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

The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

fea8c-fellowship1Without the inventiveness and lore that J.R.R. Tolkien created in his books, there would never be something as visceral and grand in scope as The Lord of the Rings. However, it is a vibrant mythology that Peter Jackson breathed life into, and it becomes evident in the opening minutes of the Fellowship.

There is so much ground to cover as far as history and context go and Jackson sets it up beautifully with an epic prologue narrated by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) which became synonymous with this trilogy.

“But something happened then that the Ring did not intend. It was picked up by the most unlikely creature imaginable: a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, of the Shire. For the time will soon come when hobbits will shape the fortune of all.”

Thus, begins the Fellowship of the Ring. We find ourselves in the awesomely beautiful Shire (courtesy of New Zealand) backed by an exuberant score by Howard Shore. This is the home of a now elderly Bilbo (Ian Holm) and his relation Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). The backdrop is Bilbo’s Eleventy-First Birthday and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is making an appearance for his old friends birthday.

There is a lot of merriment to be had complete with Gandalf’s world famous fireworks, however, Bilbo is also preparing to say adieu, and he must finally give up the Ring. It is at this time that Gandalf is reminded of its power as it gets handed off to the unknowing Frodo. It is now this little hobbit’s task to flee everything he has ever known because 9 Black Riders sent by the evil Sauron are heading to retrieve the Ring.

By his side is the loyal gardener Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) and his two jesting friends Merry and Pippin. As for Gandalf, he must deal with some business with the head of his order Saruman (Christopher Lee).

With the Riders in hot pursuit, the hobbits stop at the Prancing Pony. By this time Gandalf has yet to return but they cross paths with a ranger named Strider (Viggo Mortensen). He agrees to lead them to the Elvin city Rivendell but before they can get their Frodo is ambushed by the Ring-Wraiths and receives a fatal wound. He survives and is reunited with Bilbo as well as Gandalf who was forced to flee Saruman who has switched his allegiance.

A decision is made to destroy the Ring in Mount Doom from whence it came and Frodo is joined by his friends, Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom), Gimli the dwarf (John Rys-Davies) and Boromir (Sean Bean) the man.

They must take a treacherous path leading to the Mines of Moria which are in complete ruins. The area has been completely overrun by orcs and Gandalf must stave off an ancient demon called a Balrog so the others can escape.

They wind up in Lothlorien the home of more Elves including Galadriel who informs Frodo of what the future hold for him. Boromir is the next person to be tempted by the Ring and he tries to get it away from Frodo who starts to flee once more.

Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas take on a legion orcs and Boromir attempts to redeem himself but is struck down. Merry and Pippin get kidnapped leading the enemy away from Frodo. Ever faithful Sam follows Frodo because of the promise he made. And the three other members of the Fellowship resolve to go after the press-ganged hobbits after they pay their respects to Boromir.

It’s a cliffhanger ending, but it is packed with enough epic drama and heart to make it a worthwhile ride. Just know that this is just the beginning of a long, hard journey.

Lord of the Rings is visually magnificent and it’s absolutely mind boggling that most of the scenery and extras in the film (ie. orcs) were actually real. Thus, it seems like The Lord of the Rings is one of the last great epics in a long line of epic films. It is sad to think that this kind of “real” epic is a dying breed with the use of CGI. Human actors and real life scenery is slowly, or actually quite rapidly, getting replaced by computers.

My criticism is that computers make the world and even characters look too perfect. You can tell that it is not real and it loses some of its allure in my mind. Furthermore, if characters are being created from scratch you lose the human interaction and thus a great deal of movie magic. My hope is that these type of epics will find a resurgence because they are usually well worth it.

Another observation has to do with Howard Shore’s magnificent score. If you removed it from this film we would have a completely different movie-going experience. It would be as if a piece of the puzzle is missing, because he seemed to so perfectly personify each locale and he accented each scene so wonderfully with music. Whether it was epic choral arrangements during dark moments or the flute for the gaiety of a sunny day in the Shire.

This certainly not my first romp in Middle Earth, but I was reminded why this world was so engaging. I am excited to revisit the other installments, because the story only gets better with time, even if we already know the ending. Thank you, Peter Jackson, and thank you, J.R.R. Tolkien.

5/5 Stars

Blue Jasmine (2013)

90cbd-blue_jasmineThe emotionally unstable socialite Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) seems to think everyone in the world wants to listen to her talk and reminisce
This film shares a resemblance to Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire, and it can be know coincidence because Woody Allen knows his history.  On her part, Blanchett ironically shines as Jasmine, a woman who was married to a swindler (Alec Baldwin), has a nervous breakdown and then finds herself penniless in San Fran on her sister’s doorstep (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine is a snobbish jetsetter who had all the possessions that money could buy and a successful hubby. However, pull out the rug from under her and what’s left is a needy hypochondriac plagued by bouts of loneliness.  When she’s not jamming down pills chased by martinis, she’s feeling sorry for herself. She is also often prone to be unstable and throw tantrums. But by the end of this film she is all alone on a bench. No money, no family, not even any love life. Jasmine is a tough case because she is absolutely despicable and on top of that annoying, and yet we still have a small degree of sympathy for her. Allen’s film walks the tightrope between comedy and tragedy to great effect. 
 
4/5 Stars 

 

The Aviator (2004)

ccda6-the_aviator_posterDirected by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio with a good ensemble cast, this biopic chronicle the life of Howard Hughes. The story begins when the ambitious young man begins to direct an epic movie that is nearly a disaster. After his success, we witness the life of this director, playboy, and above all aviator. He makes Scarface and then later The Outlaw. He has relationships with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchet), a young teenage girl, and Ava Garner (Kate Beckinsdale). Then during the war he designs new planes and afterwards Hughes faces his greatest challenge. He is on the brink of disaster in his competition with Pan-Am and he is the subject of a near-damaging senate hearing. All the while his obsessive compulsive disorder gets worse. I found this film fascinating because I knew very little about Hughes. As a director himself, Scorsese also seemed to have sympathy for the man and also admiration for the olden days.

4.5/5 Stars