Thor: The Dark World (2013)
by Steve Habrat
Just six short months after dominating the summer with Iron Man 3 and three short months after announcing details for their Avengers follow-up, Marvel is back with a sequel to Kenneth Branagh’s intergalactic epic Thor. Branagh’s iridescent 2011 effort really took me by surprise, mostly because I was convinced that the Norse god wouldn’t translate well to film. It didn’t help that the trailer failed to really sell the swords and hammer mayhem. Despite my apprehension, Thor turned out to be one hell of a thrill ride even though it was distractingly acting as a partial tease for The Avengers. With the first Avengers film out of their system, Marvel can now focus on giving their Avengers cast movies that are free of that crossover blockbuster’s chains. Here we have Thor: The Dark World, a sequel that doesn’t feel like it’s rushing to develop this character just so we know who the heck the beefcake with the hammer is in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. With Thor: The Dark World, we are given more time on Thor’s home planet, Asgard, and we are treated to more strange creatures looking to rip the universe to shreds. While the second half is undeniably entertaining with its billowing high-stakes showdowns, the opening stretch seems like a lazy reworking of what we saw in the previous Thor film. To make things worse, star Natalie Portman seems like she was forced at gunpoint to reprise her role as Jane Foster. Is this the same woman who won on Oscar for Black Swan?
Thor: The Dark World begins by explaining that many years ago, Thor’s grandfather had a battle with the Dark Elf leader Malekith (played by Christopher Eccleston), who was planning on using a matter called Aether to destroy the Nine Realms. The Asgardians won the battle and managed to secure the Aether from Malekith, but the Asgardians were unable to destroy the weapon, so they buried where no one would find it. Angry over his defeat, Malekity fled into space with a group of followers to regroup. In present day, Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth) and his Asgardian followers attempt to bring order to worn torn planets across the universe while Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston) faces his sentencing for what he did to New York City. On Earth, astrophysicist Jane Foster (played by Natalie Portman) has been waiting two years for Thor to return to her. Just as she is attempting to move on with her life, intern Darcy Lewis (played by Kat Dennings) tracks her down to show her an abandoned building that appears to have multiple portals into other worlds. After Jane stumbles through one of these portals, she discovers the hidden Aether, which latches itself onto her and begins flowing through her veins. The disrupting of the Aether awakens Malekith, who has been drifting in space with his soldiers waiting for the smallest sign of the Aether’s whereabouts. Fearing for Jane’s life, Thor returns to Earth to take her back to Asgard where he can protect her, but Malekith is isn’t far behind and he is hellbent on bringing darkness to the galaxy.
Director Alan Taylor opens Thor: The Dark World with a pair of rousing space battles that allow the viewer a glimpse into the expansive Marvel universe beyond the stars. There are all sorts of grotesque creatures that will make your eyes pop, but it’s the story foundation that is built under this action that seems all too familiar. In place of the glowing blue Tesseract is the Aether, a flowing red matter that swims through the air and resembles Kool-Aid. Rather than an unlimited energy source, the Aether plunges everything into darkness and it is naturally sought after by the baddies so that they can destroy the whole universe. Then there is Darcy, Jane, and Stellan Skarsgard’s Dr. Erik Selvig, who all dart around with flickering devices that detect portals and other alien anomalies while everyone else thinks they’ve got screws loose. The only thing missing are the SHEILD agents prowling around! This middling commencement is spruced up with some geeky humor and a cutesy cameo from Bridesmaids star Chris O’Dowd. Thankfully, when war comes to Asgard, the battle gets a bit more personal for Thor and Loki, both who loose someone very close to them. This is precisely where the glimmers of familiarity start to get buried beneath some sprawling clashes that are capable of bringing down the theater walls. They’re also fairly impressive in 3D, a format that Marvel has been shockingly lazy about considering all the money they are dumping into each one of these films.
As far as the action scenes are concerned, they single handedly make up for the film’s shortcomings. It never gets old watching Thor leap into the air with his hammer raised, bringing it down on the ground to knock about ten bad guys charging him off their feet. There is a hilarious confrontation between Thor and a snarling rock monster that gets tamed with one swing of Thor’s mighty mallet. The opening battle between masked Dark Elves and Viking-like Asgardians is a buzzy cocktail of Star Wars-esque laser battles and Lord of the Rings swordplay. The standout action set piece is easily the battle on Asgard, in which Malekith’s forces rocket at the gold city in sleek jets that cut right into the gold heart of the towering palace that Thor and his family call home. It helps that these scenes have dropped Branagh’s spit-polished approach, allowing them to feel rough around the edges and, dare I say, legitimately dangerous. Then there is the big finish, which features Thor and Malekith duking it out as they tumble through multiple portals that send them careening through the universe. The constantly shifting backdrops are a blast and Taylor weaves the action through them seamlessly, but what grows frustrating is the fact that Jane and her buddies can dart through all the destruction unscathed. They are several of Malekith’s soldiers hot on their heels, but they just never seem to be able to catch up or hit them with a laser blast. Oh, come on!
Then we have our performers, who for the most part slip comfortably back into the skins of their characters—well, expect for Portman. Hemsworth is still lovable as the gruff God of Thunder, who relishes a good fight but sulks over Jane during the post-battle celebration. I especially enjoyed his increasingly complex relationship with Hiddleston’s Loki, who is as devious as ever. When the lightheartedness is dropped and the two confront each other over the events in New York, the drama cuts like a knife and leaves a sting that is difficult to shake. Eccleston’s Malekith booms with plenty of promises of death and destruction, and it helps that the look of his character just screams evil. Malekith has been downplayed in the trailers, which is nice because it shrouds his character in malevolent mystery. Then we have Portman, who acts as through the material here is beneath her. She fluffs off guys who wish to pursue a relationship with her and she pouts over Thor’s absence like a spoiled child. There is none of the starry-eyed swooning going on here, only huffy obligation and line delivery that seems like she is reading from a script buried in her lap. Anthony Hopkins returns as Odin, Thor’s one-eyed papa who promises to defeat Malekith and his advancing forces. Rene Russo proves to be one tough mama as Frigga, Thor’s mother who gets a chance to engage Malekith in a sword fight. There is also the always-welcome Idris Elba as Heimdall, the gatekeeper of the Bifrost who brings down one of Malekith’s ships with his bare hands. Talk about a major badass!
One of the biggest disappointments of Thor: The Dark World is the fact that the film never adopts the darker tone that was hinted at in the trailer. There are some heavier moments and a few death scenes that will hush the children pacing the aisles with excitement, but it almost always seems obligated to deliver a joke. Mind you, the humor works, but I think it would be nice to see Marvel allow these films to venture into some bleaker territory. This exact problem plagued Iron Man 3, which initially hinted that Phase 2 of the cinematic Marvel universe was going to opt for the shadowy path where our heroes were going to be dealt personal blows from the villians. On the flip side, it is understandable considering that Disney now has a presence and they are desperate to draw in young kids who may be turned off by the darker material. Overall, while the first act is a bit clunky, Thor: The Dark World is bursting with rollicking cosmic thrills in the second and third acts. It may not be Marvel’s finest achievement, but it makes for some solid entertainment that ends with a cliffhanger guaranteed to leave you wanting more. More importantly, it feels like a bonafide standalone story in the series, something that was plaguing the pre-Avengers efforts. As always, make sure to stick around through the credits for some more surprises.
by Steve Habrat
In 1976, little Opie Taylor himself Ron Howard starred in the Roger Corman car chase movie called Eat My Dust, agreeing to be in the film if B-movie king Corman would let him direct his own picture down the line. A year later, Corman made good on his promise and he let Howard direct Grand Theft Auto, his own car chase comedy tailored for the drive-in crowd. Several years and A-list movies later, it seems that the speed demon that lurks within Howard still hasn’t been tamed. Racing into theaters just in time for awards season is Rush, a stylish and sexy Formula One action-drama that also happens to be based on the real-life rivalry of James Hunt and Niki Lauda. From the time the green light flashes and those Formula One racecars roar to life, it’s clear that Rush is trying to blast itself straight into Oscar gold. While the melodramatic pauses that break up the tightly edited and sleekly framed action sequences might prevent Academy members from voting it into the Best Picture category, the film is a technical wonder, featuring screen-shredding crashes and sound work that kicks up the loose popcorn and Sour Patch Kids that are stuck to the theater floor. There are also the central performances, especially from newcomer Daniel Bruhl, who speeds off with nearly every single scene he struts steps into.
Picking up in 1970, Rush introduces us to lowly Formula Three racers James Hunt (played by Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (played by Daniel Bruhl), who quickly develop a fierce rivalry on the track of the Crystal Palace circuit in England. From 1970 to 1976, the British party boy Hunt and the all-business Austrian Lauda battle to enter the ranks of the Formula One drivers. In 1976, their rivalry was pushed to the breaking point as they went head-to-head in the Formula One races, risking their lives one race at a time to become the world champion. Meanwhile, their rivalry begins to spill over into their personal lives as Hunt struggles to hold on to his wife, supermodel Suzy Miller (played by Olivia Wilde), and first-place holder Lauda grapples with the fact that Hunt is breathing down his neck for the number one. The relationship between Hunt and Lauda takes a curious turn when Lauda is involved in a horrific car wreck that leaves him with third-degree burns covering his most of his face and badly damaged lungs. While fighting for his life, Lauda watches as Hunt closes in on the number one spot, which causes Lauda to make a speedy recovery and get back in the tournament.
Like most car films, Rush explores those who truly feel alive when they are defying death at over 100 miles per hour. Being a sports movie, the film never veers into existential terrain like such efforts as the recent art house thriller Drive or the high-octane cult-classic Vanishing Point. Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan are more intrigued by the blistering rivalry between these two drastically different personalities and how, in the end, they actually needed each other. They balance the rat-faced geek vs. handsome jock act quite well, slipping it into tightly edited race sequences that make you feel like you’re squeezed into the driver’s seat with Hemsworth and Bruhl. Most thrilling are the races set against torrential downpours, placing us behind the helmets of Hunt and Lauda as they frantically search for a way to outdo the other. With visibility a blur and the engines rupturing our ear drums, you can’t help but admire these men as they put their lives on the line for a chance to stand above a cheering crowd and spray champagne into the air. What truly astonishes is the calm demeanor and nonchalant boldness of these men as the hop behind these mechanical beasts. They seem invincible, but Howard reminds us that they are flesh and blood through compound fractures and the fiery crash that almost takes Lauda’s life.
Bringing these two fearless daredevils to life are the brilliant Bruhl and Hemsworth, both of which settle quite nicely into the skin of their characters. Hemsworth sharpens his acting abilities as the playboy Hunt, who stumbles around the racetrack with a cigarette dangling from his mouth and a chugging a bottle of booze like he may never be allowed another drink. He’s irresistible to women, who get weak in the knees over the self-assured smile he flashes their way, and everyone seems to genuinely enjoy his presence when he steps into the party. The only time he ever shows any sort vulnerability is when he vomits before a race or when he is faced with the possibility that he may not get sponsored. At the other end of the spectrum is Bruhl’s Lauda, a squeaky clean stickler for the rules who is early to bed and early to rise. He rises to fame through money and by barking orders at the bewildered mechanics wondering just who the hell the guy thinks he is. He’s cold, calculating, and absolutely relentless in trying to keep Hunt down, spending every single solitary second tinkering with his car. Of the two men, Bruhl is the one who comes out on top, giving a top-notch performance that you just can’t take your eyes off. Don’t be surprised if you see his name among the Best Actors list when the nominees are announced.
With so much focus on the complicated relationship between Hunt and Lauda, Howard seems to be largely uninterested in adding a spark to each man’s personal life. Sure, we catch glimpses of Hunt’s crumbling marriage but it only gets maybe five minutes of screen time, and Lauda’s devotion to Alexandra Maria Lara’s Marlene Knaus is seen only through the silent glances that they continuously share. Wilde and Lara try to rise above their underdeveloped roles by hovering around television screens and holding their breath for their warring speed junkies, but none of the behind-closed-doors melodrama comes close to matching the breathless exhilaration of the races. Further muting the drama are the raw violin musical cues from composer Hans Zimmer, who contributes a beautiful but oddly mathematical score to deepen the impact of the emotional heart-to-hearts. Overall, as a study of ego and rivalry, Rush is a crackling triumph one could enjoy again and again. It finds Howard delivering on all the pedal-to-the-metal action that you’d expect from a film called Rush, and you simply won’t be able to pry your eyes off all that handsome cinematography. As an A-list crowd pleaser, this one should rocket right to the top of your must-see list.
Star Trek (2009)
by Steve Habrat
Before JJ Abrams’ sleek 2009 reboot, the Star Trek franchise was basically old hat and met with eye rolls or bored sighs from anyone who wasn’t a fanatic. Every so often, a new Trek movie would trickle quietly into theaters and it would basically only appeal to your Trekkie uncle or that weird kid up the street, but everyone else ignored it. It was a very closed-off franchise that seemed to be fading away as the years passed. Then something remarkable happened. In May of 2009, Lost creator JJ Abrams sparked the franchise back to life and introduced the crew of the USS Enterprise to a whole new generation of action-hungry moviegoers. Believe me when I say that you don’t have to be a Trekkie to absolutely adore Abrams’ Star Trek, a splashy, sexy, and clever re-envisioning of the classic television show. Right from the get-go, Abrams makes it clear that this is not your father’s Star Trek, and he catapults the viewer into a world of candy-colored action, shiny spaceships that look like they were designed by Steve Jobs, devilish humor, and fresh-faced youngsters looking to make a name for themselves in Hollywood. It would be just what the doctored ordered for a franchise on life support and it would go on to be one of the strongest films of the 2009 summer movie season.
Star Trek begins in 2233, with Federation starship USS Kelvin investigating a mysterious lightning storm in space. Out of the lightning storm emerges the Romulan ship Narada, which proceeds to attack the USS Kelvin. The Narada’s captain, Nero (played by Eric Bana), demands that the USS Kelvin captain board the Narada so that he can be questioned about the current stardate and about a man named Ambassador Spock. After Nero kills the captain for not answering his questions, he then orders his crew to destroy the USS Kelvin, which is now captained by first officer George Kirk (played by Chris Hemsworth). George orders that the ship’s crew, which includes his pregnant wife, Winona (played by Jennifer Morrison), quickly evacuate the ship before it is destroyed. During the evacuation, George’s wife gives birth to a boy they name James. Many years later, we are introduced to the brilliant young Vulcan Spock (played by Zachary Quinto) and reckless James T. Kirk (played by Chris Pine) as they both enlist in the Starfleet Academy and form a nasty rivalry. Kirk and Spock are forced to put their rivalry on hold and join forced after Spock’s home planet is attacked and destroyed by the mysterious Narada. As the young crew of the USS Enterprise races to understand this deadly enemy, they are forced to put their egos aside once they realize the Narada’s next target is Earth.
