Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) is, in part, an exercise in nostalgia for me since I watched the original run of the television show. To see the same space vehicle boldly going more than forty-five years later is somewhat remarkable given the obsolescence of culture. For the most part, what we found interesting and exciting back in the 1960s is dull and dreary today. Having a crew with the same names and adjacent accents still sitting on the bridge of a starship and commanding a worldwide audience puts the franchise into an elite group of long-life products. Only the comic book heroes like Batman and Superman who also had their television versions featuring Adam West and George Reeves respectively, have had longer runs. Indeed, Star Trek is one of a few original television shows to have maintained its reputation — matched by Doctor Who which was first screened in 1963.
My reason for starting this review in this way is because one of the two essential questions at the heart of this film rehearses the same argument we had been having since the end of World War II. In the 1960s, we were just finishing rebuilding after the devastation caused by the German bombing and my generation was all for peace by bringing people together in co-operative ventures. It was therefore heartening to see the message of the original Star Trek as a united Earth going off to explore and, wherever possible, make friends. We’d seen only too clearly what happened when petty nationalism got out of hand and militarism prevailed. Although the Enterprise had weaponry such as phasers and photon torpedoes, these were not often used and, for the most part, only in self-defence, The hand-held weapons had the virtue of being able to stun rather than kill. So this film encapsulates the debate by having two key ships on display. There’s the USS Enterprise in its Constitution Class form and the USS Vengeance which is a Dreadnought Class vessel developed by Khan Noonien Singh (Benedict Cumberbatch): a straight military vessel designed to fight the Klingon Empire. So here comes the question. When people sign up as recruits into the Starfleet Academy, are they going to learn the words of Kumbaya (a song associated with the notion of spiritual unity) and put the Prime Directive into action wherever possible, or are they going to boldly go with photon torpedoes at the ready and shoot down anything that stands in their way of conquest? The answer, of course, is the Federation that emerges in the unfolding television series would be impossible if everyone operated on a shoot first and ask questions afterward basis. Although the Klingons and the Romulans have warrior-based cultures, they both fight for the Federation in the Dominion Wars although the Romulans are resistant to the end.
The point of this film is that if Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) gets his way, Earth will follow the Romulan path of expansion through conquest, starting with the Klingons. This is not an unreasonable perspective. It would be naive to assume the space-going races we might meet will all be welcoming. In a competition for planets on which to seed colonies, any races that share the same environmental needs could elect to fight over the prime real estate. Only if there’s a balance of power is there an incentive to negotiate. Thus, on a precautionary basis, Earth should always have a strong military capacity so that we can demonstrate fighting capacity if diplomacy fails. The dividing line between offensive and defensive power is a narrow one and I suspect this film rather oversimplifies the debate. Scotty (Simon Pegg) is very quick to object to the new torpedoes. He’s apparently been quite happy with the old torpedoes and for him to get all high-and-mighty is nothing more than a plot device to get him off the Enterprise. The views of the other characters who comment on the issue are also superficial. I think this an opportunity missed to explore the issue with our “modern” sensibilities.
The second essential question featured is hypocrisy. This is at the heart of the relationship between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), and between the do-gooders of the Enterprise and the political machinery of Earth. Starting with the one-to-one relationship, Spock is only half Vulcan and therefore has some understanding of human psychology. Even if this were not the case, his logic could predict how Kirk will react in different situations. So when Kirk defies the Prime Directive and rescues Spock, it’s entirely foreseeable that Kirk will cover up his infraction. Spock is therefore magnificently stupid to put in a complete report. To claim an inability to lie as the excuse is the height of hypocrisy. He’s perfectly capable of lying if the needs of the many require it. The film therefore charts the emotional arc as Spock resolves an internal debate on the nature of friendship and the need for accommodating emotions. After all, his own father married a human and, with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) very much in play, he has a similar decision to make about that relationship.
This version of Kirk is interestingly monomaniacal and phenomenally lucky. In other circumstances, he would probably be locked up as a danger to himself and others around him. He can’t even remember who he’s slept with let alone how many other people he’s dealt with over the years. All you can say about him is that he’s fixated by the needs of command and loyal, in the abstract sense, to the crew of whichever ship he happens to be on. So even though it puts everyone else at risk of being caught in the exploding volcano, he rescues Spock. This is the musketeer approach to command, “All for one, and one for all.” Similarly in the relationship with the political and military structure of Earth’s government, Admiral Marcus can’t be acting alone. This scale of investment could only be sanctioned by a powerful subset of Earth’s command. The ending where that same Earth government sends Kirk and the Enterprise out of the way on a five year mission is also preparing the ground for continuing its own militarism without anyone high-profile and inconvenient around. All Kirk has done is kick the can down the road. Little or nothing will change so long as the Klingons are still potential enemies. Kirk should not be looking so pleased with himself as he warps away from Earth at the end. He’s actually giving up the political fight and running away.
So where does this leave us? At two hours and twelve minutes, this is too long. There are endless examples of scenes inserted or dragged out to add in extra minutes when what we have is a potentially brilliant script if we left not less than twenty minutes on the cutting-room floor, e.g. cutting down the chase on Kronus, the transfer between the starships, the gratuitous sex scenes, kicking the warp engine, and the fight in San Francisco at the end. So this looks great with some genuinely impressive CGI. The ideas are good albeit not properly developed. Benedict Cumberbatch lights up the screen as the villain of the piece. Zachary Quinto is also impressive. The result is the second-best blockbuster in what has been, to date, a lackluster 2013. J J Abrams is to be congratulated. He got enough right to justify a third in the series. Star Trek Into Darkness is worth seeing.
So, in Snitch (2013), we have John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson), the model Dad. He’s one of these great caring people who, when he sees a new employee working late, stops to help move sacks around. His only mistake in life so far has been to get divorced and give the custody of his son, Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron), to his ex, Sylvie Collins (Melina Kanakaredes). For whatever reason, his son has had nothing to do with his father. This lack of a father’s guiding hand leads to an act of extreme stupidity in which he agrees to hold a small mountain of pills for a friend. Needless to say, this is a set-up and the DEA swoop as soon as the drugs are through the door. This paragon of stupidity is now looking at a minimum of ten year’s jail time. America has some really weird laws which have mandatory sentences based on the quantity of drugs held, but there’s chance for a reduction in that sentence if the accused co-operates with the authorities to ensnare others higher up in the distribution chain. Given the potential to take eight years off his sentence, the dimwit claims he cannot become a snitch. In the jail visiting telephone chat, we get all the guilt-tripping. If only I’d been a better Dad and had you in my life. I cared too much about my business to push the issue of joint custody. If I’d been a better son and not hated you for going off to live in a big house and leave Mom and me in a rundown neighbourhood. . . Yawn!
