“Thor Ragnarok” movie review

Norse mythology meets Gladiator meets 80s vintage video game in this non-stop adrenaline pumping action film. Suffice it to say, everything you’ve heard about Thor Ragnarok from your friends is true. It is an incredibly fun movie that is equally well written and directed. For anyone who follows my blog, it is no secret that I typically do not like the Disney-Marvel films (and for good reason), but the focus of this review is on THIS particular film. I state that because, honestly, I very much enjoyed this film! So, it comes from liking the structure, characters, plot etc. not just from being a fan boy, or lack thereof in this case. Not only an excellent third sequel, but this movie can easily stand on its own. Whether you have watched the other MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) films or not, you can rest assured that you can enjoy this superhero movie. With the way the initial trailers were cut, I thought that this was MCU’s way of jumping onto the 80s nostalgia band wagon–not so. Oh, there is definitely an 80s video game vibe about the film, but the focus is on the characters and storytelling, not the nostalgia. There is also a self-aware element of this film. Not to the extent Deadpool is self-aware, but Chris Hemsworth’s Thor has a twinkle about his eye that winks at the audience so that we know that he is aware of the corniness and ridiculousness of the characters and plot. But the magic of this film is just how well balanced the content of the film is. There were many times that the plot lended itself to falling apart, but the solid cast held the film together and provided audiences with one of the best movies in the MCU.

When Thor learns of a dark, hidden family secret, he must confront the deadliest enemy he has ever faced off with in his life. But the legendary hero encounters far more than he ever expected. The mighty Thor finds himself imprisoned on a faraway planet and forced to battle in gladiator-style games. Little does he know that the winningest challenger on the planet is his former ally The Hulk. Thor must survive the deadly gladiator-like battles in order to build his team to defeat Hela, the Asgardian goddess of death who is destroying his home world.

One of the principle themes in this film that enables this one to be more and deeper than other MCU films is just how similar it is to a conventional war picture. There are hints of courts of intrigue as well. The complex plot provides a comprehensive foundation upon which a more superficial story can be developed in order to appeal to wide audiences, with few appreciating the deeper themes and subtext. But it takes more than effective and well-developed writing to build such a solid movie, it takes multi-dimensional characters portrayed by impeccable screen talent. You’ll find all of that in Thor Ragnarok. Although his screen time is brief, Anthony Hopkins’ Odin commands the screen with confidence, wisdom, and sincerity. Few actor’s can take a few minutes of screen time and put more cinematic magic in it than Hopkins. After all, he won his Oscar for Silence of the Lambs for his collectively few minutes on screen. Joining the cast are Jurassic Park’s Jeff Goldblum and the beautiful, talented Cate Blanchette. Goldblum’s Grandmaster of Sakkar is hilarious and brilliant. As you’d expect a Goldblum character in a film like this to be: detached intellectually from that which is seen as conventional, smart-alecky; yet, he is also petty, sadistic, and relentless. Blanchette’s Hela is elegant, sadistic, and intelligent. She is perfectly able to be the comic book-esque villain she needs to be, all while bringing about a pedigreed acting to it.

All the technical elements of the film works excellently together. The most memorable of those elements is the music, for me, followed by the visual effects. I absolutely loved the nod to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory during Thor’s transport to through Sakkar. This works because (1) the scene it shot and edited similarly to the boat scene in the aforementioned movie and (2) Goldblum’s Grandmaster is a Willy Wonka type. Throughout the film, there are 80s video game sound effects and a score that could fit into a nostalgic 8bit video game. However, the nods to Willy Wonka and video games do not overpower the more conventional score. Whereas the visual effects could have gone overboard and made the film play off as a video game, the video game like effects where carefully integrated in order for the film to maintain a high show quality.

The film was initially sold as a funky, colorful, comedic MCU film. And there are times that the film also encroaches upon that animated feel, but it never crosses that line–thankfully. The more serious aspects to the film balance out the slapstick moments. All of this works together to execute perfect pacing and plot/character development. Like with most MCU films, the more adventurous parts of the film are not quite adventurous enough to be an adventure film and there is typically a predictable nature about the film. I find that this film is not as predictable as previous MCU movies, but there is still that experience with this one. There is one particular part to the showdown of the film that prohibits this from falling victim to another cliche MCU ending with an epic battle, bodies flying through the air, and cities on fire, but I cannot reveal that without giving away the ending.

