'Thor: Ragnarok,' a comedy

By Tom Von Malder | Mar 05, 2018
Photo by: Marvel Studios A very buff Chris Hemsworth continues to have at least one shirtless scene in each Thor movie. It must be written in his contract.

Owls Head — Thor: Ragnarok (Marvel Studios/Disney, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 130 min.). This third Thor film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the most fun of the entire series. The viewer gets a "stripped down" version of Thor (Chris Hemsworth)  as his older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, has escaped from prison once their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) dies and she has destroyed Thor's mighty hammer, and while Thor escapes Hela, he ends up on a trash heap of a world, where the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) has his long locks shorn. Set in the same time period as "Captain America: Civil War," the film also explains the absence of Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in that film, as he has become the Grandmaster's champion in a series of staged combats.

Of course half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is back as well, only this time he sometimes works with Thor to solve obstacles, as Loki too has ended up on Sakaar, Grandmaster's planet and the collection point for all things lost in the universe. Hulk also helps out, as does new female character Scrapper 142, aka Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). Thor also meets an interesting fellow prisoner in the rock creature Korg (voiced by director Taika Waititi, who also made "Hunt for the Wilderpeople"). Back on Asgard, Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Skurge (Karl Urban) find themselves on opposite sides, as Hela takes over Asgard, home of the gods. However, she needs the Bifrost sword, which Heimdall is hiding, to transport her brought-back-from-the-dead troops to conquer the known universe. Hela had been imprisoned by Odin because she wanted to conquer more than the Nine Realms back in the day.

The film's lighter touch is evident from the opening, in which, an imprisoned Thor must get loose and defeat the demon Surtur (voiced by Clancy Brown), the creature he has been dreaming about causing the fiery destruction of Asgard. As the cage he is imprisoned in keeps twisting, Thor interrupts Surtur to ask him to wait until he swings around again. More humor follows when Thor arrives back in Asgard in time to catch the closing moments of a play with actors portraying he and Loki. When Thor goes to Earth to find Odin, he encounters Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), another very amusing bit.

Circumstances eventually pit Thor and the Hulk against each other in Grandmaster's arena, which is a battle royale. And like many a James Bond film, during their escape, Thor and Bruce have to run through a parade, but this parade humorously celebrates the Hulk. While the film has plenty of combat, especially towards the end, humor is the predominant feature, and Hemsworth can play humor very well. Remember him as assistant Kevin in the recent female remake of "Ghostbusters?" The end result is the film is a wonderful ride.

Extras include humorous audio commentary by director Waititi; five featurettes (34:24) that look at Thor in previous films and this one, Hela vs. Valkyrie, director Waititi and his playing Korg, the planet of Sakaar, and Hulk vs. Thor, plus the film's nods to Jack Kirby's original comic artwork; a gag reel (2:18); a follow-up "Team Darryl," as Darryl's new roommate replacement for Thor is the Grandmaster (6:08); four deleted scenes (7:20); and a look at the evolution of the Marvel characters during the first 10 years of the films (5:23). Grade: film 4 stars; extras 3.5 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Lady Bird (A24/Lionsgate, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 93 min.). The film is not about the wife of former President Lyndon Baines Johnson, but rather the senior high school year of a girl who calls herself Lady Bird and lives in Sacramento, Calif. Writer/director Greta Gerwig's solo directorial debut, based in part on her own growing up in Sacramento, earned five Oscar nominations, even though it did not win any of the golden statuettes. The film was nominated for Best Picture (rightfully so), for Best Actress (Saoirse Ronan as Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson) and Best Supporting Actress (Laurie Metcalf as her mother, Marion), and for Gerwig as Best Director and Best Original Screenplay author. The film and Ronan, who previously was nominated as Best Supporting Actress for "Atonement," did win Golden Globes.

Ronan is very good as a very opinionated young woman, trying to find her identity. She often clashes with her mother, who is often fixated on finances -- in fact, her father (Tracy Letts as Larry) loses his job during the film -- and insists Lady Bird attend a state school due to the lower, in-state tuition costs. Lady Bird, however, insists she hates Sacramento and wants desperately to attend school in the Northeast. Her father secretly helps her apply to several Eastern colleges. Meanwhile, Lady Bird is stuck in a Catholic all-girls school, where her longtime friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) talks her into trying out for the school musical, a co-production with the all-boys Xavier High. Another reason Lady Bird tries out is she likes Danny (Lucas Hedges, nominated for Best Supporting Actor for "Manchester By the Sea") who is in the musical.

Lady Bird and Danny start dating and everything is wonderful, until it is not. During the second half of the school year, Lady Bird does not go out for the school play and pals up with rich Jenna (Odeya Rush), whom she previously had disdained. However, Jenna is friends with the somewhat enigmatic Kyle (Timothee Chalamet, Oscar nominee for "Call Me By Your Name"), who plays guitar in a rock band. Kyle, despite his intellectual affectations, turns out to be a bad boyfriend choice, however.

