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 Man From Elysian Fields is truly a unique premise which grabs you from the beginning. Byron Tiller (Andy Garcia) was once an advertising career man but after authoring a novel he throws it all away to follow his true calling as a writer. His loving wife Dena (Julianna Margulies) fully supports him yet for Byron success as a writer remains an elusive dream. He can barely pay his family's bills. Just as Byron hits his lowest point he meets Luther Fox (Mick Jagger) the owner of Elysian Fields a discreet male escort service. Fox offers Byron "temporary" employment at his private club which caters to the needs of lonely women everywhere. Seeing no other option and desperate to provide for his family Byron reluctantly accepts--and is immediately put to work escorting a beautiful and wealthy woman Andrea Alcott (Olivia Williams) to the opera. One thing leads to another and sure enough Byron is soon providing the full treatment. He also finds out she is married to one of his literary heroes Tobias Alcott (James Coburn) who encourages his wife's dalliances since he is now too old. In fact he's dying and through a twist of fate Byron ends up collaborating with Alcott to rewrite his last book while still "servicing" Andrea. Up to this point the story is riveting but by the last third of the movie it becomes muddled. It has a tough time finding a way to wrap it all up.
Elysian Fields employs an eclectic cast who for the most part do a nice job bringing out the best in the story. The film ultimately belongs to Garcia who looks good carrying a feature film again--even if it's one on a smaller scale. First of all it is refreshing to see a man put into the position where he has to become a prostitute to support his family and Garcia plays this winningly. Byron is all thumbs when it comes to the art of seduction with a woman other than his wife but he's undoubtedly immediately attracted to Andrea. From Garcia's eyes you know he's going to succumb to the temptation. Yet it's Garcia's scenes with veteran Coburn where the movie comes alive as Byron's real passion is exposed. Coburn does a nice turn as the dying writer who still wants to produce the best possible material even if he's beyond the ability to do so. Williams and Margulies do what they can with their roles the former playing the cold Andrea with aplomb and the latter handling the chores as the beleaguered wife with a requisite amount of charm. Jagger as the Faustian Fox is admirable as a sexual predator who also has moments of vulnerability (apparently it's not just all rock and roll with this guy).
Elysian Fields was made more than a year ago and even with its top-notch cast it still took awhile to get a U.S. distributor. Garcia may not be quite the draw he once was but clearly that doesn't affect his dedication to his work behind and in front of the camera one bit. Acting as a producer of the film Garcia cares about this highly original material and it doesn't matter to him whether the film is mainstream enough--he wants to tell this story. Director George Hickenlooper takes his inspiration from his star focusing primarily on Byron and his desperation to be successful at something he loves to do. Is Byron selling his soul to the devil in order to get his big chance? That is certainly up for interpretation but with all good stories that's the fun of it. If the film only stuck to this principle for the entire movie then there may not have been such difficulty in tying up the ending. First-time screenwriter Phillip Jayson Lasker does a great job setting everything up but once Byron and Alcott write the book the film drags on for another half hour or so trying to resolve Byron's dilemma. Also the subplot revolving around Fox and his No. 1 client (played by the lovely Anjelica Huston) whom he actually loves seems sorely out of place and not fleshed out.