Sunday, May 8, 2011

The God of Thunder Strikes Like Lightning (SPOILERIFIC REVIEW)

So the summer movie season has officially begun, and I have to say it's off to a thunderous (pun intended) good start. Kenneth Branagh's THOR is a true scifi/fantasy epic, blending seamlessly into the Marvel Cinematic Universe while standing on its own at the same time. Now, no film is perfect and THOR is no exception. But it's certainly a movie worth checking out.

THOR plays into the "ancient astronaut" theory very well and believably, portraying the mythic Asgardians as extremely advanced extraterrestrials (but not "alien" in the traditional sense). The titular protagonist, portrayed surprisingly well by relative (but not for long) unknown Chris Hemsworth, is a valiant, courageous yet arrogant warrior, albeit with good intentions. I have to admit, the casting of Hemsworth was my biggest concern about the film, and I am very pleased that those fears were allayed. Hemsworth proved himself capable of handling the God of Thunder's arc on the same level as Robert Downey Jr. did with IRON MAN, and that's saying something. Hemsworth hits all the right notes in this film, from where his arrogance consumes him in the beginning to that pivotal moment when he steps in front of the Destroyer, realizing that true strength stems from humility and self sacrifice. And every moment in between. While this isn't your Shakespearean "thee" and "thou" Thor (try saying that three times fast), the oddity in his speech and his actions compared to his earthly companions is exactly what should be expected, and uproariously funny to watch at times. Not to mention what is probably Branagh's most genius move as director on the project, to have the God of Thunder taken down by a Taser. Irony doesn't get more epic than that!

Of course, a leading man is only as good as the cast around him, and this is one hell of a cast. Not enough can be said for Tom Hiddelston as Loki, who's first minutes of screentime are all played through his eyes. While Loki is indeed the god of mischief, Hiddelston adds gravitas and sympathy to the role, and I can't remember ever really feeling for a villain before. Having been kept from the truth about his origins, one can see why he would go to the lengths that he does, all for the approval of his adoptive father.

Speaking of Anthony Hopkins, he gives Odin Allfather the theatrical credit this film needed for audiences to get their heads into it. While Odin is king of Asgard, his stoic persona can be, and is, shattered by his sons' actions. When it falls to Odin to pass judgment on Thor for his defiance, unlike the trailer which showed him stripping Thor of his powers with authority, in the actual cut Hopkins is shown in apparent physical as well as emotional pain. This gives the character of Odin more substance than I think most people thought he was going to have.

The trio of Natalie Portman--excuse me, Academy Award-winning Natalie Portman, Kat Jennings and Stellan Sarsgaard make up Thor's earthly companions Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis, and Erik Selvig. Researching Einstein-Rosen Bridges (aka wormholes), they encounter Thor in the desert and are soon entangled in the events unfolding as Thor seeks to reclaim his hammer Mjolnir and with it his powers. Dennings is, appropriately enough, mostly comic relief, and Sarsgaard's Selvig is the access character for everyone else in the film to the Norse myths and legends about the Asgardians.

Branagh shows tremendous poise in the Asgardian half of the film, it's only in the earth portions of the film that one can see a few chinks in his directorial armor. Branagh has a natural knack for classically epic filmmaking, as he proved in MARY SHELLY'S FRANKENSTEIN (one of my favorite films). However, he makes up for those flaws with some surprisingly well-placed comedic timing that will definitely appeal to the general audience.

It was great to see Clark Gregg back as Agent Coulson, as a way to tie THOR with the rest of the MCU. And not to mention (SPOILER!!) a cameo from Jeremy Renner as "Barton" (hint hint).

I think the thing that made this movie a real treat was the design. Branagh's sense of scale in this film is beyond anything I've seen in a comic book movie to date, and was really breathtaking to see. I don't know how he did it, but I loved the melding of the seemingly ancient and highly advanced (with a few Futhark runes thrown in for good measure here and there). Asgard, Jotunheim, and earth, how they're all interconnected through the Bifrost (rainbow bridge) but a wholly fascinating way that makes me want to explore it more.

All in all, THOR has successfully kicked off the summer movie season, and is definitely worthy of repeat viewings if anything for all the details that you would've missed on the first go-round. On a scale of "meh" to "epic", THOR is most definitely epic.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Fanboys' Delight: The Summer Movie Season Part 1- Here Come the Heroes

Every year, Hollywood studios save their biggest guns and most lucrative franchises for the months of May, June, and July (sometimes August). This is the time when fantastical stories (GREEN LANTERN, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2), mythic figures (THOR, CONAN THE BARBARIAN) and iconic characters (TRANSFORMERS 3, CAPTAIN AMERICA, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 4) take center stage. But not every movie is guaranteed to be a surefire win of epic proportions. And thus, the double-bladed irony of what is known as "fanboyism".

