Thor

The Marvel universe continues its expanse as Thor plunders into theaters.  The god of thunder comes from Shakespearean-auteur Kenneth Branagh who blends dynamics of action and character to create one of the better superhero thrill rides this side of The Dark Knight.

Riding the lightning as the title character is Chris Hemsworth in his first major leading role, and I must say, like Downey of Iron Man, the lead actor makes the movie. Hemsworth owns the character, he owns the film, and he will surely own this franchise.  Balancing out the silliness of the plot and otherworldly English of proper, Branagh’s newfound star plays Thor, the son of King Odin (Anthony Hopkins)—ruler of the Asgard realm.  About to be named heir to the throne during a planetary ceremony, the walls of Asgard are breached by enemies of another world.  Luckily the mighty fortress is protected, but Thor isn’t satisfied.  Egged on by his younger brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor becomes impassioned with delivering the intruders a message and sends out with a group of warrior pals to meet his foes at their doorstep which ignites a war of the worlds.  Thor and his comrades are vastly outnumbered as King Odin comes to the rescue.  Aggravated with his son’s arrogance and recklessness, Odin strips Thor of his metaphysical abilities and casts him out to Earth along with his powerless weapon of choice—the mighty hammer.

Now stranded on Earth, the mighty warrior enters the lives of a team of physicists led by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), dodging SHIELD authorities in the process.  There’s a lot of hooey talk of portals and disturbances in the upper atmosphere as the studio is desperate to explain the existence of Thor from a scientific perspective—mainly to tie him in with the ‘Earth-bound’ avengers Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America and others.  Once Jane accepts her discovery of a chiseled slab of man as a warrior god, Thor’s jealous younger brother no sooner sends enemies to Earth to erase the existence of his stranded sibling once and for all.

As a studio tentpole and comic-book adaptation, Thor is far better than anything we would’ve seen ten years ago.  Writers have been approaching this material with earnestness and passion, determined to deliver first-rate products.  Because of this, audiences have been spoiled with such impressive offerings as the first Iron Man, the new Batman films, Spider-Man 2 and X-Men 2, that we sort of forget that these movies can’t all necessarily be A+ features.  Thor, however, is more in line with the latest trend of quality superhero films than other stink piles of recent memory (Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider, Elektra, X-Men Origins: Wolverine).

Special Effects and action can be hit-or-miss as far as first-rate techs go, but the sequences are consistently involving.  Thor’s world is particularly designed and detailed, giving us a sense of the character’s background and struggle.  The characters are particularly well-developed, especially those occupying Asgard.  The actors do their best to participate in a magnum opus of silliness, with straight faces and a sense of fun at the same time.  Thor only seems to come up short when much of the story centers on Asgard rather than forces that threaten our planet.  Once the god of thunder finds himself stranded on Earth, his human companions stir up comedy and human interest, but the movie begins to lull periodically.  That’s alright with me.  Branagh gives his film time to settle down and breathe without relentlessly retreating to attack mode.  Since the film is designed to lead straight into The Avengers a year from now, I’m certain Earth will finally see Thor protecting our vulnerable little world to great extent.

As Marvel continues to conjoin these franchises, I’m curious to see how Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk survive once the fellowship is broken after Avengers rakes in hundred of millions of dollars.  Iron Man 3 is already in the works, as is a sequel to Thor.  Luckily, Thor seems to have more story to tell as the character relationships have space to blossom, specifically between Jane and Thor.  The filmmakers took notes from the first Iron Man as Stark and Pepper slowly but surely evolved their relationship.  Romance and sparks only tease the audience throughout most of Thor‘s first outing, leaving us wanting more.  Hemsworth and Portman have plenty of chemistry, and that’s where Branagh succeeds in delivering a superhero film about likable and believable characters amidst an outrageous plot, dorky costumes, and oddball creatures.  Forget about the whirlwind of action and useless 3D conversion (yes, skip the 3D).  Marvel and Branagh have given us another sensational hero and a major star to fill his shoes.  Bring on another round.

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Rating: 3.8/5 (5 votes cast)
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Black Swan

When I first heard about Darren Aronofsky’s new film, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Some sites were billing it as a Science Fiction film, which it really isn’t. I mean, if I were to say there’s a new Science Fiction film starring Natalie Portman where she plays a ballerina, you start thinking “Oh no, it’s 2001: A Space Odyssey all over again!” (Which was essentially a ballet in space.) In all actuality, Black Swan is a thriller, just so you are prepared.

To sum up the story, Natalie Portman plays a studying ballet dancer, Nina, who embodies the devoted artist – constantly in pursuit of perfection. The ballet company she performs with is slated to mount the classic show Swan Lake. It has always been her dream to play the Swan Queen, a role which requires the dancer to embody both the innocent, pure white swan and the evil, seductive black swan. Nina is a natural for the part of the white swan, but her innocence and drive for perfection undermine her ability to portray its free-spirited and manipulative alter ego.

"My dressing room on 'That 70s Show' was SO much bigger than this."

