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Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

With the continued runaway success of the box-office juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it becomes more and more preposterous just how strange and unique it can be. You would think a mega franchise this valuable would be more prone to playing it safe, hiring established visual stylists who can produce product. Instead, the MCU finds interesting creative voices that can succeed within their very big sandbox. Enter New Zealand actor and quirky director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows), one of the most surprising directorial hires in a decade of blockbusters. The Thor movies are generally considered some of the weakest films in the MCU, so there’s already plenty of room for improvement. With Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok is easily the best Thor movie and one of the funniest to date for the MCU. It’s finally a Thor movie that embraces its silly, campy, ridiculous world and finds space to cram in more eccentricity.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has returned to his home world of Asgard to find it in great peril. His brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been ruling in their father’s stead, and that’s not even the worst part. Thor’s heretofore-unannounced older sister Hera (Cate Blanchett) has been unleashed from her prison and is seeking the throne she feels is rightfully hers. She is the goddess of death and chafes at Asgard’s revisionist history, trying to paint over its history as conquerors for something kinder and gentler. Thor is banished to an outlying planet, Sakaar, that’s essentially a junkyard for the universe. He’s captured by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and sold to fight in the Grandmaster’s (Jeff Goldblum) arena. Thor is trained to fight in gladiatorial combat, and his opponent and reigning champion is none other than the Hulk a.k.a. Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) alter ego. Thor must break free, convince the Hulk for help, get off this planet, and save Asgard before it’s too late.

Waititi has acclimated himself extremely well in the large-scaled world of blockbuster filmmaking, and yet his signature quirky sense of style and humor are still evident throughout, making Ragnarok the best Thor film. Let’s face it, the Thor films are completely ridiculous and trying to treat them as anything but is wasted effort. These movies involve alien Norse gods traveling by rainbow bridges and even though they can traverse the cosmos in spaceships they still sling giant broad swords. The more the films embrace the inherent silliness of the series the better. Ragnarok is the Thor movie that gets all the serious stuff out of the way in the first act, tying up loose ends from 2013’s Dark World, checking in with Anthony Hopkins’ Odin and the requisite MCU cameo (a superfluous Doctor Strange), and then introducing Thor’s long-lost twisted sister. From Blanchett’s intro, the movie becomes what it was set out to be, a lavish and consistently funny buddy comedy. Gone are all the Earthly constraints from the prior two films. It’s all aliens from here on out. Thor has everything stripped from him, his hammer, his family, his hair, and becomes an underdog once again. It’s a surefire way to make a living god more relatable. Fighting from the ground up, Thor makes all sorts of new friends and enemies, and it’s this evolution into an ensemble comedy where Waititi’s film shines. There’s a jovial touch to the world building that extends from the visuals to the variety of odd characters. Thor has never been more entertaining as Hemsworth (Ghostbusters) is able to stop being so serious and embrace his underutilized comedic chops. The man has a stunning sense of comedic delivery and a dry wit that’s right at home for Waititi. Hemsworth and his daffy sense of humor have never been better in the MCU.

Even with the added comic refinery, Thor is still the most boring of the Avengers, so Ragnarok solves this by introducing a new bevy of side characters that steal the show. The wacky world of the Thor universe was always its best aspect, and each new film pushes the boundaries a little further out, revealing more weird and wild planets and creatures. It feels like a Star Wars where we spend our time with the weird, scuzzy part of the universe. Ragnarok pushes those boundaries the furthest yet and introduces an entire cadre of loveable supporting players that you want to spend more time with. Tessa Thompson has a wonderful and intimidating introduction as she swoops in on a spaceship, makes her badass claim of her prized bounty, and then trips and falls, as she is quite tipsy from drinking. She regains her literal footing and still seems a bit out of it, but the ensuring process she goes through to claim what is hers is thoroughly impressive. As a Valkyrie, this is one tough woman, and Thompson (Creed) has great fun playing bad. She really reminded me of a female Han Solo. Thompson has a wily screwball chemistry with Hemsworth, and both actors elevate the other with lively give-and-take. Thompson is a terrific new addition. She has an enticing, irascible appeal without overt sexualization that sometimes befalls the Marvel female sidekicks (Black Widow, Pepper Potts).

