Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

Streaming Thor: Ragnarok, Annihilation, and Molly's Game --Quick Reviews

Three Brief Reviews co-written by FilmZ and Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Even with Guy S. Malone, Researcher and I sharing writing duties, it's difficult to write film blogs and at the same time keep up with the manuscript for our second novel, grant writing, and various research projects.  Some good movies, like the ones we discuss today, fall through the cracks. And now that all are available for streaming, we're going to take time for mini-reviews.  Depending on your taste, all three are worth your time.  With that intro, here are our mini-reviews.
Enjoy. -- FilmZ

Thor: Ragnarok
If you are an adherent to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), you've probably already seen this third entry in the Thor series; if you're only a casual follower or non-follower, you might have missed it or dismissed it entirely.  Without going into the gory details, Thor (2011) was most notable for misusing Natalie Portman, introducing the charismatic duo of Chris Hemsworth as the stolid Thor and Tom Hiddleston as his mischievous adopted brother Loki, and bringing the powerful Tesseract to the MCU canon.  The sequel, Thor: The Dark World also misused Ms. Portman and is generally considered one of the weaker entries in the MCU.  Conversely, Thor: Ragnarok is one of the strongest of the Marvel series, and it provides the integral jumping-off point to Avengers: Infinity War.  It is also the film where Chris Hemsworth emerges a both a super superhero and a fine comic actor (and it finally admitted it didn't know what to do with poor Natalie and mercifully let her stay home).  Director Taika Waititi takes the team-written plot of two stories that converge in the third act, and by throwing out the chaff and keeping the strong comic and action kernals, he gives us an epic that plays fast and loose with Norse mythology but is loads of fun.

One thread has Thor's sister Hela (an enthusiastically evil Cate Blanchett) along with a mountainous wolf and an army of undead invading Asgard.  Hela shows imposing strength, crushing Mjolnir (Thor's hammer) in one hand and casting him out of Asgard.  That leaves only the blind but imposing bridgekeeper to the Nine Realms Heimdall (Idris Elba), the ethically equivocating Skurge (Karl Urban), and lesser military leaders to prevent Ragnarok (Norse for Apocalypse).  Thor lands on Sakaar, a garbage planet, where he is captured by an alcoholic bounty hunter (Tessa Thompson)
 who coincidentally, is a derelict Valkyrie.  Sakaar's ruler Grandmaster (a delightfully Jeff Goldblumy Jeff Goldblum) is a tin-Caesar who loves gladiatorial contests, and so, Valkyrie knows exactly what to do with Thor.  In Grandmaster's court, we also find Loki, who has escaped servitude by his wiles.  In the gladiatorial pit we find The Hulk, who in human form is Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).  Between Marx Brothers-style shenanigans and deus ex machinas galore, our friends make their way out of Sakaar and back to Asgard.  The Sakaar thread is more entertaining, the Asgard thread follows the mythology better, and Thor: Ragnarok is the rare action movie where the action is the least entertaining part.  But put together, we have a unanimous high recommendation.
8.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
7.5 out of 10 on an Artistic Scale

Speaking of deus ex machina and Natalie Portman (see above), Annihilation is writer-director Alex Garland's first outing since his breakout sci-fi hit Ex Machina.  In this case, Garland is adapting from the first novel of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy.  And he does provide a much better role  for Ms. Portman than Asgardian arm-candy.  Here, she is Lena, a Johns Hopkins biologist, whose class lecture on cells is strangely reminiscent of the real-life Hopkins test subject Henrietta Lacks and is eerily prophetic, as we shall see.  Lena is morose, living a hermit's life, we learn, because her husband has been missing for a year after his top-secret military mission disappeared while investigating the "Shimmer," an iridescent, fog-like veil that has surrounded a coastal salt march after a meteor struck a nearby lighthouse.  One day, her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns, but he is different, and not just because he is spewing blood.  A military unit swoops in and rushes him and her, to a top secret facility with a rear-deck view of the ever-expanding Shimmer.  There, Kane can be studied by a medical team led by Dr. Lomax (Benedict Wong).

With time on her hands, Lena, who we learn is ex-military and prone to revelatory and disturbing flashbacks, joins an all-female team of volunteers to explore the shimmer in order to research it and search for other survivors, rather than remain alone with her thoughts.  All of these women, in fact, have disturbing secrets that compel them to volunteer for the dangerous mission.  Led by prickly psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the team consists of a diverse group, including paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson).  Armed to the teeth with weaponry and scientific gear they slide into the heart of darkness with the lighthouse-vortex as their goal.  What they find is as mind-boggling as it is mystifying.  Rob Hardy's cinematography matches their hallucinogenic experiences, and we feel the same time-warp as the exploratory team, as Annihilation is simultaneously suspenseful and slow-paced, intense and gloomy.  Trippy revelations abound, and there's a payoff at the end; perhaps if our expectations hadn't been set so high by Ex Machina, we would have joined others in their raves.  As it was, it was still pretty good.
7.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
7.5 out of 10 on an Artistic Scale

Molly's Game
When we first heard of this film, we were intensely ambivalent.  We are Jessica Chastain fans, but the subject matter, however autobiographical, didn't seem thrilling.  Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, Moneyball, The West Wing) is a gifted writer, but he seems a bit arrogant and misogynistic--and this being his directorial debu, too, well ...   And so, we demurred, waiting until well after the awards season to see it on its second run through the theaters.  Sorkin adapted the film from Molly Bloom's eponymous memoir, a portrayal of a young woman who had trained all her life to become an Olympic caliber skier who then, after a career-ending injury, switched gears to climb the summit of high stakes poker and eventually run the most expensive game in the world.  As one expects from Sorkin, the patter is clever and fast paced, and the athlete-turned-gambling queen delivers soliloquies with depth recalling the Sermon on the Mount.  If you buy that, you buy the film.  For the most part we did, but Sorkin's creative self-satisfaction made Molly's Game run about a half-hour too long.