The film, set in 2002-03, has a freshness to the writing and handling of characters even as it touches on the usual high school coming-of-age events, such as the school, play, prom, tests, dating and applying to college. Metcalf is very good as the too-demanding mother -- "I want you to be the very best version of yourself," Marion tells Lady Bird, who replies, "But what if this is the best version?" -- while Letts is fine as the easier, more understanding dad.

Extras include audio commentary by Gerwig and cinematographer Sam Levy; and a making-of featurette (15:42) in which Gerwig says the film is about the process of growing up and wanting out, only to realize too late that you loved where you were. Grade: film 3.75 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Murder on the Orient Express (20th Century Fox, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 113 min.). This is the second major film adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1934 novel, starring Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, following the star-studded 1974 version with Albert Finney and Lauren Bacall. This time, producer/director Kenneth Branagh plays Poirot, with an astonishingly long mustache.

The biggest change from the book is Poirot solving an introductory crime at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, in which the suspects of a theft  are a rabbi, a priest and an imam, leading Poirot to start in about the old walk-into-a-bar joke, just seconds after I thought of it. Perhaps the best moment of the whole movie is when Poirot sticks his cane in the exact spot where it will come in handy later. Poirot then boards the train with 13 other passengers in the Calais car. Poirot's last-minute spot is helped by an old friend (Tom Bateman as Bouc), whose father owns the Orient Express.

The mystery itself concerns  the multiple-stabbing death of a nasty bit of work, Ratchett (played by a restrained Johnny Depp as perhaps a gangster). The other passengers, soon to be suspects, come in all ages and races, and are played by Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Michele Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley and Derek Jacobi, among others. The murder occurs just before the train's engine is derailed by an avalanche, just prior to entering a tunnel. Instead the train is stopped on a tall viaduct, making the situation outside even more perilous. The acting ranges from adequate to good, with Pfeiffer coming across a bit too strong and Jacobi and Dafoe being under-used. Branagh uses some unusual overhead shots for inside the train, including when Ratchett's body is found, and several long, marvelous tracking shots along the outside of the train.

Extras include audio commentary by director Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green; a nice, "intimate" portrait of Christie (19:03) that includes interviews with her grandson and great-grandson; a look at Poirot (9:54), who debuted in "The Mysterious Affair at Styles: and had been intended as a one-book character; a three-part look at the suspects and the actors who play them (17:53 total); a making-of featurette (16:23); a fascinating look at the technical details of making the film (16:35), including using heavy 65mm cameras, filming separately and then projecting the passing scenery on multiple LED screens and some of the moving crane shots; 10 deleted and two extended scenes (16:40), including an alternate opening that mirrors that of the 1974 film; and a piece on the music (7:31). Grade: film 3 stars; extras 3.25 stars

HIM (ITV Studios/BBC DVD, NR, 140 min.). This three-part British TV miniseries stars Fionn Whitehead (here making his debut; he starred in Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" the next year) as HIM, a 17-year-old boy -- his actual name is never used in the show -- who is stuck between two changing families. Both of his parents have divorced, re-married and have had or are about to have infants. He stayed with his mother because she was all alone, but would have preferred living with his father and his younger brother. He does not get along with either of his stepparents, but especially his stepdad (Patrick Robinson as Victor).

The adolescent has bigger problems than family fights and not enjoying school, though. HIM has inherited the power of telekinesis -- the ability to move objects with his mind -- and when he gets angry, his power lashes out in destructive ways, such as when he makes the hood of his father's car pop open while they are driving on the highway. He is closest to his grandmother (Susan Jameson as Rose), who shares his secret, as his grandfather also had the ability, but grandfather took his own life because he could not deal with it. HIM is seeing a psychiatrist (Alec Newman as Ross Brodie) in attempts to control his anger and come to grips with his parents' divorce. Dad is played by James Murray and Mom by Katherine Kelly. Lucy Liemann plays HIM's stepmother, who is pregnant with twins. (The ability passed over his father's generation, but the sonograms of the twins made me wonder if at least one was already showing the ability in the womb, controlling its sibling.)

Things get further complicated for HIM when his stepfather's college-age daughter (Simona Brown as Faith) moves in with them, after her own mother's death, and there is an instant attraction, especially on his part. Brown brings a sweetness to the series that, prior to that, was Whitehead being sullen and withdrawn in hoodies and wearing headphones, and almost every adult either bullying, picking at or being snobbish to HIM. The best moment is when HIM reveals his ability to Brodie at the end of the second episode. The show could certainly have used more action. There are no bonus features. Grade: 2.5 stars

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