Thor: Ragnarok


Chris Hemsworth and the Thor franchise turn to a not-so-serious sci-fi emphasis.

(2017) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Benedict Cumberbatch, Taika Waititi (voice), Rachel House, Clancy Brown (voice), Tadanobu Asano, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Georgia Blizzard, Amali Goldon, Sam Neill, Luke Hemsworth, Ashley Ricardo. Directed by Taika Waititi

 

Of all the Marvel superhero franchises, in many ways the Thor franchise has been the most disappointing. While it has done very well at the box office, it hasn’t done billion dollar well like the Avengers, Iron Man and Captain America franchises all have. The first two Thor movies were slow and ponderous and overly-serious, never or rarely utilizing star Chris Hemsworth’s natural comedic talents. Thusly, the new Thor movie wasn’t as highly anticipated as much as it might have been.

Furthermore, the franchise was being entrusted to New Zealand director Taika Waititi who had never worked a big budget movie before and was known for comedies like What We Do in the Shadows and Florida Film Festival favorite Hunt for the Wilderpeople. With audiences demanding bigger and bolder superhero films, could Waititi deliver?

You bet he has. Thor: Ragnarok is the biggest box office success of the three Thor films and while it certainly is paving the way for Thor’s next appearance in The Avengers: Infinity War, it also stands alone as great entertainment. Taking his cues from James Gunn and ;John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, Waititi has crafted a film that is light in tone, high energy in execution and thoroughly action-packed.

Asgard is being invaded by Hela (Blanchett), Thor’s big sister that he didn’t know he had. The Goddess of Death had ambitions for taking over Asgard and reigning death and chaos throughout the various dimensions from there but her father Odin (Hopkins) put a stop to it and imprisoned her. With Odin dying, Hela is able to make her escape and she resurrects the dead warriors of Asgard to fight the living warriors. During the ensuing battle, she destroys Thor’s mystical hammer Mjolnir and sends him to Sakaar, a garbage heap of a planet where he is captured and forced to fight in the Arena against a big green Hulk (Ruffalo) who was last seen piloting a jet at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The planet is ruled by Jeff Goldblum…I mean, the Grandmaster who is essentially Jeff Goldblum playing Jeff Goldblum which is a wise and wonderful thing. Thor knows he must escape to rescue Asgard and in fact the entire universe from the ravages of Hela but in order to get out he must team up with Hulk and Valkyrie (Thompson) who has a connection to both Asgard and Hela herself. It won’t be easy and Thor, always the immature hot-head, will have to grow up along the way.

Waititi makes sure that the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, something that failed to occur in the first two Thor movies. The tone is lighthearted and funny throughout; there are plenty of jokes at the expense of superhero films in general and Thor in particular but the movie never devolves into parody and is respectful of the core audience rather than making fun of those who are comic book lovers. It’s a smart move and cements Waititi as a gifted and savvy director, paving the way for him to move out of the independent ranks and work on films of all sorts (with one of them reportedly being a sequel to What We Do in the Shadows), almost certainly including some high-profile studio films.

The movie finally utilizes Hemsworth’s charm more than any other Marvel movie has to date; this is the Chris Hemsworth we have seen glimpses of from time to time and always knew he could be. This is the muscular action star becoming a charismatic movie star before our very eyes. If nothing else, Thor: Ragnarok should serve as a means for Hemsworth to grow into the kinds of roles offered to guys like Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Matt Damon in years past.

But despite the humor there is no skimping on the action with several major battle scenes, plenty of CGI and some good old-fashioned brawls. Several major characters in the Thor universe don’t survive to the end of the movie and we finally get to see Thor as the true heir to Odin. There is also plenty of Loki (Hiddleston) who in many ways has been the most interesting character to come out of the Thor movies as he allies himself with Thor to save Asgard, although the trickster does manage to set events in motion that directly lead into the coming conflict with Thanos, set for this May.

Some movies are roller coaster rides; Thor: Ragnarok is a whole effin’ theme park. It remains in some theaters (and if you haven’t seen it in one, by all means do so – this will play best on a big screen) but will shortly be available on home video. You can bet it will be joining the ranks of the Cinema365 home video library just as soon as it does.

