Movie Reviews - 2010 postsSaturday June 05, 2010
Review: “L'enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot” (2009)
WARNING: HELLISH SPOILERS
In an episode of “Dirty Sexy Money,” Craig Wright’s short-lived, slightly skewed take on the “Dynasty”s of the world, Nick George (Peter Krause), lawyer to the wealthy Darling family, finally gets around to donating some of his money to charity. That was the reason he took the job in the first place—so he’d be rich enough to help his favorite causes—but money and power have already begun to curdle things for him, and as one non-profit thanks him profusely for the check, saying, “You have no idea how much this will change things,” Nick smiles and responds, “I know. But I’m giving it to you anyway.”
I thought of this scene while watching “L'enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot,” Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea’s documentary on one of the great unmade films by one of the great French film directors.
What sinks a film already in production? It’s rarely one thing. In “Lost in La Mancha,” a 2002 documentary on Terry Gilliam’s ill-fated attempt to make a modern Don Quixote, with Johnny Depp as his Sancho Panza, the problems are numerous: a tight schedule, crappy weather, and ill health (Gilliam’s aging Don Quixote, Jean Rochefort, had to return to France with an enlarged prostate). But what truly killed the production was an unwillingness to compromise. When Harvey Keitel suddenly seemed wrong for “Apocalypse Now,” Francis Ford Coppola replaced him with Martin Sheen and finished the film. When Jason Robards fell ill during “Fitzcarraldo,” Werner Herzog replaced him with Klaus Kinski and finished the film. But when Rochefort returned to France with his enlarged prostate, Gilliam waited. And waited. And waited. Rochefort was the Don Quixote he wanted and he refused to get another. And he never finished the film.
By 1964, when he began production on “L’enfer,” his tale of insane jealousy between a young married couple in a small, resort town in southern France, Henri-Georges Clouzot was already a legendary director, but a decade removed from his more famous films, “Le salaire de la peur” (“Wages of Fear”) and “Les diaboliques,” and two decades removed from my personal favorites, “Le corbeau” and “Quai des Orfevres.”
More, since his last film, “La vérité” with Brigitte Bardot, in 1960, the New Wave, French or otherwise, had taken hold of the imagination of world cinema; and while the young artistes certainly admired Clouzot, some felt his craftsmanship and storyboarding—everything planned beforehand so he could concentrate on the actors—were at odds with the New Wave’s love of the improvisational. They admired him but felt something about him was... passé.
Clouzot himself had become enamored of Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2,” and its, to him, “new way of using images,” and one wonders if he didn’t feel the need to prove something—either to the upstarts or to himself.
“L’enfer” was being bankrolled by Columbia Pictures, and Hollywood executives arrived early in the process to screen the first shots. One anticipates their reaction. A European director who wants to use images “in a new way” versus American moneymen who are never interested in the new or artistic. They’ll give him dull notes. They’ll whittle him down. They’ll point him toward the obvious.
Instead they did something more disastrous. They gave him money.
They loved what they saw and Clouzot received “an unlimited budget.” Says one of the crew: Clouzot then “went off into a world of tests that were completely new to the camera.”
We see some of these tests—depicting husband Marcel’s descent into the madness of jealousy—and they’re startling and beautiful nearly 50 years later. Lights swirl around the face of star Romy Schneider, playing the wife, Odette, and in milliseconds she switches from dutiful to demonous and back again. Is she smiling at me or laughing at me? What secrets does she hold? Who IS she? I went through a bout of extreme jealousy 25 years ago and these shots brought it all back again.
Most of the movie was filmed in black-and-white, but for these delusional scenes—his “Oz,” as it were—Clouzot used color. He filmed Schneider waterskiing and turned the lake blood red. He filmed her with cold, blue lipstick. He became obsessed with Marcel’s obsession. The plan was for four weeks on location and 14 weeks in the studio, but Clouzot was falling behind schedule and the crew felt directionless. One of his leads, Serge Reggiani, who played Marcel, and for whom Clouzot fought to get on the film, didn’t like this lack of direction—for the movie or his own character—and walked off the set, never to return. Now Clouzot had to find a new lead and reshoot scenes before they drained the reservoir in a few days.
