Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Rene Russo. Directed by Alan Taylor.
The first Thor film was an unexpected surprise. I saw the trailer and thought, “There is no way that can be any good.” I was wrong. As utterly bizarre as the premise and plot were, it was an entertaining movie whose underlying conflict between immortal brothers was strangely humanizing. Add that to Thor’s fish-out-of-water story on earth, and there was something almost universal about a Norse god roaming the streets of New Mexico with Padme Amidala.
I had high hopes for this sequel, but then reviews were lukewarm, and people close to me said it was a fairly unmemorable movie, so I didn’t go out of my way to see it until I decided two years later that I want to see all the films in this Marvel universe. Low expectations were surely part of my enjoyment of the first movie, and now they contribute to my enjoyment of the sequel. It’s compelling and funny, with characters I enjoyed spending time with, and I like it just as much as I liked the first film.
Loki is imprisoned by his father Odin, the king of Asgard. Thor and his buddies are finishing a war across nine realms, sparked (I think) by the events in the first movie, so although his heart yearns to get back to Jane Foster in New Mexico, as he promised, he’s been a little too busy. Now the nine realms are about to converge, creating portals linking them directly, and an ancient foe who has been in hibernation arises to undo the mistake that was the creation of the nine realms. Jane gets involved, her life is in peril, Loki’s assistance must be solicited, and we get another round of the Thor-Loki love-hate dynamic.
And it is not tired. It’s still gripping. Don’t ask me how. There are so many ways Thor: The Dark World should just be laughable, but it’s not, and I don’t know how they do it, but it may have something to do with one very quick scene at the beginning of the third act. Thor shows up at Jane’s house, and as he enters, he hangs Mjolnir, the mighty hammer that has vanquished giants with one blow, on a peg on a coat rack. It is an acknowledgment of the strangeness of this film’s premise without conceding any of its reality within the universe it has created. Thor sees how out of place he is, how impossible it is for him to be there, but he is there, and Hemsworth plays his part with the right amount—just a smidgen—of awkward imbalance to flavor the rest of his utmost earnestness. It totally works, even with a nonsensical, ambiguously western European accent.
Anna Magdalena (1998)
Takeshi Kaneshiro, Aaron Kwok, Kelly Chen. Directed by Yee Chung-Man. Cantonese with English subtitles.
Chan Kar-fu is a piano tuner, a career choice that seems to suit him well. He lives alone, he doesn’t appear to have any friends, and there’s a kind of straight-laced exactitude about him. When he meets Yau Muk-yan at a customer’s house, Muk-yan is in the process of breaking up with his girlfriend, leaving her sobbing, apparently only because it’s time to move on.
The two strike an uneasy acquaintance, and since Muk-yan has nowhere to go, he moves temporarily into Kar-fu’s apartment. Where Kar-fu is quiet and keeps to himself, Muk-yan is loud, with no job and no direction in his life other than supposedly trying to write a novel while gambling any money he gets his hands on. So when a pretty woman moves in upstairs, it’s pretty easy to guess who falls in love with whom, who gets shafted, and who ends up happily ever after.
Only it doesn’t quite work out that way. While the film follows the familiar Hollywood romantic comedy path for its first three acts (labeled here as “movements” in loose agreement with J.S. Bach’s Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, which seems to include “Minuet in G,” and plays a large part in the film’s soundtrack and in the structure of the story), the fourth takes an unusual turn that should be experienced without spoiling. It’ll have to be enough to say this is not quite what you’re used to seeing in American romantic comedies.
The acting is solid but not outstanding. Muk-yan takes up so much energy and space that he leaves little room for Kar-fu or Mok Man-Yee, the pretty piano-playing neighbor upstairs. This is surely how it would be in real life, of course, but director Yee Chung-man lets the character fill too much of the frame too much of the time, so that we don’t get to know Man-Yee at all. Something is making her sad and angry, but we have no idea what it is, or whether these emotions are from recent events or just her personality. This makes it impossible to know if she’s making good choices, or to get any sense of how much each of the romantic rivals might actually love her.
It’s still an enjoyable movie with an interesting narrative premise, and that fourth act, however it plays out, is creative and intriguing, in a fantastic, baffling way.
My Lucky Star (2013)
Zhang Ziyi, Leehom Wang, Terri Kwan. Directed by Dennie Gordon. Cantonese, mostly, with English subtitles.
My Lucky Star is a romantic comedy in costume as one of those blundering detective-spy movies like Get Smart or The Pink Panther. It’s a good idea I wouldn’t mind seeing Hollywood attempt with some of my favorite actors. Zhang Ziyi, who’s usually in straight dramas, gets the flirty, silly, dreamer-girl role in this one, and her screen presence makes up for a lot of bad story, most of the time. Every time I thought I had seen just about enough of a meaningless, uninteresting plot, I was caught by little moments of genuine humor, so I finished it over the course of four sittings spread out over four months.
Zhang plays Sophie. She answers phones at a travel agency by day, but in her off time (and, increasingly, during work, too), she dreams of being a comic book artist. Her stories are beautifully drawn tales of pretty girls falling in love with handsome adventurers, a made-up life she fantasizes about for herself. When her made-up stories dominate conversations with her best friends, they decide she needs a real-life injection, so they schedule a trip to Singapore together, only Sophie’s friends never show up. Left to fend for herself, she stumbles into a crazy, ridiculous, completely boring story of an enormous diamond, wealthy criminals who want to blow up the world, a mysterious black widow whose three ex-husbands have met unfortunate ends, and an undercover cop (or spy; it’s never made clear but that doesn’t matter) named David.
Sophie’s cluelessness gets her inextricably involved in all this espionage and international crime; David is forced to team up with her; there’s an amusing training sequence where Sophie learns to fight. Chinese films tend to present poetic moments, but those moments are seldom lingered on, the way they are in Japanese films. There are a couple of moments in My Lucky Star, however, where completely out of nowhere, we get that lingering, as when David tells Sophie to observe the scenery around them. He sees exit routes and possible hidden weapons. Sophie, the artist-dreamer-storyteller, sees something completely different, and it is the film’s best scene, one of those moments you remember long after you’ve forgotten everything else about the movie, like that tell-me-why-you-love-wine scene in Sideways.
There are other, smaller intances like that, and they completely rescue the film from being merely a reason to spend time with one of the most beautiful actresses in the world in a wide variety of costumes. There’s a whimsy here that says the film-makers were having some creative fun, even while telling one of the most clichéd stories in filmdom. This is by no means a must-see film, but it made me feel pretty good, and that’s what a romantic comedy is supposed to do, no matter the sad, sorry state of your tortured romantic soul. Worth a look if you love romantic comedies and/or Zhang Ziyi.
Three-point Zhang Ziyi bump.
Mean Girls (2004)
Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Amanda Seyfried, Tina Fey, Tim Meadows, Amy Poehler, Lizzy Caplan. Directed by Mark Waters; written by Tina Fey.
It’s easy to forget what a bright talent Linsday Lohan was in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Mean Girls is a great reminder. It makes me want to see her in other films I’ve missed.
Lohan plays Cady Heron, whose zoologist parents have homeschooled her in Africa before accepting tenure at Northwestern University. At sixteen, Cady experiences school for the first time, and quickly learns that you can’t just sit anywhere you want, in the classroom or in the cafeteria. You can’t just get up to go the bathroom during class—you need the hall pass, and the teacher’s not giving you the hall pass because students can’t be trusted. And no matter how much you love math (or how good you are at it), you can’t join the math team if you don’t want to commit social suicide.
She quickly befriends Janis and Damien, two fringe-dwelling artistic types who help her make some sense of this crazy new terrain, but because she’s pretty, she’s also adopted by the Plastics, three beautiful young women whom everyone hates and envies. She has very little in common with the Plastics, whose leader, Regina George, sets all the school’s fashion trends without trying, but Janis and Damien encourage her to accept Regina’s invitation to join, acting as kind of a spy.
Things quickly get a little crazy, and while Cady seems ill equipped to deal with some of the choices confronting her, it’s clear she’s smart enough to figure most of them out, and this is one of the things that makes me like this picture. When she does stupid things to get the attention of the handsome senior who sits in front of her in calculus, or when she’s caught saying unkind things behind someone’s back, she doesn’t look around for someone to blame. Although she can be slow to take responsibility herself, she eventually owns up for everything without ever pointing at others.
Mean Girls has a few stupid, goofy moments I’m mostly willing to overlook, because it’s a fun, smart, well-directed, well-acted film with a lot for high-schoolers to love. Rachel McAdams, Lizzy Caplan, and (especially) Amanda Seyfried are luminous in their shiny, pink vinyl way, and the school’s grownups are (mostly) well represented, particularly Tim Meadows as the principal and Tina Fey as the math teacher. There’s a really bad touchy-feely moment at the end I hate, but I expect young viewers will respond positively to it. I would like to have shown this to my students in class so we could unpack it together.
I’ve seen it three times now, and it’s a very re-watchable movie, a good candidate for a purchase.
PS: If you see it on a DVD containing special features, I recommend the featurettes, especially the one about costuming. The commentary (with Tina Fey, director Mark Waters, and producer Lorne Michaels) isn’t especially illuminating, but parts of it are enjoyable.
Money Monster (2016)
Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Greta Lee. Directed by Jodie Foster.
Lee Gates hosts one of those financial advice shows on a cable news station, with crazy graphics and general hamming it up, as much a show about a personality as investing. He’s so full of himself and so disdainful of people around him that nobody can stand him in real life, although he seems oblivious to this truth. His longtime director Patty Fenn has finally had enough, and although nobody knows it yet, today is her last day before she quits and heads to the rival network across the street. She grits her teeth through Gates’s ridiculous interactions because she’s through.
Kyle Budwell is a regular shmoe, just a guy who, on Gates’s advice, invested his modest inheritance in a company Gates said was a can’t-miss. He sneaks onto the Gates set and takes him hostage, live on the air, demanding that Gates explain how thousands of investors on his solid advice lost millions of dollars, and how Gates can live with this knowledge. Budwell straps explosives to Gates and shows the TV audience that he has one of those hand-held plunger detonators: if he lets go of the device, Gates and everyone in the building is going to be blown up.
Fenn continues to direct the show, sending her staffers on a search for people at the can’t-miss company who can explain the computer glitch that cost investors all this money. It’s a double layer of drama, with the hostage situation in the studio and reporters tracking down answers from the firm, Fenn playing QB in both games.
Money Monster is attempted commentary on the way American investors and companies treat each other, with a somewhat more interesting (and less direct) exploration of television news programs. Neither view is rewarding or insightful, although the high-school drama teacher in me was kind of intrigued by the relationship between director and performer, and how a good production team works to deliver a good product.
The film’s real strength is in the acting chops of Julia Roberts and George Clooney. Even in semi-insipid material like this, you can see an easy confidence in each actor’s approach. In fact, it all looks a little too easy for them both, leaving me with the impression that although they were very good in their roles, neither brought anything to the film that less talented actors could have brought. This isn’t a complaint, because given the choice between a ho-hum movie starring Roberts and Clooney and a ho-hum movie starring almost anyone else, I’ll happily take the former. They really do know what they’re doing, and boy are they pretty to look at.
Since there’s not much to say about the film, I’ll add two notes of mild interest. One of Fenn’s assistants is played by the daughter of Phylicia and Ahmad Rashad. And the actress who plays the Korean interpreter is Greta Lee, who was the very funny manicurist in the (also so-so) Tina Fey film Sisters. I like her.
Five-point Julia Roberts bump.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, William Hurt, Tim Roth, Tim Blake Nelson. Written by Zak Penn; directed by Louis Leterrier.
I didn’t think I’d care much for Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, now that I’ve gotten used to Mark Ruffalo, but it only took a few minutes for me to see the appeal of this casting. He reminds me so much of Bill Bixby in the television version that I felt comfortable and nostalgic with Norton in the role. I love the brainy quiet Norton brings, and he communicates the always-looking-over-his-shoulder vibe well.
