Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

Directed by: David Yates Written by: J.K. Rowling

Fantastic_Beasts_-_The_Crimes_of_Grindelwald_PosterI recently found myself puzzling through a “moral” dilemma. As an aspiring critic, it troubles me that whether I praise films or not seems to be based on whether I enjoy them and not some higher, more refined criteria. I had this anxiety assuage a little when I watched Fantastic Beast: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

I undoubtedly enjoyed the film due to a combination of my identification with protagonist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), its use of familiar faces (ie Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), and the way in which magic adds a playful element to action scenes, making them more enjoyable for this non-action-fan. Yet alongside this enjoyment I also felt dissatisfaction. I liked the process of watching the film, yet felt completely underwhelmed as it ended.

While giving away as little as possible, I must say that the ending of The Crimes of Grindelwald feels like an underwhelming return to where Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them left viewers off. Literally, this isn’t true. Some key facts about the characters change, and we go from knowing nothing to knowing the basics about Grindelwald. But facts changing does not a narrative make. In her first attempt at sequel writing, J.K. Rowling produced Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets  a tale in which protagonist Harry learns a new mythology, is exposed to bigotry, encounters both a new arch-villain and new anti-hero, and also gains a deeper understanding of the previously introduced characters Hagrid and Ginny. By contrast in The Crimes of Grindelwald protagonist Newt Scamander runs around as part of a middle-of-the-road mission, another major character also runs around trying to figure out his identity, yet another character faces a horribly rushed moral dilemma and Grindelwald gives a speech and shoots some flames from his wand.

Rather than simply expressing my disappointment with this film, I think it is worth considering the structural flaws that made it the way it is. One is that it has long been established there were to five Fantastic Beasts movies, a total that was perhaps pitched with commercial rather than narrative considerations in mind.  The first Fantastic Beasts seems to have been written in such a way that if things didn’t pan out, it would work as a standalone movie: it ends with two of its major characters in being written out. Rather than finding a clever way to respond to this drama (ie finding an emotionally compelling manner to write the characters back in) The Crimes of Grindelwald acts as if the write-outs never happened and rushes the characters back into the story.

Another key structural problem for The Grimes of Grindelwald is that unlike Rowling’s previous Potter-universe series, it is not set in the structured environment of a school. Harry Potter’s story is set up to develop at a nice pace as each book/school year introduces Harry and company as slightly more educated and ready to engage new wonders, and recklessly take on new terrors. As a story of adults The Crimes of Grindelwald gives its characters no time to learn, engage in entertaining but petty conflicts, or develop false theories about their world. Instead they are thrown right into action.

Speaking of developing false theories, that’s a motif that worked very well in the Harry Potter stories (you know questions like who opened the chamber of secrets? Who was Voldemort’s sidekick, etc?) that is attempted in, but falls flat in The Crimes of Grindelwald. This is partially, because, the false theory is not sold to us through the minds of determined, but not-all-knowing children, partially because the truth that counters the false theory isn’t set up in any interesting way, and partially because the theory is inconsequential to the film’s action.While this underwhelming false theory is not solely the product of this film not being set at Hogwart’s story, it certainly didn’t help Rowling in this case that she was writing about action-ready adults as opposed to inquiring children.

The Crimes of Grindelwald is not without its merits. While not as prominent as the magical creatures in the series’ first incarnation, the beasts in this one are indeed fantastic. And while the film’s mediocre title isn’t exactly a good fit for its plot (the film is not the series of vignettes on Grindelwald’s exploits the title suggests), Grindelwald nonetheless establishes himself as a subtly solid villain.

As a kid reading Harry Potter works I remember being excited when I first read mention of the dark wizard called Grindelwald, thinking “finally! a villain other than Voldemort for once.” I was subsequently disappointed, however, when I learned that Grindelwald, like Voldemort was a pure-blood-supremacist. So in other words, he was a different villain from Voldemort, but not really. The Crimes of Grindelwald, however, finds a nice balance between conflating and differentiating Voldemort and Grindelwald. Voldemort is a blatant pure-blood supremacist: a straight-forward Nazi analogue. He and his followers mince no words in expressing their contempt for muggles and muggle-born wizards. The suit-dawning Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), by contrast, bares more resemblance to Richard Spencer than Adolph Hitler, employing “separate-but-equal” rhetoric in place of outright supremacism. While from a political perspective I think it’s important to treat explicit and (barely)-non-explicit racist ideologies as one in the same, from a character development perspective the two ideologies play out differently, and Grindelwald indeed comes across as having a demeanor and brand of villainy unique from Voldemort’s.

I similarly found it enjoyable to see a young Dumbledore. Given that the character’s gentle-genius persona seems tied to his old age in the Harry Potter series, seeing him portrayed as more of a Remus Lupin figure is engaging, even if the difference is subtle. On the other hand, I feel the film failed to capitalize on the power of having Dumbledore as a character. One of the film’s key motifs is Dumbledore’s personal refusal to fight Grindelwald. For much of the film this seems a compelling source of moral tension rooted in love or perhaps a cautious pacifism. Alas, the film ends by offering another explanation for Dumbledore’s refusal to fight which is nowhere near as powerful.

The Crimes of Grindelwald is not dull: it’s as magical as it’s predecessors. But it taught me how it’s very possible to both enjoy and be deeply disappointed with a film. Harry Potter (and even the first Fantastic Beasts) stories always left me with favorite scenes, characters and lines. The Crimes of Grindelwald by contrast does little to make jaws drop, and little to sell its characters. As someone who will no doubt feel excited again when its sequel comes out, I can only hope this stories shortcomings are not predictive of what is to come and that Rowling can indeed work her magic again, even in the absence of the Hogwarts infrastructure.


Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018)

Written and directed by: Christopher McQuarrie

MI_–_Fallout.jpgOccasionally I push myself to challenge my biases and go see an action movie. Sometimes, maybe it’s a mood thing, I somehow find myself enjoying them. Mission Impossible: 6 was one such movie. I now find myself trying to figure out what was appealing about it. Part of it no doubt was that protagonist Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) was accompanied by two less macho sidekicks (Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg)), making it endearing in much the same way as Disney animated movies.

The sidekicks as individual characters, however, are not all that memorable. Dunn is a good-kind-of-misfit in the work and is part of a couple decent gags, but there’s not much to write home about him. Stickell meanwhile is charming and a subtler misfit, but again, he’s nothing to write home about. Luckily, these characters are not the be all and end all of the film’s comedic elements. Mission Impossible 6 is, of course, ridden with fight scenes. While many of these can be described as performances of traditional action ambition, I could not help but get a whiff of comedy out of some them. There is one scene in which Hunt and CIA Agent Walker (Henry Caville), fight an enemy target in a bathroom. The fight seems easy at first, but when it is disrupted by some immature, passerby men, the enemy suddenly regains form. What proceeds from there is an extended sequence in which a high stakes, high tech fight is somehow carried out with fists and a urinal pipe.

The subtle comedy of Mission Impossible 6 is complimented by its surprisingly high dialogue to action ration (at least in its first two thirds) as well as an absurd sequence in which plot twist after plot twist is thrown upon each other (eventually its gets absurd, but it’s largely an engaging moment). None of this is enough for me to describe Mission Impossible 6 as a comedy, but comedy is certainly an ingredient in the Mission Impossible stew.

And ingredients, are what I think makes this movie work. It’s a film that offers a little bit of something for everybody, and even if those somethings aren’t always top notch, they give the film an engaging enough texture to make is exiting for those who might be bored by other action flicks.

Mission Impossible 6’s little-bit-of-everything approach is largely effective, but it creates odd results as well. The film’s villains are described as anarchists, and in the opening scene, one rants at Hunt & crew with delirious, but moral conviction, insisting they share his manifesto with the world. The idea that these characters are idealists is repeated throughout the film, yet it’s never fully developed. Meanwhile, Hunt & co. ignore their ideals, treating and discussing them as purely evil beings. It is as if the film’s writer thought: a lot of viewers want to see complex and sympathetic villains, but a lot more viewers just want a tradition good-vs-evil smash-off. The result is that the film caters a bit to both crowds. As I said, this approach works: the supposed complexity of the villains no doubt left me a bit more engaged by the evil, even as the logical part of my brain was left frustrated by the fact that the villain’s motifs were never properly elaborated on or made truly sympathetic.

The character of Hunt is similarly written as complicated-but-not. An early tension in the film is that Hunt values the lives of his friends even when doing so could compromise his mission. This supposed idealism puts him at odds with the CIA. While this detail comes across as potentially interesting when raised at the beginning and end of the film, it also feels phoney as it never really describes Hunt’s character. He comes across as a largely generic, calmly calculated, cool-with-violence action hero.

Mission Impossible 6 is, in short, a bit fraudulent. I use that word as an observation not an insult. It is undoubtedly very good, but parts of its quality comes from the fact that it poses as a “smart movie.” It is not ,ideas wise at least, a deep work, but it goes to show that sometimes even hinting at having ideas can make your movie effective. At the same time, it leaves me longing for a Mission Impossible like movie that could be as ambitious about its themes as about its stunts.

Deadpool 2

Written by: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and Ryan Reynolds. Directed by: David Leitch

Deadpool_2_poster     When I first saw Deadpool it struck me as one of the biggest compromises I’d ever seen: it broke enough rules to call itself experimental, while still meeting all expectations as a big-budget, crowd-pleasing action movie. I was pleasantly surprised by it, I’ll say that much.

I nonetheless did not think Deadpool 2 could be a good idea. Deadpool was interesting as a standalone work, but nothing it featured (fourth wall breaking, referentialism, self-deprecation, and excessive violence on the part of its protagonist) would be interesting when employed a second time around. My thoughts were all but confirmed in the film’s opening scenes in which Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) narrates his killings with Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” blaring in the background.

Then a plot twist happened. I won’t say what it is, and for your sake you probably shouldn’t search it (don’t spoil the future moment). What I will say is that twist changed my impression of what I was watching for the better.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi succeeded because its writers asked the question “what kind of story should a sequel be?” and got the answer right. Rather than simply revisiting the gags and powers of its characters, it used them as an infrastructural base for telling a new kind of story: one that questions the nature of the Star Wars universe rather than simply continuing it. While I wouldn’t say Deadpool 2 challenges the nature of its predecessor, it also manages to be a significantly different kind of story, that nonetheless, uses the original film as a springboard for its success. Deadpool, as introduced in the original film, is an anti-hero. His motives rarely seem as pure as they should be, as he seems more driven by the prospect of annihilating his enemies than by the ideal of fighting for justice. Deadpool 2 gives us a character with those same traits, but one who has matured enough so that he is also ideal driven. Then the plot twist happens, temporarily shattering Deadpool’s sense of purpose. The result of this trauma is not Deadpool regressing back entirely to who he was at his worst. The shock does, however stimulate various elements of his persona including his hot-headedness and immaturity. In essence, Deadpool is a character created to entertain with his punches and foul mouth, yet he manages to come off as thoughtfully developed.

Deadpool 2 is also bolstered by its supporting cast. Josh Brolin plays an antagonist who is not stunningly original, but is made compelling via the emotional weight laid-bare on his rugged face. Karon Soni, whose character, Dopinder, appears in taxi-cab gags in the first movie, returns as a quasi-side kick in this film. Dopinder is not Deadpool’s only sidekick, however. At one point in fact, Deadpool recruits a whole team of them. While these characters come across as parodies of superheroes, many are in fact (loose) adaptations of Marvel comic characters.

