Toothless Is Brilliant Again in 'How to Train Your Dragon 2'

Relationships are the foundation of this franchise's central theme: everyone can get along, even species that seem so opposed as dragons and humans.

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Director: Dean DeBlois
Cast: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler,Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Djimon Hounsou, Kit Harington, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig
Rated: PG
Studio: DreamWorks
Year: 2013
US date: 2014-06-13 (General release)
UK date: 2014-07-11 (General release)

"You know that doesn't wash out!" Again, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is slathered in dragon drool, his pet dragon Toothless playfully clambered up onto Hiccup's chest and pinning him to the ground, his tongue wild and pink and dripping with saliva.

In How To Train Your Dragon 2, Hiccup and Toothless reaffirm their brilliant friendship, a boy and his dog-like dragon, as devoted to one another as they might possibly be -- so devoted, in fact, that Hiccup is missing a foot, lost in the previous movie so that he now matches Toothless in missing a crucial appendage, replaced with a mechanical version. (For the dragon, you'll recall, it's a tail fin, replaced by Hiccup's ingenious mechanical fin.) This physical likeness makes visual their emotional symbiosis, and the film makes visible, repeatedly and rather delightfully, their mutual devotion, in moments like the sloppy licking, the adoring gazes into one another's eyes, the blissful soaring when Hiccup rides his flying dragon into a great gorgeous blue sky.

This relationship is the foundation of the franchise's hopeful central theme, which is to say that everyone can get along, even species that seem so opposed as dragons and humans. In this second film, that theme is refined, sort of, in the sense that the potential oppositions are more complicated. Five years after the first film, all Vikings on the Isle of Berk are happily affiliated with dragons (including Hiccup's best human friend-romantic interest Astrid [America Ferrera], with her dragon Stormfly).

But now they face humans from somewhere else, who want to steal and exploit the dragons for use in an army, led by the scar-faced villain Drago (Djimon Hounsou, the film's only black man set against a white world). You might guess that Drago and his company have no chance to bring a loyal dragon like Toothless to their dark side, but the film deploys a trick, whereby Drago has access to a force that can more or less hypnotize all dragons into obedience to him.

This somewhat cumbersome device -- embodied by yet another dragon, an "alpha" of considerable heft and odiousness -- stands in for a few ideas here, beginning with an opposition between submission and free will, fear and glee, and tyranny and democracy (such as it is in a Viking community ruled by a loud, imposing chief, here Hiccup's father Stoick the Vast [Gerard Butler]). As this device poses a threat to the apparently unbreakable bond between Hiccup and Toothless, it also raises questions about how dragons work, magically or otherwise.

At least part of the brilliance of the first film and the start of this one is its investment in the simultaneously familiar and strange representation of dragons as (extra-intelligently) dog-like: again and again, you see Toothless and other dragons playing with sticks and each other in the backgrounds of shots, pets whose people are concerned with serious business but whose cavorting distracts the rest of us, and so provides a frankly more compelling plot, about pets who cavort.

The cavorting defines the dragons, who can, of course, redirect their attention to flying and fighting whenever they need or whenever instinct or devotion to a person calls them. This capacity makes them different from people, and also objects of people's amusement and wonder and affection. The first film initiated a plot about a dragon-whispering sort of special person, Hiccup, able also to share his skills with other Vikings in Berk. As Hiccup sees it, he can work this same reconciliation magic with Drago's dragons and also his troops, including the entertainingly lunkheaded Eret, Son of Eret (Kit Harington). If only he can reason with them, Hiccup asserts, he can thwart the war Drago has planned.

Stoick believes otherwise, no surprise (the differences between father and son drive the plot of the first film). The sequel provides an explanation for this difference, an answer that's potentially refreshing: the boy is like his mother. This discovery is occasioned by Hiccup's reunion with his mother, conspicuously absent (and thought dead) in the first film. Indeed, Valka (Cate Blanchett) is about as unlike Stoick as a life partner could be, devoted to world peace and quite fond of dragons. She's also a useful model for Hiccup, setting up an unusual mother-son dynamic that occasionally recalls the glorious mother-daughter bond in Brave, by turns difficult, enchanting, and illuminating.

Here, as Hiccup and Valka see themselves in each other, their primary point of connection is how they also see themselves in their dragons, Toothless and Cloudjumper. Surrounded by dragons on Dragon Island, Valka is at once completely other and utterly the same, rejecting Viking (human) dogma and determined to protect her new family from the terrors of persecution and abuse.

Dragon Island looks a bit like Cesar Milan's Dog Psychology Center, where dragons learn to live with one another, while helpfully modeling best behaviors for people fortunate enough to visit. And indeed, once the cumbersome device is out of the way, How to Train Your Dragon 2's dragons get back to what they do best, cavorting.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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