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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Adams and Jefferson on Movies: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

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WeMissE:    So, keeping in tune with the Halloween season, we had time to watch another scary movie.  This time we decided to skip the original and go right to the remake.  There are four different Body Snatcher movies, and the second version, directed by Philip Kaufman in 1978, is considered by many fans and critics to be the best of the bunch.

This isn’t really a horror movie by today’s standards.  It has no gore to speak of, and no real “gotcha!” moments either.  What this movie has in spades is a deeply unsettling feeling.  Kaufman never lets the viewer get comfortable.   In many of the movies images, something is just a little off.  I noticed from very early on that he often used unconventional camera angles.  Sometimes the camera is very low, shooting up at people faces from the waist.  Sometimes he uses close-ups in unexpected places.  Characters are often in darkness.   The movies deepening paranoia keep the viewer on edge, expectant.  And then Kaufman obscures the images in ways that keep you from seeing what you want to see.

In an early scene, Donald Sutherland’s windshield is broken by some angry cooks at a restaurant he inspects.  This incident really happens for one reason;  so that in a later scene, when Sutherland and Brooke Adams are driving in this car, the windshield is splintered into a spiderweb of cracks.  As Adams is talking about how the city looks the same, but somehow people are different, the camera is face forward, looking through the window.  Except we can’t see clearly.   There is another scene in a bookstore where Donald Sutherland and Jeff Goldblum can only be seen in a mirror’s reflection, but it’s one of those funhouse mirrors that distorts the image.   Kaufman does good a job as any director I can think of at keeping his audience off-balance.

CoolPapaE:
The foreground is not the only thing Kaufman is peppering us with imagery. We see plenty of references to pod plants being stuffed into garbage trucks throughout the film. While the characters are pushing their narrative in the foreground, things just keep right on happening in the background.

Not only are the angles and scenery off-putting, the soundtrack does an excellent job emitting a disquieting feeling to the viewers. The whole film is filled with intermittent nauseous sounds. Seeing Goldblum in that fun house scene you mention also reminded me of another filmmaker he worked with, Robert Altman. In that very scene, we see Sutherland’s Bennell and Goldblum’s Bellicec having two different level conversations at the same time. Bennell is talking on the phone, and Bellicec is disturbingly talking over him at the same time. This method ratchets tension, even though there are no boogeymen to be found.

Sometimes the sound come from the scene, like when Bellicec’s radio tuning turns into a rhythmic pounding as they gather in Bennell’s apartment.  That pounding then turns into a swelling echo as the pods begin to grow.

When Bennell starts making calls to Kibner and other city officials and Elizabeth starts testing the flowers, there is a surging keyboard sound that pushes through into a siren and then a ringing phone. This repeats into a surging sound as a series of calls emanate while Bennell walks through town, feeling the oppression settle in.

One sound that is completely unsettling is the screeching wail of Cartwright’s Nancy Bellicec. She has two of the most memorable screams in cinematic history. One, of course is the “Oh God!” she emits in the midst of the birth of the xenomorph in Alien. The other is at the very end of this film.

If the ethereal soundtrack and ambient noises lull you into a sense of dread, her scream is the sound that wakes you to a nightmare. Am I the only one who finds it ironic that she is the one that discovers the secret to walking among the turned is by showing no emotion?

WeMissE:  

That’s a great observation, I’m glad you pointed that out. Setting the movie in San Francisco was a great choice.  It is such a cinematic city, and this film ranks right up there with VertigoZodiac and the Dirty Harry franchise for making the city a character in the movie.  While Hitchcock and Fincher gave the city by the Bay a more stylized look, Philip Kaufman makes it dirty, gritty, with lots of shadows in the corners.  Some credit has to be given to cinematographer Michael Chapman, who shot a few movies for Martin Scorsese in this same time period.   The lighting works in conjunction with the music to create that sense of foreboding we talked about earlier.

Besides Veronica Cartwright’s trademark screams, the acting is solid.  Sutherland and Goldblum fall squarely in the character actor camp, even though they have both been cast as leads from time to time.  They are two stalwart actors who have been contributing solid performances for 4 decades apiece.  It’s interesting to see Leonard Nimoy in any role that is not Spock.  I wouldn’t say that he got the opportunity to show a great range  here, but that was due to the limitations of the character.  How would you classify the performances?

CoolPapaE:

San Francisco is one of the major cities of the cinema, to be sure. I could add Foul Play, Escape from Alcatraz, Freebie and The Bean and So I Married an Axe Murderer among the films that use the scenery to their advantage.

The performances are solid, circa 1978. In an era when colleagues could be work friends and deny the chemistry between them until they are brought to a crisis point, Adams and Sutherland play the mature relationship angle for all it’s worth. One gets the definite feeling of the chemistry between the two. This is especially effective in the kiss they share when they are on the run in the last third of the film.

This is Adams on her way up in what may be somewhat an underwhelming career. Interestingly, she is related to the namesake of one of the two names for our series, John Adams.

It’s a good role and performance, though. A strength in the development of the cast here is that the bigger characters aren’t necessarily the ones we see rising to the challenge, even if they do a majority of the sleuthing. I really enjoy this aspect of the film. It makes one feel like the stakes are higher. Sutherland excels in his ability to vary between scared and scary. It’s hard to think that his box office draw was any stronger than it is here. As you say, he’s had a solid career.

It’s amazing to witness Goldblum before he is at the height of his powers of Goldbluminess. It’s more than a little strange to see him play someone as incredibly straight as a struggling writer. Then again, seeing as he and his wife run a bathhouse in San Francisco in the 70’s, straight might be relative.

It was beginning to look like an awful Nimoy performance, but for the saving grace of revealing that he is indeed turned by the time we’ve seen him first. Even so, the hugging and togetherness would seem a strange move for one who has been configured to have no use for emotions. In the end, his performance is salvaged and brought back to his strength as an actor.

That is one strength of Kaufman using Richter’s script. There is no over explaining of plot elements. We don’t know a ton about the invaders. We don’t know why their planet died out. We do know they’re used to taking over. That’s enough, and thank God they never came up with a sequel to explain even more.

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WeMissE:

That’s a good point.  There is that one scene of exposition where the already-changed Nimoy gives a little back story, but that’s all there is to it.  We are left with a lot of unanswered questions, which makes the movie even more unsettling.

Kaufman did a lot with a little in this movie.  Other than warehouse finale which is full of explosions and mayhem, there is very little spectacle in this movie.  It was made very economically, with practical effects, and they work very well.  I’m not one of those purists who laments the age of digital effects, but when I look at how convincing the effects in this movie are, I do have a lot of respect for the artistry in the craftsmanship  of those early effects.   Digital effects can be great, but they often lack subtlety.  When we finally get to see a pod “birthing” its host body, the shock does not come from it being bloody or gruesome.  Rather, it is slow, laborious, matter-of-fact, and all the more horrifying because of it.

Philip Kaufman is an interesting case, right?  He had a sweet spot of about a decade where his fingerprints were on a bunch of really good movies, either as writer or director.  Then his output slowed down considerably.  His career arc reminds me of Curtis Hanson, who started as a B-movie director, then achieved greatness for a few years.  As I close out my comments on this movie and bid you good day, I ask:  what is the legacy of Kaufman as a director, and does this stand as his best film?

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CoolPapaE:

This is probably approaching the crest of Kaufman’s greatness, but with the Indiana Jones story credit for Raiders of the Lost Ark, then The Right Stuff in the early 80’s, one would have to think that era is likely his sweet spot. I have never seen The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry & June, but they have garnered some esteem over the years. Let’s just say by the time he was pissing off Crichton with his lukewarm take on Rising Son, his star had faded a bit. I did enjoy Quills with its perversely gleeful performance by Rush and the wonderful acting and beauty of Kate Winslet. I tried to like Twisted, but Ashley Judd’s wooden acting has the power to override my love for Samuel L. Jackson and my respect for Kaufman.

What he showed was remarkable range and the ability to get the most out of available resources. If he isn’t a great director, he’s certainly in the upper reaches of good.

 

This film does have good pacing, acting and like you say, unnerving cinematography. I also agree with you the conventional special effects are better than most movies at the time without the word “Star” in the title. Even the dog man shown above looks creepily real when you stop to look at it. It’s ending is spectacular. Overall, it deserves a spot as one of the scariest films of the decade. I would even call it one of the 50 scariest films in cinematic history.

With that surmise, I too Sir, bid you good day.

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Having a story to tell can do wonders

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Grand Budapest Hotel – 2014

Written and Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Edward Norton, Mathieu Amalric, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Léa Seydoux, Jeff Goldblum, Jason Schwartzman, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Tony Revolori

Wes Anderson films inspire a groundswell of apathy from me.  Often his work feels like Jazz to me, a form of art given much credit, even though few people understand it. If it’s “good” or not would seem to be in the eye of the beholder, but one must insist at the very least that some of his films are better than others.  For me, the good ones thus far have been The Aquatic Life with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and finally, this, his best film.

There are many reasons for this, but the primary one is the story.  Anderson’s films are the definition of quirk.  Odd characters, interesting perspectives, effects that look intentionally fake, but somewhat fascinating. If there is a vehicle to pull it all together, the effect can be pretty good.  Or in this case, classic.  His last effort, Moonrise Kingdom was just dumb.  Everyone in that story was no one to care about.  In truth, they all seemed like mental patients.  As a result, the odd aspects were annoying at best, frustrating on average and unwatchable at their worst.

The Grand Budapest Hotel escapes this fate by giving its characters very clearly defined objectives, and then setting about the goals with wonderful precision.  The focus of the story, Monsieur Gustave H. (Fiennes), devoted concierge of the titular hotel and his lead lobby boy, Zero (Revolori).  Their friendship for each other is immediate, and soon Gustave is giving Zero the best training possible.  Outside the realm of this training, Gustave has relationships with several of the elder lady patrons of the establishment.  One of them (Swinton) dies, leaving Gustave a painting in her will.  The painting has something attached to it that is of great import to the rest of the story.

Other relatives of the deceased, particularly her son, Taxis, arrange to have Gustave framed for the murder of his mother.  That he did not do it is obvious, but his arrest sets off a chain of events that leads Inspector Henkels hither and yon, while Gustave and Zero race to uncover the truth.

Fiennes is magnificent in a role that allows him to rise above the limits of the script.  When things get ridiculous, like the scene in the mountain monastery, we see him explode with the frustration the viewer experiences as the joke goes too far.  Then, almost immediately, his hits another comedic note.  My friend WeMissE thinks that Fiennes deserves a rare best actor nod for a comedy, and I am inclined to agree with him.

Equally fascinating is Revolori, as the devoted, confident and resourceful young Zero.  His relationship with Gustave exists on many levels, and watching them break through those levels is a charming and rewarding experience. Additionally, his courtship of Agatha.  Many moments ring true for two people seemingly destined for one another.

The best scenes in the film use miniatures.  The trolleys and the buildings are comical and fascinating to look at.  The chase from the monastery down the mountain is delightful and gives an exhilaration that would be missing if they had poured James Bond style money into it.

For those who’ve kept Anderson at arm’s length, I understand your trepidation.  If you are ever going to give another of his films a try, let this be the one. Who knows where he’ll go in the future, and if I am judging by his past work, I am not likely to care.  This is a movie that I will watch again and again, however.  Try it once.

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