Thor: Ragnarok (Spoiler Free Review)

The Thor films have always been the weak link of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The first movie about the God of Thunder was bogged down by hokey human characters and a setting that skimped on the action. Thor: The Dark World was a somewhat forgettable romp with one of superhero cinema’s weakest villains. But one thing the Thor films have always had, is two great lead characters with a compelling arc. Leaving Earth behind for a new adventure, Thor: Ragnarok reunites Thor and Loki and hopes to give them a story that leaves a memorable mark on the MCU.

Thor_Ragnarok_posterRagnarok finds Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Prince of Asgard and God of Thunder, searching for his displaced father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) whose throne was stolen by Thor’s mischievous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). But finding their father quickly brings them into contact with Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death who proves to be too powerful for the two of them. Banished to a junk yard planet ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), Thor’s only hope of stopping Hela is to ally with a disgraced former Asgardian warrior (Tessa Thompson) and defeat the Grandmaster’s greatest warrior… who just happens to be Thor’s old ally, The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).

Ragnarok is certainly the most entertaining of the Thor films. It paces well and there are tons of CGI filled action sequences that make for good ‘turn your brain off and watch’ fun. New director, Taika Waititi, also infuses this latest entry with loads of colorful imagery and brilliant costumes and set pieces to create a world that make the previous films in the trilogy feel a bit bland by comparison.

But the story itself is no more intelligent or enlightening than any other Thor movie. The plot, which has elements of an epic and dark apocalyptic core, falters thanks to the hordes of new characters who take turns being utter buffoons. The cartoonish tone does deliver some laugh out loud moments, but seemingly spends every available minute trying to make the audience laugh which gets irritating once you take the overarching plot into consideration.

Even characters that should be grittier, severely emotionally grounded, and enticing throughout are weighed down by disjointed wacky moments. Tessa Thompson’s drunken Valkyrie is introduced in a way that makes it hard to take her seriously until the film’s latter half while Blanchett’s delightfully sinister Hela is brushed aside in favor of Goldblum’s clownish Grandmaster. So even though characters like the Grandmaster are occasionally funny, their antics make light of serious stakes.

Ragnarok is certainly ‘fun’, but a movie about the Asgardian apocalypse that features the deaths of several characters in the Thor mythos, probably deserves to be taken more seriously. No one wants another dreary Batman v Superman, but there’s a such thing as a happy medium. Someone needs to tell Marvel that it’s okay to have characters who don’t make the audience chuckle.  When everyone is a comedian, the stakes don’t seem so threatening and when the jokes don’t land, the whole exercise feels corny. Things are smoothed over by nice psychedelic visuals, fine chemistry between the cast, and a few endearing moments between Hiddleston and Hemsworth whose brotherly dynamic has become the only reason to pay attention to Thor. But it’s still irksome that to make Thor appeasing to the masses, they had to turn it into Guardians of the Galaxy 3.

FINAL GRADE: C

A = Must See/Top 10 Nominee

B = Good film. Flawed, but still very entertaining

C = Not Bad, but highly flawed/Probably better off waiting for Redbox

D = Terrible Movie with a few redeeming qualities

F = I wanted to walk out/Don’t waste time or money

Advertisements

Spider-Man: Homecoming (Full Review)

If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. The Tobey Maguire Spider-Man franchise started off just fine, until Spider-Man 3 made it come to a dark, disco dancing halt. Sony Pictures then rushed a pair of needless reboots into production starring Andrew Garfield which had their moments, but crumbled in 2014 when the studio became more obsessed with setting up sequels and spin-offs than with actually delivering a fun Spider-Man story. All of this led to the landmark deal that has finally given Marvel Studios the opportunity to use their biggest A-lister. After being one of the many bright spots in Captain America: Civil War, it’s time for Tom Holland to take center stage in the iconic red and blue spandex.

Spider-Man_Homecoming_posterAfter recruiting Peter Parker (Holland) to aid in the events of Civil War, Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) returns the super powered 15 year old back to his home in Queens, New York with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Despite wanting the life of a full-fledged Avenger, Parker spends his Spider-Man nights catching bicycle thieves and helping old ladies cross the street while Stark’s assistant Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) keeps tabs. Peter’s daytime life consists of he and his best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon) talking about Star Wars, participating in quiz bowls, getting teased by a bully (Tony Revolori), and pining after a pretty senior (Laura Harrier). When the spurned leader of an Avengers battle clean up crew (Michael Keaton) begins selling high tech weapons to criminals in the city, Spidey sees catching him as his big chance to impress Mr. Stark and becoming a true Avenger.

