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Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

With the continued runaway success of the box-office juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it becomes more and more preposterous just how strange and unique it can be. You would think a mega franchise this valuable would be more prone to playing it safe, hiring established visual stylists who can produce product. Instead, the MCU finds interesting creative voices that can succeed within their very big sandbox. Enter New Zealand actor and quirky director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows), one of the most surprising directorial hires in a decade of blockbusters. The Thor movies are generally considered some of the weakest films in the MCU, so there’s already plenty of room for improvement. With Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok is easily the best Thor movie and one of the funniest to date for the MCU. It’s finally a Thor movie that embraces its silly, campy, ridiculous world and finds space to cram in more eccentricity.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has returned to his home world of Asgard to find it in great peril. His brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been ruling in their father’s stead, and that’s not even the worst part. Thor’s heretofore-unannounced older sister Hera (Cate Blanchett) has been unleashed from her prison and is seeking the throne she feels is rightfully hers. She is the goddess of death and chafes at Asgard’s revisionist history, trying to paint over its history as conquerors for something kinder and gentler. Thor is banished to an outlying planet, Sakaar, that’s essentially a junkyard for the universe. He’s captured by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and sold to fight in the Grandmaster’s (Jeff Goldblum) arena. Thor is trained to fight in gladiatorial combat, and his opponent and reigning champion is none other than the Hulk a.k.a. Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) alter ego. Thor must break free, convince the Hulk for help, get off this planet, and save Asgard before it’s too late.

Waititi has acclimated himself extremely well in the large-scaled world of blockbuster filmmaking, and yet his signature quirky sense of style and humor are still evident throughout, making Ragnarok the best Thor film. Let’s face it, the Thor films are completely ridiculous and trying to treat them as anything but is wasted effort. These movies involve alien Norse gods traveling by rainbow bridges and even though they can traverse the cosmos in spaceships they still sling giant broad swords. The more the films embrace the inherent silliness of the series the better. Ragnarok is the Thor movie that gets all the serious stuff out of the way in the first act, tying up loose ends from 2013’s Dark World, checking in with Anthony Hopkins’ Odin and the requisite MCU cameo (a superfluous Doctor Strange), and then introducing Thor’s long-lost twisted sister. From Blanchett’s intro, the movie becomes what it was set out to be, a lavish and consistently funny buddy comedy. Gone are all the Earthly constraints from the prior two films. It’s all aliens from here on out. Thor has everything stripped from him, his hammer, his family, his hair, and becomes an underdog once again. It’s a surefire way to make a living god more relatable. Fighting from the ground up, Thor makes all sorts of new friends and enemies, and it’s this evolution into an ensemble comedy where Waititi’s film shines. There’s a jovial touch to the world building that extends from the visuals to the variety of odd characters. Thor has never been more entertaining as Hemsworth (Ghostbusters) is able to stop being so serious and embrace his underutilized comedic chops. The man has a stunning sense of comedic delivery and a dry wit that’s right at home for Waititi. Hemsworth and his daffy sense of humor have never been better in the MCU.

Even with the added comic refinery, Thor is still the most boring of the Avengers, so Ragnarok solves this by introducing a new bevy of side characters that steal the show. The wacky world of the Thor universe was always its best aspect, and each new film pushes the boundaries a little further out, revealing more weird and wild planets and creatures. It feels like a Star Wars where we spend our time with the weird, scuzzy part of the universe. Ragnarok pushes those boundaries the furthest yet and introduces an entire cadre of loveable supporting players that you want to spend more time with. Tessa Thompson has a wonderful and intimidating introduction as she swoops in on a spaceship, makes her badass claim of her prized bounty, and then trips and falls, as she is quite tipsy from drinking. She regains her literal footing and still seems a bit out of it, but the ensuring process she goes through to claim what is hers is thoroughly impressive. As a Valkyrie, this is one tough woman, and Thompson (Creed) has great fun playing bad. She really reminded me of a female Han Solo. Thompson has a wily screwball chemistry with Hemsworth, and both actors elevate the other with lively give-and-take. Thompson is a terrific new addition. She has an enticing, irascible appeal without overt sexualization that sometimes befalls the Marvel female sidekicks (Black Widow, Pepper Potts).

Another character you’ll fall in love with is Korg, a rock monster gladiator played in motion-capture and drolly voiced by director Waititi himself. My question: is it possible for a director to steal his own movie? This is a character that feels stripped from one of Waititi’s dry, absurdist comedies and placed into the MCU. Korg is a would-be revolutionary but really he’s a joke machine and just about every line is gold. By the end of the movie, I needed a Korg spin-off series to further explore this unusual character.

The requisite villains of the film definitely play their roles to full camp, enjoying every moment. Blanchett (Carol) is like a Gothic Joan Crawford, marching with a slinky step and a sneer. Her multi-antler helmet completes the operatic sweep of the character. You’ll forgive me for my above comment on recognizing female characters independent of their sexuality, but man oh man does Goth Blanchett make me happy (especially with her hair down). It’s a shame that the movie doesn’t really know what to do with Hela though. Every time we cut back to her I found myself getting somewhat impatient. I wanted to return back to the weird and wild world Thor was on. Blanchett is entertaining but her character can’t help but feel a bit shoehorned in (“Hey, you had a long-lost sister, and oh by the way, she’s basically Death itself, and she’s coming by to retake everything, so have fun with that and sorry for the short notice”). Goldblum (Independence Day: Resurgence) is left to his Goldblum devices and it’s everything you would want. His signature stuttering deadpan is just as potent in the MCU, and the film finds strange little asides for him to make him even more entertaining. Karl Urban (Star Trek Beyond) has a plum role as Hela’s second-in-command who doesn’t really want the job. They actually gave this guy a character arc. It’s simple, sure, but it was more than I was expecting.

