Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Tom Hiddleston’

Normally, I would suggest that all that one really needs to say about Early Man is that it is the new movie from Nick Park and Aardman Animations, the award-laden creators of the Wallace and Gromit series, the Pirates! movie, the Shaun the Sheep movie, Chicken Run, and Flushed Away. Aardman are, I suppose, the closest thing to a British version of Pixar, routinely producing films which are, if nothing else, a showcase for the highest standards of creativity and craftsmanship, and Nick Park is their highest-profile creator (he has a habit of turning up to the Oscars in all-advised home-made bow ties).

Given it routinely takes years of work, comprising thousands of person-hours, to complete a movie, one wonders just how Park settles on one of his feature-length projects: I’d be terrified of getting bored halfway through or realising the idea just wasn’t as strong as I’d thought. No matter how his process works, the end result this time sees Park and his team venturing into new territory.

As the title suggests, Early Man is set in prehistoric times, and concerns Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and his tribe of easy-going and generally inept cavemen (we should probably call them cavepeople, come to think of it). Catching even a rabbit is a push for this lot, and Dug’s ideas that they should branch out into mammoth hunting seem wildly optimistic.

Soon, however, they have bigger problems, for their verdant and peaceful valley is annexed by the forces of a much more advanced Bronze Age civilisation, overseen by the avaricious Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, not that you can tell). Most of the tribe is driven into the hostile badlands where they are easy prey for predatory geese, but Dug finds his way to Lord Nooth’s city where he discovers the invaders have an unexpected Achilles’ heel – they are all mad about football (or soccer, depending on which variety of English you speak).

Dug hits upon a cunning plan – he challenges Lord Nooth’s team, Real Bronzino, to a match to determine the fate of the valley. Win, and the cave people get their home back and can live there peacefully. Lose, and they all go down the mine together. The gamble seems worthwhile, except for the fact that none of them have ever played football before…

Early Man opens with a tip of the hat from one master animator to another, as Nick Park lovingly spoofs one of Ray Harryhausen’s more famous films, the Hammer caveman picture One Million Years BC. Indeed, it initially looks like the whole thing is going to be a send-up of that kind of thing, with a few slightly Flintstones-esque jokes stirred into the mix. But then there are suddenly some jokes about football, and then the bad guys turn up, doing an array of outrageous European accents, and suddenly, it’s clear that… well, it’s clear that it’s very unclear what this film thinks it is, except on the most basic level.

Let us get the slightly problematic aspect of this film out of the way. Just as virtually every major American release these days is deconstructed to determine just what its attitude is to the Trumpclasm and the Unique Moment (etc, etc), so every significant British film is equally analysed to see if it is saying something about the probable British departure from the European project. Early Man is about a plucky bunch of cave people with British accents who come together to save their homeland from the depredations of a bunch of exploitative outsiders with French, German, and Italian accents. Togetherness and old-fashioned pluck is all it takes for them to win the day and reclaim their independence (if you doubt that this metaphor about the cave people representing the UK is intentional, the script is explicit about the fact that it was Dug’s lot who initially invented football and exported it to the rest of the world, who then learned to play it better than they did).

It’s not exactly scintillating stuff (unless you’re an op-ed chimp for the Daily Express or Daily Mail, anyway), but it least it suggests a level of depth to the film which just isn’t there most of the rest of the time: I suppose you could say Early Man is a kind of parody of sports movies (I found myself thinking particularly of Escape to Victory, but probably only because the two films are equally implausible), but a lot of the time it’s just a sports movie sprinkled with some rather variable gags, and hardly any of the little in-jokes and cinematic allusions one has come to expect from Aardman films. Quite apart from the sledgehammer satire, there are probably just a few too many gags about bodily functions for this to really qualify as a children’s film, strictly speaking, but on the other hand there’s not a great deal here for adults to enjoy on their level, either.

If you compare it to a film like Coco, which was at least as inventive and visually impressive, but also managed to be genuinely moving and included some lovely, resonant metaphors and a universal message, Early Man just comes across as rather shallow, knockabout stuff – unsophisticated slapstick backed up by a load of really bad puns. I’m not going to suggest that this isn’t a funny film, because I did laugh quite a lot, but it’s not exactly side-splitting, either, and some of the jokes earn their laughs solely because of their sheer perseverance.

There is the usual voice cast of distinguished actors, including Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Rob Brydon, Richard Ayoade, Miriam Margolyes, and so on, and the film’s technical achievements are genuinely impressive, as usual. The problem is that the script just isn’t up to the same level, and isn’t really built around a sufficiently strong central idea. This isn’t actually a bad film, and if it had been made by anyone else I expect it would be greeted as an impressive piece of work. But judged by the standards of other Aardman movies, Early Man can’t help but feel a little underpowered.

Read Full Post »

Chris Hemsworth is in the odd position of being one of those people who can command a huge salary, get his name in big letters on a movie poster, and sit on top of a massive opening box-office weekend, and yet he’s not really what you’d call a proper movie star: people don’t go and see a Chris Hemsworth movie, they go and see Thor movies, and it’s just Hemsworth’s good fortune that he’s the guy who gets to play Thor at the moment. Once he steps away from the magic circle of the Marvel Studios franchise – well, it’s not as if he doesn’t make any other movies, and it’s not as if they don’t make money (although he has notched up a couple of significant bombs), nor is it the case that he is routinely bad in them, but they tend not to make the same kind of impression, no matter their quality. For the time being I’m sure this isn’t a major issue for the big lad, but he surely can’t carry on playing Thor forever, and what is he going to do then? (To be fair, this isn’t problem isn’t limited to Hemsworth, as a number of Marvel’s other big names also seem to struggle to find success in other roles.)

Anyway, Hemsworth is back giving us his God of Thunder once again, in Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, umpteenth entry in the all-conquering Marvel Studios megafranchise. This is their third release of 2017, but – as you might expect by this point – they make it all look very easy indeed.

Things get under way with a rather busy and somewhat convoluted opening section, but this is surely forgivable given that it allows for a brief appearance by Cumbersome Bandersnatch as Dr Strange, and an uncredited cameo from an extremely game Major Movie Star, all played very much for laughs. (To be honest, the vast majority of the movie is essentially played for laughs on some level or other, so we can take that as read from this point on.)

Well, basically, the machinations of Thor’s devious adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) bring about the return of the banished Asgardian Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who is intent on seizing the throne for herself and reinventing Asgard as an aggressively imperial force in the universe. Thor and Loki take exception to this plan, but in the course of their tussle with Hela and her eye-catching headwear, find themselves dumped far from home on the junkheap planet Sakaar.

While Hela tightens her grip on Asgard with the help of Skurge (Karl Urban), an unscrupulous warrior, the brothers have to survive on this new alien world, which is ruled by the alien Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who is part despotic emperor, part superstar DJ. Thor is nabbed by the slightly boozy Asgardian renegade Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and consigned to the gladiatorial pits where he must battle to survive. Bereft of his magic hammer and his flowing locks, can Thor still summon up enough of his mojo to escape and save the universe…?

I think it is fair to say that not many people would rate the first two Thor movies amongst the top flight of the Marvel series – it’s not that they’re actually bad, but they are slightly ponderous in a way that most of the studio’s other films are not. Clearly the people at the top of Marvel feel the same way, for there has obviously been a rethink and a bit of a retooling of Thor and his particular corner of the universe, perhaps somewhat influenced by Chris Hemsworth’s very effective comic turn in the All-Female Ghostbusters Reboot. Everything is much more laid back and comedic than it was in the first two films; Thor is positively chatty much of the time, and there are sight gags and pratfalls aplenty.

Marvel savants will already be aware that, in an attempt to add something new to the formula this time round, the writers of Ragnarok have borrowed a few elements from the Planet Hulk storyline (which ran in the comics over ten years ago). Presumably this is one reason why the Hulk himself has a major role in the story (he is played by Mark Ruffalo, as usual) – although in terms of the actual plot, Thor is in the Hulk role, while the Hulk is in the position originally occupied by the Silver Surfer (who, needless to say, isn’t in the film). As I say, it’s only a superficial take on Planet Hulk, but putting Thor and the Hulk in outer space together does open up some new possibilities.

If nothing else, it does allow the movie to move away from some of the more limiting elements of the previous movies – Anthony Hopkins has a much-reduced role, as do several other established characters. Natalie Portman isn’t in it at all, and for a while it also looks like Idris Elba’s voluble complaints about working for Marvel (‘This is torture, I don’t want to do this’) have earned him the sack – but he’s dragged back in front of the green screen before too much time has elapsed. In their place, Cate Blanchett is clearly having a whale of a time as an extremely camp villainess, closely followed by Goldblum. One of the film’s most quietly impressive features is Karl Urban’s performance as Skurge the Executioner – Urban takes a third-string Marvel villain and manages to turn him into someone who actually has a bit of a character arc in the course of the story.

It’s one of the few elements of the film which takes itself (mostly) seriously, for the sense I get from Ragnarok is that Marvel’s main directive to Waititi was ‘Make it more Guardians of the Galaxy-y’. The playlist this time is more prog rock and disco, but the quotient of spaceships, ray guns, monsters, and cosmic nonsense is certainly much closer to a James Gunn movie than one by Kenneth Branagh. And, you know, it’s all good fun, crowd-pleasing stuff, unless you happen to think that films about wisecracking alien gods and big green gamma monsters are actually the stuff of heavy drama and should be taken terribly, terribly seriously.

On the other hand, I have generally been impressed by the way Marvel have negotiated the ‘too silly-too serious’ tightrope in the past, but all three of the films they’ve released this year have arguably been primarily comedic in tone. It’s certainly worked for them, but I’m not sure it’s sustainable – on the other hand, the next film off the conveyor belt, Black Panther, looks like it will be more down to earth in most respects. Normally at this point one would say ‘this could be a challenging change of tone, it’ll be interesting to see if Marvel manage it’, but seventeen films into the series it certainly seems like Marvel’s main challenge will be to keep finding new challenges for themselves. Thor: Ragnarok is not the greatest Marvel movie ever, but certainly not the worst: it moves the story along in interesting and unexpected ways, and you’re never more than a few minutes away from a genuinely good gag or some well-executed crash-bang-wallop, or both. A very safe bet for a good time.

Read Full Post »

Well, with the Oscars out the way, the decks are clear for an onslaught of releases which a few years ago would have been cheerful, unpretentious genre movies. These days, of course, everyone wants a slice of the megafranchise action that Marvel Studios has been concocting over the last few years, regardless of whether or not their material really fits the bill: out in a couple of months is a DC comics movie that for once looks like it won’t be actively painful to watch, while we are also promised the actual real first episode of Universal’s, er, Universal Monsters franchise (Dracula Untold has apparently been stricken from the record), while first off the blocks, representing Legendary Pictures’ rather similarly-titled MonsterVerse (put those lawyers on standby!), is Kong: Skull Island, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

The year is 1973, and the Vietnam War is coming to its messy conclusion. ‘Things are never going to be this messed up in Washington again,’ declares Bill Randa (John Goodman), which at the very least is a felicitously knowing first line for a movie these days. Randa is high-up inside a secret agency named Monarch, whose mission statement is to hunt down Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (or giant monsters to you and I). However, Godzilla’s visit to San Francisco is still forty years off, and to pass the time until then Randa gets himself and his team onto a US government mission to a newly-discovered island in the Pacific, surrounded by a perpetual storm system and – perhaps – containing a bizarre ecosystem the likes of which no-one has even suspected before.

Providing a military escort for the explorers is the possibly-unstable Colonel Packard (Samuel L Jackson) and his helicopter squadron, while also along for the ride are photojournalist Mason (Brie Larson) and ex-SAS guide James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). Randa’s list of things to do on their visit to Skull Island, when they finally get there, starts with ‘drop bombs everywhere’ (the wafer-thin pretext is that this is to assist with a geological survey), which annoys at least one of the island’s inhabitants: one of the chopper pilots barely has time to say ‘Is that a monkey?’ before the squadron is involved in a pitched battle with…

Well, come on guys, the movie is called ‘Kong’, who do you think it is? It’s a bit of a divergence from standard monster movie grammar to wheel on the big beast in the first act, but the movie pulls it off, I would say. In the aftermath of the battle, the survivors regroup and start to think about getting home alive. But, naturally, it’s not going to be that easy, and many discoveries await: lurking on the island are all sorts of monsters, which seem intent on eating our heroes, and also John C Reilly as a stranded Second World War airman, who seems intent on eating all the scenery.

