Thor: Love and Thunder

This latest Marvel adventure is the most movie you can get, the most comedy, the most action, and the most stories. That doesn’t necessarily add up to a satisfying movie.

The film picks up with Thor the god of thunder played again by Chris Hemsworth. After letting himself go and getting fat in Avengers Endgame, he is more ripped and muscular than ever before. The most muscles. He’s also a complete doofus. He’s the most jokey he’s ever been. He’s traveling the galaxy going on adventures and being full of himself. However, when a dark force threatens his home and his people, he returns to earth to find his ex girlfriend, Jane Foster played by Natalie Portman, has picked up his old hammer and is running around performing his superhero duties.

The movie is funny. I laughed out loud many times during the film. It was written and directed by Taika Waititi who was the man behind the superior Thor Ragnarok. That film infused with Waititi’s off beat style redefined the character of Thor. Here his sense of humor is all over the screen, and I mean all over it. Every line is packed full of jokes and humor. The movie never has a chance to breathe. It is suffocated by characters at war with each other over who can deliver the big punchline. There’s an early scene between Thor and Chris Pratt’s character Starlord, in which the punchlines keep going and going like the 30 car pile up on the freeway. It’s funny, but it’s also a mess.

Too many jokes wouldn’t be a problem if they were executed with a structure behind them. The scenes just drag on until they run out of punchlines. There isn’t a forward momentum to the jokes that build up to a big punchline and then the scene can end. It just goes and goes. They also aren’t broken up by any meaningful moments of story development. There’s no room for drama when every line is a joke. When dramatic moments occur or story beats are introduced, they are peppered with jokes that only serve to undermine the seriousness of the situation.

I don’t want to just say negative things about this movie, but as I’m thinking about it the positives sink below the surface and the negatives are glaringly apparent. My biggest negative is the story, or stories. The movie opens with Gorr, he’s played by Christian Bale. He is a priest in a desperate situation. He prays to gods who do not answer. His daughter dies in his arms and he vows vengeance against the gods. It’s a compelling story. He has a character arc that could be interesting.

We are then reintroduced to Jane Foster. She is dying from cancer. She picks up the magic hammer and gains super powers, but those powers are taking away her body’s ability to fight the cancer. Her super powers are also killing her. It’s a deeply compelling idea.

We are then reintroduced to Thor. He tells us what his arc will be and then cracks jokes for the next few hours.

We then meet Valkyrie. She’s got some stuff going on. There’s also a subplot involving kidnapped children overcoming their fears. There’s also Korg who is really just superfluous comic relief in a movie stuffed full of comic relief characters.

So who’s story is this? No I’m really asking because the movie doesn’t make it clear. Just taking the three main characters, Gorr wants revenge against the gods who betrayed him. He learns that love is better than hate. Jane wants to be a hero and live, and by the end she accepts her fate. Thor is a loner who keeps people at arms length, but I mean he just tells us that he does that. There’s no actual evidence that he does this. He learns to love Jane again or something. We have three sloppy character arcs that don’t coalesce in the end. So who’s story is this? I guess it’s Thor because his name is in the title, but he has the least convincing story. At the end of the film I was unclear what I was supposed to take away from any of it.

Now Waititi’s direction is very good. He creates big elaborate worlds. His editing rhythm serves the humor very well. He gets great comic performances out of all his actors and give Bale the space to be as menacing and villainous as possible.

Hemsworth is great as Thor. He’s funny and charming. He has found something special with the character, if only he had material to back it up. The rest of the actors are all delightful. They’re good performances and there’s fun to be had with them.

There is a lot here to enjoy. I don’t want to take that away from anyone. This would be a very easy movie to shut off your brain and enjoy the jokes, colors, and action. But as we saw with Thor Ragnarok, you can have the colors, jokes, and action while also telling a coherent story. And I’d have have both.

My overwhelming feeling at the end of the movie was this… I think I’m done with Marvel. I didn’t like Dr. Strange. This left me with nothing. They are moving to the streaming show model, so the movies won’t matter much anymore anyway. But the shows are mediocre. They are headline grabbing, but they aren’t anything special in terms of character or story. The movies are ads for the next movie, and the shows are just eye ball grabs in order to boost streaming numbers. If this is what we’re going to be getting from here on out, then I’m done. Until they can figure out how to tell a story again I don’t need to give them any more of my money.

It’s not my cup of tea. C

John Wick: extended discussion

Sometimes we have a lot to say about a movie. Maybe that’s because the movie is really good. Maybe it’s really bad. Maybe it’s a complicated mess that requires more than three minutes to do it justice.

This week we take an extended look at an action movie that had a real impact on us. It’s John Wick! Join us for an extended discussion, and if you like the long form style please let us know.

https://www.podbean.com/ew/pb-bkixy-1269ae7

Summer Stock (1950)

Summer has always seemed like the perfect time for musicals, and this is a perfect musical for summer. It stars Gene Kelly doing his dancing best, and Judy Garland singing the heck out of her songs. It also has a stellar supporting cast, and it boasts a really fun script complete with a compelling story.

