#112 - Fire And Ice
1928 - 2010
Face front, true believers! Welcome back to the Electric Theatre. We’ve made it through the first couple weekends in May, so you know what that means. As far as Hollywood, USA, is concerned, it’s summer! Quite a shock to those of you still in school or dealing with the occasional snow flurry, I realize. At any rate, it’s time to plunge headfirst into blockbuster season. Try to keep your excitement down to a manageable level.
NOW IN THEATRES
Iron Man 2
No matter how one tries, it’s virtually impossible to go into a movie without preconceived ideas about it, usually either “this is going to be awesome” or “I hope this doesn’t suck too much”. When Iron Man was released two years ago, most of us approached it with the latter thought in mind. Fortunately, it didn’t suck too much. In fact, it was quite good. It wasn’t a great movie but it was fun, extremely well cast and showed there was still a bit of life left in the standard superhero-movie template. For Iron Man 2, director Jon Favreau and star Robert Downey Jr. now face the opposite problem. With expectations running high, can they deliver the goods a second time? The answer is…well, yeah…kind of.
The sequel picks up right where the original left off, with Tony Stark revealing his iron-clad alter ego to the world. And while the superhero lifestyle suits him, all is not well for Tony. The element that powers the arc reactor in his chest is corrosive, slowly killing him. The government wants him to turn over his technology. Competitors, including the smarmy Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), are trying to copy it. And one guy, a tattooed Russian (Mickey Rourke) who harbors a grudge against the Stark family, has actually succeeded. In an attempt to clean his plate, Tony appoints Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) CEO of Stark Industries, taking on a new assistant, Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson). Meanwhile, he has the Stark Expo to contend with, friction between himself and his best buddy Rhodey (Don Cheadle), and a tendency to overindulge in drink. Then Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, last glimpsed after the credits of the original film if you bothered to stick around) waltzes back in to his life to discuss the Avengers Initiative, reveal that Natalie Rushman is really named Natasha Romanoff and is working for him, and drop some information about Tony’s dad. Oh, and did I mention that Tony’s dying? I did? OK, good.
If all that seems like a lot to keep track of, it is. With so many characters running around and so much business, it’s accomplishment enough that Iron Man 2 isn’t simply a bewildering mess. The movie starts off quite well, culminating in a Grand Prix showdown between Downey’s Iron Man and Rourke’s Whiplash. But then things start to get bogged down. Favreau keeps introducing new elements and treating everything with equal importance, so the fact that Tony could drop dead at any minute is no more or less urgent than Justin Hammer’s upcoming presentation at the Stark Expo. Once again, Downey proves that this franchise would be DOA without him in it. His performance keeps us engaged even when the movie itself starts to wander. Rourke and Rockwell are terrific antagonists, although half the time they’re not even in direct conflict with Downey. Paltrow does the best she can with a really thankless role. She’s a smart, capable woman but unfortunately, the requirements of the genre still require that she be rescued. Margot Kidder suffered the same fate in the Superman movies but for 1978, her Lois Lane was downright progressive. Thirty years later, Pepper Potts should have more to do than just stand around. Johansson at least gets a too-brief chance to show what she can do but she’s kept apart from the climactic battle sequence. Good thing too, since by that point, everybody’s armored up and there are so many bullets and explosions flying around that she’d be killed in a nanosecond. That final fight is oddly paced, spending far too much time battling unmanned drones and not enough fighting Mickey Rourke. It’s not a bad sequence but it does leave you wanting more.
Believe it or not, I enjoyed Iron Man 2. It’s a fun superhero movie, nothing more or less. Perhaps more than any other sequel, it simply offers up more of the same. That’s slightly disappointing when you consider how many sequels outshine their predecessors. On the other hand, there are plenty more sequels that completely fumble the ball and Iron Man 2 does not. In this case, it wasn’t broke, so Favreau and company didn’t bother to fix it. This isn’t the kind of glowing recommendation you’re likely to see as a quote in an ad campaign, but if you loved Iron Man, you’ll like Iron Man 2. (* * *)
TALES FROM THE QUEUE
The cover art for this 2007 Spanish film may lead you to expect a horror movie of some kind. In that sense, it’s a bit misleading although I can’t think of any better imagery to promote this engaging, low-tech science fiction thriller. Written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, Timecrimes is a carefully constructed, admirably restrained effort. In many ways, it’s like a sci-fi twist on Kurosawa’s Rashomon.
Karra Elejalde stars as Hector, a middle-aged man who glimpses a beautiful girl getting undressed in the woods behind his house. Going to investigate, he’s attacked by a trenchcoat-wearing figure with his head wrapped in bandages. He takes refuge in a high-tech compound where a lab assistant (played by the director himself) hides him in what turns out to be an experimental time machine. Hector goes back in time and sees himself in his own backyard. All he has to do is stay out of the way and not interfere so that everything happens as it’s supposed to. Of course, things aren’t quite so simple.
While it bears certain similarities to Primer, another well-done, low-budget time travel movie, Timecrimes takes a much simpler, more straightforward approach. It isn’t quite as clever or ambitious as Primer. I figured out most (though not all) of the story’s twists and turns before they happened. But the smaller scope allows Vigalondo to keep his story under tight control. It also lets him have some fun with the time loop, with sequences that were scary and mysterious the first time around becoming funny and absurd the next. It’s clear that Vigalondo took his time with the script, plugging any potential holes in the plot before he shot a frame of footage.
Elejalde is a terrific everyman, leading the audience through the story carefully and deliberately. However, I wondered what the movie would have been like had it been told from the perspective of the lab assistant. It probably wouldn’t have been as good but how many movies can you think of that made you dream up alternate versions from different points of view? Timecrimes is a very impressive feature debut for Nacho Vigalondo and I hope his future projects display the same amount of care and thoughtfulness as this one. If they do, he may well emerge as one of the most interesting filmmakers of the new century. (* * *)
Thanks to Patrick Harris for this week’s TFTQ recommendation! As always, please let me know about your favorite underrated or rarely seen flicks by sending me the electronic mail or networking socially on the Facebook. There are hundreds of thousands of movies out there and I’ve only seen 4,405 of them. Obviously I have some catching up to do.