Thor: Ragnarok (2017) – Movie Review

thor ragnarok

The ultimate cinematic dilemma is how to make the next comic book movie stand out from the (many, many) others? The brilliant answer comes from director Taika Waititi and co-writers Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost – a screwball superhero action film that delivers not only intense action scenes, but also a compelling villain for the ages in a movie that may be the funniest of 2017.

For those who prefer their superheroes dark and brooding, you’ll be in for a shock. Prepare for Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster – the most polite villain we’ve seen in awhile, and one who looks to be straight out of the 1960’s “Batman” series. Chris Hemsworth as Thor is one of many returning actors/characters, only this time he really gets to flex his comedic timing on top of his Thunder God biceps. His love- hate, trust-no trust, see-saw relationship with brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is in full force, as is the rivalry and banter with The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). It’s certainly more in line with Guardians of the Galaxy than the previous Avengers installments.

As much fun as Goldblum brings to the party, this is really Cate Blanchett’s show. She is the frightening Goddess of Death, long-lost sister of Thor and Loki, and daughter of Odin (Anthony Hopkins). With a costume which is very faithful to the comics (and we get a few versions throughout the movie), Hela’s enormous powers are powerful enough to destroy Mjolnir with little effort, not to mention much of Asgard and key players within.

Of course, with that title, we know that the story revolves around what could be the end of Asgard. Joining in the fun are: Idris Elba who is back as Heimdall, Tessa Thompson as a master of one-liners Valkyrie, Karl Urban as Skurge – rewarded with a wonderful exit scene, Ray Stevenson returns as Volstagg, and rocky alien Korg who is voiced by director Waititi. Fans of the series will be happy to know other familiar faces pop up periodically – one especially magical sequence teaches Loki a quick lesson.

In addition to the main rescue story line, the powerful villains, and crazy aliens, there are numerous nods and tributes to well known storylines from the comic books (notably Planet Hulk, and Fantastic Four), and a hilarious early stage play with three cameos that sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

Special acknowledgment goes to director Taika Waititi for adeptly taking the comic book film world down a different path. While he’s mostly known for his comedic projects like Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows, and his work on the brilliant but short-lived “Flight of the Conchords”, this is still very much a Marvel movie, with the visible fingerprints of Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby. It’s also a fantastic adventure film that sets the stage for 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, while also featuring the best use ever of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”. This is without a doubt a great addition to the MCU.

 

9 out of 10 stars

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Thor (2011) – Movie Review

thor

Thor is exactly what a comic-book movie ought to be – it’s packed with action and great effects, it’s true to its source material, it gives us characters we actually care about, and it’s a tense melodrama with connections to Shakespeare.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is an Asgardian prince, son of King Odin (check your Norse mythology). Hot-headed, impetuous, prone to violence, and quite full of himself, he is nonetheless next in line for the throne. Just before his coronation is complete, however, intruders from Jotunheimm infiltrate Asgard; although they’re quickly dispatched, Thor demands revenge, and against his father’s explicit orders, he and his friends (including his brother, Loki) travel to Jotunheim to seek answers – and kick butt, if necessary and possible. Odin finds out and saves them, but he strips Thor of his powers – including his great hammer, Mjolnir, and banishes him to Earth to teach him a lesson in humility.

This banishment serves to open the door for treachery in Asgard, allowing the Frost Giants of Jotunheim to wage war against the Asgardians. Meanwhile, some of that trouble is spilled out onto the Earth, where Thor has fallen under the romantic spell of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Suffice to say that bad things come to a small town in New Mexico, with only a now-mortal Thor able to help them.

But this movie is about more than just bad guys plotting to take over the universe; it’s about father-son relationships and the rivalry between a favored son and “the other brother.” There’s a lot of Henry V and King Lear present, and this is due in no small part to the movie’s director, the great Kenneth Branagh. Branagh is not the first person you’d think of to direct a movie based on a comic book, but he skillfully manages to not only keep the expected characterizations and plot fresh but also to instill a sense of classicism and wonderment.

The CGI is pretty well utilized and what’s more important it doesn’t distract from the plot. In some movies, effects serve as noise to prevent the audience from discovering that the story doesn’t make much sense. Branagh isn’t subtle in his use of technology, but this isn’t a movie that really should be subtle. Thor himself certainly isn’t.

Hemsworth is perfectly cast in the title role. Sturdy and ripped, he fits Thor’s physical description, but also infuses the character with depth and likability. Portman, an Oscar winner, fills a role similar to Liv Tyler’s and Jennifer Connelly’s in the two Hulk films. Her character reminded me quite a bit of Jodie Foster’s character in Contact – a determined, resolved, super-smart researcher determined to uncover the truth behind the mystery being presented.

Anthony Hopkins plays Odin as you’d expect Anthony Hopkins to play a king: regally, with a weary toughness. Idris Elba, Kat Denning, Stellan Skarsgard, Tom Hiddleston, Ray Stevenson, and a couple of uncredited supporting characters are also well cast.

Thor is every bit as entertaining as I thought it’d be. It’s classy without being out of reach for the rest of us; it’s not a Royal Theater production, but neither is it a simple slam-bang cacophony of senseless violence.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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Noah (2014) – Movie Review

We all know the tale; it’s been told, parodied, and stereotyped to the point where the original context can get lost in the flood of pop culture. In this modern telling of the story of Noah’s Ark, the film definitely emphasizes the mythic aspects to deliver a larger-than-life spectacle. As expected, you will see fantastic visions of creation and death, hoards of animals entering the Ark, the the deluge sweeping over the Earth. What you may not expect is that the film also includes a massive army of barbaric hoards clashing with fallen angels, flashes of magic and mysticism, twists in morality that challenges Noah’s heroics, and an overall tone that’s grim, brutal, and somber. And yet, despite so many liberties, it still captures the essence of the story in its own unique way.

The film is somewhat split in half. The first half contains all the big-scale setpieces, containing plenty of special effects and scenes of war. Once the flood commences and the big battle ends, the film settles down and becomes a brooding drama. Pacing becomes herky-jerky because of this; audiences wanting action might enjoy the first half and get bored by the end, while others may feel the opposite. The overall tone is very grim, and the film doesn’t shy away from showing the raw brutality of the world of sinners and the struggle for survival. Parts of it will work, parts of it might not; ultimately this movie will be different from person to person, and it will likely be one of the biggest love-it-or-hate-it films of 2014. It will depend on your disposition on the storytelling.

This story takes a lot of liberties from the Bible; if it’s a word-for-word accurate account you want, the film will disappoint. Some of the changes are purely cosmetic, to give the film a kind of high-fantasy aesthetic (such as the inclusion of The Watchers). Some changes are made to make the plot more convenient. The biggest alterations involve the addition of the descendants of Cain, providing human antagonists for Noah to fight in a big battle, and one central villain to draw out even more drama. One other big change that might upset purists is what’s done to Noah and his family; the film contrives a huge drama out of their legacy, going so far as pushing them to odd and amoral directions that truly challenge our notion of what could have happened in this ancient story.

All that being said, I felt the liberties with the story were warranted, because the film methodically creates many long threads of conflict and entwines them into one big braid of a plot that gives it momentum and drives the characters to their most logical directions. Without all this drama, the characters really wouldn’t have much to do, before or after the big flood. As it is, the film fills itself up with so much conflict that it gives the characters life and minds of their own, and their actions generate some very complex dynamics that ultimately contribute to deeper thematic depth.

I think the film’s greatest strength is the subtext: the film is loaded with ideas and themes concerning creation, mankind’s sin, judgment, mercy, and morality. Most of these ideas are conveyed sublimely through the use of powerful images and punctual dialogue. In the end, we’re made to understand on a deeper level exactly why the flood happened, why Noah acts the way he does, why things play out the way they do, and what the implications are. Most of the film’s conflicts revolve around the sanctity of creation; the film shows a lot of brutality as the descendants of Cain defile creation, in contrast to Noah who tries his best to preserve it. As the film goes on, themes of environmentalism, industrialization, and resource depletion become very blatant, offering a frightening reflection not only of the past, but also of what could come in the future. The final message, however, is an uplifting one that I always found most elegant: the idea that the end is also the beginning. This is a rather bleak apocalyptic tale, but the film radiates hope by its end.

The film is well-crafted with some very incredible photography and editing. There are a number of scenes in the film that are appropriately powerful and moving, thanks to the way it unites key imagery and symbolism with the narrative. Russell Crowe is as good as usual, and does have some great standout scenes. Jennifer Connelly is perfectly compelling in her role, and I was surprised that Emma Watson put on a great performance as well. Everybody else does alright. Writing gets the job done well, but most of the dialogue seemed pretty blunt. This production spares no expense on the real-looking sets, props, and costumes. Some special effects are okay, some were made to look a bit archaic on purpose (namely the Watchers, who are animated in some kind of stop-motion style), and some effects are incredibly brilliant. Clint Mansell’s music score is as elegant as ever.

The film will not sit well with everybody. Some folks will be bored. Others might be upset that it’s not 100% true to the Bible. However, Noah is a film experience I personally valued a lot; its issues didn’t really affect me that much, and I grew to admire the story and all it meant on a deeper level. With its blend of action, visual splendor, and compelling storytelling, I felt it was a fairly moving picture.

However, this is not an easy movie to casually recommend. You might love it. You might hate it. It’ll all depend on your views of the Bible, of director Darren Aronofsky, and of Hollywood and its embellishments. The best I can say is give the movie a try, because this really is a one-of-a-kind epic.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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Thor: The Dark World (2013) – Movie Review

There’s nothing more disappointing than a sequel that does not live up to the original film it came from, therefore, my cinematic experiences over the years dealing with such efforts have certainly been tragic.

Yes, there have been second films that have equaled or surpassed the original (“The Empire Strikes Back,” “Superman 2,” “The Godfather: Part 2,” just to name a very few), but these are as rare as Academy Award nominations from “Weird Al” Yankovic.

So, die-hard Marvel Studios fans may want to exit this website now and forgo any bitterness they may feel when they realize this review — while not a whole dismissal of the newest superhero epic, “Thor: The Dark World” — may not exactly be what they want to read at this moment.

