Movie Review ~ Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Five years after the events of Mamma Mia!, Sophie will find out more about her mother’s past, including how she fronted The Dynamos, started her villa on the island from nothing, met each one of Sophie’s dads, and raised a daughter.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Julie Waters, Christine Baranski, Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgård, Colin Firth, Lily James, Alexa Davies, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Jeremy Irvine, Josh Dylan, Hugh Skinner, Cher

Director: Ol Parker

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I happened to be in London in January of 2000 and was able to catch the original London cast of the smash hit, Mamma Mia! It was one of the most exciting nights I’ve had in the theater, not just because the show was enormously entertaining but because the audience just went absolutely nuts for it. I was in the highest point of a steep balcony and watching grown men and women shaking their groove thing to the finale megamix without fear of falling was a sight to behold. In touring productions over the past 18 years I’ve seen the same effect, audience members that came in looking glum but leaving with a crazed look in their eyes.

2008’s Mamma Mia! was a surprise hit, though anyone that didn’t expect a global phenomenon starring one of Hollywood’s most A-list stars to rake in some kind of cash likely isn’t still working in the industry today. Released in the summer months when people were tired of explosions and CGI, it was a perfect (if slightly underwhelming to me) summer antidote to the loud and noisy fare ticket buyers were bombarded with. If anything, it showed us how star Meryl Streep (Hope Springs) could turn even the silliest project on paper into a fully-formed performance with feeling.

When a sequel was announced, I was fairly surprised. After the box office success of the first one, it’s not that a sequel was unheard of, just unexpected. Hearing the gang was getting back together again with a few new additions was interesting and with new songs from the ABBA catalog being added the stage was set for a repeat of the fun frivolity the original almost outright encouraged.

Look, times are hard enough as it is so when movies like Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again are released there’s a certain amount of goodwill restraint I believe critics should utilize because while this is far from an equal, this prequel sequel has its heart and, often, voice in the right place.

So now we reach the point where we can’t go on without a few spoilers, but nothing that hasn’t already been hinted at by the trailers.

It’s been five years since about-to-be-wed Sophie (Amanda Seyfried, Love the Coopers) invited three men she thought might be her father to a taverna on a remote Greek island without telling her mother they are on their way. Comic and musical hijinks were the result and the film, like the stage musical it was based off of, ended with a spandex and platform heeled finale set to ABBA’s Waterloo. Now, Sophie is re-opening the hotel one year after her mother’s death while harboring a growing secret of her own. As the guests arrive, the film bounces back and forth between the present and 1979 to see how Donna (Lily James, Cinderella) came to the Greek fantasy island and made a life for herself.

It’s rough going for the first twenty minutes or so as the film dives headfirst into exposition and a few lesser known ABBA songs. A strange musical opening set at Oxford has valedictorian Donna doffing her cap and gown for a lycra bodysuit to bump and grind through the sunny but silly When I Kissed the Teacher along with her fellow Dynamos, Rosie (Alexa Davies) and Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn). It’s an off-kilter and gangly way to introduce us to Donna and the film stays safely in idle mode until she lands in Paris and meets young Harry (Hugh Skinner, Les Miserables) before heading off to Greece where she’ll sail away with young Bill (Josh Dylan), and fall in love with young Sam (Jeremy Irvine, The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death).

While we’re getting this backstory, the events taking place in the present aren’t always as sunny. Sophie and Sky (Dominic Cooper, Dracula Untold) are halfway around the world from eachother and experience the stress of a long-distance romance (explained in a sketchily sung One of Us) and other dads Harry (Colin Firth, Magic in the Moonlight) and Stellan Skarsgård (Avengers: Age of Ultron) can’t make the re-opening due to business commitments. Tanya (Christine Baranski, Into the Woods) and Rosie (Julie Walters, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) do arrive and try to brighten Sophie’s spirits when a storm threatens to derail the proceedings.

