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.
Three Burials is languid simplicity at its best. The story starts off as a murder mystery of sorts when a Mexican man Melquiades Estrada is found shot dead outside a dusty Texas town near the U.S./Mexican border. Without any family he’s written off and unceremoniously buried in a shallow grave. This is not at all satisfactory for Pete Perkins (Jones) a local ranch foreman and Melquiades’ only friend. Pete decides to investigate his friend’s murder on his own and finds out the culprit is a young hot-headed border patrolman named Mike Norton (Barry Pepper). He kidnaps Mike and forces him to disinter the body. With his captive in tow and the body tied to a mule Pete then undertakes a dangerous and romantic journey into Mexico to give Melquiades a proper burial. The older he gets the more Tommy Lee Jones excels at portraying a man of few words. Maybe its because his face--filled with years of deep lines and crevices--can explain everything just by staring off into the distance or by coldly glaring at an enemy. As Pete (for which Jones won best actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival) the actor hands us a lonely cowboy who finds a friendship with an unlikely amigo (played by Julio Cedillo). These two don’t head towards Brokeback Mountain territory but the bond is there. And when Melquiades is killed it sends Pete into a spiral of pain revenge and eventual self-discovery. As Pete’s captive Pepper (25th Hour) turns in an amazing performance as the bewildered border patrolman who goes on his own journey towards redemption. And on the sidelines is January Jones (American Wedding) as Mike’s wife and Melissa Leo (21 Grams) as Pete’s sometimes girlfriend who give boredom a whole new outlook and aptly show just how stuck a beautiful woman can be in such a nowhere town. It’s clear Three Burials is indeed very close to Jones’ heart. Shot almost entirely on his sprawling West Texas ranch Jones’ directorial debut was apparently born out of years of deer-hunting trips he took with Three Burials’ screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (who also wrote the happy little film 21 Grams). “You don’t have to spend much time along the Rio Grande before you realize that [Arriaga’s] country and mine and the same ” Jones told Entertainment Weekly. Jones paints a vivid picture of this land--and the people--he obviously loves dearly while also depicting the racial and political tensions brewing along the border. But it’s Arriaga’s script that deftly changes the film’s pace. It’s a Western a dark comedy a revenge thriller that eventually turns into a Don Quixote journey of sorts--and the whole thing just keeps you glued save for a few extraneous moments here and there. This could be the start of a beautiful collaborative team.
Set in 1984 Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) returns to her ice-cold hometown in Northern Minnesota after fleeing from an abusive husband. In order to care for her two young kids she needs a job--and for most of the townsfolk including her distant dad (Richard Jenkins) that means working in the local iron mines. Problem is not too many women work there and those who do are subjected to continual harassment by their male coworkers. Josey lands a job anyway and starts to get her fair share of sexual innuendos. One day her former high-school sweetheart also a mine employee takes it way too far with her. Although met with strong resistance of course a lawsuit ensues that results in a groundbreaking decision for women’s rights in the workplace. Ah what an Oscar can do for a career. It wasn't that long ago Theron wouldn’t even have been considered for such a dramatic role. But with deserved recognition she gets to strut her stuff in North Country. She's no Monster but she's no supermodel either--and while it's impossible to erase her beauty its glare has been reduced. A second-consecutive Oscar win? Maybe not but a nomination wouldn't be out of the place. Co-star Frances McDormand might also be in line for a nod of her own. She plays Glory a woman who gets Josey the job and encourages her to fight the good fight something that seems visceral for McDormand. Woody Harrelson is also solid as Josey's attorney though his Midwest-stoner drawl gets in the way of the northern accent he's supposed to be selling. New Zealand director Niki Caro mightily impressed us with Whale Rider a poignant mixture of grief and vigor and with North Country she continues to impress. As more an observer than anything else Caro lets the true story tell itself--of what happened in this small town with its frigid denizens and sexist behavior. And the film is definitely a period piece á la Norma Rae in that it's from a specific period albeit a recent one and pertains to a specific region. But it's kind of slow going. There’s a lot of weeping and dramatic speeches. Still Caro makes up for it by including several Bob Dylan songs who rarely grants the use of his songs in films. Perhaps he felt a certain a kinship to this film since it takes place in the desolate cold Northern Minnesota where he comes from--and so resents.
Mobster-turned-movie producer Chili Palmer (John Travolta) decides to shift over to yet other creative albeit dangerous terrain: The music industry. He's spurred along by the murder of his friend small-time music maven Tommy (James Woods) who leaves behind a beautiful widow Edie (Uma Thurman) and a massive debt to a dangerous rap music mogul Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer). Chili tells Edie about Linda Moon (Christina Milian) a gifted singer he decides to manage after seeing her perform. With her raw talent Linda has the potential to bail them out. But first they have to get her out of a nasty contract and abusive relationship with her former manager Nick Carr (Harvey Keitel) his right-hand man Raji (Vince Vaughn) and his right-hand man a bodyguard with the unfortunate name of Elliot Wilhelm (The Rock). Complicating things are the Russian mob and a bevy of cops keeping Chili in their crosshairs. This all feels tacked on as the nameless accented characters serve the same purpose as robots in a science fiction movie--they can get blown away without sacrificing any stars or feeling any emotion (prioritize those considerations as you wish).
John Travolta who has barely aged in the 10 years since the first film is in top form in Be Cool. He lives up to the title and his character's name. No matter how dire the circumstances no matter how much he's outnumbered and no matter how many gleaming pistols he has aimed at him he never ever loses his even-keeled demeanor. But maybe that's the problem--because if Chili doesn't ever break a sweat then why should we the audience? Thurman isn't exactly showing her years either but has little to do as Edie. Vince Vaughn is the best he's ever been--he's amped up thinks he's black and sports a high-pitched laugh that is instantly annoying and hysterical. As Raji's gay bodyguard the Rock has a great time lampooning himself (at least the raised eyebrow bit) and revealing terrific comic timing. Cedric the Entertainer would have been better off as more of a reluctant menace to play toward his skills instead of against them. Even the young up and comer Milian does a nice job playing the ingénue singer. But have you ever thrown a party and realize that you've actually invited too many of your good friends? And you don't get to spend enough time with any of them? Well adding the following to the list above is: Andre Benjamin of the hip hop grou Outkast plays Dabu--a klutzy overeager trigger man for Cedric the Entertainer; the late Robert Pastorelli as a deli-sandwich eating hit man; Danny DeVito in a cameo reprising his character from the original; and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler playing himself.
Director F. Gary Gray's understated style and clarity is what made a movie like The Italian Job so entertaining. But with Be Cool that style is mostly absent. There is a flatness to the direction; specifically there are a lot of close-ups for one-liners and many scenes go on just a few beats too long (one that comes to mind is an otherwise funny scene where The Rock models impossibly gay threads for himself in a mirror). In some cases jokes are simply repeated instead of building. Those are heavy sins for a comedy. Plus the kind of breezy cinema that Be Cool and its predecessor Pulp Fiction have traded on has now become a little worn out. It's just not enough anymore to have a black-clad Travolta confidently stride across a room toward danger even if he does it better than almost anybody else. Or having charismatic tough guys oozes the cool all while discussing things like the merits of a Burger King sandwich. What's needed in Be Cool is a slightly fresher perspective. The convoluted plot with its meaningless table-turning doesn't help matters. It's a series of entertaining moments rather than a coherent movie.
Three years since relieving ruthless Las Vegas hotel owner Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) of a large chunk of cash Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his crew--including detail man Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) and novice pickpocket Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon)--have tried to live modest legit lives. Sure it's hard to go straight but hey at least they got away with the heist of the century. Right? Not quite. Seems a mysterious someone has ratted the gang out to Benedict who demands his $160 million back or else. Strapped of most of their cash and too hot in the United States to pull off a job Ocean and company decide Europe would be the best place to score much to the chagrin of Danny's wife Tess (Julia Roberts). Once in Europe however they find out it isn't as easy as it used to be. They run up against the tough-as-nails Europol agent Isabel Lahiri (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who once had a fling with Rusty and Europe's premier master thief the Night Fox (Vincent Cassel) who seems to be one step ahead of Ocean's crew. Let the games begin.
Ocean's Twelve's crop of A-listers have way too much fun making these movies as they recapture that freewheeling spirit and good-ole-boy camaraderie from Ocean's Eleven. Even though sometimes it seems like they are a bunch of frat boys hazing each other the actors clearly are enjoying themselves tremendously--and so do we. Clooney and Pitt continue to be the suave ringleaders speaking to each other in code while Pitt's Rusty gets the love interest this time around. As Rusty's former flame Zeta-Jones holds her own with the boys but doesn't have nearly the chemistry with Pitt that Roberts and Clooney exude as marrieds Danny and Tess. Actually Roberts almost steals Twelve away from the guys: she gets to show off her comedic abilities in one of the film's most hysterical sequences which involves real-life movie stars and Fabergé eggs. As far as the rest of the gang they all are back and raring to go including Damon who comes off as even more green and eager as Linus and the hilarious bickering Malloy brothers played brilliantly by Scott Caan and Casey Affleck. As for the villains Garcia's Benedict has very little do leaving most of the malevolent posturing and stylish good looks to French actor Cassel (Birthday Girl) as the crafty Night Fox.
With one of the keenest eyes in the business director Steven Soderbergh is a pro at letting audiences experience what seem to be very personal moments in his films. Ocean's Twelve is no exception as we become privy to the locker-room antics of our favorite band of thieves. This makes you as much a part of the boys club as its rowdy stars. Soderbergh describes Twelve as a "movie in which everything goes wrong from the get-go " whereas everything went right in Eleven. This allows for some wonderful comic scenes such as Roberts' escapade and the quick-witted exchanges between the boys. Upon finding out that the gang is now called "Ocean's Eleven" safecracker Frank (Bernie Mac) exclaims "Who decided that? I'm a private contractor!" The film's inherent problems come from George Nolfi's screenplay which tries to incorporate the whole "greatest thief in America meets the greatest thief in Europe" idea. Suddenly Twelve becomes less about planning a heist and watching things go wrong than about a cock fight to see which thief can outdo the other thief. At the end when all the convoluted twists are revealed you're left wishing for simpler times.
Loosely based on the (rather lame) 1960 Rat Pack film dashing understated-but-cool thief Danny Ocean (George Clooney) orchestrates the most sophisticated elaborate casino heist in history less than 24 hours after being released from jail. In one night Danny's handpicked 11-man crew of specialists--including an ace card sharp (Brad Pitt) a young-but-masterful pickpocket (Matt Damon) and a demolition genius (Don Cheadle)--will attempt to steal over $150 million from three Las Vegas casinos owned by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) the elegant ruthless entrepreneur who just happens to be dating Danny's ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts). To score the cash Danny will have to risk his life and risk his chance of ever reconciling with Tess. But if all goes according to his intricate nearly impossible plan Danny won't have to choose between his stake in the heist and his high-stakes reunion with Tess. Or will he?
The star wattage in this movie could solve all of California's electricity problems in one fell swoop. George Clooney easily passes himself off as suave mastermind Danny Ocean playing the role with understated class and elegance. Brad Pitt takes a similar arc as Rusty though he's slightly more dispassionate and professional than Clooney's visionary Ocean. Matt Damon is convincing as the inexperienced-but-talented pickpocket who's essential to getting in the vault. And Julia is simply Julia--glamorous and charming a smart cookie who is being wooed by the evil ruthless (and anal-retentive) casino mogul so elegantly portrayed by Andy Garcia. Affecting a Cockney accent and attitude Don Cheadle's portrayal of the demolition expert is a tour de force. Carl Reiner is absolutely hilarious as Saul Bloom an aging old-timer who comes out of retirement to infiltrate the casino as a debonair arms dealer. Elliott Gould Bernie Mac Scott Caan and Casey Affleck round out the cast nicely with inspired performances especially Gould's and Mac's.
Soderbergh cemented his reputation last year as a director of serious weight when both Traffic and Erin Brockovich were nominated for the Best Film Academy Award and garnered him two Best Director nominations---an unprecedented feat. Ocean's Eleven marks Soderbergh's departure from the serious to the seriously fun. This is one of the most stylish most elegantly filmed movies I have ever seen. Not only are all the actors beautiful but so are the locations clothes and shot selections. The speed and pacing of the flick belie the movie's length; Soderbergh clearly had fun making this movie. He shot this film very intimately often allowing the camera to stay close on the actors a tad longer than expected which lets their personas shine through--thus their personalities draw you into the movie as much as the caper itself. It's not often you see a movie where the direction has as much wit and cleverness as the plot itself. Ocean's Eleven makes no pretense to be something other than a jaunty cheeky exhilarating heist movie. So while the plot's not too deep all is forgiven considering the level of acting and direction.