Film Review: “Thor: Ragnarok”

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston and Cate Blanchett
Directed By: Taika Waititi
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 130 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

While “Avengers: Age of Ultron” was only about two and a half years ago, it feels like an eternity since we last saw Thor (Hemsworth). It can easily be said that Thor’s cameos in other Marvel films are a lot more enjoyable than his own feature length vehicles. That’s mainly because his two previous movies are devoid of mentally stimulating storytelling, hollow villains and an inescapable sense of forced plotting. Luckily, third time’s the charm for the God of Thunder.

In an attempt to get to the meat of the story, “Ragnarok” spends the first handful of minutes rushing through plot points about Thor, Loki, Odin and Jane Foster, and what they’ve been up to since we last saw them. It’s taxing, especially since no one really cares about Odin and I think Loki is a reminder of Marvel’s previous attempts to make him more of an imposing bad guy than he actually is. But it’s during these clichéd moments that “Ragnarok” still manages to find fun and establish tone.

For instance, the cold open finds Thor having the most fun we’ve ever seen him have on screen. With a flick of his wrist and a twirl of his hammer, he obliterates dozens of faceless foes, and it’s all set to Led Zepplin. We also get a much needed detour from the story line catch-up with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). His cameo is unexplained and seemingly unnecessary, but it’s certainly one of the most delightful highlights of the film. Once the film catches up on two years, we meet the Goddess of Death, Hela (Blanchett)

Hela may be the blueprints needed for a Marvel universe in sore need of a compelling, yet dangerous villain. Hela is a genuine threat, demonstrating her overt God-like powers throughout. Her first scene shows her destroying Thor’s hammer with a singular flex of her arm and disregarding Thor’s threat much like a pesky fly. There’s a charming menace behind her smile as she slaughters countless soldiers on her way to Asgard’s throne. Blanchett’s performance is simply magnetic.

Most Marvel films know how to have fun, but “Ragnarok” is an entirely new beast. It draws upon child-like humor, usually seen in more mature Saturday morning cartoons. The film expertly utilizes humor to introduce new characters flawlessly and in minimal time. Jokes convey their attitudes and mentality easier than any drawn out exposition could. It also helps when you have the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) aggressively stomping around like an upset Kindergartener. Director Taika Waititi deserves a lot of credit for taking the title character and its world in such a retro direction so that’s equally lighthearted and visually joyful.

“Ragnarok” isn’t breaking the established Marvel mold, as much as it wants to. Film executives might have pulled their hair out if the film didn’t still lean on protagonist redemption subplots, cheeky squabbles amongst allies and fanboy pandering. That shouldn’t take away from Waititi’s vision. He’s brought his own brand of goofiness, managing to make the film and its characters crass, yet warm, and brutish, yet charming. “Ragnarok” is a dazzling space opera that finally gives Thor meaningful purpose in the vast Marvel cinematic universe.

Director Todd Haynes and Stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara Speak about ‘Carol’

CAROL

The works of author Patricia Highsmith have been crafted into some truly great films including Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. This weekend, Todd Haynes’s latest film Carol from Highsmith’s The Price of Salt adds to these successes with brilliant work from a cast lead by two-time Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett and Oscar-nominee Rooney Mara. Blanchett plays the Carol Aird, a wealthy soon-to-be-divorced socialite in 1950s New York who begins a complex relationship with Mara’s younger shop girl Therese. The two navigate their feelings for one another while being challenged by the social norms of that time period. I attended Carol’s New York press conference this week where they, along with screenwriter Phyllis Nagy and fellow castmates Kyle Chandler and Jake Lacy joined moderator and WOR Radio film critic, Joe Neumier to discuss the film.

Director Haynes began the conference by discussing his approach to Highsmith’s work and this powerful romance at the center of the film:

Todd Haynes: I really was taking it on, as if for the first time, looking at the love story. Something that I felt I hadn’t really ever accomplished directly in my other films. And that really began with reading The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith’s beautiful novel, and the gorgeous adaptation of Phyllis’s script that first came to me with Cate attached. So it was quite a bundle of incentives when it first landed with me in 2013. But love stories are, you know unlike I guess war which is about conquerring the object, love stories are about conquerring the subject. And so it’s always the subject who is in a state of vulnerability and peril at some level. And through much of Carol that is the character of Therese who occupies a much less powerful position in the world in Carol…is younger, is more open, is sort of experiencing this woman with a freshness that is different from Carol’s life and experience. But what I loved about this story was how what happens between the two women really moves them through a series of events which change them both. And ultimately by the end of the film, it’s shifted sides. Carol is the one who comes to Therese with her heart on her sleeve at the end of film. So all of that made a lot of the smaller elements of looking and who’s being looked at and who is doing the looking and all of those questions, something that was very conducive to the cinematic language.

