Friday, November 29, 2013

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Director: Alan Taylor

Spoiler-Free Summary & Review:

Thor is back in Asgard, some time after the events in The Avengers. Thor is also spending time on the various other nine realms in order to pacify certain violent elements. As he dedicates his efforts to this, an ancient threat reemerges. The surviving members of the Dark Elves, a race that predates the creation of the universe, arise and are led by Malekith, who seeks to reacquire a substance known as “ether” – a purely evil substance that can inhabit and overrun nearly anything. The Dark Elves mount a massive assault on Asgard itself, laying waste to several parts of the main city and even claiming the life of one of Thor’s family. Thor enlists the aid of his traitorous brother, Loki, and the mortal friends whom he had made in the first Thor film. This group pursues Malekith and his collection of Dark Elves, in trying to prevent them from using the ether to cast the entire multiverse into utter darkness.

To give some context, I should be clear that I am a pretty big fan of this recent wave of “Avengers” Marvel films. Of the six “core” films in the ongoing series, I’ve enjoyed them all, to one degree or another, with the first Iron Man and The Avengers being the clear standouts. Though I didn’t think it was phenomenal, I did like the first Thor movie, also. So I was looking forward to this sequel.

Don't just stand there. Let's get to it. Strike a pose. There's nothing to it.Thor.

The movie does not start very well. For the first ten minutes, I was sure that I was in store for the weakest of the entire Avengers film catalog. However, it does pick up steam and gets moving well. I would caution any viewer to not expect an overly novel, intelligent, or tightly-plotted story. If you start thinking too much about it, there are certain holes that are never fully addressed. And the pacing of the film can seem a bit herky-jerky, especially in the early-going. The arrival of Thor, as he quashes a rebellion on one of the nine worlds, seems like an odd jump into the movie The Beastmaster, with a better budget. Hokey fantasy clichés and bad jokes abound for a few minutes. But this is about as bad as it gets.

Some critics are citing their displeasure with the confusing melding of Norse mythology and science-fiction elements in the movie. I actually have no problem with this, as I like the concept of Asgard being a world rooted in medieval structures but incorporating an advanced hybrid of magic and science (as Thor explains in the first film). Most of the movie takes place on Asgard and a few of the other worlds beyond Midgard (Earth), which is fun enough. Some might find the hypercolor world a bit too heavy on the visual effects, but it didn’t really bother me.

Hiddleston's Loki smile is as welcome in the film as it is smarmy.

I’m far from the first viewer to consider Tom Hiddleston’s performance as Loki as an overwhelming strength of the film. The guy is great as Norse mythology’s ultimate trickster. And Thor: The Dark World actually adds some depth to the character. No longer is he a pure villain, as portrayed in The Avengers. In this film, we actually see more of what he was at the beginning of the first Thor film – someone who actually has a sense of family connection. Yes, he’s still the cunning deceiver with the perfect mischievous grin. But we also get a character who can feel loss and suffering, which pushes the story beyond the cut-and-dried bad son/good son dynamic that it could have been. Hopefully, the Marvel movie writers see fit to work Loki into some of the future stories, and Tom Hiddleston is willing to take on the role a few more times.

So Thor: The Dark World is good, solid fun. No, it’s not going to blow you away with its intellectual depth or creativity, but it is good fun for any fan of this type of movie.

Coming Soon: Retro Film Review! The Commitments (1991)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Conjuring (2013)

Director: James Wan

Spoiler-Free Summary & Review:

The Conjuring tells the tale of the Perrron family, a married couple with their five daughters, who move into a horrifically haunted house in Rhode Island in the early 1970s. Once they being to realize that something is terribly amiss, as the malevolent spirits begin to terrorize them all, they call on the help of the Warrens – a husband/wife duo of paranormal experts. The Warrens work to determine the causes of the hauntings, in order to save the Perrons of the increasingly violent attacks.

This movie is a great return to the look and feel of classic horror movies of the 1970s. Granted, there is no new ground being broken here. You’ve got your typical haunted house scenario, complete with spooky basements, creepy trees in the yard, and a house full of doors that need serious doses of WD-40. Despite the potentially tired story and plot, this movie does what it seeks out to, and it does it well. It doesn’t go overboard on the gore or graphic violence, but rather parcels out the moments of intensity to great effect.

Creepy dolls. Wild-haired old hags. Squeaky rocking chairs. This film breaks out all the classics.

The characters and acting are similar to the story – nothing original or revelatory, but very solid. The young Perron girls all perform perfectly well, as they need to. Probably the best performance is by Lili Taylor, who has to go from pleasant house-marm to bat-s#!t crazy, infanticidal wild woman. And she does it well.

If you like classic horror films, such as The Exorcist (it’s not that intense, though), then this one is for you. For full effect, do what I did – turn out the lights and watch it late at night, alone. It helps that my house is a slightly creaky, 85-year old number that makes a few eerie noises of its own. Perfect.

Coming Soon: Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Gravity (2013)

Director: Alfonso Cuaron

Spoiler-Free Summary & Reaction:

Gravity tells the tale primarily of Doctor Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as she attempts to avoid and escape an “all Hell breaks loose” scenario in Earth orbital space. Stone is a medical engineer working on installing an updated system to the Hubble Space Telescope. She is being assisted by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who is on his final space mission. While working on the telescope, however, a massive disaster elsewhere in orbit sends massive amounts of debris hurtling towards the astronauts. As the debris slashes through their own equipment at devastating speeds, multiple times, Kowalski tries to help Ryan overcome her terror and personal fears to survive.

This movie is one that I absolutely recommend seeing on the big screen, with the bells and whistles of IMAX and 3D, if possible. I’m not much of a 3D fan, but this one is well worth it. (If you go in the near future, get to the theater early, so you can snatch up a good seat). The visuals are just as amazing as everything you’ve heard or read, and Cuaron and his crew obviously paid extremely close attention to detail in attempting to represent the experience of being in space to the 99.9999% of us humans who will never go. Sure, there’s plenty of action to keep the blood pumping, but there are also chillingly quiet moments that will stoke other phobias that you may not even know you had (agoraphobia being an obvious one).

Just one of the seemingly countless shots that will have your eyeballs rubbing their eyeballs.

While the visuals alone make the movie worth shelling out your $15 to $20, the plot is decent enough. No, it’s not groundbreaking or creative, but it provides a plausible premise for the film’s action. Of course, space seems the kind of place where it doesn’t take a lot for humans to get into some very serious trouble, and this is true for Gravity.

The weakest points of the film are the characters and dialogue. The actors do just fine, and Bullock may likely get an Academy nod for her performance as the terrified yet essentially tough Doctor Stone. To be honest, though, I found her character unbelievably sheepish during the first half or so of the movie. From what I know of the N.A.S.A. astronaut program, the men and women who actually make it into space are some of the most unflappable humans who have ever lived. Stone’s demeanor and reactions before and during crisis stretch plausibility at times.

Clooney does well playing, well, George Clooney. They almost could have just called him Danny Ocean or any of the other half dozen cool-as-a-cucumber charmers that he’s played so well over the years. And this is another element that stretches credibility a tad – I had a hard time imagining an astronaut, even a supposed veteran like Kowalski’s character, being so flippant and carefree about much of what transpires. I suppose that he offers the audience the chance to breathe a little bit, given the tension that runs throughout the film, but it’s all a little too smooth for my sensibilities.

The dialogue is probably the weakest part of the entire production. It’s often cheesy and clichéd, especially the messages about bucking up in tough situations. I honestly can barely remember many of the verbal exchanges between any of the characters. When dialogue is used sparingly in a film, as it is in Gravity, it’s preferable to me that it actually be more memorable.

Though flimsy characters and dialogue will often torpedo a film, such is not the case with Gravity. It’s still one hell of an achievement in film-making. This is undoubtedly one that will periodically be brought back to big screens for decades to come, giving people thrills. If you haven’t caught it yet, get out there.

