In his first movie, Thor's story was a simple one: stop being a jerk. Ego deflation is a common theme among fictional princes or aristocrats — before achieving greatness, you must obtain goodness (I think I stole that from Oz the Great and Powerful, which only furthers my point). Although it works as a narrative device, it also stands as, arguably, the least interesting of the arcs that face the subjects of the Avengers Initiative. Steve Rogers had an underdog story — the "little guy" becomes the hero (comic book fans are suckers for that kind of thing). Bruce Banner struggled with major psychological traumas and an existential crisis. Tony Stark... well, he also kind of had the "stop being a jerk/ego deflation" thing, but he was a lot funnier about it.
And then, the powers. Captain America is a mortal man imbued with superhuman might and spirit. The Hulk is a behemoth, nearly impenetrable monster, but one undone by his own inability to control himself. Iron Man is only as good as the gadgets he himself can invent and bring to life... and those gadgets, mind you, are immutably cool. And Thor... he's a bulky demigod, one who has never toed the line of true peril, with a gigantic hammer. Even here, he stands as the least interesting of the bunch.
As such, when filmmaker Kenneth Branagh delivered a clunky, distracted story in his Thor, there was far too little intrinsic value in the character to keep us optimistic. The principal merits of Branagh's movie were its stars: even with dumpy material, Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, and Stellan Skarsgard were charismatic enough for a few bits of fun. With a vastly improved script in Thor: The Dark World — which ups the ante on the stakes, the excitement, the cleverness, and the humor — the returning players can shine even brighter.
The followup feature, this time from television director Alan Taylor, is the second Marvel Universe film to release after The Avengers, and the second to really harness itself to this Whedonized vision for these characters. Like Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World makes its sense of humor a chief priority, allowing its story of intergalactic warfare and the apocalyptic threat of a Dark Elf's accumulation of mystical power feel quite intimate. Piercing through these grand, fantastical elements, which command our attention just enough to set up their narrative importance but then fade to the background of some great character work, is the relationship between Thor (Hemsworth) and Loki (Hiddleston) — brothers who, despite everything they've been through in these past two years, have not entirely abandoned their love for one another. Beside them, we have the team back home: scientist Jane (Portman), who has been trying to get her life back in order since her otherworldly beau high-tailed it back to Asgard. We pick up with Jane in the middle of a blind date with an affably nervous Chris O'Dowd (I hope he, somehow, stays in the Marvel canon), carting her into the action when her plucky sidekick Darcy (Kat Dennings) alerts her of a wormhole of sorts located in a London back-alley.
That's as scientific as I'm able to get, both because I got a C in physics and because Thor: The Dark World is never all that concerned with laying down the rules of quantum mechanics. Jane will begin to blather on about the nature of some space-time anomaly before the movie shuts her up, content (as is its audience) with employing suspension of disbelief. "Just accept that these things are happening," Thor 2 says, "because we need them to happen. Besides, they're no more ludicrous than anything else you've seen so far, right?" Maybe a little — The Dark World is beyond the biggest purpetrator of Marvel's reliance on some weirdo hocus pocus — but that's what we signed up for. Kooky magic. And with the Dark Elves, the hellish planets, the intergalatic portals, and the venemous smoke monsters, there's a lot more impressive wizardry to behold than in Hemsworth's previous installment.
But it's not any of the elements of Thor: The Dark World that are the problem. The plot works, the magic works, the comedy works (even when it feels like Joss Whedon's B reel), and the character material works in spades — Thor and Loki's arc will both thrill and surprise everyone who has stuck with them through Thor and The Avengers. The only thing holding us back from really latching onto Thor: The Dark World is Thor. Standing up against Iron Man and Captain America, it might simply be that Thor cannot prove himself worthy of our independent attention. With the competition of these two riveting heroes, he and his films can come off primarily as filler material — what we'll take until Captain America: The Winter Soldier, preparation for The Avengers: Age of Ultron. We might never feel as fulfilled with a Thor movie as we do with a Captain America or Iron Man standalone feature. But at the very least we can admire this one critically. If Thor: The Dark World was about a hero we could really care for, it'd be one hell of a movie.
