Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Review



There are few popular franchises out there that feel as peculiar as the Planet of the Apes series.  Those “damn dirty apes,” as Chuck Heston so famously called them, have become the stars of one of Hollywood’s longest lasting and profitable franchises.   Just by looking at the premise on it’s surface, it’s any wonder why this series has become so influential.  In essence, it’s a campy sci-fi series that once relied upon actors wearing monkey masks, but when looking closer, it’s clear that there is so much more to these movies.  The original Planet of the Apes was based on the novel of the same name by French author Pierre Boulle, and was quite an ambitious and gutsy undertaking at the time.  Instead of using the source material as a basis for an exploitation action treatment, 20th Century Fox decided to do an earnest adaptation and retain all of the social commentary and underlying themes contained in the original text.  Couple that with assured direction from Oscar-winner Franklin J. Shaffner (Patton) and a cast of quality actors like Heston, Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter, and the result was a critically acclaimed action thriller that served as a touchstone film for American cinema at the time.  The success of the original was probably due to the fact that it wasn’t a dumbed down treatment, and it actually challenged it’s audiences, dealing with key issues like civil rights and nuclear proliferation, which were on people’s minds at the time.  Also, there was that memorable and bleak twist ending that people still talk about today; which came courtesy of Twilight Zone scribe Rod Serling.  Overall, Planet of the Apes proved to be a monumental film because it was far more intelligent and challenging movie than you would be led to believe, and the ability to preserve that trait in the series is what has made or broken every film thereafter.

Indeed, it’s whenever the series dumbed itself down that it has faltered.  Sometimes when new filmmakers come in, they see the Ape costumes and makeup as the main appeal of the story for audiences, but that’s not the case.  It’s seeing our world reflected back at us through this alternate version that we find so intriguing.  What’s frightening about the concept of the story is that humankind loses it’s freedom and identity when a new dominant species rises above them, and it makes us look at ourselves and how we’ve unwisely used our own power to subjugate other people.  That’s the true terror behind the story; that apes have become so human in the worst ways, and that humans are now the ones suffering.  Whenever the series strayed from this idea, it lost much of the edge that the franchise is known for.  The series continued through Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), then Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), and then it concluded with a saga that introduced the character of Caesar (played by Roddy McDowall) with Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973).  It was a rapid fire series that remarkably sustained it’s popularity until the G-Rated Battle under-performed.  It wasn’t until 2001 when Tim Burton made his reboot that we saw the apes on the big screen again, and it proved to be a huge misfire.  This is mainly due to Burton’s lack of insight into what made the original so effective, and instead the movie is filled with more action set-pieces than actually social commentary.  It would take 10 years before the series would be given a second life thanks to a refocused attempt at bringing the franchise back to it’s basics.  Instead of returning to the very beginning, the new reboot instead looked at the Caesar saga for inspiration, particularly drawing from Conquest’s story-line, and the result was the surprisingly successful Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011).  Rise helped to reinvigorate the dormant franchise and it continues again with this year’s newest entry, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Dawn takes place 10 years after the events of Rise, following the outbreak of a deadly virus that has wiped out almost all human life on the planet.   This same virus, which has been dubbed the Simian Flu, was used in the Rise story-line as the thing that gave the Apes their human-level intelligence.  Caesar (played in both Rise and Dawn by Andy Serkis) was the first successful test subject and with his extraordinary intelligence, he led all the other Apes in revolt against the humans.  In the years since the virus took it’s toll, the Apes have thrived under Caesar’s leadership, while the remaining humans scramble for what’s left of their society.  At the beginning of Dawn, a group of human explorers  stumble into Caesar’s camp.  Led by a peaceful engineer named Malcolm (Jason Clarke) the humans only wish to restart an old hydroelectric dam in the middle of Ape’s territory, so that they may have the power to contact the outside world.  Caesar doesn’t trust them at first, but reluctantly allows them to do their work in order to avoid further conflict.  Taking the diplomatic approach works well for both camps as Caesar and Malcolm learn a mutual respect for one another.  This harmony is broken, however, when a vengeful ape named Koba (Toby Kebbell) wishes to start an all-out war with the humans in order to wipe them out for good.  Meanwhile, in the nearby human colony, housed in the ruins of San Francisco, the colony leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is resorting to ever more drastic means to keep order within amongst his people.  All this leads to a powder keg that is ready to erupt, which will test Caesar’s ability to lead his community and bring the humans and the apes to an inevitable conflict.

What I like about this film, and the movie that it follows up (Rise), is that they both keep to the original spirit of the first film in the series, without having to retread old ground.  Instead, they expand on the universe by filling us in on how Apes came to conquer human beings and become the dominant species on the planet.  It follows the same evolution of the saga that Conquest of the Planet of the Apes delivered, but shown in an entirely different way that builds perhaps a little more believably than those early films did.  In fact, the best thing about these new films is that you don’t need to see any of the other entries in the series in order to understand what is going on.  They stand on their own as fully realized narratives, although it might help to have seen Rise before Dawn, especially when it comes to understanding where the virus came from.  Other than that, Dawn does what all great sequels do and that’s to expand the world that’s been set up before and take it in a new, unexpected direction.  Indeed, Dawn works in many ways that Rise had failed to do; although there were a few things that Rise did better, but I’ll get to that later.  What I liked best about this movie was that it kept the intelligence that the series is best remembered for.  It doesn’t resort to cheap plot twists and mind-numbing action.  It actually uses most of it’s run-time to build character and atmosphere, which both brings out the best elements of the franchise and also makes this movie feel like something new as well.  Indeed, it does still feel like a Planet of the Apes movie, but one that is less inclined to reference anything else from the series.  Really, the only references I can remember to other movies was seeing Caesar and his fellow apes riding horses in a few scenes, and also giving one of the Apes the name Maurice ( a clever nod to original Dr. Zaius actor Maurice Evans).

But if you want to look at what really makes this particular film notable, it’s the performance given by Andy Serkis as Caesar.  Serkis has pretty much become the master of motion-capture acting, gaining notoriety over everyone else in this particular field.  Probably best known for his motion-capture and voice work as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit series, Serkis has taken his expertise with the process and used it to create a truly memorable protagonist with Caesar.  It’s amazing how advanced this kind of animation has progressed over the years, becoming increasingly more capable of capturing an actor’s full performance in a digital character, and Andy Serkis has taken full advantage of that.  Caesar really commands every moment he’s on screen, and Serkis deserves all the credit in the world for finding the humanity in the character and bringing it out through all the layers of performance.  The animation team should also be commended for picking up all the little gestures and subtlety in Serkis’ performance, because it all helps to make Caesar feel absolutely real.  I’m glad that the Apes franchise has served as a great platform for Andy Serkis to expand his talents as a performer, and indeed here he is the film’s primary star.  The same care with the performance capture also extends to the other cast members playing apes as well.  I particularly like the way that each ape interacts with one another, with body language playing an integral role in the establishing character.  I also like how speech is used sparingly between the different apes, making it’s usage feel all the more powerful when it happens.  Serkis (who also provides Caesar’s voice) came up with an interesting way for the apes to speak that feels natural and unlike anything we’ve seen in the series before.  It may come as unusual to see digital apes replace the costumed ones that the series was known for in the past, but when the end result works as well as these do, it’s hard to argue.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said with the human cast.  Indeed, one of the things that Rise of the Planet of the Apes did better than this film was to build up it’s human cast of characters; which is understandable considering they were much more important to the plot.  In that movie, we had James Franco’s scientist motivated by his drive to cure the Alzheimer’s disease in his dying father (played by John Lithgow) as well as his conflicted dilemma when he grows too attached to lab monkey Caesar, whom he helped raised; both of which drove his character development in the movie.  In this film, the human characters are more or less just defined by their purpose in the plot and nothing more.  None of them are really unlikable, though; there’s just nothing to define them.  Jason Clarke does the best that he can, but in the end, his character is just forgettable in comparison to Caesar.  Gary Oldman gets even shorter shrift in the movie, reduced to little more than an extended cameo.  I felt that it was a waste of an actor of his talent, and I wished they had used him more.  His character’s motivations also don’t make much sense in the movie; with him starting off as a reasonable leader in the beginning, then becoming an almost zealous antagonist by film’s end.  It’s a whiplash in character motivations that I wish had been better explained.  Now while the apes’ story-line is effectively drawn throughout the 130 minute run-time, it’s the human characters that suffer.  This may be a rare case where I think an even longer cut may have helped a movie, just so that we can better understand the human characters, much like how Rise was able to.  There was some of that there in the film, like when Oldman’s character reacts to seeing pictures of his long dead family for the first time in 10 years in a beautifully acted scene, but it was too few and far between.  The movie just needed to have a little more balance, and that’s all.

But, other than it’s under-drawn human characters, the remainder of the movie is exceptionally well crafted, if not particularly groundbreaking.  Indeed, the movie stays true to formula, but it’s done so effectively that you don’t mind it so much.  The pacing of the movie is excellent, never feeling bloated or rushed at all, and it does lead up to a very satisfying conclusion.  Again, the apes are definitely the film’s highlight, and the attention given to establishing their society really makes this movie feel unique.  I commend the production design team for making the post-apocalyptic setting feel natural and not at all overdone.  There’s an interesting contrast in seeing the organic and thriving Ape village juxtaposed with the decaying human world in this movie, and it establishes perfectly how the story is going to play out without ever stating the obvious.  I also loved the musical score by Oscar-winning composer Michael Giachinno (Star Trek, Up), because it pays homage to the late Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic themes from the original film’s score, without ever copying it directly.  It also helps to make this film feel right at home with the other movies, especially in helping to drive the mood of the scenes.  The cinematography also gives this movie a nice epic feel, even when working with a narrower frame (this is the first film in the entire series shot in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, whereas all other entries were in the scope 2.40:1 format).  It’s an interesting creative choice made by director Matt Reeves, who makes the film feel both intimate and grandiose in a well-balanced way.  The movie takes some creative risks, but they pay off and work to the film’s advantage, and honestly, that’s what a Planet of the Apes movie should do.  In that respect, it’s staying true to it’s legacy.

As far as summer movies go, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a film that is well worth your time and money.  Is it a perfect film?  Not exactly.  It’s flawed in some of it’s character development and plotting, but not in a way that hurts the overall film.  I certainly recommend seeing the movie just to take in the absolutely masterful work that Andy Serkis has done as the ape Caesar.  If anything, I think it probably stands as the best acting work that this series has ever seen; better even than heavyweights like Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall.  He’s truly become the best at what he does, and this movie gives us a great showcase of what he’s capable of doing.  The rest of the film is also worth checking out, especially for all the well choreographed and shot action set-pieces.  Honestly, if your only other option at the movie theaters was to watch Transformers 4, you have no excuse not to watch this movie over that piece of junk.  It does what a great action movie should do which is to keep you engaged and on the edge of your seat and it does what a great sequel should always do and that’s to build upon what’s come before.  It really is amazing that nearly 50 years have passed since the first Planet of the Apes, and we’re now seeing the franchise not only alive, but thriving.  Not only that, but the Apes series is also staying true to the intellectual spirit of the originals, and is still delivering thought provoking movies all these years later.  Let’s hope that Apes continues to stay true to it’s source material, and not resort to dumbing itself down to reach a broader audience.  At least for now, it doesn’t need to.  And again, it’s amazing that you can get quality and thought-provoking entertainment from a movie about a world run by “damn dirty apes.”

Rating: 8/10


Transformers: Age of Extinction – Review


Michael Bay is a difficult filmmaker to explain. His films are notable for being loud, bombastic, and sometimes very aggressively crass.  What is even more peculiar is the fact that his film career has been a very successful one, even with all the criticism his films have received.  He’s just been surprisingly good at making a lot of money.  And does he deserve it all?  While I can’t say that I particularly like his style of film making, I can’t deny that the man does have some talent behind the camera.  In fact, you could say that Mr. Bay has a style all his own, and that’s something that’s hard to come by in an industry as homogenous as Hollywood.  The only problem is that he has seemed to have wasted that same talent on what could be usually referred to as trash.   I don’t know if he chooses the films he makes through artistic motives or economic ones, because most of his recent work makes me think that he just doesn’t care what he does.  He’s shamelessly cashing in and relishing it at the same time.   His filmography has turned into the cinematic equivalent of fast food, and himself being it’s Ronald McDonald.  But even though Bay’s films are nothing but excuses for the director to indulge his cinematic excesses, every now and then he has managed to churn out something  special.   I for one really enjoy one of his earliest action thrillers called The Rock (1996), and his surprisingly smart 2005 thriller The Island.   Unfotunately, if there are films that do not fit into that quality category, it would be his series of Transformers films.