Ragnarok is a swan dive into a stylized, candy-colored explosion of 80s album covers come alive. The visuals and action feel inspired as much from the art of Jack Kirby as they do the pages of Heavy Metal. The overwhelming feel is one of irresistible fun, something you lean back, soak up, and smile from ear to ear in between handfuls of popcorn. The final battle feels suitably climactic and revisits Led Zeppelin’s immortal “Immigrant Song” once the action peaks, coalescing into a crescendo of cool. The trinkly 80s synth score from Mark Mothersbaugh (The Lego Movie) is fantastic and helps to achieve an extra kitschy kick. This movie is just flat-out fun throughout. It finds fun things for the characters to do, like when Banner has to not Hulk out on an alien world filled with stressors to trigger such an occurrence. That sequence almost feels like the grown-up, polished version of Adam West desperately running around as TV’s Batman in need of trying to find a place to dispose of a lit bomb. There’s an archness to the action and character interactions that is playful without being obnoxiously glib. I also enjoyed a climax that involved more than just out-punching the villains. Some might even charitably read it as a commentary on the over reliance of apocalyptic grandeur.

Playing from behind because of its hero’s limitations, Thor: Ragnarok finally embraces the silliness of its franchise, opening up more comic channels and vastly improving its entertainment quotient. The weird word and its collection of odd and oddly compelling characters is the best feature, and though it takes Ragnarok a bit of time for house cleaning, it becomes a steadily amusing big-budget blockbuster that maintains a cracked and lively sense of humor. It’s allowed to be strange and silly and campy. Waititi’s imaginative voice is still very present throughout the film, pushing the movie into fun and funny directions while still delivering the sci-fi action spectacle we’ve come to expect from the MCU. Ragnarok isn’t as deep as Civil War, as perfectly structured as Homecoming, or as subversive and different as Guardians of the Galaxy, but with a droll creative mind like Waititi, it becomes about the best possible Thor movie it can be.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)

Unlike many of my critical brethren, I do not view Michael Bay as the devil incarnate. I think the man has definite talent and is one of the finest visual stylists working in the realm of film. I’ve enjoyed about half of the Transformers franchise and don’t consider it the end-all-be-all of modern American cinema. Transformers: The Last Knight is exactly what the detractors have railed against from the start: a cacophonous ejaculation of incomprehensible nonsense. The charge has often been made against Bay’s long filmography that his stories are unintelligible, but Transformers 5 proves to be the new measuring point for incensed incredulity. This isn’t only the worst Transformers entry in a seemingly never-ending franchise (thanks product placement, merchandising, and toy sales) but an early contender for worst film of 2017.

Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) is hiding out with other Autobots in a South Dakota junkyard awaiting the return of Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen). Prime ventured into space to find the remnants of the Autobot home world, Cybertron. Once found, he’s brainwashed by the Cybertron goddess Quintessa (Gemma Chan) into being her servant. She’s after an ancient staff that will prove to be the key to restarting Cybertron. It was last seen on Earth during the Dark Ages and rumor has it was given to Merlin. Cade is enlisted by a centuries-long secret society to help find the staff before the evil forces at bay get hold of it.

It feels like the Transformers 5 writers were on a week-long cocaine bender when they cobbled together this impenetrable narrative. Let me give you but a taste of the confusing, muddled, and overall mind-numbing plot as it exists. There’s a magic staff from the robot world that will recharge the robot world, and it just so happens 12 robot knights, which form a giant robot dragon, landed on Earth and gave it to Merlin, played by a soused Stanley Tucci who was already a different character in the fourth Transformers movie, who then established a secret order that would keep the giant alien robots secret even as they were doing things as high-profile as literally killing Hitler, and the members of this secret society include Frederick Douglass and Queen Elizabeth and Shia LeBouf, and this staff needs to be retrieved from an underwater spaceship under Stonehenge by Merlin’s blood progeny and will be aided by an alien talisman that forms an alien sword that does something, and the evil alien robots are going to recharge their planet by scraping the Earth’s crust, which has horns protruding from it that once aligned with Pangaea, and there’s an evil alien robot goddess who brainwashes Optimus Prime to retrieve her magical items on demand and then Megatron is being hired the U.S. government and a team of special ops are trailing him to get to the staff and… I’m sorry; did your brain start bleeding out your ears? I looked over to my friend Ben Bailey during the screening and saw him slumped over in his chair and thought, for a fraction of a second, that the movie had literally killed him (he had just fallen asleep for the third time). What an ignoble end.

The movie is a nonstop barrage of yelling and movement, an assault on the senses that leaves you dumbfounded and dazed, and without anything to moor onto. Almost every single actor is on screen for one of two purposes: quips or exposition. These are not characters but devices for words that ultimately don’t make sense. Wahlberg has two different female sidekicks. For the first half, he’s got a plucky teen that serves as a surrogate daughter figure. Izabella (Isabella Moner) is a kid with attitude and carefully arranged strands of hair that always fall over her face in every single shot in the entire movie. Izabella’s introduction actually might be the highlight of an otherwise soul-crushing experience. Then Wahlberg leaves for England and he adopts a new sidekick, this time the hot smart woman who changes into a more comfortable outfit but literally keeps her heels. Vivian (Laura Haddock) is pretty much the next in a long line of highly sexualized, tawny female characters under Bay’s alluring gaze (I wrote about the second film: “Women don’t seem to exist in the Michael Bay world, only parts and pieces of women.”). Her mother doesn’t care about the end of the human world, or her daughter’s many academic credentials, and instead pesters her about getting herself a man. This leads to one of the film’s worst comedic moments, as Vivian’s mother and friends giggle and eavesdrop on her and Wahlberg trashing a library as a spontaneous bout of sexy time. Wouldn’t it be weird for anyone’s mother to take pleasure in listening to your escapades and offer a play-by-play?

