Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins

As a feature-length preview for The Avengers—the all-star superhero team-up picture that Marvel Studios is unleashing next summer—Thor offers a number of moments that will make comic-book fans extremely happy.

Not only does Hawkeye, the group’s ace archer (played by the suddenly white-hot Hurt Locker star Jeremy Renner) put in a brief appearance, but there’s also a post-closing credits cameo by Avengers head honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the Cosmic Cube, a powerful object that will play a big role in Marvel’s other big summer 2011 movie, Captain America: The First Avenger, scheduled to arrive in theaters on July 22.  In addition, there are references made to Bruce Banner a.k.a. The Incredible Hulk as well as Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man, both of whom will be headlining The Avengers opposite the ostensible star of this movie, Thor (Aussie actor Chris Hemsworth, most familiar on these shores for dying in the first 10 minutes of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot).  Meanwhile, eagle-eyed fanboys will be able to spot shout-outs to the Norse God’s lengthy comic-book history, including a mention of Dr. Donald Blake (his mortal alter ego) and the requisite cameo by Marvel icon Stan Lee.  All of this goes to show how savvy the company has been about keeping their core fanbase excited while laying the groundwork for their most ambitious movie yet, The Avengers, due out—in case you forgot already—in May 2012.

As a standalone vehicle for the title character, however, Thor is something of a dud.  Whatever charms the film has—and there are a few—are dwarfed by its choppy storytelling, ultra-thin characterizations and chaotically filmed action sequences that douse the screen in elaborate (though, it must be said, often chintzy-looking) digital effects to distract the audience from their general lack of coherence.  Of course, some of these same problems were on display in Marvel’s wildly successful Iron Man films (particularly the overstuffed second installment), but there Robert Downey Jr.’s charming braggadocio and Jon Favreau’s light touch behind the camera carried the day.  Thor, on the other hand, comes to us from one Kenneth Branagh, an actor and director not exactly known for his sense of humor—his lively 1993 adaptation of the Bard of Avon’s great comedy Much Ado About Nothing notwithstanding—or a talent for crafting blockbuster set-pieces.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Branagh strains to imbue the film with a sense of weighty Shakesperean grandeur that the material he’s been handed simply can’t support.  This isn’t quite the epic botch that his hilariously misguided version of Frankenstein proved to be, but Thor doesn’t indicate that Branagh has the goods to be the next great blockbuster director.

The cut-and-paste script splits its time between Thor’s homeworld Asgard and Earth, where the impetuous hothead is banished by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, cashing another sizeable paycheck while doing the bare minimum required performance-wise) after his thirst for battle threatens their truce with a neighboring planet populated by ice creatures.  In his absence, Thor’s devious brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) briefly ascends to the throne vacated by their dad—who has conveniently fallen into his semi-regular comatose state known as Odinsleep—and appears ready to strike a deal with Asgard’s enemies.  Clearly, the hammer-wielding prodigal son is needed back home, but first he has to recover his godlike powers, a task that apparently requires him to understand what it really means to be a hero…or something like that.  Honestly, it’s not entirely clear what his time on Earth is meant to accomplish apart from setting up The Avengers and introducing some much-needed humor into the stiff proceedings.  Too bad that humor mostly trends towards the lame fish-out-of-water variety with Thor being baffled by this planet’s customs and, in turn, baffling the three humans that try to help him, including the lovely scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) who is entranced by this stranger’s big heart and even bigger muscles.

To list some of the movie’s positive attributes for a moment, Hemsworth makes a strong impression in his first major starring role, finding the right mixture of earnestness and playful self-awareness.  He’s far less of a live-wire than Downey in the Iron Man pictures, but then Thor isn’t intended to be a charming rogue like Tony Scott.  (It’ll be fun to see the two actors clash in The Avengers, particularly knowing that Joss Whedon will be writing their dialogue.)  And Asgard itself is well-realized; it’s nice to see a superhero movie that deliberately cuts against the genre’s increasing trend towards Dark Knight-style realism by embracing the fantastical.  (The Earth-bound sequences, on the other hand, are decidedly less impressive; the bulk of that material was shot in New Mexico on a set that resembles a slightly modernized version of those facade-heavy frontier towns seen in old Hollywood westerns.)  Too bad the movie wastes its setting and its star on a barely-there narrative filled with boring stick figures in place of human beings and/or gods.  I’ve been hard on Portman in the past, but this time her character’s lack of personality isn’t her fault…at least not entirely.  Jane has no function in the film apart from batting her eyes at Thor and there’s no reason why he’d be attracted to her beyond the fact that she’s throwing herself at him almost from the moment they meet.  Theirs is one of the lamest screen romances in recent memory, particularly compared to the actual sparks that fly between Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow in Iron Man. To their credit I suppose, the writers do try to make Loki slightly more complex than your average comic-book villain, but they ultimately give the character too many competing motivations.  The film’s climax hinges on him choosing a course of action that wouldn’t seem to benefit anyone, least of all himself.  Speaking of action, Branagh demonstrates little aptitude for staging Thor‘s effects-heavy fight scenes; the final battle in particular resembles nothing more than a digitally-generated sound-and-light show, filled with big explosions and energy blasts but no sense of tension and excitement.  While Thor does accomplish its goal of introducing a new hero into Marvel’s ever-growing cinematic universe, it gives the audience little reason to want to follow him on his next solo adventure.  But hey, that Avengers movie is gonna rock, right?  Here’s hoping.

Thor opens in theaters nationwide today.

Also in Theaters

The Colors of the Mountain
Written and Directed by Carlos César Arbeláez
Starring Hernán Mauricio Ocampo, Genaro Arisizábal, Natalia Cuéllar

Set in the lush mountains of Colombia, Carlos César Arbeláez’s gentle, but potent drama depicts the demise of a rural community from the perspective of a 9-year-old boy.  When he’s not helping his farther maintain their small farm, Manuel (Hernán Mauricio Ocampo) is playing soccer with his pals or mooning over the new teacher at his one-room school.  His way of life is constant, but around him things are changing quickly.  A band of guerillas has moved into the area around the village and are forcibly persuading every able-bodied man to join their movement.  Meanwhile, the Colombian army is making its presence felt as well, arresting those that haven’t joined the rebels or fled the region completely.  Reluctant to abandon their land, Manuel’s father has yet to uproot the family, but as the village’s population steadily dwindles, it’s only a matter of time until they too get the heck out of Dodge.  Movies of this type—let’s call them “through the eyes of a child” pictures—always run the risk of turning cloying and sappy, but Arbeláez maintains a clear-eyed gaze throughout, keeping the larger conflict on the edges of the frame until it penetrates even Manuel’s distracted gaze.  It helps that his young star has a relaxed, natural presence on camera; much like the movie itself, Ocampo is precocious without being precious.

Hobo with a Shotgun

Directed by Jason Eisener
Screenplay by John Davies

Starring Rutger Hauer, Pasha Ebrahimi, Gregory Smith

The faux-grindhouse genre reaches its nadir with Hobo with a Shotgun, a one-joke premise that began its life as the winner of a fan-made trailer contest pegged to the 2007 Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez double feature, Grindhouse.  And just like Rodriguez’s own Machete—another expanded version of a short teaser that played during that famous commercial misfire—it shoulda stayed a trailer.  Veteran oddball Rutger Hauer stars as the titular hobo who makes his way into the world most dangerous town and soon acquires a trusty firearm to blow its many criminals and assorted lowlifes to kingdom come.  And that’s pretty much the extent of the plot.  Director Jason Eisener’s primary focus is on inventing new and increasingly sadistic ways of torturing his star and the bad guys he dispatches onscreen.  With the exception of a gratuitous sequence where a group of kids are roasted alive on a school bus, I wasn’t bothered by the film’s gleeful ultraviolence.  No, what bothered me was its smugness and lack of real wit.  At least those old exploitation films delivered their cheap thrills with a certain amount of conviction; Eisener and his collaborators place their movie within air quotes from the first frame, encouraging us to mock its deliberately sloppy style and outré goings-on as if that’s a substitute for real creativity.  Turns out that the joke’s on them.


Written and Directed by Daniel and Diego Vega

Starring Bruno Odar, Gabriela Velásquez, Carlos Gassols

A prize-winner at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the Peruvian drama Octubre is a well-acted, but otherwise unremarkable slice-of-life story about a moneylender (Bruno Odar) that unexpectedly acquires a new job: father.  It seems that one of the prostitutes he visits on a regular basis gave birth to his daughter, who she leaves on his doorstep before vanishing to parts unknown.  For whatever reason—guilt, laziness the sudden stirrings of fatherly affection—he decides against turning her over to the authorities and instead employs the services of one of his customers, a sweet, but irritatingly proper single woman of a certain age (Gabriela Velasquez) to act as the child’s nanny.  The three become an odd kind of family unit, so much so that Velasquez begins to make romantic overtures to Odar, which end up having the opposite effect that she intends.  Octubre is relatively engaging while you’re watching it, but it’s also awfully slight–a short film dressed up in feature-length clothing.