When Kenneth Branagh First Discovered William Shakespeare

Kenneth Branagh, the director of movies like “Thor” and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is best known for bringing the works of William Shakespeare to the silver screen. With movies like “Henry V,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Hamlet,” he has succeeded in opening up the works of this famous playwright to new generations of actors and artists. Considering how passionate he is as an actor and filmmaker about Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies, I always wondered what his first experiences of reading and performing them was like. He gleefully told us about his introduction to Shakespeare when he visited the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica back in 2011.

Born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Branagh said his family had no interest in Shakespeare, and that there were no books in the house. Then the family relocated to Reading, Berkshire where Branagh said he got bullied a lot. As a result, he withdrew into himself and became fascinated with literature, and he soon found himself developing a love for words. He even recalled buying his very first book, but his father didn’t understand why he was so excited and asked him, “What did you buy that for? Why not just go down to the public library?”

His first exposure to Shakespeare came in a class where everyone read from “The Merchant of Venice.” Branagh remembered being terrified to perform it out loud, and he also freely admitted that he “didn’t understand the language.” But regardless of his fear, he ended up surviving the experience and was soon bitten by the acting bug.

When he did a school production of “Romeo & Juliet,” Branagh recollected how the director played “You Are Everything,” a song sung by Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross. When the song was finished, the director told everyone, “The song was about sex, it’s a mating call. Now that you know what ‘Romeo & Juliet’ is about, open up your text and let’s read!”

Through all the yelling and screaming during the rehearsal, Branagh said the play was actually not hard to understand. It came down to this gang hating that gang, of two young people in love, etc. From there, the words of the Bard enthralled him like nothing else, and he has since made vastly entertaining movies which clearly reflect his infinite passion of Shakespeare’s literature.

Kenneth Branagh said that he would like to do more Shakespeare in the future. While he is a number of years off from playing “King Lear,” but I would love to see him adapt another Shakespeare play in the future like “Macbeth” or even “Twelfth Night.” He even portrayed Shakespeare in the 2018 film “All is True” which he also directed. We still have “Death on the Nile,” the sequel to his version of “Murder on the Orient Express” to look forward to, but hopefully he will tackle one of the Bard’s favorite texts sooner rather than later.

Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ – A Bit Too Cerebral, But Still Very Entertaining

Tenet” is a film which should come with Cliff’s Notes or its equivalent as it is more challenging than the average Hollywood blockbuster. Thankfully, I was able to follow the gist of the story which has the good guys fighting the bad guys in an effort to prevent World War III, but I am at a loss for explaining how the characters learn to manipulate the flow of time. I imagine it all makes perfect sense to writer and director Christopher Nolan and his good friend, theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, but I have already watched this film twice and I still cannot fully understand all of which happened. While “Inception” and “Interstellar” did make a good deal sense over the course of a few viewings, it will take a few more for me to completely decipher all of which “Tenet” has to offer.

Black Klansman’s” John David Washington stars as a CIA agent who is only known as the Protagonist, and “Tenet” opens with him taking part in an extraction mission which ends up going awry as he is captured and ends up sacrificing himself after an extended torture session. But instead of arriving in the afterlife, he finds himself in bed and informed by his boss, Fay (Martin Donovan), that he has been recruited by an organization called Tenet which, as a word, can open the right doors and some of the wrong ones too.

The Protagonist’s meeting with scientist named Barbara (Clémence Poésy) helps him to learn about technology with inverted entropy, meaning technology which moves backward in time. At this point, I found myself digging this premise as it is always fascinating to find characters wondering if they exist not in the present, but instead a past which has been far removed from what is considered to be the future. It also calls into the question the concept of free will as the Protagonist is made to wonder if we are part of a story with a pre-determined ending. I love it when free will is dealt with as I am always rooting for it to be shown as real even in a work of pure fiction.

The rest of “Tenet” acts as Nolan’s version of a spy movie as the Protagonist seeks to infiltrate the treacherous realm of Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) who communicates with the future and is planning to give Earth a fate worse than nuclear Armageddon. In the process, he comes to meet Andrei’s wife, Katherine (“Widows’” Elizabeth Debicki), as well as Neil (Robert Pattinson), his partner in all things inverted or otherwise.

