A few twists and turns aside, Marvel Studios have been handling the filmed adaptations of their comic properties admirably well. Sure, the Hulk re-boot only felt like it existed to recast the Bruce Banner role with Ed Norton and establish continuity for the eventual Avengers film (which went south anyway thanks to the combative but brilliant actor). Iron Man II was rushed into production after the huge success of the original. And the finished film felt like it. But as a studio, they've consistently picked interesting talent to helm the films and fine actors to give life to their icons.
Marvel's choice of Kenneth Branagh to direct Thor has a nice underlying logic. One, Thor's fantastical Nordic-influenced mythology, the Shakespearean diction of the Asgardians and the story's undertones of King Lear are all in his territory. Branagh has proven time and again his skill at adapting the Bard to film (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing). Two, when Branagh is directing a film, talented stars want to work with him -- even when they haven't seen a script.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the titular God of Thunder, son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and next in line to rule over Asgard, one of the Nine Realms in the known Universe. Another is Jotunheim, home of the Frost Giants who intend to conquer all of the Realms beginning with Earth in 965 A.D. Their armies, led by Laufey (Colm Feore), are driven back to Jotunheim by Odin, who defeats them and seizes their Casket, the source of their icy powers. A long peace ensues.
That is until, in 2011, a trio of Frost Giants infiltrates Asgard in an attempt to reclaim the Casket, just as Thor is on the cusp of claiming Kingship, in lieu of his younger brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). The Giants are thwarted, but Odin's unwillingness to retaliate is too much for Thor. Going against his father's wishes, Thor and his Warrior's Three (Ray Stephenson; Joshua Dallas and, awesomely, Tadanobu Asano) travel to Jotunheim to start some shit. Incensed by Thor's arrogance and disobedience, Odin strips him of the Mjolnir, the war hammer that is the source of his devastating power, and banishes him to Earth.
Landing in New Mexico, Thor is discovered by a group of scientists studying atmospheric disturbances, led by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her mentor Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) with their kind of useless assistant, Darcy (Kat Dennings). The Mjolnir plops to Earth not far away, fused to a chunk of rock, waiting, like Excalibur, to be freed by the chosen one. Thor must cope with his mortality as he tries to reclaim his power and return to his home. Meanwhile, his newfound friends try to get a handle on the weirdness, after a familiar face from S.H.I.E.L.D. (Clark Gregg) turns up and confiscates the scientist's life's work.
Of the four Marvel films released since 2008, Thor is the oddest mixed bag and the script is the biggest problem. Trapped in development since the early '90s, the final screenplay is credited to three writers, though it's clearly gone through many more hands, and possessed of an uneven tone that isn't helped by the inclusion of Earth. The Earth plotline feels shoehorned in to ground it for the audience, tie it into The Avengers and maintain the unspoken timeline all of the new Marvel films follow. When The Destroyer, a humanoid metal giant with a flamethrower for a face shows up to kill Thor, one of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents quizzically asks, "Is that one of Stark's?" The discovery of Thor's hammer coincides with the end of Iron Man II.
But the surprising sense of scope in Thor makes up for the choppy script, a sense I never really got from the trailers. The design of Asgard, a vast city of towering golden spires, cavernous halls and architectural wonders, is thickly detailed and often beautifully rendered. As with the crystalline, iridescent Rainbow Bridge, spanning a vast bay to the Bifröst, a sci-fi meets steampunk contraption that enables interstellar travel.
The CG is a bit overly conspicuous at times but Branagh handles the FX and the action quite well. Some of the ostentatious set designs and costuming recall the cheesy '80s incarnation of Flash Gordon. But all the slick regality also feels like the glue that bridges the films tones of lighthearted, summer fun and Shakespearean drama. Amazingly, Branagh, with his aggressive camera skills, pulls it all together into something that probably shouldn't work, but does.
Unsurprisingly, everyone brings their A-Game to the proceedings. Anthony Hopkins oozes his slightly crazed and utterly convincing gravitas in a role he could probably do in his sleep (the man knows his way around a roaring proclamation). Idris Elba as Hemidall, the Guardian of the Bifröst, disappears into the character so convincingly that it's almost creepy. Not a thought of Stringer Bell crossed my mind. As Loki, Tom Hiddleston gives a fine performance that is detailed, controlled and like Elba's never even hints at a wink.
Chris Hemsworth is a great choice for Thor, a good actor who bleeds charisma, something that was apparent in his five minutes as James T. Kirk's father in 2009's Star Trek. He's game in a role that demands brute physicality combined with a boyish rapaciousness and humor.
Despite its problems Thor is a tightly paced, entertaining, and odd addition to the Marvel film canon. And remember: stick around till the end of the credits.
Everything Must Go
It seems like there's been a slew of funny or uplifting stories based on the loss of one's job lately. These things are cyclical when the economy actually sucks. For every Up in the Air or Company Men you have a Take This Job and Shove It in the '80s or even a Grapes of Wrath in the '40s. So it's no surprise that the current economy is inspiring a little outpouring of cinematic sympathy for those staring down the barrel of unemployment.
What sets Nick Hasley (Will Ferrell) apart from his laid off corporate brethren in writer/director Bob Rush's Everything Must Go, is that he brought it on himself.
Halsey is a recovering alcoholic, who is fired after falling off the wagon during a Denver sales trip. He returns home to find his wife (Laura Dern) has changed the locks, cut off the bank accounts and placed all of Nick's possessions on the front yard. The two events, his firing and her leaving, seem mutually exclusive. Nick, despondent and blowing the last of his money on PBR tall boys, decides to camp out amongst his eclectic possessions.
Told by his AA sponsor, Frank (Michael Peña), that the only way he can stay on his yard legally is by holding a garage sale, Nick employs his neighbor, Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace) to help him fake the sale in a play for time to reconcile with his wife. On the way to hitting rock bottom he meets a new neighbor, Samantha (Rebecca Hall), alone and vulnerable, waiting for her husband to join her in the Arizona 'burbs and slowly Nick begins to reassess his choices in life, learning some unexpected truths.
Everything Must Go has the feel of a stage play, and that's a plus for a film that wants to ride that theatrical line between comedy and pathos. Director and writer Bob Rush, working from a short story by Raymond Carver, achieves that balance quite well. He gets Ferrell to play it straight and lets the script's moments of humor meld with the character drama to weave a naturalistic whole. Rush, appropriately keeps his compositions rich and camera work subtle, letting the atmosphere of Nick's neighborhood and his character-defining possessions aid in filling in a back story that is subtly revealed though interactions, as opposed to flashbacks; through strong writing and nothing more.
Ferrell takes more serious -- read: "damaged" -- roles from time to time (Winter Passing) and I like when he does. Farrell has an everyman quality when he drops the man-sweater shtick and can do detailed dramatic work, the kind of face and demeanor that would have been at home in the American New Wave films of the early '70s. Here he still emits flashes of his comic timing but holds it in check as he renders the character of Nick Halsey with more than a few shades of color. Rebecca Hall is sweetly genuine while Christopher Jordan Wallace, as Kenny, is unaffected and real. Michael Peña is typically at home in front of the camera. Aside from Mark Ruffalo, Peña is one of my favorite, and hardest working, character actors in the business.
A fine first feature, with a theatrical veneer, and an adept performance by Ferrell, Everything Must Go fits into a topical genre while setting itself apart.
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