Thor: The Dark World

Posted on November 7, 2013 at 6:00 pm

Thor-The-Dark-World-Movie-2013-Review-Official-Trailer-Release-Date-1I always say that superhero movies are defined by their villains, and “Thor: The Dark World” has a lulu in Tom Hiddleston‘s Loki, who was not as vanquished at the end of “The Avengers” as we thought.  Thank goodness. Loki, the eternal trickster of Norse myth, is imprisoned by his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) at the beginning of the story.  But a once-in-5000-years celestial line-up brings on an attack by the Dark Elves, let by ninth Dr. Who Christopher Eccleston and “Oz’s” Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and soon Loki is freed.  Chris Hemsworth continues to bring all the requisite charisma and some welcome wit to the heroic Thor and Hopkins is nicely magisterial as the one-eyed Odin, but it is Hiddleston who is clearly having a blast as a god who lives for chaos and brings a jolt of pure devilish pleasure to every scene he is in.

That is particularly welcome because all those scenes in Asgard can get rather ponderous.  And the movie begins inauspiciously with some Tolkein-ian mumbo-jumbo about the battle with the Dark Elves and some icky black smokey-stuff that has some important power and a bunch of parallel universes.  Who cares — let’s get to the good stuff already.

Meanwhile, back on earth, the world’s most beautiful astrophysicist, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), is wondering whether her super-boyfriend is ever going to call.   Her colleague, Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) is running around with his pants off, and sometimes with the rest of his clothes off, too, and her intern (Kat Dennings) and her intern’s intern are helping her investigate some very strange gravitational anomalies.  All of this, except for the boyfriend part, relates to this once in a quinti-millennium astrological line-up that opens up portals or melts the boundaries or some crazy thing that lets the parallel universes seep into each other.  Jane gets slimed by the black smokey stuff and Thor whisks her away to Asgard.  I wish I could say it was a side effect of the smoke that has her more concerned about the significance of meeting her boyfriend’s parents than a scientific inquiry into the nature of the home of the Norse gods, or understanding the life-threatening nature of the Dark Elves’ smoke.   But no.

Pantlessness aside, there are some genuinely funny moments, including a surprise appearance by one of the other Avengers and a mid-battle trip on the subway.  The fight scenes are strong, well staged by “Game of Thrones” director Alan Taylor, and there are some predictably cool special effects.  Rene Russo is fine as Frieda and there are not one but two extra scenes in the credits.  But the reason to see the movie is Loki — he should get his own movie next time around.

Parents should know that the movie includes extended comic-book-style action violence with some graphic images, characters injured and killed, a hand chopped off, fatal stabbing, some strong language, and comic nudity (nothing shown).

Family discussion: How does Thor compare to other superheroes? Did you like the touches of comedy or find them distracting?

If you like this, try: “The Avengers” and the first Thor movie.

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Action/Adventure Scene After the Credits

Rush

Posted on September 26, 2013 at 6:00 pm

RUSHThe immensely gifted screenwriter Peter Morgan reunites with his “Frost/Nixon” director Ron Howard and returns to his favorite theme, a real-life drama about the clash between two brilliantly talented but flawed figures. This time it is the bitter rivalry between Formula One race car drivers James Hunt (“Thor’s” Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (“Inglourious Basterds'” Daniel Brühl).  The British Hunt is Maverick to the Austrian Lauda’s Iceman, the Michael to his Sonny, the id to Lauda’s superego.

Both were the rebellious sons of wealthy fathers.  Hunt is handsome, careless, and catnip to the ladies.  “He will have you pulling your hair out nine days out of ten,” a character says, but on the tenth day, when you need him, he will deliver.  Lauda is methodical and analytical.  He calculates the odds.  But they both know that they are among the very few who know what it feels like to get into a car that is essentially a bomb on wheels and speed it around a racetrack.  They both do it not because they like driving in circles but because they like to test themselves.  They both like to win, even need to win.  And, as they remind us perhaps one or two times too many in this film, they both know that the best way to do that is to compete against one another.  “The only people  I can get along with are those who can drive fast,” Hunt says.  He does not really get along with them, either.

Hemsworth, 30 pounds lighter than his Thor/Avengers muscled-up Norse god look, is able to make Hunt magnetic even in 70’s hair.  We meet him as he walks into an emergency room with a bashed nose, not from a racing accident, from a jealous husband.  The pretty nurse (Natalie Dormer) asks what he did to anger the husband and he rakishly offers to show her.  The curtain rings squeal against the rod as it is quickly swung around and soon he is introducing her to his pit crew as “Nursie.”  No time to learn her name, and no need.

Hunt was the James Bond of race car drivers, sexy, sophisticated, and fearless.  But I don’t think James Bond ever threw up before a confrontation.  “Rebels, lunatics, dreamers,” he tells us about race car drivers. “People who are desperate to make a mark and willing to die for it.”  Formula One averaged two deaths a year.  But, he adds, “The closer you are to death, the more alive you feel.”

Lauda says his brain is not that strong but his ass is very smart.  He can tell from a car’s vibrations under the seat that a fan belt will be in trouble and which tire needs air.  He negotiates his driving deals the way he drives, calmly but ruthlessly.   He gets up early to walk the track.  He calculates risk constantly and accurately.  When he explains that one race should be called off because the heavy rainstorm has made conditions unsafe, Hunt, behind on points, persuades the other drivers to vote to continue.  Lauda is very badly injured, including burns on his face and severe lung damage.  In one of the most extraordinary comebacks in the history of sports, Lauda was back on the track 42 days later, against doctor’s orders but able to compete.  In what passed for cheerfulness from the dour Austrian, he told the press that there was one advantage to the skin grafts on his forehead.  They don’t sweat, so he would no longer be bothered by sweat dripping in his eyes.  And, has his wife told him, you drive with your foot, not your face.

Howard conveys the pressure and the thrill of Formula One racing, giving us the view from inside the helmet, and showing us that Hunt’s air of casual mastery is accompanied by a nervous habit of playing with the cap on his cigarette lighter.   He shows us how Hunt and Lauda are always racing, whether it is Hunt visualizing the track or Lauda walking it, competing for the best cars and sponsors, or exchanging barbed comments about whether it is more important to be feared than loved.  The action is electrifying, on and off the track.

Parents should know that this movie includes some disturbing images of crashes and injuries, very strong language, sexual references and situations with nudity, drinking, smoking, and drug use, as well as a great deal of reckless behavior.

Family discussion: What were the most important ways in which Hunt and Lauda were alike?  If you were a sponsor, which would you hire and why?

If you like this, try: “Winning” with Paul Newman, “Grand Prix” with James Garner, and “Le Mans” with Steve McQueen, and Peter Morgan’s “The Damned United” about another real-life sports rivalry.

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Based on a true story Drama Sports

Red Dawn

Posted on November 20, 2012 at 5:58 pm

There was much to improve in the original version of “Red Dawn,” a simple-minded fantasy film about a communist invasion of small town America: the plot, which asked us to believe that Cuban and Soviet invaders would focus their attention on subduing the teenage population of a town with no military significance; the dialogue, which was hilariously wooden; the special effects (the bad guys tracked our heroes using a locator that appears to have been borrowed from a 1930s Flash Gordon serial); the acting (despite a cast of future stars such as Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen, the original “Red Dawn” left the actors little to do except shoot guns and emote in their mountain hideouts); the production values (unseen artillery and aircraft shelled a lone tank in the middle of a vacant field with what appeared to be firecrackers). In fact, everything about the original “Red Dawn” had a childlike simplicity that made it endearing to audiences.

The plot of the new “Red Dawn” mimics the original in most respects.  Members of the Wolverines, a high school football team, refuse to surrender to or collaborate with the invaders (this time from Asia) the way many of their disappointing parents do. They take to the hills, learn to fight and inspire a resistance movement.  Along the way they learn lessons about loyalty, patriotism, and the price of the freedoms we all hold dear.  Older brother Jed Eckert is played by Chris Hemsworth (Thor from “The Avengers”) while younger brother Matty Eckert is played by Josh Peck. The obligatory girlfriend who looks hot in guerrilla garb is played by Adrianne Palicki.

MGM looked at the original formula and decided that if it was going to upgrade just one ingredient, it would be the quality of the explosions.  No firecrackers here, the new and improved “Red Dawn” has serious explosions and gunfire.  A residential neighborhood is blown up with high definition digital effects.  First time director Dan Bradley was previously a stunt coordinator and it shows.  We see house to house gunfights that look and sound authentic.  The new version uses realistic blood, rather than the Heinz ketchup favored by the producers of the original.

The problem is, this change in the formula disrupts the equilibrium that gave the original its charm.  Every element of the original was equally unpersuasive.  By making bullets more persuasive, Bradley only highlights the dumbnicity of the rest.

Worse, the new Red Dawn is a less kind movie.  Along with the more realistic violence, there is more drinking and profanity.  Unfortunately, the dialogue that is supposed to glue these elements together remains as insubstantial as the dialogue in the cartoonish original.  (Says the young guerrilla leader: “We have to make it too hard and too difficult for them.”)  One other change — the Soviet Union no longer being available as invaders, this film substituted the Chinese when it was shot a few years ago until the distributors who ended up with it after the first group ran out of money figured out that Chinese people constitute a very big audience for films, preferably ones that don’t make them the bad guys.  So, the Chinese invaders were digitally altered to make them North Korean.

The new “Red Dawn” is slicker than the original but it lacks the heart that was the only redeeming feature of the first version.  It is a meaner production, and probably not worth your time unless you go for the explosions, which are pretty good.

Parents should know that this film has extensive and sometimes graphic images of battle with guns and explosions, fighting, with characters injured and killed, and very strong language.

Family discussion: Why did some parents instruct their children to cooperate with the invaders? What made some people in the town choose to resist?  What would be the hardest thing for you about fighting the invaders?  How were the Wolverines like our founding fathers?

If you like this, try: the original 1984 version starring Patrick Swayze

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Action/Adventure Remake War

Snow White and the Huntsman

Posted on May 31, 2012 at 6:06 pm

Director Rupert Sanders is known for making television commercials that look like fairy tales, with angels falling from the sky for a guy who uses Axe body spray and a boy battling samurai warriors with Excalibur to sell X-Box game consoles.  With his first feature film he has made a fairy tale that looks like a commercial, with every frame filled with eye-popping images and a lot of dramatic posing.  A 30 second version would have made a great commercial for perfume or skin cream.  As a movie, it is just so-so, with uneven performances and dodgy pacing.  After over 100 movie versions of the classic fairy tale about the girl whose lips are red as blood, skin is white as snow, and hair black as ebony and the evil stepmother who orders her taken into the woods and killed, the Disney animated version is still the fairest of them all.

Like Tarsem’s superior “Mirror Mirror,” released earlier this year, this version makes Snow White into an action heroine, leading the battle against her evil stepmother.  Charlize Theron plays Ravenna, who literally bewitches a king grieving for his late wife.  She murders him on their wedding night, taking over his kingdom with the help of her creepy brother/henchman Finn (Sam Spruell) and locking the young princess in a grubby tower.  Ravenna cares for just one thing — eternal beauty.  She swans around looking haughty in fabulous Colleen Atwood costumes that can best be described as haute predator couture, with all kinds of intricate spikes and skulls.  Everything is either sharp or poisonous and laced-up tightly, with talon-like finger-armor.  She stalks and flounces nicely but when it is time for her to get ferocious she is all eye-rolls and screeches, a bad version of Carol Burnett doing Norma Desmond.

Ravenna has an enormous gold mirror that looks like giant frisbee hanging on the wall, and the robed creature who lives inside assures her that she is the fairest in the land.  She also gets some reassurance from skeevy Finn, with whom she shares the creepiest brother watching his sister take a bath scene since “Bunny Lake is Missing.”  You also know he’s twisted from his terrible haircut, a sort of medieval mullet.

While Ravenna is bathing in thick cream and literally sucking the life out of young women, Snow White (Kristen Stewart) is still locked in the tower.  For years.  But she stays so pure that when the birds come to perch on her window, she does not grab and eat them.  She just allows them to show her a loose nail she can use as a weapon, which comes in very handy as Finn arrives shortly to indicate some predatory tendencies and take her to the queen.  The mirror guy has informed Ravenna that Snow White has come of age.  Her purity is so powerful that she alone has the power to destroy Ravenna, says the mirror.  But her power is so great that if Ravenna can eat her heart, she will no longer need touch-ups and refills.  Her beauty will stay as it is forever.

When Snow White escapes into the Dark Forest, where everything is creepy and scary and even Ravenna has no power.  The only person who knows the Dark Forest well enough to bring her back is The Huntsman (no name), played by “The Avengers'” Thor, Chris Hemsworth.  Ravenna promises to bring his dead wife back to life if he will capture the prisoner and he agrees to go.  But Snow White isn’t the only one who gets tripped up in the forest.  Sanders gets much too enmeshed in all of the tree-branches-turning to snakes-style special effects and the forest section of the film goes on much too long, with at least three too many set-ups and confrontations, including the return of Finn.  And it gets worse when they emerge into a sort of Light Forest fairyland, when the story really starts to go haywire, with a whole “chosen one” theme that had people in the audience groaning.  Stewart is out of her league.  She is fine playing characters like the vulnerable Bella in “Twilight,” but when called on here to inspire the troops, she sounds like she is ordering pizza.

And then there are the dwarfs.  It is hard to imagine that in 2012 anyone could think it is appropriate to cast full-size actors, no matter how talented and no matter how persuasive the special effects, as little people.  It is a shame to see Bob Hoskins, Nick Frost, Ian McShane, Toby Jones, and others in roles that should be played by little people.  By the time they show up, the plot has fallen apart, with an unnecessary love triangle and a preposterous encounter with a troll.  Nearly everyone’s accents waver, some of the dialogue is truly awful, and I am certain no one in a fairy tale should ever use the word “okay.”  Recasting Snow White as the hero of her own story is long overdue and production designer Dominic Watkins creates some real magic.  But this is not only not the best Snow White; it’s not the best one in the last four months.

 

Parents should know that this film includes fantasy and battle violence with many characters injured and killed, and some graphic and disturbing images including bloody wounds, bugs, and snakes.  There is brief partial nudity and some scenes of a brother watching his sister bathe and then suggestively touching a young woman in a predatory manner.

Family discussion:  How did Ravenna’s costumes reflect her character?  How did the three drops of blood spilled by both characters’ mothers show their connection?

If you like this, try: Some of the more than 100 other movie versions of this story including the recent “Mirror Mirror” and the Disney animated classic

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Epic/Historical Fantasy Remake
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