Abrams’ Star Trek is absolutely loaded with enough backstory to fuel half a dozen origin stories. There is plenty of character development, especially in Kirk and Spock, but there is also tons of talk of time travel, red matter, supernovas, and more. While the storyline is certainly absorbing and full of surprises which won’t be revealed here, what will truly hold you are the introductions to characters you have certainly heard about from your dad or through pop culture chatter. We are treated to smile-inducing introductions of the cynical doctor Leonard McCoy (played by Karl Urban), spiky Nyota Uhura (played by Zoe Saldana), fast-talking Scottish engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (played by Simon Pegg), senior helmsman Hikaru Sulu (played by John Cho), and Russian navigator Pavel Chekov (played by Anton Yelchin). Each one of these characters is given more than enough time to shine, especially Pegg’s motor mouthed Scotty, who nabs most of the film’s laughs. My personal favorite moment is Kirk’s first encounter with McCoy, who pokes Kirk with a number of syringes that contain various illnesses so that he can sneak him aboard the USS Enterprise. It’s a moment of absolutely brilliance.
Then we have Pine’s daredevil Kirk and Quinto’s relentlessly serious Spock, both who play a game of tug of war with the film. Pine excels as the slacker Kirk, who refuses to see his full potential. He stumbles around drunk in futuristic bars and nightclubs, chasing around the repulsed Uhura and getting into fistfights with a number of Starfleet students. He’s absolutely irresistible as he sneers through bloody lips and taunts through black eyes, but his performance really takes hold when he finally looks inside himself and realizes his true potential. Quinto is the polar opposite as Spock, a brainy but cold Vulcan who is constantly conflicted over the fact that he is half-human. When you aren’t marveling at Kirk’s transformation, you’ll be glued to Spock’s realization that he needs to simply relax and trust those around him. And we can’t forget the superb villain Nero, brilliantly tackled by a surprisingly intense Eric Bana. Nero may not be a household villain, but he certainly makes you remember him as he spits threats at the USS Enterprise and demands that his crew “FIRE EVERYTHING!” With so much happening in the story, Bana’s screen time is limited, but he certainly hits a home run when he can.
Considering that Star Trek is a summer movie, Abrams constructs numerous action sequences that will have you gasping. The USS Kelvin’s encounter with Nero is appropriately tense and the evacuation is big, busy, shaky, and emotional even though the movie has only been going for maybe ten minutes. A nail-biting space jump onto a massive drill is fierce, only to be followed up by a white-knuckle fistfight that will have you on the edge of your seat. Just when you don’t think it can’t get any cooler, Sulu whips out a sword and Abrams blows an entire planet to smithereens. And how can I forget Kirk’s marooning on snowy Delta Vega, where he flees the jaws of some seriously nasty creatures hungry for some human flesh and comes face to face with a man that even non-Trekkies will be able to identify? For all the adrenaline rushes that pepper the bulk of the film, the climax is both expectedly epic and surprisingly intimate. Don’t worry, folks, there is no shortage of shootouts, narrow rescues, and bone-crunching fistfights that will have you cheering right along.
What has really turned Abrams’ lens-flared vision of Star Trek into such a winner is the fact that he has found a way to evenly balance fan expectations with an accessibility that was lacking in previous Star Trek efforts. You really don’t have to be a fan to appreciate or enjoy the film. The shiny visuals will have teens ignoring their smartphones while the storyline will have the Trekk fans chatting for hours upon hours. It truly is a balanced and fizzy concoction from a director who understands how to reach a wide audience. Overall, Abrams manages to rescue the Star Trek franchise from the black hole that it was threatening to consume it, punch up the action and adventure, give fresh life to aging characters, polish the outside of the rusty USS Enterprise, and then leave the viewer wanting a whole lot more. There is no doubt in my mind that moviegoers will follow Abram and this new crew where no man has gone before.
Star Trek is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)
by Steve Habrat
Did you ever think you would see a gritty interpretation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Snow White? Well now you can in all its mediocre glory! Snow White and the Huntsman sheds any whimsicality that is associated this legendary tale and offers audiences a bone snapping, grime-under-the-fingernails medieval vision that hopes to lure a male crowd as well as the shrieking Twilight fans who will see anything that Kristen Stewart even thinks about starring in. Director Rupert Sanders has plenty of talent at his disposal but he is cursed with an uneven script and is forced to cover up the rougher moments with dazzling images to distract us from the dips in the story. If Snow White and the Huntsman were converted into a picture book meant for your coffee table, I guarantee it would be a huge hit when you have company over. While the film wins visually (it is stunning in digital projection), there are moments here when the film comes to a screeching halt, pondering what it will do with itself next. Good thing that Thor’s Chris Hemsworth and the seven dwarfs show up to aid you in your battle to keep your eyelids open because I’m sure Snow White and the Huntsman is the cure for insomnia.
