Nov 282017
  November 28, 2017

RayMillandHandsome and debonair, Milland’s early career was mainly in romantic comedies and light action films. His big break came with The Jungle Princess (1936), which made Dorothy Lamour a star as The Sarong Girl. His reputation changed with The Lost Weekend (1945) which won multiple Oscars, but is hard to view as anything other than suffering-porn now—it lacks a plot and an ending. It was no doubt important for people who never realized that alcoholism was bad. But this did alert Hollywood to his skill as a serious actor.

An honorable mention for The Thing With Two Heads (1972), which is terrible, but hey, it is called The Thing With Two Heads. Also an Honorable mention to the sappy, but surprisingly moving Love Story (1970). And a big honorable mention for his portrayal of Mephistopheles in Alias Nick Beal (1949). And another for Irene (1944), a breezy music comedy with little music.

Now for his eight best:

8 – The Lady Has Plans (1942) — A spy comedy as light as fluff. With Paulette Goddard, Milland’s frequent co-star.

7 – The Major and the Minor (1942) — 31-year-old Ginger Rogers pretends to be a child to get a half price train ticket and ends up with Milland at a military school. As this is a romantic comedy, they’d never make it today. [Also on the Ginger Rogers list]

6 – Ministry of Fear (1944) — A light thriller with Milland just out of an asylum facing Nazis. It screams Hitchcock.

5 – Easy Living (1937) — A Preston Sturges penned romantic comedy entwined with the misunderstandings of the very rich.

4 – Dial M for Murder (1954) — Milland plots to murder Grace Kelly. This one is Hitchcock.

3 – The Big Clock (1948) — One of the great Film Noirs as Milland is placed in charge of an investigation to find a man who turns out to be himself. Remade in ’87 as No Way Out with Kevin Costner. (Full Critique)

2 – Beau Geste (1939) — The definitive Foreign Legion film, with Milland one of three brothers who run off for the sake of honor.

1 – The Uninvited (1944) — The greatest ghost film, and the mold for most of those that have followed. Milland and his sister buy a house which turns out to be haunted. (Full Review)

 

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Nov 222017
 
two reels

Uther (Eric Bana) is usurped by his brother Vortigern (Jude Law) with the help of dark magic, but Vortigern fails to kill Uther’s son Arthur or acquire the sword Excalibur. After being raised in a brothel, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) becomes an underworld boss. When Excalibur resurfaces in a stone, Arthur and his criminal friends (Kingsley Ben-Adir, Neil Maskell) team up with resistance fighters (Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, Craig McGinlay) and a mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) to kill Vortigern.

It is refreshing to see a different take on the King Arthur legend. We certainly didn’t need another generic version and this isn’t generic Arthur. So if you are a purist, looking for a retelling of the old story with all the pieces in their predetermined places, you are going to be angry. If on the other hand, you are a fan of Guy Ritchie and his street punk, speed-up, slow down, jump randomly style, then you are going to be… Well, you aren’t going to be pleased exactly. Maybe…interested.

I haven’t seen this much Guy Ritchieism in a Guy Ritchie film since Snatch. Thugs mumble incoherently or speak too quickly to be understood. Everyone is a smart ass. No one runs more than ten feet without slipping into slow-mo or having an edit move him ahead three steps. No sword swing can finish its arc without three time shifts. Is this good or bad? Well, it’s a style. It’s a bit odd when stuck in a fantasy story, but I’m amused by the anachronism of it.

So, if you can get past, or even enjoy, Guy Ritchie’s style, then you have yourself a clever film, with an engaging story, good characters, a world worth spending time in, idiosyncratic dialog, lots of action, and some fascinating, if not attractive, cinematography. And with all that, it is unsatisfying. The problem is that is doesn’t feel like a movie. This is a eight part TV series with large chunks missing. You can see the episode breaks:

Ep 1: The Fall of Uther
Ep 2: Young Arthur in the brothel
Ep 3: Arthur, criminal boss
Ep 4: Arthur on the run
Ep 5: Arthur meets the resistance

We needed four or five more scenes of Vortigern using his increasing magical powers. There should have been another half hour of Arthur dealing with street crime. We should have seen several more raids by Arthur and his outlaw team. The dojo master and his martial artists should have had another fight or three, or been removed entirely. The structure and pacing is wrong for a feature. There is a vision quest segment, but it means nothing as is. It is shown as a montage and we are not given the information or enough of what this means to Arthur for it matter. It needed to be cut, or enlarged. For a feature, there needed to be more focus. But if it wasn’t a feature, I’d have loved to see bro-Arthur and his entourage carrying off a few medieval heists.

