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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Ghostbusters Answer The Call (***): Hard to shine that penny

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Ghostbusters – 2016

 

Director Paul Feig
Screenplay Katie Dippold and Feig
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Wiig, Neil Casey, Andy Garcia, Cecily Strong

When it comes to evaluating the new Ghostbusters, much is made about the gender of the Ghostbusters. I think this had less to do with the producers than the marketers, who were more than willing to feed the press a narrative that they thought could boost sales. It didn’t. Is sexism involved? To some extent, sure. There is an idiot in every crowd. The biggest problem is that the first trailer they released was misleading, confusing and just plain bad.

The marketers had not seen the film and thought it was a sequel. From the moment that mistake hit the air, this honest attempt to update one of the most beloved comedies was behind the 8 ball. The subsequent attempts to turn the occasional trolls into some organized movement against women just turned into a “scaring the straights” void of people who want a comedy. The result is merely those feeling obligated to like it or else or those who would never like it no matter how good it was.

To be honest, I am just glad that Dan Akroyd didn’t get to fulfill his vision to force us to watch him on film again. Yes, he along with all of the other Ghostbusters are cameoed in the new film, but his role comes across like a fart in a windstorm.

Once Harold Ramis passed away, my desire to see a new Ghostbusters expired. Murray was a hard sell, but even if he came back as a ghost as rumored, Ramis was the glue that made the formula work.

So Akroyd fades and the idea of a new crew of men fades with him. Next we get girl power. Whatever. It just needs to be funny, and with limited access by the ghost of Akroyd’s faded career. Having stayed away from SNL since Will Ferrell left, I had no opinion of Jones or McKinnon. McCarthy is a talent whose skill for picking material put her in the John Candy zone, for better and mostly worse. Wiig is a rallying cry for many women, kind of like Tina Fey. I don’t get much a vibe from her outside her turn in the Drew Barrymore film Whip It.

In all, there was little baggage carried by the reviewer heading into the film.  Alternatively, thanks to all of the crap marketing and media, there was little desire to watch. I had to get it out of the way, though. So here goes.

First, the bad. There isn’t much in the film that is truly bad. The special effects barfxtraveganza in the last 1/2 hour is the worst, lead by the “destructor” that is chosen. Most of the cleverness is weeded out by this point and really we’re waiting for it all to end.

The worst cameo in the film comes with Bill Murray’s miscasting. It’s hard to buy him as a NY Rex Reed type critic of the paranormal. This is nearly salvaged by his Arthur Denton-like final scene. It’s over quickly, at least.

Now the good. There really isn’t anything in the film that gels completely or even consistently. The bad guy (Casey) is a delightfully creepy choice. His performance is muted by a decision to go for a voice over with awful effects in the last 1/3 of the film.

The best decision of the film is in the filling of roles. Instead of direct replacements for Spengler, Venkman, Stantz, Zeddemore, Melnitz, Barrett and Tully, we have all new personalities. Sometimes they are distinct and sometimes they run over one another. Yates (McCarthy) and Gilbert (Wiig) have lines that could be interchanged, as do Holtzmann (McKinnon) and Beckman (Hemsworth). Only Leslie Jones’ Patty Tolan stands out as an entirely distinct character. Each of the players have some memorable lines, but they all have mostly forgettable dialogue and interactions. The script is adequate, but undercooked.

That the film fails to be better than average is a result of having Feig and Dippold guiding the story along. Both have done great work (Parks and Rec., The Office) when the story can develop over several episodes, but in a movie with multiple characters and cameos thrust to the fore, there is less time to make sense of their awkward mannerisms. Several things hang waiting for a punchline that may be too subtle for a Friday night at the movies.

The cameos range from an inexplicable bust of Ramis at Columbia University, to Murray’s NY Socialite critic, Akroyd’s dumbass cabdriver and Hudson’s business owner. The best is saved for last, though.

The main problem with Ghostbusters: Answer the Call has nothing to do with gender politics. It’s that after all the outside noise, this film is just another mess of average. Wiig is so toned down, she’s almost non-existent. McCarthy is fun most of the time. McKinnon has some great lines and more that are just ridiculous.

Hemsworth is almost identically frustrating. They make him so incredibly dense as to be unbelievable. He walks the line between brilliant (the dance) and absurd (the acid) like a drunk at a wedding. They wanted Moranis with pects, but they got something less.

Jones is really the most consistent thing about the film. Her Patty Tolan is more fleshed out than her obvious predecessor, Zeddemore. She is not a genius, but she’s in no way limited. She has gifts and contributes mightily to the gelling of the story and the team. Her presence is easily worth one star on its own.

Ghostbusters: Answer the Call is similar to every other reboot since the original Magnificent Seven. Get new actors out there, a few new effects and let the camera roll. It’s not women’s lib, it’s a Hollywood tradition.

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

 

In The Heart of the Sea (*1/2) is doldrums

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In The Heart of the Sea – 2015

Director Ron Howard
Screenplay Charles Leavitt based on the book by Nathaniel Philbrick
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Michelle Fairley, Charlotte Riley

Since the time of his over reliance on Dan Brown to keep his directing career afloat, Ron Howard’s films have become incredibly boring. He’s gone back and forth between drawn out historical drama (Cinderella ManFrost/NixonThe Missing) one flashy recent historical film (Rush) and a comedy dud (The Dilemma). It seems the deeper in his career he gets, the more he replaces genuine feeling with sepia tone affected camera angles. This method has never been more in evidence than the In The Heart of the Sea.

