THOR: RAGNAROK: 4 STARS
“Darling, you have no idea what is possible.” So says Hela (Cate Blanchett), Thor’s Goddess of Death sister.
She’s a piece of work who thinks nothing of drowning a whole race of people in their own blood to get what she wants, but she has a point. Up until this point no one really knew what was possible with the Thor (Chris Hemsworth) character. Over the course of six movies, we’ve seen the crown prince of Asgard as a larger-than-life hero with Shakespearean tendencies and a muscle-bound sex symbol but it took New Zealand director Taika Waititi to fully realize the character’s potential. Thor has always been quick with a line, but this time around, Waititi puts the comedy upfront.
The plot of “Thor Ragnarok” is less interesting than its tone. In a nutshell Thor’s sister, the hella-deadly Hela is back from exile and with Odin (Anthony Hopkins) out of the way, is first in line for the throne of Asgard. She, equipped with an impressive set of black antlers and ruthless nature, plans to go Ragnarok on the citizens of Asgard to fulfill her appetite for destruction.
After some tomfoolery with giant demon Surtur (Clancy Brown)—“Oh, that’s your crown,” Thor purrs. “I thought it was a big eyebrow.”—Thor returns to Asgard, reunites with mischievous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) before literally locking horns with Hela and hurled through space and into the hands of the quirky Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), a colourfully dressed ruler who offs people with his dreaded Melt Stick and pits the Norse god against his old friend Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in a gladiatorial match. With Asgard at stake Thor recruits the giant green world breaker and a warrior Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) to save his planet.
That sounds like it could be the plot from any generic Avengers film—a world is at stake—but there is no other superhero movie that would see their champions escape through an interdimensional portal named The Devil’s Anus. Yes, there is serious subtext about genocide and displaced persons—we hear Led Zep’s “Immigrant Song” twice—but this is the first Marvel movie to value comedy over spectacle. The trademarked Marvel blockbuster action is still there but the gags carry the show.
Certainly “Thor: Ragnarok” is the polar opposite of rival DC’s dark universe but even in its own house, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s a breath of fresh air. Seventeen movies in, Marvel has taken a chance, handing the reins over to an idiosyncratic helmer. Waititi’s (who also plays a talkative Groot-like gladiator named Korg) first big studio movie after whimsical indies the adventure comedy “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” feels as close to an auteur film as we’re likely to see in this genre. He brings a zippy sense of fun that showcases Hemsworth’s comedy chops.
Like the rest of the Avengers movies “Thor: Ragnarok” is a tad long and, near the end is overrun by creatures and CGI. Some will complain that the glib tone completely overrides the film’s serious side but the gags and the home-is-where-the-heart-is message make this one of the most human and humane MCU movies yet.
A BAD MOMS CHRISTMAS: 1 STAR
If you are to believe the new Mila Kunis comedy, “A Bad Mom Christmas,” the Yuletide is a time of joy… unless you are a mother. “Moms don’t enjoy,” we’re told, “they give joy. That‘s how being a mom works.”
In 2016’s “Bad Moms” Amy (Mila Kunis) ,Kiki (Kristen Bell) and Carla (Kathryn Hahn) were a Coffee Klatch of moms fed up with the burden of having to be perfect. Today not much has changed except for the weather. They are all still overworked and underappreciated as the holidays approach. “I feel like a giant stress ball from November to New Years,” says Amy.
On top of providing a memorable Christmas for their families, the original three moms, in the kind of miracle that only happens in Christmas movies, are ambushed by their own mothers, the primly perfect-in-every-way Ruth (Christine Baranski), the overbearing Sandy (Cheryl Hines) and former REO Speedwagon roadie Isis (Susan Sarandon). Each are as welcome as a bad case of Christmas Itch and all three complicate an already complicated season. “Remember when the holidays were actually fun?” asks Amy. “Let’s take Christmas back.”
Only in the era of climate change would it seem appropriate to release the snowbound “A Bad Moms Christmas” the day after Halloween. The first “Bad Moms” movie was a hell raising grrrls-gone-wild romp with plenty of gags but this one falls into the sloppy sentimental trap of many holiday movies.
It’s an hour-and-forty-minutes of dime store psychology—families aren’t perfect but they’re the only family you’ll ever have—that makes “Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever” look like “The Dialectical Behaviour Therapy Skills Workbook: Practical DBT Exercises for Learning Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation, and Distress Tolerance” by comparison. It wants to warm the cockles of your heart with its tale of mothers and kids but none of it feels authentic. The heart-tugging stuff doesn’t tug because none of it feels authentic and the raunchy humour—the potty mouth kids, endless vaginal waxing jokes, the twerking on Santa and gingerbread cookies shaped like… well, you can guess—feels wedged in. Imagine a Hallmark Movie with male strippers and you get the idea.
It’s not the cast’s fault the script is drier than Aunt Ethel’s Christmas turkey. All of them—particularly Baranski and Hahn—are game but cannot turn this lump of coal into a polished diamond. Kenny G earns points as a willing pop-culture punchline and Baranski should win some sort of special prize for squeezing as many laughs out of this material as she does. Her take on “the most critical human being on the planet”—“When I was nine I made her a Mother’s Day card,” Amy says, “and she returned it with notes”—is worthy of a much better movie.
“A Bad Mom Christmas” only gets one thing 100% right. “We’re going to watch ‘Love, Actually,’” says Amy. “Dumb movie,” sneers Ruth.
THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER: 4 STARS
Director Yorgos Lanthimos makes idiosyncratic films. From the bizarre home schooling fantasy "Dogtooth” to “The Lobster,” a film about turning lovesick divorcees into wildlife, he is unafraid to let his freak flag fly. His newest film, “The Killing Of A Sacred Deer” starring Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman, may be his most unapologetically odd film yet.
Farrell is Steven Murphy, an uptight cardiac surgeon married to ophthalmologist Anna (Kidman). Their two kids, Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy) are polite, happy kids. They eat dinner together every night and by all outward appearances lead a disciplined, quiet suburban life. It wasn’t always that way. Just three years before Steven was forced to stop drinking when it began to interfere with his work.
Now all is calm. The only strange thing is Steven’s attachment to Martin (Barry Keoghan), the son of a patient who died unexpectedly. Steven buys him expensive presents and always seems to have time to talk to the boy or take him out for lunch. Shortly after Martin is invited over for dinner, however, things in the Murphy household take a turn for the worse. Little Bob’s legs give out and soon he is paralyzed from the waist down. He’s given every test known to man and science but no diagnosis is forthcoming. Then Kim takes ill, collapsing at choir practice. Again, there doesn’t seem to be a medical reason for her paralysis.
There’s more, but there will be no spoilers here. If you want clues look up the Greek myth of Artemis’ demand of atonement from Agamemnon after he killed a sacred deer.
From this point on “The Killing Of A Sacred Deer” becomes a horror film about ideas rather than actions. It’s a study of extreme consequences, atonement and the length to which people will go to save their families. In many ways it’s the kind of story we’ve seen many times before but Lanthimos has filtered the domestic drama through his lens, creating an unsettling and absurd film that is as gripping as it is strange.
Lanthimos uses language and tone to bring us into his world. The actors have an eerie, mannered way of speaking as though they are always reading aloud from an Emily Post book. Before anything odd happens the matter-of-fact speech, often about the most trivial or, sometimes, inappropriate things, establishes the film’s otherworldly tone. It hangs heavy over every second of the movie and when the character’s veneers begin to crack it is even more disquieting.
“The Killing Of A Sacred Deer” does not offer explanations or apologies for anyone’s behaviour. Instead it is content to wallow in the cruelty and depravity of its story. Strange days indeed.
