“DIVERGENT” (2014) Review

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“DIVERGENT” (2014) Review

Ever since the success of the “HARRY POTTER” movie franchise, movies based upon teen fantasy and science-fiction novels have been hitting the movie theaters in the past decade or so. The latest teen Fantasy/Sci-Fi to be released is a dystopian post-apocalyptic tale set in futuristic Chicago.

Based upon the first of Veronica Roth’s literary trilogy, “DIVERGENT” tells the story of a 16 year-old girl named Beatrice “Tris” Prior lives in a society in post-apocalyptic Chicago that is divided into five factions based upon human virtues and personalities. They are Amity (peaceful), Candor (truthful), Erudite (intelligent) and Dauntless (brave) and Abnegation (selfless). Tris has grown up in Abnegation, though she has always been fascinated by Dauntless. Her father, Andrew serves on the ruling council along with the head of Abnegation, Marcus Eaton and the head of Erudite, and Jeannie Matthews, head of Erudite. Along with other 16 year-olds, Tris undergoes a serum-based aptitude test that indicates the faction into which they would best fit and informs their choice at the Choosing Ceremony. When Tris takes the test, her proctor, a Dauntless woman Tori, reveals that she has the attributes of all five factions meaning she is Divergent. Tori records Tris’ result as Abnegation, and warns her to keep the true result secret, since Divergents can think independently and the government considers the latter threats to the social order. In the end, Tris chooses Dauntless at the Choosing Ceremony, and her brother Caleb chooses Erudite, taking their parents by surprise.

Tris leaves her home and meets other initiates, including – her new best friend Christina, her other friends Will and Al, and an enemy named Peter Hayes. After they past a series of initial tests, they engage in a long training session conducted by Tobias “Four” Eaton and the brutal Eric in order to become members of the Dauntless faction, which seemed to serve as some kind of law enforcement organization. Although both Tris and Christina struggle at first, they eventually manage to rise in their class standing. During her training, Tris falls in love with one of her trainers – “Four”. More importantly, both of them stumbles upon a plot by Jeannie Matthews, Erudite and Dauntless for Matthews to become “the” leader of Chicago, which includes ridding the community of those considered to be Divergent.

Hmmm . . . what can I say about “DIVERGENT”? I thought it was a decent movie. Its theme seemed to challenge the idea of society being divided by superficial reasons – in this case, human traits. The movie also benefited from Neil Burger’s direction, who kept the movie’s pace energetic, despite its narrative. More importantly, Burger did a great job in creating some first-rate action and dream sequences. I was especially impressed by the last action sequence that featured Tris and Four’s efforts to prevent Jeannie Matthews from forcing Dauntless members to execute those who are Divergent. More importantly, the dream sequences that reflected her fear simulations took my breath away. And I feel that Alwin H. Küchler’s cinematography and Richard Francis-Bruce’s editing really contributed to those scenes.

“DIVERGENT” also benefited from some excellent and solid acting from its cast. Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd were excellent as Tris’ parents – Andrew and Natalie Prior. Unfortunately, they were not in the film long enough to have any real impact upon most of the film, except in the last 20 minutes or so. The movie also featured solid performances from Ray Stevenson, who portrayed Four’s father Marcus Eaton; Maggie Q as Tori; Ben Lloyd-Hughes and Christian Madsen as Tris’ friends Will and Al; Ansel Elgort as Tris’ brother Caleb; and Mekhi Phifer. Kate Winslet, Zoë Kravitz and Jai Courtney all gave good performances as Erudite leader Jeannie Matthews, Christina and Eric. But I got the feeling that their performances were hampered by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay. Winslet’s subtle performance was undermined by her character’s ham-fisted goals for Chicago – a society in which emotions are eventually eradicated. The screenplay did not give Kravitz much opportunity to display her acting skills (unlike her appearance in 2011’s “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”), except in a scene in which she found herself dangling over a ledge, thanks to Eric. The screenplay only allowed Courtney, who portrayed Eric, to sneer a lot, nearly reducing him to a one-note villain.

In my opinion, the movie featured three first-rate performances. One came from Miles Teller, who portrayed Tris’ antagonist, Peter Hayes. Unlike Courtney or even Winslet, Teller was given the opportunity to portray a more well-rounded character. And he certainly made the best of it. I also enjoyed Theo James’ performance as Tris’ trainer and love interest, Tobias “Four” Eaton. Granted, his character struck me as a typical leading man in a production that featured a female as the lead character. Think Angel from“BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER” or Edward Cullen from the “TWILIGHT”movies. But I also liked how James balanced Four’s growing feelings for Tris and his dread of his abusive father. The star of the movie is, of course, Shailene Woodley. In fact, I believe she gave the best performance as the complex, yet youthful Tris Prior. I am not surprised that she managed to carry this movie on her shoulders with ease. I had seen her in the 2011 film, “THE DESCENDANTS” and knew she had the talent and presence to do the job. Some have been calling her as “the next Jennifer Lawrence”. I disagree. Woodley is not the next anyone. She is her own self. And I would love to see her and Lawrence in a film together, considering how talented both are.

And yet . . . I do not love “DIVERGENT”. I believe it is hampered by too many flaws to make it a personal favorite of mine. One . . . I found the movie’s setting a little . . . questionable. A society that is divided by human virtues? Huh? It is possible that author Veronica Roth had used this division to expose how human beings judge others, based upon superficial reasons. But humans have judged each other for reasons more shallow than personality traits – class, race, gender, religion, nationality, region, etc. I wish that Roth had considered another means to divide her society, especially since selflessness happened to be one trait. And I do not believe that selflessness exists or that human beings are capable of it. And what the hell is up with the younger members of the Dauntless faction running, jumping and leaping all over the damn city? One of the movie’s characters – Christina – viewed these actions as crazy. Perhaps. But it struck me as a stupid and immature way to prove one’s courage. And why would the more adult members of Dauntless allow this? Why would Roth? As much as the screen chemistry of Woodley and James impressed me, I was somewhat taken aback by their on-screen romance. In the novel, Four was an 18 year-old. I read somewhere that his character aged by six years in order for the role to fit James. If so, I think it was a mistake. By allowing Four to be older, his sexual tryst with Tris transformed into an act of statutory rape. It smacked of the Buffy/Angel romance from “BUFFY” and I have always loathed it. Unless sex between an adolescent and a young adult is considered legal in Roth’s literary world. And I was less than impressed by the movie’s narrative structure. At least three-fourths of “DIVERGENT” focused on Tris’ training with the Dauntless faction. By the time the conflict against Jeannie Matthews’ efforts to take over Chicago manifested, the movie had at least 20 to 30 minutes left of running time. And the whole conflict struck me as pretty rushed.

