Thor: Ragnarok

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins

Director: Taika Waititi

Writers: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost


Sometimes I find it hard to believe that just a couple of years ago I was starting to feel fatigued by the abundance of superheroes in cinema. When Age of Ultron came out, it felt like the MCU was beginning to run out of steam and that this would be the beginning of the superhero genre’s decline. But then Civil War happened. And then Deadpool. And then Wonder Woman. And then Logan. The resurgence of superhero movies over the last two years has been astonishing. I keep telling myself with each new MCU release to remain critical and to not get swept away with the hype, but with their subsequent releases of Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy II, and Spider-Man: Homecoming, they’ve been on a hot streak that shows no sign of slowing down. Now with Thor: Ragnarok they’ve knocked it out of the park once again and my inner twelve-year-old self is doing cartwheels and screaming with delight.

After an unsuccessful search for the Infinity Stones, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard upon learning that his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is no longer there. There he finds his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) impersonating their father and orders him to reveal where he is hidden. They find Odin on Earth where they learn that he is dying and that his passing will allow his firstborn child Hela (Cate Blanchett) to escape from the prison where he has held her for millennia. Hela emerges upon Odin’s death, destroys Thor’s hammer, dispatches of her brothers and makes her way to Asgard to begin her conquest. Thor winds up on the planet Sakaar where he is captured by the bounty hunter Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson) and becomes a prisoner of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). He is made to fight as a gladiator and is reunited in the arena with his good friend Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). However Asgard and its people, under the care of Heimdall (Idris Elba), remain in danger and so Thor makes it his duty to assemble a team and defeat Hela.

Even though Thor has always been one of the Marvel franchise’s most enjoyable heroes and Loki remains the undisputed champion of the MCU villain hierarchy, neither of the Thor movies have been particularly great. It always bothered me that Marvel had this wondrous mythological-fantasy universe at its disposal and yet insisted on moving the action to Earth with its familiar settings and (relative) realism and Jane Fosters. There is none of that here. Ragnarok fully embraces its realm of sci-fi/fantasy and is never afraid to go too big or too crazy. The movie draws its inspiration from the campy fantasies and space operas of the 70s and 80s like Logan’s Run and Flash Gordon and creates what truly feels like a comic-book universe. The costumes, sets and scenery are extravagant and cartoonish, the retro-techno music perfectly complements this disco neon-lit pop art sci-fi tone they’re going for, and the colours are so saturated you’d swear you were on a Magical Mystery Tour with the Beatles. Sure, the CGI landscapes, creatures, and battles don’t look at all real, but man do they look great.

This movie takes on a much more comedic tone than the non-Ant-Man Marvel movies are used to, thus requiring Hemsworth to put his comedy chops to the test, and he seriously delivers. As the macho, charming, ridiculously handsome god of thunder Hemsworth has always been fun and likeable but here he reaches new heights and makes Thor seem more human than ever before, whether he’s thoughtfully reflecting on his responsibility to his people that he has thus far neglected or he’s bumbling around like a goofball. Hiddleston is as good as ever as the devilish trickster Loki whose leanings between good and evil are forever going back and forth minute by minute, as is Ruffalo who shines in his dual roles as the exasperated Banner and the reckless Hulk. (In an odd twist akin to Deadpool being the best of all the X-Men movies (before Logan anyway) Thor has provided us with the best Hulk movie to date). Thompson holds her own as the hard-boiled Valkyrie admirably, Goldblum with his idiosyncratic tics and unique line deliveries is wonderfully employed, and Blanchett… what can I even say about her? Some actors can chew scenery; Blanchett devours entire sets and looks fabulous doing it.

This is the Thor movie I’ve been waiting for and it was well worth the wait. It was funny, exciting, colourful and utterly rewatchable. The dramatic moments might not have been particularly deep and parts of the plot might have been a little predictable, especially in the third act, but that’s okay. Sometimes all a great movie needs to be is great fun. Thor: Ragnarok is so much fun to watch that even the jokes I had already seen several times in the trailer, like Thor’s reaction when he meets Hulk in the arena (“I know him! He’s a friend from work!”), still got a laugh out of me because Hemsworth is just that good. The last couple of years have been an interesting time for superhero cinema and have seen some real gamechangers to the genre. Thor: Ragnarok is not one of those gamechangers, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes, all you need is an awesome protagonist battling a fire demon while ‘The Immigrant Song’ by Led Zeppelin plays. This movie has that, and then some.

★★★★★

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Truth

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss, Dennis Quaid, Bruce Greenwood

Director: James Vanderbilt

Writer: James Vanderbilt


The questions of fact vs. fiction, honesty vs. bias, and journalistic integrity are very hot topics in today’s political and social climate. In an age where opinions are often mistaken for facts or facts are viewed as opinions, where unchecked citizen journalism continues to be problematic, and where people feel compelled to ignore evidence and undermine the reliability of stories they don’t agree with, it is enough to make you wonder whether the truth even matters anymore. I found the casting of Robert Redford to be an interesting choice due to his role in All the President’s Men, a film about the pursuit for truth led by two journalists that led to the downfall of Richard Nixon. It is a film that celebrates the honest and principled art of journalism as exemplified by Woodward and Bernstein, both of whom are contemporaries of Dan Rather. Although Truth is not nearly as strong a film as its predecessor, its message is clear. The age of noble journalism has long since departed.

The film covers the real life story of Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), the producer of the CBS news programme 60 Minutes, and the scandal that destroyed her career during the 2004 presidential election. She enlists the help of the famed veteran news anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) and her handpicked research team including Mike Smith (Topher Grace), Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss) and Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid) to report a story on President George W. Bush as he seeks re-election. The story they run accuses Bush of exploiting powerful connections and political advantages during his military service in order to avoid being drafted for Vietnam in the early 70s. Once they report the story however, their evidence is brought to question leading to an inquiry. As the procedures, intentions and principles of these journalists are condemned and their reputations are ruined, the larger issue at stake gets lost until the point when the entire purpose of their original story becomes irrelevant.

While watching this film I couldn’t help but compare it to a superior film about journalism that came out this year, Spotlight. This might be unfair since the two films are in a way telling two different kinds of stories. While Truth tells of an incident when the ideals of journalism were defeated by bullying tactics, misshapen public perception and the bottom line, Spotlight is an instance where it actually succeeded in spite of them. However when I compared the two as narratives some of the weaknesses in Truth became readily apparent to me. While Spotlight allowed each of its main characters to be fully realised as crucial members of the team in creating their story, many of the journalists in Truth amount to little more than talking heads. Grace’s character serves as a vessel for some of the impassioned speeches that seemed to be trying to hard while Moss’ character only exists to ask questions for the benefit of exposition. Those who follow this story can quite easily work out the major themes being explored but, unlike Spotlight, Truth feels the need to hammer the point in as hard as it can. It is an important and a relevant point but it isn’t one that needs to be preached in order to be conveyed.

The redeeming qualities of this film are Blanchett and Redford in the leading roles. While Mapes is clearly a smart and capable producer with clear principles and a passion for what she does, she is not portrayed as a paragon of truth. As the investigation into the story proceeds, the film acknowledges that mistakes were made and corners were cut because Mapes believed so strongly in the story’s importance. They even raise the question of whether her politics clouded her judgement as a producer. Blanchett is, as usual, stellar as her character is thrown under the bus by her superiors and is forced to defend her actions to a panel that doesn’t even care about the truth of the story. Redford meanwhile brings the right amount of gravitas and class to the role of an accomplished and beloved news anchor facing the regrettable end of a distinguished career.

While Truth is not a great film, it does raise important points. The subject of the inquiry is the mishandling of the allegedly fabricated documents proclaiming that Bush never actually served his time in the military. As the doubt over these documents is exploited to undermine the entire story as well as the journalists who led it and the concerns of the network’s parent company lead the top executives to adopt a policy of appeasement and scapegoating, the one question that is never brought up is whether the story is actually true. The film invites the audience to debate the very purpose of journalism and how far the pursuit of truth and the greater picture has been corrupted. That the film came out just in time for another election year is no coincidence.

★★★

Carol

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler

Director: Todd Haynes

Writer: Phyllis Nagy


This is a film about love. To simply label it as a ‘gay’ film does not do it justice. Yes, the central romance of this film is between two women but in truth they could be anyone. This is a film about two souls who find each other against all odds and fall in love. Their love is universal and it is absolute. The theme of homosexuality and the social attitudes towards it do play significant parts but, to me at least, they weren’t the focus. The driving force of this film was the bond that these two women shared; it was their passion and their intimacy. Unlike many of the mainstream films you might see this day there is no titillation or exploitation to be found in this union. This is a romance that Douglas Sirk would be proud of. It is a tender tale of forbidden love in a world of suppression and oppression. There is great passion in Carol but also a profound sadness as the relationship these women share brings them both so much happiness and pain all at once. Few films are as sensitive or as moving.

The film opens with a fitting homage to Brief Encounter, depicting an unheard conversation between the two leads with a clear significance that won’t be revealed until we’ve seen what came before. We find out that Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) is a woman from a privileged background trapped in a loveless marriage to her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) meanwhile is a meek, timid girl working in a Manhattan department store but who dreams of living a more fulfilling life. A chance encounter between them leads to a friendship that gradually blossoms into a romance. This union becomes threatened by Harge however as he shows his determination to keep Carol in his grasp by any means necessary. As the love between Carol and Therese grows stronger the forces that threaten to keep them apart become more dangerous and so both women must question how much they are willing to endure for the sake of love.

That the film was able to depict such a touching and affectionate portrayal of the romance that these women share is in large part due to the actresses playing them. Blanchett delivers a sublime performance as the alluring and seductive Carol. This character exudes of class and confidence but conceals a hidden vulnerability that comes to light as Harge’s threats become more severe. There is an acute tragedy to this character who knows who she is and what she wants but cannot have it for fear of losing everything she holds dear. Mara gives a less showy but equally stirring performance as the shy, unassertive Therese. Through her relationship with Carol she experiences a sexual awakening as she discovers a side of herself that she never knew, or perhaps knew on some level all too well, was there. By falling in love with Carol she finds a strength and an independent will within herself that carries her forward even as they stand to lose each other. Between them they deliver two of the most affective performances of the year as they portray a romance that is both moving and heartbreaking.

The beauty of this film comes not only from Blanchett and Mara but also from Haynes’ direction. In his recreation of the 1950s setting he captures a mood that is both melancholy and mystical. There is a real exquisiteness to the look of this film with its gorgeous colours and transcendent lighting but it seems somehow subdued. Although the cinematography is stylish and graceful there is something very controlled and exact about the way the shots are framed. The colours are warm but they lack the vibrancy of the cinema of this time, opting for a more muted palette. The film is set in the loud, lively city of New York and yet there is a marked stillness and quietness to the imagery. The fact that Therese herself is a photographer takes on a significance as the film depicts the world around her with the same sort of abstraction and focus found in photography. The effect is simply stunning and perfectly captures the tone of the film.

It isn’t often that a film gets made which is able to illustrate a sweeping romance such as this with such beauty, such feeling and such sensitivity. Every element is employed in just the right way to create a delicate and tender portrait of love, desire and passion. It sets this film at a time when such a union as this was considered immoral and taboo, highlighting the social attitudes and injustices that threaten to keep these two women apart. It is said that we do not choose who we fall in love with. Carol depicts that feeling by providing two individuals who in spite of the lives they have lived and what they have been raised to think and believe find intimacy and contentment in each other’s arms. Whatever trials and tribulations befall them, it is that bond which remains at the heart of the film and which makes it as touching and enthralling as it is.

★★★★★

Cinderella

Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Stellan Skarsgård, Holliday Grainger, Derek Jacobi, Ben Chaplin, Sophie McShera, Hayley Atwell, Helena Bonham Carter

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Writer: Chris Weitz


Live-action Disney remakes seem to be on the rise now with the confirmation that such films as Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo and Mulan are about to get their own. While I’m not against the idea of updating these classic films per se, I do think that that the execution has for the most part been underwhelming. This has mostly been due to either the filmmakers changing what doesn’t need to be changed or not understanding what made the original a classic in the first place. I don’t think Alice in Wonderland worked because it tried to introduce logic and reason to a world that is supposed to defy those conventions and I don’t think Maleficent worked because it tried to change the one part of the film that I didn’t think needed to be changed at all, its villain. Therefore I wasn’t really expecting much from the Cinderella remake.

