Movie Review ~ Thor: Love and Thunder

The Facts:

Synopsis: Thor enlists the help of Valkyrie, Korg, and ex-girlfriend Jane Foster to fight Gorr the God Butcher, who intends to make the gods extinct.
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson, Jaimie Alexander, Taika Waititi, Russell Crowe
Director: Taika Waititi
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 125 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  We’re pretty deep into the Marvel Cinematic Universe now that we can freely talk about those first two Thor movies and how not that great they were, right?  Good.  Starting in 2011, the Norse god made a dull debut in a standard special effects picture when the gathering of the Avengers was still in its infancy.  While Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Blackhat) would make a solid addition to the first Avengers in 2012, the next standalone film in 2013 was perhaps even more of a disappointment.  Lifeless and aimless, coming out between Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier made Thor: The Dark World look even more pedestrian by comparison.

It surprised many, then, that 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok was the energy boost it proved to be.  As part of the Marvel blitz of films in 2017/2018, leading toward the final official two Avengers films, new director Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit) brought a renewed strength and style this hero desperately needed.  Leaning heavily into the silly comedy that Waititi was known to mix nicely with dynamic visuals and narrative, this third Thor outing had a dynamite villainess (Cate Blanchett, having a blast) and even gave Hemsworth a shot of adrenaline he’d been missing.

With the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe looking far into the future, Thor would always play a part. Still, it was never sure where he’d fit since Ragnarok and previous post-Avengers appearances changed much of his trajectory.  While Waititi was on a solid roll as a director, sometime actor (Lightyear), and producer of several highly-regarded properties, it was a coup for Marvel to get him back on Thor: Love and Thunder. Part of the anticipation, then, for this fourth installment was to see where Waititi would take the blonde bodybuilder butt-kicker next.

Despite continuing to help when needed occasionally (hence an early appearance by the Guardians of the Galaxy), Thor prefers to keep a low profile and discover his inner zen after years of fighting world-crushing evil.  Suffering much loss of family and friends, Thor has gotten good at holding others at arm’s length and not allowing them to get close.  It’s only after Gorr (Christian Bale, Out of the Furnace), known throughout the galaxy as the God Butcher, appears and begins to enact a vengeful vendetta against the gods he believes wronged him when he needed them most that Thor is called back into action. 

To defeat this potent foe, Thor must team up with Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, Sylvie’s Love), now King of New Asgard and former flame Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, Lucy in the Sky) transformed into Mighty Thor thanks to a reconstructed version of Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, along with a rock gladiator (voiced by Waititi), and a duo of screaming goats (the funniest of several running gags).  Their quest to stay one step ahead of the murderous Gorr will lead them to a city of gods ruled over by Zeus (Russell Crowe, Unhinged), where they hope to gather a greater allegiance and, later, to the far reaches of the universe robbed of all color.

I’ll start by saying that the marketing for this film (posters, trailers, etc.) are totally on target and nail the right vibe that continues to help define Thor as separate from the other Avengers, who are already adept at curating their brand.  Waititi has contributed so much to give Thor and his gang a near-kitschy ‘80s feel, and it works as well here as it did in the previous film.  What doesn’t work as well is Waititi’s insistence on overplaying that wacky comedy which, when doled out in spurts, works nicely.  When it’s nonstop goofiness, as it often is in Thor: Love and Thunder, the movie can be exhausting to watch and genuinely baffling to experience.

It’s nice to see Portman back, you can see why the chance to work with Waititi was an enticing offer to get her to return. One wishes she had more robust material to work with and her overall purpose wasn’t so rudimentary.  There’s an essential piece of her puzzle not given away in the trailers, so I won’t spoil it here, but the writers lay something on Jane Foster to overcome and care so little about it aside from it being a convenient plot device, they don’t give anything in the way of specifics. (I know that’s just as vague and non-specific but once you see the movie you’ll understand why and also what I’m talking about.)  Then you have Crowe with the strangest of accents (perhaps wanting to compete with Tom Hanks in Elvis for the worst attempt at indistinguishable dialect) in a befuddling appearance that’s more jokey than jovial. 

