Tag Archives: Chris Hemsworth

The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016)

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I was not one of those people who enjoyed Snow White and the Huntsman. Visually, it had some positives, and Charlize Theron really nailed her role as the wicked Queen, but I just found the whole thing pretty moronic. However, the movie was a financial success (nearly US$400 million on a US$170 million budget), so of course they had to make an unnecessary sequel/prequel: The Huntsman: Winter’s War. And boy does it suck.

This is a movie that had no shame. With Kristen Stewart refusing to return to reprise her role as Snow White, they decide instead to focus on Eric the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), whom you might recall in the first film was a widower and drunkard who made a deal with Queen Ravenna to track down Snow White in return for bringing back his dead wife.

Well as it turns out, contrary to everything the first film suggests, Eric the Huntsman is actually some kind of super warrior trained since he was a child by none other than the Queen Ravenna’s younger sister, Freya (Emily Blunt), who happens to be a real life version of Elsa from Frozen. What’s even crazier is that there’s actually a whole army of Huntsmen just like Eric, including Sara (Jessica Chastain), a redhead adept with a bow and arrow who has alarming similarities to Merida from Brave. There’s a lot more ridiculous stuff that this film pulls out of its anus just to make the contrived story work, but I can’t divulge them without spoilers.

What is fascinating is that the film is both a prequel and a sequel in that it begins before Snow White and the Huntsman and ends after it. Kristen Stewart’s Snow White is referenced several times but you kind of forget she’s even part of the same world. And it ignore the fact that the first film totally alluded to a romantic future between her and the Huntsman. Basically, it just completely distorts the events and characters from the first film so that a new story can be concocted. It’s as though the writers just sat around a table and just brainstormed a bunch of ideas — like stealing from Frozen and Brave — and then made up ways to fit them into the same universe. It wasn’t supposed to fit and didn’t fit, but they forced it in anyway.

And look, it’s not like Snow White and the Huntsman made any sense either, but it made a lot more sense than this one because at least that was written as a standalone film. Winter’s War, on the other hand, was an obvious and contrived money grab that pillaged any scraps it could find from its predecessor to cobble together a barely coherent mishmash of blatantly rip-off ideas and cliches. This wasn’t a “Oh, it’s clever how they created a sequel by expanding on the existing universe” situation. This was more of a “WTF is going on?”-type situation.

It felt like the all-star cast had a lot more fun making the movie than audiences had watching it. Whether it was the lure of playing crazy fantasy characters with magical powers or a paycheck that got them on board is anyone’s guess. In all fairness, however, the acting wasn’t too bad considering the material they had to work with. The special effects and costume teams, both of which picked up Oscar nominations for Snow White and the Huntsman, do a solid job again here, so at least visually, the film isn’t too bad.

Sadly that’s about the extent of the praise I can twist myself into giving Winter’s War.   It is by no means the worst film of 2016 thus far, but it certainly is the most irritating.

1.75 stars out of 5

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

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I’ve never read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (it’s one of those “on the list” classics), but that didn’t stop me from being intrigued by In the Heart of the Sea. Based on the award-winning non-fiction book of the same name by Nathaniel Philbrick (throw this book on the list too), the film tells the harrowing tale of the American whaling ship Essex, which inspired Melville to write Moby Dick in the first place.

The trailers certainly made the true story look very promising. Directed by Ron Howard, the film had the look and tone of a grand sea epic with that 1800s grit and a touch of the fantastical. It’s got a magnificent cast headed by Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), Cillian Murphy,  Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones) and Frank Dillane (Fear the Walking Dead). And for those who want to get to know the new Spiderman a little in advance of Captain America: Civil War, the film also stars Tom Holland as the youngest crew member of the Essex (sadly, he grows up to look like Brendan Gleeson…).

For some reason, however, the release of the film was pushed back from March to December, with Howard offering a vague explanation about the marketing people wanting to maximise the movie’s potential. Whether that’s legit or because execs were pessimistic about its performance or overly optimistic (it opens a week before Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the US and as December tends to be Oscar season) we’ll probably never know. In my humble opinion, the film probably would have done better in March because it was riding more hype at the time and simply because Star Wars is going to annihilate absolutely everything in its path. So don’t be surprised when In the Heart of the Sea turns out to be a box office flop.

