Thursday, November 28, 2013

Breaking the Ice: FROZEN


In Frozen, family dynamics ice over an entire kingdom and the thawing process takes down some of the typical Disney formula with it. The latest Disney animated movie is an earnest and refreshingly unwinking princess story with plenty of conflict, but no easy villain, and nice romance, without the ultimate fate of any character depending upon it. It’s not a total evolution for the studio, but nor should it be. Despite some staleness, the Disney formula isn’t broken and certainly has its charms, with big-eyed storybook characters, beautifully designed and exquisitely shaded landscapes, and heartfelt schmaltzy fairy tale endings. But this new film, like Tangled, Disney’s 2010 riff on Rapunzel, takes the raw materials of an old story, this time Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen,” and injects into it a great deal of musical charm and surprising psychological depth. Tangled built its drama out of a smothering mother/daughter relationship warped by mother’s wicked witch status. With Frozen, there’s a hint of magic powers powering sisterly tensions that explodes in metaphor to be thrillingly resolved.

Jennifer Lee’s screenplay is a built on a relationship between two sisters, a dynamic rarely explored seriously, let alone allowed to power the entire plot of a major Hollywood family picture. Here, the sisters are Elsa and Anna, princesses in the kingdom of Arendell. As giggly little girls, they’re best friends, eager to play with slightly older Elsa’s magical abilities to generate and manipulate ice and snow. But a near tragedy leaves Elsa feeling shame. She remembers what happened, how she nearly caused the death of her sister with her growing powers. Her parents, understandably worried, close the gates of the kingdom and sequester Elsa, the better to keep Anna safe unaware of her sister’s capabilities. But Anna doesn’t remember her near-death experience and so reads the events as an inexplicable icing over of a beloved relationship. This is a rather nuanced and powerful exploration of sibling dynamics, and it comes to drive the conflict of the story to come.

Through a series of misunderstandings, Elsa ends up in self-imposed exile at the snowy top of a mountain and it’s up to Anna to find her and bring her back to the kingdom. Their falling out is infecting the whole kingdom, Elsa’s uncontrollable powers unwittingly sending Arendell into a permanent winter, at least until this situation is resolved. There’s a great blue, purple and white color palate to the iced over land. It gives new meaning – and good metaphoric use – to having an icy relationship with a relative. The script allows both women to grow slightly into their young adulthood, finding maturity through crisis, and learn how to love each other, magic power or not. The plot depends upon it. So does their relationship and, by extension, their kingdom.

Elsa and Anna are charmingly and expressively voiced by Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell. They imbue their roles with nuance, wit, depth of feeling, and a fine sense of sisterly tensions and affections. They have great voices, relaxed, funny, and tearful, before leaping octaves and scaling effortlessly into terrific pop ballads and Broadway numbers of the kind associated with the Disney Renaissance style of the 90s, with memorable music and lyrics by veterans of 2011’s Winnie the Pooh and Disney Channel’s Phineas & Ferb, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. Bell’s the star here, shouldering the bulk of the journey to the mountaintop and the struggle to reconcile sisterly differences and getting a few witty songs along the way. But it’s Menzel who gets the showstopper yearning ballad in which she begins the process of learning to love herself for who she is. It’s a family movie about princesses that’s all about how they get along by embracing what makes them unique and bolstering their self-confidence. What a refreshing sight.

Elsewhere in the story there’s a handsome prince (Santino Fontana) and a handsome young ice merchant (Jonathan Groff). The former starts out looking like the romantic figure, but stays behind, wishing Anna good luck on her journey, while the latter ends up helping her, tagging along as sidekick and maybe potential love interest. And, perhaps in a concession to Disney formula, Anna is joined by obligatory comic relief in the form of a big puppy dog of a reindeer and a small, funny, sentient snowman. He’s voiced by Josh Gad and gets a sort of clever little song about how much he wants to see summer. The little guy grew on me as the main characters make their journey and run into exciting complications.

The movie is a comfortable and comforting blend of Disney old and new. Directors Chris Buck (co-director of 1999’s Tarzan) and Jennifer Lee (in her directorial debut) oversee a production with sparkling fractals of visual delight, with rounded edges in the backgrounds and of the character design and giving it the best computer animated approximation of the studio’s hand-drawn house style. The music is lush and stuck in my head as I type this now, easily passing the leaving-the-theater-humming test.

Though I was enjoying the voice work, the dazzling animation, and wonderful songs, it surprised me how invested I was in the story. It’s involving enough I managed to wonder (or worry?) for a moment or two that Disney wouldn’t provide us with an uncomplicatedly happy ending. But maybe best of all is the way the conflict is built entirely out of the sister’s relationship and the villainous or romantic complications don’t ultimately factor into its creation or solution. Frozen’s commitment to making and keeping these princesses fully formed characters with a deeply felt relationship makes the film so satisfying and moving, even as it’s still a grand Disney entertainment in the best sense.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Self-defense: HOMEFRONT


If there’s one thing Breaking Bad taught us, it is to avoid injuring the pride of anyone involved in the meth business. But Jason Statham isn’t too worried about doing so in Homefront, especially when the meth-heads he’s dealing with are a skeletal Kate Bosworth and her brother, the local dealer named Gator who is played with satisfied teeth-gnashing and deep fried accent by the omnipresent James Franco. Too bad for all involved that, after Statham’s daughter (Izabela Vidovic) defends herself from Bosworth’s bully son on the playground by beating him up, the meth people won’t let the insult stand. Bosworth gets her brother to menace Statham, who is new to their small town in the backwaters of Louisiana. This leads to all manner of complications, including the revelation of Statham’s character’s undercover D.E.A. past, which is all the incentive Franco needs to call in the big guns. As it must, this means Statham is going to have to spring into action and punch people in creative and effective ways. Once he stabs a bad guy’s arm to a post and smashes a mason jar on the back of the guy’s head. Hey, you use what’s around you.

Statham has become one of our most reliable action stars, eking out an appealing B-movie career for himself. He’s now the kind of guy with tremendous affection from his core audience, who gets applause and attention simply for turning up. Even so, he’s not coasting. He’s hard at work being compelling. In a cameo in a big movie earlier this year he single-handedly made for the most exciting mid-credits teaser in a long time (and maybe ever). Something about his stubble-covered dome and virtuosic working of his smirk – from deadly serious all the way to happily serious – makes him an aerodynamic charmer, ready to leap into any conflict if it means saving himself, his mission, or those he cares about. He’s always a man with a code, and when that code breaks, duck. Unlike overly muscled action stars of the past, he’s lean and compact, like an average fit guy who can knock you senseless in no time at all.

