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Marvel Triumphs Again With Thor: Ragnarok!

November 6th, 2017
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Thor: Ragnarok is the third Thor film, but more importantly it is the incredible seventeenth film in the continuing and expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Looking back over these seventeen films, it is astounding to consider the incredibly high quality that Marvel has been able to deliver film after film after film.  There hasn’t been a single truly bad film in the mix!  Even the weaker films (Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World, The Incredible Hulk) are all perfectly fine and entertaining.  And the recent run of films has been amazing; just this year we have gotten Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2, The Amazing Spider-Man, and now the terrific, hilarious Thor: Ragnarok.

As this film opens, Hela the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett) returns, eager to wreak havoc on Asgard and the family of Odin who, she feels, wronged her millennia ago.  Thor’s initial attempt to confront her ends disastrously, as Hela destroys his hammer Mjolnir and banishes Thor to the far corners of the universe.  Thor finds himself on a trash-filled planet ruled by The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who oversees brutal gladiatorial-like competitions between captured aliens.  Thor will need to defeat incredible odds to triumph in the gladiatorial games, then somehow find his way back to Asgard to defeat the unbeatable Hela before she slaughters every last man, woman and child living there.

That all sounds like a very serious, dour story for the film.  But Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi, is a marvelously loopy, silly, joy-filled concoction.  It has been widely praised as the funniest Marvel film, and it is definitely in the run for that title.  (I am not sure it is funnier than James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films or Joss Whedon’s Avengers, but it is defintely in the top five.).

I was a little worried, when I started hearing about the light, comedic touch that Mr. Waititi had brought to this film, that it would turn into a farce that wouldn’t have any emotional weight.  But those fears proved unfounded.  Thor: Ragnarok is an exciting action-adventure film that fits smoothly into the continuing story of the Marvel cinematic universe, while also being nearly non-stop hilariously funny.

In some respects, the movie completely reinvents the character of Thor, turning the somewhat pompous warrior we have met before into a complete goofball.  It has been clear before now that Chris Hemsworth had strong comedic chops — see his work in the rebooted Ghostbusters as well as the shorts revealing what Thor was up to during Captain America: Civil War.  What Taika Waititi has done is allow Chris Hemsworth to basically play Chris Hemsworth here, rather than the Thor … [continued]

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Catching up on 2015: In the Heart of the Sea

The director of Apollo 13 has a fan in me for life, and so a new Ron Howard film is always going to attract my attention.  The idea of Mr. Howard directing a film telling the “true” story behind the book Moby Dick is an interesting hook.  There are moments of greatness in In The Heart of the Sea but, unfortunately, the film never really came together for me.

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In the Heart of the Sea begins with a framing sequence set in 1850, in which young writer Herman Melville (Ben Wishaw) visits Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the elderly survivor of the whaling ship Essex.  Mr. Melville wants to learn the truth of the terrible fate that befell the Essex and her crew, so that he can use the story as the basis for a new novel he is working on.  Thomas grudgingly begins to tell his story, and we flash back to 1820.  Chris Hemsworth plays Owen Chase, the dashing whaler who has been promised a captaincy on his next voyage.  Unfortunately, the money-men for whom he works have instead appointed Owen to serve as first mate for Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), a man with little whaling experience but who comes from an influential family.  The two men clash immediately, a situation exacerbated as months pass at sea with little sign of whales.  The Essex eventually travels far out to sea, following rumors of whale-sightings.  Far away from any assistance, they encounter an enormous white whale that quickly proves to be more than a match for the crew of the Essex.

Right away, In The Heart of the Sea has a major structural problem.  The framing device sets up the film as the story of Thomas Nickerson, a young boy on board the Essex.  But as soon as the main body of the film begins, telling us the story of the Essex in 1820, the main character is clearly Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth’s character).  He’s one hundred percent the hero of the story and the focus of the film.  Young Thomas Nickerson is just a minor supporting character.  Now, perhaps this story could have worked as Thomas’ recollections of the powerful, charismatic men who led the Essex.  But that’s not how the story is structured at all.  These events aren’t told from Thomas’ perspective.  Right from the beginning, we get to see scenes that Thomas wasn’t in any way involved or present for, such as Owen’s last hours with his wife, or Owen’s behind-closed-doors meetings with the bankers who financed the Essex’s expedition.

