Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2

The sequel to Marvel’s big-screen adaptation is pretty much what I expected in that it’s more of the same with more bangs and booms. The bloated cast which has been criticised elsewhere for spreading the drama too thinly isn’t actually that large, although the screen presence of so many bankable actors could dilute character development in many productions you have to account for this being Iron Man - there’s nothing lost here when compared to the original.

There are a fair few genuinely exciting action scenes - Scarlett Johansson’s Agent Romanoff fighting her way into Justin Hammer’s HQ (Stark’s arms dealing rival, played by Sam Rockwell), two Iron Men exchanging clanging blows with Stark and his friend James Rhodes in the opposing suits (with Don Cheadle now taking the place of Terrence Howard as Rhodes in an earlier case of alleged pay dispute that more recently has seen Ed Norton give up the role of Bruce Banner), and the pair later facing off against Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash and a small army of war droids all standing up well against anything in the original.

Aside from this you get Downey Jr. as charismatic as ever, Sam Jackson with a little more screen time as Nick Fury, Gwyneth Paltrow a little less annoying this time round as Pepper Potts, Rockwell strangely irritating as arch-cock Hammer and an unintentionally scary cameo by Gary Shandling as senator Stern, more swollen-faced than Rourke who has traded on his damaged looks for the last decade. Rourke pretty much reprises the Ram from Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, only this time with a dodgy Russian accent and a slightly camp line in evil genius tech.

The plot threads all tie up and generally it works, but as a proportion of the running time the action scenes are few and any jokes tend to raise smiles rather than chuckles. It’s worth a watch and by no means bad, but seems to be scared to try anything out of the ordinary and instead settles with above average, admittedly no sin in terms of comic book movies. Likeable rather than something to get excited over, the relatively low standard set by the first film in comparison to Spiderman, X-Men, Batman Begins etc. may help it as a franchise to progress at a more even pace, rather than fall at the second sequel. So long as they don’t try to cram even more faces in next time, that is.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

A Fish Called Wanda

A Fish Called Wanda

When the UK cinema industry was in the doldrums (again) during the 1980s John Cleese came along with the critical and commercial hit comedy, A Fish Called Wanda, co-starring fellow Python Michael Palin, Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline. The film consistently enjoys repeat mentions as the years go by, cropping up in best comedies and best of British lists (how many more times will the famous pants-face scene be repeated?), and though I had enjoyed all the Python films and a few that the Pythons have gone on to feature in singly or in pairs (though Cleese has the tendency of accepting any offer going) I found Wanda lacking in yuckles.
It’s a knockabout comedy in the Ealing tradition, with an ensemble cast getting into skew-whiff situations as they double-cross each other in order to get hold of the diamonds they stole in a heist. Cleese plays a barrister defending one of the crims that got caught, and he is essentially the straight guy whose life gets turned upside down by the flamboyantly played characters that Palin, Curtis and Kline bring to life.
The stars all play well and keep you along with them as the film unfolds and the ridiculous incidents try to outdo each other, obviously having a hoot during shooting which is infectious, but despite enjoying it and generally having fun I just didn’t laugh out loud at all. An awful movie? No, but it’s hard not to feel disappointed when watching a comedy, particularly one hyped up as a jocular high-watermark for the last fourteen years.
Having already seen the ill-advised follow up, Fierce Creatures, I can at least console myself that I agree with the popular opinion of original being the best.

Friday, 16 July 2010

The Yakuza

The Yakuza

Made any later and Yakuza could have easily become straight-to-video fodder combining corn fed, muscle bound Americans with the exotic violence of the East - ninjas, samurais and kung fu masters. Instead as a 70s production The Yakuza enjoyed the period of American cinema after the war & western 50s and 60s and before the onslaught of the 80s blockbusters.
Starring Robert Mitchum in subdued mode, The Yakuza is a sombre picture all about age, consequences and the end of eras. In the same way as many westerns dealt with the end of the wild west and therefore of the cowboy, The Yakuza touches partly on the changes resulting from Japan’s part in the second World War. Mitchum plays an ex-army man Harry Kilmer who was stationed in Japan during the occupation; he saved the life of a Japanese woman and fell in love, but was asked to leave by her brother who returned, presumed dead, after the war and became a high-ranking yakuza. Decades later Harry is asked to return to the country to help out an old friend whose business dealings with the yakuza have turned sour and resulted in the kidnap of his daughter.
What follows is a tale swamped in regret and sorrow as Harry and his friends and acquaintances reflect on the past and on honour, duty and obligation, though the scenes of quiet contemplation are interspersed with bursts of violence in keeping with a thriller centered around criminal gangs.
The performances throughout are modestly impressive but the assured atmosphere that envelopes the whole production no doubt stems from the creative team of Paul Schrader and Robert Townsend writing and Sydney Pollack directing at the top of his game, the year before the excellent Three Days of the Condor, a team that would have had to work hard at the time in order to avoid producing a well crafted and mature thriller.
The Yakuza stands as testament to the sea change in American cinema between the decades and the almost mournful tone of the film retrospectively fits that short-lived era well.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Soul Survivors; [Rec]2

