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Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Thor's Third: Charm and (no) Hammer
Roger Moore once described the difference between Sean Connery's approach to playing James Bond and his own as, "Sean goes out the comedy door, I go in it." Thor: Ragnarok takes the Roger Moore route. Director Taika Waititi eschews the epic stylings of prior Thor helmers Kenneth Branagh and Alan Taylor for a Norse-god superhero film that's less Wagner, more Gilbert & Sullivan.
It's a crowd-pleaser, but it has its tradeoffs. The filmmakers are far less interested in the Serious Plot—the potential fall of Asgard and subjugation of the Nine Realms (and any other realms lying around) by Hela, god of death and the older sister Thor never knew he had—than they are in Thor's adventures on the planet Sakaar, where he ends up after his disastrous first encounter with Hela. (RIP, magic hammer Mjolnir.) Such back-burnering is par for the course in Marvel movies, especially the more comically-inclined ones (does anyone remember what Lee Pace was up to in Guardians of the Galaxy?), but Thor: Ragnarok loses steam whenever it cuts back to Asgard, and the high-stakes cosmic threat rarely reaches its full potential for suspense.
The film's assets, however, outnumber its deficiencies. Of particular note is Chris Hemsworth, giving full display to the comic skills he showed brief glimpses of in his previous Thor turns before letting them loose in 2016's Ghostbusters. He's aided by a deep bench of talent in the Sakaar scenes, including Tom Hiddleston (back again as Loki), Jeff Goldblum (in full Goldblum mode as the planet's Grandmaster), Tessa Thompson (expatriate Asgardian warrior Valkyrie), and a certain green-skinned behemoth with anger issues (hint: he's played by Mark Ruffalo and his name rhymes with Sulk). Director Waititi himself gets in on the fun as the voice of alien gladiator Korg. Back on Asgard, Karl Urban and Idris Elba (among others) get relatively short shrift, but Cate Blanchett, in one of her occasional forays into screen villainy, plays Hela with her usual style and verve.
The visual effects are eye-popping, including compositions that could easily adorn a heavy-metal or prog-rock album cover—or an airbrushed van, circa 1976. And in addition to the requisite Stan Lee cameo, a couple of other notables (no spoilers) turn up in fun "Wait was that ?" moments.
Overall, Thor: Ragnarok is a solid superhero film with appeal for hardcore comic lovers and more casual fans. And while not every future Marvel film should take the Roger Moore approach, this one does a fine job of it.
FYI: There are two "stinger" scenes in the end credits, one fairly early, one at the very end. They're good, but if your bladder's under pressure, the second is the more skippable.
Satisfying, but younger viewers may get fidgety
The biggest burden to having a reputation for excellence is having to meet or exceed the high level of expectation that comes with it. Consider Gusteau's, the Parisian restaurant in which most of Ratatouille takes place. Its eponymous chef delighted gourmands with his bill of fare, and his books and TV shows appealed to the common man. But Gusteau is now deceased, possibly from heartbreak over a less-than-stellar review from notorious food critic Anton Ego. And the new chef, Skinner, seems less interested in quality cuisine than in slapping Gusteau's image on boxes of processed/frozen/prepackaged food.
The parallels to Pixar Studios, which made Ratatouille, are obvious. Having taken animated films to new technical and creative levels with the Toy Story movies, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles, the studio often takes an undue amount of lumps when its films aren't excellent, but "merely" great, such as A Bug's Life or last year's Cars.
So can Ratatouille's hero, Remy, bring both Gusteau's and Pixar back into everyone's good graces? An aspiring chef with grand ambitions and a connoisseur's sense of taste and smell, Remy believes wholly in Gusteau's mantra: "Anyone can cook!" He's also funny, expressive, and well-voiced by Patton Oswalt. But--and it's a big "but"Remy's a rat. And rats may be almost as unwelcome on a movie screen as they are in a restaurant.
Remy's shot at culinary fame hinges on his relationship with Linguini (Lou Romano), the restaurant's new garbage boy. The film purports that rats can understand human speech, but not vice versa (when rats "talk," humans only hear rodent chitters). By hiding under Linguini's hat and pulling his hair, Remy can manipulate Linguini like a marionette to prepare scrumptious new cuisine. Before long, the restaurant appears to be on the road to recovery, but obstacles remainLinguini must keep Remy hidden from the other cooks, the health inspector and his boss, Skinner (Ian Holm), who has his own plans for the restaurant. Moreover, the discriminating food critic Ego (Peter O'Toole) is preparing to write a new review
It should come as no surprise that the Pixar team, headed by "Incredibles" screenwriter/director Brad Bird (from a story by former Pixarian Jan Pinkava) executes the movie's antics with their usual technical aplomb. The Paris locales are gorgeous, and the film's food looks good enough to eat. And to the filmmakers' credit, Remy and his "colony" of fellow rats, although considerably cuter than their real-life counterparts, remain pretty darn rat-likethey have pink tails and scraggly fur, they usually crawl (though Remy likes to walk erect to keep his cooking paws clean), and in scenes in which they swarm en masse, it's as creepy and disgusting as it is hilarious. (I wouldn't want to be the parent who has to explain to their child why a pet rat would be a bad idea.)
However, some of Ratatouille's story elements may be too lofty for the juice-box set. When the film devotes large chunks of dialogue to wills and DNA testing, younger audience members are likely to get restless waiting for more slapstick. It's also a shame that most of the film's characters are, well, undercooked. Linguini is little more than a plot device, forced thru the motions by both Remy and the filmmakers with little personality of his own. Other than Oswalt, most of the film's voice talent (including Will Arnett, Janeane Garofalo, and Pixar stalwart John Ratzenberger) isn't given very much to do. O'Toole shines, however, as critic Anton Egoyou haven't lived until you've heard an eight-time Oscar nominee wring laughs from the word "Boyardee."
Ratatouille may not reach the creative heights of Pixar's best films, but unlike other studios' second-tier animated films (e.g. Shark Tale or Open Season), a second-tier Pixar film is still well above-average for the genre. If your kids aren't put off by the culinary plot, and if you're not put off by relatively realistically-rendered rodents (sorry, couldn't resist), Ratatouille is well worth sampling.
Brilliant start, frustrating second half
Released the same year as Mike Judge's "Office Space," "Suckers" shares something else with that cult classic: both films start out brilliantly, then go off the rails in the second half. "Suckers" focuses on the sales staff of the Avatar auto dealership. Their leader is Reggie, played by Daniel Benzali. For those who only know Benzali for his taciturn legal eagles on "NYPD Blue" and the first season of "Murder One," "Suckers" is a revelation. Reggie by turns is profane, hilarious, racist, cynical, and throughly corrupt, and Benzali hits all these notes with mesmerizing perfection. Anyone who's bought a car will feel a chill as the film peels back the art of the deal. The inflated opening offers, the deliberately confusing spiel of numbers, the manipulation of customers' behavior (keep them nodding, keep them saying "yes," walk away and make them follow), the "closers" who move in for the kill after the salesman has softened up the customers--all are on display here. And yet, like a great caper film, we can't help rooting for the salesmen as they ply their trade. Throughout its first half, "Suckers" purrs like a Ferrari... ...which makes it all the more frustrating when the second half clunks along like a used Pinto. Suddenly the "plot" of the film kicks in, and "Suckers" spirals into an uneasy mix of drug dealing, loan sharks, larceny, and violence, culminating in, of all things, a "Reservoir Dogs" styled shootout. The abrupt change in tone may have been intended as farce, but the film's conclusion still fails to live up to promise of its opening 40 minutes. "Suckers" isn't totally undone by its second half, but it never really recovers. That being said, I'd love it if the filmmakers attempted a remake. There's a new breed of auto buyers out there who think their internet research has prepared them for the showroom showdown, and I'd love to see how the sales force can still win out. And I'd love to see if, on a second go-round, the film can hit on all cylinders instead of coast on fumes.
Hackneyed script sinks Fonda/Lopez film
I can visualize the pitch meeting for "Monster-in-Law": "It's a female version of "Meet the Parents," with Jennifer Lopez as Ben Stiller and Jane Fonda as Robert DeNiro!" And since neither of its stars has been burning up the box office latelyLopez hasn't had a big hit since The Wedding Planner, and Fonda's been off the big screen for 15 years--I can understand the appeal of a lightweight commercial vehicle. But did it have to be something THIS witless and unoriginal?
Monster-in-Law's opening scenes play out the like the pilot for a bad sitcom. Within the first 20 minutes, we've seen Lopez, as Charlotte "Charlie" Cantilini, handle multiple odd-jobs (including dog-walker, isn't THAT quirky), toured her movie-set-funky apartment, and met her obligatory offbeat friends (including, yes, the gay neighbor who enters her place without knocking). And just when it seems impossible for screenwriter Anya Kochoff to stack the clichés any higher, Charlie has not one, not two, but three Meet Cutes with hunky doctor Kevin Fields (Michael Vartan).True love blooms, Kevin proposes, Charlie accepts.
Enter Fonda as Kevin's mother Viola, a TV interviewer (think Barbara Walters on steroids) with problems of her ownin her first two scenes, she loses her job and has an on-camera meltdown while interviewing a Britney Spears-ish pop star. Presumably, this is to make Viola a tad sympathetic, a mother who has nothing going for her except her son, which makes her all the more neurotic at the prospect of "losing" him.
But even by comedy standards, it takes a huge suspension of disbelief to think Viola's career is overif Geraldo Rivera can work at network after network after all his gaffes, is there any doubt Viola would have a raft of job offers heading her way? And if Viola simply can't handle her son sharing his life with another woman, why does she keep trying to set him up with a catty former flame? (Lest the uber-Waspish Viola's campaign against Charlie be interpreted as racism, the filmmakers have cast Wanda Sykes as her assistant/confidante.)
The movie clunks and thumps from one comic set piece to the next, punctuated by a ham-handed score by David Newman which underscores every punchline and hijink with cues more suitable for a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Vartan does what little he can with the film's most thankless role, but Kochoff's script makes Kevin little more than a MacGuffin with abs, a device to get the plot rolling and nothing else. By the end of the film, Kevin seems so utterly clueless, it's a wonder either of the women in his life want anything to do with him. Sykes fares a bit betterunlike Vartan, her character at least has an inkling of what's going on.
The leading ladies certainly seem like good sportsFonda plops her face into a plate of tripe, Lopez makes a joke about her much-discussed derriereand every so often, they display enough star power to make us believe they're playing characters and not caricatures. The rest of the time, however, the actresses seem content to go through the motions and cash their checks. The starsand their fansdeserve better than this.
After the Sunset (2004)
Mishmash of Better Films
This film is puree of heist movies: the Comic Heist (Ocean's Eleven), the Sexy Heist (The Thomas Crown Affair), the One Last Heist (The Score), and the "Gee, I Kinda Like the Guy I'm Chasing/Being Chased By " Heist (Heat). The result is a bland time-waster. Salma Hayek is gorgeous (duh!) but she and Pierce Brosnan have zero chemistry. Brosnan's relationship with Woody Harrelson has some good moments, but gets scuttled by heavyhanded are-they-gay? jokes that play like the first draft of a "Will and Grace" episode. Don Cheadle's talents are wasted in a thankless role as the villain--just when you've forgotten he's even IN the movie, he turns up again to bring the film to a halt. I kept waiting for one great plot twist, but every would-be Big Shock is telegraphed far in advance. As a caper film, this is petty larceny.
Top Notch Verbal Gymnastics
This terrific made-for-cable adaptation of Gelbart's "Play On Words" is probably more suited to TV than it is for theater. Presented as TV coverage of a Congressional hearing, Mastergate describes an elaborate parody of Iran-Contra, in which illegal arms shipments are made using a big budget Hollywood action film as cover. (The film's "budget" eventually exceeds a billion dollars--"1.3 billion with catering.") The real joy of the play, though is Gelbart's brilliant use of language--the politicians on both sides of the gavel speak as much as they can while saying as little as possible. There's enough doublespeak to put George Orwell to shame, all delivered by a top-notch cast. Mastergate stands with The Candidate and Wag The Dog among the best political satires.