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Posts Tagged ‘Chris Hemsworth’

Having an orderly brain, I noted a few years ago that the gap between the first Men in Black film and the second one was five years, and further that the gap between the second and the third was ten years. It seemed a fairly reasonable assumption that there would be a twenty year gap between the third and the fourth, presumably with Will Smith moving into the role of the grizzled old veteran and someone as-yet-unheard-of providing the youthful glamour. Friends, I am shocked to have to relate this, but I was wrong. The new Men in Black film has come out thirteen years early, and I have to say that some might suggest it shows.

The title of the thing is Men In Black International, concerning the global doings of the secret agency which, for the purposes of this franchise, polices alien activity on the planet Earth. (‘But… but…’ anyone who was paying attention back in 1997 might be spluttering, ‘wasn’t it kind of established then that aliens were really just limited to the New York area?’ Good point. But shush.) The story gets going, chronologically speaking, with a young girl named Molly witnessing the Men in Black in action and wiping her parents’ memories afterwards. She grows up to be a massive over-achiever (Tessa Thompson) and through diligence and ingenuity manages to track the agency to its secret base, where she persuades the director (Emma Thompson, mostly phoning it in) to recruit her.

She is then packed off to the London branch, where there are suggestions of something not being quite right in the ranks of the persons with a wardrobe of a limited chromatic range. It seems that a few years ago there was a showdown atop the Eiffel Tower, which contains some sort of hyperspace gateway built by M. Eiffel, who was also a Man in Black. (‘But.. but… wasn’t it kind of established that the Men in Black came into existence as an exclusively American agency, in 1961?’ Another good point. But shush again.) The two agents involved (Liam Neeson and Chris Hemsworth) saved the world from an invasion by shape-shifting alien horrors, but Hemsworth’s character has been acting rather erratically ever since.

And there is some more plot following this, but I will not trouble you with the details as they are unlikely to linger much in your head, even if you see the movie. The general recipe for the film is kind of the same as before: there’s a gentle send-up of some of the tropes of B-movie sci-fi, mixed with some spy and cop movie clichés, and also a few potentially slightly scary bits with an almost Lovecraftian sense of gribbly tentacled unpleasantness pressing in on the margins of the mundane world.

The thing is that this time around… well, here’s what I have been led to understand about this film. Apparently director Gray was keen to make a film with a bit of a satirical edge to it and some social commentary on the topic of immigration (you can imagine how that would work, along with some of the more obvious gags – one wonders what kind of dismal alien hell-world could have spawned the current US administration). Producer Walter Parkes (who I feel obliged to mention has some pretty decent movies on his CV) wanted something a bit more middle-of-the-road and proceeded to start rewriting the script while the film was actually in production. Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, who reputedly signed on on the strength of the Gray script, were understandably bemused and independently recruited writers of their own to polish their dialogue.

(Yes, I know, it is utterly baffling that films are made this way, and we have to assume that it is not standard practice in the industry. Even so, this is a production with a budget of somewhere in the region of $100 million, yet the creative process involved seems to have primarily been based around squabbling and bemusement.)

When you consider all this, not to mention the producer and the director both assembling their own edits of the finished film (the producer’s version won out), one does have to say that Men in Black International is a staggering achievement in the way it still manages to be a more or less coherent story without a large number of holes in the plot. This is not to say that there aren’t any – there are still a few, and to be honest they are biggies, but it is unlikely to bother most members of the audience as the clash of different visions has resulted in a film with very little sense of what it’s supposed to be beyond a brand extension and franchise instalment. No one is likely to care or be engaged enough to worry too much about whether it makes any sense.

I mean, look, there is virtually wall-to-wall CGI for most of the film, and it is all very professionally done; fights and chases turn up on a regular basis; there are plot reversals and so on too. But none of it feels as if it means anything – it is all very mechanical and uninspired. It feels like a Men in Black film produced by some sort of artificial intelligence, or a joke written by a computer – all the structural elements are present and correct, it’s just completely flat and lifeless.

Now, of course, with this kind of film, winning chemistry from charismatic leads can go a long way towards taking up any bagginess in the other departments, but the film is also afflicted with, if this isn’t too harsh a way of putting it, the Chris Hemsworth problem. I have certainly enjoyed many Chris Hemsworth films and Chris Hemsworth performances in the past (mostly the ones where he has been playing Thor, to be honest). I have no beef with him as a person, not least because I have no personal relationship with him. However, he is in the awkward spot of being someone whose films make hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, but only when he plays that one character he’s famous for. So just how big a star is he really? Opinion seems to be divided on the topic, especially if you consider the stories that one of the reasons the fourth Bad Robot Star Trek movie folded was Hemsworth’s involvement being judged not to be worth his very hefty asking price (he was due to reprise his before-he-was-famous role as Captain Kirk’s dad). Hemsworth’s attempts to establish himself as a leading man in his own right are not helped by the fact he is essentially giving a lightweight version of the same performance he delivered in his last couple of MCU movies (here the ratio is about 70% swagger to 30% smug), or the fact he’s paired with Tessa Thompson, one of his regular foils from those same movies, or the fact that the film brazenly includes cheesy in-jokes alluding to Hemsworth having played Thor for the last eight years. As for Thompson herself, I have to say I’m not entirely sure she has the chops to be co-lead in a big aspiring blockbuster like this one. She’s not actually bad. But you’re still perhaps a little surprised to see her there, vaguely feeling that you were expecting someone else.

