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The Road to The Avengers: Thor

Chris Hemsworth as Thor facing off against The Destroyer

“I have no plans to die today”

Up till Thor’s release Marvel Studios had eschewed the more fantastical elements of its characters/worlds for a realistic vibe. They were plausible…well Iron Man  sort of was; but they each felt part of a recognisable world. The Incredible Hulk was a monster movie but the character was familiar enough for audiences not to question it. Thor was a different proposition: how do you fit a god and space bridges into the Marvel canon and keep it grounded?

The characters and setting of Asgard are outlandish, absolutely separate from the real world aesthetics that Iron Man and, to a lesser extent, The Incredible Hulk created. Perhaps, like the previous Marvel films, the reason it works because of an emphasis on character rather than action.

That doesn’t mean it skimps on the action but it isn’t the film’s major concern. If the film’s faults lie in scale of the action (smaller than the setting implies); the way the action sequences are directed (functional) and a story that may not feel as grand as it should be, then those concerns are valid. For me it’s the conflict between Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki that’s the film’s most interesting aspect and what draws me back into the film than any preconceived notions of what it should/could have been.

Having written at length about what I liked about the film already (so, so long ago), I won’t bother repeating myself in any great detail. In short Thor’s an very likable film that doesn’t suffer from the Iron Man films’ weak third acts, and, emotionally, has a stronger sense of purpose than any of previous Marvel Studios films. Most of it is down to the trifecta of Hemsworth, Hiddleston and Anthony Hopkin’s Odin, a family thrown into tumult when Thor commits an act of stupidity and threatens to re-ignite the war between the Asgardians’ foe the Frost Giants.

Banished from Asgard (by way of a quite literal dressing down) Thor is sent to learn about humility and sacrifice as a lesson for his brash arrogance. Along the way he meets Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Darcy (comic relief Kat Dennings) and finds a place along humanity.

It’s another redemption story in the vein of Iron Man but it doesn’t lose its energy in the final third because of the relationships established in the film’s opening half-hour. S.H.I.E.L.D is still a bit of a dick but they don’t come across as annoying or as incongruous as they once did in Iron Man 2 (which wasn’t bad itself, just came across as trying to fit too many pieces into the puzzle). In Loki Marvel had its best villain so far, one that did not offer a physical threat to Thor’s strength but functioned as a trickster who schemes and manoeuvres pieces into place, an aspect of his character that worked well in The Avengers.

For my two cents (pennies?) Thor was the most entertaining of the films leading up to The Avengers. It’s funny, likable and felt like the most rounded of the films to date: it had some scope (though not as much as some wanted), a very good score by Patrick Doyle and visually, despite some glaring imperfections, was vibrant and imaginative. It set the benchmark for future films in the Marvel Studios universe.

8/10

[Despite all the kerfuffle pre-release about the colour of the character, Idris Elba’s Heimdall almost steals the film from Hemsworth and Hiddleston. It also puts down a marker for future characters to not be bound by race. Hurrah!]

Review: Thor

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“This drink… I like it! Another!”

Cast your mind to the first trailer for Thor. Audiences were skeptical. How would this fit in to the Marvel universe? Can Branagh handle a production of this size? Would this cripple the Avengers before it even got started? Iron Man 2 underwhelmed, would the same fait await Thor?

Let’s not say that Thor is a perfect first attempt but it is a damn good one. While origin films  vary between the good (Spider-Man, Batman Begins) and the not so good (Fantastic Four, Elektra, Daredevil), comic book films often struggle in establishing to find their audience. Thor exudes confidence straight out the gate.

There’s no need to show how Thor got his cape or his helmet. He’s fully formed after a brief prologue about the conflict between the Asgardians and Frost Giants and the briefest of glances at Thor and Loki’s childhood – then we’re straight into Thor’s succession ceremony.

Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) flaws aren’t physical but emotional. He’s brash, arrogant, and wants to prove himself like his father Odin (Antony Hopkins) did. When Asgard comes under attack, Thor engages Beast Mode and Asgard renews hostilities with the Frost giants against Odin’s wishes. As punishment, Thor is stripped of his powers and banished to Earth to learn some humility.