That said, while I don’t think it’s an Oscar-worthy flick deserving of Howard’s pantheon of great movies, I do think In the Heart of the Sea is a very solid, well-made, occasionally breathtaking and sometimes heartbreaking film. It never quite reaches the epic status it aims for and falls short when delivering its most climatic moments, but it’s definitely still good enough to deserve your time, especially on the big screen (though I doubt the 3D — I watched it in 2D — is worth it). The special effects are spectacular, giving the film a sense of danger and tension a sense of groundedness it otherwise might not have had.

In adherence with my non-spoiler philosophy, here’s just a basic outline: Whishaw plays Moby Dick author Melville, who tracks down Thomas Nickerson (Gleeson) in the mid-1800s and tries to entice the reluctant middle-aged man into telling him the “true story” of what happened to the Essex about 30 years ago. And so like Life of Pi, the majority of the film is told in flashback, with a 14-year-old Nickerson (Holland) recalling the experience of going out into the ocean to look for “whale oil” (I had no idea such an industry existed). The initial focus of the film is the uneasy relationship between the Essex’s experienced first mate, Owen Chase (Hemsworth) and its green but privileged captain George Pollard Jr (Walker). Murphy plays Matthew Joy, Chase’s childhood friend and a crew member on the ship. All of these characters, by the way, are real people.

Now of course you know that the Essex encounters a whale, but it wouldn’t be accurate to say it’s just a “whale movie”. Yes, whales play a pivotal role, but they actually don’t occupy as much screen time as you might imagine. The story goes way beyond just whales, and for those who don’t know the fate of the Essex and its crew I’d recommend avoiding that knowledge to get the most out of the experience. A big part of why the movie is so compelling comes from not knowing what will happen next and who will survive.

As with all good films, In the Heart of the Sea is about the characters, and it doesn’t take long for us to get a good feel for each of them. I do think Captain Pollard’s character could have been a little stronger (he was a little one-dimensional), especially at the beginning, but by the end I did feel like I understood them all quite well.

Having said that, the movie never quite soars like I wanted it to. Despite the impeccable effects, it lacked the sense of awe I think it needed to elevate the emotional punch to the next level. One of the problems is that these men are all whalers, and whaling is freaking cruel and barbaric. There’s just no way around it. Granted, people back in those days saw things differently and we get that, but for modern audiences it can be hard to root for  characters who kind of deserve whatever is coming to them. As a result, it is hard to know how to feel toward the characters and the whale(s) they hunt.

This leads into the other issue I had with the film, which is that there is no clear moral to the story — at least not until the very end. And it’s the kind of movie that feels like it ought to have some deeper meaning because too much shit happens and it’s not obviously not just some fun popcorn adventure. Despite Howard not showing us the most agonising parts of the story, the film is undoubtedly a distressing experience, and because of that I felt there should have been a more profound message — the kind of message Moby Dick apparently has.

Notwithstanding the film’s flaws, Howard is too good of a filmmaker and storyteller for his film to suck. It’s perhaps not the memorable epic I had been hoping for, but In the Heart of the Sea still ticks enough boxes and has enough enjoyable, thrilling and dramatic moments to satisfy this viewer.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Blackhat (2015)

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I’ve been waiting for a cyber-terrorism movie to hit our cinemas, and Michael Mann answered the call with Blackhat, a brooding mystery-thriller film that forces Chinese and American authorities to join forces following an attack on a nuclear power plant in Hong Kong.

The film polarised viewers for different reasons, and I’m afraid I fall in the less complimentary camp. Michael Mann is no doubt a great director, having made the likes of classics such as Manhunter and Heat as well as strong films like Collateral and The Insider. But even his stylish, atmospheric approach, a considerable US$70 million budget, and the sexy power of Chris Hemsworth and Asian stars Wang Leehom and Tang Wei, can’t save Blackhat from being a failure.

The thing is, Blackhat is not poorly made. Based on the trailer and some word-of-mouth criticism, I had expected a hackneyed effort; a pedestrian plot, poor performances and an overall B-grade feel. That wasn’t the case; the film actually had solid production value, a sophisticated plot, and perfectly fine performances all around. The problem, sadly, is that Blackhat is just plain boring.

With the exception of the action scenes, the pace is decidedly slow, though the bigger issue is that it’s largely flat and plodding until the final act. For a 132-minute film, that’s a lot of typing on computers and chatting about hacking to sit through.

Like many others before him, Mann hasn’t quite figured out how to make typing on computers exciting. He uses special effects to show us how all the little circuits inside operate at microscopic levels, but that’s more aesthetics as opposed to something that genuinely elevates the tension. It also doesn’t help that the storyline is made to be a lot more convoluted than it had to be, sometimes making me forget what the heck the protagonists were trying to achieve.

Speaking of the protagonists, Chris Hemsworth’s character is designed against the hacker stereotype. He’s built like a brick house, can beat up three or four guys in close combat, and he’s even pretty handy with knives and guns. Not to say world class hackers like that can’t possibly exist, but it does stretch the believability factor, especially when we know very little about his background other than that he went to MIT and was put in prison for computer crimes.

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The Chinese characters, on the other hand, were fleshed out better than expected. Apart from the 1980s hairdo, Wang Leehom’s US-educated People’s Liberation Army cybercrime hotshot is well-rounded and backed by a solid performance. Tang Wei, whom I have seen in anything since Lust, Caution, plays his sister, and she impresses with a fluency in English I had not expected. It’s unfortunate that her character is more or less an obligatory and arbitrary love interest for Hemsworth (you can tell this about two seconds after their eyes meet). The only other female character, an FBI agent played by Viola Davis, gets almost nothing to do except move the plot along.

The culmination of all these factors makes Blackhat a film that’s difficult to get excited about. Apparently, audiences thought the same, as Blackhat ended up having one of the worst debuts if all time, earning less than US$4 million in its opening weekend in the States despite playing on more than 2,500 screens.

There’s not enough action — at least not action that feels fresh — to appeal to people looking for a thrill ride. The grounded approach to cybercrime is not cool enough for the tech crowd. And neither the drama nor the characters are executed well enough for those looking for a more sophisticated experience. It deserves more than its appalling box office numbers, but it’s not shocking that Blackhat has underperformed for both audiences and critics alike.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Thor: The Dark World (2013)

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I liked the first Thor movie more than I expected thanks to the crafty direction of Kenneth Brannagh and the performances of Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman, which struck the right balance between fantasy and reality and humour and seriousness in the Norse god adventure. The success of that film and The Avengers always meant a sequel was forthcoming, but could it be done correctly without Brannagh at the helm?

I suppose the answer is yes, but there is still something about Thor: The Dark World that makes it feel a little pedestrian compared to some of the heavyweights in the Marvel universe. There is nothing, strictly speaking, wrong with it, but I don’t think it would have made much of a difference had they skipped it entirely and moved straight on to The Avengers sequel scheduled for next year.

Like Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World is set after the events of The Avengers. And like the first film, it splits screen time between Thor’s world of Asgard and Earth. The story is frankly too complicated and convoluted for me to even try and explain, but all that needs to be known is that the Asgardians are facing an threat from an alien race because of yet another magical weapon (this one’s called the Aether) and Thor must enlist the aid of his imprisoned adopted brother Loki (the brilliant Tom Hiddleston) to get the job done. Meanwhile on Earth, his love interest Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) conveniently stumble onto portals that can transport them into other worlds.

Anyway, there’s lots of Thor hammer action, epic battle scenes and a good dose of comedy that aligns the tone of the movie with Joss Whedon’s wit in The Avengers. The charisma and chemistry of Hemsworth and Hiddleston provide the backbone to the movie and keep it afloat throughout all the muddled exposition, though Portman feels like a bit of an unwilling participant who’s only there because she’s contractually obliged. Kat Dennings, who plays Portman’s sidekick, gets to stand out more by providing the quirky one-liners, while Stellan Skarsgard provides a welcome return as Dr Selvig, a physicist who is now questioning is own sanity after what he has experienced.

The Thor franchise has always been the most difficult to translate to the screen out of all the other Avengers heroes and director Alan Taylor deserves a lot of credit for the solid action sequences and for finding the right vibe for a film about alien warriors in two very different worlds. And kudos for creating a sequel that is more personal and different to the original rather than just doing the exact same thing except with bigger noises and brighter special effects like what MIchael Bay did in the Transformers franchise.

Having said all that, I found the experience of watching Thor: The Dark Work somewhat tedious at times. Perhaps you need to be a fan of the comic to get into it because I didn’t think it was doing much more than scraping the surface and going through the motions without the same enthusiasm as its predecessor.

The final battle sequences in London provide something different but there was no exhilaration because both Thor and his adversary are so bloody indestructible. The fight reminded a lot of Superman vs Zod in Man of Steel, in which two dudes just keep throwing each other through a lot of buildings without hurting each other.

So, despite reasonable expectations, I came away relatively disappointed with Thor: The Dark World. Technically speaking it ticks the right boxes for a superhero sequel, but with so many similar flicks in recent years it struggles to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack.

3 stars out of 5

PS: And what the heck was that post-credits scene?

