Saturday, November 16, 2013

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

When the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" seemingly climaxed with The Avengers last summer, the movie's billion-dollar success all but guaranteed that the franchise would continue. And continue it did, both with the release of Iron Man 3 this past May and the debut of the TV series Marvel's Agents of SHIELD on ABC two months ago. This brings us to the next entry in the saga, Thor: The Dark World. The first Thor movie was actually pretty surprising, as I've never really been the biggest fan of out-of-this-world fantasies yet I thoroughly enjoyed it. The idea of a sequel was enough to get me excited even before the release of The Avengers, and now that the franchise is in its post-Avengers state, I was intrigued to see where things were in Asgard. Nut enough chit-chat, let's dive in.

With the Chitauri invasion of Earth successfully repelled, the mighty Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard with Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in custody. Their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) angrily sentences Loki to spend the rest of his existence in the palace's dungeon, while Thor and his warrior compatriots travel across the Nine Realms diffusing the tensions raised by the Bifrost Bridge's destruction at the end of the first movie.

Back on Earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her crew tour England, investigating bizarre gravitational anomalies similar to the ones encountered when she first met Thor. One of these pulls Jane into another realm where she inadvertently absorbs a liquid-like energy field that attacks anyone who touches her. This draws Thor's attention, and he whisks Jane away to Asgard to figure out how to separate her from it.

This energy, they discover, is "the Aether," a weapon of mass destruction unleashed eons ago by the dark elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). Malekith and his armies were eventually defeated in battle by Odin's father, who hid the Aether away where it was believed no one would ever find it. But it has indeed been found, and it has awakened Malekith and the dark elves from thousands of years of slumber. And as the Nine Realms approach a rare convergence, acquiring the Aether will allow Malekith to achieve his goal of throwing the universe into darkness. Forced to disobey his father's direct orders in order to protect both Jane and Asgard, Thor must forge an uneasy alliance with Loki if he is to combat Malekith.

I honestly didn't think Thor: The Dark World was one of the strongest entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It has one too many flaws keeping it from being more than the sum of its parts. But I will say that the movie is a genuinely fun ride in spite of those flaws. The movie gets off to a fine start and doesn't let up for more than a few moments at a time, keeping the audience continually intrigued in the adventure. And really, that's all I could want from a movie like this.

Director Alan Taylor's body of work doesn't exactly make him sound like the type of filmmaker who would make something like this, but he does a very good job with it. Not only does he put some lovely cinematography to good use, but Taylor builds the movie in a way that makes it feel like it were some kind grand fantasy. Much like what Kenneth Branagh did with the first Thor, Taylor makes Asgard's scenes feel epic, while Earths seem like there's always something going on beneath the surface that we just can't grasp yet. He also crafts the action sequences in as exciting a way as possible, making them as big and boisterous as a movie like this needs.

I was mildly disappointed, though, with the movie's 3D effects. The problem with it is that it suffered from the same woes that most movies converted into 3D in post-production suffer from. It works really well some of the time, like during the scenes in Asgard and others that are heavy on CGI, but looks flat the rest of the time. It's not a particularly successful transfer, but I just don't see why a movie with a budget of 170 million dollars couldn't afford to spend at least a little cash on cameras that would allow its crew to shoot it natively in 3D.

But in the grand scheme of things, I did think the movie's 3D worked slightly better than its script. Written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely from a story by Dan Payne and Robert Rodat, the script is very weak in more than a few spots. The story is kinda there, mostly serving as a series of setups for each action sequence. I can overlook that, considering that this is a superhero movie, but it gets worse from there, primarily in regards to the characters. I'm specifically referring to the movie's villain, who is so badly written that I'm just flabbergasted. Malekith barely exists here, a one-note villain who's actually missing the one note. He barely has enough screen time to justify even being in the movie at all, and does so little that the movie might have been better off making Loki the villain again.

Malekith is quite simply an empty slate, a villain who's only in the movie because the movie needed a villain. His motivations are beyond simple, and he comes across as a generic pseudo-villain. I've made references in the past to movies having what felt like placeholders for characters, and Thor: The Dark World does this with Malekith. There are five credited writers, and this is the best they could do?

But at least the movie has a decent enough collection of actors to work with. Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo are fine as the king and queen of Asgard, though Hopkins does get a little hammy at times. I also enjoyed Kat Dennings,w ho reprises her role as Jane Foster's sidekick. While I understand why people might find her annoying, I thought Dennings added some humor and levity to her scenes.

The movie is owned, however, by the great performances of Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston. Hemsworth is charming and likable as Thor, playing him with both a wisdom and bravado that makes the character so much fun. Hiddleston, meanwhile, once again shines as Loki. He doesn't go for the scenery-chewing overacting he brought to The Avengers and the first Thor movie, but Hiddleston still approaches Loki in a way that makes it hard to dislike him.

Unfortunately, not everyone in this movie does so well. Natalie Portman, for example, is incredibly dull here. She has a few moments that I thought were cute, but it feels like she's going through the motions, as if she'd rather be in any other movie but this one. Christopher Eccleston, on the other hand, fails to leave an impression simply because he's never given anything to work with/ The character of Malekith is so undercooked and so underdeveloped that they could have brought any actor to play the part and nobody would have noticed. I honestly think they could have stopped some random person that happened to be walking by the set on any given day, slapped Malekith's makeup and costume on them, and it wouldn't have affected the movie in the slightest.

But all flaws aside, I did enjoy Thor: The Dark World. I can forgive flaws so long as the movie is entertaining, and that's exactly what this movie is. Much like the first Thor movie, I left the theater satisfied and looking forward to seeing where the Marvel Cinematic Universe would go next. So if the preview of Captain America: The Winter Soldier before the movie and the mid-credits scene featuring Benicio del Toro's character from Guardians of the Galaxy are any indication, then 2014 will be a good year for fans of Marvel Comics movies. And if being a fun movie and wanting to see more are signs of success, then Thor: The Dark World hits the bullseye.

Final Rating: ***

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Carrie (2013)

When Stephen King's first novel, Carrie, was published in 1974, King couldn't have possibly imagined where his career would go after that. And I'm sure he never envisioned that Brian De Palma would turn that first book into one of the most beloved horror movies of the '70s. De Palma's Carrie is a movie that horror fans have watched and loved over and over for nearly forty years, which naturally means that Hollywood had to do a remake of it sooner or later.

But Carrie wasn't the typical "classic movie, and then a remake decades later" story. It was actually turned into an ill-fated Broadway musical in 1988, spawned a crappy sequel in 1999, and was first remade as a mediocre made-for-TV movie in 2002. But unless you've been living under a rock for the last few weeks, you've probably seen the advertisements for the new remake. Because of my affection for De Palma's Carrie, I was hesitant to see this new remake yet curious and excited to see how it would turn out. And it turns out that, despite a few very good elements, it's another remake plagued by a "been there, done that" feeling.

It's hard not to feel sorry for poor Carrie White (Chloƫ Grace Moretz). The daughter of an abusive religious fanatic (Julianne Moore), Carrie's social awkwardness makes her a target for merciless teasing and abuse from her classmates. But just when Carrie thinks life can't get much worse, she gets her first period while showering after gym class. Thanks to her strict, sheltered upbringing, Carrie has no idea what's happening and believes she's bleeding to death. Her classmates take great humor from Carrie's panicked cries for help, throwing tampons and heaping insults upon her. The scene is only broken up when Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer), the gym teacher, intervenes.

Feeling guilty for her part in what happened, Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) tries to make amends with Carrie by convincing her boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie to the prom and show her a good time. But they are unaware of the plans of Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday), whose extreme lack of remorse for having teased Carrie ― including having posted a video of the shower incident on YouTube ― gets her banned from the prom by Miss Desjardin. Rather than try apologizing to Carrie, Chris instead wants revenge for being punished. She rigs the ballot to get Carrie elected prom queen, and dumps a bucket of pig blood over her head during the coronation. No one could have predicted, though, that this prank would fully trigger Carrie's burgeoning telekinetic powers, an ability that sparks a violent, bloody rampage.

In my review of the Carrie remake from 2002, I argued that it was a remake fit the times due to the seemingly frequent school shootings at the end of the '90s. This new remake could be considered even more timely. With bullying being a serious hot-button issue and more and more teenagers committing suicide because they didn't know how to overcome the mental and physical anguish their tormentors inflicted upon them, it seems as good a time as any to make a horror movie about a bullied misfit. But all this new remake really does is include a few coy references to social media. It doesn't tread any new ground, nothing we haven't seen before. The original movie is timeless, with the ugly fashion of the '70s being the only part that hasn't aged well, and this new remake doesn't do anything to make itself stand as anything close to equal with it.

But that's not to say it it's a bad movie. I actually thought it was rather well done in spots. This was in part due to the fine direction of Kimberly Peirce, who builds actually builds a fair amount of tension in a few sequences, especially the scenes where Carrie and her mother are together and the movie's climax. Carrie's massacre at the prom is one of the entire horror genre's most classic moments, and Peirce handles it excellently. The overdone CGI doesn't help, but I felt that the whole scene ― from the moment Tommy and Carrie's limousine arrives at the prom to when a blood-drenched Carrie arrives home after causing so much carnage ― is spectacularly done. Granted, it's a little weird seeing Carrie using her telekinesis to actually fly across the room to avoid being electrocuted on the wet gym floor (I felt the 2002 remake did this a lot more effectively by having Carrie push the water away from her feet with her powers), but I still felt the sequence was amazingly done and actually pretty satisfying.

