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.
The standard biopic plotline based on the life story of Carl Brashear follows the uneducated sharecropper's son (Gooding) as he braves 1950s-era racial discrimination for the right to risk his life in one of the most dangerous occupations in the armed services. At the Navy's elite salvage school in New Jersey master diver Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro) gives Brashear the "Officer and a Gentleman" treatment singling him out for special punishment at the request of the base's insane racist commander (Hal Holbrook). Will the hero overcome the obstacles in his path to becoming a master diver himself?
Gooding's glowing likability is the main factor keeping the film's saintly conception of Brashear from getting annoying fast. The one-dimensional character lacks a single flaw for an actor to grab onto but Gooding's enthusiasm is contagious (remember that Oscar speech?) and he gets surprising mileage out of it. De Niro's trademark intensity is put to only minimal use in a variation of the cantankerous drill sergeant part familiar from half the military flicks ever made.
George Tillman Jr. ("Soul Food") delivers some effective if obvious action-drama in the film's first half which chronicles Brashear's tireless efforts to earn his Navy flippers. Unfortunately Scott Marshall Smith's screenplay gets a bit water-logged dealing with the hero's subsequent career both above and below the waves. (One key development closely parallels John Wayne's role as a Navy flier in another true story 1957's "The Wings of Eagles.) All this sets up a particularly weak courtroom finale reminiscent of another slew of movies including "A Few Good Men" and "Rules of Engagement."
Ryan (Freddie Prinze Jr.) and Jennifer (Claire Forlani) first met on a plane when they were 12. He’s terrified of planes she promptly tells him about her first period so it’s granted that they don’t exactly click. Fast-forward to high school where they bump into each other again. Now he’s the school mascot she’s the homecoming queen. No sparks. Fast forward to college where he’s the geeky engineering major (yes you read correctly) and she’s the free-spirited rocker-dating Latin student. Finally here they become friends help each other with their love issues and despite their opposing viewpoints … well take a guess.
Prinze the BMOC in "She’s All That " is supposed to be an anal-retentive doofus. And while the pageboy cut (split down the middle) and glasses do little to mask his good looks he plays against type surprisingly well doing his best to rise above the cliché-filled script. Forlani who was calm and luminous in the sluggish "Meet Joe Black " still has "proper British upbringing" written all over her so she’s not really believable as an outrageous one-night-stander (she also looks too old for Prinze). Heather Donahue (showing a promising comedy career post-"Blair Witch") and Amanda Detmer make a great supporting cast but the show is stolen by an underused Jason Biggs. As Ryan’s woman-chasing roommate Biggs also gets the single funniest scene in the film which you’ll miss if you walk about before the credits roll.
"She’s All That" director Robert Iscove is back and using the same traits again. First we have the you-are-there flashback narration ("So I was watching him play with his band " a character might reflect in her dorm room and suddenly she’s sitting at the concert still in her pajamas). Then there’s the choreographed dance number. Disguised as a scene to show Ryan trying to loosen up at a "foam club" (like a car wash soapy water douses the dancers) it’s really an excuse to show off Iscove’s choreography background by having all patrons wiggle simultaneously to Apollo Four Forty’s "Stop the Rock." It’s cute and all but the biggest faux pas Iscove makes is having Ryan and Jennifer take a "walk" from Berkeley … and miraculously wind up at the Golden Gate bridge.