For the sake of my fingers, I'm going to split this into two posts. In this one, I'll be covering the 3 major superhero tentpoles of summer 2011. Read on (possible spoilers ahead!) and enjoy...

As a fantasy author, I'm constantly researching the histories, languages, cultures, architectural styles, and most importantly the mythologies of ancient civilizations for inspiration in THE MAVONDURI TRILOGY's own mythology (case in point, I have a sketch of the werewolf fortress of Ak'horokaš, and it drew heavy inspiration from Mayan and Aztec architectural design--more on that later). At the same time, I'm also an ardent comic book geek. I've always sided more with DC than Marvel (that's for another day!!) but when it comes to Norse mythology I just can't say no. There's something inherently appealing in there that makes it easy to understand why Marvel turned one of the Norse's greatest heroes into one of it's most beloved comics. And with Kenneth Branagh bringing the God of Thunder to life for his silver screen debut, I have very high hopes for this movie. Branagh, coming from a theatrical background, knows exactly the right amount of prose to use, and how much of that "high style" tone to incorporate as well, something he's very skilled at. Also, this is Branagh's biggest movie since he directed "Mary Shelly's Franeknstein" with Robert De Niro, a film I thoroughly enjoyed.
THOR is a big risk for Marvel, which is currently really pushing it's "Marvel Cinematic Universe" (and the AVENGERS film that will be a direct result of it next summer), mainly because the general audience hasn't seen their version of the character before, aside from vague memories of the original "Amazing Spider-Man" cartoon. But the premise of a god who has to learn how to be a hero by being human, and overcoming his own arrogance, is compelling enough so that when the action kicks in we'll already be enjoying the ride. Tom Hiddleston has been getting rave reviews for his performance as Thor's scheming brother Loki (appropriately, the Norse god of mischief), so I'm very excited to see how he plays his role.
And with Anthony Hopkins as Odin...well, need I say more?

Keeping the Marvel theme going, let's talk CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, shall we? I'm not going to lie, I was never into the guy in the comics. No, I'm not saying I didn't like him, I just didn't get him. But after seeing the latest trailer, I'm actually pretty intrigued to see this. Chris Evans, while not the first choice I would've made in casting the Cap, seems eager to get away from Johnny Storm, and he's got a great supporting cast around him to help him do just that.
Hugo Weaving always plays a damn good villain, and with Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci there's a pretty good chance that this movie can be just as enjoyable as THOR. Joe Johnston, the director responsible for THE MUMMY and more recently G.I. JOE and THE WOLFMAN, is sort of a hit-or-miss director and doesn't have me as excited for Captain America as I am for Thor. But there's no doubt that this movie will be a huge hit after the killing of Osama bin Laden, not only here but around the world as well. Amazing how things work out sometimes, isn't it?

As I've said, I'm more of a DC fanboy than a Marvel fanboy, which is why I'm most excited for Warner Bros' GREEN LANTERN. Call it my Most Anticipated Superhero Movie of 2011. The Green Lantern comics have a rich history and complex mythology to stand on, and despite the fact that he's a so-called "second tier" hero compared to DC's big three, that puts absolutely no pressure whatsoever on Hal Jordan to stand next to them, because his story as it has developed over the last forty someodd years is one of the most unique in comics. Whereas Superman and (until recently) Batman are the sole heralds of their insignias, Hal Jordan is a Green Lantern, one of only 3,600 sentient beings given the responsibility of wielding a tool of near-limitless power, a ring that, according to Tomar-Re (voiced by Geoffrey Rush), "turns thought into reality" through the user's willpower. But there's a catch: in order to access the ring's capabilities, the wearer must possess the ability to overcome fear, in the comics and film personified by a demonic being of pure yellow energy known as Parallax.
Now, while my preferred choice for Jordan was Bradley Cooper, I think Warners and director Martin Campbell (of James Bond fame) made a very shrewd casting call by giving the part to Ryan Reynolds. While mostly known for his comedic timing, Reynolds has proven his dramatic mettle in such films as the AMITYVILLE HORROR remake and the more recent BURIED. Reynolds has that right blend to make Jordan fearless, and cocky because of it, which of course gets him in as much trouble as it does help his willpower as a Lantern. Surrounding him, like Chris Evans with CAPTAIN AMERICA, is a finely well rounded cast (Mark Strong as Sinestro!!!).
Peter Sarsgaard, always a favorite actor of mine, gets his turn as a villain as Hector Hammond, and he looks grotesquely amazing from what I've seen thus far. Add the voice talents of the above-mentioned Geoffrey Rush as Tomar-Re and Michael Clarke Duncan (who better?) as Kilowog, Jordan's fellow Corpsmen, and you can bet that GREEN LANTERN is going to be the surprise hit of summer '11.