Thor: The Dark World

Image from Mis-Matched Siamese Twins Monthly

Image from Mis-Matched Siamese Twins Monthly

The original Thor film was a curiosity of 2 parts. Directed by Kenneth Brannagh, the scenes on Asgard, the home planet/realm of Norse God Thor (Chris Hemsworth), were treated as weighty drama filled with Shakespearean import while the scenes on Earth were imagined as being somewhere between Hanna Barbera, Playschool and Charlie Chaplin. Suffice it to say, it was the latter sequences which stood out, while Asgard was stuffy, emotionless and ultimately tedious (as well as being a brilliant advert for Mr Sheen).

Thor: The Dark World looks to repeat the formula, though the lack of a Brannagh makes the Asgard scenes that little bit more approachable while the story sidelines the fantastic Loki (Tom Hiddleston) for the bland Makelith (Christopher Eccleston, who does his best in a thankless role), a trade off which perhaps balances the two sides a little better but still fails to produce a truly thrilling ride.

The story sees Makelith and his men imprisoned by Thor’s father some time ago, and escaping in the modern day to track down the magical Aether, a mystical power source which will enable Makelith to take over the world. Or something.

Meanwhile, Thor’s earth-bound girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) stumbles across the Aether because of a thing. I mean really – does it matter? Is it even explained? Not really. Does it make sense? No. Does that matter? Not really.

The pace of the movie is just about fast enough, though the scenes on Asgard still drag it down, but ultimately the film is redeemed with a fantastically fun end sequence using portals. No, that doesn’t make sense either, but it’s pulled off with enough comic panache that it gets away with it.

Fun while it lasts.

B-

Film length: 1hr 52mins – Feels like: 1hr 50mins

Iron Man 3

Iron Man in his closet

Let’s get the basic stuff out of the way. This is an Iron Man movie. It delivers pretty much what you expect from an Iron Man movie. It is entertaining enough, funny enough and action packed enough to satisfy the majority of the audience. It is perhaps the best of the Marvel films (though I have a soft spot for Captain America), but it’s not an all-time classic. There was a huge outpouring of admiration for Joss Weedon’s Avengers movie which I shied away from, and I thik that this offers more entertainment throughout. Well done. Move along.

Let’s instead talk about the few major issues which are bugbears of mine and which are rampant throughout big budget Hollywood at the moment (and present in IM3).

1) Length: Very few films need or deserve to be over 2 hours long. Cloud Atlas and Zero Dark Thirty are the two films this year which I think merited the length. Iron Man 3 is not alone in breaching the 2 hour mark (clocking in at 2hrs 15). It seems every major Hollywood release now is now of arse-aching length.

The strange thing is that it makes no sense. At the moment you can fit about 4 screenings of IM3 into the normal 12 hour cinema cycle – 3 hours per screening once you include ads, trailers and time for everyone to get in and out. Cut the film to an hour 45 (we’ll get to how later) and you get a 5th screening in. That would surely increase the chances of making money.

2) Spectacle: Cinema sells on scale. The difference between watching a film on TV and watching it in the cinema is the size of the screen, and seeing the ‘amazing’ special effects on a big screen is supposed to wow me.

Now, I love the cinema, as you can tell by the frequency with which I go and the lengths I go to writing about it, but this kind of spectacle isn’t why. True, a film like Life of Pi was truly amazing visually, but that’s not why it was successful. It was successful because it told a story that people were drawn into, with characters (or a character) the audience could identify with and care about. It looked great too and that’s a bonus. I loved The Sessions, which was definitely a cinema piece but did not rely on the spectacular to win the audience over.

I’m not saying that IM3 (or comic book films/Hollywood) should ignore creating spectacular visuals, but what I am saying is that they need to be married to something which can provoke the emotions on some level. Last year, Men In Black 3 came out. It wasn’t amazing, it was a bit muddled, but it was entertaining (aside – it was also 1hr 46 mins, which helped). What struck me though, was the ending (I will keep this spoiler free, just about).

