Mark Ruffalo

Thor: Ragnarok

27/10/17

Regular readers of this blog will already know that I usually tend to steer clear of superhero movies – and of all of Marvel’s extensive franchise, the Thor movies have long been anathema to me. So why did I make an exception this time? Two words. Taika Waititi. The New Zealander helmed two of my favourite films of last year, The Hunt For The Wilderpeople and What We Do In the Shadows. Surely, if anyone can put a rocket up the Norse God’s backside, he’s the one?

The good news is, he’s been pretty successful on that score. Thor: Ragnarok is played mostly for laughs and, once you get used to the idea, it really works. Chris Hemsworth is clearly enjoying himself as Thor takes on a whole new persona – clumsy, vainglorious and full of witty one-liners. I actually find myself enjoying large sections of this film, which I really didn’t expect. Waititi even has Stan Lee give Thor a haircut, lopping those infamous blonde locks off once and for all and you know what? It’s an improvement. Waititi makes an appearance himself, supplying the voice for a character called Korg, and he’s one of the film’s ace cards, supplying the kind of much-needed comic relief that Baby Groot delivered in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2.

After some adventures on Earth, Thor (Hemsworth) returns to Asgard to find that things have changed drastically in the land of the Gods. His father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), has gone missing and his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), has installed himself as ruler in the old man’s absence. Thor insists that Loki takes him to find his father, who has been unceremoniously dumped in a retirement home on Earth but, when they do eventually locate him, he announces that his time has come and that he is about to shuffle off the old immortal coil (apparently even gods can go past their sell-by date). Then Loki somehow manages to unleash Hela (Cate Blanchett) the evil sister that he and Thor didn’t even know they had. Turns out she’s the goddess of Death and she’s intent on ruling Asgard and… ah, you know what? It’s pointless recounting the plot, because it’s basically the usual old nonsense, but this time out it’s nicely written, beautifully presented nonsense, which really helps. It’s interesting to note that a lot of fans have objected to Waititi’s modifications. It’s as though they think that a story about a buff Norse god with a magic hammer needs to be approached with po-faced gravity. Really? Trust me, this works a whole lot better.

Okay, so as I said earlier, Waititi is only partially successful with his approach. The usual tropes that I have come to dread still apply: there are overlong cosmic punch ups, the insertion of as many Marvel characters as possible to trade in on the ‘Marvel Extended Universe’ – here it’s The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who make guest appearances – and, as ever, the feeling that the storyline is utter nonsense. It’s almost as though… well, as though the whole thing’s been based on a comic book.

Hardcore fans will want to know that there are a couple of post-credit sequences here but the second of them, after you’ve waited patiently through what seems like an eternity of scrolling text, barely seems worth the wait.

Good – but not Marvellous.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Spotlight

Unknown

30/01/16

Spotlight arrives in the UK amidst much speculation that it could win an Oscar this year. It’s easy to see why. This true-life tale of the Boston Globe’s attempts to lift the lid on a despicable case of corruption, perpetrated by the Catholic church, would be riveting stuff even if it wasn’t based on a true story.

The title refers to a four-person team of reporters charged with seeking out stories of special interest to the residents of Boston. When they hear about an adult victim who claims to have been molested by a Catholic priest back in his childhood, and moreover, complaining that his appeals for help went unheeded, they begin to ask questions. But right from the start there are potential problems. Boston is a staunchly Catholic community, so there will be many who would prefer things to be kept under the carpet. Furthermore, it’s 2001 and the newspaper industry is struggling with the depredations of the internet. A new boss, Marty Baron (Live Schreiber) has just been appointed and many people in the industry are worried for their jobs. But Baron recognises a potential scoop when he sees one and assigns  Walter ‘Robbie’ Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his team to do some digging. When they do they are increasingly amazed and horrified by the scale of the subterfuge. Could there really be as many as 90 paedophile priests in Boston alone?

The film expertly avoids sensationalism and drives home the message that such investigations are the result of months and months of donkeywork, reading through endless files, knocking on doors, pursuing every possible lead. There are excellent performances from Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Stanley Tucchi, but this is an ensemble piece, with not a weak performance to be seen. The film’s conclusion, when the full scale of the problem is finally uncovered, is frankly staggering and will surely make the most committed Catholics question their faith in an institution that will go to such lengths to harbour the guilty. It’s important too, to mention, that the Spotlight team are not presented as four saints in shining armour, but as committed reporters who will go to any lengths to get their scoop.

Shocking, but compelling, Spotlight has earned its place as one of the films of the year.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Foxcatcher

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11/1/15

Like director Bennet Miller’s previous effort, Moneyball, Foxcatcher is a sports movie for people who really aren’t that keen on sports. It arrives in cinemas already garlanded with praise and with much talk of upcoming Oscar nominations for its lead actors. It’s undeniable that both Steve Carell and Channing Tatum have transformed themselves physically (in Carell’s case he’s barely recognisable thanks to the addition of a false nose and false teeth) and they both excel in their respective roles but it’s also true to say that great performances alone can not guarantee a great movie experience. There remains the distinct feeling that Foxcatcher has been somewhat overpraised.

Mark Shultz (Channing Tatum) is a gold medal winning wrestler, who under the guidance of his older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo) ekes out a grim existence in a trailer, eating poor quality food and training constantly for the upcoming 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Dave too is a gold medal winner but a much more gregarious person than his younger brother who has been living in his shadow for quite some time. But Mark’s life takes a sudden upward surge when out of the blue he is contacted by a representative of John du Pont, a member of America’s richest family and a wrestling enthusiast. Mark goes to his estate in Valley Forge where du Pont explains that he is putting together a team for Seoul and he wants Mark and Dave to join up with him, under his coaching. In exchange for a handsome pay check the two will also have all their accommodation and training costs paid for. Mark needs no second bidding but Dave, a happily married family man, is not so easy to coax onboard, so Mark, sensing an opportunity to prove himself, goers without him. As he settles in with Team Foxcatcher it soon becomes apparent that du Pont is an unstable person, shallow, self-aggrandising and totally in thrall to his domineering mother (Vanessa Redgrave.) And when du Pont introduces Mark to the pleasures of cocaine, things begin to go seriously awry. As this is a true story, viewers will know not to expect any happy endings…

So yes, as I said, superb performances from the three leads… but Bennet’s slow-burning style tells the story at a funereal pace and perhaps more fatally, he absolutely fails to inject any excitement whatsoever into the wrestling sequences, which basically come down to a couple of men in spandex cuddling each other on a mat. Consider Warrior (a film with which this has been compared) and think about the blistering fight sequences in that. Foxcatcher is frankly not in the same league. Coupled with this, Tatum’s character is a monosyllabic mumbler while du Pont isn’t exactly Mr Motormouth either, preferring instead to stare at people for minutes at a time and the result is… dare I say it? A bit lumbering, a bit dull. Which is a shame, because there’s a fascinating story locked up here and it needed a different kind of director to set it free. As it stands, the film makes a worthy attempt at greatness but is not entirely successful.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney