceral excitement out of an old story, but what really sucks us in are the emotional bonds we’ve forged with these two men over the course of an hour. That makes the danger feel very dire. The movie feels like a bromance at times. I wish Ayer hadn’t pulled back from his more dour ending but it’s not enough to spoil what is an above average genre film with a spiffy new visual polish. I don’t know how many films Ayer can keep cranking out about the LAPD but as long as he pays due attention to character, and gives us the occasional break from the ubiquitous antihero with a badge, then at least he’ll keep making compelling genre cinema.
Nate’s Grade: B
The ladies that inhabit The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 are not the same group of gals that charmed the pants off of me in the 2005 original film. This time the foursome is feeling some strain because they’ve all graduated and moved onto insanely ludicrous positions. Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) is making movies at NYU; Lena (Alexis Bledel) is studying art at the Rhode Island School of Design; Bridget (Blake Lively) is assisting with an archeological dig in Turkey; and Carmen (America Ferrera) is at the Brown theater department where she gets the lead in a summer production. Let’s face it, these are not the down-to-earth girls that were presented before. Was it too much to ask that one of the girls have a modestly plausible scenario? The drama is again split into two camps, the petty and comedic (Lena must choose between boyfriends, Carmen has to practice her lines) and the melodramatic (Bridget still has to deal with her mom’s suicide, Tibby has a pregnancy scare). The movie doesn’t work this go-round because every beat of the plot is wholly predictable (of course the guy Lena flirts with in art class will end up being the nude model), and much of the conflict is just inane. The characters act in stupid and contrived ways because the plot demands it. Sure the condom broke but can’t Tibby get the morning after pill at least? Sisterhood 2 also packs a baby birth, reunion between granddaughter and the grandmother she never knew existed, and a climactic trip to Greece for some serious girl power. It’s drama overload and lacks the notable sincerity of the first film.
Nate’s Grade: C
I had no real intention of ever seeing The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. It looked to be a competent movie, horrifically clunky title aside, but I really didn’t have any interest in seeing another movie where four young girls become four young women. Then my girlfriend says she wants to see it. I think we all know what happens next. Even though I was the only male in my theater (I kind of expected this), I found Sisterhood to be a sweet and heartfelt film I was glad I experienced. It had far more emotional truth to it than I ever would have expected.
Four very close friends are about to depart for the summer. Bridget (Blake Lively) is the confidant sports star and going off to soccer camp in Mexico. Lana (Alexis Bledel) is the demure artist and is going to visit her grandparents in Greece. Carmen (America Ferrera), a bigger girl with big ambitions, is traveling to South Carolina to spend time with her long-absent father (Bradley Whitford). It seems the only one staying put is Tibby (Amber Tamblyn), an angsty nonconformist stuck stocking shelves at a Wal-Mart-esque store and working on her documentary, which she has deemed a “suckumentary.”
Before they set off on their adventures the girls discover a magical pair of pants. It seems that this one pair of jeans fits each to a T, even the curvier Carmen. The girls form a sisterhood around these magically one-size-fits-all pants. They promise to send them back and forth to each other all summer and write down any luck the jeans have imbued them with.
In Mexico, Bridget sets her sights on a hunky soccer coach (Mike Vogel). She’s brimming with confidence and flirts like a champ. Overseas in Greece, Lana meets Kostas (Michael Rady), a hunky fisherman attending university in Greece. Sparks fly but Lana’s grandmother forbids her to see Kostas. Carmen is shocked to discover that her father is planning on getting remarried to Wasp-y Lydia (Nancy Travis). It seems dear old dad has not told her everything. And Tibby is befriended by a dogged and precocious 12-year-old, Bailey (Jenna Boyd), who wants to be her assistant on the “suckumentary.”
The best part of Sisterhood is the excellence of the lead actresses. All four give well-rounded, warm, enlightened, and exquisitely affecting performances. They each get a good weepy scene and each actress nails it. Bledel has mastered the nervous stammer. She’s adorable as we witness her wallflower character coming out of her shell. Tamblyn mopes and sneers but grows the most thanks to the intervention of Bailey (Boyd is a scene-stealer if ever there were one). Ferrera was a terrific find in Real Women Have Curves, yet another intelligent and charming teen movie. In Sisterhood she gets to display tremendous anger and heartache and she sells every second of it. She is going to be a lovely actress to watch in the future. Lively is a newcomer to film even though she looks like Kate Hudson’s lankier cousin. She’s a girl that knows what she wants but doesn’t necessarily know why she wants it.
One of the smartest things director Ken Kwapis does is to keep the different story threads together. I first thought that Sisterhood would become a vignette movie, meaning that we’d get like a half hour of each girl’s adventure and then we’d travel to the next. It would have worked. But by keeping the girls’ stories intertwined we’re reminded of their bond and we can connect with them all. Kwapis even fits in some nifty scene transitions in his mostly unobtrusive direction. He lets the film’s focus rest on the characters and the performances, which are the strengths of Sisterhood.
The film seems to diverge into two storylines: the summer romances (Bridget and Lana) and the more dramatic (Carmen and Tibby). The summer romances are fun but the real meat of the movie is in Carmen and Tibby’s teary adventures. Carmen is devastated to feel that she’s been replaced and forgotten by her father. It all comes to head in a marvelous scene where Carmen cannot fit into a bridesmaid dress that fits Lydia’s rail thin daughter. She explodes in anger and pain against her father’s new family and runs off. Tibby, on the other hand, is your typical dour and rebellious teen (though in PG-land that means nose ring, colored hair, and thrift store attire). Her relationship with Bailey opens her up and the audience falls in love with both of them. The last half hour of Sisterhood hits an emotional crescendo with both storylines that will leave plenty reaching for the Kleenex.
Sisterhood sure doesn’t lack melodrama but the film is played so earnestly that you really won’t mind. In other teen girl films, the inclusion of dramatic elements like suicide, abandonment, and even leukemia might cause the casual rolling of eyes. The difference is that Sisterhood respects both its characters and its audience. This is a sincere, unpretentious movie that has a genuine sweetness that won?t give you a toothache. In fact, the most unbelievable moment of the movie is that a pair of pants would fit them all. Again, pretty good for a flick rife with melodrama.
Sisterhood is unabashedly sentimental but it walks a fine line without ever getting truly sappy like some Nicholas Sparks tale (A Walk to Remember). Usually movies of this ilk whitewash over reality and oversimplify complex issues and emotions. Not so with Sisterhood, which deals with tough issues in an admittedly soap operish way but also forces its characters to endure tough resolutions. I am clearly not the intended audience for The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (I do by all accounts have a Y chromosome) but I enjoyed it all the same.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is an old fashioned, good-hearted family film that won?t make you cringe. It’s respectful of its audience and doesn’t take easy shortcuts with its story. It’s also respectful of teenagers and their experiences. The acting by our four leading ladies is uniformly outstanding. In a summer fueled by male-driven high-octane action flicks, something a little low key and sweet is always appealing when done right. This won’t exactly be a movie that will appeal to everyone, but Sisterhood is an above average and earnest take at all-too-familiar territory. Despite the clunky title, this teen-targeted weepie is a good fit for any audience wanting to feel good.
Nate’s Grade: B