Thor: Ragnarok (2017): The Beginning of the End for Comic Book Adaptations?

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Directed by personal favorite Taika Waititi (who directed the brilliant 2016 film Hunt for the Wilderpeople) Thor:Ragnarok can be seen as the beginning of the end for Thor in a number of ways. By the film’s end, Thor resembles Odin and has truly become his father’s son.

The film is a direct lead in to the next “big” thing in the Marvel-verse and, somewhat disturbingly, seems to signal an unwanted change in the comic book adaptations that we have all grown to love.

Thor: Ragnarok is more action comedy than all out action with a touch of humor (a’la Joss Whedon’s first two offerings in the Marvel arena of Avengers and all those who sail her…). Chris Hemsworth proves that underneath all those muscles and good looks there beats the heart of a comedian. 

He is almost hysterically funny and while this speaks volumes of his talent as an actor, it serves to “humanize” the God of Thunder too much. Granted the character is somewhat unnerved when his hammer Mjölnir is smashed to bits by Hella and he has been shaken by the death of Odin.

However…

Thor screaming in terror just before meeting the Grand Master (a star turn by the delightfully eccentric Jeff Goldblum) and then begging for his long tresses to be uncut takes the “God”and makes him puny and human. (But funny.)

There are a number of comic moments in the film. They are well presented- the build up to meeting Goldblum’s character with the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” music playing in the background is simply delicious – but they detract from the verse as presented by Marvel and Disney thus far.

The films have always taken a moment to poke fun at the very premise of superheroes that suffer from an inflated sense of hubris and taking themselves far too seriously. “Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?” These moments come almost invariably from Tony Stark and although Thor does have a sense of comic timing “He’s adopted,” he is not overtly funny.

Thor: Ragnarok feels a little like Universal’s move in the late 1940’s to add comedy to their horror films. (Abbott and Costello Meet: Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolfman – “I know you’ll think I’m crazy, but… in a half-an-hour the moon will rise and I’ll turn into a wolf.”  “You and 20 million other guys!”) This move (to comedy) resulted in the death of the golden goose that make Universal a mint from horror and ultimately killed the genre.

The moment comedy becomes the main focus of a genre, even a “sub-genre” like comic book adaptations, the original intent is lost and the target audience drifts away. Studios have  learned, to their chagrin, that comedy in the superhero verse is a fragile thing.

Look at Suicide Squad where a clear conscious decision was made to “Marvel-ize” DC characters. The end result was a mess and lacked the darkness that sets the DC verse apart from Marvel. (There are exceptions of course, but overall, the heroes in DC-land are quite dark and tortured.)

Thor: Ragnarok is a great film though despite all the comedic moments. It looks great, there are cameos galore and Karl Urban is brilliant as the “baddie” that we know will redeem himself. (Kudos also go to the beautiful and oh so talented Tessa Thompson, she has, in one role, managed to fill the spot of new female action hero that Michelle Rodriguez first introduced “way back when.”)

Cate Blanchett kills it as the God of Death “Hela” and the only downside to this entire film is the death of almost all of Thor’s Asgardian cronies. Although Lady Sif is spared a grizzly death as she is oddly absent in this latest adventure in the Asgardian verse…

The interactions between Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Thor are brilliantly funny and the director’s playing of the gladiator “rock” creature is nearly sublime. All these moments add up to a film that is fun to watch and one that the audience clearly enjoyed. 

There was, however, too much comedy and it does feel as though this particular brand of franchise may be losing steam. Thor: Ragnarok is, despite the overused comedic element, a full 5 star film. There is enough action to satisfy and the FX are, as usual, spot on.

This is a film that deserves to be seen in the cinema and it is highly recommended that Marvel (and Thor) fans rush to catch it before the DVD and streaming stage. We enjoyed the film immensely although there was that sense of unease at the amount of comic circumstance that seems too much like Universal’s death blow to 1930’s and ’40’s horror. (“You and 20 million other guys!”)

