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.

Review of “Kong: Skull Island”

It’s 1973. An agreement to end the Vietnam War has been announced. Bill Randa (John Goodman) with the Monarch Project is trying to get a US Senator to approve an expedition to a previously unknown South Pacific island. Randa, and his assistant Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), sell the expedition as an opportunity to discover new resources and to get to it before the Soviets do. Reluctantly, the senator agrees to piggyback Randa’s project with a survey by Landsat to explore the island. Also going on the trip is a military escort led by Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). He and his men are fresh from Vietnam and are diverted from going home to go on the mission. Others in the group include a former British Special Forces soldier named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to act as a tracker and hunter, and Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a photojournalist that formerly worked in Vietnam. The island is surrounded by constant electrical storms that cut off communications with their base ship as they fly in on helicopters. To conduct the geological survey explosive charges are dropped from the helicopters and their vibrations through the ground are picked up by sensors. After a few charges are dropped the fleet of helicopters is attacked by a 100-foot tall gorilla. Swatting all of them out of the air and killing several soldiers and researchers, the survivors are split up and must survive in the jungle while dealing not only with the giant gorilla, but the massive insects and lizards that want to eat them for a snack. Conrad, Weaver and a few others run into a group of natives that live on the island as well as a WWII fighter pilot Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) who was shot down by the Japanese. Marlow tells the group that the ape is named Kong by the locals and is treated like a god. He protects the natives from the other animals on the island that come from caverns underground. Lt. Col. Packard wants to kill Kong in retaliation for the deaths of his men and is willing to risk the lives of the other survivors to get the job done.

“Kong: Skull Island” is the second film in a series that plans on bringing giant monsters back to theatres over the next several years. The invasion of the giants began in 2014 with the “Godzilla” reboot and will culminate with a battle royale featuring Kong and Godzilla in 2020. In the interim we’ll see a second Godzilla film where he likely takes on other kaiju from his past including a giant moth and a three-headed monster. While fans of the Japanese “Godzilla” films weren’t thrilled about the latest reboot, the film made over half a billion dollars worldwide. Is the big, hairy ape reboot worth your hard earned money? Read on.

“Kong: Skull Island” delivers on the action front with several encounters between Kong and the numerous massive creatures on the island. We also get a very early look at Kong in a flashback that starts the film. While the CG is a bit flat at times (I saw the 2D version) the digital creations look amazing and the artists are able to keep Kong’s size consistent relative to his surroundings throughout the film. The other monsters on the island, including the big lizard that gives Kong the most trouble, are all creative inventions. Some are based on known animals while others are totally new. It was good to see some other creatures instead of the usual dinosaurs that are the bad guys on Kong’s home turf.

The various monsters are far more interesting than any of the people in “Kong: Skull Island.” Other than Samuel L. Jackson’s intense and insane Army man and John C. Reilly’s goofy marooned pilot, the characters are all pretty cookie cutter and interchangeable. Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Corey Hawkins and John Goodman are largely wasted in clichéd and underwritten roles that are mostly good for exposition and little else. While each gets a brief moment when the character is spotlighted none of it is interesting enough to make the audience really care what happens to any of them. The supporting players are mostly used as monster kibble so don’t get too attached to anyone even if some of them are far more intriguing than the top-billed players.

What is far more interesting is the struggle Kong has to survive not only his natural enemies but the two-legged variety that shows up uninvited. The audience is meant to root for Kong against the island creatures and it isn’t hard to take his side against the humans. Jackson’s Packard is a seething hate machine that is looking for redemption after the feeling of betrayal by politicians in Vietnam. He wants to fight a war he can win and believes he is just the man to cut the massive ape down to size. The fact that Kong is the only thing keeping the giant lizards at bay and possibly spreading over the rest of the world isn’t enough for him to end his fight. He’s obsessed and won’t let common sense or the fate of the world deter him from winning this time. I’m sure there’s a political statement in this character somewhere but I was too interested in the outcome of the final battle to figure it out.

“Kong: Skull Island” is rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi violence/action and brief strong language. While most deaths aren’t shown we do see Kong smash several people with his paws. The lizard monster consumes a few people. One character dies when impaled through the mouth. We see various creatures burned and ripped apart. Several human characters are shown with blood from injuries. Kong is shown with a large gash on his arm. Kong and another monster are shown being shot by machine guns. Several creatures are shown being cut apart by a sword. One character is carried away by flying creatures and is shown getting an arm ripped off. Foul language is widely scattered but one “F-bomb” gets dropped.

The climactic battle between two massive creatures was surprisingly thrilling despite it being two monsters completely created in computers. Both Kong and the giant lizard are made with very robust personalities. While they are just pixels molded and shaped by various talented artists and engineers they are also extremely well made. I actually cared about how the battle would turn out even though I had a pretty good idea which beast would come out victorious. Even though the human characters are mostly bland and forgettable, “Kong: Skull Island” has monsters with far more personality and they make the movie entertaining. I think next time it would be a better movie if it just had the monsters and used the puny humans as just extras to be crushed under foot…or paw…or claw…or tentacle…or whatever.

“Kong: Skull Island” gets five stars for the monsters and the fights, not for the people.

P.S. There is a brief bonus scene at the end of the credits. It teases what’s to come but should you need to go pee or whatever and miss it, it won’t be a catastrophe.

This week at the local multiplex it’s a tale as old as time along with survival of the fittest. I’ll see at least one of the following:

Beauty and the Beast—

The Belko Experiment—

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