As if underscoring their film’s essential witlessness, the folks at Marvel Entertainment have inexplicably missed the opportunity to make a splash by opening “Thor: The Dark World” on a Thursday. But repackaging a Norse god as an alien superhero takes chutzpah, not humor (unless you count the Viking ship that serves as his spacecraft), and movie studios have yet to lose money by assuming that their audiences have the intellectual discernment of newborns. So if the multiple idiocies on view strike you as neither here nor there, it’s probably because your eyeballs are too busy recoiling from the onslaught of disorienting 3-D effects, or else too distracted by the title character’s Popeye arms and really big mallet.
Natalie Portman, playing the astrophysicist Jane Foster, certainly is. Ever since meeting her hammer-swinging hero (Chris Hemsworth) two years ago in “Thor,” Jane has been pining to subject the rest of his tool belt to scientific study. (Careful there, Jane; his mythological namesake was closely associated with fertility.)
An opportunity arises when she’s invaded by an alien substance known as Aether (like the red weed in “War of the Worlds,” only more floaty) and whisked into a conflict between Thor and the Dark Elves. Newly emerged from hibernation and dead set on sucking every last bit of light from the universe - the screenwriters see no reason to tell us why - the Elves and their leader, Malekith (an unrecognizable Christopher Eccleston) are disappointing villains. Mostly, they just suck up the budget for fancy wigs and fancier contact lenses.
Replacing Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair, Alan Taylor (with six episodes of “Game of Thrones” under his belt) flits awkwardly between a dank, depopulated London and the organ-pipe architecture of Asgard, where Thor’s aging father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), makes pompous pronouncements. Lumbering extras, sporting helmets that give them the look of rutting rams, show up now and then to bash things, but the battle scenes are as lacking in heat and coherence as the central love story.
Not that we can blame Portman. Handicapped by technology that makes her head resemble a bowling ball perched on a pipe cleaner, and a character who spends an inordinate amount of time in a dead faint, she may be an unconvincing brainiac, but you’d be hard pressed to find an actor who looks better unconscious.
If only Thor himself were more of a wag. But Hemsworth, voice pitched low enough for mystified worms to detect its vibrations, has neither the glint in his eye nor the lightness in his step that would signal some winking self-awareness. (Whoever wrote this poor man’s lines should be immediately injected with a serious dose of Aether.)
What few jokes there are belong to Chris O’Dowd, as Jane’s clueless suitor, and the incomparable Tom Hiddleston, whose value here cannot be overstated. As the debonair flyboy in Terence Davies’ “The Deep Blue Sea,” he gave that scoundrel a heartbreaking fragility, and some of that carries over to complicate his portrayal of Loki, Thor’s scheming brother. Dancing above a leaden plot and lumpy dialogue, Hiddleston moves his fine-boned features and graceful body, as if what he were doing matters; he seems imported from a quite different movie.
Rewarded with the best lines and most flattering camera angles, Loki, the master of illusion, is a genetic anomaly in a bulked-up bloodline. He’s also the spoonful of sugar that helps this medicine go down.
— Jeannette Catsoulis
New York Times News Service
‘The Armstrong Lie’
In “The Armstrong Lie,” Alex Gibney’s absorbing but overlong documentary portrait of Lance Armstrong, begun after he won the Tour de France seven consecutive times (1999-2005), Armstrong exhibits an unwavering poise and an almost robotic self-possession and air of superiority, with barely discernible blips of defiance and irritation. In the face he presents to the camera, he is still a winner, despite having been stripped of his titles for doping.
The clench of his jaw, his inscrutable gaze and the steady tone of voice suggest a star ensconced within the bubble of his celebrity. Even his admissions about the performance-enhancing drugs that helped enable his victories sound like the pro forma gestures of an athlete determined never to lose his cool in front of the camera.
The film was started in 2008, the year before Armstrong’s return to competitive cycling after a three-year retirement, and was all but completed a few years later. Filming resumed hours after his January 2013 television interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which he admitted doping. In the footage Gibney initially shot, Armstrong lied about taking drugs. That’s one reason “The Armstrong Lie” feels like two movies - a before and after - roughly stitched together.
One question asked by Gibney, who narrates the film, is why an athlete whose reputation seemed secure after his retirement, returned to competition. Was it a sense of invincibility? Was it the prospect of a future without the thrills and risk-taking of his glory days?
The first half of the film looks back on Armstrong’s youth, when he was a ferociously competitive, self-described bully. His stated belief that “losing equals death” was probably reinforced by his near-miraculous recovery from testicular cancer through treatment that included brain surgery in late 1996. The following year, he founded what became the Livestrong Foundation for cancer research and the support of cancer survivors. The film barely addresses the accomplishments of Livestrong, from whose board Armstrong resigned in November 2012.
The second half focuses on Armstrong’s return to competition without the benefits of the blood booster EPO, testosterone, human growth hormone or blood transfusions. Or so he maintains. In that competition, he placed third. The film goes into clinical detail about how such drugs and procedures enhance performance.
Instead of bombshell revelations, of which there are none, “The Armstrong Lie” offers a thorough history of Armstrong’s cycling career and the elaborate measures he took to cover his tracks. Interviews with former colleagues like Frankie Andreu and George Hincapie portray Armstrong as a scary, vindictive control freak who pressured fellow riders to take drugs and enforced a code of omerta. Doping was so widespread and its benefits so pronounced that serious competitors had little choice but to go with the program.
The movie rehashes the vigorous assertion by Andreu’s wife, Betsy, that she was in the hospital room in 1996 when Armstrong admitted to cancer doctors that he used performance-enhancing drugs. To this day, Armstrong denies her story. Michele Ferrari, the Italian sports doctor who is serving a lifetime ban from Olympic sports for doping athletes, describes his quest for more and better enhancement. He comes across less as a demonic enabler than as a detached scientist.
The movie has wonderful footage of the 2009 Tour de France, in which Armstrong came from behind to take third place. The winner, the Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador, is described as a younger version of Armstrong. More glaringly than most sports documentaries, “The Armstrong Lie” reinforces the sad truth that the adage “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” doesn’t apply to professional sports. Maybe it never did. Winning is everything.
“The Armstrong Lie” is also a reminder that celebrity and hero worship, once attained, are almost irresistibly addictive. Armstrong, for all his gifts and hard work, emerges as a hollow man, corrupted by glory, protecting what remains of his reputation. Even in disgrace, he is determined to “control the story.”
— Stephen Holden
New York Times News Service
‘The Book Thief’
Speaking in the honeyed, insinuating tone of the Wolf cajoling Little Red Riding Hood to do his bidding, the narrator of “The Book Thief” is none other than Death himself (Roger Allam), although he coyly refuses to disclose his identity. This irritating know-it-all regularly interrupts the story of Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), a bright-eyed girl living with foster parents in a fictional German town during World War II, to comment obliquely on human nature and mortality.
Except for the Nazi flags hanging from every building, the town, under a glistening blanket of snow, could be the cozy setting for a holiday greeting card. The pieces of the story, which begins in 1938, are so neatly arranged that the movie has the narrative flow and comforting familiarity of a beloved fairy tale.
A contradiction between a veneer of innocence and the realities of Nazism and the Holocaust is a signature characteristic of “The Book Thief,” Markus Zusak’s immensely popular young-adult novel, from which the movie, directed by Brian Percival (“Downton Abbey”), was adapted.
The years-spanning film, which observes traumatic historical events through Liesel’s eyes, looks and tastes like a giant sugar cake whose saccharinity largely camouflages the horrors of the war. Like a caring dentist reassuring a frightened child, it purveys a message: “Don’t be afraid. I’ll try not hurt you, although you might feel a little pinch.”
There’s one scene of Jews wearing yellow stars and being herded grimly out of the town. There’s another of Nazi officers searching houses for Jews concealed in cellars.
The actors play their characters like storybook figures imagined by a smart, curious child. “The Book Thief” is a shameless piece of Oscar-seeking Holocaust kitsch.
— Stephen Holden
New York Times News Service
‘Go For Sisters’
Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) and Fontayne (Yolonda Ross), the title characters of John Sayles’ noirish thriller “Go for Sisters,” are not biological siblings but former high school friends who once looked so much alike that people said they could “go for sisters.” In their tense reunion 20 years later, in a seedy Los Angeles outlier, they are on opposite sides of the law.
Now a parole officer, Bernice is assigned to the case of Fontayne, a recovering drug addict newly released from prison. The movie’s opening scene, in which Bernice turns a deaf ear to the pleas of a parole violator, reveals her to be a stern, dispassionate woman who has heard it all and is not easy to fool. She is not so much hardhearted as levelheaded. Taking pity on Fontayne, arrested on minor parole violations, Bernice gives her a second chance, and the friendship - severed when Fontayne stole away Bernice’s boyfriend - is renewed.
Bernice’s estranged son, Rodney (McKinley Belcher III), has been involved in human trafficking across the Mexican border. When he goes missing after the murder of a partner, he becomes a suspect. In return for letting Fontayne off, Bernice enlists her to use her underworld connections to help her find her son.
Their deepening friendship is the heart and soul of “Go for Sisters,” a rare African-American female buddy movie. Hamilton offers a strong, compassionate portrayal of a careworn woman who plays by the rules and who, despite her severity, exhibits no bitterness or rancor. Ross’ defiant, sexy Fontayne has pretty much given up on men since having a lesbian affair in prison. Back in her neighborhood, where she works as a short-order cook, she is continually harassed by drug dealers cajoling her to return to her former life.
The creation of layered characters you care about is what Sayles does best, and “Go for Sisters” includes three. The third, Freddy Suárez (Edward James Olmos), is a disgraced former Los Angeles police detective whom Bernice hires to guide them through Tijuana, Mexico. Olmos has never looked craggier and more weathered portraying this tough gumshoe, who is partly blind from macular degeneration.
Surveying Tijuana, he growls the movie’s best line: “This isn’t Mexico. This is like a theme park for bad behavior.” As they head south across the border, he coaches Bernice and Fontayne to pose as backup singers for a group playing at a dance.
As long as “Go for Sisters” is focused on its characters, it remains on firm ground. But the flimsy detective story draped over them is underdeveloped and too sluggishly paced to take hold. This self-financed movie, reportedly made for less than $1 million, badly needs a dash of Hollywood-style action. It turns out that Rodney and his partner had run afoul of Chinese gangsters (barely glimpsed in the film), who are holding him for ransom. But the violence takes place off screen, leaving the movie with too little suspense. As a crime drama, “Go for Sisters” never gains traction.
Like most of Sayles’ films, “Go for Sisters” has a sociopolitical subtext - in this case, suggested by Fontayne: How is a parolee to avoid breaking the law by associating with drug dealers in an environment where they’re everywhere? She is trapped on a lower rung of the economic ladder.
— Stephen Holden
New York Times News Service
‘How I live Now’
Ever since she burst onto the scene in “Atonement,” playing a girl with an overly fertile imagination in a performance that earned her an Oscar nod at age 13, Saoirse Ronan has been one of the most interesting young faces on the big screen.
Her precocious, quirky and intelligent look, almost like a pre-teen Meryl Streep, has evolved now into a more mature beauty, and the actress, now 19, remains just as interesting to watch, if not more so.
Her latest film, the post-apocalyptic “How I Live Now,” based on the 2004 young adult novel by Meg Rosoff, feels something like “The Hunger Games” sprinkled with a liberal dose of “Pretty in Pink” or any basic teen coming-of-age story. Like in “Atonement,” the personal journey unfolds in the shadow of world war — only here, it’s not World War II.
No, it’s World War III, which begins almost immediately after Daisy, a self-absorbed young American with bleached-blond hair, fashionably ripped black tights and plenty of eye makeup, arrives in Britain, sent by her father to spend the summer with distant cousins in the country. She’s not thrilled. When friendly cousin Isaac (a sweet Tom Holland) fetches her at the airport, the first thing she does is mock his accent.
At the ramshackle country home, Daisy imposes her “rules” on everyone else; she doesn’t eat wheat or cow’s cheese, because it’s gross. Invited out fishing, she sniffs: “I don’t fish.”
But it’s not hard to see that behind the icy veneer lies raging insecurity — she’s a teenager! — and in any case her “rules” will change fast once she gets to know her handsome older cousin Edmond (George MacKay, appealing in a stoic way). Edmond, or Eddie, can tame hawks, and pretty quickly tames Daisy. There’s not much buildup here: Daisy goes from haughty to goo-goo eyed, and soon she’s in a full-fledged love affair.
Meanwhile, the world is convulsing. A nuclear explosion in London kills thousands and coats the idyllic countryside with white nuclear dust — a scene hauntingly portrayed by skilled director Kevin Macdonald (”The Last King of Scotland”) and cinematographer Franz Lustig. Soon the country’s operating under brutal martial law. Purposely, basic questions — who’s in charge? who’s doing what, to whom? — are left unanswered.
Clearly this is a choice by director Macdonald to focus the drama squarely on Daisy and her emotional journey. But sometimes it’s an uncomfortable mix. Millions are dying, and we’re worrying about one young woman’s romantic yearnings, and slowly emerging self-esteem?
In any case, girls are soon separated from boys, and Daisy and her youngest cousin, Piper (Harley Bird), are shipped off to forced labor. In a desperate effort to return home to the others (and especially Eddie), Daisy learns just how fierce she can be. It will take a grueling trek for many miles, under threat of rape by marauding gangs, or worse.
Macdonald’s at his best in the scenes evoking what’s happening to a collapsing country (and perhaps, the planet.) On a more intimate scale, there are a few genuinely moving moments. Then again, there’s some unnecessarily banal dialogue.
There’s a clear message here: Sometimes it takes extraordinary circumstances to realize it, but we all have the capacity to shed our petty concerns and focus on the greater good. (Even if you have to eat Spam to survive an apocalypse.) Plus, even the neediest of us can step up, when necessary, and care for others.
That will resonate best for a teen audience, but here’s the rub: The movie is rated R for its violence and occasional language. But is this really something harder to stomach than the PG-13 rated “Hunger Games”? And will the rating be keeping out the audience that would most readily respond to its message?