I asked Cate Blanchett, who had a supporting role in The Talented Mr Ripley in 1999 if she had studied Highsmith’s work in preparation for that film and how her perception of Carol changed upon revisiting it for this role:

(L-R) KYLE CHANDLER and CATE BLANCHETT star in CAROL

Cate Blanchett: Yeah it’s one thing entirely reading a novel and quite another when you’re then reading it again when you’re going to play a character in the book. I mean I read everything of hers I could at the time we were making Ripley. It was actually, much to shame, the first time I’d ever encountered her work. But I also was very interested in you know all of the sort of filmic incarnations of her work as well…And there’s some wonderful observations and parts of internal monologue–well more internal monologue that Therese has–but observations of Carol that’re in the novel that were really really useful to read. I just read at the time, the first time I read the book as a reader but to then to try and make that stuff manifest was really exciting.

Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy actually got to speak extensively with Highsmith before she passed away in 1995. Moderator Neumier followed up with Nagy as to whether Highsmith was nervous about this novel becoming a screenplay for film:

Phyllis Nagy: Well she was dead by the time this came to me. So we didn’t have that conversation…[laughs] I’ll have it with her later tonight. She didn’t like many of the film adaptations of her work.
Cate Blanchett: Didn’t she?!
Phyllis Nagy: Oh no, she couldn’t stand them. Especially Strangers on a Train.
Cate Blanchett: Oh what does she know!?
Phyllis Nagy: You know from her perspective–the guys trade murders in that book and in the film of course they don’t and it was one of the first arguments we had when I said ‘Oh, I love Strangers on a Train!’ she said [frowning] ‘Hmmm’ really with disgust. But she liked aspects of the films, Robert Walker she loved and she thought Alain Delon was extremely attractive, of course. So I hope that she would find this entire enterprise extremely attractive. I think she would. I think we are all of us not betraying the intent and the tone of the work. Which, really I think is the only thing you can do to be reverent to a source material. Everything else is up for grabs.

ROONEY MARA stars in CAROL.

Rooney Mara praised Haynes’s film for portraying Carol and Therese’s romantic relationship honestly without preaching:

Rooney Mara: I think one of great things about the film is that it’s not a political film, it’s not a film with an agenda, it’s not preaching to the audience. So people are allowed to just watch it for what it is which is a love story between two humans.

Later, she addressed whether or not Therese having an older female lover lessened the chances audiences would see the age gap as something Carol was exploiting.

Rooney Mara: …Would it ever feel predatory? It’s not like I’m 17 years old. You know, Therese is younger than Carol and she certainly is–they’re at different stages in their lives but I don’t think that she’s so young that it would be…it never felt predatory to me and I don’t think it ever really would have, male or female.

Rooney’s character at the start of Carol is already in a relationship with an over-eager boyfriend Richard, played by Jake Lacy who spoke about Richard:

Jake Lacy: Todd spoke a little when we first met about the idea that, for Richard the world is there to take, you know. He’s young, he’s in New York, he’s first generation American. He’s smart, he’s handsome, he has a job and a girl. You know, the world is his for the taking and yet it slips away from him. And sort of without knowing it, thank god that it does because otherwise…he’s fifteen years or ten years earlier than Carol and Harge and that world if he and Therese stayed together and created a life like them. It wasn’t a life anymore, you know?…To me, for Richard the idea of a dream that then falls apart, or that someone is not willing to be a part of that dream and trying to wrangle them into it…

Kyle Chandler plays Harge, Carol’s husband who is grappling with losing his perfect family in his divorce from Carol. Chandler spoke about the importance of playing his character without making him stereotypical:

Kyle Chandler: …It allowed me, I think at some point I realized that it could be a stereotypical character very easily. And [to] portray what you would imagine Guy from the Fifties under these circumstances…but what happened was at some point, the worst possible moment in a man’s life or a woman, when they’re in love, and they realize they’re not in love anymore. And this character never realized he wasn’t in love anymore. He was always in love and he was intensely in love. And he also had this little child. Not just his wife, not just his child, but his family unit. So important to him, and so important to say nothing of his social status and what he was. But he refused to give that up. So that…allowed me I think, to stay within that and never lose love or respect; But still be very confused on what is going on. Which goes back to that one direction that [Haynes] gave me when [Sarah Paulson’s character, Carol’s ex-lover Abby] is walking in the room and I look across and I go, ‘Who ARE you?’ basically.

