Archive for November, 2013

Thor: The Dark World: Grade: B-


Directed by: Alan Taylor

Written by: Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, & Stephen McFeely

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Rene Russo

Until Thor: The Dark World was released, the only individual franchise in the Marvel Studio universe that had a sequel (and I am not counting The Incredible Hulk as being a sequel to The Hulk) was Iron ManThor: The Dark World is a bigger test for Marvel than Iron Man 2 was primarily because (1) audiences gravitated toward Robert Downey, Jr.’s defining performance so much that the actor alone ensured a huge box office in the first weekend alone; (2) a billionaire playboy who suits up in a electronically sophisticated flying robotic armor is more interesting than a mythological god whose only weapon is a fucking hammer and whose world looks like a poor man’s version of J.R.R. Tolkien; and (3) Tony Stark’s pop culture-infused sharp sarcasm is funnier than Thor’s old English dialogue. It is far less risky to have a wisecracking Robert Downey, Jr. in a real world setting than a Viking god from outer space, played by a relatively unknown actor.

With Thor: The Dark World, I am disturbingly finding myself walking out of the theater thinking once you have seen one Marvel film, you have seen them all.  These films are beginning to feel more like TV episodes (or I guess you can say issues of comic books). While I overall enjoyed Thor: The Dark World, I was disappointed to find that it was not much of an improvement over its predecessor.

In this sequel, Asgard is faced with a new threat in the form of the Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) and his minions, who are these ancient creatures called Dark Elves and who seek to return the universe back to eternal darkness. Malekith intends to accomplish his goal with the use of the Aether during the Convergence, an event that occurs once every like 10,000 years in which all of the nine realms of the universe align together. Thor: The Dark World takes place right after the events of The Avengers. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to Asgard and the villainous brother is condemned to spend eternity inside a dungeon. Thor remains busy bringing peace to the various kingdoms. In the meantime, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), his heartbroken love, continues her research into finding barriers between worlds. During her research, she stumbles across the Aether and is possessed by it. Thor finds her and returns her to Asgard to separate the Aether from Jane. However, discovery of the Aether reawakens Malekith, who descends upon Asgard to possess the powerful object.

If you can’t tell from my summary, Thor: The Dark World steeps itself a lot more into the fantasy Asgardian elements of this property than the first film. As one of the main directors of the hit TV show, Game of Thrones, director Alan Taylor is better suited to handle the fantasy aspect of the story than Kenneth Branagh, the director of the first film. This time Asgard feels more grounded and gritty and you get a sense that there are actual inhabitants outside of Thor, Odin and Loki. Taylor also does a fine job bringing back the humor the first film had and giving Thor: The Dark World a touch of lightness that the Marvel movies all seem to have. Here, it is obvious Joss Whedon exercised a heavy hand in many of this film’s humor, with gags and a great cameo from another Marvel superhero. Taylor also manages to avoid the typically dreadful third act climax/showdown that Marvel movies are sometimes plagued with (see Iron Man 1 and 2) – the final set piece is an inventive action sequence that, although not exceptional, is fun to watch.

However, despite the film’s virtues, Thor: The Dark World is held back by a number of elements. For one, Malekith is a woefully under-developed character, which is a real disappointment given how the very talented, charismatic, and versatile Christopher Eccleston (Mads Mikkelsen was originally cast to play Malekith, but he dropped out because of Hannibal) was cast to play this character. Aside from some decent design work on Malekith and his elvish minions, he doesn’t do a whole lot. Most of Malekith’s interactions occur with his henchman Algrim (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). He has one forgettable exchange with Thor and that is pretty much about it.

It is obvious that the studio decided to give short shrift to Malekith’s development in favor of allowing for more screen time to Loki, probably the most popular and memorable character in the Marvel movie universe next to Iron Man. Tom Hiddleston again proves himself to be indispensable to the enjoyment of this movie. He deftly combines a little boy vulnerability with his malevolent trickster traits. By now, Chris Hemsworth and Hiddleston have starred together in their third movie and you can see the two actors really hit their stride with these characters. At the same time, we are getting the same Loki that we saw in the first Thor and in The Avengers. There is no real character development here with him. The outcome with his character in this film seems to be setting him up for a third Thor film.