Another character you’ll fall in love with is Korg, a rock monster gladiator played in motion-capture and drolly voiced by director Waititi himself. My question: is it possible for a director to steal his own movie? This is a character that feels stripped from one of Waititi’s dry, absurdist comedies and placed into the MCU. Korg is a would-be revolutionary but really he’s a joke machine and just about every line is gold. By the end of the movie, I needed a Korg spin-off series to further explore this unusual character.

The requisite villains of the film definitely play their roles to full camp, enjoying every moment. Blanchett (Carol) is like a Gothic Joan Crawford, marching with a slinky step and a sneer. Her multi-antler helmet completes the operatic sweep of the character. You’ll forgive me for my above comment on recognizing female characters independent of their sexuality, but man oh man does Goth Blanchett make me happy (especially with her hair down). It’s a shame that the movie doesn’t really know what to do with Hela though. Every time we cut back to her I found myself getting somewhat impatient. I wanted to return back to the weird and wild world Thor was on. Blanchett is entertaining but her character can’t help but feel a bit shoehorned in (“Hey, you had a long-lost sister, and oh by the way, she’s basically Death itself, and she’s coming by to retake everything, so have fun with that and sorry for the short notice”). Goldblum (Independence Day: Resurgence) is left to his Goldblum devices and it’s everything you would want. His signature stuttering deadpan is just as potent in the MCU, and the film finds strange little asides for him to make him even more entertaining. Karl Urban (Star Trek Beyond) has a plum role as Hela’s second-in-command who doesn’t really want the job. They actually gave this guy a character arc. It’s simple, sure, but it was more than I was expecting.

Ragnarok is a swan dive into a stylized, candy-colored explosion of 80s album covers come alive. The visuals and action feel inspired as much from the art of Jack Kirby as they do the pages of Heavy Metal. The overwhelming feel is one of irresistible fun, something you lean back, soak up, and smile from ear to ear in between handfuls of popcorn. The final battle feels suitably climactic and revisits Led Zeppelin’s immortal “Immigrant Song” once the action peaks, coalescing into a crescendo of cool. The trinkly 80s synth score from Mark Mothersbaugh (The Lego Movie) is fantastic and helps to achieve an extra kitschy kick. This movie is just flat-out fun throughout. It finds fun things for the characters to do, like when Banner has to not Hulk out on an alien world filled with stressors to trigger such an occurrence. That sequence almost feels like the grown-up, polished version of Adam West desperately running around as TV’s Batman in need of trying to find a place to dispose of a lit bomb. There’s an archness to the action and character interactions that is playful without being obnoxiously glib. I also enjoyed a climax that involved more than just out-punching the villains. Some might even charitably read it as a commentary on the over reliance of apocalyptic grandeur.

Playing from behind because of its hero’s limitations, Thor: Ragnarok finally embraces the silliness of its franchise, opening up more comic channels and vastly improving its entertainment quotient. The weird word and its collection of odd and oddly compelling characters is the best feature, and though it takes Ragnarok a bit of time for house cleaning, it becomes a steadily amusing big-budget blockbuster that maintains a cracked and lively sense of humor. It’s allowed to be strange and silly and campy. Waititi’s imaginative voice is still very present throughout the film, pushing the movie into fun and funny directions while still delivering the sci-fi action spectacle we’ve come to expect from the MCU. Ragnarok isn’t as deep as Civil War, as perfectly structured as Homecoming, or as subversive and different as Guardians of the Galaxy, but with a droll creative mind like Waititi, it becomes about the best possible Thor movie it can be.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

independence_day_resurgenceI can recall actively counting down the days until Independence Day was released in 1996, gobbling up every newspaper clipping and magazine article I could. I was a big fan of director Roland Emmerich’s Stargate, which is still a terrific movie, and I was eager to watch the end of the world, as we know it, in the privacy of my local theater. It was a blast, no pun intended, and one of the biggest box-office successes at the time. Surely there would be a sequel, especially after it helped launch Will Smith into another level of stardom. Flash forward twenty years, and here comes Independence Day: Resurgence, a sequel that misses what marked the original as escapist entertainment.

