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The Road to The Avengers: Thor

Chris Hemsworth as Thor facing off against The Destroyer

“I have no plans to die today”

Up till Thor’s release Marvel Studios had eschewed the more fantastical elements of its characters/worlds for a realistic vibe. They were plausible…well Iron Man  sort of was; but they each felt part of a recognisable world. The Incredible Hulk was a monster movie but the character was familiar enough for audiences not to question it. Thor was a different proposition: how do you fit a god and space bridges into the Marvel canon and keep it grounded?

The characters and setting of Asgard are outlandish, absolutely separate from the real world aesthetics that Iron Man and, to a lesser extent, The Incredible Hulk created. Perhaps, like the previous Marvel films, the reason it works because of an emphasis on character rather than action.

That doesn’t mean it skimps on the action but it isn’t the film’s major concern. If the film’s faults lie in scale of the action (smaller than the setting implies); the way the action sequences are directed (functional) and a story that may not feel as grand as it should be, then those concerns are valid. For me it’s the conflict between Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki that’s the film’s most interesting aspect and what draws me back into the film than any preconceived notions of what it should/could have been.

Having written at length about what I liked about the film already (so, so long ago), I won’t bother repeating myself in any great detail. In short Thor’s an very likable film that doesn’t suffer from the Iron Man films’ weak third acts, and, emotionally, has a stronger sense of purpose than any of previous Marvel Studios films. Most of it is down to the trifecta of Hemsworth, Hiddleston and Anthony Hopkin’s Odin, a family thrown into tumult when Thor commits an act of stupidity and threatens to re-ignite the war between the Asgardians’ foe the Frost Giants.

Banished from Asgard (by way of a quite literal dressing down) Thor is sent to learn about humility and sacrifice as a lesson for his brash arrogance. Along the way he meets Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Darcy (comic relief Kat Dennings) and finds a place along humanity.

It’s another redemption story in the vein of Iron Man but it doesn’t lose its energy in the final third because of the relationships established in the film’s opening half-hour. S.H.I.E.L.D is still a bit of a dick but they don’t come across as annoying or as incongruous as they once did in Iron Man 2 (which wasn’t bad itself, just came across as trying to fit too many pieces into the puzzle). In Loki Marvel had its best villain so far, one that did not offer a physical threat to Thor’s strength but functioned as a trickster who schemes and manoeuvres pieces into place, an aspect of his character that worked well in The Avengers.

For my two cents (pennies?) Thor was the most entertaining of the films leading up to The Avengers. It’s funny, likable and felt like the most rounded of the films to date: it had some scope (though not as much as some wanted), a very good score by Patrick Doyle and visually, despite some glaring imperfections, was vibrant and imaginative. It set the benchmark for future films in the Marvel Studios universe.

8/10

[Despite all the kerfuffle pre-release about the colour of the character, Idris Elba’s Heimdall almost steals the film from Hemsworth and Hiddleston. It also puts down a marker for future characters to not be bound by race. Hurrah!]

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Review: Anonymous

Rhys Ifans in Anonymous

You are the soul of the age… Undeniable perfection that plagued my soul.

Given that director Roland Emmerich is more famous for blowing up The White House and other cultural landmarks, the combination of his aesthetics to a drama – the theory that the Earl of Oxford penned Shakespeare’s plays – is initially off-putting.  Regardless of whether you believe the theory has a grain of truth, Emmerich turns in a story that’s engaging and far smarter than his previous work would suggest, making Anonymous a film that’s more entertaining than it has any reason to be.

Set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1st, the film actually begins in modern-day New York theatre with Derek Jacobi (as himself) suggesting there’s more to Shakespeare and his works that meets the eye. The hint of theatricality in this moment presents the rest of the film with a larger-than-life, can’t-possibly-be-true sort of vibe; a story that’s a bit like the BBC’s The Tudors: full of machinations, sedition and power struggles that, again, you wouldn’t normally expect from the ‘Master of Disaster’ Emmerich.

Anonymous gives itself a few problems however. The script by Josh Orloff initially sets up three strands, spread over several decades flitting between each one and causing a momentary pause as you remember which period you’re in and who, exactly, is plotting what. It soon congeals into something comprehensible and from then on the film acts as a sort of ‘what-if?’ or alternative timeline, building an interesting story that turns Shakespeare’s prose into the kind of language that could influence a population and incite a war. The power of the Shakespeare/Oxford’s written word is aligned with Emmerich’s visual grip, attempting to persuade the viewer to at least question The Bard’s eminence.