It’s all set to a songlist from the ABBA canon, many repeated from the original film to lesser results. The old songs new to the sequel are clearly B-sides for a reason, though Baranski and Walters have fun with Angel Eyes. The biggest success is likely Dancing Queen, a highlight here just as it was in the first outing. It’s a huge production number set on land and sea, you’ll wish all boat rides had such excellent choreography.

The overall problem I had with the movie is that it feels like a project crafted around the availability of its returning cast. The movie was shot in London and plenty of it is done on green screen to recreate the Greek setting. Add to that a handful of cast members that feel like they filmed their scenes in several days (no surprise many did) and the film feels a bit clunky and unkempt. That being said, it takes about 90 minutes for the film to find any kind of rhythm or shape and that just happens to be the time that Cher (Mermaids) stops by.

It’s widely known Cher turned down the role of Tanya when produces approached her about it but we should all be glad she signed up to play Ruby, Sophie’s grandmother (try not to do the math when you consider Cher is only three years older than Meryl Streep), a Las Vegas entertainer not much for family gatherings. Not long after Cher shows up and sings a bang-up version of Fernando, none other than Streep herself appears in a scene/song you’ll need some tissues for. It shouldn’t have, but it honestly caught me off guard how moving her performance was and it serves as a wistful reminder of the below the surface heart the rest of the movie was missing.

Writer/director Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) might not improve on the formula introduced in Mamma Mia! in terms of cleverly blending songs in with the action but his film marks a vast improvement visually. He lets the camera take in more of the large action and dancing scenes, instead of quick cuts around the dancing he makes good use of the widescreen vistas. Like the first film, expect Greek tourism to get a bump from the lovely displays here.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Synopsis: The film will go back and forth in time to show how relationships forged in the past resonate in the present.

Release Date:  July 20, 2018

Thoughts: It has been a decade since the boffo stage hit Mamma Mia! danced its way to the big screen and made millions but it was a bit of a puzzlement when this sequel was announced.  Where did the film have to go and how many more ABBA tunes could be culled from their catalog for the characters to sing?  This first look at Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (ugh, that title!) has arrived and, I warn you, it’s fairly alarming.  The sun drenched Greek setting is back as are most of the buoyant cast members…but someone is noticeably absent from most of the merriment.  Meryl Streep…or to be more specific, Streep’s character.  Sure, Streep (Hope Springs) is present in flashes but she’s not front and center like the original film and that’s inspired people to ask if the filmmakers killed her character off.  Not sure how I feel about that and even more unsure if it’s wise to make this a prequel when the back story was such a flimsy throwaway in the first place.  Director Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) has brought on Lily James (Darkest Hour) to play Streep in her twenties and landed Cher (Mermaids) to play her mother (!!!).  No question I’ll be lining up to see this but if it’s going in the direction I think, I’m already blue since the day I first saw this trailer.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

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Hasta

We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.

I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.

May

Though the summer movie season has traditionally been thought of as Memorial Day through Labor Day, in the past several years studios have marked early May as the start of the summer movie wars and 2015 was no different.

Kicking things off on May 1 was Avengers: Age of Ultron and, as expected, it was a boffo blockbuster that gave fans more Marvel fantasy fun. While it wasn’t as inventive as its predecessor and relied too much on jokey bits, the movie was everything a chartbuster should be: big, loud, worth another look.

Acting as a bit of counter-programming, the next week saw the release of two very different comedies, neither of which made much of a dent in the box office take of The Avengers. Critics gnashed their teeth at the Reese Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara crime comedy Hot Pursuit but I didn’t mind it nearly as much as I thought I would. True, it set smart girl power flicks back a few years but it played well to the strengths of its leads and overall was fairly harmless. I hadn’t heard of The D Train before a screening but was pleasantly surprised how good it turned out to be, considering I’m no fan of Jack Black. The movie has several interesting twists that I didn’t see coming, proving that Black and co-star James Marsden will travel out of their comfort zones for a laugh.

