Thor: Ragnarok; LBJ
An endlessly entertaining blend of light-hearted humor and exciting action, Thor: Ragnarok is not only the best entry in the Thor series but also one of the best superhero films from either Marvel or DC, for that matter.
The comic soul of the franchise is Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, the handsome, confident, occasionally pompous hero armed both with super-strength and a disarming way with dialogue (whether it’s at his own expense or used to sway others). He’s abetted in no small way by Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Thor’s clever brother equally capable of self-serving treachery or allegiance (although leaning always toward treachery).
In this installment, the squabbling siblings have to contend with the imminent death of their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and the rise of their long-banished sister Hela (Cate Blanchett), who by the way has powers more than comparable to Thor’s, as well as what seems to be an infinite capacity to destroy (she is the Goddess of Death, after all). Through a series of misadventures (involving some surprise guest appearances), both brothers end up on the planet Sakaar, with Thor being captured and groomed to be a gladiator while Loki has ingratiated himself with the Sakaar’s ruler, the Grandmaster, an energetic, glib, quirky Jeff Goldblum-type–played by Jeff Goldblum, no less. The Grandmaster, along with his underlings, presides over a waste-ridden planet and a culture that thrives on contests between so-called champions in large stadiums. It is here that Thor must call on former allies (as in a fellow Avenger), cultivate new allies (like Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie and Korg, a rock-like (literally) gladiator/rebel voiced by the director Taika Waititi—and a veritable scene-stealer at that. Meanwhile, on Thor’s home planet, Hela is wreaking havoc on the remaining inhabitants, with the promise of worse to come.
What sets Thor: Ragnarok above the others is how seamlessly it shifts its tonal gears, with its crosscutting between Thor’s light-hearted adventures on Sakaar and the savagery depicted on Asgard (courtesy of Hela with help from her conflicted accomplice, Karl Urban’s Skurge). It’s not only a credit to the superb helming by new-to-the-franchise director Waititi, but also the humorous and heartfelt screenplay from Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost. Their efforts not only give Hemsworth the opportunity to fully come into his own as the magnetic hero, but provide ample opportunities for others to shine, either through short but clever cameos (no spoilers here), or an insightful variation on a previous appearance, as in not only Loki, but another Avenger who supplies another layer of both conflict and emotion—and whom I’ll leave you to discover on your own, Trust me though, Thor: Ragnarok is worth the trip.
It’s worth seeing LBJ just to see how Woody Harrelson manages to turn in a riveting performance despite being saddled with layers and layers of make-up that have him resembling the character actor Thayer David (of Nero Wolfe fame) more than the crafty, conflicted, pragmatic President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Director Rob Reiner’s film cuts back and forth between the day of President John Kennedy’s assassination and the difficulties facing Johnson as he attempts to make his mark in the potentially thankless job of Vice-President. After Kennedy’s assassination, LBJ (who, in the film, believes he is being gradually phased out) is now faced with the difficult task of advancing Kennedy’s Civil Rights platform, especially since this means either swaying or alienating Southern allies (embodied by a Georgia senator nicely played by Richard Jenkins). Indeed the most interesting sections concern the interactions between Harrelson and Jenkins, as Jenkins tries to make Harrelson’s Johnson remember what the South was about—while an enlightened Johnson tries to make the case for change and being on “the right side of history.” LBJ does move at a good clip and –mainly through Harrelson’s performance, holds the viewer’s attention, but one can’t help feeling that the movie is a little too hurried and ends a little too abruptly–indeed the montage depicting Johnson’s efforts to get the Civil Rights bill passed resembles a heavy-handed coming attraction.