True to my nature as an optimist, however, I will highlight the positive points of the new production. First, Chris Hemsworth is the perfect choice to play the stoic, unemotional, dispassionate, apathetic, unmoved Nordic leading deity to a tee (actually, I’m not sure these are good points).

It does not require a whole lot of animation to jump from the sky, punch someone out or throw a hammer. Hemsworth does a very good job in his portrayal of such a character and, as long as he does not try to break the acting ceiling like he did in “Snow White and the Huntsman,” I think we’ll be all right.

The other good thing about this movie (and it’s probably the best) is Loki (Tom Hiddleston, “Midnight in Paris”), the deeply troubled younger (and let’s not forget ADOPTED) brother of the first prince of Asgard. It’s his third appearance in the role and he has grown quite comfortable as the smirking, conniving schemer.

Here, he makes every scene he’s in delectable. It’s too bad he is not in more. Plus, the sequences where he appears with Hemsworth are not only the best in the picture, but they elevate the latter’s status and acting credentials even higher than they should be.

Okay, we have discussed the positive, now let’s look at the concerns. Replacing first installment director Kenneth Branagh (who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director — and lead actor — for 1989′s “Henry V”) eliminated the whole Shakespearian angle with the fallen brother, the troubled prince and world-weary king, which punctuated the action scenes and made for much more intelligent viewing than your average superhero narrative.

Alan Taylor, while adept at television drama (several installments of “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones” and a host of others), has not helmed a feature film since “Kill the Poor” in 2003. His contribution to this feature — at least as far as the Bard connection goes — is negligible and thus much of the drama of “Thor” is replaced with the mediocre of standard fights, screaming and explosions.

Yes, “Thor: The Dark World” looks good, but there is a troubling blandness and sameness to the enterprise.

Sadly underused (or misused in some cases) are Anthony Hopkins (“Red 2”) as King Odin, Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”), Stellan Skarsgård (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) as Dr. Erik Selvig and Christopher Eccleston (“G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”) as the main villain — that’s right, Loki isn’t even the top bad guy here — Malekith.

Hopkins is given even less screen time than in the first film, while Portman bitches and moans and nags so much about Thor being away one understands his reasoning completely. She is both bland and annoying, a difficult tightrope to walk (see “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” for a perfect example).

Meanwhile, Skarsgård has been reduced to a comic relief buffoon and Eccleston, who began his career in 1991 in a great little British film, “Let Him Have It,” is easily one of the worst Marvel villains of all-time, sort of a lightweight Bane, but without the menacing demeanor. Heavily made-up and CGIed to the point of complete obscurity, he comes back (after failing numerous time in the past) to use the all-powerful Aether to blow all of the realms to pieces, for whatever that’s worth.

The best spy, war and superhero movies have one thing in common — great and terrifying bad guys (Goldfinger, Darth Vader, Lex Luthor, Loki). Malekith is certainly a name few will remember in the annals of filmdom’s evil malefactors.

Few will remember the plot of “Thor: The Dark World,” as well. Basically Asgard is under assault from Malekith and Thor is forced to release Loki from prison (where he has been since the end of “The Avengers”) to aid in the protection of the realms. The real drama is whether the kid brother can be trusted. Seems a logical concern to me. There are trips to other planets and Earth gets a few location shots.

Monsters are destroyed, good guys are pounded and, for a while, we wonder if anyone can survive the onslaught of out-of-control special effects. One funny sequence involves Thor and Malekith bouncing around the universe while the mighty hammer of the Norse god struggles vainly just to keep up with the action.

“Thor: The Dark World” is nowhere near enough to surpass the first experience, and while not a bad movie at all, it just seems like a temporary diversion until a part three (or “The Avengers: Age of Ultron”) comes out. Sadly, that’s just not enough for a studio with a much better track record than this.

5 out of 10 stars

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RED 2 – Movie Review

It couldn’t be, could it? A sequel that surpasses the original? The Retired and Extremely Dangerous crew are back – well, most of them – and this time they’re older, wiser and funnier. So is the film. Loosely adapted from Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner’s graphic novel, Red 2 has a better story, punchier action scenes and a wittier script. Whereas the first film seemed to find its cast of former golden oldie CIA operatives hilarious in itself, Red 2 works a little harder for the laughs.

Sure, it still has a larky feel about it but the joke is better told, particularly in the early action sequences, which feature several creative ways to dispatch the baddies. Perhaps that’s the result of comedy director Dean Parisot joining the team, alongside veteran actors Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Anthony Hopkins, Mary-Louise Parker, Helen Mirren and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Parker seemed like an afterthought in the first film, but her ditzy schtick works here as she enthusiastically joins boyfriend Frank (Willis) on his dangerous mission, scuppering their safety at every turn.

This time Frank and Marvin must battle a cavalcade of assassins and terrorists and find a nuclear bomb before anyone else as they tear through London, Paris and Moscow at breakneck pace. In other words, it’s your typically outrageous action-adventure plot, but with such a talented cast at the helm it’s easy to buy into. Silly but unapologetic entertainment.

 

7 out of 10