Sunday, July 24, 2022

Winners and Losers:

A few dozen movies and TV shows in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe of colorful heroes and interconnected can-kicking narratives has basically nothing to do with anything recognizably human. It goes all the more awry when a project wants to nod back in the direction. Hence Thor: Love and Thunder. He was heretofore one of the MCU’s most consistently entertaining characters—his appearances in first two Shakespeare-by-way-of-Jack Kirby entries (or vice versa), his goofier Guardians of the Galaxy-lite Ragnarok, and best-in-show appearances in multiple Avengers pictures. Star Chris Hemsworth always provides him an appealing gym-bod arrogance in an oblivious goofball beneficence, a boisterous buffoonery that can still kick out the action when called upon. But that force of personality alone can’t lift a movie completely miscalculated from the jump. This new Thor movie is a near-stupefyingly ill-considered collection of inanities and tropes broken up by the most rankly manipulative sentiments.

Writer-director Taika Waititi, whose distinctively silly style from early genre-benders like What We Do in the Shadows worked well enough for Thor last time, shamelessly trots out cheap buttons to push. Here there’s a supporting character with cancer—nothing specific, just “cancer”—that’s used as mawkish motivation when it’s important and dropped entirely for antics when not. (As fine an actress as Natalie Portman is, she can’t get something from nothing.) Here there are kids in danger—kidnapped and held in a dark cave by a murderous villain who himself is motivated by the senseless death of his only child. We see the latter in a raw moment of mourning in a stark prologue. Christian Bale, as the grieving father, is almost too good at making us want to see him succeed in taking out his anger on the gods who remain indifferent to the suffering of the common man. The movie’s endless violence, indifferently handled seriousness, and badly calibrated humor merely prolongs the suffering for us all.

After all, the movie’s villain pokes holes in growing MCU blindspots, problems that have reached a nadir here. When the heroes skirt past consequences in order to continually churn new installments, nothing matters. The life of a normal person must be terribly unsettled—to be at the whims of these larger-than-life super-beings. How awful. Love and Thunder is an especially cluttered and confused outgrowth of this problem. It’s flatly imagined and deadened by its blunt pathos steamrolled by the studio’s house style of weightless gloop, bad blocking, and cheap wisecracks. Waititi opens his movie with a character angry when gods laugh at his pain, and then makes a movie in which characters constantly laugh off pain—giggling at dangers and hand-waving murders. This flippancy is self-defeating. It robs the potential for real character depths—not that the movie’s dull repetition of previous Thor arcs, like learning humility and forging a makeshift family, is anything to mine for such—by treating everything with the heaviest-handed light touch imaginable.

Somehow both thin and overcomplicated, the story takes forever to get nowhere, and grates with its wildly uneven stumbling through inscrutable digital noise and incomprehensibly cheap staginess. (There are whole sequences where it’s difficult to tell who’s doing what to what effect to whom.) It gathers up the requisite cameos, crowds the sloppy frame with little moments for a dozen characters to shuffle on stage, get off a joke that flops, and limp away. Even an evocative villain, and a potentially witty foil in a fatuous Zeus (Russell Crowe in a lisping Grecian accent), are used for little and, ultimately, naught. Of course the gods must be crazy—and careless—to kick off the story of a man who wants revenge on them. But the movie lacks the courage of its premise’s convictions, completely refuses to engage with its implications, and feels all the emptier and annoying for it. The villain is inadvertently proven right. This is nihilism togged up as forced frivolity. It says, yes, the gods don’t care, the world is devoid of hope for mere mortals, but, hey, at least Thor joked around with his pals before the love of his life kicked the bucket to inspire him.

Better heroism with a sense of style and perspective can be found in The Princess, a 20th Century Studios movie ignominiously sent straight to Hulu. (Sheesh, is it a bummer than Disney has turned that once-great studio into a feeder for its streaming services. Even a modestly received theatrical run still boosts a movie’s profile more than these straight-to-digital premiere.) It stars Joey King as a princess whose castle has been taken over by snarling villains. Their leader (Dominic Cooper) wants to marry her and take her kingdom. He’s locked her in a tower and menaces her parents and younger sister in the palace below. Good thing she knows how to fight back. This R-rated action flick, overseen by Vietnamese director Le-Van Kiet, becomes a rollicking rolling action sequence bursting with kicks and punches, whips and chains, tumbles and tangles as she has to fight down the tower, through layers of goons, to save the day. It’s neatly composed and briskly choreographed, rarely pausing for breath, or much psychological complexity.

But its simplicity is its own asset, allowing it to focus narrowly on its strengths. It sure has personality, and the kind of bristling no-sweat casual feminism that its premise implies. King is a fine physical presence and fits the demands of the hard-charging role, playing up the exertion and panting effort of each move. And the supporting cast—key sidekicks for both good (Veronica Ngo) and bad (Olga Kurylenko)—is well-chosen in complementary skills with neat bladed weaponry and reasonably believable relationships to the leads. Here’s a movie that’s perched on the point where a teenage feminist fairy tale—The Princess Saves Herself in This One—meets vertical action levels—Die Hard meets The Raid. It knows what it wants to do, gets the job done, and leaves quickly before outstaying its welcome. The result is a slender and modestly satisfying genre effort.