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Friday
Nov082013

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

Friday
May062011

Thor

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

Friday
Jan212011

No Strings Attached

When Natalie Portman stars in a movie, it’s an immediate attention grabber. Aside from being an extremely talented actress, she’s also one of the most adorable people on the planet. Considering she just gave her best performance in Black Swan, which has already snatched up multiple awards from the likes of the Golden Globes and film critic organizations everywhere, it’s a shame to see her star in No Strings Attached opposite Ashton Kutcher. She is so good, so radiant, so warm and so funny that you can’t help but wish she had a stronger and more charismatic co-star, one that would make her shine in ways other than in comparison.

It’s not so much that Kutcher is bad; he just doesn’t have the acting chops to convincingly stand alongside Portman. Despite emitting charm in last year’s underrated Valentine’s Day, he is stiff here, perhaps because his character isn’t written as overly likable like in that holiday themed movie. That person was perhaps too optimistic for his own good, but it was that optimism about love that managed to touch me. In No Strings Attached, his character is written to be more three dimensional, but the problem is Kutcher couldn’t be flatter if you drove over him with a steamroller.

His character in question is named Adam. Ever since meeting Emma at Camp Weehawken when he was a teenager, he hasn’t forgotten her. After running into her in the present day, they hit it off and end up sleeping with each other. However, Emma considers herself too busy to have a relationship and suggests being friends who have sex with “no strings attached.” Adam agrees, but quickly finds himself falling for her. Emma believes that “people aren’t meant to be together forever,” but she may find herself changing her tune as she spends more time with Adam.

And if you’ve ever seen a romantic comedy (spoilers!), you know she does. No Strings Attached is, expectedly, predictable. So often is that the case these days that critics have to redefine the way they watch rom-coms. If we were to write one off simply because it followed formula, we’d hate everything released. What matters in most cases is how authentic the chemistry is and how much laughter it produces. To go into why the chemistry is off would be redundant considering how I’ve already expressed my dislike in Kutcher, so what’s left is how often the laughs work.

When it comes to its comedy, No Strings Attached is a rare breed. It doesn’t do anything unique, mind you; it’s just insanely inconsistent. Sometimes the jokes land with a bang and other times the film misses comedic beats by a mile. To blame those failures on individual aspects like delivery, editing or writing would be fruitless because they all contribute at various times in their own special ways. Outdated and unfunny references to things like High School Musical and Beverly Hills, 90210 only help in making this movie feel even lazier.

As per usual, the dilemmas all arise from misunderstandings and contrived happenstances. In one scene midway through the movie, a soon-to-be doctor who had barely said a word up to that point and whose personality had not been established, suddenly lashes out at Adam and becomes his romantic villain, only to eventually be forgotten. It’s things like this that helped tip the movie over and force it to tumble. As it neared its end, No Strings Attached was hanging by a thread and my interest was long gone, but it wasn't until Kutcher and Portman spoke their ham-fisted final words to each other that the thread was cut and the movie finally lived up to its title.

No Strings Attached receives 2/5

Friday
Dec032010

Black Swan

In today’s cinematic world, nobody nails surrealism like Darren Aronofsky. While you could argue he has some contenders, namely David Lynch, Aronofsky one ups them all for one reason. The weirdness doesn’t overwhelm the story. Lynch’s films are mind bending, but don’t make a heck of a lot of sense. Lost Highway and Eraserhead in particular come off as weird simply for the sake of it and any type of analytical conclusion one could derive from those films is probably nonsense. Lynch himself has even stated that he has never read an analysis of Eraserhead that fits his own. Aronofsky, on the other hand, hits the perfect balance. He messes with your head and sometimes confuses you, but it’s nothing a second watch can’t fix. There’s more to his movies than meets the eye and his latest, Black Swan, is no different.

Natalie Portman plays Nina, a dancer in a New York ballet company that has just announced their next project, a production of “Swan Lake.” The play requires a dancer who can play both the White Swan and the Black Swan and Nina thinks she is right for the part, but the director, Thomas, played by Vincent Cassel, isn’t so sure. When she dances, he sees the angelic White Swan side of her, but not the other darker half. Nevertheless, he gives her the part of the Swan Queen, but she soon finds herself competing with Lily (Mila Kunis), who she thinks is trying to steal it from her. To keep it, she trains rigorously with a disregard for her physical and mental health and it begins to tear her apart.

At various points in the movie, Nina is told to “lose herself” in the role and she does, but not in the way the director intends. The story of the Swan Queen begins to mimic her life and it becomes her all. In the play, the White Swan morphs into her evil twin and Nina does the same. When we meet her, she is a fragile girl who is dealing with various kinds of abuse from those around her. Her mother is living vicariously through her, wishing for her to have the career she never had. She is seemingly friendless and she lacks the courage to stand up for anything, breaking down any time confrontations occur. It's this initial meekness that makes her eventual transformation so powerful.

The obvious color contrast between the good and evil sides of the play’s title character is not lost on the rest of the film. Black Swan plays with the motif of black and white, good and evil. Entire rooms exist that are washed in the two opposite colors and the main characters, Nina and Lily, wear clothes colored almost exclusively with one of them. In fact, I can’t recall one scene where Lily wore something other than black. The clashing colors is a stark reminder throughout the entire film that something has gone, or is about to go, horribly awry.

Refusing to simplistically limit itself, Black Swan also has fun with how Nina sees herself and the world through reflections. Mirrors surround her, whether she’s practicing in the mirror encompassed rehearsal room or passing through her house, someone or something is always staring back at her. The mirror theme may be too abundant, however. They’re so noticeable in the first half of the film that when crazy things do begin to happen, it's expected and not as shocking.

But that doesn’t detract from its intelligence. Black Swan is a smart film that may not make perfect sense right away, but slowly reveals itself upon reflection. To completely decipher the puzzle, multiple viewings are required and that’s okay because this is a fantastic movie that is anchored by Portman’s powerful performance. Even Mila Kunis, who had yet to convince me she had what it took to be a good actress, won me over here. Still, this is Aronofsky’s masterpiece. After his most straight forward film, 2008’s The Wrestler, he returns to the style that put him on the map. Like Requiem for a Dream and Pi, Black Swan is a dark and beautiful look into the macabre, and he spices it up with some terrific camerawork, like one nifty point of view shot as Nina pirouettes.

As you watch Black Swan, your eyes and ears will catch things that you’ll swear can’t really be happening, but they are. It will trick you into noticing things that are out of the ordinary, but that’s precisely the point. As you think back on them, you’ll begin to see their significance and that is perhaps the film's greatest strength. This is Aronofsky’s best work to date and a late contender for one of the best of the year.

Black Swan receives 4.5/5