Where’d You Go, Bernadette

When you have a movie that you are not sure who the audience is, and it comes from a company that has shown incompetence when it comes to marketing, you get a film like this. Annapura Studios is on the brink of bankruptcy, not because of a creative vacuum but rather a lack of business sense. This is an arthouse style film, with bigger ambitions, which is going to be swallowed and spit out by the brutal dumping ground that late August often is. The film is not bad, it’s just not anything that you can tell somebody it is. The team putting this into theaters is telling us it’s a comedy, but you won’t laugh much, you will smile occasionally and I think you may end up feeling a little sad afterward.

Not having read the book, I will tell you what I can fathom from the film. Bernadette Fox is a genius artist/architect who has had a serious mental problem after the outcome of one of her brilliant projects. Cate Blanchett has cornered the market on quirky female characters for twenty years now. If you want accents, get Meryl, if you want quirk, Cate is your date. As usual, she delivers a fine performance with a combination of comedic timing and appropriate dramatic punch at the right moments. Billy Crudup is her equally genius engineering type husband. Between the two of them, wealth is an afterthought. Foremost in their thoughts is their daughter Bee, played by newcomer Emma Nelson. Bernadette’s problems are beginning to overwhelm her husband and  they create some issue for her fiercely loyal daughter as well.

This movie feels like a 1980s Meryl Streep feature. The story meanders and there are interesting characters, but there does not seem to be a point to the film except for the characters. There is a little bit of plot drama toward the end which makes the movie a lot more fulfilling but it depends and turning a couple of characters away from each other to get that drama. In the 1930s, Bernadette would be a madcap heiress that everybody indulges but in these times we can see she is emotionally and mentally challenged and indulging her has not really helped.

Director Richard Linklater has put the story together with cryptic notes about what sent her over the edge, most of which are revealed bit by bit as a video on YouTube. This gets some terrific actors in the movie in tiny parts that add to the whole quite well. David Paymer, Steve Zahn, Megan Mullally and Laurence Fishburne pop up and fill the background canvas of the story with needed color. Kristen Wiig is a harried neighbor who is played as an antagonist but has a deeper role to provide as the movie goes on. Judy Greer also has a more engaged part and she conveys a sympathy and insightfulness that Bernadette could use but like everything else she runs away from. I don’t know that the resolution of the story is a pragmatic solution, after all mania is still a disorder, but for the audience it is emotionally satisfying.

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette”  is an odd concoction of ideas and characters. It worked well enough at times but I do think the choices about the Father/Daughter dynamic in the last third of the movie are problematic, at least when it comes to relating to the younger character. There are some sincere motivations but there is a bit of belligerence which was not evident earlier in the story and it feel inauthentic when directed at the other parent. That choice was especially iffy because of the crisis that the family faces.

Ocean’s 8

It’s been more than a decade since this franchise had an entry. The purpose of a re-boot like this is of course money, but that does not mean that there can’t be something worth watching as a result. The Three Soderbergh films were sort of a mixed bag. The first was delightful, the second one strained and lacking the light touch of the first and then the third one coming close to the first in deftness. He is an Executive Producer on this film but this is really the baby of writer/director Gary Ross. Mr. Ross has been hit or miss for me as well, penning and directing the great “Seabuscuit” and “Pleasantville”, but also writing “The Tale of Desperaux” which I wanted to love but did not. With this outing however, we are on solid ground.

Maybe it is a high concept twist to put together an all female crew to mimic the skills and character points of the male version, but for the most part it works. The plot set up is a little clunky in tying the cast to the other films, but in the long run, marketing is what got this film greenlit in the first place so it is essential from that perspective. From a story point of view, not so much. Nothing that happened in the previous films is relevant to anything that happens here. They only serve as a model for the twists and diversions a heist picture must make to create some suspense and make the film entertaining. For the most part, Ross and his team follow the template well.

There is an extended opening section where we meet the main character, Debbie Ocean, Danny’s sister. We see her being released from prison after making a persuasive plea for parole. The guards aren’t taken in because they know from first hand experience that she is still a hustler. There are several moments where we get to see her strut her stuff and establish that she is a clever thief and capable of pulling off the confidence games that are going to be part of the heist that serves as the center of the film. Sandra Bullock can play these moments effectively, and there are a couple of times when she needs to be a bit cold-hearted, she does that well too. The rest of the opening section involves recruiting the team and setting up the crime. Like the other films, we are only given enough information to keep us going in the right direction, while still being able to be surprised along the way.

The one weakness that I see in the film that is fairly obvious, is that the other members of the team are drawn in a sketchy manner. Wheras character development was a big part of the men’s version of this plot, the women end up simply reflecting some stereotypes from crime films. There is a cool counterpart played by Cate Blanchett, a mysterious hacker played by Rihanna, and a meticulous fence in Sarah Paulson.  Mindy Kaling gets the nerdy counterfeiter part and there is a street smart pick pocket. The only member of the team that really develops some character is Helena Bonham Carter, a clothing designer that gets drawn into the plot. Her part was better fleshed out than any of the other cast except Bullock.

You have to make a few allowances for heist films. Nothing ever follows the plan, that’s part of the fun, but things can’t fall into place with the degree of certainty that happens in most films of this ilk. If you can let those moments go and just sit back for the ride, you will enjoy the little treats along the way, and the song score helps as well. This is a refreshing crowd pleaser that lacks the angst of some of the bigger films out there, but it will go down well with a cold beverage on a summer night.

Thor: Ragnarok

 

If anybody was holding their breath because they were worried about this film, you can let it out now. “Thor: Ragnarok” is as good as promised and entertaining as hell.  I keep hearing how it is the shortest of the Marvel Films, but it did not feel to me like it was shorting us on anything. We got an expansion of the Asgardian Universe, there are significant connections to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and “the Avengers” get to play a little in this sandbox as well. It may not be essential to the progress of the phases of the Marvel plan, but it is a solid stand-alone with enough Easter Eggs to keep the faithful happy.

I want to start with something that is usually a side-note or an endcap to most film reviews, the use of source music. Whatever they paid for the use of the Led Zeppelin “Immigrant Song”, it is worth twice that. You almost certainly heard it in the teaser trailer and you know the hypnotic effect it can have when combined with images from the film. In the movie itself, the tune gets used in two places and each one is just perfect. It works the way the “Mission Impossible” theme does, it underlies the mythos  of Thor, it accentuates the mood and it tells us that a moment of heroic action is on the way. Zeppelin may have been finished since 1980, but the songs have continued to transfix listeners for almost 40 years since they left the stage, with this use of the tune, they will safely be around for forty more years. There is one other tune that gets used in a slightly different spot. It has not been advertised so I won’t spoil it for you, but if you don’t laugh out loud when it comes up, you are either without a sense of humor, or you were never a child of the seventies.

 

Since we are on issues not related so much to the plot, let me explain how valuable a second investment the makers of these movies chose that pays off in spades. The Grandmaster is not an essential character in the Cinematic Universe, but he is essential to the humor in this film. It may be that any movie without Jeff Goldblum in it will never seem funny by comparison. You “Jurassic Park” fans will smile with every line reading. It is as if the funny parts of Ian Malcom were transplanted onto this alien being who has control of a trash planet and uses his power for evil. His line readings are incredibly arch and dry. Goldblum’s facial expressions match the vocal performance with the same kind of wit, it is never over the top but rather pitch perfect for the brief moment we are given it.

Cate Blanchett is Hela, the villainess of the film. Her character has a more reasonable explanation for existence than most of the similar female antagonists in these kinds of films do ( see “The Mummy” or “Suicide Squad for examples). In the big scheme of things, Hela turns out to be a one off for this story, but she was an exceptionally effective one off. Taika Waititi is a director that I am not familiar with although his two prior films have lots of admirers, I’ve yet to see either one of them. He deploys Blanchett in small doses and lets her actually act in some of the scenes rather than simply pose, but she does also get to pose. If the three point stance of a super-hero is now a trope, the slow motion turn of a villain must be as well, and it is used here regularly.

 

The relationship of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor to Tom Hiddlestons Loki, continues to be the thread that holds the line of films together. The characters have grown enough to be interesting, Thor is still arrogant, but he is wiser and his humor is much more self effacing than in previous installments. Loki doesn’t change so much as he does adjust to circumstances. We can almost always count on him to betray his brother, but we can also now see that he understands how important it is to have someone to betray. It is an amusing conundrum. The two actors play off of each other really well. When you throw in Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, it gets even better. At one point Thor gets the treatment that Loki did in “The Avengers” and the smirk of satisfaction on Hiddleston’s face is great.

Earlier this year we got Chris Pine in “Wonder Woman”, this film has a feature role for Karl Urban. Now we somehow have to get Zachery Quinto into one of these super hero stories so that all the main cast of the “Star Trek” films can point to a comic book movie on their resume. I did not recognize Urban at first but I did know that the actor in the part was much better than the part first appeared to require. As the film went on, there was more to it and suddenly we see why you needed an actor like Urban. Anthony Hopkins appears to finish off his role as Odin, the father of the main characters, and a figure of stature that seems to embody the idea of real Gods. He is used sparingly, but just his visage matters in the later parts of the story.

“Thor: Ragnarok” is funny as heck, with a couple of subplots that pay off in the end. I don’t see a huge tie in to the whole Marvel Universe but maybe I was laughing to hard to notice some of the connections. It feels like a seventies psychedelic comic book has come to life. The colors and characters will keep you amused and the story is just about as solid as you can get for a non-Avengers Avengers movie. It’s hard to think of this film as being part of the same world as the Spiderman film we got earlier this year, except someone clearly remembers  that the word “Comic” implies funny.