51 posts categorized "3-1/2 jalapeños"


Editor and publisher: Reining in Mr. Write

Colin Firth, left, as Max Perkins and Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe in "Genius." (Marc Brenner/Roadside Attractions)

In the movie industry and in film critic circles, there's a term called a parking lot movie.

That's a film so good, so compelling or so thought provoking that movie-goers emerge from the creative darkness of a theater into the harsh bright light of reality and talk -- and perhaps argue -- about what they have just witnessed all the way to the car.

Genius, the dramatic verbal sparring match between early 20th century novelist Thomas Wolfe and his editor-publisher Max Perkins, drove me far beyond the aforementioned parking lot.  For the greater part of this morning, I've thrown myself into digging deeper into this volatile relationship between one of the most important writers of his lifetime and the word master who published and molded his work into Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River.

Pairing accomplished British actors Jude Law and Colin Firth perfectly as Americans Wolfe and Perkins, Genius dares to stick closely to something rare in a based-on-truth night at the movies:  truth.  We can thank a trio of filmmakers for that.  The movie is based on A. Scott Berg's biography Max Perkins:  Editor of Genius.  Berg spent nearly a decade developing his Princeton University senior thesis on Perkins into the biography.  Gifted screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, Any Given Sunday, Hugo) has fought to get this film to the screen for 20 years.

As for first-time director Michael Grandage, also from Great Britain, the respected actor-playwright has the most difficult task of all; combining all the elements into a cohesive biography of two towering forces of literature who may have been forgotten, or almost forgotten by too many.

I like the way Grandage doesn't feel the need to mention the Great Depression in words in this drama set partly in 1929.  His scene where Wolfe and Perkins walk down a New York street and encounter a soup line for the first time suffices nicely.

Genius is a clash-of-the-titans extravaganza not of swords, sorcerers and special effects, but of words.  I can assure you the battles here are just as grisly.  Every word or phrase lost by the loud, grandiose young author who writes furiously in pencil using the top of a refrigerator as his desk wounds Wolfe deeply.

Jude lays the Law down with rare, bombastic abandon as Wolfe, challenging, befriending and fighting with expertly skilled Charles Scribner's Sons editor-wordsmith Perkins.

Firth has the tougher acting chore as the editor who has previously worked with  novelist titans F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) and Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms).   The best actor Academy Award winner for The King's Speech in 2010 perfectly corrals Perkins' quiet demeanor into a wordsmith who doesn't just correct spelling and grammar.

Perkins was perhaps the first truly great editor-collaborator.  His keen sense of story structure and ability to pare down phrases to their true essence is at first celebrated by Wolfe, who delivers his second manuscript to Perkins' office in several crates.  The novel that would eventually become  Of Time and the River originally numbered 5,000 pages.

It's not easy for women to stand out in a male-dominated movie.  However, Laura Linney (The Truman Show) and Nicole Kidman (an Oscar winner for The Hours) make the most of their screen time as Perkins' devoted wife and Wolfe's mentally unstable mentor/lover.

It's probably no accident that Genius arrives in movie theaters on Father's Day weekend.  Wolfe's writing, especially in Look Homeward, Angel, was, in his own words, "the search for the father of our spirit."  Perkins, the father of five daughters, nurtures Wolfe at times like the son he never had but always longed for.

If I can fault Genius for anything, it's for trying too hard to include all the elements of the Wolfe/Perkins relationship.  Fitzgerald weaves in and out of the story fairly effectively, but Hemingway's inclusion, brief and sporadic, seems tossed in just to include his weighty novelist reputation.

That's a small flaw, indeed.  Any movie that compels us to want to learn more about the real people behind the characters, is a must-see for everyone. 

Beyond that, Genius is an exciting journey and a true joy for anyone who respects writers and loves the power of words.

From this aisle seat, sublimely crafted words are the real special effects.

