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God Among Mortals

Thor (2011) by Kenneth Branagh

Upon first reading that Kenneth Branagh had directed a comic book movie, I was a bit confused. Mind you, that was before he did Cinderella but after he did most of my favorite Shakespeare adaptations. The fault wasn’t really with him, I guess, but with me, because I considered comic book movies mere action movies (considering I’d watched Iron Man and Iron Man 2 up to this point, who could fault me?). I guess you could say that I wouldn’t have bothered if Branagh hadn’t been the director. You can read my early thoughts on Thor here, though my scope was admittedly a bit narrow back then.

So, let’s try again:

Odin (Anthony Hopkins) tells his sons, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), about the time he beat the frost giants on Earth and took the source of their power from them. Years later, on the day that was supposed to make Thor king of Asgard, a small group of frost giants tries to steal that power source back – and fails. But the event spurs Thor to forget his father’s warning and go to fight the frost giants once more – and almost loses but for the fact that his father intervenes.

Odin takes Mjolnir (the source of his power) from Thor and casts him out – he falls onto earth where he’s hit by a car. Three scientists, among them Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), try and support Thor on his quest to reclaim Mjolnir while in Asgard, Loki makes a grab for Odin’s crown.

In my other review, I said Thor was entertaining yet forgettable. I hadn’t yet grasped the connection between this one and the movies I had already watched (as I said, I was a babe in the woods), and the friend who tried to educate me had only done a superfluous job (or wasn’t aware of all the implications yet). Anyway, of the first outings of all our favorite superheroes, this one is far from forgettable. It’s actually quite epic.

And here comes my astonishment over the director at play because while Kenneth Branagh might have been an odd choice of director for a comic book movie, he certainly isn’t an odd choice for a director of an epic (almost Shakespearean) tale. Thor is a story about Gods, about power, about scientific exploration, and Thor learning humility. It has several well-told layers to its narrative, going way back to the time of the Vikings here on Earth and combining it with our time where Thor falls to Earth just to be hit by a car.

Where you have Branagh, you have visual splendor and you also have a great cast: Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, and Colm Feore are recognizable veteran actors who star alongside newcomers (at the time) Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Kat Dennings, and Idris Elba. The list goes on.

I can think of few directors who could’ve introduced us to Asgard in the same way Branagh did, and yes, I’m kind of a Branagh fan. He’s got a rather vintage style, very elaborate, a little bit show-offy, and I like it – mostly. There’s a certain amount of ego that usually makes it onto the screen with him and I think it’s no coincidence that Thor’s beard is more reddish than blond in this one – Branagh probably would’ve liked to play the God of Thunder himself.

Of course, Chris Hemsworth is more impressive, physically. His good looks and physique go a long way in representing what Thor is about. But he also makes him likable, charming. Hemsworth may not have the acting chops some of the other heroes in the MCU have but he makes one fantastic Thor and by next year he’ll be the only one with four solo movies.

I’m focusing a lot on the actors here. I guess with this kind of franchise, where there are already fans of the original text, it’s especially important to have the right actor play the part. Can you imagine Tom Cruise playing Iron Man? Do you want to? No, I don’t think so. The actors make these roles, or as in Edward Norton’s case, they don’t. Norton was a great Banner but he gave the role up and fans seem to like Mark Ruffalo way better in the part. People were probably critical of a no-name playing Thor but Hemsworth won everyone over.

Thor is a very impressive film. You have lots of protagonists and changes of places. I’m sure I didn’t follow the whole plot when I first watched it and was very impressed last night by the sheer magnitude of the film. It’s huge, not just from the visual point of view (it’s magnificent to look at), but the narrative is complex and we have multiple sets of players in multiple scenes. Branagh directed it well and it’s a pity that he withdrew from Thor: The Dark World.

If you haven’t watched Thor in a while, give it another go. It’s really worth watching again. It’s a great origin story for the God of Thunder and we may not see him in this way again.

Next: Captain America: The First Avenger (which I didn’t see at the movies)

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Rented: Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing (2012) by Joss Whedon

muchado-poster

I’m not sure if I told you how I came to love Shakespeare. I had tried to read Macbeth at some point and labored through three pages of it before throwing it into the corner not to pick it or him up again for years. And then I watched Much Ado About Nothing – Branagh’s version – and fell in love.

muchado2It’s still my favorite movie version, it’s still one of my favorite plays, it’ll always have a special place in my heart. And I would probably not have endeavored to watch a different version if it hadn’t been for this addition to the title: A film by Joss Whedon.

And then, of course, there was the casting of Amy Acker as Beatrice. One of my favorite actresses playing one of my favorite Shakespearean characters? Count me in.

And now I’ve watched it. In fact, I’m at this moment watching it a second time in one day. Oh, my goodness, what a ball, a blast, a festival of wit and comedy and noir elements that make this movie not better than Branagh’s, but different and wonderful.

I must confess that I couldn’t imagine anyone playing Much Ado differently, in each and every scene I had a flashback to the ’92-version. But slowly the actors of the Whedon-verse acted themselves into my conscious and I couldn’t resist their charm. I’m fascinated, I’m stumped, I can’t stop watching. And how do you even begin to resist Amy Acker?

Let me tell you something about Acker – she’s genius. In every part I’ve ever seen her, she not only amyacker2convinced me, she awed me with her talent. I loved her as Doctor Saunders/Whiskey in Dollhouse, and I’m madly in love with Root in Person of Interest. She’s just so special in every role, she’s amazing.

But she’s not the only one in this brilliantly cast Whedon-family adaptation of Shakespeare. I never liked Alexis Denisof better than when he played Benedick, he’s earnest and smart and comical when he’s told that Beatrice loves him. Such an honest performance. I loved Fran Kranz in Dollhouse and I love him as Claudio. And then there’re Nathan Fillion as Dogberry and Tom Lenk as Verges and, hell, they’re the funniest thing – yes, funnier than Michael Keaton and Ben Elton even.

muchado4I guess, I have one thing to criticize, though. While I first thought it refreshing to see Riki Lindhome cast as Conrade, I feel that casting Conrade with a male actor in this version would have been even better. Making Don John (Sean Maher) a gay villain – not a caricatured man who is evil because he’s limited to his gayness, but just a villain who happens to be gay… That would have been even more interesting than having a Shakespeare character emasculated.

Apart from this, I simply love Whedon doing Shakespeare. But then, has there ever been a thing Joss Whedon has done that I didn’t love?

muchado-cast1

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Anonymous

Anonymous (2011) by Roland Emmerich

Shakespeare and I have a history (and yes, this is going to be a longer post, so go make some tea and get comfy). I was 13 when I had the splendid idea that I should read Shakespeare (in the German translation), and I chose Macbeth (and yes, it was a mistake). I read three pages and threw it into a corner where it lay for about three years (no, I did not allow anybody to pick it up, I wanted it to feel as shamed and embarrassed as I did when I didn’t understand it).

So, three years passed, and I watched Much Ado About Nothing, and I suddenly understood Shakespeare (or Branagh’s version of it). And I tried to read Macbeth again and gave up after two pages. I bought Much Ado and I understood that – so, the moral of this is probably that not every Shakespeare-play is for me. (Meanwhile I had to read Macbeth, and though I do understand it now – it is actually easier to understand in English than in its German translation – it is still no favorite of mine.)

Of course, I was thrilled when I read that there was to be a movie about the identity of the world’s greatest poet. I love most of his work, I have read different accounts on who he was and I am fascinated with his story. So, here’s the trailer:

Anonymous trailer

I personally see Shakespeare as more of an institution than a man. Surely, there was a man named William Shakespeare working as an actor in London at the time but it is fairly doubtful that he was THE William Shakespeare who wrote those plays. Even if he did, this script would have gone through many hands afterwards, would have been revised by other writers during production. But, of course, the idea of some nobleman (or -woman?) having written these plays is more likely since he must have been able to write, known some Greek tragedies, a little bit of the world… Maybe there were even more than one person involved in writing the plays?

This movie by Roland Emerich picks up a common theory among academics: Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans, Jamie Campbell Bower) was Shakespeare. The movie shows him as an unlucky fellow who had to marry a girl he did not love but then falls in love with Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson) and she with him – and then she gets pregnant.

This is also the story of the very influential Cecil family (lead by William Cecil played by David Thewlis) who behind the scenes protected the Queen’s secrets and kept her save from her enemies.

There is also the son of Oxford and Elizabeth – it is actually believed that Elizabeth had several children from a multitude of lovers – who is not even considered for the throne because he, of course, did not know he was the queen’s son. The story is told on several time lines. We see Oxford as a man in his forties, who is obsessed with writing plays and has them played out under a different name – it is more of a coincidence that it is Shakespeare – and not Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto) – who claims to have written the plays. Then there is the younger Oxford who lives with the family of Cecil and marries their daughter. He wants to make a name for himself but William Cecil always interferes and spends a good part of his fortune.