The film follows Jane Falbury, played by Judy Garland, she’s a New England farmer on the verge of bankruptcy. She goes into town and begs for a new tractor from her soon to be father in law and her nebbish weakling of a fiancé, played by Ray Collins, and Eddie Bracken respectively. When she returns home she finds her wayward actress sister has volunteered the family barn to be used by a ragtag theater troupe she’s gotten involved with. The troupe is led by the charismatic Joe Ross, played by Gene Kelly. At first reluctant, Jane sees the value in having helping hands around the farm and maybe finds that she likes the theater and the handsome man running the show.

A discussion of this film has to start with the two leads. Kelly and Garland are wonderful here. Kelly was hot off a success the year before with On the Town, and he was still a year away from his magnum opus An American in Paris. His energy and athleticism is on full display here. His dancing is impeccable and transcendent. What really caught me off guard here was his acting in the quiet moments. He has a lovely little moment with Garland where he shares his reasons for loving theater so much. It’s tender and wistful and he comes across as so authentic. I love it.

Garland opens the film with a lung blasting rendition of “If You Feel Like Singing, Sing!” Her voice is strong and powerful, and her performance is so joyful it’s infectious. She conveys all the harshness of a woman in a tough situation as well as the girl slowly falling in love with a boy. She is brash and charming at the same time. When she gets her tractor and drives it back home, she belts out the bouncy “Howdy Neighbor, Happy Harvest.” Which just lifts the spirits and makes me feel like anything is possible in the summer time.

These two have one of my favorite dances ever in which Garland is hosting a square dance with he locals and instructs those theater people not to interfere. However, Kelly finds himself interfering. He and Garland begin an antagonistic dance that shifts into a duet of sorts. They become partners before our eyes. Animosity melts away and turns into cooperation. A really nice touch is Garland’s dress. It has a pleated skirt with red panels sewn in. When she twirls and spins the red flashes bright. Not too read too much into it, but the red rebellion inside her shows forth both visually with the dress and in her performance as she cuts loose. It’s great stuff.

The supporting cast is phenomenal. What an amazing time this was, when you could get Eddie Bracken as a hilarious weakling and Ray Collins as his blowhard father. A perfect comedy duo. On top of those two, we are also treated to a brassy Marjorie Main as Jane’s housekeeper and sassy confidant. And don’t forget the over the top comic antics of Phil Silvers who makes a meal out of every line.

What I loved most about this one though is the story. It has real stakes and real human interest. Jane is in real trouble with her farm. She needs help to get through. Joe is struggling with his show. He has bet it all on this one, and he has nothing left if it’s a flop. When an accident leads to Jane’s new tractor getting damaged we feel it so much more knowing what it means to Jane and how much more difficult life is going to be for her. We worry for Joe when the show begins to go wrong. We know how much he loves the theater and how badly things could go wrong for him. All these elements make the joyous moments that much more joyful. It strikes a good balance and culminates in a satisfying conclusion. Unlike some musicals, this one actually tells a story with stakes.

Having done some research it is unbelievable this movie is any fun to watch at all. Judy Garland was just out of rehab and in the worst shape of her life up to that point. She was struggling with an addiction to the pills the studio had prescribed her since childhood to maximize her performance ability. She was weak, insecure, and erratic. The film was on the verge of not happening when Gene Kelly and director Charles Bracken stepped up and agreed to do the film for Judy. They both did everything they could to help her in the production and at times literally carry her through. Kelly always felt he owed Judy so much for her help with his career and worked hard to make sure he movie happened for her. She couldn’t keep a regular schedule, and the filming was shifted to the late afternoons to accommodate her. She was insecure about her appearance, and constantly tortured herself with the idea that she was letting Kelly and Bracken down. Knowing what a dark and desperate emotional place Garland was in makes her performance borderline miraculous. The fact that her inner turmoil, physical weakness, and emotional distress isn’t visible on her face in every shot is testament to her incredible skills as a performer.

All that said, this movie is just a fun time. It’s funny. It’s heartfelt. It has a good story. It has amazing performances. It has some beautiful dances. I forgot to mention Gene Kelly’s dance with the newspaper! Another classic. The movie is full of fun and joy. Please check it out. It’s worth your time and will give you a lift this summer.

It is my cup of tea A+

An American in Paris

A sad yet stunning movie musical unlike any other. The movie has its charms and its spectacular finale, but there is a bittersweet undercurrent that runs throughout the story of lovers meeting in the city of lights.

The film was released in 1951 and follows Jerry Mulligan played by Gene Kelly. Jerry is an ex-GI who fell in love with Paris and decided to stay after the war and study painting. He is a struggling artist when he meets a wealthy woman who wants to help his career advance among other things. He meets a charming young woman and falls in love with her. All this is really just a thin framework on which Gene Kelly can hang as many delightful musical numbers as possible.