MPAA rating: PG-13 ( Some thematic elements and suggestive content)

104 minutes

Jalapeño rating:  3½ (out of 4)



'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,' an intoxicating war drama

Lance Cpl. Andrew Coughlin (Evan Jonigkeit) and Kim Baker (Tina Fey) use their weapons of choice in a "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" firefight. (Paramount Pictures)

Here’s my only real beef with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: It’s a witty, gritty war-correspondent drama posing, or more appropriately being marketed, as a comedy, which it is not.

Is it because Tina Fey, one of our most gifted comedians, is out front as a stateside cable news producer thrown into the explosive turmoil of the Afghanistan war zone in the early 2000s?

Could it be because the co-directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, co-wrote the hilarious darkly comic Bad Santa and aimed for something like the late Robert Altman’s comic-war drama MASH of 1970?

Well, “Atten-hut,” film-making soldiers. What you have marched to the screen here is a superbly nuanced drama (with occasional comic turns, granted) about a cable news desk jockey.

Kim Baker (Fey) is a producer so mired down in a life where she “writes news copy for dumb pretty people to read” that she’s willing to venture to a war-torn country where fecal matter actually permeates the air. She’s not quite as emotionally bottomed-out as Tom Hanks’ character was when he agreed to leap into a fiery volcano in Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), but she’s close.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is based on print journalist Kim Barker’s 400-page The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Screenwriter Robert Carlock, an Emmy winner for his work on NBC’s 30 Rock, which also starred Fey, focuses on the author’s sometimes horrifying adventures in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

Baker, asked point blank by fellow war correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie of Focus and The Wolf of Wall Street) if she can borrow Baker’s video crew for sex, is tossed first into the Fun House, a sex, booze and caustic comic dormitory of sorts for war reporters, then the war itself. Fitting in as a seasoned journalist is out of the question at first. She marches off to war with a bright orange backpack and fatigues that still have a store label on the pants leg.

But a funny thing happens once Whiskey Tango Foxtrot gets past all the slightly irritating stabs at dark war comedy. A beautiful drama emerges. Fey, as so many comedians are, turns out to be a superb dramatic actor. She plants her feet solidly in this conflicted character who becomes a seasoned war reporter in a hurry and may just become a little too intoxicated by the rush of real explosive danger.

In fact, this is a film overflowing with funny folks who are also gifted dramatic actors. Billy Bob Thornton, who played (and will play again next Christmas) the title character in Bad Santa, is outstanding here as Marine Col. Walter Hollanek, a leader with a constant 2,000-yard stare and a devotion to his men and duty.

Even though this film was shot in New Mexico, it captures the filth, the poverty, the desperation and the conflict of the Middle East extremely well. One of the things it does best is reveal Baker’s view of what she witnessed there as a journalist embedded in the chaos.

Extremely gifted actor Alfred Molina (Love is Strange) is so immersed in his character of budding government official Ali Massoud Sadiq that he’s almost impossible to recognize. Up-and-comer Christopher Abbott (A Most Violent Year) might just find that his performance as Fahim Ahmadzai, Baker’s fixer (interview arranger) is a catapult to stardom.

Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit series), as flirty, quick-witted photographer Iain MacKelpie, and Fey create some real screen magic as two lost souls flailing about trying to find some direction in their lives amid the madness of war.

Despite the fact that the filmmakers even make a feeble inside joke with the first letters of the military lingo title, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (You get it, right?), this film excels as what it is; an extremely well-acted drama about flawed humans fighting to keep even a loose grip on humanity.


MPAA rating: R (pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images)
111 minutes
Jalapeño rating: 3½ (out of 4)


Woody and his sisters

For movie directors, some of the most important choices come before the word "Action" is ever spoken.

Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), right, and Ginger (Sally Hawkins) fight to survive. (Sony Pictures Classics)
Casting is key, and Woody Allen made a brilliant choice when he selected Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett to play a New York socialite whose opulent lifestyle has shattered in the severe drama Blue Jasmine.

Allen’s prowess is equally impressive. At 77 Allen, like Clint Eastwood and other elder statesmen filmmakers, continues to impress. With Blue Jasmine, though, Allen showcases one of his biggest cinematic attributes: the uncanny ability to cast the actress.

Blanchett, the Australian acting powerhouse known for two turns as Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth (Elizabeth in 1998 and Elizabeth: The Golden Age in 2007), is the latest in a long line of female Allen stars who have dazzled. His work with Diane Keaton in early comedies like Play It Again, Sam in 1972 and Annie Hall in 1977, which won Academy Awards for best picture, best actress (Keaton) and best director (Allen), is legendary.

Allen has always known how to write for and showcase talented women as memorable characters. Case in point is Mia Farrow, a former muse and companion. Farrow is a prime example with extraordinary performances in Hannah and Her Sisters, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, The Purple Rose of Cairo and several other Allen gems. In 2008 it was Penélope Cruz in an Oscar-winning performance in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

When we first meet Blanchett as title character Jasmine, she is chatting nervously and rapidly to a total stranger on a flight from New York to San Francisco. That’s the physical flight plan. Emotionally, the well dressed woman who we’ll soon learn has been known to chatter out loud to herself, is in catastrophic freefall.

Jasmine, once a well-heeled and high-heeled princess of Fifth Avenue thanks to her marriage to free-wheeling (financially, ethically and martially) husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), is popping pills to compensate for suddenly deflated financial circumstances. And because, in a desperation move, she is moving in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and way down the social ladder.

No one should mistake Blue Jasmine for one of Allen’s funny movies. Earlier in his career, the versatile filmmaker leaned heavily on Ingmar Bergman, Sweden’s master of the dour and dreary, to churn out dramas such as Interiors (1978), September (1987) and Another Woman (1988).

Blue Jasmine, though, is pure Woody Allen. It succinctly chronicles a handful of humans in crisis from Jasmine, frantically grasping at perhaps a final chance to grab a sophistication lifeline by wooing a government official on the way up in Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) to Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), her sister’s former husband whose own hopes of moving up in his blue collar world were dashed inadvertently, at least, by Jasmine.

By far the most significant relationship here is the delicate relationship between sisters who aren’t bound by blood, but who somehow come together to flounder around in the often-painful arena of life when no one else seems willing to help them battle the bull.

British actress Hawkins, a Golden Globe winner for her work in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky in 2008, is superb as Ginger, Jasmine’s savior and sounding board until she summons enough backbone to be her own person.

Allen’s latest dramatic masterpiece belongs primarily to Blanchett, however. The superior talent who took home a best supporting actress Academy Award as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in 2004, is a shoo-in for at least a nomination as best actress in a leading role this year. Blanchett’s portrait of a socialite melting into oblivion before our very eyes is both stunning and, at times, almost unbearable to witness.

Why? Once again Allen, who could be headed for another best director Oscar, has found his muse.

In this case it’s an apocalyptic one, and Blanchett is the perfect actress to channel her emotionally.


MPAA rating: PG-13 (mature thematic material, language and sexual content)

Running time:  98 minutes

Jalapeño rating: 3 1/2 (out of 4)


Serkis goes 'Ape,' Franco not so much

Monkey see, monkey do a major banana pile of damage in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

Like perhaps you, my first thought when I heard about a resurrection prequel to the "Planet of the Apes" cinematic library was something like, "Take your stinking paws off a new 'Apes' script, you damed dirty bottom-line profit guys."

All of that changed for me when it began to become apparent that the performance capture work in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is equal, if not superior to, James Cameron's sci-fi space adventure "Avatar" (2009).

Set in modern-day San Francisco, "Rise" predates the Charlton Heston "Planet of the Apes" primate-dominant sci-fi series of 1968 to '73 and Tim Burton's 2001 re-boot starring Mark Wahlberg and Helena Bonham Carter.

