FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #120 – “Thor: Ragnarok” (dir. Taika Waititi)

Poster for "Thor: Ragnarok"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel return to the final space-jaunt before Avengers: Infinity War, celebrate an awesome new character who’s also a failure of LGBTQ representation, and ponder what makes “essential Marvel” (43:22).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the tracks, “Planet Sakaar” and “What Heroes Do” from the original score to Thor: Ragnarok, by Mark Mothersbaugh.
  • CORRECTION: Sorry Spidey. The last MCU film that we reviewed was Spider-Man: Homecoming. But that one took place on Earth and we both loved it, so it wasn’t the first comparison that jumped to mind.
  • The TVTropes page that we referred to in consideration of Valkyrie’s proposed LGBTQ backstory is called “Bury Your Gays” – we also referred to the trope known as “Fridged“, a term popularized by comic book writer Gail Simone, a reference to a dubious storyline in Green Lantern, in which the villain leaves the corpse of Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, stuffed into a refrigerator for him to find.
  • We were not able to find a definite answer on whether Thanos “court[ing] Death” could be a reference to Hela (Cate Blanchett), but there has been speculation along those lines.
  • What we derisively referred to as “the Power Glove” is, of course, the Infinity Gauntlet.
  • We fudged the release dates a bit – Black Panther is February 26, 2018 (in just 3 months!), Avengers: Infinity War is May 4, 2018, and the untitled Avengers sequel to that film is scheduled for May 3, 2019.

Listen above, or download: Thor: Ragnarok (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

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Michael Mann’s “Blackhat” – A harbinger of doom for spy cinema

Poster for "Blackhat"

I must admit, when the FilmWonk Podcast reconvened after the New Year to review Inherent Vice, and I found myself uttering phrases like “trenchant statement on post-war masculinity,” I was a bit concerned that the wondrous, cinematic wasteland that is the first month of the year might fail to deliver its full measure of seasonal stupidity. Vice may have been a holdover from an awards-qualifying run in NY and LA, but it is still a January release, and January releases are supposed to be dumb and terrible.

On that count, Michael Mann‘s Blackhat did not disappoint – it is incredibly stupid at times. But what was truly baffling about this film was just how much it got right. Out of the gate, its treatment of 21st century hacking was pretty much spot-on. Screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl uses many real tricks – undiscovered (zero-day) exploits that abuse the autorun features of USB thumbdrives, attacks targeting industrial control systems that have the capability to both physically destroy their mechanized targets, and hide any sign of their malicious activity from safety monitoring software until the destruction can’t be stopped. All of these things are real (even if they tend to operate a bit more slowly and less publicly in real life) – and the irony of duplicating Stuxnet as a cinematic attack on both the US and China was not lost on me. And the film also remembers the best old tricks. Social engineering is by far the most resilient hack – the easiest way to get into a system in an unauthorized fashion is to convince a silly, flawed, Mark-1 human being to let you in.

But for all that it got right technologically, this film was an utter failure as a coherent piece of cinema. It attempted to apply a 20th century espionage formula to a 21st century technological crisis. As criminal superhacker Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) and his network engineer-cum-Bond girl, Lien Chen (Wei Tang), jaunt across the globe through multiple countries, physically chasing after a hacker who quite realistically operates from a single location behind seven proxies, my mind was abruptly drawn to the abysmal 2014 comedy, Sex Tape. Like that film, Blackhat never escapes the nonsensical logic of physically chasing errant data around the real world. But it might have worked, if only its every attempt to depict a realistic human interaction or relationship hadn’t fallen so flat.

Bless these actors, they tried hard to make this weak material work. Viola Davis steals the movie in several scenes as FBI supervisor Carol Barrett, but is criminally underused, and the film’s few attempts at humanizing her – as well as US Marshal Jessup (Holt McCallany) – were clunky in the moment, and embarrassing in retrospect. Even Hemsworth and Tang try their best to make their contrived romance succeed, and a few times, their half-decent chemistry almost makes it happen. But the worst thing about this romance is that it could easily have been buoyed with a single line of dialogue. Hathaway’s old friend from MIT, Chinese military cyber-commando Dawai Chen (Leehom Wang), is Lien’s brother, and is solely responsible for getting the two of them involved in the film. Rather than saddle Tang with awkward meet-cute lines, it would’ve been a simple enough matter to simply give the two of them some prior relationship. But the film seems content to let Hemsworth’s abs do the talking when it comes to the plausibility of their torrid affair, then proceeds to take it far too seriously.