The Snowman (2017): Slow, Beautiful and Quirky (Review)

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Directed by  Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Let the Right One In) The Snowman (based on Jo Nesbo’s novel of the same name) was made from a screenplay co-authored by   Peter Straughan,  Hossein Amini and Søren Sveistrup) features a case on the alcoholic Harry Hole (pronounced holy) played by Michael Fassbender. Fans of the “Nordic Noir” series featuring the FBI trained inspector will be, no doubt, a tad disappointed with this screen version. 

For a start, there is no mention as to why Hole is such an asset to the police department that his boss is willing to cover for his being AWOL from work. The film also touches all too briefly on the love affair between Harry and his ex-girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) but changes the story line somewhat in order to fit the film in a just under a two hour time period. 

I personally adore the entire Harry Hole series by Nesbo.  The Snowman was sixth in the series and while it seems odd that the filmmakers opted for this late novel the movie still works. We miss the intimacy of the books, there is no real focus on Hole or his alcoholic habit, including the why, or just why he and Rakel are still, on the sly, a couple.

The books emphasize the sexual proclivity of Harry along with his weakness for alcohol and the grip is has on his everyday existence.

However:

The film feels right. The story of Harry, as well as Nesbo’s superb novel The Headhunter  (that also left a good bit out of the film when translated from the novel) has to leave a lot of Nesbo’s work and character development or the finished project would have been in excess of four hours long.

I loved the series and Hole as a character. He felt a bit like a Norwegian version of England’s “Cracker” (played so well by that behemoth of talent Robbie Coltrane – who did have a career before Hagrid in the Harry Potter franchise), in other words, a chap who was head and shoulders above his colleagues in skill sets and yet seriously flawed.

At first glance, Fassbender seems a poor choice to play Hole in “The Snowman.” However, he does shine as the alcoholic cop who is deeply addicted to booze, his ex-girlfriend and the pursuit of criminals. He is also, it seems, addicted to sex and not just with his ex. (This is more evident in the books.)

A woman goes missing and all that is left behind is her colorful scarf; wrapped around the neck of a snowman. The trail then leads Hole and his new partner Katrine Bratt (played by Rebecca Ferguson) to investigate a slew of missing women. All the cases seem to be interlinked and Bratt has her own personal agenda while working on the case.n

Bratt leads us to the most puzzling aspect of the film meant to be directed by Scorsese. Her father, played by a very ill-looking Val Kilmer, is part of the case despite being dead for a very long time. Kilmer, who looks to be on death’s door, has his lines dubbed for the film and it has the effect of throwing one right out of the story.

While Scorsese was attached to the film when the initial prospect of The Snowman being made into a film was in its infancy, Alfredson gives us a pretty well rounded film despite the odd bits of editing and continuity that jar and annoy.

(Moments after finding the head of a missing woman stuck on a small snowman, Hole tells his boss that it is all about missing persons at the moment, which is clearly wrong.)

J.K Simmons affects an English accent, Toby Jones is vastly underused and the film does deviate from its source quite a lot. Still, the mood and atmosphere remain faithful to Nesbo’s novel and the movie looks stunning. There is no doubt that we are in Norway, despite the lack of folks speaking the local lingo. (Although some minor parts do speak in what sounds like Norwegian.)

It would have been interesting to see a Norwegian version of this film, with a cast of Nordic performers and subtitles, but this effort manged to entertain, despite it’s overall length of just under two hours.

The Snowman scores a full 4.5 stars out of five for its atmosphere and the ability to keeps one glued to the screen throughout. The appearance of Val Kilmer serves to mystify rather than intrigue although the rest of the film manages to pull the viewer in nicely.

Check this one out at the cinema, it will be worth it, and then rush out and read the books by Nesbo. You will be glad you did. This is a quirky Nordic Noir thriller that manages to deliver despite deviating from the superb book.

The Foreigner (2017): Taut and Entertaining Version of “The Chinaman” (Trailer)

The Foreigner (2017): Taut and Entertaining Version of "The Chinaman"

The Foreigner, directed by Martin Campbell from a screenplay by David Marconi, is the big screen version of Stephen Leather’s taut and very entertaining novel “The Chinaman.” Jackie Chan plays the lead character and he faces up against Pierce Brosnan and a group of “new” IRA members who are hell bent on starting up the old campaign of terror anew.