This is cinematic entertainment as disposable, mechanical product. It is rarely actually dull, for at least it has been edited together to provide a good deal of pace. But it is just a succession of sounds and pictures that makes sense in a transactional sort of way. It has no resonance, no subtlety, no depth, nothing new to say or do. It almost feels like it is aspiring to be mediocre. Anything which made the first couple of films in this series memorable and entertaining has been scraped out of the carcass and what remains lurches across the screen in an almost wholly affectless way. It doesn’t engage the emotions, the brain, or the sense of humour. Nobody was demanding this film, I suspect, but it could still have potentially revitalised and updated the series. Instead, I think that in a sane world it would constitute the final swift blow to its throat. So we can probably expect a reboot at some point in the next ten years.

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It’s fairly unusual for a film to show up on my radar and its UK release to then slip by me almost entirely, but this is what happened this year with Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale. I definitely recall seeing a trailer at some point, but then (and this may be partly due to one or other of my trips to the Kyrgyz Republic this autumn) it was suddenly showing as a catch-up movie in one of the out-of-the-centre cinemas in Oxford, apparently barely having troubled the main multiplexes at all. A somewhat plaintive cry of ‘Are you going to see this one?’ from a reader in the US forced me to confront the hard truth that sometimes you just can’t see every film that gets released.

On the other hand, sometimes you find yourself with a spare evening in Berlin with a decent cinema showing movies in die ursprungliche Version only a brisk walk away, and it was a choice between Bad Times at the El Royale and BlacKkKlansman (another film I missed due to my sojourn in Bishkek), and my inner grammar obsessive clearly couldn’t face the prospect of typing that second title too many times [I buckled eventually – A]. So off we went to the Goddard movie.

Things get underway with a prologue set in the late 1950s, as a mystery man checks into a hotel room and proceeds to take up the floorboards and hide a bag in the cavity thus created. Before he can do much else, he is murdered, a development which is both shocking and disappointing (mainly because it means Nick Offerman, who plays him, is obviously going to be in the movie much less than one would hope).

Ten years later, a group of strangers encounter each other at the El Royale, a fading motel with a curious geographical quirk – it’s built squarely on the state line between California and Nevada, meaning (for instance) that you can only buy a drink on the west side of the bar room. Amongst the people checking in are a slightly confused elderly priest (Jeff Bridges), a garrulous vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), an African-American woman with some unusual luggage (Cynthia Erivo), and a young woman (Dakota Johnson) who looks like a hippy but doesn’t seem that interested in peace and love. The boyish desk-clerk (Lewis Pullman) does his best to keep them all satisfied, of course.

Well, and wouldn’t you just know it, it turns out that most of these people are not at all what they initially seem to be, and several of them are dragging around a different sort of baggage entirely. As the night wears on, a peculiar chain of events develops, involving FBI wiretapping, blackmail, dementia and a psychopathic cult leader. Not everyone is going to be checking out alive…

I have to say that my first thought on properly looking at the poster for Bad Times at the El Royale was that this is a movie filled with people currently stuck in an odd twilight zone in terms of their movie career: by which I mean, there are some people who have the ability to open a movie (meaning their presence alone will guarantee the film does healthy business), and there are others who are by any standard appreciably famous, but aren’t able to translate this into consistent box office success under their own steam. Bad Times at the El Royale has Jeff Bridges in it, who is a veteran movie star and a fine actor, and Cynthia Erivo, who is a definite up-and-comer, but also a bunch of people who seem to be in the latter category – Jon Hamm (still best known for TV’s Mad Men), Dakota Johnson (whose high profile is mainly down to appearing in all those big-budget soft porn films), and – perhaps the best current example of the kind of thing I’m talking about – Chris Hemsworth (whose films make literally billions of dollars, but only when he’s playing one particular role).

I am aware that Bad Times is felt to have underperformed somewhat at the US box office, and this may be part of the reason why: it’s certainly a star-studded movie, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into ticket sales. It’s hard to think of another reason, apart from possibly the film’s length (it’s 140 minutes long, and by the end you’re starting to feel every one of them), for this is an engaging example of a type of film which was all the rage a few years ago but not much seen these days – by which I mean that Bad Times belongs to that very odd sub-genre, the Quentin Tarantino pastiche.