You could be forgiven for turning up to Kong: Skull Island with a degree of trepidation, for quite good reasons – 84 years on from the original movie, King Kong remains a movie icon like few others, but he’s an icon with a singularly poor track-record when it comes to appearances in subsequent movies – if films like King Kong Lives and King Kong Escapes have any value at all, it’s simply as glorious trash. You could also argue that to do a remake of King Kong which completely omits the tall building-related section of the story, and takes place entirely on the island, is also a rather bizarre choice.

However – and I can hardly believe I’m typing this – Skull Island is actually a really fun fantasy adventure film, with a lot going for it. The problem other King Kong projects have tended to encounter is one of tone – they either end up as silly, campy nonsense (the Toho and De Laurentiis projects, for example), or take themselves absurdly seriously (my main problem with Peter Jackson’s take on the great ape). Skull Island gets the tone just about right: it knows when to play things straight, and when to relax and have a little bit of fun with the audience.

There seems to me to be no pressing reason as to why this movie is set in 1973 (there’s some dialogue about how Kong is young and ‘still growing’, presumably to prepare us for a rather bigger present-day ape in a subsequent movie) – there are no overt references to the 1970s King Kong remake, anyway. It mainly seems that the film-makers thought it would be a cool wheeze to make, essentially, a Vietnam war movie that includes a load of giant monsters of different kinds. All the iconography of guys with assault rifles wading through swamps, and helicopters skimming low over the jungle canopy is here, and while it is just dressing-up with no thematic depth, it definitely gives the film its own identity (the classic rock soundtrack is also a definite bonus).

Kong himself (mo-capped by Terry Notary) is rather impressive, both terrifying and sympathetic at different times, as the story requires, and it seems to me the makers of this movie know their stuff when it comes to both this character and the whole giant monster genre – there’s a scene which seems to me to be a call-back to Kong’s love of calamari (first established in King Kong Vs Godzilla), and another which may be either a reference to a deleted scene from the original Kong, or an unexpected appearance by a new version of the Toho monster Kumonga (the fact that Kumonga is not one of the characters for whom Toho receives an on-screen credit – oh, yes, readers, there are big-name Toho monsters in this movie (sort of) – suggests the former). All in all, it’s an engaging new take on the character.

Even the stuff in this movie which is not especially brilliant doesn’t particularly detract from it as a piece of entertainment – Tom Hiddleston has an air of slightly detached bemusement throughout, as though he signed on for the movie without bothering to read the script, and I found this rather funny rather than annoying. I have to say that most of the actors are content to do big character turns rather than anything too subtle and nuanced, but again this is exactly what the piece requires.

If I’ve been at all excited by the prospect of Legendary’s planned monster franchise, then it’s really been more in hope than expectation – but Kong: Skull Island gets so much right that I’m actually really looking forward to future films in this series, provided they handle the tone and subject matter as deftly as this one. It’s certainly a much more nimble and straightforwardly entertaining movie than Gareth Evans’ Godzilla, to which it is technically a prequel. In fact, in terms of technical accomplishment, dramatic success, and ability to channel the spirit of the original film, I would say this movie gets closer to the original King Kong than any other featuring the character. An unashamedly big, crazy, fun monster movie, and a very pleasant surprise.

 

Read Full Post »

Ben Wheatley is a director who has been making a name for himself for the last few years, more often than not working on low-budget genre movies of various kinds. In hindsight it looks like a dead cert that the mainstream was always going to come calling on him – you could argue this happened when he was recruited to direct two high-profile episodes of the BBC’s premier Saturday night sci-fi-comedy show – and with a talent as singular as this, the question is always whether they’ll be able to retain what makes them so special under the unforgiving eye of major studio oversight.

