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.
Like the best modernist novels The Hours on the surface is a simple slice of life detailing the events that occur on one day in the lives of three women in their three respective time periods. James Joyce used the technique of compacting time as a literary device to great effect in Ulysses following his two protagonists through the streets of Dublin on one typical but memorable June day. In a similar way Woolf placed Clarissa Dalloway's life under a microscope--for just one day--in Mrs. Dalloway. Countless other 20th-century literary greats have employed this same technique in their works and by focusing the time frame so narrowly these authors could dig more deeply into seemingly ordinary moments--enabling them to excavate a character's lifetime in the space of a few hours. Their modernist undertaking comes to cinematic fruition in The Hours the story of what happens to three women on a single day in an elegant exploration of families artists lovers and sisters. In 2001 Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) is a conflicted book editor and a lesbian who like her namesake Clarissa Dalloway is planning a bittersweet party for a former love. In the 1950s Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) is a housewife and mother who's reading Mrs. Dalloway and struggling much like Woolf or Sylvia Plath to find her identity and voice in a culture that says that as a woman she shouldn't have one. In the 1920s Woolf (Nicole Kidman) is living in the English countryside with her husband Leonard writing Mrs. Dalloway occasionally sinking into madness and always restlessly pining for the intellectual stimulation of London. Adhering the three narratives is Richard Brown (Ed Harris): The talented dying misunderstood novelist in whose honor Clarissa is throwing her party. Harris' role threads its way through the '50s segment as well and he serves as the modern-day heir to Woolf's literary legacy.
In his small but crucial role Harris gives an admirable performance and if he occasionally overdoes the "suffering AIDS victim" angst it's probably The Hours' one weakness. The rest of the supporting players give marvelous color to the film particularly Allison Janney as Clarissa's partner Sally Miranda Richardson as Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell Stephen Dillane as Leonard Woolf and Toni Collette as Laura's neighbor Kitty. But it's hard to look much better than good when those around you are exceptional--and Streep Moore and Kidman give hands down the three most solid intelligent nuanced female performances of the year in The Hours. As actors they are absorbed so completely in the characters they play that they're virtually unrecognizable as celebrities. As Woolf Kidman uses a prosthetic nose in aid of this transformation while Moore's Laura is aged in the film with the help of some excellent makeup artistry (this will probably be one of many Academy Award nominations for this movie). But it's Streep who without the aid of external devices becomes her character so completely that her slightest movement is clearly Clarissa's--you can see it happening onscreen in her every reaction. It's such a sublime performance that it's almost not a performance; it seems more like we're spying on Clarissa's interior and exterior life and she doesn't even realize the camera is following her.
Director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare don't take the easy way out of the complex literary material they tackle in The Hours--and they don't let the audience off easily either. There's no omniscient narrator tying up the loose ends in a nice neat package and there's no final authority espousing what it all means; in fact the "author " Woolf is as much a character in the tales as is anyone else--both literally and figuratively. While she's one of three protagonists the memory of her life and the legacy of her novel impact the other characters significantly. Woolf is also present in more subtle ways: Hare's screenplay employs some of her perennial themes--aging illness gender politics madness death--and Daldry works delicately with several symbols that are key in her writing (particularly flowers those ambiguous blossoms that seemed equally at home at funerals and parties to the keenly observant Woolf). Through it all The Hours offers gentle insight into female consciousness and the condition of women's lives throughout the last century. "The younger generation " Woolf told T.S. Eliot has "no sense of tradition and continuity." Novelist Cunningham Daldry and Hare have proven her wrong with The Hours.