Archive for June, 2011

Thor

June 30, 2011

Thor – Dir: Kenneth Branagh; *ing: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston

It’s hammer time!


Have you ever noticed that a lot of comic book superheroes are associated in name with things often rather mundane? There are the creepy crawlies/stupid critters variety – spider, bat, panther, squirrel (yes, there is indeed a Squirrel Girl on Marvel’s ever burgeoning roster) – and there are also the household appliance variety – iron, lantern, torch, cable, and, umm, arrow. In other instances, the creators just seem to have named their heroes after the first words they encounter upon opening up their offspring’s second grade reader – doctor, fantastic, atom, THING. And then you have Thor, which puzzlingly sidesteps these easy categories, what with its Norse mumbo jumbo mythological pedigree and name that sounds like one of those text sound effects from the old Batman comics – Ka-pow! Zzzzwap! Thor! So the prospect of a movie version didn’t exactly feel like the greatest thing since sliced, toasted and buttered bread. At least not until I realized I was confusing the poor dear with Hagar the Horrible. That clarification helps somewhat, for Thor is just a teeny bit more super than the other superheroes, in that he isn’t, say, a laundromat mogul who likes to dress up as a rodent in order to fight street thugs; no, he’s a god, that’s right, a flipping god, who comes from a race of gods, and who has in his possession the super cool and crazy-powerful Mjollnir – the hammer of the gods. Of course with this sort of premise, there comes the inevitable faint whiff of cheese which you don’t necessarily want spread on your metaphorical cinematic cracker.

So fear not and rest assured, for Thor quite miraculously forgoes the allure of the fromage and instead delivers a rather sumptuous spread – of fast food, yes, but as prepared by a gourmet chef. The chef in question just happens to be celebrated Shakespearean actor/director Kenneth Branagh, who, not surprisingly, brings more than a touch of the Bard to this tale of battling brothers and banished would-be heroes. Half of the story takes place in the quasi-medieval parallel world of Asgard, where warrior-tastic King Odin (Hopkins) has defeated the race of creatures known as the Frost Giants (yes, they sound like something out of a Roald Dahl kiddie book, but scoff not, they’re fabulously conceived and rendered). Tapped to be his heir is brash, blond, hammer-happy babe fodder Thor (Hemsworth), while dark-haired son Loki (Hiddleston) broods on the sidelines. As it turns out though, Thor is just a tad too hung up on his own awesomeness and when his arrogance leads to a breach in Asgard’s defence against the sulking ice army, he is banished to Earth by Odin and stripped of the Mjollnir, having been told that only a suitably humble and truly heroic god is worthy of possessing it. Once stranded on the lonely planet, the anachronistic-sounding deity has to enlist the aid of breathless scientist Jane Foster (Portman) and friends, to find his way back, and that too before Loki-gone-loco ends up destroying his home world with his shenanigans.

Thor’s strength as a film lies in the fact that it is consistently entertaining and doesn’t flinch from deriving fun out of its main character’s Baywatch-ness; the stranger-in-a-strange-land flavour of Thor’s earthly exploits are bloody good fun and Hemsworth plays them terribly well – he is certainly a star in the making, if he isn’t one already that is. As director, Branagh wisely strikes a pleasing balance between the moments of levity and gravity, with Hiddleston’s Loki providing a wonderfully dark though strangely sympathetic counterpoint to the more broadly painted Thor. Visually, too, the film is a veritable feast. In today’s post-Avatar CGI/3D landscape, it can’t be easy to create something that still dazzles and intrigues, but Thor manages to do so, especially with Asgard’s wondrous Rainbow Bridge (okay, okay, so that too sounds more Sesame Street than God of War, but it’s still mightily impressive). Altogether, Thor does Marvel proud.

Squirrel Girl, your day is nigh.

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Priest

June 30, 2011

Priest – Dir: Scott Stewart; *ing: Paul Bettany, Karl Urban, Maggie Q, Lily Collins, Cam Gigandet, Stephen Moyer

Blade bummer…
Paul Bettany, you are an incredibly hot man and a terrific actor to boot, so why on earth are you slumming it in Scott Stewart’s pseudo-Blade Runner/Man With No Name post-apocalyptic crap fests like Legion and Priest?!?!

Pardon, I wasn’t supposed to begin with this angsty primal scream moment but it is teeth-gnashingly frustrating when some actors seem hell-bent on squandering their talent in material that is best left scraped off on the edge of a pavement. Nicolas Cage is guilty of it, and De Niro has been pulling it for years now, to name only two, but it never gets easier on a filmgoer’s soul to see a beloved thespian ham it up, chew scenery, and generally just sign over his 21 grams to Lucifer, without so much as a ‘I’m doing it for the cash, okay?’ With an actor like Bettany it is all the more mortifying because, unlike Cage and De Niro, he is not yet a star and so can scarcely afford to louse up his chances. And yet he goes ahead and does it. Again.

