The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
Adapted from a story by Mystic River author Dennis Lehane Gone Baby Gone refers to the disappearance of children. It’s a grim story though one of redemption and is quite intricate. The story follows a pair of Boston private detectives Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) as they go looking for a local 4-year-old girl who has been abducted. Patrick and Angie are hired by the family to help the police find her—before it’s too late. There’s also brooding detective Remy (Ed Harris) and inveterate police captain Doyle (Morgan Freeman) who don’t take kindly to the P.I.s meddling. But it seems the girl’s drug-addicted mother Helene (Amy Ryan) has inadvertently put her daughter in some serious danger. Numerous shady characters burrow up to lend guidance and a nasty environment putting a face on Boston’s criminal underbelly. But Patrick is determined to find this little girl—and when a money-drop for the kidnapped tot goes awry he won’t let it go. And that is his downfall. Casey Affleck gives a truly memorable performance. His calm demeanor almost shocks at times when it seems his feathers should presumably be more ruffled. He speaks in even tones without emotion even as a hardened street detective with community roots. Casey’s ease conveys naturalism but is possibly too light to carry the movie’s intrigue and heaviness. Michelle Monaghan delivers a pivotal sobering turn as Casey's partner and girlfriend after playing sweet with Ben Stiller in The Heartbreak Kid. Her Angie is a co-equal who adds ideas and emotional balance. Amy Ryan a Tony-winning stage actress is a fun mess as Helene stuck in a nasty substance abuse pattern. Helene is so unlikeable in fact even the criminals think she doesn’t deserve her daughter. Ed Harris adds another intense role to his resume as a flawed detective who we don’t completely trust invoking the same rage he displayed in his shivering turn in A History of Violence. Morgan Freeman’s movie career built on dignified wise roles is subverted here—and he plays it pitch perfect. And John Ashton (Beverly Hills Cop's Detective Taggert) does a nice turn as Remy’s hardened partner. As a first-time director Ben Affleck does an admirable job. Much of Gone Baby Gone’s charm comes from the director’s ties to his hometown. He captures a certain vibe from Boston’s seedy side much like The Departed did. The Dorchester neighborhood setting adds to the blue-collar grit sometimes seeming oddly aloof and plastic. Moody scenes move quickly almost too confidently. It flits around kinetically during some action sequences but then lapses into old-school dreariness creating a weird music-video pace including a Silence of the Lambs-like psychedelic murder sequence. But it’s the script co-written by Ben that really gets you. Gone Baby Gone fixates on some underwhelming dialogue (mostly involving Casey Affleck)--but then the film really packs a one-two punch at the end. It will leave you reeling. Ben may have finally found his niche.