“Thor: The Dark World” is the latest entry in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is a sequel to 2011′s “Thor” and picks up right after the events of 2012′s “The Avengers”. This movie is a vast improvement over the original. I was happy to find that almost all of the story takes place mostly off of Earth. Large scale battles take place over the fantasy city of Asgard and other alien worlds. To be subjected to more super hero tales that take place in urban cities might be punishment at this point.
As the film opens, Loki, Thor’s villainous brother, is being put in an Asgardian prison for all time after being found guilty of his crimes back on earth. Somewhere else in the galaxy an ancient enemy known as the Dark Elves. Long ago they battled Thor’s grandfather for the fate of the universe. They tried to gain access to an ancient weapon but were foiled and were mostly destroyed. Only the evil Malekith and his minions survived and went in to hiding in deep space. Now that the nine realms are about to align, which apparently only happens once every few thousand years.
The realms aligning is known as the Convergence. This causes some strange anomalies on earth including worm holes and sporadic fields of zero gravity. This draws the attention of Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who inadvertently absorbs a dangerous energy source that draws the attention of Thor as well as the Dark Elves.
The Dark Elves are a fearsome race. Malekith, their leader, played by Christopher Eccleston, is a much more interesting villain than Loki, who simply came off as a bit of a winer in the first film. Malekith tests Thor both physically and psychologically.
I have enjoyed every film in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe so far. I am grateful that we are in the middle of their second phase. With the exception of “The Avengers”, I found myself weary of all the origin stories. It is refreshing to come in to a sequel where the world has been established and the creators can focus on telling a more interesting story.
“Thor: The Dark World” opens up a whole new cosmic chapter of the Marvel series. It also contains a little nugget at the end that teases the upcoming “Guardians Of The Galaxy”, which I am very excited for.
“The Counselor” marks the first ever screenplay written by Cormac McCarthy, the author of such books as “Blood Meridian” and “No Country For Old Men”. On the basis of this film I might suggest he stick to writing books and leave the screenplays to established pros. This is a sloppy, unfocused mess of a movie and it is all because of the weak script. Director Ridley Scott does what he can but it is a doomed endeavour. The actors each put on admirable performances but they are not given much to work with.
The story follows a lawyer played by Michael Fassbender, who is some how in way over his head financially. He enters in to a deal with a drug cartel, brokered by some shady clients. The details of the deal are never made clear. From what I can gather he basically puts up some cash and waits for the drugs to be delivered than receives a big return on his investment.
Javier Bardem plays Reiner, a business man by day and a drug kingpin by night. He warns the Counselor of some unspeakable violence that could happen if this deal goes sideways. His girlfriend is Malkina played by Cameron Diaz. She seems to be running more than she leads on. Brad Pitt also shows up as sort of middle man. He also cryptically warns Fassbender of the lengths the cartels will go if they screw them over.
Penelope Cruz plays Fassbender’s unsuspecting girlfriend who eventually becomes his fiancé.
All of these actors are quite good with the exception of Diaz. She seems to be out of her acting range. Instead of menacing she comes across as simply over the top. Sadly she will be remembered from this movie for a truly uncomfortable scene where she has sex with a wind shield.
Now I don’t think I am ruining anything when I say that things go horribly wrong and everyone ends up scrambling for options. The sad part is that there are no surprises or interesting plot twists. When the deal goes bad, the cartel simply hunts people down and kills them. It is unbelievably predictable and cliched. What makes it worse is that we get no details on the cartel’s operations or plans. They are always an unseen evil that seems to operate in the shadows.
Ridley Scott brings his usual visual flair and tries to get the best performances he can out of his actors but there really is nothing for him to sink his teeth in to. The screenplay is terribly straightforward. Scenes go on longer than they should. Conversations are vague and pointless. This is like a rough outline for a better movie.
Some movies, no matter how difficult they are to watch, are essential viewing. “12 Years A Slave” falls right in to that category. I have never seen slavery in America depicted so unblinkingly. Nothing can fully prepare you for utter cruelty and inhumanity that is on display here. The story is a first hand account from a free man who was kidnapped and sold in to slavery. He spent 12 years in bondage before he was released. His name is Solomon Northup and he is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in a performance that better receive some recognition. Ejiofor has been an amazing actor for many years but has some how managed to remain under the radar.
