Category: Action Sci-Fi & Fantasy


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To paraphrase Dean Pelton from Community, “time travel is really hard.” To wit, writers who are able to do it well seem to exclusively be Steven Moffat, J.J. Abrams, Carlton Cuse, and Damon Lindelof (it’s weird how three of those individuals are involved with the greatest science fiction show of all time). Writers seem to either hand-wave the ontological paradoxes they inadvertently create or they bury themselves under technobabble explaining the pseudoscience their premise seems to be operating on. Great time travel stories are lean and efficient, write as few paradoxes into their tale as possible (or none at all if you’re 12 Monkeys), and give characters a front-and-center view. It’s what’s made Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who years work and it’s what made season five of Lost so brilliant. The third directorial feature from Brick‘s Rian Johnson now puts him in the ranks of the time travel masters with the thrilling and wicked smart Looper.

In the year 2042, time travel hasn’t been invented yet. But in about thirty years, it will (I think I might be directly quoting exposition from the film at this point). Joe (The Dark Knight Rises‘s Joseph Gordon Levitt) is a “Looper.” Time travel will become illegal, and the only one’s that use it are criminal organizations. They send people they want killed back to the past so that hit men called Loopers can kill them and dispose of bodies that don’t even technically exist yet. It’s an easy job for easy money but there’s a catch. Time travel becomes such a touchy subject in the future that the criminal syndicates force Loopers to “close their own loop.” If the Looper is still alive in the future, he’s sent back to the 2040s where the present time Looper has to kill his future self. And he severs ties with the syndicate to enjoy his remaining thirty years.

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Joe’s life is one of beautiful women, fast cars, eye-drop drugs, and old-fashioned guns. With his telekinetic fellow Looper Seth (Paul Dano), Joe is living the life until it’s time for him to finally close his own loop. After a moment’s hesitation, Joe is unable to pull the trigger on future Joe (Bruce Willis) and future Joe gets away. Now both young Joe and old Joe are being hunted by the criminal syndicate who wants to take them both out before either can screw things up even more. Young Joe wants to find and kill Old Joe so that he can get what remains of his life back and Old Joe wants to find the young version of the head of the crime family from his time and kill him before he can start closing everyone’s loop. And so young Joe finds the boy and vows to protect him and his mother (The Adjustment Bureau‘s Emily Blunt) as he waits for Old Joe to make his move.

I don’t know exactly when Joseph Gordon-Levitt became the thinking-man’s action star (although my guess is that Inception was as good a launching pad as any) but god bless America that that finally happened. With a subtle application of make-up (or maybe not so subtle if you know what Joseph Gordon-Levitt actually looks like), Levitt becomes Bruce Willis. I mean it. If you’ve ever seen a  Bruce Willis movie, you know all of Bruce’s mannerisms. The way he manages to both open his eyes wide but also seem to somehow be closing them at the same time. The little drawl he uses when he talks. The cocky swagger. Joseph Gordon-Levitt finds all of it. If there’s ever a Bruce Willis biopic, I nominate Joseph Gordon-Levitt for the role. Yet, he also (as he does in virtually all of his roles) adds the emotional pathos needed for the role and to have us cheering for someone who is more or less nothing other than a hired gun.

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Anybody who’s seen Brick or either of the episodes of Breaking Bad that Rian Johnson directed know that Johnson (who also wrote the film) is a master of both pulp dialogue and head-spinning visuals. And Looper is no exception. We’re about ten films deep into our current 50 film crop (for the superlatives of the last 50, you can go here), and out of those so far, Looper has been the only one with a real sense of visual flair. Johnson’s world-building is impeccable and the film’s western/mobster/steampunk vibe is one of the most original sci-fi aesthetics this side of Firefly. And much like Children of Men (which became an allegory for illegal immigration at times), Looper infuses it’s future tech with a sense that mankind is slowly destroying itself through greed and violence. And a recurring visual motif is one of desolate economic squalor.

Now what I’m about to say may seem contradictory but bear with me. Looper‘s only flaws lie in some pacing problems that drag down the middle section of the film. A more lean, 90 minute run time could have made this an all-time classic. Rian Johnson admirably tries to build up the characters during quieter moments of the film and mostly he succeeds. We watch as Bruce Willis struggles to retain the memories of his past life as new memories are constantly being created as he broken the causality of his previous life. We watch Emily Blunt and Joseph Gordon-Levitt bond as he comes to care for her and her child. But not everything works as smoothly, and when scenes seem artificial (the first stirring of romance rather than simple affection between Blunt and Levitt or the implied ease that Willis has in killing children to save his future wife), the film starts to drag and you wish that Johson could return to the kinetic pace of the opening sections of the film.

Emily Blunt;Joseph Gordon Levitt

Despite its flaws and the occasional thinness of its characterizations, Looper is a hell of a ride. We are living in a golden age of intelligent science fiction from District 9 to Children of Men to Watchmen. I’m not saying that Looper is as good as those films (it’s certainly nowhere near as good as Children of Men) but for fans of sci-fi with brains and a little bit of testosterone, Looper gets the job done. Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to establish himself as one of the most exciting and fresh young faces in Hollywood and Bruce Willis continues his bad-ass ride into the sunset as one of Hollywood’s premier bad-asses. Don’t miss one of the best science fiction films of last year.

Final Score: A-

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(Quick aside before my actual review. In my Song of the Day post for today, I promised to reveal why it was that my blogging had slowed down some this week even though I had only worked two days at the mall. It’s because I finally got around to starting on a screenplay. I know I’ve talked about that a lot of times on here, but I actually sat down and tried to write for the first time in a long while. And it’s going really well so far. I started Tuesday or Wednesday I guess. I’m not sure for sure, but I’ve written 30 pages since then. The average screenplay is either 90 or 120 minutes long so I’m either a third of the way there or a fourth for my first draft. I’m not going to share it with anyone until I’ve finished my first draft and done some proofreading/minor editing, but when it’s taken real shape, I will let all of my loyal readers know. Now, on to Star Wars!)

When this blog was in its infant stages, one of the first 50 films that I reviewed was Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope. Nearly the entire saga is on my list (except for The Phantom Menace because I will never voluntarily subject myself to that film again), and it’s taken a year and a half for the random number gods determining which films I watch from my master list to provide me with another entry in the series. The Star Wars franchise is one of the most beloved film series of all time, and although I think that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is superior to the original Star Wars trilogy (it’s not even a competition about being better than the prequels), there’s still something magical about watching the original films. That magic is never greater than in Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back which remains the crowning achievement of the franchise.

After destroying the Death Star at the end of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back picks up three years later with the Rebel Alliance in hiding on the ice planet of Hoth. After Luke gets stranded over-night in the frozen wastes when his tauntaun (basically a reptile horse alien creature) is killed, he sees a vision from his old mentor Obi-Wan telling him to visit the planet of Dagobah to find the Jedi Master Yoda. Luke is rescued from Hoth by Han Solo only for the planet to be invaded the next day by the Empire. After holding off the Imperial forces, Luke heads to Dagobah (with R2-D2) while Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO escape on the Millennium Falcon while evading constant pursuit from the Empire. As Luke is trained in the ways of the Jedi by the mysterious and tiny Yoda, his friends must stay one step ahead of the Empire if they want to avoid the clutches of Darth Vader.

Many of my thoughts about the original film remain relevant here. Outside of Han (and now Billy Dee William’s Lando Calrissian who appears in Empire), most of the film’s characters are more of an archetype than actually well defined characters in their own right. Luke is still your classical hero-in-training/messianic archetype (although actually, it’s hard to decide whether Luke or Anakin is actually the one who brought balance to the force and I don’t want to spark that nerd debate here). Leia is your rebellious princess. Darth Vader is the fallen hero (though you don’t find that out til the next film), and The Emperor is… the evil emperor. Only Han’s loveable rogue breaks the rules of mainstream storytelling, and it’s a testament to his character’s popularity that Han himself has become nearly a stock character type since the series began.

Similarly, the acting itself remains hit or miss. Harrison Ford is as charming and rakish as always, and the decision to play with the sexual chemistry between himself and Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia was wise. Let’s face it. Han telling Leia “I know” when she says that she loves him remains one of the most bad-ass moments in film history (rivaling any of the actual action sequences of the series). Carrie Fisher is appealingly tough as the Princess even if there isn’t much going on beneath the surface there. However, Mark Hamill, the center of the franchise as Luke, avoids being the worst leading actor in the series only because Hayden Christensen would show up later to ruin Anakin Skywalker forever. He’s wooden, weird inflections, and his angry face is more hilarious than dramatic. Thank god James Earl Jones is still around to add some gravitas to the interactions between Luke and Darth Vader.

What makes Empire Strikes Back my favorite entry in the franchise is the way that it expands the universe in consistently interesting ways without falling prey to any of the “cutesy” trappings that would mar Return of the Jedi (fucking Ewoks man) and straight up ruin the first two prequel films. A New Hope can basically be summed up as Tatooine, escaping the Death Star, destroying the Death Star. Empire Strikes Back is more willing to diversify the settings as well as the act structure. The film also introduces many of the most famous and beloved characters of the franchise. We see Boba Fett, the Emperor, Lando Calrissian, and Yoda all for the first time in Empire. If you really pay attention to the dialogue of the film, you will walk away knowing much more about the Star Wars universe than you did at the end of A New Hope.

The other (and pretty much primary) reason that I prefer The Empire Strikes Back to any other film in the franchise is that it’s easily the darkest entry in the series. Well, perhaps Revenge of the Sith is darker, but it also ultimately falls apart when it’s examined too closely (cause George Lucas did not write a compelling enough downfall for Anakin) so it’s disqualified from this race. Nearly every aspect of the final act of Empire Strikes Back is a downer. If you somehow haven’t seen the film stop reading now because you’re about to get some spoilers. Star Wars is the original blockbuster film series, and it’s decision to have its middle chapter end on the stark note of Luke losing his hand and finding out his father is his sworn enemy as well as Han Solo being captured and frozen in carbonite would ultimately shape the narrative structure of future series such as The Matrix.

I haven’t actually worked on my screenplay any today because I slept in til nearly 2 (even though I went to bed before 11 last night. I just slipped into a minor coma) so I’m going to keep this review short and try to write about 5 or so pages of my screenplay before I go to bed and get ready for class tomorrow. I’m sure at some point, I will review Return of the Jedi (I’ve now decided that even if my list has Revenge of the Sith or Attack of the Clones first, I’m just going to watch the films in the order they were released) although I don’t know when. I just hope that my earlier statement where I expressed my love for Lord of the Rings over Star Wars doesn’t inspire a Clerk 2-esque flame war in the comments section of this page. May the force be with you.

Final Score: A

I’ve reviewed seasons 4-7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (as well as the entirety of the canonical season 8 in graphic novel form). I’ve pontificated on the brilliance of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. I’m currently in the process of reviewing Angel. Give it time and I will review Firefly and Dollhouse. I’m a Joss Whedon believer. I’m also a huge comic book fan. I’ve reviewed some graphic novels here and there (though lately I’ve been on a manga kick), and obviously, I’ve taken on a super hero movie or two. So, when I found out that Joss Whedon (who I put in the same league as TV luminaries like Steven Moffat, Damon Lindelof, and Carlton Cuse) was going to be helming the long-rumored and long-labored live-action adaptation of The Avengers, I was obviously excited. Over 7 seasons of Buffy, 5 seasons of Angel, and shorter (but not less brilliant) tenures with other programs, Joss Whedon earned his crown as the king of American “popcorn science fiction/fantasy” storytelling (Lindelof and Cuse are ultimately a little more serious and cerebral though Whedon’s best moments match theirs). Much like Steven Moffat has redefined what was possible with the decades long story of Doctor Who under his tenure as the showrunner, Joss Whedon set virtually all of the precedents for modern, serialized sci-fi storytelling with Buffy and Angel. If anyone was going to be able to make The Avengers work, it was him (or Christopher Nolan though his version would have been intensely dark). So, after three weeks of waiting to see the film so that I could see it with my dad and sister after returning to WV from NYC, I’ve finally seen The Avengers. It matched my expectations and more to make one of the best superhero films yet.

While the story is admittedly threadbare and mostly serves as an excuse for Joss Whedon to explore the power dynamics among this group of extraordinary (and broken) heroes as well as set up one explosive set piece after another (which makes my mouth salivate over what he could have accomplished with his TV shows had he had network support), it more than accomplishes what it needs in order to propel this thrilling film from its beginning to its impossible to overstate as epic end. Covert government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. is studying an extradimensional object known as the Tesseract (am I the only one who immediately thought of A Wrinkle in Time?) which could be the key to sustainable, unlimited clean energy when their secret government facility is attacked by Loki (War Horse‘s Tom Hiddleston), the brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who is on an attempt to subjugate the Earth with the help of an alien species called the Chitauri. After Loki steals the Tesseract (and corrupts Hawkeye (The Hurt Locker’s Jeremy Renner) and others into his brainwashed slaves), S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Pulp Fiction‘s Samuel L. Jackson) is forced to call together Earth’s mightiest heroes to defend the planet from an imminent and apocalyptic invasion. But when your group includes the billionaire playboy Tony Stark/Iron Man (Two Girls and a Guy‘s Robert Downey Jr.), super soldier Steve Rogers/Captain American (Chris Evans) who’s spent the last 70 years frozen in ice, former Russian spy Natasha Romanov/Black Widow (Lost in Translation’s Scarlet Johansson), tempermental god Thor, and reclusive scientist/unstoppable force of destruction Bruce Banner/The Hulk (The Kids Are All Right‘s Mark Ruffalo), it’s a given that just getting these guys to work together is going to be as monumental a task as defeating the supernatural forces ready to destroy Earth.

The pedigree of the actors in this film should speak volumes about how well-acted it is (along with Joss Whedon’s natural ability to really bring out the chemistry in his stars). There are four Academy Award nominees in the cast (Robert Downey Jr. for Chaplin and Tropic Thunder, Sam Jackson for Pulp Fiction, Mark Ruffalo for The Kids Are All Right, and Jeremy Renner for The Hurt Locker), one Academy Award winner (Gwyneth Paltrow for Shakespeare in Love), two BAFTA winners (Scarlet Johansson for Lost in Translation and Sam Jackson), and they’ve all got a plethora of other industry awards under their belts. You’d think with this much talent in one film that there wouldn’t be enough for every one to do, but you’d be wrong. While there are a ton of huge action sequences in this film, the reason why The Avengers has become such a critical success (and at least partially why it’s been such a commercial success) is that Whedon figured out the best way to bring out through the script and the actors both the highs and lows of these characters and how to best make them clash and bounce off each other. Fans of the comics know that Iron Man and Captain America aren’t crazy about one another and putting Robert Downey Jr.’s glib anti-hero alongside the almost Superman-esque innocence and idealism of Cap makes for some of the film’s best moments. Similarly, Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner (which was my second favorite casting decision of the film) shows a man who always seems like he’s on the verge of finally losing it and Ruffalo captures both the intensity and anger of Bruce Banner along side his intelligence. I could go on all day about the scenes where Robert Downey Jr. trying to get under specific characters skins were brilliant, but there was a wonderful chemistry between the two brains of the group with him and Mark Ruffalo to off-set the heavy-handed violence the film wasn’t afraid to employ. However, the best part of the cast was easily Tom Hiddleston. He was the only redeeming aspect of Thor, and once again, he stole the whole damn show again. I still think his costume is just about the dumbest looking costume in the history of superhero movies, but Tom Hiddleston was just deliciously evil.

From a script perspective, the movie was pure Joss Whedon and contained all of the touchstones of his television programs. A minor but well-beloved character dies in a brutal and unexpected way. Dark comedy is intermixed in even the most dramatic moments. Seriously, this film could be laugh out loud funny at times (mostly involving Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth). There’s a never-ending stream of pop-culture references. You’ve got a female character who kicks nearly as much ass as the men (especially considering that she doesn’t have any superpowers whatsoever or even a gimmick like Hawkeye’s archery). You’ve got a massive ensemble piece that explores the power dynamics between wildly different and almost inherently incompatible people. You have a story about what it means to be a hero and the meaning of sacrifice and service. The film may not be especially complicated from a plot perspective (it basically chugs around to exactly where you think it’s going to go), but thematically, Whedon hit a home run. Super hero movies whose names aren’t Watchmen (or the Christopher Nolan Batman films) are supposed to be fun, escapist fantasy, and Whedon delivers everything you’d expect from a stunning summer blockbuster, but he also fills the film with more brains, humor, and heart than any superhero film in years .

Still, all of my plaudits about Whedon’s script and his sense of humor and his encyclopedic knowledge of American pop culture would be for naught if Whedon didn’t deliver the spectacle that you’ve come to expect from your superhero movies, and to say that The Avengers is probably the most epic superhero film of all time would be the understatement of the century. There are action sequences in this film that rival some of the greatest movie battle scenes of all time. Whether we’re talking the final fight in Avatar or the Battle for Zion in Matrix Revolutions, this film’s final fights in, above, and around the streets of Manhattan has the potential to outshine them all. It was a special effects extravaganza, but with that sense of choreography and urgency that only Whedon could really deliver. There’s not a wasted explosion or a wasted second of that scene. In some way, it propels the story, speaks a little bit about the resourcefulness and strength (or weaknesses of our heroes) or just gives an excuse for Whedon to show that he was the master of intelligent action programming back in his hay day. The film has a handful of absolutely massive set-pieces and for those who grow tired of the Transformers-esque Hollywood machine of explosions with no substance, let’s just say that Whedon avoids the pitfalls of having a massive budget and wasting it on fluff. There’s a genius to these action sequences, and anyone who saw Serenity knows Whedon was going to be able to deliver.

