Friday, April 4, 2014

AMERICA'S WINTER WONDERLAND - "Captain America: The Winter Solider" is a Film That Epically Restores Faith in Fictional Heroism


As dusk gives way to dawn, the opening bars of Alan Silvestri’s “Captain America Theme” mournfully yet heroically play as Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) goes on his morning run.  This opening scene acts as subtle foreshadowing of the themes of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, which essentially asks the question: “Whatever happened to Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” Evidently, the concepts jumped ship to Marvel Studios for this film is arguably the best of all the single Marvel action hero movies to date.
The story takes place three years after the events of 2012’s Marvel's The Avengers. During that time, Steve Rogers has become a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative under the guidance of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Partnered with Natasha Romanov, a.k.a. “The Black Widow” (a stunning Scarlett Johansson), he is assigned to what he considers ethically questionable missions. However, when Nick Fury is implicated in a conspiracy to compromise national security, Rogers goes rogue. He must try to ferret out the truth while figuring out the mystery of “The Winter Soldier”, a cybernetic assassin who has targeted not only Fury, but the Captain himself.
Of all the characters in Marvel’s current cinematic staple, Captain America is the hardest sell to the sensibilities of a modern audience. In terms of what he represents (in scope if not in power), he is Marvel’s analogue to Superman (a character who had to undergo a considerable darkening in order to become palatable to today’s moviegoers). And like Superman, as different as dark is to light, so are the Captain’s Great Depression ideologies regarding trust, honor, and heroism to the realities of modern warfare. In truth, “terrorism” in all its forms has become the default raison d’etre for these types of films. As The Hunger Games, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Man of Steel, and even Divergent can attest. It’s no longer enough for a bank robbery or a mad scientist scheme to be a reasonable call to super-heroic action.  Yet here, the results of those concerns are plausibly presented. All the opposing political rhetoric regarding national security is in bas relief here, with the Marvel Universe’s S.H.I.E.L.D. organization taking the place of the NSA. The film begs the question whether someone as out of time (and touch) as Steve Rogers has a place in this era, and not just in reference to dealing with “the enemy”.
Speaking of dealing with the enemy, it is violent endeavor here. The film is all technical spy spectacle; a throwback to the spy thrillers of the post-Watergate 1970s (made all the more apparent by the presence of Robert Redford as head of S.H.I.E.L.D. Alexander Pierce, a character’s whose ideologies run in contrast to his turns in All The President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor), while embracing the violent excesses of the modern spy genre with frighteningly plausible shades of Minority Report thrown in for good measure. However, its presentation cannot be faulted for its excesses. Unlike the aforementioned Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, where the majority of the fight scenes were obscured through camera slight-of-hand, the fight scenes here are beautifully choreographed in such a way as to be distinct, yet somehow seem naturally, brutally spontaneous.  The special effects are mostly done in the “old school” style, with as little CGI as possible, but rendered in such a way as to be “old school” in the best sense of the term; a throwback to the days when the term “star destroyer” was something to be marveled at (no pun intended). The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who also play S.H.I.E.L.D. interrogators in the film), loosely based on the works of comics scribe Ed Brubaker (who also cameos in the film), is tight and practically uncontrived. The film’s 136 minute running time moves breezily, deftly giving poignant heft to even the quiet moments, of which there are many. This is still, after all, the story about a man who just happens to be a super-hero forced to live in a world he never made, holding on to values and ideals that have become outmoded. This contrast is made especially clear in the film’s score. Silvestri’s theme is only given respectful acknowledgement, showing to lyrically remind us what Captain America stands for. However, when Henry Jackman’s score kicks in, it shows a marked thematic contrast; expressing acoustics more representative of the modern era. But remarkably, unlike his X-Men: First Class effort, this score balances heroism with the discordant sounds he attributes to The Winter Soldier himself (which is somewhat reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s theme for The Joker in The Dark Knight). The score is in turns claustrophobic, discordant, jarring, yet rousing, emotional, tragic and heroic and used effectively to highlight each scene’s atmospheric intent.
I’ll say it here. Chris Evans IS Captain America.  He owns the role the way Sean Connery did James Bond; Robert Downey, Jr. with Tony Stark; and a certain other Christopher who came to epitomize another red and blue clad hero. His body language embodies the character in such a way that one believes what comes out of his mouth, no matter how hokey or schmaltzy it may sound in this day and age from someone else’s.  With two previous films under his belt, he’s made the role his own, making the character as, if you’ll excuse the term, bad ass as any in Marvel’s staple. Of course, his is not the only performance of note. The Russos have managed to make CA:TWS an ensemble piece; each member of the supporting cast are fully realized in their own right.  Samuel Jackson’s Nick Fury is given more depth and pathos than in any previous offering. In fact, he’s the lynchpin to much of the proceedings. Jackson imbues world-weariness upon Fury not seen before; Jackson makes the audience feel his character’s turmoil regarding S.H.I.E.L.D. and his place in it. As Black Widow, Johansson continues to redefine the expectations of the female protagonist. She is Rogers’ equal, in some ways her superior, yet she evidences a vulnerability also not explored before on film; managing to sell it without compromising her character’s strength and integrity.  Newcomer to the franchise Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson (a.k.a Marvel’s answer to Hawkman, The Falcon) elevates his character from its 70s blacksploitation roots into a force to be reckoned with, being the one individual who still believes in Captain America even when all hope seems lost. The chemistry between Evans and Mackie feels naturally right. You buy it.  In his film performance, MMA fighter Georges St-Pierre makes perhaps one of the lamest characters in all of comicdom, Batroc the Leaper (don’t ask), into a major threat.  Of special note are the aforementioned Robert Redford and Sebastian Stan as The Winter Soldier. To say anymore would reveal too much (if one hasn't read the comics, that is). However, Stan while says very little his body language speaks volumes. The filmmakers understand that all the best villains are used judiciously. For those who want the Soldier to have a lot of screen time will be sorely disappointed. However, what he does when he’s on the screen MORE than makes up for it.
To say any more, such as analyzing the themes of identity, duality, and paranoia, would reveal too much of the film and it is with great restraint that I hold back.  Yes, "restraint", because the movie is just…that…GOOD.  It’s a movie that makes pure, unadulterated, and unapologetic heroism epic and “cool” again, continuing the restoration of wonder and adventure that have been a hallmark of Marvel’s most recent films; and it does so with the right blend of pathos, action, and humor. In short, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (or, as Anthony Mackie once humorously put, Avengers 1.5) is a cinematic triumph. It has everything anyone could ever want in this sort of film. In a sense, it serves as antithesis to Man of Steel, showing that one does not have to completely compromise character integrity to fit modern sensibilities. This is one of those rare films I give my highest recommendation.
P.S.  Be sure to look closely for a particular tombstone. Not all Easter eggs are Marvel related. ;)

