Review Round-Up: Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Posted: December 5, 2017 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

Written by Daniel Simpson

Thor: Ragnarokthor

I’ve typically enjoyed the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, but most years I’ve found my praise to be faint. Marvel films rarely rise above just being fun and often their films are closer to mediocre. This year however I find myself being generally pleased with Marvel’s output. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 didn’t do much to reinvent the formula, but I do think it improved on the original thanks to an improved soundtrack and a wildly superior villain. Spider-Man: Homecoming also proved a success which did a great job balancing a character driven story with the greater weight of the MCU while still functioning really well as a fully formed superhero movie. Neither of these films quite transcend to greatness territory (though admittedly Spider-Man does come pretty close), but they executed on the Marvel template well while providing the blockbuster escapism fans look for. In the wake of these successes, the MCU also dropped an amazing trailer for Thor: Ragnarok. Making something as seemingly disposable as a third Thor movie look like an event is pretty damn impressive and the presence exciting young filmmaker Taika Waititi behind the helm only added to the anticipation.

While all the Thor films have been broadly comedic, this is the first one to actually be directed by a comedy filmmaker and that difference shows. First and foremost, while the previous Thor movies had a lot of comic relief, Ragnarok is the first of the three to function almost entirely as a comedy. The script is generally pretty witty, the performances are more loose and fun than the self-seriousness seen in something like Thor: The Dark World, and many scenes are clearly going for laughs above anything else. This can be a little problematic at times as the film doesn’t seem willing to commit to any dramatic beats, but all the same the film is consistently funny so I can’t really complain too much.

Much of the reason why Ragnarok‘s trailer was so exciting was because it looked so different than the previous Thor films. As it turns out, this is only half true. While much of the content on the gladiatorial planet of Sakaar is colourful, weird, and fun, the other half of the movie is set on Asgard and very much returns to the family drama between Thor, Loki, Odin, and new character Hela (Cate Blanchett). This material isn’t bad exactly, and Blanchett makes the most of a pretty basic role, but all the same it feels like old hat and whenever the focus shifted to Asgard I just wanted to go make to the weirder, wackier stuff with Thor and The Hulk. Still, I do want to emphasize that the material on Sakaar is a lot of fun. This is where the film employs it’s most colourful visuals and it’s also where we get a lot of the film’s best comedy. Jeff Goldblum is a lot of fun as the ruler of the planet, playing the part less like a tyrant, but more as an aloof eccentric just having fun. Tessa Thompson also makes a strong impression as a mercenary sort who will look to be playing a bigger role in the series moving forward.

Taken as a whole, it is a bit disappointing that Thor: Ragnarok ended up being an above average Marvel film rather than a Taika Waititi film, but I don’t want to undersell the film too much. The fact is Thor: Ragnarok does work very well as a piece of entertainment, especially since while the action scenes have the required amount of spectacle, it’s really the character interactions and sense of humour that carry the movie through. It’s weird, the film seems to check off all of the MCU complaints I usually have. Too many characters, one-dimensional villain with a dull scheme, pointless cameos, and an action heavy climax which loses sight of the smaller details that work so well. And yet, the execution is on the whole is so strong and the film so entertaining that I don’t actually care as much as usual. Maybe that speaks to a dropping of standards on my part, but more than anything I think it reflects the quality work done by the filmmakers who elevated Thor: Ragnarok above what it well could have been.

B

 

Justice League justice

If you had told me at eight years old that there would one day be a live-action Justice League movie and that I wouldn’t give the slightest shit I don’t think I’d believe you. I grew up loving the DC Animated universe and the Justice League TV show was definitely a favourite. My disinterest now is rooted less in having grown out of superhero stories and is born much more from the fact that Justice League was clearly a rushed product built to capitalize on Marvel’s success. All signs pointed to a clusterfuck, and the utter disorganization of Batman v. Superman only aided this feeling. I might not have even bothered seeing the film in the theater, but I promised my brother I’d go with him and so, here we are.

The plot of the film is simple; the ancient alien Steppenwolf (voided by Ciaran Hinds) has come to earth seeking the mystical power of the Mother Boxes (a type of energy) so he can conquer the planet. In preparation, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) seek to form a team to defend the Earth. Such a simple, cartoony plot is completely lacking in substance and is a very thinly veiled excuse to just throw together a bunch of superheroes and action. You could arguably make a similar criticism of The Avengers, but that film at least had some plot details (however thin), character beats, and humour to hold on to. These details are lacking in Justice League. A clear effort has been made to lighten things up, but the writing isn’t sharp enough and it also clashes with Zack Snyder’s core aesthetic. The simplistic plot does prove to be somewhat of a benefit though. Technically speaking this thing is just as overbloated and messy as Batman v. Superman, but the story is so simple that it’s impossible to get lost. Bad guy wants to make Earth go boom; Justice League stop him. Got it.