How can you possibly pastiche the style of someone who has basically built a career around pastiching other people? Mostly it is a stylistic thing: there are various self-conscious formal quirks here, and a chopped-up non-linear approach to some of the storytelling – one key moment in particular plays out multiple times, viewed from different perspectives. The film isn’t afraid to include some fairly grisly violence, too, and there’s where one sequence in particular where the threat of it hangs in the air and you almost get the sense the director is relishing the prospect. The retro setting also reinforces the idea that this is a film looking to the past rather than the future.

That said, while the movie includes a number of plot elements which are very specific to its setting – there’s a cult of murderous hippies, and a morally-compromised FBI surveillance operation, amongst others – it doesn’t feel like the film has anything particular to say about the sixties or America at that point in time. It’s just a convenient, colourful backdrop – a dressing-up outfit for a film which always seems just a bit more interested in style than in substance.

Nevertheless, this is a very capably assembled piece of entertainment. I must confess that the name Drew Goddard didn’t register with me at all, but it turns out I’ve been watching his work as a writer and director for about fifteen years, on and off, and this film is as polished and effective as his resume (which includes things like The Cabin in the Woods and The Defenders) might lead you to suspect. His script exploits the potential of this kind of set-up (the nature of the film is such that it’s impossible to tell which characters are going to survive to the closing credits) and he’s helped by consistently strong performances from the ensemble cast – I should probably make a special mention of Chris Hemsworth, cast most against type as a cross between Jim Morrison and Charles Manson.

As I say, there is perhaps a bit of a problem with a film that feels like it should be brisk, knockabout entertainment having a running time round about that of the theatrical cut of 2001, and the film’s performance may also have been affected by the lack of a bankable star and the nature of the narrative. However, I had a good time watching it and I’m glad I got the chance to do so on a big screen. I would say Bad Times at the El Royale has a decent chance of a respectable career as either a cult movie or an underappreciated gem.

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Chris Hemsworth is in the odd position of being one of those people who can command a huge salary, get his name in big letters on a movie poster, and sit on top of a massive opening box-office weekend, and yet he’s not really what you’d call a proper movie star: people don’t go and see a Chris Hemsworth movie, they go and see Thor movies, and it’s just Hemsworth’s good fortune that he’s the guy who gets to play Thor at the moment. Once he steps away from the magic circle of the Marvel Studios franchise – well, it’s not as if he doesn’t make any other movies, and it’s not as if they don’t make money (although he has notched up a couple of significant bombs), nor is it the case that he is routinely bad in them, but they tend not to make the same kind of impression, no matter their quality. For the time being I’m sure this isn’t a major issue for the big lad, but he surely can’t carry on playing Thor forever, and what is he going to do then? (To be fair, this isn’t problem isn’t limited to Hemsworth, as a number of Marvel’s other big names also seem to struggle to find success in other roles.)

Anyway, Hemsworth is back giving us his God of Thunder once again, in Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, umpteenth entry in the all-conquering Marvel Studios megafranchise. This is their third release of 2017, but – as you might expect by this point – they make it all look very easy indeed.

Things get under way with a rather busy and somewhat convoluted opening section, but this is surely forgivable given that it allows for a brief appearance by Cumbersome Bandersnatch as Dr Strange, and an uncredited cameo from an extremely game Major Movie Star, all played very much for laughs. (To be honest, the vast majority of the movie is essentially played for laughs on some level or other, so we can take that as read from this point on.)

Well, basically, the machinations of Thor’s devious adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) bring about the return of the banished Asgardian Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who is intent on seizing the throne for herself and reinventing Asgard as an aggressively imperial force in the universe. Thor and Loki take exception to this plan, but in the course of their tussle with Hela and her eye-catching headwear, find themselves dumped far from home on the junkheap planet Sakaar.

While Hela tightens her grip on Asgard with the help of Skurge (Karl Urban), an unscrupulous warrior, the brothers have to survive on this new alien world, which is ruled by the alien Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who is part despotic emperor, part superstar DJ. Thor is nabbed by the slightly boozy Asgardian renegade Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and consigned to the gladiatorial pits where he must battle to survive. Bereft of his magic hammer and his flowing locks, can Thor still summon up enough of his mojo to escape and save the universe…?

I think it is fair to say that not many people would rate the first two Thor movies amongst the top flight of the Marvel series – it’s not that they’re actually bad, but they are slightly ponderous in a way that most of the studio’s other films are not. Clearly the people at the top of Marvel feel the same way, for there has obviously been a rethink and a bit of a retooling of Thor and his particular corner of the universe, perhaps somewhat influenced by Chris Hemsworth’s very effective comic turn in the All-Female Ghostbusters Reboot. Everything is much more laid back and comedic than it was in the first two films; Thor is positively chatty much of the time, and there are sight gags and pratfalls aplenty.

