Review(s): Summer of 08 Short Reviews Round-up Part 1

Iron Man

For all Marvel’s self-imposed weight as a blockbuster big-wig machine, Iron Man is rather shocking for how it’s essentially a chill-out superhero movie. A good portion of the film, particularly in the middle, has a surprisingly solid time enjoying itself as an old-school “hanging with movie actors” film, where the “event” mostly consists of watching Robert Downey Jr have fun playing with toys on screen and generally being snarkily amused in a way that pings between caustic and genial. It’s not quite a Bill Murray 80’s comedy, but being within reaching distance is pleasing in a way I hadn’t realized I missed.

Which brings us to the film’s greatest success: Downey Jr., in a classical movie star role – in fact a role that signalled the emergence of a movie star – of the finest variety. Downey, in the sense of a good movie star, is really only good at one thing: being himself. Iron Man works not because it asks much of him – it’s a rather generic superhero origin story dressed up in hand-me-down character piece duds and a fresh coat of paint – but because it molds the film around him and lets him not so much become a character as make that character another version of him. Tony Stark is exactly the snarky man-child Downey Jr. was for most of his life, and perhaps still is. The role might be mere wish fulfillment, but it’s astounding wish fulfillment.

All this being said, Iron Man is not the work of the Gods, nor is it a gift to mankind. Downey is great, but the rest of the film is merely decent summer fun 101, competent and effectively constructed in every way that really matters, but only just so to let Downey shine. Jon Favreau is a strange choice for a director, the kind of low-key not-quite-hack who mostly works to transfer script to screen with minimal investment on his part; he acquits himself well enough, as he needs to, but doesn’t prove himself an un-examined auteur of pop flair. The action, which is thankfully surprisingly low-key and mercifully infrequent (for a summer blockbuster circa 2008), is well-staged but anonymously filmed. The narrative is a pass, and character development doesn’t really exist outside of “Downey Jr. is not only exceedingly fun but deeply compelling”.

The thing is though: Downey Jr. is not only exceedingly fun but deeply compelling. Sometimes it’s all in the actor, and in a director’s ability to train his camera on that actor and let him shine relatively unadorned.  And sometimes a director and script that don’t quite work on their own just create a certain unexpectedly form-fitting harmony together like this – it is because Favreau is not much of an action director that he chooses to concentrate on the script’s more lackadaisical ramblings and the day-to-day sense of comic zing found largely in Downey Jr. He chooses, in other words, to hang out with Downey, and Downey proves a most charismatic and fun man to hang out with indeed.

Score: 7.5/10

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

I’m not here to toot the horn of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or re-evaluate it as some sort of misunderstood modern classic. I shouldn’t, for it undeniably isn’t. But to the surfeit of individuals who’ve taken to thinking it’s a particularly incompetent poppish dandy, one suggestion: see a movie from time to time. For Indiana Jones 4 is not great cinema, but it is far too well-constructed to truly even exist within spitting distance of bad. It has problems aplenty that keep it far from Raiders, sure. While that film was one of the cinema’s greatest implicit filmic love letters to cinema history, all invested in the ingenuity and stylings and production of 30’s adventure and horror serials, and it felt that technique down to its very bones, this one settles for fetishizing the 50’s in the most cartoonish and non-nuanced of ways. While that film had something to say about 30’s film and 30’s society, this one doesn’t do much saying at all. While that film was fleet-footed and nimble, this one wears lead shows. While that film was a marvel of editing and direction, and has as much fun with horror as it did adventure, this one doesn’t know what horror means.

But then, the first and second Indy sequels suffered from many of those same flaws as well, and added their own when they needed them. This one adds a few too – how damn silly a few scenes are for one – but none of these things really explain the point that there is a wide gulf between masterpiece and bad, and forgetting this gulf is not only bad criticism, but dishonest viewing. For every flaw, Kingdom has an equally vigorous success generally keeping things light, energetic, and slapdash. The CG is rather a bit silly and ineffective, but the set design and physicality of the scenes don’t rely much on CG and instead focus primarily on the way in which this is a world proper. For every lame gag – the refrigerator bit for one, there’s something that works wholeheartedly, like a wry nod to the Ark from the original film that cleverly captures the passage of time. For every Shia Labeouf, there’s a Karen Allen, giving a snarky, lively cartoon performance that hasn’t aged a day in 27 years.

