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Out in Theaters: ‘THOR: RAGNAROK’

Candy-colored Thor: Ragnarok is a retro, dimension-hopping hoot. Rambunctious, joyous and just plain fun to watch, Ragnarok is shellacked with vintage Taika Waititi style, the critical darling director behind such rollicking Rotten Tomatoes-adored comedy-adventures as Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows and Boy retaining his idiomatic filmmaking tactics even under the watchful eye of notoriously handsy Marvel producers. The best of the Thor films (and this coming from someone who actually admits to enjoying the previous two), Ragnarok employs Taika’s signature witty, irreverent approach to comedy and his knack for building genuine camaraderie among squirelly outcasts to craft the funniest blockbuster of the year, one that doubles as a hell of an odd-couple intergalactic road trip, even if it still barely breaks the lather-rinse-repeat nature of the Marvel Cinematic Universe mold.  Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US’

I was duped. The culprit? The Mountain Between Us. What appeared to be a two-hander survival drama between thespian heavies Kate Winslet and Idris Elba slowly melted into a Nick Sparksian romance meets 90’s Eagles ballad. “Love Will Keep Us Alive” may not play over the credits but it’s the essential thrust of this otherwise admittedly well-performed, handsomely shot feature film and as the material pivots into saccharine territory, it loses both steam and credibility, resulting in a final slog that’ll shatter more suspension of disbelief than bones in Winslet’s ankle.  Read More

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Blu-Ray Review: ‘THE JUNGLE BOOK’

Synopsis: “Raised by a family of wolves since birth, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) must leave the only home he’s ever known when the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) unleashes his mighty roar. Guided by a no-nonsense panther (Ben Kingsley) and a free-spirited bear (Bill Murray), the young boy meets an array of jungle animals, including a slithery python and a smooth-talking ape. Along the way, Mowgli learns valuable life lessons as his epic journey of self-discovery leads to fun and adventure.” Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘STAR TREK BEYOND’

Beyond darkness. Beyond logic. Beyond hope. The latest Star Trek film zooms beyond at hyper speed, rarely pausing to strike a Thinker’s pose. (Though it would rather like you to think it does.) Whereas Auguste Rodin’s bronze baby heralds contemplation, Star Trek Beyond plows through any fleeting semblance of intelligence like a horde of metal space bees engaged in kamikaze. Failing to ruminate on why audiences ought to care one iota about its disposable, busied antics. Hurrying from one expense-sheet-filling green-screen scuttlebutt to the next. Over-relying on character relationships that are age old but still skin-deep. Just another blockbuster puffy with CG steroids that’s lacking a brain, passing off sentimentality as heart and blahly going where we’ve all certainly been before. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘FINDING DORY’

Once upon a time, Pixar was infallible. Of their first 11 films, only one (Cars) was a dud (or at least a letdown) and even then it was one of the studio’s most bankable flicks. Now, take a peek at Pixar’s business model going forward. The animation studio, now infamously paired up with Disney, have pledged to produce an original film every year coupled with a sequel to an existing property that’ll see release every other year. This means Cars 3, The Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4 have already begun development. Respectively finishing off a trilogy that adults have responded to with almost as much non-enthusiasm as toy sales the property has generated. Perhaps the most in-demand and long-awaited Pixar sequel to-be. And another capstone to Pixar’s gold standard franchise, which many believe to have already been concluded to near-perfection in 2010. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘BEASTS OF NO NATION’

War films have never been as great as they were from the late-70s to the mid-80s. There was an esthetic richness to them, a vast sense of moral disorientation that defined them. Surfers catching waves neck deep in the shit, soldier’s squeezing the triggers of pistols squared at their heads, combatants throwing their arms up in defeat. That iconography sticks for a reason. In the era of 9/11, there have been some excellent war films, but like the wars themselves, the weapons, scenery and tone have changed. Beasts of No Nation is a heavyhearted throwback to the great war epics of the Vietnam generation and tells the sorrowful saga of a child soldier’s dark transformation. Read More

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BEASTS OF NO NATION Trailer Stuns

Just the other day, we included Beasts of No Nation amongst our Fall 2015 preview, citing its African warlord premise, exciting cast and director each as reasons to start the hype machine early. After its Venice Film Festival premiere two days ago, critics are already swooning over star Idris Elba‘s performance as well as the film itself. No wonder then that Netflix has decided that the Beasts of No Nation trailer ought be seen be all. So it goes, strike while the iron’s hot. Read More

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Out in Theaters: MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”
Directed by Justin Chadwick
Starring Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Jamie Bartlett, Deon Lotz, Terry Pheto, Gys de Villiers
Biography, Drama, History
139 Mins
PG-13

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Nelson Mandela deserved better than the dour glossary of events present in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Failing to capture the spirit of the apartheid, except in bursts of violence amidst a rotation of disconnected massacres, Justin Chadwick‘s film replaces thoughtful reflection on a cultural epoch with as many headlines events as possible. Idris Elba‘s turn as the titular South African hero is the easy highlight of this otherwise throwaway film but the real motivation of Nelson and wife Winnie Mandela are trapped somewhere in the performances, left on the editing room floor, and never given enough room to breathe and evolve into the epic struggle we know the world around.