And that’s when he had a heart attack. The fact that it happened while he was filming two women, Schneider and co-star Dany Carrel, kissing on a boat, is amusing sidenote.
Clouzot lived another 13 years, and made one more film, “La Prisonniere” in 1968, but “L’enfer” was never finished.
What might it have been? Let me state outright that I’m not much of a fan of movies where form overtakes content—as in Clouzot’s delusional scenes—or where, as moviegoers, we see the lead’s problem at the outset (he’s a gambler, he’s an alcoholic, he’s consumed with jealousy), and then watch his slow, inevitable descent. All we’re left to wonder is, “Where’s bottom?” and I want more to wonder than that.
That said, what remains of “L’enfer” looks amazing. It’s the maestro showing the upstarts a few things.
Like Gilliam’s Don Quixote film, the problems with “L’enfer” begin with a tight schedule and end with ill health, but in the middle, rather than the bad weather Gilliam encountered, Clouzot found good fortune. One can imagine him smiling as Columbia executives announced his unlimited budget. One can imagine him saying, “You have no idea how this will change things.”
Review: “Zona Sur” (“Southern District”) (2010)
WARNING: THE DECLINE AND FALL OF SPOILERS
“Zona Sur” (“Southern Disrict”) is Juan Carlos Valdivia’s film about the fall of a wealthy, decadent family in modern-day La Paz, Bolivia, and do you see how my words are running to the right, always to the right? How do you feel now that I’ve mentioned that my words are moving to the right, always to the right? Aren’t you paying more attention to the fact that my words are running to the right, always to the right, than to what I’m actually saying?
That’s what watching “Zona Sur” is like.
The movie opens in a lush garden outside a nice home in La Paz, where Andres (Nicolas Fernandez), the youngest son of family matriarch Carola (Ninon del Castillo), returns from shopping with Wilson (Pascual Loayza), the cook and butler; and as they talk with the family gardener/housekeeper, the camera keeps drifting to the right until it turns in a complete circle, 360 degrees, and winds up where it started. Then the next scene begins in the kitchen, with the camera continuing its rightward, circular drift. “Interesting,” I thought. “I wonder how long Valdivia can keep this up?”
Answer? The entire frickin’ movie.
Every once in a while, when young Andres is in his tree house, or on the terra-cotta roof of the house, where he talks to his imaginary friend, Spielberg (yes, that Spielberg), the camera pans up, but that’s about the only time we’re saved from this rightward drift. Otherwise it’s a slow, dizzying circle of a movie. The family’s drifting? They’re drifting down? Whatever. Just stop.
We never see the family flush. Carola is still wheeling and dealing with whatever relationships she has, but she’s running out of money. She hasn’t paid Wilson in six months, and her bratty kids, Patricio (Juan Pablo Koria), and Bernada (Mariana Vargas), are in college or about to start college. They remain oblivious to their circumstances, however, and obsessed with love (Bernada) and sex (Patricio). Patricio is so spoiled and insular that his mother buys him condoms for his frequent trysts with his girlfriend in his room. He talks of becoming a great constitutional lawyer, but the only time we even hear about him outside the house (because we never actually see him, or almost any of them, outside the house), he loses the family car in a poker game to Iraqis. He’s a dolt. And we know why. Even here he bends his mother to his will. Initially she's furious that he could be so careless, so foolish. Later, while she’s laying in bed, he gives her a foot massage, then kisses her foot. Her rubs her neck. “Do you forgive me?” she asks. “You’re such a ball buster,” he responds. Yes, their relationship is icky.
Meanwhile, Wilson, who hasn’t been paid in six months, is beginning to resent being taken advantage of, and is lax in responding to Carola’s demands. He uses her shower and lotions when she’s not there. As money diminishes, lines are blurred.
