“THOR: RAGNAROK” (2017) Review



“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.





I never saw “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” in the movie theaters when it was first released years ago. I have a low tolerance of sports movies and there are only a few that I consider favorites of mine. Another reason why I never saw this film in the theaters is that my family simply had no desire to see it. 

Based upon Steven Pressfield’s 1995 novel and directed by Robert Redford, “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” was a box office flop. Worse, it had received mixed to negative reviews. Among the criticisms directed at the film was the accusation that the Bagger Vance character was basically a “Magical Negro” trope. I have to be honest. I was never aware of these criticisms or the film’s status as a flop. I barely noticed the film when it was first released. And I did not see it for the first time until a few years later on cable television.

Near the end of the 20th century, an old man from Savannah, Georgia named Hardy Greaves began experiencing his sixth heart attack, while playing golf. This led him to reminisce about his love of the game and how it connected to his childhood idol, one Rannulph Junuh. The latter turned out to be one of Savannah’s Junuh is the favorite son of early 20th century Savannah, Georgia and a highly regarded golfer. He became engaged to Adele Invergordon, a young socialite from a wealthy family before he went off to war. While serving as an Army captain during World War I, Junuh became tramatized when his entire company was wiped out during a battle. Although he earned the Medal of Honor, Junuh disappeared after the war for several years, before returning to Georgia to live a life of a drunk.

During this time, Adele’s father attempted to create a local golf resort. Mr. Invergordon finally opened the resort, but the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the Great Depression bankrupted him. In an effort to recover her family’s fortune before the banks could claim her land, Adele decided to hold a four-round, two-day golf match between At the start of the Great Depression (circa 1930-31), Adele is trying to recover her family’s lost fortune by holding a four-round, two-day exhibition match between two golf legends of the era – Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen with a grand prize of $10,000.

However, she needs a local participant to generate the city’s interest. The young Hardy Greaves (J. Michael Moncrief) speaks up for his golf hero, Junuh, prompting Adele to ask her estranged love to play. Junuh is approached by a mysterious traveler carrying a suitcase, who appears while Junuh is trying to hit golf balls into the dark void of night. The man identifies himself as Bagger Vance (Will Smith) and says he will be Junuh’s caddie. With Greaves as the young assistant caddie, Bagger helps Junuh come to grips with his personal demons and play golf again.

It was not that surprising that “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” was based upon Steven Pressfield’s 1995 novel. However, I was very surprised to learn that Pressfield had loosely based his novel on the Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita. In this text, Warrior/Hero Arjuna (R. Junuh . . . get it?) refuses to fight. And the god Krishna appears as Bhagavan (Bagger Vance) to help Arjuna (R. Junuh) follow the path of the warrior and hero (sports hero) that he was meant to take.

Considering that this movie was not that popular with moviegoers or critics, one would be hard pressed to even like it. I have my complaints about “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE”. There were moments when the movie threatened to become a little saccharin, especially midway into the golf tournament when Junuh finally began displaying those exceptional golf skills that made him such a legend before the war. Savannah’s reaction to Junah’s golf game and yes . . . even the ending struck me as a tad syrupy. I realize that this movie is one of those feel-good movies wrapped up in sports, but I think Redford could have tone down the saccharin a bit. I also feel that he could have tone down some of the performances of the supporting cast. Overall, all of them gave solid performances. But there were times when the supporting cast – namely those portraying Savannah’s citizens – seemed to be chewing the scenery.

Despite the flashes of saccharin and hamminess, I have to admit that I enjoyed “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” as much as I did when I first saw it. There is so much to enjoy about this film. One of them is the movie’s production values. I wish I could say something about Rachel Portman’s score. Mind you, I thought it blended well with the movie’s narrative. But I did not find the particularly memorable. However, I thought hers and Redford’s use of early 20th century songs and music well done. As for the movie’s re-creation of early 20th century Savannah, I found it more than memorable. Frankly, I found it mind-blowing. Stuart Craig had managed to acquire a good number of awards and nominations for his work, but he never received any acclaim for his production designs for “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE”. Personally, I find this rather criminal. His production designs were exquisite. And they were enhanced even further by Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography, which was nominated for Satellite Award. Yes, I realize that a Satellite Award is not the same as an Academy Award, a BAFTA or a Golden Globe Award. But at least someone acknowledged his work on this movie. Judianna Makovsky has done her share of costume designing for Marvel Films and other movies. And she has also received at least three Academy Award nominations. But she did not receive any for “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE”. Again . . . criminal. Her costumes struck me as an exquisite recreation of the period between 1917 and 1931 – especially the latter. If you think I am exaggerating, take a look:

Hollywood always seemed to have difficulty in re-creating the 1930s in costumes and hairstyles. Thanks to Ms. Makovsky, “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” proved to be one of those movies that got that period – especially the early 1930s – right.

