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“Thor” a welcome addition to character-driven Marvel canon

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) learns the pain and value in being humbled in Kenneth Branagh's "Thor."

Natalie Portman was so astonished that Kenneth Branagh signed on to direct “Thor” she decided she had to be involved with the production. How many people, I wonder, saw the movie for that very same reason? Because let’s call a spade a spade and say that idea of a “serious actor” like Branagh directing a Marvel film is wacky and weird (or just weird). But in taking that unexpected leap, he’s joined other directors (Jon Favreau, Sam Raimi) who made Marvel adaptations about more than special effects and fight scenes. “Thor” takes a strutting peacock (Chris Hemsworth) and strips off his feathers to see what he’s really made of.

“Thor” doesn’t match the emotional depth of “Spider-Man 2” or possess the crackling wit of “Iron Man,” but the film has enough heart and dazzling visuals (a bit of advice: see them in 2D) to make it feel right at home alongside its Marvel predecessors. Branagh, just as fans might suspect, has more in mind for Thor than a blonde beefcake who wields a big hammer. While the director never skimps on the scenery (particularly the Bifröst Bridge, the stunning, resplendent gateway between Asgard and the other eight realms, including Earth), he makes sure Thor emerges from his trial a changed man. It’s the muscle-bound Hemsworth who makes the transition believable, even poignant. He may look like Australia’s answer to Fabio, but Hemsworth is not light on talent. He demonstrates a level of vulnerability that wouldn’t seem possible in a man with such meticulously sculpted abdominal muscles. 

Hemsworth, of course, is Thor — son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), king of Asgar, and Queen Frigga (Rene Russo). Arrogant and short-tempered, he seems less suited to take the throne than his quieter adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Odin’s doubts about his eldest son’s leadership capability are confirmed when Thor ends a long-standing truce between Asgard and the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, led by the malevolent Laufey (Colm Feore). Stripped of his hammer, Mjolnir, Thor is exiled to Earth, landing in the New Mexico desert and in the lives of scientist Jane (Portman), her bumbling assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) and fellow researcher Erik (Stellan Skarsgård). With his bizarre manners and formal speech, Thor seems like a certifiable kook; however, Jane wonders if he knows something about the interdimensional wormholes she’s researching. When Thor tries to reclaim Mjolnir, he catches the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Coulson (Clark Gregg, droll as ever). Back in Asgar, Thor’s band of Warriors Three — Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Joshua Dallas) and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) — and longtime friend Sif (Jaime Alexander) begin to suspect that Loki isn’t as harmless as he appears. 

As origin stories go, Thor’s fall from grace is more interesting than most purely because of the costumes (kudos to costume designer Alexandra Byrne) and stellar design and effects. “Thor” rivals “TRON: Legacy” in terms of scenes that inspire awe and wonder — it’s marked by a terrific use of fluorescent colors and lighting that render Asgar the kind of mythical kingdom told of in Norse mythology books. The sinister Frost Giants and Heimdall (Idris Elba, for once correctly cast), the gruff gatekeeper of Bifröst Bridge, are striking as well. There’s something emblematic about the image of Heimdall, with his piercing yellow eyes, horned helmet and formidable staff, presiding over a bridge that connects the worlds. Heimdall, even more than Odin, seems possessed of a calm certainty in his purpose that Thor is unable or unwilling to seek out.

Herein lies the rub, where Branagh aligns “Thor” with other comics-based movies that don’t skimp on development. That extends to secondary characters. Portman gets to step away from her tortured “Black Swan” persona, and Skarsgård brings his trademark low-key humor (though it’s Dennings and Hemsworth’s stranger-in-a-strange-land antics that provide most of the comic relief). Hiddleston is subtle but effective as the diabolical and tortured Loki, chameleon-like in his ability to assess his circumstances and change accordingly. His devolution makes him a fitting foil for Hemsworth. Hiddleston is the stronger actor; Hemsworth, though, provides more perceptiveness than he has to. He lets us see the flaws behind the beauty.

Grade: B+

Review: “Beowulf” (2007)

BeowulfViewers, leave your preconceived notions at the door: This isn’t your eighth-grade English lit teacher’s “Beowulf.” No, this “Beowulf,” a CGI-coated, action-packed visual spectacle of a film directed by Robert Zemeckis, has a wicked, sly sense of humor that surprises you. In fact, the double entendre-laden dialogue, the expertly-choreographed battle scenes and the over-the-top characters all feel like something straight out of a Monty Python film. Think of “Beowulf” as “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” for the CGI generation.

The film, of course, is based upon the Old English epic poem “Beowulf,” a distant, unpleasant memory for some (excluding yours truly, former English major). Set about 700 A.D., the film, like the poem, opens on the eighth-century Danish kingdom of aged King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), who has called his warriors to the mead hall for a celebration. All the mead-soaked merrymaking comes to an abrupt halt when hideous, shrieking monster Grendel (the ever-creepy Crispin Glover) starts snacking on the king’s guests. Hrothgar then issues a call for heroes to kill Grendel.Enter Beowulf (Ray Winstone, whose booming voice could — and probably has — incited on-the-spot battle cries), a valiant, boastful warrior from Geatland (part of Sweden), and what can accurately be described as his traveling “entourage” of coarse, mannerless warriors. The famed Geat accepts Hrothgar’s challenge as much for the reward as a chance to bed his lovely queen (Robin Wright Penn) and sets off a chain reaction of events that does not, at various turns, follow the legend.

But enough about the plot. The fun of “Beowulf” hides in the unexpected ways the plot unfolds. For starters, there’s the director’s decision to use “photorealistic animation,” which means the characters resemble real-life actors. It’s certainly a bold choice, since that animation style can look downright freaky and sometimes downright soulless and scary (“Polar Express,” anyone?). Here it’s been tweaked and improved to the point where the characters’ appearances are almost spot-on. Their expressions and eyes still aren’t quite there, still lack the spark of life that suggests humanity, but it’s close enough. (It’s even possible to see the faintest traces of Glover’s unusual features behind his Grendel getup, and Angelina Jolie is clearly recognizable as Grendel’s seductive mother.) And the animation, no doubt, injects “Beowulf” with the same kind of enchanting surrealism that’s made the film’s literary inspiration a perennial favorite on high school and college reading lists.

There’s another surprise in “Beowulf”: The film or, more accurately, the director has a biting sense of humor. (And this reviewer chooses to believe the laughs are intentional, not accidental.) Entire scenes are played for comic, satirical effect, and there are too many allusions to the Python troupe to be accidental. Consider the fight scene between Grendel and Beowulf, which should win some sort of award for Best Choreography or Best Use of Props to Conceal Exposed Private Parts. The reason? Beowulf is entirely naked, but every move, every prop is designed to prevent the audience from seeing what can’t be shown. Half the fun is figuring out what “cover” will be used next. The whole thing would be right at home in a Python sketch.

The characters’ speeches, too, are unexpectedly comical. Observe the scene where Beowulf and his right-hand warrior Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) debate who will enter Grendel’s cave first. When Beowulf loses his arm in battle, his response recalls that of the Black Knight in “Holy Grail” (remember the “your arm’s off” exchange?). The humor makes “Beowulf” a rather surprising film, one that will make Old English lit scholars no doubt howl with displeasure. But see it with an open mind and it’s a thrilling, visually stunning experience you won’t soon forget.

Grade: B-