Thankfully, Hemsworth keeps the movie somewhat grounded and reminds you that Thor: Love and Thunder is, at its heart, a superhero film.  As strange as it was to see Bale appear on the other side of the good guy/bad guy wheel, the Oscar winner does wonderful (and frightening!) work. Several sequences deliver quite nicely, despite an overabundance of somewhat shoddy CGI…if you can even see it in the first place.  One battle near the end has monsters barely defined before they are defeated.  Does it deliver the kind of standalone fun that recent Marvel success stories have?  I don’t think so, and, based on the shoulder-shrugging post-credit sequences, I’m not sure I’d be chomping at the bit for the next installment of a Thor story either.

Movie Review ~ Thor: The Dark World

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Faced with an enemy that even Odin and Asgard cannot withstand, Thor must embark on his most perilous and personal journey yet, one that will reunite him with Jane Foster and force him to sacrifice everything to save us all.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgård, Idris Elba, Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo, Anthony Hopkins

Director: Alan Taylor

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I wasn’t the biggest fan of 2011’s Thor, feeling that for a modern day superhero adventure it was awfully slow and relied too much on special effects imagery to create its fantasy lands in which our hero fought various villains.  Though it was a well-made affair, it paled in comparison to the shoot for the moon efforts from Iron Man and Iron Man 2 and lacked the nostalgic feel that Captain America: The First Avenger brought forth.

Well, with a few years and another film appearance under his belt (2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers) Thor has returned and if he’s not better than ever, he’s at least stepped up his game in an attempt to go to bat with the big boys of summer.

The plot for Thor: The Dark World is so convoluted that even if I weren’t a spoiler-free type of critic I wouldn’t know how to succinctly describe the events of the film.  All you’ll need to know is that once again the forces of darkness have set their sights on conquering Thor’s land of Asgard with a greater scheme of reducing our Earth to smithereens for total world domination.  So, in Marvel speak, just another day at the bad guy office.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Snow White and the Hunstman, Cabin in the Woods, Rush) meets up again with Jane (Natalie Portman) but instead of fighting the battle within her world he brings her back to Asgard because she holds the key to its survival…and destruction.  This leaves some of the earthbound players of the first film with mere cameos and beefs up the presence of the Asgard folk that were sidelined in the original.

Hemsworth sports a better wig and about five more expressions than he had the last time and in general seems to have more fun with the role.  As the star of the show, he has to work extra hard to keep the focus of the audience because Tom Hiddleston’s Loki returns as the bad guy you love to hate.  Loki wants to take a lot from Thor that isn’t his…and in doing so Hiddleston the actor nearly scampers off with the movie as well.  In his third go at the role, Hiddleston’s characterization only deepens so that the audience, like Thor, doesn’t really know where his loyalties lie from minute to minute.

Even with more screen time, Portman has precious little to do here but lay helpless as a dark force begins to take over her body.  It was widely reported that Portman was resistant to return to the film after a female director she brought on board was let go by the producers as filming approached.  I’m not sure if that affected what happened in the script but it’s surprising to see Portman play such a one-dimensional role this far into her career.

Television director Alan Taylor makes his feature film debut with a film that feels more cohesive than the overly theatrical gusto of the Kenneth Branagh helmed predecessor.  Even with its kitchen sink plot, Taylor manages to keep things in line…which is why Marvel may have chosen him over Portman’s original selection.  Though these films are designed to stand on their own, there’s little doubt that a larger game plan for future installments and crossovers hasn’t already been etched out somewhere in the basement of a Hollywood film studio.  In that respect, Thor: The Dark World seems to be content in being part of something bigger and not trying to reach so far ahead of its limited appeal in my eyes.

