Review of “Thor: Ragnarok”

Thor Odinson (Chris Hemsworth) finally returns to Asgard after his quest to make sense of his dreams of Ragnarok, or the destruction of everything. When he arrives he sees Odin (Anthony Hopkins) but knows instantly it is actually Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Loki takes Thor to Earth where he left him but the retirement home has been torn down. Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) guides Thor and Loki to Norway where Odin is standing on a cliff looking over the ocean. He tells the two he is weak and can no longer hold back Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death. When she returns to Asgard she will become more powerful than even Thor. Hela appears and Thor tries to defeat her with his hammer but she catches and destroys it. Loki calls for the Bifrost Bridge but Hela also hops on and is able to knock both Thor and Loki out of the transport beam. Thor lands on a planet called Sakaar, is captured by Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson) and is brought to meet the leader named the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). The Grandmaster runs gladiator fights to keep the masses entertained and the only way Thor can leave the planet is to fight and defeat the champion: It’s Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). His quinjet crashed on Sakaar two years earlier and he’s been in the Hulk form the whole time. When they meet in the arena the fight ends in a tie. Thor tries to convince Hulk to join him, find a way off Sakaar and return to Asgard to take on Hela. During his time on the planet, Thor learns that Scrapper 142 is the last surviving Valkyrie; a group of female warriors that fought for Odin in his war against Hela. Back on Asgard, Hela has made Skurge (Karl Urban) her executioner but he’s having second thoughts about working with the new queen. Heimdall (Idris Elba) has stolen the sword that opens the Bifrost Bridge and is trying to hide as many Asgardians as possible to keep them safe. Things are looking dark for the God of Thunder and the citizens of Asgard.

“Thor: Ragnarok” is a much more light-hearted and funny film than any other in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It never takes itself terribly seriously even though the events within the comic book story universe are very life and death. It makes for a film that is both funny and exciting in equal measure. It’s a rare feat for a movie to have laughs and action with one or the other not getting shortchanged in the process.

According to an interview director Taika Waititi did with MTV at Comic Con, about 80 percent of the dialog in the movie was improvised on set. This usually makes for a film that is choppy and disjointed with lots of quick edits so the best lines, along with the ones that move the story in the proper direction, wind up in the final cut. “Thor: Ragnarok” doesn’t have that feel. The director and stars must have been very comfortable with the story and confident in their improvisation abilities to come up with a funny movie and coherent narrative.

With a cast this large it’s difficult for a secondary character to stand out; but Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster certainly makes an impression. Charming, quirky and evil, the Grandmaster is a hedonistic dictator looking to be entertained at all times. He enjoys the blood sport that brings crowds to his arena and loves being the larger-than-life holographic ringmaster projected in the center of the ring, towering over his subjects. Goldblum’s non sequiturs often go unresolved and those that do are preceded by a fair bit of yammering. Those familiar with Goldblum and have seen his recent interviews will notice a similarity between his speaking style and that of the Grandmaster. It appears to be the perfect actor in the perfect role.

Cate Blanchett seems to be having the most fun in her role of Hela. Blanchett is at times smoldering, sarcastic, pitiful and vengeful. All of it makes sense and all of it is played with just the right intensity. She never chews the scenery so much for it to become camp despite gnawing on a few sets from time to time. Blanchett is measured in her excess and it makes for a particularly delicious villain.

The most of the rest of the cast turns in energetic and entertaining performances. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is finally given a chance to do more than just be a hissing, snotty bad guy. Idris Elba’s Heimdall is allowed to be a proper hero. Tessa Thompson is an entertaining and worthy addition to the under-staffed stable of Marvel female heroes. If I have to take points off for any performance it is Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. Ruffalo’s Banner acts like a meth addict that needs a hit. While we only see the human version of the Hulk for a relatively brief amount of time, Banner is twitchy and frankly annoying. He complains about being freaked out and whines to Thor about being on an alien planet. It’s the one performance that feels like it was a decision made on set at the time of shooting and it was the wrong choice.

