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Thor: The Dark World

If you ask me, out of all the Marvel movies leading up to and extending past last year’s summer megahit “The Avengers,” 2011’s “Thor” is by far the weakest. While certainly a summer spectacle worthy of the Marvel name, the main character was, quite simply, kind of dull. Thor simply didn’t have the personality of someone like Iron Man or the altruistic morals of Captain America or even the unpredictable nature of The Hulk. When compared to some of our greatest superheroes like Batman or Spiderman, Thor didn’t stack up. While those characters had demons to wrestle, events from their lives that dramatically changed them forever, Thor was a “just because” fighter. His motivation never really extended past the knowledge that it was simply what he was supposed to do. Such thinness is boring and it made “Thor” the only Marvel movie in this “Avengers” canon that wasn’t recommendable. Its sequel, “Thor: The Dark World” fares slightly better than its predecessor, but many of the same problems pervade it. It’s safe to say that if you enjoyed “Thor,” you’ll enjoy this, but Thor nevertheless remains the most uninteresting character in Marvel’s current movie bag.

Thousands of years ago, Bor, the father or Odin (Anthony Hopkins), defeated a monstrous race of beings known as the Dark Elves. Led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), their goal was to reverse the state of the nine realms to a period before creation using a relic known as the Aether. Despite their defeat, Malekith escaped, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike once again. The relic was then buried deep, in a place where hopefully nobody would ever find it. In present day, the alignment of the nine realms, known as the Convergence, is upon us. This alignment is causing vortexes to appear in the realms, one of which astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) stumbles upon. This leads her to the Aether, which manifests itself inside of her. Now Malekith is out to get it, but Thor, along with his untrustworthy brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), is going to attempt to stop him and save Jane.

One change in Thor’s character that is immediately recognizable in this film is that his childish wanting-to-fight attitude from the previous movie has been replaced with a more mature willing-to-fight attitude. Rather than taking pleasure in it, he sees battle as his duty, to protect the nine realms. A late scene speech confirms this. Furthermore, due to a couple of scenes that shall not spoiled, he’s facing some true emotional pain. Thus, there is more character development here than there ever was before. This is a welcome inclusion and helps make him more likable, more like someone we would want to cheer for rather than someone we’re supposed to. This by no means makes Thor someone worth watching, but it’s a step in the right direction and if the excellent foreboding final shot is any indication, there are some truly exciting things on the horizon for the muscular god.

But hope for future greatness is not relevant to this current product. There is still a lot of bombastic action, as is common in all superhero movies, but little reason to care, mainly due to a somewhat confusing central story, some grating comic relief side characters and a bland enemy. Kat Dennings, in particular, tries far too hard here, cracking jokes at every turn to the point of obnoxiousness, while the enemies are faceless drones with masks akin to the emotionless one Michael Myers wears in the “Halloween” films. Despite an interesting dual hero/villain role for Loki (that is, unfortunately, far too short to have much impact), there’s little to keep one’s interest here.

Where “Thor: The Dark World” really finds its inspiration is in its action heavy finale. It’s so exciting, you’ll find yourself caring about what’s happening, even if you don’t really care about why. Other superhero movies, including this year’s “Iron Man 3” and “Man of Steel,” went far too over-the-top with their endings. The action came so fast and heavy that it was difficult to not become numb to it. Due to the film’s set-up, the characters see themselves flying through multiple vortexes, constantly transporting from place to place and narrowly escaping disaster. This allows for a variety other similar films can’t afford and it keeps you on your toes because what happens next is likely to be different and unexpected.

“Thor: The Dark World” isn’t without other merits either. It has some mildly amusing humor and one absolutely terrific off-kilter cameo from another popular Marvel character, but the film as a whole is decidedly lackluster, and that’s even if you don’t take into account how the 3D glasses further dim an already visually dark movie. In the end, it really is a shame all of the film’s inspiration comes from its action rather than its story because the latter trumps the former every time. “Thor: The Dark World” is kind of like a Stairmaster work out machine. You’re technically taking steps up, but you’re not really going anywhere.

Thor: The Dark World receives 2.5/5


Red 2

It was a great year for movies in 2010. Pixar put out their most mature film to date with “Toy Story 3,” David Fincher blew us all away with his masterful Facebook movie, “The Social Network,” we saw a completely different side of Natalie Portman in the haunting “Black Swan” and Colin Firth gave an unforgettable performance in the Best Picture Academy Award winner, “The King’s Speech.” But the year was also full of perplexing oddities, movies that gained a surprisingly large fanbase and a warm critical reception when they hardly did anything special. “Red” was one of those movies. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t particularly interesting either and, despite some minor improvements, “Red 2” is just more of the same, for better or worse.