It is tempting to label “Tenet” as a time travel film, but Nolan has made it clear it is not. While Marty and Doc Brown can travel from one point in time to another in the “Back to the Future” trilogy, the characters here do not have the same power of instantaneous travel. To get to a certain point, they have to travel backwards in the past to get to it, and it is never an easy trip as the challenges prove to be quite draining physically. Keep in mind, this is one of the few motion pictures you will see where a character is saved from certain death thanks to hypothermia.

Like I said, I have already seen “Tenet” twice and still cannot explain all that goes on in it. We watch as characters live through moments portrayed both forwards and backwards in time, and the concept of inversion remains the kind of puzzle I am not quick to put together. With this film, Nolan may have bitten off far more than he can chew as the concepts here prove to be more cerebral than the first “Star Trek” pilot known as “The Cage.” Having said this, the film proves not to be too heady for me as such films can drive me to complete insanity or make me fall asleep while watching them. In the end, I am glad I did not come out of “Tenet” in the same way the average filmgoer came out of Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!,” desperate to make a lick of sense out of the cinematic chaos they just witnessed.

Nolan employs many of his regular collaborators here such as cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and production designer Nathan Crowley, and they provide us with visuals which would have been great to see on the big screen or in IMAX had any theater in Los Angeles been open a few months ago. This is the first film from “The Dark Knight” director which I have been forced to watch on my television due to the never-ending Coronavirus pandemic, and it feels like such a missed opportunity to not have viewed it on the silver screen. Once movie theaters open up again, hopefully I will get another chance.

One Nolan’s newest collaborators on “Tenet,” other than editor Jennifer Lame, is composer Ludwig Göransson who won an Oscar for scoring “Black Panther.” Hans Zimmer was unavailable due to his commitment on scoring Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” but Göransson comes up with something as propulsive and percussive as what Zimmer would have likely given us. In many ways, his music is as much a character as any other in “Tenet,” and this is one of those music scores which deserves a more in-depth study than it has already received. Like Nolan, Göransson presents his music to us both forward and backward motions, and the result is endlessly fascinating to take in.

Right now, “Tenet” may likely be seen as lesser Nolan as its plot is more complicated than he would ever care to admit, but even the least of his works prove to be more ambitious and original than much of what Hollywood puts out on a regular basis. Even though I was a bit frustrated in trying to understand everything which unfolded before me, I was still deeply enthralled in what Nolan had to offer this time around.

When it comes to making sense out of this particular film, please keep a few things in mind: the word tenet is a palindrome, and the term Sator Square gave this film its title and is a two-dimensional word square which contains a five-word Latin palindrome. If you want to learn more, go online and find out for yourself. As much as I would like to explain everything for you, it is best you discover certain definitions on your own. The actor Andre Braugher once said that “if your vocabulary is limited, then your thoughts are limited.” Be like Braugher and don’t be limited.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Tenet’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent Tony Farinella.

Tenet,” written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Christopher Nolan, is one of the rare films to get a big release in theaters when it came out in early September during the COVID pandemic. While watching it on Blu-ray was an enjoyable experience, I can only imagine what it was like to see it on IMAX.  It probably enhanced the experience quite a bit for moviegoers.  That being said, I’ve always subscribed to the idea that a good movie is good on any platform be it Blu-ray, 4K or the big screen.  I understand why this was released on the big screen, though, as it is a big screen movie with big ambitions.  Nolan has always been a filmmaker with a specific vision, and he likes to give his audience a lot to chew on when they watch his films.  He also likes to let them come up with their own interpretations of them as well.

“Tenet” is a film I watched for the most part on my own with my wife checking in with me near the end of it.  She asked me what was happening and if I liked the movie.  While the idea of trying to explain the film to her was daunting, and I was still processing the film as it was happening, I realized Nolan had me exactly where he wanted me.  Even though “Tenet” has a running time of two hours and thirty minutes, it’s pretty damn exciting when you take in all that is happening on the screen, the details, both big and little.  As far as trying to describe the plot and what happens to her or to anyone reading this review, I will do my best without spoiling the film or making it sound too convoluted.

John David Washington, who has quickly turned into one of our finest working actors today, is simply known as Protagonist. He is a secret agent who is put through a number of grueling tasks in order to see if he’s up for the task of trying to stop World War III through influencing time. We don’t know much about him, his backstory, or why he’s decided to take on this mission in the first place. Washington, however, comes across as calm, cool and collected in each and every scene, whether he’s negotiating or in battle.  His natural charisma is evident throughout.

He’s part of an organization called Tenet, and this is a word which comes up a lot in the film as it is “inverted” and deals with the concept of moving backwards in time.  This is put on display a number of times with simply stunning visuals which will leave your jaw hanging on the floor.  If you are looking for an emotional core, it comes in the form of Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) and her working relationship with the Protagonist. While we clearly root for and spend a great deal of time with the Protagonist, Kat’s story is the emotional core of the film.  There is also great work here from Kenneth Branagh as the villain.  He’s very easy to dislike, and his performance is menacing and a little over-the-top, but it works in the world of this film.

The world of the film created by Nolan is not always easy to follow.  There were times where I was lost even as Robert Pattinson’s character was explaining things to me with his Master’s degree in physics.  I understand Nolan wants to keep us guessing and to question what is happening.  I also know there are a ton of fan theories out there.  It is always a good thing when a film can create discussion and debate among movie buffs.  As a hardcore movie lover myself, I’m always looking to talk shop with individuals that look at movies as more than just movies.  They live, breathe and sleep with the movie long after the credits have rolled.  With “Tenet,” it is a film I look forward to revisiting a few more times to fully grasp and comprehend all it is about.

Let’s focus on the positives, first.  Even though the film was not scored by Nolan’s usual composer, Hans Zimmer, the use of sound and music to enhance the movie is truly awe-inspiring. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even realize Zimmer didn’t compose the score until I saw the name Ludwig Göransson in the end credits.  This is not to discredit the fantastic work by Göransson, it is just to say it is clear there is a certain style of sound and music Nolan is looking for with his movies, and he picked a great composer with a very impressive resume. I talked about the performances earlier, and they are universally good across the board with the standouts being Washington and Debicki. A few Nolan favorites pop up as well in cameos.  Visually, Nolan takes his work to a whole new level with “Tenet.” It is a big screen movie all the way.

As far as the negatives, even though it is a good movie and doesn’t feel like two hours and thirty minutes, I don’t know if it necessarily had to be this long. I think they could have shaved fifteen to twenty minutes, and it wouldn’t have harmed the overall film.  We all know Nolan likes to do everything big with his movies from the sound to the visual effects to the running time, but sometimes things can be scaled back a little bit.  Another issue with the film is the fact it can be a little cold and distant at times.  His films would be even more powerful with all of the sound and fury if they came with a bit more emotion, heart and more fleshed out characters.  If you have great actors, you should use them more within the framework instead of letting the plot take center stage.

In the end, there is quite a bit to like about “Tenet.”  I’m going to recommend you buy the film, and I know it will be one I’ll be watching a few more times in the future.  However, my favorite Nolan film is still “Insomnia.”   As mentioned in the previous paragraph, Nolan sometimes completely abandons character development and the heart of his films which can sometimes leave me feeling like I’m watching robots in the story.  He also needs to understand that sometimes less is more.  While I don’t necessarily see him changing his ways, there is always the hope of him evolving with his next project. “Tenet” is a good yet flawed flick.

* * * out of * * * *

Blu-Ray Info: “Tenet” is released on a three-disc Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Combo Pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. One disc is the Blu-ray, another disc is the Blu-ray special features, and the final disc is a DVD version of the film.  The film has a running time of 151 minutes.  It is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references and brief strong language.

Video Info: “Tenet” is shown on 1080p High-Definition 16×9 Variable 2.2:1 and 1.78:1 (IMAX sequences). The film is gorgeous looking with a transfer that is impossible to beat! I couldn’t take my eyes off the visuals of this film.

Audio Info: The Blu-ray comes on the following audio tracks: DTS-HD MA: English 5.1, English Descriptive Audio and Dolby Digital: French and Spanish. Subtitles are in English, Spanish and French.

