Thor: The Dark World and About Time
Thunder god in diminishing return, romance in the past-tense.
It struck me as odd that the ancient Norse bad guys in this movie come equipped with assault rifles and hand grenades. And I question, just from a visual perspective, how wise it was to render their most fearsome weapon as a hovering puddle of digital goo. But since this is a movie about a hunky thunder god with a magical hammer, subsidiary quibbles are probably beside the point.
Thor: The Dark World picks up from the concluding events of last year's The Avengers. Now we find Thor (Chris Hemsworth) back home in Asgard wrapping up a two-year battle to bring peace to the Nine Realms, of which Asgard and Earth (and the delightfully named Svartalfheim) are a part. At the same time, Thor's bad-seed brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), having made a fine mess of things last time out, is being consigned to the castle dungeon by his father, King Odin (Anthony Hopkins).
Meanwhile, back on Earth—London, to be precise—Thor's girlfriend, astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), continues to pine for her runaway super-squeeze. Her mentor, Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), is running around Stonehenge stark naked. And her intern, Darcy (Kat Dennings), has noticed some weird space stuff going on. This turns out to be the aforementioned puddle of goo, known to evil adepts as the Aether. This in turn is urgently coveted by the Dark Elves (not a name to strike terror, you'd think; but apart from their pointy ears and interludes of subtitled elvish badinage, they're human-size sci-fi marauders with the usual nasty plans). The Elves, you'll be surprised to learn, want to use the Aether to…whatever, whatever, whatever.
This rococo comic-book plot plays out in a sometimes pretty but more often airless environment of high-end CGI. And of course it's further encumbered by so-what 3D (still a big deal overseas, where The Dark World has already cleared the $100-million mark). There's plenty of action, in the familiar video-game manner; but the movie feels rote (whoa, a portal!), and it comes to an end a bit too long after it should.
However, depending on one's frame of mind, it could also be passable fun. Director Alan Taylor—more prestigiously employed on Game of Thrones—leavens the superhero bloat with wisecracks and campy quips (spurning a palace butt-kisser, Odin purrs, "You must think I'm a piece of bread to be buttered so heavily"). And some of the actors help. Hopkins is clearly passing through on his way to a paycheck, and it's too bad the head Elf, played by Christopher Eccleston, is barely one dimensional. But Portman has a lively comic spirit; Hemsworth brings a warm star presence to the title role; and Hiddleston, with his devious eyes and inscrutable smirk, remains a perfect Loki (the series' true fan favorite).
The Dark World is a pit stop in Marvel's long march toward total archive monetization. The movie will further swell the corporate coffers, no doubt; but it's otherwise more than usually disposable.
On the eve of moving to London to begin his career as a lawyer, young Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) is called in for a talk with his father (Bill Nighy). The subject, entirely surprisingly for Tim, is time travel. Dad tells him that all the men in their family have had the ability to travel back into the past, although within limits: you "can't kill Hitler, or shag Helen of Troy, unfortunately." No, this gift can only be used for things one personally wants, his father says—"to make life great."
Over the last 20 years, as a writer (Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral) and, infrequently, a director of his own scripts (Love Actually), Richard Curtis has perfected a distinctively sparkly brand of romantic comedy. He's unapologetically sentimental, happy to head right for the heartstrings; but he's also witty in an often memorable way, and it's difficult to imagine that even the most rom-com-resistant viewer will be able to completely resist About Time, Curtis' latest film (and the last he'll direct, he says). Introducing a sci-fi element into this tale about love among the well-to-do freshens the formula, and the actors sail away on the new possibilities.
Arriving in London, Tim moves in with a family friend, a grumpy blocked playwright named Harry (Tom Hollander). Tim has always been awkward with women, but in a unique meet-cute scene, he makes the acquaintance of Mary (Rachel McAdams), an endearingly odd young woman (she's obsessed with Kate Moss) who works in publishing. Unfortunately, Mary has recently acquired a boyfriend. When? Tim asks. And exactly where? Furnished with this information, he ducks into a closet and makes his way back into the recent past. When he returns, Mary is all his.
The plot has a well-turned simplicity that could be dismissed as corn if it weren't so undeniably entertaining. The utility of time-travel is inventively demonstrated (it's especially handy for rewriting romantic failures), and when its possibilities hit a wall at the end, the solicitation of tears feels—in rom-com terms—justified.
Nighy, appearing in his third Curtis film, is pricelessly comical. With his eloquent slouch, he circles his lines as if still working out how best to deploy them. And Gleeson, who previously featured in True Grit and the last two Harry Potter films, reveals a winning touch that should soon make him much better-known. Some of the characters are underdeveloped—principally Richard Cordery as a fubsy uncle and Lydia Wilson as Tim's vaguely troubled sister. But McAdams is adorability incarnate, and several of the supporting players—especially Hollander, who's wonderfully sour—are given small showcase moments of their own. The movie may seem too pat, too carefully constructed. But it has a smooth, easy charm, and a romantic glow that's hard to deny.