3 Stars Movies

Robert Downey Jr.’s got a bum ticker in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man

Jon Favreau’s Iron Man finds just the right tone for a superhero movie, pitched somewhere in the sweet spot between Spider-Man’s emotional melodrama and Batman’s grim vengeance. This blogger, a former lover of comic books (that stopped keeping up with them partly out of frugality, and partly lack of brain bandwidth), sees two high water marks in the recent surge of superhero-themed Hollywood feature films:

Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies captured the key themes that made Spider-Man such a popular and lasting character in the first place (seriously, find me a kid in the English-speaking world who does not know all about Spider-Man). The comic book on its simplest level was a parable of the sometimes unwelcome changes that come with adolescence. Also key to Peter Parker’s teen psyche was his constant negotiation between his own happiness and responsibilities towards friends, family, and society. Please, let’s not discuss the painfully awful Spider-Man 3; the bitter wounds of disappointment are still raw, oozing, and infected.

The other comic book superhero franchise to translate well to the screen in recent years is, of course, Batman. Helmed by such mature, serious artists as director Christopher Nolan and actor Christian Bale, Batman Begins perhaps could not help but to turn out as well as it did. The comic book character was originally conceived as a lone vigilante avenger in the 1930s, descended into camp self-parody in the 60s, then reverted back to grim form in the 70s. The character followed a parallel arc in his movie incarnations: Tim Burton’s Batman films are dark and weirdly wonderful, Joel Schumacher’s are tacky and cheesy, and now Christopher Nolan has restored the franchise back to its gothic roots. Note that Heath Ledger as the Joker in the upcoming sequel Batman The Dark Knight doesn’t actually smile!

Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man
Talk to the… nah, that’s too easy

Iron Man was heavily marketed as Robert Downey Jr.’s redemption after decades of louche behavior led to him becoming unhirable (or more accurately, uninsurable). Was Downey perfectly cast, or was the role tailored to suit him? If anything, from what little I know of the comics, the filmmakers may have actually toned Iron Man’s alter-ego Tony Stark down. Physical disability is a long-established theme in Marvel Comics’ stable of characters, take for example the blind Daredevil. Stark’s distinguishing characteristic was his bum ticker, but he was also famously an alcoholic prick. Do you think, perhaps, there’s a metaphor to be found in the character of a soulless arms dealer who loses his literal heart but finds his conscience? Hmmm…

Terrance Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert Downey Jr., and Jeff Bridges in Iron Man
Djay da Pimp, Viola De Lesseps, Charlie Chaplin, and The Dude star in Iron Man

Jeff Bridges totally rocks a bald pate, and blessedly underplays his role as chief baddie Obadiah Stane. He’s the mellow voice of reason, sounding for all the world like The Dude with an M.B.A. That is, until he raises his voice for the first time, and the good times are over, man. Unfortunately, Gwyneth Paltrow (as the alliterative Pepper Potts) and Terrence Howard (Jim Rhodes) don’t fare as well. Paltrow, with little experience in the sci-fi effects blockbuster genre, is hysterically unconvincing at running away from fireballs in high heels (you can imagine her pouting “But Harvey said I don’t have to run from fireballs!”). Howard is just plain boring, with little to say or do.

Iron Man is quite enjoyable, provided you try to ignore the rather conservative gung-ho attitude toward the war on terror. It only disappoints at the very end, when it devolves into a CGI rock ’em sock ’em robot battle. It was inevitable according to the genre, and the natural trajectory of the plot, but still…

4 Stars Movies

Go behind the scenes of “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter” in Shakespeare in Love

This humble blogger is not ashamed to admit being in love with Shakespeare in Love, and not just for the generous displays of Gwyneth Paltrow’s lovely young bubbies.

Full of American actors affecting English accents with varying degrees of outrageousness, it only partly qualifies as Europudding, and is in fact more in the vein of “let’s put on a show!” theater farces like Noises Off and Waiting for Guffman. Director John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love succeeds beautifully, but the formula is not ironclad; Becoming Jane obviously attempted the same stunt by warping the biographical details of Jane Austin’s life onto her novels, but rather failed to capture her dry wit and particular brand of practical passion.

Shakespeare in Love
Oi, get yer bubbies out!

Co-screenwriter Tom Stoppard, already an expert at playing fast and loose with Shakespeare in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, lays more than a few easter eggs for English majors and other enthusiasts of Elizabethan drama. Bloody playwright John Webster cameos as a disturbed young lad. Many favorite Shakespeare clichés appear not just in the play-within-the-movie, but also in the body of the movie itself: ghosts, cross-cross-dressing, and a “bit with a dog.” But perhaps the movie’s biggest achievement is to humanize perhaps the most revered writer in the English language, and yet still illuminate the unmatched passion and achievement of his work. A Shakespeare beset with writer’s block struggles to find a hook for the unwritten “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter” reminds us that he was probably no unearthly creature taking dictation from beyond, and that creating such art was, simply, hard work.

Shakespeare in Love
Judi Dench in full Queen Bitch mode

Shakespeare in Love thankfully doesn’t let historical accuracy get in the way of a good gag. Will makes weekly visits to an apothecary practicing psychotherapy a few hundred years early. The contemporary theater world is shown more than once as a precursor to today’s movie biz. In order to bankroll the production of a new play, financier/kneecapper Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson) suggests Globe Theater owner Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) pay actors with a portion of the profits, when of course there never are any. Brilliant! One wonders if Miramax honchos Harvey & Bob Weinstein perceived the irony.

But the movie is sometimes more accurate than one might think for something that is admittedly a slightly fluffy farce. For example, it is in fact plausible for Shakespeare to fear he may have been indirectly responsible for rival playwright Christopher Marlowe’s death. Marlowe died in 1593, which according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, was about the time Romeo and Juliet was written.

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