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 “Independence Day: Resurgence”

It’s been 20 years since the alien invasion was turned back with a combination of a brave military, an inspiring speech by then President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) and plucky cable TV repairman and virus software writer David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum). In the two decades since, a new multi-national military force called the Earth Space Defense (ESD for short) has been established using a combination of human and alien technology. There has been peace and prosperity since the attacks and to celebrate the 20th anniversary, current President Elizabeth Lanford (Sela Ward) is hosting a giant celebration on the lawn of the rebuilt White House. President Whitmore is troubled by nightmares of a new alien invasion. He believes the aliens are coming back soon. Levinson is now in charge of the ESD and is brought to an African country by that nation’s leader Dikembe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei) to see an alien ship that had been dormant since the attack has now come back to life. Inside, Levinson discovers the ship is sending a distress signal. On the ESD moon base, pilot Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) and his co-pilot Charlie Ritter (Travis Tope) have just finished the installation of a massive new weapon when an alien ship appears from out of a wormhole. The new weapon is used to shoot down the spherical craft despite the objections of Levinson who says it looks nothing like the ships from the original attack. Morrison takes a spacecraft and heads to Earth to pick up Levinson so he can see the wreckage. As they are investigating, a massive alien ship that more closely resembles the vessels from 20 years ago appears and quickly destroys the ESD lunar base. Morrison and Levinson, still at the scene of the downed sphere, discover a piece of the craft that looks like it could be important. They are able to scoop it up and nearly escape the moon when they are captured by the gravitational field of the alien ship and dragged along back to Earth to face an uncertain fate.

Above is a very much abridged plot synopsis of approximately the first 20 minutes of “Independence Day: Resurgence.” I could have mentioned about a dozen more characters and several more subplots and bits of backstory that are crammed into the same amount of running time but that would make this introduction to the film about four pages long. There is a great deal going on in “Independence Day: Resurgence” and most of it doesn’t really amount to a hill of beans as the only thing anyone is interested in is when will the aliens show up and start destroying everything and when will someone give a rousing speech that brings the whole world together in the fight against the alien menace. It doesn’t take long to get to the destruction but the speeches (there are two) require sitting through most of one very dumb movie.

What makes “Independence Day: Resurgence” so dumb, dumber even than the original, is the utter implausibility of most of what happens. I’m not talking about the alien invasion parts. I’m talking about the human interactions and the amount of coincidence and head-scratching illogic on display. For instance, Umbutu, a government bean counter, a former girlfriend of Levinson’s and Levinson all wind up travelling to the moon and then to Area 51 together. The presence of three of the four of them cannot be rationally explained by anything other than they were given a ride. There is not even a reason for them to exist in the film for more than a scene or two. “Independence Day: Resurgence” is full of this kind of thing: An aide to the current president is the daughter of President Whitmore and she is a former fighter pilot and friends with Dylan Hiller (Jessie Usher), the stepson of Will Smith’s character while also being engaged to Morrison but he and Hiller hate each other because of a flight training accident but they will run into each other because Hiller is headed to the moon base where Morrison is stationed. Again, none of this has anything to do with the alien invasion and the film stuffs much of its two hour running time with meaningless trash, subplots and backstory.

The movie also doesn’t mind giving everyone abilities and knowledge from out of nowhere: President Whitmore can fly the spacecraft Morrison brings back to Earth. Human military pilots are able to operate alien fighters (just like Will Smith from the first film). Guys looking for sunken treasure are able to monitor how deep the aliens are drilling into the Earth’s crust and report back to Area 51. It all is utter lunacy.

All that being said “Independence Day: Resurgence” does have some pretty spectacular visuals including a 50 foot tall alien and the sight of buildings being uprooted by the massive mothership then being dropped on other cities thousands of miles away. There are dogfights where the sky is filled with craft from both sides yet it is fairly easy to keep track of what is happening. While it is difficult to get a real impression of the size of the mothership (said in the movie to be 3000 miles across) it is impressive nonetheless. All the various bits of merged human and alien technology have a pleasant blue/green glow to them. And of course, the film gives the audience what it really wants with heartwarming reunions and celebrations of a job well done. It panders to the base instincts of moviegoers with easy answers given out by pretty people. It may be lazy filmmaking but it does deliver a kind of dirty satisfaction.

“Independence Day: Resurgence” is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action, destruction and some language. As described earlier we see buildings uprooted from one city and dropped on another. While death is talked about we see mostly dead aliens except for one onscreen human death with a small amount of blood. There are deaths of human characters but we don’t actually see the deaths, only the explosions that cause them. Foul language is widely scattered and very mild.

When “Independence Day” came out, I didn’t see it in a theatre. My first viewing of it was when if premiered on one of the pay cable channels. I really liked it on first viewing but then repeated viewings made its weaknesses stand out. It only took one viewing of “Independence Day: Resurgence” to see how much of this film is silly; far more silly than even the original. It’s like director Roland Emmerich and the four other credited writers thought it had been so long since the first film and the buzz for this movie had been going on for so long they didn’t need to try and release something with a coherent story or much in the way of logic. Emmerich has even been recently quoted as saying Marvel’s superhero movies are “silly.” Based on his latest effort, he appears to be an expert in silly.

“Independence Day: Resurgence” gets three stars out of five but only because of the special effects. Everything else in the film is a waste of time.

This week there be giants, an ape man and the wholesale murder of anyone and everyone for 12 hours.  I’ll see and review at least one of these films:

The BFG-

The Legend of Tarzan-

The Purge:  Election Year-

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