Review: Thor – The Dark World (Dustin SanVido)

Review: Thor: The Dark World

thor the dark world poster

Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Christopher Eccleston, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Jamie Alexander, Kat Dennings, Stellen Skarrsgard, Rene Russo, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Zachary Levy, Idris Elba, and Ray Stevenson

Written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely (and a little help from Joss Whedon)

Directed by Alan Taylor

Marvel has certainly taken other comic-based film properties to school in the last 6 years (I’m looking at you DC) in terms of product, marketing, and a focused long term goal. As a fan of this world of characters, I’m astonished that Marvel has successfully developed their brand into a cinematic Juggernaut and basically dared every other company out there to try and compete with them. This trend happily continues in the disjointed but more often-than-not satisfying second entry in the series starring our favorite Norse God, Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Thor: The Dark World follows the prototype that Marvel has used in every film they’ve produced, misses the mark on a few key targets, polarizes a limited amount of their audience with needless 3-D, but delivers the thrills and spectacle that you’ve come to expect from the Marvel universe.

I don’t feel any need to summarize the narrative for “Thor: The Dark World” as it is no different from the other films in this serialized Marvel universe. They all have the same generalized story and are merely a continuation of one another, the EXACT cinematic manifestation of the comics many of us read when we were young and expected to see onscreen. The story is quite simple: Continuing after the events of the first film and the superhero orgy that was “The Avengers”, we catch up with all the characters we missed, a new villain with simple motives is introduced, a McGuffin is presented that will grant unlimited power to the wrong individual who can harness it, a secondary conflict between our protagonist is briefly touched upon, death is foreshadowed, and away we go! It doesn’t get any more difficult than that and frankly it doesn’t need to.

Much like Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Hiddleston, Chris Hemsworth has come to a point where he is synonymous with the titular character and not such a douche this time around. Although his performance in September’s “Rush” is vastly superior, I attribute his performance in T:TDW to script doctoring and an un-interesting central conflict. He still fully embodies the Norse God with the biggest guns around, and plays well off every other performance in the film, it’s just his only conflict of the film is one we have already explored (Loki) and his philosophical musings on the prospect of being King of Asgard. The simple plot keeps us from really exploring the psychology of these personal struggles, but then again we didn’t come here for a lesson in Psychology, we came for Hammer Time!

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Tom Hiddleston once again acts circles around every other talent in this film. H’s the most interesting character in the series, by a wide margin, and an argument can certainly be made that he is the lynchpin to the entire Marvel cinematic universe. Once he or Robert Downey Jr. inevitably steps away from this world for greener pastures, there will be a dimensional-portal sized hole that will need to be filled.

I feel as though Natalie Portman’s Oscar-level talent is again wasted in this series. Much like the first entry, there are a few genuine moments that convince me there is effort being given, but I have deduced she wasn’t too pleased with her story arc this time around. For the majority of the film, her world-renowned astro-physicist is relegated to “Damsel in Distress” clichés instead of using her scientific knowledge to rationalize the more fantastical elements of the narrative. There is an attempt at this very point on a few occasions, but it’s merely for moments of comedic relief and to give the audience a reason for her place in the final set piece.

Due to the lack of thematic balance in “T:TDW” we are left with a very one dimensional villain who could’ve used said additional supportive exposition to strengthen his motivation, as opposed to beating us over the head with basic information when multiple characters all state what we already know…”Malekith is evil, Malekith wants to return the universe to darkness, Malekith is very cool looking, and did we mention he’s evil?”

His motivations are never fleshed out or understood, his small army of minions are nothing more than cannon fodder as dangerous a threat as the single henchman Michael Caine deliciously monologues into submission in the third Austin Powers entry, and his biggest weapon is his accent. His primary henchman Algrim, who becomes the last Kurse (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) illicits modest enjoyment, but this is a rare instance where I would have enjoyed the use of CG to make him larger and more imposing,  instead of the practical effects that made him more NFL Defensive End then otherworldly killing-machine. He honestly could’ve been Detroit Lion Ndamakong Suh and I wouldn’t have been the wiser! I enjoyed watching Malekith’s CG effects, practical make-up, and actions unfold on-screen, but he is nothing more than a second-rate Bond villain in this film. Larry David is a more convincing villain than Malekith and his army.

