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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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Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Some of Hollywood’s most famous characters are its monsters, and no I’m not referring to studio executives. Kong was one of cinema’s first international stars, a stop-motion marvel in 1933 that had a hankering for blonde women. His legend has endured many different incarnations and once again the gigantic gorilla is given his close-up, in Kong: Skull Island, the second phase in a would-be MonsterVerse after 2014’s Godzilla. This time the monster comes through. Skull Island is a pleasing two hours spent with just enough style, thrills, and comedy to enjoyably pass the time best accompanied by a big bag of popcorn.

In 1973, a geological surveying team has discovered a heretofore-unknown island ominously shaped like a skull. Everyone is heading there for different reasons. Bill Randa (John Goodman) wants to prove the existence of monsters, and that he’s right. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) wants one last mission before returning home from the Vietnam War and its anticlimactic ending. James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) is one of the world’s best big game trackers and wants a new challenge. Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) is an award-winning war photographer who wants a new scoop. Their plans are put on hold when a 100-foot tall ape, Kong, violently knocks their helicopters out of the sky. The survivors scramble to regroup and escape the hostile locals on Skull Island along with the aid of Hank Marow (John C. Reilly), a WWII fighter pilot who crashed on the island thirty years ago and might have a few screws loose from the experiences.

Kong: Skull Island is a monster mash-up that knows how to entertain in grand smash-em-up style. It is not a remake of the original King Kong story, and being free of that “twas beauty killed the beast” narrative opens the movie to be its own thing, a high-concept action vehicle and clear Vietnam War parallel. It’s like someone watched Peter Jackson’s agreeable if bloated 2005 King Kong and said, “Hey, what if we shaved off the first hour and spent the whole time on Skull Island, the undisputed best part of the movie?” It’s the equivalent of an-all marshmallow box of Lucky Charms (Simpsons reference!). The unique environment boasts a retinue of fun surprises and a variety of action set pieces that keeps the movie from falling into a valley of repetition. It’s not just giant apes and dinosaurs, there’s also giant bulls, insects, and in one creepily terrifying moment a giant spider that uses its stalks of long legs to try and impale its prey down below. It’s a long lost world that allows for a constant sense of discovery that doesn’t get old. When the characters stumble upon a graveyard I wanted to soak up every detail of the spectacular collection of bones. I was grateful that Vogt-Roberts made fine use of his locations, real and computer enhanced, to build a sense of space and atmosphere.

One of the best aspects is that the producers have apparently learned from 2014’s Godzilla and elected not to play an elaborate game of hide and seek. My biggest complaint is that I wanted more Godzilla in my Godzilla movie. I was not content to settle for a shadowy impression or a glimpse of a tail here and a foot there. It was an artistic decision that toyed with audience anticipation but it also felt like we were being lead on. Too much teasing and not enough of the good stuff. This is not a problem with Kong: Skull Island; the title beast makes his presence known in spectacular fashion around the half-hour mark, and there’s no tiresome visual obfuscation to blunt the impact. You see Kong smash and it’s glorious carnage. He’s established as ornery protector, a sheriff of Skull Island keeping order with the fragile ecosystem. It makes the world of monsters seem much larger and more balanced. I wish there was more for Kong to do as a character but without his familiar arc he’s less character and more a testy god. There is a moment or two that hint at the soul inside the giant ape, but he’s mostly the physical embodiment of implacable force and the good and bad that goes with such power.

The Vietnam parallels are plentiful and provide a dollop of subtext to the conflicts, but this is a movie that doesn’t forget to have fun. The imagery can often fall into Apocalypse Now flashbacks and other war movie iconography, from the burnt orange sunsets casting dusky silhouette to the slow motion explosions trailing after teams of helicopters. The ever-present 70s rock soundtrack almost reaches Suicide Squad levels of needle-drop proportions in the first half, constantly reminding you of its time period. Skull Island isn’t a very deep movie but it does subvert some genre expectations at turns. A character given significant attention is taken out rather unceremoniously. An appeal to a greater sense of humanity is curtly brushed off. A lone heroic sacrifice that proves to be fruitless. Our more photographic heroes are evidently the worst, most useless characters (more on that below). For a movie that doesn’t strive for more than two hours of entertainment, it finds interesting sub routes.

