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How to Train Your Dragon 2: This Sequel (Mostly) Works

If you ever have days when you prefer animals to human beings, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is your kind of movie. In some ways, the second entry in this animated franchise is inferior to the first, released in 2010: The plot is needlessly busy, and much of the action is more manic and indistinct. But How to Train Your Dragon 2 cuts deeper than the first picture — it will be particularly resonant for anyone who has ever worked with or adopted rescue animals — and there are a few sequences of cartoon grandeur. Best of all, Dragon 2 marks the return of one of the most beautifully designed characters in modern animation, perhaps in all of animation, period: Toothless the dragon is back with a silent roar.

Presumably, if you’ve trained your dragon right the first time, it shouldn’t have to be an ongoing thing. But all dragons, it turns out, can learn new tricks. At the end of the first film, young Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his good-guy dragon steed, Toothless, vanquished the mighty bad-guy dragon that was threatening the ancient Viking village of Berk. Hiccup lost a leg in the process, but as we see at the beginning of Dragon 2, he’s more fearless than ever. And Toothless himself has a prosthetic tail fin, the original having been torn off when he was but a pup.

Dragons are no longer a threat to Berk; now that humans understand them better, they’ve become trusty companions. Even so, danger looms for humans and dragons alike in the form of Drago (Djimon Hounsou), a dreadlock-wearing villain who seeks world domination by luring every dragon into his control. (The movie strikes an unnecessarily sour note by pitting a villain of color against an otherwise all-white Viking population. What’s the deal?) Amid this threat, another new character emerges, the mysterious Dragon Rider, a masked marauder who captures Hiccup and Toothless and whisks them off to Dragon Island, which is home to a magisterial ice cave and hundreds of wild dragons of all colors, sizes, and shapes. There are polka-dotted magenta ones winging through the air, and some whose skin resembles chartreuse velvet with red stripes. The babies — fat, willful little things with awkward, bumblebee moves — are particularly adorable.

Dragon 2 brings back most of the characters from the first go-round, including Hiccup’s father, Viking chief Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), Stoick’s right-hand galoot, Gobber (Craig Ferguson), and Astrid, Hiccup’s feisty girlfriend (America Ferrera). You’ll hear Cate Blanchett’s voice in there, too, though revealing which character she plays would give away too many surprises. Director Dean DeBlois keeps the story moving efficiently enough, and despite the fact that the film has too many structural arms and legs wiggle-wagging in all the wrong places, there are some finely tuned dramatic moments, including a tragic twist that might be too intense for really little kids. (Heck, it was almost too intense for me.) As in the first movie, the numerous flying scenes, in which cartoon humans perch on the backs of their airborne companions, are perfectly enjoyable, especially in 3D. And the Dragon Island sequences, with their crazy-quilt assortment of creatures, many of them injured misfits, also give us lots to look at.

But back to Toothless: Hello, old friend! Hiccup is appealing enough as youthful heroes go, but he’s really just another saucer-eyed cartoon character with a bulbous nose. It’s Toothless who matter. Both comely and graceful in the air, he’s even better on the ground, a sleek creature with a flat, heart-shaped panther’s face and dazzling green eyes the size and shape of footballs. His scaly black skin is as discreetly lustrous as a ’60s Italian sofa. His features show elation, confusion, and anxiety in a way that’s partly human but perhaps more animal: When Hiccup admonishes him for some minor infraction, his ears flatten, like those of a house cat with hurt feelings. As the supposedly more important human characters march around talking about dumb human stuff, Toothless is often seen gamboling in the background, tugging on a stick with a dragon playmate or getting his tongue stuck on the icicle he’s decided to lick. Toothless doesn’t talk, none of the dragons do, which is one of the greatest blessings this franchise could bestow on us — no jibber-jabbering, no stuttering, no phony accents. Toothless speaks with his eyes, wide-open and playful or narrowed in watchfulness, and with his tail, a grand swish of a thing. He’s the exuberant cartoon embodiment of a noble idea: Beastliness is next to godliness.

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Seth Rogen’s This Is the End: The Apocalypse With Dick Jokes

From the peak of Anchorman to the nadir of Burt Wonderstone, the formula for studio comedies of the last 20 years has been simple: Dude acts like a dick for an hour, turns blandly sweet toward the end, and then everyone on the DVD commentary can claim to have made a movie about redemption. Since we like to forgive, and we like to like the stars who make us laugh, this has proven profitable—audiences can relish in the bad behavior and then take comfort in the restoration of something like a crackpot decency. But it’s hampered the range of movie comedy. Even as the language has grown more flamboyantly obscene, and exposed junk has become the new red-heart boxer shorts, the comic form itself has rarely been less anarchic. What bite could The Campaign have when we know that in the end Will Ferrel’s baby-punching, wife-poaching candidate will prove as apple-pie pure as a Capra Boy Scout?

Perhaps wrath-of-God hang-out flick This Is the End can kill redemption cold. A deeply nondenominational Left Behind rip, the film—written and directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the star’s longtime writing partner—makes absurdly literal the prick-becomes-a-man plotting that has held sway since Billy Madison. Here, it’s judgment day, and our schlubby everydudes (playing themselves, who aren’t everydudes at all) are holed up for the apocalypse in James Franco’s compound. After much violent misadventure, and even more talk of where it’s appropriate to ejaculate, the lugs—including Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Franco—realize the obvious: Good people have already been raptured, and these guys haven’t. (“I’m an actor,” one moans in disbelief. “I bring people joy!”) If they want a happy ending, and not to be devoured by horizon-straddling hellbeasts with schoolbus-sized phalluses, they’ll have to do the thing the heroes in lazy movie comedies always do: stop being dicks and give the universe a reason to love them. To Rogen and Goldberg’s credit, this does seem parodic.

Whether they win that love I’ll leave to you. I laughed a lot, but this is one of those films where a list of its ingredients should tell you whether you’ll find it delectable or poisonous. For all its Book of Revelation trappings, at heart it’s a loose, hard-R comedy full of funny dudes running amok in a mansion, the jokes often just the dudes’ scabrous one-upping of each other on MPAA-baiting topics that will seem outrageous to anyone who’s never heard comedians or 12-year-olds talk among themselves. Discussed here, with a touch too much ain’t-we-daring? self-congratulations: sharting, the titty-fucking of overweight men, the unstoppable epic-ness of Danny McBride’s masturbation.

This is all performed with brio, by likable performers with expert timing, ace chemistry, and a directing team eager to let them tear loose. But it can wear you down. By the time McBride turns up with a hooded man-slave and hollers “I’ll butt-fuck him right here!” all I could think of was the little old lady that comedian Rick Jenkins describes taking down a shock comic at Boston’s Comedy Studio: “You should try for more,” she heckled.

Still, at its best, which is often, the movie does try for more. A pre-cataclysm party at Franco’s is more fun than the bashes at Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby’s, chockablock with stars acting out: Michael Cera goes riotously coke-mad; Craig Robinson serenades Rihanna’s panties; and Baruchel treats us to a winning shy-dude turn reminiscent of his itchy, appealing work years back on Judd Apatow’s TV college comedy Undeclared. When all the cock-talk lets up, Rogen and Goldberg parade before us memorable surprises. There are ridiculous cameos (Emma Watson spits “fuck” like the word still means something), shock-effect horror kills (often of those cameo-ing actors), and stoned riffs on The Exorcist and Pineapple Express, each part parody and part Be Kind, Rewind-style sweding.

Especially pleasurable are the light, hilarious gags on the cluelessness of Hollywood actors, especially from Jonah Hill, who has rarely been this disarming. Praying, he mentions to God that that, yes, he was in Moneyball; his idea of a compliment, delivered with full sincerity after Jay Baruchel mentions some bit of pop-culutral detritus, is to marvel “sick reference.”

The survival situations and dopey metaphysics are smartly worked out, and they, too, build to satisfying laughs, especially the gentler stuff, like when the boys all tuck in next to each other. (For a movie as penis-obsessed as this one is, there’s refreshingly little gay-panic talk; only McBride indulges, and he’s meant to be irredeemable.) There’s even some affecting character work. Rogen and Baruchel’s friendship gets tested, which naturally figures into that third-act turn toward godliness; surprisingly, that friendship comes to seem like something the rest of us should value, too, much like the one in Superbad, which Rogen and Goldberg also wrote.

Unlike too many comedies, This Is the End gets stronger as it goes, especially when the cosmic finish tasks its cast with bigger things than talking about jacking off. In fact, as Rogen and company strive for that grandest of all redemptions, the movie seems both a culmination of and an elegy for the comedies that have made them rich: Seriously, after going this far, both in raunchy bad-boyism and mock-apologetic love-us shamelessness, they’ve effectively blown up their own formula. That’s not a bad thing. This is the end; now it’s time to try for more.

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Do Not Ask to Borrow Sugar: Danger Around Every Corner in Good Neighbors

Set in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighborhood of Montreal during Quebec’s 1995 secession referendum, Good Neighbors uses a dark historic moment as the backdrop for a much darker twist on traditional noir. Gothy waitress Louise (Emily Hampshire) and wheelchair-bound widower Spencer (Scott Speedman) are part of the young, English-speaking influx that has changed the face of the “NDG’s” hardcore Francophone population. Added to their number at the beginning of writer-director Jacob Tierney’s follow-up to The Trotsky is Victor (Jay Baruchel), a sweet, obsequious grade-school teacher who would seem to attach to the nearest available female—in this case the supremely indifferent woman next door. Louise’s chief preoccupations, meanwhile, are her two cats, the neighbor who curses out her cats in impenetrable Quebecois, and the serial killer-rapist at large in the area. A murder close to home freaks Louise out, but it’s a pointed cat poisoning that sends her, and Good Neighbors, over the edge. Tierney offers what preparations he can for the offbeat darkness to come—faint organ chords and a focus on his character’s idiosyncrasies build a sense of dread—but at least one part of the perfect, triple-crossing crime that plays out is so black you may want to wear shades.