There’s a little bit of playing around with Hulk’s origins, if I remember things correctly, but they’re minor enough that I don’t really care. I don’t remember Hulk having any love interests, so I went in with a blank canvas for Liv Tyler as Betty Ross, whose smart, loyal, kind of girlish silliness I took very quickly to. There is a scene, when Ross and Banner connect after a long time apart that pretty much sold me on the rest of the film just because it felt so great. I found myself wistful and nostalgic for reunions I never had, happy that these two characters were going to go through the next terrible hour together.
It’s this relationship that makes the tension in The Incredible Hulk bearable. Banner’s situation is so unspeakably terrible that it’s hard to imagine him finding any peace at all, ever again. Yet Ross’s unflinching loyalty makes it seem possible, even knowing the love story is likely doomed to failure.
While I’m neither a fan of extended superhero fight sequences nor urban chase scenes, both are interesting enough in this movie to keep me engaged, especially a rooftop-and-alley run through the slums of a Brazilian city that’s beautiful to look at. There’s a lot of running in Hulk movies.
The villain is a creature named Abomination, the alter-ego of a character played by Tim Roth. I didn’t find either incarnation especially intriguing, even though I generally love Roth. His enabler, a general played by William Hurt, is so two-dimensional he’s practically a line segment on the screen. If not for Banner’s own personal conflicts, this movie would have been dreadful. Thankfully, Norton and Tyler make it pretty dang good.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Claudia Kim, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Olsen, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba. Written and directed by Joss Whedon.
The first Avengers movie was a big, noisy mess with too many characters to manage and not enough humanity to plumb. Just about everything I enjoy about the Marvel films was either missing or in short supply, which is probably why I was in no hurry to catch its sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron. Then I got myself caught up on Captain America, and I was introduced to Scarlet Witch, and this second Avengers movie felt like a gap I wanted to fill.
Really, what is it about these Avengers films? Do the titles mean that since nobody gets a titular role, the movies can’t spend time developing singular characters? The recent Captain America: Civil War is effectively an Avengers movie (I’m not a comic book reader, so if what I just wrote is a sin against fandom, don’t shoot me), yet there’s pretty good character development of Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Scarlet Witch, so I reject this as necessarily a rule. Except for a pretty great tension with Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff in the stay-away-I’m-dangerous vein, and Scarlet Witch’s conflicted side-choosing, writer Joss Whedon seems to have decided his audience doesn’t care about humanizing these heroes. It’s a bad choice.
The plot’s main conceit, the emergence of an artificial intelligence powered by Loki’s scepter (from the first Avengers movie), is pretty cool, although I could have done without the comic-booky appearance of the villain and his various incarnations. Most of the action is unremarkable, except as it serves to develop characters, but it’s too long to be excused even by that.
This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the movie. I did, in a kind of let-everything-go-and-just-enjoy-the-ride way, which is pretty much what I said about the first Avengers movie. If I hadn’t first seen Captain America: Civil War and come into this one with an interest in Wanda Maximoff’s origins, it wouldn’t have been quite so enjoyable, so I’m giving it a two-point Elizabeth Olsen bump and a surprise one-point Claudia Kim bump.
I’m still struggling to keep up with the paid writing. I know I sound like I’m on endless repeat about this, but I do think I’m getting slowly better at it. It’s just not showing up in my productivity. I have two hard dealines, and I have been pretty much ahead of them (Monday and Thursday mornings), but those are my longest-continuing assignments, going on three years, so they’re sorta built into my consciousness. I’m kind of always thinking about them, the way I always thought about lesson plans while I was a teacher. They’re just always there at the edges of my mind, and they move in for attention when a good opportunity presents itself. If I don’t have at least a mental outline of my content within a day of the deadline, I have to sit down and sketch something out, but that almost never happens now. By the time I sit down to write, I almost always know what I’m going to write.
The second gig is different. I tried reading fifty articles’ worth of content so I could sit down and bang out the fifty artciles, but that was far too big a bite. I found myself having to re-read everything before I wrote, which adds to my time and lowers my per-hour take. My current pace puts my hourly pay at like $3.50 an hour. I knew I was going to be underpaid when I took the gig because I needed the work. I was hoping to make it iron out to seven bucks an hours, which is still doable. I’m just not there yet.
