Talking Movies

April 27, 2013

Iron Man 3

Robert Downey Jr returns as Tony Stark and reunites with director Shane Black for an overdue tilt at Iron Man’s greatest comics foe, The Mandarin.

Stark

Black playfully opens with an extended flashback to Downey Jr Tony at the height of his partying. In Switzerland for New Year’s Eve 1999, he plays a cruel prank on crippled scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and seduces brilliant scientist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall). Christmas 2012, however, finds Tony suffering anxiety attacks about The Avengers, his chauffer promoted to head of security Happy (Jon Favreau) harassing everyone about authorisation badges, and his girlfriend Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) turning down a business proposal from a now able-bodied Killian that seems to incorporate Hansen’s Extremis research into limb regeneration in plants. Killian’s shady associate Eric (James Badge Dale) arouses Happy’s suspicions, but Tony just obsessively tinkers on new versions of his suit; until a media-hijacking terror campaign by The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) literally jolts him out of his comfort zone into fighting for survival.

Black provided Downey Jr with the definitive iteration of his persona in 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but his script  with Drew Pearce only intermittently reaches such heights. Black returns Tony to essential characterisation: a genius inventor who needs to invent quickly, without resources, to save his skin. Tony’s PTSD, after some initial sombreness, is largely played for laughs; especially in scenes with Harley (Ty Simpkins), a helpful kid he meets in small-town Tennessee while following up a clue Happy found. The Tennessee sequences feature fantastic moments as Black pushes the envelope on Tony’s abrasiveness. Once Tony returns to the fray in Miami Black punctuates the escalating action with hilarious undercutting, and one spectacular scene straight out of his customary playbook. But these are touches invigorating a formulaic script (which features an outrageously obvious climactic twist) rather than a page-one subversive deconstruction of superhero cliches.

Dale is very menacing as an Extremis supervillain – combining regenerative powers with super-heating abilities. Dale’s henchman outshines his boss, as Pearce’s part begins ridiculously and never gains either true menace or grandiosity, despite delivering an unexpected shock. Pearce is dwarfed by a Fassbendering Kingsley, who finds very surprising comedy in The Mandarin, despite having a traumatising scene where he tests the President (William Sadlier) live on TV. Hall is sadly underused and Don Cheadle’s Colonel Rhodes is misplaced by the script for most of the second act, but Paul Bettany has fun as malfunctioning computer Jarvis and Paltrow belies her status as America’s most hated celebrity with another charming turn as a Pepper tougher than hitherto. The standout aerial sequence is very exciting, but, once again, the frenetic finale degenerates into wall-to-wall CGI mayhem that defeats emotional engagement.

Downey Jr and Black don’t deliver as much fun as hoped for, but this is an entertaining instalment of Marvel Studio’s only indispensable franchise.

3/5

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September 5, 2012

Lawless

Director John Hillcoat reunites with his The Proposition screenwriter Nick Cave for another brutally violent piece of period film-making about savage brothers.

Virginia in 1931 finds the real-life Bondurrant brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy), Jack (Shia LaBeouf), and Howard (Jason Clarke) thriving in the wettest county in Prohibition America. Boardwalk Empire’s bootlegging looks understated by comparison with the Christmas tree appearance at night of this locale as illicit stills fire up to make liquor with the full conniving permission of the local law. A tough federal agent Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives to stamp out bootlegging, or rather restrict it to those who pay off the new and viciously corrupt DA. Local legend Forrest is unwilling to do so, and, being reckoned indestructible, doesn’t think Rakes can force his hand. But when Rakes declares war Maggie (Jessica Chastain), the new waitress at the Bondurrant diner, and Jack’s polio-stricken friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan), as well as Jack’s girlfriend Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) are more vulnerable targets…

John McGahern said that fiction operated under the burden of having to be plausible, when life could be as implausible as it liked because it was real. Despite being based on a true story it is implausibility that sinks this film. What appears to be a huge shock killing, in a scene worthy of The Godfather, transpires to be a truly bizarre refusal to shock. The finale is then marred by the equally unlikely survival of another patently fatal injury. Cave inserts some delightful touches in the soundtrack, listen for the bluegrass version of The Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/White Heat’ sound-tracking a bootlegging montage, and his interesting collapsing of time with the new preacher’s flock, who could as easily be a flock from the 1860s, is reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. This film’s problems, however, largely stem from his screenplay.

Lawless is inhabited by ciphers rather than characters. Jason Clarke’s Howard is totally undeveloped, while an oddly-made-up Guy Pearce is underused as a psychotic dandy. Gary Oldman’s gangster Floyd Banner really only has three scenes, as if his sole purpose was to remind us, with a machine-gunning scene and a good rant, that Oldman used to be the crazy villain of choice once. Hardy’s character is given to grunting rather than talking, and, while Hardy actually makes this expressive, it leads to a ridiculously gratuitous scene with Jessica Chastain which feels like a dramatic jump-start for a romance Cave couldn’t be bothered to write. And that’s before the film loses interest in Forrest in favour of young Jack’s attempts to both romance the preacher’s daughter Bertha and outdo Forrest in the bootlegging stakes with the help of his friend Cricket who has an unexpected talent for souping up car engines…

Lawless prioritises unrelenting violence over character development and leaves very good actors trying to flesh out characters the script has left un-nuanced.