“Thor: Ragnarok” is rated PG-13 for brief suggestive material, action and intense sci-fi violence. The only thing suggestive I remember is a reference to an orgy on board one of the Grandmaster’s spaceships. There are numerous fights with scenes of soldiers and others stabbed and impaled by swords. There is very little blood. One character loses an eye. A giant wolf attacks and bites Hulk causing green blood to come out. Foul language is scattered and mild.

With films of this type the majority of the time everyone on screen is CGI. If you see a character thrown 100 feet through the air and crash into and through a brick wall you can be certain no actors or stunt people were harmed in the making of that scene. Much of “Thor: Ragnarok” has been created in the processors of computers. That makes the achievement of the film that much more impressive. Despite all the special effects, costumes, makeup and other worldly locales, “Thor: Ragnarok” still manages to be a superhero movie with a great deal of heart and humor that is dependent on the performances of very real and talented actors. Director Taika Waititi has pulled off a minor miracle and made a funny and entertaining film involving Thor. I wasn’t sure that could be done.

“Thor: Ragnarok” gets five stars.

This week there are a comedy sequel and a train of death coming to a movie screen near you. I’ll be seeing at least one of the following:

Daddy’s Home 2—

Murder on the Orient Express—

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Review of “Doctor Strange”

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon. He takes on cases that are difficult but he feels he can help the patient recover and live while turning down cases he is concerned might besmirch his perfect record. His former girlfriend Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) is a trauma surgeon in the same hospital. While they are no longer in a relationship they are still friends. While driving to an awards banquet in his honor, Strange has a car crash that severely damages his hands. The nerve damage is so severe he can no longer operate. Strange is lost and searching for some kind of remedy while at the same time driving Christine away with his self-pity and lashing out. His physical therapist tells Strange about a former patient of his named Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) who had a spinal cord injury that confined him to a wheelchair but had found a treatment that let him walk again. Finding Pangborn playing basketball with his friends, Strange begs to find out how he was cured. Pangborn tells him to go to Kamar-Taj in Tibet. As Strange is walking through the streets of Kathmandu asking people if they know where Kamar-Taj is, he is seen by Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Saving Strange from some street thugs looking to rob him, Mordo takes Strange to Kamar-Taj to meet The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a teacher of the mystic arts. Showing Strange there are other realities besides the one he knows, Strange begins to study and soon is able to cast spells that conjure shields and weapons as well as open portals that allow instant transportation to just about anywhere on the planet. The Ancient One also teaches Strange about the dangerous realms where creatures of great evil dwell and to avoid being seduced by their power. She tells him of one of her former students, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who was tempted by a dark power and is trying to use a forbidden spell stolen from The Ancient One’s library to open our world up to being taken over by this evil creature. Kaecilius and his followers have attacked and destroyed one of the three sanctums that protect the Earth from threats of the metaphysical kind. It’s now up to Strange to use his newfound powers to protect the Earth from Kaecilius and a dark evil from another dimension.

“Doctor Strange” is a middling entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It doesn’t have the emotional punch of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” of even the first “Iron Man” film. It has some interesting ideas about realms beyond this universe and terrific performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong. It also has some of the same problems as many other comic book movies.

My biggest issue with the movie is the miscast villain. Mads Mikkelsen is a great actor as he has shown in the TV show “Hannibal” and numerous movies. Kaecilius is a role that doesn’t allow Mikkelsen to use his great ability of quiet menace. Kaecilius is a flashy villain that casts spells and makes a big show of his power. While Mikkelsen does an admirable job of portraying Kaecilius as both thoughtful and ruthless, the part doesn’t match up to the actor’s strengths. Either the role needed to be written with less action, allowing Kaecilius’ acolytes to do all the fighting and running and he gets to be quiet and menacing, or another actor should have been cast. The part of the action villain doesn’t really fit Mikkelsen.

The story also lacks emotional heft. It never made me feel like the characters were the kinds of people that I was concerned for. At times, I wanted worse things to happen to Strange as after the accident he becomes even more self-obsessed and cruel, especially to Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer who shows him nothing but concern and compassion. I realize the character has to be portrayed as selfish in order for him to come around and be a hero but the script by director Scott Derrickson along with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill does almost too good a job at making Strange a monster before putting him on the path or redemption.

Speaking of McAdams, she is criminally underused in the film. While her character, which shares the name of a comic book character known as the Night Nurse, might have a recurring role in future films, it will likely be either as a damsel in distress or as a love interest for the hero: In other words, more of the same for women in comic book movies. McAdams does a great job in the limited time she has on screen but both the actress and the character could have done a great deal more other than being a stereotypical doormat for Strange.

Aside from those problems, “Doctor Strange” is at times a visual acid trip. While I’ve never personally used a hallucinogen I can’t imagine the sights being much different than those when The Ancient One sends Strange on a quick journey into the multiverse. Between that and when Strange and Mordo battle Kaecilius and his followers in what looks to be a M. C. Escher-inspired New York landscape, “Doctor Strange” has some of the most inspired visuals of any MCU film. The non-acid trip parts of the movie look great too, including the car crash that ironically starts Doctor Strange on his journey and the introduction of the Cloak of Levitation which seems to have a personality that both matches and clashes with the wearer. There are some genuinely amazing sights to see in “Doctor Strange.”

I saw the IMAX 3D version and while the added dimension really never pops off the screen in an entertaining way, the larger format certainly made the movie feel more immersive. Still I don’t know if the added cost was worth it.

“Doctor Strange” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence. The violence is both fantastical and intense. Kaecilius and his followers conjure spears that look like glass. There is also a whip that is made of orange energy that looks like it burns. While it isn’t directly shown, one character is beheaded. Another character appears to lose an arm. There are numerous fights of both the magical and non-magical kind. Blood is minimal. The car crash, while clearly computer generated, might scare smaller children. Strange is shown being thrown around inside the car and his hands being crushed. Foul language is scattered and consists of words often heard on basic cable shows.

For all its mind-bending visuals and talk of the multiverse, “Doctor Strange” is a pretty conventional superhero origin story. Stephen Strange is a flawed character that needs something extraordinary to open his eyes to the world (and worlds) beyond his knowledge. Most who become super beings from relatively normal beginnings bring along some kind of flaw or issue that needs to receive an other worldly kick in the pants to straighten them out. Much like Tony Stark and Thor Odinson, Stephen Strange was presented with a problem he couldn’t fix and had to set aside his ego to become a better person. As superhero origin stories go “Doctor Strange” isn’t breaking any new ground. It also doesn’t give us an emotional connection to the characters that would set this film above the middle of the Marvel pack. It isn’t great but it is pretty good.

“Doctor Strange” gets four magical stars out of five.

This week, the holidays arrive early, the help arrives to find strangeness afoot and the aliens just arrive. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Almost Christmas—


Shut In—

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Review of “The Imitation Game”

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant mathematician who usually rubs people the wrong way due to his complete lack of social skills. When he’s called into the office of Cdr. Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) to discuss working on a top secret project for the British Government during the Second World War, he nearly talks himself out of the interview. Eventually, Turing convinces Denniston that he’s the right man for the job and he’s introduced to the rest of the team who will try to devise a way to break the Nazi Enigma code machine. Turing immediately alienates the rest of the group and sets himself apart to work alone. The leader of the group, Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) files a formal complaint against Turing hoping to get him removed from the team. Turing writes a letter to Prime Minister Winston Churchill and is suddenly put in charge. Turing continues to be inapproachable and brusque with his co-workers while he builds a machine that he believes will be able to sort through the trillions of possible code combinations of Enigma. Deciding he needs more help, Turing puts a crossword puzzle in the local newspaper with a phone number to call for anyone who can solve it in less than 10 minutes. Several people succeed including Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), the only woman who responds, and they are invited to take a test. Giving the respondents another crossword to solve, this time in less than six minutes, Joan and another young man are the only ones who succeed and are then told about the top secret work they will be doing by Maj. Gen. Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong), a member of the British intelligence agency MI-6. Joan and Turing become friendly as she doesn’t attach any personal insult to his odd personality. Joan is able to show Turing that he needs to work with his team and that won’t happen unless they like him. Turing makes awkward gestures of friendship to the group which breaks the ice and leads the team to begin helping with the machine. Despite all the secrets with which they are dealing, Turing has the biggest secret of all: He’s a homosexual, which is illegal under British law, and that would get him banned from working on the project and sent to jail.

