“THOR: RAGNAROK” (2017) Review

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“THOR: RAGNAROK” (2017) Review

Until last fall, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has released three films each for only two of the franchise’s characters – Iron Man and (allegedly) Captain America. With the release of “THOR: RAGNAROK”, the God of Thunder became the third character to end up with three solo films. 

Directed by Taika Waititi, “THOR: RAGNAROK” told the story of Asgardian prince Thor’s efforts to prevent the destruction of his world, Asgard, from his aggressive and more powerful sister, Hela. The movie is the franchise’s version of a similar story featured in one of the Marvel Comics titles for the Thor character. Screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost also used elements from the 2006 Marvel story, “Planet Hulk” to include the Dr. Bruce Banner aka the Hulk into the movie’s plot.

Set four years after the events of “THOR: THE DARK WORLD” and two-and-half years after the events of “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON”, this film begins with Thor as a prisoner of the fire demon Surtur in Muspelheim. Thor had went there to search for the remaining Infinity Stones. Surtur reveals that Thor’s father Odin is no longer on Asgard, and that the Asgardian realm will soon be destroyed in the prophesied Ragnarök, once Surtur unites his crown with the Eternal Flame that burns in Odin’s vault. However, Thor frees himsel, defeats Surtur and claims the latter’s crown, believing he has prevented Ragnarök aka the Asgardian version of the Apocalypse. Upon his return to Asgard, Thor discovers that his adoptive brother Loki has been posing as Odin. He also finds that a warrior named Skurge has replaced the all-seeing Heimdall as the Bifröst Bridge’s sentry. Thor forces Loki to help him find Odin on Earth.

With assistance from the sorcerer Dr. Stephen Strange, the pair finds Odin Norway. The latter explains that he is dying and that his passing will free his ambitious firstborn child, Hela the Goddess of Death, out of a prison in which she had been sealed. When he finally dies, Hela appears on Earth, destroys Thor’s hammer Mjolnir and demands loyalty from him and Loki. Instead, the two brothers attempt to flee via the Bifröst Bridge. Unfortunately, Hela pursues them and forces them out into space to die. Hela ends up in Asgard and violently assume control of the throne. Thor crash lands on a garbage planet called Sakaar. There, he is captured by a bounty hunter, whom recognizes as a Valkryrie named Brünnhilde, and forced to participate as a gladiator for the planet’s “Contest of Champions”. He also discovers that Loki has become a companion of Sakaar’s leader, the Grandmaster. And that Bruce Banner aka the Hulk has been a champion gladiator on Sakaar ever since his disappearance, following the Sokovia battle over two years ago. Thor not only needs to survive a match against the Hulk, but also escape from Sakaar and prevent his sister’s complete control over Asgard and her plans for expanding the realm’s empire.

“THOR: RAGNAROK” had received a great deal of praise from film critics upon its release. In fact, the movie went on to become a box office hit. In a way, I could see why. The basic narrative for “THOR: RAGNAROK” struck me as a rare thing for a MCU solo film – an epic in the making. Thor facing a possible apocalypse for Asgard, a gladiator match against a fellow ex-Avenger, and more family drama from the Asgard Royal Family. “THOR: RAGNAROK” had the potential to be another “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER”.

There was a good number of things I really enjoyed about “THOR: RAGNAROK”. One, I enjoyed director Taika Waititi’s use of the Led Zeppelin tune, “Immigrant Song” around the film’s beginning and near the end rather effective. I was also impressed by Joel Negron and Zene Baker’s editing for the film. Their work seemed especially impressive in the scenes that featured Thor’s chaotic arrival on Sakaar and his gladiator match with the Hulk. I also found Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography very colorful . . . almost outstanding. Hell, there was one scene featuring Hela’s past conflict with the Valkyries that reminded me of Larry Fong’s work with director Zack Snyder:

Much has been said about the humor that permeated “THOR: RAGNAROK”, thanks to the screenwriters and especially Taika Waititi’s direction. I cannot say that I had enjoyed all the humor featured in the film. But there were a few scenes that I found particularly funny. One included Loki’s play about Odin’s grief over his fake death. This scene featured Matt Damon, Luke Hemsworth and Sam Neill portraying Loki, Thor and Odin respectively. Brünnhilde’s first appearance in the movie, in which she is drunk as a skunk, struck me as rather funny, thanks to Tessa Thompson’s performance. Another scene I found hilarious was Thor and the Hulk’s first meeting inside the Sakaar arena, along with Loki’s fearful reaction to seeing the latter again. But the funniest scene – at least for me – featured Thor forcing a reluctant Loki to play a “Get Help!” trick (something from their childhood) on one of the Grandmaster’s minions.

The movie featured some first-rate performances. Chris Hemsworth gave his usual first-rate performance as Asgard’s crown prince, Thor. Tom Hiddleston was equally impressive as the mischievous and self-absorbed Loki. Cate Blanchett chewed the scenery in grand style as Thor and Loki’s power hungry sister, Hela. Tessa Thompson gave a skillful performance as the ambiguous former Valkyrie, Brünnhilde, who used alcohol to runaway from painful memories. Mark Ruffalo was excellent as both the mild-mannered Dr. Bruce Banner and his alter ego, the Hulk; who seemed more happy as a worshiped gladiator on Sakaar than as a wanted fugitive/Avenger on Earth. Jeff Goldblum was his colorful self as the Grandmaster; the gregarious, yet tyrannical and self-absorbed leader of Sakaar. Idris Elba provided much needed gravitas as Asgard’s former gatekeeper, Heimdall, who found himself the leader of the realm’s refugees from Hela’s reign. Karl Urban was surprisingly entertaining as the boastful warrior Skurge, who would do anything to survive Hela’s reign. The movie featured two cameos. Benedict Cumberbatch made a solid cameo appearance as the arrogant sorcerer, Dr. Stephen Strange. However, Anthony Hopkins’ cameo as the dying Odin struck me as poignant and a lot more effective.

Despite all of the above, despite the critical acclaim, “THOR: RAGNAROK” proved to be rather disappointing for me in the end. What went wrong?

One problem I had with this film was its treatment of certain characters. Remember Lady Sif and the Warriors Three? Thor’s closest friends who had traveled all the way to Earth to find him in “THOR”? And who helped him defy Odin and leave Asgard with Loki and Dr. Jane Foster in order to remove one of the Infinity Stones – the Aether – from the realm and the Dark Elves? Well . . . Lady Sif never made an appearance in this film. One would assume that actress Jamie Alexander had scheduling conflicts with her TV series, “BLINDSPOT”. Then why not hire another actress to portray Lady Sif . . . as they had did with Fandral? But not only was Lady Sif missing, she was not even mentioned in this film. That was quite a head shaker for me. Another head shaker were the fates of the Warrior Three – Fandral, Volstagg and Hogun. Both Fandral and Volstagg were immediately killed by Hela upon her arrival on Asgard. I found that so disappointing and a waste of both Zachary Levi and Ray Stevenson’s time. At least Tadanobu Asano’s Hogun was able to speak more than one line and engage in a brief fight with Hela before she eventually dispatched him. But what made this so damn annoying was that Thor was never told about his friends’ deaths on screen. Audiences never got a chance to see him react to their deaths.

Believe it or not, I also had a problem with the Hulk. Well . . . I had a problem with his ability to form near complete sentences. How did that happened? Aside from uttering the phrase “Hulk smash!” in the 2008 movie, “THE INCREDIBLE HULK”, I do not recall him ever speaking any sentences – complete or not. Not when he was portrayed by Eric Bana, Edward Norton or Mark Ruffalo. What I found even more puzzling was Thor’s lack of surprise over the Hulk’s conversational skills. Odin’s death was handled in an equally questionable manner. First of all, from what did he died? What caused Odin’s death? Being away from Asgard for so long? If so, the movie’s screenplay was very vague in conveying this. And why did Odin’s death lead to Hela’s appearance on Earth? If she was in a prison, why did she not appear in Asgard upon her father’s death? That made no sense to me. Movie audiences learned that Thor and Dr. Jane Foster finally had their breakup, following his departure from Earth two years earlier. I am already annoyed at Kevin Feige for hinting that Jane was not worthy of being Thor’s love interest. Not worthy? Why? Because she was not a skilled fighter with or without super strength who wielded a sword or gun? Fuck Kevin Feige and his sexist bullshit. What made the news of the breakup even worse is that the news of Thor and Jane’s breakup was treated as comic relief. Thor’s breakup with a woman with whom he was in love for four years . . . was treated as a joke? Natalie Portman was right to dump this franchise.

If “THOR: RAGNAROK” was about the God of Thunder’s attempt to prevent Asgard from experiencing Ragnarok (or an apocalypse), why in the hell did it focus on Thor’s activities in Sakaar for so damn long? Why did the movie stay on that damn planet for so long? Once Thor and the Hulk’s gladiator’s match had ended, I figured it would not be long before Thor would have left Sakaar with the Hulk, Loki and Brünnhilde. Instead, it nearly took them FOREVER to get off that planet. It was sheer torture watching Thor trying to convince the Hulk and Brünnhilde to help him get off the planet. And I found Loki’s backstabbing shenanigans not only unoriginal, but lame. Come to think of it, I found Loki’s presence in this film rather lame . . . except in the movie’s last twenty minutes or so. He more or less became a punching bag for Thor and everyone else, than the dangerous and tricky villain he used to be. Once “the Revengers”, as Thor called himself and the others, arrived on Asgard, it was . . . eh. I just did not care at that point. Their final conflict with Hela and Thor’s decision to kick star Ragnarok (using Surtur’s crown and the Eternal Flame) just could not lift me from my apathy toward this film.

But what really sank “THOR: RAGNAROK” for me was the humor. I do not mind the occasional use of humor in an action film like this. I do not even mind when there is more humor than usual – especially in films like “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” and “ANT-MAN”. But what I could not deal with was a barrage of humor in a narrative that featured the possible apocalypse of Asgard, the deaths of familiar characters and the further drama of the Asgardian Royal Family. Nearly everything was transformed into a joke – from Thor’s discovery of Loki’s impersonation of Odin, Brünnhilde’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTS) over the deaths of her fellow Valkyries, the reason behind the Hulk’s longing to remain on Sakaar, the revelation over Thor and Jane’s breakup, the Sakaarians’ decision to rebel against the Grandmaster, and Hela’s revelations to Skurge about hers and Odin’s murderous creation of the Asgardian Empire. These were all plot points that should have been treated with a good deal more gravitas. And I could not believe that Waititi forced moviegoers to watch Thor argue with the Hulk’s S.H.I.E.L.D. Quinjet over who was the most powerful Avenger. I mean . . . really? The Hulk actually went out of his way to program the jet’s computer to acknowledge him as the most powerful Avenger? That scene was so unfunny that in the end, it became sheer torture to watch.

Hela’s constant complaints about her father’s failure to appreciate her only reminded me of Loki’s petulant man pain in “THOR”. Only her carping was punctuated by jokes and witty comments. Worse, this barrage of humor prevented the screenplay from exploring Hela’s revelations about Asgard’s imperial past. The overuse of humor also transformed Thor’s character. Everyone made such a big deal about Chris Hemsworth’s comedic talents in recent years that I suspect that Marvel had decided to exploit it in this third Thor movie. Well, it turned out to be too much, as far as I was concerned. I have been aware of Hemsworth’s comedic talents since “THOR” back in 2011. But Marvel picked the wrong movie and the wrong director to exploit that talent to an excessive degree. Hemsworth came off as some semi-witty California surfer than the Asgardian God of Thunder. Between the characterizations, the dramatic moments robbed for the sake of humor and the barrage of jokes, it was just too much.

Unlike many film critics and MCU fans, I have always enjoyed the franchise’s Thor films. Well, I certainly did enjoy the first two featuring Chris Hemsworth. But I cannot say the same about this third film, “THOR: RAGNAROK”. It both annoyed and disappointed me on so many levels. Although I found the cast led by Hemsworth rather first-rate, I was disappointed by some of the film’s characterizations and the plot holes. But I was especially disappointed by the film’s use of humor. In the end, Kevin Feige, Marvel Films, the movie’s screenwriters and Taika Waititi took a potentially epic comic book movie and transformed it into a long, goddamn joke fest. By the time I left the movie theater, I felt disgusted.

 

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“THOR: THE DARK WORLD” (2013) Review

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“THOR: THE DARK WORLD” (2013) Review

As I had stated in my review of “IRON MAN 3”, I had assumed that the release of the 2012 blockbuster, “THE AVENGERS” would signal the end of Marvel’s multi-film saga about the group of comic book heroes and their government allies, S.H.I.E.L.D. Not only did “IRON MAN 3” prove me wrong, but also the recent television series,“AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” and the second movie about the God of Thunder, “THOR: THE DARK WORLD”

Like the 2011 movie, “THOR”, this latest film begins thousands of years ago. Back in day (or year); Bor, the father of Odin, clash with the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim and their leader Malekith, who seeks to destroy the universe using a weapon known as the Aether. After conquering Malekith’s forces, Bor hides the Aether within a stone column. He was also unaware that Malekith, his lieutenant Algrim, and a handful of Dark Elves have managed to escape by going into suspended animation. 

Many years later, Thor and his fellow Asgardians (which include his friends Lady Sif, Fandral and Volstagg) help their comrade Hogun repel marauders on the latter’s homeworld, Vanaheim. It proves to be the last battle in a war to pacify the Nine Realms, which had fallen into chaos following the destruction of the Bifröst. And in London, astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster is led by her intern Darcy Lewis and the latter’s intern, Ian, to an abandoned factory where objects have begun to disobey the laws of physics by disappearing into thin air. Jane is teleported to another world, where she is infected by the Aether. Both the Asgardians and Jane’s former mentor, Dr. Erik Selvig learn on separate occasions that the Convergence, a rare alignment of the Nine Realms, is imminent. While the event approaches, portals (one of which Jane had fallen into) linking the worlds appear at random. Heimdall alerts Thor of Jane’s recent disappearance, leading the latter to search for her on Earth. When she inadvertently releases an unearthly force upon a group of London policemen, Thor takes her to Asgard. Unfortunately, the Asgardian healers do not know how to treat her. Odin, recognizing the Aether, warns Jane’s infection will kill her given enough time, and that the Aether’s return heralds a catastrophic prophecy. Unbeknownst to Odin, the re-emergence of the Aether also ends the Dark Elves’ suspended animation and revives their determination to use the substance to darken the universe.

“THOR: THE DARK WORLD” has proven to be a major box office, since its release nearly a month ago. This is not surprising, considering the enormous success of Marvel’s Avenger saga. “IRON MAN 3”, set six months after the events of the 2012 film, also proved to be a big hit. Some people have claimed that the first film about Thor was superior. As much as I had enjoyed “THOR”, I cannot say that I would agree. It reeked just a bit too much of a superhero origin tale. Personally, I found the plot for “THOR: THE DARK WORLD” more satisfying.