A strong improvement over the original, I’m still hesitant to give myself over fully to the Norse god that wields that powerful hammer.  Though he’s now shown a softer side and his ability to play well with others, there’s an otherworldly aura to both Thor films that has kept this viewer grounded instead of taking off.

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Down From the Shelf ~ Thor

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The powerful but arrogant god Thor is cast out of Asgard to live amongst humans in Midgard (Earth), where he soon becomes one of their finest defenders.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgard, Jaimie Alexander, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Josh Dallas, Tadanobu Asano, Idris Elba, Clark Gregg, Colm Feore, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Buoyed by the enormous success of Iron Man and Iron Man 2, Marvel sought to continue toward its ultimate goal of making what would become the 2012 blockbuster The Avengers by releasing Thor in May of 2011.  Re-watching the film again before taking in its 2013 sequel, Thor: The Dark World, I was again reminded why Thor was my least favorite of the Marvel films franchise so far.

In the two years since I originally saw Thor theatrically Marvel has also released Captain America: The First Avenger and Iron Man 3 and these films have only served to solidify my thoughts that Thor doesn’t work as well for me  because so much of it is set primarily in a world of CGI fantasy.  Whereas characters like Iron Man and Captain America operate in a world not so far away from our own recognizable metropolis capitals, Thor’s land of Asgard is a nicely rendered but ultimately too shiny a façade to keep my interest.

It doesn’t help that Thor has the least interesting characters and villains in the Marvel Universe so it’s hard to get attached to any of them.  While he fared better in The Avengers, Chris Hemsworth (Rush, Cabin in the Woods) is a sullen dud as Thor, confusing rote glowering for juvenile indignation when he doesn’t get his way.  When he’s banished from his homeland and left powerless in the deserts of New Mexico where he’s rescued by astrophysicist Jane (Natalie Portman, fresh from her Best Actress Oscar win for Black Swan) who happens to be studying the very wormhole that brought him to Earth.

In a plot that mines some of Shakespeare’s best works (no wonder Bard-indebted actor Kenneth Branagh is in the director’s chair here), Thor must come up against his half-brother Loki (a benignly sinister Tom Hiddleston) to stop him from taking the throne as the heir of Asgard and plunging the world into a frozen wasteland.  The familiar themes of a royal family betrayal are a nice complement to the mythology of the superhero but a lack of original battle sequences and climax that feels rushed ultimately lets the film and audience members down.

The big budget bucks are fully on display here and, don’t get me wrong, though the film is effects heavy it looks great.  It’s just so different from the other Marvel films (so far) that I always knew I was watching a film that existed within its own rules.  There’s something about seeing Iron Man/Tony Stark pursued by various nasties through an urban earthly landscape that speaks to me more than watching Thor dangle dangerously on the edge of an impressive but obviously effects created black hole.

As with every Marvel film there are fun cameos, hidden clues that tie the film to other movies, and hints at what’s next to come.  The final scene in the end credits was directed by The Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon because it served as a bridge toward the opening scenes of Whedon’s awesome summer blockbuster.  There’s also a quick appearance by Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy, American Hustle) as Clint Barton/Hawkeye who would become a major player that next summer.

A solid super-hero flick with a spattering of theatrical drama, Thor is still low on my Marvel list but does serve its purpose of introducing The God of Thunder to whole new legion of fans.

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The Silver Bullet ~ Thor: The Dark World

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Synopsis: Thor battles an ancient race of Dark Elves led by the vengeful Malekith who threatens to plunge the universe back into darkness after the events of The Avengers.

Release Date:  November 8, 2013

Thoughts:   I was a bit underwhelmed by 2011’s Thor but recognized the value it had in the Marvel Universe, seeing that it played a larger part in getting the franchise closer to the release of The Avengers in 2012.  With Iron Man 3 releasing in May, the next Avenger to see a sequel is the God of Thunder and this time he’s back with a film that looks more like the film we’d expect from this comic/character.  Star Chris Hemsworth (Cabin in the Woods, Snow White and the Huntsman) has this coming out two months after a strong performance in Ron Howard’s Formula 1 racing film Rush so count on him ending 2013 with some extra sawbucks in the bank.  The rest of the gang is back but with a new director at the helm I’m thinking this one will open up a new dimension that previous director Kenneth Branagh wasn’t able to deliver on.