That isn’t even an exaggeration. Arthur Freed, the famous musical impresario of MGM, wanted to make a movie out of George Gershwin’s symphony “An American Paris” which was a piece he wrote inspired by his time in Paris in the 20’s. Freed needed to buy the rights to the piece from the Gershwin family, and Ira Gershwin, George’s surviving brother, insisted on the condition that Freed had to use Gershwin music exclusively in the film. Which meant that Freed literally had a dozen songs that he needed to string together with a loose framework of a story.

This explains the films biggest drawback, the story is flimsy at best. There really is no plot. It’s just a collection of scenes or vignettes. There really is no through line or thematic tie. The characters don’t really have arcs or stories of their own.

But that is okay for the most part, because the movie is all about the music. And there are so many wonderful musical moments. George Levant, a world class pianist, has a virtuosic solo piano performance in the middle of the movie. Levant and Kelly have an incredible duet on the love song Tra-la-la. Kelly and a group of French children sing a charming rendition of I’ve Got Rhythm. Really every song on the soundtrack is a winner all culminating in the twenty minute ballet set to the symphony that inspired the whole thing.

This is the centerpiece of the film a truly stunning technicolor masterpiece. Gene Kelly and a team of production designers literally spent half a million dollars to create the most colorful and vibrant ballet ever filmed. It truly is a masterpiece and worth the price of admission by itself. Gene dances his way through an impressionistic Paris setting complete with teams of dancers wrapped in primary colors. He meets and pursues a woman. They move around and with one another in a stunning display of movement that conveys so much and captures everything. But what really captured my attention was the way the central couple dance with each other and the setting and the camera. The lighting dances with them to highlight certain moments. The colored lights create an emotional subtext underneath the dance. They move with and throughout the set. The camera follows them and interjects with them. It creates a push and pull with the audience and the performers that completely wraps us up in their story.

It was a revolutionary scene in its time. This was a type of filmmaking that movies hadn’t seen at the time. It was expressionistic. It was vividly colorful. It was elegant yet accessible. Gene Kelly brings his aggressive masculine style of dance to the ballet that anchors everything. Leslie Caron does things in this sequence as well as every dance in the movie that boggle the mind and seem to bend the limits of the human body. Every element worked together to create the grandest of spectacles. It is an amazing movie moment.

Yet for all its still and revolutionary technique, this film is not as well remembered as other Hollywood musicals. In Roger Ebert’s 1992 review of the film, he is almost disdainful of the film. He disparages it compared to Singin’ in the Rain. He gives it a positive review, but he seems to hate the movie or at least resent it.

In recent years it seems to have come under the fickle nature of many critical and commercial successes. People look back on what was popular and knock it down a peg or two for good measure. I think the film is brilliant and beautiful, but I do not think it’s as fun as most other musicals of its era.

Every element of this movie is tinged with melancholy and sadness. Not an overwhelming sadness, but an undercurrent that runs throughout the movie. Jerry’s relationship with his patron Milo, played by Nina Foch, for instance is a great example. She is infatuated with Jerry, but no matter what she does to win him over he will never love her, and the harder she tries, the more he pulls away. Lise the object of Jerry’s love, played by Leslie Caron, is engaged to an older man. He helped hide her during WWII while her parents were fighting in the resistance. That’s a tragic backstory to give that particular relationship, but it’s more sad when she begins seeing Jerry behind his back. She seems to respect and admire her fiancé, but the love isn’t there. Jerry is a failing painter who seems to be deeply cynical and angry at the world. His only joy seems to be loving Lise a woman who keeps him at a distance. When Jerry sings Love is Here to Stay to Lise on the banks of the Seine River, it’s slow and sad rather than swooning and romantic. In any other production it would be a grand moment, a sweeping declaration of love. In this film it’s a quiet and hopeless confession.

These story elements set the film apart from other musicals. It’s not a joyous wall to wall comedy like Singin’ in the Rain. Even another contemporary musical that has it’s own tinge of sadness, The Band Wagon, has a fun loving quality to it. This movie is completely unique in this way, and I kind of love it for it. This melancholy sadness reflects the time in which the film was made. It is a musical grappling with the consequences of the war and what the world looks like now. Gone are the simple mistaken identity plot lines of the best musical comedies. Here are love affairs and professional failures and existential ennui. It makes for fascinating viewing and an unforgettable film.

There’s one other element that I think a modern viewer with chafe against, and that is Jerry’s pursuit of Lise. He pursues her aggressively. She tells him no, and he continues pushing. She rejects him, and he shows up at her workplace. She blows him off and he pushes harder. Then all of a sudden she agrees to go out with him and a couple scenes later she is in love with him. In the year 2022 a man who doesn’t take no for an answer is not a romantic hero, he’s a creep. Kelly is very charming, and his aggressive pursuit of Lise shows a stark contrast with his pursuit by Milo, but it still rankles a little bit these days.

Overall, I love the movie. It made me feel complicated feelings. It left me with a sensation that has stuck to the walls of my head, and I can’t stop thinking about it. The story is not as strong as other movies. The musical numbers are incredible. The movie is a product of its time in so many ways. But I can’t help being drawn to it and thinking about putting it on again when I have a couple of hours to spend in this colorful and vibrant vision of Paris.

It is my cup of tea. A