Thursday, December 19, 2013

Thor: The Dark World - **1/2

Just when I thought I was out, done with dull superhero movies, they pull me back in, with Thor: The Dark World. This recent brood of superhero films have tread the line between dismal and mediocre, but I actually really enjoyed Kenneth Branaugh's almost quaint depiction of the Norse god, and the choice to set that film in small-town New Mexico rather than a metropolis like, well, Metropolis. Unfortunately, Alan Taylor's sequel, either through Marvel Studios' preference to use all of its properties as cross-promotion for the rest of them, focusing on the universe as a whole, rather than the individual titular characters, or through Disney's recent acquisition of said properties, forcing more hands in to stir the pot, or perhaps simply through Taylor's lack of gusto, Thor: The Dark World lands somewhere in the realm of... Adequate.

A prologue opens the film, introducing Malekith, the leader of the Dark Elves, an ancient race that went into some kind of disappointment-hibernation after failing to capture "The Ether," a mystical evil energy force as old as time itself, or something like that. This sequence elicits the first in a series of groans that last through to each of the films three endings (depending on how soon after the credits one chooses to saunter out of the theater) as we're subjected to a heap of lofty exposition like this, all so that we can understand a very simple premise. The plot turns, and turns again, and an anti-gravity warp zone opens up because every x-amount of time the Nine Realms line up, and something and something, and so love interest Jane Foster ends up with the magic Ether inside of her blood-stream, a sad turn which relegates her character simply to Vessel for Plot Progression as she becomes the target of Malekith, somehow awakened by Ether activity.

Fortunately Taylor inherits the well-drawn characters for Branaugh's film, whose likability acts as The Dark World's saving grace, filtering all of this nonsense through the levity-inducing sensibility of its ragtag group of Earth scientists and their side-kicks... And their sidekicks' side-kicks. Chris Hemsworth reprises his role as Thor, again providing the right balance of snarky arrogance and endearing tenderness. Tom Hiddleston's back as Loki, too, and thank Odin for that, because without him there would be no edge to the film, very troubling considering there's barely any with him.

Where a great sequel builds on the world introduced in prior films, further developing its characters and ideas, Thor: The Dark World simply gives us bigger, and more. We see more of Asgard, but still don't really get a sense of what it's actually like there, beyond home of Odin's palace, where most of Asgardian screen-time is concentrated. It seems as though great opportunities are squandered at every plot turn, with Taylor often holding back from the audience vital information that all of the characters know, in order to manufacture cheap suspense which will never hold up on a second viewing. One such episode involves Loki, finally free of the shackles he's been under for most of the film, immediately betraying Thor when we've all (thought we've) been fooled into trusting him, but it turns out that it was just part of a plan they hatched up off-screen to fool the Dark Elves.

And that's pretty much how the film goes: just when something might happen that will set the film apart from others and make it at all unique, it turns out it's just part of a bland plot twists that negates whatever was interesting. What's left is still a serviceable piece of ephemeral popcorn entertainment, which hits all of the expected beats, but what's most memorable about it is how much potential it leaves unrealized. Rather than taking the opportunity to further develop Thor and co., Marvel uses it to boost their brand, and The Dark World is instead yet another largely generic feature-length trailer for whatever comes next with the Avengers.

Quick Thoughts - The 40-Year Old Virgin (2005)

11/23/13: Judd Apatow has never been one for brevity, and I stand by Shakespeare's adage that brevity is the soul of wit. Nobody ever asked for a longer comedy, or to expand on a punchline, but unfortunately that's exactly what Apatow loves to do. However, the premise of The 40 Year-Old Virgin is sound, and Apatow also excels at deeply character-based comedy, so even when he hammers the nail a little too hard, it's always in service of building something bigger than the obvious, gimme jokes that the concept would be chock-full of had somebody else been in charge. It's not perfect, and its long run-time invites Apatow's signature get-on-with-it-already third-act issues, but its plenty funny on the way there, and surprisingly original, too. ***

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - **

Looking back on the story arc of Catching Fire leaves one wondering where the hell the rest of the film is. For all its flash and grandiosity, not much really happens, and it leaves very little to ponder beyond how we got suckered into making this series the phenomenon that it now is. Maybe that's because, like the first Hunger Games, about halfway through, the characters are again thrust into an unsatisfying fight-to-the-death which contributes relatively nothing to the film's already convoluted narrative, and manages to be about as thrilling as a group of toddlers playing hide-and-seek in the backyard.

Director Francis Lawrence takes over directing duties, surpassing the lackluster Gary Ross, and he provides more edge to the action, while handling the drama with a subtler touch, focusing on some interesting details the first film glazed over in its broad-strokes approach, and yet he still turns out a film that couldn't accurately be described as better than average. If Lawrence, whose films include I Am Legend, and Water For Elephants, has a trademark as a director, it's that he makes a great first half that is negated by the absolute mediocrity of the second, and while Catching Fire's narrative woes can hardly be ascribed to him, it nevertheless falls in line with his seeming lack of follow-through.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Quick Thoughts - Mary and Max (2009)