“The Imitation Game” is joyous and heartbreaking, thrilling and infuriating, funny and sad. Told in a series of flashbacks that look at Turing’s unhappy childhood, his work at the Bletchley Radio Factory that was a front for his secret military work and the period after the war when a burglary at his home started in motion the events that would lead to his pleading guilty to gross indecency and lead to his chemical castration, “The Imitation Game” is perhaps a perfect movie that I wish had ended differently. Not that the ending needs to be changed; it’s history that needs an overhaul. Turing is the father of modern computer science. His codebreaking machine is thought to be responsible for shortening the war in Europe by over two years and saving an estimated 14 million lives. His work is the basis for research into artificial intelligence. He should have won at least one Nobel Prize and been taught in high schools all over the world. Sadly that isn’t the case because of who he loved—other men. Turing is ultimately a tragic figure and the perfect subject of a movie. He knew both great triumphs and enormous tragedies and the prejudice of the time led to him taking his own life in 1954 at the age of 41.

Benedict Cumberbatch is my favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar. His portrayal of Turing is mesmerizing. When Turing is working out problems, either mathematical or personal, his thought process can be seen streaming across Cumberbatch’s face. His eyes dart from side to side yet never lock on anything as the biochemical computer in his skull races to find a solution. Cumberbatch is so good in this role it will be difficult for him to top it. Yet, I think he probably will as he is constantly full of surprises. The intensity and emotion of his work in the film is incredible. There’s very little left to be said.

I can see Keira Knightley being nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar for her work as Joan Clarke. Knightley plays the part almost like Joan is Turing’s big sister. She understands his genius as she is nearly as smart as he is and his inability to behave normally. For both of them, being normal is highly overrated. Knightley’s role as Joan may be overemphasized when compared to the historical record; however, Joan in the film is the conduit by which Turing becomes something understandable. Turing is at first glance an unlikable character. While we know he’s a genius he knows it as well and he doesn’t mind reminding anyone who will listen how smart he is. Joan is able to soften Turing’s rough edges and show the audience the decent guy on the inside. Her guidance in the film leads to the breakthrough that made Turing’s machine work. Knightley brings her usual grace and poise to the role of Joan. She also adds a touch of fun as she gently prods Turing to be a more likable person.

The rest of the cast is also excellent with special mention to Mark Strong. Playing the MI-6 agent Stewart Menzies, Strong is especially sneaky and at times frightening. Strong’s performance gives the audience the impression he could make anyone disappear and there would be no questions which is perfect for a shadowy character in World War II. While Menzies at times uses questionable tactics, Strong is able to make these seem suave and mysterious. Charles Dance plays Cdr. Denniston as a no-nonsense military man with little time for Turing’s personality peccadillos. Once Turing is working at Bletchley Park, anytime Denniston is on screen usually means trouble. Dance plays the role as if he was a king and Turing was a peasant. That apparent desire to be the undisputed ruler of the Bletchley project means the two are going to clash and Dance is able to make the character both dislikable and sympathetic. While not on screen that much, Dance makes the most of his performance.

“The Imitation Game” is rated PG-13 for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking. There are a couple of dirty jokes told that leave out most of the dirty part. Concepts of homosexuality and its perception in British society at the time are a central theme. Several people are shown smoking cigarettes. There are no language issues.

It’s rare that a movie without spaceships, aliens, monsters and other flashy special effects grabs and holds my interest the way “The Imitation Game” did. It’s a story that, despite some historical inaccuracies, needs to be told to everyone. If you live in a free country, Alan Turing is probably at least partially responsible and this film about his life and contributions is a spectacular piece of work. SEE IT!!!

“The Imitation Game” gets five stars out of five.

Another historical figure gets the big screen treatment along with the third in a series of action films. I’ll see and review one of these, both of these or something else entirely. You never can tell as I’m unpredictable.



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