In Cinemas: This is the End

This is the End

I don’t wanna die at James Franco’s house.

The first of two apocalyptic comedies this summer, This is the End is written and directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Superbad & The Green Hornet) and follows a group of celebrities as they stave off the armageddon at James Franco’s house.

This is the End is a showcase for the immature sensibilities of Rogen and Goldberg, who seemingly have built a career on dick jokes. Well that, and exploring the nature of friendships. For as much as crude humour, sexual immaturity and egotistical stupidity defines their work, the idea of friendship pervades each film they make.

Whether its Jonah Hill’s Seth and Michael Cera’s Evan in Superbad, or Rogen’s Britt Reid and Jay Chou’s Kato in The Green Hornet, friendship factors in a big way and This is the End, along with Superbad, is defined by it. Without friends you won’t get far and when it’s the end of the world, you need help from your friends, right? Not quite. This film puts six actors together and all their petty and childish needs (Milky Bars, masturbation) bring out the worst in each other. Like an apocalyptic Big Brother.

A frequent complaint of a Rogen/Goldberg film is that the thematic threads are hidden behind a vulgar display of human behaviour. To an extent they’re not wrong although it’s a more of a comfortable fit here. Partying at James Franco’s house it’s celebrities you know (and some you don’t) behaving badly. Rogen and Goldberg take the persona of these actors and twist, amplify and subvert with glee.

Michael Cera is a cokehead who slaps Rihanna’s bum and gets both a blowjob and a rim-job (Google it, if you dare). James Franco is pretentious hoarder of art and his own movie props. Jonah Hill is a two-faced arrogant jerk. The actors appear to relish every opportunity to tear each other to shreds, the relaxed atmosphere extending itself to the humour and camaraderie between the cast. Rogen looks a tad more relaxed than he did in The Green Hornet, and that applies to all the actors, each one playing an exaggerated version of themselves.

Plot proves to be less important than humour (natch). A good set-up is what’s required and trapping a bunch of spoilt, immature celebrities who bicker and fight is one you can mine over and over. Danny McBride enters the film half-way through and is effectively human version of dynamite, doing the schtick that McBride does (annoying and self-absorbed characters) and giving the film something of a villain and again riffing off the Big Brother type of character dynamics.

The film hops from one genre to another (survival film, outright horror) keeping events interesting. Nevertheless there are moments of indulgence and the feeling that this isn’t a huge step out of the comfort zone for anyone involved. There are huge visual effects and a scale that’s not been attempted by these directors before, but as soon as they’re indoors it reverts back to the safe, well-worn Judd Apatow staple. This is the End is more dynamic than Apatow but as funny as it can be, there’s an over reliance on the dick/masturbation jokes and ad-libs/references that tend to drag proceedings and waste a few moments here and there.

It’s also lacking much of a female presence. Emma Watson storms into the film wielding an axe and (still) wearing high heels, but like the rest of Rogen/Goldberg’s output, End is very male-orientated.  The whole point of it is to trap a few guys together and the introduction of Watson brings a funny and dark conversation to light, but the lack of and fleshed out female characters disappoints. More often than not they tell their films/jokes from the same perspective and sooner or later, they’re going to run out of dick jokes.

Regardless, if you enjoy their brand of humour then you’ll find much to like in This is the End. With some well-placed cameos (the last ten minutes have a few doozies), the film does more than enough to make you laugh. There is the nagging thought that it could have been even funnier, but what we have is a film that’s occasionally inspired with its jokes and never less than good.

7/10

In Cinemas: Man of Steel

Henry Cavill in Man of Steel

Imagine how our world would react if they came face to face with this…

Man of Steel has divided critics and fans in a manner I would never have expected it to. A tricky character to get right, the man of steel may be the most recognisable of superheros (the grandaddy) but he’s lost his lustre in recent years. For this story to work in a modern context, ditching established tradition is one of the few avenues left open. If you’re re-imagining a character like writer David Goyer, Christopher Nolan and director Zack Snyder are here then, as the old saying goes, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs (or necks).

The film’s plot concerns itself with many things – to a fault. Krypton is dying and Jor-El (Russell Crowe) decides to send his new-born son to another world. In his son’s DNA is, he hopes, the beginnings of a new Krypton free from the failures that blighted his. General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his lieutenant Faora-Ul (Antje Traue), attempt a military coup by taking control of the Codex, a depository that contains information on the genetic future of Krypton. They fail and are imprisoned within the Phantom Zone. Upon Zod’s release he seeks to bring Krypton back and his search takes him to Earth where he finds the now grown up Kal-El/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill).