Well, I think we have something of an answer, in the shape of Wheatley’s adaptation of the noted J.G. Ballard novel High-Rise, which has received the widest release of any of his films to date. The book was published over forty years ago and has arguably proved quite influential ever since, but all previous attempts to be bring it directly to the screen have foundered.

high-rise-poster

From what we see and hear on-screen, the film retains the very-near-future setting of the novel – which in this case means some point in a 1976 that never actually happened. Tom Hiddlestone plays Laing, a doctor who as the story starts is just moving into an exclusive new housing development, a huge tower block that seems to exist at a remove from the rest of civilisation. He soon befriends several of the other residents (played by Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, and Luke Evans) and even makes the acquaintance of the architect of the building (Jeremy Irons), who lives in seclusion at the very top of the tower.

Initially all is well in the high-rise, with all the inhabitants enjoying the various amenities at their disposal. Soon, however, tensions start to build over seemingly innocuous things – access to the swimming pool, demands upon the building’s power grid – and these snowball into disputes that soon spin out of control. Open hostilities soon break out between the different social groups, as the amenities fail and the building sinks into squalour and misery. Where will it all end? One thing is certain: despite the architect’s great hopes, life in these towers is far from paradise…

Well, the high-rise itself may not be quite as rectilinear as Ballard himself envisaged (honestly, if you had a drink every time Ballard uses the word in the novel you’d probably pass out within the first few chapters), but in every other way this seems to be to be a highly impressive and very faithful adaptation. The structure of the book survives intact, which I didn’t expect, and if the characters remain a little more articulate throughout their degeneration, that’s only to be expected. The central conceit of the novel – that within the civilised exterior of the tower block, horror reigns, something which the outside world remains totally oblivious of – is also preserved, although this is remains something you have to kind of go with.

Anyone unfamiliar with the novel might be expecting a sort of narrative-driven action-horror somewhat in the vein of The Raid, as Laing and his companions battle to survive against the other tribes of the high-rise, but this is really not that kind of a film. The focus is much more on the way that all the inhabitants are complicit in the savage anarchy that consumes the building, willing participants, and the way that it is an oddly more honest expression of the normal social forces at work in modern society. One of the brilliancies of the book is the way that it isn’t really a clumsy metaphor for the class system – everyone is very middle-class, a doctor or an architect or something in the media.

The emphasis on mood and small details of character appears to be a perfect fit for Wheatley’s own sensibility: few directors can bring encroaching madness to the screen with same degree of carefree nonchalance, and naturally he gets very nearly free reign in that area here. The film’s excursions into surreal black comedy also suit him perfectly – at one point a group of senior residents, dressed in blood-stained rags, have a committee meeting where they discuss driving out the lower inhabitants, converting the lower floors into a golf course, slaughtering the building’s animals for food, and lobotomising troublemakers, and it’s impossible to see where Ballard’s vision ends and Wheatley’s begins.

Wheatley brings it all to the screen with his customary skill and control of sound and image. (One unexpected but rather brilliant touch is the use of ABBA’s S.O.S as a musical motif throughout the film, although one wonders if Benny and Bjorn were quite aware of the images their masterpiece would be playing on top of when they allowed its use.) Seeing the story brought to the screen in quite this way also brought home to me just how influential it has arguably been – you can surely see elements of High-Rise in Cronenberg’s Shivers, and also in the nightmarish city-block dystopia of the Judge Dredd strip.

One curious amendation to the novel comes at the very end of the film, when part of a speech by Margaret Thatcher is heard, praising free-market capitalism. Prior to this point the film hasn’t been explicitly political at all, although you can certainly see how Thatcher’s ‘no such thing as society’ beliefs could be relevant to the goings-on in the high rise. That said, it feels as if it’s there just to drive a point home, but the actual point remains a little obscure, and one wouldn’t usually expect something quite so on-the-nose from Wheatley or his regular co-writer Amy Jump.

Whether this qualifies as a serious wobble or not is probably down to your personal taste and political views, but the rest of the film is very impressive – perhaps a bit too cerebral and artful to totally engage the emotions, but made with enormous skill and intelligence. Followers of both Ballard and Wheatley should be very satisfied with the end product.

