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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Star Trek Beyond (****) feels like films before

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Star Trek Beyond – 2016

Director Justin Lin
Screenplay Simon Pegg, Doug Jung
Starring  John Cho, Simon Pegg, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella, Lydia Wilson

There is a scene it Star Trek First Contact when, for the second film in a row, they are on the verge of destroying the Enterprise.

Crusher: So much for the Enterprise E.
Picard: We barely knew her.
Crusher: You think they’ll build another one?
Picard: Plenty of letters left in the alphabet.

Including all television series, there have now been 6 times in which the Starship Enterprise has been destroyed. Some of these have been undone by time travel, but still, the bell has been rung enough to train Pavlov’s dog by now. Like those mutts, we keep coming back, thinking we’ll get another morsel or two. Those morsels can sustain us through some lean times (Star Trek V and more recently, Into Darkness) and they also have become an easy dramatic ploy that takes the wind out of the sails of what could be better stories (Generations and Star Trek III) if they had tried a little harder.

This time, the Enterprise is sacrificed to do a little of both. The story is a weak one: a nondescript bad guy (Elba in a wasted role) wants revenge. How the story is told is a good, sustaining nugget that reminds us why we go back to the well over and over.

The story starts out with a turn of Kirk the diplomat. His efforts to offer a piece of an ancient indeterminate space weapon fall into a chaotic fight. This is drawn for laughs, but it falls a little flat when they try to mess with visual perspectives.

We see that the ship has fallen into a routine on the 3rd year of its 5 year mission. This routine works for many, but Kirk and Spock are both looking over the fence, metaphorically speaking. The ship docks at the new starbase Yorktown. Seperately, Kirk and Spock seek out other options unaware of each other’s plans.

While here we also see Sulu, his mate and their child. This is a passing glance, but it made a big news splash when announced in the press tour. That Sulu is gay was a bone of contention for some, including the man (Takei) who originally played him in the series. Everyone who knows Takei understands the irony of his position. Pegg defended the decision, but honestly it’s hard to cite the source (Gene Roddenberry) for his opinion. For me, it seemed obvious by Sulu’s sense of fashion in Star Trek III if nothing else. Really though, where else but Star Trek?

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An escape pod arrives with a tragic tale being told by its survivor (Wilson). The Enterprise is sent out on a rescue mission. What it sees when it gets there has been shown through perhaps the worst ad-campaign for a good movie in years. Why they show you the destruction of the Enterprise and at the same time play Sabotage in the movie’s first (Super Bowl) ad, I will never understand. They could have shown many other things and the movie would have been much better anticipated and received.

Why and how Krall goes about his quest for vengeance is so inventive, it makes one wonder why he didn’t just do it years and years ago. Then, I suppose, he wouldn’t have been able to meet up with Kirk and company. Krall himself is not all that interesting as a bad guy. He’s kind of a combination of Insurrections Ahdar Ru’afo and Nemesis’ Shinzon. This translates to: not memorable and redundant. He has one agent working for him that is effective, however, in the ability to act as a chameleon.

Faring better this time is the tried and true method of breaking up the team into smaller segments and letting those smaller teams bond and coalesce into examples of forward thinking. This process worked well for many of the best Star Trek films in the past (IV and First Contact in particular) as it allows screen time and genuine moments to occur.

Pegg and Jung flesh out better performances by members of the cast short shrifted by the last film (especially Urban’s McCoy) and Lin keeps the action frenetic while allowing the natural wit of the cast acting out Pegg’s script to shine. My heart hurts seeing Yelchin shine as Chekov. His exuberance is engaging and it is sad to know this is the last time we’ll see him in uniform. Live Long and Prosper, Anton.

For everything but the lack of a compelling and properly motivated malevolent force, we have a good movie. Star Trek is not all of the way back, though. All movies except for Star Trek The Motion Picture and IV: The Voyage Home have relied far too heavily on having bad guys seeking vengeance. If they really want a challenge, they should try doing something more esoteric. It didn’t work with the first picture, but it wasn’t because of the plot. It was instead, the concentration of long, silent space scenes in a failed attempt to capture some sort of Kubrickian wonder.

There is an old ship, that lay dormant for years that is discovered in the midst of the chaotic pace. That ship has a story that is only touched upon for purposes of pushing forward with the action at hand. How and why that ship was there for so long is what I wonder about as the last act of the film takes place. What happened to its survivors?  They tell you what they want you to know. It would be more interesting to find out more about their story.

If you want to go where most Star Trek helmers have gone before, Lin is a great choice. His kinetic energy ramps up Abrams action 10-fold. Everything is a pleasure to look at, and he does not waste a single shot. The space fight in the last act is a pleasure both visually and sonically. It would have been even better if they hadn’t let that first trailer out. Only the start of the motorcycle ride looks out of place.

Star Trek in the movies is not a place of wonder and exploration anymore. It’s a jarring, violently paced existence. Do you ever wonder why Quinto’s Spock is not as curious as he is furious? It would take Paramount studios a tremendous amount of courage to go with a story that explores instead of pillages. This reviewer is ready for that type of film.

Even so, this one will suffice for now.

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

Star Trek Into Darkness: Going where they’ve gone before

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Star Trek Into Darkness – 2013

Director J.J. Abrams
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Alice Eve, Peter Weller, Noel Clarke, Nazneen Contractor
Screenplay by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof

One of my favorite aspects to the Star Trek reboot (my very first review on this site) was the fearlessness with which they shed the mortal coil of the original timeline and gave themselves a brand new start with a thin, but strong connection to the past.  They even had the temerity to destroy the planet Vulcan.  Talk about no going back.  The end of the first film has the Star Fleet pretty much decimated, but The Enterprise still in one piece.  They should be the flagship for new adventures.

Frustratingly, Star Trek Into Darkness ignores these advantages and pretty much leaves The Enterprise hobbled to what lingers in the past.  We see what seems to be a mission of an undiscovered planet which is improbably undertaken.  Employing useless subterfuge, the crew is left with no option but to violate the prime directive.  There is a bunch of exposition that makes it seem like these were the only options, but, come on, it’s Star Trek.  Beaming should and could solve most things.  The Enterprise did look cool coming out of the ocean, however.

Who's the hot chick?  Not sure.  Let's let her on board to do Spock's job.  Okay.
Who’s the hot chick? Not sure. Let’s let her on board to do Spock’s job. Okay.

Back at Star Fleet HQ, we see Admiral Pike browbeating and then demoting Kirk, only to give him a chance back on The Enterprise before you realize it has happened.  This is just the first plot contrivance, so hang on.  Within a couple of shakes, we have Scotty kicked off the ship, a blonde bombshell “science officer” who checks in as okay with the two highest ranking members of the crew to board, and finally The Enterprise broken down in Klingon space.  After a purely expository fight with just enough Klingons to kill without starting a war, a clearly superior bad guy gives himself up after hearing some very specific information about the weapons on board Kirk’s ship.  Then, once the stowaway is revealed, they put her in charge, along with Bones, of seeing what those bombs are made of.  Sounds logical.

Too much talking, not enough thinking
Too much talking, not enough thinking

Speaking of logic, we find Spock battling with his desires even more this time around, and it’s not entirely clear why.  He seemed pretty well centered at the end of the last film.  More debate on the good of the one versus the good of the many ensues.  Haven’t they covered this stuff before?  Although I really don’t want to fault Quinto for it.  His Spock is certainly entertaining, even as a whirling dervish of emotion who keeps trying to ignore his human half.  The original is still better, but applaud Quinto’s effort.

Pine works the hell out of Kirk this time around.  He puts everything he’s got into it it.  He looks foolish a lot of the time, but given the road map to his character is Shatner, its still an upgrade.  The only thing he lacks that Shatner eventually mastered was subtlety.  As the Vulcans say: “…only Nixon could go to China.”  He will get there too.  In the meantime, he provides the pulse of the story, and because he believes this stuff, no matter how preposterous, we kind of do, too.

Bones is still magnificent.  He’s around mainly to throw one liners into the ether.  He does this as well as DeForest Kelley ever did.  He also manages to show the compassion that we so expect from the cantankerous Doc.  Urban is one of the better character actors of our time.  Its a shame we won’t see him in RED 2.

Saldona’s Uhura is the biggest single change between the two timelines.  This time around, we don’t have to worry about the shame of kissing a black woman on-screen (like there could ever be any shame in kissing Saldona), so they’ve gone inter-special and let ‘er rip.  The fight between her and Spock makes as much sense as anything in this plot, and taking her on these away missions doesn’t really detract anything, because she portrays herself so intelligently.   I would not mind her in a fight, even if I am not crazy about the Captain and Spock going on the same away missions.

Scotty and Sulu have their moments of solid ingenuity and bravery, even if the former’s happenstance is riddled with coincidence.  Sulu as third in command gives credence to both Cho and his predecessor George Takei’s confidence as an eventual leader.  Nicholas Pegg’s Scotty is such an inspired character, he feels underused no matter how much screen time they give him.

Chekov, however, is a mess.  Yelchin does what he can, but the way Kirk throws his character around in this one lends no credence to either the Captain nor the young Ensign.  The only possible explanation for promoting an Ensign to Chief Engineer over, say, the second engineer in charge, is for screen time.  Just because one studies something over the summer does not mean they should be placed in charge.  Well, unless that person is Tony Stark.

Cumberbatch does as much as he can with a role that is cornered by the past.  He may have been even more interesting if they had not chained him down with clever twists and instead given him more of an unleashed feel.  As soon as one knows who John Harrison is, though, they are no longer wondering what will happen.  They know what has to happen and hope that the film makers will be clever enough to avoid retracing better, more original steps.

They sure know how to show off a Starship
They sure know how to show off a Starship

Having Spock scream, however, was the worst.  It gives one pause when they realize that Abrams said he was not a Trekkie when he took the reigns of the franchise.  It’s not enough that they had him do it, but they really had not given him a precedent for why he would do it.  If he did not do it when his planet was destroyed, why now?

Of course the viewer would love to scream at this point.  We’ve seen enough apparently useless information spewed forth to realize what our smart, logical Vulcan is not allowed to realize, and the result is cheapening.  It cheapens the sacrifices, the reactions and the chase.  Why would one go after a man, when they have what he wants?  Even more, he’s already given up once for it.

All of this takes away from a movie that is still quite entertaining.  Even though our characters are abused by coincidence and irony more than in any Thomas Hardy novel, they still are good at what they do.  They are not aping the behavior of their counterparts.  They are living it.  The visual effects are astounding, unsurpassed by any Trek film and on par with Star Wars.

What are we left with?  Is the visual feast and the camaraderie enough to override the silly plot that is too clever for is own good?  Why the heck are we treading over familiar ground, with these twists, when the last film set us up to beat out-of-town and go for broke?  The work of Abrams, Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof has been subject to criticism before, but this time it feels like they played it a bit safe.  They made the characters work really hard to ignore the obvious to do it.  There is a lot of talk at various points about The Enterprise being selected for the “five-year mission.”  Silly me, I thought they had already taken off.  Seems like they were stuck in port all along.

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

Dredd: A world that no one wants to live in

dredd-01Dredd – 2012

Director Pete Travis
Starring Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Wood Harris, Leana Headey
Written Alex Garland

One could suppose that there is an attempt at some artistic statement to be made with the world as it appears in Dredd, which is the 2nd attempt at starting a franchise based on the comic book.  Something akin to a slightly better lit Blade Runner is the most likely the goal.  What comes across is the message that might is right, even if it is no fun to observe.

“I am the law!” is the common refrain of our hero, Judge Dredd.  His statement is made with some amount of satire in the written material.  In the 1995 film, it was funny, if unintentionally so.  When Karl Urban utters this phrase, it comes across like a kick in the junk.

The movie has a plot of rookie cop Anderson (Thirlby) on her first day with the hardened professional Dredd.  She has psychic ability, which means she can’t wear her helmet.  The other reason she can’t wear her helmet is because she is much more pleasant to look at than anyone else in the film.  The normally glamorous Lena Headey is scarred, almost beyond recognition.  As the main baddie Ma Ma, she has to look this way.  It doesn’t make her look menacing as the makers might like.  For all the colorful characters that Dredd encounters as nemeses in the comic, they found a pretty boring group to counter him, here,

The cinematography is a deliberately mixed bag.  There are some artistic choices here, too, but most of it is not fun to observe.  The angles are awkward, for the most part, to give the 3D something to do.  Sometimes you see a comic book design, when they look through security monitors.  There are some inexplicably blurry shots and overall plenty of shots with miserable people coming to a horrible end.  As horrible as it seems to live in Mega City, there are many people who die horribly and in slow motion.

Urban does everything he is supposed to with the role, but wearing the hood takes away the power of his eyes and other facial expressions.  Seeing him in RED and especially Star Trek, he is someone who has the potential to be a very entertaining actor in action and comic films.  The effect is nullified here.  You could have had Ryan Phillipe, Ben Affleck or Crocodile Dundee play him and there would be little variance.

Alex Garland wanted to make a trilogy out of Judge Dredd, but I am not sure he will be allowed, given how much money this version did not make.  This movie does nothing for any of the actors in it.  It’s highly doubtful that it will win any technical awards.  The best guess is that one would need to be a Dredd fan to wring much enjoyment out of this, but that could be overestimating it a tad.

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