That’s a lot to take on-board (and there’s more) but Snyder and co are interested in creating a vast mythology for a new generation. MoS isn’t adapting what came before and adding 21st century bells and whistles. This is going back to the core and deciding to start from the very beginning. It lops a backstory on top of an origin story, front-loading the film with exposition that’s nonetheless interesting; building a world brick by brick.

This idea of building from the ground up is reflected in the opening salvo which is huge in scale and sprawling with history. Civil war erupts on Kyrpton as Jor-El seeks to save his son with the planet on the verge of imploding. The imagination on display in this sequence is a world away from Donner’s (now) austere and cool beginnings with Superman: The Movie. So good (and fresh) is this section that it’s quite possibly the best the film has to offer.

Mirroring the structure of Nolan’s Batman Begins, Clark’s arrival on earth flits between two perspectives: the present and the past. The present sees him trying to find a role on Earth, an identity that ties him to humanity. While the scenes set in the past show a young Clark struggling with what he is and how to use his powers. Its in these scenes, with Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent and Diane Lane’s Martha Kent as a moral compasses, that the film gains a heart (and a little bit of a brain), making this brittle yet incredibly powerful character more relatable than before.

Costner’s Kent, whether he knows it or not, has the same intentions as Jor-El had and sees Clark’s potential to change the world. All the while realising that Clark can’t be pushed into becoming someone he may not want to be. It boils down to a choice and while it’s inevitable that he will don the suit and cape, the early scenes at least show that its not as easy as walking into the Fortress of Solitude and appearing seconds later as a ready-made superhero like Stars in Their Eyes.

This Superman is as the title implies; a tougher, more resilient version. The charm and playfulness have fallen away to introspection (Cavill’s brow seems permanently furrowed), and a more rustic sensibility not to mention a booming, rhythmic soundtrack courtesy of Hans Zimmer and an imposing physicality that plays out in the film’s second-half.

Its in the second-half where MoS loses its balance. With so much action (most of it spectacular), character interactions are reduced. It certainly harms the relationship between Cavill’s Clark and Amy Adam’s (spiky) Lois Lane. The relationship reaches its required point at the end of the film and yet feels arbitrary and unconvincing. There isn’t enough time to make their relationship a genuine one. Instead what we get a dust-up that’s reminiscent of the Neo/Agent Smith fight in The Matrix Revolutions.

As buildings crumble and streets are ripped apart there’s an emphasis on CG effects that detaches the viewer from the realism Snyder sets up. Its difficult to reconcile a world and a character as fantastic as this with what’s ‘real’ but the action is so over-the-top that any investment naturally begins to wane.

Surprisingly MoS shows another side of Snyder, one that’s not typical of a blockbuster (at least not recently). The breathless action is expected but less so the sensitivity. Restrained, particularly in the middle section, Snyder manages to balance the otherworldly elements without taking the basic human drama for granted. The acting, production design, costuming and overall tone, although you could argue is too dour, ground the world in a realistic millieu. The story takes itself as seriously as it needs to. How would the world react to an alien? Who knows, but this ‘feels’ right and Clark’s quest to find his purpose is given enough weight before it succumbs to action beats.

There’s a multitude of ways this film could have turned out, but this approach feels brave and adventurous. Forging ahead with a new take on an old hero and making him relevant, interesting even.

Flawed? Most definitely. But this film brings new insight to a character lost in time. He’s not quite Superman yet, but he’s well on his way.

8/10

In Cinemas: World War Z

Brad Pitt as Gerry Lane in World War Z

Is anyone doing better than we are?

Loosely based on the book of the same name by Max Brooks (which you should go buy), World War Z is a zombie apocalypse thriller directed by Mark Forster, starring Brad Pitt as Gerry Lane (rubbish name), a former UN investigator who’s tasked with finding a cure for the outbreak.

In truth World War Z could have had any title apart from the one it shares with its literary cousin. Compared to Brooks’ book, it bares little in resemblance whether it’s content, characters or plot. Where the book told stories from several perspectives after the fact, Z reduces it to one and tells it as the conflict unfolds. To call the antagonists in this film zombies is also something of a misnomer. They’re infected in a similar manner to ‘zombies’ in 28 Days Later, or Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake; a bite turns people rabid, and grants them Usain Bolt-like pace and a predilection for biting people’s necks.

Despite the film’s much publicised production troubles (apparently Pitt and Forster fell out on set), and huge rewrites by both Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) and Damon Lindelof (Prometheus), the resulting film is not a disaster. It still shows signs of cracks but it’s a surprisingly competent and enjoyable film.

The opening credits set a familiar tone, too familiar in fact, with flashes of news reports about a virus spliced with images of rabid animals attacking each other. It recalls I Am Legend, Snyder’s remake and parts of Contagion but has an effect of making Z somewhat derivative. A feeling that deadens (ha!) the first few minutes.

