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Rating History

Thor: Ragnarok
34 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

With a title like Ragnarok you have certain expectations. You expect apocalyptic combat against hordes of demons and undead, a giant wolf, a colossal serpent, and the end of the world. You don't expect a light hearted, tongue in cheek comedy. You certainly don't expect Willy Wonka references. Saying Marvel has taken an unconventional approach with this story would be putting it lightly, but the results are pure awesomeness.

For a movie about the goddess of death and the destruction of Asgard, Ragnarok spends a lot of time off planet. Hela's depredations in Asgard are relegated to the background for most of the middle act after Thor and Loki are accidentally teleported to an alien world. Not that that's a problem in the least. Lots of awesome things go down on the Sakaar, including a reunion with a certain green skinned Avenger. After various misadventures the heroes do eventually get back to Asgard, where the real battle begins.

And oh, are the battles grand. The Thor-Hulk fight is every bit as awesome as it looks in the trailers. There's also an excellent dogfight in the skies of Sakaar. But the final climactic battle against Hela and her minions beats everything else, hands down. It sprawling, chaotic, and ultimately apocalyptic in its intensity. This is one place where they might have made the tone just a bit grimmer and more desperate. But there's no denying the awesomeness when Thor really brings the thunder. And the death scene (I won't reveal whose) is the very definition of bad ass.

What really sets Ragnarok apart though is its sense of humor. It may not be side splitting in the way that Guardians was, but in every situation the movie finds humor in the awkwardness, improbability, or sheer absurdity of the moment. There's good slapstick, puns and innuendos, subtle and not so subtle references, and some excellent fish out of water bits with Hulk's alter ego Banner.. Even the fight scenes are played for laughs. But none of it would work without the actors and the wonderful characters they play.

Tom Hiddleston continues to shine as Loki. Not exactly a villain anymore, but far from heroic, he's still scheming, manipulative, vain, a bit cowardly, and oh so quick to betray his brother or anyone else if there's something to be gained from it. He also takes it surprisingly well when his plans are foiled over, and over, and over again. And of course he ultimately helps save the day, in his own arrogant and shameless way. It's kind of weird seeing one of Marvel's most powerful villains become a comedic foil and sidekick, but darned if it doesn't work.

Jeff Goldblum is absolutely priceless as the megalomaniacal Grandmaster. In the comics, the Grandmaster of the Universe is near omnipotent and old as the universe itself, with motives and designs that humans can barely begin to comprehend. But here Goldblum plays him as the ultimate hedonist and egomaniac. Like a toned down, laid back Emperor Nero he presides over endless parties and gladiatorial games, disposes of those who get in his way, and even fronts his own synth pop band. Yet he's just so mild-mannered, outwardly friendly and slightly befuddled that it's impossible to hate him. Only Goldblum could make this work, and does he ever.

Kate Blanchett also makes a very strong impression as Hela, exuding a sense of menace and lethal power in every scene. But perhaps the most interesting new character is the Valkyrie. Once a proud Asgardian warrior, she's now an alcoholic mercenary and slaver, working for the highest bidder and willing to sell out her own king. She's fierce, sassy, hot tempered, and absolutely deadly. Definitely not the type you bring home to mom. Even when she allies with Thor she loses none of the attitude. I really hope we see more of her in the coming films.

All in all, Thor: Ragnarok is another resounding success for Marvel. It's action packed, well-acted, hilarious, and even has some surprising twists. It isn't what you'd expect from the title, but it's so much better.

Warm Bodies
Warm Bodies (2013)
36 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Zombies have been all the rage as of late, with undead themed movies and TV shows reaching near saturation point. Naturally this has resulted in a fair number of parodies, each with their own take on the genre. Zombieland mashed gory horror with a road movie. Shaun of the Dead was The Office with zombies. And now Warm Bodies re imagines the zombie apocalypse as a rom com in which love is you need to recover your humanity.

It starts predictably enough with a zombie eating a young man's brains. Only in the process he gains his victim's memories, plus his feelings for his girlfriend- who the zombie proceeds to save and take home with him. And from there love eventually blossoms, with wider implications for relations between humanity and zombie-kind.

I know: on the face of it, the idea of Zombies coming back to life by learning to love sounds like a really stupid idea. It's one that could easily have dissolved into sappiness or pure ridiculousness. But this movie manages to make it work, with hilarious and sometimes heartwarming results. It works partly because it's stated clearly and very early on that in the context of this movie Zombism is a metaphor for emotional detachment and feeling dead inside. And of course, the cure for that is personal connections, especially love. So in that framework the premise mostly makes sense. It's actually believable, if scientifically impossible, even by the standards of zombie movies.

The premise also works because the protagonist is so likeable and adorably awkward. For a zombie he's a really nice guy. He eats the brains of the living, but he feels really bad about it. He sort of remembers being human and wishes he could go back. He even has a best friend, kind of. And his constant internal monologue is charmingly geeky and kind of neurotic, like Michael Cera in one of his better roles. And things only get cuter and more awkward as his relationship with his new girlfriend starts to unfold.

At first, she's naturally afraid for her life, and he nervously tries not to scare her any more. It's quite charming to see her feelings for him gradually develop into non-revulsion, then trust, then something approaching love. The movie wisely takes its time with this, never rushing or forcing the relationship. The added twist also fixes some of the problems plague most romantic comedies. For once, there's a good reason for the awkwardness and stupid misunderstandings that get in the way of their love. He literally can't talk to her. And she has a much stronger reason than usual for not wanting to bring him home to dad.

Just as interesting as the relationship itself is the gradual transformation back life to that accompanies it. Watching him regain his humanity bit by bit is quite inspiring, especially when the effects prove contagious.

The one major criticism I have is that the movie kind of wimped out and never made a major reveal between characters that should have been a major part of the plot. And admittedly Warm Bodies isn't very scary, even compared to Zombieland or Shaun of the Dead. But there are some pretty frightening scenes at the beginning, and a good amount of action and suspense towards the end. And above all, it's a very sweet and surprisingly smart romantic comedy. The zombies may be lifeless and brain-dead, but the movie isn't.

Blade Runner 2049
2 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

It's not easy to capture lightning in a bottle. Perfectly recapturing the look, sound, feel, and unique blend of elements that defined the original Blade Runner is no small task. Capturing its substance is harder still. And yet this film does it perfectly. Director Denis Villeneuve and the others involved have succeeded in creating the rare sequel that perfectly recreates the style of its predecessor while expanding on its story and themes.

Ryan Gosling stars as Officer K, a new model replicant who works for the LAPD "retiring" unstable older models. He lives alone, except for his house's holographic interface, who gives new meaning to the phrase "virtual girlfriend." Like all of the new models he's very good at his job and never questions orders. At least until a "routine retirement" turns up a secret that challenges everything he thought he knew about his nature, and could change the global balance of power- or plunge what's left of civilization into war.

The original Blade Runner asked intriguing questions about what it means to be human. 2049 goes a step further, questioning the nature of what's real. Characters struggle with whether their memories are their own, someone else's, or something entirely manufactured. The mutual affection between K and his holographic girlfriend raises the question of whether an AI can truly feel, or if there's any way for her to become a real girl. And the enduring question from the ending original Blade Runner is still very much open.

Visually this film is a masterpiece of bleakness. LA is still the shadowy, run down megatropolis it was before, just a little flashier and newer. Endless sheets of rain still pour down on darkened streets as streetlights and flashing signs struggle to illuminate the perpetual gloom and holographic ads offer pleasures of every kind to passersby.

Only this time the streets don't seem so crowded as before. Which makes sense given that anyone who can afford to has bought passage off planet. Because if LA is dystopian the world beyond its walls is downright post-apocalyptic. San Diego is a wasteland of rust, Vegas haze shrouded tomb, frozen in time. And in between is only desolate emptiness as far as the eye can see. And it's all so artfully photographed and exquisitely atmospheric.

Harrison Ford doesn't have as much screen time as the trailers might have suggested, but whenever he's on screen it's clear that he hasn't lost a beat. The weariness and slight grumpiness that seems to be his default setting these days serves him well as the reclusive old Deckard, gone semi-paranoid after so many years in hiding. He throws a mean punch for a man his age, and radiates a mix of anger, sadness, and tired resignation as he describes all that's transpired in the last thirty years. Gosling likewise excels in the frequent action scenes and gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as a man questioning who and what he really is
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But it's Jared Leto who makes the strongest impression. As ruthless industrialist Niander Wallace- creator of the new generation of replicants- he is a study in contradictions. His manner is eerily emotionless, yet his gaze exudes brilliance and obsession. He calls the replicants his children and speaks of their destiny and need to grow, but treats them as disposable. And his zeal to propel mankind forward makes him merciless to anyone who stands in his way. We're not entirely sure what he is either. He seems to be a cyborg, but it's unclear how far the changes go, or if he might be something more artificial altogether. What I do know is that this performance is enough to redeem him for his overwrought turn as the Joker in Suicide Squad.

If this movie has a fault it's that it stays too faithful to the original's grating synthesizer soundtrack, heavy on reverb and distortion. But then again, I suppose that it does fit the film's mood and add to the sense of tension when needed. And while the fights and shootouts are very good, nothing can match Deckard's battle with Roy in the last film. Blade Runner 2049 is not quite the original, but it comes very close. And for a movie like Blade Runner that's high praise indeed.

Wind River
Wind River (2017)
2 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

Writer-Director Taylor Sheridan has gone three for three. After delivering the brilliant screenplays for Sicario and Hell or High Water, he's shown that he has the chops to direct as well with this tightly wound, darkly atmospheric mystery suspense thriller.

The setup is simple enough. A native woman is found dead on frozen on a reservation, with clear indications that she was victim of foul play. Local Fish and Wildlife tracker Cory Lambert teams with newly arrived FBI agent Jane Banner and the reservation police to solve the case. It's not the most complicated of stories. But it's the depth and complexity with which the story is told that make it something special.

The acting and characterization are brilliant. Jeremy Renner delivers what may be his best performance since The Hurt Locker as Lambert. We can instantly tell that he's a master hunter and tracker, deadly as the predators he hunts. Cory is a man who knows the land so well and is so good at what he does that the local Indians practically consider him one of their own. Yet he never lapses into the cliché of the emotionless, near superhuman action hero, or the "White Indian" archetype. He carries the weight of years, experience, and deep loss with him, but Renner plays him a likeable, almost ordinary guy.

As agent Banner Olsen is tough, plucky, determined, and more than a bit out of her element. When we first meet her, she's lost, completely unprepared for the cold, and manages to offend the first person she interviews. The other characters' first response- and ours- is to question what the FBI was thinking when it sent her. But it's soon apparent that even as a fish out of water she has good instincts and is relentless when pursuing a case. And when the shooting starts she is a total bad-ass.

Wind River is driven by suspense as much as its characters, and it delivers here as well. The pacing is classic slow burn; deliberately slow but tense, punctuated with moments of heart pounding action. As Agents Lambert and Banner follow each lead there's a growing sense of looming danger. No sooner is one mystery solved than another takes its place. And when the tension finally breaks the action is absolutely stunning in its intensity.

As with Sheridan's previous works, this film also has a powerful sense of authenticity: that the filmmakers have an intimate knowledge of the setting and show it as it is. And the picture they paint of life on the reservation is disquietingly bleak. In every direction there's nothing but inhospitable frozen wastes. A palpable sense of poverty and desperation hang in the air. Add the fact that there are only a handful of officers with virtually no resources to police an area the size of Rhode Island and it's not surprising that some people don't put much faith in, or have much respect for the law.

Wind River is also notable for the emphasis it places on the grieving process. At every stage of the investigation, Cory is haunted by the memory of his own loss. The grief is always there, just below the surface when it's not welling up into the open. The rawer, overwhelming anguish of the victim's parents is also front and center. Yet for all the focus on sadness it never feels forced or mopey. The impression is one of real people dealing with real loss. And rather than the usual platitudes about healing with time and learning to live again, Wind River offers starkly honest admissions that the pain will never go away, and what matters is how you deal with it.

Wind River isn't quiet the masterpiece that Hell or High Water was, nor is it as action packed as Sicario. But it's still a tightly wound, exceptionally deep mystery thriller that boasts strong central characters and compelling performances. Definitely worth checking out for fans of the genre.