Mind you, this second God of Thunder movie did not strike me as perfect. It had a few flaws. Although I applaud director Alan Taylor and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau’s expansion of the Asgard setting beyond the royal palace and the Bifröst, the latter’s photography for that particular setting seemed to lack Haris Zambarloukos’ dazzling and colorful photography from the 2011 film. Instead, there seemed to be a slightly dull cast to Morgenthau’s photography of Asgard. Thor’s friends did not particularly project that same screen chemistry that I found so enjoyable in the first film. Aside from one major scene in which Thor plotted Jane’s escape from Asgard, they rarely had any scenes together. And Tadanobu Asano’s Hogun had even less scenes. I wonder if this was due to the actor’s major role in the upcoming movie, “47 RONIN”

Aside from these nitpicks, I enjoyed “THOR: THE DARK WORLD” very much. As I had earlier stated, I found it more enjoyable than the first film. Thanks to the screenplay written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the movie provided a stronger narrative, beyond a simple origin tale. The three screenwriters explored the consequences of past events from both “THOR” and “THE AVENGERS” – Loki’s actions in both movies; Thor’s original destruction of the Bifröst, which led to chaos in the Nine Realms and his long separation from Jane Foster, the latter’s inability to move on, and the impact upon Erik Selvig from being possessed by Loki. However, the movie also explored how a past event in the Asgardians’ history – their conflict with the Dark Elves – managed to once again, have a negative impact upon Earth. For a movie that was juggling a good number of subplots, along with a major plot, I thought the writers and director Alan Taylor did a first-rate job in balancing it all in the end. 

Taylor has limited experience as a movie director, but he has a long history as a television direction. Despite his longer experience with television, I must admit that I found myself more than pleased with his direction of “THOR: THE DARK WORLD”. And I was also very impressed. I was especially impressed by his handling of certain action scenes, like the Dark Elves’ invasion of Asgard, the fight scene between Queen Frigga and Malekith, the escape from Asgard, and Thor and Loki’s confrontation against Malekith and the Dark Elves. But the one action scene that really impressed me turned out to be Thor and Jane’s attempt to prevent Malekith’s use of the Aether against Earth and the rest of the universe. This scene not only benefited from Taylor’s direction, but also Dan Lebental and Wyatt Smith’s editing. The movie’s action sequences were nicely balanced by some of its dramatic and comedic scenes. I especially enjoyed Thor and Loki’s quarrel over the latter’s past actions, Thor’s reunion with Jane, and Darcy and Ian’s attempt to free Erik from a mental institution. One particular scene featured a quarrel between Thor and Odin over how to deal with the threat of the Dark Elves. It strongly reminded me of the two men’s quarrel over the Frost Giants in the first film . . . but with an ironic twist. Instead of Odin being the mature and reasonable one, this time it is Thor.

My only complaint about the movie’s performances has to do with Tadanobu Asano. Due to his limited appearance in the film, he never really had a chance to give a memorable performance. I hope to see more of him in the next film. Both Jamie Alexander and Ray Stevenson gave competent performances as Thor’s two other friends – Lady Sif and Volstagg. Instead of Josh Dallas, this movie featured Zachary Levi in the role of Thor’s fourth friend, Fandral. Levi had been originally cast in the role for the 2011 film. But due to his commitments to NBC’s “CHUCK”, Dallas got the role. But the latter’s commitment to ABC’s “ONCE UPON A TIME” forced Marvel and Disney to give the role back to Levi. Aside from the initial shock of seeing him in a blond wig, I must admit that Levi made a very dashing Fandral. I was very happy to see Kat Dennings reprise her role of Jane’s intern, Darcy Lewis. She was as funny as ever. She also had an extra straight man in the form of Jonathan Howard, who portrayed “her” intern, Ian Boothby. The movie also featured a very funny cameo by Chris Evans, who portrayed Loki disguised as Steve Rogers/Captain America.

Christopher Eccleston may not have made the most witty villain from the Marvel canon, but I found his portrayal of Malekith very scary . . . in an unrelenting way. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje struck me as equally impressive as Malekith’s lieutenant, Algrim. It was a pity that I could barely make him out in his new appearance as the Kurse. Renee Russo’s role as Queen Frigga was expanded in this second film and I am so thankful that it was. Not only did she have a marvelous dramatic scene with Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, but watching her sword fight against Eccleston’s Malekith reminded me of her role in the “LETHAL WEAPON” films. Idris Elba repeated his masterful portrayal of Asgard’s gatekeeper, Heimdall. I especially enjoyed him in two scenes – Heimdall’s efforts to prevent the Dark Elves’ attack and his discussion with Thor about helping Jane leave Asgard against Odin’s will. More importantly, audiences get to see him in even more scenes. Stellan Skarsgård was very hilarious in his portrayal of Dr. Erik Selvig in this film. I realize that one should not laugh at the idea of someone suffering from a mental trauma, but I could not help it. I do not think I have ever seen Skarsgård so entertaining in a Marvel film. Anthony Hopkins did a marvelous job in conveying Odin’s increasing fragile rule over Asgard and control of his emotions. This was especially apparent in the scene featuring Odin and Thor’s disagreement over the Dark Elves.

For the first time in a Marvel film, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is not portrayed as an out-and-out villain, but a more morally complex character, thanks to his relationships with Asgard’s royal family – especially Thor and Frigga. Hiddleston was as playful and witty as ever. And I especially enjoyed his interactions with Chris Hemsworth. In fact, I can say the same about Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Thor’s love, astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster. Personally, I found her funnier and her chemistry with Hemsworth a lot stronger in this second film. And I was especially happy to see her take a more active role in helping Thor defeat the main villain. As for Chris Hemsworth, he continued to roll as the God of Thunder, Thor. He did a marvelous job in developing his character into more complex waters, especially in regard to his relationships with Jane, Loki and Odin. And one of my favorite scenes in the movie featured Thor’s silent reaction to his discovery that Jane had a date with another man. I hope that one day, people will truly appreciate what a first-rate actor he can be.

“THOR: THE DARK WORLD” had a few flaws. What movie does not? But thanks to Alan Taylor’s direction, an excellent cast led by a talented Chris Hemsworth and a very complex script written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, it not only turned to be very entertaining, but also better than the previous film. At least for me.

“RUSH” (2013) Review

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“RUSH” (2013) Review

Before I began this review, it occurred to me that Ron Howard has directed a good number of movie biographies set in the distance past for the last eighteen years, starting with 1995’s “APOLLO 13”. Mind you, the film was not Howard’s first period picture. But in the following years, he has directed four more biopics, including his latest project, “RUSH”

Written by Peter Morgan, who also worked with Howard on 2008’s “FROST/NIXON”“RUSH” told the story about the rivalry between Formula One race drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 racing season. The two drivers are highly skilled and talented race car drivers who first develop a fierce rivalry in 1970 at a Formula Three race at the Crystal Palace circuit in England. Hunt is a brash young Englishman with a tendency to vomit before every race and the Austrian Lauda is a cool, technical genius who relies on precision. While Lauda buys his way onto the BRM Formula One team, which includes legendary driver Clay Regazzoni, following a falling out with his father. Both Lauda and Regazzoni later join the Scuderia Ferrari team with Regazzoni, and Lauda wins his first championship in 1975. Hunt’s racing team, Hesketh Racing, closes shop after failing to secure a sponsor and the British driver manages to land a driving position in McLaren after Emerson Fittipaldi leaves the team. During this period, Hunt marries supermodel Suzy Miller and Lauda develops a relationship with socialite Marlene Knaus.

Eventually, the movie shifts to the 1976 Fomula One racing season. Lauda dominates the early races, while Hunt and the McLaren team struggle with a series of setbacks that include mechanical failures and a disqualified win at the Spanish Grand Prix. Hunt also suffers a personal setback when his wife leaves him for Richard Burton. All seem to be going well for Lauda, including a private wedding to Marlene Knaus. But all come to a head for him at the German Grand Prix at Nürburgring, when he suffers a major car crash. While Hunt shoots ahead in points during his absence, Lauda struggles to recover the crash and return to finish the racing season.