Still from "Blackhat"

In fact, the film’s self-seriousness really becomes a problem as it becomes bizarrely, graphically violent. There are some well-choreographed sequences of hand-to-hand combat and marvelously staged gunfights in this film, each more out of place than the last. Hathaway inexplicably morphs from imprisoned hacker to improvisational super-soldier in minutes, dispatching enemies with chairs and tables, handguns, and prison-fu with alarming speed and capability. Meanwhile, Lien changes from a network engineer (who does zero network engineering) to a bizarre fantasy construct that’s equal parts spy, nurse, and helpless arm-candy. Bond meets girl. And the tone is obscene.

In keeping with Mann’s devotion to every advance in digital cinema, this really is a gorgeous film, even if it does little to justify the majority of its scenery. At one point, the power-couple takes a trip to Middle-of-Nowhere, Malaysia to solve the villain’s master plan. I won’t spoil it here, but I will say that it was a breathtaking location, their presence was superfluous, and the ensuing dialogue provoked audible laughter in my auditorium. And what’s more, the film bizarrely jumps to the duo sifting through code and financial records in a hotel room moments later, redundantly solving the mystery in a much more realistic manner. The grand finale continues the film’s descent into ultraviolent madness. We know what the bad guys are up to – time to go kill them. And if the laughter in the previous scene wasn’t audible enough, it certainly resonated as Hemsworth donned his prisonesque arsenal – sharpened screwdrivers concealed about his person, and torso armor composed of magazines and duct tape. I wish I were making this up, and if the film didn’t devolve into a level of Assassin’s Creed (with inexplicably unresponsive AI from the crowd NPCs), I might have credited it with a bit of self-awareness.

But Blackhat – Hathaway – is no hero. And its awkward, genre-straddling attempts to merge globetrotting spycraft with virtual warfare do not bode well for the genre as a whole. You can’t have a Western with automobiles, and you can’t have a Bond film with realistic hackers and semi-realistic violence. Might be best to stick with the magical Skyfall nonsense next time.

FilmWonk rating: 3 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #20 – ‘The Avengers’ (dir. Joss Whedon) (bonus spoiler episode)

Poster for "The Avengers"

This podcast contains spoilers for The Avengers and The Dark Knight. This week on the podcast, Glenn, Daniel, and special guest Sarah get together for a spoilery second look at Marvel’s The Avengers. While Glenn still stands by his 8/10 review, Daniel has other opinions, and if there’s one thing we love at the FilmWonk Podcast, it’s sowing discord. Find out if these three heroes can unite and save the cinematic world below!

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 8/10 (Glenn), 5/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • This episode was meant as a quick one-off, so it will unfortunately be a bit less polished than our usual episodes. Although my phone has a surprisingly good microphone!
  • Correction: A dutiful listener has pointed out that one of my supposed “continuity errors” is flat-out wrong. Stark and Banner get into the convertible, while Rogers takes off on the motorcycle. Mea culpa! Chalk it up to identical wardrobes and viewer fatigue.

Listen above, or download: The Avengers (right-click, save as).

Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” – Big damn heroes

Note: There was dissent in the house of FilmWonk about this film! Be sure to check out our spoiler-edition podcast on The Avengers after you see the film.

As Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) addresses his fellow Avengers in the last act of this film, he makes the rather staggering leap in logic that their nemesis Loki (Tom Hiddleston) will surely go to New York City to fire the opening salvo of his war on mankind. Stark’s only evidence? NYC is where self-important people go to show off. While the non-New-Yorker in me couldn’t help but chuckle, this sloppy bit of plotting (and my instant acceptance thereof) did raise an interesting question. How much of my desire to follow these characters into whatever adventure and peril awaits them can be properly attributed to this film? This is the potential problem with any sequel – a dilemma that is compounded in a franchise like The Avengers, in which some of the characters were introduced in films that were at best mediocre, and in one case, starred a completely different actor. But while “The Avengers” might not have entirely succeeded as a franchise, Joss Whedon‘s rousing and epic take on the final film* has completely validated Marvel’s endeavor.

The gang’s all here, and both Whedon and his actors know exactly who they want them to be. There’s Thor (Chris Hemsworth), verbose and bombastic demigod who feels the weight of every moment – with a soft spot for humanity and for his villainous adoptive brother Loki. There’s Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), steadfast and reliable soldier – first out the door into a fight, and a natural leader. There’s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), boss of the Avengers – chaotic, manipulative bastard beyond reproach, working at all times for the greater good.

