Film review – Iron Man 3 (2013)

24 April 2013
Iron Man 3: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr)

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr)

One of the most fascinating examples of modern day mythology is the superhero narrative where god-like beings, or humans with the ability to be god-like, engage in larger-than-life conflicts that test their moral and spiritual strength as well as any physical powers. Their adventures and trials can be seen as reflections of the collective anxieties and values of the culture that produced them. The films contained within the popular Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise are no exception, sometimes overtly and sometimes unconsciously delivering commentary on contemporary US identity in between the banter and action sequences. The original Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) examined the culpability of weapon manufacturing, Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2010) condemned the actions of warmongers and Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011) challenged the use of jingoist symbols. All are distinctively post-Iraq invasion and post-Bush Administration films, even though the sophistication of their analysis is limited. Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, 2013) is the most topical film to-date, exploring the nature of terrorism and the destruction of the self.

In many ways Iron Man 3 is a companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012), albeit a far simpler take on the  themes. Both films contain a wealthy, human, self-made superhero protagonist who begins the film scarred from previous encounters. Both protagonists face villains that are products of the system they come from, and both protagonists question if they are losing their identity to their alter egos.  After a flashback prologue, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is introduced as obsessive and paranoid, burying himself in work and starting to suffer from anxiety attacks due to the traumatic events he experienced during The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012).

Stark compulsively works on new Iron Man suits, alienating his loved ones and neglecting work. He has become addicted to his suits, refers to them as separate entities yet seems determined to bond even further with his suit, fitting his body with mechanical parts like the deranged salary man in Shinya Tsukamoto’s appropriately titled Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989). In one of the truly dark moments in Iron Man 3, Stark’s girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) attempts to comfort him during a nightmare, but is momentarily attacked by one of the Iron Man suits. The sinister moment briefly suggests the potential for Stark’s fractured identity to manifest as a violent and abusive id.

Previously the symbol of innovation and power in the previous films, the Iron Man suits take on a more ambivalent meaning in Iron Man 3. In fact, the miss-use of technology and science in general is challenged, especially in the way research designed for medical purposes can be misappropriated, as seen in a subplot that evokes the moral quandaries raised in Michael Apted’s Extreme Measures (1996). In Iron Man 3 technology is predominantly represented by the Iron Man suits, which in this film are rarely shown as complete objects, often appearing fragmented, fallible and disposable. They are even used to deceive and restrict, sometimes functioning as a sort of giant metal coffin-like prison. Therefore, most of the film features Tony Stark the ‘real’ person, rather than Iron Man the alter ego that threatens to symbolically consume Stark. On a basic level this allows actor Downey Jr and director/co-writer Black – working together again after 2005’s outstanding Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – far more room to deliver punchy one-liners and verbal interplay, which is very much welcome.

While Stark is grappling with his sense of self, so is the country that he and most of the other Avengers hail from. Just like the threat to Gotham city in The Dark Knight Returns, the threat in Iron Man 3 is a terrorist manifestation of the sins of the past coming back to deliver judgement. In his broadcasts to the terrified people of America, the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) compares his acts of violence to violence done against other countries by American militarism and intervention. As Iron Man 3 further explores the nature of the Mandarin’s agenda, the film delivers an overt examination of the nature of terrorism and how a culture of fear is so easily constructed and exploited for political gain. In terms of the way foreign otherness is frequently portrayed so regressively in mainstream pop culture, Iron Man 3 is surprisingly subversive for how well it plays on audience assumptions. The film also ridicules the use of symbolism with jokes about James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) wearing the War Machine body armor, but giving it the more palatable name of the Iron Patriot, which does not fool anybody.

Iron Man 3 also surprises in the degree to which it critiques a large segment of its target audience – fans. One scene where Stark gets help from a fan is played completely for laughs towards the over enthusiastic man who unreservedly adores Stark despite the indifference he receives in return. Is this perhaps a sly dig at the types of fans who uncritically love the products of their favourite franchise regardless of the end product? A far more interesting moment, and the film’s other genuinely sinister scene, is when a previously fanboy character declares he will make a trophy out of a kidnap victim who spurned his romantic advances. It is a brief moment, but an expression of the type of misogyny that can be found within ‘nice guy’ males with a sense of entitlement and bitterness from sexual disappointment.

Unfortunately, the gender politics in Iron Man 3 is overall a little confused. There seems to be a deliberate effort to make Pepper a more substantial character rather than a damsel in distress and object of desire. However, every time Pepper does get some agency, it is then taken away from her and she is reduced to being passive again. Perhaps this can simply be read as another way the film is articulating contemporary attitudes in its well-meaning attempt to elevate female characters to the same status as the male characters, but always ending up being tokenistic and stopping short from achieving anything truly meaningful.

In the long term Iron Man 3 will most likely hold up reasonably well as a lighter variation on the deconstructed superhero mythology found in The Dark Knight Rises. In the short-term, the nature of domestic terrorism and identity will likely not be at the forefront of most audiences’ minds as they flock to see Downey Jr’s charismatic performance and the film’s action set pieces. The conclusion is disappointing in terms of the overused setting it chooses for the action to take place, and due to a key manoeuvre by Stark that he really could have used closer to the start of the film and saved everybody a whole lot of trouble. Nevertheless, the scenes of spectacle are mostly fun with a sequence involving people free-falling being particularly engaging. The Marvel films are now established as reliable sources of entertainment, and after Whedon’s work on The Avengers and now Black’s work on Iron Man 3, the series continues to build momentum.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – The Dictator (2012)

17 May 2012
The Dictator: Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Tamir (Ben Kingsley)

Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Tamir (Ben Kingsley)

When approaching the films written and staring English comedian and comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen, providing commentary on the nature of offense has become the standard.  Two polarising and equally unhelpful positions often result between those who find his comedy inherently offensive, because he tackles ‘taboo’ topics and cultural stereotypes along with crass bodily functions, and those who think creative types don’t have any responsibility in the way they present material. There is no doubt that Baron Cohen pushes the boundaries of taste, but to regard The Dictator as either cultural imperialism or an attack on ‘political correctness gone mad’ would be to miss that within this often irreverent and anarchic film, is a measured and subversive piece of smartly constructed comedy.

In his previous films Baron Cohen generated most of the gags and social critique by adopting larger-than-life characters and then involving unsuspecting public figures and the general public in outrageous scenarios. At their best these improvised pranks were hilarious and revealing insights into human nature. At their worst they felt cruel and too overtly designed to generate an obvious response of anger or discomfort from the unwilling participants. By making The Dictator a scripted comedy Baron Cohen could no longer rely on the element of surprise. Instead, the humour had to be calculated and planned, yet still feel fresh and spontaneous. In this regard, Baron Cohen succeeds. The Dictator is fast paced, coherent, continually inventive and frequently confronting. Most importantly it contains jokes, which is increasingly rare in an era when many comedic films are reliant on having their personality-driven cast make cultural references and say non-sequiturs to elicit chortles.

Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the dictator of a fictitious North African country Wadiya, who gets stuck on the streets of New York due to an identity mix-up with his idiot lookalike. The film not only avoids situating Wadiya as middle-eastern country, but it also stays clear of religion and even states that Aladeen is not an Arab, to avoid any accusation of it perpetuating stereotypes of Arabic nations. In true Baron Cohen style, the discussion of whether or not he is an Arab is instead used to mock American prejudices towards non-Americans.

The dictator lookalike subplot and a line from Aladeen about being ‘the last great dictator’ deliberately evokes Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) where Chaplin ridiculed Hitler, Mussolini, European fascism and Nazism. Like Chaplin, Baron Cohen is using comedy to undermine dictators and poisonous ideology rather than the people suffering under those tyrants. What has changed is the sensibility of the humour. While Chaplin’s film featured slapstick, sentiment and a call for humanity, Baron Cohen’s film features savage and audacious gags where nothing is sacred. A scene involving childbirth is wonderfully cringe worthy and a superb masturbation scene that uses a clip from Forest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1996) provides the perfect context for that ideologically noxious film.