Movie Review: Rush (2013)

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I don’t get or know anything about Formula One or car racing, or even cars for that matter – which is why I am surprised to say that Rush, based on the real life rivalry between F1 drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, is one of my favourite movies of 2013.

This sports biopic follows the careers of the British prodigy Hunt (played by Chris Hemsworth) and the Austrian genius Lauda (played by Daniel Bruhl from the time they were lowly Formula Three drivers until their meteoric rises to the F1 circuit, with the majority of the focus placed on their epic 1976 season.

I always say know as little about the plot as possible when seeing a movie, and in this case I would implore you to avoid all spoilers. Even though it is a true story (one which Lauda says is very accurate), Rush is full of dramatic turns (no pun intended), and knowing as little as possible will significantly improve the experience. I’m still stunned that some of the things in this film actually happened in real life.

Intentionally filmed by director Ron Howard with a gritty 70s feel, Rush offers intense racing sequences that don’t feel like they’ve been aided by special effects at all. I used to always scoff at F1 racing whenever it came up on TV because to me it was just a bunch of people driving cars around in circles. The presence of a live crowd was even more baffling considering the cars speed by so fast that you can’t really see anything, not to mention that it can be pretty dangerous too. But Rush has given me an appreciation for racing and an understanding of how much skill, discipline and risk-taking is involved at the top of the sport.

In some ways, the film’s drama away from the racing is even more thrilling. Hunt and Lauda are polar opposites who push each other to the limit. Each live by their own rules – Hunt is the wild, arrogant and charismatic playboy who thrives on natural talent and instincts, while Lauda is the disciplined, mechanical and calculating engineer who is afraid to let emotion affect his driving. There is a mutual dislike but also a deep respect and complicated sense of envy between the two, and their clash of personalities is what makes the movie so compelling from start to finish.

I’ve always considered Chris Hemsworth an average actor at best, but in Rush he is absolutely magnetic – it’s by far the best performance of his career. Daniel Burhl (who has received a Golden Globe nomination) is more understated and the lesser known name, but he is in every way Hemsworth’s equal, both in terms of screen time and performance. Both characters, despite their obvious flaws, are likable due to the crafty script and the performances, and because of that, you feel like you are rooting for both them despite the fact that there can only be one winner.

In all, Rush is my surprise hit of the year, and even without the surprise it’s still one of the best movies of the 2013.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Red Dawn (2012)

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Given the recent tensions in the Korean Peninsula, I thought it would be apt to review Red Dawn, a strong candidate for the worst movie of 2012.

A friend told me the other day that I needed to be more definitive in my movie reviews and tell readers to avoid certain movies at all cost. I don’t think I can ever do that because I truly want to believe that every movie has its merits, but I suppose Red Dawn is about as close as it gets to an unwatchable movie.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Red Dawn was supposed to be one of the biggest blockbusters of the year. A remake of the successful 1984 film of the same name about a hypothetical Chinese invasion of the United States (changed to North Korea during post-production for the remake — I guess they just dubbed the voices? They probably think all Asians look the same anyway). An all-star cast led by Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Peeta from The Hunger Games (Josh Hutcherson), Aussie bombshell Isabel Lucas and Josh Peck (who starred in that other piece of shit from 2011, ATM — review here). How could things go so wrong?

Honestly, I don’t know. I just know Red Dawn was completely devoid of excitement, drama, tension and most of all, common sense. I scratched my head so many times that my scalp bled for a week.

Hemsworth is a US marine who returns home to visit his father, the town sheriff, and his brother (Peck), a high school football star. Boom, the North Koreans invade, and somehow Hemsworth and a bunch of school kids evade capture and take cover in the woods. Instead of crapping their pants and organizing drunken orgies, the kids decide to become super soldiers and fight back. Go America! F*&% yeah!

Perhaps this concept — kids becoming effective soldiers in an unexpected attack — could have worked 30 years ago. Heck, it kinda worked in 2010, when Aussie filmmakers pulled off Tomorrow, When the War Began (review here), based on the classic novel by John Marsden. But here, thanks to a clumsy script, uninspired direction and cliched plot points, Red Dawn felt like a B-grade affair made by a bunch of people who have lost all touch with reality. Top that off with cheesy dialogue, a predictable storyline, no surprises whatsoever, shitty performances and poor special effects, and what we have on our hands is a royal mess.

