Category Archives: 4

American Hustle (2013)

amy-adams-christian-bale-american-hustle

 

One of the most celebrated films of 2013 is David O. Russell’s American Hustle, his follow-up to 2012’s critically-acclaimed Silver Linings Playbook (my review). It took me a while to catch this one in theaters just because of the business of winter break and then transitioning back into school, but I was glad to get the chance to check it out.

American Hustle introduces itself with the cheeky disclaimer “Some of this actually happened.” The movie is based on facts, yes, but how much these facts are stretched or not is unclear and are ultimately unimportant. The story focuses around Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a con artist who works with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), or, using her “business” name, Lady Edith Greensly. The two of them have a relationship together, but it is complicated by the fact that Rosenfeld is married to Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence), with whom he has a son. When Rosenfeld and Prosser are caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), they strike a deal to help DiMaso score four more arrests in exchange for their amnesty. They set up a sting operation on corrupt politicians, implicating Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, New Jersey. However, they soon get in with the wrong people, so they must do everything in their power to maintain their subterfuge or else the operation – and their lives – might be in danger.

The best word I can use to describe this movie is “fun.” The characters are fun, the dialogue is fun, the music is fun, the subterfuge is fun…you get the idea. The whole film is just one big ride that I was happy to go along with. Just like Silver Linings Playbook, the dialogue is king, with everything being presented fast-paced, but never too fast. My favorite two characters and the stars of the film, in my opinion, are Christian Bale as Rosenfeld and Amy Adams as Prosser. Their chemistry is believable and fun, and their abilities to cooperate together to trick people out of their money is detestable in theory but amusing to watch in action. I was surprised by the charisma of Jeremy Renner, who, up until now, has always seemed a bit grumpy or subdued in his roles. It’s not his problem – it’s just the face he has and the roles he’s been in in the past. But here he shines, with smiles abound and energy flowing out of him freely.

Unpopular opinion: I didn’t care much for either Bradley Cooper as DiMaso or Jennifer Lawrence as Mrs. Rosenfeld. Sure, they both had their moments of brilliance, but the majority of the time it seemed that they were just trying to hard…or, in Lawrence’s case, not trying hard enough. I’ve seen “JLaw” in several roles by now, and she’s outstanding in each of them…except for this one. Not to say that she’s not good, just that she didn’t blow me away for once.

Despite its energy, the movie did start to feel a little long by the time we reached the end of it. However, I loved the overall feel of the film, and the 70s soundtrack was extremely entertaining; I have a strange affinity for 70s music, so I was singing along to myself in the back of the theater for the majority of the movie. American Hustle does have its problems – listen to Episode 78 of The MovieByte Podcast to hear me discuss these more in-depth with my friends TJ and Mikey – but I had too much fun watching these characters to be too upset by any lack of quality in other aspects.

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

MPAA: R – for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence


Lone Survivor (2013)

lone-survivor-mark-wahlberg

 

There are some movies that should be required viewing for everyone. Not because they are necessarily good, mind you, but because that the information or message that they are trying to pass on is worthwhile. Recently, 12 Years a Slave was one of these films, in my opinion, and I think that Lone Survivor just might be one as well.

This film tells the true story of Marcus Luttrell and three other US Navy SEALs and the failed Operation Red Wings, in which they were tasked to track Taliban leader Ahmad Shah but were discovered and subsequently attacked, resulting in the death of all but Luttrell.

Disclaimer: I have nothing but respect for the members of our armed forces and am incredibly thankful for the sacrifices that they and their families have made. Any criticisms expressed here are of the film, not of the SEALs themselves or the system in general.

The opening credits of the film seemed to be confused on the message it was trying to send. A montage of various training sessions with these Navy SEALs and the trials they go through is shown to us, but I don’t know what the takeaway is supposed to be: the soldiers work hard? The soldiers are mistreated? The training process is cruel and rigorous? These men are super tough? They have a strong brotherhood among them? Or is it all of the above? The scene that this montage transitions into – the four men that we spend the rest of the film with waking up in their living quarters and going about their daily routines – would have been a much more powerful opening scene than the confusing montage itself.

