Monday, 30 April 2012

Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: THE AVENGERS assemble on the big screen


I like superheroes. I grew up with reruns of the 1960s Batman TV series. The Superman films were released when I was really young. The Amazing Spider-Man, Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk were nighttime TV shows. And one of the defining motion picture releases of my teenage years was Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989.

I was never a big comic book reader as a kid – I’ve probably read more comic books, uh, graphic novels in the last ten years than any time before that. But superheroes were always very cool. And Burton’s Batman took my favourite superhero very seriously. Well, until Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins appeared – taking it ultra-seriously and much darker than I’d ever hoped for.

As a non-comic reader, I find it hard to align myself as a DC (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) or Marvel Universe (Spider-Man, X-Men, The Avengers and its consitutent parts) person. They appeal to different parts of my brain. In effect, DC’s superheroes are often lone warriors and the Marvel Universe seems to be more densely populated with superheroes that support each other.

Of course, that’s not exactly right – where Marvel has The Avengers, DC has the Justice League, which was always my favourite part of Saturday morning cartoon watching: superheroes teaming up. But while the DC characters are scattered across movie studios, Marvel has its own studio which has spent the last several years dedicating itself to setting up their ultimate superhero team.

We’ve seen Iron Man 1 & 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger and two different swings (and misses?) at the Incredible Hulk. And now it has come to this, a film which sounds cool but leads to the question: can we seriously have that much awesome on the one screen?

When you’ve got a cast like Robert Downey Jnr, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johannsen, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson and Mark Ruffalo all in the one film – how can you possibly hope to satisfy them and all of our audience needs?

By writing a character-driven blockbuster.

It’s almost unheard of these days to have a comprehensible big budget motion picture extravaganza. And, hey, if people are paying to see Transformers and its sequels – why bother with writing a decent plot when you can just throw giant robots and Baysplosions at the screen?!

The Avengers, in the hands of writer/director Joss Whedon, takes characters we’ve seen before and puts them together in a dysfunctional family situation. These heroes are driven by their egos. Putting them into the same room is trouble enough; expecting them to function as a cohesive unit is madness.

Yes, there is some plot about Thor’s brother Loki trying to open a doorway in the space-time continuumm to invite through a legion of evil space aliens to conquer the Earth – but do you know what the most important part of that story is? The fact Loki is Thor’s brother. It’s fallout from the sibling rivlalry in the film Thor. It’s not just a random villain; it’s family.

Loki’s plan is Evil Overlord Generica, but The Avengers is the story of the team coming together and working out their differences. Defeating the bad guy is far less important – to them and to the audience.
The absolute highlights of the film are seeing these strong characters interact. The arrogant Tony Stark against the human weapon, Captain America. The Norse God against the scientist with the rage monster inside. The Black Widow trying to make sense of (and/or avoid) all this male posturing.

Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly (and its motion picture spin-off, Serenity), knows how to create iconic hero moments without forgetting the characters themselves. And as the showrunner of TV series with large casts, he knows how to give each and every character and actor their due. The biggest risk with a film like The Avengers is giving each character enough screentime – without seeming to favour one particular hero over another.

It might have been easy to let Downey Jnr’s Tony Stark take over; he’s handsome, charismatic and hilarious. But it’s not his film. It’s not Thor’s film. Nor the Hulk’s film. Nor the Black Widow’s film. This is The Avengers. This is about building a team out of parts that don’t belong together.

Mark Ruffalo puts in probably the best performance of the film, which is great since it’s his first time out as Bruce Banner/Hulk. The character is far more interesting to me here than in any previous incarnation. Scarlett Johannsen gets a fully-rounded Natasha/Black Widow, after having almost nothing to do in Iron Man 2. Her backstory with Hawkeye keeps them both interesting throughout; hints at an origin story in a film we are yet to see.

We know what to expect from the other actors and characters, though Chris Evan’s Captain America is still adjusting to living in the twenty-first century after being frozen during World War II. Luckily, Iron Man and Thor are great characters to watch and revisit; and as I keep harping on about – it’s the interactions that make this film work so wonderfully well.

Whedon takes these kind of stories seriously, too. It’s not just witty dialogue and explosions. While the basic plot might be thin, its getting under the skin of the heroes that keeps things really interesting. Bruce Banner talks about always being angry. Natasha’s emotional armour gets briefly stripped away in an interrogation scene with Loki. Even Tony Stark has a moment of clear anger late in the film; a moment which galvanises the whole team to action.

The effects in the film are pretty amazing. And while I can forgive slow pacing in the first part of the film, I think the final battle is overly long; there’s a point at which destruction becomes just a blur to me.
But I am happy to say that I enjoyed the film from beginning to end, because we’ve got a wonderful writer and director with a star-studded line-up of amazing actors and an iconic roster of earth’s mightiest heroes assembling on screen for the first time together.

Bring on The Avengers 2!

And don’t be surprised if I’m not so thrilled with the prospect of Iron Man 3, Captain America 2 and Thor 2, now that I’ve seen how well they can play together.

