Here's something obvious that I don't think many people consider: unabashed love for an actor doesn't always translate to that actor having an easy career. Take Michael Biehn, who can't sit down for an interview without being asked about Terminator, Aliens or how he almost nabbed a part in Cameron's Avatar. To be fair, Biehn's been finding steady work for the last two decades, either in television or with bit parts in horror flicks and the occasional supporting drama role (he packs a short, but sweet punch in the recent Chris Evans medical thriller Puncture). But people still think of him as their '80s hero.
But his scene-chewing role in The Divide, the new film by Xavier Gens (Frontier(s), Hitman), feels like a calculated move. As Mickey, the psycho super of a New York City apartment building who houses the complex's tenants after an unknown nuclear blast wipes the city clear, Biehn drops his own atomic bomb...on our nostalgia. His character's paranoia-induced, manic state opens the door for a maelstrom of cigar-chomping, grizzled fury, and it's a "hey, look what I can do!" performance in the very best way. Nearly unrecognizable under his Nick-Nolte-mugshot hair do and equally jagged beard, Biehn inhabits the same kind of confidence we saw in his Cameron collaborations, but now, as an older man. It's a wake up call for any of his diehard fans.
Biehn isn't the only one reinventing himself with The Divide, a horror sci-fi indebted more to Sartre's No Exit than Book of Eli. Gens' had ground to make up, after his last film, the big budget adaptation of the popular video game series Hitman, floundered with both critics and movie-goers. In The Divide, Gens uses his visual prowess to terrorize, taking the audience through a grinder of fallout shelter living conditions, mysterious masked men with a kidnapping mission and the general mental instability that comes with living underground for a few weeks (note: if this ever happens to you, you'll probably shave off your eyebrows and start tearing through cans Spam like a rabid wolf). The important shift in Gens direction is the emphasis on characters and performance—a tactic that succeeds as far as he can. The script for The Divide is paper thin and the movie uses its assemblage of stock characters as pawns: Josh (Milo Ventimiglia), the angry rebel, Eva (Lauren German), the quiet, beautiful caretaker, Bobby (Michael Eklund), the feeble minded follower, and Delvin (Courtney B. Vance), the reasonable human being who will inevitably suffer at the hands of the stupid). But Gens, through color, production design and some damn fine actors, makes it situation as intense and grueling as it would be in real life. The Divide doens't strive for realistic scenarios, but on an emotional level, the ensemble feel like real people. Unlike Hitman, which still felt like a video game.
Between Michael Biehn barking his fellow shelter-mates into submission, another familiar face takes a stab at a vulnerable, heartbreaking performance. Rosanna Arquette plays Marilyn, who early on in the film, loses her daughter to a gang of gas-masked invaders. If you didn't think the apocalypse could get any worse, think again. The incident sends Marilyn into a downward spira—her depression starts with a stint of starvation, then escalates into a transformation from mother to lifeless plaything. She smears lipstick on her face, opens her up for sexual promiscuity, and, eventually, finds herself taped up and mutilated S&M style. In a stronger movie, Marilyn's complete destruction of self-worth would have more gravity, but Arquette's daring turn still paints it boldly.
People have a certain preconception of the phrase "indie," as if low-budget movies that start at film festivals (The Divide premiered at the 2011 SXSW Fest) and eventually make their way to theaters are all for the arthouse crowd. But making a movie on a dime affords filmmakers and actors, ones with focus on quiet dramas or ones with blockbuster/genre sensbilities, the advantage of stepping out of the box. A playground. The Divide isn't a perfect movie, but it gives three creative minds, Biehn, Gens and Arquette, the chance to do something different and challenging. It's not easy to escape your own legacy, but taking a chance with a movie like The Divide never hurts.
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.