REASONS TO GO: Hemsworth is at his most likable. The action sequences are downright spectacular. Goldblum plays Goldblum which is a high recommendation.
REASONS TO STAY: Fans of the traditional Marvel Thor may be put off by the lighthearted tone.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of violence and superhero action, as well as some brief sensual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Led Zeppelin classic rock track “Immigrant Song” is featured in both the trailer and the film (perfectly). The British hard rock band is notoriously picky about who they license their music out to; in fact, this is the first feature film they’ve licensed one of their songs to that didn’t feature former journalist Cameron Crowe in some way.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Guardians of the Galaxy
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
I, Tonya

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True Legend (Su Qi-Er)


This armor is for the birds.

This armor is for the birds.

(2010) Martial Arts (Indomina) Vincent Zhao, Xun Zhou, Andy On, Guo Xiaodong, Jay Chou, Michelle Yeoh, David Carradine, Gordon Liu, Cung Le, Xiaogang Feng, Ka-Yen Leung, Jacky Heung, Ni Yan, Will Liu, Luxia Jiang, Ze Li, Hanwen Suen, Conan Stevens, Sylvester Terkay, Matt Weise, Dominique Vandenberg, Jon Heidenreich, He Hung. Directed by Yuen Woo Ping

Vengeance is one of the uglier sides of the human spirit. It warps the soul and is a kind of madness, an obsession that can turn a good man into something evil. Those who go through life seeking vengeance are likely to dig their own graves.

Su Can (Zhao) is a skilled general who rescues a prince (Heung) of the realm from a fortress full of enemies in a mountain stronghold. In return for his bravery, Su is offered the position of governor of Hubei province; however, Su doesn’t want it. Su is more interested in perfecting his own Wu Shu and retiring from the military life. He gives instead the position to his adopted brother Yuan Lie (On), who is jealous at having lived in Su Can’s shadow most of his life.

But not all of it  When Yuan was a little boy, Su Can’s father killed Yuan’s father who had been perfecting a particularly evil form of Wu Shu called the Five Venom Fists, afterwards adopting Yuan and his sister Ying (Zhou). Su had fallen in love with Ying and married her, further driving a wedge between the two men.

Five years pass and Yuan returns home, ostensibly to reconcile. However, that’s not going to happen – his heart has grown far too twisted and evil. He murders Su’s father in a particularly brutal fashion and maims Su. Only Ying’s pleas stop Yuan from killing her husband. Instead, Yuan throws Su into a raging river, poisoned and badly injured.

Ying escapes, diving into the river after her husband and rescuing him. She takes him to the lonely mountain cottage of Dr. Yu (Yeoh), a herbalist. Su’s injuries are crippling and only through rigorous training will he be able to use his arm again. At first, Su is more interested in drinking himself blind. Not only did Yuan murder his dad but he kidnapped his son Feng (Suen) as well and Su is in no shape to rescue his own flesh and blood.

However, the Wu Shu God (Chou) takes pity on Su and along with a wise old sage (Gordon Liu) instruct him in the art of Wu Shu. It isn’t until later that Ying realizes that Su is going mad – he is training with nobody. She realizes that Su may never be recovered enough to rescue her son so she decides to go do it herself and gets captured for her trouble.

Su knows that he has no choice; he will have to set aside his demons and save his family. The showdown will be epic but it won’t end quite the way anyone expects – leaving Su broken and fighting in an arena against foreign devils. Has he hit rock bottom? And what will he lose on the way there?

Ping is best known as the action choreographer for films like The Matrix and both Kill Bill movies. He’s also a director and has done over 20 movies on his own. As you might expect, he is an accomplished director of action sequences and has a fluid visual style that’s quite pleasing. However, he is less strong with story and character, letting them take a back seat to the sometimes breathtaking fights.

And they are breathtaking. The fight at the waterfall between the Iron Twins and Su is beautiful (it ought to be; it took 15 days to shoot) and intricate, one of the best martial arts sequences you’re ever likely to see. There are several others which are similarly spectacular. Sadly, when the action stops and the talking starts, the movie grinds to a screeching halt…or screeches to a grinding halt. Choose your mixed metaphor wisely.

Ping is best known for his wire work and he augments that with some CGI sequences involving weaponry and Wu Shu wizardry. Unfortunately, like many effects sequences in Chinese films these days, the work isn’t up to par with modern standards and for the most part look kind of weak and shoddy  While I realize that practical effects aren’t always…er, practical for certain sequences, if you must use CGI at the very least make sure it doesn’t make your film look worse.

Vincent Zhao wasn’t particularly well-known in China when this was filmed – he’d mostly done television and commercial work but he does a pretty credible job here and is at the center of most of the action. Yeoh is one of my favorite actresses worldwide; even though her role here is brief, she elevates every movie she participates in and this is no exception. I could watch her chatting on her cell phone for hours and never get bored.

In fact, having Yeoh as well as the legendary Gordon Liu and the late David Carradine in one of his final roles all together in the same movie is reason enough to rent this sucker, even though they don’t appear in the same scenes at one time. Reason enough for me to seek this one out…and it should be reason enough for you to as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific action sequences. Yeoh, Chou, Carradine and Gordon Liu in the same movie – awesome!

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No plot to speak of. CGI detracts from the quality of the film.

FAMILY VALUES: Martial arts violence as you’d expect, some of it brutal.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Ping’s first film as a director since 1996.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a music video here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Unreported (the film made a negligible amount in the States although it’s Chinese box office is probably substantial) on a $20M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: War

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Local Legends

John Carter


 

John Carter

Taylor Kitsch is stunned when Lynn Collins gives him the box office numbers.

(2012) Science Fiction (Disney) Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, Willem Dafoe, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston, Thomas Hayden Church, Rupert Frazer, Nicholas Woodeson, David Schwimmer, Jon Favreau. Directed by Andrew Stanton

 

As a young boy my father introduced me to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Tarzan books. I read all of them eagerly, but it was the Barsoom series that intrigued me the most. I wasn’t alone in this – notable writers such as Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein were also heavily influenced by the books, as was scientist Carl Sagan. It has taken more than 79 years of development – from a proposed feature length animation – for the book to finally make the screen.

There is good reason for that. Burroughs had a terrific imagination but was not a gifted writer in many ways. His books were more like travelogues, particularly this series and the plot meandered quite a bit. I can imagine potential screenwriters being plenty frustrated by the lack of inertia as they tried to adapt A Princess of Mars, the first book in the series. At last however, they managed to and the result is one of the more anticipated movies of the Spring.

Ned Burroughs (Sabara) is summoned to the home of his Uncle only to find out that he had passed away shortly before Ned arrived. The instructions left for Ned were cryptic; his Uncle wished to be buried in a crypt that could only be opened from the inside, and a journal was entrusted to Ned which was not to be read for two years.

Ned being a compliant sort follows his Uncle’s wishes to the letter and then begins to read the journal. His uncle, John Carter (Kitsch) had been a cavalry officer in the American Civil War and a good one – but his side had lost. Carter had lost a lot more than that however; his wife and daughter perished in a fire while he was away from his Virginia farm and the grief-stricken Carter went West to find his fortune, a cave of gold that would set him up for life.

He finds that cave, but a lot more as well; a strange bald man with an amulet that transports Carter to Mars accidentally. Well, at first he doesn’t realize he’s on Mars; he just thinks he’s in the desert somewhere. Oddly, he is able to leap great distances (owing to the gravity). Carter is found and captured by green men with four arms and tusks who call themselves Tharks. This particular group is led by Tars Tarkas (Dafoe),who spares Carter because of his amazing leaping ability which Tarkas thinks might be useful. Carter, however, isn’t disposed towards fighting for anybody. He is given to Sola (Morton), a Thark who has a somewhat checkered past but like Tarkas, a good heart.

There is a civil war going on here as well, between two city-states – Helium, led by the noble Tardos Mors (Hinds) and Zodanga, led by the bloodthirsty Sab Than (West). The Zodangans have developed a high tech energy beam that is a devastating weapon wiping out most of the navy of Helium. In order to put the war to a halt, Mors offers Sab Than his own daughter in marriage – Dejah Thoris (Collins).

Despite being a princess, Dejah Thoris is also quite the scientist and warrior herself, not to mention having a will of her own. She has her own ideas of what she wants for her life and they don’t include being married to a bloodthirsty tyrant she has no feelings for. So she does the sensible thing – she runs away. Her intended also does the sensible thing – engages in a battle with her floating barge and shoots it down. She is saved by John Carter and his new friends the Tharks. Seeing how strong he is and how high he can jump gives her ideas – ideas that can lead to an end to war but on Helium’s terms.

However, unbeknownst to either of them there are factions within the Tharks who have a vested interest in Carter meeting an untimely end. Also the Zodangans are getting aid by a mysterious group of wizards who mean to maintain the balance on Mars the old-fashioned way – by installing a puppet dictator who will put an end to strife and rule over the dying planet with an iron fist. However, their plans won’t come to fruition if John Carter has anything to do with it.

Stanton is known for his work with animated features at Pixar – he has already directed Finding Nemo and Wall-E, the latter one of my favorite movies of the last few years. This is his first live feature (although given that a good chunk of his cast is CGI as is much of his environment, it isn’t far from an animated feature) and he acquits himself fairly well. He knows how to tell a good story.

The trouble is, A Princess of Mars isn’t a particularly good story. Once you get past the novelty of being transported to Mars, Carter doesn’t really do a whole lot other than fight and give stirring speeches and Thoris is little more than a damsel in distress. At least both characters are better written here, particularly Thoris.

The problem is that Taylor Kitsch, best-known for his work in “Friday Night Lights,” doesn’t carry the character well. Sure he looks good shirtless (which Carter is for most of the movie) but honestly the movie needs a lead who can do more than jump and posture. John Carter needs to inspire confidence and project heroism and Kitsch does neither. Bill Goodykoontz of the Arizona Republic characterized him as “generic” and that is a perfect description of his performance.

Collins fares better. She might be guilty of trying too hard sometimes but at least she doesn’t phone her performance in (as others do here). She at least makes her character memorable which is hard to do in a movie like this sort.

Too often these days adventure/action films of this sort place an overreliance on special effects and little or none on character. What point is there to all these pretty images if we don’t care about the characters who inhabit them? Sure, the cities and aircraft of Barsoom (Mars) are amazing to look at. The Tharks are impressively realistic. The interiors are sufficiently alien. The movie looks nice.

The action sequences are pretty fine as well, from an arena scene in which Tars Tarkas, Sola and Carter fight a Martian white ape (which is gigantic, furry and not at all ape-like) to a battle aboard a barge where Carter goes leaping about like the Incredible Hulk. That leaping, by the way, is a little bit distracting – it looks silly in places.

Still, while definitely flawed it’s kind of fun as well. If your expectations are too high you’re bound to be disappointed – and quite frankly being a fan of the original novel, I had hoped for better even though I shouldn’t have. After all, as I said earlier, this isn’t an easy story to film.

That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing though, and it most certainly is. There is a lot to admire here, from the vistas and cityscapes to the old-fashioned swashbuckling. Yeah, there are ray guns and swords and sorcery and flying ships and bare-chested heroes – I just wish there might have been a bit more to the characters as well.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of swashbuckling action. Some pretty nifty CG effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Little to no substance. Battle sequences often confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence, not to mention a good deal of royal blue blood and ichors.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the movie was filmed in Utah because of its barren landscape with unusual rock formations giving it an otherworldly look. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars on which the movie is based while residing in Utah.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100. The reviews are about as mixed as you can get them.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

DOG LOVERS: You wouldn’t think there would be dogs on Mars but there is an adorable dog-like creature that runs unbelievably fast. Like, autobahn fast.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: A Thousand Words

Country Strong


Country Strong

This is...American Idol!

(2010) Musical Drama (Screen Gems) Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester, Marshall Chapman, Jeremy Childs, Gabe Sipos, Lisa Stewart Seals, Jackie Welch, Meagan Henderson, Katie Cook. Directed by Shana Feste

There is an itch in most of us to be famous, but in some it’s more like a rash. Those in that sad condition can’t ignore it, can’t cure it, can only go about pursuing their obsession in a single-minded manner. Fame, however, shines a spotlight on us that few can bear for very long and when we fall apart, the whole world watches.

That’s what happened to Kelly Canter (Paltrow), a country superstar whose bouts with the bottle led to a drunken incident during a Dallas concert which led to a miscarriage. Now in rehab, her husband and manager James (McGraw) is pulling her out a full month early in order for her to embark on a tour to rehab her image. Beau (Hedlund), who is an orderly at her treatment facility and an aspiring singer/songwriter himself (and a good one), is aghast but at Kelly’s insistence he accompanies her on the tour as an opening act and to a certain extent, as a watchdog to make sure she doesn’t drink. He’s more successful at the former than the latter.

Also on the tour is Chiles Stanton (Meester), a former Miss Dallas who has gone from beauty pageants to honky tonks in a single minded pursuit of Nashville glory. Kelly suspects that James is sleeping with Chiles, which is a little bit hypocritical since she has been sleeping with Beau since rehab. And Chiles is sweet on Beau, despite Beau’s disinterest. Yes, everyone sleeps with everyone else except I suspect Beau and James. They probably don’t sleep together. And Chiles and Kelly? In your dreams, pervert.

Kelly, with pressure mounting on her for a comeback, is patently unready for the Texas tour that is going to take her back to Dallas at its conclusion. She worries that she has become too old for her stardom and certainly for her husband who is no longer interested in her romantically but remains her manager nonetheless, shamelessly manipulating his wife. The miscarriage sits between them like the Great Wall of China. She begins to drink again, with devastating consequences.

All of this leads to some pretty public meltdowns that all the spin in the world is going to fail to erase. Can Kelly get her act together and show the world what country strong is all about? Will Chiles get the stardom she so desperately seeks? And will Beau, with his distaste for money, find an audience of his own? Tune in.

Roger Ebert likened this to movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s and I can agree with him there – the elements of A Star is Born are too many to count. Feste doesn’t appear to be out to give us an insider’s view of the country music world; instead, this is a look at the downside of fame, the dark side of ambition and the redemptive power of a really good song.

The three singers all contribute their own vocals, lending more authenticity to the proceedings. Paltrow again delivers, not only vocally but as the fragile singer. Kelly is a woman who was strong once upon a time, but the constant pressure and rootless lifestyle have taken their toll. Now she’s a woman trapped in a marriage that’s unfulfilling, lost in a sea of booze and bad breaks. She latches onto Beau as a life preserver and he’s only too happy to fill that bill.

Hedlund, recently seen in TRON: Legacy, plays the aw-shucks cowboy with a heart on his sleeve nicely. His vocals have a nice timbre, not unlike Joaquin Phoenix assaying Johnny Cash (as a matter of fact, Trace Adkins covers one of Beau’s songs on the end credits). His chemistry with Meester is undeniable (there were rumors that the two had an off-screen romance as a result of the movie that have been denied by both camps) and he makes a good foil for McGraw.

Tim McGraw made his bones as a country singer but he has acting chops as well. He tends to do well with roles that give him more of a strong center to work from, and James Canter has that. He is manipulative yes, but he’s also dedicated and honestly believes that he’s doing the right thing for his wife. There’s a scene late in the movie that has Kelly doing a Make-a-Wish visit to a child’s schoolroom where the two begin to dance together in the classroom, then abruptly James pulls away. It’s one of the best single scenes of his career and shows that if he wanted to carry a movie on his own (which he’s never done), he certainly has the charisma and chops to do it.

The movie stumbles in the very last scene which is a shame because the shameless Hollywood ending counteracts the effectiveness of the movie’s twists and turns in the last reel. Without that one scene, or rather, the appearance of one person at its conclusion, this would have gotten a higher rating from me than it did. That’s how critical a single scene can be to the perception of an entire movie, something aspiring filmmakers would do well to remember.

Country Strong is surprising in that it’s a much better movie than I anticipated it would be, expecting more of a generic country-infused music biz soap opera. While there is some of that in here (particularly in the complex romantic relationships), it is more of a look at the effects of fame on a treasured artist, and the human toll that fame takes. That wasn’t the movie I expected, but I for one am glad it’s the movie I got.

REASONS TO GO: There are a few unforeseen twists in the movie that make it worth viewing. McGraw and Paltrow give fine performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Characters of Beau and Chiles a bit cliche. Very last scene blows off goodwill from the movie’s final direction.

FAMILY VALUES: Much of the plot involves the results of alcohol and drug abuse; there is also some fairly sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tim McGraw, a real-life country star, is the only one of the four leads who doesn’t sing onscreen (he does contribute a duet with Paltrow over the closing credits).  

HOME OR THEATER: The concert sequences work best in a big theater with a big sound system.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Dilemma