Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi, 2017)

What's it about?, sorry....God of Thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth) must again save Asgard from destruction, this time at the hands of his war-mongering sister Hela (Cate Blanchett). Along the way Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) all turn up for the ride.

Is it any good? Enormous fun, thanks mainly to the comic sensibilities of director Waititi. Clearly aware of the absurdity of the story he's telling, he revels in the inherent silliness, eschewing anything as po-faced as depth or politics in favour of slapstick and jokes. All of which is very funny, as fans of Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows might expect, but crucially never derisory or cynical about the characters. Taking their lead from him, the cast are all on good comic form, with Hemsworth in particular relishing the chance to display his funny bone as well as his physique. It's Waititi himself who steals the show, though, voicing the benevolent revolutionary rock-monster Korg who gets the best lines and the biggest laughs.
"It's me! Taika! The director?"
Of course, it's stopped short of being an out-and-out comedy by the somewhat inflexible Marvel movie template, which demands regular beats of crash-bang-wallop action, crossover franchise cameos and no small amount of CGI. In these moments, competent though they are, Thor:Ragnarok does little to differentiate itself from its MCU counterparts, even with the smart use of Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song as accompaniment. Neither is Blanchett given much to do except look pretty fabulous in her black villain head-dress. Nonetheless, Waititi's achievements in blending his own inimitable style with the all-conquering Marvel brand is perhaps only matched in the MCU by Shane Black with the similarly comic Iron Man 3. It's an impressive balancing act, although no doubt Waititi would want to end it with a funny pratfall.

I don't trust you. What do others think? Last time I looked, this had an impressive 95% at Rotten Tomatoes, the highest score for any Marvel movie to date, demonstrating that it's a big hit with critics as well as audiences. Comic-book are pleased that the well-regarded Planet Hulk storyline has been spliced into the plot, but Waititi himself has indicated that camp 80s classics Flash Gordon and Big Trouble in Little China were big influences, which should tell you something about the tone the film adopts. All it's missing is Brian Blessed bellowing in a valkyrie outfit!

What does the Fonz think? Stop Laughing! It's Hammertime!

Another Random Triple Bill

Some quick stuff which might be worth a watch over Halloween.

Gerald's Game (Mike Flanagan, 2017), based on a lesser-known Stephen King novel, turns out to be a pretty solid adaptation of a middling book. When Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) head off to a remote cabin to spice up their sex life, things take a turn for the worse when he has a heart-attack and dies, leaving her handcuffed to the bedpost with no hope of rescue. As she drifts in and out of consciousness, some deeply repressed memories surface which are never good when Stephen King is involved. So the 'voices' in Jessie's head take physical form to alternately help and taunt her in her predicament, flashbacks gradually reveal some dark secrets and a possibly supernatural element suggests itself during the ordeal. All of this assuredly handled by Flanagan, and well-played by Gugino and Greenwood, with smart editing throughout to build a genuine sense of claustrophobic suspense. There is however a rather unnecessary coda which is a bit silly, detracting from what is otherwise a tight, effective little thriller. It's now available on Netflix, but anyone squeamish should watch out for one deliciously nasty watch-through-your-fingers scene towards the end. Also, fans of E.T. may be slightly disturbed....

The Purge (James DeMonaco, 2013) is set in a near-future America where the government has sanctioned one night of the year as a 'Purge' night, during which all crime is legal, in an attempt to cleanse society of undesirables. One man (Ethan Hawke), who has made a fortune from selling security systems to those who can afford it, fins himself as his family in trouble when a stranger is ill-advisedly admitted to their house during the night. There's actually a smartly satirical concept at the centre of The Purge, which promises brains as well as action. Unfortunately that premise has been stabbed, kicked and beaten senseless by the dim-witted, cliched horror movie tropes around it, leaving it barely alive by the end of the film. As a result, a potentially smart dystopian sci-fi is really dumber than a bag of hammers, so I've already purged it form my mind. Then again, it has spawned 2 successful sequels with another to follow, so what do I know?

Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960) is a classic French horror film about a mad scientist (Pierre Brasseur) who attempts to transplant the face of a kidnapped girl to the disfigured face of his daughter (Edith Scob). It's a fairly macabre tale, but presented in poetic, expressionistic style, rather than outright horror. As a result, it isn't that scary, but it is filled with striking images and memorable sequences, as well as being open to several interpretations if you fancy restoring some brain cells after watching The Purge. It's a regular fixture on 'Great Horror Movie Lists and inspired the likes of Almodovar's The Skin I Live In and Michael Myers' mask in Halloween, as well as being directly referenced in Holy Motors by casting Edith Scob herself. Worth seeing, all I felt it fell short of outright classic myself.

Right, back to the pumpkin carving.....

The Villainess (Jung Byung-gil, 2017)

What's it about? Trained assassin Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) is recruited to work for a covert government agency. Forced into more training and at first driven by revenge, she soon strives for a peaceful life with her daughter, only for her past to come back to haunt her. People die. Lots of people die.

Is it any good? The bravura opening sequence is breath-taking slice of action reminiscent of John Woo's early Hong Kong films. Initially filmed POV like a first-person shooter video-game, then cleverly shifting perspective to whirl around the carnage, it's an astonishing how-did-they-do-that set-piece. And there's plenty more to follow as several similar, superbly choreographed set-pieces see Sook-hee mete out punishment to scores of unlucky extras who get in her way. It's insanely violent stuff, but it's enormous fun. However, it does take time to breathe in the mid-section as we see Sook-hee released back into the real world, but here it is less successful in its attempt to layer some emotional content onto all the bloodshed. There's a potentially interesting, but ultimately undercooked subplot which sees her romanced by a dashing suitor, who she doesn't realise is actually her covert handler. Plus the time-shifting presentation of her backstory is also a bit too convoluted for its own good and loses focus at times. As a result, some developments which should be devastating are quickly forgotten as we barrel headlong into the next action sequence. But who cares about all that touchy-feely stuff when we can watch Sook-hee fight in and out of buildings, or atop a speeding motorcycle, or inside AND outside a wildly careering bus in her blood-splattered revengesploitation rampage. Get a flavour of it with the trailer below.

Anything else I should know? Well, how DID they do that? It comes as no surprise to learn director Jung Byung-gil trained as a stuntman and is well versed in the tricks of the action cinema trade. Using as little CGI as possible, he employed body-cams, fish-eye lenses, drones, miniature cameras and smart editing to create the dizzying action. Here's an interview with him in which he also admits it's more of a homage to classic French actioner La Femme Nikita, rather than John Woo or Kill Bill to which it has been also compared. Expect Hollywood to snap him up for a watered-down version.

What does the Fonz think? La Femme Sook-Hee

Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)

What's it about? Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is a 'Blade Runner' obediently tracking down rogue Replicants, only to uncover a secret during one assignment that puts him on the trail of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who has disappeared since the events of Blade Runner. Which you had better watch first, by the way, otherwise this won't make much sense. Existential angst ensues.

Is it any good? Ultimately, there's too much wrong with the narrative of this film to recommend it. It sure does look and sound good, however. Together with cinematographer Roger Deakins, Villeneuve has perfectly re-captured Blade Runner's iconic cityscape, tweaking it into slightly-more-futuristic version which builds upon the world of the original with some nifty sci-fi concepts and adding a few similarly striking images as the story moves us beyond the boundaries of LA. Likewise, Hans Zimmer's bombastic score evokes Vangelis' distinctive original music, even if it gets somewhat overbearing as Important Themes and Big Ideas come to the fore. But sadly, beneath that aesthetically beautiful skin-job, it's searching vainly for meaning and soul. The main problem is that the storytelling here is very laboured, taking an inordinately long time to navigate a fairly straightforward narrative. It isn't as muddled as the original, but it doesn't really build upon the mythology of the world in any new or interesting ways. It's just too ponderous to be gripping and too bland to be thought-provoking; it doesn't help that we've seen these themes explored in more engaging ways in movies such as A.I., Her and Ex Machina, to name but a few.

A further problem is the objectification of female characters. I welcome gratuitous nudity in the movies as much as the next man, but Blade Runner 2049 is clearly striving to say something more cerebral about the nature of humanity, so why doesn't its vision include women who aren't cliched, two-dimensional female characters? Perhaps it is deliberately intended as a future reflection of our current, sexist times, but I would have though a director as smart as Villeneuve could have dealt with this in a less exploitative manner. As my two regular readers will know, I'm not a massive fan of the original Blade Runner, but at least it contained some influential imagery and iconic moments, something this new film ultimately fails to achieve. Ironically, for a film concerned so much with memories, Blade Runner 2049 is already fading from mine quite fast.

I don't trust you. What do others think? Okay, okay, simmer down there, sci-fi fanboy and put that Voight-Kampff machine down! I'll admit I'm in the minority here, as it's been well received by critics. But despite the marketing hype, the box-office has been less than stellar, falling well short of expectations. This really shouldn't come as a surprise, though. The original wasn't a big hit and took a long time to build a following. It may be dear to the heart of those who discovered its cult charms on video and in the numerous re-cut versions, but it simply doesn't have multiplex audience appeal. It doesn't help that there have been a number of articles (like this one and this one) which have more eloquent arguments than mine about the depiction of women here as psychos, bitches or prostitutes, a viewpoint which has gained greater relevance in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

What does the Fonz think? The blade is too dull and the runner is too slow.

Random Triple Bill

Apologies for the lack of updates recently, folks, the real life and proper work got in the way for a while. But I'm off today because Storm Ophelia is bearing down on us, so work has magnanimously given us the day off so we can cower at home under the bedsheets. So that give me a chance to bash out a few reviews of some stuff I've watched recently. Like this random triple bill.

The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, 2014) is a worthy, if slightly dull account of how physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) overcame debilitating motor neurone disease to become a world-renowned scientist, helped in no small part by the devotion and sacrifices of his wife (Felicity Jones). Redmayne is simply fantastic here, winning a richly-deserved Best Actor Oscar for his convincing portrayal, while Jones does good work opposite him. However, beyond those performances, it's a fairly formulaic and sanitized biopic which never dares to tackle some of the more unsavoury aspects of Hawking's persona. To paraphrase the man himself, its a brief overlong history of time Hawking.

Room 237 (Rodney Ascher, 2012) is a documentary which explores how different people can take different meanings from a film, in this case Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. So five individuals explain how the film is actually about (i) the genocide of Native Americans (ii) the faked Moon landings (iii) the Holocaust (iv) the Minotaur (v) a metaphor for mind-control, interpretations which range from interesting to deluded to inventive to wrong. These theories are presented in a slightly gimmicky manner which uses clips from the film, some of which are doctored, and we never actually see the people offering these opinions which would have been nice. It's not essential viewing, but it is interesting to consider how story is in the eye of the beholder. By the way, you might think this is a review of a film, but it's actually a treatise on the Bay of Pigs fiasco. You just need to look for the clues....

Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Vinterberg, 2015) is a disappointingly flat adaptation of the classic Thomas Hardy tale. Carey Mulligan is perfectly fine as Bathsheba, the strong-willed, independent woman who is being courted by three different suitors: stolid farmer (Matthias Schoenaerts), rakish soldier (Tom Sturridge) and prosperous, older bachelor (Michael Sheen). But the direction is pedestrian and there's little to invest us in the fates of these characters. To paraphrase Bathsheba, we have good acting and we have handsome production, but we have no need for this insipid film. Read the book instead. Or at least Brodie's notes on it.

Right, I'm off to the storm shelter with my canned goods and a few DVDs, See you on the other side.