It’s that theatricality that probably makes the film a little less effective, sensationalising fictional moments that take away from the interesting ideas embedded into Orloff’s script (even if, in true Shakespeare fashion, its full of carnal desires and twists). Still, the performances are very good, notably Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson (in a piece of spot-on casting) as both the old and young Queen Elizabeth: a vain, needy and temperamental monarch who thinks with her heart rather than her head. Rhys Ifans is also particularly good as Edward de Vere, the man the film posits as being the writer of Shakespeare’s texts.

So Anonymous is better than you would think, not really deserving of the battering critics dished out to it and functioning as one of Emmerich’s more interesting and under-appreciated films.

7/10

Review: The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games

May the odds be ever in your favor.

Adapting Suzanne Collin’s book, The Hunger Games is never as good as it could and really should be. Despite the hoopla over it, Gary Ross’ direction and co-writers Billy Ray and Collin’s script result in a sanitised version of the book.

The Hunger Games is a gladiatorial contest shown on television where each of the twelve districts ‘offers’ one male and female between the ages of 12 and 18. This acts as remembrance of the conflict that almost destroyed the nation of Panem and as a sign of The Capitol’s strength (think classically styled Rome).

During the reaping for the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen’s sister, Prim, is called out to be the district’s tribute; in an act of sacrifice Katniss volunteers in her place. She and fellow tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcheson) will be up against 22 other competitors who will be vying to kill them.

I have bones to pick with this film so i’ll try to whittle down my grievances, but the film is a shadow of the book. It condenses and expands the games and roles of several characters but ultimately simplifies the source, stripping it of complexity and perhaps in its worst move, de-emphasises the violence on screen throughout. Violence shouldn’t be glamorized but it should go hand in hand with the point you’re making and I’m not sure what Gary Ross’ point is.

The first hour is okay, wasting little time in setting up Katniss and the world of District 12. It’s when the games start that the changes become apparent and few of them enhance the story.

A prime example is Donald Sutherland’s President Snow. His presence is felt but not really seen, padded out to give the viewer a villain it can heckle. It attempts to make the film accessible and softens its edges, distilling the viewers’ ire into one character instead of the Capitol and its people.

Its lack of complexity stretches to its characters, who aren’t given the depth they deserve. The film is told from Katniss’ perspective but rarely questions her hypocritical stance on murder. The other contestants are thin, barely glimpsed and lucky to get a word in. The career districts are turned into cackling villains, stripped of their humanity, the film asking the audience to take sides, which turns a moral grey area into an easier to digest black and white one.

I haven’t even started on the shaky cam aesthetic. The effect of the contestant deaths has (rightly or wrongly) been reduced so you can’t tell what’s going on. Imagine your older sibling holding their hands over your eyes when you were kid and that’s the exact effect Tom Stern’s cinematography has here.

What’s good about The Hunger Games? Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is good (not phenomenal, just good) guiding the viewer through a world that’s strange and, at times, threatening. However, while her version of Katniss may not have the constant anxiety, paranoia and indecision her literary counterpart has.

Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinkett is spot on, her gaudy appearance and optimistic attitude a sign of just how far removed the Capitol is from reality. The same applies for Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman. Lenny Kravitz as Katniss’ stylist Cinna has a few moments; Harrelson’s Haymitch is not quite the boorish malcontent he is in the book.

Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is on the periphery and Josh Hutcheson’s Peeta is a character whose head you never really get into. The same goes for the relationships in the film: the book pads them out, here the film races through, giving few reasons to be emotionally invested in the outcome of anybody.

The Hunger Games loses a lot of the complexities and Orwellian mood the book evoked. I’m genuinely surprised at the praise that’s received. Whether you’re an avid reader of the books or someone completely fresh to it, The Hunger Games never really suffices as an intelligent adaptation. Disappointing.

5/10

Review: 21 Jump Street

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum in 21 Jump Street

Hey Korean Jesus.

Based on a TV show that never made its way to British shores, 21 Jump Street is an unknown quantity. Whatever uniqueness or novelty 21 Jump Street had in its premise of cops working undercover in high schools disappears under a wave of familiar 80’s action tropes and a predictable script. If you’re looking for a good two hours at the cinema then 21 Jump Street fits the bill, but beyond the jokes there’s little here that’s fresh despite the film’s attempts to subvert expectations.

Tatum’s Jenko and Hill’s Schmidt first meet in high school where Jenko is a dim, popular jock who teases Eminem-but-fatter-looking Schmidt. When they reunite at the police academy they put their differences aside and become best friends. Believing their life as cops will be full of car chases and shoot-outs, they’re stationed to park duty and given bicycles instead of patrol cars. When a drug-related bust goes wrong they get their asses sent to 21 Jump Street, a program that recruits officers to solve crimes in schools. Their first case is to bust a drug ring that’s supplying synthetic drugs to teenagers.

The biggest problem with 21 Jump Street is its story. The performances, humour and action within are decent but the script structure is formulaic. Arguably that’s the point as 21 Jump Street looks to scrutinise the action-buddy comedy, though it all happens in a terribly predictable fashion. With directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), there’s a wacky sense of humour and energy brought to the direction but the script (credited to Michael Bacall) is bereft of invention.

Even though it reverses the roles of Tatum and Hill once they go undercover, the direction of the story never surprises (there’s some sort of comfort in that) and characters react to the big emotional beats in a manner that’s similar to every other comedy for the last fifteen years. You’re absolutely sure of the outcome and the film never once tries to dispel that.

It has moments that work really well, especially when Jenko and Schmidt try to gain some cred with their retro humour. The duo’s sense of humour and worth in the social strata of high school are totally upended on the first day. They’re out of their elements and part of the film’s charm is seeing how they adapt and struggle to their new lives. Both characters get to see the other side of school life that they weren’t privy to before and, as you do in school, learn something from the experience.

Tatum shows more of the comedic chops he displayed in The Dilemma; giving Jenko a dumb jock presence (his meltdown at a music recital is brilliant). Hill gets saddled with a role that inflates his character’s ego and as a result turns him into a dick. The script drives a wedge between Jenko and Schmidt that feels very contrived and unnecessary. The rest of the cast are good, special mentions should go to gym teacher Rob Riggle who knocks it out the park with his acerbic performance and Ice Cube as the belligerent Captain Dickson.

So while the gag rate is comfortably high, 21 Jump Street could have done with a better, less transparent story. Its off-kilter humour saves the day, giving the film a tone that’s not bound to realistic expectations. Surprises are few and far between but 21 Jump Street is just about crazy enough and endearing.

6/10

Review: Safe House

Image

Remember rule number one: you are responsible for your house guest.

Safe House is a copy and it’s inferior imitation. Still, it’s enjoyable, even if it is derivative, coming across as a synthesis of 24 and The Bourne trilogy but nowhere near as innovative. Safe House’s biggest flaw is that it doesn’t have an original bone in its body.

Ryan Reynolds is Matt Weston, an inexperienced agent who’s stuck twiddling his thumbs at a safe house in Cape Town. When Denzel Washington’s rogue CIA agent Tobin Frost turns himself in to the US consulate and is transported to the safe house, all hell breaks loose when a hit team tries to kill him. Weston and Frost escape but the former’s allegiance to the CIA is tested when he’s marginalised by his superiors as he tries to keep Frost under control.

It’s not a hugely original plot, the twist and turns the story takes are conventional and the roles don’t really stretch the talents of Reynolds and Washington. Despite the David Guggenheim’s script appearing on the 2010 Black List, what it excels at is taking all the tropes from better action films and embedding them into one story.

The lack of interesting ideas spreads to the cast who are weighed down by clichés and stereotypes. The villain is obvious once you give it some thought, the real mystery is why they bothered to keep it a secret. Washington is, as always, good, his natural charisma creating a character that’s always in charge; always one step ahead of everyone else. Reynolds is fine, holding his own against Washington in the scenes the two actors share but he’s saddled by a pointless romance subplot.

The real star is the location of Cape Town, giving the film a look and feel that’s fresh. The action on the other hands is borrowed wholesale from the Bourne films and implemented in an almost dizzying array of quick cuts. The best thing to say about the action is that it’s not as bad as other films, but it’s getting to the point where someone needs to get the director, cinematographer or editor to take a sedative and calm down. These frenzied sequences don’t have the effect of putting the viewer in the scene unless it’ replicating an almighty seizure.