SARAH PAULSON stars in CAROL

Paulson as Abby, Carol’s ex-lover, is one of Carol’s strongest bonds in the film, who she actually calls upon to pick up Therese when they hit some obstacles. Paulson spoke about her character being in this tricky situation.

Sarah Paulson:
…I do think, I wonder what I personally would do if someone I loved and still had feelings for, if I was called upon to come in and rescue the person that she currently loves…I don’t know, I don’t know. It was to me a very big testament to her friendship and her love and I think the desire to be around Carol and in Carol’s orbit no matter what. I think that Abby’s sense of society–and I don’t mean literal society but her community, her friendships, you know they were probably quite narrow at that time. So to lose something like that would be…the consequences of that would be too enormous. I just started thinking about things like that…

Haynes also commented on how a modern audience views all of Carol’s female relationships versus how people within that time period in the film would have seen it:

Todd Haynes: There are also things that a modern audience has to keep reminding ourselves we’re quite different at this time, counterintuitively. Where an older woman could invite a younger woman to lunch and it was absolutely totally appropriate. Where she would have never invited the head of the ski department to lunch. Or they could check into a motel together as two women but if they were a heterosexual unmarried couple, checking into a hotel at this time would have been a scandal. So there’s ways in which the morays and the codes of the time are also things that we’re learning and reading against their actions and gestures.

Carol is now in theaters, you can read my 5-star review here.

Film Review “Carol”

Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy
Running Time: 118mins.
The Weinstein Company
Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

At the outset of Todd Haynes’s latest film Carol, two women meet up in a restaurant in 1950s New York City before they are interrupted by a good natured young man. He ultimately escorts the stylish younger lady off to a party and then we drift back in time. It’s a simple start to a beautifully crafted romantic drama which spends the rest of its runtime loading up this and many other minute interactions with infinite complexity. Working from Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking novel The Price of Salt, director Haynes (of 2002’s lauded Far From Heaven) once again showcases the 1950s as the backdrop for simmering social tensions and stellar work by his lead actresses.

As with everything in Haynes’s gorgeous film, the beginning of Carol and Therese’s relationship is sold in loaded small talk. Carol Aird (Blanchett), looking every bit the glamorous fifties socialite, inquires after Christmas gift suggestions from shopgirl Therese (Mara, saddled with a management-enforced goofy Santa hat). Carol eventually settles on a train set, providing Therese with all her relevant contact info to ship her order. She then sashays away with a compliment to the Santa hat. To the outside shopper, this was just a cordial transaction between two ladies but the dialogue sold through Mara and Blanchett’s eyes screams of a mutual attraction. Not to mention the lingering shots of Carol’s perfectly manicured hands that hint at a world struggling photographer Therese can only aspire to be part of. Conveniently Carol forgets a pair of gloves at Therese’s counter, offering Therese an excuse with which to follow up with this intriguing customer. Under the guise of gratitude, Carol is enabled to take Therese to lunch and from there they’re off and running. Or rather roadtripping.

It’s fitting that a trainset and a roadtrip are at the crux of Therese and Carol’s encounters with

(L-R) CATE BLANCHETT and ROONEY MARA star in CAROL

one another because Haynes’s film is so much about these women in transitions. It’s unclear what exactly Carol sees in Therese at first except that Carol knows where her desires lie at this point in her life (a past girlfriend in the form of Sarah Paulson’s Abby remains Carol’s strongest bond besides her young daughter) and she will soon be officially divorced from her husband. Her world’s seemingly coming apart and she’s trying to grasp onto something new. Meanwhile Mara is simply heartbreaking as the younger Therese. Navigating this time period, Therese doesn’t even know how to articulate what she wants from Carol or why. A stunning Mara, who won Best Actress with this film at this year’s Cannes festival, is magnetic as her quiet turmoil eventually spills over into a teary outburst before Therese can reform into something stronger.