BIG SPOILERS IN THE COMMENTS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Who goes to theatre on a Thursday? BOY GIRL WALL at MTC




Sometimes theatre can make you forget where you are, who you are with and why you are even there. Sometimes it’s immersive and subtle and you’re a voyeur. Sometimes it’s dark, mysterious, puzzling and scary.

And sometimes it’s one guy playing twenty-five characters, many of which are animals, inanimate objects or days of the week, and he’s telling you a story about light, sound waves, aliens, string theory, space, the universe, time, a boy, a girl and a wall.

Our narrator (Lucas Stibbard) doesn’t want you to confuse him with male protagonist Thom or think too hard about him as female protagonist Alethea. And yet, when he’s being them, when he’s telling their stories, you can forget, just for a moment, it’s one actor playing all the parts.

And yet, the show is built around watching the pieces of stage craft work. It’s a full energy performance with a chalkboard set, a chair, an overhead projector, a set of handlebars and some chalk. It’s music and sound effects from just offstage – and yet even that wall is broken down when the musician makes a one-off comment on the narrative.

The show is about breaking down walls – between Thom and Alethea, but also between performer and audience. Stibbard sets up the show – it’s not a love story, it’s a story about love – and he invites us on the journey. Part lecture, but hilarious. Part comedy, but moving. Part drama, but about perverted aliens and evil birds and 24-hour improvisational theatre.

There were occasional moments of direct audience interaction, but also moments of Stibbard having to improvise. This shows an actor in control and comfortable in the material. A quick “bless you” to a girl who sneezed. And a fun “pretend this isn’t happening” dance when his lapel mic dislodged itself from his tie.

Presented as part of Melbourne Theatre Company’s Studio and Education seasons, nearly eighty percent on the audience on Thursday night was school groups. I was so thrilled to be seeing this show with teenagers – who laughed uproariously at Stibbard’s performance and the recurrent swear words and some of the lewd comedy.

I think it’s perfectly pitched at an older teen audience, but could be appreciated by anyone. On one side of me was a teenager, on the other was a woman in her eighties. They both loved moments and squirmed at others; the poor girl next to me had come with her dad and while she seemed to be okay with him being there for most of the show, the moment of “sock puppet fellatio” seemed to make her a little uncomfortable. The rest of the audience was in hysterics.

The Escapists, a theatre group from Brisbane, should be highly commended for putting together such a thrilling, enjoyable, delightful, hilarious and tightly written and directed show. MTC should be highly commended for bringing this show to Melbourne and exposing it to audiences of all ages.

Please go to see this show. It’s rare to find as show I feel like I could recommend to everyone. Boy Girl Wall is it.

A Room Full of Razorblades: John Logan's Red at MTC


Colin Friels as Mark Rothko in John Logan's RED


There is a moment late in John Logan’s Red, the story of the late expressionist painter Mark Rothko and a (fictional) assistant, Ken, where the script wants the audience and Ken to think something terrible has happened to Rothko. And yet somehow, in this production by the Melbourne Theatre Company, I was entirely unconvinced by the moment and unmoved by the possibility.

It’s not that the story lacks depth or the production lacks engaging performances. Both Colin Friels and Andre de Vanny are wonderful to watch – and the play is rich with ideas. Even if the notion that art should be inspirational and not just a commodity is a well-worn idea, the conflict in Logan’s play still makes the story interesting to listen to and with a strong lighting design (Matt Scott) and a beautiful sound design (Tristan Meredith), this production is beautiful visually and aurally.

But I wasn’t moved. I wasn’t inspired. It made me think but it never made me feel. And there are moments in the play – one towards the climax, which I alluded to already, and one early on, the priming of the canvas which should have been uplifting and exciting. It wasn’t. It’s like all the elements were there, but nothing quite clicked.

I do wonder if this show might have benefited from a more intimate theatre or a more intimate set. These characters are essentially stuck in a room together (not literally, but practically and emotionally), but the Sumner Theatre and the warehouse set made it feel the characters were almost lost up there in the empty space. The characters should have felt more like they were crawling all over each other rather than dancing around one another.

I admire director Alkinos Tsilimidos’ film work, his first feature Everynight, Everynight is a masterpiece. And I respect his close working relationship with Colin Friels, but I’m not sure a film director was the right choice here. The component elements seem to all be there, on stage, staring at us, but they don’t quite come together.

And there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing a missed opportunity on stage. What do I see when I see a production that doesn’t quite work? I see red.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Have I Got a Film for You: COMPANY on the big screen

I’ve slowed down my theatre-making and theatre-going in the last few weeks, though with the Melbourne International Comedy Festival now open and work beginning on my next two projects, I am slowly getting back into the swing of things. My downtime has been helpful, getting back my energy to put into new shows and planning an overseas trip for August.

The new shows are exciting, but nothing I’m willing to discuss in public just yet. Apart from the fact my producer would kill me, there’s a time when new projects should be nurtured without them being picked apart by fellow-theatre makers, friends or the public. I am nervous enough handing off a first draft of a play, let alone having people pour over my thoughts and ideas.

