The Way of the Word

24. October 2011

Is This World Protected?

“Is this world protected?”

Yes, Doctor, it is. But who protects it? Why, Rory Williams, of course, the Last Centurion.

Would you like him to repeat the question?

29. July 2011

Review: Cowboys and Aliens

USA 2011. Directed by Jon Favreau. Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde. Runtime 118 minutes

A lone cowboy (Daniel Craig) wakes up a long way from home (or anywhere, for that matter). He has no memory of who he is, where he is, or how he came to be there. Which isn’t even the most bizarre thing he discovers; that would be the strange bracelet he wears on his left wrist. He eventually finds his way to the town Absolution, where at least some people seem to know them: the mysterious Elle (Olivia Wilde) and the local Sheriff, John Taggart (Keith Carradine). Actually, it’s from Taggart that the cowboy finds out who he is: Jake Lonergan, a wanted outlaw. Just as Taggart is about to ship Jake off to the judge in Santa Fe, they get a visit from Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), the rancher who rules the town with the proverbial iron fist. Dolarhyde wants not just his son back (who shares the prison coach with Jake), he also wants Jake because Jake stole his gold.
At this point, Absolution is attacked by UFOs who abduct a considerable part of the town’s populace. Those left behind form a posse to chase the UFOs and rescue their loved ones. Along the way, they encounter a gang of outlaws that Jake used to lead, and an Apache tribe that also has missing family. Together, they take the fight to the aliens, who turn out to be just an advance party that is here to check if the planet is suitable for looting and exterminating.

With cross-genre stories like this one, one of the main questions is which one it resembles more closely. In this case, Cowboys and Aliens is more the archetypical western movie with aliens tacked on. It’s a movie about hard men riding lonesome trails — which describes the movie’s feel. Not to disparage Craig and Ford, but both of them channel Clint Eastwood (at different points in his career) for their respective parts. And Olivia Wilde isn’t really as mysterious as she is supposed to be — at least in part, for me, because I couldn’t manage to wrap my head around the baggy pajamas she wears in half the movie. Terribly distracting, and not in a good way. On the plus side, they do manage to make it feel like a classic western, even if they go overboard on the western tropes.

And that is where Cowboys and Aliens fails: the tropes. The characters in this movie are mostly stock characters. Their adventure is a mix and mash of various western tropes, played straight. (When I did something similar in my own cross-genre novel Cowboys and Barbarians, I also stuffed it with tropes, but in a tongue-in-cheek way.) There are some bizarre elements put into the second act, but those seem to be added for their own sake instead of leading anywhere. In total, the movie feels overstuffed, in places it appears as if the writers wanted to use the awe-factor to distract from the movie’s flaws. Less awe-factor, here as everywhere it is applied, would have been more.
The aliens are familiar. If you’ve seen any alien invasion movie since Independence Day, you know these aliens. The main difference is that (by necessity) they aren’t as invincible as those from Independence Day, Battle LA or Skyline. (I even entertained myself with the notion that all the three above and this movie all tell the story of the same alien invasion — they are all that similar.)
That means that any character who isn’t Jake Lonergan gets short shrift. When Dolarhyde bonds with the Sheriff’s grandson Emmett (Noah Ringer), it doesn’t work, because it’s really just a sidenote. The writers put some (metaphorical) loaded guns on the fireplace but don’t fire them (perhaps in earlier drafts of the screenplay?). Some character growth feels false because it doesn’t really develop naturally. And the showdown would have worked better if there had been more consistency — the aliens are bulletproof or not, depending on whether or not the writers want to kill the cowboy in question.

In summary: Cowboys and Aliens is an entertaining western with some sci-fi elements. You won’t leave the movie feeling that you’ve wasted your time. But you will leave the movie feeling that it could have been much much more. And by borrowing heavily from both other western and sci-fi movies, you never lose the feeling that you’ve seen all of this before.

Verdict: mildly recommended.

20. July 2011

Review: Captain America, the First Avenger

USA 2011. Directed by Joe Johnston. Starring Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Sebastian Stan, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper. Runtime: 125 minutes

In the first days of America’s involvement in WW2, frail Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) desperately tries and fails to join the army. He is simply not fit enough. At one attempt, he is noticed by Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who is working on a super-soldier program for the US government. Erskine considers Steve the perfect candidate and recruits him. The experiment is a success and turns the skinny little dude into a perfect specimen. Unfortunately, he will remain the only one, because Erskine is killed by a Hydra assassin.

As the only possible result of this experiment, Steve is considered too valuable to be sent to the front. Instead, he tours the country in order to drum up support for the war effort. But when Steve tours the front and discovers that his best friend Bucky’s (Sebastian Stan) unit has been captured by the evil Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), he goes off by himself and frees them. His success earns him a series of field assignments that cover the entire war.

During this time, Schmidt, whose nickname is Red Skull because of a deformity he got as a result of his participation in Erskine’s prototype experiment, has built Hydra into a fighting force, mostly because he managed to get his hands on a superweapon called The Tesseract. In the final days of the war, the Red Skull decides to eradicate the US. As his plane takes off, only Captain America can get on board to stop the Red Skull’s plan.

Captain America is a dramatic, movie, it’s an adventurous movie, Americans might even consider it a patriotic movie.  But at the heart of it, it is not an American movie. As in, you don’t need to be American to like the movie or the characters. Yes, Captain America dresses like the US flag, but the values he represents go beyond the US, and therefore the character can resonate with audiences all over the world. There is no patriotic flag-waving in this movie. And yes, that is a plus. Instead, it’s mostly a movie about people.

It is, of course, the story of Steve Rogers, who is willing to selflessly lay his life on the line for what he thinks is right and important. Be that standing up against bullies of all kinds and sizes, or just risking everything to save his friend. All the while remaining clueless about some other things, such as Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell). Chris Evans rises to the occasion, presenting a more nuanced and mature performace than I thought him capable of. It is as if here, for the first time, he was actually challenged to play against type, and he is up to the task.

It is, surprisingly, the story of Abraham Erskine, a German scientist in US exile, who also wants to do the right thing. Stanley Tucci puts in an Oscar-worthy performance. In the short time he has, he infuses Erskine with so much humanity and makes the character so very likable that you are honestly sad when he is assassinated.

It is, to a lesser extent, the story of the Red Skull, whose job is to be two-dimensionally evil and give Captain America something to fight. Hugo Weaving is a very good actor, but he is overqualified for this role, which doesn’t require much more than chewing scenery.

And on the fringes, it is the story of the Howling Commandos, an elite fighting unit; of Bucky Barnes; and of Tommy Lee Jones as Nick Fury in everything but name (since the character of that name is played by Sam Jackson). Dominic Cooper puts in a very fun performance as Howard Stark, so much so that I’d want him to take over as Tony Stark when Robert Downey’s contract expires.

The story itself is very simple, almost simplistic, but it makes up for that in adventure, fun and excitement. It works even better for comic fans, because they are likely to catch most (if not all) of the Easter Eggs, such as the cameo of the original Human Torch, and Matt Salinger’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it uncredited cameo. (In the observation booth during Steve Rogers’s transformation.)

The special effects work fabulously. The most amazing one being skinny Steve Rogers, who is played by Chris Evans with the help of invisible (= not noticeable) CGI. The film is in 3D of course, but except for one moment (when Cap throws his shield at the audience), the 3D is (as usual) rather superfluous.

The downside: not enough Nazis. While the Red Skull starts out as a Nazi scientist, he disowns the Third Reich during his third appearance, after which it is all about Hydra. Apparently, Nazis aren’t evil enough anymore for a WW2 movie. While the logic behind this is obvious (Nazis might adversely affect merchandising sales, which must be avoided at all cost), it leaves a very sour taste.

All in all, however, Captain America is a very entertaining (although not very deep) movie. Joe Johnston is a hit-or-miss director, having delivered gems like Rocketeer and bombs like Jurassic Park III. Here, he is in Rocketeer mode.

Verdict: very recommended.

25. June 2011

RIP Peter Falk

Peter Michael Falk, born September 16, 1927 in New York, died June 23, 2011 in Beverly Hills, at the age of 83.

The actor Peter Falk was famous for two things. One of them being his glass eye, which he got after losing his right eye at the age of three. Which didn’t stop him from participating in team sports as a youth. He was actually considered a star athlete in high school. While the glass eye kept him from enlisting in the US armed forces during WW2, he did serve as a cook and mess boy in the merchant marines for a year and a half. After that, he initially signed up for Israeli army’s war against Egypt, but that war was over before the proverbial ink had dried. So he went back to university. Upon graduating, he tried to join the CIA, who rejected him because he had been a union member while in the merchant marines.

While working as an efficiency analyst for the city of Hartfort, he joined the local community theater. At the same time, he studied with Eva Le Gallienne; a class he lied to get into: Miss Le Gallienne only taught professional actors. When he was found out, and she told him he should be a professional actor, he quit his day job. Moving to New York, he became a successful stage actor. From 1958 to 1960, he also played small roles in movies.

His cinema breakthrough was the role of Abe Reles in the movie Murder, Inc. in 1960, for which he got an Oscar nomination. He got another nomination the following year for his part in Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles. During the same period, he also did some TV work, which also got him award nominations. He won the Emmy in 1962.

In 1968, he accepted a supporting role in the Gene Barry TV movie Prescription: Murder, a role that had been rejected by Bing Crosby. Prescription: Murder was something original at the time: a murder mystery from the murderer’s POV. Falk was cast as Barry’s foil, the police detective Lieutenant Columbo.

(Pause for effect.)

Now, if you haven’t heard of Columbo, you’re probably from another planet, and even then you’re likely to know of the character. Peter Falk played the unique, polite and much smarter than he appeared detective from 1968 until 1978. It wasn’t so much an ongoing TV series, but rather a series of TV movie specials.  The longest seasons were 2 and 3, with 8 episodes each.  It was revived in 1989, for more TV movies and specials until 2003. The people who worked on it were a real who-is-who of Hollywood. Steven Spielberg directed the first regular episode in 1971. Robert Culp, Patrick McGoohan, William Shatner, John Cassavetes, Mickey Spillane, Richard Kiley and George Hamilto are only a minor sampling of guest stars. Falk’s Columbo quickly became one of the most iconic sleuths in fiction, ranking with Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Sam Spade. In parallel, he continued to make movies (preferring smaller, independent movies) and act on the stage.

After a series of dental operations in 2007, Peter Falk rapidly declined into dementia and Alzheimer’s.

This is the point where I usually explain what the person whose obit I wrote here meant to me. In this particular case, I don’t feel up to it.

I mean, this is Columbo we’re talking about, you know. If you didn’t love Columbo, that’s proof that you don’t have a soul.

21. June 2011

Review: Green Lantern

USA 2011. Directed by Martin Campbell. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Blake Lively. Runtime: 105 Minutes

After being freed from his prison, the entity known as Parallax strikes against the Green Lantern Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison). Abin Sur escapes, severely wounded, to Earth, where his power ring picks test pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) as Abin Sur’s successor. After a brief stint on the Lantern HQ planet Oa for training, Hal decides that he isn’t cut out to be a member of the Green Lantern Corps and returns to Earth.

Meanwhile, Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) is infected with a particle of Parallax energy and begins to metamorphose into a superbeing with incredible mental powers. Which he promptly uses to get back and people who he believes wronged him – such as his father (Tim Robbins). As Hal takes on Hector, Parallax notices the fight and decides that Earth will make a nice snack before attacking Oa. Hal takes off to Oa to ask for the Corps’s help, but since the Corps just got their butts kicked by Parallax, they are too afraid to commit. So Hal has to fight Parallax by himself.

I’ll readily admit that after the reviews I’ve seen, I went into Green Lantern thinking, “Please don’t suck, please don’t suck.” Perhaps because of my low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised.

That doesn’t mean the movie has no problems. It has plenty of them. It also has a charm, however, that makes up for several of those problems.

