Review: THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

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More like an unexpected delight! I was wondering how – and why – the prequel to THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy was going to be reasonably divided into two, and then later into three, movies. The book itself is only about 1/3rd as long as any one of the component volumes of the later work, and they were exhaustively treated by Peter Jackson in his film versions. So, yeah … I went in dreading that padding had been added for padding’s sake, to ensure the next three Decembers were good paydays for the producers, not just this one.
I am happy to say my fears were unfounded. Just as in the LOTR films, certain concessions have been made in order to boost the hell out of the box office takings, but the story itself neither suffers or drags because of it. If you want to avoid SPOILERS (but lets face it, we all know – Bilbo finds the Precious) stop reading here and go spend your money on a ticket. Otherwise, press on….

The film opens, appropriately but confusingly, about half an hour before the first “hobbit” scene in THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, just before Gandalf’s arrival for Bilbo’s big party. This establishes the framing device of Bilbo writing his memoirs for Frodo to complete at the end of the final LOTR film, THE RETURN OF THE KING. We then follow old Bilbo’s memory back sixty years, to a time when he was a respectable hobbit of middle years with no interest in doing anything more exciting than wishing strangers a hearty “Good morning!” as they pass his door. Unfortunately for Bilbo’s equanimity, but fortunately for everybody else (including the Dwarves, the rest of Middle-Earth, the genre of heroic fantasy & the heirs of J.R.R. Tolkien) one such stranger is the wandering wizard Gandalf the Grey. He orchestrates a meeting between Bilbo & a party of Dwarvish adventurers who are hoping to kill the dragon Smaug and retake their ancestral homeland, and Bilbo is swept up into their party quite in spite of his own misgivings, in the role of ‘professional burglar’ no less.
These opening scenes establish a tone for the movie – the Dwarves are somewhat comical but can be threatening; Bilbo is quite the opposite of any sort of adventurer, almost effete in his mild hedonism; Gandalf is mysterious and manipulative – but overarching everything is a sense of fun, of being swept of one’s feet into something quite possibly regrettable but most probably wonderful. Of course, that’s entirely the tone in which Tolkien wrote his little novella nearly 80 years ago and for Jackson and scriptwriters Fran Walsh, Guillermo del Toro & Phillipa Jackson to capture that spirit so perfectly is a remarkable achievement, given the opportunity to let so many other things (the special effects, or the melodrama, or the action, or the continuity with the LOTR films) dominate proceedings.
The vast majority of the film is one long chase scene. If you thought Frodo and co had a time of it in the wilderness in FELLOWSHIP, then you’ll be aghast at what Bilbo & his mates are subjected to – nearly cooked & eaten by trolls, chased by warg-riding orcs (and incidentally, these wargs look infinitillion times better than the hyena-hybrids in the LOTR), caught in the middle of a fight between mountain giants, captured by goblins & rescued from a burning forest by giant eagles. A few of the chase scenes look as though they are specifically written as playable missions in the inevitable video game, but that’s all part of the modern adventure movie business, I guess. Bilbo gets separated from the Dwarves for a spell, during which he encounters Gollum and takes possession of the One Ring. The movie ends with Our Heroes taking a well-deserved breather and catching sight (in the far distance) of their destination – The Lonely Mountain, Erebor.
As mentioned above, the writers have taken a few minor liberties with the source material – I don’t recall Bilbo crash-tackling any Orcs in the book, let alone Azog (who is dead in the book by the time the story takes place, but takes the place of the Orc leader Bolg in the film, with a much enlarged role); the film features in great detail some things touched on towards the end of the book by Gandalf which later tie into backstory for THE LORD OF THE RINGS, such as the presence of the Necromancer in Dol Goldur & the ‘White Council’ of himself, Elrond, Galadriel & Saruman; and plenty of material on Dwarven history is lifted from the very voluminous Appendices to LOTR. Also appearing in a far greater role than expected is Radagast the Brown Wizard, who is only very briefly mentioned in the FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING and not at all in THE HOBBIT book. (Sylvester McCoy’s portrayal reminded me of nothing less than Catweazle playing Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit). However, I found all inclusions to be quite valid and much more true to the source than the (still tiresome after all these years) expansion of Arwen’s role in the LOTR films.
The cast are uniformly terrific, with standouts by Martin Freeman (maybe his Arthur Dent in THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY turned out to be more or less a rehearsal for his Bilbo Baggins here) & of course Sir Ian McKellen, who grunts and gapes his way though this movie as effortlessly as he did the earlier three times he played the part of Gandalf. Barry Humphries does a fine ham turn as The Great Goblin, complete with a goiter that George Lucas would be proud to own. Andy Serkis’ Gollum is a tad more predatory than I recall from the other films, which could be due to script, actor or a combination of both. Richard Armitage is heroically fatalistic in the best traditions of Northern European folklore in the role of Thorin, leader of the Dwarves – but if I have one gripe it’s that while the rest of the Dwarves are elaborately made up, with outrageous beards and prosthetic noses and blocky physiques, Thorin simply looks like a short guy with a grim face. Perhaps Jackson wanted to avoid any chance of the noble Thorin being perceived as comic relief, I don’t know, but it irked me a little.
The sum total of the parts is a wonderful movie, with the production values and attention to detail that made THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy such a joy to watch.  If you kept reading after the spoiler warning (and clearly, you did), well now its time for you do what I said back there – go spend your money and enjoy THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY.

