New Releases for the Week of June 17, 2011


June 17, 2011

GREEN LANTERN

(Warner Brothers) Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Angela Bassett, Tim Robbins, Geoffrey Rush, Michael Clarke Duncan. Directed by Martin Campbell

A cocky test pilot (is there any other kind?) is drawn into a galactic conflict after an alien hands him a ring that has the power to convert thought into reality. He becomes a member of a corps of heroes who protect the universe from evil, but they are facing a threat more powerful than any they’ve ever seen before. Not only is the earth in peril from this enemy but there are enemies at home that are compounding the threat.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Superhero

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

The Art of Getting By

(Fox Searchlight) Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts, Blair Underwood, Rita Wilson. A spoiled teen who has managed to reach his senior year of high school without doing a day’s work, faces the onset of the real world. He meets a young woman who sees past his facade and takes a liking to him, although she has issues of her own. Together they try to weather the storms of adolescence and learn the difficult art of getting by.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including sexual content, language, teen drinking and partying)

Mr. Popper’s Penguins

(20th Century Fox) Jim Carrey, Carla Gugino, Philip Baker Hall, Clark Gregg. A man who has become so career-driven that he has lost sight of why he is working in the first place inherits six penguins from his arctic explorer Uncle. Ready to send them to the zoo at first, he discovers that the penguins are helping him re-discover what’s important. Now if he can only keep them out of the hands of the zookeeper…

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Family

Rating: PG (for some mild rude humor and language)

The Tree of Life

(Fox Searchlight) Brat Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Joanna Going. A man has to resolve his complex and often difficult relationship with his father. Adrift in the modern world, seeking answers involving faith, science and man’s place in the universe, he finds himself on the cusp of wonders, discoveries that will change everything – but not his past. This is the most recent from respected director Terrence Malick; it recently won the coveted Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and has been as controversial as it has been acclaimed.

See the trailer and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic material)

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

Iron Man 2


Iron Man 2

Iron Man and War Machine have a little heart-to-heart.

(Paramount)  Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Scarlett Johansson, Jon Favreau, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, Garry Shandling, John Slattery, Kate Mara, Leslie Bibb, Paul Bettany (voice), Olivia Munn. Directed by Jon Favreau

With the success of any superhero movie, a sequel is inevitable. Sometimes the sequel is even better than the original, as happened in Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight. In other cases, such as Superman 2 and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer not so much. Which side will Iron Man 2 fall on?

It has been a couple years since the events of the first Iron Man and Tony Stark’s (Downey) shocking outing of himself as the armored superhero. In that time, Tony has effectively kept the peace, his Iron Man armor unstoppable by conventional military means.

Success breeds enemies however, and Tony has his share. Rival arms manufacturer Justin Hammer (Rockwell), for one – he has lost some critical military contracts due to Stark’s success. Senator Stern (Shandling) is another – he wants to take the most advanced weapon in the world out of the hands of private industry and into the control of the U.S. Government, where it belongs. Tony is not willing to do this, and is quite vocal about it at the Senate sub-committee hearing.

Tony’s focus is more on his Stark Expo, a Worlds’ Fair-like event he is holding in Flushing Meadow (also the site of two Worlds Fairs in 1939 and 1964-5, respectively) as a celebration of human ingenuity. It’s also something of a giant corporate jerk-off, but that might just be my inner socialist talking here.

Meanwhile, back in Moscow (there’s a future for me in the cheesy writing industry) a brooding Russky ex-con covered in tattoos and muscles named Ivan Vanko (Rourke) watches his father die and vows revenge (actually, he says something more like “Waaaaaaarrrrrrgggghh!” but you get the idea). Revenge against whom? Why, Tony Stark, whose dad Howard (Slattery) had dear old dad deported back in the day,  but not before stealing his design for the ARC reactor which powers the suit and not so coincidentally, Tony’s ailing heart. With his daddy’s designs, Ivan creates an ARC of his own to power a couple of supercharged whips which cuts through just about anything but especially race cars, one of which Tony is not so coincidentally driving at the Monaco Grand Prix. Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?

Still, Tony saves the day with his suitcase armor (one of the coolest things not only in the film but ever) and Vanko a.k.a. Whiplash is sent to prison. However, Hammer likes what he sees, arranges Vanko’s extraction from prison and supposed death, the better for creating an army of armored soldiers for Hammer who, quite naturally, wants his military contract back.

Yes, you could say Tony’s got problems but none more serious than the fact that his ARC reactor is slowly poisoning his bloodstream, which will eventually kill him. There are no known elements to replace the palladium that runs his reactor and with all the pressures besetting him Tony begins to lose it a little bit. He hands the CEO job at Stark Industries to his longtime assistant Pepper Potts (Paltrow) and starts to drink a little bit, forcing his longtime friend Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard in the role) to take action and take an older set of armor for himself. Potts’ promotion necessitates a new assistant for Tony, in the person of the beautiful and mysterious Natalie Rushman (Johansson) who has secrets of her own.

In some ways Iron Man 2 suffers from Spider-Man 3 syndrome; too many villains. Rourke’s an excellent villain in many ways but the character doesn’t hold the interest of a Joker or a Goblin. He’s more or less a two-chord garage band; he’s either brooding or laughing maniacally. There’s not much in between for Rourke to do, but then again he does a really good job with what he has. Whiplash becomes a decent enough villain and might well have made for a warped reflection of Tony; both sons of fathers who worked together, one bent on world peace, the other on humiliating his enemy.

Rockwell, who’s an excellent actor and at times gets to show Hammer as an un-self-confident geek who craves attention and affection but is as cold and as ruthless as they come. Unfortunately, his alliance with Whiplash makes his character a little bit irrelevant. Rourke overshadows Rockwell to a large degree, but that’s not because of either man’s skills but more because of the way their characters are written.