Most prominent among the film’s side characters, however, is Russell Collins (Julian Dennison), an anti-hero in, ironically, a film about an anti-hero. Russel is a mistreated orphan with super powers, and his appearance essentially makes Deadpool Hunt for the Wilderpeople with a big budget. This superficial textual similarity, however, contributes to Deadpool’s originality and effectiveness as a piece of story telling. Hunt for the Wilderpeople tells the story of an orphan bonding with a curmudgeon over a prolonged period while they are chased by a comically, pathetic antagonist. Deadpool 2 challenges Deadpool and Russell to develop similar bonds, but in a very different context: one that is higher-stakes, much faster-paced.

Deadpool 2 is full of silly references, but as superhero films go, it manages to be thematically deep. This depth goes beyond the story of Deadpool and Russell. A prolonged portion of the film is set in a prison, a horrible place in which people’s pain is ignored and inter-inmate bullying goes unchecked. For a moment, it seems, the tough-on-crime logic of super hero movies is paused to critique the school-to-prison pipeline and prisons in general.

Of course, Deadpool 2 would not be a Deadpool movie if it was fully idealistic, and it ultimately maintains its protagonist’s commitment to gore. Even the relatively pacifistic Colossus (Stefan Kapičić (who repeatedly tries to teach Deadpool that killing is not the X-Man way) is implicated in the film’s violent ethos, at one point electrocuting a character in an unmentionable place. Whether this is a shortcoming or not is hard to say. Deadpool 2 ultimately comes across as a pretty strong superhero movie. Whether it could have been more, and whether it needed to be, is a question too abstract to answer.

Black Panther (2018)

Directed by Ryan Coogler: Written by: Coogler & Joe Robert Cole

Black_Panther_film_posterThe one subset of action movies I’ve reliably enjoyed over the years has been Star Wars films. There’s probably more than one reason for this. Part of it may just be how much it’s drilled in to our heads that we’re supposed to love Star Wars. That may explain in part why I was able to enjoy the later fight scenes in Black Panther that bear some aesthetic resemblance to the final battle in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menaces.

Another piece of the puzzle here is that Star Wars, unlike most superhero media, tries to make its characters appealing beyond their tendency to fight. While this trait is most apparent in R2, C3-PO and Yoda, it extends to the franchise’s humans too.

Black Panther doesn’t really have droid equivalents. All of its characters are intelligent, fully capable fighters. The partial exceptions to this logic are Everett Ross; (Martin Freeman) a CIA agents, whose loveable loser affect is simply an illusion of his being overwhelmed by Wakandan society; and Shuri (Letitia Wright), Black Panther (aka T’Challa)’s little sister whose competence comes across as comically exaggerated (she’s a 16 year-old who seemingly singlehandedly invents every high-tech gadget in Wakanda). Nevertheless, Black Panther shares Star Wars’ ability to make you care about its characters beyond their ability to pull a punch.

The result for both films is that even non-action fans can be made to love their action scenes. Why? Because viewers can really appreciate the tension: revelling in a conflict between strong-willed characters while wanting neither to die. This is the feeling I get when watching Rey fight Kylo Ren, and the feeling I get when watching T’Challa face Killmonger.

So for those with no idea, what is this Star Wars of Marvel movies all about? It’s the story of T’Challah (Chadwick Boseman) as he ascends to the throne of Wakanda, a fictional African country. The film follows loosely from events in Captain America: Civil War, giving its beginning a bit of a chaotic feel. Rest assured, however, one need not remember the original film (or have any appreciation of the many facets of the Marvel universe) to enjoy Black Panther. Wakanda is believed by the outside world to exist in dire poverty, but that’s because it is highly secretive about its voluminous access to an all-purpose metal known as vibranium, which in fact makes Wakanda a global technology leader.

Wakanda, however, also maintains a form of government that many of might view as dated. It is ruled by what appears to be a hereditary, male-centric monarchy. The line of royal descent can be interrupted, but only if the heir to the throne/monarch is challenged to participate in combat on a waterfall’s edge. The first depiction of one of these fights is as visually stunning as it is terrifying.

