Movie Review ~ Thor: Ragnarok


The Facts
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Synopsis: Imprisoned, the mighty Thor finds himself in a lethal gladiatorial contest against the Hulk, his former ally. Thor must fight for survival and race against time to prevent the all-powerful Hela from destroying his home and the Asgardian civilization.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Sam Neill, Benedict Cumberbatch

Director: Taika Waititi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Let’s be real here…you didn’t like those first two Thor movies either, did you? I knew it. Seemingly out of place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, likely because they were the only films that took place largely in literally their own universe, Thor and it’s sequel Thor: The Dark World were what comic book movies should never, ever be: boring. It was only when Thor joined up with his friends in The Avengers and Avengers: The Age of Ultron that the Norse god felt energized and alive. Well after Thor: Ragnarok there is enough electricity generated by director Taika Waititi to power several more sequels. It puts the other two films to shame and bests several other Marvel outings at the same time.

As the film opens, Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Rush) is in a bit of a bind as he finds himself in the clutches of the fire demon Surtur. Surthur lets Thor know that a great battle known as Ragnarok is about to unfold, a battle that will see Surtur lay waste to Thor’s Asgardian home and all its peoples. Since this is the prologue and we have a couple of hours left, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Thor makes it out of his prison and finds his way back to Asgard. Arriving unannounced only to run into his mischief making adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, Kong: Skull Island) masquerading as their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs). Unaware that Loki imprisoned his father on Earth, Thor meets up with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, August: Osage County) who points him in the right direction of where his father may be.

Thor does find his pops but the reunion is short-lived as his long-lost sister Hela (Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine, having the absolute best time ever) arrives with her eyes on Odin’s throne. Sending her siblings into another galaxy to get them out of her villainous way, she starts to wreak havoc in her homeland and Thor and Loki make their way through a new world ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, Jurassic Park). With Loki avoiding a life of servitude on the junk planet, that leaves Thor fighting for his freedom, gladiator-style, against his old friend the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher). Assisted by fellow Asgardian in exile Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, Creed) and loyal Heimdall (Idris Elba, Prometheus), all make their way back to Asgard to face off with Hela to save their world.

There’s a lot that happens in Thor: Ragnarok and it’s almost universally entertaining. Waititi (who also plays a dryly-hilarious alien made up of rocks) brings such interesting ideas to the table along with a sense of humor and fun that has been missing from not only Thor’s previous outings but from Marvel at large. With its fun cameos (not only from Marvel characters), it’s wacky and colorful and I enjoyed every minute of it. Mark Mothersbaugh’s (The LEGO Movie) score is a real tip and while they curiously use Immigrant Song twice, it makes sense and gives key battle sequences a rock concert vibe. I normally recoil at movies that are so CGI heavy but the visuals are gorgeously rendered here, making for truly exciting viewing.

While it does help to have a working knowledge of the other entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this one may be a good entry point for newbies…but then someone will have to explain to them why the other two movies are so dull. Here’s hoping Marvel retains Waititi because he’s the reason why this works so very well.

Movie Review ~ Spider-Man: Homecoming


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Several months after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Peter Parker tries to balance his life as an ordinary high school student in New York City while fighting crime as his superhero alter ego Spider-Man.

Stars: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Zendaya Coleman, Marisa Tomei, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Robert Downey Jr., Jon Favreau, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly

Director: Jon Watts

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Another Spider-Man restage?  Really?  A big collective groan was heard from fanboys and girls around the world when Sony decided to reboot their prized web-slinger back in 2012 with The Amazing Spider-Man.  That film and its 2014 sequel (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), while solidifying the rising popularity of stars Andrew Garfield and Emma stone, never fully justified its back to the drawing board feel.  So when Marvel Studios came to Sony with an offer to join creative forces and bring Spidey into the Marvel universe where he belonged, it was an offer they really had no right to refuse.  Still, with a new superhero movie seemingly released every other week, did the world need to get to know Spider-Man all over again?

