Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

It's been two years since New York and the Chitari invasion, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is just finishing cleaning up Loki's mess. Now the nine realms are back in order. And soon, they'll literally be in order, as they're aligning -- a phenomenon that happens thousands of years apart. Last time, Thor's granddad was king, and he barely prevented the dark elves and their leader Malekith from covering the lands in darkness. Malekith escaped of course, and now is back, and bent on bringing the darkness with him.

Malekith is played by Christopher Eccleston, and half the time speaks a made-up "dark elf" language. I understand that the idea is to give them credibility, but while reading captions it is very hard to pay attention to anything else, so while I was halfheartedly trying to do both, I did neither. Malekith sadly ended up a rather generic bad guy. His sidekick, however, made up for it a little by being impressively creepy and intimidating.

This is neither Malekith nor his number one, just some typical creepy elves...

There's also a secondary plot resolved at the end of the second act, and its climax was more climatic than the third act, which sets up a huge climax, but then falls short. (See spoiler #1 at the bottom of this post) The main plot has an intriguing premise and it slowly builds throughout the film until it reaches enormous proportions. It was so great that, apparently the writers had a hard time figuring out how to beat it, and their solution was underwhelming. (See spoiler #2)

I doubt it needs saying, but Loki is what I enjoyed most out of this film. All Loki needs to be his incredible self is the equally incredible Tom Hiddleston, who is as good as ever here, (as always) but it's interesting to see the slight changes that different directors have directed in the character. Branagh's influence on Loki made him pitiable; Whedon's made him an awesome villain, and this director, Alan Taylor made him unpredictable, and mysterious. And Taylor did nothing wrong -- Loki is still by far the best character in the film, and funnier than ever -- but he seems to just be humoring us Loki fans instead of actually being interested in developing the character for himself, and appreciating the importance of a character like that. (Spoiler #3) No matter how small a part he is, he's still a step above, so why not include him more throughout movie, and let the movie benefit from the boost? The majority of Loki is seen in the second act, and that was definitely the peak of the film.

Loki takes up light reading.

All the concentration was centered on Thor and Jane, and I'll get to them in a minute, but what is it they have against Fandral, Sif, Hogun, and Volstagg? They had bigger roles in the first film, and I was hoping they'd get some more development and screen time for this one. Especially since Zachary Levi is now playing Fandral. But no, we're only teased with the characters' development, and they're only used until they're not necessary anymore. Levi does get more than the rest, but Jamie Alexander's Sif is only shown enough so we know she's jealous of Jane, and Hogun and Volstagg get next to nothing.

And that's not even mentioning these guys. The supporting roles from Earth. Though they do get more screen time than their Asgardian counterparts.

If attention had been more evenly spread it wouldn't have mattered at all that the hero, Thor's character arc was more like a flat line... or flat-line. Starting out as a great hero with no personal problems, he didn't have anywhere to go -- a common problem with sequels, and something of a catch 22, as it would be arguably worse to redo the character's original arc than for them to have none. The main drama with Thor this time around is between him and Jane. (Natalie Portman) She's hurt and confused that it's taken this long for him to return, but really there's not much drama to be had here. Everyone knows Thor is way too gentlemanly to ditch Jane, no matter how petty (and tiny) and clingy she is.


Besides being slightly more boring as a flawless hero, Thor's character was much improved since his first solo. He wasn't a blooming idiot anymore, and was wise to the ways of Earth as he should be. Still, he doesn't belong there, so there are some very subtle fish-out-of-water moments with one being exceptionally hilarious. (Spoiler #4) Still, the only time he really come to life is when he's bantering with his cheerfully evil brother.

They really do act like brothers. You can almost hear Thor saying, "Loki! Stop it, you're annoying me!"

The Dark World may be more confused, but is definitely prettier than its predecessor. The special effects got an upgrade, and were used to their best advantage. Asgard was breath-taking, and beautifully developed to a realistic, living city, slightly reminiscent of something out of The Lord of the Rings. On Earth, instead of being in the middle of nowhere, we get to see London and Greenwich, and two or three other realms in a little less detail. This huge increase in scope is probably the best improvement on the first Thor film. You can see where the budget went, and it is far from useless.