The film’s plot is ultimately driven by fights over vibranium access. T’Challah, along with his lead guard Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Wakandan spy/his ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), leave Wakanda in pursuit of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) a South African arms dealer who has irked a desire for vengeance from Wakandan guard/rhino trainer W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). The pursuit of Klaue, however, brings Wakanda face to face with Killmonger. The latter villain is more dangerous than Klaue both because of his raw strength and because he actually has convictions (for what it’s worth, Serkis describes Klaue as being motivated by a desire to expose Wakandan hypocrisy, however this is a level of nuance that doesn’t really make it into the story).

Black Panther is in some ways a political movie, a narrative that has broken into the world of social media. Some have argued that its problem is that its heroes, the Wakandan rulers, collaborate with the CIA, unlike Killmonger who as an anti-colonialist is the true hero. This critique in its simplest form is exaggerated. Firstly, the CIA character largely comes across as a feeble tool. Only his fleeting appearance at a UN meeting at the end of the film can be said to legitimize his political work (one could also argue the film creates a problematic good-white, bad-white dichotomy between South African Klaue and American Ross, but that’s a stretch). Secondly, the film makes it pretty plain that one is supposed to sympathize with Killmonger, and even more so with his ideals, regardless of the fact that he fills the antagonist niche. Marvel has already given us a likeable villain in Loki.  Killmonger can easily be understood as a reapplication of this concept, albeit in a more serious context. Thirdly, the film is not as political as some descriptions make it out to be. Both Killmonger and T’Challah have inherited their politics via a game of broken telephone with older generations. Therefore, their ideologies are not fully coherent, meaning their political battles aren’t so much clashes of ideas, but heartbreaking wars between two idealistic human psyches.

In so far as Black Panther is political, however, it raises some interesting issues. One way to describe its political clash is as being between identitarian leftists (Wakanda) who fight for their ability to express their distinct way of being as a people, and universalist leftists (Killmonger, to an extent), who see liberation as coming through global collaboration against colonialism. The film also evokes a similar idea to Ta-Nehaisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power (I refer to the title/broad idea of the book, I haven’t actually read it). Coates’ book speaks to the idea that even having a black president couldn’t end racism in America. Coogler’s film takes that idea to the next level by positing that even in a world with a black superpower, global black oppression may not be brought to an end.

Finally, there’s another political question that may not be appropriate to ask, since Coogler and Cole may simply not even have considered it in creating the film. Every Wakandan we see knows the royal family personally. This begs the question of whether Wakanda is in fact a wealthy country, or whether it is yet another case a third world state with a very comfortable, and perhaps blissfully ignorant, ruling class. While I believe Black Panther is supposed to be viewed with the assumption that T’Challah and his comrades are well-meaning in their approach to governance and social-justice, it is certainly possible that Wakanda’s idealistic shortcomings are the result of it being a feudalist and/or capitalist society.

Black Panther has a lot going for it including a diverse visual pallet, gripping tension, and a good range of characters (I’ve neglected to mention appearances by Angela Basset, Sterling K. Brown and Forest Whitaker). Perhaps most importantly, the film features not just one, but two compelling villains (a quality lacking in films such as Thor: Ragnorak). While Killmonger particularly stands out, Klaue is no place filler either: there is something unique to his giggly-murderousness. If you are a Marvel fan, I think its safe to say that Black Panther lives up to the hype. If you’re not, this Marvel-meets-Star-War-meets-Afro-futurism-oeuvre may pleasantly surprise you.

Star Wars Ep VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)

Written and Directed by: Rian Johnson

800px-Star_Wars_The_Last_JediThe Last Jedi starts like all other Star Wars films: with a text crawl and the theme music. Then it gets chaotic, as intergalactic vessels commanded by various rebels and imperial figures take each other on. These early moments of the film concerned me. Was I was about to watch an ambitious but generic action movie: a tale of soldiers more so than characters?

