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Posts Tagged ‘Mark Ruffalo’

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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Looking back on the list of films I’ve seen so far in 2016, an unusual pattern develops – there’s been Joy (based on a true story), In the Heart of the Sea (based on a true story), The Revenant (based on a true story), and The Big Short (based on a true story). So far the only film with the guts to go ahead and actually be fictional is Creed.

Joining the list now is the critically-acclaimed Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy. I guess we’re just not living in fictitious times any more, for there are a whole bunch of these movies about at the moment, including a significant percentage of the Best Picture Nominee shortlist (let’s not forget Bridge of Spies is on there too). Perhaps it is just the case that being based on true events is more likely to give your film gravitas, and thus turn it into Oscar bait.

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The subject matter of Spotlight certainly gives it gravitas, for this is a film dealing with the most serious issues. It opens in 2001 with a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), taking over at the Boston Globe, which naturally causes a little uneasiness amongst the rest of the staff. Amongst these are Robby Robertson (Michael Keaton) and his team of journalists, a group specialising in highly sensitive long-haul investigations.

At Baron’s request, Robertson and his team revisit an older story – that of a paedophile priest. What makes this unusual is the suggestion that documents exist proving that a cardinal in the Catholic Church was aware of this man’s activities and complicit in ensuring they were covered up. This is a provocative, even explosive story in a strongly Irish-Catholic city like Boston, and the journalists (Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Matt Carroll) have to tread softly as they follow up their leads…

Well, Michael Keaton may not have won the Oscar last year, but being in an acclaimed film brings its own benefits. You could possibly argue that Spotlight only serves to confirm Birdman’s thesis that you can’t get anywhere as an actor unless you’re willing to play a superhero (Batman, the Hulk and Sabertooth set out to take on corruption in the Church!), but it’s impossible to deny that this film features an ensemble cast of the highest quality, doing excellent work together.

The team dynamic is actually a fairly crucial element of the film, as this is – after all – a story about a team. On paper this may look like (yet) another film examining the self-inflicted troubles of the Catholic Church, and the revelations which come to light in the course of the story are damning (there’s a grotesque encounter with a retired priest who openly confesses to molesting children, but is at pains to point out that he got no personal gratification from it, as if that’s some kind of an excuse). If you’ve seen Silence in the House of God, a straight documentary on this topic, you may already be aware of some of the astonishing statistics involved – 50% of all priests fail to meet the celibacy requirement, and 6% have some history of inappropriate behaviour. Spotlight puts this information over powerfully, though, and in a way which is accessible as a story.

But this isn’t simply an exercise in angry Vatican-bashing. Perhaps surprisingly, given the subject matter, the film manages to be, if not upbeat, then certainly guardedly optimistic. This isn’t necessarily with respect to the Church, but to society in general – terrible things did occur, and they were covered up for a while, but in the end the truth came out and justice of a sort was done. And this, the film suggests, was largely down to the efforts of journalists, who emerge from the film as dedicated, heroic figures, devoted to the idea of truth.

Sensibly, the film isn’t quite as black-and-white as that, and the various characters are depicted as flawed and troubled and capable of making mistakes – as well as of feeling the strain that their profession places upon them (Ruffalo plays a lapsed Catholic who is eager to attack the Church for his own reasons, Carroll has real difficulty sitting on the information they uncover). But this is a journalists-break-a-big-story film in the classic style, and you do identify with them and thrill at the moments when they face down their opponents or make the big discovery they’ve been searching for.

I have to say that Tom McCarthy’s name rang only a vague bell when I first heard about this film, but only the most cursory research revealed that he was the guy behind The Station Agent, one of my favourite films of the mid 2000s (apparently he was also involved in making Up, which suggests an interestingly eclectic CV is on the cards). The Station Agent was a no frills picture of the highest quality, and the same is arguably true of Spotlight, too.

Certainly compared to some of the year’s other big films, McCarthy’s directorial approach is almost underplayed: there are no big narrative devices here, no bold conceits or especially memorable choices of shot. (Though he does quietly contrive to have a church in the background of many of his exterior scenes, perhaps attempting to indicate the ubiquity of the institution in Boston.) He just gets on with telling the story in an intelligent and mature manner and does so extremely well. Is that enough for a film to garner significant awards glory in the modern world? I don’t know, but this film has the subject matter, the script, the performances, and the storytelling to be a serious contender in any sensible competition.

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There has been some fuss in sections of the media about the fact that this year’s Oscar shortlists are not as ethnically varied as many people would like to see. If you ask me, it’s no good complaining to the academy itself about this sort of thing, they can only respond to the films that people are making (the obvious parallel would be with complaining to the weatherman about there not being enough sun). It’s just easier and more rewarding to take a pop at Oscar than actually get the movie studios to implement change, because – for whatever reason – the films that are currently being made appear rather skewed in favour of certain demographics.