It is also the story of Ben Johnson who wants to become a great playwrite himself (and he certainly was that) but today he is most famous for the inscription on the First Folio.

The movie tells a lot of stories, it is about a man who has to write but is not supposed to write, a man who cannot write and is supposed to be the best playwrite of his time, a man who did write but was never the best of his profession, and a woman who was a queen and a lover but was never allowed to be a mother.

The cast is great and, I must say, I have seen so many Elizabeth I but Vanessa Redgrave… holy mess! She is fantastic. The idea to cast her daughter Joely Richardson as her younger self is brilliant, of course. The movie is great and far more interesting than I make it out, believe me. It has fighting, and flight, and things explode and burn (this is Roland Emmerich, after all). People die. I was once again captivated by the performance of Jamie Campbell Bower who I though great in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and who made for a really good young Oxford, arrogant, tortured, lost.

The introduction of the movie certainly is referential to Branagh’s Henry V, as it begins with Derek Jacobi as prologue. It is actually a little disconcerting seeing this film that has been made by Emmerich and Thor which has been done by Branagh. One might rather think that the two films had been done by the other… Anyways, it is – as always – a pleasure to see Shakespeare and it is certainly interesting to know and understand some of the debate that the poet himself inspired. Who was Shakespeare? I don’t know and it is not crucial for me to know but this movie showed an interesting theory, so I felt thoroughly entertained.

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Thor – and phallic imagery

Thor (2011) by Kenneth Branagh

Okay, I should write this blog before I forget everything about the movie – because really, it is not that memorable. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: is there actually a movie I will talk well about or is this just about ranting for me? It is not, and I liked Thor, still, it is not exactly Shakespeare (although a friend said that there was something Shakespearean to it and I kind of agree).

I like Kenneth Branagh’s movies a lot. They are aesthetically impressive, all of them. One likes looking at them, they are not complicated – visually. They are beautiful and opulent – I don’t need some artsy camera shots, I am old school. Branagh certainly has a knack for stories of epic proportions , still, I was a little surprised when I read he would make a comic into a movie – without having known anything about the story. But it turned out to be a wise decision for both the director and the producers. Thor is stunning, I like pretty much everything about it.

You think: Yeah, right! Just because I think a movie is forgettable does not mean, that I consider it a bad movie. I will think about this movie at some point and remember that I liked it and maybe even watch it again – rented on dvd. But maybe I will not. I don’t think the world a worse place for forgettable movies, they give us pleasure for the time being, that is certainly a good thing. That I will not owe it on dvd at some point does not mean I did not enjoy watching it. It is like The Lord of the Rings – trilogy. I watched them, I liked them, I do not feel the need to buy any of the dvd boxes.

Still, you are right about one thing: I am going to nag about something now. It is in the title so I forwarned you. The phallic imagery in this movie is… well, it mostly is there. In one’s face, so to speak (which is a disgusting phrasing, at least for me it is). Pretty much all of Ansgard consists of phalli, then we have swords, the hammer, speers, you name it, it’s all there.

I know very little about nordic mythology – aside from the fact that Xena kicked Odin’s ass back in the days, I know pretty much nothing. I have heard about the main players and mostly laughed at some rediculous names – Frigga? Really? – but that’s about it. Yes, I was probably on some subconscious level (I don’t know much about Freud either so I don’t care what he said about the subconscious) aware that this would be a movie telling a story that is based on patriarchal ideology… but could you, Ken Branagh, have gone a little bit lighter on the phalli? I know, you could have… you chose not to.

Well, whatever. On the whole, I enjoyed the movie. As you might know, I think Natalie Portman an acting genius – or maybe an acting genius – and I enjoyed her playing a genius… so there. Of course, the acting was great. Anthony Hopkins alone would have justified that statement, but then there were Natalie Portman, Rene Russo (I love Rene Russo), Stellan Skargard, and Kat Dennings, so it was even better. And I finally had explained to me why Samuel Jackson was in that short sequence at the end… not that I am keeping up with comic book wars, and sequels, and what-nots, ’cause I am simply too poor to read that many comic books – especially comic books about male heroes which would also bore me to pieces.

So, yeah, good movie, go watch.