The quality of the work is at least something I’m fairly proud of. I’m wondering if I need to sacrifice some of that quality for the sake of speed. My primary gig says no. We want it to be as good as it can be. My secondary gig says maybe. I feel horrible for not being faster with this work. I am going to decide by the end of this week if I want to spend $200 for a month of time at a co-working space. I do so much better when I have a place to go, and if I don’t have to worry about spending (additional) money, it will be a stress-lessener. I can bring a lunch, my water flask, and a snack, and not worry about taking up a table at the cafe without putting enough in its registers. It might be worth a trial run.
In my downtime, which I have already admitted is generally tainted with the awareness of my stealing it from time I should be getting caught up with the work, I’ve squeezed in a few movies, including (finally) Mean Girls, which I know has been a must-see for a person of my tastes. It was about as good as I expected (review soon), and in many ways not as good as it could have been. One of my biggest takeaways was how easy it has been to forget what a talented, magnetic screen presence Lindsay Lohan was before she became more known for her antics. I’m going to include that in my review. I probably won’t include my also being impressed by how Amanda Seyfried manages to be the most beautiful thing in a movie loaded with beautiful women.
I mentioned some time ago that I’ve had to rebuild my iTunes library (the songs are still in the folders, but they don’t show up in my library until I re-add them). I took a break from it and then went back where I left off (somewhere in the Es), and then went back to the very beginning, to hit every album from every artist to make sure the years, genres, song titles, and album artwork were exactly right. One of the worst things about the internet has been how easy it is for bad info to become canonical. With digital music, it seems that whoever gets to the database first gets to decide things like captial letters, genres, and other stuff in the ID3 tags, and most of it’s just wrong. I can have this kind of sloppiness in lots of areas of my life, but I can’t have it in my music.
So it’s been a long, slow process, especially since I’m determined not only to get the metainfo correct, but also to make sure everything’s been listened to once since its re-addition to the library. I’ll take a few detours as my craving dictates (as with the Pink Floyd list I made this week), so I’m not a slave to the process. As of this morning, I’m on Blink-182. Got through my Blind Guardian collection yesterday; taking a detour right now with Devin Townsend’s <i>Epicloud</i> stuff (including the bonus <i>Epiclouder</i> material), and then it’ll be the Royal Hunt album I crowdfunded a year ago but for some reason never claimed the download of until yesterday.
Enough procrastinating. Back to the grind.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Elizabeth Olsen, and a cast of thousands. Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo.
Saving the world sometimes comes with collateral damage, and when the Avengers are involved, turn that “sometimes” into “always.” In Captain America: Civil War, there is huge international backlash when Scarlet Witch unintentionally blows up a building, killing several humanitarian workers, and now the United Nations wants to assume oversight and control over the Avengers. The Avengers are split over the issue: Tony Stark leads one side, while Steve Rogers takes the other.
Further description of the plot would only be confusing, but it mostly comes down to The UN wanting to find the Winter Soldier for the assassination of a king, while Rogers tries to get to him first in order to protect him.
(slight spoilers in this paragraph only)
I knew the barest minimum about the plot before going in, and I assumed it was Tony Stark who wanted independence while Steve Rogers accepted governmental oversight. It was a nice surprise to see that it was the other way around, and it’s easy to see what would make each man go against his seeming inclinations. Stark has been his own man for a long time; success in business almost always assumes collateral damage, but when someone humanizes the casualties, he accepts the need for someone else to be in charge. Rogers has been a government weapon, always willing to do his duty, but in this role he has lost his best friend, every one of his contemporaries, and the woman who might have been the love of his life. As a lifelong questioner of authority, there was never a doubt which side I was hoping the Avengers would take, and it’s actually kind of surprising to see how each of them lines up.
