Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jun 25, 2011 1:56 pm 
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Down to earth

Silliness, beauty, and local American charm are blended in equal measure in the intermittently awesome and appealing Thor, a blockbuster movie from Marvel Comics circa 1962 about a Norse deity banished to earth who lands in a little New Mexico town. As an obstreperous young god turned mannerly earth visitor, Australian actor Chris Hemsworth delivers the goods, and as the young earthling he connects with in the American West Natalie Portman is typically authentic and winsome, making the most of a severely underwritten role. Anthony Hopkins, as the god Odin, doles out his orotund absurdities without flinching.

What is Kenneth Branagh doing directing such a movie? Of course the project might have looked exciting and novel for a Shakespearean. It's a comic book superhero story that delivers a big paycheck, and the clashes among the gods are up this thespian's alley. For all the Marvel-esque costumes with flying shoulder pads, the glittering CGI universe and shiny 3D castles, the doings of the god of thunder and his offspring at Asgard are sort of Shakespearean stuff. A king with rival sons, one of whom turns out to be a bastard -- in both senses. That would be the pallid Loki (Tom Hiddleston). And this back story intro is more fully developed than the finale.

The opener shows astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her sidekick and friend Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and Jane's mentor Dr. Erik Sevig (Stellan Skarsgård) in a road accident where their RV bumps into a burly, bearded young stranger -- Thor. To explain how this blond-maned dude arrived in New Mexico, flashbacks for several reels follow. Up in the heavenly realm of Asgard, King Odin has two sons, one bold and obstreperous, looking for fights, and one pale and wily, looking for an angle. Later, the wise but aging Odin (Hopkins) is just about to crown Thor (the fiery one) as his replacement, ahead of his brother Loki, when Thor leaps through a dazzling inter-world portal to lead an attack on his people's enemies the Frost Giants, led by the reptilian Laufey (Colm Feore). This risks renewing an destructive old war, and for this misdeed Odin punishes Thor by sending him down to Midgard -- earth -- with Mjolnir, his magical hammer. He cannot use it again till he becomes free of arrogance and impetuosity.

Opinions may differ on which part works, the homely sequences of Thor out of his element and falling for the cute, feisty Jane, or the grandiose if sometimes silly conflicts above and below. Toward the end of his banishment, Thor also has to enlist his Asgard cohorts Sif (Jaimie Alexander), Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Josh Dallas), and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) for a showdown. Their job: to combat The Destroyer, a giant creature like a suit of armor with flame-throwing capacities. The Destroyer is successfully overcome in a High Noon shootout on main street, but not before it demolishes most of the New Mexico town, just as the alien destroys the kids' New Jersey burg in Super 8. However, this final sequence is a bit rushed, and also leaves the down-to-earth drama of Thor and Jane unresolved.

Up in the heavens, I was dazzled by the Asgard architecture and put up for the most part with the grandiose dialogue. As bad guy, Hiddleston has a slimy energy: he's the type you love to hate. On the other hand, I'd like to have had more of the Starman-esque fish-out-of-water New Mexico sequences in which Jane and Thor meet. Another strain that's almost too much for this movie to bear is a government intervention subplot when a command post is set up around the magical hammer, which like the sword Excalibur, Thor at first can't pull out of a stone and use again.

Ultimately, while both the celestial and earthly parts are appealing, something in the editing doesn't seem to quite work to integrate the whole, and audience members who aren't into Marvel Comics spectaculars won't be placated by the insufficiently developed Midgard drama.

Hemsworth, a little known actor from Australian TV, proves noble and appealing, especially when he gets down to earth. He will be busy in the near future, appearing in a remake of Red Dawn and the star-studded omnibus Marvel spectacular The Avengers, among other projects. Thor is neither the best nor the worst of comic book blockbusters. If you look at the ironies and fabulous machinery of Iron Man, Thor may pall. Yet it's got significantly more human interest and better characters than Green Lantern. Both Branagh's direction and the high quality tech aspects add a pleasing gloss.

But as we near the end of the movie's theatrical run we might as well acknowledge a distinctly mixed response from the critics. A Village Voice writer summed up his condemnation thus: "An astonishingly awkward marriage of ancient Norse mythology and 21st-century nonsense, Thor, directed by Kenneth Branagh, works too hard at simply functioning to assert why it, or we, should bother." While the Variety reviewer, doubtless with his eye on box office potential, felt the movie was best in its epic Asgard sequences, Anthony Lane of The New Yorker expressed a view closer to mine: "Once Thor stirs, the film itself comes belatedly to life. 'Thor,' in fact, is the year’s most divided movie to date; everything that happens in the higher realms, vaguely derived from Nordic legend, is posturing nonsense, whereas the scenes down here are managed, for the most part, with dexterity and wit."

Thor opened in US theaters May 6 and in the UK April 27, 2011.

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