The answer, dear friendly neighborhood readers, was a resounding yes.  Spider-Man: Homecoming is just the reenergizing kick in the pants Marvel was needing after a string of well received but oddly bland sequels (Avengers: Age of Ultron) and iffy first outings (Doctor Strange, Ant-Man).  Best of all, it’s so tonally different than the original trilogy and recent two entries that it should keep fans of that canon at bay.  Even better news, it’s not an origin story!

If you missed either The Avengers, its sequel, or Captain America: Civil War like my movie mate did, you may be a little lost in the first moments of this new Spidey adventure.  The brief prologue recaps Spider-Man’s introduction to The Avengers in Civil War from his wide-eyed teenage perspective and quickly brings you up to speed while setting the whiz-bang pace at the same time.  It also lays the groundwork for why it’s main bad guy went so rogue.

After his brief foray into the superhero big leagues, Peter Parker (Tom Holland, The Impossible) gets grounded by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., The Judge, looking guiltier than ever at continuing to collect a paycheck) and put under the watchful eye of Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, Entourage) who quickly loses interest in the teen.  Not one to let his new heroic muscles go unstretched, Peter sets about “saving” residents of his Queens borough neighborhood, whether they like it or not.  Often causing more trouble than preventing it, Peter stumbles upon a group of thugs led by Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton, Need for Speed), all of whom are clearly up to no good.

A disgruntled former blue-collar union man, Toomes has used his skills and a few alien power sources he’s scrounged together to fashion a set of wings (complimented by a bad ass bomber jacket) that take him sky high.  As Peter gets closer to finding out the truth behind Toomes/The Vulture, he comes up against not only his most powerful villain yet but runs afoul of his ally Stark in the process.

At 133 minutes, there’s a lot to cram in and thankfully the large handful of credited screenwriters have decided to forgo retelling how Peter got his powers and waste little time with introductions.  This being a summer tentpole film for Sony and Marvel and in the wake of the critical and financial success of DC Comics stellar Wonder Woman, a lot was riding on this entry.  Those studio exces can breathe a sigh of relief because from the nicely drawn characters to several impressive action sequences, this is a film that constantly and consistently delivers the goods.

Director Jon Watts (Clown) joins a curious list of “out of the box” choices to direct a movie of this size.  Known for his work in independent films, it’s obvious from the small details Watts adds into the film (like including a bit of Japanese war history on the wall of an otherwise innocuous school official, giving even a minor character a backstory) that he was the right choice for the job.  It’s a fast, funny film that felt unpredictable even though it’s part of the most predictable genre being produced today.

Nailing down the perfect star to play Peter Parker was no small task but Sony struck gold with Holland who, though 21, feels like the first actor to successfully play a believable 15-year-old.  With Holland’s dance training (he was Billy Elliot in the London stage show) and his well-documented tremendous athleticism, he’s able to bring the character forward rather than get lost within the costume and pristine visual effects.  Sharing the screen with scenery chewers like Downey Jr. and Keaton isn’t for the faint of heart but Holland more than holds his own.

Speaking of Keaton, it’s such fun to see him play a bad guy. With his devilish grin and arched eyebrows, he gives Toomes a pulse along with ample brainwaves.  I always respond to villains that aren’t out to take over the world but to reclaim what they think was taken from them and Toomes joins a long list of Spider-Man foes that have personal reasons for going bad. Zendaya Coleman, Marisa Tomei (Love the Coopers), Jacob Batalon, and Laura Harrier round out the cast and all (but especially Batalon) make for a strong support system for Peter and the film.

With a few unexpected twists (there’s at least two reveals I didn’t see coming) and edge of your seat thrills that are sure to inspire furious popcorn munching, Spider-Man: Homecoming is worth your time and your attention.  If your Spidey senses aren’t tingling from the opening logos played over the old-school title tune, they will be once Holland and company get down to business.  This being a Marvel movie, you gotta stay until the very end for one of the more meta post credit sequences to date.