With the criminal exception of Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), a member of the Warrior’s Three, the secondary characters in T:TDW are still underused, but a concerted effort is made this time around to include everyone and that effort services the narrative well. All are given moments to stand out and leave an impact on the story, just some more than others. If the titular hero had any sort of personal struggle or conflict aside from those I mentioned before, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the under-usage of such a fine cast. But I digress, the film gets more than enough right, or just enough to distract my inner child that my minor nit-pickings subside.

Aside from the opening battle that feels disjointed, rushed and frankly more of an excuse to remove 3 important secondary characters for much of the first half, there were several action-oriented moments of awe in “Thor” that I’ve only felt a handful of times in the Marvel films. The special-effects driven sequences are clear and easy to follow, and really serve the direction of the narrative, instead of being a distraction. The last 35 minutes of the film moves at breakneck pace and not only helps the viewer forget the middling first act, but provides grand spectacle in showcasing Thor’s different combat abilities and power of flight. I knew they had nailed Thor’s many comic-rooted action beats by the excited fanfare in the form of dozens of fan-boys behind us in attendance. Because just like them, I’ve been reading and imagining a cinematic world in my head for almost 25 years where superheroes like Thor, and to a lesser extent Iron Man, use the power of flight only seen on paper and ink. We’re in a golden age folks, so enjoy it!

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Although there is much to like in T:TDW, the weakest point this time around is the script. It seems some of the production controversy and gossip surrounding the Marvel’s lack of confidence in the director seems warranted, no more obvious then the multiple moments in the film that forcibly tie “Thor” into the Marvel Wheelhouse. There are just far too many tongue-in-cheek moments where I KNOW Joss Whedon doctored the script and inserted dialogue to keep a film that could have presented a more dramatic and serious tone. This time around I would have preferred that tonal shift as a direct continuation of the events of “the Avengers”, much like the third Iron Man touched upon a handful of times throughout the film before finally being wrestled into the prototypical Marvel film we’ve come to expect.

Not much else needs to be said concerning the direction from Alan Taylor. His debut feature proves he can make a functional action film from lesser writing talent using the experience he learned from his many years directing several cable series on HBO. I like his work on the smaller screen much more, but did appreciate the few call-backs he made to his work on “Game of Thrones” (Flaming arrows!). From a technical standpoint, I was neutral in the look, sound, and feel. At this point, there are a few certainties in this universe we can look past. Marvel films look fantastic. The glossy look of Asgard was missing this time around, but it didn’t bother me. Marvel films also have great rousing scores that’s use of horns and crescendos slighter differ based on which fighter’s corner we happened to be standing in. My favorites to date are still the scores from “The Avengers” and “Iron Man 3”, but I’m a sucker for Alan Silvestri. The music and sound in T:TDW is operatic and theatrical in nature, and it served the film well.

I watched T:TDW in IMAX-3D and in several instances removed my glasses and noticed almost no difference in image. The 3D in T:TDW was never intended, the film wasn’t shot with it in mind, and the director himself openly stated his distaste in its use. That being said, strong advocates of 3-D will be happy to know the brightness has been cranked up to support the loss that occurs in the 3-D transfer but aside from that, I will only recommend the extra cost for the privilege of seeing an extended sequence from the upcoming “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”. I’m still salivating from that scene and next April can’t come soon enough.

To briefly touch on what we’ve come to expect from a Marvel Film, the teaser scenes in the credits do their best to both set up the future story-lines for all Marvel properties, and offer a humorous finish much like “The Avengers”. Tying up plot holes is something we as an audience are rarely treated to in this particular world and it was a nice touch.

While I’ve made it clear that T:TDW does have its fair share of issues, it’s an ultimately satisfying entry in the Marvel series and successfully captures everything that’s great about the character. A badly foreshadowed but highly entertaining ending leaves the series on sure footing, making me excited for the inevitable third entry. Till next time…

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Kick-Ass 2 Review (Kirk Haviland)

kick_ass_2-wideStarting this weekend in theaters from Universal Studios is the eagerly awaited sequel to the 2010 cult film that hit large on home video, Kick-Ass 2. This time around the film is under the reigns of writer/director Jeff Wadlow and only produced by the original’s director Matthew Vaughn. The graphic novel sequel to Kick-Ass, Kick-Ass 2: Balls to the Wall, is a veritable blood bath, which beckons the question of how the film will translate to the theater screen.