Scripted by the husband-and-wife team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver ("Eye for an Eye," "The Relic"), the new adventure goes ape with man toying with the human mind and, as you can guess, screwing everything up.

Scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) thinks he's discovered a brain-restoring drug that will end the horror of Alzheimer's, which his father (John Lithgow) is suffering from.  Things go bad at the lab, though.  A dog-and-pony show for investors yields one dead prize chimp and a scrubbed cure for damaged human brain cells.

Without giving too much away, let's just say that Will takes his work home in the form of a baby chimp and continues his work in secret.  If movie scientists could somehow pay attention to what other movie scientists learned before, Will could have screened last year's "Splice" and saved himself -- and perhaps all mankind -- some major grief.

The baby chimp, inheriting "bright-eyes" smarts from his mama, is named Caesar and is portrayed in stunning motion-capture glory by great Brit Andy Serkis, the most amazing actor you probably have never seen.

Not his face, anyway.  In a motion-capture performance, the actor wears a suit covered with electrodes to monitor every body movement.  They are attached to the face as well, then the computer wizards electronically add the character's image around the human actor's performance.

When it's done right, as Serkis has done as Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, as the title character in "King Kong" (2005) and especially here, the process is quite spectacular.

The old "Planet of the Apes" films had significant things to say about big issues (man destroying his home planet, for instance).  The ape suits, however, took away from the impact of the story.

What director Rupert Wyatt ("The Escapist") and senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri (a four-time Oscar winner) do here is make great use of film making technology that has finally caught up to the visual needs of the story.

From this aisle seat, the only drawback is Franco as Will.  He was a dud as co-host of the Academy Awards earlier this year and Franco (an Oscar nominee for "127 Hours") is about as non-interesting here.  

I liked Freida Pinto OK as Caroline, the love-interest primatologist.  And Lithgow is fine as the mentally withering dad.

But Franco.  I don't know.  He seems to be slow-walking through this one.

Overall, however, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" lives up to the title.  And once you see the ending of this film, you'll likely have second thoughts about ever wanting to face a monkey on the Golden Gate Bridge.


'Harry' goes out with a bang-up finale

Now an adult, Harry Potter prepares for the ultimate battle with Lord Voldemort not as a child but as Mr. Wizard in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- Part 2."

Harry's still quick to hop a broomstick for a quick escape when danger zeros in, as it often does in the eighth and final cinematic outing for the phenomenally successful witchcraft-and-wizard novels from J.K. Rowling.

A bit of disclosure:  I was keenly anxious to see what all the "Harry Potter" fuss was about when the first novel, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," delivered three young wizards-to-be to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in November of troubled 2001.

The original was captivating fun because everything was brand new.

It was as if Rowling and director Chris Columbus were opening up a cinematic theme park and inviting children of all ages to embrace the mirth and myth of the dark arts.  For good, of course, as far as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and gal-pal Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) were concerned.

My interest waned more with each increasingly dreary episode through the years, however.

Now, 10 years after it all began cinematically, Harry and his dark lord nemesis Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) face off in what can best be described as a wandfight at the Deathly Hallows corral.  One will die, then live.  The other will live, then die.

If you've been to the movies more than three or four times in your life, I'm thinking you can figure out how this thing's going to turn out.  The good news is that the outcome i's not the important factor in "Deathly Hallows -- Part 2."

British director David Yates, who has called the shots on the final four "Potter" yarns, saves the best of the best for the final episode.  Or should I say the final half episode, since "Deathly Hallows -- Part I" set the stage for the grand finale last November?

Anyone who visits this space on a regular basis knows that I'm not generally fond of sequels.  This one, however, rocks the movie house.

Full of action, the parting shot erupts into a wild battle extravaganza with an extremely plus-sized hissing snake, giants who knock human-sized wizards and wizardettes aside as if they are croquet balls headed for a wicket and fireballs.  Lots of fireballs.

