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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+

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TTC: “Deep Blue Sea” (1999)

“I hate to interrupt this moment of burgeoning intimacy, but can we get the fuck out of here?” ~~Preacher

It’s fair to assume that, at any given moment in life, when someone utters the words “as a side effect, the sharks got smarter,” many cans of whoop-ass are about to be opened … and it won’t be the bipeds with the opposable thumbs who are popping the tabs. No, they’ll be the ones screeching like banshees, churning water with all the fluidity, grace and power of drunken cows. Or they’ll be chum.

As “Deep Blue Sea” progresses, the Foolish Scientists/Corporate Bigwigs/Token Brothers aboard the isolated ship Aquatica, a floating facility that uses Mako sharks’ brains for Alzheimer’s research, find themselves in both situations, sometimes simultaneously. Boy oh boy what cheerfully cheesy fun it is to watch. Hardly “Jaws,” or even “Jaws XI: I Know Who You Ate 25 Years Ago,” Renny Harlin’s CGI-enhanced battle royale between sharks and humans is terrifically terrible fun of the highest order — heavy on effects and state-the-obvious dialogue and happily light on subtlety. In point of fact, “hammy” might be the watchword, since subtle movies don’t ordinarily have people (LL Cool J, renaissance man extraordinaire) go around saying things like “Ooh, I’m done! Brothers never make it out of situations like this! Not ever!” Hating a movie this comically aware of its own gouda-ness is a capital crime.

And bless my dairy-gulping heart there’s plenty more where that came from in “Deep Blue Sea.” The plot promises as much and delivers: Aquatica floats way, way out in the ocean, so far that it might be appropriate to apply the “Alien” tagline to the ocean (i.e., scream if you want, but it’ll just tell the sharks where you are). Dr. Sarah McAllister (Saffron Burrows in a breath-taking don’t-quit-your-day-job role) is a researcher hoping to woo wealthy businessman Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson) to invest in her highly controversial research: She’s injecting shark’s brains with a protein complex to determine if she can reanimate brain cells lost to Alzheimer’s. Her crack team — all brightly capable of whipping out gems like “Beneath this glassy surface, a world of gliding monsters” — includes Carter (Thomas Jane), a surly shark wrangler; project leader Jim “I’m So Smart I Piss into the Wind” Whitlock (Stellan Skarsgård); Jim’s main squeeze Janice (Jacqueline McKenzie); an engineer, Tom (Michael Rapaport); and the scripture-quoting chef “Preacher” (LL Cool J), whom we intuitively understand to be 1,921 times smarter than the researchers fannying about with genetically manipulating shark brains.

As detailed earlier, naturally everything goes whop-jollyed* 15-20 minutes into “Deep Blue Sea” (proof of the age-old adage: “Make sharks smarter and they’ll, like, eat you and stuff”). The makos, not surprisingly, don’t relish getting brain injections and being cooped up in pens, so they use those big new brains to outsmart the humans, eat a few of them — wouldn’t get emotionally attached to too many characters if I were you — and just toy around with the rest. This leads to quite a few heated arguments (most aimed at Dr. McAllister, because didn’t that “stupid bitch” know genetic testing is dangerous?), (sadly) no Biblical couplings, a smidge of PG-themed nudity and many thrilling chase scenes that mostly the sharks win, though sometimes they run the risk of getting blown into Mako McNuggets. The sharks, thanks to CGI, don’t look even the weensiest bit real; in a movie like this, however, that works in the director’s favor. Besides, does reality honestly belong in a movie where someone gets trapped inside an oven and the shark’s nose sets the dial to “broil”?

No, no, a million times no. Reality would be the ruination of “Deep Blue Sea.” Director Renny Harlin (he’s partial to nonsensical thrillers) knows this; thus, he helpfully has his actors explain all the plot points early, as if to get them out of the way so we can enjoy the shark-on-human action fest we’ve signed on for. The actors — particularly LL Cool J, likable in any part but especially funny as Preacher, and Jane, who looks alternately either very turned on or very constipated — only add to the salty fun. Bring on the sequel, says I.

*Or “wrong” to you non-Southerners.