“Thor: Ragnarok”

Replacing a franchise director can be risky. Putting Taika Waititi in charge of Thor: Ragnarok is just what our God of Thunder needed.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) learns that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) survived the end events of The Dark World and they have a bittersweet reunion. They also discover they have an evil sister Hela (Cate Blanchett). Hela takes over Asgard and casts Thor and Loki to Sakaar where the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) forces Thor to become a gladiator. He also reunites with a certain angry green scientist (Mark Ruffalo) and they try to find a way to save Asgard.

Of the MCU franchises, the Thor is my least favorite. I found the first two films repetitive with too much focus on Thor and Jane’s relationship. Ragnarok is a breath of fresh air. Waititi replaces the rushed romance with a platonic friendship, removesThor and Loki’s brooding attitudes and amps up their wit, and he swaps out the Shakespeare undertones for a retro 80s aesthetics. I wanted to yell “YES,” in the theater like Thor does out of the happiness.

We see that Thor’s come a long way in growing up. He’s less arrogant, reckless, and is now wiser and accepting of Loki. Loki is still mischievous, but recognizes how much he cares for Thor. After four movies together, it’s easy to believe Hemsworth and Hiddleston’s chemistry as dysfunctional brothers.

Ragnarok is also the funniest MCU film to date. The jokes are physical, slapstick, and self-referential without ever being annoying. During the big battle between Thor and Hulk that’s in every trailer, we’re treated to some of the funniest cross-referencing jokes, thanks to Hiddleston’s comedic timing and facial expressions.

The action sequences are kinetic, flashy, and fun; they felt like a fantasy version of Guardians of the Galaxy due to the candy-colored explosions and retro soundtrack (yes, Immigrant Song is in the movie). Waititi had previously directed The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which spliced humor into over-the-top action sequences. He clearly loves both genres and will continue to make a strong impact.

The end battle is a tad anti-climactic, but is filled with enough character moments to suffice. Each cast member excels with Blanchett’s wonderfully evil villain and Goldblum’s eccentric secondary antagonist being welcome additions. I can’t think of another superhero movie that was this funny.

Grade: A-

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“Doctor Strange”

Leave it to the peculiar and theatrical Benedict Cumberbatch to brilliantly play the equally peculiar and theatrical Doctor Strange. This guy rocks!

Stephen Strange is a brilliant-yet-arrogant surgeon, who effortlessly saves lives while dancing to jazz music. After a terrible accident cripples his hands and ends his career, he travels to Kamar-Taj to find a cure. He instead finds a new calling in mystic arts, wearing a powerful cape, and battling sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen).

“Doctor Strange” begins as a traditional origin story with a troubled protagonist finding his calling, but then it defies the formula. Don’t worry, folks. We get plenty of Doctor Strange after the 45-minute mark. Kudos to the writers for turning every plot prediction and cliche upside down.

Director Scott Derrickson, better known for horror titles such as “Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “Sinister,” brilliantly directs some innovative, quirky, and beautiful action sequences. They’re quite reminiscent of some of the best “Doctor Who” episodes and Sam Raimi’s work.

The style is great, but there is substance. Strange is a complex character with an overwhelming god complex. Transitioning from surgeon to wizard, he is eager to break all rules and learn all forms of magic to simply be number one. Think a sorcerer version of Tony Stark.

The supporting cast includes Chiwetel Ejiofer as Strange’s mentor Mordo, Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, and Benedict Wong as the sassy Mystic Arts master Wong, and Rachel McAdams as Strange’s former lover Christine. They all do a great job, each balancing drama and deadpan comedy in their respective performances.

The biggest flaw is use of exposition. There are several scenes where characters deliver exposition-fueled monologues regarding the mythology. It’s forgivable because of the strong protagonist and visionary direction.

“Doctor Strange” is a huge surprise that’s worth seeing. I missed the 3D, but good thing that’s what the second viewing is for.

Grade: A

“X-Men: Apocalypse”

I chuckled at a semi-meta quote in “X-Men: Apocalypse;” when Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) exits “Return of the Jedi,” she utters, “At least we can all agree the third installment is the weakest.” Because “Apocalypse” is the weakest of the new “X-Men” trilogy.

“Apocalypse” takes place ten years after “Days of Future Past,” and Professor X (James McAvoy) has turned his house into the Mutant Academy. Meanwhile, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has settled down, whereas Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is a mutant anti-hero, rescuing troubled mutants and starting new lives for them.

The trio are of course brought together when a god-like mutant Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) surfaces and recruits mutants for world domination. This brings us to an introduction to a young Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), as well as a reunion with Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Havoc (Lucas Till), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman).

It’s safe to say that while “X-Men: Apocalypse” is the weakest one of the new trilogy and very mediocre, it’s not the worst of the franchise (that goes to “The Last Stand”). The first half suffers from the most problems.

MILD SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

The first half of the film is all buildup and exposition, but it lacks focus and steady pacing to keep it interesting in most of the segments. Magneto’s story is by far the most interesting, as we understand why he’s reverted back to his old ways. The second half feels much like “Days of Future Past,” and I mean that in a good way.

Quicksilver once again has a visually impressive and fun sequence, stealing the show from everyone; this scene even tops his scene in “Days of Future Past.” For those who saw the trailer and caught a glimpse of Wolverine’s scene,  that sequence tops his mansion fight in “X2.” There are also some innovative and surreal sequences reminiscent of “Inception” that take place inside Professor X’s head, which is funny because those sequences were originally supposed to be in “First Class.”

Acting wise, the main cast does a great job as usual. I was impressed with Turner and Sheridan’s portrayal of Jean Grey and Cyclops as the angsty young lovers who stand by each other. Sadly, Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of Apocalypse and the character’s development were disappointing.

Apocalypse is a less entertaining version of Ultron from “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” These two have the same goal: recruit a group of followers, destroy the world while making their followers believe they’re saving it, and find a new body? It’s the same motivation as Ultron! Isaac also lacks charisma in this performance, and it’s sad because this is Poe Dameron from “Star Wars.”

Another small nitpick I had was that “First Class” was a spy movie and “Days of Future Past” was a time travel movie, so both had very thick plots and broad ideas; however, “Apocalypse” is simply a disaster movie, so there isn’t as much imagination as there could have been. Yet I was still entertained because of the cast and a few memorable sequences. Kudos for that!

Grade: B

“Daredevil” – Season 2

Marvel’s sophomoric efforts have a trend – the first installment is superb, but their successor is simply entertaining. Season 2 of “Daredevil” falls under this category, but it’s still worth watching!

Season 2 takes place roughly eight months after Daredevil/Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) turned Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) into the police. Daredevil now has a reputation as a vicious vigilante and protector of Hell’s Kitchen, until there’s a new player in town (actually players).

We have former war veteran, Frank Castle/The Punisher (Jon Bernthal) waging war on a biker gang, the Irish mob, and a Mexican cartel simultaneously. Then we have Elektra Natchios (Elodie Young), Murdock’s former lover and a deadly femme fatale seeking Murdock’s help in a war of her own.

The best way to describe “Daredevil” this season is Marvel’s take on “The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly”. We have Daredevil (the good) trying to establish a moral code in fighting crime. Elektra (the bad) fights her war her way, using and killing people in the process. Then there’s The Punisher  (the ugly), who straight up murders criminals in often hardcore fashion.

SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!

The action is non-stop this season and we get some of the most innovative and badass action sequences all year. You thought the hallway fight in season 1 was great? Wait until you see a hallway/stairway fight in episode 3! This fight, Punisher’s darkly funny shotgun spree in a chop shop and brutal fight in a prison cell block, and all of the battles between Daredevil, Elektra, and The Hand (the season’s main bad guys) will leave action lovers satisfied.

Viewers who aren’t into violence may not enjoy this season since the graphic violence has increased greatly. That’s where some of the flaws start to show. This season’s more focused on hardcore violence than on the complexity of Murdock’s quest.

Elektra and Punisher serve as good foils to Murdock, and we get some great debates of self-righteousness between the three parties, but there are more fights than character-driven scenes. It can come off repetitive at times.

The triple-protagonist narrative this season also causes some tone inconsistencies with Punisher’s story acting as a dark revenge thriller and Elektra’s as a stylized martial arts film. Depending on it being a Punisher episode or an Elektra episode, the style often switches.

Nobu (the ninja assassin from season 1) is our main antagonist this season, and he’s nowhere near as compelling as Fisk. That doesn’t mean Fisk is absent entirely since episode 9 is a Kingpin-centered episode.

The season’s strongest aspects are the development of our original cast, and its acting. Foggy (Elden Henson) and Karen (Deborah Ann Woll) are more mature and given more to do this season, often acting as secondary protagonists. Cox now portrays Murdock as an increasingly arrogant and broken man, growing darker in each episode. D’Onofrio is even more sinister in the two episodes he has.

This season’s star is Bernthal. He is menacing and expressive, bringing depth to a morbid and one-note character. He has Thomas Jane and Ray Stevenson beat in Punisher portrayals, and I can’t wait until he gets his own Netflix show.

