Thor: Ragnarok

November 9, 2017 by  
Filed under Movies

Ragnarok is basically the Norse mythology version of the Apocalypse. I won’t get into the whole thing, because it can get pretty complicated, but it basically serves as the ultimate plot device of “Thor: Ragnarok”.

Kind of.

This is a Marvel film, and as we’ve come to know, these movies aren’t to be taken too seriously. They are cinematic comic books. Colorful, humorous, and full of action. All three have been strengths in the “Thor” series; and here, thanks to director Taiki Waititi (“What We Do in the Shadows”), it has been perfected.

“Ragnarok” begins with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) trying to thwart the impending prophecy by shutting down a demon named Surtur (looking like something out of “Lord of the Rings”). He thinks he’s stopped Ragnarok; but it’s only just begun. That’s thanks to the death of his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), which allows the re-emergence of Thor’s sister, and Odin’s first born, Hela (Cate Blanchett, looking amazing). Hela had been imprisoned, for her powers were getting out of control. But when Odin died, she was freed, and she can pretty much do whatever she wants–which is, of course, to control the world. Or destroy it. She is known as the Goddess of Death, so you can guess which choice she’d prefer.

Thor discovers that his adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is actually not dead, and is still up to his impish, deceptive ways. However, Thor realizes he can use this to his benefit to thwart his enemies, which besides Hela also includes a being known as the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, in an hilarious return to form). He rules a planet that Thor is cast away on, having lost his hammer thanks to a fight with Hela, and is pitted against the Hulk (eventually played by Mark Ruffalo) in a Roman-esque gladiator battle. Grandmaster oversees a junk planet, and scavengers like 142 (Tessa Thompson) can get money for catching beings to use as gladiators against Hulk, who is the Grand Champion.

Meanwhile, on Asgard, Hela has enlists a right-hand man, Skurge (Karl Urban, always looking unrecognizable), to be her Executioner, to any Asgardian who rebukes her. There is a rebellion happening, led by Heimdall (Idris Elba–when is not a badass?), who also has the protective Sword of Asgard.

Thankfully, they left out the ongoing subplot of Jane this time, because there is so much going on in this film, cramming that ill-fated love story back into the narrative would’ve been a big mistake. The writers would rather write funny battle scenes and dialog, and that’s just fine with me. There is also enough tension between 142 (who also turns out to be a former Valkyrie of Asgard) and Thor to make a working “relationship” arc. They do, however, have a nice cameo by another potential Avenger. It leads to the funniest line (unintentionally) by Loki: “I’ve been falling for 30 minutes!”

Thor has a lot to do in this film, and has a few quirky friends to help him, such as Korg and Miek, fellow gladiators; and the quirky villain Grandmaster adds to the already comic angle the film boasts throughout. It works well because you can tell how much fun the actors are all having. It plays it straight enough to know it’s not just a total clowning, but it certainly makes it entertaining.

Hela, who is played the hell out of by Blanchett, is as stock as you can get with villains, though. The one weakpoint of Marvel films, for the most part, is that they all follow the same stock plot and resolution. Here, though, they cram enough fun stuff in there that you can’t help but just smile throughout. This is a popcorn movie after all, and it does deliver. If you’re cynical enough to be tired of it, you probably want to step away from Marvel films from now on.

If you want to stick with them, though, just sit back and enjoy the ride. And…in this case, the soundtrack too!

Ah-ah, ah!

Ah-ah, ah!

My rating: :-)

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

May 14, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

The Marvel Universe is getting more and more crowded, and in some cases, cloudier and cloudier. I haven’t followed all of them, and some of them I’ve forgotten–but I plod along and try to keep up. 2012’s “The Avengers” seemed to be the best of the Universe, pitting fine actors in fine getups against interesting and entertaining villains for a 2 and a half hour long joyride. I thought Joss Whedon was the perfect guy to bring all of that together, and he’s called upon again to make lightning strike twice.

The Avengers are brought back together, this time to stop a genetic experiment headed by Hydra, a terrorist organization that exists in the Universe. They discover two new mutant kids (which gets dangerously close to “X-Men” fodder) from a place called Sokovia. The new kids are twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff. Pietro can move at the speed of light, and Wanda can manipulate people’s thoughts and also send out bursts of red energy. They’re somewhat effective but also raw since they haven’t been properly cultivated yet.

While the Avengers are crashing this mission, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr., always appealing) is hit with a “vision” by Wanda, projecting the Avengers’ deaths. He believes the world needs a “coat of armor” to shield us from evil. With that, he wants to create something called “Ultron”, which is artificial intelligence harvested from a scepter. Ultron (voiced by James Spader), becomes the Frankenstein’s monster and main villain of the film, breaking off from the idea of protecting the world by thinking it has to destroy it. Everybody, including Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, the best of the Hulk/Banner actors thus far), sort of blames Stark for this new issue that they all have to stop. Meanwhile, Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) has begun to have feelings for Banner, and the two of them share a few moments of reluctant passion–but Banner has cold feet due to his wild and unpredictable counterpart.

The other subplots include ace archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) revealing he has a family, Steve Rogers aka Captain America may feel unnecessary when a war isn’t being waged, and Nick Fury from S.H.I.E.L.D. still wants to be part of the gang. Ultron wants to destroy the Avengers before destroying the world, and enlists the help of the Maximoffs, who at first are compliant with his idea.

But, an unexpected thing happens as Ultron tries to improve itself with something that turns out to manifest itself as another potential hero. Vision (Paul Bettany) turns out to bear one of the Infinity Stones on his brow, but wants to help for good rather than help Ultron once he is unleashed by Thor. Vision becomes somewhat paternal to the Avengers, even though every scene he’s on screen I keep thinking someone’s going to ask him, “Who are you and what are you doing here, noob?”

Ultron clashes with the Avengers throughout the film, causing massive destruction to poor Sokovia, but loses the Maximoffs to the good side eventually. By the film’s climax, it’s pretty evident whoever wins, Sokovia loses big time. That place gets absolutely demolished.

It brings me to an epiphany that I first had while watching “Man of Steel”–shouldn’t superheroes have just a little bit of regard for the place they’re saving? I know that these movies have to keep upping the ante–but really, there’s not going to be an earth enough left to save if these guys (and gals) don’t show a little bit of restraint when it comes to destroying bridges and building structures. It’s also amazing that barely any Sokovian gets hurt during the deluge. They keep finding ways to survive out of massive earthquakes–I guess it speaks to their strength as a people, but it’s a bit…you know, hard to believe.

Most of the film’s running time is packed with action, explosions and noise. In the first film, this formula seemed to work better. Maybe because there was a central narrative at work, focusing on the right characters and giving everybody a good amount of screen time. Here, the characters seem rushed into the next action sequence, barely given enough time to breathe–and when they are, it’s not that interesting. Everything from the first film is copied here, as a sequel would, and it just seems to be more retread than refreshing. While the first film was a rip roaring adventure with a lot of laughs, this one dulled by its third act.

It’s not that the characters aren’t appealing–and Whedon does get a lot of out of them. But we’ve seen all of this before, and Ultron just doesn’t come through as a great villain. He’s got all the tropes, but sometimes he’s silly and unconvincing.

The Universe will keep expanding, but the more things expand, the closer it gets to snapping and falling apart.

My rating: :?

The Avengers

May 15, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

We are still in the throes of the Super Hero Blockbuster era, and it seems to have gotten so out of hand that now individual super heroes are going to share screen time with others, while also enjoying their own separate franchises. In the DC Universe, we’ve been familiar with this idea with the Justice League. Everybody knows the Justice League–Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and who could forget Aquaman? Well, it seems as though JL has a long ways to go before being able to make their own film. On the Marvel side, however, things have been gearing up for years to make “The Avengers”. Beginning with 2008’s “Ironman”, and culminating in last summer’s “Captain America”, the ingredients were there to put together Marvel’s own Justice League: Ironman, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, and various members of S.H.I.E.L.D. Oh, and Hawkeye. You’ll have to be somewhat knowledgeable to follow who Hawkeye and the Black Widow are; but really, we just want to see the heavyweights. We’re introduced to a new Hulk, because Ed Norton from the 2008 reincarnation of the super beast was “not available” (he declined). So we’re given Mark Ruffalo to provide the body needed for the brainiac Bruce Banner. The body needed for the rageaholic Incredible Hulk is already provided by the obligatory CGI post production magic.

