Marvel

Thor: Ragnarok

(BBFC 12A 2hrs 10mins)

With Thor: Ragnarok, New Zealand director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) has ditched the Shakespearean miserabilism of Kenneth Branagh’s crack at the character and the muddled/studio-interference troubles of Alan Taylor’s The Dark World. What he’s done instead is embrace the goofy fun of The Guardians of the Galaxy and the inherent silliness of the whole “Men in capes and lycra” superhero genre to produce a movie that’s garlic and Kryptonite to anyone who doesn’t like fun: a kaleidoscopic romp bursting at the seams with laugh out loud one-liners, great characters and excitingly crazy action scenes.

The plot is pretty standard comic book fare (especially if you were reading Marvel comics in the 1970’s) and won’t stretch any viewer too far, although a little familiarity with previous Marvel movies might be helpful as Thor: Ragnarok picks up a few threads from the earlier entries. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard (the mythical home of the Norse gods) to discover his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddlestone) has banished their father, Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), and now sits at the throne of the realm.


Unfortunately for the squabbling siblings their long-forgotten sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), has escaped her millennia-old captivity and returned to herald the destruction of the gods and their kingdom (hence Ragnarok, The Doom of the Gods). Thor and Loki are then banished themselves, the god of thunder finding himself on the battle planet Sakaar where, to earn his freedom, hemust fight in gladiatorial games and comes up against an old rival/ally in the form of Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). With the help of allies old and new Thor must find his way back to Asgard to save the realm from his sister who wants only to destroy it.

Thor’s regular supporting cast all put in appearances including Heimdall (Idris Elba), Lady Sif (Jamie Alexander) and The Warriors Three (Ray Stephenson, Tadanobu Asano and Zachary Levi), bolstered by all new heroes and villains like Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Hela’s henchman Skurge (Karl Urban) and a gloriously over-the-top Jeff Goldblum as The Grandmaster. Oh, and as hinted at the end of his own movie, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) makes an appearance as well.

Chris Hemsworth has already shown a deft hand at comedy in the remakes of National Lampoon’s Vacation and Ghostbusters, but here he gets free reign to flex his considerable comedic muscle and grasps that chance with aplomb. When he and Mark Ruffalo (in both his Bruce Banner and Hulk modes) share the screen it’s like Withnail & I in space, permanently trapped on an inter-galactic holiday by mistake. Tom Hiddlestone’s Loki gets probably the best character arc of the movie and even at his most scheming he’s still a likeable presence. Cate Blanchett is clearly relishing her chance to go all-out panto villainess and Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster is Goldblum at his most Goldblum-iest, which is always a joy to behold. Tessa Thompson might be the breakout character though as Valkyrie, a bounty hunter who turns hero, she’s definitely the “Han Solo” of Thor: Ragnarok and Thompson is great in the role.

The baggy plot is not the reason to see Thor: Ragnarok though. It’s just the hook upon which all the fun and goofiness ultimately hangs. No, the real reason to spend your well-earned sheckles is the fun and goofiness. The movie sets out its stall right from the opening scene, in which Hemsworth spins in and out of frame as he engages in a barbed battle of “bants” with a horrifying antagonist whilst, at the same time, delivering a gloriously stylized (and hilarious) voice-over. It’s almost exhaustingly self-aware but never tips over into parody, it’s clear that everyone’s having a great time making this movie and the audience has an open invite to either jump on board or find the nearest exit.

The look of the film is obviously inspired by a thousand Heavy Metal magazine covers (as well as a thousand “heavy metal” album covers), it’s insanely vibrant and harks back to a time when legendary comic book artist Jack “King” Kirby was doing his greatest work on titles like Thor, The New Gods and The Fantastic Four.

There’s bad-ass women, hilarious gags, monsters, Led Zeppelin’s The Immigrant Song and a bonkers 1980’s style synth-pop score by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh; lively and exciting characters that you want to spend the whole movie with; top-notch CGI and practical effects; Jeff Goldblum…

That’s not to say Thor: Ragnarok is not without its problems, some of the world building and lore is flubbed (probably because it wasn’t as much fun to film as making the rest of the film) and a little too much time is spent developing Karl Urban’s Skurge, whose role in the movie is obvious from his first appearance. Because the rest of the movie is so enjoyable you do start to resent the moments when it has to go “serious”, but that’s a minor quibble and there’s really only about ten minutes that it could do without.

