Thor: Ragnarok (2017) – A Great Movie Trapped in a Good Movie

   This was a movie that could have been one of my Top 5 Marvel Cinematic Universe films. I really wish this could have been a Planet Hulk type film as the Hulk and Sakaar are the best parts of this film are everything having to do with the Hulk, the good is the Thor movie this film is trapped in, which is very much a Marvel by the numbers. It wants to be “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” but the last films didn’t do the work for us to get that emotional investment. I’ll get into what I mean deeper into the review. For my non-spoiler thoughts though, it is well worth checking out, it is a good movie that is a lot of fun.

The film was directed by Taika Waititi, written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost while being produced by Kevin Feige.

The story involves Thor (Chris Hemsworth) who is exiled from Asgard by a returned Hela (Cate Blanchett), who seeks to conquer Asgard and the known universe. Thor finds himself broken and is forced to fight in a gladiatorial arena on Sakaar for the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Now in a race against time he must get back to Asgard and find allies to save Asgard from Hela.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Cinematography and Soundtrack – The cinematography is colorful and pulls you in immediately and when tied with the soundtrack creates the feel of being in an 80’s rock album. Especially with ACDC’s “Immigrant” as the main theme song of the film. The style of the film is unique too, it looks like a B Movie done with an A Movie budget.

The World of Sakaar – I wish the entire film could have taken place here. Everything interesting takes place on Sakaar. It is where Valyrie is living as a mercenary collecting fighters for the Grandmaster and also playing with Hulk. This world is fascinating as the trash and beings from all over the universe fall into the portals above this world. The Grandmaster played by Jeff Goldblum is also a real treat and should have been the main villain of this film and the film should have taken place here. Hela should have been saved as a bigger bad for later, there are enough “Conquer the universe” villains in the MCU.

Loki – Loki is wonderful in this. His reveal of being Odin happens early on when Surtur tells Thor that Odin is missing. Loki is so much fun in this, he is sometime ally and sometimes enemy but always is serving himself and his ego. This makes when he gets tricked by Thor near the end all the more enjoyable as well as his relishing of Hulk’s pummeling of Thor. When he is exiled like Thor in the fight with Hela he gets in with the upper class of Sakaar easily, which is completely in character. He does eventually team up with Thor and Valkyrie as we see his good come out when he comes back to save the people of Asgard (though it largely because he wants to be loved by them…he did build a statue of himself when he was pretending to be Odin and do a play of “Thor 2” and his “redemption.” Hiddleson continues to nail this character as he continues to be the best part of the Thor films.

The Grandmaster – Jeff Goldblum plays the wonderfully insane Grandmaster in this. What we learn is he came to Sakaar back in the beginning and built it up to be his own source of entertainment. From the tournament, from references to his orgies this is a guy who doesn’t care about anything about his own amusement. He really is a great character and is a fun villain as his own ambition (cheating so Hulk will win the fight and keeping Thor locked up with Hulk) lead to his undoing and his people rebelling against him. He shows up at the end in an after credits scene so I hope he will show up in the future.

Asgard’s Past and What Asgard Means – A major theme of the film is that Asgard is not a place it is a people and that what a people are is important. Hela is the warrior who was with Odin when they made the 9 Realms and spread the will of Asgard through them. It was after peace time that she was trapped and erased as she wanted to keep fighting. I wish Hela had been addressed as we never get why she loves battle and war and her erasure from history is an evil that Odin is never called out on and Thor never recognizes. She was a female God who was Odin’s Right Hand in the end it meant nothing because Odin changed the past. Odin was toxic patriarchy and that is never addressed. I’m still putting this in the pro area for what could have been covered and for the importance of a people meaning more than a place. People are what make a place matter.

The Hulk Story and Hulk’s Relationships – Hulk is the best part of this film, he is friends with Valkyrie who trains with him and his relationship with Hulk is funny as he sees Thor as both a friend and a threat. Hulk is like a giant child who just wants to fight and win but we see him become more and become Banner once more after hearing Black Widow’s last video. From here Banner’s story comes in and in the final sacrifice becomes Hulk again to take on Hela and her undead army. This is by far the best Hulk movie and it is the great film trapped in the good film. I wish we could have got Planet Hulk from the comics.

Okay: Surtur – Clancy Brown’s voice is perfect for the God of the Fire Demons but he is a pretty useless villain. Thor easily defeats him and he exists only as a plot device to bring about Ragnorak, which is the only way to destroy Hela. I wish more had been done with this guy and that we’d received more history and motivation. He seems driven by prophecy but he is hypothetically so powerful, there is no reason he should be driven by that.

Hela – Cate Blanchett is a great actress and she wonderfully vamps this role up…but she gets no development. We never get why she wants to conquer or how Odin shaped her into the person she is, she simply does. This is lazy storytelling and the only reason she isn’t a con is because Blanchett is such a great actress and the costume design is on point. She looks like Maleficent and her giant wolf is Fenrir and army of the Dead are a lot of fun.

The Thor Story – Thor goes through the hero’s journey again. This time it is him realizing he doesn’t need the Hammer to be Thor as he is the God of Thunder. It is after discovering this he helps Valkyrie find herself as a defender of Asgard again and helps Hulk become Banner once more. He also shows Loki what it means to be a good ruler. This is all good, it isn’t bad but it is also Marvel by Numbers. There is nothing done here that wasn’t done butter elsewhere. I would have preferred more development of Valkyrie so she wasn’t just a support character or Hela having a reason for what she did. These are things that could have made this a great rather than good Thor story. The great story is Hulk and Thor trapped on Sakaar being gladiators that we don’t get nearly enough time with as in the end the Thor and Ragnorak story is what drives the plot, and that is only good, not great.

The Asgard story is a marvel movie by the numbers. Villain has world conquest plot but is stopped by the hero when he discovers the power of friendship and his own internal power. Thi is “Iron Man 3,” “Captain America” and the last 2 Thor films. This is a shame as Hela and Sakaar both could have been so much more than what we are given. Things change with the people of Asgard being nomads now, but it doesn’t have the same weight to it as the loss of of SHIELD in “The Winter Soldier” or the death in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” Hell the great movie taking place on Sakaar could have led to a Planet Hulk type film with Thor, sadly at the end of the day this is a Thor film and that is what keeps it from reaching greatness. I’d still recommend this film, it is beautiful and fun and easily the best of the “Thor Trilogy.”

Final Score: 8.7 / 10

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Pete’s Dragon (2016): A Celebration of the Wonder of Nature and Magic of Childhood

   The new “Pete’s Dragon” is one of my favorite films. This is a film that manages to capture the wonder of nature, wildlife and childhood and also the complex relationships that come with family. The soundtrack leads to a beautiful meditation on it all with some absolutely wonderful performances by Bryce Dallas Howard and the legendary Robert Redford. Non-spoiler thoughts, I recommend this film and think you should check it out. I grew up on the original film and this film so different, and in my opinion so much deeper and better.

 The film was directed by David Lowery who co-wrote the script with Toby Halbrooks and produced by James Whitaker.

    The story involves Pete who is presumed dead when his parents die in a crash in the forest. It is here the dragon Elliot finds him and raises him before he runs into Ranger Grace whose husband is a foreman of the Lumbermill that has impeded on the territory where Elliot and Pete are living. From here the story unfolds.

The Pros: The World – The world is rich! The forest is full of life, the small town is full of politics and there is a dragon. This is very much a surrealistic fantasy world.

The Soundtrack – Daniel Hart creates a  beautiful americana folk soundtrack that captures the brutal feel of the lumber mill, the isolation of the town and the magic of the forest. It is meditative and reflects the feelings in our characters’ heads. Suffice to say, I can’t wait to see what music he does next as I’ve always been a fan of folk and it was perfect for this film.

The Characters – The characters are a strong part of this film! From Karl Urban’s Gavin who feels powerless so wants to own and capture Elliot as he’s in a dying industry (he works on a lumber mill) and his brother doesn’t respect him. Howard’s Grace is someone who is trying to make things work with her own family and make peace with the fact that her husband’s job is destroying the forest she works in as well as her own doubt of her father Mr. Meachum whose arc is capturing the magic of his childhood (Redford does this wonderfully) and of course the child actors who play Pete and Natalie who become friends as it is Natalie who helps Pete realize he wants to be a part of the world again and no longer separate in the forest.

The Wonder and Terror of the Natural World – The natural world is front and center in this story and all the wonder and terror of it all. It is almost hitting a deer that leads to the death of Pete’s parents and Elliot almost kills his new parents when he turns on his attackers and rage and attempts to burn them. It is only through respect that humans can co-exist with nature and with the natural world, is what the film argues. It is very Miyazakiesque and it is part of what makes the film so beautiful.

