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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Spotlight (****1/2) takes the road less travelled

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Spotlight – 2015

Director Tom McCarthy
Screenplay by McCarthy and Josh Singer
Starring  Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Len Cariou, Jamey Sheridan, Paul Guilfoyle, Brian d’Arcy James, Billy Crudup

In 2001, Marty Baron (Schreiber) is the new editor of the The Boston Globe. His perspective is that of an outsider and being so, he is not shrouded under the veil of the Catholic church in its U.S. stronghold. As he introduces himself to his new team, he reveals his desire for the Spotlight news team to turn its focus on the 84 suits against the church for the obstruction of justice in regards to molestation cases over many years. One lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian (Tucci) believes that Archbishop Cardinal Law (Cariou) has been aware of the abuse and has done nothing to prevent it. The team takes several avenues to pursue answers. They find that they are onto something big.

There is a subtlety that is present in this take of the media’s search for truth that rarely makes it into stories of this kind. The newspaper industry is well on its way to fading into obscurity and the resources are becoming more and more scarce. The Globe is one of the few remaining enterprises, but cuts are on there way. Still there is a curiosity that being part of an investigative journalist that the actors handle in a genuine, but not heavy handed way. Ruffalo, Keaton, James and McAdams drive the ship from different but equally interesting ways. All the reporters are lapsed Catholics, but they don’t carry a grudge. Instead they have a new religion in the pursuit of journalistic truth. Spotlight is a love letter to the press, but it is a well made one.

One problem that drama in real life films have is they usually cast the same supporting actors as bureaucratic roadblocks. Spotlight is no exception with Cariou, Sheridan and Guilfoyle. It gives a feeling of sameness that takes away from the genuinely interesting finds and dramatic moments that come up through good hard work. It helps to have Billy Crudup as a lawyer with ambiguous intent to shake things up a bit.

Another problem with dramas based in Boston since Mystic River has been the repeated portrayal of Boston folk as overprotective and proudly ignorant. There is a little of that Boston politic at work here, but a lot less than any film starring an Affleck or a Wahlberg.

To give full disclosure, I am Roman Catholic and I am at peace with the truth that like any institution of men, there are many flaws. Amazingly, Richard Jenkins as Richard Sipe presents the same perspective. His ex-priest gives a “Deepthroat” angle that pushes the story into exceptionally dramatic proportions. It’s the organization that is crooked, not the faith.

Look, I’m not crazy, I’m not paranoid. I’m experienced. Check the docket. You’ll see. They control everything.

As ensemble dramas go, this one is remarkably smooth. There is only one incident of the nausea inducing grandstanding that make these types of films feel so long. All of the actors are experts at downplaying their big moments to make them more accessible. Keaton, Tucci, Slattery and Schreiber are especially good. Most impressive among the lesser known actors is veteran theater actor Bryan D’arcy James who has a significant role within the Spotlight team.

When watching how this story unfolds, it makes one wonder. How have things changed in the Roman Catholic Church? So many people have been affected by this, but the Church seems to be making steps to acknowledge their sins and seeking correction and forgiveness. The light of truth that they needed in this case will likely be needed in the future too. Every group that holds power holds the possibility of corruption.

What is going to happen to the newspaper industry?  It’s compelling to see that in the midst of the coverage of the story, the Globe’s staff acknowledge that they had all of the pieces all along but never pieced it together before now. The case for organized news gathering has been so powerfully made. If there is a way to keep newspapers going, this should help in the effort.

McCarthy and Singer have created a near masterpiece out of what could have been a self-aggrandizing pile of schmaltz. Like its subject, this film is not perfect, but it aspires to be greater.

(****1/2 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 *****)

Foxcatcher (***): It doesn’t take a genius to be born into money

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Foxcatcher – 2014

Director Bennett Miller
Starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller, Anthony Michael Hall
Screenplay by E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman

A story about misfits can be a sweet thing about overcoming adversity. In the case of Mark (Tatum) and Dave Shultz’ (Ruffalo) intersection with John “Golden Eagle” du Pont (Carrell), it is an eerie and dangerous collision course.  A Gold medal winner in the 1984 Olympics, Mark Shultz still struggles to eke out a living in his quest for Seoul 1988. He meets up with du Pont, who recruits him as he is creating a team of wrestlers called “Foxcatcher,” based on the du Pont family historical lore. What he’s really looking for is a friend, and for a while this paid friendship works. Du Pont discovers that the limited success that the team has does nothing to overcome his mother’s lack of respect for him. Introducing Mark to the trap of cocaine sends him into a spiral.

At this point, du Pont brings in Dave to help coach the team, but this does not inspire any more affection from his mother. Success becomes more elusive for Mark, and he eventually leaves the team. John finds the break too much for his psyche to handle and tragedy ensues.

The story is one of envy and self-hatred on two fronts. Mark is grateful to Dave, who is an excellent competitor with a gentle spirit. He is unable to rise above his brother’s patronage though. Carrell’s du Pont is almost completely corrupted by what he understands about success being a member of his family. like growing inside a festering wound, he has no idea he is part of the infection. Both understand that they are miserable, however, and although they find a temporary solace in one another, there is not enough true individual soul to either one of them for it to last long.

Carrell and Tatum do more acting here than they’ve ever had to in the past. Even so, it is not a stretch to see Tatum as a somber meathead or Carrell as a damaged obsessive. They’ve done variations on this theme before. The true gem in Foxcatcher is Ruffalo, who embodies a normal guy, dedicated family man, athlete and coach all at once. His ability to move between the varying levels of psychosis of his brother and benefactor is the most complex and satisfying aspect of the story. His connection to reality is a tether for both, but also a source of envy.

One impressive aspect of the performance that is matched by Tatum is that both brothers have the look of wrestlers, down the overly developed abdominal region that results in a consistent lurch. Every single step looks like they are ready to drag a knee to the mat to create or escape from a move. More than that for Ruffalo, he’s always ready to give of himself. His knowledge, his time, his body and ultimately much more.

Overall the effect of the movie is chilling and an overwhelming sense of dread. We know tragedy awaits, but we have to see it though. I can’t say it is an incredibly compelling viewing, as much as it is disturbing.  There is no real drive behind Mark Shultz that one can identify with and du Pont is crazy as one would think.

Ultimately, there could be nominations for this film, but it would not be for the right reason. Carrell has received a lot of good press and so has Tatum. This will go over like Natalie Portman’s Black Swan turn. Those who’ve been wanting to impressed will grab all the good and ignore how average the overall effect of the film is until years go by and they realize they never will watch it again. Meanwhile, Ruffalo will go on doing Oscar worthy stuff under the radar.

If you want to get a real chill, take the time to watch the documentary that they made about his Foxcatcher program. Just knowing how it turned out and how he saw himself  is expressed better here in 15 minutes than it was in 2 hours with Bennett, Tatum and Carrell:

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

Now You See Me is a cute date that vanishes after the show

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Now You See Me – 2013

Director Louis Leterrier
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Mélanie Laurent, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Common, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Michael Kelley, Elias Koteas
Screenplay Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, Edward Ricourt

Now You See Me is the kind of trick that shows you how its done while its setting you up for the next trick.  Four magicians (Eisenberg, Fisher, Harrelson and Franco) picked deliberately set up a show in Vegas that nets an apparent robbery in a bank in France.  This brings them to the attention of a FBI agent (Ruffalo) and a member of Interpol (Laurent).  One of the witnesses to the first trick (Freeman) gives both agents a bit of a tutorial, while showing us that he has a rivalry with their benefactor (Caine).  All of this seems pretty straight up, until they get to the 2nd trick.

As the 4 Horsemen, the leads have an awkward chemistry that seems more like cohesive bickering except when they are on stage.  Eisenberg is good for his role as the mouthpiece of the group.  It requires both being smart and being a smart ass, and he has each in spades.  Fisher and Harrelson have some expected moments, but its Franco’s mad escape attempt takes the card.

Ruffalo plays the dutiful lunkhead FBI agent, with a partner who may or may not be in on it.  He learns fast enough to always be one step behind, with his boss always chewing his ass.  Meanwhile, we have people literally being played like fiddles and the looming specter of a comedian named Shrike who’s been missing for nearly 20 years.  I wonder if he enters into the ending?

So much flash and pomp, and the circumstance is what you make of it.  The conclusion could be reached early in the film, but the actors you’ve seen playing the same roles for years may be the blindness that keeps you from understanding what you are headed towards.

Leterrier is a director who knows how to entertain an audience.  The viewer is kept at arm’s length, seeing what they need to see.  What they do with the information depends on the willing suspension of each’s beliefs.  The magicians hardly seem like characters, more like distractions.  And that is the point.

Is it memorable?  In some important ways, it may well be.  Most people will remember there was a smile on their face, even if they can’t quite place a finger on why.

(**** 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