Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Archive for the tag “Robert Downey Jr”

Captain America: Civil War

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 8th May 2016

You’re likely either in the “OMG, not another super-hero movie” camp, or a Marvel loyalist who has been waiting with bated breath for the latest Avengers spin-out. I was the former who wanted to be the latter. And, luckily for both of us, we should all wind up reasonably satisfied.

On paper, Captain America: Civil War seems to be following the (now resoundingly-slammed) path hewn by Batman v Superman whereby super-heroes who had previously been fighting for good were pitched against one another in a battle for supremacy. Here, conflict is born when Chris Evans’ Captain and his followers disagree with a United Nations pitch to regulate the Avengers’ activities following some rescues-gone-wrong. However, Team Ironman (headed by a surprisingly straitlaced Robert Downey Jr.) believes the supervision of their peers is necessary.

It’s a simple premise that could have made this an incredibly dull two and a half hours of bombastic fisticuffs but thanks to smart writing (by the chaps who wrote the previous Captain Americas and one Thor) and, principally, the terrifically enjoyable characterisation of certain crusaders, Civil War almost flies by. A surprise addition to the gang (best unspoiled) precedes one of the most enjoyable group-fight-scenes you’ll see in a comic book movie, while Paul Bettany’s previously underserved Vision and Daniel Bruhl’s evil Zemo contribute solid performances. Best of all is the charming introduction of the Universe’s new Spider-Man (I never realised the franchise needed a third reboot until Tom Holland’s adolescent wiles convinced me).

Pleasingly, Captain America: Civil War has enough going on to warrant its existence, and hopefully its inevitable sequels.

 

 

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Avengers: Age of Ultron

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 26th April 2015

When the Avengers last assembled in 2012, we were treated to one of those terrific “getting the gang together” tales that saw Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Hulk all in one room and exchanging quips throughout their ongoing fight against evil.

As is Hollywood’s wont, in between these ensemble pieces the studios continue to bring out sequels to the individual superhero stories – and so Thor went to a Dark World, Captain America fought the Winter Soldier, and Iron Man, er, 3-ed. If you can keep up with everyone’s travails (or remember the comics you read as a youth) then you’re presumably still excited to experience each big screen adaptation.  Otherwise, you can just turn up for nearly two and a half hours of traditional fight scenes punctuated by unfollowable exposition and some touching domestic moments, and let is all wash over you.

The problem with Age of Ultron is there are simply too many superheroes spoiling the broth. Instead of marvelling (pun intended) at the dry wit and flashy gadgets of Robert Downey Jr or the extraordinarily beguiling deep voice of Chris Hemsworth (who wins the charisma-off here, no question), the film is a barrage of videogame action, equitably shared out amongst the core cast so everyone gets their screen allowance (all the big namers are present and accounted for, along with a couple of newbies and a lovely cameo from Andy Serkis).

Highlights include the surprising introduction of one hero’s family priorities, a burgeoning love affair, and the auspices of a really fun party at Tony Stark’s place. Visually, our heroes’ ominous hallucinations, designed to unsettle and derail their powers, are certainly impressive. But even a round-the-world jaunt to South Africa, Korea and “Sokovia” can’t render the Avengers’ quest truly exciting or interesting. Next time, just send Thor back to Asgard and I’ll go watch him there.

The Judge

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 12th October 2014

The facts are these: A high-flying city lawyer returns reluctantly to his small-town home to farewell his recently departed mother and grapple with his ambivalent relationship with his father, the town’s eminent judge. When the judge is accused of committing a serious crime, his son is torn as to whether to defend him.

The charge: Will the film be convicted of cliché and sentimentality? Or does it handle the issues with restraint, leaving the audience moved and reflective?

The case for the Prosecution: We’re so used to seeing Robert Downey Jr flouncing about with Iron Man’s whipsmart cocky arrogance, it takes several tonally awkward scenes at the beginning before he can disavow that character. As soon as we realise he’s not actually joking when his wife threatens divorce and he drives back to Indiana, the story plunges rapidly into a family drama whose wounds are deep and angry. Recriminations ensue – Hank is the middle son who came top in law school to prove his worth to a father who seemed never to care – but the road to reconciliation is currently being resurfaced so peace will not come easily.