We’ve seen Spider-man done justice, so we never actually needed a new solo outing. While this version is younger, there isn’t really anything new brought to the character other than a high tech suit and a ton of nice, but not necessary Avengers Easter eggs. And yet, in many ways, the story that Spider-Man: Homecoming comes up with manages to be arguably the character’s most definitive one.

Pater Parker is still smart, snarky, and brave. But by making the character younger and placing him in a world where superheroes are both abundant and older, we are allowed to truly see Spider-Man’s coming of age as a likable hero. Holland’s version, more than any other, is a kid. He is naïve and inexperienced and to become the iconic hero, he must mature. Thus, this Spider-Man film feels like a true origin story even though we’re allowed to skip out on Uncle Ben dying and the inevitable radioactive spider bite.

The sensational supporting cast helps. Robert Downey Jr. portraying Tony Stark as Parker’s mentor and father figure works incredibly well, with some of the best dialogue coming between the two. Jacob Batalon injects wholesome likability into every scene he’s in as Ned. And even though her role at times seems shoe horned in, Zendaya has some fun quips as Parker’s classmate Michele. As for Michael Keaton, who plays the villainous Vulture, he gives a performance that isn’t just one of the best in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but rivals Alfred Molina’s iconic Doc Ock in 2004’s Spider-Man 2. By giving the titular hero a worthy adversary, we are able to truly explore his fears and vulnerabilities.

It’s not quite the best Spider-Man movie ever. There are a few pacing issues, the CGI often gets a bit too cartoony, and I’m not a fan of young, more attractive Aunt May. But this film nails the overall tone of one of the most popular characters in pop culture. Calling an MCU movie fun is like calling a Tim Burton movie ‘quirky’ so that aspect should go without saying. At this point, the producers of these movies have mastered making the audience laugh without getting too hokey. With their knack for exhilarating action sequences and exploring mature themes while still keeping things light, the MCU has proven that Spider-Man belongs in this franchise. So if they can keep things from falling apart (like the Iron Man sequels), they’ve finally got a version that audiences can stay behind.

FINAL GRADE: A

 

 

 

 

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Full Review)

No film in Disney/Marvel’s massive gallery was as much of a surprise success as 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. The film about a ragtag group of space anti-heroes transcended its lesser known source material to become a fun summer blockbuster full of exhilarating action and humor. But it’s hard to follow up a breakout hit with something better or even just as good. Iron Man 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron showed us, that while the Marvel Cinematic Universe always keeps things entertaining, sometimes their sequels can’t quite live up to the hype.

GotG_Vol2_posterGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 continues the adventures of a group of intergalactic heroes for hire. Returning are Drax (Dave Bautista), a slow witted mustle man who lacks subtlety; Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a rude and violent talking raccoon; Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a naive tree monster reduced to baby form following the first film’s climax; Gamora (Zoe Saldana) skiled assassin and daughter to a space tyrant, and Peter “Star Lord” Quill, (Chris Pratt), an Earthling with a human mother and an alien father he’s never met. After the crew makes enemies out of a society of genetic purists (led by Elizabeth Debicki), the Guardians encounter Ego (Kurt Russell), an antient, powerful being claiming to be Quill’s father, and his socially awkward aprentice, named Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Michael Rooker also returns as Quill’s former mentor Yondu, and Karen Gillan reprises her role as Gamora’s sister/hated rival, Nebula.

As it turns out, Guardians Vol. 2 has many of the same problems as Iron Man 2 and Age of Ultron in that it seems more concerned with making the audience laugh and giving them shiny new CGI to gawk at than with forming a coherent narrative. As such, the plot to this film is all over the place for the majority of its seemingly lengthy runtime. There are far too many threads that are overly emphasized such as a subplot about Yondu’s connection to a former mentor (played by Sylvester Stallone) and his dismissal from the bounty hunting Ravagers. It isn’t until the admittedly exciting climax that things seem to actually come together, but the means hardly justifies the ends.

There’s still a great bit of humor throughout. Dave Bautista (who has greatly improved since his acting debut) is hilarious in every scene and most of the banter between the team is fun. But even here, things don’t feel as consistently organic as they did the first go round. Too much of the jokes are awkwardly raunchy (get ready for penis jokes… yes, penis jokes), and the cartoony slapstick is so abundant that it often undermines scenes that should probably be taken more seriously.

The film manages to add some weighty emotional moments to make the story feel grounded and a bit more necessary. A few scenes between Saldana’s Gamora and Gillan’s Nebula do a fantastic job of adding depth to both characters. In fact, most of the cast deserves credit for injecting likability into each of their characters. But with the story, much of the humor, and even the soundtrack all feeling like a step down, its hard to make a case that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is memorable. Not every follow up is going to be The Empire Strikes Back or The Dark Knight, but I can’t help but feel like characters this fun deserve an adventure that isn’t predominantly a throw away.

FINAL GRADE: C

A = Must See/Top 10 Nominee

B = Good film. Flawed, but still very entertaining

C = Not Bad, but highly flawed/Probably better off waiting for Redbox

D = Terrible Movie with a few redeeming qualities

F = I wanted to walk out/Don’t waste time or money

Doctor Strange (Full Review)

“Forget everything you think you know”. That’s what seasoned sorcerer Mordo (Chiwtel Ejiofor) tells Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) when he first encounters him. It’s a perfect mantra for Marvel’s latest addition to their vast, successful universe. A superhero film with a dash of Harry Potter and a sprinkle of Inception makes Doctor Strange unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

doctor_strange_posterThe film stars Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange, the world’s best neurosurgeon whose ego makes Tony Stark seem humble. After a car accident leaves his hands damaged beyond medical repair, Strange pushes away his only friend (Rachel McAdams) and ventures out to Nepal in a last ditch effort to heal himself. There he encounters the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), an ageless guru who trains Mordo, snarky librarian Wong (Benedict Wong), and many others to conjure up magic and defend the world from a former pupil (Mads Mikkelsen) keen on releasing an ancient evil. Strange must put aside his ego to not only heal himself, but also summon the hero within.

One thing that makes Marvel movies so inherently watchable is their ability to add humor and charisma to everything they make. Doctor Strange is no different. Fused with a phenomenal cast and snappy dialogue, there isn’t an ounce of stiffness to speak of, giving the film loads of personality that helps usher the audience into this trippy new universe.

But it’s that trippy universe that truly makes Doctor Strange a unique film. Remember that amazing hallway fight sequence in Inception. This film has that x 10. Stunning visuals made for 3D create sequences that are jaw dropping. From intricate CGI runes and shifting camera angles to scenery that literally twists and turns like a kaleidoscope, almost every action scene is compellingly unusual but never nauseating.

Being so different from anything else in the comic book genre, Doctor Strange manages to pace things well, explaining key information when needed but never overindulging with exposition. With Cumberbatch at the helm, there is a sense of tangibility that makes it all feel possible. Even the villain (usually Marvel’s biggest weak spot) has a slight wit and intelligence to him that makes his plot seem like an interesting perspective even if it’s the same as any stock megalomaniac.

Without the subtle references to other films in the MCU and the obvious post credit connections, Doctor Strange would manage to feel like its own entity. One that is rich in lure and fascinating characters. It almost makes you wish that it was its own franchise instead of just another precursor to an Avengers movie. But even if we never get a dose of Strange as good as this film, the mark has undoubtedly been set as an entertaining and memorable one.

FINAL GRADE: A

Captain America: Civil War (Full Review)

Just over a month ago, DC/Warner Bros. released a movie about superheroes fighting superheroes… sort of. Now, along comes the superhero film Goliath that is Marvel to one up them. Captain America: Civil War is an adaptation of one of the most popular comic storylines ever, pitting two of their most iconic heroes against each other. Loosely based on the source material, this cinematic version serves as a sequel to 2014’s phenomenal Captain America: The Winter Soldier as well as being a quasi Avengers 2.5.

Captain_America_Civil_War_posterIt’s been a year since the Avengers stopped Ultron from destroying the earth and now Captain America (Chris Evans) leads a new team featuring assassin turned heroine, Natasha “Black Widow” Romanov (Scarlett Johansson), intelligent android, Vision (Paul Bettany), sorceress, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), winged soldier, Sam “Falcon” Wilson (Anthony Mackie), and Iron Man bestie, James “War Machine” Rhodes (Don Cheadle). After a mission to stop a vengeful terrorist (Frank Grillo) goes horribly wrong, former Hulk adversary and current U.S. Secretary of State, Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), brings down the Sokovia Accords: a doctrine forcing all heroes to adhere to the United Nations rather than act as an independent force. While guilt causes Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) to support the new law, the ever weary Captain America refuses to serve a government agenda, causing things to get dicey when Cap’s former best friend turned brainwashed assassin resurfaces (Sebastian Stan). The conflict splits the Avengers in two, with half siding with Iron Man and the others with Captain America.