The leading ladies are capably supported by their would-be male counterparts who are at a loss as to what to do with these women. Kyle Chandler as Harge, Carol’s ex-husband-to-be, launches an attack of sorts on Carol’s ‘morality’ with his legal team in a move that smacks more of desperation than maliciousness. Meanwhile, Therese fends off the over eager advances of Richard (Jake Lacy) and her peers with indifference. To add to it all, Haynes is in his element with period production design along with costume designer Sandy Powell (coming off this year’s triumphant work on Cinderella) and the result is an all around marvelous drama to behold.

Carol was screened as a part of the 2015 New York Film Fest.
I got the chance to speak to Blanchett at Carol’s NY Press Conference, which you can read here.

Film Review “Truth”

Director: James Vanderbilt
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, Topher Grace
Running Time: 121mins.
Sony Pictures Classics

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

It sets a high standard to go ahead and give a politically charged film a title like Truth but that’s exactly what James Vanderbilt, making his directorial debut, has done. I expect the film will be targeted by leftover George W Bush supporters as its protagonist says, “for asking the question” once again of GW’s National Guard service time but the fact is he still won out in the 2004 election despite this scandal and that result is not the concern of this film. Instead Vanderbilt delves into the high stakes of questioning extremely powerful people and more than once the dangers of confirmation bias by even the most experienced of journalists. Whatever your politics, this is an often compelling film that is driven by another strong performance from Cate Blanchett.

Based on her own memoir, Truth and Duty, the film tells the story of Mary Mapes (Blanchett) an ex-producer for on CBS’s “60 Minutes” whose career, along with famous newsman Dan Rather (Redford), was ended when they dug into the dodgy military record of President George W. Bush and whether or not strings were pulled to not only keep him out of the Vietnam war, but to also cover for his being AWOL from even his National Guard duties. On the eve of the 2004 presidential election, the story was make or break material whose impact relied on the timeliness at which it could be delivered to the public.
Working from her own memoir, it’s hard for the film to be anything but sympathetic to Mapes and Rather’s side. I don’t think Rather can feel too badly about this chapter of his life being played out large again when Robert Redford is portraying him. That said, Vanderbilt still manages time and again to highlight the flaws in Mapes relentless fight to get this story out. In order to make her deadline to air, she naysays concerns raised by some of the experts her own team has assembled which eventually comes right back around the bite her later. Once the story blows up and is challenged by Bush’s right-wing supporters in the media, the film picks up. More and more tiny technicalities rip apart Mapes’s reporting if not the actual truth about Bush’s service. Vanderbilt even wrings stress out of the nuances of Microsoft Word fonts, quite a feat outside of resumé creation.

Along the way, Cate Blanchett is electric to watch. In the beginning she is secure and untouchable in light of her success in breaking the news of atrocities at Abu Gharib and her close partnership with the iconic Rather. In Blanchett’s Mapes you can see why a network would bow to her command despite some doubts. It’s a performance that only gets more layered as Mapes weathers her attacks. At first keeping her defenses up and then slowly you see her gears start to shift from denials to justification, despair, and eventually to remounting up her full defenses against a harsh inquisition lead by a surprisingly intimidating Dermot Mulroney. Blanchett is capably supported by the likes of Dennis Quaid and Elisabeth Moss (I could have done without Topher Grace shouting a speech in the film’s later acts), but her charisma is only truly matched in the relatively small role Redford plays. Redford avoids impersonation of Dan Rather, but exudes the stoicism of the long-serving anchorman well and serves as a needed calm counterpoint in Mapes’s political storm.

Perhaps what’s most interesting about Truth is to see an internet-powered scandal from over a decade ago and how even in just this short span of time, news has evolved (or devolved? Depends who you ask). Twitter, among other outlets, wasn’t around yet and by that standard, I began to wonder if this story would have died in the ever-shuffling 24 hour news cycle or if it would have simply come to the same end results in days rather than months. And whether Rather could have better ‘survived’ an even more sped up timeline. In a film all about raising questions, I was satisfied to come away with still more.

Truth is on limited release from October 16th and will expand to more theaters later this month.