Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thunderous Applause: THOR hammers it home

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgard, Jaimie Alexander, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Josh Dallas, Tadanobu Asano, Idris Elba, Clark Gregg, Colm Feore

At ZAKI'S CORNER blog, Zaki's spot on with his B+ assessment of THOR---it's about as satisfying as the first Spider-Man movie, for me. I might just have to give it the "A" because, given this story, I am not sure how much deeper the director could've gone. Thor (Aussie Chris Hemsworth) was very well cast indeed, and the supporting cast kept things grounded nicely for the civilians. Oh, yes, I feel the Destroyer was...(no spoilers) but the good humor wasn't forced and the Frost Giant/ Warriors battle is a cool tableau. Admirable decisions to keep the movie positive for all ages, too. We don't break new cultural ground, and if anything, it's almost too safe.

But, let's take it from the top. This is the story of a race, worshiped as gods remembered in our Norse mythology, and the rebirth of a regal champion as a humble and true hero, based on his experiences in the world we know. All-Father Odin (returning late career patriarch Anthony Hopkins) has two princely sons and a shattering secret. He has battled the Frost Giants with his army and sent them back to their world of Jotunheim. When the boys come of age, the old threat returns through a bit of treachery that precipitates Thor's vengeful invasion of Jotunheim, whose consequences set the stage for a lost god arrival on Earth.

The search begins with the observations of an astrophysicist (Natalie Portman, who comes across as very authentic, very much herself with a slight bit of scientific jargon). Her mentor and her assistant (very down-to-earth) join her in exploring an energy phenomenon. Amidst scientifically-measured disturbances in the desert, she runs into the freshly-exiled Thunder God, who does not at first realize he is stripped of his powers and bridles at many seeming indignations. We then get a flashback to his near-coronation in the realm of Asgard, and the treacherous, brittle alliances that keep the strange worlds at peace. The cinematic arrival into Asgard is completely beautiful and visionary, and carefully used twice (again at the end)

It's told in a rather simple fashion, but with aspirations to visual amazement. Nowhere does it deliver quite like when Thor and his friends access Bifrost, which was not a corny rainbow but a brilliant piece of technology and design, to travel to the world of the Frost Giants. The moment of Thor's epiphany is especially well done, even with a practical Avenger cameo. Odin's relationship with his sons gives the movie a strong adult appeal, while it is, in fact, just the perfect movie for the kids. The Destroyer, Odin's frightening guardian construct, has a visceral impact on the scene; the sound effect's well constructed. While the last part does rush, the climax is a visually stunning portrayal of these fantastic dimensions located within the heavens.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is given cool-headed credibility and brings a more-nuanced character to life than I've known from the wonderful old comic books. He's even heroic and has loves and loyalties, rather than functioning as a two-dimensional god of evil. Heimdall, the Watcher and Guardian of the world bridge Bifrost, has an expanded, if stoic, role. There are places where the Thor who inspired the story could've used his own abilities to return everyone to safety, but that limitation strengthens the other roles and the sense of peril. The relationships are relatively simple to understand---a bit of Hollywood pablum in this way, but appropriate to the scope of the characters in an action fantasy. I was glad to see Sif amongst what oldtime fans know as the Warrior's Three; the Asgardian party of adventurers follow right behind the star and the beautiful otherworldly touches at the top of things I enjoyed.

The good news is that you don't have to know the Lee/ Kirby Thor to enjoy this at all. It's got a nice chemistry between its leads, and Thor and Loki are developed with particular care. As a piece of the overall AVENGERS movie tie-in puzzle, it's got all the winks and secret codes-in-throwaway-phrases to keep an impressive continuity. It's easy to expect the movie bringing together all these Marvel heroes to be the weak one of the process, but then, THOR was no sure bet as a summer blockbuster movie before IRON MAN, and it works so well because it shares great acting, veteran presences, and a star who sells the hero as a human being in the round, with drives and thoughts and reactions we can understand, not just an iconic statue.

Look out, Hemsworth will be back in the remake of RED DAWN! I'm sure he'll get to be in something that's not a re-treaded idea, if Hollywood does anything like that again. His brother Liam was in the final four for the role of Thor.

Great in 3-D but not absolutely necessary like Avatar, which wouldn't have been the same.

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