REVIEW: “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recuit”

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It’s rare to find a fun and entertaining film on the front end of the movie year. January is notorious for being the month where studios empty their cupboards of held-over films with low expectations. That’s why “Jack Ryan: Shadow Agent” is a breath of fresh air. It may not have the best title, but it is an able action thriller. It’s a good ‘kick back and have a good time’ movie that is a nice change of pace from the heavier, deeper films we get during awards season.

This is the fifth movie from the Jack Ryan film series but the first since 2002’s “The Sum of All Fears”. It’s a reboot that also serves as an origin story for Jack. Chris Pine takes the lead once played by Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Alec Baldwin. We first see him on the campus of the London School of Economics. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 inspire him to leave college and join the Marines. A series of uncontrollable events soon has him working as a financial intelligence analyst for the CIA. Kevin Costner plays his boss Thomas Harper who in many respects serves as Jack’s mentor.

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All of that leads to Jack’s first foray into the world of geopolitics. He uncovers a potential plot by a powerful Russian businessman named Cheverin (Kenneth Branagh). He travels to Moscow and soon finds himself more than just an analyst. The mission soon goes bad and Jack becomes a full-fledged field operative. Harper pops back up and Jack’s fiancĂ© Cathy (Keira Knightley) soon finds herself in the middle of the chaos. It all plays out in a hail of bullets, car crashes, and big booms.

“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” follows a pretty familiar blueprint. It doesn’t strive to be original and it certainly doesn’t break any new ground. But it does know exactly what it wants to be and that focus helps make this a really fun ride. Kenneth Branagh also directed the film and he did a fine job of delivering a variety of great scenes. Perhaps my favorite is the first meeting between an undercover Jack and a suspicious Cheverin. It takes place in Cheverin’s ultra-modern Moscow office and you can cut the tension with a knife.

We also get quite a bit of action in this picture but I found it to be the right dosage. The shootouts and car chases are often set to beautiful Moscow and New York City backdrops and they are competently shot with a lot of energy. The fight scenes were filmed ala Paul Greengrass style with loads of quick cuts and herky-jerky hand-held cameras. As is often the case with this frantic style, it made it a little difficult to follow what was going on. Personally that drives me nuts. It’s obviously a popular stylistic choice these days but it doesn’t always work for me.

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Chris Pine seems to be getting better and better with each new role. I completely bought into him here because he brings so much more than the normal macho bravado. His Jack Ryan feels like a real person. He is nervous, uncomfortable, and the things happening around him deeply effect him. I appreciated that. But it’s Costner who really steals the show. Now I’ve always been a big Costner fan so I was excited to see his name attached. But he handles this material like the old pro that he is. It’s a great performance despite the few bits of cheesy dialogue. Keira Knightley is another story. She certainly has the American accent down but that’s about it. She has some good moments but there were several times when I had no idea what she was doing. She employs an assortment of weird facial expressions and quasi smiles that were often times distracting. Kate Beckinsale turned down this part when it was offered but I wish she had accepted it. I can see her bringing a lot more to it than Knightley.

Is this a formula that we’ve seen before? Absolutely. But when I’m enjoying myself, I just don’t care. Branagh keeps things rolling at a crisp pace and the time flew by. Some have had problems with the film’s lack of desire to do anything new. I can see that to a point. But when you handle your material well and the results are good, I’m okay with it. This is a straightforward and unapologetic thriller that never tries to be something it isn’t. Most importantly this is good old-fashioned fun and that counts for a lot in my book.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Thor”

The summer of 2011 was all about superheroes. The summer movie season started with “Thor”, the first of four superhero film’s that were released between May and July of 2011. The idea of a Thor movie changed hands multiple times but Marvel Studios would finally green-light the project after the strong success of the Iron Man film. “Thor” was another movie that led to this week’s much-anticipated Avengers movie.

Of the four big superhero releases that year, I always felt “Thor” had the biggest chance fir failure. While I understood how a great picture could be made considering the wealth of quality source material available, I couldn’t help but question how it would look on-screen. I was thrilled to see that it’s a cleverly crafted film and Marvel Studios did a nice job placing it in the hands of director Kenneth Branagh. Now Branagh wasn’t the first name that I thought of when it comes to directing superhero movies. He’s better known for his Shakespeare movie adaptations but don’t let that scare you away. He does a great job here with some tricky material.

Australian actor Chris Hemsworth plays Thor, the tough but brash god of thunder and heir to the throne of Asgard who is banished to earth after bringing war to his home and losing favor with his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Thor’s banishment opens the door for his brother Loki (wonderfully played by Tom Hiddleston), also known as the god of mischief, to rise to power. Upon crashing down to earth, Thor is found by a group of scientists led by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) who can’t determine whether Thor is from another “realm” or truly insane. To make things worse, Thor finds himself to be without  Mjolnir, his mystical hammer and ultimate power source, making his ability to return to Asgard virtually impossible.

Perhaps the greatest thing about Thor is that it’s just so much fun. For me personally, it was a fantastic movie theater experience. The cast is having fun and easily passes it on to us. Of course it’s filled with spectacular action sequences and special effects but also the perfect amount of humor that never goes too far. The movie never takes itself too seriously and that’s a key to it’s success. “Thor” sticks close enough to the comic book source material to satisfy any fanboy like me but also has a strong mass appeal that anyone could easily appreciate. I also loved the portrayals of Thor’s great assortment of side characters such as Heimdall, Volstagg, and Sif. Almost everything works well. There are moments that had me wanting to clap and others that had me laughing out loud. It’s that well done.

Hemsworth really brings it with his performance. He proves to be a great casting choice and his bulked up, Norse warrior look combined with a genuinely funny, self-deprecating humor does Thor justice. Portman, fresh off of her Academy Award win, is also very good as Jane Foster. She has a nice, believable chemistry with Hemsworth that’s pretty easy to buy into. Hiddleston’s Loki was one of the trickiest roles (no pun intended) but he pulls it off masterfully and Hopkins is as strong as always. I also enjoyed Jaimie Alexander’s Sif. Unfortunately she isn’t given much to do and I would have loved to have seen more of her in the picture.

There isn’t a lot to say negatively about the film but I do have to mention the 3-D. There are very few scenes that really stand out and at the end of the day the 3-D seems tacked on and pointless. As is the case with many conversions, it adds a darker look to the screen and I could have done without it completely. I also wasn’t really taken Kat Dennings’ Darcy Lewis character. She’s mainly in there for comic relief and honestly some of her lines are pretty funny. But I could think of a few better ways to use that screen time. But these things do nothing to ruin what’s a really good film.

“Thor” was a great start to the summer season and a true accomplishment for fans of the comic book movie genre. It’s strong cast is complimented by a well written story and sharp direction. As I mentioned, it never takes itself too seriously but does have enough drama to draw you in. It trips up in a few small places but as a whole “Thor” was a joy. As a comic book fan it met nearly every expectation I had. It’s an obvious attempt to start yet another Marvel movie franchise and ties in nicely to the upcoming Avengers film. It moves at a perfect pace and maintains a great balance between it’s parallel stories. It a fun, exciting, and often hilarious popcorn picture that I’m ready to see again.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

“MY WEEK WITH MARILYN” – 2 STARS

One thing that can be said for “My Week with Marilyn” is that it’s not your run-of-the-mill biopic. The movie is based on Colin Clark’s book about the making of “The Prince and the Showgirl”, a 1957 comedy starring Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier. Said to have been a troubled set, “My Week with Marilyn” gives us an interesting glimpse at what it must have been like. But the movie mainly focuses on Colin Clark’s week-long relationship with Marilyn Monroe during the shoot. We spend a lot of time seeing the different sides of Marilyn through Adrian Hodges screenplay and the Oscar nominated performance of Michelle Williams. But while the film and especially Williams has received high praise, I found the movie lacking and in many ways missing the energy you would expect it to have.

The film starts with Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) leaving home in hopes of landing a job in the film industry. He ends up getting on with Laurence Olivier’s (Kenneth Branagh) new movie “The Prince and the Showgirl”. Marilyn Monroe (Williams) will be arriving to work on the picture and Colin’s first job is to find a home for her to stay in while she’s in London. Marilyn and Laurence get off on the wrong foot after she is late to the first script reading. This is a trend that continues throughout the filming of the movie and soon Laurence (who is also directing the picture) reaches his breaking point. Branagh is very good here and it’s quite obvious that he’s having a lot of fun with the role. He’s a likable character but very by-the-books when it’s time to work, something even his lovely but insecure wife Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormand) points out.

It’s during the stressful filming that we see Marilyn as extremely nervous and lacking any confidence in her acting abilities. In fact, she is almost always seen with her acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker) who actually serves more as a stabilizing mechanism to keep Marilyn from flying off the rails. Judi Dench plays Sybil Thorndike, a calm and soothing co-star who has sympathy for Marilyn and helps her build her confidence. But Marilyn doesn’t show up to the set one day and Colin is sent to check on her. A few days later Marilyn calls Colin to come over and see her. Colin is warned of Marilyn’s ways but his infatuation with her grows and grows. The relationship between the two is supposed to be unusual but I had a hard time finding any spark between them. Redmayne has the naive puppy dog thing working well but it was almost impossible to buy into their relationship.

I also thought the story, much like Colin and Marilyn’s fling, lacked any energy or vitality. I found my mind wandering during several scenes particularly when Marilyn is mumbling to Colin after taking to many pills. The movie just seems to hit an emotional flatline and I had a hard time staying interested. There were also times when Marilyn comes across as too childlike. I understand that the movie was trying to convey a type of childlike dependency in Marilyn but there were a couple of scenes where the script takes it too far.

But everything in this film comes back to the performance from Michelle Williams. She won a Golden Globe for the role but I have to say that I wasn’t as enamored with her work as most others have been. She certainly gives it everything she’s got and to be fair her biggest problem is that she’s let down by the material. But I never really felt like I was watching Marilyn Monroe. I always felt like I was watching someone play her. Now that may be expecting too much from Williams and it may be unfair. But this film hinges on the audience buying into Williams as Monroe and I only partially could.

When it comes down to it, “My Week with Marilyn” is pretty lightweight. It starts off strong but hits a rut at the midway point and spins its wheels for most of the second half of the film. Williams certainly isn’t bad here but she also isn’t Marilyn Monroe. I can see where if you buy into her performance completely, you’ll probably enjoy this film more than I did. But even with that, I would still have a hard time buying into this week-long lifeless fling. As I said at the beginning, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill biopic. But unfortunately it doesn’t use its uniqueness to create something special.