Twenty years later, human beings have been planning for the eventual return of their intergalactic invaders. Former president Whitmore (Bill Pullman) and CIA director David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) have been trying to get the world prepared and studying our alien enemy. A psychic link is still formed from Whitmore’s brief bond in the first movie, and he keeps drawing mysterious symbols. Whitmore’s daughter, Patricia (Maika Munroe), is a former fighter pilot who works for the current president (Sela Ward). Patricia’s boyfriend and fellow fighter pilot, Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), is stationed on the moon building a defense system. Then the aliens come back and pick up where they left off, annihilating Earth’s landmarks and population centers. It seems that their spaceship is going to suck out the Earth’s molten core, and by all accounts, that’s bad. Our ragtag group of characters must come together and overcome substantial odds once more to save the Earth from certain doom.

So where exactly did things go wrong? I’m not one to simply state that the filmmakers missed their window of making a quality sequel. While twenty years is a long time in between outings, it doesn’t mean that you will fail to come up with a compelling movie. Mad Max was 30 years between movies and this didn’t stop Fury Road from being a masterpiece. By most accounts, yes, there is certainly less of an appetite for an Independence Day sequel in 2016 than there would have been in 1998, but the first film is still fondly remembered and a worthy sequel would be welcomed regardless.

746I think one of the bigger causes to Resurgence not working is the fact that the rest of the moviegoing world has caught up when it comes to big screen spectacle, therefore spectacle by itself is not enough without a zeitgeist edge. In 1996, cutting-edge special effects-laden destruction on a global scale was reason enough to buy a ticket and the largest tub of popcorn. In the ensuring two decades, large-scale cataclysm has become commonplace on the big screen; just about every climax of a Marvel movie involves some world-devastating threat. What once quickened pulses has now become ho-hum. Emmerich himself has become a modern-day Irwin Allen since the first Independence Day, almost specifically focused on global disaster movies. I honestly don’t think there’s a better director working in Hollywood for that gig (his next movie is about the moon crashing into the Earth, so “familiar” territory). I think Emmerich’s skill and vision for big screen spectacle goes unheralded too often and he gets lumped in with empty visual stylists like Zack Snyder and Michael Bay. He’s better than that. However, the tide has turned, and audiences have become sated from empty spectacle. They need something more, or at least something compelling, and Resurgence struggles to achieve this. It feels like the aliens are back and they’re bigger, and that’s about it, folks.

Disaster movies are generally judged by their set pieces, and what is most surprising about Resurgence is that it really doesn’t have action set pieces as it does skirmishes. The movie is only two hours long, which seems like a rarity nowadays, but this is one of the few movies I think could have benefited from some extra breathing room. It feels too rushed, its internal logic often forcibly contrived, and this is evident most in its action sequences. A better term would be “skirmishes” because the sequences themselves are so curiously brief save for the climactic fight during the third act. We’ll get bursts of intensity or dread that comes to a head with violence, but then that’s it and the movie moves along. It’s usually mere moments of brief alien destruction. The action lacks proper development. One of the keys to great action sequences is naturally complicating and developing the events. Resurgence doesn’t even change gears. It provides exactly what you expect, and then it’s over, the surprise being how unsatisfying and short the unimaginative experience was for all parties. It’s a long wait until the third act where the alien queen comes outside to play. The movie shifts into a giant monster melee and it’s the one time where Resurgence feels most lively. It still follows a contrived logic (the Queen has a shield… now she doesn’t…) but I’ll credit the movie with at least saving the best for last and finally letting the action expand. I had enough fun with the final act of Resurgence that I was able to forgive some of its early transgressions.

The first Independence Day wasn’t by any means a cinematic milestone but it was fun and had a clean enough throughline. We spent the first hour in typical Emmerich fashion being introduced to the different characters and then watching the dispirit elements come together. The mystery of what was out there was intriguing and it became a step-by-step process of deducing how mankind should respond. When their hostile intent was revealed, it then became a learning experience as to how to fight back. Aerial dogfights won’t work. Nuclear weapons won’t work. It was a simplistic examination of the threat. While the solution of giving an alien operating system a virus is still a head-scratcher, at that point the movie had earned its ham-fisted solution because it had followed a logically satisfying path of discovery and response from the moment of first contact. Resurgence lacks any real internal logic. Things just sort of happen when the plot requires them and then don’t. If you’re establishing a science-fiction landscape, establishing the rules of what is possible and allowable is essential to the audience’s understanding and enjoyment. Otherwise it feels arbitrary, much like Judd Hirsch driving a school bus of children across the salt flats into danger. This literally happens in Resurgence.

Also fighting for time is a slew of new characters that are charisma-free and contribute little to nothing to the larger story. The biggest offender may be Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher), the son of Will Smith’s character. What does Dylan offer as a character? His entire characterization is, and I kid you not, that he’s upset with Jake over a training accident. He punches Jake in the first act and then… he just sort of pilots ships and shoots things in the sky. That’s it. He doesn’t feel the burden of living up to his father’s reputation, or trying to make his own name for himself. He just has a quarrel to settle and does and then he still just sort of exists in the movie and the screenwriters were like, “Oh right, he’s still here. Well, have him fly something.” Jake and the rest of the young pilots don’t fare that much better as characters. Besides superficial distinguishing characteristics, they’re all variations on the same person. They’re a multi-ethnic collection of vacuous character placeholders; it’s like you took Randy Quaid’s kids from the first movie and made them on par with Smith and Goldblum. These bland characters inspire little love and are often boring with little investment. If the next movie started with them in a car and a giant pillar crushing it, I would not mourn their cinematic loss.

independence-day-2-resurgence-trailer-breakdown-easter-eggs-753096There are some familiar faces returning but none of them are able to compensate for the deficit of charisma and screen presence that is Will Smith. Goldblum is on autopilot and doing his stare off into the distance and talk deadly serious thing. Pullman shows up again as a warning of what was coming, though a superfluous one at that. The biggest screen presence from the first movie belongs to Brent Spiner (TV’s Star Trek) as the Area 51 scientist who conveniently has also been in a coma for twenty years. Some of his comic relief is rather labored and cheesy, but it’s at least something. Charlotte Gainsbourg (Nymphomaniac) collects a check as a psychiatrist who has little bearing other than to be Goldblum’s ex. The most interesting new character feels like he stepped out of a Street Fighter arcade game; he’s an African warlord (Deobia Oparei) who likes to use a pair of machetes to kill the aliens. “You have to get them from behind,” he keeps insisting, and I keep snickering. There’s also that Emmerich staple of an officious government weakling who comically grows a spine. It just so happens this part is played by one of the screenwriters of Resurgence, Nicolas Wright. He studied, apparently.

The best thing Resurgence has going for it is the expansive world building, one of the few aspects of the movie that shows actual thought and care. This is one of the few movies I can recall where people actually try and use the technology of their defeated invaders. Rather than just throwing all those dead spaceships on a junk pile, mankind has decided to backwards engineer technological advancements. As a result, the contemporary feels like a sci-fi hybrid of humanity and the alien technology. It’s interesting to see what advancements have been made and how these have been integrated into regular society. I do question why we only have one defensive weapon/colony on the moon when there’s also one as far as Saturn. I wanted a bit more of a sociological examination on what life post-War of 1996 means. Life would be so fundamentally altered by the realization we are not alone in the universe, and not only that but that we need to play catch up fast to survive. The assumption would be that they will be back. The threat of annihilation unifies the world but what are those consequences? What are the consequences of living in a permanent military state of readiness and anxiety, wondering is it all going to be enough?

If you have fond feelings for the original Independence Day, there may be enough good will with the sequel to appease your demands, though probably only barely. Resurgence suffers from CGI-heavy spectacle that has long lost its appeal without supplying helpful additions like characters to care about, exciting action sequences that develop and impact the plot, meaningful plot turns, and a story that follows some form of logic. It’s not a disaster in all senses of the word. In a summer that’s already building a reputation for its mediocrity, I think there may be enough that Independence Day: Resurgence has to offer that select moviegoers will walk away feeling momentary entertainment. It’s not that the first film was intellectually rigorous sci-fi, but it went about its destructive business with a satisfying precision. This movie all too often just feels like things happening, then not happening, and with characters that are there but without any compelling reason beyond survival. The end of the movie sets up an intended sequel and possible extended franchise of sequels with a larger galactic war against the alien invaders. It’s both hopeful and naïve, dangling the promise of another tantalizing humans vs. aliens throwdown. It’s also a bit aggravating because the premise of the hypothetical sequel (I’m going on record saying it won’t come to fruition for another 20 years) is much better than the “they came back again” sequel we get with Resurgence. Don’t make me pay my money and then tease me with a better movie down the road. Nothing should be taken for granted. Independence Day: Resurgence takes too much for granted, and that’s likely why this resurgence will stop with one entry.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

112446_galWes Anderson is a filmmaker whose very name is a brand itself. There are a small number of filmmakers who have an audience that will pay to see their next film regardless of whatever the hell it may be about. Steven Spielberg is the world’s most successful director but just having his name attached to a movie, is that enough to make you seek it out and assume quality? If so, I imagine there were more than a few disappointed with War Horse and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But Wes Anderson has gotten to that height of audience loyalty after only seven movies, mostly because there are expectations of what an Anderson film will deliver. And deliver is what the quirky, fast-paced, darkly comic, and overall delightful Grand Budapest Hotel does.

In the far-off country of Zubrowka, there lays the famous hotel known the world over, the Grand Budapest. The head of the hotel, the concierge, is Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a highly mannered Renaissance man who caters to the every whim of his cliental. Zero (Tony Revolori), an orphaned refugee, is Mr. Gustave’s apprentice, a lobby boy in training learning from the master in the ways of hospitality. Gustave likes to leave people satisfied, including the wealthy dowagers that come from far just for him (Gustave: “She was dynamite in the sack,” Zero: “She was… 84,” Gustave: “I’ve had older.”). One of these very old, very rich ladies is found murdered and in her rewritten will, the old bitty had left a priceless portrait to Gustave. Her scheming family, lead by a combustible Adrien Brody, plots to regain the painting, which Gustave and Zero have absconded with.

115032_galFor Wes Anderson fans, they’ll be in heaven. I recently climbed back aboard the bandwagon after the charming and accessible Moonrise Kingdom, and Grand Budapest is an excellent use of the man’s many idiosyncratic skills. The dollhouse meticulous art design is present, as well as the supercharged sense of cock-eyed whimsy, but it’s a rush for Anderson to pair a story that fits snuggly with his sensibilities. The movie is a series of elaborate chases, all coordinated with the flair of a great caper, and the result is a movie over pouring with entertainment. Just when you think you have the film nailed down, Anderson introduces another conflict, another element, another spinning plate to his narrative trickery, and the whimsy and the stakes get taken up another notch. The point of contention I have with the Anderson films I dislike (Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited) is the superficial nature of the films. As I said in my review for Darjeeling, Anderson was coming across like a man “more interested in showing off his highly elaborate production design than crafting interesting things for his characters to do inside those complex sets.” With this film, he hones his central character relationships down to Gustave and Zero, and he can’t stop giving them things to do. Thankfully, those things have merit, they impact the story rather than serving as curlicue diversions. We get an art heist, a prison break, a ski chase, a murderous Willem Dafoe leaving behind a trail of bodies, not to mention several other perilous escapes. This is a film packed with fast-paced plot, with interesting actions for his actors, maybe even too packed, opening with three relatively unnecessary frame stories, jumping from modern-day, to the 1980s, back to the 1960s, and finally settling into the 1930s in our fictional Eastern European country.

