Thor * * * * *
Cert 12A, 114 mins
Kenneth Branagh is nothing if not a man of surprises.
It was strange that he should persevere with filming Shakespearean texts when the public was showing no appetite for them beyond his Oscar-nominated debut two decades ago with Henry V.
That he should hide Robert De Niro beneath so much disfiguring make-up in Frankenstein or similarly remake Michael Caine’s Sleuth for no comprehensible reason.
And now, suddenly, he’s turned his hand to adapting... a Marvel comic infused with Norse mythology.
But titter ye not because the now 50-year-old former boy from Belfast has not lost his marbles.
As the perfect antidote to Zack Snyder’s recently-released Sucker Punch, Thor is simply the most fun blockbuster of the year, a reminder that going to the movies to see films of this ilk is supposed to be about enjoying yourself.
For 10 to 12-year-old boys, this could be their Star Wars’ moment.
A chance to see whole new worlds on screen with a mixture of bold special effects and no little emotion that will faithfully lead them to seek out many more films of this nature in future ... only to be left bitterly disappointed by some of them.
In 28-year-old Melbourne star Chris Hemsworth, Branagh has found a star who possibly has the potential to become a more potent action man/romantic lead than the late, Perth-born Heath Ledger.
Even Sylvester Stallone will be admiring the six-pack when he sees this torso, while girls will be thinking along the lines of Natalie Portman’s celestial scientist Jane Foster: ‘When will I see you again’?
Taglined ‘‘courage is immortal’’, the film is somewhat cumbersomely introduced with a voiceover from Odin (Anthony Hopkins).
Rather like Prince Charles, he has two sons, Thor (Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), only one of whom can become the successor king.
But first he would have to die.
In the meantime, Thor is banished from Asgard and sent to Earth where he meets Miss Foster and people like Stellan Skarsgård, a Swede offering some genuine Scandinavian genes into the mix.
By blending mythology in space with science-fiction on Earth and distilling plenty of humour into the search for honour, Branagh effortlessly camouflages the film’s many weaknesses with a sense of endearment rarely to be found in such extravagantly constructed movies.
His theatrical training helps to ensure the film’s human elements are always ahead of the effects.
Take your 3D glasses off and you’ll see that some of the scenes scarcely have any added depth to them at all, but at the least the film feels as if it’s been designed to enhance our perspective.
If it falls short in one area it’s through the music by Branagh’s regular composer Patrick Doyle, an actor who rose to the challenge of scoring Henry V.
Thor sounds like a film in search of a genuine theme of the kind that John Williams or John Barry might once have found – and which could have transformed this into a real classic. But, hey, it’s still a million times better than Troy.
Stay put throughout the inevitably lengthy end credits, and you’ll get the bonus of a teaser scene with Samuel L Jackson.
All of which is leading up to the release of The Avengers on May 4 next year, when the likes of Iron Man, Black Widow, Captain America, Nick Fury, The Incredible Hulk, Hawkeye and Thor should all be present and correct in the same movie that’s set to be directed by Firefly’s Joss Wheedon.
Thor’s executive producer and all round, legendary comic book genius Stan Lee (who makes another ‘Stan the Man’ cameo performance here) will be six months short of his 90th birthday by then, so the premiere could double up as the greatest birthday party in Hollywood history. GY
Insidious * * *
Cert 15, 102 mins
Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell made their names by creating the hugely successful Saw franchise of horror films.
Here, thankfully, they leave out the nasty gore and instead frighten us by making us use our imagination, in a supernatural chiller which starts with great promise.
Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) are a happily-married couple with three children who move into a large new house – though it’s never explained quite how they can afford it on his teaching salary.
Straightaway, they start hearing funny noises and objects move by themselves. Then their eldest son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) just doesn’t wake up, falling into a mysterious coma. His parents eventually bring him home, setting up his bedroom like a hospital ward.
Renai is badly shaken up when she hears a creepy voice on her baby monitor saying “There’s nothing you can do” and “I want it now!”
She’s convinced the house is haunted, but what if moving house doesn’t stop the malevolent forces at work?
By now, a menacing atmosphere has been successfully built up and we’ve jumped a few times in our seats. But about halfway through, things start to get a bit silly. Josh’s mother, Barbara Hershey, doesn’t seem too surprised to learn what’s been going on and calls on psychic Elise (Lin Shaye) and two nerdy ghostbusters.
The plot veers off into ridiculous realms as Elise puts on a gas mask to talk to Dalton, who’s been having an out-of-body experience and has wandered off into “the further”, described as “a dark world filled with the tortured souls of the dead”.
There are a lot of other films thrown into the mix, like The Orphanage and Poltergeist, though this is not as frightening as those classics.
Wan and Whannell have done wonders with a tiny budget and horror fans will enjoy being scared, but it’s a shame that Insidious doesn’t finish nearly as well as it starts. RL
Essential Killing * * *
Cert 15, 85 mins
After seemingly hanging up his clapperboard in 1991, veteran Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski spent most of the 90s and Noughties painting until he made the still-unreleased Four Nights With Anna in 2008.
But even at the age of almost 73, the man who gave us the 1982 Jeremy Irons film Moonlighting remains a man with sufficient vision that Essential Killing won the Grand Special Jury Prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival.
New York-born actor Vincent Gallo (Buffalo ’66) was also named best actor even though he doesn’t need to speak as a man on the run in an unfamiliar, snowbound landscape.
His predicament, after capture in the remote canyons of Afghanistan leads to his European rendition, is, in effect, the opposite to the way the West’s armed forces who keep being sent en masse into comparatively strange, eastern lands.
How will this man survive alone in an alien territory where everyone could be your enemy?
Although in terms of its core elements, Essential Killing feels as familiar as any standard Hollywood chase movie, from the Bourne and Rambo series to The Fugitive, Skolimowski ensures this is a wholly different kind of experience.
Copious haemorrhages on snow offer a new take on the old fairy tale Red Riding Blood and the carefully-edited slaughter of a dog will have animal lovers curling their toes like never before.
Whether you buy into the inevitably cliched mixture of convenience and luck which keeps Mohammed on the run is one thing.
And some viewers will regret having to spend to much time inside one man’s increasingly-delirious head.
But the fact that the film will polarise opinions about its relatively ambivalent political agenda is a welcome change from Hollywood’s more black and white ‘‘us and them’’ attitude which pervade boring, big name dramas like Rendition.
By emphasising the effect of the noise of explosions, Skolimowski also offers rare recognition that our ears offer an equally sensual gateway to the world about us as our eyes.
Essential Killing is playing at Warwick Arts Centre on May 4 and 5. GY