Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Iron Man 2

Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 124 mins
Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Mickey Rourke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson
Genre: Comic book, Superhero, Action
Country: USA

With the world aware of his (not so) secret identity and the Marvel post-credits appetizer becoming a stable tradition Favreau and co return with an ambitious movie that looks to tie in the works of Stark senior (Howard) while forging ahead with Nick Fury’s pet project “The Avengers Initiative”.

Stark’s ego has been let off the leash and his presence as Iron Man is so well known he’s a sponsorship deal away from wearing the Pepsi logo on his helmet or filming an energy drink commercial in Japan.  In a lot of ways it is more in keeping with the human reality of superhero-dom.  How many of us would actually keep it a secret for more than fifteen minutes?  Be honest!  This will only work if you’re honest.  If all actors want to be rock-stars then surely all powerful men want to be superheroes.  Stark has taken this desire to a logical conclusion and as such has himself firmly in the sights of the U.S military machine[1] and his competitors[2] (Justin Hammer).

Justin Theroux’s script actually has several interesting “bigger picture” questions in it, at least in the early stages, and the U.S. Government’s self issued Patent on Piece[3] has arguably caused one of its richer citizens to take it upon himself to act as an independent contractor.  There are very nice parallels to be drawn here.  The writing is clever enough to draw, not just on Stark’s past, but on the U.S.’s past and their somewhat problematic relationship with Russia (or the U.S.S.R for us pre-90s kids).

RDJ turns in a by-the-book Tony Stark performance.  There are flashes of his skill but nothing on par with Wonder Boys (for example)… which would make for a really interesting concept.  Gwyneth has even less to do, and Don Cheadle (as James Rhodes) does a solid turn at putting Terrence Howard (Iron Man) in our rear view.  Of the new additions Mickey Rourke offers Tony Stark a different kind of villain.  To most other superheroes the mass of Mickey would present a physical foe but for Iron Man he’s a more cerebral nemesis than first appearance would infer.  Are there issues with his accent?  Oh yes.  Does some of the plot holes go un-referenced?  Yup.  But what Rourke does is drag the clean, polished, shiny Iron Man down into the dirt in order to rough-house only to mix it up with a battle of wits and technological prowess.

Johansson (as Natasha “Rushman”/ Romanoff/ Black Widow) is an inspired piece of casting.  There are stories that Emily Blunt was in line for the role before a scheduling conflict pushed her out of contention and for my money it’s a moment of fate.  Scar-Jo gives a sensual, physical, fierce performance.  Her Black Widow is one of the spot-on performances of the film.  Like her return to Daredevil (Issues #157-158) she is powerful, complex and with a powerfully complex backstory.  For the most part you’ll need to read this from her DD team-ups, her own comic and her adventures with The Avengers as there’s not much of her character on display.  She’s more of a catalyst character in this film to push us towards a logical Avengers movie but wow!  What a catalyst!  Johansson has a grace to her physicality that turns each fight into a dance.  A ballet of bruises and one that’s so pleasing to witness.  Unsurprisingly the stand-out performance of the piece is Sam Rockwell (as Justin Hammer).  Sam is one of those actors who can bring so much to so little.  It’s a bit-part role that he shows off with incredible style and effortless abundance.

A lot of the latter half of Iron Man 2 lapses into genre convention.  It’s almost as though the engine has been killed and the car has been allowed to race downhill at its own speed.  There’s an inevitability to that.  After all it is a comic book movie, there is an antagonist to be bested and there is a bigger picture to be furthered.  One of the interesting elements, and it’s one that ties into the next phrase of Marvel’s cinematic universes, is that Iron Man 2 prefaces the forthcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron.  As Stark and Rhodes take on Vanko and his army of “Iron Man inspired” Hammer Industries fighters it should serve as a warning to Stark about the possibilities, pitfalls and problems of A.I. within a military context.  It doesn’t.  It doesn’t because of his arrogance.  He overestimates his ability to navigate where Vanko fell down and as such sets into motion an A.I. uprising of epic proportions.  The final set piece of Iron Man 2 makes for a wonderful taster and Theroux’s script sets some strong foundations for Captain America: Civil War.

[1] Who wish to legislate, control and where possible co-opt him.
[2] Who wants to “one-up” his tech in a War Games version of Apple vs. Android.
[3] Coined it!