The set up for the story of “The Avengers” couldn’t be simpler: Loki (well played again by Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s brother (did you see “Thor”? well, maybe it won’t matter either way), wants to harness the power of the Tesseract, a cube shaped energy source with limitless possibilities, and control the world. He wants to use a race of supreme beings from another world known as the Chitauri to conquer Earth and be master of the universe, I guess. He infiltrates by way of a portal opening up during a Tesseract trial run and steals the the cube from S.H.I.E.L.D. that’s been protecting it, and also turns a few people into turncloaks–like Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).

The rest of the plot is basically about assembling the Avengers and winding them up into an inevitable climax with a lot of bad guys and a few creepy slug like monsters that wreak havoc on New York City. But the joy of “The Avengers” is not about the plot. Unless you were totally riveted by my last paragraph, what you came to see was a bunch of super heroes geeking out and bantering. And that’s just what Joss Whedon provides in this easily predictable but still most entertaining action tour de force.

Whedon didn’t have too much to think about while constructing the plot with co-story writer Zak Penn. But his script is crisp and full of wit. You have the familiar Whedonisms he’s utilized in “Buffy” and “Firefly”/”Serenity”–the zippy one-liners, characters you really like will meet untimely deaths (I won’t say who), girl power, and at least one or five fist fights among the main characters. Nothing gets too bitter or over the top. Whedon does a fine job of keeping everyone in each other’s faces but not at each other’s throats. There are some in-fights between the heroes–after all, they’re super heroes. Don’t think they have super egos to go along with them?

The wonderful thing about the film, too, is that these heroes are portrayed by good actors. Robert Downey, Jr. is always a welcome face, especially as Tony Stark/Ironman and provides the most throwaway lines. Chris Evans is extremely credible as the patriotic but still questioning Captain America. Chris Hemsworth is charismatic and hunky as Thor. Scarlett Johansson is more than just pretty, she’s also quite cunning as Black Widow. No surprise, but certainly a treat, is of course having the new guy, Mark Ruffalo, who will most likely get his own rebooted franchise for the “Hulk” (which would make the third time this happens in the last ten years, but who’s counting?). Ruffalo is cool and calm and smart as Banner; but he has something inside that’s itching to come out. And his best line–“I’m always angry”–perfectly defines Banner/The Hulk. I was always fascinated by this Jekyll/Hyde character, and Ruffalo pulls it off pretty well. He doesn’t have the angst level of Ed Norton or the good looks of Eric Bana; but he’s got that just-right touch that makes him instantly believable.

Most of the film is a mix of characters chiding each other and wall-to-wall action. Just about all of the third act involves the baddies from another universe coming down to earth. This is probably where the film gets the most derivative as far as modern action films are concerned. Nothing here is anything you haven’t seen in just about every summer blockbuster of the past 5 years. But that’s really just window dressing. There’s not a lot to admire in the action department. We’ve seen all of that. But it’s still fun because Whedon has done a really good job of setting everything up with likable and entertaining characters. I wasn’t a fan of the film “Captain America”, but his character is well written in “The Avengers” that I’d be willing to give him another chance whenever his sequel is released.

And of course, we’re going to have another “Avengers” movie. It can get a bit groan inducing to think that we’re going to have an “Iron Man 3”, “Thor 2”, and eventually another “Hulk” movie. Not to mention, Spidey’s movie is coming out this summer too. For those who follow the comics, Spider-Man is also an Avenger. So, we could have him show up in “The Avengers 2”. That’s an awful lot of Marvel inundating Hollywood.

If they could get Whedon to helm more of these projects, though, I think I’d be more excited to see them. This stuff is right up Whedon’s alley. While I thought he was trying too hard to press the right buttons with “Cabin in the Woods”, here the keystrokes come easy. He just has a knack for turning the cliched and predictable action genre into something fresh and fun. And you just want more.

My rating:  :-)

The Cabin in the Woods

April 29, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

As a fan of the horror genre, I’m always intrigued by any filmmaker who sets out to tear down the genre and build it back up. Wes Craven achieved this with “Scream” back in the late 90’s, a film that was released during a desperate era for the genre, when it had been bled completely dry (pun intended) by the saturation of slasher franchises such as “Friday the 13th” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street”. We were starved for something new, and “Scream” provided a fresh but somewhat all-too-hip alternative to the routine slasher genre. It turned it on its head by being more self aware, while still telling a decent story and having a fun twist at the end.

