The Marvel universe continues its expanse as Thor plunders into theaters.  The god of thunder comes from Shakespearean-auteur Kenneth Branagh who blends dynamics of action and character to create one of the better superhero thrill rides this side of The Dark Knight.

Riding the lightning as the title character is Chris Hemsworth in his first major leading role, and I must say, like Downey of Iron Man, the lead actor makes the movie. Hemsworth owns the character, he owns the film, and he will surely own this franchise.  Balancing out the silliness of the plot and otherworldly English of proper, Branagh’s newfound star plays Thor, the son of King Odin (Anthony Hopkins)—ruler of the Asgard realm.  About to be named heir to the throne during a planetary ceremony, the walls of Asgard are breached by enemies of another world.  Luckily the mighty fortress is protected, but Thor isn’t satisfied.  Egged on by his younger brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor becomes impassioned with delivering the intruders a message and sends out with a group of warrior pals to meet his foes at their doorstep which ignites a war of the worlds.  Thor and his comrades are vastly outnumbered as King Odin comes to the rescue.  Aggravated with his son’s arrogance and recklessness, Odin strips Thor of his metaphysical abilities and casts him out to Earth along with his powerless weapon of choice—the mighty hammer.

Now stranded on Earth, the mighty warrior enters the lives of a team of physicists led by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), dodging SHIELD authorities in the process.  There’s a lot of hooey talk of portals and disturbances in the upper atmosphere as the studio is desperate to explain the existence of Thor from a scientific perspective—mainly to tie him in with the ‘Earth-bound’ avengers Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America and others.  Once Jane accepts her discovery of a chiseled slab of man as a warrior god, Thor’s jealous younger brother no sooner sends enemies to Earth to erase the existence of his stranded sibling once and for all.

As a studio tentpole and comic-book adaptation, Thor is far better than anything we would’ve seen ten years ago.  Writers have been approaching this material with earnestness and passion, determined to deliver first-rate products.  Because of this, audiences have been spoiled with such impressive offerings as the first Iron Man, the new Batman films, Spider-Man 2 and X-Men 2, that we sort of forget that these movies can’t all necessarily be A+ features.  Thor, however, is more in line with the latest trend of quality superhero films than other stink piles of recent memory (Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider, Elektra, X-Men Origins: Wolverine).

Special Effects and action can be hit-or-miss as far as first-rate techs go, but the sequences are consistently involving.  Thor’s world is particularly designed and detailed, giving us a sense of the character’s background and struggle.  The characters are particularly well-developed, especially those occupying Asgard.  The actors do their best to participate in a magnum opus of silliness, with straight faces and a sense of fun at the same time.  Thor only seems to come up short when much of the story centers on Asgard rather than forces that threaten our planet.  Once the god of thunder finds himself stranded on Earth, his human companions stir up comedy and human interest, but the movie begins to lull periodically.  That’s alright with me.  Branagh gives his film time to settle down and breathe without relentlessly retreating to attack mode.  Since the film is designed to lead straight into The Avengers a year from now, I’m certain Earth will finally see Thor protecting our vulnerable little world to great extent.

As Marvel continues to conjoin these franchises, I’m curious to see how Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk survive once the fellowship is broken after Avengers rakes in hundred of millions of dollars.  Iron Man 3 is already in the works, as is a sequel to Thor.  Luckily, Thor seems to have more story to tell as the character relationships have space to blossom, specifically between Jane and Thor.  The filmmakers took notes from the first Iron Man as Stark and Pepper slowly but surely evolved their relationship.  Romance and sparks only tease the audience throughout most of Thor‘s first outing, leaving us wanting more.  Hemsworth and Portman have plenty of chemistry, and that’s where Branagh succeeds in delivering a superhero film about likable and believable characters amidst an outrageous plot, dorky costumes, and oddball creatures.  Forget about the whirlwind of action and useless 3D conversion (yes, skip the 3D).  Marvel and Branagh have given us another sensational hero and a major star to fill his shoes.  Bring on another round.

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Rating: 3.8/5 (5 votes cast)

The Wolfman

“She exerts enormous power, doesn’t she, Lawrence?” Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) gazes into a telescope at “That orb’d maiden with white fire laden, whom mortals call the moon.” At his side is his estranged son (Benicio del Toro). Lawrence, of course, has no idea just how strong a pull the moon will soon have over him.

The full moon still holds sway over the imaginations, and debatably, physiological responses, of mortals. Again and again, it draws us back to werewolf mythology. Then again, if you think werewolves are only mythology, you’re probably not one of the souls who has run into the Bray Road Beast, or one of the 102 French peasants who met their end in the jaws of the Beast of Gevaudan. The Wolfman is worth watching. I will say, it isn’t very scary. But then again, scary is hard to do.

While I wouldn’t want to tangle with a werewolf in real life, they are not among Hollywood’s scariest of monsters. Their existence is limited to two or three days a month. They have none of the intellect of Dracula, the omnipresence of Pazuzu, or the reproductive speed of Aliens. This, of course left the writers with the problem of how to build suspense and terror in between full moons and, of course, fill the movie up with enough jump-scares and bloodshed to keep a 21st century audience interested. They actually did a pretty good job. While some werewolf movies act like they have the authority to summon a full moon at their whim, The Wolfman actually allows such phenomena to happen at their natural time, bothering to fill the weeks in between with plausible plot developments.

Full moon #1: Ben Talbot, walking through Stock Scary Scene #F785, strolls alone into the woods, shouting “I know you’re out there! Show yourself!” He is then fatally mauled by the Wolfman. Never walk alone into the dark shouting “show yourself,” kids, it won’t end well.

His brother, Lawrence is summoned from London for Ben’s funeral. He returns to Talbot Hall in Blackmoore, where we meet his father, Sir John, and Ben’s fiancé, Gwen Conliff (Emily Blunt). We then get a lot of back-story about their family history and hear the locals talk of two other gruesome deaths the night of Ben’s. “Whatever did it was big, had claws, and didn’t mind a load of buckshot.”

Full moon #2: Talbot goes to a nearby Gypsy camp to inquire about a medallion he found among Ben’s belongings. A group of villagers shows up armed, suspecting the Gypsies’ performing bear caused the deaths. However, during the ensuing confrontation, a strange creature, visible only as a blur and a shadow, attacks the camp, killing Brittons and Gypsyies alike. Talbot sees the creature chasing a panicked boy, intervenes, and is, you guessed it, bitten but not killed.

As Talbot lies in bed, recovering, we get more dialogue, flashbacks, a doctor who shakes his head when Talbot is up and walking around after a week, and a visit from a rational-minded inspector (Hugo Weaving), trying to get to the bottom of the murders. By now, of course, the villagers know what’s up, and everyone is making silver bullets, though we later find out that most of them can’t hit the broad side of a barn.

Make up has come a long way since 1941.

Full moon #3, of course, is Talbot’s first transformation, after which, he is arrested, believed to be a homicidal lunatic, and suffers four weeks of, well, somewhat realistic torment at the hands of a 19th century asylum. And of course, there are more flashbacks, more hallucinations, and more back-story.

Full moon #4: We see Talbot running amok in Downtown London, which is pretty cool. Then Talbot returns to Blackmoore for Full moon #5.

The Bray Road Beast

The Wolfman is a fairly faithful adaptation of the 1941 film of the same name starring Lon Chaney, Jr. (If anybody cares.) It does, however, contain some plot enhancements worthy of modern special effects, including a great monster-vs.-monster sequence toward the end. There is also a climactic scene between Lawrence as the Wolfman and Gwen that plays out beautifully.

That said, there are also some eye-roll-worthy techniques that they use, such as cramming the movie full of dream sequences and hallucinations, mainly to give themselves enough  jump-scares and severed heads to fill up the trailer. Even without the hallucinations, this is one of the goriest movies I have ever seen. If the body count of The Wolfman doesn’t break 100, it’s got to be close, especially if you count each of the pieces most of the bodies wind up in. Think When Animals Attack on steroids. Then again, I doubt lupine predation was ever a tidy affair.

Overall, this is a highly engaging picture with an interesting story and some good action. If you’ve got a strong stomach, rent it, make some popcorn, and enjoy. Then go outside, and see if you can fight the urge to howl at the moon!

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Rating: 4.3/5 (3 votes cast)