Friday, March 21, 2014

DIVERGENT Does Not Diverge From Formula

The first thing that one notices about Divergent, directed by Neil Burger, is how similar it is in framework and plot to The Hunger Games. The story revolves around an in-over-her-head heroine who exists in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian landscape populated by citizens who are grouped off in some fashion. Said heroine must fight for survival against a fascistic system. While the comparison is arguably inevitable, it is hardly a fair one; especially since Divergent is alternatively superior and inferior to the other.
Based on the first of the Veronica Roth series of novels, Divergent tells the story of Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) a resident of the walled off city of Chicago whose populace is divided into five "factions": Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite. A person’s place in said society is determined at the age of 16 by a battery of hallucinogenic tests, though each person does have a choice as to which faction they wish to belong (though once the choice is made there is no going back). Those that are cannot meet the faction requirements become “factionless”, or society’s refuse. However, there exist those rare individuals known as “divergents” who cannot be typed into any faction. These beings are a danger to a society whose very existence is predicated on one “knowing their place”. Tris is one such “divergent”. As the story progresses, Tris tries to conceal her divergent nature even as a war between the factions begins to brew.
Quest for identity, distrust of authority, and fear confrontation…these are all unifying themes across the young adult storytelling spectrum. However, what separates Divergent (in film, at least, since I have not read the source material) from other similar films is how personal these themes are explored. Though she does face external foes, Tris’ conflicts are more internal and personal, more human than super-human. The physical challenges she faces are simply extensions of the conflicts within her.  Unfortunately, the bulk of the film’s two hour, twenty minute running time is devoted to her training and not enough of the greater conflict regarding faction war. Despite the film’s version of the “Wall of the North” and the blitzkrieg aesthetic, any sense of danger or oppression is oddly muted given the subject matter. This is not to say that the film doesn’t deliver emotional hits. This film has plenty of rousing highs and emotional lows (and “squeal” moments for the tweens) that are deftly directed for visceral heft; but sporadic moments of brilliance do not make for a complete whole.  The film, while still somewhat entertaining, is narratively disjointed. There is very little by way of surprises with certain story beats predictably foreshadowed. On the plus side, there is an impressive attention to even the smallest details wherein nothing seems discordant or out of place.  The special effects are, in one of those rare cases, virtually flawless.  The score by Junkie XL works well in conjunction with the requisite pop offerings these types of films are peppered with.
Shailene Woodley gives a credible performance as Tris, going from unsure ingĂ©nue to capable, if not confident, warrior. She anchors the film quite well, though it doesn’t give her much to work with on an emotional level until rather late in the story, and the film suffers for that. As her instructor/love interest Four, Theo James is eerily reminiscent to a very young Billy Zane, charmingly imbuing his character with a smoldering taciturnity belying secret pain that simmers beneath the surface. One of the most laudable aspects of this film, and rare to find in modern cinema, is the sense of true equality between their characters. While Tris is the protagonist, she is not a “messiah” figure.  Both she and Four take turns in supporting and saving each other.  Neither one is either a “Lois Lane” or “Steve Trevor”. The partnership between the two is a true one; each one aids and compliments the other and both characters are the stronger for it.
Jai Courtney portrays instructor Eric with hard but wry sadism. Ashley Judd appears as Tris’ mother, and the casting predictably telegraphs the character’s fate. Lastly, Kate Winslet portrays Janine, leader of Erudite faction and requisite “big baddie”, with detached banality; which is perhaps the point. This story is a cautionary allegory for where our society may be headed and, as such, makes it a point to show that evil rarely comes with hands wringing or mustaches twirling.
Ultimately, Divergent is definitely a film for the pre – to – teen set.  However, there is much within the film for adults to enjoy but not enough to make it a wholly rousing experience. While the film does leave enough open for the inevitable sequel (currently in production now), it works enough as a somewhat satisfying, stand-alone movie. While Divergent is a good film, it’s not as good it could have been. Yet, because of it's emphasis of Tris' attempts to overcome her own inner doubts and fears in her quest for self-actualization, the film has more weighty depth, in my opinion, than The Hunger Games. While adults will like it, teens will love it.