The case for the Defence: Thankfully, Downey is more than equipped to play things straight, and with screen veteran Robert Duvall as his equally serious foil, when the two men get down to proper acting there are many magic moments between father and son. Downey is at his best when his rapid-fire, show-offy legalese gets him out of a bar-room brawl, but Duvall (who has been the highlight of many a movie since his career began over 50 years ago) is simply stupendous as the ailing, proud patriarch who’s ruled many cases but misjudged his own family.

Add to this a supporting cast which includes the reliably lovely Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air), an understated Vincent D’Onofrio (TV’s Law & Order) and even an impressively restrained Billy Bob Thornton, and the potentially hackneyed “You never loved me!” angst is largely mitigated.

But not always. As often as the story swerves close to a narrative cliché and someone grabs the wheel in time, so too do things unfold pretty much as you’d expect. Some cinematic jurors may find it touching; others will have no truck with the mawkish courtroom revelations.

The star witness: Despite its relative lack of originality and some rather grandiose camerawork, the mature handling of the subject matter is actually impressive when you realise the director, David Dobkin, made The Wedding Crashers. The script makes the legal jargon comprehensible and the family drama relatable. As a sensitive meditation on issues of male pride (both marital and professional) there are a few missteps along the way, but generally this is a better film than it could have been with lesser players.

The verdict: Not Guilty.

Chef

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 11th May 2014

The first rule of watching Chef is: have a meal before you go. In this mixed-genre of a movie – something which sits strangely but happily between a cooking show and a feel-good family story – scenes of food preparation are shot as lovingly as those involving Sofia Vergara’s sensuous curves. Your mouth will water throughout and you’ll be racing to buy a toasted Panini press as soon as the credits roll.  

The second rule of Chef is: manage your comedic expectations. Yes, it is written, directed by and stars Jon Favreau (once the star of breakout indie hit Swingers; nowadays the director of Iron Man), and sure, there are plenty of light moments – but while it’ll have your stomach rumbling, belly laughs? – not so much.  

Carl Casper (Favreau) is an innovative restauranteur whose professional confidence is crushed like broken biscotti by the words of a critic. (As an aside, I admit to shifting somewhat uncomfortably in my seat during the moments of well-acted distress Casper displays as he reads out the bitter tirade against his endeavours. Striking a balance between public service warning and gratuitously biting review is a critic’s burden. But so and anyway…)  

The ensuing butting of heads with his patron (a sage and understated Dustin Hoffman) posits an interesting cheffing dilemma for Casper, and doubtless one which resonates with cooks everywhere: if what you’re doing works, how much of a risk dare you take to branch out into something new? Since they can’t agree on a philosophy, Casper finds himself starting over in the culinary world and decides to open up a food truck. Dedication to work, however, must be tempered by obligation to family, as Casper negotiates the benign but distant relationship he has with his son, Percy (a terrific breakout role for Emjay Anthony, wise beyond his years and more than holding his own against the bigger actors).  

Every bandwagon deserves to be hijacked, and so our current love of cooking shows gets the big-screen treatment. And it’s taken very seriously. The photography is so rich in colour and substance, you can practically smell the cheese grilling; as Casper talks his son (and us) through the intricacies of preparing authentic Colombian fare, you almost want him to pause so you can take notes.  

Appropriately, a lively script and universally energetic performances bounce through the nearly two hours as Casper is schooled by his son on the vagaries of social media (an hilariously perceptive lesson about how to use Twitter does provide some of the laugh-out-louds) and enlists the help of sous-chef John Leguizamo (Moulin Rouge) in setting up his mobile shop.  A typecast Sofia Vergara plays Casper’s improbably lovely ex-wife but her warmth, like the good intentions of a scene-stealing cameo from Robert Downey Jr, render the film so feel-good you will overlook the clichés. Even Casper’s relationship with Scarlett Johansson’s maitresse d’ is differentiated from usual rom-com sleazery by his cooking up a plate of pasta when normally sex would ensue.  

If you strip away the expectations of its being a comedy, Chef is actually a nicely-written, well-paced, personal drama. The father-son dynamic is delightful, and it’s a pleasure to see, for once, estranged parents who support rather than criticise each other. It’s only when unnecessary strawberry topping is poured over the narrative at the end, you wish the chef had been smarter – but you’ll still clean your plate, regardless.

Due Date, The Kids are All Right, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest

The Final Countdown

As 2010 drew to a close, I managed to sneak in three more films.  Herewith, for the sake of completeness, my musings:

Due Date

I wasn’t going to bother. I mean, I enjoyed The Hangover, and will see pretty much anything Robert Downey Jr. turns his hand to, but the trailer did look rather full of slapstick and base humour, the type (dare I say it – yes I do) that boys like. And when you’re hanging out for 2011’s release of The King’s Speech, Due Date is like the Turkish Delight chocolate in the bottom of the box.

