Thor (9/22/12)

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In Thor, the titular hero is banished from Asgard to Earth while his brother Loki schemes to become the new king.

Odin (Anthony Hopkins), king of Asgard, wages war against the Frost Giants to prevent them from taking over the nine realms. The Asgardians win and steal their source of power. Flash forward to present day and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is going to become the new king of Asgard when the Frost Giants attack again. Thor travels to another realm with his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and breaks a truce between the realms, thus causing Odin to banish him and his hammer, Mjolnir, to Earth. Cue S.H.I.E.L.D. to investigate. On Earth, Thor is stripped of his powers and meets a group of scientists, notably Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) to assist him as Odin slumbers to regain his strength and Loki tries to rise to power.

Fanboys be warned, this may get you riled up. I have never been a fan of Marvel Comics Thor and as such found the movie adaptation incredibly dull and pointless, if not for the fact that it ties into The Avengers. If you put Thor and Clash of the Titans/Wrath of the Titans side by side I would struggle to be able to say which I thought was the better movie. If Thor didn’t have the comic license behind it it would be pretty bad movie.

I’m not sure if the plot of Thor was confusing or if my brain just didn’t care enough to process what was happening. It seems like I’m not the only one that tuned out, most of the actors seemed like they didn’t want to be there either. Natalie Portman gives an especially awful performance on the heels of her Oscar win for Black Swan. Idris Elba, who plays Heimdall, the gatekeeper, and who I didn’t even recognize at first gives one of the best performances of the film and he has maybe 10 minutes of screen time. Even Tom Hiddleston, who I thought was great in The Avengers as Loki seems to be reading cue cards off-camera. I get it, it’s a licensed superhero action movie, but come on, people!

The visuals are really the only saving grace that kept me awake during Thor. The movie does look good and the color palates for Asgard especially were neat and made for tasty eye-candy. The set and costume designs for the realms were true to the comics but also with a shiny new movie sheen to them. So basically, I shut my brain off and looked at all the pretty pictures while the movie played out for about 2 hours.

Did I hate Thor? Well, “hate” is a strong word… Do I think Thor was unnecessary and do I wish I left it unwatched? Yes. The problem here is that the source material, while rich in mythology, didn’t spark any interest in the character (or the comics)  for me. At least Captain America ended up being more than a setup to The Avengers. The fact that the movie studio thinks there needs to be a sequel to Thor confuses me, but maybe the second time’s the charm? I don’t think I’ll be finding out.

I give it 2 “I’m Thor!”s out of 5.

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The Ward (9/17/12)

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A group of young women in a mental institution are being killed by a ghost in The Ward.

A young woman named Kristen (Amber Heard) sets fire to an old farmhouse and is brought to a mental institution for treatment. While at the facility she meets the other girls; Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca), Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), Emily (Mamie Gummer), and Zoey (Laura Leigh). Kristen is given the room that used to belong to a girl named Tammy, who we see attacked by what appears to be a zombie/ghost of a young woman. As her doctor, Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) tries different therapies, the girls are being killed one by one by the ghost, a former patient named Alice. Kristen needs to get to the bottom of the mystery before any more girls are killed.

Directed by horror master John Carpenter, The Ward actually surprised me. It was recommended to me by Written In Blood and while I had never read a glowingly positive review of the film, I was left mostly pleased by it. Anyone who grew up with John Carpenter films has likely been nonplussed by his endeavors as of late and The Ward certainly doesn’t hearken back to a day when Carpenter’s name was synonymous with horror films, but it is enjoyable enough.

The plot of The Ward is not exactly mindblowingly original and may not offer many surprises for fans of the genre, but the ground it treads is still sort of fresh. The cast for The Ward is actually not as bad as I expected. Since movies like this tend to have some horrible actresses that are only there to go topless, it seems they opted to favor acting instead of toplessness (spoiler alert, I don’t think there’s any toplessness). Amber Heard is not exactly going to win any awards for her performance, but in what could have been a painful-to-watch performance, she actually does a pretty decent job. Also, Meryl Streep’s daughter is in this, so it’s almost like a Streep impersonator, which is kind of fun.

I’m not going to try to sell The Ward too much, but in terms of recent horror movies (and more importantly, recent Carpenter movies) it’s probably worth your time. The Ward may not be the revival of John Carpenter as a master of horror, but it’s a step in the right direction.

I give it 3 “LOOK BEHIND YOU”s out of 5.

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Rise of the Planet of the Apes (9/17/12)

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Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the origin story for the ape uprising that leads to the Planet of the Apes.

Will Rodman (James Franco) is a scientist at Gen-Sys that is developing a cure for Alzheimer’s for his ailing father, Charles (John Lithgow). After testing a potential treatment on a chimpanzee captured from the wild, the chimp becomes extremely smart but lashes out after giving birth while in captivity. Rodman adopts the young chimp, who shows signs of great intelligence, and names him Caesar (motion capture by Andy Serkis). The designed treatment seems to work without a problem on apes, but affects humans with flu-like symptoms, leading to death. After protecting Charles and lashing out at a neighbor, Caesar is put in captivity and eventually starts molding the other captive apes with his intelligence and stages a breakout.

The main problem with prequels like Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that we all essentially know how the film ends. Rise of the Planet of the Apes essentially just needs to get from point A to point B, or at least set up the road to point B and it can be lazy doing so. Luckily, Rise of the Planet of the Apes tells an interesting story and makes you actually care about the people (and apes) involved. I’m a huge fan of John Lithgow’s and I never thought he got as much attention for his role here, but I loved his character. Andy Serkis is also a bit overlooked, but as always, does a remarkable job with the motion capture.

At times, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is unintentionally funny, or at least it was to me. It’s a film that seems to demand being taken seriously but sets up some situations that are inherently humorous or silly. I found this a bit distracting but in a weird way, it kind of makes the film almost more enjoyable. To its credit, I never found myself bored by Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but I was mostly indifferent to it. It was better than I expected but it never truly impressed me.

Rise of the Planet of Apes did eventually land in the pitfall of prequels I mentioned before. Although it is remarkable at times, for the most part it’s just going through the motions of an origin story. Oddly, I have seen much praise for this movie but not necessarily for Prometheus, which does a bit more than going from A to B. Since they are making a sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes that I assume further bridges the gap between our current society and the inevitable Planet of the Apes, it will be interesting to see how they keep the momentum of the series going since we know exactly the outcome.

I give it 3 are intelligent ape outbreaks the new zombie attacks? out of 5.

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Mary and Max (9/13/12)

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Mary and Max is about a lonely Australian girl finds a pen pal in New York and the two become lifelong friends.

Mary Daisy Dinkel (Bethany Whitmore and Toni Collette) is a young girl living in Australia. She is unpopular and ridiculed and has an unstable family life. She decides to write to a pen pal in New York City and finds Max Jerry Horowitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an older, autistic man that is also an outcast from society. The two remain pen pals for many years and as an adult, Mary studies psychology and writes a book about Max and his disorders, which angers Max. After Max decides to forgive Mary, she decides to travel to New York to finally meet her best friend.

Admittedly, I left a lot of the finer details of the plot out of my synopsis which may make Mary and Max seem like a fun-going movie about friendship but it doesn’t detail some of the darker points of the film. The film, although claymation, is not for kids but it is a very surprising and touching story. I have seen very few films that deal with life in such a way that Mary and Max does. It is slightly comical but also very realistic and ultimately endearing. At first, the characters seem a bit off-putting but then the film gives them such personality that you feel for even the weirdest of characters, and boy are some of them odd.

I have dreaded writing this review for Mary and Max for one reason: the ending made me sob like a baby for nearly 30 minutes after the credits had ended. I just sat there staring at the Netflix menu after the film was long over and my heart just ached for the characters. The reason I was so affected by the film I will not get into, but I was never expecting to be so touched by Mary and Max. The animation and story are both so unique that it may give a different impression if you are used to Wallace and Gromit, Mary and Max may strike you as incredibly odd but try to stick with it. The oddities of the animation and characters are weird but endearing.

While I would struggle to make it through a second viewing any time soon, I would instantly recommend Mary and Max to everyone. The film does not shy away from various mature subjects while maintaining it’s great animation style. Mary and Max is one of the bigger surprises of the year for me.

I give it 4 chocolate hot dogs out of 5.

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The Man Who Fell to Earth (9/13/12)

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The Man Who Fell to Earth is about an alien that travels here to transport water back to his dying planet.

Thomas Newton (David Bowie) is an alien that travels to Earth for water after a drought has ravaged his home planet. Since Newton looks just like a human, he blends in perfectly to society, and uses his advanced technology to file numerous patents and become extremely rich. With his amassed wealth, Newton needs a space to build a spaceship to transport water back to his home planet. He meets a young girl named Mary Lou (Candy Clark) and she teaches him Earth customs.

I would normally give a slightly longer synopsis of the film, but that’s about all I could surely surmise from The Man Who Fell to Earth. Calling the movie “trippy” is almost an understatement since at times I found it totally incoherent. Even at its most esoteric, I never found The Man Who Fell to Earth painful to watch, but it has more than a few moments that had me saying “wtf?”.