Cheers,
Darryn

Part two of the trilogy (THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG) is due for release Christmas 2013, with the concluding chapter (THE HOBBIT: THERE AND BACK AGAIN) due for release Christmas 2014.

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Review: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

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THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Such a clumsy title, and such an implicit promise. Unfortunately, the movie lives up to the clumsy and fails in the promise. Now, don’t get me wrong. This is no stinker – it’s not SUPERMAN RETURNS or GHOST RIDER or CONSTANTINE or BATMAN FOREVER or HULK bad. Its a well made film, to be sure; very technically proficient and visually satisfying. It offers a rich, layered story and some outstanding performances from the cast. There are gasp moments and wow moments and some really great stuff that ties this movie to Christopher Nolan’s other two Batman films (BATMAN BEGINS & THE DARK KNIGHT, in case you just escaped from a North Korean gulag). But at the end of the movie, I left the theatre feeling that yet another comic-book movie franchise has fallen at the hurdle of the second sequel, after the first sequel kicked arse.

There’s some spoilers below, you have been warned.

Before I go any further, let me clarify my personal position on the Nolan-Bale Batman films. They are comic-book adaptations, but they are not ‘superhero’ films in the traditional sense. You don’t wanna be taking your eight your old nephew to see this the way you took him to THE AVENGERS or SPIDER-MAN. This Batman is a fully realised human being, with deep psychological issues. This Gotham is in the real world. The bad guys are not freaky super-powered individuals in garish capes with melodramatic soliloquies; they are damaged, deranged and dangerous reflections of our inner demons. In BATMAN BEGINS, the Scarecrow reminds us what it is to fear; in THE DARK KNIGHT, the Joker shows us why we value control even as we secretly crave the freedom of anarchy; in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, Bane draws us a picture of how thinly the veneer of civilisation is brushed upon us. These are crime dramas, edge of your seat thrillers and studies of the darker places of the mind; they are not ‘superhero’ films. I think THE DARK KNIGHT may just be the greatest crime movie ever made, and I think this version of Batman is easily the most plausible, the most gripping and the ‘defining’ one. So, keep all that in mind as I tell you why I was disappointed with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, and also what was great about it.