The film is loaded with superheroes, and although there are moments where their number is overwhelming, it’s mostly handled well, especially in the big fight scene. There are a few surprise appearances, and they mostly work. There’s a lot of quick humor, too; I laughed aloud multiple times, and I appreciated that even when the Avengers are in the middle of combat against each other, there is mutual respect and affection. There’s a lot of good relationship stuff, too, the stuff that adds nice layers between all the action sequence stuff.
And now I have to say something about Scarlet Witch, played by Elizabeth Olsen. Holy moly. She’s mysterious, dark, tortured, fearsome, and beautiful. My favorite female superhero in films has been Anna Paquin’s Rogue, beginning with the first X-Men film, but here is someone to rival her. I love that she is alternatingly gorgeous and kind of hideous (witchlike, even), with a haunted goth look I can’t take my eyes away from.
I still have a few more of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films to catch up on, but this one is likely right up there with <i>Iron Man</i>, and Captain America is becoming my favorite of the comic book movie superheroes.
Ten Best Pink Floyd Songs
I like this list because unlike similar bands with large discographies, Pink Floyd can say that their best work is the stuff that gets played on the radio. I like a lot of their deeper cuts, but I have to admit that their very best work is familiar even to casual listeners of FM radio.
1. “Comfortably Numb” — from The Wall (1979)
Some of my favorite slow guitar soloing (especially in the fadeout), and probably Pink Floyd’s best lyrics, which certainly plays a part in my liking this song.
2. “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” — From The Wall (1979)
Anyone who knows only one Pink Floyd song knows this one. I used to dislike the slow disco beat, but now I love it. When I got my first cell phone ten years ago (or however long ago it was), the first ringtone I got, back when you had to purchase ringtones, was a tinny, electronic sound of the riff from this song. This is my favorite Pink Floyd guitar solo, too.
3. “Wish You Were Here” — From Wish You Were Here (1975)
Almost surely Pink Floyd’s most-covered song. Several years ago, Rodrigo y Gabriela started playing this in their concerts. Since they don’t sing, audience participation can be tricky for them to pull off, but the opening notes of this song always get their audiences excited and the audiences just sing the song while Rodrigo y Gabriela play the instruments. I’ve seen the same thing happen at late-night campfires on the beach.
4. “Welcome to the Machine” — From Wish You Were Here (1975)
“It’s all right; we know where you’ve been!” I have no idea what this song is about, but that adds to my fondness for it. I love the eeriness of this song.
5. “Brain Damage” / “Eclipse” — From The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
It’s two songs, but they’re connected on the album, and radio stations never play them separately, so it’s no foul to count them as one song. This was my favorite song of theirs all through my high school years. I even took my senior yearbook quote from it: “You lock the door and throw away the key; there’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.” As the conclusion to one of the greatest albums of all time, it’ll always have a special place in my heart.
6. “Sheep” — from Animals (1977)
This album is kind of recent discovery for me, and this is the only song on my list that never gets played on the radio (the others get played pretty regularly). Like most Pink Floyd songs, it’s much better in context, but it does stand out on a great album as an especially mind-blowing track.
7. “Learning to Fly” — from A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987)
I didn’t care much for this song at all when it was an MTV hit after my high school graduation — I didn’t care for the video, and still don’t. It’s grown on me in recent years, enough to move it ahead of the other really good song from this album. I really dig the rhymes at the end of the chorus: “Tongue-tied and twisted: just an earthbound misfit, I.” I also like “Ice is forming on the tips of my wings / unheeded warnings, I thought I’d thought of everything.”
8. “Hey You” — From The Wall (1979)
My love for this song comes mostly from the lyric “Hey you / don’t let them bury the light / don’t give in without a fight,” and I love the way it’s sung. End of the first verse.
9. “On the Turning Away” — From A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987)
Probably their preachiest, most positive song. I like it anyway.
10. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts VI – IX)” — from Wish You Were Here (1973)
This whole album is just so sad.
I was sorry to leave out “Time,” which includes my favorite Pink Floyd lyrics ever (“Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way” got me through my final two weeks of undergraduate study), “Have a Cigar,” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” which is their best song title. I limited myself to ten, though, so of course certain favorites were going to have to be left off the list.