The other issue with Anderson’s past films, when they have underachieved, is that the flights of whimsy come into conflict with the reality of the characters. That is not to say you cannot have a mix of pathos and the fantastical, but it needs to be a healthy combination, one where the reality of the creation goes undisturbed. With Grand Budapest, Anderson has concocted his best character since Rushmore’s Max Fisher. Gustave is another overachieving, highly literate, forward-driving charmer that casually collects admirers into his orbit, but he’s also a man putting on a performance for others. As the head of the Grand Budapest, he must keep the illusion of refinement, the erudite and all-knowing face of the luxurious respite for the many moneyed guests. He has to conceal all the sweat and labor to fulfill this image, and so he is a character with two faces. His officiously courtly manner of speaking can be quite comical, but it’s also an insightful indication that he is a man of the Old World, a nostalgic European realm of class and civilization on the way out with looming war and brutality. And as played by the effortlessly charming Fiennes (Skyfall), Gustave is a scoundrel that the audience roots for, sympathizes with, scolds, but secretly desire his approval, much like Zero. It is a magnificent performance that stands as one of the best in any Anderson film.

115052_galThe fun of a Wes Anderson movie is the zany surprises played with deadpan sincerity, and there is plenty in Grand Budapest to produce smiles and laughter. It’s hard to describe exactly which jokes land the best in a Wes Anderson film because they form a patchwork that elevates the entire movie, building an odd world where oddballs can fit right in. It was under a minute before I laughed, and I smiled through just about every remaining minute of the film. I enjoyed a joke involving a dead cat that just kept being carried from scene to scene. I enjoyed a sexually graphic painting that just happened to be lying around. I enjoyed the fact that Zero draws on a mustache every morning to better fit in with the men of his day. But mostly I just enjoyed the characters interacting with one another, especially Gustave and Zero, which forms into the emotional core of the film. It begins as a zany chase film and matures as it continues, tugging at your feelings with the father/son relationship (there’s also a subtly sweet romance for Zero and a pastry girl played by Saoirse Ronan). One of the big surprises is the splash of dark violence that grounds the whimsy, reminding you of the reality of death as war and fascism creep on the periphery. In fact, the movie is rather matter-of-fact about human capacity for cruelty, so much so that significant characters will be bumped off (mostly off screen) in a style that might seem disarming and unsatisfying. It’s the mixture of the melancholy and the whimsy that transforms Grand Budapest into a macabre fairy tale of grand proportions.

The only warning I have is that many of the star-studded cast members have very brief time on screen. It’s certainly Fiennes and Revolori’s show, but familiar names like Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Jeff Goldblum, Lea Seydoux, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, F. Murray Abraham, and Bob Balaban are in the film for perhaps two scenes apiece, no more than three minutes of screen time apiece. Norton, Brody, and Dafoe have the most screen time of the supporting cast. Though how does Revolori age into the very non-ethnic Abraham? It reminded me of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (here me out) where, as she ages, Chun-Li becomes less and less Chinese in her facial appearance. Anyway, the brevity of cast screen time is not detrimental to the enjoyment of the film, considering all the plot elements being juggled, but I would have liked even more with the dispirit array of fun characters.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson at his best, pared down into a quirky crime caper anchored by a hilariously verbose scoundrel and his protégé. Naturally, the technical merits of the film are outstanding, from the intricate art direction and set dressing, to the period appropriate costumes, to the camerawork by longtime cinematographer Robert Yeoman. The movie is a visually lavish and handcrafted biosphere, a living dollhouse whose central setting ends up becoming a character itself. The trademark fanciful artifice is alive and well but this time populated with interesting characters, a sense of agency, and an accessible emotional core. The faults in Anderson’s lesser films have been fine-tuned and fixed here, and the high-speed plotting and crazy characters that continually collide left me amused and excited. If you’re looking for a pair of films to introduce neophytes into the magical world of Wes Anderson, you may want to consider Grand Budapest with Moonrise Kingdom (Royal Tenenbaums if they need bigger names). In the end, I think Anderson more than identifies with his main character, Gustave, a man enchanted in a world of his own creation, a world better than the real one. Who needs the real world when you’ve got The Grand Budapest Hotel?

Nate’s Grade: A

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