Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
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.
On the eve of the release of Paul, a movie about two aging geeks who find an alien while on a road trip to Comic-Con, we figured it would be a good time to revisit our favorite sci-fi road trips. We’re not talking about a sci-fi journeys, either. These movies aren’t just about a group of people hiking toward some far off destination, they’re about that great American tradition of hoping in a vehicle (of some sort) and heading off on a mission, be it to accomplish a precise goal or to simply wander. As long as they’re in a vehicle when they do it, it’s up for consideration-- and the great thing about sci-fi is that the vehicles can get pretty crazy.
Also, be wary of spoilers below for any of the films you haven’t seen.
The Vehicle: 1977 Ford Mustang Cobra II
The Travelers: Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) and the Starman (Jeff Bridges)
The Destination: From Wisconsin to Arizona so the Starman can catch an intergalactic ride away from the stupid people who shot down his peace-bringing spaceship.
Trip Highlight: There’s a lot to pick from in John Carpenter’s Starman - resurrecting a deer, fighting the truckers, fleeing the NSA - but the highlight would have to be Starman driving their car directly into a gas tanker while they’re both inside. It takes balls to intentionally blow up your road-tripping ride, even if you are a space alien.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
The Vehicle: A variety of station wagons and trucks, but it all begins in a yellow Ford-F250.
The Travelers: Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and Jillian (Melinda Dillon)
The Destination: Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming
Trip Highlight: The arrival of the mothership, of course. It technically happens after they’ve reached their destination, but we’re still counting it since it’s the start of a second road trip for Roy. Except where he’s going, they don’t need roads. (Sorry, it had to be said.)
The Vehicle: The spaceship Icarus II
The Travelers: A team of eight scientists
The Destination: The sun
Trip Highlight: Some crazy stuff goes down in Sunshine, but as insane as stuff gets, the trip highlight has to be the spacewalk Kaneda and Capa take to make repairs after Trey forgets to adjust the heat shield for their new trajectory. Not only is it a visually awesome scene, but it’s essentially the most high-stakes tire change ever seen in a road trip movie.
2001: A Space Odyssey
The Vehicle: The spaceship Discovery One
The Travelers: David Bowman (Keir Dullea), Dr. Franke Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Hal 9000
The Destination: Jupiter, though no one knows what to expect when they get there.
Trip Highlight: Dave’s mind-bending trip into the monolith orbiting Jupiter, which in turn sent countless college kids on acid trips of their own while trying to figure out just what in the hell the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey means.
The Vehicle: A pimped-out Winnebago Chieftain
The Travelers: Lone Star (Bill Pullman) and Barf (John Candy)
The Destination: Planet Druidia to stop President Skroob (Mel Brooks) from stealing all of its air.
Trip Highlight: Lone Star and Dark Helmet’s duel inside Mega Maid’s ear, which taught the world over the heartwarming message that you don’t need a special ring to use the Schwartz as long as you’re pure of heart. Or something.
The Vehicle: A 1984 Chevy Van
The Travelers: A group of geeks on a mission to see Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace early.
The Destination: Skywalker Ranch
Trip Highlight: A surprise encounter with William Shatner in Las Vegas, who then tells them what they need to do to infiltrate Skywalker Ranch. Sure, the movie may not be all that great, but it’s scenes like this that prove its intentions were in the right place.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The Vehicle: Treebeard, the oldest Ent of Middle Earth
The Travelers: Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd)
The Destination: Isengard
Trip Highlight: Merry and Pippin going to battle riding atop giant, ancient walking trees of doom. Enough said.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The Vehicle: The spaceship Heart of Gold
The Travelers: Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), Ford Prefect (Mos Def) Zaphond Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), Trillian (Zooey Deschanel) and Marvin (Alan Rickman/Warwick Davis)
The Destination: The planet Magrathea, which contains the answer to the Question of Life, the Universe and Everything
Trip Highlight: All manner of insane and improbable things happen in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, so it’s hard to pick just a single highlight. However, we’ve got to hand it to Marvin the Paranoid Android for saving the day by turning the Point-of-View gun on the Vogons, causing them to be overcome with crippling despair.
The Vehicle: Virgil, a deep-Earth drilling vessel.
The Travelers: A team of scientists and astronauts trying to restart the Earth’s molten core, which has stopped spinning.
The Destination: The Core, duh.
Trip Highlight: Let’s be clear, The Core is only a movie worth talking about because of how joyously silly it is. To that end, we can’t help but give a bit of a slowclap to its cheesiest moment: getting rescued because a pod of whales singing a song that alerts the surface that Virgil survived the nuclear explosions at the core.
Star Trek: The Voyage Home
The Vehicle: A Bird-of-Prey starship
The Travelers: The exiled officers of the USS Enterprise.
The Destination: Earth, 1986, where the crew plan to abduct a humpback whale and bring it back to the future.
Trip Highlight: Well if it isn’t another whale-related sci-fi plot point (if only we had gone with the falling whale in Hitchhiker’s Guide, we’d have a hat trick going on)... Strange obsession with whales aside, it’s hard not to love the scene where Kirk saves the day (and the future) by decloaking the Bird-of-Prey right in front of a group of angry whalers who most likely all had to change their underwear afterward.