Movie Review ~ The Last Stand

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The leader of a drug cartel busts out of a courthouse and speeds to the Mexican border, where the only thing in his path is a sheriff and his inexperienced staff.

Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Knoxville, Rodrigo Santoro, Jaimie Alexander, Luis Guzmán, Eduardo Noriega, Peter Stormare, Zach Gilford, Genesis Rodriguez, Daniel Henney, John Patrick Amedori

Director: Kim Jee-Woon

Rated: R

Running Length: 107 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  He’s back.  I mean, he always said he’d be back…right?  After exercising his political muscles as Governor of California and appearing in a few cameo roles (like The Expendables 2) Schwarzenegger is back headlining another shoot ‘em up actioner that’s heavy on ammunition but light on any semblance of subtlety.  Ok, I’m sure you wouldn’t be lining up to see a Schwarzenegger flick that’s described as subtle but is it too much to ask for a film of this ilk to play to the strengths of its star?

Though it’s constructed and filmed with its head firmly planted in 80’s action flicks, The Last Stand seems to forget that these films were fun at heart so it sacrifices some great camp opportunities in favor of letting its cast shamefully overact amidst dizzying gun battles and laughable moments of misguided exposition.  It’s probably not a good thing if you come away from a film saying that Schwarzenegger was the best actor of the bunch…or am I wrong?

Schwarzenegger heads the cast as a sheriff of a small border town going head to head with minions of a drug lord (Noriega, Tesis) that have descended into town to clear the way for their boss to continue his escape from federal agents into Mexico.  The premise sounds like a perfect fit for Schwarzenegger and to a large extent the actor glides easily with the material.  The problem is that the soggy script from Andrew Knauer, Jeffrey Nachmanoff, and George Nolfi feels like it has been around for over a decade and it’s gathered a lot of dust.  I keep considering that maybe it was a pet project for Schwarzenegger before he took office.

Respected Korean director Kim Jee-Woon (I Saw the Devil) is making his US debut with the film and I can only liken it to when Hong Kong’s equally well-regarded John Woo made his first picture stateside, the misfire Jean Claude Van-Damme vehicle Hard Target.  It’s clear the director has style and good instincts but he seems restricted here and never guides the picture to achieve a balance between all of the elements it introduces. 

That goes double for a largely forgettable cast that’s all over the map.  Whitaker looks totally lost in it all…until the movie forgets that he’s a top billed actor and jettisons his character for the latter half of the film.  Knoxville continues to play arrested development imbeciles all the way to the bank and his pajama wearing, gun-loving doofus is anything but the comedic relief it’s intended to be.  As the right hand man to the kingpin, Stormare once again goes for the gold in the crazy meter and achieves liftoff early on.  Alexander, Gilford, Guzman, and Santoro are Schwarzenegger’s allies but any attempt to make them dynamic characters is a failure. 

That leaves us with Schwarzenegger to make the picture tolerable and he almost makes it work.  With some guffaw-inducing scenes where he looks positively crazy thanks to his nutso hairstyle, the movie begins to buckle under the weight of so much wasted energy.  At a baffling 107 minutes the movie could use a 15 minute trim, tightening up the action scenes and losing needless detours involving Schwarzenegger’s past.

Though there are a few clever methods used to dispatch the endless array of bad guys, The Last Stand is sadly not the comeback picture that I’m sure Schwarzenegger intended it to be — it’s embarrassing box office performance assures that no sequel will be considered.  Schwarzenegger already has several other projects in the works so let’s chalk this one up to the star dipping his toes back in the pool he helped fill throughout the 80’s and 90’s.