The family is virtually fatherless (she’s divorced), and different members often stand for long, somber shots looking out windows. They’re trapped there, you see. They’re insular. They don’t know how to live in the world. The only member who doesn’t do this, and who’s worth a damn, is Andres. He wants to learn how to cook, like Wilson, and he asks all the adults he meets what they wanted to be when they were kids. It’s as if he’s trying to figure out his place in a world where, yes, he’ll need a job.
But we know all of this 15 minutes in. The rest, 90 minutes, is downward drift of a beautifully photographed family that isn’t worth our time.
The kids. She can't meet her lesbian lover outside zona sur; he can't buy his own condoms.
Review: “Restrepo” (2010)
“Restrepo” is the best thing I’ve seen or read about our presence in Afghanistan, and it’s not really about our presence in Afghanistan. It’s about, as the tagline says, one platoon, in one valley, for one year. It goes deep into these soldiers’ lives without telling us much about their actual lives (where they’re from, why they signed up, etc.). It’s an emotional movie precisely because its emotions are restrained. It’s artistic without being artistic. It’s artistic in the Dedalean sense. It doesn’t inspire kinetic emotions but static emotions. The mind is arrested. In this sense maybe Afghanistan itself is artistic. Our mind has been arrested there for almost 10 years.
The directors, author Sebastian Junger (“The Perfect Storm”; “War”) and documentarian Timothy Hetherington (“Liberia: An Uncivil War”), were embedded with Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne, for parts of a year, from May 2007 to July 2008, and an early scene lets us know just how embedded they were. We’re inside a HUMVEE on patrol when an IED goes off, rocking the vehicle. The men stumble out, including the camera, which is our point-of-view. It’s still filming, shakily, while the men engage in a firefight, but it’s crackling, and there’s no sound. You think of war scenes where a soldier gets shelled and the sound goes out because he’s deafened or in shock. Same here. Our equipment is us.
We first see the men of Second Platoon goofing around and trash talking aboard a train before deployment. Then they ride Chinook helicopters into the dangerous Korengal valley, a beautifully mountainous but militarily indefensible region that stretches six miles along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and the trash talking stops. In post-deployment interviews, they fess up to their initial thoughts. Specialist Sterling Jones: “What are we doing?” Sgt. Aron Hijar: “We are not ready for this.” Specialist Miguel Cortez: “I’m going to die here.”
Sgt. Joshua McDonough tells the camera, “They’re gathering intel on how to deal with us,” and you think he’s talking about the Taliban, who are trying to kill them, but he’s actually talking about the post-deployment medical personnel in Italy, who are trying to help them. This confusion, this thin line, is what the soldiers deal with every day. Who among the villagers is trying to help? Who is trying to hurt? How do you tell?
The doc keeps doing this. The thing you think we’re talking about isn’t the thing we’re talking about. Information is slowly widened. Clarity, if it comes, comes by and by.
Take the title. “Restrepo”? What the hell's that? Then on that pre-deployment train we discover that the biggest trash talker with the biggest smile is a guy named Juan S. “Doc” Restrepo. “Oh,” we think. “So Restrepo’s a guy. This is a documentary about a guy.” A few minutes later, we find out Restrepo was killed a month into deployment. “Oh,” we think. “So this is a doc about how these guys deal with the loss of this guy.” Then the company moves deeper into the Korengal valley, establish an outpost there, and name it Restrepo, O.P. Restrepo, in honor of their fallen friend. “Oh,” we think. “So this is... Well, this is about all of it, isn’t it?” Our information is slowly widened. Clarity comes by and by.