Action scenes also felt the good effects and are longer and cleaner and more epic in true Marvel style. They've found their formula, and will not be abandoning it anytime soon. On one hand this is good, because it guarantees a certain quality, and on the other, bad, because formula is the edge of a slippery slope that ends in a rut -- and Marvel may have slipped down it already.

But in the end, Thor is... solid -- and his movie is too. It was consistently funny with two particularly great jokes, (Spoiler #4 & 5) and it never turned too cheesy, or dull and generic that I couldn't enjoy it. It may not have met my grandest expectations, but it succeeded in its purpose of being a fun, visual and action-packed Marvel blockbuster, and a great backdrop for Loki to shine against. Not that last part? Watch the movie, and see for yourself.

The end. Thor is now protecting you from evil spoilers.

WARNING: SPOILERS! If you haven't seen the movie, I have located the spoilers here, away from the rest of the review for your convenience to avoid. If you have seen the movie, read on, and I ironically apologize for the inconvenience.

Spoiler #1 - The secondary plot has to do with Jane being infected with a substance which Malekith needs to succeed in his plan. The whole second act revolves around Thor and Co. trying to get it out of her while still keeping it away from Malekith. This plot was way more interesting and involving than the main one, and it resolved awesomely with Loki playing for the bad side, but really for the good side, but really for his own side.

Spoiler #2 - In the end Jane tinkering with her data-collecting Earth technology is the key to ruining Malekith's plan thousands of years in the making, which really brings the epic climatic levels down a lot.

Spoiler #3 - He puts his death scene at the end of the second act, and even though he didn't really die, he doesn't appear again, and the third act suffers the loss. And while I'm on the subject -- the death scene wasn't traumatic enough, so as soon as they walked away from the body and cracked a joke, I knew he was fine.

Spoiler #4 - When he hangs Mjolnir on the coat rack -- brilliant.

Spoiler #5 - When Loki turns into Cap. I did not see that coming and it was great -- in fact that entire scene was hilarious.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Way, Way Back

Wow -- that was an incredible movie.

Such is the only thought I could muster once the credits rolled on this long-awaited movie. Let's see if I can create some longer, more coherent thoughts and opinions on why it's so incredible.

Duncan (Liam James) is going to be spending his entire summer in a beachfront cottage, and he's miserable about it. See, the cottage belongs to his mom Pam's (Toni Collette) boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) who's overbearing and insulting in an underhandedly "well-meaning" way. He waits for Pam to be asleep before he tells Duncan, as he sits in "the way, way back" rear-facing seat of the station wagon that he thinks on a scale of 1 to 10, he ranks a 3, and callously encourages him to improve. Trent's daughter Steph is even less subtle in her disdain. Trent's friend Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet) are obnoxious and patronizing. Then there's the neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney) with her rude, unfiltered mouth, her weird son Peter with a lazy eye, and sullen but pretty daughter Susanna, (AnnaSophia Robb) who just seems to bring out all the most embarrassing awkwardness in Duncan. Beachfront or no, this is looking like the beginning of an awful summer.

How to be miserable while on a yacht 101: Ridiculous life-vests.

To escape, Duncan bikes around town on a little pink bike and happens upon exactly what he desperately needs: Sam Rockwell. Owen is a fun-loving, full-time jokester and manager of Water Wizz, and most importantly, the direct opposite of Trent. Even though he never overlooks an opportunity to poke fun, he gives Duncan a job, and along with other water park employees Caitlin (Maya Rudolph) and Roddy and Lewis, (Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, also co-writers and directors) makes him begin to feel comfortable, welcome, and at home. So maybe this summer won't be complete torture after all.

Roddy, Owen, Duncan and Caitlin ready to procrastinate.

Okay, so that was a nice, short plot summary -- now where to start? How about with the spot-on and simply amazing writing and directing from Faxon and Rash -- their overall story in general is never ground-breaking or very original, I'd say it's a very classic indie coming-of-age plot, and I wouldn't say it's a bad thing, but it doesn't matter because the story goes way beyond ridiculous trappings like trying to be "original" and instead focuses on being actually meaningful, and honest. In that, it's wonderfully successful, and from it comes a surprising amount of originality. (How paradoxical!) Based partially on the writers' childhood memories, every situation has a sense of familiarity, particularly the awkward and painful moments, as we unfortunately all know the glory of an awkward stage. There's also a wonderful balance of sharp, brilliant comedy and potent, unforced drama, and we get a nice, hard look at human nature.

