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.
When I saw that Disney's The Sorcerer's Apprentice came out today, I thought it'd be as good a time as any to run down a list of cinema's best apprentices. To be honest, I also thought it would be a pretty easy list to make, because cinema is filled with great apprenticeships, right? Eh...not so much.
Sure, there are a ton of father-son or mentor relationships, but that's not what I'm looking for. I don't care about a teacher teaching the student before they realize that, really, the student was teaching them all along. Say what you will about The Sorcerer's Apprentice as a whole - I happen to think it's a perfectly satisfying fantasy-for-kids flick with a host of impressive set pieces and special effects - but at least it doesn't stoop to that kind of schmaltz.
So in honor of Nicolas Cage teaching Jay Baruchel how to shoot plasma bolts (how can you not like a movie that combines Nicolas Cage and plasma bolts?), here are my favorite on-screen apprenticeships. Note: most of them involve teaching a set of skills a bit more lethal than bolts of energy.
Leon and Mathilda, The Professional
Luc Besson has made a lot of tremendous, influential films in his time, but none more so than The Professional. Not only did it introduce most of the world to Natalie Portman, but it also gave us a tender story about the passing of skills and lifestyle between generations. It just so happens those skills and that lifestyle involve shooting people in the head for money. As far as diametric opposites go, you can't find a better pair of opposites than Leon and Mathilda, and as far as the actual apprenticeship goes, Mathilda is a surprisingly agile learner.
Jack Shaw and Lt. Cmdr. Annibal Ramirez, The Assignment
The Assignment may be just an above-average thriller about terrorism, but it knocks the apprenticeship angle out of the park. Donald Sutherland is totally believable as a veteran CIA agent who can probably find a way to chop your head off with a rubber band, while Aidan Quinn is great as a soldier who conveniently looks enough like an international terrorist named Carlos the Jackal to be trained as an impostor. And it's the training sequences that make The Assignment memorable. They know how to show gradual progress instead of the instant mastery of skills that should normally take years to develop. If you ever need an example of how to train to be a badass, see the "look in the fridge" exercise in The Assignment.
Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars
I know, I know; Luke and Obi-Wan are an obvious choice, but I don't care. Don't tell me that, as a kid watching Star Wars, you didn't wish to have an Obi-Wan of your own teach you the ways of The Force. Every kid did and I refuse to believe otherwise. For that fact alone, this duo earn their spot on this list.
The Bride and Pai Mei, Kill Bill: Vol. 2
The relationship between The Bride and Pai Mei in Kill Bill isn't so much as an apprenticeship as it is an old martial arts master begrudgingly doing a favor for his friend by not killing the silly white woman left at his temple steps, but, that's close enough in my book. She may have only learned one particular skill from him, but it was a pretty damned useful one.
Hit Girl and Big Daddy, Kick-Ass
Yes, they're father and daughter in real life, but in their crime-fighting life, Hit Girl is absolutely Big Daddy's gleeful little apprentice. Not only is she a quick learner, but she's also an in-the-trenches, hands-on learner. There's no philosophizing talks of theory, just a whole lot of on-the-job training that pays off in big and bloody and glorious ways.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille and Giuseppe Baldini, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Tom Tykwer's fantastic, underappreciated Perfume: The Story of a Murderer features a very rudimentary apprenticeship, but its purely functional nature is what makes it interesting. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) doesn't want to become a perfumist like Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), he just wants to learn how to capture the essence of smells. He's already got a nearly superhuman sense of smell, so all he needs from Baldini is a simple set of lessons on how to distill and preserve odors. And he proves to be so damned good at it, that he goes on to do things with smells that Baldini could never dream of. It may sound silly, but if you haven't seen this flick, you need to bump it up to the top of your must-watch flick pronto.