Thursday, May 30, 2013
Beginning with 1987’s LETHAL WEAPON Shane Black spent a decade as an overpaid writer of big, smart-ass action movies. But dwindling box office mirrored the diminishing aesthetic returns, and Black vanished until his 2005 directorial debut, the underrated KISS KISS BANG BANG, a crackerjack comic thriller starring Robert Downey, Jr. The latest IRON MAN installment reunites director Black (who co-wrote the script with Drew Pearce) and Downey (as Tony Stark) and retains the prior film’s invigorating fusion of the wiseacre and the world weary, energizing a series in danger of becoming inert. After a fitful flashback to New Year’s Eve 1999 in which we watch pre-Iron Man Stark brush off eager technology maven Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) to spend the evening with pretty geneticist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), we return to present day with Stark attempting to recuperate from the apocalyptic attack on New York City by Loki (see THE AVENGERS). Traumatized and sleepless, he spends his nights tinkering in the lab while beloved but beleaguered Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) runs the business. The stalwart Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), meanwhile, changes his branding from War Machine to the Iron Patriot and becomes part of President Ellis’ (William Sadler) security team. An international terrorist calling himself The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) blows up the Chinese Theatre, which hospitalizes Stark’s right hand man Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) and brings the inventor before cameras vowing harsh justice. Before a plan can be set in motion, Maya turns up at Stark’s home warning that Killian, her current employer, is in league with The Mandarin. Then all hell breaks loose. While the busy script keeps the action brisk and dialogue crackling, Black gives Downey and Paltrow room to hint at the deep feelings just beneath Stark and Pepper’s glib surface banter. This grounds the outlandish action and keeps human stakes high amidst the CG carnage. In the last decade Black and Downey, former poster boys of vapid excess, have seasoned with age, proving that you can be a grown up and still play with toys.
Friday, May 24, 2013
The best STAR TREK films attain a careful balance between reverence to the source material and the sly upturning of expectations. In the 2009 prequel, director J.J. Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman violated the space/time continuum to give Leonard Nimoy (the original Spock) a cameo and themselves permission to disregard any inconsistency within the established Star Trek universe they may create in future films. The movie was enjoyable enough, with sharp casting and strong character rapport, to overlook this breach. Now Abrams and the writers (with the addition of Damon Lindelof) return to the wormhole in this slapdash sequel, and proceed to unravel the fabric of the franchise with careless abandon. After a busy prologue in which Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) race from indigenous space savages and rescue Spock (Zachary Quinto) from an active volcano where he attempts to set off a cold fusion bomb (to save said savages), we return to Starfleet where Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) reprimands and demotes Kirk for violating the prime directive. However, the demotion is short-lived after an attack on Starfleet command forces Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to send Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise to an isolated planet in Klingon territory, where the attack’s mastermind, Kirk’s future nemesis Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), has taken refuge. Despite some genuinely harrowing scenes and a handful of engaging character moments -- most involving Quinto, Simon Pegg (as Chief Engineer Scott) and the underused Urban -- the script feels like roughly patched together scenes from better films. Perhaps the puzzling title refers to the willful blindness to which fans of the TV and film series must succumb in order to overlook the gaps in narrative logic through which a fleet of starships could pass. But the filmmakers’ ill-conceived emphasis on confused plotting is merely their second greatest sin. The film’s dramatic centerpiece is ripped whole cloth from 1982’s THE WRATH OF KHAN. This shameless, cynical piece of pilfering is lazy, inexcusable, and unforgiveable.
Thursday, May 23, 2013
Films rarely address the awkward transition from feckless youth to dutiful adult in a way that actual grownups might recognize. Too often we spend 90 minutes in the tiresome company of a man-child whose Peter Pan syndrome finally beats us and his screen peers into weary submission. However, this wry, off-kilter comedy does a gender switch, and the whimsical results are discerning, sometimes melancholy, and always humane. 27-year-old Frances (Greta Gerwig) lives the life of a bohemian, barely making ends meet as a student teacher and apprentice at a New York dance studio. She refuses her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend’s offer to move in, because she prefers to continue living with current roommate and best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Until now she has blithely deferred adult responsibilities and relationships and has come to rely on her friend’s comforting, stable presence. She often says of Sophie, “We’re the same person.” After Sophie announces her plan to move out and spend more time with boyfriend Patch (Patrick Heusinger), Frances’ carefree life begins to unspool. Noah Baumbach & Gerwig’s script feels daft and unruly, not unlike Frances herself. Director Baumbach matches this tone with a loose, irreverent shooting style reminiscent of the French New Wave films of the 1960s, nicely evoked by Sam Levy’s unfussy black and white cinematography. As the unmoored Frances bounces from the couch of rakish Lev (Adam Driver) and adoring Benji (Michael Zegen) to her parents’ (played by Gerwig’s mother and father) home in California to dance colleague Rachel’s (Grace Gummer) apartment to a weekend in Paris to a summer job at her rustic alma mater, she begins to confront the compromises of adulthood. Gerwig’s canny performance keeps us on Frances’ side even as we long to shake some sense into her, and Sumner’s grounded Sophie makes the perfect foil for flighty Frances. We recognize the perfection of their match and feel their growing pains as the friendship necessarily evolves. The witty final shot is both button and grace note that clarifies the film’s enigmatic title.