Thor Ragnarok (****) a well-placed step towards the inevitable

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Thor: Ragnarok – 2017

Director Taika Waititi
Screenplay Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost
Starring  Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins

I feel bad for Chris Hemsworth. By the time most of us knew he was funny, we already had seen Guardians of the Galaxy. Now, several years and another Guardians sequel later, we get a humorous movie that’s energy feels borrowed as much as anything.

Thor: Ragnarok is a very good film. It’s got more spectacle than the other two films in the sub series. It’s got more character and it’s much more enjoyable. Sad truth is both Thor films are the least likely to be viewed by most fans because outside of Hiddleston, there isn’t much more to enjoy for those films. Whatever charisma Thor is granted is more than undone by Natalie Portman’s wooden acting. This time, there is nothing holding back the God of Thunder. Except for maybe that thing they have attached to his neck.

After discovering the true location of his father, Thor finds that he is near the end of his life. What’s worse, he drops some info about Thor’s unknown older sister, Hela. Hela (Blanchett) is bad, of course, and powerful as hell. She once had her father’s favor, until her ambition outweighed that of Odin (Hopkins). Then he gave her the Zod treatment.

Hela breaks out and quickly dispatches Thor and Loki into an oblivion called Sakaar which is the home to one of the Elders of the Universe,, The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Anyone who doesn’t know who he is pitted against here, hasn’t looked at any promotional materials for this film.

The best part of this film is the humor, but if it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, they’ve certainly tried here. So frequent are the jokes, there feel to be no stakes. Perhaps if they’d laid the groundwork at all in either of the previous two entries, it wouldn’t feel so out-of-place. All of the sudden, we have the guy who never gets it, leading with the jokes.

The stakes of this film are pretty high, though. We’re on the cusp of Infinity War, and actions in and around this film look to be contributing directly to its inception. There are several significant losses in this chapter. While no one seems to have time to even ponder the significance of their departures, there are plenty of opportunities for yuks.

These laughs are pretty damn good, though. I can’t thank Marvel enough for letting Jeff Goldblum in the door. His contributions alone are worth more than any of the myriad effects. There is nothing better than seeing him barely scrape the surface of an incredibly powerful character and just make it seem like he’s out for a never-ending good time.

Hemsworth is very good, and his ever developing chemistry with Hiddleston is fun to experience. Knowing that he could have been this same funny guy 2 Thor films ago makes it just q little weird now, but oh well.

Blanchett takes the same doomed baddie and puts her incredible beauty behind it. She seems right at home in this universe and they leave enough ambiguity to make one realize she could be called on later by someone who is in love with The Goddess of Death.

Loki (Hiddleston) is delightful and they give him a variety of things to fail at, until he fights on the right side. Elba is finally given something to do, and he looks gorgeous while doing it.

Mark Ruffalo is here and he spends much of his time outside of Hulk looking perplexed. It fits the theme of someone who was stuck inside the green giant for over two years. Tessa Thompson, as Valkyrie is fine as the lynch pin required to move all of the cosmic tumblers into place. She handles her role with a surprising amount of casual grace.

Waititi is a pleasant enough choice for this film. He adds a gloriously distracting color palette along with a memorable character Korg, who has several of the film’s best lines with a beautiful delivery. His addition of Rachel House as The Grandmaster’s bodyguard doesn’t work for me, if for no other reason than it’s the same annoying character House played in The Hunt for the Wilder People. I am pretty sure I am in the minority of people who found that film a tad overrated. I really can’t tell you anything technical he might have added to the film, because by now that stuff is pretty much handled by the Marvel house. They brought him in for the humor and that’s what they got.

In all, this is a fun film that is as good as one could expect coming from one of the heretofore most boring parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If it feels a bit underdone, it’s because it still follows the formula of megalomaniac who almost has it all until she doesn’t. Marvel has done a great job making their formula interesting, even if the characters (outside of Steve Rogers) evolve at a snail’s pace. If the Marvel movie formula is still stuck in the mode of dragging these characters in and never quite letting them go, well, one can understand why. It’s comic books, man.

The thing that holds Thor back, like with many of their characters, is that nothing really drags him down and out once The Immigrant Song begins to play.

(**** out of *****)

 

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The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (***1/2) – So it ends…

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The Hobbit – The Battle of Five Armies

Director Peter Jackson
Starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Orlando Bloom, Aidan Turner, Billy Connolly, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm
Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro based on the book The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

Around the time that George Lucas was putting out his joyless prequels, Peter Jackson started us out on a joyful quest with The Lord of The Rings. Each of the films burst at the seams with character, brilliant animation and a concise screenplay. Changes were made here and there, things were cut out for reasons of streamlining the story. There were some outlandish moments, like when Legolas took a ride on an Oliphant, but overall, the films paid almost as much attention to gravity as it did the source material.