But I was really impressed by how director Robert Redford and screenwriter used the game of golf to portray Rannulph Junuh’s post-war struggles. Unlike many other sports films, Junuh had already achieved a reputation as a superb golfer in the opening scenes. This meant that the conflict was not about Junuh trying to prove to the world that he was a talented golfer. In fact, this movie was not even about Junuh trying to prove that despite the passage of fourteen years, he was still a top-notch golfer. That was proven by the tournament’s second day. World War I had left Rannulph Junuh traumatized and broken to the point that he returned home as an alcoholic – estranged from Adele Invergordon and many of Savannah’s citizens. It was the golf tournament that led Junuh to Bagger Vance, the story’s embodiment of a deity or spirit that not helped the former get back his groove as a top notch golfer. Bagger also helped Junuh, through the game of golf, regain that human spirit everyone thought he had lost during the war.

As I had earlier pointed out, “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” was not a box office hit. One of the main complaints charged by film critics and others was the Bagger Vance character portrayed by Will Smith. Many had accused the character of being a “Magical Negro” stereotype. Considering Bagger’s role in the film as spiritual guide for Rannulph Junuh and the fact that the character was portrayed by African-American actor Will Smith, it is not difficult to agree that Bagger Vance was a “Magical Negro”. I do find it ironic that a fictional character labeled as a “Magical Negro” was based upon a Hindu religious figure. Did that affect my viewing of the film? Honestly? No. I enjoyed Smith’s performance too much to really care. Was his Bagger Vance very saintly? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Smith did portray Vance as a friendly and soft-spoken man with a well of good advice on the game of golf. However, Smith also did a superb job in conveying Vance’s controlling and occasional sardonic nature underneath the soft-spoken manner.

Ironically, Matt Damon had the easier job portraying the damaged World War I veteran/golfer, Rannulph Junuh. His job was easier, due to the fact that he was never criticized for portraying a stereotype. Otherwise, Damon did an excellent job in conveying Junuh’s emotional journey from a happy-go-lucky sports figure to shell shocked war veteran, later an alcoholic community pariah and finally to a battered yet satisfied survivor who managed to regain his life after so many years. If I have to be perfectly honest, the Adele Invergordon has to be one of my favorite characters portrayed by Charlize Theron. Thanks to actress’ energetic performance, Adele proved to be a passionate and outgoing woman who had to resort to charm, guile, brains and God knows what else to overcome the traumas of losing her father to suicide and Junuh to his personal demons in order to save her family’s fortunes and plans for a golf resort. Theron practically lit up the screen whenever she appeared.

“THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” also featured excellent performances from Bruce McGill, who did such a wonderful job in portraying the theatrical golfer, Walter Hagen; Joel Gretsch, who skillfully portrayed Bobby Jones as a man who hid a raging ambition behind a gracious persona; and Peter Gerety as the hard-nosed city councilman/businessman, Neskaloosa. I do not know if I could regard J. Michael Moncrief (who was 12 years old at the time) as an excellent child actor. But I must admit that I admired the enthusiasm and energy he poured into his portrayal of young Hardy Greaves. As for Jack Lemmon, he did an excellent job as the elderly Hardy and the movie’s narrator.

Overall, “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” had its few shares of flaws. And utilizing the “Magical Negro” probably hurt its chances to be a successful movie. But . . . “Magical Negro” or not, I really enjoyed this movie, thanks to director Robert Redford and the screenplay written by Jeremy Leven. The movie also benefited from a superb production design and a first-rate cast led by Will Smith, Matt Damon and Charlize Theron.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1870s


Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1870s:




1. “The Age of Innocence” (1993) – Martin Scorcese directed this exquisite adaptation of Edith Wharton’s award winning 1920 novel about a love triangle within New York’s high society during the Gilded Age. Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfieffer and Oscar nominee Winona Ryder starred.


2. “The Big Country” (1958) – William Wyler directed this colorful adaptation of Donald Hamilton’s 1958 novel, “Ambush at Blanco Canyon”. The movie starred Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker and Charlton Heston.


3. “True Grit” (2010) – Ethan and Joel Coen wrote and directed this excellent adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel about a fourteen year-old girl’s desire for retribution against her father’s killer. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hattie Steinfeld starred.


4. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (2015) – Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge and Michael Sheen starred in this well done adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman who attracts three different suitors. Thomas Vinterberg directed.


5. “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956) – Mike Todd produced this Oscar winning adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel about a Victorian gentleman who makes a bet that he can travel around the world in 80 days. Directed by Michael Anderson and John Farrow, the movie starred David Niven, Cantiflas, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Newton.


6. “Stardust” (2007) – Matthew Vaughn co-wrote and directed this adaptation of Neil Gaman’s 1996 fantasy novel. The movie starred Charlie Cox, Claire Danes and Michelle Pfieffer.


7. “Fort Apache” (1948) – John Ford directed this loose adaptation of James Warner Bellah’s 1947 Western short story called“Massacre”. The movie starred John Wayne, Henry Fonda, John Agar and Shirley Temple.


8. “Zulu Dawn” (1979) – Burt Lancaster, Simon Ward and Peter O’Toole starred in this depiction of the historical Battle of Isandlwana between British and Zulu forces in 1879 South Africa. Douglas Hickox directed.


9. “Young Guns” (1988) – Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips starred in this cinematic account of Billy the Kid’s experiences during the Lincoln County War. The movie was directed by Christopher Cain.


10. “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011) – Jon Favreau directed this adaptation of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel about an alien invasion in 1870s New Mexico Territory. The movie starred Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde.


“THE INFORMANT!” (2009) Review

“THE INFORMANT!” (2009) Review

As a rule, I am not particularly fond of whistleblower films. I find them rather boring and unoriginal. Then I saw Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 movie, “THE INFORMANT!” and concluded there might be one whistleblower film that I do like.

Based on true events and the 2000 non-fiction book, ”The Informant”, by journalist Kurt Eichenwald, the movie is about Mark Whitacre, a rising star at Decatur, Illinois based Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) in the early 1990s who wound up blowing the whistle on the company’s price-fixing tactics, only after his wife forced him to. Soderbergh cast Matt Damon as Whitacre and Scott Bakula as FBI Special Agent Brian Shephard, the man to whom he ratted out ADM.

The movie began in 1992 when the FBI was brought in to investigate a possible case of corporate espionage against ADM. The espionage case later was found to be groundless, but during their investigation, Mark Whitacre, under pressure from his wife, told an FBI agent named Brian Shephard that he and other ADM executives were involved in a multinational conspiracy to control the price of lysine. So far, this plot struck me as no different than any other whistleblower movie. But what made ”THE INFORMANT!” unique to me was the character of said whistleblower – Mark Whitacre. The movie’s first half portrayed him as an eccentric man and enthusiastic executive who seemed reluctant to expose his superiors at ADM. But he eventually dedicated himself into assisting the FBI into spending years in gathering evidence by clandestinely taping the company’s activity in business meetings at various locations around the globe such as Tokyo, Paris, Mexico City, and Hong Kong, eventually collecting enough evidence of collaboration and conspiracy to warrant a raid. Following the raid, it all went downhill for Whitacre. The stress of being the FBI’s mole for three years led him to react to the media in a bizarre manner. More importantly, the FBI and the public discovered that Whitacre had embezzled millions of dollars from ADM.

When I first saw the billboards for ”THE INFORMANT!”, I thought it would be some kind of espionage film like the Jack Ryan novels or something like 1974’s ”THE CONVERSATION”. I eventually learn that the movie might have more to do with industrial espionage . . . and the fact that it was another whistleblower film. Why I did not bother to skip this film upon hearing this, I do not know. Perhaps I was willing to give it a chance due to the fact that Soderbergh and Damon (who did the three ”OCEAN’S ELEVEN” movies) were working together, again. And you know what? I am so glad that I gave it a chance. What started out as an amusing, yet detailed account of Whitacre’s years as a whistleblower for the FBI, ended in a chaotic character study of a very intelligent man who turned out to be a chronic liar and embezzler. As much as I enjoyed the movie’s first half, I really enjoyed the second half that exposed Whitacre’s crimes. The plot – or should I say Whitacre’s character – began to spiral out of control once the whistleblower tried to deflect himself from fraud charges in hilarious ways. By the time the movie ended, I did not know whether to be astounded or amused by how it all fell apart for Whitacre.

”THE INFORMANT!” featured a pretty good solid cast that included Scott Bakula as the long suffering FBI agent Brian Shephard who had recruited Whitacre to act as an informant for his agency . . . and lived to regret it. Joel McHale portrayed his partner, the more outgoing FBI agent Robert Herndon. It was interesting to see comedians like Thomas F.Wilson, the Smothers Brothers – Tom and Dick, Allan Harvey, Patton Oswalt and Scott Adsit all in serious roles. I enjoyed Tony Hale’s performance as Whitacre’s first attorney, James Epstein. Watching his reaction to the growing chaos that seemed to surround Whitacre was rather funny. And Melanie Lynskey gave a strong performance as Whitacre’s wife, Ginger, who seemed to act as the whistleblower’s conscious and backbone. But who am I kidding? The movie is owned lock, stock and barrel by Matt Damon’s brilliant performance as Mark Whitacre. I cannot even describe how good he was in capturing this complex, deceiving and yet, sympathetic personality. I found it criminal that Damon was not nominated for an Academy Award nomination for his performance.

Do I have any quibbles about ”THE INFORMANT!”? Uh . . . I can only think of one or two complaints right now. I found Soderbergh’s cinematography rather uninspiring. Yep . . . that is what I had said. The film’s director had also acted as the photographer. And I found it dull and slightly metallic at times. If Soderbergh honestly considers himself a genuine cinematographer . . . well, I would suggest that he stick to directing and producing. And I must admit that right before the FBI had decided to arrest some of ADM’s executives, the pacing became so slow that it nearly dragged the film. Aside from those complaints, I really enjoyed this movie. But I must warn you . . . if you are expecting it to be another ”THE INSIDER” or ”DEFENSE OF THE REALM”, you are going to be sadly disappointed. ”THE INFORMANT!” struck me as possessing an unusual and highly original story for it to be viewed as another whistleblower film.


“THE MONUMENTS MEN” (2014) Review



“THE MONUMENTS MEN” (2014) Review

A rarely known aspect of World War II was recently explored in this recently released war film. “THE MONUMENTS MEN” told the story about a group of men, established under the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program in 1943, to recover pieces of art stolen by the Nazi, before they could be destroyed on the orders of Adolf Hitler.

Produced and written by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, and directed by Clooney; “THE MONUMENTS MEN” began in 1943 in which art conservation specialist and museum director Frank Stokes convinces U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow him to assumble an Army unit compromising of museum directors, curators, and art historians to search for stolen art treasures of the Western world and return it to the rightful owners. Stokes, portrayed by Clooney, assemble six other men:

*Lieutenant James Granger, U.S.A.
*Lieutenant Donald Jeffries, British Army
*Sergeant Richard Campbell, U.S.A.
*Sergeant Walter Garfield, U.S.A.
*Lieutenant Jean Claude Clermont, French Army
*Private Preston Savitz, U.S.A.

Stokes also recruited a U.S. Army enlisted soldier named Sam Epstein to act as his interpreter and driver. And in occupied France, In occupied Paris, an art curator named Claire Simone is forced to allow Nazi officers like Viktor Stahl to oversee the theft of art for either Adolf Hitler’s proposed Führermuseum in Linz, German; or as the personal property of senior commanders like Herman Goering. She is nearly arrested for helping her Maquis brother unsuccessfully recapture such items. And later, all seems lost when Claire discovers that Stahl is taking all of her gallery’s contents to Germany, while the Allies approach Paris. Stokes’ unit is split up for various objectives throughout Western Europe. While most of them are frustrated by the Allies’ combat units, which refuse to restrict their tactical options for the sake of preserving architecture; Granger, who ends up in occupied Paris, meets Simone and discovers that she will not cooperate with the Allies, whom she suspects of also being art looters.

I suspect that true art lovers – especially those enamored of European art – might find “THE MONUMENTS MEN” to be an emotional and satisfying tale in which the Allies not only persevered over the Nazi Army, but also saved a great deal of important art work from being destroyed. And there are those who were probably disappointed that “THE MONUMENTS MEN” was not some kind of stylish caper film in the style of Steven Soderbergh’s “OCEAN’S ELEVEN” trilogy. How did I feel about “THE MONUMENTS MEN”? I found it entertaining, emotional, and surprisingly old-fashioned. Then again, this is a World War II drama about the preservation of famous Western art, in which the ages of the main stars range from early 40s to early 60s. More importantly, “THE MONUMENTS MEN” was released in February – a movie season that usually feature mediocre or bad films.