I’m shocked at what director Vogt-Roberts has proven capable of considering his only other film was the low-budget, rather unremarkable coming-of-age comedy The Kings of Summer. This is a Russo brothers-esque statement, a Colin Trevorrow-style jump from minor indie to full-blown big screen spectacle. Is Hollywood going to sign up Joe Swanberg or Shane Caruth to direct the next four-quadrant blockbuster based on a toy? He does an adept job of capturing the action with style, and his shot compositions are routinely visually pleasing, confidently guiding an audience’s eyeballs to key info within the frame. I loved Kong’s immediate introduction as the camera circled him in a 360-degree pan, stopping at points to slow down before ramping up once more. There are amusing angles that highlight the comedy or tension of a scene, and Vogt-Roberts’ sense of geography and scale enhances the destruction. The prologue even had me hooked, as we watch a pair of enemy WWII soldiers parachute on the beach and continue their fight on the new territory. It was such a slam-bang opener and Vogt-Roberts’ use of camera placement reminded me of Spielberg. The special effects are reliably terrific even if they don’t seem like leaps and bounds from Jackson’s Kong. The skull-faced lizard monsters are scary enough to be threatening while still cool. The monster mayhem is lovingly reproduced and in environments where an audience can see the spectacle.

Another improvement is that the human cast has just enough characterization to make me care. With the newest Godzilla, I didn’t care if the giant lizard stepped on any of them, short of maybe Bryan Cranston. However, in this film I wasn’t impatient for the monsters to return that much. The best characters are, ostensibly, the antagonists. Jackson (The Hateful Eight) who goes full on heart of darkness, obsessed with killing the mighty Kong, asserting man’s dominance, and winning a war that others tell him cannot be won. He’s still sore and frustrated from the Vietnam War’s conclusion. He’s convinced that brute force and intractable persistence will win out, and he’s trying to prove something to himself, to the brass in D.C., and perhaps to all the lives lost under his watch. It’s not subtle characterization by any means but neither is a movie with a giant ape fighting monsters. Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane) uses any opportunity to prove his life’s research about the existence of ancient monsters who he claims are the ones who rightfully have dominion. He’s using the looming possibility of a threat, and the paranoia of the U.S. government in the Cold War, to his sneaky advantage. Watching Goodman and Jackson glare at each other, neither side refusing to back down in their stolid beliefs and personal, self-destructive obsessions, is the non-monkey highlight of the film.

The closest thing approaching human drama, and even tragedy, is Reilly’s distaff character, and I don’t know the last time that John C. Reilly was asked to be a movie’s human compass (Magnolia?). His out-of-time character has a definite degree of cabin fever wonkiness. Reilly excels at being the offbeat oddball and has some welcomed comic relief moments, but it’s the drama related to the character that stuck with me. With the appearance of new human faces, he can take stock just how much of his life he’s missed out on and the family he’s been absent for. His genuine melancholy provides a depth to a character that would ordinarily just be made fun of for being kooky. Still, he’s got some great gallows humor that keeps the movie alive comically while also reminding of the dangers at stake.

The rest of the characters are rather interchangeable or curiously have little impact on the plot, and that unfortunately includes the headlining stars. Hiddleston (Thor) is a big game tracker and he’s the most useless character. Think about that. He’s supposed to be a wildlife expert and a tracker and he provides no real purpose other than he fills out a tight shirt nicely. Hiddleston is eye candy and little else, which is strange considering his skill set should have factored into the plot somehow. He points them in the direction of water and that’s about it. Larson (Room) is a recent Oscar-winner and has tremendous skill burrowing into her characters and finding a raw vulnerability. With Kong, her anti-war photographer gets off a few ideological shots with Jackson, but there’s little to separate her from the other diverse supporting castmates who are just bodies meant to be sacrificed. They’re all waiting to be eliminated in fantastic, gruesome, or unexpected ways. You won’t exactly be shedding a tear for these people when they become monster chow. Fun fact: ⅔ of the core cast of Straight Outta Compton are here (Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell), which apparently shows that Ice Cube isn’t a fan of long travel.

