Jon Favreau´s Iron Man, powered by a revelatory Robert Downey Jr. performance, was a surprise megahit it 2008, wildly successful with critics and audiences alike. Advance word on the sequel hasn´t been promising: early reviews haven´t been overly kind (not that there have been many, I´m mainly going by Kirk Honeycutt´s in The Hollywood Reporter), and the fact that it´s opening in foreign territories a week ahead of the US raises some flags (though I´m guessing this might have more to do with curbing piracy.)
But fear not: Iron Man 2 is very nearly as good as the first installment, and in some ways, it´s better. One of the big gripes with the first film was the third act, which abandoned most of the good that had come before it with a rather pedestrian smash-‘em-up climax. That´s not so much of a problem here, as the film keeps getting better as it goes along.
30 minutes in, though, I was worried. Over the opening credits, we have Russian Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) tending to his dying father and preparing some heavy machinery from Stark Industries blueprints. Up next, Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) drops into the Epcot-like Stark Expo to deliver a keynote speech. Then he´s off to a Godfather II-like senatorial hearing, during which Sen. Stern (Garry Shandling) and weapons contractor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) want to force him to turn over his designs for the good of the country.
Also, Stark is dying, as the palladium used to power his heart (and his suit) is rapidly poisoning his blood. He turns over the reins of Stark Industries to his hard-luck assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who happens to have a pretty new assistant in Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), who you might guess by the casting has a larger role than is initially implied. And there´s some muted animosity between Stark and friend/Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, filling in for Terence Howard from the first film).
That´s too much setup. Far too much setup, and the first half-hour of Iron Man 2 really drags and tests your patience and threatens to turn the movie into another overstuffed and overcomplicated Spider-Man 3.
But then we have our first big action setpiece as Vanko shows up in Monaco as the supervillain Whiplash (though I don´t think he´s ever referred to by that on the screen), slicing up racecars and going after Stark. From there, the film reaches a high that it maintains till the very end as all the varying plotlines and characters converge, each given enough time to really pay off; by the finale, the rough half-hour of setup was worth it.
The screenplay is credited to a single writer, actor Justin Theroux (working, of course, from the original comics by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and others); unusual for a major blockbuster. It´s his second script, following Tropic Thunder, and the comic flair here is one of the best things on display. Director Jon Favreau puts all the pieces together as well as he did in the first film, and improves upon the action scenes (not that there are many, also unusual for this kind of film); special credit goes to the spare (or rather, sophisticated) use of CGI: everything here feels more real than it ought to.
Downey Jr., however, remains the real attraction, and he´s as good here as he was in the original: witty, sarcastic, narcissistic, yet incredibly endearing. With everything else going on, there´s less of him on display this time around, but an excellent supporting cast makes up for it. Rockwell, especially, has some wonderful dialogue and makes for a far better corporate villain than Jeff Bridges did in the first film. Rourke and Cheadle occasionally feel out of place, however; Rourke, due to a sketchy Russian accent and an underwritten character, and Cheadle, when compared to Howard in the original, feels less suited to the role.
Samuel L. Jackson, who had a cameo at the end of Iron Man, has a more significant role here as Nick Fury, which includes a great donut shop scene that serves as a nod to Pulp Fiction. Fury still serves as little more than a teaser for an upcoming Avengers movie, among other works. Marvel Studios, after years of licensing out their characters led to inferior product, is really taking care of their material now, and should be richly rewarded.
Note: most cinemas in the Czech Republic are screening only a dubbed version of Iron Man 2. Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům and Cinestar Anděl are among the cinemas screening the original English-language version.
Abel Ferrera´s Bad Lieutenant, an NC-17-rated 1993 film that Martin Scorsese chose as the best of the 1990s, was just about the last film you´d expect to see a sequel to (or a remake of, or whatever the producers had in mind here). Apart from the subject matter, it wasn´t a terribly successful movie, and remains largely unknown outside of cineastes, not the most likely of targets to cash in on brand recognition.
It would be easy to dismiss the sequel on sight, but when you hear it´s directed by Werner Herzog – who has directed masterpieces (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo) and more recently, acclaimed documentaries (Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World) – your interest is piqued.
And, no surprise, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (despite that awful stumbling block of a title) is a great movie. But I was surprised at just how great it is: hugely entertaining, unexpectedly funny, with a fully wigged-out Nicolas Cage performance that mesmerizes. It could´ve been Herzog´s most commercial film yet, but it´ll settle for cult classic status.
A comparison to the original – which starred Harvey Keitel in the title role – is pointless, as there´s almost no connection here outside the theme, that the lead character is quite literally a bad lieutenant. A gambling addict, a drug addict, a sex addict, using his status to elevate himself above the law and feed his addictions. Herzog claims to have not seen the Ferrera film, and I wouldn´t be surprised if screenwriter William M. Finkelstein hadn´t seen it either. They were given the title, and ran with it.
Cage is Lieutenant Terence McDonagh, who begins the film by rescuing a trapped convict during the flooding after Hurricane Katrina. See, he´s not all that bad. And the drug addiction, that´s just due his persistent back pain. He´s investigating a drug-related homicide, which he couldn´t be less interested in; he knows who did it, all this evidence gathering and witness protecting is just getting in the way of having a good time. “What are these fuckin’ iguanas doing on my coffee table?”