I could never regard “THE MONUMENTS MEN” a great film. I found the pacing uneven . . . especially in the movie’s first half. I felt that both Clooney’s direction and the script’s depiction of the men’s separation following their basic training rather confusing. I was especially confused by the whereabouts of the Donald Jeffries character. One minute he was in France with Stokes and Epstein. And in his next scene, he is in Belgium with no explanation in the movie’s narrative of how he got there. Come to think of it, both Campbell and Savitz end up in Belgium . . . without Jeffries. Or was it Italy? Very confusing. Perhaps it is my imagination, but I found Matt Damon’s performance rather flat. It almost seemed as if he was phoning it in – especially in the movie’s first half. In some way, I think Clooney tried too hard to make the movie so profound that it ended up feeling . . . hmmm . . . flacid.

Thankfully, the movie’s second half managed to be an improvement on the first. Especially since the Monument Men encountered more danger and their efforts to find the stolen art seemed to improve. Actually, the second half featured some action sequences that managed to inject some energy into the film’s story. Audiences finally get to see the dangers that the Monuments Men faced in order to achieve their goal – Nazi troops in a Belgian convent, straying into the middle of a battleground that became deadly, an encounter with a lone armed German soldier, and a close encounter with a land mine. The second half also featured a few excellent scenes – including Campbell’s reaction to a recorded letter from home during Christmas, Savitz’s exposure of Stahl, Granger and Claire’s near-romantic encounter inside her apartment, and Stokes’ interrogation of one of the S.S. officers responsible for the attempted destruction of some of the stolen art.

Technically, “THE MONUMENTS MEN” is a beautiful and elegant looking film of the old-fashioned kind. First of all, I have to compliment Phedon Papamichael’s sharp and colorful photography of England and Germany, which stood in for World War II-era Western Europe. Production designer James D. Bissell and his team did an admirable job in re-creating Western Europe during that period. I was especially impressed by his work, along with Bernhard Henrich’s set designs in the sequences that featured the Allied camps near the Normandy beaches and the German mine, site of the first batch of art recovered. Louise Frogley’s costume designs struck me as solid reflections of the years 1943-45. However, I must admit that I was not particularly impressed by Alexandre Desplat’s score. I simply did not find it that memorable.

The performances in “THE MONUMENTS MEN” also struck me as solid, despite the star power featured in this film. I really do not see anyone receiving an award, let alone a nomination, for their work in this film. Hell, I would be surprised if anyone’s performance was particularly singled out by critics or moviegoers alike. However, I did notice that Clooney, as a director, allowed each major character a chance to shine in a particular scene. Clooney got a chance to shine in the scene featuring Stokes’ interrogation of the German officer. Both Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett generated a good deal of heat in the scene featuring Granger’s near romantic dinner with Claire Simone. Bill Murray gave one of the most poignant performances in a scene featuring Campbell’s silent reaction to a recording he had received from his family for Christmas. Bob Balaban was marvelous in the scene in which Savitz exposed Claire’s former “supervisor” Stahl as a Nazi and thief with cold precision. Both John Goodman and Jean Dujardin, who had previously worked together in the Oscar winning film, “THE ARTIST”, managed to create a strong chemistry in two scenes that featured Garfield and Claremont’s encounter with a German sniper and their accidental wandering onto a battlefield. But I feel that the best acting moment came from Hugh Bonneville, who did a marvelous job in conveying Jeffries’ passion and sense of danger in a scene featuring the character’s encounter with Germans at a Belgium convent.

Look, “THE MONUMENTS” is no classic. And I do not think it is the best movie I have seen this winter. It might be a bit too old-fashioned for the tastes of some (I can endure it). And if I must be brutally honest, the first half of Clooney and Grant Henslov’s script came off as limpid and confusing. But a strong second half and some golden moments by a talented cast led by Clooney more or less saved “THE MONUMENTS” for me.