Faced with this spectacularly unfair law, superDad decides to volunteer his own services as a snitch in his son’s place. Not surprisingly, this is not how the law is supposed to work. Bending the rules requires the approval of DA Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon). Law officials tasked with the enforcement of these laws are, by definition, not bleeding hearts. So Keeghan’s response is entirely rational. If superDad comes up with an airtight arrest of someone with intent to distribute not less than half-a-kilo of coke, his son gets remission. But the risk is all his. Obviously he’s not a trained police officer and the idea of a naive do-gooder going undercover to infiltrate a drug distribution cartel is a high-risk activity even at the best of times. Nevertheless, for the love of his son, he decides to explore options. As the boss of a construction company, he employs ex-cons. Perhaps someone can point him in the right direction.
Right so let’s pause here. Dimwit son agreed to break the law and got busted. Great, so he’s a criminal. He refuses to entrap any of his friends. Great, so he’s got a vague grasp of morality and feels he should not roll on someone he thinks is innocent just to shave years off his sentence. So even though superDad has remarried and has a new child to love, he decides he will act as the snitch. But to achieve the aim of excusing his criminal son, he has to get one or more ex-cons to give up their contacts or involve themselves in further criminal activity and risk jail. For the ex-cons superDad involves, this is not the same as acting as a paid informer for the police. SuperDad is inciting these ex-criminals to become criminals again. He starts a “partnership” with Daniel James (Jon Bernthal) who is married and trying to rebuild his life in difficult circumstances. Just talking to him is a conspiracy and exposes this man to the risk of jail. Yet this conversation gets our hero as far as Malik (Michael K. Williams). The DA is moved to offer a reduction to one year if superDad can bring him in. A concerned DEA officer Cooper (Barry Pepper) sets superDad up with a wire and sits in the background as an advisor. Later he warns superDad about the DA. She can be a little forgetful on the detail of the deals she makes. So our hero ends up being introduced to Juan Carlos “El Topa” Pintera (Benjamin Bratt) and, after a set-piece chase, we get to the end.
In a way this is the film in which the ex-wrestler gets to show whether he can act. Interestingly he may be physically the biggest man in the room on several occasions, but he’s not there to fight. Playing against type, he’s there to look scared but determined. There’s some plausibility to his story that life in the construction industry can’t pay the bills in these difficult economic times. Whether that would force a respectable businessman to start transporting wholesale quantities of drugs is another matter. Frankly I found the first half of the film to be deadly dull. I’m not doubting the narrative necessity of each element of the story as shown, but the pace is leaden. Even when we get on to the road in his truck, it’s not that much better. It’s a long drive. When the action does come, it somehow failed to engage my interest. It’s not that the situations are without tension. I just didn’t care whether this hero succeeded. Nothing in the set-up seems to justify any of this. I’m not denying this is a terrible law and our hero is being ruthlessly exploited by a DA with a political agenda, but our hero is doing all this for a worthless son. I might have had more sympathy if our hero had been forced into this because he was a victim. But none of this life-and-death extravagance is credible.
The ultimate outcome is also a real pain. The hero and his ex-wife are the happiest ex-couple I’ve ever seen, while our hero has effectively destroyed his new family’s life as his business is gone and they must go into witness protection. I really don’t think that’s going to be a long-term marriage. There’s actually a good story here waiting to be told. If the DA and the undercover cop had sat down with our hero to plan an operation, we could have built up a tense drama. As it is, the parts created for Susan Sarandon and Barry Peeper are woefully underwritten. This would also have put proper legal protection in place for Jon Bernthal as the man seduced back to his criminal ways. The longer term criminals are classic stereotypes and boringly predictable. Not even the acting of Dwayne Johnson can save the film because he’s been given silly things to say and do. Overall, Snitch is a ghastly tragedy of everyone on the production side missing opportunities to make a good film.
I suppose Oblivion (2013) makes a change. Instead of dealing with the crash-bang defeat of an alien invasion and stopping the cameras rolling before Earth gets to do the clean-up operation, removing all the damaged and destroyed buildings and the bodies of the aliens we managed to slaughter, this film starts off with the notion that the aliens turned up and attacked the moon. Don’t you just love science fiction. Knowing they could never hope to defeat Earth’s military might, they took on the one target they knew they could beat. Oh, and of course, substantial destruction of the moon changed the gravitational effect of said moon and there were earthquakes and tsunamis down here that pretty much did in Earth’s defences. Pretty sneaky, huh? Except the military had enough nuclear firepower to defeat these pesky creatures when they did land. The price of Earth’s victory? Contamination on an epic scale.
At this point, i.e. about two minutes into the film, we get a major inconsistency in the narrative. If Earth was seriously damaged by all this, how come we could develop the technology to build this superduper space station and go into residence around Titan? This is clearly beyond our abilities, even without the odd high tide washing over cities. More importantly, if Earth didn’t beat all these scavenger beings and they hang around still attacking our hero, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), why not get more systematic to exterminate them before settling into a life in outer space to wait for the planet to heal? Failure on this front means they breed while we’re away and can build defences to stop us coming back. We’re also immediately shown that “they” are messing with our hero’s memories. He keeps getting flashbacks to the pre-invasion Earth and sees this dominant image of a woman. This must be some imperfection from the last security memory wipe which occurred almost five years ago. Except Jack is obviously an unreliable narrator and we can’t trust anything he claims to remember. His minder (and lover), Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), is apparently there to keep Jack on mission and acting within the “rules” laid down by Sally (Melissa Leo), the liaison officer in command from the space station.
So we hypothesise that the aliens won and, having wiped Jack’s memories, are now using him to repair their drones while they steal our water. The images of the beached ships and odd bits of building left exposed are quite impressive and confirm destruction on an epic scale. Assuming this is replicated across the planet, it’s inconceivable humanity survived in any numbers. As you would therefore expect, this homely drone maintenance engineer and his consort believe they are the only folk left on Earth and they have one of these idyllic homes perched on top of a mountain while he completes the establishment of the drone network (except the trailer has already shown us that Beech (Morgan Freeman) is alive and well and living in semidarkness so he can see where the end of his cigar is to light it when he strikes a match). His sidekick is Sykes (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who looks difficult to kill. OK so what’s the verdict after ten minutes? It seems Earth has also developed antigravity because these drones move around without regard to little constraints like mass and momentum. There’s also this nifty flying thingamagummy for Jack to patrol his allocated quadrant which is also way beyond anything we could have developed.
For the record, not one bit of the “science” in this science fiction film makes any sense. If aliens blew up the moon, we could have a ring like Saturn which would be really cool when the sun shines on it or there could be a big dust cloud which would have substantially the same mass as the moon in solid form, i.e. have the same gravitational effect. If the moon was pushed away, the sun would take over as the dominant gravitational force and we’d get high tide at noon every day. Oh, and people would stop changing into wolves when the moon was full. The assertion Earth would have been pulled to pieces because of this sneak attack is ludicrous. The only point of this scenario is to justify the montage of CGI images that provide a context for the actors to say their lines which, for the most part, are ditchwater dull and make little sense.
Perhaps we can save the film by dignifying it as an SFnal examination as to the meaning of identity. You know the kind of thing. We are the sum of all we remember so, if there’s an artificial block on our memories, our character changes. Why? Because if we can no longer remember how we reacted in the past, experience stops guiding us in the present. Except all this film does is prove these damn fool aliens don’t have a mind machine to beat the mind of Tom Cruise. He’s back in the past remembering football games and this woman on top of the Empire State Building. You just can’t keep the mind of a good hero down. It bears mentioning that the main plot set-up and twist is the same as in Moon (2009) which was not unlike Eutamnesia (2000). It’s difficult to be genuinely original when there have been so many books and films on this theme. So perhaps we can say the CGI is great and the action exciting? Well, the first fight sequence is chaotic and the behaviour of the drone makes little sense. Then an old piece of technology crashes and, after forcing the drones to pull away, Jack rescues Julia (Olga Kurylenko). She’s been in suspended animation for sixty (or more) years and, yes, she’s the girl he keeps remembering. What? Earth had suspended animation technology? Perhaps they also had stealth technology as well.
At this point, lots of stuff happens and then it ends. Perhaps this would not have been too bad if it had only been a ninety minute film but, at one-hundred-and-twenty-four minutes, it feels like Purgatory. It’s an excuse to watch Tom Cruise ride his motorbike, fly this cool thingamagummy and shoot at whatever moves (and do environmentally sustainable things in a patch of jungle). Andrea Riseborough is there to look good and prove that the alien mind machine works on women. Olga Kurylenko is there as the “other woman” and to perpetuate the species. Morgan Freeman lights up the screen and his cigar for about ten minutes. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is effectively invisible. For me Oblivion is appropriately named because that’s where the film should be consigned.
When the lights go down and the digestive juices are eagerly expecting creative sustenance, Jack The Giant Slayer (2013) immediately tells you this is an impressive and exciting film by a piece of over-the-top-bombastic music that can’t possibly be sustained. If it was going to be this deafening, sorry exciting, for the next 114 minutes, our ears be worn down to the quick and that would never do. We would lack the strength to rise from our seats and go eat some monster nibbles at the nearest fast-food outlet? So the volume, pace and tempo must drop, and then duck in and out of gentle storytelling mode. So here comes the set-up. Young Jack and Princess Isabel sit in their respective low-born and high mucky-muck beds while their parents tell the story of how monks first attempted to grow the bridge between Heaven and Earth, but instead opened the door for the giants to come down the beanstalk and start eating us. Now there you have it. Hubris! It always gets people into trouble, particularly when they start deluding themselves into believing there’s a shortcut to Heaven. The moral so far is don’t go down to the woods today because giants are holding a finger-food event.
We then get one of these nice fairy story ideas that would require explanation in any other context. Needing a way to control the giants, the humans kill a giant (no mean feat), extract its heart (not so difficult once deceased) and then melt it down to make a crown for the king to wear (hmmm — giants have metallic hearts and, as an aside having no significance whatsoever, the tract for food to pass down into their stomachs is full of water and not an acid or enzymes or anything else that might consume input as food). Consequently (sic) when the king wears the crown, he can control the giants and tell them to climb back up the beanstalk. Once the last one has climbed back up, they (probably the humans working from the bottom up) cut down the beanstalk and promptly relegate all the factual aspects of the invasion to myth (in rhyme so it can be told to children). So that’s all right then. All done and dusted, as these British types say.
Ten years later (wow, time sure does pass fast in these tales), Jack (Nicholas Hoult), the daydreamer, is sent off to market to sell the horse and cart, but is distracted by a pantomime version of the fairy story and the now beautiful Isabel (Eleanor Tomlinson). Of course we have the usual palace conspiracies for Roderick (Stanley Tucci) to marry Isabel and rule the world (which plans have already led to raiding the old King’s tomb and extracting both the fatal seeds and the magic crown). Why is it, I wonder, that villains are usually called Roderick in these fantasy films? When a monk steals the seeds who else can be trusted to do everything wrong but Jack. Take the seeds to the Abbey (yes) and on the way, don’t get them wet (now that shouldn’t be so hard, should it).
At this point the Princess knows she’s in serious danger of becoming the token woman and so makes a dramatic speech claiming not to be some fragile creature. No, she wants to take responsibility, get to know the people, and set herself on the path to being a Queen. When King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), still overcome with remorse from the loss of his wife, hears this, he tells her to shut up and marry Roderick. So much for empowerment and the mediaeval feminist movement. That’s why she runs away, like any self-respecting Princess would in a fairy story. Inevitably, because that’s what the plot requires, she ends up in the tenant farm occupied by Jack — it’s dark, raining and she can’t see where she’s going. This is a bad thing because, with the roof leaking, one of the seeds is going to get wet. Obviously these are GM seeds because this specimen sure does grow fast and carry the farmhouse and the Princess up to the land where giants have been imprisoned (they’re led by General Fallon (Bill Nighy and John Kassir — it’s a big body to move around and it needs all the brains it can get). As a further aside, there must be a time distortion effect in operation because it’s the same exclusively male army of giants that were beaten the last time around. They have survived the hundreds (?) of years without any female companionship to make life worth living or perpetuate their species.
As the excitement rises to fever pitch, i.e. the music wakes us up, we meet Elmont (Ewan McGregor), the wannabe Jedi knight in charge of the rescue expedition up the beanstalk. He has his moments but lacks credibility, a fact made abundantly clear when they meet the first giant. This leaves Jack and the villain, who conveniently has the crown with him, running free in the land of the giants. Naturally, the villain uses the crown to control these poor creatures and plans to take over the world. With the first signs of true love blossoming, Jack gives the inspirational speech to the Princess. She’s not useless. She’ll make the world a better place. So then it’s divide and rule. Jack takes the Princess down the beanstalk and the Jedi knight type stays up top to kill the villain with the controlling crown. This creates a problem because when you’ve spent the first part of the film establishing the villain, it’s not good to kill him off and leave the giants as the villains when we don’t care about them. In the best fantasy films, the best villains are always the ones who are the most human. They betray and scheme, laugh when they succeed and cry when they suffer a reversal, i.e. they are credible as characters. It would have been so much better if Roderick had led the giants down to attack the kingdom. Jack could then have sneaked into the giant’s camp and killed the “old man” in a “fair fight” and taken the crown. That’s the right level of heroism for this Jack. When it comes to the ending, Jack’s got a great cart horse and he’s the saviour of the kingdom (more by luck than good judgement), relegating the Princess to the pretty one who gives birth to children and so loses her good looks.
I think the problem is that Bryan Singer and the people behind this film couldn’t make up their minds whether they wanted it to be scary or camp. The result is that it’s neither frightening in the slightest nor genuinely amusing. As a plot, it would have made a great thirty-minute episode in an animated series of fairy stories. It ticks the right boxes but it drags everything out to interminable length with poor CGI. The script is a dead weight round the necks of the high-powered cast of actors so they can’t get laughs to paper over the cracks. The giants are suitably massive and throw trees around like matchsticks (not sure how they set then on fire first), but they’re not used to frighten. Although he does kill one by accident and causes two more to die, Jack never feels like a heroic giant slayer. And just telling them all to quit making a nuisance of themselves and go home is a ho-hum ending. Sadly, Jack the Giant Slayer is just dead on arrival.
Now with me being what’s politely called a senior, many of you might say I’ve got no reason to go and see a film intended for children. The cultural gap between me as a reviewer and the intended audience is just too great. This will just be an excuse to beat an already dead horse to death. And to some extent, you’d be right. So let’s seize this opportunity and get on with the beating. The Croods (2013) is the latest animation out of DreamWorks and features some interesting voices set against one of these fantasy versions of the past. Superficially, it asks us a number of pertinent questions. In a world with so many perils, do we only survive because we fear injury and death? Take driving as an example. Every minute we’re on the road and in motion, there’s a serious risk of an accident if we fail to keep a proper lookout. Indeed, if a caveman was suddenly to be transported through time and deposited in the middle of our “safe” world, he would probably be dead in ten minutes because he would not understand enough about when he sees to avoid all the hazards we take for granted and avoid. It would be exactly the same if we were suddenly to be moved back to the time there was only the one continent. Yes that long ago. Before continental drift broke up Gondwana into the world mapmakers know and love so much today. Back then, even if we came equipped with supreme American football skills, going for breakfast would probably see us dead, if not from the little critters, then certainly from the big kitty who sees humans as like big mice. In that world, survival is not fun. In fact, nothing is fun in the sense we would understand the word. Hypervigilance is required at all times and curiosity is forbidden.
So now, following in the footsteps of The Flintstones, comes the Crood family. Papa Grug (Nicholas Cage) has all the right instincts for survival in an unchanging world even though the results are somewhat paranoid and dysfunctional (he’s a prehistoric Chicken Little with a constant fear the sky is falling). Through dumb luck, he’s come up with what seems to be the right formula because everyone else around him has died. This family is the only group of survivors in this area. But when I say “dumb” luck, the formula is really stupid and the film mocks his efforts as all the family go through the requisite contortions for survival. We are continually shown that there’s a vast gulf between not dying and living with an optimum quality of life given the environment. Ugga (Catherine Keener) and her mother, Gran (Cloris Leachman) go along with it because, so far, living in a cold dark cave has been safe even if they do have to huddle together to stay warn. That the Dad is later shown as dumber than monkeys is cruel. This does not deny some more politically correct humour. As we go on, there’s a wonderful Looney Tunes episode and one or two really nice sight gags.
In the midst of all this, the teenaged Eep (Emma Stone) is a problem. Not only does she insist on her own ledge in the cave but she’s also prone to wandering off and not paying proper attention. Then the Prometheus arrives with fire. He’s called Guy (Ryan Reynolds) and he’s come with news of the end of the world, i.e. he’s the first with the theory that the tectonic plates are moving. And, as if our family needed evidence of the need to change, an earth tremor blocks the entrance to the cave. When the big kitty appears, they have no choice but to move into the jungle. Fortunately presenting them with fire accidentally provides them with popcorn which keeps them alive long enough to see the advantages of a cooked bird to snack on. That’s after they discover rubbing fire against dry grass does not extinguish it — an understandable mistake for the uninitiated.
Once we get into the jungle, we’re shown this is a world of beauty if only they have eyes to see it. Or to put it another way, it’s a bit like an animated version of the countryside in Avatar (unintentionally, of course). By the time they’ve finished their journey, they’ve acquired a “dog” called Douglas and are at one with nature. Particularly when they see the stars — per ardua ad astra — and decide to shoot for the sun and a bright new tomorrow.
Explicitly, the film asks what Dads are for? To keep the family safe, of course. Dads may not have an idea in their heads but they are strong. And if you want a message without sentimentality, don’t go to films like this. Family films with children in mind have to promote family values and that means, despite all appearance to the contrary, wayward teen daughters must finally be able to admit they still love their fathers even though, in real terms, the daughters are modern and their father are, well, like cavemen. More seriously, films like this are reinforcing patriarchal stereotypes. Even though we have a Mom and a Mom-in-law, they are there merely as butts for jokes. For most of the film, they are shown as dependent followers. If a problem crops up they look to the man for its solution. If there’s a chasm to cross, they wait for him to throw them across, even though he gets left behind. Yes, noble self-sacrifice is alive for a brief moment in this prehistoric fantasy.
However, if we look beyond this appalling gender stereotyping, I suppose what the film typifies are the difficult choices the older generation has to take in a changing world. They’re supposed to be the ones with the accumulated wisdom and should be able to guide the young towards a better world. But even that’s a challenge. How do you decide whether to brainwash the children into being wholly dependent on their parents for all decisions or to train them to be independent and open to new things? There always comes a point when parents have to stop protecting their children and let them make their own mistakes. Personally, as a message, I think the result on screen is heavy-handed and uninspiring. Children will no doubt like the pretty colours and some of the jokes are quite amusing (although the mother-in-law is verbally beaten to death), but I can’t see the film as even remotely interesting. As an ironic aside to this review, I should mention The Croods has already taken more than $500 million worldwide which just goes to show that brainless and, at times, mildly offensive children’s films can make a lot of money.
Olympus Has Fallen (2013) starts with Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), our hero, and the President (Aaron Eckhart) practising their boxing before the First Family sets off for a fund-raising bash. This establishes that neither of them know how to fight for real and that the President is a good sport, not minding too much if an underling hits him in the mouth. Then it’s off into the snow and ice for the excitement of a midnight dip and a tragedy to reset the First Family’s dynamic. As is then required, eighteen months pass and the tensions rise on the Korean peninsula — this is a coincidence, of course, not cause and effect. Even to my jaded ears, Gerard Butler’s attempt at an American accent sounds unconvincing. He’s even less convincing as a lover and he’s definite not a model employee — the President has transferred him because he can’t stand seeing the men who were there on that night or perhaps he just can’t stand hearing the accent mangled. Whatever the reason, he’s all whiney and depressed. The opening sequence is slow-moving and, not to put too fine a point on it, boring.
Finally the pace begins to pick up with a low-flying plane coming into restricted airspace while a convoy of vehicles brings the South Korean Prime Minister through the streets and into the White House. Then the plane shoots down the two jets sent to intercept and starts shooting at targets around the White House. This spooks the President into his bunker, thoughtfully taking the visiting South Korean team with him even though it’s “against protocol”. Films like this would just die if people did what they are supposed to do. The attack on the ground then gets more systematic as tourists suddenly turn into commandos. Amazingly, it takes Gerard Butler almost thirty-five minutes to fight his way into the White House and the rest of the film to get back out again. The only note of originality during this attack is the use of Washington sanitation vehicles as covert armored vehicles. Needless to say, all the permanent guards and secret service agents are mown down as the White House falls into enemy hands. Uncharacteristically, the US Army turns up too late to do anything. They’re usually more gung-ho than this. When Kang (Rick Yune) the leader of this Korean strike force, confirms he’s holding the President hostage, this is a low moment for America and the music plays like a funeral march as international hubris is rewarded with local failure. Fortunately Gerard Butler is scrabbling around in the dark looking for the President’s son. The result is inevitable. We then come to the McGuffin. Every film worth its salt has to have a device of some sort. This film has the Cerberus computer system. If three codes are entered into the White House system, the terrorists can abort any nuclear missile launch. The Speaker (Morgan Freeman) takes over as acting President and lengthens his vowel sounds to sound, well, Presidential.
It’s not hard to say why this film fails to generate any thrills. It’s doing everything by the 1980s playbook and, since we’ve seen it all before, it’s no longer thrilling. The plot takes the plodding route. First, introduce the hero and establish a relationship with the President and his son. Establish the political scenario on the Korean peninsula and then stage the titular attack. Except it’s all the worst kind of melodrama without any depth or subtlety. For example when the Koreans spot our hero on the surveillance cameras, they identify him. One says, “We don’t need to worry about him.” and the President makes a whispered aside, “You should.” which says a great deal about the quality of the dialogue and its ability to maintain suspense rather than deflate it with unintended humour. Worse, a lot of the action takes place in semidarkness with the sub-Hans Zimmer heavy chords supposedly signalling how exciting all this is. Except it blatantly is not exciting. It’s just one cliché after another. So Gerard Butler starts torturing some of the Koreans he’s captured. His approach is literally laughable. Or to put it another way, the dialogue produced laughs from those around me which is not what you expect from a torture scene. Apart from this, the whole package is a third-rate rerun of the Die Hard scenario. He’s an insubordinate lone wolf in a violent quest to defeat terrorists who have taken over a building. All the scriptwriters have done is change the building to the White House which, fortunately, is insured against all the usual catastrophic events visited upon it by Hollywood. To tell us Gerard Butler is a hard man with a ruthless streak, he says “fuck” a lot. To show he’s also got a brain, he also uses the adjectival, gerund and adverbial forms of “fuck” as well.
Perhaps it’s just the 13 in 2013 that’s giving me such a run of bad luck, but every film so far apart from Iron Man 3 has ranged between bad and catastrophically awful. This film has a terrible plot that makes no sense a lot of the time, incredibly bad dialogue, badly-lit action scenes, poor CGI, wooden acting from almost everyone, only token women, and ghastly sentimentalism cast as patriotism in the final speeches. You should only go to see Olympus Has Fallen as a paid member of a focus group to analyse why this film is so bad and to offer advice to the producers on how to avoid making a turkey of this size in the future.
Emergency call centres perform a valuable public service. When there’s a problem, this is the interface between police, fire, ambulance, animal control or whatever other service is relevant to deal with the crisis. Manning the telephones of this LAPD 9-1-1 operation centre is a dedicated crew of individuals. They call it the Hive and these busy-bees must be able to deal with a whole range of different callers. Some will be calm, others in the full flow of panic. Some will be homicidal, others suicidal. So significant verbal skills are required to elicit relevant information and get the right response to the site of the call in the optimum time. I’m not sure to what extent the call centre room as shown in this film is realistic. It’s all very high tech with everyone supported by an active IT system. Because we’re to be reassured and entertained, the staff must be shown as caring and highly competent. It would not be good for public morale if this vital interface was shown as staffed by people who couldn’t give a shit what happened to the callers or those who are the subject of the call. The fact that, after a few hours of listening to hysterical people, any sane person would suffer burnout and just wish it would all go away is neither here nor there. No matter where these people are in the shift, they must be shown as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, naturally following on from one call to the next with the same sunny smile and burning desire to help.
In the midst of all this extravagant altruism and caring shown in The Call (2013) sits Jordan Turner (Halle Berry) who gets to take a break when her boyfriend Officer Paul Phillips (Morris Chestnut) drops in — such are the perks when you’re the superstar. Then Lea Templeton (Evie Thompson) calls. A man is breaking into her house. This should be fairly routine. The girl should hide until the police can arrive. But Jordan Turner makes a mistake. When the girl disconnects, Jordan calls back and the sound of the call brings the man directly to his target. A few hours later, the girl is found dead. As is required in all films of this type, this mistake blights her perky attitude. She feels she cannot continue to field calls. What if she makes another mistake?
