There are two mainstream comic book publishing houses, DC and Marvel, and choosing between them as a kid was a bit like choosing between The Beatles and the Stones. They had different styles and sensibilities (and philosophies) and after a little bit of experimentation you could find a fit with one or the other.
DC had Superman and Batman – big, bold and (dare I say it) one-dimensional characters with limited or opaque inner lives. When Stan Lee created Spider-Man, a teenage photographer with powers he neither asked for nor appreciated, he created a soap opera – a soap opera with aspirations to high art. As you might be able to tell, I was a Marvel kid.
Oh dear, what a disappointment 90% of Iron Man 2 is. Rushed into production after the original became the surprise runaway hit of 2008, relying far too heavily on the deadpan charisma of a coasting Robert Downey Jr. – the first time I’ve ever seen him this disengaged – and with a story that does no more than tread water until the arrival of the inevitable episode 3, IM2 offers very little in the way of character development and not enough action to compensate.
Downey Jr is Tony Stark once again, milking his fame as saviour of the free world while the secret power source in his chaest that fuels Iron Man (and keeps him alive) slowly poisons him from within. Just when he doesn’t need an adversary, along comes a crazy Russian physicist/wrestler named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) looking for revenge on the Stark family who stole his father’s research. Vanko’s technology is co-opted by Stark’s greatest business competitor, weapons developer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) and between them they attempt to destroy Stark and corner the market in high-tech military gadgetry.
While hunting the site for some links to add to the just posted Winter’s Bone etc. review, I discovered that my Summer Holiday special hadn’t made it here. So, for completeness’ sake, here it is. Pretty sure, this is an early draft too but there’s no sign of an email submitting it.
What a lovely Summer we’ve been having – for watching movies. While the Avatar juggernaut rolls inexorably on there has plenty of other options for a dedicated seeker of shelter from the storm.
Released at any other time of year, Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones would be getting a decent length evaluation (and the headline) here but with fifteen films discuss we’ll have to live with the bullet point evaluation: not un-moving. My companion and I spent a about an hour after watching TLB discussing it’s flaws and yet both ended up agreeing that we’d actually enjoyed the film a lot, despite the problems.
Personally, I think Jackson’s tendency towards occasional whimsical in-jokery typified the uncertainty of tone (I’m thinking of his unnecessary camera shop cameo as an example) but the fundamental message – that the people left behind after a tragedy are more important than the victims – was clearly and quite bravely articulated. And when I saw the film at a crowded Embassy session, during the pivotal scene where the sister discovers the evidence to catch the killer, I could only hear one person breathing around me – and it wasn’t me.
The theme for the week seems to be romance and some of the finest love stories of recent (or in fact any) year have just made their way to our screens. Firstly, The Young Victoria where Emily Blunt (Sunshine Cleaning, The Devil Wears Prada) deservedly takes centre stage for the first time as the eponymous royal. Even reviewers are entitled to a little prejudice, and I wasn’t expecting much from this going in, but I left the cinema full of admiration for an intelligent script, perfectly-pitched direction and consistently able performances from expected and unexpected quarters.
Blunt’s Victoria is a headstrong teenager, frustrated by the competing political interests that push and pull her. Only Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (whose suit was instigated by yet more euro-intrigue) seems to see the real Victoria and offers the new Queen support and independence. The relationship between Blunt’s Victoria and Rupert Friend’s initially nervous but ultimately self-assured Albert is charming, natural and moving and the background of political intrigue and machinations provide necessary (but not overwhelming) context. The Young Victoria is a film that, and I hope this makes sense, is perfectly balanced.
Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus as Sgt. Osiris in Tropic Thunder (NY Daily News)
As predicted here back in August, Robert Downey Jr has been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his fantastic work in Tropic Thunder. He won’t win it, of coure, for the simple reason that actors nominate actors but the entire Academy then votes for the winner. Actors know how amazing that Tropic Thunder performance is – the technical ability, the control, the detail – but when the entire Academy votes sentiment will trump everything and Heath Ledger will romp home. But I stand by my opinion – Downey Jr’s was the best performance I saw last year in anything.
I’m also pleased to see Richard Jenkins get a nod for The Visitor. I was lucky enough to interview him last year for the Capital Times and he was a delight – modest, charming and generous.
Compelled once again by Christmas deadlines to sum up the year in cinema, I have been thinking a lot about how some movies stay with you and some don’t, how some movies have got average reviews from me this year but have grown in my affections, and how there are some films you want to see again and some you’re not so bothered about – even when you admire them.
So I’m going to divide my year up in to the following categories: Keepers are films I want to own and live with. Films I can expect to watch once a year – or force upon guests when I discover they haven’t already been seen. Repeats are films I wouldn’t mind seeing again – renting or borrowing or stumbling across on tv. Enjoyed are films I enjoyed (obviously) and respected but am in no hurry to watch again.
The “keepers” won’t come as any great surprise: The Coen’s No Country for Old Men and PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood were both stone-cold American masterpieces. NCFOM just about shades it as film of the year but only because I haven’t yet watched TWBB a second time. Vincent Ward’s Rain of the Children was the best New Zealand film for a very long time, an emotional epic. Apollo doco In the Shadow of the Moon moved and inspired me and I want to give it a chance to continue to do so by keeping it in my house. Finally, two supremely satisfying music films: I could listen to Todd Haynes’ Dylan biopic I’m Not There. again and again, and watching it was was much funnier than I expected. Not minding the music of U2, I didn’t have a big hump to get over watching their 3D concert movie, but what a blast it was! Immersive and involving, it was the first truly great digital 3D experience. For the time being you can’t recreate the 3D experience at home so I hold out for a giant cinema screen of my own to watch it on.
Next layer down are the films I wouldn’t mind watching again, either because I suspect there are hidden pleasures to be revealed or because a second viewing will confirm or deny suspected greatness. Gritty Romanian masterpiece 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has stayed with me since I saw it in March. Be Kind Rewind was rich enough (and good-hearted enough) to deserve another look. Martin McDonagh’s bizarre hitman fantasy In Bruges rocked along at such a decent clip I need to see it again to make sure I didn’t miss any of it’s eccentric pleasures. I liked and respected the Coen’s other 2008 entry Burn After Reading more than every other critic so a second viewing would be useful, if only to confirm that I appreciated it better than everyone else did… Or not.
If I could just clip the Robert Downey Jr. bits from Tropic Thunder it would be a keeper, instead I look forward to seeing it again over Christmas. The same goes for the entire first act of WALL•E which I could watch over and over again. Sadly the film lost some of that magic when it got in to space (though it remains a stunning achievement all the same).
Into the “Enjoy” category: Of the documentaries released to cinemas this year, three stood out. The affectionate portrait of Auckland theatre-maker Warwick Broadhead, Rubbings From a Live Man, was moving and its strangeness was perfectly appropriate. Up the Yangtze showed us a China we couldn’t see via the Olympics juggernaut and Young at Heart is still playing and shouldn’t be missed.
Mainstream Hollywood wasn’t a complete waste of space this year (although the ghastly cynical rom-coms 27 Dresses and Made of Honour would have you believe otherwise). Ghost Town was the best romantic comedy of the year; The Dark Knight and Iron Man were entertaining enough; I got carried away by Mamma Mia and the showstopping performance by Meryl Streep; Taken was energetic Euro-pulp; Horton Hears a Who! and Madagascar 2 held up the kid-friendly end of the deal (plus a shout-out for the under-appreciated Space Chimps) and, of course, Babylon A.D. (just kidding, but I did enjoy it’s campy insanity).
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 31 December, 2008.
Note that I deliberately avoid choosing Festival-only films as directing people towards films they can’t easily see is just cruel.