In This Means War – a stylish action/rom-com hybrid from director McG – Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Chris Pine (Star Trek) star as CIA operatives whose close friendship is strained by the fires of romantic rivalry. Best pals FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are equally accomplished at the spy game but their fortunes diverge dramatically in the dating realm: FDR (so nicknamed for his obvious resemblance to our 32nd president) is a smooth-talking player with an endless string of conquests while Tuck is a straight-laced introvert whose love life has stalled since his divorce. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) a pretty plucky consumer-products evaluator who piques both their interests in separate unrelated encounters. Tuck meets her via an online-dating site FDR at a video-rental store. (That Lauren is tech-savvy enough to date online but still rents movies in video stores is either a testament to her fascinating mix of contradictions or more likely an example of lazy screenwriting.)
When Tuck and FDR realize they’re pursuing the same girl it sparks their respective competitive natures and they decide to make a friendly game of it. But what begins as a good-natured rivalry swiftly devolves into romantic bloodsport with both men using the vast array of espionage tools at their disposal – from digital surveillance to poison darts – to gain an edge in the battle for Lauren’s affections. If her constitutional rights happen to be violated repeatedly in the process then so be it.
Lauren for her part remains oblivious to the clandestine machinations of her dueling suitors and happily basks in the sudden attention from two gorgeous men. Herein we find the Reese Witherspoon Dilemma: While certainly desirable Lauren is far from the irresistible Helen of Troy type that would inspire the likes of Tuck and FDR to risk their friendship their careers and potential incarceration for. At several points in This Means War I found myself wondering if there were no other peppy blondes in Los Angeles (where the film is primarily set) for these men to pursue. Then again this is a film that wishes us to believe that Tom Hardy would have trouble finding a date so perhaps plausibility is not its strong point.
When Lauren needs advice she looks to her boozy foul-mouthed best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Essentially an extension of Handler’s talk-show persona – an acquired taste if there ever was one – Trish’s dialogue consists almost exclusively of filthy one-liners delivered in rapid-fire succession. Handler does have some choice lines – indeed they’re practically the centerpiece of This Means War’s ad campaign – but the film derives the bulk of its humor from the outrageous lengths Tuck and FDR go to sabotage each others’ efforts a raucous game of spy-versus-spy that carries the film long after Handler’s shtick has grown stale.
Business occasionally intrudes upon matters in the guise of Heinrich (Til Schweiger) a Teutonic arms dealer bent on revenge for the death of his brother. The subplot is largely an afterthought existing primarily as a means to provide third-act fireworks – and to allow McGenius an outlet for his ADD-inspired aesthetic proclivities. The film’s action scenes are edited in such a manic quick-cut fashion that they become almost laughably incoherent. In fairness to McG he does stage a rather marvelous sequence in the middle of the film in which Tuck and FDR surreptitiously skulk about Lauren's apartment unaware of each other's presence carefully avoiding detection by Lauren who grooves absentmindedly to Montel Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." The whole scene unfolds in one continuous take – or is at least craftily constructed to appear as such – captured by one very agile steadicam operator.
Whatever his flaws as a director McG is at least smart enough to know how much a witty script and appealing leads can compensate for a film’s structural and logical deficiencies. He proved as much with Charlie’s Angels a film that enjoys a permanent spot on many a critic’s Guilty Pleasures list and does so again with This Means War. The film coasts on the chemistry of its three co-stars and only runs into trouble when the time comes to resolve its romantic competition which by the end has driven its male protagonists to engage in all manner of underhanded and duplicitous activities. This Means War being a commercial film – and likely an expensive one at that – Witherspoon's heroine is mandated to make a choice and McG all but sidesteps the whole thorny matter of Tuck and FDR’s unwavering dishonesty not to mention their craven disregard for her privacy. (They regularly eavesdrop on her activities.) For all their obvious charms the truth is that neither deserves Lauren – or anything other than a lengthy jail sentence for that matter.
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The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
Gillian Anderson is Lily Bart a woman of shaky means for who parties are business and the pursuit of marriage has become a constant vocation. She falls in love with Lawrence Seldon (Eric Stoltz) but quickly realizes she can't seriously consider him since he actually works for a living. Still her efforts to marry for money instead of love are so half-hearted that she sabotages her chances with a wealthy prig and continues her flirting gambling cigarette-smoking ways. This in turn puts her out of favor with her rich aunt and a tragic demise waits in the wings. Bribery extortion and character assassination rear their scandalous heads as the wrong men make improper plays for the desirable Lily. Intriguing as it may sound revealing letters that have been tossed into a fire are all that smolders in this film.
Leaving the realm of supernatural phenomenon ("X-Files") for the spookier world of Victorian society Gillian Anderson plays the ever so wronged but resolutely brave Lily. Anderson's self-righteousness and wretched desperation fail to endear her leaving her tragic long-suffering Lily somewhat remote. But it's Stoltz's opaque inert Lawrence who truly irritates. A once-likeable actor he has begun to play all his roles with a tad too much smugness. Sincere but utterly passive the character is annoyingly subdued. Laura Linney is refreshingly vital as the dangerous Bertha. Dan Aykroyd fails to impress as a villain in sheep's clothes and Eleanor Bron is a caricature of a stern sour aunt.
After seeing one too many Merchant Ivory films one might tire of the convention in which a woman of meager means falls for a poor working man while searching for a rich husband. And for those who haven't seen any you just might tire of it midway through Terence Davies' languid dour drama. Davies ("The Neon Bible " "Distant Voices Still Lives") doesn't do for Wharton what Martin Scorsese did in "Age of Innocence " namely bring her words to lively engaging life.
Sizemore in trouble with law again
Actor Tom Sizemore, who was convicted in 2003 of beating and threatening ex-girlfriend Heidi Fleiss, was arrested on Wednesday on felony charges of possession of a controlled substance, Reuters reports. Syndicated entertainment TV show Access Hollywood reported that parole officers were conducting random visits and discovered drug paraphernalia in Sizemore's Los Angeles home. It was not immediately clear what the drugs were. The actor was booked and bail was set at $10,000; he was released from custody Wednesday afternoon. Earlier this year, prosecutors accused Sizemore of a parole violation after a positive test for methamphetamine. His attorneys argued the positive test was due to a prescription drug.
George Clinton fesses up to drug charges
Meanwhile, in other celebrity drug-related news, funk musician George Clinton pleaded no contest Wednesday to two misdemeanor drug paraphernalia charges, The Associated Press reports. The musician was arrested in December sitting in a car near his Tallahassee, Fla., recording studio; police said when they approached, he volunteered that he had cocaine in his pocket. He was found with a bag of crack cocaine and a glass pipe, police said. Clinton, 63, was sentenced to 200 hours of community service and two years of probation. He was also fined $372 in court costs.
Aguilera sued by photographer
Christina Aguilera and one of her bodyguards are being sued by a photographer who says the guard punched and spat on him after he took the singer's picture outside a Hollywood nightclub last year, AP reports. According to a lawsuit filed Tuesday, David Keeler was attacked after he photographed Aguilera leaving the club on May 21, 2003. After Aguilera and the bodyguard got into a car, Keeler said the guard told him he "needed to learn respect" and punched and spat on him. Aguilera's representative, Meghan Prophet, denied the incident. "Christina has no reason to believe that such an incident did occur, nor did she witness such an incident," Prophet said.
Fire wrecks Black Eyed Peas equipment
A fire broke out early Wednesday in a Los Angeles studio where the Black Eyed Peas were recording a new album, destroying about $500,000 in gear and instruments, authorities and band members told AP. The band members apparently lit candles during the recording session and forgot to blow them out, causing the 3 a.m. fire. The band said it was devastated by the loss. "Guitars, drums, drum kits, keyboards, microphones, classic instruments that we've collected with our worldly travels are now destroyed," band member Will I. Am told KABC-TV.
Beyonce, Usher put on fashion show
Beyonce, Rod Stewart and Usher are among the artists set to perform at Fashion Rocks, an event intended to celebrate the relationship between fashion and music, AP reports. The super-sized concert, which will also include Andre 3000 (just named Esquire magazine's best-dressed man), Avril Lavigne, Mary J. Blige and Alicia Keys, will take place at New York's Radio City Music Hall Sept. 8, the start of New York Fashion Week, AP reports. The concert will air Sept. 26 as a two-hour primetime special on Fox.
Kinks founder recovering from stroke
Dave Davies, one of the founding members and lead guitarist of British rock group The Kinks, has been partially paralyzed by a stroke he suffered in June, his spokesman told AP. Spokesman Alan Robinson said Davies, 57, would have to spend at least another month in hospital, but that doctors were confident that with physiotherapy he would recover. "He is paralyzed on the right hand side of his body but he retains some feeling and he can still hold a guitar plectrum," Robinson said Monday. "These small things mean a hell of a lot. They're small but very important."
Simpson sister's debut album takes top spot
Buoyed by her hit MTV show, Ashlee Simpson's debut album, Autobiography, reclaimed the top spot on the U.S. pop albums chart Wednesday after a week at No. 2, Reuters reports. The 16th installment of the NOW That's What I Call Music! dropped to No. 2, while Jimmy Buffett's former chart-topper License To Chill climbed one place to No. 3. Usher's Confessions also rose one, to No. 4 with Gretchen Wilson's Here for the Party rounding out the top five.