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Justified kicked off its fourth season in a big way: The FX drama's Season Four premiere garnered the show's highest ratings since its series debut. What better way to celebrate a brand new group of adventures about Kentucky lawman Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) than with some scoop on the upcoming year?
Executive producer Graham Yost and the cast shared some tidbits about the new season at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. Here's what we learned:
- Raylan and Boyd will come to a crossroads in their relationship when Boyd tells Raylan explicitly that he doesn't like him. "It’s the first time he’s ever really kind of said it that way," says star Walton Goggins. "I think over the course of their relationship Boyd has seen their friendship as one thing and Raylan has seen it as something else. But at the end of this season they may see it the same way, and that is that they don’t like each other. We’ll see where it goes from there."
- Although the show lost regular Natalie Zea to Fox's creepy new thriller The Following, it didn't affect the storyline. Yost says he thinks Winona was fed up with Raylan's antics anyway. "It gave us the chance to have Raylan be a ladies man. I don’t understand it. The ladies like him — I don’t know why," he jokes of Olyphant's good looks. Besides, Zea's deal with The Following allows her to return for three or four episodes. She'll be back for Episode Five, and "you'll see her a couple more times this season," Yost says.
- The producers reached out to Patton Oswalt to appear in Season Three after they found out he was a fan of the show, but scheduling didn't work out. They immediately thought of him when they began writing the character of the constable. "Two writers … found out about this position in the counties of Kentucky of constable. We kind of loved the idea of a guy who’s a cop wannabe," Yost says. How long will he stick around? "As long as he’s willing to play and he wants to, we’d love to have him," he adds.
While FX's Justified follows an all-American hero as he fights bad guys, the network's new drama The Americans might make you think differently about the enemy. Set in 1981, the new show stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as undercover KGB spies during the Cold War. And creator Joe Weisberg would like you to root for them.
"I know it might be a little bit difficult to believe and get used to, [but] we want you to root for the KGB," Weisberg tells journalists during the show's panel. Jokes Russell, "What do you think?!"
Considering we know how the war turns out, don't worry. You won't be considered a traitor. But you can root for the actual Americans as well. "There’s an FBI side of the story that’s told, and when you’re with them, the hope is you’ll root for them too," says executive producer Joel Fields. "It’s a show about marriage, and the marriage is an allegory for international relations. The show is about international relations, and the international relations are an allegory for the marriage. You kind of root for where you are emotionally in the scenes."
Here are a few more things to know about the series before it premieres on Wednesday, Jan. 30 at 10 p.m. on FX:
- Timing was a very important factor in getting this Cold War-set show on the air. Says Weisberg, "I think if you tried to tell a story like this about Al Qaeda now I think it would be impossible." Thirty years gives added perspective.
- Weisberg's real-life CIA experience was an asset to Russell and Rhys. The CIA agent-turned-TV writer worked for the agency from 1990 to 1994, and taught the actors some of the skills he learned "down at the farm." Nothing too exciting, though. His main advice? "Don't look too sneaky."
- One of the things that affected Weisberg the most during his time in the CIA was watching the effect the job would have on families. "I think that one of the things I saw at the CIA that most affected me emotionally was how CIA officers and their families live this clandestine life," he says. They can't tell their kids what they do until they're old enough to keep a secret (usually around 14 or 15), when they have a big coming out conversation.
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WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Based on the beloved children’s book by Judi and Ron Barrett Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs tells the tale of Flint Lockwood an eccentric young inventor who spends his days in a makeshift laboratory building monkey-thought translators spray-on shoes “hair unbalder” serums and other strange creations. Regarded as a troublemaker and a nuisance by the residents of the small town of Swallow Falls Flint dreams of one day making something that will win their respect and earn him a place alongside the Edisons and Da Vincis of the world.
