Monday, 11 November 2013

'Thor: The Dark World' (2013) Review

Let's face it, sequels by and large are a gamble. More often than not they struggle to find the balance between continuing the development of the characters from the original while constructing a story worthy of a minimum 90 minutes. Characters usually are left stagnant re-hashing the same old dance that made audiences love them the last go round (Ian Malcolm in 'The Lost World') or the story itself seems to be a beat for beat remake of the original except this time instead of a baby in the closet it's a monkey on the shower curtain.

Sequels: What not to do.

This is not to say that the sequel is a gamble to the studio, in fact nothing could be further from the truth. A sequel to an established property is almost always guaranteed to make more money than it's predecessor. The risk is considerably less when producing a sequel because, by virtue of being a profitable established property it can be assumed that the audience is not only familiar with the premise and characters of a universe but also yearns to experience more. Admittedly, the sequel doesn't have to work as hard as the original, which is tasked with the burden of familiarizing the audience. Lifting this burden however can lead to some sloppy storytelling and leaves you wishing you could get your money back

Thor: The Dark World however, miraculously avoids the sophomore slump and instead uses its second endeavour to improve upon its first. Beginning as the 2011 film did, The Dark World begins with Odin himself, played once again by Anthony M.F Hopkins, overlaying a flashback sequence with egregious exposition through long winded narration. It is through this sequence that the audience is treated to the introduction of the main villain, played by the ninth Doctor, and the central conflict of the film. I don't particularly like narration in film, in fact I find it a bit overwrought sometimes but the one genre I've found myself enjoying it in is fantasy. Narration makes it feel more of a mystical childhood story with giant hammer warriors and rainbow bridges. Having said that though, I can tell when it becomes an unnecessary and meddling trope rather than a beloved cliche. Frankly though, I'm under the impression that if Anthony M.F Hopkins wants to narrate, you best believe there'll be some M.F narration.

"Zeus ain't got s**t on me." - Odin

It's hard to argue its necessity however, when the same character who narrates retells the same information to another character in the film, forcing the audience to hear the same thing twice. It's double exposition which is really audience torture. It wouldn't be so terrible if the film committed this sin but once, however Odin is not so merciful. In one instance the characters exchange a few lines of dialogue about a not so sane friend of theirs who had recently become publicly unhinged. Subsequently, a news clip is shown reinforcing this plot point. Later on in the film when the character becomes increasingly relevant he is reintroduced in a scene in which characters watch the same news clip. I understand the relevance of informing both the characters within the film and the audience viewing it but there's no reason to say this cannot be done at the same time. Especially if the method of communicating this information is going to be exactly the same. The audience is forced to re learn the things they learned not half an hour ago detaching from a story that was moving at a surprisingly well balanced pace.

As jarring as these moments can be, they are admittedly few and far between. The rest of the film is well constructed and this extends to the characterization, including the titular hero. Thor has been busy since the events of the last film and remains as formidable a foe as ever with his mighty hammer 'myeh myeh'! Chris Hemsworth's performance differs from his arrogant jock of the first film as his character now calls for one that is calm, patient, with a touch of heartache, but not enough to depress the audience. He's still a being who possesses the power of the storm and a big ass hammer, with all the whimsy that goes along with that. Hemsworth's balancing act however may go unnoticed as the film is more inclined to show off his God like physique in many a gratuitous body shot for the mighty Thor. Still, I suppose if Alice Eve has to go through with it on the Enterprise then Thor shouldn't be complaining.

Decided that showing the over sexualized imagery would be hypocritical of me

Along with Thor are the mainstays from the last film. Lady Sif, the warrior's three (two really since one is off screen for most of the film drinking mead or whatever), and of course his loving family including sort of step brother and fan favourite Loki. It's with these characters that the film shines. Wheras the first film spent most of it's time on earth with a little bit of Asgard, the reverse happens here. What that gets you is the prettiest soap opera fantasy ever. I really like the way characters interact in this movie. They don't waste time telling you about their shared history but rather mention them in a natural "hey remember this" fashion. This helps the film because it makes the characters feel like they've known each other for years, which is of course how they should be. Thor and Loki bicker like the sibling rivals they are, Odin lovingly banters with his wife, and the warriors recount battles they've had in the past when celebrating the last one. It feels like real life on Asgard and the film masterfully keeps it up throughout.

Everyone does their part well and is fully committed to both the role and the premise, which further helps solidify the world. Of course, there are those who stand out as more engaging than others, namely, Anthony M.F Hopkins Odin, Idris Elba's Heimdall who is the baddest gatekeeper in all the nine realms, and of course, Tom Hiddleston's Loki. It's not surprising given the captivating performances given by Elba and M.F Hopkins in other roles and Hiddleston again owns the role as Loki. I won't touch too much on each of their performances as they all have moments that are too good to spoil, but safe to say these three made the movie for me.

Thor is giving Heimdall too many 40 degree days

Of course where there is light, there is darkness. While the Asgardian roles shine brightly the humans of midgard disappoint. Returning to the silver screen are Darcy, Erik Selvig from Avengers and the apple of the Thunder God's eye, Jane Foster. The first two characters didn't bother me but I can see people having problems with them. They provide the purely funny moments in the film and as such can come off as unnecessary comic relief. The real low point to this film however is with Jane Foster. Established as a world renowned physicist with her own theory named after her, Jane's moments in the film are reduced to her fawning over Thor's majestic curls. There are moments in which she says something scientific, like trying to provide the logical equivalent to the "magic" of Asgard, but outside of these ridiculously small moments Foster is a ditsy damsel in distress. I hate to make comparisons to the first film when discussing a sequel but when it comes to characters I believe it's justified. When Thor arrived in the original Jane was not the doe eyed mistress pining for the approval of Thor's dad and trying to impress his mom. She was a scientist obsessed with trying to make sense of a monstrous astronomical event. The film leads you to believe that in the two years Thor was absent Jane spent her days kind of continuing her research but mostly looking out the window crying into a tub of ben and jerry's and hoping Thor was watching the same stars. The ridiculous nature of the character is even more appalling when taken into consideration with Thor. Thor is shown to have little snippets of watchful wonder doting on his loved one but in the next scene he's using his hammer to knock a rock monster into pebbles. Why is it that the male counterpart of the relationship is seemingly so much better off than the female? Doesn't it stand to reason that her research would only kick into high gear after the events of the first film? It's inconsistent characterization at it's worst and it's galling enough to force me to type not one, but TWO rhetorical questions CONSECUTIVELY, and use ALL CAPS IN CERTAIN WORDS.

More like the woman of indignity.

I haven't mentioned much about the plot because it's pretty simple and doesn't need much commentary. Bad guy wants to do something bad because he's bad. It's the less interesting part of the movie and definitely serves its purpose as the driving force of the film.There's a level of tension however that the film maintains throughout and avoids the trappings of most super hero films where the characters are all but guaranteed to live.  Christopher Eccleston is given a nasty role no doubt as the character does some pretty heinous things but there's really not much there for Eccleston to do as an actor. It's not like he has a monologue that he can sink his teeth into or anything, mostly because he speaks dark elvish for most of the film.

I know I'm supposed to scared but that sounds like a baby's gibberish.

Finally I'll talk about the look of the film. It's an absolutely gorgeous movie. The set design is an achievement and there's not an ounce of shoddy CG in the entire movie. The world of Asgard and the other realms are fully realized, and switching between them provides a nice change of environment that only helps to increase the scale of the films which helps to raise the stakes.

'Thor: The Dark World' is a mostly great film. It has its issues of course, some of them pretty glaring, but I found myself enjoying it much more than I had anticipated. I didn't feel as though I needed more than I was given and I walked out the theatre thinking, "I kinda wanna see that again". Which is definitely a good sign for any movie.

Arbritrary Numerical Rating: 8.8/10

Sunday, 10 November 2013

'Elysium' (2013) Review

One of the most important rules of story telling is "show, don't tell". Essentially, what it means is that, instead of explaining the importance of something to the viewer, the story teller needs to simply show it as it is and trust that the viewer is invested enough in the story to pick up on the pertinence of that story element. The technique can either be used to further the story or bring across a particular metaphor within the story. With film being a visual medium it is perhaps the easiest and most important medium to apply this technique, and of all the genres of film, Science Fiction is perhaps the hardest and most difficult.

A quote from Chekhov as in 'Chekhov's gun'

Science Fiction is a genre which applies this technique through allegory. Taking real world ideologies and masking them in a quasi realistic universe. It's the perfect genre to be done in as the whole basis for science fiction is taking familiar science fact and proposing it's exaggeration into science fiction. It's because of that initial familiar basis that we are able to connect to our favourite science fiction stories, and a continuation of that connection rests in the allegory proposed by the films elements.

Star Trek is an allegory for the U.N, Godzilla is an allegory for the effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and more recently, District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp, is an allegory for the Apartheid system. The key in what made those films successful is that symbolism aside, there was always an engaging plot with interesting characters. A success unfortunately not found in the latest from Mr. Blomkamp, 'Elysium'.

Matt Damon plays generic white protagonist #103,978,593,713,850,707,042

'Elysium' is set in post-apocalyptic 2154 on an overpopulated and ruined Earth, complete with copious amounts of dust, dirt and grime. The film never specifies what causes the Earth to assume this ruined state but the fault is implied to lie with man's action and inaction. In the wake of the unfavourable condition that now plagues the planet, the wealthiest of Earthlings have opted to separate themselves from the less fortunate through the development of the very first country club in space, Elysium. Complete with household medical scanners that cure cancer, lush green gardens and robot servants, Elysium trumps Earth any day of the week, and is the driving force behind the films main protagonist Max, played by Matt Damon.

Max is a down on his luck ex-con whose whole life, much like the rest of the Earth's population, has been spent trying to accumulate the funds to acquire a ticket to paradise. Throughout the first half of the film we are treated to his daily routine, working at a robot construction factory, dealing with robot parole officers and robot policemen.

The symbolism of machine run Government is also painfully obvious

As the film goes on however Max is presented with a chilling conflict for which the only solution would be to find a way to get to Elysium before it's too late.

Matt Damon plays the role well and grounds the film immensely as he is successful in presenting the relatable every man who is thrust into an impossible and fantastic situation. The same can be said for the other characters on Earth like Alice Braga's Frey who plays a nurse with a heart of gold whose only real care in the world is her daughter. The most outlandish of performances come from the characters on Elysium. Perhaps this was intentional in portraying the population as elitist as possible, but I found the characters to be over the top, and not in the good sense. In a movie in which most of the characters feel so real, a few feel like cartoon characters and make it difficult to buy the movies premise. I didn't find myself  believing that what the movie proposed would be a reality simply because the characters did not themselves feel real. In the first scenes of the film Jodie Foster's character orders a ship of illegal would be Elysium citizens to be shot down, killing everyone on board. Being the opening of the film, it feels like a hollow moment simply because the movie hasn't earned it yet. Yes Foster's character is further presented as having a controversial and violent approach to things but the character herself never earns this establishment, which can be credited to Foster's performance.

I remember when you were Travis Bickle's girl

Characterization issues aside, the movies biggest problem comes into what I was talking about earlier. The movie is blatant in it's message in being a reflection of the current status of healthcare, militarism and immigration in the United States. So much so that it ends up feeling heavy handed. I'm all for a movie being about something but that's why there's such a thing as subtext. Your thematic message should be somewhat coded to the viewer. Hidden within the movie to be found. It shouldn't be obvious or overstated but in fact it should be that the audience can take it that way if they so choose to. Wall e is a good example. That film could be said to have a green message encouraging better care of the environment and ourselves, or it could be said to be a classic love story between a recluse and a girl who's waaaaay out of his league.

Post apocalyptic imagery be damned.

Where Elysium fails is that the core story is about the character trying to battle the issues he faces due to his social status. The hidden message then becomes the story and you actually don't feel like you're enjoying any of it.

Aside from that, there are couple things that actually became endearing to me as the movie goes on. The film actually lets the viewer figure out for themselves how this world works. What people do on Earth and Elysium and establishes it's universe pretty well. The technology alone is fascinating. It was exciting to discover what this particular droid does or what that rifle's bullets look like. The look of the film is also mesmerizing. Grime never looked so good. In fact it looks like a high definition District 9. It maintains the same rustic environments and has it's own element of beauty to it. Also the film is gore-geous. I haven't seen heads explode that way since, well, District 9. Blood everywhere and the heads make a nice *pop* when they do :).

Overall, I can say that I definitely liked the film, just not as much as I wanted to. Phony and non existent characters and a lack of an endearing story made the film feel empty to me. However, fun violence, a well thought out beautiful world, and performances by Sharto Copley and Matt Damon make the film worth a watch, just with lowered expectations.

Arbitrary numerical rating: 6.5/10