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.

★★★★★

Advertisements

Pete’s Dragon

Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford

Director: David Lowery

Writers: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks


After The BFG, this is the second blockbuster I’ve seen this summer that has evoked within me memories of Spielberg’s E.T. People like to complain that they don’t make movies like that anymore but the truth is that they do. They may not get made often enough or may get overshadowed by something more popular like Minions, but they’re still there for people to watch. Like The BFG, this movie targets itself towards young children but also offers something for the teenagers and adults who remember what it was like to be that age. Like in E.T. the plot in Pete’s Dragon is secondary to the central relationship being focused on. The film is childish in its playfulness and whimsicality but also adult in its tranquillity and stillness. Although they may not get made or seen often, the claim that Hollywood’s children’s movies have lost this thoughtful and wondrous quality is just wrong.

Six years ago, a little boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) got lost in the forest and was found and rescued by a great but friendly dragon with the ability to turn invisible. Pete names the dragon Elliott (sound familiar?) and goes on to live with him in the forest. When an older Pete spots a lumberjack crew chopping down some trees near his home, he is spotted by Natalie (Oona Laurence), the daughter of the foreman Jack (Wes Bentley). After he gets caught, Jack’s girlfriend, the park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), takes Pete in and tries to learn who he is and where he came from. When Grace learns about Elliott, she finds herself believing the story her father Meacham (Robert Redford) used to tell her about the time he came across a dragon in the forest. Pete agrees to lead them to Elliott, unaware that Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban), a hunter, has also encountered this dragon and plans to catch him.

One of the things Pete’s Dragon accomplishes so well is that it captures the subtle yet immediately identifiable sense of what it feels like to be a child. The forest and the dragon that inhabits it not only look enormous, they feel enormous the way that everything does when you’re little. It captures that childish sense of adventure in both its wonder and scariness, a sensation that Pete’s parents remark on right before the car crash that would leave him an orphan. Bravery, says his father, is what he needs to see an adventure through and that is what a lost, scared and forlorn Pete finds in Elliott. It is significant that we meet the dragon immediately at the beginning because it means that imagination and fantasy are allowed to reign supreme. How trite would this movie have been if it had opted for ambiguity surrounding the dragon’s existence assisted by misunderstandings and dismissals by joylessly unimaginative grown-ups? This is a movie that appreciates the depths and possibilities of children’s dreams and imaginings and fully embraces them.

In this film Pete names Elliott after the dog in the book he’s reading and their relationship plays out in a classic A Boy and His Dog fashion. The dragon is simply teeming with life and personality and shows himself to be caring, loyal and protective of Pete. He is a smart and perceptive creature capable of reason and thought, allowing their friendship to be a mutual one on an emotional level. Elliott needs Pete every bit as much as Pete needs him. At no point does Elliott talk in this movie, meaning that the movie must convey his character solely through his expressions and personality, something that it does marvellously. A lot of the film’s heart is carried through by the humans as well with their subtle yet affective performances, save its two-dimensional baddie. Howard’s portrayal of a sweet and down-to-earth woman witnessing a phenomenon beyond anything she could have imagined is a moving one. Redford, being the old pro that he is, acts everybody else under the table as he manages to bring a childlike innocence to his role without it seeming silly or even quirky.

There is no shortage of smart and thoughtful children’s movies being made today and not all of them belong to Pixar. Pete’s Dragon, like The BFG before it, is a charming and enchanting movie that I found to be delightful. It takes itself and its audience seriously, but not too seriously. The film is sincere, restrained and heartfelt but it is also bright, exciting, funny and childish. While there are many kid’s movies that make the misstep of always being on the move and constantly making noise for fear of losing the children’s attention, Pete’s Dragon is a movie that allows itself to stand still, take a moment, and just breathe. Perhaps the approach isn’t as nuanced as it is in a typical Studio Ghibli feature, but it is welcome regardless. If it is to be believed that these movies are indeed a dying breed, then I truly hope that audiences will embrace and cherish this film and all the others like it.

★★★★

Star Trek Beyond

Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, John Cho, Idris Elba

Director: Justin Lin

Writers: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung


I’m not a huge Star Trek fan. I don’t mean that in the sense that I don’t like it but rather in the sense that I haven’t watched enough of it to consider myself a huge fan. While I have watched all three instalments of the reboot, the only classic Star Trek movie I’ve ever gotten round to seeing is Wrath of Khan (which I found to be a better movie than any of the new ones). Therefore when I talk about the characters in this movie and the universe they inhabit, I do so from an unenlightened perspective. I am not intimately familiar with this franchise and have no substantive opinion of how a Star Trek movie is supposed to be done. The only fair standard I can set for this film is that provided by the J.J. Abrams movies, both of which I enjoyed but didn’t love. That is more or less how I feel about this movie as well.

Three years into their five-year mission, Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) starts contemplating the endless nature of their voyage as he approaches his thirtieth birthday, making him one year younger than his father was when he died. While on shore leave Kirk is offered a promotion and recommends Spock (Zachary Quinto) as his successor, should he accept that is. Spock meanwhile finds himself in a similarly dejected state after ending his relationship with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and receiving word that Ambassador Spock has died. The Enterprise is then sent on a rescue mission which turns out to be an ambush. The ship is destroyed by Krall (Idris Elba), a ruthless alien seeking revenge against the United Federation of Planets, and most of the crew is taken captive. Kirk manages to escape with Chekov (Anton Yelchin) while Spock escapes with Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban). Stranded, scattered and crippled, it is up to Kirk to reunite his crew, find out what Krall is planning and save the Federation.

While I understand that the classic Star Trek movies were largely concerned with character-based drama and themes of morality and philosophy, these modern takes have leaned more heavily towards aspects of action/adventure. Although I’ve enjoyed these movies for the thrills they’ve provided, I have often felt that the stories and characters have left me wanting. While the characters in these films are certainly memorable, likeable and entertaining to watch, I’ve seldom found them to be truly compelling. In Star Trek Beyond there was a lot of potential for drama that the movie was able to set up but couldn’t quite follow through on. In Kirk’s arc for example it seems like the movie is trying to present him in a lost, estranged state, living under the shadow of the father he never knew and undergoing a crisis of identity. To me however, it just came across as Kirk being bored of his job. Spock, who lost his home planet in the first film and has learned of the passing of his alternate self, could have been allowed to confront issues of mortality, endurance and responsibility. Instead he breaks up with his girlfriend. Because these movies are so focused on getting to the action, there just isn’t enough time for them to really ask the big questions or to delve deeply into these characters. This doesn’t make them bad or boring, it just makes them somewhat unfulfilling.

Still, the action is often spectacular and is a nice change from the shaky cam and lens flares that often proved distracting in the Abrams movies. There are some incredible sequences in this film, such as Krall’s attack on the Enterprise, that had my heart racing. The action does get more generic in the third act but the ones that really work well are simply stunning. The movie also puts its excellent cast to good use, at least on an entertainment level. The banter between Spock and Bones is good for a few laughs. Pegg provides Scotty with plenty of moments in the spotlight and crushes them. Uhura isn’t given really given enough to do but Saldana is still able to deliver far more than what she was given. Pine has really grown into the role of Kirk and carries an undeniable air of authority befitting a strong and respected leader. The only disappointment was the villain who, despite Elba’s best efforts, is let down by a forgettable personality, vague motivations and a weak plot twist.

Star Trek Beyond is a good enough movie on a purely entertaining level. It has good characters portrayed by a superb cast, some great comedic highlights and plenty of action. It’s weakness, as with the previous two instalments, is its inability to give its story and character the depth that they deserve. The promise is there, the films just aren’t brave enough to follow through with it. Star Trek Beyond is thrilling and it is enjoyable, but there ultimately isn’t very much that separates it from all the other sci-fi/action blockbusters being made today. I may not have seen enough of the classic Star Trek movies and TV shows to claim any sort of authority where they are concerned, but what little I have seen I’ve found to be intelligent, captivating and unlike any big budget movie being made in this current climate. If these movies ever took the risk of putting the action in the backseat and allowed themselves to attempt that same level of innovation and nuance, we might have been treated to something truly special.

★★★