So Safe House is entertaining but it disappoints in how low its ambitions, a by-the-numbers action film that’ll be probably forgotten very soon.

6/10

Review: The Change-Up

Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds in The Change-Up

Is it weird I miss your penis?

Comedies are a difficult thing to execute. Not only do they have to be funny, they have to hold up on repeat viewings. The Change-Up is hilarious the first time and less so a second.

The premise sees Dave Lockwood (Jason Bateman) as a married man with two kids and a stressful job. Mitch Planko (Ryan Reynolds) is Dave’s best friend; a lazy man-child who screws anything and has a father (Alan Arkin) who disapproves of him.

One night, after a round of drinks, they piss into a fountain wishing they had each other’s lives and that wish is granted the next morning.

It’s not the most original concept, but The Change-Up at least takes it in a different direction by making it filthy, raucous and depraved, stretching the low-brow humour of the Bridesmaids toilet scene to a whole film.

The Change-Up loves its filth, taking any opportunity to (literally) shit in someone’s mouth. Reynolds’ Mitch is a confident, insensitive man with little self-awareness. Bateman’s Dave is a workaholic and when they switch it causes them to reassess their priorities with both of them realising their selfish ways.

That soft centre exists can jar, especially in a film in which has a character stick a finger up a someone’s ass or Leslie Mann‘s excruciatingly noisy trip to the toilet then. The Change-Up’s sense of humour doesn’t sit too well with its more maudlin moments. It’s syrupy and hackneyed in places, but it’s fun if you share its silly sense of humour.

It’s no surprise to see that this film is from the scribes of The Hangover Part II, the sequel that mined Bangkok for every lazy joke it could. This film doesn’t turn its characters into irritating idiots but it does share its affinity for nudity, broad cultural jokes and a redemptive storyline that’s visible from years away. If you like depraved antics, The Change-Up is definitely your kind of comedy. If you want something smarter, head in any other direction.

6/10

Review: Super 8

Stop talking about production value, the Air Force is going to kill us.

Super 8 has several things going for it but it also has a few problems namely that monster. At times it felt estranged from the plot of the film and re-watching J.J Abrams homage to 80s Amblin films hasn’t resolved that but it is less bothersome than before.

Super 8 is a little too self-referential and confused in its attempts to tie all its emotional strands together, but it’s a likeable piece of work and in J.J. Abrams it has a director with visual flair. It works more often than it doesn’t.

Borrowing from Spielberg’s 80s output, Super 8 follows Joel Courtney’s Joe, son of the deputy sheriff (Kyle Chandler) and on the receiving end of a tragedy when his mother dies in an accident.

The film picks the story up a few months later when Joe’s shooting a super 8 movie with his friends. One night they witness a train crash and soon after people start to disappear and strange occurrences plague the town they try to uncover the truth about what was on the train.

Like Spielberg’s work it features grief, absent fathers, a distrust of authority with a touch of the fantastical, but I’m not sure Abrams puts these elements together in satisfactory manner. Without spoiling, there’s an emotional beat towards the end that merges Joe’s story with the alien subplot but it doesn’t feel merited or justified. It absolutely apes the more tearful moments from ET but the depth of that feeling is shallow in comparison.

However, like a lot of Abram’s films, there’s a snappiness to the editing, funny dialogue (“I know that you don’t like me and I’m sorry about that”) and a great chemistry among the cast. (Elle Fanning is the standout). His mystery box method of telling a story isn’t quite the best fit for the story, but yhe characters are earnest and endearing and going back to Spielberg, Abram’s realises that what sells is building believable world and Super 8 creates a convincing one.

It’s when the monster appears and the mystery is revealed that things start to drift. What was good at in its first-half (relationships) is dropped for most of the climax which is disapointing. The visual effects for the monster is poor though, and the father/son, father/daughter drama that drove the early parts of the film is not resolved in an adequate manner – it just ends.

So Super 8 isn’t the match of Spielberg but is good enough in its own right. Had it managed to build up more suspense and add more substance to the story it could have been even better.

7/10

Review: Drive

Ryan Gosling in Drive

I don’t sit in while you’re running it down. I don’t carry a gun. I drive.

Inspired by ouevre of Michael Mann, Drive is economical in its story and its characters, in an age of cinema where bigger is better Nicholas Winding Refn has created a love letter to 80s crime movies like Thief and To Live and Die in LA.