Since this was David Bowie’s big screen debut, it’s worth noting that his performance as a slightly robotic alien is fairly unsurprising. Oh, and in case you ever wanted to see naked David Bowie, this is your movie. Even though I barely had a grasp of the plot, I think a lot of The Man Who Fell to Earth actually has more to it. I would normally say it would be worth watching again to try to discern more of what was going on, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever be up for that.

The Man Who Fell Earth is not a bad movie, there is still a lot to like, especially given the cult status the film has achieved since its release. I have seen many many movies in my time, and The Man Who Fell to Earth is something unique, albeit very strange.

I give it 3 David Bowie taking out his contacts out of 5.

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All Good Things (9/13/12)

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All Good Things is the dramatized recount of an actual unsolved murder case.

Based on the real events leading up to the trial of Robert Durst, renamed David Marks (Ryan Gosling) for the film. David Marks is the son of a wealthy real estate mogul, Sanford Marks (Frank Langella) who meets and eventually weds a young middle class woman named Katie (Kirsten Dunst). David rejects his father’s business plans and the young couple move from New York to Vermont and start a little shop they name All Good Things. David’s father convinces him to move back to New York and get involved in the family business and David’s demeanor begins to change. Soon, Katie mysteriously disappears and David is suspected of murder.

I had never heard of All Good Things before browsing for Ryan Gosling movies on Netflix (yes, I’ll admit it). What drew me to All Good Things is the true nature of the film, and even though some “based on true event” movies can come off as hokey I thought much of All Good Things worked quite well. I was not familiar with the actual case so the story was all new to me, which I think helped sell some of the ideas that the film interjects supposedly based on new “evidence”. So, while the film is based on reality, it doesn’t hinge its own success on that realism.

As a die-hard Ryan Gosling fan, I was actually very pleased with his performance in All Good Things, which is not very surprising. What is surprising is Kirsten Dunst’s performance didn’t bore me and I would even go as far as saying this is one of her better performances ever. The film builds a great tension that literally starts as a calm love story and escalates to a thrilling climax. David’s progression from mostly normal to his break with reality is also handled well, though explanations for it are glossed over in the last act. Immediately after the film was over, I wanted to know more about the actual case and I consider that a sign of a good movie.

If All Good Things had merely been a fictional thriller, it would have been just OK but considering the story is largely based on truth, I think that adds to the allure of it. The film isn’t perfect and it does drag in spots, but the electrifying performances by Gosling and Dunst really captivated me. I’m not sure if All Good Things is a film I would choose to revisit any time soon, but it’s certainly a film I would recommend for anyone seeking a true crime thriller.

I give it 4 Ryan Gosling makes a surprisingly ugly woman out of 5.

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Glengarry Glen Ross (9/9/12)

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In Glengarry Glen Ross, a team of four struggling real estate salesmen are battling for their jobs.

A small firm brings in a young, talented salesman named Blake (Alec Baldwin) to motivate a small group of four real estate salesmen, informing them that only the top two would remain. In addition to keeping their jobs, the winner will receive a new Cadillac and access to better sales leads. The salesmen are Shelley “The Machine” Levene (Jack Lemmon), Dave Moss (Ed Harris), George Aaronow (Alan Arkin), and Ricky Roma (Al Pacino), led by office manager John Williamson (Kevin Spacey). As the deadline draws nearer, the men all have their own increasingly desperate tactics to getting sales from their current leads and eventually someone steals the famed Glengarry leads.

Originally written as a play by famed playwright David Mamet, Glengarry Glen Ross is committed to film and executed similar to a stage set. Most of the film takes place in the small office and each actor has a very unique personality that would lend itself well to the stage. However, even though the origin of the film is the stage, it doesn’t hold the film back in any way. The characters and dialogue are what matter here and each actor simply does a fantastic job in their respective roles.

Speaking of the actors in Glengarry Glen Ross, I think this is some of the finest work Lemmon and Baldwin have ever done, Lemmon especially. That isn’t to say that Arkin, Harris, Pacino, and Spacey slouch, quite the opposite. It wasn’t until 30 Rock that Alec Baldwin found a role that defined his career more, in my opinion. As for Lemmon, it is a bit harder to pinpoint a favorite role in his storied career, but when The Simpsons create a recurring character around Lemmon as Levene, I would say that is an indicator of success.

While Glengarry Glen Ross lacks action, it does provide a fair bit of tension between the characters. You root for them but also kind of loathe them for their slimy tactics to get the sale. The art of salesmanship is still quite strong and the material here holds up surprisingly well. As a character study, few films do so much with so little on screen which really makes the dialogue shine. Glengarry Glen Ross is far from flashy but character dramas may not come much better.

Oh, and in case you were wondering what the title means, both Glengarry and Glen Ross are real estate developments being sold in the film.

I give it 4 “always be closing”s out of 5.

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