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.