What really bothered me about “DIVERGENT” was its lack of originality. Many have compared it to “THE HUNGER GAMES” saga, created by Suzanne Collins, due to both stories featuring an adolescent girl in a dystopian post-apocalyptic society. But“DIVERGENT” seemed to borrow from other literary/movie/television franchises. Mind you, there is no law that a story like this have to be completely original. One would be surprised at how many novelists and moviemakers borrow from other source materials. But . . . Roth’s efforts to put her own twist seemed to fall short. And the movie’s screenwriters seemed incapable of improving her flaws. It is bad enough that the movie setting and leading character strongly reminded me of “THE HUNGER GAMES”. We have the psuedo-Buffy/Angel romance between Tris and Four. The Choosing Ceremony for Chicago’s adolescents strongly reminded me of the Hogwarts School Sorting Hat (which should have been burned) from the “HARRY POTTER” series. And Jeannie Matthews’ goal of suppressing human emotions makes me wonder if the character was a fan of “STAR TREK” and a Vulcan wannabe.

“DIVERGENT” is not a bad movie. It featured energetic direction from Neil Burger, some decent performances, and especially an outstanding one from lead actress, Shailene Woodley. But it failed to impress me, due to some unoriginal and flawed writing, along with a great lack of originality. Like I said – “DIVERGENT” is not a bad movie. But I find it hard to regard it as a very good movie, let alone a great one.

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“THE THREE MUSKETEERS” (2011) Review

“THE THREE MUSKETEERS” (2011) Review

Recently, I became aware of the BBC series called “THE MUSKETEERS” and became an instant fan. Due to my renewed interest in Alexandre Dumas père’s work, I decided to focus my attention on 2011’s “THE THREE MUSKETEERS”, the most recent adaptation of the author’s 1845 novel.

Produced and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, this cinematic version of Dumas père’s novel, proved to be a different kettle of fish. Yes, screenwriters Andrew Davies and Alex Litvak managed to adhere to some aspects of the 1845 novel. The movie closely followed d’Artagnan’s first meeting with his future three friends – Athos, Aramis and Porthos – along with Captain Comte de Rochefort and Milady de Winter. The rivalry between the Musketeers and Cardinal Richelieu’s guard – led by Rochefort – remains intact. “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” also included a conspiracy created by Richelieu that centered around Queen Anne, Britain’s Duke of Buckingham and the former’s diamond necklace given to her by King Louis XIII.

But Davies and Litvak created changes to Dumas’ story. One, Milady de Winter begins the story working with the three musketeers to steal airship blueprints created by Leonardo da Vinci. In this scenario, Milady and Athos are long time lovers and not a married couple. Their antipathy begins when Milady betray her compatriots and gives the plans to Britain’s Duke of Buckingham. Her betrayal leads to the disbandment of the Musketeers. So, when d’Artagnan arrives in Paris to join the military unit, he is a year too late. Also, the Duke of Buckingham is portrayed more as a villain, since he is not The Constance Bonacieux is not only single in this story, but also one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting; instead of married and a royal seamstress. Also, there is no real affair between Queen Anne and Buckingham. But Cardinal Richelieu decides to create false rumors using the Queen’s diamond necklace and false love letters in order to discredit her. This would lead to Anne’s execution, a war against Britain and a demand by the people that a more experienced leader – namely Richelieu himself – would rule France. Alas, thanks to Constance, d’Artagnan and the Musketeers step up to save the Queen’s reputation and ruin Richelieu’s plans.

It would be difficult for me to deny that “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” is a beautiful looking film. Germany served as 17th century France and Great Britain in this film and Glen MacPherson really did justice to the shooting locations, thanks to his beautifully sharp and colorful photography. MacPherson’s photography also did justice to Paul D. Austerberry’s production designs, whose re-creations of 17th century France and England struck me as spot on. Both MacPherson and Austerberry’s work benefited from Philippe Turlure’s set decorations and the art direction team of Nigel Churcher, Hucky Hornberger and David Scheunemann. But what really dazzled me about “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” were Pierre-Yves Gayraud’s s costume designs. Personally, I found them worthy of an Oscar nomination. Below are three images just to prove my point:

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There are aspects of “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” that did not exactly impress me. First of all, the chemistry between the four leads seemed a bit off. One might blame Logan Lerman, who was the only American in the team. But I had no problems with his chemistry with both Matthew MacFadyen and Ray Stevenson. And Luke Evans had a nice chemistry with both MacFadyen and Stevenson, despite his subdued take on his role. And I cannot blame MacFadyen, who seemed to be the odd man out as a screen swashbuckler. I am not saying that all four men – Lerman, MacFadyen, Evans and Stevenson – had no chemistry whatsoever. There was some inclination of a screen chemistry. But . . . their chemistry as the four musketeers never struck me as dynamic than in other versions I have seen.

Another major problem I had with the movie proved to be Davies and Litvak’s re-writing of the Milady de Winter character. I had no problem with Milady starting the movie as colleague of Athos, Aramis and Porthos. I had no problem with her being Athos’ lover, instead of his estranged spouse. I did have a problem with Milady being written as some kind of action woman. Many of her scenes featured actress Milla Jovovich engaged in some acrobatic stunt at a great height. I understand why. Both Jovovich and Anderson (who are married, by the way) are known for the “RESIDENT EVIL” movies, in which the actress had starred as the main protagonist. For some reason, the couple and the two screenwriters seemed to believe it was necessary to transform Milady into a female action figure. In doing so, all four robbed the Milady of the subtle villainy that made her such a memorable character in the novel and in other adaptations. I almost got the impression that Anderson and the screenwriters did not believe Jovovich lacked the ability to portray a seductive and manipulative villainess. Yet, one scene between Jovovich and actor Christoph Waltz (who portrayed Cardinal Richelieu) made it clear to me that the actress could have been a very effective Milady de Winter without resorting to countless number of stunts and other action scenes. Hmmm . . . pity.

Despite these misgivings, I must admit that I enjoyed “THE THREE MUSKETEERS”. Much to my utter surprise. When I first saw the film, I was ready to reject it after the Venice sequence. The idea of Milady working with Athos, Aramis and Porthos on a mission in Venice was not how I recall previous adaptations of Dumas’ novel. But I gave it a chance and decided to finish the film. And I enjoyed it. Actually, there were aspects of the movie that made it enjoyable for me. Aside from the movie’s visual style and costumes, I enjoyed how Davies and and Litvak put a different spin on Dumas’ story arc about Queen Anne’s diamond necklace. I was also both surprised and impressed at how they utilized the heist movie trope in two major sequences – the opening scene in Venice and the Musketeers’ attempt to get their hands on the diamonds, which were stolen by Milady and planted inside London’s Tower of London.

Davies and Litvak’s screenplay displayed a nice sense of humor. This was apparent in the personalities of three major characters – Porthos (who has been the comic relief of nearly all versions of Dumas’ tale), King Louis XIII and surprisingly, the Duke of Buckingham, along with d’Artagnan’s first meetings with his future three friends. The movie also featured some excellent action sequences. My favorite include the Musketeers and d’Artagnan’s fight against Rochefort and the Cardinal’s guards, the four friends’ heist of the diamond necklace from the Tower of London, and their final showdown against Rochefort and his men upon their return to Paris. This last sequence featured an outstanding duel between d’Artagnan and Rochefort that in my opinion, rivaled the duel between the two characters in 1974’s “THE FOUR MUSKETEERS”.

I still stand by my belief that the chemistry between the four actors who portrayed the Musketeers and d’Artagnan was not as strong as it had been in other productions. But the movie did featured some solid performances from the four actors. Ray Stevenson displayed his usual talent for comedy in his performance as Porthos. Honestly, I think his comic skills are highly underrated. Luke Evans gave a decent performance as Aramis. However, I do wish he could have displayed a little more élan in his portrayal of the usually dashing womanizer. Matthew Macfadyen did a skillful job in portraying Athos’ brooding nature and role as the group’s leader. But I got the feeling that he was not the type of actor I would cast in a swashbuckling film. Of the four actors, he never struck me as the swashbuckling type. It is odd that I would say this about Macfadyen and not Logan Lerman, who portrayed d’Artagnan. But the thing about Lerman is although his looks strike me as mediocre and he seems to be the shortest of the four leads. Yet, once he opens his mouth and move, he becomes a bundle of energy with a good deal of style and panache. Curious.

Despite my complaints by Anderson and the screenwriters’ attempt to turn Milady de Winter into an action queen, I must say that I still managed to enjoy Milla Jovovich’s performance. She is the only actress I know who conveyed the spy’s seduction skills with a good deal of sly humor. Christoph Waltz did a solid job as the villainous Cardinal Richilieu. But I must admit, I did not find his performance particularly memorable or energetic. I can also say the same about Gabriella Wilde, who portrayed Constance Bonacieux. I hate to say this, but I found her performance somewhat wooden. On the other hand, Juno Temple gave a very charming performance as Queen Anne (formerly of Austria). Not only did she give a charming performance, she also conveyed a good deal of the Queen’s strength of character.

I really enjoyed Mads Mikkelsen’s portrayal of Captain Rochefort. The Danish actor did an excellent job of conveying Rochefort’s subtle menace and talent for intimidation. Orlando Bloom proved to be quite a surprise as the villainous Duke of Buckingham. He was very funny in a sly, yet theatrical way. James Corden also gave a funny performance as Planchet, the Musketeers’ long suffering manservant. But the funniest performance came from Freddie Fox, who portrayed the rather young King Louis XIII. What can I say? He was hilarious in his portrayal of the King’s insecure nature and lack of experience as a leader. In fact, I believe he gave the best performance in the movie.

What else can I say about “THE THREE MUSKETEERS”? It is not particularly faithful to Alexandre Dumas père’s novel. But to be honest, I do not really care. In my opinion, the movie’s lack of adherence to the novel was not a weak point. The worst I can say about the movie is that the chemistry between the four actors portraying the Musketeers was not particularly strong. I did not care for the use of 17th century airships in this story. And I was not that impressed by the movie’s tendency to portray Milady de Winter as an action figure. On the other hand, I still managed to enjoy the screenplay written by Andrew Davies and Alex Litvak, along with Paul W.S. Anderson’s direction. And the movie also featured some strong performances – especially from Logan Lerman, Juno Temple, Orlando Bloom and Freddie Fox. In the end, I still enjoyed the film, despite my initial reservations.

The 18th Century in Television

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Recently, I noticed there were a good number of television productions in both North America and Great Britain, set during the 18th century. In fact, I managed to count at least six productions. Astounded by this recent interest in that particular century, I decided to list them below in alphabetical order:

 

THE 18TH CENTURY IN TELEVISION

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1. “Banished” (BBC TWO) – I do not whether this was a miniseries or regular series, but it was basically about a penal colony in New South Wales, Australia; where British convicts and their Royal Navy marine guards and officers live. Russell Tovey, Julian Rhind-Tutt, and MyAnna Buring star in this recently cancelled series.

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2. “Black Sails” (STARZ) – Toby Stephens stars in this prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, “Treasure Island”, about the adventures of Captain Flint.

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3. “Book of Negroes” (CBC/BET) – This six-part miniseries is an adaptation of Lawrence Hill historical novel about a West African girl who is sold into slavery around the time of the American Revolution and her life experiences in the United States and Canada. Aunjanue Ellis, Lyriq Bent and Cuba Gooding, Jr. star.

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4. “Outlander” (STARZ) – This series is an adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” book series about a 1940s woman who ends up traveling back in time to 18th century Scotland. Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan and Tobias Menzies star.

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5. “Poldark” (BBC ONE) – Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson star in this new television adaptation of Winston Graham’s book series about a former British Army officer who returns home to Cornwall after three years fighting in the American Revolution.

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6. “Sons of Liberty” (HISTORY Channel) – Ben Barnes, Rafe Spall and Henry Thomas starred in this three-part miniseries about the Sons of Liberty political group and the beginning of the American Revolution.

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7. “Turn: Washington’s Spies” (AMC) – Jamie Bell stars in this series about a pro-American spy ring operating on behalf of General George Washington during the American Revolution.

 

“THOR: THE DARK WORLD” (2013) Review

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“THOR: THE DARK WORLD” (2013) Review

As I had stated in my review of “IRON MAN 3”, I had assumed that the release of the 2012 blockbuster, “THE AVENGERS” would signal the end of Marvel’s multi-film saga about the group of comic book heroes and their government allies, S.H.I.E.L.D. Not only did “IRON MAN 3” prove me wrong, but also the recent television series, “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” and the second movie about the God of Thunder, “THOR: THE DARK WORLD”

Like the 2011 movie, “THOR”, this latest film begins thousands of years ago. Back in day (or year); Bor, the father of Odin, clash with the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim and their leader Malekith, who seeks to destroy the universe using a weapon known as the Aether. After conquering Malekith’s forces, Bor hides the Aether within a stone column. He was also unaware that Malekith, his lieutenant Algrim, and a handful of Dark Elves have managed to escape by going into suspended animation.

Many years later, Thor and his fellow Asgardians (which include his friends Lady Sif, Fandral and Volstagg) help their comrade Hogun repel marauders on the latter’s homeworld, Vanaheim. It proves to be the last battle in a war to pacify the Nine Realms, which had fallen into chaos following the destruction of the Bifröst. And in London, astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster is led by her intern Darcy Lewis and the latter’s intern, Ian, to an abandoned factory where objects have begun to disobey the laws of physics by disappearing into thin air. Jane is teleported to another world, where she is infected by the Aether. Both the Asgardians and Jane’s former mentor, Dr. Erik Selvig learn on separate occasions that the Convergence, a rare alignment of the Nine Realms, is imminent. While the event approaches, portals (one of which Jane had fallen into) linking the worlds appear at random. Heimdall alerts Thor of Jane’s recent disappearance, leading the latter to search for her on Earth. When she inadvertently releases an unearthly force upon a group of London policemen, Thor takes her to Asgard. Unfortunately, the Asgardian healers do not know how to treat her. Odin, recognizing the Aether, warns Jane’s infection will kill her given enough time, and that the Aether’s return heralds a catastrophic prophecy. Unbeknownst to Odin, the re-emergence of the Aether also ends the Dark Elves’ suspended animation and revives their determination to use the substance to darken the universe.

“THOR: THE DARK WORLD” has proven to be a major box office, since its release nearly a month ago. This is not surprising, considering the enormous success of Marvel’s Avenger saga.“IRON MAN 3”, set six months after the events of the 2012 film, also proved to be a big hit. Some people have claimed that the first film about Thor was superior. As much as I had enjoyed“THOR”, I cannot say that I would agree. It reeked just a bit too much of a superhero origin tale. Personally, I found the plot for “THOR: THE DARK WORLD” more satisfying.

Mind you, this second God of Thunder movie did not strike me as perfect. It had a few flaws. Although I applaud director Alan Taylor and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau’s expansion of the Asgard setting beyond the royal palace and the Bifröst, the latter’s photography for that particular setting seemed to lack Haris Zambarloukos’ dazzling and colorful photography from the 2011 film. Instead, there seemed to be a slightly dull cast to Morgenthau’s photography of Asgard. Thor’s friends did not particularly project that same screen chemistry that I found so enjoyable in the first film. Aside from one major scene in which Thor plotted Jane’s escape from Asgard, they rarely had any scenes together. And Tadanobu Asano’s Hogun had even less scenes. I wonder if this was due to the actor’s major role in the upcoming movie, “47 RONIN”.

Aside from these nitpicks, I enjoyed “THOR: THE DARK WORLD” very much. As I had earlier stated, I found it more enjoyable than the first film. Thanks to the screenplay written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the movie provided a stronger narrative, beyond a simple origin tale. The three screenwriters explored the consequences of past events from both “THOR” and “THE AVENGERS” – Loki’s actions in both movies; Thor’s original destruction of the Bifröst, which led to chaos in the Nine Realms and his long separation from Jane Foster, the latter’s inability to move on, and the impact upon Erik Selvig from being possessed by Loki. However, the movie also explored how a past event in the Asgardians’ history – their conflict with the Dark Elves – managed to once again, have a negative impact upon Earth. For a movie that was juggling a good number of subplots, along with a major plot, I thought the writers and director Alan Taylor did a first-rate job in balancing it all in the end.

Taylor has limited experience as a movie director, but he has a long history as a television direction. Despite his longer experience with television, I must admit that I found myself more than pleased with his direction of “THOR: THE DARK WORLD”. And I was also very impressed. I was especially impressed by his handling of certain action scenes, like the Dark Elves’ invasion of Asgard, the fight scene between Queen Frigga and Malekith, the escape from Asgard, and Thor and Loki’s confrontation against Malekith and the Dark Elves. But the one action scene that really impressed me turned out to be Thor and Jane’s attempt to prevent Malekith’s use of the Aether against Earth and the rest of the universe. This scene not only benefited from Taylor’s direction, but also Dan Lebental and Wyatt Smith’s editing. The movie’s action sequences were nicely balanced by some of its dramatic and comedic scenes. I especially enjoyed Thor and Loki’s quarrel over the latter’s past actions, Thor’s reunion with Jane, and Darcy and Ian’s attempt to free Erik from a mental institution. One particular scene featured a quarrel between Thor and Odin over how to deal with the threat of the Dark Elves. It strongly reminded me of the two men’s quarrel over the Frost Giants in the first film . . . but with an ironic twist. Instead of Odin being the mature and reasonable one, this time it is Thor.

My only complaint about the movie’s performances has to do with Tadanobu Asano. Due to his limited appearance in the film, he never really had a chance to give a memorable performance. I hope to see more of him in the next film. Both Jamie Alexander and Ray Stevenson gave competent performances as Thor’s two other friends – Lady Sif and Volstagg. Instead of Josh Dallas, this movie featured Zachary Levi in the role of Thor’s fourth friend, Fandral. Levi had been originally cast in the role for the 2011 film. But due to his commitments to NBC’s “CHUCK”, Dallas got the role. But the latter’s commitment to ABC’s “ONCE UPON A TIME” forced Marvel and Disney to give the role back to Levi. Aside from the initial shock of seeing him in a blond wig, I must admit that Levi made a very dashing Fandral. I was very happy to see Kat Dennings reprise her role of Jane’s intern, Darcy Lewis. She was as funny as ever. She also had an extra straight man in the form of Jonathan Howard, who portrayed “her” intern, Ian Boothby. The movie also featured a very funny cameo by Chris Evans, who portrayed Loki disguised as Steve Rogers/Captain America.

Christopher Eccleston may not have made the most witty villain from the Marvel canon, but I found his portrayal of Malekith very scary . . . in an unrelenting way. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje struck me as equally impressive as Malekith’s lieutenant, Algrim. It was a pity that I could barely make him out in his new appearance as the Kurse. Renee Russo’s role as Queen Frigga was expanded in this second film and I am so thankful that it was. Not only did she have a marvelous dramatic scene with Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, but watching her sword fight against Eccleston’s Malekith reminded me of her role in the “LETHAL WEAPON” films. Idris Elba repeated his masterful portrayal of Asgard’s gatekeeper, Heimdall. I especially enjoyed him in two scenes – Heimdall’s efforts to prevent the Dark Elves’ attack and his discussion with Thor about helping Jane leave Asgard against Odin’s will. More importantly, audiences get to see him in even more scenes. Stellan Skarsgård was very hilarious in his portrayal of Dr. Erik Selvig in this film. I realize that one should not laugh at the idea of someone suffering from a mental trauma, but I could not help it. I do not think I have ever seen Skarsgård so entertaining in a Marvel film. Anthony Hopkins did a marvelous job in conveying Odin’s increasing fragile rule over Asgard and control of his emotions. This was especially apparent in the scene featuring Odin and Thor’s disagreement over the Dark Elves.

For the first time in a Marvel film, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is not portrayed as an out-and-out villain, but a more morally complex character, thanks to his relationships with Asgard’s royal family – especially Thor and Frigga. Hiddleston was as playful and witty as ever. And I especially enjoyed his interactions with Chris Hemsworth. In fact, I can say the same about Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Thor’s love, astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster. Personally, I found her funnier and her chemistry with Hemsworth a lot stronger in this second film. And I was especially happy to see her take a more active role in helping Thor defeat the main villain. As for Chris Hemsworth, he continued to roll as the God of Thunder, Thor. He did a marvelous job in developing his character into more complex waters, especially in regard to his relationships with Jane, Loki and Odin. And one of my favorite scenes in the movie featured Thor’s silent reaction to his discovery that Jane had a date with another man. I hope that one day, people will truly appreciate what a first-rate actor he is.

“THOR: THE DARK WORLD” had a few flaws. What movie does not? But thanks to Alan Taylor’s direction, an excellent cast led by a talented Chris Hemsworth and a very complex script written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, it not only turned to be very entertaining, but also better than the previous film. At least for me.

“G.I. JOE: RETALIATION” (2013) Review

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“G.I. JOE: RETALIATION” (2013) Review

Following the success of 2009’s “G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA”, Hasbro and Paramount Pictures followed up with a sequel set a few years after the first film. Unlike the 2009 movie, this latest film was not directed by Stephen Sommers. And several cast members from the first film did not reprise their roles. 

When the G.I. Joes are framed for stealing nuclear warheads from Pakistan, Cobra minion Zartan – in disguise as the President of the United States – orders their elimination at their camp in the Middle East via a military air strike. The latter kills most of the Joes, including one Conrad “Duke” Hauser, who had been awarded his own team of Joes following the incidents of the 2009 film. The survivors – Sergeant Marvin “Roadblock” Hinton, Alison “Lady Jaye” Hart-Burnett, and Dashiell “Flint” Faireborn – make their way to the U.S. to learn why the Joes had been destroyed by the President. When Zartan (as President) announces that COBRA troops will replace the Joes, Lady Jaye realizes that he is an impersonator. The trio seeks help from the original Joe, General Joseph Colton. Other Joe survivors include Snake Eyes, who has returned to his old order in Japan to train a new apprentice, Jinx. When COBRA operatives Storm Shadow (who had survived his duel with Snake Eyes in the 2009 film) and Firefly (an ex-Joe) rescue COBRA Commander and Destro from an underground maximum-security prison in Germany, the former sustains injuries during the escape attempt and heads for a Himalayan temple to recover. Snake Eyes’ new order leader, the Blind Master, learn of Storm Shadow’s new location and orders Snake Eyes and Jinx to capture him so that he can answer for the late Hard Master’s death.

