IRON MAN 2: Exactly As It Should Be

Reading all of the online articles posted about it, you'd think this Summer blockbuster season was populated by a bunch of really awful films being released on a very well-informed and comparably underwhelmed movie-going public.  I don't think it's nearly as dramatic as all that.  Sure, there have been tons of really bad flicks, buy what month goes by in theatrical releases when that isn't true?  What really bothers me, though, is that aside from the actually pretty bad and disappointing movies, there is one really big one that everyone is describing as a huge letdown:  IRON MAN 2.  I don't get it.

IRON MAN 2 is exactly the film it should be, especially when taking the first film into consideration along with the rules of the sequel.  We had a largely-uknown hero get his due from the audience, in a light, much more character-centric take on the superhero genre, that featured some really amazing special effects, and a charismatic star turn from Robert Downey, Jr.  The sequel is bigger, has more action and more special effects, features more quips and one-liners from its star, further establishes and expands the mythos and world of the Marvel films, and is a really fun ride, even if it does do a bit of wandering.  But these are all things that seem to cause problems for people.  A major complaint is that it has too much going on.  I disagree.  I think that, for its aims, it may actually do too little.

This time out, Stark is being attacked by a vengeance-obsessed Russian (Whiplash/Mickey Rourke, who I'll get to a bit later), an arms-dealer competitor hungry for the Iron Man tech (Justin Hammer/Sam Rockwell), the government and, by extension, the military, and his own body, which is being slowly poisoned by the very technology that's keeping him alive.  On top of all of this, though, this second film is also the set-up for the next two years of Marvel releases, teasing Captain America and Thor with weapon cameos, nods direct and indirect to S.H.I.E.L.D., and most of all, setting up Tony Stark as an integral part of this universe.  That's a lot of stuff to cram into a two and a half hour run time, and Favreau does a pretty good job of getting it done, especially considering the fact that it's fun and engaging.

The whole film plays a bit loose, and if it seems to only get its story going about forty minutes in, well, it should.  Stark is a loose character, always a bit flighty, and I really enjoy the fact that, unlike most big superhero flicks, it doesn't always feel like he has some sense of duty.  He's got an ego the size of Texas, easily, and he thinks he can get away with anything.  Some of the best parts of the movie have nothing to do with anything other than Tony being Tony: genius savant, ladies' man, egoist.  Just the sight of him eating a hangover donut in the Iron Man suit after an out-of-control party and showdown with his best friend, or his perfect interplay with Pepper Potts, or his completely devastating and quite funny showdown in a Senate hearing is enough to keep me coming back for more.  This allows the film some much-needed room to breathe, which is what a lot of these pictures lack.

I also felt much more acclimated to this style during the second time I watched IRON MAN 2.  It flows a lot better than I thought it did, and even the final battle doesn't seem like as much of a let-down in how brief it is.  I think I initially suffered from what a lot of people who saw it did: high expectations.  The difference is that now I've seen that it in fact met all of my expectations, and perhaps even surpassed them.  It's not a disappointment in any case.

As for the film doing too little with certain things, it just feels a bit too small.  Whiplash is an interesting character, but we get too little time with him.  I wanted more of his bloodlust.  It's also a shame that he doesn't end up with ties to some of the super-villains that I know are coming up in the future films (AVENGERS and, hopefully, IRON MAN 3).  I also think that there could have been some more time spent on S.H.I.E.L.D.  We're introduced to Black Widow, but what's her role in the organization?  She has some really great scenes, but the character is held back too much.  Nick Fury's two scenes are played mostly for comic effect and to set up the next films, but he's still a mystery.  But, maybe I'm alone here.  I did, after all, think that Peter Jackson's KING KONG could have used an extra ten minutes or so.

