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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December 20, 2011

On Doubting The Avengers

I can’t get excited about The Avengers, allegedly the biggest or second biggest film of 2012 depending on who you talk to, even though it should be catnip to me.

The Avengers consists of one successful film franchise, Iron Man, two newly launched franchises (that with their Norse Gods magic as opposed to super-science technology don’t really synch with the interior logic of the successful franchise), Thor and Captain America, and one franchise that has failed to launch, twice, Hulk. That mixture just does not cry out for a super-team-up super-franchise. If in 1991 John McClane and Riggs & Murtagh had joined forces for a super-team-up action-movie buddy-cops super-franchise, Die Hard with a Lethal Weapon, it would have made far more commercial sense than Marvel foisting The Avengers on us.

Commercial sense (and interior logic) aside I have grave screenwriting concerns about the movie. Does anyone really think that one film can successfully contain so many characters? Think about it. Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk, Thor, Nick Fury, Black Widow, Pepper Potts, Agent Coulson, Loki and The Krulls. What exactly can be done in 2 hours in terms of actual story once you’ve finished establishing ground rules for all those characters (in case some people, as is highly likely, missed some of their cinematic instalments), introduced Hawkeye and somehow not made him ridiculous, and given the stars ego-balanced arcs?

If by some miracle you manage to synch all the fictive micro-universes together into one coherent macro-universe, and massage all the egos involved in juggling several franchise characters, what villains are you left with after the customary slaughter of bad guys in the denouements of the existing franchises? The Krulls. Oh, great. What works well in comics doesn’t necessarily work well in cinema. The Krulls immediately invoke the Mission: Impossible 2 peril. If everyone in every scene could really be someone else wearing a mask then you cease to emotionally invest in anything that happens because it mightn’t be real.

Given these problems does anyone really think that co-writer/director Joss Whedon has it in him to pull this off? Whedon has after all directed only one two film, which had a fraction of the budget and star power of The Avengers, while his most recent filmed screenplay has been sitting on a shelf for over a year, allegedly while the studio debates whether to convert it into 3-D because all horror films have to be in 3-D now. Paranormal Activitys rake in the money without being in 3-D which leads to the suspicion the studio thinks The Cabin in the Woods sucks just as much as Buffy Season 8. Whedon apologised for that arc (so awful that Wolves at the Gate, the largely stand-alone volume written by his Cabin co-writer Drew Goddard, is the only remnant worth salvaging) citing unlimited VFX giddiness…

Thus giving Whedon an unlimited special-effects budget, without Goddard’s counter-weight, may be as counterproductive as giving Richard Kelly the money he always needed to ramble on about aliens, time-travel, philosophy, and water.

January 28, 2011

Top 10 Films of 2010

(10) Whip It!
Drew Barrymore’s sports comedy-drama about Ellen Page’s smart high-school girl rebelling against her conservative mother’s ideal of beauty pageants by joining the riotous Texas Roller Derby is an awful lot of fun. Filled with sparkling turns from a female comedic ensemble, and some well-choreographed and bone-crunching stunts, the creaking of the plot mechanics does become a bit audible in the second act, but the third act is pleasingly subversive on two counts.
(9) Avatar
This is closer to the Cameron of Aliens than we could have hoped for. The script appears to have been generated by the same computers as the impressive bespoke special effects but, Worthington aside, the actors sell it well, aided by the fact that Cameron remains a master of emotionally manipulative action sequences; with the 9/11 style destruction of Hometree genuinely upsetting while the final half-hour is pulse-poundingly emotive and well orchestrated.
(8) Kick-Ass
A little gem of ultraviolent comic-book capers from the imagination of Mark Millar this faithfully follows the origin myth template but without PG-13 imposed morality; Batman would be feared by criminals because he acted like Big Daddy, gangsters would react like Mark Strong’s exasperated Don. Matthew Vaughn’s script improves on its source material in mining an unexpectedly deep vein of emotional pathos in the Big Daddy /Hit-Girl relationship.
(7) Let Me In
Matt Reeves follows Cloverfield with an incredible stylistic switch but retains his stark vision. This intimate horror features a number of nail-biting suspense sequences and improves on the Swedish version by making Abby scarier and more manipulative, with Owen more complicit, and by re-instating moral horror into this coming-of-age story. Reeves upsets everything we know about Americanisation by taking an over-rated film and making it bleaker and more affecting.
(6) Iron Man 2
A fine and very fun film with excellent cleverly counterpointed performances from Downey, Cheadle, Rourke and Rockwell as a consulting villain and a real villain, and a responsible hero and a drunken hero. The first act moves at an insane pace verbally and is full of wonderful comedic touches. So what if Nick Fury solves the plot for Tony Stark, my gripe is with the inconsistent relationship between Pepper and the poorly used Black Widow and the déjà-vu action finale.


