Movie review: “Thor: Ragnarok”

I am so mad at Taika Waititi right now. I am up late at night, with a staggering head cold, long after I intended to be asleep, having written and deleted over ten different starts to this review. Because as it turns out, reviewing a nearly flawless movie? Is a real bitch.

 

“Thor: Ragnarok” is so good it barely even registers as a movie—you shuffle in, sit down, and are so thoroughly entertained, and at such breakneck pace, that the two hours feel more like two minutes. There is no chance to reach the bottom of your popcorn, much less murmur to a companion; forget using the bathroom. You will not move until the end, and then you will beg for more. This merciless ride comes courtesy of Taika Waititi, New Zealander, writer/director of (among other things) “What We Do in the Shadows”, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”, and “Eagle vs Shark”, and my new nemesis. He is the reason I may never sleep again, because now I have to convince you that a movie about the end of the world should be as colorful as an Orlando candy shop; that you can feel emotions about a hammer; that there is an undiscovered application of Jeff Goldblum’s shtick.

 

The tragedy is that “Thor: Ragnarok” has arrived so late in the progression of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that those not steeped from the beginning in the studio’s closed ecosystem of interconnected movies will likely pass this movie by, thus missing out on the giddy delight of a fully-matured blockbuster director finally getting his hands on a $180-million-dollar toy chest. Think Spielberg, going from battling a malfunctioning fiberglass shark to getting the remote control for a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Waititi has wisely charted a course just a little left of expectations, setting up familiar dilemmas (estranged siblings; a city besieged by dark supernatural forces; what the hell to do with Karl Urban) but solving for consistently unexpected values. The dialogue crackles along like microwave popcorn at the precise moment that everything goes apeshit in the bag—laugh too loud at one punchline, and you’ll miss the next four. But this isn’t a Whedon or a Sorkin or a McFarlane joint; you never get the self-congratulatory reference bingo that bogs down many clever screenwriters. For every joke, there’s a corresponding visual subtlety, a moment of pathos or panic that doesn’t get verbalized, creating a visual story as rich as the dialogue itself, of which a stunning eighty percent was improvised. Perhaps that freedom accounts for the sheer oddness of some of the movie’s conceits: in one setup, a rock-monster with a Kiwi accent carries around a dead slug pal because he “doesn’t have the heart to set him down”. That’s a joke setup. Nothing like that has ever survived a focus group before, but now that “Thor: Ragnorok” has arrived, maybe some more of it will. Welcome, weirdness. Welcome, Taika Waititi. Now please leave. I need to sleep.

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Movie review: “Spiderman: Homecoming”

“Spiderman: Homecoming” contains a tiny homage to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” at its center, which is fitting, because Matthew Broderick seems to be the first actor to have been reincarnated while still alive. Tom Holland plays an alarmingly fresh-faced Peter Parker, so young that when he skives out of high school, you fight the urge (as you never did with Bueller) to convince him to stay. Inside high school, there are bearable torments; outside, Michael Keaton is waiting.

 

Coarsened by age and desperation, Keaton’s blue-collar Adrian Toomes is an unlikely villain for a superhero movie. He doesn’t strut or preen, his most dramatic bit of costuming is a tatty bomber jacket, and his motive is as prosaic as they come—squeezed out of his government contract for salvage, he keeps his mortgage paid with illegal weapons. The fact that some of them glow blue and can reduce a human to a crumbling cone of embers makes Toomes a bit less scary; director Jon Watts is savvy enough to understand this, and arms Toomes with an ordinary handgun for his most threatening scene, a simple conversation with Peter Parker that will make the muscles in your neck go tense. Keaton can now summon the voltage that Jack Nicholson once could: in his gaze, you can sense the menacing hum of a transformer ready to blow.

 

Opposite Keaton, Robert Downey, Jr. plays a distracted Tony Stark, one who checks in occasionally and lavishes Peter with tech—maybe a little too much tech—but isn’t really aware of his young protégée’s interior life. And since Holland reads as genuinely fifteen years old (he’s actually twenty), and capable of the kind of staggeringly bad decisions that only a fifteen-year-old can make, his fatherlessness feels risky. Marisa Tomei, as Aunt May, senses Peter drifting, but the movie insists she react by A) crying and B) giving Peter dating tips and makeovers. Beyond the retrograde gender role, this is a waste of Marisa Tomei, who had already set up the character (in “Captain America: Civil War”) as a delightful source of good sense and mischief in equal measures. You wanted to go drinking with Aunt May, and possibly get matching tattoos on your shoulderblade, though she’d stop you from getting one on your neck. Why is she reduced to behaving like a second-string friend in a Kate Hudson romcom? The rest of the girls are similarly squandered; Laura Harrier, as Liz, vacillates between serving as a crush object and a helpless victim for Spiderman to rescue. Zendaya fares only slightly better: playing an appealingly scruffy classmate of Peter’s, she’s given nothing of her own to do, and instead must provide a snarky Greek chorus on the doings of boys. Of all the 80’s movie tropes to call back to, sidelined women wasn’t a good pick; let’s hope by the next installment of “Spiderman”, the girls will have at least joined the 90’s.

 

As for Peter Parker, the movie brings him to a graceful landing back in the center of Tony Stark’s regard; the moment is understated and perfect, and both characters play it off as if nothing much has happened, even though everything has. This movie may not have the faintest clue what to do with women, but it absolutely gets boys, and that delicate, bittersweet moment when they finally become Spidermen.

Movie review: “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2”

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” starts with a considerable handicap: the audience already knows what they’re in for. The first movie surprised because it wasn’t supposed to be good, and was; now, GOTG2 is supposed to be excellent, and mostly, is. The team is back, with the addition of a charmingly naïve empath named Mantis (Pom Klemantieff), who is stuck on a planet with only one inhabitant. That the inhabitant is named Ego should give you pause; that he is played by Kurt Russell, and appears not a jot over 50, should give you night terrors. I’ve seen bricks age worse. But Russell’s eerie youth is being leveraged for a purpose; he is immortal, and has the notches in his bedpost to prove it. One of them is Peter Quill’s mom. Chris Pratt once again brings an appealing, early-Ford-like insouciance to Peter—unfortunately, the movie gives him a fraction of the screen time he got in the first installment, and squanders half of that fraction on a forced romance with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) that seems to exist to service a “Cheers” reference. Thankfully, other relationships are sketched with a lighter hand: Mantis and Drax (Dave Bautista) develop a horrifying version of friendship based on their mutual lack of guile (and filters); Nebula (Karen Gillan, much improved from the first installment) gives her side of the troubled sibling relationship with Gamora, and develops a bit of sympathy along the way; Rocket (Bradley Cooper) pushes away the love of his found family in a way that feels 100% human, 0% CGI raccoon. But all these lively and delicate stories pale by comparison to the main event, which is a war of the father figures—in the left corner, Yondu (Michael Rooker, clearly aware that he is playing the game of a lifetime). In the right, Ego. Peter must choose between the father who kidnapped, bullied, threatened and manipulated him, and the father who wasn’t around to do any of that. The choice appears easy, until it’s not; Platt carefully treads the line between hope and wariness, and Saldana shows a careful tenderness that could easily have melted into romance in the third movie, if the filmmakers had been willing to wait that long. (Alas, it’s easier to talk about a slow burn than to take the time to actually build one. Maybe they should have gone back and watched “Cheers” again.) But who can begrudge anyone a hurried romance when the galaxy is, once again, at risk? It seems churlish to criticize the movie for not being note-perfect when so many of the notes are delightful: Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), tap-dancing his way through an epic space battle. A planet of self-regarding aliens who all resemble Paris Hilton, if she were spraypainted gold. An extended argument about Scotch tape, mid-climax. Exquisitely timed joke payoffs, coming to fruition a full two acts after their setup. A credit roll that will mercilessly test the limits of your bladder with multiple post-credit sequences, all worth waiting for. You will leave the theater bubbling over with glee and catchy pop songs and also pee; but as this movie so aptly demonstrates, two out of three ain’t bad.

Movie Review: “Doctor Strange”

Guys, it’s funny. Did you think it was going to be funny? Did you think Benedict Cumberbatch could even be funny? Neither did I! Considering that he is being funny while A) faking an American accent and B) wearing an outfit that Nosferatu would find tacky, the list of things Benedict Cumberbatch cannot do is now narrowed down to:

  1. Interact meaningfully with a voice recognition system that asks your name. “Cumberbatch!”

“Cumberland?”

“Cum-ber-batch!”

“Cucumber?”

“CUM BER BATCH!”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that…”

  1. Play Khan.

 

(Sorry. I’m still not over it.) But “Doctor Strange” reveals a new and delightfully goofy layer to our favorite thespian onion, allowing Cumberbatch to boogie and wobble and (memorably) fight a particularly stubborn piece of clothing. His note-perfect imitation of an American surgeon includes all the tics those who must deal with surgeons will recognize—the fighter-pilot arrogance, the abysmal bedside manner, the statistics-keeping—but never strays too far into pompous windbag territory. Cumberbatch locates an appealing smartass streak and follows it through a familiar arc: the arrogant scientist brought low by an inexplicable spiritual experience. “Doctor Strange” is mining some extraordinarily impoverished narrative territory, and those who pointed out its usage of offensive tropes are correct: it’s tiresome to watch yet another white man travel to the “exotic Orient”, study at the feet of a mystic master, then leap to the head of the class of “other” students to become The Best Savior Ever. The choice of Tilda Swinton to play The Ancient One was baffling, drawing even more pointed (and warranted) criticism for whitewashing. “Doctor Strange”, as both a story and a movie, is flawed along racial lines: the story wasn’t written in a vacuum, the movie wasn’t made in a vacuum, and as my friend Billy Ockelmann Lee-Wagner astutely pointed out, a storyline based on “an arrogant white male proves things to his minority and female friends” is propping up some dangerous bullshit. But for all its deep internal flaws, the movie is neither soulless nor mean-spirited: its climax hinges upon a deeply selfless realization, one that’s all the more powerful for not being based in magic, but rather in logic and humanity. That’s the true strength of the “Marvel way” of storytelling—these are superhero stories, but they work first and foremost as stories about people, and their emotional beats hinge upon human realizations, faults, and triumphs. (I don’t know what DC movies are supposed to be about, but “people” aren’t it.) “Doctor Strange” uses CGI as liberally as any summer blockbuster, but it grasps that we can only be moved so much by pretty jets of light and kaleidoscopic arrays of color: while Strange deals in the magical manipulation of matter and time, the movie carefully defines the limitations and effects of the few spells he casts, never descending into the soulless red-light-versus-green-light battles that weakened “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” and sunk the Harry Potter franchise. And in the “death of the mentor” scene, an obligatory Station Of The Cross for every superhero story, CGI is hardly used at all—instead, the movie simply hands the scene off to Tilda Swinton and lets her talk about snow. Not a dry eye in the house.

 

So sure: get Benedict Cumberbatch for your comedy role. Cast Tilda Swinton as an ancient Asian dude. We are now through the looking glass in every way possible, and with two more months to go in this worst of all years, I’ll take my laughs where I can get them.

Movie review: “Captain America: Civil War”

Has anyone checked the roof at DC/Warner Brothers today? Is there a line? Have there been any large purchase orders for rope and rat poison? Because guys, I think someone oughta go check on them. This was a bad beatdown. Marvel, already playing chess to DC movies’ checkers, went full Deep Blue and revealed a gambit years in the making: show the boring parts in the trailer. Marvel can get away with this—clips of fights in deserted parking lots—because their cinematic universe is now such a self-sustaining juggernaut that it barely requires publicity. The brand alone sells the movie, and this is completely correct and just, because even the worst Marvel movies are still entertaining as hell. This is one of the best.

It nearly defies summation, because at this point we’re dealing with a medieval tapestry’s worth of characters and history and alliances and connection points, but Marvel never hangs the full weight of a movie on background knowledge: there is always a clear and immediate character-based conflict, simple and relatable stakes, an access point for those who haven’t been keeping box score since Iron Man 1 dropped in 2008. Here’s an elegant, gut-wrenching flashback to Tony Stark’s relationship with his father; it’s doing stealthy work on behalf of the third act, but you’d never notice because some wizard with a control panel has dialed Robert Downey, Jr. back to age twenty, and you’ll be busy wondering how he looks more like himself than he did in “Weird Science”, when he was actually twenty. Here’s a fight that almost gets started before lurching to a halt: Iron Man and Captain America size each other up, admit the other might have a point, then set off together in search of the puppetmaster pulling their strings. They’re both behaving so intelligently that when they actually do come to blows, it genuinely hurts—we’ve seen them do their best to stay friends. Compare this to DC’s pointless and irrational Batman v Superman fight (comparisons are inevitable; we just saw BvS a month ago, and the trauma’s still fresh), where Batman and Superman were both portrayed as beefy, manipulable dimwits—because to write them otherwise would have made their misunderstanding-based conflict a non-starter, and their tissue-thin reason for reconciliation (“Martha!!”) even more laughable. Marvel doesn’t have to play this game, because they’ve invested time and effort in creating deeply nuanced, historied characters whose behavior we can reliably predict: they can have an argument all on their own.

Which makes it weird to notice that a lot of Civil War hinges on some of the same beats that BvS did: an important political gathering gone horribly awry. The death of a mother. The machinations of a behind-the-scenes baddie who wants to sow conflict. But where every single one of these beats fell flat in BvS, here they form a neat, syncopated rhythym, the freight-train heartbeat of a story moving forward. It’s the difference between a three-year-old smacking a xylophone, and Charlie Watts. It’s the difference between a tunnel that Roadrunner dashes through, and a painted illusion on a cliff that Wile E. Coyote rams his face into. DC can try and try, just like the coyote can try and try, but they’re playing a fundamentally different game than Marvel is. The losing kind.

Movie review: “The Avengers: Age of Ultron”

I have this test for if I’m gonna buy a dress. If I put it on, look in the fitting room mirror, and start grinning and dancing at the same time, that’s a roger on the dress. If I frown, suck in my stomach and start trying different poses, the dress is not getting bought. Simple as that.

I have a similar test for movies. It’s called the “bound-ahead” test. If, on the way out of the theater, I turn sideways and gallop two or three steps ahead of my friends, then turn around and begin talking and gesticulating excitedly while walking backwards, thus endangering myself, other patrons, and the stray potted plant, the movie was a good one. Simple as that.

“Age of Ultron” passed the bound-ahead test with flying colors, and was therefore a good movie. Everything else I have to say is predicated on that foundation. AoU was a good movie. In fact, I adored it.

I’ve never had so much beef with a movie I adored.

This movie managed to insult me as a woman, botch the characterization of some of my favorite fictional people on earth, and suspend disbelief by its underwear from the top of the school flagpole. It overloaded the cast; it tried to lay too much groundwork; it whiffed the ending. If this movie was a person, I would be making out with it on a pool table within ten minutes of meeting it, but I wouldn’t ever let it find out where I lived, because this movie is the kind of bad news whose texts could make you walk into a wall, but whose calls always come collect from county lockup. Somebody, tell me why I love this hot mess of a movie so damn much. Because seriously, it’s got problems. Here are some:

Problem #s 1-1,000,000. Clint Barton’s Secret Family. I’ve had a lot of conversations with a lot of people over the last three days about the many faces of Hawkeye, (criminal, avatar for ordinary humans, knockoff character, landlord, circus freak, reality TV show addict, super-spy, brainwashed clean slate, mentor of troubled youth, gay for Coulson, straight for Natasha, the knee bone connects to the ankle bone) and there’s a lot of room for individual interpretation, depending on what source well you’re drinking from. But the one consistent character trait across all sources (early comics canon, late comics canon, MCU canon, or fanon) is that Clinton Francis “Aw, Coffee, No” Barton is A) immensely talented at exactly one thing and B) a walking human disaster zone in every other area of his life, especially the “romantic relationships” area. This is a man whose previous girlfriends have basically bonded together in a little We Survived Dating Clint Barton And You Can Too, But Honey, You Really Shouldn’t club. This is a man whose best relationships are with his DVR and his dog. And that’s awesome, that’s relatable, that makes him work as a hero. Watching him magically become an ur-American dad in a functional marriage is deeply destabilizing to his character. Beyond that, it doesn’t work. Why would Clint keep his family hidden from everyone in SHIELD except Nick Fury if he was unaware of HYDRA’s infiltration? Why would Natasha make no mention of his family in Avengers 1? And why is he living in an aspirational, idyllic, America-that-never-was house with a tractor and a flag?  In short, why is Clint Barton living in Steve Rogers’ house? This plot development was clearly a generic escape hatch for an actor whose contract was about to expire, but it’s not the right escape hatch for Clint. And that brings me to my next problem:

2. Outside concerns influencing in-universe plot developments. Marvel, we get it. Robert Downey, Jr.’s contract is going to expire someday soon. You’ve been sitting us down, like a five-year-old with an aging pet, to gently break the news at the end of every movie since Iron Man 3. But the fact that your studio has problems holding on to actors is no reason to make this movie into Joss Whedon And The Case Of Too Many Producer’s Notes. We don’t need explanations of Pepper and Jane’s busy lives. We don’t need a timetable of Thor’s commuting schedule. We don’t need to be lead into a quiet room and shown the specs for the New Avengers while a nurse stands by with oxygen, and we certainly don’t need that to be the final scene in the movie! Stop trying to hedge bets on real-life business problems in your fictional universe. Worst case scenario, you replace an actor, and MCU’s already proven it can survive that with the Norton/Ruffalo swap. Besides, bending plot developments around potential contract negotiations is just goofy. Because shit happens. Hemsworth could die in a car crash tomorrow. Tell the story you want to tell, not the story you might have to. It’s totally possible to weave an extended absence—or loss—into a story gracefully; Hulk’s withdrawal from the group is a perfect example. That felt real and natural and like an organic character choice, and it leaves the door open for Ruffalo’s return or absence as the case may be,

(But Christ, I hope Ruffalo returns. Because watching him and Scarlett Johannson flirt felt like watching two planets sink into orbit around each other, an inevitable and gorgeous collision. Watching them made me realize I could no longer remember a time when romance was not for teenagers. I had forgotten what it was like to watch a grown woman serve a grown man a drink and then wallop him across the face with sex and confidence and bravado. I had forgotten that in movies, men used to have hair on their chests. I had forgotten how it felt to hear an actress deliver a line so brazen that the entire theater gasped and half the men started choking.)

3. But alas, that brings us to The Thing They Did To Scarlett’s Character, and I’m afraid the news there is the worst of the whole movie. Leaving aside for a minute the ugly, rape-y implication that a sexual/reproductive violation confers monster status upon the victim, not the perpetrator, since when does the Black Widow get taken hostage by a goddamned robot? We’ve seen her play Loki, who is a trickster God, like a cheap banjo. We’ve seen her take out an entire warehouse full of Russian mobsters with her arms literally tied behind her back. She has been Tony Stark’s assistant. Ultron should not pose a problem for Widow, and yet here she is, trussed up like Nancy Drew in a cave. What’s most painful is the knowledge that a fix would have been so easy—just by showing that Widow *allowed herself to be taken* in order to funnel location information to Clint. It would have changed nothing about the movements or mechanics of the plot, while keeping well in-character for Widow. The only reason the plot works the way it does is to allow Bruce to perform a princess-rescue, which is the last thing Natasha has ever needed. An assist with a door, fine. A rescue? Bullshit.

So, to paraphrase Steve Earle, let’s magnetize this motherfucker and see what’s still floating. And what’s still floating is, oddly:

The whole movie. Despite all these major problems, this movie is still a joyous, soaring, magnificent piece of work. Every fight scene is intricate as a Faberge egg, composed of a thousand moving parts, coming together and falling apart with balletic grace. Recurrent jokes surface and resurface at beautifully unexpected intervals like dolphins off the bow wave of a ship, creating a braid of dialogue we can imagine going on long after we’ve left a scene. The world of the team feels real, lived-in—relationships seem like they’ve been caught in-progress, not started and stopped for the cameras. Joss Whedon, famous for brutal and unexpected character deaths, feints right and goes left in a gorgeous bit of misdirection that caught the entire audience wrong-footed and left us sheepishly admitting that he got us, again. An entire city sequence is shot at actual dusk, in a process that must have taken ungodly amounts of time and created volcanic, ulcerous stress over lighting, but which results in a truly memorable cityscape of twinkling yellow lights against softly glowing purple walls. Andy Serkis shows up for three minutes and eats everybody’s lunch. And Hawkeye, in-character in his professional life at least, gets to deliver a speech that feels human and real and decent and humble in the middle of a truly humbling situation. The city is flying. The city is flying, and Clint is fighting robots with a bow and arrow, and none of this makes sense, but the story rips merrily along at a torrential pace, leaving you breathless and giddy and ready to go again.

I’m ready to go again.