Fast Five: How to Write an Action Movie

Fast Five OnesheetI’m a little slow getting around to Fast Five, which might seem to make me the wrong audience for this movie, which is all about speed and precise timing. I wasn’t sure I would like it because I thought it would be what some people call a “popcorn movie.” And in fact, it is. This isn’t a movie that will change your life or reveal something important about the human condition. It’s not a movie that expands the art and/or technology of filmmaking. The story is predictable. In fact, everything about the movie is predictable. It’s completely mindless, completely disposable.

And I’ve got to admit I loved it all. Does that make it a great movie? No. It’s trash. But it’s honest trash. It’s trash without pretense. For that, you have to give it credit.

Here’s how to write an action movie like this one:

      Cast actors with stone faces who can show flickers of anger or amusement when necessary. Nothing more is needed.

Have the characters take on “one last heist,” a piece of cake that will go terribly, terribly wrong.

Make sure your villain is from another culture.

Include treachery from within the ranks, followed by redemption and sacrifice.

Include one unlikely alliance with the enemy.

Include the line “We’re not going to make it” at a high point in the action.

Include the line “Go, go, go!” as necessary.

Include the line “Let’s do this” as the heroes make one last stand.

When it seems as though things can’t get worse for the good guys, make things get worse.

Arrange a showdown between the hero and the bad guys on an ascending scale of importance, saving the villain for last.

Sprinkle liberally with guns, chases, explosions, and beautiful women but no sex.

Despite the story’s transparency, the movie does one thing very well—action, which is, well, fast and furious. Our guys steal cars from a moving train. They shackle a huge vault to a couple of supercharged sports cars and haul it through the city while scores of police cars chase them.

Some of the stunts take your breath away. There’s a moment, shown in the previews, when Vin Diesel and Paul Walker drive off a cliff. I’m sure there are a hundred ways to do this with CGI, rear projection, hidden wires, and Criss Angel. But as the car pitches off the cliff, a small detail makes you forget all the artifice. Walker’s standing on the back of the convertible, holding on to the roll-bar. As the car falls out from under him, he seems to elevate slightly, his feet lifting off the back of the car. In other words, it looks as though the car is really falling from a great height.

I’m still hoping that movies will give women more to do than stand around and pout. Most of the women in Fast Five are interchangeable and thin to the point of anorexia. In fact, the men—especially Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson with all their pecs and glutes, etc.—have more curves than the women. When did this trend start, and why didn’t I get the memo?

Of course, the action is all outrageously unrealistic. So unrealistic that the moviemakers knew they needed a disclaimer. At the end of the movie, a title appears that reads, “The motor vehicle acts depicted in this film are dangerous.” Is that insane or what? I mean, who needs to be told that?

OK, OK, I admit that I revved my Prius a few extra times before leaving the parking lot. And yes, I even pulled a heist on my way home. Inspired by the chase scene with the vault, I hauled something off down the street. I’ll tell you what, that kid will think twice before he sets up another lemonade stand in my neighborhood!

Advertisements

Priest: End of the World, Part Two

Priest Onesheet

From the front of my house I can see up the road about half a mile and down the road about half a mile. I can even see a bend of the Missouri River. And a good chunk of the sky. But that’s about all I can see. No Rapture. It’s been raining a lot lately. My suitcases are like wet cardboard. I tried to get back into my house, but the new owners seem to think it’s theirs now. Nobody’s coming for me. Not even Reverend Campy. It may not be the end of the world, but it’s sure the end of my world! Of course, the lines for the Rapture are guaranteed to be longer than the lines for the rehabbed Star Wars ride at Disneyland, so maybe I should just wait a bit longer. It’s just that there’s a curb-shaped indentation in my butt, and I just wish the neighbors would stop laughing at me.

To kill some time, I thought I’d take myself to see Priest, another good-vs.-evil movie, this time with vampires instead of devils. I went to a new theater in a newish shopping center in Omaha. Besides the movie theater, there’s an upscale bar, a natural foods restaurant, a cupcake bakery, and a crowded farmers’ market. Don’t these people know the world is ending?

Before the movie, they showed the usual string of commercials, including the new Honda Civic ad where the Ninja girl jumps off her balcony and through the sunroof into her Civic, driving it away. The words “Do not attempt” appear at the bottom of the screen. Really? I mean, seriously? Who has to be told that it’s probably not a good idea to jump off a building into your car, even if it has a sunroof? Is this the world we live in, one where people have to be told the obvious? I hope whatever happens in the Rapture, I don’t end up with the dopes who need to be told this. Or has it already happened, and am I stuck with them? Could it be that I’m one of the dopes? Nahhh!

“There has always been mankind, and there have always been vampires,” Christopher Plummer intones as the movie begins. Except he very quickly points out to our hero, Paul Bettany, that there are no more vampires, that they were all eradicated or sealed up inside hives. The warrior priests who eradicated them have been forced into menial jobs and are shunned by the populace, mostly because of the big brown crosses tattooed between their eyes. Despite the claim that there are no more vampires, people are forced to live inside walled cities that resemble prisons.

Like the priest and seminarian in The Exorcist and The Rite, Bettany’s character has questions, doubts—not about his faith, necessarily, but about what the Church has told him: “To go against the Church is to go against God.” That is, if the Church says there are no vampires, then there are no vampires, even if a vampire head rolls right up to your feet. Why is the Church so dead set against the obvious? Well, I guess we’ll see in the sequel.

In the future, the Church is more like an armed militia. The cross is inscribed inside a circle, making it look more like a gun sight than a symbol of faith. And, when needed, the cross transforms into a ninja throwing star. Something Dustin Hoffman might have made good use of at the end of The Graduate.

Our boy Bettany scowls throughout the movie as if he were doing an impression of Clint Eastwood. He learns that his niece has been kidnapped by the vampires whose existence the Church denies. It’s Mad Max meets The Searchers. As this lame recycling lumbers from one set-piece to another, you realize that Bettany’s scowling because he’s had to take on another quasi-religious end-of-the-world comic book movie (see–or rather, don’t see–Legion).

Karl Urban plays the best friend/nemesis with a lot of scowling and scraping of fingernails, which you see a lot of in The Rite, too. I guess when you see a character scrape his nails, you know he’s really really evil. And if that’s not a giveaway, Urban wears a black hat and utters lines like “If you’re not committing sin, you’re not having fun.”

The movie also has a gaggle of vampires, looking a little like eight-foot eyeless lizards that have been turned inside-out given mouths like a northern pike’s. You can almost see the 1’s and 0’s of the underlying computer coding. They have less personality than the targets in a carnival game. They’re all teeth and gooey skin, but they’re no real match for our priest. They’re there to be sliced and diced.

In short, this Priest can’t be forgiven its sins.

P.S. Reverend Campy, are you out there? Campster-man? You owe me! As a motivated seller, I took a loss on my house, my suitcases and clothes are ruined, and now that paradise is off the table, I’m kind of bored with this old world. You promised me a chance at salvation! Or is everyone gone, and am I the only one left? Come to think of it, there were only two other people in the theater! I missed the Rapture! In that case, why did I bother writing about Priest? Heck, if I’m one of the last people on Earth, why did I bother even going to Priest?

The Rite: End of the World, Part One

The Exorcist Oneshet

Well, I started this post with a scant twenty-four hours before the end of the world, at least according to some, and that got me thinking about good and evil, so I thought it might be a good time to think about the battle between God and the devil.

The Exorcist has lost a lot of its shock-value since it first hit theaters in 1973. The special effects have a DIY feel to them, and the language and theme feel fairly tame compared to recent movies on the subject of demonic possession. Actually, you’d probably find more shocking elements in a Judd Apatow comedy than in The Exorcist. I expected all that when I settled down to watch it again. What I didn’t expect was how polished the movie is, how subtle, how quiet—at least for a while. The most interesting part of the movie turns out to be the slow build-up—Father Merrin in the mysterious desert, the small but creepy indications that something is not quite right with young Regan, and Father Karras’s persistent doubt. For a good forty minutes or more, you’d think you’d stumbled into something like John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. It has more drama than horror. Once the all-out bed-bucking, head-swiveling, and soup-spewing take place, I lose interest. The movie suddenly goes simple. You know you’ve lost an argument when you find yourself screaming. And that’s what so many mainstream movies do these days, each one trying to top the last. According to the preface to Lyrical Ballads, “the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants,” but clearly Wordsworth and Coleridge haven’t seen, for instance, Robert Rodriguez’s Machete, where the hero uses his enemy’s intestine to rappel down the side of a building.

The Rite Onesheet
The Exorcist wasn’t the first movie about demonic possession, but it may have been the first with such high production values. The Omen came along in 1976 with no less a production value than Gregory Peck in a leading role. “A” leading role but not “the” leading role, because the devil is the true star of these movies. And since those days, every now and again, Old Bendy makes an appearance, most recently in The Rite, a movie that owes so much to The Exorcist that it should pay a royalty. Anthony Hopkins plays the soft-spoken exorcist with a nod toward Max Von Sydow. Colin O’Donoghue plays the Jason Miller part, this time out as a seminarian who’s called upon to perform a ritual for a faith he no longer embraces.

True to B-movie form, the makers of The Rite claim the movie is based on true events, reminding you of this at the end with brief descriptions of the characters’ fates. And there is some truth to the claim. The book on which the movie’s based is a non-fiction account of a California priest’s training as an exorcist. The course he took in Rome wasn’t enough for him, so he apprenticed himself to a practicing exorcist, as the character in the movie does. And it’s true that some in the Catholic Church have called for a new militancy against evil. In 2007 the Vatican did call for an exorcist to be placed in every diocese. All of these elements come into play in The Rite.

Like The Exorcist, the best parts of The Rite are the quiet confrontations between the devout priest who has come to believe also in the existence of the devil and the doubting Thomas who studies the rite only as a favor to his mentor. The younger man, played as if the actor were channeling Jim Caviezel, isn’t sure he believes in God, so it goes without saying that he also doesn’t believe in the devil. But as Hopkins points out, “Choosing not to believe in the devil won’t protect you from him.”

The movie plays out in predictable ways. I won’t spoil it by giving them away here, but you already know the moves this movie makes. Interestingly, the actual confrontations between good and evil aren’t as theatrical as they might have been, perhaps because the movie-makers felt they had to reflect the reality of what happened in the real events upon which the movie is based. What keeps your attention are the debates between the Hopkins and O’Donoghue characters, which are reminiscent of the debates between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs.

It’s surprising that the subject of exorcism would prove to be so enduring in movies. The fight between good and evil is difficult to depict on screen. It always seems to boil down to a shouting match, with the priest shouting prayers and the foul fiend blaspheming loudly until he’s forced to say his name, which somehow expels him from his victim. This kind of showdown happens so often that you wonder why the devil doesn’t change it up a little. Instead of possessing a young girl, how about an NFL linebacker, somebody who can’t be so easily strapped to a chair or bed by an aged cleric? And why so touchy about the name? Vampires have spent years figuring out ways around their limitations, and yet the same tired trick catches Old Nick every time. And, dude, what’s with all the levitation and contortion and spewing of nails, etc.? You’re the Prince of Darkness, not a sideshow freak. I mean, it’s so, well, Gaga! Just saying.

P.S. Well, it’s Saturday, May 21st, at about 4:00 p.m., around two hours until the scheduled Rapture. Glad I got this post up before the end. Well, two hours from now here in the Central Time Zone. One hour EST. Which are we to follow? Or is it west coast time? After all, that’s the home of Reverend Camping, who’s been predicting the end of days. And why assume it’s 6:00 p.m. in the U.S.? Shoot! Has the eternity train already left the station? Have I missed the Rapture? The end of the world is so confusing! Is it possible I packed all these bags for nothing? Dang! All dressed up and no place to go.

Jumping the Broom: Electric Slide vs. River Dance

Jumping the Broom Onesheet

Like Bridesmaids, Jumping the Broom begins with the woman finding herself in bed with the wrong man, this time praying for help in finding Mr. Right, whom she promptly hits with her car. In Hollywood vernacular, they call this a “meet cute,” but in this case, maybe it should be called a “meet emergency room.” This guy is so right that his main concern is for the woman who hit him. “Breathe,” he tells her from where he lies on the pavement in front of her car. Can this story end up anywhere other than love and marriage?

Jumping the Broom is a traditional tale of wedding day jitters, family secrets, and parental neurosis. It’s also a story about social classes in conflict. One African-American family is—or seems to be—well-to-do, and the other is working-class. It’s uptown vs. downtown. Electric Slide vs. River Dance. And any tension in the movie comes from this clash more than from the formulaic ups and downs of the intended bride and groom.

“Jason was sent to me. He’s my soulmate,” says Sabrina, the bride-to-be. Any time you hear a character say this in the first ten minutes of the movie, you know that bond will be put to the test. In fact, her mother replies, “That’s so sweet. But a soulmate can test you.” The trouble is—you see all this movie’s conflicts coming from a mile away. Yes, the actors are good-looking and pleasant to watch, but too much is too predictable in a movie that might have worked better as something made-for-TV.

Sabrina, played by Paula Patton, is a relentless optimist, despite the fact that, until she meets Jason, her own romantic life has been a series of one-night-stands, and her parents’ marriage seems to be in self-destruct mode. Patton’s 100-watt smile makes you reach for the dimmer switch. Laz Alonso plays Jason as a man of total tolerance. He may get frustrated at times, but his love for Sabrina is unshakeable. The only problem in his life is his mother, played by Loretta Devine, whose acid smile is the engine that drives this movie. To say she has an anger problem is like saying New Orleans, during Katrina, was a little windy. She and Sabrina’s mother, played by Angela Bassett, go head-to-head, bringing the only real life to this movie.

There’s a dinner scene where Jason’s mother reminds Sabrina’s mother of their shared history of slavery. Sabrina’s mother replies that, actually, her family owned slaves. It’s an interesting clash that the moviemakers don’t allow to fully develop. If the writers and director had allowed this edge to come out more often, it would have been a more interesting movie, but they never run the risk of losing the movie’s essential cheerfulness, which is about as relentless as Sabrina’s smile.

I found myself wishing the brooding DeRay Davis, who plays Jason’s jealous friend, had been allowed more leeway. And Gary Dourdan gets everything there is to get out of his role as a chef who uses food to win the heart of Sabrina’s best friend. Loretta Devine plays the evil mother-in-law like a heat-seeking missile. You cringe at what she’s about to say and do. But the stand-out performance is Angela Bassett’s. The rest of the actors play one emotion at a time; she plays three or more at once. When she tells her daughter that a soulmate can test you, we see the whole history of her marriage in her face. Bassett has never had a role that takes the full measure of her talent, which is considerable.

The writing is by-the-numbers, with characters explaining their feelings to each other. To be fair, there’s not much you can do in a story when the subject is a wedding, not in a Hollywood story, anyway. Is there ever any doubt that the couple’s love will pull them through and that the wedding will take place? And when the resolution requires a character to change, is there ever any doubt that when asked, she’ll do what must be done, for the good of the wedding (and the story)? Wouldn’t it be nice if all the troublemakers in our lives were so reasonable?

Bridesmaids Makes It

Bridesmaids Onesheet

Kristin Wiig, like Will Ferrell, can go from looking and acting like the most ordinary person on the street to becoming a loose-jointed lunatic yodeling out her complaints against the world. The character she plays is always a little off, a little out-of-place. There’s a scene in Bridesmaids where a cop stops her, thinking she’s driving drunk. He makes her walk the line, which she does, until it quickly turns into the kind of dance a chicken might do if she were drunk and on top of a flagpole. Through it all she never steps off the white line. For me, that’s emblematic of the kind of comedy Wiig does so well. If she were completely out of control, we wouldn’t identify with her. But because there’s something solidly real about her, we do.

Wiig plays Annie, the outsider who’s always trying to impress the cool girls, but whose every gesture calls the wrong kind of attention to her. So when her best friend, played winningly by Maya Rudolph, gets engaged, Annie’s world begins to fall apart. She’s afraid she’ll be left behind as her friend marries and movies into a different circle of friends. In fact, it begins right away when Annie discovers her best friend’s new best friend, played with cat-like glee by Rose Byrne, who’s so perfect in every way that poor Annie knows she can never compete. So she does what every child does when she can’t get her way. She makes a scene. And another. And another. Each one tops the last, until Annie hits bottom.

It’s great to see the late Jill Clayburgh, who plays Annie’s mother, a woman who believes she’s an alcoholic though she’s never taken a drink. Clayburgh was the darling of romantic comedies in the 70’s, including It’s My Turn, and dramas like An Unmarried Woman, so it’s a surprise to see her do well in a raunchy and irreverent comedy like this one. It just proves she was a pro, and I miss her.

Wiig walks that narrow margin between sanity and insanity. Even during a quietly realistic scene, you can see a touch of hysteria, like a light shining under the door. When her character finds herself in an uncomfortable social situation (and for Annie, all social situations are uncomfortable), that door starts to open. First there’s a tremor of anxiety around the mouth. Then her chin draws in, and her eyes widen. Soon she flings herself into the wildly inappropriate, not just saying the wrong things but singing them diva-like one moment, squeaking out sarcastic impressions of people the next, and growling out condemnations after that.

In some ways, her zaniness reminds you of Russell Brand, but with Brand the zaniness feels laid-on, mechanical. His character never tries to fit in, or by the time he does, it’s too late for us to feel much for him. Wiig’s character, on the other hand, wins us from the get-go. At the start of the movie, she’s already lost her bakery, and she’s forced to live with a British brother and sister who seem like escapees from a Wallace and Gromit movie. She’s in a loveless friends-with-benefits relationship. But at least she has her best friend. Until she doesn’t. We’re with her because we know how hard it is sometimes to fit in, to feel you belong in the space you occupy. So when she freaks out, she seems to speak—or shriek—for us all.

The movie was written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo (who has a funny cameo) and in the spirit of its executive producer, Judd Apatow. I like Knocked up, Step Brothers,r and Apatow’s other movies just fine, but Bridesmaids made me laugh out loud more often, and that’s because it has a lot of heart, heart that’s not just tacked on at the end but that arises from character and starts with the very first scene.

Bridesmaids’ ensemble cast is excellent, too, especially Melissa McCarthy, who plays the stocky friend. If this were a guy movie, the character would be the trigger for a series of fat jokes. But McCarthy’s role has more dimension than that. She’s overcompensating for her weight by presenting herself as the self-styled expert on everything who flirts with guys as if she can have any one she chooses (and as it turns out, she can).

The story itself is fairly weak: a woman’s self-esteem and fragile hold on happiness are tested when her best friend becomes engaged. But the many pleasures of this movie come from the wicked writing and from the strong performances. It’s great to see a movie that not only assembles such a talented cast of women, but which gives the audience a woman-centered sensibility as well. And one and all, the actors eat it up. It’s as if the coach has finally put them in the game, and they can’t wait to show their stuff. Wendi McLendon Covey is great as the overwrought mom who’s dying for an escape from her teenaged sons. Ellie Kemper plays the naive friend, the movie’s weakest link. Capable but forgettable, she actually seems to disappear from the movie by the end.

Anthony Lane in The New Yorker complains that Bridesmaids has a split personality, that it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a women’s movie or a gross-out comedy. It think it achieves both with great success. Yes, there’s gross-out comedy (the food poisoning scene is about as gross as it gets). And, yes, there are moments of bonding among the women. For me it all worked, especially Wiig and Rudolph, who play best friends with the easy intuitiveness of real friends. It’s even more impressive that the women in this movie are all over thirty and look like real people.

For most of the comedies I see, the audiences sit quietly. This isn’t because they’re humorless or polite. It’s because the so-called comedies don’t give them much to laugh at. Oh, there may be a chuckle now and then, but that’s about it. Again and again in Bridesmaids, the audience broke into sudden laughter, the best kind, sprinkled liberally with “Oh my Gods!” It reminded me of what Hollywood comedies are supposed to be like.

P.S. The Sleeper was wide awake throughout.

Win Win is a Win Win

Imagine my frustration. The whole point of this blog is to point an accusing finger at the sorry state of movie-making, to take out, as it were, the Hollywood trash. The along comes Win Win, a disarming and truly funny comedy. It’s a small movie, which is one of its charms, a movie clearly made for a price, and yet it surprises you at every turn.