Much like the previous film, ex-black ops CIA agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is on the run, deemed a domestic terrorist by his own government, and, through some complicated plot structuring, on the hunt for a dangerous portable nuclear device that was previously thought to be nothing more than a Cold War myth. To help him, he enlists the help of his old buddies, Marvin (John Malkovich) and Victoria (Helen Mirren). It gets more complicated, however, when he learns that the world’s greatest contract killer, Han (Byung-hun Lee), is out to kill him, all while a former fling and Russian counter intelligence agent, Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones), attempts to seduce him to fulfill her own ulterior motives, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker).

The best part of the original “Red” was not the action scenes, but rather the banter between the group. Watching these veteran actors play off each other is an absolute joy, but it was bogged down in the first film by what can only be described as pseudo-hipster dialogue, a lame attempt to spice the film up and cater to a younger demographic, despite the older cast. Thankfully, much of that is gone here while the witty banter remains. Malkovich is at the top of his game, eliciting laughs with the slightest of facial cues and many of the one-liners are undeniably amusing.

But the film never goes past that amusing state. “Red 2” is humorous, but it’s never really funny. It’s clever, but it’s never really smart. It’s lighthearted, but it merely teeters on the edge of being fun. The movie plays out almost like something that’s surprised it exists in the first place, rarely venturing beyond what barely worked in its predecessor and rehashing the same pleasant, yet unimpressive, style and tone. Where the film steps it up is in its get-to-the-point dialogue that does away with needless filler (like in the first movie when Morgan Freeman revealed he had stage four level cancer and then completely drops it, not unlike the breast cancer line in Tommy Wiseau’s infamous “The Room”) and in its varied action.

The first film was boring. It moved slowly and its action took place in some of the most clichéd places imaginable. Locations like a shipping container yard and parking garages were its highlights, giving it a feeling of a generic shoot ‘em up video game. Due to the nature of its story, “Red 2” jet sets all around the world (sometimes to an annoying and confusing degree), but it gives way to a number of various locales that were all but missing in the original. There’s a great hand-to-hand battle in an airport hangar, a suspenseful infiltration of the Moscow Kremlin and a terrific finale that takes place in the Iranian embassy in London. While much of the action is far-fetched (and if you want to see aging movie stars wielding giant weapons, you’re better off checking out the far more entertaining “Expendables” movies), it’s this diversity that keeps it interesting.

Although “Red” wasn’t an unpleasant movie, it was too bland and generic to stand out. “Red 2” has many of the same problems, but it fixes enough of them to make it the easy choice among the two. Certain scenes are so good, particularly the interesting new take on interrogations—turns out there’s no need for torture; just get the victim all hot and bothered by a beautiful woman and he’ll tell you everything—that they’re almost worth the price of admission alone. Luckily, there’s a bit more here than just random scenes that work. You still won’t care about what ultimately happens, but you’ll have a pleasant enough trip getting there.

Red 2 receives 3/5



Alfred Hitchcock is a director who is disputed over constantly. Those disputes aren’t about whether or not he was talented—all agree he was—but rather on which of his movies stands head and shoulders above the rest. With so many great ones to choose from, opinions inevitably vary. Some argue Vertigo was his finest work. Others point to North by Northwest. I personally hold Psycho up as his greatest achievement. That was a film that pushed the boundaries of the time with a subject matter that many deemed vile and unworthy. Its road to the big screen was a bumpy one, but the results were magnificent. Creepy low angle shots and brilliant use of shadows and props created what is still to this day one of the scariest films ever made. This week’s film, succinctly titled Hitchcock, takes place during its filming and the results are a mixed bag. Despite an Oscar worthy turn by Anthony Hopkins in the title role and endless material to borrow from, the film itself feels substanceless, neither an in-depth biopic of the man nor a particularly involving “making of” look at Psycho. It’s definitely a good movie, but it needed more meat to truly stand out.

Being an avid Hitchcock fan, both of the person and of his films, will bring simultaneous feelings of disappointment and appreciation to Hitchcock. Numerous film references abound, some subtle, some blatant, but they’re all something that will give viewers of his work pleasure, like the numerous shots of Hitchcock’s famous silhouette from his television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. However, if you’re aware of his personal demons, those that extend from what he captured onscreen, you’ll find surprising and unwelcome restraint.