Fiennes manages to do some real acting behind his smashed-in nose as hissing, snake-like Voldemort.

Let's go ahead and put Fiennes, a two-time Oscar nominee ("Schindler's List," "The English Patient"), at least in the running for a supporting Academy Award nomination.  He turns in the best altered-schnoz performance since Jack Nicholson's in "Chinatown" (1974). 

I also like this performance by Radcliffe.  Grim and determined to out-wand evil Lord Voldemort, the boy who matured in front of all of us on movie screens over a decade treats the final outing as grand drama.

At one key moment, Harry asks "Is this all happening in my head?"

Of course it is, Harry/Radcliffe.  You've been in your head and ours for 10 years. 


The 'Larry Crowne' affair

Enough with the monster cars that really are monster cars called "Transformers."

Enough with the drunken, crotch-kick lowbrow humor of "Hangovers" and "Bridesmaids."

"Larry Crowne" puts on big boy pants to showcase loss, love and laughs amid the ruins of love gone bad and a job gone bust.

From this aisle seat, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts -- along with co-writer/director Hanks and co-writer Nia Vardalos -- have put together a heartfelt little film that deals with big issues of the day in a manner worth noting.

For adults who see lots of movies, especially in the hardware-driven summer movie season, it might just feel as refreshing, cleansing and welcome as a cold dipper of water after a trek across a desert.

"Larry Crowne" is not a film without some slight affectations, however.  Hanks' Crowne, a happy-go-lucky Navy vet-turned-discount store clerk, bounces back ahead of the national curve after his job is yanked from under him because he has no higher education.

The cynics among us might even point out that guys like Larry don't usually stumble into a community college classroom and find someone like Mercedes Tainot, a k a Julia Roberts, waiting to crank up the Speech 217 class.

The fact that happy accidents like this do happen at the movies might just have something to do with generally boffo attendance at the neighborhood bijou.

More embraceable than other, harder-edged lousy economy blues films like George Clooney's "Up in the Air" or "The Company Men" starring Tommy Lee Jones, Ben Affleck and Chris Cooper, "Larry Crowne" drowns its job loss/love lost sorrows in romantic-comedy.

Larry doesn't just stumble into Roberts' speech class, he finds his look and voice as a man dusting himself off and jumping back into life through the odd attention of a semi-flirty, much younger fellow student named Talia (British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw of the NBC series "Undercovers").

Talia takes Larry under her wing; yanking his shirttail out when he looks too formal, removing clutter from his house and inviting him to join the East Valley Community College motor scooter brigade.

Roberts, who co-starred with Hanks once before in "Charlie Wilson's War," is an Academy Award winner as well ("Erin Brockovich").

What a joy it is to see two forces of acting nature mix it up with decent dialogue.  I like the fact that these characters have enough of a foothold in reality to make the magical aspects of the story seem almost (maybe, just maybe) within the grasp of those in the audience, including some perhaps going through similar troubles.

Hanks rarely directs feature films; his own starring vehicles or otherwise.  In fact, his Playtone banner has flown with the two-time Oscar winner ("Philadelphia," "Forrest Gump") in the director's chair only once before ("That Thing You Do!, 1996) for a feature film.

He was smart to cast George Takei, Mr. Sulu in the "Star Trek" TV and film series, as economics professor Dr. Ed Matsutani, however.   Overly formal and pompous, Dr. Matsutani's the perfect other-end-of-the-spectrum teacher to balance out Roberts' Mrs. Tainot.

I'm the first to admit that "Larry Crowne" squarely hits more than one hot button for me:  the frightening dilemma of sudden job loss without warning, rebuilding through a community college, speech courses and the fact that I tooled around on a motor scooter in my  youth.

Actually, you don't need any of those identifying points to appreciate "Larry Crowne." All you need is an appreciation for excellent acting and a heartfelt story.

