The Pitch: Meet The Parents.
The Review: It’s a luxurious position to be in, but when you’ve gone from being an organisation that could barely get one of its comic properties made less than twenty years ago to being a studio bankrolled by one of the biggest organisations in the world it’s also a double-edged sword. With each success comes a higher expectation: Iron Man Three proved that The Avengers wasn’t just a flash in the pan, but it could only take one failure to derail the Marvel Universe train which has stops mapped out for another three to five years already. It could also be a risk that familiarity might breed apathy rather than contentment, with dedicated Thor fans a lock for his adventures but fans of the other characters maybe needing more to tempt them back for subsequent adventures. Where Marvel appears to be attempting to strike a specific balance is in keeping familiar elements to reassure audiences, but also introducing new aspects to keep the series fresh and alive.
It’s the familiar elements of this instalment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that undoubtedly work best. The Avengers worked as a sequel to a number of the first phase Marvel movies, Thor included, and now the situation is reversed as a number of characters make their third film appearance. Chief among them are the demigod of thunder, the swagger still intact but Chris Hemsworth’s Thor now finally showing some maturity. That doesn’t save him from a slap or two from his Earth-bound sweetheart Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) when the two are reunited and Thor has to explain where he’s been and why he didn’t call. The two are brought together when a threat from before the dawn of the universe, lord of the Elves Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) is revived and poses a threat so big, Thor’s only option is to turn to disgraced brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to find the answer to defeating this new threat. Meanwhile, Jane has to get to grips with the culture clash of meeting Thor’s disapproving parents, especially the All-Father Odin (Anthony Hopkins).
Everyone from the original gets a moment here, with second tier players from last time of the likes of Kat Dennings, Idris Elba and Rene Russo all given more to do this time around. That does make proceedings a touch congested, especially when attempting to service the plot at the same time. Marvel’s willingness to keep shaking things up has seen a revolving door of directors across their franchises, and Alan Taylor has been imported from Game Of Thrones because presumably some Disney executive can’t distinguish between that literary fantasy and Norse legend. Game Of Thrones often relies on lots of short interplay between a large roster of characters, some getting very little screen time, and so that plays to Taylor’s strengths, but the big battle episodes of the HBO series are actually being picked up by British director Neil Marshall, and it’s not always clear what’s going on in some of Thor’s exceptionally brown battle sequences. His strengths do come to the fore at some of the darker, more poignant moments, but his Asgard never quite has the epic feel that Kenneth Branagh’s did in the original.
What there is a lot of is humour, with Joss Whedon contributing to the script, and this Thor sequel isn’t afraid to throw in some big laughs, playing up the backstory of the universe it’s set in and even mixing humour into the epic final battle, once again showcasing London’s easily destroyed monuments. Thor: The Dark World works well as spectacle and comedy, but you can’t help wishing for a little more threat, not only because Loki is sidelined for much of the film after his Avengers antics but also because Elvish dialogue and a heavy prosthetic smother Christopher Eccleston’s performance more effectively than a crowd rush at a Doctor Who convention. His performance could have also done with some of the ninth Doctor’s impish cheekiness and robust threat, but when the Thor / Loki double act is allowed into high gear, there’s just about enough moments to make up for the lack of a decent antagonist. Thor: The Dark World is a serviceable entry in the Marvel universe, but is more intriguing at times for the promise it holds for the future than what’s actually on screen.
Why see it at the cinema? It’s not short on spectacle, and it’s up there with The Avengers and Iron Man 3 in terms of zingers and general comedy. Plenty to enjoy on a large screen with a large audience.
Should I stay through the credits? Having its cake and eating it, there’s not only a sequence in the middle of the credits, but also one at the very end. For those just wanting to see where the story goes next, you can leave in the middle (probably to Google what you’ve just seen, as only comic book aficionados will make any sense of it first time round); for the true completist, stay to the end.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate fantasy violence. You have to love the BBFC’s Insight section, which includes the likes of the following:There are also mild sex references, such as a man saying he found out his ex-girlfriend was “sleeping with other dudes”.
My cinema experience: Took Mrs Evangelist to see this at the Cineworld in Bury St Edmunds. She didn’t thank me for having to sit through all the credits for the second time this year at a Marvel movie; I think I might have to catch the Captain America 2 credits on my own next year.