Soul Survivors

Casey Affleck (Sean), Wes Bentley (Matt), Eliza Dushku (Annabel) and Melissa Sagemiller (Cassie) are firm friends, and as Cassie is off to college they all decide to tag along for the journey. Cassie is now with Sean, but used to go out with Matt who still has a crush despite being with Annabel.
When they split from college on Cassie’s first night to go to a goth club, Cassie and Matt are caught in an elicit kiss and the quartet row in the car journey home, with a car crash before they make up resulting in Sean’s death.
Cassie is obviously upset and starts seeing things, people who seem to be following her and exam questions that directly relate to the events of the crash and the like. Luke Wilson crops up as the kindly priest Jude, but he can’t stop Cassie’s hallucinations worsening, to the point that she dreams of sleeping with Sean only to find herself waking up next to Matt.
When she sees and speaks to Sean himself she wonders whether she’s losing the plot - more people start acting strangely, Jude turns out to have died in 1981, a man in a mask and a long-haired type in denim from the goth club keep appearing and matt and Annabel become increasingly exasperated with her behaviour.

Spoiler - it was all a dream! She was dead all along! Except Sean was alive and manages to bring her back. Despite the solid cast (although Sagemiller seems to have been banished to TV purgatory) the film is pretty dire, lacking in any scares with cheesy music more suited to a fairytale than teen horror flick and saddled with a plot that is about as obvious as possible without actually telling you what’s going on, its saving grace is having Deftones play over the end credits.
It’s hard to understand how this was made in the first place as it would be quite a task to make anything of the source material, but this was released shortly after the first Final Destination and so supernatural teen fodder would have been in high demand.
Tellingly writer/director Stephen Carpenter hasn’t made anything since this crushingly dreary chiller.


Following on immediately after the first film, this sequel to the scary Spanish zombie/infected genre entry inevitably loses some of the impact of the first due to the lack of surprise at the infected populating the apartments in the quarantined building. As with the original the action is all conveyed through first person camera viewpoints, in this case the helmet-mounted cams of a swat team and hand-held machine of a trio of teens replacing the TV journalist’s camera from Rec.
We follow the swat team as they escort a government representative as he searches for a cure, only for things to unsurprisingly go quickly and nastily wrong. The teens enter later. Attracted by the forbidden they enter the building through the sewers, meeting up with a fireman searching for his colleagues and the father who had left the building to fetch medicine for his daughter who was running a fever in the first film. The teens quickly regret their rashness as the inhabitants emerge and there follows lots of running, shouting and darkness illuminated only by night vision as the newcomers’ numbers dwindle and those of the infected increase.

Whilst the screaming and running possessed create lots of tension and jump-scares, Rec2 doesn’t move on enough from the original to stand out. Though the final scene’s set-up for a possible sequel could open up the story to potentially move forward, this sequel only offers more of the same, good as that is. A missed opportunity.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010



Those familiar with Noah Baumbach’s critically acclaimed The Squid and The Whale (and Margot at the Wedding) will recognise the template repeated here of unlikeable, self-centred East coast academic types, steam-rolling through life with the unwavering self-absorption of the ignorant (whatever their whining insecurities may suggest). The difference is that unlike in The Squid…, where engagement derived from discovering how each character, parents and children, dealt with the central catalyst of a relationship in collapse, here we only have the selfish Roger Greenberg behaving badly to some degree to all and sundry. The other characters in the film highlight this as they are more rounded with qualities to balance against their flaws or negative features.

The problem with an unsympathetic lead who isn’t an antihero figure is that it’s hard to invest in them. We’re told early on that Greenberg has recently emerged from hospital after a breakdown but as the film progresses you get the sense that he’s always been this way.

Rather than revealing some of the worst in human nature as in early LaBute, Baumbach seems content to bring us the merely annoying, like Seinfeld with no jokes, a feeling further cemented thanks to Ben Stiller in the lead. The cast, including Stiller, all play well, but it seems odd to typecast Stiller in the angry man role he often plays. Usually this is tempered in a comedy setting (even Royal Tenenbaums had an undercurrent of ridicule beneath the misery of the protagonists, in Stiller’s case his shared uniform with his sons and Dalmatian mice pricking the seriousness of his character), but when you just get the fury with no lightness to soften the edges it’s a hard watch, fine if that’s the point (Stiller played similarly straight and angry in LaBute’s Your Friends and Neighbours) but Greenberg wants to be taken as a quirky indie romcom, more like Juno than In the Company of Men or the Shape of Things.
In presenting a character you’d make an effort to avoid in real life it’s a wonder what kind of audience this is aimed at, let alone how we are supposed to believe in the central romance. Many films give away the best jokes in the trailer, but Greenberg may be unique in having those jokes become no longer funny when seen in context.
Like the character himself, Greenberg isn’t awful but you probably have better ways of spending your time than with it.