But the strangest characters are Anthony Hopkins’ Sir Edmund Burton and his 4-foot robot ninja (voiced by Jim Carter). You can clearly tell that Hopkins didn’t care at all what he was saying. He uncorks ungainly monologues with relish and then transitions into strained comedy as a doddering old man. The robot butler begins as a C3PO-esque prim and proper servant with a disarming fighting ability, and it works. However, as the movie progresses, the robot butler gets downright belligerent and seemingly drunk. It’s truly bizarre, as if this robot is acting out to be seen like he’s one of the cool kids, but whom exactly is he trying to impress? At one point, he tells Wahlberg that he is “on my shit list” and torpedoes out of a submarine, brings back fish, prepares a sushi dinner for the humans while supplying ingredients that were totally not found on a WWII-era sub that was parked as a tourist locale up until 20 minutes ago. The character makes no sense and seems to bounce around behavioral extremes. Take this passage late into the film:

Robot Butler: “Of all the earls I’ve served-“
Me: “You were the greatest?”
Robot Butler: “-You were the coolest.”
Me: “Whaaaaaaaa?”

Another confusing part of the film is the setting of its story. We’re five movies in to an alien civil war taking place on Earth, so you would assume that normal life shouldn’t feel normal after so many catastrophes. Egypt was destroyed in the second film (only Six Wonders of the World left in your punch card, Bay), Chicago was decimated in the third film, and China was blown up in the fourth film. It’s about time that people started paying attention to these things and behaving differently. A new government agency is tasked with hunting down Transformers and there are war zone portions of the world that are quarantined, but that’s about it. I initially thought this fifth movie was going to take place in a somewhat post-apocalyptic Earth where human beings have to struggle to survive. That’s not Transformers 5 at all. It seems all too easy to ignore reality; Wahlberg’s daughter is away at college. After four movies, the world of this franchise needed a jump in its stakes. Bay’s films have always possessed an alarming sense of urgency but it rarely feels earned. Characters yelling, running, and explosions going off like fireworks isn’t the same thing as genuinely developed stakes.

Another confusing aspect of Transformers 5 is Bay’s jumbled aspect ratios (i.e. how wide the frame of the movie is presented). Sizeable portions were shot on IMAX, which has become all the rage for action movie directors since Nolan’s The Dark Knight. I expected that. What I didn’t expect was three different aspect ratios that jumped from shot to shot. Two characters will be having a conversation and the aspect ratio will cycle and it rips me out of the movie every time (there are SIX credited editors). The Dark Knight’s IMAX sequences worked because they were sustained sequences. I expect the higher-grade IMAX film stock for the expansive action or picturesque landscapes to take in the natural splendor. What I wasn’t expecting was measly interior conversations to be filmed in IMAX. Did I really need to watch a conversation with Vivian and her mother in IMAX to fully appreciate their bookshelf? Like much else in this perfunctory movie, this game of pin-the-tail-on-the-aspect-ratio makes no sense.

I don’t normally like to quote myself, but reading over my concluding paragraph of 2011’s Dark of the Moon, I was struck by how much of my assessment could equally apply to the fifth film, even down to the exact running-time: “Transformers: Dark of the Moon is likely everything fans would want from a franchise built around the concept of robots that fight. There’s wanton destruction, a plethora of noisy explosions, and plenty of eye candy both in special effects wizardry and pouty, full-lipped women. But at a colossal 150-minute running time, this is a Transformers film that punishes as much as it entertains. There’s really no reason a movie about brawling robots should be this long. There’s no reason it should have to resort to so much dumb comedy. There’s no reason that the women should be fetishized as if they were another sleek line of sexy cars. There’s no reason why something labeled a ‘popcorn movie’ can’t deliver escapist thrills and have a brain too.” Take this assessment and times it by ten for The Last Knight. The incomprehensible plotting, infantile humor, nonchalant misogyny, empty action bombast, and dispiriting nature of the film are enough to suck the life out of you. I was bored tremendously and contemplated walking out on the movie (I stayed for you, dear reader). It feels like the screenplay was put into a blender. Transformers 5 is exhausting and exhaustively mechanical, and if this is the first start in a larger Expanded Transformers Cinematic Universe (ETCU?) then resistance may be futile. Still, it’s worth fighting against brain-dead spectacle that only moves you to the exits.

Nate’s Grade: D

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

105636_galLoosely based off the Norse mythology, Marvel’s hammer-wielding hero isn’t exactly the easiest character to relate to even as a superhero. Thor is a god after all. Not to be outdone, the man is also royalty, next in line to be king, so he’s in a special class of privilege. And yet 2011’s Thor was a pleasant surprise, a superhero movie that didn’t take itself too seriously, had modest aims, and embraced its sci-fi fantasy mélange. It was a movie where the sillier it got the better it worked. Now Thor: The Dark World, a.k.a. Thor 2, is ready to dominate the fall box-office and prove that Joe and Jane Popcorn can cheer for a pagan god.

Following the events of The Avengers, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is taken back to his home world of Asgard and put in prison. Loki’s brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), is trying to get back to Earth to reunite with his love, scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Thor is being groomed for the throne of Asgard by his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Meanwhile, the nine worlds are nearing a convergence and dimensional gateways are opening, including one that infects Jane with an ancient biological weapon, the aether. The aether was used as a weapon by the dark elves, a race of creatures that was long ago defeated but its general, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), has been dormant and in hiding. Alterted, he assembles his surviving army to attack Asgard, kidnap Jane Foster, retrieve the aether, and destroy all life in the universe.