Other story threads: he beats up a violent customer of his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes), who sends some mafia goons out to harass him. He grows deeper and deeper into debt with his bookie (Brad Dourif), who comes to collect at the police station. A harassment claim is filed against him by the elderly grandmother (Irma P. Hall) of a witness (Denzel Whitaker) he lost and spectacularly failed to track down.
This isn´t a film that focuses on plot, but these threads come together brilliantly by the end, in pitch-black comedy-tragedy. Finkelstein was a TV writer for crime dramas like L.A. Law and Law and Order, and the Television A-story, B-story, C-story merges quite wonderfully here with a more traditional three-act structure, along with a lot of diversions to side characters, like Terence´s recovering-alcoholic father (Tom Bower), his step-mother (Jennifer Coolidge), his partner (Val Kilmer), and a sometimes-lover (Fairuza Balk).
Cage, though, is the star of the show. He makes a lot of bad movies (though the real bad ones can still be plenty entertaining – just see The Wicker Man), and is deservingly taken to task for them, but in the hands of the right director he can have a wonderful – and irreplaceable – screen presence. I´m thinking of movies like Wild at Heart (David Lynch), Raising Arizona (Coen Brothers), Kiss of Death (Barbet Schroeder), or Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis), which won him an Oscar.
Cage has become bland these days, but traditionally throws in one freakout scene per movie; 1989´s Vampire´s Kiss, one of his most entertaining performances, was essentially one long freakout as he succumbed to the belief that he was bitten by a vampire. With his character on drugs throughout the proceedings, Port of Call returns to a similar vein – Cage is the kind of batshit insane that few other actors can match, and hugely entertaining every hallucination along the way.
And in Nicolas Cage, Werner Herzog has found the leading-role insanity (not counting Timothy Treadwell) that his films have missed since the days of Klaus Kinski. Also on full display: a surreal view of post-Katrina New Orleans Americana that avoids falling into familiar territory; compare to Bertrand Tavernier´s underrated In the Electric Mist.
Along with The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds, this was one of my favorite movies of 2009. “Shoot him again. His soul´s still dancing.”
If you´ve seen John Hillcoat´s previous film – the excellent, if frequently difficult-to-watch The Proposition – or read Cormac McCarthy´s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road, you have some idea of what to expect from this film version. If you´ve seen Hillcoat´s previous and read the book, you might have no desire whatsoever to watch this movie.
The Road is cold, miserable, relentlessly grim; there´s no joy and little hope in this post-apocalyptic tale of a father and son travelling to the coast in search of, well, something better that may or may not exist. The landscape is covered in ash and death, the skies are gray and so is everything else, the film so drained of color that it may as well be black & white.
It´s a near-great adaptation. Not quite there, because it can´t hope to compare to McCarthy´s words, which reached poetry in their sparseness, and because the situation the characters are in is so decidedly uncinematic that the screen becomes impenetrable. But this is a post-apocalyptic film unlike any other, so neorealist in its approach to the material that you have to reserve some degree of admiration for it.
The father and son – figures who never given proper names – are impressively played by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-Mcphee as tired and starving, at the end of their rope and near death. The father has fleeting glimpses of a past world, green pastures and a wife (Charlize Theron); the boy was born into this misery and knows nothing better. Dad keeps a handgun and two last bullets, and teaches his son how to put it in his mouth and pull the trigger, just in case.
There´s no drive to the material, no real narrative or suspense, but that doesn´t keep Hillcoat from trying: he films the journey of the man and the boy through a series of vignettes, notable moments in the journey that each have their own power but don´t add up to a cohesive plot. There´s the group of armed raiders they encounter, a house of cannibals, the last can of coke from a vending machine, an old man (Robert Duvall), a thief (Michael K. Williams).
The film was originally slated for a release in 2008, then delayed a year for additional post-production work; this can account for Mortensen´s unnecessary and infrequent voice-over narration, and some inexplicably lighter music on the soundtrack (there should, of course, be no music; the credits roll over ambient sounds of sprinklers and lawnmowers, times long gone.) The studio must have realized what they had and attempted to make it more palatable, but there was no escape.
The feel, and the setting, is what makes The Road. Cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe is truly “hauntingly beautiful,” turning a landscape of dust into something picture-perfect. It´s an impeccable production, something few will want to watch, but it couldn´t have been done any other way. Those that do sit through it will be richly rewarded.
Ultimately, The Road is memorable in its bleakness, its realistic approach to a genre that has become known for campy fun. It´ll be hard to look at a post-apocalyptic movie (see: The Book of Eli) the same. It lives in the shadow of the source novel, but what could live up to it? This is, at the very least, an earnest attempt.
Also: in anticipation of the upcoming Toy Story 3, 3D-equipped cinemas throughout the Czech Republic are screening the first two Toy Story movies in a new 3D version this week. Most copies are dubbed, but you can catch them in English at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům (though weekend screenings have already sold out.)