Movie Reviews - 2011 postsThursday June 02, 2011
Movie Review: The Whistleblower (2011)
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING IS INSPIRED BY ACTUAL SPOILERS
It’s hard to make a movie about sexual exploitation without getting a little exploitative, but “The Whistleblower,” based on a true story, and from first-time director Larysa Kondracki, manages to pull it off. The other danger is a tendency toward the preachy and obvious. Less luck there.
We begin in the wrong place—in Russia, with two girls, Raya and Irka, who wind up sexually trafficked in Bosnia—rather than where we should begin, in Lincoln, Nebraska, with our hero, Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz), a cop who is trying to get transferred to Atlanta, where her ex-husband is moving with their now teenaged daughter. No dice. But her captain mentions how they’re looking for peacekeepers in Bosnia. Pay is good: 100 grand, tax free, for six months work. “Bosnia?” she says, surprised and intrigued. I wish her reaction had been more American. “Bosnia? Which one is that again?”
On the busride into Sarajevo she sees a cemetery, row after row of small white tombstones, a silent reminder of the war that’s just been; then she’s part of a group of recruits getting a pep talk from Bill Hynes (Liam Cunningham), the head of Democra, the security agency she’s working for. “You’ve been hired to represent the U.S. as a beacon of hope,” he says, but something in his severe manner and overly clipped American tone made me think, a) the actor wasn’t American (Yes: Cunningham is Irish), and, b) the character is unlikable and corrupt (Yes again).
Bolkovac’s early scenes are fish-out-of-water scenes, as she tries to get a handle on the culture and corruption. Confronted with a Muslim woman who’s been beaten by her husband, she has to deal with the racism of the local cops (“Woman is Muslim; she deserves it”) and the limits of U.S. power. “We aren’t here as investigators,” a colleague tells her. “We monitor. Sometimes stepping back is part of the job.”
But she doesn’t step back, and, zip-zip, she helps land the first conviction for domestic violence since the war. This brings her to the attention of Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave), the Commissioner of IPTF, the International Police Task Force, an arm of the United Nations, who commends her and promotes her. Because she truly admires her? Or because she wants to keep an eye on her?
That’s the thing with these types of thrillers. There are three basic questions:
- What’s the corruption?
- Who can you trust?
- How high does it go?
The corruption, we know, is human trafficking. Basically we’ve been waiting all this time for Bolkovac’s path to cross the path of the Russian girls from the beginning. When it finally does, when Raya turns up beaten and abused at a station house and says something about “the Florida Bar,” Bolkovac doesn’t hesitate. She drives there at night. The bar is in the process of being raided and girls in skimpy outfits are being led out. Inside, Bolkovac finds, in a safe in the main, dark room, money and passports, and Polaroids of girls topless and tied up pinned to the walls. Some are being fondled, and worse, by men in UN T-shirts. In a dingy, concrete backroom, straight out of “Silence of the Lambs,” she finds stained mattresses, syringes, bras and heavy chains. At this point, if the main thought of the audience could be articulated, it would’ve sounded like the voice of a haunted house in most supernatural thrillers: GET OUT!
Bolkovac keeps investigating. The girls in the skimpy outfits were supposedly taken to a shelter but they never arrived. A suspect colleague, Fred Murray (David Hewlett), tells her the bar is legit and the girls are just waitresses, but she tells him there’s something fucked-up about that bar. “This is Bosnia,” he snaps back, “These people specialize in fucked-up.” The case she builds against Murray is strong—he’s in the Polaroids, he’s involved in bribes—but the response from Democra higher-ups is a shrug. “All international personnel have immunity,” she’s told.
But she can go after the local bar owner. And for that she’ll need testimony. From the girls.
“The Whistleblower” is about human trafficking, which is obviously bad, and the heroine is fighting not only the bad guys but two image-conscious corporations (Democra and the U.N.), so she’s obviously good, but there’s something needlessly muddy about the movie. We get too many scenes back in Russia with Raya’s mother. They should’ve been cut. We get a starchy official, Laura Levin (Monica Bellucci), who says, after one girl in her custody has been kidnapped, “We have a system that works here,” allowing Bolkovac to respond, “For who?” and walk away. Meanwhile, the two Russian girls try our patience. They flinch from and fight Bolkovac, who’s obviously tying to help them, and don’t walk away from the men exploiting them when they have the chance.
