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Iron Man (2008)

Monday 24th December 2012 Leave a comment

This film happened to start on TV shortly after I’d finished rewatching The Iron Giant, and it amused me to make a double-bill of two such similarly-titled films. 🙂

The key to the movie’s success is, of course, the casting of Robert Downey Jr. He delivers offhand jokes, almost to himself, in ways that make it feel like he’s improvising while everyone else is sticking to a screenplay,* and it’s simply a lot of fun watching him on-screen – especially in scenes alongside Paltrow’s Pepper Potts. Terrence Howard makes a much better Col. Rhodes than Don Cheadle did in the sequel; it’s much more believable that he’d be Tony Stark’s friend.

As Tony Stark’s buddy Film Crit Hulk once pointed out, it’s nice that here’s a summer blockbuster in which the action is the least interesting part. In that blog post, the all-caps critic also says, “EVERYONE SEEMED LOVE THAT IT SPENT SO LONG BEFORE TONY ACTUALLY BECOME ‘IRON MAN’ SO THEY GET EXPERIENCE ALL THE GREAT CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT TO GET THERE. EVERYONE LAUDED THE FUN SENSE OF ADVENTURE THAT CAME FROM HIM ACTUALLY BUILDING THE SUIT”, and I completely agree: the section where Tony gets back to the US and carries out his first experiments with building the suit is perhaps my favourite sequence in the movie. (Yeah, OK, I admit that a lot of it has to do with the way it appeals to the gadget-nerd techno-fetishist in me.) All good superhero origin movies should contain a scene where our hero first experiences the joy of what their superpowers allow them to do (see for example Superman running alongside that Smallville train, or even Neo grinning as he spars with Morpheus), and the test flight of the Iron Man Mk. II suit is one of the very best.

Something I find interesting is the way that the film both has its cake and eats it: it’s based around the idea of a warmonger coming over to the side of the peaceniks, and yet also contains gleeful scenes of t’rr’rist-slaughter which are pure right-wing hawk revenge-fantasy. (I admit I do find some of the film’s depictions of the Bad Brown People fairly uncomfortable at times.)

I do wonder if the little bit of non-linearity that opens the film was only included because of a belief that the audience would grow restless unless the movie opened with a bang. Whatever the reason: I’ve always found that little piece of “how we got here” flashbacking very effective. The high-altitude icing problem setup and payoff also works similarly well (it’s to the film’s benefit that it’s not the final thing that defeats the villain), even if it’s not exactly subtle.

I’ve never read it, but the most famous Iron Man comics storyline is Demon In A Bottle, which tackles Stark’s alcoholism. The Marvel Studios movies haven’t adapted this on-screen yet, and it doesn’t sound like they will do any time soon. This makes a nice change from the way Fox approached X-Men 3 and Sony approached Spider-Man 3: rushing to hit the most famous comics storylines and characters as soon as possible, then getting greedy and cramming too many of them into one movie. Having said that, we do get several sequel-setups: Rhodey’s “Next time, baby” line is a little too cheesy for me, the Ten Rings hints are OK, and as for that post-credits epilogue… I can’t remember if it had been spoiled for me in advance of seeing the movie back in 2008, but I remember thinking that although it was a fun tease, it was something that would almost certainly never come to pass. It’s really quite wonderful to think that the thing set up in that cameo not only happened at all, but actually matched my very high expectations!

[4 out of 5]

* OK, admittedly Downey mumbles a lot of the best lines so you could easily miss them. But its nowhere near as bad as his mumbling in the Guy Ritchie version of Sherlock Holmes – inaudible dialogue from the lead character is pretty much all I remember of that movie…

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Tuesday 24th July 2012 1 comment

RIDDLER: Riddle-me-this, Gothamites! What just-released movie about our Batty arch-nemesis has numerous annoying inconsistencies; strains believability irritatingly frequently; is not as good as either The Dark Knight or Batman Begins; is undeniably very flawed… but nevertheless contains some tremendously well-done, spectacular and uplifting individual moments and sequences? My friends and I will attempt to solve this quandary.

