Monday, May 24, 2010

Trailer Watch: Love Ranch

Is that a Joe Pesci sighting? That alone makes this film intriguing, and it doesn't hurt to have Helen Mirren in the lead role. Some of you may remember that this was slated for release last year, before being bumped to 2010. I don't know if that hurts or helps this. Taylor Hackford (I could probably make numerous "hack" jokes about his last name in relation to his career, but don't the films speak for themselves?) does have a minor gift for bringing something sincere out of what is really just soap, and that seems like what is going on here. Above all, the casting is interesting. Two great actors coming together in what looks like a fun, if melodramatic picture. Could be an Oscar sleeper if the performances are good.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Iron Man 2 (***1/2)

Directed by Jon Favreau


I know my film writing has become a lot more "part-time" than I would like, but to be fair, part of that has to do with a real lack of interesting films at the multiplexes. That's right, I'm making excuses...

By the end of the Summer of 2008, I was holding the very, very unpopular opinion that Iron Man--not The Dark Knight--was the best superhero film of the season. And now that I've had over a year to think it over, it was probably my favorite superhero movie ever [NOTE: This is not a grand achievement, since I'm one of the genre's loudest antagonists]. So, even though I despise Hollywood franchise sequels with a passion, I shelled out a hefty $10 to see the latest Iron Man 2. Much to my pleasure, it is one of the few sequels that not only returns the charm and charisma of the first film, but also exceeds the first's sense of style. Everything that was good about the original film is expanded upon, including an excellent performance by Robert Downey Jr.

The first Iron Man ends with Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) defiantly declaring to the media that he is, in fact, the Iron Man. He spends the time between films ushering in the longest standing of world peace we've ever seen by using his super suit to halt all types of international troublemakers. But not everyone is happy with Tony's diplomatic work; many politicians feel that he should surrender the suit to the government so it can be used to its full potential. There is also a fellow arms maker, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), whose vain need to one-up Stark leads him into dark places to create his own suit.

Another man who is unhappy with Tony's crime-fighting success is Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke). Ivan's father worked with Tony's father, before being deported for espionage. Plagued with the memory's of his destroyed father, Ivan wishes to get his revenge on Tony, for all the success he feels his father deserves. Ivan is also blessed with a knowledge of physics and a gift with the technological aspects of engineering. Alone, in his Russian hovel, he is able to make his own power suit (an incredible job of costuming, equipped with two electric whips extending out of his arms) and he travels to America hoping to find Stark.

But aside from the litany of supervillains out to get him, Tony must also deal with the problems that he presents to himself. His extensive use of the Iron Man suit (and its use of a dangerous element to work) is beginning to kill him slowly, and the only way he can cope with it is with blatant irresponsibility and dormant alcoholism. His assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and close friend James "Rhodie" Rhodes (Don Cheadle) do their best to keep him in check, but promptly, Tony's path to self-destruction comes at the worst possible, as Hammer and Vanko stage a plan to take Iron Man down.

Mickey Rourke in one of the most ridiculous costumes I've ever seen in my life...

It's a little disappointing to find that the Iron Man films seem to be a speed ramp toward 2012's The Avengers, which will also contain aspects of 2008's The Incredible Hulk, as well as various other characters from other upcoming movies. The new addition in Iron Man 2? Scarlott Johansson's Black Widow, who only paces through this film under the name "Natalie Rushman". Natalie, schmatalie. Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson's work as Nick Fury is an obvious attempt to segueway into future projects that will create an unstoppable, super-duper movie franchise. The in-movie promotion is almost enough to make you sick. Almost.

All that aside, Iron Man 2 is still just about the most fun you can have with this gluttonous amount of cinematic excess. It is probably the only franchise that truly does justice to the wonderful characters that Stan Lee is able to create. I say "characters", as aside from the "superheroes" that he creates. So often, these films are awash with black-and-white morality. There is no ambiguity, just good, evil and the gimmicks that the villains and heroes must abide by. But the Iron Man films do not feel so entrenched, and instead these heroes/villains feel like interesting, complex people who just happen to possess some extraordinary abilities. [NOTE #2: This could be because the superhero nicknames are barely used: Vanko is never called 'Whiplash', Rushman is never called 'Black Widow', and Tony Stark only calls himself 'Iron Man' when its absolutely necessary.]

I found myself incredibly drawn to these people. Even Rockwell's Justin Hammer, whose hammy incompetence damns him into limited dimensions, felt intriguing in his charm (sitting down before the start of this film, I had no idea that Sam Rockwell was in it; he was probably my favorite performance). What director Jon Favreau is able to bring out of his actors is impressive, considering how easy it is to fall back into comic book movie convention. Yet, Mickey Rourke seems engulfed by the Russian, controlled anger of his performance and Paltrow finds a perfect balance of humorous and authoritative chemistry with Downey Jr. We've come to expect greatness from Robert Downey Jr.--and we get that here--but Iron Man 2 is truly an exceptional ensemble.

Much like the first Iron Man, the action does not really crescendo until the final act and then it peeters out rather quickly. I'd find this more annoying if what I liked about Iron Man was the action. What it lacks in boisterous explosions, it makes up for in engrossing character examination. We get more Tony, more Pepper, and a bevy of new people to meet and chuckle at. This one felt a little more entertaining to me, and that's saying something since I really enjoyed the first one. This one is a little darker, grungier, and more unafraid to ignore the frivolous sight gags expected from a movie like this. It's seldom that film sequels become more ambitious than the original, but they'd be better off for it.