Okay: Dealing with Grief  and Loss – The film dealt with this a little bit but not really as Elliot was Pete’s way of dealing so we never him truly face the fact that his parents are dead. There are a few moments he misses them, but we never have the chance to see him face his grief. There was shock but after that not much else besides him forming a bond with a new family. It was dealt with a little but not enough for me to put it as a pro. The one way it worked was that Pete was tied to the forest and is always trying to run back until he faces his grief to some degree, which helps him form bonds in the world and a new family, in turn leading him to leave the forest.

The Cons: Jack – Jack, Grace’s husband is a plot device and is only there to counter the antagonist Gavin (his brother) who is hunting and captures Elliot. He never felt fully fleshed out and I didn’t know why he and Grace were together.

    This was an amazing film that is the only one of the Disney remakes that I consider great. “The Jungle Book” remake was awful and even though I’ve heard good things about “Cinderella” and “Beauty and the Beast,” I am still worried. A good story can pull upon past stories, but it shouldn’t be a retelling, if I wanted a retelling I’d just read or watch that same story again. This film gets away from that and it is part of the reason it is a favorite film now. This is a film where magic happens and truly captures the beauty that can surround us.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10 Would be higher if Pete dealing with his grief had played a bigger role and Jack had been a character not a plot device.

Star Trek Beyond (2016): The Reboot Series Finally Captures Classic “Star Trek”

Star Trek Beyond

    “Star Trek Beyond,” is a film that best captures the spirit of the Star Trek Franchise than probably “The Undiscovered Country.” That film has a better story and is one of my all time favorite Star Trek Films but this film is still really good and I enjoyed it a lot more than “Star Trek Into Darkness,” which at the end of the day depended way too much on conspiracy and fan service rather than showing the spirit and cost of adventure the way this film does. Non-spoiler thoughts…this film has great action, comedy and characters and is well worth your time to see it on the big screen.

    “Star Trek Beyond” was directed by Justin Lin, written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung and produced by J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci and Bryan Burk.

     The story takes place 3 years into the 5 year mission and Kirk (Chris Pine) finds himself at a crossroads with the possibility of promotion and Spock (Zachary Quinto) is pulled back into Vulcan after a major death.  They and the crew are put to the test though when they are lead into a trap and must face Krall (Idris Elba) who destroys their ship, forcing them to adapt to the planet and keep him from getting the superweapon he seeks.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – This movie captures the wonder of the World of Star Trek. We get the Utopia of Yorktown, the horrors of war via Krall and tons of alien species and first contact opportunities.

Yorktown – Yorktown is a like a giant snowglobe in space and looks like how I always imagined a advanced space station actually looking (in the tv shows they never were able to capture it like it is on film, they are just stations, this is a city). I loved this area and I like that we spent time here to humanize our crew and see how the Federation has achieved Utopia.

The Writing – Minus the writing of Krall, the writing is a major pro. Every character is given things to do, characters change and aren’t just rehashing the same story (Kirk, Spock and Uhura had the same story twice in the last two reboot films). Simon Pegg being a Trekkie and one of the writers is one reason I think why this worked so much.

Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful and stunning and captures the old look of the show while modernizing it for the screen. It feels dreamlike and from it the adventure of this great series.

The Comedy – The comedy is gold, especially anything with Jaylah and Scotty and McCoy and Spock. The dialogue is quick and witty and always moves the action forward.

Use of Ensemble Cast – The cast all has things to do and it keeps the story strong! Uhura and Sulu are protecting the hostages and the device, Chekov is with Kirk, McCoy is Spock and Scotty is with Jaylah. Each of them are working to find one another and defeat Krall and it leads to great comedic and dramatic moments.

The Cast – The cast is the strongest part of this film, these actors have come to inhabit these characters.

Chekov – R. I. P. Anton Yelchin…you really inhabited this role. This is a film where Chekov is with Kirk for a lot of it and later teams up with Scotty since he knows tech. almost as well. We see him be the hero and the problem solver and his relationship with Kirk is pretty great. You’ll be missed Anton…

Sulu – John Cho is fantastic as Sulu and in this we get to meet his husband and daughter at Yorktown and from there see the reason why he is fighting so hard to defend it. In this he get to see him fly the Franklin, fight with the Enterprise until Krall’s drones destroy it. It is great seeing him and Uhura team up.

