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Stuporman, 19 February 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The late 1980s. Shoulder pads were higher than the hairdos, a movie star was the president, and it was a toss-up between whether nuclear apocalypse, some newfangled disease, or a real-life Star Wars would kill you. Who could possibly save us but Superman? And, in 1987, save us he did - from the monotony of movies obeying outdated notions like physics, logic, or quality. Found 2016's Doctor Strange an insufficiently brain-bending super-flick? Look - up in the sky! Decided Superman could use more half-baked politics? It's a bird, it's a plane! Thought Batman and Robin was an offensively garish fourth instalment to a comic book franchise already on the decline? Well, you're right. But also - it's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace! A film that, defying all expectations, manages to be even more bone-headed than its title!

Okay - but to give the film what scraps of credit it's due: its conceit of Superman, following suit from his 1940s WWII self (or perhaps Mark Millar's Red Son...), using his powers to intervene on a global sociopolitical scale by making the executive decision to rid the world of its nuclear weapons, IS interesting. Interesting in that the film could perilously easily teeter into a condescending dogmatic diatribe, or a risible, earnest portrayal of a messianic utopia, with humanity joining hands and singing like the Whos at the end of Dr. Seuss' The Grinch. Amazingly, director Sidney J. Furie achieves the worst of both and still manages to lower the bar, with scores of vacuous, patronizingly chirpy speeches (written in response to, and, hilariously, seemingly by, a 10 year old), and political engagement peaking with a shot of a giant net full of nuclear missiles being slung into the sun, so flamboyantly daft you can practically feel your eyes bleed. Oh, and the UN does cheer once Superman announces he will de-nuke them. Fah Who Forres, Dah Who Dorres.

Superman IV's production is far more amusing than ridiculing the final product itself (which is saying something), with legends abound of the film's already threadbare budget being cut nearly in half. Rest assured: every absent penny is painfully present in every frame. If the first half's brain- melting speeches weren't enough, the second half, exclusively relying on cutting-edge special effects (for the 1950s), is enough to sink the nail in the kryptonite coffin. In this surreal, metaphysical Mr. Mxyzptlk world, everything moves in slow motion, all gravity is drunk or on vacation, Lois Lane can breathe in space, and Superman has accrued the formidable power of...time-reversing vision...? The plot isn't as plagued with holes as gaping space/time vacuums (here, Clark Kent changes into Superman literally in front of Lois, and she immediately, inexplicably, forgets, as if disturbingly super-roofied). And poor (but exquisitely named) Mark Pillow, as arch-foe Nuclear Man, looking like he's walked off the set of a Flash Gordon porn parody, spends the film either nonsensically battling Superman by running away, bellowing like a demented buffalo, or scratching at him with nails to make Sex in the City envious. Why does he speak with Gene Hackman's voice? Why not ask how his spandex is born with him when cloned in...the sun. Did I mention he's defeated by the power of the mighty elevator? Hey - at least he can have a sympathetic beer with Spider- Man's Sandman, who was vanquished by a vacuum cleaner. Back in 1963.

Naturally, Furie's execution manages to make the film even more impossibly awful than the sum of its parts, with such agonizingly slow, clumsy editing, the film promises a second calling as an interrogation torture device. The single kernel of redemption: even this sort of torpid embarrassment can't help but be elevated by John Williams' incomparably soaring score. Still, he's never employed his talents so sheepishly, with each reprise of the Superman theme feeling more apologetic than triumphant. All this, and Superman pauses, mid-fight scene, to barely refrain from making out with the American flag on the moon? Suddenly the raving "False God" animosity he incurs in Zack Snyder's fellow campsterpiece Batman v. Superman makes so much sense.

You'd expect an ounce of enjoyment to come from the returning cast,, you wouldn't expect much of anything after all this. Granted, even if his Superman is unbearably smug, Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent is as endearingly nebbish as ever. So, just when he threatens to allow an ounce of promise, his oblivious posturing in a romantic triangle subplot with Lois and the even more irritating Mariel Hemingway is enough to knead out any pesky lumps of enjoyment amidst the quagmire of inadequacy (phew!). Margot Kidder's Lois is so astronomically vacant that she, at times, nearly passes as an overly made up mannequin, while Gene Hackman, grins like a Cheshire Cat throughout, looking like he spent his (assuredly mighty) salary on the menagerie of prop giraffes that nonsensically populate Luthor's lair. And yes, that is Jon Cryer from Two and a Half Men as Luthor's cringeworthy, MTV-addled nephew. Duuuuuude.

Almost commendable in just how audaciously lazy and terrible it is, Superman: The Quest for Peace proudly takes its place in the annals of 'ill-advised part IVs turned worst films ever made,' alongside Jaws IV, and, yep, Batman and Robin. It's prime mock-watching/drinking game territory, but beware: the film is so insidiously dumb it nearly qualifies as a controlled substance unto itself. It's a shame Superman used up all his energy stopping the train in the film's opening act, or perhaps he could have broken the fourth wall and stopped the train wreck of his own cinematic epitaph.


"It's all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense", 16 February 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

(cue the 20th Century Fox fanfare)

A cameraman exclaiming "Pass me reel R2-D2!" A gigantic dog (Indiana, of course) riding in the passenger seat, conjuring images of a gigantic furry co-pilot. Birthed from a childhood enraptured by Flash Gordon, homaging Kurosawa, and nodding to Kubrick, John Ford, and Leni Riefenstahl. And still so much more. It's hard to dispute George Lucas' Star Wars being the defining cinematic event of the century. For a generation of moviegoers it was a life-changing spectacle, inspiring the most joy and awe since Georges Méliès at the turn of the century. And if Méliès wowed with magic tricks, Star Wars is pure movie magic: spawned from a lifetime love of the movies, and redoubling that love for adventure and imagination in immeasurable audiences of all ages for decades to come.

It's impossible to fathom how much of a gamble A New Hope was, yet all the cast and crew speak of having had "a good feeling about this" (ha). Now, it's textbook: the quintessential 'hero's journey' slotted into a dangerous, beautiful universe of (still) unprecedentedly jaw-dropping sets, costumes, and practical effects (distasteful, retroactive CGI tweaks be damned), with a gorgeously scrappy, tactile design sensibility unlike anything anyone had ever seen. Throw in more quotable dialogue than Casablanca, a plot too exciting not to bounce in your seat for, with the editing hyperdrive exploding from each plot point, character, and lightsaber clash to the next at light speed, and we're blissfully, jubilantly swept away.