Steve McQueen, the brilliant director of “Shame” and “Hunger” directs this film. John Ridley adapted the screenplay from the book that Northup wrote based on his time as a slave and the multiple owners he had. He was a free man who was drugged and kidnapped after being lured to a dinner and a potential job. He finds himself on board a ship headed for the Deep South. He is sold at Auction in one of the movies most terrifying scenes. The slaves are made to stand on display as potential white buyers look over them as if they were merchandise. I was brought to tears when a mother was torn away from her kids when she was purchased. What disturbed me the most was the sheer lack of sentimentality these people seemed to have.
Northup is initially sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford treats Northup with kindness and a sort of respect considering the situation. Ford appreciates Northup’s skills. He is not treated as well by Overseer John Tibeats (Paul Dano) who resents and hates him often resulting in violent confrontations. Eventually he is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who is a cruel owner that beats his slaves if they do not pick enough cotton by the end of the work day. It is here that Northup sees and experiences the harshest treatment.
It is one thing to read about slavery and it is another to see it depicted on the screen so realistically. The full force of this evil has never hit me in this way before. It is difficult to understand just how people believed they had the right to own another human being and then to treat them in the most brutal and extreme ways possible. It is especially hard to witness when a slave is forced to torture another slave. The despair and pain that comes with a moment like that must be unbearable.
The life of a slave, day in and day out, even without the violence is a harsh one. Northup spends his days picking cotton under a brutal sun with little to no nourishment. Only to be beaten at night if he has not made his quota. It is only when a Canadian carpenter, played by Brad Pitt, helps Northup by sending a letter to his family advising them of his whereabouts.
Director Steve McQueen pulls no punches with his harrowing look at this dark period of time in America. He makes no attempt to make the material anything less then authentic. Why would he? Should any movie about slavery be easy to watch in any way? Even a film like “Django Unchained” did not make any attempt to shy away from the ugliness of the period. Now in no way am I comparing these two films as they are meant to be very different. I think it takes a non American, like McQueen, who is British, to depict these events as honestly as he can.
“Captain Phillips” is a heart pounding, white knuckle thriller based on a real life events. Director Paul Greengrass has crafted another terrific film full of hair raising action and tension filled drama. Tom Hanks also turns in his best performance in years as the captain of a shipping vessell that finds itself overtaken by Somali pirates.
Back in 2009, this became a world wide story when a U.S. cargo ship was boarded by pirates. The captain was then taken hostage in one of the cargo ships life boats. The result was a showdown with the American navy that was ended violently by U.S. snipers. Even though I knew the story going in it was no less tense and exciting.
Tom Hanks plays Phillips as a hard working professional who expects nothing less of his crew. He runs drills at inoportune times in order to keep everyone on their toes as they are entering waters off of Somolia which is reported to be a hot spot for pirates. Sure enough they are approached by party of potential intruders.
Phillips and his crew attempt to fend them off with giant hoses and flair guns but eventually they are boarded. Phillips sends the majority of his crew to hide in the bowels of the ship then finds hismelf with a machine gun in his face. After a tense cat and mouse game, one of the pirates is taken captive by the crew. They come to a deal with the pirates that they will left them take one of their life rafts and will exchange the captain for their prisoner. Things go badly wrong and Phillips ends up on the life raft, still as the pirates hostage. This is when the U.S. Navy intervenes and a gripping stand off takes place. The results I alluded to earlier are shocking and powerful.
All of this is driven by director Paul Greengrass, who is an expert at recreating real life events and putting us right in the middle. His “United 93″ and “Bloody Sunday” are two other examples. It also doesn’t hurt that he has Tom Hanks giving one of the most emotionally arresting performances of his storied career. If he does not get at least an oscar nomination for his work here it would be a disaster.
It is so good to be back in the Fall season, when studios start releasing some of their best films. With this week and last week’s “Gravity”, he season is shaping up to be a memorable one.
“Gravity” has to be the best movie going experience I have had this year so far. It is one of those must see, unique films that reafirms why we love the movies to begin with. After a long summer of non stop effects film, none of which ever truly inspired us, comes a movie that no studio wanted to make.