Uhura – Uhura is the primary protector of the hostages and the device that Krall is trying to get. She only loses when Krall threatens a crew member forcing the crewman to reveal her hand and where she’s kid the device. Uhura is ready to die to protect it though. We also see that her and Spock still have a great relationship even though they may or may not have broken up. Zoe Saldana is fantastic.

Scotty – Simon Pegg is really great in the role of Scotty and in this we see him as the major problem solver, whether it is fixing the Franklin, finding the crew and Krall or working with Jaylah on traps.

McCoy – Karl Urban really owns the role of McCoy and in this we get to see his friendship with Spock grow as they are stuck together for most of the film. It is great seeing their dynamic as McCoy’s cynical optimism is contrasted beautifully with Spock’s cold clear logic and duty driven decisions. This eventually leads to them taking on Krall by kidnapping one of the drone ships since Spock needs someone to monitor his injury he received when the Enterprise was destroyed and McCoy is the only one who knows about it.

Spock – Spock is faced with a decision in this…to stay with the crew or to return to Vulcan to help create more Vulcans. Ambassador Spock has died and no Vulcan is once more lacking limited leaders and there still aren’t very many of them. Over the course of the film he decides to stay for the crew though, not because of future Spock and I really like that. He discovers that it is out on the frontier he can protect Vulcan best and the realization that the entire crew is his family now and will be (he sees a picture of the crew when they are older that Ambassador Spock was keeping).

Kirk – Kirk like Spock is faced with a decision to stay or get a promotion and go as when we first meet him his life on the ship has become mundane and he expresses how trapped everyone feels out in space for so long. It is powerful as he is really talking about himself. Krall reminds him of why he is out there too and even though he loses the Enterprise he decides to stay to Captain and because the Captain of the newly built Enterprise-A we see being built at the end of the film.

Jaylah -Sofia Boutella is awesome as Jaylah and I hope she becomes part of the main crew. She is the one who helps them all team up as her home is Krall’s old Federation ship the Franklin. It is thanks to her and Scotty that they get it running and are able to use it as a base to free the hostages and to confront Krall and his drone forces. She also has a somewhat romantic thing with Scotty and is an orphan whose been fighting Krall all her life. Suffice to say she is awesome.

The Idea of Krall – The idea of Krall as a former Space Marine turned alien warlord is cool. Peace doesn’t work for everyone, especially those who gain honor from combat and live from it (one reason the Federation fights the Klingons every generation even after the treaties). There was so much more that could have been done with this idea if he had just been fleshed out more as a character.

Remembering the Dead – R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin. Both of them were given time to be remembered as Spock remembered Ambassador Spock and the final scene was fade to black with “For Anton” in memory of Anton Yelchin. The two of them were amazing and have left a legacy on this universe and the world.

Okay: Krall/Balthazar Edison – Idris Elba is good at humanizing this ex-marine turned alien Warlord and his acting is great, it is just the writing for Krall is only so-so so I’m putting him at okay. We never get explanations of why he turned into an alien or how using people turned him back into a person.

The Cons: Villain plan – The villain plan is to destroy Yorktown, which if Krall want the Federation at war, that isn’t going to help…since there is no way could escape, it was do the most damage and die…which I expected more from a man who had lived hundreds of years. He should have had a better plan.

How did Balthazar become Krall and Revert Back? – Balthazar was a M.A.C.O. (Pre-Federation Marine) who is maid captain after the Xindi and Romulan wars and finds himself abandoned on the planet. Something happens that causes him to become the alien Krall and he is using people to turn back into a person. This is never explained.

Pacing – The pacing can be a bit jarring at times. Sometimes everything is going too fast and we have no time to really soak in what our characters are going through, and other times we linger too long. This is most true at the beginning but by about a third of the way through the film this isn’t as much of an issue.

   The villain isn’t bad but he is where most of the holes in the plot are. Sometimes the pacing can be a little jarring, and I was bored at one point because of it…but the payoff when they arrive on Krall’s world is fantastic and almost everything after that works. This is a film that reminded me why I’m a Trekkie and I can’t wait to go back and review the other films so I can rate them all against one another. This a film well deserving of it’s place in the Franchise and some of the most fun I’ve had at the movies this summer.

Final Score: 8.5 / 10