So I Thor-oughly enjoyed “Thor”. I’ll be honest; I was not expecting to. I certainly enjoy the occasional comic book film, be it about a boy with serious spider issues or a technology genius with a giant ego and a sharp tongue. That said, I’m hardly an enthusiast. Of late, I’ve felt like Marvel has been making anything they’ve ever drawn into a movie and when I first saw the trailer for “Thor”, I thought, enough already. The two mediums are not meant to be mutually exclusive and not every character deserves to be reinvented for the big screen. Fortunately though, director Kenneth Brannagh has proven me very wrong. Perhaps this might have something to do with Thor not being your typical superhero; Thor is a god and he is a mighty one indeed.
To be fair, Thor isn’t really a god. He was merely seen as one by Viking culture way back around 965 A.D. He is immortal though and I can see how that might be misinterpreted as god-like but no, Thor is just a man – from another galaxy, with super crazy strength, who can never die … and who has an insane body. Still, mistaking him for a god makes his fall from grace oh so much further. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is heir to the throne of Asgard and is on the cusp of inheriting the crown from his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) when he allows pride and selfishness to guide him down a path that leads his people into war. Odin banishes Thor to Earth and strips him of his power, including his infamous hammer, which some of you geekier readers may know as Mjöllnir. God or no God, everyone has their lessons to learn.
Once Thor is on Earth, the action cuts back and forth seamlessly between the mystical heaven-like beauty of Asgard, where magic and science are one and the same and this teeny tiny town in New Mexico, population next to nothing. While the setup that precedes this act is certainly densely weighted in mythology and mysticism, it gets decidedly lighter once Thor crashes to Earth from the heavens. This is in great part due to Thor’s interaction with the team of scientists he runs into, led by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and the quick witted repartee they partake in. Thor is now a strange demi-god in a strange land and Hemsworth plays his predicament with great resolve. He cannot help but be humbled by the damage he has done, his inability to rely on the strength he always has and the genuine caring he gets from Jane. The real chemistry between Hemsworth and a hilarious Portman plays a key role in grounding this otherworldly tale.
What truly cements this fantastical story as still undeniably human is the father-son struggle between Thor and Odin. Brannagh, with his extensive background in Shakespeare, both on screen and on stage, knows that the action in “Thor” is the easy part. That hammer gives him the strength to defeat armies practically on his own and so whatever action he gets himself into, it will take care of itself. But the heart of the film has to be relatable. Thor is but a boy learning how to become a man, learning to put the good of the universe before himself. Odin is just a father, waiting for his boy to find the inner virtue he knew all along to be there. We’ve all been there, more or less. And so, Brannagh becomes his own incarnation of Odin, providing the tools that make it possible for a comic book to grow into the movie it was always meant to be.
Review by Joseph Belanger
As far as one can see, it is almost a complete blur of white. When the blowing snow passes, hundreds of trees reveal themselves. There is no noise to be heard except for that of pine needles rustling against each other and the occasional deer hoof cracking the otherwise pristine sea of snow on the ground. And while it appears to be the most remote corner of the world, untouched by mankind, there is a little girl hiding unnoticed amongst the trees and she intends to take down that deer. This is no ordinary girl though; this is Hanna, the title character in director Joe Wright’s latest film. And just like the girl, “Hanna” is no ordinary movie.
At 16, Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) has never left her home in the woods. Her father, Erik (Eric Bana), raised her there from a very young age, only he isn’t really raising her so much as he is preparing her. Wright reveals both her mission and her history very slowly and while his calculated restraint creates great intrigue, it is Ronan herself, working with Wright a second time after he directed her to an Oscar nomination in “Atonement”, that cements the fascination factor. Her focus is uncanny, as she memorizes countless facts and trains relentlessly every day and her resolve is shockingly powerful for someone so young. She may not know what she is fighting for but fighting is all she has ever known and is deeply committed to her father and his cause. Ronan carries “Hanna” almost entirely on her own and with almost as much intensity and bravery as her character must possess in order to survive.