The main problem is that it’s too ambitious. Green Lantern is three very good superhero movies compressed into one: Hal coming into his own as a Green Lantern, Hal fighting Hector Hammond, Hal fighting Parallax. If the creators had focused on one of these story arcs, they could have made one hell of a movie. Perhaps the one thing that almost made me cry was seeing the glimmer of Hector Hammond’s potential being unfulfilled. The way Sarsgaard played the character hinted at the tragic and almost sympathetic villain character that could have been if the movie had given the character enough time to be developed. The training arc on Oa was a GL reader’s proverbial wet dream, or would have been if it hadn’t been so short. The menace of Parallax would have been far more threatening if the monster had been on the screen for more than the (felt) ten minutes of screentime that it had.

In that regard, Green Lantern is the poster boy for missed opportunities. The poster boy for “less is more.” Less would have provided the chance to focus and develop aspects of the story and the mythology.

That doesn’t mean that Green Lantern is a hopeless case. Sure, some things don’t make sense, and I hope that there will be a director’s cut with deleted scenes that will fix that. Some other things make no real-world sense, but they make superhero-logic sense, so I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for that.

But the cast is charming, Sarsgaard is having fun, and the visuals…

… are spectacular. The visuals are what really sells this movie. Alien vistas, the entire Green Lantern corps in incredible detail. The energy constructs are cool and sometimes funny.

And Green Lantern is the first 3D movie that I’ve seen where the 3D actually works and enhances the film. (Well, except maybe for Tron: Legacy.)

So… what’s the verdict? Green Lantern fails completely in aspects of story and writing. The actors fight valiantly against a script that doesn’t give them the opportunity to develop their characters. But the visuals are cosmically spectacular, as they should be, and the entire film has something of a retro charm that in some places reminded me of those old Richard Donner Superman movies. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, but I can easily see how, if my mood hadn’t been as fine as it was, the faults might have glared more at me.  It’s the proverbial popcorn movie. Therefore, I can’t in good conscience give anything but

Verdict: neutral.

28. May 2011

Awesome Ideas That Will Never Be

Okay, if the right chain of unlikely coincidences should happen, this one has a very slim chance of not being completely impossible. If someone who knows Cassandra Peterson happens to see this and likes it and points it out to her and she likes it…

But, yeah: awesome idea that will never be.

I like Elvira (Cassandra Peterson). The character is funny, bizarre, over the top, sexy and, well, funny. I own her first movie, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, on DVD. I’ve seen the second one, Elvira’s Haunted Hills, but I don’t like it nearly as much as the first. The reason is simple: Elvira is an over-the-top comedic character. But unlike the first movie, where Elvira began as the odd woman out and the situation became progressively more bizarre, the second movie had a scenario where everyone was so bizarre that Elvira fit right in.

A good Elvira movie needs to quote heavily from the horror genre, and it has to have Elvira as someone who stands out like the proverbial sore thumb. If everyone is as bizarre as she, then it’s overkill.

So what can we do to make a good and fun Elvira movie? It’s really quite simple:

Elvira Knows Why You Screamed on Friday the 13th.

Let’s quote heavily from the slasher genre, with some liberal sprinkling of Evil Dead and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

A busload of teenagers, returning home from a sports event (or going to a sports event) finds themselves trapped on a small islet. They had only planned to pass through, but a flash flood tore down both bridges, effectively isolating them. There is only one house on the islet, a mansion actually, so the teenagers turn there for help.

The only person in there is Elvira, who, being her normal friendly and helpful self, offers the kids shelter. But something is weird about the entire set-up. Curious as teenagers are, they discover that Elvira is engaged in some strange magickal rituals that might involve the Necronomicon.

As soon as they discover that, they start dying. Since Elvira is the odd woman out, they of course immediately suspect her as the Slasher, and try to kill her in return. Which doesn’t work, but plays a part in establishing that Elvira is not the killer. As the outsider looking in, her help does turn out to be instrumental in uncovering the real killer. And about the magickal experiments she performs in her basement? Yes, it is the Necronomicon, but she’s not trying to call up demons. She’s trying to materialize Bruce Campbell.

At the end of the night, the bridges are being repaired, so the surivors can look forward to continuing on their trip. But what about Elvira? Will she get lucky? Will her summoning of Bruce Campbell succeed? Only his agent knows for sure…

25. May 2011

Review: X-Men First Class

USA/GB 2011. Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon. Runtime: 127 Minutes

The year is 1962. Concentration camp survivor Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) has become a Nazi hunter. He is specifically after one person: Nazi scientist Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon). His quest seems to come to an end when he discovers that Schmidt now calls himself Sebastian Shaw and is in Miami, FL.

The year is 1962. CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) is investigating the mysterious Hellfire Club, which is run by Sebastian Shaw. When she discovers things that are patently impossible (how can a man have red skin and a tail, and transport someone else 3000 miles within a few minutes?), she seeks out the help of a geneticist who specializes in mutation: Charles Xavier (James McAvoy).  He agrees to help her out in this case, and they track down Shaw.

Arriving at the same time as Lensherr. Despite Erik’s best efforts, Shaw escapes. But Charles has a plan: Shaw has a team of superpowered mutants on his side. The obvious conclusion is that Xavier assembles his own team to deal with it. And so, Xavier and Erik find and gather a group of young, powerful mutants to fight Shaw’s group.

The situation becomes desperate when Xavier discovers that Shaw plans to manipulate the USA and the USSR into starting a nuclear war, which will reduce the world to ruins — but ruins that Shaw will rule. The newly formed, barely trained and still unnamed X-Men dash to Cuba to stop Shaw.

X-Men: First Class is technically the fifth movie in the series (after the original trilogy and the Wolverine movie). This is usually the point where I wonder: does the world really need another (insert franchise name) movie?

In this case, the answer is a resounding YES. X-Men: First Class easily outshines and outclasses not only all the previous X-Men movies, I would rate it second only to The Dark Knight. The movie does everything right.

Instead of a superhero movie, X-Men: First Class is a thriller where the protagonists happen to have superpowers. The stakes are high: the survival of the world. And the events actually happened, sort of: the Cuban missile crisis is an historic event, and it almost did cause a total nuclear war. The difference between the movie and the real world was that there were no mutants involved in the real world event. (That we know of. 😉 ) The movie does not rely on big, splashy special effects. Which means that when they do present a big splashy special effect (yes, I’m talking about Magneto raising a submarine from the ocean), it packs quite a punch. The chilliest and scariest moments, however, involve Magneto and a small coin.

X-Men: First Class focuses on the characters. This is mostly an ensemble piece, so it’s clear that not all the characters get equal time. At the center are the relationships between Xavier, Erik and, to an extent, Shaw. Vaughn doesn’t forget the X-Men, however. Each of the young mutants has their own storyarc, which is compellingly told and actually brought to a conclusion. The young actors who play the X-Men sell their roles completely. As the audience, you invest feelings into all of them, you want to see what happens to them, what becomes of them. Even in those cases where you know, such as Magneto and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), you can’t help an emotional investment in the outcome. Taking, for example, the moment when Mystique discovers that the boy she likes is just like everyone else and considers her real form ugly, that the only one who actually accepts her for what she is is Erik… you, as the audience, can actually feel her heart break.

It’s the bad guys who get the short end of the stick here, Riptide for example doesn’t get any lines at all. But it doesn’t really matter, because they only exist as foils for the heroes. The only villain who matters is Shaw — and that is because of his personal connection to Erik.

If Michael Fassbender weren’t already a star, I’d call this his breakout performance. His portrayal of Erik Lensherr/Magneto is compelling, conflicted, nuanced. His relationship with Xavier is a mutual brotherly love, two men who want the same thing, but because of their opposite pasts see the future differently. Xavier is a sheltered rich kid, who sees people as inherently good. Erik, as the concentration camp survivor, has seen humanity at its worst, and his views are colored accordingly. At the end, when the X-Men reveal themselves to the world, one man’s views will be proven right.

And the audience will see where Magneto’s coming from. Because Erik Lensherr is a thoroughly sympathetic figure. He doesn’t trust humans, and when the proverbial chips fall, he’s the one who is proven right.

The movie also manages to balance all that gravitas with a lot of humor. It’s a good kind of humor, though, the kind where you laugh with the characters and not at them. One of the funniest scenes is where the kids are in the CIA compound, showing off their powers. Kids will be kids. And let us not forget the cameos. One in particular had the entire audience howling with laughter. “Go f**k yourselves.” You’ll see what I mean, and you can’t tell me you didn’t laugh.