Matters aren’t helped by a sugary opening scene of domestic bliss involving Pitt and his family. It presents a saccharine, superficial slice of Americana that we’ve seen so many times that it comes across as a bit dull. Thankfully things kick into gear with a chaotic sequence in Philadelphia as the infected swarm the streets (although why buildings are on fire I’ll never truly understand). After this point the film gradually finds its groove and becomes something of a travelogue, showing how various countries/cultures have ‘adapted’ to the current situation. Some better than others.

The idea that this is a global conflict is one of few aspects that remains intact from the book (in some form), bestowing the film with a scale lacking in other efforts. Zombie films usually focus on a small group as society crumbled. Z is drawn on bigger canvas, as the world is suffocated by a horde of undead. One memorable little moment is had when Lane flies from one location to another and a nuclear bomb goes off in the background. It’s sudden and unexpected, but a reminder of society’s rapid implosion.

Changes from the novel make Z light on character and heavy on action. These undead don’t shuffle, they sprint. Loud noises attract a horde and the infected use their own bodies as links in a chain to build bridges (like ants). It looks spectacular, with one sequence in Israel bringing to mind an infestation, although the use of CG-assisted ‘zombies’ detract from the supposed ‘reality’.

Emotionally it lacks engagement, with Forster never really presenting a sense of danger or feeling that things could go wrong, at least for the main character. That’s one of its problems. Despite the world ending the sense that Gerry or his family could be in trouble is never really felt. Characters dies but you barely know them. There simply isn’t much in terms of character and on those terms the film doesn’t engage enough. It’s a good thing then, that the film never stays in one place for too long before its on the move.

The best sequence takes place in – of all places – Wales. It’s here the film returns the traditional trappings of the genre, having characters evade the infected in a confined medical facility that had me thinking of Resident Evil (the games, not the shabby films). It’s old-fashioned stuff that rubs up against the big budget CG spectacle that came before. As a whole Z doesn’t surprise or bring much that’s new, but it gets the job done, which is good enough.

7/10

In Cinemas: Fast and the Furious 6

Fast and Furious 6

We all got a weak spot.

Another review that should have been up weeks ago, and another attempt at keeping it short.

The Fast and the Furious is a f**king ridiculous franchise.

How it got to this point, or why it even exists is beyond me. Nevertheless, here it stands in all its muscle-brained glory. As a fan of the first film, Fast Six is almost unrecognisable from its origins. What started off as a small film about rival LA gangs that drove cars, rode bikes and threatened to beat each other up every now and then, has evolved into the kind of brainless, tentpole action film that brings in the big bucks.

Fast and the Furious 5 redeemed the series from the disappointment of Fast and Furious with an interesting deviation on its well-trodden formula. It dropped the street racing, undercover police shenanigans and revenge plots; transforming into a heist movie with some demented action. The introduction of Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs added an intensity and energy that the franchise lacked. Taking it to Rio gave it a change of surroundings. It teetered on being dumb (if it wasn’t already), but Fast Five was recklessly fun and enjoyable.

And so with Fast Six we’ve hit something of barrier. Five was such a success, unexpectedly so, that it would be hard to top it without careering headfirst into stupidity.

And that’s effectively what Fast Six does.

To write a synopsis of this film, i’d have to explain what came before, so intricate and weirdly complex is the franchise’s backstory. It extends to this film, retroactively inserting Luke Evan’s villain into Fast and the Furious and hoping you’ll remember what happened in that film.

It goes for ridiculousness and stupidity and delivers. That isn’t something to look down upon; Fast Six isn’t a bad film. Not quite. Travelling around the world, from Russia to London then Spain, it’s far more ambitious than you would think. Its established a certain type of action and expectations to go with it – go big or go home. But it still holds in its motorized heart the characters from the first film. It becomes bigger and more ‘emotional’ but you sense the cast and crew care more for the characters than the audience would.

In taking that road, it veers towards becoming a parody of itself. There’s a lot of talk about ‘family’, but it doesn’t ring true when surrounded by copious amounts of vehicular carnage. These characters have long stopped being real, if they ever were in the first place. The amount of importance attached to some characters, whose names I couldn’t tell you, is something of a bugbear. Five previous films, with a huge cast that needs to be serviced and each with a moment in the spotlight. It’s too big, too awkward and problematic. The only kind of ‘family’ that would have these adventures would be seen in a fantasy cartoon/TV show from 60s. It’s become completely divorced from reality and its hard to take what the characters are saying without a dollop of cheese.