Aside from the movies in the FAST AND FURIOUS series, the only auto racing movies that ever really caught my attention were two period comedies from the 1960s that featured Tony Curtis, the 2006 Will Ferrell comedy,TALLAGEDA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY”, and the 2008 film, “SPEED RACER”. That is it. Since I had never heard of James Hunt or Niki Lauda, I was almost inclined to skip “RUSH”. Thank God I did not. I would have missed out on something special . . . at least for me. I love action films. One of the aspects of action films that I love are the car chases. But the car racing scenes were not the reasons why I finally decided to see “RUSH”. I had three reasons – Ron Howard, Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl. But the cincher for me was the trailer. What can I say? It impressed me.

“RUSH” is not the first time Ron Howard explored the 1970s. He directed two other movies set in the same decade –“APOLLO 13” and “FROST/NIXON”. I am beginning to wonder if this decade means a lot more to Howard than he would care to admit. In “RUSH”, the more glamorous aspect of the 1970s was explored, thanks to the artistry of production designer Mark Digby. His work was aptly supported by the art direction team led by Daniel Chour and Patrick Rolfe, and also the film’s set decorations. But if there is one aspect of “RUSH” that truly captured the 1970s – aside from the soundtrack – was Julian Day’s costumes. I adored them. Below are examples of Day’s work:

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“RUSH” did featured a good number of first-rate auto racing sequences. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, along with film editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill did an exceptional job in recapturing the excitement (well . . . from the driver’s point of view) of Formula One racing. This was certainly apparent in two sequences – the Italian Grand Prix, where a barely recovered Niki Lauda managed to finish fourth place; and the Japanese Grand Prix, where the last race of the 1976 season took place. I realize that this might sound gruesome and I certainly do not mean to sound insensitive to what happened to Lauda. But I cannot deny that Howard’s recreation of the German Grand Prix at Nürburgring and Lauda’s car crash was an example of masterful filmmaking, thanks to Howard’s direction, Mantle’s photography and the editing by Hanley and Hill. The movie really captured the spectacle and the horror of the crash.

But “RUSH” is foremost a movie about two racing drivers . . . two men. Mindful of this, Peter Morgan did an outstanding job in recapturing Hunt and Lauda’s personalities, along with the circumstances that fueled their rivalry on the race track. This was not only in scenes that featured their separate private lives, especially their relationships with their wives Suzy Miller and Marlene Knaus, but also the friendly, yet intense rivalry that existed between them. In regard to their personal lives, I was very impressed by the two scenes that featured the breakup of the Hunt-Miller marriage; Lauda’s first meeting with Knaus and one particular scene during their honeymoon in which Lauda expressed concerns about the effects of his marriage on his racing career. However, the confrontation scenes between the two drivers when they were off the race track really rocked, thanks to Hemsworth, Brühl and Morgan’s screenplay. But there are two scenes that I really enjoyed. One of them turned out to be the drivers’ conference before the German Grand Prix, in which Lauda tried to convince the Formula One committee to cancel that particular race, due to heavy rain on the already notoriously dangerous Nürburgring race course; and their last meeting (at least in the movie), not long after the championship Japanese Grand Prix.

What can I say about the movie’s performances? They were outstanding. I was surprised to see Natalie Dormer in such a small role as a hospital nurse that Hunt briefly dated. Considering her growing fame, I had expected to see her in a bigger role. I could say the same about Julian Rhind-Tutt, who had a small role as a member of Hunt’s racing team. Christian McKay gave a vibrant performance as the flamboyant Alexander Fermor-Hesketh, 3rd Baron Hesketh, who financed Hunt’s first racing team. Pierfrancesco Favino portrayed Italian racing legend, Clay Regazzoni, who drove on the Scuderia Ferrari team with Lauda. I am aware that two drivers actually became good friends. Despite this friendship, Favino gave a sly and humorous performance, while recapturing Favino’s occasional frustration with Lauda’s eccentric personality. There were some grumbles on the Internet, when world of Olivia Wilde’s casting as Suzy Miller was first announced. She certainly proved them wrong by giving a first-rate performance, especially in one scene in which Miller’s breakup with Hunt became permanent. I was also impressed by her British accent, until I learned that one of her parents had been born in the U.K. Alexandra Maria Lara also gave a first-rate performance as Lauda’s first wife, Marlene Knaus Lauda. Not only did she project a great deal of warmth in her portrayal of the race driver’s wife, but also a touch of sardonic humor.

The men of the hour, aside from Ron Howard, are Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, who portrayed the two rivals. They were outstanding. Superficially, Hemsworth seemed to have the less difficult role, portraying the outgoing playboy, Hunt. The Australian not only bore a strong resemblance to the British-born racer, but also seemed to relish in his scenes featuring Hunt’s penchant for partying hard and womanizing. But Hemsworth also excelled in those scenes that explored other aspects of Hunt’s personality – the insecurity that generally plagues every human being in existence, the emotional chaos of the racer’s breakup with Suzy Miller and his awareness of the tough competition he faced against his rival. Howard selected German-Spanish actor Daniel Brühl to portray the Austrian-born Niki Lauda. Like Hemsworth, Brühl had to utilize a different accent. He almost lost the role, when he attempted an obvious fake Austrian accent during his screen test. Thankfully, he prevailed in the end. Some have claimed that Lauda was a difficult personality. If one is honest, most people are individually difficult. However, Brühl was superb in conveying the difficult aspects of Lauda’s blunt personality, while at the same time, making the racer a very likeable character. It takes an actor of great skill to achieve this goal . . . and the latter did a fanstastic job.

Judging from the manner in which I had just raved over “RUSH”, one would start to believe that I could not find any faults with it. First of all, there is an aspect of Mantle’s photography that did not sit well with me. I found it slightly metallic and wish that it could have been more colorful, especially in a film about the heady days of auto racing the 1970s. I missed that sharp color that was apparent in some of Howard’s past films. And I also could have done without the footage of the real James Hunt and Niki Lauda in the movie’s last reels. Such scenes belonged in a featurette about the movie, not in the movie itself. The footage brought back disappointing memories of how Steven Spielberg ended“SCHINDLER’S LIST” and Spike Lee ended “MALCOLM X”.

Aside from my few quibbles, I enjoyed “RUSH” very much. It was a first-class look at two auto racing rivals who not only lit up the racing scene in one memorable season in the mid-1970s with their driving skills, but also their colorful personalities. Thanks to an excellent screenplay written by Peter Morgan, a superb cast led by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, and some outstanding direction by Ron Howard; “RUSH” has become one of my favorite movies of 2013. And it has also become one of my favorite sports movies of all time.

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Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1970s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1920s: 

FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1970s

1 - American Gangster

1. American Gangster (2007) – Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe starred in this biopic about former Harlem drug kingpin, Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts, the Newark police detective who finally caught him. Ridley Scott directed this energetic tale.

2 - Munich

2. Munich (2005) – Steven Spielberg directed this tense drama about Israel’s retaliation against the men who committed the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Eric Bana, Daniel Craig and Ciarán Hinds starred.

 

3. Rush (2013) – Ron Howard directed this account of the sports rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 Formula One auto racing season. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl starred.

 

4 - Casino

4. Casino (1995) – Martin Scorsese directed this crime drama about rise and downfall of a gambler and enforcer sent West to run a Mob-owned Las Vegas casino. Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone starred.

5 - Super 8

5. Super 8 (2011) – J.J. Abrams directed this science-fiction thriller about a group of young teens who stumble across a dangerous presence in their town, after witnessing a train accident, while shooting their own 8mm film. Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Kyle Chandler starred.

6 - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) – Gary Oldman starred as George Smiley in this recent adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel about the hunt for a Soviet mole in MI-6. Tomas Alfredson directed.

7 - Apollo 13

7. Apollo 13(1995) – Ron Howard directed this dramatic account about the failed Apollo 13 mission in April 1970. Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon starred.

8 - Nixon

8. Nixon (1995) – Oliver Stone directed this biopic about President Richard M. Nixon. The movie starred Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen.

9 - Starsky and Hutch

9. Starsky and Hutch (2004) – Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson starred in this comedic movie adaptation of the 70s television series about two street cops hunting down a drug kingpin. Directed by Todd Phillips, the movie also starred Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman and Snoop Dogg.

10 - Frost-Nixon

10. Frost/Nixon (2008) – Ron Howard directed this adaptation of the stage play about David Frost’s interviews with former President Richard Nixon in 1977. Frank Langella and Michael Sheen starred.

“STAR TREK” (2009) Review

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“STAR TREK” (2009) Review

Many fans of the STAR TREK franchise seemed to be in agreement that its last television series – “ENTERPRISE” (2001-2005) – had more or less killed the franchise. That opinion proved to be false with the release of the 2009 film – “STAR TREK”, directed by J.J. Abrams.

This latest installment in the franchise is about the early years of the U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701 from “THE ORIGINAL SERIES” (1966-1969). In other words, the movie is about how James T. Kirk became captain of the Enterprise and Spock, its first officer. What made this particular story unique is that the film’s opening sequence – an attack upon the Federation starship, U.S.S. Kelvin in 2233 led to an alternate timeline for the rest of the film.

When a supernova threatened the galaxy in 2387 (nine years after the U.S.S. Voyager’s return to Earth), Ambassador Spock piloted a ship carrying “red matter” that can create a gravitational singularity, drawing the supernova into a black hole. Before Spock completed his mission, the supernova destroyed the planet Romulus. Captain Nero of the Romulan mining ship Narada blamed Spock and the Federation for his planet’s destruction and its inhabitants, which included his wife and unborn child; and attempted to exact revenge on Spock. But both ships are caught in the black hole’s event horizon and travel to different points in the past. The Narada arrived first in 2233 and attacked the Kelvin. The attack resulted in the death of the Kelvin’s commander, Richard Robau and first officer Lieutenant George Kirk; and James T. Kirk’s birth aboard a shuttle fleeing from the damaged starship. The rest of the movie featured both Kirk and Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) early years, their subsequent first meeting at Starfleet Academy and their clashes aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, commanded by Captain Christopher Pike. Meanwhile, Nero has survived and 25 years following Kirk’s birth, is still seeking to exact revenge upon Spock.

Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman penned an adventure filled with time travel, plenty of action and characterization. Which is not surprising, considering that the story strongly reminded me of the Season Four episode from “STAR TREK: VOYAGER” (1995-2001), (4.08-4.09) “Year of Hell”. But there were differences. Whereas ”Year of Hell”dealt with the moral ramifications of time travel, “STAR TREK” merely revealed what happened after the timeline was changed. After all, it is more action oriented than the majority of TREK episodes. I had no problems with that. Somewhat. But this slight difference deprived the movie of the depth found in “Year of Hell”. And I did have problems with other aspects of Orci and Kurtzman’s script.

First of all, I want to point out one thing. This alternate reality or timeline created by Orci and Kurtzman has its origins in the arrival of the Narada – and Nero, to the year 2233, 154 years before his time. His arrival marked the destruction of the U.S.S. Kelvin, along with Robaud and George Kirk. But it is Kirk’s birth aboard the shuttle where the movie hit its first snag. Many TREK fans pointed out that James Kirk had been born in Iowa, not aboard a Starfleet vessel or one of its shuttles. Robert Orci replied that Kirk would have been born in Iowa if Nero had not arrived from the late 24th century and attacked the Kelvin. I say . . . bullshit to that. Why? One, Winona Kirk was never a Starfleet officer in the original timeline. This has been supported in “THE ORIGINAL SERIES”. And Nero’s arrival would have NOT changed that. She had no business being aboard the Kelvin . . . even before Nero’s arrival. Two, crewman families were not allowed aboard Starfleet ships, until the 24th century. Orci and Kurtzman also failed to hint that Kirk had an older brother named Sam. Another problem I had with the film was the manner in which Kirk joined Starfleet Academy. At a bar near Kirk’s home in Iowa, Captain Pike urged him to apply for the Academy, claiming that Kirk would attain an officer’s commission within four years and command of a starship within eight. So, what does Kirk do? He shows up at a Starbase the following morning on his motorbike . . . without even encountering one sign of security. Then he boards a shuttle for San Francisco . . . just like that. He never even submitted an application. Nor was he wearing the uniform of an Academy cadet. Come to think of it, neither did Leonard McCoy. Was this Starfleet’s idea of military discipline in the mid-23rd century? What the hell was this, anyway?

Within three years, Kirk is close to completing his Academy training. Yet, he ended up getting into trouble, when he passed the Kobayashi Maru test by cheating. When Starfleet receives a distress signal from Vulcan regarding a lightning storm in space, the cadets are mobilized to help the Starfleet ships in orbit. Kirk is unable to join this expedition due to being suspended from the Academy. I have two problems with this scene. One, why on earth was it necessary for Starfleet to mobilize so many cadets for a distress signal over a lightning storm in Vulcan space? Two, no one inside the U.S.S. Enterprise’s Sick Bay bothered to questioned Kirk’s presence on board and McCoy ended up ordering others around, despite the fact that he was a mere cadet and not the ship’s Chief Medical Officer. In fact, where was the CMO before his death? And why was it so important for Uhura to join the Enterprise’s crew? She was a cadet. She was not supposed to be there on a permanent basis, in the first place. And could someone please tell me why the cadets assigned aboard the Enterprise were wearing the same uniforms as the regular crew . . . instead of cadet uniforms? They had not graduated from the Academy.

Upon reaching Vulcan space, the Enterprise finds the fleet destroyed and the Narada drilling into Vulcan’s core. Pike promotes Kirk to First Officer. Then he orders Kirk, Lieutenant Sulu and Chief Engineer Olson to an orbital skydive onto the Romulan drilling platform and destroy it before it can drill a hole into Vulcan’s core. Meanwhile, he would meet with Nero aboard the Narad. Unfortunately, Olson is killed during their dive. Kirk and Sulu are forced to fight Romulan miners aboard the drill platform before stopping the drill, using phasers. However, Nero manages to successfully drill the hole, drop the red matter into the planet’s core and destroy Vulcan. Spock transports to Vulcan to save his parents and the planet’s High Council. However, his mother, Amanda Grayson, is killed before she could be transported safely from the planet. Not only did I find this sequence, heavily contrived, I found it so unnecessary. Why was it necessary to promote Kirk to First Officer? Aside from identifying the lightning storm for what it was, he did nothing to earn that promotion. What was Amanda doing with the Vulcan High Council? And if Starfleet issued phasers could stop the drill, then why not the Enterprise’s phasers? If Captain Pike had simply ordered his Weapons Officer to fire at the drill, then perhaps it would have been destroyed before it reached Vulcan’s core. Alas . . . we are given this exciting, but contrived nonsense with a fight on the drill platform, the Chief Engineer and Amanda Grayson dead, Vulcan destroyed and Captain Pike a prisoner of Nero’s.