Forget how ludicrous the idea of North Korea invading the US, on its own, sounds for the moment. Even if we can accept the premise for a couple of hours, there are still just too many gaps in logic. Why did the North Koreans choose their pointless suburban city? Did they have a presence in all cities? Why did they let the kids run off without pursuing them in the first place? Why is the North Korean army capable of taking over the United States, seemingly with ease, but incapable of standing up to a few kids who have no idea what they are doing? Why can’t trained professional soldiers beat a few kids who just practiced shooting a few bottles in the woods for a week? Why do they keep allowing the kids to sneak into the city to carry out guerrilla attacks and then let them sneak out again? Why do they keep letting the kids get on rooftops (ie, trap themselves), and then let them get away? What the heck were the North Koreans doing in that city again?

So many questions, so little answers.

Hemsworth and Hutcherson exhibit barely passable acting skills, but you could tell from their faces that they knew they were starring in something that was going to be panned for eternity. Peck, on the other hand, was unbearable — a whiny, self-absorbed, greasy-haired douche who discovers the world is not all about him and decides to suddenly grow up and turn into a world-saving hero. None of the other characters were memorable, except for maybe the Chinese, sorry, North Korean army chief (Will Yun Lee), and that was because he played the lead character in the awesome PS3 game Sleeping Dogs!

I’m ashamed to say that I initially thought Red Dawn would be good and was excited to see it. Unfortunately, it turned out to be an absurd joke (complete with unintentional laugh-out-loud moments) and a complete waste of 93 minutes of my life. There were times when I wanted to stop the torture but I persisted until the brutal final shot, which was, of course, the American flag.

0.5 stars out of 5

Mirror Mirror (2012) vs Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)

As I have foreshadowed, my movie reviews are a little backed up, so why not kill two birds with one stone with this double-barreled review of two new films based around the same premise, Julia Roberts’ Mirror Mirror and Kristen Stewart’s Snow White and the Huntsman?

To be honest, I didn’t have much an interest in either film, but as usual, I watched both. What can I do? I’m a film buff.

First up, Mirror Mirror, which should have been more aptly titled “Lily Collin’s Eyebrows.” Since the Taylor Lautner vehicle Abduction, Collin’s eyebrows have been elevated to a whole new level. I was so distracted by the eyebrows that I often forgot to focus on the film. Which is easy, by the way, because it sucked donkey balls.

The majority of Mirror Mirror’s plot follows the original fairytale. Collins is Snow White and her stepmother and the Queen, Julia Roberts, is trying to get rid of her so she can remain the fairest of them all. Yes, there is a prince and yes, there are dwarves. No surprises.

Theoretically, Mirror Mirror should have been the better film. Just about everyone’s impression of Snow White comes from the Disney cartoon, which made it naturally more suitable for a family comedy as opposed to Snow White and the Huntsman’s “re-imagining.” While it was admittedly trying to be fun, Mirror Mirror suffered from a complete lack of freshness and laughs. The majority of the jokes were what I would call “family humour”, which is code for unfunny. There may have been a couple of good ones here and there, largely thanks to the charming wit of Winklevii star Armie Hammer as the prince, but for the most part the jokes hopscotched between obvious, lame and unimaginative. I can see children enjoying it, but I must say I cringed more than I laughed.

Mirror Mirror was more this

To be fair, the film was not badly made. Director Tarsem Singh, who last worked on Immortals, infuses flair into the art direction, and the costumes, especially those donned by Roberts, were all quite brilliant. The performances were strong and, thankfully, no one took themselves too seriously.

But in the end, I just couldn’t force myself to like or enjoy Mirror Mirror. Some might think the final Bollywood tribute sing-song was a redeeming feature but I found it totally bizarre and somewhat uncomfortable. If the film had lifted my spirits prior to this point I might have felt differently, but alas, it did not.

This brings me to the second Snow White film, Snow White and the Huntsman, which I thought would stink even before I caught the first trailer. Surprisingly, while I also struggled with it, I found it to be the better motion picture overall.

The Huntsman (let’s just call it that for short), is in the vein of last year’s Red Riding Hood, you know, that Amanda Seyfried “re-imagining” of another popular fairytale. It takes the basic plot and essentially does whatever it wants with it. In Red Riding Hood’s case, it was obviously inspired by the love triangle and teenage angst from Twilight, which doomed it to suckiness from the outset. In The Huntsman’s case, it’s a lot more complicated. This one takes “inspiration” from a lot of movies, from Lord of the Rings (or some might say Game of Thrones), Joan of Arc, Braveheart, Alice in Wonderland, Kingdom of Heaven, just to name a few. It’s both a blessing and a curse.

In this one, Snow White is imprisoned by the evil Queen for years before a daring escape into the enchanted forest, and a new character, known only as the Huntsman, is tasked with tracking her down. To me, even though the script was pretty muddled, it was by far more interesting because there were characters and plot points I didn’t expect. Sure, the story takes some questionably wild turns and spirals into absurdity on more than one occasion, but at least it kept me wondering what was going to happen next (for the most part, because at 127 minutes it was way too long and lost my interest for a while).

The final act of the film, the supposed climax, was crap and predictable. Anyone that has seen the trailers or the poster will know that Snow White, who has been imprisoned in a tiny cell since she was a child, mind you, suddenly becomes a sword-wielding badass for some reason. Her obligatory Braveheart-style motivation speech (which has become a staple of every movie with a big battle scene these days) was probably the most WTF moment I have seen on the big screen in years.

The standout character in the whole film has to be Charlize Theron as the crazy bitch/witch of a Queen. She’s fascinating despite the shortcomings of her character and Theron does an amazing job of portraying the seductive nutjob notwithstanding the sometimes trite dialogue she has to spew out.

Chris Hemsworth’s Huntsman is also an interesting character and he fits the role well, but there were too many loose ends when it came to his relationship with the princess.

Snow White and the Huntsman was more this

Speaking of which, if there is an Oscar for unexplained/exaggerated heavy breathing, Kristen Stewart would win it every year. She’s not bad in this but her act is wearing thin on me. I became a massive fan of hers after watching Into the Wild back in 2007 (one of my favourite films of all time), and sadly my affection for her has dwindled with every subsequent film she has been in (well, Adventureland is an exception). By the time I watch Breaking Dawn: Part II, I might very well find myself despising her.

Visually, the film is stunning, with the scenes involving Theron’s spells and the enchanted forest exemplifying what movie magic is all about. Amazingly, this is the first feature of director Rupert Sanders, who was previously best known for his advertisement of the video game HALO. I’d be very interested to see what he comes up with next.

Although it’s very difficult to compare two such different films, ultimately, The Huntsman is the better movie. That’s not saying a lot, considering how disappointed I was in Snow White, but as pieces of entertainment, it’s not much of a contest.

Mirror Mirror: 1.5 stars

Snow White and the Huntsman: 3 stars

PS: Ray Winstone must be the only guy in Hollywood who can play Beowulf and one of the Seven Dwarves. Just sayin’.

Movie Review: The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

I seriously cannot believe that The Cabin in the Woods, co-written and directed by Cloverfield screenwriter Drew Goddard and co-written and produced by the legendary Joss Whedon (he has to be now, after The Avengers), almost went straight to DVD.

I don’t care if it was because the studio was experiencing financial difficulties – while crappy torture porn and gimmicky 3D horror movies (you know what they are) continue to flood our cinemas, one of the THE best horror movies in recent years was on the brink of being shafted directly to the small screen. Are you kidding me?

It’s really hard to talk about The Cabin in the Woods without releasing a cascade of spoilers, so I’ll be careful. It has a typical teen-slasher premise – five college kids (three guys and two girls, led by Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth) with varying character traits go on a holiday to some in-the-middle-of-nowhere cabin in the woods, where nasty stuff is bound to be awaiting them.

But you see, the clichéd set up is only part of the film’s genius. This is a brilliant, incredibly creative horror movie that pays homage to the classics of the genre and tears down just about everything that has gone wrong with horror in the last few years.

Whedon called it a “loving hate letter” to the genre, which he and Goddard felt had devolved with the introduction of torture porn (and you know it absolutely positively has). This is what he had to say:

“On another level it’s a serious critique of what we love and what we don’t about horror movies. I love being scared. I love that mixture of thrill, of horror, that objectification/identification thing of wanting definitely for the people to be alright but at the same time hoping they’ll go somewhere dark and face something awful. The things that I don’t like are kids acting like idiots, the devolution of the horror movie into torture porn and into a long series of sadistic comeuppances. Drew and I both felt that the pendulum had swung a little too far in that direction.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Thank you again, Joss Whedon.

What I love about the film, apart from the scares and thrills, and the flat-out awesome laughs, is that it is presented as a giant mystery that keeps everyone guessing right from the beginning until the very end. You see, there is another part to this movie, outside of the cabin, that will have audiences wondering what the heck is going on. And watching the mystery unravel, piece by piece, is a huge part of the film’s charm.

The film reaches an apex about 15 minutes or so before the end, at which stage the mystery was explained to a level of perfection. I would have been happy for things to end right then and there, but sadly, the film just couldn’t help itself and kept going until it spiralled out of control. Granted, there were some magnificent scenes in those last few moments, but the “final revelation” really ruined it for me.

Nonetheless, despite the unfortunate turn of events stemming from Whedon and Goddard’s desire to “explain everything”, The Cabin in the Woods borders on an instant classic – it’s one of those rare films that has the potential to spur a new generation of horror movies like say Scream or the original Saw. When all is said and done, this is one I’m going to be remember for a very long time.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Avengers (2D) (2012)

Joss Whedon, you glorious bastard. You really did it. Despite near-impossible odds, you somehow managed to make The Avengers work.

Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), led by SHIELD agent Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) — a cast of characters that will make any fanboy violently spray their pants. It was never in doubt that the idea of putting together this Marvel-lous ensemble, inside and and outside the movie, is ambitious, delicious and simply awesome — but the question was always how on earth the poor screenwriter and/or director were going to pull it off.

The answer? Enter Joss Whedon, the genius behind the TV’s Buffy and Firefly.

Back in September 2010, I attended a chat session with Whedon at the Sydney Opera House, where he talked about a number of his popular projects, including The Avengers, the script for which he was working on at the time. Joss admitted it was bigger than anything he had ever done before and called it an exciting challenge, but said that at the end of the day it was just telling another story.

I remember being sceptical, thinking that there must be an infinite amount of ways this film would suck donkey scrotums. It’s hard enough making a film about one superhero — but to have four? And that doesn’t even include all the minor characters and the supervillain(s). How would he able to balance all of them, give each one enough screen time and development, while at the same time progress the storyline and fill it with spectacular action that is enhanced by, but not overshadowed by, the special effects? And how was he going to massage all the egos of the actors involved? Just the thought of it made my head spin.

And yet, Joss Whedon worked his magic and made The Avengers (arguably) the greatest superhero movie of all-time. Every one of the four main superheroes not only got their own time to shine, they meshed together wonderfully and became greater than the sum of the parts. The action was brilliant, thrilling and plenty, the plot was engaging and the humour was classic Joss Whedon — extremely dry and self-deprecating.

Speaking of plot, I realised I haven’t even mentioned it yet. But does it matter? All you need to know is that there is a common enemy, Thor’s brother Loki (Tim Hiddleston), and Nick Fury has no choice but to activate the Avengers initiative and bring these heroes together to save the world. It helps if you’ve seen the other films in the franchise and know what the little blue cube is, but if you haven’t it barely makes a difference.

Of course, it’s not easy bringing this volatile bunch together. As Whedon said it himself, if everyone was on the same page right from the beginning the film would be over in 15 minutes. So yeah, expect some tense moments at the start as each character is introduced and as they find time gel as a team — but when they finally come together as one, as you knew they would, it’s a goosebump-inducing sight.

Kudos to Whedon for creating characters that balance each other out and eliciting great performances from the entire cast. Robert Downey Jr, as the biggest name of the lot, steals the show a little bit as Iron Man because of his addictive personality but doesn’t dominate the proceedings. Chris Evans’ Captain America is, as you would expect, a straight shooting, no nonsense leader. The other Chris, Aussie beefcake Chris Hemsworth, took a while to make it to earth but his presence is key because of his history with the supervillain — plus he’s arguably the most powerful. And last, but not least, Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, my personal favourite — surprising because he wasn’t even supposed to be in it.

Ruffalo replaced Edward Norton, who fell out of the film early on, apparently because he was either asking for too much creative control or because he wanted too much money, or both. I’m glad it happened because Ruffalo’s a perfect fit for the role, a better Bruce Banner than both Norton and Eric Bana (from the earlier Ang Lee version).

You might wonder, with these four, why even bother with Johansson’s Black Widow and Renner’s Hawkeye? While they may be two ordinary humans with extraordinary skills, let’s face it, they’re not real superheroes. Nonetheless, Whedon gives both a special purpose and makes them indispensable members of the Avengers. Johansson, in particular, continues Whedon’s tradition of strong female characters — a far cry from her appearance in Iron Man 2 where she was little more than forgettable eye candy.

Speaking of strong female characters, Maria Hill, a SHIELD agent played by Cobie Smulders (from How I Met Your Mother), also has a surprisingly important role. And Gwyneth Paltrow makes a return appearance as Pepper Potts, which I also did not expect as none of the other love interests from the other franchises are in it (save for a photo of Natalie Portman).

