Thor

A Note from James: I will no longer be rating by stars, or any other quantitative system.  It’s an awfully rigid way to measure a fluid, dreamlike medium.

Summary: A solid, fun fantasy film with impressive performances, Marvel’s best cinematic villain to date, and the promise of a lot more to come.

Review:  Through its recently formed Studios branch, comic book giant Marvel is putting together the most ambitious sci-fi/fantasy effort since Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy.  Four superheroes — Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, and Thor — are getting solo cinematic treatments, then being tied together in next year’s ‘The Avengers’, which is shooting under Joss Whedon’s direction now.  While Captain America has yet to debut, Iron Man and The Hulk performed well, and now the burden falls to Thor.

With a rich fantasy backstory drawn from Norse mythology comes an inherit risk of camp.  Director Kenneth Branagh and Marvel’s team of writers crafted an effective, if not terribly fresh, story, but what sells the film is its leads.  Newcomer Chris Hemsworth — who previously provided a tear-jerkingly heroic performance as George Kirk in J.J. Abram’s ‘Star Trek’ — simply kicks ass as Thor.  He’s a miraculously good actor, someone who can sell subtle emotional changes and go toe-to-toe with great hams like Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Natalie Portman is his earthbound love interest,  physicist Jane Foster, and she refuses to play her as a typical determined scientist, instead letting her dissolve into a giggling schoolgirl around Thor, an amusing and sympathetic reaction.  Given her brief screentime, she deserves a good deal of praise.

Of course, no comic book film excels without a good villain, and the true distinctive of ‘Thor’ is Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.  He’s a truly Shakespearean baddie, a guy who thinks of himself as the hero of his story, a good guy gone bad by going mad.  While another villain might cackle and spit out threats with an uncompromised glee, Loki actually weeps when he confronts his heroic brother in the final battle, even as he laughs and snarls and throws down with the best of them.  He’s a manipulative liar, but he believes he’s doing the right thing, and we feel his pain.

Most of the film takes place on a cosmic stage, as war brews between noble Asgard and bitter Jotunheim, the home of the Frost Giants.  With fantastic CGI and refreshingly tangible sets, I found myself believing in it.  The action has a real weight to it, and while Branagh isn’t the best action director around, he and his team still know that matters is clarity and impact.  When it desperately needs to work, it does.  This isn’t the best superhero action, but it is on a larger canvas than most, and deserves recognition.

As excited as I am for ‘The Avengers’, even if that wasn’t on the horizon, I’d be game for a ‘Thor’ sequel, a chance to cut loose from the trappings of an origin story and really let the “God of Thunder” loose in an even bigger conflict.  I really hope they do.

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Hanna

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  With organic, character-based storytelling and artful technique, ‘Hanna’ is the way genre thrillers should be made.

Review:  If you want to make a genre film, such as an action thriller with familiar espionage elements, there exists a principle that serves to prevent your story from being a stale retread: Character depth.  From characters and relationships should grow, organically, the plot and action you want to see.  ‘Hanna’ is a brilliant example of this principle in full effect.  Every scene in the excellent screenplay serves to flesh out the titular character, in an oblique way that subverts genre expectations as often as it fulfills them.  The filmmakers deliver a moving human story that works as a kickass action movie, too.  This is doing it right.

Director Joe Wright exploits the close relationship between film and music, which renders aid to the dramatic theme of music as a critical part of human life.  The action sequences play out perfectly with The Chemical Brothers’ genius score, a visual-for-sound beat synergy that locks the twain together in your mind.  It pleases me to no end that I can now imagine the action in ‘Hanna’ with just the score playing as well as I can ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  I hope The Chemical Brothers stay open to future collaborations with Joe Wright in particular, and film scoring in general.  They’ve got a knack for it.

Visually, the filmmakers work both old school and inventively, as they use Steadicam wisely and lend the frame clarity and focus, instead of, say, kinetic obscurity ala Greengrass.  Joe Wright notably executes a particularly badass tracking shot that lasts for about five minutes, the centerpiece of which is a brutal fight with Eric Bana.  The whole film is beautiful, even when it’s dwelling on violent subject matter.  When the composition and editing coalesce into something this gorgeous, there’s not much I can do but watch with a silly grin on my face.

What’s truly brilliant about the story is its subjectivity, as we experience the film from primarily Hanna’s perspective, and even when we divert to other characters it’s interpreted through her worldview.  She grew up on Grimm’s fairy tales, an encyclopedia and Finland’s unforgiving wilderness — the scope of her experience colors even mundane objects like tea kettles and fluorescent lights.  The villains morph, symbolically, into witches and wolves, teeth and claws and dark magic.  As she evolves, so does her world, and while her lingering childhood innocence vanishes, it’s replaced with powerful self-knowledge, the apotheosis of the film’s tagline: Adapt or die.  The fact that the filmmakers allow us to share her perspective so intimately makes this transformation powerful, regardless of whether the plot surprises us.  As Eric Bana’s character simply observes, “Kids grow up” — and it’s best when we can grow up with them.

Not-So-Classic Review: The Village

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★☆☆

Summary: A film with the best intentions that, in the end, simply doesn’t deliver.

Review:  M. Night Shyamalan, once an acclaimed young filmmaker, has gradually become something of a joke in Hollywood, thanks to a string of subpar films that wrap themselves in a cloak of unfulfilling mystery.  It’s a shame too, as early on in his career, he was responsible for ‘The Sixth Sense’, ‘Unbreakable’, and ‘Signs’, which encompass a trinity of good, suspenseful filmmaking and are among my favorite films to watch.  By most accounts his problems began with his follow-up to ‘Signs’, a little film called ‘The Village’ which, while interesting, ultimately set itself up for disaster.

To reference something James once said, the ‘The Village’ isn’t half bad, it’s just a little under three-fourths good.  It suffers from two major issues. First, it was marketed as a strict horror movie.  I remember the commercials for this movie attempted to portray it in a shocking, frightening manner, comparing it to ‘Signs’ in much the same, unfair way that ‘Unbreakable’ was compared to ‘The Sixth Sense’ upon its release.  The truth is that, while there are elements of horror in ‘The Village’, its much more of slow-paced mystery than simple terror.  Those who went in expecting ‘Signs’ found themselves disappointed when they realized they were dealing with a very different animal.

For being a slow-paced mystery with a touch of terror, though, it isn’t badly done… at first.  The turn of the century town in which the film takes place is guarded on all sides by evil spirits in the surrounding forest, or so the elders say, and so the town folk can never leave, forced to remain locked in forever.  Of course, it wouldn’t be hard to guess that this film would have someone, that someone being a girl, daring to venture into the forest and the outside world, and therefore confronting these alleged demons.

All that is fine and dandy, but now we must get to the second problem.  ‘The Village’ banks on a plot twist that doesn’t really work.  I won’t tell you what it is, for the sake of seeing the film, but rest assured, it doesn’t help the story.  The issue is this; a plot twist, when used well, ought to really add something to the story.  It ought to show things in a new light and give new meaning and perspective to the events of the film.  It should give depth. This is the sort of twist M. Night Shyamalan gave us in ‘The Sixth Sense’.

In ‘The Village’ however, the plot twist that comes devalues a lot of the film’s previous moments.  The sense of mystery that worked well enough earlier seems pointless afterword.  It raises too many questions that the film vaguely answers at best, and it leaves the audience feeling empty inside.  Instead of some needed depth for the film, it makes it seem shallower.  As Roger Ebert put it (though he disliked this film much more than I did) it was little better than saying that everything that happened up to that point was a dream.

That all said, its obvious Shyamalan had a lot of faith in this story.  He does show strong direction in this film, and by that I mean he does a good job of setting things up early in the film.  He does spark our interest in what’s going on and we do care about what happens to the people of this town.  The initial ideas we are presented with are strong enough; they just get derailed and don’t wind up paying off.  An audience should feel challenged, but never alienated, and unfortunately there’s more of the latter than the former by the time the credits roll.

‘The Village’ was a box office success, though not to the degree its predecessors had been.  Critically it was mostly negative or, at best, mixed.  I think most people would agree that this is where M. Night Shyamalan began descending into the hole from which he has yet to stop digging.  Still, I have hope that he has good filmmaking left in him, provided he neither gives in to the demands of Hollywood nor his own established tropes (he really should stop putting plot twists in his films).  I happened to like the first half of ‘The Village’, and so I recommend this movie for one full watch.  Come to think of it, maybe less than a full watch — when you come to the part where the female protagonist decides to leave the village, you may just want to stop it there, avoid the plot twist, and leave well enough alone.