Lucas's true wisdom lies in his committing so passionately to the science-fiction genre (previously largely wasted in clunky kids' serials), fleshing it out with enough stock mythology for children of all ages to dive into, while leaving enough mystery to let their imaginations do the rest. Even Lucas' whim to anchor his space opera on a political revolutionary coup and spirituality debates (his cleverly vague 'Force' is scoffed at as an "ancient religion," but we're all savvy enough to know it's, again, simply magic) gives just enough of a sociopolitical backbone to have all the high- flying sci-fi not feel like a superfluous toy parade. No - this is the grandest of storytelling, undercut with just enough ingenuity and wicked humour (look for the Storm Trooper bumping his head mid-chase) to still feel like an underdog indie movie. Somehow.

We open with a monumental space battle, blending the otherworldly awe of Kubrick's 2001 with enough thrilling gunplay to put 007 to shame (sorry James). Then: that stalking, asthmatic tyrant, striking fear into the hearts of generations. Clearly, nothing would ever be the same. But, after seducing audiences with this triumphant opening, it's easy to forget how weird A New Hope becomes. Suddenly, our shootout has transmogrified into a shambling, nearly silent film full of inanimate droids bantering in a desolate desert, accompanied only by the exuberant whiz-whirr-bleeps of Ben Burtt's peerless sound design and John Williams nonchalantly offering up the single most iconic, elating film score of all time (including a main theme so transcendent no one would ever again hear a major fifth without humming it - sorry, music teachers worldwide). But before you can say "made the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs," we've met our sandy-haired hero and his valiant (sometimes scoundrel) companions, and are off to rescue the princess and save the galaxy. We're her only hope, after all.

Nonetheless, starry-eyed with iconography and whistling the Cantina Band jazz, let's not overlook the darkness. If Luke scrutinizing the charred skeletons of his murdered surrogate parents(!) isn't enough, see Princess Leia abducted and tortured before witnessing the genocide of her entire planet(!!). This may be bouncy, kids' wish- fulfillment, but the stakes aren't just high: they're downright scary. When our heroes cheat death, beset by grungy alien attacks, wheezing psychopaths, and the muck of a trash compacter, we genuinely believe they might not survive - and some don't (RIP Porkins). Certainly, there are minor quibbles - Episode IV is easily the most languid of its trilogy, with some lurching editing and omnipresent wooden acting (recalling Harrison Ford's legendary "You can type this sh*t, George !" gripe) - but these somehow only feed into its inextinguishable, pugnacious charm. And by the climactic intergalactic dogfight, we're using the Force too ferociously to keep Luke's x-wing intact long enough to blow up the Death Star to sweat it. Pew pew pew.

Still, it's through the unforgettable characters that Lucas' space opera transcends to masterpiece. Mark Hamill - too gosh-darn bashful and fresh-faced not to adore in spite of his emotionally inexpressive farm boy whining. Harrison Ford - the most suave, charismatic scoundrel in cinema history (though for all his flawless, impishly cocky posturing, it's his flustered yammering over an intercom - "Boring conversation anyway" - that stands out as the film's funniest moment). Carrie Fisher - too gutsy, sparky, and prone to bellowed, hysterically sarcastic banter to ever cave to a damsel in distress stereotype. Alec Guinness - impossibly classy as Lucas' playfully enigmatic Gandalf surrogate - trading barbs with the imposingly debonair Peter Cushing and the godlike booming of James Earl Jones. The amiable nattering of Anthony Daniels, jaunty bleeping of Kenny Baker, and fluffy looming of Peter Mayhew. And a supporting cast of aliens and robots so unfathomably imaginative, you can't help but want to clutch the action figures of even those who pop up in a single, unforgettable shot.

Forty years on, and now the single most lucrative Disney franchise, Lucas' galaxy far, far away continues to change the world as much as it did a long time ago. Whether providing new hope for starry-eyed Padawans waving invisible lightsabers or for veteran Jedi gripping their Bantha dolls, sporting "Han shot first" t-shirts, and watching the title crawl for the thousandth time, there has never been, and never will be, any movie quite as magical as Star Wars. May the Force be with you.


(**to the tune of 'Lechaim!'**) To Jewison (to Topol!), for making a film full of life!, 15 February 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"It's hard to be Jewish, it's hard to be Jewish, it's hard to be Jewish in Russia, yo!"

If this irreverent cutaway gag from TV's Community is indicative of Fiddler on the Roof's cultural presence in the 21st century (keeping in mind, this is the same generation that distilled Rent into "Everybody has Aids!" in 2004's cheerily crass Team America: World Police), it's a testament to how lovably unforgettable the story is to still incur such affectionate ribbing. But, endless revivals on and off Broadway aside, it's still primarily thanks to Norman Jewison's 1971 cinematic adaptation that the Fiddler flame continues to burn. The word 'timeless' is bandied about far too frivolously, but it's hard to find a more applicable candidate; more than 40 years after its release, the film is as infectiously watchable as ever. Furiously spirited and cunningly playful before revealing an underbelly of cavernous lamentation, Jewison's Fiddler on the Roof holds its place not only as one of the most unforgettable musicals of Classical Hollywood, but one of its most abiding, heartfelt delights.

Like all the greatest musicals, Fiddler is timeless through its ability to translate an insightful glimpse into a specific sociocultural moment (the Russian-Jewish community uneasily navigating cultural persecution in pre-revolutionary Russia) into a swathe of universally relatable movie magic. From the opening number, where each reprise of "Tradition!!" brings more manic claustrophobia (thanks largely to Jewison's teasing editing, sonorously cutting between pieces of Jewish spiritual iconography to the beat), the film clearly establishes it will be doing everything in its power to poke at just that. Thankfully, the film's almost sitcom setup of each of beleaguered narrator Tevye's daughters (Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh, & Neva Small; all slyly luminous scene-stealers) increasingly testing the boundaries of cultural transgression by marrying (gasp) for love always veers away from clichéd expectations enough to keep the film vibrantly unpredictable rather than the kind of saccharine staleness too many classical musicals dredge up.

Instead, befitting the film's guiding metaphor, Jewison's directorial hand is steady as a rock. In spite of his film's voluminous run time and cascading emotional arc, balancing history, politics, and spirituality with humour, heart, and outrageously catchy musical numbers, Jewison's pacing is unflappably perfect. He finds an almost pristine level of cohesion, building each romantic crisis into the next in harmony with the brewing sociopolitical upheaval to circumvent any worries of episodic plotting. Similarly, his predilection towards the zaniness of his story not only infuses it with tremendous energy (just check out the expressionistic, ghostly insanity of Tevye's Dream to see Jewison's wackiness at full tilt), but makes the inevitable second half crash all the more agonizingly hopeless and despondent.

Ahh, yes - that second half. Just as The Sound of Music is incomplete without its pesky Nazis, Fiddler's rumblings of "trouble in the city" come with eventual devastating consequence. Jewison wisely doesn't overplay the macro sociocultural turmoil, but merely sows seeds of revolt - a jab in the otherwise glib opening number ("we don't bother them, and so far they don't bother us"); a raucous engagement celebration turned heated cross-cultural dance battle, until escalating sharply with a bawdy matrimony turned hate crime arson. As silly as it gets, Jewison's Fiddler is just as unafraid to glare the horror of its historical atrocities straight in the face, until sputtering out with the crushing anticlimax of an enforced deportation, an ending too necessarily bleak to trivialize.

Thankfully, Fiddler is too chock-full of unstoppably hummable tunes to ever become needlessly dour. The songs, naturally, are unforgettable enough to speak for themselves (though John Williams' rich, Oscar-winning background score does some considerable speaking of its own), so Jewison allows them to simply breathe, integrated into the narrative with such unceremonious muckiness that they feel all the more spontaneous and heartfelt when chirped by the mud-caked, visibly weary cast. In a more classical or more contemporary remake, the most iconic ballad, "If I Were a Rich Man," would be accompanied by deluges of glitzy Broadway production values and dazzling choreography. Under Jewison's grainy, no-bullsh*t 1970s sensibilities, it has Topol shimmying alone in a grungy barn, imitating the braying of the livestock surrounding him. Chicago or Broadway Melody this ain't, but it's all the more enthusiastically authentic for it.

Still, if there's a single roof tile that keeps this Fiddler upright, it's the legendary performance of Topol. He doesn't so much play Tevye as allow him to ooze out of every pore. Every grunt from his entirely credible Russian accent, every exhausted sag or mischievous prance, every sheepish grin or world-weary grimace, every indignant booming of "TRADITION?!" is so effortless they seem worlds away from the affectations of an actor: this is a wholly fleshed out, loving, hurting, human being on screen in front of us, and we can't help but love him with the entirety of our hearts. The play's 'Tevye talking to the audience/God' conceit may have been a risky prospect to translate into film, but in Topol's effervescent hands, we're too delighted to be invited into his monologue to split hairs. Supporting him, Norma Crane proves both hilariously cantankerous and deeply sweet as Tevye's prickly wife Golde, and watching the two of them share an incredulously clumsy romantic duet is one of the most adorable moments ever committed to celluloid. Finally, Leonard Frey is hugely affable and goofy as the mousy suitor of Tevye and Golde's oldest daughter, while Starsky and Hutch's Paul Michael Glaser raises laughs aplenty as an endearingly self-righteous revolutionary turned romantic.

Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles - dispelling all fears of datedness, Fiddler on the Roof retains its worthy place as one of the essential, canonical movie musicals, sure to capture hearts and leave generations of audiences whistling "If I Were a Rich Man," no matter how they're prompted to experience it. After all, it IS, evidently, hard to be Jewish in Russia... yo.


Alternative Inclusion, 3 February 2017

"I'M not racist, but…"

Do your eyes roll and fists clench in frustration before the sentence has finished? Fear not - Gentleman's Agreement is on your side. You'd expect a 'Social Problems Picture' dating from the better part of a century ago to play as cornball, and adorably (or troublesomely) antiquated. Instead, it's sobering how, in a contemporary context, Elia Kazan's scrappy interrogation of the deeply harmful societal prejudices imbedded in seemingly innocuous or inconsequential gestures and comments plays as just as poignantly timely as ever. Seventy years on, Gentleman's Agreement has lost none of its robust, fierce urgency, remaining one of the most intelligent conversations on privilege, and how distressing societal imbalances can be carved by those unable to acknowledge it.

Many Hollywood films profiling racism dive straight into tackling overt, violent hate crimes. Here, screenwriter Moss Hart, adapting Laura Z Hobson's groundbreaking expose of societal antisemitism, is bold enough to dig one step deeper, into the more subtle, pervasive forms of racial and religious discrimination proliferating in so- called 'polite society' - job hunting, risqué jokes, schoolyard bullying, and general passive- aggressively rude treatment. It's solemn stuff, but Hart's eloquent screenplay, while occasionally toeing the line of excessive 'staginess,' nimbly gets the point across without devolving outright into pedantic preaching. Kazan's direction is just as provocative, framing his film with plentiful New York establishing shots to firmly ground the problem with pervasive antisemitism as a here and now problem, not a distant epidemic easy to wave away.

The hook entails Peck's brooding journalist spreading rumours of a falsified Jewish identity in order to 'method write,' believing himself to be better equipped to write about antisemitism when he himself has been subjected to its ugly underbelly. For many, the premise will sound warning bells of a reappropriative, saccharine saviour of the Jewish community, who dabbles in empathy only to shrug off its hardships and cloak himself with his privilege anew upon the closing credits. It's a fair concern, and one, thankfully, that Kazan and Hart anticipate and circumvent, with peppery reminders throughout branding antisemitism, and any other such religious and cultural discrimination, to be everyone's problem, and that those who allow it to subtly fester by allowing dubious comments or actions to pass unchallenged, as just as culpable. In one sardonic instance, a real-life conversation between Jewish industry executives urging the filmmakers to quash the film for fear of 'rocking the boat' makes its way into the script itself, lending it even more power and wry credibility.

Occasionally, the film stumbles somewhat over its own noble intentions. To make its point, Peck's compacted experience is a touch clumsily over-exaggerated (though it's a sad realization that this heavy-handedness is ultimately necessary for the message to properly land, whether in 1947 or current day), and there's no denying that a contemporary viewing necessitates suspension of disbelief regarding the more exposition-heavy tropes of the time. Nonetheless, some of Peck's grim, sanctimonious lectures still verge on tiresome 'Mansplaining,' even for the 1940s. Even more curiously but poignantly, Kazan and Hall's reticence in grounding the film in its contemporary cultural context (the script does take pot shots at some of the more outspokenly antisemitic government officials of the time, but abstains from any mention of the Holocaust, or World War II at all, outside of John Garfield's chipper GI) shows how touch-and-go evasion of Hayes Code censorship was. Regardless, Kazan keeps the pace brisk, entwining Peck's experiences of discrimination around a burgeoning romance that, irksomely, might not be as safe from outside microaggressions as he'd hope.

Though both he and Kazan have retroactively disparaged his work here as too hesitant, Peck proves an excellent fulcrum for the film's message to roll off. Curbing his legendary dignity and calm with a bristling righteous indignation, Peck's grimness suggests he rankles at the oppression - both that he and his family personally experience, but also in a macro sense - with every fibre of his being. His refusal to let in dregs of his legendary warmth do leave his performance as somewhat wanting in levity, but he's seething and charismatic enough to effortlessly win attention regardless. Similarly, Dorothy McGuire is superb as his impassioned fiancée, and McGuire is wise and skilled enough to remain fundamentally enigmatic, commanding audience sympathy while simultaneously keeping them at arm's length with just enough eyebrow-raising comments to continually postpone a consensus on her character's affability. Finally, John Garfield provides the welcome reprieve of boisterous charisma the film sorely needs, though many of its more unexpected, quietly resonant moments are grounded in watching his face imperceptibly shift to weary resignation coming to terms with the subtle and overt hardships he, as a Jewish citizen is invariably subjected to, war hero status and all.

Many will criticize Gentleman's Agreement as being overstated, earnest, or corny in a contemporary environment. Sadly, its message remains as urgently topical as ever in a global climate rife with socio- political intolerance and hatred - both overt, and as knowingly nigh-imperceptible as the film's title. And if a Gregory Peck civil rights double-bill (this and To Kill A Mockingbird, of course) could serve as the cultural balm the world needs, or causes a single viewer to pause and reflect before uttering a politically dubious generalization over dinner, then Gentleman's Agreement is beyond intelligent, eloquent, and piercing: it's borderline essential.


La La Land (2016/I)
Dream On, 1 February 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In January 2016, Aziz Ansari originated an SNL skit where he is interrogated at a police station for insufficiently adoring La La Land. "I mean…I liked it! I just didn't think it was ah-mazing!" he protests. "What DO you like if you don't like La La Land??!" is the vitriolic, bellowed response. Well, you'd better get my handcuffs ready. A cynic would point out that every 3-5 years, Hollywood and its audiences remember the musical genre exists, and fall rapturously in love with each new tent-pole release as if its predecessors had never existed (Les Misérables? Chicago? Okay, I'll stop). I'm not cynical enough to dismiss La La Land outright as such, but I am on Ansari's team on this one. Damien Chazelle's follow up to his blistering Whiplash IS lots of fun. It's a boisterous, sweet, massively charming slice of cheese with a sloshing side order of nostalgia. And it buys into its clichéd, pandering familiarity with such outrageous gusto it's almost easy to forget how fundamentally vacuous it is. So there you go. Lock me up, and throw away the key.

Like 2011's The Artist, it's a glossy, heartfelt riff on the overwhelming power of the Classics (here, in a Whiplash hangover, jazz greats receive equal adulation to Da Moofies) and how soul-crushing it can be to fall short in comparison. It's Scorsese's New York, New York for the YouTube generation, if you will. And this proves to be the film's greatest asset and pitfall simultaneously: it plays phenomenally in instalments. Chazelle is a whiz at conjuring moments of transcendental movie magic, riffing on the whimsical, expressionistic flourishes of the Singin' in the Rain era, bubblegum colours, triumphant tap dancing, floating through the air framed by a sea of stars and all. Linus Sandgren's spectacular cinematography helps astronomically to pump up proceedings, as the camera zips through parked cars, swimming pools and past whirling dancers like a caffeine-addled hummingbird. And that opening four minute long take crane shot? Has to be seen to be believed.

But, for all these highs of spectacle come the crashing lows of the story gluing them together. It's immediately, unshakably apparent that Chazelle's script is too flamboyantly nostalgic to offer much that hadn't already been done to death in the 'good ol' days' it cherishes, and it's a shame to see a movie directed with such pizazz be so… well, boring. The title, of course, is a double-pun, nodding not only to singing, but crafting enough of a gushy love letter to the mystique and iconicity of LA to make Woody Allen wince. Here, Chapelle trips over his own earnestness. 'An aspiring actress meets a spurned jazz pianist' verges on "Just a small town girl, livin' in a lonely world" in the groan department, and Chazelle never musters up the gumption to deliver any reflexive reworking of the 'star-crossed lover/artists' formula whatsoever. Even the film's fake-out 'happy-ever-after-but-at-what-cost' ending, a melancholic, 'what might have been' fantasy dance break, is cheerfully poached from An American in Paris among countless others, making the film's one seeming deviance from cliché… just as ensconced in cliché.

{Maybe the 'La La' is really Chazelle retorting "La La La, I can't hear you…?"}

That said, Chazelle's original tunes are more than worth their salt, a handful of charming, bittersweet ear-worms sure to light up iTunes for months. Occasionally, sly humour pokes through the polish - there's a great laugh to be had when Gosling's Serious Musician joining John Legend's pop-jazz-fusion band (meant to signify his artistic bankruptcy in favour of pop commercialism) produces the film's most infectiously memorable song. Still, post-Whiplash, Chazelle's one true love is still jazz, and the film's jazz club scenes come alive with more kinetic ferocity than any of its schmaltzy dance breaks. The 'non-professional singer musical' trope is ultimately a matter of personal preference (Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You takes this poetic accessibility to the next level) but it's effective here, thematically underscoring the dissonance of these two 'good but not amazing' dreamers slotting themselves into the iconicity of legend. It's a shame that they're further marred by consistently murky, almost distressingly amateurish sound editing, garbling the audibility of most of the song's lyrics almost past the point of comprehension. 'Naturalism' is one thing, but it's still hard to fall in love with songs we can barely hear.

Still, it takes appropriately glitzy stars to own up to such a superficially pleasurable film, and it's impossible to imagine a more lovable duo than Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Endearingly clumsy singing aside, their respective astronomical charisma easily outperform their less-than-stimulating material. Underpinning her 'adorably neurotic klutz' schtick with a smattering of raw pathos, Stone's gigantic, alien bug- eyes prove capable of expounding almost alarming deluges of emotion. Hearing her show-stopping Audition ballad is so phenomenally moving that it's almost hard to focus on her amidst brushing tears away. Similarly, Gosling proves he's able to look as winningly suave sporting a keytar and red leather jacket as ever, and he's breezy, smooth and funny enough to breathe life into his stale 'frustrated artist.' Nonetheless: restricting the superb J.K. Simmons to a fleeting cameo? Borderline criminal offence.