So the whole structure of the film doesn’t really work at all!  I found that hugely distracting as I was watching the film.  I truly … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Vacation

National Lampoon’s Vacation was a film I loved dearly when I was a kid.  It was so funny and raunchy and felt a little bit dangerous to my young self.  (I probably saw it at a younger age than I should have, though on the other hand perhaps that was the perfect age at which to have watched it!)  The film captured Chevy Chase at the height of his comedic powers.  I never felt any of the sequels were able to recapture that magic of the original, though Christmas Vacation came the closest.

While I always loved Vacation, I never felt the movie was so pure or perfect that a reboot was objectionable.  Quite the contrary, I think the concept is elastic enough that it should/could be able to support multiple iterations.  (This is as opposed to, say, Ghostbusters, which I am very unhappy to see being rebooted/remade.  I love Paul Feig and he has assembled a marvelous cast, but I wish they had made an original film and called it something else.  But I digress.)

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This latest Vacation starts off on the right foot for this particular film fan by not being a reboot, but rather an in-continuity sequel to the earlier films.  Ed Helms plays Rusty Griswold, the now-adult son of Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold.  Rusty wants to create a memorable, bonding experience for his family so he decides to recreate the road-trip to Wally World on which his dad took his family decades before.  This is a great idea for the film, in that it allows the movie to have basically the same structure as the original film, while also allowing the story to be filled with all-new hi-jinks.

Unfortunately, while I certainly laughed a lot while watching Vacation, it’s not a particularly clever comedy.  Many of the jokes, while funny, are fairly obvious and rather low-brow.  (I have nothing against gross-out humor — as an example, the diarrhea sequence in Bridesmaids is a classic piece of comedy gold — but the bathing-in-sewage sequence in this film doesn’t feel to me to have anything approaching that sort of originality.)  And sadly most of the film’s very best jokes were spoiled in the trailers.  (Any fun that “Griswold Springs” sequence might have had was ruined because I knew exactly where that whole bit was going from the first second, because I’d seen the pay-off in all the trailers.  So that whole five-plus minutes of the movie became totally boring to me.)

The film is well-cast.  Ed Helms is a solid choice as the lead.  He plays Rusty as a familiar Ed Helms character — well-meaning but dim, with an undercurrent of desperation — but it works for who … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Avengers: Age of Ultron!

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Marvel Studios is on a winning streak the likes of which I have rarely seen.  (The only recent comparison I can draw is Pixar’s incredible run from Ratatouille in 2007 through Toy Story 3 in 2010.)  Right before seeing The Avengers: Age of Ultron, one of my friends sent me a ranking of all of Marvel’s movies.  In response I created my own ranking (which I might publish on this site one of these days).  The bottom two films on my list were Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk.  What’s astonishing is that each of the rest of the eight Marvel films on the list were all pretty great films that I loved a lot — and even those bottom two films were pretty enjoyable!  There really isn’t a true failure in the mix!  Over the past eight years, since 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel has done what had not only never been done before, but really never even conceived of before: they’ve created a vast cinematic universe of interlocking films, with characters and story-lines flowing from film to film in an epic continuing saga.  What’s even more incredible is that, at this point, they make the whole thing look so damn easy!  It’s astounding.  I know Marvel is going to stumble one of these days, but for now I am sitting back and loving every minute of this ride.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron is an amazing film.  I loved it.  Watching this film I had a huge grin on my face for the entire run time.  There are so many reasons this film could have been bad.  Sequels are hard and usually disappoint.  In addition to all of the main Avengers characters, this film introduced a number of new characters and we’ve all seen superhero films (particularly sequels — I’m looking at you, Spider-Man 3) collapse under the weight of too many characters.  Whereas The Avengers was the culmination of the first run of Marvel films, Age of Ultron needs to set up the next several years of story-lines, and that could easily have made the film feel unwieldy and unsatisfying (the fate that befell Iron Man 2).

