On DVD/Blu-ray: "Thor" and "Meek's Cutoff"

Thor (2011) 
115 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -

Where you stand with the Marvel Universe and Norse mythology will determine the success of "Thor," something of a two-hour teaser for the mega movie "The Avengers." It's out of the closet that the upcoming superhero mash-up will assemble Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, and Thor, who now gets his own origin story. Under the umbrella of other Marvel superhero efforts, "Thor" doesn't rise above "Spider-Man," "Hulk," or "Iron Man," even with his mighty hammer, but it's still fairly fun. 

In the Puente Antiguo, New Mexico desert, astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her mentor professor (Stellan Skarsgård), and college friend (Kat Dennings) are studying strange weather in the night sky when a blustery hunk drops out of a cloudy wormhole and is hit by their van. "Where did he come from?" inquires Jane. Here's the story to "Thor's Day" (not Thursday): Norway, 965 A.D. The arrogant God of Thunder, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), is exiled from the mythical realm of Asgard by his angry father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), for waging a war with the Jotunheim sphere's monstrous Frost Giants and proving himself an unworthy prince. So when Thor and his hammer are banished onto our planet, just not together, Jane must help the ripped foreigner find his secret weapon and get back to Asgard. Meanwhile, the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization, led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), steals Jane's equipment and research to investigate a "security threat." Also, back on the Asgard homefront, Odin knocks on death's door and Thor's jealous brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), takes the thrown. 

For a goofy, larger-than-life Marvel Comics movie, "Thor" mostly avoids derisive snickering but it is gloriously, unabashedly ridiculous. All of this is directed by Kenneth Branagh (yes, there's only one Kenneth Branagh), who uses his Shakespeare-adapting credentials to take the Asgard section quite seriously, almost to painfully earnest degrees, but respects the 1962 Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comic and its fanboys. Besides a little expository voiceover by Hopkins early on, Branagh just drops us in on the goings-on without hammering a lot of mythology into our heads. Once Thor lands on Earth, the tone becomes intentionally funny, and the movie becomes an entertaining blend of hammer-time action and fish-out-of-water humor. 

Though Thor isn't going down as the most interesting hero of all time, Hemsworth handles the role with aplomb. With the appropriately god-like physique and blonde tresses, the Aussie stud manages some mighty charisma and comic timing to go with the brawn, and he plausibly transforms the hothead into a humble gallant. Proving how loose and fun she can be for the third time this year, Portman is charming as Jane, but her budding romance with Thor is too undercooked to really matter. Dennings walks away with most of the wisecracks as smart-alecky comic relief Darcy. Hopkins still has enough ham left in him, wearing a metal eye patch as wise King Odin. Hiddleston surprisingly underplays the role of Loki, who questions his bloodline. Thor's warrior gang, Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanoby Asano), Fandral (Josh Dallas), and Sif (Jaimie Alexander), are a cool bunch, especially during a battle against a giant, Gort-like robot in New Mexico, but deserved more attention. Unfortunately, Rene Russo (back on the screen six years later after the "Yours, Mine & Ours" remake) is given about five lines and fades into the scenery as Thor's royal mother Frigga. 

"Thor" looks great, Branagh bringing style with his canted camera angles and a distinction between both worlds in the production design. The Kingdom of Asgard looks like a more computer-generated, futuristic Rivendell from the "Lord of the Rings" with a rainbow bridge, but its artifice reflects the comic book's roots. As for the ultra-small southwestern town, it looks like a set, but that's part of its charm. Shout-outs to other Marvel characters, an eyeblink-long cameo by Hawkeye (an uncredited Jeremy Renner), and a post-credits teaser (connective tissue to "The Avengers") are hidden Easter eggs for the squealing Comic-Con crowd. It's not one of the greats, but "Thor" is solid as a hammer.

Meek's Cutoff (2011)
104 min., rated PG.
Grade: C

Oftentimes, a film comes along that might've worked better in a documentary format or as a short film rather than a feature. That's the case with "Meek's Cutoff," a neo-Western whose drama is so spare that the film fails to make a more lasting impression. Independent filmmaker Kelly Reichardt tries to rekindle the minimalist approach that of her previous slice-of-life effort, the beautifully told, equally pared-down "Wendy and Lucy." If the viewer is in no rush for anything to happen, "Meek's Cutoff" promises an arid, tedious journey to nowhere. 

Set on the Oregon Trail, circa 1845, a three-wagon train of pioneer settlers make their way across the perilous trail with their food and water supply becoming scarce. Frontiersman Stephen Meek (a grizzled, unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood) is the hired trailblazer to guide the families—Emily and Soloman Tetherow (Michelle Williams, Will Patton), Millie and Thomas Gately (Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano), and Glory and William White (Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff) with their son Jimmy (Tommy Nelson)—through a cutoff over the Cascade Mountains in search of water. Meek is a braggart who talks big game and spins a good 'ol yarn, but he's an unreliable leader as their two-week journey prolongs itself to five weeks. When a lone Native American (Rod Rondeaux) crosses their path, Meek holds him captive to lead them to water. The wives stand back as the husbands make the decisions, but Emily has enough of a backbone to give their Indian prisoner some food and water, mend his mocassin, and even stand up to Meek. 

Reichardt, her loyal writer Jon Raymond, and debuting cinematographer Christopher Blauvet focus on the emigrants' hardships and boredom, and the harshness of the terrain, within an allegorical subtext about xenophobia and gender roles. Contrary to most American Westerns, "Meek's Cutoff" is devoid of artifice or much action, but deliberately paced and meditative in its quiet stillness. Sometimes, all that's heard is a squeak of the wagon wheels and the whoosh of the wind. Williams ("Wendy and Lucy"), in a pioneer calico dress, anchors the film in her pre-feminist role with plain-spoken persuasion. She becomes the only willing person in the wagon train to question Meek, with a little rifle know-how no less. The actors all do yeoman's work, often directed to just "be," doing a lot of walking and their day-to-day chores in real time. Reichardt keeps her subjects at a distance for long takes in medium and establishing shots. Blauvet's exquisitely serene cinematography and Reichardt's choice to shoot in a boxy 1:33:1 aspect ratio underscore the vast desolation of the landscape. 

With all that noble authenticity found in its vivid observations, it's a shame the screenplay's characters and modicum of narrative conflict are treated as a means to an end. Sure, "Meek's Cutoff" captures how it really must have been back then, but the mundane monotony becomes, well, monotonous and it all lacks a finite destination. For all we know, the journey hasn't even ended yet. Only the most patient cinephiles will admire the film's unfussy stretches without growing restless, but there's only so much to ponder over watching grass grow.