O.P. Restrepo is deeper into the Korengal Valley than the U.S. has ever pushed before, and four or five times a day, for weeks and months, Second Platoon engages in firefights with the unseen Taliban in the woods. “They’d ambush us from 360 degrees,” Specialist Bemble Pelkin says. “I felt like a fish in a barrel,” Capt. Dan Kearney says. When there are no firefights, there’s digging and fortifying the outpost; and when there’s no digging and fortifying, there’s goofing around to relieve the boredom. Pemble draws and writes. Specialist Angel Toves plays guitar. The men wrestle, or get newbies to wrestle, or goof around with the ‘80s song “Touch Me (I Want to Feel Your Body).” They show off photos of their kids. They hit golf balls into the valley.
The incident with the cow starts out as a joke. A daily briefing, a smile, “we’ll talk about the cow incident later,” laughter from the men. It’s a funny thing. Later, a soldier talks up the day they got fresh cow to eat, saying, “That was a good day.” Later still, three Afghani village elders, with their long beards and taut skin over high cheekbones. enter O.P. Restropo, and it’s seen as a positive step. Hearts and minds are being won. But the elders have come about the cow. It was one of theirs and they want to be repaid. Now it’s a serious thing. The soldiers are apologetic—it got caught in the wire, it had to be killed (then eaten)—but the elders want US$400, which the U.S. higher-ups refuse to give. We’re spending billions on wars but we can’t get US$400 to replace a cow. Instead the owner gets the equivalent in rations: rice and beans. The elders leave. Are we being too tough? Not tough enough? Our information is widened but not enough. Clarity doesn’t come.
This hearts and minds struggle is fascinating to watch. We see Capt. Kearney, with the best of intentions, having regular sitdowns, or shura, with the village elders, but there’s something Business 101 about him. Support us, he tells the elders, and we’ll “make you guys richer.” What about the killing of civilians? the elders want to know. The Captain says it’s all in the past, on another captain’s watch, and insists that everyone needs to put the past behind them. Does this translate? In a later meeting, frustrated beyond measure, he says to the elders, “You are not understanding that I don’t fucking care.” Is this translated? With all of the specialists we have, one wonders why we have no diplomatic specialists. Why aren’t diplomats embedded with soldiers? Why don’t our head honchos speak rudiments of the language? Why, in the soldiers’ down time, don’t they learn rudiments of the language? Why aren’t we adapting?
“Restrepo” is never not fascinating, which is odd, because we know answers to most of the questions that traditionally drive storytelling. We know who survives (anyone interviewed post-deployment), and we know O.P. Restrepo won’t be the turning point of the war (we’re in 2010 and we read the newspaper), so what keeps us glued to our seats? I think the short answer is we begin to care. And we want to know what happens to these people we begin to care about.
Why do we begin to care? John Ford once said the most interesting thing in the world to film is the human face, and that’s what Hetherington and Junger keep filming. Three faces stand out.
First, there’s Pemble, who’s got a calm, bemused way about him, like he’s holding onto an inner joke, and who’s a warning to every parent who thinks restricted access will diminish lifelong interest. His mom, he tells us, “was a fucking hippy” (he says it nicely) who didn’t allow him toy guns, or violent movies, or violent video games. And yet here he is—a soldier in Afghanistan. To mom’s credit, he seems the least likely of soldiers. There’s little that’s gung ho about him. He feels like he should be in a punk bar somewhere.
Then there’s Hijar, who’s got huge, tattooed arms in the footage, and an intense, haunted face in the post-deployment interviews. He and the others are talking about Operation Rock Avalanche, a three-day tactical walk-though in a Taliban stronghold, which all agree was the toughest part of the deployment. During the operation, Staff Sergeant Kevin Rice was injured and Staff Sergeant Larry Rougle, generally considered the platoon’s best soldier, was killed, and trying to describe it all, Hijar disconnects. His eyes get lost and he stops talking, and after 10 seconds of silence he looks at the cameraman: “Timeout, alright?” Later he talks about needing a different way to process everything that’s happened. He doesn’t want to forget it, he says; he just needs to process it differently.
Finally, there’s Cortez, who’s smiling, always smiling in the post-deployment interviews. One wonders: “Why is this dude smiling?” Then you realize there’s a disconnect between the look on his face and what he’s saying. Near the end, he talks about how he can’t sleep.
