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.
Based on a headline-grabbing true crime that has long fascinated the French and inspired work by such esteemed writers as Jean-Paul Sartre Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Genet Murderous Maids is the story of sisters Christine Papin (Sylvie Testud) and Lea Papin (Julie-Marie Parmentier) who in 1933 murdered Madame Lancelin (Dominique Labourier) and her daughter Genevieve (Marie Donnio) in their elegant home in Le Mans France. Also from Le Mans Christine and Lea--like their elder sister Emilia who fled hardship for a religious life--had difficult childhoods. Their mother Clemence (Isabelle Renauld) who lived a life of poverty and menial work was largely indifferent to her daughters although she favored Lea. Her taste in men was unfortunate: Her husband had raped Emilia and her current lover a crass veteran makes advances toward Christine. After Christine leaves a series of demeaning jobs in wealthy homes she eventually lands a position with wealthy lawyer Lancelin and his family and is able to get a job there for Lea to whom she has grown unusually attached. When the relationship between the sisters becomes incestuous Christine grows jealous of Lea's closeness to Madame Lancelin. Worse she suspects that her employer is aware of their relationship. Christine finally loses control one evening when Madame Lancelin and her daughter unexpectedly return home early. Christine violently attacks the two women and persuades Lea to collude in the vicious assault. Nabbed by the authorities Christine eventually ends up in an asylum where she dies and Lea serves time quietly in prison.
Testud won the Cesar (France's highest film award) last year for most promising actress in Les Blessures Assassines and no wonder. She is brilliant and wholly believable as the tortured complex sister driven to incest and murder. Testud suggests pain so real that you almost fathom the horrific ends she goes to. As the quieter and more vulnerable sister Parmentier is also superb. She is able to convey a muted ambivalence and confusion simmering under her vulnerable surface. All other performances including those of Renauld as their amoral mother and Labourier as the hapless bourgeois madame are also right on the mark.
Jean-Pierre Denis who also co-wrote the screenplay adaptation from the book The Papin Affair does an extraordinary job of evoking his deeply troubled characters their clueless employers and the starkly contrasted milieus and rigid moral and social climates that infused their lives. Denis wisely lets the authentic costumes and settings (the film was actually shot in Le Mans) tell much of the story. His decision to dispense with a music track in favor of natural sounds and the pitch-perfect performances he coaxes from his actors add to the chilling authenticity. The crisp imagery that Denis' cinematographer Jean-Marc Fabre delivers amounts to a provocative tableaux--a doomed mix of magnificent comfort and unsightly squalor. The film which was nominated for 4 Cesar Awards is also a handsome production rich in fine performances--especially those of Testud and Parmentier. One scene that depicts the incest between the two sisters may disturb many but it is in keeping with Denis' reverence for the cold hard ugly facts and the mysterious psychological and social underpinnings that were integral to this legendary case.