Friday, November 24, 2017

Bitter's Holiday Gift Guide

As Black Friday dawns, I wanted to offer up a resource for those of you looking to get something for the aspiring writers, filmmakers and TV producers in your family.

Books for the aspiring writer:

For someone interested in knowing what a showrunner does: Showrunners: The Art of Running TV Show is a very frank, in-depth look at the art and business of running a TV show. It really drives home what a demanding job it is. Many participants speak wearily of the long hours and the heavy workflow, but most also display an awareness of how careful one must be when complaining about a job that pays so heavily. Still, we're reminded at the start that 85% of new shows fail, and an interview with a TNT &; TBS executive points out that being a great writer doesn't always make one a great showrunner.

It's also a movie and both references will convey just how all-encompassing the job is. I might actually favor the book, which is in the format of an oral history that has beekn culled from many of the same interviews that appear in the documentary. The book has room to expound on several of the interviews, though the documentary sets itself apart by taking us into several writers' rooms, along with showing us some of the showrunners working on set and meeting fans at Comic-Con.

J.J. Abrams (Alias, Felicity)
Matthew Carnahan (House of Lies)
Steven S. DeKnight (Spartacus)
Jane Espenson (Husbands)
Hart Hanson (Bones)
Mike Kelley (Swingtown, Revenge)
Robert King & Michelle King  (The Good Wife)
Damon Lindelof (Lost)
Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica)
Bill Prady (The Big Bang Theory)
Ray Romano & Mike Royce (Men of a Certain Age)
Shawn Ryan (The Shield)
Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy)
Janet Tamaro (Rizzoli & Isles)
Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse)

For a first-person look at breaking in and working on staff: Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson's Creek.  Jeffrey Stepakoff traces his career in television, starting with breaking in in the '80s, up to the time he was on staff during a critical season of Dawson's Creek. He's retired now, so don't expect much insight that's specific to the current TV landscape, but there's a lot of knowledge to be gleaned from his war stories.

A memoir from a man who co-created one of the most successful sitcoms of the modern era: You're Lucky You're Funny: How Life Becomes a Sitcom. This is Phil Rosenthal's account of the creation and maintenance of Everybody Loves Raymond. It's been a while since I read this one, but I remember it being an interesting look at modern TV production through the eyes of a showrunner.  I didn't even watch Everybody Loves Raymond and this one kept me in.

Another memoir about becoming a working writer when your first gig was on one of the most successful shows in TV: Conversations With My Agent. Rob Long got his start on Cheers. After that, it was a fight to make sure it wasn't all downhill. As the book copy says: Getting from pitch to pilot is a tricky path to navigate successfully, from making non-negotiable changes and deal-breaking edits, combined with accommodating the whims of studios, networks and agents, often the finished product ends up a long way from where the script-writer started. With the help of his agent, her constant demands, monstrous salesmanship, brutal irony and unswerving loyalty, Long's career fluctuates from wannabe to player, from award-winning script-writer to burnt out has-been.

To better understand the business of TV: Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of The WB and UPN. I've raved about this one before, and I consider it a remarkable look at the sorts of pressures faced by a fledgling pair of networks and how that comes to bear creatively on their shows. Network executives are often demonized as soulless "suits" out to maliciously destroy a show's uniqueness for the sake of the bottom-line, but co-author Susanne Daniels is not one of those. 

The best behind-the-scenes episode and production guide there is: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion. I'm cheating a bit because this one is out of print, and as you can see, used and new copies command a pretty high price. Still, you might find these in second-hand bookstores. This is nearly 800 pages of information about the series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Each episode is covered in-depth, with plenty of quotes and insights from the writing staff. It really gives you a sense of how a story takes shape and might go through multiple iterations before finally making it to screen.  Most episode guides focus mostly on synopsis and trivia, but this is a book that really digs into the creation of each episode and the evolution of longer arcs. I wish every TV show was dissected as in-depth as this book does for DS9.

The MasterClass videos:

I just plugged these last week in a massive post, but a couple emails I got afterwards indicated to me that you guy might be interested in giving these as gifts this coming holiday. I've reviewed three MasterClasses so far:

(Note: This post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.)