I might as well admit it . . . “G.I. JOE: RETALIATION” was a disappointment. Many might be wondering about my disappointment, considering the prevailing view of the its predecessor, “G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA”. The 2009 movie may not have been a cinematic masterpiece or anything close to it. But I thought it was a fun movie filled with strong characterizations and a somewhat decent plot. This new “G.I. JOE” had its share of strong characterizations, but I cannot say that it was a lot of fun for me. Despite my disappointment, the movie did possess some virtues.

The main virtue turned out to be leading man, Dwayne Johnson. The man did the best he could to keep this movie together. And as he has done in his past movies, he gave it his all. I can say the same about Byung-hun Lee, whose portrayal of Storm Shadow proved to be even more interesting and complex in this second film. I was also impressed by the always talented and dependable Jonathan Pryce, who had the double duty of portraying the disguised Zartan and the real President of the United States. Adrianne Palicki injected some energy into the story with a lively performance as Lady Jaye Hart-Burnett. Despite his limited appearance, Channing Tatum seemed a lot more relaxed as Duke Hauser in this film. He also had a nice chemistry with Johnson. Also, the movie boasted one of the best action sequences I have seen in recent film. I speak of the Snake Eyes and Jinx’s attempt to capture Storm Shadow from the Himalayan temple and prevent the latter’s men from rescuing him. Director Jon M. Chu really outdid himself in that sequence.

So . . . what was it about the movie that I found disappointing? Despite Chu’s outstanding direction in the Himalayan sequence, I was not that impressed by his work in the rest of the film. I missed Stephen Sommers. I also missed Channing Tatum’s presence after his character was killed off 20-30 minutes into the movie. He went from leading man in the 2009 movie to a guest star in this latest film. Most of all, I missed some of the cast members from the first film. Not only did I miss them, I would like to know what the hell happened to them? What happened to Ripcord, who was Duke’s longtime best friend? What happened to Scarlett, Heavy Duty, Breaker and General Hawk? Where they also killed during the airstrike against the Joes’ Middle Eastern base? Did some of them leave the Joes before the events of this movie? What happened to them? What happened to Anna Lewis DeCobray? The end of the 2009 movie saw her in protective custody, awaiting for American scientists to remove nanomites from inside her body. Was she still in custody during the events of this movie? Did anyone bother to inform her about Duke’s death? Apparently not, since she was never mentioned in the film.

Some of the new additions to the cast did not help this movie. I hate to say this but D.J. Cotrona’s portrayal as G.I. Joe Flint Faireborn struck me as dull. Boring. Mind numbing. My God! Even Joseph Mazzello, who made a brief appearance as a Joe sharpshooter on Duke’s team struck me as ten times more livelier. I love Bruce Willis. I have been a fan of his for years. But what in the hell was he doing in this film? I could have understood if he had replaced Dennis Quaid as General Hawk, commander of the Joes. Instead, Willis portrayed the original Joe, General Colton. Yes, he participated in the movie’s final action sequence. And yes, he provided some arms to the team. But what was he doing in this film? His character seemed like such a waste. And Willis seemed as if he was going through the motions. Ray Stevenson gave a lively performance as ex-Joe turned COBRA minion, Firefly. The problem is that the screenplay failed to mention what led him to leave the Joes and join COBRA. Luke Bracey replaced Joseph Gordon-Levitt as COBRA Commander. And honestly? He was not that interesting. Not only did I miss Gordon-Levitt, I now believe the movie should have allowed Zartan (as the President) serve as the movie’s main villain. What else can I say about “G.I. JOE: RETALIATION”? Other than the main villain’s goal seemed similar to the villain’s goal in the 2009 movie? Okay . . . I said it. Thanks to the screenwriters, the details of COBRA Commander’s plot seemed different. But using arms to achieve world power seemed disappointingly familiar.

Despite the presence of Dwayne Johnson, Byung-hun Lee, a few others and an outstanding action sequence in the Himalayans; “G.I. JOE: RETALIATION” proved to be a disappointing follow-up to its 2009 predecessor. Mind you, “G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA” was no masterpiece. But it was a hell of a lot more fun and substantial than this piece of crap.

“THOR” (2011) Review

 

“THOR” (2011) Review

My knowledge of European-based mythology is very sketchy. I am familiar with some figures of both the Greek and Roman mythologies. But my knowledge of Norse mythology is even less. As for the many characters from Marvel Comics, I barely knew about any of them – aside from “SPIDER-MAN”, until the past decade. One can only imagine my surprise when I learned that one of Marvel’s more successful super heroes was the Norse god, Thor. 

Based upon the Norse mythology and the Marvel Comics character, “THOR” is an origin tale about the God of Thunder (and several other things), and how he ends up on Earth and becomes affiliated with S.H.I.E.L.D. The story begins in New Mexico, when scientist Jane Foster, her assistant Darcy Lewis and mentor Dr. Erik Selvig stumble across a figure that has tumbled from a wormhole in the sky. That figure turns out to be Thor, the Norse god that was exiled by his father, Odin, king of Asgard.

Earlier, Thor had been preparing to ascend to the throne of Asgard, but his ceremony was interrupted when Frost Giants attempted to retrieve the source of their power, the Casket of Ancient Winters, which had been taken by Odin in an earlier war. Against Odin’s order, Thor traveled to Jotunheim, the Frost Giants’ realm, to confront their leader Laufey; accompanied by his brother Loki, childhood friend Sif and the Warriors Three – Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun. A battle ensued until Odin intervened to save the Asgardians, which destroyed the fragile truce between the two races. For Thor’s arrogance, Odin stripped his son of godly power and exiled the latter to Earth, accompanied by Thor’s hammer Mjolnir — the source of his power, now protected by a spell to allow only the worthy to wield it.

No one was more surprised than me upon learning that actor/director Kenneth Branaugh had manned the helm for“THOR”. Pop culture movie franchises were nothing new to him. After all, he had appeared in 2002’s “HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS”. But directing an adaptation of a comic book series? Mind you, “Thor” is a different kettle of fish in compare to . . . say “Spider-Man”“The Fantastic Four” or “Iron Man”. After all, Thor originated as a figure in Norse mythology. However, I must admit that I found it difficult to wrap my mind around the idea of a known Shakespearean actor directing a comic book hero movie.