Opening aside, all four men are fantastic. Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster, to be more specific. They all convinced me that their relationship as close friends, nearly brothers, in this situation was completely real, and I hurt for them when I saw them suffer together and lose one another one by one.

However, I thought that the first half of the film in general was too uneven. There was a lot of jumping around from place to place, military talk that I didn’t necessarily understand, and it was just not very well put together. I didn’t start to truly appreciate the film until the action kicked up, and not necessarily because of the action, but because it didn’t shy away from the realities of war. We see these men responding to situations in real time and working off of each others’ strengths to increase their chances of survival…whether they were successful or not. The fighting and violence is brutal, but it never seemed overly gratuitous or unnecessary to me, and it certainly didn’t revel in the gore either.

The final ten minutes are the most potent of the film, with Wahlberg’s “thank you” to the men who saved his life serving as an incredibly emotional moment. I was hurt because of the sacrifices made by all parties involved – both the SEALs and the local villagers – but I was also thankful.

Lone Survivor is not a fun watch, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think that it is an important one. Granted, I’m not well-versed in the specifics of war and cannot speak on the accuracy of the events depicted in the film, but it made me thankful for the life I live thanks to the men like this who give their lives for me daily, and, for that reason, I have to recommend it – if you can stomach it.

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

MPAA: R – for strong bloody war violence and pervasive language


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

the-hobbit-the-desolation-of-smaug

I don’t think that anyone would argue with you if you were to suggest that Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a masterpiece, but his recent adaptations of Tolkien’s predecessor to LOTRThe Hobbit, is a bit more controversial. The main argument against Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy of films is just that – it’s a trilogy, three films based on one 300-page book in contrast to the three films based on three 400-600-page books. Regardless of your opinions on this new trilogy, it’s happening, and though the first film, An Unexpected Journey, wasn’t anything spectacular (my review), The Desolation of Smaug certainly steps up the game and brings to the table a better film.

The second film in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit film trilogy picks up where the first left off, with the dwarves of Erebor, Gandalf the Grey, and the eponymous hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, rapidly approaching the dark forest Mirkwood, with the orc company led by Azog the Defiler hot on their tail. They seek solace with Beorn, a skin-changer with the ability to transform into a large bear, who houses them and sends them off into Mirkwood. Along the way, the company of Thorin Oakenshield comes across terrifying giant spiders, the Wood-Elves of Mirkwood (including a certain familiar face from the LOTR…), Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and the people of Lake-Town, and, finally, the dragon of Erebor itself – Smaug.

Martin Freeman continues to be the perfect Bilbo Baggins, from the way he reacts under stress to the way he communicates with the rest of the company. His energy on-screen surpasses that of any other actor in the film, though Richard Armitage as Thorin is also pretty great here. The character of Thorin is developed better than it was in the first film, with his conflict between his desire for gold and his dedication to his friends being brought into question. The other truly noteworthy performance here is Benedict Cumberbatch’s depiction of Smaug. Cumberbatch provided both voice and motion capture for the dragon, and his work is nothing short of amazing. Aside from the fact that the CGI is beautiful and as realistic as it could possibly be for a giant dragon, his voice is an excellent mix of both creepy and charming, and his whole conversation with Bilbo in the hall of gold is every bit as clever and entertaining as the “Riddles in the Dark” scene with Gollum in the first film.

Other characters were not so great. While it was admittedly nice having a familiar face pop up, Orlando Bloom’s return as the elf Legolas feels shoe-horned in, as his character serves no real purpose other than for some cool action scenes and to be a member of the poorly setup (and thoroughly awkward) love triangle between him, Tauriel (an elf character created for the film, played by actress Evangeline Lilly), and Kili (Aidan Turner), one of Thorin’s nephews. The explanation behind the inclusion of Tauriel is to provide a strong female character for audiences to look up to, and, yes, she does have a couple of good action scenes, but the insistence of the filmmakers to create this romantic side-plot makes my feelings toward her and Legolas to be ambivalent at best. I’m also sick of the side-plots involving the orcs hunting down Thorin for his head – more stuff made up for the films that weren’t present in the book. I’m not a book purist, meaning that I don’t think that filmmakers have to follow the book exactly, and, hey, if the filmmakers come up with something that adds to the book’s story in a good way, cool for them, but that is not the case here, at least not in regards to the elf characters.