The only really bad part is that a lot of the time, the movie feels like a typical post-Scream teen horror movie from the end of the '90s. It's slick and glossy, full of pretty people and mediocre actors. This remake of Carrie could have fit right in with movies like Urban Legend or I Know What You Did Last Summer (or even The Rage: Carrie 2, for that matter). It doesn't help anything that this is the third time the story of Carrie White has been told (or fourth if you want to count Carrie 2), which can leave you with a legitimate feeling that you've seen it all before. Pierce doesn't tackle the material with any sort of unique perspective or approach, and much like the sequel and the other remake, all this new movie accomplished is leaving me wanting to watch the original movie instead. The only thing she really improves upon is adding a greater level of sheer chaos to the prom sequence, and that's it.

I was also really disappointed with the movie's lackluster script. Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa doesn't give is the fleshed-out, three-dimensional characters that a movie like this needs. Instead, he gives us a tiny step above the most basic character archetypes. Chris Hargensen is a foul-mouthed bitch, Miss Desjardin is the one nice teacher, and so on. There's not much to say about the characters beyond their simplest descriptions. They're dull, lifeless placeholders for where characters were supposed to go.

It's especially bad with Sue Snell, who is so terribly written that I was almost offended. The character of Sue as written by Aguirre-Sacasa is flat and completely devoid of any real personality. Sue's just there because the story dictates she has to be. One almost gets the feeling that she could have been left out without it affecting the story much. And that's particularly frustrating because Sue is nearly as important to the story as Carrie herself. Sue being written so poorly is nothing short of a shame.

Aguirre-Sacasa does get close to doing some good, though, pprimarily through Carrie and Margaret White. I did think he handled their relationship well, though I did believe he could have elaborated on some things. For example, the movie depicts Margaret as being prone to hurting herself. She bashes her head against a wall, jabs herself in the arms and legs with sewing implements, and so on. I know people who engage in self-harm have a variety of psychological reasons that lead them to do it, but why Margaret White? Is it because she's full-blown crazy? Is it because her insane religious beliefs have led her to add variants of self-flagellation and the old "mortification of the flesh" practices? It certainly makes Margaret creepier, but it actually left me more curious than anything else.

The relationship between Margaret and Carrie could have used a little touching up, but for the most part, I thought Aguirre-Sacasa did an okay job with it. You really got the impression that Carrie truly loves and cares for her mother despite all the beatings and abuse and torture, though whether that's due to compassion or feeling it's her duty as her daughter isn't ever made clear. But either way, I honestly got why Carrie would be a bit weird. If my mother were a crazy person that regularly beat me, insulted me, and locked me in a closet for no reason, I'd probably be messed up too.

But as much as the movie disappointed me, I was especially let down by how frustratingly mediocre and forgettable much of the cast is. If I hadn't made a habit of scribbling down some notes in the parking lot after I leave the theater, I'd have forgotten about most of the cast by now. Gabriella Wilde is practically a blank slate as Sue Snell, never once actually doing anything to make me care. Portia Doubleday, meanwhile, effortlessly plays her character into a vicious, loathsome villain, but comes dangerously close to turning the character into an over-the-top caricature of a more vile version of a character from Mean Girls.

But I will say this about the cast: hiring Chloƫ Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore was a fantastic decision. Moore is absolutely terrifying, playing the part as a mentally ill woman who would fit better in a cult than in everyday society. Her intensity is scary enough, but the fact that every twitch of her face is practically screaming "kill Carrie!" makes it worse.

Moretz, meanwhile, is fabulous as our title character. She's perhaps too pretty to play the mousy Carrie, but she still plays the role to perfection. Moretz is an immensely talented young actress and she brings that telent to the movie. She gives Carrie a shy sweetness and sympathetic nature, making it easy to like her and feel awful for her while she's on the receiving end of abuse. It also makes Carrie's loss of control at the prom satisfying on a visceral level too. And as disappointing as much of this movie is, it's still worth seeing for both Moretz and Moore.

I don't have a problem with remakes. I've actually seen a few remakes that I genuinely love. But this new version of Carrie is not one of them. I've said it before, most recently in my review of the other Carrie remake, but if it isn't broken, don't fix it. Updating Carrie for modern audiences and modern sensibilities isn't a bad idea, but if you aren't going to make your movie stand out and be something special, why bother? There are some elements of this movie that I did like, but the whole package is one big letdown. His version might have some flaws here and there, but Brian De Palma got it right the first time. I'll just stick with that one.

Final Rating: **