Director Alfonso Cuaron has crafted a masterpiece of razor sharp suspense using some of the most stunning visual effects I have ever seen put to film. But visual effects can only come to life if the performances and the danger feel real. Here I actually felt like Sandra Bullock and George Clooney were struggling to stay alive.
The plot is fairly simple. Clooney plays Matt Kowalski, the commander of a team of astronaughts. He is planning to retire and never tires of telling stories from his life to ground control as well as his team. Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first mission in to space. During their final space walk to service the Hubble Space telescope, they are warned by Mission Control that debris from a Russian missile strike is hurdling their way. Before they can abort the debris impacts the Explorer detatching Dr. Stone and sending her tumbling through space.
The debris tears through everything like butter. The ship burts in to pieces. How they filmed these moments is a mystery to me. Describing them will be difficult. All I can really say is that space has never been represented so well before in my opinion. When something comes apart, it explodes in to a mess of pieces. The characters then hurtle in all directions uncontrollabley.
The performances are among the best I have ever seen from these actors and that is saying something considering their resumes of great roles. Bullock in particular spends a great deal of time alone but manages to bring us in to her emotions as she runs through memories of her life. Clooney is also good at turning his charm off on a dime and taking charge and making a tough decision when the time calls for it.
A lot has been made of the demise of 3D lately. I have not been a fan of the format so far. I can only think of a few films that truly looked breathtaking with a third dimension. “Gravity” is one of those films. It begs to be seen not only in 3D, but in the IMAX version. The massive screen, eye popping visuals and the mind blowing musical score by Steven Price simply cannot be viewed for the first time on your TV at home.
“All Is Bright” is a nice little comedy about a down on his luck ex con who works selling christmas trees in an attempt to buy his estranged daughter a present. Directed by Phil Morrison, who directed the 2006 movie Junebug, “All Is Bright” relies on two quirky performances by Paul Giamatti and Paul Rudd, who travel from Canada to New York to setup a shabby looking camp of trees for the holidays.
Nobody can play down on his luck like Giamatti can. Here he looks borderline homeless. He sees the christmas tree business as a get rich quick scheme so he can buys his daughter a piano. Rudd is an old friend and is currently dating Giamatti’s wife. It is an odd relationship that becomes quite strained which seems natural considering Giamatti is trying to reconcile with his wife.
“All Is Bright” isn’t quite “Bad Santa”, but it is a holiday movie for adults with a lot of R rated humor. I is not too memorable but if you are looking for some solid laughs with a healthy dose of drama this might be your ticket.
I had high hopes for “Don Jon”. Do not get me wrong, it is an entertaining movie, but I was expecting so much more. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is such a talented guy, who seems to choose projects that at least attempt to be somewhat original. This movie is his first time directing from his own screenplay. The result is a mixed bag.
Levitt plays Jon, a young handsome guy who sees himself as a true Don Juan. He has only a few things he truly cares about in life and those are his body, his pad, his boys, his girls, his family, his church, his ride and his porn. He spends his nights bar hopping, picking up women and taking them home for one night stands. He much prefers masturbating to porn though. It is an addiction to which he loses himself in.
All of this changes when he meets Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson). “She is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen” he says to his father, played by Tony Danza. She becomes the first girl he starts dating and getting to know. She even makes him wait weeks before they have sex.
Another woman enters his life as well. This is Esther, played by Julianne Moore. Esther goes to school with Jon and notices he has a bit of a problem with porn as he watches it in on his cell phone.
The two female leads are the reason I didn’t love this movie. I wasn’t too happy with the way they were handled. Nothing wrong with the performances or the direction I just wanted to know more. Barbara comes off as a pretty cool girl at first but then abruptly becomes a total snob for the convenience of the pot. Esther on the other hand is more complicated. She has a past that is no where near explored enough. If anything I kind of wish that the Barbara character was axed completely and we had gotten further in to the story of Esther.
As a writer and director Joseph Gordon-Levitt shows a lot of promise. He also gives a pretty great performance as a man who has an unhealthy addiction to pornography. I just hope his next project engages it’s subjects on a deeper level.