I’ve been on four or five different types of sleeping pills and none of them help. That’s how bad the nightmares are. I prefer not to sleep, and not dream about it, than sleep and see the pictures in my head. It’s...pretty bad.
The smile never leaves his face.
“Restrepo” should get nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature, and, unless it’s a helluva year, it should win. It’s already got my early vote for one of the best films of the year. There’s not a false moment in it, not a dull moment in it, and in a serious country it would be released into over 4,000 theaters and everyone would see it. But we’re not a serious country. We haven’t been a serious country for decades. A Roman helmet is painted on a wall at O.P. Restrepo, because it’s cool, I suppose, to remind the men of gladiators, I suppose, but it merely reminded me of the fall of the Roman empire, of the fall of all empires, and it made me wonder where we are in that fall.
“Restrepo” won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and played the Seattle International Film Festival in May. It will get a wider release June 25. It's re-scheduled for Seattle on July 2.
Review: “El Secreto de sus Ojos” (2009)
WARNING: EL SECRETO DE MES SPOILERS
How do you keep the lovers apart? Dramatists have certainly come up with inventive answers over the years: Our families fight, it’s taking forever to return from this war, frankly my dear I don’t give a damn. The Argentinian film, “El Secreto de sus Ojos” (“The Secret in Their Eyes”), comes up with a more mundane and thus universal answer: fear, doubt, passivity. Our eyes may dance but our bodies continue in the dull directions they’re going.
The movie opens with a pivotal scene. A woman at a train station. A bearded man walking away. It feels like the 1970s. He gets on the train and as it’s pulling out she desperately runs alongside and presses her palm to his window. He does the same. She keeps running. He stands up and hurries to the caboose so he can watch her one last time as the train gathers speed and takes him away, away, away from her.
Cut to: a writer, cursing, and scribbling out that scene. Good for him.
He tries again. June 1974. A breakfast on a veranda between a young, handsome couple. They drink tea with lemon—for his sore throat. One gets the feeling it’s the last time he’ll see her.
Bah! Crumpled up.
Then a flash of memory. That same girl, bloodied, raped. The writer bows his head and closes his eyes. Is he the young man on the veranda? The rapist?
Neither. The writer is Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin), a gray-haired, retired, federal agent in Buenos Aires, who is having trouble writing a novel based upon an old case, the Morales case. We see him walking into his old digs, flirting with attractive women there (“The gates of heaven have opened...” he says), then entering the chambers of an old colleague, his superior, Irene Menendez Hastings (Soledad Villamil). Her pretty eyes dance when he enters but stop dancing (and go sit in the corner) when he brings up the Morales case. That thing again? she seems to be thinking. Nevertheless she brings out an old Olivetti typewriter with a busted “a” key for him to use. We’ll see this typewriter more often, as a running gag, as the movie progresses into the past.
It’s 1974 and Esposito, a federal agent, but more bureaucrat than Bond, argues with colleagues over who gets a new case. No eager beavers here. He and his colleague, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), an offhandedly smart man with a drinking problem, draw the short straw, but as soon as Esposito arrives on the crime scene and sees the woman cold and naked on the bed (“Liliana Coloto, 23,” he’s told. “Schoolteacher. Recently married”) he can’t let go of the case. His turnaround is immediate but unexplained. Because the woman is so young and beautiful? Because it’s such a horrible crime?
When informed, the husband, Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), seems stunned and talks about how she liked to watch the Three Stooges. Is he a suspect? There are two construction workers working on the building. Are they suspects? It’s not until Esposito sits down with a photo album—which charmingly includes a vellum overlay that identifies all of the people in the pictures—and spots, in shots from her hometown, the same man, Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino), staring at her, that he has something tangible to go on. It’s the secret in Gomez’s eyes that’s not really a secret. As with most secrets in the movie.
