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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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

Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” – Beasts, battle, and the perplexing notion of nobility

Poster for "War Horse"

The relationship between man and horse has always been a complicated one. It’s simple to find inspiration in a story of humans and pets, since pets are generally treated well and have little expected but love in return. Horses, like all other beasts of burden, are the subject of greater expectations, and highly variable levels of respect. Cards on the table: I don’t find horse-racing films inspiring in the slightest. On the surface, it’s basically the same as watching NASCAR – full of souped-up, highly disposal means of transportation, barely deserving of the moniker of “sport”. The only noticeable difference is that these speedy conveyances are capable of feeling pain, making the activity that much more appalling. But beasts of burden have their place, to be sure, and there may be inspiration to be found in their stories, provided they’re enriching our lives in some meaningful way (gamblers, alcoholics, and gluemakers notwithstanding).

War is an equally mixed bag for storytelling, particularly World War I. It was known ever so briefly as “the war to end all wars”, and was a study in contradictions – an absurd mix of both ancient and groundbreaking mechanisms of battle. This war featured swords, cannons, trench and chemical warfare, tanks, metallic armor, and yes – even horses. War Horse effectively broaches the question of whether a horse is capable of demonstrating valor or loyalty, and regardless of the answer to this question, we do see a great many horses lying broken and discarded on the battlefield. This exploration of the First World War is certainly the most interesting part of this film, and simultaneously the most muddled.

This film plays like a fairy tale, with a soft glow blanketing the characters’ initial idyllic existence. Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is a farmboy in Devon, England, whose father wrecklessly splurges on a thoroughbred horse to plow his field. The horse, Joey, may well be a gorgeous specimen, but he’s not big, ugly, or strong enough for the farm work to be set before him. As Albert desperately tries to train Joey to work the plow, his landlord (David Thewlis) twirls his mustache and delivers an absurd (but well-spoken) monologue about Albert’s almost certain failure. This tale of boy and horse is entertaining, to be sure, and demonstrates the horse’s personality to an impressive degree. Even as we learn that these two will soon be torn from each other by the impending war, this sequence masterfully sets up their affection for one another, with Spielberg somehow wrangling as convincing a performance from the animal as from Irvine himself.

But from this point on, the film is basically just a series of vignettes, and actually becomes rather confusing. A staggering number of minor characters are introduced, each with a slightly different flavor of randomly accented English-language dialogue. Unless you happen to be an expert in WWI military insignia, it’s difficult to tell where Joey is, where he’s going, or how likely Albert is to find him. While this certainly causes the film to lose momentum, it somehow makes Joey’s story even more tragic, placing the audience in the same confused position he’s in. Horses may well be capable of loyalty, but this horse has very little choice in where he goes or what he does. While horses aren’t capable of understanding the full scope and consequence of their actions in warfare, this film certainly demonstrates their capacity to be swept up as either victims or reluctant participants.

Still from "War Horse"

Most of the human cast – whom I would struggle to call anything more than supporting players – are effective. As Joey strikes out on his journey, the film intently focuses on each of the lives he touches along the way. Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston both give strong turns as military officers. Newcomer Celine Buckens gives perhaps the worst accent performance in the film as a young [French?] farm girl who briefly and affectionately takes possession of Joey when he wanders onto her family farm. The story of the girl and her father had the potential to be quite poignant, but it is undercut by Buckens’ uneven performance and some rather irritating dialogue.

The film’s climactic scene, which I won’t spoil here, continues Spielberg’s tradition (begun in Saving Private Ryan) of depicting both sides of a historical war as potentially sympathetic. In their own way, each side recognizes Joey’s innocence and unwilling participation in this conflict, and seem determined to spare him any further harm. Over the course of this film, we see war horses treated as brutally as any other materiel, but it is in this final moment that the film hammers home the point that they’re a category unto themselves. I’m not sure if “inspiring” would be the right word for this message – the contribution of Joey and warhorses like him was meaningful, but it came on the eve of their obsolescence as a tool of human warfare. If Joey had been born a mere decade later, he could have lived out his life happily in peace. Then again, the same could be said for Albert and the young men who fight and die beside him. Like all war films, War Horse is a tragic tale at heart – but the friendship, valor, and loyalty demonstrated here is no less meaningful for it. War may well be a natural human condition, and as such it affects those beasts we hold most dear just as surely as it affects us all. To turn a historical eye to their contributions and sacrifices, whether or not they can truly be considered noble, does not go amiss.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

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).