Luckily, and unsurprisingly, my first impression proved wrong..Writer/director Rian Johnson made sure the film’s chaotic density of characters was no accident or shortcoming. While the original Star Wars trilogy featured an intentionally simple story that followed a classical hero arc, Johnson’s film emphasizes that rebellions are not defined by singular heroes. Some heroes are successful but boring. Other heroes are plucky and endearing yet accomplish little. While it is indeed possible that not all of the chaos of Episode VIII is attributable to Johnson’s vision (that the film could have ended several times before it did suggested Johnson may have been under pressure to cover a set amount of content to set the stage for Episode IX), for the most part it is justified, and constitutes an effective reimagining of the Star Wars universe.

Star Wars has done well as a franchise by telling epic tales that prioritize character development over action. While I enjoyed Episode VII: The Force Awakens, a little bit of it felt like a step away from that tradition. Its protagonists: Finn, Rey and Poe seemed the less compelling heirs apparent to Luke, Han and Leia (in no particular order). South Park noticed this and parodied it in their 20th season, arguing that the appeal of episode VII was shallow: fans liked it because it repeated the formula of the original trilogy (South Park then went on in its hyperbolic fashion to connect this nostalgia to “Make America Great Again sentiments).

Johnson handled this problem by writing a script with a meta-narrative of sorts. Having (presumably seen) Episode VII, audiences enter The Last Jedi expecting a work that draws on The Empire Strikes Back. In some ways this is true: a veteran jedi (Mark Hamill) trains a youngster (Daisy Ridley) on a desolate planet, a (less-redeemable-than-Lando) double crosser plays a role (sadly, Billy Dee Williams does not), a character’s familial status is devastatingly brought to light, a Boba Fett-type somehow factors in, and there’s a little romance to boot. Johnson, however, lulls viewers with the comfort of familiarity, then rudely, and beautiful awakens them with deviations from their expectations. While it is hard to explain this approach further without spoiling the movie, one example is General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). This character is introduced in Episode VII as the de-facto Grand Moff Tarkin equivalent: a cold villain, who is purely a military figure. Because Tarkin lacked the mythical aura of Vader and Sidius, he, unsurprisingly, was quickly written out of the original trilogy. Hux, however, stays around. Hux also differs from Tarkin in that he is a young man. The same point can be made (to a lesser, more ambiguous extent) about Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in comparison to Darth Vader. The Last Jedi further entrenches Ren and Hux as a villainous duo that is unlike what the original trilogy gave us. As grizzled veterans, Tarkin and Vader come across as pillars of evil. As mere boys by comparison, Ren and Hux lack that kind of fortitude: but the juxtaposition of their youth and power makes them, in a way, more disturbing than their predecessors.

The Last Jedi is not faultless. Its swarm of characters and highly inter-textual qualities render it unwatchable for those who have not kept up well with the series. It should also be said that this new trilogy has taken away one element of charm of the old series: namely that it could easily be interpreted as the story, not of its human protagonists, but of R2-D2. While the writers of the new trilogy have clearly not forgotten R2 and C3P0, their appearances in this film, as they were in episode VII, are little more than cameos.

That said, veteran fans of the series should find plenty to enjoy in The Last Jedi It is a reminder of just how many characters they are invested in, and how many they can come to be invested in. From Luke’s newfound wry wit, to the various odes to and splits from the series’ past, The Last Jedi is an impressive script and a fitting addition to the Star Wars universe.


In Search of the Alt-Superhero Film: The Misplaced Hype Around Thor: Ragnorak (2017)

Thor_Ragnarok_poster        I don’t make a point of going to superhero films. I went to Thor: Ragnorak based on rumours that it was something different: that if not one of the funniest films of the year, it was one of the funniest superhero films ever made. I also went because of my interest in its director Taika Waititi, whose What We Do in the Shadows ranks amongst my favourite films of all time, and whose Hunt for the Wilderpeople would have near equal standing in my heart but for my discomfort with hunting.