I’m not just referring to ethnicity, either: last week I saw the brilliant Whiplash, in which there was only one notable female character, and the least significant of the film’s four leads. And more recently I went to see Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, which again is a film dominated by men. It’s a tricky question: Whiplash and Foxcatcher are both superior films, the existence of which doubtless benefits the world at large, but I appreciate the validity of the pro-diversity argument in general. It may simply come down to the fact that most senior figures in the film industry are men, and a lot of the time it’s men who decide which film they and their friends go to see.

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As films go, Foxcatcher is more about masculinity than most, though it initially looks like it’s going to be addressing the issue of class in America. Channing Tatum plays Mark Schultz, a gold-medal-winning wrestler who as the story opens is eking out a fairly miserable existence, trying to prepare for upcoming competitions, feeling himself very much overshadowed by his elder brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also a champion wrestler, but also a successful coach and family man. (I should point out that this film deals with what I believe is technically called Graeco-Roman wrestling, the competitive discipline featured at the Olympics, not the muscle-bound clown soap opera which formed the springboard of the careers of people like the Rock.)

Things change for Mark when he is invited to visit the palatial home of John du Pont (Steve Carell), one of the richest men in America and an avid wrestling follower – this despite the icy disapproval of his mother (Vanessa Redgrave). Du Pont proposes that Mark come to live on his estate, where a state-of-the-art training facility has been constructed, and they work together to prepare for the upcoming 1988 Olympics. Du Pont believes together they can bring about not just a sporting but a moral revival of the USA, and Mark eagerly buys into his ideas.

What follows is a strangely engrossing personal drama, with many peculiar twists and turns along the way. As you may have gathered, this is based on a true story, but not one with which I was at all familiar. I did know there was a murder at some point in events, but I’d no idea who was going to kill whom or why – and while the murder is obviously the key event of this saga, one of the things that makes it so shocking is the fact it appears to be almost wholly unpremeditated: a random, chaotic act of insanity. But that equally makes it unsatisfactory as the culmination of a developing plotline, and as a result Foxcatcher feels unresolved, somehow.

What is certain is that the film works extremely well as a character study, not just of John Du Pont but also Mark Schultz. There is perhaps the vaguest echo of the glazed intensity of Brick Tamland in Steve Carell’s performance, but for the most part he is playing (and underplaying) it utterly straight: to the point, in fact, where Du Pont becomes a bleakly funny character. ‘Eccentric millionaire’ is much too cheery-sounding a term for a man who, to put it mildly, seems to have severe issues, not least with reconciling his passion for wrestling with his position in one of America’s most senior families – something not helped by his mother’s ill-concealed contempt for the sport.

Equally troubled, in a different fashion, is Mark Schultz – a man only fully able to express himself physically, and frustrated by this, and his sense of his own inferiority to his brother. The collapse of his parents’ marriage may also have fed into his various issues, and it’s entirely understandable that he should initially have fallen so completely under Du Pont’s spell. Channing Tatum plays him extremely well. I’ve never really been able to decide what kind of actor Tatum is in the past – is he just a kind of good-looking jock action-hero or romantic lead, or does he have real acting chops in there somewhere? Foxcatcher proves the latter: this is a properly accomplished performance. Ruffalo is also very solid in a somewhat less demanding role.

Vanessa Redgrave is really only in a couple of scenes in quite a long film, and the same is true of Sienna Miller who plays Dave Schultz’s wife: I’m actually a little unsure why they bothered recruiting such well-known names for what are comparatively minor roles. The rest of the film is about men, and masculine relationships – Mark’s relationship with his brother, but also the quasi-paternal bond he develops with Du Pont. There is quite a lot of man-on-man hugging in this film, and apparently Mark Schultz did complain about the homo-erotic undertones he detected – but there’s bound to be an element of that, not to mention some comedy, in any film with quite as many men in unitards grappling with each other as this one.

Foxcatcher is a measured film and a thoughtful one, and the various scenes of people wrestling with each other are not exactly what you’d call action sequences. As a result, I’m not entirely surprised it has proved more popular with critics than audiences. I’m not sure it is honestly what you could call a great film, but it certainly contains some great performances.

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Another week, another installment in one man’s odyssey round every Vue multiplex within the M25. Yes, it’s New Cinema Review again, and this time it’s the Vue Islington, offering yet another scam new pricing option – ‘Vue Extreme’, with bigger screens, better sound, and so on. The effect of the giant screen, etc, was really lost on me as I found myself sitting about a quarter of a mile away from it. I was quite impressed by the fact that the theatre actually had an usher who occasionally popped up in an attempt to ush the teenagers going berserk in the aisles – though this was still really just putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. O tempora! O mores!