Monday, January 6, 2014

NO GRUDGES HELD: “Grudge Match” is Disappointingly Disjointed.

I wanted to like it. I really did. 
It sounded good on paper: a faux sequel to “Raging Bull”  and “Rocky”, starring Robert DeNiro and Sylvester Stallone (who hadn’t shared the screen since Stallone’s legitimacy-questing film “Copland”) playing rival light heavyweight champions Billy “The Kidd” McDonnen and Henry “Razor” Sharp, who had won one title match each against the other. However, hopes of a definitive final “grudge match” between the two were dashed with Sharp’s sudden and unexplained retirement from professional boxing; an act which became an obsession with McDonnen for over thirty years despite his own professional financial success since.  Added to this volatile mix is the fact that Sharp’s girlfriend Sally (Kim Basinger) had a much-regretted one night stand with McDonnen that resulted in both a son, B.J. (Jon Bernthal) and the end of her relationship with Sharp. When Sharp finds himself in need of money, he takes an offer from wannabe promoter Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart, playing a role that must have initially been envisioned for Chris Tucker) to perform motion capture for a video game which leads to his being ambushed by McDonnen and invariably leads to the long awaited grudge match between the two war horses. 
Like I said, it sounded good and had this film been made a decade ago, it probably would have been.  However, as directed by Peter Segal (“50 First Dates”), the film is long on time and short on cohesiveness. The expected meta-textual commentary and “jabs” at the roles the leads were famous for are in evidence (including a common sense take on the famous “Rocky” meat locker scene), and the story itself is solid enough.  While the film is definitely hilarious in spots, its humor comes mostly from Hart’s Slate  and the “Mickey” stand-in Louis “Lightning” Conlon (Adam Arkin playing the age card for all its worth to hilarious results). The humor regarding the leads stem mostly from their age; while expected, it gets overplayed. Worse is the fact that the scenes keep going even after the humorous points have been made, almost like a bad comic who has to explain a punch-line after its delivery. As B.J., Bernthal provides DeNiro’s “palooka” character with some humanity and is, in general, likably sympathetic. Basinger is as radiant as ever and does have a humorous moment of her own. It is understandable how the two men could hate each other so thoroughly given the characters’ backstory; if it only wasn’t undermined by the two leads. 
Stallone and DeNiro almost have great chemistry together, but something’s missing. These days, Stallone seems almost too mellow on screen (including his “Expendables” series, but not including the recent “Escape Plan”) and in his most recent films, DeNiro seems to be coasting for the paycheck.  While there are moments of poignancy and pathos between the two (most predictably in the film’s final act), there’s not much in terms of enmity between them or the hunger to finally settle scores, a condition which sabotages DeNiro’s “impassioned” speech about the two of them not being dead yet. LL Cool J, Anthony Anderson, and Rich Little also appear in the film, with Cool J having the most screen time of the three as a trainer who refuses to train McDonnen.  
The frustrating thing about a film like this is that the potential is in evidence.  Had it been made in the 90s or early 2000s, it would have carried more weight. Both Stallone and DeNiro were still trying then. Ironic that the sponsor of the fight in the film is “Geritol” given that the performances of both actors really needed a vitamin shot. Like the grudge match that takes place, this film comes years too late. It’s an okay film to watch on cable, but it could have been so much more.

