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.

Star Trek Beyond

 

I will tell you up front, I’m a Trekker. I’m not the type to do cosplay or read every variation of the stories, official or unofficial, but I’ve been watching Star Trek since 1966 and I’m a fan of the show and much of the philosophy. I know that J.J. Abrams got a lot of s*** from fans because he emphasized the action more than the cerebral, although in the context of a two hour movie, I think that criticism is hollow, especially for Star Trek Into Darkness. I also thought the first film from 2009 was the best film of that year. There, I said it and you now can filter this post as you think fit. Star Trek Beyond is a major let down for me. I found it lacking in depth, confusing to follow, full of plot wholes and guilty of all of the criticisms that people have made about the previous two films (minus the lens flare).

 

As I was traveling a couple of weeks ago, the electronic poster boards were big and ubiquitous in the London area for this film. I hated that I had to wait until we got home, almost a week and a half after it opened to see it. After seeing it however, I’m satisfied to be commenting on it a day later than my usual posts would go up because there is not much here to get excited about. I’d hoped that the influence of comedy writer and actor Simon Pegg would be enough to make the film feel more humanistic and emphasize the comradeship of the crew more. My guess is that the bits that were funny, he is responsible for, but the overall structure, plot and characters are the result of multiple hands and it is a mess. As usual, no spoilers here, but what the hell did the villain need with the macguffin when his weapons systems and technology are so easily able to defeat Star Fleet  vessels as demonstrated early in the film? The backstory and transformation of the character Krall makes almost no sense. There is a seed of an idea for a philosophical discussion of the need for conflict, but it basically goes nowhere except to become cliches in the mouths of both our heroes and the villain.

When the ship met it’s end in Star Trek III, I was moved. When it has subsequently been destroyed or damaged  so substantially that they just rebuild it and move on to the next episode, there is a loss of engagement with the audience. This is one of the things that has been missing from the rebooted series, a sense of loyalty to the craft and the crew. Except for the main figures, everyone else is an extra that hardly bears mentioning much less mourning, they might as well all be wearing red shirts at the start of the story. Speaking of secondary characters, there is an explanation of the lead villain in the story, but the data on all of the other bad guys is not clear at all. A couple of them actually have names and it is not clear if they were with their leader when transformed or if they came from later groups or if they are indigenous and represent the pure form of the species. This film is in such a rush to get to the next action sequence that they don’t bother with basic explanations and the ones that they do come up with are the techno gibberish that often fills the dialog of a Trek film, only now it is delivered at warp speed.

 

There are a few things that work pretty well in the film. I think the relationship between Spock and Kirk continues to develop and I liked that Bones and Spock end up spending time together. Karl Urban has been a great Dr. McCoy and he has all the best lines and comic moments in the film. The character of Jaylah is potentially a good add to the character mix but her dialog is often so “you Tarzan, me Jane” that the character mostly has to be appreciated for the action scenes. Since they have come up, let’s talk about the action, it is a special effects and editing nightmare. It is often so dark you can’t see what is happening, and the constant movement of the set, while interesting, renders perspective meaningless. It is very difficult to tell what is blowing up and what is causing it to do so. Sometimes you can’t even say who is in the scene. The sequences are edited frantically, as is the style these days, which means there is almost no development of tension in any of those sequences. Everything is spectacle and narrative goes out the window. There is a long sequence with a motorcycle that was awkward and the effects shoots are not as well paired up with the live action as they need to be to sell it. This was at least one place where the quality of the visuals was not up to snuff. On the other hand, there are some solid mixes of make up and CGI effects to make some of the alien creatures seem real. I must say however that it sometimes feels like an extended version of the Cantina sequence from Star Wars.

So on the plus side you have some good visuals, and a few funny lines from Dr. McCoy and once in a while from someone else. On the negative side, you have a confusing story, a lack of character development (being gay and having a kid does not count if they are only props and not integrated into the story), plot holes that should make for some great YouTube parodies in the next few years. The movie also feels small, despite the size of the base they are ultimately trying to protect. There is no big issue except the bad guy wants to destroy things. Once again the old adage proves true, “You are only as good as the villain”, and in this case, Idris Elba can’t compensate for a poorly written antagonist. Look, it’s still Trek and you should see it, but it is closer to “Nemesis” or “The Final Frontier” than I think anybody wants to admit.