Looking for a fun movie to watch with your friends? Then this is a solid choice. Although the film has its diegetic flaws, the ways it succeeds outweighs the shortcomings. You also do not have to have seen the other Thor movies and really don’t even need to have seen the previous Avengers films, albeit helpful to understand some of the minor plot points. It’s definitely one that has re-watchabbility.

Family Time at Universal Orlando

UO_NightInstead of researching my next article this past weekend, I spent time with family at Universal Orlando. But, in spending time with my family visiting from out of town, I definitely have some thoughts that I’d like to share. Nothing truly profound, but occasionally it’s refreshing to write on a more personal level instead of always being committed to scholarly writing. Much like thousands of other families, I grew up going to the parks. Needless to say, I did not frequent them like I do now–every week. I did not live in Florida until I was 24, so we would plan family vacations to Orlando every so many years. Since my sister and I grew up on Nickelodeon moreso than the Disney Channel, when we were old enough to appreciate the experience, our parents took us to then Universal Studios Florida to “ride the movies” and experience THE Nickelodeon Studios. Although there is a lot to enjoy about the present-day Universal experience, our favorite stories are from the early days of the park. Obviously, childhood memories are often more powerful than present ones by default, so there is definitely some degree of subjectivity in remembering the original park(s); but I digress.

Check out this promotional video from 1990 when the park opened

It’s been 10 years since the whole family went to Universal Orlando. The last time the whole family was together in the parks was at Disney World in 2011 (when I was a Cast Member). Since I bought my sister a Universal Annual Pass, she gets down here a couple times a year but we had not been to the park as a family since 2010. If you have been going to the parks (whether Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, or Busch Gardens) for as long as I have, you get to witness the evolution of the parks and the continual reimagination of attractions and themed areas. Most of the time the change is positive and beneficial, but other times the changes are disappointing. I think that sometimes we forget that the parks have to reinvent themselves every generation in order to keep the guests coming in. That means that iconic attractions sometimes have to go, despite what long-time fans think. Other times, the addition of new attractions is outstanding! This is certainly the case with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando and the future Star Wars Land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. As my research has shown, nostalgia is an important element in the success and popularity of a theme park; but there is certainly more to the planning, development, and logistics of future offerings than just nostalgia.

PortofinoNightIf I had to name just one element of my staycation that made it feel like a family vacation, it would have to be pulling up to and staying at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel on site at Universal Florida. It wasn’t simply the fact that Loews has done an excellent job at recreating the quaint Italian waterside village, but that it felt like an escape from my normal every-day trips to the park. As a kid, I remember when there was no Portofino Hotel period and later on I remember passing it when walking to the park entrance from the Holiday Inn across the street where we stayed multiple times. Now, this was not my first stay at Portofino. I did stay there with my aunt and uncle’s family back in September 2010; but this was the first stay with my immediate family. I arrived before my family in order to get us checked in. When I went out to move my car to the parking garage, I ran into them and it was really cool to get to meet at the hotel. Maybe that is not very descriptive and lacks critical analysis, but it really was memorable since we were meeting at a hotel that we passed by and always wanted to stay at, and not having that opportunity previously, thanks to my annual pass discount haha.

One of the results of going to the park with my family or with those who have not been in a long time, or at all, is experiencing what it’s like to see the sites, hear the sounds, and riding the attractions, or watching the shows for the first time–vicariously anyway. Not that I don’t enjoy frequenting the parks as often as I do, but it’s always refreshing to get to smile, laugh, and enjoy the attractions like it’s the first time all over again. I cannot tell you how much I loved witnessing my parents’ reaction to the rides. I don’t think there is any time like the first. Hearing their respective reactions to what I enjoy all the time from their perspective was as enjoyable as the attraction itself. The expressions on their faces were priceless and created memories that will last for a lifetime. In addition to visiting new attractions (for them), we also revisited the remaining two opening day attractions that we’ve experienced as a family many times: E.T. the Adventure Continues and the Horror Makeup Show. I don’t think I will ever forget what it was like to meander through the E.T. queue as a kid. The feeling of what it must’ve been like to work on the movie will last forever. Even on this recent trip, my family and I still talk about that queue. Just waiting in queue for the timeless dark ride brought back so many fond memories. Although the hotel experience was probably what made this feel like a vacation for me, it is riding E.T. with my family that was the most exciting for me. Even when I am in the parks for a few hours or a day, I still ride that because it always takes me back to being a kid in the 90s at Universal.

GringottsFamilyVacationing in a family favorite theme park is not limited to waxing nostalgic of the past, but it’s also about creating new memories in the present. I think the funniest picture I took of them was when my parents and a family friend tried butterbeer for the first time! They absolutely loved it and got it twice during the 2.5 days in the parks. They were simply in awe at the beautiful architecture and creative engineering of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Forbidden Journey was definitely the favorite attraction between Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Of course, they thoroughly enjoyed the train experience as well. Remarked over and over how it makes them want to take a real train for recreation sometime. For everyone, except me, riding Skull Island: Reign of Kong was a new experience! And, I had only ridden it once before (after which I wrote my critical analysis). Unfortunately, it did not qualify for the unlimited Loews express passes, so it was definitely the longest line; however, a much shorter wait than when I first experienced it. I loved being able to form new memories with my family at this ride. Until this trip, there were attractions that I would experience with friends or when my sister would visit me at which I did not have family memories. And, to that point, there was always an element missing from the experience. Nothing major, just a little feeling that felt empty. Now that we have experienced everything at the park, I have fond memories that I will continue to cherish for a lifetime as I have done since going to the park as a kid. Although there are family favorites that are no longer there, such as: Nickelodeon Studios, Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies, Murder She Wrote, Lucy: a Tribute, Jaws: the Ride, and Earthquake: the Big One, I have had the opportunity to create new memories that will one day, in and of themselves, become nostalgic.

Out of all the kinds of family vacations that one can think of, I firmly believe that theme park vacations are responsible for some of the most beloved memories. Whether you are from a traditional family or you were adopted, theme parks are places of magic that inspire, intrigue, and beckon for returned trips. I am thankful that I have so many fond memories at not only Universal, but Disney World, Busch Gardens, Carrowinds, Cedar Point, and the little known Magic World (formerly in Gatlinburg). If I was able to anecdotally designate the chief contributing factor to why theme parks make great vacations or simply lasting memories, I would venture to say that it’s because they provide experiences and interaction. Because one is physically and emotionally experiencing something, it is far more powerful than simply visiting a landmark or watching a movie.

“On Cinema and Theme Parks” (part 9)

My BookIn order for the creative teams at cinema-influenced theme parks to understand what the public is going to want months, sometimes years, ahead of time, they have to understand the past attractions, the present ones, and what to look for in the future. Over the years, the attractions at these parks have undergone many changes. And, with the way the trends are going, the “behind the scenes” and nostalgic movie-based attractions are going by way of the dodo, and glorified IMAX® simulator interactive multi-dimensional rides are taking their place. Some of the prominent attractions in the vein of “behind the scenes” and robotic movie or television show attractions were located at Disney’s Hollywood (MGM) Studios and Universal Studios (Florida and Hollywood). Although a few of the park-opener attractions are still around, most have been replaced by other attractions.