Spoilers below.

Read more…

The Avengers (Avengers Assemble) spoiler-free review

Saturday 28th April 2012 3 comments

This is pretty much the same as the review I posted on Letterboxd. Later I’ll post a separate, more detailed version containing spoiler discussion.

The Avengers (all right, “Avengers Assemble” if you insist) really is extraordinarily good. It’s pretty much everything that’s fun about superhero comics translated directly onto the screen – I was hoping for as much from Joss Whedon and he delivered.

Like Serenity and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 5 finale, it’s extremely well-structured so that everyone gets more than one moment to shine in both dialogue and action scenes; I can’t think of another action movie that has so many characters and is so well-balanced between them all, and all the different combinations of arguments and team-ups between them.

It’s also extremely funny (but mostly not in that trademark Joss Whedon “Buffyspeak” way that some VERY WRONG people find “precious” and annoying). It has better Tony Stark dialogue than either Iron Man movie. Having said that, the funniest gags are visual ones that involve the Hulk…

I often complain that superhero films’ weakest parts tend to be their climactic action sequences: the stakes are raised, and believability is strained. As a rule of thumb, the closer to Armaggedon a superhero film’s climax gets compared to the preceding parts of the movie, the more disappointing it’ll be. Well, for once we have a superhero film whose best action scene comes at the end! It’s one of the best-sustained action finales since The Matrix, constantly spectacular and containing countless satisfying moments in both action and dialogue – most of which also happen to be very funny. The constant barrage of events means that spectacular actions that would have been highlights of these superheroes’ individual films are easily forgotten amidst the rush of even better actions. And yet it’s all presented in a coherent way, with the geography of the battlefield remaining clear throughout – there are none of the incomprehensible shakycam shots that spoiled The Dark Knight‘s action scenes.

And that’s just the third act action finale! The big mid-film action sequence, which splits up the characters into pairs, is almost equally good.

However, the best single scene in the whole film isn’t an action scene. A standard phrase Joss Whedon has used in promotional interviews is “I wanted to figure out why all these different characters should even be in the same room as each other”. Well, that scene where they are all in the same room as each other turned out to be the film’s absolute highlight. There have been lots of action films that I’ve enjoyed at the cinema for their sheer spectacle but then have felt little desire to rewatch because that they didn’t have much else going for them (Avatar comes to mind) – but due to scenes like that, The Avengers isn’t one of them.

The film’s plot isn’t exactly intricate: it’s extremely tightly focused around the MacGuffin from Thor and Captain America. However, this isn’t a bad thing: in a film of this scale, ensuring the characterisation and action is satisfying is an ambitious balancing act as it is, without adding a complex plot as chaotic as that of The Dark Knight into the mix as well.

The film doesn’t carry any sort of larger real-world message; it’s really just a movie about these specific characters – about guys in silly costumes beating the crap out of each other. But as far as movies about guys in silly costumes beating the crap out of each other go… well, it’s hard to imagine how they could get much better.

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Saturday 28th April 2012 1 comment

I saw The Avengers (or “Avengers Assemble” if you prefer) on its UK release the other day. But before I post my review of that, here are some brief comments on the only Marvel Studios film I rewatched in the run-up to the release of that crossover film.

Iron Man 2 is entertaining, but it’s a collection of individual scenes that each contain amusing touches, rather than a film that really hangs together well as a whole.

Those fun touches include: Tony Stark getting distracted by the executive toy on Pepper’s desk; Mickey Rourke’s “burd” and “drones better” scenes; the patented Genndy Tartakovsky robot blood oil splatter (and the car alarm gag was his, as well); Hammer’s “ex-wife” weapons dealing speech; “Hammer-oid attack”; “I got him!”; “I’d like to point out that that test pilot survived”; and the bickering when Black Widow links up Iron Man and Pepper’s radios at the end of the film. I also think the final action sequence makes for a better climax than the Stane fight in the first film.