Ultimately the movie feels like a lesser “Serpico” on an international stage. How could it have been better? By focusing on the issue of loyalty.
It’s implied that Bolkovac is most loyal to her job—that that’s how she loses her daughter in a custody battle with the father. She even uses this fact to get the Russian girls to talk. “I have a daughter and she was taken away by force, and I can’t change that,” she says. “Maybe I can change what happens to you.” The girls, taciturn before this revelation, now have questions. Will they be safe? Does Bolkovac promise? Bolkovac says they’ll be safe. She promises.
Her loyalty is thus to the case more than to the girls. She gets the girls to go out on a limb, as she has done, to further the case. But at what risk to the girls?
The other side has its loyalties, too: colleagues who are loyal to corrupt colleagues; company men who are loyal to company image. I’m not suggesting a moral equivalency here; I’m suggesting that while the movie is about corruption—specifically: men profiting from the sexual drives of other men through the exploitation and virtual enslavement of women—once that’s unearthed, once it’s known, the question for everyone involved becomes a matter of loyalty. At that point, everything bad that happens happens because of loyalty, which is generally viewed positively. Done right, the audience, rather than simply thinking, “How awful,” might have questioned the loyalties in their own lives, and with their own companies.
Eventually Bolkovac gets the evidence she needs and gets word out. The irony is that, in the real world, the reaction was more or less like the reaction of Democra’s employees in the film: it shrugged. The greater irony is that Democra is not the name of the U.S. company supplying police officers to Bosnia and other parts of the world. Bolkovac is Bolkovac, Rees is Rees, but Democra is DynCorp, which was founded in 1946, has corporate headquarters in Falls Church, Va., and offices managed out of Fort Worth, Tex. Its 2008 revenue was $2.1 billion. It’s growing. So even here, in a movie about the battle to uncover the bad guys at this company, the company remains hidden.
As much as I like looking at Rachel Weisz, too, I wanted a bigger, tougher broad in the role. There’s a scene where she gets into a shoving match with one of the corrupt Democra men but I didn’t buy it. She came up to his chest. Here, for example is Weisz at the premiere with the real Kathryn Bolkovac:
The difference between the two, the constant demand for the woman on the left, is part of Hollywood’s corruption. And ours.
Movie Review: The First Grader (2010)
WARNING: SCOWLING SPOILERS
Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo) is a 84-year-old Kenyan man, a former Mau Mau warrior who, we learn in gauzy, slow-motion flashbacks, was captured by British colonialists and loyalists in the 1950s, imprisoned, tortured, and forced to watch his wife and children slaughtered before his eyes, all because he refused to give up the idea of Kenyan independence, which came about, while he was incarcerated, in 1963.
In modern-day Kenya, Maruge (pronounced: Ma-roo-gay) hears on the radio how the government is offering free education to everybody. The implication is “every...child” but Maruge doesn’t hear the implication. So he goes to his nearby, overcrowded schoolhouse, run by Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris of “Pirates of the Caribbean” fame), and demands his free education. He wants, he says, to learn to read.
On the first day he’s turned away. On the second day, Jane, over the objections of a straight-arrow teacher and administrator, lets him into her classroom, where, because of hearing problems (the British once burst his eardrum with a sharpened pencil), he has to sit in the front row. One would think this would cause a problem for the student or students sitting behind him, since they’d have trouble seeing, but it’s actually the student next to him, a cute boy who scowls, and who draws his 5s backwards, who resents the intrusion. Why? Perhaps because he’s the son of the scowling man in the village who resents Maruge for no earthly reason.
That’s the set up. Charming old man wants to learn to read—in order to read, himself, a letter he received long ago from the President of Kenya. Beautiful teacher wants to help. Others scowl and plot.
First, the local superintendent, Mr. Kipruto (Vusi Kunene) objects on fairly logical grounds. The school only has so many resources; it should be focusing on the future, which is the kids, rather than the past, which is the charming old man. Unfortunately, the superintendent is not attractive, talks in a blustery voice, and dresses in the faded brown leisure suits of the 1970s. So much for him.
When Maruge’s story breaks into the western press, the other villagers, out of jealousy, begin to object, and the scowling man, sensing his opening, pays others to lead an assault on the little schoolroom where Maruge is learning. It’s also where his own son is learning. Ah well. Moot point anyway. Maruge drives away half a dozen men with his cane.
At this point Jane begins to receive threatening phone calls, so she convinces her boyfriend, Charles Obinchu (Tony Kgoroge), to leave the big city, and his job, whatever it is, and return to her side. He does. Then he begins to get threatening phone calls, divisive phone calls, phone calls that insist Jane is a whore who is running around behind his back. Will these people, whoever they are, stop at nothing?
Finally, Superintendent Kipruto has Jane transferred to another village. Mr. Kipruto then leads a celebratory, dancing welcome for the new teacher, who is fatter and less attractice than Jane; but the schoolkids lock the gates and pelt the adults, including the new teacher, with objects, and chant “We want sister Jane” over and over.
But sister Jane doesn’t return.
So Maruge sells his pet goat to take a van to Nairobi, where, en route, we see billboards with Maruge on them, extolling education, and where, in Nairobi, he insists upon seeing the Minister of Education. For some reason, the fact that he’s Maruge, the guy from the billboards, isn’t enough to get him into the Minister’s office. So he sneaks past a secretary, bursts into an ongoing meeting, strips to his waist, shows off the scars on his back that he received in helping gain their independence, and basically shames everyone into listening to him. He makes a plea for Jane. “Bring her back,” he says.
Afterwards we get a montage of schoolwork—Margue guiding the kids as best he can—and then a fade to black.
Then fade in. And there’s Jane, coming through the gates again, smiling and holding out her arms! They won!
But aren’t the village neighbors still jealous and angry? Isn’t the scowling man still scowling? Isn’t the superintendent even angrier than before?
Yes, but... they won! Now Margue can learn to read. And now he will finally be able to read the letter the President of Kenya sent him long ago, and he’ll be able to do it on his own, as he always wanted to do. That’s what this whole story is about, after all.
Except then he brings the letter to Jane, and tells her, “It is too hard. You must read it for me.”
Wait—come again? Wasn't the point of all of this drama so you could do this one thing that you now say you can't do? Yet without blinking, without the movie blinking, she does it for him.
So what mysterious things are in the letter we’ve waited the entire movie to hear? Well, the President of Kenya thanks Maruge for his service to his country; he also says Kenya is now independent because of people like him. Then Jane looks at him with proud, shining eyes, and he looks at her with proud, shining eyes, and the soundtrack gives us more of that generic African music, and we fade to a shot of the real Maruge, who died in 2009, and that’s the movie.
“The First Grader,” written by Ann Peacock, born in Cape Town, South Africa, and directed by Justin Chadwick, born in Manchester, England (England), contains odd echoes of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” too: the local DJ intoning, “My people, my people...” before each pronouncment; the fun-loving, trash-talking crew hanging on the village corner. It also opened the 2011 Seattle International Film Festival. Why? I assume two words won over the directors of the festival: “African” and “uplifting.” It’s African, and thus third world, so it must be meaningful; and it’s uplifting, so, to western moviegoers, it’s accessible.
But it’s a nothing film. Who is Maruge? A good man. Who is Jane? A good woman. Who is the superintendent? A bad man. Who is that poor teacher who gets stoned on her first day of class? Who knows? Maruge may learn to read here but we learn nothing.
The Good Man
The Good Woman
The Bad Man.
Movie Review: Bridesmaids (2011)
WARNING: SPOILERS EN BLANC
I’m not sure at what point I decided “Bridesmaids” was the funniest movie of the year.
Certainly not during the opening sex scene between Annie (Kristen Wiig) and good-looking douchebag Ted (Jon Hamm). That was hilarious, capturing some aspect of the absurdity of sex, but obviously way too early in the movie to be making such a call. Nor during Annie’s post-coital breakfast conversation with best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph), and their down-to-earth riffing on the inevitable sexual migration of men’s junk toward women’s faces. (“Why do they do that?”) That was too early in the movie, too. I wasn’t a fan of Annie’s customer interaction at the jewelry store—too much like an SNL skit—nor the grossness of her clueless British roommates, although the girl’s line, “I didn’t know that was your diary; I thought it was a very sad, handwritten book,” made me, again, laugh out loud. Was it everyone losing it at the upscale wedding shop, Belle en Blanc, because of food poisoning? The danger inherent in white carpet. Lillian crumpling, in white wedding dress, nine-tenths of the way across the street to a bathroom (“It’s happening, it’s happening, it’s happening” she cries) and then, like a fallen soufflé, remaining there, forlornly waving traffic past her.
At some point, though, as the laughs kept coming even as the plot picked up, I thought: “This is the funniest movie of the year.” And I don’t just mean so far. We’re in May but I’m already saying this: “Bridesmaids” will be the funniest movie I see in 2011. I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time.
What was that again, Hollywood, about women not being funny? In a recent New Yorker profile on Anna Faris, “Airplane” director David Zucker, grasping, says, “Maybe women have a built-in dignity, and if a woman slips on a banana peel...” His voice trails off. Now I’m not sure if anyone has built-in dignity, or if any dignity is built-in, but the food poisoning scene is particularly funny because they’re women: because of our assumptions about women and women’s assumptions about themselves. Men are sloppy beasts but what women want—the white carpet, those awful taffeta dresses, things named Belle en Blanc—requires a kinder, prissier world than the one we live in, and there’s humor in the gap.
In the very next paragraph of that article, Keenan Ivory Wayans, who was never funny, and who brought to our sad attention a whole host of brothers who were never funny, weighs in about the vanity of actresses impeding their efforts at comedy. “If Will Ferrell was a girl, and she's got a belly and a hairy back, she's not running down the street naked.” Did Wayans ever see Wiig as one of the Merrill sisters? Or as crazy McCain lady? Or as Jamie Lee Curtis pitching Activia yogurt? Wiig has been the funniest person on the planet for a while, ruling SNL when she was on it, stealing scenes in movies like “Knocked Up,” and now, in this script she co-wrote with Annie Mumolo, who plays her airplane seatmate in the film, she’s front-and-center in all of her awkward glory.
Much of the film is actually conventional. Annie’s life is in the crapper—her bakery, Cake Lady, was a victim of the recession—when her best friend, Lillian, gets engaged. She tries to be happy for her but can’t help but compare where she and Lillian are both heading. Then she meets Lillian’s new best friend, and maid of honor rival, Helen (Rose Byrne), who lives up to the model—she’s pretty, rich, connected, and outwardly sweet—and in Annie’s attempts not to lose Lillian, she loses Lillian. She takes the bridesmaids to the restaurant where they get food poisoning, she forces their Vegas bachelorette party to land in Casper, Wyoming, she throws an insane fit at Helen’s insanely over-the-top wedding shower. And that’s that. The thing she fears the most meets her halfway.
She’s her own worst enemy. She keeps going back to the wrong guy (Ted), keeps ignoring the right guy, Irish cop Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd). She loses her job, is forced to move home with her mother (Jill Clayburgh, the original unmarried woman), and winds up crying on the couch to Tom Hanks in “Castaway.” We’ve seen this kind of thing before yet it feels different here. It’s funnier, yes, but it also feels truer. The way people try to talk Annie out of her downward spiral and the way she doesn’t listen. There’s a scene where, after Rhodes encourages her to bake again, she does, she bakes a glorious cupcake, topped with all kinds of candied configurations. Then she stares at it on the counter, unhappily. Then she eats it, unhappily. Not because she wants the cupcake, one assumes, but because she doesn’t want to make the cupcake. Because baking isn’t satisfying what it used to satisfy.
The friends, too, the bridesmaids, feel familiar yet aren’t. There’s the oddball heavyset one, the Zach Galifianakis character, Megan, played by Melissa McCarthy, who’s butch and frighteningly straight and comedically straightforward. She’s the most genuine of the women in that she doesn’t have an ideal she’s trying to live up to or that people are imposing upon her. Near the end she physically wrestles with Annie (“I’m Annie’s life! I’m Annie’s life!”), trying to get her to fight back; then she talks about how she had to learn to fight back in high school. Megan only stops being funny for a second, and in that second she’s quite poignant.
All the women, all the bridesmaids, are poignant and funny; all are dealing with the gulf between the assumed expectation and their own reality. Becca (Ellie Kemper of “The Office”) is the cute newlywed, of the perfect new marriage ... where the sex with her germaphobic husband isn’t working. Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey) has the opposite problem with her husband. “Sometimes I just want to watch ‘The Daily Show’ without him entering me,” she says. Lillian is the focus of all this whirling activity, but she’s scared of all she’s leaving behind. Even Helen, behind the rich, pretty facade, is small and scared. She’s all pinpoint management skills with, she knows, no true friends.
But it’s in Annie that this gulf between expectation and reality is most visible and most comic. In an early scene, the manager of the jewelry store (Michael Hitchcock, of “Best in Show” fame), trying to get her to show customers the “love is eternal” look to help sell jewelry, calls over a hot young thing with a ludicrous name, Kahlua (Kali Hawk), who, between flirtations with the manager, demonstrates. Then Annie tries. The manager frowns. “Looks like you have menstrual cramps,” he says.
It’s not that the gulf between expectation and reality is inevitably funny. It’s that Kristen Wiig brings out the awkward humor in the situation better than almost anyone.
The filmmakers, including director Paul Feig, director of episodes of “The Office” and “Arrested Development,” get all the details right. The setting is Milwaukee in all its lakefront glory, the soundtrack is full of songs sung by women, we get ’70s standup comic Franklyn Ajaye—Franklyn Ajaye!—as Lillian’s father. Most importantly, the friendship between Annie and Lillian feels real and deep. You know The Bechdel Test from the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”? Quote: “I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it, who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.” “Bridesmaids” is her movie. True, Annie and Lillian talk about men. But they also bring out the inner goof in each other. They drop the facade. That’s what friends are for.
Movie Review: Certified Copy (2011)
“Certified Copy” is the kind of foreign film that turns on most American movie critics and turns away most American moviegoers. The film is confusing and unknowable, the main characters erudite and insufferable, the settings exotic and confined and possibly nightmarish. It’s the kind of film that requires subterfuge to sell. The U.S. trailer, for example, gives us beautiful shots of Tuscany, and Juliette Binoche in full middle-aged flower, and an implied, heavy romanticism. Then these words appear on the screen:
a writer in search of meaning
an art dealer in search of originality
two strangers will play
a game of seduction
Let’s break down each of these:
a writer in search of meaning
Is British essayist James Miller (William Shimell) really in search of meaning? I thought he just wanted to get out of town. He wants to be in the sun. He’s more like a writer in search of simplicity. He’s tired of the life of the mind and wants to live the life of the moment.
an art dealer in search of originality
This is said of Elle (Juliette Binoche), she of the best middle-aged cleavage I’ve seen in years. But she’s not in search of originality. She’s in search of romance, of connection, just like the women who will see this film. Ultimately they’ll be as disappointed as she.
two strangers will play
a game of seduction
This is the biggest lie of all since this is the one game they don’t play. From the start, when you think they are merely strangers (as, indeed, they might be), he is distant and she is testy. There is no flirtation, no exploration, no curiosity. It’s flat. If movies tend to give us the blossoming of love without the prickliness of the relationship, “Certified Copy” gives us the prickliness of the relationship without the blossoming of love.
The movie begins with Miller at a small literary gathering in Tuscany, reading from his latest book, “Certified Copy,” in which he posits that “the copy has value in that it leads us to the original and satisfies its value.” This idea, this theme, is played with immediately. The book itself is a copy, a translation of the original, and is in fact more popular in Italy than the original is in Britain. Miller’s apologetic line as he arrives late, “I would blame the traffic but I walked here,” is a copy, or unintentioned repetition, of the translator’s earlier apologetic line for Miller’s tardiness. Meanwhile, Elle, sitting in the front row with the translator, has to deal with her copy, a teenaged son, who wants to leave and get something to eat.
And we’re just starting.
The next day Miller meets Elle in her antique art shop, walks in circles for several minutes while he waits for her, giving us, over and over, his image, his copy, reflected in the antique mirrors. This will happen with many mirrors, and many windows, throughout the film.
Finally Elle shows up, they get into her car and drive out into the Tuscan countryside. “I can’t believe you’re in my car,” she says, like a groupie, but he remains distant, chin up. He’s not a snob, he’s just ... disinterested. Like a husband hanging with his wife for the five thousandth day. Why put on a show? The two are obviously getting to know each other but without the feel, the spark, of getting to know each other.
In another small Tuscan town, known for its weddings, she takes him to see a work of art, thought to be an original, now known to be a copy, and thus valued less. Should it be valued less? Isn’t it just as valuable as before? He talks about it for a bit, then gets cranky and begs off. One can tell he’s already tired of the subject. Just as we’re tired of him.
Things pick up at a small café when he steps outside to take a phone call. The patron of the place (Gianna Giachetti), a wise woman, assumes he and Elle are husband and wife, and engages Elle in conversation about men in general. Most men sleep in on a Sunday morning, she says. Look at your husband: dressed up, taking you out for coffee. True, he didn’t shave, but… Elle plays along. She even comes up with a not-bad story about how he only shaves every other day, and their wedding happened to fall on a non-shave day, so he didn’t bother simply because it was a non-shave day. When he returns, Elle informs him what’s going on and outside they continue the charade, talking like they are married. She get a phone call—from her son—and afterwards she complains about her son, how he never thinks, and Miller takes the general view that kids live in the moment, which is a good way to live. Her response—“You might be living your life, he might be living his life, but you’re both ruining me!”—sounds like a wife’s response. One of her next responses—“When was the last time the three of us had breakfast together?”—is a wife’s response.
And like that they’re suddenly a couple. Without any of the fun involved with being a couple.
They argue about a statue in the piazza, they argue about wine in a restaurant, they argue over the fact that he fell asleep last night, on the night of their 15th wedding anniversary, as she was preparing herself in the bathroom. She looks at the young couples getting married in the town with nostalgic eyes. Oh, to be young and in love again. There’s a nice moment, in the restaurant, when she’s waving through a window at newlyweds she’d met earlier. They try to talk through the window but none can hear the other. As if a distance of 15 years, rather than a mere pane of glass, separates them.
So were they a couple before and we just didn’t realize it? In the beginning, when she gets one of his books signed for her son (Adrian Moore), her son, who looks like a mop-topped, French, Elijah Wood, teases her as to why she didn’t bother with his surname. What was she hiding? This sets her off.
Is that what she was hiding? The same surname? The fact that le fils est son fils?
But acclaimed Iranian writer-director Abbas Kiarostami seems to be going for something bigger than a case of mistaken identity. As the day progresses, as evening falls, as he follows her into a church and then into the garret of the hotel where they spent their honeymoon 15 years earlier, and she lounges seductively on the bed (the only real moment of seduction in the film), and then seems to suddenly vanish, leaving only him, and then not him, just bells tolling in the background, one gets a sense of a relationship, or a life, lived in a day. Of life sped up. That sense that we know who we don’t know, and don’t know who we know, and how it all goes so quickly. He’s getting at the very instability of life.
Yet I didn’t like the movie much.
I’m all for instability. But neither character is particularly likeable: She demands too much, he is present too little. They’re not even interesting, in the way that Jake LaMotta, another unlikeable character, is interesting. They’re just annoying.
The film is shot beautifully but I may be growing tired of the old directors’ tricks of obfuscation and directness—of dialogue spoken either off-camera or directly to the camera.
The theme of the validity of copies is interesting but ... how does it relate to the shifting, unsettling relationship between Elle and James? Is Kiarostami playing with the original, the genuine, so that by the end we cannot tell between the genuine and the false, the original and the copy? And if so, is this profound? It feels less profound to me than what I’ve described above: the instability of life.
Overall, there’s just not enough pleasure here. Early in the movie, Miller, defending the simplicity of Elle’s sister, says that the problem with the human race is that we’re the only group of animals “who forgets that the whole purpose of life, the whole meaning... is to have pleasure.”
There are pleasures in “Certified Copy” but not enough for a recommendation.
Movie Review: Thor (2011)
I was never much of a fan of Thor. Even in my comic-book-collecting heyday, 1974-77, I’d buy almost any comic before “The Mighty Thor.” It was partly the Shakespearean language, partly his dull alter ego, Dr. Donald Blake, partly the marble-shitting pomposity of Asgard and Odin as well as the vagueness of Thor’s powers (what couldn’t that hammer do?), but you put them all together for the biggest reason of all: How could anyone relate? Dude was a god. World War II-era super soldier serum, sure. Proportional strength of a spider, why not? Gamma radiation-infused Jekyll-Hyde transformation, of course. But who let the god into the room?
The five screenwriters of the new feature film, “Thor,” as well as its director, Sir Kenneth Branagh, do a not-poor job of making the Son of Odin, God of Thunder and Lord of Lightning relatable. Unfortunately, they also weigh him down with that marble-shitting backstory.
The movie begins simply enough. In the New Mexican desert, two scientists, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and a less-brainy, more relatable assistant, Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), are tracing atmospheric magnetic yadda yaddas from space, see the sky open, drive their science van toward it, and literally crash into a man (Chris Hemsworth) who seems to come out of nowhere. That, in fact, is what Jane wonders aloud. “Where did he come from?”
CUT TO: A thousand years ago.
At that time, in Scandinavia, Frost Giants (yes, giants made of ice) were trying to create a new ice age when the Asgardians interrupted and war broke out. Asgard won. This explains 1) Odin’s eye patch (he lost his eye in battle), 2) Norse mythology (the primitive earthlings took the Asgardians for gods), but not, 3) How Thor and Loki became part of Norse mythology since they were just babies at the time. Did they make trips back? To party? Passeth the Aquavit.
Odin (Anthony Hopkins), the dullest of all characters, takes two spoils of victory back with him to Asgard: the cube-like source of the Frost Giants’ power, and, unbeknownst to us until the last act, an enemy baby, who becomes Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the god of mischief, and whom he raises as his own—as, one could say, a potential rival to his own son, Thor. “Only one can ascend to the throne,” he tells the two boys, “but both of you were born to be kings.” Right. No rivalry will be born of that.
As for the God of Mischief, we rarely see him being mischievous. Dour, more. Bummed. He’s Cain to Thor’s Abel, envious, skulking, manipulative. When Thor (Hemsworth) comes of age, as a strong, outgoing and happy man, and is about to be crowned king in place of Odin, Loki creates a diversion, an alternative pathway for the Frost Giants to arrive and attempt to retrieve their source of power. They’re foiled but it creates a royal schism: Odin counsels diplomacy, Thor demands war. It’s a king’s decision, he says. “But you are not ... king,” Odin tells him, and there goes the coronation.
Of course, Thor, easily manipulated by the ear-whisperings of Loki, takes four friends, including Volstagg (Ray Stevenson, who played the Punisher), and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano, who played the lead in “Ichi the Killer”) to Jotunheim to battle the Frost Giants. Odin may counsel against war but it’s what we in the audience want. It’s actually a helluva battle, and the filmmakers make good imaginative 3-D use of Thor and his hammer, Mjöllnir, as the throws it, whirls it, creates shock waves around the planet with it. But the incident sets Odin off, and he strips his son of his powers and banishes him to Earth ... where he runs into Jane Foster, or she into him. I.e., We’re back at the start. After a half hour in that rarefied, Asgardian air.
(Side thoughts: Early on, Asgard is described as “a beacon of hope” ... but to whom? Themselves? And if they’re so enlightened, why rule by royalty? Are we doing it wrong here in America? Finally, how exactly does a father strip his son of powers? Is it an Asgardian thing? A Scandinavian thing? As a Lundegaard, should I be worried?)
On Earth, Thor veers between the comic and romantic. Slow to realize his powers have been stripped, he still acts imperious and martial. “You dare threaten Thor with so puny a weapon?” he says to Darcy, before she tases him, bro. At the hospital, he has to slip out of his restraints rather than break free of them. He slams a cup of coffee on the ground and demands more. Did he do this in Asgard? Is he a royal asshole? And why imperious with coffee cups but gentle with fair maidens like Jane Foster? Because the Asgardians, models for the Vikings, always treated women with such respect?
And has this happened to Thor before? For someone stripped of massive powers, he’s pretty fine with it. He’s still got a “Wait and see” confidence rather than a “Will I make it back?” concern. It’s not until he locates Mjöllnir in a nearby crater—which every local yokel has tried to lift (cue Stan Lee cameo), and around which the U.S. government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. has built a veritable institution—and he, too, Thor, son of Odin, can’t lift it, that reality, or his new impotent reality, sinks in. He grows despondent. Then of course he grows wiser. As powerful people who lose their power always, always do.
The hammer scene is pretty good. He sneaks in, takes down a half-dozen government agents, and makes it to Mjöllnir while, behind him, a marksman we know to be Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, anticipating “The Avengers”) takes aim. “Oh, don’t do that,” I thought. “Let him try.” The movie agrees. Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), whom we’ve seen hanging around since “Iron Man” in 2008, tells Hawkeye, “Let’s see what happens.” Of course nothing happens. He’s not worthy yet. What’s written in Marvel comics often gets spoken in Marvel movies—“with great power comes great responsibility,” etc.—and here it’s the words originally written on the side of Mjöllnir in Journey Into Mystery #83: “WHOSEVER HOLDS THIS HAMMER, IF HE BE WORTHY, SHALL POSSESS THE POWER OF ... THOR.” In the movie, Odin whispers those words to Mjöllnir before banishing it and Thor to Earth. So we’re waiting for him to become worthy. Or we’re waiting for someone to become worthy. Is there a Dr. Donald Blake in the house?
So how does an ancient god become worthy of his hammer? By acting like a New Testament God. When Loki takes over Asgard from an Odin in the midst of “Odin-Sleep” (yeesh), and sends some giant monster to kill Thor so he can never threaten Loki again, Thor, powerless, confronts the monster anyway ... and dies. He sacrifices himself to save others. That’s the worthy moment. Mjöllnir flies to his hand, he defeats the monster, and flies back to Asgard to battle Loki. Then he displays his newfound, New Testament wisdom not by annihilating the Frost Giants, as he wanted to do in the beginning, but by destroying the rainbow bridge between Asgard and other worlds in order to save the Frost Giants from the wrath of Loki. More self-sacrifice. He gives up his newfound love, Jane Foster, pretty Natalie Portman, in order to save his enemies. Then we get the usual post-credits teaser for “The Avengers” in 2012.
“Thor” isn’t a bad superhero movie. Hemsworth makes a credible hero—both proud and comic—Portman is perfect in a limited role, and the few moments of Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye should create a buzz. (He has like three lines of dialogue but every one is cool.) It’s a good intro for Thor and a good, continued set-up for “The Avengers.” But...
In “Origins of Marvel Comics,” Stan Lee’s 1974 book on the superhero enterprise he dreamed up nearly 15 years earlier, the section on Thor is titled, probably in tongue-in-cheek reference to an oft-used caption, “Meanwhile, Back in Asgard...” And that’s the problem with the movie. There are too many “Meanwhile, back in Asgard” moments. Just as we’re getting psyched about Thor’s adventures in New Mexico, Meanwhile, back in Asgard... That’s going to cut into its positive word-of-mouth.
I still can’t relate to Thor. He still seems all brawn and no brain to me. He still seems a better match for Darcy, the hot regular girl, than Jane, the pretty, prim scientist. Odin is still as interesting to me as a roomful of air.
But verily they did try.
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard