“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.

“Satisfaction is not exactly my strong suit…” Thor: The Dark World

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I hate it when I’m so excited about a movie, and it ends up just dull. I almost would rather it be a crash-and-burn disaster (see: Green Lantern) ’cause then at least I can get the church pew giggles about how godawful it is. Alas, Thor: The Dark World is neither fabulously fun nor campily tragic…just stinkily tedious.

I’m a comic book nerd – I make my loved ones suffer through all kinds of crappy flicks (see: Ghost Rider…BOTH of ’em). However, the first Thor, directed by no less than SIR Kenneth Branagh was a delight, balancing the majesty of Norse mythology with some zippy fish-out-of-water humor as lumbering Thor made his way through Midgard (that would be Earth to us mere mortals) tripping over all of our clunky technology and superstitious ways.

Unfortunately, the jokes in this follow-up are pretty much non-existent – other than cute, quirky sitcom actor Kat Dennings doing her cute, quirky sitcom thing in her Jimmy Olsen-esque sidekick gig. (There is a nice, witty moment toward the film’s tail end between Thor, his hammer, and a coat-rack … but that would be about it.)

As a result, the film ends up ponderous and stultifying. The majority of the movie is spent in Asgard itself, which now unfortunately looks like a Thomas Kinkade CGI take on The Lord of the Rings’ elf castle place where pointy-eared Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving stood around glowing … but I digress.

Heaven help the actors here – Idris Alba, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Chris Hemsworth do the best they can with some high falutin’ faux Shakespearean dialogue about Norse history, royal intrigue, and some floaty ether that can blow up the “Nine Realms” (whatever those are). Of course,  Tom Hiddleston as Loki gets all the best lines … or knows best how to deliver the groaners with which the cast is saddled. He is a mercurial delight, at one point intoning, “Satisfaction is not exactly my strooooong suit,” looking as bored as I was at that point in the proceedings.

The less said about Natalie Portman as Thor’s love interest the better – or Stellan Skarsgard as her kooky scientist pal for that matter. Both made me cringe every time they were on screen. Could someone please encourage early retirement for them both?

Marvel/Disney, I’ve got an idea for the inevitable sequel. Call it Loki: The Only Interesting One, and just follow Hiddleston around as he shops at Target, goes to the theatre, rescues stray dogs, and takes a nap. That would be an infinitely more engaging film. Don’t believe me? Check out this cute clip.

A flat gin and tonic? RED 2

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The original RED was like a crisp, bubbly gin and tonic on a hot summer day: refreshing, predictable yet surprisingly fun, and (uber-confidently) offering no nutritional value.

The sequel – with the unremarkable title RED 2 – is like that bottle of tonic water you find in the back of the refrigerator in August: still useful, but kinda flat, redundant, and probably should have been thrown away before you used it.

Did I have fun watching RED 2? I sure did. Do I remember what the heck I just watched? Not really.

The plot is pretty much a retread of the original, which was a fun critique of our ageist society’s awful tendency to decide that some “older” folks have passed their “sell-by” date…when said folks still have plenty of kick-ass, world-changing rage left in them.

Bruce Willis is still doing that bald, pursed lip thing he always does (which is somehow weirdly acceptable in this context) and the always reliable John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, and Mary Louise Parker save the day with some wonderful community theatre-esque character work. (I do wish, one day, Parker could play a character who isn’t so pathetically co-dependent, given the anti-co-dependent-co-dependency she blasted so caustically well in Angels in America. Ah, well.)

The film, in essence, becomes a sequence of zany hats that Malkovich wears to comic effect as the troupe moves its way across numerous Euro-ish locales in pursuit of a nuclear weapon of some inconsequential stripe.

God love Catherine Zeta-Jones who is so good but is so saddled with the world’s worst be-banged wig in a key supporting role. (Michael Douglas, I’m not sure, but I kinda think you ruined this Welsh ROCK STAR.) And the also dependable Neal McDonough (whose hair gets more orange whose and skin gets more khaki with every role) is truly wasted as the big bad, though he does wring a laugh or two out of the lame script. (Don’t even get me started on poor David Thewlis who is annoyingly hamstrung with a stupid role as a wine-obsessed intelligence broker.)

It sounds like I hated this movie. I didn’t. I liked it a lot. But everyone involved – including Anthony Hopkins as a quirky and evil(!!!) arms developer – deserved a MUCH better script.

In fact, I suspect we will watch this flick about 18 more times on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon when STARZ repeats this over and over. (It will play much better on a small screen.) It’s just too bad: such a collection of fun stars ready to kick out the jams…and given a script that is nothing but regurgitated jelly.

Easter weekend of lost souls: Hitchcock, Phil Spector, and The Girl

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[Image Source: blog.zap2it.com]

As I have noted previously, holidays with my parents tend to be spent in a darkened movie theatre between marathon rounds of canasta, computer maintenance, and the finest dining small-town Indiana can muster.

This weekend was no exception…well, sort of an exception. The movies were present, but in a darkened living room, after an emergency late night trip to the local Wal-Mart to replace a malfunctioning VCR/DVD combo player. (And a futile argument with the salesman as to whether or not I needed something called an RF tuner. He said no. I said yes. Two subsequent trips later, I was right.)

So how did we spend this unusual holiday when Easter/Passover/April Fool’s converged (not to mention my dad’s birthday)? How else but with three films about two haunted auteurs and the women who loved/loathed/enabled them.

The usually redoubtable HBO Films stumbles a bit with their take on Phil Spector and his infamous murder trial. That is not to say that stars Al Pacino in the title role and Helen Mirren as his legal counsel  are bad. In fact, both, saddled as they are in the movie with a rather unfortunate series of wigs, are excellent.

The TV biopic is at its strongest, in fact, when just the two leads are onscreen with the looney tunes Spector/Pacino winning over Mirren’s character with his charming misunderstood/misanthropic pop artist routines. Both actors exude warmth, with Mirren offering a flinty empathy illuminating nicely the genius of the David Mamet-penned monologues Pacino brilliantly delivers.

What’s wrong with the movie? A script that stretches about 35 minutes of sparkling dialogue/interplay between the two stars into about 90 minutes of procedural dullness. However, Mirren and Pacino both make this one worth watching, shining sympathetic light into the dark mind of a man whose musical genius emanated from the very outsider-stance that finished him off.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Speaking of intellectual misfits, our Friday-night double feature concluded with one of two 2012 cinematic takes on the life of Alfred Hitchcock – Hitchcock starring Anthony Hopkins in the title role and Helen Mirren (again) as his wife Alma Reville. Again, this is not a great film but does benefit from a couple of remarkable performances by two accomplished thespians.

Hopkins should have abandoned the poor make-up job that makes him look more like Danny DeVito’s “Penguin” from Batman Returns than the Master of Suspense as, otherwise, his performance is exceptional with voice, walk, and spirit all spot-on.

But this is Mirren’s show as the long-suffering but equally talented wife, without whom Hitchcock’s many masterpieces might have been half-baked pot boilers and cheap thrillers. Alma endures countless indignities as Hitch obsesses over his famed adaptation of Psycho and fawns over and/or tortures his young starlets. The starlets in question are thinly-written takes on Janet Leigh and Vera Miles, performed adequately by Scarlett Johansson and Jessical Biel, respectively … who don’t look a darn thing like Leigh or Miles, respectfully.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Saturday night, we completed our run through the lives of tortured artists with another HBO film The Girl, also about Hitchcock and his creepy preoccupation with icy blonde actresses. This movie was the best of the lot.

Toby Jones, who also found himself a few years back at the short end (no pun intended) of two competing biopics (Truman Capote), is incredible as Hitchcock. His Hitch is deeply haunted by a point of view and a physical appearance that puts him at odds perpetually with Hollywood glamor. And Sienna Miller achieves the impossible by making actress Tippi Hedren … well … interesting.

The Girl paints a compelling portrait of a man – Hitchcock – who attempts to make sense of his aversion to humanity and his self-loathing by playing puppet master over the beautiful people surrounding him. Also, this one does the best job of depicting the technical and artistic challenges of the creative process, offering great behind-the-scenes info on the making of both The Birds and Marnie.

All three films – Phil Spector, Hitchcock, and The Girl taken collectively – leave the viewer with revulsion for yet admiration of the creative genius. These men are “outsiders-forever-looking-in” whose contempt for humanity’s follies and foibles provide them immense gifts to enrich the lives and culture of that self-same humanity, yet leaving the artists themselves forever unfulfilled and broken.