Fans who prefer the superhero canon to be a bit more straight-laced and serious faced might well baulk at the irreverence and meta-commentary of Thor: Ragnarok. Waititi obviously doesn’t believe in sacred cows or, if he does he really enjoys hitting them in the bum, and, credit where it’s due, Marvel has been brave enough to hand him a banjo big enough to do it. It was a big risk to let the director indulge in all his favourite idiosyncrasies, but it’s a gamble that Marvel/Disney should now be able to collect on: Thor: Ragnarok manages to make “more of the same” not only feel fresh and shiny-new but provides one of the most enjoyable visits to the cinema this year.

Andy Oliver

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange is the latest superhero movie from Marvel Studios based on the comic book character of the same name. 101’s movie critic Andy Oliver has been along to the town’s Odeon cinema to bring you this exclusive review.

Dr Strange

The opening act of Doctor Strange has a feeling of familiarity, of déjà vu, of “Haven’t I seen this before?”; by the end of Doctor Strange there is a feeling of vertigo, of wonder, of kaleidoscopic, hallucinatory weirdness you’ll wonder if your popcorn hasn’t been laced with LSD*.

That first act is hugely reminiscent of Iron Man, the movie that kicked off this whole connected Marvel Universe: Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is arrogant, confident, in control of his world until an injury takes everything away from him. His hands crushed in an horrific car crash, the world-class surgeon spends his fortune trying to find a way to mend his damaged digits and, as a last resort, heads to the Himalayas to search for a guru/cult-leader/holy-person he has heard can cure any ailment. In finding The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), Strange finds not only a fix for his injured hands but also his for injured soul as he repurposes his destiny as a master of the mystical arts.

Dr Strange

Anyone who’s a sucker for cocky student/inscrutable teacher paradigms (like the many Eastern martial arts movies that Tarantino’s Kill Bill riffed upon and, obviously, Harry Potter) will love the interchanges between Cumberbatch and Swinton as the sceptical, intellectualism of Strange smashes head on with the theosophical platitudes of The Ancient One.

Upon his graduation to the title of Sorcerer Supreme and his return to Manhattan Strange must battle the threat of the movie’s big bad, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson), a former pupil of The Ancient One who believes that Earth would be a better place if magic were allowed to thrive rather than a hidden force that keeps the world in balance and other dimensional threats at bay.

Cumberbatch throws himself into the role of Stephen Strange with deadpan theatrical zeal, relishing the journey from arrogant intellectual through humility to champion warrior of the astral plane. Strange is Sherlock with the rational, intellectual glamour of that character slowly and surely chipped away revealing the hero beneath.

Dr Strange

A lot was made of the “White-washing” of Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One character – The Ancient One was originally portrayed in the Stan Lee and Steve Ditko comics as an oriental Methuselah complete with long white beard and crinkly, smiling eyes a la Sam Jaffe’s High Lama in Frank Kapra’s Lost Horizon – when news of her casting was announced. Whatever your opinion of this decision it is hard to argue that Swinton’s other-worldly androgyny makes for an interesting choice and she appears to be having a lot of fun as Strange’s enigmatic mentor.

As with so many of the Marvel movies, Doctor Strange suffers from limited screen time for the supporting cast and a villain that seems a little too under written. Mads Mikkelson doesn’t appear for long enough to present a credible threat but still manages to inject a little complexity and humour into his role. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong appear too infrequently as fellow apostles of The Ancient One: Mordo and Wong (though subsequent movies should feature them more heavily, Wong as Strange’s manservant/librarian of mystical tomes and Mordo as… well, that would be telling but hang around for the post credits scene for a clue). Rachel McAdams stars as doctor Christine Palmer, for whom Strange still carries a torch but, again, she struggles to break out from a role that is little more than “Love interest”. Of the supporting cast it is weirdly Strange’s Cape of Levitation that has the most life and the one you want to see more of, imbued with a personality of its own much like the magic carpet in Disney’s Aladdin.

Dr Strange

But it is in the visuals that Doctor Strange really comes alive, we’ve never really seen sorcery used in such an original way or at such a scale: magical engrams fizz and crackle with blazing intensity; cities and buildings fold, twist and turn inside-out to create Escher-like landscapes; journeys into nightmare alternate dimensions bring Ditko’s weird, exciting comic panels to terrifyingly beautiful life. Director Scott Derrickson keeps the action tight and exciting, using the effects to create a dizzying trip into the unknown but sometimes struggles to keep the attention during the (necessary) talkie bits.

As a movie, Doctor Strange is a bit of a mixed bag and is in no way the best of the Marvel Studios crop but as an eye-popping, energetic thrill-ride it totally delivers the goods.

*Disclaimer: It hasn’t

Andy Oliver

Andy Oliver

Captain America: Civil War

It’s been a great week for Colchester 101’s movie critic Andy Oliver at Colchester’s Odeon cinema. Not only did he love The Jungle Book but Captain America: Civil War had exceeded all his expectations.

 

Captain America: Civil War (BBFC 12A)

Captain America

Captain America: Civil War is stuffed.

Stuffed full of action, suspense, great characters, wit, surprises and intelligence. It’s the cinematic equivalent of Christmas dinner: A plate brimming with so many diverse and tasty ingredients that you’re not quite sure it will all fit in your stomach, but satisfyingly does and, a couple of hours of rest later, you’ll want to eat it all over again. It’s everything that Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice wasn’t, thankfully, and it might just be the best Marvel movie yet.

Civil War is the culmination of many of the major climactic moments of the Marvel cinematic universe, all those huge ships crashing into the Earth, cities destroyed and innocent lives lost (see Avengers Assemble, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron specifically, but the entire back catalogue – with the exception of Guardians of the Galaxy – in one way or another). The movie kicks off with The Avengers in conflict with bad guy Crossbones and his mercenary force who are attempting to steal a bio-weapon from a scientific facility, a conflict that ends with an explosion that kills dozens of innocents and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) is indirectly responsible.

For the United Nations, this is the final straw, The Avengers may be saving the world but at what cost? The UN passes a framework motion, The Sokovia Accord, which will see the super team no longer be a private group but rather a UN sanctioned task force. Schisms start to appear in the team as ideological differences begin to appear, first with an argument, then a scuffle, a fight and then all-out war.

Captain America

I don’t want to give away any more of the plot than that. Part of the joy of Civil War is watching the plot develop logically and organically. Everything has its place and every character is serviced by and, in turn, services the story in satisfyingly intelligent fashion. Something you’d be hard-pushed to claim about Zack Snyder’s hero versus hero smack-down, Batman V Superman, you’ll be pleased to know that there are no Jolly Rancher sweeties or jars of pee on show here.

Civil War skilfully demonstrates the long game Marvel has been playing throughout their movies, this is long-form storytelling not only in plotlines but in character arcs, also. Characters make decisions which are not based solely on the situations they are presented with in this movie but in all their previous appearances. Marvel is not resetting these characters at the beginning of each new movie, what went before really matters.

Captain America

Before you begin to think this is just another Avengers movie snuck under a Captain America banner, this is absolutely a Captain America movie. Everything that happens in Civil War revolves around the emotional, intellectual and philosophical hub that is Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), it is his relationship with Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) that provides the heart of the movie. Cap has always seen the world in black and white, but now shades of grey enter his world and he finds himself taking actions that are maybe not right, that are maybe selfish(?). It’s an interesting shade for Chris Evans to play, a new level of self-doubt, a Captain America who allows his emotions to obscure his moral compass.

With his revelation, way back in 2008, that he was Iron Man, it is obvious which side of the ideological argument Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) comes down on and this is what brings him into conflict with Cap. Iron Man made Downey Jr. a bona fide movie star, but in Civil War he reminds us that before that he was a respected, if troubled, actor and turns in one of the most genuinely nuanced and raw performances of his career. There are new levels of guilt and grief to Tony Stark and Downey Jr. sinks his teeth into the role with zeal and gusto rarely seen in any movie, let alone in a genre viewed by many as throwaway.

Captain America

One of the great triumphs of Civil War is that all of the characters involved are given the time and space to explore their decisions on which side of the divide they will fall. Not only that, but they actually grow. We get to understand more about them and find that they are more than just two-dimensional cut-outs in colourful costumes. From The Vision’s (Paul Bettany) attempts to understand humanity and his part in it to Scarlet Witch exploring her guilt and trying to find a place to belong. The remarkable thing is that not a single character feels superfluous.

Which brings me to the geeky bit: The new introductions to the Marvel Universe, Black Panther and Spider-Man. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is T’Challa, ruler of the African kingdom of Wakanda, location of Iron Man and The Hulk’s battle in Age of Ultron, raised to don the Panther mask as protector of his people. Boseman plays him with not only the innate regal dignity of royalty but with all the grace and poise of the predatory big cat he bears the name of. It’s a great introduction and leaves you eagerly awaiting director Ryan (Creed, Fruitvale Station) Coogler’s Black Panther solo movie next year. Black Panther is a character you’ll definitely want to see more of.

Captain America

Technically, although being a Marvel Comics mainstay and titular character of five movies so far this century, this is Spider-Man’s first appearance in the MCU. Previous iterations of the character (played by Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield) were produced under license by Sony Films and you may feel you know what to expect from him. This is an all new Spider-Man (played by Tom Holland), he’s a lot younger than you have seen so far, he’s a kid finding his way in a very grown up world. By the time he shows up you may worry that he’ll be one character too many, but Holland plays Spidey/Peter Parker to perfection and you’ll be glad he’s there, he’s a lot of fun and provides some great moments.

Captain America

In other hands Civil War could easily fall apart due to the always impending risk of bloat, but in the hands of directors the Russo brothers and writers Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeeley moves along at perfect pace and without an ounce of unwanted fat. Some feat that, even at a running time close to two and a half hours, you’ll not feel it has outstayed its welcome (there was no after credits scene in the press screening I attended, Marvel saves these moments for the fans. I know. I sat there for ages waiting for one). Civil War is a spectacle that takes the time to ponder the meaning of responsibility, loyalty, honour, the cost of revenge and the subtle betrayal of opposing ideologies. The action is exhilarating, from the awesome opening that sees the Avengers as a lean, co-operative fighting machine to the grandly operatic airport conflict, which pitches the heroes against one another in a battle-royale that is the closest you’ll come to one of those incredible double page spreads that coloured your childhood.

Captain America: Civil War is a triumph, a truly great action movie that raises the bar for everything that follows and actually manages to make everything that came before even better.

Andy Oliver

 

 

 

 

 

 

Andy Oliver

Deadpool

Ryan Reynolds’ motormouth antihero Deadpool finally gets his own movie which opens at Colchester’s Odeon Cinema on 10th February. To get you in the mood, our intrepid movie reviewer Andy Oliver has been along to a preview and has this exclusive review for Colchester 101’s readers. We get the impression he rather liked it!

Deadpool

After just a single viewing of the new Ryan Reynolds vehicle (though that’s grossly underselling the term), Deadpool, I can confidently say that this is going to be massive to a certain demographic: It may well be the ultimate movie of the “Lad Bible” generation. It will launch a million internet memes and be quoted endlessly wherever 15 to 30 year-old boys gather.

For the rest of us? It teeters on a very thin line between entertaining and insufferably smug.

Created in the early nineties by comic book writer/artist Rob Liefeld and writer Fabian Nicieza, Deadpool first appeared in Marvel’s X-Men spin-off series The New Mutants. Originally designed to be an antagonistic character he soon became one of the most popular characters in the Marvel Universe, an antihero with spectacular healing powers and a tendency to fill the panels with his verbose wit (earning himself the appellation, “The Merc with a Mouth”). His other “super-power” is his meta-awareness: an ability to break the fourth wall; he’s the only character who actually realises he’s in a comic book and frequently aims his quips and asides directly to the reader.

This is the second time Reynolds has played the character, Deadpool was first seen in the universally panned X-Men Origins: Wolverine but was so woefully handled that the actor (a fan of the character) campaigned long and hard to get a second chance to play him and, more importantly, to play him exactly as he’s written in the comics, to get it right.