The end has the protagonist facing off with the antagonist in a personal confrontation. It wasn’t about machines hitting each other (see the original Iron Man, Transformers for notable examples), or hundreds of faceless aliens smashing up building after building (The Avengers), or thousands of space ships flying around and zapping each other (the Star Wars prequels, The Matrix sequels). All of these are impersonal – they distance the audience from what they are viewing and prevent emotional engagement. They show off a mastery of CGI tools – well done – but do nothing for story-telling.

IM3 isn’t as bad with this as it could be. It tries to have an emotional depth to the showdown, but it also suffers from that Star Wars/Matrix issue. And it goes on for far too long and becomes boring.

The most satisfying endings (in films which require a showdown between antagonist and protagonist) are always going to be some form of mano-y-mano contest which resolve the sparring that has gone on through the film. See the resolution of Die Hard. There is a film which understands that the biggest moments of spectacle are not necessarily best placed at the end of the film. Ultimately there is a situation where two into one won’t go – one man getting what he wants means the other has to die. It has a true emotional significance and resonance. This is something that is overlooked in virtually every ‘blockbuster’ nowadays.

3) Sequelitis. A major problem for many sequels is the lack of character development. Typically, the first film will take an ‘ordinary’ character and their journey will take them to the extraordinary (especially true in the case of comic book movies). The issue with sequels is that there is no longer a journey to go on. The Dark Knight trilogy managed to avoid this by giving events an emotional weight that Bruce Wayne had to carry, something which then weighed on the way he did (or did not) use his Batman alterego.

Compare this to the Spiderman films which tried and largely failed to develop the character. Ultimately this led to the series being rebooted as an acknowledgement to the lack of dramatic weight that any future ventures might take.

Initially I feared that this would be the case with IM3, and, in many ways it was. There was no real tension or jeopardy to the end of the film. But it did manage to bring a little more weight to the story than many sequels do. Certainly more so than in IM2.

And here endeth the rant.

So, cutting IM3 down to size. I said I’d explain how it can be done, and I will.

The story introduces 3 things – and this is all in the first 15-20 minutes, so can hardly be considered a spoiler. This is set-up.

i) 13 years ago a botanist was working on some kind of formula that allowed plants to heal themselves, but it wasn’t quite working and sometimes the healing process caused explosion
ii) 13 years ago Guy Pearce wanted Tony Stark to invest in his company – AIM – and then in the modern day he turns up to see Pepper Potts (heading Stark’s companies) about investment. He is now looking much better than the dishevelled version seen at the beginning.
iii) A terrorist called the Mandarin has been setting off bombs around America. When the explosions are investigated the source of the explosion cannot be found – there are no bomb fragments or anything.

If you can’t join these dots together, there is something wrong with you. The problem is that in the film it takes probably an hour, maybe more, for the characters to join it all together. So for 40-45 minutes we in the audience are way ahead of the characters. That’s fine in the case of suspense (the audience knows the monster is in the room, the hero does not, we are scared for the hero), but this is, essentially, a detective story – something mysterious is happening and our hero is trying to work out how it fits together. If the audience already knows how it fits together, there can be no joy from the hero figuring it out and revealing it to us.

Trim a chunk from this and a chunk from the ending and you have a much shorter and more fun film.

That said, Shane Black’s script is a comic delight. His wit is a perfect match for Downey Jr’s delivery (though exploited better in the brilliant Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and, for the most part, lifts many moments that could drag.

The film is probably more in line with a comic book than any of the previous entries too, or at least a cartoon. There are plenty of moments that have a ring of Hanna Barbera about them, and the film is all the better for it. Having seen the trailer for the new Superman movie before the IM3 started, it was nice to see a comic book movie that acknowledged that it wasn’t trying to say anything about humanity and, instead, was trying to be fun.

Ultimately then, Iron Man 3 is good fun, but short of greatness.

B

Star Wars Episode 7: Ewoks in the Magic Castle

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So the big news this week for anyone interested in film or the world of the geek has been the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney for a staggering $4bn, Lucasfilm being George Lucas’ company and home to Star Wars and Indiana Jones. This sits alongside Lucas’ proclamations of the past few years about wanting to concentrate on smaller, more personal films, something which he first put into action with the $30m film Red Tails about African American fighter pilots in the second world war.

