Thor – Review

Thor (2011)   6.5

Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Starring Chris HemsworthNatalie PortmanTom HiddlestonAnthony HopkinsStellan Skarsgård

I must confess I was never really a huge fan of the comic Thor (but then again, are there really many Thor fans out there?) so I went into this not only with the lowest of expectations, but also with pretty much zero knowledge of this viking-looking superhero. And maybe because of that I came out pleasantly surprised and I actually liked a lot more than I thought I would.

In a time of heavy-handed and preposterously dark movie adaptations of comic book heroes, full of calculated allegories and deep symbolism, it is actually quite refreshing to find a film that knows exactly its boundaries and never really takes itself too seriously: I mean, after all we are talking about Thor!

This will probably not find a permanent place in cinema history, but as a pre-summer blockbuster, it was plain fun! And while it worked as a stand-alone adventure, it also paved the way for the eagerly expected (well, among comic book fans at least) “Avengers“, a film which has been in the pipeline for a long time and it’s going to re-unite Thor, Iron Man, Captain America (to be released in July 2011), the Incredible Hulk and other Marvel heroes in what promises to be one of the biggest comic book adaptation yet. In a very calculated marketing campaign, there are plenty of references, in-jokes to other marvel heroes and several hints towards the forthcoming “Avengers” peppered throughout this film, including a semi-hidden sequence right after the end-credits which made even a non-believer like me looking forward to the summer of 2012 when the actual film will finally be released.

This is probably film-making by committee, thought of  by marketing campaigners and executive producers with big fat cigars, but mercifully Kenneth Brannagh has been able to inject it all with enough mischief and fun. In the end it might not work as well as the first Iron Man, and it certainly doesn’t have the invention or heart of the first couple of Spiderman movies but it’s polished,  fast and short enough to get away with it.

The Aussie actor Chris Hemsworth, most famous until yesterday for playing in the TV soap Home and Away, looks like he was born to play this role. he not only fits the part perfectly but somehow he manages to make the potentially dull Thor into a likable and sympathetic character.

The film does look great too: production design, costumes, photography and special effects are of very high standards. Unfortunately the conversion to 3D, once again, is not among the best. Generally speaking it is quite unnecessary and aside from a couple of instances becomes fairly forgettable pretty soon and in the end it just serves to make the film a little bit duller in colors… (I’m seriously wondering how long this 3D-mania is going to last for as it seems to be fading out already. But this is a subject too long to be taken here).

I saw this film almost a month ago and I’ve already forgotten about Natalie Portman‘s performance in all this. That should tell you all you need to know about her role in “Thor”. But then again, if she had been really bad I would have probably remembered it…

Finally you’ve got high calibre actors like Anthony Hopkins and Stellan Skarsgård to give it more credibility.

If you asked me in another couple of month to tell you about any sequence in Thor I would probably not be able to remember much of anything, but while I was with it I’m sure I never looked at my watch and I had more fun than I was ready for.

6.5/10

The Silence Of The Lambs – 20th Anniversary

The Silence Of The Lamb (1991)

(20th Anniversary Review)

Dir: Jonathan Demme With: Jodie FosterAnthony HopkinsScott Glenn

Yes, it has been exactly 20 years since Antony Hopkins appeared for the first time as Dr Hannibal Lecter (the film premiered on the January the 30th in New York and on the 1st of February in LA. Interestingly the film was released to the general public on Valentine’s day: not your typical date movie, is it?).

Back in 1991 it defied expectations by winning the top 5 Oscars (a year after its release!!), best film, director, screenplay, leading actor and actress: it is only the third film in movie history  (after it happened one night and One flew over the cuckoos’nest.)… and the first horror/thriller to win for best film. As it happened a year after Goodfellas lost to Dances with Wolves, it was probably a sign that Hollywood was getting ready to accept the dark side of movies.

20 years later, “The Silence of the Lambs” is still a preposterous film, camp as hell,  absurdly over the top in its premise and its execution and yet it holds a place in American Movie History as a modern classic.

With Hannibal (incidentally a character that appears for only 16 minutes in the film) Hopkins became a star (yes, he was good before this, but few really knew him) and created an icon, which lived on throughout (and despite) its three sequels: Hannibal, Red Dragon (in fact this is both a prequel and a remake of Micheal Mann’s Manhunter) and the very forgettable Hannibal Rising (another prequel, Hopkins-free).

All of a sudden, we all started to love the bad guy, or at least we loved hating him: we loved the fact that he ate the despicable Dr Chilton at the end (“I have an old friend for dinner”, is probably one of the classic final lines of any film, up there with “Nobody’s perfect” in Some Like It Hot), we loved those over the top lines, those chilling looks, his refined taste, his Southern English accent… And we just want him to get away, despite the fact that we know he’s bad.

This is certainly nothing new, Hitchcock had done it  30 years earlier in Psycho, but arguably this is the film that started off the whole trend of “serial killers” with whom we identify, the whole puzzle solving murder mysteries and the mixture of dark horror and funny one liners. Surely without Silence of the lambs and its Hannibal the Cannibal character, there would have been no Se7en by David Fincher, possibly no Dexter on TV and probably not even Jigsaw from the Saw franchise…  And God knows how many others.

However what keeps this film anchored to the ground, despite the over-the-top (but obviously very effective) performance by Anthony Hopkins, is a combination of a very controlled and calculated direction by Jonathan Demmi and the presence of Jodie Forster, who somehow counterbalances her camp on-screen partner.

Jonathan Demmi, uses every little (subtle and non-subltle) trick in the book to suck in his viewers and bring them as close possible to the screen. He films the most intimate dialogue sequences between Hannibal and Clarice in extreme close ups, and has them delivering their lines straight to camera, as if they were confessing their inner secrets directly to us. As he does so, he drops the level of any other sound away from the central conversation, he kills the music and as as he slowly zooms in closer and closer into their faces, he very subtly pushes the bars of the prison cells that separate them away from each other until they actually disappear from the final frame, thus bringing the two characters even closer to each other.

It’s very effective and it works wonderfully!

He even uses the powerful tricks of editing in order to deceive us to believe one thing instead of another. That famous sequence towards the end of the film, where we are lead to believe that the police is about to break into Buffalo Bill’s house and save the day, only to reveal that in fact they’re all actually heading to the wrong place. Nowadays these types of devices have been copied over and over again in countless movies and TV CSI-like shows (and even the great 24) but never worked as well as they did here: it is an incredibly manipulative but just as accomplished moment.

Today so many films about “serial killers”, puzzle solving, cat & mouse chases and dark psychological horrors, they all seem to owe a debt to “The Silence of the Lambs”. Watching it today, we find so many clichés of the genre, but in fact, most of them, if not all of them, were absolutely new at the time.

I am not quite sure it deserved to all all those Oscars, but it certainly deserves its cult status today, 20 years later, for  paving the way to a new genre of thrillers, braner and more stylish horrors.

8.5/10

Check out the review of another modern Classic:

Back to the Future (1985)

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