 

Read Full Post »

Let us cut directly to the central burning issue of the week. It is with something of a heavy heart that I have to report that Marvel Studios have perpetrated a bit of a cheat at the end of Thor: The Dark World, their latest box-office guzzling extravaganza. One of the incidental pleasures of the various Marvel films is sitting through the interminable credits for the teaser scene at the end which either sets up the next film in the series or (in the case of Iron Man 3) just provides some fan-pleasing comic relief. In a welcome move for those of us who sometimes have to leave the premises sharpish in order to catch the bus home, the credits scene from The Avengers was moved to a mid-credits position; Iron Man 3 reverted to the post-credits position. One of the issues with Thor: The Dark World (and, all right, it’s a comparatively minor one) is that it apparently has both a mid-credits and post-credits sequence.

So what, you may say – well, what happened at the screening I attended was that virtually everyone stayed put as the credits rolled, until the mid-credits bit appeared (this scene, featuring a rather camp Benicio del Toro, will probably baffle anyone not heavily steeped in Marvel arcana and is more confusing than appetising). At this point we relaxed, all got up and went home, missing the post-credits sequence. I wouldn’t complain so much except that my understanding is that this scene resolves a key plot point the film itself leaves hanging.

I’m making a big deal out of this, I suppose, but I think it is symptomatic of my experience of this movie. It has an enormous amount going for it, and simply by virtue of its connection to the other Marvel films can expect a very comfortable level of audience goodwill. And yet I still somehow found it to be a mildly unsatisfactory film on many levels.

thor TDW

Ken Branagh apparently having shied away due to his lack of experience when it comes to heavy special effects sequences, this new installment is overseen by Alan Taylor, who apparently has an impressive record in that TV show about musical chairs. Thor (Hemsworth again) is leading the forces of Asgard as they restore order to the Nine Realms (apparently) plunged into chaos at the end of the first Thor. Meanwhile Odin (Hopkins again) has been prevailed upon to spare the life of his rascally adopted son Loki (Hiddleston again), following his role in the invasion of New York at the end of The Avengers.

Meanwhile, Thor’s love interest Jane Foster (Portman again) is in London, where she initially appears to be living in a bad romantic comedy film. Luckily her research into Plot Device Mechanics leads her to a hole in the fabric of the script, through which she plummets and discovers an ancient doomsday weapon called the Aether.

This was built by the Dark Elves, whom we have already met in one of those exposition-heavy introductory flashbacks of which big genre movies are so very fond. For reasons best known to themselves, the Dark Elves want to blow up the universe, and the Asgardians confiscated the Aether to stop them doing this. Even though they believe the Dark Elves are all dead, the Asgardians don’t seem to have hidden the Aether in a very sensible place, but such are the demands of the plot.

Of course, they are not all dead, and now that Jane has found the Aether, their leader Malekith (the great Christopher Eccleston under a ton of make-up) is quite keen to get hold of her for obvious reasons. Obviously Thor feels strongly motivated to help his girlfriend out, even to the point where he is obliged to ask Loki for help…

Thor: The Dark World clearly wants to be an epic, wide-ranging fantasy adventure, but the problem is that for its opening section at least, ‘wide-ranging’ actually reaches the screen as ‘all over the place’. Once we’re past that slightly eggy flashback with the Elves, the plot rattles around between various different realms, the actual nature and relationship of which the film doesn’t really bother to explain in any detail. Asgard, Vanaheim, Svartalfheim – it just feels like being bombarded with names and chunks of plot, the significance of which are taken for granted.

You have to bear in mind that the look of the film is a slightly baroque mixture of SF and pure fantasy – there’s more than one fight between people waving swords and other people carrying laser rifles and black hole grenades – not to mention that there are great swathes of CGI on display, and fairly central to proceedings is Natalie Portman. Now, given a good script, Portman can be a searingly effective performer, but without one she often reverts to shop-window mannequin mode, and that’s quite often the case here.

All-in-all, then, the initial sequences set off on Asgard and the other places are frequently horribly reminiscent of The Phantom Menace, as very fine actors in extraordinary hats and hairpieces flounder around inside a script which doesn’t quite hang together, the pain of this being somewhat mitigated by the astoundingly good special effects and production design.