Of course if you were only ever looking for fun then Fast Six delivers. Technically its the biggest, most spectacular entry in the franchise, but on the odd occasion looks like some scenes were rushed/re-shot in post. Dwayne Johnson’s beard at one point changes from shot-to-shot (shaved – full on – back to shaved). The opening scene doesn’t look like its set in Russia but on a bridge in London. In a way it’s made up for by Vin Diesel’s Dominic Torretto taking someone out with a flying headbutt. And that’s before he drives through the nose of an exploding plane.

Its still fun but the visual/action excess is making this series top-heavy. With the end credits coda anticipating the next film, this ‘franchise’ won’t have time to cool down. It might be necessary as it’s starting to run out of gas (sorry).

6/10

In Cinemas: The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

You can’t repeat the past

As The Great Gatsby has been out for a while (and this was supposed to go up weeks ago), I’ll make it short and (not?) sweet. There’s something just not quite right about this version of The Great Gatsby.

F Scott Fitzgerald’s book, anointed as one of the great, influential American novels, seems to defy adaptation, frustrating anyone who comes near it. Perhaps it’s the importance of the book itself that’s the problem, the responsibility of the text weighing down the adapter. Attempting to match what’s become an iconic piece of literature proves to be a difficult task.

Director Bazz Lurhman tries to incorporate Fitzgerald’s prose within his own style but the end result is an unwieldy one. It never congeals in the right way with Lurhman expending a lot of energy to lift the story off the page. It shows, with the film having the restless energy of someone who’s in a rush to say something but isn’t quite sure how.

After a manic opening ½ hour which does the film no favours, it slows down but only really comes into its own in the last ½ hour or so. Ironically, it’s when the characters are sitting in a room with nothing to distract them, no parties or dancers dangling from the ceilings, that the film is at its most interesting.

A simpler, tighter story; one without the constant visual inflections and (disappointingly) anaemic soundtrack might have made a better impact.

But it does get a few things right. DiCaprio is well suited to Gatsby and his introduction is one of the few knockout scenes in the film. While most of the actors struggle to make themselves seen and heard above Lurhman’s ADD style, Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan makes an impression as a gruff, old-money patriarch.

With that last half-hour realising the book’s Shakespeare-like romance tragedy; about how we can all be blinded by our past, it makes this effort all the more frustrating. It sparkles in moments, but then all that glistens is not gold. Not bad then, just decent.

5/10

In Cinemas: The Hangover Part III

The Hangover Part III

I told myself, I would never come back.

When is a comedy not a comedy?

The Hangover Part III is an odd film. With the second entry in the series running on fumes, Part III shakes the formula up by ditching the set-up of the prior films and plays it more or less straightforward. There’s a bigger scope to this film that’s evident from the off as it opens with Mr Chow (Ken Jeong, the Wolf Pack’s nemesis in the first two films), escaping from a south-Asian prison and seemingly on his way back to the US.

Meanwhile Zach Galifianakis’ Alan is displaying some highly erratic behaviour. So Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), and Doug (Justin Bartha) decide to intervene, offering to help by driving Alan to a facility to get the help he needs. On the way there, they’re ambushed by a gang of criminals led by John Goodman’s Marshall, who needs their help to locate Chow and $21 million in missing gold bars.

While I can’t say that part III is as blasé as part II, it is nevertheless a strikingly unfunny film; a step back from its predecessor which still managed to drudge up some (crude) laughs. Director Todd Philips opts for a crime/heist caper rather than the “men behaving badly” pastiche, answering critics who thought part II was more of the same. So while it isn’t (somehow) as juvenile as before, in terms of tone it becomes two different genres clashing awkwardly. What was fun and irreverent before is now po-faced and more than a bit morbid.

It ties up elements of the franchise you didn’t know, and quite frankly never needed tying up. The plotting is contrived, lazy and tired with characters (especially Chow) having inexplicable knowledge of certain things just to move the story onwards. There’s no rhyme and very little reason as to what’s happening and why you should care. It’s a series that could, and should, have ended after the first film.

Part III isn’t unwatchable but it is much of a nothingness: a nondescript, lethargic film with characters that have less maturity than a five-year old. Philips directs as if he’s on auto-pilot and the whole enterprise would be unremarkable save for some surreal moments involving Melissa McCarthy’s Cassie. Like most of Philips’ recent output there’s a mean-spirited nature about its humour, with characters shouting at the elderly, smothering a chicken and sniffing another person’s backside like a dog would. At times its bizarre and demented. Philips and screenwriter Craig Mazin seem to think that’s funny.

It isn’t. It’s actually really boring.

4/10

The Road to The Avengers: Captain America

Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter in Captain America

I don’t want to kill anybody. I don’t like bullies; I don’t care where they’re from.

I had [actually that should read as ‘have’] reservations about Captain America: The First Avenger.  The reservations? You can read about them over here but they stem from a character and story perspective. Putting those problems aside I come to appreciate the pulpy spectacle a little bit more than I did before.

The First Avenger‘s story finds Steve Rogers deemed unfit for service in World War II but volunteers for a special project that gives a man super-human gifts. Finally getting his chance to serve his country he travels to Europe to stop Johann Schmidt a.ka. Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a Hydra scientist who intends to win the war with his new weapon of destruction, the Tesseract.

The First Avenger is a much better action/adventure film than it is one about its own characters. Chris Evans‘ Steve Rogers is a standout, but that’s expected since he’s the star of the show. The other actors do well in their roles, the, ahem, buxom Hayley Atwell foreshadows the kind of tough, heroic woman that Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow would come to be; Tommy Lee Jones grizzled, avuncular performance works extremely well here and Stanley Tucci‘s Abraham Erskine is another standout in the film’s first half-hour or so.

It’s in the other characters that film shows its limitations. Hugo Weaving‘s Johann Schimdt makes for a standard foe, your typical ‘he’s like the hero but one step removed’ sort of villain. He’s obviously evil and villanous and perhaps that’s all he needs to be. It doesn’t make for a memorable antagonist despite the fact that his skin has been burnt off. Most of the other characters get the short-shrift and bow out too early to have an impact, leaving the film’s action to pick up the slack. It’s a good thing that the action is pretty great.

There’s a physicality to Captain America that clearly differentiates itself from other superheroes particularly in the Marvel canon. Most of the heroes have some kind of miscellaneous item to fight with (Thor has his hammer: Black Widow her, um, guns, Hawkeye his bow and Iron Man his suit/repulsor tech blah, blah, blah). Captain America has his shield but he’s the closest character to the Hulk that uses his fists than any other kind of weird technology. He’s not about to bring out a rapier mid-battle or have gauntlets to stab you with in the mould of Assassin’s Creed. He brawls, keeping in line with serial heroes like Flash Gordon and Indiana Jones, and that added level of physicality is a bit more enjoyable than someone getting blasted or hit flush in the face with a gigantic hammer.

In the end The First Avenger most problematic issue is in its pacing. Characters don’t get enough time to establish themselves and their relationships and in turn tend to be rather shallow. The film runs rather than jogs, to get where it needs to be. It wouldn’t necessarily be a problem for me, if only there was only something to be invested in other than the action. From an action perspective Captain America: The First Avenger is enjoyable piece of genre filmmaking…but there’s always that feeling that it could have been better.

6/10

[Does anyone care what happened to Sebastian ‘Bucky’ Barnes because I don’t and that’s a massive problem with this film. Things happened and you can’t quite muster the interest/attachment to characters’ fate since the film isn’t interested in bookending its stories than bridging Rogers into The Avengers. – a thing I do like about the film is that, like Thor, it introduces a more fantastical bent with the Tesseract making the action way over the top]

The Road to The Avengers: Thor

Chris Hemsworth as Thor facing off against The Destroyer

“I have no plans to die today”

Up till Thor’s release Marvel Studios had eschewed the more fantastical elements of its characters/worlds for a realistic vibe. They were plausible…well Iron Man  sort of was; but they each felt part of a recognisable world. The Incredible Hulk was a monster movie but the character was familiar enough for audiences not to question it. Thor was a different proposition: how do you fit a god and space bridges into the Marvel canon and keep it grounded?

The characters and setting of Asgard are outlandish, absolutely separate from the real world aesthetics that Iron Man and, to a lesser extent, The Incredible Hulk created. Perhaps, like the previous Marvel films, the reason it works because of an emphasis on character rather than action.

That doesn’t mean it skimps on the action but it isn’t the film’s major concern. If the film’s faults lie in scale of the action (smaller than the setting implies); the way the action sequences are directed (functional) and a story that may not feel as grand as it should be, then those concerns are valid. For me it’s the conflict between Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki that’s the film’s most interesting aspect and what draws me back into the film than any preconceived notions of what it should/could have been.

Having written at length about what I liked about the film already (so, so long ago), I won’t bother repeating myself in any great detail. In short Thor’s an very likable film that doesn’t suffer from the Iron Man films’ weak third acts, and, emotionally, has a stronger sense of purpose than any of previous Marvel Studios films. Most of it is down to the trifecta of Hemsworth, Hiddleston and Anthony Hopkin’s Odin, a family thrown into tumult when Thor commits an act of stupidity and threatens to re-ignite the war between the Asgardians’ foe the Frost Giants.