Considering all of the negative press that Peter Jackson’s decision to film The Hobbit in 48 fps (instead of the usual 24 fps) has received as well as Christopher Nolan’s decision to put Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, I don’t think it’s a stretch that The Avengers will come to be known as the event film of 2012. Since it broke the opening weekend record (and the second weekend record) and is tied for the fastest film to ever make $1 billion, it shouldn’t suprise anyone when The Avengers winds up being one of the top three grossing films of all time (it’s been out three weeks now and is already at sixth place). For Joss Whedon fans, this is an affirmation of everything we’ve always known about our beloved hero, and while it won’t bring back prematurely canceled brilliant programs like Firefly, it does let us know that if Whedon ever decides to make another TV program in the future, maybe it will finally have the audience it needs to survive. While I almost wish that there had been a more cerebral nature to the plot, I can’t fault Whedon for trying to make the film as accessible as possible, and if this is the moment that finally catapults Whedon out of “cult” status and into the mainstream, I must tip my hat to one of my favorite pop-culture figures of the last twenty years.

Final Score: A-

For long running movie franchises, the origin story is currently in vogue. With the success achieved by Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the Batman franchise with Batman Begins as well as Paul Haggis’s gritty re-imagining of the James Bond universe with the Casino Royale prequel film, film makers realized they could breathe new life into stale and tired franchises by getting back to basics and showing where these fantastic universes came from. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, comic book films were more than happy to just drop you in the established uinverse of the comics and assume you had the requisite knowledge of the backstory to follow along. However, even the first entries in comic franchises these days, such as Iron Man or Captain America, recognize the storytelling potential of actually giving these heroes’ origins, and with that in mind, director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) decided to craft a prequel tale for the X-Men film franchise, and in the process created easily the best film in the X-Men (and potentially whole Marvel universe) franchise and the best comic book film since The Dark Knight and Watchmen.

Set primarily in 1962, at the height of U.S. and Russian tensions during the Cold War, X-Men: First Class chronicles the origins of the superhero group of mutants known as the X-Men, under the leadership of powerful telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, Atonement). Studying genetics at Oxford with his best friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone), another mutant with the ability to shapeshift, Charles finds himself drawn into an international struggle that places him smack in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Parallel (and eventually concurrent) to Charles Xavier’s story is that of Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender, Inglourious Basterds), a Holocaust survivor hunting for the Nazi scientists who conducted cruel experiments on him as a child to foster his mutant power of controlling magnetic fields. This nazi scientist is now known as Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who runs a group known as the Hellfire Club alongside fellow mutant Emma Frost (January Jones, Mad Men) who are intent on starting World War III between the U.S. and Russia to create a world where mutants can reign. As Xavier, Lensherr, and the mutants they recruit fight to save the world, a schism forms between Xavier’s peaceful approach to co-existence with humanity and Lensherr’s mutant-supremacy at any cost ideology.

In a role originally inhabited by screen legend Ian McKellan, Michael Fassbender proceeded to not just equal McKellan in the role of Magneto but to simply surpass him in all ways imaginable. To be fair to McKellan, Fassbender had a lot more to work with as this early version of Lensherr is a complex and tragic figure. The old comparison was always that Professor X was Martin Luther King and Magneto was Malcolm X. Here we get to see them in the early stages of this emerging dichotomy, and Fassbender has a lot of pain and suffering to draw from in this character. He’s a roiling pot of rage, bitterness, and revenge, and Fassbender manages to make Lensherr far more sympathetic than the occasionally naive and altruistic Xavier. James McAvoy, who will always be Mr. Tumnus from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to me, surprised me by bringing such a charismatic flair to one of comicdom’s most iconic characters. He gets to play a young Xavier, who is a slightly cocky lothario, and it’s a fun side of the subdued Professor X that we normally never get to see.

Not since The Dark Knight or Watchmen has a mainstream comic book film found such story telling heights by going to such dark places. The average super hero film is escapist fantasy, but this is an especially cynical look at the way humanity reacts to that which is different and how man’s inhumanity man can cause us to turn to the dark side. By setting the story against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vaughn uses a historical allegory as both a plot device and symbolism and it works marvelously. Also, few writers (even in the comics) have ever done such a good job at painting Magneto as this compelling of an anti-villain. It’s no spoiler that by the end of this film, Lensherr wil pit himself against Xavier and draw a line in the sand, but the film manages to ratchet up the tension by showing in heart-breaking detail exactly why Lensherr would be so afraid and untrusting of a human race that fears and despises him. In both comics and film, this is one of the finest renderings of one of the most complex villains in the history of comics.

I heartily respect the writers’ decision to inhabit this film with some less-exposed members of the X-Team. Wolverine is only found in one scene-stealing cameo, and you see nothing of Rogue, Cyclops, Storm, or Jean Grey. Instead, this X-Man line-up consists of Banshee, Havok, Darwin, Angel (not the original one but a girl), Beast, and Mystique. This gives the film a freshness and it permits the writers to throw away the continuity of the previous films and work from scratch to create a new and compelling story. The scenes between Beast and Mystique who both have to wrestle with unfortunate physical deformities because of their mutations do more to add to the development of the team dynamics than any of the love triangle between Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Wolverine did in the previous films. Similarly, there was just more of a group chemistry among these actors who weren’t established stars like the original cast so we’re allowed to identify with them more as their characters rather than as iconic actors in iconic roles.

The film was far from perfect. January Jones was terribly miscast as Emma Frost. She was wooden, and while Emma Frost is the original ice queen, Jones failed to capture any of her intelligence and strength which has made her such a powerful figure in the X-Men universe for the last 20 years. The end of the film became too focused on providing explosive action sequences (which were all uniformly awesome) instead of the meaty character development that the beginning of the film focused on. Michael Ironside should never be cast in a film even in as tiny a role as the one he receives in this film. All in all, these are small complaints about an otherwise fantastic addition to the world of superhero films that remain true to the spirit and energy of the original series (even if it plays fast and loose with continuity). Superhero films are a mixed bag because for every Iron Man or Spiderman 2, there’s a Thor or The Green Lantern. Fortunately, I can recommend this to all fans of superhero epics without the slightest hesitation. This was one of the best superhero films in years.

Final Score: A-

Kenneth Branagh.

 

Shakespeare. Most prolific British actor of his generation. Gilderoy Lockhart (for the younger audiences). These are all reasonable associations to make when you hear Kenneth Branagh’s name. No man has done more to re-invigorate interest in William Shakespeare since Laurence Olivier, and he’s truly a legend of the silver screen. So, when I heard that he was tapped to direct the film adapation of Marvel Comics’ Thor, I was immediately intrigued. While I’m not as familiar with the god of thunder as I am other members of the Marvel Universe, I knew that the rich backstory and mythology of Asgard could make for some potentially intriguing cinema if Kenneth Branagh were free to do it the right way. Well, let’s just say that Branagh should stick to Shakespeare. In a world that is post the original Iron Man/ The Dark Knight/ X-2: X-Men United/ and Spiderman 2, audiences have come to expect a little more sophistication and finesse in our comic book adaptions, and Thor failed to deliver on virtually any important front.

Rooted deeply in both ancient Norse mythology as well as modern science fiction conventions, Thor is the origin tale of the titular god of thunder. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the arrogant and powerful son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and heir to the mythical kingdom of Asgard, much to the jealousy of his brother Loki. Right as Thor is about to be coronated as the new king of Asgard, events fall into motion that lead Thor to commit a blunderous and foolish assault on the enemies of Asgard and threatens the safety of the entire realm. Odin banishes Thor to Earth and strips him of all of his powers to teach him humility. Loki uses the ensuing chaos of Thor’s banishment to try and secure the throne for himself, and Thor finds himself on Earth without his powers and must learn the true meaning of being a hero in order to gain back his magical hammer, Mjolnir, and save the kingdom of Asgard as well as Earth.

Where to begin with the faults of the film (because there are so few positives)? Well, let’s begin with the most basic element which is the story and characterization. While I respect Branagh’s desires to construct an interesting mythology and background to frame the film in, he merely sets up a skeletal shell with rushed exposition and a rare combination of technobabble and hand-waving. No one in the film (except for possibly Loki who still comes off as comically evil) has any real depth or dimensions. Thor is possibly the most flat superhero that I can think of. People often complain that Superman lacks any real depth and most of the films do terrible jobs of examining him as a character (the under-rated Superman Returns excepted), but there’s some hidden depths to be found if you actually pay attention. I examined this film trying to desperately try and find some hidden meaning in his character and it just didn’t exist. His tale of redemption is virtually unbelievable as I can’t really find one single moment in the film that would have sparked the sort of change that he suddenly and unbelievably exhibits. The heavy-handed morality of the film simply re-inforces the shallow storytelling stereotypes that unfairly exist around comic books and its incredibly unfortunate.

The wooden and unnatural Chris Hemsworth aside, this film has the making of a virtually A-list cast that it squanders on awkward dialogue and endless exposition. Natalie Portman went from the sublime Black Swan to a character who literally exists to look pretty and tame Thor. Stellan Skarsgaard is a star of the Scandinavian screen and he is reduced to explaining the Norse mythology or uttering scientific nonsense. Idris Elba (aka Stringer Bell from The Wire) is acting tour-de-force and he plays the equivalent of a human door. Not even Anthony Hopkins is given enough to work with. If you give that man crumbs, he can turn it into a feast, and he is simply starved for good material. The only surprise of the whole film was Tom Hiddleston as the villainous Loki who at least adds some gravitas to his transformation to the dark side, but he too is weighed down by the absolutely silly nature of the plot.

I could continue to pick apart other significant flaws of the film such as how in such a special effects heavy film, I felt like I was playing a high budget video game rather than a summer block-buster or how unbelievably dumb Loki’s costume is, but I’m going to stop now and simply state that there is no one I can recommend this to outside of hardcore fans of The Avengers or Thor‘s comic itself. If the character of Thor returns for The Avengers film, I am certain that Joss Whedon will be able to come up with something better for him to do than this waste of celluloid, but that’s in the future, and now, we are stuck with this dreadful excuse of superhero pageantry. It’s not well-written enough in the drama department to take itself as seriously as does (unlike The Dark Knight) and whenever it attempts humor, it falls flat on its face (unlike Iron Man). It is only saved by an occasionally evocative world in Asgard and Tom Hiddleston’s stand-out performance. Otherwise, the god of thunder doesn’t go out with a bang but rather a whimper.

Final Score: C-

 As some of you may know, this blog actually existed in an entirely different format around October/November of last year. I was reviewing films on a year-by-year basis (my goal was to finish watching all of the important films of a given year and then rank said films). I gave up on that. However, back in February, I actually restarted the blog with its current and more flexible format. Anyways, I’ve been doing this since February and up til now, I had never actually reviewed a film that I had for the original blog before. Well, I wish it was a different film that ended that streak, but as it is, I just finished re-watching the highest grossing film of all time, 2009’s Avatar, a visually breath-taking film with an entirely recycled and unoriginal plot.

Avatar is a science-fiction epic that chronicles the battle for control of the planet Pandora. It is the year 2154, and humanity has reached space and begun to mine on the planet Pandora because of its rich sources of a valuable mineral, unobtanium (I couldn’t make a dumber name up). However, Pandora has a native population of sentient beings named Na’vi that have a sacred relationship with nature and do not wish that humanity disturb their planet. Paraplegic former marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) arrives on Pandora to pilot an “avatar” which his an artificially created Na’vi which is synced with his consciousness. Jake’s mission is to gain intelligence on the Na’vi stronghold so the corporation can destroy them, but as Jake spends more and more time among the Na’vi, he must decide whether his loyalties lie with the evil company or with the peaceful natives.

I’ll start with my praise for the film. It’s easily the best looking film ever made. This movie is a technical achievement that should be praised to kingdom come. When I saw it in theaters for the first time, my jaw was on the floor the entire film. I’ve never seen such beautiful sights created by computers, and I hope that this film is an inspiration to future film-makers who may be concerned that their visions are too grand to make the screen. The actual universe and mythology of the film is also interesting, and I wish that all of the sights and characters and concepts of the film could have been placed in a movie with a more original story.

Now for the film’s myriad issues. The movie’s plot is basically what would happen if you took Pocahontas, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, and Dances with Wolves and put them in a blender set to “space” mode. There really isn’t an original bone to the film’s main story. The only originality comes in universe building. Also, the film is nearly three hours long, and as entertaining and as fun as it can be, that’s just way too long for me to be sitting and vegetating to something that’s not making me think very much. James Cameron is no Peter Jackson when it comes to crafting engaging epics. Biggest problem is the fact that the movie is full of non-stop and seemingly never ending exposition. Characters constantly engage in “as you know” speeches that just sound unnatural and insult the audience’s ability to piece things together on their own.