Classic Review: High Plains Drifter

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  A daring, somber film that employs Hitchcock-style storytelling and continues Clint Eastwood’s darker revision of the West.

Review:  For those of you who have seen the classic 1952 western ‘High Noon’, you will recall that its hero, a sheriff played by Gary Cooper, defeats four bandits in a small town but subsequently leaves it, presumably forever.  The reason for his departure was that the townspeople themselves did not support the sheriff in his efforts.  Though he pleaded with them for help to fight these men, they backed out of it, and left him to defend the town alone.  And so the Sheriff leaves in anger and disappointment at those who were not willing to help themselves.

The reason I mention this is because this is an early example of the de-glorification of the West.  The spirit of the pioneers, traditionally portrayed as courageous and humble, is instead shown as cowardly and, by extension, selfish.  By failing to stand up against the antagonists of the film, the town folk in ‘High Noon’ become quasi-antagonistic themselves.  It’s a more complex, albeit sadder spirit for westerns, and it must have been a surprise to people in 1952.  ‘High Plains Drifter’ in 1973, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, takes this vision one step further.

The opening of the film appears normal enough.  After the credits, accompanied by some notably eerie music, a stranger (Eastwood) wanders into the dusty western town of Lago and is immediately confronted by three loud-mouthed gunmen who threaten to kill him.  Of course this is a Clint Eastwood movie, and a quick shoot-out silences them forever.  The town then petitions the stranger to stay and defend them against three more outlaws who were arrested in the town some time earlier but are soon to be released from prison.  After much convincing, he agrees.

Much like ‘High Noon’, the people of Lago are spineless.  Even with guns in their hands, loaded and pointed at the outlaws as they ride into town, not one of them has the conviction to shoot.  Unlike the people of ‘High Noon’, however, the people of Lago are not just cowardly.  They also harbor a terrible secret, a gruesome murder for which the whole town, driven by greed, is guilty.

It is the total destruction of the Classic Western Spirit that Eastwood explores in this movie.  What was suggested two decades earlier as cowardliness is now realized in 1973 as spineless avarice.  Absent here are the hardworking, courageous, and noble people whom we’ve come to expect from the West.  Gone is the glorification of Manifest Destiny.  Gone is the belief that the settlers brought morality and true civilization to the wilderness.  Clint Eastwood dares to show the dark side of the pioneers: settlers too afraid to do what is right and selfish enough to break any law of God or Man.  Here is a world where the people themselves are their own worst enemies.

Clint Eastwood took his already-then fabled Man With No Name character to a new, dark depth in this film.  In addition to his gruff attitude and fast draw, there’s something strangely mysterious about him.  He has a ghost-like quality; something quasi-supernatural.  The climactic showdown at the end, in which only his silhouette is seen, only adds to this mystery.  He’s not simply a stranger anymore; He’s something more.  A force of nature itself; a roaring tempest guided only by the winds, exacting vengeance where he sees fit, be it on outlaws or the town folk.  Never before and never since have Eastwood’s nameless drifters held such power and wonder simultaneously.

Simply put this is an excellently executed film.  It feels truly original and, though somber, is wonderfully engrossing. The film’s inherent darkness and great mystery, as well as a key twist at the end, are evocative of Hitchcock’s work.  If Alfred Hitchcock had ever been in an ominous sort of mood, he might have made a film like ‘High Plains Drifter’.

In short, ‘High Plains Drifter’ is another great Western from a man who was famous for reinventing them.  At times is suffers from being a bit too intense, but overall it’s fine craftsmanship shines through to the end.  This is one of the grittiest, most somber Westerns ever made, but if you can handle it, it’s worth a watch.

MMM: Miller’s Third Deadly Crossing

James here with Movie Music Monday.

Three from various films of the noir persuasion…


There is no better noir theme in existence than this classic piece for Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man’, played here by a talented kid on a guitar, while the original was performed on a zither.


Well, maybe Nat King Cole could contend for it. This is the theme for ‘Kiss Me Deadly’.


