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Iron Man 3 (2013)

April 29, 2013 2 comments

iron_man_3_poster_final

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.

Robert Downey Jr and Gwyneth Paltrow under attack

Robert Downey Jr and Gwyneth Paltrow under attack

 

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.

Ben Kingsley being menacing

Ben Kingsley being menacing

 

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.

Guy Pearce catches fire on the screen

Guy Pearce catches fire on the screen

 

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.

 

For my reviews of allied films, see:
The Avengers
Captain America
Iron Man 2
Thor

 

The Avengers (2012)

As those of you who read these reviews will know, I often pick a theme by way of introduction. This time, it’s the tried and tested idiom, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Some like to attribute this insight to Aristotle, others to some more recent philosophers. No matter. It represent a nice idea to chew on when you have a moment to ruminate. Essentially, you can take it at a metaphorical level and say that a watch is only a physical device but it has a higher purpose in telling you what time it is. Or you can use it to refer to a team. Individually, they may not be strong but, when you put them together in the right way, you get synergy. Well, starting off with the watch metaphor, this film is like someone strapping Big Ben to your wrist and then enthusing about how it not only tells the time but also has these great chimes. Having just sat through 142 minutes, the first word that comes to mind is ponderous. If you think this is a reference to the massive, if not lumbering, quality of the Hulk, you’d be mistaken. Almost everything about this film is laborious.

Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow

 

This is not to deny that parts of the film are actually very good. It’s just that, when it’s all put together and you have to sit through all the rubbish to get to the good bits, it all feels a bit tiresome. So let’s do a quick recap. Back in the land owned by Marvel Comics, Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and Captain America are renegades from WWII. While the Captain is snoozing under the ice, Nick is setting up SHIELD, the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card to be played when superhuman threats are about to overwhelm our defences. Jackson is actually credible even though asked to do obviously silly things. He brings an unexpected gravitas to the role even when responding to Loki emerging into one of SHIELD’s secret underground installations, capturing the McGuffin and kidnapping two key people who will guard and use the McGuffin to open a portal and let in the alien army. To give his newly acquired minions time to achieve their allotted tasks, Earth’s enemy allows himself to be captured and then sets about trying to undermine the morale of the Avengers. None of them like to work as part of a team so, at one time or another, they all have to fight each other. Instead of disagreeing and holding a debate, they tend to settle arguments with whatever weapons are to hand. Except for Dr Banner, of course. It’s better not to make him angry.

Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye

 

So after a few impressive opening scenes, the first hour or so is all rather tedious except for one or two pleasing moments. I confess to being completely taken by Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow and, despite the fact the supply of arrows seems inexhaustible, Jeremy Renner makes an interesting Hawkeye. It’s a shame we’re not allowed to see much of him. I find the idea of mere humans outperforming all-comers intriguing and, just as Batman uses intelligence with technology in support, it’s the spirit that prevails. This would apply to Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark except he’s Tony Stark and an arrogant SOB. Chris Evans is very one-dimensional as Steve Rogers and, in the second half, that becomes the right dimension so he comes good by staying who he is. Chris Hemsworth is completely pigheaded as Thor and the most annoying of the heroes. Which leaves us with Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. This is a big improvement on previous attempts at creating the Hulk on screen. As a walking-talking example of humility, he actually tones down Tony Stark in the scenes they share. Incidentally, the cameo argument with Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Pott is better than anything in the earlier Iron Man films. This almost makes the relationship credible. Which leaves us with Tom Hiddleston as a surprisingly pleasing Loki. He’s a good trickster but should not be seen dead in that horned hat.

Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner

 

The special effects are, for once, special. SHIELD’s helicarrier actually looks as though it might work although the invisibility shield is the usual silly project-a-picture-of-the-sky on to the hull variety. It’s far better than the equivalent in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. The jet fighters and transports are also beautifully rendered with VTOL and manoeuvring beating anything the Harrier jump jet has been able to achieve. The final battle is very well structured and beautifully paced. It could have become very repetitive, but manages to keep everything fresh as each hero is allowed a few moments to hold a position, fight a corner or try to disable the McGuffin. I was particularly impressed by the animatronic alien landing craft. They manage to look simultaneously impractical but, from the point of view of a mere human observer, completely intimidating. The Hulk’s leaping ability and smash-through-anything approach is hilariously over-the-top and through-the-bottom as well. The Iron Man suit yet again demonstrates a level of invincibility above and beyond the call of duty. Quite how Stark is supposed to emerge in one piece is beyond understanding. That made it good to get back to basics with the Black Widow beating those pesky aliens in hand-to-hand combat. As one woman said as she was about to be incinerated by aliens, Captain America can rescue me anytime he wants. He’s just dogged and, even though no-one asks him to take on the role, he makes a natural leader. Thor pitches in but, for someone supposed to have godlike powers, he’s rather cut down to size by the weight of numbers coming through the portal. Indeed, the heroes might have lost had Earth’s governments, in their wisdom, not decided to send a different kind of help.

Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans looking for more to fight

 

So The Avengers has good patches that increase in frequency as the film develops leading to a superior fight at the end. This means you should pack sandwiches and a flask of hot tea to see you through the opening section. You can break out the popcorn and coke nearer the end and so finish on a high. I suppose this film will make several tons of money. The marketing hype has generated the interest and, if the intended market is anything like the people who surrounded me when I saw the film, teen boys will flock to this like bees to a honey pot. It has their demographic most skillfully written all over it by director Joss Whedon who has probably done as well with the plot as anyone could. Once you have to have this crowd of principals assemble and then give each a fair amount of screen time, it’s going to get ponderous until they are forced to drop their differences and start fighting the real enemies. So if there’s an inner teen lurking inside you or, like me, you enjoy science fiction and fantasy, you should probably see this. Otherwise wait for it to come on television and enjoy the battle at the end.

 

For my reviews of allied films, see:
Captain America
Iron Man 2
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Thor

 

This film was short-listed for the 2012 Nebula Award and for the 2013 Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

December 23, 2011 2 comments

The question, I suppose, is what we should expect to see when the title of the film mentions Sherlock Holmes. At the first available opportunity, should Sherlock say, “Elementary, my dear Watson” (a phrase never actually used by Conan Doyle), should he display his deductive reasoning while playing the violin, smoking the tobacco from his Persian slipper or mainlining seven-percent solution, or should he wear a deerstalker and an Inverness cape? There are many possible stereotypes that could be adopted. . .

Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law anticipating another attempt to kill them

Well, defying convention at every possible turn, here comes Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, an action-packed adventure directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law in their second outing as the dynamic duo. To add a little European sparkle for the box-office ratings, there’s a moderate role for Noomi Rapace, this time wearing rather more clothing than as Lisbeth Salander, with Jared Harris playing Professor Moriarty, Rachel McAdams returning in a cameo as Irene Adler and Stephen Fry as Mycroft (sometimes not wearing as many clothes as he should). It’s a good cast with many other familiar faces popping up in the support roles. Even the landscaping looks good again. In the first Ritchie attempt at Holmes, London was also a “star” with loving attention given to the city as a living, breathing place. This time, although we start in London, Paris also gets a good showing off with a nice castle on top of the Reichenbach Falls.

So how does this film stack up against all the other Holmes offerings? The news is mostly good. Although it’s less obvious as we watch it through, there’s actually some quite clever deductive reasoning going on. Why is it less obvious? Because Ritchie’s camera glosses over some scenes very quickly. In other “detective” films, the camera lingers and allows us, the audience, a chance to spot the clues. Sadly, it’s only when we get a slow-motion reprise of those scenes that we are allowed the chance to see what Holmes saw with his triumphant voice-over explaining the significance of it all. Ah, the slow-motion sequences. . . This is hopelessly overused. I was mildly intrigued the first time we saw predictive movements played out in real time. It was an interesting idea to see how his planning either did or did not work. The final confrontation with Moriarty is also faintly amusing as they both play the same mental game of predicting attack and defence. But the continued use of the technique becomes annoying. If he does make a third (with about $65 million in box-office takings worldwide over the first weekend, the chances of a third look quite strong), I hope he finds some new toy to play with. Anyway, back with the reasoning, Watson and the Swedish gypsy get their own apply-the-Sherlock-method moment and that proves rather effective.

Moriarty (Jarred Harris) as a real Victorian gentleman and supervillain

I confess to liking Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson. Although they are given some incredibly silly things to do — Holmes pretending to be furniture must rank as one of the silliest of all time — they manage to keep their dignity and, more importantly, they make a good team. This Watson is genuinely a warrior and, although he loses his limp rather rapidly when running for his life, he’s a crack shot and very steady under pressure. This is just the man you would want by your side if the game was afoot. There are moments of real respect and affection between them with Holmes trusting the man on two vital occasions. They also manage to produce humour from the situations in which they are placed. It may not be laugh-out-loud, but it’s entertaining in a gentle way. Yet the real basis for the success of this film is the characterisation of Professor Moriarty. Jared Harris plays him as a very urbane gentleman whose mask only slips a little when Holmes skewers him with an analysis of his handwriting. Later when he and Holmes can enjoy a little quality time together to discuss fishing techniques, we see him as a narcissistic sadist but, at the end, they can find a moment of peace to play chess while the fate of the world is being decided in the ballroom on the other side of the door. There’s a certain solicitousness about the Professor’s care for the injured Holmes when he wraps a cape about his shoulders. They might have been friends in another lifetime.

Noomi Rapace doing her best in an underwritten role as a gypsy

Noomi Rapace is just about given a fair crack of the whip. Although this is a film about the threat of war and so, in these patriarchal Victorian times, very much the province of men, she’s allowed to be more than merely decorative. She runs, jumps, rides and, for her sins, dances her way through England, France, Germany and Switzerland on her way to finding her missing brother. It’s better than the usual female tokenism you see in blockbusters. As in the Conan Doyle originals, Sherlock Holmes survives the Reichenbach Falls and Colonel Moran lives to fight another day if he can find the empty house in time for the possible third film in the series. I note Conan Doyle did accord Moran the honour of being the second most dangerous man in London. It would be good if Jared Harris could be persuaded to return as well. As a concluding thought, this is an interesting week with Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows going up against Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. In my opinion, Sherlock beats Ethan. The other linking factor is that these two films give international recognition to Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist who were launched in the Stieg Larsson Millenium trilogy. By coincidence, I’m going to see the David Fincher remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo next week.

Iron Man 2

I suppose it was faintly perverse of me to go and see Iron Man 2 since I had not stirred from the house to see the first outing. But everyone was speaking so highly of Robert Downey Jr.’s performance. Well, how could I refuse.

The good news is that there are two genuinely outstanding performances. The first belongs to Robert Downey Jr., the other to Mickey Rourke who makes a wonderfully monosyllabic Russian villain (with the parrot to keep him company). If the film had been built around them, it would have been wonderful. Unfortunately, comic-based films come with a weight of expectation from fans who want elements from the original sources included. They line up geekishly and complain if this does or does not happen. This inevitably leads to a dilution of the film in hand. What could have been a tightly focused dance of violent confrontation between two driven men, becomes a fundamentally unbalanced narrative with multiple redundancies built in (presumably to enable a sequel).

So let’s get the bad news out of the way. The banter between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts drove me nuts. If that’s supposed to represent a comic element, it failed miserably. Stark is hugely enjoyable on his own as he preens so orgiastically, holding the screen and playing beautifully off minor characters like Shandling’s Senator. Don Cheadle is virtually invisible and cannot by any standards command a buddy or sidekick status. It’s a mechanical performance (as befits a film about things prosthetic and robotic) and genuinely dull. But the real dud is Sam Rockwell. What were they thinking? This is supposedly the CEO of one of America’s top armament manufacturers yet, literally, the man is an accident waiting to happen. It’s totally inconceivable that such a man could ever be the leader of a major company. The only explanation is that, while Stark is morbidly drinking himself into the ground in anticipation of his death, the Hammer character is supposed to become the comic relief. Well, is that ever a lead balloon. He has no apparent technical expertise. There’s no sign of any leadership ability. Worse, there’s no real sign of even basic self-defensive foresight. He spirits our Russian villain out of jail and gives him the unsupervised free run of his workshops to build killer drones. I know this has to happen for the plot to work, but this abandonment of intelligence is fundamentally disappointing.

Scarlett Johansson is also a dea ex machina (a goddess who doesn’t get into a metal suit) whose fight is shot in a way designed to conceal the fact she probably couldn’t punch her way out of a wet paper bag. Of all the more recent female supposed martial arts experts, she is the least convincing. Worse, she can break through Vanko’s hack to release Cheadle’s Iron Buddy, but can do nothing online to prevent the rest of Vanko’s drones from continuing to fight. Now is that ever a convenient plot hole!

Which brings me to the big fight at the end. The length of time flying around to thin out the drones is boring. It would have been far more satisfying to have, say, ten opponents and for the one-and-a-half heroes to face the challenge of getting them all lined up for Stark’s one-shot coup de grâce. And what has happened to the laws of physics? Long ago, there was an infomercial on British TV designed to persuade divers and their passengers to use seat belts. It showed someone putting an egg inside a box and then shaking it. Every time, the egg was broken. How can the suits take such punishment and not reduce the men inside to an omelette laced with the occasional feather and beak?

All of which might suggest I was not entertained yet, improbably, I was. The first part of the film is wonderful as we watch Stark fend off the Government’s attempts to nationalise his offensive/defensive capabilities while waiting for Vanko to complete the development of his father’s designs. Everything works really well until Stark gives up. All the central section of the film is treading water as Vanko quietly improves on Hammer’s technology and, following Nick Fury’s prompting, Stark does his superscience thing and invents a new element using what appears to be a hastily thrown together version of the particle accelerator at CERN. I was then re-engaged by the fight once everyone was back on the ground. The mandatory ending with Fury pointing to the possible sequel with the Avengers was adequate. Overall, the performances of Downey and Rourke kept the film going with just enough humour to make me stay in my seat when the going got tough.

This was better than the average comic book film which isn’t saying much, but it represents half a very good film. For my reviews of allied Marvel Comic films, see:
The Avengers
Captain America
Iron Man 3
Thor

 

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