Friday, December 20, 2013

THE DESOLATION OF TOLKIEN: Peter Jackson Creates a Derivative Mixed-Bag in The Desolation of Smaug.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens with director Peter Jackson appearing in costume in the city of Bree. Staring directly into the camera, he takes a loud chomp off of a carrot (bookending a similar seen from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), and marches off. While this seems on its surface to be a tongue-in-cheek homage to Alfred Hitchcock, his manner and presentation takes on a meta-textual feel as if declaring "This is MY house". The rest of the film seems to cement this assertion.  
The first entry in this bloated trilogy (more on that momentarily), The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), served as an entertaining, if very uneven, prologue. With all the particulars out of the way, Desolation moves at an almost frantic, though uneven, pace. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is still journeys with Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen) and The Company of Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to enter the Lonely Mountain and reclaim their kingdom from the terrifying dragon, Smaug (a sublimely evil, motion-captured Benedict Cumberbatch). Along the way, Gandalf separates from the companions in order to investigate a familiar, growing evil and the troupe must overcome obstacles, including escaping imprisonment from wood elves, and skulking about the city of Lake-Town which lies at the edge of the Lonely Mountain, to attempt to regain the Arkenstone, which would cement Oakenshield’s claim to rule.  
The film is sumptuous to look at. While the film's vision is distinctly Jackson’s, it is somewhat filtered through the unique lens of Guillermo Del Toro, who brought his Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy sensibilities to the film particularly in the setting of Lake-town (and quite possibly Erebor itself). Whereas the previous film returned to locations first seen in the original trilogy, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie and conceptual designer (and noted Tolkien artist) Alan Lee, the world of Middle-Earth is expanded and feels like a real world in and of itself. The visuals do capture the mythological epic nature of Tolkien's fantasy world... 
...that is, if Tolkien's world was fully represented. 
Jackson's Tolkien-based films have always been a source of division among the fans of the source material, mostly due to his penchant for embellishing upon, or outright straying from, said works. Of all these films, The Desolation of Smaug may be the most divisive to date. Jackson’s additions not only give new motivations and angst for existing characters where originally there were none, he goes so far as to create a completely new and prominent new character that never existed in Tolkien’s books. Before 2001, one of the arguments against a film adaptation was the belief that the books were, as written, "unfilm-able". In order to make the original LOTR film trilogy, many liberties were taken to entertain and attract the non-Tolkien masses. Some of those changes were controversial, but on the whole, the essence of Tolkien's work, if not the details, remained relatively intact. In this film…not so much.  
The question becomes how much does one change the source material before it becomes virtually divorced from it? For example, “The Hobbit” is presented from the point of view of Bilbo Baggins. However, in this film Bilbo is the focus for part of the first third and is practically invisible until it is time for him to enter Erebor. The problem with inserting material from corresponding tales from "The Silmarillion" and "Unfinished Tales" is that Bilbo is no longer the story’s focal point and, as such, is relegated to background. This lack of one cohesive protagonist confuses as well as diffuses the power of the film's narrative. It's not to say that the other characters are uninteresting. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. All of the actors acquit themselves rather well with on one performer being a standout (including newcomers Lee Pace, Luke Evans and Stephen Fry as “King Thandruil”, “Bard the Bowman” and “The Master of Lake-town”, respectively, among others). However, this film is titled The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug; one would expect to follow the events from that character’s point of view for the majority of the film.  
Further, without going into spoiler-ish details, there are instances of scenes where Jackson contradicts the first trilogy, particularly where the elves are concerned. Then there's the problem of Evangeline Lilly's "Meredith"… "Tauriel", a character created by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. She exists because (since as far as I remember, there were no female characters in “The Hobbit”) modern day storytelling practically necessitates a female presence (which is not a chauvinistic judgment call, but merely a statement of fact). Her character is Middle-Earth's Katniss Everdeen; sure of bow, strong of character and stout of heart. Her presence, however pleasing to the eye or sympathetic to the viewer, is virtually unnecessary as she neither detracts nor adds to the proceedings. Due to studio decree, a romantic triangle was added after completion of principle photography in order to create a love triangle between her, Legolas (Orlando Bloom, reprising a character who, like Frodo Baggins, Galadriel and Saruman, was not in the book) and the dwarven Kili (a soulful Aidan Turner). This romance poses a problem in the fact that both the LOTR books and films establish that the first rekindling of peace between the dwarves and elves came about from the friendship forged between Legolas and Gimli (John Rhys Davis). However, the portions of Howard Shore's moving score that pertain to Tauriel hint that all may not end well for anyone involved in this triangle. Nevertheless, her inclusion does add some added context for Legolas' behavior in the LOTR film trilogy but, again, it isn't a necessary addition to begin with.
Is this addition emotionally moving? Yes. Is it necessary? Perhaps for the film, if one were to take these films as their own separate entity from the books. And it has to be, for Peter Jackson takes liberties that changes not only whole climatic sequences in order to enhance dramatic effect, but completely changes the motivations of some characters to have them resonate to a 21st century audience. In many ways, he rewrites Tolkien (and not always for the better). As previously asserted in other reviews on this blog, changes deemed necessary for cinematic translation of literary works are acceptable so long as the filmmakers get the essence of the characters and story right. In many ways, this time Jackson doesn't. One of the most egregious (and most likely to incite ire amongst the purists) is during Bilbo's fateful confrontation with Smaug, practically changing the antagonist's character and thus transforming the entire dynamic of the scene. Unfortunately, it doesn't improve matters. 
Despite the fact that in terms of pacing and action this film far surpasses its predecessor, it is filled with bloat. Some action sequences take far longer than required and it is painfully obvious that it is for the purpose of stretching the running time. On the whole, the film tries too hard to add gravitas to such an extent it almost calls attention to the fact that this film is mostly padding to get to The Hobbit: There and Back Again. Of all the films thus far, this may be the weakest of composer Howard Shore's offerings. His music is still powerfully evocative, but it is as uneven as the film itself. He eschews use of the dwarves' theme, so prominent in the previous film, favoring a recurring elvish motif that is not quite as distinct. The "One Ring" theme does present itself in this film, albeit in short bursts. In terms of music, this is Shore's Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.
Unfortunately, the CGI is also uneven.  A sequence involving the dwarves escape from the elven kingdom is almost no better than an Xbox game. The main focus of the digital special effects must have been Smaug the Dragon, who is rendered so realistically he almost seems too real.  Never has a dragon been so beautifully represented in terms of size, scope, and menace. 
The film is extremely, though frustratingly, enjoyable; in some ways, more so than the first. However, it pales next to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which is generally considered to be the weakest entry of the previous trilogy. It also ends in a very visceral cliffhanger, making one very frustrated in having to wait an entire year for the finale.  
Essentially, this film is a mixed bag. It tries too hard to have the same weight and import as The Lord of the Rings.  For people who haven’t read the book(s), the inconsistent characterization might be overlooked and the ride enjoyed for what it is.  For Tolkien purists, just roll with it.  The film is based on the book(s), and should be taken for what it is…Tolkien-lite. Just remember going in that this is Peter Jackson's house; we're simply guests in it.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