Now, at the end of Peter Jackson’s joyless prequel trilogy, the quest feels more like a financial obligation. We’ve committed the funds to see the first two, might as well see the last one and get it over with.

The first two films have been a progression steadily downward. The weight of added characters and story lines to push one book to two, then eventually three films have made the enterprise of a delightful story into a bloated animated collection of wholly unrealistic scenes that barely connect to one another, much less to anything of the universe Jackson created in the first film series.

Luckily there is not much more he can do to Middle Earth. The story that is left to tell leaves little room for embellishment. In short, they have to slay a dragon, argue about the spoils of a Dwarf Kingdom and then fight a big battle. We also have the Jackson story lines: inter-racial lovebirds Kili and Tauriel (Turner and Lilly) and the rebirth of Sauron. He has no more need to add more baggage. At 144 minutes, it feels like a sort of parole for the viewer as compared to the first two that came out over 161 minutes each.

Story execution is mixed. The death of Smaug (Cumberbatch) is mercifully brief. There is a lot of scrambling by the townsfolk and the remaining dwarves and then there is one of those monologues that lasts just long enough for Bard (Evans) to get off a clean shot. The interplay between Bard and his son works well here and pays off in multiple ways.

Back to the Lonely Mountain, we discover that Thorin (Armitage) has been afflicted with dragon sickness, making him doubt everyone around him and ramps the greed up to 11. It is easy to extend the idea of dragon sickness to Jackson. Viewers don’t need to make too big a leap to see themselves in the position of his Dwarf companions; struggling between the loyalty to the master who leads them to the promised land, and incredibly uncomfortable and bored with him now that they are forced to live there.

Thorin really wants the Arkenstone, and Bilbo (Freeman) has it. After negotiations go sour with the people of Laketown and Thranduil’s Elves due to King Thorin’s spiraling madness, Bilbo gives the Arkenstone to Bard. This goes nowhere too.

Thankfully, at Dol Guldur, Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman (Blanchett, Weaving and Lee) arrive to rescue Gandalf (McKellen) from Sauron and the Nazgul. This scene is new to the book’s story, but it fits well within the sequence of events. It’s a nicely played resolution to the subplot as well.

Back at the battlefields below The Lonely Mountain, as the battle is about to start between the Elves, Men and the newly reinforced Dwarf army led by Thorin’s cousin Dain (Connolly), the orcs surprise them and begin to attack from two sides, splitting the newly joined 3 forces.

From here, Jackson just lets loose. Some of his better sequences, along with some of his worst take place within the ravages of the battle. The original is kind of a free for all, so for this viewer, it is fine if Jackson wants to add some structure to it. Attempting to inject some levity and tension throughout, we see some really neat things. In particular, Thorin’s battle with Azog and Bolg’s battle with Kili. Unfortunately, both of the battles go on too long and become convoluted.

Convoluted is the best word to describe Legolas’ continued fight with Bolg. It goes on forever and defies any sense of physical space whatsoever.

One of the best scenes from the original trilogy is the battle with the giant ogre within the Mines of Moria. That scene set up the foundation for much of what is to follow. The best thing about it is seeing how incredibly hard it was to take just one of those things. Then to see many of them falling over in unison with phantom punches is disturbingly sad and indicative of a “let’s get it over with” type of laziness.

The singular scene that stands out as a plus with an ogre is when assaulting the city next to the Lonely Mountain. As the troops of orcs run towards the wall, one ogre bearing a large helmet of rock attached to his head runs directly into a wall and breaks through. Immediately he bounces back from the blow, stands for a second and then falls back, out cold.

The pacing of the majority of the film is uneven. So much is going on, it’s impossible to figure out whether it’s momentum or kinetic confusion that the viewer is witnessing. Even so, this film is definitely the best of a bad second lot. Given that the first series is nearly perfect, this one doesn’t even belong in the same conversation.

(***1/2 out of *****)

How To Train Your Dragon 2 (****1/2) continues a progression of wonderful characters

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How To Train Your Dragon 2 – 2014

Writer & Director Dean DeBlois
Starring Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, Djimon Hounsou, Kit Harington
Screenplay based on How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell

There was a real concern when How To Train Your Dragon was followed by a television series.  So much talent was present for the movie, with such a dazzling array of characters both human and dragon, that it seemed a shame to have all of that energy wasted on a weekly show.  My fears were abated about 2 minutes into the 2nd foray in the world of Hiccup (Baruchel) and Toothless.  The colors are crisp, the village is beautiful, the sheep have targets painted on them, and the dragons…oh the dragons.

One of the biggest draws to the original film is the incredible tapestry of color and personality with the dragons of Berk.  Most especially, Toothless.  He is a simple, black Night Fury, but he is so much more than that.  The short version is that he looks like my wife’s old cat, right down to the color of his eyes and the way he loves on his buddy.  Nowhere is this more in evidence than their first scene together, to the delightful Jonsi tune “Where No One Goes.”  The sequence shows the tightness of their bond, but ever so quietly shows that they have some more growing to do.  Do they ever.

Soon after this flight, Hiccup and his betrothed Astrid (Ferrera) stumble across a dragon trapper named Eret (Harrington) who has a master Drago (Hounsou) who is building a dragon army in what amounts to a contradictory way.  Before this, he comes across his mother Valka (Blanchett), who has worked on her own collection of dragons.

All of this adventure is brought on by Hiccup’s reaction to his father.  While at first his father Stoic the Vast (Butler) was his biggest doubter, now he is his biggest advocate.  Once more, though, his father is pushing ahead in a way that forces his son to find alternatives.  His dad wants Hiccup to prepare to be chieftain, and he’s afraid of confrontation with Drago, and his mind can’t be changed, of course.  Neither can Valka, Eret or Drago’s mind be changed from simple misunderstanding of the nature of dragon.

That leads Hiccup to search for alternatives, which pushes the plot forward to its obvious clash.  Despite this simple premise, DeBlois continues to aim higher with his characters than we have a right to expect with the usual animated fare.  Sure there has to be a lack of understanding for the characters to grow.  It would be a wast of vikings and dragons to not have some epic battles.  Somehow DeBlois manages to shoehorn wisdom through the cracks and crevices of the usual family friendly plot.

There are some neat turns with the characters, such as Stoic’s reaction to finding his wife and her explanation to why she’s been gone all of this time.  The turning of Eret is playful and works within the framework of the plot, giving someone who can turn a friendly card, rather than another ridiculous joker of an antagonist to be dispatched 2nd to last.  Drago is scary enough on his own to offer the proper menace for this story.  And that scream, oh goodness, so menacing.

As before, the writing, cinematography and animation is beyond compare.  The dragons are beautiful, menacing, playful and innocent all at once.  Most importantly, they are characters in their own right, without ever saying a word.  Hiccup is bigger, wiser and still his eyes are yearning.  The balance of his friends have less to do, but Hiccup’s experiences are not lost on either of his parents.  Sadly, the economy of characters dictate that only so many new characters can be introduced without taking a few away.

 …Dragon 2 is not as good as it’s predecessor, but it is a worthy companion piece and it provides and excellent bridge to a third film.   All of the principals will return, and with the momentum built, it could amount to something great.

(****1/2 out of *****)

The Monuments Men: Thankful for those with vision

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The Monuments Men – 2014

Director George Clooney
Starring Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bob Balaban, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Hugh Bonneville, Jean Dujardin
Screenplay Grant Heslov and Clooney based on the book by Robert M. Edsel

Monuments Men tells the story of those who paid attention in the midst of a war.  So many people displaced, wounded and killed would be enough to set civilization back hundreds of years.  If we’d lost all the artwork that Hitler had his eye on, who knows how far back we would be as people.  George Clooney knows and appreciates the efforts made bu some non-traditional soldiers who left the comfort of their lives behind and undertook the effort of tracking down the works and, if possible, rescuing them.

The story is one of those “mostly true” accounts where a bunch of likeable actors go through the motions, show up in a few places of historical significance, sacrifice a few people at the end of the credits (bye-bye, Bonneville, and welcome to the rest of your American film career, Dujardin) and then with a heavy heart, the rest of the team accomplishes its mission in the nick of time.

If it sounds like I am slighting a major subject, I don’t mean to.  I am happy for the effort Clooney and his team put into bringing this key story to light.  Due to their efforts, I will now read the book that the movie is based on.  The limits to what one gets from a movie like this is everything one can get in an hour and a half.  The vision of Clooney as a director is minimal, but there are some pleasant touches, including a cameo with his dad towards the end of the movie.

If you are here for the actors, only Balaban and Murray have exceptional moments.  For the most part, everyone is willingly absorbed into the story, even if it does not add all anything to the proceedings.

The film is definitely worth the time of those who have a keen interest in humanities.  Some of our better versed artistic historians will enjoy this very much.  For the rest of us, yes, its worth a once through, on the way to the book store to pick up a copy, or just before prayers, so we know who to thank, besides God.

(*** out of *****)

CPE and Em: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Slightly better than expected

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – 2012

Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis, Sylvester McCoy, Manu Bennett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Barry Humpheries, Graham McTavish, Ken Stott
Screenplay Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, Guillermo Del Toro, Jackson

Upon discovering that Peter Jackson were breaking the story into three parts, the wind left the sails in my wish to watch the film’s three parts.  It smelled like greed and lots of fluff.  The Lord of the Rings was bursting out the seams with story parts left on the cutting room floor. For each line of dialog that they gave to Liz “Come and claim him” Tyler, one lamented the omission of The House of Tom Bombadil and The Scouring of the Shire.  This time, they took the opposite tactic.  Rummaging through unfinished stories and appendices left over from The Return of the King, Jackson and fellow screenwriters Del Toro, Walsh and Boyens filled out non-existent gaps and provided bulk to a fighting trim story.  The fear was that it would end up feeling like a middleweight champ picking up a beer gut and fighting a heavyweight champ.  A lot of useless weight to gain just to get your butt kicked.

Starting off with an older Bilbo (Holm, carried over from LOTR) narrating a story about the dwarf kingdom located in what would eventually become Lonely Mountain, we are eventually led into the classic opening line of The Hobbit.  From here we move swiftly through the recruitment the unexpected party.  The dwarves are presented in a mixed bag,  Some look comically unreal while others look decent.  Whoever’s decision it was to give each a different ridiculous hairstyle erred in the same way George Lucas did when he tried to make different looking Ewoks.  There is a certain look that just doesn’t lend itself to action figures.

Jackson does manage to push through the introductions and the mess of Bag End with a nod to the inherent silliness of the source material.  Soon as they are on the road, we get some more background from the rest of Middle Earth, allowing the inexperienced viewer a chance to piece together this story with what is to come.  This includes the revelation of two nemeses who will loom large in time.  We also get a glimpse of Ragadast, who is shown as little more than a drugged out wizard (too many ‘shrooms, according to Lee’s Saruman).  We also see the White Wizard, Elrond (Weaving at his most accessible) and the elegantly beautiful Galadriel (Blanchett, winsome as ever) gathering with Gandalf for a council about one of the looming threats.  Gandalf (the skilful McKellen in a more humble, less enigmatic form) is subservient as he should be.  Problem is, for a man who has so much common sense the rest of the time, it’s astounding to see him bowing to the foolishness spewing forth from Saruman.  To my recollection he actually was a wise leader once.  Yes, the voice is addictive, but the elves sure seemed immune to it.  Why couldn’t one of them called B.S.?

The battles are inter-laced with bits of humor from the source material, and the special effects can be absolutely illuminating (the rock fight and the dwarf kingdom) or depressingly foolish (so many falls from astounding heights).  The whimsy with which Jackson treats his characters gives no attention to things like gravity or balance and instead concentrate on making the action scenes fast and frenetic.  The result counters some of the charm of Martin Freeman’s performance as Bilbo.  While he’s facing his Riddles in the Dark, the rest of them are undergoing the most improbable of escapes.  Just when we are in the most dramatic point in the history of Middle Earth, we are seeing an I Love Lucy skit with the fat Great Goblin and his minions.

This is not to imply that the movie is not without its charm.  The pacing is excellent, and there are few moments that ring as false or out of character, even if the character is slightly more streamlined than the book.  The dwarves, despite their plastered on look, have some depth to their characters when necessary.  Bombur is still a fat idiot, though.  Gandalf does not give you much if you did not already see him in LOTR, but he still has time.

An Unexpected Journey is good enough to start a series.  The padding does not feel like padding.  As thrilling as the prospect of The Desolation of Smaug feels, there is still 6 hours more of this stuff.  This movie helped to assuage some of the fears created watching the bloated corpulent waste that King Kong became.  Watching the shoddy battle scenes produced different concerns.  It was bad enough watching the never-ending falls in 2D, but one can only imagine how annoying it would be in 3D at 48 frames per second.

Hopefully they will take the under performing box office numbers of this first installment as a cue to take a little more time creating mood in the next film, because the battle scenes from There and Back Again loom like a Bombur on a chair with a weak leg.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Em’s Review:

What did you think?

I was really disappointed that the movie did not cover the whole book.  2 Stars.  1 Star.  Actually, 1 and 1/2.

But I told you many times that I was letting you watch it because you’ve read up to the part where the Eagles saved them, and that is where the first movie was supposed to end?  

Nobody told me that there was going to be 3 movies, Dad.  I think they wasted my time.

You’re 10 years old, and you watched the movie intently.  And I am pretty sure that I told you several times it was not the whole book.

If someone goes to the effort of making a movie, I will sit there and watch it.  I am not like Ellie, who will sit there for 3 minutes and walk away.

(Christine) Despite your feelings about not making a movie about the rest of the book, what did you think about what they did do?

I would give it 3 Stars.

I think you will like it better after reading the rest of the book and seeing the next two movies.  

How many more hours will that take?