Hanna is after a CIA agent by the name of Marissa (Cate Blanchett) and once Marissa knows Hanna is gunning for her, it becomes pretty difficult to decipher just which of the two is the hunter and which is the hunted. Blanchett plays Marissa as cold and deliberate, despite the warmth of her Southern drawl and her fiery red hair. Still, she knows something we don’t; she knows that Hanna is a force to be reckoned with and why that is exactly. She also knows that Hanna may have her priorities but that the world she now finds herself in – from Morocco to Berlin – will present a great number of distractions and that, despite her training, Hanna is still a 16-year-old girl and therefore curious. As good as Blanchett is though, Ronan’s ease keeping up with her shows incredible promise of what’s to come.
“Hanna” is an exhilarating film made by a filmmaker who isn’t afraid to make drastically different departures in his career. Wright makes strong choices with clear intention throughout the film, cutting back and forth between more natural settings and starkly contrasting modern motifs. The game at play is further driven forward by a Chemical Brothers score that is oddly sparse at times while explosive and frenetic at others. It is simply one of those pictures where you can see that everyone involved in the production is bringing their best work to the screen and that none of these contributors are afraid of the unfamiliar. The enthusiasm is undeniably infectious and the experience will not easily forgotten.
Review by Joseph Belanger
Jackie: He’s running.
Abby: From what?
Thomas McCarthy’s latest film, “Win Win”, is a little movie about regular people in a small town. McCarthy is no stranger to championing the stories of the every man (perhaps best exemplified in his last film, “The Visitor”) and this time out, he has the most regular of the bunch at the helm. Paul Giamatti is Mike Flaherty, a local New Jersey lawyer struggling to make ends meet, who also works as a high school wrestling coach in an attempt to hold on to his youth. His situation seems to be getting increasingly dire despite his best efforts to turn things around and McCarthy makes it his mission to take the tiny eccentricities that make up Mike’s daily routine and turn them into humorous foibles that are supposed to make his plight more endearing and relatable. Unfortunately, in doing so, he also makes everything feel far less authentic than it needs to be.
Setting up Mike’s life is laborious. The father of two works too much and is not at home as often as he should be. His law practice is going through a slow period and the bills are piling up. Naturally then, as he is jogging in an effort to reduce his stress, he suffers a panic attack. In a desperate effort to get out from under everything, he takes on the care provider role of one of his older clients (Burt Young) to collect the commission that comes from it. Instead of actually providing the service though, he sticks him in an elderly care facility. He has to lie to a judge and his wife (Amy Ryan) in order to make this happen so you just know it isn’t going to end well for him. The obviousness of the set up also makes the wait for the demise quite noticeable. Meanwhile, the lightened tone makes it difficult to know whether any of this is meant to be taken seriously.
Mike’s questionable actions bring about inevitable complication in the form of his client’s grandson, Kyle (promising newcomer, Alex Shaffer), needing a place to stay. It just so happens that Kyle is a naturally gifted wrestler and his fierceness in the ring becomes a great source of inspiration for Mike. In one scene, Kyle explains his strategy to his team; when he’s pinned down to the ground, he does whatever is necessary to break out of that. The knowing look on Giamatti’s face when he hears this means that at one point, he will have to do the same. And as his lies drag him down further into trouble, McCarthy turns “Win Win” into some sort of morality tale about following the path of righteousness in order to succeed in life. The suggestion is that life is a game made up of winners and losers and that we can all be winners if we actually try to do right by ourselves. If only McCarthy had been more genuine himself, then maybe his film would have truly lived up to its name and it wouldn’t feel like McCarthy got pinned down to his own mat.