The angle of the story of the making of the story has just about played out before this effort. Instead of seeing a master like Melville at work, we get to see a good actor (Whishaw) play a toothless version of him, begging for scraps of a story of an old coot named Nickerson who apparently spent many years catatonically sitting through life when it’s obvious he had to make a living somehow.  In this case the coot is a strangely ineffective Gleeson. The film starts with a needless back and forth where it’s obvious that an understanding has been reached off-screen, only to have the him try to call it off now that Melville made a long journey to hear his story first hand. Why do they play hard to get?  It’s a tease, of course, but a worthless one. We don’t need to know whether the author of Moby Dick is worthy to tell the story. History and the ticket price already proved it so.

Once that batch of foolishness fades for the first time (yes, they go back to that useless well), we see the narrator as a young man (Holland) as the basis for the story begins. This time, the First Mate, Owen Chase (Hemsworth) is expecting his first child and his first command. He gets neither before he is sent on his next mission aboard the vessel Essex. Instead of captaincy, he gets to serve under George Pollard, Jr. (Walker). The relationship between the two is foolishly contentious at first, but a respect grows eventually. This is one of the formulas in the film that works as much for the acting as the script and direction. Walker plays the part of a man gifted by family name well. We see that while he may not be worthy of the role of captain by ability, he certainly has the character to merit the part.

The whaling expedition begins late in the season and situates the crew with the burden of playing catch up. This leads to some poor decisions attributed to Pollard. Once they survive a near total wreck of the vessel, he is convinced by Chase to soldier forward and repair what they can on the way.

It’s at this point the film has its most interesting passage, centered around the killing and complete utility of a sperm whale. There is a mix of revulsion and fascination one feels when seeing the lengths the sailors go to in making use of the beast. It makes one wonder what the world would have been like had we found another way to use the resources we thought we needed from them.

At a stop in Ecuador, Chase and Pollard overhear a Spanish Captain’s story about a white whale that destroyed their ship, killing six men in the process. There would be no story if the two heeded the man’s warning.

The sequence involving the pod of whales that include the inspiration for Moby Dick is – of course – a big selling point of the trailer. It looks absolutely insane and scary as hell. The execution leaves a little to be desired, however. It’s a mish mash of cluttered scenes that while perhaps historically accurate, does not give as much dread as it does inevitability. From here, much was made of the journey of the castaways. It’s choppy and pushes forward without any scenes that grab this viewer. After the deliberation of Unbroken earlier in the year, this just seems like a bad couple of days out in the ocean.

In essence, Howard seems to be hitting spots without taking an adequate enough time to set the mood, outside of the relationship between Pollard and Chase. What we see are a series of events with little to no flow between them. This is likely because there is no real character growth within the ample 121-minute running time. If they had shaved the whole Melville / Old Nickerson story out and just concentrated on the characters in the actual events of the story, this may have turned out differently.

As it stands, the characters outside of those portrayed by Walker and Hemsworth seem almost comical in their devotion to cliché. What the hell happened to Murphy’s Matthew Joy? There is supposed to be some sort of backstory with he and Chase, but it’s so laughably bad, I can scarcely believe he agreed to play the role unless there was some 30 minutes left on the cutting room floor.

That Howard was given $100 million to play with on this film is absurd when one thinks of the final product. So many scenes feel emotionless and computer generated. This could have been made better by any hack director from Stephen Somers to Michael Bay. The end result feels like a true artist that has been marooned since he turned A Beautiful Mind into a beautiful fiction and was foolishly given an Oscar for his efforts.

The thing behind Howard’s best work was never effects, camera angles and overwrought and concocted drama. It has always been about character. From Night Shift, to Splash, to Cocoon, to Parenthood on through his best work, Apollo 13, each story had great characters completely drawn. He doesn’t know how to do that so much anymore. Instead he’s become reliant on little falsehoods woven into each biography meant to tweak Oscar voters, even if it leaves the story out of original territory and makes it just like everything else.

It’d be nice if he could find some way to get himself back into storytelling mode. Something similar to what Reiner has found with low budget gems like Flipped or anything that Jeff Nichols has done. It seems like he thinks he’s reached a status of auteur. These things happen when you make hack commercials for political figures or when you win Oscars for calculated half-truths.

This won’t happen though. He’s on well on his way to making the next Dan Brown movie based on crap theology. The 2nd one made half as much as the 1st, so we should see him make a few more before they realize they don’t make any money anymore. Just like Ron Howard career outside of those films.

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

Vacation (**) is not fun for anyone

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Vacation – 2015

Written and Directed by Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley
Starring  Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Leslie Mann, Beverly D’Angelo, Chris Hemsworth, Chevy Chase

The original Vacation was a work of the upwardly mobile talent of Harold Ramis and John Hughes. It also featured perhaps the last performance of Chevy Chase before it all started going downhill. It’s a classic, even if there were 3 (or was it 4?) subpar sequels with Chase and poor Beverly D’Angelo as the only returning “talent.” Yeah, I know, Christmas Vacation is supposed to be good. It isn’t.

The two recurring actors make another appearance in this attempt at a restarting of the franchise. It’s sad to see Chase reduced to one of his tired routines (the bumbling Gerald Ford), but it’s been sad watching him in anything since Fletch. That’s enough of about Chevy Chase. There are worse things to talk about.

There’s the feces filled hot springs in Arkansas. There’s the stupid European car that is supposed to be a plug in hybrid with two gas tanks and a completely moronic remote that is supposed to run every aspect of it. There is the fight at Walley World. Yeah, they went back to Walley World. There’s the 12 hour flight to Paris. Then there is the line up  at the Four Corners monument. Labored jokes: all of them.

This is not a good film. It’s not a bad film. It’s slightly below average. That is a bad place to be, but the bar is pretty low.  Really, the film can’t help but be better than all of the films post-Ramis and Hughes. There are enough guest cameos to qualify it as a Muppet movie. It’s got Helms and Applegate as Rusty and his wife Debbie and they alone improve things over Clark and Ellen. Poor Beverly D’Angelo.

Ed Helms’ Rusty is a passable paterfamilias. He suffers some of the ways that his own father does, but he puts a slightly different twist on it.  If there is a problem, it’s that most of the Rustys that we saw earlier had their finger on the pulse of cool. Ed Helms doesn’t go that route because, well, it’s not within his range. Singing poorly is within his range. My daughter, watching with me, said she’s tired of his singing. Me too.

Applegate’s Ellen wears discontent in shades that are familiar to me because I have spent enough time disappointing my wife the same way. The little detour that allows us to discover her life before Rusty is a little like the life we imagined Anthony Michael Hall’s Rusty would have experienced. Here we have Ed Helms playing…Ed Helms.

The relationship between the brothers is an attempt to really mix things up, but it comes across as weird in a labored way. Covering one’s head with a plastic bag for a gag is a big risk to take. If you go for that one, the joke better not be average. The younger boy picking on the older one is a perspective that works at first, but when it wears off, it is embarrassing.

Some of the stops along the way have their moments, especially visiting Audrey and her husband Stone (Mann and Hemsworth) and a little bit of the Grand Canyon. Most of the punchlines are lame. And when the physical comedy fails, they are sure to run it into the ground with some lame one liners.

Daley and Goldstein keep getting work, but I can’t tell that they’ve done anything that entirely deserves new work. Horrible Bosses is okay, but really, that is all. They do provide a great example of how hard it is to do good comedy. And now they get to do the new Spider-Man movie. Ugh.

Vacation is not a good way to spend your free time, especially if the weather outside is half-way decent. If you are a shut-in, or down to one good leg, I suppose you could do worse.

(** out of *****)

Avengers: Age of Ultron (****1/2) too much good to be bad

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Avengers: Age of Ultron – 2015

Written and Directed by Joss Whedon
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson

Tony Stark / Iron Man (facing fire of the enemy) Guys, wait. We gotta talk this through. (after incapacitating all of them with leg shots) It was a good talk.

Random bad guy writhing on the floor No it wasn’t!

It’s nice to know that after 3 years, Whedon hasn’t lost his sense of humor. After the stern Twitter lecture he gave about sexism the other day about a Jurassic World clip, that was no guarantee. With so much riding on the sequel to one of the biggest movies of all time, it’s easy to bet that he might take the thing too seriously this time. Thank God he didn’t script this film like he judges other people’s work.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a remarkable and assured piece of work. Once more, Whedon has taken many threads and woven them into a cohesive work that moves characters forward without sacrificing story and moves the story forward without sacrificing characters. Well, all of them except for War Machine. He always gets the short end of the hero stick, though.

This time around, Tony Stark has stumbled across some Artificial Intelligence tech that he can’t wait to work on with Bruce Banner. It’s nice to see them work. Together, with J.A.R.V.I.S (Stark’s almost living computer program), they decipher the code they come across and move toward Stark’s dream of being able to create a force of living Iron Men that can allow the Avengers to retire.

Ultron, their creation, decides to help them on their quest to retire, but not with a $50 watch and a spot on the beach. After incapacitating J.A.R.V.I.S., Ultron disrupts The Avenger’s after-party and starts on his own mission, with the help of two mutants (Can we call them that? No? Oh, well…), Wanda and Pietro Maximoff.

Wanda has the ability to mess with people’s minds and create red plumes of chaos. Pietro is really fast and creates a friction that tears stuff apart. That these are not exactly the “gifts” they have in the comics is of little consequence. It’s close enough for Avengers work.

The messing with the minds part provides a lot of the challenges in the story. Everyone sees their doubts exploited except for one of them. That one’s a nice, sensible surprise, just like much of the film.There are very few moments that don’t surprise or satisfy those who have invested much in this universe.

Tony Stark has been in a free fall since the end of the Avengers Assemble, and that continues here. His work has always been fueled by his perceived weakness. This imprint works itself into the prototype. He keeps trying through the end. It’s been this continually evolving spark that has been expertly applied since the first Iron Man film by Downey, Jr. We see a continuation of what we thought was an endpoint in Iron Man 3 that is not entirely explained. Since it is in the same direction, it works.

Ruffalo’s Hulk has been the most interesting take on a tough character to find compelling. His forward progression shows in the form of a relationship with Black Widow (Johansson). The tenderness shown between the two is an expression of the vitality of both and definitely neat to watch. What happened to the guy who’s angry all the time? He’s trying real hard to work through his feelings again. It feels like a backward step.

Thor has more effective lines in this film than he did in his second solo film. Hemsworth is clearly comfortable working with Whedon’s dialogue and situations. His quest for answers is intriguing and I like the role he has in creating a solution to the problem. Ragnarok could be the Thor film for which we’ve waited.

Black Widow, as usual, plays a Jackknife of all trades. She acts as a salve to every part of the Marvel Universe that needs one. Johansson is complex without being wordy or emotional and is probably the most fully developed character Whedon has produced. Given what he has invested in her, one can understand why he might be sensitive to how Chris Pratt’s character talks to Bryce Dallas Howard’s character. Doesn’t make him right for that, but it makes him right for Black Widow.

The other major woman character, Wanda, aka The Scarlet Witch is a bit more limited, which is understandable given her role in the story. Johnson’s job is to be pissed at the good guys, work for the bad guys, find out that they are bad and then work with the good guys. Then she gets all confused and emotional. One shouldn’t have to wonder if she’ll snap out of it.

Pietro, aka Quicksilver is even more emotionally isolated. Taylor-Johnson gives a good read on the arrogance of one waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with him, but the accent is considerably weaker than his uncanny strength,

Captain America was my favorite character from the first film. Evans had the best film of Phase II and he’s rolled right into the third film with the authority of one who owns the team. He has several of the best action scenes, simply for Whedon’s remarkable ability to make his strength’s and weaknesses believable. His morality is as entertaining as it is true to the spirit of the straight-laced character. The fight scene with Ultron in Korea is one of the highlights of the film.

Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is given tremendous depth and he nearly steals the show. As one of the more fragile Avengers, we discover he has even more to lose than his own life. It adds a nice resonance and makes the stakes something more identifiable. Whedon’s true gift is his ability to find a way to make the ones who might be easier to ignore impossible to forget.

Sam Jackson’s Fury acts as another sort of moral arbiter with the few scenes he shares with the rest of the cast. Nonetheless, Whedon gives him some great lines and allows him to fit inside his conspicuous existence, It’s hard to say where Fury goes in this Universe, but his character remains interesting.

As villainous voices go, they couldn’t have found one more delicious than Spader for Ultron. His lines are Spaderish to the point where he lays waste to cliche as easily as he does protagonists.His magnetism is lost a bit with the lack of expression afforded to a robot, but since when did Spader over emote?

Let me take the time to explain my plan...
Let me take the time to explain my plan…

Just when it seems like we’ve covered all the characters, we see an incredible new one. Bettany, who for several films has been the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S. is allowed to evolve into an amalgam of Tony’s creations, along with some key assistance from other resources. Vision, always an enigmatic personage, is no less a mystery here. He is a creation – drawing strong allusions to Frankenstein – that will have huge implications beyond this film. Bettany has a complete grasp of the character and its role in the plot. His entrance begins the most intense part of the story and it doesn’t let up.

To say Whedon nailed it is an understatement. He inhabits this world as much a participant as creator. It is obvious that he cared as much for the enterprise as anyone this side of Kevin Feige. That he is not going to be here at the next duo of films would be more of a concern if the guys that are taking the helm from him hadn’t created the best Marvel film in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Anthony and Joe Russo are also directing the next Captain America film called Civil War. Judging by the cast, they might as well call that Avengers 3.

If he wants to leave, best to do it now, when the mistakes are far outweighed by the things he’s gotten right. As for those mistakes, it is a little long. There is a little too much walking away from destruction with a stern warning. And, really, how do they keep the body count so low? I’m talking heroes, too. At least they don’t have Coulson die again.

Perhaps the best thing for me, though is seeing War Machine in action without making him embarrass himself.

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

CPE, Em & El: Thor: The Dark World: More Loki, anyone?

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Thor: The Dark World – 2013

Director Alan Taylor
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgård, Idris Elba, Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo
Screenplay Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

It’s no surprise that Loki is one of the first characters that you see after the prologue of Thor: The Dark World.  It’s a short scene, with a scolding from father Odin (Hopkins) and a wayward look from his mother Frigga (Russo).  It feels like a tag along scene, after the events of The Avengers.  We already knew he was going to be locked up, so why do we need to see it played out this way?

The answer is obvious.  Hiddleston, the big surprise from the first film, is so good as the villain, the film struggles to move forward without his gracefully devilish grin.  For this reason, we have many scenes with him locked up, even seeing a bunch of other goons broken out of jail.  He even helps the bad guy (Kurse, played unrecognizably by Akinnuoye-Agbaje) escape, while he remains behind.

We are treated to the obligatory “If you betray me, I will kill you,” scene before his brother, Thor (Hemsworth) lets him out of his imprisonment.  After this, we get to see this same sequence repeated ad nauseam with seemingly every supporting character down the line.  This scene is a waste of time for any actor, but at least Hiddleston seems to enjoy the attention, no matter how it is received.  Thank goodness for that.

Thor’s second time out may not be Shakespearian masterpiece that the first film almost was, but it is not bad, in any sense.  It suffers from the strength of its superhero, who we discover from Odin is not actually part of a race of Gods, but rather just a strong race of individuals who can endure for 1000’s of years.  If he is not unbeatable, that hammer sure is.  The thing about Loki is that he doesn’t use his brawn.  Up to this point, the filmmakers of the Thor films have not had to worry real hard about creating a nemesis.  This method worked well in his first two appearances.  Now, as we see Thor’s foes, Kurse and Eccleston’s Malekith, we anxiously wait for him to find a reason to do something other than swing that huge hammer.

