Saturday, November 9, 2013



A divinely inspired work of cinema with a real beating heart, featuring the best fantasy world in contemporary film, the best straight superhero story in any film, the best supervillain since Claude Rains wore black velvet, and the best colors of 2011, which, if I had my way, would be an Oscar category.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne, Mark Protosevich, and J. Michael Straczynski
With Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Natalie Portman (Jane Foster), Anthony Hopkins (Odin), Rene Russo (Frigga), Kat Dennings (Darcy Lewis), Stellan Skarsgard (Dr. Erik Selvig), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Jaime Alexander (Sif), Zachary Levi (Fandral), Ray Stevenson (Volstagg), Tadanobu Asano (Hogun), Colm Feore (Laufey), and Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson)


Whosoever holds this camera, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Kenneth Branaghand of course it didn't even budge.  Yet, somehow, this sequel is a very good movie, proving how much script and performancesand probably sheer goodwill for a franchisereally do matter.

Directed by Alan Taylor
Written by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Christopher Yost, and Don Payne
With the same, minus Colm Feore (a void in my icy heart) and Clark Gregg (a pain like a stab in the chest), plus Christopher Eccleston (if you really, really insist)

Spoiler alert: severe for Thor, mild for The Dark World

What is it that convinced Ken Branagh to fail to return to his best-performing movie, and probably his best one period, perhaps bar Hamlet, and to abandon Thor 2 for the arid pastures of a Jack Ryan reboot?  Was it the opportunity to play a goofy villain with a cartoon Russian accent?  That can't be it.  Asgard has at least a dozen distinct accents and no one's minded yet.  Whatever it wasand God save Kevin Feige if they fired him, like they fired Patty Jenkinsthe loss is all civilization's.

Yet if you love composition with a mind largely for convenience and coverage, you may well enjoy the way The Dark World is filmed more than you did the original.  This is the case especially if you hate dutch angles, such as I am not entirely prepared to say were overused in Thor, as too many of them look too great to criticize, but I can concede that the technique was not always necessary and remains, on occasion, hilarious.

"Ken!  The DP is drunk again."

Ours is a free country, though, where you can tilt your camera at any dumb angle you choose.  But if you want a vision of the future, imagine someone editing footage of a boot stamping on a human face in shot/reverse-shot forever.  In The Dark World, the more action there is in any given scenewhich is also to say the more CGI is involved; which I suspect is finally to say the less involved in camera placement the director wasthe better it is shot.  There is a generous portion of action in this movie, to its credit.

No, the problems with The Dark World don't begin and end with Alan Taylor, because it's not just Branagh we're missing here.  And yet, if you just casually looked at the poster or the IMDB page, you would see that every principal cast member (not counting Clark Gregg, son of Coul, and Colm Feore) has returned for the sequel.

And this is better than fine, because every principal cast member of Thor was great, from Chris Hemsworth's perfect performance as a god learning his own limitations to Anthony Hopkins' snarling assholery as a manipulative monster of a deity to Tom Hiddleston making me cry as a self-loathing Jotunand I don't mention Alexander, Skarsgard, Elba, etc., to leave them out, but because this is already rather long as a dual review.

They all persist in greatness in the sequel.  The strongest complaint possible is that, insofar as the title character lacks a strong arcdid anyone want to see a god learn responsibility and humility again?Hemsworth doesn't shine as brightly here as he did when he first proved himself worthy of the power of Thor (and in a manner, I fear, so subtle that even many who enjoyed the film did not notice).  On the other hand, Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings get approximately five times as many lines as they did in the first movie, which is all to the best, considering Jane is supposed to be important.

But dig deeper, and you discover that practically no principal behind the camera has returned.  In addition to Branagh's absence is, naturally, that of cinematographer Harris Zambarkouloshe too was seduced by the prospect of Branagh's big ham and went with him to go film Shadow Recruit.  Thus does The Dark World not look so in danger of tipping over as did Thor.

Under the weight of its own greatness, I mean.

But also failing to reprise their behind-the-scenes roles were those whose talent was at least as crucial to the success of Thor as its director.  Gone is costume designer Alexandra Byrne (Hamlet, The Avengers, and an Oscar winner for Elizabeth II: Full Sequence); gone is supervising art director Maya Shimoguchi (she designed sets for Watchmen and Minority Report, so right on); and, most devastatingly, gone is veteran production designer Bo Welch, whose achievements include Beetlejuice, Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands, Men in Black, and, apparently, Space Chimps, but whose signature triumph must be Thor.

As you may have somehow intuited, I really, really, really liked Thor.  I can go further: by a substantial margin, it is the best of the Marvel superhero moviesIron Man, The Avengers, and the first half of Captain America come closest.  But as watchable as Robert Downey Jr. inarguably is, I've found his snide improv far less rewatchable than Hemsworth's combination of regal arrogance and goofy charm and rippling, bulging, flexing

Pictured: Alexandra Byrne's most notable work.

As for The Avengers, Joss Whedon's effort to make the great superhero crossover film, otherwise a vast success, suffers badly from the laughably impotent alien invasion threat that attempts to climax the filmthank God it had Loki, the Lex Luthor you can punch, or The Avengers' finale would've probably been outrightly boring.  Whereas Thor has the Destroyer, and its face laser, and proceeds to end on an emotionally powerful battle between sibling gods, both of whom have realized their true selves after arduous inner journeys.

Captain America, of course, simply stops being a movie after he breaks into the Hydra base and releases the Howling Commandos.  Whereas Branagh felt it was important that his movie continue to tell a story that might feasibly entertain someone well into the third act.

Thor remains a total victory achieved by combined filmmaking arms, notable in practically every respect; but above all, Thor features the best art design of any superhero film so far made, outgrandeuring not just John Barry's iconic take on Krypton in 1978's Superman, but surpassing even (though he stood upon a giant's shoulders) Guy Dyas' spectacular 2006 update of Barry's work for Returns, an amazing job that thanks to studio interference only blu ray owners and Youtube viewers get to see the other half of.

When it comes to inventing gorgeous hyperreality, Welch, Shimoguchi, Byrne, and their subordinates' only other peers in this century are Darren Gilford, Scott Chamblis, and Owen Paterson's art teams, respectively, on Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, on Star Trek and Into Darkness, and on Speed Racer, along with anybody who happens to be working with Wes Anderson.  These are the Carre's, Menzies's, Adam's, Barry's, Reynolds', and Donati's of our time, and future film historians will know with certainty that their names, for the most part, are much easier to pluralize.

It can be readily conceded that none of the worlds which Welch had a hand in creating felt really "lived in."  However vast and computer-generatedthough less of the latter than might be expectedthey remained stagebound.  Nor is one likely, except on their most rarefied flights of fancy, to imagine them extending substantially beyond the frame as functional polities.  Instead, monochromatic, monoclimatic, and monocultural, they were designed and built for immediate narrative and visual recognition, and detailed appreciation.  Welch's work in Thor suggests physicality, but nothing like reality, and offers no tedious exercises in world-building, instead showing us exquisite dioramas populated by mythic beings, each caged by their own benevolently oppressive aesthetic.  Hell, even Midgard was a set.

This winking affectation, this counter-realism, is the charm of many a cinematic fantasy worldsomething often forgotten in the Lord of the Rings-style ventures into gray high fantasy towards which I have little but hostilityand Welch's rendering of Norse cosmology is bound to recall Flash Gordon, the Star Wars Trilogy, or the silent Thief of Bagdad.  Like the Moons of Mongo, the Cloud City of Bespin, or the Abbasid Caliphate, the worlds of Yggdrasil in Thor may be clearly fictional and entirely the result of artifice, but it is pure and supremely lovely artifice all the same.

Asgard and Jotunheim are beautiful, divinely monumental, and appropriately lit (or unlit).  The prism of the Bifrost and the expressionistic icehewn citadel of the Jotun king Laufey stand as key exhibits in an enormous show of fantastic architecture.  And if nothing to be seen in Asgard on our second journey is exactly as thrilling as the uncaging of the Destroyer or the deployment of the Bifrost as a world-killing weapon, the ambiance nonetheless remains lovely in Thor: The Dark World.

Which is a backhanded and long way of saying that if Bo Welch and his people didn't design it in Thor, it has a high probability of lacking luster in Thor: The Dark World, and even the things they did design aren't shot as intriguingly.  It is a dreadfully difficult undertaking to assign creditor blameto such tasks.  Like in real life, collective punishment is easier and area bombing may suffice, Alan Taylor to be brought to justice before an international tribunal later.  But if I'm here to praise Bo Welch, it would be unfair not to bury his successor Charles Wood, even if it isn't entirely his fault.

Above: Asgard and Jotunheim, Thor
Left:  Ming's palace, Flash Gordon (production design by Danilo Donati, 1980); backstage at the Paris Opera House, The Phantom of the Opera (Ben Carre, 1925); Fort Knox, Goldfinger (Ken Adam, 1964); the "Realm of Glass," The Thief of Bagdad (William Cameron Menzies, 1924); the Emperor's throne room, Return of the Jedi (Norman Reynolds, 1983)

Svartalfheim, Thor: The Dark World (Charles Wood, 2013)

Well, one certainty of The Dark World is that no one makes the mistake of going "too detailed."

No, luckily no one is out to make Asgard, or the homes of its allies and its enemies, seem like true places with realistic societies, ecosystems, and fiscal policies.  Instead, Wood's team commit the far more cardinal error of being visually dull.

We open, fittingly enough, in Svartalfheim, which is neither Tony Cox' home planet nor the Dark World of the title (that's an aspirational phrase, it turns out), but is home to the Dark Elves.  Odin narrates that in the distant past Asgard invaded to maintain peace in the Nine Worlds; for the Dark Elves, true to their name and nature, had sought to turn all normal matter in the universe into dark matter, so that it would stop blackbody radiating at them.  As far as villainous plots go, this is pretty huge.  Its cinematic execution is, however, ever in doubt.

Forget the colors herethe puke green skies and permanently eclipsed sun serve; more interesting color schemes spring to mind, but probably only because I've seen what Joe Kosinski and Darren Gilford were able to do with a pretty darned dark world of their own.

Also, forget that this opening is distressingly and actionably identical to that of Fellowship of the Ring yet even then not as cool to watch, let alone as entertainingnor as capable of effectively combining the aesthetics of crazy superhero space war and LARPingas the briefly sketched history of the war with the Jotunnar in Thor.

Guess which Thor movie this is from.

Rather, let's talk about the form and function of the objects on screen.  The Dark Elves have cool spaceships, I'll give them that, though they appear to be 80% elevator and they're mainly good for landing on/crashing into things.  What else have the Elves?  They have a gravel-floored plain.  And a medium-sized hill.  This is our location, folks, hope you like it, because we come back to this empty void twice to have action sequences (the better to film it against a greenscreen, my dear).  When we do return, even the wreckage of their monolithic battle fleet, left there in the opening flashback, will have vanished, along with it any marker suggesting a specific location (and a cool locationa graveyard strewn with colossal headstones), as well as any environment to interact withInstead, it will register as a purely default landscape.  Turns out it was actually filmed, in Icelandthe same place as the exteriors in Oblivion.  Go figure.

We are also first introduced to our Cosmic Cube Tesseract du jour, which becomes a spastic CGI effect that looks sort of like blood with red refracting off its altogether too complex surface (as opposed to a manifest darkness, so black it appears flat, such as you might expect and which would look better, but at least no one's preempted that Shade movie that will never, ever be made).  This artifact and the force within it, called the Aether, will be deployed primarily and unimaginatively as a simple projectile weapon when it is finally put into action against Thor, which I don't think counts as a spoiler for any viewer above the age of "cat."

Finally, we see the Dark Elves themselves for the first time, and faintly intriguing masks aside, they are stormtroopers, to the detail, down to the ineffective blasters; except that this is a Thor movie, and while it may recall the Star Wars films on a certain level it damned well isn't one, and straight-up guns are hideously out of placeas opposed to spears and hammers that fire death rays and electricity.  Well, they are.

My God.  Alan Taylor is just an anagram for Julie Taymor!

And it doesn't help that the Dark Elves are amusingly underpowered, except for the comparatively few of them that get juiced up with some kind of magical artifact that renders them "Kursed" [sic].

Before I finish my regrettable hate parade, let's catch up to the present; we flash forward to find our protagonist in Vanaheim.  There, Thor is engaging in some form of magical colonialismit's never made quite clear what he's doing, or on whose behalf he's doing it, but it's also true that no one caresA tiny battle is being waged upon somebody, including the rock-somebody that we saw Thor hilariously murder in the trailer.

As an aside, is it insanely weird that movie versions of superheroes are always way more violent than their four-color counterparts, given that superhero comics have a reputation subsequent to the Moore/Miller revolution for being bloodthirsty affairs?  True, the genre's reputation is sorely deserved ever since the Superhero Decadence movement really took hold back around 2000, first and still foremost at DC; and, granted, Marvel heroes have since the 70s always been a bit flexibleCap decaptitated a dracula once.  But in the movies, it's not the blood and guts adolescence of a Geoff Johns book, it's just casual adult homicide, all day, every day, and it's great.