I appreciate the film’s attempt at a pro-environment, anti-rampant capitalism story, but it wasn’t really handled all that well. In 2009 alone, District 9 handled the “humans are bastards” theme so infinitely better than Avatar. I’ve always had such a huge problem where films that have the “noble savage” archetype feel the need to beat it over your head that they can only be saved by guilt-ridden white men. Whether or not that theme is true is besides the point. It’s a product of a very specific type of survivor guilt, and it’s intellectually condescending to native populations. I nearly forgot about the film’s ending which is predicated on a massive and literal deus ex machina. They’re literally saved from destruction by god. I thought this was science fiction.

I bitch and moan a lot about how over-rated this film is. It’s a travesty that it was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars and WON Best Picture at the Golden Globes. However, this is a fun movie. I loved pretty much every second of it the first two times I watched it. Each subsequent viewing has robbed the film of much of its magic since it loses the initial awe of the beautiful visuals and I’m stuck with the realization that the story is paper-thin. This is a great popcorn film. If you are one of the weird few who still haven’t seen it, you should give it a go. Just don’t think it’s one of the best films ever made which I still don’t understand how the film has gained this repuation.

Final Score: B

A long time ago (about 30 years ago), in a galaxy not far away at all (our own), George Lucas dropped on the world a movie that would prove (if inflation is taken into account) to be the highest grossing film ever made and would go on to spawn 5 more films, a seemingly endless series of official novel tie-ins, a bunch of video games, and more licensed merchandise than I even want to begin to think about. That movie was, of course, Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope. With just one movie, George Lucas would change not just the face of science fiction in film forever but the very nature of blockbuster films for all of eternity. The first outing isn’t necessarily as perfect as history wants it to be, and I think The Empire Strikes Back is definitely the far better film, but this film’s place in cinema history is locked and guaranteed like few others.

I wish I could say that I literally don’t know a single person who has never seen the Star Wars films but that’s not true anymore, literally as of this watching, because my roommate’s girlfriend walked into the living room while I was watching this and told me she had never seen Star Wars before. I had to pause the movie so I could pick my jaw up off the floor and let that information sink in before I continued watching it. So, if you’re like my roommate’s girlfriend and have never seen a Star Wars picture, here’s a basic plot synopsis. Young farmer Luke Skywalker gets mixed up in an intergalactic battle between the evil Empire, headed by Emperor Palpatine (not named or even mentioned in this film) and Darth Vader against the Rebellion, led by Princess Leia. Luke is introduced to the concept of the Force, a mystical energy that flows through all life in the universe and gives us our strength and power, by an old Jedi knight named Obi-Wan Kenobi. With this new found power and a rag tag group of comrades like Han Solo, a mercenary, and his Wookie Chewbacca, along with robots R2-D2 and C3PO, Luke sets off on a journey to rescue the galaxy from the Empire.

If you thought the effects in this movie would age fairly poorly for something that’s over 30 years old, you’d be wrong, and I really am incapable of comprehending why George Lucas feels the need to go back and ruin his old classics by inserting digital upgrades and new scenes and computer graphics that weren’t in the original and feel completely out of place and forced. His effects and his genius still look great now and he really should just leave his own movies alone. South Park had it right when they devoted an entire episode to skewering this particularly sad trend of his. A shout out must be given to John Williams who gives perhaps one of the most iconic scores in film history in this movie. A lot of his scores have gained an iconic status, and there’s definitely a reason for this. He is simply one of the most talented scorers in the history of cinema.

The movie is not perfect despite what some people like to claim. Mark Hamill is an absolutely atrocious actor. It has its fair share of pacing problems. The character development is pretty bone dry and a lot of the characters are, in this movie and it’s fixed with the other two, caricatures of archetypal figures in fiction. However, there are a lot of great things working for it too. Despite being the most copied and mimicked movie ever made, its story and plot still hold up as genuinely entertaining despite all of the dopplegangers out there. Alec Guinness is spectacular in his Oscar-nominated role as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Harrison Ford has never been cooler than when he’s Han Solo. C3PO and R2D2 are my favorite characters in the entire series despite the fact that R2D2 can literally only make indecipherable beeps and bloops. They just give the film the comic touch it definitely needs.

What is there left to say about Star Wars that hasn’t already been said. If these films (I’m referring to the original trilogy here, not the let’s just say less than fantastic new ones) weren’t as amazing as they truly are, the Star Wars franchise wouldn’t still be making more money in merchandise alone than whatever the biggest box office draw of the year makes in theaters. The Star Wars saga holds an absolutely special place in the hearts of countless people, and it’s really a shame that George Lucas hasn’t made a truly great film since The Empire Strikes Back. While A New Hope isn’t my favorite film in the series, it is still one of the finest science fiction epics ever made.

Final Score: A