109997_galThor is still a second tier character when it comes to Marvel superheroes (the guy just isn’t that interesting) but his franchise has, in only two starring films, become the most interesting. The scope of the Thor movies seems infinite. Whereas the other Marvel heroes are Earthbound and straightforward, Thor transports an audience to all sorts of alien worlds/cultures/conflicts, all of which open up more tantalizing storytelling avenues. Nothing seems out of place in a setting such as this, and so the surprises are more satisfying. I thought the best parts of 2011’s Thor were the Asgard moments, less the strained fish-out-of-water comedy of Thor assimilating on Earth. Thankfully, almost all of Thor 2 takes place off Earth save for a rousing, creative, inter-dimensional hopscotch of a climax. The realm of Asgard is given suitable scope thanks to the screenwriters and first-time feature film director Alan Taylor, who worked in TV for years. Taylor’s notable work on HBO’s Game of Thrones is probably what got him this gig, and his vision with fantasy is given significant breadth here. The Thor universe is an interesting mix of fantasy and sci-fi, reminiscent of Star Wars, and Taylor provides the necessary sweeping visuals, exciting action, and glorious shirtless close-ups we come to expect from our fantasy vistas. I was consistently impressed with Taylor’s command of visuals and shot selection, particularly how the man was able to juggle the various tones and needs of the script while still keeping an exposition-heavy film fun and light.

With rainbow bridges, dark elves, and enchanted hammers, thank goodness that Thor 2 keeps a steady and welcome sense of humor, never getting too serious even with the end of existence on the line. This jovial tone is refreshing when properly executed and contributes to the overall fun of the picture. We’ve had such sturm und drang when it comes to our superhero movies, particularly last summer’s Man of Steel misfire. I appreciate a dark and gloomy superhero tale like Nolan’s Batman films, or a satirical swipe like the original Kick-Ass, but we need stories that fit with their tone. When it comes to Thor, he’s still saving the world, rescuing his damsel, but the attitude, while on its face regal and serious, is anything but. The Thor movies accept the absurdities of its setting and just shrugs, plowing along. And now with Jane on Asgard, the fish-out-of-water comedy gets a different perspective. She gets to meet Thor’s parents (awkward) and an Asgardian who has a thing for the hunky Norseman (double awkward… I’ll stop the 90s catch phrases now). Thor 2 also gives Jane Foster much more to do, placing her front and center as a person integral to the stability of the universe. During the snazzy climax, she gets to run around and contribute in a meaningful manner. The there’s the plucky Kat Dennings (TV’s 2 Broke Girls) who gets to rattle off one-liners like a pro, many of them grounding the elevated levels of silliness. Much of the humor comes from the cocksure characters and their quips, particularly Loki.

And that’s as good as any place to interject my notion that Thor isn’t truly the main character in this film, despite what the title preceding the colon may lead you to believe. That honor goes to Loki, the greatest villain in any modern Marvel movie by far. He’s got the clearest arc in the movie, going through arguably the most personal pain, coming to a crossroads, and his conclusion certainly sets up sizable ramifications down the road for the presumptive Thor 3. Played by Hiddleston (War Horse), the character draws you in, even when he’s throwing his self-aggrandized temper tantrums you want to spend more time with him. He’s far and away the most developed and interesting character onscreen, and Hiddleston has such a gleeful malevolence to him that makes the character all the more electric and unpredictable. Thor 2 is really the story of Loki coming to terms with his life’s choices, the choices his adopted parents made, his sense of self and birthright, and moving forward, becoming his own man again. This is why Thor 2 ascends another entertainment rung by tying Loki into the main story, forcing him and Thor to work together against a common enemy.

106046_galIn a film dominated by a charismatic Loki, it’s no wonder that Thor 2’s real bad guy falls woefully short. Malekith is a confusing and altogether lackluster antagonist in every conceivable way. He has no personality to him; he’s simple-minded with the goal of eradicating the universe. I don’t know about you, but my bad guys better have a pretty good reason for destroying the universe since they kinda live there too. This is one of the lazier villain plot devices because it has no nuance, no shading. Apparently before there was a universe there were dark elves. I don’t want to get caught in a chicken-egg paradox here, but was there a universe before the universe, cause I look at the universe like existence’s garage. The cars inside may change but the garage was standing before it all. Anyway, Malekith wants to destroy all life because he wants to, because certainly you’d think there would be enough space in space. He’s not even that threatening or given any particular advantage beyond some firepower. It’s no wonder that Loki runs circles around this chump in the villain department. Eccleston (Unfinished Song) is not at fault. The heavy makeup he’s under smothers the actor’s ability to polish this terrible character.

The rest of the acting fares better. At this point, we know what we’re getting with Hemsworth (Snow White and the Huntsman) as the title character. He’s a sturdy leading man with just enough appeal to satisfy, though part of it is that Thor is just dull as a hero. He was more entertaining when he was cocky and irresponsible. Portman (Black Swan) holds her own though the romance between her and Thor feels more forced. Hopkins (Red 2) strikes the right mix between regal and camp. While their roles aren’t exactly integral, it’s nice having a superhero movie stuffed with great actors like Idris Elba, Ray Stevenson, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Clive Russell, and there’s even an amusing appearance by Chris O’Dowd, who effortlessly oozes charm (take note, Thor).

This a superhero movie that separates itself by its sheer sense of fun. Thor: The Dark World takes what worked in the previous movie and provides more of it. The campy, silly Asgard stuff is given even more time, the mischievous sense of humor is renewed, the fantasy worlds given more depth and better action/effects, and fan favorite Loki gets a big starring role this time with extra brotherly bickering. It’s not the best superhero movie, nor is it the best Marvel film of recent years, but Thor 2 knows what kind of movie it wishes to be and how to best achieve this. It’s a loopy, droll, and rather imaginative big-budget superhero film, while still finding ways to be somewhat generic with its overall plotting and character turns. While the action is suitably epic, it’s the character interactions that are the most enjoyable aspect. It seems excessively lazy to say that if you enjoyed the first Thor, you’ll probably enjoy the second one as well, but there it is. Perhaps next time the storyline won’t be as convoluted and we can get even more Loki. Barring that, I’ll accept additional Chris O’Dowd screen time.