The humorous ending of life notwithstanding, the "world" of "Vanaheim" is perhaps the laziest thing I've ever seen.  It is a leveled grass field with a tree line.  That is it.  Wait, no, there's also a deck.  I believe this is a real location, which actually makes it somewhat lazier.

Although there's nothing to complain about in the foreground.

At one point, Darcy asks Thor, "How is space?" "Space is good," he replies, and it is very funny because it is a nice, silly line and Kat Dennings and Chris Hemsworth are nice, silly people, but he's just being polite.

Flat, nearly featureless horizons so dominate the background in so many shots of The Dark World that they practically overwhelm the actors, in what ought be the most stimulting, enrapturing moments of the film.  The best you can say is that Svartalfheim and Vanaheim will never displace Asgard or Jotunheim from our memories and affections.  Taylor, Wood, and crew may be intelligent, but their pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking.

What an irony then that the climax involves the convergence of (explicitly) all the realms of the World Tree's cosmos, and the combatants careen vertically, horizontally, and diagonally through portals during a madcap struggle that promises to rage throughout the Nine Worldsor at least the four that they've already had to render.  The portals of course all spit people out in the exact same locations we've been before, because, again, that's what they've rendered.

In this sequence Midgardreduced to London this timeis just as constrained in its depiction, but London is a place with things, and thus in a cruel move that I doubt anyone could have predicted, the most interesting new objects to see in the sequel to one of the more visually inventive films of this millennium are the London Eye, an abandoned warehouse, and that building that looks like a glass cucumber.  Welcome to Thor: The Overcast World.  That it is still a rather nice action set-piece isn't exactly beside the point, I happily grant, but the better, even the hypothetically better, is ever the enemy of the good enough.

And that's all the negative things I have to say about the way the movie looks, except I'll point outand then be done, I promisethat this movie cost $170 million and on at least two occasions the greenscreen could only be worse if you could still see the microphone.

But to say something genuinely pleasant (for a change), I don't want to convey the impression the entire movie is visually garbage.  It isn't.  It's not even devoid of its own more interestingeven beautifultouches, like the Viking funeral, or, as noted, the Dark Elves' vessels:

 Blacks, deep reds, harsh but selective lighting, and costume composed of mummylike metal plate?  It's just about brilliant—that's why it's in the trailer, and all but wasted in the movie as a Dark Elf healing chamber centered around a medical station, as Malekith cannot wear a mask, because he's played by an actor whose name is on the poster, which is immensely hilarious, as we'll get to shortly.

Ultimately, it's just fine: which is a rather weaker effort than I expected and than the material deserved.  Now, I'll briefly touch on the movie as a purely narrative device.

Why, I just fucking love it.

I could just err on the side of infuriation and close the review here.

But, truly, it could have been a real mess.  The script team was purged along with the rest of the old guard; the only continuity between the two is Don Payne, the fun-loving Budenny to Kevin Feige's Stalin, and he has only a story credit on The Dark World.  However, when it came time to bring in new writers, they happened upon two men whose work has probably revolutionized no one but me, but to me their names are basically synonymous with quality.

I would never have guessedElf 'Roids were the only textual cluebut two of the writers responsible of The Dark World's script are none other than Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, adapters of a little series of articles you may have heard of, which they helped turn into a feature film called Pain & Gain.

That film that had a legitimate shot at being the 2013's best, before Gravity came and kicked intellectually superior scripts about class warfare to the curb with its elemental and beyond beautifully filmed tale of survival.  With The Dark World, this has proven a breakout year for the duo; and it so happens, I now learn, that they also helped script Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  I've suddenly become incredibly excited about it, which I could not have predicted yesterday.

Oh, and Christopher Yost, an old hand at superhero storytelling whose years of work on Marvel's cartoons is regrettably unknown to me, also helped a lot, I imagine.

It's not an incredible claim to forward that, on a pure dialogue level, The Dark World is slightly better than Thor.  Trading in Pain's vicious sense of humor for a (generally) lighter joviality, The Dark World is a funny film, at least as funny as any Iron Man joint.  And compared to Tony Stark's adventures, it is possessed, due to its characters' richness, of appreciably more feeling.  Even Loki's turn from complex, genuinely tragic antagonist to raving lunatic between Thor and Avengers is made an integral part of the ongoing story here, and if The Dark World does nothing else (and it does plenty) it writes bold new chapters for both Loki's and Odin's immortal lives.

