Thor: The Dark World film review

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Is this the most convenient superhero movie ever?

Thor: The Dark World is not the worst superhero movie ever made, but it may be the most convenient. How convenient is it? Well, let us enumerate:

  1. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) wields a magical hammer that is powerful enough to wipe out legions of enemies when necessary but not quite powerful enough to defeat the villainous elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston)  except after a protracted climax. Somewhat convenient for the screenwriter.
  2. The “aether” – the evil force used by the villain – is not powerful enough to protect the villainous elves from an onslaught in the prologue, but it is devilishly hard to defeat in the third act. Rather convenient for the screenwriter.
  3. After capturing the aether in the prologue, the soldiers of Asgard supposedly hide it in a place where it will never be found, but it turns out that to find it, all you have to do is look. In fact, Thor’s mortal girlfriend and all-round great scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is able to find it without even looking for it. Very convenient for the screenwriter.
  4. Unhinged scientist Erik Selvig has some sci-fi gizmos that he claims can stop the negative effects of the alignment of worlds that is the plot’s MacGuffin. Extremely convenient for the screenwriter.
  5. Perhaps sensing that #4 is too convenient, the screenwriter later has Selvig doubt his equipement will work: it was designed to detect gravitational anomalies, not create them, he abruptly opines at a crucial moment. In spite of this, Jane is able to manipulate the effects – zaping elves out of our world and into one of those aligned with Earth – by spinning a dial on a little black electronic box that looks like something you could buy at Radio Shack. This is convenience taken to the ultimate power.

Is THOR: THE DARK WORLD entertaining enough to make you suspend disbelief and overlook this convenience? Well, it ups the ante on the de rigueur superhero plot: the film is about the end of not only this world but the entire universe. Pretty exciting, huh?
Well, no. Not unless you think the sight of a long-haired blonde guy swinging a slightly ridiculous hammer is exciting. Helmsworth is an engaging on-screen presence, but Thor is a bit of a second-rate superhero. He underwent his entire character arc in THOR (from irresponsible lout to noble warrior), which leaves little left for the actor to do with the character this time, except express some mixed feelings about ascending to his father’s throne. (Because swinging a hammer on the battlefield is suitable for a superhero; sitting on a throne is not.)
But wait, there is depth of character in this movie. For instance, Thor’s sneering brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is not only sardonic, smug, and sinister; he is also very annoying. Selvig isn’t just smart; he’s crazy (apparently the aftereffect of his encounter with Loki in THE AVENGERS, but really just to give Stellan Skarsgard something to play). And Jane is not just beautiful but…well, smart – we know this, because she can spin that dial on the Radio Shack device.
And not only is their depth; there is also comic relief, thanks to the quirky supporting characters. The question: What does “comic relief” mean? Is it:

  1. Humor used to diffuse possible laughter at the wrong moment, by giving viewers the “right” moment to laugh.
  2. An attempt to be funny, that isn’t.

If you picked Answer #2, you probably just got through watching THOR: THE DARK WORLD.
The film’s few good moments revolve around the relatively low-key family drama. The plot contrives to get Thor and Loki working side-by-side after (SPOILER) their mother (Rene Russo) is killed, fueling their mutual desire for revenge. (END SPOILER). Lokis’s shtick is getting a bit worn-out by now, but his scenes with Thor actually generate some interest, as Thor admits he wishes he could trust his brother, and Loki responds, “Trust my rage.” The script carefully avoids going too far with the reconciliation, finding just the right note and bringing the narrative thread to a satisfying conclusion.
Which turns out to be a problem, because the film is not over at that point and must continue with that whole universe-in-peril thing, even after our interest in the character interaction has been satisfied. With no drama left to fuel the film, THOR: THE DARK WORLD relies on rote spectacle – which is not quite spectacular enough to sustain the movie all on its own (though the aether effects are pretty cool).
If you manage to sit all the way through the end, you will be treated to two of the worst “yes, there will be a sequel” moments in recent memory. The first is a simple “surprise” twist in which (SPOILERS) Loki turns out not to be dead, having someone replaced Odin (Anthony Hopkins) on the throne (which come to think of it, is extremely convenient, but let that pass).
The second is one of the Marvel Comic Book movies traditional post-credits (or in this case, mid-credits) sequences, in which two of Thor’s friends place the aether in the hands of a character named The Collector (a slightly over-the-top Bencio Del Toro). Now, if I were a Marvel Comics fan, I’m sure I would know who The Collector is, but you know what? I’m not, but it doesn’t matter, because I know exactly everything I need to know about the Collector, and so will you when you see the movie, which is two things:

  1. Thor’s comrades trust The Collector with the aether.
  2. Thor’s comrades should not trust The Collector with the aether.