Given the simplicity of the story, Justice League relies entirely on its character interactions and action scenes. To the film’s credit, it does a better job of establishing its new characters than I would have expected. You quickly get a sense of what Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg are about as well as their roles on the team. The trade off is that most of their characters are built on superficial details and cliches. I more or less got their roles in the film, but I didn’t feel I knew them as people and as such seeing them come together or their arcs get resolved didn’t mean much to me. There are some hints of interest with Wonder Woman having been largely dormant since the events of her solo film and Batman dwelling on his own guilt regarding Superman’s death, but these too are lost in the sheer spectacle of the rest of the film. The action scenes are the typical battles against endless CGI armies which mean nothing, though the climax does at least do a pretty decent job giving everyone a role. There’s also a brief stand-off between heroes which is genuinely pretty tense, but this only lasts a few minutes.

Coming out of Justice League, I felt it was a modest improvement over Batman v. Superman. The film is certainly more coherent, there are a handful of decent moments, and the film passes the time. But the more I reflect on the film, the less value I see in it. The film is just completely lacking in any real substance. Say what you will about Batman v. Superman, but at least it had some interesting ideas at its core. Ideas that were pretty poorly handled, but I can at least see a potentially good film buried in there. That film also had Zack Snyder’s visual style, which is still present in Justice League, but is also largely diluted in an effort to make a more fun, Marvel style movie. And that of course, is the greater issue. In their efforts to chase Marvel’s success, DC has completely squandered their many characters, culminating in this bloated mess of a movie which doesn’t really know what it wants to be. All told, the film isn’t terrible. There are enough solid little moments – whether action or character based – which work, and the film certainly has the production value of a major superhero movie. However at the end of the day, there’s just very little here and at this point, being able to make a movie where a bunch of superheroes engage in action spectacle is not nearly enough to stand out.

D+

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouribillboards

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a very timely movie. The film doesn’t pose itself as a “ripped from the headlines” story, but it’s exploration of sexual violence, grief, a yearning for justice, and the limitations of the justice system speak to many of the major issues in 2017. The story revolves around Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a single mother grieving over the rape and death of her teenage daughter. After seven months with no arrests, Mildred pays to put up three billboards just outside their town of Ebbing, Missouri asking Police Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) why the case has stalled. Thus stirs considerable controversy in the town, with many folks turning on Mildred in support of the police, including one particularly volatile officer named James Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Willoughby, however, is conflicted. He too is frustrated over the lack of evidence in the case, but also respects the limitations of law enforcement and is also plagued by his own problems.

Three Billboards is exploring a lot of complex, inflammatory issues and it’s to writer/director Martin McDonagh’s credit that he’s able to walk the line so finely. The film is completely sympathetic to Mildred and indeed much of the film is about how she is processing her grief. She’s very clearly the protagonist, but the film does not seem to be totally supportive of her billboards or her later acts of vigilante justice. The cops are given a fair perspective with Chief Willoughby being a particularly interesting and reasonable character. The film is less about proposing a solution to the problems of policing sexual violence and navigating what is law and what is right, but is more interested in exploring the complexities of the situation and how people try to navigate them. The emerging theme of the movie ends up being consequence, as character’s actions reverberate in interesting ways, opening up new possibilities. Part of this might just be a result of good screenwriting (event A causes event B therefore event C, etc.) but the resulting actions are so specifically crafted that it does take on a greater importance.

On a simpler level, Three Billboards is an enthralling story which enfolds in interesting and unexpected directions. Even when I thought I new where the movie was heading, McDonagh would find a way to surprise me. The film features a really amazing ensemble cast which is full of talented people doing great work, even in bit parts. Woody Harrelson is used very effectively in a role which plays to his charms while still giving him some depth. Sam Rockwell is also tremendous. The character seems to fit within his doofus persona early on, but the character reveals greater depth as the film unfolds and Rockwell nails all aspects. The show stealer though is Frances McDormand, who gives one of her best performances as Mildred Hayes. The character can be a larger than life figure, but McDormand never forgets the real person beneath her struggle and that repeatedly comes through. She has several moving moments and while the character is often hilarious she is also all too human and flawed.

When I first left the theater, I liked Three Billboards a lot but felt that the ending didn’t quite stick the landing. The more I think about it though, the more the ending feels completely appropriate. More to the point, the film so seamlessly weaves comedy and drama, a huge ensemble cast, and some complex social issues while making it all look effortless. The film is also arguably McDonagh’s most well-directed movie. The dude has always excelled at directing actors and dialogue scenes, but here we he flexes his visual filmmaking muscles a bit. The cinematography is a lot more subtle than something like Blade Runner 2049, but it is very elegant and accentuates the film nicely. All told, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of the smartest films of the year, and the way in which it explores complex material in a way which is consistently entertaining is really something.

A

Comments
  1. Mr. Bobinsky says:

    Despite my love for sci-fi and fantasy, I’ll stick to the third film, sounds very interesting. Maybe it was fun in 2008-2012 but just like you said, Marvel is becoming a huge machine of escapist blockbusters.

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