Other returnees include Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, who gets a little more personality this time, as well as Stellan Skarsgard as the scientist from Thor. Considering how many characters there are it’s quite amazing that Whedon managed to get so much out of these two.

Another returnee, Hiddleston’s Loki, was an apt choice for the villain. In the beginning I thought it was a bad idea because Hiddleston wasn’t very villainous in Thor, but he worked out well here because he was an enemy that relied on his brain as opposed to his brawn.

It’s almost not worth mentioning for blockbuster movies these days but the special effects were amazing. The Hulk, in particular, was the best he has ever been — said to be due to the performance capture technology used in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Tin Tin.

Having said all of this, I do have a couple of nitpicks with the film. The first is that some of the action sequences, especially the hand-t0-hand battles earlier on, could have been slightly clearer by using less quick cuts.

The second is Loki’s alien army. Having put so much effort into the heroes, it just felt like this enemy was kinda lame. They looked menacing enough, but I kept hoping they’d pose a greater threat, a threat based on their abilities and cunning as opposed to their sheer numbers. I guess that leads into my next nitpick — that despite all the turmoil I never got the sense that any of the Avengers were in serious danger.

Lastly, while I love Whedon’s wry humour — lots of laugh out loud moments in this film — there were a couple of occasions where a tiny bit more subtlety should have prevailed, in that the punchline was already achieved but its effectiveness was diminished because it decided to go a little further or add an extra line that wasn’t necessary.

But these are all minor complaints. In the grand scheme of things, The Avengers is everything fans could have hoped for an more, a remarkable achievement considering the impossible expectations heaped onto it since the project was first announced in 2008.

I already can’t wait for the sequel.

4.5 stars out of 5!

(I don’t care for 3D, but I’d be interested to hear what people thought of it.)

Movie Review: Thor (2011)

Thor was one of those movies that had me intrigued as soon as it was announced.  Of all the superhero premises, this one had ‘disaster’ written all over it more than any other.  A magical hammer, the God of Thunder, guys dressed in shiny armour fighting blue giants that can turn things into ice.  Not exactly the type of material that you’d think would make a good, (at least) semi-serious film set partially on present-day Earth.

But then enter director Kenneth Branagh (you know, the guy that does all the Shakespeare stuff), throw in Aussie Chris Hemsworth (probably best known by non-Aussies as Kirk’s dad in the Star Trek reboot), Academy Award winners Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins, and all of a sudden the film starts having potential.  Could they make this farcical premise work?

Well, yeah, they did.  About as well as I could have imagined.

Thor, like the other successful Marvel adaptations (especially the first Iron Man), is great fun, a rollicking good time.  It’s visually spectacular, with tremendous action, a likable protagonist and occasional laughs that hit the right spot.

Chris Hemsworth really buffed up for this role and does a solid job as the charming titular character, ensuring certain stardom for years to come.  Natalie Portman’s role is largely limited to ‘intelligent love interest’, but she’s always nice to look at and have around.  And when you have the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard and Rene Russo in supporting roles, you know things can’t be too bad.

Considering how badly things could have turned out, Thor was almost a minor miracle.  While it is certainly not perfect, I found myself taking all the ‘other worldly stuff’ seriously enough to be laughing along with the movie as opposed to laughing at it.  It was slightly uneven at times, given the contrast between Thor’s supernatural world of Asgard (reminded me of a futuristic Clash of the Titans-type place) and some ordinary small town in New Mexico, but for the most part it worked.

On the other hand, while Branagh is no doubt very capable in creating drama, I did find some of the fight scenes a little lacking.  Interestingly, it was the scenes that featured only actors and no special effects that worked best — the action scenes that relied heavily on CGI, probably because of the way they were shot (too many cuts), didn’t quite pack the same punch.

That said, I was impressed with how Branagh allowed Thor to be a part of the Marvel universe (in light of the upcoming The Avengers film) while giving the film its own voice and style.  Pulling off a film like this where the supernatural and science co-exist peacefully was no mean feat.  This was a terrific introduction to a character that I’ll be happy to see again when The Avengers is finally released in May 2012.

3.5 stars out of 5

PS: I saw this film in 2D, but it was bloody hard to find a cinema and a session that did not screen the film in 3D only.  Ridiculous.  Spare a thought for the people who don’t want to waste their money on 3D!

PPS: Look out for Jeremy Renner in an extended cameo.  I was surprised to see him but after some research it looks like he’ll be a key figure in The Avengers film.

PPPS: Make sure you stay until after the credits — there is a scene with Samuel L Jackson at the end which could potentially be relevant for The Avengers or a Thor sequel.