Much of the film’s success is down to Refn’s direction and Ryan Gosling’s performance as the distant Driver. It’s a slow-paced film with little action and small, sharp bursts of bloodletting. Drive is a film that comes close to being too much style over substance. Nonetheless the style showcased here makes for a dreamy fairy tale that’s lit in neon and is more memorable for the moods it evokes than anything it says, or, in the case of Driver, doesn’t say.

Drive opens in the midst of night-time robbery, setting the film’s mood of the film and its lead character. Gosling’s Driver is unflappable, defined by his consummate ease and lack of worry. He only speaks when he has something to say, which is a microcosm of the film as a whole. It barely wastes a moment on conveying how Driver’s life implodes after he tangles with his next door neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) and ‘businessman’ Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks).

Brooks is best known for his comedic work, but he uproots that image here with an uncompromising gangster who, like other characters, is economical in his actions, exposing any weaknesses in the people he meets.

Like the cars that Driver mends and drives, Refn’s film is a polished one. Thomas Newton Siegel’s natural lighting of scenes help ground it and the electronic score from composer Cliff Martinez works well too. Like those films made before the inception of CGI, Drive has a cast-iron focus on character and tone and not action and explosions.

Drive isn’t an easy film to describe or pigeon-hole (Neo-noir? Western? Fairy tale!?) but it is full of fantastic sequences and a terrific soundtrack. Refn’s previous films were a little dull and opaque, but here he strikes a more interesting combination of tone and aesthetic. Drive is the type of to watch and get lost in.

8/10

Review: This Means War

Tom Hardy and Chris Pine in This Means War

May the best man win

Critically pilloried upon its release, This Means War should come with a note that says ‘I’m not as bad as you think’ because it really isn’t as bad as its critical reception suggests. Nor does it fulfill its potential either and that’s down to inconsistent characters and a forgettable third act that deflates the film like a punctured tyre.

Pitched as a buddy comedy mixed with Mr and Mrs Smith thrown in, This Means War follows two best friends FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) as they fall in love with the same girl Lauren (Reese Witherspoon). They also happen to be working for the CIA and once they realise they’re going out with the same girl they duke it out for her attention. May the best man win etc, etc.

There’s a villain in arms dealer Henrich (Til Schweiger) but the film is unconcerned with his actions for the most part. Instead it’s interested in pratfalls, misunderstandings and ‘boys will be boys’ mentality, skewing logic and doing whatever it feels like. That approach works in the middle act as Pine and Hardy use agency assets to try and best one another and it’s this section that feels the strongest , as the film becomes more and more ludicrous, with a paintball scene that’s the strongest, funniest moment the film has.

It’s broad, loud and wacky; the silly atmosphere working for it rather than against until its more clichéd parts hover into view. The film knows what it is and has no aspirations higher than giddy fun.

It wants to be a disposable, forgettable two-hour flick and succeeds just that. Pine and Hardy make for a decent combination but even they can’t make these stock characters entirely believable. The whole cast play hackneyed characters (Chelsea Handler is the abrasive sister to Witherspoon who offers shaky advice), and the ‘seen it done before’ haze starts to materialise before long.

And now we come to the film’s perceived fault, McG. While I’ve never been fond of his filmmaking, his films haven’t been eye-gougingly bad; just populist entertainment that borrows from better films and lacks an imagination. While he keeps This Means War breezy, he’s never as convincing in other areas. His copy-cat nature extends to action which is akin to taking the camera and kicking it about like most derivative ‘shaky cam’ films.

The quick cuts and flurry of limbs is almost indecipherable and annoying. It’s sloppy and in terms of characters he’s just as sloppy. His inattention to the narrative gives the film some baffling character moments with one scene just flat-out absurd, the one glaring moment where the writers/McG make a hash of things and go for movie logic instead of common sense.

It still retains a sense of fun and while it’s lacking in grand thrills (the last action sequence is perfunctory) and it gets by by not trying very hard. It’s silly, undemanding fun and would make for a good date film.

6/10

Worst films of the year 2010

Initially I was going to write a top ten but decided against as there weren’t enough movies to put on my (dis)honourable list.  Instead they are twelve, twelve films that didn’t cut the mustard, films that bored or were tragically flawed and films in which very little entertainment could be gained. For all those reasons and more these are, in my mind, the worst films that I saw last year. Read the rest of this entry

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