‘Avengers: Endgame’ Had Me Going Out of the Movie Theater Saying Wow

Avengers Endgame poster

WRITER’S NOTE: Will or will not this review have spoilers? Does it matter pointing it out at this point? Like any other movie, it would be best to keep from reading this review until you have seen this one.

Now you all know how much I hate the term “based on a true story” as it has long since lost its meaning for me, but there is also another I get seriously annoyed with, and it is this one: “it has all led up to this.” When a movie trilogy reaches its end or a television show finally arrives at its season or series finale, this phrase is often utilized as a way to get butts in the seats or eyes glued to the television in a why which will have advertisers salivating to no end. More often than not, it feels like a shameless trick to get us to watch something we otherwise wouldn’t, and we come out of it feeling angry as we have been easily duped.

But when it comes to “Avengers: Endgame,” the term “it has all led up to this” makes perfect sense. This is the 22nd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe which started back in 2008 with “Iron Man,” but this one has a strong sense of finality as the superheroes we have followed all these years will rise and fall all at the same time. Yes, the MCU will continue on, and we have “Spider-Man” and “Black Panther” sequels to look forward to, but after this penultimate installment, things will never be the same. What results is an exhilarating motion picture which thrills even the most jaded of moviegoers, and its conclusion will leave you emotionally drained for very good reason. Yes, it really has all led up to this.

Three weeks have passed since Thanos (Josh Brolin) captured all the Infinity Stones, snapped his finger and eliminated half of all life across the universe. Those Avengers who survived the snap are, as you can expect, infinitely eager to avenge those lives who disintegrated, but their quest for justice does not go in the way you might expect. In fact, for some it comes too quickly and leaves a lot of damage in its wake.

Following this, the movie then jumps ahead five years as what is left of humanity is grappling with the things they can do in the aftermath. Some are still eager to undo what Thanos did while others have done what they can to move on. Either way, they are dealing with a clear case of survivor’s guilt, and their enthusiasm for saving the universe is not what it used to be.

Yes, these characters are blessed with super powers we would love to have o, but the filmmakers are quick to show us how they are as human as we are. They suffer from doubts, anxiety, frustration and, as this movie begins, they are overcome with despair. While they may be special or gifted, they aren’t much different from the average joe as the weight of the world lies heavily on them, and they don’t have time to balance their checkbook. (Who does anyway?)

Time travel plays a significant role in this MCU movie as a couple of the Avengers, namely Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), come up with a theory which will make it possible for them to accomplish, albeit with some limitations. Like everyone else, the Avengers have seen every time travel movie ever made and are quick to mention such classics as the “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Time After Time,” “Timecop” (was this particular Jean Claude Van Damme film ever that popular?), “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” and even “Hot Tub Time Machine.” Somehow, “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” was left off this list, and I am deeply perturbed as a result. The Enterprise crew saved humpback whales in that one for crying out loud!

I enjoyed how “Avengers: Endgame” plays on our knowledge of time travel as a plot device. Even though science renders these various time travel methods to be utterly bogus, the pluses and minuses of actually changing historical events are always prominent in our minds. Remember all that talk about the space time continuum? Whether or not the conclusion of this movie is in doubt, I spent much of it wondering how things would end up once the mission was complete. What gave me comfort was what Doc Brown said in “Back to the Future Part III” about how the future isn’t written and how it is whatever you make it.

Granted, the time travel aspect does get a bit confusing at times, especially when certain characters end up facing off against their past and present selves. It reminded me of when Austin Powers faced a similar predicament in “The Spy Who Shagged Me,” and that one was a comedy. But the movie proves to be so much fun, who cares?

Helming “Avengers: Endgame” are Anthony and Joe Russo, brothers who have been a major asset to the MCU ever since they directed “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Along with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they have an infinitely impossible job of balancing out a story filled with far too many superheroes, most of which will not get the same amount of screen time as the biggest ones of all. The ending is bombastic, but never in an overwhelming way. And yes, it is three hours long, but it never drags nor is it in need of a top-notch editor the way “I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà vu” was. For what it’s worth, you can head straight to the bathroom once the end credits start as there are no special scenes during or after them.