Cinderella is, of course, the classic story of a young girl who is forced into servitude by her evil stepmother but who is then given the chance to go to the ball and meet the prince after being visited by her fairy godmother. The updated version offers an account of Ella’s exceedingly happy childhood which is cut short by her mother’s tragic death, during which she imparts onto Ella her greatest lesson: “have courage and always be kind”. Ella (Lily James) takes this lesson to heart as she never allows her sunny disposition to ever be diminished, not even by her new, unwelcoming stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera). When her father passes away Ella is gradually revoked of her status as a daughter and instead becomes a servant to the household. As life gets harder for her Ella maintains her sunny disposition and never forgets the words that her mother spoke to her.

In Disney’s attempt to update this story there is a lot that works better than the original but also a lot that does not. Perhaps the biggest downgrade from the original film is Cinderella’s character who, rather than a determined, strong-willed girl trying to make the best of the life she has been given, is reduced to an irrationally cheerful dreamer who greets adversity with apathy rather than resolve. Her struggle becomes less believable and less compelling because, at the risk of sounding heartless, she doesn’t really suffer enough. The first ten minutes of the film, which I found to be a cringingly schmaltzy ordeal, show Ella and her parents living this excessively joyful life in which everything is sunshine and rainbows, a temperament that Ella maintains for the remainder of the film. Therefore her attitude towards any hardship that she encounters is to greet it with a smile and to hope for something better, an attitude that I felt diminished the oppressive nature of the life she had been subjected to. As opposed to the original character, who suffered a great deal at the hands of her wicked stepmother and in turn became all the more determined not to be dispirited or defeated, this Cinderella never seems to suffer all that much due to the excessive complacency she exhibits and her inability to feel any sort of pain or sorrow.

Another character who I felt was a step down from her original counterpart is the stepmother. Although the film does give her a few deliciously evil moments (and Cate Blanchett relishes every second of them) they are far too little. The film attempts to add a bit of depth and complexity to her character by providing her with a backstory and a motivation behind her actions, but the personality is a sheer downgrade. This stepmother is not nearly as threatening or as menacing as the original character nor as enjoyably evil. I found this villain to be far too silly and camp to be at all intimidating and not in an entertaining way.

With all that in mind, there were plenty of things about this film that I did like. One character who is a vast improvement over his original counterpart is the prince (Richard Madden) who in this film has an actual personality. This time around he and Cinderella actually meet beforehand and are able to form a bond with one another. Additionally his story-arc about succeeding his father (Derek Jacobi) as the king and being pressured by him and by the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård) into marriage is actually quite a compelling one. Cinderella is also a gorgeous film to look at with its stunning sets, magnificent costumes and enchanting visual effects. Helena Bonham Carter provides a breath of fresh air in her quirky cameo as the Fairy Godmother.

What really bothered me about this film was Cinderella’s character and the way she affected the story. The incessant chirpiness that she maintains in light of the adversity and oppression she undergoes negates any sense of suffering and so I was less invested in her struggle. Her hardships do not seem at all tragic because she refuses to acknowledge them as such. Rather than try to make the most of her difficulties, she instead accepts them as they are and smiles as she bears them. Such an attitude is much too naïve and foolish for the smart, independent character that she is clearly supposed to be and betrays what the original film stood for. When Cinderella finally gets her reward at the end, it doesn’t really feel like she’s earned it. All of this is supposed to hammer in the film’s moral about having courage and being kind, a moral that gets repeated often but that is never actually taught (or at least isn’t taught very well). I did not hate this film, far from it, but I do think it is a failure as an upgrade to the original tale. What it attempts to add in reason and logic it loses in character and emotion.

★★★

[On a side note: The film opened with a showing of Frozen Fever which I liked a great deal. It was fun and enjoyable and the perfect way to get an audience into the Disney mood.]