And then there’s the other guy. Mark Ruffalo joins the Avengers as Bruce Banner, better known as the Incredible Hulk. If there’s one thing the last two Hulk films taught me, it’s that there’s a lot of potential goofiness involved with a character that explodes into a huge green uncontrollable rage-monster. And yet, everyone in The Avengers treats Banner with deadly seriousness, most of all Ruffalo himself. Even with his limited screentime, Ruffalo manages to deftly convey just what a self-hating, tortured soul this man is. Because the movie never treats the Hulk as anything less than an imminent, mortal threat, there is a palpable sense of danger surrounding him at all times. All of the fantastic tension in the early scenes between Banner and the Avengers is character-based – they fear the unpredictable man who stands between them and the beast. And surprisingly, it is between Banner and Stark that the film first starts to draw some fascinating parallels. Both Banner’s Hulk and Stark’s Iron Man are grappling with potentially lethal forces that threaten to tear them apart from the inside out. While Stark is far more ready to crack a joke about his situation, they feel credibly like the only two people in the world who can truly understand each other’s lot.

Stark has the most screen time – this is surely because both Iron Man and Robert Downey, Jr. are collectively the biggest star in the bunch, but it also marks a wise decision on Whedon’s part to use Stark as the film’s no-bullshit sounding board. Stark is a brilliant, abrasive, narcissistic billionaire, and seems exceptionally well-suited to the job of bringing subtext to the surface in a short period of time. In each of their scenes with Stark, more of each Avenger is revealed, and Downey’s performance here is as strong as it has ever been.

And what to make of the villainous Loki? He is the same whiny, entitled, beggar-king that be became in Thor, ranting constantly about his birthright and nobility and dispatching his enemies with unrelenting viciousness. Loki is less of a master of chaos than he pretends to be, but Hiddleston’s performance brought just about the right level of malevolence and false bravado to the role. Full-on villainy seems like a natural extension of his antiheroic beginnings in Thor – a film which I suspect, despite my cheap shot above, might actually be slightly better when viewed through the lens of what’s to come**.

And what’s to come is pretty obvious… All hell breaks loose in the Big Apple, per usual, but for once the city’s defenders seem immediately equal to the task at hand. This is partially because of just how powerful the Avengers are collectively, but it’s also because the invading “Chitauri” never quite feel like a world-ending threat. The army – a collection of District 9 rejects, Uruk-hai, and giant flying tortoises – wasn’t half as interesting as the heroes fighting it. But the scale, cinematography, and big, colorful superhero badassery of it all brought a huge grin to my face nonetheless. If there’s one thing I remember from Joss Whedon’s last film Serenity, it’s that the man can direct the hell out of an full-tilt battle sequence, balancing intimacy, scale, and devastation with near-perfection. A series of tracking shots take us on a breathtaking tour of the battlescape, as we see each of the Avengers brawling with their own impressive signatures. Despite the rather rote setup of the battle and its resolution, the stakes were undeniable, both for the heroes personally and for the city they protect***.

The Avengers is an unrelenting delight with a smart script and a rousing musical score (by Captain America composer Alan Silvestri). But the highest praise I can give this film is that even the most groan-worthy bits of fan-service were well-placed and served the plot in some concrete fashion. Did Thor really need to bang his hammer into Captain America’s shield? Of course not. But I’m glad I got to see it.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

* I say “final film” more in the sense of a climax, not out of any naive belief that Marvel won’t milk this franchise until it dies. After a $207 million opening weekend, there’s little doubt that there will be an Avengers 2.

** All things considered, Jane Foster is still a useless character, and I was pleased to only see Natalie Portman’s face in this film as a means of assuring us that she would not make another wasted appearance.

*** SPOILERY OBSERVATION (highlight to view):
While the nuke felt a little perfunctory, Stark’s sudden rush to self-sacrifice was profoundly affecting. Downey, Jr completely sold his transformation over the course of this film (particularly after Coulson’s death), and the film actually managed to make me forget, for a few seconds, that there’s no way that Marvel would let Joss Whedon exercise his penchant for character-slaughter on their biggest star. It was a lovely moment nonetheless, and one that this film completely earned.
END OF SPOILER

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #10: Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor”

This week, Nick returns to throw down the gauntlet and help Glenn review Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, the latest entry in the Avengers saga. Will it be a worthy standalone film, or merely a S.H.I.E.L.D.-infused trailer for what’s to come? Listen below to find out [may will contain some NSFW language] (24:21).

(Part 1 – 10:01)
(Part 2 – 14:20)

FilmWonk ratings: 5/10 (Glenn), 4/10 (Nick)

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is from Patrick Doyle’s original score for the film (track: “Sons of Odin”).

Listen above, or download: Thor Part 1, Part 2 (right-click, save as).