Chekov manages to transport Kirk and Sulu back to the Enterprise. Pike is tortured by Nero for information on Earth’s defenses. Meanwhile, Kirk (who is now First Officer) and Spock (the Acting Captain) have a quarrel on the Bridge about Spock’s decision to return to Starfleet. Kirk wants to go after Nero. During the quarrel, Spock has Kirk marooned on Delta Vega. There, Kirk has an encounter with snow monster straight out of ”STAR WARS” and meets the elder Ambassador Spock. Old Spock informs Kirk about what led Nero and himself to the 23rd century. He then leads Kirk to a Starbase, where they encounter engineer Montgomery Scott. I really disliked this sequence. Nero needed information on Earth’s defenses, but did not need the same for Vulcan’s defenses? And both planets were the premiere members of the Federation? And why maroon Kirk on some snow planet? Spock could have easily hauled the Human’s ass into the brig for insubordination. As for Kirk . . . what is this guy’s problem? Confronting the Captain on the Bridge? Kirk would have never tolerated any officer or crewman doing the same to him. Kirk’s monster encounter was a joke. And after meeting Old Spock, the latter reveals his knowledge of a nearby Starbase. Now, I really have a problem with this. Why did Spock fail to warn Starfleet about Nero? He was pulled into the 23rd century, captured and marooned on Delta Vega by Nero at least two days before Vulcan’s destruction. This was not merely a joke. This was criminal. And why was it imperative to transport Scotty to the Enterprise, along with Kirk? Without Starfleet knowing?

Before Spock transported Kirk and Scotty to the Enterprise, he informs Kirk that the latter needs to assume command of the Enterprise. Once aboard, Kirk deliberately enrages Spock to force him to acknowledge that he is emotionally compromised, thereby forfeiting command which then passes to Kirk. Here was another scene with which I had a problem. Kirk . . . should NOT have assumed command of the Enterprise when Spock removed himself as captain. You see, Kirk had been relieved of duty by Spock before the latter marooned the former on Delta Vega. And Kirk was never reinstated back to duty upon his return to the Enterprise. Nor do I recall Spock deliberately handing over command to Kirk. Whoever was acting as Spock’s first officer during Kirk’s adventures on Delta Vega, should have assumed command. Not Kirk.

Spock, Scott, and Chekov devise a plan to ambush the Narada by dropping out of warp behind Saturn’s moon, Titan. Kirk and Spock beam aboard the Narada. While Kirk rescues Pike, Spock retakes the elder Spock’s ship, destroys the drill and lures the Narada away from Earth before piloting a collision course. The Enterprise arrives and beams Kirk, Pike, and Spock away before the collision, which ignites the remaining red matter and creates a black hole within the Narada’s superstructure. Kirk offers to help rescue Nero and his crew, but the Romulan refuses and the Narada is destroyed. The Enterprise escapes the same fate by ejecting and igniting the ship’s warp drive reactor cores, the resulting explosion pushing them clear. Why were Chekov and Scotty needed to devise a plan to ambush the Narada in the first place? What was Scotty doing on the Bridge? What was he doing aboard the Enterprise? He was not an official member of the crew. And could someone please explain how Spock managed to fly a starship that was 154 years ahead of his time? Who was in command of the Enterprise, while Kirk and Spock were aboard the Narada?

The movie ends with Kirk receiving adulation by Starfleet for his actions against Nero and command of the Enterprise. Spock decides to remain in Starfleet and become the Enterprise’s First Officer. God, I hate this. What exactly did Kirk do in this movie, besides act like a complete asshole? Well, he did rescue Captain Pike. But the latter also assisted in the rescue. It was Spock who came up with the plan to ambush the Narada. It was the person in command of the Enterprise who prevented Spock from being blown to bits by Romulan missiles, while he was inside Old Spock’s ship. It was Spock who destroyed the Narada. Sulu’s flying and Scotty’s engineering skills prevented the Enterprise from being destroyed by the black hole that destroyed the Narada. Why in the hell would Starfleet give most of the credit to Kirk? How in the hell did a cadet, who had yet to graduate, end up with command of Starfleet’s flagship? What kind of military organization is this?

I had one last problem with the movie . . . namely one Pavel Chekov. In the original timeline, Chekov was born in 2245, which would have made him thirteen years old in this movie. According to one of the screenwriters, Roberto Orci, Nero’s appearance in the past caused a ripple effect, allowing Chekov to be born four years earlier in 2241. God, how lame! I suppose one could accept this explanation. But how does one explain Chekov’s transformation from an intelligent and competent Starfleet junior officer to a child prodigy? I really cannot see how a time ripple effect could change a character’s personality traits. Not to that degree.

The movie’s only strengths proved to be the characters originally created by Gene Roddenberry, and the cast of actors hired to portray them in this film. Both Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto did excellent jobs in creating the genesis of the Kirk/Spock friendship. They also managed to re-capture the essence of both characters without parodying William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy’s past performance. Zoe Saldaña’s Nyota Uhura seemed a little more fiery than Nichelle Nichols’ interpretation, but I thought she was great as the Communications officer. Her only misstep was that she had been forced to attempt some kind of romantic chemistry with Quinto. And as I had stated earlier, both were doomed to fail, due to the characters they were portraying. And so was Karl Urban as Leonard McCoy. Granted there were moments when he seemed to be aping DeForrest Kelly, but I had enjoyed his performances so much that I tolerated those moments. John Cho was deliciously cool and slightly sardonic as Sulu. And I thought it was a great touch that the screenwriters remembered Sulu’s penchant for fencing . . . and used it in a great fight scene. Anton Yelchin made a charming and energetic Chekov with probably a more authentic Russian accent than Walter Koenig. However, I found his role as a 17 year-old commissioned Starfleet officer rather questionable, considering that Chekov has never been portrayed as some kind of “boy genius” like Wesley Crusher. I hate to say this, but I found Simon Pegg’s interpretation of Montgomery “Scotty” Scott disappointing and rather annoying. Pegg tried to infuse the character with a lot of broad humor. Unfortunately, it turned out to be too broad. His Scotty was so over-the-top that I found myself longing for another character to shoot him with a phaser.

I had seen “THE ORIGINAL SERIES” pilot episode, (1.01) “The Cage” only once in my life. Which means I have vague memories of the late Jeffrey Hunter’s portrayal of Christopher Pike, Kirk’s predecessor aboard the Enterprise. However, I thought that Bruce Greenwood’s portrayal of Pike in the movie to be definitely memorable. Clifton Collins Jr. gave admirable support as Nero’s henchman, Ayel. Both Winona Ryder and especially Ben Cross were believable as Spock’s parents – Amanda Grayson and Ambassador Sarek. I would not exactly call Nero one of the best villains in the TREKfranchise. But I must admit that Eric Bana had given it his all with a performance that infused the character with a great deal of passion, malice and complexity without going over-the-top. Last, but not least, there was Leonard Nimoy portraying the late 24th century Spock. There were times when Nimoy seemed to be struggling with the role due to his age (he was at least 77 years old when the movie was filmed). Fortunately, these moments were very few and his Spock was a warm and more matured character who finally seemed to be a peace with his mixed heritage.

Look . . . I will admit that “STAR TREK” had a lot of exciting action sequences. And some of the performances seemed top-notch. But upon second viewing, I discovered that I disliked Daniel Mindel’s photography. I especially disliked the fact that most of the scenes seemed to have been shot with close-ups. I disliked the new transporter style that featured swirling circles. But what I realized that I disliked the most was the script penned by Orci and Katzman. Not only did I disliked the fact that they used an alternate timeline plot device to stray away from the franchise’s original continuity; I disliked that they used badly written plot holes to achieve this goal. “STAR TREK” might have been considered one of the best movie of the 2009 summer season. But in my opinion, it was the lesser movies I had seen during that particular.

“SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” (2012) Review

“SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” (2012) Review

The past ten months has been a busy period for the Brothers Grimm. During that period, there have been two television shows and two movies that featured their work. At least one television series and the two movies retold the literary pair’s story about Snow White, including the recent film, “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN”

Directed by Rupert Sanders; and written by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini, “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” is a twist on the Snow White tale in which the Huntsman not only becomes the princess’ savior, but also her protector and mentor. In this tale, Snow White is a princess of Tabor and the daughter of King Magnus and Queen Eleanor. After the Queen’s death, King Magnus marries a beautiful woman named Ravenna after rescuing her from an invading force of glass soldiers. As it turns out, Ravenna is a powerful sorceress that controls the glass soldiers. She kills Magnus on their wedding night and seizes control of Tabor. Duke Hammond and his son William (Snow White’s childhood friend) manages to escape the castle. But Snow White is captured by Ravenna’s brother Finn and imprisoned in one of the castle’s towers.