I have to say that I did not dig this more mature, noble Thor. I miss the cocky, impulsive, arrogant Norse god that we saw on display in the first film and in The Avengers. Now, he’s just some dull superhero who takes everything too seriously and much of the comedy he provided in Thor is gone (except for what Loki provides).

As for the rest of the characters, I was pleasantly surprised to find an expanded role for Rene Russo, who plays Thor’s mother. One of the best scenes in the film occurs between her and Malekith as she tries to protect Jane Foster from the dark elf. Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard also return to serve as more comic relief. For awhile I was expecting to see the story delve into an interesting love triangle between Jaimie Alexander’s Sif, Thor, and Jane Foster, but other than a few hints here and there, nothing comes of this sub-plot. Many have pointed out that Anthony Hopkins barely registers in this film as Thor’s father, Odin. I disagree and I found the performance to be far better and memorable than what Hopkins did in the first film.

I had the misfortune of seeing Thor: The Dark World in 3D. Reportedly, director Alan Taylor was not told that his film would be converted to 3D and it shows. The 3D make the whole image darker for one, and the technology was not utilized in the least bit. There is some very nice design work and landscapes in the Asgardian scenes and you totally miss it by watching it in 3D.

Ultimately, Thor: The Dark World is a fun, escapist romp that’s worth spending a nice Sunday afternoon in the theater to see (without the 3D). There is nothing original in terms of storyline, visual effects, or characters, but you weren’t really expecting that anyway, were you? Its unfortunate the talents of Christopher Eccleston are totally wasted, but at least we get a large dose of Loki instead, which is always welcome. Make sure you stick around for the end credits (like you should do with every Marvel film) for a nice teaser for Guardians of the Galaxy.

The Snapper (1993): Grade: B

the-snapper-movie-poster-1993-1020243566Is this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? The Snapper is available for rent via Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime.

Directed by: Stephen Frears

Written by: Roddy Doyle

Starring: Tina Kellegher, Colm Meaney, & Brendan Gleeson

The 1990’s saw a resurgence in films about the working class Irish. My Left Foot, The Commitments, In the Name of the Father, and Waking Ned Devine are just a few notable films among many that came out during this decade. What really sucked about watching these films in the pre-DVD days was that you had no ability to watch them with subtitles on, and without subtitles, it can be quite a challenge trying to decipher what the hell a character is saying. So what explains this wave of Irish cinema in the 1990s? In the late 1980’s, Ireland recognized the importance of promoting its own film industry so it passed industry-friendly tax laws that helped contribute to the growth of the “second wave” of filmmaking that took off in the 1990s. In fact, there were more Irish-produced films in the 1990s than in the entire 90 years before this decade! This decade saw the emergence of widely respected filmmakers such as Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father) and Neil Jordan (The Crying Game).

Although he is English, not Irish, director Stephen Frears has also come up through the ranks to become one of the most respected filmmakers working today. Frears made his name far before he directed The Snapper, with such classics as Dangerous Liasons (1988) and The Grifters (1990). In 1993, Frears directed The Snapper, which was released as a TV movie. This film is part of a trilogy of films that are adaptations of Irish novelist Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy of books (the very popular The Commitments and The Van being the other two). It should be noted that Doyle wrote the screenplay for The Snapper as well.

Like all of Doyle’s stories, The Snapper centers on working-class Dubliners.  Sharon Curley (Tina Kellegher) is a grocery store clerk in Barrytown, which is a north Dublin working–class suburb. The story begins when she announces to her parents that she is pregnant (or as its referred to by the characters, “Sharon Curley’s up the pole”). However, the unmarried Sharon refuses to reveal who the father is. Sharon’s parents, Dessie and Kay (Colm Meaney and Ruth McCabe) take the news surprisingly well considering the circumstances. Sharon’s girlfriends, Dessie’s drinking buddies, and the neighbors all take this news similarly well that is until, the father is revealed to be George Burgess (Pat Laffan), the middle-aged family man who lives across the street from Sharon’s house and whose daughter is one of Sharon’s friends AND he also happens to be one of Dessie’s drinking buddies. Sharon now becomes ostracized and viewed as the town whore and a home-wrecker. She goes on the defensive and declares that the true father of her child is an unknown Spanish sailor who took advantage of her one night when she was drunk.

The Irish seem to be born with the gift of gab – they can walk into any bar and not only carry on a lively conversation, but take joy in giving and taking information and gossip from an intimate gathering of pals. The Snapper embodies this characteristic of the Irish. Its about hard working people, who live in tiny, cramped houses stuck next to each other in small cramped neighborhoods. Chances are that if you have some juicy gossip on someone, everyone else on your street also knows about it and they are all talking about it at the local watering hole, the neighborhood’s central repository of gossip. With this type of environment, one can imagine the scandalous nature of finding out an unmarried young woman got pregnant by a much older, family man.

Colm Meaney as Dessie, the patriarch of the family, and Tina Kellegher as Sharon, Dessie’s pregnant daughter, are fantastic. Sci-fi geeks are quite familiar with Colm Meaney as Miles O’Brien in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (and now plays Thomas Durant in the hit AMC series, Hell on Wheels). Nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as Dessie, Meaney’s character is a man full of contradictions: humble, but proud; the ruler of the house, but easily silenced by his wife and daughter; not much of a financial provider, but an emotionally giving and loving father. The relationship between Dessie and Sharon is especially close. Dessie does not treat his daughter like a shameful outcast for what she has done or forcefully take charge of her life to fix the things she has screwed up. Dessie instead treats Sharon like a good friend, without condescending her. As her father, he tries very hard to do what is right, and that is to support whatever decision she wants to make no matter how difficult it may be for him to accept it. There is a wonderful scene in the film where Dessie purchases a baby book in order to learn what a woman goes through during her pregnancy. One night he enters Sharon’s bedroom and asks her if she ever feels cramps and she is touched by the fact that her father has taken such huge steps to stand by her side.

I have not seen Tina Kellegher in anything other than The Snapper nor have I ever heard of her name. She is a marvel here and just as deserving, if not more so, of awards attention (which she unfortunately did not get). As Sharon Curley goes through the stages of pregnancy, she also undergoes a transformation from being an irresponsible, immature girl who likes to get drunk every night with her friends to a woman who is about to mother and be responsible for a child. Kellegher convincingly portrays her character’s transition and displays Sharon Curley’s independent, strong-willed attitude.

If you have seen Alan Parker’s The Commitments, the first film in this trilogy, you will notice a marked difference in content, feel, and style compared to Parker’s more slick looking movie. The Snapper is a rougher, British TV drama, and as such, it focuses more on character comedy and less on the drama and emotions contained in The Commitments. Stephen Frears keeps this film going at a fast clip, never descending into gross Hollywood sentimentality. At the same time, the film is not without some sentimentality. Under all of its sharp bicker and banter, we can see a rowdily inspiring study of a family pulling together under pressure, standing by each other in tough times.

Stories about pregnancy seem to always be a popular topic for a movie. For a long time, stories about unwed mothers were controversial enough to make stories about them interesting. However, with our slightly more sophisticated and saavy cinematic minds, a movie about a young, unmarried girl is just not as shocking or interesting as it once was. The Snapper does very well with the material it has, but I found myself not really caring whether or not Sharon Curley’s family and the rest of the neighborhood found out the real father of Sharon’s baby. When it is revealed to the audience who the father is, I found myself shrugging my shoulders as to his identity. This film’s beauty lies in the strong familial bonds of Sharon’s family and especially in the relationship she has with her father. Sharon ends up having the baby (I assume abortion was definitely out of the question in the devoutly religious and conservative Irish neighborhood the story is set in) and everyone lives happily ever after (without anyone knowing who the real father is) in the end. But again, the final outcome is not as important as the interaction of the characters with each other and their development throughout the story.

The Rat Pack (1998): Grade: B

rat_packIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? The Rat Pack is not available for rent via Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime.

Directed by: Rob Cohen

Written by: Kario Salem

Starring: Ray Liotta, Joe Mantegna, Don Cheadle, Angus Macfadyen, William L. Petersen, Zeljko Ivanek, Bobby Slayton, Deborah Kara Unger, Veronica Cartwright

The undefine-able nature of the term “success” lends itself to an endless array of interpretations. The most conventional definition of the term is an accumulation of material wealth (money, property, cars, houses, clothing, etc.). On the opposite end of that spectrum are those who define success as the attainment of knowledge. Still, there are those who define “success” as the freedom to do whatever you want. In addition to accumulating material wealth (worth about $100 million by the time he died), singer/actor Frank Sinatra had this last freedom in abundance. The world was certainly Frank Sinatra’s oyster – the perennial bachelor playboy was limited only by the bounds of his ambition, which seemed to be boundless in 1960, at least in the way he was portrayed in the HBO biofilm, The Rat Pack.

By 1960, Frank Sinatra was enjoying a rebirth of his career. His Oscar win for his performance in From Here to Eternity revived Sinatra’s career in 1953 and ever since then, the singer/actor’s career thrived in both music and film. Sinatra was a regular mainstay in Las Vegas, and he, along with his Rat Pack friends (Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, & Joey Bishop) personified cool. However, in the late 1950’s and 60’s, Sinatra’s ambitions turned his attention to a new arena: politics. Sinatra’s interest was motivated by his desire to gain the media’s respect for him, to elevate himself from being perceived as merely a nightclub singer with mob ties, and he, along with the rest of this county, was smitten with John F. Kennedy’s youthful optimism for this country. The Rat Pack chronicles Sinatra’s (Ray Liotta) involvement with the Kennedy family, his role in getting JFK to the White House, and his relationship with his fellow Rat Pack members (Don Cheadle as Sammy Davis, Jr., Joe Mantegna as Dean Martin, and Angus Macfadyen as Peter Lawford).

Biopics are among the toughest genres to make. A person’s life obviously does not neatly fit within a screenplay’s 3-act structure. What we usually end up with is a movie about a person’s life or an event in which key moments are taken from that life/event, condensed together, and shoehorned into a 3-act structure. Consequently, a lot of details are left out, glossed over, and existing facts are exaggerated to make the film more dramatic. Aside from knowing the members of the Rat Pack, I am totally unfamiliar with their lives and interactions with each other so I cannot attest to how accurate The Rat Pack is. However, given the little I have read about them, I am going to assume everything in this movie is generally true.

Starting with the performances/portrayals, Ray Liotta never seems to get a fair shake despite having given some memorable performances in his career (Goodfellas, Field of Dreams). Most critiques I have read/heard about Liotta’s portrayal of Frank Sinatra in The Rat Pack is that he merely channels his Henry Hill character from Goodfellas. I totally disagree and such a gross oversimplification of Liotta’s performance is unfair. In fact, I was more impressed with Liotta work than what Don Cheadle and Joe Mantegna did in this film. The latter two actors were nominated for Golden Globe awards (with Don Cheadle winning) whereas Liotta was not nominated. Frank Sinatra was by all accounts a complex man. He loved women (particularly Ava Gardner), a high-class lifestyle, and he was fiercely loyal to his friends (both his Ray Pack comrades and his mobster benefactors). Not being content with just being a popular matinee singer from Hoboken, Sinatra ambitiously ventured into film and television acting before setting his sights on gaining access to the political circles in Washington, D.C. At the same time, Sinatra’s career ambitions seemed to always be dogged by his mobster connections, and he seemed to never gain the respect he deserved because of this.

Frank Sinatra was also known for his dedication to achieving racial integration, a view not shared by most in his circles, and his support for those who were blacklisted in Hollywood for their communist ties. The best and most touching moment in The Rat Pack is a scene between Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. in which Sammy announces to Sinatra that he plans to marry his white girlfriend, actress May Britt. Sinatra knew the repercussions of Sammy’s decision, especially to his friend JFK’s electoral chances, but Sinatra continued to support his friend anyway. In this scene, Liotta beautifully conveys both Sinatra’s fierce support for Sammy Davis, Jr. and his sympathy for what his friend would endure for marrying a white person.