Snow White and the Huntsmanbegins with a superbly filmed flashback that shows us Snow White’s royal upbringing. After her mother, Queen Eleanor (Played by Liberty Ross) passes away, her father, King Magnus (Played by Noah Huntley), finds himself in love with the mysterious Ravenna (Played by Charlize Theron), who is supposedly being held captive by the equally mysterious Dark Army. King Magnus marries Ravenna but on their wedding night, Ravenna brutally murders Magnus and then proceeds to overthrow his kingdom with her homely brother, Finn (Played by Sam Spruell) and the Dark Army, who is under her command. Snow White and her buddy William attempt to flee the castle but Snow White is captured by Finn and locked away in one of the castle towers. Fifteen years pass and Snow White (Played by Kristen Stewart) is still locked up in that tower, battling to stay warm from the frigid weather. Queen Ravenna still rules over the once lush but now barren land, giggling over the poverty and suffering that grips the local townspeople. Soon, Queen Ravenna, who has the power to remain young by draining the youth from young girls that are brought to her, is informed by Mirror that Snow White’s beauty is destined to surpass her own beauty. Enraged, she demands that Snow White be brought to her but Snow White escapes, forcing Queen Ravenna to hire the grieving Hunstman (Played by Chris Hemsworth) to track Snow White down in the Dark Forest and return her before she is consumed by old age. Also searching for Snow White is her old friend William (Played by Sam Claflin), who hasn’t forgiven himself for loosing Snow White to Ravenna.
Snow White and the Huntsman is eager to explain away some of the supernatural elements of its story. A scene in which Queen Ravenna speaks with her Mirror while Finn spies on her reveals that the talking Mirror may all just be in her head and not really there at all. Scenes in the Dark Forest, where Snow White begins seeing strange creatures darting around the twisted and charred trees is actually the result of her inhaling a defensive gas emitted from black pods that dot the ground. While it is obviously doing this to lure in a male audience, Snow White and the Huntsman does keep a few fantasy elements in place. We see trolls, fairies that look like rejects from Pan’s Labyrinth, animals that have become one with their settings, soldiers that shatter into black glass, and more. Yet all of these creatures are believable because they look like they have evolved from trees, grass, rocks, and everything else you can find in the woods. Seeing these wondrous critters was one of the most entertaining parts of Snow White and the Huntsman, giving the film a bit of personality, something it is in dire need of.
We should also be thankful for the presence of Chris Hemsworth, who does most of the heavy lifting in Snow White and the Huntsman, making the film bearable for its two-hour runtime. I truly think that Hemsworth is a talented guy and I give him credit for refusing to allow his baritone hero be a tough guy cliché with no depth. He gives this film a wounded soul and you will feel for his character when his eyes well up. The film really picks up when he makes his entrance and every time he steps away, things start to fall apart. Luckily, he has a bit of back up with a group of scene stealing dwarfs that are appropriately grotesque and a whole lot of awesome. Did you ever think you’d see the seven dwarfs kicking ass and killing people? I sure as hell didn’t and was pleasantly surprised when they did. The dwarfs, Beith (Played by Ian McShane), Muir (Played by Bob Hoskins), Gort (Played by Ray Winstone), Nion (Played by Nick Frost), Duir (Played by Eddie Marsan), Coll (Played by Toby Jones), Quert (Played by Johnny Harris), and Gus (Played by Brian Gleeson), could have been an excuse for a couple of laughs to keep the kids busy but miraculously, the film never has them parading around like pint size jesters. Along with Hemsworth’s Hunstman, they make up the emotional core that keeps things sizzling.
The biggest problem outside the stop-go plotline is Theron’s Queen Ravenna and Stewart’s Snow White. Stewart is a one-note actress who is incapable of holding the screen and injecting any presence into her scenes. Her character wanders around the entire time looking for purpose that she barely finds. She may have the looks but I truly think that they could have found someone who didn’t wander around with a dumbfounded look on her face. I was never rooting for her and wasn’t moved an inch when she gives her big rallying speech at the end. Hemsworth is the one who keeps her character from crashing and burning from lack of emotion. When Stewart isn’t busy ruining the movie, Theron is busy overacting her brains out. She is so evil, it becomes overkill and just downright ludicrous. I was pulling for her to be another bright spot in this mostly drab tale but she launches into her role at two hundred miles per hour, annoyingly ready to bear her fangs. The best villains are the ones who have some sort of complexity to their actions and an aura of unpredictability but Theron just makes Ravenna evil with a capital “E” for silly reasons. I hated that you could read every face twitch and every tap of her finger.
Snow White and the Huntsman does have a few action sequences that break up the monotony of the script, mostly the tar-caked final battle that features some nasty smack downs that will get the adrenaline pumping pretty good. Sadly, the finale does end up cramming a bunch of unnecessary CGI into it that really serves no point (We have a Dark Shadows problem on our hands!). It also feels like too much too late in the game. Every once and a while, we do catch a glimpse of what Snow White and the Huntsman could have been, but it just opts to be a predictably moody medieval road movie instead of setting itself apart from the pack. The overall slacking from Stewart, who should have won our hearts early on, and the irritatingly evil Theron end up being the poison apple that sends Snow White and the Huntsman into a comatose state it never wakes up from. It’s a shame because in a summer that has so far only seen one truly great blockbuster (The Avengers), this had potential to be one of the fairest blockbusters of the summer.