Nate’s Grade: B

RED 2 (2013)

RED_2_11Pretty much more of the same, RED 2 feels too safe, too breezy and light-hearted, and while still fun in spots, you garner the impression that what was once sufficiently silly has gone overboard. The jokes feel flat and the characters aren’t properly integrated, especially Helen Mirren and a vengeful hired killer (Byung-hun Lee). The villains are a tad bland, but we’re here for the wacky retired special agents, so it’s forgivable. However, the good guys feel like they’d rather be elsewhere. Too much of the story is taken up by the frustrating Bad Girlfriend Plot wherein our hero Frank (Bruce Willis) is harangued by his girlfriend, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker). I’m not even saying that her character is nagging or shrewish or anything like that, but the movie treats her like she’s dragging him down. We’re also treated to many comedic setups of Sarah trying her hand as a spy to mixed results. Parker is actually the best part of the movie, and maybe because she’s the only character that gets to do something different. RED 2 lacks the visual style of the first film and, inevitably, the freshness of its cavalier old fogies. The action is passable but is that really the adjective you want for a movie? I don’t know what more I was expecting since the first RED felt like a well-executed lark, but at least it had enough style and an impish attitude to leave me entertained. Its sequel is likeable but mostly trying to get by on your good feelings for the last movie.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Hitchcock (2012)

I think Alfred Hitch1897cock would be amused at his continued notoriety, not just from the quality of his films but also from the magnitude of his own presence. 2012 offers not one but two different movies about the master of suspense, both of which are oddly close in time period. HBO’s The Girl explored Tippi Hedren’s account of what it was like to film The Birds, with Hitchcock being a provocateur. The more straight-forwardly named Hitchcock looks at Alfred’s trials to make one of his seminal films, 1960’s Psycho. I only wish that the movie spent more time on Psycho and less time on the Hitchcock marriage.

Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is starting to feel like he’s being left behind in Hollywood. He’s looking for his new project, something to rekindle his creative fervor, get those juices flowing once more. Then he comes across the book Psycho, based upon the murders of Ed Gein, a man who thought his dead mother was telling him to kill and make skin suits of his victims (Gein is also the inspiration for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs; truly the gift that keeps on giving for horror). Murder, cross-dressing, incest. You can understand the hesitation from studio heads to bankroll the picture, even with the great Hitchcock name attached. With the sturdy support of his unflappable wife, Alma (Helen Mirren), Hitchcock puts his own money and clout on the line to see Psycho through. As the pressure mounts, Alfred is worried that his wife is spending a bit too much of her time with a certain screenwriter who wishes to woo her efforts away.

93856_galSir Alfred was a blunt individual so I will follow suit and mince no words – this movie is terrible. How could it possibly be? It has tremendous acting talent and the rich angle of looking at the making of one of Hollywood’s most controversial and famous movies of all time the groundbreaking Psycho. Alas, it’s when the movie takes its many sidesteps away from the behind-the-scenes action of Psycho is where it goes astray. First off, I find the narrative framing around the marriage of the Hitchcocks to be superficial and hamstrung. We’re telling this vastly interesting story and grounding it in a very slight manner, gauging every creative struggle through the prism of whether or not Alfred and Alma will stick together. I assume it’s supposed to provide an emotional entry point for the movie, but I just didn’t care. I didn’t care about the jealous spasms Alfred felt as his wife spent more and more time with a caddish screenwriter, and boy did that storyline get tiresome. I want to know more about Psycho and not this dumb portrayal of martial woes told with such graceless handling. The whole portrayal seems so minute and clumsy and such a poor framing device when the making of Psycho is a juicy enough story. I didn’t need the focus to be on whether the Hitchcock marriage will persevere. Oh, and the resolution for this feels completely pulled from thin air, without any groundwork laid to explain the about-face into compassion in those final minutes.

Then there’s the portrayal of Alfred Hitchcock himself, which is so dubiously shallow when it comes to psychology. Oh, he’s obsessed with blonde leading ladies? Oh he’s a bit of a control freak? Oh he can be overbearing and demanding and standoffish? Wow, what powerful insights into arguably the most famous director in movie history. The movie, adapted by John J. McLaughlin (Black Swan), feels like it was made by someone who did the bare minimum of research on the man. There are no new insights or even mildly interesting ones to be found. It’s the standard boilerplate repeated with different actors. And then there are the nails-on-a-chalkboard scenes where Hitchcock imagines himself talking confessionally to none other than Ed Gein (Michael Wincott). Excuse me? Oh my goodness do these tacky sequences just grate. I don’t even understand their inclusion. Is this a manifestation of Hitchcock’s own sense of madness when it comes to moviemaking? Does he feel some connection to the horrible disturbed man who inspired his newest film? Does Hitchcock only feel like he can communicate to a figment of his own imagination? Whatever the reason, I wanted to smack myself in the head every time Hitch and Gein had a heart-to-heart. I should have known I’d be in for a bumpy ride when, in the movie’s opening minutes, a news reporter asks Hitchcock, after the premier of 1959’s North by Northwest, why he doesn’t just hang it up? Did this idiot even see North by Northwest? Would you ask Spielberg if he should retire after viewing Saving Private Ryan or Kubrick after A Clockwork Orange?

Then there’s the matter of Hopkins as Hitchcock. It never feels like the right fit. Turkey jowls aside, the man doesn’t look too similar to Hitchcock nor does he adopt a demeanor that proves convincing. Sure he goes for that highly imitable voice and cadence that Hitch is well remembered for, particularly his openings on his own TV show. You never feel like Hopkins has a real strong bead on the character, and surely the fault lies with the weak characterization relying on the collective knowledge of Hitchcock’s outsized public persona. Likewise, Mirren (The Debt) is fine but gets to play another of her steely strong-willed matriarchs. Mirren won’t let you done when it comes to performance but, given the lack of strong characterization, she goes on autopilot. The best actor in the movie is surprisingly Scarlett Johansson (The Avengers) who has a striking similarity to Janet Leigh, and not just in what you’re thinking. She’s instantly likeable and takes the Hitchcock peculiarities in stride, putting up a strong front but voicing her concerns when appropriate.

94506_galDirector Sacha Gervasi (Anvil! The Story of Anvil!) gooses up his story with all sorts of horror genre techniques, including editing fake outs and violent edits. I’m also unsure why so many liberties needed to be taken with the retelling of this story. I’m not going to be a person decrying the use of fictionalized elements in a true-life story for dramatic effect (I loved Argo), but you have to do so in a way that tells a better story without getting too far away from the essential truth of the matter. Hitchcock, in raising the talents of Alma, attributes many of Psycho’s development achievements to her keen womanly insights when they came from others. That’s fine, except that the movie portrays her in such a rarefied state of genius that she quickly becomes the movie’s surefire narrative cheat. Having problem with the last act? Let’s have Alma fix it. Having problems with the editing? Let’s have Alma fix that. It’s not compelling of a story for one character to chiefly have all the answers instinctively and without any sense of struggle. I understand that Alma did a lot of unaccredited work on Hitchcock’s movies, though it wasn’t uncommon for women to be screenwriters at that time and you’d think the pull of being a Mrs. Hitchcock would get her well-deserved credit. Regardless, I wish that Gervasi and McLaughlin had given Alma more depth than being put upon wife/secret savant collaborator.

It’s a shame because there’s a genuinely interesting movie to be had somewhere in here. The making of Psycho was fraught with difficulties and the studios just didn’t get it. Watching Hitchcock work through that process and persevere would be far more interesting. I enjoyed the multitude of famous cameos, like Michael Stuhlbarg as Lew Wasserman, Hitchcock’s agent and eventual head of Universal Studios, and even Ralph Macchio as Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano. I suppose the ins and outs concerning one of the most famous movies of all time could be considered, erroneously I feel, to be too “inside baseball.” That’s why I think the filmmakers expanded the romantic drama angle and had it consume the majority of the running time. Often the stupid perils of the will-they-or-won’t-they romantic squabbles feel so petty and cheap considering the magnitude of the work going on. Hitchcock feels like a movie that found the least interesting and essential angle to tell the story of the making of Psycho. Diehard movie fans might find some fun to be had with the minutia of Hollywood and Hitchcock’s life, but I cannot fathom how anyone could view this portrayal as effective. It’s not insightful, it’s not challenging, it’s not relevant, and it’s certainly not entertaining. This movie is not deserving of the name it bears.

Nate’s Grade: C

Thor (2011)

thor_ver5I had strong misgivings going into Thor. How was a powerful Norse god going to seem remotely relatable? How was the most improbable member of Marvel’s Avengers ensemble going to be explained in a way that didn’t feel like a ton of cheese richly slathered in hokum? I was expecting this movie to be a silly, trippy, LSD-enhanced flashback (rainbow bridges! Pass the bong!) that could barely strain any sense of believability. It’s one thing to have stories about super heroes who have gotten their powers via genetic defect, scientific accident, or act of God. But what about when your character happens to be a god? It just seemed too goofy for it all to be pulled off with any conviction. A Thor movie seemed destined for some Xanadu-level of camp. Get a load of the blonde with the big hammer, boys. Not every super hero flick has to be as brooding and dark as The Dark Knight. Marvel’s own Iron Man was a great example of a briskly entertaining movie. Now that I’ve prefaced my experience, let me publicly admit that Thor is indeed a somewhat silly but mostly fun entry in the mighty realm of summer blockbusters.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the god of thunder on Asgard, a distant planet populated by the Norse mythical figures (apparently, they visited Earth and the Scandinavian amongst us worshipped these… space aliens?). Thor waits to inherit the throne from his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), a wise king who has kept a tenuous truce with the fierce Frost Giants, inhabitants of another planet. But Thor is not ready to assume the responsibilities of leadership. He’s quick to action and temper, arrogant, and defies his own father’s orders by trying to start some intergalactic conflict with the Frost Giants on their home turf. Thor is robbed of his powers, his mighty hammer, and banished to Earth to walk amongst the smelly Earthlings. He crashes in the New Mexico desert and is retrieved by a team of scientists (Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard) led by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). The group wants to learn where exactly this man from the sky came from. So does the government, led by the S.H.I.E.L.D. agency who takes possession of Thor’s hammer. Thor thinks if he can reunite with his beloved hammer, then he can go home. But for a thunder god, he’s got a lot of lessons to learn. While Thor is out of the picture, his younger brother, Loki (Tom Hiddelston), plots to take what he feels he is owed – the kingdom of Asgard.

hero_Thor-imageThe biggest surprise for me was that the Asgard sequences are the best part of the movie; thankfully the majority of the running time is spent in this fantastic realm. I credit Kenneth Branagh’s direction, which neither hides the silliness of the material nor fully acknowledges it. By the time Thor hurtles to Earth, I was completely engaged in the operatic tale of fathers and sons, gods, jealousy, hubris, intergalactic conspiracies, you know, the stuff of juicy drama. It jus so happened that these characters wear funnier costumes. The family dynamic between Thor and Loki, the infighting and the scheming, intrigued me. Some critics have thrown around the word “Shakespearean” to describe the movie’s outsized family conflict, but I think that’s just the critical community getting lazy. Would they even approach that term is Branagh was not the director? This opening section of Thor effectively explains the history of Asgard as well as its place with the other eight worlds, the shaky relationship with the Frost Giants, the family responsibilities at play as Odin must decide the future of his ABBA-infused nation, as well as the various mechanics of how this different world operates, like Idris Elba (The Wire, Luther) stationed at the end of the rainbow as a gatekeeper to the other worlds. I liked discovering how all the pieces of this world fit together. If analyzed out of context, any part of the Asgard section just seems stupid. But taken in the film, Thor‘s crazier, more fantastic elements come together and spark genuine interest. I wanted to spend more time in this magical realm. The more ridiculous and fantastical that Thor got the more interesting it became.

