Friday, 27 April 2012

The Avengers - Dir. Joss Whedon

With the success of Jon Favreau’s ‘Iron Man’ in 2008, calls started ringing out across the comic book universe for not only further comic book movies, but also for the ‘The Holy Grail of Cinematic Superheroes,’ which is also known as an ‘Avengers’ film. What followed was four more Marvel Universe movies, the introduction of many favoured and established characters and the continual teasing of fans across the globe with post-credit sequences. The introduction of Samuel L. Jackson as Commander Nick Fury inevitably announced to fans that an ‘Avengers’ movie would come to fruition and it brought forth the key question of when rather than where, who and why. The man tasked with throwing all these vibrant characters into a smouldering cauldron of excitement and pure unadulterated geekiness is one Joss Whedon. He’s already created three incredibly successful television shows and an incredibly successful tie-in movie in ‘Serenity,’ but this is undoubtedly his biggest challenge to date. Today sees the release of ‘The Avengers’ (or ‘Avengers Assemble’ in the United Kingdom) across the globe, and while it contains evident flaws, it’s nothing short of a two hour canonical ride across the Marvel Universe which provides everything to satisfy fans, nerds and casual cinema-goers alike. Buried deep beneath a Government facility is the mystical cube known as the tesseract. When it begins to mysteriously start operating by itself Commander Nick Fury, and his agents Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), unexpectedly come face-to-face with the Asgard deity Loki (Tom Hiddleston). The God is being seemingly controlled by a higher being, with but one simple, yet distinct aim, to control, enslave and destroy the Earth and humanity. With reluctance, Fury initiates the ‘Avengers’ protocol, which brings together the rag-tag team of superheroes consisting of: Iron Man Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the Asgard God Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton (Jeremy Renner), the Black Widow Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and the unpredictable Dr Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Where ‘The Avengers’ had the ability to fall pretty darn hard was with the amount of material ready at hand. Joss Whedon could’ve potentially created a ten-hour-three-film epic without even scratching the surface of what drives these beings to do what they do. Instead, in the running time which extends to just over two hours, he’s created an intimate and humanised portrayal of six individuals who may be Gods, geniuses, super-human beings and destructive radioactive experiments on the outside, but all reflect deep, inner trauma on the inside. The initial meetings between the characters show an element of distrust and reluctance. Why should one be subordinate to others when, by all accounts in their own minds, they all have the better technology, powers or intellect? With their flaws prominently on show from the beginning Whedon doesn’t just show the audience superheroes, but he creates them before your own eyes. Building these characters from the inside, outside he allows the audience to empathise with their plights. After all, Thor is simply an Asgardian God with family issues, Dr Banner simply wants to be left alone in isolation to his own devices, and Black Widow and Hawkeye seem to battling those basic primal urges that come with humanity and prolonged friendship. But one character that does continually feel out of place is the antagonist of the piece, Loki. Despite Tom Hiddleston creating a superb maniacal villain with thespian traits who thrives on power and destruction, it’s hard to shake-off the fact that Loki he is constantly being undermined by those pulling his puppeteering strings. Yet, this should not detract away from his performance which constantly steals the show whenever he is on-screen with other members of the Avengers intiative, and which can be partly attributed to Josh Whedon and Zak Penn’s slick screenplay. The script contains some suspect writing in places, especially with regards to Dr Banner and some of the more unusually up-beat and intellectually void phrases he spouts. But aside from the odd sentence here or there, Whedon and Penn’s script manages to combine the right mix or humour, bravado and arrogance allowing, not only each character’s personality to thrive, but also the plot to be continually be driven forward. Whether it’s the blossoming relationship between two prominent superheroes or the developing nature of the narrative, the film is never stagnant, and it’s this plot development which gives Joss Whedon the ability to let his comic book geekdom roam free in the final act with an enthralling visual action-orientated conclusion. Starting in Manhattan, the action takes place on the ground, in the air, inside buildings and generally anywhere where there’s an enough room to photograph a glorious all battle of good versus evil. Explosions saturate the air, but there’s also an enjoyable emphasis on hand-to-hand combat, especially when the likes of Hawkeye, Black Widow and Captain America are left without their weapons. Beautifully choreographed, fast, frenetic and aesthetically pleasing the final thirty minutes are a fitting and welcome conclusion to an epic comic book movie. Joss Whedon hasn’t only managed to finally bring the six glorious superheroes to the big-screen. But he’s also also managed to do it well, very well.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

The Iron Lady - Dir. Phyllida Lloyd

It is not a rare occurrence to see a biopic centred on a political figure emerge during any given calendar year, nor is it uncommon to see a biopic appear when the subject is still alive. But, it is unusual to see a film materialize when the said political figure is controversial in nature and divides opinion across the board.

Director Phyllida Lloyd proves why it is so unusual in her biopic of Margaret Thatcher entitled ‘The Iron Lady’ – the nickname attributed to Thatcher by the Soviet press after her scathing attack on the Communist model – which gently saunters between the important political moments in her life, whilst also trying to convey an appearance of regret, sadness and guilt by creating a humanized portrayal of a woman once dubbed “the most hated woman in British Politics.”

But instead of creating an engaging piece which examines the life of one of the most enigmatic Prime Ministers of the twentieth century, the audience instead is left with a dull, uninspired mess which simply evades some of the most important social, economic and political events of her life to instead attempt to create some semblance of regret and humanity from the inner depths of this aging former Head of State.

Born Margaret Hilda Roberts in 1925 to a green grocer father in Grantham, Lincolnshire, Margaret or ‘Maggie’ as she was affectionately known to close acquaintances and the press, became one of the most powerful women in the world through her constant fight to not only change Great Britain, but also the world. Told through the flashbacks of an ailing former Head of State, Margaret (Meryl Streep) constantly engages in conversation with her deceased husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) and her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman), as she remembers past events – the good, the bad and the downright terrible – during her time as a young woman attempting to achieve some form of acceptance in the male-centric world of British politics, and finally as the first female head of a Western government.

From the tender opening moments to the solemn conclusion of this biopic, Phyllida Lloyd sets out to portray Maggie as a human being through her declining on-screen health which also mirrors the current state of the former Prime Minister. At eighty-six years old, Thatcher is understandably frail with her mental health constantly on the decline; it is an unfortunate prerequisite of aging, but it is not only common to those who have lived polarised lives in the eyes of the British public.

While Lloyd shows Thatcher constantly remembering past events, she never imposes any judgement, opinion or verdict upon anything that is visualized, instead treating it as a nostalgic and deeply sentimental walk-down-memory lane. Maggie remembers her successes and failings, but falls short of actually stating some form verdict on her past choices. Instead of watching a frail Margaret Thatcher dissect the events of her life, the audience is simply left to, uninterestingly, watch as they’re recreated.

Aside from the portrayal of the frailty of Thatcher, her career itself is constantly over-shadowed by the more tender moments that Lloyd wishes to portray. The audience is essentially treated to a simple-minded examination of her early political career which extends as far as saying that Margaret Thatcher went into politics because she had ambition, found trouble in the form of institutionalized sexism and eventually established herself due to her husband Denis’s influence as a middle-class businessman. A short and sweet approach but in essence, an incredibly na├»ve way to treat a biographical examination of one of the most important European leaders of the twentieth-century.

Other major events in Thatcher’s career, including her challenge and rise to the leadership of the Conservative Party and the various controversial policies introduced during her reign as Prime Minister (privatisation, unemployment and the closure of twenty-five coal mines in 1985 among others) are simply portrayed as minor events.

Very little of the one hour and forty-five minute running time concerns itself with these events, aside from the occasional use of archive footage depicting public anarchy in the United Kingdom during the testing times of economic hardship during the 1980’s, the audience is left to understand little in the way of why Thatcher chose to commit to certain policies except for the fact that she was a stern and incredibly stubborn woman when it came to deciding what and where she would impose upon the British public.

However, despite the major flaws in the form of Lloyd’s film wishing to be somewhat of a cinematic memorial to Thatcher rather than a straight-edged biopic examining her tumultuous life, the saving grace comes in the form of Meryl Streep’s wonderful performance as the famous leading lady. She is strong, commanding and visceral as Baroness Thatcher, constantly dominating the screen and drawing the audience’s attention toward her prestigious manner.

Jim Broadbent as her late husband Denis, Richard E. Grant and Anthony Head among others, are depicted somewhat as ‘Spitting Image-esque’ caricatures of men who were nothing more than emasculated doormats in both a personal and a political cabinet, who didn’t have the guts and gall to stand up to their overbearing leader. While Olivia Colman provides the only true emotional response in the form of Maggie’s daughter Carol Thatcher, but these performances cannot save Lloyd’s film from its own severe narrative flaws.

Since its inception, Phyllida Lloyd’s Margaret Thatcher biopic has courted controversy among the family and various political circles of the former Prime Minister, and it is this controversy which has no doubt had a profound effect on the production of the film. Rather than becoming an intricate and interesting examination of a woman who was, and still is, worshipped and loathed by many members of the general public in Great Britain and Ireland, it instead became a slow inoffensive look at a woman who at eighty-six years old is shown to regret some aspects of her life, but never provides any substance or a simple ‘why’ in response.

Whether it was a consequence arising from the fact that Lloyd created a biopic about a controversial living figure, or simply down to poor direction and pacing on behalf of Lloyd, either way ‘Iron Lady’ has an enormous amount of untouched potential that another director, producer or artist should be looking to exploit in the immediate future. And whoever should tackle this biopic, should once again call upon the talents of Meryl Streep and Olivia Colman as their performances save this film from being more boring and dreary than the most recent Conservative Party Conference.