I imagine a lot of people look at these “Avenger” movies as being the kind which don’t require the cast to give their best performances ever. This assertion, however, is deeply unfair as many of the actors here have inhabited these characters for close to a decade. From one movie to the next, we see these characters evolve in meaningful ways to where we have to recognize what the passing years have done to them. It does not matter how incredible they are because they age like us even if they don’t always show it.

Chief among the cast is Robert Downey Jr. whose role as Tony Stark/Iron Man helped to rejuvenate a film career which looked to be permanently undone by drug abuse. Downey has taken Tony from being a lovably arrogant playboy millionaire to a less self-centered man who becomes eager to reign in his fellow superheroes before they do damage they won’t be able to walk away from. Tony himself has some interesting developments along with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to where his hesitation to disrupt the course of events is challenged endlessly, and watching him here makes you realize how far he has come in this role.

Another actor is Chris Hemsworth who has had quite the journey as Thor. For his first two movies, he portrayed the powerful Asgardian as an unshakably pure force who could not ever be corrupted. Then came “Thor: Ragnarok,” the best “Thor” film yet, which allowed Hemsworth to take some risks with the character in ways which made him even more interesting. With “Endgame,” we get to see Thor in his Big Lebowski phase, and we can tell Hemsworth is just having a blast taking this superhero in this direction. We should applaud him for taking chances here as other actors would have been a bit too fearful to do so.

Then there is Chris Evans who took Steve Rogers and his alter-ego of Captain America from what we thought would be the average white guy and turned him into a charismatic good guy in a way we did not see coming. Evans really hits his peak here in the MCU as he finishes his run in a very moving way, with Steve Rogers getting to reclaim a part of his past he thought he lost many years before. It is not spoiling anything to say this is Evans’ last time playing this superhero, but seeing him take his curtain call here is wonderfully fulfilling.

Coming out of “Avengers: Endgame,” all I could say was, wow. It’s the perfect capper to an amazing franchise, and my hat is off to everyone at Marvel for crossing the finish line in such an unforgettable way. DC Comics and Warner Brothers can only hope to be this successful with their own cinematic universe. Not once was I worried this franchise would flame out the way “The Matrix” did with “The Matrix Revolutions.” Everyone involved hit it right out of the park with this installment, and you don’t even need record breaking box office to prove it.

Of course, the question now is, where will the MCU go from here? I cannot see Marvel topping what they did here, especially with the cast taking their bow in the way the original Enterprise crew did at the end of “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” by providing their signatures. I imagine there are many more Marvel movies in our future, but the journey from here will still be fraught with expectations which may or may not be met. If this was to be the last MCU ever, it would have been perfect. All the same, superhero/comic book movies still reign supreme at the box office, so hopefully the ones coming soon to a theater near you will still be wonderfully entertaining. Whether or not they are as glorious as this one is another story.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

 

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‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ Invites You to Peel Back its Many Layers

Bad Times at the El Royale poster

Bad Times at the El Royale” is one of those movies I have really come to deeply admire as it is like an onion you keep peeling at continually to see what’s underneath. Just when I thought I knew where things were heading, the story heads in another direction to where what we were initially introduced to is not all what it seems. As Bo Diddley once sang, you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover, and while this movie’s poster tells us what we need to know before going into the theater, there is more to discover than we could ever anticipate.

The El Royale of the movie’s title is a hotel which, at one time, was one a glorious place to visit, but it has since fallen into disrepute. The first sequence shows a man entering a room there, digging beneath its surface to play a bag of money beneath it. He is later greeted by another man who he kindly welcomes in, but who quickly shoots him dead with a shotgun. It’s a wonderfully elaborate sequence which brings us into a motion picture which promises not to be the usual mainstream fare.

