“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.

________________

[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.

____________________________

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.

MLK holiday movie marathon (VIDEO): Paddington, Foxcatcher, Selma, American Sniper

Enjoy this quick video synopsis of movies we saw over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend – Paddington, Foxcatcher, Selma, American Sniper. (You can read the full reviews of all four below this entry).

 

And thanks to The Columbia City Post & Mail for this additional shout-out for the release of Reel Roy Reviews, Vol. 2: Keep ‘Em Coming!

Post and Mail RRR2 Redux

________________________________

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.

Les Miserables in a wrestling ring: Foxcatcher

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]

Like some Oscar-bait cross between Million Dollar Arm and Sunset Boulevard with a pinch of Psycho and Jane Eyre thrown in, Foxcatcher details the sordid tale of Olympic gold-medal wrestlers Dave and Mark Schultz and their dubiously motivated benefactor John E. du Pont. The film is a slow moving, frosty enterprise that deftly skewers the out-of-touch misanthropy of one-percenters, the sweaty desperation of competitive athletics, and the strange sycophantic creatures known as athletic boosters.

Steve Carell, richly deserving his recently minted Oscar nomination, portrays the scion of the American chemical dynasty as a heartbreakingly creepy, incestuously inbred superpatriot whose preoccupation with Americana and misplaced mommy issues leads him to adopt a cadre of wrestlers to live and train on his sprawling estate. Vanessa Redgrave – in all of her three minutes of screen time – exonerates any lingering Freudian implications about du  Pont’s mother, Jean, a world class horse trainer. With just a flicker of those legendary eyes and a pursing of the lips, Redgrave telegraphs, with a quietly, comically poignant thunderstorm intensity, her profound disappointment and confusion over the oddball son she raised.

You see, John du Pont runs around in a Revolutionary War three-quarter length jacket (when he’s not rocking a cheesy wrestling coach track suit), buys tanks to tool around his property, goes skeet shooting with the local police, insists that people call him “Eagle” or “Golden Eagle,” snorts cocaine, and decorates his home in a faux colonial style that would have been tacky during the ’76 Bicentennial. In other words, he would be a great addition to the Bush family. Sorry.

He aims to overshadow his mother’s equestrian accomplishments by helping Mark Schultz (and thereby ‘Murica) bring home the gold at the ’88 Seoul Olympics. Du Pont is a pathetically amateurish wrestler himself, with a very kinky preoccupation with singlets and wrestling mats. And an even kinkier preoccupation with the younger Schultz brother, as portrayed by Channing Tatum.

Tatum hasn’t gotten the accolades garnered by Carell as du  Pont or by Mark Ruffalo as Mark’s older brother David. That’s a shame. Tatum turns in a brilliant variation of his standard lunkhead routine, swiping a bit from James Dean’s Cal Trask (East of Eden) playbook as the wounded, ever-ignored baby brother. It is this broken spirit that connects Mark with du Pont in a toxic brew of clammy co-dependence. As du Pont continues to derail the younger Schultz with his sociopathic manipulation, the thick-headed heartbreak of Tatum’s emotionally stunted Mark Schultz is palpable. His breakdown in a hotel room at the Olympic trials is epically harrowing (if not a touch overbaked).

Ruffalo, as always, is scruffy perfection as Tatum’s brother. He captures the pathetic swagger of an athlete whose accomplishments were forgotten before they even really began. Olympic gold for these brothers is more of a dead end than an open door. Ruffalo is warm and lovely and appropriately stilted in all of his interactions with family, not quite as stunted as his brother Mark … but awfully close. When he finally meets his tragic end, it is both shocking and expected but no less horrifying.

Director Bennett Miller, like Carell and Ruffalo, also has been nominated for an Oscar, though his recognition is arguably the least deserving. Bennett is brave enough to let the quiet moments speak for themselves, capitalizing on the expressiveness of his crackerjack cast to great effect. The movie’s strongest moments are in its silences; the most telling exchanges from a wordless look of disdain from one character to another.

However, the film’s pacing is ponderous, and, occasionally, Bennett allows the flick to devolve into TV movie clichés:  Mark Schultz now has highlights in his hair … so he must be having an illicit relationship with du Pont; Mark Schultz is surrounded by beer bottles, so he must be letting training slide; Du Pont is snorting cocaine during a helicopter ride, so he must be a reckless ne’er do well; David Schultz can’t remember simple things like picking up his kids from school, so let’s have him write notes on his own hand like “pick up kids” which must show what a regular Joe he is. Ain’t that cute?

Regardless, the film is very much worth seeing, for the implications it offers regarding the super rich in this country … of their inability to understand the hopes and dreams of the rest of us, of their inability to see that we aren’t here as chattel for their amusement.  To me, that was the most powerful message of all in the film, like Les Miserables in a wrestling ring.

________________________________

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.

An entertaining perp walk to its inevitable credit sequence blooper reel: Let’s Be Cops

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Let’s Be Cops is a throwback to a simpler, sunnier, dumber movie era … and that is not necessarily a bad thing. There was a time, not that long ago, when the summer movie season was not so populated with postmodern irony and self-aware/self-important superheroes. Rather, it was an unyielding series of big, silly, high concept buddy flicks like Shanghai Noon or Bad Boys. (This summer’s 22 Jump Street is the exception that proves the rule.)

Let’s Be Cops has neither the wit nor the budget of any of those films, but it is like their not-so-bright cousin: pleasant and nice to hang out with at the family reunion, but ultimately rather forgettable.

Ryan O’Malley (New Girl‘s Jake Johnson) and Justin Miller (Happy Endings‘ Damon Wayans, Jr.) are two friends/roommates who move to Los Angeles to find their dreams after college (Purdue University no less, though both drive cars with Columbus, Ohio license plates – do the filmmakers not know where Purdue is?). These partners in arrested development have hit their 30s and are at a financial/social/life dead end. Think Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion without the whimsy … or the Post-Its.

Their upcoming college reunion for some reason is a masquerade ball (WTF?) which O’Malley mistakenly believes means a costume party. Miller, a video game designer who is developing one based on real-life experiences of policemen, just happens to have two authentic police uniforms in their apartment. So, of course, they wear these costumes to the party, à la Elle Woods’ cringe-worthy bunny outfit in Legally Blonde. Embarrassment ensues when these boys in blue are faced with college classmates bedecked in evening gowns, tuxedoes, and glittery commedia dell’arte masks (again, WTF?).

The cheekiness finally kicks in when the boys, dejected and mortified by their reunion experience and still wearing their cop gear, wander the streets of L.A. and suddenly realize every passer-by regards them with fear, adoration, respect, or some combination thereof.

Expectedly, the power goes to their heads, and O’Malley starts to take it all too seriously, embroiling them both in a gang bust of some clichéd, B-movie Russian mobsters who are harassing the local pizzeria. (‘Cause of course that’s what Russian mobsters in L.A. would do.)

The film has potential to say something interesting about the abuse of power we see among some uniformed officials – certainly (and sadly) a timely concept. What kind of folks are drawn to this profession in the first place. Is this career-choice motivated by noble intent or a power trip or both? The movie’s script isn’t sharp enough to tackle that concept, which, if explored, could have taken this slight though entertaining film to more interestingly satiric comic levels.

However, the movie is fun. That is pretty much all it has set out to be, and that is just fine, aided and abetted as it is by a well-rounded cast. Any time Rob Riggle shows up (though he seems consigned now and forever to play police officers or gym teachers), you know you’re in good hands. Andy Garcia (!) of all people also makes an appearance, as does James D’Arcy, better than he should have been, saddled with the part of a Russian thug whose primary character trait is chewing (and spitting) gum. Key & Peele‘s Keegan-Michael Key, playing to his broad comic wheelhouse, is a hoot as a wide-eyed, childlike gangbanger.

The leads (Johnson and Wayans) have great, sparkling chemistry. Johnson, who seems like the love-child of Owen Wilson and Mark Ruffalo, is scruffy and charming in all his sweaty desperation to be somebody. Wayans, as his (somewhat) straight-arrow friend, shows surprising range, given the circumstances. He finds more notes to play than actually exist in the thin script, wringing comic gold as a neurotic fish-out-of-water, who is neither as neurotic nor as out of his depths as he initially seems.

Even its artless title is a giveaway that Let’s Be Cops is not taking itself terribly seriously. For all intents and purposes, this zippy trifle is two hours of two little boys playing dress-up in the backyard. Once the high (low) concept rumbles to life, the narrative is an entertaining perp walk to its inevitable credit sequence blooper reel.

 ________________

Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. 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 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.