I do wonder when Hollywood scriptwriters and their audiences are going to tire of the “I’ve never taken drugs in my life” Downey in-jokes. And when Zach Galifianakis is going to finally get sick of the typecasting and demand a dramatic/romantic lead. But until that day comes, we are destined to see many more buddy-comedies with mismatched leading men getting themselves into predicaments and then bonding (think Paul Rudd and Jason Segel in I Love You, Man, Paul Rudd and Steve Carrell in Dinner for Schmucks, Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen in Knocked Up… hang on a minute).

To be fair, Downey plays a good straight man, his character sufficiently fleshed out to justify the oscillation between bursts of anger and chastened warmth for the idiot who got him kicked off his flight home, and with whom he must drive across America.  Although Galifianakis feels somewhat exploited for his ability to abandon his dignity for the sake of a laugh, I can’t help but side with the playground bully who first forced him to perform.  From his mincing walk and flamboyant scarves to his naively ridiculous responses to some genuinely emotional situations revolving around paternal loss, Ethan Tremblay steals every scene, and Downey’s Peter graciously abets him.

There is plenty of silly physical humour, peppered with some laugh-out-loud lines that still render this a 3-star (out of 5) film. But it’s no Hangover, and it will soon be time for the filmmakers to observe their talents’ real talent and start using them for something better.

The Kids are All Right

A wonderfully original premise: the children of a lesbian couple seek out their biological father and the family starts a relationship with him – is played out surprisingly and beautifully by acting heavyweights Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo.

The women in particular bring terrific characterisation to the dinner table (and bedroom) as Nic and Jules, happily married for 20 or so years, with two well-adjusted teenagers who call them “Moms”.  When Paul (Ruffalo playing his oft-seen slacker, a role he seems designed for) enters their mix, the moms take to him in different ways – Nic perturbed by and Jules attracted to his laid-back, dope-smoking, attitude; daughter Joni excited and son Laser more skeptical. The family dynamics shift slightly, and lessons are learned along the way.

If anything, Paul’s response to having two ready-made children pop up in his commitment-phobe life is the only slightly untrue note in the film; however, Ruffalo plays this as if meaning every word.  Across town, Nic and Jules feel the impact on their own relationship as much as theirs with their children, and the effects on their expanding family are enlightening as well as painful.  The story doesn’t seek to propagate big ideas, but is nonetheless heartwarming and well-performed.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest

Yes, I saw the others.  So you’ll have gathered that, so unimpressed was I with the second film, I didn’t bother to review it in these pages.  Having now completed the trilogy, I think it’s worth a few words.

I didn’t read the books, but I understand the filmmakers left out some of the key thriller moments in their final film.  Why, given the 147- minute story which is overstuffed with padding, unnecessary dialogue and sub-plots that in no way advance the main narrative, I do not know.  What the filmmakers did not shy away from, however, is the extreme violence in each of the books.  I do get that our protaganist, Lisbeth Salander, needed to have been treated badly (which is putting it mildly) in order to justify the intense revenge story that followed.  I also appreciate that often people who are hellbent on such a course of action need to shut themselves off from emotion, and appear cold, unfeeling and impermeable.  They might even want to wear dark clothing and have tattoos.  Perhaps a piercing or two.  Often they will have sought solace in the restriction-free, impersonal world of the internet and may be IT whizzes.  I suppose it’s plausible, if a little gratuitous, that they might be lesbian (or at least bisexual).

But rather like in a serial killer movie where the screenwriter has done a spot of research online before writing a character ridden with cliches, to me Lisbeth Salander is a cobble-together of every supposedly antisocial (or “hardcore”) trait imaginable.  On top of this, she isn’t even very likeable.  We feel sorry for her, sure! (she is put through extraordinary ordeals in flashbacks and in the present, to ensure we forgive any resulting murderous deeds).  But overall the films are so grim, and the conclusion so muted and joyless, that even leaving the cinema after 2 1/2 exhausting hours of it, I found it hard to care.

Hornets Nest brings us to the end of Lisbeth’s story (the author, Stieg Larsson, having died before the success of his books, will not be bringing us any more).  I enjoy a good courtroom drama more than most people, and there was sufficient opportunity for there to have been shock and awe on the faces of the prosecution in the denouement.  But alas, as the Swedish film meandered along, the key evidence was leaked to the audience early on, and subsequently lost all impact by the time it was played in court.  Meanwhile, back at the offices of Millenium where journalist/knight-in-shining-armour Mikael Blomkvist is sending the whistleblowing issue to press, we sit through irrelevant backstories about the danger their editor is in, while Lisbeth languishes in jail, spiking her hair and applying eyeliner in preparation for another day refusing to answer questions.

David Fincher is making the inevitable Hollywood remakes as we speak. Normally I wouldn’t give you tuppence for an American version (I gather vampire movie Let Me In adds nothing to its Swedish precursor) but in this instance, I’m going to give Fincher’s a go, simply because he knows how to craft a good movie, and I want my story served rare, without garnish and chutney.

See you in 2011 to discuss whether he managed it.

Coulda been a contender

The Expendables

I may not be the target market for this film (as kindly pointed out to me by the young lad I sat next to in the cinema tonight) but I have to say I was initially excited about The Expendables’ concept.  A movie packed with all your favourite 80s action stars!  Imagine the in-jokes, the self-referential piss-taking, the opportunity for a really well constructed trip down memory lane for audience and cast alike.  And with a title that set them up to ridicule their old-aged, plastic-surgeried, reconstructed careers – a take on The Incredibles perhaps, but as a pack of losers? – this was going to be too good to miss.

Well, I shoulda known already.  Sylvester Stallone co-wrote and directed it, and brought in some old timers (tiny cameos from Willis and Schwarzenegger – if only Willis had been core cast!), many of whom we’ve (certainly I’ve) not seen for decades – Dolph Lundgren seems to be drifting into videogame voiceover land, though Jet Li has a reliable history of martial arts flicks under his black belt.  Wisely, Sly teams up with action man of the moment, Jason Statham, one for the youngsters (and discerning females).  Unfortunately, Sly’s face almost manages to distract us from the ludicrous love-plot he has written for himself – in some lighting (mostly shadow) he could be taken for a young, pretty Robert Downey Jr. but even as I write that it feels very wrong (RDJr can do no wrong in my eyes, and doesn’t deserve the comparison).  Mickey Rourke, another with reconstructed face and career, doesn’t have enough to do with his cliché of a role, but gives it a good stab.

The disappointment for me is that it doesn’t give us anything else.  Nothing new, nothing clever.  Even The A-Team (which was itself pretty lame, and propped up mostly by explosions and overkill) was redeemed by the brilliant Sharlto Copley from District 9 (there playing a mad Murdock).  But there are no witty lines or luminous performances here, and the inclusion of so many action stars means noone really gets the screen time or fight scene they deserve.

The party line on this film is “It does what it says on the tin” and as the titles rolled I asked my movie neighbour whether he was satisfied.  Judging from the whoops in the audience with each (massive) explosion and bullet-ridden body catapulting through the air, I’d say everyone was.

A week of it

Now, where were we? A couple of French films, I think… And in the last week or so there have been more like that, plus a couple of blockbusters. Herewith:

Robin Hood

Oh Russell. Or rather, oh Ridley.  I thoroughly enjoyed Gladiator, thought it was a terrific film – so I’m not dissing the collaboration here, or even the style (the similarities abound).  And Cate Blanchett is a far superior “Maid” Marion than that dreadful Sienna Miller would’ve been.  But really – this retelling of the story (“retelling” – really? or just “concocting a new story that really has nothing to do with the Robin Hood legend”?) simply doesn’t offer anything new or exciting in cinematic or narrative terms. The battle scenes (“Battle scenes??” I hear you cry.  Yes – this is no feisty band of brothers – there are whole armies) are just like Lord of the Rings‘ and any number of contemporary epics over the last decade.  The story is all a bit Kingdom of Heaven.  And Russell, fine actor that he usually is, just faxes in his Gladiator performance with a few bits tippexed out, and doesn’t even nail a consistent accent.  Come on, Jeffrey Wigand!

It’s not awful. There are solid performances from Douglas Hodge, Oscar Isaac (who could have been so much more irritating, but luckily kept it together) and Mark Strong. Eileen Atkins’ brief moments were typically spot-on. Matthew Macfadyen’s got a bit fat, but he does a reasonable line in “sinister”. Cate does her best with a thin script and little character depth.  It’s just not that interesting, memorable or innovative. Frankly I expected more from filmmakers and talent of this calibre.

