Illustration courtesy of Google Creative Commons

“Thor” and “Orient Express” toy with formulas

By Brendan Nagle

Thor: Ragnarok

Seventeen films in, it’s easy to feel exhausted by the machine that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The past half-decade has seen Marvel consistently churning out two to three films every year. “Thor: Ragnarok” is the third release so far this year. While “Ragnarok” does not totally eschew the formula of its 16 predecessors, it is a refreshing entry in the Marvel oeuvre. Following the mediocre reception of the first two “Thor” installments, Marvel decided to take a chance on the third, hiring New Zealand comedian Taika Waititi to direct. Waititi is perhaps best known for directing the hilarious vampire mockumentary “What We Do In The Shadows,” and his comedic sensibilities are on full display here. While Marvel movies are no stranger to humor, none have felt this much like a straight-up comedy.

The story is rather uncomplicated: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) gets trapped on the trash planet Sakaar, run by a demented slave owner called the Grandmaster (a delightful Jeff Goldblum), and needs to escape in order to save Asgard from siege by his evil sister Hela (Cate Blanchett). In the hands of another director the plot might be treated with more consequence, but Waititi uses it primarily as a vehicle for Thor (and later his “Avengers” teammate Hulk) to go on a zany adventure. The movie is anchored by its stellar cast, many of whom one would not expect to find in a Marvel movie. I already mentioned Goldblum, who is at his best as a twitchy alien overlord, but Blanchett, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Tessa Thompson, Tom Hiddleston, Hemsworth and even Waititi himself in a voice-acting role, keep “Ragnarok” afloat. Waititi’s full embrace of the fun, comic book-y side of “Thor” should be a breath of fresh air for superhero fans.

 

Murder on the Orient Express

When analyzing remakes it is sometimes more fruitful to ignore previous versions and let the new film stand on its own, but with “Murder on the Orient Express,” directed by Kenneth Branagh and based on Agatha Christie’s famous mystery novel of the same name, it seems rather apt to make comparisons. The best-known adaptation is without a doubt Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film. The new version opens strongly with a scene not present in the 1974 film, in which detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) ingeniously solves the robbery of a priceless religious artifact in Jerusalem. It’s exciting and sets up the central character rather well, though unfortunately the film goes downhill from there. Like Lumet’s film, Branagh’s version is star-studded. Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz and, of course, Branagh himself, make up the eccentric cast of characters aboard the Orient Express. But unlike in Lumet’s film, none of them (besides Branagh and perhaps Pfeiffer) really get a chance to show off their abilities.

Some have criticized Branagh for failing to add anything new in his reworking. This is not entirely true. There are quite a few details that he messes with. For example Colonel Arbuthnot, played previously by Sean Connery, is now played by Odom Jr., a black man. But most of the changes that he makes are either superficial like Arbuthnot’s race, which is barely addressed and seems rather arbitrary or actively detrimental (like the lack of character development and the boring score). If there is any successful change, it might be in visual style. The film is shot with 65mm cameras and has moments of cinematographic splendor, but the visual compositions are often undermined by odd CGI effects that don’t quite fit. However, though, Branagh’s gravest misstep is tonal. The bizarre cast of characters and even the mystery itself are meant to be ridiculous to a degree, yet the film takes a much too serious approach which simply doesn’t work. Admittedly, the task of remaking a beloved movie based on an even more beloved book is no simple feat. It’s difficult to incorporate fresh ideas while staying true to the source material. But then one cannot help but wonder: why try to make the film in the first place?

 

120 Beats Per Minute

Taking place in the early ’90s, “120 Beats Per Minute” looks in on an HIV/AIDS activist group called ACT UP Paris. There seems no one better to tell the story than writer and director Robert Campillo, who was himself a member of ACT UP. Though the film is fiction, one could mistake it for documentary, at least at first. Campillo utilizes a handheld, cinéma vérité style (not dissimilar to the French drama “The Class,” which he co-wrote), which places the viewer in the middle of the action. Much of the story is told through lengthy procedural scenes that show the inner workings of ACT UP’s meetings. We see the messy infighting of the group, but also the powerful community that the organization has created. As almost every member of ACT UP is HIV positive (and even the ones that aren’t are treated by the public as if they are), they are forced to rely on each other. Even the larger gay community shuns them out of fear. Though eventually a central couple emerges (Arnaud Velois and the superb Nahuel Peréz Biscayart), community seems to always be the primary focus.

“BPM” is unafraid to focus on the unglamorous details of HIV advocacy, like debates about slogans or deciphering new medical research. The film is shamelessly political, as are its characters. When living with HIV, the personal and the political are impossible to separate. Even the discotheques which the characters frequent, usually spaces of abandon and freedom, become difficult to distinguish from the sites of their protests. “BPM” is a powerful and compassionate story that resonates despite the time in which it’s set.

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