Loki makes occasional comments about Thor’s lack of intelligence. If Thor okayed this plan, then Loki certainly seems to be right. (END SPOILERS)
Whatever its flaws, I don’t to give the impression that THOR: THE DARK WORLD is an absolute disaster. It’s not egregiously stupid; it’s simply dull. It’s loaded with special effects and action, but it’s all rather lifeless. The end-of-the-universe scenario never builds up any suspense, and Eccleston, though he strikes a menacing figure as Maleki is never given enough to do to create the towering portrait of evil that would dramatically energize Thor’s quest to defeat him. But at least the Thor-Loki narrative thread is worth unwinding. Too bad it’s twisted up with all the overblown blockbuster nonsense. At least it’s mildly intriguing to note that THOR: THE DARK WORLD is a superhero movie in which the superheroics are the least interesting element. The character interaction outshines the effects. If only the filmmakers had realized where the film’s true strength was…
Update: By the way, I forgot to mention that THOR: THE DARK WORLD is in 3D. Draw your own conclusions.
thor-the-dark-world-poster-natalie-portman-chris-hemsworth
THOR THE DARK WORLD (Marvel Entertainment and Walt Disney Studios: November 8, 2013). 112 minutes. Rated PG-13. Directed by Alan Taylor. Screenplay by Christopher Yost and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, from a story by Don Payne and Robert Rodat, based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby. Cast: Christ Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Jamie Alexander, Zachary Levi, Ray Stevenon, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgard, Alice Krige.

Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace 3D & Journey 2: The Mysterious Island – CFQ Spotlight Podcast 3:6

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There was no shortage of curiosity when George Lucas announced that he was converting his STAR WARS features to 3D, and no little disappointment when it was revealed that the first film to undergo the process would be the almost universally reviled EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE. Nevertheless here we are at the longest of those long times ago, back in that galaxy far, far away, watching once more as Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his talented padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) try to rescues Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) from the clutches of the evil Trade Federation, in the process stumbling upon Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a young boy with such formidable attributes — including single-handedly building C-3PO and having just by chance been born of immaculate conception — that he might well be the Chosen One, the one destined to bring Balance to the Force. That is, if instead he doesn’t turn to the Dark Side and become… well, let’s just say the name rhymes with Marth Frader.
Our special guest, chronicrift.com‘s John Drew, joins Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons as they revisit the newly dimensionalized version of this “first” installment and discuss whether the upgrade is worth donning the special, “Collectible Keepsake” 3D glasses. Also: Larry and Steve give their capsule reviews of JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. Plus: What’s coming in theaters and on home video.

GOING TO GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE THIS WEEKEND?
TWEET YOUR #WalkAwayReview TO @cfqspotlight
(Please don’t tweet during the movie!)

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Cinefantastique Spotlight Podcast: Thor

Not Available at Most Home Depots: Chris Hemsworth wields his mighty weapon... and his hammer... in THOR.
Not Available at Most Home Depots: Chris Hemsworth wields his mighty weapon... and his hammer... in THOR.

Most Mother’s Days, loving children show their gratitude with flowers and breakfast in bed. This Mother’s Day, the kids had the option of taking Mom to the multiplex, where she could drool over the handsomely chiseled Thor in the newest, big-screen adventure out of the Marvel stable. Is THOR — directed by Kenneth Branagh, starring Chris Hemsworth as the mighty-thewed (thewed?) God of Thunder,  Natalie Portman as his potential love-interest, and Anthony Hopkins as Big Daddy Odin, with a special guest appearance by Gort’s younger, more ambitious brother — the film that will bring a Shakespearean gravitas to comic book drama, or is it just so much table setting for the impending THE AVENGERS movie? Join The Chronic Rift’s John Drew and Cinefantastique Online’s Dan Persons as they discuss the movie behind the myth.

Your Highness Review

Your-Highness-posterCome, my friends, gather ye ‘round as I share my story. It is a sad tale, of a film with so much lost potential, of powerful actors and directors sacrificing themselves for the sake of a few cheap laughs, of an audience that might have cared once… But do not fear, for the ending is a happy one: I escaped this treacherous labyrinth with only a flesh wound.

Oh so long ago (last weekend) in a land far, far away (everywhere in the United States), the magical director David Gordon Green’s YOUR HIGHNESS (2011) opened after much anticipation in the kingdom. Starring Danny McBride as the slovenly, worthless Prince Thadeous and James Franco as his heroic brother Fabious, Green’s film looked to pick up where this trio’s previous collaboration, 2008’s PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, left off. But it was not to be. Instead, working from a script by McBride and Ben Best, YOUR HIGHNESS abandons laconic brilliance and inspired improvisation for consistently dull frat-boy humor and a lot of gratuitous nudity.

When Fabious’s virgin fiancé Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel, disastrously wasted) is kidnapped by the evil warlock Leezar (Justin Theroux), the two royal brothers set off on a quest to rescue her. In an adventure that is part Don Quixote and part Lord of The Rings, the duo come to encounter a few obstacles that make me blush just to mention them, and not in a good way. I will not divulge too many of YOUR HIGHNESS’s laughs, because there are precious few, but suffice it to say that such creatures as a jellyfish-like gay Sorcerer and a well-hung minotaur are among them.

The fantasy aspects are not well conceived (many characters’ names end in “-ious” and the only evidence we have for this land being someplace other than Camelot are the two moons in the sky), and no, playing these plot devices for laughs does not create high comedy.

On the other hand, the production aspects are too expertly orchestrated: Tim Orr’s cinematography is nothing if not majestic, costume design is detailed and strong, and even the sets lend the story a feeling of whimsy much ignored by the script.  I was particularly impressed with certain visual effects, such as when a courtly slave named Julie speaks into a fire or when bolts of green light shoot down from the moon.

But here is where this review must get a bit more serious. Some of Green’s earlier films have been poetry in motion, enchanting blends of surrealist spectacle and jaded wisdom. Even PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, which took a very different route than his prior dramatic films, was impressive – not only was James Franco’s performance hysterical and precise, but the film was simply clever. Not so with YOUR HIGHNESS, which squanders not only the wide talents of the Oscar-nominated Franco and the crass McBride, but also performances from such respectable actors as Deschanel, Charles Dance, Toby Jones, and worst of all, Natalie Portman.

Portman just won a well-deserved Oscar, and while this film was deep into post-production before she was even nominated, the question must be posed: Why this film? Portman’s character Isabel (clever, I know) is one of the smallest roles in terms of screen time, and she spends much of it diving half-nude into pools, walking in on Thadeous masturbating, or posing very still for the camera. The role is effectively chauvinistic, and while that’s not an uncommon occurrence in movies, it seems nearly criminal to have cast such a respected and talented actress for it.

YOUR HIGHNESS is highly disappointing. I trusted David Gordon Green to make good films. I trusted Franco, Portman, McBride, and Deschanel to choose their projects a bit more carefully, or at least to go down on different, isolated ships. Although this film does not come straight from “Apatown”, it bears many qualities of a script tossed into Judd Apatow’s trash bin, then pulled out by a janitor and leaked to McBride & Best. Was this perhaps intended to smack big producers who demanded something more high concept in the face? Were the filmmakers and cast possibly working under the delusion I admit to sharing: that they had the Midas touch? What a letdown.