And, of course, the ability to make it through an entire movie without mechanical warring monsters or things that blow up real good.


The new 'X-Men' has class, 'First Class'

Back before sequelitis hit epidemic proportions in Hollywood in the 1980s with the "Halloween," "Lethal Weapon" and "Indiana Jones" franchises, it was pretty much one-and-done for most big-budget movie stories.

Today's audiences, quite familiar with sequels, are witnessing the next step in prolonging bottom-line profit for tent-pole (blockbuster) flicks:  prequels.

The "Star Trek" and "Batman" franchises pulled off the out-with-the-old (tired stories, highly paid actors)-in-with-the-new (fresh stories, rising stars not yet demanding top dollar) re-tooling well enough.

Now comes the "X-Men" reboot, which I must tell you, is more fun and better conceived than most.

Gone are Patrick Stewart as telepath Charles Xavier/Professor X and Ian McKellen as Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto, of course.  Three treks around the mutant trail were enough for them, or for the filmmakers.  (See above about star salaries.)

James McAvoy (Xavier) and Michael Fassbender (Magneto) head the cast in "X-Men:  First Class," an ambitious, well-mounted origin sci-fi adventure sure to please comic book and franchise movie fans with equal fist-pumping approval.

That's because "First Class" lives up to its subtitle all the way.  The ensemble cast of mutants, beginning with McAvoy ( "The Last King of Scotland," "Atonement") and Fassbender ("Inglourious Basterds," "300") and continuing with Jennifer Lawrence (an Oscar nominee for "Winter's Bone") as shape-shifting Raven/Mystique and Kevin Bacon ("Frost/Nixon") as one bad mutated World War II Nazi, is about as first class as a prequel can hope to be.

Without giving too much of the plot away, let's just say that it unfolds mostly in the 1960s, a time of racial (and mutant) prejudice and Cold War unease.

Director Matthew Vaughn ("Layer Cake," "Kick-Ass") and a handful of writers (including Vaughn and previous "X-Men" director Bryan Singer) weave the emergence of mutants into known human culture and the growing Cuban Missile Crisis seamlessly.

As I've written many times in this space, filmmakers taking on projects that require outlandish special effects are limited only by their levels of imagination in this age of computer-generated visual magic.

Like most -- no, make that all -- big-budget productions that pre-order eye-popping effects (an anchor chain cutting a luxury yacht in half, for instance) then try to form the story around the bedazzlement, this "X-Men" overdoes it a little.

Overall, though, this origin adventure should keep audience members on the edge of their seats.  McAvoy, the Scottish rising star, is quite playful at first as a twentysomething Charles Xavier of privilege.

Flip that coin over and German actor  Fassbender is equally effective as Erik Lehnsherr, the metal-bender who will, before this adventure concludes, be called Eric and reply, "I prefer Magneto."

I prefer "X-Men: First Class" to many of the prequels that have come down the cinematic pipeline.
"First Class" is at the head of the 21st century reboot class from this aisle seat.


The Norse god-man who fell to Earth

"Thor" rumbles to the screen sporting hunky rising star Chris Hemsworth from Australia, Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman and Mjolnir, a battle hammer flung down to New Mexico from a Norse mythology god heavens above.

Director Kenneth Branagh is the guy who really puts the fantasy-drama hammer down, though.   Despite the impressive pedigree of the actors, Branagh, the Academy Award-nominated star and director of "Henry V" in 1989, brings at least the feeling of Shakespearian weight and importance to what in reality is a popcorn fantasy action-hero flick born from a Marvel Comics book launched in 1962.

"Thor," like his Marvel cousin "Superman," goes for some somber seriousness in between moments of action-on-steroids.  "The X-Men," "Fantastic Four" and especially "Iron Man" franchises appear in it solely for fun (and, of course, profit) in their bombastic cinematic incarnations.

With a script by a trio of writers and a story by former "Thor" comic scribe J. Michael Straczynski, Branagh tailors "Thor" as Shakespearian by way of Norse mythology:  Hopkins blurts his lines regally, yet with a bluster as Odin, the king of Asgard.  He's war weary, aged and battle-scarred.

In fact, Odin sports an eye patch sort of like Rooster Cogburn's in "True Grit." It's more John Wayne than Jeff Bridges, though.

The classic story pits brother against brother.  And, wouldn't you know it, the king is ripe for assassination.  That's Shakespearian enough to put Branagh in his filmmaking comfort zone.  And the Irish born filmmaker/actor doesn't let us down.  

For those of you who haven't been grabbing every "Thor" comic book to hit the racks since the early '60s, know that Thor (Hemsworth) gets on his royal daddy's bad side on the very day he's supposed to take over the throne.  Brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) may have a little to do with stirring up the Frost Giants across the Rainbow Bridge.

Thor is banished to Earth, where, without his powers, he must fall for a fetching young research scientist (Portman) and eat an entire box of Pop Tarts before even going to a local New Mexico diner for breakfast.

"Thor" is magnificently staged by production designer Bo Welch ("Men in Black"), an Oscar nominee four times over.  It loses a bit of its larger-than-life fantasy voyage buoyancy due to the unnecessary 3-D, which was retro-fitted into a film hardly in need of a plastic-glasses gimmick.

This is an engaging story, even if you're not a comic book-to-big screen fanboy.  That's the best news.

Serious movie lovers will appreciate the way Portman, just off-pointe after completing production on "Black Swan" (her Best Actress Oscar winner), brings a nice balance of science nerd and eligible female.  Even a dedicated scientist can't help noticing how well a pair of earthly jeans hang on a fallen Norse god, apparently.

Hemsworth, who played Kirk in the 2009 "Star Trek" do-over, gets to display a little acting range as he mingles with the Earth-bound humans and gets in a shouting match or two with Papa Odin (Hopkins).

Much of the time, though, it's hammer time for Hemsworth.  He slings it well in a special-effects comic book action flick that'll thrill, grab the heart and even remind some of what a comic book designed by Shakespeare might look like on a movie screen.

To see, or not to see.  That's not the question.

Go.  Eat overpriced movie snacks.  Enjoy some intelligent silliness for a change.


CGI Critterville visits 'Chinatown' in 'Rango'

In the ever-increasing deluge of animated films, there are soaring adventures for kids like "How to Train Your Dragon," somber thought pieces for adults like "The Illusionist" and those that aspire to appeal to several generations, such as "Up."

"Rango" is a wild card, even using the aforementioned parameters.

"Rango," my friends, is for movie lovers.  While it might appeal to kids to some extent, director Gore Verbinski aims this amazing critter Western not only at adults, but at adults with such diverse movie-viewing experience as "Chinatown" and, dare I say, "The Terror of Tiny Town."

"Chinatown," of course, was Roman Polanski's sleaze-oozing potboiler of 1974 starring Jack Nicholson and late, great director John Huston as a power broker with a tight grip on the L.A. water supply.  All you need to know about "The Terror of Tiny Town" (1938), an awful movie, by the way, is that it spoofed traditional Westerns by inserting little people into all the traditional roles.

"Rango" does the same, but with critters small and smaller.

Johnny Depp, who has "Arrrrrrrrrrrded" his way through a trio of Verbinski-directed "Pirates of the Caribbean" adventures, injects a ton of personality into the title character.  Rango, or at least the violently displaced family pet that will become Rango, is a chameleon.

He gets lost in the desert near Las Vegas, then, by chance, winds up in the dusty Western town aptly called Dirt.  The water supply has gone bone dry and the mayor, a devious turtle voiced by Ned Beatty (looking a little and sounding a lot like Huston), seems to always be sipping some.

After bragging a little in the saloon following a series of cactus juice shots, Rango is named sheriff.  A posse is formed and the little lizard that could (or maybe not) hits the trail to bring water back to Dirt.

To fully understand the beauty of the CGI animation in "Rango," you just have to experience it.  Say what you will about Verbinski turning an old Disney theme park ride into a cash cow movie franchise, he has done wonders here.

In addition to Depp, who is marvelous, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy and the great Harry Dean Stanton all lend their voices (and are  all tremendous) to a well-imagined character menagerie.

The Western cliches come fast and furious.  But combined with the visual brilliance, "Rango" morphs into an animated comic-adventure that's sure to become a topic of conversation when the next movie awards season heats up.  (No need to worry about that now.  That won't happen for a couple of weeks at least.)

My only minor complaint about this tongue-in-and-out-of-cheek Western spoof is that screenwriter John Logan ("The Aviator," "Sweeney Todd") gets a little too mystical at times.  And, at almost two hours, it definitely runs too long for small children.

I do wish Logan had sneaked in one line, though:
"Forget it Rango, it's Dirt."


Recession depression & inhuman resources

Think "Up in the Air" without the funny stuff.

And, believe it or not, more job loss fall-out heartache.

"The Company Men," starring an exemplary acting ensemble led by Oscar-winner Tommy Lee Jones, deals with the guys in the cushy corporate offices when the designer rug is pulled out from under them.

Writer-director John Wells, executive-producer of the long-running "ER" TV series, actually wrote the "Company Men" for the previous recession.  For those a little behind in their recession knowledge, that was the early '90s one.  

Thank goodness Wells pulled the script out of the drawer when this current deep depression began to grip the country.  "The Company Men" opens on Sept. 15, 2008, when the Dow took an 800-point dip and proud working men and women began to clean out their cubicles and head for what  my grandfather Wally used to call the unemployment office.

I won't lie to you.  This was a very difficult movie for me to watch.  My professional world was rocked by the serious economic downturn, just as three central characters are here.  Yet in a complicated, odd way, going through the process of watching the cinematic events unfold -- as deeply painful as they are -- may have helped my personal healing process.

Corporate sales exec Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), who works for fictional shipping conglomerate GTX, is blind-sided by his lay-off.  So are Gene McClary (Jones), the company's No. 2 man, and top executive Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), who scratched his way up from the factory floor to a corner office.

What "The Company Men" does that "Up in the Air," last year's dark comedy about lay-offs, did not is follow the men home.  These men have lost their jobs, their security, their sense of worth, their social status, their financial stability and, in some cases, their reason to live.

Affleck's character tries to hide the devastating unemployment news from his extended family.  Cooper's screen wife (Maryann Plunkett) makes him get dressed and leave the house every morning as if he's going to work.  She can't stand suffering embarrassment at the hands of the neighbors.

If you get the idea that "The Company Men" is a dismal affair, you've earned your movie merit badge for the month.  And, although the cinematography by Roger Deakins ("True Grit") is marvelous, the plot line and tone wobbles a little near the end.

So why should anyone go see it?

It is magnificently acted, for one thing.  I've never seen Affleck better in front of a camera.  Jones turns in his usual acting brilliance.  Also, Maria Bello (who appeared in 25 episodes of "ER" as Dr. Anna Del Amico) is very good as GTX's head of human resources.  She's a driven female exec who often disappears for long, uh, lunches with Jones's character.

Then there's Kevin Costner.  He plays Affleck's house-building brother-in-law.  Costner excels as blue-collar comic relief.  He's a blunt-talking good soul who works with his hands and oozes compassion from his heart.

If that's not enough, go see "The Company Men" for the Chris Cooper performance.

A supporting actor Academy Award winner for "Adaptation" in 2002, Cooper plays his aging executive character like a frightened, desperate man with a time bomb tied to his chest.

The three central characters all feel like that at times.

It's a desperation not uncommon in the real world either, bub.