“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.

“To a canary, a cat is a monster. We are just used to being the cat.” Jurassic World

"Jurassic World poster" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jurassic_World_poster.jpg#/media/File:Jurassic_World_poster.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Regarding this weekend’s big summer blockbuster release Jurassic World, my animal advocate mom posted this on my Facebook wall earlier today: “But are they mean to dinosaurs? Are the dinosaurs the villains? Is it a glorified hunting movie? Inquiring minds want to know these things? Would Sarah Palin approve and reignite girls to wear clean sportsy clothes and hiking boots? Posing with bears and rabbits and deer and giraffes pretending they killed them? Because if so, my friend… ha!”

I can pretty safely say that it’s not a glorified hunting movie, and I don’t think the Sarah Palin-types would like it, as most of their stand-ins in the film get eaten pretty quickly by roaring, teeth-gnashing dinos. However, the film is a typically schizophrenic Steven Spielberg production (he executive produced this installment but directed the original Jurassic Park way back in 1993). Is the film making a satiric point about how horrible humans are to the environment, how we reap what we sow, and how we deserve any and all climate change payback which results from our rampant over-development of land, air, and sea? Or is Jurassic World just more yuppie disaster porn designed to sell Happy Meal toys, glistening Jeeps, and Patagonia safari gear? I’m still scratching my head. I just don’t know.

When you look at Spielberg’s filmography, as both director and producer, from Jaws to Close Encounters, E.T. to Gremlins, Poltergeist to, yes, Jurassic Park, he returns time and again to themes of man’s infinite ineptitude and limitless arrogance in the face of a planet, nay universe, full of mystery, wonder, and violent counterbalance. For Spielberg, karma is a four-color funny – build a beach home, destroy a burial ground, feed a cooing creature after midnight, genetically modify a reptile for an overpriced amusement park? You’re gonna get sliced, diced, and eviscerated, all to the strains of a symphonic John Williams score.

And you know what? That is ok by me!

The problem with Spielberg’s films is he wants to have his sardonic cake and eat it too. Spielberg’s movies are expensive and they make a lot of money; whether directed by Spielberg or under the auspices of Amblin Entertainment or DreamWorks, these big budget boogers are sold to every demographic quadrant an army of polished marketers can dream up, so ultimately the flicks dare not go too far. We don’t want to alienate any viewer, slurping over their Mr. Pibb and Kit Kat bites (yeah, that’s what I had today), and, consequently, any unique and incisive POV gets diluted in a gauzy haze of product placement, no matter how postmodern and ironic said placement may be.

No, Spielberg did not direct Jurassic World. Those honors (?) go to Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed), but Spielbergian DNA is all over this sucker. Sorry, Colin. I can only imagine this must have been like being hired for a dream design job at Apple, only to find they really just want you to arrange, into artful displays, the new Apple Watches when they arrive in stores.

Jurassic World does its job efficiently and effectively. It entertains, and it will make a mint … but it has no real raison d’etre. (Yeah, I got all fancy. It doesn’t need to exist.) It basically lifts the very plot from the first film, but this time we get Bryce Dallas Howard (how is this mugging, one-note actor still making movies? oh, right, Ron Howard’s kid) instead of Richard Attenborough and Chris Pratt instead of Sam Neill. Jeff Goldblum is now Irrfan Khan, and Wayne Knight is now Vincent D’Onfrio. B.D. Wong? Still B.D. Wong – that man must be an automaton as he hasn’t aged one freaking bit.

Seriously, these actors may be playing different characters (obvi) twenty-some years later (natch) but their narrative functions are still the same.

Portraying a grizzled velociraptor trainer (and apologist), Pratt is the best thing in the film by far. Wearing a steady exasperation that seems to suggest he wishes he had a better script with which to work, Pratt does a fine job channeling Neill’s gravitas: just because you can make a dinosaur does mean you should make a dinosaur. Pratt is a delight, one of the few actors in the film who seems to believe where he is and what is doing and who has a genuine affection for the misunderstood creatures in this world (dino or otherwise).

Howard fares less favorably as the Isla Nubar theme park’s chief executive who in sexist Hollywood shorthand is an out-of-touch, controlling, insecure ninny with a severe bob, impractical shoes, and an ever present iPhone. Ugh. It doesn’t help that her emotions range from sweaty to panicked to rigid to … sweaty.

D’Onofrio is a kick in an underwritten role as a nebulous InGen contractor who wants to use these “assets” (that’s how mean people refer to animals in this cardboard world) for military purposes. Boo hiss. Blessedly, he has the chops to fill in the mile-wide gaps the script allows. He exudes the oily opportunism of those post-millennial types who see our natural resources simply as walking/breathing/pooping dollar signs. He may as well have had Monsanto painted on his backside.

At one point, Wong’s character (you may recall he is the ethically-dubious geneticist who figured out how to fabricate dinos from whole cloth in the first place) intones what passes for a philosophical thesis in the film: “To a canary, a cat is a monster. We are just used to being the cat.” Yup, amen to that.

There is a perverse joy in seeing blank-faced, cornfed tourists hoisted by their own petards, tossed like beach balls from one pteranodon to another above Jurassic World‘s Starbucks/Margaritaville/Pandora encrusted main street. I also loved the jab at Sea World with a dino sea creature (mosaurus?) that grudgingly entertains a nautical football-arena-size stadium of onlookers but gets the last laugh when he/she gobbles a few vacationers down.

Ultimately, by the final act, when the Frankenstein’s monster dino “Indominus Rex” (cooked up by Howard and Wong to sell more t-shirts and key chains) has shredded the park top to bottom and is now fighting a pack of velociraptors and a t-rex for no real explainable reason, I was in a Mr. Pibb/Kit Kat coma. I just didn’t care.

And the adult in me kept thinking … Who is going to put these dinos back in their paddocks? Is the Hilton corporation going to rebuild their opulent hotel on Isla Nubar for future product placement? Who is going to clean up this mess, and will Starbucks return to sell more mocha-choca-lattes? And why didn’t the dinos just finish off all the humans? That’s a movie I’d pay $10 more bucks to see.

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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.

Point/counterpoint – Ann Arbor’s Rebecca Biber offers guest critique of The Grand Budapest Hotel

Roy Sexton and Rebecca Biber

Roy Sexton and Rebecca Biber – Photo by Dawn Marie Kaczmar

So, I did not like Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. I mean I didn’t like it a lot. However, never let it be said that we here at Reel Roy Reviews aren’t equal opportunity reviewers.

My dear friend, the talented pianist, musical director, and instructor Rebecca Biber shared the following (beautifully composed) counterpoint today on Facebook, and I asked if I could pay it forward here. She graciously obliged. Her take actually makes me want to revisit this film … almost. 🙂

Bookbound April 26 Event

Bookbound April 26 Event

And, if you’d like a chance to meet the supremely talented Ms. Biber in person, Megan and Peter Blackshear of Bookbound, in Ann Arbor (1729 Plymouth Road), have generously agreed to host a Reel Roy Reviews book-signing/Q&A on Saturday, April 26 at 3 pm.

Rebecca will accompany me as I sing a few of my favorite movie themes and show tunes. She actually selected the numbers from our nearly decade-long musical partnership, so, if you like ditties from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, you are in luck!

(And be sure to check out this thoughtful response by my gifted mom – author Susie Duncan Sexton – to my review of Disneynature’s Bears.)

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Here’s Rebecca’s delightful take on The Grand Budapest Hotel – enjoy!

[Image Source: ComingSoon.net]

[Image Source: ComingSoon.net]

In a made-up land resembling Germany or Austria (with Alps) on the eve of WWII, a charming, perfect hotelier played by Ralph Fiennes struggles to maintain his composure, help his friends, and avoid bad guys. His tale is narrated by his protege, Zero the Lobby Boy, now grown up into F. Murray Abraham. But this is merely the nugget at the heart of the story-within-a-story-within-a-story. Abraham is speaking with a writer played by Jude Law, whom we have earlier seen in his aged incarnation, telling the viewer that if you are a writer, there is no need to make up stories: they will come to you. Earlier than that, we have seen a young woman placing a tribute of hotel keys at the base of a statue honoring her favorite writer, and holding a book that contains, we think, the story Jude Law has retold from F. Murray.


This movie is a typical Wes Anderson confection in some ways, with fanciful lettering, folk-tale inspired landscapes, and gorgeous color schemes throughout, not to mention the usual rapid-fire dialogue and the panoply of famous faces. While it can be entertaining to play Name That Actor, it is distracting as well – just as we are settling into the story for its own sake, what’s-his-name pops up and we’re back at the level of being mere viewers. Characters are pretty much as they first appear, with clear goodies and baddies. Edward Norton gets to play a Nazi (again, previously having played the neo-version in American History X) and Adrien Brody gets to…weirdly…also play a Nazi. Tilda Swinton is unrecognizable, Bob Balaban pops up like a fairy tale imp, and Harvey Keitel has jailhouse tattoos resembling middle school doodles. Young actress Saoirse Ronan is perfect as the young Zero’s girlfriend and pastry chef. But the standout, and one to watch, is Tony Revolori, who plays the Lobby Boy not merely as a supporting character with some great lines (which he does have) but as a complicated, unexpectedly fearless and wise young man. He has an unblinking gaze straight at the camera that compels both laughter and serious attention.


Unlike Moonrise Kingdom, which had all of the Wes Anderson cute and very little of the sad, Budapest has some moments of real darkness. And they always come unexpectedly. This movie is probably not safe for devoted animal lovers or the very squeamish. There are several bloody fights and, for those with Holocaust survivors in the family, the train scenes were a bit too close to real history despite Anderson’s attempts to fictionalize the material.
With all that goes on in the film, I haven’t even mentioned the stolen art, murder mystery and contested will (with legal executor played by an uncomfortable looking Jeff Goldblum). There is much to enjoy, and I came away glad I had watched this quirky adventure/love story with true friendship at its core. It is a visual feast with some nice musical touches (nothing overblown) and, if the story doesn’t make perfect sense outside of its own world, well, it does such an excellent job of conjuring that world that I was delighted to spend a couple of hours among its inhabitants.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound, Common Language, and Memory Lane also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.