When the first Transformers was released back in 2007, it became a surprise hit and launched what would eventually be one of the biggest moneymaking franchises in movie history.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the films are any good.  Based off of the popular toy line and 1980’s animated series of the same name, Transformers was basically a dumb but entertaining movie that was certainly geared towards being a crowd-pleaser.  And honestly, to bring a story of giant, transforming robots to the big screen proved to be a perfect match for someone of Michael Bay’s talents. The storyline of the first film may not have retained the charming cheese of the earlier animated series, but it did deliver in the visuals, delivering some really impressive CGI effects along the way.  Unfortunately, it seemed like Michael Bay’s ego took over in the follow-ups in the series, and the resulting films were an absolute mess.  The second film was rightly derided for its lack of story and for it’s indulgences into sex appeal (particularly when it came to female lead Megan Fox) and racial stereo-typing.   The third film tried to make up for the faults of the second, and the result was a movie that just felt like a bland retread of the first two.   This slow devolution of the Transformers series represents a strong example of a franchise becoming the victim of its own success, and it’s a decline that really only seems to affect those of us who wanted to see more out of this franchise.  Fans of the original series don’t even seem to recognize their beloved characters anymore, because Bay’s films have become something else entirely.  Casual fans, however, seem to still be eating this stuff up, which is beyond me.

Now, after two critically derided films, we get the fourth installment of the series; Transformers: Age of Extinction.  To Michael Bay’s credit, he has chosen this opportunity to shake things up a bit, possibly in order to bring some new focus into the series.  Gone is former male lead Shia LaBeouf, who himself had become something of a joke in the series, along with pretty much every other recurring cast member.  This is a good thing, in a way, because it puts more focus on the characters who should be the main characters, that being the Transformers themselves. Unfortunately, the new movie still puts way too much focus on it’s less interesting human cast.  Thankfully, the balance between the two is much less of a problem.   Overall, Age of Extinction is a step up from it’s predecessors, but not much of one. It works best as a reboot than as a continuation of the overall story, although the movie keeps reminding you of the previous movies at different points, so it makes the attempt at a reset pointless.   And though it may have changed things up, it didn’t necessarily make the series any better; only a little less offensive.  We are still a long way from making Transformers anything more than just a dumb action franchise.

So, how does this film build upon it’s predecessors?  In the years following the events of the previous movie, both races of the Transformers (Autobots and Decepticons) have been hunted down and exterminated by humans in a genocidal revenge mission conducted by the CIA, led by their director, played by Kelsey Grammer, as a response to the carnage caused by the wars between the bots.   All remaining Transformers have gone into hiding, hoping that salvation will come their way.  Meanwhile in Texas, a barnyard inventor named Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) comes across a rundown truck that he believes to be a hidden Transformer.  When he awakens the dormant Autobot, he soon learns that he’s no ordinary Transformer, but Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) the Autobot leader.   Optimus helps Cade and his family escape the pursuing CIA task force, and rendezvous with his remaining crew, including the ever helpful Bumblebee.  Unfortunately for them, they soon learn that they are being hunted down by more than just the CIA.   A demented Transformer bounty hunter, named Lockdown (voiced by Mark Ryan) is also on their trail.   Working together, Cade and Optimus become more aware of the stakes they are faced with, especially when they learn of the destructive force that Grammer’s agent character is after, and the means to which Lockdown will go to claim his trophies.   What follows is a globe trotting adventure that takes the characters from the American heartland all the way to the cityscapes of China.

There isn’t much to the story as you can already tell.  It’s just a series of events strung together for the purpose of bringing us from one action set piece to another.   And there in lies the primary problem with this movie.  Like the other films before it, there’s no real drama.  The movie never gives us any real character depth and instead spends most of its time showcasing just how awesome it’s action scenes are.  When that’s all your movie amounts to, it feels really hollow as a result.  And given that this film runs at a very bloated 165 minutes, the action scenes become very tiresome after a while.  Also,  without the necessary character depth needed, we grow less interested in rooting for our main heroes, because there is little in them that we find interesting or redeeming.  I think, in this case, that’s more of the fault of the writer, Ehren Kruger, than Michael Bay’s.  He actually holds up his end by making the film look good, but that means little when the final script lacks anything worthwhile.   It’s been the fundamental flaw of the series since day one, and unfortunately this new film has only made baby steps in trying to improve it.

If there’s something that does work in the movie’s favor, it’s that it doesn’t give into some of the series more obnoxious pitfalls from the past.  Getting rid of Shia LaBeouf was a good move, as his character was never deserving of a central place in one movie, let alone three.  The character of Sam Whitwhicky, played by LaBeouf, is one of cinemas most insufferable douchebags, and the fact that more screen time was devoted to him than a more deserving character like Optimus Prime was a real insult to the legacy of the original series.  At least this time around,  Bay has given Optimus more of the spotlight to work with, and something resembling a character arc.  Also, a lot of the obnoxious comic relief is missing this time around, which is another benefit to this movie. There’s no annoying parent characters eating pot brownies; no Stepin Fetchit level racist stereotype Transformers; and no moments where we see the Transformers either defecating or letting their robot balls hang out.   That being said, the movie doesn’t really add much to this story either.  It’s sad to think that the most offensive elements of the series has also been what has defined it.  Take all that away, and the result is just another generic action flick.  What I would’ve liked to have seen is more of the Transformers universe explored in this movie; maybe even a film set entirely in another world other than our own.  But, then again, that approach probably would’ve alienated it from the general audiences that produced the big grosses for them in the past.  In that case, playing it safe may have been a poor decision on Michael Bay’s part.

Beyond the story, the remainder of the film is generally a mixed bag. Some of the film surprisingly works, but the rest is pretty much what is expected of the series.  One thing that I did like in this movie, surprisingly, was the lead actor.  Mark Wahlberg is a huge improvement over Shia, and he does make the most of a character that, again, is poorly written.  Wahlberg kind of has the same gift as Nicolas Cage, where he can be entertaining and have a presence on screen, even when the movie and character itself is terrible.  Another thing that I liked in this film was the collection of villains.  Kelsey Grammer, of all people, actually brings a lot of menace to the film with his performance; very far removed from his days on Frasier.  Lockdown is also a very effective villain here; far more intimidating than any other Transformer villain in the past.  And part of the reason why the villainous characters work in this movie is because they are restrained in their characterizations.   It’s a prime example where the movie benefits from a more subtle approach. Also, there are welcome additions to the Transformers team (voiced by the likes of John Goodman and Ken Watanabe) and they actually contribute to the story, rather than work as distractions.  Unfortunately, the human characters, apart from Wahlberg, are just as generic as ever.  The romantic couple (played by newcomers Nicolas Peltz and Jack Reynor) are particularly useless in this movie.  It’s putting the human story ahead of the Transformer’s one that makes this film feel like a chore.  Either Michael Bay is too stubborn to commit to a fully alien storyline, or he’s bound to a formula that he can’t escape from.  In any case, it derails any chance this film has at making any change for the good in this series.

So overall, regardless of all the hard work that has been done to change course in the series, the results are still just the same.  The best thing that I can say about the movie is that it at least tries to do things a little more subtly than the more excessive films in the series.  It’s not obscene or crude, but it’s not interesting either.   It’s the film that probably best represents the fact that this franchise is stretching itself thin, especially at almost 3 hours in length.   Will audiences go for it?  Probably.  It doesn’t do anything that will make its base group of fans suddenly reject it. It may even win a few people over with it’s more low key approach. As for me, I’ve never been a Transformer fan before, and this movie did nothing to change that.  At the same time, I do appreciate the fact that Michael Bay finally recognized that something needed to change in this series, and even if he made a half-assed attempt to change course, it was still aimed in the right direction.   I only wish he had committed more fully and make a true Transformers film.   We do still get ladies in short shorts and brief uses of gay and racial stereotypes, but to a smaller degree, so I guess that’s some kind of effort on his part.  And like many other mega-hit franchises, the movie does leave room for a sequel, so I’m sure Michael Bay will be returning to the world of the Transformers again for the fifth time.   Honestly, I wish Mr. Bay would consider handing the franchise over to others and get back to films that fit his style better; movies like The Rock.   For now, unfortunately, Transformers: Age of Extinction is another film that is less than meets the eye.