The news of the sale was accompanied by news that could both delight and strike fear into both the casual and dedicated Star Wars fan, possibly at the same time: that Disney intended to release a 7th Star Wars film in 2015, and to follow that up with an 8th and 9th and, no doubt, never stopping to churn them out. So what to make of this? Let’s dispense with the business side first…

It makes perfect sense for Disney; they acquire a brand which is a licence to print money, in Star Wars, and also get Indiana Jones, which could be worth a pretty penny too. As a very astute blog on the Guardian pointed out earlier this week, this purchase helps fill a gap which Disney have been trying to fill for some time. Disney have the 0-8 year old market (and a lot more people besides) locked up with Pixar, they have the Disney Princess market which does for the young girl market, Pirates of the Caribbean for the teens and teen girls, but they had been struggling to really grab the young boy market. Star Wars and their other big claim of recent years, Marvel Comics, fill the gap for boys from 5-15 perfectly (and, as a nice bonus, also have big appeal for boys 15+). So it makes sense for them. Whether $4bn is sensible is a matter for other people, but I can see them making that back pretty easily with all the toys, blurays, video games and everything else that comes along.

What about Lucas? Well, $4bn is a lot of money, and it will fund a lot of smaller, more personal movies. I have no more knowledge than most people but I’d be surprised if we see more than 1 movie every couple of years. What he does with the rest of that money is anyone’s guess and nobody’s business, really… Good luck and fair play to him.

What does it mean for the rest of us? Well, for starters it meant a million tweets like this one being sent on Tuesday night:

 

And also like this:

 

And it’s this second tweet that actually cuts to the heart of the matter of what you actually feel about this move happening. Star Wars may beloved by many people across a number of generations, but is it actually any good? I’d argue both yes and no, and it’ll come as no surprise as to how I differentiate.

The first 3 films (episodes 4, 5 & 6) are good, the next 3 (eps 1, 2 & 3) are not, really. I’m not saying that the original three films are Vertigo or Citizen Kane, just that they are enjoyable and well constructed blockbusters and that the latter three are not. Where the first three movies use classic archetypes to tell the stories, the latter may as well use cardboard cut-outs such is the lack of depth to the characterisation.

Back when The Phantom Menace came out in 1999 I was at University studying screenwriting. I wasn’t a Star Wars obsessive, and I was someone who wanted the inside track, so I bought the script and read it before the film was in cinemas. Then I got to the end and thought to myself “Where’s the rest?” There was 40 minutes of story in the film and when I came to see the film at the cinema it became clear that they had crammed those 40 minutes of story into 136 minutes of screentime. It was dull, tedious and lifeless – everything the original trilogy could never be accused of.

But do we need to go over that in any greater depth? It’s old news now.

No, what I find interesting is the way in which Disney is deemed perfect because of some examples of great movies they have produced. The tweet mentions Wall-E and The Avengers (the latter of which is not all that, sorry), but could have broadened that out to just Pixar in general, along with The Muppets, Enchanted and Tangled – all great movies. These are mentioned by way of proof that Disney will do a better job than Lucasfilm did, juxtapositioning them against The Phantom Menace and Indiana Jones & The Crystal Skull, poor, poor movies, the pair of them.

However, let me give you another list:
• The Santa Clause (1, 2 and 3!)
• Around the World In 80 Days (starring the perfect ensemble of Steve Coogan, Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger)
• The Pacifier
• Beverly Hills Chihuahua
• The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
• John Carter

Those are a lot of bad films, and those are all Disney films produced during the 21st century. It’s not a pretty sight, and I didn’t even include the Pirates movies (terrible, but liable to provoke an argument).

The point is that yes, Disney have a lot of incredibly talented people and yes, the last 3 Star Wars films were terrible, but the combination doesn’t mean that the next Star Wars films will be great. They say that in Hollywood, “Nobody Knows Anything” but I think it’s safe to say that, no matter how good the output from the Disney/Lucasfilm deal, the next Star Wars film will make an awful lot of money. That much we do know.