Whatever they are paying Robert Downey Jr. to play Iron Man, it is is worth every penny. Iron Man 3, the third instalment in his own branch of the Marvel Universe series that also features Captain America, The Mighty Thor and The Hulk is hurtling towards a billion dollars of box office revenues and might just have broken even on the $200m production costs by the time you read this.
I’m not sure that there is a better technician in commercial cinema than Downey. Even when he is poorly – or not even – directed in films like the last Sherlock Holmes or the last Iron Man, he is never less than watchable, but when he is challenged by a director and the material he is up there with the best ever. The name Cary Grant just popped in to my head and I think the comparison is reasonable.
I really enjoyed Alexander Payne’s The Descendants – at least while I was watching it. Some films will do that to you, though. They push all sorts of groovy buttons while you are in the room but they diminish as you re-examine them. Connections that you thought were there turn out to be illusory, a series of satisfying emotional moments don’t cohere into something complete and you realise that you were enjoying it so much you wished it into something profound.
I blame Clooney. He’s such a watchable presence, always combining that Cary Grant movie star-ness with an underlying emotional frailty. His characters carry that square-jawed aspirational male solidity but rarely do they actually know what is going on or what to do. He specialises in people who are making it up as they go along and that has tremendous appeal – if George Clooney doesn’t know what he’s doing then none of us do.
This year the summer holidays seemed to have been owned by the unlikely figure of T.J. Miller, deadpan comedian, supporting actor and eerily familiar background figure. In Yogi Bear he was the ambitious but dim deputy park ranger easily duped by Andrew Daly’s smarmy Mayor into helping him sell out Jellystone to corporate logging interests, in Gulliver’s Travels he was the ambitious but as it turns out dim mail room supervisor who provokes Jack Black into plagiarising his way into a fateful travel writing gig and in Unstoppable he’s the slightly less dim (and certainly less ambitious) mate of the doofus who leaves the handbrake on and then watches his enormous freight train full of toxic waste roll away.
So, a good summer for T.J. Miller then, what about the rest of us?
I had the privilege of doing a phone interview with Mr. Curtis for Première a long, or longish, while back, tied into the DVD release of some classic picture of his that I don’t recall. And we got on the subject of Cary Grant, as one will, and he talked about how seeing Grant in Destination Tokyo compelled him to both join the Navy and take up acting, or, rather, the idea of Hollywood stardom. And of how he developed this Cary Grant impersonation way back in the day and how it subsequently pretty much blew his mind to be asked to do this very interesting postmodern Cary Grant avant le lettre bit in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, and how that was pretty much the most fun a person could have, except that same year, pretty much, he was cast in Operation Petticoat, which, like Destination Tokyo, was set on a submarine and starred…Cary Grant himself. And how that pretty much blew his mind even further. And I brought up how Elvis Presley had, well before his own film career began, dyed his hair jet black in homage to Curtis, and we both contemplated that for a second or two, and it blew both our minds.
In that same post Kenny links to Dave Kehr’s obituary in the New York Times which, in turn, mentions that one of Curtis’ early appearances was in Anthony Mann’s great western Winchester ’73 (along with Rock Hudson playing an Indian chief called Young Bull). This prompted me to get the DVD out last night and watch it again.
Now, Winchester ’73 is as close as anything to being the film that got me in to this game and I’ll do a longer appreciation of it at some point, but in the meantime here’s Anthony Curtis waiting for Rock Hudson’s war party to arrive from over the ridge:
Jay C. Flippen (Sgt. Wilkes) and Anthony Curtis (Doan) in Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950). Click to enlarge.
Since I took this gig back in September I have seen every film commercially released in Wellington (except for a few Bollywood efforts) and there have been some clunkers, but this week is so bereft of quality that I fear I may need to develop eyes of leather to get through next week.
We kick-off with Eragon, a sort of boy-band version of Tolkien that’s not so much sub-Jacksonian as subterranean. In the supposedly distant past the verdant lands of Elbonia, sorry, Alagaesia were protected by Dragon Riders (these are men who ride dragons, bear with me). Before the film starts one of the Dragon Riders turns evil, kills all the others and declares himself King. The people of Discombobula, sorry, Alagaesia are miserable and subjugated, etc. and stories of the Dragon Riders begin to fade in to memory. That is until a good-looking young farm boy finds an egg that hatches in to a dragon with the voice of Rachel Weisz. Bad King Galbatorix, in a performance phoned in by John Malkovich, has to kill the boy and the dragon or all his dreams of perpetual Alagaesia-domination may fade and die.
Weisz and Malkovich aren’t the only names slumming it in Eragon: Robert Carlyle’s Durza isn’t nearly as scary as his Begbie from Trainspotting, Devonshire soul diva Joss Stone does a very strange turn as a fortune teller, but Jeremy Irons has enough gumption about him that might have made him a decent action hero if he hadn’t specialised in playing effete European intellectuals about 30 years ago.
I realise that, as a seeker of quality, I’m a long way from being the target market for Eragon but it really is an enormous bunch of arse. My two favourite moments: learning that the director is called Fangmeier (perfect) and working out that Alagaesia rhymes with cheesier.
The perfectly named Duff sisters (Hilary and, you know, the other one) get a showcase for their meagre talents in Material Girls, a sub-teen morality tale about two rich sisters who lose all their money when their family cosmetics empire collapses due to greedy, cheating adults.
In the end Material Girls is an affable hour and a bit that failed to stop the youngsters at Queensgate from running up and down the aisles and making a general nuisance of themselves.
Material Girls aims so low that it’s hard to hate – unlike Nancy Meyer’s The Holiday which I felt personally insulted by. In this “romantic” “comedy”, Cameron Diaz plays a Los Angeles movie trailer editor who swaps houses with depressed English journalist Kate Winslet for a Christmas holiday mutually distant from the men who have broken their hearts. Diaz finds herself in picture postcard snowy Surrey and Winslet gets the run of Diaz’s Hollywood mansion. Within 12 hours both women meet their perfect man and faith in love and romance is, of course, restored.
In Winslet’s case that restoration is helped by a former screenwriter played with admirable alive-ness by 91 year-old Eli Wallach, who gives her a list of classic films of the past to watch. The Holiday thinks it is honouring these great examples of the art – at one point Winslet and Jack Black watch Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday – when frankly it isn’t fit to shine their shoes. Dreadful and lazy on almost every level possible.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 20 December, 2006.