Monday, 23 March 2015


Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 138 mins
Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Nick Nolte
Genre: Superhero, Action, Comic Book
Country: USA

The announcement that Ride with the Devil director Ang Lee was going to be stepping behind the camera for the 2003 title Hulk caused many hands to be rubbed together in gleeful anticipation.  The comic book movie as a genre was still recovering from the nipple-clad camp fest that was Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin and desperately needed a win to stack alongside Spider-Man in the “Superhero flicks can have artistic merit” argument.  As word began to trickle out from Marvel offices that Lee was putting together a visual aestethic that would give the audience as close to an interactive comic book feel as possible, the hand rubbing was almost threatening to cause fires all across the world.

The fires dampened quickly though.  As a story, Hulk is an absolute mess.  Looking beyond the revisionist origin narrative of Bruce Banner, the choice to follow a less Cold War creationist moment for the Hulk was a logical idea.  It was even nice of Lee to tip his hat towards The Incredible Hulk #1 – The Strangest Man of All Time and the bomb testing facility that Lee's Banner has repressed in order to block out 1. the troubling aspect of his nature[1] and 2. the history he is doomed to repeat.  It’s a nice level of intellectual and philosophical depth which is clearly something that attracted the auteur to the project; but one that’s poorly constructed, or at least poorly delivered.  This is the issue in general with the script.  On screen it plays like a movie much longer than its running time, in that nothing really makes an sense.  Nothing is really explained.  Nothing is really touched on beyond a glossy surface level and though the results are a pretty looking movie with some extremely gorgeous looking set pieces.  It leaves you empty, frustrated, and pondering how in the hell you could spend two plus hours watching something with less content that the 1980’s Incredible Hulk animated series.

It might be worth stating again just how good looking the film is.  Lee’s use of primary colours to tell a visual, emotional story is fantastic and raises the film close to artistic mastery but it is sorely let down by the narrative.

Eric Bana (Bruce Banner) does a really excellent job as the troubled scientist with a little temper.  He has some complex relationships with Betty (Connelly), her father (Sam Elliott) and even his father (Nick Nolte) and he handles each of them with a level of subtly that’s greatly needed for the part, as so much of his green side is anything but subtle.  He clearly has a really strong understanding of Banner’s nature, not to mention human nature.  “When I lose control, I like it.” demonstrates the addictive nature of supreme strength and power.  It’s a dangerous path, one that would most definitely see him follow his father into a “darkness” (or at the very least a dark green).  Connelly is a quality piece of casting.  Hot off A Beautiful Mind, Requiem for a Dream, and Dark Water she came to a relatively one-dimensional role[2] with a mission to flesh her out, make her interesting, complex, show the audience why a genius scientist like Banner would like this woman.  She does some OK groundwork[3] but like everything else in the film, isn’t helped by the fact that it’s seemingly not on the page… or if it was on the page it got lost in translation.  Sam Elliott does an excellent turn as General Ross.  Of all the Hulk’s antagonists throughout the Marvel universe, Ross is the one that grounds the Hulk in the real world.  It’s this fact that makes him the most important adversary as though Planet Hulk and World War Hulk are extremely interesting and enjoyable, the sheer impact, power and destruction of Banner’s alter-ego is lessened outside of a real world environment.  Elliott, above all other cast members, is the greatest loss in the sequel re-cast overhaul.

There’s a part of me that really wants to like Hulk.  Ang Lee’s sensibilities in cinema are perfectly in line with what I want to see not just in my movies but especially in my comic book movies.  They tell parables, have far reaching intellectual analogies and shouldn’t be used as a two hour commercial for toys or fast food but it’s difficult.  For every thing that’s right about Hulk there are two other things wrong with it; though I’ve grown to love the Hulk Dogs.

[1] The short fuse of his patriarch coupled with prior experimentation.
[2] So insignificant that Betty Ross’ absence from The Incredible Hulk TV series was a non-issue.
[3] Work that Liv Tyler would round-off in The Incredible Hulk alongside Edward Norton.

Birthday in Venice

Knifed in Venice is 5-years-old this month.

Thanks to everyone who has commented, liked, tweeted and argued their opinions on this site.  Big thanks to all the independent film folk out there who have provided their work for review.

Friday, 20 March 2015


Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 121 mins
Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe
Genre: Comic Book, Superhero, Action
Country: USA

If Batman & Robin set the caped crusader back a decade with its overtly campness then it could be argued that it set the comic book genre back by at least half that.  Arriving right on cue to save the day is Tobey Maguire in Evil Dead director, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.

It is said by some comic historians that Spider-Man was born out of a countermove to DC’s Batman.  There is some credence to be given to that argument.  Both characters had adopted animal totems, both have origin stories involving the death of a loved one, and the swearing of an oath but what always drew me to Batman was what’s always held me at a distance with Spider-Man.  Where Bruce Wayne trains, Peter Parker has his abilities gifted to his DNA.  That, and the wisecracking nature of Web Head, always had me at odds with his origin; being that it was born out of grief.

Raimi’s Spidey goes a long way to addressing a lot of these issues.  Yes, there’s not a lot he can do about the origins, Peter still gets bit and (pre-Ben death) spends some time enjoying his new abilities the way any teenage boy would but when Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) is senselessly killed[1], Peter finds himself falling into a dark emotional pit of anger, dispair and desperation as he looks for a way to vent the venom building up inside of him.  Though this opens up the narrative to allow for a couple of cameos (Bruce Campbell and Macho Man Randy Savage to name but two) it also introduces the audience to the darker side of Peter Parker.  It is a side that the duality of his hero will struggle to keep balanced throughout the course of the trilogy.  Raimi’s film has a strong emotional core.  It helps to ground the audience in a world that is about to get more than a little fantastic very quickly.  That earthy narrative set up, the weighty tones of “great power” and “great responsibility” coupled with the loose, free swinging use of camera work and CGI to take the audience along on Spider-Man’s adventures and suddenly there’s a chance for the comic book movie to recover from it’s greatest villain to date –Joel Schumacher.

I like Tobey Maguire.  Like Robert Downey Jr, he gave a powerfully subtle performance in Wonder Boys and has been putting out seriously accomplished performances for years.  If there were any doubts about his age[2], they were put to rest extremely quickly.  Not only is Maguire a youthful looking performer but he is one that has an impressive understanding of mannerism, gesturality and presence.  You buy his nerdy kid as much as you buy his supercharged cool kid (post spider bite) and you do it because of how he uses his body on screen.  Kirsten Dunst (as Mary Jane) doesn’t just give a good performance but demonstrates artistic restraint.  Her character is one that is central is just about every story arc in Peter’s life and several from Spider-Man’s.  She is the centerpiece of the love triangle between Peter, Harry Osborn (James Franco) and herself but most of all she is the personification of sacrifice.  Unlike Betty Ross (Hulk) who is, arguably, controlled by her father and Pepper Potts (Iron Man) poorly fleshed out; Mary Jane is an obtainable and a logical love interest.  A love interest that Peter chooses not to pursue in order to keep her safe.  Ultimately he will push her into the arms of his best friend and danger[3] but in that instant, his motives and actions towards MJ are as pure as his love.

Willem Dafoe (Norman Osborn/Green Goblin) has a lot of fun in what is essentially a very two dimensional role.  Historically the villains of superhero movies have been more interesting than the heroes[4] and I don’t know whether this is Raimi’s attempt to re-address that balance but as The Amazing Spider-Man[5] would show by its problems in 2012 it takes an extraordinary actor to take on the “mad scientist” role and have it come off as anything other than hammy.

The issues with Spider-Man are minimal.  It doesn’t attempt to do anything overtly extraordinary but delivers a comic book origin story that gives the audience enough of the hero (in costume) so that they don’t feel cheated.  It is a true balancing act.  Raimi does this and in doing this delivers Marvel’s first major motion picture success story.

[1] By a criminal Peter could have stopped earlier but didn’t.
[2] See Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge review, and in particular the section relating to Nicholas Hammond.
[3] When Harry Osborn becomes Son of Green Goblin.
[4] The Batman franchise has always carried villains which have garnered more interesting back stories than that of Batman himself.  Similarly, Loki is motivationally more interesting than Thor.
[5] With its casting of Rhys Ifans as Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard in a very similar role.

Thursday, 19 March 2015


Certificate: 12A
Running time: 114 mins
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins
Genre: Action/Fantasy
Country: USA

There’s seemingly little that can stop the Stan Lee Marvel machine at the moment as it moves towards cinematic world domination.  The God of Thunder is the latest comic book hero to get the big screen treatment as we get ever closer to Joss Whedon’s Avengers film.  So far we have had two Iron Man films and if you discount Ang Lee’s outing (which most people do) one Incredible Hulk adaptation that have put the first stitches into the Avengers quilt and with Captain America still to come there’s even more set up for arguably what’s due to be the biggest comic book adaptation of all time.

[Read the full review from May 2011 here]

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