Thor: The Dark World

The God of Thunder returns in a film that features his own world for most of the story. Everyone will discuss how much the movie needs more Loki, and they will be right but it has a variety of other surprises as well. I am a couple of weeks late in getting here but it is an entertaining film and I don’t think there are big secrets out in the webs that would spoil it for anyone.

Four films in one day and I’m too tired and it is too late to complete all the reviews. I will fill in all of them this week.

Now I am finally catching up with the films from last weekend. I am planning on seeing some new things today and I don’t want to be behind.  This is the simplest of the four films to review. If you liked “Thor”, you should like this film. It keeps all the original elements in place and  lets the actors carry on with the parts that they have established. The only exception being Stellan Skarsgård, who’s Erik Selvig gets turned into a figure for comic relief and as a consequence, is undermined when the weapon he has devised is brought into play. 

There was more Anthony Hopkins and Renee Russo in this film and that is an improvement from my point of view. Russo as Thor and Loki’s mother gets a good dramatic story line and appears to fuel the temporary alliance of our two demi-god brothers.  It is not clear what the resolution for Odin’s character means, it was not very clearly explained but that will probably be the basis of the next stand alone Thor movie. It looks for all intents and purposes as if Marvel has managed to succeed in making the films work as part of a collective universe but also maintain their stand alone story lines. I did not feel impressed with the “Dark Elf” antagonists in the film. They were satisfactory but largely cardboard cutouts. Loki remains the key ingredient in making this story of conflicted Prince of Asgard Thor work. 

The movie is much grander than the original film. It features more action in Asgard and other spots in the Universe, as well as more interesting locations on Earth than the desert town found in the first movie. I actually found Natalie Portman to be less annoying in this film as well. She seems to have lightened up a bit about working in a comic book story and that makes the film feel less like it is reaching for grandness and more like it is trying to entertain us.  Tom Hiddleston steals the movie as everybody expected to happen. He plays Loki just right, so at times we can believe him and then at just the right moment, his voice changes, his eyes gleem and we know that we have been suckered in by a trickster. There is a fleeting cameo that got a big laugh in the film and it worked completely for me because it features a character that I like better than almost all the other characters in this Universe. 

So, the movie is big and loud. It has some spectacular set pieces and there are a number of good laughs. None of the material will surprise you or elevate the movie above it’s comic book roots but it will please fans and entertain those who have enough patience with some simplistic story telling. There is plenty of eye candy for the female fans, both Chris Helmsworth and his chiseled look and Tom Hiddleston and his dark eyes will make many fans want a return to the land of the gods in the nine realms. Go and have fun, there will be a new comic book movie in the spring, this one will tide you over until then.  

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

This generation now has the equivalent of an “Empire Strikes Back” moment. The second film in a series, matches and in many ways exceeds the original and it ends in a cliffhanger that will leave the audience breathless in waiting for the next episode. Jennifer Lawrence is a rising star with an Academy Award in her back pocket and a hugely successful movie franchise to back it up. The movie is as creatively successful as it will be financially.

I’m still trying to catch up with the tsunami of movies that we saw last Sunday. The third film we saw was the biggest hit of the weekend and may turn out to be the biggest film of the year. It helps immensely that the movie is actually very good. It is far superior to the “Iron Man” sequels that it will be competing with for top box office honors. This is a young adult series that has not been afraid to tackle some serious issues. From my point of view there is a dangerous parallel between the fascist government in the story and the times we live in. People inside “the Capitol” (read “the Beltway”) see the hinterlands as a source of resources for their own power and status. This is so much like the relationship of the current government to the rest of the country it should come with a political disclaimer. “The Hunger Games” are designed to remind the rebellious that there is a cost to challenging government authority. All the pomp and circumstance is made to be a distraction from the lack of jobs, freedom and hope that everyone is saddled with.