MSW_SoundstageOriginally Universal was an excellent theme park for learning about the magic behind the camera and the, mostly analog, technology that enabled directors to become magicians. There was a clear educational component to the theme park experience. And, to some extent, Disney’s Hollywood Studios was the same way. But, with the movie technology changing as rapidly as it is, some of the more nostalgic legacy attractions are going away. Many of the original Universal Studios attractions were about taking you behind the magic, revealing the secrets of movie and TV making. From 1990-1996 at Universal Studios Florida, there was a Murder, She Wrote: Mystery Theatre with sound stages that showed the audience about video editing and foley sound generation based on the hit series starring the incomparable Angela Lansbury. On the tour, the audience would get to watch scenes from the show, talk to industry professionals (played by actors), and volunteers would be used to interact with some of the equipment. But, probably, the most prolific and inspirational attractions about the magic of movies was the Alfred Hitchcock: Art of Making Movies attraction (1990-2002) and Bates Motel and House set from Psycho IV (1990-1998), both located at Universal Studios Florida. (I am actually going to write a separate article on this specific attraction after this series of excerpts is completed).

Psycho_SoundstageThis was a main attraction at the theme park until its dismantlement in 2002 to make way for the Shrek: 4D experience. From the aforementioned explanation by one of the producers of the attraction, the audience was completely immersed in the magic of bringing a Hitchcock thriller to life, and got to witness the most famous single scene in all of cinema history. This was all done with practical effects, just as Hitchcock would have done it. But, with the advent of computer-generated imagery and incredibly accurate and time efficient non-linear video editing, most of the effects can be generated in other ways. Although it remained one of the most popular attractions at the theme park until its closure, Universal saw the future of attractions and decided to do away with nostalgia and pave the way for digital simulated attractions (Singer, 2013). Doing away with cinema and television nostalgia wasn’t the sole prerogative of Universal. Although Disney World is famous for holding on to the nostalgia of the past, especially at Magic Kingdom (Singer, 2013), its parks, too, have learned to adopt new attractions for what they feel the guests want. On the (now closed) Studio Backlot Tour, guests would take a walking and tram tour through a special effects water show on the set of Pearl Harbor, featuring volunteers from the audience, and ride a tram through the production houses where props and costumes were made. Also on the tour was a special effects sequence in an oil refinery canyon that burst into flames and was also flooded. This put the guests in the middle of the movie-making action.

Disney_GG_HouseUntil 2003, there was a street called Residential Street on the tram tour. Here, park guests would come face-to-face with some of the most famous houses in Buena Vista/Touchstone Television shows. The most famous of the houses was the upper middle class home of the Golden Girls. The house was a replica of the North Saltaire Street house in the Los Angeles area that Disney used for the exterior shots during the first few seasons. From 1989-1992, Disney used the replica at then Disney-MGM Studios for shooting the exterior shots of the house. In 2003, the houses were torn down to make way for an epic car stunt show, featuring how car action sequences are filmed in the movies. Keeping with the over-all theme of the park, this was staying with the concept of learning about the magic of making movies. As of October 2014, the Studio Backlot Tour was closed (History of the Backlot Tour, 2014).

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“Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens” movie review

Star Wars VIIThe force awakens…then realizes it’s done this all before and should’ve stayed in bed. Return to that time long ago in a galaxy far, far away. Relive that first moment you saw Star Wars IV and fell in love with the franchise, because you are pretty much getting a plot so similar that you may wonder if the rest of this new trilogy will just continue to rehash and polish what’s all been said and done before. A more appropriate title for this visually stunning film would have been Star Wars: DejaVu or Star Wars: Revisited. No doubt that this film will indeed perform well this weekend; but that has a lot to do with the fact that so many people will view this film through an augmented reality and perceive it to be better than it actually is. The Big D can do no wrong, right??? All that being said, J.J. Abrams once again proves that he is a master at visual storytelling and his films are of a high caliber from a technical achievement perspective. The cinematography and editing are nearly flawless and really help to mesmerize the audience and impress even those who are generally not impressed by visual graphics and sound design. Watching the screen as familiar faces reprise the roles that cemented them in cinema history is nostalgic and heartwarming. Unfortunately, the writers should have spent more time developing a NEW story versus relying upon nostalgia.

With Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in hiding, the Resistance, which has birthed out of the old rebellion, needs to find him in order to defeat the The First Order, a new world empire developed out of the ashes of the old Empire. In an effort to avoid capture, BB8 meets Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). Through a series of events, this small band of rebels encounters the legendary general and smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Form). Working together, they need to get the information in this BB unit to the resistance so that The First Order may be stopped. Leading The First Order is Kylo Ren, a masked, dark, and menacing Sith under the direction of the Supreme Leader. Follow familiar and new faces on a journey through the galaxies to stop this new empire from destroying all that is good.