From Gomez’s mother, Esposito and Sandoval learn that Gomez recently moved to Buenos Aires (ah ha!), and is working on a construction site (ah-ha-er!), but he seems to have vanished. They steal letters he sent his mother but they hold no clue, and superiors within Esposito’s office close the case. At the train station, a year later, Esposito runs into, of all people, Morales, who shows up several times a week, after work, waiting for Gomez. This dedication, this passion, reignites Esposito’s, who convinces Hastings, against her superior’s wishes, to reopen the case. But it’s Sandoval who figures out the clue in the letters. (Because there’s always a clue in the letters.) The men Gomez references are not from their hometown; they’re futbol players; and following the movie’s proposition that a man can change many things—his name, his hair—but not his passion, they stake out stadiums. It’s like needle-in-a-haystack, but on the fourth try they find the needle.
Gomez, under questioning, gives up nothing, and Sandoval is off drinking so the good cop/bad cop routine won’t work—until Hastings notices Gomez staring at her blouse and plays bad cop by impugning his manhood (in fairly obvious ways). He falls for it, slugs her, and confesses to the rape/murder to regain his manhood. Case closed. “He’ll get life,” Esposito tells the husband. “Let him grow old in jail,” Morales says. “Live a life full of nothing.”
A year later, Gomez is spotted, not only not in prison, but guarding the president of Argentina, Isabel Peron. Seems in prison he became a snitch for the fascists and was rewarded. Now the fascists are coming for Esposito. They kill Sandoval by mistake and Hastings takes Esposito to the train station so he can get away. It’s there that, embracing, all of their feelings for each other, the secrets in their eyes that aren’t really secrets, spill out; and it’s there that the opening scene—woman running alongside train—is replayed in all of its melodramatic glory.
And that’s pretty much it in terms of backstory. The passion they feel for each other—which, within the story’s construct, can’t change—is put on the back burner. Esposito leaves, lives elsewhere, gets married. Hastings gets married. Question: When they meet at the beginning of the movie, in her chambers, is this the first time they’ve seen each other since the train station? Either way, they continue to tamp down their passion. They pretend otherwise. Like most of us, I suppose.
“El Secreto” is both love story and mystery, and the two are connected in different and not always comfortable ways. The looks Gomez gave Liliana Coloto in photos? Esposito gives Hastings the same looks. Esposito also seems to channel his passion for Hastings into the investigation—which may be why Hastings is always disappointed that he’s still obsessed with the investigation. Me, she seems to be thinking. You should be paying attention to me.
Writing the novel about the case is actually Esposito’s way of continuing the investigation, of finding out what exactly happened to Gomez, and in this regard he visits Morales, now living deep in the countryside. He’s older now, bald, suspicious, but he admits, to this former federal agent, that decades ago he kidnapped Gomez, took him by a railroad track, waited for the noise of a passing train, and put four bullets into him. Case closed! Except as soon as you see his circumstances (living far away from everyone else), and as soon as you recall his earlier lines (“Let him grow old in jail. Live a life full of nothing”), you assume he didn’t kill Gomez; you assume he’s imprisoning him. Which turns out to be the case. Esposito returns at night and finds the old murderer/rapist imprisoned, and a ghost of a man. “Please,” he says to Esposito. “At least tell him to talk to me.” It’s exquisite revenge ruined by how easily we anticipate it—and by the fact that, Morales, in guarding Gomez, is wasting his life, too.
But what now? Esposito had channeled all of his passion into this one case, and the case is closed. He’s also spent the movie keeping his own passion imprisoned. Has he learned? Of course he has. A note he wrote to himself earlier reads “Te mo” (I fear), but now, at the end of the movie, he adds an “a,” making it “Te amo” (I love you); and with that he runs to Hastings’ chambers, where she sees, finally sees, the unguarded look of love in his eyes, and cuts to the chase. “There will be difficulties,” she says. “I don’t care,” he says. They close the door. La final.