First, to the story, which is based in part on three classic Batman storylines from the comics – “Knightfall”, in which Batman battles and is defeated by Bane; “No Man’s Land”, in which Gotham finds itself cut off from civilisation; and “The Dark Knight Returns”, which features a mostly retired, older Batman resuming his career in his city’s hour of need. The movie draws as much as it needs to from these disparate sources without relying too heavily on them, and it would be silly to focus on the differences between the comics and the movies, because a) the latter are not the former and b) no disservice is done by the adaptation. In a nutshell, eight years after the events of THE DARK KNIGHT, Batman has hung up his cowl and Bruce Wayne is living as a recluse, with a limp and no real connection to the outside world. Bruce is still grieving the death of Rachel, while Gotham has gone onward and upward in honour of its lost ‘hero’ Harvey Dent. Commisioner Gordon is conflicted between satisfaction with the fact that Gotham is virtually crime free, and loathing of the fact that this success has come at the cost of the truth about Dent & Batman. Wayne Industries is on the brink of financial collapse, due to a failed investment in hi-tech nuclear fusion energy. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world, the masked terrorist Bane fakes the death of a scientist. PROBLEM – Bane’s mask. Its unnecessary, impractical looking and even with the excellent sound editing done in post-production, his dialogue is sometimes unclear. Once the decision was made to vary the appearance of Bane from his pictorial roots, no mask was necessary at all – although thematically it connects him with the other protagonists in the series – Batman, R’as al Ghul, Scarecrow, Joker & Two-Face are all hidden behind some kind of facade, one way or another.  The point is, while the mask makes Bane look like a cross between Hannibal Lecter and Humungous of the Wasteland from MAD MAX II, its not done as well as it could have been. Late in the film we learn that due to earlier injuries, Bane uses the mask to provide a steady stream of anaesthestics, but this is neither plausible nor consistent with the depiction of Bane throughout the film as an uncompromising, hardened figure who believes that the only worthwhile advancement comes through suffering.
We are introduced to Selina, a professional thief who infiltrates Wayne Manor in order to steal copies of Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints, and gets away with it because Bruce is a long way from the top of his game these days.  We meet Miranda Tate, socialite and social crusader, a willing ally of Wayne should he just turn to her. And on the streets of Gotham we find honest working cop John Blake, who is aghast when he learns that the orphanage he grew up in has lost its funding due to the downturn in the Wayne fortunes. He’s investigating mysterious deaths occuring in the sewers of Gotham, and not getting on with Assistant Commissioner Foley. These threads set up the rest of the story – investigating Selina brings Bruce out if his shell; the deaths in the sewers lead the cops to Bane’s hidden lair; the stolen fingerprints are used to steal control of Wayne Industries from Bruce and place them in the hands of Daggett, a shady member of the board who we soon learn has links to Bane, who wants to control the aforementioned abandoned energy project because it can be made into a bomb. PROBLEM – even on his worst day, with Bruce totally disinterested in running Wayne Industries, he would not leave himself vulnerable to Daggett. We saw what happened to Mr Earle in BATMAN BEGINS, and we saw the very sharp Lucius Fox placed back in control as Wayne’s watchdog. We saw how Fox and Wayne deal with dodgy associates in THE DARK KNIGHT, when they kick the Chinese embezzler Lau to the curb. Daggett would never be on the Wayne board in the first place, let alone be in a position to win control. Luckily, after he does somehow use Wayne’s fallen cred to do just that, the lovely Miranda Tate comes to the rescue, by means unclear but which somehow revolve around her being let in on the secret energy project but not being allowed to tell anyone. She becomes the new CEO of Wayne Industries. PROBLEM – the secret energy project that could become a bomb is still viable and still vulnerable, and nobody knows about it except Fox, Wayne … and somehow Bane, who grew up in a brutal prison and presumably has never been to America before.
