Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Thor (2011)

I admit that, until I saw the trailer, I didn't even know Thor was a superhero character. Thus as I walked into the screening next to a man carrying a homemade Thor hammer, I felt at a slight disadvantage. All the inside jokes, the shoutouts to aficionados of the Marvel universe, went completely over my head. With no expectations, I sat back, relaxed, and enjoyed the show.

Thor, the powerful son of Odin, is about to be crowned as the new king of Asgard. But as Odin starts to utter the words of coronation, the ceremony is interrupted by the invasion of the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, enemies from a distant planet. Though the invasion is quelled without losses, Thor impulsively decides to initiate war with the giants. He travels to their planet, stirring up trouble and eliminating any hope for peace between the worlds. His actions were in direct violation of Odin’s orders and, for his brashness and immaturity, Thor has his power stripped away and is banished to a foreign realm—Earth. The story then splits. Half takes place with Thor on earth as he attempts to reclaim his power, helped by three astrophysicists and hindered by mysterious government agents. The other half takes place in space where Odin’s kingdom is threatened by frozen enemies and traitors within its ranks. Thor must battle aliens, secret agents, and the hazards of true love as he slowly regains the power to save both worlds from complete annihilation.

The first act explodes with thunderous intensity. The fight scenes are incredible, the visuals dazzling and the plot captivating. However, when Thor loses his power, so does the film. The second act drags and the third fails to rebuild any of the original suspense. The once-interesting plot disintegrates into an hour-long commercial for the upcoming Avengers movie (the film uniting all Marvel characters). Plot twists late in the film pointlessly complicated the narrative and failed to generate excitement.

The acting is generally good, most notably Anthony Hopkins’ as Odin. However, with the exception of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the characters lacked depth. Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard are one-dimensional in stereotypical roles of love interest, comic relief and random scientist.

Despite the narrative and character flaws, there is much here to enjoy—breathtaking visuals, incredible cinematography, sweeping landscapes of other-worldly vistas. The special effects are top-notch, most notably in the early battle scene on Jotunheim’s ice planet. The fight scenes invoked cheers and applause from the audience on several occasions. The score is sweepingly epic and a perfect match for the action on screen. The film also never takes itself too seriously, injecting genuinely comedic moments throughout. Holding his coffee cup in the air, Thor proclaims, “This drink...I like it! More!” He then smashes the mug to the floor in barbaric Viking fashion. Hilarious interactions and one-liners make the dialogue shine. The film also lauds important traits of honor, duty, and self-sacrifice.

It’s good, clean, mindless entertainment. Nothing more, nothing less—ultimately forgettable but still fun to watch. Its flaws are mostly overcome by its entertainment value and the movie is a solid choice for an afternoon time-waster. Just don’t expect this film to be, like its hero, a cinematic god.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Apartment (1960)

I rented this movie based solely on the recommendation of the Academy—they awarded the film five Oscars, including Best Picture, in 1961.

The film tells the story of C.C. Baxter, low man on the totem pole in a prestigious New York insurance company. Dissatisfied with his inferior status, Baxter attempts to ingratiate himself with the higher-ups of the company by letting them use his apartment for their secret affairs. But things get complicated when the married head of the company, and Baxter’s direct supervisor, demands to use the apartment in order to seduce the girl that Baxter loves. If Baxter refuses, he’ll lose his job and everything he’s ever worked for; he realizes that he won’t be able to maintain his career and also get the girl.

Part romantic comedy, part tragedy, and part character study, the film deals with dark themes of infidelity, divorce and suicide while somehow maintaining a light and cavalier facade. The story was incredibly original never succumbing to rom-com convention or formula. The ending was uncertain, and until the final few frames the outcome was still capricious and unforeseeable.

The acting by film legends Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray is superbly believable: Lemmon as the bumbling wannabe torn between a lucrative executive position and a passionate love, MacLaine as the woman desperately in love with a married man, and MacMurray as the unfaithful boss who makes life miserable for the protagonist. Each character is wonderfully flawed and nuanced.

The dialogue is both playfully witty and bitingly sarcastic. Cynicism proliferates as the characters deal with their marriage-ruining and life-altering choices. Every line of dialogue they deliver only deepens and illuminates their personalities and worldviews; not one is out of place (even a sneaky reference to the director’s 1945 Oscar-winning film, “The Lost Weekend,” works well in context). The conversation draws you into the action, making you feel like an active participant in the characters’ lives. In addition to the clever dialogue, the film also bursts with fun visual touches like an overflowing champagne bottle, a tennis racket being used as a spaghetti strainer, and an extended comedic scene involving the modeling of an “executive” hat.

The film was shot in black and white despite technological advancements of the day. The colorless cinematography brilliantly captured each environment and setting, giving it an old-fashioned and classical feel.

The movie is restrained in terms of inappropriate content; however, the dialogue is laced with some graphic innuendo and suggestion, and most people I know would not want their kids watching this. While neither outrightly condemned nor overtly condoned, the effects of suicide and infidelity are explored; the filmmakers seem to reach the conclusion that neither is the best option. The film is guaranteed to leave you thoughtful, bemused, and perhaps even a little sad (can a story about infidelity ever truly be happy?).

The question I usually ask after I finish watching a Best Picture winner is this: “should it really have won?” Not having seen the other nominees of the year, it’s hard to say for sure. But “The Apartment” is a near-perfect movie. Its flaws are far outweighed by its many strengths. It fully deserves all the accolades it received. This classic is definitely worth a watch.