Once upon a time it was quite unusual for a film to get what is called a day-and-date release – this is when a film is simultaneously unleashed upon audiences around the world. Before theatres went digital, the cost of striking all those extra prints was prohibitive except in the case of the very biggest, and most prone to be pirated, films. To give an example, Attack of the Clones got a day-and-date release, but the first Spider-Man didn’t, arriving in the UK two weeks after its US launch: something almost unthinkable for a major summer blockbuster today.

Now You See Me is a movie which looks like it’s pitching for blockbuster status – a decent stab at an all-star cast, populist director, big set pieces – and yet it’s arriving in the UK six weeks after the States. Possibly this is just one of those things, but possibly not.

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It is, on the face of it, a curious movie anyway: the trailer makes clear this is going to be a polished, slick movie with a twisty-turny plot concerned with multiple levels of ‘reality’ and a degree of gamesmanship in its dealings with the audience. This, put together with certain story elements and the presence in the cast list of Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, instantly made me certain that this was a major studio’s first attempt at a Christopher Nolan pastiche.

What suggested that the movie might prove memorable was the fact that the director selected to duplicate Nolan’s wizardry was Louis Leterrier. Now, I have enjoyed every Louis Leterrier film I have seen, and he is the man partly responsible for The Transporter, surely one of the landmark films of the 21st century so far. I love The Transporter, but I also love Inception, and it would be stretching a point to say that the two films share much of a sensibility.

So I turned up to Now You See Me expecting either a pleasant surprise or an uproarious calamity. It is the story of four magicians – an expert in close-up magic, a street hustler, an escapologist and a mentalist – who are played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dave Franco (no, me neither), Isla Fisher and Woody Harrelson. (To preserve a sense of mystery about the plot I will not reveal which of the quartet is required to appear in their opening scene wearing a clinging, glittery swimsuit.) Initially working individually, they are assembled by a shadowy figure who provides them with detailed instructions and blueprints to carry out a fiendishly complex plan.

The plan primarily involves doing naughty things with other people’s money: apparently robbing a Parisian bank during a live show in Vegas, for example. The FBI and Interpol take a dim view of this sort of thing and the job of figuring out how they did it is given to Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent. As the FBI is reluctant to suggest that the magicians actually robbed the bank using genuine magic, Ruffalo recruits ex-magician turned professional debunker Morgan Freeman to help him figure out how they did it – but the group’s backer, Michael Caine, does not want to see his investment ruined, especially with all the publicity they are attracting…

Now You See Me is predicated on one simple idea, which underpins the plot and whole philosophy of the film. This is that Magic Is A Good and Wonderful Thing In And Of Itself, and that – by extension – Magicians Are Innately Good And Wonderful People. As a result it is okay for them to rob banks, drive businessmen close to bankruptcy, and break into safes, as long as their victims are established as being Not Nice People. The script really does a number in terms of ensuring that the thieving conjurors come across as good guys, although there’s still the problem that one of their targets ends up going to prison, most likely for the rest of his life, his offence apparently being not much more than having a smug and annoying personality. Hmmm.

That said, the film looks good, it’s energetically directed by Leterrier, and the first half is filled with good set pieces and scenes where charismatic performers like Eisenberg, Caine, Harrelson, and Ruffalo get to trade some quite snappy dialogue. I rather enjoyed all this, and the appearance of Freeman’s character reassured me that this wasn’t going to be some dodgy thriller-fantasy fudge where the ‘magic’ would be left unexplained.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t really hold true for the entire film – some fairly outrageous things go on with barely a sniff of explanation given. There’s a fight sequence between Ruffalo and one of the magicians which almost plays out like something from an episode of The Avengers – the guy seems to disappear into thin air, starts shooting sparks out of his fingers, and so on. It looks good but it’s still a bit nigglesome.

The same can be said for most of the second half of the film – Michael Caine’s character does his own vanishing act, and it all becomes increasingly vague and far-fetched in plot terms. It is all capped off by the sort of twist ending which has you shouting ‘What! That’s completely absurd!’ at the screen. I’m virtually certain the plot of this film doesn’t actually make sense in light of the climactic revelations – even if it does in strictly logical terms, it’s still massively implausible – but the idea of watching it again in order to check really doesn’t appeal at all.

Still, it’s by no means the memorable disaster I was half expecting. Looking back on it from the closing credits Now You See Me is probably not a very good film, but while I was watching it I did quite enjoy it – particularly the first half. It is not deep or clever by any means – but it is glitzy, silly, forgettable, crowd-pleasing fun. All in all, and with all due respect to recent events, this is less Christopher Nolan than it is the Nolan Sisters.

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