The fourth film in the first phase of the MCU is Thor (2011), directed by Kenneth Branagh. At first glance, it seems strange to see a great Shakespeare actor and director attached to a superhero film, but Branagh has been a enthusiastic Thor fan since childhood. His zeal certainly shows in the character development in the film. Branagh also saw a lot of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” in Thor, which he was able to utilize to fully develop and elevate the characters and world of Asgard.

How do you even approach a film about comic book superhero-gods based on Norse mythology and make it successful? Branagh certainly had a lot to do with it. He infused the film with full-fledged characters. Chris Hemsworth also had a lot to do with it. He creates a character that has all of the regality, strength, and assurance of a god while also blending in charisma and humor. He’s completely believable as a force for good, passionate in keeping the realm safe, who rallies his warrior friends behind him to do what must be done. He’s also incredibly endearing when he’s ousted from Asgard and lives on Earth as a mortal, interacting with human folk and learning their ways and customs. Branagh and Hemsworth brought life and empathy to the character, whose unexpected behavior still keeps audiences laughing in all his future films.

The rest of the cast is fantastic. A great protagonist flourishes against an equally great villain, and Thor’s “brother” Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is one of the best MCU villains out there — so good that he comes back as the villain for The Avengers. What makes Loki’s villainy so interesting is that he is learning about and dealing with the truth of his childhood. He feels betrayed by his family yet close to them. He feels spurned to embrace the malicious instincts he feels, yet he can be good. He is very much a conflicted villain, which sometimes is even more interesting than a conflicted hero. He isn’t a purely wicked character; he spends the film fighting it, exploring it, coping with it. Hiddleston’s performance is absolutely finessed and breathtaking. He can interact with Thor as a brother and, just as naturally, challenge him as an enemy. Odin (Anthony Hopkins), their father, is an equally strong force, overseeing both of their shenanigans and teaching them important lessons. Both Hopkins and Hiddleston put on performances that steal the show, with their emotional depth and on-screen presence.

Jane (Natalie Portman) is a scientist, incredibly smart and gutsy, but a little tangential to the scientific community. She pursues science that fascinates her, but her peers do not appear to support her ideas. She is probably the opposite kind of personality that Thor would ever meet in a woman in Asgard. She’s strong, smart, and wild, which really piques his interest. S.H.I.E.L.D makes another appearance to push forward to The Avengers. Here, they mostly are just trying to understand the bridge between Earth and Asgard so that they can establish a communication with the gods. Clark Gregg makes another appearance as Agent Phil Coulson who mostly irritates Jane.

Overall, Thor is a fantastic edition to the MCU, even more brilliant after the lackluster chapter of Iron Man 2. Characterizations were polished, performances were excellent, and direction was masterful. Patrick Doyle lends a majestic score with themes that represent the rugged power of Mjölnir and the wonder of Asgard. Thor flourishes because Branagh sought out to create characters not shells. What sets Thor apart from the previous MCU films and many that came after is the decision to humanize the villain. Villains that the audience can commiserate with are scarier, because it forces everyone to recognize the villainy inside us all.

Something Borrowed

Something Borrowed (2011) is a romantic-comedy adaptation of the novel of the same name by Emily Griffin. Directed by Luke Greenfield, this movie tells the story of Rachel (Ginnifer Goodwin), a single and introverted lawyer, who finds herself caught up in a love triangle with Dex (Colin Eggelsfield), her friend from law school, and her best friend, Darcy (Kate Hudson).

The book is widely popular, an international bestseller, but the movie was a flop. What happened?

Well, the casting is its biggest weakness. Hudson is, as always, stunning and impeccably resonant with her characters. She plays Darcy, the toxic best friend to the too sweet Rachel. She’s sexy and sociable, the life of the party. Usually the protagonist, we see a little more acid in Hudson’s performance in Something Borrowed, as she constantly makes situations all about her — like when she toasts her best friend on her 30th birthday but really only talks about her upcoming wedding. As far as casting goes, she’s the ace in the hole; she steals the show as she always does with her big personality and talent. Goodwin is a beautiful woman, with a sweet smile, but Goodwin doesn’t really gel with Rachel. Rachel is a shy, introverted woman who does not really go for anything. She worked hard in law school, sure, but in her life outside academics and work, she’s a shadow in the corner. She fell in love with Dex in law school and they had undeniable chemistry, but she just let him go. Her best friend is toxic, always stealing the spotlight, and she just lets her do it. Goodwin doesn’t delve into that kind of self-conscious headspace for this role. If anything, she’s more empty-headed than she is struggling with her outgoing setbacks. A girl like Rachel has a lot going on in her mind, even if she doesn’t speak those thoughts, and many times it seemed like Goodwin’s Rachel was completely vacuous underneath her facial expressions. Hers, however, was not the weak link in the casting chain.

Eggelsfield is cast as the “perfect man”, the sweet and sensitive lawyer who you hope won’t wait too late to realize that Rachel is the one for him (since readers identify themselves with the ordinary Rachel). It’s always tough to rise up to the role of “perfect man”, and Eggelsfield unfortunately falls quite far. Phsyically, he’s an incredibly attractive man, who definitely looks the part of a suave and charming lawyer. That is as far as his embodiment of the character goes, though. As said with some friends over brunch, Eggelsfield is a beautiful shell, magnifying the problems already outlined with Goodwin’s performance. His is a character who is in love with Rachel, the sweet and caring friend of his past, who is also somewhat in love with Darcy, the exciting yet harmful woman he’s engaged with, who is the son of a sick mother who is basically staying alive just to see him married, and also the son of the father who seemingly would rather die than face any scandal in his upscale family. There are a lot of emotions going on with Dex, ranging from personal desires, past regrets, future anxieties, but none of that shows up in his face or acting. His acting and charisma are pretty much sitting in the middle of the emotional spectrum, blissfully unaware in the neutral mundanity of human emotion. This problem is exacerbated by John Krasinski’s performance of Rachel’s best friend, Ethan. Krasinski is nothing if not charming, and Ethan exudes charm. He’s the sharp-minded and ever-caring best friend who (unlike in the book) confesses his feelings for Rachel. How is an audience supposed to understand or relate to Rachel who stoically dismisses his feelings for the dispassionate Dex? In this case, the casting of Krasinski was negative because he was too charming and overshadowed the “perfect man”.

The main cast was supported by poorly written characters, Marcus and Claire, Steve Howey and Ashley Williams respectively. Their characters are extremely unappealing characters who irritate more than positively enhance. Besides the unsuccessful casting, the story is not particularly imaginative or original, leaving a film anticipating a sequel without any future.

Even with all these cons, I still enjoyed the film (mostly thanks to Kate Hudson). It’s a nice film to watch with a bestie during a movie/pizza night, precisely the way I watched it. So in that context, Something Borrowed works quite well!

X-Men: First Class

Quote of the movie: “Mutant and proud!”

X-Men: First Class (2011) is a reboot of the X-Men franchise, directed by Matthew Vaughan. The film chronicles the lives of Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Both are young boys who have a gift, but they have discovered and developed them in very different ways. Charles, with the subtle gift of telepathy, grew up in a secure household, very open to learning and understanding his ability. Eric, at a German concentration camp during WWII, discovers his ability trying to save his parents, and it’s only by the murder of his mother when he can begin to understand how to tap into his power. From the very get-go, Charles has a safe and peaceful association with his ability — and mutants in general. Eric, on the other hand, associates his gift with anger and pain — and with the concept of power.

To further establish Charles’ open-mindedness, he catches “his mother” in his kitchen once. She looks and sounds like his mother, but she doesn’t act anything like her. Attempting to steal some food, Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) transforms from Charles’ mother to her real self: a scaly blue creature with red hair. Charles invites her to his home, promising her companionship and food. While this movie primarily focuses on Charles and Eric, Raven is a very important third character. Charles doesn’t mind her appearance, but he encourages her to hide her real self from society. It’s this society conformity that Raven struggles with throughout the entire movie. She wants to be “beautiful”, but human society would never accept her as such. She takes on a beautiful guise, but that’s not *really* her. It’s not until Eric works together with Charles and Raven where she finally feels some acceptance from another person; he encourages her to be her true self.

Whether or not this follows X-Men comic lore, I really enjoyed the backstory in this movie. From my vague memory of X-Men cartoons, I knew that Professor X and the X-Men constantly battle against Magneto and his group of mutants. I’m sure it had been implied that they were friends at some point, and I really enjoyed seeing their friendship in this movie. Charles, through his gift of telepathy, can truly understand the experiences and feelings of anybody he reads, which makes his guidance and concern extremely sincere. He really wants to find the best inside of everyone.

Eric has a fervent hatred towards Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the man who killed his mother. While working with Charles, he internally always wanted to get revenge against Shaw. When the moment finally comes, he shuts out Charles, who would convince him to act otherwise. He murders Shaw and he exhibits his true feelings about mutants and humans — mutants are the better beings and humans must be destroyed, or else they will destroy the mutants. Charles doesn’t feel that way at all; he truly believes that there can be coexistence. Charles and Eric fight and Eric accidentally deflects a bullet into Charles’ spine, causing his paralysis. Eric truly cares for him, but, realizing their differences, he leaves. Before he leaves, he calls for the other mutants to join him. Raven joins him. She also cares for Charles — they have an almost brother/sister bond — but he understands that she needs to follow Eric.  It’s an interesting take on back history that evolved from friendship and brotherhood into animosity and hostility.

The film flaunts a mantra similar to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” — promoting an attitude of self-acceptance. The film’s use of “Mutant and proud” makes the message a little too blunt, but the message is still appreciated. The message even shines light on Charles’ character. As a supporter of mutant-kind, he tries to keep mutant powers discreet — a reality that is quite convenient for him since his ability is undetectable. It shows two sides of his character: one of which is incredibly caring and helpful to the cause while the other promotes a sense of shame.

The reboot is a great success, with a great script and cast. The sequel is set to be released on May 23, 2014, bridging together the new and old cast.

Our Idiot Brother

On the eve of Chiberia, my roommate and I ordered in some Chinese food and cozied in with a movie night. We keep making the “mistake” of browsing Netflix’s “Comedy” category for a light-hearted comedy. I say mistake only because we keep finding movies that are actually “dramedies”, with an unexpectedly poignant message that we are not mentally prepared for. We scrolled through some titles and picked Our Idiot Brother. It wasn’t a “mistake” to watch it — since it was a nice movie — but it wasn’t what we were looking for.

Our Idiot Brother (2011), directed by Jesse Peretz, is about Ned (Paul Rudd), an unaware but kind and sweet man, who befalls adversity, both in his life and the lives of his sisters. He means no ill will on anybody, but he lacks common sense and foresight to understand the consequences of his action. Basically, this film is is about the bond between Ned and his sisters and how it grows stronger throughout the movie. Even more simply, it’s the story about how Ned is reunited with his dog. At its most simple, it’s the story of how Ned finds love — the most weak part of the film. After defining complex relationships between Ned and his siblings, his siblings and their partners, the conclusion of the film seems too cliché and too unimaginative. The rest of the film was clever and interesting, and this ending is a bad aftertaste after an intriguing meal.

Paul Rudd plays Ned very well, exuding charm and charisma. He’s charming in every way, including his foolish antics. He ends up “ruining” the lives of all three of his sisters: Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), Liz (Emily Mortimer), and Natalie (Zooey Deschanel). His honesty unravels Liz’s marriage, stifles Miranda’s article at work, and destroys Natalie’s partnership with Cindy (Rashida Jones). The three sisters ultimately gang up on Ned and his idiocy, but the beauty of this film is that they all have made bad decisions that have led to the rocky points in their relationships. It was merely Ned’s light push that brought all their insecurities and secrets to light. Through these complex relationships, the film cleverly shines the “foolish” light on the three sisters — who are normal members of society, seemingly put-together, with common sense and good judgement — through Ned’s exaggerated stupidity. 

Even with a small budget, this film excels, particularly in make-up and costume design. This film manages to make beautiful women like Rashida Jones and Emily Mortimer very plain and even unattractive. Playing down attractiveness is a huge plus in this film; it makes it feel more real. It’s more relatable. It also works on Paul Rudd, with that long, flowing hair.

Even though it wasn’t what we were looking for, Our Idiot Brother entertained us. The cast is incredible, also featuring Adam Scott. For an independent film, the ending seems a little too passive and flat. It’s what you expect from a big-budget rom-com. One can say that it’s fitting with Ned’s character, as he’s an idealist — and something I appreciate as a hopeless romantic — but it casts too much attention on itself compared to the tone of the rest of the film. While it may have been a “mistake”, it was a happy accident to stumble on to Our Idiot Brother