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Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok

With several credited writers, campy Cate Blanchett (Carol, Truth, Cinderella) in smeared black eyeshadow, full gothic gear and Maleficent-like antlers to match, butch lesbian warriors, scads of Marvel Comics characters and tie-ins, cameos and one gigantic Phallic symbol — even Jesus Christ and Moses if you know where to look — Thor: Ragnarok runs more than a bit amok. Pardon the kitchen sink analogy, but this Disney movie, directed by Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), is almost a full-blown camp comedy, with action and a high body count.

With Chris Hemsworth (Thor, Snow White and the Huntsman) returning in the title role, Thor: Ragnarok starts flaming early on, with flying embers coming over the opening credits to Thor’s heavy metal musical theme. The Norse god of thunder narrates his own situation. Ragnarok is quickly explained (think the Rapture) and the movie’s off on its wild runs. Light, silly and depleted of the original Thor movie‘s mythology and sense of honor, in comes brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, Thor, I Saw the Light, Kong: Skull Island) and their dad Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and a first-born child, Hela, played by Blanchett as a veiny goddess of death with black hair, black eyeliner and black bodysuit like she stepped out of an X-Men movie.

“This you must face alone”, Odin tells his son Thor about the new dilemma of the long-lost sister’s return to their mythical world. With shades of Terminator, Mad Max and Willy Wonka films, complete with a glitzier version of Thunderdome, the action comes in spurts while the comedy keeps the lines coming in crisp flamboyance. Blanchett’s Hela sashays around swinging her hips and dripping her lines such as: “You don’t know who I am?”

But Thor: Ragnarok, with Hemsworth gamely and amazingly staying in character the whole time, has more glitz and schmaltz in store with another planet’s grandmaster in gold lamé played by Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park) in a gray-haired pompadour with blue fingernail polish and face paint. Idris Elba (Star Trek Beyond, Zootopia, The Jungle Book) returns in the same role. Karl Urban (Pete’s Dragon, Bones in Star Trek Beyond), Tessa Thompson (Selma, Creed) and Mark Ruffalo (Hulk, Spotlight) are fine and look for an appearance by the director and, of course, Marvel and Thor creator Stan Lee. It’s all in good fun and games and the film feels and looks like a gaming play, complete with heavy use of automatic weapons and artificial scenes.

For instance, Hulk changes proportion. Hela is inexplicably regenerative while Thor is not. Others will probably notice an array of tricks, Avengers series nods and gimmicks, though it borders on exhausting and I opted to see Thor: Ragnarok in a two dimensional screening, not in 3D. Eye strain and fatigue may creep in but thematically interesting resistance, extermination and something called “obedience disks” gives the ensemble-driven, meandering plot a second wind. At root, Thor: Ragnarok is a comedy with action, not the other way around, though it is too long and I could have done without the Hulk and his subplot. Hemsworth’s Thor gets the best quip when he puts Bruce Banner in a bind to go somewhere else and says: “Use one of your Ph.Ds”. Fans of the original will want more of Thor’s mythology.

Movie Review: Deadpool


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Ryan Reynolds was the perfect leading man in 2009’s The Proposal and he has struggled ever since to find the right type of movie to match his unique talents, which at his best call to mind the dry humor of Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy and other actors whose ironic performances never seem seedy or malicious.

Deadpool, one of the Marvel Comics-based characters and loosely tied into Fox’s X-Men series, is not that movie. But, for Reynolds, it is a start. Ryan Reynolds, as anyone who saw his spot for testicular cancer self-exams and a car commercial during Super Bowl 50 knows, is everything George Clooney was oversold as for the past 20 years: handsome, upright, comfortable in his own skin and distinctively humorous in a way that’s simultaneously barbed and bright. The makers of Deadpool, which is dark, gruesome and foul-mouthed, turn formulaic snark and bitterness inside out, wrap it around Reynolds’ irresistible screen appeal (which reminds me of James Garner) and deliver it into a thematic decency that lets the audience in on the joke.

That’s what Deadpool‘s marketing has done brilliantly for the past several months and it apparently worked. The movie opened huge at this weekend’s box office, beating both Zoolander 2 and How to Be Single and breaking records. Maybe today’s young audiences are ready for something sassy and smart if it comes in this genre. Deadpool, like Marvel’s similarly-themed Ant-Man, gets dirty and dark with cleanliness and light as the ultimate point, which is why it’s not as hard to take.

The plot is overly simple, with a young mercenary (Reynolds) meeting a lady of the evening (Morena Baccarin) and falling in love, getting funny and nasty to a montage of holiday-themed sex gags, until their bad boy and bad girl karma sneaks up and life throws a curve. Reynolds’ character ends up getting caught trying to resolve the problem in a deadly inducement of mutation by torture. A slavemaster (Ed Skrein) turns him into a would-be mutant mercenary. But the victim uses his mind to endure, resist and break free of the slavery to become the title character and strike back. All of this happens after opening credits that poke fun at Hollywood. The action is exciting, the classic soundtrack songs are perfect (especially Juice Newton’s 1980 cover of “Angel of the Morning” and “Calendar Girl”) and the computer imagery is fine.

Reynolds’ lines make the movie, though. As crude and disgusting as the material gets, with jokes about masturbation, emoji and Rosie O’Donnell displayed in that fast-talking, fragmented way today’s youths have of half-expression—i.e., “hashtag: drive-by”—Reynolds and company play bits up in order to slow down and have an impact. In mutant form, Ryan Reynolds makes his impression with snappy vocals of witty (if often vulgar) lines that underscore the contrast between the sacred and the profane.

Irreverence bridges the gap. Reynolds’s character plays with unicorns and Hello Kitty and mocks IKEA—aided by his blind roommate (Leslie Uggams in a welcome return to the screen)—and, in the end, with twists of anti-anti-heroism, he goes by his own judgment for his own sake. Deadpool may be sharp, rough and jaded, and he is, but it’s so he can cuddle, kiss and play and he does that, too. In other words, he’s made for Ryan Reynolds, who finally gets closer to making a movie his talent deserves.

Promoting Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

BVSPosterThe hype for Hollywood’s first major competition to Marvel Comics’ Avengers movies begins today with the release of a Comic-Con trailer for Warner Bros.’ forthcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (watch the trailer here). The long trailer is exciting, overblown and sufficiently enticing in terms of generating interest based on plot, character and action.

The new teaser is also relatively conventional. Done in that Wagnernian-operatic, apocalyptic score reminiscent of music for The Omen (1977) that everyone with a big action movie seems to use, certain situational settings and scenes dissolve in and out, introducing main characters and reintroducing those based on 2013’s Man of Steel. This is DC Comics’ entry in the comic book-based movie wars and it looks to be big, bloated and foundational to a huge new franchise for the San Fernando Valley studio.

Featuring Amy Adams (Her) as Lois Lane and Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman, with Diane Lane (Secretariat) as Kent’s mother, Batman v Superman sets the tone by evoking the previous movie, though the teaser is framed primarily by the new character, Bruce Wayne/Batman (controversially cast Ben Affleck), bearing no relation to previous Warner Bros. Batman movies. What else is evident in the trailer is abundant: The Joker, Lex Luthor and other evils are implied as the conflict between superheroes takes shape, this happens as Bruce Wayne is apparently harmed by Superman, who is revered as a god, and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) comes into the picture. Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) apparently portrays Lex Luthor (“the red capes are coming”) in the trailer’s least successful tease. Jeremy Irons (Casanova) plays Alfred the butler. Laurence Fishburne (Blackish) reprises his role as the newspaper publisher. Holly Hunter (Always) plays a politician. Scenes and subplots appear to include major military involvement, crumbling skyscrapers and possible sidetracks to comics characters for DC Comics’ the Justice League.

Batman v Superman is directed by Zack Snyder (The Watchmen, Sucker Punch, 300), whose record is mixed to bad in making movies and there are already several credited writers. Whether this movie, which is gaining enormous audience awareness based on the social media-driven release of this trailer at Comic-Con, is a flop or a hit depends upon the relevance and coherence of the story and whether Affleck (The Company Men) and other cast members, especially Eisenberg judging by the teaser, pulls off a clean, convincing performance. With a hint of an element of hero worship, at least there’s the hope that Batman v Superman could beat Marvel’s increasingly incoherent, convoluted Avengers series by putting old-fashioned American heroism for justice back on top, though Warner Bros., DC Comics and Snyder ought to consider turning the volume, hype and disclosure of circumstance down, not up, before the picture goes to theaters.

Anticipating ‘The Avengers’

I just finished reading Entertainment Weekly‘s new cover story roundup with the cast and director of The Avengers, Marvel’s new movie for Disney, which just lost its motion picture division chairman (after jettisoning Dick Cook) following the mega-bomb John Carter. Let’s just say that if this promotional piece is any indication, and the heavily-hyped movie’s half as good as the “interview” makes it sound, everyone should brace for a major disappointment.

Though I have not seen it yet, I’ve been looking forward to The Avengers, in spite of mediocre director Joss Whedon (Serenity, Dollhouse, The Cabin in the Woods), whose work typically strains and falters. I liked Kenneth Branagh’s Thor for Marvel, enjoyed Jon Favreau’s Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton and I picked Joe Johnston’s Captain America for Marvel as last year’s best movie other than The Artist. But the culmination of the Marvel pictures sounds like it may be loud, manic and unfulfilling, possibly anti-heroic.