(5) Scott Pilgrim Vs the World
The comedy of the year is deliriously nonsensical, filled with joyous touches, played perfectly by the youthful ensemble (aided by insane cameos), and is chockfull of superb visual gags. It is, like Wright’s Hot Fuzz, a bit too long but this is as crazy and original as big studio films get and, like (500) Days of Summer , characters break-up not because of dastardly secrets but because they’re as fickle as Ramona with men or as shallow/cruel as Scott dumping Knives after two-timing her.
(3) The Bad Lieutenant
Werner Herzog’s ecstatic madness finally returns to his dramatic features in an examination of the bliss of evil. He drags a barnstorming performance worthy of Klaus Kinksi out of Nicolas Cage and plasters the insanity of his recent documentaries onto what is structurally a solid police procedural, before you add iguanas and drugs, and nonsense, lots of nonsense. This black comedy towers above Ferrara’s portentous original aided by a surprisingly reflective ending.
(3) A Single Man
Colin Firth’s stunning performance is only one of many dazzling elements in a heart-breaking film punctuated by outstanding moments of black comedy and shot with an amazing eye for style, sartorial and visual. Director and co-writer Ford has managed to transform a forgotten Christopher Isherwood novel into a compassionate meditation on human relationships and the crushing nature of bereavement and grief which is also sprinkled with hilarious lines.
(2) The Social Network
The founding of Facebook was played out with amazing scenes, lines, and ideas and gripped like a vice with a constant unnerving tension surrounding the actions of central villain Mark. There were echoes of Fincher past in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ rumbling beats, especially underneath Sean’s first meeting with Mark and Eduardo, and Sean was in a way the Tyler of this tale, whose rejection leaves no happy ending. Sorkin’s script has witty repartee but its emotionally raw opening scene sets the movie’s tone. Favouring Fincher’s pessimism over Sorkin’s optimism makes this an uneasy masterpiece.


(1) Inception
Nolan wins not just for the tremendous redemptive emotional kick the whole movie builds to, when you read the film on its most superficial level where it’s too neat structurally for its own good, but because once you look deeper you realise that this is a puzzle piece worthy of a UCL English graduate; it supports many contradictory readings, none of them definitive. See a loose thread and pull and the garment does not unravel, it changes pattern and remains coherent. ‘Ellen Page’s character is too obviously an expositional device’. Yes, unless her insistence on talking through the plot with DiCaprio’s character is because she’s a therapist hired by the rest of the team to exorcise Mal from his memory… This is a blockbuster rubik’s cube of a caper movie combined with sci-fi thriller, which exploits the ability give physical reality to subconscious emotional scars, in order to dazzle both eyes and mind with spectacle, ideas, and meaty drama.

May 2, 2008

Iron Man

Robert Downey Jr is a decadent, irresponsible, drink-swilling loose cannon with a lot of talent and more money than God…in this film.

Downey Jr was inspired casting for Marvel Comics’ high-risk first self-financed comic-book blockbuster. Tony Stark aka Iron Man was always one of Marvel’s more interesting characters, in the hands of a deranged comics writer like Scotland’s celebrated Mark Millar he could become almost like a morally good riff on the Lex Luthor persona. A genius inventor alcoholic billionaire with a dodgy ticker has always been the short description of Stark and a good deal of Downey Jr’s screen presence as a fast-talking ironist seems to have been infused into the role and the film is a triumph because of it. The hilarious opening scenes between Stark and American soldiers in a humvee set the tone of this film which has immense fun in showing a playboy turn his life around. Downey Jr is nicely blank and subdued when Stark is kidnapped and forced to build a weapon but instead builds iron armour with high grade weapons capabilities to escape his captors, an experience that makes him resolve to stop making weapons when they can fall into the wrongs hands so easily.

For the most part though, especially the slapstick injuries he suffers when refining his new suit, Downey is having a ball Fassbendering his way through the movie. Yes, that’s a word, now. To Fassbender: to very obviously derive too much enjoyment from one’s work. See Irish actor Michael Fassbender, who spends the entirety of 300 grinning like an idiot. Downey is surrounded by equally stimulated actors. Gwyneth Paltrow is very winning in a surprisingly small role as Stark’s long suffering PA Pepper Potts. Paul Bettany whoops it up voicing Stark’s interactive computer Jarvis while fellow Brit Shaun Toub is very charismatic as Stark’s cell-mate Yinsen who helps him build his suit. Only Jeff Bridges disappoints, by neither chewing the scenery nor being truly menacing, in his role as corporate villain Obadiah Stane who is fated to become Iron Monger.

The 1960s origin myth of Stark being kidnapped by the Vietcong has been nicely updated to the Taliban (by another name). These insurgents appropriate Stark’s technology so Stark takes the fight to them in a gleeful action sequence. But there is just not enough action in this film to detract from a sense of deflation at the final set-piece showdown between Iron Man and Iron Monger that plays all too much like a deleted scene from Transformers. There is a lot to love about Iron Man, especially a running gag about a government department with an absurdly unwieldy title that pays off as a wonderful in-joke, but while this is solid it’s not quite as much delirious fun as the awesome trailer promised. Highly recommended fun nonetheless…

4/5

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