It’s here where he meets Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), an astrophysicist studying electrical storms to discover inter-dimensional portals. Along with her cohorts Erik (Stellan Skarsgård) and Darcy (Kat Dennings), they’re sceptical of Thor and their arc of overcoming their disbelief and believing in Thor is, arguably, one that mirrors the audience. Thor becomes something much more tangible and believable despite its wholly fantastical reality through the development of these relationships.

The acting is good with special mention going to Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston. As Thor Hemsworth has an arrogance that’s charming but reckless. His presence in contrast to his brother Loki, who is sinewy and more cerebral. Hiddleston’s unearths Loki’s intelligence and poise, relying on tricks rather than brawn.

Everyone else can be described as fine, whether it’s the comedic assistance provided by Thor’s fellow Asgardians Sif, Hogan, Fandrall and Volstagg (Jamie Alexander, Tadanobu Asano, Josh Dallas and Ray Stevenson respectively). Heimdall is given a great presence and voice by Idris Elba. Portman is charming and give Jane a steely determination. Dennings cutely mangles the word “Mljonir” several times and Skarsgård brings a touch of comedy to his performance. The only wasted cast member is Rene Russo who has a handful of scenes as Thor’s doting mother.

The film has a colourful, vivid look, despite the few occasions where the CGI looks rushed. For the most part Thor is presented in a beautiful manner and the sound mix is  thunderous. Patrick Doyle’s scores the film with a wonderful melody that heightens the heroic nature of the story.

Thor is a success and bodes well for Marvel’s future films. The best compliment I could pay to Thor is that I’m very, very interested in seeing this character again.

 8/10

Review: Black Swan

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I had the craziest dream last night about a girl who has turned into a swan

Darren Aronofsky’s psycho-drama is an odd, gaudy and messy film that in rather contradictory fashion is both rich and superficial, an intense experience (especially if you’re with someone else) that’s gripping but also punctuated by some cartoonish characterisation, horror and dialogue that somehow manages to fit together in an odd but gratifying concoction. You’ll certainly be in for a rude awakening if you go into this film thinking it’s just about ballet.

It’s a film about obsession, madness, control, perfection and identity. It’s rich thematically and full of some startling imagery, there’s a lot to discuss and yet at the same time it’s also very, very simplistic. The thing that I couldn’t figure out in my earlier tweet I subsequently beat out of my head when I gave the film more thought.

It’s the overwhelming lack of subtlety and its search to uncover as many clichés as it possibly can that I initially found to be problematic. It’s not a problem for me anymore but it may be for those looking for some depth and perhaps a degree of intellectualism to go along with their horror as the film is seriously lacking in any kind of restraint.

If the subtlety that Aronofsky used is akin to a sledgehammer then I think my body has been beaten to a bloody pulp by now. If you can just have a look at Nina’s room, you may laugh at just how ludicrous and childish it all looks. That reaction has to be intentional, it’s just too obvious.

It’s a film about obsession, madness, control, perfection and identity. It’s rich thematically and boasting some startling imagery, there’s a lot to discuss and yet at the same time it’s also very, very simplistic. The thing that I couldn’t figure out in my earlier tweet I subsequently beat out of my head when I gave the film more thought.

It’s the overwhelming lack of subtlety and its search to uncover as many clichés as it possibly can that I initially found to be problematic. It’s not a problem for me anymore but it may be for those looking for some depth and perhaps a degree of intellectualism to go along with their horror as the film is seriously lacking in any kind of restraint.

If the subtlety that Aronofsky used is akin to a sledgehammer then I think my body has been beaten to a bloody pulp by now. If you can just have a look at Nina’s room, you may laugh at just how ludicrous and childish it all looks. That reaction has to be intentional, it’s just too obvious.

But that is part of the point with this film, it’s a full on visceral experience that’s in your face (and does a better job of it than 3D does) and by the end you’re either totally engrossed or completely indifferent to.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a ballet dancer (unsurprisingly, their best one) who has won the role of playing the White Swan in a new production of Swan Lake after the production’s previous dancer (Winona Ryder) is ‘retired’. However she appears to be too emotionally insipid and sexually frigid to play the role of the more seductive Black Swan and Nina’s obsession for perfection causes her fragile state mind to disintegrate. There’s a lot to dig in to and this film is not interested in being introspective but there’s just a wealth of ideas that the film explores in a rather breathless fashion.