“El Secreto,” which won the best foreign language film at the 2009 Academy Awards, is both complex in structure and crowd-pleasing (it’s about love); and, as a writer, how could I not like the early, crumpled-up scenes? At the same time, it feels like the motivations of the characters are too big and clunky to fit into its intricate plot structure. Why, for example, does Esposito get so obsessed with this case? And if Gomez is a man obsessed with one girl, Liliana, as the photos imply, why does he quickly become just a generic creep?
But the bigger problem—besides seeing Gomez’s end far in advance of Esposito—is, sadly, that crumpled-up first scene, the farewell at the train station. The moment Esposito is fleeing the fascists is the moment he realizes Hastings loves him back. But he lets her go. He leaves for 10 years. He never gets in touch with her. Why? Because he’s afraid for himself? Because he’s afraid for her? Because he doesn’t want to implicate her? But she’s already implicated. She was the one who played bad cop to Esposito’s good cop, after all. She humiliated Gomez. If Gomez and his goons are going after him, why wouldn’t they go after her? Because of her social standing? Does that really make her safe? Let’s quote Michael Corleone: “If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.”
What keeps the lovers apart? Fear, doubt, passivity. At the train station, doubt is removed to double-down on fear, but that doesn’t excuse the passivity. In true love stories, both real and imagined, men must go through hell for their love, to prove their love. Esposito? He can’t even be bothered to get off the train.
Review: “Iron Man 2” (2010)
WARNING: HEAVY METAL SPOILERS
I thought it wouldn’t work. I thought too many villains and partners (Whiplash and Black Widow and War Machine and Nick Fury?) would sink the thing, like they sank “Batman Forever,” and “Batman and Robin,” and “Spider-Man 3.” Instead the movie plays like a good three-issue arc of a 1970s comic book. Plus we’re teased with more Avengers stuff—a little Captain America here, a little Thor there—but, FYI, you have to stay through the credits for a peek at some aspect of the Son of Odin. (Psst: it’s not Chris Hemsworth.)
The movie opens with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) on top of the world but with a “Top of the World, Ma!” quality to him. He’s rich, powerful, and as Iron Man he’s brought about world peace, but he’s more self-destructive than ever. Maybe because he’s self-destructing. His blood is slowly being poisoned by the whatchacalm in his chest that turns him into Iron Man. He tests himself. Blood toxicity: 19%. Then 24%. Then 53%. Oops.
Meanwhile, three other things threaten to take him down:
- In Russia, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), the son of his father’s former business partner, who blames the Starks for his father’s boozy death, uses age-old blueprints to come up with his own whatchacalm in his chest and turns himself into the supervillain Whiplash;
- In Washington D.C., a U.S. Senator, aptly named Stern, but played comically by Gary Shandling, demands that Tony Stark turn over the Iron Man outfit to the U.S. Army in the interests of national security; and
- Stern’s military-industrial-complex partner, Justin Hammer of Hammer Industries (Sam Rockwell), jealous to the max, tries whatever he can to outdo his rival.
All of these threats coming down on him at once actually play to the strengths of the lead actor. Downey, Jr. has always felt like a pursued man to me, as if he were racing, physically and psychologically (mostly psychologically), to stay ahead of everything that wants to overcome him. So it makes sense to make Stark a pursued man, too, who keeps distracting himself with the next big thing. He begins a year-long Stark Expo in Flushing Meadows, NY, he testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee and refuses to share his toys, he gives control of his company to his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and he races cars at the Grand Prix in Monte Carlo. This last is where Whiplash appears and takes out two cars, including Stark’s, and then strolls menacingly forward. You can only run so fast, Tony. Things always catch up. Even when they stroll.