Flint thinks his latest invention a machine that turns ordinary water into gourmet meals at the touch of a button just might do the trick. But his big unveiling goes predictably awry when his machine launches like a rocket through Swallow Falls laying waste to the town square before eventually disappearing into the stratosphere.
Just when it appears that the townsfolk have finally had enough of Flint’s antics salvation arrives in the form of cheeseburgers raining from the sky thrilling the throngs of hungry people below. Success! Flint’s machine actually works — albeit not quite in the manner he originally intended.
WHO’S IN IT?
Lending his voice to the character of Flint is Bill Hader a Saturday Night Live regular who’s appeared in small roles in a ton of high-profile comedies including Tropic Thunder Pineapple Express and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Anna Faris (The House Bunny) co-stars as Sam Sparks a weathergirl whose bubbly on-screen persona masks a keen intellect she’s terrified to reveal — lest she be branded a “nerd” and shunned by the community of shallow talking-head news correspondents.
Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell voices the sleazy manipulative Mayor Shelbourne a wildly ambitious politician who eyes Flint’s invention as his ticket to higher office. James Caan (The Godfather) plays Flint’s well-meaning but emotionally distant father Tim a blue-collar fisherman who can’t find a way to relate to his brainy offspring. And fans of A-Team and Rocky III will instantly recognize the voice of Mr. T as Earl Devereaux the tough-minded town cop whose job is devoted primarily to preventing Flint from inadvertently destroying the town. Rounding out the main cast is Neil Patrick Harris (Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle) as Flint’s trusted monkey assistant Steve.
The animation of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is truly a joy to behold. With each successive meal that falls from the sky comes a brilliant new array of patterns and colors all of which burst from the screening in dazzling 3-D. Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller rightly recognize the visual potential of the source material with its endless variety of colorful food items and serve up a delicious buffet of brilliantly-rendered set pieces.
But the film isn’t just a bundle of digital eye candy. Perhaps most pleasantly surprising about the film is the script’s sharp wit and clever observations which help make the experience enjoyable on a cerebral as well as visceral level.
Lord and Miller who also co-wrote the adapted screenplay did a generally solid job expanding the relatively thin source material for the big screen but the story still feels weak at times. It’s just engaging enough to keep you interested but not quite enough to make a lasting impression.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is something of a culinary rollercoaster. As food first begins to fall from the sky you might find yourself feeling a bit hungry. But as the plot progresses and Flint’s machine starts to spin out of control bombarding the town with every kind of slop imaginable don’t be surprised if your stomach starts to get a little queasy!
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
High-school misfit Will moves to New Jersey with his single mom and finds himself as socially anonymous at his new school as he was at the last. A music fanatic (he keeps a one-way letter-writing correspondence with David Bowie) Will finds his calling when much to his surprise the school’s hot blonde Charlotte Banks asks him to manage her fledgling garage band. Will accepts the offer taking a group that cranks out uninspired covers of "I Want You to Want Me" and molding it into a high-functioning jamband which he christens “I Can’t Go On I’ll Go On.” Thanks to his coaching they're soon skilled enough to take on the high school’s musical hotshots Glory Dogs at the city-wide battle of the bands Bandslam.
All the while Will is falling for the wry deadpan Sa5m (the 5 is silent I don’t know why) and dealing with the social and emotional damage wrought by his no-good absentee father.
WHO'S IN IT?
Gaelan Connell makes a compelling lead as the gangly and sweetly animated Will. Connell is smart funny and endearing like your awkward little brother. Lisa Kudrow fully engages her perfect comedic timing as Will’s kind smothering mother. Aly Michalka plays Charlotte Banks the blonde guitar-playing former cheerleader with heart and Vanessa Hudgens rounds out the crew as the introverted bookish nerd dream girl Sa5m. Rock legend David Bowie plays himself in a cameo.