Comparing any film to The Phantom Menace is, I realise, the critical equivalent of hitting the nuclear button, and I have to say that overall Thor: The Dark World is not nearly that bad. Once the plot finally achieves some cohesion in the second half, and Tom Hiddleston (consistently one of the Marvel films’ biggest assets) actually gets to contribute to the story, it picks up very considerably. The problem, of course, is that Loki inevitably overshadows the ostensible villain this time around – Christopher Eccleston just doesn’t get the material to compete – most of his dialogue is in Dark Elvish, which can’t have helped – and Malekith comes across as a dull, cipherish stock villain.

Not necessarily a problem, but certainly slightly peculiar, are the sequences of the film set in the realm of Midgard, or Earth (but, if the films’ captions are to be trusted, known to the Asgardians as ‘London’). Most of the movie takes place elsewhere and these scenes do feel a little bit crowbarred in, not least because they’re tonally completely at odds with the rest of it. Most of the movie is fairly straight-faced fantasy-SF, but the stuff in London is, as I said, like some kind of wacky romantic comedy. Chris O’Dowd gets a cameo, Stellan Skarsgard wanders about in his underpants, Kat Dennings is also trying to do comic relief. Even scenes with Hemsworth in them, including some of the climax, are camp and fluffy in a way the rest of the film just isn’t.

So this is a very inconsistent and choppy movie, but it would be remiss of me to suggest that it’s not at all worth seeing. Pretty much every single scene looks beautiful (possibly excepting the ones with Skarsgard’s pants), and it does effectively conjure up a sense of a vast and diverse cosmos (just not one which actually makes sense). If Chris Hemsworth doesn’t have quite the same charisma as some of the other Marvel leads, well, the film has Tom Hiddleston, which more than makes up for this.

(Conspicuously absent from the screen, by the way, are most of the elements which have connected previous Marvel movies – for example, SHIELD gets name-checked, but none of those characters appear. Possibly the existence of the – distinctly so-so – SHIELD TV show as an entity in its own right makes it harder to work the concept into the actual movies. I note we are promised that the TV show will be doing an episode set in the aftermath of this movie, though.)

While leaving the cinema and missing the post-credits sequence, I happened to overhear other members of the audience talking – ‘Wow, that was so much better than the first Thor!’ was the initial response of one of them. Now, the weird thing is that I could see exactly what she meant – The Dark World is bigger, brighter, more confident and more fun – but I’m not sure I would necessarily agree with her, because I like a film with a stronger plot and better storytelling than is really on display here. Thor felt like a film from a studio ambitious to try something new and excitingly different; The Dark World shows signs of being a project collapsing under the weight of its own grandiosity. It’s a fun, crowd-pleasing adventure, but overall for me it’s the weakest Marvel Studios movie since Iron Man 2. Still, that’s not a bad track record, and it’ll be interesting to see how the next couple of films pan out.

Read Full Post »

Regular readers may have come across my observation that, in the past, Hollywood shows odd tendencies when it comes to rewarding young actresses who have proven themselves to have considerable talent. Are these women given the chance to shine in thoughtful, mature dramas, that offer us a deeper insight into life when seen from a feminine perspective? They are not. They are, more often than not, stuffed into a big-budget knuckle-dragging special-effects-focussed genre movie. To wit: Halle Berre in Catwoman (and much else besides), Charlize Theron and Sophie Okenodo in AEon Flux, and Anna Paquin in the X-Men series, amongst others. Now you would have thought that recent Oscar laureate Natalie Portman would be spared this kind of treatment, having already served her time in the Star Wars prequels, but apparently not: already in the can when she won, and now erupting onto the screen in boisterous 3D, is Marvel Studios’ latest offering, Thor, in which she is the leading lady.

This is not so much a case of Mallett’s Mallet as Branagh’s Hammer. In line with their usual policy of, er, interesting directorial choices, Marvel have recruited Ken Branagh to bring this movie to the screen. (Still no sign of Edgar Wright’s take on Ant-Man, alas.) The logic behind this seems a little suspect to me but Ken makes a pretty good fist of telling what, at first glance, sounds like an immensely stupid story.