Can I pause here to thank Darren Aronofsky? Without Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” Rourke’s career wouldn’t have been resurrected enough for studio execs to allow him to play an A-list role in an A-list movie, and he’s a perfect counterpoint to the star. Stark/Downey, Jr. is a babbler, whose mouth, working overtime, still can’t keep up with his mind. Rourke/Vanko is the opposite. Everything he does is slow. He walks slowly, talks slowly, shifts his toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other slowly. He serves his revenge cold. If Stark’s pace is the result of frenetic intelligence—one thought pushing out another—Vanko’s leisurely pace almost feels like wisdom. When Stark visits Vanko in his Monte Carlo jail cell, he talks shop, “Pretty decent tech,” etc., but Vanko has the bigger picture in mind. “You come from a family of thieves and butchers,” he says, with that deliciously thick Russian accent. “And like all guilty men, you try to rewrite your history, to forget all the lives the Stark family has destroyed.” He is exactly what you want in a villain. Not someone to boo and hiss, but somebody almost more admirable than the hero. Someone to make you consider switching sides.
He's smart, cool, slow, and likes birds. Who wouldn't root for him?
As Stark’s enemies get closer, his self-destruction gets worse. He whoops it up at his birthday party—his last, he believes—and skeet-shoots with his Iron Man blasters to the delight of half-naked girls. He battles his friend, Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle, taking over, for some reason, from Terrance Howard), who steals one of his Iron Man suits and delivers it to the U.S. military, who delivers it to Justin Hammer. Nice friend. Nice military-industrial complex. It’s the second time Rhodes has played sap for Hammer against Stark. To be honest, it’s not much of a role.
There’s other silly stuff. Apparently Pepper and Natalie don’t get along...until they do. When Tony is ready to tell Pepper he’s dying is the exact moment she’s unwilling to listen to him. There are father issues—because there are always father issues these days—and the old man (John Slattery of “Mad Men”), via a scratchy film from the 1960s, gives his son a 40-year-old puzzle that provides...wait for it...the key to curing the toxicity in his blood! That’s some foresight from Daddyo. Not to mention a vague ripoff of “Da Vinci Code” and “National Treasure.” Note to Hollywood: The world isn’t a puzzle. Everything doesn’t fit together. Your usual lies are lies enough.
I thought the casting of Scarlet Johansson as Black Widow was silly, too, but thanks to personal trainers and special effects it works. And lord knows she works that suit. There’s a scene where she enters a diner from behind that’s just... Mercy. At the same time, is there too much blankness in her eyes? Something passive and uncalculating? Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t seem to be having as much fun with Nick Fury as he should, while Cheadle, ever dour, looks positively trapped when his visor rises in his Iron Man suit. Gwyneth? Another thankless role. She’s an assistant turned CEO, and love interest to a man who doesn’t seem interested in love. At the end of “Spider-Man 2” we want, almost desperately, for Peter Parker and Mary Jane to get together, but there’s so little chemistry between Stark and Potts that when they kissed I thought, “Oh, right. He’s supposed to love her.”
Rockwell as Hammer is a delight: all bullying CEO bluster. He's the hollow man, as hollow as an Iron Man suit. The screenplay by Justin Theroux isn’t bad, either. There’s a nice play on the words Google and ogle, Stark dismisses Fury’s “Avengers” overtures thus, “I don’t want to join your super-secret boy band,” and when Hammer introduces a sexy Vanity Fair reporter to Tony, we get this exchange:
Justin Hammer: Christine's doing a spread on me.
Pepper Potts: She did a spread on Tony last year.
Tony Stark: Wrote an article too.
Director Favreau, also playing the hapless Happy Hogan, Tony Stark’s chauffer, gives us a sense, more than in most superhero movies, what it’s like to be a civilian in the midst of a superhero battle. Gods battle above you. Buildings fall around you. It's scary stuff. It works. The movie, mostly thanks to Downey, Jr. and Rourke, works.
But where to go from here? How about away from the East-West dynamic (too Cold War) and toward a greater Mideast-West dynamic? Or instead of the cartoonish jealousy of a Justin Hammer, why not have genuine worry from the military-industrial complex about the money and influence they’re losing in the age of Iron Man? Along with their misconceived attempts to get it back?
Of course I’d happy if the next movie simply went in the direction of one call...
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