Special Features:

Looking at the World in A New Way: The Making of Tenet: This special feature is broken up into thirteen featurettes which go into great detail on the filmmaking process.  This is why I love physical media.  It is for the special features and the amount of behind the scenes details we get here. This special feature is over an hour long!

Should You Buy It?

Considering the fact that you are going to want to watch this film a few times and that it is directed by Christopher Nolan, I think this is most certainly a film worth adding to your collection.  There is also the fact it comes with over an hour of special features on a separate disc.  There was a lot of time, thought and effort put into this film as well as its Blu-ray release.  While this is far from a perfect film, there is enough really good stuff in here to make it a wise investment.  As I’ve said a few times in this review now, I want to watch it again and piece together even more of this elaborate puzzle.

**Disclaimer** I received a Blu-Ray copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.

‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’ Forgets What Makes Tom Clancy’s Hero Stand Out

Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit movie poster

While watching “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” it didn’t take long to realize like the CIA analyst hero of the late Tom Clancy’s novels has been rebooted one too many times. After being portrayed by Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, Jack Ryan got his clock turned backwards when Ben Affleck played him in “The Sum of All Fears.” I have no problem admitting I liked that film, but casting a younger actor as Ryan ended up screwing with the franchise’s equilibrium. Things were going smoothly beforehand, so why throw a younger actor, any young actor, into this role and take the audience back in time? Why not bring Baldwin back? When is all said and done, Baldwin is still the best actor to inhabit this character.

Well, now we have Pine taking over the role of the brilliant Jack Ryan, and this time the franchise goes right back to the beginning of Ryan’s career. What results is by no means a bad movie as it is well made, features a number of strong performances and some exciting action scenes. Regardless, there’s a feeling of emptiness at this film’s core. The problem it’s not much different from the many spy movies I have seen over the years and, as a result, feels largely forgettable.

For those who remember Fred Dalton Thompson’s character of Rear Admiral Joshua Painter from “The Hunt for Red October,” he gave a speech in which he talked about how Ryan was severely injured in a helicopter crash back in the 70’s and spent the following year learning to walk again. This is the Ryan we meet here when this film begins as he is compelled to enlist in the military after the events of September 11, 2001. From there, we watch him recovering from a helicopter crash, and he recuperates over time with the help of Dr. Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), the woman we know will eventually become his wife.

During his lengthy recovery, Ryan is paid a visit by CIA official Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) who recruits him to work for the agency. We then move forward ten years later to when Ryan is working on Wall Street as a compliance officer at a stock brokerage, but this job is of course a cover for his real work as a covert CIA analyst as he keeps an eye out for financial transactions which are suspect and may indicate terrorist activity. Upon discovering trillions of dollars held by Russian organizations have gone missing, the trail of criminality leads him to Russian tycoon Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh). Ryan travels to Russia and, from there, things go bang, bang, bang like you would expect.

I think one of the big mistakes made with “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” was that the filmmakers decided not to base it on any of Clancy’s novels. I know Clancy was always highly critical of the way Hollywood treated his books and I’m pretty sure he would have had many things to say about this installment had he lived to see it. At the same time, his stories were always intricate and fascinating, and the screenplay here by Adam Cozad and David Koepp is both confusing and hard in comparison. As a result, it feels a surprisingly lightweight compared to the complex stories Clancy came up with.

In addition to playing Jack Ryan’s chief nemesis, Branagh also directed the movie and has come to show a real panache for filming exciting action scenes. There’s also a crazy car chase near the end which really did have me on the edge of my seat, and he has come a long way from directing big budget movies like “Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein” and “Thor.” Granted, you can’t go into this expecting something on the level of his Shakespeare cinematic adaptations, but he does provide the audience with a fun time. The problem is the story of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is very routine, and it was hard to get excited about what unfolded once I made this realization.

In all fairness, Pine does make for a good Jack Ryan in the way the character was written here. As tired as I am of movie studios making all these origin movies, Pine brings the same kind of energy to this role as he did to “Star Trek” as James Kirk. While this Ryan is not as interesting here as he was in the previous films, Pine does the best that he can with a somewhat underwritten part.