An addition that I did enjoy this time around is Gandalf’s (Sir Ian McKellen) quest to find out more about this “Necromancer” that we only briefly glimpse in the first film. In the book, Gandalf leaves for chapters at a time, but Tolkien doesn’t expound on what he might be off doing…at least, not in The Hobbit. Jackson has graciously given us a glimpse into those adventures, which are quite entertaining. The Hobbit as written by Tolkien is not a prequel to The Lord of the Rings so much as it is simply a predecessor that takes place in the same universe; you don’t have to read one to understand the other. However, Jackson is turning his trilogy into a prequel for his earlier trilogy, and it’s scenes like Gandalf’s visit to Dol Guldur and the impending rise of Sauron that fulfill this purpose nicely. Also worth noting is the expansion of the role of the Ring in this film; in the book, it is simply a magic ring that turns the wearer invisible, but, as we learn in LOTR, it is actually much more than that. We start to see Bilbo’s fascination and obsession with the ring in this film, watching him slash something to bits to protect his possession of it – or, rather, its possession of him.

I enjoyed the first film in this trilogy well enough, but I can’t deny that our second outing with Thorin and company is much better overall. The feel of The Desolation of Smaug is more natural and (thankfully) less expository, and the higher stakes of this part of the journey bring more action to the table and make the film more enjoyable as a whole. The run-time is about the same as the first film, but it doesn’t feel that way because it does a better job of keeping you on your toes and engaged throughout. Sure, it has its problems – the HFR is still a bit cartoon-y at times – but it’s on-the-whole a superior film, with an ending that will leave you thirsting for more. Howard Shore has composed another great, although more forgettable, score for the film, and Ed Sheeran’s outstanding song “I See Fire” is worth sitting through the credits for. I can only hope that Jackson doesn’t disappoint with the third and final film later this year.

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images


Ender’s Game (2013)

 Enders-Game

Has there been an excess of book-to-film adaptations this year, or is it just that I’m attending most of them this year? In any case, I’m not complaining…adaptations of books give me good excuses to set aside the time to read the original book. I had no knowledge of the existence of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 science fiction classic Ender’s Game until I heard word of this film being made. The trailers for the film sparked my interest a bit, but I had no idea how much I would enjoy the book when I finally picked it up to read it a couple of weeks before the film’s release…I loved it. So, naturally, I was excited for the film, like I always am for adaptations of my favorite books, and, like so many other book-to-film adaptations this year, the filmmakers did a great job.

Ender’s Game takes place in the unspecified future, sometime after the second invasion of an alien species (called “buggers” or “Formics”) nearly destroys human life on Earth. In anticipation of an imminent third invasion and convinced the humans’ victory in the second invasion was only due to luck, the International Fleet turns to the youth of the world as the next generation of great commanders. Enter Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a genius child who possesses the potential of being the greatest commander that the IF has ever seen. Ender must complete both Battle and Command School in order to lead the fleet against the Formics before time runs out and the human race is wiped out.

This year has also been a good year for casting in these book-to-film adaptations, and this film is no exception: Asa Butterfield is a brilliant Ender Wiggin. He perfectly portrays all facets of the character – focus, determination, despair, vulnerability. He successfully holds his own against veteran actor Harrison Ford as Colonel Graff, a feat not easily matched by other actors at Butterfield’s age. Speaking of Harrison Ford, I have one word to say regarding his performance: FINALLY! It has been quite a long time since I last saw Ford in a role that I thought he did really well with, but I think that he really brought a lot to the character here. He is firm and, to a point, ruthless, but cracks appear when his decisions are held up to the light, which is exactly the way it should be. The role of Major Anderson is gender-flopped from the book, but it works with the aid of Viola Davis, who brings compassion to the character in light of Ender’s situation and the pressures placed upon him. Sir Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham, the commander who defeated the Formics in the second invasion, plays the character with the appropriate level of fierceness – he’s pretty much just the way I imagined him in the book, which is always a nice touch.