We then move to 10 years later when a number of visitors arrive at the El Royale to stay for a night or two. They include the kindly priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), aspiring singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), vacuum cleaner salesman Dwight Broadbeck (Jon Hamm), and a young hippie named Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). All of them are greeted by the hotel’s concierge and apparently its only employee, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who gleefully illustrates the location’s history and amenities for all of those willing to hear him out.

Revealing more from here would spoil one too many surprises as we discover not everyone is who they appear to be, but I can tell you the characters soon find themselves on a road to hell as their sins rise to the surface for everyone around them to see. In one way or another, everyone is either trying to escape their past or reclaim it in a way which offers no promises, and not everyone is going to make it out of their predicament in one piece.

“Bad Times at the El Royale” was written and directed by Drew Goddard who wrote the screenplays for the highly-entertaining “Cloverfield,” “World War Z” and “The Martian,” the one Ridley Scott movie in recent years which we can all agree on (in that it was great). Goddard also wrote and directed the horror comedy “The Cabin in the Woods,” a movie I should have seen already, but anyway. He composes this movie in vignettes just as Quentin Tarantino composes his with chapters out of a novel. Each one allows us to learn more about the characters and what brought them to this once glorious resort. The question is, do they all know about the valuables buried beneath one of the rooms?

I enjoyed how Goddard kept peeling away at each of these characters’ identities as we learn more about them in ways which are both illuminating and shocking, and it kept me guessing as to where things were going to go next. There’s even a scene of shocking violence involving a wine bottle which just comes out of nowhere, and it slammed me back into my seat in a way such a scene has not in recent years.

The movie, however, does suffer as it goes on. You should have heard the collective gasp from the audience at the press screening I attended when they were told the running time would be two hours and 21 minutes. Most Hollywood studios these days would never dare to let one of their releases last more than 90 or 100 minutes, so the amount of freedom Goddard got here seems astonishing in retrospect.

I have nothing against movies which last over two hours as long as they are able to justify their length. It is far too easy for a filmmaker to become self-indulgent. In retrospect, “Bad Times at the El Royale” could have used some tightening in the editing room as the story slowly drags towards its conclusion which involves a charismatic cult leader named Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth, taking a much-needed break from the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and his much-too devoted follower, Rose (the wonderfully possessed Cailee Spaeny). By the time we finally arrive at the ending, it feels like everything is concluding on the wrong note. This could have been an even more frustrating ending than the one in “The Matrix Revolutions,” but saying so is a little too punishing.

Still, there is much to admire here such as the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, the terrific set and art direction and, of course, the great cast that tears into their roles with great gusto. Jeff Bridges continues to remain one of our finest actors as he inhabits his role of Father Daniel Flynn in a way few others could. Cynthia Erivo proves to have quite the vocal chops here as her singing left the audience I saw this movie with in almost total silence. Dakota Johnson, finally freed from those god-awful “Fifty Shades of Grey” movies, gets to show an enigmatic side of her acting that makes it clear how we have no business dismissing her as just another pretty face. As for Jon Hamm, he is as charming as ever, and watching him hustle the other characters almost effortlessly makes me believe he will be the next Batman.

“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a flawed movie, but for me, its strengths more than outweigh its weaknesses. I am curious to see how audiences end up reacting to this as it is coming out in a cinematic time dominated by superheroes. Goddard’s film definitely stands outside the norm, but my hope is audiences will take the time to discover something a little different from what they are used to.

Whatever you think of “Bad Times at the El Royale,” you have to admit it allows Jeff Bridges to utter one of the best lines of dialogue in recent years:

“Shit happens… Get the whiskey.”

* * * out of * * * *

‘Avengers: Infinity War’

Avengers Infinity War poster

You know how many advertisements for movies say how “everything has led to this” from time to time? Well, for once, this statement makes perfect sense with “Avengers: Infinity War” which is, thus far, the biggest Marvel Cinematic Universe movie yet as it gives us their most threatening foe yet in Thanos. This particular Marvel character, an intergalactic despot from the planet Titan, has been hinted at in post-credit sequences from Marvel movies past, and now he is here to take center stage in a never-ending franchise which typically sees its greatest heroes get the majority of attention.