Kick-Ass 2

Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Donald Faison, Lindy Booth, John Leguizamo, Morris Chestnut, Clark Duke, Augustus Prew, Olga Kurkulina and Jim Carrey.

Written and Directed by Jeff Wadlow

kick-ass-2-imageWhen we last saw junior assassin Hit Girl (Moretz) and young masked hero Kick-Ass (Taylor-Johnson), they were trying to live as normal teenagers Mindy and Dave.  With graduation looming and uncertain what to do with their shared calling, Dave decides to start the world’s first superhero team with Mindy.  Unfortunately, when Mindy is busted for sneaking out as Hit Girl, she’s forced to retire, leaving her to navigate the terrifying world of high-school mean girls on her own.  With no one left to turn to, Dave joins forces with Justice Forever, run by a born-again ex-mobster named Colonel Stars and Stripes (Carrey). Just as they start to make a real difference on the streets the rechristened Red Mist, now the self-proclaimed super-villain The Motherfucker (Mintz-Plasse) assembles his own evil league and puts a plan in motion to make Kick-Ass and Hit Girl pay for what they did to his dad.

kick_ass_2Kick-Ass 2 tries to recapture the magic of the first film but never quite gets there. Johnson is good back in Kick Ass mode, though the goofiness that his original performance carried due to his inability to fight and gangly awkwardness is gone with a buff and trained Dave this time around. Moretz does what she can but is wasted and handcuffed with a terrible subplot this time around. Jim Carrey has little more than a glorified cameo, but his Col Stars and Stripes is a great characterization, a born again Christian version of Rambo, and is sorely missed after his departure. But the best performance comes from Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the newly rechristened ‘Motherfucker’ who discovers after getting beaten up multiple times that his evil villain superpower is that he has tons of money. Motherfucker plays out as an unhinged yet scrawny and spoiled brat and Mintz-Plasse is enjoying the hell out of it.

kick-ass-2-aaron-johnson-christopher-mintz-plasseThe biggest issue that Kick Ass 2 runs into is that it doesn’t stick with a tone for the film which results in an uneven film that can’t decide whether it is a dark comic action picture or a light awkward teen comedy. Two years have passed between the first film and Dave is a high school senior while Mindy is now a 15 year old sophomore in the same school (up to a 4 year difference between her age from the first film as she is a 11 year old in the comic book but her age is not 100% clear in the first film). This level of creative scripting allows the film to bring a level of sexual tension between Dave and Mindy that never works and has an extremely lackluster payoff. In fact Moretz has been done a great disservice in this second film. Her Mindy is crammed into an unoriginal “Mean Girls” subplot that never fits the darker tone of the rest of the film and leads to one of the most moronic sequences involving a “weapon” on film this year. The sequence feels straight out of a “Jackass” film as Johnny Knoxville and crew would have a lot more fun with this tool. The final act is a blood bath with an all-out brawl at the center of it and the scene stealing Mother Russia (Kurkulina) and Hit Girl going blow for blow. Kick-Ass renews fisticuffs with Motherfucker in an anticlimactic fight that lacks all the charm that their final fight from the first film packs in.

new-kick-ass-2-featurette-teases-hit-girl-vs-mother-russia-watch-now-142530-a-1376375797-470-75Despite its faults, fans of the original Kick-Ass will find enough to latch onto here to enjoy the film. It’s nowhere near as inspired as the original film was and never finds the right balance between comedy and violence that Matthew Vaughn so adeptly straddled, but the characters are a welcome return and Hit Girl in whatever truncated version we may get is still better than no Hit Girl at all. Kick-Ass 2 is a mild recommend.

Till Next Time

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RIPD Review (Kirk Haviland)

R.I.P.D.-Banner-01New in theaters this weekend from the director of “Red” Robert Schwentke is the latest multimillion dollar extravaganza vying for your money, R.I.P.D. Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds headline as two cops dispatched by the otherworldly ‘Rest In Peace Department’ to protect and serve the living from an increasingly destructive array of souls who refuse to move peacefully to the other side.

