Thor Ragnarok (2017)

Thor_Ragnarok_posterMy heart lept in my chest when I heard that Taika Watiti (What We Do in The Shadows) was going to be helming the latest Thor movie. Because it’s hardly a well-kept secret that Thor has essentially been the weakest of all the Marvel threads (Hulk’s individual film excluded).

So once more Marvel has done an impeccable job of keeping lukewarm bandwagoners such as myself mildly interested. Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange. Brie Larson in the upcoming Captain Marvel movie — another personal favorite. Then, we have Ryan Coogler directing Black Panther with one of the most glorious casts in recent memory. They make their product so alluring despite my general lack of interest in the perennial juggernaut.

But back to Thor Ragnarok which goes far beyond the quip-filled, light-hearted humor that Marvel has often boasted, to great success, I might add. Even with its darker moments and strains of drama, there’s little doubting that Watiti’s brand of near insouciant humor is alive and well. Exhibit A is the very fact that we are reintroduced to Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as he swings precariously from a rocky prison encased in chains about to be executed by a fiery conflagration of a villain.

In case you haven’t realized it already what we are about to be served up is a comedy about an apocalypse. Oxymoronic as it may sound, the film all but pulls it off. Still, more explanation is in order.

Thor returns to Asgard only to begin quibbling with his black sheep of a brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) just like old times. They call on their father (Anthony Hopkins) whose imminent death is less an ending and more a god-like dispersal. There are other asides involving Dr. Strange (Cumberbatch) and yes, we even found out a little bit more about the Hulk and what Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has been doing the last couple years.

Being the weasel that he is, Loki’s always betraying his brother and Thor winds up getting captured by a former Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) who has taken on the life of a slave trader, bringing in fighters for the Contest of Champions. Thor is destined to be the newest attraction on center stage.

Watiti most obviously makes his general tone felt in the film through his own character Korg, a giant rock monster who is more like the Michelin Man than The Thing. Watiti’s understated voice coming through so clearly as he matter-of-factly talks about the not uncertain death that awaits nearly everyone. But he’s also handy for a few rock, paper, scissor jokes as well.

Jeff Goldblum is probably the film’s other finest creation for his own brand of oddly perturbing flippancy with gladiatorial violence and hedonistic relish of death matches. But in the same breath, The Grandmaster also happens to be probably the funniest addition to the cast for those very same reasons.

In fact, it’s these themes touched on briefly that are most crucial to drawing conclusions about Ragnarok. It’s deeply entrenched in issues of death and mortality, violence and warfare. By no small coincidence, the main villain brought to the fore is Hela (Cate Blanchett) who helped Odin build his kingdom and has come back to rule it as her own. It’s not a particularly inspired creation but what did we expect? It is what it is.

Meanwhile, Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” is the film’s favorite hard-hitting tune to conjure up for perfect trailer sound bytes to crosscut with the action at hand. Whether it serves any other purpose aside from just being a bit of retro-cool is probably beside the point.

There’s a line that seems apt for such a film that I couldn’t help recalling. It goes like something like this, “We laugh at death because we know that death will have the last laugh at us.” It’s one thing to make light of death as a coping mechanism and as an outlet to grapple with something we don’t completely understand, quite another to completely dismiss it. Because the far easier road is to try and evade dealing with it altogether.

The usual CGI extravaganzas and spectacle aside, there is something still to relish in this movie. What I’m trying to say is that Thor Ragnarok is a deathly funny superhero film. In spite of the usual tiresome amount of pyrotechnics, random cameos, and overzealous action sequences, there is an ephemeral and still a delightful enjoyment to be found in this picture. It no doubt bears the imprint of Watiti while still wearing some of the tiresome Marvel tropes.

The one theme it does suggest most overtly is that “Asgard” was built on past indiscretions, bloodshed, and violence. But moreover, the mythical nation is not simply a place. It’s the people that make it up. And in the wake of an apocalypse, it’s some amount of solace. That and Jeff Goldblum giving the commoners a pat on the back. It’s always good to undercut solemnity with another punchline following the credits.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

silenceof1The Silence Lamb is a horror film at times, a thriller at others, and most definitely a character study in its entirety. It features two wonderfully different figures in budding young FBI agent-to-be Clarice Starling and incarcerated serial killer Hannibal Lecter played so impeccably by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins respectively.

It begins as a hunt for a serial killer named Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), who for some reason kidnaps his victims, kills them, and skins them like some kind of perverse trophy. This in itself makes for an interesting albeit grisly storyline. The race is on to find this man before he murders his latest victim who happens to be the daughter of a prominent senator. Thus, there is an immediate need to get inside his head and figure out what the next logical steps should be. That’s when Agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) of the Behavioral Science Unit calls on Starling to help him out.

The narrative of Silence of the Lambs is twofold because this larger manhunt becomes the backdrop for an arguably far more interesting development. The initial meeting and budding relationship, if we can call it that, between agent Starling and cannibalistic psychopath Dr. Lecter is deliciously intriguing. He just might be the key to unlock this case, but it’s not without peril.

silenceof2As the saying goes, “Quid pro quo.” Lecter is rather intrigued by Starling, so different and far franker than any of the other people who get thrown his direction. So he agrees to help her only asking in return that she open up about herself. It seems like a dangerous proposition with Lecter constantly playing mind games. He’s skilled at probing, dissecting, teasing, and prodding. But Starling willingly goes through his questioning to get help with the case. After all, who better to catch a serial killer than another serial killer?

They touch on the death of Starling’s father, a town Marshall, and her horror in seeing the slaughter of newborn lambs. In return, he tells her that all the information she needs is in the case files. But antagonistic Dr. Chilton is more a hindrance than a help to Starling’s case, and she must figure out the rest on her own.

Going through the files she finally makes some headway in her search for Buffalo Bill, but an FBI tactical unit already has sights on his location. Then there’s a surprising about-face in the case, not to mention that Lecter escapes his cell, kills his guards and is on the lam. Starling is not in danger from him, but he is looking to have an old friend for dinner instead.

Ultimately the plucky young agent comes through big in her case and in the academy. The film ends on a high note for her, but with it comes a titillating call from Dr. Lecter. He pays his respects for her recent graduation then goes off after his newest victim. Such a conscientious killer to offer up his congratulations like that.

How does one go about playing a man so evil and yet intricately interesting on so many levels? Hopkins said himself that he copied a friend who never blinked because it always makes people on edge. He likened his voice to an amalgamation of Katharine Hepburn and Truman Capote if that even makes sense. Finally, he saw parallels to another famed movie villain, the computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Both so intelligent, so unfeeling and ultimately so deadly. What might put Lecter a trifle above HAL are his chilling unflinching facial expressions that are sure to send shivers down the spine of any normal person. A face like that just doesn’t leave you.

4.5/5 Stars

Shadowlands (1993)

2bfce-shadowlands_ver2Starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger with direction by Richard Attenborough, this film chronicles the romance of famed Christian professor and author, C.S. “Jack” Lewis with the American poet Joy Gresham. Jack is by now a respected professor at Oxford and a widely acclaimed lecturer who often speaks on the issue of human suffering. In his personal life, he is rather reserved. He lives with his older brother Warnie and spends times with his colleagues discussing topics of all sorts at the local pub in the evenings. 

It is not until he receives a letter from an American admirer named Joy Gresham that his life seemingly begins to change. He first accepts to meet her only to be gracious, but soon their relationship develops into a close bond. Jack meets Joy’s son Douglas who is enthralled by Narnia. He even offers them a place to stay during the Christmas season, since they have nowhere else to go. Lewis and Gresham are very different people, to say the least. He is a quiet intellectual with the sensibilities of an Englishman, while she is a plain -speaking American who does not mince words. However, these differences bring them closer together because they help each other to view the world in a radically new light.  Jack learns how Gresham’s marriage is going badly and he settles to marry her in a practical union so she and Douglas can stay in England. They do not speak of it much and it hardly seems real. Joy calls him on it realizing for herself that he allows no one to challenge him. There is no vulnerability to him whatsoever.

However, then Joy is diagnosed with bone cancer and slowly but surely she begins to deteriorate. For the second time in his lif,e Lewis understands the anguish that comes when a loved one is suffering. Because, the fact is, he most definitely loves Joy, and it simply took a tragedy to make him realize it. As with any inexplicable suffering, Lewis is tested in his faith, and the reality human suffering has new meaning to him. It is no longer just lecture material, becoming a far more personal process.

Although this film is not so much focused on C.S. Lewis as a Christian theologian or apologist, I think Anthony Hopkins does a wonderful job of portraying him as a kindly and gentle man of faith. He struggles with doubts and fears like every human, but he found something wonderful in his love for Joy which ultimately changed him.

Debra Winger must also be commended because she played well off of Hopkins and even though I have no picture of the real Gresham, Winger seemed to embody her. In some ways, I found her most beautiful when she was bedridden, absent of all makeup and seemingly so pure. It positively tears your heart out watching her son say a tearful goodnight or to look on as Jack stays up with her. This is a better picture of real, unadulterated love than most films can hope to manage because it very rarely becomes a sappy melodrama instead resorting to more deliberate means. As Jack says we live in the “Shadowlands,” but amidst the pain and suffering, love seems to shine through even brighter.

This was such an enlightening film for me because I always envision C.S. Lewis as a scholar and rational thinker, which he was. But he also had a vulnerable human side and this film, as well as A Grief Observed (written after Joy’s death), prove that point. It’s hard not to feel for him and that’s part of the beauty of this story.

4.5/5 Stars

The Lion in Winter (1968)

ae367-lion_in_winter1The year is 1183 and the castle of King Henry II is a dark and dank place during the winter months. You would not think so by the opening moments where an energetic King (Peter O’Toole) duels his young boy John (Nigel Terry). His mistress takes in the scene from afar. On first glance, this whole scenario seems pleasant enough, but that would be far from the truth.

Young John is the King’s favorite, but his aged yet cunning wife Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn) has a special affection for the eldest brother Richard (Anthony Hopkins), who she desires to take the throne. Stuck between the two favorites is middle child Geoffrey (John Castle), who has plans of his own. Bring the French King Phillip II (Timothy Dalton) into the equation and the situation becomes even messier than before. What follows is an elaborate web of lies, deceptions, side deals, false motives, eavesdropping, and of course backstabbing. Henry and Eleanor constantly battle back and forth as their sons bicker among themselves. One big unhappy family to be sure.
Henry tries to marry off his mistress (Jane Merrow) to Richard to satisfy King Phillip, but his son will not have it. Next, Henry tries to compromise with Phillip only to learn that his sons were planning to gang up against him. Now he cannot trust any of them, and they find themselves in the dungeon. He makes a new plan to get remarried to his mistress so that he might have another son to be king, but his other sons will be a threat so long as they live. His dilemma is evident, but he cannot bear to kill them. Things seem to go back to the way they always were with Eleanor going back behind bars and Henry playfully barking at her. All’s well that ends well perhaps.

Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn were certainly two titans in this film. O’Toole, whether he is roaring or confiding in his former love, does everything with purpose and bravado. He does show his soft, vulnerable underbelly at times, though, as a man advanced in years. Hepburn on her part is absolutely acerbic, oftentimes governing the tone of the film with her barbs and snide comments. And yet with her, there is also at least a few instances of true humanity. She and Henry seem to be made for each other and their boys are seemingly just as loathsome and underhanded.

4/5 Stars


The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in two memorable performances, the film opens with a young FBI agent in training, Clarice Starling (Foster). A serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill is on the loose and Starling is given the assignment of talking to the incarcerated Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins). He formally was a brilliant psychiatrist and he turned into a cannibalistic killer. Lecter gives Starling hints on how to find the killer but not without forcing her to open up about her past. She closes in on the murderer and after some tense moments she finishes the job a hero. Now a certified FBI agent, Starling gets a call from Lecter who had escaped previously. He bids her farewell as chilling as ever and this time he is a free man. The acting was good and there were definitely some great thrills.

4.5/5 Stars