Thanos longs to get his hands on the Infinity Stones, six incredibly powerful, not to mention beautiful, gems which will allow him to impose his will on all of reality. Clearly, this is a character determined to gain unlimited power at any cost, and he is determined to re-balance the universe in the process. Thanos is looking to create his own version of Year Zero, and this means many characters will die whether we want them to or not.

Not only does “Avengers: Infinity War” arrive with a wealth of anticipation and expectations, but we also come into it with a sense of dread as we know some of our favorite characters may not survive this particular adventure. Then again, these Marvel movies do exist within the science fiction genre, and you can never be sure if anyone can ever truly stay dead. Spock died in “Star Trek II,” but he did come back to life in “Star Trek III.” Knowing “Avengers: Infinity War” will get a sequel, I can’t help but believe we will see some of these superheroes again. Besides, many of them have sequels in pre-production, so their fate is not exactly sealed. Who will live and die for certain? Well, we will find this out in the summer of 2019.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, both responsible for the “Captain America” sequels which rank among the best of the MCU, have a near impossible task with this “Avengers” movie as it features dozens upon dozens of main characters we have been introduced to in the past. The fact these characters are not all equally represented here is not a surprise, but what surprised me was how well the Russos were able to balance things out to where it felt like everyone had a good dose of representation throughout. Perhaps certain characters get more screen time than others, but I was too wrapped up with what was going on to really analyze this movie all too closely.

It is also worth noting how while these characters all inhabit the same cinematic universe, they do exist on different tonal levels. Some Marvel movies like “Iron Man” and “Thor” have their moments of levity, but they are generally serious adventures as their heroes are faced with obstacles both physical and psychological. Then again, there is “Guardians of the Galaxy” which came out at a time where Marvel movies in general were threatening to become as deadly serious as anything coming out of the DC Comics Extended Universe. James Gunn’s film of Peter Quill and his merry band of Han Solo-like bandits proved to be a comedic blast from start to finish, and it proved to be much lighter than the average superhero/comic book movie.

I bring this up because “Avengers: Infinity War” could have ended up being a very uneven motion picture in terms of tone as John Krasinski’s “The Hollars” was (granted, Krasinski did score a rebound with “A Quiet Place,” but still). The Russos, however, make everything blend together in a satisfying way to where nothing felt completely off-balance, and this is very commendable.

The way I see it “Avengers: Infinity War” gets off to a good start, but things feel just a little bit off to where this movie threatens to be more episodic than its filmmakers intended. But as it goes on, things improve to where the Avengers are given a real depth which reminds us they are as vulnerable as anyone else. Sure, they may be endowed with tremendous powers, but when faced with their greatest foe, they become as mortal as anyone else, and this makes their latest adventure all the more perilous.

There are many performances worth noting here, and this Marvel movie is overflowing with strong ones which would take forever to point out. Robert Downey Jr. continues to revel in the evolution Tony Stark/Iron Man as he gives his most soulful performance yet as this iconic comic character which got the MCU off to such a strong start. Zoe Saldana gets to take Gamora to an even more epic level as her character has a much closer relationship to Thanos than she would like to admit. The same goes for Chris Pratt who, as Peter Quill/Star Lord, finds even more depth than in the previous “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies to where it makes me look forward to the third movie in that franchise more than ever before.

But the one performance worth singling out above all others is Josh Brolin’s as Thanos. This could have been the typical one-dimensional antagonist bent on obtaining the most power any individual could ever obtain, but the “No Country for Old Men” actor makes him into an almost tragic figure who has yet to discover what price he has to pay for his quest for power, and it is a heavier one than he could ever expected. As a result, Brolin forces this character into the center stage in a way audiences could not have easily expected, and the final scene he has is a frightening reminder of the prominence Thanos has in the realm of Marvel Comics. Seeing this makes me believe no other actor could have portrayed Thanos as effectively as Brolin does here.

“Avengers: Infinity War” ends on a cliffhanger, and it feels like a bold move on the part of the Russo brothers and Marvel Studios to do so as it concludes on a note which truly left me breathless. We do get the typical post-credits sequence and the message of how so-and-so will return, but both these things take on a different meaning to where you almost wish this Marvel movie ended without them. In a year from now we will see the follow up to “Infinity War,” but until then we will be reminded of how our heroes will not always be there for us. Can they return for another round? We have yet to find out.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Avengers’ Was Well Worth The Wait

The Avengers movie poster

So now we finally have “The Avengers,” a movie which has been hinted at over the past few years in “Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has made cameo appearances here and there to remind these superheroes there is this way they can all come and work together, and for a bit it seemed too good to be true. But low and behold, Joss Whedon has given us a summer blockbuster which was worth the wait and focuses on character as much as it does on spectacle.

“The Avengers” starts off with S.H.I.E.L.D. experimenting on a powerful energy source known as the Tesseract when Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s brother and nemesis, appears out of nowhere and steals it. His plan is to use it to subjugate Earth and its inhabitants because he feels they wanted to be lorded over more than they realize. From there it’s up to these various superheroes to join forces and defeat Loki and his army before it’s too late.

This movie does take its sweet time getting started, and it almost seems unnecessary considering how well acquainted we have become with all these superheroes through their individual movies. Still, meeting up with them again feels good as we are curious to see what they have been up to since their last set of adventures. Captain America/Steve Rogers is still trying to acclimate to present day life after being frozen for decades, Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk spends his time in a foreign country helping its people while trying to control his anger, and Tony Stark/Iron Man is busy completing a new skyscraper along with the love of his life, Pepper Potts. Others make their entrance at unexpected times and play more of a role here than they did in previous movies.

What makes “The Avengers” work so well is that Whedon never lets the iconography of these characters speak for them more than the actors do. While these few have amazing superpowers we all dream of having, they are seen as freaks who are not part of society as a whole. Being so alienated from the common man and woman, their relationship with themselves and those around them is dysfunctional to say the least.

Seeing these characters interact with one another gives this film its best moments. While they may have a lot in common, their ideas of protecting humanity differ quite significantly. Captain America is as old fashioned as they come, and his methods and beliefs have the more cynical people snickering behind his back. As for Thor, he’s from another planet which has all those around him wondering what the hell he’s talking about.

And then Tony Stark comes into this ruckus like John Bender in “The Breakfast Club,” gleefully and playfully chiding all those around him (he calls Thor “Point Break”). Robert Downey Jr. inhabits this character like few others could, and he makes Stark a likable character even while he’s being an arrogant bastard much of the time. In many ways, Downey is the most prominent presence among these Avengers even while others in the team are nowhere as selfish as Stark.

The actors in “The Avengers” confirm what we already knew in the past, that they were exceptionally well cast. Each one brings a depth of humanity to their characters in a way that keeps them from becoming mere caricatures of what we grew up reading about. Special kudos goes out to Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth who make their roles as Captain America and Thor count for all they are worth. What could have been made inadvertently laughable has been rendered largely charismatic by these two thespians, and we cheer them on as they fight the good fight against Loki and his army.

It’s also nice to see Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner get more screen time here as Black Widow and Hawkeye than they did in previous films. Renner had one of those blink and you missed it cameos in “Thor” while Johansson’s role in “Iron Man 2” was in a movie which had more characters than it had any right to deal with. In “The Avengers,” the two of them are given more room to grow, and each invests their character with real emotions which makes us root for them throughout.