Enjoyably dumb at points and smart enough to know it, Kong: Skull Island is an admirably efficient monster movie that delivers its share of fun. Vogt-Roberts makes a major statement as a visual stylist and director of big-time smash-em-ups. The action is varied, intense, and vividly realized from carefully positioned camera angles and a team of high-class special effects wizards. Kong: Skull Island knows what an audience wants and happily delivers. The actors, for the most part, are enjoyable or enjoyably expendable. If this is the next step in the growing MonsterVerse, then I saw bring on the cataclysms and world-destruction. Friendly tip, stay for a post-credits scene that sets up future installments and try not to pump your fist in excitement. Kong: Skull Island is a boisterous B-movie that can make you feel like a kid again watching the amazing film feats of classic monsters.

Nate’s Grade: B+

High-Rise (2016)

mv5bmjm3mjm4nzmwml5bml5banbnxkftztgwmtq4mjuzode-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_Watching High-Rise left me in an agitated state of bafflement. I was desperately trying to fumble for some kind of larger meaning, or at least some kind of narrative foothold from this indie movie about a high-rise apartment complex where the rich reside at the top and the lower classes below. I was holding onto hope that what came across as messy, incoherent, and juvenile would magically coalesce into some sort of work of satiric value. This hope was lost. Director Ben Wheately’s (Kill List) movie is disdainful to audience demands, disdainful to narrative, disdainful to characters that should be more than vague metaphorical figures against the British class system. The social class commentary is so stupidly simple. At one point, the upper floor rich talk about how they have to throw a better party than the lower floor plebs (slobs versus snobs!). The movie lacks any sort of foundation but just keeps going; I would check how much time was left every fifteen minutes and exclaim, “How is there still more left?!” This is a chore to sit through because it’s so resoundingly repetitive and arbitrary. You could rearrange any ten minutes of the movie and make nary a dent in narrative coherence. There are some striking visuals and weird choices that keep things unpredictable; it’s just that I stopped caring far too early for anything to have mattered. Tom Hiddelston plays a doctor in the building and becomes the intermediary between the oblivious rich and the rabble rousing and vengeful poor. I can’t tell you why anything happens in this movie. I can’t say why the characters do what they do, why the events happen, why anything. It’s all just weightless materials for Wheatley’s empty impressionistic canvas. As society breaks down, things get violent and yet the movie is still boring. I was hoping for something along the lines of Snowpiercer but I got more of a pulpy Terence Mallick spiral of self-indulgent nothingness. High-Rise is a highly irritating and exasperating movie and I know it’s destined to be a future favorite of the pretentious. If anyone says it’s one of his or her favorite movies of all time, please kindly walk in the other direction as fast as you are able and then tell an adult.

Nate’s Grade: D

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

105636_galLoosely based off the Norse mythology, Marvel’s hammer-wielding hero isn’t exactly the easiest character to relate to even as a superhero. Thor is a god after all. Not to be outdone, the man is also royalty, next in line to be king, so he’s in a special class of privilege. And yet 2011’s Thor was a pleasant surprise, a superhero movie that didn’t take itself too seriously, had modest aims, and embraced its sci-fi fantasy mélange. It was a movie where the sillier it got the better it worked. Now Thor: The Dark World, a.k.a. Thor 2, is ready to dominate the fall box-office and prove that Joe and Jane Popcorn can cheer for a pagan god.

Following the events of The Avengers, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is taken back to his home world of Asgard and put in prison. Loki’s brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), is trying to get back to Earth to reunite with his love, scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Thor is being groomed for the throne of Asgard by his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Meanwhile, the nine worlds are nearing a convergence and dimensional gateways are opening, including one that infects Jane with an ancient biological weapon, the aether. The aether was used as a weapon by the dark elves, a race of creatures that was long ago defeated but its general, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), has been dormant and in hiding. Alterted, he assembles his surviving army to attack Asgard, kidnap Jane Foster, retrieve the aether, and destroy all life in the universe.