Marvel savants will already be aware that, in an attempt to add something new to the formula this time round, the writers of Ragnarok have borrowed a few elements from the Planet Hulk storyline (which ran in the comics over ten years ago). Presumably this is one reason why the Hulk himself has a major role in the story (he is played by Mark Ruffalo, as usual) – although in terms of the actual plot, Thor is in the Hulk role, while the Hulk is in the position originally occupied by the Silver Surfer (who, needless to say, isn’t in the film). As I say, it’s only a superficial take on Planet Hulk, but putting Thor and the Hulk in outer space together does open up some new possibilities.

If nothing else, it does allow the movie to move away from some of the more limiting elements of the previous movies – Anthony Hopkins has a much-reduced role, as do several other established characters. Natalie Portman isn’t in it at all, and for a while it also looks like Idris Elba’s voluble complaints about working for Marvel (‘This is torture, I don’t want to do this’) have earned him the sack – but he’s dragged back in front of the green screen before too much time has elapsed. In their place, Cate Blanchett is clearly having a whale of a time as an extremely camp villainess, closely followed by Goldblum. One of the film’s most quietly impressive features is Karl Urban’s performance as Skurge the Executioner – Urban takes a third-string Marvel villain and manages to turn him into someone who actually has a bit of a character arc in the course of the story.

It’s one of the few elements of the film which takes itself (mostly) seriously, for the sense I get from Ragnarok is that Marvel’s main directive to Waititi was ‘Make it more Guardians of the Galaxy-y’. The playlist this time is more prog rock and disco, but the quotient of spaceships, ray guns, monsters, and cosmic nonsense is certainly much closer to a James Gunn movie than one by Kenneth Branagh. And, you know, it’s all good fun, crowd-pleasing stuff, unless you happen to think that films about wisecracking alien gods and big green gamma monsters are actually the stuff of heavy drama and should be taken terribly, terribly seriously.

On the other hand, I have generally been impressed by the way Marvel have negotiated the ‘too silly-too serious’ tightrope in the past, but all three of the films they’ve released this year have arguably been primarily comedic in tone. It’s certainly worked for them, but I’m not sure it’s sustainable – on the other hand, the next film off the conveyor belt, Black Panther, looks like it will be more down to earth in most respects. Normally at this point one would say ‘this could be a challenging change of tone, it’ll be interesting to see if Marvel manage it’, but seventeen films into the series it certainly seems like Marvel’s main challenge will be to keep finding new challenges for themselves. Thor: Ragnarok is not the greatest Marvel movie ever, but certainly not the worst: it moves the story along in interesting and unexpected ways, and you’re never more than a few minutes away from a genuinely good gag or some well-executed crash-bang-wallop, or both. A very safe bet for a good time.

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Most producers of major Hollywood summer blockbusters would probably react with dismay, to put it mildly, upon learning that their movie was not going to get a release in one of the world’s biggest and most lucrative markets. For the people behind Paul Feig’s new version of Ghostbusters, however, I suspect China’s decision not to allow the film to show in their country will come as something of a relief: it will at least give people something else to talk about, for this is a project which has attracted a higher-than-usual level of chatter since it was announced.

Ghostbusters-2016

The film is set in present day New York. Kristen Wiig plays Erin Gilbert, a physicist who reluctantly finds herself drawn back to her one-time interest in parapsychology, and also her former friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy). A spate of ghost sightings across the city lead the duo to go into business with semi-unhinged engineer Holtzman (Kate McKinnon) and former metro worker Patty (Leslie Jones) as professional psychic investigators. But things seem to be quickly getting out of control, as someone seems intent on unleashing a supernatural disaster on the city. The citizens and government desperately need help, but (and I’m aware you’re probably ahead of me on this) who are they gonna call?

Yes, this is the All-Female Ghostbusters Remake which you may or may not have become aware of in recent months. If you’re going to talk about it with any degree of credibility, I suspect you are required not just to have an opinion on the film but also on its gender politics – I saw one internet comment, following the Chinese decision (apparently because the 1984 Ivan Reitman original never got shown in China there is no demand for it, but rumour suggests an arcane anti-superstition regulation in the censor’s code may also have played a part), along the lines of ‘Men, please take just two hours out of your life to watch this movie and show your support for women’ – which is not the sort of thing people usually say when recommending a Melissa McCarthy movie. It’s almost as if normal debate has been shut off and any suggestion that you don’t like this film means you are basically this century’s answer to Bobby Riggs.

This is just one of a spate of recent films, most of them remakes, which have been drawing flak for their diversity, or lack of it, while this remains a hot-button topic in many areas of popular culture. I must confess to being left bemused, at best, by a world in which the fact that a 15-year-old girl can be a character named Iron Man even makes sense, let alone gets acclaimed as a great progressive victory: attempts to retool long-standing characters with new genders, orientations, and even sometimes ethnicities strikes me as a rather cynical means of cashing in on existing name-recognition while disregarding the work of the original creators. The All-Female Ghostbusters Remake at least opts to include a completely new set of characters, rather than regendering the originals – but I still think it’s a little disingenuous of the film-makers to express surprise at all the attention their decision has drawn. Making a blockbuster VFX-heavy comedy with an ensemble female cast would be a bold move and perhaps a risky one, but not especially controversial – remaking such a well-known and indeed classic film in such an ostentatiously radical and arguably odd way was always going to get a strong response. (The film itself has a couple of somewhat through-clenched-teeth gags about internet trolls, which at least shows a good degree of self-awareness.)