Homefront isn’t one of his better efforts, but it’s often tense and gets the job done. The script, adapted from a book by Chuck Logan, is written by Sylvester Stallone. Yes, that Sylvester Stallone. He’s a man capable of churning out an effective actioner, even if he’s rarely cast as an everyman. Here he writes a part for his Expendables pal Statham that’s grounded in a sense of reluctant action. Here’s a guy retired from the force after a drug bust turned violent. He is called to punch, stab, scheme, and shoot his way to safety in order to keep a protected environment for his little daughter. Statham’s a guy who can do these things, but would rather not. They just leave him no choice. He’s personally insulted and assaulted, his tired slashed and cat kidnapped. That’s one thing. But threaten the safety of his daughter and watch out! It’s a clear cheap ploy for audience identification – the child-in-danger thing works every time, no matter how earned or unearned it is.

It raises the red meat knee-jerk vengeance quite well in a movie that’s frontloaded with exposition. If Stallone’s script tells you once it tells you three or four times every pertinent bit of plot information. Gator is dangerous. The town finds Statham suspicious. The sheriff (Clancy Brown) seems awfully buddy buddy with the meth operation. But for all this repetition, it’s strange to see characters drop in out of nowhere, like a gang of thugs who snarl at Statham on two separate occasions before he beats them all up, both times. Who are they? Who do they work for? Why are they angry? Where do they end up? Beats me. Same goes for the daughter’s teacher (Rachel Lefevre) who has a promising subplot dropped entirely after a couple of scenes. Other characters, like a welcome Winona Ryder who provides Franco access to a hitman, are nicely detailed, but ultimately exist to bumble the plot towards a conclusion.

It all builds to the shoot-‘em-up climax it continually foreshadows. Along the way, director Gary Fleder, who ten to fifteen years ago was a go-to guy for James Patterson and John Grisham adaptations or imitations, finds merely competent ways to make this interesting. It’s a watchable, straightforward and grungy B-movie all the way down the line, mostly worth it for Statham’s charmingly stoic loving father and the few passably exciting action beats, although there are fewer than you’d expect or like. You want to be on Statham’s side, not just for the plot’s sake, but for the sake of his persona. You just know that no matter the outcome, no matter the obstacle, even if said obstacle’s a middling thriller, Statham’s going to be okay. 

Christmas in Harlem: BLACK NATIVITY


Kasi Lemmons’ Black Nativity has an honest spirituality that can’t be faked – a compassion for mankind and desire for reconciliation that swirls up against the backdrop of Christmas Eve. It settles its musical melodrama in redemption and forgiveness that’s religious in the best sense of the word. It’s also safe to say that it’ll be the only film you’ll see that has both Langston Hughes and the Nativity story as complimentary poetic inspiration. The opening credits – overlaid with light touches of animation, scratchy frames, and high-grain photography – provided by Terence Nance, are a good introduction to the world of the film, making rough, casual, deliberately fake magic out of everyday experience. Hughes’ play Black Nativity, first performed in 1961, retold the Nativity story with an entirely black cast, filling the theater with gospel carols echoing from the rafters, bringing black history into what is traditionally, and erroneously, a white tale in western imagination. Lemmons’ film uses a production of the play as a climactic revelation, dreamlike and swirling in symbolic pasts and presents, as it unveils the necessary emotional destinations to settle her characters’ problems.

For her characters certainly have problems. They are recognizable, but done up in a broad style with emotion and theme plainly stated every step of the way. The story, thinly sketched, follows a Baltimore teenager (Jacob Latimore) whose mother (Jennifer Hudson), facing financial difficulties, sends him to spend Christmas in Harlem with her estranged parents, the grandparents he never knew he had. Once he arrives at his grandparents’ home, he finds himself staying in what he calls “a black people museum,” with a warm, loving grandmother (Angela Bassett) and stern but kind reverend grandfather (Forest Whitaker) who tells him of the importance of knowing your history. The older man proudly shows off a pocket watch given to him by none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. But the teen is uncomfortable, worried about his mother and their future together and preoccupied with what, exactly, led to his mother’s estrangement from these lovely people.

It’s a film about the new and the old, bringing the past into the present and allowing for healing of a true and deep kind. It’s a big-hearted parable that’s often deliberately symbolic, overtly making this particular family’s problems, financial difficulties and familial estrangement, stand in for larger ideas of societal neglect, paths not taken, and solutions generously offered better late than never. It’s most extraordinary sequence, a casually hallucinatory musical sermon of magical realism that floats out of a character’s mind as he falls asleep in church on Christmas Eve, blends characters from the Nativity and the modern-day storyline. A pregnant homeless teen (Grace Gibson) is at once herself and Mary. A man (Tyrese Gibson) the teen sees in jail is suddenly himself and also a man who finds the couple room to have their baby. A congregant with hair the color of a silvery star (Mary J. Blige) is an angel singing halleluiahs to a worshipful crowd. Past and present collide with dreamlike movement.

Outside of this sequence, the movie is set in a contemporary setting that is heightened by musical numbers staged with characters in isolation, rarely joined by others explicitly. They stand alone, belting their hearts out, sometimes joined by others in imagined city spaces with fantastical spotlights beaming down as they stand, arms open, in the middle of empty Harlem streets, flurries of snow mingling with chilled breath sharply photographed by Anastas N. Michos. The songs, a mix of great gospel classics and lesser original compositions by Raphael Saadiq, at times speak perhaps too literally to themes explored with clunky lyrics, but it’s so big, broad, and overtly expressive that it’s hard to resist.

After all, for these characters lost and separated from each other, it is music that joins them, an expression of purpose that will culminate, eventually, in the Black Nativity production at the Reverend’s church. There the family finds the closure they need and the ability to move forward that they’ve long denied themselves in a moving moment of public spiritual convergence. It’s a lot, a conventional and thin – preachy, even – family drama. It’s resolved easily, especially after its pile-up of contrivances and revelations. But, hey, it’s Christmas, and the movie has a song on its lips and forgiveness in its heart. It may be unrestrained, but it is imaginative, heartfelt, and has a nice spirit about it.

Love Hurts: BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR


Step away from the controversy – over extended sex scenes, over contentious working conditions behind the scenes, and over a vicious insult-trading press tour – and it’s easy to see Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color for what it really is. It’s a coming-of-age first-love story of uncommon patience and with a central performance of uncommon depth of feeling. Adèle Exarchopoulos stars as Adèle, a young girl in her late teens who is slowly discovering who she is, exploring possibilities. A disappointing short relationship with a young boy from school is unsatisfying. She’s still reeling from that when, out walking in her French hometown, she spots Emma (Léa Seydoux), her hair dyed bright blue allowing her to stick out of a crowd with ease. Adèle soon finds herself in a position of dating this bold twentysomething lesbian, a situation to which she feels far more simpatico, even if it leaves her schoolgirl pals behind, confused and maybe even a little jealous. It’s a story of first love that slowly fades over the course of a nearly three-hour runtime into a story of maturation, a trickier subject, to be sure, and something that benefits from the film’s length and comfortably languid pace.

The course of most first loves are similar, in movies and in life. The initial blushing friendship and attraction snowballs into romance, all consuming, and then, inevitably, the couple parts ways. Kechiche, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ghalia Lacroix from the graphic novel by Julie Maroh, views the details within that basic structure with a fussy naturalism, the camera bobbling ever so slightly as it keeps its characters in tight close-ups when it’s not floating along behind them, wandering through their lives in medium shots. It’s all very of the moment, shaky with a sense of discovery as these two young women drawn to each other through conversation about art and representation, philosophy and literature, life plans made and unmade, exploring new ideas and each other, body and mind. This isn’t just any love story. It is theirs. Adèle is self-conscious, something of an innocent, blushing, complaining one morning to a close friend about her sloppy fashion and slick hair. Emma, on the other hand, is confident, pursuing the relationship with a happy eye towards encouraging her girlfriend’s sense of excitement and discovery.

What’s remarkable about the film is hardly the filmmaking, which has all the standard at-a-remove-but-not-impartial deliberateness of the typical European melodrama, slickly restrained and tasteful, except when it comes to shamelessly appreciating the female form. Nor is it the screenplay, which has some nuance, overtly thematic conversations aside, and a generosity of length and incident, but accumulates details, like a homophobic face-off on a high school blacktop, that nod in directions it’s otherwise uninterested in exploring, and features a scene in a gay bar filled with comically exaggerated lesbian caricatures, our leads excepted. No, what’s remarkable is the lead performances, two feats of warm-hearted precision acting from two young women with wide-open expressive faces, totally unselfconscious in their every movement and gesture.

Seydoux has a nicely controlled sense of coiled energy that radiates upward out of her shock of blue hair. She’s appealingly unpredictable and yet, at the same time, a seemingly safe first love. But it’s Exarchopoulos who steals the show here, as well she should given her protagonist is on screen in practically each and every second of the runtime. She’s delivering an extraordinarily empathetic and fully felt performance, physical and emotional at once at all times. Her character is a girl of huge appetites, reading large novels lost in their worlds of words, slurping down her meals with explicit and exuberantly sloppy chewing, crying with tears and snot clumping up on her smooth cheeks, and, yes, having sex with intensity and passion in sequences that last exactly as long as they need to and then a few minutes more.

What could be standard coming-of-age doodling is elevated through these deeply felt and wholly convincing performances that play off of each other with natural complexity and ease. The directing and the writing wisely give over all the time and attention to allowing these women the space to breathe and grow and change without much in the way of embellishment or exaggeration. Because the camera sticks so close to Adèle for so long and through so much, the film accumulates a sense of her personhood that feels uncommonly fully formed. In the days since I saw the film, I’ve found myself wondering about the characters as I do people I know. I wonder what they’re up to now. I wonder if they’ve found their place. I wonder if they’ve become who they want to be. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Project DCOM #9: SMART HOUSE


An unreconciled tension of recent years is between the creepy intrusiveness and phenomenal convenience of our technology. From social media to smart phones to the burgeoning concept of "the internet of things," we're increasingly willing to ignore the vast amount of data and privacy we're sacrificing all in the name of having convenience and efficiencies we never knew we needed. I certainly don't exempt myself from this equation, seeing as I'm typing this on an Apple computer with Microsoft Word and posting these thoughts online under my own name for all to Google. It's a concept that we're just now wrestling with, but this tension of intrusive convenience as it relates to modern lives had an early, perhaps partially accidental, dramatization in Smart House, a 1999 Disney Channel Original Movie directed by none other than beloved TV actor LeVar Reading Rainbow, Roots, Star Trek: The Next Generation Burton?

Sci-fi as a genre has made much of these themes for decades, but surely Smart House is one of the first to get at the unthinking speed with which the average person will dismiss concerns about new technology when confronted with unimagined innovation promising comprehensive convenience. The Coopers, a single father (Kevin Kliner) with two kids, Ben (Ryan Merriman) and Angie (Katie Volding, also the little sister in Brink!), win a contest to live in "Smart House." The scientist (Jessica Steen) who heads the project gives them the grand tour of the features. The house comes outfitted with PAT, a personal applied technology that will learn about the inhabitants and adjust settings to their liking. It can ascertain your entire medical history with a drop of blood and chart your diet with built in breathalyzers. There are video screens for walls, self-vacuuming floors, and a kitchen that cooks for you, all run through an artificial intelligence that interacts with a chipper, maternal voice (Katey Sagal, the same year she started playing Leela on Futurama). Take that, Siri. The father's first reaction is to mention that it all seems a little creepy. But by the next scene they're moving in.

This is undeniably a goofy techno-paranoia parable with a distinctly late-90's vision of the future of high tech. There's a lot of obvious green screen work, fakey CG effects, and computer displays that can do just about anything with a handful of clattering keystrokes. An example of the movie's uniquely late-90's perspective happens early on when the scientist calls the winning family, but gets a busy signal because the son is still online, hogging the phone line, having fallen asleep while repeatedly entering the contest. But for all the silly surface detail, the movie isn't interested in exploring the smart house as much as it is using the house as a means of the son working out trauma over the death of his mother a few years before the movie's start.

It's quickly apparent that the boy is jealously guarding his family's status quo, working overtime to make sure he gets his sister doing her homework and dinner is on the table by the time dad gets home. An early scene shows him answering the phone, hearing a prospective date for his father on the other end of the line, and then purposely not passing the message along. When questioned, he tells his father that she didn't sound like his type anyway. He's living with a fear that his dad will invite a new mom into their lives. But he can't even bring himself to imagine the possibility when the empty space left by his mother's death still looms so large in his psyche. A sentimental scene midway through the picture finds the boy watching a home video of his mom that the house has helpfully projected on his bedroom wall. As tears run down his face, the sounds of his mother singing fill the room. It's a blunt force blow to the emotions, manipulative and effective.