Mike Flaherty is a down-on-his-luck lawyer who seizes an opportunity without thinking it through, an opportunity that turns into a nightmare. He takes on the care of an elderly man who’s in the early stages of dementia. And if that’s not bad enough, soon the old man’s grandson and later his daughter show up. Have you ever seen a plate-spinner in the circus or on the old Ed Sullivan show? You know, the guy who spins twenty or more plates on the ends of twenty or more wands, racing back and forth to keep them all spinning. Win Win is like that as Mike struggles to keep his bad deed from destroying everything that matters to him.

Paul Giamatti, the Indie scene’s everyman, plays Mike as a combination of loyal family man, dedicated wrestling coach, and desperate schemer. What is that trick Giamatti does with his eyes? The rest of his face may exude charm and innocence while his eyes, without even moving, convey his anxiety about being caught in a lie.

And Amy Ryan, who tore up the screen in Gone Baby, Gone, is the most fully formed female character I’ve seen in many a movie. She loves her husband, but she’ll call him on his crap when she has to. Two of our best actors, Giamatti and Ryan know how to play several shades of feeling, even contradictory shades, at the same time. Poet John Keats called it “negative capability”–“being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” It’s what we see in performances by DeNiro, Streep, Pacino, Denzel Washington, Ryan Gosling, Viola Davis, and only a handful of other actors.

Even young Alex Shaffer, who plays Kyle, does a stand-out job as the troubled teen who hides his pain behind a veil of insolence, indifference, and mystery.

And I can’t help mentioning one of my favorite actors, Margo Martindale, who plays Kyle’s mother’s lawyer. It’s a tiny part, but the measure of Martindale’s talent is how completely realized the character is. If you want to see what this talented actor can do with a larger canvas, watch this season’s episodes of Justified, where she plays Mags Bennett, the ruthless matriarch of a clan of redneck evildoers.

Bobby Cannavale, as Mike’s impulsive but well-intentioned friend, has the best role of his career and runs away with it. The ubiquitous Jeffrey Tambor gives the movie its deadpan anchor. We’ve seen him play over-the-top lunatics like Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show. Here he plays Stephen Vigman just this side of the line between the real and the ridiculous. You laugh at him not because he’s ridiculous but because he’s so like us. Melanie Lynskey, who for years has added a touch of surreal humor to Two and a Half Men, plays Kyle’s drug-addicted mother. It’s a measure of her talent that she can make you dislike her and feel sorry for her at the same time.

The humor in Win Win arises out of character, out of the breakdown between how we picture the world and how it really is. The screenwriter strikes this note from the very beginning. Mike’s daughter asks her mother, “Where’s Daddy?” “He’s running,” she replies. “From what?” his daughter says. This brief exchange establishes Mike’s character, the movie’s theme, and the kind of humor that runs throughout. Win Win’s got more laughs per square inch than Arthur or any other so-called comedy of recent memory.

Win Win is about old-fashioned things like honor and sacrifice and second chances, about doing the right thing even after you’ve done the wrong thing. And somehow it touches on all this without being sententious and while making us laugh. At one point, when one of his spectacularly untalented wrestlers finishes his match without being pinned by his opponent, Mike points out that sometimes not losing is the biggest victory you can win. It’s a painful yet reassuring truth like this that makes this movie matter.

Thor Loser

I thought the best way to see Thor was an IMAX matinée on the Saturday of its opening weekend, when all the kids were there—the twelve-year-olds for whom the movie was made. Imagine my surprise in finding an audience almost entirely made up adults over thirty. In fact, the only kids I saw had clearly been dragged there by their parents, and they trooped out about halfway through the movie.

Kenneth Branagh, trying to add some interest to the comic book story, echoes King Lear. Instead of giving his kingdom to his daughters, Odin’s about to give it to one of his sons, only to change his mind and banish Thor to Earth, giving preference to his brother. The movie jumps back and forth between New Mexico and Asgard as one son learns humility and the other plots to take over kingdom of the gods.

What a waste of fine actors. Let me quickly add that it’s too soon to say whether Chris Hemsworth has enough talent to waste. Not his fault. You can’t recite these bombastic I-am-the-god-of-thunder lines in any way that would show subtlety or nuance. Except for a few funny lines that send up the superhero genre, the lines in Thor were written to be shouted or declaimed, not acted.

