Cate Blanchett

Review: Thor: Ragnarok

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Review: Thor: Ragnarok

Well, it’s been about four months so it’s time for Marvel Studios to release another movie. This time Thor is back for his third solo feature film: Thor: Ragnarok. Directed by Taika Waititi once again staring Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, it’s another super action, over-the-top comic book movie with all the right moving parts to make one epic ride of pure fun.

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THOR: RAGNAROK World Premiere Photos

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THOR: RAGNAROK World Premiere Photos

Last night, in Hollywood, stars Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett and Mark Ruffalo were joined by director Taika Waititi and producer Kevin Feige for a walk down the red carpet where they greeted enthusiastic fans at the world premiere of Marvel Studios’ “Thor: Ragnarok.”

Marvel Studios’ “Thor: Ragnarok” opens in U.S. theaters November 3.

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Movie Issues: Cinderella

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Movie Issues: Cinderella

Disney has made a career of taking fairy tales from around the world and turning them into giant buckets of money. Well, get ready Disney fans because they are about to do it once more with the release of their live-action film, Cinderella. Directed by Kenneth Branagh and based on the 1950 animated masterpiece, Disney’s Cinderella. Which, of course, is based on the many versions of the story that have been told since 1634. Each version of the story changes for every new generation it touches, and like so many other versions of this classic story, this new adaptation will go down as being just as beautiful as its animated predecessor.

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Movie Issues: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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Movie Issues: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

A film series that started in 2001 with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series has finally come to end. Our second long journey though middle earth has reached its climax with the new film, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. We pick up right where we last left our hobbits. Bilbo and Company are forced to engage in a war against an array of combatants and keep the terrifying Smaug from acquiring a kingdom of treasure and obliterating all of Middle-Earth. In this last of three pictures we see action, war, blood, gore, brotherhood and love. Out of the three Hobbit pictures, this is by far the best one.

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

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This is one of those movies I saw the preview for and decided on the spot that I was not at all interested, like I was with Million Dollar Baby. Then, like Million, it got two zillion awards nominations and I know I have to see it now. I dragged my companion, who is probably less inclined to see the movie than myself, and hoped for the best. Well, the Curious Case of Benjamin Button is no Million Dollar Baby. Million pulled out a wonderful movie in front of my cranky, disbelieving, unwilling eyes, and it stands the test of time. This movie feels forced and fake and, like Forest Gump, one to be over-lauded and then seen for what it is only too late. When did David Fincher (Zodiac, Se7en, Alien 3) become Ron Howard (Ransom, A Beautiful Mind, The DaVinci Code)? No disrespect to Howard, he’s a workman of his craft — and I loved Frost/Nixon — but he’s always come down on the gentle side of dramatic, whereas Fincher is an envelope pushing, dark-side cruising artist. Normally.

The repellant premise of Benjamin Button is that he was born old and ages backwards through linear time, so he grows younger as everyone around him wrinkles and sags and withers. Now, we can forgive the biological explanations of “age” versus “youth” and the law of conservation of mass — this is a movie, after all, based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, and we suspend such Scroogery for the emotional metaphor such an idea should achieve. However, the real issue I had with the story was that time should teach us things, not reward our youthful foolishness with new reservoirs of potential and health and sexy vitality. Talk about a Hollywood fantasy! The lessons learned by the people in his life are more along the lines of “live a life you’ll be proud of,” and “it’s never too late to be what you might have been,” which doesn’t much address the counterclockwise life they touch, and is actually kind of deflated by Benjamin’s journey.

While an entire life (served up in over two and a half hours; you feel every minute) is a story, it’s not always a narrative, and this film suffers for that. It seems as though the story were longer than a novel, so stuffed is the film with tangential side characters. He himself floats through like a big squawking Metaphor while the people around him actually have stories. It was interesting to see people treat child-Benjamin as the wellspring of wisdom he outwardly resembled. It would have been interesting to have been let inside his experience — which, despite him narrating the freaking thing, somehow did not occur. I applaud the fantastic special effects employed to allow Brad to play himself as any age not actually in diapers. The use of an actor’s face on another’s body has always been awkward and obvious in the past, but here it’s perfect.