In summary: X-Men: First Class is an extremely well written, well acted and well-directed thriller with superpowered protagonists that manages to get the audience involved in the destinies of each of the characters. It ties neatly into the other movies (only two minor continuity quibbles remain unresolved), but stands out as the best of them. As a matter of fact, X-Men: First Class sets the blue-gold-standard for this year’s superhero movies — and frankly, I don’t think the others can beat it. Among all the other superhero movies, I rate this second only to The Dark Knight.

Verdict: extremely recommended.

15. May 2011

Review: Pirates of the Caribbean 4 – On Stranger Tides

USA 2011. Directed by Rob Marshall. Starring Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane. Runtine: 140 minutes

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is in London, and hiring a crew for a new expedition. When Captain Jack Sparrow finds out about that, he’s rather upset that someone is abusing his name. He has just found out who it is when he is shanghaied into that very crew — which turns out to be Blackbeard’s (Ian McShane). Blackbeard and his daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz) are looking for the Fountain of Youth. Just like everyone else, from the Spanish king to Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Jack’s arch-nemesis. And everyone thinks that Captain Jack Sparrow knows where it is.

I’m kind of torn regarding Pirates 4. On the one hand, I didn’t very much like it. On the other hand, I know exactly why: I’m too old for it. Pirates of the Caribbean is very much a children’s movie. If you’re under 18, you’re probably going to love it, for exactly the bits that seemed silly and contrieved (in other words: childish) to me. In that regard, it fails: while delivering the goods for the young target group, it forgets to add a layer for the adults. If you’ll compare recent animated movies like Despicable Me or Megamind, those had something for everyone to enjoy. Pirates 4 is only for children. Perhaps adults are supposed to marvel at the production values. It is, in a way, a pity, because Pirates 4 opens with a very clever and well-choreographed action sequence where Captain Jack escapes from the clutches of the king of  England. But it fades fast afterwards. There is still plenty of action, and a couple of scenes that might have been scary, but it is literally too bloodless to be effective.

Yes, Pirates of the Caribbean 4 is definitely aimed straight at children. In that, it falls short of the all-ages appeal of the first one.

Another problem is that the cast doesn’t bother to try to save the movie. Johnny Depp is by now so familiar with Jack Sparrow that he doesn’t need to wake up in order to play the part, and it shows. McShane’s Blackbeard tries his best to be menacing, but he doesn’t really succeed. There is no chemistry between Cruz and Depp, and their relationship doesn’t really hold water. Only Rush as Barbossa stands out. Rush chews his scenery with relish, and becomes the best thing about this movie.

The script is also rather careless. A bit more effort would have resulted in a layered all-ages movie instead of a pure childrens’s movie. And some plotholes would have required plugging. While there is a twist at the end that even I didn’t see coming, the ending had several problems. While some of it was predictable, there was one real “That character wouldn’t do that” moment, and the ending required ignoring some of the rules the movie set up.

Of course, this movie was in 3D. Compared to most, the 3D was not bad. Disney really knows how to do that. However, the 3D is in-your-face pointless, mostly it’s about objects being thrust into your face. You don’t lose anything by seeing this movie in 2D.

The final verdict? This one is difficult. As a movie for children, Pirates 4 is quite effective. As such, I render the

Verdict: recommended

For adults without children, it’s more difficult. Pirates 4 is better than Pirates 2 and 3, but that’s not difficult to accomplish. It’s not as much fun as the first one, though. For adults, I render the

Verdict: mildly recommended

20. April 2011

Review: Thor

USA 2011. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins. Runtime: 114 minutes

A thousand years ago, there was a great war: the Frost Giants attacked the Earth. But the humans did not stand alone: to their rescue came the Asgardians, led by Odin (Anthony Hopkins). The Asgardians defeated the Frost Giants and sent them home. There was peace since then, but it was a fragile peace.

Now, Odin is about to retire from the throne, and intends to proclaim his son Thor (Chris Hemsworth) king of Asgard. Unluckily, the ceremony is interrupted by a trio of Frost Giants who have breached Asgard’s defenses to steal the Cask of Ancient Winters. Odin’s superweapon The Destroyer makes short work of them, though. Still, it is not enough for Thor, who considers this an act of war and wants to retaliate.  Against his father’s wishes, Thor, his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and their closest friends take the battle to Jotunheim, the realm of the Frost Giants. And much ass is kicked. But in the end, our heroes are outnumbered, and look to go down fighting, until Odin comes to their rescue.

I suppose you can imagine how unhappy Odin is with his favorite son. He’s unhappy enough that he banishes him to Earth. But with an escape hatch: a quickly whispered enchantment and a hammer throw provide Thor with the means to eventually return to Asgard: “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.”

Both Thor and hammer end up in New Mexico, where Thor meets Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her friends. Jane is an astrophysicist who has been busy exploring peculiar electromagnetic occurrences. Thor, of course, happens to be in the middle of one of them: Jane was tracking Bifrost, the bridge between Asgard and the other realms. Once Thor finds out that his hammer Mjolnir is also in New Mexico, he sets off to reclaim it. Bad news: he can’t. He isn’t worthy. Which means he is now stuck on Earth.

Meanwhile, on Asgard, Odin has slipped into the Odinsleep, leaving Loki king of Asgard. Loki, never one to miss an opportunity, sets out to cement his rule and make sure that Thor never returns. Leaving Thor stranded on Earth sounds like a plan, if only it weren’t for those pesky Warriors Three Fandral (Joshua Dallas), Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) and their companion Sif (Jaimie Alexander). (For those who wonder why Sif receives extra credit, instead of being part of Warriors Four – the three guys take their collective name from the comics, and in the movie, Sif is badass enough to merit an extra mention.) These four set out to bring Thor back, because they don’t like the idea of Loki being king. Which means Loki has to kill Thor. Pity. He hadn’t really wanted that. Destroyer, if you would, please.

When the Destroyer comes to smash New Mexico, Thor shows some new found humility and the willingness to sacrifice his own life for others. That seems to make him worthy, because now Mjolnir takes off to return to its master’s hand. And much ass gets kicked.

The good things first: Thor kicks ass. Or rocks. Whichever you prefer. On a scale of Marvel movies, it’s not quite as good as Iron Man 1, but better than Iron Man 2.

The movie wins because of the cast and the characters. Because of the story and the writing. Thor is a jock, a braggard, he’s big and strong, he has never met anyone he couldn’t take, and he never had to grow up. For Thor, life is an adventure. And it helps if your father is king of the gods. Chris Hemsworth sells this, he owns the part. He walks with a swagger, and he is so utterly charming in his arrogance that it’s impossible not to like him.

Something similar can be said of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. He’s a schemer and a planner. His plan in this movie is far more layered and complex than it seems at first. But even though he is a wily manipulator, his actions don’t grow out of evil. They grow out of being the second son, the less-loved son, who stands in the shadow of his larger-than-life brother. As Hemsworth and Thor, Hiddleston makes Loki believable. Likable, even. Sure, he wants to have his brother out of the way, but at first he doesn’t even want to kill him. He just wants to humiliate him, then get him out of the way. As the situation escalates, so do Loki’s plans, as he grows increasingly annoyed and lashes out with the same petulance that Thor exhibits at the film’s beginning. In that, Loki’s increasing childishness while Thor grows up, Hiddleston and Branagh present Loki as the mirror image of Thor.

Those are just the two principal players. All in all, the entire movie is perfectly cast, up to and including the two actors where I had certain problems. Before the movie, I was opposed to the idea of African-American actor Idris Elba playing a Norse god, as much as I was opposed to the idea of slim actor Ray Stevenson playing a character known as Volstagg the Voluminous. Both won me over, because they nailed their characters. There is not a single bad performance in this movie.

The story is not too complex, and yet Thor manages to be a rather smart action movie. There are several laugh out loud moments, sometimes in the dialog, sometimes in the way the actors present their lines, sometimes as physical comedy. But they are never out of place. The humor comes from the characters, their interactions with each other and the world(s) around them.

The bad: you will want to see this movie in 2D, because the 3D is Last Airbender-level bad. The 3D makes the movie darker, it becomes blurry, and it doesn’t add anything positive to the experience. The best scenes are those where the 3D doesn’t punch you in the “lookee, 3D” face. Scenes that are really just 2D. Well, it’s not as if this problem is anything new with post conversion, right?

The other bad is that Thor shows that Kenneth Branagh, who is a solid character (and story) director, is not an action director. The four major action pieces — the Frost Giant attack on the Vikings, the battle in Jotunheim, the fight of Thor vs. Destroyer and the showdown with Loki — are visual messes. I’ll have to see the movie again in 2D to know just how much the bad 3D helped jumble the scenes (the opening action piece was definitely ruined only by the 3D), but the Thor vs. Destroyer fight was almost as bad as the showdown in Ang Lee’s Hulk — it was very difficult to tell what was going on.

Finally, Thor tries to stuff too many characters into this movie. Every single one of them gets a moment to shine, and every single one contributes something essential to the story, but it does make for a bit of a clutter.

All in all, however, those two are the movie’s only flaws. All in all, Thor presents a coherent and clever story, likable and nuanced characters and solid acting by every single member of the cast.

The after-credits scene, by the way, connects Thor to both Captain America and Avengers. I’m not going to spoiler it any more than that.

Verdict: very recommended

13. April 2011

Awesome Ideas That Will Never Be

We all know that the new Superman movie is going to be a trilogy, right? And a reboot. And it’s common knowledge that Zod will be the villain in the first movie. Now, nobody’s asked me, and they never will, but this is how I would do a Superman trilogy. I’m focusing on Luthor’s storyarc here, because I feel that after having been the villain/supporting character in 4 out of 5 movies, the animated series, and Smallville, justifying his presence requires a bit more effort in order to make him interesting.

The first movie opens with the destruction of Krypton: a distinctively-shaped spaceship approaches the planet and destroys it. Just before that happens, Jor-El sends of infant Kal-El. The next years are summarized during the opening credits: arrival on Earth, growing up on a farm, discovering the powers and joining the Daily Planet.

Enter Lex Luthor, the most brillant mind on Earth. And a total sociopath. His supergenius intellect has made him a giant in science and economy, and his lack of conscience (“I am the pinnacle of human evolution – to me, all of you are like ants”) has made him utterly ruthless and disregardful of human life. Literally the only thing that matters to Luthor is Luthor. The rest of us exist to worship him.

Then Zod arrives, and with his superpowers begins to take over the planet. Luthor sets out to stop him – and fails. The first and only failure in his life. Even worse, this is the moment when Superman shows himself, takes on Zod and wins! Superman succeeds where Luthor failed, and he now gets the accolades that Luthor considers his due. That leaves only one thing to do: in order to set things right, Superman must be destroyed!

But that will have to wait, because in the second movie, the distinctive spaceship that destroyed Krypton approaches Earth. Brainiac has come, to destroy our world. And this time, even Superman alone isn’t up to the task. While Luthor would love to see Superman fail and destroyed, this won’t do — the only one who gets to destroy Superman is Luthor. And since there won’t be anyone left to worship Luthor if Earth is destroyed, Luthor needs to save the Earth. During the final confrontation on Brainiac’s ship, Luthor steals Brainiac’s data and happens upon something that nobody on Earth has ever seen: Kryptonite. He discovers that because Brainiac uses it against Superman, and Luthor needs to save Superman from the effects. Needless to say he keeps the sample for future use. Together, they kick Brainiac’s ass.

The third movie brings up the confrontation that audiences have been waiting for: Luthor vs. Superman. Luthor has used the information he stole from Brainiac’s ship to build himself a battle suit that is powerful enough to take Superman on. So he does, confident that even if the suit fails, he still has the Kryptonite to back him up. Superman wins, of course. That is the one thing that Luthor can’t tolerate, so he activates Plan Omega: he overloads his armor, which would result in an explosion powerful enough to wipe Metropolis off the map. It is something that Superman can of course prevent. Worse, from Luthor’s POV, is the fact that Superman saves Luthor’s life. In prison, all Luthor can think of is revenge…

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