Now that we’ve been inundated with remakes and “found footage” movies left and right, perhaps it’s time for another shot in the arm. That’s at least what Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon set out to do with “The Cabin in the Woods”.

But this movie may be one of the biggest miscalculations of a genre critique I’ve ever seen. Any fan of these types of movies should see right through the criticisms of Goddard and Whedon fairly quickly. And then we are left with a very arrogant, cynical, and extremely self-serving horror comedy that neither chills nor amuses.

First misstep: the characters are too bland and irritatingly stock to be made into funny caricatures mocking what we usually find in these kinds of films. We have the dumb blond, the jock, the quiet smart guy, the homely (but insanely beautiful) down to earth girl, and of course…the stoner who turns out to be right about everything. I guess Whedon wanted him to be the “audience”, catching onto every little inconsistency in a horror story. He’s played quite nauseatingly by Fran Kranz. I hope I never have to see this actor in another film in my life.

The second misstep can only be described while describing the plot: take a couple of kids and have them go to a cabin in the woods (because it’s the jock’s cousin’s), and then as the story progresses, illustrate that these kids are part of a scheme by oddly button down suits who are part of some cult that sacrifices people for ancient gods that will destroy the earth if the sacrifices are not executed (ahem). Did I just ruin the surprise for you? I don’t think I did, but even if I did, I did you a favor.

The idea is that these suits are going to control what happens to the kids at the cabin. They display all kinds of creepy things you find in these types of places. Creepy dolls, creepy paintings (which came the closest to actually scaring me), and of course…Pandora’s Box. So the kids actually raise the dead and the suits then try to make sure the kids die one by one until the sacrifice is complete.

I actually liked the premise of this film because it would give you a chance to make fun of the standard horror “cabin in the woods” story while still telling a bigger story with the real horror being that if these stereotypical things don’t happen, we all die. Unfortunately, Whedon and Goddard are far too interested in being cute and clever that once we’re let in on the joke, they’re already telling you how funny it is.

I think in a horror comedy, you have a very thin line to walk. You don’t want to be too jokey, because it becomes self aware and then you take the fun out of it. But you do still want to scare people. I think one of the best examples of when it works is the original “Fright Night”. Another would be “Evil Dead 2”. I can even point to Whedon’s introduction into the genre with his own “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. But here, this is beyond self-aware. This is purely self-congratulatory. Whedon and Goddard want you to know how cool they are by throwing in a ton of horror film references (everything from “Hellraiser” to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to “Night of the Living Dead” to “Aliens”) and how great it is that they are being critical of bad horror films that are full of cliches and bad dialog.

However, in their attempt to mock the genre, they simply just come off as snobs as far as I’m concerned. I’ll be honest–I love bad horror films. I love the stereotypes, the cliches. Why? Because these films aren’t meant to be film classics. They’re meant to be drive-in fodder. An excuse to put your hand around your date’s shoulder and make a move. In many cases, these films mock themselves already enough and become parodies of themselves to the point where “The Cabin in the Woods” is the equivalent of the NYU film school grad sitting in a showing of “Friday the 13th” and telling you how adolescent it is.

We get it, guys. How about instead of wasting time telling me what I already know, make your own film fun and entertaining? “Cabin in the Woods” has its own problems, too. Logically some of the steps these guys take to sacrifice people don’t make sense, and sometimes they’re too convoluted if the end result is supposed to be death for the ancient gods. Why would you give anyone a chance of surviving if it means the end of the world for all of us? Which by the way, leads to a very anticlimactic ending. All the while I kept thinking…what is really at stake for any of these characters? Can we really believe the world will end if these kids aren’t killed? What’s at stake for the kids is far more relevant and credible, and yet we already know what has to happen with them so there is no tension going into the third act of the film.

I wanted to like this movie and appreciate the level of detail that Whedon and Goddard took with the horror genre. If they didn’t try so hard to manipulate me so much, maybe I would’ve actually enjoyed it.

My rating: :(

Thor

May 23, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

The comic book movie train continues to make its rounds and the next stop is “Thor”, a movie from the Marvel Universe that interweaves comic book material with some Norse god fantasy elements that make the film a bit more fun than some of the more recent standard superhero adaptations. We’re going to get quite a few more superhero films this summer, including another “X-Men” movie, a Green Lantern film, and Captain America makes an appearance as well. I can still remember back to the fateful summer of 1990, seeing a poster for a “Captain America” movie while going to see “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” for the 4th time and being excited. Back then, super hero movies were a death sentence to major studios.

