Saturday, June 25, 2011

Movie Review: Thor

The movie Thor serves as an introduction to the superhero character from the Marvel comics. I don’t know much about him in his print form, so I can’t say how much liberty was taken with him. I do have a feeling he was an actual God though and not an alien from another part of the galaxy who was just seen – together with his extended family – as holy beings by the primitive Vikings, thus making their way into silly Norse mythology. I assume this was done to sidestep any criticism from viewers with a different set of beliefs. (Our current religions are of course a lot less goofy. *cough*)

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has some family issues. He and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are both up for the throne of Asgard currently held by their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), but of course there is only one seat to be had, leading to some resentment. When Thor is picked by his father, he spoils things at the very last moment by getting warmongery and impulsive and his father banishes him to Earth to learn a lesson. It’s all very Shakespearian and operatic, so it’s fitting the movie was directed by British thesp Kenneth Branagh, known for filming Shakespeare’s plays and who now gets to play around with pop culture.

On earth Thor meets a rather hot astronomer (Queen Amidala – aka Natalie Portman) who ends up serving as his guide while lusting after his muscled body. There is much ado about a big, powerful hammer called Mjölnir. Meanwhile Loki – further egged on by an unsettling revelation – takes advantage of Thor’s absence and seizes power. Brotherly strife ensues.

Thor is perfectly serviceable entertainment and it serves as a good primer for Thor, who is slated to appear in the upcoming The Avengers movie, directed by Joss Whedon. I saw the movie in 3D and while the fantasy vistas of Asgard look good with depth to them, I have a feeling I wouldn’t have missed much if I saw it in just two dimensions. The movie isn’t without its faults: tension is lacking for one thing. I was never quite sure of the power level of the characters so it seemed anything could potentially happen, making what actually díd happen seem a bit arbitrary. The romantic tension between Thor and Jane is underwhelming and perfunctory; there may be a glowing ember there, but it could have used a lot more fire. Additionally, though the emotional turmoil within Thor’s family is well-handled and played out, the actual fates of Asgard and Jotunheim (don’t ask) that hang in the balance, don’t carry much weight. Despite various shots of a large world, we only meet a few of Asgard’s inhabitants and it seems empty apart from Thor, his family, his four friends and some random people milling about in the background. The potential destruction of icy Jotunheim left me even colder.

Pet peeve: There is an extra scene at the end of the credits, leading into the The Avengers movie and guest-starring Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, the leader of SHIELD. I was the only person who knew to hang around for it at the screening I was at, tipped off by a review I read. I understand the business reasons for sticking extra scenes at the end of the credits: it’s a great way to get movie-nerds excited, giving them something people not as in-the-know will miss out on. For people who heard about it too late, it may be an added incentive to get the Blu-Ray, DVD or even to go see the movie a second time. (Especially X-Men Origins: Wolverine tried hard to lure rabid fans back for a second viewing, by having one of two extra teaser scenes stuck to the end of each movie print, making it impossible to not miss out on anything the first time around.) I felt pretty stupid sitting there in my lonesome while the lights came up and the guy who was supposed to start cleaning up hovered impatiently in the back corner of the theater. Yes, the extra scene is fun, but it would have been just as fun spliced into the credits at a third of the way in and a lot more people would have gotten to enjoy it. It seems odd to me that someone who wants ‘the whole experience’ is willfully inconvenienced like this.

Temporal nitpick (SPOILER): How come the Vikings knew about Thor and Loki? A picture of the latter flashes by in a book being leafed through. Does time pass a lot slower in Asgard, the centuries flying by on Earth while they grew up just a little more? Or, since they are immortal, are Thor and Loki really old but just kind of immature for their age? And how did the Vikings get to know Loki better than Thor does? In Norse mythology Loki is known as The Trickster while his brother seems to have no clue about his deviousness.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Television Review: The Librarian: Return to King Solomon's Mines

I really like Noah Wyle, the actor best known for his long run on ER who is soon to be back in the spotlight with Falling Skies, the new Steven Spielberg-produced series. And I love the first three Indiana Jones movies. (Let us not speak of the fourth.) This should make me the ideal audience for the Librarian trilogy, a fairly obvious Indiana Jones rip-off made for television, starring Noah Wyle. However, I hated part one a little, part two a lot and I think it will be a good long while before I feel masochistic enough to check out part three, though I’ve been told it’s better than its predecessors and co-stars that nice lady from Castle.

The Librarian: Return to King Solomon's Mines (2006) - the middle part of the trilogy - is a perfect reminder why I tend to avoid television movies like the plague: mediocrity to the max. The dialogue, acting, sets and special effects are all half-baked. The script consists of lame one-liners, some cheesy emotional scenes, very obvious foreshadowing of things to come, believability stretched beyond repair and too many coincidences; the crutch of any bad writer who dug himself a narrative hole. To sum up the plot: Wyle works as a ‘librarian’ at a place where mystical, ancient artifacts are stored. He is sent out in the field to obtain one such artifact, hooks up with a sexy archeologist and confronts some demons from his childhood. There is perfunctory globetrotting, though most locations seem to be on the back lot of a movie studio.

The story culminates in a large ceremonial cave, with elements suspiciously similar to the finale of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The budget strained to keep up with the script from the beginning and at this point it coughs up the last of its petty cash for some laughable these-looked-snazzy-circa-the-eighties special effects. A ‘big’ adventure like this requires something visually spectacular when it peaks, but Librarian II limps to the finish. The climactic scene involves what seem to be fireworks superimposed on some mountains, to signify stuff blowing up real big. Wyle’s charisma is the only thing compensating for the craptastic nature of the rest of the movie, but even Harrison Ford in his prime would have been dragged down by something this dire. It’s a shame, as Wyle is clearly enjoying the chance to play a cheeky adventurer and is pretty good at it.

Productions like this are an exercise in frustration to watch: you can see what they were going for and how they could have made it work at least somewhat better, given a thorough script polish and a larger budget. As it stands, the time, money and effort actually invested seem completely wasted on a half-hearted product that won’t raise anyone’s pulse. The lesson here is: do something well, or don’t do it at all. This is exactly the kind of generic, inferior movie that life’s too short to waste time on.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Movie Review: Bear Nation

I recently caught the documentary Bear Nation at a gay and lesbian film festival. It’s about the international community of ‘bears’ - heavy gay gentlemen, generally furry – but also about their fans and about how they relate to other gay men.The topic fascinated me because of the idea of a subculture within a subculture and because I was interested to see how it would frame the generally very lookist gay scene and the bears’ place in it. Also, I am a fan of Kevin Smith’s podcast Smodcast and a few of those shows featured director Malcolm Ingram (a gay bear himself). For Bear Nation, Malcolm did interviews with bears and admirers and visited various places where bears gather, including a bear convention.

When it comes to the interviews, my feeling is that he got in too close with the camera, to the point where the (literal) closeness gets claustrophobic. I assume he was trying to make the conversations feel intimate and personal, but having the camera right up to someone’s face is mostly just distracting, especially when the face is then blown up to cinema screen size. A bit disappointing was the lack of depth to the documentary: a selection of men within the scene air their opinion and we follow some of them ‘in the wild’, but an outside perspective is pretty much lacking and the documentary seems to be cheerleading the bear scene, rather than giving an in-depth analysis of it. The fact that being heavily overweight could be detrimental to your health, for instance, is pretty much ignored. As is the story of how the really heavy bears got into that shape. Was it a conscious choice, a rejection of the norm or a different idea of beauty? Did it just happen to them and is it now a question of self-acceptance and owning it? However, there are a few contrary thoughts – such as: why are we segregating ourselves and turning away others, when that is exactly what we dislike about other parts of the gay scene? But the overall tone is one of collected opinions, rather than any overarching conclusion.

Several of the bears who are interviewed, have a strong view of the ‘mainstream’ gays, in particular with regards to the ones who are obsessed with cultivating muscle and showing it off. Though the bear scene is said to be more accepting of everyone, appearance not being an issue, there seems to be a combination of bitterness and envy when it comes to gym bunnies who cling to the traditional ideal of the buff or lean and defined male. A few of the interviewees see those guys as girly by definition, not really manly like a great big bear. The documentary registers this opinion but doesn’t point out the lack of logic behind it: there is no correlation between muscles and masculinity, but a big belly doesn’t make someone masculine either, in and of itself. There are bears on display within the documentary who by their existence disprove this ‘bear = inherently masculine’ theory. (Note that femininity is seen as a bad thing here.) Though there is pride connected to being a bear, you still wonder by the end of the documentary if the subculture is primarily based on that pride or based on rejection by the gay mainstream.

I can’t really say I learnt anything new from Bear Nation. I was hoping for a sharper discussion between (especially) gym bunnies and bears, both sides making arguments and pointing out the flaws in each other’s worldview. As it stands, it’s just about interesting enough to stick with, even though some of the points it makes get repetitive and it struggles to fill its 87 minutes. But it is nice to have someone put an often neglected subculture center stage, even if the only real conclusion is somewhat obvious: everyone deserves to love and be loved, regardless of – literally – the shape they’re in.