“But … are you Thor, god of … hammers?” Thor: Ragnarok

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Marvel Studios’ latest – Thor: Ragnarok – is about as delightful a film to come from the Marvel/Disney machine as we’ve yet seen.

Marrying the free-wheeling whimsy of Ant-Man with the trippy nothing-is-too-zany visual style of Dr. Strange, layering in the heart and humanity of the Captain America films, and playing off the wackadoodle Shakespearean promise of Kenneth Branagh’s first Thor, director Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) nonetheless delivers a completely unique vision and a superhero flick for the ages.

There is nary a shred of evidence of the micromanaged focus-grouping that seems to have plagued other entries in Marvel’s now 17-movie strong cinematic universe: the unfunny, overbaked narrative mush of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2; the ponderous “how-many-action-figures-can-we-cram-into-this-for-merchandising” clutter of Avengers: Age of Ultron; the just plain dull-as-dishwater “end-is-nigh” pretense of, yes, Thor: The Dark World.

No, Thor: Ragnarok belies its title with a light-as-air zip and a screwball comic touch that plays beautifully to star Chris Hemsworth’s Cary-Grant-trapped-in-Tab-Hunter’s-body charms. Hemsworth’s gift is in simultaneously embracing the absurd and the self-serious, mining Thor’s lovable arrogance in uncertain circumstances for “fish-out-of-water” laughs. Akin to Shakespeare’s better “history” plays (say, Henry IV with its introduction of the iconic Falstaff), Ragnarok honors the operatic complexity of its source Norse mythology by juxtaposing the light and the dark, the goofy and the grand, to play out the prodigal son’s/hero’s quest to overcome both palace intrigue and the intoxicating lure of interstellar adventure to find his proper path to the throne.

The film shouldn’t work as well as it does. Waititi is obviously fueled by a love of the corny sci-fi box office bombs that littered HBO’s schedule in the early and mid 80s (post-Star Wars) like Krull, Beastmaster, Flash Gordon, Buckaroo Banzai, and so on – movies that I myself watched in a constant loop, attracted to the gonzo so-bad-it’s-great storytelling and campy visuals. In fact, Mark Mothersbaugh’s Moog-synth score sounds like it was written for an arcade game in 1983. And that’s a fabulous thing. (There is also an epic use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” in segments that bookend the film. It’s a touch that not only enlivens the two sequences in which the tune is used but adds a nice layer of meta commentary – “we come from the land of the ice and snow” – about finding one’s home and one’s place in this world.)

However, Waititi isn’t on a nostalgia trip; he isn’t interested in self-indulgence. Rather, with a Howard Hawks-esque (Bringing Up Baby) command of pacing, set-up, visual jokes, and patter, Waititi delivers a character-driven romp that celebrates a lost soul embracing his destiny and learning a touch of humility along the way. Of course, in this case, the lost soul happens to be the Norse God of Thunder and a superheroic Avenger who pals around with the Hulk, but that’s beside the point. Odin (a wry Anthony Hopkins) consoles his son at one point, when Thor is bemoaning the loss of his magic hammer Mjolnir, “But … are you Thor, god of … hammers?”

The plot is almost impossible to encapsulate, but I’ll try. Thor and brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston reclaiming the smarmy twinkle that made the character such fun initially) are on a search to find their father Odin who is hiding out in Norway. Early on, they encounter Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange in a witty cat-and-mouse sequence that telegraphs that Ragnarok won’t be your typical Marvel flick.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Eventually, Loki and Thor discover that their father has concealed both a dark history from them and the existence of a sister Hela (Cate Blanchett, all slither and swagger and having a devil of a good time) who has returned to Asgard to take over the universe and wear some really fierce eyeliner and multi-horned headgear. Thor and Loki get shunted by Hela to Sakaar, a planet of garbage and misfit toys, where Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster runs a Let’s Make a Deal-meets-Gladiator “Contest of Champions.” (This is the best use of Goldblum’s insidious, out-sized, googly-eyed demeanor in years.)

Lo and behold, Thor’s old buddy The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo fully embracing the sweet/sour rampaging baby characterization from the Avengers films) is somehow on Sakaar too. The boys fight; they make up; they fight again; and eventually, with the aid of new compatriot Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson bringing the boozy, bossy fun), return to Asgard and save the day (more or less) from Hela’s machinations. Whew.

Oh, and Karl Urban (Star Trek, Dredd, Pete’s Dragon) pops up as Hela’s right-hand thug Skurge the Executioner, and, as always, Urban brings a nuanced inner-conflict and a compelling screen presence to a character who in lesser hands would have been a screaming, raving slab of testosterone. One day, I’d like to see him in a movie that doesn’t require special effects, if they make those any more.

In the end, though, the film is a showcase for Hemsworth’s effervescent wit and steroidal comedy and for Waititi’s sure-handed cinematic voice and eye-popping visuals. Hemsworth is at a difficult career crossroads: a household name actor in international box office blockbusters who doesn’t yet seem like a star. Perhaps this turn will change that. If not, he and Waititi need to team up again posthaste and, maybe this time, sans capes. Hemsworth is that rare performer – a beautiful human specimen with the comic genius of an ugly duckling. Waititi is that rare director – one who loves all films and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the best and the worst but deftly avoids self-indulgence and derivativeness. As Goldblum’s Grandmaster says in response to Thor’s use of his lightning powers, “Out of your fingers … was that, like, sparkles?” Indeed, Hemsworth plus Waititi generate nothing but cinematic sparkles. Here’s hoping for more.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“What’s good for Detroit is good for America.” The Nice Guys

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The Nice Guys. Imagine Boogie Nights as a frothy Abbott and Costello cinematic confection with a healthy sprinkling of The Rockford Files on top. Served with a side of Starsky & Hutch … or Bugs & Daffy.

Set in a smoggy/syphilitic 1977 Los Angeles, director/screenwriter Shane Black’s comic noir caper flick revels in just how damned ugly the Me Decade was. Film has a tendency to romanticize an era or to toy cutely with a period’s quirky extremes. Black time travels without commentary. The characters in this film aren’t living in a Smithsonian exhibit. They are simply living. Or attempting to live.

Beyond the flawless set decoration and precise costume design, Black is aided and abetted by the sparks that fly when you throw the unlikeliest of co-stars together: Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. Glowering gravitas meets wicked whimsy.

That said, the awkwardly delicious alchemy these two titans demonstrated on the talk show circuit promoting the film isn’t as evident onscreen as one might expect. Perhaps surprisingly, Crowe ends up garnering more laughs because he is always so. darn. grounded.  He’s funny simply because he’s not trying to be. Gosling indulges cartoonish impulses a few too many times, not trusting the comedy of situational contrast to do the heavy lifting. (Gosling has yet to outgrow the “isn’t it just a riot to see a handsome adult man let loose an ear-piercing community theatre shriek when he’s scared?” tic. Be careful, Ryan, for that way rests Johnny Depp’s sputtering career.)

Regardless, Crowe and Gosling are pretty freaking adorable together, and the whole enterprise plays like a pilot episode of a vintage TV-series that never got picked up. The plot is, well, kind of a meandering mess … just like a grainy 1970s TV crime drama. I kept waiting for Jaclyn Smith or Gavin MacLeod  to show up as a “very special guest star.” (We do get a Lynda Carter shout out, though.) There are double- and triple-crosses aplenty as a porn actress (literally) crashes through a family’s living room, and her death starts a spiraling series of murders and other sordid shenanigans. Oh, and there is intrigue about the auto industry and catalytic converters and how in the world Kim Basinger’s character managed to have Botox before the procedure was ever invented.

Gosling, as private eye Holland March, and Crowe, as hired muscle Jackson Healy, initially find themselves at cross purposes (with Gosling’s pretty mug on the receiving end of Crowe’s brass knuckles). Grudgingly, the duo partner up as the violence mounts and their befuddlement grows. A big part of the movie’s charm is that Crowe and Gosling gleefully portray characters whose detective skills are as suspect as their collective intelligence, with Holland’s precocious daughter Holly March (portrayed by a captivating Angourie Rice) serving as a wise-beyond-her-years Nancy Drew to Gosling/Crowe’s dim bulb Hardy Boys.

Rice’s performance is dynamite with a sharp feminist subtext. As  the “grown up” characters find themselves derailed by patriarchy run amuck (porn, corrupt manufacturing, prostitution, the Oil Crisis … the 70s at its worst), Rice’s Holly is clear-eyed, vigilant, incisive, defying the limitations and stereotypes society seeks to impose. “Don’t say, ‘And stuff.’ Just say there are whores here,” Gosling intones at one point, attempting to correct his daughter’s grammar and missing the misogynist irony in his declaration. The look in Rice’s eye reveals that her character does not lose the irony.

Holly is always ten steps ahead of her father and, without Holly’s continual intervention, the titular Nice Guys would still be attempting to solve the film’s mystery well into the late 1980s. Or they’d be dead.

I’m hoping this feminist dynamic is intentional on Black’s part, a storyteller whose filmography (from Lethal Weapon to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang through Iron Man 3) typically co-opts and reinvents B-movie formula, inverting its clichés as satiric critique of our baser instincts. I suspect this is by design, the film’s random (gratuitous?) naked porn stars notwithstanding.

With The Nice Guys, Black is trying to have his cake and eat it too. And he succeeds. Mostly. In a larger sense, Black is using the indulgent myopia of the 1970s as a reflection of how little we have changed as a nation. Basinger, plays a Department of Justice operative (in a bit of meta-casting, referencing her earlier – better – work in both L.A. Confidential  and 8 Mile) whose definition of “justice” is protecting the (then) fat cats in the Detroit auto industry. In the final act, she delivers the film’s punch line: “What’s good for Detroit is good for America.” Even as today’s Detroit reinvents itself as a hipster paradise of urban farming, artisanal soaps, and craft cocktails, the lesson in Basinger’s remark remains prescient. An America that lives for itself and only itself will quickly find itself trapped in yesteryear’s polyester leisure suit.

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The Nice Guys PostersReel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“What’s more important than the safety of the American people?” RoboCop (2014)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In the ongoing march of unnecessary remakes of 1980s films, here comes RoboCop clanking his way through the February movie doldrums, after all the Oscar bait has run its box office course.

And I liked it. Quite a bit. (And not just for all the on-location shots of Downtown Motown, including a ton of exterior shots of GM’s Renaissance Center.)

Maybe I am just tired of films that make artistic statements and am ready for one that is a low-rent summer-esque blockbuster. RoboCop certainly fit the bill.

Gone is the original film’s Swiftian satire of Reagan-era fear of one’s own neighbors. No comic undertones in this somber affair. In its place is a grittier/glossier take on post-9/11 American xenophobia and the supercharge it gives to the military-industrial complex’s ongoing economic prospects.

In fact, the film begins with a very telling sequence wherein robot police forces jackboot their way through some unidentified Middle Eastern country, lining the streets with men, women, and children deemed “nonthreatening” only after an invasive infrared scan (or two).

These scenes are interposed with footage of Samuel L. Jackson as an even cartoonier version of a Rush Limbaugh/Bill O’Reilly television pundit casting his death darts at liberal politicians who won’t allow such android stormtroopers to police American streets. Yes, his character proudly wears a little “Stars and Stripes” pin on his lapel and tosses the word “patriot” around the way some people discuss the weather.

Satirical or not, this film isn’t afraid to telegraph its punches.

Instead of sardonic Peter Weller in the title role, we have a more emo RoboCop (his armor is even all black) in Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman. Yes, RoboCop cries. A lot. Kinnaman does a fine job grounding the wackadoodle proceedings, which involve a decent Detroit cop being blown to smithereens, being reconstructed in droid form as part of a martial law experiment conducted by big bad OmniCorp, and then proceeding to solve his own murder much to the chagrin of, well, everyone.

Unlike Weller, Kinnaman as Alex Murphy consistently and genuinely seems distraught by his unlikely circumstances, and the scenes between his otherwise cardboard wife (Abbie Cornish) and son are effectively poignant, chiefly through his presence.

The rest of the cast is fleshed out (no pun intended) by a great group of ringers (and a surprising number of Oscar nominees): Gary Oldman as the Dr. Frankenstein-mad-genius-with-a-conscience who transforms Murphy from beat cop to Tin Man; Michael Keaton as OmniCorp’s believably “country club casual” money-hungry CEO; Jackie Earle Haley as a junkyard dog lieutenant in Keaton’s army-for-hire; Jennifer Ehle as Keaton’s coolly calculating corporate counsel; Marianne Jean Baptiste as a smoothly corrupt police chief; and Jay Baruchel doing his dorky-James-Franco-wannabe thing as Keaton’s chief marketing nerd.

I don’t know that the world really needed a RoboCop remake but, as an exercise in taking a well-worn narrative and using it to tweak our post-millennial materialism, self-preservation, insecurity, and fear of the unknown, it runs like clockwork.

“Big wheels are turnin’ … gotta be strong out there.” Dallas Buyers Club and Captain Phillips

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This is the real “American hustle.”

Two movies I saw today depict – in soul-searching, soul-scarring detail – how hard we all have to strive each and every day just to survive … each and every day.

At surface, you couldn’t find two men more different than Dallas Buyers Club‘s Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) or Captain Phillips‘ Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks).

Woodroof is a Texan man-whore homophobe, lazing through his day-job as an electrician, looking for any quick gambling buck he can find and seeking solace in the short-term highs of grungy drug use and even grungier sex. Phillips on the other hand is a solid New England family man with  bedrock work ethic, patriarchal worry for his family’s long-term happiness, and a noble wariness toward his high-stakes job as a freighter ship captain in troubled waters.

However, both men are united – across decades and locations – through a shared quick-wittedness, scruffy bravery, and nerve-wracking battle with pirates … in Phillips’ case, quite literal pirates from Somalia and, in Woodroof’s case, big pharma and the FDA and the medical community writ large.

During the quietly effective opening scenes of Captain Phillips, establishing Phillips’ workaday love of his family, he tells his wife (the always excellent Catherine Keener) of his anxiety over what kind of future their children will have: “Big wheels are turnin’ … gotta be strong out there.” And this could be a theme for both films.

In Dallas Buyers Club, Woodroof’s alpha male world of swagger is turned upside down when he receives an HIV+ diagnosis. This is the kind of man who think rodeos are a hoot, women are party favors, and Rock Hudson is a “big fairy.” (Remember, this is the go-go Reaganomic 80s.)

However, in the land of “movie logic,” this huckster cowboy is also a resourceful and opportunistic researcher (who knew McConaughey could make library microfiche use look so compelling?) with a burgeoning heart of gold and a begrudging respect for his gay fellow man, spurred by all the money to be made trafficking unapproved drugs across the Mexican border.

Jennifer Garner, doing that edgy earnestness that all actors of her generation gleaned from the “Julia Roberts School of Acting,” is okay as one of Woodroof’s doctors, though neither Garner nor her underwritten role ever really go anywhere.

McConaughey is quite capable in a tricky part (yet one might argue that his extreme weight loss for the film does all the work), but the movie doesn’t really start clicking until the arrival of Jared Leto’s “Rayon.” Leto does a yeoman’s job keeping his portrayal from sliding off the rails into cliche – the mutable, transgender pixie who keeps everyone safe and grounded with her Southern charm and earth mother care-taking.

Leto is a person first, whip-smart and sad but never maudlin and not once the demeaned comic relief. The dynamic between McConaughey and Leto is fun to watch and (spoiler alert!) only gets mawkish around Leto’s inevitable Camille-like death. This is not Leto’s fault – bad writing, clunky direction by Jean-Marc Vallee, and TV-movie sloppy editing mar the film’s denouement.

At one level, Dallas Buyers Club – like precursors Philadelphia or Longtime Companion – is the prototypical “HIV film,” leveraging the disease as a metaphor for the intolerance of a society that ostracizes the sick, the broken, and the unique. However, on another (and arguably fresher) level, the film is an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry’s tendency to pursue big money for treating symptoms over curing disease and of the doctors and government agencies that knowingly or unknowingly are complicit in throwing the infirm under the crushing wheels of “medical progress.”

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Captain Phillips, the much stronger film, depicts a world popping at the seams from the economic pressures placed on us all. Smartly, director Paul Greengrass, of United 93 and Matt Damon’s Bourne movies, opens the film with parallel sequences: Hanks’ Phillips gets “ready for work” as he heads to the airport with his wife and then meets with his crew to review their trip, and these scenes are juxtaposed alongside those of the Somali pirates preparing for their day of pillaging, debating among themselves their best course of action.

Greengrass seems to suggest – with lack of editorializing – a “job is a job” and circumstances have dictated very different lives for these souls. The tension comes from the audience’s knowledge that these different economic forces are bound to collide shortly.

The film moves efficiently toward the central conflict of “haves and have-nots” as the Somalis board Phillips’ ship in short order, and an ever-escalating game of cat and mouse ensues as Phillips does his darndest to stay in control, protect his crew, and contain the situation. The pirates, led by the justifiably praised Barkhad Abdi and the underrated Faysal Ahmed, are a frantic force, smashing and grabbing in a world that they perceive with vicious longing as rich with entitlement.

At one point, Abdi reflects on all he will be able to do when he is one day “in America.” The moment is simultaneously poignant and frightening in his perception of the joys of materialism and the horror he believes he has to inflict to achieve it.

Greengrass is the consummate director (where is his Oscar, dammit?) who makes MOVIES! in the truest sense of cinematic story-telling, and Captain Phillips is his best work to date (which is pretty remarkable, given how good his films always are). His latest effort does not bore for a second, ratcheting the stakes with a relentless clockwork solemnity.

The tension is real and it is shared – between captain, crew, antagonists, would-be rescuers, and audience – not because of some lethargic “based on real events” filmmaking, but through the old school charms of well-developed characters,  crackerjack pace, precise edits, compelling score, intelligent script, and exceptional acting.

This is the strongest performance of Hanks’ storied career (which is somewhat bittersweet as he isn’t nominated this year for an Oscar, though McConaughey is and will likely win). If you aren’t yelping in fear and heartbreak and hope in his climactic moments, then you must have been watching a different movie than I. “I’m sorry I’m not there with you,” he exclaims to the heavens and one presumes to his family … and we as audience members, separated by the fourth wall of film, must say the same to Phillips in return. His emotional release when the ordeal finally ends is as cathartic as anything I’ve seen in years.

Captain Phillips is a film for the ages; Dallas Buyers Club is a film for the moment. Both are worthwhile, but, combined, they unforgettably depict the harrowing lengths to which any of us will go to survive.