In any case, I think IRON MAN 2 is perfectly fine as a sequel.  It's not a well-oiled machine, but it has to be understood within the context that Marvel isn't attempting a single franchise here.  If the focus were only on Stark/Iron Man, the film would probably have been greatly streamlined.  The film, however, doesn't have any particularly deep flaws aside from a bump here or there.  As a Summer blockbuster, it's exemplary.  It's exactly what it should be, if not what I expected the first time around.



Here's a smattering of things I've seen recently.  Some I'm lukewarm about, but overall I mostly liked these selections; just didn't have enough time for full-on write-ups.  Anyway, ladies and gentlemen, a new installation of my regular column, Blurbs:

This offshoot of the very funny FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL is the first big comedy of the year that I've wholeheartedly enjoyed, not that I didn't also find COP OUT and DATE NIGHT to be worthwhile diversions in an otherwise unimaginative summer schedule as well.  Maybe it's my affinity for Aldous Snow, the burnt-out, drug-crazed rock star played by Russell Brand, or maybe it's the face that I have yet to tire of the almighty "Apatow machine" branding.  Either way, I laughed a lot, and if the film has a small weakness, it's that its heart just didn't seem as big as the best of the crew's productions.  I really loved an extended stopover in Vegas that goes into really unexpected territory, as well as serves for the end-film gag of Infant Sorrow's new song: "Furry Walls".  Also of hilarious note is the fact that Snow's band, Infant Sorrow, have also released a real-world album (which also serves as the film's soundtrack).  Pick that up if you're at all interested - there are some real gems on that release.

Nowhere near as awful as I'd heard.  Watched this one lazy afternoon on HBO, and really kind of admired its oddball qualities.  Will Ferrell is reliably funny, and I love Danny McBride's constant "variations on an ignorant and clueless hick" routine enough to give him a pass, though I do wish he'd start branching out a bit.  It does toy around with (and in a few instances mock) the beloved TV show, but who cares?  I had zero expectations, and I was amused for a couple of hours.  That's good enough for me.  After all, I could've been watching yet another "___ Movie" movie.

I missed out on this Gary Oldman / Paddy Considine thriller when it came out, but man am I glad I finally got around to seeing it.  Part STRAW DOGS, part X-FILES episode "Home", and just a little bit of DELIVERANCE, THE BACKWOODS is pretty powerful revenge-thriller stuff.  You know, I've followed Considine ever since his performance in Michael Winterbottom's 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE, and I really wish he worked more, and gained at least the reputation that Oldman has.  He thrives in these dark dramas, so maybe someone like Fincher could pick him up stateside for some work?  In any case, the usual Oldman rule applies here, too:  he's all badass, and then he dies.  Anyone familiar enough with his work knows this rule, so that's not really a surprise or a spoiler.  Anyway, this is riveting stuff, highly recommended.

Nicholas Ray's underseen masterpiece is a revelation.  A broad expose on the "Father Knows Best" era of the American nuclear family, the film hinges on an unbelievably riveting James Mason as Ed Avery, a school teacher with a possibly fatal affliction who becomes addicted to an experimental drug called cortisone.  The drug causes wild mood swings, and eventually begins changing his personality completely, transforming him from a loving father figure into a monstrous despot who starts to loathe his wife and see that there is no way his son will turn out better than he is now, so it would make better sense just to kill him.  Walter Matthau turns in some impressive side-character work as Ed's coworker who tries to help his family get their patriarch back on the right track.  It features breathtaking CinemaScope cinematography by Joe McDonald (PANIC IN THE STREETS, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET) that really utilizes his experience in Films Noir as well as the expansiveness of the CinemaScope format (the screenshot above is in proper aspect ratio).  If you've never heard of this film, seek it out.  It was recently issued on DVD and BluRay by Criterion, and it features some typically insightful special features as well as a gorgeous picture and sound transfer.  This is one to own - trust me.


"I Wanna Be Where The Boys Are": THE RUNAWAYS

I may be going out on a limb when I say this, but THE RUNAWAYS, Floria Sigismondi's adaptation of the book NEON ANGEL by Cherie Currie (with obvious input from other sources as well), which details the rise and fall of the all-girl rock group, is an hour and forty-five minutes of exhilarating storytelling experimentation within a genre that has become all too stale in recent years.  What some may see as lacking in forms of context, I think is invigorating.  There are things that Sigismondi all but ignores in the film, mainly in the way she handles the exact level of fame the group achieves, that leave an enigmatic and half-baked feeling, but gets a whole hell of a lot more bang for her buck in terms of character and feel.  This is a film as preoccupied with the aesthetics of storytelling as it is with actually telling the story of five young girls who grew to be one of the most important rock acts of all time.

Kristen Stewart is Joan Jett, and Dakota Fanning is Currie.  Both are unbelievably good, with Fanning carrying a lot of the film's emotional weight, and performing a fairly provocative role at the same age as her real-life counterpart when the group started.  The relationship between the two girls is explored in reasonable depth, but plenty is left floating out in the ether, too, which I rather appreciated.  It left me thinking about them a whole lot after the film was over, and how amazing it was that this band happened at all given its totally disparate band members.  As the film (and the book) make pretty clear, a lot of that had to do with producer Kim Fowley, who coaches the girls on how to think with their cocks, exploit male physical attraction, and defend themselves against stage debris, all while helping them write songs and create an on-stage presence.  The Runaways as an all-girl rock band may have been Jett's idea, but there is no doubt that they were Fowley's baby.

There's an amazing sequence mid-way through the film where Jett and Currie hook up while on tour.  It's not really anything explicit, but all of the eroticism and drug-fuelled desire of it really makes it stand out. The scene's all reds and blacks and flesh, and the constant throbbing of Iggy Pop.  It's one of the closest approximations to the feel of passionate sex I think I've ever seen, and all while basically showing a lot of close-ups of arms and one very quick and smoky kiss between the two girls.  And, better yet, the fact that it is two girls isn't played up at all - it's all completely natural and un-attention grabbing, which may be why it really hasn't been mentioned much by the press.  What I like here is the expressionism of the scene.  It's all about mood and not about act.  And it works.

And that's not the only time the film plays around with things.  Rather intentionally or unintentionally, the only time there's a taste of how big the group has actually gotten is its foray into Japan, where Curry dons her famous leggings and corset, and even that is basically relegated to a performance of "Cherry Bomb" and a scene in the dressing room when a group of screaming fans breaks through the glass door and chases the girls down.

Otherwise, the film focuses on drug use, battling egos (especially Curry's of mythological proportions), and girls raising hell.  It's not perfect, but I like this approach to detailing the rise and fall of such a misunderstood and important band in the history of rock music as The Runaways really and truly are.  By the time the fall part of it all comes around, it's not quite as big a shock because you've already witnessed the girls at each others' throats for the last half hour, and the battle between Cherie's loyalty to her work and to her family at home, and it all flows logically and never becomes completely routine.

The performances in the film are all pretty great, but I was particularly impressed with the two leads.  Stewart and Fanning are pretty great as Jett and Curry, and have an energy that buoys the film throughout.  Fanning has really come into her own as an actress, and she does some great work here, adding real psychological depth to a character that could have easily been treated like a cartoon.  As for Stewart, I've known since PANIC ROOM that she had the ability to seriously act in her somewhere, but all of her post-stardom work (even in ADVENTURELAND, which I like quite a bit) seems to consist of the same boredom infused lip biting that makes up so much of the character of Bella in TWILIGHT.  Apparently all it takes to make her act is to put her in something she actually gives a toss about.

A quick word about Michael Shannon, too, the fabulous actor who really wowed me back in 2006 in William Friedkin's BUG.  His portrayal of Kim Fowley is spot-on, flawless really, and backed up 100% by interview footage of the real Fowley and Joan Jett at the time.  But it transcends mere impersonation, and he really comes into his own with the character of Kim - someone who is flamboyant, racy and really couldn't give a shit.  He is fantastic.  Michael Shannon is one to keep your eyes on.

I don't think I've really done this film justice here.  I really loved it.  Is it perfect?  No, it's not, but I'll take imperfect and interesting any day over glossy perfection that just bores me to tears.  Seriously, in my honest opinion, THE RUNAWAYS is worth seeing just for that Stewart/Fanning sequence with Iggy Pop.  That's pure cinema, and you can't say that about many other biopics out there.


Of Fleshy Blobs and Bio-Ethics: SPLICE (2010)

Thankfully, there's Canada.

Without their particular brand of crazy, I don't know where the sci-fi/horror genre would be.  Sure, there are the French, but that's another thing altogether.  No, the Canadians have had this market cornered for decades now, with David Cronenberg's body horror oeuvre being most prominent, and now we have SPLICE, directed by CUBE mastermind Vincenzo Natali.

SPLICE follows superstar geneticists Elsa and Clive (a terrific Sarah Polley and Adrian Brody), who are also a happy couple, and their attempts to splice a new creature together and track down an enzyme that is a gateway for all kinds of cures.  So, we have Fred and Ginger, two slug-like organisms who are apparently far more complex creatures, who bond ("imprint") with one another, and who are extremely successful at producing the protein that the pharmaceutical company is looking for.

After this success, Elsa and Clive want to move on to human splicing - the next logical step - but are told no by their big-pharma employers, who want them to shut down their operation and attempt to synthesize the protein now, so they can start making some money off of their years of research.  And of course, Elsa and Clive ignore all of this ad create the thing anyway, "just to know that they can."  Things are never as simple as they seem in these movies, and inevitably, they decide to put off destroying their creation, and stuff eventually goes very, very wrong.

And then the film becomes absolutely, thrillingly insane.  I mean it: crazy.

After the initial shocks of the experiment - the premature birth, the rapid development of the creature, their fear of its potentially deadly abilities - Clive and Elsa decide to keep it, especially once Elsa becomes attached to it, and gives it a name, Dren, which is significant ("nerd" backwards) in that it stems from a discovery she makes while bonding with "her."

The decision to assign a gender to Dren is a significant one, because it fuels a lot of the most intriguing questions the film raises.  It also makes complete sense, given the fact that during one of the most amazing sequences, while dancing with Dren, Clive notices Elsa's features in her, leading to the realization that the human DNA spliced into her was not some random donor, but was in fact her own way of having a child (a subject brought up by Clive, but which disinterested Elsa, perhaps as not being "enough" for her).  This realization is where the film completely changes into something profoundly interesting, with Dren developing self-awareness, drawing conclusions about relationships, and, of course, typical adolescent urges.

The resulting final hour of the film is packed with questions and ideas about bio-ethics, relationship dynamics, greed, species and gender identities, sexual ethics and so much more it's mind-boggling.  I was so breathless by the time I left the theater that I felt like I had just run a marathon (the way I feel after watching Cronenberg's films, too).

Now, I'm not going to spoil much of anything for you, but I will give this piece of information:  the relationship between Dren and Clive sets all of this in motion, and it's one of those oddly erotic moments that you're quite simply unsure of at the time.  The model and sometimes actress Delphine Chaneac was no doubt chosen to play the oddly attractive Dren (from the waste up, at least) because the creature is supposed to have some sort of sex appeal.  The film thrives on our identification with this thing as a humanoid.  It totally works, too, because throughout the narrative, the film consistently plays with who the audience identifies with based on their relationship and reactions toward Dren.

The six or seven college kids behind me hated it.  They weren't kids, just immature adults.  SPLICE is not a movie for someone who is just looking for a big dumb horror flick (which is acceptable, too), and it certainly is not anything like what you would expect.  It is, however, excellent, and then you even get the traditional final reel freak-out horrorshow to top it all of.  It's nothing short of brilliant, and easily one of the best films I've seen this year.