Banished from Asgard (by way of a quite literal dressing down) Thor is sent to learn about humility and sacrifice as a lesson for his brash arrogance. Along the way he meets Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Darcy (comic relief Kat Dennings) and finds a place along humanity.

It’s another redemption story in the vein of Iron Man but it doesn’t lose its energy in the final third because of the relationships established in the film’s opening half-hour. S.H.I.E.L.D is still a bit of a dick but they don’t come across as annoying or as incongruous as they once did in Iron Man 2 (which wasn’t bad itself, just came across as trying to fit too many pieces into the puzzle). In Loki Marvel had its best villain so far, one that did not offer a physical threat to Thor’s strength but functioned as a trickster who schemes and manoeuvres pieces into place, an aspect of his character that worked well in The Avengers.

For my two cents (pennies?) Thor was the most entertaining of the films leading up to The Avengers. It’s funny, likable and felt like the most rounded of the films to date: it had some scope (though not as much as some wanted), a very good score by Patrick Doyle and visually, despite some glaring imperfections, was vibrant and imaginative. It set the benchmark for future films in the Marvel Studios universe.

8/10

[Despite all the kerfuffle pre-release about the colour of the character, Idris Elba’s Heimdall almost steals the film from Hemsworth and Hiddleston. It also puts down a marker for future characters to not be bound by race. Hurrah!]

The Road to The Avengers: Iron Man 2

Don Cheadle as War Machine and Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man in Iron Man 2

This lone gunslinger act is unnecessary… you don’t have to do this alone!

After the success of Iron Man (and The Incredible Hulk, at least in invigorating interest in the character), Marvel decided to skip a year and release their next film in 2010. The Avenger’s Initiative was very much on the horizon (not a tiny speck any more), the question now was how would Iron Man 2 fit into the equation? The answer would be ‘not very well’.

If the first film was about Downey Jr’s Tony Stark turning his back on his and his company’s legacy, then Iron Man 2 rejoins him as he takes the first tentative steps to creating a new one. Complications arise in the form of the triple whammy with the U.S government wanting to take hold of the iron man suit (after revealing his identity at the end of the first film); with Stark slowly dying from palladium poisoning caused by the very thing that’s keeping him alive, and that he’s not the only person with access to high-tech, weapons grade tech courtesy of Russian rogue scientist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke).

All this is further complicated by the intrusion of S.H.I.E.L.D – introduced through Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson in the first film – keeping tabs on Stark as he struggles to keep a grip on life. Iron Man 2 is a busy sequel that juggles too many characters and storylines to do any one of them justice. From a different perspective, Iron Man 2 is an ambitious sequel, but it’s execution is flawed. The adage of bigger being better is nullified by the sense of confusion that surrounds the script’s intent – just where is the film’s focus on? Stark dying? His legacy? His father? All of them?

As a result there are threads that get lost in the jumble. Rourke’s Vanko is a little ineffective due to the script (and some say on-set problems) removing him from the back end of the film for long stretches. In his place S.H.I.E.L.D’s involvement in the narrative is increased but this brings another element that the film struggles to fit in. I haven’t even began to mention Don Cheadle‘s Rhodey and his conflict with Stark or Stark’s daddy issues (Howard Stark played by Mad Men‘s Jon Slattery). It’s exhausting.

Perhaps the least likable aspect of the film is Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, still radiating charisma by the bucketload, but the script turns Stark into a man who has a death wish. It isn’t the Demon in a Bottle storyline, it’s more of a reflection of it as he spirals into the abyss by neglecting the people close to him. Understandable considering the storyline but it comes across as more than a little forced and irritating in its execution.

All of this casts a pall over the first forty minutes of the film which much like the first film contains some of its best moments. Its funny, with the interaction between Stark and competing weapons manufactuer/doppleganger/wannabe Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) and it slowly builds up to the first encounter between Vanko and Stark at the Monaco Grand Prix. The film never matches up to that confrontation despite the pyrotechnics, acrobatics (porvided by Scarlett Johansson‘s Natalie Rushman/Black Widow) and CG antics that dominate the last twenty minutes of the film.

Nonetheless its still entertaining even if it feels like it was rushed into productions with a few too many moving parts. A squandered opportunity to make a film that improved on the original.

6/10

[The action in Iron Man was a little stale, the action in Iron Man 2 is much better and some of that may be down to the production hiring Samurai Jack/Clone Wars/Powerpuff Girls animation director Genndy Tartakovsky to create some previsualisation storyboards and Ben Snow’s work for ILM, which you read about in brief here]

The Road to the Avengers: The Incredible Hulk

Edward Norton about to transform into the Hulk

As far as I’m concerned, that man’s whole body is property of the U.S. army.