The Silver Bullet ~ Thor: Ragnarok



Synopsis
: Thor must face the Hulk in a gladiator match and save his people from the ruthless Hela.

Release Date:  November 3, 2017

Thoughts: At the end of this first teaser trailer for November’s third Thor film the only word I could think of was ‘finally’.  Finally, after two solo films and appearances in several other Marvel releases, the God of Thunder might just get his own adventure that’s worth a second viewing.  I wasn’t any kind of fan of the original Thor or its sequel Thor: The Dark World, finding them turgid treks through standard action franchise portals.  This one, however, just feels like it has a pulse and personality to go with it.  From the inspired casting of Oscar winner Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) to a genuinely exciting surprise finale right on down to the ‘80s reminiscent title cards…I’m actually looking forward to this one.

The Silver Bullet ~ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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Synopsis: The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mysteries of Peter Quill’s true parentage.

Release Date: May 5, 2017

Thoughts: Surpassing the expectations of audiences and even, I think, its own studio, Guardians of the Galaxy was a late summer splash in 2014.  Elevating star Chris Pratt to A-List status (further cemented the next summer when he headlined Jurassic World) and bringing to the screen heroes that didn’t wear a red cape or a cowl, GoTG was slick, funny, exciting, and fueled with enough adrenaline to power several city blocks.  The hype is big for Vol. 2 when it arrives in May 2017 and this first teaser is but a taste of things to come (not to mention multiple full length trailers).  In all honesty, like the trailer for the original this one is too jokey for my taste but as a whistle whetter, it gets the job done.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

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Hasta

We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.

I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.

May

Though the summer movie season has traditionally been thought of as Memorial Day through Labor Day, in the past several years studios have marked early May as the start of the summer movie wars and 2015 was no different.

Kicking things off on May 1 was Avengers: Age of Ultron and, as expected, it was a boffo blockbuster that gave fans more Marvel fantasy fun. While it wasn’t as inventive as its predecessor and relied too much on jokey bits, the movie was everything a chartbuster should be: big, loud, worth another look.

Acting as a bit of counter-programming, the next week saw the release of two very different comedies, neither of which made much of a dent in the box office take of The Avengers. Critics gnashed their teeth at the Reese Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara crime comedy Hot Pursuit but I didn’t mind it nearly as much as I thought I would. True, it set smart girl power flicks back a few years but it played well to the strengths of its leads and overall was fairly harmless. I hadn’t heard of The D Train before a screening but was pleasantly surprised how good it turned out to be, considering I’m no fan of Jack Black. The movie has several interesting twists that I didn’t see coming, proving that Black and co-star James Marsden will travel out of their comfort zones for a laugh.

Blythe Danner proved she was more than Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom in the lovely, if slight, I’ll See You in My Dreams. It may be too small a picture to land Danner on the end of the year awards list she deserves but the drama was a welcome change of pace so early in the summer.

Another early May drama was a wonderful adaptation of a classic novel…and one I forgot to review when I had the chance…here’s my brief take on it now…

                                         Movie Review ~ Far From the Madding Crowd
far_from_the_madding_crowd_ver2The Facts
:
Synopsis: In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor.
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Juno Temple, Tom Sturridge
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s celebrated novel was a moving drama brimming with quietly powerful performances and lush cinematography. It’s a story that has been duplicated quite a lot over the years so one could be forgiven for feeling like we’ve seen this all before. Still, in the hands of director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) and led by stars Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), & Michael Sheen (Admission) it stirred deep emotions that felt fresh. Special mention must be made to Craig Armstrong (The Great Gatsby) for his gorgeous score and Charlotte Bruus Christensen for her aforementioned picturesque cinematography. You missed this in the theater, I know you did…it’s out to rent/buy now and you should check it out pronto.

Around mid-May the summer bar of greatness was set with the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road. The long in development fourth outing (and semi-reboot) of director George Miller’s apocalyptic hero was a movie lovers dream…pushing the boundaries of cinema and filmmaking into new places. A vicious, visceral experience, I can still feel the vibration in my bones from the robust film…a real winner.