Hitchcock had a weight problem, one that haunted him his entire life, like when he was rejected from the military during World War I for his weight. His weight fluctuated his entire life. He could never seem to truly keep control of it. In the film, little is said about this subject, which is explored only through a nagging wife, played by Helen Mirren, who tries to get him to eat fruits instead of junk. When he passes out at one point in the movie, it seems to be more a byproduct of his constant stress from filming Psycho rather than from his unhealthy physical condition. Similarly, Hitchcock was famous for obsessing over his female stars, which is mentioned only in passing dialogue rather than shown as an attribute of the man as portrayed in the film. In these ways, the writing lacks focus. Its title implies a biopic, one that will reveal who Alfred Hitchcock truly was behind the camera and elsewhere, yet it’s as shallow an exploration of a larger than life person as I’ve ever seen.

Nevertheless, the film somehow remains fascinating. Not once was I bored, nor was I angry that it wasn’t living up to its potential, even if that feeling of disappointment was lingering in the back of my mind. This is in large part due to a brilliant performance from Anthony Hopkins, who perfectly nails Hitchcock’s mannerisms, right down to the way he would slightly upturn his head when staring head on and cross his arms over his protruding belly. The only thing preventing a full transformation is Hopkins’ recognizable voice, which he seemingly doesn’t even try to hide. That in no way diminishes the care he put into who he was playing; everything else is so perfect, the voice hardly seems a distraction. He pulls off some truly great scenes, including a late one as he stands outside the theater doors on Psycho’s opening night, orchestrating the screams of viewers inside who have just reached the famous shower scene.

Some of its more intriguing moments come when the film explores Hitchcock’s inherent interest in the macabre or when they show off his cunning, like when he argues his way past the infamously strict censors who enforced Hollywood’s Production Code (which was then abandoned a mere eight years later in favor of the current MPAA ratings system). It concludes on a high note as well, with an ingenious ending where Hitchcock addresses the audience regarding how he will be on the lookout for inspiration to lead him to his next movie, just as a bird lands on his shoulder. But these moments are fleeting and don’t encompass the film as a whole. Hitchcock is such an interesting man and Psycho such an amazing movie that led a troubled production that there’s a wealth of content to explore, yet nearly all of it is brushed over. Frankly, a documentary would have suited this subject better. It’s difficult not to criticize the movie for what it isn’t rather than what it is, but I suppose that’s not such a bad problem to have. It may not be what one might hope, but at least what it is, is good.

Hitchcock receives 3.5/5



With the summer movie season officially taking off this weekend, there’s one question on everybody’s mind. Is Thor any good? The word on the street seems to be a resounding “yes,” but having just sat through it, I’m forced to counter with an unfortunate “no.” It’s not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination, but it lacks what many of the other Marvel properties have: an interesting central character. While more problems pervade Thor than just that, it’s more than enough to keep it from becoming anything more than a mediocre attempt at pleasing the comic book fan base.

Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is the king of Asgard. For centuries, he has protected the universe from evil, namely the Frost Giants (who are as bland an enemy as their name suggests). After defeating them, he took their source of power, the Casket of Ancient Winters and kept it safe in Asgard. Now, in the present day, he is preparing to step down from the throne and hand his legacy off to his son, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), but before he can do so, the Frost Giants attack, somehow finding their way into Asgard. Despite his father’s wishes, Thor heads to the Frost Giants’ planet and starts a war. Because of his arrogance and stupidity, he is banished to Earth and stripped of his powers. Now his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is king, but he has an unforeseen hidden agenda.

Thor, quite simply, is not a compelling character. On his own merits or when compared to other superheroes, he fails to muster up any reason for us to care about him. The rationale behind his fighting never goes further than “just because.” Think about Spider-Man or DC Comics’ Batman. Those characters didn’t fight “just because.” They fought because they felt compelled to do so. They had demons from their pasts that gave them a reason to combat evil. They never asked for that life, but suffered through tragic events that led them in that direction. In their recent movie adaptations, they have been written and portrayed as three-dimensional characters. Thor, on the other hand, has no emotional pain scratching at him. He just fights because he’s told that’s what he is supposed to do. He even finds pleasure in it in the film’s early moments, starting a fight when none is needed.

This is no fault of the actor, I should say. Chris Hemsworth has everything required of this character: a deep voice and muscular body, which is to say very little. That’s not to suggest he’s a bad actor (his short stint as the soon-to-be-dead Kirk at the beginning of 2009’s Star Trek was quite good), he just isn’t given the tools to do anything other than run around and yell. Like most first entries in a superhero film franchise, Thor is an origin story, but the character simply doesn’t have a deep rooted past like many other superheroes (or at least he doesn’t as presented in this movie). This provides little leeway for emotional growth and prohibits Hemsworth from developing the character.

Thor is a film that is incredibly hard to take seriously, yet it asks you to do so for the majority of its length. One can’t help but look at the goofy costumes (some of which look like they were purchased for $9.99 at a local Halloween shop) and laugh. What really holds it back, however, are its fake looking effects. While it’s probably safe to assume they were rendered that way to keep with the film’s comic book origins, it strips away any sense of realism or danger. When a character gets hit and goes flying through the sky, your sense of fear for the assaulted is quickly replaced with disbelief because of the film’s obvious artificiality.

I can't explain the admiration flooding in for Thor. While I’m sure many have completely valid reasons for enjoying it, I suspect just as many are too easily dazzled by special effects and fail to see how shallow it is. Spectacle is fine, but without a compelling story to drive it along, it means nothing. Unfortunately, Thor sacrifices its story for the spectacle. If anything, it should be the other way around.

Thor receives 2/5


The Rite

When a movie comes with the label “Based on a true story,” I’m always skeptical. Is it really true or is it just a marketing ploy the studio is hoping will pull in more money? While there’s no reason to believe most based-on-real-events dramas are fake—movies like 127 Hours are anything but—horror films have proven that the phrase can be attached to nearly anything even if there’s little to no truth in it. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Blair Witch Project, The Fourth Kind, Paranormal Activity, all have hidden under the guise of reality and many viewers have believed their lies. This week’s newest exorcism film, The Rite, uses this tactic as well, though its validity should quickly be squashed as viewers read the opening credits where it is revealed the film isn’t “based on” or “inspired by” true events, but rather “suggested by,” whatever that means.

Colin O’Donoghue plays Michael Kovak, who is at a crossroads in his life. In his family, everybody becomes either a priest or a mortician. Although he desires to be neither, he gives into the pressure and reluctantly heads to seminary school. After hearing about the massive influx of possession reports, he heads to Rome to partake in exorcism school, despite his refusal to believe. When he arrives, he meets Father Lucas Trevant, played by Anthony Hopkins, the most knowledgeable and experienced exorcist in the area, and becomes his apprentice. Little does he know his lack of faith is about to be tested when Father Lucas begins acting strangely.

At this point, the Devil has become a cliché. Without question, the Devil is the most interesting villain any screenwriter could ever imagine. He’s the king of all that is unholy, a deceiver, a liar, a master manipulator, evil incarnate. He sees suffering in the world and relishes it. You can’t get any worse than Satan, but screenwriters seem content to simply plop him in another exorcism movie rather than really explore what he can do. The Rite is another one of those movies, but luckily, it’s an uncommonly smart one and it hits on some deep philosophical and theological issues.

At one point in the movie, Father Lucas explains to Michael that the Devil doesn’t want to be noticed. He says that just because you can’t see him, it doesn’t mean he isn’t there. Michael responds, saying that they’re hitting a tricky area when “no proof of the Devil is somehow proof of the Devil.” This hits the very foundation of religious belief, shedding light on how believers think. Many believe things they cannot prove while disregarding fact. Take creationism vs. evolution, for instance. Believers are quick to point out the holes in evolution, but can offer up zero proof of divine creation. They're also quick to give God credit in times of joy, but never blame when tragedy strikes. If the hard work of dozens of people to rescue the trapped Chilean miners can be described as a “miracle,” how do you describe the recent shooting in Arizona? If God has his hand in one, wouldn’t he have his hand in the other? Where’s the line?

The Rite astutely observes this religious train of thought while keeping the discussion in its own world. In fact, the whole movie is a battle between opposing viewpoints. It’s a battle between certainty and uncertainty; faith and lack of; seeing what you believe and believing what you see. Unfortunately, these intellectual battles devolve into a more conventional battle between the Devil and the priest in the last block of the film, completely dropping the ambiguity of whether or not exorcisms have any real merit and simply concluding that they do.

With such a smart beginning and middle, the inferiority of the end stands out, where mindless excitement is favored over smarts. Hopkins and O’Donoghue are terrific, however, and their two performances are delightful to watch, even if they are taken away from their tense dialogue driven scenes and forced into typical horror movie theatrics.

The Rite receives 3.5/5