In the end, I believe that Branaugh did a pretty good job. “THOR” turned out to be a solid tale filled with mythology, some first-rate acting, family drama, comedy and action. The best aspect of “THOR” was to me – hands down – the family drama surrounding the main hero and his relationships with his father Odin and his younger brother, Loki. This family drama originated in Thor’s arrogant nature and brother Loki’s discovery that he was an orphan that Odin had discovered in the Frost Giants realm. Despite his discovery that he was a Frost Giant instead of an Asgardian, Loki viewed Thor as an unsuitable heir to the Asgard throne and used Thor’s exile to muscle his way to the throne . . . and, uh Odin’s heart.

Another aspect of “THOR” I found interesting was the story line about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s investigation into the wormhole that delivered Thor to Earth and his hammer Mjolnir, which is stuck in the middle of the New Mexican desert like Excalibur. The first encounter between the forces of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Thor during a rainy evening also provided some interesting action. This sequence not only featured a brutal fight to the now mortal Thor and a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and a cameo appearance by future Avenger member, Clint Barton aka Hawkeye.

The New Mexico sequences provided most of the comedy featured in “THOR”. The former Norse god’s interactions with Jane Foster, Erik Selvig, Darcy Lewis and the locals of the New Mexico town where they resided. Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne’s screenplay not only provided a good deal of slapstick humor and witty one-liners for the Darcy Lewis character, but also a variation on the “fish out of water” theme.

And If there is one thing that the movie did shine was its production designs and cinematography. Bo Welch did a excellent job in recapturing the rugged setting of the small New Mexican town and the Frost Giants’ realm of Jotunheim, featured in the film. But he did a superb job in his design of Asgard, the realm of the Norse gods. Asgard possessed a sleek, colorful and over-the-top quality that reminded me of what the Art Deco style would look in the hands of Hollywood craftsmen in the 1930s and 40s. And Haris Zambarloukos’ photography did great justice to both settings, especially Welch’s designs for Asgard. Even though I found the movie’s theme somewhat conflicting, I must admit that I found Paul Rubell’s editing rather smooth and well done in both the action sequences and the jumps between Asgard and New Mexico.

However, I have yet to encounter a movie that I would consider perfect. And “THOR” was far from perfect. The film’s main problem was that it seemed to have a conflicting quality about it. Because the movie’s setting constantly moved from Asgard to New Mexico and back, it ended up striking me as a mixture of “CLASH OF THE TITANS” and“STARMAN”. And this conflicting style did not seem to balance very well. I could have settled for “THOR” beginning its story in Asgard and remaining in New Mexico until the last scene. Unfortunately, most of the movie’s more important action occurred in Asgard, leaving the New Mexico sequences to bear the brunt of most of the comedy. By the time the movie’s last scene ended, I could not tell whether this was a movie about mythological gods or a comic book hero.“THOR” was a pretty good movie, but it did not exactly rock my boat. I found the story a bit mediocre and conventional. And the problem, if I must be honest, rested with Marvel Comics’ decision to create a comic series about a well-established mythological figure, instead of a new and original character.

Also, there were a few performances that failed to impress me. I realize that the three actors and one actress that portrayed Thor’s Asgardian friends – Sif and the Warriors Three – were very popular with moviegoers. Unfortunately, not only did they fail to impress me, I found them rather uninteresting. Poor Rene Russo. Within a decade she went from leading lady to a minor character actress, stuck in the thankless and nothing role of Thor’s stepmother, Frigga. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye was really wasted in this film. In fact, he did nothing at all, except pose with a bow and arrow. I realize that he will appear as one of the Avengers in the upcoming 2012 film, but he was never allowed to strut his stuff like Scarlett Johanssen in “IRON MAN 2”.

Aside from the performances I had earlier mentioned, “THOR” seemed blessed with a first-rate cast. I was surprised to learn that Chris Hemsworth had portrayed James T. Kirk’s doomed father in the 2009 movie, “STAR TREK”. His George Kirk had been so dull. Fortunately, portraying Thor gave him the opportunity to shine in a complex role that developed from an arrogant and over-privileged prince with an aggressive sense of self to a more compassionate and wiser man who had fallen in love. For an actor with only eight or nine years of acting experience – most of them on television – Hemsworth more than held his own against the likes of Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins. And those scenes that featured Thor’s encounters with Jane’s van conveyed Hemsworth’s talent for physical slapstick humor. As an on-screen fighter, he struck me as a bit crude, but I am certain that he will improve with time. Natalie Portman gave a charming and humorous portrayal of Dr. Jane Foster, the astrophysicist who is not only obsessed with her work, but eventually finds love with Thor. Mind you, I did not find her character particularly exceptional. But I am glad to say that Portman tried all she could to make Jane an interesting personality. But one of the two best performances came from Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki, Thor’s resentful and conniving younger brother. Loki was definitely the movie’s main villain. The joke he had played (luring three Frost Giants to the chamber that held the Casket of Ancient Winters) on Thor’s ascension ceremony not only led him to the discovery that he was an abandoned Frost Giant infant taken by Odin, but also gave him the opportunity to discredit Thor and take the latter’s position as Odin’s more cherished son. Mind you, I cannot say that Hiddleston conveyed Loki’s mischievous sense of humor effectively. But he did handle Loki’s conniving nature, jealousy toward Thor and outrage over the story behind his true nature with great skill and subtlety.

