Tuesday 26 April 2011

Thor review

Thor (12A/PG-13, 114 mins)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

At first glance there are several elements of Thor that make it an odd choice to kick off the 2011 summer blockbuster season.

Compared to some superhero properties, the Norse god romp is not all that well known outside comic book circles, then there’s an unknown in the title role in the shape of Aussie beefcake Chris Hemsworth.

But most intriguingly, in Kenneth Branagh, it has a director who made his bones bringing Shakespeare to the screen, and who hasn’t been near a major special effects spectacle in his behind-the-camera life.

But recognition matters little when the story is so strong, Hemsworth is really very good indeed, and Branagh brings the whole thing together like he’s been spitting out action extravaganzas his whole career.

Mercifully this isn’t really an origin story, although we do get a lengthy, sometimes chaotic prologue set in 10th century Norway, in which Anthony Hopkins, as Norse god Odin, king of Asgard, tells us about a war with the Frost Giants (stay with it).

Just as Odin's son Thor is to become king ahead of his brother Loki, the Frost Giants make a return and Thor wants to fight back, against his father’s wishes, and as punishment is cast out of Asgard and down to earth as a mortal.

Meanwhile in modern day New Mexico, Natalie Portman and her team of scientists are doing something or other scientific in the middle of the desert when Thor falls from the sky with no idea where he is.

He enlists Portman’s help to find his magic hammer, Mjolnir, a device of unimaginable power which was last spotted if you hung about after the end credits of Iron Man 2 being found by Agent Coulson of the mysterious organisation S.H.I.E.L.D.

Such details may seem insignificant, but it’s all part of the broadening of the Marvel comics universe that started with Samuel L. Jackson’s appearances in the Iron Man films, Robert Downey Jr in The Incredible Hulk and building up to The Avengers next summer, which will feature all the major players from the Marvel stable.

It’s every bit as cuckoo as it sounds, but good grief, is it ever fun, and  mostly very well paced save for a slight lag in the middle when the pieces get put into place for the all action finale. Thor may not get to a great deal of superhero-ing during this phase but, by great Odin’s raven, when it comes, the hammer time is stunning as he fights back against betrayal in Asgard and a massive destructive robot on earth.

Everything about Thor works on a technical level, from the luscious design of Asgard, to the sparkling visual effects and Patrick Doyle's immersive score. Hemsworth is hugely engaging, not just in using his astonishing physicality to great effect in the bruising action scenes, but in his line readings and pratfalls that help to make the movie surprisingly funny thanks to Thor’s fish out of water antics.

It’s almost enough to make you think this might be a very good summer at the movies after all.

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Fast Five review

Fast Five (12A/PG-13, 130 mins)
Director: Justin Lin
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ 

At the end of Fast and Furious (which happened to be part four of the increasingly ridiculously titled fast car franchise), thief Dominic (Vin Diesel) was heading to jail for his crimes. This kinetic fifth entry opens with his partner, and former cop, Brian (Paul Walker) busting him out before they hotfoot it to Rio where they get involved in a bungled train heist that ends with them falsely accused of killing some DEA officers. They're now wanted by the FBI (led by newcomer to the series, Dwayne Johnson) and a Brazilian crimelord, whose money they intend to steal by putting together a crack team. This moves the series farther than ever from its street-racing roots, not necessarily a bad thing, and gives it more of an Ocean’s vibe. Though instead of George Clooney and Brad Pitt we get characters who flitted in and out of previous instalments who you’ll be hard pushed to remember, even if you have seen them. It constantly walks a very fine line between nifty and ludicrous, but there’s no suppressing the verve with which the action is executed. A foot chase over the roofs of the Rio favelas is terrific, while the colossal budget allows for unhinged carnage on the roads and watching Diesel and Johnson face off in monolithic combat is a sight to behold. It’s a bit too padded with unnecessary talk, but if you can look past the risible dialogue, tree-stump acting and frequent forays into the unintentionally hilarious, it will keep you smiling throughout, if not always for the reasons intended.

Monday 4 April 2011

Rio review

Rio (U, 96 mins)
Director: Carlos Saldanha
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Parrot Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) is taken from his home in the rainforest and ends up by accident in snowy Minnesota where he’s raised domesticated and flightless. But he’s the last blue macaw of his type, and so an ornithologist takes him to Brazil to mate with the last remaining female, Jewel (Anne Hathaway), only for the pair to be kidnapped by poachers. The only reason Rio would appear to exist (aside from the obvious financial incentives) is to showcase its bright and colourful, samba-infused exoticism. Did its makers just see Up and think South America looked like a good place to stage a cartoon? Because underneath its surface polish, it’s thematically empty, with nothing to distinguish it from every other run-of-the-mill animated effort that’s more about noise and spectacle than a story worth telling. The search round Rio de Janeiro to get Blu and Jewel back comes complete with stale one-liners and frantic action, but is light on laughs and excitement. Voicing Blu, Eisenberg is good value, nicely parlaying his Zombieland nebbishness, and Jemaine Clement shines as the cockatoo baddie, even getting to do a Conchords-style number, sadly the only highlight among a small collection of forgettable and superfluous songs.