Rating:  5/10


Maleficent – Review


Coming after a long string of other fairy tale adaptations in theaters, the new movie Maleficent brings us a retelling of the classic tale of Sleeping Beauty, only this time told from an angle that we haven’t seen yet.  As you can tell from the title, this version is less about the slumbering princess and instead is centered primarily on the one who cursed her in the first place; the dark fairy, Maleficent.  Naturally this fantasy film comes from the Walt Disney Company, who are taking their inspiration not only from the original fairy tale, but from their own 1959 animated classic as well. Celebrating it’s 55th anniversary this year, Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) is a film that has withstood the test of time and has become a favorite to many, including myself.  Sleeping Beauty actually holds a special place in my heart because it was one of the very first movies that I ever got to see in a movie theater.  It was during a 1985 re-release that I had my first experience with the tale and the 2 1/2 year old me was forever changed by it.  That movie, along with another Disney classic I saw that same year (1961’s 101 Dalmatians), probably are what helped propel me towards becoming a lifelong film buff, and because of this, I still hold the film in very high regard.  The same is probably true for many other people too across the globe.
Walt Disney created the original Sleeping Beauty at a transitional time for animation.  Walt Disney saw that tastes in styles were changing in the late 50’s, so he decided to take a whole new approach to Sleeping Beauty by giving it a very unique look.  Styled to look like medieval tapestry art, the movie was unlike anything the studio had ever made before and it still looks magnificent in all it’s 70 mm widescreen glory.  But,  it’s art style isn’t what has become the film’s biggest triumph over the years.  Instead, that honor goes to the creation of it’s villain, Maleficent.  Drawn by legendary animator Marc Davis and voice brilliantly by actress Eleanor Audley, Maleficent is an all time great antagonist; one by which all other Disney villains are now measured against.  In fact, her popularity has grown so much over the years that she has since become the unofficial antagonist of the entire Disney community.  You’re more likely to see her sparing with the likes of Mickey Mouse and friends today than with characters in her original film.  This is evidenced in other mediums by the company that she has also featured in, like the Kingdom Hearts video games and the Fantasmic nighttime shows at the Disney Parks.  Not to mention the numerous merchandise made available with her image on them.  Given a legacy like this, it’s not all that surprising that Disney would feature her prominently in their brand new live-action adaptation.  What is surprising, however, is that Disney would take their most popular villain and try to make her sympathetic.  Given how much she’s beloved by many people like me as someone we love to hate, it’s a risky revision to undertake, and one that does have to face some extra scrutiny from fans.
What is unique about this movie is that it looks at all of the events of the story from Maleficent’s perspective.  It begins with her childhood as a powerful yet innocent fairy living in a magical kingdom called the Moors.  Soon she meets a young human boy from the neighboring kingdom named Stefan, who becomes her closest companion as they grow older.  But when they become adults, they grow apart.  Maleficent (played as an adult by Angelina Jolie) soon finds her kingdom at war with the neighboring King, who grants his crown to anyone who can kill the winged Maleficent.  Stefan (played by Sharlto Copley) betrays his friend by cutting Maleficent’s giant wings off her back, leaving her both grounded and defenseless.  Stefan becomes the new king thereafter and Maleficent vows vengeance, which she soon enacts once Stefan and his Queen have a child.  At the presentation ceremony, Maleficent places a curse on the child, ensuring that she will be put into a death-like sleep once she turns 16.  The years pass and Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) grows up far from Stefan’s care in the woods, raised by three fairies (played by Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple).  Unbeknownst to the others though, Aurora is also being looked after by Maleficent herself, who surprisingly grows attached to the young girl and begins to regret the curse that she made out of anger.
So, as you can tell from this premise, the movie actually takes the angle of making Maleficent less of a villain and portrays her more as a hero.  Stefan on the other hand is cast as the villain of the story, with Aurora still caught in the middle.  This may be jarring to people who have grown up with the original movie, but it’s a reversal that is not without precedence.  The Broadway musical Wicked has become a popular retelling of the Wizard of Oz tale, centered around the maturity of the villainous Wicked Witch of the West.  In that retelling as well, the popular villain is treated more sympathetically, becoming something of a misunderstood hero, while the Wizard is cast as the cold-hearted villain.  It’s a reversal of roles that works perfectly in that story, but unfortunately works less so here.  I’m not saying that it can’t be done.  It’s just not given as much care as it was with Wicked.  Unfortunately, it also takes away a bit from what made Maleficent so memorable in the first place.  She’s really at her best when she’s at her worst; being an unruly source of terror that strikes fear into all.  The original animated classic did that perfectly and it’s mainly why she is remembered so well today.  In this version, the movie hits it’s high points when Maleficent is allowed to be menacing, especially in the presentation of Aurora scene, which is almost lifted directly from the original film, including some of the same dialogue.  That moment works very well and unfortunately it’s an aspect that is not carried throughout the entire film.
I have to say that the biggest problem with this movie is it’s inconsistency.  Tonally, it is all over the place, not knowing whether to be dark and brooding or fun and lighthearted.  Sometimes the shifts in tone are so abrupt, that it will be absolutely distracting.  I attribute this to the screenplay, written by Linda Woolverton, who does have a long legacy with the Disney company, having drafted scripts for both Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994), as well as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010).  Unfortunately, her grasp on a story-line isn’t as refined as it was on her early work.  While not as needless complicated in plot as Wonderland was, Maleficent still feels incomplete, particularly when it comes to the characterizations.  Maleficent gets fully fleshed out in the film, but Aurora and most other characters do not.  I feel like another draft of the script could have worked some of these problems out, because there are some genuinely good ideas present there in the script.  Also problematic is the direction.  The film is helmed by first-time director Roger Stromberg, an Oscar-winning visual effects artist and production designer whose work we’ve seen in films like Avatar (2009), Alice in Wonderland (2010), and Oz, The Great and Powerful (2013).  Unfortunately, by giving direction over to a novice more comfortable with visual effects, you’re most likely to have a film that looks pretty, but feels hollow, and that’s unfortunately what happened here.  The inconsistency in tone is probably the result of Stromberg being unsure about what kind of movie he wants to make, and it shows.
But the movie isn’t un-salvageable.  What does hold up is some of the performances, particularly Angelina Jolie as the titular character.  Jolie’s involvement probably helped to give this film a boost during development and thankfully the potential in that casting is not wasted.  Thanks to some rather good make-up work by the great Rick Baker, Jolie is spot-on as the iconic character.  She matches the original look of the character perfectly and she plays the character well, clearly relishing the grandiose nature of the part.  She also makes the transitions between Maleficent’s darker and lighter sides feel more natural than they do in the script, which helps to keep the film from falling apart.  One other character that proved to be surprisingly effective is her companion  Diaval (played by actor Sam Riley).  In the original film, he was personified as a pet raven named Diablo, a character with very little complexity.  Here, he shifts forms between human and raven, and even into other creatures, depending on the needs of Maleficent.  What could have been a throwaway servant character actually turns into a thoroughly likable individual.  He works perfectly off Maleficent as her companion, bringing out some of the movies most genuinely humorous moments.  I give the movie a lot of credit for taking a minor character from the original film and reshaping him into a more involved personality that actually contributes something good to the overall story.  Honestly, I would have preferred more scenes with Diaval and Maleficent, since they are the only characters that had any sort of chemistry throughout the whole movie.
Unfortunately many of the other characters aren’t as well balanced as those two.  King Stefan is a mixed bag as a character.  Sharlto Copley does give a solid performance, especially in the later scenes where he begins to descend further into madness.  Unfortunately, he gets the shorter end of the stick when it comes to the role reversal of the story line.  Taking Maleficent’s place as the villain, King Stefan feels a little out of his element.  He doesn’t have the same kind of menace that Maleficent had in the original film, and he never comes across as truly terrifying.  It’s a missed opportunity with the character and it unfortunately reduces the impact that the final showdown at the end could have had.  Elle Fanning’s Aurora is likewise a one-dimensional character, but to the movie’s defense, she was pretty bland in the original film as well.  Most problematic though are the depictions of the Three Good Fairies.  In this film, they are very obnoxious and incompetent characters, who seem more preoccupied with squabbling with each other than looking after the princess.  At times, these characters almost made the movie insufferable to sit through, particularly when you think about how well portrayed they were in the original movie.  The fairies were actually the heroes of the original film, and I for one love their characterizations from that version; especially Merryweather.  God I wish Merryweather was in this movie.  I don’t understand why the filmmakers chose to go that route with the characters, but I can tell you that it did the movie a big disservice.
So, did the movie honor the legacy of the original, or did it insult it?  I do have to say that at certain points, this movie did come very close to losing me.  Only the strength of Angelina’s magnetic performance helped to pull this movie off of the ledge.  I do think that there is a great movie in there wanting to come out, but is hampered by a lackluster script and uneven direction.  The performances help to make this film bearable, and I do think Angelina Jolie could not have been more perfectly cast.  The film unfortunately doesn’t break the recent trend of tired, CGI heavy fairy tale adaptations for the young adult crowd that have failed to live up to their potential.  Following in the wake of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and 2012’s two failed attempts at the story of Snow White (Mirror, Mirror  and Snow White and the Huntsman), Maleficent likewise fails and instead becomes a jumbled mess trying to be too many things at once.  Albeit, this version does do some things right and probably is the best movie out of this trend that we’ve seen, but that’s not saying much.  Hopefully, Disney gets the tone right when they release their live action adaptation of Cinderella next Spring, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Cate Blanchett as the wicked stepmother.  As far as this movie goes, I’d rather stick with the original that has been a part of my life since childhood.  At least in that version, the “mistress of all evil” is allowed to be as such.  I greatly prefer the dark side of the character, though I don’t discredit this movie for trying something different.  It’s not a terrible take on the character, but I feel like it could have been done better.
Rating: 6/10

Godzilla (2014) – Review


It’s hard to believe that a giant, spiked lizard could have such a long lasting legacy on the big screen.  This year marks the 60th anniversary of the King of the Monsters, Godzilla, and there could be no better way to celebrate that milestone than with a big new blockbuster film.  First seen in the original Japanese movie Gojira (1954), Godzilla was clearly a product of his time.  For a nation still reeling from destruction by a nuclear bomb, Godzilla was a symbol of Japan’s fears about it’s own insecurity in the post-war years.  Godzilla’s reign of terror in those early films was clearly meant to represent the dangers of nuclear warfare, but his presence could have also represented any other kind of force of nature that is well out of mankind’s control.  That’s probably why Godzilla has enjoyed such longevity on the big screen.  He represents a timeless menace that everyone can fear, no matter what time or place he exists.  That, and the fact that Godzilla movies are almost always fun to watch.  To date, there have been 28 Godzilla movies in total, most of them made in his native Japan by the Toho film company.  The original film still holds up as a classic thriller, even with the crude special effects.  It proved to be so popular in fact that it was one of the first Japanese post-war films to have a wide international release; even premiering in most American first-run cinemas, thanks to an Americanized cut that presented the original movie with actor Raymond Burr spliced in for narration.
Of course, most Godzilla movies look dated now because special effects have become much more sophisticated over time.  Today, it would look silly to have a man in the Godzilla costume walking around and destroying a model set, but that’s what worked well enough 60 years ago.  Now with CGI becoming the norm in visual effects, it makes much more sense to have the creature be animated; it makes him look far less artificial (to a point).  American filmmakers have certainly looked at the creature for inspiration in their own larger than life monster movies, and to date there have been two major attempts by Hollywood at making their own films centered around the big green brute.  The first attempt was Roland Emmerich’s 1998 adaptation, which is a classic example of how not to make a Godzilla movie.  Godzilla (1998) is a notoriously bad film.  It puts much more emphasis on it’s uninteresting human characters, relies too heavily on goofy humor, and it redesigned the monster to the point where it was no longer recognizable.  In fact, Godzilla looked more like a rejected design for one of the T-Rex’s in Jurassic Park (1993), a movie that this Godzilla was clearly trying to emulate and failed.  Sixteen years after this notorious misfire, Warner Brothers has now released a new Godzilla (2014), and it sticks much more closely to the formula that has been used for 60 years in Japan.  Did it work this time around?  Kinda.
The story is nothing that we haven’t seen before.  It’s basically the same plot of every Godzilla movie before it, only done on a much more global scale.  The story begins with nuclear engineer Joe Brody (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) witnessing the destruction of his power plant by some unseen force.  After losing his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) in the accident, Joe becomes obsessed with finding out the truth about what happened.  Fifteen years pass and Joe is confronted by his Army-trained, bomb expert son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who begrudgingly follows him back into the quarantined area of the accident.  There they find what caused the mayhem in the first place, and it’s now just waking up from it’s slumber.  A giant, spider-like creature called a MUTO (mysterious unidentified terrestrial organism) starts wrecking havoc and begins making it’s way across the Pacific Ocean.  Ford quickly makes his way back to America in order to help stop the advancing threat, but not before being informed by scientists, Doctors Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Graham (Sally Hawkins), that another monster is also following the Muto across the Pacific; it’s natural predator and ancient adversary: Godzilla.  What follows is a race against time between the monsters and the humans before an inevitable showdown in the city of San Francisco.
Naturally, with a film based off of a legacy like this one is, it’s going to have to face some scrutiny with comparisons to other films.  The movie, for me, is a mixed bag.  Is it bad?  Not really.  I can see a lot of people enjoying this one, especially when it gets to the climatic battle scenes.  Also, as far as Americanized Godzilla movies go, this one is light-years better than the Roland Emmerich version.  This movie, for one thing, doesn’t resort to using goofball hi-jinks with it’s human characters in order to entertain it’s audience.  This movie treats everything and everyone involved with the utmost seriousness; something that it probably does a little too well.  Let, me state right away what my biggest issue was with this movie, and that is it’s pacing.  It takes this movie a long time to build up steam towards what it intends to deliver.  For most of the film, you witness more of the aftermath of what these creatures are doing rather than the actual destruction.  There are a lot of instances where the movie cuts to news footage of the mayhem, which isn’t as effective as it would’ve been if the movie had actually let us see it up close.  Now, I do understand that most of the early Japanese Godzilla movies were structured like this as well; saving all the best action moments for the end.  Unfortunately, the movie isn’t effective enough during it’s monster-less moments to make this kind of structure work.
I do blame this more on the shoddy editing rather than on the strengths of the performances.  The human actors here unfortunately have little to do, other than to react to what’s going on.  The movie moves around so much that character development suffers, and many of the main cast usually just fall into stock characterizations.  Aaron-Taylor Johnson suffers the most because of this in his performance.  He’s a fine actor, but the movie never gives him the chance to show off anything interesting in his persona, so he just resorts to becoming your standard every-man protagonist.  Ford really doesn’t have anything to contribute to the movie until one course of action towards the very end, and even still, it’s nothing compared to what’s going on with the monsters.  It’s surprising that a cast this prestigious, filled with many award winners, comes across as so bland in this movie.  Only Cranston and Watanabe stand out in their roles, and just barely.  It may be a little unfair to make the comparison, but this is why a movie like Pacific Rim (2013) works so much better.  That movie managed to balance out the human story-lines with the fighting monsters plot perfectly, giving both the time and focus they needed to work and it kept everything simple.  In this movie, you’ll start getting impatient because the plot chooses to hold off on it’s monsters, which just makes 2/3’s of this movie feel like one, prolonged tease.
But, when it does get to that final 1/3 of the movie, it is indeed spectacular.  At that point, the film knows who the star is, and he doesn’t disappoint.  If people come away from this movie satisfied, it will be because of the final showdown at the end.  One of the many reasons why this Godzilla is so much better than the Emmerich version is because he looks the way that Godzilla should look.  While slightly modified, this Godzilla looks more like the classic version.  One thing that this movie does improve upon from all other Godzilla movies before it is the sense of scale given to the monsters.  His presence in this movie will show you exactly why he is called the “King of the Monsters.”  When Godzilla makes his first appearance in the movie, it is a chilling moment, and it perfectly illustrates why we love the monster in the first place.  You know you’ve done a good job with bringing the creature to life when Godzilla makes the audience break out in applause at certain points.  Also, I give the filmmakers a lot of credit for keeping Godzilla’s one-of-a-kind roar in this movie, because he wouldn’t be the same without it.  Even though the movie makes you wait long stretches for him, it does do right by the character.  That’s mainly why the film can be infuriating at times, because all you want is more of the big guy.  Maybe the filmmakers wanted to be careful and not spoil the character with too many scenes, but I think this is where caution should have been discouraged.
The film is especially well crafted, and does work well at portraying the mayhem caused by the monsters in the movie.  The film was made by Gareth Edwards, a former visual effects producer who’s only directed one feature prior to this one; the far more modestly budgeted Monsters (2010).  While I think Mr. Edwards still needs to refine his skills as a story-teller, I do believe that he has a remarkable vision when it comes to the scope of this movie.  He especially avoids the tiresome Michael Bay convention of shaky camera work, and lets the action play out in tightly controlled compositions.  We thankfully get very long and detailed looks at the monsters, which helps the audience comprehend what’s going on in every scene.  And again, the director’s sense of scale is very well displayed here.  The design team also deserves a lot of credit, helping to make this film feel right at home with the look of the original movies, while at the same time retaining that Hollywood gloss that we’ve come to expect from a big tent-pole film.  The Muto creatures are a nice hybrid of that modern design and traditional Japanese aesthetic that the movie is trying to accomplish.  I often thought that they looked like armor-plated versions of the Cloverfield (2008) monster, and they compliment Godzilla very well and make great foes for him in the end.  Where the movie falters in it’s story, it does indeed make it up in it’s visuals, and it can definitely be said that Godzilla has never looked better on the big screen.
If this movie becomes a big success, which indeed seems very likely, I’m sure we’ll see more Hollywood films centered around the big, green guy again.  My hope is that the filmmakers actually puts more of the focus on the creatures themselves, and less on the plots concerning the humans.  Maybe the filmmakers were living by the motto that less is more with regards to monster movies, but I think they went a little too far.  Yes, the showdown at the end is worth the wait (especially when Godzilla shows off his special trick), but it’s a long way to get there.  When your movie is named after a certain monster, you’d expect to see plenty of him throughout the run-time.  Oddly enough, more screen-time is devoted to the Mutos in this movie than Godzilla himself.  This is indeed how the original Godzilla movies structured, but I think it may have worked better in the movie’s favor if it broke from tradition in this sense.  More interesting human characters would’ve helped too.  It’s probably me being nit-picky, but I feel like the movie could’ve been better if it did something a little different.  That being said, it does a fine job living up to the legacy of the franchise and it will continue to make Godzilla a relevant presence on the big screen for many years to come.  It certainly does that better than the awful 1998 version.  Godzilla has been an influential force on western-based monster movies for years, such as Cloverfield (2008) and last year’s Pacific Rim.  Now the King of Monsters is here to be a force in American cinemas on his own, and let’s hope that Hollywood will serve right by him right in the future.
Rating: 7/10