  • Directed by: David Gordon Green
  • Written by: Danny McBride & Ben Best
  • Thadeous – Danny McBride
  • Fabious – James Franco
  • Isabel – Natalie Portman
  • Leezar – Justin Theroux
  • Belladonna – Zooey Deschanel
  • Julie – Toby Jones
  • Courtney – Rasmus Hardiker
  • King Tallious – Charles Dance
  • Original Music by: Steve Jablonsky
  • Cinematography by: Tim Orr

Black Swan & Warriors Way: CFQ Post-Mortem Podcast 1:42.1

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Having delved into the fairy tale world of Walt Disney Pictures’ TANGLED early this week, the CFQ Podcast crew returns with a post-mortem detailing the two other genre films now in theatres: BLACK SWAN and THE WARRIORS WAY. One is about ballet; the other is a martial arts Western. The former is Darren Aronofsky’s study of a neurotic ballerina (Natalie Portman), which turns into a horror movie in its third act (think what would happen if Roman Polanski’s REPULSION were mashed up with Dario Argento’s OPERA). The latter is a high-flying martial arts fantasy set in the Old West. So saddle up your horse or strap on your tutu, and check out the weird and wonderful delights on view.


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'Superman' Rumors Update

Portman_AmadaliaAccording to The Hollywood Reporter, Darren Aronofsky (PI, THE FOUNTAIN) has had some discussions about the possiblity of directing the Superman reboot.
Moviehole echoes this report, and adds that Natalie Portman (STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE), in Aronofsky’s horror fantasy BLACK SWAN has been mentioned as a possible Lois Lane.
At one point, Darren Aronofsky had a development deal in place to make a BATMAN: YEAR ONE movie, inspired by the comic book series. Warner Brothers eventually cooled on that idea (already in pre-production), and went with Christopher Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS reboot, instead.

New Trailer for Aronofsky's BLACK SWAN

Darran Aronofsky is well known for filling his movies with a mixture of the tragic (REQUIEM FOR A DREAM) and the fantastic (THE FOUNTAIN). Now he brings his vision to the thriller genre with his next release BLACK SWAN. The trailer was released recently and, though a bit confusing, will intrigue nonetheless. We suggest reading the plot summary first before viewing. Enjoy!

BLACK SWAN follows the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), a ballerina in a New York City ballet company whose life, like all those in her profession, is completely consumed with dance. She lives with her retired ballerina mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) who zealously supports her daughter’s professional ambition. When artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to replace prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for the opening production of their new season, Swan Lake, Nina is his first choice. But Nina has competition: a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis Kunis), who impresses Leroy as well. Swan Lake requires a dancer who can play both the White Swan with innocence and grace, and the Black Swan, who represents guile and sensuality. Nina fits the White Swan role perfectly but Lily is the personification of the Black Swan. As the two young dancers expand their rivalry into a twisted friendship, Nina begins to get more in touch with her dark side with a recklessness that threatens to destroy her.


BLACK SWAN will be in theaters December 1st, 2010

Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace – Film Review

STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE is the first film in the so-called “Prequel Trilogy,” which provides the back story of how Anakin Skywalker turned to the Dark Side of the Force and became Darth Vader, the cybotic villain seen in the original STAR WARS trilogy. Unfortunately, the film is marred by the fact that its very existence is unnecessary: nothing in it tells us anything we need to know in order to appreciate STAR WARS (1977) or THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) or even the lamentable RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983). The story seems padded out from a few scraps of ideas, with little significant exposition, and the little information given seems contradictory to what was established in the earlier films. Overall, more effort seems to have gone into juicing up the film with a handful of special effects highlights (the pod race, the three-way light saber duel) and with reintroducing familiar characters (the droids, Obi-Wan, Jabba the Hutt, Yoda) whether or not the film needed them.
Clearly, there is something wrong with a film, when the loudest applause occurs as the curtain goes up, in anticipation of, rather than response to, what is being seen. That is the case with STAR WARS, EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE, the highly hyped prequel that gives 1998’s GODZILLA a run for its money as an over-anticipated disappointment. The audience (after a masterfully orchestrated promotional campaign, after months of trailers and weeks of commercials and cover stories, after waiting in line for days to buy tickets and for hours to get a seat) has been led to expect that this is the major event of the year. With that kind of build-up, the excitement in the theatre is almost palpable as the lights go down. There is only one problem: the film has to deliver.
THE PHANTOM MENACE falls short in this regard. It is not a completely terrible film, at least compared to the disaster that was RETURN OF THE JEDI. But in a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, more creativity has been lavished on getting you into the theatre than on pleasing you once you get there. The story starts well, with the Trade Federation’s blockade of planet Naboo; for a time, it seems as if Lucas is taking a page from Frank Herbert’s Dune, with his handling of political machinations in a science-fiction context. Soon, however, trouble arises from the fact that the audience is well ahead of the characters. We already know that Senator Palpatine is the “phantom menace” of the title, manipulating the Federation to his own ends — despite the fact that Lucas keeps his face hidden when he appears as a Sith Lord to his Federation stooges.


Despite this built-in predictability, the film maintains initial interest thanks to Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, who make as dashing a pair of Jedi Knights as one could wish. But after they sneak the Queen off of her besieged planet, the momentum drags. The problem is that Lucas now has to tie these events into the storyline of the original trilogy, so he spends time introducing characters (R2D2, Jabba the Hut, C-3PO, and of course Anakin Skywalker) who contribute little to this new story. (In a rare surprise, C-3PO turns out to have been created on Tattoine by Anakin. So why doesn’t he recognize his home planet when he lands in STAR WARS? Presumably Lucas will offer an explanation later, about as convincing as Obi Wan’s “I was telling you the truth” speech in JEDI.) In effect, the plot becomes a mere prologue, relying for its impact not on anything exciting in itself but on the connections to STAR WARS. Thus Obi Wan promises to train Anakin as a Jedi, and Palpatine promises to keep an eye on his progress — trivial scenes that are supposed to resonate deeply because of the story we already know.
But lets face it: no one expected great drama; we wanted all the exuberance of flying through space and battling evil that $100-million could buy. In this regard, the film delivers — at intervals. Space ships and interstellar travel are portrayed to excellent effect, but the momentum never builds, thanks to a screen time padded past two hours and ten minutes — a lethargic pace that lags behind the original’s quick tempo.
Elsewhere, the ubiquitous computer effects are meant to be impressive for their own sake: as each new creature appears, we are supposed to react in awe: “Look, another digitally created character!” However, these animated actors look too much like what they are: computer-generated cartoons. It’s as if ANTZ and A BUG’S LIFE were trying to pass off their outtakes as part of a live-action film. Aggravating matters, these technical marvels strike a decidedly juvenile tone that falls far short of Lucas’ alleged mythic aspirations. The villains are mostly robots, so no one will be offended at seeing them blown up by a little boy. And Jar Jar Binks, the film’s equivalent of Chewbacca, is merely exasperating, his comedy relief gibberish supposedly funny just because it is gibberish. As with Chewbacca, this saves Lucas from having to write coherent dialogue. We always knew what the Wookie was saying, however, thanks to Han Solo’s responses. With Jar Jar, we are left shaking our heads, even when we do catch the occasional recognizable phrase.
Having not directed since STAR WARS, Lucas has lost whatever touch he had with actors. With solid professionals (including Terence Stamp, wasted in a bit), this causes no problem, but the younger cast suffers. Jake Lloyd is a stiff. Natalie Portman is regal in her Queen regalia but lifeless when posing in her alter ego role as the Queen’s handmaid. (And what’s up with those ridiculous outfits that suggest not a galaxy far, far away but a Halloween drag parade in West Hollywood?)
Not surprisingly, the film comes to life mostly when characterization takes a back seat to action. Highlights include Anakin’s triumph in the pod race (a science-fiction update on BEN HUR’s famous chariot race); and the final light saber against Darth Maul is outstanding. But even the visuals are often derivative: for the second time, the devilish villain falls to his death down a bottomless tunnel; and for the third time the climax involves an aerial attack that explodes a massive enemy target in outer space. Even the exciting moments (and there are a few) fail to lift the film above mid-level quality. The applause as the curtain goes down has an obligatory air, as people try to convince themselves that they have not been too disappointed. But they deserved much more than they got. They deserved a great movie designed for the ten-year-old in us all, not a film designed for ten-year-olds.
STAR WARS, EPISODE ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999). Written and Directed by George Lucas. Cast: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels.
Copyright 1999 Steve Biodrowski