Fans of Leather’s work will no doubt notice a few changes, with the title change being the first as well as the character’s nationality change, but this does not affect the story at all.  Overall, the tale’s message is the same and it is very easy to get caught up in Quan Ngoc Minh’s personal vendetta against those responsible for his daughter’s death.

The Foreigner is all about Minh’s search for justice after his daughter is killed by a bomb blast in a small clothes shop.(In the book it is Minh’s daughter and wife who die.) Minh visits the police everyday in order to get the names of those responsible. He even offers to pay for the names but the police, despite not operating that way, do not know who is in this new IRA cell.

Brosnan is Liam Hennessy, an Irish deputy minister with a few too many irons in the fire, who offers to help the British government find the new cell and stop them. He also has a lot more going on than is immediately evident. Minh goes to meet with Hennessy and soon the two men are locked in battle.

The Foreigner, like “The Chinaman” offers a main character who is much more than he appears. Minh may well be the owner of a Chinese takeaway/restaurant but he is the sum of his past experiences. These turn out to be all too deadly as Hennessy soon learns to his chagrin.

The pacing is spot on, like the novel it is based upon, and it feels like a splendid throwback to gritty films like the 1980 Bob Hoskins Helen Mirren gangster movie The Long Good Friday(A film that features a very young Pierce Brosnan as a young IRA assassin and one that also deals with bombings.) It has a touch of “Who Dares Wins” to it and features solid performances from all the players.

Campbell manages to keep things moving at a cracking pace and Chan proves that he is adept outside the action/comedy roles that have made him an icon in the industry. The film looks brilliant with everything meshing together perfectly.

The locations, the film is mainly set in London, are spot on and all lack the glamorous appearance of the capital city in films like “The Kingsman 1 and 2.” The action in The Foreigner steadily increases and while the timeline has been “moved up” to fit the present, the tale loses nothing in this shift.

Anyone who has read the book will find that the film delivers Leather’s story well and one has no problem getting behind Minh in his quest for vengeance and his own personal closure.

This is a full five star film that has been, somewhat strangely, given a limited release. (In the cinema where we viewed it The Foreigner was showing in only one theater cubicle.) There is some cursing (the worst being the “C” word), a tiny amount of vague nudity and a lot of violence.

The Foreigner is playing in cinemas now and is well worth the price of admission. Check it out.

Allied (2016): WWII Spy Romance and Brad Pitt’s Still Face

Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard in Allied

Written  by Steven Knight and directed by Oscar winning Robert Zemeckis,  Allied is a romantic spy tale set in WWII. Starring the beautiful and talented Marion Cotillard  and the somewhat still-faced Brad Pitt. The story, one of love and betrayal in England during the second “big” war, is well done and entertaining, although perhaps a bit too transparent in places. 

The main problem with Allied is Pitt’s immobile face. Whether the recently divorced male half of “Brangelina” has opted for plastic surgery to erase those signs of character, aka crow’s feet and laugh lines or gone the botox and collagen route to plump out and freeze his features is unclear.

What is certain is that there is no real physical chemistry between Pitt and his romantic lead. To her credit, Collitard evokes enough emotion to almost make up the lack of response from Pitt, but it is not enough.

To be fair, cinematic acting is on the “down-low,” in other words; the best acting is down played and low key. However, the complete lack of expression on Pitt’s face removes any nuances of romantic interest. In fact, the actor has no facial reaction to anything.

Because of this lack of reaction, it seems that perhaps Pitt has opted for botox, which freezes the face and done some plumping up with collagen. While he looks years younger, it has hurt his performance in this instance. The end result is a one-sided love affair, with Cotillard convincing the audience that as a suspected double-agent, she really has given it all up for Pitt (Wing Commander Vatan).

While the film can be seen as a variation on Mr & Mrs Smith, without the humor, or indeed, the former Mrs. Pitt,  it was entertaining enough that I never found myself looking for the old English electric sockets during the domestic scenes.

(I did, however, find myself noting that the set designers made sure that every thing was glossed, with multiple layers, including the older stair post seen in several scenes.)