It's curious to see a movie so obsessed with history and nostalgia playing its spate of cliché so unironically, but La La Land is such a pleasantly dopey ode to the love of creation, it's evidently easy for many to overlook. Chazelle's film is likely best enjoyed outside the spotlight of the awards hype machine, where it's easier to embrace its superfluous camp and profoundly heartfelt sweetness at face value. Still, for a world so riddled with conflict and strife, there's an unmistakable value for a film so silly - episodically on YouTube, if nothing else. Here's to the ones who dream.


Silence (2016/I)
1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
One small step for mankind, 31 January 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

For the last Martin Scorsese cinematic outing, audiences were graced with a drooling Jonah Hill waggling rubber genitalia across the screen. If a more abrupt paradigm shift exists than Silence, Scorsese's solemn passion project exploring faith, suffering, and the ethics of martyrdom, I dare you to find it. Taking a fair share of cues from Ingmar Bergman, and with nary a jaunty rock tune in sight, Silence completes Scorsese's spirituality triptych (following Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ) not with a roar, but an appropriately introspective whisper. The clue is in the title, and Scorsese's latest work, though imperfect, stands among his most raw, yearning, powerful, and gruesomely beautiful.

Charting the tormented journey of two Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan in search of their disappeared, disgraced mentor, Silence plays somewhere between The Last Temptation of Christ and Apocalypse Now, but is somehow bleaker than both. Before Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe (Garfield and Driver) have even left their monastery for Japan, they are already scrutinized by Scorsese's penetrating high angle tracking shots, like a literal eye of God surveilling them forebodingly. Upon their arrival in Japan (which Scorsese cloaks in perennial stylized mists, a transparent visual metaphor for the ethical and spiritual cloudiness to follow), Rodrigues and Garupe are already immediately in jeopardy. They are found by a sect of closeted Japanese Christians who cling to worshipping them with an almost manic desperation, only to repeatedly watch these followers be gruesomely tortured to death by the Japanese authorities, too recalcitrant to apostatize (publicly renouncing their faith) in front of the helpless priests. Here, Scorsese establishes the film's core thematic tension: martyrdom aside, at what point are the benefits of spiritual dogmatism outweighed by the collateral suffering and deaths of those whose lives it is meant to save?

The latter half of the film is devoted to interrogating (pun intended) this question in more solemn detail. It's a gruelling, but also distressingly timely watch, and Scorsese, while stopping short of the torture-porn extremes of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, doesn't shirk on graphic imagery in detailing the agonizing torment individuals are willing to espouse and governments are willing to inflict in the name of religious dissonance. Navigating the tricky subject matter, Scorsese is (largely) careful to deconstruct his narrative's implicit colonialism, while (mostly) steering clear of its perilous potential for Orientalist othering. A more balanced take would linger less with Father Rodrigues' steadfast Christian conviction, and grant more of a voice to the Japanese Buddhists, to have their vehement rejection of external Christianity play with more context than outright tyranny (the fact that Buddhism is itself an import religion to Japan is a cruel irony the film leaves untouched). One fleeting sequence, where Scorsese's surrogate Pontius Pilate, the Japanese anti-Christian inquisitor (Issey Ogata, whose flamboyant preening is perfectly malevolent and curiously funny) rebuts why he avidly resists the encroaching Christianity in his land, is one of the film's most fascinating moments, temporarily playing the film more as debate and less as diatribe. Ultimately, Scorsese is less interested in the polemic of missionary politics and colonialism than Rodrigues' own spiritual journey, but there's still the lingering unease of the tale begetting a Letters to Iwo Jima style counterpoint to fully tell the story.

Focalizing the story through Garfield's Father Rodrigues proves a risky endeavour, as his earnest-turned-agonizingly-unrequited prayer-narration initially grates to the point of prodding the patience of even the most faithful Scorsese devotees (a fact not helped by his ludicrously unconvincing Portuguese accent, though Driver fares little better, while Neeson is evidently disinterested in even attempting one). There are many moments when we yearn for the title to have been obeyed somewhat more literally, as Garfield's voice-over threatens to detract from the stunning Taipei scenery. Even with Scorsese's never-steadier directorial hand lending the film a lethal calm and perennial throb of threat, two and a half fairly plodding hours with an existential Garfield tests viewer bladder capacity to the utmost.

Then, halfway through, Scorsese finally shows his hand with a cunning turning point: we finally realize Rodrigues' obsession with the spiritual glory of martyrdom isn't meant to play as sympathetic. Suddenly, images of the looming face of Christ he fixates upon begin to play as cruelly ironic, if not outright contemptible, just as his increasing refusal to apostatize plays as increasingly selfish in the face of the multitudes of Japanese devotees dying to protect him. It's a bold reversal, and only successful thanks to Garfield's fearlessly human performance. His willingness to fully embrace and embody Rodrigues' flaws allow him to glide effortlessly from his early chirpily boyish, but somewhat short-sighted devotion, to his later defeated, muted husk of a man with surprising subtlety and enigmatic dissociation. By flirting with being so inaccessible, Garfield crafts one of the most unexpectedly haunting performances of the year.

Similarly, Adam Driver's cracking voice and emaciated body embody Garupe's misery and doubt with remarkably visceral power. As the resident Kurtz, Liam Neeson employs his hangdog face and gravelly, sonorous tones to project unfathomable depths of defeat and bitterness, all the more stirring when his tempting words of corruption begin to make increasing, tragic sense. Still, it's Yōsuke Kubozuka as the Gollum-like Kichijiro, Scorsese's most recent Judas surrogate, who delivers the most fascinating emotional arc. Guided by Kubozuka's petulant charisma, Kichijiro's perennial betrayals and repentances transition from numbingly tragic to slapstick humour and back again with alarming effortlessness, making him a pathetic but unforgettable creation.

Beautiful, searing, and achingly soulful, Silence poses profound, challenging questions, while remaining frequently teasingly enigmatic about the answers. While not quite reaching the formal perfection and blistering resonance of many of Scorsese's earlier classics, as religious persecution continues to proliferate in the contemporary world, a film so fearlessly prescient should be considered troubling, but essential, unforgettable viewing. Just don't be surprised for the film's title to prove prophetic for the state of its audiences afterwards.