But the one actor who stands out above everyone else in “The Avengers” (literally and figuratively speaking) is Mark Ruffalo who is the latest actor to portray Dr. Bruce Banner, better known by his alter ego of the Hulk. Marvel has had the hardest time translating this particular comic book character to the big screen despite memorable performances from Eric Bana and Edward Norton. But like those two actors, Ruffalo finds his own interpretation of this famous character, and he succeeds in making this role his own. Unlike the moody Bruce Banners of the past, Ruffalo gives us one who yearns to fit in with everyone else regardless of the angry state he gets in from time to time. In the process, Ruffalo gives us a Hulk worth cheering for as he dominates each action scene he’s in thanks in part to vocal help from the original Hulk, Lou Ferrigno. As a result, I see a future for the actor as this character in a way I couldn’t before. Seeing him slam Loki all over the place as if he were a wet rag had the audience clapping loudly.

Are there plot holes and inconsistencies to be found in “The Avengers?” Probably, but with a movie like this you don’t really find yourself thinking too much about that. What sucks for Thor is he never gets to meet up with his earthbound love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) who is sent off to some remote place where she’ll be safe. When “Thor” ended, the portal between his world and Earth was forever destroyed it seem. It’s never made clear how it somehow got fixed to where Thor could travel back, but anyway. You’d figure he would at least spend some time with Dr. Foster, but some superheroes can only be so lucky I guess. At least you can give Thor some credit for looking her up. Dr. Banner never looks up his old girlfriend who was been played in past movies by Jennifer Connelly and Liv Tyler. What gives Hulk? You smash things but did you also smash what’s left of your emotional connections? Oh well…

The big problem with big budget blockbusters like “The Avengers” is they can easily get overwhelmed by the special effects to where the human element is completely lost. But none of this is ever lost on Whedon who has given us such great entertainment over the years with “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly” and “Cabin in The Woods” which he co-wrote. Here he gives a satisfying blockbuster which works on us emotionally as much as it thrills us. This could have easily been a major disappointment, and the fact it is not makes the film a huge success.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2012 not long after “The Avengers” was released.

‘Thor’ Arrives with Thunderous Abandon

Thor movie poster

Thor” makes its presence known with thunderous abandon. Now like many comic books, this one is yet another I haven’t read, so I can’t say how true it stays to its origins. However, judging from the great Kenneth Branagh’s handling of the material, I imagine it’s very respectful to the character.

Heeding closely to classic Norse mythology, Thor is the god of thunder and heir to the throne of Asgard. But on the day of his ascension, the Frost Giants invade the planet’s deeper regions to retrieve the Casket of Ancient Winters, the source of their power. They are easily defeated, but their violation of the truce put together between them and Asgard seriously pisses Thor off. Against his father’s wishes, he and his fellow warriors journey to the Frost Giants home planet of Jotunheim to keep some frosty ass. Odin, however, intervenes and, infuriated with his son’s arrogance, strips him of his powers and banishes him to Earth. For a warrior like Thor, being banished to Earth does feel like a nasty insult.

First off, I really liked the way Branagh handled this material. In the wrong hands, this could have easily become high camp which would have been enjoyable for all the wrong reasons. But Branagh takes the characters and places they inhabit seriously, and he infuses them all with a strong humanity which comes to define them more than does their place in the universe. Even the villains are remarkably complex as their corruption results not so much from a need for power, but instead for a father’s love and approval. Of course, with Branagh directing, you can count on many Shakespearean references throughout, be it Iago from “Othello” or “King Lear,” and they prove to be a perfect fit for this movie.

I was also impressed with how well Branagh handled the visual elements of “Thor.” The last time he made a movie heavy with special effects was “Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein,” and he seemed a bit out of his league with that one. Perhaps we should not be impressed as this movie has a budget of at least $100 million, not counting advertisement costs, but the key thing here is the effects succeed in being an extension of the characters instead of just dwarfing them completely. Then again, that giant creature the Frost Giants unleash on Thor immediately had Liam Neeson screaming in my head, “RELEASE THE KRAKEN!!!”

As Thor, Chris Hemsworth, who played Captain Kirk’s father in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” owns the role right from the first moment he walks onscreen. Hemsworth clearly revels in portraying the great power Thor possesses, and he is a gentleman when the situation calls for it. Seeing him as a fish out of water on Earth also makes for some splendid moments which are slyly comic. I’m also glad to see Thor is not just another character who doesn’t want to be “the one,” conflicted about the things he is destined to do. With Hemsworth, you know from the get go he is fully aware he’s “the one” and owns this knowledge to where you feel his impatience in wanting to prove it to the universe. Instead of a whiny Anakin Skywalker, Hemsworth gives us a powerful warrior worth cheering for, and one who eventually learns from his mistakes.

As scientist Jane Foster, Natalie Portman’s casting in the role seems like a no brainer. We know from her off screen life that she is a remarkably intelligent human being, so she doesn’t have to prove to us how believable she can be as a scientist. She sparks instant chemistry with Hemsworth (damn those six pack abs!!!), and that shy smile of hers kills me every single time.

Then there’s the great Sir Anthony Hopkins whose portrayal of Asgard’s king and father to Thor, Odin, is nothing short of gallant. This is especially the case with the opening narration which he recites with such depth to where he makes all other actors who’ve done it before him sound like they were sleepwalking their way through it. While many may think this is one of those roles Hopkins did for an easy paycheck, it’s really one of the best performances he’s given in a while.

Tom Hiddleston plays Loki, Thor’s brother and the movie’s main villain. What I liked about Hiddleston is how he does so much more than give us the usual one-dimensional bad guy. Just like Joaquin Phoenix’s character from “Gladiator,” Loki feels slighted by his father as he prefers another man over him, and he becomes desperately eager to prove himself in any way he can. But of course, he ends up doing it in the worst way possible. Hiddleston makes Loki into a character who is more spiteful than hateful, and this makes his eventual fate seem all the more tragic in retrospect.

There are other strong performances throughout this blockbuster affair to enjoy as well. Rene Russo, where have you been? Idris Elba makes a memorable Heimdall, and it never seems like a small part with him playing it. Kat Dennings steals a few scenes as Darcy Lewis, Jane’s co-worker whose science is more political than astronomical. And Stellan Skarsgård remains a dependable actor as always playing scientist Erik Selvig, a character who ends up playing an important role in “The Avengers.”

Having said all this, “Thor” did feel like it could have been a little more exciting. It doesn’t quite have the same invigorating sweep as some of Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations like “Hamlet” or “Henry V,” and it takes longer to get to the action than it should. It’s not quite as entertaining as “Iron Man,” but I would definitely rank it above “The Incredible Hulk.”

Regardless, there is still much to like about “Thor,” and Branagh has done the best job anyone could have in bringing this particular comic book hero to the big screen in such a respectful fashion. It also benefits from excellent casting, especially Hemsworth who looks like he came out of the womb looking like a warrior with a mighty hammer in his hand. This is one of the few times where “getting hammered” will sound more like a threat than an embarrassing state of drunkenness.

* * * out of * * * *

Ghostbusters (2016)

Ghostbusters 2016 poster

After being stuck in development hell for much longer than it took to get “Independence Day: Resurgence” to the silver screen, the new “Ghostbusters” movie is now playing in theaters everywhere. The filmmakers should get an award for actually getting this movie made as we spent years hearing news that production was on again and off again, that Bill Murray wasn’t interested in playing Dr. Peter Venkman again, and whether Ivan Reitman or Harold Ramis was going to direct. Well, it’s just as well we never got a “Ghostbusters 3” as the reasons to not make it kept piling up. Instead we have this reboot which proves to be a lot of fun for fans and a new generation eager to prove they ain’t afraid of no ghost.

We meet Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), a teacher at Columbia University who is ever so eager to get tenure. The problem is that her former friend, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) is once again promoting a book they wrote together that deals with the existence of ghosts and paranormal activity. This book, however, proved to be unpopular and Erin has tried to distance herself from it ever since. But upon meeting Abby at her laboratory where she works with eccentric engineer Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), they get word of a ghost sighting at a haunted museum that is actually haunted, and from there they start their own paranormal business that Erin calls the Department of the Metaphysical Examination. Of course, we all know they will be blessed with a catchier name before they know it.