Sir Anthony Hopkins plays Odin complete with a nifty eye-patch. I remember years ago thinking how the mighty had fallen when Sir Laurence Olivier went slumming as Zeus in Clash of the Titans (the original). And now here comes Hopkins in his footsteps. He’s always alternated between challenging roles in serious films and villains in popcorn movies. Look at his eyes—er, eye—in this movie, and you’ll be reminded of that moment in Remains of the Day when his character, made uncomfortable by Emma Thompson’s prying, says, “Do you know what I’m doing now? I’m placing my thoughts elsewhere while you chatter away.” I swear that’s what he’s doing in much of this movie.

The women in the cast are not well-served. I like Natalie Portman as much as the next fellow, even though she wore me out with all the hang-wringing and crying in Black Swan, a big dumb movie masquerading as high art. Here, though, she can bring nothing to the inert script except a certain level of believability. But an even greater crime has been committed against the talented Rene Russo, who plays Thor’s mother. She’s given the barest handful of lines and probably all of three minutes of screen time. You might say it’s not a movie about mothers and girlfriends but about fathers and sons and, more significantly, brothers. OK, but it still seems a waste of talent. Don’t we have enough movies where men are the only people who really matter and women are little more than decoration?

The one actor who fares well is Tom Hiddleston, who plays Loki, Thor’s adopted brother. [Sidenote: one advantage of studying world literature is knowing that, if your brother’s name is “Loki,” you’re probably in for a bad time.] Hiddleston brings a level of intensity and complexity to the role that makes you feel for him when he complains to his father about being passed over, though he’s no John Cazale. Remember that incredible scene in Godfather II where he complains, “I was stepped over”? You know you’re watching a talented actor when you’re not sure what he or she will do or say next. Hiddleston is like that. It helps that Loki is the best written part in the screenplay. He’s Edmund, Gloucester’s “most savage and unnatural” son in King Lear.

The real star of the movie is the art director. Asgard looks like a cross between the Chrysler Building, the Disneyland castle, and a church organ. As for the CGI effects, they’re recycled, as usual in these movies. The big galloping monster is move-for-move straight out of Men in Black. The Frost Giants feel like the bad guys from The Mummy with a few cosmetic changes. And the giant robot, his body covered with shiny metal louvers, seems like a Transformer as designed by Levelor. By the way, if the Frost Giants can immobilize even the gods by encasing them in ice, why do they choose to punch and slash instead of just freezing them? And Thor is yet another movie in which our hero leaps from a great height and lands on one knee, making the earth shudder with the impact. This time, though,we see the leap from behind, sparing us the hero’s agonized scream as he shatters his patella.

Alas, even the 3D is a disappointment. Yes, characters point swords that seem to come straight out of the screen. But most of the shots merely bring a foreground character closer to the audience, leaving the background undifferentiated and sometimes out of focus. Avatar was another big, dumb movie, but I have to admit it’s 3D effects often took my breath away, especially the scenes in the lab, where the room felt like real space you could step into.

One of the features that made the first Iron Man movie so much fun was the humor. So many superhero movies seem to think they’re a play by Ibsen—all that solemnity and endless exposition, the “my lord” this and “my lord” that. Combine a smart, funny script with a director and star with a sense of humor, and the result was a movie that was both an embodiment and send-up of the superhero genre. Thor tries for that with a few off-hand visual jokes that show the earth-bound Thor as something less than the god of thunder. And Kat Dennings has some witty remarks as the smart-alecky younger sister to Natalie Portman’s character. And when Odin flings Thor’s hammer to Earth, it’s great fun to see the way the locals create a tourist attraction around it. But these moments aren’t enough to redeem the movie.

But in the end, Thor’s thunder amounts to little more than a rumbling stomach. As the credits rolled, the kids in the audience long gone, the adults shambled out of the auditorium, looking forward to the bright spring afternoon. The memory of Thor would fade before they hit the door.

P.S. My wife’s out of town, so I didn’t get to note at what point she fell asleep during the movie, but she did slip into the Odin-sleep while I told her about the movie over the phone.