Anyway, long story short, we learn that Bruce hasn’t been to see a doctor in eight years. He visits one on the pretext that he wants a clearance to indulge in exterme sports, and we learn that his body is in very poor repair, literally from head to toe. Of course Bruce has no interest in extreme sports and this is just a very hamfisted way of letting us know how far the road Bruce needs to travel really is. So, he gets home, straps on a knee brace and after about 6 seconds he no longer has any medical issues at all. Did I say clumsy earlier? This is one example of what I meant.
About now, Alfred really comes to the fore. Alfred, the trusty retainer who raised the orphaned Bruce as a surrogate father. Alfred, the loyal servant who safe guarded Bruce’s interests whil he went missing for seven years. Alfred, the acerbic confidante who helped design and outfit Batman. Alfred, the truest friend and only constant in Bruce’s life. Alfred, the guy who has watched Bruce withering away in mourning for eight years without complaint, but now up and quits as soon as Bruce starts to show an interest in the world again. Really? Not only is this a totally implausible turnabout for the character, it doesn’t even add story value. It means nothing. It achieves nothing. If removed, this subplot would have made no difference. It sets up a mirror scene at the end of the film, as Alfred talks about how his fondest wish would be for Bruce to run away from the world. find a girl and settle down in anonymity, but even that could have been managed without this mawkish and uncharacteristic insertion.
Bruce, for some reason, feels the only person he can really trust is Selina the thief, based on a careful study of her nose at a costume ball and not much else. Again, this is totally out of character for not only the Bruce Wayne we have seen in the last two movies, but the Bruce Wayne we’ve now seen as a hermit, cut off from all human contact and grieving his lost love for eight years, the Bruce Wayne who’s just seen his surrogate father and only real friend turn and walk away in his hour of need. Clumsy storytelling, and only done to get us to the scene where Bane and Batman confront each other for the first time. We learn a little of Bane’s history, and that he sees himself as the heir of R’as al Ghul from BATMAN BEGINS, the man who wanted to burn that decadent old whore of a city Gotham to the ground. Bane kicks the crappers out of Bruce, and ships him off with a broken back to that same prison in a far distant third world country where Bane himself was born and raised. Bane explains that Bruce will live there and watch the news reports of Gotham destroying itself. Bane goes back, blows up half of Gotham and traps the police force underground (instead of killing them outright) – all except for Gordon (who’s currently in hospital), Blake (who’s savvy enough to stay out of traps) and Foley (who just goes AWOL). Bane takes over the city, and tells the world that any attempt to interfere will trigger the energy bomb and kill the entire population.
Back at the prison, Bruce decides he’s gonna get better and get out. The two oldest prisoners in the joint, the ones who’ve been in this hell-on-earth longer than anyone, the ones who are most intimately familiar with the cruel and brutal Bane who now apparently owns the place, decide to help him, first by curing his broken back and then by inspiring him to train even harder to become only the second person to escape the place – the implication being that Bane did it, and only by matching this feat will Bruce show himself worthy of taking on Bane again.
In Gotham, weeks and months pass and winter sets in. The city lives in a state analogous to the terror of the French Revolution, with citizen courts declaring arbitrary sentences on ‘enemies of the people’. Bane has revealed the truth about Harvey Dent and exposed all of Gotham’s peace and prosperity as being built on a lie. The dumb people are happy, the rich people are scared, the key people – Selina, Miranda, Lucius, Blake & Gordon are able to stay out of harm’s way and even represent some sort of feeble resistance movement. We learn that that energy bomb is gonna go off no matter what happens. Happily, the 3000 police officers trapped underground are well fed and in great shape, apparently with Bane’s blessing. PROBLEM – why would he allow this? If he really wanted to terrorise the people of Gotham, he’d either kill the cops outright, or starve them into cannibalism and then turn them loose on the citizenry. Let me tell you, the Joker this guy ain’t.
Time marches on, and there’s about 24 hours left til the bomb goes off. Bruce finally escapes the prison, and as you’d expect when you find yourself friendless, broke and on the run in a distant foreign land controlled by terrorists, he has no problem getting back to Gotham, into costume and fully equipped with about twelve hours to spare before the bomb times out. He hooks up with Selina again, still willing to trust her and not at all curious why she is now running around desolate Gotham wearing a domino mask, when she used to run around robbing prosperous Gotham without one. He gives her the Batbike, which is carrying enough armament to blow away several tanks as well as bring down a wall of rubble and wrecked cars while he takes to the air in the Batcopter, which was conveniently left on the roof under a camo net for five months and is still there in perfect working order. Lucius tries to disarm the bomb one way, Gordon tries another way, Blake rallies the resistance and Batman frees the trapped cops, who are in perfect fighting trim. Even Foley comes back to the fray, leading the police against Bane’s troops in a climactic battle. Bane and Batman fight, and in a turnaround of Rockyesque moment, the Dark Knight overcomes his adversary… only to be betrayed at the last minute by Miranda, who it turns out is really Talia, R’as al Ghul’s daughter. SHE was the one who escaped from the prison, not Bane. He is and always has been her loyal servant and pawn, and together they are sworn to finish the work started by R’as. While she skips off to set the bomb off (we’re down to about 10 minutes now), Bane is left to finally kill Batman … until Selina comes good on that trust Bruce showed her, and saves his life. Everyone works like crazy to disarm the bomb, but the only way to be rid of it is for Batman to fly it out to sea, sacrificing his own life to save the city he loves. Before he goes, Gordon learns that Batman is really Bruce, joining Miranda, Bane, Blake, Alfred & Lucius as co-sharer of the worst kept secret identity in recent memory. Cut to funeral, where the only people who care enough to turn up are Alfred, Fox, Gordon and Blake. Cut to will-reading, where we learn that Alfred inherits everything, except the house and land (as Bruce went broke early in the movie, and even says “Well, at least they left me the house”, Alfred really doesn’t get much out of the deal). The house is turned into an orphanage, atoning for the negligence caused by Bruce’s selfish withdrawal in the early parts of the film, and Blake is left with cryptic instructions which lead him to the Batcave, implying that he is going to take up Bruce’s mission. Then we learn his real name is Robin, not John. Corny stuff, but not as corny as the final scene of a distraught Alfred sitting in a cafe in Italy, and looking up to see Bruce and Selina happily chatting away, the mission complete, the final masks donned and everyone lived happliy ever after.

