Thor: The Dark World


Quoth the raven, nevermore will there be barbers and razors in Asgard.

Quoth the raven, nevermore will there be barbers and razors in Asgard.

(2013) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Jaimie Alexander, Tadanobu Asano, Rene Russo, Alice Krige, Clive Russell, Jonathan Howard, Chris O’Dowd, Talulah Riley. Directed by Alan Taylor

It is hard to achieve success when it comes to the movies, but it is harder still to maintain it. The Marvel superhero films have been on a long winning streak but has the moviegoing public tired of their celluloid adventures yet? Not according to the box office.

Thor (Hemsworth) pines away on Asgard, having had to clean up the mess that his half-brother Loki (Hiddleston) – who rots in an Asgardian prison – wrought with his invasion of Earth in The Avengers. Two years have passed since New York was trashed and Thor has been busy mopping up the results of those events, leaving Jane Foster (Portman) – his earth-born ladylove – petulant and sulky, wondering if her God-like boyfriend has dumped her.

Something called the Convergence is approaching – an event when all nine realms which include Asgard and Earth – are perfectly aligned. As it approaches the boundaries between the realms get a bit thin, causing some temporal and spacial anomalies. While Jane is investigating one of these (leaving a date with the hapless Richard (O’Dowd) to do so) she is infected by something called the Aether.

That’s a bad thing. Apparently this is the stuff that the Dark Elves planned to use at the last Convergence to bring about a return of the universe to complete darkness, something that the Dark Elves and their leader Malekith (Eccleston) are very eager to do. The Asgardians had gone to war with the Dark Elves to prevent this and only through the efforts of Thor’s grandfather had the forces of light prevailed. Malekith and his major-domo Kurse (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) skedaddled into a spaceship where they would remain in stasis until the Aether called them back, which when Jane is touched by the stuff is precisely what happens.

Cue Thor to fetch Jane to Asgard to see if the medicine of the Gods can help her. Cue Odin (Hopkins) to be grouchy and a bit frumpy. Cue Thor’s mom Frigga (Russo) to be far more understanding than her husband. Cue Thor’s pals Fandral (Levi), Vostagg (Stevenson), Sif (Alexander) and Hogun (Asano) to be understanding. Cue Jane’s ex-boss Dr. Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) to lose his marbles and walk around Stonehenge stark naked and muttering crazy talk about the Convergence. Cue Jane’s intern Darcy (Dennings) to be snarky and get an intern of her own (Howard). And after Thor desperately seeks his help, cue Loki to make some plans of his own.

Taking over from Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair is Alan Taylor who cut his teeth on the Game of Thrones HBO series as well as other fine TV shows but it is the adaptation of the George R.R. Martin fantasy that prepared Taylor for this big screen debut. He certainly doesn’t have any problem with the scale needed for a cinematic franchise like this. Asgard is properly awe-inspiring, the battle sequences (of which there are several) are properly epic and the heroes properly heroic.

While some critics have groused about Hemsworth as Thor, I don’t agree with their assessment. His character has a bit of an inflated ego (hey, he’s a Norse God after all and the son of the King for all that) and a bit of a maturity issue and he is well aware that his strength doesn’t lie in his intellect. He is the kind of guy who charges in to lay a beat-down on his enemies first and asks questions later. However Thor isn’t just a caricature thanks to Hemsworth who makes his personality work and be relatable to his audience. That’s nowhere near as easy as it sounds.

Hiddleston however is the star of this show in many ways. He is deliciously evil as Loki with a snarky attitude to boot. He revels in his badness but shows some depth that makes his character perhaps the most interesting one in the film. He has some of the best comic relief in the movie and also conversely some of the most poignant moments. Hiddleston is a star in the making and perhaps with this performance arrives in that sense.

The drawbacks here is that the movie drags a bit particularly in the middle and for a movie of this nature that can be a killer. Also early on some of the events are a bit confusing and are never properly explained or given context.

Fortunately the movies plusses outweigh those fairly significant minuses, making this solid entertainment that will please the superhero junkie in your family, although I predict that the fanboys will probably pick it apart and as we head into the next Marvel film will in all likelihood trash it and moan about how it has killed the Marvel franchise. They’ve done the same with Iron Man 3 which is no better or no worse than this.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful eye candy. Hiddleston raises the bar on super-villains. Hemsworth is a terrific Thor.

REASONS TO STAY: Confusing in places. Lumbers a bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a good deal of sci-fi/comic book violence, a few bad words and some suggestive dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This the last film to be written by Don Payne (who also wrote Thor). He died of bone cancer shortly before the movie was released.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seeker: The Dark is Rising

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: What Happens in Vegas

New Releases for the Week of November 8, 2013


Thor: The Dark World

THOR: THE DARK WORLD

(Disney/Marvel) Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, Christopher Eccleston, Kat Dennings. Directed by Alan Taylor

After saving the Earth from an alien invasion, Thor and his father Odin find themselves facing a foe that even the combined might of Asgard cannot withstand. The twisted Malekith leads the dark elves in an implacable war against life and darkness can be the only outcome. Thor will reunite with old friends and face an impossible sacrifice if he is to save reality from annihilation.

See the trailer, promos, clips and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D (opens Thursday night)

Genre: Superhero

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material)

All is Lost

(Roadside Attractions) Robert Redford. An aging man seeks to prove himself once more by sailing around the world. The trip meets with disaster when a collision with a shipping container badly cripples the vessel which then proceeds to sail into a violent storm. Forced to abandon ship with his communications down, he has to hope for a miracle if he is to be rescued in the vast, uncaring ocean.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language)

Diana

(eOne) Naomi Watts, Naveen Andrews, Douglas Hodge, Juliet Stevenson. The former Princess of Wales, now living as a private citizen, embarks on an affair with a Pakistani heart surgeon. The complications of her fame and public limelight threaten the fragile relationship before it begins, leading her onto a road that leads into a Parisian tunnel one fateful night.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Biographical Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language, some sensuality and smoking)

How I Live Now

(Magnolia) Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland, George MacKay, Anna Chancellor. A young American teenager visiting relatives in rural England is caught up in the chaos following a nuclear conflict in Europe. Her carefree summer days turn into a fight for survival as civilization slowly breaks down around her.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller

Rating: R (for violence, disturbing image, language and some sexuality)

Please note that both About Time and 12 Years a Slave, both of which arrived in Orlando in limited release last week, have both opened in wider release this week and may be now at your local multiplex.

Hesher


Joseph Gordon-Levitt has sure let himself go.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has sure let himself go.

(2010) Drama (Wrekin Hill) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Devin Brochu, Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson, Piper Laurie, Brendan Hill, John Carroll Lynch, Monica Staggs, Mary Elizabeth Barrett, Audrey Wasilewski, Lyle Kanouse, Frank Collison, Allan Graf, Rafael J. Noble. Directed by Spencer Susser

People come in and out of our lives like there’s a revolving door. Some stay for just moments; others are there for life. The effect that people have on our lives however doesn’t always have anything to do with how long they are in them.

TJ (Brochu) is a 12-year-old kid who’s life has been devastated. He mourns his mom who passed away recently but he gets no help with it – if TJ is devastated, his dad (Wilson) is catatonic. He mopes around the house, unable to go back to work. His own mother – TJ’s grandmother (Laurie) – is seriously ill, her body racked with cancer.

TJ is bullied brutally at school by Dustin (Hill) who in one memorable scene forces him to eat a used urinal cake. He is alone and losing his way but into his life comes two people; Nicole (Portman), a part-time grocery clerk whose life is teetering on the edge of financial disaster (a parking ticket is enough to make her panic) who takes pity on the young boy who is getting the crap kicked out of him by life.

Then there’s Hesher (Gordon-Levitt). TJ meets him when, consumed by frustration and rage, he throws rocks into the windows of a house under construction which turns out to be where Hesher is squatting. TJ’s act gets Hesher discovered and with that avenue of shelter closed to him, he decides that since TJ lost him his residence that he’d just go and crash with TJ.

TJ’s dad doesn’t like the idea but he’s really too shell-shocked to do anything about it. He’s checked out of life for all intents and purposes. Grandma is much more excited about the idea – for whatever reason she finds Hesher to be exciting and alive – mainly because he’s willing to pay attention to her.

And so Hesher interjects himself into TJ’s life and not always in a good way. He’s sort of like a forest fire; sometimes it’s a good thing to get rid of the unwanted shrubbery but more often than not the trees get killed with the shrubs. There’s no predicting how the fire is going to act.

This is the kind of movie that leaves one scratching one’s head. On the one hand, you have some pretty good actors who are putting on some pretty impressive shows, including Brochu who wasn’t well-known to me before I’d seen him in this film. Gordon-Levitt clearly takes this movie over – after all, it’s called Hesher and not A Bunch of Things That Happen to a Family in Mourning. He is not a Bill and Ted metalhead – he is the real deal, and if he sometimes seems clueless, well maybe he is. But he’s definitely an enigma.

On the other hand, people don’t act here like they logically would. Hesher is allowed to get away with all sorts of mayhem and people get pissed at him but they go right back to letting him do whatever he wants. I think at the very least he’d get a pretty good sock on the nose, or at least a few nights in jail. There are no consequences here and life doesn’t operate that way unless you’re a billionaire, a politician or Lindsay Lohan.

Even though the action takes place at various times of the day, it felt like the entire movie was shot in late afternoon or early evening. I don’t know if it was the lighting, the ambience or just me but even if it was a happy accident, that gives the movie an air of melancholy that fits in nicely. Grief often feels like perpetual dusk.

The message of Hesher seems to be that one must live life, even if one’s life sucks and even if the life one chooses to lead is a selfish fest. Any sort of life is better than no life at all. Hesher kind of fits into that paradigm nicely – watching Hesher is better than watching no movie at all.

WHY RENT THIS: Really well acted across the board.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little Hesher goes a long way. Sails off the edge of indie preciousness.

FAMILY VALUES: Where to begin? There’s lots of bad language and worse behavior, drug use, disturbing images, violence and sexual content – much of it in the presence of a minor. Not role model stuff in the slightest.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: For the Japanese release, the film was re-titled Metalhead.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a viral YouTube clip, as well as not just one but two outtake reels, including one devoted entirely to takes ruined by airplane engines roaring overhead.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $382,946 on a $7M production budget; not a box office success by any stretch of the imagination.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pineapple Express

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Open Range

I’m Still Here


I'm Still Here

Joaquin Phoenix prepares for his next role in the remake of Grizzly Adams.

(2010) Mockumentary (Magnolia) Joaquin Phoenix, Antony Langdon, Casey Affleck, Jack Nicholson, Billy Crystal, Danny Glover, Bruce Willis, Robin Wright, Ben Stiller, Mos Def, Sean Combs, Jamie Foxx, Edward James Olmos, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Natalie Portman. Directed by Casey Affleck

 

We have an image of stars in our heads as self-absorbed divas who throw tantrums if they don’t get things EXACTLY the way they want it (“I told you, no BROWN M&M’s…why is that so hard?”) they throw legendary tantrums. We are fascinated by their behavior.

Which is what the makers of I’m Still Here are banking on. This is a chronicle of actor Joaquin Phoenix, who famously retired from acting after the 2008 indie romance Two Lovers to embark upon a rap career. He had a meltdown on the David Letterman show, one in which the host quipped “I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight Joaquin” which is shown here.

He also has an assistant named Anton (Langdon) that he humiliates  and abuses mercilessly, so much so that Anton takes a dump into the actor’s face while he’s sleeping. Such is the abuse that you will not think the act unjustified, although be assured that he’s not really doing what he appears to be doing. In fact, Phoenix is abusive to nearly everybody here to the point where it’s amazing that anyone would be willingly employed by him. Which is ironic because in reality, there were sexual harrassment charges brought against the filmmakers which were settled out of court.

There was some debate as to whether this whole thing was an elaborate hoax. At the time people were unsure and many of the reviews of the film from its 2010 release reflect that the critics were unsure and confused.

Let me set the record straight – it’s a hoax. Of course it was. Would Joaquin Phoenix allow a movie that portrayed him as an tyrannical egomaniac that is borderline psychotic ever see the light of day? Think about the logic; if someone is as egotistical as Phoenix is made out to be here, he would never allow his image to be tarnished.

I mean, Phoenix’ rap music is borderline unlistenable – and everybody but Phoenix knows it. Affleck’s camera captures the reactions to the music; from polite disbelief to outright hostility. Nobody but Affleck and Phoenix are in on the joke (and maybe some of the actors, such as Langdon) so you get their genuine reactions to situations that are awkward.

Which is fine, but the audience ends up being caught in the awkwardness, much like watching a friend who’s had too much to drink soil themselves. You want to get up, make your excuses and get as far away from the train wreck as possible which is not how you want your audience to feel. The truth is, this is really an exercise in ego – you’re not let in on the joke (which is a cardinal sin) and expected not to feel the fool when you figure it out – because if you don’t you wind up completely repulsed. Part of my distaste is the portrayal of Phoenix as a borderline drug addict – which considering the way his brother River passed away really stretches the line as far as I’m concerned.

There are a lot of celebrity cameos (as you can see from the credits above) and I believe none of them are in on the joke either. So you get the sense that the hoaxers did their jobs too well – they’ve really put one over on all of us to the point that there are plenty of people who think that it wasn’t a hoax. For me, seeing is believing.

WHY RENT THIS: Occasionally amusing.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A crude exercise in ego. Not nearly as funny or engrossing as they think it is.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some graphic nudity and drug use, a plethora of swear words, plenty of anti-social behavior and crude content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The person in the film that is playing Joaquin Phoenix’ father is actually Casey Affleck’s dad.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some conversations in which Affleck, Phoenix and various critics and academics discuss the film, the hoax and the aftermath.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $568,963 on an unreported production budget; this might have just made some money

COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Is Spinal Tap

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Matrix

The Other Woman


 

The Other Woman

Lisa Kudrow teaches the art of the fake smile.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Natalie Portman, Scott Cohen, Lisa Kudrow, Charlie Tahan, Lauren Ambrose, Michael Cristofer, Debra Monk, Mona Lerche, Anthony Rapp, Kendra Kassebaum, Elizabeth Marvel, Mary Joy, Maria Dizzia, Ira Hawkins. Directed by Don Roos

 

By its nature marital infidelity is a terrible and unforgivable thing. This is true of the married party who cheats on their partner but it is also true of the one they’re cheating with, especially when they know full well that they’re having an affair with a married person.

Emilia Greenleaf (Portman) is a Harvard grad who works in the law office of Jack (Cohen), a married partner in the firm. She knows of his marital status but she thinks he’s cute and attractive and that attraction only grows the longer she works there. One thing leads to another and soon the two are carrying on an affair.

When Emilia gets pregnant, Jack decides that he would rather be with her than with Carolyn (Kudrow), the driven but successful obstetrician. The two divorce with Jack unaccountably given custody of William (Tahan), their young son.

The baby is delivered and it’s a girl. A few days after coming home, tragically, the baby dies of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) leaving her parents disconsolate. Emilia particularly has a hard time dealing with the baby’s death, growing more distant and irritable. Her relationship with William has become a war, each side practicing little cruelties upon the other (she encourages the lactose-intolerant William to eat an ice cream sundae; he proposes she sell all the infant furniture and clothes on eBay). Carolyn in the meantime has instituted proceedings to take back custody of William. She has become shrewish and confrontational. Emilia’s parents (Cristofer and Monk), long-divorced after her father cheated on her mother as a result of a sex addiction, are trying to patch things up although Emilia has been unable to forgive him for abandoning her.

Emilia’s life is falling apart and so is she. Everything she touches seems to turn to ash; her close friend Mindy (Ambrose) and Simon (Rapp) are slowly being alienated and her marriage is close to over. Could this be karma finally catching up with the other woman?

Portman is showcased here in this film by veteran indie director Roos (The Opposite of Sex), based on the book Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman. This is a bit different than we’re used to from Roos who specializes in clever and light relationship comedies. The cinematography is strong here which makes for beautiful pictures telling a bleak story. That story is told mostly in flashback which requires a deft hand. It’s not a new method of storytelling but it is often botched, leaving the viewers confused and frustrated. That doesn’t happen here.

Portman is a gifted actress and she makes good use of her talents here. Emilia is far from being a saint – after all, she did initiate a relationship with a man that was already taken. She also shows a streak of arrogance and insensitivity, as well as a bit of temperamental cruelty that particularly surfaces after the baby’s death. This isn’t a character that invites audience identification and yet we wind up doing just that; Emilia’s deeds aren’t likable but Portman makes Emilia herself so.

Kudrow, who has appeared in several of Roos’ films, is usually a bit of a charming ditz in most of her roles but here she’s capable, a little cold and VERY pissed off. She’s justifiably angry too but as in the case of a fairly significant percentage of women whose husbands left them for the women they cheated with, saves her vitriol for the woman and not so much for her husband. One thinks Carolyn blames the entire affair on Emilia, even though it takes two to tango and Jack is quite the willing dance partner.

In fact, Cohen’s Jack seems a likable fellow and we don’t get any sense of why he felt compelled to cheat on his wife other than that the woman coming onto him is Natalie Portman, one of the most beautiful and desirable women in Hollywood today. The movie never really examines too closely Jack’s culpability which I suppose is fitting since the title is The Other Woman, not The Cheating Husband.

I guess in a way the subject matter is a bit of a soap opera by nature, but it certainly feels as such in execution. There are some pretty adult subjects here, given the infidelity and the baby’s death and subsequent grieving of the mother but the handling is a bit heavy-handed whereas a more sensitive touch would have been appreciated.

This can be recommended for the performances of the lead women, although Tahan also turns in a good job. His byplay with Portman feels authentic and the strain between them is palpable. Those aspects of the movie work. What doesn’t is the apparent blameless nature of the man and the daytime drama approach of the screenplay, but it’s still worth seeing thanks to Portman and Kudrow.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Kudrow and Portman.   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat soap opera-esque. Sensitive subject matter handled with an iron fist.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is fairly adult with a good deal of sexual content and a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shelved for nearly two years during which time Portman won her Best Actress Oscar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $452,191 on an unreported production budget. The movie might have broken even but I suspect that’s quite unlikely.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stepmom

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Brothers (2009)


Brothers

Tobey Maguire reactsas Natalie Portman gives him the news that she likes Thor far more than Spider-Man.

(2009) Drama (Lionsgate) Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire, Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare, Sam Shepard, Mare Winningham, Patrick Flueger, Clifton Collins Jr., Josh Berry, Carey Mulligan, Ethan Suplee, Omid Abtahi. Directed by Jim Sheridan

 

The thing about brothers is that even though they come from the same genetics, sometimes they are nothing alike on the surface. Often though, they are more alike than you might think even though they don’t appear to be at first glance.

Sam Cahill (Maguire) is a family man and a respected marine. His men adore him, his family worships him and his father Hank (Shepard), ex-military himself, respects him. Sam’s wife Grace (Portman) loves him without reservation and has given him two sweet young daughters – precocious Isabelle (Madison) and adorable Maggie (Geare).

Sam’s brother Tommy (Gyllenhaal) is a different matter. He’s just out of prison where he served time for armed robbery. His father is ashamed by him, his sister-in-law barely tolerates him and only his brother and nieces seem to think that he has any value to him at all. Tommy is determined to make a fresh start and stay clean, but he’s said that before and unfortunately Sam is about to be deployed to Afghanistan. He’s made it through three tours though and while Grace is worried she knows that he’ll move heaven and earth to make it back safely.

But this time, he doesn’t. Word comes in that the helicopter that Sam was in went down and all aboard were lost. Because it went down in the water, there isn’t even a body to ship home for them to bury. They’re all devastated, Tommy and Grace most of all. Hidden resentments between Tommy and Hank come out at the funeral despite the efforts of Elsie (Winningham) – Tommy and Sam’s mom, Hank’s wife – to keep the peace. Hank’s alcohol problem becomes a bit more noticeable now.

Tommy is racked with guilt – guilt over things unsaid, things undone. There are some repairs to the kitchen that Sam had always been meaning to get to but never had. Tommy makes that his personal mission now. He recruits some locals to help build Grace a new kitchen. He becomes closer to Sam’s kids, almost a big brother instead of a screw-up uncle. He and Grace begin to not only develop a closer relationship, but one which might go further than either one ever imagined.

Except that the reports of Sam’s demise turned out to be somewhat exaggerated. It turns out that Sam and fellow New Mexican Joe Willis (Flueger) were captured by the Taliban. Both were held by them for over a year, under constant torture and in cruel and inhuman conditions. In order to survive, Sam is forced to do heinous deeds – things that haunt him long after he’s rescued and brought home.

Once home, things don’t get any better for Sam. He’s paranoid and haunted by his terrible wartime secrets. He’s also convinced that Tommy and Grace had been sleeping with each other. The trouble with that is that even though nothing has happened between Tommy and Grace other than a somewhat passionate kiss after an evening of drinking, it wasn’t that the thought hadn’t crossed their minds to take it farther. And despite their protestations to the contrary, Sam can’t get past his fears, leading to an inevitable confrontation that may lead to tragedy.

This is based on the Danish film Brodre by Suzanne Bier which was a much more spare, Spartan film which was largely improvised. This here is far more scripted and features three actors at the top of their games – Portman (who would go on to win an Oscar just a year later), Gyllenhaal (who’d already been nominated for one) and Maguire, best known for his portrayal of Peter Parker in the Spider-Man franchise.

In many ways Maguire has the most opportunity here and he seizes it. Generally he hasn’t had to access the darker aspects of his nature, but here he certainly must; it is the kind of performance that opens your eyes to new possibilities for an actor. Quite honestly, I’d always thought Maguire made a fine Peter Parker – a bit of a nerd with a few action chops and a pretty decent sense of comic timing. However, here he shows he’s capable of considerably darker roles and hopefully he’ll get considered for a few.

Gyllenhaal has a less meaty role as the brother finding redemption as he tries to pick up the pieces after a tragedy. The thing to remember here is that Gyllenhaal had a tragedy of his own to deal with – it was while he was filming this movie that his close friend Heath Ledger passed away, a passing that affected him deeply. Much of the middle third of the movie has Tommy dealing with the grief of the mistaken news of Sam’s passing; I don’t know how much of that portion of the movie was filmed before the news broke about Ledger but Tommy’s grief was a caged tiger throughout the movie, kept carefully inside his enclosure but the claws come out unexpectedly. It’s an understated performance that may not be flashy but compliments his other two leads nicely.

Portman is really in many ways the center of the movie, although ostensibly this is about the relationship between Sam and Tommy. She’s the lynchpin, the crux which the story revolves around. She’s not merely a plot device; she has real emotions, turning her grief into a renewed closeness to her daughters. Like Gyllenhaal, the performance is restrained and subtle; as a mom, she has to keep a lot of her anguish inside for the sake of her kids who need to lean on her as their rock (as does Tommy, to be honest). She’s very much a salt of the earth sort, one who does her duty without fanfare or need for applause – every inch the military wife. It wouldn’t surprise me if Portman spent some time with military wives to gain insight.

For the most part, the plot moves at a crisp and even pace. That is, until the third act when things break down a little bit. Part of it is due to story construction – we know what Sam is hiding, and a good deal of time has been spent showing us what he went through. It might have been far more effective to leave that offscreen (or told in flashback form) so that we are on the same level playing field with Sam’s family leaving us off-balance when Sam starts to change. At that point, the movie goes in a fairly predictable direction.

Still, with performances such as the ones in the lead roles you really can’t lose. While I wish that we were left to wonder, as Grace was, why her husband was acting the way he was, I can’t quarrel with the strength of the underlying material nor with its timeliness. This is one of those movies that might have escaped your notice both at the box office and as a rental that you might want to give a second look to.

WHY RENT THIS: The performances of the three leads are riveting. Tautly directed and well-paced.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Loses steam in the third act. Too many subplots.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is bad language and violence; some of the latter is pretty disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When a back injury threatened to derail Maguire’s participation in Spider-Man 2, Gyllenhaal would have been the first choice to replace him. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on how the picture developed from the Danish original and how the two films compare.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.3M on a $26M production budget; the movie fell just shy of breaking even at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hurt Locker

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Scream 4

New Releases for the Week of February 10, 2012


February 10, 2012

SAFE HOUSE

(Universal) Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard, Fares Fares, Robert Patrick, Liam Cunningham, Ruben Blades. Directed by Daniel Espinosa

One of the most decorated agents in the history of the CIA is Tobin Frost. He is also one of the most reviled, having turned traitor and is now selling his services to the highest bidder. He has cost untold millions of dollars and dozens of lives, directly and otherwise. Then one day he walks into a U.S. consulate. He is taken from there to a CIA Safe House where the House sitter is to take charge of him until he is picked up – and that’s when all hell breaks loose.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

Rating: R (for strong violence throughout and some language)

Journey 2: Mysterious Island

(New Line) Dwayne Johnson, Michael Caine, Josh Hutcherson, Vanessa Hudgens. In this sequel to Journey to the Center of the Earth, .the annoying nephew now has a new stepdad who reluctantly accompanies him to an island where there shouldn’t be one to find the annoying nephew’s explorer grandfather who had been presumed lost. Yes that’s right – another lost relative in the family. Someone should get this family a cell phone plan.

See the trailer and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard, 3D and IMAX

Genre: Family Adventure/Fantasy

Rating: PG (for some adventure action and brief mild language)

Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace 3D

(20th Century Fox) Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Ray Park.  Because George Lucas needs the cash since he’s retiring.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: 3D

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and violence/disturbing images)

The Vow

(Screen Gems) Rachel McAdams, Channing Tatum, Sam Neill, Scott Speedman. A newlywed couple seem to have everything going for them, a perfect life together and a bright future but it all comes to a screeching halt on a rainy night when the car they are in is plowed into by a truck. At least they both survive but the groom discovers that his new wife has lost all of her memory of the past five years – including every memory of him. She believes she is still engaged to the man she was seeing before he came along. Determined to win her back, he pulls out all the stops to get her to fall in love with her all over again. Sound too good to be true? It really happened.

See the trailer and an interview here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: PG-13 (for an accident scene, sexual content, partial nudity and some language)

My Blueberry Nights


My Blueberry Nights

Nothing like a cup o' joe to finish your evening.

(2007) Drama (Weinstein) Jude Law, Norah Jones, Rachel Weisz, Natalie Portman, David Strathairn, Adriane Lenox, Benjamin Kanes, Chan Marshall, Hector Leguillow, Chad Davis, Katya Blumenberg, John Malloy, Frankie Faison. Directed by Wong Kar Wai

Love is no easy thing. It chews you up and spits you out like a burnt blueberry pie. Time and distance can give us perspective and sometimes even lessen the pain, but it is a conscious choice to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and move on with our lives.

Elizabeth (Jones) is recovering from a relationship breakup after her boyfriend cheats on her. She finds refuge in the diner owned by Jeremy (Law), where she is the only customer who orders his fresh-made blueberry pie. The two start to converse; it turns out that Jeremy is a broken soul as well. Jeremy begins to fall for Elizabeth but she flees from New York before he can establish a beach head.

He searches for her meticulously and desperately, knowing only that she’s gone to Memphis. He makes calls and sends postcards to nearly every restaurant in the Memphis area trying to find her. He must have missed the one where she’s at, working as both a waitress (by day) and bartender (by night) as Lizzie. It’s at the bar she meets Arnie Copeland (Strathairn), an alcoholic ex-cop who pines for his wife Sue Lynn (Weisz) who persistently and openly cheats on her husband from whom she is separated. His struggle seems to resonate with Lizzie who befriends him, and when he threatens Sue Lynn one night with a gun, the resulting tragedy sends Lizzie off west to the desert.

Now known as Beth, she meets up with Leslie (Portman), a professional poker player who’s had a run of bad luck. She does have a car, which Beth needs but she needs a stake in the big poker tournament. Beth agrees to stake her in exchange for one third the winnings if she wins and her car if she loses.

Leslie plays in the tournament and eventually reports back to Beth that she lost. She asks if Beth could give her a ride to see her father, from whom she’s been estranged. They arrive in Las Vegas only to find that Beth’s father died the night before. They’d just missed him. Leslie confesses that she actually won the tournament and wants the car back for sentimental reasons. She gives Beth the money which is more than enough to buy a car…and Beth heads back east, having made a journey to evade love – had it found her anyway?

Chinese director Wong Kar Wei is known for being one of the most visually arresting filmmakers in the world, and in his English language debut retains that distinctive visual style. The neon lights make for a colorful backdrop in Manhattan and Memphis while the loneliness of the desert vistas are magnificently captured by cinematographer Darius Khondji.

And this isn’t case of images over story either; the movie depicts a journey, an evolution as it were, of Elizabeth from a scared, broken-hearted little girl into a wise, self-aware woman. Casting Jones, a singer with no acting experience in the role was a bold move but one that paid off. She has an interesting face, which is a Wong Kar Wei trademark – he utilizes close-ups better than any director working today, so in that sense she suits him well. She also proves to be at least competent as an actress; clearly she can use some improvement if she decides to prove a dual career with the music business, but she has the potential if she wants to go that way.

Law is solid in a part that doesn’t require much of him but to look soulful. Strathairn, the talented veteran character actor is most impressive as the broken-hearted alcoholic who desperately loves a wife who has given up on him. It’s a performance that is as soulful as it is poignant; I thought it was one of the best of his career. He and Weisz had real chemistry together.

The movie is only 90 minutes long so there is an economy here that’s refreshing – Wei does no more and no less than he has to do. The brevity works in the movie’s favor; the constant barrage of symbols (keys play a big part in this movie) grew annoying after awhile. But of course American sensibilities are different than Asian ones obviously. Some find that level of layered nuances challenging and gratifying on an intellectual level.

This is a movie that should be experienced rather than seen. I found that letting the images and story wash over me was helpful in my enjoyment of the movie. As Wong Kar Wei movies go, this isn’t his masterpiece…but it may make a good jump-in point for American audiences to be introduced to this amazing director.

WHY RENT THIS: Like all of Kar Wai’s films, this is a visual treat for the senses. Strathairn brings great poignancy to his role. Jones is a capable actress.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is symbol-heavy and not all of the vignettes are as striking as the Strathairn/Weisz one.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence, but also a good deal of drinking and smoking as you might expect in a movie where so much of the action takes place in bars.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chan Marshall, who plays Katya, is better known as Cat Power, a leading indie musician. This is also her feature film acting debut.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interview with director Wong Kar Wai conducted by the Museum of the Moving Image that lends fascinating insight as to his philosophy of moviemaking.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22.0M on an unreported production budget; the movie almost certainly made money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Ahead of Time

Thor


Thor

Thor is a bit perplexed as Odin extolls the joys of fava beans and a nice Chianti.

(2011) Superhero (Paramount) Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Rene Russo, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Clark Gregg, Colm Feore, Josh Dallas, Jaimie Alexander, Tadanobu Asano. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Part of the maturing process is realizing that, in fact, you don’t know everything. Most parents will tell you that this is a condition that afflicts most teenagers, some worse than others. Of course, if your teenager happens to be a God, that can be a bit overwhelming to deal with.

Thor (Hemsworth) is the God of Thunder and son of Odin (Hopkins), the Highfather of the Norse Gods. Thor isn’t exactly a teenager but he acts like one – reckless, arrogant and foolish. The mortal enemies of the Gods are the Frost Giants, whom Odin defeated a thousand years before and took their most fearsome weapon from them. Now, a trio of them has attempted to steal it back, unsuccessfully which cheeses off Thor big time. Not just because they dared to cross the borders of Asgard itself, which Thor sees as an act of war – but because they did it on the day that Odin named him his heir over his younger brother Loki (Hiddleston).

So Thor decides to pay the Frost Giants a little visit, taking along his good friends the Warriors Three – handsome Fandral (Dallas), taciturn Hogun (Asano) and voluminous Volstagg (Stevenson), as well as Loki  and Sif (Alexander), an intense but loyal female warrior. To get there they must cross Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge which is guarded by the grim Heimdal (Elba), who normally wouldn’t allow Thor to cross on such a fool’s errand – but he is curious as to how the Frost Giants got into Asgard without him knowing, so he allows them to pass.

Of course this turns out to be a very bad idea. The confrontation quickly turns ugly and the Asgardians must fight their way past a kind of gigantic dog-like creature as well as a horde of Frost Giants, necessitating their rescue by Odin himself. He asks Laufey (Feore), the King of the Frost Giants if the incident could be forgotten but Laufey says a brusque no. War, it seems, is coming to Asgard.

Thor continues to be petulant about the whole thing and he and his dad get into a shouting match. Odin, pissed off beyond all measure, exiles Thor to Earth, stripping him of his powers and sending his enchanted hammer Mjolnir after him. When Thor learns some patience and gains the wisdom that is worthy of the hammer, he’ll be allowed to use it once again.

Meanwhile, on earth, a trio of scientists is studying some mysterious radiation surges in the New Mexico desert. Jane Foster (Portman) is extremely dedicated and passionate to her scientific muse. She is mentored by pragmatic Scandinavian Dr. Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) and aided by flighty intern Darcy Lewis (Dennings), who is a bit science challenged (she’s majoring in Political Science but this was the only internship she could get). They are out in the desert when a giant funnel cloud opens up. Of course Jane drives right into it – and smack into a Norse God which she strikes with her car.

As she begins to analyze her scientific data she theorizes that what she encountered was one end of a wormhole, through which the “really cut for a homeless guy,” as Darcy describes him, travelled. At first, he seems a bit demented. He is courtly to near ridiculous levels, freakishly strong, socially awkward by our standards and continually spouts out insane statements about Norse mythology, asserting that he is the God of Thunder and carries an enchanted hammer. Yeah, right.

In the meantime, the government agency SHIELD, led by the somewhat brusque agent Coulson (Gregg) has taken over, throwing a cordon around the hammerfall site and taking all of Jane’s research, including her journal. Thor, finding out where his hammer is, determines to go get it and prove himself worthy to Odin.

Up in Asgard, things have gone from bad to worse. Odin has fallen into a coma, Loki has proven to be treacherous and has taken the throne, threatening to annihilate the Frost Giants once and for all. Thor’s friends Fandral, Volstagg, Hogun and Sif come to Earth in a desperate attempt to retrieve Thor and set things to rights. Loki, discovering their treachery, sends down a Destroyer robot to end the lot of them and give him the throne of Asgard free and clear.

At first glance, Branagh is an unusual choice for directing a superhero comic adaptation. After all, he is best known for his Shakespeare adaptations and somewhat classical approach to film. However, he turns out to be the perfect choice; he immediately saw the epic quality in the story that even the Bard would have appreciated and Branagh wisely approaches the story in a matter befitting Shakespeare.

The result is a visually stunning, well-acted superhero movie painted on a cosmic canvas. Hemsworth, memorable as George Kirk in the Star Trek reboot, proves to be a solid and charismatic lead. He has all the makings of a big star, which bodes well for the Marvel Universe. His Thor, although petulant and impulsive is also easy-going and good-hearted. It’s nice to see a superhero mature onscreen in front of you as opposed to the darker superhero tales which seem to be more in vogue these days.

He gets some pretty good support, particularly from Hopkins who lends every inch of gravitas possible to Odin. Portman makes for a sweet romantic interest, in a PG kind of way. Skarsgard, one of the more reliable character actors around, is flinty and stolid as Dr. Selvig; skeptical and practical but also loyal to Jane, the daughter of an old friend. Dennings provides ample comic relief, which is surprising since in previous roles she didn’t strike me as the sort. I’m pleased to see Dennings show that kind of range – I’ve always liked her as an actress, so having that sort of versatility does make career longevity more of a possibility. Rene Russo also makes a rare and welcome appearance as Thor’s mother (and Odin’s wife) Frigga.

Hiddleston makes a fine Loki – tormented, mischievous and hateful. He is not the pure evil that sometimes he is portrayed in the comics; his origin also diverges from Marvel canon somewhat but in a good way I think. He proves to be a formidable opponent for Thor.

I also liked Elba as Heimdal, lending the kind of gravitas usually associated with James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman and Patrick Stewart. While we’re on the subject of the guardian of the rainbow bridge, the bridge makes one of the more arresting visuals of the movie. It is a combination of magic and science that is colorful (as you’d expect) and in an odd way, sensible. The city of Asgard itself is also gorgeous; certainly a CGI creation but looking almost like a miniature in many ways. It looks very much like a city of Gods.

As you can tell from the plot description, the story is a bit ponderous in places, with lots of characters showing up from the pages of Thor and Norse mythology in general. Fleeting glimpses are made of the Infinity Gauntlet, Hawkeye (of the Avengers) and Stan Lee. Keeping track of everything and everyone can be taxing at times, particularly for those who aren’t as well-versed in the comics.

Still, this is a very good start to the franchise; not quite to the level of Iron Man but surprisingly close. Now that the Marvel moviemaking machine is in full gear, it’s good to see that the quality standards are still high. Hopefully that’s something that will turn out to be as eternal as the Gods themselves.

REASONS TO GO: Asgard is beautifully realized. There’s an epic and Shakespearean quality to the story. Hemsworth acquits himself well as a leading man, with fine supporting performances by Portman, Hiddleston, Hopkins, Skarsgard, Elba and Dennings.

REASONS TO STAY: The story can be a bit confusing in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some science fiction/fantasy/comic book violence and a couple of scary monsters.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Marks the first appearance of Rene Russo in a feature film in six years.

HOME OR THEATER: Most definitely the big screen to maintain the epic quality of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Tropic Thunder

New Releases for the Week of May 6, 2011


May 6, 2011

Thor gets ready to lay the hammer down on a bad guy.

THOR

(Paramount/Marvel) Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Colm Feore, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, Idris Elba, Samuel L. Jackson, Ray Stevenson, Jaimie Alexander, Clark Gregg. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Thor, the God of Thunder and son of Odin is a mighty warrior but an arrogant one. His arrogance unwittingly triggers hostilities between the Gods and the Giants who have been in an uneasy peace for centuries. For his actions, Odin banishes his son to live on Earth and to learn a little humility, which isn’t easy for a God living on Earth but there you go.

See the trailer, clips, a featurette, promos and an interview here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard. 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence)

I Am

(Paladin) Tom Shadyac, Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn. After a devastating cycling accident left him incapacitated, possibly permanently, director Shadyac (auteur of the Ace Ventura movies among others) re-examines himself and his place in the universe, deciding to make a movie about it which might just make up for Ace Ventura, karma-wise.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR

In a Better World

(Sony Classics) Mikael Persbrandt, William Johnk Nielsen, Trine Dyrholm, Markus Rygaard. An idealistic doctor who splits time between his home in Denmark and an African refugee camp must choose between revenge and forgiveness. At home his son is undergoing the same choice, albeit in a far different situation. This was the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film earlier this year.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for violent and disturbing content some involving preteens, and for language)

Jumping the Broom

(TriStar) Angela Bassett, Paula Patton, Mike Epps, Loretta Devine. It seems like it would be a simple thing; two young people coming together in matrimony, in beautiful Martha’s Vineyard no less. However their families – one well-to-do, the other blue collar – are at each other’s throats. Not exactly the seeds for a happy nuptial, right?

See the trailer, clips, interviews and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Urban Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content)

POM Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold

(Sony Classics) Morgan Spurlock, Ben Silverman, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader. Gadfly Spurlock (he of Super Size Me) takes on his own industry this time – and product placement therein as he documents his attempts to have his film entirely financed by product placement. Along the way he gives us a glimpse of how the movie industry works – and how pervasive advertising is in our lives.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG-13 (for some language and sexual material)

Potiche

(Music Box) Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, Fabrice Luchini, Karin Viard. Set in the 1970s, the trophy wife of a wealthy French industrialist proves to be better at running his company than he is when he is convalescing from a heart attack, setting the stage for this French war between the sexes. I saw this previously at the Florida Film Festival and reviewed it here.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: R (for some sexuality)

Something Borrowed

(Warner Brothers) Ginnifer Goodwin, Kate Hudson, Colin Egglesfield, John Krasinski. Rachel and Darcy are best friends; Rachel is the maid of honor for Darcy, who is about to marry the man that Rachel has had a crush on since law school. When Rachel sleeps with Darcy’s husband-to-be after a night of too much drinking, their little circle of friends are in for a game of “change partners!”

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content including dialogue, and some drug material)