The biggest problem Mandela encounters is that it doesn’t seem to know what to keep and what to cut. Running over two hours and twenty minutes, the film is a definitive slog. From seeing Mandela as a young child growing up on the tribal plains of Mvezo to his election as president of South Africa, no detail is spared. Rather honing in on a number of significant events in Mandela’s life, William Nicholson‘s screenplay just blasts every minuscule detail in there. Inevitably, they land with as little impact as possible because of the snapshot nature of their inclusion. Had this host of details been incorporated into part of a larger scheme, or even a Mandela miniseries, this all inclusive tactic may have worked fine and given meaningful chapters to a meaningful life, but within the framework of a two-and-a-half-hour movie, the film feels bloated to the point of bursting.

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Nicholson is no stranger to epics – he wrote the screenplay for Gladiator and Les Misérables – so there’s really no excuse for why the story got away from him. Letting the scope of the picture drive the story rather than the other way around, Nicholson’s script confuses information for intimacy. Instead of spending ample time getting to know Mandela, most of our meetings with him try to inform us of what kind of man he is. Rather than seeing the man in action, we hear about his actions secondarily – all serviced up expecting astonishment but frequently landing with a crunch. As a complete work, it’s closer in kind to Les Misérables wandering structure than Gladiator’s streamlined epic. While Maximus’ journey was a natural progression of events that increased the stakes chapter by chapter until a massively rewarding climax, Mandela’s long walk feels dull and meaningless by comparison. This fact alone is a bit of a disgrace.

Beneath the cake of old man makeup, Elba gives a solid performance as Mandela but he’s unable to keep the rest of the project afloat. He’s got the choppy cadence and regal tone down pat, and it’s nice to him see escape his recent slate of blockbuster supporting roles, but Nicholson’s lackluster script, surprisingly enough, doesn’t give him a ton to work him. For a man who spent 27 years rotting away in a jail cell on Robben Island, few scenes spend time probing the spiritual roller coaster of Mandela’s evolving psyche.

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Shifting from lawyer to outlaw, man to message, “terrorist” to president – and always trying his best to remain a peacemaker – the Mandela onscreen remains largely the same. For all the heated ideas of revolution stirring, we’re in the back corner wondering when all this chatter will die down so we can actually dig into the man’s mind. Instead, we are forced to take any “transformation” at face value. We’re frequently told of a man changed but there’s little supporting evidence for these bold claims of metamorphosis. This is a man considered by many to be next to sainthood and yet it feels like he hasn’t grown a day in the 80-odd years we see him onscreen.

Although not helped a lot by the words on the page, Naomie Harris flounders as Nelson’s wife, Winnie Mandela. Screaming and shrieking her way through most of her lines, she is a character with a very clear transformation but it all takes place behind some mystical curtain. Audiences in search of understanding will be largely disappointed as we never see the stepping stones leading from Winnie 1.0 to Winnie 2.0. She shifts overnight, in the shadows, robbing us of any semblance of understanding, meanwhile rendering the film even more vanilla for its unwillingness to dissect a controversial character.

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Obviously the makers of this film had nothing but good intentions in the making of Mandela but the fact of the matter is not everyone can get a gold star for effort. Their goal is appropriate; to bring a balanced biopic with equal measures of entertainment and education; but it just never comes to fruition, it never follows through on its promise. In their textbook approach, they’ve lost the majestic sense of wonder we come to expect of a film. Sidelining a succinct story arc for tell-all testimony, Mandela is designed to be played by substitute teachers in History classes across America for the next decade. It’s unlikely to have much staying power beyond that.

Nelson Mandela was a man who championed compromise, so maybe this is a suiting film for his legacy. Instead of being deeply entertaining or deeply informative, it lands somewhere in the middle, compromising depth for surface level knowledge and sidelining deserved dramatic beats for melodrama. Instead of being a really good chapter of Mandela’s life, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is little more than the Nelson Mandela Spark Notes.

