What We Do on Asgard

Thor: Ragnarok

by Hope Madden

What if the next Avengers movie was a laugh riot? A full-blown comedy—would you be OK with that?

The answer to that question has serious implications for your appreciation of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok.

You’re familiar with Thor, his brother, his buddies, his hair. But how well do you know Waititi? Because he’s made a handful of really great movies you should see, chief among them What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Waititi’s films are charming and funny in that particularly New Zealand way, which is to say equal parts droll and silly. So a total goofus has made our latest superhero movie, is what I’m trying to tell you, and you’ll need to really embrace that to appreciate this film, because Thor: Ragnarok makes the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise seem dour and stiff.

There’s a real Thor movie in here somewhere. Thor (Chris Hemsworth and his abs) learns of his older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett—hela good casting!). Sure, Thor’s the God of Thunder, but Hela’s the Goddess of Death, so her return is not so welcome. But daaayumn, Cate Blanchett makes a kick-ass Goth chick.

Indeed, the film is lousy with female badasses. Tessa Thompson (Dear White People, Creed) proves her status by taking all comers, Thor and Hulk among them.

But can you get behind the idea of Hulk and dialog? Because he has dialog in this movie. Like whole conversations. Dude, I don’t know about that.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) returns, as does Idris Elba, so this is one bona fide handsome movie. Mark Ruffalo makes an appearance in a vintage Duran Duran tee shirt. It’s like Waititi thought to himself, how many of Hope’s crushes can we squeeze into one film?

One more! Jeff Goldblum (don’t judge me) joins as a charming and hysterical world leader. His banter with his second in command (Rachel House—so hilarious in Wilderpeople) is priceless.

Also very funny, Karl Urban (who brings a nice slap of comic timing to every bloated franchise he joins), Waititi himself (playing a creature made of rocks), and one outstanding cameo I won’t spoil.

Thor: Ragnarock lifts self-parody to goofy heights, and maybe that’s OK. There’s no question the film entertains. Does it add much to the canon? Well, let’s be honest, the Thor stand-alones are not the strongest in the Marvel universe.

You will laugh. You’ll want to hug this movie, it’s so adorable.

Unless you’re totally pissed about the whole thing, which is entirely possible.

Sit. Stay. Breathe Fire.

Pete’s Dragon

by George Wolf

Just a few months after a triumphant re-imagining of The Jungle Book, Disney heads back to the vault to give Pete’s Dragon a similar live action/animation reboot…with less magical results.

Much has changed from the 1977 cartoon, starting with the surprisingly tragic depiction of how a very young Pete becomes an orphan. Losing his parents in isolated woodlands deep in the Pacific Northwest, Pete is promptly befriended  by the very dragon whose legend has been passed down for decades in local song and story.

Pete will call his dragon “Elliot.”

Well, we’re told it’s a dragon, but here he or she is more like a big, green dog with wings. Look at it chasing its tail and fetching a stick!

Six years later, park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) encounters an injured Pete (Oakes Fegley) in the forest and takes him home, where stories of a dragon best friend intrigue Grace’s father Meacham (Robert Redford), who may have his own history with Elliot. These stories also catch the attention of local meanypants Gavin (Karl Urban), who quickly assembles a hunting parting with an aim to “put himself on the map” by bagging a giant green trophy.

Director/co-writer David Lowery makes a monster-sized pivot from the poetic desperation of his Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and while Pete’s Dragon is rife with gentle sweetness, it’s lacking in both depth and wonder.

After the bracing prologue, characters and situations are broadly drawn, as if to never challenge any viewer older than Pete himself. It’s a curious approach for a PG-rated film, and the less than subtle, too often sappy treatment undercuts later attempts to resonate on a more metaphorical level.

Does Pete’s desire to stay with Elliot represent that wish to escape adult responsibilities and hold tight to childhood wonders? Maybe, but that Neverland remains out of sight.

We do get perfectly acceptable, albeit generically feel good lessons on the importance of family, and that’s fine. But despite those wings, Pete’s Dragon never quite soars.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

The Frontier Strikes Back

Star Trek Beyond

by George Wolf

Kirk. Spock. Bones. Wisecracks, a villain, and some heroic space swashbuckling. We’re pretty familiar with the Star Trek setup by now, and three flicks into the J.J. Abrams-fueled reboot, the latest seems the most comfortable in its journey. And though Star Trek Beyond doesn’t quite boldly go, it is a fun, satisfying ride.

Three years into a five-year mission, the crew of the Enterprise stops for some downtime at an immense new space station. Kirk (Chris Pine) in awaiting a promotion, Spock (Zachary Quinto) is mulling a return home to Vulcan, and Bones (Karl Urban), good God, man, he has some fun needling Spock about a botched romance with Uhura (Zoe Saldana).

The gang gets back in action to answer the distress call of a stranded crew, but falls into the trap of the Kahn-like Krall (Idris Elba), who’s after a very powerful artifact that Kirk just happens to be holding.

Fast and Furious vet Justin Lin takes over for Abrams in the director’s chair and, working with a snappy script co-written by Simon Pegg (“Scotty”), has the film feeling like a fun Trek TV episode beamed up to the multiplex.

Though the adventure is a little tardy getting its legs, things only get better as they go along. The banter is crisp, the derring-do daring, and the chemistry of the ensemble, so important in a franchise such as this, is undeniable.

Spectacular only in spots, what Beyond does best is honor its own heritage while planning for the future. The nods to its TV past run from cheesy to ingenious, even finding a clever way to acknowledge the effect the entire Star Trek phenomenon has had on popular culture.

After the trying-too-hard reach of Into Darkness, Star Trek Beyond strikes just the right note. More of this? I’m on board.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

Going Boldly

by George Wolf

 

Look, when you’re wrong, you gotta wear the hat, so fit me with a big Star Trek sombrero.

Four years ago, I thought rebooting the franchise with an origin story was a silly idea. Silly me. In the hands of director/producer J.J Abrams, it has taken on a new relevance, and the second effort from Abrams, Into Darkness, is a spectacular success on all fronts.

From the opening sequence, Abrams settles into a breakneck pace, filling the screen with a rousing combination of action, effects, heart and humor that rarely lets up.

The ace up Abrams’s sleeve? His cast. These are characters ingrained into pop culture, and our emotional investment in them is rewarded. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban play Kirk, Spock and Bones with the mischievous twinkle of youth. Without resorting to caricature, all three actors are utterly believable as younger versions of these rogues we know so well.

They are surrounded by an able supporting cast, most notably Benedict Cumberbatch as Harrison, the deadly villain with mysterious motives and a great big Enterprise surprise.

Star Trek screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman return, joining with Damon Lindelof to script a thrilling adventure filled with multiple callbacks to previous film installments and TV episodes.

Quite simply, there isn’t much to dislike. Into Darkness is a finely crafted spectacle, all that a summer blockbuster should be. It is joyously nerdy, yet cool enough for those who wouldn’t know Nurse Chapel from Nurse Ratched. It’s funny, and true to its sci-fi roots while offering sly parallels with today’s political climate.

Next up for Abrams is a new Star Wars sequel, and fans should rest easy. Into Darkness is more proof the man knows a thing or two about making a franchise live long and prosper.

What I mean is, boldly go to the theatre.

Sorry.

Kirk out!

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars