17 May 2018

A Brunch Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok is a very liberal adaptation of a lot of great Marvel source material, spanning two titles, The Incredible Hulk, and, of course, Thor, and probably decades worth of story. The film doesn’t exactly draw a lot of story elements from this source material so much as it grabs evocative images, and some loose ideas from them. It then knits these together, rather brilliantly, to continue the story of Thor, Loki, Odin, Hulk and the other Asgardians that began in 2011’s Thor.  If you are a comic book fan who read Walt Simonson’s epic and character defining run on Thor, you will be happy to see his designs still rule the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s interpretation of Asgard. And if you recognize Simonson’s hand, you also recognize the ghost of Jack Kirby. I think the Simonson dominates the art direction and story design of all the Thor films. Thor:Ragnarok is no different. If you read Planet Hulk, you may have thought from Hulk’s out fit and gladiatorial digs that a great deal from that story would be on the screen. It isn’t the case. There are some elements of the story here, and some characters (written in wholly different ways) but the long sweep of Planet Hulk and its sadness are not really in evidence here. Someone might say that Thor: Ragnarok is the cliffs notes version of stories featured in the comics. That someone would not be me. It is just different from that source material even as it draws a lot of inspiration from it. That is okay. The MCU isn’t its print antecedents. If I want the Simonson material, I can look no further than my comic book boxes.

Thor: Ragnarok is a delightful blaze of color, action and adventure. It has a large cast of characters but manages its ensemble well. Watching the trailers one might come away thinking that it was going to be a simple buddy picture that sent Thor, Hulk and Valkyrie on a grand cosmic adventure, and the other characters being minimally developed, and holding places as mere window dressing. Taika Waititi does something much different. His film is interested in the greater Asgardian drama and he gave us a film that evolved the family dynamics. He didn’t have to do this. Waititi could have been content with the well worn sibling rivalry between Thor and Loki, but he and his script writers decided that would not do. The family dynamics evolved. For me, the film’s treatment of Loki and Thor’s relationship is one of its many triumphs.

What is the film about? Ultimately it is about family, the occasional failures of family, and history, and homeland. It is packaged in a rather glorious action adventure film. Thor is tracking rumors of Surtur’s rising and growing power (this is bad news for anyone familiar with Ragnarok), and looking for his father. The MCU gives us a Thor that isn’t necessarily mentally one of quickest heroes in the galaxy, but nor is he stupid. Thor is dogged and that tenacity is largely how he solves a lot our galaxy’s mysteries. The search for Surtur leads to Loki, and ultimately his father, and from his brother and father to greater troubles still.That trouble comes first in the form of an angry heretofore unknown sister, which then leads to unexpected exile on the world of a sadistic if superficially charming being known as the Grandmaster. His world is, in the comics, called BattleWorld. For people like Thor that means gladiatorial arenas and fights to the death. For the rest it means being as subservient as possible to Grandmaster, as pleasing him seems to be the only way to move up in the world if you aren’t a successful gladiator.

This is a grand movie. It begins in the Asgardian realms, travels through many other place and ends in space, on an unknown but hopeful future.

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Books: What I am reading now.

Reading list.

I have to drive a bit too and from the Jiu Jitsu gym, so Audible is a must. On deck for me at present is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I tried to read this as a first year in high school and it was a complete nonstarter for me. This full cast recording of the novel with the voices of some of Audible’s best readers, as well as big names like Tim Curry and Alan Cummings, is splendid. And the book is much better than I remember it.

When I am not driving I am currently reading, and enjoying quite a lot, James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership. I’m about half way through it. This is a thoughtful book written by a man who seems to have been a very dedicated, if imperfect civil servant. It is an insider’s look at  the life and leadership decisions of district attorney’s, Attorney Generals, and FBI Directors. The author seems honest, Comey is often highly critical of himself, self-deprecating and a thoroughly enjoyable writer. It is a revealing and insightful book.

On the comic book front:
Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai

Stan Sakai has a new seven issue story for his constant heroic samurai rabbit Usagi Yojimbo. The subject mater is fairly daring. It concerns the rather ill received Kirishitans (Christians) of feudal Japan. I don’t think Stan is tackling the history very broadly, so far (two issues in for me) it looks like Stan is crafting another feudal murder mystery. This story sees Usagi paired with one of my favorite characters in the series, Inspector Ishida.

Probably best to find on Comixology. Usagi has smaller print runs than you find for characters like Spider-Man, The Avengers etc, so if you aren’t having it put in your file at your local comic book dealer, you will discover that the print versions are hard to find. The trades are a lot easier. 

Tom King’s run on DC Comics Mr Miracle is absolutely must read comic art. Mr Miracle is a citizen of New Genesis. It is a place of gods and beauty, but there may be some rot at the heart of it. That world has long been in hot and cold wars with the world and machinations of Darkseid. Our hero would rather say, subtly and with love, “a pox on both your houses.” He wants to be left out it, and enjoy his life with a former gladiator slave named Big Barda. 
I really can’t say enough good things about this title. GO FORTH AND READ IT!

Brief ass reviews of books I’ve recently finished.

Circe by Madeline Miller
This book is a must for fans of The Illiad, The Odyssey and greek mythology generally. I say this as someone who didn’t expect to like it. I had not been a fan of Miller’s previous effort in re-myth making, Song of Achilles. Circe tells the story of many greek myths through the eyes of The Odyssey’s key characters, Circe, a witch and nymph goddess. It is the best kind of revision. 

Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic by David Frum 
Frum, life long conservative as well as a writer and editor at The Atlantic has written one of the most damning and well researched works on the Trump administration, and of the president himself. Frum is a careful critic, he never goes beyond the evidence, he supports his assertions with verified facts. When he is speculating he says so explicitly. His work is certainly worth your time. He is more useful than most on twitter, where he can be found at @davidfrum. You can also find him at his website.

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump Whitehouse by Michael Wolff
6.5 or maybe even 7/10
Wolff’s book about his year hanging out in the White House is a lot of fun. Its a bit repetitive, Its funny and fits with much of what we know about what was going on inside and outside the White House. I think Wolff is probably a shrewd observer, but he is not a careful reporter. Very often he would suggest things a personality in the White House was thinking, and it always provoked a “How can you possibly know that Michael” response in me. His hypothesis that Trump never intended or wanted to win seems wholly plausible. He doesn’t offer much evidence to support it. I suspect he has a bit of evidence in the form of tapes, notes, statements and the careless way he wrote was actually to provoke a lawsuit that would allow him to win big and force the admin to reveal a lot more than they want the world to know. That is all speculation on my part, but given that the Trump Admin has been burned by evidence and forced to back peddle and admit to actions several times already my surmise seems reasonable. 

Gone by Michael Grant 8/10
Is it sci-fi? YA? Horror? Superhero story? It may be all of those things. Whatever it is, it is compelling. The book begins with an incident that leaves the world people only with kids under the age of fourteen. Some of these kids have strange abilities. What happens when the world of rules and adults vanishes and only a bunch of kids exist to maintain the bonds and promises of the social contract. What happens when kids who are fourteen turn fifteen? To say that trouble ensues would be an understatement. The first in a series of books Gone delivers the thrills. It didn’t score higher for me, because the author falls back on the trope of having smart characters occasionally do stupid things to maintain tension. However the characters are all well drawn, and it manages not to be Lord of the Flies, or The Hunger Games.