D+

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Out in Theaters: THOR: THE DARK WORLD

“Thor: The Dark World”
Directed by Alan Taylor
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portland, Stellan Skarsgård, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Jaimie AlexanderZachary Levi, Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Chris O’Dowd
Action, Adventure, Fantasy
112 Mins
PG-13

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Between Chris Hemsworth‘s washboard abs and the razzle-dazzle signature FX of Marvel‘s brand, Thor: The Dark World uses blinding awesomeness to cast shade on its portended plotting. First and foremost a Marvel movie, this second (or third if you’re counting The Avengers) outing for the God of Thunder rounds all of the superhero studio’s likely bases, but a gilded touch from Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor helps bring an epic scope to the proceedings. Far exceeding the first film in terms of visual panache and high stakes action beats, the crowning gem of the Thor camp continues to be Tom Hiddleston‘s Loki. Deviant, seething, and locked away for treason, Loki may not be as much of a focal point as he was as the big baddie in The Avengers but he persists in being the most complex and unpredictable character in Marvel’s stable.

This time around, Thor lacks the megalomaniacal egoism of the first installment. His (massively sized) head is distracted by the clout of his lost love, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), waiting for him back on Earth two years after Thor’s first departure. But a new evil stirs in the Dark Elves, a race that predates all living beings – warriors born of darkness (whatever that means) and intent on bringing all nine realms back under their control, demanding Thor and his hammer’s attention.

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Lead by Malekith (a wasted Christopher Eccleston), the Dark Elves are a race defeated thousands of years ago by Thor’s grandpappy in a cold open that somewhat successfully tries to harness the cold open of Lord of the Rings. Thought to be extinct (in a royally dickish move, Malekith sacrifices his entire race to make his secret escape), Malekith and his inner circle of bad boy elves come out of hibernation, scowling like pissed off grizzly bears, on the dawn of an intergalactic alignment, seeking the means to their universal dominance – a living relic known only as the Aether. But on that fateful battleground thousands of years ago, the war-worn Asgardians (in a move of really poor planning) hid the Aether away on some secret dark world, unguarded and, for all intents and purposes, forgotten.

Back on Earth, a now nudist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) is the only one who has any clue about the impending intergalactic alignment to come and what it may mean for an Earth recently savaged by malevolent aliens, but he gets tossed in the Loony bin for streaking around Stonehenge. Because what better way to convince people that you’ve got a great theory than to strip off your skivvies and let your bits fly free? In his absence, Foster and the permanently obnoxious Darcy (Kat Dennings) begin to discover rifts in the space continuum, illustrated by floating trucks and invisible wormholes. By an act of supreme chance, Foster ends up transported to where the Asgardians have hidden the Aether away and becomes infected with its power/poison. Cue her face-slapping reunion with Thor and the impetus for the events to come. 

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As much as the cookie-cutter nature of these films has become an almost necessary byproduct of the Marvel brand, Thor: The Dark World proves that cleverness is a viable trump card for cliché. Using illusions and false expectation to pull the wool over the audience’s eye, The Dark World employs many of Loki’s tricks to heighten our sense of not knowing what’s going to happen. However old the malignant villain with schemes of world (here universe) domination may be getting, it’s the journey to their inevitable defeat that matters most and Taylor seems to know this fact well.

But it’s not a Marvel movie without visual flourish swinging from the rafters and Taylor and Marvel’s battalion of special effects up the ante from previous endeavors. With more world hopping than any of the former Marvel flicks (standalones and The Avengers included) Thor: The Dark World really opens up the universe to new prospects. The transition from realm to realm provides for welcome scenery changes as well as a nifty cornerstone for the big set pieces – later used to great effect in the perfunctory third act showdown – while also establishing the grounds for Marvel’s biggest risk pick yet, The Guardians of the Galaxy (who get the standard tease treatment in the mid-credits sequence).

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As the Marvel Cinematic Universe opens its doors to a whole new set of possibilities, they have also perfected their balancing act of big action sequences with casually cunning humor – a proven recipe for franchise gold, now tastier than ever. Here, bigger is better as The Dark World benefits greatly from the ever-increasing magnitude of its dazzling set pieces. The once sparkling Asgard of Thor has been cleaned up in its dressing down, offering more grit than polish this time round. Even the flashy rainbow bridge is wowing now, a far cry from the chintzy silliness of the first. A mid-film airborne assault on Asgard showcases Taylor’s knack for staging battle and begins a course of acceleration that doesn’t let up until the final credits roll (only to be interrupted not once, but twice by post credit scenes).

Many amongst the critical community have cried foul play of late, knocking Marvel for a lack of originality and constant adherence to formula, but they seem to forget that the reason Marvel continues with this low-risk, high-reward rubric is because they are so consistently satisfying. Thor: The Dark World may be exactly what you expect and offer little artistry but Hollywood was founded on escapism and it’s this escapism that Taylor has harnessed so well here. Sure going to the theater to experience heartbreak, tragedy, or profound self-exploration may be more “important” – perhaps even essential to our own personal growth – but we experience enough heartbreak in our own lives, not to mention the daily news cycle, to constantly crave more. Sometimes it’s enough to sit back and watch a superhero smash bad guys and save the day because there’s nowhere else in life where we can sit back and know full well good will prevail.

B

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