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.
"Whatever you do, do NOT refer to this film as a musical." That was the proclamation of British filmmaker Mike Leigh when "Topsy-Turvy" was screened at the New York Film Festival.
True, there are large-scale musical numbers, but these set pieces are there to illustrate and, in some cases, advance the plot. Instead, what Leigh has achieved is the most successful integration of theatrical production numbers and comedy-drama since Bob Fosse tackled "Cabaret" in the early 1970s. And like that movie, "Topsy-Turvy" is also set during a period of upheaval, although one more subtly portrayed.
Fans of Leigh's "social surrealism" (best demonstrated in the Oscar-nominated "Secrets & Lies" and the critically acclaimed "Life Is Sweet" and "Naked") will be in for a bit of a shock. In attempting his first large-scale period piece, the writer-director focuses not on the proletariat but on a turning point in the collaboration between bon vivant Sir Arthur Sullivan (a fine Alan Corduner) and the dour William S. Gilbert (an appropriately irascible Jim Broadbent).
The Victorian era mores were beginning to loosen, and Leigh slyly depicts this through Sullivan's relationship with the married Fanny Ronalds (Eleanor David), in some cast members' objections to loose-fitting costumes that press the boundaries of propriety, and by introducing technological innovations such as a reservoir pen and the telephone.
What is perhaps most impressive about this film, however, is that Leigh once again employed his tried and true methods of improvisations with the cast before actually writing the script. Despite the confines of historical fact, he has managed to craft an intriguing if overstuffed jewel box of a film. Some will carp over its split between biopic and backstage drama, while others may feel there are too many asides.
If Leigh has a weakness as a director, it is that he tends to include extraneous material. In "Topsy-Turvy," there are several such instances. On the other hand, Leigh is not a self-indulgent filmmaker; those added sequences are there either to provide background or to give a particular actor a moment. Still, there is a shapeless feel to the material, as if burdened with an excess of riches, Leigh felt he had to include it all.
The plot conflict arises from Sullivan's desire to compose loftier work than the popular operettas for which he became renowned. He voices his concerns that Gilbert (rankled by being called the "king of topsy-turvy" by the august Times of London) is repeating himself, and the pair is at loggerheads over fulfilling their contract with the Savoy Theatre. Through happenstance, Gilbert hits upon an idea that develops into "The Mikado," which rejuvenates their creative partnership.
On this rather slight outline, Leigh and company hang a visually and aurally beautiful film. Cinematographer Dick Pope bathed the film in crisp, clean lighting, lending it the look of history come alive, while production designer Eve Stewart crafted astonishingly detailed interiors and Lindy Hemming designed strikingly colorful costumes.
For the members of the D'Oyly Carte company, Leigh specifically hired actors who could sing. Among the more notable are Kevin McKidd, Jessie Bond, Timothy Spall and Martin Savage. While all of the actors turn in fine work, special note must also be made of Lesley Manville, whose heartbreaking performance as Gilbert's neglected wife gives the film some added dimension.
For those who prefer a more straightforward and comprehensive biographical film about the duo, they should check out 1953's "The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan" with Robert Morley and Maurice Evans. Those interested in a leisurely, if slightly meandering, but well-acted depiction of creativity filtered through Gilbert and Sullivan should check out "Topsy-Turvy."
* MPAA rating: R, for a scene of risque nudity.
Jim Broadbent: William S. Gilbert Allan Corduner: Arthur Sullivan Dexter Fletcher: Louis Suki Smith: Clothilde Wendy Nottingham: Helen Lenoir
A USA presentation. Director Mike Leigh. Screenplay Mike Leigh. Producer Simon Channing-Williams. Director of photography Dick Pope. Editor Robin Sales. Music Carl Davis and Arthur Sullivan. Production designer Eve Stewart. Costume designer Linda Hemming. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.