Monday, November 11, 2013

About Time, A Review

After watching Thor: The Dark Elves Strike Back, I went to watch the new Richard Curtis movie, About Time. Due to non-optimized starting times, I missed the first few minutes of the film, but  I'm pretty sure not very much of it.

So Richard Curtis is dear to me for Love, Actually and the Doctor Who episode about Vincent van Gogh. I am not a fan of either Four Weddings and a Funeral, or of Notting Hill. And despite my affection for Love, Actually, I do recognize that it is--at best--wildly uneven.

I saw a trailer for this film back in June, in front of the JJ Abrams Much Ado About Nothing, and at the time it looked scientifically formulated for my movie going nutritional requirements. There was a decided rom-com feel to it, as Domhall Gleeson wooed Rachel McAdams, who is delightful and wonderful. It has a oh-so-clever concept--the men of the family can time-travel, which Gleeson used to improve his social awkwardness so that he could successfully woo Rachel McAdams. As you would. And it started Bill Nighy as his dad.

The trailer was a better movie than the movie.

I was hoping for something that would be emotional and wonderful like the book The Time Traveler's Wife (I never saw the movie. I believe that was the right decision.) Instead, it was--negligible? Barely integrated into the plot? Awkward and kind of obnoxiously privileging?

Most of the time, when he goes back to re-try something that didn't go so well, he does things just a bit better--introducing himself to Rachel McAdams takes a couple of tries before it goes right, and their first sexual encounter is improved upon by the third try. None of these things is really life altering--most people manage to get their own second or third try by actually trying two or three times, without any high concept time travel.

Then, once he's got her for his girlfriend, there are loooooooong portions of the movie where there is no  reason, so no time travel at all. In fact, his relationship with Rachel McAdams is just normal stuff. Meet the parents. Get engaged. Have a wedding. Have a baby. Have two babies. Buy a house. Without the time travel, easily 60% of this movie would have been exactly the same.

In once case, he sees the woman "fell in love with" three years previously--a woman who was so breathtakingly gorgeous that she obviously had to handle that kind of (unwanted) attention from men every day of her life. She let him down--nicely, but decidedly. Three years later, he uses his time travel skills to try again.  Which, excuse me? He would cheat on Rachel McAdams? Not good, movie.

In the end, he doesn't, but he did try, using time travel to increase his chances several times, making four or five decisions that were designed to cheat on Rachel McAdams. So screw you movie--this is not romantic and he is not a good person. This is not a rom com, it's about an obnoxious man who gets to have his cake and eat it too.

He's also got a pretty serious case of White Knight syndrome, as he runs around "fixing" things for all kinds of people. He "fixes" the performances of a couple of actors who have forgotten their lines on opening night. He tries to "fix" his sister's propensity for picking Very Bad Boyfriends by manipulating her choices through time travel. Again--kind of entitled and obnoxious, and utterly dependent on us believing that he knows better than anybody else how their lives should run. And that it is his obligation to interfere as directly as possible.

The climax of the movie revolves around the death of his father, Bill Nighy. Which is pretty tragic, you have to admit. A world without Bill Nighy in it is a diminished world indeed. On the day of the funeral, he travels back to talk with his dad, which is nice for him, but everybody else in the family has to actually grieve--and we're supposed to be invested in this guy, who hasn't really lost anything, so long as he can time travel back and have special father-son times.

After the funeral, his gorgeous wife (Rachel McAdams--did I tell you that already?) suggests that she'd like a third child. And this--THIS--is the moment of manpain for Our Hero. Because due to some time travel mumbo-jumbo, if he travels back before the birth of his children, when he comes back, they might be different kids. The specific sperm that created the child in one time stream might not be the same one in the new time. So if he goes ahead and has another child, he can't keep going back to visit his dad.

"If I was going to choose the future, I was going to have to let go of the past" he emotes in voice-over, and at this point I'm screaming in my brain "JOIN THE REST OF THE HUMAN RACE, YOU ENTITLED JERKFACE!" I mean, grow up! Everybody else in the known universe has to give up the past--it's not your unique dilemma!

So right before Rachel McAdams goes into labor, he goes back to visit his dad one last time. And Dad completely subverts the entire premise of the movie by asking if they can take one last walk together--and they go back in time when Domhall Gleeson WAS A KID. BEFORE ANY OF HIS CHILDREN WERE BORN. But he gets to go back to the same family he left, and has a sappy coda about how you live each day twice--once with all the usual petty irritations, and once making a point of appreciating all the good moments.

The final voice over informs us that he doesn't even do that anymore, because life is so great he doesn't need to. He's capable of enjoying living LIKE THE REST OF US SAD BASTARDS DO WHO CAN'T TIME TRAVEL. Oh my god, the condescension! The patronizing tone! He's got the True Path and he's letting us in on it--move forward in time one day at a time and appreciate it.

I think my grandmother had something like that embroidered on a tea towel in her kitchen. It is not earth-shattering news, Richard Curtis.

This is not a movie I will be revisiting again.

Thor: The Dark World, a Review

After a week of seeing Tom Hiddleston charm the world with his imitations and his snake-hipped dancing, I went to see his new movie, Thor: The Dark World.

Oh, sure, there are other people in this movie, in the same way there are stunt doubles and make-up artists--meaning they must have been there, but you never really noticed them, because Tom Hiddleston is all that you see. Everything non-Hiddleston is negligible. You've seen it before, you'll see it again, and it won't leave much of an impression. Except for Loki.

Let's recap. (And remember, I spoil ALL plots, because I am evil):

Sir Tony Hopkins exposits us into the movie with a forced grandeur, filling us in that "before there was light, it was really dark, and hard to see, and people tended to bang their shins on the furniture. Broken toes abounded, and the cat's tail got stepped on. It was a dire time."

That might not be an accurate transcription.

Anyway, back in the time before light, it was dark, which made the perfect environment for growing something called "Dark Elves," who are mostly extras in face obscuring masks. They are lead by Christopher Eccleston, which is convenient, because he used to be the Ninth Doctor, and the Dark Elf warriors look an awful lot like Doctor Who villains--specifically, the Cybermen.

Cybermen have that convenient handle on their heads for easier carrying, while the Dark Elves require a two-handed grip on the extended handles on either side of their heads. Dark Elves are slightly less stomp-y, although both species are remarkably unable to catch whomever they are chasing.

Christopher Eccleston, however, seems to have been cast for his cheekbones, as the rest of him is buried under so many layers of makeup and costume that he could have been anybody. All he is left to act with is his voice, and even that is heavily amped and echoed.

He is also rocking Legolas's wig. Or maybe Lucius Malfoy's. Like I said, you've seen all of this before.

So Malekith, the Head Dark Elf, and all his Malekin (see what I did there?) liked it with the lights out, so he created this movie's MacGuffin, "the Aether," which is a red ribbon of something that looks like a cross between cooling lava and something disturbingly menstrual. (And hoo-ee boy, could I push THAT metaphor--it invades a woman and makes her explode when anybody touches her. It is destroying her from the inside, and she spends a significant portion of the movie lying under a blanket, moaning. Who knew superhero movies knew about cramps?) But I digress.

What is Aether? Where does it come from? What does it do? How did Malekith invent the idea of it and how does it further his ambition to turn the universe dark again? Nobody knows--a wizard did it. Oh, but it is red matter--not AT ALL the same thing as Red Matter from the 2009 Star Trek reboot. Totally different, nothing to see here, move along now. Plus, there seem to be about two dozen of these Dark Elves, all of them male warriors. Because THAT'S a successful strategy for species propagation!

Anyway, Malekith tries to do whatever it is one does with Aether, and for some reason he can't do it wherever he invented it, so he has to fight a bunch of Asgardians, including King Bor, Thor's grandpa, who managed to defeat all the Dark Elves in hand to hand combat, despite the fact that the Elves all had gnarly spaceships and laser guns. Because nothing defeats a laser gun like a broadsword and some guys in leather armor! The elves jump into their space ships and leave, somehow leaving the Aether behind. "We cannot destroy it" intones King Bor, "so we must bury it, where no one will ever find it." Because that has historically always worked very well, and nobody ever finds The Thing That Must Not Be Found.

[For Doctor Who fanatics only--King Bor is played by Tony Curran, who was Vincent van Gogh in the 11th Doctor episode "Vincent and the Doctor." A personal favorite of mine.]

All of this happened about 5000 years ago, because there is some tech babble explanation about how often the universe rotates and the Nine Worlds align and the borders go soft and cement trucks float. Whatever. Does it matter?

In nowadays, Natalie Portman is for some inexplicable reason on a date with Chris O'Dowd at a London restaurant. This is a criminal waste of Chris O'Dowd's floppy haired, puppy dog charm, because Natalie Portman--as Dr. Jane Foster--is still pining for the fjords.

"Fjords" is s term which here means "Chris Hemsworth's very impressive muscular definition."

At this point of the movie, you might want to check IMDB for a cast list, because Dr. Jane Foster does not seem to be played by Natalie Portman so much as by Kate Middleton's shiny shiny hair.

This is Kate Middleton
This is Kate Middleton's hair on Natalie Portman's head
The picture does not do the hair justice. If this hair was an athlete, it would be soooooo juiced. It would be Lance Armstrong, who managed to win yet another Tour de France in 2075, despite being clinically dead, because of all the performance enhancing drugs in his system. (Does that make any sense?) If this hair was potatoes, it would be potatoes after being distilled seven thousand times into the purest vodka ever vodka-ed. It is to hair what Hollywood CGI battle scenes are to toddler gymnastic classes.

Her hair is unbelievable. Possibly the most unbelievable thing in a movie about prehistoric elves in spaceships.

Anyway, Natalie's very awkward date is interrupted by Kat Denning as her research assistant with some kind of handheld device showing "readings." Which causes Natalie to ditch the date in order to go Do Science! Because she is a Scientist! Who discovers Anomalies! But in between chucking shoes and car keys into the Anomaly! she gets sucked into one and ends up in the kind of Vast Underground Cathedral-sized Space (TM) that you naturally build when you are trying to hide something Very Dangerous. I mean, you carve out something large enough to house all those Dark Elf space ships, and you "contain" the Red Matter Aether by putting it between two slabs of columnar rock with the opening to the Aether right at hand height? And then this stuff sort of--smells?--the presence of a human (none of which were present at the previous battle, which was all Norse Gods and space aliens, so how does it recognize?) and then attacks her, by which we mean insinuates itself into her body and then deposits her back where she came from. 

There is some (alleged) comic miscommunication as Dr. Natalie Portman hollers at Kat, because Kat shouldn't have called the police. Why? Because now the police will want to Do Science? "But," sputters Kat, "you disappeared for five hours." And then Thor shows up.

Let's take a break here for a new game we're calling "Reality versus Movie Tropes." It's fun! See, I give you the set up, and you guess what Movie Trope will force to have happen, because it is entirely NOT what would happen in real life. Ready? Hands on your buzzers!

Thor shows up. It's been two entire years since he disappeared from Dr. Natalie's life. Two years with no contact, and she's been pining for his fjords SO HARD that she actually stopped doing science. This Norse God of a giant blond slab of hunkitude reappears to save her from a life of Chris O'Dowd dates. What will Dr. Natalie Portman do?

A. She will run to him and make up for two years of no Thor by kissing the hell out of him.
B. She will get shy and awkward--it's been two years. A lot could have happened, and maybe he's not interested anymore?
C. She will be too busy with the Science of Anomalies! and being arrested to properly process his presence.
D. She will be relieved that he's healthy and alive (lots of fighting in Asgard you know).
E. She will play cool and casual, while trying to find out what happened and why he is there now.
Got your answer picked out and written down? Good, and the correct response is--

Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Trick question! The answer is--none of the above. Because all of those are actual possible human responses, and THIS is a comic book movie! We're going for the broadest of cliches and unrealistic responses!

Thor re-appears after a two year absence, and Natalie slaps him. Twice. Of course she does. Because domestic abuse is always funny!  And because she's so tiny, and he's a powerful Norse God of thunder so its like he wouldn't even notice her puny human emotions! That makes it even funnier, right?

It isn't funny. It's just formulaic. It's what you totally expect to have happen, so it happens, and it's lazy lazy screenwriting. 

Meanwhile, the police are going nuts, and trying to arrest her for something, and the level of panic is entirely ridiculous. The cop tries to take her into custody for trespassing or some fool thing, and he puts a hand on her arm and BOOM! A flash of red and the police are blown back 30 feet! 

So then, without asking her, or warning her, or anything that might smack of treating her like an adult woman who might have opinions on anything, Thor hijacks her to Asgard. Why? Because he's had his personal stalker (Heimdall) tracking her every move, and Heimdall couldn't see her so obviously she needs to locked up in Asgard where Thor can keep her under his control. And that isn't at all creepy.

So we're back in Asgard, where the royal family apparently lives in a giant pipe organ.

So the first thing that happens is that somebody decides that she needs some kind of medical care, because she's got some kind of infection. Yeah, that's what the explosion was--an infection. So she's plopped on a table, where mystical golden glitter makes vaguely CT scan shapes in the air above her. 

Yeah. Let's think about this. Dr. Natalie is a scientist. She's been delivered to a "medical" facility that's run in a place where everybody wears body armor ALL THE TIME because of all the swords and axes and daggers fighting that breaks out all the time. Where everything continues to be basically medieval. Where the medical equipment is glitter. Yeah, I'm thinking she's going to be skeptical that there's any kind of scientific method going on around here. 

Odin shows up, and he diagnoses that she's got a case of the Aether. And she accepts that--because of science! 

[The theory of aether was originally an attempt to explain what space was made out of. It was what supposedly held the stars in the sky, roughly equivalent to the way water surrounds fish. As a "scienctist," I would expect Dr. Natalie to be insisting on some kind of evidenced based medicine, treatment protocols, etc. But then I remember--this is a COMIC BOOK movie.]

So the treatment for her condition seems to be to drape her in medieval clothes with a little light armor and to go walking around with Thor. They also recreate some scenes from the Star Wars prequels, because nobody's going to remember those, right?

Meanwhile, back on Earth--

Stellan Skarsgaard is caught on television running around Stonehenge naked, and taken to the male geriatic psychiatric ward--which is full of elderly men, because only the elderly and decrepit go mad? Because despite being so significant a threat to normal people that he has to be incarcerated in a psychiatric ward, if they just put him in a room of old people, and he goes berserk--again--who cares? They are old? Anyway, Stellan Skarsgaard brings the audience up to speed by exposition dumping about Convergence of the Nine Worlds and Stan Lee makes his contractually obligated cameo.

Fortunately, because he is just that smart (even though he is also crazy), he has apparently already built camera tripods that will something something Save The Day at the end of the film, even though he hasn't any clue about the existence of the Big Bad Red Matter MacGuffin Aether because nobody knows about it yet! Yay science! And he has them with him! So when Kat Dennings and generic additional comedic intern show up and pretend to be relatives, nobody has to do any more science!

At some point, and the chronology is getting confused in my head, Christopher Eccleston wakes up from his vaguely Christ-like pose on his Sooper Sekkrit Spaceship, and swiftly becomes Eric Bana from the Star Trek reboot, and comes looking for Natalie Portman's blood Aether.

Christopher Eccleston as Malekith

Eric Bana as Nero

I TOLD you guys--you've seen this movie before! Both these guys have "lost their home worlds" and they want to punish the people who hurt them (Aasgard in Thor, Vulcan in Star Trek) so they come swooping in with their black spaceships and lay waste to everything around them. Malekith is still pretty neolithic, since despite having space technology, he pretty much just plows the spaceship into all the stone columns he can find, thus literally toppling Aasgard.

Nero at least managed to explode the Vulcan planet, so points to him for efficacy.

The bad guys slaughter all the Aasgard guards and go let everybody else out of the Aasgard prison, except for Loki. Which was their error. Who wouldn't want a pissed off and snake hipped god on their side?

We all would. 

Anyway, Malekith manages to not find Jane but kills Frigga anyway, and then goes away because it's only Act II and thus too early for a final showdown. So Rene Russo is dead, although she was a pretty bad-ass fighter for someone with only a short sword and an whole lot of stupid extra fabric which got in the way of her ninja moves. So she's dead, and we get all the manpain of Odin and Thor and even Loki, and they launch her body in a Viking boat and (unlike on Game of Thrones) (where we saw this most recently) the archer hits it with his flaming arrow the first time and then the boat goes over the waterfall and we see all the rest of the boats for all the rest of the fallen guards killed by the elves, and they are all on fire and then everybody at Aasgard has a light up Christmas ornament that they release into the sky and the horns swell and I'm thinking. . .

. . .where the hell did all those boats come from? Does Asgard have a major dinghy manufacturing economy? Does everybody in Asgard have prepaid Viking funeral insurance plans, where they keep these boats around, just in case they all die at once? What kind of gods are these?

Pretty mortal ones, I guess, since in all the fighting they do--with medieval weaponry for the most part, because that's what you want against a bunch of space ships--they seem to be as vulnerable as humans. In face, their only fighting advantage seems to be that they are fast, so if you can get a blade on them, they are just as dead as anybody else. I guess this is why they also wear body armor all the damn time too--because they aren't actually gods, they aren't actually immortal, they are just like us only with a weird fetish for horned helmets.

Sidebar--I mean, what the heck is the deal with these people? There's Idris Elba as the all-seeing Heimdall, who can see all the trillions of souls in all nine worlds, and he wears an enormous helmet--full time.

Is he afraid somebody is going to sneak up behind him and hit him with a sword, and he's not going to see them coming?

Anyway, Thor and Odin have a difference of opinion on how to prepare for the return of Malekith. Thor thinks he should take on the space ships alone, with his hammer. Odin thinks its better to just wait until Malekith comes back to Asgard, and then they will attack the space ships with soldiers and spears. (Hey, it worked in Avatar!) Then Malekith will get bored of killing everybody, or tired of all the bodies piling up and surrender? I do not think either of these "plans" is likely to work very well.  But Norse mythology tends to lean toward raucous brawling and away from military strategy, so what do we expect?

Let's cut to the chase--by which we mean all the action sequences, because this review is already too damn long.

So Thor sneaks out of Asgard with Dr. Natalie after freeing Loki from prison, because Thor isn't good at sneaky and Loki is. They try a showdown with Malekith on some desolate plain, where Malekith  gets the Aether out of Natalie, and Loki gets killed and dies pathetically as Thor tries manfully to save him.

That didn't go so well.

Wait--haven't we seen this before? Why yes! We have!

What? Oh, no, Loki wasn't wearing a full coverage helmet. So I guess it's totally different. Okay then.

There's another battle at Asgard, I think, and then the entire universe converges around the center point of the Naval Observatory at Greenwich in England, so Malekith goes there to set off his weapon. Meanwhile, Thor and Dr. Natalie are ostensibly marooned wherever they are, since Loki was the one who knew how to get back, and now he's dead. [Spoiler--he's not really dead! He's a trickster! He's also the breakout character and no way is Marvel going to off Tom Hiddleston.] But hey! There's a bunch of shoes and the car keys and Chris O'Dowd is calling on the cell phone. Anomalies to the rescue!

There is much running around and shooting and blowing things up and CGI destruction of the lovely Greenwich grounds, and somehow Malekith is sucked into his spaceship and his body gets exploded and all the Dark Elves are miraculously killed, and Kat Dennings gets a boyfriend and the world is saved hooray!

Some random thoughts:

  • So the threat is to the entirety of the universe. All life is going to be snuffed out for all time, and the universe returned to it's pre-Big Bang state. Well, you wouldn't want to interrupt any of the other Avengers for anything like that. I mean, Hawkeye probably has some bows to restring, and Tony Stark is ordering in some shawarma baskets. Probably best to leave them out of this one. (H/T to Mark Lisanti at Grantland for pointing that out.)
  • What is the deal with Natalie Portman's forehead? Seriously, you guys, it's like her hairline has receded, and it's just so darn bulbous. Is this to provide more room for all the Science Brains she supposedly has but never actually uses in this movie?
  • There is one totally gratuitous skin shot, where the camera pans and lingers over the dewy golden curves and hollows of....Chris Hemsworth's torso. Which is probably what winning the Oscar gave Portman--the right to nix any nudes scenes. And while it is refreshing to see this kind of soft core scene NOT about the female form, equal opportunity sexism kind of points out how unnecessary such a scene really is. 
  • 3D--was there any point to it? No.
It is worth seeing? Honestly, you've already decided by now. If you like this kind of movie, in which case you have already seen it. If you don't like this kind of movie, this one isn't going to change your mind. It's exactly what you expect, and full of things you've seen before. It's professionally executed, and sufficiently pretty to look at. It makes no sense, is overlong and bogs down in Asgard. But Hemsworth acquits himself well enough and looks good, Hiddleston continues to own the character and to be shortchanged by not enough to do, and everybody else earns their paychecks.