“THOR: RAGNAROK” (2017) Review

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“THOR: RAGNAROK” (2017) Review

Until last fall, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has released three films each for only two of the franchise’s characters – Iron Man and (allegedly) Captain America. With the release of “THOR: RAGNAROK”, the God of Thunder became the third character to end up with three solo films. 

Directed by Taika Waititi, “THOR: RAGNAROK” told the story of Asgardian prince Thor’s efforts to prevent the destruction of his world, Asgard, from his aggressive and more powerful sister, Hela. The movie is the franchise’s version of a similar story featured in one of the Marvel Comics titles for the Thor character. Screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost also used elements from the 2006 Marvel story, “Planet Hulk” to include the Dr. Bruce Banner aka the Hulk into the movie’s plot.

Set four years after the events of “THOR: THE DARK WORLD” and two-and-half years after the events of “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON”, this film begins with Thor as a prisoner of the fire demon Surtur in Muspelheim. Thor had went there to search for the remaining Infinity Stones. Surtur reveals that Thor’s father Odin is no longer on Asgard, and that the Asgardian realm will soon be destroyed in the prophesied Ragnarök, once Surtur unites his crown with the Eternal Flame that burns in Odin’s vault. However, Thor frees himsel, defeats Surtur and claims the latter’s crown, believing he has prevented Ragnarök aka the Asgardian version of the Apocalypse. Upon his return to Asgard, Thor discovers that his adoptive brother Loki has been posing as Odin. He also finds that a warrior named Skurge has replaced the all-seeing Heimdall as the Bifröst Bridge’s sentry. Thor forces Loki to help him find Odin on Earth.

With assistance from the sorcerer Dr. Stephen Strange, the pair finds Odin Norway. The latter explains that he is dying and that his passing will free his ambitious firstborn child, Hela the Goddess of Death, out of a prison in which she had been sealed. When he finally dies, Hela appears on Earth, destroys Thor’s hammer Mjolnir and demands loyalty from him and Loki. Instead, the two brothers attempt to flee via the Bifröst Bridge. Unfortunately, Hela pursues them and forces them out into space to die. Hela ends up in Asgard and violently assume control of the throne. Thor crash lands on a garbage planet called Sakaar. There, he is captured by a bounty hunter, whom recognizes as a Valkryrie named Brünnhilde, and forced to participate as a gladiator for the planet’s “Contest of Champions”. He also discovers that Loki has become a companion of Sakaar’s leader, the Grandmaster. And that Bruce Banner aka the Hulk has been a champion gladiator on Sakaar ever since his disappearance, following the Sokovia battle over two years ago. Thor not only needs to survive a match against the Hulk, but also escape from Sakaar and prevent his sister’s complete control over Asgard and her plans for expanding the realm’s empire.

“THOR: RAGNAROK” had received a great deal of praise from film critics upon its release. In fact, the movie went on to become a box office hit. In a way, I could see why. The basic narrative for “THOR: RAGNAROK” struck me as a rare thing for a MCU solo film – an epic in the making. Thor facing a possible apocalypse for Asgard, a gladiator match against a fellow ex-Avenger, and more family drama from the Asgard Royal Family. “THOR: RAGNAROK” had the potential to be another “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER”.

There was a good number of things I really enjoyed about “THOR: RAGNAROK”. One, I enjoyed director Taika Waititi’s use of the Led Zeppelin tune, “Immigrant Song” around the film’s beginning and near the end rather effective. I was also impressed by Joel Negron and Zene Baker’s editing for the film. Their work seemed especially impressive in the scenes that featured Thor’s chaotic arrival on Sakaar and his gladiator match with the Hulk. I also found Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography very colorful . . . almost outstanding. Hell, there was one scene featuring Hela’s past conflict with the Valkyries that reminded me of Larry Fong’s work with director Zack Snyder:

Much has been said about the humor that permeated “THOR: RAGNAROK”, thanks to the screenwriters and especially Taika Waititi’s direction. I cannot say that I had enjoyed all the humor featured in the film. But there were a few scenes that I found particularly funny. One included Loki’s play about Odin’s grief over his fake death. This scene featured Matt Damon, Luke Hemsworth and Sam Neill portraying Loki, Thor and Odin respectively. Brünnhilde’s first appearance in the movie, in which she is drunk as a skunk, struck me as rather funny, thanks to Tessa Thompson’s performance. Another scene I found hilarious was Thor and the Hulk’s first meeting inside the Sakaar arena, along with Loki’s fearful reaction to seeing the latter again. But the funniest scene – at least for me – featured Thor forcing a reluctant Loki to play a “Get Help!” trick (something from their childhood) on one of the Grandmaster’s minions.

The movie featured some first-rate performances. Chris Hemsworth gave his usual first-rate performance as Asgard’s crown prince, Thor. Tom Hiddleston was equally impressive as the mischievous and self-absorbed Loki. Cate Blanchett chewed the scenery in grand style as Thor and Loki’s power hungry sister, Hela. Tessa Thompson gave a skillful performance as the ambiguous former Valkyrie, Brünnhilde, who used alcohol to runaway from painful memories. Mark Ruffalo was excellent as both the mild-mannered Dr. Bruce Banner and his alter ego, the Hulk; who seemed more happy as a worshiped gladiator on Sakaar than as a wanted fugitive/Avenger on Earth. Jeff Goldblum was his colorful self as the Grandmaster; the gregarious, yet tyrannical and self-absorbed leader of Sakaar. Idris Elba provided much needed gravitas as Asgard’s former gatekeeper, Heimdall, who found himself the leader of the realm’s refugees from Hela’s reign. Karl Urban was surprisingly entertaining as the boastful warrior Skurge, who would do anything to survive Hela’s reign. The movie featured two cameos. Benedict Cumberbatch made a solid cameo appearance as the arrogant sorcerer, Dr. Stephen Strange. However, Anthony Hopkins’ cameo as the dying Odin struck me as poignant and a lot more effective.