The action sequences are top-notch and particularly the final battle sequence is absolutely spectacular. Unfortunately, some of the green screen work is surprisingly sloppy, such as one scene where Whiplash emerges from flaming wreckage in Monaco where he is obviously green screened and it takes you right out of the movie immediately.

The supporting performances are awfully good here, from Cheadle as Rhodes to Paltrow as the harried and somewhat overwhelmed Pepper (a bit of a far cry from her cool and collected performance in the first movie) and Johansson, who has never been sexier as the assistant with a difference. Samuel L. Jackson makes a more substantial appearance as Nick Fury, the head of SHIELD, further giving fanboys like me a reason to appreciate the nine-film deal Jackson signed with Marvel to play the character. Hopefully he’ll get a movie of his own somewhere down the line. Favreau as bodyguard Happy Hogan also has some pretty nice moments. The interplay between all of them and Downey is realistic, like old friends bickering and ribbing each other. It helps you like the movie a little more.

This is a nice start to the summer movie season. In some ways it’s not as good as the first movie but in other ways it’s a little better. Certainly Downey is redefining the way superheroes are going to be portrayed in the future; he’s a little bit quirky and a lot more vulnerable than the average superhero. You get the idea that Tony Stark is on the ragged edge and could tip over the side without much prodding.

The action is big and bold but it doesn’t break any new ground in particular. The high tech is a little higher and techier (advances since the first movie have made the tech in that film seem a little dated now), and the acting is solid. The script might be a little bit of a rehash of the first (two armored men battling it out) but at the end of the day you’ll leave the cinema entertained. What more do you need to know than that?

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are outstanding, and the interplay between Downey, Favreau, Paltrow and Cheadle feels comfortable and familiar.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the green screen effects were choppy and ineffective. Rockwell’s Justin Hammer seemed unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some intense comic book action and a few bad words but otherwise suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee makes a cameo appearance as talk show host Larry King near the beginning of the film.

HOME OR THEATER: Big battles, stupendous fight scenes, oh yeah this one is big screen all the way!

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Air I Breathe

Choke


Choke

Sam Rockwell ponders his next role.

(Fox Searchlight) Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Brad William Henke, Kelly Macdonald, Paz de la Huerta, Bijou Phillips, Gillian Jacobs, Clark Gregg, Joel Grey. Directed by Clark Gregg

Author Chuck Palahniuk is best known for the film adapted from his novel, Fight Club. And since rule number one of Fight Club is that we don’t talk about Fight Club, we’ll just have to talk about the second novel of his to be adapted to the film medium.

Victor Mancini (Rockwell) is a sex addict. He attends regular sessions of Sex Addicts Anonymous when he isn’t working his day job as a historical re-enactor for Colonial Williamsburg. He is trying to make ends meet while keeping his mother Ida (Huston) in an expensive medical facility. Never stable to begin with, she has become increasingly more deranged as time goes by. Victor also supplements his income by deliberately choking in high class restaurants and allowing himself to be saved by wealthy diners who then become patrons, as it were.

Victor’s best friend Denny (Henke) also works with him as a re-enactor and has problems connecting with women. Victor has no such problems; he is continually establishing brief and more or less meaningless sexual relationships with women who are more or less interested in the same. However, his life is turned upside down when his mother in a rare lucid moment, confesses that she lied to him about the identity of his true birth father. Victor enlists the aid of a sympathetic attending physician, Dr. Paige Marshall (Macdonald) to assist him to find out from his mother where the hidden identity of his father might be, but he doesn’t count on forming a bond with the good doctor that might just be the key to something more lasting for him. However, when you have a situation where two people continually bend the truth to their own specifications, can they really form a relationship that will endure?

Actor/director Gregg also adapted the source material for the screen, and an ambitious undertaking it was, too. The original Palahniuk novel is densely plotted, with a complicated plot that doesn’t really lend itself to a 90 minute movie. Still, Gregg gives it a game effort and if he doesn’t succeed in every instance, at least you’ve gotta give him an “A” for effort.

Rockwell is the centerpiece here, a genetically unlikable sort who has a wisecrack for every occasion and lives for his next bit of poontang. His name has appeared regularly on the pages of Cinema365 in movies like Snow Angels and Everybody’s Fine and he seems to be willing to tackle offbeat roles of the sort that have been the exclusive hunting ground of guys like Christopher Walken and John Malkovich. Less mannered than either, there is a curious everyman quality to Rockwell even as he tackles roles that are far from every man. Huston is one of those actresses who is often overlooked for some odd reason but in nearly every movie she is in, she shines and she certainly does so here as a mom that would make Jenny Fields from The World According to Garp look like June Cleaver.

There are some very funny moments, some clever dialogue and some genuine poignancy. What we really don’t get is consistency; some of the scenes are really hit or miss and not everything works perfectly. Nonetheless, enough of it hits that it is certainly a recommendation, particularly for those who like their movies on the different side. There is a good deal of sexuality here so those who are offended by that sort of thing should just move along. Those who are not however would not be wasting their time to pick this up at the rental counter.

WHY RENT THIS: Rockwell is well on his way to becoming one of the finest actors of his generation. While Gregg gives the source material his own spin, there is enough Palahniuk to make this worthwhile.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is often scattershot in an effort to blend the complex elements of the novel into a single, focused film.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of sex, nudity and language so bluenoses beware!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Book author Chuck Palahniuk cameos as the man sitting on the plane next to Victor at the end of the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a conversation between Palahniuk and Gregg about the adaptation of novel to film that’s a fascinating look at the process.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: 2010