The same week that Mad Max came back into our lives, a so-so sequel found its way to the top of the box office. Pitch Perfect 2 was a lazy film that’s as close to a standard cash grab as you could get without outright playing the original film and calling it a sequel. Uninspired and lacking the authenticity that made the first film so fun, it nevertheless made a song in receipts and a third film will be released in the next few years.

Tomorrowland and Poltergeist were the next two films to see the light of day and neither inspired moviegoers enough to gain any traction. Tomorrowland was actually the first film of the summer I saw twice…admittedly because I was curious about a new movie theater with reclining seats that I wanted to try out. As for the movie, the first half was an exciting adventure while the final act was a real mess.

I thought I’d hate the Poltergeist remake way more than I did…but I ended up just feeling bad for everyone involved because the whole thing was so inconsequential that I wished all of that energy had been directed into something of lasting value. While Sam Worthington made for a surprisingly sympathetic lead, the entire tone of the film was off and not even a few neat 3D effects could save it from being a waste.

May went out with a boom thanks to two wildly different films. If you asked me what I thought the prospects were for San Andreas before the screening I would have replied that Sia’s cover of California Dreamin’ would be the only good thing to come out of the action picture starring everyone’s favorite muscle with eyes, Dwayne Johnson. I still feel like Sia came out on top but the movie itself was a more than decent disaster epic, a little too long but made up for it with grand sequences of mayhem and destruction. Can’t imagine it will play nearly as well on a small screen but I wasn’t hating the film when the credits rolled.

A film I wasn’t too thrilled with at all was Aloha, Cameron Crowe’s own personal disaster flick. I still don’t know quite what to say about the movie because it was so dreadful that I’ve attempted to clear it from my memory. What I do remember was that it wasted its strong cast and exotic locale, as well as our time. Truly terrible.

STAY TUNED FOR JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST!

Movie Review ~ Avengers: Age of Ultron

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Tony Stark tries to jumpstart a dormant peacekeeping program, things go awry and it is up to the Avengers to stop the villainous Ultron from enacting his terrible plans.

Stars: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jr., Linda Cardellini, Mark Ruffalo, Andy Serkis, Thomas Kretschmann, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Stellan Skarsgård, Scarlett Johansson, Julie Delpy, Idris Elba, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Chris Hemsworth, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Claudia Kim

Director: Joss Whedon

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 141 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Here’s the thing that I like most about a good smörgåsbord – there’s something for everyone. Hot food, cold food, deserts, salads…it’s all at your fingertips and you can have as much or as little as you like. When presented with so many options, the whole experience can be somewhat overwhelming…but once you’ve had the chance to survey the selections and try out some choice cuts, you usually wind up walking away feeling a sense of fulfillment.

If any movie of 2015 (or any film in recent memory, actually) can be likened to a smörgåsbord it most certainly is this hugely anticipated follow up to 2012’s The Avengers. Offering bigger thrills and higher stakes, it’s a gargantuan film that redefines the term blockbuster. Still, I have to be honest and say that while it’s an all-together overpowering outing from the get-go, it took me a good twenty minutes to acclimate myself to writer/director Joss Whedon’s awe-inspiring sequel.

Starting up in the middle of the kind of go-big-or-go-home battle usually reserved for the latter half of other would-be blockbusters (the first of five jumbo battle royales featured in the 2.5 hour film), there’s no time wasted in re-introducing our friendly group of superheroes. Most of the crusaders have solidly led the way in their own films (Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America) while others have turned in noble supporting turns (Black Widow, Hawkeye, War Machine) in the same movies. Grouped together on screen, as The Avengers proved so impressively well, they can defeat schemes of world domination while rattling off Whedon’s quip-heavy banter.

Whedon knows his way around a clever turn of phrase but there’s a limit to how much witty repartee can be tossed at the audience before it begins to feel a little too astute for its own good. There seems to be an overly earnest need to kick things off on the right foot by giving us the greatest hits of Tony Stark, the master of delivering a one-liner, while storming the eastern European castle featured in the beginning battle. It’s just all a little much for this reviewer…but luckily Whedon and crew achieve a nice balance of fun and furious action in a plot that has a lot going on but never feels overstuffed.