BREAKING THE AVERAGES: "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is What a Sequel Should Be

To say that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire will be a box office hit is a no-brainer. After all, the Suzanne Collins penned books are national best sellers and the 2012 film grossed over $400 million domestic alone. However, there remains the question as to whether its sequel is deserving of the same success.

Suffice it to say, it is. 

As the film opens, we find Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, bearing a marked resemblance to Lynda Carter with her raven locks) returned to District 12, unaware that her success in the 74th Hunger Games has planted the seeds of civil unrest and burgeoning revolution. This fact has not escaped President Snow (a sublimely oily Donald Sutherland) who realizes that Katniss, and by extension all the other surviving game contestants, are a danger to the current regime. Therefore, he invokes a "little known reserve activation clause" that forces all winners to compete against each other in the 75th Hunger Games to the death.

In many ways, this film is superior to its predecessor. Director Francis Lawrence (no relation) imbues the film with an overwhelming, oppressively fascist tone. The Capitol's futuristic, opulent USSR/Nazi architecture is evocative of those historical periods while at the same time serves as counterpoint to the impoverished squalor that pervades the thirteen districts. Technology is ever present, used in tracking the movements of all citizenry. It is a world that satirizes our own in terms of where our society is headed. Its power and horror comes from how it reflectively resonates in our own everyday lives. However, in this world, that regime is completely personified in President Snow, and thus gives our archer protagonist a suitable target to focus upon.

It is not an easy job for any actor, male or female, to shoulder an entire franchise. Yet Jennifer Lawrence seems to be able to do so effortlessly. Her performance is as fresh and vital as in the first film, and not one scene rings false. She carries you along and makes you care for not just her, but what concerns her; primarily, the safety of her mother (Paula Malcomson, whose character still has no name), her sister, Primrose (Willow Shields in a surprisingly mature performance), and boyfriend No. 1, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). However, Lawrence’s performance is supported by a fine cast of returning regulars. As annoying as he was in the first film, Peeta is given surprising depth by Josh Hutcherson. For a character that straddles the line between fully realized persona and ersatz Christ figure, Hutcherson does a very good balancing act. He makes the character humanly relatable, thus given an added spice to the story's love triangle. Elizabeth Banks' Effie Trinket also undergoes a surprising character shift, going from superficial to poignant; one that is perhaps emblematic of the revolutionary changes within society itself. In terms of acting, Woody Harrelson usually does no wrong, and he continues that streak here. His role as drunk mentor Haymitch is somewhat diminished compared to the first film but he makes his mark. As new Game Master Plutarch Heavensbee, Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the film's Lando Calrissianesque-cypher who leaves the audience guessing as to whether he is friend or foe (if one hasn't read the book, that is). I would be remiss if I did not mention Donald Sutherland, who actually manages to present a character who is both disarmingly charming yet coldly malevolent; providing the perfect foil for our heroine. Other notable additions to the class include Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, and Lynn Cohen; all of whom elevate their "second banana" characters into individuals who, despite minimal screen time, the audience comes to care for.

Jo Willems' cinematography and Phillip Messina's production design makes for a fully realized world. If there is a sour note in the production, and granted it is not much of one, it is in John Newton Howard's score. It is essentially a rehash of the first film's score with barely any new themes or motifs of note. However, it does work within the context of the film, underscoring each scene’s import and meaning without overpowering it.

The film skillfully follows the second rule of trilogies in that it is more of the same, only heightened. Unlike other trilogies (I'm looking at you Matrix, of which this film's end is remarkably similar), Catching Fire whets one's appetite for this trilogy's conclusion. This film is intelligently, soulfully well-crafted. It tells the story of one girl's reluctant and seemingly hopeless battle against a tyrannical system. It packs an emotional punch that leaves the audience clamoring for the conclusion. Let's just hope that the forthcoming Mockingjay (Parts 1 and 2 - don't get me started on that one), is more The Lord of The Rings - The Return of the King and less Star Wars: Return of the Jedi in terms of conclusory satisfaction.

Friday, November 8, 2013

THOR: THE DARK WORLD is a Bright Light In a Sea of Dark Cinematic Super-Heroics.

In advance of this film, the folks at the satirical “Honest Movie Trailers” (only a YouTube search away) began their tongue-in-cheek summarization of Thor (2011) thusly: “Prepare for a film that only exists so non-nerds can recognize the blond guy in The Avengers.”  If one adheres to the postulate that the best satire always contains a glimmer of truth, then this is a sad indictment.  However, the same cannot be said for Thor: The Dark World, a film which, despite its missteps, is as close to “epic” as the Marvel Universe series of films have gotten.
Two years have passed since “The Battle for New York” as chronicled in 2009’s Marvel’s The Avengers.  “Thor” (Chris Hemsworth) along with “The Warriors Three” (“Fandral” (Zachary Levi), “Volstagg” (Ray Stevenson), and “Hogun” (Tadanobu Asano)) and “Lady Sif” (Jaimie Alexander), has been defending the nine realms from the forces of darkness.  However, the Thunder God who once lived for battle and glory takes no pleasure in his adventures, choosing instead to pine for mortal scientist "Jane Foster" (Natalie Portman) as he has been forbidden by "Odin the All-Father" (Battle-Armor-Santa-Claus Sir Anthony Hopkins) to return to Midgard (otherwise known as "Earth") for her. However, Jane comes to be possessed by the Aether, a destructive force of red energy that is sought after by the arch-nemesis of the Asgardians, the Dark Elves, who are led by "Malekith" (Christopher Eccleston). Thor must then forge a dark alliance with his half-brother "Loki" (fan-favorite Tom Hiddleston) and race against both time and the dark elves, who wish for nothing less than the annihilation of all creation, to find Jane before the Aether consumes her utterly.
Taking over the directoral reins from Kenneth Branagh, and working off a script from Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely, sometime Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor forgoes the ersatz Shakespearian "Henry V" take and puts the characters and situations squarely in the space opera milieu with the only thing missing is the proverbial "singing fat lady".  
The film is a visual, stunning feast.  As befitting a story about quasi-alien/mythological gods, the sets, the costumes, the scenery, are full of grandiose pageantry even if the 3-D renderings are somewhat off, especially with backgrounds that lose clarity.  Though not quite done in the distinctive style of Thor’s co-creator Jack Kirby, in many respects the set designs would have made him proud.  The realm of Asgard is a cornucopia of brilliant, primary-colored hues. By contrast, the Dark Elves and their ships are stark, earthy, and darkly green.  Whereas Asgard is the epitome of life in all its excess and splendor, the elvish world is a macrocosm of stark death and decay. However, the elvish side of the film is way too reminiscent of the Reman race in Star Trek: Nemesis, from the starkness and capabilities of the vessels to the relationship between the antagonist and his right-hand man. In fact, there’s a lot in this film that is evocative of the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises; unsurprising since, through the course of the source material’s inception (especially under the watch of comic creator Walt Simonson, upon whose stories some of the film’s elements are based), "Thor" has been a grand space opera. To say more about the visuals would be to give away too much.  Suffice it to say that in that regard, this is one of the better comic-to-film translations. At times, it really does look and feel like a comic book come to life. 
For all that, though, the film is uneven. When the action takes place, it’s, pardon the expression, thunderous.  However, the action is, at times, injudiciously placed. Other scenes are juxtaposed against each other in a jarring fashion. One scene in particular, which should have carried potent weight, while visually stunning, is devoid of any real heft. Much of this has to do with the treatment of a certain character.  The audience is never given enough time to identify with the players. That, coupled with the almost perfunctory length of said scene, causes it to fail. This despite Brian Tyler’s surprisingly nuanced score, which ranges from brass nobility (with echoes of John Williams from another franchise by Marvel’s “Distinguished Competition”) to quieter, almost spiritual moments. The story's flow is disjointed, but this narrative aberration mostly takes place between the first and second acts. Once the second half of the film takes off, the ride continues until the very end.