Review by Joseph Bélanger
It has never been cool to be a nerd, but if the nerd community has proven anything in recent years, it is that they are a force to be reckoned with. They will band together when necessary to attend giant conventions where they can spend hundreds of dollars on autographs or they will rally thousands of signatures to ensure that their favorite television programs, no matter how obscure, stay on the air. And as their collective power has increased, the more they find themselves represented in the mainstream media, naturally allowing the masses to love them for their endearing social ineptitude. This newfound love of all things geeky is what makes movies like Greg Mottola’s new alien film, “Paul”, possible and, boy oh boy, does it ever geek it up hardcore.
“Paul” opens on a lone farm house in a large, empty field. Windmills start to turn frantically as a rocking chair rocks back and forth on a porch front. Before long, flashing lights fill the sky and a dog barks at the moon. This is quintessential aliens from outer space cinema and the kitch-tastic intro tells us right away that we will be both delighting in, and sending up, all that we have come to know about alien invader movies. As an added bonus though, stars and writers, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (the former previously penned the hilarious “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”), provide us with a rather touching look at the loneliness and insecurity that might accompany men who have never known anything other than their obsessions and each other. This is certainly no small feat considering their co-star is a little green guy voiced by Seth Rogen. The threesome embark on a road trip through a horribly unforgiving middle-America, in an attempt to get the little guy home – he had phoned in earlier – and run into a number of peculiar characters, from an actual man in black (Jason Bateman) to a religious zealot (Kristin Wiig). Ideas about God, the universe and space genitalia are exchanged en route.
Fortunately, geeky humour works for all – the geeks who get the inside jokes and everybody else who can just laugh at how incredibly geeky everything is. “Paul” may be occasionally predictable or transparent but Mottola is sure to infuse this buddy movie with as much heart and sincerity as is possible, given the subject matter. His work may seem extreme at times (“Superbad” anyone?) but it is also always relatable and genuine. While he has his audience distracted with the enjoyment they derive from immersing themselves in nerd culture, whether that inspires superiority in one viewer or solace for another, he manages to sneak something in that no one would see coming and that is humanity. Who knew that meeting an alien from another planet could make you feel more like you belong on this one?
Review by Joseph Bélanger
Director Jonathan Liebesman, the man who brought us “Darkness Falls” and a “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” prequel, is about to make contact with his latest film, “Battle: Los Angeles”. He drops his audience right into the middle of an epic alien invasion bigger than anything you’ve ever seen before on screen. And then, right when it looks like it’s about to get really dire, he takes the action back 24 hours, like a bad television drama might, so that we can contextualize exactly what this devastation has consumed, without realizing whatsoever that no one really cares what happened earlier. All we want to see is what happens next.
By the time you get to what is next, you won’t care what it is. First you have to meet the platoon that will try to save the world. You’ve got an army sergeant with a sketchy service record who has just put in for retirement. He will be leading a band of assorted military types who have never been in combat before. There is one grunt who is getting married, one whose wife is pregnant, one who is a virgin still (and therefore cannot die before losing his virginity) and there is even one soldier whose brother died under the command of his new sergeant. There is oh so much at risk for these boys and, thanks to the blatantly obvious setup, we already know what horror awaits them. Once in combat, hardly any of this back-story even gets brought up though, making it so worth going there to begin with, and Liebesman can focus on what he should have to begin with, blowing stuff up. He blows so much stuff up though that one wonders how he can sustain everything for another 90 minutes. Enter yet another tried and true tension builder; the troop must get themselves and a handful of civilians out of their war zone by a certain time or they will be bombed by an impending American air strike. At least the entire cast getting blown up would have been original.
“Battle: Los Angeles” is lazy filmmaking. It is one of those pictures that plays out like a bad pitch, so transparent that you can see the Hollywood suits behind the screen counting the money they will make off all who are unfortunate enough to see this disastrous disaster pic. The script is riddled with clichés and none of the actors, not even the usually stellar Aaron Eckhart, can find any meaning in the dialogue they have to force out (Michelle Rodriguez does a solid job but she’s got to be used to spitting out contrived nonsense by this point in her career). Even the film’s visual style, the only reason I went to see it, is derivative of “District 9” – only with all the excitement and electricity sucked out of it. Clearly somebody somewhere wanted to capitalize on that film’s success by stripping it of all intelligent and provocative thought, allowing for more middling audiences to just enjoy kicking some alien ass. It all amounts to nothing more than a losing battle.