The film is laugh-out-loud funny and trusts its young target audience to pick up on humor more subtle than what’s usually found in such teen fare. The dead/loser father subplots give the story a serious hook making it a little deeper and more authentically poignant than what’s expected. These twists also give Connell and Banks the opportunity to display their characters’ emotional range and they're up to the task. The way Will sways a surly audience of high school hecklers into a cheering crowd of fans might just bring happy proud mother-style tears to your eyes.
The flick boasts solid musicianship from its cast members and a deep cut-heavy soundtrack featuring artists including Nick Drake Wilco The Velvet Underground & Nico and Bowie himself.
The characters — sweet nerd alluring alterna-girl affected popular chick gaggle of musical dorks — are all cliches but the fine acting humanizes the crew in that relatable Breakfast Club kind of way.
Also at nearly two hours the film is longer than the subject matter requires.
Will and Sa5m’s trip across the bridge to Manhattan is a lovely grainy hand-held camera montage. This young love field trip/perfect first date reaches a high note when the duo breaks into shuttered punk mecca CBGB and Will finds it everything he's dreamed (a scuzzy shrine to his idols) and more (a fine place to romance his Sex Pistols-endeared love interest).
Lisa Kudrow also reminds us why she was our favorite Friend for so long in her neurotic mom role. The scene in which when she pretends to be a young babe on the prowl in order to help Will lure in a drummer to the band is pure comedic parental love.
It’s understandable that the public at large would perceive this flick to be a cheesy High School Musical-style hokefest for the Disney Channel set. Give Bandslam a chance though and it’ll prove itself to be a surprisingly smart little high school comedy that could simultaneously tide the Twilight legion over until New Moon comes out and endear itself to a broader audience wistful for a John Hughes-style junior year coming-of-age story.
October 19, 2001 5:57am EST
The film opens with prison warden Colonel Winter (Robert Redford) greeting the highly respected General Irwin (James Gandolfini) at the start of his 10-year sentence for disobeying a presidential order. When they meet Irwin makes a snide remark about Winter--a non combatant--proudly showcasing military trinkets and memorabilia in his office. The comment instantly touches off a power war between the two which ends with Irwin threatening to take over the prison and flying the American flag upside down--a symbol that the castle has fallen. Winter rises to the challenge and the two begin their strategic plotting. Irwin wins the respect of his fellow inmates in an overly drawn scene where he is forced to carry large stones from one pile to another in the prison courtyard and forms an army of inmates using clichéd chess tactics to demonstrate his assault plans. Winter meanwhile watches from his cozy office overlooking the courtyard as if he was watching a reality series on a big-screen TV.
The highly regarded General Irwin is a simple solemn type which unfortunately is what is fundamentally wrong with the film. While Redford does the brooding thing quite well the script never calls for him to do anything more than that. James Gandolfini takes on the role of prison warden Colonel Winter with fitting simplicity. He accentuates Winter's dumb-thug persona by over-enunciating his words and speaking in an unnaturally slow manner. Redford and Gandolfini both churn out great performances but it would have been more rewarding had the script called for their characters to be more well-rounded. Steve Burton plays Winter's right hand man Captain Peretz convincingly considering what few lines he has. His body language facial expressions and dialogue manage to convey his character's thoughts even when his lines don't.
Directed by Rod Lurie (The Contender) The Last Castle is a well-paced story without a dull moment. It concludes with a dramatic and exciting climax but the problem is it's just too simple. While it's easy to get caught up in the story it's hard to buy how easily the inmates are able to take control of such a heavily guarded maximum-security prison. Using cafeteria trays as shields is one thing but hurling stones using a giant catapult that somehow went unnoticed by prison security is hard to swallow. So is the fact that these inmates a group of hardened criminals cooperate so easily with hardly any friction. While it could have been a very emotional story it fails because the characters are one-dimensional and never really explored including the two main characters played by Redford and Gandolfini. One is a great strategist and the other draconian but viewers are left to guess why and how they got that way.