Thor: The Dark World  

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With Phase Two of its master plan for pop culture domination now well under way, Marvel has put itself in a precarious position: The novelty value of seeing these characters on the big screen for the first time is spent, the afterglow of The Avengers has worn off, and loft fan expectation means coasting is not an option.

Fortunately for them, Thor: The Dark World is more fun than a sequel to a movie based on a 50-year-old comic book superhero with a back-story pilfered from Norse mythology has any right to be. The character is arguably the trickiest of the Big Three to elaborate upon, and the movie is content to deliver what it reasonably should and nothing more: a brisk, enjoyably silly, and visually impressive adventure spectacle.

The Dark World picks up from where Thor and The Avengers left off, with our Asgardian hero wrapping up a two-year campaign to restore order to the Nine Realms and clean up the mess his foster-brother/frenemy Loki (Tom Hiddleston) created after he sabotaged the kingdom’s interstellar highway and unleashed alien marauders on Earth. During that time, Thor has been pining for his long-distance girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who has apparently been sitting by the proverbial phone waiting for him to resurface.

Which he does, once Jane stumbles into one of the many holes in reality that have been popping up all over England of late, uncovering a weapon of massive mass destruction called the Aether, and in the process awakening the race of Dark Elves and their leader Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), who want to — what else? — wipe out the universe and return it to its original state of primordial darkness. This puts jane in imminent peril, and ultimately requires Thor to form a very uneasy alliance with his estranged brother in order to protect her and the universe. How’s that for boyfriend material?

Hemsworth is still charismatic as everyone’s favorite Asgardian, though he has to struggle with the same problem that has dogged every actor who has played Superman: that of being saddled with the thankless role of noble, upstanding hero. It’s a generic archetype that is only as engaging as the villain opposing it, though Hemsworth is thrown a bone of sorts thanks to Thor’s hot-headed and impulsive nature. As such, it’s when he’s butting heads with Loki that the movie really sizzles. Hiddleston really gets to flex his acting muscles this time around in what has quickly become a fan-favorite, signature role. Loki is played with more ambiguity this time around, and Hiddleston has us appropriately loving and hating the scheming little bastard in equal measure — sometimes simultaneously. Hiddleston has said in interviews that he is leery of Loki out-staying his welcome; he shouldn’t be concerned just yet.

On the flip side, Eccleston is fine as Malekith, delivering portentous lines in Elvish with such gusto that you’d think he studied at the Svartalfheim School of the Performing Arts, but as with Iron Man 3, the character is sadly underdeveloped and little more than a plot device, leaving the story with a poorly defined antagonist. To his credit, Eccleston at least makes him eccentric enough to be watchable.

Most of the supporting cast from the first installment return as well, though a few are pushed into the background a bit this time around. Anthony Hopkins still grounds the movie as Thor’s gruff, disapproving father Odin, and Rene Russo is given more to do as his mother, Frigga. Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgård again provide a nice streak of comic relief as Jane’s astrophysicist colleagues, neatly off-setting the gloom and doom.

More than anything else, the movie benefits from the fact that it is free from the requirements of origin stories and franchise building, able to focus on telling a comic book action romp. Director Alan Taylor (Game of Thrones) has worked almost exclusively in television, but he transitions to the big screen smoothly, balancing the sprawling plot and technical demands of the ambitious effects and action sequences while avoiding the wretched excess that often bogged down Man of Steel and other recent blockbusters. More importantly, he and his cast and crew proves that there is life after The Avengers, and that the Marvel Age of Movies isn’t over yet.

NorthPark, Studio Movie Grill

Dallas Buyer’s Club

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A flashback to the worst days of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, when death rates were at their highest and hopes were at their lowest, and biopic of a true drugstore cowboy, Dallas Buyers Club boasts the latest in a string of course-correcting performances by Matthew McConaughey, it’s certified Oscar bait.

McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, an electrician and hard-partying urban cowboy whose fast-living catches up with him when he’s diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. Woodroof is given 30 days to live, but a stubborn man to his very core, he refuses to just lay down and die.

Woodruff starts investigating the disease and its treatments (of which there were few at the time) with the same enthusiasm he once had for doing drugs and banging buckle bunnies. Unable to participate in local drug trials for the controversial AZT, he does an end run around a well-meaning doctor (Jennifer Garner) and buys them from an orderly; the drug’s toxicity puts him back in the hospital, where he meets Rayon (Jared Leto in a his best performance in years), a transgendered AIDS patient and unlikely friend whom Woodroof grudgingly comes to respect.

Before long, Woodroof is treating himself with his own cocktail of drugs, vitamins, and supplements — none of them FDA approved — obtained from a disgraced physician in Mexico (Griffin Dunne), living months beyond his original death sentence. With nothing to lose, he and Rayon — one of the most intriguing mismatched duos to ever hit the screen — begin selling the meds to others who have the disease, drawing the attention of the FDA, DEA, and IRS. True to his outlaw nature, the more the crack down on him, the more determined he becomes.

Much has been made of McConaughey’s transformation for the role — he lost somewhere between 40 and 50 pounds, and his hollow-eyed gauntness is often shocking to behold — almost to the point that it overshadows his complex performance, one that runs the gamut from swaggering self-confidence to fearful desperation. Nevertheless, Leto often steals the spotlight from him in an equally chameleon-like and fearless performance.

Like most biopics, Dallas Buyers Club plays fast and loose with the details for the sake of drama: Leto and Garner’s characters are wholly fictional, and many who knew Woodroof suggest he wasn’t as homophobic as his onscreen counterpart. They also play up Woodroof’s Robin Hood-esque legend, but fortunately neither McConaughey nor Valleé overplay their respective hands. Both men maintain Woodroof’s stubborn core, downplaying the ersatz moral enlightenment and keeping the spotlight on the desperation that drove him and so many others. In the process, it generates an amount of empathy and compassion that is rarely seen on film.

Showing at Angelika

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