Monthly Archives: May 2008

Brad Pitt returns to his native element

The trailer (with mild language) of the Coen brothers’ new comedy Burn After Reading is a joy to watch. Their choice of Brad Pitt as the Walter Sobchak of this decade is pure genius.

I am almost giddy to see Pitt return after seven years to the genre in which he moves most naturally. The trailer alone shows some looks we have not seen from him since Johnny Suede.

If he had pursued comedies in the 90s rather than pretty boy parts, Pitt would be known for his career more than his relationships, and his name would be a solo box office draw like Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller. Except he’s a better comedian than both of them.

IN BRUGES

Could the trailers have been more misleading? Who would have thought that In Bruges would be reflective if not meditative, unrushed but never slow, humorous and heartfelt? I have Jeri alone to thank for apprising me of this film’s unsuspected virtues.

Trailers are notorious for being misrepresenting their products, but could the reviews, even positive ones, have been more misleading? Ed Caesar calls McDonagh “the Tarantino of theatre”, and Ray Greene insists that In Bruges is “very 1992”:

That, of course, was the year Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs played Sundance and established both the enduring and quixotic career of its writer/director and the genre In Bruges does its best to walk in the footsteps of, though with a European gait.

Only James Rocchi observes that it “turns into something different from the standard-issue post-Tarantino film”, calling it the “post-post-Tarantino” film — but in the same sentence he still compares it positively to Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Even on the other side of opinion, Nate Bell offers a negative comparison not only to Tarantino but to the rightfully discredited Guy Ritchie and Troy Duffy. (Ouch!) But as one who basically has contempt for Tarantino’s screenplays, I find all such comparisons to In Bruges qualitatively false.

Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s playwriting background definitely comes through in his obsessive foreshadowing, but considering how many movies have promising beginnings only to fall apart in the third act, it’s wonderful to see a movie that feels like it is all of a piece. The only possible criticism is that In Bruges is too tightly scripted, too artfully crafted. Some of the dialogue can be anticipated a moment before it is said, but this is due to the characters being so well defined rather than the author’s voice dominating: on this as on all other counts, comparisons to Tarantino are completely unfounded.

Even an explicit reference to a classic 70s picture, which in Tarantino is always belabored by the characters but has minimal relevance to the film they are in, here is mentioned only in passing but is integral to McDonagh’s picture. The reference to Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is a throwaway line in a scene whose immediate (but not final) purpose is to establish the personality of a new character, rather than recite a transcript of fourth-grade film criticism.

In an age of movies often not much more than isolated vignettes strung together, it’s a delight to see minor characters actually used rather than discarded as soon as they’re introduced (the Canadians in the restaurant, the jealous ex-boyfriend). But lest the director be accused of tying everything together too neatly, he gives us the elephantine family who provide comic relief and need not reappear again. Yet even their presence is not completely gratuitous, for they draw attention to the difficulty of climbing the spiral staircase which features later — just like everything else in the first act, from Brendan Gleeson pointing his finger at Colin Farrell from the tower, to Farrell’s own flashback.

The casting of Farrell against type is the revelation of the year, like Sean Connery as a bumbling professor horrified by his son using a machine gun in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Who knew that Farrell could be not only so good, but so sympathetic as well? I felt like I had never seen this actor before, and I guess I haven’t. Even Ralph Fiennes playing the cousin, if not brother, of Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast, is unexpectedly a sympathetic character rather than the obvious bad guy. Brendan Gleeson of course is the heart of film, and it is impossible not to love him.

In Bruges constantly toes the line between humor and pathy, a devastating emotional cocktail. The film is a macrocosm of its restaurant scene in which Farrell tells an off-color joke about Belgium, the scene quickly turns tragic, but after a short suspense turns comic again, then ends in violence. But despite Fiennes’ repeated verbal promises of a “shoot out”, there is no ultimate face off. The violence in McDonagh’s Bruges may be graphic but it is never gratuitous.

Looking through the chinks in the Dark Knight’s armor

The presumably final trailer for The Dark Knight is now out in very good quality.

Trailers are usually made by marketing departments, not the director, but we know Nolan was responsible for the thematically distinct teasers for Batman Begins. So he is probably in control of the Dark Knight trailers as well, but who knows?

Whomever is responsible, this new trailer shows a lot of leg (though never for too long) including the moment before Harvey’s face becomes scarred (at 1:54), as well as a split-second glimpse of his face post-scarring, barely seen on the away-from-camera side of his face which he’s touching with a revolver (at 2:03).

We also see the Joker tossing Rachel out a window (at 1:56), possibly to her death but — given Batman’s penchant for basejumping and gliding seen at the beginning and end of the trailer — not necessarily.

I am really loving Ledger as the Joker; I think he has more Caesar Romero in him than I had previously realized. One shot in particular reminds me of Romero, right when he says “go” (at 1:39).

For the past three days I’ve been wondering if Iron Man would turn out to be my favorite movie of the year but the Bat has come back with a vengeance in my constantly fluctuating geek leaderboard.

