Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth in Thor: The Dark WorldTHOR: THE DARK WORLD

As the comic-book demigod Loki, the nefarious thorn-in-the-side to the Avengers and adopted brother to Thor, Tom Hiddleston, in the Marvel Studios movies, exudes a teasing, seductive malevolence. With his sharp, angular features and chilling gaze that suggests he might prefer eating you to killing you, he's a wonderfully unstable and hypnotic screen creation. Yet the brilliance in Hiddleston's interpretation is that his Loki is also so damned charming. The character may forever be planning destruction or plotting revenge - specifically against the golden-haired preferred son with the red cape and hammer - but Hiddleston's bearing is so smooth and relaxed, and his wide grin so infectious, that you almost can't help rooting for him, especially because he also, generally, gets his movies' best jokes.

Unfortunately, while Hiddleston is typically Marvel-ous in the new Thor: The Dark World, Loki is confined, Hannibal Lecter-like, to a prison cell for most of his screen time here, and the film itself feels similarly constricted. A considerable comedown from Kenneth Branagh's sprightly, inventive, moving Thor from 2011, director Alan Taylor's follow-up is something of a bummer for all sorts of reasons: the labyrinthine yet abjectly meaningless narrative involving the Nine Realms and the Dark Elves and the energy force Aether that perhaps only an astrophysicist (or a comic-obsessed 10-year-old) could wholly decipher; the depressing lack of visual panache, with the one legitimately great-looking sequence - a funeral on Thor's homeworld of Asgard - concluding nearly identically to the "I See the Light" finale in Disney's Tangled; Natalie Portman, returning as Earth scientist Jane Foster, and trying awfully (too) hard to give a playful performance when she's clearly not in a playful mood.

Yet its biggest flaw, to me, is its timidity. With more Thor and Avengers movies on the horizon, the filmmakers obviously aren't allowed to tinker with the leading character or his franchise in any truly significant ways, and so The Dark World - the effects for which are also a comedown from those in its precursor - boasts an inherently unsatisfying, going-through-the-motions vibe. A familiar figure (or maybe two) may be offed in the film, but otherwise it's just business as usual, with the brawny, likable Chris Hemsworth's title character given even fewer chances at comically puffed up braggadocio, and the fun supporting cast - including Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgård, Kat Dennings, Idris Elba, and Jaimie Alexander - not doing anything they didn't do to stronger effect two years ago. (I was, though, happy to see the much-missed Rene Russo get to kick some ass as Thor's mom, and the fast and funny Chris O'Dowd and Jonathan Howard are welcome new recruits to the series.) It's not a tough sequel to sit through, and the extended action climax does supply a few gratifying moments of Being John Malkovich-esque weirdness, with characters popping into and out of invisible wormholes with occasionally amusing results. (In the midst of battle, Thor finds himself forced to take the London tube to Greenwich.) Thor: The Dark World, however, is still only really alive whenever Loki is causing mischief, and one can only hope that Marvel takes note of Hiddleston's aggressive scene-stealing and acts accordingly by giving the guy a movie of his own. A comic-book blockbuster in which the hero is actually a villain? Now that'd be something.



Prior to one of the Thursday-evening preview screenings of the Putnam Museum's new National Geographic documentary Jerusalem, visiting writer/director Daniel Ferguson asked our assembled, sold-out audience how many of us had actually been to Jerusalem before, and a good portion of the crowd raised its hands. Ferguson replied by saying that, after we'd seen the film, he'd hope that we'd all raise our hands, and his confidence proved justified: This visually spectacular, 45-minute edu-tainment on Israel's "cradle of civilization" is really quite a glorious piece of work.

Narrated, with a gravitas that never slides into portentousness, by the currently omnipresent Benedict Cumberbatch, Jerusalem is filled with intelligent, insightful detail on the region's ancient history, even if, as Ferguson stated at a press conference, he consciously avoided diving into controversial issues of geopolitics and religion - subjects that could never be adequately analyzed given his format's demanded, three-quarter-hour running length. (The doc's potentially divisive issues are quickly breezed past with the Cumberbatch line "Jews, Christians, and Muslims have often found themselves in conflict," which has to rank as one of the year's bigger cinematic understatements.) But as a means of generating discussion among interfaith viewers, and perhaps especially as an introduction to the city for young audiences, Ferguson's work might prove unmissable. A trio of lovely, well-spoken teenage girls - the Jewish Revital Zacherie, the Christian Nadia Tadros, and the Muslim Farah Ammouri - speak on Jerusalem's deep beauty and its culturally invaluable role in their lives with personal candor and visible, endearing delight; they're exceptional big-screen tour guides. And with his camera in almost constant motion, as though restless to keep exploring this fascinating new world, cinematographer Reed Smoot delivers one visual stunner after another, particularly the overhead shots of the Dome of the Rock and Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. At one point in Jerusalem, the city is described as "the closest place on Earth to God." After seeing the Putnam's latest, good luck arguing with that.


Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams in About TimeABOUT TIME

A question for fellow viewers of writer/director Richard Curtis' unfortunate time-travel romance About Time: Which did you find more offensive - the achingly twee, stupefying badness of the movie itself, or the hideous hairdo that poor Rachel McAdams is forced to sport in it? An insufferable stop-and-smell-the-roses outing in which a stammering British dweeb (Domhnall Gleeson) uses his magical powers of scooting backward in time to finally land, and keep, a girlfriend - as opposed to, you know, maybe winning the lottery or trying to make the world a better place or something - this latest effort by Love, Actually's increasingly maudlin Curtis is like Groundhog Day without any of the wit, laughs, charm, or cleverness.

The logistics of the film's time-travel element are left maddeningly unexplored. (When our hero revisits a New Year's Eve party and kisses the girl he squeamishly avoided earlier, does her life also get altered?) Characters keep finding Gleeson's serial traveler adorable - even to the point of giving their home addresses within seconds of meeting him - but don't seem to notice that he's coming off like a dangerously intrusive, if very nice, psychopath. Ridiculously contrived and phony scenes keep getting underscored to weepy acoustic-pop numbers, as though they're trying to lend emotional credibility to routines that play as nothing but banal farce. (Arvo Pärt's "Spiegel im Spiegel," perhaps the most hauntingly melancholy composition of all time, also gets trotted out way past the point of propriety.) And while Bill Nighy, Lindsay Duncan, and Lydia Wilson, astonishingly, all find ways to amuse themselves, there's absolutely nothing amusing about watching the wretchedly coiffed Rachel McAdams toil her way through the proceedings as the object of Gleeson's affections. Playing the sort of vacant-ingénue role that the performer seems inordinately fond of yet should have graduated from at least a decade ago, and with all of her character's life choices effectively decided for her by her time-jumping beau, the usually infallible McAdams is saddled with insulting, unplayable material, and has never looked like she was having less fun on-screen than she is here. I'd argue that I had an even worse time at About Time than she did, but then again, my crappy haircuts aren't being seen by nearly as many people.


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