Despite all of the above, despite the critical acclaim, “THOR: RAGNAROK” proved to be rather disappointing for me in the end. What went wrong?

One problem I had with this film was its treatment of certain characters. Remember Lady Sif and the Warriors Three? Thor’s closest friends who had traveled all the way to Earth to find him in “THOR”? And who helped him defy Odin and leave Asgard with Loki and Dr. Jane Foster in order to remove one of the Infinity Stones – the Aether – from the realm and the Dark Elves? Well . . . Lady Sif never made an appearance in this film. One would assume that actress Jamie Alexander had scheduling conflicts with her TV series, “BLINDSPOT”. Then why not hire another actress to portray Lady Sif . . . as they had did with Fandral? But not only was Lady Sif missing, she was not even mentioned in this film. That was quite a head shaker for me. Another head shaker were the fates of the Warrior Three – Fandral, Volstagg and Hogun. Both Fandral and Volstagg were immediately killed by Hela upon her arrival on Asgard. I found that so disappointing and a waste of both Zachary Levi and Ray Stevenson’s time. At least Tadanobu Asano’s Hogun was able to speak more than one line and engage in a brief fight with Hela before she eventually dispatched him. But what made this so damn annoying was that Thor was never told about his friends’ deaths on screen. Audiences never got a chance to see him react to their deaths.

Believe it or not, I also had a problem with the Hulk. Well . . . I had a problem with his ability to form near complete sentences. How did that happened? Aside from uttering the phrase “Hulk smash!” in the 2008 movie, “THE INCREDIBLE HULK”, I do not recall him ever speaking any sentences – complete or not. Not when he was portrayed by Eric Bana, Edward Norton or Mark Ruffalo. What I found even more puzzling was Thor’s lack of surprise over the Hulk’s conversational skills. Odin’s death was handled in an equally questionable manner. First of all, from what did he died? What caused Odin’s death? Being away from Asgard for so long? If so, the movie’s screenplay was very vague in conveying this. And why did Odin’s death lead to Hela’s appearance on Earth? If she was in a prison, why did she not appear in Asgard upon her father’s death? That made no sense to me. Movie audiences learned that Thor and Dr. Jane Foster finally had their breakup, following his departure from Earth two years earlier. I am already annoyed at Kevin Feige for hinting that Jane was not worthy of being Thor’s love interest. Not worthy? Why? Because she was not a skilled fighter with or without super strength who wielded a sword or gun? Fuck Kevin Feige and his sexist bullshit. What made the news of the breakup even worse is that the news of Thor and Jane’s breakup was treated as comic relief. Thor’s breakup with a woman with whom he was in love for four years . . . was treated as a joke? Natalie Portman was right to dump this franchise.

If “THOR: RAGNAROK” was about the God of Thunder’s attempt to prevent Asgard from experiencing Ragnarok (or an apocalypse), why in the hell did it focus on Thor’s activities in Sakaar for so damn long? Why did the movie stay on that damn planet for so long? Once Thor and the Hulk’s gladiator’s match had ended, I figured it would not be long before Thor would have left Sakaar with the Hulk, Loki and Brünnhilde. Instead, it nearly took them FOREVER to get off that planet. It was sheer torture watching Thor trying to convince the Hulk and Brünnhilde to help him get off the planet. And I found Loki’s backstabbing shenanigans not only unoriginal, but lame. Come to think of it, I found Loki’s presence in this film rather lame . . . except in the movie’s last twenty minutes or so. He more or less became a punching bag for Thor and everyone else, than the dangerous and tricky villain he used to be. Once “the Revengers”, as Thor called himself and the others, arrived on Asgard, it was . . . eh. I just did not care at that point. Their final conflict with Hela and Thor’s decision to kick star Ragnarok (using Surtur’s crown and the Eternal Flame) just could not lift me from my apathy toward this film.

But what really sank “THOR: RAGNAROK” for me was the humor. I do not mind the occasional use of humor in an action film like this. I do not even mind when there is more humor than usual – especially in films like “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” and “ANT-MAN”. But what I could not deal with was a barrage of humor in a narrative that featured the possible apocalypse of Asgard, the deaths of familiar characters and the further drama of the Asgardian Royal Family. Nearly everything was transformed into a joke – from Thor’s discovery of Loki’s impersonation of Odin, Brünnhilde’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTS) over the deaths of her fellow Valkyries, the reason behind the Hulk’s longing to remain on Sakaar, the revelation over Thor and Jane’s breakup, the Sakaarians’ decision to rebel against the Grandmaster, and Hela’s revelations to Skurge about hers and Odin’s murderous creation of the Asgardian Empire. These were all plot points that should have been treated with a good deal more gravitas. And I could not believe that Waititi forced moviegoers to watch Thor argue with the Hulk’s S.H.I.E.L.D. Quinjet over who was the most powerful Avenger. I mean . . . really? The Hulk actually went out of his way to program the jet’s computer to acknowledge him as the most powerful Avenger? That scene was so unfunny that in the end, it became sheer torture to watch.

Hela’s constant complaints about her father’s failure to appreciate her only reminded me of Loki’s petulant man pain in “THOR”. Only her carping was punctuated by jokes and witty comments. Worse, this barrage of humor prevented the screenplay from exploring Hela’s revelations about Asgard’s imperial past. The overuse of humor also transformed Thor’s character. Everyone made such a big deal about Chris Hemsworth’s comedic talents in recent years that I suspect that Marvel had decided to exploit it in this third Thor movie. Well, it turned out to be too much, as far as I was concerned. I have been aware of Hemsworth’s comedic talents since “THOR” back in 2011. But Marvel picked the wrong movie and the wrong director to exploit that talent to an excessive degree. Hemsworth came off as some semi-witty California surfer than the Asgardian God of Thunder. Between the characterizations, the dramatic moments robbed for the sake of humor and the barrage of jokes, it was just too much.

Unlike many film critics and MCU fans, I have always enjoyed the franchise’s Thor films. Well, I certainly did enjoy the first two featuring Chris Hemsworth. But I cannot say the same about this third film, “THOR: RAGNAROK”. It both annoyed and disappointed me on so many levels. Although I found the cast led by Hemsworth rather first-rate, I was disappointed by some of the film’s characterizations and the plot holes. But I was especially disappointed by the film’s use of humor. In the end, Kevin Feige, Marvel Films, the movie’s screenwriters and Taika Waititi took a potentially epic comic book movie and transformed it into a long, goddamn joke fest. By the time I left the movie theater, I felt disgusted.

 

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“STAR TREK BEYOND” (2016) Review

“STAR TREK BEYOND” (2016) Review

I might as well place all my cards on the table. I am not a fan of J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the “STAR TREK” franchise. I heartily dislike the 2009 movie of the original title. And I also dislike – to a lesser degree, 2013’s “STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS”. So when I learned there was to be a third movie in this new franchise . . . needless to say I was not enthusiastic over the news. 

The second thing I learned about this third TREK film, “STAR TREK BEYOND”, was that it was not directed by J.J. Abrams. Justin Lin, who had helmed the fourth, fifth and sixth “FAST AND FURIOUS” movies; served as director. And for once, Simon Pegg, who also co-starred as Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, and Doug Jung served as the movie’s screenwriters; instead of Abrams’ usual scribes – Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman. No disrespect to Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman, but I did not miss their presence in this production. If anything, I managed to enjoy the TREK reboot for the first time since it began in 2009.

“STAR TREK BEYOND” begins with the arrival of the U.S.S. Enterprise at the Federation Starbase Yorktown for new supplies and shore leave for the crew. Not long after its arrival at Yorktown, an escape pod drifts out of a nearby uncharted nebula. The survivor, Kalara, claims her ship is stranded on Altamid, a planet within the nebula. The rescue turns into an ambush when the Enterprise is quickly torn apart by a massive swarm of small ships. Krall and his crew board the ship, and unsuccessfully search for a relic called an Abronath that Kirk had obtained for a failed diplomatic mission. Krall captures and removes many crew members from the ship. Kirk then orders for the crew to abandon ship as the Enterprise’s saucer section hurtles towards the planet. After more crew members are captured, including Lieutenant Nyota Uhura and Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu, Kirk is forced to find those who have not been captured and find a way to stop Krall from carrying out his plans against the Federation.

If I must be honest, “STAR TREK BEYOND” is not perfect. I believe that it has a major flaw and it centered around the main antagonist, Krall. How can I put this? I found both his true identity and the reason behind his main goal – the destruction of the Federation with the use of a bio weapon – a bit on the lame side. Apparently, Krall was a former Human captain from the pre-Federation era named Captain Balthazar Edison, whose ship had crashed on Altamid. Believing the newly formed Federation had abandoned him, Edison and his surviving crew had used the technology of the Altamid’s natives to prolong their lives and mutate their physiology. I am sorry, but that seemed to reaching a bit. And the reason for Krall/Edison’s desire to destroy the Federation – the belief that the latter had deliberately abandoned him and his crew – definitely seemed a bit lame to me.

If the background of the film’s main villain and his reason to destroy the Federation seemed a bit lame, then why did I like this film? Whatever weaknesses that “STAR TREK BEYOND” had, I can honestly say that it lacked the multiple plot holes that marred 2009’s “STAR TREK” and that ridiculous final half hour from 2013’s “STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS”. The flaws for this film seemed minor in compare to the first two films. I also liked the fact that the characters seemed more mature and established in this movie. Even Krall seemed like an improvement over the first two villains. He did not engage in a convoluted plot that involved time travel. Nor was his character whitewashed and engaged in another ridiculously convoluted plot. Although Krall’s reason to destroy the Federation seemed a bit thin, at least his actual plot – involving the creation of a bio weapon – seemed to be on solid. And for that, I have to thank screenwriters Simon Pegg and Donny Jung.

I have to admit that when it comes to action sequences, the new STAR TREK movies never fail to deliver. There were a handful of sequences in “STAR TREK BEYOND” that definitely impressed me. First and foremost was the attack on the U.S.S. Enterprise by Krall’s fleet and the crash landing on Altamid that followed. Honestly, I feel that director Justin Lin really outdid himself in that particular sequence. I found the minor scenes featuring the Enterprise crew’s efforts to survive on Altamid very engrossing and once again, well handled by Lin. Now that I think about it, just about all of the movie’s actions scenes impressed me – including Kirk and the other non-captured crew members’ efforts to free those who had been captured, the Enterprise crew’s efforts to prevent Krall/Edison from using his new weapon to destroy the Federation’s massive space station, Starbase Yorktown; and Kirk’s final confrontation with the main villain. I also liked the fact that the movie’s two major female characters – Lieutenant Uhura and a castaway named Jaylah – also took part in many of the film’s action sequences. And both seemed more than capable of taking care of themselves.

“STAR TREK BEYOND’ marked a major improvement in the franchise’s characterizations. For the first time, the main characters seemed to be truly comfortable with each other. And all of them seemed to be more mature and believable as Starfleet officers. This especially seemed to be the case for Chris Pine’s performance as James T. Kirk. For the first time, I found it easy to see his Kirk as a worthy captain for the U.S.S. Enterprise. The prat boy from the 2009 and 2013 movies was gone. Zachary Quinto also seemed very comfortable in his role as the Enterprise’s First Officer, Commander Spock. I also enjoyed how both he and Karl Urban, who portrayed Medical Officer Dr. Leonard McCoy, managed to establish a strong and rather funny screen chemistry – something that I do not recall from the two previous films. Quinto’s Spock seemed even more comfortable than ever with Zoë Saldana’s Nyota Uhura. First of all, both had the chance to enact a private drama between Spock and Uhura that did not come off as forced. I find it hard to believe that I had once found the idea of a romance between the two as unbelievable.

The movie also featured solid performances from Idris Elba as the movie’s main antagonist, Krall aka Balthazar Edison, who managed to thankfully convey his character’s emotional nature without engaging in any histrionics. I also enjoyed one particular scene between Elba and Uhura that struck me as both tense and effective, thanks to the actors’ performances. I also enjoyed the performances of John Cho, who always managed to give a cool, yet wry portrayal of Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu; Anton Yelchin, whose Pavel Chekov seemed more controlled and mature than he did in the previous films; Simon Pegg, whose portrayal of Lieutenant-Commander Montgomery “Scotty” Scott seemed a great deal more controlled and still funny; and Sofia Boutella gave an intense and skillful performance as an alien castaway/scavenger named Jaylah with a grudge against Krull.

I understand that “STAR TREK BEYOND” had not performed well at the U.S. box office. Some critics claimed that the movie was not as good as the 2009 movie. When I heard that, I nearly coughed up a lung. Frankly, I think it is a lot better than the two previous films. I thought Justin Lin did a great job as the movie’s director. And he was ably supported by Simon Pegg and Donny Jung’s screenplay, along with a first-rate cast led by Chris Pine. As for why many moviegoers stayed away, I do not have the foggiest idea. What matters is my own personal opinion.

R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy (1931-2015)

R.I.P. Anton Yelchin (1989-2016)

“THOR: THE DARK WORLD” (2013) Review

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“THOR: THE DARK WORLD” (2013) Review

As I had stated in my review of “IRON MAN 3”, I had assumed that the release of the 2012 blockbuster, “THE AVENGERS” would signal the end of Marvel’s multi-film saga about the group of comic book heroes and their government allies, S.H.I.E.L.D. Not only did “IRON MAN 3” prove me wrong, but also the recent television series,“AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” and the second movie about the God of Thunder, “THOR: THE DARK WORLD”

Like the 2011 movie, “THOR”, this latest film begins thousands of years ago. Back in day (or year); Bor, the father of Odin, clash with the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim and their leader Malekith, who seeks to destroy the universe using a weapon known as the Aether. After conquering Malekith’s forces, Bor hides the Aether within a stone column. He was also unaware that Malekith, his lieutenant Algrim, and a handful of Dark Elves have managed to escape by going into suspended animation. 

Many years later, Thor and his fellow Asgardians (which include his friends Lady Sif, Fandral and Volstagg) help their comrade Hogun repel marauders on the latter’s homeworld, Vanaheim. It proves to be the last battle in a war to pacify the Nine Realms, which had fallen into chaos following the destruction of the Bifröst. And in London, astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster is led by her intern Darcy Lewis and the latter’s intern, Ian, to an abandoned factory where objects have begun to disobey the laws of physics by disappearing into thin air. Jane is teleported to another world, where she is infected by the Aether. Both the Asgardians and Jane’s former mentor, Dr. Erik Selvig learn on separate occasions that the Convergence, a rare alignment of the Nine Realms, is imminent. While the event approaches, portals (one of which Jane had fallen into) linking the worlds appear at random. Heimdall alerts Thor of Jane’s recent disappearance, leading the latter to search for her on Earth. When she inadvertently releases an unearthly force upon a group of London policemen, Thor takes her to Asgard. Unfortunately, the Asgardian healers do not know how to treat her. Odin, recognizing the Aether, warns Jane’s infection will kill her given enough time, and that the Aether’s return heralds a catastrophic prophecy. Unbeknownst to Odin, the re-emergence of the Aether also ends the Dark Elves’ suspended animation and revives their determination to use the substance to darken the universe.

“THOR: THE DARK WORLD” has proven to be a major box office, since its release nearly a month ago. This is not surprising, considering the enormous success of Marvel’s Avenger saga. “IRON MAN 3”, set six months after the events of the 2012 film, also proved to be a big hit. Some people have claimed that the first film about Thor was superior. As much as I had enjoyed “THOR”, I cannot say that I would agree. It reeked just a bit too much of a superhero origin tale. Personally, I found the plot for “THOR: THE DARK WORLD” more satisfying.

Mind you, this second God of Thunder movie did not strike me as perfect. It had a few flaws. Although I applaud director Alan Taylor and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau’s expansion of the Asgard setting beyond the royal palace and the Bifröst, the latter’s photography for that particular setting seemed to lack Haris Zambarloukos’ dazzling and colorful photography from the 2011 film. Instead, there seemed to be a slightly dull cast to Morgenthau’s photography of Asgard. Thor’s friends did not particularly project that same screen chemistry that I found so enjoyable in the first film. Aside from one major scene in which Thor plotted Jane’s escape from Asgard, they rarely had any scenes together. And Tadanobu Asano’s Hogun had even less scenes. I wonder if this was due to the actor’s major role in the upcoming movie, “47 RONIN”

Aside from these nitpicks, I enjoyed “THOR: THE DARK WORLD” very much. As I had earlier stated, I found it more enjoyable than the first film. Thanks to the screenplay written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the movie provided a stronger narrative, beyond a simple origin tale. The three screenwriters explored the consequences of past events from both “THOR” and “THE AVENGERS” – Loki’s actions in both movies; Thor’s original destruction of the Bifröst, which led to chaos in the Nine Realms and his long separation from Jane Foster, the latter’s inability to move on, and the impact upon Erik Selvig from being possessed by Loki. However, the movie also explored how a past event in the Asgardians’ history – their conflict with the Dark Elves – managed to once again, have a negative impact upon Earth. For a movie that was juggling a good number of subplots, along with a major plot, I thought the writers and director Alan Taylor did a first-rate job in balancing it all in the end. 

Taylor has limited experience as a movie director, but he has a long history as a television direction. Despite his longer experience with television, I must admit that I found myself more than pleased with his direction of “THOR: THE DARK WORLD”. And I was also very impressed. I was especially impressed by his handling of certain action scenes, like the Dark Elves’ invasion of Asgard, the fight scene between Queen Frigga and Malekith, the escape from Asgard, and Thor and Loki’s confrontation against Malekith and the Dark Elves. But the one action scene that really impressed me turned out to be Thor and Jane’s attempt to prevent Malekith’s use of the Aether against Earth and the rest of the universe. This scene not only benefited from Taylor’s direction, but also Dan Lebental and Wyatt Smith’s editing. The movie’s action sequences were nicely balanced by some of its dramatic and comedic scenes. I especially enjoyed Thor and Loki’s quarrel over the latter’s past actions, Thor’s reunion with Jane, and Darcy and Ian’s attempt to free Erik from a mental institution. One particular scene featured a quarrel between Thor and Odin over how to deal with the threat of the Dark Elves. It strongly reminded me of the two men’s quarrel over the Frost Giants in the first film . . . but with an ironic twist. Instead of Odin being the mature and reasonable one, this time it is Thor.

My only complaint about the movie’s performances has to do with Tadanobu Asano. Due to his limited appearance in the film, he never really had a chance to give a memorable performance. I hope to see more of him in the next film. Both Jamie Alexander and Ray Stevenson gave competent performances as Thor’s two other friends – Lady Sif and Volstagg. Instead of Josh Dallas, this movie featured Zachary Levi in the role of Thor’s fourth friend, Fandral. Levi had been originally cast in the role for the 2011 film. But due to his commitments to NBC’s “CHUCK”, Dallas got the role. But the latter’s commitment to ABC’s “ONCE UPON A TIME” forced Marvel and Disney to give the role back to Levi. Aside from the initial shock of seeing him in a blond wig, I must admit that Levi made a very dashing Fandral. I was very happy to see Kat Dennings reprise her role of Jane’s intern, Darcy Lewis. She was as funny as ever. She also had an extra straight man in the form of Jonathan Howard, who portrayed “her” intern, Ian Boothby. The movie also featured a very funny cameo by Chris Evans, who portrayed Loki disguised as Steve Rogers/Captain America.

Christopher Eccleston may not have made the most witty villain from the Marvel canon, but I found his portrayal of Malekith very scary . . . in an unrelenting way. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje struck me as equally impressive as Malekith’s lieutenant, Algrim. It was a pity that I could barely make him out in his new appearance as the Kurse. Renee Russo’s role as Queen Frigga was expanded in this second film and I am so thankful that it was. Not only did she have a marvelous dramatic scene with Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, but watching her sword fight against Eccleston’s Malekith reminded me of her role in the “LETHAL WEAPON” films. Idris Elba repeated his masterful portrayal of Asgard’s gatekeeper, Heimdall. I especially enjoyed him in two scenes – Heimdall’s efforts to prevent the Dark Elves’ attack and his discussion with Thor about helping Jane leave Asgard against Odin’s will. More importantly, audiences get to see him in even more scenes. Stellan Skarsgård was very hilarious in his portrayal of Dr. Erik Selvig in this film. I realize that one should not laugh at the idea of someone suffering from a mental trauma, but I could not help it. I do not think I have ever seen Skarsgård so entertaining in a Marvel film. Anthony Hopkins did a marvelous job in conveying Odin’s increasing fragile rule over Asgard and control of his emotions. This was especially apparent in the scene featuring Odin and Thor’s disagreement over the Dark Elves.

For the first time in a Marvel film, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is not portrayed as an out-and-out villain, but a more morally complex character, thanks to his relationships with Asgard’s royal family – especially Thor and Frigga. Hiddleston was as playful and witty as ever. And I especially enjoyed his interactions with Chris Hemsworth. In fact, I can say the same about Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Thor’s love, astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster. Personally, I found her funnier and her chemistry with Hemsworth a lot stronger in this second film. And I was especially happy to see her take a more active role in helping Thor defeat the main villain. As for Chris Hemsworth, he continued to roll as the God of Thunder, Thor. He did a marvelous job in developing his character into more complex waters, especially in regard to his relationships with Jane, Loki and Odin. And one of my favorite scenes in the movie featured Thor’s silent reaction to his discovery that Jane had a date with another man. I hope that one day, people will truly appreciate what a first-rate actor he can be.

“THOR: THE DARK WORLD” had a few flaws. What movie does not? But thanks to Alan Taylor’s direction, an excellent cast led by a talented Chris Hemsworth and a very complex script written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, it not only turned to be very entertaining, but also better than the previous film. At least for me.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1970s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1920s: 

FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1970s

1 - American Gangster

1. American Gangster (2007) – Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe starred in this biopic about former Harlem drug kingpin, Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts, the Newark police detective who finally caught him. Ridley Scott directed this energetic tale.

2 - Munich

2. Munich (2005) – Steven Spielberg directed this tense drama about Israel’s retaliation against the men who committed the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Eric Bana, Daniel Craig and Ciarán Hinds starred.

 

3. Rush (2013) – Ron Howard directed this account of the sports rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 Formula One auto racing season. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl starred.

 

4 - Casino

4. Casino (1995) – Martin Scorsese directed this crime drama about rise and downfall of a gambler and enforcer sent West to run a Mob-owned Las Vegas casino. Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone starred.

5 - Super 8

5. Super 8 (2011) – J.J. Abrams directed this science-fiction thriller about a group of young teens who stumble across a dangerous presence in their town, after witnessing a train accident, while shooting their own 8mm film. Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Kyle Chandler starred.

6 - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) – Gary Oldman starred as George Smiley in this recent adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel about the hunt for a Soviet mole in MI-6. Tomas Alfredson directed.

7 - Apollo 13

7. Apollo 13(1995) – Ron Howard directed this dramatic account about the failed Apollo 13 mission in April 1970. Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon starred.

8 - Nixon

8. Nixon (1995) – Oliver Stone directed this biopic about President Richard M. Nixon. The movie starred Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen.

9 - Starsky and Hutch

9. Starsky and Hutch (2004) – Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson starred in this comedic movie adaptation of the 70s television series about two street cops hunting down a drug kingpin. Directed by Todd Phillips, the movie also starred Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman and Snoop Dogg.

10 - Frost-Nixon

10. Frost/Nixon (2008) – Ron Howard directed this adaptation of the stage play about David Frost’s interviews with former President Richard Nixon in 1977. Frank Langella and Michael Sheen starred.

“THOR” (2011) Review

“THOR” (2011) Review

My knowledge of European-based mythology is very sketchy. I am familiar with some figures of both the Greek and Roman mythologies. But my knowledge of Norse mythology is even less. As for the many characters from Marvel Comics, I barely knew about any of them – aside from “SPIDER-MAN”, until the past decade. One can only imagine my surprise when I learned that one of Marvel’s more successful super heroes was the Norse god, Thor. 

Based upon the Norse mythology and the Marvel Comics character, “THOR” is an origin tale about the God of Thunder (and several other things), and how he ends up on Earth and becomes affiliated with S.H.I.E.L.D. The story begins in New Mexico, when scientist Jane Foster, her assistant Darcy Lewis and mentor Dr. Erik Selvig stumble across a figure that has tumbled from a wormhole in the sky. That figure turns out to be Thor, the Norse god that was exiled by his father, Odin, king of Asgard.

Earlier, Thor had been preparing to ascend to the throne of Asgard, but his ceremony was interrupted when Frost Giants attempted to retrieve the source of their power, the Casket of Ancient Winters, which had been taken by Odin in an earlier war. Against Odin’s order, Thor traveled to Jotunheim, the Frost Giants’ realm, to confront their leader Laufey; accompanied by his brother Loki, childhood friend Sif and the Warriors Three – Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun. A battle ensued until Odin intervened to save the Asgardians, which destroyed the fragile truce between the two races. For Thor’s arrogance, Odin stripped his son of godly power and exiled the latter to Earth, accompanied by Thor’s hammer Mjolnir — the source of his power, now protected by a spell to allow only the worthy to wield it.

No one was more surprised than me upon learning that actor/director Kenneth Branaugh had manned the helm for “THOR”. Pop culture movie franchises were nothing new to him. After all, he had appeared in 2002’s HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS”. But directing an adaptation of a comic book series? Mind you, “Thor” is a different kettle of fish incompare to . . . say “Spider-Man”“The Fantastic Four” or “Iron Man”. After all, Thor originated as a figure in Norse mythology. However, I must admit that I found it difficult to wrap my mind around the idea of a known Shakespearean actor directing a comic book hero movie.

In the end, I believe that Branaugh did a pretty good job. “THOR” turned out to be a solid tale filled with mythology, some first-rate acting, family drama, comedy and action. The best aspect of “THOR” was to me – hands down – the family drama surrounding the main hero and his relationships with his father Odin and his younger brother, Loki. This family drama originated in Thor’s arrogant nature and brother Loki’s discovery that he was an orphan that Odin had discovered in the Frost Giants realm. Despite his discovery that he was a Frost Giant instead of an Asgardian, Loki viewed Thor as an unsuitable heir to the Asgard throne and used Thor’s exile to muscle his way to the throne . . . and, uh Odin’s heart.

Another aspect of “THOR” I found interesting was the story line about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s investigation into the wormhole that delivered Thor to Earth and his hammer Mjolnir, which is stuck in the middle of the New Mexican desert like Excalibur. The first encounter between the forces of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Thor during a rainy evening also provided some interesting action. This sequence not only featured a brutal fight to the now mortal Thor and a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and a cameo appearance by future Avenger member, Clint Barton aka Hawkeye.

The New Mexico sequences provided most of the comedy featured in “THOR”. The former Norse god’s interactions with Jane Foster, Erik Selvig, Darcy Lewis and the locals of the New Mexico town where they resided. Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne’s screenplay not only provided a good deal of slapstick humor and witty one-liners for the Darcy Lewis character, but also a variation on the “fish out of water” theme.

And If there is one thing that the movie did shine was its production designs and cinematography. Bo Welch did a excellent job in recapturing the rugged setting of the small New Mexican town and the Frost Giants’ realm of Jotunheim, featured in the film. But he did a superb job in his design of Asgard, the realm of the Norse gods. Asgard possessed a sleek, colorful and over-the-top quality that reminded me of what the Art Deco style would look in the hands of Hollywood craftsmen in the 1930s and 40s. And Haris Zambarloukos’ photography did great justice to both settings, especially Welch’s designs for Asgard. Even though I found the movie’s theme somewhat conflicting, I must admit that I found Paul Rubell’s editing rather smooth and well done in both the action sequences and the jumps between Asgard and New Mexico.

However, I have yet to encounter a movie that I would consider perfect. And “THOR” was far from perfect. The film’s main problem was that it seemed to have a conflicting quality about it. Because the movie’s setting constantly moved from Asgard to New Mexico and back, it ended up striking me as a mixture of “CLASH OF THE TITANS” and “STARMAN”. And this conflicting style did not seem to balance very well. I could have settled for “THOR” beginning its story in Asgard and remaining in New Mexico until the last scene. Unfortunately, most of the movie’s more important action occurred in Asgard, leaving the New Mexico sequences to bear the brunt of most of the comedy. By the time the movie’s last scene ended, I could not tell whether this was a movie about mythological gods or a comic book hero. “THOR” was a pretty good movie, but it did not exactly rock my boat. I found the story a bit mediocre and conventional. And the problem, if I must be honest, rested with Marvel Comics’ decision to create a comic series about a well-established mythological figure, instead of a new and original character.

Also, there were a few performances that failed to impress me. I realize that the three actors and one actress that portrayed Thor’s Asgardian friends – Sif and the Warriors Three – were very popular with moviegoers. Unfortunately, not only did they fail to impress me, I found them rather uninteresting. Poor Rene Russo. Within a decade she went from leading lady to a minor character actress, stuck in the thankless and nothing role of Thor’s stepmother, Frigga. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye was really wasted in this film. In fact, he did nothing at all, except pose with a bow and arrow. I realize that he will appear as one of the Avengers in the upcoming 2012 film, but he was never allowed to strut his stuff like Scarlett Johanssen in “IRON MAN 2”.

Aside from the performances I had earlier mentioned, “THOR” seemed blessed with a first-rate cast. I was surprised to learn that Chris Hemsworth had portrayed James T. Kirk’s doomed father in the 2009 movie, “STAR TREK”. His George Kirk had been so dull. Fortunately, portraying Thor gave him the opportunity to shine in a complex role that developed from an arrogant and over-privileged prince with an aggressive sense of self to a more compassionate and wiser man who had fallen in love. For an actor with only eight or nine years of acting experience – most of them on television – Hemsworth more than held his own against the likes of Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins. And those scenes that featured Thor’s encounters with Jane’s van conveyed Hemsworth’s talent for physical slapstick humor. As an on-screen fighter, he struck me as a bit crude, but I am certain that he will improve with time. Natalie Portman gave a charming and humorous portrayal of Dr. Jane Foster, the astrophysicist who is not only obsessed with her work, but eventually finds love with Thor. Mind you, I did not find her character particularly exceptional. But I am glad to say that Portman tried all she could to make Jane an interesting personality. But one of the two best performances came from Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki, Thor’s resentful and conniving younger brother. Loki was definitely the movie’s main villain. The joke he had played (luring three Frost Giants to the chamber that held the Casket of Ancient Winters) on Thor’s ascension ceremony not only led him to the discovery that he was an abandoned Frost Giant infant taken by Odin, but also gave him the opportunity to discredit Thor and take the latter’s position as Odin’s more cherished son. Mind you, I cannot say that Hiddleston conveyed Loki’s mischievous sense of humor effectively. But he did handle Loki’s conniving nature, jealousy toward Thor and outrage over the story behind his true nature with great skill and subtlety.

