Thor is billed as the latest film from “the studio that brought you Iron Man”, but it is also the latest film from the director who brought you Henry V and Hamlet. There’s plenty of clashing metal on display, but also sibling rivalry, attempted regicide and dynastic squabbling. Kenneth Branagh adapting a Marvel comic sounds like a bad joke, but the result is a rich brew – a little too rich, perhaps. The Norse god Odin, played by Anthony Hopkins in a beard and eyepatch, assures Thor and his younger brother Loki that both are fit to succeed him, but rules are rules.
Thor grows up to be Chris Hemsworth, he of the washboard stomach; Loki grows up to be Tom Hiddlestone, pouting jealously in a black wig. Thor may be a great warrior but he’s no genius, and he proves an all-too-malleable Edgar/Othello to Loki’s scheming Edmund/Iago.
This all takes place in the celestial realm of Asgard. When, as a result of his brother’s machinations, Thor is exiled to earth, the first girl he meets is played by Natalie Portman. Did I mention that this is science fiction?
The film begins with Portman’s character Jane discovering Thor in the New Mexico desert. Then it rewinds to give us all the relevant backstory to answer her bewildered question: “Where did he come from?” This is a leaden passage, with much solemn talk of “the Frost Giants” and “the mighty hammer” (preparing the ground for a last-minute deus ex hammer). When we return to earth, Thor’s pomposity is played for laughs. He enters a room and announces: “I need sustenance”; in a pet shop he proclaims: “I need a horse”. But he does understand 21st-century English, so acclimatising to life in New Mexico doesn’t take long. The moment he gives up referring to himself in the third person (“How dare you attack the son of Odin?”) he appears more or less to the manner born.
Branagh makes the most of CGI’s potential to create glimmering surfaces and vast landscapes and, for once, the 3D is a bonus. Between Thor’s new life with Jane, the intrusion of an FBI-like organisation called S.H.I.E.L.D. and the chaos back in Asgard (where Loki is conspiring with the Frost Giants), there is plenty going on, with the result that the film is busy and eventful but also diffuse and under-developed. But next to the recent competition (Watchmen, Jonah Hex, Iron Man 2), this film is Shakespearean.
“You may be a superhero, buddy, but you’re not invincible,” Josh (Patrick Wilson) warns his attic-snooping son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) a little way through this week’s horror film, Insidious. And before long, Dalton has fallen into a form of coma unknown to medical science. To make matters worse, doors start swinging open of their own volition and burglar alarms go beep in the night.
Josh’s wife (Rose Byrne) is initially cast in the dreaded Black Swan role of hysterical-woman-who-sees-things but her hallucinations are soon confirmed by an elderly exorcist and her two bickering assistants, who add a much-needed but somewhat ill-fitting dash of humour to the proceedings. When the disturbances follow the family to a new house, it looks as if the script will develop into an allegory for the subprime crisis, with the ghost of debt haunting a single-income family, but no such luck. The film never approaches being scary, but its colossal silliness makes it both intriguing and unpredictable.
Cedar Rapids is a foul-mouthed but good-natured comedy roughly in the Apatow mould. Ed Helms from The Hangover, Knocked Up, and the US version of The Office stars as Tim Lippe, an unworldly insurance agent from Wisconsin who travels (on his first aeroplane trip) to a convention in Iowa. There he meets a range of characters less wholesome than himself, including a charming young prostitute and a mother-of-two (Anne Heche) who likes to play away from home. “What happens in Cedar Rapids stays here,” she explains, but not much does happen. Tim discovers that sex, drugs and alcohol have their charms and that a person’s goodness cannot necessarily be measured by their adherence to Midwest social conventions. As learning curves go, it’s almost a straight line, and the comedy is so mild that tittering feels excessive, but there are winning performances from John C. Reilly, the rich man’s Will Ferrell, and Isiah Whitlock Jr from The Wire, playing a humble insurance agent with a soft spot for “the HBO series The Wire”.
There is charm of a rather less gentle sort on display in the talking-heads documentary Upside Down: The Creation Records Story. Creation founder Alan McGee, Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream and Noel Gallagher of Oasis are just a few of the “misfits, sociopaths and drug addicts”, as the film puts it, who reminisce about the days of acid house, shoe-gazing, indie and, finally, Britpop. It’s a rise and fall story (of course) and between the no-nonsense interviewees and the wealth of footage, a vivid and moving one. Those with a limited tolerance for the words “mental” and “phenomenon” are advised to stay away.
Farewell is a French thriller based on fact, in which Guillaume Canet plays an engineer living in Moscow who finds himself giving top secret Soviet documents to the French government, which passes them on to Ronald Reagan, played here by Fred Ward as a lantern-jawed Western-lover.
Tracker is a cat-and-mouse tale turned buddy film in which Ray Winstone plays a South African farmer notorious for his violent resistance during the Boer war who arrives in New Zealand and is hired to track down a Maori accused (wrongly) of murder. Neither film is without interest; both would have looked comfortable on television.