Monday, May 12, 2008

"Iron Man" is solid; "My Blueberry Nights" over sweet, but lingers


directed by Jon Favreau
starring Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard

Somewhere in the annals of Hollywood, there must be a memo inked in blood dictating that every summer kick off with an expensive major-studio blockbuster full of bangs and booms. That much is certain. It’s equally certain the memo doesn’t specify anything regarding the quality of said blockbuster—so moviegoers starving for hearty popcorn fare after the lean months of spring must count their blessings when the inaugural Big Boom Boom Flick is actually, you know, good. I’m happy to report that we got lucky this year with “Iron Man,” Marvel Studios’ first venture into creative ownership of films based on its comic book properties. Marvel Studios is no doubt happy, too.

Despite its kid-friendly trappings, “Iron Man” is a superhero movie for adults. Sure, there are enough shiny happy gadgets, state-of-the-art visual effects, and pulse-quickening action sequences to charm anyone ages 8 and up, but these aren’t ultimately the most memorable aspects of the film. Nor is the plot, which is a pretty standard origins narrative, minus the tortured angst of crimefighters like Spidey and Batman, or misfits like the X-Men and the Ang Lee version of the Hulk. Sure, Iron Man (alter ego Tony Stark, billionaire and soon-to-be-ex-arms manufacturer) suffers a bit of angst of his own: in fact, unlike those other soul-searchers, he ends up hunting down and destroying...his own works, after discovering what evil uses the world’s villains are making of them. But director Jon Favreau (who also cameos as one of Stark’s bodyguards) doesn’t make too much symbolic hay out of this little turn and self-discovery. Stark gets there on his own time – not ours – and leaves it behind him to pursue his newfound mission in life. That businesslike attitude gives the film a refreshingly jaunty tone, with just the subtlest undertone of gravity, that’s rare in this age of introspective superheroes. Why so serious, indeed.

Of course that balanced tone owes as much to the deep dark eyes and half-sardonic, half-earnest aplomb of Robert Downey, Jr. as it does to Favreau’s direction. Downey is Iron Man, and it’s hard to imagine who else could have so deftly portrayed the transition from prodigy-turned-wastrel to chastened man seeking redemption through a new chapter in his career. Hell, it’s practically Downey’s own biography as an actor, cast in comic book terms, and in his understated way he sells the transformation more convincingly than a more conventionally compelling leading man ever could have done. He also preserves the merest whisper of melancholy that suggests – but only suggests – the loneliness of a man who has everything, including friends and allies, yet still walks by himself.

Except he doesn’t really, as long as Ms. Pepper Potts is in the house. Gwyneth Paltrow, returning to the big screen after an extended maternal leave, is a pure delight as Unflappable Man’s unflappable assistant, and brings a fresh and timely reminder of just how good an actress she can be even in a small part. The sparks she strikes with Downey are deliberately, and successfully, reminiscent of the romantic dynamic of those classic ‘30s screwball comedies, even if the dialogue isn’t quite as snappy. And she wears her rather stock role so wittily and gracefully that even her requisite submission to damsel-in-distress mode seems less pathetic than it would in lesser hands. (It helps, of course, that she’s not splayed helplessly across some giant web.) The gleaming red-and-gold flying man may be the hook that draws us into the movie, but it’s the sight of his heart (literally) in the hands of his girl Friday that keeps us there to the end.


Also saw:


directed by Wong Kar-Wai
starring Norah Jones, Jude Law, David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz, Natalie Portman

Was it Woody Allen who said, about sex, that even when it’s bad it’s still pretty good? Well, that’s pretty much how I feel about Wong Kar-Wai’s films, and his latest just proves the point. “My Blueberry Nights,” Wong’s first film in English, premiered at Cannes last year to decidedly cool reviews, and its reception following its U.S. release hasn’t been appreciably warmer. And truth be told, it isn’t one of his stronger films. Yet there’s something so hypnotically beautiful and distinctive about the style and tone of Wong’s filmmaking that it’s still an irresistible treat to watch.

“Blueberry,” in addition to being Wong’s English language debut, marks the acting debut of the Queen of Mellow, singer-songwriter Norah Jones. (She also sings one of the songs on the soundtrack, which, per WKW tradition, is exquisitely haunting and features a lot of soul - from Ry Cooder to Otis Redding to Cat Power, who also cameos.) Jones stars as Elizabeth, a young woman who, searching for a boyfriend gone astray, anxiously materializes one day at a hole-in-the-wall New York diner run by a displaced Brit named Jeremy (Jude Law), only to receive confirmation of her man’s infidelity. Disconsolate, she takes to haunting Jeremy’s diner in the wee hours, receiving only pie and (chaste) sympathy from its proprietor, before setting out on a cross-country pilgrimage with no clearly discernible objective. We see her working as a waitress and bartender in Memphis, where she observes a despairing lover soaking himself in alcohol (David Strathairn) and the brittle, defiant woman who done him wrong (Rachel Weisz); later, we find her waitressing again in a low-rent casino in Nevada, where she runs into a professional gambler and strenuously free spirit played with hammy zest by Natalie Portman. And finally, not to give too much away, we see her come full circle to revisit the source of her heartbreak.

Jones acquits herself respectably enough: though she’s initially rather affectless as the supposedly distraught lover, as the movie flows on it becomes clear that Elizabeth isn’t so much an active lead as an empty vessel for the emotions of those she encounters, a part for which Jones’s beautiful, still, quietly inquiring face is perfect. She’s certainly less grating than Weisz, who looks gorgeous but can’t transcend the one-note shrillness of her character. Still, by the time Portman rolls around it's become obvious that her poker queen is urgently necessary—not because the character is the least bit convincing, but because she at least injects a welcome jolt of energy into this increasingly lackadaisical tale of lost love and the need to Move On.

Narrative focus has never been Wong’s strong suit, and “Blueberry”’s meandering comes across as particularly aimless, as the ending of Elizabeth’s journey is telegraphed too broadly and too early on to be in any real doubt. Yet there’s still a good deal of leisurely pleasure to be had on the way, despite—or perhaps because of—Wong’s extremely stylized vision of America, which feels out of time (the appearance of a cell phone, late in the movie, is downright jarring) and unmoored from any specific geography, yet true to the universe of his Hong Kong films. His stamp is on the look and feel of every frame of the film, from the inky shadows to the vivid juxtaposition of both contrasting and complementary colors (there’s a particularly interesting interplay between red and blue that could probably fuel several dissertations), certain oblique camera angles, and recurring motifs such as a passing overhead train in the night, all of which serve to enhance one of his pet themes: lonely souls searching—at times desperately, at times merely wistfully—to connect. It isn’t as effectively presented here, mainly because most of the characters seem more like tropes or ciphers (or in the case of Jeremy, outright fantasies) than actual people, but it still evokes a fragile mood of longing that only he could capture. If the final treatment of “Blueberry”’s lonelyhearts (well, at least the ones we care most about) ultimately feels way too pat and sweet for a WKW joint, it bears reflecting that in any other hands, this material would have dissolved into utter treacle, with a harsh artificial aftertaste. In Wong’s, it’s more likely to linger delicately on like a distant, still pleasant memory of blueberry pie.



Blogger Caachi said...

Hi Lylee,

This isn't related to Ironman or My Blueberry Nights but its about indie films.

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Tom and the Caachi crew

3:13 PM  

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