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Thor (2011)

by Steve Habrat

Well, it seems like I have to eat my words and admit that I was too hasty to judge Thor. I have to admit that I wrongfully formed my opinion on the movie by it’s below-average trailer when I should have kept an open mind to the God of Thunder’s first cinematic outing. But in all fairness, at the beginning of the summer I was suffering from what I am calling Marvel Fatigue. Perhaps you even felt the effects of this dreaded illness: Lack of interest in ANY Marvel Comics superhero movie, a growing concern about the quality of their productions, and the fact that they seem to be more and more money hungry with each passing summer. They had three superhero movies coming out this year! And the one leading the pack is a hammer-packing God who fights Frost Giants and speaks as if he stepped out of Hamlet! To make things even more dreadfully boring, Marvel recruited Shakespearean actor/director Kenneth Branagh to helm the damn thing! In my eyes, it appeared as if Marvel is desperate to stay king of the superhero movie mountain, enlisting their B-squad of heroes and forcing them upon audiences. What’s worse is that every movie that rolls off the assembly line feels like just an extended preview for their much-hyped Avengers movie. You can see my apprehension right?

But believe me when I tell you this: Thor is actually really, really good. It’s the perfect summer movie that’s heavy on dazzling action; loaded with top notch CGI, utilizes 3D properly, and features a lead so undeniably charismatic that you practically wish he was real. I sat in disbelief as the film relentless put a smile on my face and propelled me into one adrenaline rush after another! Now many of you know I am an avid comic book collector and reader but Thor was never on my radar. I never found him to be truly compelling enough to rush out and grab a couple of his comics. But this origin story manages to actually be quite a hypnotic experience. The Asgardians represent all that is good, protecting mankind from the evil Frost Giants who are hell-bent on taking over the whole planetary system. Asgard is lead by King Odin (Played by Anthony Hopkins), who has two sons, Loki (Played by Tom Hiddleston) and Thor (Played by Chris Hemsworth). On the day that Odin is crowing Thor the new king of Asgard, Frost Giants sneak into the kingdom and attempt to retrieve a relic that belongs to their race. This ignites a fire in Thor, who vows to teach the Frost Giants a lesson. This confrontation leads to disastrous results and ends up resparking an ancient war between the Frost Giants and Asgard along with the banishment of Thor from Asgard. Once on earth, Thor is a fish out of water and with the help of astro-physicist Jane Foster (Played by Academy Award winning actress Natalie Portman) and her two wisecracking colleagues; he adapts to life on earth and learns humility.

If this all sounds completely silly, trust me, wait until you see it all play out on the silver screen. It’s absolutely wondrous to behold as Branagh’s art direction and sleek camera work bring the kingdom of Asgard to vibrant life. The make-up work on the Frost Giants alone will make your eyes pop. On earth, the film is mirthful despite the fact that it is basically a teaser for the Avengers. There are countless in-jokes that relate back to Iron Man and the comic lore, which I know will soar over the heads of some casual audience members. Yet its Hemsworth Thor who anchors the entire film and consistently warms your heart. He’s a tragic fellow who we sympathize with even if we shake our heads and deem him a brutish fool. You can’t help but love him when he waltzes into a modern pet shop and demands a horse for travel from a flabbergasted store employee. Hemsworth is the real treasure here as he proves that his talent stretches far beyond his chiseled physique.

The film has an indisputable human element that posses you and holds you in its icy grip. When a mortal Thor tangles with a towering juggernaut called the Destroyer, you will bite your nails down in dread. Yet even when he is back in his godly form and he confronts the final villain, it’s still nerve-racking. The film establishes itself as Marvel’s own Superman film, but what the film adaptations of Superman seemed to consistently overlook, mainly making Superman’s journey to discovering his place in the universe, Thor laps up with glee.  How does one make sense of all the mysteries of life? Even gods must discover their true place in this strange journey we call life.

Branagh can’t resist his Shakespearean impulses even when he’s whipping up a summer blockbuster. The film sneaks in minor hints of the Bard, mainly in the tragedy sense and the Old English dialogue the fires out of Thor’s mouth. But Branagh keeps the film from veering into overdramatic territory and keeps things light and simple. It has a breezy love story at it’s core that you’ll find yourself rooting for. It makes great dorky use of Portman’s Jane Foster as she struggles to understand the strange being that is Thor. Thor’s scheming brother Loki is delightfully sinister as he vows to rip Asgard apart. Hopkin’s Odin injects wise wisdom as their booming father and the film is practically ripped right out from under all the other players by the mystifying all-seeing gatekeeper of Asgard, Heimdall, played by a nearly unrecognizable and never better Idris Elba.