Except for having Sinatra’s blue eyes, Liotta may not resemble the Chairman of the Board, but his clearly earnest portrayal of the singer/actor makes up for this. The actor nicely captures the confidence, swagger, and charisma Sinatra was known for. Liotta also does a fine job displaying the naivety Sinatra had about his relationship with the Kennedy family. Sinatra was so enamored by the hopes and dreams JFK inspired in the country that he seemed to willfully ignore the slick political machinery underlying JFK’s campaign to take the White House. Just like the loyalty he gave to his mobster friends that helped him gain fame, Sinatra expected JFK to do the same after he helped him win the presidency. You deeply sympathize with Sinatra when he discovers that he’s merely been a pawn in toward fulfilling JFK’s political ambitions.

Don Cheadle won the Golden Globe award for his performance as Sammy Davis, Jr. A few short years after The Rat Pack was released, Cheadle co-starred in the 2001 remake of Oceans 11, the film that originally starred the Rat Pack. It goes without saying that Don Cheadle is unable to deliver a bad performance. I mean, he even survived Swordfish! Here, Cheadle comfortably fills into the shoes of Sammy Davis, Jr., a man just as complex as Frank Sinatra. Davis, Jr. owed much of his career to Sinatra because without his friend’s help in performing in previously whites-only clubs, Davis, Jr. may have never achieved the success that he did. Davis, Jr. was also a huge advocate of the civil rights movement, and he was not afraid to push back against the establishment to live his life the way he wanted to live it (e.g., marrying white actress May Britt). At the same time, Davis, Jr. recognized that he needed to also toe the line at times and play to society’s stereotypes so that he could pave an easier way for a future generation of black entertainers. Cheadle captures the mannerisms and dialect of Sammy Davis, Jr. without resorting to a caricature of the singer. Unfortunately, the film does not explore the singer’s relationship with the Rat Pack as much as I would have liked it to. It seems there was more friction between him and his cohorts than the movie reveals. Worth noting is the song and dance number where Sammy sings “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” to a group of Klu Klux Klan members.

Finally, we get to Joe Mantegna, who stars as Dean Martin. For the most part, Martin stayed out of the politics and drama that Sinatra was involved in. With a large family to support, Martin focused exclusively on his career even though he remained cold and distant with his wife and kids. The film does not give a whole lot for Mantegna to do here other than appear and sound like Martin, which he does very well. There are a few, brief glimpses of Martin’s family life, but other than that, Dino spends the majority of this film as a supporting character among the rest of the Rat Pack. I was surprised that Mantegna, and not Ray Liotta, received a Golden Globe nomination.

The Rat Pack is rounded out by a few more notable actors who, more or less, give serviceable performances. Angus Macfadyen plays another Rat Pack member, actor Peter Lawford. Lawford was essentially a bag boy/messenger for Frank Sinatra and the Kennedys. He hated the fact that he was used by all these people (Sinatra used him to get close to the Kennedys and the Kennedys used him to control Sinatra), but he could never muster enough courage to stand up to anyone. Macfadyen almost has a thankless role here playing a spineless man who lacked any self-worth. William Peterson (CSI) plays JFK and Deborah Kara Unger plays Ava Gardner, Sinatra’s ex-wife and lover. Neither actor elevates their performance above a caricature, especially Peterson, who is unconvincing as JFK.

The Rat Pack features some very good performances, but what ultimately stands out is the film’s gorgeous production design by Hilda Stark Manos, who also earned a Golden Globe for her work on this film. I don’t know whether or not the sets accurately portray what Frank Sinatra’s house and office looked like, and nor do I care because the 1950’s space age look of the sets is absolute eye candy to behold. Watch for one particularly nice shot where an FBI agent is sitting inside his car outside of Sinatra’s restaurant and behind the car is a huge Coca-Cola billboard.

One can easily dismiss The Rat Pack as nothing more than your typical TV bio movie and to a large extent, this film does amount to this. Director Rob Cohen presents the story in the same straightforward manner that we have seen so many other TV bio flicks. The movie does not give us anything more than a simple recital of the facts from one dramatic event to the next. At the same time, the marriage of Washington and Hollywood during this period is fascinating enough to make you not care so much about the director’s failure to take this film to another level of insight. With that said, I would have done anything to see Martin Scorsese’s depiction of the Rat Pack, a movie which he was developing for a long time. All in all, even with all its faults, The Rat Pack is an entertaining and educational watch that contains some very good performances.