Deadpool
The movie is basically a revenge tale scattered with, sometimes over-long, “Origin story” flashbacks. Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a mercenary soldier with a heart of gold who falls for the prostitute, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) who services the “needs” of the customers at his favourite Merc’ bar. When he is diagnosed with inoperable cancer he volunteers for a treatment that will awaken his latent, mutant super-healing power. Unfortunately, the experiment is a cover for a torture chamber and when his power finally surfaces it leaves him horribly disfigured. Unwilling to let Vanessa see him in this state, he dons the persona and costume of Deadpool and vows to track down the villain responsible for his misfortune, Ajax (Ed Skrein).

And, uh, that’s it. To say this plot is thin is an understatement, it’s practically skeletal, even for a comic book movie it’s under-nourished. But that’s not the point of Deadpool, the plot is secondary to the gags and the action. It’s in these aspects that you will either love or hate this movie, if you ever wanted the scattershot comedy of Airplane! to be crossed with stylish ultra-violence of The Matrix or 300, then Deadpool is definitely the movie for you. For everybody else, Deadpool is a wobbly, flat-pack wardrobe overladen with designer great-coats and “wacky” shirts that you’ve only ever worn once and are, quite frankly, past their return date.

Deadpool

The structure of the film is both its strength and its weakness, the flashbacks allow us to get straight into the super-suited action, rather than the usual interminable wait to see the hero you actually paid to see, but tend to go on a bit too long and the action sequences tend to head downhill after the first set-piece. Rather than build the tension, the movie almost feels like it’s tailing off, like a balloon blown up to bursting point and then the air is slowly released in a squeaky-fart that’s initially funny but grows increasingly tiresome. Unfortunately, the best action scene in the movie not only comes right at the beginning, but the chances are you’ve already seen it – it’s been available on the internet for ages, it’s the highway battle released as test footage on YouTube. The final action scene is good enough but it’s all a bit generic and unsatisfying.

There’s probably fifty percent of the jokes that hit home, which is a pretty good ratio when you look at the majority of comedies released in the last twenty years, but when they miss they come across as smug and annoying. Deadpool is a lot like Bugs Bunny, he’s obnoxious, but you kind of enjoy his cruel antics, then again, five minutes of Looney Tunes is a lot more bearable than an hour and fifty of Deadpool. For me, the constant breaking of the fourth wall became very tiresome very quickly and I began questioning many of the “meta” gags as too knowing without any awareness at all. For instance, he references Green Lantern (Reynolds’ other high profile superhero appearance – and flop) but never questions the thinness of the current movie he’s appearing in, I would have been more invested in the film if his thoughts on his story echoed my own: “I know this is weak, but wait for the sequel”, uttered just once might’ve worked in its favour.

Deadpool

Ryan Reynolds is genial enough, though sometimes his delivery comes across as a little smarmy, and overall he hits the right note. Morena Baccarin looks like she’s just on the edge of doing something good if only the script let her, but mostly she’s just another damsel in distress, a sadly generic role that points to the sensibilities of the film’s target demographic. Ed Skrein is okay, I really can’t say anything other than that, he’s not bad but he’s not a great villain. TJ Miller, as Wade/Deadpool’s buddy, Weasel, steals it as the best secondary character and really nails the majority of his gags. There’s a few other comic book cameos: Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) a motion captured steel man, Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) a surly teenage powerhouse and Angel Dust (Gina Carano) who’s… well, she’s in it. Karan Soni is funny as an Indian cab driver but Wade’s flatmate, a blind old black lady called Al (Leslie Uggams) feels like a wasted opportunity for some good laughs.

First time director Tim Miller shows more of his weaknesses than his strengths (he came from a background of video games and special effects, and it shows), whilst the scattershot script by Zombieland scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, mostly, delivers what the fans want.

Deadpool is an utterly juvenile experience, but that’s the point. It’s difficult to criticise a movie that so joyfully embraces its own immaturity. I didn’t hate it, Deadpool is diverting, at times fun, at times very funny and at times annoying and how much you enjoy it will depend on how many of those jokes hit home for you. There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours. Fantastic 4, anyone?

Andy Oliver

 

 

 

 

 

Andy Oliver