While Avengers: Age of Ultron works in pieces as a stand-alone film, it will really pay off for the wise viewer that has already seen Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Thor, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Solider, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Several familiar faces from these films pop up and, as was the case in the The Avengers, it’s nice to see how many cross over characters play a part in the action without it all feeling like a ComicCon version of The Love Boat.

What’s the plot you ask? Best to let you find that out yourself so as not to spoil some of Whedon’s more elaborate set-ups. What I can relay is that it involves a villainous bit of Stark created Artificial Intelligence named Ultron spectacularly voiced by James Spader (Mannequin) managing to inject humanity with a devious sarcasm into this completely CGI role – it’s hard to imagine anyone else giving voice to the destructive machine with such flair. Ultron has big plans for The Avengers and the world as a whole from the moment he comes online with the help of a familiar piece of sought-after power. Aided by a pair of powerful twins (Aaron Taylor-Johnson & Elizabeth Olsen…both featured in last summer’s Godzilla) and a host of bad robots, Ultron keeps the hits coming right up until the grandest of grand finales of any large-scale action film I can recall. The only way it could have been bigger is if the theater set off fireworks at the end.

Returning to the fray are Robert Downey Jr. (The Judge), Chris Evans (Snowpiercer), Chris Hemsworth (Cabin in the Woods), Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin), Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher), Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy), Paul Bettany (Mortdecai), and Samuel L. Jackson (RoboCop) and it’s worth noting that everyone seems happy to have their moment in the sun and then let their colleagues have their time to shine too.

Marvel is just on an unstoppable roll now and with the next Captain America film due in 2016, the next Thor film due in 2017, and the two part Avengers finale arriving in the two years after that there’s a whole lot more ground to cover. Let’s not forget the other Marvel films on the big and small screen that will surely play a part in future development deals.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is Whedon’s swan song in the director’s chair and he’s followed up an adrenaline blast of a first film with a layered and just as entertaining sequel that pushes ideas and characters forward. Make sure to see it on the biggest screen possible with the best sound (the 3D is optional…I wouldn’t think it’s a requirement) to truly max out your Avengers experience.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Synopsis: When Tony Stark tries to jumpstart a dormant peacekeeping program, things go awry and it is up to The Avengers to stop the villainous Ultron from enacting his terrible plans.

Release Date:  May 1, 2015

Thoughts:  Summer 2014 isn’t quite a distant memory yet (though with the paltry offerings it very well should be) but audiences are already looking toward the treasures that 2015 has to offer.  First on most every “must-see” list is this sequel to the super-duper big time hit of 2012 Marvel’s The Avengers which sees the whole gang in front of behind the camera reunited to drum up some more box office gold for Walt Disney and Marvel Studios.  Like The Dark Knight, I wonder if the bar has been raised so far that the sequel won’t be able to reach the same heights…but never count dependable writer/director Joss Whedon out because it’s clear he knows what he’s doing.  The countdown to May 2015 has officially begun with this nifty little tease at what deadly force The Avengers are about to face…I know I’ll have that dang Pinocchio tune in my head for days now.

Movie Review ~ Guardians of the Galaxy

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In the far reaches of space, an American pilot named Peter Quill finds himself the object of a manhunt after stealing an orb coveted by the villainous Ronan.

Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro

Director: James Gunn

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: If I’m being honest (and c’mon, we’re close enough friends that I’ll always tell the truth) I’ll admit that at first I just didn’t know what to make of Guardians of the Galaxy.  After several years of recognizable Marvel comic book properties making their way to the big screen (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Thor, Thor: The Dark World, and The Avengers) I wasn’t certain where this new franchise film would fit in.  Not being well acquainted with the source material, I couldn’t quite warm to the first jokey preview that set fan tongues a waggin’ but had me scratchin’ my noggin.  And what was up with the raccoon and talking tree?

