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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience.
. "Thor"

If Kenneth Branagh is anything, he's an extremist in the cause of drama. His four-hour "Hamlet" in 1996 told us that. So, what can you expect from this guy on a budget of $150 Million? What this film tells us is that when you put such a lordly sum in his hands you get not one world, but two, plus Shakespearean enunciation, royalty, a grand theme or two, and a human hero with enough defined sinew to match the two-dimensional model that Marvel Comic's Stan Lee drew-up in 1962. This guy's so ideally chiselled it suggests the use of steroids (which is covered by a joke).

Besides being an accomplished Shakesperean actor and expert on all things Bard, Branagh's also a director who realizes what he must do in order to maximize a fantasy's net worth. And, so, he knits an astronomical fantasy world together with Earth within the bounds of one story line, giving him an overall setting with more dimensions than a Rubic Cube.

This formulation is the film's strength and weakness.

Based loosely on the Thor of Norse mythology, the film commences in a fantasy Viking kingdom whose golden architecture and design varies from splashy and splendid to outright excessive. Young Thor, the elder son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and his brother Loki are instructed by their father in the ways of royal descendence. One of them will one day be king, the implication being that it's an inheritance that is Thor's to lose if he screws up. Thor, a bundle of ambition and impatience is, indeed, going to screw up.

Thor The character that Lee created for his comic book borrows from that part of the mythology which refers to Thor as "The Hammer of God" and the mythological version of such a tool becomes his birthright as he grows up (into Chris Hemsworth). He now swaggers with arrogance, pride and self love before his father on the grand throne, all too obvious in his expectation that he's about to inherit it even before his father is ready to pass it to him.

As young adults, Thor and Loki's powers are still in a state of maturing. Thor, in particular, as the heir apparent, doesn't know what he doesn't know. Odin, the powerful god-like king who knows much, has always realized that Thor will be a problem. But, as he can't change his son's character with the toss of a wand, his advancing age makes it imperative that he find a way to bring about a sea change in his son's reckless arrogance for the future survival of the kingdom.

Displeased that the mantle of ultimate power has been denied him, and against his father's commands, Thor inspires a small band of followers to follow him across what appears to be a crystalline, digitally engineered bridge where they must explain to the gatekeeper of the wormhole to other lands (something like the boatman on the River Styx) that they're headed to Jotunheim, the realm of the Frost Giants with whom Odin has negotiated a shaky truce after years of war. Thor now imagines that he can confront these forbidding grey creatures with his superiority and brash confidence to imtimidate the alien race into accepting changes in their treaty.

But he's no match for them, and avoids catastrophe only through the superior intelligence of the chief frosty, Laufey (Colm Feore in menacing makeup), who calmly recognizes this invasion of his dominion as the stupid presumption of an overstimulated, arrogant boy without much sense--a truant from his father's teachings. He will have words with Odin about it before launching a resumption of the war.

Odin, the reigning monarch, after dealing politically with the Frost Giants, and as though to mend their concerns about Thor's rash impudence, banishes Thor to the land of the mortals, Earth. (It's unstated whether Asgardians are immortal, but it's indirectly suggested). Moreover, Thor is to be without his weapon that holds so much magic power. Instead, Odin sends the hammer to the deserts of New Mexico, instilling a spell on it that no man may lift it except he who is of moderate and decent mind. Which, of course, sets off strong-man contests that ends in the FBI's confiscation of it.

The keynote of Odin' move is to force Thor to contend in a less exalted culture where his size, power and position are of little benefit and where he can reexamine who he is. Ego-control, let's say. As it turns out, the true virtue of the plan is his meeting his future soul-mate, astrophysics researcher Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). This part of the story begins with an Ouch!.

Jane, her dumbass gal pal Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and her mentor astrophysicist Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellen Skarsgard) are out on the desert in her electronically decked-out ranger investigating a curious light pattern in the sky when a man falls to the ground between her headlights. With Jane at the wheel, impact is unavoidable, and the anguished team rush this tall hunk of a man to hospital in their sleepy little town that looks like a set left over from the last low-budget cheapie to roll film or video there.

What's on Thor's mind at the moment, however, is finding his hammer, and that search will foster a great deal of displaced-alien humor ("You know, for a crazy homeless person... he's pretty cut") and adventure as the romantic chemistry with Jane begins to percolate and the displaced exile learns human manners from his eager hostess and her crowd.

Thor: unable to lift the hammer When Thor is finally reunited with his hammer, he's as incapable of separating it from its bond to the earth as all the dummies, including the FBI, who've been trying for weeks. He's got a long way to go before he meets the criteria laid down by dad, the king.

Meanwhile, bro' Loki is drumming up trouble and looking a lot like the villain of the piece. He's trying to fill the underappreciated vacuum Thor left behind. Is it him who sends out a jagunda 20-foot titanium super-robot whose primary means of devastation is flame throwing through the portal of its face plate. As lots of lives are at stake here, Thor, by now thawed from the icy selfishness of his youth, meets the monster in a one-on-one Dodge City confrontation, sword against roasting flame. The only thing missing are the six-shooters.

Is what we have here a mish-mosh of iconic genres, futurism and earth-bound pseudo-reality bound together by the commercial desire to engage us through any means--a sort of more is more thesis? Or is the idea propagating so much expenditure of everything in sight worth its weight in all that gold leaf? To me, I was amused to see what Branagh hath wrought in the name of superhero entertainment and who he brought along to help in the effort.

Yes, Aussie Hemsworth is a find, worth his weight in 24-carat screen presence. And Portman, in a nicely grounded role without tutus or royal gowns is in her element. Skarsgard is fine in his supporting role as much as Dennings is barely more than functional. As for Hopkins, if you're not tiring of his overbearing portrayals of weighty, important, older men ("The Rite," "The Wolfman") by now, just have a look at Liam Neeson as Zeus in "Wrath of the Titans." Pure lead.

In a medium where visual originality is at a premium, appreciation must be shown to the artistry of this production, particularly in the designs of Asgard, its costumery and its futuristic devices. Cool, indeed, is the work of production designer Bo Welch, his team of art directors, and Director of Photography Haris Zambarloukos ("Mamma Mia").

In the end, I was entertained enough to think "Thor" wasn't a total loss amidst the legions of superheros who have preceded it, both from Marvel and other comic book sources. On a scale of muscular loners who realize their heroic destinies in large studio tentpole releases, I put it somewhere between "Wrath of the Titans" and "Wolverine" with the potential of doing far better where it counts, at the boxoffice.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Chris Hemsworth is Thor
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