Friday, May 6, 2011


Comic book freak though I was as a kid, I wasn’t a Thor reader, so I don’t know how much resemblance the lavish new movie has to its source. In this version, the Thunder God (Chris Hemsworth), against the direct instructions of his old man Odin, mounts an attack on the city of the Frost Giants in response to an attempted infiltration of the heavenly realm of Asgard.

Odin (Anthony Hopkins, gruff & hale as ever) is understandably pissed, & boots the impetuous little snot to earth, stripping him of his superpowers in the process. Thor lands in the New Mexico desert, where he falls in with a lovely young astronomer (Natalie Portman), her Scandinavian mentor (Stellan Skarsgard) & her hip assistant (Kat Dennings). Thor’s fearsome hammer, called Mjolnir, also crashes to earth nearby, but The Big T finds he’s no longer able to wield it.

The theme, in short, as director Kenneth Branagh’s old screenwriter Bill Shakespeare might put it, is that it’s excellent to have a giant’s strength, but tyrannous to use it like a giant.

The fairly complex plot flips back & forth between Asgard, where Thor’s sinister brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is scheming to seize power from Odin, & Earth, where Thor gradually bonds with his new mortal pals, & comes to grips with the newfound limitations on his power. The contrast of the cosmic & mundane settings gives the film some nice variety—either too much Asgard or too much small-town New Mexico would probably get oppressive.

Branagh skillfully serves up an extravagant summer flick, abetted by a lush score from his usual composer Patrick Doyle. The young Australian Hemsworth ought to work out a little if he’s going to walk around shirtless, but otherwise he’s a cheery & agreeable sort of deity. The movie’s Thor doesn’t speak in the quasi-Shakespearean “thee & thou” idiom of the comics, which disappointed me a little—I thought that might have been the reason for the selection of Branagh as director—but perhaps the feeling was that it would have sounded silly in Hemsworth’s Aussie accent.

It was hard for me to shake the sense that the script, credited to five different hands, meant the title character as an allegory for the U.S.—a superpower recklessly starts a pre-emptive war against a whole culture in response to the action of a few, finds itself weakened by this hubris, & must learn humility & circumspection. There’s some awkwardness in trying to offer this moral while still providing the violent power fantasy for which we turn to comic-book stories, but I still found it pleasing that the attempt was made.

The evening before I saw Thor, I saw an extremely strange, very low-budget film called Rubber, which is presented this Friday & Saturday at Tempe’s MADCAP Theater by the Midnite Movie Mamacita. The central character of this one is an ordinary discarded rubber car tire, named Robert. Seemingly ordinary, that is—one day Robert, half-buried in a dump somewhere in the southwestern desert, comes to sentient life, rises from the sand, & rolls off down the highway.

Every now & then Robert encounters some innocent desert creature, & it’s here that he shows his true colors. He pauses in his rolling course, then vibrates, & after a few second the unfortunate little whatever-it-is explodes. Eventually Robert the Tire rolls up alongside human beings, vibrates, & their heads explode, Scanners-style.

Why would all this be happening, you may ask? Well, actually, you wouldn’t ask, if you saw the movie—writer-director Quentin Dupieux beats you to the question. Before the opening titles, one of the actors (Stephen Spinella) speaks straight into the camera. In Spielberg’s E.T., he asks, why is the alien brown? Why do the characters in Love Story fall madly in love with each other? In Oliver Stone’s JFK, why is the title character murdered by strangers? In each case, the man asserts: NO REASON.

These examples all struck me as sophomoric—it seemed like there could be perfectly arguable reasons for each of them. But I saw, & appreciated, the point the moviemakers were making: Great movies all have a streak of NO REASON to them, because life does too.

This meta-movie side of Rubber, which also involves an ineffectual onscreen Greek-chorus audience of random people, standing in the desert watching the action with binoculars, was the least successful aspect of the film for me. It actually begins to seem as if it may be there, at least partly, to pad Rubber out to feature length.

The film is at its best when it sticks to Robert, rolling down the road, leaving a trail of mayhem for NO REASON. Indeed, in these sequences Rubber is horrifying & hilarious & rather magical…& the follow morning, it struck me that Thor, though it depicts eternal cosmic realms, gods & giants & people flying, isn’t magical.

I don’t mean to pick on Thor in particular; it’s a slick yet good-hearted entertainment, perfectly enjoyable on its own terms. But not a frame of it is magical in the same way as the best of Rubber, which offers us nothing but an old tire & some gruesome bursting heads.

Why? Because of computer-generated special effects, that’s why.

Rationally, I get that computer-generated special-effects are just another manifestation of human ingenuity, & that when they’re well-done they’re an enormous expansion of the possibilities of cinema art. But I can’t help it—CGI takes the element of “How’d they do that?” out of watching a movie, because the answer is always “They did it on the computer.” When you can create absolutely any visual effect you want by tapping a keyboard or working a mouse, then absolutely any visual effect, no matter how epic or otherwordly in conception, no matter how seamless in execution, becomes commonplace.

But watching Rubber, I couldn’t spot a single effect that looked computer-generated. Everything looked low-tech, yet the behavior of the tire is so deft & convincing that I spent the first twenty minutes asking “How’d they do that?” & then “How in the Name of God did they do that?” Guide wires? An onboard motor? Running the film backwards? Or did they just roll it into the frame & hope it would go where they wanted?

I still don’t know. After awhile I forgot about the questions & just accepted “Robert” as a character. But I had been dazzled, as by a fine piece of stage magic, & that mood stayed with me. Rubber is a grungy, slightly pretentious, even somewhat mean-spirited movie, nowhere near as smart as it thinks it is. Yet it gave me a lift I haven’t gotten from many big-budget movies in recent years.

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