One wonders if there is anything more to this decision than a cheery willingness to exploit the goodwill surrounding the 1984 film, not to mention its familiarity to audiences, because this is by any standards an extremely loose remake, not just in terms of plot and characters but also in style. Ghostbusters sort of hearkens back to the original horror-comedy films like Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, in which there was a strict delineation between the two genres – the monsters are played straight and people really do get killed; the threat is taken seriously. The new film is much more broadly and consistently comic, with plenty of slapstick and jokes about orifices, much as you’d expect from this particular set of artistes. It is also more emotionally articulate and character-driven, with an essentially human antagonist rather than an unearthly pseudo-Lovecraftian menace. That said, it also works hard to keep fans of the original on-side: all the main stars who are still alive and active in the film business get cameos, and one of them even gets the last word before the closing credits – it is (spoiler alert) ‘flapjacks’.

Well, hie me down to my reinforced bunker as the Diversity Enforcement Squad head for my garret with flaming torches in hand, but I think I’ll be sticking with the 1984 film, which I saw on the big screen again not that long ago and still found to be tremendous entertainment. The All-Female Ghostbusters Remake is stuffed with un-engaging neon-hued CGI and has the same kind of deadpan, ironic, mock-bathetic sensibility as the other Paul Feig films I’ve seen, but I have to say neither of these things really draw me in any more, simply because after a while they both get a bit predictable. Wiig and McCarthy carry the film pretty well, but I suspect it’s Kate McKinnon who is going to get the best notices of the main quartet – she can probably look forward to becoming a dressing-up icon very soon, and, who knows, maybe another sort of icon too. There is also a somewhat revelatory performance from Chris Hemsworth as the new Ghostbusters’ epically dim receptionist, which I thought was one of the funniest things in the film (Hemsworth is cheerily objectified as an object of lust in a way that neither Sigourney Weaver nor Annie Potts were back in 1984 – just saying).

But in the end, as an even vaguely horror-themed film this just isn’t very spooky, and as a comedy there seemed to me to be quite long gaps between laughs. It just about functions and stays watchable as a fantasy-action movie, but then this is by far the least demanding of the three disciplines it attempts. It’ll be interesting, in the light of the Chinese decision, to see what kind of money this film makes, not least because it has clearly been set up as the start of a new franchise (Dan Aykroyd, who exec produces in addition to his cameo, has suggested a Marvel-style series of connected-but-separate series of films is in the offing, which to me sounds wildly optimistic, but we’ll see). I will be surprised if it does super well – not because I think audiences are sexist and reactionary, not because I think films with a mainly female ensemble cast are a bad idea, but simply because this isn’t a particularly accomplished film, for all that it retains one of the catchiest theme tunes in history. Not a comprehensive sliming of the classic original, by any means, but it still feels curiously lightweight and non-essential.

 

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One of the big casualties of the unstoppable Disney stellar conflict juggernaut appears to have been Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea, a lavish epic aspiring to have all the traditional narrative virtues, yet a film which has clearly struggled to find an audience (and, more importantly, make its money back). One can speculate as to whether this is down solely to all the cinemas as far as the eye can see desperately putting on as many lucrative showings of The Force Wakes Up as they possibly can, thus depriving other films of opportunities to connect with an audience, or whether Howard’s latest is a genuinely weak movie.

heart-sea

Everyone seems to have given up on it already, it would appear: less than two weeks after its UK debut, it has already vanished from the cinemas of central Oxford. One wonders whether the big studios will take note of this and simply not bother releasing any big films in the fortnight after Disney’s future stellar conflict brand extensions come out (I note that Columbia are still planning to release Passengers, another SF movie, late next December – it’ll be interesting to see whether they stick to their guns or just change the date).

With the film already having said farewell to the interior of most moviehouses, I suppose it seems a bit pointless to write about it now (greetings, visitors from the future), but I think the film deserves better than to be simply forgotten about out-of-hand. Plus, I can’t bring myself to pass up the opportunity to trot out some tired witticisms on the topic of angry sperm. So here we go.

In the Heart of the Sea is, as I said, a fairly old-fashioned movie, with the meat of the narrative occurring within a frame story set many years later: young writer Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) turns up at the house of old sea dog Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), last living survivor of the sunken whaling ship Essex. Eventually Melville persuades Nickerson to tell the tale of the ship’s final, doomed voyage.