While the level of satire of The Dictator recalls Team America: World Police (Trey Parker, 2004) to the degree that no political viewpoint or belief is safe from being derided, The Dictator feels more strategic. Team America laughed at anti-war celebrity campaigners simply because it was funny to do so, while The Dictator sends up community groups and various progressive causes to draw attention to how such movements can seem so self-righteous and ineffective against the juggernauts of capitalism and political oppression. By attacking so many targets Baron Cohen avoids coming across as politically motivated, making some of the more astute observations on global politics all the more effective. All that aside, it is also simply funny to see a racist, sexist and sadistic dictator attempt to work in a food co-op.

The element that makes The Dictator more than just a film that allows audiences to cathartically laugh at horrific ideas and attitudes, is the comparisons that Baron Cohen makes between the various recognised dictatorships around the world and the USA. The moment where Baron Cohen’s comedic genius shines is when he draws direct parallels between the way tyrannies enforce social control and the way America does (and nearly all the commentary about America can be applied to Australia as well). Naming and shaming big American oil companies comments on the hypocrisy of America’s economically driven condemnation of dictatorships, plus America’s relationship with China is also mocked. The vacuous media get a drilling in a couple of sequences recalling Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979) where two news anchors provide moronic ‘analysis’ of the erratic body language of Aladeen’s confused lookalike.

The Dictator is Baron Cohen’s most successful and consistent film to date. It is more successful than the surprising tame Four Lions (Christopher Morris, 2010) in finding humour and humanity in aspects of the modern world most people would rather not think about let alone see a comedy about. And within all this are dick and poo jokes that are puerile, revolting and funny. Audiences may come to The Dictator for the tasteless humour and enjoy the clever comedic execution, timing and writing, but they may just end up with a slightly more enlightened perspective on international politics.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)

23 May 2010
PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal)

Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal)

Against many expectations, when Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films first teamed up to make 2003’s theme-park ride adaptation Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the result was a fun adventure film containing exciting action, inventive scenarios and entertaining characters. Disney and Bruckheimer’s latest collaboration is now a computer-game adaptation and the result is Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a film that while not as good as the original Pirates of the Caribbean is nevertheless extremely enjoyable. Far more of a hyperactive fantasy film than anything remotely historic or realistic, Prince of Persia is about the quest by the adopted prince Dastan to clear his name and stop a mystical dagger, which has the power to turn back time, from falling into the wrong hands.

While English director Mike Newell’s previous films are a diverse collection that includes Four Weddings and a Funeral and Donnie Brasco, he is no stranger to family-friendly action/fantasy having directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth film in the franchise and most interesting after Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In Prince of Persia Newell displays a real flair for action, especially with the scenes involving sword fighting and knife throwing. Newell also incorporates elements of the source material’s game play into the aesthetic of the action with lots of characters jumping over buildings, climbing up walls and hanging off platforms. The time travel plot device also nicely replicates the gaming experience of being able to restart a sequence from an earlier saved point.

PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME Tamina (Gemma Arterton)

Tamina (Gemma Arterton)

Many computer game adaptations suffer from having an overly complicated plot (for example, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) as some sort of overcompensation for being a computer game adaptation. Prince of Persia doesn’t buck against this trend but at least its convoluted story doesn’t get in the way of the big set pieces. It also helps that the writers (who include Fresh writer/director Boaz Yakin) have created a brisk pace and the tone of the film is pleasingly slightly over-the-top enough to be affectionately self-aware without being parody. There is also a strident critique of recent US history with Persia’s attack on Alamut, based on misinformation that the holy city was making weapons to be used against them, being a blatant condemnation of the USA using the presence of non-existent WMDs to invade Iraq.