Iron Man 2

I saw Iron Man in Paris in 2008, by myself, laughing raucously (by myself) at bits the French audience didn’t seem to find funny.  Loved it.  But having heard mixed reviews about the sequel I went in with low expectations – and it paid off.  I always enjoy Robert Downey Jr, and am a loyal fan of Gwyneth Paltrow (her Pepper Potts doesn’t have much going on, but for some reason I find her hairstyles captivating).  Mickey Rourke does a very good avenging Russian, no doubt aided by his now unnaturally worked-over facial features.  Sam Rockwell looks a bit too Austin Powers but I’d marry him in a heartbeat, so all is forgiven.  Scarlett Johansson delivers the only bum note, unnecessarily bland and a 2-dimensional composite of far superior female action heroines – but, no matter.

On the whole the film is just one big, silly, fun night out.  It’s all about spectacle, and to be fair there were plenty of major laugh-out-loud moments in the script too. (About a weapon shaped like a pen: “If it were any smarter, it’d write a book. A book that would make ‘Ulysses’ look like it was written in crayon …”)  Ah well, I guess it just caught me at the right time.

Brothers

The original Danish film is claustrophobic and gritty, superbly acted, and potentially a hard act to follow (highly recommended – rent it).  It’s a tribute to the three excellent lead performances in the US remake that Brothers still had the emotional impact for me, despite my knowing what happens.  Tobey Maguire (where’s he been since Spider Man??) plays a soldier who is kidnapped in Afghanistan, leaving two daughters and a grieving “widow” who all understand him to be dead.  Jake Gyllenhaal re-enters the family’s life, fresh from a stint in prison, and develops an attachment to the children and his brother’s wife, played with quiet intensity by Natalie Portman.  I found her performance in particular to be deeply affecting, inducing my own tears in simple moments where the camera lingered on her face and we read her emotions conveyed in the subtlest way imaginable.   Gyllenhaal is typically engaging, though his ex-con is possibly not as damaged by his life’s experiences as would be realistic.  Maguire is excellent – a warm, engaged father before his deployment, and a shell of a man pushed rapidly to breaking point after his brutal incarceration.

There are elements of the story that aren’t explored as deeply as they perhaps should/could be, and parts when you find yourself shouting at the characters “just say it!”.  But on the whole this is a terrific movie – powerful and, in a bigger picture sense of the repercussions of war, devastating – highly recommended.

The Secret in their Eyes

This Argentine film won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2010, and despite beating The Prophet and The White Ribbon, it’s a worthy winner, almost (but not quite) up there with The Lives of Others.   Ricardo Darin from Nine Queens (what fun that was!) stars as ex-prosecutor Benjamin Esposito, deeply affected by a rape and murder case 20 years prior, who wants to write a book about the case.  In doing so, unresolved questions in his mind cause him to reinvestigate the case, and brings him back into contact with his old colleague/boss and unrequited love interest, played by the luminous Soledad Villamil.

The director’s training on US crime show Law & Order is evident, but his ability to construct a narrative that is as much about love, loss and revenge as a pure police procedural, is the film’s strength.   He gets believable, engaging performances from all his characters (especially Esposito’s tragi-comic colleague Pablo Sandoval) and manages to inject the film with a sinister undertone that isn’t completely exposed until the final reel.

The Hedgehog (Le herisson)

I’ll admit, I saw the trailer and thought “I’m not seeing that”.  Saccharine!  Implausible!  Narratively predictable!  But by some miracle I was otherwise persuaded, and my open-mindedness was rewarded with a charming, beautifully performed piece that left me very moved.

The three central characters are so different from one another and from our usual protaganists (as a collective, at any rate) and each performance is real and believable – which is no mean feat, considering the story.  11-year old Paloma is a very bright, suicidally depressed voyeur of sorts, who films the lives of those around her, narrating a voiceover of insight and sometimes cutting brilliance.  Mme Michel is the concierge in her apartment building, a dowdy, charmless 50-something widow of simple habits who is blindsided by the attentions of a new tenant.  Mr Kakuro Ozu is a distinguished Japanese gentleman who introduces her to his world of Japanese cooking and with whom she shares a love of Tolstoy and Japanese cinema.  The lives of the three are convincingly entangled and it’s a delight to watch their burgeoning relationships.  Highly recommended.

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