11/22/13: This quirky piece of claymation could have been a great short film. It tells the true story of an awkward nine-year old Australian girl becoming penpals with an autistic old man in New York City, and the burden and wonder that this relationship holds for these two loners. Told solely through narration, which occupies the stretches not taken up by the characters reading the actual letters that were written, Mary and Max gets a little tiresome and one-note, even before it spirals from silly-sweet comedy into bitter, dark tragedy, which its odd animation style and annoying character design fail to fit. Though buoyed by a lot of interesting detail throughout, it becomes rather grueling to sit through in the end, and falls under its own weight. **

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Quick Thoughts - The Odd Couple (1968)

11/21/13: What could have been a brilliant film turns into a maddeningly irritating bore. The premise of the Neil Simon scripted film, based on his play, is near-perfect in its simplicity: A messy friend shares his apartment with his obsessive-compulsive, narcissistic friend whose wife has just kicked him out. And the casting of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon virtually guarantees a hit. It works for a while, until it gets repetitive, acting out the same argument over and over until Lemmon overdoes it, crossing the line between providing an essential part in the dynamic between these two characters from which the humor is derived, and simply becoming grating on the nerves. **

Quick Thoughts - Cop and 1/2 (1993)

11/21/13: On the surface, Cop and 1/2 is just another formulaic buddy cop movie. It has all of the cliches and routine plot twists that are expected. But when you get into sub-genres, the pleasure is in the variation, and somehow director Henry Winkler is able to make the same old tricks fresh again. Aging, cocky Burt Reynolds gets paired up with Norman D. Golden II, an eight-year old who obsessively watches cop dramas on TV and mimics the tough-guy act. It's unlikely that such a plot could work, but Golden actually has some acting intuition that elevates him from simply being a cute kid, and Reynolds fully commits to the role, playing the part with the right amount of sincerity, so what would have been a silly premise that gets old after the first act is transformed into a genuinely funny family film, and a legitimate entry in the buddy cop canon. ***

Monday, December 9, 2013

Quick Thoughts - Robot & Frank (2012)

11/20/13: As likable light dramas that you happen upon on Netflix go, Robot & Frank is just about perfect. A good concept realized with competent direction; though it could have been a little more ambitious with its broader ideas, its reserve allows for a richer, more intimate look at its central character, and Frank Langella is able to carry it, showing off a gentler side, though not without a little edge when needed. It's a breezy ninety minutes that would be easy to swallow in between naps on a lazy Sunday afternoon. **1/2

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Thoughts - Gigli (2003)

11/18/13: First thing's first... Gigli isn't as bad as you've heard. It's an almost absolute misfire, a fact which was adversely compounded by a heaping load of negative hype. Even a good film didn't stand a chance with the buzz that this bad one received, though wording it like that makes it seem as though the film is completely innocent, when in reality it was very much complicit in its own inevitable demise. It didn't so much receive its negative buzz as it generated it, emanated it, even, with its stupid-ass smug title with the confusing pronunciation that they surely thought was clever and interesting, and the casting of then-it-couple Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez that was supposed to be so cute. The fact that the promotion of Gigli and its resulting coverage gave rise to the celebrity portmanteau, and potential audiences were subjected to the term "Bennifer" is alone reason to revile the film and revolt against it.

So... How is the actual film, ten years removed from all of the hype? It's still pretty bad, but tolerable most of the time. It's totally understandable that it seemed like a good idea, on paper: written and directed by Martin Brest, it follows in a similar vein as Midnight Run or Scent of a Woman, aiming to be a tale of quirky criminals falling for each other through a series of overly verbose battles of wits. Unfortunately Brest misjudges the likability of his characters, who are as smug as the film's title and, like the film itself, lack a modicum of self-awareness which might have made them, and it, interesting. So their loquacious bouts become exhausting rather than endearing. Oh, and it probably doesn't help that the plot centers around them kidnapping and holding for ransom a retarded kid who thinks they're taking him to the Baywatch set and loves to sing Baby Got Back, something the filmmakers obviously thought was so painfully funny that they couldn't resist throwing the audio of which in over the end credits.

And yet there's still a faint charm to Gigli... It's ill-conceived and poorly executed, but its intentions are so well-meaning; it really does think it's being nice and sweet when Affleck's self-proclaimed "Sultan of Slick... Rule of fuckin' cool... Fuckin' original, straight-first-foremost, pimp-mack, fuckin hustler, original gangster's gangster!"shows Justin Bartha's Sir Mix a Lot-loving retarded kid how to sweet-talk ladies. And when they do happen upon the Baywatch set, and Affleck watches from a distance as Bartha wanders his way into the scene and chats up a model, his smile of approval is so genuine it almost makes you almost want to share in his, and the film's, self-satisfaction. *1/2

Monday, December 2, 2013

Quick Thoughts - Stoker (2013)

11/17/13: Stoker's deliberately enigmatic tone is at once its greatest asset and its most frustrating one. Chan-wook Park's film is like a parlor trick: perplexing and fun... Until it's not. The pace is slow, the visuals are meticulously composed, making the audience puzzle over every line of dialogue and curious facial expression, and it's all good fun until the gradual realization that there's not enough here for a truly compelling film finally lands, and you walk away without much to think over and savor other than how good a director Park really is that he had you going for so long almost entirely on smoke and mirrors. It's a misstep when considering that this man delivered us Oldboy and Thirst, but no less a showcase of his talent. At worst, it's an interesting failure. **1/2