Noah – Review


Biblical epics have been a difficult thing to make lately in Hollywood for a variety of reasons.  One, they are incredibly expensive productions and two, anything related to scripture on the big screen is going to rile people up no matter what.  Once the go to source for big Hollywood spectacles, the Bible has since been ignored by the industry, presumably because they want to reach a wider and more diverse audience that includes people of all faiths.  But, at the same time, those classic biblical epics of the Hollywood’s Golden Age are looked at favorably as an example of grand scale film-making, which seems to be absent nowadays.  Epics still exist, but they’ve been secularized and stripped down of their glossy Hollywood sheen.  Movies like Gladiator (2000) and Braveheart (1995) defined the modern epic with grit and realism, while The Lord of the Rings trilogy brought back some of that old-school wonderment, but took it into the world of fantasy.  It wasn’t until Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) that we saw a return to an earnest, deeply religious adaptation of biblical passages, in particular, the crucifixion of Jesus.  But, even with The Passion‘s unprecedented success, Hollywood still was reluctant to step on any toes, which Mr. Gibson’s film almost certainly did.  Christian groups have attempted to make faith-based films outside of the system, but it isn’t until now that we’ve seen an actual earnest attempt at a grand-scale biblical epic, albeit with a modern twist to it, like we do with Noah (2014).
Created by director Darren Aronofsky, Noah takes on the old testament story of the man who saved all the creatures of the world as God’s wrath wipes the slate clean on Earth after mankind had spoiled his creation.  I won’t go into too much detail of the plot, since I’m sure most of you have read the book already.  We’ve seen the story of Noah adapted many times, but never with this kind of emphasis and scale.  The last cinematic attempt that I can recall of the story of Noah’s Ark is from a segment of director John Huston’s failed epic production of The Bible (1966), where Mr. Huston himself took on the role of Noah.  And that was only a 30-minute segment in a larger film.  Here, the tale is embellished in order to bring it to epic length, in ways that may test the audience’s acceptability rate in different ways.  Truth be told, it is unusual for a director of Aronofsky’s caliber to take on a story that so deeply rooted in religious faith.  Even more amazing, is that Aronofsky actually pulls off the tricky balancing act of showing respect to the source material, while at the same time making a movie that feels right in line with the rest of his filmography.  There’s no mistaking this as a movie from the same guy who crafted a psychological thriller centered around ballet.  Noah does exactly what it needs to do, which is be a solid expression of a filmmaker’s trademark style as well as be an earnest adaptation of a biblical parable that stays true to the spirit of it’s message.  And while it is flawed in many ways, it is certainly something that shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed either.
So, is this a movie that is going to please people of all faiths or is it going to drive an even bigger wedge between believers and non-believers?  Well, it’s primarily going to come down to how well you respond to Aronofsky’s style in this movie.  In particular, there is going to be some controversy surrounding some of the additions that the director has worked into the story-line.  But, at the same time, you can’t blame Aronofsky for adding new things into the plot, because the original biblical passage is very brief and can’t support a two hour run-time on it’s own.  However, the additions here exist more in the realm of Aronofsky’s imagination and less in the realm of reality or biblical interpretation.  We get the basic central figures of Noah (Russell Crowe), his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and their sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), along with an adopted daughter named Ila (Emma Watson), as well as the iconic ark and the many creatures within.  What the film adds to the story is an encounter with Noah’s mystical grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), a showdown with a vengeful tribal king named Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), as well as the inclusion of fallen angels known as the Watchers.  And it’s the point where the Watchers enter the movie that will really break down how well people respond to the movie.  The Watcher’s are CGI-animated rock monsters that feel like they’ve stumbled into this world out of some other fantasy realm like Middle Earth.  They are a really bizarre addition to this movie, and one that I’m sure will turn off a lot of people; but for me, I found it kind of awesome.
And that’s generally how I responded to the movie as a whole.  When the Aronofsky style was on full display in this movie, I was actually genuinely entertained.  And when the movie started to play it safe and stick more closely to a traditional narrative, it started to drag.  The Watchers, while still a very out-there idea on the director’s part, actually does make the movie more interesting, and gives it a more unique feel.  Oddly enough, after doing some reading online, the Watchers actually are present in biblical text (primarily the Dead Sea Scrolls translation), so I credit Aronofsky for actually taking a minor concept from elsewhere and running with it.  What I like best about this movie is the fact that it feels unlike any other Biblical film to date; it is entirely it’s own thing.  The movie is definitely a showcase for the cinematic styling of it’s maker, but at the same time, Aronofsky does remain respectful to the source.  He doesn’t try to secularize the story by any means, and there is definitely a religiosity to it’s whole message.  Although it may be based in Judeo-Christian theology, the film does manage to have something of a universal relevance to people of all cultures, primarily when it comes to respecting the environment and recognizing the corruption in mankind.  And I do credit Aronofsky for not shying away from some of the religious themes present, and for not trying to force them upon the audience either.
Hollywood’s reluctance to address issues of faith in a meaningful way in movies is a problem that I wish they would confront more often.  For the most part, I believe that the studios and not the filmmakers are the ones that have put a stop to religious discussions, mainly because they don’t want to court the controversy.  But, I think it actually helps to diffuse religious tensions in the world by having movies that aren’t afraid to address issues centered around God and faith, as well as having sympathetic characters who are religious.  And I don’t mean movies that are completely funded by Church organizations, which usually tend to forget the necessities of storytelling and just turn into propaganda in the end.  I think one of the best examples of a modern religious themed movie done right is the Ang Lee movie Life of Pi (2012), where the main character’s personality was driven by a curiosity about religion.  Movies like Life of Pi and Noah both show that you can center religion around a movie’s story-line in a positive way and still be regarded as a universally respectable film.  It does make sense in the end that Aronofsky would find a biblical story appealing to his tastes as a filmmaker.  One of his first movies, called simply Pi (1998), was all about Jewish mysticism and Rabbinical philosophy, which shows that the director has always had a fascination  with deeper religious themes.  That was also expressed in his deeply flawed take on New Age philosophy with The Fountain (2006).  Noah is a bit more traditionally Hollywood than Aronofsky’s earlier work, but it does show a good progression of the filmmaker’s line of thinking.
Unfortunately, the movie does have it’s pitfalls as well, and it primarily has to do with the moments when the movie plays it safe.  The inclusion of a tradition antagonist into the story with Tubal-cain makes the film feel less original at times.  A final show down with him and Noah towards the end of the movie has no purpose being there other than to give the movie a climax; as if the flood itself wasn’t enough.  Ray Winstone does what he can with the character, but Tubal-cain is still a stock villain that leaves little impression and is quickly forgotten once he’s been subdued.  And his presence runs contradictory to what could have been the better idea of having Noah himself be the antagonist.  Late in the movie, Noah is confident that he has fulfilled God’s plan to have all the creatures of the earth saved while humanity is wiped out, given that his family will never produce any offspring.  This notion is challenged once his adopted daughter Ila becomes pregnant.  Noah, wishing to fulfill his dedication to God resolves to kill the child once it’s born in order to secure the destruction of humanity, which makes him a threat to his own family.  This could have been a very interesting angle to take in the film, and it also has the added subtext of exploring religious zealotry in the movie.  But, again, Aronofsky looses some of that tension by playing it safe and giving the movie a traditional baddie, so that we can keep Noah from looking too much like a bad guy.  That’s why the film looses steam in it’s third act and ultimately leads to a rather unsatisfactory resolution.
The third act issues are problematic, especially considering how well everything else works up to that point.  The movie is beautifully constructed from beginning to end, and presents a biblical story in a way that you’ve never seen done before.  The movie definitely is a far cry from the glossy Biblical epics of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  The style here is more Old Testament meets The Road (2009).  The aforementioned Watchers also lend to the very off-kilter style of the film, but they are still a welcome addition, at least in my eyes.  Their final stand to protect the Ark from Tubal-cain’s army is a particularly exciting, and really insane action sequence; as is the flood, which is grand-scale spectacle at it’s best.  And while some of Aronofsky’s additions have little to no basis in scripture, no one can doubt that the Ark itself is probably the most accurate put on screen to date.  Very different from the traditional boat shape that we’ve all been familiar with, this Ark feels much truer to the description that is found in the Bible, accurate dimensions and all.  Also, the way they house the animals inside and keep them civil is also cleverly explained in the movie.  The Ark also looks iconic, and will certainly be one of the best images take away from the movie.  The scene where the animals migrate to the Ark will particularly leave audiences with a sense of wonder when they watch the movie.  Overall, the movie achieves the epic grandeur that it hopes to accomplish.
The performances are also strong as well, which is typical of Darren Aronofsky’s movies.  If there is one thing that Aronofsky’s films have in common it’s that he always gets awards quality performances out of his actors, like Natalie Portman in Black Swan (2010) and Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (2008), and the cast of Noah is just the same.  Russell Crowe gives probably his most dynamic performance since his Oscar-winning turn in Gladiator.  His Noah could have gone wrong in many ways if not handled carefully, and Crowe manages to balance the tender moments of the character well alongside the more intense moments.  Jennifer Connelly, once again cast alongside Russell Crowe as his wife like she was in A Beautiful Mind (2001), gives a nice subdued performance that compliments Crowe’s Noah perfectly.  Emma Watson continues to show much more maturity as an actor in her post-Harry Potter career, and she probably gives the movie it’s most nuanced performance in the character of Ila.  Also of note is Anthony Hopkin’s presence as Methusaleh, who has a nice little character quirk about wanting to eat berries that helps to give the movie some much needed levity.  Overall, the cast is used to great effect, and they ground the movie in a way that helps to make the messages resonate well beyond their scriptural source.
In the end, I would recommend the movie for anyone that wants to see a spiritual story told with a lot of substance.  It’s heart is in the right place, and it smartly avoid being preachy in every way.  Overall, I commend Darren Aronofsky for taking up a Biblical retelling at a time when people are more reluctant to do so.  Whether you are religious or not, you can’t doubt that there are interesting stories worth telling from the Bible, and Aronofsky has shown us that it can still be done.  He’s faithful, while at the same time taking interesting risks.  In fact, the movie only falls apart when it starts to play it safe; not necessarily when it comes to the scriptural source, but when it comes to old Hollywood cliches.  Noah can be very oddball at times, but I think that audiences will find the messages lying underneath worthwhile.  The movie works on many levels; it’s grand when it needs to be epic, it’s bizarre when it needs to feel unique, and when it does present it’s biblical lessons, it is thought provoking.  I doubt this movie will make anyone want to convert to any religion, but hopefully it will make some people want to take it’s lessons to heart.  I certainly am pleased that I saw it in the end.  In the great tradition of artists who have used the Bible for inspiration, like Michaelangelo and his Sistene Chapel frescos, Darren Aronofsky has created something unique and worthwhile that stands well against his own body of work as well as in the company of great biblical epics from the past.
Rating: 8/10

300: Rise of an Empire – Review


Portraying history on film accurately is often harder to do than portraying pure fiction.  In many ways, it is almost impossible to make a 100% accurate historical representation work, because cinema is all about making the artificial feel real.  Some movies feel more true to history than others, and yet the best loved historical films are the ones that, for the most part, play very loose with historical facts.  Case in point, Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning Braveheart (1995).  The movie is a slap to the face of anyone who takes the history of William Wallace and the Scottish Rebellion seriously, and yet it’s still an enormously entertaining movie, and also a personal favorite of mine.  Gladiator (2000) likewise is pretty loose with history, only it gets away with it more because of the fact that it has a fictional character at it’s center.  When a movie takes real history and changes it to the point where it no longer resembles the truth, it could be argued that the story has crossed into the realm of fable story-telling, which is itself an honored narrative tradition.  People always have embellished real events in order to make them sound more interesting.  George Washington never threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River, but we like to think he did.  A Roman general never turned into a Gladiator who then defied the Caesar, and yet we still welcome the idea of it.
Basically, we all enjoy telling tall tales to make our heroes greater than they were, and one of the most obvious examples of taking history and turning it into a larger than life fable in recent years is the 2007 Zack Snyder film, 300.  Based off of the real historical account of Spartan King Leonidas’ last stand against the invading Persian empire, as well as the graphic novel by Frank Miller, 300 was somewhat of a surprise hit when it was first released.  The years after Ridley Scott’s Gladiator hit the Oscar jackpot were not kind to sword and sandals epics.  Both Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004) and Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004) failed as historical retelling and as entertaining action flicks.  Not to mention Ridley Scott’s own epic follow-up, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) fell flat.  So, when Zack Snyder’s 300 was being developed, I’m sure many people had their doubts as well.  It’s not hard to see why, since the movie (like the graphic novel) doesn’t even remotely try to take the history of the event seriously.  And yet, after grossing $200 million domestic, those doubts went away.  300 was a unique film that actually fictionalized history in a way that everyone could accept.  By making the legend of Leonidas so outlandishly over the top to the point of pure fairy-tale level accuracy, it actually made the meaning behind the event much easier to digest.  Naturally, with a film this successful, it’s inevitable that a follow-up would come in it’s wake, though it’s surprising that it took so long for this sequel, Rise of an Empire, to make it’s debut.
As far as movie sequels go, 300: Rise of an Empire has a lot that works in it’s favor and a lot that that works against it.  One of the things that unfortunately hinders the film is the familiarity everyone has with the original movie.  Zack Snyder did not direct the sequel, instead giving the reigns over to newcomer Noam Murro.  Snyder did co-write the screenplay and there’s no mistaking the fact that this movie strictly adheres to the first film’s formula.  This movie is actually more like a side-quel rather than a true sequel.  The events of the first film happen concurrently with the events in this movie.  So, pretty much if you haven’t seen the first 300, you won’t be lost because this movie will constantly remind you of what happened with Leonidas and his 300 spartan soldiers, since it’s happening at the same time.  Only, Leonidas (played in the first film memorably by Gerard Butler) is barely even seen here, shown only in brief snippets pulled from the first film.  Rise of an Empire instead follows a whole different group of characters not even attached to ancient Sparta.  And this is one of the more jarring problems with the movie.  What made 300 work so well was our interest in the Spartan characters; their culture, their devotion to their king and countrymen, and their fearlessness in the face of danger.  That focus on the characters is a bit more scatter-shot in Rise of an Empire, though not to the point of sinking the whole narrative.
At the center of Rise of an Empire is the Athenian navy, led by their commander Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton).  Themistokles is tasked with holding the Persian navy back while Leonidas’ army delays the invading Persians on land, all in the hope that their brave sacrifice unites all of Greece together to fight as one.  The Persians are led by the power hungry Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, reprising his role from the first 300) and his own naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green) who has helped the Persian king rise his way to the throne to become the “God King.”  Most of the movie follows the same trajectory as 300, as the majority of the run-time is devoted to a string of bloody, stylized battles.  To the movie’s credit, it doesn’t merely try to copy 300 exactly in these fight scenes, and having all the action scenes take place on warships in the middle of the Aegean Sea is a nice change of scenery.  The standoff between the two navies is the main centerpiece of the movie, and the film rarely departs from this set-up.  This is both to the film’s benefit and it’s detriment.  The good thing is that the movie is actually very well focused, and like the first movie, isn’t overstuffed with a lot of convoluted plotting.  The downside of this however, is that most of it feels like a retread of things we’ve already seen, with no new ground gained in  the process.  For people who wanted a sequel in the truest sense, this might be a disappointment since the story-line only expands the narrative rather than continues it.
But, as a standalone piece of mindless entertainment, the movie surprisingly still works, though not as successfully as the first film.  Everything in this movie is a mixed bag, from the story to the characters.  When the movie does something wrong, it’s distracting and drags the film down; but when it gets something right, it does it exceptionally well.  There were some action scenes that I did enjoy well enough, and then there were others that were so uninspired that I just tuned out; an opening battle scene in particular felt very bland.  For those who enjoyed the stylized blood splatters and slow mo swordplay in the first movie, you’ll be happy to know that there is plenty more of it in this film; perhaps a tad too much.  The characters and performances are also a mixed bag.  Australian newcomer Sullivan Stapleton has the physique and the fighting skills down for the role of Themistokles, but he’s a charisma black hole every time he speaks, and remarkably enough, only makes you long for the star magnetism of Gerard Butler.  The other Athenians are also equally bland.  I couldn’t care about a single one of them, which was probably the biggest fault of the movie.  The only interesting characters on the heroic side are the ones returning from the first film which includes Game of Thrones‘ Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo and David Wenham as the lone surviving “300” spartan Dilios.  Unfortunately, their screen-time is limited to only a few scenes.
The film’s best element, and the one thing that makes this movie work as well as it does, is Eva Green’s performance as Artemisia.  Eva Green steals this movie in a big way and you can tell she’s having the time of her life doing it.  Artemisia is one hell of a villainess and she manages to outshine even the big, bad Xerxes himself.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a character like this who not only worked as a great villain, but actually improved the movie every time she was on screen.  She’s the most three-dimensional character in a film that is severely lacking in them, and her back-story is worthy of a film all it’s own.  She’s the kind of character that actually demands more screen-time and thankfully the film delivers on that.  Every scene she’s in is a gem, and remarkably, her interactions with Themistokles actually help to improve his characterization as well.  It’s actually really surprising to see a character this good in a movie like this, and that’s a testament to how good an actress Eva Green is.  She’s most well known as the Bond girl opposite Daniel Craig’s 007 in Casino Royale (2006), but this performance couldn’t be more different.  Here, she has the right balance between sexy and ruthless, as well as displaying unmatched charisma.  Her fight/sex scene in the movie with Themistokles is a particular highlight, and it displays perfectly Ms. Green’s fearlessness as a performer.  Her performance as Artemesia is much better than the movie is really asking for, and in the end, it is what makes the movie worth watching.
Fortunately, the movie is not without some other positive elements.  For one thing, it does carry over the visual look of the first movie very well, without feeling like a direct carbon copy.  Taking the action to the sea helps to make this film feel distinct, and there are some very spectacular visuals at play here.  Think of the naval battle scenes from Ben-Hur (1959), but in the 300 style, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what this movie is like.  To director Murro’s credit, he does keep things from feeling repetitive, and actually makes the action moments feel fluid and easy to follow.  He may not have the same command over the style that Zack Snyder has, but he still manages to keep everything grounded and believable, which is saying something in a film like this.  At the same time, there’s no mistaking this as anything other than a follow-up to 300.  The visual style is what makes these films distinct from every other sword and sandals epic out there.  There’s no dramatic departure from formula or style; you want another 300 movie, you’ve got one.  300 was groundbreaking at the time for having completely CGI’ed environments and set-pieces for it’s live action actors to interact with.  Today, that kind of technique has become more commonplace, so you would think that by doing the same thing in Rise of an Empire it would feel stale, but remarkably enough it still manages to work in it’s favor.
The movie also works well as a pseudo-parody of the first movie.  Though not intentional, I did pick up on some subtle jabs at the first movie’s more notable excesses.  Most of these come out of Artemesia’s sarcastic asides, which play well into her character.  She even manages to mock Xerxes over-the-top extravagance at one point in some biting put downs, and who could blame her; Xerxes is one of the most ridiculous looking villains in movie history, with his golden thong and chain link piercings all over his body.  Also, audiences noticed an underlining homo-eroticism in the first movie that couldn’t be ignored, with all the scantily clad Spartan men forming close, but never sexual bonds between battles.  In this movie, that homoerotic subtext is actually touched upon slightly; sometimes in a joking way, though not always.  In fact, there’s a slight hint that the main character Themistokles could be bisexual, given that he devotes just as much passion towards the men that serve under him as he does to the women that he lays down with, and sometimes he even has a stronger kinship to those same men.  Perhaps I’m reading too much into the movie, but I was happy to see that the film actually touched upon this subtext rather than just cast it aside like the first movie did.  The film also smartly avoids going too over the top with some of the series’ more notorious excesses.  There are fewer grotesque creatures in this film, which actually makes it slightly more historically accurate than the first movie; but of course that’s all in perspective.
So, is 300: Rise of an Empire a worthy sequel, or more importantly, is it worth watching at all.  I would have to say that it is a lesser movie than the first 300, but still an enormously entertaining flick in it’s own right.  The film does work as an action movie, and anyone who wants to see stylish swordplay in action will not be disappointed.  I’d say it’s worth checking out just for Eva Green’s Artemisia alone, because she is that good a character.  As a sequel to 300, it probably could’ve been better.  I certainly wanted to see this movie build more onto the last film’s narrative, especially with the way that 300 ended.  Also, the blandness of Themistokles and the other Greek soldiers in the movie really makes the absence of Leonidas and the 300 Spartans feel all the glaring.  Showing the other side of the story is fine, but not when the more compelling story has already been told.  Other than that, I was genuinely pleased by what I saw.  I actually came to this movie with low expectations, since I saw the 300 as a perfectly fine standalone piece.  This side-quel that we got didn’t blow me away, but it didn’t disappoint either, and in some ways actually exceeded my expectations; especially when it came to the villain.  Overall, I see it as a worthy companion piece to the first movie.  It may be wrong to show little concern for the truth in real history when making a movie, but sometimes it’s the legends that make the history come alive for us today.
Rating: 7/10

The Wolf of Wall Street – Review


Martin Scorsese has rightfully positioned himself as one of the definitive film directors of this or any era, and it’s not hard to see why.  Movies like Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and Goodfellas (1990) are considered masterpieces to audiences and critics alike.  But what I like about Scorsese the most is his enthusiasm for the art of film-making as a whole.  Over the years, he has strongly supported the efforts of film preservation and has shepherded the careers of rising stars in the cinematic community, as well as being a strong defender of creative freedom for all filmmakers.  And while he has done a lot for the film community at large, I still am happy to see him take chances with his own projects.  Scorsese may have branded himself early by making gritty crime thrillers like Goodfellas, but his filmography shows that he’s capable of making a mark in other genres as well; such as biblical epics like The Last Temptation of Christ (1986), or historical biopics like The Aviator (2004), or even a family friendly film like 2011’s Hugo.  That’s why I respect Scorsese so much as a director, because he refuses to rest on his laurels and churn out the same kind of movie over and over again.  At the same time, while his films may be diverse, you can still see a distinctive style that’s trademark Scorsese in each one of them, and that’s something that you will find in abundance in his newest film, The Wolf of Wall Street.
Wolf of Wall Street arrives in theaters this week with a whopping 179 minute run-time, the longest film in Scorsese’s career.  That may be off-putting for some people who dislike watching anything over 2 hours long in a movie theater, but believe me, this is not some overblown, contemplative epic yarn.  This may very well be the nuttiest and most demented three hour experience I have ever had watching a movie in a theater, and I got to say, I kind of loved it because of that.  The film is adapted from the memoir of Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street hot shot who ultimately went to jail for illegal trading, and the movie doesn’t shy away from every deprave moment of this man’s life.  To give you a good idea of what I’m talking about, no more than five minutes into the movie, you will see star Leonardo DiCaprio snorting cocaine out of the butt hole of a stripper.  That’s the kind of movie that you are in for and it just gets crazier from there.  I for one loved just how ridiculous this movie gets and I’m sure that’s what Scorsese intended for this movie as well.  We’re supposed to infer a lesson from this film, which is seeing the culture of Wall Street and what kind of sick and twisted people we’ve had in charge of our economy over the last 20-30 years. The best thing that Scorsese does is to not turn this film into a moralistic cautionary tale.  Here he’s mocking those who should be mocked and he treats this whole series of events like the circus that it is.
The story begins in the mid-80’s where a fresh out of college Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) starts a career as a stock broker in a bustling Wall Street brokerage firm.  While there, he learns the true shady nature of the business from the head broker, played by Matthew McConaughey in a hilarious cameo.  When Jordan loses his job after the crash of Black Monday, he starts anew, trading penny stocks in an accounting office which he soon turns into his own brokerage firm in no time.  Soon he adds another shady salesman to his team named Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), who also introduces Jordan to the world of heavy drugs.  With the combined tenacity of Jordan and his team, they soon create the firm of Stratton Oakmont Inc., which has no meaning other than they needed a name that sounded professional.  For the remainder of the film, we see what lies behind the professional exterior of Wall Street and, as portrayed by Scorsese here, it is a place where a fight or an orgy could break out at any minute.  We also see the depths that people go to when they have unlimited wealth, which seems to be only limited to the imagination of the people perpetrating them.  There’s soon shown a constant stream of hookers, booze, drugs, and even dwarf tossing.  And the most outrageous thing is that not a single character in the movie is ashamed of any of this.  The only character that has any moral center in the movie is a federal agent played by Kyle Chandler, whose dogged investigation leads to the eventual denouement that these characters are ultimately headed towards.
Scorsese doesn’t shy away from any of the more twisted moments in these people’s lives and I do give him credit for not taking the easy narrative angles that could have been taken in the film’s adaptation.  With the help of screenwriter Terrence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), The Wolf of Wall Street gets it’s point across without implanting any obvious moral subtext underneath.  The movie is less about who these people are and more about what they are doing, which is what the filmmakers wants us to focus on.  Given the rough state of our economy, many of us wonder where it all went wrong and this movie gives us one possible answer.  It’s not any one person that brought ruin to the economy, but rather a culture built around doing whatever it takes to become rich, even if it’s illegal.  What Scorsese wanted to do with this movie was to strip back the facade of professionalism and class that Wall Street tries to present itself as, and show us that in reality it’s all just one big frat party.  And to Scorsese’s credit, he manages to make this showcase entertaining without ever making it feel like it’s exploitation.  I’m surprised that of all things that this film would end up being, it ended up a comedy, but upon reflection, how could it be anything else.  The only other time Scorsese made a black comedy, it was the very underrated The King of Comedy (1983), and Wolf of Wall Street is very much in that same vein.
One thing that really helps to shape the tone of this film is the performances of the actors, and in particular, Leonardo DiCaprio.  This is probably the loosest performance that I have seen from Leo in his entire career, and that helps to make him so memorable in this film.  He’s cocky, in-your-face (literally, since the film often has him break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience) and is constantly reveling in his bad behavior, all of which DiCaprio delivers perfectly.  Honestly, it’s hard to believe that this is the same guy who headlined Titanic (1997), because the performances couldn’t be more different.  This is one of the most unashamedly, morally depraved characters I have seen at the center of a movie, and it just looks like Leo is having a blast playing him.  This is DiCaprio’s fifth collaboration with Scorsese, and I think that it’s been a partnership that has really enriched the careers of both men.  Apart from a sleep-inducing performance by DiCaprio in Gangs of New York (2002), he has gotten better through each role in Scorsese’s movies and this is the best one he’s done to date.  I love the fact that Leo is willing to take on an un-glamourous role like this which really challenges him as an actor.  This is especially helpful when you have to play a character that’s both charming and hate-able at the same time.
The rest of the cast also helps to make the film worthwhile.  Jonah Hill manages to create a character that just feels like he was always meant to be in this kind of shady business.  His performance could have easily turned into ugly caricature if done wrong, but Jonah finds just that right balance between funny and sleazy, which helps to put him in the same league as DiCaprio.  In fact, many of the best scenes in the film are the ones where the two actors are working off of each other.  One in particular is an extended fight scene between the two characters after they are both incapacitated from excessive consumption of quaaludes, which leads to some hilarious back and forth exchanges.  The remainder of the cast is full of many recognizable faces, all of whom add flavor to the film as a whole.  Rob Reiner delivers a nice fiery performance as Jordan’s accountant father, as does Jon Favreau as his legal consultant.  The aforementioned McConaughey delivers some great moments in his early scenes.  Australian newcomer Margot Robbie is also a standout as Jordan’s disgruntled second wife Naomi, and she manages to leave an impression among all these other heavy hitters.  It’s an all around solid supporting cast which Scorsese is famous for assembling in many of his movies.
One thing that you’ll also find apparent in the film is the distinctive Scorsese style.  This, probably more than any movie that he’s made since 1995’s Casino, feels like a Scorsese film.  Whether it’s the first person narration, the use of period details and music, or the unflinching excess of violence and debauchery on screen, these are things that have come to define the look and feel of a Scorsese movie.  The Wolf of Wall Street has all of that and feels very close in tone and style to something like Casino or Goodfellas.  Only this time, instead of the mafia, he’s depicting a whole different set of criminals.  I’m really impressed with how Scorsese is still able to make movies with this kind of energy and style after so many years.  You would swear that a movie like this was made by some fresh maverick director and not a seasoned veteran, but that’s a testament to how daring a filmmaker he is.  And the fact that he has made this a three hour long comedy is another sign of how confident he is in his abilities to make a film.  For any one who likes the Scorsese style, this movie will surely be a welcome treat.
One thing that I especially like in Scorsese’s movies is the different ways that he plays around with the formats of his film.  Apart for the aforementioned breaking of the fourth wall narration in the movie, Scorsese also plays around with cinematic styles.  The film actually breaks away from the narrative at points and showcases things like a commercial break for the Stratton Oakmont company that’s depicted in the movie, or showing us a full-length infomercial for Jordan Belfort’s seminar, which ends hilariously with his arrest by the feds while the video camera is still rolling.  It’s clever little injections like these that help to make Scorsese’s movies feel alive and visually interesting.  I especially like how the commercials themselves just reek of eighties nostalgia.  It reminded me of when the movie Casino suddenly introduces the “Aces High” TV show, mainly as a part of the narrative but also to parody shows of that time period in a tongue in cheek way.  Also, Scorsese also has a lot of fun with slow motion photography and extended hand-held shots in the movie.  It’s a clear sign of someone using all the tricks in the filmmakers handbooks to make their film feel alive through every single moment.  This has been a trademark of all of Scorsese’s movies and here he makes the most out of everything he’s learned as a filmmaker.
One thing I will say is that while I enjoyed the film immensely, it certainly is not for everyone.  I know many people will be turned off by the 3 hour run-time, but a good many more people will believe that the film is too indulgent as well.  Scorsese does run the risk of having this film look like an endorsement for this kind of lifestyle, but that’s only because it’s being told from the first person account of someone who is unashamed of what he has done.  I don’t believe that Scorsese’s intent was to ever exploit the excesses of these people’s lives for our entertainment.  In the end, he’s asking us to actually look deeper, behind the facade, and see these people for who they really are and not what they say they are.  In that regard, I believe that The Wolf of Wall Street is a brilliantly crafted film.  It’s visually exciting, brilliantly acted, and it feels right at home with all of Scorsese’s other movies.  This film may generally gets a mixed reaction from audiences, and truthfully I don’t blame some of them if they say that they found the whole thing disgusting.  It’s a challenging movie to sit through, but in the end, I found it incredibly rewarding.  Mostly, I just admire the fact that the film goes to places that you would never expect a 3 hour film to go, and it does it fearlessly and with a great amount of confidence.  Of course, what else would you expect from a master filmmaker like Martin Scorsese.
Rating: 9/10

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Review


Who would have ever believed that adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit to the big screen would be a more daunting task than adapting The Lord of the Rings.  After all, Rings is grander in scope and breadth, tackling heavier themes and showcasing intricately detailed cultures that exist solely within the world of Middle Earth.  The Hobbit by comparison was a simple standalone story geared more towards younger readers.  And yet, when director Peter Jackson was tasked with bringing Tolkien’s original classic to life on film, he somehow managed to make this short story into a three part behemoth that amazingly was a more complex production than his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.  Now, trying to expand a simple 300 page book into a trilogy of nearly three hour long movies was going to be problematic to some, and I acknowledge that there are some hiccups in this translation too, but I still admire Jackson’s attempt to actually make it work.  The pressure that Peter Jackson must be under as a filmmaker has to be overwhelming.  His adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a rare phenomenon in film history.  Fantasy films generally never escape their genre confines, and yet Rings somehow found a huge diverse fanbase, and the third film in the series, The Return of the King (2003), became the first fantasy film to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture.
Given the enormous popularity of Rings, it was inevitable that The Hobbit would also be given the big screen treatment.  But The Hobbit is not the ideal way to follow-up something like The Lord of the Rings.  Rings was intended as the sequel to the original novel, and Tolkien used his three volume tome to not only build upon The Hobbit, but to create an entire historical and cultural tapestry that enveloped both stories.  Because the Rings films came first, Peter Jackson had put himself in the difficult position of having to meet those higher expectations.  If Jackson had filmed the book as it was written, he may have alienated the Rings fanbase who wanted something bigger; and if he made it too big, and too much like Lord of the Rings, he might have upset some Tolkien purists.  Hence, this is why I admire Jackson’s determination to tackle the challenge.  He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.  He started production expecting it to be a two-parter spread across a two year release schedule, but after having shot so much footage during filming, Jackson made the controversial decision to split The Hobbit into a trilogy.  The first film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) premiered a year ago to a lot of fanfare and some generally mixed reactions.  Still, it did well enough to make people excited for this year’s follow-up; a movie that no body expected would ever exist, The Desolation of Smaug.
While some people were disappointed in the first film in the series, An Unexpected Journey, and I can completely understand why they would be upset, I was however generally pleased with the movie.  I admired the fact that Peter Jackson managed to recapture some of that Lord of the Rings magic, nearly a whole decade after the fact.  It wasn’t as successful as the Rings films story-wise, mainly because of the stretched out length and the slower pacing, but I still loved the fact that we were revisiting Middle Earth once again and exploring the corners yet unseen, while at the same time revisiting some of the highlights from The Lord of the Rings.  I placed An Unexpected Journey on my Top Ten from last year, so I was eagerly anticipating this follow-up film, and as it turns out, I loved it just as much as the first; but for very different reasons.  Much like the Lord of the Rings films were to each other, the two Hobbit movies are very different in tone.  An Unexpected Journey was more leisurely and light-hearted, while Desolation of Smaug is darker and more action-oriented.  While many moments are still played for laughs, this film does raise the stakes significantly, and hints at even heavier elements left to be seen in the third installment.  Also, like Journey, Smaug encounters some adaptation problems that can’t be ignored, particularly in the ways that Peter Jackson has stretched the story out.  But, even so, I found myself thoroughly entertained by this installment.
The story picks up right where An Unexpected Journey left off, with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the company of dwarves still on the road to Erabor, the Lonely Mountain, the ancient seat of power of the Dwarf kingdom.  After finding themselves lost and delirious in the diseased forest of Mirkwood, the Dwarves are captured by the woodland Elves and taken to their forest sanctuary as prisoners.  There they meet the Elven king Thranduil (Lee Pace), his son Legolas (Orlando Bloom, returning to the character he played in the Rings trilogy) and a female elf named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) who is more sympathetic to the dwarves plight.  Bilbo manages to help his companions escape by hiding them in barrels and sending them down a river.  Soon they find themselves in Lake Town, a settlement founded by the survivors of the destruction of the City of Dale, a place destroyed by the dragon Smaug.  They are helped out by a noble smuggler named Bard (Luke Evans) and soon leave for their fateful confrontation with the titular dragon, hoping to reclaim their ancestral home, and the treasure it contains, once again.
Anyone who’s read the book knows the story very well, and where it’s all ultimately leading.  The dilemma that Desolation of Smaug faces is the fact that it’s the middle chapter of a trilogy.  It has no beginning and no end (quite literally in this case).  But like with The Two Towers in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson took upon the task of making the middle chapter work on it’s own, and surprisingly came up with something very unique.  The Two Towers and Desolation of Smaug are films that feel freer in form than movies that surround them.  For one thing, they don’t need to spend a whole lot of time setting up characters and plot, because the first film has already done that work for them.  And it doesn’t have to wrap everything neatly in the end like a final chapter does, so that way it can leave more room for ambiguity.  That’s why I really admire these kinds of movies, particularly in Peter Jackson’s adaptations.  Desolation of Smaug succeeds because it has less of a burden put on it’s shoulders and feels more at ease in it’s storytelling.  An Unexpected Journey’s laborious exposition is probably what turned off a lot of people last year, but that’s something that you will not be able to find in this film.
If the movie has a fault, it’s in the extra bits that have been added that weren’t present in the original book.  Most of these additions I didn’t have a problem with in the movie, and for the most part, I think they enriched the movie’s narrative as a whole.  What I didn’t like though were some story elements that didn’t add anything to the film other than to pad the run-time.  This occurs mostly in the Lake Town sequences.  In these scenes, Peter Jackson injects a little political subtext and commentary into the story-line; particularly with a character called the Master of Lake Town (played by Stephen Fry).  Now, I greatly admire Mr. Fry both as an actor and as a human being, but his portrayal of the Master is really disappointing, and a waste of his actual talent.  I chalk this up more to the way that the character is written, which is very one-dimensionally, than to Fry’s performance, which could have been great if given better material.  Not only that, but the inhabitants of Lake Town are also very thinly drawn out, apart from Luke Evan’s Bard.  There’s even a servant character to the Master named Alfrid (Ryan Gage) who just comes off like a poor man’s Grima Wormtougne.  Also problematic is a love triangle that forms between Legolas, Tauriel, and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner); you heard that right.  Neither story element ruins the movie at all, and I kind of found the love story angle intriguing at times, but the movie works best when it moves away from these plot diversions and back to the story proper; which is Bilbo’s journey.
For me, there was a lot more to like in this story than to dislike, and of course the thing that most people will take away from this movie will no doubt be the titular dragon himself; Smaug.  Smaug has to be one of the most amazing creations in these films to date.  If you thought the creatures in The Lord of the Rings trilogy were massive, you’ll be blown away by the scale of this character.  Smaug really is the culmination of all the things that the effects wizards at Weta Digital have learned over the years they’ve worked with Peter Jackson.  The sense of scale is astounding; you really get a sense of how massive the character is through both his movement and how he interacts with his environment.  Of all the great cinematic dragons, including Malificent’s dragon form from Sleeping Beauty (1959) to the fearsome beasts in Dragonslayer (1981), to the charming Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon (2010), Smaug definitely ranks high among them, if not being the grandest of them all.  A lot of credit for the character should go to actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who not only gives the character a chillingly sinister voice, but also provided the motion-capture movements on which to base the character’s on-screen presence.  All of this helps to make Smaug the film’s greatest achievement.  To be honest, Smaug is a character that I have long wanted to see brought to life, ever since the first Lord of the Rings film was in theaters, and man did he not disappoint.  I’m very grateful that when it came to making this character a reality, Peter Jackson went above and beyond my expectations.
I should also say that the film does a very good job of building up the story-line without loosing its focus.  Apart from the troublesome parts that I already mentioned, the movie does hold together very well.  I actually think this is most briskly paced film in the series overall, Lord of the Rings included.  The movie keeps the tempo up from the very beginning and doesn’t let up even to the final shot.  It still clocks in at a lengthy 161 minutes, but that time will fly by quickly.  Even when the film reaches it’s finale (with the most cliff-hangery moment ever in one of these movies), you’ll  be left hungry for more.  I found this pace amazing, despite the fact that the movie does have its indulgent moments.  One scene in particular, the dwarves escape in wine barrels, goes on for so long and is so needlessly indulgent, that you would think it would hurt the film, but instead it actually is the best action scene in the movie.  With cases like this, we see where it worked better for Peter Jackson to add tension to a scene where there was none in the book.  In the original story, the dwarves escape down the river unopposed, but here they are chased by elves and the evil Orcs for a solid ten minute action scene.  It’s indulgent, but also a hell of a lot of fun and full of creative moments.  The audience I saw the movie with broke out in a cheer once the scene ended, and I certainly agree that it was a definite highlight.  But it also demonstrates how pacing has changed between the first and second movies.  Whenever Unexpected Journey was indulgent, it slowed the pacing down, whereas here it actually amps it up.
I also like the fact that the characters are also finding their footing as the story progresses.  The Dwarves are more fleshed out now, especially Thorin (Richard Armitage) who’s showing a lot more internal conflict in this film than he had in the first movie.  Here he’s a more fully dimensional character, showing moments of genuine nobility followed by soul-crushing greed in the next.  Martin Freeman continues to shine as Biblo, although in this film, he’s somewhat sidelined; more the fault of the lengthened story than how the character is used.  Freeman does have one excellent acting moment in the movie after Bilbo savagely slays a Mirkwood spider in order to reclaim his “magical ring.”  Without saying a word, Freeman perfectly conveys the negative toll that this ring is already having on Bilbo’s character in that moment.  Orlando Bloom returns to good form as Legolas, and the character gets some very bad-ass moments throughout the film.  Evangeline Lilly manages to make Tauriel an interesting new addition to the story (she’s an entirely original character) and carries the weight of being the only central female presence in the whole trilogy perfectly.  Also, the look of the film is still astounding.  More so than the first film, we are exploring parts of Middle Earth that we haven’t yet seen, and they are spectacularly realized.  While I thought some of the Lake Town scenes were dull, the look of the place is outstanding; like if you mixed Venice with some Dickensian slums.  The look of Smaug’s lair is also a remarkable sight; with jaw-dropping mountains of gold.  The set and costume design, as well as the Howard Shore score, also succeed at meeting the high standards that the series has set.
What I find interesting is how the film’s reception may actually play out.  When it came to An Unexpected Journey, general audiences were bored by the more leisurely tone and heavy exposition, while Tolkien purists were pleased by how closely it adhered to the original book’s tone.  This time around, I’m finding that more Tolkien purists are disliking Desolation of Smaug because of the liberties it has taken, while general audiences are enjoying the return to action-paced thrills in the series.  I actually sympathize with the complaints made by both sides, but the way I look at these movies is not by how action packed they are or by how well it accurately they adapt the book, but by how they work as movies in their own right.  That’s why I like both of these Hobbit movies about equally.  They still don’t quite measure up to The Lord of the Rings in overall quality, but damn it if I don’t admire them for trying.  Like I said, there was enormous pressure on Peter Jackson to get these movies right, and I admire the fact that he’s done as well as he has.  I am particularly happy that Smaug turned out as well as he has, and I also liked the fact that Desolation of Smaug has a story that stands well enough on it’s own, and as part of an over-arching story.  The film’s abrupt ending may irk a lot of people, but I commend Jackson for having the balls to leave his audience hanging.  It certainly makes me excited to see the final chapter of the trilogy, There and Back Again, which comes out December 2014.  But in the meantime, it’s well worth taking this continuing adventure into the world of Middle Earth.
Rating: 8.5/10

Frozen – Review


Sometimes Disney Animation has found itself to be it’s own worst enemy.  By this I mean that when they have a hugely successful film at one point in time, it will put a lot more constrictive pressure on whatever they have coming up next.  And when you’re in the business of making animated films that take 3-4 years to create, it’s very hard for a company like them to correct course in order to do repeat business.  For the most part, Disney has had better luck than most, but there has been a pattern in Disney’s history of some of their most ambitious films failing to meet expectations, while audiences gravitate to the less ambitious but entirely groundbreaking follow-ups.  This started back when Fantasia (1940), a film that Walt Disney put so much of his own effort into, flopped at the box office; and in the following year,1941, modestly budgeted and slapped-together Dumbo became a huge success.  The same thing happen again to Disney with the costly Sleeping Beauty (1959) and it’s follow-up 101 Dalmatians (1961), and once again with The Black Cauldron (1985) followed by The Great Mouse Detective (1986).  The trend actually reversed in the 90’s with the disappointing Pocahontas (1995) following-up The Lion King (1994); Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) following The Emperor’s New Groove (2000); and finally with Treasure Planet (2002) following Lilo & Stitch (2002).  Suffice to say, both trends have been common in Disney’s history.
So, when trends tend to dictate the success rate of your output, it’s understandable why Disney has stuck so closely to the genre that has given them the most success; the fairy tale.  In the last five years, we have seen no less than three fairy tale adaptations from the Disney company; 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, 2010’s Tangled, and this year’s new release, Frozen.  It’s clear that they are aware of their tradition and are very intent on carrying it on generation after generation.  But following formula does have it’s risks, and that sometimes comes about when breaking from tradition has actually paid off for the company.  As I illustrated earlier, sometimes a project that looks like a sure winner will fail to perform either when a new trend will appear or when people lose interest in the formula.  Frozen comes to theaters with a lot of expectations on it’s shoulders, which can be both a benefit and a curse to it’s prospects.  Last year, Disney found success with the very well made Wreck-it Ralph (2012), which was a huge departure from the Disney formula that paid off in a big way.  This only puts Frozen in an even more difficult situation of following this success up by returning to it’s traditional roots.  This is the knowledge that I brought with me when I saw the movie, and while Frozen does a fine job of making a beautiful and engaging animated film that I’m sure will please audiences worldwide, I can’t help but feel that some of that tradition did have a negative effect in the end.
Frozen is the 8th fairy tale adaptation from Disney, and the second taken from a story by Hans Christian Anderson.  Based, loosely, off of the story of The Snow Queen, the film follows the lives and adventures of two princess sisters in a fictional Scandinavian kingdom called Arrendale.  The eldest sister, Elsa, has been cursed from birth with the power to magically create ice and snow, which her family tries to conceal from the world and even from the younger sister, Anna.  After their parents are killed at sea, Elsa is soon crowned Queen and forced into facing the kingdom that she has been shuttered away from all her life, all the while struggling to control her powers as they become more powerful and erratic.  After an argument at her coronation ceremony with Anna, Elsa accidentally reveals her sorcery to the public, which leads her to flee into the mountains in exile.  Anna, hoping to reconcile with her sister, follows after her and leaves her fiancee Hans in charge of the kingdom.  While on her journey, she gets help from an ice gatherer named Kristoff, his reindeer Sven, and an enchanted snowman named Olaf.  Unfortunately for Anna and Elsa, the lack of control over the Queen’s powers has left the kingdom clouded in an eternal winter, and the bond between them is not so easily mended.
One of the things that I can say that the movie does very well is it’s story-line.  I’d say that this is the most competently put together fairy tale adaptation that Disney has done since Beauty and the Beast (1992).  While I did like aspects of both The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, I do feel that they had something lacking in the story department.  And let’s not forget the complete mess that was Pixar’s disappointing Brave (2012).  With Frozen, it is clear that the filmmakers actually put in the effort to make the story as compelling and consistent as it possibly could be.  I especially like the fact that this movie is a little self-aware of its Disney and fairy tale tradition, and at times finds funny ways to poke fun at it.  At one point in the movie, Anna falls deeply in love with Hans, a very Prince Charming-type character, and they agree to marry, even though they only met that same morning.  Elsa rightly points out that love at first sight is not true love, and I’m sure that many people have been wanting to hear someone say that in a Disney movie for years.  Despite these few meta moments in the film, the story actually does work well within the familiar fairy tale tropes and overall feels very much in line with some of the best Disney fairy tales.
One of the other things that worked very well for Frozen was the voice cast.  I’m glad that Disney chose not to cast any big celebrity names in this film, and instead went for the people who were the best match for the characters.  Certainly the casting of Elsa and Anna were important, and here they cast Broadway actress Idina Menzel (Wicked) and TV actress Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) in the respective roles.  Idina in particular delivers an exceptional vocal performance as Elsa, and helps to make her one of the most compelling Disney characters that I’ve seen in quite a while.  Kristen Bell is charming as Anna, and while the character is a little too perky at times, Bell manages to get the finer parts of the character right.  Another Broadway vet, Josh Gad (The Book of Mormon), shows surprising restraint as the comic relief character Olaf, who would have come across as obnoxious if played by the wrong actor.  Instead, Olaf’s comical hi-jinks actually compliments the film very well, and Gad’s performance has a lot to do with that.  Also, actor Jonathan Groff (TV’s Glee) gives a nice eccentric performance as Kristoff, helping him to stand out from the typical leading man in Disney movies.  I particularly liked how Kristoff externalizes conversations with his voiceless pet reindeer Sven, and yet it seems like it’s exactly what Sven would say if he had a voice.  Overall, everyone does their job well here and creates a well rounded cast of characters that I know will quickly become popular to fans young and old alike.
So, how come my review sounds a bit down on the film.  Well, it’s a complicated feeling that I have about this movie, and it really has to do with where Frozen fits within the Disney formula.  Like I’ve said before, Disney’s legacy has been both a blessing and a curse for some of the movies in it’s catalog, and some of that works against Frozen.  While I think the story is pretty solid, and does a commendable job of injecting new ideas into the Disney formula, the movie as a whole feels a tad too unfocused.  The problem I had with the film is that one character in particular, this being Elsa, was so strong and had such a compelling role to play in the story, that it kind of overwhelmed everything else.  And unfortunately, her story-line is not the thing that gets most of the focus in the film; instead Anna’s story-line is given precedence.  This would be more of a problem if Anna was an uninteresting heroine, but thankfully she’s better than that.  Somehow, I felt that the script put too little emphasis on it’s most interesting character, and that was not a good thing in my book.  Also, as solid as the story-line is throughout most of the movie, it does have a rather weak ending.  And this comes after a really strong final act that has some really out of left field twists.  What I think happened was that the writers didn’t know how to end their story, and instead they just slapped together a really pat and underwhelming epilogue that doesn’t feel at all like it belongs in the same movie.
When it comes to judging new Disney films, I try to leave tradition at the door and just judge a movie on it’s own merits.  But when you have movies that rely so heavily on where they stand among other classics, I can’t help but include tradition as a part of my assessment.  Frozen tries very hard to be a return to the classic Disney fairy tale standard that was set so high with movies like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.  Unfortunately for Frozen, I feel like it’s striving for something that it really shouldn’t try to reach for.  The reason why The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were such astounding successes in their time is because they weren’t trying to match their predecessors.  There was a 30 year gap, between Mermaid and the last fairy tale film before it, which was Sleeping Beauty, so the pressure on it was much less.  As a result, The Little Mermaid could play by it’s own rules and in the end it set a new standard for the Disney fairy tale.  Beauty and the Beast, likewise, built on that new standard while at the same time sticking to it’s own rules.  Frozen, unfortunately, plays it safe and that’s why I feel it falls short of those previous classics.  That being said, it comes the closest to that standard than Princess and the Frog and Tangled, and especially Brave ever did.
One thing I will say that Frozen does live up to with the previous classics is with it’s musical score.  The songs fit much better in this movie than they have in any other previous Disney musical in the last 20 years, which is quite a feat.  Some songs in it are just okay, but there are a few that really stand out.  One particular song called “Let it Go,” sung by Elsa during her exile, may just be the best song I’ve heard in an animated film since “A Whole New World” in Aladdin (1992).  Yes, even better than any song from The Lion King.  It helps when you have a Broadway-trained singer like Idina Menzel singing it, and she uses those impressive pipes to full effect here.  It’s the kind of song that will give the audience chills (no pun intended) and in a good way.  The songs were written by Broadway vet Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, both of whom have written some very non-Disney appropriate music in the past for musicals like Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon.  Despite their previous work, their musical numbers here actually are very clean and fit right in place in the overall Disney songbook, especially “Let it Go”.  Also, I want to add that the visual look of this film is outstanding.  This is the first 70mm Disney fairy tale since Sleeping Beauty, and the filmmakers make great use of the wider frame.  The landscapes down to the interiors of Elsa’s ice palace are all a wonder to look at, and it really makes this a world well worth delving into throughout the movie.
So, maybe I’m being unfair to the film by having too high a standard, but having grown up with Disney movies all my life, I feel like I have to hold something like Frozen up to some higher scrutiny.  The film for the most part does pass the test, but I would be lying if I said that I thought it was a masterpiece.  It’s just okay.  In the pantheon of Disney films, I would put it somewhere in the middle and maybe a little bit more into the better half.  It’s just a testament to how much I care for the Disney legacy, and how many great films they have made in the past.  On the bright side, Frozen is one of the better films that Disney has made in the last decade; though I will say, I enjoyed Wreck-it Ralph a tiny bit more.  I do hope that the movie does well, and I’m sure that most people will like it better than I did, and they should.  It does do well by the Disney Fairy Tale brand, and both Elsa and Anna have earned their place alongside Snow White, Belle, Cinderella, Ariel, and the other Disney Princesses.  Despite it’s flaws, it does take the Disney formula in the right direction and elevates the animated medium as well.  It says a lot when Disney actually has done something better in the last couple of years than Pixar.  For all accounts, this is the movie that Brave should have been.  So, while the Disney tradition has clouded my opinion on some aspects of the movie, I do like what Frozen represents, which is a solid story-line with great characters, who more than most films in the last decade, do deserve to be a part of the Disney legacy.
Rating: 7/10

Thor: The Dark World – Review


Marvel Studios has built something up that we rarely see fully realized in movies and that is a wholly compatible universe where all of their comic heroes can coexist within, while at the same time maintaining their own unique worlds in their selective franchises.  From this, we have seen the big screen translations of famed Marvel characters like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor become hugely successful, with The Avengers movie series being the orbital force that binds everything together.  While this has been a strategy that has brought about some very great results in the last few years, such an ambitious project is bound to hit a few pitfalls eventually.  For me, that happened this summer with the release of Iron Man 3.  While still a huge success at the box-office, the movie suffered from a lack of focus in it’s story-telling and became the first disappointment of the so-called “Avenger Initiative” thus far.  My worry after seeing the lackluster Iron Man 3 was that the individual films dedicated to each super hero were only going to turn into bland appetizers in preparation for the Avengers main course; and they would no longer be able to stand on their own as a singular movie.  With Thor: The Dark World being released this week, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier following in April 2014, I was afraid that these two characters were going to fall into the trap as Iron Man, and were only going to drag down Marvel’s master plan even more.
Thankfully, my worries proved untrue after watching Thor: The Dark World.  This second installment in the Thor franchise is a genuinely entertaining and overall worthy addition to the “Avenger Initiative” project.  Following up on the previous Thor film, as well as The Avengers movie itself, The Dark World manages to build upon what we’ve already seen and make it bigger and more epic without ever losing it’s focus.  I think that’s what helps it succeed where Iron Man 3 floundered; that ability to keep things under control.  The first Thor was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who was an unusual choice for such a project in the first place, given his notoriety as an actor and director of Shakespearean productions and small scale dramas.  But Mr. Branagh not only managed to create a successful first outing for the god of thunder on the big screen, his style of directing proved to be a great tone setter for the series as well.  The Dark World follows through on that foundation and manages to not only work as a sequel, but also stand very well enough on it’s own as a movie worth seeing.
Picking up right after the events of The Avengers, we find Thor (Chirs Hemsworth) leading his armies in battle in an attempt to restore order to each of the Seven Realms, of which Earth is also included.  At the same time on Earth, we find Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a physicist and love interest of Thor in the first movie, discovering dimensional anomalies in the city of London, England.  After examining dimensional portals in a warehouse, Jane is pulled through one suddenly, which takes her into a secret vault containing a powerful super-weapon called the Aether.  Jane unwillingly is turned into a host for the Aether as it enters her body, and she is sent hurtling back to Earth.  In no time, Thor finds her and whisks her away to Asgard, the kingdom of Thor and his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins).  There, they keep her safe, as an ancient race of aliens called the Dark Elves arrive to reclaim the Aether for themselves, which they plan to use to destroy the Seven Realms together in one catastrophic event called the Convergence.  Disobeying his father’s stubborn orders, Thor knows of only one way to take Jane out of danger’s way, and it means calling upon the help of his treacherous brother, and main Avengers villain, Loki (Tom Hiddleston).
For a very complicated plot such as this one, I’m surprised that the filmmakers involved managed to not lose control of it and have everything end up as a convoluted mess in the end.  I believe what helps to carry the story through are the characters themselves.  Chris Hemsworth has now had two films to develop the character of Thor over, and his performance in this movie shows just how comfortable he has become with the role.  He’s charming without coming across as smarmy or self-indulgent.  Unfortunately, the film doesn’t give him much to do until the second half, which would have been more of a problem if there weren’t any other strong characters there to pick up the slack.  The rest of the cast is more or less in tact from the first movie, and they all fit well within the story-line without seeming superfluous.  Natalie Portman, especially, improves upon her role from the first movie, in that she has an integral part to play this time, other than being the love interest character.  I like her resourcefulness throughout the movie and the ways that she avoids being just another damsel in distress.  Anthony Hopkins also brings great gravitas to the character of Odin, but you wouldn’t expect any less from an actor of his caliber.
The movie’s brightest spot, however, is the character of Loki.  He has been the one that has improved the most over time, and I think that it’s largely because of his evolution, aided by actor Tom Hiddleston.  In the first Thor movie, I found Loki to be a rather bland villain; and when it was announced that he was going to be the primary baddie of The Avengers (2012), I was very doubtful of the choice.  Thankfully, the character went through a major transformation between the films and not only proved to be a great antagonist for The Avengers, but one of the film’s highlights as well.  I think what happened was that they stripped all of the doubt and worry from the character’s persona and just made him unapologetic in his sinister ways, thus making him a much more memorable villain.  That characterization has carried over into The Dark World and the movie is better for it.  Loki gives the film a significant jolt of adrenaline every time he’s on screen, which helps the movie greatly whenever it starts to slag.  He gets all the best lines, and his chemistry with Thor is even more entertaining than the chemistry between Thor and Jane.  Tom Hiddleston looks like he’s having a lot fun here with the role, and that sense of fun becomes very infectious for audiences watching the film.  I’m sure that the growing number of Loki fans out there will be very pleased with how he’s used in this movie.
The downside of having Loki present, however, is that he steals so much of the effectiveness away from this film’s more principal villains.  The portrayal of the Dark Elves is really the one thing that keeps this from being a truly great film.  They are very forgettable and uninteresting bad guys on which to center the film around, and sadly, the movie never really delves deeply into them as individual characters.  They’re not terrible villains by any means; and definitely not the awful, slap-to-the-face villains that Iron Man 3 presented us.  There’s just not much to say about them other than they are mean and they want to destroy.  The leader, Malekith, is played by a former Doctor Who, Christopher Eccleston, and he does the best he can with his underwritten character.  The problem that I have with their function in the story-line is that we never really get to understand what the Dark Elves are.  They are an ancient race bent on destruction, but it’s never explained exactly where they come from or what they plan to do once they have enacted their apocalyptic plans.  That being said, their look is unique and they have a very memorable looking spaceship that is used effectively in scenes throughout the film.  Perhaps if there wasn’t a better villain already taking up screen-time in the movie like Loki does here, then maybe the Dark Elves would have worked better, but unfortunately they stand as one of the weaker elements in the film.
That being said, I am glad that the movie doesn’t fall into the trap of being just a lead-up to different movie.  In some ways, that actually makes it an improvement over the first Thor.  Thor (2011) was a wonderful film in it’s own right, but it was also tied a little too closely with the “Avengers Initiative” Phase 1 plan, and that led to some awkward shoehorning of elements from the overall Marvel universe.  In this movie, the references to other Marvel characters are minor, allowing the story-line to stay more focused within Thor’s world.  Sure, there are mentions here and there of the “New York Incident,” especially when Loki enters the film’s plot, but even these moments make sense in their placement within the film.  There’s also a great cameo halfway through the film that I won’t give away, but it makes perfect sense once you see it.
I also think that the film did an excellent job with it’s visual look.  Asgard has been expanded upon from the first movie, which rarely left the confines of Odin’s immense palace.  In this film, we are given more overview of the surrounding world that Thor calls home and it is beautifully realized.  I especially like the different ways that the production design team worked in Nordic styles into the look of Asgard.  At one point in the movie, there is a fierce aerial battle in the skies over Asgard and the warships that the Asgardians use to battle the Dark Elves are made up to look like flying Viking longboats.  It’s clever visual elements like this that makes Thor’s world feel unique, while at the same time easy to understand.  Also, bringing the action on Earth to London helps to blend the visual styles of the different worlds together.  The original film brought Thor to New Mexico, which significantly clashed with the scenes set in Asgard.  Here, by taking the setting to an Old World city like London, the filmmakers manage to keep the blending of styles consistent throughout the whole movie.  Thor feels much less like a fish out of water in the Earth scenes here, which helps with the character’s familiarity with our world in the story.  First time film director, Alan Taylor, tackles both sides very well, and while he may not have the same extravagant style as Kenneth Branagh, he nevertheless manages to keep all of the elements of the film working together.  Perhaps it’s because he’s worked in both kinds of genres for so long, directing episodes of both Game of Thrones and The Sopranos, that he was able to find that right sort of balance.
Thor: The Dark World may have some faults in the story-line and in some of the characterizations, but it mostly succeeds as both it’s own stand alone film and as part of the Marvel universe as a whole.  This was a breathe of fresh air after being severely disappointed with Iron Man 3.  What is most pleasing about the film is that the filmmakers were able to actually make a movie that exists more within Thor’s own world than what we’ve seen before.  I view this film as being only slightly better than the first in that regard, but both films have about the same strengths and weaknesses.  What makes the Thor movies so interesting, and perhaps more interesting than any of the other Marvel films, is that they are grounded more in fantasy than anything else.  Iron Man and Captain America are identified as science-fiction works, but the Thor movies play by different rules, and as a result, you can actually get away with more of the cheesy, swashbuckling elements in the plot.  Marvel films do deliver consistently on the action front, but when a movie like Thor unashamedly indulges itself in some of the more operatic moments, it feels very natural and appropriate.  What I love most here, though, are the little character touches.  It’s hard to think that a small thing like Thor hanging his hammer on a coat rack would be so endearing to me in this film, but that’s how well it works.  I’m happy to see Marvel pick itself up and do well by their hammer swinging hero, and I hope that it marks an improved trajectory for both “Avengers” Phase 2 and for Thor’s own series as well.
Rating: 8/10