NOVITIATE: 2½ STARS
“Novitiate,” the new drama from director Margaret Betts, is a story of love, piety, obedience and sacrifice that is as tightly wound as one of Reverend Mother’s (Melissa Leo) Rosaries.
Cathleen (played as a youngster by Eliza Stella Mason) is a just seven years old when she falls in love for the first time. Taken to church for the first time by her non-religious mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson) the little girl becomes attracted to the solemnity of the service. It’s the polar opposite of her home life where Mom and Dad (Chris Zylka) are constantly at one another’s throats. When she’s offered a chance to attend Catholic school for free, Cathleen jumps at the chance, despite Nora’s misgivings.
At the convent school Cathleen (played by Margaret Qualley from age seventeen on) finds the life she was always unable to enjoy at home. Under the watchful eye of Reverend Mother, the teenager decides to give herself over to the church, become a nun and devote herself to the worship and servitude of God.
“That’s the craziest thing I have ever heard,” comes Nora’s stunned reaction.
“I was called,” says Cathleen. “I want to become a nun and there is nothing you can do to make me change my mind.”
Her training—from postulant to the novitiate—coincides with the introduction of Vatican II, a reaction to changing cultural practises after the Second World War that signalled widespread changes in the church. With change afoot Cathleen determines what it means to embark on a life as a servant of God, as Reverend Mother grapples with what the changes mean to her faith.
“Novitiate” is a detailed, sombre look at the nature of faith that sometimes feels like two movies in one. Cathleen’s narrative leads the story and is the most compelling part of the film but her story of love and sacrifice is diluted by Reverend Mother’s reaction to the reformist and more-liberal-than-she’d-like Vatican II dictums. The characters are bookends but even with the two hour run time there isn’t quite enough story to dive deep into their lives and make us care about both.
Better stated are Cathleen’s quandaries. She wrangles but rarely waivers with her faith, presenting a complex look at the personal toll that comes with the gruelling novitiate process. Qualley and her supporting cast of “sisters”— Liana Liberato, Eline Powell, Morgan Saylor, Maddie Hasson and Ashley Bell—are a mosaic of characters placed together to show the various reasons the young women chose to become nuns.
Leo humanizes the severe Reverend Mother, turning her from stern mistress to a person caught in the tide of change and unable to swim.
Betts, who also wrote “Novitiate’s” script, brings nuance and thoughtfulness to most characters but as a whole the meditative mood of the movie’s two storylines never coalesce.
DINA: 3 ½ STARS
You will be amazed at the level of intimacy the filmmakers behind “Dina” are able to achieve. The story of a middle-aged woman preparing to marry her boyfriend benefits from the level of access awarded to the directors but is deepened by the fact that the bride and groom are on the autism spectrum.
This cinéma vérité doc follows Dina Buno and Scott Levin. She is a 48-year-old widow with Asperger’s, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, who has lived on her own for decades. He also has Asperger syndrome, and is a security guard at Walmart who loves singing and still lives at home. We witness their courtship as they get to know one another on a day trip to a New Jersey boardwalk and navigate through complicated feelings regarding his disinterest in sex—she gives him a copy of “The Joy of Sex” to help fire his imagination and encourages foot rubs—and their future life together. A revelation regarding Dina’s traumatic past sheds light on her hypersensitive temperament.
“Dina” is an up-close-and-personal look at this couple. Co-director Daniel Sickles (with Antonio Santini) is a family friend, which could explain the level of informality we see on screen. Whatever the reason, “Dina” offers a fascinating character study that looks at romance and how intimacy blossoms for these two.
Sickles and Santini are flies on the wall, uninvolved in the story and as such allow the story to play, warts and all. After the end credits roll there may or may not be a happy ending for Dina and Scott and no effort is made to suggest a fairy tale ending. “Dina” is simply a heartfelt look at two people facing and hopefully overcoming considerable problems.