In attempting to tap into her darker side, with some “guidance” by the director, Nina becomes drawn to Lily, a new dancer in the company played by Mila Kunis. Lily represents everything Nina is not – she is imperfect, impulsive, and without inhibitions. Their interaction is the catalyst which starts Nina on a path of self discovery and evolution.

This film is difficult to review in the spirit of preserving its intentional uncertainty. The use of sound, camera shots and plot loops was very disorienting but lent to the storyline, leaving the audience just as confused by what was happening to Nina as she was herself. It isn’t really until the end of the movie that you have a fairly clear idea of what exactly was going on.

The story heavily mirrors (pun intended?) the story of Swan Lake as a metaphor for Nina’s life and transformation as a dancer. This imagery is practically beaten over the audience’s head with the use of color coordinated costuming, loads of reflective surfaces, mirrored action between characters, and Nina literally seeing other people turn into evil doppelgangers of herself.

This pretty much mirrors the look my friend Steve had on his face throughout the whole 2nd half of the movie.

Black Swan is most definitely rated R for disturbing imagery, language, and sexual content. This is a film that will be harder for less-mature audiences to handle, as they will easily be lost in giggling and grossing out over the previously mentioned content. (As was the high school-aged group in the theatre we were in.)

Thankfully, this content is not needlessly gratuitous. I must admit, I had my reservations when some of the loudest buzz over this movie centered around a love scene between Portman and Kunis, but it’s adequately woven into the overall plot flow, and still uses clever photography to avoid any full-on nudity. The disturbing imagery is a little more jarring, so be aware, there will be some moments you cringe, but they effectively lend themselves to the storytelling.

It's certainly easier on the eyes than that Keifer Sutherland movie.

I have to say, the film is artistically well done. I’m very interested to find out what technique(s) they used to create the independent mirror-image effects, as there are some fairly intricate moments where the camera would literally have to be looking at itself in the mirror, but it’s never seen. The storyline is solid, and the discomfort caused throughout the film is intentional and adds to the overall dark ambiance.

I’d recommend this to the over-17 film loving crowd, although I think you’d be fine to wait for it on DVD. The theatrical presentation doesn’t really add to the spectacle. Overall, it’s a solid film, with some excellent performances, specifically Portman’s, and a well-put-together cinematic vision on the part of the director. This will definitely be one to watch for in the upcoming awards season.

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Rating: 5.0/5 (1 vote cast)
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Brothers

Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In America) directs one of the finest acting ensembles of the year in “Brothers,” an isolating and tense drama featuring a standout performance from Tobey Maguire.

Maguire plays Sam Cahill, a family man marine called back into combat shortly after his brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), returns home on parole.  Natalie Portman plays Grace, Sam’s wife.  During a helicopter mission in Afghanistan, Sam’s chopper is shot down, and he and another private are taken as POWs.  The two are assumed dead.  Grace, her two daughters and the rest of the family quickly hear of this news.  Tommy takes it upon himself to turn his life around and be there for Grace and the kids.

“Brothers” actually surprised me with how low-key the movie plays out (for the most part).  The scenes with Maguire and the torture he endures while taken hostage by the enemy are less intense and sadistic than I was anticipating.  Not to say they aren’t impacting and intense, but Sheridan often cuts away from some of the more disturbing shots.  The film’s greatest strength and source of intensity comes from its many talented actors.   The young actresses that play the daughters are some of the best child actors I’ve witnessed.  10-year-old Bailee Madison, especially, has some remarkable delivery here.  Among the adult actors, Jake Gyllenhaal has a fine understated performance as the distant drunk brother who slowly turns himself into a family man.  Sam Shepherd makes the most of his cliched angry Vietnam vet father spouting off the infamous “the wrong kid died” anger towards Tommy.  Natalie Portman should earn some attention as the confused grieving wife, who in some respects, takes the reigns of the movie.

But above all, perhaps the biggest surprise is Tobey Maguire, showing a side of his acting abilities we haven’t yet seen as we’ve become accustomed to “Spider-Man” and “Seabiscuit.”  Upon his character’s return home following his mind-altering abuse and captivity, Maguire sends “Brothers” soaring with a few select, memorable scenes that ratchet up the tension immensely.  Whether his performance qualifies him for a leading actor role (the Golden Globes thought so) or a supporting actor, it’s disappointing that so many critics’ circles and reviewers are dismissing his performance.  I’ve read phrases like “you either buy his performance or you don’t,” and I can say that I did.  Maguire is finely tuned here, showcasing the dark side of his capabilities.

Overall, “Brothers” often times feels like talented actors and a handful of tense scenes piled on an average “been there, done that” story mixed in with a big anti-war message.  We’ve seen many ‘coming home’ films about the impact of combat and the destructive power it has on its soldiers.  Some of these movies hit (The Hurt Locker, Born on the 4th of July), some miss (Stop Loss), and this one definitely works very well when it works very well.  If for no other reason, the film should be seen for Maguire’s performance and those moments here that are effective.  Otherwise, I found a lot of this to be standard procedure, even if it’s done adequately by a talented cast.

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