But unfortunately Thor was sent tumbling to our ordinary planet. It is the Earth section that seriously deflates the movie’s vibe. It’s a relief that the fish-out-of-water comic relief is kept to a minimum, because the character of Thor isn’t an idiot, just an arrogant brat. But it’s the period on Earth where the God of Thunder learns his Really Important Lessons and finally understands what it means to be a good leader. It’s all very expected and the execution is less than inspired. The trio of scientists that Thor encounters (Portman, Skarsgaard, Dennings) could easily have been consolidated into one character. Their contributions to the story are weak. Skarsgard is mostly there for fatherly advice and the occasional expository ejaculation. As a gawky little sister scientist, I don’t even know why Dennings is in this film other than to make my eyes happy. I anticipated that Portman would assume the “love interest” spot in comic book movies that we now reserve for Oscar-winning actresses, and I assumed that role would be underwritten. But I never expected Portman’s part to be this underwritten. She’s practically nonexistent except for that winning smile of hers. Over the course of… two days, she falls in love with our banished brute. But to be fair, it’s not every day that a guy looking like Hemsworth falls out of the sky. New Mexico isn’t exactly looking like a great singles mingles hotspot. Anyway, their relationship is supposed to be the trigger that makes Thor realize he’s been a selfish and reckless fool. But their scenes lack any tension, any charm, anything of interest. They feel like two actors sitting in chairs telling stories. You don’t feel any romance between them. The drabby Earth sequences only serve as a losing contrast to the crazy Asgard territory. You can’t compete with rainbow bridges (imagine the tolls on those suckers).

thor-natalie-portman-chris-hemsworthBranagh has never directed anything of this magnitude in size before, and it shows at parts. While none of the action sequences are particularly bring, none of them are particularly thrilling. The beginning battle between Thor and his pals on the Frost Giant planet (Jotunheim) is so poorly lit that the darkness forces you to squint to focus on what’s happening. Why spend $150 million on a super hero flick and shoot a dankly lit action scene? What’s the point in that? The choppy editing can also be too hectic to follow with all the quick-cuts that fail to orient the action geography. Really, there are only three serious action sequences in Thor, but then again I remember Iron Man having a light load when it came to on screen action. That film was devoted to character and performance. This film, under Branagh’s watch, is devoted to just making the entire universe of Thor credible. It’s a lot to take in, and Branagh’s biggest accomplishment is producing a sense of grandeur to the film that saves it from falling into the sticky clutches of camp. The world of Asgard feels convincing in production design and infrastructure; the cities look like pipe organs. Branagh’s film expands the Marvel universe significantly, broadening the scope for future installments. Mercifully Thor does not hard sell the upcoming Avengers movie as appallingly as Iron Man 2.

The acting in Thor is as splashy as the Asgard scenery. Hemsworth gave a notable performance as the doomed father of James Kirk in 2009’s Star Trek. He as only in the film for that ten-minute prologue, and yet the actor found a way to do much with what he was given. You got to see his character hurdle through a gauntlet of emotions: fear, duty, relief, desperation, and acceptance. His sacrifice still can make me tear up, and Hemsowrth deserves some of that credit. However, Thor is a different matter entirely. Obviously it’s going to be a more challenging role to play a buff cocky god with a magic hammer. Buff he does quite well. Cocky he does fairly well, but this is not a great starring vehicle for the actor. Hemsworth looks too self-satisfied, like he’s playing his character as an intergalactic hotel heiress. In sharp contrast, Hiddelston (Wallander) commands your attention. Those penetrating eyes, the cold yet calculated demeanor, this is an actor who feels like he walked off a Shakespeare production and just changed his headgear. You want to spend more time with Loki than watch Blondie futz around on Earth. Loki has much more depth to him than Thor; he feels betrayed by his family and an outcast to his society. I’m glad that we’ll be seeing more from this trickster in future Marvel movies (have I said too much?). Hopkins knows how to sell silliness like few other actors. And for those who have been wondering where Renee Russo has been for the last six years, well here she is, as Thor and Loki’s mother, a role that’s best suited to confirm that she is still alive.

thor-2011I was expecting far worse judging upon the scraps I had seen from the Thor advertising campaign. So I suppose that beating my low-flying expectations might not necessarily be something to champion. Thor is an inherently goofy, yet mildly satisfying and credible action film. It doesn’t have the style or panache of other heroes, but the fact that Branagh could make a two-hour Thor film that didn’t cause me to laugh derisively from start to finish is an accomplishment. Again, that sounds rather dismissive. I’m just very surprised that this movie works. Because if you take it apart, it doesn’t seem like it should. The acting ranges wildly in quality, with Hiddelston outshining everyone else. Thor is a solid if inconsistent start to the summer season of blockbusters. If you must turn your brain off for some movie, you’d do far worse than Thor. It has pretty colors.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Wolfman (2010)

After re-shoots, reedits, a second director late in the process, and delayed release dates, it’s no surprise that The Wolfman is a bit of a shaggy mess.

In 1880, Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) is an actor who returns home to England when he learns that his brother has been killed. Gwen (Emily Blunt), the fiancé to Talbot’s dead bro, writes that the departed brother was mauled, which points toward some kind of vicious creature roaming the woods. Inspector Aberline (Hugo Weaving) has been called in to clear the matter. Talbot’s father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins), welcomes his prodigal son back but warns him of the dangers lurking in the countryside. The villagers are ready to blame the gypsy caravan and their chained bear when the feral creature strikes again, thus exonerating the bear. Talbot is bitten by the beast but survives only to transform into the cursed werewolf once every full moon.

Structurally, this movie feels like it’s all Act 1 and Act 3 with about ten minutes in between. By that I mean it’s all protracted setup and climax and little to connect the two. The beginning takes so long, with characters walking around like zombies who have no sense of wonder or fear given the extravagant circumstances. This is a movie that confuses set changes with plot advancement. Dour characters enter half-lit rooms and say little that isn’t cryptic or terse about the unusual happenings. This is what you have to look forward to for about an hour. The central mystery of who is the initial Wolfman is pretty easy to figure out when you play the economy of characters, which only compounds the movie’s sluggish pacing problems. You’re going to have definite pacing issues when your monster can only appear once a month, so say hello to massive time-lapse montages with the moon. It makes it hard to keep track of how much time is actually elapsing.

