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—

Listen to The Fractured Frame podcast for the latest movie news and more, follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Reviews of “The Good Dinosaur” and “Creed”

This week, I saw two very different movies; however, if you look at them a bit more closely, it becomes clear these two films have a fairly similar theme: Sons trying to live up to the example and expectations of their fathers. “The Good Dinosaur” and “Creed” approach their subjects from wildly different perspectives with one being aimed at children while the other is purely for adults. That said, each features a main character that is trying to be his best because of the loss (or lack) of a father. Each succeeds because the filmmakers avoid falling into the trap of depending on sentimentality to sell their tales and use great characters and compelling stories to make us cheer and weep.

The Good Dinosaur

The asteroid, which 65 million years ago put the nail in their coffin, missed and the most intelligent form of life on Earth is the dinosaur. Born on his family’s farm, Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ocha) is the runt of the litter. His sister and brother are both bigger and neither seems to fear anything while Arlo is afraid of his own shadow. His poppa (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) and momma (voiced by Frances McDormand) love Arlo and do what they can to help him past his fear. Something is getting in their corn silo and eating up the crops they will depend on in the winter for food. In an effort to give him confidence, poppa puts Arlo in charge of capturing and killing the pest. The trap is sprung and Arlo sees it is a feral human boy. Attempting to escape, the boy gets tangled up in the trap lines and is being choked to death. Arlo releases the lines and the boy runs away. Poppa makes Arlo join him in tracking the boy through the woods and along the river. A storm builds up causing a flash flood and poppa is swept away and dies. Arlo feels responsible for his father’s death as well as angry at the boy. When he sees the boy in the silo again, Arlo chases him down by the river where the pair falls in. Arlo hits his head on a rock and is knocked unconscious. Waking up far from home and without the familiar landmarks he’s seen all his life, Arlo is scared and doesn’t know what to do. Unprepared for life in the wild, Arlo is sometimes helped by the boy. He protects him from predators and brings him food. Despite his feelings of anger, Arlo begins to like and depend on the boy he eventually names Spot (voiced by Jack Bright). Together, Arlo and Spot try to find their way back to Arlo’s family farm. Along the way, they encounter a tyrannosaurus family of ranchers, velociraptor cattle rustlers and a group of murderous pterodactyls.

The story of “The Good Dinosaur” is a familiar one with a protagonist in a situation for which he is wholly unprepared and teamed with a partner he initially dislikes that then begins to learn about survival and himself while learning to love his former enemy. “Cars,” “Finding Nemo,” “Inside Out” and “Toy Story” among others have similar plots. While those films may be aimed at a slightly older audience, “The Good Dinosaur” manages to adapt the story for younger eyes and ears and keep their parents entertained as well.

Visually, “The Good Dinosaur” is a wonder to behold. There are times the wilderness scenery looks like something from a travelogue. Rivers flow, trees bend in the wind, grasses sway, dust clouds billow all in ways that look like they were filmed, not drawn in a computer. While the dinosaurs and humans are rather stylized and somewhat simplistic in their appearance, the way they move and how they interact with their environment feels and looks real. Pixar constantly works on their software to make CGI look and react in line with the laws of nature. It is a feast for the eyes.

“The Good Dinosaur” isn’t as emotionally complex as “Inside Out” but it still delivers a powerful message of love and acceptance. Arlo doubts himself and that he can ever measure up to his father; but his father never puts him down or belittles him and works to instill a sense of purpose and pride in his son. Arlo is a bit of an outcast within his own family. His brother and sister are both bigger and strong than Arlo. While he tries, Arlo is timid and afraid he isn’t up to the task. It is a powerful message for young viewers to see a character that isn’t able to succeed at everything he tries and still receives the support of his family. It doesn’t take much searching to find stories of real children that aren’t so lucky.

The characters of Arlo and Spot spend a great deal of time on screen together without other characters. Spot only speaks in grunts and howls leaving the majority of the voice work to Raymond Ochoa. The teenager is terrific as the young Arlo, running through a full range of emotions. The movie lives or dies based on his performance and he is more than up to the task. Another standout in the cast is Sam Elliott as Butch, the leader of the T-Rex family. Elliott has an instantly recognizable voice and seemed to have been coached into turning up the drawl and the growl. It could have come off like parody but considering he is voicing a T-Rex it actually works. As poppa, Jeffrey Wright delivers a warm and earnest performance that at first feels almost too soft and cuddly. Later, when Arlo lets Spot out of the trap, he flares up in anger and makes his dinosaur all too human. While it is brief, Wright’s performance is effective.