109997_galThor is still a second tier character when it comes to Marvel superheroes (the guy just isn’t that interesting) but his franchise has, in only two starring films, become the most interesting. The scope of the Thor movies seems infinite. Whereas the other Marvel heroes are Earthbound and straightforward, Thor transports an audience to all sorts of alien worlds/cultures/conflicts, all of which open up more tantalizing storytelling avenues. Nothing seems out of place in a setting such as this, and so the surprises are more satisfying. I thought the best parts of 2011’s Thor were the Asgard moments, less the strained fish-out-of-water comedy of Thor assimilating on Earth. Thankfully, almost all of Thor 2 takes place off Earth save for a rousing, creative, inter-dimensional hopscotch of a climax. The realm of Asgard is given suitable scope thanks to the screenwriters and first-time feature film director Alan Taylor, who worked in TV for years. Taylor’s notable work on HBO’s Game of Thrones is probably what got him this gig, and his vision with fantasy is given significant breadth here. The Thor universe is an interesting mix of fantasy and sci-fi, reminiscent of Star Wars, and Taylor provides the necessary sweeping visuals, exciting action, and glorious shirtless close-ups we come to expect from our fantasy vistas. I was consistently impressed with Taylor’s command of visuals and shot selection, particularly how the man was able to juggle the various tones and needs of the script while still keeping an exposition-heavy film fun and light.

With rainbow bridges, dark elves, and enchanted hammers, thank goodness that Thor 2 keeps a steady and welcome sense of humor, never getting too serious even with the end of existence on the line. This jovial tone is refreshing when properly executed and contributes to the overall fun of the picture. We’ve had such sturm und drang when it comes to our superhero movies, particularly last summer’s Man of Steel misfire. I appreciate a dark and gloomy superhero tale like Nolan’s Batman films, or a satirical swipe like the original Kick-Ass, but we need stories that fit with their tone. When it comes to Thor, he’s still saving the world, rescuing his damsel, but the attitude, while on its face regal and serious, is anything but. The Thor movies accept the absurdities of its setting and just shrugs, plowing along. And now with Jane on Asgard, the fish-out-of-water comedy gets a different perspective. She gets to meet Thor’s parents (awkward) and an Asgardian who has a thing for the hunky Norseman (double awkward… I’ll stop the 90s catch phrases now). Thor 2 also gives Jane Foster much more to do, placing her front and center as a person integral to the stability of the universe. During the snazzy climax, she gets to run around and contribute in a meaningful manner. The there’s the plucky Kat Dennings (TV’s 2 Broke Girls) who gets to rattle off one-liners like a pro, many of them grounding the elevated levels of silliness. Much of the humor comes from the cocksure characters and their quips, particularly Loki.

And that’s as good as any place to interject my notion that Thor isn’t truly the main character in this film, despite what the title preceding the colon may lead you to believe. That honor goes to Loki, the greatest villain in any modern Marvel movie by far. He’s got the clearest arc in the movie, going through arguably the most personal pain, coming to a crossroads, and his conclusion certainly sets up sizable ramifications down the road for the presumptive Thor 3. Played by Hiddleston (War Horse), the character draws you in, even when he’s throwing his self-aggrandized temper tantrums you want to spend more time with him. He’s far and away the most developed and interesting character onscreen, and Hiddleston has such a gleeful malevolence to him that makes the character all the more electric and unpredictable. Thor 2 is really the story of Loki coming to terms with his life’s choices, the choices his adopted parents made, his sense of self and birthright, and moving forward, becoming his own man again. This is why Thor 2 ascends another entertainment rung by tying Loki into the main story, forcing him and Thor to work together against a common enemy.

106046_galIn a film dominated by a charismatic Loki, it’s no wonder that Thor 2’s real bad guy falls woefully short. Malekith is a confusing and altogether lackluster antagonist in every conceivable way. He has no personality to him; he’s simple-minded with the goal of eradicating the universe. I don’t know about you, but my bad guys better have a pretty good reason for destroying the universe since they kinda live there too. This is one of the lazier villain plot devices because it has no nuance, no shading. Apparently before there was a universe there were dark elves. I don’t want to get caught in a chicken-egg paradox here, but was there a universe before the universe, cause I look at the universe like existence’s garage. The cars inside may change but the garage was standing before it all. Anyway, Malekith wants to destroy all life because he wants to, because certainly you’d think there would be enough space in space. He’s not even that threatening or given any particular advantage beyond some firepower. It’s no wonder that Loki runs circles around this chump in the villain department. Eccleston (Unfinished Song) is not at fault. The heavy makeup he’s under smothers the actor’s ability to polish this terrible character.

The rest of the acting fares better. At this point, we know what we’re getting with Hemsworth (Snow White and the Huntsman) as the title character. He’s a sturdy leading man with just enough appeal to satisfy, though part of it is that Thor is just dull as a hero. He was more entertaining when he was cocky and irresponsible. Portman (Black Swan) holds her own though the romance between her and Thor feels more forced. Hopkins (Red 2) strikes the right mix between regal and camp. While their roles aren’t exactly integral, it’s nice having a superhero movie stuffed with great actors like Idris Elba, Ray Stevenson, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Clive Russell, and there’s even an amusing appearance by Chris O’Dowd, who effortlessly oozes charm (take note, Thor).

This a superhero movie that separates itself by its sheer sense of fun. Thor: The Dark World takes what worked in the previous movie and provides more of it. The campy, silly Asgard stuff is given even more time, the mischievous sense of humor is renewed, the fantasy worlds given more depth and better action/effects, and fan favorite Loki gets a big starring role this time with extra brotherly bickering. It’s not the best superhero movie, nor is it the best Marvel film of recent years, but Thor 2 knows what kind of movie it wishes to be and how to best achieve this. It’s a loopy, droll, and rather imaginative big-budget superhero film, while still finding ways to be somewhat generic with its overall plotting and character turns. While the action is suitably epic, it’s the character interactions that are the most enjoyable aspect. It seems excessively lazy to say that if you enjoyed the first Thor, you’ll probably enjoy the second one as well, but there it is. Perhaps next time the storyline won’t be as convoluted and we can get even more Loki. Barring that, I’ll accept additional Chris O’Dowd screen time.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Avengers (2012)

For the past four years, Marvel has been seeding its all-star super hero collective in the storylines of its summer blockbusters. And with six super heroes, The Avengers carries some super expectations. The creative mind behind the film is none other than Joss Whedon, best known for creating and shepherding cult TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly. Not exactly the first name you’d think Marvel would assemble to front a $200 million movie. For geeks, Whedon has become a reliable standard of quality (the patchy TV show Dollhouse notwithstanding). Here is a man who can marry big ideas with sharp characterization and delightfully skewed dialogue. In Whedon, geek nation has a savior, and Marvel knew this. The Avengers is 142 minutes of geek arousal stretched to orgasmic heights.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), head of the agency S.H.I.E.L.D., has a dire need for Earth’s mightiest heroes. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has traveled through a portal and plans on conquering Earth thanks to an approaching alien army. Fury has tasked Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) a.k.a. Iron Man, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) a.k.a. Captain America, and special agent Natasha “Black Widow” Romanof (Scarlett Johansson) with stopping Loki and rescuing one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own agents, the skilled marksman Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner), who is under Loki’s devious mind control. Loki’s brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), would like to cite jurisdiction and bring his wicked brother back to his home world. The only person who may be able to locate Loki’s path is Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a guy with his own anger issues. With this many egos, it’s bound to get dicey. As Banner puts it, “We’re not a team. We’re a time bomb.” Can they put aside their differences to unite to save the Earth? Does a Hulk smash?

Whedon, the king of clever genre deconstruction last seen in the excellent meta-horror film Cabin in the Woods, plays it relatively straight, giving his big, effects-driven film a straight-laced sense of sincerity. It’s not making fun of these sort of big-budget, effects-driven smash-em-ups, it just wants to deliver the biggest smash-em-up yet. To that end, The Avengers achieves maximum smashitude (trademark pending). By its rousing finish, the movie has become so massively entertaining that you forget the draggy first half. The scope of this thing is just massive. The last thirty minutes is solid action across miles of crumbling, just-asking-to-be-exploded city landscape. But the trick that Whedon pulls off is how to orchestrate action on a monumental scale without losing sight of scale, pacing, and character. You’d think with a full deck of superheroes that somebody would be shortchanged when it came time for the rough and tumble stuff. Not so. Instead of fighting one another, the prospective Avengers work together in all sorts of combinations. The characters are well integrated into the fracas, making particular use of their abilities, and finding new locations of focus every few minutes. This expert hero shuffling keeps things feeling fresh amidst the constant din of chaos.

In fact, the movie finds time to give every hero his or her due, finding a small moment to reveal some characterization. I thought Whedon’s biggest challenge was going to be the juggling act of balancing so many heroes and so much screen time, but the man found a way, like he regularly does, to squeeze in character with ensemble action. The Hulk fares the best. After two movies, it feels like Whedon has finally nailed the character; granted, this success may be credited to the fact that Bruce Banner (all hail Ruffalo) is kept as a supporting character. The struggle of the character being likened to a recovering addict is a smart way to present the character without getting too morose (I enjoyed the revelation that the “Hulk” half prevented Banner from killing himself). When he’s told his mission is to smash, you can feel the exuberant joy of an unleashed Hulk id. The Hulk had two great audience-applause moments that made my theater go berserk. I also really liked the attention given to Black Widow and her lonely back-story. Hawkeye was a complete badass, though he only gets to do fun stuff in the madcap finale. The trouble with the hero team-up franchises is that not everyone’s on the same level of power. Thor is a god for crying out loud, Iron Man has super weapons, Hulk is Hulk, Captain America at least has superhuman strength but what do Hawkeye and Black Widow bring to the team? When you’re competing with all that power, being good with guns or a bow seems pretty puny. And with Hawkeye, there’s going to be a limit to his effectiveness unless he has a magic bag of replenishing arrows. Still, Whedon finds ways to make the heroes badass and humane in equal measure, and surprisingly funny, which is welcomed.

It’s hard to believe that Whedon had only directed one feature film before (2005’s Serenity, based upon Whedon’s canceled Firefly show) being given the keys to the Marvel universe. He’s directed several TV episodes of his signature shows but the man has never produced anything on this scale before. Given a gigantic canvas, Whedon delivers the goods. His action sequences are rollicking and fun and, best of all, shot and edited in a fashion where you can understand what is happening (take some notes, Hunger Games franchise). The action is well choreographed and elevated with organic complications and particular attention paid to location, like the Nicky Fury airship. Whedon is a master of the plot payoff, setting up his elements and then piloting the narrative to satisfying conclusions and integrations (Cabin in the Woods is also a pristine example of this gift). If you’re going to introduce an airship, you better believe that sucker is going to threaten to crash. I’m glad that Loki was brought back as he was the best Marvel big screen baddie yet, though I’m disappointed they essentially put him on ice for an hour.

The technical elements are ably polished even for this kind of film. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey (Atonement) is terrific, utilizing bright color in a way that the visuals pop. The special effects are top-notch and you just feel immersed into the action. The destruction is cataclysmic but rarely does the movie feel phony. I was impressed by the Hulk designs and the sequences in inky space with our alien adversaries. For that matter, are these aliens robots? It’s unclear whether the giant flying centipede-like ships are creatures. The 3D conversion is one of the better outings due to the fact that it doesn’t keep throwing stuff in your face. Plus, viewing Johansson’s leather-clad assets in 3D certainly has its own appeal, as does Gwyneth Paltrow in jean shorts. Hey How I Met Your Mother fans, Cobie Smulders looks practically smoldering in her S.H.I.E.L.D. agent outfit too. Okay, I swear I’m done with the female objectification.

I hesitate calling The Avengers the greatest super hero/comic book movie of all time, as the teaming hordes of Internet fanboys foaming at the mouth are wont to do. If your definition of a comic book movie is a giant sandbox with all the coolest toys, then this is your film. This is a comic book turned flesh. The Hulk and Thor fight and prove who is the strongest Marvel man, that’s got to be a geek’s wish come true. Many of the infighting sequences felt like, servicing the tastes of the fanboys, and after a while the constant hero on hero action felt tiresome. I get that we have a clash of egos going on here, but the movie suffers from a lack of narrative cohesion, by which I mean that the first hour of the movie feels like a series of guest appearances by heroes on loan. The movie doesn’t fully come together until the point where the team comes together; I doubt Whedon intended that symbiotic relationship. The movie feels more like a patchwork of standout scenes and memorable moments that a fully formed and cohesive story. If you haven’t seen the previous four Marvel movies (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America), you’ll be pretty hard-pressed to follow the story. Loki’s motivation and plan seems rather sketchy other than causing discord amongst the heroic ranks. His powers seem inconsistent and vague. Also I found the musical score by Alan Silvestri to be bland and unworthy.

The Avengers is sure to be geek nirvana for many of the comic book faithful. It’s an audience pleaser of mass scale, and I’m sure that your theater will be cheering in abundance. Whedon has pulled off the near impossible. The movie is a thoroughly entertaining, exciting, and witty popcorn spectacle of the first order. But where the movie hits the ceiling, at least for me, is that it ONLY wants to be the best super hero movie and this seems like limited ambitions. It’s like making the very best possible women in prison movie (great, but is this really all you set your sights on?). I had a great time watching Whedon’s handiwork but I wish it mined the outsized territory for bigger themes, a little more than audience-satisfying pyrotechnics, something I feel that X-Men: First Class did a better job of handling. Don’t get me wrong, I greatly enjoyed The Avengers and it’s a fantastic start to the summer movie season, but by no means is it The Dark Knight or even aspiring to be, and that’s okay. Enjoy the busy escapades of Marvel’s next smash franchise. Who knows when they’ll be able to wrangle everyone together for another adventure, but judging by the sounds of ringing cash registers, the answer is sooner than we think.

Nate’s Grade: B+

War Horse (2011)

Steven Spielberg and war seem like a dynamite combination. The popular director puts away his childish things and becomes a much more mature, thoughtful artist, with the obvious exception of 1979’s 1941. War Horse is the adaptation of a children’s book-turned-Tony-Award-winning play, where the title star was brought to life on stage via skilled puppeteers. And lo, did people weep for that puppet horse on stage, and lo will they likely weep for the flesh-and-blood version on the big screen. However, I’d hardly call this movie a mature examination on the horrors of World War I. It’s more of a touchy-feely, stodgy, vignette-heavy drama that brings out the worst in Spielberg’s sentimental side.

We’re introduced to our young horse early on, where young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) spies the colt and forms an instant bond. Albert’s father Ted (Peter Mullen) buys the horse on a whim, even though the family could really use a plow horse. Albert names the horse Joey and is determined to prove everybody wrong who doubts the both of them. Together they indeed plow that rocky field and Albert’s family keeps their farm. Then World War I breaks out across Europe and the family ends up losing the horse. Joey is confiscated by the English cavalry and goes on a fantastic journey, switching sides over the course of the war (and allegiances?). Albert enlists in the military so that he can find his long-lost horse. I guess they’ll be no “Dear John” letter when your beloved only has hooves.

War Horse is a throwback to old-fashioned Hollywood epics. It’s like John Ford took control of this movie from beyond the grave (note to self: premise for a supernatural comedy). My theater was filled to the rafters with old people. It was like the nursing home emptied out for the Greatest generation’s couples night. It’s easy to see why the movie would appeal to such an older crowd. It’s a simple story told with its emotions squarely on its sleeve like a badge of honor (mixed metaphors!). It’s so unflappably earnest and sentimental that it can occasionally fall into cornball territory. There’s the greedy landlord who wants to kick the poor family off their farm. Being a Spielberg movie, no expense is spared in milking as many emotions as possible. Spielberg demands tears and you will deliver them, or so help him. It’s all about Joey the horse prancing through people’s lives, touching hearts, bringing enemies together. The movie is primed for mass (older) audience appeal; for God’s sake there is a sassy goose that Spielberg can’t help himself but continue to include. Sassy goose equals money in the bank. This is the only movie I can imagine where plowing is treated as a point of dramatic catharsis. Suffice to say, War Horse is a stodgy war drama that won’t offend anyone with delicate sensibilities.

I wasn’t expecting War Horse to be the equine version of The Red Violin (if you unfamiliar with the masterful 1999 film The Red Violin, go see it immediately instead of watching this flick). We see the horrors of war through a series of vignettes as Joey passes from owner to owner, each befalling some unfortunate fate, though I don’t think the horse is to blame (or is he…?). The vignettes run about 15-20 minutes or so apiece and because the one constant is the horse, that means we have to feature characters talking out loud explaining everything they do and feel. The horse just kind of takes in everyone’s secrets, probably wishing these people would stop their yapping. The characters are drawn rather broad so we get the German brothers who desert their posts, a French girl wanting to learn to ride a horse, and a noble English cavalry marshal, amongst others. It’s hard to get attached to such disposable characters that fail to leave a modest dent. I thought maybe all these characters would converge in the end for an emotional climax, but then I remembered that many of them were dead, so nope. It’s a strange screenwriting shortcoming when the most engaging character for most of the movie is on four legs and never says a word.