2.5/5

April 16, 2012

Lockout

Writer/producer Luc Besson’s one-man studio continues with an entertaining sci-fi actioner starring Guy Pearce attempting to rescue Maggie Grace from 500 scumbags.

Pearce is Snow, an ex-CIA agent in 2079. Snow is arrested by Secret Service supremo Langral (a wonderfully ambiguous Peter Stormare) when Snow’s mentor is killed after requesting him as back-up on an undercover operation. Snow is unable to retrieve vital exculpating evidence in a briefcase he passed to his partner Mace (Tim Plester) just before his arrest. Meanwhile First Daughter Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace) is visiting new maximum security prison space station MS1 to ensure humane treatment of the sedated convicts. Some joyfully dumb coincidences see her taken hostage along with the crew by the newly awakened prisoners, headed by Scottish brothers Alex (Vincent Regan) and Hydell (Joseph Gilgun); who have different ideas about how to bargain their way home. Snow’s CIA friend Shaw (Lennie James) persuades Langral to send Snow to MS1 as an implausible one-man army to rescue Emilie, and only Emilie…

Lockout wastes absolutely no time in setting up its plot. Indeed it features one of the most arresting openings this year as a handcuffed to a chair Pearce is repeatedly punched out of frame to allow the credits to pop up, before he sits back up to deliver another witticism and get punched out of frame again. He even delivers a wonderful gag about why punch-lines are so titled. It’s odd to see Pearce rather than Statham in a role like this, but, following sparkling supporting turns in Animal Kingdom, The King’s Speech and Justice, it’s great to see him headlining. Pearce swaggers his way thru this film with sardonic wisecracking gusto. Grace improves once she starts to act opposite him, especially with short, dark hair; which she gets courtesy of the application by Snow of scissors and a mix of engine grease and coffee.

This is a knowing genre piece. The basic concept is a riff on Escape from New York, the friction between Snow and Emilie the girl he wished he hadn’t rescued pure Han Solo and Leia, and the sympathetic Shaw talking Snow thru the operation on MS1 obviously Die Hard. This is silly action with a wink. The ‘spectacular’ CGI motorbike chase at the start is hilariously poor, as Pearce runs from the Secret Service on what is the Bat-pod, even down to lifting the crashing thru a shopping mall shot from The Dark Knight. Such entertaining hokum is derailed by Mancunian Gilgun’s quickly irritating turn as Hydell. A cross between twitchy-twitchy Jeremy Davies as Trainspotting’s Begbie and Andy Serkis as Gollum at his most self-pitying it’s just too much for a cipher; the violent loose cannon ruining Alex’s negotiating plans.

Irish directors and co-writers Stephen Saint-Leger and James Mather got Besson’s attention with their short film Prey Alone. Lockout should get Hollywood’s.

2.5/5

November 16, 2011

Justice

Nicolas Cage gets involved in vigilantism masterminded by an increasingly sinister Guy Pearce but director Roger Donaldson doesn’t tighten the Hitchcockian screws.

Nicolas Cage plays ye typically inspirational English teacher at ye typically deprived inner city high school in New Orleans. He’s married to January Jones’ cellist and plays chess with his principal and good friend Harold Perrineau. And then a rapist brutally attacks Jones, and at the hospital a shaven-headed Guy Pearce approaches Cage with an offer of true justice – in return for owing a small favour at an unspecified date in the future to Pearce’s shadowy organisation. Cage of course soon discovers such favours include not just surveillance or logistics but a murder in return, and, as the net tightens, finds himself running from the police over a murder he didn’t commit, estranged from his wife who’s convinced he’s keeping something from her, and subject to wonderfully justified paranoia as Pearce’s organisation seems to pervade every strata of New Orleans.

Pearce’s introduction recalls Steed offering a hospital surgeon help in avenging his wife’s murder in The Avengers pilot, and Mr Chapel in Vengeance Unlimited offering victims a chance to get even at the cost of a million dollars or a favour, while there’s also a touch of the Twilight Zone in that the person you just killed may not actually have been guilty of anything – but now you sure are. Cage reins in his craziness for the most part but effectively channels his eccentricities into portraying the increasing nerviness of a peaceful man forced into violent confrontation after violent confrontation. This time the bad lieutenant is the always great Xander Berkeley who may be utterly corrupt or perversely honourable somehow. Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter is criminally underused as Jones’ best friend, but Harold Perrineau fares better in another studiedly ambiguous turn.

Roger Donaldson (No Way Out, 13 Days) is a good director experienced in paranoia, but raw material that Hitchcock would have relished exploiting for suspense and black comedy is perfunctorily rushed through. The escalation of Pearce’s machinations invokes Strangers on a Train’s trading of murders to elude detection, and the fact that no one can be trusted, that whistle-blowing journalists, trustworthy cops, anyone at all could suddenly mutter the Edmund Burke derived shibboleth “The hungry rabbit jumps” and reveal themselves to be part of the organisation is prime Hitch. The best wasted set-up is Cage breaking into a newspaper office, and then having to walk through the distribution bay where his face is on every front page… Donaldson instead prioritises shoot-outs, chases and unlikely action-man heroics.

This is solidly entertaining, but feels far longer than its running time. The great high concept so obviously buried in here but failed by the execution honestly just frustrates me too much to give it the 3 stars it probably deserves for about scraping being good.

2/5

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