Smart House is at its best when it’s poking around in this emotional rawness, or simply relaxing into simple teen anxieties as filtered through their techno-domicile. The dad, who is sweet on the scientist who in turn has eyes for him, invites her over for dinner as part of a nicely underplayed romantic subplot. Dinner conversation is largely about the house. "Does she follow me into the shower, too?" the boy nervously asks. Upon hearing the answer is no, he sighs, "That's a relief!" It's a small, funny touch of embarrassment that rings somewhat truthful of actual adolescent experience. That his character's anxieties about burgeoning changes - along with the aforementioned lingering mourning - lead directly to the main technological breakdown of the house is a nice touch in otherwise simple script by William Hudson and Stu Krieger (the latter also wrote Zenon). The son's the one who uploads a data dump of sitcom moms into the house's code, leading her to turn eventually into a cheery simulacrum of maternity, a monstrously exaggerated mother who turns quippy, overzealous, and eventually a hostage taker. "Mother knows best!" she happily roars, materializing as a 50's housewife of a hologram in the living room.

The movie's basically a cheesy mild sci-fi goof, like a motherly HAL 9000 crashing into a soft, amiable pre-teen sitcom. For every scene that gets near emotional truths it pivots into, say, an overly choreographed house party complete with pounding pop provided by an 'N Sync sound-alike band. (A total late-90's touch is the way teens show up to the party with their invitation emails printed out.) The way the plot eventually resolves its tensions is easy and almost hilarious in its deflating nature. The movie has neither the budget nor inclination to truly wrestle with its interests be they technical or emotional. It may accidentally end up saying that technology solves all and provides all, except when it comes to humans’ emotional needs. It’s an accidentally perceptive kids’ movie in which the main conflict is about a boy’s emotional development and the silly tech traumas only follow.

Up next: Johnny Tsunami

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Baby Daddy: DELIVERY MAN


There’s something sneakily warm, humane, and even a little moving at the center of Delivery Man, a cluttered, sickly sweet, and not particularly funny comedy that’s almost impossible to recommend without piling on caveats and disclaimers. It stars Vince Vaughn as one of his usual responsibility-resistant motormouths, this time a guy who is nearly fired by his father from the family business, crushed under a debt of thousands he owes some shady characters, and all-but-dumped by his exasperated girlfriend. On top of all this, he’s tracked down by an attorney who tells him the sperm bank to which he donated over 600 times over 20 years ago mistakenly overworked his samples and now 533 young people would like him to drop his anonymity and meet them. In fact, they’re suing him to do so. What a predicament. With such a strained comic premise, the film has to work hard to back into its gooey sentimentality, but earns some unexpected charm along the way.

What I liked best about the film was the diversity of children Vaughn’s character suddenly discovers he fathered in scenes that play well with what the characters know or don't know about the situation. We find out about the kids as he does, impulsively picking them one by one out of a case file his lawyer (likably played by Parks & Recreation’s Chris Pratt) advises him not to open. If he didn’t want him to open it, why does he give him a copy? But I digress. Vaughn approaches them one at a time, acting only as a stranger to them. He discovers his secret children are a varied bunch: a struggling actor, a professional basketball player, an amiable drunk college kid, a busker, a drug addict, a historical reenactor, a special needs child, and more. These young people in their teens and twenties have only their unknown father in common. Some he’s immediately proud of. Others he feels the need to help. Still others, he’s disappointed when confronted with their life situations. But the sneakily humane and moving part is the way he’s instantly and totally struck with deep fatherly love for them, proud of them simply for existing.

Andrew Solomon’s recent extraordinary book Far from the Tree powerfully explores the concept of parents truly, deeply, fully loving children who are not what they would expect or have hoped for in a variety of difficult situations. I never would’ve guessed that an otherwise silly and misshapen trifle like Delivery Man would rub up against the same nerve as this great book, but so it does. When Vaughn tells his lawyer that he wants to be their guardian angel, it’s sweet. The concept may be wildly impractical – who could possibly be a real present father to over 500 kids, most of whom are already legally adults? – but the core sentiment rings with some degree of authenticity about finding and accepting one’s family and all the diversity of experiences that can encompass.

Would that the film devoted less time to financial thugs who show up precisely twice to threaten Vaughn to pay up. Who are they? Where do they come from? Why did they lend him money? Who knows? The movie cares not a bit about the answer, failing to characterize the threat even a token amount. Similarly, there’s an unfortunate detour involving one of Vaughn’s mystery kids who learns his father’s identity and attempts to extort some father-son bonding time. These two malnourished subplots load down the film with unnecessary clutter, distracting from the emotional journey that Vaughn would go through far more convincingly and poignantly without such contrivances.

In addition to the unfocused plotting, supporting roles are universally anemic, especially poor Cobie Smulders in the thankless girlfriend role that’s only around for the super schmaltzy but kind of effective emotional climax. Such problems come with the material, which Canadian writer-director Ken Scott is recycling from his own 2011 French-language film Starbuck. It’s too bad the process of remaking his own film didn’t allow him to clear away the tangle of distracting subplots that gathers up around the nice emotional center or write in some better jokes. The film is sweet and soft. But what makes it such a nagging disappointment is the missed opportunities. Instead of devoting time to that debt or extortion sidetracks, why not nod to the mothers of all these children, who are conspicuously missing entirely from the equation. What do they have to say about all this? In the end, it’s so focused on ending with a feel-good group hug of an ending, it’s hard not to feel at least a little cheated by how sloppily we got there.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Capitol Strikes Back: HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE


It’s always a pleasant surprise to see a sequel not only learn from the mistakes of its predecessor, but to move forward exploring the aftermath of its initial narrative. In the case of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire it is a modest improvement, but improvement nonetheless. I suppose when you make nearly $700 million dollars worldwide, you can afford an upgrade in the scale and believability of your special effects. But more than that, director Francis Lawrence, taking over for Gary Ross, brings a clarity of vision and the script – adapted this time by Simon Beaufoy and Michael DeBruyn – finds a leaner and tougher approach to plunging us into the tangle of potent sociopolitical allegory. The filmmakers have, of course, the novel by Suzanne Collins to work from, but the film’s sequel represents a step up in quality, something not represented in the books. I get the feeling that the ideal director for this material would be the violent satiric Paul Verhoeven of Robocop or Starship Troopers, but Lawrence, having directed Constantine and I am Legend, is no stranger to character based spectacle. He gets the details and surface excitement right and the adaptation keeps character and politics balanced.

When we last saw The Hunger Games, an annual children’s fight-to-the-death put on by the Capitol to keep the 12 Districts of dystopian future nation Panem in line, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) became unprecedented double-victors. They managed to finagle a fake love story for the Capitol’s cameras that caused a rule change when the gamemaster balked at televising the Games’ first double suicide conclusion. Catching Fire picks up as Katniss and Peeta are sent on a victory tour in advance of the next year’s Games, a tour that ignites tremors of rebellion throughout the country. News of the Capitol’s loosening grasp, as represented by these two kids who beat the system, only brings down the violence of the state all the harder. Because Lawrence (the director, not the star, no relation) holds the camera steady as the screenplay allows the film to let the mournful anguished aftermath of the first to linger, it’s impactful in its stillness.

Transparently evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) feels so threatened by these victors, he commissions a new gamemaster (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to devise a set of rules for the upcoming Hunger Games that’ll leave the Districts shaking and complacent with fear once again. These two actors spend their screen time chewing over every evil growl as they scheme a way to eliminate Katniss from the situation. So it’s back to the arena again, only this time the tributes competing are not kids, but former champions, some still young, like our heroes, others elderly, unfairly thrust back into the battle. Katniss and Peeta, plagued by guilt and post-traumatic stress dreams, are forced to fight once more. But now the Captiol’s men behind the curtain seem determined to kill them all. The arena – with its man-eating monkeys, poison fog, and other disasters that make for good CGI spectacle – is as deadly as the competitors, who feel betrayed by the society that’s coddled them in the years since their victories. It’s a volatile situation, vibrantly dramatized in a sequel that’s unafraid to complicate its premise and slowly radicalize its characters.

The first film was about a girl learning to game an unfair system to survive. The sequel is a film about how she responds to finding herself an accidental symbol of burgeoning revolt. She agrees with the ideas she has come to represent, but can’t figure out how to best position herself (if at all) as the savior the people crave. Lawrence (the star, not the director, no relation) lets us see her fear and resolve as she feels her way towards becoming the rebellion she represents. She doesn’t want to hurt those she loves, like her sister (Willow Shields) and best friend (Liam Hemsworth), but as the Capitol conspires to restrict her choices, she’s left with only her own resilience to guide her as she must decide who to trust.

Woody Harrelson, as a drunken mentor, Elizabeth Banks, as a flibbertigibbet slowly growing a conscience, Lenny Kravitz, as a charitable designer, and Stanley Tucci, as a teeth-flashing talk show host, reprise their roles. New to the scene are Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as techie middle-aged tributes, Sam Clafin, as a handsome young tribute who may be an ally, and Jena Malone as an entirely fearless tribute furious about her situation and ready to tear down the Capitol on live broadcast if possible. It’s a whole lot of character and situation storming about the film, but because the world of Panem has ever so slightly grown more complicated it can more than accommodate the additional interest.

It becomes, at times, a fairly moving picture of resistance and defiance in the face of sickly opulent fascism that’s willing to put the underclasses to work and, when they won’t, put them down. The metaphor of sociopolitical traps – have-nots violently encouraged to submit to the haves – is potent, as is its mass mindless entertainment as purposeful distraction of serious injustice. Like its predecessor, Catching Fire largely separates its ideas and its action, forcing the audience to think and feel through an hour of politics and satire sitting tantalizingly on the surface, before plunging into crisp, relentless action and danger in the back half. The bifurcation works, loading up the back half with busy thrills after slowly pulling tension out of scenes in which some of our finest character actors in sometimes silly costumes say serious and goofy things surrounded by spare sci-fi future chic.

It’s all anchored so strongly in Katniss, her journey, and her determination that it doesn’t get lost in the precision campiness of the Capitol, the constant – and coherently photographed – action of the Games or the sometimes misshapen narrative. For in true middle-chapter franchise fashion, Catching Fire, for all its melodrama and movement, doesn’t begin or conclude. It starts in the aftermath of the first and ends by excitingly trumpeting into a cliffhanger teasing more story to come. But it has enough surprises along the way that it doesn’t feel like a cheat so much as the exciting promise of escalation to come. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Die Another Day: DALLAS BUYERS CLUB


Far and away the best reason to see Dallas Buyers Club is Matthew McConaughey. His acting has been the best it’s ever been these last 18 months. He’s an actor of range and talent his early typecasting had done much to hide. After his Dazed and Confused early breakout performance and toiling in roles as idealistic young lawyers (A Time To Kill, Amistad), he became a star on the back of leading shallow shirtless lunkhead roles in increasingly exasperating comedies. But now, after his wide range of interesting supporting roles as of late, he’s grown into a career that’s varied, fascinating, and consistently excellent. With roles as a small-town prosecutor in Bernie, a sleazy hitman in Killer Joe, a strip club proprietor in Magic Mike, a fugitive in Mud, and reporter in The Paperboy, he made great movies (the first three) and less than good movies (the latter two) better for his being there. He went from a name that was no added value to a film’s promotion to a name that causes my attention to perk up when I see it in the cast of an upcoming project.

In Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof a hard-drinking horndog who spends his time gambling and carousing when he’s not picking up day labor as an electrician to supplement his rodeo income. But he’s clearly ill, gaunt, sickly skeletal. McConaughey inhabits this diseased frame with painfully thin confidence, his swagger and charisma shining through so strongly I was afraid all the more that he’d break right in front of our eyes. The soundtrack picks up some high-frequency whines as he winces, overcome with pain as he squints and hopes it’ll pass quickly. It’s after a workplace accident that his blood happens to be drawn and flagged for further testing. The doctors (Jennifer Garner and Denis O’Hare) bring him the sad results: he has HIV. It’s the 1980s and HIV/AIDS is a mystery disease and treatment is fragmentary and rare. It’s widely assumed to be a disease affecting only gay people, so Woodroof, faced with a death sentence, reacts in a homophobic huff. It’s a mistake, he says, storming out of the building.

But what if it’s not a mistake? That’s the question that haunts Woodroof as he comes to accept the diagnosis. Told the best the hospital can do is offer him a spot in a clinical trial that may or may not help him, he researches treatment options, finding useful supplements that are unavailable in the States. The Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved these apparently helpful substances, so Woodroof sets out to get some, figuring he might as well help his fellow HIV/AIDS patients in the process. Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s screenplay relays the events as a sort of big-pharma medical heist story with a libertarian anti-FDA bent, smuggling meds through a loophole and getting them to those in need. Woodroof sets up a Buyers Club, selling memberships that entitle dues-paying customers as much medicine as they need. By not charging for the unapproved chemicals directly, he’s able to avoid directly breaking the law.