Arrival (2016/II)
Kangaroo, 26 January 2017

"Constantly talking isn't necessarily communicating," scoffs Jim Carrey's lovelorn protagonist in 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He'd get right along with Amy Adams' linguistics specialist, Dr. Louise Brooks, from Denis Villeneuve's Arrival. Like Eternal Sunshine, it's a elegant, grounded but stylized portrait of grief and profound communication breakdowns amidst an almost-plausible science-fiction landscape. However, Villeneuve's film also makes its mark as one of the most haunting, introspective, and tautly, fiendishly clever films of the last several years.

Like most of the best sci-fi, Arrival is not really 'about' the aliens it introduces (don't worry, that's not a spoiler), but rather what they draw out in the humans whose lives they enigmatically appear in sans explanation. Their monolithic, oblong spaceships peppering the planet not only contribute to the pantheon of evocative sci-fi imagery, but also serve as handy ciphers for social commentary. To many, they're instantly a threat, or superfluous beyond their potential for extraterrestrial weaponization (or both), and there's a chortle to be had in how unsurprising it is the film plays out amidst the cradle of stifling U.S. military bureaucracy. But screenwriter Eric Heisserer also neatly weaves in the story of Dr. Brooks, anchoring the macro conflict on her own personal interactions with the aliens as a focal point and refuge from her own almost vegetative loneliness and grief. He and Villeneuve allow Brooks' own drama to teasingly dance amidst the global histrionics, with the key conflict not being the extraterrestrials demanding to be taken to our leader, but our wishing we shared the vocabulary to express such sentiments beyond the mysterious Rorschach test ink blots they spew, like union negotiations told through smoke rings.

Fittingly, in a film revolving around communication, Villeneuve is coy about showing his film's thematic and narrative hand too early. Planting firmly in the Close Encounters of the Third Kind school of mature, muted sci-fi, Villeneuve practically cackles with delight in exploiting every (good) trick in nonlinear storytelling book, using masterful editing to unspool wrinkles of story that carry unexpected waves of devastation and devastating hope. Here, Heisserer's screenplay is clever to a fault in its lean simplicity, finding power and poignancy in stark images (Brooks reveals that the Chinese military have been teaching the aliens to communicate through mah-jong, thereby establishing an inherently adversarial dynamic), with even certain lines that initially play as clunky instead proving to be red herrings, retroactively revealed as urgent clues and secret foreshadowing. It's unquestionably a slow-burner, with Villeneuve's pacing remaining firmly steady throughout, which, at times, grates against the brewing sociopolitical state of emergency, and a clinical feel that at times verges on excessively emotionally sterile. Still, the film's masterfully precise technical prowess alone makes the film worth viewing in cinemas. Bradford Young's dreamily gliding cinematography, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's whimsically, playfully twinkling score, and some of the most unerringly spot-on sound editing in recent memory (to say nothing of the gorgeous scenic filming locations) all conflate to establish a blanket of eerie serenity amidst the global chaos. It's a fishbowl feeling that Villeneuve stirs from restlessness into deliberate claustrophobia in the final act, but, by gosh, if an audience is to be trapped in a fishbowl, it may as well be a fishbowl as beautiful as this.

Many leading actors working amidst such old-school sci-fi would have succumbed to the temptation to punch up the disquieting calmness with heavy-handed scene- stealing. Thankfully, Amy Adams is a far wiser and intuitive performer than that. Her work here is exceptional in its quietness, her subtle ebb of emotions throughout seeping into the viewer like a gentle rain flecked with the lightning surges of her perilously fleeting interactions with her daughter. She abjectly avoids any Oscar- baiting melodrama in favour of simply embodying Brooks like a comfortable slipper, making it one of the most affecting and truthful performances of a woman in pain we've seen in some time. Conversely, Jeremy Renner gives a sturdy performance throughout, but he's so bland and indistinct that his casting as a character too easily regulated to expositional fountain is instantly forgettable. Nonetheless, Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg each excel at no-nonsense resonance as the commander and PR exec of the governing military, their strained and often contradictory grimness exposing the lion's share of social commentary.

"What is your purpose here?" is the guiding question for Brooks and her team. Arrival's is far less reticent. It's a story about a mother and her daughter. It's a story about a planet learning to listen. And it's a story about how time and love are the only truly reliable concepts, but not necessarily in that order. Like its depicted otherworldly visitors, Arrival is distinctly odd and discomfortingly tranquil, but stirringly mesmerizing, supremely clever, and surprisingly rewarding. Most of all, it's unassumingly unforgettable, and primed to take its place amidst the great science- fiction of the era.


"Sick men and babies don't have face", 20 January 2017

For a titan of cinema who would build his oeuvre around unpacking thematic contradictions and dichotomies of beauty and filth, Drunken Angel has to be one of legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's most on-point treatises. Being Kurosawa's first post-war film, Drunken Angel fully embodies the melancholy spirit of the movement of post-WWII 'rubble films,' such as Rossellini's Rome, Open City and Carol Reed's The Third Man, but stands out by being far more infused with the poetic, grandiose existentialism and cheeky humour that would continue to shape Kurosawa's later classics. In equal parts a tenacious character study and parable for strains of hopeless, self-destructive behaviour in post-War, American-occupied Japan, Drunken Angel remains a searing early effort by a master craftsman quickly and resonantly finding his feet in the industry.

Situated somewhere between a film noir and a medical buddy-cop drama, Kurosawa's film revolves around a doctor (Takashi Shimura) and his Yakuza patient (Toshiro Mifune, in his breakout role) who respect and care about each other too innately to do anything but verbally abuse and occasionally try to murder one another. Shimura's doctor is our titular 'drunken angel,' obsessed with saving people at all costs, yet constantly, aggressively inebriated to help numb the pain of his healing feeling like an increasingly losing battle. With his office overlooking a fetid, disease-riddled swamp, the doctor is reduced to belligerently bellowing at children playing to avoid the tuberculosis-infested waters, only to have his efforts discounted as the ramblings of an old, crackpot addict. He finds vestiges of meaning within the prospect of saving Mifune's swaggering Yakuza hotshot, dying of tuberculosis, but too entrenched in stubborn denial to relinquish his hard-partying gangster lifestyle. Through the heated interactions between them, Kurosawa teases out the impossibility yet necessity of healthy coping mechanisms within such a hopeless world, but that, bleakness aside, human compassion provides an ever-present bastion of hope. His peppering the dialogue with fleeting but reliably present moments of sour humour only helps the drama sink in as all the more credibly human, warts, flaws, addictions and all.