Blythe Danner proved she was more than Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom in the lovely, if slight, I’ll See You in My Dreams. It may be too small a picture to land Danner on the end of the year awards list she deserves but the drama was a welcome change of pace so early in the summer.

Another early May drama was a wonderful adaptation of a classic novel…and one I forgot to review when I had the chance…here’s my brief take on it now…

                                         Movie Review ~ Far From the Madding Crowd
far_from_the_madding_crowd_ver2The Facts
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Synopsis: In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor.
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Juno Temple, Tom Sturridge
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s celebrated novel was a moving drama brimming with quietly powerful performances and lush cinematography. It’s a story that has been duplicated quite a lot over the years so one could be forgiven for feeling like we’ve seen this all before. Still, in the hands of director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) and led by stars Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), & Michael Sheen (Admission) it stirred deep emotions that felt fresh. Special mention must be made to Craig Armstrong (The Great Gatsby) for his gorgeous score and Charlotte Bruus Christensen for her aforementioned picturesque cinematography. You missed this in the theater, I know you did…it’s out to rent/buy now and you should check it out pronto.

Around mid-May the summer bar of greatness was set with the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road. The long in development fourth outing (and semi-reboot) of director George Miller’s apocalyptic hero was a movie lovers dream…pushing the boundaries of cinema and filmmaking into new places. A vicious, visceral experience, I can still feel the vibration in my bones from the robust film…a real winner.

The same week that Mad Max came back into our lives, a so-so sequel found its way to the top of the box office. Pitch Perfect 2 was a lazy film that’s as close to a standard cash grab as you could get without outright playing the original film and calling it a sequel. Uninspired and lacking the authenticity that made the first film so fun, it nevertheless made a song in receipts and a third film will be released in the next few years.

Tomorrowland and Poltergeist were the next two films to see the light of day and neither inspired moviegoers enough to gain any traction. Tomorrowland was actually the first film of the summer I saw twice…admittedly because I was curious about a new movie theater with reclining seats that I wanted to try out. As for the movie, the first half was an exciting adventure while the final act was a real mess.

I thought I’d hate the Poltergeist remake way more than I did…but I ended up just feeling bad for everyone involved because the whole thing was so inconsequential that I wished all of that energy had been directed into something of lasting value. While Sam Worthington made for a surprisingly sympathetic lead, the entire tone of the film was off and not even a few neat 3D effects could save it from being a waste.

May went out with a boom thanks to two wildly different films. If you asked me what I thought the prospects were for San Andreas before the screening I would have replied that Sia’s cover of California Dreamin’ would be the only good thing to come out of the action picture starring everyone’s favorite muscle with eyes, Dwayne Johnson. I still feel like Sia came out on top but the movie itself was a more than decent disaster epic, a little too long but made up for it with grand sequences of mayhem and destruction. Can’t imagine it will play nearly as well on a small screen but I wasn’t hating the film when the credits rolled.

A film I wasn’t too thrilled with at all was Aloha, Cameron Crowe’s own personal disaster flick. I still don’t know quite what to say about the movie because it was so dreadful that I’ve attempted to clear it from my memory. What I do remember was that it wasted its strong cast and exotic locale, as well as our time. Truly terrible.

STAY TUNED FOR JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST!

Movie Review ~ Avengers: Age of Ultron

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Tony Stark tries to jumpstart a dormant peacekeeping program, things go awry and it is up to the Avengers to stop the villainous Ultron from enacting his terrible plans.

Stars: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jr., Linda Cardellini, Mark Ruffalo, Andy Serkis, Thomas Kretschmann, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Stellan Skarsgård, Scarlett Johansson, Julie Delpy, Idris Elba, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Chris Hemsworth, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Claudia Kim

Director: Joss Whedon

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 141 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Here’s the thing that I like most about a good smörgåsbord – there’s something for everyone. Hot food, cold food, deserts, salads…it’s all at your fingertips and you can have as much or as little as you like. When presented with so many options, the whole experience can be somewhat overwhelming…but once you’ve had the chance to survey the selections and try out some choice cuts, you usually wind up walking away feeling a sense of fulfillment.

