Tuesday, 28 August 2012

In Praise of The Black Widow

So, "The Avengers" came out earlier this year, and everyone pretty much agrees it was infinitely better than it had any right to be. It should've been a massive train-wreck of egos and screentime squabbling, drowning in excessive backstory and garnished with overblown spectacle but, under the steady guidance of Joss Whedon, we were given a solidly structured slice of pure entertainment built on a foundation of character comedy and personal drama. And alien robot-snake monsters.

The film was, of course, full of larger than life characters jostling for their moment in the spotlight, but Whedon managed to make it feel like nobody got short-changed, everybody got funny lines and everyone got to boot some alien balls.

The biggest surprise, however, was the character that stood out the most for me. It wasn't RDJ as Tony Stark, who is usually the best thing in whatever he's in, Chris Evans reprising his endearingly earnest boyscout, Chris Hemsworth's grandiose hammer-thrower, Jeremy Renner as a mind-fucked bow-boy, or even Mark Ruffalo's brilliant inaugural performance as a benignly twitchy Bruce Banner. No, the character and performance that stayed with me was the lone lady wading through the testosterone. Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff. The Black Widow.

Scarlett has fluctuated between brilliant and bland throughout her career, delivering performances of intimate nuance such as in "Lost in Translation", or wooden detachment such as in "Iron Man 2".

It was this initial performance as Romanoff that set me up for the surprise of the avengers. In "Iron Man 2", Johansson has nothing to do other than to look hot enough to catch Tony Stark's eye, stand around while RDJ and Sam Jackson discuss the plot, take her clothes off in the back of the Director's car and open an (admittedly impressive) can of whoopass in one scene towards the end.

She has no motivation or personality beyond "she works for SHIELD", and even occasionally seems awkward and uncomfortable in the eye-catching costume. It's as if Favreau didn't know what to do with her, so Johansson didn't know what to do with herself.

From her first scene in "The Avengers", a change is apparent. Tied to a chair by three thugs, she exudes confidence whilst dominating her captors verbally, mentally and then physically. This is a woman in control.

Whedon has given the character an air of professionalism and skill, while Johansson injects a swagger and spirit that was entirely missing from "Iron Man 2". It's as if Romanov was replaced by a robot the first time we met her, and only now are we seeing the real deal.

For many, the major concern with blockbuster movies is a favouring of spectacle over drama, effects over emotion. Whedon works the balance very well, but the emotional heart of the film is arguably the relationship between Romanoff and Renner's Clint Barton. Complex and seemingly platonic rather than romantic - more akin to a mentor/student relationship than an inferred desire - it's an important and distinctive human connection amongst all the superheroics. It's also worth noting that she sorts Barton's erratic behaviour out by bashing him in the head. Girl power.

One of the best acted scenes in the film is the exchange between Romanoff and the villainous Loki, where he comes over all Hannibal Lecter, sneering and leering at her through the glass of his prison. Tom Hiddleston as Loki goes from comic book bad guy to glowering sexual predator in this scene, becoming an altogether more personal and frightening prospect than we have seen him be before. He rains threats and sexually charged cuss-words (mewling quim! What? He's from the olden times) on her until she busts out crying. Little does he know that she is merely playing on his (and Whedon on our) expectations of the weak-willed damsel in distress. This is a trick Whedon has been pulling since the first scene of the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it still works because we remain unaccustomed to the so-called "strong woman" in popular culture.

As strong as this woman may be, however, a woman she remains. Check out the touch of femininity when she picks up her heels and walks barefoot from the scene of a shitkick. And the "most human moment" in the film (read this) comes when Romanoff meets the Hulk. After a valiant effort to talk Banner down from his rage, she's smart enough to know she's out of her league and it's time to cut and run. She's just a woman. A person, and she gets decked by the fucking Hulk. Thor has to come and save her leather-clad ass and we see her as a true damsel in distress for the first time. It doesn't last.

She's obviously a little shaken, and there's that beautiful moment where she's hiding and crying, before she mans up and runs off to carry on kicking ass. A true hero isn't the guy in the impenetrable armour, or the demi-god or the super-soldier, it's the hurt, scared girl who gets up and gets back in the fight anyway.

So Natasha Romanoff joins the pantheon of Joss Whedon's strong women, taking her place alongside Buffy, Willow, Faith, Cordelia, Fred, Inara, Zoe, River, Kaylee and the chicks from "Dollhouse". I haven't got round to watching that.

Before I saw "The Avengers", Romanov was just the one who showed her arse on the posters, now I want to see where her character goes within "The Avengers" movies, but I also wouldn't begrudge a solo outing for the red-headed wonder-spy. Not bad for a character I described as "window dressing" in my "Iron Man 2" review.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Ted: Bear With Me

Seth MacFarlane is a dick. A rich, smug dick. "Family Guy" used to be funny before he got complacent and started churning out half-arsed re-hashes of jokes and even entire shows. I saw the trailer for "Ted" and thought "So Wahlberg's Peter and the Teddy is Brian? Or Wahlberg's Stan and the Teddy's Roger? MacFarlane will be laughing all the way to the bank."

Sometimes I am a reactionary cynic.

"Ted" is a story about a kid who wishes his favourite cuddly toy to life one Christmas. How? That's not important. What's important is that the kid grows into Marky Mark and the bear gets Seth MacFarlane's voice. They remain inseperable buddies until Marky Mark's relationship with the unfathomably gorgeous Mila Kunis threatens to drive them apart.