Put simply, this film relies too heavily on the previous movies, thus prohibiting a new story to “awaken.” It was made known early on that Abrams desired to create a new old-school Star Wars sequel to the original trilogy. And in many ways, he did just that. The problem is that it is way too old school and forgets that this movie was also responsible for relaunching the dormant (as far as theatrically released movies) franchise and introducing something truly new. He was so concerned with pleasing everyone–old fans and new ones alike–that he ended up not pleasing anyone who is willing to step back and actually examine the film as a film. All this film did was reuse past plots and forget to give the eager audience and fanbase something legitimately new after waiting so long. The overall plot, locations, and characters lack anything newly appealing. The movie even begins on a desert planet and ends with the destruction of a “not” Death Star–but it basically is–just larger.

With more than half of the movie consisting of space travel and battle sequences, you will wonder if you are actually playing Star Wars: Battlefront. Why? Because it looks and feels very similar to a highly developed video game that includes film sequences to transition to the different chapters or levels. Just pick one of the characters in the film and you can almost feel yourself moving them with your controller. One of the most memorable elements to the original trilogy is the nearly unparalleled cinematic villain–and the one who many try to be but fail–Darth Vader. Don’t worry, “there is another” as Yoda put it in Empire Strikes Back. However, this new “Vader” will leave you wondering how the writers thought he (Kylo Ren) could even come close to filling Vader’s boots and mask. From the mask to the red lightsaber, Kylo Ren appears to be just as menacing as Lord Vader. And there was some promise there. Unfortunately, the writers took any potential of a comparable sinister villain and essentially emasculated him when he removes his mask to reveal a guy in his 30s with luscious wavy hair. After that, it is impossible to take Kylo Ren seriously as a villain for the remainder of the movie.

Before you jump to the conclusion that the writing in general was poorly developed and executed, just wait a moment. Actually, the writing includes some comedic relief, moderately intense moments, with some pretty decent rushed character development, and sufficient exposition. The problem with the writing lies in the overly used plot elements and past Star Wars tropes. The script essentially lives in the past even though there are parts of it that want to live in the present. Leaving the audience thinking that they’ve seen this all before, the writers fail to include anything new and interesting. Instead of coming across as a much-needed sequel or revival, the film plays out as a reboot. There isn’t anything innately wrong with reboots of old, beloved franchises; but Disney and Abrams indirectly promised the sequel that never was but should have been after Return of the Jedi. Sequels are required to advance the story, introduce significantly new material, and move the plot along. The Force Awakens can easily be interpreted as 3/4 reboot and 1/4 sequel.

Visually, the film is cinematically brilliant! The sound design is also incredibly well executed. Even the score is beautiful. What one can appreciate about the score is that there is familiar music wrapped in a completely new score. Too bad the plot didn’t takes notes from John Williams on how to include the old but advance the new. There is no doubt that this movie will be nominated, if not win the Academy Awards in the technical achievement areas–and it deserves them. Honestly, I think some of the editing and graphics team from this movie should work on improving the graphics in the next Jurassic installment. Abrams promised that he would go back to practical effects and merely enhance them with digital effects, and he did just that. The combination played out very well and impressed me. He may not have delivered the movie that Star Wars fans wanted to see, but he did keep his promise to not rely on cheap digital effects as a large part of the design.

If you want to relive the first time you saw A New Hope, then here is your opportunity. It’s basically the same movie, but looks way more impressive. For those who wanted an actual sequel to resurrect this piece of Americana, then you may be disappointed. I really hope the next installment will give me something new. At the end of the day, the movie is certainly entertaining; and seeing Carrie Fischer, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, C3PO, and R2D2 on screen again, in their most iconic roles, is just plain cool and heartwarming. The nostalgia will certainly bring some to tears. And I also want to point out that this IS a fantastic film for a family, whether diehard fans or not, to spend some time together over the holidays at the movies.