It’s the story of a man outliving his initial 30-day diagnosis, an angry prejudiced man thrown by circumstance into a culture he barely knows and doesn’t understand, but is initially certain he hates anyway. An early scene, shortly after his diagnosis sent gay slurs flying off his tongue in denial, finds his friends shunning him, spitting those same slurs back at him. He’s clearly crushed by this betrayal and that association, but soon his hospital roommate, a transgender man named Rayon (Jared Leto), becomes his business partner and friend. They have a fun and unlikely buddy chemistry that feeds into the film’s heist-like patter, even though their gaunt appearances and oft-ragged voices are clear indications that no matter the good they do, the end to their stories won’t be a cure. Even as they get these goods around the law, the FDA is sniffing around, circling, looking for a reason to shut their operation down. It’s about perseverance in a fight between bureaucracy and urgency, between funereal paranoia and hope.

The screenplay leans on speechifying and easy lessons, but has performances so electric that there’s a sense of liveliness to it all. Director Jean-Marc Vallée is hardly a subtle director. Why, the opening scene cross cuts a distractedly shot sex scene with a panting horse nearly throwing a rider in the rodeo, as if to make completely sure even the least observant audience member immediately gets the metaphor for risky behavior as HIV danger. There’s no room for subtlety here with filmmaking that’s largely only functional. But Vallée trusts his actors to put across this material, letting them express complexities of emotions in scenes that give them full attention. McConaughey runs away with the film with his frighteningly wiry intensity, balancing charm and disreputability, acting circles around Leto’s impressive-in-its-own-way look-ma-I’m-acting roller coaster of laughing, crying, flirting, and coughing.

It’s a film that’s largely a safe, solid, moralizing based-on-a-true-story message movie with plentiful generic uplift and triumph-in-the-face-of-adversity good feelings. But the acting is so strong, from McConaughey especially, that the performers manage to make it worthwhile. It might’ve seemed irredeemably phony if it were not for such a solid lead performance holding the whole thing together. If you want a more comprehensive, deeply felt, fully contextualized look at the 1980’s fight against the AIDS virus and those who would deny full opportunities for help, I’ll point you to last year’s excellent documentary How to Survive a Plague. But if you want to get a glimpse at the subject while appreciating yet again why McConaughey has become one of our most reliably excellent actors, here’s your chance. He sells everything down to the smallest moments, making subtlely out of broadness. I particularly like a scene in which he accompanies Rayon to a gay bar looking to recruit new Buyers Club members. He silently gives beefcake photos on the wall the side-eye, as if to suggest a man who is almost, but not quite, willing to loosen his bigotry in order to help his fellow man.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Project DCOM #8: THE THIRTEENTH YEAR


I'm a sucker for stories that use sci-fi/fantasy transformations as a metaphor for puberty. Not indiscriminately, mind you. I'm not a fan of, say, Michael J. Fox’s Teen Wolf, or worse still, Jason Bateman’s Teen Wolf Too, but generally speaking the gimmick has a rewarding way of getting at the emotional and physical anxieties of adolescence in an appealing way. In the case of the Disney Channel Original Movie The Thirteenth Year, a 13-year-old boy is suddenly generating low levels of electricity, dreaming of swimming underwater without a need to come up for air, and finding his hands inexplicably sticky and developing scales when in contact with moisture. In case you didn't guess from that list of symptoms - and I'm reasonably certain WebMd couldn't help you there - he's turning into a mermaid. Sorry, merman.

Knowing he was adopted heightens his sense of being different. The kid goes to his parents (Lisa Stahl and Dave Coulier, everyone's least favorite Full House uncle) and asks to find his birth mother. They tell him that they found him on their boat and, though they turned him in to the authorities right away, no one ever claimed him so they got to keep him. Who knew that finding a baby is no different than finding, say, 20 bucks on the ground? Finder’s keepers. Maybe it's maritime law. (Ask Barry Zuckerkorn about that one.) Anyway, what none of them know is that the infant was put on the boat by a mermaid eluding capture by a mildly crazy fisherman (Brent Briscoe). In the eye-rolling opening scene, the man fires up the boat chasing the large shape on his fish-finder sonar (really) and shouts "If I didn't know better, I'd say this fish was half human!"

Most of Jenny Arata, Robert L. Baird, and Kelly Senecal’s script for The Thirteenth Year is given over to the slow discovery of the boy's mermaid (sorry, merman) powers as they grow stronger and more frequent. To the movie's credit, there's not a whole lot of struggle here aside from mildly heightened adolescent angst. It's most enjoyable aspect is how small and pokey it is as it ambles along. It's about a boy who finds out that his true identity is as a sea-creature of legend, but the biggest worries he (or anyone, really) has are that the girl who is sweet on him won't like him anymore and that he won't be able to participate in the big upcoming swim meet on account of the fins he'd grow once dunked in the water. A better movie might've found a way to more convincingly tie in magical angst with such humdrum concerns, but there's a certain amount of refreshment to find in such a quiet change of pace.

The director here is Duwayne Dunham, last seen bringing us Halloweentown, another discover-your-true-magical-identity DCOM. Again, he gets nice small performances out of the kids in the cast. From Chez Starbuck (what a name!) in the lead, who overcomes some odd line readings to build up a moderately affecting performance, to Courtnee Draper (at the time a lead in the Disney Channel sitcom The Jersey) as the girl who has a crush on him. I liked how her character knows what she wants and goes after him, sweetly but forcefully making the first move at every turn. That's a nice change of pace. The adults in the cast don't make much of an impact, but at least they aren't relentlessly mugging for the camera. Even the fisherman from the opening - revealed to be the father of one of the kid's classmates and ever more obsessed with mermaids in the intervening years - stays relatively low-key, threatening to grow into a villain before mellowing out in the movie's little burst of climactic action.

Perhaps most notable is the film's nice seaside palate, which feels slightly more expansive than the usual DCOM fare. The director of photography, I was somewhat surprised to see, was Michael Slovis, who also worked on Halloweentown. Just ten years after the making of this TV-movie he became a key behind-the-scenes player on Breaking Bad, helping make that show one of the more gorgeously cinematic - and expansive in its orientation in the middle of New Mexico's vast landscapes - TV productions I've ever seen.  But maybe you could tell by the way this review keeps veering off into asides about other bits of pop culture, that there's only so much of interest in The Thirteenth Year, which is nice enough and has a good premise, but is basically just the most middle-of-the-road presentation that premise could've gotten.

Up next: Smart House

Friday, November 15, 2013

All They Want For Christmas: THE BEST MAN HOLIDAY


Even if you didn’t know Malcolm D. Lee’s The Best Man Holiday is a sequel to his 1999 ensemble comedy The Best Man, the sense of camaraderie and friendship in the cast would stand out. The first film was about a group of college friends reuniting, reconnecting, and reenacting old tensions and jealousies at the wedding of one of their own. This time, they’re reuniting for a Christmas celebration. One gets the sense that, though they’ve kept in touch, this is really the first time in 14 years that the whole group of them will be spending time together. They’ve got some catching up to do. Time allows Lee the opportunity to make a rare sequel that’s interested in how its characters have developed as people instead of simply recreating situations of the past.

Here, the bride (Monica Calhoun) and groom (Morris Chestnut) of the first film are happily married with a number of adorable small children. He’s become a star player for the New York Giants, a position that’s made him wealthy and famous. It’s they who invite the group to spend the holiday week at their mansion, remembering old times and making new memories. It’s a movie that leans on a sense of shared history that the entire ensemble sells wonderfully. The cast has relaxed comfort with each other, allowing their characters to find the easy rhythms, gentle needling, and still-simmering tensions that any group of old friends would have.

On the guest list for the holidays are a writer (Taye Diggs) and his pregnant wife (Sanaa Lathan), a TV news producer (Nia Long) and her new boyfriend (Eddie Cibrian), an education non-profit entrepreneur (Harold Perrineau) and his wife (Regina Hall), an unpredictable Real Housewife (Melissa De Sousa), and a rascal of a brand manager (Terrence Howard). They aren’t the struggling young adults they were all those years ago. Now, they have piles of bills, professional obstacles, children, and all manner of fully-grown obligations. Placing these characters in a big house and allow them to clash and connect in a variety of ways makes for good comedy and good drama. Lee’s screenplay is a silky smooth blend of gentle laughs, soft melodrama, and easy emotion, featuring nice moments big and small for each and every member of the cast.

As if aware that the holidays can be a hectic time, the movie figures it may as well reward Christmastime viewers with a little bit of everything. To suggest the overabundance of plot here, I’ll tell you that Chestnut is nearing retirement, and the rushing yards record, and Diggs, recently laid off from a gig teaching English and with a baby on the way, is desperate to sell a new book. Perrineau has just learned a big donor won’t be contributing his annual $2 million, an awful shortfall for a nonprofit. Long thinks her boyfriend’s Christmas gift to her just might be a proposal, De Sousa is starting to suspect her reality show stardom is interfering with her parenting skills or lack thereof, Lathan’s worried about her long-awaited pregnancy, and Howard just wants to crack jokes, drink, and slink away between rounds of pool and beers to sext in peace.

Add to that Lee’s commitment to tracing the still-lingering impact of events and revelations of the first film – past affairs, current hookups, and a certain semi-autobiographical novel that ruffled the ensemble’s feathers – and it’s clear the movie has a lot of ground to cover and subplots to juggle. The farcical setup gives way to enough meaningful life moments piling up in the back half that it could’ve powered a half-dozen Very Special Episodes of any given sitcom. It’s all too much, but somehow works anyway.

The supremely likable cast is full of talents who have aged into a greater sense of ease and comfort in their screen presences and with their scene partners. There’s affection radiating every which way on screen between characters and their performers that can’t help but drift out over the audience. It’s easy to enjoy their company. The conversations they have occasionally grow repetitive, but are always open to unexpected, sometimes R-rated, detours that even when they aren’t working are at least something. Even as the pleasant, undemanding, easygoing movie drifts into territory overwhelmingly overtly sentimental and tear jerking, the relaxed attitudes and easy banter only makes the sudden tough emotion crackle all the more.

There’s a striking moment in which Calhoun is struck by a sudden burst of emotion, moved beyond words, listening to two cute kids singing a Christmas hymn. The camera holds a medium shot as she leans closer, looms larger, her eyes wet, her lips forming the lyrics to softly sing along. In one little moment, the film communicates so much the importance of spending time with loved ones and the value of holiday tradition, it’s excusable that the overstuffed film rambles through so many big moments. It’s comically overflowing with incident by the end, but it doesn’t short change the characters or what they mean to each other.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Project DCOM #7: CAN OF WORMS


The best thing about Can of Worms, Disney Channel's April 1999 original movie, is its collection of alien creatures. Provided by the Jim Henson company, these creatures are the kinds of aliens-on-a-budget creativity that could only come with resourceful puppetry (and some discount CGI, by the looks of it). My favorite was a glop of green goo that warps in through a wormhole that looks like a floating pipe (Mario style) and gets slime all over a poor boy's desk while gobbling up everything in sight. He has big blinking eyes set in a scrunched-up glob of a mouth that almost - but not quite - looks like the shape of the fingers so clearly sitting behind, operating its face. I suppose it's inevitable that the slimy guy is a lawyer. Not even kids films are free of that career's stereotypes.

Why is an extraterrestrial lawyer warping into a kid's bedroom? For that matter, what brings a galactic caseworker that looks like talking dog (with the voice of Malcolm McDowell, no less) and a loudmouth alien promotional agent (he's all leg and mouth, but for the stalks his eyes sit on) after the kid as well? It's all about the opening scene that finds Michael Pillsbury (Michael Shulman), a creative boy distraught from typical young teen problems, commandeering the family satellite dish to fire off a message into outer space. He's an alien trapped in a hostile environment, he furiously types, hitting send at the same moment the dish is struck by lightening that zaps its signal out across the universe. Thus, the creatures who think they’re saving him. Oops.

His imagined isolation brings real fantastical consequences as he's taken at his word by a host of beings who want to either help or exploit him, sometimes both. This fun concept, scripted by Kathy Mackel from her book of the same name, is mostly wasted, though. The intriguing opening is followed by a flashback to two weeks before, allowing us to see what made the boy so upset. It turns out to be not all that interesting, a collection of typical plot beats. There's his crush on a cheerleader (Erika Christensen, who would appear the next year in Steven Soderbergh’s ensemble drama Traffic), hurts from a bully (Marcus Turner), and conscription into playing football enforced by his father (Garrett M. Brown). This is all rather lamely presented, his feelings of being an outlier forcefully underlined by scenes of the kid telling his own original sci-fi story to an adoring younger neighbor (Andrew Ducote). That his story simply happens to be the last days of Krypton by another name goes curiously unnoticed by the geek next door.

The movie's various elements don't sit well together. All of this human-scale dramedy threatens to turn into a dull teen message movie, but occasionally sparks to life with a funny line or two. I particularly liked the kid's mother (Lee Garlington) admonishing his pesty little sister (Brighton Hertford), saying "Jill! What did we say about empathy?" But by the time the aliens, most welcome though they are, finally show up to besiege and bother our lead character, it feels almost too much for the gentle and small dramas playing out simple and rote in an every-day setting. It's a good concept that plays out a little less satisfyingly than you might think, unlike director Paul Schneider’s previous DCOM, You Lucky Dog, which was a bad concept that plays out a little better than you might think. In neither case is that as good or bad as it might sound.

Can of Worms is most entertaining in two brief bursts, once on purpose, and one an accident of its time. The latter comes near the beginning in a prime bit of late-late-20th century computer silliness. The lead is picked on in his computer class in an early representation of what we'd now call cyberbullying, I suppose. Here, he and bully tease each other with elaborately programmed tame jabs that pop up on all the screens in the computer lab at once. This is accomplished with floppy disks, precocious networking skills, and a dose of magical thinking. The intentional burst of entertainment comes in the last-minute conflict that finds some of the Earth kids warped into a creepily tactile otherworldly zoo. It's surprising how genuinely off-putting it manages to be through nothing more than a strange use of silence and fog machines. That most of the movie is not so entertaining, accidentally or otherwise, is just too bad.


Friday, November 8, 2013

Hammer of Justice: THOR: THE DARK WORLD


Thor is an outlier in these interlocking Avengers franchises. He’s not a character who invents, like Iron Man, or is given, like Captain America, or is accidentally imbued, like the Hulk, with his powers. He may be supernaturally strong, wields a mighty hammer, and can fly, but that doesn’t make him just your average superhero. He was born that way. The first Thor movie was a funny little thing, part fish-out-of-water comedy with the title character stuck on Earth, part swooshing pseudo-Shakespearean drama back at his home where Norse Gods are stomping around their extraterrestrial kingdom of Asgard. It’s a film of bleeping sci-fi gewgaws and a glowing intergalactic rainbow bridge, a strange mix to be sure, but it’s precisely what I found so endearing about it. After all, it’s not everyday you see a superhero movie that’s modestly scaled, yet still ends with a robot terrorizing a one-stoplight New Mexico town and two God-like brothers punching each other atop a multicolor interdimensional portal.

Now the sequel, Thor: The Dark World, picking up the characters from the first film after the events of the crossover event that was The Avengers, is an across the board improvement, doubling down on the arch genre-bending of its predecessor and finding a winning groove by amplifying its every disparate aspect. It’s a fast-paced action adventure spectacle bubbling with unexpected wit and finding great pleasure in smashing its shiny toys together into one exciting jumble. Quipping sci-fi scientists like straight out of a Jack Kirby comic get swept up into an outer space conflict that has a visual style of Frank Frazetta fantasy and Ralph McQuarrie space opera. It’s all rippling muscles, flowing capes, gleaming weapons, and shiny mechanical detail. On Earth, love-struck scientist Natalie Portman is investigating, with her comic relief colleagues Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgård, and Jonathan Howard, strange gravitational disturbances when her boyfriend Thor (Chris Hemsworth) at long last reappears. With his glowing blonde locks and strapping physique, he spirits her to his homeworld, having sensed that she’s become infected with the film’s MacGuffin. It exists simply to propel all the characters into action either defending or upending the known universes.

The villains want the glop that’s wormed its way into her veins. They’re Dark Elves, who look like they’ve wandered in out of a Guillermo del Toro notebook or a well-financed Lord of the Rings cosplay club. Thought long extinct, they’ve been hibernating in an H.R. Giger-style spaceship for 5,000 years awaiting the convergence of the Nine Realms. That’s when their leader (Christopher Eccleston) knows it is the best time to unleash spindly clouds of evil red dust upon the denizens of the universes. Meanwhile, Anthony Hopkin’s Odin, king of Asgard and father of Thor, glowers ominously as he consults ancient manuscripts. He gravely informs his allies that he knows of no way to stop the Elves. Thor suspects his disgraced brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) might be able to help, despite all warnings that he’s been the villain in two of these movies already and thus locked up in the castle’s dungeon. How can he possibly be trusted? The film manages to add contentious buddy action comedy to its long list of genre influences as Thor and Loki bristle and snipe at each other, reluctantly helping or betraying the other as the film moves along.

Rich visual splendor makes the film stand out, its aesthetic influences synthesized into something that manages to largely skirt camp on its way to gloriously serious silliness. I love the way the fanciful designs make it look like a cast of pseudo-futuristic Ancient Romans with swords, shields, spears, and ray guns is holding court in a space castle. Taking the director’s chair is Alan Taylor, a longtime TV director who has recently done great work on HBO’s fantasy series Game of Thrones. He fills the screen with the best special effects and production design Marvel Studios has to offer. With them and within it he stages spectacular action setpieces, some of the best this whole Avengers behemoth has managed in any of the various films and franchises. Because they’re done up in fantastically gripping and wonderfully silly ways, with characters who sparkle with delightful up-tempo chemistry the whole way through, it manages to avoid collapsing into yet another superhero-whaling-on-a-giant-alien-contraption climax. It’s fun and funny, playing with its fantasy rules and sci-fi conceits in exuberant and at times unexpected ways.

The screenplay credited to Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely (with additional story credit to Don Payne and Robert Rodat) bristles with slam-bang setpieces: epic battles, one-on-one slugfests, shootouts, dogfights, and swooshing disruptions of time and space. Helpfully, the chirpy chemistry between the characters and the gleefully complicated mythology is threaded throughout. We’re not pausing for action and character. It’s intertwined in the best big bustling overstuffed blockbuster way. It’s beyond endearing. It ups the ante. Supporting characters who mostly stood on the sidelines in the first Thor here get to leap into the action, from Idris Elba and Rene Russo to Jaimie Alexander and Ray Stevenson. And the core characters retain their initial novelty while gaining a sense of fine actors settling even more comfortably into their roles. It’s a film full of big action and broad character moments that add up to a satisfying red-blooded adventure every step of the way.

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