There is not a lot of character complexity and it’s certainly pretty obvious from the start who the villain is going to be, but as conventional adventure character types the cast of Prince of Persia are convincing and fun. As Prince Dastan Jake Gyllenhaal is charismatic without being smarmy, tough without being macho and righteous without being tedious. His slow-motion-walking-in-front-of-flames hero shot comes a little too early in the film but otherwise he makes a credible hero. Gemma Arterton, as the film’s co-hero/love interest Tamina, holds her own in this predominantly boys-own adventure story and the supporting cast includes the ever-reliable Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina steals every scene that he is in.

Prince of Persia is frothy light entertainment but it’s frothy light entertainment done right. It delivers exactly the sort of cinema experience that it promises to deliver with more integrity and a little more substance than many other films of its ilk.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Shutter Island (2010)

16 February 2010

Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the novel Shutter Island (by Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone author Dennis Lehane) is a film that operates on a heightened level that almost makes a traditional narrative analysis redundant. While the core story of two US Marshals in 1954 investigating the seemingly impossible disappearance of an escapee from an island based prison for the criminally insane is compelling, the film’s ultimate achievement is its manipulation of perception on a filmic level. Even elements that may trick the untrained eye and ear into thinking that they are experiencing a flawed film are deliberately calculated stylistic and narrative elements that only fully make sense after the final dénouement.

Scorsese has often displayed a subjective flair in his filmmaking particularly in early films such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. In Shutter Island he pushes this one step further by representing Shutter Island’s Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane as an almost other worldly place designed to snare and foil US Marshal Teddy Daniels. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his strongest performances to-date, Daniels is a classic melancholic masculine Scorsese protagonist. Daniels is haunted by the death of his wife and his experiences as a soldier liberating the Dachau concentration camp. He is unpredictable, volatile and easily provoked. Yet he also possesses aspects of Twin Peaks’s memorable Special Agent Dale Cooper character in that he has a brilliant investigative mind, he is intuitive and he seems to receive information about the case from his dreams.

Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley), Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio)

While there are elements of Shutter Island that would not feel out of place in a David Lynch film, Scorsese’s real point-of-reference must surely be Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Scorsese may have even read Geoffrey Cocks’s book The Wolf at the Door where Cocks argues that the subtext of The Shining was the Holocaust. Not only does Scorsese use a lot of music by the Kubrick favoured composer György Ligeti but the use of sound, tracking shots and production design distinctively presents the Ashecliffe Hospital in a similar way to The Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Both are buildings filled with labyrinthine spaces that threaten to consume their occupants.

Shutter Island is the work of a true master who is completely accomplished in the art of filmmaking. It is apparent from almost the beginning of Shutter Island that there is something strange going on and the enjoyment is in the experience of watching it all unfold. Shutter Island is a film that leaves you feeling satisfied but during the end credits your brain will start to churn. As the film’s impact sinks deeper and deeper into your mind you will start to truly appreciate how ingenious it is on so many levels. An hour later you will be making plans to see it again.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – The Wackness (2008)

2 December 2008

It’s the summer of 1994 in New York and Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck from Nickelodeon’s family show Drake and Josh) has finished his final year at school. While most of his classmates have left the city for holidays, Luke is left behind to sell and smoke marijuana. Depressed, lonely and sexually frustrated, Luke forms an unlikely friendship with one of his regular customers – Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), who exchanges therapy sessions for dope.

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Film review – Lucky Number Slevin (aka The Wrong Man) (2006)

7 August 2006

Director Paul McGuigan’s best film to date is still the English gangster film Gangster No. 1 from 2000. However, the major problem with Gangster No. 1 is the same problem that plagues McGuigan’s latest effort Lucky Number Slevin. Both films suffer from a very weak final third act but while Gangster No. 1 was salvageable, the direction that Lucky Number Slevin takes completely ruins what initially promises to be a good film.

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