But on the other hand you have weird pointless stuff like Nick Fury saying “Agent Coulson will be keeping an eye on you” – then all Coulson does is watch Tony make his particle accelerator before buggering off to look at Thor’s hammer. And for some reason the whole Formula 1 action scene feels a lot less weighty and important than its obscene budget would suggest.

The idea that Ivan Vanko might have a legitimate grievance against Stark and his father had potential, but is underexplored. The dialogue between Stark and Pepper isn’t as amusing as in the first film, the Senate hearing scene doen’t really flow well, and Don Cheadle’s portrayal of Rhodey is a bit too subdued compared to Terrence Howard’s.

I don’t often completely agree with Devin Faraci, but I thought his review of the film summed up its qualities and flaws very well.

Fortunately, The Avengers has since come out and eclipsed it in every respect!

MirrorMask (2005)

Wednesday 7th March 2012 Leave a comment

A Dave McKean-directed/Neil Gaiman-scripted/Jim Henson Company-produced movie about a teenage circus performer who, on the night her mother undergoes a life-or-death operation, goes on a quest in a fantasy world that may or may not be a dream.

Wikipedia | IMDb

The Visuals
About all I remembered of this film’s reviews when it first came out was that the design was great, but the storytelling was too episodic.

That’s a pretty accurate summary. The most impressive thing about the film is what a great job the visuals do of adapting Dave McKean’s “antique collage” style to live-action props. The whole thing looks like a Sandman cover in motion!

The “Uncanny Valley” is a massively overused term these days, shouted out by every Ebert blog/AICN/IMDB commenter as if it’s something obscure that they’re the only one to have heard of. But there are times when intentional application of it works well to produce something creepy, and the Sphinxes’ faces in this film are a good example.

The film came out around the same time as Sin City and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and like those movies, a large proportion of MirrorMask was shot against bluescreen, with entirely CGI backgrounds. The budget was a hell of a lot smaller than those films, though, with CGI effects nowhere near as cutting-edge, and it shows. I’m not saying I would have wanted Gollum or Avatar-level photorealism, indistinguishable from real life (the film was not taking that approach), but even accounting for the film’s dreamlike aesthetic, there were bits of animation and texturing that didn’t quite match perfectly, and could’ve done with more time. It’s also possible that the effects scenes’ monochrome gold/sepia colours could be viewed as a sickly colour palette – what John K likes to call “poo and pee colours”!

But although faults like that could put people off, they didn’t bother me. I have to applaud the approach of prioritising the translation of Dave McKean’s style to the screen over all else, and they succeeded. In a time when too many big-budget blockbusters have all their fantasy monster design smoothed out into an unmemorable blur (what did the frost giants look like in Thor, again?), it’s a wonderful novelty to see a film that bears such a distinct fingerprint of just one artist: according to the film’s excellent Making Of, McKean did most of the texture photography and all of the compositing himself! I have no idea how the executives keeping an eye on the film ever let it get made, but I’m glad it was.

It’s also worth noting that few enough people worked on the film that rather than being buried away as “Additional Assistant Support Digital Matte Painter”, the effects animators were able to have entire scenes to themselves, and the end credits could describe exactly what contributions were made by each artist. That’s a nice thing to see. (Also, a few of the film’s designs were contributed by Ian Miller – who scared the shit out of me years ago when I stumbled across The City, his comic-strip collaboration with James Herbert and his Rats, in our school library…)

So the designs were great to look at. As for the plot…

The Story
The word “quintessential” gets used a couple of times in this film. And I have to say it’s the most quintessentially Neil Gaiman-y thing that Neil Gaiman’s ever been involved with. All his trademarks are here: dreams (Sandman), just-out-of-reach fantasy worlds (Neverwhere, Coraline, Stardust, American Gods… er, pretty much everything), dark doppelgangers (Coraline), cities (Neverwhere, several Sandman stories), characters speaking in run-on-sentence lists (Delirium from Sandman). Pretty much the only one of his recurring themes that doesn’t get a look in is the Story About Stories (although there is a scene in a library which briefly features a story within the film’s story). Plus, on the DVD commentary, Gaiman points out that the impossible riddle featured in the film was accidentally re-used almost word-for-word from a Batman/Riddler story he’d written in the 1980s!