There are some gaffes, such as having a party during the Blitz with all the window shades wide open and there were other black out conditions that were ignored, but overall things moved along well enough that these moments did not distract too much.

The biggest problem with Allied is the film’s male lead. Pitt could almost be sleepwalking through his role and it is this, combined with that immovable face, that lets the film and his co-star Cotillard down badly.

From the very start of the film I spent more time on wondering what was going on with Pitt’s features, and their lack of movement and previously spotted lines and creases, than the plot or the storyline. This preoccupation almost kept me from noticing the relevancy of the Casablanca storyline.

There are nice touches in the film. Pitt’s character reads a Graham Greene novel in one of the scenes, where he has to plant evidence to convict his wife, and it is a clever addition to the film. Greene was a brilliant writer who turned out a number of spy stories; each one a cracking tale, and this nod and wink was well done.

Overall, Allied is a 4 star film. Despite Pitt’s painfully obvious lack of emotion, the tale entertains. Cotillard convinces, as does Jared Harris, but the main male protagonist badly lets the side down here.

The film is available on DVD and can be streamed via the major platforms on the internet. Have a look at the trailer below:

American Violence (2017): Anti Death Penalty Message? (Review)

Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau as Jackson Shea

Written by Al Lamanda and directed by Timothy Woodward Jr. American Violence can be seen as both a cautionary tale with more than its fair share of tragedy and an anti-death penalty message all rolled into one.

Starring a number of well-known faces, including Bruce Dern, Denise Richards,  Johnny Messner and Patrick Kilpatrick, the film features Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau as Jackson Shea. A man on death row awaiting his execution by lethal injection. 

Richards is psychologist Dr. Amanda Tyler. She has been asked to review the man’s case file to find violent flags. What follows is a journey through Shea’s life.

The entire story borders on a clichéd premise. The young Shea is sexually abused by his uncle, his mother drinks herself to death and after his first stint in prison, Jackson’s convict partner in crime is tortured to death.

American Violence is a tragedy in several acts that approaches the subject matter with an attitude that takes itself a tad too seriously. Shea’s life is interesting but the movie takes too long a look and loses something because of it.

At 107 minutes, the film drags a bit in the middle and could have benefitted from a little less imagery. There are shots in the film that indicate the criminals who inhabit this world are victims. (Pay close attention during the torture scene at the icon on the wall behind Martin Bigg.)

Regardless of the main message that the film projects – that violence begets violence – the underlying theme is that too much violence corrupts as it deadens those who are consistently exposed to it.

All the people in Shea’s life are unpleasant and, no real surprise here, violent. If they are not prone to kill other people they are, at the very least, aggressive and threatening.

Although we are led to believe that the “love of his life” Olivia (whose father is a criminal kingpin) is something special.  The killer’s story is one of a ever deepening spiral into death and revenge that ultimately destroys him even before his execution can be carried out.

Even the legal system in his world is corrupt and full of people who take advantage of their position and power to push others into doing bad things. As the film reveals the story of Shea’s life, it takes great pains to show the convict as both victim and sinner.

There are some solid performances from the actors that fill out the film. Richards may be that bit too serious but it fits the character. Bruce Dern delivers in spades, as usual, and Emma Rigby, as Olivia Rose, satisfies as the femme fatale love interest.

Despite the length of the film and the more obvious stereotypical characters and tropes American Violence is almost compelling. It is hard to be uninterested in Shea’s story as it unfolds via his session with Tyler.

The number of capable actors who interact with Lyman-Mersereau help to sell the story.  At the end of the film we may not agree with the its heavy-handed message but we can at least understand it.

American Violence is a 3 star film that strives to be much more than the sum of all its parts. There are bits that work extremely well however. The lighting, for example, tells us that the very character of Shea is a mixture of light and dark. Just as the framing, and lighting, of Dern’s character reveals that he is not evil but acting naturally given his position.

The film will premiere on February 3, 2017. Check out the trailer below and see what you think.

AMERICAN VIOLENCE – THEATRICAL TRAILER from Status Media & Entertainment on Vimeo.