Today, they’re a gold mine. It’s hard to say whether this is a blessing or a curse; back when I was growing up, I’d probably love to see legitimate films being made about my favorite superheros like Batman and Spider-man and the Incredible Hulk, and the X-Men. But at this point, there are so many movies out there about superheroes that it’s saturated the genre into one big muscle bound money machine. Not every one has been a  major success (they still can’t really get the Hulk right), but there have been enough that Marvel is now testing the waters in marketing their very own Justice League–the Avengers.

We’ve been introduced to a few already: “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk” made a few years ago introduced us to S.H.I.E.L.D. and that sets up the other heroes to be included. This time it is Thor, and he’s sort of a cross between Super Man AND the Incredible Hulk–with a hammer, at least.

We’re first introduced to Thor as the ancient Norse character, along with his brother Loki, as the sons of Odin, king of Asgard, a realm of immortals who protect the other realms of the universe, including the earth. They had been at war with the Frost Giants, who look a bit like the orcs of the “Lord of the Rings” movies, crossed with Nightcrawler of the “X-Men”. These nasty creatures are conquered; but there still are a few around that may be launching another attack, and someone in Asgard may be a doublecrosser.

Thor sets out with his band of Merry Immortals including his brother, and launch an attack on the Frost Giants after they have attempted to steal the Casket of Ancient Winters. This of course is against Odin’s orders; and Thor, who is supposed to inherit the throne, is cast away onto Earth, relinquishing his powers and his Hammer, which is also sent to earth.

On earth we meet another slew of characters including the always charming, sweet, and gorgeous Natalie Portman playing Jane Foster, a scientist who has been studying the stars, discovers him along with her assistants. But there have been others watching her, and Thor’s landing on earth. S.H.I.E.L.D., which provides the earth “villains”, confisgate all of Foster’s work and have quarantined the Hammer, which is stuck in a rock much like the Sword in the Stone.

The film’s plot moves back and forth between worlds and in some ways, that’s a real hindrance because it doesn’t give us a chance to focus on what exactly the purpose of the film is. On the one hand, it’s a story of  loyalty and forgiveness, and overcoming immaturity. Thor, when first introduced, is a very brash and ill-tempered kid who has a large temper and likes to break things. He learns what every cliched immature character does, which is that growing up and taking responsibility pays off. In his case, it pays off in the form of a giant Hammer that can do some real damage when wielded.

Although the film is full of cliches and an added plot about S.H.I.E.L.D. that just feels thrown in for obligatory purposes to set up the inevitable “Avengers” film, it’s not without its own certain charm. Anthony Hopkins delivers a solid performance as Odin, Thor’s father; and Australian actor (aren’t they all?) Chris Hemsworth gives the film’s best performance as Thor. There are some comic scenes, too, although I don’t think there were enough. Sometimes the film seemed to want to have a better sense of humor than was allowed. It was also a surprise, a pleasant one, for me to see that Kenneth Branagh directed the film. While it’s no Shakespeare, there is seemingly a higher int

The other thing that I continue to be bothered by in superhero films is the seemingly constant need to throw in as many big bad robots or monsters as possible in what I call “miniboss syndrome”. In this case, a big beastly robot that looks like Gort’s little brother is sent down to destroy Thor and there’s a long uninteresting battle sequence between them that goes on far longer than needbe. Of course, this film, like any other superhero film, is an exercise in special effects. For the most part, they do work; but I just think there were some opportunities to flesh out some character relationships that were substituted with gratuitous battle sequences that just dulled the film down.

Now, it may seem like I wouldn’t recommend this film but I actually am. I did have enough fun and found it worthwhile. It’s not perfect, it’s a far cry from better franchises such as Spider-man and Batman; but it does deliver the goods enough to where you won’t be totally bored or think you wasted your money–unless you see this in 3-D. There is absolutely no reason to at all. It wasn’t filmed in 3-D, it was all done in post production. Skip it. See it in a regular or I-MAX theatre.

While I found the film overall entertaining, I can’t decide whether I’m looking forward to the rest of the comic book movies this summer, or any summer in the future. I guess if you are, then summer is coming. If you’re not, well…then, winter is coming.

My rating: :-)