Friday, 20 April 2012

The Avengers

WRITTEN BY: Joss Whedon
DIRECTED BY: Joss Whedon
STARRING: Robert Downey Jr, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Cobie Smulders, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston
RATING: 5 stars

I was a little hesitant about getting enthusiastic for The Avengers. I wanted so desperately for it to be a great film and I thought it certainly had the potential. However, with recent comic book adaptations falling flat (for example, Green Lantern is best forgotten) I thought I might be hoping for something impossible. I'm so very happy to say I was wrong. I'm not the kind of reviewer who gives five stars very often, so trust me when I say that if you're a fan of action and comic book films, you should see The Avengers. With an all-star cast, good use of 3D, a great script and a surprisingly cohesive plot, this well-directed film is nearly two and a half hours of excitement.

Before seeing The Avengers, I recommend you watch Thor and Captain American: The First Avenger for some back story. However, it's not necessarily a prerequisite to have seen the Hulk or Iron Man films. Director/writer, Joss Whedon, has accomplished what I thought was going to be an impossible task of presenting seven heroic characters with complex backgrounds, who would usually carry a film on their own, working perfectly together. All the characters are well developed, each hero has their moment to shine and comic book geeks around the world (myself included) will have such an amazing geekasm watching the chemistry, rivalry and team effort of the protagonists throughout the film.

Based on the Marvel comics, The Avengers introduces audiences to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who is the director of SHIELD, an international peace-keeping agency. He forms a team called The Avengers made up of demi-god Thor (Chris Hemsworth), billionaire genius Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), scientist Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and the world's first superhero Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) to work with his team including Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to save the world from Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor's demi-god brother who is trying to take over the world. But first, the egotistical heroes must learn to get along with each other.

The casting in the film was perfect. The film doesn't focus on much male-female romance, but instead provides a fantastic bromance between Iron Man and Banner. Downey Jr and Ruffalo are outstanding actors and they work perfectly together in these scenes, almost stealing the show at times. Downey Jr is so good at playing the cocky, funny and lovable larrikin, while Ruffalo plays the tortured Banner convincingly. Hemsworth continues his great work as Thor and has some very good one-liners, while Evans portrays the quintessential American hero very well. The four protagonists are well supported by Johansson and Renner who have some great fight scenes, and Jackson who has some memorable speeches, which we've come to expect from him in these types of film roles. Hiddleston is also very good as the slimy bad guy, while Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgard, Clark Gregg and Gwyneth Paltrow are also worth noting in their smaller roles.

Not since X-Men: First Class have I been so impressed by a comic book adaptation to film. As soon as I finished watching The Avengers, I wanted to watch it again. Make sure you stay for the end of the credits – there's a nice set up for a sequel.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Lucky One

WRITTEN BY: Will Fetters
DIRECTED BY: Scott Hicks
STARRING: Zac Efron, Taylor Schilling, Blythe Danner, Jay R. Ferguson, Riley Thomas Stewart
RATING: 3 stars

If you loved The Notebook, A Walk To Remember, Nights in Rodanthe, Message In A Bottle, Dear John and The Last Song, chances are you'll enjoy The Lucky One. By no means is it the best adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, but fans of his books and past film adaptations will still find some joy in watching The Lucky One. For everyone else, you can probably give it a miss, unless maybe you have a huge crush on Zac Efron, because this is by far his most "grown up" role.

Knowing Sparks' fans would be outraged if the film deviated too far from the novel, screen writer Will Fetters stays relatively true to the book. Marine Logan Thibault (Zac Efron) is fighting in Iraq when he sees a photograph of a young woman in some rubble. The time he takes to pick it up saves his life as an explosion goes off nearby. When he fails to find the owner of the photograph, Logan decides to carry it with him as a good luck charm. When Logan finishes his third tour of duty, he begins searching for the girl and finds Beth (Taylor Schilling) living with her grandmother (Blythe Danner) and young son Ben (Riley Thomas Stewart). Beth is a single mother grieving for her brother, who died mysteriously in Iraq. Logan struggles to explain his appearance on Beth's doorstep and instead begins working for her. But Beth's ex-husband Keith (Jay R. Ferguson), who is also a policeman, is suspicious of Logan and does not like Logan's influence on his family.

A major criticism I have of this film is that the characters are underdeveloped. I've read the book (I'm one of those obsessed Sparks fans) but I saw the film with people who had not read it and they were all left trying to understand the characters. The novel gives more detail about the characters' back stories and gives the story the depth it needs. Unfortunately, the film doesn't quite join all the dots so while the plot is essentially quite predictable, it's not as fulfilling as it should have been and was in the novel.

The performances in the film were also mixed. I was pleasantly surprised at how mature Efron has become in recent years. His character is broody but also a little too perfect. It seems like there's nothing he can’t do, except maybe beat a child at chess. Efron has come a long way as an actor but this film won't be the turning point in his career he probably hoped it would be. Efron's chemistry with Schilling is also hit and miss, which is a shame because their romance is the most important part of the film. In fact, Schilling was probably miscast in the role. Ferguson also seemed to be over-acting at times. However, Stewart was very cute as Ben and had some memorable scenes of humour and heart. Danner also steals a few scenes as the grandmother and provides lots of laughs.

Perhaps it's because I adore the book so much that I'm so critical of the film. Then again, perhaps I'm also kinder to the film because I like the book so much. In any case, The Lucky One is definitely a film for those inclined to enjoy sappy love stories. But I'd still suggest reading a Sparks novel instead.

Friday, 13 April 2012

The Way

I spoke to writer/director/actor Emilio Estevez via Twitter today and this is what he had to say about the response he has received for his new film, The Way:

"The film came from my heart and people have been writing letters and sending me emails about the profound impact it's had on their lives and their relationships with their parents and children. It's been lovely, but an unexpected reaction, to be sure."

It really is a film worth seeing. Here's my review…

WRITTEN BY: Emilio Estevez
DIRECTED BY: Emilio Estevez
STARRING: Martin Sheen, Deborah Kara Unger, Yorick van Wageningin, James Nesbitt
RATING: 4.5 stars

Beautiful. Inspirational. Heartbreaking. Comforting. Those are the words that come to mind when I want to describe The Way to someone. Many have walked the Camino de Santiago from France to Spain for various reasons and it means a lot to many people. So it's a wonder why it's taken so long to make a film about this inspiring journey. Although the walk is traditionally a religious one, it would be wrong to believe The Way is a religious film. It is more about family and finding balance in life. In fact, it actually has some similar themes and characters to The Wizard of Oz.

Adapted from Jack Hitt's non-fiction book Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route Into Spain, Emilio Estevez - who will always be remembered as a member of the 1980s Brat Pack, but who deserves to be remembered for so much more - has written and directed a beautiful tale.

Tom (Martin Sheen) is an American doctor who comes to St. Jean Pied de Port in France to collect the remains of his adult son Daniel (Sheen's real son, Emilio Estevez) who was killed in the Pyrenees during a storm while walking the Camino de Santiago, also known as The Way of Saint James. The father and son had a strained relationship and did not see eye to eye on how to live a full life. To try to understand his son better and fulfill his dream of walking the The Way, Tom decides to embark on the historical pilgrimage, carrying his son's ashes with him and spreading them along the route. Along the way, he meets other pilgrims including: a Dutchman (Yorick van Wageningen) trying to lose weight, though the reason becomes more complicated as the story plays out; a Canadian (Deborah Kara Unger) trying to quit smoking, but who also has a more complex secret past; and an Irishman (James Nesbitt) with writer's block, who is looking for inspiration.

The Way is a character-driven story and all the protagonists are well developed, even if there is a strong reliance on cultural stereotypes. The actors are given complex and interesting people to portray and they all do a great job. Sheen is especially moving in what is the first film he has carried in many years. His character sees his son at various times along the trek and while this could seem cliched, Sheen's performance makes it powerful and sad. It is quite obvious that the real life father and son love working together. Wageningin provides a lot of laughs but also a lot of heart, Nesbitt is outrageous and entertaining, while Unger has some great emotional scenes.

My only criticism of the film is that it's a little too long. Estevez insists on long, drawn out scenes, which can be useful but at other times unnecessary. There are several long takes of the group walking where nothing really happens, but obviously Estevez felt the need to include these scenes to show off the beauty of the Camino. There is also a long montage to an Alanis Morissette song, which drags a little. But again, it's clear that this was a passion project for Estevez and he really did pour his heart into it, so it's hard to criticise something so beloved by its creator.

The Way ends just as you expect it to, but it's not really the ending that matters. It's the journey that is most important. That is what the film teaches us. As Daniel says to his father: "You don't choose a life, Dad. You live one." Amen to that.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Mary Poppins

DIRECTED BY: Richard Eyre
STARRING: Lisa O'Hare, Matt Lee, Simon Burke, Pippa Grandison
RATING: 4.5 stars

With flying, upside-down ceiling dancing and objects being pulled out of a magic bag, Mary Poppins is the perfect example of a musical that the whole family can enjoy. Whether you're an easily distracted child, a tired parent or a hard-to-please grandparent, the Australian production of Mary Poppins is sure to turn even the hardest heart to mush.

Based on the books by Australia's P. L. Travers and the 1964 Walt Disney film, Mary Poppins tells the story of two children and their magical nanny. Mary Poppins (Lisa O'Hare) answers a letter written by Michael and Jane Banks – the children of George (Simon Burke) and Winifred Banks (Pippa Grandison) – who write that they are looking for a kind, pretty and fun nanny. When Mary Poppins takes on the job, she begins working her magic to help the Banks family overcome their problems and learn to be a happy family.

The play stars Lisa O'Hare, who was part of the West End cast, and reprised her role as Mary Poppins for the Perth leg of the tour. O'Hare, who is a fan of Julie Andrews – the original Mary Poppins in the film – was the perfect Mary Poppins with her beautiful voice, quirky mannerisms and facial expressions. The musical also stars So You Think You Can Dance judge and Helpmann Award Winner, Matt Lee, as Bert who perfected the English cockney accent and was very funny. He was able to show off his impeccable dancing skills, as well as his singing voice in the production. The leads were well supported by the children cast as Michael and Jane, and both Burke and Grandison were impressive as the parents.

The set design was colourful and creative, especially with the way the sets changed to show different rooms in the house, to keep the stage looking fresh and interesting. The production also features Academy Award winning songs from the film written by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, who died earlier this month aged 86. Songs include memorable classics like Supercalafragilisticexpialidocious, A Spoonful of Sugar, Jolly Holiday and Chim Chim Cher-ee. There are also some original songs for the stage musical that add some fun including Practically Perfect, Precision and Order, and Anything Can Happen. All the songs were preformed well and no one skipped a beat with the dance routines.

There's a reason why Mary Poppins has grossed more than $679 million worldwide and has won 44 major theatre awards. It truly is a fun, magical evening of musical theatre. Mary Poppins is now showing at Burswood Theatre. Tickets through Ticketek.

Lisa O'Hare and Matt Lee in Mary Poppins. Photo courtesy of Disney/CML.