I have two minor quibbles in regards to casting – not that I think they were bad choices, but that I think there were better options available. Hailee Steinfeld plays the character of Petra as she written admirably, but the way she is written in the film contrasts with how I remember her being described in the book; I pictured a tougher female character, one who wasn’t afraid to throw a few punches at her male peers or curse with the others. In the film, however, she’s almost completely opposite – while she remains a highly capable shooter in the battle room, her character seems much more timid here, watered down so that she may be seen as a potential love interest for Ender. Now, this idea is only hinted at in the film, which I’m thankful for, but it’s still hinted at in a couple of scenes. My other minor complaint is with the choice of Moises Arias as Bonzo Madrid, the commander of Salamander Army in Battle School and antagonist to Ender. Arias plays the character fine as far as his attitude and general demeanor, but he’s also tiny, which, in my opinion, makes him much less of a threat. I don’t remember how his size was described in the book or if it was even mentioned at all, but the fact that Ender looked down on him bothered me because it seemed to lessen the extent of their very important rivalry. (Also, I must admit, the fact that he played a character in Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana TV show might have made it difficult for me to take him seriously as well…)

One of the best aspects of the film is how it brings the locations of the film to life so beautifully; the exterior design of the Battle School is awe-inspiring, and the Battle Room and the battles between armies that take place inside help us to visualize some of the more active scenes in the book, scenes that almost require the visual aid in order to experience them fully. The design of the simulator at Command School is similar, despite the fact that it deviates a bit from the description given in the book. The way it is presented absorbs you fully into the environment, allowing you to experience the incredible interaction that Ender feels while operating and directing the fleet…these are the types of scenes that were designed to be seen on the big screen. The mind game sequences on Ender’s tablet are truncated quite a bit for time’s sake, but they still work really well in setting up the ending of the film.

The ideas of necessary (?) violence and the morality of what the IF is doing here are brought into question here, as they are in the book, though they are admittedly more diluted here. Is it right to force these kids into violence with each other, even if it turns them into more efficient military commanders? Do Colonel Graff, Mazer Rackham, and the rest of the IF have the right to withhold important information and/or the truth from Ender during the course of his training even if it means that he saves the world from a third invasion? These are hard-hitting questions with serious implications, and they are presented well in the context of the film, especially when Ender confronts Graff face-to-face at the conclusion of the final battle at Command School.

My only real complaint for this film is that there isn’t enough…of anything! I can justify all of the creative liberties taken with the author’s story, so that isn’t the problem. The problem is that in the Battle School, we only really are able to see a battle and a half before Ender is shipped off to Command School, where we see brief snippets of two or three battles before being treated to the final battle. These sequences are the coolest in the film, but they are so brief that we don’t get much of a feel for Ender’s military genius aside from the fact that we’re told by Graff and others that Ender is a military genius. In the book, we witness Ender’s growth as he faces opponent after opponent in the battle room, and, no matter the odds, he always wins! We know he’s a military genius, but the trick is to show us being one rather than simply telling us. I’m also slightly disappointed by the fact that Ender’s siblings’ roles are reduced so significantly; I didn’t need their entire subplot, but the issue here is that it is Ender’s relationship with his siblings and how his personality differs from theirs that makes him who we is, so we are missing a huge chunk of Ender’s personality since we are missing that aspect.

I loved this film. It’s a great adaptation of a fantastic book, and, despite the fact that I had some minor disappointments with what made it into the film and with what was significantly reduced, it is well-cast and well-told, and the musical score by Steve Jablonsky, who I’m not normally fond of (he is most known for his work on Michael Bay’s Transformers trilogy), is his best work yet. Ender’s Game manages to take the themes and questions presented in the book and mostly keep them intact, albeit a bit watered down. I can’t imagine a fan of the book disliking this film because it so vividly and admirably brings Ender Wiggin and his story to the big screen.