So I find myself hunkering down for a screening of Marvel’s latest attempt at superhero domination a little grumbly and prepared for my worst fears onscreen: an overblown yuk fest of an actioner with copious one-liners and inter-galactic battle sequences that pummel you with lots of noise and digital effects.  Who knew that’s exactly what this summer needed?

If the previous Marvel superhero films equate to a stretch limo with your cool aunts and uncles, then Guardians of the Galaxy is the party bus transporting your crazy cousins.  I ask you…which ride would you rather take?

Starting with an emotional Earth-bound prologue that segues into a silly credits sequence showcasing the first of several 80s musical hits, Guardians of the Galaxy hits its stride early on and never lets up as audiences are taking to various points throughout the solar system.  When overgrown kid/space pilot Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, Her, now primed for A-List stardom) steals a mysterious orb that looks like the Omegahedron from 1984’s Supergirl, he gets into all kinds of hot water from blue hued baddie Ronan (Lee Pace, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) that wants to use its powers to do some planetary damage.  Additionally, Quill has a bounty put on his head from another Smurf colored character (Michael Rooker) that sent him to retrieve the orb in the first place.

Bounty hunter raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper, The Place Beyond the Pines) and deciduous sidekick Groot (Vin Diesel, Riddick, in possibly his best performance…heard not seen) aren’t the only ones after Quill.  Sent by Ronan to fetch the orb, Gamora (Zoe Saldana, Out of the Furnace, trading her Avatar blue for wicked green) may have plans of her own for the strange object.  It all turns into your standard case of multiple people wanting to possess the orb for numerous purposes.  From prison breaks to narrow escapes, the movie has a breathless pace but never feels rushed or out of balance.  It’s a full meal of a film that blessedly doesn’t wind up feeling like a franchise jumping off point (which of course it is).

Director and co-screenwriter James Gunn packs a lot into his film and there’s a welcome point of view sorely lacking in films made from comic book tales.  He backs up strong characterization with an assembled design team that should get ready for Oscar nominations in visual effects, make-up, and costume design.  From the mechanizations of the evil Nebula (Karen Gillan, Oculus) to the body art of logic driven He-Man-esque Drax (Dave Bautista, who maybe would have been a better choice for Hercules), there’s a follow-through and attention to detail that acts as the sprinkles on top of Gunn’s visual sundae of a film.

Did I mention it’s incredibly funny as well?  I was worried that the laughs would trump logic but from Gunn’s clever music selection and his willingness to capitalize on Pratt’s comedic gifts, there’s the sense that everyone is on the joke and relishing their chance to participate.  Gunn doesn’t let the humor rule the picture but instead picks wise moments to break up some of the overly nerdy bits.

In a summer of ups and downs, Guardians of the Galaxy emerges as the most satisfying big studio film I’ve seen all year (my favorite films of the year, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood, don’t count seeing as they’re independent endeavors) and goes a long way in saving the Summer of 2014 from being remembered as three months of mediocre-to-terrible offerings like A Million Ways to Die in the West, Blended, Jersey Boys, and the cinematic Ebola virus called Tammy.  It’s a mammoth sized two hour superlative treat – the one film of the summer worth seeing twice.

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 ~ Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Synopsis: Steve Rogers struggles to embrace his role in the modern world and teams up with Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, to battle a powerful yet shadowy enemy in present-day Washington, D.C.

Release Date: April 4, 2014

Thoughts: I was a big fan of the 2011 film that introduced Captain America into the Marvel universe.  A long time favorite hero of those that follow the comics, the movie delivered robust action and had an incredibly likable lead in Chris Evans…not to mention the best female character to date in any Marvel film (that’d be Hayley Atwell as Agent Peggy Carter).  After joining forces with his fellow superheroes in The Avengers, Captain America gets his own sequel but Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, Hitchcock) is along for the ride.  Even with Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World coming up in November, I’m perhaps a tad more excited for the adventure this film has to offer.