The young Nickerson (played by Marvel’s new Spider-Man, Tom Holland) is but a lad on off on his first ocean trip, so most of the story revolves around two men. One of them is Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), an experienced whaler from a humble background – tough, charismatic, a leader of men. (He also has a pregnant wife, which is of course movie code indicating he’s about to have many horrible experiences.) Much to his chagrin, Chase is passed over for the captaincy of the Essex, in favour of George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), a man who owes his position solely to his family connections, with little real aptitude for command. Sparks inevitably fly.

Both men are thus determined to load up on whale oil and get back to Nantucket, where they are based, as quickly as possible – but the great beasts prove elusive, forcing the Essex deeper and deeper into the Pacific Ocean. Reports from the crippled ex-captain of a Spanish whaler lead them to offshore grounds where the whales have taken sanctuary from the hunters – but they ignore his warnings of a huge, ferocious white whale, given to attacking whaling ships, something they will live to regret…

So, as you can see, this is a big, stirring, briney tale, of men pitting themselves against nature at its most savage, very much in the tradition of macho nautical shenanigans like The Bounty and Master and Commander – but with Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe both being a shade long in the tooth for this sort of thing, the services of another Antipodean alpha-male have been retained, in the form of Chris Hemsworth.

Hemsworth is one of those actors who has an extremely impressive career box office take, but who’s yet to prove his ability to open a movie under his own name – does he have a career beyond just playing Thor, in other words? Well, he gives a very solid performance here – you can’t dispute Hemsworth’s presence or charisma, but I just wonder if he quite has the ability to suggest emotional depth to really make it as a star in his own right.

Then again, this movie is strong on the rollicking adventure front, but the characters are a little bit thin – you quickly get a handle on the fact that Pollard is a martinet, and Chase isn’t going to take any nonsense, and then not very much else happens. Cillian Murphy is also on board as the second mate, and while he is customarily good, he doesn’t get a huge amount to do.

Still, the movie remains solidly entertaining throughout the opening voyage and the set-piece whale attack which is, if you’ll permit me, at the heart of the film. The producers made the slightly odd decision to show this key sequence in isolation as an extended trailer for the film (I saw it before Bridge of Spies), which seems to have become a common tactic to advertise films about which a studio is getting nervous. Impressive though the scene is, I’m not sure seeing it out of context really does the film justice, and having already seen it, it inevitably loses some of its impact here.

However, once all the whaling and gnashing of teeth is over and done with, the film still has the best part of an hour left to run, and so it settles into a sort of stoical-metaphysical-existential mode which is slightly heavy going. The survivors of the Essex drift about in some open boats, occasionally stopping off at a desert island or engaging in a little light cannibalism to survive, and it’s all curiously unengaging. The slightly surprising decision to have the white whale occasionally show up to harass them really strains credulity as well: this happens very occasionally over a period of nearly three months (or so we are assured), and if nothing else the avenging sperm summons up the spectre of Jaws: The Revenge.

The film does its best to provide a strong climax, and Gleeson and Whishaw are strong in the frame story, but it’s hard to escape the impression that this is a film which starts strongly but then falls off a bit. It is a bit similar to other films in the all-at-sea genre, too, which can’t have helped it, and the fact it is so unreconstructedly blokey may have been a bit of an issue as well. (Charlotte Riley and Michelle Fairley have very subordinate roles as wives.) It’s not so old-fashioned that it doesn’t find time for a few moments of implied criticism of the whole enterprise of whaling, which almost feel all the more jarring for being the only concessions to a modern perspective.

This is by no means a bad film, but I doubt it was ever going to be a critical or popular smash, and releasing it when they did was almost certainly a gamble by Warner Brothers. Whatever else, it’s still a worthy, good-looking film with some impressive individual moments and sequences – it’s just not quite as epic or stirring or exciting as it really needs to be to completely succeed as a movie.

 

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Let us cut directly to the central burning issue of the week. It is with something of a heavy heart that I have to report that Marvel Studios have perpetrated a bit of a cheat at the end of Thor: The Dark World, their latest box-office guzzling extravaganza. One of the incidental pleasures of the various Marvel films is sitting through the interminable credits for the teaser scene at the end which either sets up the next film in the series or (in the case of Iron Man 3) just provides some fan-pleasing comic relief. In a welcome move for those of us who sometimes have to leave the premises sharpish in order to catch the bus home, the credits scene from The Avengers was moved to a mid-credits position; Iron Man 3 reverted to the post-credits position. One of the issues with Thor: The Dark World (and, all right, it’s a comparatively minor one) is that it apparently has both a mid-credits and post-credits sequence.

So what, you may say – well, what happened at the screening I attended was that virtually everyone stayed put as the credits rolled, until the mid-credits bit appeared (this scene, featuring a rather camp Benicio del Toro, will probably baffle anyone not heavily steeped in Marvel arcana and is more confusing than appetising). At this point we relaxed, all got up and went home, missing the post-credits sequence. I wouldn’t complain so much except that my understanding is that this scene resolves a key plot point the film itself leaves hanging.