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material


The Book Thief (2013)

book-thief

 

More and more often, as books are being adapted into movies for the big screen, I find myself reading the books before I see the film, a habit that I had as a child but dropped as I grew older. When I read Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief for the first time, I was completely absorbed; the writing was beautiful, the characters were fantastic, and the combination of setting and plot was heartbreaking. The end of the book destroyed me emotionally like no book has done in quite a long time…needless, to say, I had high hopes for the film adaptation. Could they successfully adapt such an incredible book into an at least decent film? The critical rating over on RottenTomatoes.com had me worried, but, rest assured, I can personally attest to the fact that this film is much better than the critics would have you believe.

The Book Thief begins in 1938 and tells the story of Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), who, at the start of the film, is on a train to Molching, Germany with her younger brother and mother so that she may be fostered into the care of Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, respectively) after the departure of her father. On the journey to Molching, however, her brother dies, and, at his funeral, Liesel finds a book, stealing it as a reminder of her brother, in spite of her inability to read. When she arrives at the Hubermanns’ house and her mother leaves, Hans begins to teach Liesel how to read, and she befriends a neighbor, Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch). The Hubermanns lives change forever when a Jew, Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), arrives on their doorstep, seeking protection based on a promise made by Hans to his deceased father. The rest of the film tells of the growing friendship between Max and Liesel, Liesel’s increasing thirst for reading, and the survival of a poor non-Nazi family living in the middle of Nazi Germany during World War II.

The first thing I should say is that, though this is far from being perfect, it’s a decent adaptation of Zusak’s original book; I literally saw the film on the same day I finished reading the book for the first time, so everything was fresh on my mind, and there weren’t any changes made that really upset me. The film’s greatest strength in translating from the book is its casting. Sophie Nélisse is brilliant as Liesel, bringing to the role the appropriate naivety and innocence to a girl of her age during this time, but she also brings out the fierceness and determination of the character, ensuring that she holds her own against an actor as established as Geoffrey Rush. Speaking of Mr. Rush, he settles into the role of Hans “Papa” Hubermann so effortlessly that you’ll want him to be your Papa from the moment he first speaks. He successfully communicates all the different personalities shown by Hans in the book, from the kind gentleness he shows Liesel when she first arrives, to the determination exuded upon the arrival of Max, and the remorse shown upon revealing what danger he has put his family in by standing up to the Nazis. Emily Watson as Rosa “Mama” Hubermann makes the character as mysteriously multi-faceted as she appears in the book as well, with her outwardly rough, coarse behavior making her rare moments of vulnerability and intimacy all the more poignant and emotional. Though these three are the shining stars in this film, honorable mention goes to Ben Schnetzer as Max and Nico Liersch as Rudy, both of whom give excellent performances too.

The critical consensus at RottenTomatoes states that the film plays it too safe with its Nazi Germany setting, which I actually agree with. I generally do my best to not judge a book-to-film adaptation based on its quality/accuracy in regards to the book, but this particular adaptation, despite being a great film overall, is definitely a bit too watered-down. Many of the darker aspects of the book, such as Rudy and Liesel stealing, Liesel’s relationship to the mayor’s wife, Rudy’s rebellion against the Hitler Youth program, and the Jews being marched through town to the Dachau concentration camp, are either barely touched on or simply skipped over, providing the film with what I would personally consider to be missed opportunities. For example, the Jews are actually marched through town once in the film, but it is never explicitly stated what the purpose or final destination is; yes, it is implied and should not be difficult to figure out given the context, but the scene is so brief and only happens once, so it is difficult to take away any real emotion from the scene as presented in the film. In contrast, though, there is one particular scene that stands out to me as being particularly powerful. Liesel is standing and singing with the choir at her school, and the music sounds lovely in their high, sweet voices. However, captions across the bottom of the screen reveal the anti-Jewish lyrics being sung, and the camera cuts to scenes of Nazis raiding Jewish homes and taking the families away. It’s a sobering scene, with the juxtaposition of the innocence of children and the realities of Nazism.

Another complaint I have about the film is that I worry that some aspects weren’t explained well enough for non-readers to understand, namely the inclusion of Death as Narrator, as he is in the book. The book is told entirely from his perspective, which is why it works so well; I mean, who better to tell a story that takes place in Germany during World War II than Death himself? But it doesn’t work so well in the movie because Death’s narration only interrupts the story two or three times throughout the course of the film, and I mean exactly that – interrupts. If the film had involved him more throughout, it might not have been as awkward, but, unfortunately, that is not the case. Despite the awkwardness, I liked Death’s voice (Roger Allam), a notion that gives me goosebumps – how profound that the voice of Death be pleasing to listen to?

The best translation from book to screen would definitely have to be the final fifteen minutes or so of the film. I won’t reveal any spoilers, but it’s safe to say that you would be wise to bring a box of tissues. The incredibly emotional ending from the book is kept intact in all the ways that matter, bringing the film to a satisfying and poignant close.

I learned at an early age that you can’t walk into a film adaptation of a book you love and expect the same experience – each is its own art form and therefore must be absorbed differently, without comparison to the other. However, you do have to at least consider how good an adaptation it is, which is why I talk so much about how the film compares to the book here. In any case, though it may seem like I didn’t like the film because it wasn’t as good as the book, I really did enjoy this film for what it was. On the whole, it is a pretty good adaptation, albeit a bit watered down one, but when aren’t film adaptations of books watered down in some regard? The important thing here is that the film’s heart is where it needs to be; the characters are genuine, there are many wonderfully touching moments, the characters are cast and portrayed well, and the instrumental score by John Williams is phenomenal…even at the ripe old age of 81, he continues to prove why he’s one of the best in the business. The Book Thief is good, solid filmmaking and has my full recommendation.

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material


Frozen (2013)

frozen

I was born and grew up in the 1990s, which means that I was a child during the time period when Disney produced its most successful animated musicals, often referred to as the “Disney Renaissance” and featuring such renowned films as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast (my review), Aladdin, and The Lion King. While Disney has released a few more animated musicals over the years, the quality has generally not been up to the same standards as those set in the 1990s (though I’m certainly partial to their 2010 offering, Tangled – my review), but with Frozen they finally hark back to those animated films that I grew up with, making it quite an enjoyable experience.

Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Snow QueenFrozen tells the tale of Elsa, princess of Arendelle, and her younger sister Anna. Elsa was born with the power to control and create snow and ice, and an accident as children almost kills Anna. To protect Elsa and others from her powers, their parents (the king and queen) consult with magical trolls who remove Anna’s memories of Elsa’s powers and subsequently lock themselves away in their castle, with Elsa distancing herself from Anna to protect her. The king and queen are killed ten years later in a storm at sea, and, three years after, the now-21-year-old Elsa (Idina Menzel) must attend the coronation that will make her queen. When things go wrong and her powers are revealed to the kingdom and to Anna (Kristen Bell), Elsa flees Arendelle, leaving it trapped in an eternal winter…in the middle of the summer. Anna seeks Elsa out to get her to thaw out the kingdom, meeting friends Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer pal Sven, and a talking snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad).

The voice cast in this film is excellent across the board. Idina Menzel brings out the conflicted nature of Elsa nicely, and, as expected, her singing voice (especially in the track “Let It Go”) is outstanding. Kristen Bell also provides an admirable performance as Anna, bringing quite a bit of variety to the character both in terms of quirkiness and seriousness, and her singing voice also sounds great…I didn’t even know Kristen Bell could sing! A different kind of performance comes from Josh Gad as Olaf the snowman; though the trailers made the character seem goofy in a bad way, I really enjoyed his presence in the film, and most of his lines left me laughing. I liked Jonathan Groff’s Kristoff and his relationship with his friend Sven the reindeer as well.

(mild spoilers)

The film explores a few mature themes, which I really appreciated. The main one was the idea of too much control/containment leading to just the opposite, as evidenced by Elsa’s departure from Arendelle and solo “Let It Go,” in which she talks about letting loose and seeing what she’s capable of, a luxury not afforded to her while she kept her powers secret from the world. In that song as well, it’s suggested that her “kingdom of isolation” (of which “[she’s] the queen”) allows her to drop the good girl act that has been forced on her for so long, toying with the idea of her having a bit of evil in her, which actually begins to show just a bit in the film. It’s deep stuff! Another powerful theme is the idea of love, but, in what is sure to be a rarity in Disney films, love that is not necessarily of the romantic variety. No, the focus here is love between family, or, more specifically, between siblings, and its this love that is the focus during the climax of the film. It’s a twist on the usual Disney formula, though there’s certainly a bit of romantic love to be seen as well.

I did have just a couple of issues with this film, the first being with the character of The Duke of Weselton, voiced by Alan Tudyk. We know that his ultimate goal is to exploit the kingdom for profit – he tells us so with his very first line – but that idea is dropped as soon as Elsa’s powers are revealed, at which point his concern becomes to kill Elsa and…do what, exactly? Anna would be successor to the throne, and, if she were to die as well, she has placed Hans, a prince of a neighboring kingdom who Anna falls in love with upon their first meeting, in charge of the kingdom in her absence. So the Duke’s plans of exploitation as stated – again, LITERALLY in his first line – seem to simply be stated for the sake of making him an immediate antagonist. Sure, you could argue that it keeps focus on him in order to set up the twist that comes towards the end of the film, which, yes, sure, I agree with, but I don’t think that having him be an antagonist for the sake of having an obvious antagonist is the best solution. My one other complaint would be that every action by every character seems to be an overreaction, from the removal of Anna’s memories, to the royal family completely locking themselves away from the rest of the kingdom, to Elsa’s leaving the kingdom upon the reveal of her powers, among others. In all of these circumstances, I think that there might have been less severe paths to be taken to combat the situation rather than make everything a HUGE deal like they did.

(end spoilers)

But both of these complaints are altogether really minor when you look at the film as a whole. Frozen accomplishes what it set out to do, which is to provide good, clean family entertainment, and it even manages to ask some good questions and explore familial love better than Disney/Pixar’s 2012 film Brave did (my review). The voice cast is great, the animation is beautiful, and you might even walk out of the theater with some good music stuck in your head.

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG – for some action and mild rude humor

P.S. – I should briefly mention the animated short that appears before the film, titled Get a Horse. It starts off as a sort of flashback to simpler times, with it first appearing to be a black-and-white cartoon in the style of older Disney cartoons, such as 1928 Mickey Mouse short Steamboat Willie, before incorporating today’s more standard 3D, colorful animation as well, providing a fun back-and-forth between the two animation styles. It’s a fun short film despite a couple of awkward moments (Clarabelle Cow is…strange, to say the least). Not as great as other Disney shorts, but it’s still pretty enjoyable, especially the juxtaposition of the two polar opposites of animation.


Thor: The Dark World (2013)

thor the dark world

Though I enjoyed Marvel’s first Thor film (my review) well enough, I didn’t like it as much as I did the first Iron Man film or Captain America: The First Avenger and especially not as much as The Avengers (my review). That being said, the high quality of The Avengers and the altogether decent Iron Man 3 (my review) had me excited that Thor: The Dark World would be at least an improvement on its predecessor – and, thankfully, it is.

Thor: The Dark World opens with an introduction to the film’s villain, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), a Dark Elf set to destroy the universe with an evil substance called the Aether. We witness Odin’s father defeat Malekith and hide the Aether, but Malekith and other Dark Elves manage to escape in suspended animation. The film then picks up after the events of The Avengers, with Loki (Tom Hiddleston) being imprisoned for his crimes against Earth. Meanwhile, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Warriors Three (Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, and Tadanobu Asano), and Sif (Jaimie Alexander) are fighting to make peace in the Nine Realms. On Earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), along with her assistant Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), is still searching for a way to make contact with Thor again after their last encounter. Her research leads her to the discovery of some sort of magic portal, through which she is accidentally teleported to another world, where she is infected by the Aether, awakening Malekith and threatening her life. Thor returns to Earth and seeks to find a way to save her life, eventually turning to Loki as his only hope for saving Jane, Asgard, and the universe itself.

Marvel has done an excellent job of casting people perfect for their roles, with the prime example being Tony Stark as Robert Downey, Jr. Robert Downey, Jr., as Tony Stark. Chris Hemsworth is no exception here, as he really falls into his stride and wields the god of thunder’s hammer perfectly. The return of Hiddleston as Loki is also a welcome addition to the film; Hiddleston’s ability to be simultaneously charming and sinister is put to good use as Thor turns to him for help…can he really be trusted? The character brings a couple of nice twists and plenty of humor (including one particular scene in which he jokingly morphs into a certain Captain who we all know and love), though I fear that the character almost turned into too much of a good thing, similarly to Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series. Now, fear not, he never fully crosses that line, but in true Loki fashion he toes the line carefully, with a few jokes becoming a bit annoying for me because they came all at once. Still, Loki’s presence here was overall a good thing, and it would have been a much less entertaining film without him. Part of the reason why the return of Loki is so satisfying is because it gives him a chance to be brother to Thor again. Thor doesn’t know whether or not he can trust his brother, which in one scene he reveals is hard for him to accept. The two were raised together, and it’s difficult for Thor to accept that the person who he spent so many years with has no good left in him. It’s an interesting dynamic that is explored pretty well, however briefly.

Other faces are back in varying capacities. At least a brief mention should be given to Idris Elba as Heimdall, who is simply lots of fun – and he even gets his moment to shine here! Natalie Portman as Jane does a better job here than she did in the first film…but I still don’t believe that she’s a scientist. Thankfully, her relationship with Thor is a bit more believable this time around, but it doesn’t change the fact that I still think she’s an awkward character. The role of her assistant, Darcy, played by Kat Dennings, contrasts with her role in the first film in the sense that I actually liked her here; rather than simply being the comedic relief for the film, she played a definitive part in defeating the villain in the end, and the moments in which she WAS comedic relief played off better this time around. I like that Stellan Skarsgård is back as Dr. Erik Selvig, though you could say that his role here has been switched with Darcy’s in the first film. You could make the argument that the silliness/eccentricity of the character here (he spends more than half the film not wearing pants) is a result from Loki spending too much time in his head during The Avengers, but the fact of the matter here is that Skarsgård would have been put to better use as someone who could convince us that the science in the film is actually believable, rather than using Jane as the throwaway scientist. Either way, he’s at least moderately entertaining here…just a bit of wasted potential. Anthony Hopkins returns as Odin, but he’s gone from bad father in the first film to bad king in this film, making decisions based less on good judgement and more on pride. He even calls Jane a goat…it just seems odd. Eccleston as Malekith makes an appropriately menacing villain, but there is little explanation as to why he is the way he is or any sort of reason for his actions. Again, it just seems like a wasted opportunity.

The visuals of the film are on the whole better than in the first film, which relied mostly on CGI and often looked pretty cartoony. The CGI that is used in TDW is on the whole much more tasteful and refined, but it otherwise relies more on actual sets rather than on a green screen, which I really appreciate. I also really admire the ties that it makes to The Avengers; like Iron Man 3, the implications of Loki’s war crimes on Earth and the effects that they had on our heroes are explored here, from Loki’s imprisonment to Selvig’s eccentricity to various other small examples. It just helps the film to feel a part of the greater universe that Marvel has compiled, and it’s done without making it seem like TDW relies on the events of The Avengers to make sense. 

Since I’m the music guy, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Brian Tyler’s score for the film. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed when I first learned that Patrick Doyle wouldn’t be returning to score the sequel, since I generally appreciated his work on the first film, but that disappointment has disappeared since listening to Tyler’s score in full. The energy that he also brought to Iron Man 3 is just as present here without feeling like a rehash, and, while his music is almost entirely his own creation, he doesn’t completely abandon the main theme from Doyle’s score, an act that I appreciate for continuity’s sake. The score is definitely worth picking up and listening to if you’re interested in those sorts of things!

This film leaves us with some interesting questions that I won’t spoil here, but just know that the future of Thor and friends should hopefully be a great ride. On the whole, Thor: The Dark World takes what was good about the first film and improves on it, and it also flips around much of what made the first film, shall we say, less than stellar, to make a film that feels fun, adventurous, and even weighted at times, all in the best of ways.

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some suggestive content