The film begins with the FBI investigating Molly (Chastain) for consorting with the Russian Mafia, and her Attorney Charles Jaffrey (Idris Elba) asserting that her problems will go away if she just gives the Feds some names.  But Molly has a code, and she insists on taking her (slim) chances in federal court.  We then enter flashback mode to her early years in Colorado, growing up in a family of bright high achievers, driven on by a domineering father (Kevin Costner).  A terrible accident on the slopes that ends her Olympic hopes, she decides to leave everything behind and start a new life, escaping to Los Angeles.  To make ends meet, she lands a job with nasty entrepreneur Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) who also runs a high stakes poker game involving some of the biggest movers and shakers in Hollywood.  Molly is intellectually gifted and clever enough to know that the job requires a delicate balance between consummate discretion and control while pandering to the players' egos.  Soon she is running the game, successfully building it until one of the players, Harlan (Bill Camp), falls apart and another player, a narcissistic and cruel actor, Player X (Michael Cera) runs her out of her own game.  But Molly is nothing if not resilient and resourceful.  She moves to New York with a mind full of experience and ideas, and she begins anew.  Unfortunately, it is here where undesirable and dangerous influences insinuate themselves into her game.  Also unfortunately, the tightest part of the film was left on the West Coast.  In New York, events build and unravel too fast, and they come back together again with facile convenience, but not before Idris Elba delivers a typical Sorkin monologue with typical Elba passion and conviction.  That performance, along with a convenient but compelling return of her father, save the second half of the film.  Chastain's captivating Molly, Elba's charismatic (if poorly-cast) Jaffrey, and Costner's gripping Larry Bloom save Sorkin's bacon.
7.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
7.5 out of 10 on an Artistic Scale

The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Director Armando Ianucci transports his Emmy-winning Veep sensibilities across space and time to the Soviet Union in 1953.  Working from a script he developed with David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows--from a comic book by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin--Ianucci chronicles the events leading up to and following the despot's demise.  And "chronicle" is the correct word in the sense that they nail much of the history, and how better to skewer this terrible period than to hold a mirror up and point out its absurdity?  Of course, horrific is horrific, so the director assembled a brilliant cast of American and English actors and allowed them to amp up their on-screen personas, delivering lines about pogroms and torture without a wink or a nod.

The action unfolds as we follow Stalin's inner circle; a group of men--some cunning, some dim-bulbed, all suck-ups--whose behavior seems more in line with the Marx Brothers than Karl Marx (that was too obvious, right?).  And therein lies the satire: these men wield unchecked savagery in the service of a paranoid and sadistic leader, yet they do so in a casual, almost off-handed manner, saving their emotional investment for currying favor and getting the upper hand on each other.  After a humorous but overlong concert vignette that establishes the level of fear and paranoia among Russian citizens, we settle in at Stalin's (Adrian McLoughlin) country dacha where he relaxes, eating, drinking, and watching American cowboy movies with his inner circle. A thin veneer of forced gaiety shrouds each man's fear of getting on “the list” and results in fawning over their leader, juvenile jealousies, and timid jokes.  Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) even memorizes Stalin's responses to his jokes and has his wife, Nina (Sylvestra Le Touzel) record which did and didn't work.  That night, Stalin has a stroke and goes undiscovered until well into the next day because the guards are afraid to disturb him, and once he is discovered, his deputies are too fearful to make a decision.  In the end their dithering and frets are for naught; Stalin has died.

And so it begins: the jockeying for succession to become General Secretary, complicated by the need to cope with Stalin's children: the manic Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and the maniac alcoholic Vasily (Rupert Friend).  When those two aren't disrupting the worst-laid plans, the plot focuses on the rivalry between between Khrushchev and Deputy Prime Minister Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale, surprisingly effective at emanating farcical terror), the ruthless head of the NKVD--Soviet secret police.  Where Khrushchev is a hand-wringing improvisor, Beria is a Machiavellian plotter, both men ambitious, but both must move carefully because the nominal successor is the skittish Georgi Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor, a marvelous performance in which he portrays simultaneous pomposity and insecurity).  Another insider is Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin, in full Monty Python form), who was reputedly on "the list" and thus seems more interested in ingratiating himself to whatever successor arises.  This sets Palin up for one of the films highlights: as the leaders sit around the conference table making one of their frequent show-of-hands decisions, Molotov finds himself with the tie-breaking vote; what ensues is 30-seconds of dizzying verbal vacillation culminating in his nervous smile of satisfaction and the bewildered frowns of his compatriots.  Beria does manipulate the decision to put Khrushchev in charge of funeral arrangements while he takes charge of security.  This infuriates Nikita, but ends up working to his favor as Beria replaces the Soviet Army with his own NKVD troops, infuriating our last major player: the proud, bombastic General Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), who responds, “I’m smiling, but I am very fucking furious.”

Iannucci's strength is developing satire seasoned with slapstick while never leaving the reality plane.  In his world, truth is as strange as fiction, and both seem equally plausible.   One area where he departs from film realism is his decision to allow his performers to act as the stereotypical characters we've become familiar with in Boardwalk Empire (Buscemi), Arrested Development (Tambor), a Monty Python sketch (Palin), or in Harry Potter (Isaacs).   This strategy follows even to rejecting attempts at Russian accents in favor of voices ranging from American wise-guy to British upper-class twit.  These gambits have determined the success of the film to some critics.  We bought it; and the film.
8.0 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
8.0 out of 10 on an Artistic Scale

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