Wednesday, October 20, 2010

172) Iron Man 2 (2010)

172) Iron Man 2 (2010) Dir: Jon Favreau Date Released: May 2010 Date Seen: May 16, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

Within the realm of established expectations, sequels to comic book adaptations are typically better than their forebears. There usually isn't as much hand-wringing as there was in the preceding entry as there's less fear of failing as a franchise. In these sequels, by and large, a greater emphasis is put on emphasizing character over plot, emotions over schematic origin story plots. This is part of what Iron Man 2 is better than Iron Man but it's hardly a holistic explanation of what improved from one film to the next. Screenwriter Justin Theroux really let out his gut with his script for Iron Man 2 and embraced the fact that he's working on a superhero movie directed by Jon Favreau. The improvised banter, the meandering plot, the frustrated vision of Tony Stark as a clueless fratboy with a huge checkbook and a tendency to only want to change his bad habits after-the-fact: all of this recalls protagonists of more canonical Favreau films like Swingers and Made, which are basically the same movie anyway. All of these elements were frantically thrown together in Iron Man in a vain attempt to prove that Favreau's knack for light comedies about egocentric loser man-children could  survive the daunting framework of a tentpole franchise. In Iron Man 2, Favreau and Theroux proves that it can. 

This isn't to say that Favreau's eccentricities preclude or overshadow his weaknesses as a filmmaker. I love the fact that characters appear and then disappear for whole swathes of the film and then re-appear again later and the stellar patter Thereoux gives to the film's equally excellent cast, especially villains Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke. But yes, Favreau still hasn't learned how to shoot an action scene. He's still mostly relying almost entirely on the energy he infuses in these ugly smash-em-up sequences. To their credit, their crudely photographed choreography does a sense of spontaneous play about it. Which is fine and actually kind of riveting--the final scenes around Corona Park are a frenzied blast. But they just don't look very good, do they? These scenes sorely want finesse and in that way, they're the perfect representative of Iron Man 2: bigger, cockier and, yeah, less focussed than what you get in Iron Man. This is bad how?

I feel that Iron Man 2's seeming lack of focus proves that, in some ways, Theroux is further proving that he gets who his Tony Stark is more than he did in Iron Man. His Stark is someone that has the world on his shoulders and has to micro-manage and multi-task his way through everything he does with a smile on his face. And he does it because that smile comes naturally: he likes being the ringmaster of a giant 10-ring circus* and not knowing what will come next. His fear of dying unrecognized, of failing his father's legacy, of letting Pepper down, of losing his friends, etc. all percolate around the periphery of Iron Man 2's plot because that's where they belong. He wouldn't be a very convincing distracted genius scientist/narcissist otherwise, would he? 

This is akin to the way Iron Man spends so much time showing us the myriad tests Stark enacts when he builds the Iron Man suit. These scenes are also drawn-out but they're supposed to be. Stark's private trials are a never-ending source of inside humor for Stark, jokes that no one but he will get because no one else is there with him building the suit. That navel-gazing sensibility proves that Theroux basically got who Stark the scientist was, always fixating on things no one else can see and looking like a paranoid ass when he boasts about it later. But Iron Man 2 is the next best expression of that understanding, a character study that only looks as harried as its protagonist is supposed to. The sooner people stop whining about how Iron Man 2 sets up the next of Marvel's tentpole films and start looking at it as the superior action comedy that it is, the better.

*Only nerds will get this joke....

Saturday, October 2, 2010

171) Over the Top (1987)

171) Over the Top (1987) Dir: Menahem Golan Date Released: February 1987 Date Seen: May 16, 2010 Rating: 2.25/5

While I've admittedly mellowed to the high cheese quotient in Sly Stallone's "arm-wrestling for custody of my estranged prissy military school cadet of a son" flick with time, I remember groaning constantly while actually watching Over the Top. Stallone's working class man with a deep-seated code of ethics/honor schtick has never impressed me. Granted, I've never seen Rocky, but I'm not boasting about that. I just don't get the appeal of an action star that's trying to convince me that he of rippling muscles and Adonisian physique is just like one of us. I'm not sure if this is a hard and fast rule I can really hold to but I don't want my action heroes to be like me, but rather like goddamn action heroes. It's why I love Arnold Schwarzenegger but then again, I get a kick out of Bruce Willis's bluecollar act and adore Jackie Chan's happy-go-lucky bum. Still, there's just something that rubs me the wrong way about Stallone's regular joe pose. It just makes him look like an affected macho trying to pass as an average, salt of the earth kinda guy.

That need to prove himself to Joe Sixpack or whomever makes Over the Top a chore when it could be a light bit of dated generic fluff, like Bloodsport (I know, sounds weird, right? I'm not quite sure how that happened either). Stallone's a horrible father, one whose constant toeing the ground is supposed to make up for the fact that his idea of bonding with his kid is forcing him to arm wrestle complete strangers to gain self-respect and to drive a truck to prove that his (Stallone's) job requires a basic level of skill.

Then again, the deck is so stacked in Stallone's character's favor that the preposterousness of that scenario doesn't really matter because this film is so insanely jacked up on testosterone that it could only work that way. After all, the way to get Stallone gets his kid back is by arm-wrestling fellow truckers to win money to pay for the lawyers needed to win joint custody. This movie could be marketed as a legal alternative to steroids as I guarantee athletes could watch it in and vicariously increase their muscle mass (don't ask me how, I don't get it either). It's just a silly, punch-drunk, crotch-grabbing kind of movie, though it's too proud to be outlandish enough to live up to its name.

RV!: Jane Austen's Mafia! (1998)

RV!: Jane Austen's Mafia! (1998) Dir: Jim Abrahams Date Released: July 1998 Date Seen: May 15, 2010 Rating: 3.25/5

As a child of the '90s, I discovered many of the comedians that made the biggest impression on me when they were past their prime. My first Mel Brooks film was probably Robin Hood: Men in Tights and my first Jim Abrahams flick was probably Jane Austen's Mafia! Both films still make me laugh but the latter is probably the tipping point in the Top Secret! filmmakers' collaborative career. After Mafia!, fans had to recognize that the gonzo satirists that brought them The Naked Gun and Airplane hadn't so much lost it as seriously diluted it. Scary Movie 3 and 4 are both kinda fun but the laughs come in dribs and drabs as opposed to Top Secret! which is top-to-bottom hilarious.

With Mafia! Abrahams and co. start to show their age, which is good and bad. The film's spoofing of films like Goodfellas, Once Upon a Time in America and Casino is seriously dated: the joke about El Nino in the bathroom is really unfortunate, but I love the Macarena gag. I forgive the crotchety humor of parts mostly because while its lack of specificity is indeed grating, I love how ruthless these guys get when they pick on little kids in their movies. The many ways in which they pick on young Vincenzo (Jay Fuchs), the young immigrant boy that grows up to be the film's Godfather, is hilarious, especially the way he's forcibly dragged to the new world at the expense of his budding manhood. Sloppy but endearing in a weird way.