A Few Recommendations of Other “Spacey” Films:

Here are a few other space movies that came to mind as I watched Gravity:

2001: A Space Odyssey (duh) – Stanley Kubrick did, in 1969 and with far more limited technological wizardry, what Cuaron updates and polishes in Gravity. He conveyed the sense of exploring space in visual ways that have blown away audiences ever since its release. Though the characters are mostly forgettable in 2001, the speculative theories about the ramifications of technology and the human desire to expand and explore give 2001 much more intellectual meat for us to sick our mental teeth into.

Almost as expansive as the cosmos themselves, 2001: A Space Odyssey encompasses far more than some of the more dramatic or adventure-oriented space films made.

Solaris (1971) – Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s answer to Kubrick’s 2001, Solaris is arguably every bit as transcendent, while adding far more personal humanity to a space exploration tale. While both films feature slick visuals, Solaris pulls viewers’ attention inside the human psyche in ways that the expansive 2001 does not.

The Right Stuff (1980) – Telling a dramatized version of the original United States space program’s earliest years, I’ve always felt that this film portrays astronauts as the always unshakable, often arrogant daredevils that they really were and are. An insanely all-star cast and solid film-making result in a great historical and dramatic epic.

For All Mankind (1989) – A great, concise documentary that compiles some of the best footage that N.A.S.A captured from the inaugural Moon landing, all set to a meditative Brian Eno musical score. A movie that gives you a sense of just how dramatic a feat it was for humans to, in fact, set foot on a different planet. 

That's a wrap. The next film I'll review is The Conjuring, from earlier this year. 

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Wrap Party!!!

The Grand Recap.

It’s been over three-and-a-half years since I started this labor of love. It’s involved, by my math, well over 400 hours of viewing, researching, and writing about the 105 films listed by the fellows at TIME magazine as “100 All-TIME Great Films.”

To give myself some kind of closure, I just wanted to go back over the entire list and, for my own edification, express just what I took from it all.

The reason I started this entire thing back in the cold winter of 2010 was that film have given me incalculable joy during my entire life. Of course, the more movies one sees, the more difficult it becomes to find ones that have the same impact as when you’re younger. When I came across the TIME list, it seemed like a nice mix of the familiar and the unknown. It was a perfect chance to revisit some classics and hopefully find some new favorites. This, indeed, happened, though it wasn’t without suffering through some films that I wouldn’t watch again if you offered me guilt-free night alone with Barbara Stanwyck (well, maybe not).

Without further ado, here are my final thoughts on the entire task, presented in a few groupings:

“Not Even if it’s in the Dusty, $0.99 Bargain Bin” Group

Sitting through some films can make you want to do something...drastic.

The films from the list that demanded the most steadfast determination on my part. The only reasons I didn’t push “Stop” and snap the DVDs in half was my promise to myself to watch them all, along with the potential for massive fines from Netflix:

Some of these films actually have a few redeeming qualities, like His Girl Friday and Leolo. On the whole, though, I found them frustrating and tiresome. Many say that all of these are stamped in the history of cinema; as far an I’m concerned, history can keep them.

“Best of the Decades”

My favorite film from each of the nine decades covered by the TIME list. Keep in mind that by "favorite," I don't necessarily think that these are the "best" films. They're just the one's that I enjoyed the most and would likely watch again (and again and again...):

1920s:   The Last Command (1928) – incredible silent film that tells a beautiful and epic story of lost honor and grandeur.

1930s:   Bride of Frankenstein (1935) – Maybe it’s just the current Halloween spirit in me, but this film is no end of fun. I don’t know if it’s the Alpha of campy horror films, but it certainly is one of the greatest.

1940s:   Casablanca (1942) – The 1940s were phenomenal, with some of the greatest films of all time being produced during that span. Casablanca, though, is still my favorite. Often, and understandably, called “the perfect film,” it’s difficult to imagine this one ever fading away.