What sets this film apart from most other super-heroic fare of late is that, while the stakes are high, the film doesn't take itself so seriously that it forgets to be fun.  Yes, there are battles in which there are civilians in danger, but this film reminds us that the hero is working to save lives, not just contribute to the collateral damage. The film also manages to balance out its proceedings with a liberal dose of organic humor which never seems forced, from Thor's use of mundane, every day items to "Darcy Lewis'" (Kat Dennings) ad-libbed quips.
Though his direction is somewhat off in certain scenes, credit Taylor towards his direction of the actors.  Chris Hemsworth cannot be dismissed as just another pretty face or muscular body. Between the events of the first film and the aforementioned Avengers, his Thor has matured as a character, and Hemsworth's performance is a far cry from the super-powered frat boy from the first film.  Hemsworth's Thor has grown to be a much more responsible, seasoned, nobly heroic character. He's just damned heroic (Much more so in this presentation, daresay, than another crimson caped, nihilistically-reimagined pseudo-demigod with his own film this past summer). It's an internal as well as physical performance; it's not so much what Hemnsworth says, or rather what he doesn't, but how he does it...a look here, a stance there.  Hemsworth is an actor of surprising depth and emotional acuity. Unfortunately, while there are moments that he seems lost in his own film, that issue has more to do with script concerns and direction than his actual performance.
As the villain "Malekith", Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who) looks like a refugee from the Forgotten Realms fantasy series by way of the Borg (a comparison made all the more tongue-in-cheek given that the Borg Queen herself, Alice Krige, has a cameo in this film). Given that he's playing a character that solely exists (narratively and meta-textually) for the destruction of everything, there's not a whole lot to be expected by way of character nuance or development. He is appropriately driven and menacing, though his expression does seem more befuddled than actually menacing. As a villain, one could do worse.
Of course, fan favorite Loki is in the mix; his role expanded due to the character's rise in popularity. Ordinarily this would have been a source of concern, as more often than not re-writes to justify an actor's/character's expanded role can compromise the script, it's certainly not the case here.  Hiddleston gives a performance that deftly adds to the proceedings without overshadowing his co-stars, particularly Thor.  Loki's moral ambiguity remains intact throughout the tale, making him more compelling than his villainous turn in The Avengers. He provides the few genuine surprises to be had. Hiddleston knows when to be big and when to dial it back.  Even when he's being bad, he's oh, so good. He also has a quiet moment that is both shocking when juxtaposed with his normal carriage but understandable within context. Hiddleston gives a laudable presentation.

Natalie Portman's "Jane Foster", though still the film's damsel-in-distress, is not quite helpless.  However, for a scientist, her character doesn't seem to have sufficient chemistry with Thor. Hemsworth and Portman acquit the couple well, but quite frankly the passion that the couple is supposed to feel for each other is not quite there. We know the characters are in love because the story/script tells us they are, but the audience should feel this come viscerally from them. This is not in evidence; especially given the fact that Hemsworth seems to have more palpable chemistry with Jaimie Alexander.
Though many of the secondary characters have scant screen time, they never seem two-dimensional.  In fact, they fell more three-dimensional than they did in the first outing.  Possible-"Wonder Woman"-in-Training Jaimie Alexander infuses "Lady Sif" with an Amazonian regality which masks an unspoken yet emotionally palpable romantic pining for the Thunder God, for example. She has very little to say, but one cannot forget her presence when on screen. The tragedy of unrequited love evident in but a glance. Rene Russo, who portrayed "Frigga" in what amounted to a  blink-it-and-you'll-miss-it cameo in the first film, is given the opportunity to play with the big boys and she makes the most of it to such an extent you find yourself wishing there were more of her.  Idris Elba makes up for his Pacific Rim overacting by infusing Heimdall with a noble-yet-stately and powerful quiescence. His character is not one to be trifled with.  Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard, and newcomer to the series Jonathan Howard provide the human and welcomed comic relief.
If there is any sour note to the performances, it surprisingly comes from Sir Anthony Hopkins as "Odin". While his character is the epitome of the distant and unapproachable, never-pleased father figure, half the time Hopkins' performance (at times seemingly phoned in) seems to reflect an attitude that the material is beneath him.  However, despite this, there are moments of nuance in his performance; especially in one scene that would fall apart without it.  In that one moment, Hopkins earns his assuredly-costly paycheck. 
While Iron Man 3 was the most highly anticipated Marvel film of this year, Thor: The Dark World is arguably the superior film. While it doesn't quite live up to its potential, it is by no means a failure. Not in recent years has a super-hero production seem to embrace its source trappings without seeming embarrassed by them.  It's a big, loud and, yes, epic spectacle with a genuine heart and something that has been lacking in super-hero films of late: A hero to truly root for. At the film's conclusion, it is said that Thor will return.  This is one promise this reviewer hopes is kept.
[Oh, as for the now-requisite Marvel credits/post-credits scene...the mid-credit scene seems slipshod and hastily put together.  Definitely stay for the end credit scene. You'll be glad you did.]