“THE GOOD SHEPHERD” (2006) Review

“THE GOOD SHEPHERD” (2006) Review

As far as I know, Academy Award winning actor Robert De Niro has directed at least two movies during his long career. One of them was the 1992 movie, “A BRONX’S TALE”, which I have yet to see. The other was the 2006 espionage epic called “THE GOOD SHEPHERD”

Starring Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie, “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” told the fictionalized story about the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) and counter-intelligence through the eyes of one man named Edward Wilson. Edward, the product of an East Coast aristocratic family and a C.I.A. official, has received an anonymous package during the spring of 1961. The famous C.I.A operation, the Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba had just failed. Inside the package is a reel-to-reel tape that reveals two unidentifiable people engaged in sex. Suspecting that the tape might reveal leads to the failure behind the Cuban operation, Edward has the tape investigated. The results lead to a possibility that the operation’s failure may have originated very close to home. During Edward’s investigation of the reel tape and the failure behind the Bay of Pigs, the movie reveals the history of his personal life and his career in both the C.I.A. and the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) during World War II.

Many film critics and historians believe that the Edward Wilson character in “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” is loosely based upon the lives and careers of American intelligence officers, James Jesus Angelton and Richard M. Bissell, Jr.. And there might be some truth in this observation. But if I must be frank, I was never really concerned if the movie was a loose biography of anyone associated with the C.I.A. My concerns mainly focused on whether “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” is a good movie. Mind you, I had a few quibbles with it, but in the end I thought it was an above-average movie that gave moviegoers a peek into the operations of the C.I.A. and this country’s history between 1939 and 1961.

It is a pity that “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” was marred by a handful of prominent flaws. It really had the potential to be a well-made and memorable film. One of the problems I had were most of the characters’ emotional repression. Are we really supposed to believe that nearly every member of the upper-class in the country’s Northeast region are incapable of expressing overt emotion? I am not claiming that the performances were bad. Frankly, I was very impress by the performances featured in the movie. But the idea of nearly every major character – especially those born with a silver spoon – barely speaking above an audible whisper, due to his or her priviledged background, strikes me as more of a cliché than interesting and/or original characterization. I never understood what led Edward to finally realize that the man he believed was the genuine KGB defector Valentin Mironov, was actually a double agent. He should have realized this when the real Mironov had arrived several years earlier. The circumstances that led Edward to seek evidence inside one of the fake defector’s struck me as rather vague and far-reaching on screenwriter Eric Roth’s part. My main problem with “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” was its pacing. It was simply TOO DAMN SLOW. The movie has an interesting story, but De Niro’s snail-like pacing made it difficult for me to maintain my interest in one sitting. Thank goodness for DVDs. I feel that the only way to truly appreciate “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” without falling asleep is to watch a DVD copy in installments.

However, thanks to Eric Roth’s screenplay and Robert De Niro’s direction, “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” offered plenty of scenes and moments to enjoy. The moment of seduction at a Skull and Bones gathering that led Edward into a loveless marriage with Margaret ‘Clover’ Russell struck me as fascinating. It was a moment filled with passion and sex. Yet, the circumstances – namely Margaret’s pregnancy – forced Edward to give up a college love and marry a woman he did not truly love. I also enjoyed how De Niro and Roth used flashbacks to reveal the incidents in Edward’s post-college life and C.I.A. career, while he persisted into his investigation of the mysterious tape in the movie’s present day (1961). I was especially impressed by De Niro’s smooth ability to handle the transition from the present, to the past and back without missing a beat.

There were two scenes really stood out for me. One involved the Agency’s interrogation of the real Soviet defector, Valentin Mironov. I found it brutal, somewhat bloody and rather tragic in a perverse way. The other scene featured a loud and emotional quarrel between Edward and Margaret over the latter’s demand that Edward should convince his son not to join the C.I.A. What made this quarrel interesting is that after twenty years of a quiet and repressive marriage, the two finally revealed their true feelings for each other. But the best aspect of “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” was its depiction of how a decent, yet flawed allowed his work in intelligence and his position of power within the intelligence community warp his character. The higher Edward rose within the ranks of the C.I.A., the more he distanced himself from his family with his lies and secrets, and the more he was willing to corrupt himself in the name of national security . . . even to the extent of disrupting his son’s chance for happiness.

“THE GOOD SHEPHERD” must be one of the few large-scale movie productions, whose photography and production designs failed to give the impression of an epic. I found Robert Richardson’s photography rather limited, despite the numerous settings featured in the plot. So much of the movie’s scenes featured an interior setting. Yet, even most of the exterior scenes seemed to reflect a limited view. In the end, it was up to the movie’s 167 minute running time and 22 years time span that gave “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” an epic feel to it.

Robert De Niro and the casting team did a pretty good job in their selection of the cast. The only one I had a problem with was actor Lee Pace, who portrayed a fictionalized version of C.I.A. director Richard Helms named . . . Richard Hayes. I have always viewed Pace as an outstanding actor, but he spent most of his scenes smirking on the sidelines or making slightly insidious comments to the Edward Wilson character. I believe Roth’s screenplay had failed to give substance to his role. But there were plenty of other good supporting performances. I was especially impressed by Oleg Shtefanko’s subtle, yet insidious portryal of Edward’s KGB counterpart, Stas Siyanko aka Ulysses. Director Robert De Niro, John Sessions, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Billy Crudup, Joe Pesci and Tammy Blanchard all gave solid performances. Eddie Redmayne held his own with both Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie as the Wilsons’ intimidated and resentful son, Edward Wilson, Jr. Michael Gambon was his usual competent self as an MI-6 spymaster named Dr. Fredricks. Gambon was also lucky to give one of the best lines in the movie.

At least three performances impressed me. John Tuturro was very memorable as Edward’s tough and ruthless deputy, Ray Brocco. For once, De Niro’s insistence upon minimilist acting worked very well in Tuturro’s favor. The actor did an excellent job in portraying Brocco’s aggression with a very subtle performance, producing an interesting contrast in the character’s personality. I realize that Angelina Jolie had won her Oscar for “GIRL, INTERRUPTED”, a movie that had been released at least seven years before “THE GOOD SHEPHERD”. But I sincerely believe that her portryal of Edward’s long suffering wife, Margaret, was the first role in which she truly impressed me. She tossed away her usual habits and little tricks in order to give a very mature and subtle performance as a woman slowly sinking under the weight of a loveless and repressive marriage. And I believe that Jolie has not looked back, since. The task of carrying the 167-minute film fell upon the shoulders of Matt Damon and as usual, he was more than up to the job. And while there were times when his performance seemed a bit too subtle, I cannot deny that he did a superb job of developing the Edward Wilson character from a priviledge, yet inexperienced college student to a mature and emotionally repressed man who was willing to live with the negative aspects of his profession.

I do not believe that “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” will ever be considered as a great film. It has a small number of flaws, but those flaws were not as minor as they should have been – especially the slow pacing that threatened to put me to sleep. But I cannot deny it is damn good movie, thanks to Robert De Niro’s direction, Eric Roth’s screenplay and a talented cast led by Matt Damon. Five years have passed since its release. It seems a pity that De Niro has not directed a movie since.


“TRUE GRIT” (2010) Review

“TRUE GRIT” (2010) Review

I have never read Charles Portis’ 1968 novel called ”TRUE GRIT”. And my only glimpse of Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film adaptation was of John Wayne charging horseback toward a band of outlaws, while armed with a weapon in both hands. So it was with great curiosity that I went to see Joel and Ethan Coen’s recent film adaptation of the novel. 

”TRUE GRIT” told the story of 14 year-old Mattie Ross’s efforts to seek justice and retribution for the murder of her father in post-Civil War western Arkansas. Due to the local law’s failure to arrest her father’s killer, Tom Chaney, Mattie travels to Fort Smith and recruits a U.S. Marshal named Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn to hunt down and arrest Chaney in the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). Unbeknownst to Mattie, Cogburn teams up with a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who seeks Chaney for the murder of a state senator and his dog. The two men depart Fort Smith and cross into Indian Territory without Mattie. However, she refuses to be left behind and quickly catches up with the two men.

I must admit that I had no idea how I would accept ”TRUE GRIT”. First of all, it was a remake of a successful that led to an Academy Award for its star. Many remakes tend to be inferior to the original movie. However, there have been remakes that are just as good as the original – like James Mangold’s ”3:10 TO YUMA”. There have also been remakes that turned out to be superior to the original – like 1941’s ”THE MALTESE FALCON” and 1988’s”DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS”. Since I have never seen the 1969 version of ”TRUE GRIT” in its entirety, I do not see how I could compare it to this new version. I will admit that it turned out to be a very entertaining and intelligent adaptation of Portis’ novel.