As over-stuffed as “Daredevil” – Season 2 is, I still kind of loved it for its few emotional moments and its selected action sequences. Let’s see what happens with season 3!

Grade: B+

“Fant4stic”

You stylize a title as cheesy as “Fant4stic”, you bet I’m going to refer the movie by that title. The one thing I learned watching “Fant4stic” is that director Josh Trank (“Chronicle” (2012)) is better with less money in his budget.

The premise of “Fant4stic” is simple; five genius kids in either high school or college are enlisted by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey from TV’s “Oz” and “House of Cards”) to research teleportation, discovering another planet in the process. You have high school genius Reed Richards (Miles Teller), his best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), Storm’s rebellious son Johnny (Michael B. Jordon) and adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara), and Storm’s eccentric and arrogant protege Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbel).

The team are all exposed to the other planet’s fuels, mutating them in the process, which leads them against Victor on Planet Zero. There’s the premise in a nutshell!

What’s irritating about the narrative in “Fant4stic” is that there’s no development or lesson learned by the end of the movie! Ben resents Reed after their mutations, Ben and Johnny form a rivalry, Reed and Sue take a romantic interest in each other, and Reed and Johnny are clearly friends, but none of this is developed or resolved. With a running time of 100 minutes, I wonder if Trank was forced to edit the film and cut out all of the development and back story.

The small amount of development is some of the most half-assed writing in recent memory. Ben and Reed are respectively the brain and heart duo trying to change the world, Victor wants to destroy Earth and go back to Planet Zero because he feels we’re killing Earth (though not wrong there, but that’s a different conversation), and the kids get their powers due to a drunken mishap? Maybe the message of the movie was don’t drink.

As far as acting goes, Miles Teller and Kate Mara both look bored, Jamie Bell overacts as the inept and street smart muscle, Michael B Jordon and Toby Kebbel are good sports on screen, and Reg E. Cathey works well with what he has.

Trank envisioned “Fant4stic” being a blend of Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” movies, Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” (2014), and David Cronenberg’s body horror classics “The Fly” (1986) and “Scanners” (1981). Ambitious idea, yeah, but like I said in my “True Detective” review, execution matters! I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’d rather rewatch the 2005 and 2007 “Fantastic 4” films before I watch “Fant4stic” again.

Grade: F

“Ant-Man”

I wish the brilliant Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead” (2004) and “Hot Fuzz” (2007)) stuck around to direct his version of “Ant-Man”. Given that Simon Pegg and Joss Whedon both called Wright’s screenplay one of the best Marvel scripts they ever read, I wonder what that version would have been like, compared to the final product.

Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, an ex-con who finds himself in a predicament when he steals a suit that can shrink the person wearing it into the size of an ant. He’s then approached by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas returning to form) to use that suit to, “break into a place and steal some shit,” though Scott wants to go straight. But this heist is for the greater good and Scott is an expendable choice, much to Hank’s daughter Hope’s (Evangeline Lilly) chagrin.

The best moments in “Ant-Man” are the comedic moments. This movie is perhaps the funniest movie Marvel’s produced to date (yes, funnier than “Guardians of the Galaxy”). Rudd delivers a charming performance packed with deadpan delivery. The best performances in “Ant-Man” go to Michael Pena (“End of Watch” (2012), “Shooter” (2007)) as Scott’s crime partner and Douglas. Pena is brilliant comedic relief while Douglas brings fierce attitude and sharp humor to Pym.

The action sequences get a tad redundant after a while, as Ant-Man shrinks, punches, shrinks again, and punches again, but there are some amazing ones involving an enlarged Thomas train and a fight inside a briefcase thrown out a helicopter. These wacky and innovative sequences must have been Wright’s!

And this is where “Ant-Man” is flawed; there are four credited screenwriters here. We have Wright, Rudd, Joe Cornish (2011’s awesome “Attack the Block”), and Adam McKay (“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” (2004)). Wright and Cornish wrote the original script while McKay and Rudd heavily rewrote it before production.

Wright and Cornish’s genius shows in certain action sequences and comedic moments (particularly Pena’s narration scenes). However, it seems the script relies a lot on the superhero origin formula and heist movie cliches. How many times do we need to see a heist movie with the, “We can’t do this! Yes we can,” banter? Makes me believe these moments were McKay and Rudd’s.

Look, I’m not saying “Ant-Man” is a bad movie. I enjoyed it overall and would recommend it. It’s just not Marvel’s best and the rewrites in this movie are clearly visible. Maybe Rudd and McKay will grow as they work on “Ant-Man 2”.

Grade: B