So basically: don’t watch it if you don’t like Scary Trousers Gaiman. Unfortunately, even if you do like his other work you might not like this. He did the idea of girls escaping to dreams/fantasy worlds much better in both Coraline and the Sandman arc “A Game of You”. Having said that, the previous work it mostly reminded me of was Neverwhere, due to its city setting. (Neverwhere the novel, that is; I’ve never seen the TV series.)

In fantasy, there’s a fine line between out-there dream-logic concepts that are magical and enchanting and capture the imagination, and those that end up being insufferably cute. Terry Gilliam and Charlie Kaufman’s films walk that line brilliantly, and Gaiman’s Sandman does too, but some elements of this film veer dangerously close to the twee: the mime artist in the circus scenes at the start of the film, and the idea of “reject the book and you it’ll fly back home to the library, and you can ride it all the way there” which forms our first introduction to the fantasy world. Sometimes the film feels like it’s trying too hard to be self-consciously weird.

So, since MirrorMask‘s plot isn’t particularly gripping in its own right, the film is far from flawless. But that doesn’t mean it’s worthless; it can be quite interesting if approached with the right mentality. I find I get most out of the film when I consider its place in Neil Gaiman’s body of work as a whole, and its relationship to other tales by him that used similar elements to better effect. For that reason, I’d say that if you intend to view MirrorMask, it’s beneficial to have already encountered some of the other pieces of Gaiman’s writing that I’ve mentioned over the last few paragraphs.

Other Stuff
Incidentally, MirrorMask is a good one for playing Spot The British (Voice) Actor: Stephen Fry! Robert Llewellyn! Andy Hamilton! Lenny Henry!

Good closing joke, too.

Oh, and I quite liked the music, even if no-one else did.

Overall…
It’s a film that’s fascinating to look at throughout, and works fantastically as an illustration of McKean’s artistry. But as a story it isn’t anywhere near as good as some of Gaiman’s other on-screen projects like Coraline or Stardust or last year’s Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife”. It’s still worth watching, though, if only to learn something about why it didn’t work as well as those stories.

(MirrorMask does, however, compare favourably to at least one Gaiman co-written screenplay:  it’s miles better than Robert Zemeckis’ performance-captured adaptation of Beowulf!)

3.5 out of 5.

A prediction regarding Joss Whedon’s Avengers film

Wednesday 24th November 2010 Leave a comment

News! There’s a new Buffy the Vampire Slayer reimagining on the go (which, as Slashfilm points out, is completely unrelated to the one that was rumoured in 2009), which caused Joss Whedon to give an amusing response that was reminiscent of his Terminator franchise proposal a while ago.

This provides a great excuse for me to air my pet prediction regarding his next movie!

I can see one of two things happening with The Avengers:

A) The film makes an obscene amount of money eclipsing Titanic, Avatar, and all the Harry Potter and Bond movies put together. Studios fall over themselves to let Whedon make whatever he wants, which happens to be a Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie. Then — while finding time to do some part-time script-doctoring on a couple of Pixar films, because they’ve really missed his help since the original Toy Story — he goes to HBO and makes more episodes of Firefly, which runs for ten seasons, three feature films and a spin-off animated series, is universally adored, and ushers in a new utopia of world peace and prosperity, Wyld Stallions-style.

OR…

B) Coming fourteen years after Blade, twelve years after X-Men and ten years after Spider-Men, it has the misfortune to be released just after the end of the superhero movie boom and flops miserably. 😦