The Score: 7/10
The Pitch: Swan Lake and Madness used to make me think only of this. Not any more…
The Review: At the time of year when awards are being handed out, it’s often useful to consider what qualities a great film embodies. When considering my favourite film of all time last year, I noted that Back To The Future was the master of many films, a science fiction / action / comedy / romance that did all types very well. It’s not a prerequisite for greatness, but if a film can straddle genres so successfully, then it stands a much better chance of being enjoyable. Black Swan is certainly a melding of many different concepts; it is on the surface a ballet film, and certainly the parallels with Swan Lake are clear and simple. Early on, ballet director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) confidently tells everyone in his company that they all know the story of Swan Lake, then proceeds to explain it anyway for the benefit in the audience of anyone who might have come in cold. But this early scene with dancers rehearsing and generally milling in the foreground and background will leave you in no doubt of the context, and director Darren Aronofsky packs the film with ballet detail, from sessions at the physiotherapist to the rituals of preparing ballet shoes for the rigours of performance.
It’s also very much a character drama, and there a number of key players in this drama. The nexus of the drama, on screen almost constantly and into whose mindset we are drawn, is Nina (Natalie Portman), as she replaces Beth (Winona Ryder) at the centre of the ballet company and attempts to get into the dual mindset of the White and Black Swans at Swan Lake’s centre. Her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) guides her career, but may be holding her back as much as pushing her on, and her inhibited home live leads Thomas to encourage her to bond with tattooed rebel Lily (Mila Kunis) in order to explore both sides of her psyche. Lily is her exact opposite, almost her doppelgänger, and when Thomas makes Lily Nina’s understudy, her nervousness about the challenge begins to build into a full-blown psychosis.
Black Swan is effectively a coming of age drama, but this is no John Hughes movie; encouraged to the point of sexual harassment in his actions by Thomas, Nina transitions from the virginal and metaphorical White Swan to the dark side of her personality. Natalie Portman is completely fearless in her role, laying bare her emotions and being completely unafraid to explore the more sexual side of the role as well. (And when I say explore, let’s just say that When Harry Met Sally’s got nothing on this one where female vocalisation and inhibitions are concerned.) The whole cast is great, Hershey playing the overbearing mother to perfection and Cassel and Kunis also filling the roles well, but this is Portman’s movie and she slowly but surely takes ownership of the role and the film as it progresses. Aronofsky sees the parallels in the loss of innocence in adolescence as a parallel for Nina’s development and exploration, giving Portman plenty of meat to work with, and the psychosexual aspects add further layers to the drama and, indeed, the horror that form the core of the narrative.
For yes, this is as much a horror movie as anything else, and that will undoubtedly come as a shock to a certain part of the audience who’ve come for the ballet. The psychosexual tension simmers and occasionally bubbles, but there is psychological horror here as well as aspects of body horror that would seem to suggest Aronofsky could be a natural successor to David Cronenberg. It’s subtle and woven through the fabric of the film, and helps to ratchet up the tension at key points. There are parallels to the director’s previous work, and Aronofsky himself has quoted Polanski’s Repulsion, but if anything the film is most reminiscent at points of the Roger Moore film The Man Who Haunted Himself, as Nina sees herself reflected in the faces of those around her and starts to lose her grip on reality. The only criticism that could be levelled at the film is that it’s occasionally a little one note in tone, but what a note and what a tone. Fascinated with the idea of the double and the understudy as the usurper, Black Swan also has a mirror in almost every scene and is full of both physical and metaphorical reflection; when you come to reflect on Black Swan, you’ll realise that Darren Aronofsky and his cast have created something just a little unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, tense, theatrical, racy and provocative; allow your darker side out and it’ll have a fantastic time with this.
Why see it at the cinema: As communal audience experiences go, this one’s a belter; you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, if you’re even slightly prudish you’ll feel very uncomfortable and between those lapping up all the melodrama and those in shock at getting a film they plainly weren’t expecting, there’s sure to be a buzz on the way out the door or at the pub afterwards. The subtle CG embellishments and sweeping stage scenes will be best appreciated on the largest screen you can find, so see it soon while it’s still on the main screens at your multiplex.
The Score: 9/10