It’s hard not to emote when Spielberg lathers on the sentimentality with aplomb. But if you took away John Williams’ earnest score, Spielberg’s sappy staging, and all those close-ups of animals, would you feel anything for this story or these characters; would you feel anything without all the reminders to feel? I doubt it. Don’t count me heartless, for I’ll have you know I bawled like a baby who just watched another baby hit with a shovel at Marley & Me, but does the life of one horse matter so much more than the millions of lives lost at war? We watch all those boys, many not old enough to be called men, run into the unforgiving gauntlet of war, but someone the life of one horse is supposed to outweigh the countless death. I understand a tight narrative focus so that large, unfathomable horrors can feel personable and better felt. Shindler’s List is that kind of movie. War Horse is not. This isn’t even Black Beauty or National Velvet. One of the English soldiers chides the sobbing Albert with a sharp quip: “It’s not a dog, boy, it’s just a horse.” I felt sad when the horse was in danger; I’m not a heartless bastard.

And oh does this horse seem to be Spielberg’s symbol of purity, mankind’s ultimate accomplishment, or, you know, something Big and Important. At one point, Joey gets tangled in a mess of barbed wire and the English and Germans all come to some sort of uneasy truce to work together to free this beautiful animal (if only more hapless horses had gotten lost in No Man’s Land maybe the war would’ve been over sooner – now I sound heartless). The horse is supposed to represent some messianic cost of war, where we destroy nature, turning majestic creatures into weapons of war, etc. I don’t really know what the message/symbolism is striving for but it’s constantly grappling, looking for a suitable sticking point. Honestly, if Joey was supposed to represent purity, goodness, nature, then that filly needed to get turned into glue by film’s end (spoiler alert). I erroneously predicted War Horse to be the “Marley & Me of war pictures.” The horse lives, rejoice America. Never mind the millions of people who died horribly. You can’t have a messianic symbol without martyrdom. If Spielberg wants to drive home the loss of innocence that many underwent thanks to the War to End All Wars (oh, if only), then the horse, a symbol of innocence and nature, needed to die at the machines of war. Otherwise the movie becomes an episodic journey of a single horse, an equine Forrest Gump. I can’t imagine that’s what Spielberg had in mind. I envisioned an M. Night Shyamalan-esque ending wherein the horse does eventually die, get turned into glue, and that glue is sued to construct a bomber plane for World War II. That plane? The Enola Gay. Cut to end credits. War Horse!

This movie has deteriorate in my mind the more I think back, picking away its cornball earnestness and stodgy sensibilities. When the horse is your greatest character then your war drama has some problems. War Horse is not a bad movie by most counts. It looks swell, the emotions are big, and hey horses are pretty aren’t they? But for any discerning moviegoer looking for a strong narrative, incisive commentary on the war, or even moderately appealing characters, well I hope you like looking at horses.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Midnight in Paris (2011)

Woody Allen hasn’t been this light-footed in a long time. Midnight in Paris is an effervescently charming film that flirts with overt sentimentality. But before you think Allen goes all gooey, the fatalist in him pulls back for some wisdom about the folly of nostalgia. Allen’s nebbish stand-in this time is Owen Wilson, assuredly better looking but on the same neurotic wavelength of his director. Wilson is a disgruntled Hollywood screenwriter visiting the City of Lights with his shrewish fiancé (Rachel McAdams) and her upper-class parents. One night a mysterious taxicab picks him up shortly after midnight. Wilson is transported back in time to his favorite era, 1920s Paris. He gets to rub elbows with literary and artistic giants, like Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Ernest Hemmingway (Corey Stoll), Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), and others. He even falls for a lovely lady (Marion Cotillard) from that time period who served as a muse for several artists. Midnight in Paris is a far more enjoyable experience if you have a modicum of education in the humanities. Identifying the artists of old, albeit exaggerated cartoon versions of themselves, is part of the fun, fantasizing about interacting with the greats. But Allen is also playful with his storytelling, and for a while Midnight in Paris becomes a highly refined cross-time romance (think The Lake House written by Tom Stoppard). Midnight in Paris has been catching on with audiences, becoming Allen’s biggest hit in 25 years, and it’s easy to see why. It’s whimsical while being literate and romantic without being corny.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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