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.
In What Just Happened director Barry Levinson does for Hollywood what he did for politics in Wag The Dog. Movies about the film industry rarely connect in a big way with anyone other than insiders (except maybe Robert Altman’s brilliant The Player). But What Just Happened based on producer Art Linson’s book on the disastrous making of the Alec Baldwin/Anthony Hopkins 1997 flick The Edge succeeds. It has been fictionalized into the story of a beleaguered producer Ben (Robert DeNiro) whose new film Fiercely -- a grainy pretentious arty crime film starring Sean Penn -- bombs at a preview. Ben must convince the nearly psychotic British director Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott) to re-cut his film in time for its Cannes Film Festival premiere or have it shelved completely by studio head Lou Tarnow (Catherine Keener). He also has to worry about what his teenage daughter Zoe (Kristen Stewart) is up to deal with his estranged wife (Robin Wright Penn) who he suspects is having an affair with a screenwriter (Stanley Tucci) and try to convince spoiled brat star Bruce Willis (played by himself) to shave off his Grizzly Adams beard before production begins on Ben’s next film. Who ever said life for a Hollywood producer was glamorous? To put it succinctly this represents DeNiro’s best screen work in years. He is at ease and entirely comfortable as a weary producer who deals with nut jobs on a daily basis yet tries to get something on the screen that he can be proud of. It’s an effort that is often at odds with the realities of the way Hollywood works. Perhaps it helps that the real producer Art Linson wrote the screenplay and produces this film as well. Keener deftly plays the bottom-line minded studio head who threatens to shut everything down unless the maniacal director re-cuts the film to let a murdered dog live. Funniest scene in the film is a meeting in her office as his director throws a tortured hissy fit at the prospect of touching his sacred work at all. In the role of the crazy helmer Wincott steals the show. Looking like Keith Richards and playing the diva artiste to the hilt Wincott is downright hilarious. Brilliantly skewering themselves in extended cameos are Penn and Willis as demanding stars. Type casting? John Turturro shows up in an amusing bit as a thoroughly wimpy agent. Robin Wright Penn and Kristen Stewart give DeNiro’s character a much needed personal side and mainly play it straight. Barry Levinson who directed such hits as Bugsy and his Oscar-winning Rain Man knows the trials and tribulations of the film industry well and hasn’t had a big box office hit himself in over 15 years. Here he seems to get the mercurial nature of the business and is back in top form satirizing Hollywood in what can confidently be labeled the adult comedy surprise of the year. It’s surprising because movies about making movies rarely get the green light anymore and in fact the behind-the-scenes story of the (non) selling of What Just Happened at this year’s Sundance is an ironic illustration of the pitfalls of modern filmmaking. After re-cutting the film for Cannes (in a case of life imitating art) the director has created a fast-moving often hysterically funny little gem about the business called show. In doing that he also provides DeNiro with a role worthy of his legend. No small feat these days.
The lights are dimmed in Nashville.
Johnny Cash, country music's legendary icon, died Friday in a hospital in Nashville "due to complications from diabetes which resulted in respiratory failure," Cash's manager Lou Robin said in a statement. Cash was 71. The family has not yet announced funeral arrangements.
Known as the "Man in Black" because he always wore black clothing typically topped with a long country preacher's coat, Cash was known for reaching the hearts of the working class across the country, especially coal miners, sharecroppers and cowboys.
Over a career spanning some 50 years, Cash, a reformed drug and alcohol rabble rouser, said he loved the stark and spare sound of his early recordings made at Sun Records, the seminal Memphis studio, without overdubs or afterthought, Reuters reports.
"That music has got a simple beat people can relate to, and a haunting quality that tries to go right to the gut and to the heart, and sometimes it does," he once said. "I don't know where it comes from. I just like that mysterious sound. A song has to be something I can feel. And 'feel' covers a lot of space with me, meaning spirituality, gut feeling and heart feeling."
Cash also racked up 10 Grammy Awards in his career, including 2003's Best Male Country Vocal Performance for his song "Give My Love to Rose." He won his first Grammy in 1967.
He also won the award for Best Cinematography in a Video at last month's MTV Video Music Awards for his video "Hurt" but was unable to attend the ceremony because he was in the hospital with a stomach ailment. He was a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well as the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
His death comes four months after the death of his wife June Carter Cash, who died after complications from heart surgery at the age of 73.
Ed Benson, head of the Country Music Association, told Reuters that Cash would be sorely missed. "He was not only a giant in the music business but a cultural icon ... something very few people can say."
Tamyra Gray may not have earned the title of American Idol after her shocking exit from the series last week, but she has become the very first contender to sign a music biz deal. MTV.com reports that 19 Entertainment, founded by show producer Simon Fuller--who has guided the careers of the Spice Girls and Annie Lennox--has picked up an option to manage the 23-year-old singer, once considered by both fans and the judges to be a shoo-in for one of the final slots. Gray's debut won't hit shelves until next year; finalists are barred from releasing any music until three months after the winner's CD is released, likely in September. The show's producers have three months after the Sept. 4 finale to pick up contracts on any of the 10 finalists, who will mount a U.S. tour in October and sing tunes from the show on a compilation album due later this year. Gray told MTV.com leaving Idol was "like stepping out of a bubble and not knowing what to do with yourself."
Country legend Johnny Cash was hospitalized Monday after suffering an allergic reaction to either food or medicine, The Associated Press reports. The Grammy-winning singer's manager, Lou Robin, said the 70-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer may remain at Nashville's Baptist Hospital overnight, but that his doctors didn't think the problem was anything serious. "They're always cautious with any trouble he might have," Robin said. Cash suffers from autonomic neuropathy, a disease of the nervous system that makes him susceptible to pneumonia. He was hospitalized twice last fall for treatment of bronchitis.
American Pie actress Natasha Lyonne pleaded guilty Monday to a DUI charge, the AP reports. The 23-year-old actress will have her driver's license suspended and her car impounded for 10 days, has been fined $255, was sentenced to six months probation plus 50 hours of community service, and must take part in a Mothers Against Drunk Driving panel. Police arrested Lyonne around 2 a.m. on Aug. 28, 2001, after she crashed her rental car. The actress, who was driving with passenger Adam Goldberg (A Beautiful Mind), spent eight hours in the county jail before being released on $2,000 bond, charged with careless driving, leaving the scene of an accident and DUI.
Variety reports commercial and television director Matthew Penn, who's directed everything from Shaquille O'Neal hawking Radio Shack to Tony Soprano's therapy sessions, will make his feature directing debut early next year with The Root, a low-budget, Faustian drama about a chop shop operator whose relationship with a crooked police detective prompts him to try to get out of the stolen parts biz. The Emmy-nominated Penn, who directed the regional theater production of The Root, will direct David Strathairn, Gregory Hines, Karen Allen and Eli Wallach in the film.
Boot Camp returns this fall, but this time celebs will take on the mental and physical challenges set by the show's two former Marine Corps drill instructors. In a two-hour Fox special, Celebrity Boot Camp, the recruits--including rapper Coolio, onetime pop idol Tiffany, Married...With Children's David Faustino, ex-Milli Vanilli member Fabrice Morvan; Baywatch babe Traci Bingham, singer Vitamin C; Lorenzo Lamas; Kato Kaelin, Brady Bunch star Barry Williams and Price Is Right spokesmodel Nikki Schieler Ziering will be eliminated one by one until two are left to compete in a series of eight competitions called the "Gauntlet." Taped at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, the show will air on Sept. 30, according to Variety.
Grab your peroxide: ABC has greenlit a two-hour TV movie prequel to the 1997 feature film Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, Variety reports. The project, tentatively titled Romy and Michele: Behind the Velvet Rope, takes place in the early 1990s. The TV movie will recast the titular blondes, played in the film by Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow, and follow them as they head to Hollywood after graduating high school. The teleflick, which is likely to air this coming season, may lead to a series.
A charred guitar set alight onstage by rock legend Jimi Hendrix could become the most expensive guitar ever sold when it goes up for auction in London on Sept. 24, Reuters reports. Hendrix's 1963 Fender Stratocaster is being offered for sale by Dweezil Zappa, son of rock guitarist Frank Zappa, who used it on his own 1976 album "Zoot Allures." London auction house Cooper Owen said the instrument was expected to fetch between $534,000 and $610,000. The Zappas had restored the guitar, which still bears the scars of flames, so it would play. Dweezil, who is selling the guitar to help fund the refurbishment of his father's recording studio, told the Cooper Owen Web site: "Just by looking at the guitar you can sense the history behind the music. It's very inspiring."