As a decade passes, Ravenna drains the youth from the kingdom’s young women in order to maintain her youth and beauty. When Snow White comes of age, Ravenna learns from her Magic Mirror that the former is destined to destroy her, unless she consumes the young woman’s heart. When Finn is ordered to bring Snow White before Ravenna, the princess manages to escape into the Dark Forest. Eric the Huntsman is a widower who has survived the Dark Forest, and is brought before Ravenna. She orders him to lead Finn in pursuit of Snow White, in exchange for her promise to revive his dead wife. But when Eric learns from Finn that Ravenna will not be able to resurrect his wife, he helps Snow White escape through the Forest. Snow White later promises him gold if he would escort her to Duke Hammond’s Castle. Meanwhile, the Duke’s son William manages to infiltrate Finn’s band in order to find Snow White on his own.

What can I say about “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN”? It is not perfect. Well . . . I had at least two minor and one major problems with the movie. The two minor problems centered around the performances of Chris Hemsworth (Eric the Huntsman) and Charlize Theron (Ravenna). Basically, both gave first-rate performances. I cannot deny that. But . . . there were moments during the movie’s first half hour in which I found it difficult to comprehend Hemsworth’s accent? Was he trying to use a working-class Scots or English accent? Or was he using his own Australian accent? I could not tell. As for Theron . . . she had a few moments of some truly hammy acting. But only a few moments. But the major problem centered around the character of Snow White.

The movie’s final showpiece featured a battle between Snow White and Ravenna’s forces at Tabor’s Castle. The battle also featured the princess fighting along with both Eric and William. When on earth did Snow White learn combat fighting? When? She spent most of the movie’s first thirty minutes either as a young girl or imprisoned in the Castle. I figured that Eric, William or both would teach her how to fight in combat before their forces marched back to Tabor. The movie featured a scene in which Eric taught Snow White on how to stab someone up close . . . but nothing else.

The only reasons I wanted to see “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” were the visual effects and the fact that I was a fan of ABC’s “ONCE UPON A TIME”. That is it. Otherwise, I would not have bothered to pay a ticket to see this film. But I am glad that I did. Because I enjoyed it very much, despite its flaws. Thanks to Daugherty, Hancock and Amini’s script, “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” is part epic, part road movie, part fantasy horror tale and part romance. For me, all of these aspects made this tale about Snow White fascinating to me. And Snow White has never been one of my favorite fairy tales. Director Rupert Sanders not only meshed these attributes into an exciting movie. More importantly, his direction gave the movie a steady pace. I find it amazing that “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” is Sanders’ first feature film.

The most interesting aspect about the film was its love triangle between Snow White, Eric and William. Although Eric was originally supposed to be nothing more than a savior and mentor for Snow White, someone made the decision to add a little spice to their relationship. I suspect that this had something to do with Hemsworth’s age and his chemistry with star Kristin Stewart. The movie did not end with Snow White romantically clenched with one man or the other. Although some people were either disturbed or annoyed at this deliberately vague ending, I was not. I suspect that if Snow White had chosen either Eric or William, she would not have found her choice an easy one – either politically or romantically.

There are other aspects of “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” that I found admirable. One, I was impressed by Dominic Watkins’ production designs, which ranged from horror to light fantasy. I was afraid that the movie would visually turn out to be another fantasy production with another second-rate “LORD OF THE RINGS” look about it. Watkins’ designs were ably enhanced by the special effects team led by Vince Abbott and Greig Fraser’s beautiful photography. And I loved Colleen Atwood’s costume designs. She did a great job for most of the cast. But her designs for Charlize Theron’s evil queen were outstanding. Take a look:

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The performances featured in “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” struck me as pretty damn good. The revelations of the actors portraying the Seven Dwarfs took me by surprised. Toby Jones was the first to catch my eye. Then I realized that a who’s who of well known British character actors were portraying the dwarves – Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Nick Frost, Ray Winstone, and Eddie Marsan. They were all entertaining, especially Hoskins, McShane and Marsan. More importantly, I was very impressed by their roles in the movie’s final battle. Sam Spruell’s performance as Ravenna’s sleazy brother Finn sruck me as almost as frightening as Charlize Theron’s Queen Ravenna. But only almost. Despite her moments of hammy acting, Theron nearly scared the pants off me, making her Evil Queen just as frightening as the one featured in the 1937 Disney animated film.

I must admit that I was not that impressed by Sam Claflin’s performance as the missionary in last year’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES”. But I suspect that was due to the role he was stuck with. “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” provided him with a much better role as the aristocratic William, who felt guilty over his and his father’s failure to prevent Snow White’s imprisonment following the King’s death. Not only was Claflin was able to strut his stuff in a more interesting role and prove that he could be a first-rate action hero; he also had surprisingly great chemistry with both Stewart andHemsworth. As for the Australian actor, he was superb as the grieving huntsman, Eric. Okay, I had a few problems with his questionable accent during the movie’s first half hour. However, he overcame that flaw and gave a great and emotionally satisfying performance as a man whose destructive grieving was overcome by his relationship with Snow White. And he also proved that he was more than an action star in a scene in which he gave a beautiful soliloquy regarding Eric’s feelings for the princess. The belle of the ball – at least for me – was actress Kristen Stewart. I must be honest. I am not a fan of the “TWILIGHT”movies or Stewart’s role of Bella Swann. But I certainly enjoyed her performance as Snow White in this film. For the first time, Stewart seemed to be portraying a character that seemed animated, interesting and pro-active. She has great chemistry with both Hemsworth and Claflin. And she did surprisingly well in the action sequences . . . especially in Snow White’s confrontation with Ravenna. I hope to see Stewart in more roles like this.

I heard rumors that due to the movie’s surprising success, Universal Pictures hopes to release a sequel to “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN”. I do not know if this is a good idea. Do not get me wrong. I enjoyed the movie very much, despite its flaws. The script proved to be an interesting mixture of fantasy, horror, comedy, romance and a road trip. And the cast, led by Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron, was first-rate. But considering how the movie ended, I simply do not see the need or possibility for a sequel. Besides, I felt more than satisfied with this particular film.

“THOR” (2011) Review

“THOR” (2011) Review

My knowledge of European-based mythology is very sketchy. I am familiar with some figures of both the Greek and Roman mythologies. But my knowledge of Norse mythology is even less. As for the many characters from Marvel Comics, I barely knew about any of them – aside from “SPIDER-MAN”, until the past decade. One can only imagine my surprise when I learned that one of Marvel’s more successful super heroes was the Norse god, Thor. 

Based upon the Norse mythology and the Marvel Comics character, “THOR” is an origin tale about the God of Thunder (and several other things), and how he ends up on Earth and becomes affiliated with S.H.I.E.L.D. The story begins in New Mexico, when scientist Jane Foster, her assistant Darcy Lewis and mentor Dr. Erik Selvig stumble across a figure that has tumbled from a wormhole in the sky. That figure turns out to be Thor, the Norse god that was exiled by his father, Odin, king of Asgard.

Earlier, Thor had been preparing to ascend to the throne of Asgard, but his ceremony was interrupted when Frost Giants attempted to retrieve the source of their power, the Casket of Ancient Winters, which had been taken by Odin in an earlier war. Against Odin’s order, Thor traveled to Jotunheim, the Frost Giants’ realm, to confront their leader Laufey; accompanied by his brother Loki, childhood friend Sif and the Warriors Three – Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun. A battle ensued until Odin intervened to save the Asgardians, which destroyed the fragile truce between the two races. For Thor’s arrogance, Odin stripped his son of godly power and exiled the latter to Earth, accompanied by Thor’s hammer Mjolnir — the source of his power, now protected by a spell to allow only the worthy to wield it.

