The Disaster Artist Review

The Disaster Artist is a glorious celebration of dreams and aspirations, I guess. Or mocking the the delusion of dreams that far outstrip the talent of the dreamer. It finds what is admirable in delusion. The Disaster Artist is the story of the making of The Room, a beloved film frequently cited as one of the worst ever made. It is that, but it is also bafflingly watchable. It is like watching a car race than ends in a train crash. This movie tells the behind the scenes story that is just as crazy as the movie that it produced. It works, managing to be heartwarming, funny and as true as any story is.

The Disaster Artist walks a difficult path. It is a comedy about real, still living people. It wants the viewer to simultaneously laugh at and admire these people. That is not an easy task, but The Disaster Artist pulls it off. The story is told from the perspective of Greg Sestero, who meets Tommy Wiseau at an acting class. While Greg is somewhat closed off in his acting, Tommy is shockingly free. They become friends and together move to Los Angeles to make it in Hollywood. The ambition of Tommy and even Greg is admirable. They aren’t going to let anything stand between them and their dreams of being actors. If no one will cast them, then they will write and make their own movie. Luckily, Tommy has a mysterious source of money, which he uses to fund their movie.

There aren’t too many great surprises, there is friction on set because Tommy doesn’t know what he is doing. There is personal friction because Greg gets a girlfriend. The movie goes to great lengths to recreate scenes from The Room, to great effect. Just seeing that weirdness recreated is entertaining. The big emotional scenes work well enough, but maybe didn’t quite engage me the way I wished it would. There is a courage to art, that as an artist you are putting yourself out there for people. This is something I, as a writer, frequently fail at. I’d often rather keep my stories hidden rather than have them rejected. The movie starts lauding that bravery, but when their dreams fall apart in front of them, it shows them recovering by embracing the ridicule. It is just kind of an odd story.

The only place I would say the movie fails is that it doesn’t really examine the obvious lies and flat non-answers that are behind a lot of Wiseau’s life. This brushes up against being a biopic that doesn’t make any effort to find out who its star really is. He claims his vague, eastern European accent is cajun, and while this is patently untrue and played for a joke in the movie, the fact that it is not true is not engaged with at all. At one point Tommy and Greg have an argument, but it is resolved without actually resolving anything. The movie can’t help but show the falseness of just about every claim Wiseau makes about himself, but it is not at all interested in the truth; the story is good enough. It isn’t a big deal, but it is an obvious blind spot in the film.

The Disaster Artist is a treat. It is a thoughtful, meaty comedy like we never get.

****

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri Review

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is a hell of a movie. It isn’t perfect, but is a thoughtful and thought provoking film. It has several excellent performances and some really interesting things to say about how people deal with trauma. It is also really funny. It is simply one of the best movies released this year.

The movie opens with McDormand’s Mildred deciding to place three billboards on a largely abandoned stretch of road near the small town of Ebbing, Missouri that calls out the local police, and popular Chief Willoughby in particular, about why there has been no progress made in the investigation of her daughter’s murder. It provokes some responses; some support angry, many angry, and things soon spiral out of control.

It is certainly Frances McDormand’s movie and she is as good here as she has ever been. She imbues Mildred with palpable hurt and anger about the loss of her daughter. She isn’t always easy to like, and does several things that are simply wrong. Still, she is very relatable. Woody Harrelson as Chief Willoughby is also great; he is a mostly good man dealing with his own struggles. He certainly has blind spots, egregious blind spots, but he is at least trying to the right thing. The most outstanding performance is Sam Rockwell as Dixon, an incompetent, racist cop who appears much more interested in settling personal grievances than doing his job. The movie doesn’t do much to redeem those flaws about him, but it does eventually give you the rest of the picture, and he becomes a full figured character. Everybody else is good, but those three give the best performances.

While the film raises a lot of questions about difficult issues, it is really about anger and how people process it. It doesn’t suggest that anger is a bad or inappropriate response to terrible things, but it also shows how acting in anger isn’t always the best idea. Mildred is understandably and justifiably angry, though she might not have the right target for her rage. Likewise, Dixon is all rage at frequently innocent targets, but his is shown to be frustrated at his inabilities. He can’t solve Mildred’s case, he can’t help Chief Willoughby, but he acts in whatever way he can to do so. Willoughby is the most at peace with troubles. He could react with anger to what happens to him, but he accepts it with something resembling calm. The movie doesn’t suggest that Willoughby’s reaction is necessarily the right one; it instead shows how anger can help people process tragedy, but at some point you have to process or the anger becomes merely destructive. It is really great.

Those difficult issues it brings up, and doesn’t really deal with, are a problem. Mildred’s ex-husband is abusive, but it also has him dating a significantly younger girl and doesn’t even acknowledge that this might be a terrible thing for her once he reverts to form. It also level accusations of racism against the cops, and one in particular, but the movie never really does anything with that information. I like that it has the nuance to not make any of its characters out and out villains, but it also lets some of them off the hook too easily.

This is undoubtedly one of the best movies of the year. I haven’t seen any of McDonagh other movies, In Bruges or Seven Psychopaths, but I intend to rectify that shortly. It is rare to get a movie that is this unpredictable and enjoyable.

*****

Top 10 Games of 2017

I didn’t play too many new games this year, and I completed only a fraction of those that I did play. Even so, I was able to assemble a list of my 10 favorite games. I haven’t beaten every game on this list, but I have played all of them enough to know how good they are.

10. Etrian Odyssey V -I have barely cleared the first stratum of this game’s dungeon. I have loved previous Etrian Odyssey games and I like this one so far, but it hasn’t grabbed me like most of the rest of the series, so I don’t know where I’ll end up with this one. It could easily fall off the list, or it could shoot up four or five spots once I finish it.

09. Disney Afternoon Collection -I have played each of the games in this excellent collection for at least an hour, but I haven’t beaten any of them. Capcom’s NES Disney games are mostly terrific. Even the worst of the lot, Tailspin, is at least trying to do something interesting. I man never beat any of these games, but I expect to have a lot of fun with it going forward.

08. Ever Oasis - A delightful little game with a little Actraiser and a little Secret of Mana and a little Legend of Zelda.  It ends up being a pretty unique blend that makes for a very fun little game.  I didn’t think it did anything great, but it was consistently pleasant and enjoyable.

07. Yakuza 0 - This game would almost certainly be higher on this list if I had managed to complete it. If the first two chapters are indicative of the whole game, it might have topped the list. I just didn’t spend the time with it that I needed to in order to beat it. I have raved about Yakuza games in the past, and everything I’ve said about the previous games hold true here. It is just a great experience.

06. Fire Emblem: Shadows of Valentia There is a middle ground between this remake of the second Fire Emblem game and the previous 3DS triad release of Fates. I liked this game a bunch and it did some new and interesting things with the series despite being a remake, but it also lost some things that I loved about the series. I guess my complaint with the series amount to why can’t they just make the GBA games some more. I still have yet to not enjoy a Fire Emblem game.

05. Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap Another remake (fully half of the games on my list this year are remakes), this new Wonder Boy takes the Master System game and gives it a gorgeous, fresh coat of paint. It also changes just enough in terms of quality of life improvements to make it play just like you remember it playing. I really think I need to spend time with the rest of this series, since I loved both this and Monster World 4.

04. Persona 5 I didn’t love this game quite like I did with the previous two games in the series, but it was still mostly a really good time. It still has a great battle system and its life sim elements are incredibly addictive.

03. Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age This remake of the most underrated Final Fantasy game proves how good and forward thinking the game was back when it first came out. It also reminded me that the game is a lot shorter than I recalled, clocking in at a satisfying 35-40 hours instead of the 60 or so I remembered. I really need to get back to try to finish up all the hunts at some point.

02. River City Rival Showdown - This one might not be as high once the newness wears off, but right now it is everything I want out of a modern River City game. It’s got a fun, goofy story, classic graphics, a deep array of special moves and some genuinely awesome moments. I hope they make more of these.

01. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild I had some trepidation going into Breath of the Wild, but it won me over completely. It mostly lacks my favorite part of a Zelda game, the dungeons, but it creates an open world that for once is actually worth exploring. It fulfills the exploratory promise that has been inherent in the series since the NES days. I love it.

Top 10 TV Shows of 2017

It was a pretty good year for TV. Here’s my list for the ten best shows of the year:

10: Lady Dynamite – Weird and surreal and completely hilarious.

09: GLOW – It takes a little while to get going, but the payoff is worth it. This show does a great job building up a cast of character worth watching going forward.

08: Wet Hot American Summer Ten Years Later – I hope they keep making Wet Hot Summer, because it keeps getting weirder while maintaining the same level of funniness.

07: Outlander S3 – The book this season was adapting, Voyager, is a tough nut to crack. It jumps all over the place in space and time, with few recurring characters. It also has some terrible moments, offset by some terrific ones. The show did a good job of turning that into a season of TV, though it couldn’t shake the unevenness. Still, I liked it.

06: Legion – It definitely goes its own way with X-Men lore, but it was a wild entertaining ride. I really need to rewatch it now that I know where it goes.

05: American Vandal – This came out of nowhere and the first time I watched it, it wasn’t near the list. But I felt compelled to watch it again and I liked it even more that time. It just does too many things well to mention them all here.

04: Fargo S3 – I’m not sure this season came together by the end, but I know that I really loved the journey. It set up a lot of compelling characters and scenarios, and mostly played them out satisfactorily, though with more coldness than the first two seasons.

03: The Good Place – The show is phenomenal. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, it pivots into something else, something even more interesting and funny than what came before.

02: Stranger Things 2 – The titling of this show tells it all, this is a sequel, not a continuation. It all worked for me. It pushes right up to that edge of being genuinely scary, but is mostly in that Jurassic Park range scariness that is about the most I can take. It move all the characters forward and introduces some great new ones. I loved it.

1: Master of None – There are like three of four masterpiece episodes in the second season of Master of None, the standout being Thanksgiving. Aziz and Alan Yang crafted a perfect comedy romance over the 10 episodes of this season. I loved it.

Honorable Mentions: There was a lot of good TV that would fit somewhere between five and ten, but a lot of them couldn’t fit on the list. Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return was good, especially after the first few episodes and got into a rhythm. I don’t know that the most recent season of Bob’s Burgers was the best the show has ever had, but I did finally realize that it is one of my all-time favorite shows. Dear White People was a insightful look at race relations in 2017. Riverdale is delightfully bonkers. Taboo was enjoyably gross. Little Witch Academia is the most I have enjoyed a new anime series in some time, though with the caveat that I don’t watch all that much anymore. And lastly is Snatch. There is a significant possibility that Snatch would not hold up to a rewatch and I seem to be one of the few people that liked it, but I thought it was good fun that captured the tone of the movie even if it wasn’t quite up to that quality. I really wanted to put it on the list, but it was more of a good not great show that I wanted to bring up.

Let’s hope 2018 brings as much good TV as 2017, while being less of a shitshow in nearly every other regard.

Top 10 Movies of 2017

Making a top 10 list this year has proved pretty difficult. There were a lot of movies I liked, but few movies that I really, absolutely loved. I don’t think anything I saw this year was as good as last year’s The Nice Guys or Love and Friendship, let alone Mad Mad: Fury Road from the year before. But there were a lot of movies that I liked enough to consider for the back half of the list. Also, this year I watched a lot more movies than I have in years past, so I had a lot more to choose from. There are also several that I think I would like that I haven’t had the chance to see, like I, Tonya, Coco, or The Darkest Hour. But I didn’t manage to see them before I made the list, so they aren’t on it. It also might be noted that my review scores don’t match up exactly with how I ranked the movies on the list; I don’t care this is how much I like the movies compared to each other right now.

Honorable Mentions: Okja and Murder on the Orient Express. Both a lot of fun, but neither quite as good as the rest of the list. Still, I liked them well enough that I had a hard time not putting them on the list at all. Also, Dunkirk, which got bumped off the list just the other day when I saw my #1.

10. Logan Lucky I went into this with little in the way of expectations and I liked it. The further I get away from it, the more and more I like it. It is just a thoroughly enjoyable film.

9. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 It is like the first one, but more. Just more. It also held up better to a rewatch than I expected it to, though it does get pretty shaggy in the middle and I kind of hate the CGI-fest that is large parts of the finale.

8. Thor: Ragnarok A full on delight that I expect will play well on rewatches. I wish it would have pulled back on the humor just a bit so the more epic moments could hit a little harder, but I liked it anyway. It was frequently legitimately funny and had just enough the cosmic stuff to feel worth it.

7. John Wick 2 – The first John Wick movie was about a perfect distillation of everything great about action movies, the sequel is not quite as pure, but it is deeper and had just as great of action scenes. Keanu Reeves has more than cemented his place on the action movie Mt Rushmore, and this is just another feather in his cap.