In short, I enjoyed ”TRUE GRIT” very much. Thanks to Joel and Ethan Coen’s writing and direction, the movie struck me as a well-balanced combination of a character study, action film and coming-of-age tale. The movie’s first half, which featured Mattie Ross’s attempts to settle her father’s affairs and recruit Cogburn or anyone else willing to hunt down Chaney. A good deal of the movie’s midway point featured interactions between the three protagonists – Mattie, Cogburn and LaBoeuf – during their journey through the Indian Territory. But once Mattie and Cogburn come across outlaws associated with a fugitive gang leader named “Lucky” Ned Pepper, the movie’s action kicks into high gear. More importantly, the movie’s shift into action did not impede its strong characterizations and drama one bit. Another aspect of ”TRUE GRIT” that I had enjoyed was the dark humor – a trademark of the Coens’ work – that permeated the movie. It certainly befitted the movie’s dark coming-of-age tale and its characters.

I also have to give kudos to the movie’s production designer, Jess Goncher. He did a superb job in re-creating Fort Smith, Arkansas and the Indian Territory during the late 1860s. One of the best things he ever did was choose or suggest the production film the movie in New Mexico and Texas – states that bordered Oklahoma (formerly the Indian Territory). In doing so, he allowed the movie’s setting to adhere closer to Portis’ setting in the novel. Goncher was ably assisted by costume designer Mary Zophres, whose costumes perfectly captured the movie’s setting and character; and cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose photography strongly reminded me of the old daguerreotype images of the mid-to-late 19th century.

Matt Damon found himself following in the footsteps of singer Glen Campbell, in his portrayal of Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. I have seen some of the 1969 film and I must admit that Campbell gave a pretty solid performance. But Damon’s portrayal of the character struck me as more detailed and skillful. In fact, the actor did an excellent job in portraying the competent, yet egotistical lawman. Not only did Damon made me forget that he had very little experience with Westerns, he is one of two actors I have ever seen convey the correct method (breathing included) in long distance shooting. Josh Brolin had more experience with Westerns – including a co-starring role in the ABC series, ”THE YOUNG RIDERS” and the Coens’ award-winning film, ”NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN”. He portrayed the heroes’ main target, hired hand/outlaw Tom Chaney. The actor did not appear in many scenes of ”TRUE GRIT”, but his character permeated the movie’s first half like a malevolent spirit. Once he made his appearance, Brolin’s Chaney seemed insignificant and dimwitted. Yet, as the movie continued on, Brolin revealed more of Chaney’s cunning and stealth with great skill and subtlety. The movie also benefitted from a solid performance by supporting actor Barry Pepper, who portrayed “Lucky” Ned Pepper, an outlaw leader who is sought by Cogburn. The actor’s Ned Pepper struck me as a curious mixture of ruthlessness, pragmatism and honor. He seemed to have no qualms in killing the 14 year-old Mattie over her evasions regarding Cogburn’s whereabouts. And yet, after she honestly answered his questions, his character seemed very willing to keep his word about sparing her life. I have always been an admirer of Pepper’s talents. This role certainly confirmed my opinion.

When I had discovered that Jeff Bridges would end up reprising the role that led to an Academy Award for John Wayne, I almost felt sorry for him. Almost. I eventually realized that my sympathy would be wasted on him. Bridges was talented and charismatic enough to put his own stamp on the role of Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn. Sure enough, Bridges did exactly just that. His portrayal as Cogburn seemed so thorough that I found it difficult to see the actor within the character. His darker portrayal of the character also made me forget about Wayne’s friendlier spin on the role. The main character of ”TRUE GRIT”, in my opinion, turned out to be one Mattie Ross, the 14 year-old daughter of the murdered man. Her desire and determination to seek retribution for her father’s death turned out to be story’s catalyst. Hailee Steinfeld beautifully captured every aspect of Mattie’s complex nature. In fact, there were times I had felt as if I was watching a strong-willed and ruthless woman inside an adolescent’s body. However, Steinfeld’s performance also reminded me that behind the strong will and ruthlessness lurked an innocent and inexperienced young girl. Steinfeld’s chemistry with her co-stars seemed so strong that I found myself wondering how Cogburn, LeBouef or both would regard Mattie if she had been an adult. I have heard speculations of a possible Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Steinfeld. In my opinion, she deserved a nomination for Best Actress. After all, she was not only the leading female character, but the story’smain character.

Although ”TRUE GRIT” failed to earn any Golden Globe nominations – major or minor, last year, it did earned a well deserved ten Academy Award nominations.  Not only did I enjoy it very much, I consider it to be one of the best movies I have seen in 2010.  It is a rare occurrence to find a remake that is just as good or perhaps even slightly better than the original.  And thanks to Ethan and Joel Coen, ”TRUE GRIT turned out to be one of those rare gems.