All of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films aren’t great, as some might have you believe. Some are mediocre (Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Age of Ultron) and others I just flat out don’t like (Any Iron Man movie after the first one). But the Captain America films have always stood out to me over the rest. This is due in large part to deeper subject matters and more intricate storytelling. Civil War is no different, in fact, it may be the MCU’s most earnest film yet.

Let’s start with the conflict, unlike with March’s Batman v Superman, this film’s budding rivalry has had several years to brew. So when things go downhill, it feels genuinely heartbreaking to see the two comrades and former friends warring against each other. An exceptional script that does a solid job sharing the two perspectives without condemning either one, makes this film feel more realistic than any Marvel movie to date. Both sides are right just as much as they are wrong, and this aspect drives the entire film and gives it more emotional weight than anything else in the MCU.

A stellar cast helps. Casting is perhaps the greatest strength of the MCU, and here everyone shines, even characters like Hawk Eye (Jermey Renner) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) who are only on screen for a few scenes. As for the newcomers, they make their mark and prove that they are worthy additions to an already impressive roster. Chadwick Boseman portrays vengeful Black Panther with a regal fervor while Tom Holland is perfectly witty and exuberant as the new Spider-Man. Both make you excited to see them in future films. And while the MCU hasn’t always given us the best villains, Daniel Bruhl is stellar as the film’s sneaky antagonist.

The film drags a bit in its final act, but directors Anthony and Joe Russo deserve a ton of credit simply for managing to effectively juggle the massive horde of characters involved. It never feels like too much or too little, and when the titular battle goes down, it feels like something out of nerd heaven for fans of the genre even in spite of a few noticeable patches of spotty CGI. But visuals are only one part of making a memorable film. Captain America: Civil War isn’t great simply because of its action. Its captivating subject matter and emotional core are what make it one of the best superhero film’s ever crafted. So regardless of whether you’re Team Cap or Team Iron Man, you’ll come out of Marvel’s latest film feeling like a winner.

FINAL GRADE: A

THOR: THE DARK WORLD Review (Spoiler Free!)

ImageEver since 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel has raised the bar on the superhero film industry by creating a universe as extensive as a television series. Knowing this, don’t think you can just waltz into this film as an unfamiliar. Seeing both Thor and Avengers prior to this film is essential, because it picks up right where they left off. Now, let’s review Thor: The Dark World.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has returned to his medieval-like home in Asgard where he protects all of the parallel worlds from monsters and such alongside his friends Sif (Jaime Alexander) and the Warriors Three. Still, he longs to return to Earth and be with his mortal physicist girlfriend, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Loki, meanwhile, is tucked away in an Asgardian prison where he spends his time hating everyone except his adopted mother Frigga (Renee Russo). Throw in some evil elves who want to find some energy weapon to destroy the universe, blah, blah, blah… and we have our movie.

I’m being vague on the villain and plot because they really don’t matter. This movie isn’t about story. It’s about action sequences, explosions, and characters. And it’s driven by the relationship between Thor and his step-brother Loki. Hiddleston’s performance as the God of mischief is once again what drives the movie. He is sinister, snarky, but also more vulnerable than ever before. The film didn’t fully gain its weight until their inevitable team-up.

The rest of the cast is sufficient. Natalie Portman returns to give her best scientist with a school-girl crush routine. Kat Dennings once again prattles alongside her as the film’s comic relief. Jamie Alexander plays a great Wonder Woman… I mean Sif, even if the subtle love triangle between her, Thor, and Jane falls flat. Idris Elba does the bad-ass bodyguard well as Heimdall. And Anthony Hopkins is more pig-headed than ever as Odin, father of Thor. Surprisingly, the standout supporting performance goes to Renee Russo as Frigga. She exudes the strength and love that any Queen is supposed to carry and even gets to show off her own fighting skills.

Overall… will we remember Thor: The Dark World amongst the great superhero movies? Probably Not. But it is as good or better than the first installment and carries much more emotional weight. So we will watch it, perhaps multiple times, if only to stay caught up and prepared for Avengers 2. And that’s the beauty of what Marvel has created in their intertwining film universe. Each piece is essential to the puzzle regardless of how good or bad the actual film is. 

FINAL GRADE: B

Sidenote: As always, there is extra stuff during and at the end of the credits. And if you can afford it, see the film in 3D. It contains a special preview of Captain America: The Winter Soldier