Here, he plays the titular man of the cloth whose job description involves more than just taking confession and dishing out penance; namely, he’s a preternaturally gifted assassin, one among an elite army, hand-picked by the church to seek out and vanquish the world’s feral vampire population whom, in this alternate universe, humanity has been battling for centuries. When the film picks up the story, the pale toothy ones have already been permanently disposed of, and the band of clerical warriors has been, well, disbanded, and sent into forced retirement to live out the rest of their days in obscurity. Yeah, that’s what you get for saving the world’s ass from a righteous amount of neck chewing. But when Priest’s niece (Collins) is abducted and his family slaughtered (including True Blood’s main vamp Stephen Moyer in a bit of hokey stunt-casting) by what appears to be a bunch of re-emerged, rogue vamps, led by the supposedly mysterious Black Hat (Urban), the raspy voiced one defies church orders in order to a) rescue the girl, b) kick some serious vampire behind, and c) blatantly eke out a set-up that pretty much screams ‘sequel’.

You can be forgiven for imagining that the religious vein of the scenario must mean that themes of faith – or the lack thereof – and loyalty and church vs. man are explored herein; however, it seems, that the minds behind Priest aren’t as interested in subtexts exploring crises of faith and morality, as they are in exploring, well, vampire innards, varieties of blood spatter formations, and all the ways in which the vicious-looking villains can still be made to look like meowing kittens in the face of Priest’s magnificent proficiency with a flying fist and furrowed brow. I mean really, those vamps don’t stand a chance if Black Hat is the best, most badass one they’ve got; Priest can out-glower that wimp with one eye tied behind his back. And that’s just one of the myriad problems with the film: you never get the feeling that there is anything really big at stake (no pun intended), Priest will take care of it, man, no sweat – read: yawn. Couple that with some of the most god-awful dialogue committed to film in recent memory, and you have the makings of what is surely destined to be a future classic of the ‘so bad it’s good variety’. And it really does not help matters that in an age when we the audience are used to seeing vampires as pasty-faced, brooding hunks of sex on legs, Priest gives us vamps that look like the unholy spawn of the creature from Alien and an uncooked chicken drumstick.

Mr. Bettany, you need to screen calls from Mr. Stewart.

Mr. Stewart, you need to say a thousand and one Hail Mary’s to atone for this colossal mess of stupidity.

Source Code – A Review

June 30, 2011

Source Code – Dir: Duncan Jones; *ing: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright

Say ‘Sci-fi’ out loud. Go on, say it. What kind of images come to mind? Lumbering robots? Men in black kabukimono-style overcoats moving in bullet-time? A monumental spaceship cruising the final frontier, with perhaps the name ‘Enterprise’ emblazoned on its derriere? If so, then you’re very with it as far as sci-fi filmmaking in the last decade or so is concerned. (If, on the other hand, you pictured a black monolith and a red electronic eye singing ‘Daisy Bell’ in a distorted voice, then congratulations, you are a certifiable film geek stuck in a time warp, so welcome to my world). The genre has remained amazingly popular in the nearly-four decades since Star Wars, even though, it must be admitted, the ‘science’ aspect of it has become, for the most part, increasingly preposterous, while the ‘fiction’ part of it has more often than not sacrificed minor elements like character development and involving plot at the altar of ‘more mind-numbing explosions and cheesy punchlines, please’. So Source Code comes as a shockingly pleasant surprise, for it is an anomaly in these Michael Bay times – a sci-fi film with heart, brain, and, umm, those round things you play tennis with.

So okay, the science part of it is still fairly ludicrous, but by not dwelling on it interminably in order to justify its premise, Source Code acquits itself on that count pretty neatly. Army captain Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) awakens on a Chicago commuter train with no memory of how he got there and with no idea who the pretty woman sitting across from him (Monaghan) and talking to him in a familiar manner is. His confusion is cemented further when he stumbles into the loo and finds a stranger staring back at him in the mirror. There’s barely time to consider that, though, as in the very next moment, the train explodes into a fireball. Cut to Stevens strapped down inside a capsule, again completely disoriented until he is reminded on a closed circuit screen by Officer Goodwin (Farmiga) that he has been assigned the task of reliving the last eight minutes of the life of one of the victims on the train, through the nascent and top-secret technology of source code, in order to find the bomb that blew up the train and also to identify the bomber who has vowed to do worse very soon. Since Stevens was unable to complete the mission on the first go, he must go back again. And again. And again, over and over, as he adapts and changes strategy each time, all the while letting the mystery woman get further and further under his skin, and gradually realizing the enormity, as well as the inherent tragedy of his situation; source code is not time travel, as its creator (Wright) informs Stevens, it’s time re-assignment, which means that even if Stevens prevents the train bomb from going off in the source code timeline, in the ‘actual’ world, that would have no effect and the train would still have exploded, killing all on board, just as in the original event.

Director Jones, who earlier made the similarly mind bending Moon, creates that rarest of creatures here, the intelligent actioner which also takes admirable pains to not let the human angle of the story fall by the wayside; in fact, if anything, the film is more invested in its characters than its plot’s potential for bombast. So it helps that its three leads are played by such extraordinary and likeable actors. Monaghan’s is a guileless, unpretentious presence, while Farmiga is the goddess of the close-up, not only for her luminous beauty but, far more importantly, for her complete command over the instrument that is her delicately expressive face. And Gyllenhaal is the perfect fit as Stevens: manic, edgy, and tough, yet also the vulnerable everyman – it’s a complicated role to carry, but the G man does it with aplomb. Together, the three, along with their director, weave a smart, classy thriller with a soul that’ll leave with more than a few chills.

So the next time someone says sci-fi, think source code.


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