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


***NOTE:  The following was never meant for publishing. However, given the increasing awareness of bullying and its unfortunate effects within our society, I thought it appropriate to show that it can and does happen to anyone.
Do you remember what you said to me at our twenty year high school reunion, “buddy”?
I’m really sorry for bullying you…but you have to admit, you really had it coming.”
I understand that time passes, we grow, we change. You’ve turned your life around; even become an educator at the very junior high we attended.  As you’ve intimated in our one and only conversation since those days that standing on the outside, surveying bully and bullied, that you’ve gained an understanding for what you did and claim that you can see how far reaching the damage can be to those bullied.
And yet you still have the temerity to state “[I] really had it coming”?
I had it coming? 
How so, Mr. “So-Called-Reformed-Bully?” You, with your back-handed apology, think you know what bullying does to a person.  You think I asked for it? You think I was weak? What you didn't know was that in my first two years of school I was a very violent child.  You never knew that when teased or cornered I would attack my peers with such savage, emotional fury the type of which only an enraged child can muster that my opponents would get seriously hurt; one of whom eventually ended up in the hospital. You never knew of the shame I would feel from my parents and the only teacher I adored and respected back then…of how they so thoroughly shamed me into never raising my hand in violence again. How I was practically forbidden to defend myself as my parents didn’t clarify the difference between violence and self-defense; how I could not retaliate for my opponent's (read: your) protection, not mine, for the rest of my scholastic life.
All I wanted to do was mind my own business, show up to my classes, do what was required, and leave.  You and your cronies went out of your way to seek me out to heap your daily dose of verbal and physical abuse. I carried all my heavy school books…yes, ALL…in my backpack to minimize any possibility of your cornering me at my locker. I learned your (and your buddies’) class and lunch schedules so as to navigate the hallways with the minimal possibility of running into you.  I minded my own business on those rare classes we shared, but that didn’t stop you from surreptitiously tying my belt loop to my chair so that when the bell rang, I almost cracked my skull open after my chair slipped from under me due to the force of my getting up. 
You never knew that during school days I would wake up with a feeling of anxious dread. You never knew the toll it took on my self-esteem…how the rest of you could go about your lives willy-nilly and how I had to stay in control.  Every hit, every punch, every verbal epitaph I received…all undeserved, yet stoically (at least outwardly) endured nonetheless because, in the back of my mind, the shame would return; shame in and shame out without expression or release, impotently drowning in my own salty sea of sorrow.
And that pain stays with you…no matter what the age or how much time has passed. It stings with the freshness of yesterday. It becomes a part of your make-up. It infuses so much of your decisions in life whether consciously or otherwise. You take up self-defense classes. You bulk up your body by adding muscle to your frame. You gain an empathy for those that the “too cool for school” set has written off and discarded. You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and trudge forward. You harden.  You compromise your ability to trust to keep from being betrayed.  You distance yourself from others to keep from feeling pain again.  You become a person who becomes virtually unrecognizable to the person who you used to be.  Yes, to some degree my own transformation is due in part because of you and your ilk. However, you should consider it a source of shame, not pride. Yes, one can move on from those experiences, learn from them, and let them go.  But despite that, the pain still remains as prevalent as a scar. It heals, bur remains.
When you said your “apology”, I gave you such a look that your own eyes registered momentary apprehension, and even perhaps a bit of fear; one which heightened when I approached you, stepped into your personal space, and told you where to shove that apology.  In that tiny, uncertain moment, you had but a miniscule taste of what I had felt for years of painful adolescence.  I hope you carry that with you for the rest of your days.  Maybe then, when you see it happen to others under your academic watch that you really make things right. Maybe then, I can believe you finally truly understand.  And maybe you might come to realize that of the two of us, you were the one who was really asking for it.