“The Good Dinosaur” is rated PG for action, thematic elements and peril. Arlo has confrontations with various characters along his journey home. Some involve mild violence and the threat of injury of death. The loss of a parent and the desire to take revenge are parts of the story. There is no foul language.

While it may not be a masterpiece like “Inside Out” or “Toy Story,” “The Good Dinosaur” is still a moving adventure of self-discovery. It has characters with which it is easy to identify and a message that even the youngest of viewers should have no trouble grasping. And, as with nearly all Pixar films, have a tissue handy for the last 10 minutes or so as you will likely need it.

“The Good Dinosaur” gets five stars.

Creed

Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), Don or Donny to his friends, has had a troubled upbringing. His father was nowhere to be found and his mother died when he was young. Bounced from one foster home to another, Donny is an angry kid who gets in fights. He winds up in a juvenile detention facility when he is visited by Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad). She invites Donny to live with her because he is the son of her late husband, championship boxer Apollo Creed, the product of an affair he had. Now an adult, Donny works at a securities firm but heads to Tijuana on the weekends to compete in bar fights. He has won 15 in a row and approaches a trainer in his home town of Los Angeles to take him on but he refuses. Donny quits his job and moves to Philadelphia to find Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and convince him to be his trainer. At first reluctant, Rocky decides to take on the persistent young man. Donny also begins a relationship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), an aspiring singer who lives in his building. After winning his first professional fight, word of his parentage is leaked. Meanwhile, the light heavyweight champ “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) is looking at a jail sentence for a gun charge in his native UK. Looking for one final payday before he goes to prison for possibly seven years, Conlan’s trainer Tommy Holiday (Graham McTavish) contacts Rocky about pairing Donny and the champ in a fight on the condition that Donny changes his last name to Creed. Let the training montage commence.

I’ll admit I didn’t want to like “Creed.” It seemed like an unnecessary rehash of a well-worn franchise; however, the story and performances beat down my objections like a Golden Gloves boxer taking on a world champion pro. “Creed” is a knockout.

Michael B. Jordan delivers a performance that should eliminate the bad memory of the “Fantastic Four” reboot from everyone’s minds. Jordan is electric as Adonis Creed. He captures a troubled young man that is trying to make the father he never knew proud. It is a fruitless pursuit that is made moving and dynamic by Jordan’s nuanced and riveting performance. There’s far more going on in “Creed” than just a boxing movie and Jordan is the primary reason why. Donny is driven, stubborn, volatile, passionate, determined and still manages to be caring and empathetic. His relationship with Bianca, which could have been played as a distraction and in many lesser movies it would have, merely makes Donny a more interesting character.

While Donny is the focus of the story, the character that will draw many people to the movie is the aging champ, Rocky Balboa. Sylvester Stallone gives a subtle and restrained performance. Often acting as a father to young Creed, Rocky treats Donny with tough love and respect. It is the kind of relationship many sons would love to have with their fathers. It is playful at times as well as instructional. Stallone is obviously passing the torch to the next generation.

If the film has a weakness, it is the predictability of the story. It follows the familiar path of countless movies before with the hero facing numerous challenges, becoming disillusioned with his path and separated from his friends and mentors, then finding his way back. It is a tried and true story arc that could have lessened the impact of the film; however, “Creed” succeeds in spite of its familiar tale. The performances and the soundtrack combine to drag the audience along kicking and screaming. It is a rousing, feel-good film that dares you not to be moved by Donny’s struggle.

“Creed” is rated PG-13 for violence, some sensuality and language. Naturally, there are numerous fights both in the ring and out. There is some blood from various cuts and pools of bloody water. There is a brief sex scene that has no nudity. Foul language is scattered but the film does have on “F-Bomb.”

“Creed” is essentially a remake of the original “Rocky.” While it throws in a few more story elements, if you’ve seen the original you’ve basically seen “Creed.” Please don’t let that stop you as “Creed” is a crowd-pleasing tale of hard work and dogged determination performed by a gifted main cast. It might even make you consider running up the stairs at your local museum and pumping your fists in the air when you reach the top.

“Creed” gets five stars.

This week, only one new film opens in wide release but there are others playing in my town that could have potential Oscar chances. I’ll see and review at least one of these.

Krampus—

Room—

Spotlight—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.