No one was more surprised than me upon learning that actor/director Kenneth Branaugh had manned the helm for “THOR”. Pop culture movie franchises were nothing new to him. After all, he had appeared in 2002’s HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS”. But directing an adaptation of a comic book series? Mind you, “Thor” is a different kettle of fish incompare to . . . say “Spider-Man”“The Fantastic Four” or “Iron Man”. After all, Thor originated as a figure in Norse mythology. However, I must admit that I found it difficult to wrap my mind around the idea of a known Shakespearean actor directing a comic book hero movie.

In the end, I believe that Branaugh did a pretty good job. “THOR” turned out to be a solid tale filled with mythology, some first-rate acting, family drama, comedy and action. The best aspect of “THOR” was to me – hands down – the family drama surrounding the main hero and his relationships with his father Odin and his younger brother, Loki. This family drama originated in Thor’s arrogant nature and brother Loki’s discovery that he was an orphan that Odin had discovered in the Frost Giants realm. Despite his discovery that he was a Frost Giant instead of an Asgardian, Loki viewed Thor as an unsuitable heir to the Asgard throne and used Thor’s exile to muscle his way to the throne . . . and, uh Odin’s heart.

Another aspect of “THOR” I found interesting was the story line about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s investigation into the wormhole that delivered Thor to Earth and his hammer Mjolnir, which is stuck in the middle of the New Mexican desert like Excalibur. The first encounter between the forces of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Thor during a rainy evening also provided some interesting action. This sequence not only featured a brutal fight to the now mortal Thor and a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and a cameo appearance by future Avenger member, Clint Barton aka Hawkeye.

The New Mexico sequences provided most of the comedy featured in “THOR”. The former Norse god’s interactions with Jane Foster, Erik Selvig, Darcy Lewis and the locals of the New Mexico town where they resided. Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne’s screenplay not only provided a good deal of slapstick humor and witty one-liners for the Darcy Lewis character, but also a variation on the “fish out of water” theme.

And If there is one thing that the movie did shine was its production designs and cinematography. Bo Welch did a excellent job in recapturing the rugged setting of the small New Mexican town and the Frost Giants’ realm of Jotunheim, featured in the film. But he did a superb job in his design of Asgard, the realm of the Norse gods. Asgard possessed a sleek, colorful and over-the-top quality that reminded me of what the Art Deco style would look in the hands of Hollywood craftsmen in the 1930s and 40s. And Haris Zambarloukos’ photography did great justice to both settings, especially Welch’s designs for Asgard. Even though I found the movie’s theme somewhat conflicting, I must admit that I found Paul Rubell’s editing rather smooth and well done in both the action sequences and the jumps between Asgard and New Mexico.

However, I have yet to encounter a movie that I would consider perfect. And “THOR” was far from perfect. The film’s main problem was that it seemed to have a conflicting quality about it. Because the movie’s setting constantly moved from Asgard to New Mexico and back, it ended up striking me as a mixture of “CLASH OF THE TITANS” and “STARMAN”. And this conflicting style did not seem to balance very well. I could have settled for “THOR” beginning its story in Asgard and remaining in New Mexico until the last scene. Unfortunately, most of the movie’s more important action occurred in Asgard, leaving the New Mexico sequences to bear the brunt of most of the comedy. By the time the movie’s last scene ended, I could not tell whether this was a movie about mythological gods or a comic book hero. “THOR” was a pretty good movie, but it did not exactly rock my boat. I found the story a bit mediocre and conventional. And the problem, if I must be honest, rested with Marvel Comics’ decision to create a comic series about a well-established mythological figure, instead of a new and original character.

Also, there were a few performances that failed to impress me. I realize that the three actors and one actress that portrayed Thor’s Asgardian friends – Sif and the Warriors Three – were very popular with moviegoers. Unfortunately, not only did they fail to impress me, I found them rather uninteresting. Poor Rene Russo. Within a decade she went from leading lady to a minor character actress, stuck in the thankless and nothing role of Thor’s stepmother, Frigga. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye was really wasted in this film. In fact, he did nothing at all, except pose with a bow and arrow. I realize that he will appear as one of the Avengers in the upcoming 2012 film, but he was never allowed to strut his stuff like Scarlett Johanssen in “IRON MAN 2”.

Aside from the performances I had earlier mentioned, “THOR” seemed blessed with a first-rate cast. I was surprised to learn that Chris Hemsworth had portrayed James T. Kirk’s doomed father in the 2009 movie, “STAR TREK”. His George Kirk had been so dull. Fortunately, portraying Thor gave him the opportunity to shine in a complex role that developed from an arrogant and over-privileged prince with an aggressive sense of self to a more compassionate and wiser man who had fallen in love. For an actor with only eight or nine years of acting experience – most of them on television – Hemsworth more than held his own against the likes of Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins. And those scenes that featured Thor’s encounters with Jane’s van conveyed Hemsworth’s talent for physical slapstick humor. As an on-screen fighter, he struck me as a bit crude, but I am certain that he will improve with time. Natalie Portman gave a charming and humorous portrayal of Dr. Jane Foster, the astrophysicist who is not only obsessed with her work, but eventually finds love with Thor. Mind you, I did not find her character particularly exceptional. But I am glad to say that Portman tried all she could to make Jane an interesting personality. But one of the two best performances came from Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki, Thor’s resentful and conniving younger brother. Loki was definitely the movie’s main villain. The joke he had played (luring three Frost Giants to the chamber that held the Casket of Ancient Winters) on Thor’s ascension ceremony not only led him to the discovery that he was an abandoned Frost Giant infant taken by Odin, but also gave him the opportunity to discredit Thor and take the latter’s position as Odin’s more cherished son. Mind you, I cannot say that Hiddleston conveyed Loki’s mischievous sense of humor effectively. But he did handle Loki’s conniving nature, jealousy toward Thor and outrage over the story behind his true nature with great skill and subtlety.

Other outstanding performances came from Idris Elba, who portrayed Asgard’s gatekeeper, Hemidall; Kat Dennings as Jane’s sardonic assistant Darcy Lewis; Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson; and Colm Feore as Laufey, King of the Frost Giants (and Loki’s real father). I was amazed at how Elba managed to convey all of Hemidall’s emotions and intelligence with very limited movement. No wonder he became very popular with many of the film’s characters. And Colm Feore managed to do something quite similar. He conveyed all of Laufey’s malice and secrecy behind a ton of body makeup. Aside from Hemsworth’s foray into slapstick, the New Mexico sequences featured a deliciously sly and humorous performance by Kat Dennings, who portrayed Darcy. And it was great to see Clark Gregg reprise the role of Phil Coulson for the third time (he made two earlier performances in the two IRON MAN movies). Thankfully, the movie’s script allowed him to be more complex and increasingly sardonic, allowing Gregg to really show his acting chops. Finally, the movie benefited from solid performances by Anthony Hopkins’ majestic portrayal of Odin, Thor’s father, Stellan Skarsgård as Jane’s dependable and practical mentor, Dr. Eric Selvig and Samuel L. Jackson as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury in the movie’s post-credits sequence.

In conclusion, “THOR” proved to be an entertaining movie and another step toward “THE AVENGERS”, the big Marvel Comics saga for 2012. The movie provided solid direction from Kenneth Branaugh and excellent performances from most of the cast. But the movie’s conflicting genre(s) and somewhat mediocre story led me to realize that I would never consider it to be one of the outstanding releases from Marvel Studios.