I’m making a big deal out of this, I suppose, but I think it is symptomatic of my experience of this movie. It has an enormous amount going for it, and simply by virtue of its connection to the other Marvel films can expect a very comfortable level of audience goodwill. And yet I still somehow found it to be a mildly unsatisfactory film on many levels.

thor TDW

Ken Branagh apparently having shied away due to his lack of experience when it comes to heavy special effects sequences, this new installment is overseen by Alan Taylor, who apparently has an impressive record in that TV show about musical chairs. Thor (Hemsworth again) is leading the forces of Asgard as they restore order to the Nine Realms (apparently) plunged into chaos at the end of the first Thor. Meanwhile Odin (Hopkins again) has been prevailed upon to spare the life of his rascally adopted son Loki (Hiddleston again), following his role in the invasion of New York at the end of The Avengers.

Meanwhile, Thor’s love interest Jane Foster (Portman again) is in London, where she initially appears to be living in a bad romantic comedy film. Luckily her research into Plot Device Mechanics leads her to a hole in the fabric of the script, through which she plummets and discovers an ancient doomsday weapon called the Aether.

This was built by the Dark Elves, whom we have already met in one of those exposition-heavy introductory flashbacks of which big genre movies are so very fond. For reasons best known to themselves, the Dark Elves want to blow up the universe, and the Asgardians confiscated the Aether to stop them doing this. Even though they believe the Dark Elves are all dead, the Asgardians don’t seem to have hidden the Aether in a very sensible place, but such are the demands of the plot.

Of course, they are not all dead, and now that Jane has found the Aether, their leader Malekith (the great Christopher Eccleston under a ton of make-up) is quite keen to get hold of her for obvious reasons. Obviously Thor feels strongly motivated to help his girlfriend out, even to the point where he is obliged to ask Loki for help…

Thor: The Dark World clearly wants to be an epic, wide-ranging fantasy adventure, but the problem is that for its opening section at least, ‘wide-ranging’ actually reaches the screen as ‘all over the place’. Once we’re past that slightly eggy flashback with the Elves, the plot rattles around between various different realms, the actual nature and relationship of which the film doesn’t really bother to explain in any detail. Asgard, Vanaheim, Svartalfheim – it just feels like being bombarded with names and chunks of plot, the significance of which are taken for granted.

You have to bear in mind that the look of the film is a slightly baroque mixture of SF and pure fantasy – there’s more than one fight between people waving swords and other people carrying laser rifles and black hole grenades – not to mention that there are great swathes of CGI on display, and fairly central to proceedings is Natalie Portman. Now, given a good script, Portman can be a searingly effective performer, but without one she often reverts to shop-window mannequin mode, and that’s quite often the case here.

All-in-all, then, the initial sequences set off on Asgard and the other places are frequently horribly reminiscent of The Phantom Menace, as very fine actors in extraordinary hats and hairpieces flounder around inside a script which doesn’t quite hang together, the pain of this being somewhat mitigated by the astoundingly good special effects and production design.

Comparing any film to The Phantom Menace is, I realise, the critical equivalent of hitting the nuclear button, and I have to say that overall Thor: The Dark World is not nearly that bad. Once the plot finally achieves some cohesion in the second half, and Tom Hiddleston (consistently one of the Marvel films’ biggest assets) actually gets to contribute to the story, it picks up very considerably. The problem, of course, is that Loki inevitably overshadows the ostensible villain this time around – Christopher Eccleston just doesn’t get the material to compete – most of his dialogue is in Dark Elvish, which can’t have helped – and Malekith comes across as a dull, cipherish stock villain.

Not necessarily a problem, but certainly slightly peculiar, are the sequences of the film set in the realm of Midgard, or Earth (but, if the films’ captions are to be trusted, known to the Asgardians as ‘London’). Most of the movie takes place elsewhere and these scenes do feel a little bit crowbarred in, not least because they’re tonally completely at odds with the rest of it. Most of the movie is fairly straight-faced fantasy-SF, but the stuff in London is, as I said, like some kind of wacky romantic comedy. Chris O’Dowd gets a cameo, Stellan Skarsgard wanders about in his underpants, Kat Dennings is also trying to do comic relief. Even scenes with Hemsworth in them, including some of the climax, are camp and fluffy in a way the rest of the film just isn’t.

So this is a very inconsistent and choppy movie, but it would be remiss of me to suggest that it’s not at all worth seeing. Pretty much every single scene looks beautiful (possibly excepting the ones with Skarsgard’s pants), and it does effectively conjure up a sense of a vast and diverse cosmos (just not one which actually makes sense). If Chris Hemsworth doesn’t have quite the same charisma as some of the other Marvel leads, well, the film has Tom Hiddleston, which more than makes up for this.