One performance in particular I want to point out is Costner’s as Thomas Harper. It’s fascinating to watch him here after having seen him as the heroic young soldier in movies like “No Way Out,” and he is aging nicely into the role of the elder statesmen who imparts his wisdom and advice to newbies. Part of the fun in watching Costner here is how mysterious he makes Harper. Ryan is not sure he can trust him fully, and Costner’s constant poker face throws not only him off, but the audience as well.

But despite all the good things about “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” the whole package feels far too ordinary for it to work effectively. We’ve seen this kind of story before, and not much was done to elevate it above the usual fare this genre has to offer. In the process of trying to make Jack Ryan young again in the hopes of jump starting this long-running franchise, they have robbed the character of what made him unique. In this film, he’s like any other young CIA recruit who has yet to understand what he’s getting himself into, and I have seen this scenario played out far too many times before.

For me, Jack Ryan was always the accidental action hero. He has a brilliant mind and always gets to the truth of the matter because he takes the time to study the individual at the center of the story. Like John McClane, he’s not out to be the hero and is always looking to avoid life threatening situations, but he eventually steps up to the plate because no one else can, and no else knows what he knows. If they ever do make another Jack Ryan, they need to make him the analyst he’s always been and not just start from scratch with an origin story. We know all about Ryan’s past, now let’s deal with his present and future. Is this too much to ask?

* * ½ out of * * * *

 

Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is Wonderfully Old-Fashioned

Murder on the Orient Express 2017 movie poster

Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express” marks a return of sorts for the actor and director. His last few movies as a director, “Thor,” “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” and “Cinderella,” had him embracing all the cinematic tools available to him to where his unique talents threatened to be squashed as he began to look like any other filmmaker making blockbuster motion pictures. But with this latest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel, we see him returning to his theatre roots as he directs an all-star cast to excellent performances while simultaneously playing the lead role of Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The late Leonard Nimoy said he never directed another “Star Trek” movie after “The Voyage Home” because acting and directing at the same time was just too much work. Branagh, however, makes it all look like a walk in the park, and after all these years I am astonished that he can make it look so easy.

Branagh is fantastic as Hercule, and he makes this classic character into a man of many splendors. We first see him being very picky about being served two hard-boiled eggs, both of which need to be the same size for him to eat. This scene almost makes him looks like a food snob, but then we see him solve a crime at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Hercule brings up three holy men to the front of the crowd, and immediately we think one of them is guilty, and that, once the guilty man is revealed, people will find their prejudices to be justified. But instead, Hercule implicates another man with the crime, and it shows how he sees sins as being universal and not relegated to a particular group or ethnicity. From there, we know this man will not be bound by prejudice when it comes to solving a crime.

Hercule just wants to take a holiday aboard the Orient Express, and we see him take great joy in observing perfectly baked foods as well in reading Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” which he laughs at constantly. But detectives like him can only stay on vacation for so long as the scent of crime is never far from him. And, as the movie’s title implies, a murder is committed which only he can solve with his unique set of skills. This will not be an easy case, but Hercule is quick to tell us, “If it were easy, I would not be famous.”

“Murder on the Orient Express” has been adapted several times, the most famous adaptation being Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film which, like this one, features an all-star cast. I have not seen any of the previous versions nor have I read Christie’s novel, so I am coming into this one a fresh newbie. From the start, I expected Branagh’s film to be an old-fashioned whodunit, but as it went on, I was surprised to see the story deal with themes Shakespeare wrote about time and time again. It becomes less about who the murderer is and more about the sins we allow ourselves to live with and of the different kinds of punishment we are forced to endure. Once the murderer is revealed, the story doesn’t stop there.

Branagh brings together a terrific group of actors who sink their teeth into roles which, on the surface, might seem underwritten and one-dimensional, but each actor does excellent work in creating an inner life for their characters to where their eyes tell us more than their mouths do. Even as they work on perfecting their poker faces, something which Hercule has them all beat at, their eyes betray a truth which can no longer stay buried.