The cost is $90 for a single class OR you can purchase the All-Access Pass for 180 and have unlimited access to all of their classes for an entire year. The ones of particular interest to aspiring actors, writers and directors are:  

Ron Howard Teaches Directing
Helen Mirren Teaches Acting
Martin Scorsese Teaches Filmmaking

There are other classes available, but the one that has me most curious is Stephen Curry Teaches Basketball  Here's a convenient link to make a purchase as a gift for someone. And as a special bonus, if you use any of the links I've posted, I get a few shekels for the referral. Think of it as giving a gift and getting to support my site at the same tiem, which brings me to... 

Shameless plug:

My book MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films is still available on Amazon. The eBook will run you a mere $4.99 and if you're one of those people who prefers paperback books, that'll cost you $10.99

I'm very proud of the book and to be perfectly frank, it would be nice to have a few extra dollars in the coffers this holiday season. So if you're looking for a way to support me, or just want to say Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah, do it the capitalist way by buying my book.

His movies have cumulatively earned $2.4 billion in the domestic box office, making him the second most-successful director of all time, right behind Steven Spielberg. If one gathered the top six directors in that category, that same man would be only one of the half-dozen to not also be in possession of an Academy Award: Michael Bay.

Commercial success and meaningful art don’t always go hand-in-hand, but is it possible for a filmmaker to consistently hit his mark with the audience without truly doing something right artistically? Professional critics have long taken aim at Bay’s music-video-honed visual style, full of fast cuts, moving camera shots, hot women. The internet is full of negativity and scorn for the director too, but has anyone truly given Bay’s oeuvre the benefit of the doubt?

Michael F-ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay’s Films is the first-ever attempt to approach the Bay catalog from an intellectual standpoint. Come ready to find the deep subtexts and profound meanings in Michael Bay’s filmography.

EXPERIENCE – the controversial discussion about man’s relationship with God buried within Armageddon!

DISCOVER – how Pearl Harbor demonstrates that emotional truth is far more vital than strict adherence to actual historical events!

LEARN – how The Island is a pointed allegory attacking the proliferation of remakes and reboots that Hollywood produces!

UNDERSTAND – the vulnerable confession that Michael Bay offers under the cloak of a true-life Miami crime story in Pain & Gain! And much more!

If you love Michael Bay, you will find something to enjoy in this book and if you hate Michael Bay you'll probably still find plenty to love here. Every movie Michael Bay has directed is covered here, in all-new in-depth examinations.

If you want a taste of the book, read the chapters on TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION and THE ROCK for free at their respective posts. Also check out "Why I Wrote a Book About The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films" over at Film School Rejects.

Happy Holidays everyone!

Monday, November 20, 2017

JUSTICE LEAGUE: a superhero all-star movie held back by low ambitions

Man of Steel Review
Batman v. Superman Theatrical Review (spoiler free) (spoiler discussion)
Batman v. Superman Ultimate Edition Review
Suicide Squad Review
Wonder Woman Review

JUSTICE LEAGUE represents the fifth film in the effort to mount a unified DC Universe on film, and as far as going forward, probably the most crucial piece of the puzzle. This isn't just another super-hero film - it's the all-star team of ANY superhero universe. Superman and Batman as individuals are more popular than anything Marvel has to offer and after this year, Wonder Woman is like right on their heels.

(Spider-Man has been consistently more popular than her throughout their publication history, and most of the former Marvel B-list has gotten a boost from the Marvel Studios films.)

The point is, WB if JUSTICE LEAGUE laid a major egg, it would have cemented the DC Cinematic Universe as a failure. As I compose this review, the final box office isn't in, and the financials of the film have very little to do with how good it is, so for now, let's exclude that from the definition of success. The real question that matters: is the movie any good?

Answer: Kinda? It's... okay?

Two weeks ago, I picked on THOR: RAGNAROK a bit for playing fast and loose with its structure and plot progression, but ultimately came down with the judgement that it was fun enough to still be a good movie. I won't be surprised if I see takes on JUSTICE LEAGUE that follow a similar path, but I think this film falls short in ways that undermine it more than THOR.

A failing of the film is a lack of attempt to reach for any higher theme. There are moments where the film seems to be TELLING us that it's about hope, but I never felt that emotion coming through on screen via the plot or the action. It's a very surface-level film. Though BATMAN V. SUPERMAN stumbled over its own themes, there was a very clear ambition to deal with how earth-shattering the existence of a being like Superman would be in political, social and religious issues. It's even the foundation of the Batman/Superman conflict in a way. I don't think it fully succeeded, and I won't even award points for trying but it shot for more depth than JUSTICE LEAGUE. It's a shame because finding those connections among the characters could have elevated the film. THOR: RAGNAROK might have had messy plotting at times, but the themes and characterization smoothed over those bumps.

