Friday Movie Roundup: Special-Effects Dude Edition

May 6, 2011 at 2:48 pm

Versatile special-effects maestro Shane Mahan knows his summer blockbusters — he's worked with everyone from Steven Spielberg and James Cameron to Tim Burton and Jon Favreau.

"They are the best communicators, and I think they’re also the best visionaries,” Mahan says. 

Mahan is something of a visionary himself. —-As one of the guys behind Legacy Effects (which is named in honor of his mentor, legendary effects guru Stan Winston), Mahan has had a hand in crafting the inspired, elaborately designed suits Robert Downey Jr. wore in the two Iron Man movies, as well as in creating some of the effects for Cameron's groundbreaking 3-D blockbuster Avatar. (Cameron actually gave a then-20-year-old Mahan his start in Hollywood via 1984's The Terminator; since then he's worked on everything from Aliens, Interview with the Vampire and Jurassic Park to Pearl Harbor, Big Fish and War of the Worlds.)

Mahan's latest project is Kenneth Branagh's Thor, which opens this week. Mahan, speaking by phone from somewhere in L.A.s San Fernando Valley, says he wasn't surprised that Marvel choose Branagh, a guy best known for his adaptations of Shakespeare, to direct its latest big-screen comic-book enterprise.

“I think the energy and satisfaction he gets as an actor and a director is much the same energy whether it’s got visual effects in it or not,” Mahan says. “That’s why he great choice for this film, because of all the Marvel properties Thor is the closest to an opera or a Shakespearean play where you’ve got a costume drama and family rivalries.”

Mahan admits it can be a bit daunting when taking on comic-book-based movies, whose fanboys can be among the most rabid and unforgiving in the cinematic universe. He also says his main job is to support the director's vision through effects that engage audiences almost subliminally rather than employing garish, overtly flashy visuals that take them of the story.

“It’s always a fine dance because you have to appeal to comic fans, and also you have to appeal to modern audiences because you can’t just translate the old comic book,” he says. “And all the artists here at Legacy know that we’re certainly up against that perception that all of it is digital these days, but we try to do as much in-camera, live-action stuff to ground the film as much as possible.

“I think it still boils down to this: Whatever genre you're working in, you have to make a good movie,” he says. “I always get very frustrated when I hear certain crew people going, 'Well, no one cares in the Midwest.' I’m like, 'No, those are exactly the people that care. Those are the people who are very smart and want to go to movies.' Don’t ever underestimate the audience.”

According to Scott Renshaw's mostly positive review of Thor, it seems Branagh and Mahan didn't make the mistake of taking audiences for granted.

Elsewhere on this week's rather robust opening docket are three documentaries, two foreign language films and a pair of comedies that are getting tepid reactions.

Oh, and don't forget Cincinnati World Cinema's latest offering, a pair of screenings of gifted Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda's Still Walking (2009), a serene, emotionally resonant drama from a director who has made a string of stories about the quiet moments that inform the lives of his characters. Screenings are 6 p.m. tomorrow (May 7) and 7 p.m. Tuesday (May 8) at the Carnegie in Covington. For more info, call 859-781-8151 or go to

Opening films:

BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK — Legendary New York Times “On the Street” photographer Bill Cunningham gets the documentary treatment courtesy of Richard Press, a filmmaker who has allegedly given us a “near-Buddhist reflection on what it takes to fully engage Gotham, as well as an astute snapshot of its evermore avaricious soul.” (Opens today at Esquire Theatre.) — Jason Gargano (Not Rated.) Review coming soon.

CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS 3D — Werner Herzog's latest documentary enters Southern France's usually sealed Chauvet Cave, which holds the world's oldest known artwork — rock paintings from nearly 33,000 years ago. A bounty of surprises await. (Read full review here.) (Opens today at Mariemont Theatre.) — Cole Smithey (Rated G.) Grade: A-

I AM — This self-involved, talking-head-heavy documentary from Tom Shadyac explores what's broken with our world, raises some interesting ideas along the way, but Shadyac isn't content to simply let his interview subjects — including Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Desmond Tutu — speak for themselves. (Read full review here.) (Opens today at Esquire Theatre.) — Kimberly Jones (Not Rated.) Grade: D-

IN A BETTER WORLD — Danish director Susanne Bier (After the Wedding) makes films that challenge audiences to consider questions of morality and ethics in daily life, and in this new Better World, she presses on in that vein, but the enquiries always arrive embedded in intimate interpersonal dynamics. (Read full review here.) (Opens today at Esquire Theatre.) — tt stern-enzi (Rated R.) Grade: A

JUMPING THE BROOM — First-time feature director Salim Akil guides this comedy about two very different families gathering for a wedding at Martha's Vineyard. The cast includes Angela Bassett, Paula Patton, Loretta Devine, Laz Alonso and Meagan Good. (Read full review here.) (Opens wide today.) — tts (Rated PG-13.) Grade: C-plus

POTICHE — Adapted by director Francios Ozon from a play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy, Potiche never acquires any psychological depth or narrative flourish, but its delightful performances and brilliant color palette see it through any rough patches. (Read full review here.) (Opens today at Kenwood Theatre.) — Marjorie Baumgarten (Rated R.) Grade: B

SOMETHING BORROWED — An adaptation of Emily Giffin's novel faces a fundamental problem: Can you create a sympathetic center for people doing a morally indefensible thing? Apparently the answer is “no.” (Read full review here.) (Opens wide today.) — Scott Renshaw (Rated PG-13.) Grade: C

THOR — There's little question that Kenneth Branagh's Thor will succeed largely because of all the ways it adheres to a familiar formula. The tricky part is wondering if there could have been more room for the satisfying ways Thor is one of a kind. (Read full-length review here.) (Opens wide today.) — SR (Rated PG-13.) Grade: B-