But thanks to the incredible skill and talent of writer-director Joss Whedon and his astounding team of collaborators (overseen by Marvel Studios mastermind Kevin Feige, the guiding force behind all of these Marvel movies), Age of Ultron soars.  It’s a long-movie but it never drags, it is hugely enjoyable from start to finish.  It’s got enormous, staggeringly gigantic action sequences that astound, but it’s also deeply routed in character with some wonderful moments for every one of the film’s sprawling cast.  It’s serious and tense but it also … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Thor: The Dark World

The sprawling cinematic epic that Marvel Studios has been crafting, ever since 2008’s Iron Man, rolls on with the very strong installment Thor: The Dark World.  One might have been forgiven for thinking that perhaps, after the unprecedented movie super-hero crossover that was The Avengers, the return to solo superhero stories might be a letdown.  But with the fun Iron Man Three (click here for my review) and now with the confident, bold Thor: The Dark World, Marvel is continuing an impressive streak of successful films, and continuing to expand the canvas of their super-hero universe.

At the start of Thor: The Dark World, Loki has been returned to Asgard in chains (following his defeat in The Avengers) and Thor — accompanied by his stalwart comrades-in-arms the Warriors Three and the lady Sif — has been busy putting down revolts across the nine realms (an apparent result of Loki’s destruction of the bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge that linked Asgard to the other realms, at the end of the first Thor).  All is well, except that Thor longs to return to the side of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) on Earth.  His father disapproves, but when Jane is put in peril by her discovery of an ancient evil, Thor rushes to her rescue.  That doesn’t prove to be as simple as he had hoped, as Jane has become linked to a powerful weapon that the evil Malekith plans to use to destroy the nine realms and return the universe to the state of dark and lifelessness that existed before the universe as we know it was created.  After Malekith launches a devastating attack on Asgard itself, Thor is once again put at odds with his father, Odin, and forced to turn to none other than his disgraced, treacherous brother Loki for help.

After the relatively small-scale first Thor movie, which was mostly set in a tiny Midwestern town, I was delighted by how broadly Thor: The Dark World opened up the canvas of the story.  We get to explore quite a number of the nine realms in this film, and a huge chunk in the middle is set entirely on Asgard, which is a lot of fun.  Veteran TV director Alan Taylor (who, most recently, has helmed some spectacular episodes of Game of Thrones) sure knows how to get the most bang for his buck, because Thor: The Dark World looks HUGE.  I was very impressed by the visual effects that brought all of the realms and creatures and space-ships to life.  (Yes, I said space-ships.  There is a lot of sci-fi cosmic craziness in this film, mixed in with all the fantasy.  This feels very true to … [continued]

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“Hulk: Smash!” Josh Reviews The Avengers!

Well, here we are at last.  The brilliant post-credits scene of 2008’s Iron Man (click here for my original review) promised the beginning of a bold experiment by the fledgeling Marvel Studios — launching stand-alone films starring several of their major characters (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America) which would then be followed by all of those characters teaming up in an Avengers movie.  It was a gloriously outrageous idea, one common to comic-books but never before seen in movies.  Marvel Studios was actually planning on making a super-hero crossover film, and one featuring all the same actors who starred in the individual films!  And not only that, but the individual films would actually connect, with story-points and characters overlapping to create a building momentum for the eventual climax in The Avengers.

It was a bold plan, and I am so happy and relieved to report that Marvel Studios has stuck the landing.  Not only does The Avengers work, it works crazily well, and I think it’s the strongest Marvel Studios film since 2008’s Iron Man (and I say that as a big fan of both Thorclick here for my review — and Captain America: The First Avengerclick here for my review).  It’s hard to believe that I live in a world in which a film version of The Avengers actually exists!!  And that it not only exists but that it kicks so much ass makes the whole thing the stuff of beautiful fantasy.

There is surely a huge list of people who must be given credit for the success of this enterprise, but at the top of the list is co-writer and director Joss Whedon.  I am a huge, huge, huge fan of his film Serenity (which he wrote and directed) and that film clearly showed that Mr. Whedon was the perfect man for the job of helming The Avengers. Serenity not only looks amazing, boasting some fantastic visual effects sequences and completely selling the reality of a futuristic, sci-fi world despite being made for a relatively small budget (FAR less than The Avengers).  But more importantly, in that film Mr. Whedon was able to balance nine main characters, giving depth and life to every one of them, presenting them as very different people with different goals and different attitudes and different ways of speaking, and also giving each one of them moments to shine in the course of the film, without one character overshadowing the others.

Mr. Whedon brings the same deft touch to The Avengers. The greatest pleasure of the film isn’t just that the characters are all appearing in the same film (though just the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Cabin in the Woods

So, yeah, we all know that Joss Whedon (mastermind of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly/Serenity, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and many more pieces of beloved work) co-wrote and directed Marvel’s huge film The Avengers, opening in a few weeks (and which I am desperately anticipating).  But did you realize that he was also involved in a horror film, The Cabin in the Woods, that was made back in 2009?

Yep!  Mr. Whedon co-wrote the screenplay with Drew Goddard (a frequent collaborator with Mr. Whedon who was also an author on Lost and the co-writer of Cloverfield), who made his directorial debut with the film.  Unfortunately, the movie was never released by MGM, due to the studio’s financial turmoil.  Eventually the film was sold to Lionsgate and finally released a few weeks ago.

Go see it.  Go see it right now!

Don’t let anyone tell you anything about it.  Don’t read any reviews.  (Really — I’m going to be super-vague but I invite you to stop reading this piece.)  For goodness sake don’t watch any of the trailers.  Just trust Joss Whedon and trust me and go see this film.

It’s almost impossible to write about The Cabin in the Woods without spoiling any of the wonderful surprises.  There are some great actors in the film that I had no idea were in the film.  They’re extraordinary, but I don’t even want to name their names!

So what CAN I say?  I’ll say that the scene that interrupts the opening credits made me think that I was pretty sure I was going to like this film.  Then there’s the moment, much much later in the film, when all the elevators open at once.  Five seconds later, I was pretty much convinced that The Cabin in the Woods was the greatest friggin’ movie I’d ever seen!

Well, with some further reflection, it’s clear that The Cabin in the Woods is not, in fact, the greatest friggin’ movie I’ve ever seen.

But it is damn good.

The film is a deliriously clever twist on the horror genre.  I don’t really like horror films, but I dug the heck out of the Cabin in the Woods. It is a horror film, don’t get me wrong.  There are real scares and some grisly deaths.  This is NOT a sweet romantic comedy!!  So there are certainly aspects of the film that I know won’t appeal to everyone.  But the film is based on an absolutely genius idea, and the main delight of the film is watching the petals of that genius idea slowly unfurl, and as the realization slowly dawns on the viewer and on one or two of the main characters as to what … [continued]

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Although Thor doesn’t come close to equalling some of the amazing super-hero films we’ve been blessed with over the past several years (the first Iron Man, which kicked off this current run of inter-connected Marvel films, The Dark Knight, the first two X-Men films, and the first two Spider-Man films), it is a WAY better film version of the character of Thor and his mythos than I EVER would have imagined possible.

Despite by being a huge comic book fan and a Marvel Zombie since I was a kid, I never read the Thor comic regularly.  I always thought Thor was great as part of the ensemble of The Avengers, but his solo title never captured my interest.  And when Marvel announced, after the huge success of Iron Man, that they were working on a film version of Thor (as part of a series of films that would build up to The Avengers), I was dubious.  The recent Marvel films had worked so well in large part because they were fairly grounded.  Sure, Iron Man wound up with two guys in huge metal suits punching each other, but the filmmakers and the actors took pains to ground the story in the real world (and to give the characters human, real-world motivations and emotions).  I think that was a big part of the film’s success.  Same goes with the Spidey films and the X-Men films (which, for example, cast off most of the more colorful aspects of the comics — like the yellow spandex costumes).

But Thor? The Thor comic books are all about a big guy who is ACTUALLY A NORSE GOD and speaks in archaic language (a lot of “thees” and “thous”) and who has crazy adventures with other gods or god-like characters.  How could that possibly be achieved in a film that wouldn’t feel painfully small-scale (without the budget or the resources to properly achieve the epic scale of Thor’s cosmic adventures as seen in the comics) and/or feel totally ridiculously silly.

And yet, somehow, director Kenneth Branagh managed to pull off a film that, for the most part, works really well and is enjoyable both as a film in its own right and as a key stepping-stone towards The Avengers.  This is an impressive achievement and a pretty fun time at the movies!

As with Iron Man, the film’s biggest success lies in it’s casting.  There are other things that one can pick at about Thor (and I will of course do so momentarily), but I think the casting is pretty much spot-on perfect.  Chris Hemsworth (so great as James T. Kirk’s doomed dad in the opening scenes of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek[continued]