This “Ghostbusters” starts off following the same path as the 1984 original as our heroes get tossed out of the world of academia as their love of the paranormal makes them untrustworthy and frauds in the eyes of non-believers everywhere. But being cast out of “normal society” forces them to go into business for themselves, and they set up shop in an office on the second floor of a Chinese restaurant. From there, the movie takes on a tone all its own to where it cannot be considered a shot-for-shot remake.

I found myself laughing a lot as the jokes came at a rapid pace, and if the pace ever slackened the actresses were quick to pull it back up. My only real issue with the humor is that it threatens to be too broad throughout. The 1984 original was very funny, but it was nowhere as broad because Reitman kept the characters grounded in a reality that separated them from the ghosts they pursued. Director Paul Feig doesn’t have that same success here as things are played up a little too much. Still, I can only complain about that so much.

Many are still apoplectic about this being an all-female “Ghostbusters” movie as if it were some of sacrilege that should be hidden from moviegoers everywhere. Frankly, the gender reversal is welcome as it gives this reboot an energy and a freshness it would not otherwise have. It was also a smart move not to have them playing the same characters from the original as those actors are irreplaceable.

Now let’s talk about this cast as they are not just female; they also have names. You really can’t go wrong with “SNL” veterans like Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and soon to be 5-timer “SNL” host Melissa McCarthy. Wiig brings her wonderfully unique sense of humor to Erin Gilbert and combines it with a vulnerability which gives us a vivid picture of the rough childhood Erin had to endure. McCarthy remains a comedic fireball, busting down everything in her path for the sake of a good joke. And then there’s McKinnon brings that same crazy energy that makes her impersonations of Hillary Clinton and Justin Bieber so hilarious to the role of an engineer who seriously loves her work.

Also in the cast is Leslie Jones who steamrolls her way into becoming a Ghostbuster without any hesitation. As her work on “SNL” has proven, you better stay out of her way if she has a good punchline coming. Her street savvy character of MTA worker Patty Tolan is more than just the female Ernie Hudson of this movie. Jones makes her an unapologetic hero ready to do battle with ghosts dumb enough to get in her path. That is, unless one of those ghosts is resting on her shoulders.

Are these actresses believable as scientists and paranormal experts? Does a movie like this need them to be? Did we wonder if the male actors from the original were believable as scientists? If the cast of this reboot was instead male, would we even be asking that question?

But as terrific as this cast is, they almost get upstaged by Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth. He is simply hilarious here as Kevin Beckman, the Ghostbusters’ receptionist who is as sexy as he is dim-witted. Hemsworth proves to have great comic chops, and he steals every scene he has as he fumbles about his duties while trying to look cool. Be sure to stay through the end credits as he leads the NYPD and the FBI in a most hilarious dance sequence.

Feig peppers “Ghostbusters” with a number of artifacts from the original, and even the 1984 cast (with the exception of Rick Moranis) took the time to cameo in it. Still, he manages to make this “Ghostbusters” stand on its own. It has terrific special effects which look even better in 3D (I can’t believe I just said that), and even Slimer makes a return to the franchise and has a blast at everyone’s expense. The only other issue I have is with the movie’s villain, Rowan, a geeky hotel clerk and an occultist eager to open a portal to the ghost dimension. Neil Casey does good work, but Rowan is nowhere as threatening as Zuul, Gozer or even that old dude in the painting from “Ghostbusters II.” Had this movie featuring a more dangerous and despicable villain, it would have been even better.

There’s no way this “Ghostbusters” could have equaled or surpassed the original in terms of laughs or freshness, but I pretty much considered that a given when I sat down to watch it. All that matters is that this movie is a lot of fun and I think kids will get a huge kick out of it as well. In a dreary summer season where most blockbuster movies have failed to deliver, this one delivers enough to keep us riveted to our seats. For those who still fear that this reboot will “rape” your childhood, stop saying that. No one can rape your childhood, not even George Lucas.

* * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.