I felt like starting this review with an anguished cry. I wanted to LOVE ‘Thor’, but instead I feel indifferent. As someone still struggling to come to terms with the disappointment of ‘Iron Man 2’, this is much worse than if I’d actively hated it. With indifference comes the frustration of knowing that it could, and should, have been better.
Firstly, let’s very briefly get the premise out of the way for those who aren’t aware. ‘Thor’ is a Marvel comic-book character based on the Norse God of Thunder (complete with powerful hammer Mjolnir) of the same name. In the Marvelverse, Thor and the rest of the ‘gods’ aren’t actually deities, they are other-dimensional beings, but were worshipped as such by the Vikings. The realm they live in, Asgard, is ruled by King Odin (Anthony Hopkins), who has brought about an uneasy truce with their enemies the Frost Giants, with whom they had been at war with. Odin is ready to crown his successor, eldest son Thor (Chris Hemsworth) when a break of the truce by the Frost Giants causes Thor to defy his father and storm into their homeworld looking for answers with his close friends the Warriors Three and shady brother Loki (Tom Hiddlestone). This defiance causes Odin to strip Thor of his powers and banish him to Earth, where he must learn some humility.
Right, well that wasn’t as brief as I’d hoped but I continue regardless. There are two overriding faults with Thor, the first is one inherited from Iron Man 2, in that the film is hamstrung by the ever-looming shadow of Joss Whedon’s Avengers film coming out next year. Jon Favreau was hamstrung by it and now Kenneth Branagh has suffered the same fate, as he struggles to throw in all the meta-references and cameos required. I can understand that there is a need for this, but do the films really have to be so laden with it? Whatever happened to subtlety? At least S.H.I.E.L.D are given a little more of a role than in ‘IM2’, although it still doesn’t equate to much. What will happen is we will have reached Avengers saturation point long before the film actually materialises (don’t forget we still have Captain America to come) and the preceding films are weaker for it.
The second main flaw is that as much as Branagh searches for a Shakespearean pathos (and who better?) in the material, it just isn’t there. It has potential, with fraternal and paternal squabbles including gods, but at the end of the day it is still a film based on a comic book about a man thumping skulls with a giant hammer. While watching, I tried to use that as an excuse for the film, but because of the distinct lack of irony in the delivery, it just doesn’t work. One suspects Branagh MAY have pulled it off, but wasn’t given the edit he wanted due to trying to fit in all the Marvel stuff. It’s a shame, as Hemsworth, Hopkins and Hiddlestone try gamely to achieve it.
Of the lesser faults, Natalie Portman could have been replaced with any other actress who can pull off ‘pretty-but-bookish-and-doe-eyed’, and the “romance” between her and Thor is laughably unrealistic; Thor’s lesson in humility on Earth appears to have been learned over one pitcher of beer; Loki’s intentions are back-and-forth, which is interesting to a point, but in a film such as this you eventually need a clear bad guy; the Warriors Three are ridiculously cartoonish and lacking any personality, they are just copies-of-copies of Musketeers.
It’s not all bad news. Asgard is wonderfully realised, the vastness and other-worldliness breathtakingly conveyed. Chris Hemsworth is charismatic enough to prevent being either a cardboard character or ridiculous in the role, and he and Branagh show a deft comic touch with his character resulting in some genuine and intentional laugh out loud moments. Indeed these are almost the best parts of the whole film, brief as they are, but are topped when Thor is in full ‘bringing thunder and pain’ mode. The fight scenes could easily have been overrun with CGI, but that problem is side-stepped with the sheer impressiveness in the style, Thor deploying both up-close-and-personal ugliness and the grand powers of a deity figure. But this brings with it another problem. Once Thor is in this mode, hammer in hand, he is impervious and at no point do you think there is any peril. At least Superman has Kryptonite to be deployed. It’s something that Whedon will have to work hard to overcome in the Avengers film, as not everything works on screen as it does in the comics. How often can Thor lose his hammer before you just start calling him careless?
There is a better film to be found among this, but it’s probably back in the editing suite. Maybe a sequel, after the Avengers film is out of the way, will provide a better platform for Thor and the rest of his Asgardians.
I said I’d eventually start reviewing things on here, so I’ll start with The Town.
Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone was a critical success. Based on Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name, Affleck delivered a tense story well-told, bringing top-notch performances from all of his cast. He was singled out as a director to be watched, but much hinged on his second effort. So, for The Town, Affleck has tried to repeat much of what made Gone Baby Gone successful. The Town is another adaptation, this time from Chuck Logan’s novel ‘Prince of Thieves’, and is also based in Affleck’s home town of “Bahston”. This time however, Affleck also steps in front of the camera to take the lead role of Doug MacRay: a hockey washout who, with three friends, has turned to a life of bank robbing.
Has Affleck delivered on the promise and hype which Gone Baby Gone produced? The answer is a resounding yes. Gone Baby Gone had it’s flaws, but the biggest one for me was that it was occasionally hokey. While watching I became very aware that I WAS WATCHING A FILM. Rather than get sucked into the story, I found it to be like watching a documentary on Boston. Thankfully, The Town doesn’t suffer from the same problem. It too has it’s flaws but none so distracting. It’s a much more assured effort from Affleck, his stride has definitely been hit.
The story won’t win any prizes for originality. Man does bad things, man falls in love, man seeks to change his ways and leave despite resistance from those around him. But Affleck directs in a way that makes that well-trodden path seem newly-repaired. It’s a film about human behaviour more than the heists. Why people do what they do; how they fall into the traps they do; why most don’t change. This is brought to the fore with the relationships between MacRay, his friends and his father. All of the supporting characters could have (and some have) fallen into cliché, but because they are fully-drawn and well-written, they are entirely believable. The naturalistic (and heavily-accented) dialogue is key to this. You get the feel of the characters without having to try, it comes across in what they say without having to be full of exposition.
As it is a heist film there are, of course, action set-pieces. Whereas the direction for most of the film is fairly intimate, in close with the characters, when it comes to the showier stuff, Affleck pulls it off with aplomb. The heists themselves are breathtaking affairs, and even though it is now the law to reference Heat when any film has criminals with automatic weapons shooting it out in the street during broad daylight, the comparison only lasts a second before you enjoy it on it’s own merits. No mean feat. He employs a range of angles without losing the coherence of what’s going on, and pulls you right in to the action.
Once again, Affleck gets the best of his cast. From the ever reliable Chris Cooper as MacRay’s banged-up father to Jon Hamm’s G-man, who could have become a lazy FBI suit, the type you see on screen all the time and may as well be made out of cardboard, they all deliver performances with depth. Jeremy Renner has been nominated for an Oscar as MacRay’s best friend, “Jem” Coughlin, the man with strong principles of friendship but a temperamental nature. Since Joe Pesci’s turn in Goodfellas, those roles of the hot-headed friends tend to garner the attention in a film like this, but honestly, although Renner is superb, Affleck is better.
His performace as MacRay carries the film, and it needs to. If you don’t believe in Affleck’s performance then the whole film fails. But he comes across as a leader of men; someone who has regret but isn’t bitter; someone who believably seeks redemption. He could leave it there and have a protagonist you could get behind but, most importantly, he doesn’t forget that MacRay is also an asshole and a vicious bastard. With that in place, it elevates him to someone you don’t want to take your eyes off. It’s as though his stint behind the camera has given him a realisation about what to do in front of it. Affleck is no longer so obviously trying to act and the smugness apparent in almost all of his films has translated into an easy charm. It’s a shame that roles like that tend to be overlooked, as it deserves attention.
There are two main faults with The Town though, one disappointing and one trivially annoying. The first one is the relationship between MacRay and love interest Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall). It is rushed and so stretches the realms of realism. I count they have a total of four conversations and and one session in the sack before they are in love and ready to abandon their lives for each other. That relationship isn’t the central one, but it is the catalyst for the plot. As such, it hasn’t been treated with the same care as the others. The trivially annoying fault is a small one. The late, great Pete Postlethwaite, whilst giving a good performance as the utter bastard of the piece, Irish gangster ‘Fergie’, goes on another one of his accent jaunts. Rather than the Welshistani accent delivered in The Usual Suspects, this one hops around all of Ireland and the British Isles. I only mention it because it jars during his scenes.
If those could have been avoided, The Town could have been a modern classic. But it doesn’t detract from the fact that it is still an excellent, excellent film which delivers an oft-visited story in a way that’s fresh and enthralling. Affleck now has to avoid becoming a one-trick pony. He needs to get out of Boston for his next film as director and prove he’s the real deal.
One more thing. Did anyone else notice the nod to Daredevil at the end or was it just a coincidence I’m drawing too much out of?