R.I.P.D

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Jeff Bridges, Mary-Louise Parker, Stephanie Szostak, James Hong, Marisa Miller and Kevin Bacon

Written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi

Directed by Robert Schwentke 

Veteran sheriff Roy Pulsifer (Bridges) has spent his career with the legendary police force known as R.I.P.D. tracking monstrous spirits who are cleverly disguised as ordinary people. Once the wise-cracking Roy is assigned former rising-star detective Nick Walker (Reynolds) as his junior officer, the new partners have to turn grudging respect into top-notch teamwork.  When they uncover a plot that could end life as we know it, two of R.I.P.D.’s finest must miraculously restore the cosmic balance, or watch the tunnel to the afterlife begin sending angry souls the very wrong way.

ripd proctorThe biggest issue with RIPD is perhaps that nothing seems to happen in the film. All the actions play out without a morsel of interest and the impact of what the characters are supposed to be doing, saving the world, never registers for a second. The stakes and consequences in the script feel as flat and uninterested as some of the actors in the film. What Jeff Bridges is doing, other than cashing a paycheck, is baffling. His Roy comes off as a very sad mix of Col. Sanders from Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, the drunkest moments of the ‘Dude’ Lebowski and a poor impression of Val Kilmer’s Doc Holiday from “Tombstone”. Ryan Reynolds delivers exactly the same performance we always get from Reynolds, but the poor script and dialogue means his affable charm becomes uninteresting and downright terrible in parts. The only actor that brings anything to the screen is Mary-Louise Parker as the gruff superior officer Proctor. Parker is mesmerizing, but sadly appears in less than a third of the 95 minute film, leaving the audience awaiting her return every time she leaves.

ripd-tv-spot-jeff-bridgesThe CGI effects work is actually pretty well done, the more comic based unrealistic look of most of the ‘popped deados’ certainly look good onscreen, but how they are used is what becomes the issue. The action apes the early “Men in Black” films, but the first of those was almost 20 years ago and looks dated upon re-watching, without the tongue in cheek winks and nods to the screen. The big action sequences seem so surreal and ineffective within the world that they occur in and the lack of impact in the world of the film translates to the audience. Kevin Bacon’s Hayes proves to be a very lackluster villain that leads to another action packed yet lame and uninteresting finale. Lastly, and perhaps even most egregious, the big mystery of the film that Roy and Nick have to unravel is evident from the very first moments of the film and never that much of a mystery.

 

ripd-jameshong-grandpachen-marisamiller-600R.I.P.D. misses the mark on many points. Any of the film’s funnier moments are packed into the marketing of the film and then stomped to death in the film, the use of the avatars that Roy and Nick have being the biggest example of this. In a summer that has been packed with many solid blockbusters and some surprising ones, “White House Down” and “World War Z” for example, that turned out to be more fun than what was expected, R.I.P.D. underperforms on the below average expectations the film entered with.

Till Next Time

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Byzantium Theatrical Review (Kirk Haviland)

Byzantium 2013 movie Wallpaper 1600x1200

 

New in theaters north of the border this week is director Neil Jordan’s newest take on the Vampire mythos, Byzantium. Jordan returns to the genre he took on almost 2 decades ago with the Anne Rice penned Interview with a Vampire, but this time around he has a new take on the entire history of the vampire phenomenon.

Byzantium

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Sam Riley, Caleb Landry Jones and Johnny Lee Miller

Written by Moira Buffini

Directed by Neil Jordan

After fleeing their latest living quarters after an unforeseen attack, two mysterious women seek refuge in a run-down coastal resort. Clara (Arterton) meets lonely Noel who provides shelter for her and her daughter Eleanor (Ronan) in his deserted guesthouse Byzantium. Eleanor, an eternal schoolgirl, befriends Frank (Landry Jones) and tells him their lethal secret. They pair are actually mother and daughter, were born 200 years ago and survive on human blood. As knowledge of their secret spreads, their past catches up on them with deathly consequence.

byzantium ronanByzantium takes a completely different spin on the Vampire story as there is no allergy to sunlight and girls roam free in the bright sun, fangs are never sprouted on screen, instead a protruding fingernail is used to open the victims jugular, and new vampires are not sired through bite and blood transfer. That last point is the biggest, most drastic change from Vampire lore as in Byzanitum it is a cave on an island that transforms humans to vampires. Looking suspiciously like a womb, this vampire transformation has been guarded for decades and only men have been allowed to enter.

Arterton is fantastic here, playing a girl with a terrible teenage encounter that drastically alters her life forever, as she mesmerizes the men in her life and the audience alike with her charm and charisma. Clara has been a hustler all 200 years of her life and this is all old hat for her. Sadly Arterton severely outshines her co-stars as Ronan comes of flat and at times uninterested, Landry Jones seems content to channel an ineffectual Wiley Wiggens from Dazed and Confused and Johnny Lee Miller’s thankfully small role is sloppy overacting at its finest.

byzantium (1)The film has pacing issues as well, keeping a slow methodical pace through the main middle section of the story, yet rushing to tie up all the loose ends and get to its brutal and bloody ending as quick as it can in the last 25 minutes. But the bloody and brutal part is actually one of the shining stars of the film as Jordon utilizes as much practically driven and realized effects as he can in the filming, giving a grounded feel tot the story and distancing itself from the Twilighty inspired CGI packed pretenders that do not work as well.

 

There is a lot that can be said about the feel of misogyny that seemingly drips off the film – cave is like a womb yet women are not allowed to sire vampires and because of what Clara did she is hunted mercilessly, after 200 years of living Clara falls back to making a living off her back as she has always done – but these arguments can be made better by others.  The practical effects are great, and so is Arterton, and that packs just enough appeal and charm to make the film a positive experience in the end.

byzantium (2)Till Next Time

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Despicable Me 2 Review (Kirk Haviland)

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The writing and directing teams behind 2010’s smash hit “Despicable Me” have returned, minions in tow, with a follow up that furthers the transformation of former super villain Gru into all around good guy in “Despicable Me 2”. Universal and Illumination studios definitely know what worked best the first time around and have spent the time in the sequel to advance those storylines instead of just rehashing the original’s premise.

Despicable Me 2

Starring the voices of: Steve Carrell, Kristen Wiig, Benjamin Bratt, Miranda Cosgrove, Steve Coogan, Russell Brand, Ken Jeong, Elsie Fisher, Dana Gaier and Kristin Schaal

Written by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul

Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud

In Despicable Me 2, Gru (Carrell) is recruited by the Anti-Villain League, rather forcibly by agent Lucy (Wiig), to help deal with a powerful new super criminal. The mission has Gru going undercover to find out who has taken a very deadly substance inside a shopping mall. Of course Gru’s minions and girls, Margo (Cosgrove), Edith (Gaier) and Agnes (Fisher), are all back attempting to help him out, and help him find love in the process. Meanwhile, Margo’s first boyfriend has Gru seeing red.

despicable-me-2-gru-is-kidnappedThe filmmakers behind Despicable Me 2 know exactly what the audience wants and they deliver in spades. Fans of the first film will be delighted with the sequel though the film has a much less original story than the first and because of that is not a strong a film overall, but part 2 may actually be funnier than the first. Despicable Me 2 is also the perfect launch pad/lead off point for the spinoff “Minions” movie that is slated for late next year. Gru and his minion’s antics seem to be front and center in this film, which leaves less time for the girls in this adventure and I suspect they will barely show up in the minion spin-off as the filmmakers have clearly identified that the minions are what the fans seem to want most.

despicable-me-2-paradiseThe 3D in the main film has its moments but is hardly necessary, but as with the first film the credits sequence filled with minion antics is crucial for 3D, in fact it’s some of the best 3D gag work ever put on film as it really pushes the boundaries of what ‘jumping off the screen’ really means.  The animation style has not changed, and why would it, but still manages to remain sharp and crisp. The gadget aspect of the first film has also taken a back seat here a more simplified spy plot. The work from the voice cast is very good though, Carrell seems completely comfortable in Gru’s skin, Wiig is a flighty delight and Bratt is excellent as the restaurateur who may or may not be the long thought dead legendary super villain and professional wrestler from Mexico ‘El Macho’.

 

despicable el machoWhile the story may be weaker, Despicable Me 2 delivers the laughs throughout providing some of the biggest laughs of the year and delivering a musical sequence at the end that rivals the equally hilarious “This is the End’s” final sequence for best musical based number of the year.  If Despicable Me 2 is any indication of what will come with the “Minions” movie, then you can be sure to see this movie junkie in the front of the ticket line.

Till Next Time

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Make sure to keep up with what’s going on at Entertainment Maven by liking our Facebook page and having updates delivered right to your Facebook News Feed. It’s the only way to stay on top of all of our articles with the newest blockbusters and all the upcoming films, festivals and film related events in Toronto.

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