Thor embodies everything the summer blockbuster should be. It packs some serious teeth rattling action sequences, dreamy imagery, and a nonstop rush of unwavering excitement. It ends up being a return to form for Mr. Branagh who allows himself to lighten up a bit and actually have a smidgeon of fun in all the ludicrousness. It is the perfect frontrunner for the summer movie season and it will get your juices flowing for the inevitable parade of CGI fests that will follow in it’s wake. Thor is a thunderously good time that also happens to be one of the better superhero movies to come out in quite some time. It was the first must see of the summer! GRADE: A-

Thor is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)



by Steve Habrat

If every single employee at Marvel Studios isn’t celebrating the massively successful summer that they have had at the movies, they should be. Captain America: The First Avenger is the third quality picture from the comic book factory that sparkles with vision, zippy action, gung-ho characters, and an innocent simplicity that all come together to provide an exhilarating summer escapist romp that will leave you hounding for more from this star spangled hero. Still, the WWII superhero is just a notch below the more socially relevant X-Men: First Class but out eye-candies the cosmic Thor. Bustling with an art deco aesthetic, you will find yourself falling head over heels with this nostalgic ode Indian Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It truly is a relief that Marvel, who appeared at first to be forcing themselves too strongly onto audiences this year, pull off a triple threat of terrific with their three towering releases. I was worried that too many do-gooders trying to save planet earth in 3D would weigh down this summer. Yet Thor exceeded my extremely low expectations and the X-Men series received a much-needed shot of inspiration into a franchise of films that were becoming increasingly cheap and extremely frivolous, especially for one that began on a thought-provoking note. But X-Men: First Class was also not looking to tie in three other heroes and be the final step before the much anticipated Marvel mash-up The Avengers that is to come next summer.  And with DC Comics barely making a ripple with The Green Lantern, they also found absolutely no competition (Well, maybe from a certain boy wizard) from their rivals. WithCaptain America being the one of the last major blockbusters of this sweltering summer, they end on a seriously cool note.

Captain America follows the attempts of the steadfast Steve Rogers (Played by a hulking Chris Evans), a weakling with asthma from the Bronx who relentlessly attempts to join the US Army and jet over to Europe so he can “kill Nazis.” Finally, with a little help from a German scientist, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Played by a enthusiastic Stanley Tucci) and the gruff Col. Chester Phillips (Played by sleepy-eyed Tommy Lee Jones), he gets enlisted in a program that turns the not-so-manly-mans into manly-men super soldiers. They pick Rodgers “because a weak man knows the value of strength, the value of power.” Under the watchful eye of the machine-gun packing femme Peggy Carter (Played by a smoking hot Haley Atwell), Cap dons a blue get-up and brandishing a stars-and-stripes printed shield, he goes toe-to-toe with HYDRA, a Nazi weapons division lead by the sadistic Johann Schmidt aka Red Skull (Played with purring evil by Hugo Weaving) and the mousy scientist Dr. Arnim Zola (Played by the always-welcome Toby Jones).

Under the masterfully paced direction of Joe Johnston (The Wolfman), Captain America takes its time get to know its characters and dreamily gaze on their personalities. We can’t help but root for the morally responsible Cap as he always does the right thing. Chris Evans plays him as the all-American good old boy when he’s bulked up and a runt with a heart of gold when he’s shrunken down. In one scene, the runty Rogers throws himself onto a live grenade to protect his fellow hulking soldier, who all ran and hid themselves. It’s scenes like this the Rogers steals our hearts and allow us to root for him even when he’s in the stickiest of situations. His best friend, Bucky Barnes, who acts as the unwavering voice of support for his comrade, stands behind Cap every step of the way. Haley Atwell transcends the damsel in distress role and is instead is a pistol-packing hellion who can hold her own against Nazis and keep the Cap drooling in a little red dress. Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull is perhaps one of the more terrifying villains as he grapples for independence from the Third Reich and salivates over world domination. He and Cap have many show-stopping smack downs that will leave the audience cheering for the Cap to give Red Skull a good, old-fashioned ass whooping. Pitting the extreme good against an extreme evil is a bit obvious, but it works with Captain America lore, as Cap appeared in March of 1941 on a comic book delivering a lick to Uncle Adolph (America had not yet joined the war, which slathered on controversy at the time). The rest of the performances are fine, especially from Toby Jones, who appears to be channeling Ronald Lacye’s Arnold Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It should be noted that the retro Captain America is one of the more conservative superhero films to come down the tube. They are churned out at an alarming rate these days and they are coming in all shapes and sizes! But the Cap becomes the symbol for all that is morally and ethically right. It seems old fashioned and has a wide-eyed innocence that makes the film impossible to dislike. It’s good clean fun and takes very few risks. Even at the end when the US Army is plotting their final move on HYDRA, the Cap makes the simple suggestion of knocking on HYDRA’s front door. Why complicate the matter? The film is desperately avoiding any sort of complexity, whether it underlying or outright. There are no profound opinions or winking satire to the film. It just keeps everything simple and that is honestly it’s most alluring quality. It helps that the characters are so wonderfully illustrated and realized, which ultimately allows them to be more intriguing than when the Cap is wrecking havoc behind enemy lines. The film is also a rallying cry for the underdogs, which balances out the self-confidence that radiates from titans like Iron Man and ThorCaptain America isn’t looking to change the world, despite his worldwide battle, and I commend it for that. It’s just looking to thrill us the old-fashioned way, much like Super 8 so beautifully did. It’s just trying to cater to the child-like wonder in all of us, and the Cap beyond succeeds with that mission. Plain and simple, I loved everything about this movie. I loved the look, feel, the epic scope, the characters, their earnest interaction, and all the arresting action. Go see it.

Grade: A (Make it a double feature with Super 8)