by Steve Habrat
Just six short months after dominating the summer with Iron Man 3 and three short months after announcing details for their Avengers follow-up, Marvel is back with a sequel to Kenneth Branagh’s intergalactic epic Thor. Branagh’s iridescent 2011 effort really took me by surprise, mostly because I was convinced that the Norse god wouldn’t translate well to film. It didn’t help that the trailer failed to really sell the swords and hammer mayhem. Despite my apprehension, Thor turned out to be one hell of a thrill ride even though it was distractingly acting as a partial tease for The Avengers. With the first Avengers film out of their system, Marvel can now focus on giving their Avengers cast movies that are free of that crossover blockbuster’s chains. Here we have Thor: The Dark World, a sequel that doesn’t feel like it’s rushing to develop this character just so we know who the heck the beefcake with the hammer is in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. With Thor: The Dark World, we are given more time on Thor’s home planet, Asgard, and we are treated to more strange creatures looking to rip the universe to shreds. While the second half is undeniably entertaining with its billowing high-stakes showdowns, the opening stretch seems like a lazy reworking of what we saw in the previous Thor film. To make things worse, star Natalie Portman seems like she was forced at gunpoint to reprise her role as Jane Foster. Is this the same woman who won on Oscar for Black Swan?
Thor: The Dark World begins by explaining that many years ago, Thor’s grandfather had a battle with the Dark Elf leader Malekith (played by Christopher Eccleston), who was planning on using a matter called Aether to destroy the Nine Realms. The Asgardians won the battle and managed to secure the Aether from Malekith, but the Asgardians were unable to destroy the weapon, so they buried where no one would find it. Angry over his defeat, Malekity fled into space with a group of followers to regroup. In present day, Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth) and his Asgardian followers attempt to bring order to worn torn planets across the universe while Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston) faces his sentencing for what he did to New York City. On Earth, astrophysicist Jane Foster (played by Natalie Portman) has been waiting two years for Thor to return to her. Just as she is attempting to move on with her life, intern Darcy Lewis (played by Kat Dennings) tracks her down to show her an abandoned building that appears to have multiple portals into other worlds. After Jane stumbles through one of these portals, she discovers the hidden Aether, which latches itself onto her and begins flowing through her veins. The disrupting of the Aether awakens Malekith, who has been drifting in space with his soldiers waiting for the smallest sign of the Aether’s whereabouts. Fearing for Jane’s life, Thor returns to Earth to take her back to Asgard where he can protect her, but Malekith is isn’t far behind and he is hellbent on bringing darkness to the galaxy.
Director Alan Taylor opens Thor: The Dark World with a pair of rousing space battles that allow the viewer a glimpse into the expansive Marvel universe beyond the stars. There are all sorts of grotesque creatures that will make your eyes pop, but it’s the story foundation that is built under this action that seems all too familiar. In place of the glowing blue Tesseract is the Aether, a flowing red matter that swims through the air and resembles Kool-Aid. Rather than an unlimited energy source, the Aether plunges everything into darkness and it is naturally sought after by the baddies so that they can destroy the whole universe. Then there is Darcy, Jane, and Stellan Skarsgard’s Dr. Erik Selvig, who all dart around with flickering devices that detect portals and other alien anomalies while everyone else thinks they’ve got screws loose. The only thing missing are the SHEILD agents prowling around! This middling commencement is spruced up with some geeky humor and a cutesy cameo from Bridesmaids star Chris O’Dowd. Thankfully, when war comes to Asgard, the battle gets a bit more personal for Thor and Loki, both who loose someone very close to them. This is precisely where the glimmers of familiarity start to get buried beneath some sprawling clashes that are capable of bringing down the theater walls. They’re also fairly impressive in 3D, a format that Marvel has been shockingly lazy about considering all the money they are dumping into each one of these films.
As far as the action scenes are concerned, they single handedly make up for the film’s shortcomings. It never gets old watching Thor leap into the air with his hammer raised, bringing it down on the ground to knock about ten bad guys charging him off their feet. There is a hilarious confrontation between Thor and a snarling rock monster that gets tamed with one swing of Thor’s mighty mallet. The opening battle between masked Dark Elves and Viking-like Asgardians is a buzzy cocktail of Star Wars-esque laser battles and Lord of the Rings swordplay. The standout action set piece is easily the battle on Asgard, in which Malekith’s forces rocket at the gold city in sleek jets that cut right into the gold heart of the towering palace that Thor and his family call home. It helps that these scenes have dropped Branagh’s spit-polished approach, allowing them to feel rough around the edges and, dare I say, legitimately dangerous. Then there is the big finish, which features Thor and Malekith duking it out as they tumble through multiple portals that send them careening through the universe. The constantly shifting backdrops are a blast and Taylor weaves the action through them seamlessly, but what grows frustrating is the fact that Jane and her buddies can dart through all the destruction unscathed. They are several of Malekith’s soldiers hot on their heels, but they just never seem to be able to catch up or hit them with a laser blast. Oh, come on!
Then we have our performers, who for the most part slip comfortably back into the skins of their characters—well, expect for Portman. Hemsworth is still lovable as the gruff God of Thunder, who relishes a good fight but sulks over Jane during the post-battle celebration. I especially enjoyed his increasingly complex relationship with Hiddleston’s Loki, who is as devious as ever. When the lightheartedness is dropped and the two confront each other over the events in New York, the drama cuts like a knife and leaves a sting that is difficult to shake. Eccleston’s Malekith booms with plenty of promises of death and destruction, and it helps that the look of his character just screams evil. Malekith has been downplayed in the trailers, which is nice because it shrouds his character in malevolent mystery. Then we have Portman, who acts as through the material here is beneath her. She fluffs off guys who wish to pursue a relationship with her and she pouts over Thor’s absence like a spoiled child. There is none of the starry-eyed swooning going on here, only huffy obligation and line delivery that seems like she is reading from a script buried in her lap. Anthony Hopkins returns as Odin, Thor’s one-eyed papa who promises to defeat Malekith and his advancing forces. Rene Russo proves to be one tough mama as Frigga, Thor’s mother who gets a chance to engage Malekith in a sword fight. There is also the always-welcome Idris Elba as Heimdall, the gatekeeper of the Bifrost who brings down one of Malekith’s ships with his bare hands. Talk about a major badass!
One of the biggest disappointments of Thor: The Dark World is the fact that the film never adopts the darker tone that was hinted at in the trailer. There are some heavier moments and a few death scenes that will hush the children pacing the aisles with excitement, but it almost always seems obligated to deliver a joke. Mind you, the humor works, but I think it would be nice to see Marvel allow these films to venture into some bleaker territory. This exact problem plagued Iron Man 3, which initially hinted that Phase 2 of the cinematic Marvel universe was going to opt for the shadowy path where our heroes were going to be dealt personal blows from the villians. On the flip side, it is understandable considering that Disney now has a presence and they are desperate to draw in young kids who may be turned off by the darker material. Overall, while the first act is a bit clunky, Thor: The Dark World is bursting with rollicking cosmic thrills in the second and third acts. It may not be Marvel’s finest achievement, but it makes for some solid entertainment that ends with a cliffhanger guaranteed to leave you wanting more. More importantly, it feels like a bonafide standalone story in the series, something that was plaguing the pre-Avengers efforts. As always, make sure to stick around through the credits for some more surprises.
by Steve Habrat
Since May of 2008, Marvel has begun to hype their heavily anticipated superhero mash-up The Avengers with little Easter egg hints in the origin stories for Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, and Captain America. It has been a torturous journey for Marvel fans but we finally have the crown jewel of Marvel superhero offerings and I’m just going to be frank when I say that it kicks a whole bunch of ass. Clocking in at just shy of two and a half hours, The Avengers is one gigantic nerd money shot, not bogged down by any longwinded origin tale or story set-up. With The Avengers, director Joss Whedon, allows his superhero titans to let loose and show off what they are capable of. There is a whole bunch of flying, jumping, punching, shooting, smashing, destroying, hammer throwing, shield throwing, missile launching fun that will keep a smile plastered across your face and drool splattering onto your Thor t-shirt. Yet The Avengers is even more of a triumph because it is actually a really good movie. This isn’t a big empty excuse that stretched things to get all these do-gooders into the same movie, which is what I feared when I first heard about The Avengers.
The Avengers begins in a remote research facility where a powerful energy source and portal known as the Tesseract is currently being held. The Tesseract suddenly activates, allowing the exiled Norse god Loki (Played by Tom Hiddleston) to step through the portal and attack the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that are guarding it. Loki finds himself confronted by S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury (Played by Samuel L. Jackson), who attempts to stop Loki from making off with the Tesseract. In the process, Loki declares war on planet earth and announces that he is in control of a powerful alien army that is capable of wiping earth out. Running out of options, Fury and Russian agent Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow (Played by Scarlett Johansson) begin rounding up the exiled Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Played by Mark Ruffalo), weapons defense expert Tony Stark/Iron Man (Played by Robert Downey, Jr.), Loki’s brother and fellow Norse god Thor (Played by Chris Hemsworth), the recently rediscovered super-soldier Steve Rodgers/Captain America (Played by Chris Evans), and kidnapped assassin Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Played by Jeremy Renner). The group forms a rickety alliance and begins trying to find a way to stop Loki and convince him not to attack earth but it turns out that S.H.I.E.L.D. may be hiding a few secrets about the Tesseract of their own.
Every hero that makes up The Avengers team gets a classic moment that sent the audience members of the midnight showing I attended into a frenzy of cheering, whistling, hooting, and hollering. It helped when the sequences that were filmed in Cleveland blasted their way onto the screen, which really drove my audience wild. Every hero gets the opportunity to fight the other or team up to take on Loki’s relentless army of hideous aliens. A sequence where Iron Man and Captain America gang up on Thor is an earthshaking encounter as well as an aerial battle between Black Widow, The Hulk, and Thor. The Thor/Hulk brawl exceeded awesome when Hulk tries to lob Thor’s hammer at him but is unable to lift it. It is just as glorious as you might expect. The final battle almost exceeds words, each character getting a “HOLY SHIT!” moment that you will have to see to believe. Much has been made over the 3D in The Avengers, which was added in post production, many saying that it leaves a lot to be desired but I was actually impressed with it. Arrows fly out of the screen along with ruble, sparks, and more. Next to Avatar and Hugo, this is one of the movies that if you can see it in IMAX 3D, you should.
While the special effects will blow your mind, it’s Joss Whedon’s script that really sends The Avengers to the forefront of superhero movies. He catches us up on all four of the main heroes; so if you’re worrying about seeing the other films that have led up to this, don’t worry too much. You’ll be able to figure out what is going on with no problem at all. Whedon measures out every hero and gives him or her an equal amount of screen time so they can do their superhero thing. Mark Ruffalo is the newest member to this tights party and he smoothly settles in. He ends up being the best Bruce Banner/The Hulk of all the actors who have tried to tackle the role. Ruffalo is a poor soul who adds the grittiest emotion to the role (a scene where he discusses a suicide attempt will really stick with you), oozing with loneliness and longing for acceptance. Thor, Stark, and Rodgers are not far behind, as the three of them all have to come to terms with their outsider status. Rodgers tries to settle in at a time when the world may not even need him, Thor continues to act like a strutting brute, and Stark continues to act like a self-center brat. Hiddleston’s Loki proves to be a formidable foe for the dream team, a smirking baddie who can do quite a bit of damage on his own. I feared his character would be unable to carry the weight of the villain considering he wasn’t front and center in last summer’s Thor but he rises to the challenge and knocks it out of the park. The two characters that I would have liked to have seen more of and developed a bit further was Black Widow and Hawkeye, who only get fleeting hints at their past. You’ll forgive because Whedon is clearly trying to juggle a lot and pulling it off exceedingly well.
The Avengers does become its own worst enemy in a way. I found myself getting so caught up in the idea of the film (Four legendary superhero in ONE movie!) that some of the sci-fi chatter and story development ends up being overshadowed. When the heroes would sit down with Fury and discuss all the science behind the Tesseract, my mind would wander a bit from the story and I would become antsy for the next action sequence. It was clear that the entire theater was getting restless during these scenes and craving more explosions, rescues, brawls, and more. There is a flipside to this and it works in the film’s favor. Since I have seen the film, I have been itching to get back to the theater to see it again and invest myself more into the story. This isn’t to say that The Avengers is a difficult film to follow (it certainly isn’t) but the gimmick of spectacle outweighs the story every step of the way. But hey, what do you expect from a summer blockbuster?
Despite a few minor hiccups, The Avengers is still a must-see action extravaganza that will be one of the biggest films of the summer. It has everything you could want in a superhero movie and then even more that you didn’t even know that you wanted. The Avengers is Marvel’s best film to date and I fear almost every film they do in the wake of it will pale (unless of course it is another Avengers movie). The film has a strong script with applause worthy one-liners, pristine CGI (get a load of Hulk!!), devoted performances, and a strong patriotic spirit that leaves American soil and infects everyone around the world. Kicking the summer movie season off with a nuclear explosion, The Avengers will awaken the inner fanboy or girl in each and every one of us, even if you think there isn’t one to be found in you. A top-notch crowd pleaser of the highest order.
by Steve Habrat
After a string of producing gigs this past summer, Steven Spielberg jumps behind the camera and gives us War Horse, one half of his directorial efforts this past holiday season (The other is The Adventures of Tintin). War Horse, based on the 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, is a finely polished Oscar vehicle that lures out the tears while also bringing families together and making you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Spielberg, you sly dog, you! Put your notion that War Horse is just a big budget Hallmark movie that should have been straight to video on the back burner and embrace this sweeping, innocent tale that makes you, the viewer, feel like it is being told to you by your expert storytelling uncle next to a flickering fire on a snowy night. Like any good story, it does take a little while for War Horse to really hit its stride, but when World War I breaks out, the film really draws us in and gets intimate with our easy emotions. War Horse is unabashedly old fashioned, but that actually adds to the event and sent my enjoyment of the film through the roof.
War Horse begins with the birth of a beautiful thoroughbred horse and grows up being admired by Albert Narracott (Played by Jeremy Irvine). A few years pass and Albert’s father Ted Narracott (Played by Peter Mullan) ends up at a horse auction where he is looking for a horse to plow his fields. He finds himself hypnotized by the horse’s beauty and ends up biding all of his money for the horse and brings it home to his horrified wife Rose (Played by Emily Watson) and the delighted Albert. Albert convinces his mother to allow him to keep the horse and train it. He ends up naming the horse Joey and the two bond instantly. Soon, Ted’s landlord Lyons (Played by David Thewlis) comes knocking for rent, but due to the high price Ted paid for Joey, he is unable to come up with the money. Albert agrees to train Joey to plow the fields so that his father can come up with the money owed to Lyons. Shortly after their agreement, World War I breaks out and Ted sells Joey to the army for the amount he owes Lyons. Distraught and furious, Albert volunteers for the army to find Joey and be reunited with him. This takes both Joey and Albert on an adventure they will never forget across lush countryside and bombed out no-mans-lands.
Relentlessly sentimental with emotional cues from John Williams’ majestic score, War Horse is pure Oscar gold that will effortlessly nab a Best Picture nomination by the Academy. Trust me, I’m not complaining about that as I absolutely bought every cheap emotional tug this film sold me. The message is as simple as they get, Spielberg once again praying for peace and begging us to all get along. This time, he uses a regal beast in the form of Joey to send this message. Many may also quickly label the film nothing but child’s play, but that only lasts for the first forty minutes of the movie. Once World War I breaks out, War Horse shifts from wispy children’s tale to muddy and weary war film. Spielberg makes these transitions fluently and he more than makes up for the slow opening by molding a crowd pleasing ending that will add fuel to the fire for those who dislike the blockbuster director and satisfy those who enjoy his work (People like me). One sequence at the end is absolutely stunning and spellbinding, forcing enemies to work together. I will reveal no more than that.
If the film somehow doesn’t nab a Best Picture and Best Director nomination, the actors surely will. Emily Watson’s Rose conveys infinite amounts of hope, support, and affection with a stare. Her eyes really sell her character and she gets some of the films sappiest lines, ones that will really tickle the fans of the Best Adapted Screenplay department. Tom Hiddleston shows up as the gracious Captain Nicholls. His commiseration for Albert’s heartbreak really makes his character memorable. I’ve always found Hiddleston to be able to really morph into his characters he takes on and Captain Nicholls is no different. Niels Arestrup shows up as a French grandfather who radiates with warmth. Mullan’s Ted is a haunted soul; one who has been exposed to the horrors life has to offer. But War Horse really benefits from the performance by Jeremy Irvine as Albert. His love for Joey is unbearably authentic and his dedication for his family can’t be matched. He is old fashioned and cheesy at times, but it fits for a project like this.
Spielberg crafts war sequences that rival what he produced in Saving Private Ryan and they truly are rousing. A tracking shot in the trenches shows us petrified yet proud young men laying down their lives for their country. His cinematography is crisp, spotless, and his scope is extensive and detailed. His battle scenes are bloodless, appropriate for young viewers and a bit easier to swallow compared to his gruesome battles in Saving Private Ryan. A scene involving barbed wire wrapped around a galloping Joey may frighten some young viewers and make adults cringe at the sight. War Horse does effectively show us how pointless war can really be. Are we really any different than our enemies? They have normal lives, professions, and names. Just like us. Condemn him for taking the easy route but Spielberg has found an effective route nonetheless.
War Horse is a must see for craftsmanship alone, a piece for viewers to marvel at the big budget ingenuity, classic storytelling, and proficient performances. The relatively unknown actors give the film a hearty does of vigor. They become real to the viewer versus the alienation of seeing a well-known star. Its message will undoubtedly get lost in the crowd of countless films preaching the same message of hope and unity, but in a way, I feel like some of the blame rests on the shoulders of Michael Morpurgo’s story. Despite some of its clichés, War Horse is a magnificent film and pure Spielberg. Much like the ambiance of War Horse, Spielberg may be starting to become a little traditionalist himself but a little old fashioned conservatism every now and again never hurt anyone. War Horse really finds its stride in the traditional vein of filmmaking.
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.