Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Thor (2011)

If there were any doubt before, let this movie stand as conclusive proof that I don't know what the fuck I am talking about. Back in my Iron Man 2 review, I said that this was the one part of the Avengers franchise most likely to go tits up. Kenny Branagh has never had great success as a commercial director and Thor's outsized universe of Norse space-gods seems like the kind of Silver Age silliness doomed to epic failure. Yet somehow they turned a pretty good movie out it, grabbing bits and pieces from the comics that worked and grinding down the sharp edges that might make the Thor mythos a little difficult to swallow.

Like in the comics, the pantheon of Norse mythology are more like space-aliens than gods and the realm of Asgard is a glorious kingdom at the nexus of the galaxy where science and magic are "one and the same". Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is soon to be crowned king by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) but in a reckless act of war he spoils the truce between the Asgardians and the Frost Giants of Jotunheim. Thor is banished to Earth and robbed of the ability to wield the mightly Mjolnir until he is deemed worthy. With Thor stranded on Earth, his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) engineers a plan to steal the throne from their dying father. You know, they probably should have seen this coming. He is the god of tricks and deception.

The movie is pretty funny, but it lacks the easy-going affability of an Iron Man. Most of the humour comes from the kind of fish-out-of-water bullshit that they used to like so much back in the 80s (see Masters of the Universe or Beastmaster 2 - The Portal of Time for examples, but it's probably best if you don't) e.g. Thor smashing a mug while demanding more drink or wandering into a pet shop looking for a horse. I chuckled, but part of me resents that kind of nudging and winking. Thankfully there's not too much of it and they don't use it to make any half-assed observations about modern society. More importantly, the parts on Asgard are played completely straight, with all the huge red capes and ridiculous horned helmets intact.

I was skeptical when I heard that Home and Away alumni Chris Hemsworth was playing the God of Thunder, but I've got to admit that he's pretty good in this. As far as blockbuster movie stars go, he's a far more worthy Australian export than, say, Sam Worthington. There's also Natalie Portman, in what seems like her millionth role in the past year, as an astro-physicist named Jane Foster. She's never particularly convincing as a brilliant scientist, and the romance between her and Thor even less so. After seeing her in Black Swan it's kind of disheartening to see her cast as this kind of underdeveloped, action-movie love interest, but I guess Nat's gotta eat. No seriously, she needs to eat. She's lost a lot of weight.

Most of the other actors are pretty good and their characters aren't too annoying. Kat Dennings as grad-student Darcy Lewis had the most potential to be ear-gratingly awful, being a youth-identification character who makes sarcastic quips and references to iPods and facebooks, but she's not in it long enough to fuck it all up. Stellan SkarsgÄrd is good as Jane's colleague and obligatory Scandinavian Erik Selvig. I did like that although he was the first to recognise Thor's story as Norse mythology, but the last one to believe it. Usually this kind of character would be the superstitious foreigner who buys his story straight away. I guess that's because he's a white guy.

Speaking of racism, after all that stupid business with the white supremacists, Idis Elba doesn't get that much to do as Heimdall. Most of the time he's just standing there motionless with a big sword. Hell, when he finally does spring into action he gets frozen into a statue. I liked him, though. By the end of the film it appears he's out of the job so maybe we can get a spin-off movie where he gets a job as a security guard or something. Heimdall: Mall Cop. Jaimie Alexander's Sif adds a female to Thor's bffs The Warriors Three (Volstann, Holgun and Fandral, see imdb for actor's credits) lest we all die of testosterone poisoning, but they mostly hang around in the background until they are needed for the big action sequence at the end.

Far more than Iron Man 2, you can tell that this film was built with the Avengers franchise in mind. The S.H.I.E.L.D. stuff is integrated a lot more seamlessly and all of the little nods and references to other Marvel characters seem more like world-building than obligatory product placement. Having a shared universe is one of the main attractions of superhero comics, so it's pretty exciting to see people tapping that resource for the film adaptations. I'm actually looking forward to the Avengers movie now.

It's got the usual origin story teething problems that accompany any superhero franchise and some of the dialog is pretty bad, but as far as superhero movies go this is one of the better ones. It should feel no shame in clambering over the corpses of your Fantastic Fours, Catwomen and Elektrae, and taking it's rightful place in the pantheon of good superhero movies. I don't know where exactly. Somewhere below Iron Man but above Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk. And that ain't bad.

PS - There is a post-credits Easter egg with Nick Fury, but don't get too excited. It's not particularly surprising or interesting.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Sucker Punch (2011)

I really liked the beautiful, dialogue-free opening sequence of this film, which shows the chain of tragic events that lead to Baby Doll (Emily Browning) being committed to a mental institution by her evil stepfather and a crooked orderly (Oscar Isaac). As I've explained in other reviews, I'm a sucker for gothic, spooky mental institutions, so I was a little disappointed when it turns out that this setting is just a bookend for the bulk of the movie, which takes place in a Weimar-esque bordello of Baby Doll's own imagination (I think) where all of the orderlies, doctors and patients are recast as brutal pimps, sympathetic madams and dancers/prostitutes. Baby Doll is but one of the pretty young girls with silly names like Sweet Pea, Rocket, Blondie etc, who are forced to dance for the amusement of rich assholes and, by PG-13-approved implication, bone them.