Six months later, she’s working as a trainer. This relieves her of the stress of answering live calls. In a mall, the second kidnap victim, Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin), is taken from a carpark. This recreates the basic situation with Michael Foster (Michael Eklund) the man who finds things not quite going his way and struggles to get things back on his track. So now we’re into a chase sequence as our heroine tries to keep the girl in one piece emotionally while eliciting enough information from the girl to track the car. Naturally the girl only has a disposable cellphone and the GPS can’t instantly give a location. This section of the film is actually quite interesting. Jordan has the difficult task of dealing with the hysterical girl and holding herself together. It’s her first time back behind the telephone after the disaster.
Now I’m not going to say flat-out that this is a really bad plot idea. Yes it’s a hoary cliché to have the protagonist suffer a traumatic incident and then have to get back on to the bicycle again. But there have been some pleasingly dramatic films where the result has been a tense and exciting battle for control of self in difficult circumstances that replicate the original tragedy. It’s a chance for redemption. Here we have a gap of six months with no calls and then she just happens to be standing next to an inexperienced operator when the call comes in. That’s not unreasonable. She’s a trainer and regularly gives her trainees a tour through the centre. That would have been enough if the rest of the film had been made with any intelligence. The difficulty is the essentially static nature of the set-up. The emotionally taut Jordan is talking on the phone, the whimpering, submissive kidnappee is in the trunk of the car, the panic-stricken kidnapper is driving around, and the police are in their cars and helicopters but do not touch base with the kidnapper. Something could have been made of this, I suppose. But the scriptwriter then gilds the lilly. He asks the question: what are the odds it’s the same guy from the first kidnapping. Life’s really strange how it works out.
Then, of course, Jordan realises it’s the same man!
I’m sure in the real world, dedicated people who work in these central facilities must occasionally draw the short straw twice. Statistics work out that way over thousands of calls. But this is one humungous coincidence and wrecks what might otherwise have been a good film if it had had a good script and a director prepared to be creative. Unfortunately, the script devolves into a blatantly silly sequence of events as our heroine decides to take action personally. On the off chance you go to see this film, I won’t spoil the ending for you. All I will say is that, to me, it’s embarrassingly long-drawn out and bad. In part, it seems to be pandering to an audience that’s presumed to want to watch the torture of a partially undressed young girl by a serial killer whack job. A lot of the ending also seems to have been filmed in darkness with tense music designed to make us think it’s exciting. In fact they couldn’t think of a way to make the action look realistic so kept the lights off. And finally we have the last two minutes of the ending which, not to put too fine a point on it, are hardly the most moral we’ve seen in the last few years. We’ve come a long way since the Hays Code but this just seems to be back to scraping the bottom of the ethical barrel.
So, in the stakes for identifying the worst films of 2013, this leaps into the lead. Having started with a reasonable premise, The Call ends up really bad.
There are times when my local cinemas beat the rest of the world, opening new Hollywood offerings on a Thursday to give us a 24-hour head start over the American audiences. On other occasions, it can be weeks or months before a title reaches us. Some titles are never shown here. Django Unchained (2012) was slow in arriving here and I was then slow in making time to see it. It’s a dog-ate-my-homework kind of excuse, but it’s the best I’ve got for this tardy review. So rather than follow the usual pattern, I thought it might be interesting to examine it as a contemporary commentary on the history of racism in America. The first and most obvious question is why Quentin Tarantino, a leading director, should choose this time to make a film about slavery. We have the first African American as President of the United States so, if this is the highest job in the land, I suppose we might declare prejudice dead. That this is now a post-racial America. Except, of course, America is obsessed by questions of race and its implications.
So far in 2013, the Supreme Court has heard two cases on race: one on affirmative action in university admissions, the second on whether voting practices have improved to such a point there’s no longer a need for federal laws to protect the minorities. The timing of these cases is somewhat ironic because America is almost at the tipping point when whites will become the minority in population terms. This makes it rather important to lay down markers for civil rights as the demographic landscape changes. Hence a film that, for the purposes of entertainment, deals with the reality of racism and discrimination as part of history, is inevitably holding up a mirror for society to see how far it has progressed since that time. We see black poverty then and note blacks are three times more likely than whites to be below the poverty line today. As then, so today, the wealth gap between the white and the other races remains wide. Significantly, all the current surveys confirm that anti-black sentiment has actually been stirred up by President Obama’s election. It’s just we’re more civilised about how we choose to discuss the relationship between the different groups today.
The other more general question is why Quentin Tarantino has elected to wrap an exploration of American attitudes towards race in an essentially European vehicle. The basis of the plot is clearly signalled at an early stage as a version of the myth of Siegfried and Brunhilde, drawn from Icelandic, Norse and German sources. We’re told Django (Jamie Foxx) has to go through the fire and use his sword to kill the dragon Fafnir to rescue his wife Broomhilda von Schaft (Kerry Washington). Or, if you prefer to look past the overt mythology, this is a fictionalised version of America’s past filtered through the cinematic style pioneered by Sergio Leone, one of Europe’s most interesting film-makers (although the original film titled Django was actually directed by Sergio Corbucci). I suppose these attempts at universalisation allow American audiences greater cultural distance by staging a “One Upon a Time in the Wild South”. Perhaps telling a more parochial and hence realistic story would have been too painful. Although it’s interesting to note how casually all the characters use the word “nigger”. In itself, this is a challenge to contemporary political correctness which prefers to sanitise language to avoid reminding people of the past and show respect to those who have survived into the present.
The opening sequence shows us the chattel side of the transaction with two men herding some slaves across the landscape like walking meat. There are two questions arising from this set of scenes. Django is a man with sand. For all his terrible experiences, he’s relatively unbowed and walks proud as soon as he has the chance. He’s also unsympathetic to the others in chains. He could argue for their freedom or offer encouragement to their escape, but he’s indifferent. This is repeated when he attends a “Mandingo” fight-to-the-death between two slaves. Although he has the excuse that he’s playing a role and it would be dangerous for him to break character, there’s no indication he cares what happens to either fighter. The second point of interest is the reaction of the two white slavers to the uppity European, Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Because of his superior manners and more sophisticated use of language, they feel he’s patronising them. Out of insecurity, they react to his offer to buy Django with threats of violence. As a well-armed bounty hunter, the foreign visitor is able to assert himself. As to the morality of bounty hunting, Django’s later analysis is appropriate. Killing white folk and getting paid for it. What’s not to like?
Big Daddy (Don Johnson) is asked a very pertinent question when he agrees to send one of his slave women to show Django around the estate. Do you want me to treat him as a white man? Ah, now that really would be a step too far, wouldn’t it. There has to be an intermediate category into which a free African American can be slotted that’s somehow better than a slave but not equal to a master. Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) opines that exceptional Black Americans can rise to form a new class. So while they can never be equal because of their colour, they can have a better status. As he says, the sun rises up and shines on all equally. Yet, of course, advocating this new class makes all blacks more free because it gives them hope of advancement. Consequently, this makes Candie a threat to local whites and a more equivocal target for Django. Except, of course, his subsequent behaviour clearly shows he deserves to die, e.g. because he promotes “Mandingo fighting”. It’s perhaps relevant to point out that slaves fighting each other to the death is fiction. With so much money tied up in slaves, they were far too valuable to sacrifice in this way. This is not to say slaves did not fight and their owners bet often quite larger sums of money. Tom Molineaux won his freedom through fighting and emigrated to Britain. It’s curious Quentin Tarantino should have wanted to make Candie more brutal. I thought having dogs rip a slave to pieces was doing the job well enough. This leaves one other stereotype to include in the film. Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) is the Uncle Tom figure who’s deeply resentful of anything that disturbs the natural order of things. And, of course, he’s cute enough to see through the plot to buy Broomhilda and alert his master. Collaborators are always more dangerous than their masters because they see both sides of the fence more clearly.
And the moral of this somewhat overblown epic? In this dog-eat-dog (or human) world, the only ones who get to the top are those who can shoot better than the other guys. And if guns aren’t enough, dynamite gets the job done on a more industrial scale. The film is not, you understand, a political road map for reconciliation, for finding an accommodation between the different points of view. Every man on display here reaches the point where discussions end and killing begins. This is reinforced by stereotypes. The KKK is mocked over the question of using bags as masks, but is not condemned for being homicidally inclined. For this purpose, many of the white underclass are shown as more incoherent and stupid than their black counterparts. Yet the slaves are overly submissive or active collaborators. They earn Django’s contemptuous indifference. Put another way, if Django is one of the new class of superior African Americans who rises to the top both on his own terms and in the eyes of others, he can’t afford to be sentimental about the plight of any of his inferiors, regardless of colour. In the end, he will kill both black and white if that’s the price of getting what he wants. Schultz says, “I’ve never given anyone their freedom before and now I feel somewhat responsible for what happens to you.” That’s the European’s view of equality. But there’s no sign Django has any comparable emotion at the end. He may have liberated a major group of slaves, but he has absolutely no interest in what happens to them. Indeed, tomorrow, all the local plantation owners, fearing these surviving slaves may be the catalyst for rebellion on their own estates, ride over the horizon and kill every last one of them. But Django and his wife are long gone, riding off into the sunset. I’m not quite sure what the message of the film is supposed to be nor quite who it’s addressed to, but one thing is clear. Django Unchained is not a message of hope.
Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) starts, as must all retro films, with a black-and-white sequence in limited aspect as if it was somehow comparable to the original Yellow Brick road thing that everyone still talks about. This is not unsuccessful but, for once, the music by Danny Elfman is all wrong. It’s far too knowing and fails to grace the visual intention with period charm. So proving we really are in Kansas, we’re off with barkers calling credulous townsfolk on to the the midway which offers the talents of the small-time magician, Oscar Diggs (James Franco), playing to a half-empty tent. Inconveniently overcome by a sense of realism, he admits he can’t help a crippled girl walk. He’s a conman, not a miracle worker, rising up from a hick farm with dreams of being a great magician like Houdini. After a moment when he almost does the right thing with a girl who loves him, he runs away from the jealous strongman and into the hot-air balloon. Faced with death, he promises to do great things if only he can be saved from the twister that inevitably appears. Except the point of the original conceit was to show us that Dorothy was having a dream. That’s why the characters from the black-and-white preface show up again in technicolor. Yet in this prequel, our hero must move permanently into Oz so he can be there to meet with Dorothy later on. It’s therefore pointless to have the same people in both the human and the magical worlds.
Anyway, no natter what the justification, we’re into full colour as we enter the world of magic. Given the quick changes of scenery and the transformation of petals into butterflies, he quickly works out he’s somewhere different. The river fairies are pleasingly malicious in a slightly fleeting, non-threatening way. Theodore the Good Witch (with a bad temper) (Mila Kunis) then tells him of the prophecy that a wizard will come to free the people and become their King (with all the gold that goes with the role). He’s naturally attracted. Having saved Finlay, the flying monkey, from the lion, Theodora leads him to the Emerald City where he must convince everyone of his wizardly credentials. Waiting for him is Evanora (Rachel Weisz). He sees the treasure which is a good motivator, but the price of the throne (and the treasure) is that he kills the wicked witch. And we’re off into the quest bit of the film, but because this is a Disney film, the flying monkey is like Jiminy Cricket, a walking conscience (forget the flying bit while he’s carrying the human’s heavy bag). In short order we come to the China (Tea Set) City which is an interesting visual idea. The broken china figurine (Joey King) is a fragile and tragic figure with a broken leg and, unlike her human counterpart back in Kansas, is instantly repairable with glue conveniently imported from the human world. It seems the Wicked Witch sent her minions to destroy the city because the people were celebrating the arrival of the wizard. Our hero specifies no dolls on the witch hunt except she cries herself a river and gets taken along for the ride. And this is really the problem. Every film which sets off down this road has to strike a balance between cute and frightening. This is definitely unbalanced in the wrong direction.
The studio’s intention is a kind of conscious parallelism with the original 1939 classic musical which was cute (all that singing with Munchkins dancing militates against the fear factor rising). Ignoring the intellectual property problems in replicating the bits of cinema owned by the “other studio”, this modern band of copyright thieves with their own team of attorneys in action at every point, sets off down the appropriately coloured road to prequelise the original, i.e. borrowing just enough of the iconography to be a “Wizard of Oz” film. But the parallelists have a dilemma. They are not proposing to make a musical and they are including three witches, at least one of whom is wicked, so this could be scary. But if it’s really really scary, it might frighten the kids, so parents won’t bring them through the doors and make back the cost of production (which at $215 million is substantial with all that CGI). Actually it’s earned about $480 million worldwide, i.e. it’s not doing too badly. So what they’ve actually put on the screen is a cardboard version of a fantasy film. Even the least sophisticated of child viewers will yawn as they go through the Dark Forest. Worse, despite the occasional knowing comment, e.g. about stereotyping flying monkeys and their like of bananas, the script is leaden and the acting wooden (or bone china as the case may be). Eventually, our hero meets Glinda (the Good or the Bad or the not yet Ugly) (Michelle Williams) who suggests Evanora is the real wicked witch. Now there’s one of the twists!
Of course, when you get three sisters and a handsome if cardboard man, they can quickly grow jealous. But, predictably, the passage through the magic testing wall shows our hero to be hiding a kindly soul. So now comes the moment of truth when he ought to tell his audience that he ain’t no wizard, no siree! He’s weak, selfish, slightly egotistical and not at all what the Ozians were expecting to come and save them. Except Glinda, who’s seen through his transparent disguise as a real human being, urges him to continue the myth to maintain civilian morale. So the famers farm, the Tinkers featuring Bill Cobbs make stuff, and the Munchkins sing for ten seconds. But none of this motley crew can actually kill anyone or thing. That makes them the perfect army with which to fight the Wicked Witch (whoever she is). We then descend into mawkish sentimentality as our newly fearless leader decides anything is possible when you believe in at least one impossible thing before breakfast (that’s not counting the crispiness of cornflakes, of course).
So what is this hero actually made of? He’s a womanising bastard who loves them and leaves them. Indeed that’s one of the reasons why he almost immediately gets into trouble in the new world. Quite why the film-makers thought such a man would be a good influence on this new world is baffling as his bedroom eyes transfix each of the sisters in turn. Hey but this is a Disney film for children, right? That means no sex scenes just seduction with implied consequences. Oh yes, and because this is a Disney film, we have to include an apple scene (to avoid repeating the cliché, the victim does not immediately fall asleep — unlike the audience). In the end, this is a classic Disney family-values film in which even the China Girl gets her wish granted. All of which makes Oz the Great and Powerful one of the worst blockbuster films with which to start off the 2013 campaign for box office glory.
Summer is a-comin in, so loudly let off a few explosions as the first of this season’s superhero movies hits the cinemas with main force. Up to the end of 2011, there was a certain mechanical efficiency about the more recent adaptations of comic book characters or toys to the big screen. We would go through an introductory set-up and then would come the set-piece inserts. There are almost always car chases, guns are produced and manage to fire prodigious amounts of ammunition without having to pause for reloading, and there are increasingly loud explosions. This is great for those who have hearing difficulty because the fillings in their teeth vibrate to indicate just how loud some of these explosions are when replayed through the new generation of sound systems that pack decibels into the darkness of the auditorium. So, for example, conventional technology excitement comes with the Fast & Furious series, and science fiction gets its thrills from Transformers. This is not to deny these films deliver what we might call spectacle. Some of the special effects generated using CGI are remarkable to behold on a large screen. But as a generalisation, these are soulless vehicles. There are actors standing in front of green screens and in real locations, but their function is to explain the plot and justify the action. The scripts come with very little sparkle or individuality. Thanks to the focus group mentality of the larger studios, everything is aimed at the common denominator core of components that can be built into this season’s blockbuster success. For a while, this brought a steady stream of highly successful films in terms of box office takings. They were less successful in the eyes of those who prefer something slightly more idiosyncratic.
In the first outing, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) saw the light and decided his company should not be the largest arms manufacturer in the world. Technology should be used for more positive purposes. He therefore has to battle for his soul by fighting the older man running the company alongside him. As films go, it’s a little on the worthy side with our heroic actor allowed one or two moments of egocentric wit to show us he’s cut from a different cloth. Interestingly, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is also played relatively straight as the “love interest”. When we come to the second film, we’ve cleaned house and now face a business competitor who thinks he can get an edge by recruiting foreign talent. I found the relationship between Stark and Potts to be annoying and the fight at the end was overly long and repetitive, but it was still reasonably watchable.
In part thanks to the return of Shane Black to directing and joint scriptwriting, Iron Man 3 proves to be something of a revelation. This picks up after The Avengers where the alien invaders met their Waterloo. Now we’re back to more parochial affairs with the arrival of The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a fiendish terrorist who’s out to bring down the US with an escalating sequence of attacks. Also lurking in the undergrowth is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) who’s been anonymously promoting his ideas through a think tank of increasing importance to the US government. Finally, we have the return of James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) who is Stark’s suit buddy.
I think the most important observation I can make about this film is how little time Stark spends in one of his suits. Indeed, in part, his latest technological developments have made him somewhat redundant. This frees the actor from having a fixed expression on his visor and lets the man behind the suit carry the action. The result is a more normal relationship with Pepper Pott and a rather pleasing relationship with Harley (Ty Simpkins), a young boy who may have some of Stark’s skills given only a monkey wrench and some high-sugar sweets to keep him hyper. Whatever it is he’s got, the broken suit seems to get repaired while in his possession. When it comes to the fight at the end, we also avoid the suit-on-suit battering contest which always grows tedious quickly and has a fight against humans with added firepower. Noticing the plant in the early scenes doesn’t quite prepare you for the extract applied to people. It’s a delightful fantasy touch.
I’m not sure everyone will understand all the humour. As a Brit, I found Ben Kingsley’s performance one of the best pieces of self-mockery I’ve seen in years. The accent and attitude when off-camera are wonderfully revealing if you understand British accents. Taken overall, this is one of the most amusing superhero films of recent years and, despite the presence of a callow youth in a key role, it manages to avoid all hints of sentimentality. This is a story about people and the suits are just tools. Indeed, they prove to be disposable tools when a choice has to be made between making the relationship with Pepper Pott work and making the machines work. Throughout, it’s Robert Downey Jr. who keeps the film moving. He remains one of the most charismatic and watchable people on screen. Separating him from the suit was one of the most intelligent decisions taken by the Marvel studio. I remember it happening in the animated series The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, episode 125 when the Avengers team are transported to the nine Realms of Asgard and Stark loses his suit. Surviving until he can find the resources to build another using uru-armour was much more interesting. A human struggling without the aid of technology is something that can give us all a greater vicarious thrill. So it is that I crown Iron Man 3 as clearly the best of the three in this series so far, and a difficult film for all the other blockbusters to beat later in the 2013 season.