Concentrating on character study rather than plot lends the film an almost stage play feel, but the plot intensifies somewhat with the final act return of a rival Yakuza mobster, who exacerbates all subplots of conflict, none the least being Mifune's growing desperation for social performance. Here, Kurosawa returns to his soon-to-be customary interrogations of human nature, by showing both Mifune and Shimura's doctor genuinely struggling with identity beyond their respective functions - Shimura's only sense of value in life comes from his role as physician, just as Mifune appears genuinely agonized by the prospect of relinquishing the Yakuza, even to save his own life. These conflicts are lend poetic gravitas by Kurosawa's stark, whimsically mobile cinematography, panning over the derelict buildings and festering chemical swamp, accompanied by desolate, swooping wind sounds, like an apocalyptic wasteland. But, even amidst a climactic showdown as bloody as any noir, Kurosawa never relinquishes leitmotifs of hope, like the mysterious, recurring strumming of a tranquil guitar over the swamp at night, simultaneously zen and threatening. If this rotting, destitute place is hell, Kurosawa insinuates, there are always angels therein, even if they are far more bedraggled (and, yes, often drunken) than any biblical portraits would have it.

Shimura and Mifune would grow to become Kurosawa's most recurring stock players, and their exceptional work here is a testament to their acute watchability. Shimura's omnipresent pout allows him to convey the deepest, most empathetic pathos, yet always with a veneer of goofiness, and his 'sad clown' image perfectly bottles the doctor's passion, muted underneath layers of impotent, inebriated hopelessness. Similarly, Mifune's ferociously physical charisma makes his casting as a Yakuza intimidatingly believable, only to have his creeping doubt and flirtations with a new life beyond his self-destruction feel all the more unexpectedly vulnerable. In one dialogue-free scene alone, Mifune exhibits more acting than many stars showcase throughout an entire picture: blind-drunk at a night club, he sways back and forth, a Cheshire cat smile plastered across his face, but his eyes betraying his haunted loneliness. Then, when prompted to get up and dance with an attractive woman, he - previously barely able to prop his eyes open - whirls her into a surprisingly suave, perfectly executed dance routine despite looking at the point of slumping into unconsciousness at the drop of a hat, his hollow grin never leaving his face. It's a fleeting but painfully poignant moment, and as telling of the indomitable star he would become as any of his more explosive outbursts.

Simpler and smaller in scope than some of Kurosawa's more expansive later classics, but no less visceral in its intimacy, Drunken Angel remains one of the most powerful and necessary entries into Kurosawa's body of work. It's not a light watch - but, if you're looking for frivolity in Kurosawa, you're barking up the wrong auteur - but it's more than suitably elevated by the interplay between its magnetic leads, Kurosawa's life-saving bursts of irreverence and an achingly hopeful ending. Nearly 60 years after its release, Drunken Angel remains an abiding testament to Kurosawa's uncanny ability to blend philosophy, beautifully grim imagery, and moments of abject silliness into something fundamentally human. And just try getting that disturbingly serene guitar riff out of your head after the credits. Just try.


Vampires, not tramp-ires, 8 January 2017

In search of the final nail in the coffin of the sordid cultural relevance of Edward and Bella? Look no further than the supremely delightful What We Do in the Shadows. Here, newbie vampire Nick drunkenly parades himself through the streets of Wellington, braying "I AM TWILIGHT" as a pick up line, only to be greeted with blank looks of vague derision. It's pristine satire - gently but insistently raucous, and playing more off of Nick's incredulous 'Isn't this cool anymore' expression than the gag itself. And the best bit? It's only one of a nearly nonstop smorgasbord of sneakily clever, deliciously quotable gags the film offers.

If Shaun of the Dead's 'rom-zom-com' infused the zombie horror genre with a much- needed surge of frantic humour and schlubby humanity, What We Do in the Shadows blends vampires, who have already been subjected to oodles of daft action and risible romance, with The Office's mockumentary deadpan and a thoroughly New Zealand 'no bullsh*t' ethos, to similarly sterling effect. Co-director/stars Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi may thrive in 'chortle-funny' rather than the deep belly-laugh kind, but the chortles come so incessantly and raucously, they provide just as much of an ab workout. When you finally acclimatize to the spry wordplay, ("we are werewolves, not swear-wolves!"), lovingly integrated pokes at other vampire lore (including the bad etiquette of attending a vampire costume ball dressed as Blade, despite the fact that apparently "Vampires love Wesley Snipes!"), and faux-historical interludes (apparently Naziism was just as controversial within vampire circles), you think you might find rest. But it's only moments before you're blindsided again by interludes involving a pair of impossibly stupid police officers, or laughs as unobtrusive as a cutaway to Waititi playing a mournful trumpet. The film is nonstop, evidencing a breezy, cheerful humour that is too earnest not to love.

It helps that Waititi and Clement wear their hearts on their sleeves, with an uncanny ability to tease out the silliness in vampire lore while still committing to the emotion at the heart of it. There's an undercurrent of deep, anachronistic loneliness imbued in the film's leading trio of bloodsuckers, which somehow makes their interludes of squabbling over the (five years) overdue dishes, or forlornly learning how to use Facebook all the funnier in their sweetness. Similarly, in this realm of immortal horror monsters, death comes fast, furious, and with unapologetic bluntness, and the cheerful interjections of staggering bloodiness that sprinkle throughout the film (sometimes quite inconveniently getting all over the furniture), or omnipresent threat of the documentary crew getting devoured, keep the fun appropriately gruesome throughout. In terms of cohesiveness, there's no question that the film is unapologetically episodic, like a prolonged sitcom episode or beefed up SNL sketch, but Waititi and Clement keep things nimble enough to keep the joke from wearing thin, before calling it quits with a chipper non-climax that's so nonchalant, it's only retroactively that it feels like it delivers the loose resolution you'd hope for. And, honestly, material this hilarious earns all of the clumsy non-sequiturs it can muster.

Still, the film's ruthless silliness and sweetness consolidate into the perfect cocktail (presumably a blood-tini) in the hands of the effortlessly funny cast. As the ageless, effete dandy and tentative moral compass of the group, Waititi himself is massively adorable, pairing bug-eyed cheeriness with a cartoon Dr. Strangelove accent to tremendous effect. Similarly, Clement commits his post-Concords star power perfectly towards the enormous presence of his larger-than-life, crestfallenly ineffectual Vlad the Impaler. Jonny Brugh's scene-chewing rock star arrogance is all the funnier once paired with the clueless boorishness of Cori Gonzalez-Macuer or the indignantly neurotic Jackie van Beek as scene partners. Finally, Stuart Rutherford redefines the potential of the comedic deadpan as impossibly unflappably software analyst (and very human) Stu,* while Rhys Darby (don't call him Murray) is as reliably hilarious as ever, cameoing as an exasperated werewolf.

Thoroughly sweet, disarmingly sad, cheerfully bloody, and infectiously watchable, What We Do in the Shadows proves one of a preciously slim caste of horror spoofs with genuine wings. While it's inevitably prime material to be gobbled up by Flight of the Conchords converts, it's also accessibly goofy enough to stand alone as one of the most unobtrusively funny sleeper hit comedies of the past several years. Just be cautious not to falsely publicize the film amidst the lingering forces of Twihards, or risk incurring Clement and Waititi intoning that these are vampires, not tramp-ires. Zing.


*Also, did you realize "Don't eat Stu!" was a pun? Because I didn't until long after the credits rolled. What a delightful film.

Thor (2011)
He be worthy, 3 January 2017

By Odin's beard! Verily, yon mighty picture house of Marvel doth demonstrate the courage of a warrior battling a rampaging Bilgesnipe to tell the tale of Thor. Metal men and monsters of medicine? Aye, but ye literal Gods of Olde, told with nary a snicker? Forsooth! But hark - they who doth dare to scorn know not the Lord Kenneth of Branagh, whose soothsaying doth be as pure as his heart. He approacheth the lore of Asgard with the eloquence of yon Bard of Olde, but addeth the slow-motion and explosions of yon Michael Bay. Zounds. And lo - though it be the first foray into fantasy outright for yon kingdom of Marvel, Thor abideth the test of time - robust, clear-headed, and, verily, as fun as it be mighty.

Too ridiculous an opening paragraph for you? Thankfully, Marvel and Branagh are, quite wisely, on your side. Here, the Thor comic's characteristic Stan Lee swipes at 'Olde Englishe' are as absent as his feathery helmet (that is to say, restricted to cameo status). Branagh is cognizant of this potential for silliness, and works hard to carve out familiar, safe ground, opening with a contextual prologue that leans on Lord of the Rings tropes so extensively, it's almost a shock not to see Cate Blanchett pop up.* Still, Branagh proves as adept at blockbuster filmmaking as he is at gilding classical wordplay, and, after a few cliché-courting opening moments in the (cool but fairly wobbly CGI) realm of Asgard, it only takes moments to be swept up in Thor's brisk pacing, crisp action interludes (excessive slow-mo notwithstanding), and ready levity, all skepticism receding to a dull ebb.

Instead, Marvel's challenge of selling Norse mythology as hip, blockbuster entertainment provides a intriguing opportunity to repackage the rote, superhero 'learning powers/coming of age' tropes as something altogether more mature. Unlike the average hero, the arrogant Thor begins his titular film at peak power, and the film's biggest action blowout is in its first act, where he lets loose with all the thrilling, trailer-stinger hammer-'n-lightning blowout moments against an army of frost giants in the tundra wastelands of Jotunheim. Soon afterwards, however, we're grounded in New Mexico, where our fish-out-of-water deity is, begrudgingly, forced to learn humility through nonviolent valour. Here, Branagh slows down to a crawl, with more talk of astrophysics, governmental investigations/Avengers world-building (including a happily extensive hangout with Clark Gregg's adorably deadpan Agent Coulson), and the comedic schtick of Kat Dennings (who is just funny enough to not feel flagrantly out of place) than punching and kicking. In his downtime, he stokes a romantic subplot, with flirtations housed in constellations, conflating science and magic, and pop tarts. No one could ever accuse Thor of being unambitious.

If the initial premise itself heralded perilous camp potential, this forced juxtaposition is doubly so. Thankfully, Branagh meets the silliness head on with a cheerful twinkle in his eye. Ample amounts of Thor's gregarious, out-of-place posturing ("I need a horse!" and "This drink - I like it. Another!" can face off for the film's biggest laugh) and physical slapstick help take the sting out of the Asgardian brooding, while keeping the film accessible and fun. This, in turn, carves out breathing room for Branagh's Shakespearian credentials to work their magic on the larger-than-life melodrama, helping terse, booming confrontation scenes between a golden bondage pirate and a Gothic teenager with ibex horns breathe as surprisingly natural, sombre and resonant, without hammering it home (ha). Amazingly, before you can shake a sceptre, it's all coalesced in a din of flamboyant opposites that (somehow) achieve thrilling counterpoint, woven together by the strains of Patrick Doyle's handsomely heroic musical score. By the time we're swept away to climactic battles with a gigantic Day the Earth Stood Still robot and a god vs. god beatdown on a CGI rainbow bridge (keep your Mario Kart jokes to yourself), we, like Thor, feel we've earned the catharsis of the CGI-bloated action, and are too invested not to cheer in the face of the raw jubilance of it all.

Still, Branagh's careful balancing act would be nothing without the exceptional casting of Chris Hemsworth as the titular god of thunder. Bringing an impeccable comedic timing, and boisterous charisma as colossal as his dazzling physique, Hemsworth commits to his performance with such enormous, brazenly sincerity that his fall from grace and reclamation of honour are somehow as primally resonant and compelling as any high melodrama. Similarly, Tom Hiddleston attacks the inherent underdog pathos of Thor's seedy sibling Loki with such ferocious nuance and presence that he's nearly as commanding, sympathetic, and beguiling as his titular brother, even in the midst of committing unspeakably despicable villainy. Natalie Portman may struggle to fish comparable depth out of her quirky love interest/dubious astrophysicist, but she's neurotically adorable enough to make her rushed romance with Hemsworth surprisingly sweet. Anthony Hopkins lends Odin the requisite thunderous gravitas while largely resisting the expected sleepiness and impulse to phone it in, while Stellan Skarsgård is unreasonably entertaining as the resident 'straight-man scientist,' fishing perennial incredulous humour out of the chaos with practiced ease. Finally, Rene Russo, Jaimie Alexander, Ray Stevenson, Josh Dallas, and (especially) Idris Elba all find their moments to lend humour and class as fellow Asgardians, despite functioning more as endearing action figures than fleshed-out characters.

Despite, on paper, sounding like the superhero genre's most absurd entry, Thor excels as one of its most straightforward, breezy, deceptively intimate and character-driven, and invigoratingly enjoyable. We've believed a man can fly; now we can believe a god can fall, and capture our hearts all the while. In the words of Odin, Thor is worthy.


*Or apparently she's just been biding her time for six years. Stay tuned for Ragnarok!

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