Now, I tell you again. This is not a bad film. I’ve probably exaggerated the negatives in that summary; the plot holes are there but they’re not all as very big as I might have made them sound. In any other film, especially any other fantasy film about a bloke who wears a mask and carries small explosives on his belt, you wouldn’t even notice them. There were bigger deus ex machina in STAR WARS, there were cornier scenes in IRON MAN and far more hamfistedness in GREEN LANTERN. But this movie must necessarily suffer by comparison with its nearly flawless predecessor, and Nolan’s usually immaculate story-telling. We have grown accustomed to a Batman who does not trust, not a Batman who trusts arbitrarily. We have been blessed with carefully nuanced plots which end in “Ahh NOW I get it!” credit rolls, not stories which require us to make leaps over their gaps. The bar was set high, and the old record still stands.

I’ve told you all about the story, and where I see its shortcomings. The actors, on the other hand, are generally without fault. Christian Bale inhabits the role so well, I fear for whoever next takes it on (for this reason among others I don’t think we’ll see Batman on screen again for at least 10 years). Tom Hardy is utterly convincing and totally terrifying as the ruthless Bane, silly mask not withstanding. He struts like a pro-wrestler and dominates any space he shares with the rest of the cast. Bane has always been drawn as a big man and written as a big personality, and Hardy pulls it off perfectly. He reminds you of nothing less than a force of nature, come to wreak havoc and quite unstoppable. Anne Hathaway is an adequate Selina Kyle, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is an adequate John Blake. Any of a hundred others could have done equally well in those roles. Morgan Freeman coasts but does not disappoint as Lucius Fox & Michael Caine over-emotes as an apparently pre-menstrual Alfred. Marion Cotillard is slightly wooden and unappealling as Miranda Tate; for obvious reasons this is a character we should be urging on and worrying over; she’s ostensibly the weakest of the bunch and the most good hearted, from her opening scene, but I just found myself unsympathetic and only intellectually concerned about what was happening to her. The real standout is Gary Oldman as Commissioner James Gordon, who (as in BATMAN BEGINS & THE DARK KNIGHT) is the real hero of the story. It’s Jim Gordon in his trenchcoat and glasses that we feel is really in danger, not Batman in his kevlar and mask. It’s Jim Gordon who goes down into the sewers or jumps into the moving truck with only with a snub revolver and his own courage. It’s Jim Gordon who travels the hero’s journey through self-loathing & inadequacy to  the growing realisation that there is no faith to be had in the instituitions of man, but simply in a man’s integrity. Heath Ledger won a nag of posthumous awards for the Joker’s anarchic insanity; Gary Oldman deserves no less for Gordon’s humble humanity.

Back at the top of this very long review I said that Nolan’s Batman films aren’t traditional superhero films. However, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is the most superhero-ish of the three, with its corny moments, its ‘from-the-ashes’ pivot, and its unnecessary costumery. Its not gonna knock the Avengers off its eleventy-jintillion dollar pedestal. It probaly won’t even match THE DARK KNIGHT for box office. But its a damn fine piece of work and as an element of the large trilogy, its quite effective in tying itself to the other two films both in terms of dtory and theme. Its just a shame that the third part in these things always seems to represent the weakest link. Think SUPERMAN III, BATMAN FOREVER, SPIDER-MAN III, X-MEN: LAST STAND, even THE GODFATHER PART 3. Someone explain that to me one day.

Cheers,
Darryn

Review: THE WINTER’S TALE

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We went to see The Winter’s Tale last night, which is most appropriate because a) it’s winter in Sydney and b) it’s also winter-y in Sydney, with chilling cold and sheeting rain, and even though sunset is about 530pm it’s dark by 430 because of the weather. This production was put on by Shakespeare On the Green, a small local company whose performances we have enjoyed for the last few years, having seen them also present The Comedy of Errors & A Midsummers Night’s Dream. Both of those were performed outdoors, so it was quite foresighted of them to change their MO and use a hall instead this year. Not being a Shakespearean scholar of any note, merely a bloke who knows lots of trivial information, I would guess that The Winter’s Tale is one of the Bard’s lesser known plays. It’s certainly a story that held my interest throughout, as it varied from Othello-esque palace drama in the first act to rude pastoral comedy for most of the second.
The Winter’s Tale centres on Leontes, king of Sicilia, who is wracked with suspicion that his best friend Polixenes, king of Bohemia, is having an affair with Hermione, his queen (who is heavily pregnant with their second child – although Leontes believes that Polixenes may be the father). Throughout the first act, he falls from noble hearted monarch to base paranoid villain, instructing his courtiers to do murder, imprisoning the queen and eventually ordering the newborn princess to be abandoned in the wild. The first act closes with Leontes ridden down by despair – his wife & his heir dead, his best friend estranged, his court distrusting or dispersed, and his daughter lost. He comes to terms with the fact that all his suspicions were for naught, Hermione being proved loyal posthumously, and must now deal with the guilt and loss his behaviour has wrought.
The second act opens sixteen years later. Leontes’ lost daughter Perdita was rescued as an infant by a Bohemian peasant family, who found her (complete with the obligatory tokens of royal provenance) after the courtier entrusted with her disposal was et by a bear. All who know her remark on her grace, her beauty & elegance; her foster family believe her to be a fairy changeling. In one of those typically awkward Shakespearean plot twists, she has fallen in love with the prince of Bohemia, Florizel – the son and heir of Leontes’ former friend Polixenes – and he with her. Whilst she knows his true nature, her family believe him to be merely a wealthy landowner and welcome him as a commoner into their home for feasts and parties. Polixenes grows concerened at his son’s increasingly frequent absences from court, and he resolves to discover what’s afoot by disgusing himself and his advisor Camillo as simple folk. They find themselves observing the peasant family partying down, celebrating the betrothal of Florizel & Perdita. Polixenes reveals himself and orders Florizel to abandon Perdita, threatening to have the peasant family killed for reaching above their station. However, true love runs true, and the youngsters resolve to flee Bohemia. They are abetted by Camillo, who longs to return to his native Sicilia (he fled there when he helped Polixenes escape Leontes paranoid murder plot). Camillo instructs the kids to sail for Sicilia and present themselves as married and representatives of Polixenes, claiming he wishes to re-establish relations with Leontes.
On their arrival they are warmly welcomed by the repentant, but still guilt-stricken, Leontes; however, they are soon undone by the arrival of Polixenes and Camillo who reveal that Florizel fled from court and Perdita is a commoner. Luckily, Polixenes’s wrath is soon stayed by the revelation (by the peasant family) that Perdita was a foundling; an investigation of those fortunately found tokens establishes the truth, and everyone is reconciled. Further joy ensues when the noblewoman Paulina displays a statue of Hermione that is so warm & lifelike it amazes the gathered royalty; of course that’s because it’s the actual Hermione, whose death was faked all those years ago against just such a happy day as this…. and they all live happily ever after.
Shakespeare On The Green put on small, intimate performances – if there were two dozen in the audience last night I would be surprised. They costume appropriately (although neither completely in period or modern, everybody’s place in the world is easily identifiable by their garb – good job, well done by costumier Kate Shanahan), and prop sparingly but effectively. This leaves the focus on the craft of the actors, and some fine craft indeed was on display here. The standout for me was Tristan McKinnon as Leontes, who conveyed all the nuances of a king who believes he’s been betrayed, only to finally discover he betrayed himself, with marvellous credibility. It didn’t hurt that he looked a little like Viggo Mortenson and sounded a little like David Wenham, either. At times I loathed Leontes, at other times I pitied him, and if you can evince that kind of investment from the audience you’ve done the job. Cat Martin in her dual roles as Hermione and the peasant matriarch was competent and then some, exuding noble benifence & aggrieved innocence as the first, and homespun gravity as the second. Nobody in the rest of the cast – Brendon Taylor, Emma Harris, Chris Lewis, Alistair Buchanan & Elisabeth Tuilekutu – let the team down either; if there were any fluffed lines or missed cues I didn’t pick up on them. Everyone enunciated, everyone projected – and these are things that can make a small theatre delightful or discouraging. Special mention to the very versatile Andrew Chessher who not only attended to special effects, he also played in- and out-of-scene music and even managed to stroll on stage in a couple of roles. As usual, everyone in the company played more than one role, and the directorial staff of Sher Guhl & Victor Kalka have obviously drilled their performers on the importance of distinction between characters.
So, all in all, this was a most satisfactory and enjoyable introduction to The Winter’s Tale for me, all the more so because there was free mulled wine on offer. I’ll be back for more Shakespeare On the Green next season, and if you get the chance, then you should get along to a production as well.
Cheers,
Darryn