There is little cogent explanation for why anything happens and the movie does an extremely poor job of maintaining a credible suspension of disbelief. What exactly are the rules here? What are the limitations for the Wolfmen? How far back does this whole thing go? The movie traces it back to an Indian kid, who looks like Gollum, in a cave, but where did he get it from? What is the history of this lycanthropy illness? When you turn into the monster, do you have any control? Are you a slave to your animal impulses? Are you culpable for what happens? Is it more like having multiple personalities except one of them is harrier? Nothing is really made clear and the movie just plows along while the unanswered questions continue to pile up, never to be addressed.

The Wolfman does a fine job of establishing an ambiance that feels ripped right from the old Hammer horror films, but fog and shadows and art direction can only take you so far. Every room looks like it’d be a prize-winning example of how to build a haunted house, though the lighting tends to be overly murky. Danny Elfman also provides a darkly lush score that mingles well with the onscreen atmosphere. But the refined sets only tease a better movie. An attack at the gypsy camp can get interesting. The beast flaring up at an insane asylum calls for something wickedly entertaining and scary, but everything is over before it really gets going, and we’ve moved on to the next scene of character sitting glumly in the dark. There’s nothing to startle beyond some overused jump scares. The movie lacks good scares because the film fundamentally can’t sustain a mood because the plot is never elaborated.

The character work is exceedingly shallow. Talbot is the main character but what do we learn about him? He’s an actor, he left town, he gets bit by a wolf, he skips stone’s with his dead brother’s girl, and that’s about it, folks. There’s an entire back story about Talbot spending time in a mental ward, which could prove to be fascinating but it’s just another set piece and nothing more. Talbot is pretty much a placeholder for a character; he’s the dude that has to get bit for there to be a story. He’s more catalyst than character, and you can feel that painful realization in how Del Toro (Traffic, Che) plays his non-character. Del Toro is a truly capable actor but he sleepwalks through the entire movie and mumbles most of his lines. Despite being a dead ringer for Lon Chaney Jr., he brings no energy to his role, nor does he ever seem truly concerned with his beastly transformation. You got more reaction and contemplation from Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf.

The rest of the actors try and make good with the parts they’ve been tossed. Blunt (Sunshine Cleaning) can be a very good actress but she’s playing the thankless task of the underwritten love-interest-to-monster part. She’s no more fleshed out than the blonde damsel that screams and faints in the old classic monster movies. Blunt has the annoying habit of her voice turning into this simpering whine when she’s distressed. Hopkins (Fracture) pretty much gives the plot away with his maniacal cackling and incessant ear-to-ear grinning. You can pretty much faithfully assume where his character is going from the first malevolent twinkle in his eye. The screenplay exerts no effort to disguise its easily telegraphed character reveals. The person who comes out best is Weaving as the inspector, but that may be directly linked to the fact that he has the least amount of screen time of any of the main characters.

The special effects are fairly good and the practical makeup effects by screen legend Rick Baker are even better. The actual Wolfman is a snarling, spooky creature, but I wonder why we don’t get more shots allowing us to fully view the makeup work. Director Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park 3, Jumanji) seems to be more of a proponent of CGI, which means that we get scenes of Wolfie jumping from ye olde rooftop to rooftop like he’s any sort of wily creature. There’s nothing in the movie that really makes use of the specifics of being a Wolfman. We get a few POV shots of the Wolfman running extremely fast, but little else takes advantage of what makes the Wolfman a creature to be reckoned with. We only get a slew of decapitations and sliced innards that display the ferociousness of those wolf claws. Johnston isn’t afraid of gore but he doesn’t help his case when he fails to create any feeling of dread. It’s hard to dread what you can barely understand and with people you don’t really care about. Consider me stubborn, but when I got to a movie called The Wolfman I want some attention paid to the title animal.

As I was watching The Wolfman I began to disassemble it in my head and piece together my own version of the film, an infinitely better version. For the sake or argument, I’ll explain my version and you can tell me which seems like the superior product. In my imaginary version, I completely eliminated Blunt, Hopkins, and most of the other side characters. I focused on Talbot and the Inspector and their relationship. Talbot has known about his lycanthropy for some time but he’s been able to control it for the most part, until recently. It haunts him, his inability to stop the sinister urges inside him that take over. The inspector is called in after the mysterious murders have picked up and they resemble some equally gruesome murders from 20 years prior (when Talbot first grappled with his hairy alter ego). The bent of the plot would then be on the relationship forged between the two men, how it turns into mutual affection and admiration all the while Talbot is trying to stay one step ahead of the investigation. Then my Act 2 break would be the Inspector finally realizing who is responsible for the murders (his friend!) and struggling with his own moral obligation to meet justice. Maybe this sounds too much like a crime thriller, but to me that sounds like a better film than watching two CGI werewolves claw at each other and spit.

The Wolfman is yet another misguided remake in a genre being gutted by horror remakes. The old monster movies of old were more than creature features and deserve better treatment than this bloody mess. I suppose few films can survive given the retooling process this one went through. This super serious monster movie has terrific production design, some alluring atmosphere, and a whopping void where a story should be. Characters will bumble about and the plot hums along with no explanation or elaboration given, meaning that setup often immediately crashes into climax. That’s not a satisfying recipe for a moviegoer. The Wolfman is mostly suspense-free and the actors are phoning it in; Hopkins is a kook, Blunt trembles her lower lip, and Del Toro seems to be drugged. This is mostly a costume drama with a little gore splashes in for good measure. It’s boring and half-baked and the best attribute is the scenery. If I wanted to watch scenery I’d flip through a Home and Gardens magazine. I was expecting entertainment here but instead it’s just another reminder to stick with the original.

Nate’s Grade: C

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