First, I read that Whedon described the film as “Taxi Driver for superheroes.” Then, there is the market saturation, an overexposure of ads that feels a bit like the blitz for John Carter; more hype than story. And there’s the magazine interview, which rambles for half this week’s edition and contains more profanity than insights, with Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson and some other actor who plays a lesser superhero – not as much of the principals – prattling on about the N-word, MF’s and other s— and saying nothing of interest or value while Whedon holds court. It’s at once lame, dull and scuzzy, with none of Thor‘s, Captain America‘s or Iron Man‘s wit, intelligence and clean-cut benevolence. Maybe The Avengers is better than its jaded press campaign. I have doubts.

Finally, there’s this tidbit from Chris Hemsworth (Thor) in the closest to a statement of The Avengers‘ theme: “They all do have to put aside their individual interests and objectives. The first half of the film is about them trying to fulfill their own goals, and that doesn’t work out too well. They end up destroying things – and each other. Any community or family can’t be defined by an individual. It’s by the actions of the group.” Entertainment Weekly responds by asking: “So you’re saying the film has a Communist message?” Downey Jr. snaps back in a twangy Texas accent: “Dang limousine liberals!” Maybe Hemsworth’s talking about a movie about teamwork, maybe not. But it sounds like a set-up for a false alternative between working in unison and working alone. Mark Ruffalo, who plays the Hulk, gets a few decent words in when he can.

Poor Chris Evans (Captain America), who comes off as the most serious of the bunch, barely gets to speak, apparently going off to a corner of the room until the magazine asks if his character is an idealist – a notion Whedon tries to squash – and his reply fits the mood of the promotional campaign. He says Captain America may be more disillusioned and cynical than the rest of the avengers. Sounds as if heavily-hyped Joss Whedon’s heavily-hyped The Avengers may be exactly what he described when he pegged it Taxi Driver for superheroes. In other words, anti-heroism. Marketing that obscures a movie’s meaning and appeal is misleading, so I only hope that the movie’s better than its advertising. It wouldn’t be the first time.

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Movie Review: Captain America

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Paramount’s Captain America, directed by Joe Johnston (October Sky, The Wolfman), is another good Marvel serial. Tied into Marvel’s other comics-based pictures, Thor and Iron Man, and culminating in a heroic picture scheduled for release next year, it is weighted down but it moves with action, excitement and solid American heroism.

From eye-popping period design to a rousing patriotic song composed by Alan Menken and performed in a Busby Berkeley style number, the production is crisp, clean and visually arresting. Johnston incorporates the look and pace of both classic movies and comic books, which fits the alternate history World War 2-themed comics character, an intelligent weakling turned all-American hero played by Chris Evans (Fantastic Four). With Hugo Weaving (V for Vendetta) and Toby Jones (The Painted Veil) as Nazi villains, Tommy Lee Jones (The Company Men) for humor, Stanley Tucci (Burlesque) for pathos, and Hayley Atwell (cable TV’s The Pillars of the Earth) for romance, not to mention an international, multiracial band of war heroes evoking The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare, complete with impenetrable Nazi outposts, Captain America hardly has time for himself. The first half is strongest, with a brisk progression and developing bond between pre-hero Steve Rogers, who yearns to fight with his best friend and fellow countrymen, and Tucci’s German scientist. Atwell’s dead aim military ace is a good match for Rogers and his alter ego, and Weaving as the Red Skull foil, trying to out-Nazi the Nazis, is convincing as he schemes to destroy the West like an Islamic terrorist with a Third Reich convertible and a big, bat-shaped bomber aimed for taking out New York City.

The 9/11 parallel is hard to miss, in the 10th year since the worst attack in American history, and Captain America has a better grasp of how to fight the enemy than Clinton, Bush and Obama combined, going into the belly of the beast to wipe them out, granting no quarter to the enemy and not trying to understand their mystical-fascist philosophy. Being true to himself, he fights for his values, his freedom, and his country, with most Americans, from old women to young boys, joining in the crusade, and he does so with a spirit of steel and can-do Americanism. Liberals may feel like they want to throw up, especially because his icy British girlfriend has the same attitude, refusing to cower when faced with barbarians and instead picking up a gun and shooting to kill, not pleading to win hearts and minds. Only the State Department feels otherwise, quite otherwise, in a well-deserved dig at those longtime apologists and appeasers.

But Steve Rogers and his thoroughly self-made Captain America are no cheap cartoon characters. Contrary to anti-emotion types who think men that express emotion are inherently weak, he winces, feels the loss of those he loves, and he prefers to team with those who are different. In fact, you might say Captain America is a sensitive artist, designing his own uniform and sketching a figure on a drawing pad, even performing in musicals. He thinks his way to victory at every turn. But he is resolute in leading those General Patton, who is quoted in Captain America, called “the best minds in the free world.” He may not always get what he wants, and he may not save every comrade in arms, but he’s proud to be an American (in one scene, even an arrogant American), and he thinks and fights like he means it. Stick around for the closing credits, for once not a stream of toilet jokes, if you do, too.