My trip? A return to the centre of the theatre-making and theatre-going universe – New York City. I first travelled there in 2010 and even upon leaving the city, I was making plans to return.  This time, I’m travelling with my sister, who hasn’t been to NYC before – so it will be exciting to show her around, as much as it will be to return there.

While we hunt for an apartment to rent, I am slowly planning out what shows to see; in 2010 I overdosed on Broadway shows, this time I’m going to try to focus on Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway shows. Given the number of shows I’d love to see on Broadway though, it’s going to be tough narrowing things down.

One reason my sister and I are travelling to New York in August (apart from the ridiculously great price we got on return flights in peak season!) was to see Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods in Central Park. I mean, it’s not exactly site-specific, but Into the Woods in a park with a castle in the background? I imagine it will be quite special, especially considering it's one of mine and my sister’s favourite musicals.



Speaking of Sondheim, yesterday I saw a “cinecast” of the 2011 production of Company that was staged at Lincoln Center last year with the New York Philharmonic. A “cinecast” is a filmed version of a stage show that is screened in a cinema – and it’s slowly becoming a trend around the world. Cinemas must love this stuff – a niche market, sure, but it must cost them less to show and they charge premium prices, which the niche market is willing to pay.

Because anyone who is a fan of musicals or Sondheim or any of the star-studded cast is probably happy to pay a little bit extra for a show they couldn’t have seen otherwise. This particular production was only performed four times, so even New York City residents who wanted to go most likely missed out.

Company is one of the last great Sondheim shows I have never seen before – and one of the shows whose scores I know quite well. It was great to finally see the songs in context, what little context there is in this “concept” show that is essentially a series of short stories about marriage linked by the character of Robert – an unmarried man in his thirties who fears commitment.

I still want to see the show on stage, of course; it’s one of those shows that is a great showcase for musical talent – and the entire cast gets a moment to shine. And the text allows it to really be opened up by a wide variety of interpretations – how cynical should it be played? How much irony? Should each vignette feel entirely different or should the production go to pains to make it feel more cohesive?

Not that the script by George Furth feels unfocused, but there truly is only one character arc to follow, that of Bobby – the single man whose married friends all have an opinion on who he should date, who he should marry or whether he should get married at all. All the characters and the songs work toward telling Bobby’s story. The rest of the cast is entirely supporting.

Much like Sondheim’s Follies, which is modelled on an old revue-type show with a story about the past and nostalgia, Company does have those signature songs that allow the supporting cast to steal the limelight. And this production – where even filmed and projected on a big screen, I felt like applauding many of the songs and a couple of performances in particular – is no exception.



Stephen Colbert and Martha Plimpton are hilarious as Harry and Sarah. Christina Hendricks plays against type, as a dense air hostess. Katie Finneran’s performance of “Getting Married Today” is another of her great comic turns. And Patti LuPone owns the stage with her rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch”.

But the show belongs to Neil Patrick Harris and his performance of Bobby, reminding us yet again that he’s no longer Doogie and shall not always be Barney – but can be and should be seen on stage in musicals as often as possible. And it’s not like he hasn’t had Sondheim experience before, with Sweeney Todd and Assassins.

For me, though, the most important part of finally seeing the complete show – even in a cinecast “concert version” – was to see and hear the final song in context. Because, you see, I think “Being Alive” is somewhat flawed.

Does Bobby really come to the conclusion that “alone is alone, not alive” after all these problematic stories of marriage have played out in front of him? Or are the lyrics the ultimate in ironic trickery from mast Sondheim?

The song, of course, sounds beautiful. I’ve heard many versions on both cast recordings and the albums of musical theatre stars. But are we truly to believe the message of the show is that you are not alive unless you are married? Since, it’s equally true that the rest of the show suggests that a happy marriage is almost a myth.

I’m not sure. I think the way this production ended, with Bobby alone on his couch, his friends leaving without wishing him a happy birthday, with Bobby not forced to blow out his candles and “make a wish” – that he has finally found contentment and decided to live without worrying so much about what his friends think.

I know Sondheim wrote two other songs as the finale for Company – “Multitude of Amys”, which was only appropriate for an earlier version of the show where he proposed to Amy at the end; and “Happily Ever After”, a much bleaker conclusion, whose title was clearly ironic, given the lyric:

No one you have to know well
No one you have to show how
No one you have to allow
The things you’d never allow –
That’s Happily Ever After
For Now!

Much of the rest of “Happily Ever After” appears in “Being Alive” but the final song is trying to be less of a downer on a night that’s already filled with cynicism. And I’m still not sure if it quite works.

But I’m happy to believe that Bobby sings that final song believing he might have found an answer and that final moment alone in his apartment is his wry acceptance that he probably hasn’t.

The cinecasts of Company were screened across Australia this weekend – and there are some places also screening it this Tuesday night. I recommend seeing it, if you can – hope it leads to more Broadway shows screened locally in cinemas and possibly a DVD release in the future.

I wish!

Oh, wrong Sondheim.