6. Wonder Woman – This is one of the finest examples of just a straight up superhero movie to come out in long time. And the ending, which I had some problems with in the theater, played really good watching it over the holiday.

5. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri – A fascinating, difficult look at not entirely good people in tough circumstances. It is funny and sad and full of great performances.

4. Star Wars The Last Jedi – It moved the new Star Wars movies from being just retreads of the original series and on to being their own thing. It did it while pushing a lot of the themes that the series has been known for.

3. Blade Runner 2049 I’ve honestly never been the biggest fan of the original Blade Runner; it is a mood piece that just never quite connected with me. This sequel, though, is exactly what I wanted to see. It is a thoughtful, intelligent, gorgeous, sci-fi thriller.

2. Baby Driver The Kevin Spacey stuff hangs over this like a pall. I don’t know that I’ll be able to rewatch this anytime soon and not think about that stuff. That doesn’t change the fact that for most of the year this is the best movie I saw in 2017. It isn’t Edgar Wright’s best movie, but it is perfectly fun.

1. The Shape of Water – I caught this a few days after New Years and I immediately fell in love with it. Del Toro spins another phenomenal fairy tale that really gets across his love of the monster in the monster movie. Del Toro makes movies just for me and I am glad of it.

Star Wars The Last Jedi Review

Honestly, when I first walked out of the theater after seeing The Last Jedi I was disappointed. It wasn’t at all what I expected or what I thought I wanted. As I thought about it on the drive home and over the next day, my opinion really changed. I was shocked at first because the movie is so different from it predecessor. The Force Awakens was desperate to please and easy to like, with constant, reverent references to the original trilogy. While it’s plot wasn’t much more than a point for point remake of A New Hope, it also took the time to set up numerous mysteries. Instead of being focused on living up to expectations, The Last Jedi revels in subverting them. It can feel confounding at first, but once digested it makes for one of the most fulfilling Star Wars experiences I’ve had.

I don’t want to just spoil the movie in my review, though I assume nearly everyone who is going to see it has done so at this point, so I am not going to walk through each of Rey’s, Luke’s, Finn’s and Poe’s stories. They each share key thematic points, though the movie keeps most of the heroes apart. Details are shared across three stories pretty evenly, but I think the strongest example of what the movie is doing is Poe’s storyline. The hotshot pilot gets a moment to show off to start the film with a solo bit of heroics that morphs into a suicide run on the film’s bigger, more dangerous take on the Star Destroyer, the Dreadnought. In any other Star Wars movie, the assault on the Dreadnought would be a grand, heroic moment. That is the sort of moment the series is built on. Here it is a bit of folly that gets Poe demoted. Still, throughout the movie Poe tries to be the action hero like Luke and Han and even Obi-Wan were in previous movies. While I say that isn’t like other Star Wars movies, it isn’t really unlike Empire Strikes Back, which saw the rebellion only as they fought a delaying battle before running away from an Imperial Fleet. The Last Jedi spells it out as a battle to save what you love, not destroy what you hate, a message that fits in with other Star Wars movies even as this one makes distinctions.

It is also a movie about failure and how to deal with it. Each of our heroes must deal with failure in this movie, and how they learn from it is important. That is why people who dislike the Finn and Rose story are missing the point. That part is called a waste of time only because they eventually fail in their mission, but the whole point of the movie, the final lesson that Yoda has to teach Luke, is that failure is among the greatest of teachers.

The best part of the movie is how it backs away from the idea of the destined hero. That flaw is largely confined to the prequels, which started Anakin out as this mythological figure before we even got to know him. This pulls that back. The heroes of Star Wars maybe do heroic things, but they are just people in this world, like Luke and Han were. It is deliberately lessening the emphasis on legacy that The Force Awakens focused on. People spent a couple of years speculating about who Rey’s parents were because of who Luke’s dad turned out to be, but Rey’s story isn’t Luke’s story. The revelation that her parents aren’t anybody is the best possible way to solve that mystery.

At first, I didn’t like that The Last Jedi withheld the comforting conclusions that I was expecting. I wanted to see Luke in his full glory, I wanted to see Finn and Poe go on adventures. Watching the movie, I didn’t get anything that I wanted, other than the wholly excellent throne room scene. But judging the movie not based on my preconceived notions about what I thought it would be, but on what it is and what is accomplished convinced me that this is the best Star Wars movie since the original trilogy ended.

As I said, I didn’t really like the movie when it first finished, but by the time I went for my second viewing a fews days later I was even more excited than I was before my first viewing. The Last Jedi is a thematically rich movie that upends a lot of what people expect Star Wars to be, while not really changing anything. It makes the galaxy far, far away feel larger than it has since it was revealed that Leia was Luke’s sister. It is a big galaxy, and anybody can be the hero. For the first time in a long time, I feel like I don’t know what is coming next with Star Wars and I couldn’t be more excited.

*****

Justice League

I guess it is possible to watch Justice League and be entirely unaware of it tumultuous production, but the tales of the production have appeared regularly on the internet over the last few years. This movie started as Justice League Part 1, but then the Part 2 got removed from the schedule. Before starting scheduled reshoots, director Zack Snyder stepped down due to a family tragedy, so Warner Bros brought on Joss Whedon to finish the movie. There were numerous other reported smaller issues. I can’t say that the movie completely overcame those troubles, but Justice League ended up being a lot more fun and entertaining that it had any right to be.

In the end, the production matters less than the product and Justice League must be judged on what it is; which is adequate in a fun but empty sort of way. JL is not helped by the fact that this has been a phenomenal year for superhero movies. The five others released this year, from Logan to Thor Ragnarok, are all widely regarded as excellent. Justice League is a middling piece of fun, which is a tough sell this year, when Fox actually got things right and Sony took a back-seat with Spider-Man. But Justice League is not a disaster and it is not a work with an off-putting, peculiar vision like Batman v Superman; it is the product of several cooks working their hardest to turn in something blandly enjoyable, an effort which is largely successful. Blandly enjoyable is exactly the route taken by Marvel’s Avengers, which is the most successful superhero movie to date. That movie is pure pop entertainment, but it isn’t really about anything other than getting to see your favorite heroes team up. Justice League has the tiniest bit more heft, but it tries for the same pleasures and largely delivers them.

It is definitely a sequel to Batman v Superman, starting in a world without hope after the death of Superman. Batman is tracking the first scouts of what appears to be an alien invasion. After confirming this, he sets out to gather the powerful individuals Luthor had been monitoring. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman is taking the first steps of truly returning to the world after 100 years. Together they gather Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg to stop the invaders from gathering the Mother Boxes, vastly powerful artifacts that will terraform the Earth to be more like the alien’s home. The invaders had been fought off once, thousands of years ago, by the combined forces of the Amazons, Atlanteans and humans, with the help of some others; this time it all falls on the Justice League.

It mostly works as a somewhat awkward combination of the Avengers and Lord of the Rings. This movie is a sea of contrasts, and one needs to look no further than the special effects, which run from being truly excellent to shockingly amateurish. For the second category, many people will point to [slight spoilers] Superman’s digitally erased moustache; I would point to the very awkward horses ridden by the Amazonians. In other places you can see Snyder’s ponderous, weighty take on superhero clashing with Whedon’s flighty entertainment.

There has certainly been a course correction in terms of how the heroes are portrayed. Not in Wonder Woman’s case, Gal Gadot is still as perfect for the role as any actor has been to play a superhero since Christopher Reeve was Superman. But Batman, mostly I think due to the different tone of this movie, is a much lighter character than he was before. The new heroes a solid mix, with Cyborg being kind of dry and mopey, Flash being wide-eyed and scattered, and Aquaman being brash and macho. It is a nice, more emotive group that the previously stone-faced Superman and Batman. The new characters mostly work. The Flash steals a lot of the slower moments One can almost see the seems where chunks of the movie have been removed. Other than the central story, there is almost no throughlines for the characters. It gives the viewer a start point a small amount of development, but only one character feels like he has an end to his arc, that being Superman.

The villain, a C-list jobber named Steppenwolf, is the weakest part of the movie. There is nothing to him. He shows a little personality in the moments he gets to do so, but the movie tells you little of his story or his motivations, other than to conquer. He is powerful and dangerous, but he is a black hole. He feels more like a lieutenant than the big boss, which is what he is, though the movie only once mentions Darkseid. Darkseid, who will be seen next year in his Marvel knock-off form as Thanos in Infinity War, should be the villain of this movie. He is the big gun, and WB/DC held him back for a potential sequel. Personally, I wish they had went full Kirby with this, bringing in all the cosmic weirdness they can muster (much like Thor Ragnarok) but I never really expected that. Still, the villain needed to be something more than an ill-defined simplistic conqueror.