Review by Joseph Bélanger
Valerie: I’m not afraid. I simply have no interest in talking nonsense.
Filmed in British Columbia, “Red Riding Hood” opens on stunning aerial shots gliding through grand mountains, surrounded by thousands of fir trees, pristine lakes and feathery cloud formations. The shots distinctly reminded me of another supernatural “thriller” shot in the same location and, not coincidentally, by the same director. The director in question is Catherine Hardwicke and “Red Riding Hood” is her first film since she initiated the “Twilight” series. The opening gave me reason for concern; I had no interest in reliving that tedious vampire series after all. Unfortunately, Hardwicke had other plans.
By the time we are introduced to little red, Miss “What big eyes you have?” herself, Amanda Seyfried, it is pretty clear that this attempt to recount the classic folk tale about a little girl in a red cape and the big, bad wolf waiting to devour her in the forest, is going to amount to nothing more than adolescent angst disguised as epic filmmaking. Seyfried’s mountain town is being terrorized by a werewolf but more importantly, Seyfried is being pawned off in marriage to one guy (Max Irons) while her heart belongs to another (Shiloh Fernandez). The sets, cinematography and score do their best to fill in the terribly thin premise but it isn’t enough to make us forget that Hardwicke has just made another other worldly love triangle tailored to a very specific demographic.
Pandering to a teenage audience is what ultimately takes all of the bite out of “Red Riding Hood”. By trying very hard to recapture that same desperate love at all costs tone the “Twilight” series relies so heavily on, Hardwicke undermines the intensity of the more horrific story elements she has at her disposal. Seyfried is torn and to make matters worse, one of her suitors might actually be the wolf. Fortunately for her, loving the beast is fully acceptable behaviour for young girls these days. At least in the movies, it is.
Review by Joseph Bélanger
As I waited for “Rango” to start, I was forced to sit through a number of trailers for this year’s other expected animated features. All are unnecessary sequels hoping to cash in on previous success and they all look forced at best. All are of course in 3D as well to ensure the largest returns possible. It all got me wondering where the originality has gone. Even “Rango” is yet another animation where animals walk and talk like human beings but somehow this lizard manages to stand out amongst the competition. And he does this despite his best efforts to blend in.
When we first meet Rango, he is self-described as someone who “has yet to enter his own story”. To be fair, your story options are somewhat limited when you’re living in a tank. Fortunately for Rango, and at the precise moment when he realizes he is desperately in need of “an unexpected event to propel the hero into conflict,” he finds himself suddenly trapped in a chain of events that leads him to his new life in the Mojave Desert. Now, Rango is no ordinary lizard. More specifically, he is a chameleon and designed to blend in, but has been on display his whole life. With no idea who he actually is though, Rango has always had to rely on theatrics and drama to distract from himself, which appears to have taken its toll. The other particularly incredible thing about this lizard? He is voiced by Johnny Depp.
Depp is the epitome of neo-cool. He has always been cool by constantly coming off as the embodiment of the freshest take on more classical ideas of cool, without ever looking like he is trying. Here, Depp channels the sprawling cinematic drawl of the Spaghetti Western, with help from his former “Pirates of the Caribbean” director, Gore Verbinski. Depp brings his humbled awkwardness along with him and when you couple that with Rango’s incredibly deep-rooted insecurity, you’ve got a lizard in one heck of an existential crisis. While all of this elevates “Rango” to a height of animated sophistication that is both thought provoking and hilarious at times, it is also decidedly adult. In fact, an owl mariachi band repeatedly reminds us throughout the film that we are watching the story of our hero’s demise. Taunting children that death is coming seems a bit frightening to me but the owls are awful cute so the news doesn’t seem quite so harsh.