It’s difficult to get away from Carter Burwell and his memorable contributions to the Coen brothers’ repertoire. This thematically dissonant theme for the under-appreciated neo noir ‘Miller’s Crossing’ sounds like it could accompany an Oscar bait biopic, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Not-So-Classic Review: The Room (2003)

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ☆☆☆☆ (That’s zero, folks)

Summary:  Ouch!  This movie is so bad it physically hurt me!

Review:  I recently attended a screening of ‘The Room’ at Indiana University, followed by a question and answer from its producer, director, writer, and star, Tommy Wiseau.  For those of you who don’t know, ‘The Room’ has been critically deplored as one of the worst films ever made, although this same notoriety has given it a massive cult following; a following that, unfortunately, I am contributing to by reviewing it.  Oh well, no choice now but to dive in and look over this pathetic excuse for a movie.

To understand ‘The Room’ you must first understand its creator.  That is, IF you can understand him, as Mr. Wiseau, who claims he’s American, speaks in a strange accent I’ve never heard before.  Watered down French perhaps?  It’s hard to tell, as coupled with his accent he also mumbles, slurs his words, and shows little more than a basic grasp of English in general.  In short, he is woefully inarticulate.  What business he had writing a movie in English, to say nothing of overseeing its complete production, is beyond me.

Even without viewing the screenplay, I could tell it was a joke.  Awful dialogue and plot holes big enough to drive a truck through.  Less than half of anybody’s lines in this movie are relevant; the rest is either ridiculous, filler, or contradictory. But it goes beyond just bad dialogue and inconsistency.  The film’s very premise, a dark romantic comedy, is filled with so many clichés that, even if everybody’s lines and the plot holes were fixed, this would still be a horribly generic movie.  It seems as though Mr. Wiseau pulled out every trope he could think of and just stuck them in here.  The tragic lead actor, the cheating girlfriend, the best friend of the lead who steals his woman, the kid caught up with a drug dealer, and so much more.  Oh, and have I mentioned the love scenes yet?  Yes, there’s gratuitous sex in this film too.  In fact there are seven (count ‘em seven!) different scenes; each of them way too long, going way too far, and being, frankly, mundane as they come.  I made fun of Mr. Wiseau’s speaking earlier, but this goes beyond a simple misunderstanding of English.  This man did not have an original thought in his head when he wrote this.  Granted, no one is ever truly original, but this is just flat-out pathetic and lazy.

Now you might think that this film is all Tommy Wiseau’s fault, but bad movies of this magnitude can only be the result of a collaborative effort.  ‘The Room’ stars the sorriest bunch of would-be actors I’ve ever seen.  Their paper-thin performances have to be seen to be believed.  Granted, I know the script was hardly deserving of good acting, but I have to believe that, with so many struggling performers in the world, those who get parts have to at least try.  But no, not here.  Blank expressions, monotonous delivery, and lack of any perceivable emotion run amok like a plague.  Amazingly though, even compared to the other actors, Tommy Wiseau is still under-qualified to act in this film.  His speech, which doesn’t improve when he acts, is just ridiculous and dismal, and there is no time when he seems convincing.  Supposedly he took drama classes before making this film.  He should’ve gotten his money back.

And then there’s the cinematography.  The cameraman was certainly apathetic and possibly inebriated when he shot this film.  Apart from nothing striking or interesting about the shots, there are way too many random pans of San Francisco, including several across the San Francisco Bridge.  Why?  Who knows?  For example, a scene will take place at the central house, the film will cut to a pan across the city, and then it will cut right back to the house.  Again, why?  What was the point?

Interestingly enough, the music in this film is the one thing that is passable.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s mediocre as mediocre can be, but its corny piano tracks and obscure hip-hop songs are tolerable, if only barely.  It’s sad that lukewarm music seems okay in this movie, but it certainly feels like a breath of fresh air.

So what is the final verdict on ‘The Room’?  It fails.  It fails so hard it almost seems impossible.  It is the one film that does nothing right, and I mean nothing.  There is not one aspect of this film that’s done well.  Even similarly derided films, like ‘Battlefield Earth’ or ‘Batman and Robin’ at least had premises and visuals that would hold you over for a bit, but ‘The Room’ doesn’t even have that going for it.  This film is boring at best and unbearable at worst.  Granted, many have found humor within the awfulness of ‘The Room’.  Tommy Wiseau, even, has rebranded it as a black comedy.  Certainly, some scenes and lines are funny, but that doesn’t save this film.  Some movies are legitimately so bad that they’re great, but this film is just so bad that it’s, well, bad.

The true importance of ‘The Room’ is this: to show the world everything NOT to do when making a movie.  Never half-ass a script, never think that “generic” is okay, never hire bad actors, and never hire a bad crew.  Filmmakers, take those lessons to your grave.  Most importantly, never just assume anything when making a film.  ‘The Room’s greatest flaw is its creator’s arrogance, a man who managed to raise a whopping six-million for this film, had only minimal experience making movies, and just thought he could create a decent picture.  I hate to kick a feller when he’s down, but if you filmmakers out there take anything away from ‘The Room’, don’t repeat Wiseau’s mistake; please show some humility, and always, always, always give a damn.

No Country For Old Men

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary:  Existential, genre-slashing, disturbing cinema at its very best.

Review:  Cinema gives us innumerable opportunities to vicariously experience fear.  The raw reaction to the most basic of survival instincts is a large part of why we keep coming back for more.  Most times, we opt for the proverbial roller coaster experience; the main characters, our conscious avatars, make it through alive, often by the skin of their teeth to intensify catharsis.  Populist movies are structured to insure such satisfying escapes.  If we want to take these animal emotions seriously, however, we need filmmakers capable of dropping the bottom out.  While we’re physically safe, our psyches, so well-trained by common experience, are vulnerable to truly nightmarish twists.  When filmmakers go this route, they tend to compensate by helping us identify with the killers over the victims.  When the Coen brothers went for it, in their Best Picture adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘No Country For Old Men’, they balanced our sympathies nigh perfectly, creating a truly disturbing film.

Nihilism and justice collide in an unrelenting chase through Western Texas.  Roger Deakins’ gorgeous and clear cinematography heightens the sense of you-are-there, and the Coens’ screenplay, with minimal dialog, exposes a multitude of procedures that the hunter and hunted use to stay in the game.  Even in the film’s wide vistas, we feel the walls closing in, as the characters we identify with at a simple human level fight to survive.  The hunter and antagonist, Anton Chigurh (played absurdly well by Javier Bardem), exhibits believable sociopathy and a moral code all his own.  He’s a predator incomprehensible to his prey.  In our introduction to the hunted, Llewellyn Moss (ditto by Josh Brolin), the filmmakers encapsulate this theme without saying a word.  Llewellyn is a socially acceptable hunter, a creature who by virtue of intelligence and superior fire power preys on game from a comfortable physical and emotional distance.  In short, in relation to pronghorn, Llewellyn sees himself the same way Anton relates to, well, anything.  Doing his damnedest to put a stop to this cat-and-mouse game is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (ditto for Tommy Lee Jones), an aging lawman who views the unfolding chaos with due horror.

The plot mechanics, the $2 Million McGuffin and the why’s behind it all, take a backseat to the story’s inescapable present tense and ever-increasing violence.  While other stories make a point to ensure the audience’s karmic satisfaction, the kernel of truth here is that, despite the best of intentions, evil continues to haunt the human race.  The struggle here is cosmic, between the animal and spiritual natures of humankind.  Predatory and survival instincts often overrule justice.  Our higher ambitions, a fire in the night, pass from one generation to the next, keeping the cold, meaningless chaos from turning us all into Anton Chigurh.  The Sheriff and Anton are almost absolute opposites, but they both answer to a code of ethics.  The difference lies in empathy.  True justice submits to and ensures harmonious coexistence, countering the lone wolf within us.  Anton’s justice, whatever it is, is truly unknowable, because it belongs to him alone.  It is therefore meaningless.

This is an example of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences making a, if not “the”, right choice.  ‘No Country For Old Men’ is probably the best picture on this subject.  Being a Coen brothers film, it’s the height of craft, but what makes it special is how far they go in subverting genre expectations.  ‘No Country For Old Men’ defies convention and substitutes original story.  This is a movie for cinephiles who like getting existentially scared out of their wits and making sense of their reaction.  It’s not for the fainthearted or brainless.  It’s too good at what it does.