Other outstanding performances came from Idris Elba, who portrayed Asgard’s gatekeeper, Hemidall; Kat Dennings as Jane’s sardonic assistant Darcy Lewis; Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson; and Colm Feore as Laufey, King of the Frost Giants (and Loki’s real father). I was amazed at how Elba managed to convey all of Hemidall’s emotions and intelligence with very limited movement. No wonder he became very popular with many of the film’s characters. And Colm Feore managed to do something quite similar. He conveyed all of Laufey’s malice and secrecy behind a ton of body makeup. Aside from Hemsworth’s foray into slapstick, the New Mexico sequences featured a deliciously sly and humorous performance by Kat Dennings, who portrayed Darcy. And it was great to see Clark Gregg reprise the role of Phil Coulson for the third time (he made two earlier performances in the two IRON MAN movies). Thankfully, the movie’s script allowed him to be more complex and increasingly sardonic, allowing Gregg to really show his acting chops. Finally, the movie benefited from solid performances by Anthony Hopkins’ majestic portrayal of Odin, Thor’s father, Stellan Skarsgård as Jane’s dependable and practical mentor, Dr. Eric Selvig and Samuel L. Jackson as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury in the movie’s post-credits sequence.

In conclusion, “THOR” proved to be an entertaining movie and another step toward “THE AVENGERS”, the big Marvel Comics saga for 2012. The movie provided solid direction from Kenneth Branaugh and excellent performances from most of the cast. But the movie’s conflicting genre(s) and somewhat mediocre story led me to realize that I would never consider it to be one of the outstanding releases from Marvel Studios.

“THE OTHER GUYS” (2010) Review

“THE OTHER GUYS” (2010) Review

One could not imagine two such diverse Hollywood talents such as Will Farrell and Mark Wahlberg co-starring together in a summer action comedy. I certainly could not imagine such a scenario. And after watching the trailer for the new comedy, ”THE OTHER GUYS”, I had approached the film with a little bit of trepidation. 

Directed by Adam McKay, ”THE OTHER GUYS” told the story of two mismatched New York Police detectives – Allen Gamble and Terry Hoitz – who become determined to rise from the police department’s running joke in order to become the city’s top police detective, following the deaths of the city’s top cops, Highsmith and Danson. Standing in their way are a few impediments – namely their previous inability to form a solid detective team, Hoitz’s bad temper, Gamble’s inexperience in the field and previous position as a forensic accountant, another pair of detectives named Martin and Fosse, and a massive lottery scam operated by a multi-billionaire named David Ershon, who owns money to an investor.

In the end, ”THE OTHER GUYS” proved to be a solid comedy written by Chris Henchy and Adam McKay, and directed by McKay. Narrated by Ice-T, the movie provided plenty of comedic moments that actually made me laugh and some surprisingly impressive action sequences. One of the best scenes featured a bombing of an accountant’s office that left both Gamble and Hoitz slightly wounded. It gave Farrell the opportunity to make sarcastic remarks about similar scenes in other Hollywood action films. Another funny scene featured the over-the-top action sequence featuring Highsmith and Danson, which opened the movie. However, my favorite scene featured Hoitz meeting Gamble’s beautiful wife, Dr. Sheila Ramos Gamble for the first time. Mark Wahlberg proved he could be extremely funny, while conveying Hoitz’s barely controlled infatuation with Sheila and disbelief that she would find someone like Gamble desirable. The movie also explored the personalities and background of both Gamble and Hoitz, allowing the audience to understand their personal demons and the situations that led to their partnership and inability to get along. During college, Gamble became a pimp for a group of female college students-turned-prostitutes. Which in turn allowed his personality to become increasingly aggressive, until he found himself arrested for violent behavior. And Hoitz found himself partnered with Gamble after he accidently shot New York Yankee Derek Jeter during the 2003 World Series. An incident that Hoitz has been trying to live down ever since.

Not everything about ”THE OTHER GUYS” ended up smelling roses. The movie was hampered by at least two sequences that threatened to stop the movie’s pacing in its tracks. One sequence featured multi-billionaire Ershon’s attempts to bribe Gamble and Hoitz with expensive tickets to shows and sporting events in order to stop them from investigating his lottery ticket scam. At first, I found the sequence rather funny. But it threatened to stretch for a longer period than necessary and I found myself longing for it to end. Another such sequence featured Gamble’s attempts to send slightly pornographic messages to his wife, Sheila, using her mother as a carrier. Both he and Hoitz found themselves hiding from their fellow cops and a group of mercenaries, while keeping Ershon in their custody in order to use him to prevent the scam from affecting the police retirement fund. At first I found the scene rather funny, with most of the comedy provided by Mama Ramos’ growing discomfort at the pornographic nature of Gamble and Sheila’s messages. But like the bribery sequence, it threatened to go a bridge too far and I found myself inwardly screaming for it to end. One last problem I had with the movie dealt with its last half hour. Quite frankly, I thought ”THE OTHER GUYS” dragged a bit during that half hour. McKay and Henchy could have wrapped up the story a little sooner. And I found the resolution to the case to be rather vague. Almost confusing.

Both Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg proved to be a first-rate comedy team, much to my surprise. I had feared that Wahlberg would find himself overwhelmed by the comedic aggressions of Ferrell, but the actor proved that he could more than hold his own and be just as funny. And Ferrell proved that he did not always have to resort to his usual manic comedy style in order to be funny. Michael Keaton’s talent for comedy seemed to have resurface this year in both the Disney animation movie, “TOY STORY 3” and in his role as Gamble and Hoitz’s crusty supervisor, Captain Gene Mauch. In fact, I thought he was so funny that I found myself wondering where he had been for so long. Eva Mendes proved to be just as funny as Gamble’s beautiful, yet off-the-wall wife, Sheila. Steve Coogan, along with Rob Riggle and Damon Wayans Jr. provided comedic support in their roles as billionaire David Ershon and the two leads’ rivals, Martin and Fosse. And both Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson gave deliciously over-the-top performances as the city’s two original and not-so-bright top cops, Highsmith and Danson.

I had a few problems with Adam McKay and Chris Henchy’s script for ”THE OTHER GUYS” and all of them featured the pacing. Two of the comedy sequences stretched longer than necessary. And if I must be honest, I have to say the same about the movie’s last half hour. But the movie also featured some top-notch performances by a cast led by Will Farrell and Mark Wahlberg. It also had a solid script ably directed by McKay. Overall, ”THE OTHER GUYS” proved to be a pretty damn good movie.