Before you ask, Harrison Ford isn’t doing anything in the ballpark of great acting here, but then again, did he ever? Ford’s greatest strength was his lazy charm and sloppy non-caring smugness, his ability to convey just having wandered in off the street at the right time to get a role. In Raiders, this became a loving pastiche of broad-tempered ham-bone 30’s serial acting. Here it’s not nearly as effective, but that’s less his fault than the film’s, which has little interest in exploring the cinema of the 50’s in its recreation of the 50’s.

Elsewhere, it’s a good little flick, far sprightlier and better than it probably should have been and much less of a cumbersome drag. Spielberg isn’t really tearing apart the seams of action filmmaking here (it’s not nearly the tense ride 2005’s War of the Worlds was, but then War of the Worlds wasn’t really in the zippy, breathless Indiana Jones vein anyway). He gets the job done, and at least two chases are really quite superb in the classically physical sense of zany kitchen-sink chases). It’s hardly a textbook case of vision and subversive direction, but it’s workmanlike fun (Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s long-time cinematographer, also has plenty of fun letting loose after the arch-grimness of Spielberg’s two 2005 films). It doesn’t quite have that lived-in spirit of the first film in the series, but that’s the 2000’s for you. And for a 2000’s blockbuster, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn’t just not bad; it’s a genuine bit of “It’s the Movies” fluffy fun in the best Spielbergian tradition.

Score: 7.5/10

Hancock

For all the “2008 was a great year for summer movies” hullabaloo, let us remember it also gave us the tepid, middle-weight The Incredible Hulk, a majestically unnecessary second X-Files movie, the criminally tired, and also majestically unnecessary, third Mummy film, and this little monstrosity. And while, in their own ways, those other films are flawed and even in some cases worse, Hancock is categorically the most interesting as a film, and for what it reveals about what blockbusters have meant to society at different points in film history. It’s bad, even awful, but it is bad for ways that are wholly different, and wholly unique, to any normal big-budget prescription for Nyquil.

First things first: the first half of Hancock is pleasant in a “hanging out with movie stars” kind of way, mostly because the film rather literally spends all its time hanging out with main character Will Smith (who in the succeeding years seems to have largely lost interest in being a genuine movie star). And I say main character Will Smith intentionally. Don’t get me wrong … Hancock is a nice little mocking critique of superheros at large and the way they, in reality, would probably use their great power to hang out, get by, chill, and generally rage about at anyone who got in their way. But, for all the work on the page to have a little fun with superhero-dom, Hancock, and Hancock, is Will Smith. Jason Bateman is on-hand as a surprisingly effective straight-man (three years of experience as the best straight-man in television history will do that to you). But Hancock could not, at a fundamental level, function at all without Smith making a show of himself and letting his hair down a little from beginning to end.

Well, beginning to middle is more like it. For Hancock suffers from a particularly galling case of self-seriousness. Furthermore, it makes absolutely no bones about hiding how fractured the whole finished product is by the end. If the first half of Hancock is a low-key chill-out movie where the main character happens to be a snarky ass, the second is one of the most over-written spasms of howlingly indulgent self-exploratory dialogue you’ll find anywhere a film camera skulks. If the first half seems to go out of its way to say nothing about who Hancock is as a person, or why he exists at all, the second is so busy running on about his identity it can’t stop to actually be a film anymore. It’s like an hour chilling out on a Sunday morning with a particularly gnarly hangover followed immediately by an hour-long lecture on metaphysics – whatever value either may have, they simply cannot follow each other. Demythologization just isn’t fun when it’s being force-fed to us in such an obvious, and incidentally non-nonsensical, manner.

It’s all exactly the kind of hamfisted, not-itself narrative you might expect would composite from a film ten years in the making, and its halves betray its production. The former, lighter, snarkier half all interested in Will Smith being Will Smith and not being too hurried to do much else would have fit right in the world of 1998 (when the film was to be made originally) – not quite as good as Men in Black but identifiably better than Wild Wild West. The stunningly incompetent, idiotically confused, dumbfoundingly portentous second half, meanwhile, is exactly the sort of haphazardly written superhero mythology we might expect from a film that came out within a month of The Dark Knight. The latter bit doesn’t work at all, and it’s all the worse placed after a first half that doesn’t exist with even a distant rumor of the back-half. If little moments still produce laughter within all the morose histrionics and non-nonsensical mythologizing, it’s a defense mechanism more than anything, the only one a poor critic has barring inducing a coma.

Score: 4/10

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