Review: THE AVENGERS

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So, Tara and I went to see THE AVENGERS last night. Midnight viewing, 3D presentation. For someone who is a big comic book freak, like me, this was a pants-staining exercise. For someone is who married to a big comic book freak, like Tara, this was a big noisy movie that she didn’t quite understand, but enjoyed as an action spectacle.
Note – minor spoilers may arise, but nothing to break your heart.
First, this is a spectacular movie in every facet. The cast alone contains 5 Academy Award nominees or winners: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Renner, & Mark Ruffalo. Its a big movie – even the indoor sets are in the main spacious and give the feeling that big, important things happen in these rooms. The plot concerns a world-threatening attack by aliens controlling godlike levels of energy. These guys are Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and the movie does them justice; its not just a bunch of average folks suiting up to protect us. There is something special, something extra, about all of them – even the weaker members of the team. So thematically, the movie is consistent. And BIG, did I mention that?
Without spoiling the story by revealing specific plot points, fans of Marvel comics (more pointedly, fanboys with their obsessive knowledge of trivia, and insistence on minutiae being correct) should be generally pleased with the way this film unfolds and the way the characters interact. You can’t have a Marvel superhero team-up without the heroes first throwing down in some kind of misunderstanding – and in this movie we have six heroes meeting for the first time, ya know what I’m saying? There are nods to traditional elements of Marvel lore (in the original 1963 comic, Thor’s brother Loki manipulates the Hulk and the heroes respond as individuals before teaming up; Tony “Iron Man” Stark provides a headquarters for the team to meet; Hawkeye & Black Widow (the Renner & Scarlett Johanssen characters) share a past and are both outsiders/bad guys before joining the team – all of these plot points turn up, although not necessarily as you’d expect). The story also borrows heavily from recent comic storylines – the clash of idealogies between Captain America & Iron Man; the assembly of the team as a project by Nick Fury; characters like Maria Hill & Eric Solveig – these are all no more than a dozen years old. Yep, there’s something for everyone who’s an Avengers comics fan. There is a satisfying mix of OHEMGEE! effects driven action & laugh out loud moments, and an unexpected tragic turning point as well
The actors all generally turn in fine performances; given that there are 8 leads (Chris Evans as Captain America, Downey as Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Ruffalo as the Hulk, Jackson as Nick Fury, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, Renner & Johanssen) and a handful of important support roles (Stellan Skaarsgard as Solveig, Cobie Smulders as Hill, Paltrow as Pepper Potts & Clark Gregg as Agent Coulsen), its to be expected that this is not a movie which explores it’s characters in any great depth. The exception is Johanssen’s turn as the Black Widow, Agent Natasha Romanov. She is furnished some back story and we are allowed a couple of intimate glimpses into her motivations. But in the main, its an action movie and these guys portray archetypes – Hemsworth’s Thor is a Shakespearian good-time-guy with a sense of responsibility, Evans’s Captain America is a straight-up square from the 1940s transpalnted to the 21st century, Downey’s Iron Man is the manic genius egotist, Jackson is a BAMF giving orders with a scowl. I wasn’t keen on Ruffalo as mild-mannered scientist Bruce Banner, but I think he’s been cast because he actually looks brutish like the Hulk. Speaking of the Big Green Guy – if you saw the pretty confusing Ang Lee film (with Eric Bana) or the more recent Letterier INCREDIBLE HULK (with Ed Norton), don’t worry. This Hulk looks fluid and natural. He has some pretty good moments too, and partisans on both sides in the perennial “Who is stronger, Thor or Hulk?” debate get plenty to talk about.
There were some disappointments – both Thor’s and Captain America’s costumes have been slightly revised from their solo movies, and in my opinion for the worse. No doubt I’m not the only old-school fan who would have liked to have seen original comic book characters Henry Pym & Janet van Dyne used in some capacity, major or minor. The decision to give all the action during the extended climactic battle scene to the superheroes, after spending 90 minutes building up the agency SHIELD as a superior peacekeeping force with highly trained operatives and advanced weapons/tech, is kind of silly – if this was a real alien invasion, why wouldn’t they be on at least the second line of defense instead of the much more outgunned New York police? But in general, this is another well made Marvel comics adaptation – not as good as Thor or Iron Man, better than Captain America or Iron Man II. All in all, I give it 7 transdimensional portals out of 10.

Oh, yeah … stay through the credits for the obligatory teaser. And then Google “Infinity Gauntlet” if you don’t know what’s going on…..

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