Naturally, Rango meets a bunch of other critters in the desert, most of them not so cuddly, and he must help them save their town by playing the hero they so gravely need. In order to do so though, Rango must actually become the hero instead of just playing the part. Some of “Rango”’s imagery and themes may be scary for younger audiences but it’s Rango’s angst over not knowing who he is that will be most frightening for adults. And seeing as how some us never actually get around to pointing that mirror inward, maybe its not such a bad idea after all to get people asking the question a little earlier in life.
Review by Joseph Bélanger
If you knew that being with you meant that the person you love would never realize his or her dreams, would you walk away from them? If you wanted to, would you even be capable? As interesting a question as it is, it is the kind of question that hardly anything good can come from. If you want to stay, you’re selfish. If you want to go, then you don’t think love matters as much as success does. Regardless of your decision, you won’t be happy either way, but I suppose it got you thinking and that alone has its own value these days. Take that question and throw it into the central story of a movie though and you might have yourself with a pretty compelling drama. Or you might find yourself fully dismayed and just watching “The Adjustment Bureau”.
Matt Damon, whose film choices as of late have all fell flat for me, plays David Norris, the youngest Congressman in American history, in George Nolfi’s directorial debut. Nolfi and Damon last worked together on “The Bourne Ultimatum”, which Nolfi wrote and Damon starred in. Sadly, their relationship did not end there and, if I am meant to take anything away from their latest collaboration, it would be that it was obviously not meant to. The men who work at this particular bureau all wear snazzy hats and sharp suits but they might as well be wearing sparkly fairy dresses covered in pixie dust, given what their jobs are. These men, who may or may not in fact be angels, are making sure every day that the plan in place for every person on the planet is carried out properly. To do this, they must meddle with humanity as inconspicuously as possible. These are the guys who hide your keys in the morning or spill coffee on your clean shirt so that you leave the house five minutes later and either miss or catch the moment you were intended to. And see, I always thought that was the work of garden gnomes.
Damon meets Emily Blunt’s Elise in a bathroom. The seemingly chance encounter was not at all what it seemed and the two hit it off splendidly. Suddenly though, she must flee, and unlike Cinderella, she leaves neither her name nor her slipper behind. That was supposed to be the end of it, or at least according to the plan it was. The kiss they shared was too good to be forgotten though and neither can get the other out of their heads. The bureau simply cannot have this; it is not in the plan. And so the men in suits and hats do everything in their power to keep these two lovebirds apart. They point their fingers at people’s phones and messages appear or they flash a look in another direction and cabs go off duty. I half expected them to start wiggling their noses and disappearing in clouds of smoke at one point. They do all this to prevent Damon and Blunt from having a moment that might lead to a kiss, for a real kiss could alter their universes forever. As laughable and trivial as that sounds, it actually happens in the movie.
“The Adjustment Bureau” clearly wants to come off as cool but really only comes off as trying too hard. Nolfi’s direction is sorely uneven but with such a weak script, it could not have been easy to make the actors sound convincing. Granted, he wrote the script as well so blaming the writer is just more blame on him. Nolfi strives to get the viewer lost in the perilous divide between fate and chance, all the while trying to figure where free will fits in to the mix. All he does is pose the question though without drawing any actual conclusions. If we actually have free will, I suggest you exercise it and avoid this movie. If our fates are already decided though, I hope you, like me, were not just meant to suffer through this movie.
Review by Joseph Bélanger
It can’t be easy to be an aging magician, especially one who has to work so tirelessly just to get by. The title character in French director Sylvain Chomet’s latest work of pure artistry, “L’Illusionniste”, can fit his entire life into a few, tiny pieces of luggage, which he carts from one dilapidated theatre to the next, so that he can play to near empty houses whenever possible and at least afford lodging and a little to eat. Night after night, he performs the same tired tricks he’s been peddling for years, still trying to trick the world into thinking that magic can happen, when its clear from his sullen expression that he stopped believing in magic long before. It’s no wonder really that the curtain doesn’t even open for him when we first catch his act.
One day, a gig brings the illusionist (voiced by Jean-Claude Donda) to Scotland, where he meets Alice (Eilidh Rankin), a young girl who works at a local inn. She catches his act and then catches him backstage for a private encore and with that, she is convinced. Suddenly, there is someone standing in front of him who believes he is actually magical. From this point on, he becomes an illusionist of a different sort, trying to maintain her beliefs and mask his own true reasons for wanting her in his life. It isn’t clear whether he has ever had a daughter but it is clear from the way he takes care of Alice, that love has been absent for some time. Together, they get a small place at the Little Joe Hotel, which houses a variety of starving artists, from a suicidal clown to an alcoholic ventriloquist. For Alice, the whole situation is bigger than anything she’s ever known and cannot see how truly hard it is to keep up with. For her, nickels really can be found behind her ear whenever she needs them.
“L’Illusionniste” is based on an unproduced script by French mime and comedy legend Jacques Tati. It is said to be a letter to his daughter but there is some disagreement amongst admirers of his work, as to whether it was written for the daughter he barely saw or the daughter he never knew. Chomet certainly fills his adaptation with plenty of parental woe and disappointment but also rounds it out with complex issues like mixing art and commerce and the evolution of taste as it descends the generations. Like his last great accomplishment, “Les Triplettes de Belleville”, Chomet works a little magic of his own, creating mostly two-dimensional art that comes to life without having to rely on effects or even silly dialogue as the film is mostly silent. So without having to resort to its own form of trickery, “L’Illusionniste” is a truly unique and enchanting experience, which should have all who see it believing in magic by the time the curtain closes.
Review by Joseph Bélanger
I’m not sure if you were aware of this but the world’s financial markets crashed hard in the later part of 2008. Thousands upon thousands of people lost their jobs, their homes and their lives as they knew them. Two years later, the situation is on a reasonable mend but many are still without work and still losing their livelihoods. I don’t mean to make light of these difficult times; obviously, you were already aware of everything I just wrote. John Wells, one of the men behind the long-running television series, E.R. and the director of “The Company Men”, however, seems to just be joining the table with his first feature. The ensemble drama attempts to tackle the fallout from this economic crisis but only ends up playing out like a whiney reluctance to let go of America’s overinflated financial hay day.
“The Company Men” opens on Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), strutting into his fancy office after playing a few rounds of golf before coming in. Little does he know, he is about to get canned. The company Bobby has worked for for 12 years, where he earns a salary of more than $120K plus incentives and bonuses, is downsizing in light of the crash. What follows this, is one overwrought termination cliché after another. Will Bobby be able to make his next mortgage payment? Will Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) be able to send his child to an Ivy League university in the fall? Will that other random unemployed guy be able to find another job in his field or will he have to lower his expectations in order to make ends meet? And it doesn’t stop there either. Before the movie ends, some executives will feel great guilt over sacrificing people at the hands of the shareholders, while others will collect their bonuses despite massive layoffs. All that was missing was some suit caving under the pressure and killing himself. Oh wait, it has that too.
Wells clearly believes he is telling an important story and the men of “The Company Men” (also including Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Costner and Craig T. Nelson) do their best to make the plights feel real, but the truth of it is that the problems they face are those of people who were already privileged to begin with. No one here has to face homelessness or hunger. No, everyone here has their savings to fall back on. Everyone here had a great job to start with, which gives them an advantage over all the other people who were already struggling to begin with, when they lost their jobs. All spending time in the company of these men accomplishes, as they lament the good old days when they used money for toilet paper, is the highly unsympathetic reminder that they were living way too large to begin with.
Review by Joseph Bélanger