1950s:   In a Lonely Place (1950) – Humphrey Bogart takes another one. In one of several great films from the list that I had never heard of before, Bogie is astounding as a dark, tortured screen writer who is suspected (with very good reason) of murder.

1960s:   The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966) – This was a tough one, with Yojimbo (1961) being an awfully close second. Still, this Leone western is a seminal one in my education as a cinephile. It’s one a handful of movies that changed the way I watched and thought about the medium.

1970s:   The Godfather (1972) – I defy anyone to tell you that this isn’t one of the best films ever made. It may not be the most profound or novel, but like Casablanca, it executes the elements of film storytelling about as perfectly as possible. And I love a good gangster movie.

1980s:   Blade Runner (1982) (director's final cut version) – This one was neck-and-neck with Raging Bull, but the science-fiction geek in me won out by a hair. Still slick and hypnotic, even these three decades later, Ridley Scott’s altered vision of Philip K. Dick’s brilliant novel is a pillar of the genre. Its’ brilliance makes the glaring shortcomings of Scott’s recent Prometheus all the more baffling.

1990s:   Unforgiven (1992) – Within the decade in which I came to truly love films, Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece is still my favorite. One of the very few films that can shatter one’s cherished romantic notions about a genre, while enthralling you by revealing the darkest aspects of the human soul.

2000s:   The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001 – 2003) – Yes, I’m going to cheat a little bit here by putting all three movies together. The pickings were slim for this decade anyway (the latest film was from 2003). Even people who couldn’t care less for the fantasy genre of storytelling would have to admit that this film series is an outstanding achievement in film. These movies are going to be imitated, probably in laughably poor form, for years to come (actually, they are right now, by Peter Jackson himself).

“Top O’ the World, Ma!!!” Award – My pick for my absolute favorite film from those reviewed. And the winner is…

Unforgiven (1992)

This was a tough pick to make, but I have to go with the tale of the spectral Will Munney. No other film conjures up such conflicting feelings in my red-blooded American male psyche. The more juvenile, macho part of me always gets a thrill from seeing just how efficient a killer the central character is. William Munney is, truly, a bad-ass. Conversely, the more mature, philosophical side of me is always quietly terrified of just why Munney kills people, and the cold brutality with which he does it. The dark abyss that lurks inside of him, taking the place of compassion, is the stuff of nightmares come to life.

Eastwood has starred in and directed quite a few excellent films, but this is the one that put his indelible mark on the history or film.

An Overlooked Director:

The Russian director asked for more meditation and patience from his viewers than most directors, but I've always found the exercise well worth it.

If anyone who loves movies really spent a lot of time thinking about it, they could probably come up with a dozen directors and a few hundred movies that could or should have been on the TIME list, in the places of the one’s chosen. For me, one stood out more than the others: Andrei Tarkovsky.

I haven’t seen all of Tarkovsky’s movies, but the ones I have seen I’ve found to be astounding. Andrei Rublev, Solaris (the original; not the respectable Steven Soderberg remake), and Stalker are amazing films. They are long, ponderous, and they make demands on the viewer, no doubt. But there is a beautifully hypnotic pacing to his movies that I love. He seemed to have a fantastic sense of how to use negative space and silence within an aural-visual medium to tell vastly different stories. If you’ve the patience for longer films that give you the space to immerse yourself in some philosophical quandaries, you should definitely try him out. Solaris is probably the most accessible of the ones I’ve seen, making it a good one to start with.

A shot from Solaris, sometimes referred to as Tarkofsky's answer to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Where the latter can come off as cold and purely cerebral, Solaris deals with deeper, more personal and emotional issues in the context of space exploration.

Final Thoughts and the Next Episodes:

It’s been fun, no doubt. This is not the end, though. I’ll now start doing reviews of whatever movies (and maybe the odd TV show seasons) I see, without the demands of a self-imposed list or anything. The reviews will be shorter and more to the point. I’ll divide them into only two segments: a “no-spoilers” general review and a “spoiler-addled” detailed review.

Coming Soon: Gravity (2013)

The recent critical and popular darling, as seen by me.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.