"MOVIE MAD" by Michael van den Bos

(c) 2014 by Michael van den Bos

2 Posts from May 2010


Robert Downey Jr. needing a little body work in IRON MAN 2

IRON MAN 2 directed by Jon Favreau

Robert Downey Jr. returns to the screen as Marvel Comics’ man in the iron mask, Tony Stark, the brilliant and brainy billionaire who built himself a flying suit of armour to escape his Middle East terrorist captors and becoming an all-American iron-clad superhero wielding a wicked sense of humour in director Jon Favreau’s spry 2008 Iron Man.  Unfortunately, this Marvel movie franchise is quickly developing a bad case of rust as evident in Iron Man 2, which suffers from its story gears seizing up.

Tony Stark finds himself confronted by a myriad of antagonists and problems in Iron Man 2: the United States government wants to take control of the Iron Man technology; Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a power-hungry weapons developer, is out to undermine Tony; Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), the son of a Soviet physicist, holds an overwhelming ugly grudge against the Stark family legacy and is out for high-tech revenge on Tony; and Tony’s health is failing due to his inability to find a more powerful substitute for the element that keeps his blood toxicity low.  Meanwhile, Tony is being secretly assessed for his possible induction into a superhero law enforcement agency by a hot and kick-ass agent (Scarlett Johansson) and he’s trading barbs – and sexual tension – with his frustrated personal assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). 

That’s a lot of plot for an escapist piece of Hollywood entertainment and Iron Man 2 can’t manage to handle the heavy load.  The first act is flashy and exciting, but the movie seriously bogs down for most of its second act.  Mickey Rourke, as the vengeful and vodka fuelled Russian villain, is a gritty and powerful presence when he horsewhips Iron Man with his long ropes of electric energy early in the movie.  However, after this charged introduction, Rourke is sorely underused as he spends too much of the movie either sitting in a prison, sitting at a dinner table with Sam Rockwell or sitting at a laptop computer punching keys to control an army of attacking Iron Men drones before he finally comes back to violent life at the tail end of the movie’s climax; but it is too little, too late.  Rourke sits a lot in Iron Man 2, which doesn’t make for a very active villain in an action movie.

On a technical level, Iron Man 2 is slick, good-looking and has excellent visual effects, but Jon Favreau’s direction is blandly serviceable, at best.  He misses on fulfilling the comic and ironic visual potential in several scenes.  One example is when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the director of the mysterious agency, S.H.I.E.L.D., dressed in black leather and sporting a cool eye-patch, and a hung-over and depressed Tony, wearing his Iron Man suit, have a revelatory meeting sitting in a doughnut shop.  The banal setting for these extreme characters dressed in their superhero duds is clever, but the filmmakers miss a funny opportunity by not showing any employees or customers reacting to this unlikely sight.  Also, the climatic battle seemingly takes place in a Japanese-style garden, but director Faverau unimaginatively downplays the ironic incongruity of the scene.

Scarlett Johansson as sexy S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff is physically alluring, amply filling out her tight black action suit, but her performance is flat and dreadfully too serious; though she does have one terrific spinning fight scene that shows off her killer legs – literally. 

What prevents Iron Man 2 from landing in the scrapheap is Robert Downey Jr.’s (looking more and more like Al Pacino) lively performance.  He is wonderfully sardonic with an agile comic delivery that is reminiscent of the elegant Cary Grant and the incisive Groucho Marx.  Screenwriter Justin Theroux’s script may be leaden story-wise, but his dialogue is filled with crisp and witty patter.  The chemistry between Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow is delicious; they share a Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man movie series) dynamic that is missed whenever they are not on screen together.  They would be right at home in a comedy directed by past masters like Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder.  Come to think of it, buried deep inside Iron Man 2 is a romantic screwball comedy aching to bust out of this tin can.


WILD STRAWBERRIES (1957) - written & directed by Ingmar Bergman

Ingmar Bergman’s quietly haunting Wild Strawberries (1957) was not the first movie with dream sequences and memory flashbacks, but it was arguably the first film to artfully weave unconscious visions and impressions of past experiences into an adult character study of a man confronting psychological and spiritual disturbances, compounded by his emotionally repressed life.

Veteran Swedish director Victor Sjöström plays the elderly Professor Isak Borg who travels across Sweden with his disdainful daughter-in-law to the city of Lund, where he is to be presented with an honourary degree. Borg’s road trip will be interrupted and his psyche troubled by visions of his past, triggered from stopping at the places of his youth and by picking up a stranded ménage à trois of exuberant young travelers, along with a hateful middle-aged couple. Through his devoted housekeeper, his daughter-in-law, his angry son, his fellow travelers and his dream apparitions, Borg is confronted with the fact that despite his professional esteem and career accolades, his personal life has been one of  “incompetence”, marked by “callousness, selfishness, ruthlessness”.  Borg’s travel to accept his degree will now take him down a more profound road—to a final destination where he must address his humanity. 

In its amazingly taut 91 minutes, Wild Strawberries packs a Freudian grab bag of symbolism revealing themes which touch on loneliness, isolation, the fear of advancing age on an unexamined life and the question of God’s existence, and includes the dashes of humour that temper the somber tone of so many of Bergman’s films. These particular themes also run rampant in Bergman’s other 35-plus feature films, (not counting his television work) which include such masterworks of world cinema as Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), The Seventh Seal (1957), The Virgin Spring (1960), and Persona (1966).

Through masterful composition, lighting and editing, Bergman and his brilliant cinematographer Gunnar Fischer vividly etch Wild Strawberries with a profundity of images rarely matched for its thoughtful and artistic treatment of a life under scrutiny. The film’s black and white photography provides a razor-sharp clarity that suggests the indelible, inescapable reflections and meditations of a frightened old man.

The film’s first scene remains one of the best nightmare sequences ever: Isak Borg is lost and confused on a blindingly white, desolate street, which contains a handless clock, a broken wheel, a squeaky horse-drawn hearse and Borg’s corpse, pulling the living Borg into his coffin. This potent vision clearly evokes the Salvador Dali-designed dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), and foreshadows similar sequences in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980), Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), and even George Lucas & Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back (1980). 

Victor Sjöström, as the introspective professor, conveys a gentle urgency as he attempts to comprehend his follies and to reconcile his past. It is a graceful performance which ends  with a sublime close-up, reminiscent in style and tone to the final shot in another masterpiece of cinematic compassion and humanity—Charles Chaplin’s City Lights (1931).


If you live in the Greater Vancouver area, you can rent the DVD of WILD STRAWBERRIES from the greatest video store in Canada, Videomatica - located at 1855 West 4th Avenue (phone: 604-734- 0411) in fabulous Kitsilano.  Website: www.videomatica.ca