Sadly, any thought that is required of the good guys comes in the form of the same braintrust that they had in the original.  This means plenty of face time for Portman and, more unfortunately, seeing Skarsgård in various states of disrobe.  Supposedly it helps him think more clearly when he acts like a loon.  Portman is a little less annoying this time through, even if she still is not a believable genius.  Dennings is still more than capable comic relief as an intern, this time with one of her own (Jonathan Howard).

The screenwriters and Taylor tone down the Hamlet this time, of course that story has been told.  Taylor’s talent for utilizing characters employed so effectively in Deadwood works on Asgard.  Russo leaves a mark in her brief turn, and it is a nice surprise.  Hopkins seems more baffled with each movie, and that suits the aging Odin just fine.  Thor’s band of misfit warriors are briefly used once more, but at least they seem to have a place in Asgard as something other than merry men (and one stoic woman).  It’s nice to see an expansion of Alba’s Heimdall, as his one action scene is an intense moment.  

The weakest part of the story is the megalomaniacal nature of the foe (is there any other in Thor’s universe?).  The plan to take over the “9 realms” has more to do with timing than anything, and the convenience of it all gives nothing at all as grist to the plot.  It all leads to a battle that is loony toon to the point where one wishes the hammer could end it all.  Instead, we get to see the puny humans run around looking frail, weak, and even worse, like Skarsgård.

There is a new mcguffin in the form of a red liquid called Aether.  That, with the Tesseract +3 other elements will get you something in a future film, no doubt.  Do we get more Loki?  If we do, we’ll definitely be entertained to an extent that he is on the screen.  Hemsworth has shown a capability to wear Thor’s wig and not look too much like a fool.  He needs more than what we’ve seen as a supporting cast on Midgard to make it work.

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

El’s Review

I thought THOR DARK  WORLD  was fine I liked the  funny parts.  The  next  one will probably be better.  Part 3.

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

Em’s Review

I liked Thor Dark World.  It was really funny.  It had the right amount of action.  I did not like the things what were creepy, though.  The dark elves.

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

Red Dawn: It’s a thankless job, but thank God its not Invasion U.S.A.

Red-Dawn-2012-Movie

Red Dawn – 2012

Director Dan Bradley
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Josh Peck, Josh Hutcherson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Adrianne Palicki, Isabel Lucas, Connor Cruise, Brett Cullen, Will Yun Lee
Screenplay by Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore, based on the original screenplay by John Milius and Kevin Reynolds

The thing about Red Dawn, in any incarnation is the sheer lunacy of the premise.  That some country, any country really, could via air assault sustain an invasion over any large geographical portion of the contiguous 48 states with an invasion force eminating from North Korea, (I think) China and Russia is too unlikely to fathom.  Even so, Red Dawn plays out in an almost claustrophobic fashion.  Anyone who has internalized the earlier film released 30 years ago will know what is going to happen, even if there is little logic to support its occurrence.

The film begins with a football game on a Friday night.  The hero, Matt (Peck) is, surprise, the scrappy QB, who smiles in the face of defeat.  That he has the best looking girlfriend might have a little to do with it.  Looking on is his father (Cullen), the Sheriff, and his recently returned brother, the Marine, Jed (Hemsworth).  The reunion is a somber affair, meant to show the way a house is run when Mom is not around.  This is life in small town Spokane, although the lack of pine trees, along with the preponderance of deciduous trees make it look suspiciously like somewhere in the Midwest, say, Michigan.

The reason it has to be Spokane, one might figure, is to accommodate the wave upon wave of paratroopers being flown in from…well, not Canada, not Mexico.  Perhaps 12 miles from the coast in the Pacific Ocean.  I am not sure what carrier could support that many large planes.  In fact, I am not sure how our fighter jet force at any of the myriad bases on the West Coast could not send jets to slaughter the lot of them before they lumbered across Washington state to deliver their precious cargo.  But I digress.  We need the willing suspension of our disbelief to let them land with their tanks, Humvees and Jeeps.

So here we stand, on the eastern side of Washington, watching the imagined town of Spokane crumble at the might of North Korea, and a Russian guy.  Yes, that’s one Russian guy.  He’s there for advice, and to wear a stupid beret.  So, the force takes over Spokane and, presumably, other towns.  Their job at this point is to stand around and be targets for the nimble footed high school students who wander safely around town among some of the other people who, for some reason, were not brought into the concentration camps.  Oh, and there is a Subway sandwich shop open too, complete with a sandwich artist.

There are wins and losses, along with some inept dialogue, written by someone I thought might be better (Ellsworth, of Disturbia and Red Eye fame).  It is directed with almost no imagination, other than changing the locales of certain scenes, and the timing of others.  The acting is forgettable, giving us Hemsworth at around the time he made Star Trek, but before Snow White and The Huntsman, Thor and The Cabin in The Woods.  It’s okay, though, because he’s playing the Patrick Swayze role before he was in Dirty Dancing, Roadhouse and Ghost.  And like Swayze of the time, Hemsworth is low on the personality, but high on the beefcake.

Peck is unremarkable, and so is the rest of the cast, except for, maybe Hutcherson.  This is  just for the fact that by the time the film was completed in 2010, he’s learned how to capture the camera’s attention in below average fare like RV, Zathura and Journey to the Center of the Earth.  He’s been in some pretty decent stuff since, so he has that going for him.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan shows up right about the time that Powers Boothe did in the original to give the kids some adults to shoot guns with.  They get together for the one raid that should be a bit bigger and more elaborate because, you know, the movie is just about over.  As we reach the end, we feel not as rallied as we should.  Instead, we feel hollow.  Like there will be another attempt to play this scene out in another 30 years or so.

I recently re-watched to original film a few weeks before this one was released to little fanfare.  My memories of the film loomed larger, perhaps due to my age when I saw it.  I was only 11, but it had a profound effect on my wish to feel armed and protected.  I wasn’t necessarily the kind of kid to fall for anything, either.  I knew just a couple of years later that Goonies was a pile of crap.  It was the cold war then.  We knew the Russians were the enemy then, even if they sent El Salvadorans to do their dirty work. Nowadays, with the procession of crooks in and out of Congress and the White House, the feeling of patriotism is not as blind.  Or maybe I am just getting old.

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

 

Snow White and The Huntsman: Bread is definitely not meat

Snow White and the Huntsman – 2012

Director Rupert Sanders
Starring Charleze Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Stewart, Sam Clafin, Sam Spruell, Ian McShane, Toby Jones, Bob Hoskins, Nick Frost, Ray Winstone, Eddie Marsan, Brian Gleeson,Johnny Harris
Screenplay Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, Hossein Ameni

Julia Roberts probably wanted to fire her agent after watching Snow White and The Huntsman.  Surely if you asked her, she would say that she made the film “for the kids,” but there comes a point where you’ve got to tell the kids they’ve got something to look forward to when they grow up.  This is a film that lives up to the Grimm name.

Theron was made for this throne

In this version of the tale, the Queen is a truly terrifying piece of work: a combination of evil, magic and insanity.  How she takes over the kingdom is clever.  Why she lets the King’s daughter lived is, well, because without her there is no story.  Theron’s performance is worth the price of admission, as her character is truly beautifully terrifying, unique and powerful.  She hasn’t been so powerful in a film since Monster.

The Huntsman is an entertaining character, both as written and performed.  Hemsworth has become a reliable stud character actor, adding just enough character to be somewhat entertaining, but not so much as to be overdone.  The power of his presence was clear in what could have been considered a throwaway role in the Star Trek reboot.

Hemsworth’s counterpart, William, Duke of Hammond, as played by Claflin has the appeal of any of the myriad young actors that played opposite The Duke, John Wayne in all of his big studio productions,  This is to say that he is young, handsome and somewhat vacant.  I am not sure the role demanded much more than that, but it sure couldn’t have hurt.

The Dwarves are remarkable and original, if only because of the quality of actors that they hired to play them.  McShane, Hoskins, Frost, Jones and Winstone are some of the best character actors going today.  Sanders was wise enough to let the actors insert their own personalities into the characters.  This allowed them to seem more valiant, resourceful and complete characters.

A power that feeds and feeds upon…

Queen Ravenna’s brother and enforcer is an original character, creepily inhabited by Spruell.  His menace mixed with helplessness merges him chained with his sister.  They both are victims to the spell that makes them powerful and subjugates them to a never-ending quest for lives feed on.  One wishes that they could have found a way to give him even more screen time, as the film seems lacking when he is not present.

The character that needs the most development in the story has, unfortunately, the least realized.  Snow White is celebrated into the holder of life in this tale.  From she all beautiful things abound.  Wordlessness, at times is a benefit to this concept.  Silence with the perpetual half-scowl that Stewart emits works better for the femme fatale role of Bella, from the Twilight films, and not as much for the source of light in this dark tale.  Granted, she seems to know her way around an action scene and seeing her in medieval armor does not seem out-of-place.  By the end, though, she gives a few pained facial expressions come across as odd.  In essence, we still have no clue who she really is.

Sanders definitely knows his way around a lens.  There are few scenes in the film which are not filled with some kind of beauty: sad, dark or vibrantly alive.  The action is crisp, if illogical at times (like the “now she’s lost them-now she hasn’t” escape).  The vision he has of this world is fantastic in both darkness and light.  The pace is consistent and keeps within arms length of the original tale while providing mind-blowing effects that are part of the story instead of being a “look what I can do.”

Snow White and The Huntsman is a worthy reimagining of a tale that has grown somewhat stale.  There was a sequel in the works that is in development hell due to poor personal choices.  If it remains a single movie, the film stands on its own merit.

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

Cabin In The Woods: Good work, Zombie arm

Cabin In The Woods – 2012

Director Drew Goddard
Starring Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Fran Kanz, Anna Hutchinson, Jesse Williams, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, Sigourney Weaver
Screenplay by Goddard and Joss Whedon

Cabin In The Woods is one of the coolest, most original horror stories every made.  It’s Toy Story for the genre.  All the most remarkable things one could imagine wrapped up neatly in boxes.  It would have been an easy, if it weren’t for the cannabis.

Starting off with a normal work day for a couple of guys (Jenkins and Whitford) working in a sterile environment.  Their conversation is unspectacular, but one can sense that they enjoy the work.  Exit scene and we have 5 teenagers, heading out-of-town for the clichéd weekend trip to a creepy house in the woods.  The five stereotypes are present: the jock (Hemsworth), the whore (Hutchinson), the brain (Williams), the virgin (Connolly) and the pothead (Kanz).  At a gas station not far from their destination, they run into the crazy gas station owner.  Things are progressing as you’d expect, then the eagle flies into the computer grid.

The story becomes a labyrinth at this point, and I won’t bother telling you that what’s in the cellar is the tip of the iceberg.  There are hints dropped along the way, and the discerning viewer will have an idea from the time the credits roll, but that does not take away from the remarkable surprises that we are treated to in the last half-hour.

The acting is any sort of remarkable, and really, it does not have to be.  The pot smoker delivered many of the best lines and with panache.  We just need to see what is in store for all the characters.

There is nothing more that needs be said, except for anyone who has ever liked a scary movie of any genre needs to see this film.  Good work was done here, even if it was all terrible for humanity.

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

Cool Papa E Reviews The Marvel Cinematic Universe (The Avengers Movies) Phase One

When Captain America: The First Avenger is released July 22, 2012, it will mark the last movie to be released ramping up to the May 4, 2012 arrival of the first superhero team movie, The Avengers.  At this point, everyone is aware of the team that has been assembled: Iron Man, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Thor will lead a cast of heroes that will also include Hawkeye, Black Widow, Gabriel Jones and, of course, Nick Fury.

What follows is a listing and review of the movies featuring these characters up to now.  I will not be including the daring but ultimately failing Ang Lee enterprise Hulk, as it was created outside of the scope of The Avengers.  The enterprise has been a daunting one.  None of these characters, outside of The Hulk, had ever been covered on film before.  Excellent special effects, wonderful scripts and crucial integration helped to distinguish the series from the innumerable other superhero noise (mostly from Marvel, ironically enough) in Hollywood.

Iron Man

Release Date – May 2, 2008

Directed by Jon Favreau

Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Gweneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Clark Gregg

Written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Otsby, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway and John August

Review – Once Robert Downey, Jr. was tapped to play the lead, Tony Stark, the movie was looking good from the outside.  Jon Favreau’s real coup, however, was procuring Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane.  His presence looms large as a nemesis willing to kill, not just express megalomaniacal intent.  The result is a special effects extravaganza with  great acting from Paltrow, Howard and all supporting cast.  The best thing about the effects is that they are downplayed, making them seem more real.

Best Sequence – The creation, testing and first flights are great, but nothing is as cool as when he takes on those terrorists all at once.  Wouldn’t everyone love to keep the peace with weapons that can sight in on multiple targets at once.

Worst Sequence – Poor, bald Ralphie from A Christmas Story being yelled at by Jeff Bridges…a little bit too comic bookie.

Cameos – Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Captain America’s Shield

Rating – (****1/2)

The Incredible Hulk 

Release Date – June 13, 2008

Directed by – Louis Leterrier

Starring – Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, William Hurt, Tim Roth, Ty Burrell, Tim Blake Nelson

Written by Zak Penn, Edward Norton

Review – I thought the hiring of Norton would make a real difference, and, for the most part, it did.  The movie had several things going against it, however.  First and foremost, the reboot factor.  While it worked for the Batman franchise, that one was about a decade away from the last good movie, and it had Christopher Nolan going for it.  The Incredible Hulk had…Louis Leterrier.  A history with Luc Besson and directing the first 2 Transporter movies was not enough to make the movie a classic, but it does have its moments.  The aerial shots over Rio de Janeiro are remarkable.  The decision to film scenes in a college town was similarly inspired.  The last battle leaves more than a little to be desired, however.  It all looks like a really accurate Pixar effect.  There are some great casting choices (Norton, Roth and Nelson in particular) are offset by some questionable ones (Hurt and Tyler).  Overall, it was an improvement over the other Hulk, but that ain’t saying much.

Best Sequence – The chase scene through Rio is mostly done without special effects, yet still it is compelling.

…I think so.
Separated at birth…

Worst Sequence – Every scene with William Hurt as General Ross reminded me of Major

Monogram from Phineas and Ferb.

Cameos – Downey Jr.’s Stark visits Major Mono- …er General Ross, and in an alternate opening you can see Captain America frozen in an iceberg…or so I hear.

Rating – (***1/2)

Iron Man 2

Release Date May 7, 2010

Directed by John Favreau

Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Samuel L. Jackson, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Scarlett Johanssen, Clark Gregg, Paul Bettany

Written by Justin Theroux, Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, Jack Kirby

Review: here

Best Sequence: The Monaco Race scene is the best superhero movie scene ever, and it helps to elevate that which is an overall weaker film to being equal with the first Iron Man film.

Worst Sequence: The end of the movie firefight between Ivan Vanko, Iron Man and War Machine was very short and anti-climactic, especially when compared to earlier clashes.

Cameos: Jackson’s Fury and Johansenn’s Romanov / Black Widow feature prominently in the film, so we cannot consider them cameo performances.  Captain America’s Shield makes another hilarious appearance, and then the scene towards the end of the movie, featuring several monitors.  One monitor features the destroyed campus from The Incredible Hulk, the crater from Thor, and a world map featuring these points and more, like the home of The Black Panther.  The coda of the film literally shows Thor’s hammer in the crater, as viewed by Agent Colson (Gregg), who was also in the first Iron Man, prominently.

Rating: (****1/2)

Thor

Release Date – May 6, 2011

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, Colm Feore, Stellan Skarsgård, Ray Stevenson, Jaimie Alexander, Kat Dennings, Rene Russo, Clark Gregg

Written by  J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich

Review: This movie could easily have been the joke of the franchise.  To the studio’s credit, they won by embracing the hokey aspects and turning them into positives, without becoming self-parody.  Thor is supposed to be full of honor, stoicism and, frankly, quite stiff.  The God of Thunder usually laughs last, but that is only because he doesn’t ever understand the joke.  By employing Branagh as director, the producer’s played into the strengths of the plot (kingdom, betrayal, falling from grace, redemption) while eliminating a long, awkward stay on “Midgard.”  Hemsworth, so brilliant as Kirk’s heroic father in Star Trek, was the find of the Marvel Franchise.  He has gravitas, attention to detail and aloofness at all the right times, making Thor as detached from the realm as he needs to be, but still a good enough God to help out, when it is right to do so.  As Hemsworth is to the Marvel heroes, Hiddleston is to the nemeses.  A lot of credit could go to Branagh again for this, but Hiddleston’s Loki was marvelously portrayed in Shakespearean tones.  With Hopkins’ Odin as the wizened king with secrets, Loki is enraged with their revelation, but not before showing his willingness to play things to his advantage.  Really, it is the best thing about the movie.  Other than Gregg’s Coulson, the earthlings are mostly forgettable, especially Portman.

Best Sequence: Loki is revealed, at the same moments he exposes his father’s failings.  Truly as wrought of Shakespeare.

Worst Sequence: The bridge stuff at the end just comes off as a bunch of stuff that happened.  No matter what happens, nothing prevents what you know is coming.

Cameos: Jeremy Renner cameos as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Clint Barton / Hawkeye, pointing his bow and arrow at Thor during a fight.  Nick Fury (Jackson) makes an appearance in the coda.

Rating: (****)

Captain America: The First Avenger

Release Date – July 22, 2011

Director – Joe Johnston

Starring – Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Dominic Cooper, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Stanley Tucci, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan

Written by – Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

Review: Cap is the absolute king of dorks; even bigger than Thor.  To make him relevant, the only thing the creators of Captain America: The First Avenger could do was move the story to a dorkier time.  That time: World War II.  One of the great oxymorons of the last century was how Americans were involved in two such horrible wars, yet still had the inability to express unbridled emotions to someone of the opposite gender.  This movie is filled with many Leave It To Beaver level interactions between characters who moments ago were fighting Nazi’s to the death.  Thank goodness Howard Stark (a lively Dominic Cooper) is there to explain to Mr. Rogers what fondue is, exactly.

The First Avenger does an admirable job presenting a character that time has made almost completely irrelevant.  There is truly no place for someone whose patriotism is surpassed only by his inability to comprehend anything but stoicism.  When he is not kicking ass for the American cause, he stumbles for what to say, while those around him wait for Steve to catch up to the drift.  In making him a 98-pound weakling, he is afforded the metaphor of underdog that Americans have so long loved to espouse.  German Jewish professor Erskine makes clear to young Steve Rogers   (Chris Evans, surrendering his Human Torch persona for the red, white and blue) that it is his willingness to jump on a grenade, along with his understanding of what it is to be weak that makes him the perfect candidate for the Super Soldier program.  He is the first, and, it turns out, the last candidate, and he makes the most of it.

Red Skull (a rather subdued Hugo Weaving), the first one to use an earlier version of the serum, has demonstrated its ability to magnify the characteristics that the host already possess.  Skull, known as Johann Schmidt, is a Nazi, and we all know what they look like when magnified: not exactly huggable.  Cap, looking for some revenge, starts a troop of rescued soldiers to go around and make Schmidt’s Hydra organization pay for…well, we will see.

Johnston’s direction is appropriately simple to emphasize the simplicity of the message.  There are explosions, and there are special effects, but they are not so overwhelming as to make it seem bigger than life.  His previous efforts have, for the most part, been tempered with believable effects (except the horrid Jumanji).  He, along with the other makers of the film, understand that we need to feel a kinship to the core character of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  This only happens if we feel that we can come along, which is a feeling that a director like Michael Bay has never been able to express.  Films like Bay’s are more of an assault on the senses, and we need to feel what Captain America feels.  To a greater extent, this goal is accomplished.

The co-stars are all humorous, but palatable.  Tommy Lee Jones is a milder version of himself, and Toby Jones gives one of those performances where a great actor hides most of his talent for the purposes of story (i.e. – Skarsgård in Thor).  Atwell and Cooper light the screen whenever they are on, as both seem to be given characters with a charge.  Evans seems muted, compared to his typical brash performances.  This is a good move, because Evan’s likability heretofore has been scarce.  It’s not that he is lovable, but his motivations are nice and telegraphed, the way we expect our bland hero to be.

That the movie is written by Markus and McFeely is not a surprise.  This movie feels a little bit safe and dated, like their Chronicles of Narnia series.  It’s all solid, yeoman’s work, with no cheap touchy-feely moments.  A particular favorite happens when Cap takes a second to look in on the welfare of an innocent kid during a chase.  He, takes the obligatory route that characters like his would take, only to be rebuffed in a gentle, but self-aware way.  This scene, indicative of the movie, shows that they did not take the brand for granted.  They did the boring guy right.

Best Sequence: The motor cycle chase as a prelude to the rescue of his prisoner of war comrades shows that you don’t have to rely on massive explosions, but one or two won’t hurt.

Worst Sequence: The Captain touring America scene worked for about 15 seconds, but then it went on for another 4 minutes.

Cameos: Jackson again as Fury.  Natalie Dormer as Private Lorraine.  Clark Gregg as Colson at the beginning.

Rating: (***1/2)

Coming May 4, 2012