The "plot" of JUSTICE LEAGUE is the most basic of any DCU movie so far. There are three "Mother Boxes" scattered across Earth and an evil villain named Steppenwolf has returned from  beyond with the goal of recapturing all three and assembling them, for doing so will unleash power that will destroy the world. Awakened to the threat, Batman and Wonder Woman go looking for other beings with enough power to fight Steppenwolf and his army of Parademons. This leads them to recruit The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg, who've all been operating under the rader until this point.

That's basically the plot - stop bad guy from getting boxes. Boxes end world. You might think this means we're getting a quest movie inside the film, but nope. Steppenwolf already knows where two of the boxes are and he easily reclaims him. Meanwhile Cyborg figures out where the third box is as soon as he's told about it, and the heroes almost gift-wrap that one for Steppenwolf to take.

Steppenwolf's plan is lacking in any sort of complexity, which is fitting because he's the thinnest comic book movie villain of anyone since the guy from THOR: THE DARK WORLD whose name I can't remember. Ultron might have been trapped in a weak movie, but at least he had a personality, a recognizable motive, and an ideology that made for interesting dramatic confrontations with our heroes. At this point, it's inexcusable for these movies to have paper-thin villains who are only able of challenging our heroes physically. They might as well have had Doomsday be the headlining villain for all the difference it makes.

There are three plots in play here:

1) Gather the heroes
2) Resurrect Superman
3) Beat up Steppenwolf.

They're not integrated especially cohesively. THE AVENGERS bent over backwards to not only make each team member's inclusion feel organic and necessary, it used their interpersonal dynamics to drive the plot forward, as when Loki starts messing with them. (For instance: Banner's included not because he's the Hulk, but because of his gamma radiation experience. The Hulk is what Loki uses against the other members.) Yes, AVENGERS also has an end-of-the-world plot, but Loki's a magnetic enough character to make the route there interesting. JUSTICE LEAGUE has a pretty decent handle on how our heroes interact with each other, but there's no meat to their dynamic with Steppenwolf.

The fly-by-night nature of the film is fairly evident in the gathering of the heroes. Batman is hunting powerful people (though really it's Lex who did the legwork. Bruce is just benefiting from it) rather than those characters emerging naturally from the story. Bruce goes looking for Aquaman and ends up running right into a huge clue about the Mother Box. I almost wish it had been the other way around, with Batman's Mother Box quest revealing Aquaman, and the result of that being Aquaman INSISTING on joining the team. It would have driven the story with more urgency and made Aquaman more proactive. I also feel like Cyborg could have been brought in via similar means, instead of Batman seeking him and him just happening to have a Mother Box connection.

That said, I like The Flash a lot in this film. He's the nervous comic relief, but he's played well as a contrast to Batman's stoicism and Wonder Woman's. Unlike Aquaman and Cyborg, I think this film works well as his introduction and there's a very charming scene just before the end credits that made me want to see this character on-screen again more than anything else. Weirdly, I think he's the only character to get anything resembling an actual arc, going from a guy who just "push[s] people and runs fast" to an actual hero who risks his life in battle.

The weird thing about Batman and Wonder Woman is that I enjoyed their screen time a lot, but they left me with very little to say about them. There's an interesting moment where the two clash and Batman points out that she spent a century in hiding. Of course, he immediately goes over the line in invoking Steve Trevor's name, but for a moment there I couldn't help but think, "He's... got a point, actually." I wish this movie gave us more understanding of why Diana went so public again and what it means for her to do that now. Maybe that's something being saved for WONDER WOMAN 2.

Now to talk about Superman. And to do that, we have to wade deep into spoiler territory. I don't want to get into half-assed autopsies about what was a changed, what was a reshoot and so on. There's a time for that talk, but the fact remains that this is the movie we've been presented with.

Learning about the power that the Mother Box has, Batman makes an INCREDIBLE leap to suppose that its power could be used to resurrect Superman. It's a jump that could have used more of an A-to-B thought process linking it. (Maybe the bad guys try to claim Superman's body for the same purpose and Batman figures it out?)