I think Indy 4 is going to be the surprise disappointment of the summer. It’ll still make a bucket of money but I predict that it will, like Spidey 3, make 45% of its total earnings in the opening weekend and have no legs. A bold prediction but I follow my instincts!

IRON MAN

If it is axiomatic that heroes in tights look great on the page but terrible on the screen, then Iron Man was the one exception who was always destined to look better in live action than in ink. Shiny metallic surfaces are difficult to portray in two dimensions without becoming messy, and Iron Man has no supernatural visual elements, like the Hulk, that might strain credulity in live action. Neither does Batman, of course, but his best medium is animation where he can be depicted as a moving shadow, while animation is Iron Man’s worst medium, because the suit not only looks unconvincing but also bends from frame to frame.

Forty-five years after his first appearance, moviemaking technology has finally caught up with the promise inherent in the Iron Man concept. Visually, this is the best comics-to-film translation of a superhero costume yet attempted, and without qualification the best Marvel origin movie ever made — only X2 and Spider-Man 2 can equal it on the Marvel roster.

There was no way Marvel Studios was going to compete with The Dark Knight this summer, but they have managed to do just that by giving us the Anti-Batman: bright and colorful. The origin of Iron Man even follows the same path as Batman Begins, but with the elements slightly shuffled. At the beginning of their journeys, both Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne find themselves themselves imprisoned on the other side of the world but emerged from their ordeals with a newfound purpose that they put into action upon their return home. Both spend lots of time in caves building, with the help of wise older assistants, the first versions of their suits — scenes always absent from superpowered hero movies but apparently crucial for those without powers. Both face the corporate intrigue of attempted takeovers of their companies by rival board members, as well as trusted mentors who may not have been totally honest with them. And of course, both have personal assistants without whom they couldn’t get through the day.

So what’s the crucial difference? Their personalities couldn’t be more different: Stark lives the billionaire playboy lifestyle that everyone believes Wayne does, but Stark enjoys it and, though he also lives in the shadow of his father, does not suffer from an ounce of Wayne’s psychological torment. The star of the show is Downey’s deadpan charisma, without which we might get antsy during the wait for the Red and Gold armor to be finally unveiled. But the movie’s humor is not just doing the job of a warm-up comedian, nor is it the product of on-set afterthoughts.

In this day and age I thought it would be impossible to make a weapons manufacturer a likable character, not to mention a hero. A second-act change of heart would be essential but by then it would be too late for the audience’s sympathy. I never read Iron Man comics because Stark always struck me as too slick and too cool for school (and I never liked his dirty mustache), but by investing the character with a sense of self-irony, Favreau and Downey have made even Stark’s braggadocio endearing and you can’t help but like him from scene one. Even after his personal epiphany, Stark’s refusal to take himself too seriously still does work by neutralizing any direction towards preachiness the script might have taken in other hands — just imagine Arriaga’s Iron Man. Sure, Stark still learns that with great wealth and firepower comes great responsibility, but mercifully nobody articulates it that piously.

Somewhat unexpectedly, Iron Man is also the best casted superhero movie since Batman Begins. It’s not Jeff Bridges’ fault that his voice is forever inextricable from The Dude, but his bald/bearded combo does a lot to defamiliarize the actor. I’m not a Gwyneth Paltrow fan but her Pepper Potts surpasses 45 years of accumulated workplace sexual tension generated by Miss Moneypenny. The conflicted emotions in Paltrow’s face during the dance scene, moreso than the subsequent balcony scene, actually made me feel her heartache. Given the audience investment in her character, it is all the more to the filmmakers’ credit that Miss Potts’ relationship with Mr. Stark ends on the perfect note.

Not to say the movie doesn’t push the boundaries of comic book fare. A one-night stand early on is only implied but later on the film’s true “sex scene” provocatively inverts the male/female roles. Stark calls his female assistant to his garage where she finds him shirtless and reclining. At his insistence that he can’t do it without her, she tentatively inserts her hand into Stark’s narrow chest cavity, feeling for a highly sensitive wire that she can’t find without his guidance. The slightest movement of her hand affects his whole body and when she pulls it out her hand is covered in fluid. But rather than out of place, this 25th anniversary nod to the insertion of a VHS tape into James Woods’ abdominal vagina feels entirely appropriate to Iron Man’s Cronenbergian integration of man and machine.

The scene is one of the freshest elements not inspired by Warren Ellis’ updated origin for the character in 2004. It’s literally the only Iron Man story I’ve read in my whole life but I recommend it, thanks largely to the art of Adi Granov whose designs were the basis for the film’s suits. The only shortcoming of the film was the climactic battle which should have lasted a few more minutes.

The best trailer before the movie was Will Smith’s Hancock, which should prove yet again that most original superhero movies are better than adaptations of comic books. Iron Man, however, is one of the few exceptions to that rule. I can’t help wondering if Favreau could have made the Spider-Man franchise even better than Raimi, who marginalized Spidey’s most distinctive comic book trait: his indomitable commitment to wise-cracking. With the only lighthearted superhero adaptations until now being the Fantastic Four, it’s great to see a good movie finally fill that niche.