Wahlberg is a unique actor. Nobody else veers so wildly between brilliance and atrocity as he does. Here, I'm glad to say, he's brilliant. Funny, earnest, amiable and charismatic, he settles into the everyman, nice-guy role with ease and reminds us why we like him even though he used to commit racially aggravated assaults and was in "The Happening".

Mila Kunis is a wonder to behold, but she can do the put-upon girlfriend thing in her sleep, so doesn't really stretch herself here, and then there's Ted. Ted is one of those brilliantly realised CG characters that come along every once in a while to make you think the digital revolution might have all been worthwhile. He's a sarky, snarky, blokey little horror you can't help but warm to.

This is really a story about the constant arrested development in western males. Ted is Marky Mark's inner child made fuzzy flesh. He's the voice that tells you to blow off work to go and get high. He's the adolescent instinct to hang out and watch "Flash Gordon" rather than go to your girlfriend's work party. It's the best use of fantasy as a study of contemporary male friendship since "Shaun of the Dead".

Indulgent critical readings aside, "Ted" is a consistently funny and likable movie which makes me think MacFarlane is wasted on his TV commitments. On the strength of this film, I wouldn't grieve too much if he cancelled "Family Guy" to concentrate on movies. Although, the way that show's been going lately, I wouldn't grieve if he said he was cancelling it to open a haberdashery.

It could be argued that the movie outstays its welcome slightly, and that a subplot which becomes un-sub in the final act is just tacked on to generate some jeopardy, but there's enough wit, absurdity, crass humour, comedy cameos, karaoke and even (shock!) genuine emotion to hold the attention firm. Rather than the tired "Family Guy" rehash I was expecting, MacFarlane has delivered a fully formed film which I expect will be rewatched and quoted for many years to come. Maybe MacFarlane's not such a dick after all...

Sunday, 26 August 2012

The Imposter: The Truth is Pretty Out There

So there's this kid, right? And he goes missing, right? And then a few years later he shows up in another country, yeah? And then he goes back to his family, okay? Only summat's not right...

Sounds like the plot for some high-concept psychological thriller, right? Only the title "The Imposter" can't really be classed as a spoiler due to the fact that this shit ACTUALLY HAPPENED.

This is a documentary made up of interview footage and some dramatisation/re-enactment which works surprisingly well. It ploughs similar ground to "Catfish" in that it becomes a study of intricate deception, trust and its abuse, but doesn't have the douchey, art-student protagonists of the Facebook liar flick.

What it does have is a chilling insight into the mind of a man who wants nothing more than to get away from himself, even if it means stealing someone else's identity and family.

It's difficult to write about this film without saying too much, and if you don't already know the story I recommend you avoid it until after you've seen the film as there are enough twists and shocks in this tale to make Hitchcock prick up his fat, dead ears.

And therein lies the problem. It would be easy to dismiss "The Imposter" as exploitative or over-editorialised as it witholds information until dramatically pertinent, shifts emphasis to create tension, and occasionally stoops towards ghoulish prying into a missing persons case. All these techniques make for a well-crafted, compelling film, but may leave you feeling sullied and unusual once the credits start to roll.

Brave: Queen of Scots

Pixar's latest tells the tale of a fiery Scots Princess attempting to escape the oppression of her royal duties and strike a blow for feminism and free will in the ancient highlands. A cadre of Scots lend their dulcets to the characters, led by Kelly McDonald as Princess Merida, Billy Connolly as her Royal Dad, and Emma Thompson as her Queen mum. Pretty much every other Scottish actor on the planet gegs in there somewhere, making the whole thing sound a bit like "How to Train your Dragon", now with ADDED SCOTTISHNESS.

It's Pixar's first fairytale and features their first female protagonist. The classical nature of the story and the presence of a Princess brings Pixar closer to their mother-company than ever before. There are echoes of Tangled, Beauty and the Beast and even The Emperor's New Groove to be heard here, but Brave's likable characters and deft pacing just about make up for the familiarity.

As is always the case with a Pixar movie, the visuals are uniformly beautiful and often jaw-dropping. This can become a problem when you're missing vital exposition because you got distracted by the awesome intricacy of the protagonists hair, but for the most part it makes the flick a compelling tourism video for CG Scotland.

The characters are imbued with genuine personality, both by the animators and their vocal performers. McDonald, in particular, takes the potentially angsty teenage Princess and makes her a bouncing bundle of irrepressable enthusiasm. Connolly and Thompson also get good mileage from their frustrated parental units, and there's some solid comedic support from the likes of Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson and Julie Walters.

One of the finest aspects of this film was the fact that, about 25 mins in, I realised I had no idea what was going to happen for the rest of the film. I felt like all the bits from the trailers and promotional material had already been on screen, and I was venturing into uncharted territory. This is unheard of in this age of spoilers and audience spoon-feeding, so it is to be commended.

Once the story begins to unfold, however, things go from "surprising" to "slightly formulaic" pretty quickly, and the second act feels a little under-developed and conflict-free. You're soon barrelling towards the emotional climax, though, so there's barely enough time to be finicky about plot complications.

What we have here is an above-average animated film with a distinct aesthetic and a shimmering Scottishy soundtrack (bagpipes and tin whistles!), bolstered by an effervescent central character and a few surprises along the way. It may seem a little slight when compared to Pixar's finest, but it remains a sweet little adventure with a solid heart.

 Oh yeah. I'm back, by the way.