Batman's plan works... sort of. Superman is revived, but clearly not in his right mind. This facilitates a fight between the other heroes and Superman, including a really well-done moment where the Flash takes him on and realizes with horror that Superman can perceive him at super-speed. There's also an attempt at playing off of Batman's hate of Superman in BvS and how Superman might hold a grudge. It doesn't totally land because Superman's not in his right mind (and was allied with Bruce by the end of BvS) and Batman's turnaround from mistrusting Superman to embracing him as a symbol of inspiration and hope has never been all that clear.

The resurrection itself is a prime example of JL's low-stakes approach to things. Batman decides they need to use the Mother Box to jump-start Superman's dead body. To that end, they recover Superman's body and head to a gestation chamber in the crashed Kryptonian ship last seen in BvS. Flash activates the Mother Box, the energy hits Superman and instantly brings him back to life. See the problem? No obstacles.

I couldn't help but think of a similar resurrection sequence in the comic LEGION OF 3 WORLDS #4. In that issue, Superboy's dead body has been regenerating in a pod in Superman's Fortress. The Legion has gone there to complete the last stages of the process, which involves them choosing a very precise sequence of crystals. At the same time, the villain of the story, Superboy-Prime, has been told that if he and his team don't destroy the Fortress before the Legion is successful, Prime will lose.

So at that point there's an entire team of super villains bearing down on the Fortress, with the attack knocking out the one Legionnaire who knows how to use the crystals. Also, if the right sequence isn't activated before the countdown ends, the entire procedure will fail. So we've got two ticking clocks - a literal one and a "how long can the bad guys be kept at bay" one. The sequence is squeezed for maximum tension with the pressure from the battle forcing a decision inside without much contemplation.

None of that tension is present in the Superman resurrection sequence. There's a world-ending scenario going on and none of that urgency is brought to bear as they try this extremely unproven Hail Mary that forms one of the story's major turning points.

With that said, JUSTICE LEAGUE improves on BvS in at least one necessary aspect: it gets Superman VERY right. Cavill is finally allowed to be charming and relatively angst free. Superman is a friendly, heroic presence and the "boy scout" warmth that Reeve delivered so well is finally present in this Superman. His costume is even in the correct brighter shades of red and blue!

Superman gets too little to do, and it's a mark against the film that it fails to supply one truly iconic and heroic Superman image. (There's a moment that feels like it's aiming to be the equivalent of Reeve's "General, would you care to step outside?" but it falls short due to staging and score.) Even so, between the way he's handled here and the end narration, there's a clear message sent: "Okay, we get it. We know how to do Superman now. He's fixed." I left BATMAN V. SUPERMAN bummed that they had gotten Superman so wrong. Leaving this film, my attitude was: Bring on MAN OF STEEL 2.

While I'm on this kick, I think it's total bullshit that JUSTICE LEAGUE gives no resolution to Clark's "death." From the moment BvS showed that Clark Kent was as confirmed dead as Superman, I felt it was a mistake and could only be justified if there was an incredibly clever "out" that would explain Clark's resurrection to the world. JUSTICE LEAGUE instead kicks this can down the road for the next Superman to deal with, which feels incredibly unfair to a movie that should have gotten a clean slate.

(I should mention that basically NONE of the JUSTICE LEAGUE foreshadowing in BvS pays off, bolstering my contention that Bruce's two nightmares and the sequence of videos that Luthor compiled could have easily been cut out and kept the movie moving more efficiently.)

By the end of the movie we're left with a brighter DCU in general and a world that feels worth returning to. The only locked-in follow-ups at this point are AQUAMAN in 2018 and WONDER WOMAN 2 and SHAZAM in 2019. The fate of FLASHPOINT will apparently be decided soon. CYBORG and GREEN LANTERN CORPS have been said to be on tap for 2020, but no production has begun.

Jason Momoa was okay as Aquaman, in a very different interpretation from the comics. I'm not itching for an AQUAMAN film, but I'll check it out. I'd line up today for WONDER WOMAN 2, though, and Ezra Miller was enough of a delight as Flash that I'll be happy to have him back in either a lead or supporting capacity. Cyborg, I could take or leave, though.

In the end, I didn't get everything I wanted from this film, but I feel reassured that the people behind the scenes at last get what they should be making. Hopefully the future of DC films is fewer SUICIDE SQUADS and more movies like WONDER WOMAN.

Friday, November 17, 2017

MasterClass series adds six new classes, including Ron Howard and Steph Curry AND an incredible deal!

(Note: This post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.)

I hate doing posts that sound like commercials, but I feel a little less like a shill when I know I'm promoting something that you all would enjoy. If you've followed the blog for a while, you might recall I've done some reviews of the MasterClass video series. Specifically, these offerings:

Dustin Hoffman's MasterClass on Acting (My review here.)
Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing (My review here.)
David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing (My review here)

I found value in each of the classes. Though the Hoffman one was geared for actors, it gave me a lot of really useful insight from a directing standpoint. The highlight of the Sorkin one was seeing how he ran a writers' room and interacted with students playing the part of staff writers. The Mamet one was less revelatory for me but would have been more than adequate as a Screenwriting 101 course.

Earlier this week, MasterClass made two announcements. First, they've added six new classes and one of them is Ron Howard Teaches Directing.

Ron Howard? THE Ron Howard is doing one of these? The Academy Award-winning director of A Beautiful Mind? The director who SHOULD have won for Apollo 13? Ransom, Frost/Nixon, Drive, Willow, and the upcoming Star Wars Story Solo?

This is the part where I usually say "Shut up and take my money!" With the other classes, the cost was $90 a class. MasterClass has introduced what they call the All-Access Pass. If you purchase that, you have unlimited access to ALL of their classes at the cost of $180 a year. They have a total of 27 classes, so if you watched all the classes, it works out to about $7 a class. (That likely would require you to binge the classes and not follow the weekly schedule - which is doable.

For me, there's probably about 10 classes I'd be into so that comes out to $18/class. Maybe the best way to look at it is that for the cost of two classes, you can check out all of them, so if there are more than two that appeal to you, I'd go with the All-Access Pass.

My one regret is that I won't have the time to check the Ron Howard class out and review it for you before the holidays because I would love to be able to tell you that it's worth it or would make a good gift. If it's up to the standard of the three classes I have seen, I don't think you have anything to worry about.
Also included in the new classes are:

Stephen Curry Teaches Basketball
Helen Mirren Teaches Acting
Wolfgang Puck Teaches Cooking
Marc Jacobs Teaches Fashion Design

(They're big on cooking classes at MasterClass. You'll find a few more on the website.)

The remaining roster of classes includes:

Martin Scorsese Teaches Filmmaking (SCORSESE has one of these?! How did I miss that?)
Christina Aguilera's MasterClass
deadmau5's MasterClass
Jane Goodall Teaches Conservation
Garry Kasparov Teaches Chess
Herbie Hancock Teaches Jazz
Shonda Rhimes teaches writing for TV
Gordon Ramsay teaches cooking
Steve Martin teaches comedy
Hans Zimmer teaches film scoring
Reba McEntire teaches country music
Werner Herzog teaches filmmaking
Serena Williams teaches tennis 
Usher teaches performance

With the holidays coming up, maybe one - or all of these - would make a good gift for someone you know.

If I get around to watching the Ron Howard class, I will absolutely review it here at a later date. That's my promise to you. I don't think ANY amount of mentoring from Christina Aguilera will make my singing voice tolerable, though.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

If you want to work in TV, you should be following this ONE TREE HILL story

For the last month, there's been an increased awareness of sexual harassment in the industry, fallout from the numerous victims of sexual assault who've come forward against Harvey Weinstein. The domino effect has been astounding.

Late last week, Variety published a story where 19 former and current employees of Warner Bros alleged misconduct from Andrew Kreisberg, the executive producer of The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow. Warner Bros has suspended Kreisberg pending an investigation, and Variety's article went on to discuss numerous instances of abuse and disrespect Kreisberg had shown his staff. It represents the worst kind of experiences one can have working in TV.

This abuse had gone on for so long in part because the staffers who endured it believed there was no way to come forward without risking not just their jobs on the show, but their careers in general. Given that, it's remarkable that NINETEEN people spoke up, even with the protection of going unnamed.

It was that bravery that motivated Audrey Wauchope to speak up on Twitter over the weekend. In a series of tweets you can find here, she detailed the sexism and harassment she endured from the showrunner on her first staff job. Though she didn't name the series, it was evident to anyone who looked up her IMDb page that she was talking about One Tree Hill and its showrunner Mark Schwahn.