Johnny Depp shows up as Edward Ratchett, an unsavory individual who becomes the victim of the story. Seeing Depp getting killed off early on in a movie is guaranteed to please many audience members who have had their fill of him, and I don’t just mean Amber Heard. I’m just glad Branagh cast him in this role instead of as Hercule. Depp would have just resurrected his Guy LaPointe character from “Tusk” and “Yoga Hosers” if he played Hercule, or perhaps he would have given us another variation on Charlie Mortdecai as, like Hercule, that character sports a truly extravagant mustache. All the same, Depp is wonderful in the role and makes Ratchett into a despicable character whose nasty fate deserves a thorough investigation.

I loved watching Penelope Cruz as Pilar Estravados as her demeanor presents the character as one with dark intentions as well as someone who has suffered far too much pain and tragedy in life. It took me a bit to recognize Josh Gad who plays Ratchett’s right-hand man, Hector MacQueen, and he is excellent as a man who has compromised his values once too often. Daisy Ridley, whom we cannot wait to see again as Rey in the next “Star Wars” movie, matches Branagh scene for scene as Mary Debenham, a lady who refuses to be investigated by Hercule for a protracted amount of time, but even her poker face falls apart before she realizes it. And you can always depend on Derek Jacobi, Dame Judi Dench and Willem Dafoe to turn in excellent performances as they rarely, if ever, have let us down.

But one performance I want to single out in particular is Michelle Pfeiffer’s who portrays Caroline Hubbard. 2017 has been a big year for Pfeiffer as she has emerged from what seems like an infinitely long hiatus and has given unforgettable and scene-stealing performances in Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” and Barry Levinson’s “The Wizard of Lies.” The same goes with her performance here as she takes the stereotypical divorced socialite and renders her into a complex figure of tragedy whose armor is harder for Hercule to break through. Pfeiffer has always been a fantastic actress, and her performance as Caroline reminded me of this and of how long her career has lasted. She has a show-stopping moment towards the movie’s end (you’ll know it when you see it), and it is further proof of how she has never been just another pretty face in Hollywood.

Branagh has directed “Murder on the Orient Express” as a theatre piece, and it is clear to me how much attention he has given the actors here. Having said that, he also gives this adaption a beautifully cinematic look. Along with his collaborators, director of photography Haris Zambarloukos and composer Patrick Doyle, he makes this film feel wonderfully old-fashioned, and it seems like forever since I have watched a movie which evokes this feeling. It should also be noted how he shot this movie on 65mm film which suits the material perfectly, and seeing those cigarette burns appear on the screen was a very welcome sight for me.

Of course, not everything about “Murder on the Orient Express” is perfect. The movie does drag a bit towards the end, and the story is at times a bit hard to follow. It also pales in comparison to another mystery movie Branagh directed back in the 1990’s, “Dead Again.” Still, it proves to be a wonderfully entertaining motion picture which reminded me of his best work even while not quite equaling it. The ending draws our attention to another Agatha Christie classic novel which implies, if this movie does well, we could be seeing the beginning of a franchise. I do hope this happens as Branagh has put together a wonderfully entertaining motion picture which begs for a continuation. Whether he can come up with a follow up remains to be seen as the world of movies remains dominated by endless superhero/comic book franchises.

I also have to say the mustache Branagh sports in this movie is very impressive. Lord knows how long it took for him to grow and keep so pointy. Many other actors would have been easily upstaged by such a mustache, but not Branagh.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Thor’ Arrives with Thunderous Abandon

Thor movie poster

Thor” makes its presence known with thunderous abandon. Now like many comic books, this one is yet another I haven’t read, so I can’t say how true it stays to its origins. However, judging from the great Kenneth Branagh’s handling of the material, I imagine it’s very respectful to the character.

Heeding closely to classic Norse mythology, Thor is the god of thunder and heir to the throne of Asgard. But on the day of his ascension, the Frost Giants invade the planet’s deeper regions to retrieve the Casket of Ancient Winters, the source of their power. They are easily defeated, but their violation of the truce put together between them and Asgard seriously pisses Thor off. Against his father’s wishes, he and his fellow warriors journey to the Frost Giants home planet of Jotunheim to keep some frosty ass. Odin, however, intervenes and, infuriated with his son’s arrogance, strips him of his powers and banishes him to Earth. For a warrior like Thor, being banished to Earth does feel like a nasty insult.

First off, I really liked the way Branagh handled this material. In the wrong hands, this could have easily become high camp which would have been enjoyable for all the wrong reasons. But Branagh takes the characters and places they inhabit seriously, and he infuses them all with a strong humanity which comes to define them more than does their place in the universe. Even the villains are remarkably complex as their corruption results not so much from a need for power, but instead for a father’s love and approval. Of course, with Branagh directing, you can count on many Shakespearean references throughout, be it Iago from “Othello” or “King Lear,” and they prove to be a perfect fit for this movie.

I was also impressed with how well Branagh handled the visual elements of “Thor.” The last time he made a movie heavy with special effects was “Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein,” and he seemed a bit out of his league with that one. Perhaps we should not be impressed as this movie has a budget of at least $100 million, not counting advertisement costs, but the key thing here is the effects succeed in being an extension of the characters instead of just dwarfing them completely. Then again, that giant creature the Frost Giants unleash on Thor immediately had Liam Neeson screaming in my head, “RELEASE THE KRAKEN!!!”

As Thor, Chris Hemsworth, who played Captain Kirk’s father in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” owns the role right from the first moment he walks onscreen. Hemsworth clearly revels in portraying the great power Thor possesses, and he is a gentleman when the situation calls for it. Seeing him as a fish out of water on Earth also makes for some splendid moments which are slyly comic. I’m also glad to see Thor is not just another character who doesn’t want to be “the one,” conflicted about the things he is destined to do. With Hemsworth, you know from the get go he is fully aware he’s “the one” and owns this knowledge to where you feel his impatience in wanting to prove it to the universe. Instead of a whiny Anakin Skywalker, Hemsworth gives us a powerful warrior worth cheering for, and one who eventually learns from his mistakes.

As scientist Jane Foster, Natalie Portman’s casting in the role seems like a no brainer. We know from her off screen life that she is a remarkably intelligent human being, so she doesn’t have to prove to us how believable she can be as a scientist. She sparks instant chemistry with Hemsworth (damn those six pack abs!!!), and that shy smile of hers kills me every single time.

Then there’s the great Sir Anthony Hopkins whose portrayal of Asgard’s king and father to Thor, Odin, is nothing short of gallant. This is especially the case with the opening narration which he recites with such depth to where he makes all other actors who’ve done it before him sound like they were sleepwalking their way through it. While many may think this is one of those roles Hopkins did for an easy paycheck, it’s really one of the best performances he’s given in a while.

Tom Hiddleston plays Loki, Thor’s brother and the movie’s main villain. What I liked about Hiddleston is how he does so much more than give us the usual one-dimensional bad guy. Just like Joaquin Phoenix’s character from “Gladiator,” Loki feels slighted by his father as he prefers another man over him, and he becomes desperately eager to prove himself in any way he can. But of course, he ends up doing it in the worst way possible. Hiddleston makes Loki into a character who is more spiteful than hateful, and this makes his eventual fate seem all the more tragic in retrospect.

There are other strong performances throughout this blockbuster affair to enjoy as well. Rene Russo, where have you been? Idris Elba makes a memorable Heimdall, and it never seems like a small part with him playing it. Kat Dennings steals a few scenes as Darcy Lewis, Jane’s co-worker whose science is more political than astronomical. And Stellan Skarsgård remains a dependable actor as always playing scientist Erik Selvig, a character who ends up playing an important role in “The Avengers.”

Having said all this, “Thor” did feel like it could have been a little more exciting. It doesn’t quite have the same invigorating sweep as some of Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations like “Hamlet” or “Henry V,” and it takes longer to get to the action than it should. It’s not quite as entertaining as “Iron Man,” but I would definitely rank it above “The Incredible Hulk.”

Regardless, there is still much to like about “Thor,” and Branagh has done the best job anyone could have in bringing this particular comic book hero to the big screen in such a respectful fashion. It also benefits from excellent casting, especially Hemsworth who looks like he came out of the womb looking like a warrior with a mighty hammer in his hand. This is one of the few times where “getting hammered” will sound more like a threat than an embarrassing state of drunkenness.

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