“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.

“I don’t know if it’s a race thing or a lady thing, but I’m mad as hell.” Ghostbusters (2016)

Ghostbusters_2016_film_poster

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This summer’s Ghostbusters reboot/reimagining/sequel-non-sequel/whatever-it-is benefits and suffers from the wobbly foundation of opportunistic Gen X nostalgia upon which it is built. If, like me, you saw the film in 1984 as part of Mike Babbitt’s birthday-sleepover extravaganza – one of your first memories of feeling like a “grown-up” and seeing a movie in a communal glow a bunch of your farting, burping, snickering, supremely immature buddies – the original Ghostbusters is a classic. However, if, like someone else in my house (ahem, John), you view the original film from a different lens as the messy, self-indulgent, hammy ground zero for a whole host of similarly inept high-concept fantasy comedies that continue to infest multiplexes to this day, Ghostbusters is, well, meh. I suspect John is in the right, but don’t tell him I said so.

Paul Feig (BridesmaidsThe HeatSpy) has assembled an A-list crew of comedy dynamos for the 2016 outing: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, and, yes, Chris Hemsworth (Thor is funny, y’all!). The plot – or what lightly resembles a plot – is more or less the same as the original Bill Murray/Dan Aykroyd/Harold Ramis/Ernie Hudson version. At least from what I recall … to be honest, I think the only time I actually saw that movie was at the aforementioned birthday party.

In the original film, someone is unleashing spectral Armageddon on Manhattan and a ragtag band of misfits in jumpsuits with laser guns overcomes their condemnation to a life of marginalia in order to save the day. Annie Potts, Rick Moranis, Sigourney Weaver all put in appearances doing … stuff. There’s a skyscraper-sized menace made of marshmallows and a big purple swirly cloud above the Empire State Building. As the credits roll, that ubiquitous Ray Parker, Jr.-led theme song (sounding copyright-infringibly close to Huey Lewis’ “I Want a New Drug”) trumpets the arrival of a new breed of hero to NYC: The Ghostbusters. Pre-9/11, seeing Manhattan torn to ribbons and healed by the power of pop music was a more entertaining enterprise.

Feig’s version is pretty much the same damn movie, which is both bold and kind of lazy. Without a doubt in my mind, Feig’s cast is sharper, more incisive, and a helluva lot more identifiable than the original band. Fanboys, I don’t care what your social media cronies believe. It’s the truth.

This version of Ghostbusters was rife with such opportunity to import the anarchic, political raunch of Bridesmaids into a PG-13 manifesto on the power of diversity, individualism, and being funny as hell. Instead, it’s a bit toothless. A bunt when it could have been a home run, to mix my metaphors.

That said, I laughed. I laughed a lot. (John…laughed once. I think.) I thought the comically queasy uncertainty of characters fighting for a world that didn’t much want them in it was a pip. McKinnon (literally) chews the scenery as the group’s wild-eyed weapons master. And that was fine by me. Jones, who seems a bit out-of-her-depth (or maybe just bored) with sketch-acting on SNL, is dynamite here – crisp, zippy, focused. As she jumps into a metal-head mosh pit, expecting to be crowd-surfed on her way to exorcising a winged demon, she, instead, is unceremoniously dropped to the ground; Jones nails one of the film’s best and most timely zingers: “I don’t know if it’s a race thing or a lady thing, but I’m mad as hell.”

McCarthy, believe it or not, is impressively understated as the team’s whip, and only Wiig seems to get lost in the shuffle as a the mild-mannered heart of the group. She may have played one milquetoast too many at this point in her storied career. Hemsworth, as the Ghostbusters’ receptionist, is comically objectified for his Aussie sparkle in a welcome role-reversal. And, no, that is not “reverse sexism” – which is not a thing. It’s satire of the rampant and insidious male gaze…which is a thing.

There is an endless parade of self-referential cameo appearances. I found them all unnecessary, distracting and, worse, unfunny. Andy Garcia and Cecily Strong – as the oily mayor and his obsequious assistant – can stay. Everyone else? You gotta go!

That Love Boat-load of guest stars would be an example of where nostalgia bites this production on its collective behind.  I wish Feig had been liberated by the corporate powers-that-be at Columbia Pictures to make the itchy, twitchy film that is lurking under the surface of this new Ghostbusters. Alas, all the product placement – from Papa Johns to Bill Murray – might suggest Feig was in servitude to a paycheck, not an artistic vision. That’s a shame.

Wiig, McCarthy, Jones, and McKinnon as the Ghostbusting quartet are clearly having a ball playing summertime action figures. Yet, their fun never quite becomes our fun. The ad-libbed scenes have crackling moments but never quite add up to coherent narrative. The stakes never seem that dire (perhaps because of the familiarity of the plot), and consequently the film has no urgency or agency. In the year of #ImWithHer, Ghostbusters is serviceable allegorical escapism, when it could have been timeless, seismic revelation.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[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.

“How can humanity be saved if it doesn’t evolve?” Avengers: Age of Ultron

"Avengers Age of Ultron" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Avengers_Age_of_Ultron.jpg#/media/File:Avengers_Age_of_Ultron.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Avengers: Age of Ultron is all you might hope it should be. And that’s part of its problem.

I feel in writing this review that I may as well be discussing a plate of really fabulous spaghetti: so much tasty sameness, so many empty carbs, no discernible beginning/middle/end, satisfying a craving that I didn’t know I had, leaving me a bit bloated … and yet I will happily eat it again after my sense-memory has recovered.

Joss Whedon, beloved Buffy the Vampire Slayer architect and director of the first Avengers, returns to helm this sequel. This will be blasphemy to some of my geek brethren, but Whedon is no auteur. (I hold out hope that Captain America: The Winter Soldier directors The Russo Brothers will be the ones who finally deliver The Godfather of superhero genre flicks. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was close but a bit too pompously high-falutin’ for my tastes.) Whedon carries an episodic TV sensibility to his film projects. And that’s ok, but, once you’re aware that he seems to work in 28-minute long “beats,” you start to feel the clock ticking.

And, wowzers, does the clock tick with Ultron. With trailers (and the need to get there so early that you aren’t sitting on the front row gazing up Chris Hemsworth’s flaring Asgardian nostrils), your rear is in a theatre seat nearly three hours. The film is straining at the seams with just so much Marvel muchness that you wonder if a cleaner, clearer narrative had been focus-grouped into this orgiastic merchandising hydra by the good folks at Disney.

Regardless, the film offers much to delight both comic book loons like myself and the average Marvel moviegoer who doesn’t know Ant-Man from an ant, man. (Sorry.)

Whedon wisely knows that the audience for these cinematic beasts adores brightly-lit four-color action peppered with jazzy comic asides and a healthy dose of soap-opera-lite character beats. He also (with the help of super-producer Kevin Feige, who really should be in the movie marketing hall-of-fame at this point) realizes that the perfect ensemble, gifted with acting chops that exceed the material but with a keen sense of wit and gratitude to enjoy the ride anyway, turns a workmanlike summer blockbuster transcendent.

Mark Ruffalo continues to steal the show as beautiful loser Bruce Banner (Hulk), with just the right hint of Bill Bixby’s gloom married to his own shaggy twinkle. Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow) gives as good as she gets in her cat-and-mouse flirtation with Ruffalo, and, while I’m sure most of the audience was squirming/snoozing as they awaited the next CGI-encrusted battle sequence, I really enjoyed those quieter moments.

Similarly, Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton/Hawkeye), who came off as a glowering dullard in previous installments, really gets a chance to exercise his comedic action chops and soulful humanity. I won’t spoil the cinematically invented back-story they layer on Hawkeye, but this fanboy for one was a fan of the fairly significant change the filmmakers made from long-standing comic canon. Hawkeye suddenly becomes the heart and soul of a franchise that hitherto kept him far on the periphery.

The rest of the cast is solid and fun as expected. Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America), Hemsworth (Thor), and Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark/Iron Man) are frothy delights, offering as much banter this time as they do alpha-male action. Downey is blessedly restrained, offering a hint of unintentionally gleeful malice – an ominous note of what may yet come to the franchise. He is counter-balanced nicely by Evans who telegraphs the audience’s own mounting anxiety over a planet that is quickly becoming overstuffed with people/creatures/beings with too many abilities/too few ethics.

Newcomers include twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who weirdly enough played spouses in last year’s Godzilla reboot) and The Vision (Paul Bettany). They are all fine in rather under-written, slightly confusing roles. While it’s fun to see these Marvel legends in the flesh, they really weren’t necessary and detracted from the other characters we’ve come to know and love. This is the danger with all of these comic book movies – how do you keep the nerds (myself included) happy and sell lots of toys without devolving into carnival kitsch? The film skates a fine line and nearly goes over the edge.

Finally, though, this Marvel entry gets its villain so very right (not unlike the oily charisma of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki). Ultron, as voiced by slippery eel James Spader (I’m starting to wonder if Marvel films are where all smart aleck ex-Brat Packers go to die?), is frightening, ominous, charming, and essential. He intones early in the film, “How can humanity be saved if it doesn’t eeeeevooooolve.” (Darn right, brother – I need that needle-pointed on a pillow, stat).

Of course, robotic overlord that he is, Ultron – created by Stark himself as a means of creating “lasting peace” – asserts that the only logical way to create lasting peace is to render all of humanity extinct. Now there is an allegory for our fractious times. I won’t spoil the adventure on how he gets there (I’m not even totally sure I followed all the muddled machinations myself), but I got quite a perverse kick from Spader’s Ultron and his well-intentioned sociopathy.

(I should have never admitted that last bit, I suppose? Maybe Marvel will need someone to play the villain in their next summer opus? Sign me up!)

Go to Avengers: Age of Ultron for the Marvel-fied comfort food … but stay for the dark bon-bon (Spader) at the film’s anarchic core.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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 Bookbound, Common 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.