Unfortunately, while he apparently did some editing, Waititi did not write the script for Ragnorak. Waititi’s influence in the work is certainly noticeable: for example in the understated comedic dialogue in scene I, the appearances by Wilderpeople stars Sam Neil and Rachel House, Waititi’s own character, Korg, etc. Nonetheless, as a whole, the film does not come across as the genre-transforming piece I’d anticipated. It’s not unusual for Superhero Films to employ the odd joke; Spiderman and Iron Man certainly have their sassy sides. Nothing about Ragnorak stands out as going beyond the comedic standards set by these aforementioned sagas. Deadpool with its anti-hero protagonist and regular fourth wall breaking, whatever one thinks of its crassness, was no doubt a more innovative work than Ragnorak.

            Granted, perhaps it is not my place to criticize Ragnorak. Its target audience is not people like me, but avid followers of the Marvael universe who are able to remember who the heck Idris Elba’s character was from the previous Thor films and get excited by action sequences. That said, surely some superhero films, do strive to be transcendently appealing, and with that in mind, I think its worth exploring how Ragnorak falls short.

The story of Ragnorak is essentially that Thor’s evil sister, Hela the goddess of death, (Cate Blanchett) breaks out of Asgardian prison and declares herself Queen of Asgard, and then promptly starts a killing spree. Thor and a his god-of-mischief-brother Loki must work to overthrow her, but along the way Thor is captured on behalf of another planet’s villainous “Grandmaster” (Jeff Goldblum) where he is detained to participate in prize-fights. This high stakes plot stands in stark contrast to Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, a documentary about vampires who eat some people, befriend others and go to an awkward party. The simplicity of this plot means that it derives its life from the personalities of its characters: the unexplainable awe the vampires hold for an IT worker named Stu, their fear of being exposed by non-humans (except the ones making the documentary) and their house rules and flat meetings. Ragnorak, by contrast, calls on its characters to overcome their quirks to participate in a high stakes, big budget battle to the death. While the battle scenes are not free of funny moments (Eg Thor suddenly remembering mid battle he is the god of thunder), they ultimately serve to divert the film from its comic potential.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople, provides another lens through which Ragnorak can be critiqued. That film does have a high stakes plot (a boy and his gruff, adopted father take to the woods to avoid his being found by child services). Unlike Ragnorak, however, Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s central antagonists are funny. Thor Ragnorak has no lack of silly bad guys. Goldblum’s character is whimsical and arbitrary in his tyranny. Loki, as god of mischief, is Thor’s friend one second, and his playful enemy the next. The film, however finds its sense of direction in the character’s confrontation with Hela, a conventional, clad in darkness villain who kills mercilessly in pursuit of power, leaving the more amusing Thor vs Loki (or even Thor vs Grandmaster) dynamics, underdeveloped.

My disappointment with Ragnorak is indeed largely attributable to its reputation as comedic, a reputation, I would argue, it fails to live up to. Its flaws, however, can more broadly be attributed not to how much humor it has, but the non-impact of the humor on the film’s skeletal plot structure.

Since seeing Ragnorak, I have also taken the time to see M. Night Shymalan’s UnbreakableposterwillisUnbreakable. The latter film is incomparable to Ragnorak in that it does not aspire to be comedic. Nonetheless, the contrast between these two works illustrates what it takes to make an interesting superhero film. Shyamalan has described the film as an “origin story that the audience doesn’t know is an origin story until its last image.” Unbreakable, thus satisfies audiences by taking traditional constructs (heroes and villains) and sneakily forcing viewers to reimagine them. Ragnorak may have its creative moments, but it is ultimately still the story of a hero overcoming (by his standards not overwhelming) odds to take on a plain-stated villain.

Unbreakable is also an interesting example of how a work can quickly redeem itself. Much of the film lies in an emotional grey zone: the character’s are clearly dealing with serious issues, yet these issues don’t always seem serious enough to feel like they’re going anywhere. When the film all comes together at its end, however, audiences are able to retrospectively appreciate the whole work. Unbreakable stands out in that its hero’s self-doubt is his defining feature (rather than the more typical lingering-back-of-the-mind concern). Its villain, meanwhile, stands out in that we get to know them almost entirely for their endearing personality and only minimally for their villainy. Unbreakable closes by taking its viewers into a novel emotional space. When it finally creates a confrontation between good and evil it is not exciting or nerve wracking, but tragically beautiful.

Ragnorak may make audiences laugh, but audiences will not laugh at its central thesis: the confrontation of Hela and Thor. The world needs more films like Unbreakable, or even Deadpool. If Marvel studios is going to keep riding on the talents of directors like Waititi, it should consider giving them the creative space to truly develop the superhero genre.

Mother! (2017)

Written and directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Mother!2017There are indie films that challenge you to take pleasure in raw sound effects, awkward human interactions and mundanely beautiful settings. There are big budget action films replete with explosions and chaos. Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is an overwhelming blend of both. The film has earned praise and scorn alike, yet if viewed in a vacuum one can appreciate it as a work that unites audiences: its subtlety and melodrama are so smoothly connected that viewers who come to see one level of intensity can leave having appreciated another.


Mother! admittedly did not win me over right away. The film makes use of handheld cameras, and “Mother” (Jennifer Lawrence)’s constant walks up spiral staircases can be dizzying. The initial appearance of Mother’s husband, “Him” (Javier Bardem) is also off-putting. The character seems under-acted: he is calm compared to the regularly anxious Mother, and normal compared to the quirky houseguests they soon come to deal with. Him does not come across as a mild-mannered person, but as someone out-of-step with the realism of the piece: like a rookie-actor reading lines. Bardem, of course, is no rookie. Without giving away too much, it should be said that his disconcerting performance is in fact praiseworthy, for his character indeed has a different relationship to realism than that of his fellow characters.


The indie-realist side of Mother! is essential to its disjointed, narrative structure. The film is slow to develop a clear plot trajectory. I ts story develops as, slowly at first, various strangers show up and decide to reside at Mother and Him’s house. The first guest (Ed Harris) is a somewhat peculiar, dying man. He is later joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), who’s eccentricness is far more obnoxious and threatening than Harris’. Were the film to end after the seemingly final confrontation between Mother, Him and this couple, it would be a passable, stand alone work. Pfeiffer is a compelling antagonist, and her lack-of-boundaries in contrast to Mother’s decency foreshadows the drama that follows.


It is after Pfeiffer’s departure, however, that the film becomes truly compelling. Mother!’s story proceeds to explore issues from celebrity, to artistry, to late capitalism and borders, becoming more and more disturbing as it proceeds. While it is certainly not pleasant to watch, the film’s strength is that it never reaches a point where it runs out of ideas: there is always a new twist, always a new tragedy. Kristen Wiig, for example, is introduced as a striking recurring character as the film nears its conclusion, illustrating the film’s tireless plotline.


Mother!’s grandiosity has led some critics to write it off as pretentious and self-centred, with some claiming that it is Aronofsky’s arrogant attempt to portray the challenge of a writer (Bardem) working with his muse (Lawrence). This critique misses the obvious fact, that Mother! is, for the most part, Mother’s story, not Him’s. While Bardem’s character ultimately has power over Lawrence’s, it is of a god-like nature: he exists on a different level, and his morality operates on a different time scale. Him’s divine status is what shapes Bardem’s portrayal of him as a distant figure: sure he is powerful, but his power is precisely what means the story is not his, but that of his wife.


Mother! is an imaginative work, but is effective because it appeals to audiences on a baser level. I left the cinema mouth agape: how did it have the audacity to go in that direction, I asked myself? If gore and handheld cameras do not put you off, worry not about the pretentiousness and give Mother! a try.