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: “Logan”

When I was about nineteen, I saw X2 at midnight with a crowd of rapturous fans in varying degrees of costume, from “Marvel t-shirt” to “blue body paint”. The better costumes got nods and chuckles as we shuffled into the theater, but the only attendee to get a real rouse was the guy, otherwise unremarkably dressed, who’d styled his hair like Wolverine. He got a full round of applause.

That’s Hugh Jackman’s doing. No other actor in the “X-Man” franchise is so identified with their character—Patrick Stewart, while he makes a tremendous Xavier, will always be Jean-Luc Picard to the majority of the planet, and Ian McKellen, Gandalf. But Hugh Jackman is Wolverine. He’s been doing it longer than about 25% of the world’s population has been alive[1], and he looks it—now sinewy and greying at the temples, he’s more weathered limestone than carved marble. Which makes playing an immortal character difficult; hence, “Logan”. In Jackman’s final curtain call as the character, we meet a Wolverine whom time has finally chased down. Weathered and exhausted, he’s driving an El Paso limousine and commuting nightly across the border to an unspeakably depressing hideout, population four: himself, the dying professor Charles Xavier, the albino Caliban (Stephen Merchant), and their shared misery. Caliban tends to Xavier and doles out a grating ration of criticism; Xavier has nightmarish seizures that send his psychic power washing through others like radiation; Logan is stuck between a Prof and a nursemaid. No help is coming over the horizon, either. As the mutants slowly die off, private companies hunt the last stragglers for biological experimentation. And one of those stragglers needs help—a young girl, mute and furious, is rescued from a lab and thrown into Logan’s care like a stray kitten. His resistance to her need is the hard emotional kernel around which the plot is wound. If you’re picking up whiffs of Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross, that’s not coincidental. “Logan” is a Western, from the unforgiving light to the barren landscape to the increasingly Eastwoodian set of Hugh Jackman’s squint, but most especially in its harrowing formula: put a group of characters in a vise and squeeze. It wouldn’t be sporting to reveal who survives the squashing, but I will say that fewer will escape than you’d like—the movie’s pitch-perfect dialogue pulls you in like real family squabbling, with all the attendant intimacy and frustration. Dafne Keen (as the young Laura) especially holds up her corner of the tent, which, given that she is twelve and playing against 166 combined years in Stewart, Jackman, and Merchant, goes well beyond impressive and into the realm of suspiciously supernatural. Someone should get that kid tested for the mutant gene.

[1] http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.0014.TO.ZS

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: “Deadpool”

OK so “Deadpool”.

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Attention Ryan Reynolds: your debt is called off. For about ten years, We The People have been force-fed your generically handsome mug in a steady stream of abysmal romantic comedies, all predicated on the promise that One Day, We’d See It! You Were A Leading Man—Promise! You just needed the right script, the right character, the right opportunity, the right director, the right phase of the moon for whatever bloodletting/goat sacrifice ceremony you performed to get Blake Lively to look twice at your bland Canadian ass—wait, I’m getting sidetracked. Where was I? Oh right. So, ten years of awful movies later, we were getting pretty fed up. You weren’t delivering. Sure, you were delightful on late-night television, but no one pays ten bucks to sit with their shoes in a sticky puddle of Coke for late night television, Ryan. They do that for movies, and I am sorry to inform you that yours have pretty much sucked. Until now. You did good, kid. “Deadpool” is a delight. YOU were a delight in it. Tell the nice men at your door with baseball bats and brass knuckles that we say you’re all settled up. You enjoy your evening.

Everyone else: go see “Deadpool”, wouldja? I promise, it’ll wipe “The Proposal” clean out of your memory banks. “Deadpool” is a refreshing blast of hysterical, profane energy, a fire hydrant of action with no cap. Just trying to keep up with Reynolds’s motormouthed monologues is a challenge—in the audience I was sitting with, people were visibly shaking with laughter, rocking in their seats, but silently, because if they laughed out loud, they would miss the next joke. And with a script like this, no one wanted to risk it: two minutes after the credits rolled, I was ready to go back into another showing—with a notepad. (One never knows when the next chance to call someone a bag of dick tips will occur, but in an election year, it’s good to be prepared.)

It’s no coincidence that “Deadpool” referenced “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” multiple times: the two movies share more than just a transparent fourth wall. Watching “Ferris” for the first time around age thirteen, I remember being blown away by the novelty of a movie in which nothing much happened at all: the only point was to follow this cool, glib, quotable kid and his two best friends through their day. The movie was a hangout, and this one is too—it’s no more about Deadpool’s quest for revenge against his sadistic maker than “Ferris” was about evading an overzealous principal. So, sure, the villain is unmemorable and the theme is threadbare: they’re just the pretext for us to get in the car with the coolest kid in school. And his friends are all cool, too: a CGI’d Colossus who still comes off as loveable, like a gigantic Russian Groot. The tiny, owlish Brianna Hildebrand (she looks like a female, teenaged version of Adam Scott) as Negasonic Teenage Warhead, a superhero whose name I cannot pronounce but whose personality I grasped within fifteen seconds of her appearance onscreen. And best of all, here’s the chronically underutilized Morena Baccarin as Wade’s hooker girlfriend Vanessa, tart-tongued and crackling with fun, so engaging and clever that I didn’t even mind her placement as a damsel-in-distress at the end of the movie. She’d more than kept up with Wade throughout, and she never felt like a victim, even as she was being victimized. Such are the pleasures of this movie: the characters are so well-rounded and charming that the movie simply sidesteps the entirely valid criticisms that it is plotless, and profane, and kind of clichéd and thematically lacking. These crits are all true, but they’re not the point. Which is that I love all these characters, and I just met them. I can’t wait to hang out with them again in the parking lot instead of going to PE.

How long till Deadpool 2?