The Avengers (2012)
by Steve Habrat
Since May of 2008, Marvel has begun to hype their heavily anticipated superhero mash-up The Avengers with little Easter egg hints in the origin stories for Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, and Captain America. It has been a torturous journey for Marvel fans but we finally have the crown jewel of Marvel superhero offerings and I’m just going to be frank when I say that it kicks a whole bunch of ass. Clocking in at just shy of two and a half hours, The Avengers is one gigantic nerd money shot, not bogged down by any longwinded origin tale or story set-up. With The Avengers, director Joss Whedon, allows his superhero titans to let loose and show off what they are capable of. There is a whole bunch of flying, jumping, punching, shooting, smashing, destroying, hammer throwing, shield throwing, missile launching fun that will keep a smile plastered across your face and drool splattering onto your Thor t-shirt. Yet The Avengers is even more of a triumph because it is actually a really good movie. This isn’t a big empty excuse that stretched things to get all these do-gooders into the same movie, which is what I feared when I first heard about The Avengers.
The Avengers begins in a remote research facility where a powerful energy source and portal known as the Tesseract is currently being held. The Tesseract suddenly activates, allowing the exiled Norse god Loki (Played by Tom Hiddleston) to step through the portal and attack the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that are guarding it. Loki finds himself confronted by S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury (Played by Samuel L. Jackson), who attempts to stop Loki from making off with the Tesseract. In the process, Loki declares war on planet earth and announces that he is in control of a powerful alien army that is capable of wiping earth out. Running out of options, Fury and Russian agent Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow (Played by Scarlett Johansson) begin rounding up the exiled Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Played by Mark Ruffalo), weapons defense expert Tony Stark/Iron Man (Played by Robert Downey, Jr.), Loki’s brother and fellow Norse god Thor (Played by Chris Hemsworth), the recently rediscovered super-soldier Steve Rodgers/Captain America (Played by Chris Evans), and kidnapped assassin Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Played by Jeremy Renner). The group forms a rickety alliance and begins trying to find a way to stop Loki and convince him not to attack earth but it turns out that S.H.I.E.L.D. may be hiding a few secrets about the Tesseract of their own.
Every hero that makes up The Avengers team gets a classic moment that sent the audience members of the midnight showing I attended into a frenzy of cheering, whistling, hooting, and hollering. It helped when the sequences that were filmed in Cleveland blasted their way onto the screen, which really drove my audience wild. Every hero gets the opportunity to fight the other or team up to take on Loki’s relentless army of hideous aliens. A sequence where Iron Man and Captain America gang up on Thor is an earthshaking encounter as well as an aerial battle between Black Widow, The Hulk, and Thor. The Thor/Hulk brawl exceeded awesome when Hulk tries to lob Thor’s hammer at him but is unable to lift it. It is just as glorious as you might expect. The final battle almost exceeds words, each character getting a “HOLY SHIT!” moment that you will have to see to believe. Much has been made over the 3D in The Avengers, which was added in post production, many saying that it leaves a lot to be desired but I was actually impressed with it. Arrows fly out of the screen along with ruble, sparks, and more. Next to Avatar and Hugo, this is one of the movies that if you can see it in IMAX 3D, you should.
While the special effects will blow your mind, it’s Joss Whedon’s script that really sends The Avengers to the forefront of superhero movies. He catches us up on all four of the main heroes; so if you’re worrying about seeing the other films that have led up to this, don’t worry too much. You’ll be able to figure out what is going on with no problem at all. Whedon measures out every hero and gives him or her an equal amount of screen time so they can do their superhero thing. Mark Ruffalo is the newest member to this tights party and he smoothly settles in. He ends up being the best Bruce Banner/The Hulk of all the actors who have tried to tackle the role. Ruffalo is a poor soul who adds the grittiest emotion to the role (a scene where he discusses a suicide attempt will really stick with you), oozing with loneliness and longing for acceptance. Thor, Stark, and Rodgers are not far behind, as the three of them all have to come to terms with their outsider status. Rodgers tries to settle in at a time when the world may not even need him, Thor continues to act like a strutting brute, and Stark continues to act like a self-center brat. Hiddleston’s Loki proves to be a formidable foe for the dream team, a smirking baddie who can do quite a bit of damage on his own. I feared his character would be unable to carry the weight of the villain considering he wasn’t front and center in last summer’s Thor but he rises to the challenge and knocks it out of the park. The two characters that I would have liked to have seen more of and developed a bit further was Black Widow and Hawkeye, who only get fleeting hints at their past. You’ll forgive because Whedon is clearly trying to juggle a lot and pulling it off exceedingly well.
The Avengers does become its own worst enemy in a way. I found myself getting so caught up in the idea of the film (Four legendary superhero in ONE movie!) that some of the sci-fi chatter and story development ends up being overshadowed. When the heroes would sit down with Fury and discuss all the science behind the Tesseract, my mind would wander a bit from the story and I would become antsy for the next action sequence. It was clear that the entire theater was getting restless during these scenes and craving more explosions, rescues, brawls, and more. There is a flipside to this and it works in the film’s favor. Since I have seen the film, I have been itching to get back to the theater to see it again and invest myself more into the story. This isn’t to say that The Avengers is a difficult film to follow (it certainly isn’t) but the gimmick of spectacle outweighs the story every step of the way. But hey, what do you expect from a summer blockbuster?
Despite a few minor hiccups, The Avengers is still a must-see action extravaganza that will be one of the biggest films of the summer. It has everything you could want in a superhero movie and then even more that you didn’t even know that you wanted. The Avengers is Marvel’s best film to date and I fear almost every film they do in the wake of it will pale (unless of course it is another Avengers movie). The film has a strong script with applause worthy one-liners, pristine CGI (get a load of Hulk!!), devoted performances, and a strong patriotic spirit that leaves American soil and infects everyone around the world. Kicking the summer movie season off with a nuclear explosion, The Avengers will awaken the inner fanboy or girl in each and every one of us, even if you think there isn’t one to be found in you. A top-notch crowd pleaser of the highest order.
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
by Steve Habrat
To say that you have no idea what you are in for in The Cabin in the Woods is a complete understatement. You can’t even fathom the twist that is waiting to be sprung on you half way through this monster of a horror movie. That, my friends, is something you need to be excited about. I’ve said it multiple times, horror has hit rock bottom, from countless remakes, sequels, and retreads, leaving us only a handful of notable films to celebrate. It is truly hard to believe that there is such a shocking lack of vision and creativity working in Hollywood. I can’t believe they are paid millions to repackage and resell recycled garbage that we have already seen before and much better at that. The Cabin in the Woods lays waste to that approach; at first giving us the same weary old setup and then suddenly launching a shock and awe campaign that you will be truly unprepared for. It’s the first real crowd pleaser horror movie to come around in a long time, one that demands you see it in a packed house with tons of other unsuspecting viewers. You will be in for one wild night at the movies.
The Cabin in the Woods follows five college students, virgin Dana (Played by Kristen Connolly), slutty Jules (Played by Anna Hutchison), athletic Curt (Played by Chris Hemsworth), polite Holden (Played by Jesse Williams), and stoner Marty (Played by Fran Kranz), who head to an isolated cabin in the woods for a weekend of debauchery. After exploring the eerie basement, the group finds a worn out diary that they proceed to read from, conjuring up a bloodthirsty force in the woods that slowly descends upon the cabin. Meanwhile, a strange organization watches the kids from hidden cameras placed strategically around the cabin. It turns out that this organization has an agenda all their own and they are hiding a horrifying secret that threatens the world.
Considered a “loving hate letter” to horror by its director Drew Goddard and producer Joss Whedon, The Cabin in the Woods adoringly tips its hat to the classics every chance it gets. Keep an eye out for a hilarious nod to Evil Dead II, a siege on the cabin that is evocative of Night of the Living Dead, and a sequence that would have felt right at home in the calmer moments of the original Friday the 13th. It also helps that the early premise is loosely based on the original 1981 The Evil Dead. When the twist is revealed, The Cabin in the Woods evolves into a new breed of horror movie that embraces every single subgenre you can possibly think of. I hesitate to say anymore about it other than it does go for broke and it comes up a winner because of it. Fans of the genre will be left beside themselves and at times it was almost overload, so much to take in that you will be flirting with heading back to the theater to experience it again. It’s absolutely exhilarating.
The Cabin in the Woods does have a talented cast behind the wheel, not a weak link in the bunch and then springing a surprise guest on us in the final moments. I loved Chris Hemsworth as the jock Curt, the overly confident hero who uses his strength in some of the most hysterical ways possible. Wait for the scene where he comes face to face with a zombie girl. Fran Kranz also shines as the squinty-eyed stoner Marty who begins to suspect there is more going on than meets the eye. And then we have Richard Jenkins as Steve Hadley and Bradley Whitford as Richard Sitterson, who are members of the mysterious organization who steal every scene they are in. A good majority of the laughs come from their end, especially in a gambling sequence and in their deadpan observations while they watch the kids.
My one minor complaint with The Cabin in the Woods is that I wished it had been scarier than it turned out to be. Sure, it is loaded with jump scares that will have the easy targets filling the jeans, but I wish it had really freaked me out. The audience I saw the film with had a ball with the fake out scares, gasping every time that music blasted over the speakers. I did enjoy the campy melody that The Cabin in the Woods carries, right down to the self-aware chucklers like “We should split up!” In fact, the film is often times more of a comedy than it is a horror movie, but I think that is precisely the point of The Cabin in the Woods. Nothing really scares us anymore, never sending us home from the theater with a handful of sleepless nights. The Cabin in the Woods points out that horror isn’t just failing in America, but is crumbling all over the world, and simply not doing the job that it is responsible for.
