Movie Review ~ The Virtuoso

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Danger, deception, and murder descend upon a sleepy country town when a professional assassin accepts a new assignment from his enigmatic mentor and boss, given only a cryptic clue to identify his mysterious mark from among several possible targets.

Stars: Anson Mount, Abbie Cornish, Anthony Hopkins, Eddie Marsan, David Morse

Director: Nick Stagliano

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Wow, do you think the producers and distributors of The Virtuoso went to bed this past Oscar Sunday a little more excited for the prospects of their small thriller?  Prior to that day they had an Oscar winning star listed above the title but thanks to his unforgettable performance in The Father star Anthony Hopkins earned himself another one and under some fairly high-profile circumstances.  That will surely get people a little more interested in his next project and while The Virtuoso isn’t top tier stuff (I’m not sure it ever quite makes it to second shelf status, actually) it’s good for a little distraction in our post-Oscar palette cleanse.

It’s really not even fair to say Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs) has much of a role in the film; ads show him as much more involved in the action than the 83-year-old actually is or would probably want to be.  Instead, Hopkins’ scenes are largely contained within one room and constitute one half of phone conversations between himself and The Virtuoso (Anson Mount, Non-Stop), a nameless assassin.  As The Mentor, he’s there to provide The Virtuoso with information on his next assignment and stay out of the way, which seems to be the perfect fit for the distinguished actor as well as the natty gentlemen he’s playing. 

Opening with a nifty bang, things go south for the hitman when he bungles an assignment that leaves an unfortunate instance of collateral damage.  He’s trained not to care about such blips but something about this moment shakes him, sending The Mentor in for a face-to-face meeting to check on his viability moving forward.  Cleared for his next task, The Mentor sends him to a quiet township in the middle of nowhere important with the vaguest of clues provided by their contact.  With two words, White Rivers, his only cue to go off of and a rendezvous location named, The Virtuoso arrives in town to find he isn’t the only one to show up with a mission to kill. 

There’s some good stuff to be found in the basic premise of the script from James C. Wolf, even if it annoyingly tends to favor voiceover to get us inside The Virtuoso’s head.  Narrating the film to give us outsiders his inside take on every situation and angle of defense, The Virtuoso isn’t exactly the most engaging of narrators thanks to his occupational hazard of removing emotion from his business.  In Mount’s hands, or voice rather, it does begin to drone on and sound like an adult character from Peanuts after a while.  You wish Wolf or director Nick Stagliano would have found an easier way to crack the surface and allow some sort of sentiment or personality into The Virtuoso’s hemisphere.  Where the voiceover comes in handy is when he’s sizing up who has also appeared at the same time he’s arrived, and his rundown of the suspects is one of the first ways the movie sends us down a tricky path that isn’t always what it appears to be. Even with our leading character serving as narrator, don’t trust everything you’re hearing.

The list of suspects fills out the remainder of the cast.  There’s The Waitress (Abbie Cornish, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) who catches The Virtuoso’s eye just out of town and winds up being a happy accident run-in later on.  Still…was their meeting by chance or a carefully plotted bit of intrigue?  Or what about The Loner (Eddie Marsan, Atomic Blonde) or Handsome Johnnie (Richard Brake, Spy) or even The Deputy (David Morse, Concussion) who The Waitress doesn’t remember seeing before today.  All provide their own contributions to the puzzle we’re putting together at the same time The Virtuoso is and I don’t know if I wasn’t paying attention or what but the solution to it all is truly there from the beginning.  Careful viewers could catch it if they are looking at the right time.

As far as blank stares go, Mount has it down so his casting likely is perfect though I’d wonder what an actor able to convey greater range with such little outward dialogue could have done.  Cornish earns points for committing to a gratuitous nude scene but scores the most in the way she’s able to keep a poker face far longer than we might expect from the character. How much his recent Oscar win will get people to check this one out is anyone’s guess but if they do, they’ll be treated to an all-in Hopkins performance and not merely a quick money grab like a number of his peers are starting to sign up for (I’m looking at you, Morgan Freeman and Vanquish from a few weeks back.)  Hopkins delivers the single best scene in the entire film and it’s a doozy of a monologue.  If you haven’t already, follow The Virtuoso up with The Father and watch his masterful skill really go to town. 

Movie Review ~ The Father

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A man refuses all assistance from his daughter as he ages. As he tries to make sense of his changing circumstances, he begins to doubt his loved ones, his own mind and even the fabric of his reality.

Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss, Olivia Williams, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell, Ayesha Dharker

Director: Florian Zeller

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: Throughout film, there have been movies and performances that have tackled the subject of Alzheimer’s and dementia or shown us the effects of the disease in striking detail.  You can go all the way back to 1981’s On Golden Pond for an example and find titles like The Notebook, Away from Her, Robot & Frank, The Taking of Deborah Logan, Still Alice, and 2020’s Relic in the years since.  Each had it’s own approach to illustrate the impact to the person as an outside observer but none have been able to walk audiences through the actual experience of what it’s like from the inside out. Diving down deep below the surface of a debilitating condition of the mind, The Father aims to show audiences what it’s like to be inside this head of someone suffering from a disease which robs one of their memories.  It’s a cinematic trick achieved with no special effects or CGI assistance, relying instead on masterful writing and the kind of acting that comes along once in a blue moon.

Hard to watch but almost impossible to look away from, director and screenwriter Florian Zeller leads us down a twist-filled path where nothing is what it appears to be.  He adapts his own play (with original translator Christopher Hampton) and while I have yet to see this onstage it sounds like nothing was lost in the transition from stage to screen.  That Zeller and Hampton were able to capture the same magic that earned the theatrical piece rave reviews across the globe is something in and of itself due to the complexities inherent in the storytelling and overall production, but this is a property that lends itself well for a film adaptation.

Anne (Olivia Colman, The Favourite) has arrived at her father’s flat after he’s scared off another caretaker with suspicions of stealing.  He’s misplaced his favorite watch and Anthony (Hopkins, Thor) is convinced the woman Anne hired to keep an eye on him pocketed it when he wasn’t looking.  This isn’t the first time he’s “lost” his watch or leveled accusations of this sort and Anne is worried – she’s set to move to Paris with her new boyfriend and wants to be certain her father is taken care of when she moves a greater distance away.  The issue is left unresolved, at least for that day.

Naturally we assume the man (Paul Gatniss, Christopher Robin) sitting in Anthony’s flat the next morning is Anne’s new boyfriend but no, it’s more complicated than that.  For Anthony and for the audience.  Anthony has woken up in his flat but it’s really Anne’s.  And it’s not the Anne we/he knows, but a different Anne (Olivia Williams, Anna Karenina) who isn’t moving to Paris.  When Anthony gets upset over the new people in “his” flat, Anne offers to go out for groceries, but returns as Colman’s different Anne with a new caretaker (Imogen Poots, Vivarium) and, later, a different boyfriend (Rufus Sewell, Judy).  This rapidly changing cast, not to mention an apartment with walls and furnishings that are rarely in the same position twice, are meant to confuse and disorient the viewer as they do our titular character.

At the center of it all in nearly every scene is Hopkins, giving the performance of his career.  Rocketing to worldwide acclaim in middle-age with his Oscar-winning role in The Silence of the Lambs after an already healthy career, Hopkins has spent the last thirty years in a wide variety of roles.  Some of those roles have paid the bills while others have filled his cup for artistic expression, and I can imagine The Father likely filled his cup to overflowing.  The performance put on film here is surely one that will be remembered forever, indelibly linked with the actor and not for reasons that have to do with his recent Oscar win over another actor.  The fact of the matter is that Hopkins presented the best performance by any actor in any movie (male, female, or other) in any film in any language in 2020 so his award was well deserved.

It’s not just Hopkins that gives the Oscar-winning Zeller and Hampton screenplay steadfast support.  I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see Colman overtake Glenn Close’s work in Hillbilly Elegy for Best Supporting Actress for her compassionate contribution to the film.  While both women lost to the towering work from Yuh-jung Youn in Minari, Colman had a definite shot and the win would have been warranted for the way she balanced the sleight of hand required of the role.  Sharing one of the best scenes of the film (it’s hard to choose just one) with Hopkins, Poots holds her own as the young caretaker charmed by her new charge who lets her guard down when she should be more responsible with her feelings.  While he’s made a nice career out of playing rakish characters, Sewell finds new nasty nooks to explore here and the underrated Williams also is afforded several rich moments alongside Hopkins.  The wealth is spread evenly but the treasure is ultimately held by Hopkins.

An exquisite film in every aspect from the costumes to production design, The Father is a movie that will definitely sneak up on you.  Much more than your standard tearjerker, it’s a brilliant exploration of degeneration that avoids sinking too far into morose sentimentality.  The emotions it does evoke are strong and will hit you like a ton of bricks.  Don’t expect to shake this one easily after seeing it because it will linger in the back of your mind for weeks after, mainly as you recall the enormity of the performance Hopkins has given.

Movie Review ~ Thor: Ragnarok


The Facts
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Synopsis: Imprisoned, the mighty Thor finds himself in a lethal gladiatorial contest against the Hulk, his former ally. Thor must fight for survival and race against time to prevent the all-powerful Hela from destroying his home and the Asgardian civilization.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Sam Neill, Benedict Cumberbatch

Director: Taika Waititi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Let’s be real here…you didn’t like those first two Thor movies either, did you? I knew it. Seemingly out of place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, likely because they were the only films that took place largely in literally their own universe, Thor and it’s sequel Thor: The Dark World were what comic book movies should never, ever be: boring. It was only when Thor joined up with his friends in The Avengers and Avengers: The Age of Ultron that the Norse god felt energized and alive. Well after Thor: Ragnarok there is enough electricity generated by director Taika Waititi to power several more sequels. It puts the other two films to shame and bests several other Marvel outings at the same time.

As the film opens, Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Rush) is in a bit of a bind as he finds himself in the clutches of the fire demon Surtur. Surthur lets Thor know that a great battle known as Ragnarok is about to unfold, a battle that will see Surtur lay waste to Thor’s Asgardian home and all its peoples. Since this is the prologue and we have a couple of hours left, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Thor makes it out of his prison and finds his way back to Asgard. Arriving unannounced only to run into his mischief making adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, Kong: Skull Island) masquerading as their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs). Unaware that Loki imprisoned his father on Earth, Thor meets up with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, August: Osage County) who points him in the right direction of where his father may be.

Thor does find his pops but the reunion is short-lived as his long-lost sister Hela (Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine, having the absolute best time ever) arrives with her eyes on Odin’s throne. Sending her siblings into another galaxy to get them out of her villainous way, she starts to wreak havoc in her homeland and Thor and Loki make their way through a new world ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, Jurassic Park). With Loki avoiding a life of servitude on the junk planet, that leaves Thor fighting for his freedom, gladiator-style, against his old friend the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher). Assisted by fellow Asgardian in exile Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, Creed) and loyal Heimdall (Idris Elba, Prometheus), all make their way back to Asgard to face off with Hela to save their world.

There’s a lot that happens in Thor: Ragnarok and it’s almost universally entertaining. Waititi (who also plays a dryly-hilarious alien made up of rocks) brings such interesting ideas to the table along with a sense of humor and fun that has been missing from not only Thor’s previous outings but from Marvel at large. With its fun cameos (not only from Marvel characters), it’s wacky and colorful and I enjoyed every minute of it. Mark Mothersbaugh’s (The LEGO Movie) score is a real tip and while they curiously use Immigrant Song twice, it makes sense and gives key battle sequences a rock concert vibe. I normally recoil at movies that are so CGI heavy but the visuals are gorgeously rendered here, making for truly exciting viewing.

While it does help to have a working knowledge of the other entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this one may be a good entry point for newbies…but then someone will have to explain to them why the other two movies are so dull. Here’s hoping Marvel retains Waititi because he’s the reason why this works so very well.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Silence of the Lambs

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young F.B.I. cadet must receive the help of an incarcerated and manipulative cannibal killer to help catch another serial killer, a madman who skins his victims.

Stars: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine, Brooke Smith, Scott Glenn, Anthony Heald, Lawrence A. Bonney, Kasi Lemmons, Lawrence T. Wrentz

Director: Jonathan Demme

Rated: R

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: As we began to near the end of 31 Days to Scare 2017 I started thinking about what could be the grand finale selection. So many films from the golden age of Hollywood or the new wave of auteur filmmakers could have taken the final spot and there are certainly classics and classics in the making I’ve neglected to feature this year…but at the end of the day it call comes down to this: The Silence of the Lambs.

Though many would classify this as more suspense thriller than outright horror, I’d argue it’s a hybrid of numerous genres. Encapsulating everything from the cold sweat of a Western face-off to the investigative moxie of a political conspiracy flick, The Silence of the Lambs isn’t just one thing at any one time. That’s why it’s an enduring classic, a movie that swept the Academy Awards though the Academy had long had a clear aversion to rewarding any kind of horror effort. Director Jonathan Demme (Ricki and the Flash) brought his assured A-game to the screen and working with Ted Tally’s brilliant adaptation of Thomas Harris’s chilling novel they created something mighty special…and very very VERY scary.

Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster, Carnage) is plucked from a morning run on the orders of her superior Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn, The Bourne Legacy). He wants her to take a swipe at interviewing the notorious serial killer Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, Noah)and see if he’ll open up to her. She sees it as a chance to impress her boss, Crawford hopies it’s something more than that. Knowingly sending her into the hungry lions den as bait, he hopes to entice the brilliant madman into helping with the investigation into an active killer (Ted Levine) that has been abducting, shooting, and skinning his victims.

The initial meeting between Starling and Lecter is the stuff of movie clip show heaven. A master class of restrained acting from both actors (who would win Oscars for their work), these scenes are so intricately designed because often the two aren’t even in the same shot as the other…yet it’s directed in a way that you feel they are. It’s a thrilling and dangerous relationship and though there are other supporting characters in the movie (Kasi Lemmons, Candyman, as Clarice’s academy friend and Brooke Smith, Interstellar, as a new target for the murderer) the movie is at its absolute best when Foster and Hopkins are quid pro quo-ing.

The clues that Lecter gives Starling sends the young trainee on her own hunt to find the madman while working through painful memories of her past. Lector preys on her vulnerability that’s hidden far beneath her steely exterior. He knows she has a lot to prove and manipulates every situation to make her demonstrate her worth…down to catching a killer almost entirely on her own. Whether she’s crawling into an abandoned storage unit (creepy!) or being pursued in an underground labyrinth (seriously…creepy!) Foster plays Clarice as intelligent but not a soothsayer in knowing the best way around each situation. With limited screen time, Hopkins is really a supporting player but his impact is so great and his presence so missed when he’s not around he easily nabbed his Best Actor statue away from other nominees.

The late Demme’s personal preference for having actors speak directly into the camera makes the movie feel very intimate, secretive, real…he does this in most every one of his films but never to the success rate he achieves here. It’s a movie that works every time in every single way. There’s no fat anywhere to be found, it’s 118 minutes of perfectly constructed shots and revealing dialogue. Winning Oscars not only for its lead actors but for Demme, Tally, and Best Picture, The Silence of the Lambs is tough viewing and not for the squeamish but to see it is to appreciate the stylish storytelling on display. Perfect.

The Silver Bullet ~ Thor: Ragnarok



Synopsis
: Thor must face the Hulk in a gladiator match and save his people from the ruthless Hela.

Release Date:  November 3, 2017

Thoughts: At the end of this first teaser trailer for November’s third Thor film the only word I could think of was ‘finally’.  Finally, after two solo films and appearances in several other Marvel releases, the God of Thunder might just get his own adventure that’s worth a second viewing.  I wasn’t any kind of fan of the original Thor or its sequel Thor: The Dark World, finding them turgid treks through standard action franchise portals.  This one, however, just feels like it has a pulse and personality to go with it.  From the inspired casting of Oscar winner Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) to a genuinely exciting surprise finale right on down to the ‘80s reminiscent title cards…I’m actually looking forward to this one.

Movie Review ~ Noah

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A man is chosen by God to undertake a momentous mission of rescue before an apocalyptic flood destroys the world.

Stars: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins, Logan Lerman, Nick Nolte

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 139 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: With the recent religious releases Son of God and God is Not Dead! doing surprisingly good box office business, I’m sure the studio heads at Paramount were breathing a tad easier as the release date for Noah crept ever closer. Buzz had been that the execs weren’t very confident in director Darren Aronofsky’s cut of the film so they screened several of their own versions to audiences to gauge their reaction. In the end the director’s cut won out, leaving me to wonder how bad the other edited versions were.

Honestly, I don’t think it matters much which version ended up being released because the whole film is such a meaty hunk of expired baloney that it may not have been salvageable in any form.

It’s hard to know exactly how to take Aronofsky’s Noah. Most people plunking down coin to see the epic will be expecting a re-telling of the Old Testament story about a man, an ark, and lots of animals trotting up two by two to avoid a massive flood that will wipe out civilization. What these people won’t be expecting, however, is a bloody and violent film featuring formerly A-list stars playing infuriatingly stubborn people that you wouldn’t want to spend 40 minutes on a boat with, let alone 40 days in torrential rain.

After a brief opening that covers the first few passages of the Bible, the film goes its own way by introducing mystical snake skins and stone creatures that one minute want to destroy man and the next are helping Noah and his brood build the ark. Looking like castoffs from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, these iff-ily rendered creatures supposedly are fallen angels encased in rock after they landed on earth in a fiery storm.

The threat of the destruction of civilization isn’t enough, though, so Aronofsky and co-screenwriter Ari Handel throw in another villain of the human kind in the form of a descendent of Cain. More extraneously inconsequential than interesting and played by the gruff Ray Winstone (Snow White and the Huntsman) as if his life depended on it, the character falls into high camp early on when we see his flowing locks of blonde hair that would make Rapunzel drool.

With about 50 minutes of actual material to work with, the film is stretched to a punishing 139 minutes by including lots of grandiose speechifying from nearly every main character…almost as if they had it in their contracts to be given their moment to shine. So we get lots of introspective musings and preachy pontificating on man’s inhumanity to man. Not wholly or outwardly religious, the film tries to make the issue of a wicked society not so much a Biblical idea but a atheistic one.

I’ve been a fan of Aronofsky’s work for a while now, though the only film of his I can bring myself to revisit is Black Swan, his brilliant psychological drama from 2010 that won Natalie Portman an Oscar. That film was a hallucinatory and riveting journey into madness and though Aronofsky tries to get inside the head of Noah in a similar fashion, it doesn’t the same effect.

Though he may have made a good Noah on paper, Russell Crowe (Man of Steel) seems so out of touch with the kind of roles he should be playing that it’s becoming pretty fascinating to see the jobs he’s taking on. For my money, he should have played Winstone’s part and let someone like Michael Fassbender or Christian Bale (both were offered the role and declined) have the role. Aronofsky has imagined Noah as so devout to his Creator that he is willing to do horrible things…and something about Crowe’s wild-eyed approach comes across more zealot than pious.

Co-starring with Crowe for the second time in 2014 (the first being February’s lame-o Winter’s Tale), Jennifer Connelly makes some headway with her underwritten role, though it comes late in the game with an impassioned speech that leaves her face awash with tears and snot. With her hair never much out of place and her teeth gleaming white (Noah’s family clearly had a good dental plan), Connelly brings a kind of precision to the role that works in her favor.

Another pair of co-stars re-united, The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Emma Watson (The Bling Ring) and Logan Leerman are part of the Noah pack and while it’s appreciated that Watson continues to stretch her wings outside of the Harry Potter franchise, this role seems to get away from her. As the only other major female in the film, she delivers every important speech Connelly can’t be present to give herself.

Then there’s Anthony Hopkins (Hitchcock), getting an early start on his yearly cinematic appearance in the “grizzled old man” role…this time playing Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather. I’m not sure Hopkins even reads his scripts anymore before signing on to a film because the Oscar winning actor has little to do but pass along useful information when needed. The animal stars of the show are entirely CGI and factor in very little to the overall scheme of things.

Visually, the film looks great in typical Aronofsky fashion. Shot in Iceland, the cinematography from Matthew Libatique (Iron Man 2) is stunning and is aided by a strong sound design layered nicely in with Clint Mansell’s (Stoker) rich score. Of particular interest is a five minute sequence halfway through the film where Crowe narrates the Genesis story, brought to life in stunning fashion. I’d recommend seeing the film (eventually when you can fast-forward it) for that segment alone.

So what’s my problem with the film? I’m not a Bible thumper or Sunday School devotee that had to have everything in perfect order and sticking to just the facts, jack. No, I’d have been totally on board with the film Aronofsky was trying to make…if I could just grasp what film that was. Though the filmmakers can suggest all day long that their goal was to keep the film non time-specific, the costume design suggests post-apolopytic, not B.C. chic.

For as visually and aurally pleasing as the movie most certainly is, the perils depicted are incredibly unpleasant to sit through. The last 20 minutes are particularly rough going and even for this habitual watch checker, I started feeling like time was going backward rather than inching closer to the end credits.

Had this film been called, say, Bernard or Jethro I think I would have been able to take it with a finer grain of salt. Slapping Noah on the film and then turning the story into a Middle Earth meets Waterworld soggy epic robs the film of its voice and robs the audience of $10. I still like Aronofsky and applaud him for having the balls to do what he’s done here…but I feel like I want to throw the Good Book at him.

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Movie Review ~ Thor: The Dark World

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Faced with an enemy that even Odin and Asgard cannot withstand, Thor must embark on his most perilous and personal journey yet, one that will reunite him with Jane Foster and force him to sacrifice everything to save us all.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgård, Idris Elba, Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo, Anthony Hopkins

Director: Alan Taylor

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I wasn’t the biggest fan of 2011’s Thor, feeling that for a modern day superhero adventure it was awfully slow and relied too much on special effects imagery to create its fantasy lands in which our hero fought various villains.  Though it was a well-made affair, it paled in comparison to the shoot for the moon efforts from Iron Man and Iron Man 2 and lacked the nostalgic feel that Captain America: The First Avenger brought forth.

Well, with a few years and another film appearance under his belt (2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers) Thor has returned and if he’s not better than ever, he’s at least stepped up his game in an attempt to go to bat with the big boys of summer.

The plot for Thor: The Dark World is so convoluted that even if I weren’t a spoiler-free type of critic I wouldn’t know how to succinctly describe the events of the film.  All you’ll need to know is that once again the forces of darkness have set their sights on conquering Thor’s land of Asgard with a greater scheme of reducing our Earth to smithereens for total world domination.  So, in Marvel speak, just another day at the bad guy office.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Snow White and the Hunstman, Cabin in the Woods, Rush) meets up again with Jane (Natalie Portman) but instead of fighting the battle within her world he brings her back to Asgard because she holds the key to its survival…and destruction.  This leaves some of the earthbound players of the first film with mere cameos and beefs up the presence of the Asgard folk that were sidelined in the original.

Hemsworth sports a better wig and about five more expressions than he had the last time and in general seems to have more fun with the role.  As the star of the show, he has to work extra hard to keep the focus of the audience because Tom Hiddleston’s Loki returns as the bad guy you love to hate.  Loki wants to take a lot from Thor that isn’t his…and in doing so Hiddleston the actor nearly scampers off with the movie as well.  In his third go at the role, Hiddleston’s characterization only deepens so that the audience, like Thor, doesn’t really know where his loyalties lie from minute to minute.

Even with more screen time, Portman has precious little to do here but lay helpless as a dark force begins to take over her body.  It was widely reported that Portman was resistant to return to the film after a female director she brought on board was let go by the producers as filming approached.  I’m not sure if that affected what happened in the script but it’s surprising to see Portman play such a one-dimensional role this far into her career.

Television director Alan Taylor makes his feature film debut with a film that feels more cohesive than the overly theatrical gusto of the Kenneth Branagh helmed predecessor.  Even with its kitchen sink plot, Taylor manages to keep things in line…which is why Marvel may have chosen him over Portman’s original selection.  Though these films are designed to stand on their own, there’s little doubt that a larger game plan for future installments and crossovers hasn’t already been etched out somewhere in the basement of a Hollywood film studio.  In that respect, Thor: The Dark World seems to be content in being part of something bigger and not trying to reach so far ahead of its limited appeal in my eyes.

A strong improvement over the original, I’m still hesitant to give myself over fully to the Norse god that wields that powerful hammer.  Though he’s now shown a softer side and his ability to play well with others, there’s an otherworldly aura to both Thor films that has kept this viewer grounded instead of taking off.

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Down From the Shelf ~ Thor

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The powerful but arrogant god Thor is cast out of Asgard to live amongst humans in Midgard (Earth), where he soon becomes one of their finest defenders.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgard, Jaimie Alexander, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Josh Dallas, Tadanobu Asano, Idris Elba, Clark Gregg, Colm Feore, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Buoyed by the enormous success of Iron Man and Iron Man 2, Marvel sought to continue toward its ultimate goal of making what would become the 2012 blockbuster The Avengers by releasing Thor in May of 2011.  Re-watching the film again before taking in its 2013 sequel, Thor: The Dark World, I was again reminded why Thor was my least favorite of the Marvel films franchise so far.

In the two years since I originally saw Thor theatrically Marvel has also released Captain America: The First Avenger and Iron Man 3 and these films have only served to solidify my thoughts that Thor doesn’t work as well for me  because so much of it is set primarily in a world of CGI fantasy.  Whereas characters like Iron Man and Captain America operate in a world not so far away from our own recognizable metropolis capitals, Thor’s land of Asgard is a nicely rendered but ultimately too shiny a façade to keep my interest.

It doesn’t help that Thor has the least interesting characters and villains in the Marvel Universe so it’s hard to get attached to any of them.  While he fared better in The Avengers, Chris Hemsworth (Rush, Cabin in the Woods) is a sullen dud as Thor, confusing rote glowering for juvenile indignation when he doesn’t get his way.  When he’s banished from his homeland and left powerless in the deserts of New Mexico where he’s rescued by astrophysicist Jane (Natalie Portman, fresh from her Best Actress Oscar win for Black Swan) who happens to be studying the very wormhole that brought him to Earth.

In a plot that mines some of Shakespeare’s best works (no wonder Bard-indebted actor Kenneth Branagh is in the director’s chair here), Thor must come up against his half-brother Loki (a benignly sinister Tom Hiddleston) to stop him from taking the throne as the heir of Asgard and plunging the world into a frozen wasteland.  The familiar themes of a royal family betrayal are a nice complement to the mythology of the superhero but a lack of original battle sequences and climax that feels rushed ultimately lets the film and audience members down.

The big budget bucks are fully on display here and, don’t get me wrong, though the film is effects heavy it looks great.  It’s just so different from the other Marvel films (so far) that I always knew I was watching a film that existed within its own rules.  There’s something about seeing Iron Man/Tony Stark pursued by various nasties through an urban earthly landscape that speaks to me more than watching Thor dangle dangerously on the edge of an impressive but obviously effects created black hole.

As with every Marvel film there are fun cameos, hidden clues that tie the film to other movies, and hints at what’s next to come.  The final scene in the end credits was directed by The Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon because it served as a bridge toward the opening scenes of Whedon’s awesome summer blockbuster.  There’s also a quick appearance by Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy, American Hustle) as Clint Barton/Hawkeye who would become a major player that next summer.

A solid super-hero flick with a spattering of theatrical drama, Thor is still low on my Marvel list but does serve its purpose of introducing The God of Thunder to whole new legion of fans.

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In Praise of Teasers ~ Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

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I have a serious problem with movie trailers lately.  It seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot. So I decided to go back to some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there…but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

It’s funny but there are certain trailers that just stick with you over the years…maybe it’s because it was your first glimpse of a film you were looking forward to or maybe it’s all about where/when you saw it. In the case of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it was both.

I have a confession to make.  Long before Edward and Bella came around and before Buffy staked her claim in Sunnydale, I was a huge vampire fan…Dracula to be exact (or as the four year old Joe used to say “Drak-lee-la”).  So when 12 year old Joe heard there was another Dracula movie coming out in a big way you know he was excited.

I remember seeing the first teaser for this before a Sunday matinee screening of A League of Their Own at Centennial Lakes 8 and though I liked Penny Marshall’s baseball comedy all I was thinking about throughout was how much longer I’d have to wait until the tale of Count Dracula was arriving.

A well-produced teaser, this actually wound up being removed from theaters because it was deemed “too intense”.  Watching the first images from Francis Ford Coppola’s film that wound up being art-directed to the hilt, you’ll probably be scratching your head as to what’s so intense about it but we live in different times now.

Catch-up!  Check out my look at the teasers for MiseryAlien!

The Silver Bullet ~ Noah

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Synopsis: The Biblical Noah suffers visions of an apocalyptic deluge and takes measures to protect his family from the coming flood.

Release Date:  March 28. 2014

Thoughts: I’ve yet to meet a Darren Aronofsky flick that hasn’t divided audiences and his take on the epic tale of Noah and the Ark is sure to have its fair share of haters.  Quite long in development, the film reunites some former costars like Russell Crowe (Les Misérables) and Jennifer Connelly (Winter’s Tale) who appeared together in 2001’s A Beautiful Mind.  After playing opposite each other romantically in 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Emma Watson (The Bling Ring) and Logan Lerman are now cast as siblings. Cinematically, this looks mighty impressive with strong detailed special effects and early hints of the director’s trademark obsessive attention to everything on screen.  Who knows exactly what version of the Noah tale will be told (rumor has it that it probably takes place in the past but could very well take place in the future) but if I know Aronofsky it will be a bold and committed affair. 

Interesting to note that this is the first of two high profile Hollywood projects with a Biblical slant being released in 2014.  In Decemember 2014, director Ridley Scott (Prometheus) releases Exodus starring Christian Bale (The Dark Knight) as Moses with some supporting work from Sigourney Weaver (Abduction) and Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby).