Thor: Ragnarok

Release: Friday, November 3, 2017

👀 Theater

Written by: Eric Pearson; Craig Kyle; Christopher L. Yost

Directed by: Taika Waititi

Starring: Chris Hemsworth; Tom Hiddleston; Cate Blanchett; Idris Elba; Jeff Goldblum; Tessa Thompson; Mark Ruffalo

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios

***/*****

Save yourself a pat on the back for me, Marvel. The Taika Waititi experiment has paid off and now you’ve got a great big success on your hands. Thor: Ragnarok isn’t a revelation but it is a very entertaining package, and that largely comes down to the studio investing in yet another unlikely candidate for the job. The New Zealand-born comedian-turned-director has the global audience in his hands as he sets about parodying the realm of fancily-clad, musclebound superheroes into oblivion.

Rarely do you find a franchise hitting a high note late into their run, yet here we are three films in and Ragnarok is unequivocally one of those highs. Thor (2011) had its moments but too often it took pleasure in slamming you in the gut with corny dialogue and half-hearted attempts at levity. The Dark World in 2014 overcompensated by going really heavy and really broody. In the end it was even sillier than its predecessor. Cut to another eight films deeper into the superstructure of the MCU and we finally get a Thor film that beats everyone to the punch by being the first to make fun of itself. It’s still not quite a balanced effort but Thor: Ragnarok is a much better film for using humor as its primary weapon.

From the opening scene it’s apparent things are going to work a little differently under the Kiwi’s creative leadership. In his fifth reprisal of the legendary son of Odin, Chris Hemsworth is able to find the funny in everything, including being hogtied upside-down and held captive at the hands of the fire demon Surtur on a remote planet. (Well, almost everything. He doesn’t seem to enjoy being tasered, being bound to a chair or losing his beloved Mjölnir.) It’s been two years since we’ve last seen Thor, when the Republic of Sokovia was lifted dramatically skyward during another marquee Avengers moment. He’s been scouring the Nine Realms for the remaining Infinity Stones ever since but we find him now caught in a bind.

Spewing exposition for the benefit of the audience is never a glamorous job, so Waititi figures why not let it fall to an anthropomorphic molten rock thingy. Surtur informs us that ‘Ragnarök’ — the prophesied destruction of Thor’s home world — is nigh, and that essentially nothing can stop it. Even though he Houdini’s his way out of this initial hang-up, Thor is sent on a collision course with an even bigger problem: dealing with his incredibly dysfunctional family. In tracking down Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), who is in failing health and has exiled himself from Asgard, Thor, along with half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), learn about the sister they never knew they had in Hela (Academy Award-winner Cate Blanchett) as well as her imminent return to Asgard.

And it is imminent. Hopkins has barely finished his monologue before we get our first glimpse of a goddess scorned. Blanchett, resembling at the very least in her eye shadow an evil version of Canadian pop singer Avril Lavigne, comes storming on to the scene, a wicked grin transforming her naturally pretty visage. The anticipation of her return proves to be far more interesting than the return itself however, as not even Ragnarok can stem the tide of Marvel’s history of disappointing villains (though the irony of this franchise spawning arguably the entire MCU’s best baddie is never lost). Spouting the platitudes of power-hungry deities isn’t the actor’s forte, yet Blanchett is such a pro she hides her inexperience well, clearly relishing the opportunity to do something a little different. If only the writing around her character aspired to do something different as well.

The major beats of the story ping-pong us back and forth between two alien worlds, the Eden-above-Eden that is Asgard, and a garbage planet called Sakaar, a wild land that feels like an extension of a music video for Empire of the Sun. There we are walking not on a dream, but amongst the brokenness of dreams, of spirits. It’s a planet literally comprised of junk and over which Jeff Goldblum‘s Grandmaster deludedly reigns. As the resident Crazy, the Grandmaster likes to put on gladiatorial battles for his scavenging underlings to drool over. (Cue Thor’s involvement and, so as to emphasize the film’s newfound identity, his new haircut.)

Contrived writing and trailer-provided spoilers aside, this is an important detour as it introduces a pair of fringe players who end up vying for MVP of the movie. And when Waititi prioritizes entertainment over logic at almost every turn he could always use more hands on deck. In the arena we meet Korg, a warrior made out of rocks and brought to life by Waititi himself in a motion capture performance. He’s a gentle giant whose voice is guaranteed to throw you for a loop. Then there’s Tessa Thompson’s hard-drinking bounty hunter, who at the behest of the screenwriters consistently rejects Thor’s pleas for help. The Valkyrie brings a beguiling new attitude that makes her eventual turnaround not only convincing but emotionally satisfying. She needs a movie of her own.

Thor: Ragnarok is a spirited good time, and it is surely an impressive feat for a director who considers himself decidedly more indie. The guys over at Industrial Light and Magic contribute an appropriate sense of scale and the rich textures needed to make these alien environments feel lived-in. The world-building is beyond reproach, but not even Waititi’s brand of comedy is enough to cover up all the existent flaws in the design, the likes of which seem to accrue rapidly along a common fault. The tonal shift is so jarring between the events taking place on poor old vulnerable Ass-guard and those on Sakaar that the film could be clinically diagnosed as bipolar. One part of the film is unapologetically fun, the other — Hela’s brave new world — feels like Game of Thrones. Enormous man-eating wolves only solidify that impression.

It’s ironic that the third Thor film suffers from precisely the opposite problem its predecessors had. It seems almost unfair or overly harsh to criticize the new one for correcting and then overcorrecting, but the scales are nevertheless still unbalanced. The comedy is too varied for Ragnarok to be dismissed as purely asinine — you’ll find elements of slapstick coexisting with wry observational humor, and then there’s always the familiar Marvel formula for giving us a sense of power dynamics (the Hulk smash is once again invoked, and we all know that’s not something Waititi invented). Indeed, there’s much to celebrate with this movie, and while there’s nearly as much to criticize, I’d call this progress. Significant progress at that.

His guy’s getting Ragnarocked out there

Moral of the Story: Colorful, energetic, popcorn-destroying fun. The continued adventures of Thor are given a new lease on life with the Johnny-come-lately director who seems to take advantage of the timing of his arrival. When in full comedy mode, Thor: Ragnarok is at its best but as with all of these movies, I’m not the expert. I wonder how more dedicated fans in the long run come to view movies like this, like Shane Black’s Iron Man 3. Will these movies be remembered for the history they helped shape or what they had to sacrifice in order to make room for more laughs? 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 130 mins. 

Something kinda neat: Thor’s “friend from work” line about the Hulk was suggested to Chris Hemsworth by a Make-A-Wish child who paid a visit to the set on the day the scene was filmed.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.flickeringmyth.com; http://www.imdb.com 

IMDb Top 250: The Elephant Man (1980)

imdb top 250 logo

I would like to thank Table9Mutant (a.k.a. Mutant, a.k.a. Mutey) of Cinema Parrot Disco for the opportunity to review a film that is, in my estimation, a downright classic. If you have yet to check out her site yet, please drop what you’re doing now and head over there (or after you’ve read this, that works too. 😉 )

So there was this movie I needed to watch for this IMDb Top 250 movie challenge thing I was participating in. I’m using the past tense because this was something I had committed to about . . . a year and a half ago at this point. (Is that about right Mutey? Year and a half? or has it been longer?) The movie was David Lynch’s The Elephant Man and I finally managed to calm my ADHD down enough to where I could actually watch it. However, as I was cueing it up to watch my mind started being a bit of an ass, provoking me and stuff, telling me to flip to a different On-Demand channel, something that was playing a more recent movie.

“No!” I yelled back at it, out loud. Seated on a couch in the middle of a very quiet living room. All I had done over the last several months was learn to procrastinate better. Err, sorry, excuse me — blog about other movies that to me at the time seemed more urgent. Finally I realized I could always procrastinate — yes, that ‘extremely-nonsensical-combination-of-letters-that-if-repeated-enough-over-a-short-span-of-time-makes-even-less-sense-but-somehow-if-you-only-say-it-once-you-know-exactly-what-it’s-referring-to’ word — later on anyway. I had to hit the play button now.

I was transported back to the late 1800s, and Victorian England, where traveling circuses were still all the rage and attracted (semi-) massive crowds. I think it’s only fair to assume those who did not turn out for these shows had some kind of moral compass that wasn’t shattered into shitty little useless bits. After a brief but trippy dream-like sequence, Lynch pans in on a striking man (Anthony Hopkins) moving through the crowds, trying to access a particular exhibit known only as ‘The Elephant Man.’ However a shift in the public perception of what these most bizarre and unholy of events actually represented — not curiosity, but cruelness — led to more than a few of the more obscure and unattractive exhibits being closed down by authorities. ‘The Elephant Man’ was one such exhibit.

Cut to a dank and depressingly dark alleyway somewhere in the London area, where once again Hopkins’ Dr. Frederick Treves is trying to get a glimpse of this elephant-like man. To do so, he must uncomfortably agree to some terms (mostly monetary . . . natch) set by the manager, a horrible man named Bytes (Freddie Jones). When he’s finally granted access Treves is so moved by what he sees that he asks if he may ‘study him’ back at the London Hospital, where Treves is a renowned practitioner of medicine. Or whatever fancy way 19th Century English people referred to medical-y people.

As Lynch’s often powerfully emotive work seeks to explore the relationship Dr. Treves formed with his patient, Joseph Merrick (a breathtakingly good John Hurt), during the time he stayed in this hospital, the narrative gets cozy in this facility, spending much of the remaining time concerned with the passage of time and how it can quite literally heal wounds. Unfortunately, the London Hospital had been deemed a facility fit only for those who could be cured of their ailment(s). Go figure, Victorian England. As if Joseph needed the added pressure of becoming an inconvenience to the bureaucracy. (Random bit of trivia: Joseph’s so commonly mistakenly referred to as John that he is actually ‘John’ in the movie as well, so for the purposes of this review I’ll stick with his movie name from here on out.)

The fabric of this narrative is weaved from a tough, humanistic cloth. The Elephant Man is an absorbing study of one of the most fundamental aspects of existence, the need and desire to fit in and belong to something. For the heavily disfigured John, it’s heartbreakingly sufficient for him to have his presence actually acknowledged by at least one person. Perhaps this explains why he opens up at all to the doctor who found him in the streets and why he said precious little to his circus manager/owner. John sees Dr. Treves as a paternal figure of sorts. At the very least, a reincarnation of his mother, of whom he carries around a picture in his pocket. Since early childhood, around the age of 10 when she passed away, John was always curious to know if she, too, would have rejected him like his father and his new wife had . . . or would she have accepted him for what and who he was?

The Elephant Man is powered by two tremendous performances from Hurt and Hopkins, the former being one of the strongest in all of cinematic history. (Certainly in my history of watching movies, which is like, so totally not a history at all . . . . . ) I feel pretty comfortable making that claim even when factoring in make-up effects that were ahead of their time, effects so convincing they inspired the Academy to introduce an award category the following year specifically for Make-Up Artistry.* Hurt, behind a mask that graphically depicts the brutality of random chance (a.k.a. the nature of genetics), is mesmerick (see what I did there? I spelled that word as if it were his last name as part of the . . . okay, yeah this is pointless information). But for cereals, you cannot turn away from this performance, not for a second. The man is utterly transfixing throughout, in ways that ingeniously distract from the grotesque physical appearance. Physically embodying the character was one step, but giving the man personality . . . that’s another challenge entirely. And yet, it doesn’t seem to be a problem for Hurt. He’s stoic yet nevertheless heartbroken by his past; grateful for Treves’ kindness yet still aware that not everyone can be like him. There’s an aura surrounding John that is wholly indebted to Hurt’s interpretation.

Obviously Hopkins is no slouch either. A complicated individual, Treves is first at odds with the hospital and its ‘curable patients’ policy. Over the months and years of John remaining under his care Treves makes more enemies than just Bytes, who reemerges infrequently throughout, eager to reclaim his prized possession any day. John’s life in the London Hospital begins in isolation, but as the doc makes leaps and bounds in progress with the patient, and the tenuous bond of trust they establish eventuates in John’s transfer to a more social area of the hospital, Treves must face up to the ethical consequences of using John as a pseudo-medical experiment. Hopkins is immensely likable as Dr. Treves, yet he’s perfectly imperfect. He doesn’t immediately question his approach with John, like how one of the first things he did with him was show him off to an auditorium packed with, yes, other medical-y people and laying claim to how this would be his most interesting patient yet. Instead, that question comes much later, after circumstances have changed dramatically. Yet, if we’re meant to feel ambivalent towards Treves, Hopkins does a damn fine job of convincing us of his better qualities.

This is of course not easy material to get through. If you have the patience to sit through some many trying scenes (I’m talking the kind that make you angry), then the upshot will be powerful, a potent reminder that people have an immense capacity for kindness in spite of all that has been shown here. Yet the treacherous scenes that come before are often punishment on the conscience; their bluntness at times visceral and greatly upsetting. Some parts are sickening, while others can be downright unwatchable. How can ignorance beget such monstrous behavior? The kind of freakishness that occurs naturally only in tents that capitalize on monsters. Lynch crafts a beautiful symmetry between John’s unfortunate looks and society’s collective hideousness.

The Elephant Man has been described as one of Lynch’s most accessible films. Structurally speaking it’s as straightforward as a . . . I don’t know, something that’s straightforward — a ruler, perhaps? No, a documentary. As straightforward as a documentary. I hesitate to make that comparison because it makes the film sound uninspired and possibly even lazy. Given the way The Elephant Man flows from one stage of life to the next, ducking and diving in and out of the various rooms that constituted John’s life the film does take on some of the evaluative properties of an in-depth documentary. Lynch didn’t have to concoct a timeline-distorting, reality-bending head trip to leave an impression here. He just needed to let the subject matter speak for itself.

slight correction: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created the new category for the following year’s ceremony, but only after they were pressured publicly to do so. When The Elephant Man failed to garner attention for its make-up effects, it was petitioned to have an honorary award bestowed upon it, even though the AMPAS refused. An American Werewolf in London was the first film that won the prize in the following year

Recommendation: Emotionally devastating and difficult to watch on more than one occasion, The Elephant Man is an essential experience for fans of deeply human stories. In this case I think the subject matter far outweighs the talents involved in creating it (with perhaps the exception of John Hurt who makes the product worth the while on his own). This may be a David Lynch film but I will probably remember it more as just a generally classic film with astounding performances. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “I am not an animal! I am a human being! I . . . am . .  . a man!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com

Noah

Noah-2014-Movie-Poster

Release: Friday, March 28, 2014

[Theater]

The hysteria surrounding this particular release begs the ultimate question: should some stories be exempt from the full-length feature film format? Are some stories movie-proof?

Like how Moses parted the Red Sea, Noah is doing something similar to global audiences, dividing them down the middle over whether this movie is representative of the story they have known as part of the Bible. There’s no denying that some of the directorial choices made in the film are repelling more than they are attracting potential viewers, and the finished product likely will remain as not the one many were envisioning.

Admitting in an interview that the Biblical subject matter was an unusual choice for him, director Darren Aronofsky (whose Requiem for a Dream safely remains as his most identifiable project) has clearly tried to find a way to fashion one extremely popular story into his own brand of entertainment; the sui generis hasn’t taken with everyone, a fact that is also clear. He is a director known for leaving disturbing and long-lasting imprints upon the viewer’s mind; a man who won’t be comfortable until he has made everyone else uncomfortable.

It seems in 2014 he has accomplished this with ease, perhaps for reasons he wasn’t intending or couldn’t foresee. Much has been made of the film’s bizarre and head-trippy content and the characterization of its mysterious, enigmatic lead. One hesitates to call the titular role a protagonist given how Aronofsky has chosen to depict him, and this may well be the biggest challenge his film poses to viewers around the globe. It’s either that, or convincing everyone that his film is not based upon the Biblical story, but rather on a graphic novel he wrote himself, titled the same. With the written account assuming a very loose interpretation of the original story found in The Book of Genesis, the filmed version seemed doomed to do battle with an onslaught of naysayers.

Aronofosky’s Noah is less a story millions have grown up reading as it is a fantasy epic that happens to feature the popular character. We are introduced to him as a young boy, being sheltered by a protector who is later revealed to be his father, Lamech. He passes down to him a special snakeskin, the shell of the serpent that slithered through the green grasses of Eden, as part of a tradition upheld across generations. Noah grows to become a strong, brave father and husband, who is constantly plagued with disturbing dreams and visions of an impending global catastrophe. While leading his family across barren wastelands to find a suitable place to escape the human populations — people at this point are depicted as bloodthirsty, evil creatures with no redeemable qualities whatsoever — Noah witnesses a string of miracles that convince him he’s been chosen by God (referred to here as ‘The Creator’) to help carry out his plan for the fate of the planet.

Every so often we are startled by a vivid flashback — or what appear to be flashbacks; they’re actually snippets that progress the dreams Noah keeps having — that rips our attention away from the current situation and places and seems to disorient us temporarily. Aronofsky understands that for his version of this story to work, he needs to get the audience in the same kind of disturbed mental state as the titular character eventually shall experience. The task at hand is going to be physically and psychologically exhausting, this we realize quickly. What kinds of tolls are Noah’s actions going to have on him, his loved ones? Aronofsky’s second and third acts explain thoroughly, even if this is not what most people expect. . .maybe even want. Relative to the world that he has created, Aronofsky’s story makes perfect sense. Even though Noah’s safety has apparently been ensured as well as that of his family, including that of the young girl, Ila (Emma Watson) whom they adopted many years ago, scores and scores of other people are left to waste. This is a reality Noah can barely stand to acknowledge, and the burden only increases.

Despite the clutter and chaos surrounding it’s release, the storyline presented isn’t overly complex or pretentious in nature. The epic can easily be divvied up into its three distinct movements: the first forty minutes or so are devoted to tracking Noah’s nomadic existence before coming into an understanding of what he’s meant to do (become the world’s greatest carpenter, apparently). Act two beckons a strong wind of change once Noah realizes he’s going to be running the world’s first and possibly only floating zoo and has gigantic rock creatures (fallen angels who were denied the gates of Heaven by The Creator earlier for their disobedience) to help construct it. Then, the third and final part devolves into an episode of The Real World: Noah’s Ark — what happens when Biblical characters stop being nice and start being real? What happens when a movie filled with unusual events and deviations from the perceived truth hits a brick wall in terms of ideas? Turn melodramatic, of course. This is precisely what the final twenty or thirty minutes of this film unfortunately resort to.

Aronofsky, it seems, pulls the rug out from underneath me as well.

While there are quite a few aspects about the film that come across as bizarre, even out of place and to a degree, unnecessary, nothing about the proceedings is going to compel people to want to burn Aronofsky at the stake more than the twists and turns of this protracted third act. It’s here where liberties are perceived to be taken the most: the characterization of Noah seems to take a 180-degree turn (and if you ask any random attendee, they’ll probably say for the worse). Again, that’s based on the presumption that they have always pictured this man as kind and gentle, and when he farts it smells of bakery-fresh cinnamon rolls. Indeed, this is not how Crowe portrays him, nor is this the way the character is written. If it helps, picture this 21st Century Noah as the equivalent of Daniel Craig’s version of James Bond — grittier, tougher, more human than we have ever been led to believe before.

In fact, that’s the fist-sized pill everyone has to swallow watching what was once nothing more than a simulacrum of man’s savior actually living, breathing, struggling. Noah humanizes the man’s battle to understand what is being asked of him and what is occurring around him. Abundant are the arguments calling out the film’s environmental message, but this really is less of an aberration as it is being made out to be. Is it delivered heavy-handedly? Perhaps. The Book of Genesis wasn’t exactly willing to get to the specifics over what these days were like. Desperate would be a fitting description, I suppose. Epic, another.

And that’s just what Aronofsky’s film is. It’s also far from perfect, possessing more than its fair share of editing and pacing issues that give the first act more than an opportunity to stall once and again (and ditto that to the last thirty minutes or so). Thematically, it juggles cautionary tales on how people epically fail at taking care of their environment (we do, there’s no denying it); the importance of family and how it may be defined; the virtue of love versus the temptation to hate. There are many layers to deconstruct and pick apart, with no real definitive core to be found anywhere. Controversial directors often find themselves at the very center of the controversy itself.

Here is an entirely new piece of literature, a story all it’s own. With any luck, the man won’t be receiving death threats like he did after creating Requiem.

noah2

3-5Recommendation: Given that the events that take place in the film are many and extremely varied, the story provided isn’t going to be the one most expect. That’s not to say there is no place for a modern-day adaptation. Visionary, significant, and strangely mainstream, Noah can hardly be described as the most accessible film ever made, but perhaps its this director’s most accessible. By the seem of things, it could shape up to be his most talked-about effort yet. Beautifully open to interpretation, the abstract and fantasy elements will inevitably offend many, but for those who it does not, they will find greatness in this epic tale of survival.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 138 mins.

Quoted: “Please keep it inside, please!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com