The look and special effects don’t belong in a feature either. They spent $175,000 and I’ve no idea where half that money went. For a TV series, it looks great. For a blockbuster, it looks cheap. Much of the CGI screams CGI. The exception is the gigantic mammoths, which look fantastic, but they are only onscreen for a few minutes and then we rarely see full body shots (which is the way you would construct the scenes for a show trying to keep under budget).

Guy Ritchie’s first cut was rumored to be three hours long, which I’m betting fixed some of the problems, but not nearly enough, and would be a bit numbing. No, this needed eight hours with snack breaks.

 Fantasy, Reviews Tagged with:
Nov 212017
  November 21, 2017

BasilrathboneholmesBasil Rathbone starred as Sherlock Holmes in 14 films, with Nigel Bruce as a blustering, foolish Doctor Watson. When I watched these as a child—broadcast one each week by a local TV station—I treated them like a TV show, with all of the movies being approximately the same. They aren’t.

The first two were made for 20th Century Fox with a reasonable budget. Then Universal pictures took over, shrinking the budget and updating the story to 1940s wartime. Stopping Nazis was the goal and Holmes was more spy than detective. As the war wound down, the films took on more of a Gothic feeling, with crumbling castles and frightened peasants. The setting was still “current” times, but with locations in Scottish villages and cutoff manor houses to decrease the effects of modern technology. A few were standard mystery films (no Gothic mansions), but while the 1940s were more visible than in the more Gothic ones, these mystery films could have been transported to the 1880s with few changes.

Ranking the Rathbone/Holmes films is pretty straightforward. The Fox films are best, followed by the Gothic Universals. Standard mysteries slot in next, with the later films (where Rathbone was tired of playing the role—and being quite vocal about it) and the spy films vie for worst. Starting with the best:

 
#1. The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1939) — The first of the Fox films and the most famous Holmes tale. Rathbone never had a chance to stretch as much again. This Holmes has a sense of humor. (My review)

#2. The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes (1939) — The second Fox film and the last one set in the proper decade. This is the defining Sherlock Holmes movie. George Zucco, one of the great character actors, takes a turn as Moriarty.

#3. The House Of Fear (1945) — This one is fully Gothic and all the better for it. At a seaside estate, the members of a club are being murdered one by one after receiving an envelope containing orange seeds. It feels nearly like a horror movie, which is a genre Universal was skilled with. (My review)

#4.  Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943) — The first of the Gothic films, breaking away from the three propaganda ones before it. It is a dark house mystery, with Holmes trying to find the murderer of the head of a rich and old family among the strange characters staying at the house. (My review)

#5. The Scarlet Claw (1944) — Holmes verses a supposed marsh monster in Canada. The setting is a strangely isolated (since it is 12 miles form a major city), tiny village cloaked in fog and surrounded by marshland. The superstitious dread of the people gives it a nice tone, but side characters (and villain) lack needed personality.

#6. Terror By Night (1946) — Holmes plays in Agatha Christie’s realm as he investigates a murder on a train. The train car is filled with a number of unusual characters, any one of whom might be the killer.

#7. The Pearl Of Death (1944) — Another criminal mastermind is in London along with his massive brute of a killer. He stole a pearl but had to hide it. Holmes races to find it, deducing that a series of murders is related. This is one of the standard mystery films.

#8. The Spider Woman (1944) — Important men are being driven to suicide for their insurance. Holmes knows the villain is a woman since it is a cruel and controlling crime. Yeah, Holmes being sexist isn’t a shocker. Gale Sondergaard is a lot of fun as the Spider Woman, but the story is weak.

#9. Sherlock Holmes And The Secret Weapon (1942) — Holmes must stop a bomb site from falling into Nazi hands. It’s WWII spies again, but at least with a mystery. Moriarity (this time played by the always reliable Lionel Atwill) feels like an odd villain to drop into this war pic that would have been better served by a SS officer.

#10. Dressed To Kill (1946) — The final film has criminals missing the auction of three music boxes that contain a musical code, so Holmes races to find them first. The mystery is both overly simple and unsolvable for the audience, but if feels like a good old Holmes and Watson case and Patricia Morison makes a memorable villain.

#11. Pursuit To Algiers (1945) — This 12th entry takes us back to spies. Holmes acts as escort (wouldn’t a few armed guards be better for that purpose?) for the heir to the throne of Rovinia. It’s a fun film, but isn’t a Holmes film—it feels more like something by Agatha Christie. There’s a group of peculiar characters with secrets, cut off from the outside (this time on a ship), and the constant threat of murder. I like it, but would like it better without Holmes.

#12. The Woman In Green (1945) — Young women are being gruesomely murdered around town and Holmes disagrees with Scotland Yard that it is the work of a madman. He knows it to be Moriarty, this time played by Henry Daniell. This is one of the normal “case” type films, though a bit darker, but it doesn’t come together very well.

#13. Sherlock Holmes In Washington (1943) — Not a mystery at all, but a spy caper where everything is known. It feels like an old time serial, with shootouts and secret lairs as Holmes must retrieve a secret document and rescue a girl from evil Nazi agents. It’s nice to see both George Zucco and Henry Daniell as villains (neither playing Moriarty as they both did in other films), though neither have much to do.

#14. Sherlock Holmes And The Voice Of Terror (1942) — The first and the most over-the-top of the WWII spy films has our hero trying to stop a stream of disasters that are first predicted in a Nazi radio broadcast. It ends with Holmes giving a propaganda speech that would have been too much even in 1942.

 

Nov 192017
 
one reel

Teenager Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is psychologically disturbed by the death of his father and by his dreams of another world where a Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) and his minions are trying to destroy a tower that holds the universe together and are opposed by the last gunslinger (Idris Elba). After some mind-numbing family drama, Jakes finds a magic portal and travels to the world of Roland The Gunslinger, who has grown bitter. Jake’s dreams are a indication that he has the “shining” (yeah, like in the movie The Shining), and so is both the magic boy the Man in Black needs to destroy the tower and the key to the gunslinger’s victory.

Based on Stephen King’s elaborate gunslinger series, The Dark Tower is not an adaptation, since the filmmakers claim (after the fact) that it is a sequel to the books. Well, that at least makes discussions of the books irrelevant, which is to the movie’s advantage as no fan of the books is going to have anything nice to say about this movie.

Since they’d thrown out the books, there is no reason for Jake to be in The Dark Tower (something the PR department picked up on as he is absent from advertising) except that young adult movies are—or were—very popular. This is the story of a gunslinger verses the Devil; everything with Jake is unnecessary, and worse, uninteresting. While it might be relevant in the books that children are magical batteries, it is a plot point that needed to have been dropped. With super-battery-kid as the lead, Roland, the powerful gunslinger out for revenge, is reduced to a bland babysitter for a generic magic child. Neither he nor the kid can support a film.

McConaughey does better as the Man in Black (also known as Walter). He’s a sleazy kind of evil that is entertaining and deserves a better film. His techno-magic hints at a more appealing universe that we are never shown.

The Dark Tower isn’t interesting enough to be a disaster. Its failing is in lack of imagination. It doesn’t try to be much of anything and in that it succeeds.

 Fantasy, Reviews Tagged with:
Nov 172017
  November 17, 2017

JamesStewartStewart had a more varied career than most actors and far more than most leading men of the golden age. He not only was in, but was known for, comedies, dramas, melodramas, family films, romances, thrillers, and Westerns. Early in his career, he was in a string of sentimental Frank Capra movies, with It’s A Wonderful Life being the most famous. I’m not a fan of these as they tend to go over the top with shmaltz, letting both real human interaction and humor die for the sake of sentimentality. The worst offender is You Can’t Take It with You, a wonderful play that is gutted by Capra. Luckily, Stewart had other moments, with strong turns in comedies before becoming one of Hitchcock’s two favorites (Cary Grant being the other).

Stewart’s performances were unusual too. He pushed the edges, and his brilliant performances were often one twitch away from a ham mess. When he held it just right, he was a master at frustration, anger, hatred, and loss. When he let it go too far…

Honorable mentions go to Vivacious Lady (1938)—a romantic comedy with Ginger Rogers, Destry Rides Again (1939)—a comedy western with Marlene Dietrich, Call Northside 777 (1948)—a detective crime drama, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)—a western with John Wayne and Lee Marvin.

And for the best:

8 – The Mortal Storm (1940) — The movie that upset the Nazis; Hollywood finally took a stand on what had been going on in Europe. Stewart plays the friend of a “non-Aryan” family during the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.

7 – Bell Book and Candle (1958) — This should be on everyone’s Halloween viewing list, or Christmas. Stewart is a bit gray for his starring role in a supernatural romantic comedy, but Kim Novak is breathtaking as a powerful, sexy witch and Ernie Kovacs, Else Lanchester, and Jack Lemmon are all marvelous. [Also on the Jack Lemmon list]

6 – Vertigo (1958) — A second Hitchcock film, this one even more over-hyped than the last having replaced Citizen Kane as the greatest movie of all time according to Sight and Sound. It’s still a good flick, with Stewart as an obsessed and troubled man. While it is shot as a thriller, it is really a character drama.

5 – Rear Window (1954) — A Hitchcock thriller seeped in voyeurism. It’s become hip to love it in recent years, but don’t let that dissuade you. It is a nicely tense work.

4 – Anatomy of a Murder (1959) — A courtroom drama that questions our prejudices. Stewart attempts to defend an unpleasant and violent defendant with a promiscuous wife from a murder everyone would be happy to hang on him.

3 – Harvey (1950) — A happy man with a giant invisible rabbit as his best friend upsets his uptight family. This may be Stewart’s best performance. It is certainly his most unusual.

2 – After the Thin Man (1936) — Stewart plays third banana to William Powell and Myrna Loy. Taking place soon after The Thin Man, Nick and Nora are summoned by Nora’s snobbish family because a husband is missing. The relationship material is wonderful, the humor is spot on, and the mystery is engaging. [Also on the Myrna Loy list and the William Powell list]

1 – The Philadelphia Story (1940) — This is the essential romcom, and was the perfect vehicle for its three leads, Stewart, Cary Grant, and Katherine Hepburn. None of them ever had a role that more completely played to their strengths. This is as witty as film gets. [Also on the Katherine Hepburn list and the Cary Grant list]

 

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Nov 132017
  November 13, 2017

bingcosbySome lists are hard. Some are easy. And some are pretty much repeats. This one is a repeat.

Crosby was primarily a pop/swing/jazz singer. He parlayed that into success in film and TV, but it was always music first. He had enough charisma—and his own staff of writers—to become a solid comedian. His best films were his collaborations with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour: the seven Road pictures. They were loose comedies with a few songs and a lot of patter, which was perfect for Crosby.

His most famous non-musical role was as Father Chuck O’Malley in Going My Way and its slightly superior sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s. They are reasonably enjoyable in an overly-sweet, simplistic way, but far from the classics they were once thought to be. So what are Crosby’s classics? I’ve got them below, right after this Honorable mention: Road to Rio (1947) which is the one really good Road picture not on the list below.

8 – Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964) — The best of the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr.) films, with Crosby taking over Peter Lawford’s part in the group.

7 – Road to Bali (1952) — The 6th of 7 Road pictures, Bali is a return to form as Hope and Crosby go to the South Seas, and toss off a non-stop string of one-liners while breaking the 4th wall. It’s wacky and fun. (Full Review) [Also on the Bob Hope list]

6 – Road to Zanzibar (1941) — The 2nd Road picture has Hope, Crosby, and Lamour spoofing (or just inhabiting) a jungle picture. It is one of the less wild outings, with the 4th wall unbroken. (Full Review) [Also on the Bob Hope list]

5 – Road to Utopia (1945) — The Road pictures were at full steam here as our three are in Alaska during the gold rush, but all that matters are jokes. (Full Review) [Also on the Bob Hope list]

4 – White Christmas (1954) — Is there a better icon of the light, colorful, and joyfully shallow side to Christmas than this bright and shiny musical? Obviously I think not. (Full Review)

3 – Road to Singapore (1940) — The first Road picture with Hope and Crosby playing characters and sticking with a plot. Dorthy Lamour is an Island fantasy, which was her gig at the time. It’s the only Road picture where you might care about something other than the jokes. (Full Review) [Also on the Bob Hope list]

2 – Holiday Inn (1942) — Fred Astaire gets to play the bad guy, messing up Crosby’s love life. This is a perfect holiday movie for pretty much every holiday as it has songs for New Years, Valentine’s Day, Easter, the 4th of July, and Washington’s Birthday, though the black face Lincoln’s Birthday number might be a hard sell. It also includes the song “White Christmas” and it was from this film’s re-recorded sound track that it became a hit. [Also on the Fred Astaire list]

1 – Road to Morocco (1942) — Ah, where to start. Many people claim this is the funniest movie of all time and I wouldn’t argue that. It is absurd, with no concern about the rules of filmmaking. Hope and Crosby talk to the audience, they refer to the last film and their contracts, and its all brilliant. Even the songs are good for a change. (Full Review) [Also on the Bob Hope list]

 

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Nov 112017
 
one reel

Nathaniel Shepherd’s (Gary Oldman) space company sends the first colonists to Mars in 2018 [maybe not the best year to choose for a movie made in 2017]. After takeoff, the mission commander is found to be pregnant. She gives birth on Mars and promptly dies. Shepherd decides to keep the baby a secret to preserve the company’s reputation. Sixteen years later, the now teen Gardner (Asa Butterfield) gets an OK to go to Earth. Once there, he escapes from quarantine and finds Tulsa (Britt Robertson), the “tough” girl he’d chatted with online. The two go in search of his unknown father, with Shepherd and mother-surrogate astronaut Kendra Wyndham (Carla Gugino) in pursuit.

This is what gives young adult SF a bad name.

Also, this is what gives commercial space ventures a bad name. The film is an unintentional argument against corporations running a space program as they might act like this.

The weakness of the science in this “science fiction” film is a minor thing, but it’s hard for me to ignore. Somethings are simply wrong, such as instantaneous communication with Mars. Others stretch credibility beyond breaking, such as missing a second-or-so trimester pregnancy in an astronaut’s physical exams. And a few need explanation, such as how they fed a newborn on Mars. And best not to think about how the filmmakers think gravity works.

Once Gardner gets to Earth, we have a typical teens-on-the-run romance between a twenty-year-old actor who could pass for eighteen and a twenty-seven-year-old actress who can pull off twenty-seven but not a year younger. Their speeches (they speak only in speeches) and adventures are clichéd material, but the best part of the film. It’s silly even for a YA romance—I had no idea stealing cars was so easy—but then I’m not the target audience. Unfortunately The Space Between Us then tries to be deep (we even get a “meaningful” montage…) and this is a not a film that can handle deep. Butterfield’s giving a soliloquy on love is kinda cute; doing the same thing on the meaning of life… Not so much.

When we aren’t with the twenty-plus-year-old teens, we are with an over-acting Oldman, who expresses all emotions by banging his fists, crying out to the sky, and pacing. It does have the odd effect of making the teens look reasonable.

The Space Between Us hits a few of the requisite emotional beats. A majority of the characters aren’t annoying and the film is passably made. There’s no reason to see it, but no reason to avoid it either. If you are a tween girl, add a reel.

 Science Fiction Tagged with:
Nov 092017
  November 9, 2017

SpencerTracyWith his no-nonsense, man’s man persona and natural style, Spencer Tracy was successful in both dramas and comedies. Although he was an alcoholic, he was known for his professionalism. It was with that understanding of addiction that he helped a broken Montgomery Clift give his great performance in Judgment at Nuremberg.

Tracy often worked with director Stanley Kramer, mostly on the powerful, political/ethical films that Kramer was known for. He frequently co-stared with Katherine Hepburn (their semi-secret affair lasted nearly thirty years), making nine films together.

Before mentioning the good, I’d feel lax if I didn’t give a dishonorable mention to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), where his poor performance matched the films confused sexuality and drab dialog.

An Honorable mention goes to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1963), which is more important than good, and to It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), which is fun if not terribly good, and to Boys Town (1938), which works for a family film provided you have a couple kids under ten watching.

Now the eight best:

8 – Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) — A wartime propaganda film that is both exciting and supposedly accurate, at least militarily.

7 – Pat and Mike (1952) — The second Hepburn/Tracy film, it tries to wave a feminist flag, but in 2017, it feels like it does the opposite. Still, it has some funny moments. [Also on the Katherine Hepburn list]

6 – Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) — A strange noir/western hybrid set in 1945. It’s tense, showing the worst of humanity—including a nod at racism—in a nowhere town of miserable people. It’s a little too nihilistic to be fun, but it’s interesting.

5 – Adam’s Rib (1949) — Another Hepburn/Tracy film, this one setting them as competing lawyers. The best bits come from a young Judy Holliday as the defendant who shoots her unfaithful husband. [Also on the Katherine Hepburn list]

4 – Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) — The first of two Stanley Kramer films on this list (of four if you count the Honorable mentions). This one deals with a trial of Nazi war criminals and has lost none of its relevancy.

3 – Desk Set (1957) — A romantic comedy with middle-aged characters for a change. It’s Hepburn and Tracy again. This time she’s a genius and he’s an eccentric tech guru. It’s a Christmas movie and delightful. [Also on the Katherine Hepburn list]

2 – Libeled Lady (1936) — A four-way romantic comedy with Tracy, Jean Harlow, William Powell, and Myrna Loy. Powell is hired by Tracy to stop Loy from suing a newspaper for libel, any way he can. [Also on both the William Powell list and the Myrna Loy list]

1 – Inherit the Wind (1960) – The second Stanley Kramer film on this list. A fictitious take on the Monkey Trial, with amazing work by Tracy and Fredric Marsh in the greatest court battle ever on screen.

 

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Nov 082017
 
five reels

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is captured by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) on a gladiatorial planet ruled over by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). In order to win his freedom, he must fight the champion, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). And he must escape quickly as back on Asgard, his sister, Hela-Godess of Death (Cate Blanchett), has taken over, with only the trepidatious Skurge (Karl Ubran) at her side, and she plans a bloody conquest of the universe.

Marvel can’t fail. At least for their theatrical films, it seems they can do no wrong. Every one of the now seventeen MCU films is a winner and in this case, I’m sure not tired of the winning. And this one wins big. It is the brightest, fastest paced entry. It’s one of the best, and for pure joy, it is the best

Thor: Ragnarok is unusual in a franchise that, more and more, is allowing itself a bit of freedom. The biggest difference is the editing. There is no wasted time. There are no pauses for you (or the characters) to dwell on things, or pout, or gaze off at nothing particular (making this THE anti-Bats v Supes film). There are no travelogues. Thor says we’re going to Earth, and we are immediately on Earth. Hela hears a summons in the throne room, and she is immediately in the throne room. This allows for a great deal of story in two hours. If Ragnarok was cut like other MCU films, it would be four hour long. If it was cut like your typical indie drama, it would be around ten. This has lead some to say that it isn’t an emotional a movie, but that’s wrong. It has the emotional beats; it just doesn’t lay there, sinking slowly into them. It squeezes as much emotion—and as much action and humor and meaning and plot and sheer fun—as possible into two hours.

The difference with Ragnarok that everyone notices is that it is a comedy. That doesn’t put it too outside the norm as it is standing close to Guardians of the Galaxy in tone. But this is the first time that I’d call an MCU movie a comedy first, and an action picture second. The humor alone is enough to make this a great time, but the jokes serve the characters as well. Thor has always been pompous, both as a character and as how he is presented. He speaks like he’s a stand-in at a Renaissance faire and he’s accompanied by dramatic music. His arc has been that of an ass, who was completely full of himself, learning humility. But he only learned so much. Thor: Ragnarok takes him down several pegs. Time after time, as he tries to show how awesome he is (or where the previous films would have focused on his power and majesty), he’s tripped, zapped, and made to look like a fool. It’s hysterical, and does a great job of taking him further in his arc.

Director Taika Waititi, known for his indie comedies, pushed the actors to improvise, and has said that 80% of the end dialog was invented while filming. It’s no surprise that Tom Hiddleston is a riot or that Jeff Goldblum is a good time doing basically the Jeff Goldblum shtick. I’m a bit surprised how funny Cate Blanchett can be. But the revelation is Chris Hemsworth. Sure, he’s had some good light moments before, but now I’m ready for the Hemsworth Standup Comedy Tour.

So Thor: Ragnarok is funny. But doesn’t that leave it wanting in action and drama and power? Nope, because after “comedy” the word I’d use to describe this film is “METAL.” And I don’t mean hair METAL or even Metallica METAL. I’m talking Dethklok METAL. This is the most METAL movie ever made. Ground zero is Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song—present in the trailers, but far more powerful in the film. The phrase “Hammer of the Gods” is used literally. Ragnarok then adds the imagery from a metal-head’s dreams. This is gods and monsters and trolls and devils. Shot after shot could be pulled for an ‘80s album cover. This is head-banging, devil-horn signaling METAL. That means that this is epic in a beautifully over-the-top fashion and isn’t embarrassed about it. The battles aren’t introspective narratives; they are heroic poems of mystic legends. The genius of Ragnarok is its ability to weave the self-deprecating comedy with a larger than life, legendary saga.

And I haven’t mentioned half of the reasons to see this film: Mark Ruffalo and Hulk give you everything you’ve ever wanted from the green rage monster. Tessa Thompson brings a sorely needed powerful female hero into the MCU with the hard-drinking Valkyrie. Benedict Cumberbatch’s long cameo as Doctor Strange is better than the entire Doctor Strange movie (and leads me to believe that perhaps the Sorcerer Supreme is best used in a supporting role). Anthony Hopkins makes Odin his most sympathetic. Taika Waititi put himself into the film, doing the voice of Korg, the rock gladiator; he is a full clown character that elicited roars of laughter from the audience. Only Idris Elba’s Heimdall doesn’t give us anything interesting or fun, but I suppose someone had to make sure the plot moved along.

Karl Urban’s Skurge demonstrates how brilliantly crafted this film is. He doesn’t get that much screen time, yet he has a meaningful and satisfying arc. In only minutes, he becomes a wholly realized character, and one I will remember.

Thor: Ragnarok even has thematic elements dealing with the past and how that creates personal and cultural identity, sometimes for the good, sometimes not, but it can never be ignored. So yes, this is a smarter film than most reviews realize, but I’ll agree with others that depth isn’t what captured me: It’s comedy and METAL. Thor: Ragnarok is a great addition to the MCU and the best film I’ve seen this year.

 

(Thor: Ragnarok Trailer, but see the film first–the trailer(s) give away too much)

Nov 062017
 
one reel

On a paradise planet, the members of the species known as Pearl live perfect lives until Armageddon comes from the skies. Thirty years later, agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are sent to the Alpha Station—where millions of creatures from many species interact—and assigned to guard suspicious-acting Commander Filitt (Clive Owen). A radioactive zone has appeared on the station and no one sent to investigate it has returned. If the zone continues to expand unchecked, it could kill everyone on the station. But Commander Filitt knows more than he is telling, and somehow this is related to the genocide of the Pearl. Before Valerian and Laureline can solve the mystery, they will encounter Jolly the Pimp (Ethan Hawke) and shape-shifting Bubble (Rihanna).

Director Luc Besson has an eye for art design. His crime/spy dramas Léon: The Professional and La Femme Nikita looked fantastic, but were nothing compared to what he did when allowed the freedom of science fiction. His 1997 film, The Fifth Element, is gorgeous from beginning to end. The cityscapes, space ships, and aliens are all beautiful, richly colored, and fully realized. And as he based some of those designs on the comic Valerian and Laureline, it was a given that when he made a film directly from that source, it would be glorious eye candy. And it is. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is everything you could ask for and more in terms of cinematography, art direction, and world building. I could have happily spent two hours watching the Pearl frolic on their strange and wonderful planet. The beginning montage is a great short film on its own (watch it here on Youtube), showing humanity meeting species after species.

And then Dane DeHaan opens his mouth and it all goes to Hell.

Story-wise, what we have is a 1930s-era colonialist adventure. And that makes sense when looking at the comic, where Valerian is a square-jawed, time-traveling, by-the-book agent, and Laureline is an 11th century peasant girl. Her desires are a bit old fashioned, and he is a good natured chauvinist who learns a lesson over the course of the story. That’s how the script is written, but that’s not how it is played out. My guess is that Besson is not an actor’s director, simply letting the actors do what they do. So Clive Owen plays his part as he’s played multiple others before, and its fitting. Rihanna essentially is in a music video, dancing around a pole and changing outfits. And Ethen Hawke slips into his zany mode. That works. But DeHaan has no knowledge of ‘30s adventure flicks, or of parodies of those, so just gives us the same modernist (for 2017), smart-ass, weaselly character he took on in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and A Cure For Wellness, which is wrong for this film. It makes every line either non-nonsensical, uncomfortable, or just out of place. Valerian says he always follows the rules, but DeHaan’s performance says otherwise. Valerian repeatedly tells Laureline to stay back in dangerous situations in what is clearly meant to show his over-protective nature, but DeHann plays it in some weird, arrogant, misogynist mode. Every scene where he speaks is unpleasant.

Cara Delevingne (Enchantress in Suicide Squad) is miscast as well, as her part required an older actress with a stronger presence, but she could have been passable with a different lead. And a re-write of all the dialog—which is simplistic and uninspired—would have helped, but the difference between the disaster Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is, and the pleasing spectacle it could have been is DeHaan. With a mans-man, tough guy actor, we’d have ended up with that somewhat sexist ‘30s film. For this century, a far better choice would have been to play up the silliness of that square-jawed hero. Paul Iutzi suggested Patrick Warburton—maybe a ten-year-younger Patrick Warburton; he would have been perfect. Those same lines coming from him, as the wide-shouldered, heart-of-gold, rule-following, socially-backward, a bit ridiculous hero would have elevated the film from pleasing to great, and reversed the sexism. Or Chris Hemsworth, just repeating Thor, would have done the trick. But we got DeHaan, who looks too young, lacks the physical attributes, but most importantly, didn’t understand the character.

Watching Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets made me angry. It is a wasted opportunity. Watch the opening scene, and then the next few minutes of CGI wonder on the Pearl planet, once someone posts that online, but as for the rest of the film: Skip it.

Nov 012017
 
two reels

A group of teens, each defined by one attribute (the Jewish one, the fat one, the black one, the girl, etc.), who are bullied and have terrible parents, are set upon by an evil clown (Bill Skarsgård).

Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, It removes the half of the book—the weird “cosmic” parts (no doubt saved for the sequel) as well as the infamous teen gang-bang—leaving some kids verses an evil clown. It is well filmed, with a reasonable level of tension. The kids are not realistic in myriad ways (and shift from being quite cowardly to insanely brave from scene to scene pretty much randomly), nor are the parents, and many decisions don’t make much sense, but the acting of these questionable characters is good.

This is a well-made film. It just isn’t about much. There’s no explanation for anything (that was in the removed sections). It’s abused kids vs evil clown. That’s it. If you are thinking, “I would like to see some teens beaten up,” then this movie has a lot of moments for you. If you like teens fighting an evil clown, then again, you are in luck. The clown isn’t actually scary, or interesting, with a particularly bland voice; shouldn’t an evil clown have a dramatic or intense voice? But it is an evil clown, if you like that sort of thing.

Are you getting the point? There is no meat here. I almost feel I should put a spoiler warning around the phrase, “teens verses evil clown” because that tells you the entire film. There is nothing else, so don’t come looking. Yes, I could dig into additional details, and no doubt other reviewers have, but why? There’s nothing else. Nothing else matters.

If you’ve already watched Killer Klowns From Outer Space and House of 1000 Corpses and feel you need one more evil clown feature before bedtime, It will do. Otherwise, there’s no point.

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