The Cabin in the Woods turns out to be a blood soaked, anything goes party that takes absolutely no prisoners. It opts to wipe all the prisoners it could take off the map and then firebomb the map. As an evaluation of the sorry state of horror, it is spot on and leaves you itching to see more horror films like it. In a way it gives horror fans hope, that there is still some individuals out there in the industry who posses creativity and will take a few risks. It baffles me why the film has been shelved for so long and why the studio was so iffy about it. Well written, directed, acted, and featuring the mother of all horror movie finales, The Cabin in the Woods is an adrenaline shot jabbed right into the feeble heart of the horror genre.
by Steve Habrat
Well, it seems like I have to eat my words and admit that I was too hasty to judge Thor. I have to admit that I wrongfully formed my opinion on the movie by it’s below-average trailer when I should have kept an open mind to the God of Thunder’s first cinematic outing. But in all fairness, at the beginning of the summer I was suffering from what I am calling Marvel Fatigue. Perhaps you even felt the effects of this dreaded illness: Lack of interest in ANY Marvel Comics superhero movie, a growing concern about the quality of their productions, and the fact that they seem to be more and more money hungry with each passing summer. They had three superhero movies coming out this year! And the one leading the pack is a hammer-packing God who fights Frost Giants and speaks as if he stepped out of Hamlet! To make things even more dreadfully boring, Marvel recruited Shakespearean actor/director Kenneth Branagh to helm the damn thing! In my eyes, it appeared as if Marvel is desperate to stay king of the superhero movie mountain, enlisting their B-squad of heroes and forcing them upon audiences. What’s worse is that every movie that rolls off the assembly line feels like just an extended preview for their much-hyped Avengers movie. You can see my apprehension right?
But believe me when I tell you this: Thor is actually really, really good. It’s the perfect summer movie that’s heavy on dazzling action; loaded with top notch CGI, utilizes 3D properly, and features a lead so undeniably charismatic that you practically wish he was real. I sat in disbelief as the film relentless put a smile on my face and propelled me into one adrenaline rush after another! Now many of you know I am an avid comic book collector and reader but Thor was never on my radar. I never found him to be truly compelling enough to rush out and grab a couple of his comics. But this origin story manages to actually be quite a hypnotic experience. The Asgardians represent all that is good, protecting mankind from the evil Frost Giants who are hell-bent on taking over the whole planetary system. Asgard is lead by King Odin (Played by Anthony Hopkins), who has two sons, Loki (Played by Tom Hiddleston) and Thor (Played by Chris Hemsworth). On the day that Odin is crowing Thor the new king of Asgard, Frost Giants sneak into the kingdom and attempt to retrieve a relic that belongs to their race. This ignites a fire in Thor, who vows to teach the Frost Giants a lesson. This confrontation leads to disastrous results and ends up resparking an ancient war between the Frost Giants and Asgard along with the banishment of Thor from Asgard. Once on earth, Thor is a fish out of water and with the help of astro-physicist Jane Foster (Played by Academy Award winning actress Natalie Portman) and her two wisecracking colleagues; he adapts to life on earth and learns humility.
If this all sounds completely silly, trust me, wait until you see it all play out on the silver screen. It’s absolutely wondrous to behold as Branagh’s art direction and sleek camera work bring the kingdom of Asgard to vibrant life. The make-up work on the Frost Giants alone will make your eyes pop. On earth, the film is mirthful despite the fact that it is basically a teaser for the Avengers. There are countless in-jokes that relate back to Iron Man and the comic lore, which I know will soar over the heads of some casual audience members. Yet its Hemsworth Thor who anchors the entire film and consistently warms your heart. He’s a tragic fellow who we sympathize with even if we shake our heads and deem him a brutish fool. You can’t help but love him when he waltzes into a modern pet shop and demands a horse for travel from a flabbergasted store employee. Hemsworth is the real treasure here as he proves that his talent stretches far beyond his chiseled physique.
The film has an indisputable human element that posses you and holds you in its icy grip. When a mortal Thor tangles with a towering juggernaut called the Destroyer, you will bite your nails down in dread. Yet even when he is back in his godly form and he confronts the final villain, it’s still nerve-racking. The film establishes itself as Marvel’s own Superman film, but what the film adaptations of Superman seemed to consistently overlook, mainly making Superman’s journey to discovering his place in the universe, Thor laps up with glee. How does one make sense of all the mysteries of life? Even gods must discover their true place in this strange journey we call life.
Branagh can’t resist his Shakespearean impulses even when he’s whipping up a summer blockbuster. The film sneaks in minor hints of the Bard, mainly in the tragedy sense and the Old English dialogue the fires out of Thor’s mouth. But Branagh keeps the film from veering into overdramatic territory and keeps things light and simple. It has a breezy love story at it’s core that you’ll find yourself rooting for. It makes great dorky use of Portman’s Jane Foster as she struggles to understand the strange being that is Thor. Thor’s scheming brother Loki is delightfully sinister as he vows to rip Asgard apart. Hopkin’s Odin injects wise wisdom as their booming father and the film is practically ripped right out from under all the other players by the mystifying all-seeing gatekeeper of Asgard, Heimdall, played by a nearly unrecognizable and never better Idris Elba.
Thor embodies everything the summer blockbuster should be. It packs some serious teeth rattling action sequences, dreamy imagery, and a nonstop rush of unwavering excitement. It ends up being a return to form for Mr. Branagh who allows himself to lighten up a bit and actually have a smidgeon of fun in all the ludicrousness. It is the perfect frontrunner for the summer movie season and it will get your juices flowing for the inevitable parade of CGI fests that will follow in it’s wake. Thor is a thunderously good time that also happens to be one of the better superhero movies to come out in quite some time. It was the first must see of the summer! GRADE: A-
Thor is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.