Cate Blanchett actually carried most of the acting burden in this film — all Brad Pitt had to do was wonder at the world around him and grow gradually more handsome. She shares the load with Taraji P. Henson (Queenie) and they make the film survivable. The old man who got struck by lightning was a welcome respite from the over-earnestness of the rest of the film. Sure, I cried at the end. I’m not a robot. But I cry at cat food commercials if they punch the right button. I was not having the “thank goodness I forced myself to see this” experience, but more of the mid-film backlash like I did with Forrest Gump. Looking at the filmographies of screenwriters Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, it’s not surprising. I cried at Forrest Gump too, and I roll my eyes at its overratedness now. I’m sorry, I just can’t get on the Button train. I wish I could have obeyed my instincts and stayed home.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 12/25/08
Time in minutes 159
Director David Fincher
Studio Paramount/Warner Brothers

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Elizabeth: The Golden Age

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As the sequel to 1998’s lauded movie Elizabeth, this film could perhaps have been called Elizabeth I: II: Liz Harder. She’s established herself as powerful, and this time, it’s personal. It’s 1585. She’s 52 (a well-preserved sexy Cate Blanchett of a 52) and has been on the throne for 27 years and is on the brink of a holy war with Spain. The Protestant queen, protecting her Protestant and Catholic citizens from being forced to live under the rule of one faith, wrestles with her defiance of society’s ideals of a leader (male), a woman (married and baby-making), and a warrior (bloodthirsty).

The modern parallels are inescapable: a religiously-led military force seeking to consume a pluralist kingdom for daring to be progressive. History is history – theocracies wax and wane and a monarch who does not persecute or prosecute believers of different faiths commands loyalty and strength in exchange for her respect. Elizabeth herself was on the receiving end of that persecution when the tables were turned, and we forget that this iconic figure suffered immense personal losses under the tyranny of the Catholics in Britain.

The film follows the dual fronts of Mary, Queen of Scots trying to assassinate her cousin Elizabeth and take the British throne in the name of her Catholic god, as King Phillip II of Spain is hurling his Inquisition forces at her depleted nation. The stories in this film are far easier to follow than the political labyrinth of the original Elizabeth film, which blithely assumed its viewers were all familiar with the intrigues of her day. It is not often that a complex art-house darling gets a chance at a blockbuster sequel, but the woman herself merits many tales. Oh, and the movie also has Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, and Clive Owen. Heard of them?

Blanchett inhabits the Virgin Queen with her customary iron and fire. She is vulnerable and willful, lonely and fierce, stressed-out and brave. It’s a great performance. It would be easy to bill and coo over this film, heavy with prestige and import as it is, bursting at the scenes with costumes and finery of the period. It is not the greatest piece of cinematic art ever made, to be spoken of only in the hushed and reverent tones of James Lipton, but it is very enjoyable. It’s primary attraction is Cate, filling the room and the screen with one of the most impressive monarchs of any sex the world has ever known. She conveys Elizabeth’s battles with male scorn and Catholic indignance with equal passion. Clive Owen, an actor to whose charms I am typically immune, strides into Elizabeth’s controlled sphere, causing chaos (and other things) to spread. He brings his open-shirted, ripply-necked Walter Raleigh to court to steal the queen’s favor but absconds with ours as well.

Director Shekhar Kapur brings the same meticulous detail to his actors’ environment as with the original film, but his cinematographer Remi Adefarasin occasionally lights or frames things very strangely. This created awkward sensations as mentally you beseech the actor to just scoot over a bit or step forward just a foot so you won’t be distracted from the scene by the weird bits. He did have huge, gorgeous overblown Oscar montage shots to make up for it – silhouettes and swirling camera perspectives, deep focus close-ups, all very interesting. And who can beat Liz on a white horse, her red Celtic plaits streaming down her gleaming silver armor, a real-life moment made grander through cinema. It’s an enjoyable film, and this time, you won’t have needed to do your homework ahead of time.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 10/12/07
Time in minutes 114
Director Shekhar Kapur
Studio Universal Pictures

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Notes On A Scandal

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Narrated through the acidic yet poetic diary scratchings of Judi Dench’s character Barbara, Notes On A Scandal is a morbidly fascinating psychological thriller from a unique perspective. Barbara meets, writes about, and eventually obsesses over Sheba (Cate Blanchett) a new teacher at her school. Sheba has problems of her own, thought they were probably manageable to a degree before Barbara wormed her way into her life. While all the description and plot ostensibly centers around the titular scandal, the guts of the movie are concerned with the true nature of Barbara and the workings of her mind with regards to Sheba.

Both characters are blind to their own narcissim and their selfish forms of neediness – both characters are willfully blind to their counterpart’s true nature. Barbara is a fearsome frump, intense like Dench but simultaneously vulnerable like Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake. The fire inside Barbara flames hot and suddenly, without warning or rational rein. Sheba is a child princess, taken care of and a caretaker and weary of responsibility. She is finding her own feet and pulling away from her older husband (Bill Nighy). She is knocked from her pedestal by Steven (Andrew Simpson), a freckly, blank-eyed buck who reeks of danger and life.

Bill Nighy supports Sheba as her older husband, supporting her bohemian ways and their Down’s syndrome son and active teen daughter. He is a man who knows well the destructive allure of a younger lover, but has aged into a nobler bastion of fatherhood. Their family seems well-adjusted and comfortable, but somehow the confluence of Steven and Barbara in Sheba’s life collides in just the wrong way and at just the wrong moment. Seeing how completely ruled Sheba is by Steven is painful but truthful.

Barbara diaries constantly, pouring out everyone’s secrets and whitewashing her own. She reinvents the past even as she documents it. It is upsetting to think that people have the capacity to turn away from their own true natures and the near sociopathic way Barbara misinterprets any simple situation is enthralling and terrible. The

slow revelation of her mind as exposed through her writing is mesmerizing on its own, but Dench knocks it out of the park with her virtuoso face. I can only assume that Zoe Heller’s book from which Patrick Marber adapted this elegant script captures the same poetic poison.

Dench and Blanchett are wonders to behold, wielding their respective powers over each other and drawing near and far, sparking flames between themselves. It’s a buffet of acting you have to see to believe. Notes on a Scandal explores attraction, intimacy, obsession, and dark levels of interpersonal dynamics in a very vibrant and immediate way. It’s a powerhouse bit of acting and an intense but rewarding drama.

MPAA Rating  R-language and some aberrant sexual content.
Release date 112/27/06
Time in minutes unknown
Director Richard Eyre
Studio Fox Searchlight Pictures

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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

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Every once in a while, there comes a movie that so defies explanation that it renders me incapable for writing for a full month. This is that movie. Filmmaker Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tannenbaums) loves the quirky, the ugly (interior), and the true things in the world. He celebrates the wacky and eschews the mundane. That said, I find it, film by film, increasingly hard to be engaged by his movies. Life Aquatic, in particular, appears in the previews to be a revenge comedy about a has-been Jacques Cousteau-type hunting down a shark, but instead it is a lovingly painted portrait of this man’s sad sacktitude and the people he infuriates. That, and his maybe-relationship with his maybe-son and possibly even his maybe-erstwhile wife and his colleague. So, it’s about a lot, and event occur, but nothing happens.

Cinematographer Robert Yeoman makes the entire movie a snapshot – every shot is a straight on portrait-style, flat, centered, boxy Every one of these tableaux adds up to a weird sense of having watched a slide show instead of a film. It’s an interesting and bold choice, and it was executed skillfully, but I wouldn’t say it helped make this chilly film any warmer.

