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

Advertisements

Pawn Sacrifice


Checkmate.

Checkmate.

(2015) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Tobey Maguire, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Liev Schreiber, Lily Rabe, Robin Weigert, Sophie Nélisse, Evelyne Brochu, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Nathaly Thibault, Aiden Lovekamp, Ilia Volok, Conrad Pla, Andreas Apergis, Katie Nolan, Spiro Malandrakis, Peter Janov, Lydia Zadel. Directed by Edward Zwick

Chess is one of the most complex games ever invented. After just the third move, there are over 40 billion possible combinations that are available. It takes a strong, keen, focused mind to play the game well and to become a grandmaster takes an intellect that most of us can only dream of. To become the world’s chess champion however – well, few ever reach that pinnacle.

Bobby Fischer (Maguire) aspires to that mountaintop. As a young boy (Lovekamp) he developed a passion for the game. His mother Regina (Weigert) raised him and his sister Joan (Nélisse) as a single mom; an American-board Jew who had fled Europe prior to World War II, she had become a communist sympathizer which led to their home being watched by the FBI. Bobby’s chess prowess led Regina to bring him to the attention of Carmine Nigro (Pla), a chess champion who was impressed by Bobby’s skills and even more so by his potential.

As Bobby got older and became renowned as America’s best chess player, he turned his sights to the Russians who were the elite chess players of their day. However, in tournaments the Russians purposely would play Bobby to draws in order to lower his point school, keeping him from qualifying for a championship match with Boris Spassky (Schreiber), then the world champion. Lawyer Paul Marshall (Stuhlbarg), wanting to see Fischer get a shot at the Russians and help America out of its doldrums caused by economic recession, civil unrest and the Vietnam War. He arranged for Bobby to be mentored by Father Bill Lombardy (Sarsgaard), himself a grandmaster.

At last Bobby got his chance to play Spassky for the world championship but by this time his mental illness began to rear its ugly head. Bobby, beset by paranoia and by hyper-sensitivity to sound, began to make increasingly bizarre demands of the chess federation that sanctioned the match. He would arrive late to matches and on one occasion, not at all. His antics would lead him to go down two points to zero in the tournament against Spassky (in the tournament, players get one point for a win and a half point for a draw; a two point deficit is nearly insurmountable). His now adult and married sister (Rabe) is extremely concerned for his sanity.

Unable to maintain any interpersonal relationships because of his increasing paranoia and his poor social skills (he was demanding, uncompromising and often shrill, even to friends) other than with a prostitute (Brochu) with whom he’d had a brief sexual liaison, Bobby is in danger of losing everything he ever dreamed of and worse, being forced to give up the game that made him famous – but may be part of the disintegration of his mind.

The story of Bobby Fischer is a modern tragedy. Zwick, who directed Glory about 20 years ago, has an affinity for tragic stories but he goes a little overboard here. Fischer’s madness, which certainly has to be at or near center-stage for the film, becomes a little MORE than that; we’re subjected to endless scenes of imaginary pounding on his door, voices speaking in Russian, Maguire looking confused or concerned and so forth. I would have been more interested in how he overcame those things to play one of the most memorable tournaments in the history of chess.

Maguire has turned in some notable performances in films both large and small and while this isn’t one of his best, it is far from one that would earn him demerits. It would have been easy to make Bobby Fischer a series of psychotic tics and screaming rage fits but he resists the urge to let those define the character. Maguire actually makes Fischer, maybe one of the most unsympathetic figures in history, somewhat sympathetic here, a little boy lost amid the growing noises in his head that would eventually overwhelm him.

Part of what is fascinating about this story is the enormous pressure that was brought to bear on Fischer; he was playing not just for the championship, but for an ideology. He was playing to show that the West was just as competitive and just as intellectually acute as the Soviets. He was expected to win and the film only touches on that. We don’t get a sense of whether that affected Fischer or not; some accounts say that it did but you wouldn’t know it by watching this.

Schreiber and Sarsgaard are both put in roles that are the sort both actors excel at and they respond with excellence. The former plays Spassky as a man who understands that he is playing a very dangerous game, but knows how to play it very well. He’s a bit of an international playboy but he is also one of the greatest chess players not just of his day but ever. He also works within a repressive system in which he is almost always watched and surrounded by what are ostensibly bodyguards but who are there as much to keep him from defecting as they are to keep him from harm.

&Sarsgaard plays the priest who is also a grandmaster (this isn’t made up; the man really existed) and who served as Fischer’s second, analyzing his game and opponent and preparing Fischer with rapid-fire games. Gentle of demeanor, he doesn’t seem cut out for the cut-throat world of international chess in an era when it was highly politicized. Sarsgaard in many ways acts as the conduit between the audience and the action, letting us know if we should be concerned or overjoyed at Fischer’s various games. The movie spends a good deal of time on Game 6 of the Fischer-Spassky tournament, which many in the chess community view as the greatest game ever played. Certainly to anyone who knows the game, it was a thing of beauty, one which caused even Spassky to applaud his opponent. That doesn’t happen very often; in fact, it’s only happened once.

In fact, this is a solidly acted movie throughout and quite frankly I wasn’t sure if it was going to be; the story lends itself to scenery chewing of the first order, but fortunately we don’t see any of that except for rare instances. Bobby Fischer is a name that probably doesn’t mean very much to younger audiences; people my age probably remember the Fischer-mania that swept the nation, a notoriety the real grandmaster neither sought out nor wanted. The demons that beset the man and ultimately brought him down until he was eventually a man without a country, whom the world had essentially turned its back on. When he died in 2008, it became a sad obituary in what had once been a flame-brilliant career. Is this the movie that could best capture his life? I don’t think any dramatic narrative could. Even the documentary on Fischer scarcely captures the tragic nature of his life and fall and Pawn Sacrifice only hints at the fall.

In many ways, this is set up to be a sports underdog drama, but I didn’t leave with the cathartic feeling that many of those films instill in their audiences. Instead, I left feeling sad; sad for a bitter, unhappy man who happened to be a chess genius but never could master the game of life.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: Overdoes some of the “going crazy” elements.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some adult thematic content, a bit of sexuality and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Bobby Fischer was a fan of the Manchester United football (soccer) team.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Me and Bobby Fischer
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Surviving Me: The 9 Circles of Sophie