I happen to like Ang Lee’s Hulk. While it’s not what many expected (philosophical musings, a CGI monster-poodle!), it was a fascinating entry into the super-hero genre. There was hardly anything like it before and there has been very little like it since. That Marvel hit the reset button (shouting ‘HULK SMASH’ I presume) is more than a little unfortunate. It closed to the door to seeing some risks being taken and some really interesting films being made.

Instead we received French director Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk:  a remake, requel or something. A new cast, a different Hulk and a new direction: the safe waters of convention.

None of this is necessarily bad.

In a way The Incredible Hulk is an apology-of-sorts, a ‘sorry we were too ambitious and bit of more than we could chew’ type grovel. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is still on the run with a prologue establishing a different origin that more or less gets the character in the place where he needs to be: isolated and afraid to return to society. Off the grid for a number of years, he’s forced to confront his fears when he’s located by General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross (William Hurt) who wants his genetic code to create a new breed of super-soldier (in an odd way, this film acts as a pseudo-sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger). However Banner’s work on the genetics for the military leads to a new threat: The Abomination. Banner will have to sacrifice his personal safety to defeat this new, potentially stronger foe.

The Incredible Hulk is a far simpler film than its predecessor, eschewing philosophy and introspective characters and favouring loud action beats and wearing its emotion on its sleeves. It’s not particularly subtle, but then again, a giant green monster full of rage wouldn’t be. Beginning in the slums of Sao Paulo before beating Harlem into submission in the last act, this is a film that’s less about the slow, avant-garde musings on father versus son/daughter relationships and more about levelling buildings/cities with the vibe of the old monster movies Universal Studios used to make. It’s hard to avoid comparison with other versions of Hulk (especially the Bill Bixby TV version this adventure draws inspiration from) which may make this adaptation the most watered down version of the character. However, at least until Marvel’s Avenger’s Assemble, it actually felt like the purest distillation of a character that’s hard to depict on screen without coming across as incredibly fake.

Norton’s Banner made a lot of sense at the time, giving the character the juxtaposition of a small, timid, unassuming man who gives way to voracious green giant. He centres the film with an intelligence and anxiety that makes Banner an interesting character, a man who suffered the greatest form of scientific hubris and is now afraid of his own shadow, lest he get angry and destroy anything close to him. Punishment by being cast off from humanity.

Tim Roth as Emil Blonksy is good; an old, determined soldier hankering for his glory days and revealing one of the film’s themes (addiction/temptation whether it’s for power, knowledge etc). Liv Tyler’s Betty comes across as little delicate (probably down to Tyler’s breathy voice) and her reunion with Banner feels very melodramatic at times, as if someone watched too many Mexican telenovelas.  Hurt’s Ross is okay but suffers from the problem that afflicts much of the supporting cast: they feel a little undercooked; as if there’s more to them that is not shown in the film.

So what makes the film good? Quite probably its lack of pretension. While Lee’s Hulk was more interesting, this Hulk is more fun whether it’s showcasing Leterrier’s action skills, making Banner angry or the Hulk turning a police car into boxing gloves. There’s inventiveness to the action in places that just about offsets the fakery on show, and the overall story of Banner as fugitive keeps the narrative flowing, always worried about if he’ll be found, moving from city to city while searching for a cure. It’s not hugely ambitious; then again Hulk’s at its best when he focuses on one thing: smashing stuff.

7/10

[The less said about the end credits scene the better, a moment that Iron Man 2 unravels but Avenger’s Assembles tries to rectify. Also, when are we going to see Tim Blake Nelson’s The Leader in a Marvel film?]

The Road to The Avengers: Iron Man

Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man in Iron Man [2008]

“Iron Man”. That’s kind of catchy. It’s got a nice ring to it.

Going back to April 2008, before The Dark Knight came out; before Marvel’s The Avengers (sorry, Marvel’s Avenger’s Assemble) was a speck on the horizon, an Iron Man movie was a significant risk. X-Men, Blade, Batman and Spider-Man had formed the initial landscape of the super-hero genre in the new millennium. Iron Man wasn’t known beyond fervent comic book readers, people who listened to Black Sabbath or kids who may have caught the cartoon in the 90s. Launching a potential franchise with a character – a very tech-orientated James Bond/billionaire playboy – with little awareness could have turned out like other less-popular comic book films such as the disappointingly weak Elektra or Fantastic Four. That it turned out to be good as it is, is down to Robert Downey Jr’s performance, amongst other things.

Tony Stark (Downey Jr) is a wealthy, arrogant industrialist, presenting his latest and greatest tech at a presentation in Afghanistan where he finds himself fighting for his life after his convoy is attacked. Kidnapped and with very little help, Stark is forced to build a suit of armour to escape his captors and upon freeing himself decides to use his technology to fight evil.

The above synopsis sounds cheesy (anything that has the words ‘fighting evil’ makes me cringe), but it’s to Marvel’s credit that in the context of the film it doesn’t sound laughable. Placing Tony Stark in a climate not far from our own (switching Vietnam for Afghanistan, introducing Apple-like interfaces) makes it much more relatable and palatable. It still retains much of its comic book ‘wham-bam’ personality but it’s not as far-fetched as it could have been, despite having a man who flies around in a high-tech suit of armour.

A lot of that is down to Jon Favreau’s direction (building up his big-budget aspirations after Elf and Zathura), Matthew Libatique’s brightly coloured, realistically-shot cinematography, ILM’s visual effects contribution and a hugely talented ensemble that function as one of the more impressive ones seen in tentpole filmmaking outside of The Dark Knight franchise. The emphasis is on character, not action; humour not broad stupidity (Stark’s bickering/flirting with his assistant, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, is a highlight), building a solid core for the action scenes. That the action isn’t particularly memorable is down to Favreau’s lack of nous/ambition, resulting in a third act fight that preceded Real Steel’s rock-em, sock-em antics. The action is perfunctorily done, a blemish and a missed opportunity for something that offers more scope than just people punching each other with metal fists. It’s a good thing the characters are this much fun as the limp action could have sunk the film.

It doesn’t help matters when the narrative is as formulaic as this one. Redemption narratives are too easily telegraphed: a strong opening half full of conflict eventually gives way to a busier-but-less-interesting second half that tries to resolve issues with a neat little bow. The initial villains (The 10 Rings) don’t offer much of a threat unless it’s of the very generic kind, and the main villain (Iron Monger) is a bit bland, a word you could apply to the film when Downey Jr is not on screen.

That he’s front and centre is this film’s greatest asset. Downey Jr’s revival (Hollywood loves a bad boy come good) is reflected in his cracking performance here after his great turn in Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (coming full circle with Black coming onboard to direct Iron Man 3), ‘owning the screen’ instead of chewing the scenery. Without him, this film simply wouldn’t be as good.

7/10

[Ramin Djawadi’s score is the film’s least memorable part, a heavy metal orchestration that mimics its protagonist’s ostentatious sense of worth/rock star life/Black Sabbath, forgoing a theme and opting for sonic wallpaper. Disappointing, especially when he’s capable of crafting memorable themes like this one.]

At Home: Anonymous

Rhys Ifans in Anonymous

You are the soul of the age… Undeniable perfection that plagued my soul.

Given that director Roland Emmerich is more famous for blowing up The White House and other cultural landmarks, the combination of his aesthetics to a drama – the theory that the Earl of Oxford penned Shakespeare’s plays – is initially off-putting.  Regardless of whether you believe the theory has a grain of truth, Emmerich turns in a story that’s engaging and far smarter than his previous work would suggest, making Anonymous a film that’s more entertaining than it has any reason to be.

Set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1st, the film actually begins in modern-day New York theatre with Derek Jacobi (as himself) suggesting there’s more to Shakespeare and his works that meets the eye. The hint of theatricality in this moment presents the rest of the film with a larger-than-life, can’t-possibly-be-true sort of vibe; a story that’s a bit like the BBC’s The Tudors: full of machinations, sedition and power struggles that, again, you wouldn’t normally expect from the ‘Master of Disaster’ Emmerich.

Anonymous gives itself a few problems however. The script by Josh Orloff initially sets up three strands, spread over several decades flitting between each one and causing a momentary pause as you remember which period you’re in and who, exactly, is plotting what. It soon congeals into something comprehensible and from then on the film acts as a sort of ‘what-if?’ or alternative timeline, building an interesting story that turns Shakespeare’s prose into the kind of language that could influence a population and incite a war. The power of the Shakespeare/Oxford’s written word is aligned with Emmerich’s visual grip, attempting to persuade the viewer to at least question The Bard’s eminence.

It’s that theatricality that probably makes the film a little less effective, sensationalising fictional moments that take away from the interesting ideas embedded into Orloff’s script (even if, in true Shakespeare fashion, its full of carnal desires and twists). Still, the performances are very good, notably Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson (in a piece of spot-on casting) as both the old and young Queen Elizabeth: a vain, needy and temperamental monarch who thinks with her heart rather than her head. Rhys Ifans is also particularly good as Edward de Vere, the man the film posits as being the writer of Shakespeare’s texts.

So Anonymous is better than you would think, not really deserving of the battering critics dished out to it and functioning as one of Emmerich’s more interesting and under-appreciated films.

7/10

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