Casting Bill Murray as an aging ex superstar with a sour center is certainly a fantastic choice. Anderson’s love for Murray is evident. He puts Murray and his crew (including notables Noah Taylor and Willem Dafoe, and songs by Seu Jorge) in this fantastic ship set, not even trying to make it seem like a real place but an actual cutaway set which he uses often in his snapshotty way. Scratch that – this movie is more like a filmstrip. So, kudos for tone and flavor, but if you take the meat of something we aren’t inclined to eat, all the best seasonings in the world won’t save it.

As always, the soundtrack is smart and interesting, doubly so with Jorge singing Brazilian Portuguese adaptations of David Bowie songs. The aquatic life is just an excuse to get these people trapped in a small space together and to know each other for years and for Murray to have some bitterness and fame-sickness. I came out feeling pretty unsatisfied, but of course the film stymied me so long, I have even more trouble now identifying what bothered me so much. Even Bud Cort’s little appearance made me sadder than it pleased me. Cate Blanchett is tan, extremely British, and pregnant, all for no reason, and the motivation to include her character and that of Anjelica Huston was lost on me. Maybe the media are making me stupid, but I could not connect with this film whatsoever. I admire its visual integrity and I like the idea of Owen Wilson in a movie with Bill Murray, but not this movie.

MPAA Rating R-language, drug use, violence, some nudity
Release date 12/25/04
Time in minutes 118
Director Wes Anderson
Studio Touchstone Pictures

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Veronica Guerin

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Nothing at all against Cate Blanchett, but this is the kind of movie that I will utterly forget I ever saw within a year. Based on a true story, the terrible tale of Veronica Guerin’s campaign to root out the truth about the incredible drug problem Dublin was experiencing in the early nineties, is a story that needs and deserves to be told. Her sacrifices, risks (foolish and wise) and personal endangerment, and the results of her work, are the things legends are made from. Unfortunately, despite having such riveting source material and great actors in all the roles, somewhere, the film falls flat.

Blanchett’s performance is very strong, very real, and her Irish accent is hypnotizing. Guerin is a ballsy reporter (are there any other kinds in the movies?) for the Sunday Independent in Dublin, who tires of fluff pieces and wants to change all that is wrong with this town. We miss a little of how she gets her contacts, where she got her reputation before she really spiraled into self-endangerment, but the thrust is clear. She negotiates the complex crime underworld of Dublin, with doors of safety closing silently behind her. It should have been gripping, but I found my attention wandering far more often than the situation would have warranted.

She has an unlikely onscreen partner, or counterpart anyway, in John Trainer (Ciaran Hinds), who is a fascinating character I wish we could have gotten to know better. To understand him would be to understand the entire mission she is on. They have an interesting dynamic of trust, mistrust and mutual self-interest. Ultimately, though, we cannot know too much about him, and it is her movie. It seems evident how she is making trouble for herself, roiling the muddy waters of the crime syndicates, but the source of her determination and single-mindedness is not all that clear.

I wish we could have gotten more into the why’s and the how’s of her journey, rather than listen to her justify her double speak and tip toeing into the lion’s lair again and again. It’s a miracle she got as far as she did, and maybe that is what the story is trying to admire. Ultimately, we are not surprised by how her campaign ends; merely surprised that she was surprised. I am sorry not to have liked it more, but I found it hard to admire a woman who I could not fathom, and I found it harder to appreciate what she was up against when so much information could not be conveyed due to the various criminal’s status and legal issues.

I can say it’s the best Joel Schumacher film I have seen since 1993’s Falling Down*, but that is like saying it was the best pap smear I have had since 1993.

*OK I did like Phone Booth, but not because Schumacher had anything to do with it.

MPAA Rating R -violence, language & some drug content
Release date 10/17/03
Time in minutes 92
Director Joel Schumacher
Studio Touchstone

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