Monday, Variety published a statement from 18 women who worked on the show, including original stars Hilarie Burton, Sophia Bush, Bethany Joy Lenz, almost all the other female regulars and several writers and crew. Their statement read, in part:

All of the female cast members of One Tree Hill have chosen this forum to stand together in support of Audrey Wauchope and one another. To use terminology that has become familiar as thesystemic reality of sexual harassment and assault has come more and more to light, Mark Schwahn’s behavior over the duration of the filming of One Tree Hill was something of an “open secret.” Many of us were, to varying degrees, manipulated psychologically and emotionally. More than one of us is still in treatment for post-traumatic stress. 

Many of us were put in uncomfortable positions and had to swiftly learn to fight back, sometimes physically, because it was made clear to us that the supervisors in the room were not the protectors they were supposed to be. Many of us were spoken to in ways that ran the spectrum from deeply upsetting, to traumatizing, to downright illegal. And a few of us were put in positions where we felt physically unsafe. More than one woman on our show had her career trajectory threatened.

All of this is preamble to the post I really want to bring to your attention. All of the previous stories played out in the trades (or, like Wauchope's tweets, were republished on one of the trade sites) and were easily discoverable. This blog post from former One Tree Hill writer David Handelman is probably going to have fewer eyes on it. Handelman wrote for the show in season six and he elaborates a little bit about the toxic work environment that Wauchope described:

So it was very hard to go up against him. And most of the other writers in the room were in similar positions -- they'd started out as assistants and been promoted over the years, and owed him everything. Writers were sequestered from set, unlike most shows, so they had no relationship with the cast and crew, and at the end of each season he told the writers there was no guarantee they'd be back, creating a culture where you were anxious to keep your job. Same thing with the cast, who were plucked from relative obscurity (except for Chad Michael Murray) and suddenly had that most elusive thing for an actor -- a steady gig.

To be clear, the room was hardly a daily terror -- we shared a lot of laughs, exchanged Christmas gifts, and socialized. Schwahn at times could be funny and kind and even self-deprecating, cared deeply about the show and liked mentoring people, and actually let them write a lot of their scripts -- not as common as you might think.

But that whole ethos -- "I can do what I want, and you all owe me" - had its dark side. One of the writers began dating a guest actress, and soon lost favor with Schwahn. When the lead actors were in L.A., they'd stop by the office to meet the staff, but the actresses never did. There was lewd talk, requests for backrubs. One writer kept her private life super private from all of us for fear it would diminish her currency with Schwahn.

It was horrible for women, but created a bad work environment for everyone. You never knew when The Boss would be angry. 

It's an unusually candid look at the darker side of writing for TV, especially when taken in conjunction with Wauchope's account. One detail that jumped out at me was the mention that the writers weren't allowed to go to set. That's a red flag for an insecure boss. On most shows, the writer goes to set for the production of their episode. (Or at the least, a member of the writing staff is sent to "cover set" for the episode, whether or not they wrote it.) A good showrunner wants their staff to learn how to produce. A bad showrunner is threatened by them.

The solidarity shown by the One Tree Hill team is inspiring, and gives hope that it's the start of a wave that'll wipe out some bad behavior in this town. Until then, aspiring writers would do well to know the kinds of sharks that await them, and posts like Handelman's are a must read.

Monday, November 6, 2017

THOR: RAGNAROK - the bumblebee that shouldn't be able to fly

There used to be an urban legend that scientists had proven that, scientifically, the bumblebee's wings were too small to support its body. Essentially, the claim was that everything about science said that it shouldn't be able to fly and yet somehow it did. (It's since been debunked.)

I thought about that myth upon leaving THOR: RAGNAROK, which is a perfect illustration of that mythology. I enjoyed it a lot, which was rather surprising because I thought the previous entry in the series might have been the worst Marvel film ever, and even the first THOR film didn't get much above a lukewarm reaction from me. At least on first reaction, I found this more fun than either GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY feature.

But when you look at this movie analytically, you'll see that it really shouldn't work. The plot has a couple false starts and detours, including a second act that's almost wholly removed from the rest of the picture. In the hands of a lesser director an cast, this would feel like a mess. Instead, the breezy tone keeps things moving and takes the audience along for the ride, and Chris Hemsworth's hilarious performance as Thor manages to unify this patchwork film.

At the conclusion of the previous THOR movie, Thor's evil brother Loki (who was believed to have perish) was revealed to the audience as having impersonated their father Odin and usurped his throne in Asgard. As RAGNAROK begins, this switcharoo still hasn't been discovered and the audience could be forgiven for expecting that the main conflict of the film will revolve around Thor trying to defeat Loki and rescue his father.