(Conspicuously absent from the screen, by the way, are most of the elements which have connected previous Marvel movies – for example, SHIELD gets name-checked, but none of those characters appear. Possibly the existence of the – distinctly so-so – SHIELD TV show as an entity in its own right makes it harder to work the concept into the actual movies. I note we are promised that the TV show will be doing an episode set in the aftermath of this movie, though.)

While leaving the cinema and missing the post-credits sequence, I happened to overhear other members of the audience talking – ‘Wow, that was so much better than the first Thor!’ was the initial response of one of them. Now, the weird thing is that I could see exactly what she meant – The Dark World is bigger, brighter, more confident and more fun – but I’m not sure I would necessarily agree with her, because I like a film with a stronger plot and better storytelling than is really on display here. Thor felt like a film from a studio ambitious to try something new and excitingly different; The Dark World shows signs of being a project collapsing under the weight of its own grandiosity. It’s a fun, crowd-pleasing adventure, but overall for me it’s the weakest Marvel Studios movie since Iron Man 2. Still, that’s not a bad track record, and it’ll be interesting to see how the next couple of films pan out.

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In the past I’ve always been a bit wary of sports movies, partly because I’m largely indifferent to sport in general, but also because the nature of the movie industry means that any such film getting a decent UK release is either going to be something parochial and probably done on the cheap, or made with at least one eye on an American audience and therefore about baseball or American football or something else I don’t have the slightest familiarity with.

One of the very few sports I have occasionally followed is Formula One, which – rather to my surprise – is now the subject of a major movie, Rush, directed by Ron Howard. Quite how much the success of Senna a couple of years ago is responsible for Rush being produced I don’t know, but I’d be a little surprised if there wasn’t some connection.

RUSH UK Quad final

Anyway, Rush is the story of the epic rivalry between racing drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, leading up to and during the 1976 Formula One world championship. Hunt is played by Chris Hemsworth (the 70s setting allows him to keep his Thor hairstyle), and depicted – quite accurately by all accounts – as a womanising hellraiser and general debauch, massively charismatic and ferocious behind the wheel of a car (his combative driving style leading to the nickname ‘Hunt the Shunt’). Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), on the other hand, is not blessed with great personal charm, but possesses phenomenal mechanical aptitude and the willingness to approach every aspect of racing with meticulous thoroughness.

On their first meeting in 1970, Hunt is victorious, and the film follows their careers and personal lives in parallel until 1976, when Lauda (driving for Ferrari) is defending his world title and Hunt (for Maclaren) is mounting a serious challenge. Central to the film is the race at the Nurburgring in August 1976, in which Lauda crashed and was horrifically burned – only to return to racing six weeks later and take on Hunt in the decisive final race of the season…

Despite all appearances to the contrary, F1 these days is relatively safe (to the extent that going round in circles at 200mph in something not especially structurally robust can be), and it’s startling to be reminded that in the 1970s, the annual casualty rate amongst drivers was running at somewhere between five and ten percent. The film doesn’t directly address the question of why on earth anyone would choose to participate in what was essentially a blood sport, but instead considers the characters of two men who did.

I’m not sure to what extent Niki Lauda and James Hunt’s family have been involved in the making of this film – Bruhl-as-Lauda provides a narration, but whether this consists of Lauda’s own words is unclear – but it is admirably honest in its presentation of the two men warts-and-all. Hunt is presented as a man who lives hard, a drinker and a rapacious womaniser: a driven man as well as a driver. Lauda’s own coldness and ruthlessness are also plainly depicted. And the film doesn’t attempt to evade the fact that this was a rivalry between two men who – to begin with at least – genuinely hated each other.

In the end, of course, what they realise is that their rivalry served to push them both to become someone better than they would otherwise have been, and an element of mutual respect and understanding enters their relationship. That Lauda’s rapid return to racing was largely motivated by his determination not to lose his title to Hunt is also made clear.

Lauda’s crash and its consequences are central to the final section of the film. There isn’t a correspondingly big story in Hunt’s racing career and so in order to balance the film, earlier on there’s a subplot about Hunt’s brief marriage to a model (played by Olivia Wilde). This serves okay to illuminate Hunt’s character, but I couldn’t quite shake the impression that this was just here to insert a well-known actress into the film and try to make the whole thing feel less relentlessly masculine.

This doesn’t really work. Rush is a film about men obsessed with doing manly things – but that doesn’t make it dumb and it doesn’t make it bad. Quite the opposite, in fact, because Rush is one of the more impressive films I’ve seen this year. The performances by the two leads are great (Hemsworth has never been better), the racing sequences are genuinely exciting, the look of the thing manages to subtly evoke the 70s without being too obvious, and the script is intelligent and accessible without overdoing the sports movie cliches. Quite how much all of this will translate into mainstream success, I’m not sure – obviously Rush should do well in the UK, and probably in other F1-friendly territories too – but I think it deserves to be seriously successful, both commercially and critically.

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