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How to Train Your Dragon, an Adequate but Unremarkable Animated Tale

The 3-D wasn’t working at the screening I attended, but, honestly, it would take several more dimensions to craft something special out of this adequate but unremarkable animated tale of a skinny Viking nerd-boy (voiced by Jay Baruchel) named Hiccup who befriends fire-breathing dragons, hoping to impress his father (Gerard Butler), a beefy Norseman with a Glasgow accent and triceps like tree trunks. Based on a children’s novel by Cressida Cowell and directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, How to Train Your Dragon struggles to rise to the challenge of hitching a red-blooded fantasy action-adventure to a huggy-kissy message that covers all antiwar and eco bases. Father and son, though inevitably scheduled for reciprocal self-actualization (brain, say hello to brawn, and vice versa), spend much of the movie at loggerheads because junior would rather fly around on, instead of slay, his newfound scaly friend, whose cute, big poonim bears an incongruous resemblance to the critter from Lilo & Stitch. Intentionally or not, all of the dragons are built more for stand-up comedy than for terror, which means that aside from two fine battle scenes that bookend the movie, we have to make do in the drama department with the wan love that blossoms between Hiccup and a feisty young Vikingette voiced by America Ferrera. Better is some funny business when fledgling killers-in-training meet baby dragons-in-training, supervised by the deliciously hectoring voice of Craig Ferguson.

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T.J. Miller Is Main Selling Point of She’s Out of My League

This isn’t entirely without its selling points, chief among them T.J. Miller, who’s a cross between Seth Rogen and Jason Segal—paging Judd Apatow, now. Miller plays Stainer, a moptopped giant and best bud to Kirk (Jay Baruchel, an Apatow player from way back), a TSA lackey and a “hard five” who catches the eye of Molly (Alice Eve), a lawyer-turned-party-planner who’s a “hard 10” and out of Kirk’s league. Molly, burned by her hunky flyboy ex, wants safe and sweet. Stainer, burned by his own former flame, is aghast at the coupling; short on self-esteem himself, he insists it’ll never work, and it doesn’t for long stretches precisely because Kirk buys Stainer’s sincere rap—he doesn’t want his boy hurt. Stainer’s the real goofy, damaged soul of this slight comedy, directed by Jim Field Smith, who tries with modest success to blend the sticky-sweet with the plain ol’ sticky (the first time Molly grinds on Kirk, he’s a bit early on the draw—and, look, here comes the dog to lick his pants). Baruchel’s bit is the same one he’s been perfecting since he enrolled in Undeclared—puppy-dog pouty and cute and clever and good God, he’s this close to turning into Michael Cera. Miller’s the find. He’s out of this movie’s league.

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Just Buried’s Snickering Tone Provides a Few Sour Laughs

More twee than any movie about serial murder has a right to be, writer-director Chaz Thorne’s grisly farce ladles a quirky-cute score over its dirty deeds in place of a point of view. Jay Baruchel—who all but vanished into the jungle foliage as Tropic Thunder‘s top bananas munched the scenery—makes a bit more of an impression here as a nosebleed-prone mope who inherits his dad’s failing small-town funeral home along with its pretty formaldehyde jockey (Rose Byrne). After an auto mishap delivers their first customer in years, the two start to see their enemies—a local snoop, a rival mortician—as just the stimulus package their business needs. Attempting an arch black-comic amusement closer in spirit to Little Shop of Horrors or Kind Hearts and Coronets than Fargo, the movie serves up gory killings and kinky peripheral shenanigans without any satirical thrust, blunting its death-equals-profit subtext with a snickering tone better suited to an afternoon of Clue. But the cast’s woozy timing and the oddball characters—especially Graham Greene as a deadpan handyman who watches the proceedings with stifled satisfaction—provide some sour laughs before the movie’s many caskets fill.

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‘I’m Reed Fish’

Short of pulling a Zach Braff, there’s one sure way to get known as a screenwriter: Put your actual name in the title of the script. Add a bunch of indie bands, find a Braff look-alike (Jay Baruchel) to play the lead, top it off with some obscure animal hybrid—a zorse instead of a liger—and you’ve got writer Reed Fish’s can’t-fail debut. The semi- fictional character Fish, with both parents dead in a car accident, looks set to follow in his father’s footsteps: take over the small-town radio show—”the voice of Mud Meadows”—that his dad hosted for years, marry the local hottie (Alexis Bledel), and settle in to a life of babymaking, bowling, and Dance Dance Revolution. But wait! Cue the old high school flame (Schuyler Fisk), back from college and casting her indie-folk spell to “hook the Fish.” And just so you know this Fish has got chops, there’s a flashy Brechtian film-within-a-film conceit, showing Fish (still played by Baruchel) making his film and even, for a moment, substituting his real girlfriends (or are they?!?) for their on-screen doubles. Because irony fixes everything.