The second film in the series has clearly had an upgrade in budget and scale. The vision of the Capitol city and of the surrounding Districts is much clearer in this film. There is a strong sense of the technology and how it is integrated into the power structures. When the storm troopers arrive in District 12, the whole country gets a brief look at the clash that Katniss has provoked among the proles that have had their necks stood on for 75 years.This is a world ripe for revolt and the snakelike President Snow, recognizes it. His open animosity toward the winners of the games, makes it easier for the rebels to maneuver the star of the games into a position as a figurehead. The politics of the film are as important as the pyrotechnics of the games. Then, you add the games on top of this and the movie becomes entertaining as well as thoughtful. The ability to visualize the challenges of the new games, with their new rules and manner of selecting the tributes, is very praiseworthy. We get a little more insight into the motives of all the districts and we meet the contestants in more detail this time. The fact that many of them are old, middle aged, and still able to find a reason or a way to fight is pretty encouraging. It is another thing that moves this from being a one note love story for tweens into a full fledged science fiction epic.

Katniss is more conflicted in this story. She knows that the games are a death sentence meant for her and the only thing she wants to assure is that her counterpart Peeta survives. One big difference in these games is that the arena is much more focused on eliminating the competitors than they are interested in eliminating each other.  The alliances feel different this time and it turns out there is a reason why. It is not clear how all of the twists are managed but they seem to be leading to a very serious story conclusion that is not light hearted at all. There are a few moments of humor and some moments that provoke sadness but when the end comes, it will arrive with a sharp intake of air from viewers who have not read the books. This is another comparable element to the second “Star Wars” film, things take a turn and they don’t always turn out well.

In reading the books, they declined in my opinion, starting with the strongest and devolving to a climax that felt unsatisfying. I get the feeling that the films are reversing that trend. There is hope that the weak finale of the story can be turned into a more admirable outcome in the films. I don’t expect the story will change but it feels like the story telling is much more controlled and thoughtful. I expect, based on what I have seen in this film, that the plot will be more meaningful and the characters more interesting than they were in the book. I guess I will have to save that pronouncement until we get those last films, but “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”, has me hoping that the film makers can pull it off. 


Dallas Buyers Club

A second great performance by Matthew McConaughey this year and one that is likely to bring him substantial attention. It is a dramatic story about tolerance, AIDS, and FDA bureaucracy. It certainly does not sound like a laugh a minute but there is a great deal of humor in telling the tale and although much of it is of the gallows type, there are a lot of targets that needed to be skewered and this movie goes after them.

 McConaughey plays a drug using, homophobic, redneck rodeo cowboy who gets an unexpected H.I.V. diagnosis. He suddenly has to confront the fact that he has what he would describe as a “gay” mans disease. The social context is now on the other foot and in addition to figuring out how to fight against what at the time was a death sentence, he has to confront his friends who suddenly are not so friendly.The medical procedures at the start of any new crisis are uncertain and they may require sacrifices. The controversy over F.D.A. policies at the time reflects a bureaucratic mentality rather than a political one. While A.I.D.S. patients were understandably frustrated with the slow rate of reform and expediting the treatments for the disease, no one, including the doctors doing the research or the pharmaceutical companies, wanted anything more than to find a cure. Ron Woodroof was not the kind of guy who would wait around for others to figure it out.

The physical transformation that the star goes through is frighteningly dangerous. Like DeNiro gaining a hundred pound to play Jake LaMotta, Matthew McConaughey loses weight like you can’t believe. He looks sick before the story has even started. The fluctuations in his physical health are reflected not merely through make up and acting but by real physical change. This is the kind of stuff the critics groups and Academy will eat up. This is a much more flamboyant performance than his turn in “Mud”, and it will probably be the one that gets the accolades. I prefer the more subtle work in the other film but that is just my preference. This is the story that will connect with the Hollywood community. Jared Leto gives a similar performance in the film as a drag queen facing the same kinds of issues that Ron has. Both roles take advantage of strong emotional elements in the story and they mirror each other in effective ways.

The battle with the FDA and with an apparently unfeeling medical community is cleverly given a populist resolution by  McConaughey’s character taking advantage of loopholes in the law to be able to supply patients with medicine that might help them. Every opportunity he has to stick it to the man is cheered by the sympathetic audience. We all admire the perseverance of a man who is unwilling to go silently into the night. He demands the kind of help that everyone facing a terminal disease would hope to get. The fact that the disease is new, that the treatments are untested and that the rules require sacrifice is not something he will take laying down. This movie succeeds not only because the two leads are terrific actors in very cinematic roles, it is that they are empowering people to take control of their lives.

There are great character actors in a variety of parts in the film. Michael O’Neil, who I will always think of as Ron Butterfield from “The West Wing”, is the F.D.A. bureaucrat who needs to be taken down. Griffin Dunne was not recognizable at first as a defrocked physician, making a clinic in Mexico work for patients in need.  The great Steve Zahn is a cop and friend to Ron, who knows exactly how far the law should be enforced. Jennifer Garner is not quite a love interest but is definitely a stand in for the audience in building sympathy for the two leads. Everybody does good work and the story plays out as expected but with very effective emotional touchstones despite the straight forward story arc. If you like good acting and a story of the little guy punching back at the powers that be, than “Dallas Buyers Club” is right up your alley.

 

12 Years a Slave

This has been the most talked about film of the year. It is certainly deserving of acclaim and it will be awarded many accolades before the Awards season is done. I have nothing but praise for the film but I do think the hype needs to be tempered a bit.  While it’s depiction of slavery is accurately cruel and devastating, I’m not sure that it is as new or distinctive as many have said. Much of what transpires reminded me of other films that displayed the shame that this type of bondage represented.

This is the first film from director Steve McQueen that I have seen. I can’t say for certain what his style is yet, but based on this film it appears to be direct and subdued. He lets the actors fill the screen with their performances and is not playing with the camera or lighting the scene in ways that seem to be self conscious. There was only one shot in the movie that I thought drew attention to itself rather than the story. That was a lingering close up on the star’s face, while there was no dialogue. It was noticeable but the nice thing about it is that the shot focuses on the actor rather than the direction and that makes it less problematic. 

It is not necessary to recap the story for the most part, after all the title tells you what is coming and that there is a resolution.  While there is clearly a plot/history that is being followed, the real strength of the film is in showing the everyday hopelessness faced by human beings treated as property. There are incidents that are heart-wrenching and moments of  cruelty that are unfathomable to our modern senses. The film does a nice job showing how the just and self respecting tried to live with the institution, even as the miserable and the cruel were exploiting and surviving respectively. Chiwetel Ejiofor is the star and he gives a solid performance as Solomon Northup, a free man, kidnapped into the peculiar institution. Michael Fassbender may have trouble getting work in the future if people associate him too much with the part of the cruel slave owner Epps. His character is unpredictably unbalanced. He carries the air of a privileged aristocrat and the self loathing of a man debased by the slave holders power over others. Ejiofor has to play his part subtley because his character must be subdued in order to survive, but Fassbender gets to let it rip as he fights his own depravity, gives in to it and then punishes others for his weaknesses. 

The other great performance in the film is from newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, as a young woman tortured for being the thing that the master most desires and hates himself for wanting. She has the heaviest physical burden as a performer, she is beaten, raped, insulted and deprived of her family. All of that allows for a wide range of acting techniques to be displayed by the actress in her role as Patsey. She is not the focus of the story and the failure to have any resolution to her plight, while it may be honest, is also unsatisfying in the long run. In fact, the wrap up to the story seems to happen very quickly and it leaves several points dangling. On the other hand, the resolution for Solomon is quite satisfactory and well earned by the film makers, even if they are just following the history of the actual man’s life.

The film is excellent and there is good reason for it to be praised, but some of the on-line hype may have influenced my perception a bit. I was not floored in the same way that others have been. It is an emotional story and I did respond to it, but it exists within a well worn path of similar stories. I suspect the passage of time has diminished some peoples memories of “Roots” which was equally devastating and almost as visually brutal as this film. Last year’s “Django Unchained”, while a revisionist western action flick, also addressed some of the loathsome qualities of slavery. The themes are not fresh but the story is compelling and I would be glad to recommend this film to anyone, just don’t expect the second coming, it is not miraculous.