If only they didn't fuck that one thing up, and since there's not a word of dialogue, and because I rush to judgment over the flimsiest of evidence, I am deeply suspicious that it was never written in the script.

Even if it means Hemsworth must recede, a little, it can't be argued that the cast of stars assembled in Thor is better brought to the fore now, in The Dark World, through the powers of its script...

...except for one.  Regenerating once again in the role of a genocidal monster, Christopher Eccleston plays Malekith, the king of the Dark Elves.  The only thing that may keep you from noticing that he is almost entirely wasted is that his fellow descendant of town-dwellers is so back in form as Loki that it renders invisible the objective fact that the film's nominal antagonist barely exists.

Most of Eccleston's lines are in Elvish or some facsimile thereof, all of his lines are deeply digitally colonoscoped, and he attains something like a personality during the recitation of exactly one them, the content of which I have forgotten.  Eccleston isn't allowed to elevate his stock villain even to the status of a cutout because the character of Malekith doesn't have the other necessary dimension for him to intersect with.

Contrast Colm Feore in Thor, who as Laufey has similarly few lines, even less narrative prominence, and is likewise slathered with awesome makeup, but who is permitted, in the space of his maybe hundred seconds on screen, to create a war-weary and almost wise yet embittered and vengeful monarch for the Frost Giants.

Feore, given one of the finest, most subtle acting moments in the film, here laments that had he only known to expect company, he'd have cleaned up.

The best praise possible for Malekith is that he gets powered up eventually; and that he looks really cool after half his face gets burned offif, unnervingly, like a very specific and functionally identical character from the Distinguished Competition.

Just give him back his black diamond and he'll go home.

However, be on your toes for a cameo that I don't dare say anything more about, other than to tell you that it may be the film's absolute highlight, and that it's not in the post-credits scenes (of which there are two, and there is a worthwhile cameo therein), and that it's not Sam Jackson.

If the script can be said to be flawedother than its poor service of its villainit's because, as we knew from the trailers, this was going to be a movie about Thor and Loki traveling to save Jane Foster from something.  It is an hour into the film before this journey, and hence the actual story, begins.  You won't really notice the time passing as long as it's suitably filled with frolics and intrigue and ongoing character development, but you may have a sneaking suspicion that the ten minute action scene preceding Thor and Loki's road trip, not to mention the ten minutes of prep scenes preceding the action, was unnecessary as any sort of inciting incident.  After all, Jane's already become subject to the danger.  And the expedition is mightily shorter than you may or may not have been led to believe, insofar as they instantly arrive where the person they need to find happens, at that time, to be.  So expectations of a Hiddleston and Hemsworth Go to Utgard feature should probably be kept to a bare minimum.

There are unfortunately no scenes of Thor being beaten up by an old woman in this film.

But it's all good-to-great fun to be had nonetheless.  If The Dark World doesn't pursue its spectacleor its themeswith the same aggressiveness as Thor did, that's all forgivable, because God damn, I can just listen to these people talk about nonsense all day.

Thor: The Snark World.

Thor: 10/10
Thor: The Dark World: 6/10
Flash Gordon: 1,000,000/10

P.S.:  I'd have given some measly extra credit to the production design crew if Malekith's cross-shaped spaceship driven semi-imposingly into the ancient killing field had any thematic resonance whatsoever in this movie about pagan deities who were mythologically exterminated by Christianity.  It has almost as much significance as similar imagery in Evangelion, which is to say none, so I didn't.

P.P.S.: Transliteration of Anthony Hopkins' bile used for the title of these reviews courtesy Jondy1703, and by "courtesy" I mean "I plagiarized it."

P.P.P.S.:  Despite its status as science fantasyat the mostI believe Thor may be the only piece of SF cinema that has ever depicted the brute fact that a teleporter is also a near-light speed particle beam, and all the potential for fucking shit up that this fact entails.  Where is your God now, Mike Okuda?

P.P.P.P.S.: Ha ha.  No, Battlefield Earth is not my favorite movie, and fuck you.

Extra special correction postscript: I was wrong about one thingJosh Dallas was Fandral in Thor, and, obviously, did not reprise his role.  Oopsy daisy.

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