Peace reigns in the Eternal Realm of Asgard, along with Odin the All-father, King of the Gods (Anthony Hopkins, not quite phoning it in). But there is discord between his sons, the proud and braggartly warrior Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the devious and roguish sorcerer Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Jealous of his brother, Loki manipulates Thor into attacking Jotunheim, realm of the Frost Giants, nearly provoking war with Asgard. Odin is not best pleased by this sort of behaviour and not only strips Thor of his rank and privileges but banishes him from Asgard, casting him out into a terrible, primitive wasteland…

…also known as the southern USA. Yup, this is that kind of film. Thor crashes to Earth in New Mexico and is nearly run over by passing physicist Jane Foster (Portman) and her friends. Deprived of his godly powers Thor ends up in the local hospital, while his magic hammer Mjiolnir attracts the attention of the good men of SHIELD, led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), whom you may recall from Iron Man 2 where some of this got set up. While Jane, her friends, and SHIELD are trying to figure out what’s going on, and Thor’s trying to get his hammer back, Loki seizes his opportunity and usurps the throne of Asgard from Odin (who is conveniently laid low by a plot device). Will Thor learn humility and wisdom in time to stop Loki’s evil plan?

Well, it’s difficult to go into too much detail here without spoiling the plot, but Loki’s evil plan is really the weak link in the film: it’s just not the sort of thing you’re really going to care about. One of the film’s major strengths is the way in which it is set in vastly and obviously different worlds – Asgard, Earth, and Jotunheim – and it derives much of its energy from the moments when they brush up against each other – armoured Aesir wandering down the main street of a present-day town, for instance. But, come the climax, events move back to Asgard with no immediate threat to Earth or any of the characters there – and it all becomes a bit of an exercise in special-effects virtuosity without any real grounding in reality or emotional weight.

It’s not even as if Earth and Asgard – the two main settings – are presented as contrastingly as they might. Earth isn’t as grimy and mundane, nor Asgard as soaringly otherworldly, as it could be, and I suspect this is mainly due to Thor‘s nature not as a film in its own right but as the latest chapter in Marvel Studios’ ongoing continuity. In addition to the elements continuing from Iron Man 2, Samuel L ‘Mr Post-Credits Sequence’ Jackson pops up once again as Nick Fury, there’s a heavily veiled reference to the Hulk, and Hawkeye (played by Jeremy Renner) pops up in a role just too small to be satisfying but just big enough to be slightly distracting. More importantly, the end of the film seems structured to leave several of the major characters in the places they need to be for next summer’s Avengers to work.

Having said that, this is a fun and fairly satisfying film with the epic fantasy element giving it an identity separate from most superhero adaptations. There’s relatively little of the large-scale action I was expecting – the sole examples being an opening-reel battle with the Frost Giants and a final act rumble between Thor and a giant metal Asgardian construct (‘Is that one of Stark’s?’ asks a confused SHIELD agent upon seeing it – one of the moments where the film uses continuity to its advantage). Instead there’s more of a focus on character and humour, and the cast Branagh’s recruited is impressive. Stellan Skarsgard is rather good as Portman’s mentor, and also in the movie are people like Rene Russo (who barely gets any dialogue, sadly), Idris Elba from The Wire, and Ray Stevenson. Rather surprisingly, Branagh hasn’t cast Brian Blessed anywhere in this movie despite the abundance of roles he’d be perfect for. What gives, Ken? In the title role, Chris Hemsworth looks striking enough, and his performance isn’t actually bad, but he’s got nothing like the presence of, to pick a wild example, Robert Downey Junior or Samuel L Jackson. Hopefully Hemsworth won’t have an issue with being blasted off the screen, thesp-wise, in future appearances.

I have to say that you wouldn’t recognise this as the work of a director with a record as distinguished as Branagh’s. For a summer blockbuster the direction is fine, and Branagh seems to have worked hard on performances, to the film’s advantage, but it’s not really what you’d call distinctive. Again, the film’s identity as a Marvel product swamps everything else. But I suppose this is the price one pays for a unique experiment such as the one Marvel are currently engaged upon. I enjoyed Thor, but I don’t think it’s a great film by any means, and I’ll be surprised if it makes the kind of money required to turn it into a genuine hit (then again I wasn’t that impressed with the first Iron Man, which everyone loved). In the end, what is my opinion of this movie? I say thee ‘Mmm, well, okay.’

Read Full Post »