It turns out that Baby Doll has a super power to hypnotise men with her seductive dancing, so she comes up with a plan to distract the clients while the other girls gather up items for their escape (a map, a lighter, a key etc). It's a repetitive set-up that seems like a perfect basis for a shitty Hollywood musical, but instead of dance sequences, Baby Doll's internal struggle on the dance floor is symbolically represented by crazy action sequences involving giant stone samurai, Steampunk WWI soldiers (incorrectly identified as Nazis by many reviewers), orcs, robots and whatever other crazy shit that Zack Snyder thinks is awesome. Scott Glenn plays a wise mentor who appears as an expository device to set up each of her fantasies, which play out like mini (wo)men-on-a-mission action movies with Baby Doll and the other girls.

So, it's basically a series of crazy fantasy sequences that take place inside another fantasy sequence that takes place inside the mind of a young girl in a mental institution that is so exaggerated and stylised it might as well be a fantasy sequence. There's about ten levels of fantasy without any recognisable reality to grasp onto, and it's never really clear how or if things that happen in Baby Doll's head affect the real world. With Inception Nolan was careful to lay all this shit out, but Snyder just dumps you in it and expects you not to notice/care. I really enjoyed the action sequences as pure spectacle, but without consequence it's hard to build the tension and suspense that underlie a truly great action movie.

It's also pretty grim and relatively joke-free. Some people have complained about that but I really appreciate the sincerity of it. It's a lot easier to couch your movie in cynicism and self-referential snark, lest people accuse you of "taking yourself too seriously", but Snyder laid everything out in the open and exposed himself to the world. Even the creepy, fetishy bits that he probably should have kept private, like underage-looking girls swordfighting in miniskirts, pigtails and high heels. This movie has been accused of being a cynical attempt to bait the Comic Con crowd (a gamble that seems less and less of a sure thing every year) and maybe it was for some people higher up the food chain, but for Snyder it seems like it was a labour of love.

It doesn't surprise me that this film is getting terrible reviews, but it does surprise me how vitriolic a lot of them are. Yeah, the film has plenty of problems, but a lot of internet nerdos are acting like Zack Snyder fucked their dog and wiped his dick on their mint condition Star Wars action figures. Somewhere along the line people turned on Zack Snyder, and I don't really know why. Against all odds I actually liked the Dawn of the Dead remake, I enjoyed 300, I thought Watchmen was pretty good. None of them were all-time classics, but I can list plenty of things I liked about them. I didn't see that owl movie, maybe that's what did it. Some people are even dropping the atomic bomb of film criticism and comparing him to Michael Bay. Come on guys, I rolled my eyes as much as anyone when they called him "the visionary director of 300" on movie posters, but at least the guy knows how to put an action sequence together.

Anyway, I doubt Snyder-haters will have their minds changed by this film, as it's full of trademark Snyder-isms such as over-obvious, distracting musical choices and lots of slow motion ramping. Haters of the latter will be particularly annoyed by an action sequence where the girls fight robots on a train, which is a solid ten minutes of slow motion leaping and shooting, all done in one continuous take thanks to the sorcerous magic of pixel wizards. I loved it though, as I did all the action sequences. They are more chaotic than in his other films, but really well choreographed and edited. Snyder has this action stuff on lockdown. If he could figure out human emotion he would be unstoppable.

A lot of criticism seems to be centered about the sexual politics of the movie too. Snyder may have invited it on himself by using the word "empowerment" about fifty times in every press interview, but I don't really know why this is the movie where people have decided to take a stand. They showed the trailer for Furious Five before this movie, which had girls in shiny booty shorts waving their asses at the camera every four seconds (I timed it). Just because this film is centered around women people want to unpack every bit of creepy subtext. Honestly I think Snyder genuinely cares about these characters, but he also likes the aesthetics of comics books and anime, including pretty girls in skimpy outfits making cool superhero poses. This is something we have in common.

This is Snyder's first film that isn't an adaptation or a remake, and he must have sensed it would probably be his last because it seems like he put everything he had into this one. It's not great and it's too shallow to have any lasting impact, but I like that it's so ambitious and extreme. Snyder may not have proven himself beyond being, as every review seems to call him, a "bold visual stylist", but at least I dig his style and I can respect the care that went into it. Next it's back to adaptation with his Superman movie, which should at least have one up on Superman Returns in that it's bound to feature Superman actually punching a guy.