Instead, here's the progression of events:

- In the first ten minutes of the film, Thor gets wise to the deception and exposes Loki. It seems in the three or so years he's been on the throne, Loki hasn't done anything more nefarious that producing a play that recasts Loki as the hero, and lie around having grapes fed to him.

- Thor forces Loki to take him to their father, whom Loki dumped in a nursing home on Earth. The building has been torn down, though, making this a dead end. Don't assume this means we're in for a hunt for Odin because...

- Loki gets snatched by Dr. Strange [GRATUITOUS MARVEL CAMEO ALERT], who magically sends both him and Thor to Odin. Strange is so delightfully in-character that it's not until the scene is over that we realize "Wait... did we just get deus ex machina'd?"

This all happens in about 20 minutes. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of amusing stuff along the way, but Loki's defeat and the quest for Odin both are resolved incredibly easily. Try this in an original spec and you're gonna get hit. HARD.

- Odin tells his sons he's dying, with no explanation other than it's his time. So it's not even a consequence of what Loki did. It just happens because the script needs it to happen. He warns that with his death, his evil firstborn Hela will at last be able to return to take vengeance on Asgard. (I actually don't have a problem with this seeming contrivance, but the convenience of his death happening now, with little motivation, feels like a first draft issue.)

- Hela shows up, kicks Thor and Loki's asses and disrupts their transport back to Asgard, getting both of them lost along the way. She conquers the undefended kingdom easily.

- Meanwhile Thor is captured and sold as a gladiator to the Grandmaster on Sakaar. He spends the entire second act here, eventually teaming up with a rediscovered Hulk (now Grandmaster's champion) and Valkyrie, a former Asgardian warrior in exile.

There's a lot of fun stuff on Sakaar as Thor has to convince both Hulk and Valkyrie to help him, but the Grandmaster storyline and the Hela storylines never intersect. It feels like Hela spends the second act spinning her wheels on a slow takeover of Asgard while Thor deals with his unrelated problems. Every moment Cate Blanchett is on-screen is a delight. It's a major step-up from Evil Guy Whose Name I Can't Remember from THOR: THE DARK WORLD, but there's not enough story momentum for her while Thor is stranded elsewhere.

It's a problem one barely notices since the Thor stuff is amusing. For a while, it's almost as if Hela was just a vehicle to facilitate the Thor/Hulk buddy movie. Naturally, Thor eventually convinces his friends to help him take on Hela and liberate Asgard, but beyond that there's nothing for the Grandmaster to do in the third act. What's more, what Thor needs to ultimately defeat Hela was planted in the first scene of the film, so it's not even truly something he gained through his experience.

The film tries to bind the second and third acts via some character work with Hulk and Valkyrie and it works well enough that you leave the theater with great affection for both characters. Director Taika Waititi has a wonderful sense of pace and everyone's comic timing is on point here. It's a rare joke that doesn't land and this film is packed with jokes. What can you say about a sci-fi movie where Jeff Goldblum shows up to play an alien ruler basically AS Jeff Goldblum and it doesn't feel out of place in the slightest?

This is a film that embraces the weird and the quirky but does it without self-consciously winking at the audience. (Okay, maybe the Stan Lee cameo lands with a bit of a thud, but that's it.)

Hell, they get away with a Hulk dick joke. A year ago, would you have put money on a THOR movie being able to do that and not make it cringeworthy?

A movie can get away with a lot if it leaves the audience feeling good. RAGNAROK avoids the morose pomposity that has hobbled other superhero films and gives us two hours or a rollicking good time with some of our favorite action figures, while adding some new toys to the box. (This had better not be the last time we see either Valkyrie or The Grandmaster.)

And you know what? As much as the Dr. Strange cameo shouldn't work, considering this is the 17th film in the Marvel series, it feels a lot less inexplicable to use him for plot convenience than it might have to pull something like this three or four films in. Is it an indulgence? Yes, but it feels earned to the audience because of all the time we've spent in this continuity.

Like I said, it's the bumblebee that flies when it shouldn't. It's impressive to come away really enjoying a film that quickly ditches a set-up that promises tension and takes shortcuts to put the real major conflict in play. A steady diet of these would probably lead to diminishing returns, but this is just so damn pleasant it's impossible not to get swept away by its infectious charm.