Other outstanding performances came from Idris Elba, who portrayed Asgard’s gatekeeper, Hemidall; Kat Dennings as Jane’s sardonic assistant Darcy Lewis; Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson; and Colm Feore as Laufey, King of the Frost Giants (and Loki’s real father). I was amazed at how Elba managed to convey all of Hemidall’s emotions and intelligence with very limited movement. No wonder he became very popular with many of the film’s characters. And Colm Feore managed to do something quite similar. He conveyed all of Laufey’s malice and secrecy behind a ton of body makeup. Aside from Hemsworth’s foray into slapstick, the New Mexico sequences featured a deliciously sly and humorous performance by Kat Dennings, who portrayed Darcy. And it was great to see Clark Gregg reprise the role of Phil Coulson for the third time (he made two earlier performances in the two IRON MAN movies). Thankfully, the movie’s script allowed him to be more complex and increasingly sardonic, allowing Gregg to really show his acting chops. Finally, the movie benefited from solid performances by Anthony Hopkins’ majestic portrayal of Odin, Thor’s father, Stellan Skarsgård as Jane’s dependable and practical mentor, Dr. Eric Selvig and Samuel L. Jackson as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury in the movie’s post-credits sequence.

In conclusion, “THOR” proved to be an entertaining movie and another step toward “THE AVENGERS”, the big Marvel Comics saga for 2012. The movie provided solid direction from Kenneth Branaugh and excellent performances from most of the cast. But the movie’s conflicting genre(s) and somewhat mediocre story led me to realize that I would never consider it to be one of the outstanding releases from Marvel Studios.

“AMERICAN GANGSTER” (2007) Review

“AMERICAN GANGSTER” (2007) Review

Over three years ago, I had seen a movie that managed to more than spark my interest. I am talking about the 2007 crime drama directed by Ridley Scott called, ”AMERICAN GANGSTER”.  The movie, which starred Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, told the story about drug lord Frank Lucas (Washington) and the New Jersey cop who brought him down, Ritchie Roberts (Crowe). 

Set between 1968 and 1976, ”AMERICAN GANGSTER” began with the death of Harlem mobster and Lucas’ own boss, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (Clarence Williams III). Following Johnson’s death, Lucas found himself embroiled in a rivalry for control of Harlem. Realizing that he lacked the cash to assume control, he began a scheme that cut out middlemen in the drug trade and buying heroin directly from his source in Southeast Asia. He also organized the smuggling of heroin from Vietnam to the U.S. by using the coffins of dead American servicemen (“Cadaver Connection”).

The story also focused upon the man who had eventually captured Lucas, namely a New Jersey cop for Essex County named Ritchie Roberts. Roberts turned out to be a rare case amongst the law enforcers in the Tri-State area – namely an honest cop. When he and his partner, Javier Rivera (John Ortiz of”MIAMI VICE”) stumbled across a cache of untraceable drug money, Roberts had insisted that it be reported. This one act not only drove his fellow cops (apparently honest cops were not trusted) to ostracize both Roberts and Rivera, and drove the latter to overdose on drugs that happened to be part of Lucas’ new product called ’Blue Angel’.

The movie not only focused upon Lucas and Roberts’ professional lives, which would eventually lead to the former’s arrest in 1975; it also focused on their private lives. Whereas drug lord Lucas is a loyal family man and faithful husband, honest cop Roberts turned out to be a notorious philanderer who had allowed an old friend and local mobster to be his son’s godfather.

Director Ridley Scott did a superb job of steering the audience into the world of the drug trade, East Coast organized crime and law enforcement from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s. With Steve Zillian’s script, he also managed to give the audience a clear view of capitalism and its corrupting influence on mobsters, the police and local neighborhoods. This was especially conveyed in two scenes. One featured a conversation between Lucas and competitor Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr. in a cameo role), the former gave the latter a lesson on brand names and other forms of capitalism. It seemed that Barnes had been selling his product using Lucas’ brand name of Blue Angel. Believe or not, drug dealers apparently did stamp brand names on their products. Why not? Alcohol and tobacco companies do. The other featured a segment on how corrupt cops like NYPD Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin) extort both money and drugs and cut into the mobs’ profits by selling the latter on the street. Also Scott and Zillian gave the audience a look at the devastating impact that street drugs had on society – including soldiers in Vietnam, local citizens of Harlem and cops like Roberts’ partner, Rivera.

Scott managed to re-create this setting without allowing the movie’s setting to slide into a cliche. I became so caught up in the movie that by the time it ended, two hours and forty mintues had passed without me realizing it.

In 1995, both Washington and Crowe did a movie together – a science-fiction thriller called, ”VIRTUOSITY”. Needless to say that by the time the movie’s first half hour had end, I realized it was a stinker. And yes, it did deservedly bomb at the box office. Fortunately for Scott, he was lucky to work with the two dynamic actors’ second collaboration. And both Washington (as Lucas) and Crowe (as Roberts) were lucky to co-star in a movie that turned out to be twenty times better than “VIRTUOSITY”. Washington effortlessly re-created both the charm and the menace of the drug lord. And Crowe infused his usual intensity into the solidly honest Roberts. “AMERICAN GANGSTER” was also blessed by a solid cast led by the likes of Cuba Gooding Jr. as the very splashy drug kingpin Nicky Barnes, the intense John Ortiz as Roberts’ drug addicted partner, Javier Rivera, Ruby Dee as the staunchly emotional Mama Lucas and Josh Brolin in his deliciously corrupt portrayal of NYPD Detective Trupo.

It would have been nice if “AMERICAN GANGSTER” had received numerous Academy Award nominations during the 2007-2008 movie award seasons.  However, aside from a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Ruby Dee, it failed to generate any Oscar gold. I am not surprised considering that it had followed the success of another crime drama that won Best Picture, namely Martin Scorcese’s 2006 “THE DEPARTED”.  If you have not seen “AMERICAN GANGSTER”yet, I recommend that you do so. If you have, why not see it again? I know I plan to do just that.