I also love how realistically the scenes flow, especially group scenes like this one.

The characters are perfectly fleshed out in that not-too-obvious way classic to independent films that I love. Each character is complex and realistic, and (more or less) has their commendable and flawed sides. And even though every one of them appear at first to fit snugly into a stereotype, finding just one word to perfectly describe any of them is difficult. Here is where praise for the writing begins to blend with praise for the acting. With this movie more than most, I realized the teamwork it takes to create such great characters, and Faxon and Rash were obviously very lucky and scored and all-around brilliant cast who enhanced their great characters in the most complementary way to the writing possible.

This lady, Allison Janney, is one prime example.

Duncan is basically the epitome troubled loner introvert hiding in a tightly closed shell, and Liam James embodies him impeccably, with pitiful awkwardness and slumped shoulders. It's impressive acting anyway for a fifteen-year-old, but I find it even more impressive considering the vast difference between this role and playing the younger version of class-clown Shawn Spencer in Psych for four years. When he left the show to get into films, I thought it was an ignorant move; I was wrong. Even with all those well-seasoned older actors constantly surrounding him and in spite of his character being such a wallflower, he still consistently holds the spotlight of our attention and affection.

I still think he was the best "little Shawn" though.

The only one who really distracts us from Duncan is the ever-incredible Mr. Rockwell. The great thing (or one of many, anyway) about Sam Rockwell -- and therefore Owen too -- is that he can be the most immature goof-off, spewing a relentless torrent of wise-cracks and punch lines, each more sharp and hilarious than the last, but when it's time to be serious, he's equally amazing, trading in his goofy immaturity for some somber and kind sincerity. Owen is the main source of the best and most consistently funny comedy I've seen in a long time, but he's also a part of the most compelling and heartfelt moments of the film.

This guy never ceases to amaze me.

Also worth a quick mention: Allison Janney is the next person in line to scene-steal with sharp comedy, and she does get away with a few, but in order to really appreciate her performance, watch her in an interview first or something -- otherwise you'll think she's naturally that way. Toni Collette is exactly as wonderful as Pam as you would expect her to be if you've seen her before. She plays the struggling single mother exceptionally well. And I don't hold the popular opinion that Steve Carell is a classically "likeable guy," I more appreciate his ability to be a funny jerk than a charming everyman, but still I felt shocked at how awful his character was being, and he did it horribly -- amazingly -- well. AnnaSophia Robb hit my "serious actress" radar with her role; Amanda Peet was very simply a perfect bit of casting, and Maya Rudolph had a cute dynamic going with Rockwell.

Really though, with a movie set at an awesome water park, you just can't go wrong!

Still, add up all these positives I've mentioned and it still comes short of how much I love this movie. I think what I'm leaving out are many wonderful, small, or seemingly insignificant details (some of which I cannot mention due to spoilers) that made this movie everything I was hoping and predicting it'd be. I love the subtlety in the movie with its straightforward pace, always from Duncan's perspective, and its simple scenes that understand that very often silence can be much more effective than even the best dialogue. The nostalgic vintage feel, the awesome soundtrack, or even tinier things, like that fact that no one uses cell phones, or that Susanna dresses a tinge more modestly than her "friends," all add a little to the wonder of the film. Then there's the last ten minutes or so -- a nine-digit budget and all the special effects in the world won't buy you an ending with a heart like that, plain and simple.

Jumping back to that awesome soundtrack I mentioned... Here is its best song -- or my favorite at least -- it's featured in its entirety in the film, matches it perfectly, and has a great set of lyrics: Power Hungry Animals by The Apache Relay.

But after ALL that, I still think my first thought sums it up the best...

Wow. What an incredible movie.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Upcoming Movie Roundup -- November

Ender's Game
Nov 1, PG-13
The first of two movies based on books releasing this month that interested me into reading the stories before their movies came out. This one caught my attention with it's cast full of favorites; Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin, and after reading the book (which I recommend -- it was very good) my interest has been holding steady. Since it came out today I already know what critics generally think. They say it's not quite as good as the book, but still faithful to it. So I'll probably enjoy it and forgive any little slip-ups, but I'm hoping the visual side will be spectacular if nothing else. I'm already sure the acting will be great though -- with a cast like that, it could hardly be otherwise. Definitely seeing this. The only question is, "when?"

Thor: The Dark World
Nov 8, PG-13
Finally Loki gets his own movie... What? Never mind that title! Okay, okay, so Chris Hemsworth is still the title hero here. And we all know for sure that the Ninth Doctor, Chrisopher Eccleston is the baddie, Malekith. So the question is, which side will Tom Hiddleston's Loki fall to this time? Mostly I'm just worried he won't make it to the end alive... But, besides my pessimistic fangirly conjecture, this movie is looking great -- visually and scope-wise, several steps above the first, with an intriguing plot (particularly for Loki fans) and promises of lots and lots of action, drama, and comedy. I doubt we'll see anything groundbreaking though... besides Thor's hammer in many cool action sequences that is. Hugely anticipated, absolutely-must-see, and I expect very much to love it.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Nov 22, PG-13
Do I even really need to say anything? This looks crazy good. Crazy. I loved the first one, and I'm prepared to love this one even more. The trailer looks fantastic, breath-taking, and everything seems to be in order for this to be one of the biggest blockbusters of the year. The returning cast led by Jennifer Lawrence promises to be better than ever, and the and the new characters appear to be adapted flawlessly. I have one tiny reservation, and that is Sam Claflin as Finnick... I have yet to be impressed with his acting skills, but, I cannot deny he looks the part, and movies like Pirates 4 and Snow White and the Huntsman aren't exactly where you'd expect to find great acting anyway, so I'm hopeful. All I can do now is wait with anxious excitement. And maybe read the book one more time...

Nov 27, PG
This movie reminds me very much of Tangled. Which is what they were going for I'm sure. (The titles are even similar.) So if you've read my review of Tangled you know that I love it, but you'll also know that I had absolutely no desire to see it based on it's horribly boring and stupid first trailer. That's pretty much the case here, except that now that I know the movie will likely be better than the trailer, I'm more willing to reserve judgement. Starring Kristen Bell, with the awesome Idina Menzel and Alan Tudyk, with a plot that mixes Disney Princesses with Narnia (eternal winter anyone?) and cheesiness and apparently a love triangle, (and the strangest "animal" sidekick EVER) it looks almost unbearably silly, but I can still hope this animation flick will follow in Rapunzel's footsteps.

Bonus: Television!

Almost Human
Series Premiere: Nov 4th
One of New Zealand's finest, Karl Urban stars in this new FOX series set in a futuristic world where cop are assigned robots for partners. And Karl is ah... a Renaissance man -- he doesn't like robots, ever since they were the cause of his human partner's death and his own robotic leg. So he gets assigned to a weird one that acts like a regular, emotional human (Michael Ealy). Do you get it? They're both almost human. Since this is a FOX series I'll try to not let myself get too attached, but in my opinion, Karl Urban in a weekly futuristic crime drama is a must-see.
Note: Well, the premiere date was the 4th, but now is pushed back to the 17th (Sun, after football to draw in more viewers) with the next episode in its normal slot on the 18th. They're calling it a "2-night series premiere."

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special: The Day of The Doctor
Nov 23rd
Matt Smith and the Eleventh Doctor say "goodbye." David Tennant and Billie Piper say "hello again," (and "did you miss me?" for extra awesome. (Oh, yes.)) and then "goodbye again" as the Tenth Doctor and Rose. And Jenna Coleman as Clara says "hello" to Peter Capaldi as Twelve (hopefully). I don't know what John Hurt is gonna be doing, or saying. And I don't know what the plot is gonna be. But I am way beyond excited. But also way beyond dreading, because Sarah will have to say "goodbye" to her two favorite Doctors at once, and she's not sure she can handle it. She might be going crazy already -- she's talking about herself in the third person...

What are you most excited to see this month?