To its credit, Justice League delivers a lot of great moments, like Aquaman holding back the tide. It translates the wonder of the comic books to the big screen in moments that don’t quite add up to a whole.

Justice League is middling. It is not a complete mess like X-Men Apocalypse or Fantastic Four or Amazing Spider-Man 2, but it also not the home run that just about every other superhero movie this year has been. There are a lot of warts, but also a lot of stuff that is a lot of fun.

***1/2

Murder on the Orient Express

I am pretty sure I am responding more to the form of Murder on the Orient Express than the content. Regardless of any quality of the movie itself, I think I might have liked any locked room or classical styled mystery. Those don’t actually pop up as movies that often and it is a format that I greatly enjoy. Unfortunately, even TV, once my prime provider of mysteries, doesn’t really engage in this sort of thing anymore. TV mysteries have gone the way of the procedural; they are rarely really about the mystery. Getting a mystery, one of the classics, done with such lush and beautiful production, was in itself a joy to me. Luckily, I thought the movie was pretty well done, too.

Murder on the Orient Express is one of Agatha Christie’s most well-known mysteries, but even so it has come to my attention that some people are not familiar with how it plays out, so I will endeavor not to spoil anything. This version stars actor/director Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot, the famous detective. He boards the famous train along with a dozen other passengers. One night, the train gets derailed and one of the passengers is discovered murdered in his bed, with the window opened. Certain that the killer must be one of the other passengers, Poirot sets out to figure out who is responsible.

The format of movie allows for movie to get relatively big names for relatively small roles. They get to come in for a few scenes, do their thing and go on their way. So you get stuff like Judi Dench as an aging Russian noble, Willem Dafoe as an Austrian professor, Daisy Ridley as a young governess, and Johnny Depp as an American businessman/gangster. They are all mostly small roles, but each with their own eccentricities to make them interesting. Each member of the cast is delightful, most notably Depp for not being too over the top.

There are two principal joys in this film. The first and most obvious is the look. Poirot starts the movie in Jerusalem and travels across the near east, through marvelous vistas of snow covered mountains and golden sunsets. The train is amazingly designed and the costumes are top notch. It is simply a gorgeous movie. The other is just watching the detective put the pieces together. That means getting to see each of the small performances and also Branagh’s centerpiece as Poirot. Despite the big change of his mustache, going from a small, neat mustache to an ostentatious handlebar, he mostly sticks with the book character; fastidious, egocentric and a little silly. We see him find all the clues and hear all the testimony. Theoretically, a viewer could grasp what has happened before Poirot breaks it down. I don’t know how effective the movie is at this, I already knew how this story ended, but I loved watching the movie go through the motions.

I could see people really not liking this movie. It is not a grand adventure, it is a small, locked room mystery. It isn’t a thriller and certainly not an action movie, so I could see it being found dull. But there are so few movies that delivery the specific joys that this one does that I am very glad to have it.

****

Thor Ragnarok

If I am being honest, I am probably on the high side when it comes to Marvel’s first two Thor movies. On my pointless big list I’ve got the first one ranked as the fourth best Marvel movie and I’ve got the second one above Age of Ultron in the middle of the list. Still, Ragnarok is easily the best of the three. It is overtly a comedy and despite its constant undercutting any sense of gravity in the situations, it still gets the characters right. I’ve complained before, repeatedly, about Marvel movies feeling empty, and Thor Ragnarok might be the most purely cotton candy sweet and empty of any of them, but since it is in a much more comedy centric context, the jokes themselves become the substance of the movie. And this movie is really funny.

There are things that I don’t like about the movie, and I’ll get them out of the way first. [spoilers for the first 20 or so minutes] The movie kills off the Warriors Three with little fanfare or pretense. It does very little to show what is going on in Asgard, even when it is important to the plot. The last scene on the Bifrost is poorly laid out. These are all problems, but they pale in the neon drenched wonder that is the rest of the movie.

I’ve waited a few days to write my review to see if my initially very positive feelings held. The further we get away from Guardians of the Galaxy 2, the less I seem to like it. And Ragnarok is in many ways the kind of movie I just don’t like. It takes characters and settings I like and treats them as a complete joke. That sort of thing usually annoys me, but in this case I thought it worked. Maybe it is because this movie is expressly a comedy; maybe it is because the movie still got the heart of the central characters (Thor, Loki, Odin & Hulk) right. Either way, the complete irreverence of this movie didn’t raise my hackles the way things like this sometimes can. Some have compared this movie to Flash Gordon, which is the trouble I am describing here; because while the colors of this movie are much like Flash Gordon, the tone is complete opposite. That movie was knowingly campy but not overtly a comedy. It was silly because the setting is silly, the movie was not making jokes about the setting. Thor Ragnarok can’t stop making jokes at its own expense. But still, it works, I think because it also delivers the thrills that made these comics (Specifically Walt Simonson’s Thor) so enjoyable.

This movie makes Thor the goofball that was hiding at the edges of the last two Thor movies and prominent in extra material. He is serious about the bigger problems, but he is also having a blast going on adventures. He is joined by a talking Hulk, which is fun, and a lost Asgardian Valkyrie. Loki, still the best Marvel villain, goes through some changes himself while not abandoning his central nature. The characters are making jokes, but they mostly stay true to themselves. The movie also delivers the action, starting with a solo Thor fantasy-ish fight and moving to battles with spaceships in the trash planet Sakaar before ending with the Hulk fighting a giant wolf in Asgard. It delivers the action.

Something needs to be said about Cate Blanchett as the villain; Blanchett is great, but she doesn’t really get enough time to be more than a force of nature. I don’t know that she needed to be more.

The movie mostly delivers in the promise of the trailers. It is big and fun and grand and colorful. Digging too deep into it risks spoiling the plot (who cares) and the jokes (much worse). I don’t know how I’ll feel about this movie in a year or so, but right now I want to put it near the top of the Marvel pile.

****1/2

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

With fortuitous timing, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women arrives perfectly timed to cash in on the current popularity of Wonder Woman. Not that the movie could accurately be described as a cash in, it is a delightful film. In some ways very traditional and in others very unconventional.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women tells the story of psychology professor William Moulton Marston, who created the superhero Wonder Woman, with some help from his wife and girlfriend. That wife and girlfriend thing is what the movie is really about. It is based on the real life of this triad, Marston, Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne. Holloway and Marston are already married at the start, when Marston becomes infatuated with their new student assistant Byrne. A romance develops between the three of them that leads to a sort of triad.

One of the best things this movie does is to stage the movie as a traditional romance. Formally this is very much a classic romance, with the same sort of obstacles and journey, only that structure is applied to a love story that is anything but traditional. It works, not toning down the content of the story but also not presenting it as lurid or obscene, just a normally somewhat melodramatic romance. At the time, and really would be even now, their story was a sensational one. Their triad relationship is pretty outre, with or without the bondage. From the account in The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Professor Marston actually plays up the luridness of the relationship in content, but because the movie doesn’t present it as such, it plays very differently. Ignoring any sort of moralistic concerns, the relationship at the heart of this movie was apparently a happy and long lasting one. It is presented as a true love story and the facts back that up. By not staging it as something extreme, it downplays the differentness of the relationship, including the absolute ickiness of the fact that it began while Olive was Marston’s student, allowing the other parts to shine through.

It is also just well constructed. Luke Evans is fun as William Marston, being almost childlike in his enthusiasm but also clearly educated. He is an idealist and a fantastic weirdo and Evans brings that across. Bella Heathcote brings vulnerability but not truly naivety to Olive Byrne. She knows what she is getting into and goes into it hopefully but not blindly. Rebecca Hall as Elizabeth gives the best performance as the voice of reason in this triad, the one who recognizes how this will be viewed by others and how hard it will hurt their reputation and their children. She isn’t cold, but she is pragmatic. Hall makes her conflicts clear, she is clearly not unfeeling; she wants this relationship too. But she has the hardest journey to get to the point of believing in it. Mostly because she is more experienced than Olive and more rational than her husband. Again, the movie is kind of old fashioned in its presentation, which works well as a contrast with the content.

The one part of the movie that gets kind of sidelined is the creation of Wonder Woman. As a comic fan, I immediately recognized that it was somewhat fictionalized. But little about the character or the content really come through. That is not what this movie is really about, it is a small part of a larger story, but it supposedly builds up to his hearing with the decency board and that thread is ultimately unfulfilling.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is one of the more entertaining biopics I’ve seen in recent years. It tells a story that legitimately hasn’t been seen before, or at least tells this story in a new way. It is highly worth seeing, though fans of this summer’s Wonder Woman might not get the story of that character’s creation that they might expect.

****1/2