Nina needs to perform dual roles; one has to reflect the naivety and innocence of the White Swan which she fits like a glove. The other has to be the darker, seductive incarnation of the Black Swan, one that Nina can’t express. She’s too frigid and insipid; she has neither the experience nor the sexual allure to bring that interpretation off. This leads to her fractured mind, the two parts of her psyche fighting against each other.

She’s so emotionally reserved that when she uncovers her darker side it is the polar opposite (and therefore the complete extreme) of her normal persona. Again the lack of subtlety makes it obvious; Nina dresses in white, her ‘alter ego’ dresses in black. Nina’s struggle in forming her own identity comes to the fore and sets her on the path of self-destruction.

Her sense of identity is in some ways linked to control and the two domineering figures on her life are her mother Erica (Barbara Hersey) and Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the director of the new interpretation of Swan Lake. Her mother is over-protective and going through what looks like an almighty bout of depression.

She’s constantly dressed in black clothes that make her look like a witch (some kind of Wicked Witch perhaps?) and draws some horribly depressing looking portraits (of what, or who?). She infantilises Nina and allows her to live her childish life (her room is pink and there are fluffy, cuddly teddy bears littered around) and her presence looms large over her daughter.

Her choice to quit ballet and look after Nina is not referred to many times but is a constant source of underlying tension between the two with the sense that Nina’s need for perfection stems from not wanting to fail, much like her mother did.

Leroy is another area of control, whereas Erica wants to rein Nina in by keeping her on a leash; Leroy wants to free her from the restrictions she’s placed on herself. Cassel plays the character as very…forthright, brazen in his methods and not afraid to speak his mind (however clichéd it is) but his control is just as important as Erica’s and Nina is stuck in this tug of war that precipitates her unravelling.

I haven’t mentioned Mila Kunis who’s escaped from starring in dreck like Max Payne and shows untapped talent here. Kunis’ Lily whispers into Nina’s ear, leading her astray and even further from safer ground. It helps that she looks similar in build and look to Portman, reinforcing the theme of doppelgangers and alter egos.

Portman gives the best performance in a film that could have been sunk by below par performances and suffocating melodrama. She thrives portraying Nina as the callow, innocent “sweet girl” that she is (notice how she’s always alone and never in a group at the dance sessions). Her voice is just a little weak and afraid of projecting itself; she lacks confidence in herself and while she’s demanding she’s also subservient to the demands of others.

Her transformation is just tremendous to watch, she fully commits to the madness becoming a very unreliable narrator as a result. It’s in the final performance where the viewer struggles to discern what’s real or a figment of her imagination that the film becomes almost too surreal an experience. So many films like to tell the audience what’s going on, Black Swan just loses itself in a morass of sound and imagery.

Technically the film is excellent whether it’s down to the impactful sound design/editing (some sounds sound like the hiss of a swan), Matthew Libbatique’s cinematography which is grainy and unafraid to approach it’s subjects up close, displaying some unflattering images of the human body. Clint Mansell’s music incorporates elements of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (unfortunately was ruled out of the Oscar run-in as a result) is especially effective in the final sequence. The script, especially the dialogue is more than a little on the nose but worth it for the trade-off for the lurid, fantastical images.

Aronofsky’s approach to the work isn’t all too original; he’s not the most understated of directors (and quite frankly who cares if he isn’t). There are elements of Cronenberg’s body horror in there; the transformation certainly echoes Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (a wonderful film that you should try and see) is definitely an influence and I’ve heard people compare this film with Polanski’s Repulsion (a film I’m not familiar with). Nonetheless bringing together these elements in this fashion makes for an experience that’s not easy to shrug off.

Terrifying and surreal, it’s also more humorous than the premise would suggest, Black Swan may confuse and it may bite off more than it can chew but it’s a strange and intoxicating film to watch.

8/10

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