If any movie of 2015 (or any film in recent memory, actually) can be likened to a smörgåsbord it most certainly is this hugely anticipated follow up to 2012’s The Avengers. Offering bigger thrills and higher stakes, it’s a gargantuan film that redefines the term blockbuster. Still, I have to be honest and say that while it’s an all-together overpowering outing from the get-go, it took me a good twenty minutes to acclimate myself to writer/director Joss Whedon’s awe-inspiring sequel.

Starting up in the middle of the kind of go-big-or-go-home battle usually reserved for the latter half of other would-be blockbusters (the first of five jumbo battle royales featured in the 2.5 hour film), there’s no time wasted in re-introducing our friendly group of superheroes. Most of the crusaders have solidly led the way in their own films (Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America) while others have turned in noble supporting turns (Black Widow, Hawkeye, War Machine) in the same movies. Grouped together on screen, as The Avengers proved so impressively well, they can defeat schemes of world domination while rattling off Whedon’s quip-heavy banter.

Whedon knows his way around a clever turn of phrase but there’s a limit to how much witty repartee can be tossed at the audience before it begins to feel a little too astute for its own good. There seems to be an overly earnest need to kick things off on the right foot by giving us the greatest hits of Tony Stark, the master of delivering a one-liner, while storming the eastern European castle featured in the beginning battle. It’s just all a little much for this reviewer…but luckily Whedon and crew achieve a nice balance of fun and furious action in a plot that has a lot going on but never feels overstuffed.

While Avengers: Age of Ultron works in pieces as a stand-alone film, it will really pay off for the wise viewer that has already seen Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Thor, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Solider, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Several familiar faces from these films pop up and, as was the case in the The Avengers, it’s nice to see how many cross over characters play a part in the action without it all feeling like a ComicCon version of The Love Boat.

What’s the plot you ask? Best to let you find that out yourself so as not to spoil some of Whedon’s more elaborate set-ups. What I can relay is that it involves a villainous bit of Stark created Artificial Intelligence named Ultron spectacularly voiced by James Spader (Mannequin) managing to inject humanity with a devious sarcasm into this completely CGI role – it’s hard to imagine anyone else giving voice to the destructive machine with such flair. Ultron has big plans for The Avengers and the world as a whole from the moment he comes online with the help of a familiar piece of sought-after power. Aided by a pair of powerful twins (Aaron Taylor-Johnson & Elizabeth Olsen…both featured in last summer’s Godzilla) and a host of bad robots, Ultron keeps the hits coming right up until the grandest of grand finales of any large-scale action film I can recall. The only way it could have been bigger is if the theater set off fireworks at the end.

Returning to the fray are Robert Downey Jr. (The Judge), Chris Evans (Snowpiercer), Chris Hemsworth (Cabin in the Woods), Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin), Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher), Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy), Paul Bettany (Mortdecai), and Samuel L. Jackson (RoboCop) and it’s worth noting that everyone seems happy to have their moment in the sun and then let their colleagues have their time to shine too.

Marvel is just on an unstoppable roll now and with the next Captain America film due in 2016, the next Thor film due in 2017, and the two part Avengers finale arriving in the two years after that there’s a whole lot more ground to cover. Let’s not forget the other Marvel films on the big and small screen that will surely play a part in future development deals.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is Whedon’s swan song in the director’s chair and he’s followed up an adrenaline blast of a first film with a layered and just as entertaining sequel that pushes ideas and characters forward. Make sure to see it on the biggest screen possible with the best sound (the 3D is optional…I wouldn’t think it’s a requirement) to truly max out your Avengers experience.

Movie Review ~ Cinderella (2015)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When her father unexpectedly passes away, young Ella finds herself at the mercy of her cruel stepmother and her daughters. Never one to give up hope, Ella’s fortunes begin to change after meeting a dashing stranger in the woods.

Stars: Lily James, Helena Bonham Carter, Cate Blanchett, Stellan Skarsgård, Derek Jacobi, Nonso Anozie, Holliday Grainger, Richard Madden, Sophie McShera

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I remember being none too plussed when it was announced that Walt Disney Pictures would be giving their timeless classic Cinderella the live-action treatment. Could you really blame a fella for worrying that the studio that turned their lovely Alice in Wonderland into a madcap mind meld that wasn’t even interesting to look at (it’s one of the few films in recent memory that lulled me to sleep behind my 3D glasses) would muck it all up again by sending another valued animated classic into the live-action void just in time for its 65th anniversary?

Turns out that the studio saw the error of their ways (even though an Alice sequel is in the works…shudder shudder) and took a very traditional approach to bringing the tale of the orphaned girl that slept in the cinders who gets to go to a ball courtesy of a fairy godmother to the screen. Well, traditional isn’t really the right word because that suggests something perhaps more serviceable than memorable…and this Cinderella might just be a classic all its own.

With a script from Chris Weitz (A Better Life) that hits all the proper beats of Charles Perrault’s pristine fairy tale, this Cinderella is a gossamer gown of a film that beats with a heart that’s true. It’s so rare these days to be able to describe a film as celebrating goodness without passing out an airsick bag to anyone that’s listening but even at its most saccharine (and it does get ever so close to diabetic-shock inducing sweetness) there’s something so totally winning and, yes, enchanting to be found in every frame.

The look and feel that director Kenneth Branagh (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) brings to the screen can be attributed to Branagh’s classy Shakespearean roots, as well as Haris Zambarloukos’s (Thor) unobtrusive cinematography, Dante Ferretti’s (Hugo) striking production design, and Sandy Powell’s (The Wolf of Wall Street) gorgeous costumes. All of these production elements work in harmony to create a world of fantasy that doesn’t seem so hard to believe in.

Branagh has assembled a cast that are across the board perfect for their roles. Though she’s playing a damsel in need of a Prince’s salvation (which could be enough to make any grrrl power supporter raise an eyebrow or two), Lily James never lets her Cinderella be pitied. Though suffering through the tragic loss of her beloved parents and forced into servitude to a wicked trio of women, she never loses the goodness inside her or the search for the goodness she believes is in everyone else. She’s matched well by Richard Madden’s restless Prince, handsome and quite dashing is the name of Madden’s game. James and Madden create some palpably chaste chemistry, so by the time the two meet when James makes the kind of entrance usually reserved for a Broadway stage, we long to see them kiss more than anything else.

Oscar winner Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) has a devil of a fun time as the wicked stepmother and is wise enough to understand that she’s in a sophisticated re-thinking of Cinderella, resisting the urge to camp it up. Hers is a porcelain doll of a performance, never showing the cracks underneath until very near the end when some believable rationale for her treatment of her stepdaughter is revealed. Blanchett gets to wear Powell’s most gorgeous frocks and the actress revels in every moment onscreen.

Wicked stepsisters Holliday Grainger (Anna Karenina) and Sophie McShera may not be as comical as their animated counterparts, but they balance it nicely by being such refreshingly clueless dingbats. Derek Jacobi has several wise scenes as the King and Nonso Anozie (The Grey) is particularly impressive as the Prince’s trusted right-hand man. I could have done without a largely unnecessary political subplot involving Stellan Skarsgård, it’s the one weak spot in an otherwise rock-solid film.

Oh yes…let’s talk about Helena Bonham-Carter’s (The Lone Ranger) daffy Fairy Godmother. Sporting some interesting veneers, the actress is a looney treat as she bibbity bobbity boo’s her way through her short appearance onscreen. Her transformation of Cinderella, several four-legged friends, and one pumpkin into a troupe fit for a palace ball is, of course, a highlight.

This is one of those movie-going experiences I call a 1-101. It’s perfect for any age and moves briskly enough to hold your attention…not that you’d be bored with the sumptuous costumes and shimmering magic on display. I rarely see movies twice in the theater but this is one I’m looking forward to experiencing on the big screen again. Don’t forget to stay until the end for some familiar tunes!

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Cinderella is great entertainment on its own…but the good feelings start even before the credits roll because Disney is also releasing a new Frozen short before the film and it’s nearly worth the price of admission itself.

Picking up shortly after the events of Frozen, Frozen Fever finds ice princess Elsa planning the perfect birthday party for her sister Anna. Things don’t go quite as planned as Elsa comes down with a…wait for it…cold. With sneezes that produce mini snowmen (Disney’s attempt to Minion-ize their cash cow of a franchise), Elsa sings her way through her party plans while Olaf and Kristoff help out in their own way. The song featured here is no Let It Go (parents, you’ll be glad!) but it displays the same playful fun that won the same songwriters an Oscar a year ago.

It’s a truly delightful 7 minutes, so don’t be late!

The Silver Bullet ~ The Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Synopsis: When Tony Stark tries to jumpstart a dormant peacekeeping program, things go awry and it is up to The Avengers to stop the villainous Ultron from enacting his terrible plans.

Release Date:  May 1, 2015

Thoughts:  Summer 2014 isn’t quite a distant memory yet (though with the paltry offerings it very well should be) but audiences are already looking toward the treasures that 2015 has to offer.  First on most every “must-see” list is this sequel to the super-duper big time hit of 2012 Marvel’s The Avengers which sees the whole gang in front of behind the camera reunited to drum up some more box office gold for Walt Disney and Marvel Studios.  Like The Dark Knight, I wonder if the bar has been raised so far that the sequel won’t be able to reach the same heights…but never count dependable writer/director Joss Whedon out because it’s clear he knows what he’s doing.  The countdown to May 2015 has officially begun with this nifty little tease at what deadly force The Avengers are about to face…I know I’ll have that dang Pinocchio tune in my head for days now.

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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The Silver Bullet ~ Romeo & Juliet (2013)

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Synopsis: When the star-crossed lovers of two enemy families meet, forbidden love ensues.

Release Date:  October 11, 2013

Thoughts:  I suppose every generation needs its own adaptation of William Shakespeare’s classic tale of love torn apart by conflict, right?  Though the storyline has been borrowed for many a film (most recently in the clever zom-com Warm Bodies), the last big-time screen appearance was in 1996 with Baz Lurhman’s love it or leave it Romeo + Juliet which catapulted Leonardo DiCaprio and its director to true cinematic stardom.  Will it do the same for either or both of the two young actors in this new adaptation by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellows?  Released just in time for the back-to-school crowd to swoon over, this looks like a more faithful but no less stylish take on the Bard’s tragic masterpiece.

The Silver Bullet ~ Thor: The Dark World

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Synopsis: Thor battles an ancient race of Dark Elves led by the vengeful Malekith who threatens to plunge the universe back into darkness after the events of The Avengers.

Release Date:  November 8, 2013

Thoughts:   I was a bit underwhelmed by 2011’s Thor but recognized the value it had in the Marvel Universe, seeing that it played a larger part in getting the franchise closer to the release of The Avengers in 2012.  With Iron Man 3 releasing in May, the next Avenger to see a sequel is the God of Thunder and this time he’s back with a film that looks more like the film we’d expect from this comic/character.  Star Chris Hemsworth (Cabin in the Woods, Snow White and the Huntsman) has this coming out two months after a strong performance in Ron Howard’s Formula 1 racing film Rush so count on him ending 2013 with some extra sawbucks in the bank.  The rest of the gang is back but with a new director at the helm I’m thinking this one will open up a new dimension that previous director Kenneth Branagh wasn’t able to deliver on.