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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Downey Jr’

Recently discovered in the electronic equivalent of down the back of the sofa. I have no memory of writing this back in 2008. Anyway, how times change…

No-one, I think, would be terribly surprised to learn that someone has made another movie based on a Marvel Comics superhero, for this sort of thing has been going on for some years now and many of the movies have been rather impressive – the X-Men trilogy was consistently pretty good, the Blade trilogy had its moments, and while last year’s Spider-Man 3 met with a rather lukewarm reception, the first two films were also rather accomplished. No, if there’s anything unusual about Jon Favreau’s new movie Iron Man, it’s that this is a Marvel Comics movie actually made by Marvel themselves – the venerable company have put their money when their mouth is and launched their own film studio, presumably on the grounds that they know how to handle these characters better than anyone else.

I say ‘these characters’, but if there’s one factor that might lead one to doubt the wisdom of the Marvel Studios project, it’s that all the most marketable and popular characters have already been licensed out to other studios – thus, Sony have the rights to make films about Spider-Man and Ghost Rider, Fox own the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, and Universal have Sub-Mariner and the Hulk (though I understand some kind of deal has been struck allowing the production of the Louis Leterrier Hulk movie which is due in a couple of months time). This could be interpreted as meaning that Marvel’s new movie wing is stuck with a load of second-string, uninspiring characters. Iron Man is possibly their best bet to launch this new enterprise.

Playing Iron Man in the movie, or more specifically his human alter ego, is Robert Downey Jr. He is Tony Stark, who as the film opens is a swaggering, self-absorbed hedonist, having become an immensely wealthy man off the back of his genius for designing technology (usually weapons). His sheer irresponsibility is a pain in the collective neck of his PA (Gwyneth Paltrow), military buddy (Terrence Howard), and business partner (Jeff Bridges), but he remains an annoyingly charming rogue, despite his dissolute ways.

All this changes, however, when Stark is captured by terrorists while on a business trip to Afghanistan, getting badly riddled with shrapnel in the process. A friendly fellow-prisoner installs an electromagnet in his chest to keep him alive, while the boss terrorist decrees that henceforth Stark will put his genius for destruction to work in their service, locking him in a cave with a load of power tools and instructing him to get on with it.

Many superhero stories have a magic ‘if’ involved, a moment where you have to really suspend your belief, and Iron Man‘s comes at this point – for Stark is able to make himself an armoured exoskeleton powered by a pioneering new mini-reactor and battle his way to freedom, without any of the terrorists wondering exactly what he’s building until it’s too late. But it’s a cool sequence anyway.

Back in the USA, Stark is a changed man, suddenly terribly aware of the carnage he is responsible for around the world, and determined to make amends for this. His announcement that his corporation will cease manufacturing weapons is met with shock from the media and hostility from his business partners, and news eventually reaches him that unauthorised shipments of ordnance are still being made. So it seems he has no choice but to go back into action, using a rather more sophisticated new suit of armour…

Well, yes, this is yet another superhero origin movie, and while I suppose there is a very real possibility that we will one day grow sick of them, that seems unlikely to happen when they are as smartly put together as Iron Man. The world being what it is, Stan Lee’s original version of this story has been quite neatly updated by the simple expedient of replacing Vietnam with Afghanistan. Iron Man dates from Lee’s imperial phase as a creator of new superheroes, and indeed the veteran scribe (who makes another of his cameos here) announced that with Iron Man his intention was to create a hero who had nothing in common with his young, not especially affluent, somewhat counter-culturally inclined core audience, just to see if he could make it work.

If the film has a significant achievement to its name, it’s that this is a rare example of a comic-book movie which is dominated by the title character’s performance, rather than the villain or (even worse) just the special effects. A few years ago, Tom Cruise was apparently in talks to play Stark, and he would have been a more predictable and conventional choice in many ways. But now, post-Johnny Depp in the Pirates movies, slightly more idiosyncratic performers can get a shot at this kind of film, which is presumably why Downey Jr stars here. He’s always been a brilliant actor, but his problem has been not so much that he couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood, but that this was happening just a bit too frequently. Here, though, he puts his undeniable talent to good use – the initial, roguish Stark is still charming and likeable, while his transformation into a genuinely heroic, dedicated righter of wrongs is convincing, while still maintaining the character’s appeal.

Of course, the focus on Stark, while welcome, does mean that the actual villain of the movie, whose identity I suppose I’d better not spoil, is a little flat in comparison – a fairly unusual flaw for a superhero film, I’m sure you’ll agree. On the other hand, Downey Jr is very well-supported by the rest of the cast, not to mention a sharp and snappy script with some very zippy dialogue. No doubt future movies will feature more spectacular opposition – a not-exactly-subtle hint that Howard will be putting on a set of armour in a potential sequel certainly suggests Marvel are thinking along those lines. If you get that joke, you’ll probably also appreciate an appearance by Clark Gregg in a small role as a member of a government spy agency well-known to Marvel readers.

Iron Man is a very competent, engaging and entertaining movie, and surely bodes well for the future of the Marvel Studios project. That said, it really does have a sense of ultra-cautiousness about it, the company not wanting to take too many risks. As a result it doesn’t feel like it has the scale or scope of, say, Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie, or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. But maybe that will come in time; the very least one can say about Iron Man is that it is a solid debut for this new studio, and certainly a movie that suggests Marvel’s in-house film operation could produce some very interesting work over the next few years.

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I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that to cast one actor as Spider-Man is a sound commercial decision, to cast a second might be seen as a little questionable, but to give three people the part in the space of only about fifteen years is arguably labouring the issue. And yet here we are, with another ingenue web-slinger in the form of Tom Holland, starring in Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming. Yup, it’s yet another comic-book movie, but try to keep your fatigue at bay, for this one has a number of points of interest.

The Spider-Man rights are considered to be such a sure-fire guarantee to make money that the $709 million made by The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in 2014 was somehow decided to be a bit of a disappointment. Holder of said rights, Sony, decreed that better must be done, and – in a move that brought wild excitement to many people who should arguably be old enough to know better – re-opened negotiations with Marvel, publisher of the Spider-Man comics and producer of their own series of wildly popular movies. Basically, the deal they cooked up is as follows – Marvel Studios are now making Spider-Man films for Sony, which Sony is financing and distributing. In return for this, and of course various hefty fees, Marvel now get to insert Spider-Man into their own movies, which is indeed what happened with his extended cameo in Civil War last year.

The new movie recaps Spider-Man’s trip to Berlin and shenanigans with the quarrelling Avengers, before moving on to pastures new. Spidey’s alter-ego Peter Parker (Holland) is still very young and keen to impress his mentor in all things superheroic, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) – he chafes against Stark’s insistence that he take things easy and go slow and careful for a while. In short, he is in a big hurry to grow up.

However, staying low to the ground, as it were, brings Spider-Man into contact with someone else very keen to stay off the radar of Iron Man and the other Avengers – Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a former salvage engineer put out of business by Stark and the government, who has taken to scavenging alien materials and other miracle technology and using it to build high-technology super-weapons which he sells on to anyone who has the cash. Toomes has also built himself a set of jet-powered antigravity wings, because, hey, you’ve got to have a gimmick, I guess.

So, if going to your typical American high school, complete with stressful social rituals and ceremonies, wasn’t demanding enough, and trying to meet the exacting standards of billionaire genius playboy philanthropist didn’t make life totally unbearable, Spider-Man now finds himself forced to contend with the winged menace of this high-tech vulture. What’s a boy to do?

I have to confess I was less than overwhelmed with joy when the news of the Sony-Marvel deal came through – all right, it’s nice to have a version of Spider-Man in the MCU (the shared continuity of the other Marvel Studios films since 2008), but we have had some very good Spider-Man films already in the not too distant past, while there’s still no sign of a decent take on the Fantastic Four or Doctor Doom. Or what about another solo Hulk movie? Or Devil Dinosaur: the Movie? That said, however, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a top piece of entertainment, certainly outclassing the Marc Webb movies, and perhaps rivalling the standards of the best of the Sam Raimi-Tobey Maguire films from a decade and more ago.

The at-a-slight-remove conditions under which the Marvel Studios people are working seem to have paid off, for while this film has a distinctly different look and feel to it, compared to the likes of Doctor Strange and the Avengers movies, this is by no means a bad thing – it has a lightness of touch and sweetness that is totally disarming. Much of it is written and played as pure comedy, and it is consistently very funny indeed, in a disarmingly oddball way.

I was a bit dubious about the fact the film is called Homecoming, mainly because it seemed like it was only there as a crashingly unsubtle way of emphasising the fact that Spider-Man is now back in the MCU along with all the other characters, which at times seemed like the movie’s sole raison d’etre. This shared continuity is rammed down your throat at very regular intervals in the course of proceedings: the very first shot is a picture of the Avengers. The first scene takes place in the shadow of Avengers Tower, and is set shortly after the climactic battle from the first Avengers movie. Scenes from Civil War are restaged, Downey Jr appears in both his Stark and Iron Man guises, Jon Favreau reprises his role as Happy Hogan from the Iron Man films, Chris Evans cameos as Captain America, and another star gets an outrageous fourth billing considering they’re only in the movie for about two minutes. Marvel’s own movies take much less of a broad-brush approach to this sort of thing, but in the end it does kind of work, because a lot of the in-jokes and mickey-taking of the other films is spot on (this extends to some witty choices of voice casting and a brutally funny joke at the expense of the Cult of the Post-Credits Sequence).

One slightly ironic thing about this film that no-one has much commented on is the fact that Michael Keaton’s status as a ‘hot’ actor is largely down to his role in Birdman. Birdman was a film which gave its own sardonic commentary on the phenomenon of serious actors spending all their time in superhero movies, and yet Keaton has used it to get himself to this position, as a serious actor in a superhero movie – and, what’s more, playing the Vulture: someone who is, of course, essentially a… oh, work it out for yourselves.

All that to one side, Keaton is the film’s star turn when it comes to acting performances (although this is a notably well-played film throughout). We are quite a long way down from the pick of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, and the Vulture suit in this movie is a rather unwieldy piece of design, but Keaton manages to create that rarest of things – not just a great villain in an MCU movie, but a blue-collar supervillain is who both a plausible character and genuinely menacing. You really wish Keaton was in the movie much more – also that the MCU people start to create characters with this sort of presence and depth for their own movies.

I would say that the climax of the movie is arguably a little weak, but in every other respect Homecoming gets the mixture of comedy, pathos, and exhilarating action you’d expect from a Spider-Man film pretty much spot on, with the film’s insertion into the wider Marvel universe a real bonus too. How many movies in a row now, without a serious misstep from Marvel Studios? You would have to be a very brave person to bet on their hot streak ending any time soon.

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Spring 2016 may well go down in history as the point at which the superhero movie phenomenon became so all-pervading that the heroes themselves ran out of villains to fight and started beating each other up instead. We have already seen DC entering the fray with their Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, while right now Marvel are striking back with the Russo brothers’ Captain America: Civil War (there may well end up being a colon shortage as well as a supervillain drought).

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Civil War comes out at an odd time for the Marvel Studios juggernaut: their franchise-of-franchises seems to be as popular as ever, with a huge slate of movies planned over the next few years and even a goofy and obscure character like Ant-Man capable of scoring a significant box-office success – but, having said that, their last lynchpin movie, Age of Ultron, received only a lukewarm response from critics and did rather less well than the first Avengers movie. So the new movie has something to prove, even if it’s only Marvel’s ability to consistently make this kind of huge spectacle genuinely entertaining rather than simply an exercise in storyline management.

Things get underway with Captain America (Chris Evans – the other one) leading the Avengers into action in Lagos, taking down the high-tech mercenary Crossbones. However, in the process there is significant collateral damage and a number of civilian deaths. This only chimes with the somewhat gloomy mood of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), who is still struggling to deal with being responsible for the near-extinction of the human race in the last movie he appeared in.

It turns out the UN agrees and proposals are drawn up to place the Avengers under close governmental supervision, unable to go into action without official sanction. Obviously, this sits better with some members of the team than others, and the situation is only exacerbated when the meeting to ratify the new arrangement is bombed, seemingly by the Captain’s childhood friend-turned-cyborg hitman Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Needless to say, Cap can’t stand by and let his old pal be hunted down like a dog, which puts him and his latterday partner Falcon (Anthony Mackie) on collision course not just with Iron Man and his officially-sanctioned team, but the vengeful African superhero Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman)…

You may already be thinking ‘Wow, for what’s supposedly a Captain America movie, there are a lot of other super-people in this film’. Well, you’re not wrong there: in addition to all of those guys, the rest of the current Avengers line-up – Black Widow, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and War Machine – also make significant contributions, while Hawkeye comes out of retirement too. Paul Rudd steals practically every scene he’s in as Cap recruits Ant-Man for his squad, while the film’s most heavily-trailed innovation is the introduction of Tom Holland as yet another new version of Spider-Man, on Iron Man’s team.

This is, to be fair, somewhat indulgently done, with Marvel clearly doing a lot of the prep work for their first Spidey film, due out next year. Spider-Man’s youth and chattiness are really dialled up to the point where it’s almost slightly ridiculous, but by this point the film is on such a bombastic roll that you either go with it, and most likely have a good time, or don’t.

The Russos pull off the neat trick of making a film which, in its initial stages at least, looks and feels rather like their previous film, 2014’s Winter Soldier, before escalating rather considerably to become something much on the scale of one of Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies. If you were one of the people moved to sheer ecstasy by those sequences where the Hulk fought Thor (neither of whom appear here, by the way), or the big green guy took on Iron Man’s Hulkbuster suit, then this movie will be right up your street as it features full-scale superhero action on an unprecedented scale: Hawkeye vs Vision! Ant-Man vs Black Widow! Spider-Man vs Winter Soldier! It all kicks off and then some, and the colossal battle which concludes the second act of the film will take some topping.

It’s not entirely surprising that the actual villain of the piece, Zemo (played by Daniel Bruhl), rather vanishes into the background, but then the whole point of the story is that this is a guy who knows he has no chance of taking on the Avengers in a fight. To be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely convinced that this story actually hangs together all that well – Zemo’s plan seems to be one of those entirely dependent on random events going in his favour, and characters behaving in very particular ways. Isn’t it all just a bit too convoluted and machiavellian to be plausible?

Hey ho. I must confess that while I was watching it, none of this really occurred to me, although even then I found myself wondering just how wide an appeal Civil War is going to have: for the many people who’ve been following the Marvel movies over the last eight years, and are heavily invested in these characters and their relationships, this will likely be an enthralling and impressive movie – but for everyone else, I wonder if it isn’t in the end just a bit too introspective and downbeat for its own good. How are they going to include the kind of massive collateral damage that characterises their movies from now, given that Civil War establishes that innocent people caught in the crossfire do get killed?

Nevertheless, this movie does everything you want from a Marvel release, and very little you don’t want. It works on its own terms as a spectacular action movie, with a serious core but plenty of crowd-pleasing action and humour (Anthony Mackie gets most of the best jokes), and also teases and sets up a couple of future movies in the series – it seems virtually certain that Spider-Man: Homecoming will be a massive money-spinner, and if Black Panther looks like less of a sure-fire hit, I’m intrigued so see what they do with the character. Some people are murmuring to the effect that we are reaching saturation point when it comes to superhero movies, and that people will soon start to lose interest: however, as long as Marvel keep hitting this standard of quality, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

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What in the world is more likely to get a sequel than a movie with a $1.5 billion box office? A movie with a $1.5 billion box office that’s a keystone of a sequence of over a dozen movies which has already made $7 billion. Yes, it’s time for the unstoppable colossus that is Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. I tell you, folks, there’s something almost unsettling about the sheer aura of implacable self-confidence that this extraordinary film gives off: it’s almost as if it doesn’t care whether you like and enjoy it (or even understand it) or not, it’s still going to make more money than the GNP of most African countries. Resistance feels useless.

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As things get underway, the Avengers are in the process of sorting out a HYDRA base in the obscure Balkan nation of Fictionalakia, which they do with a reasonable degree of alacrity: this is more an excuse for the director to get all flashy with the camerawork than a source of genuine conflict, though HYDRA’s pet superhuman pawns the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) give it a good shot.

This looks like the final victory in the team’s current campaign, and it seems to offer the opportunity for a significant step forward in the cause of global security: for Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) thinks he can use captured alien technology to create a sentient robotic security system encompassing the entire planet. He decides not to mention this side-project, codenamed Ultron, to the rest of the team, because what could possibly go wrong? To the surprise of nobody but Stark himself, Ultron (voiced by James Spader) turns out to be an indestructible genocidal maniac with a snarky line in repartee, and after delivering an admonitory spanking to the team flies off to set about his plan for global destruction, recruiting Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver along the way. But will they ultimately prove to be heroes or villains? One thing Marvel Studios’ lawyers are very clear on: they’re definitely not mutants.

While waiting for the film to start, I did find myself observing to a friend that it would be interesting to see how Joss Whedon coped with making a film with nine actual Avengers in it, and that’s before we even get to the villain or supporting cast. The answer, clearly, is to make a film which is almost ridiculously massive in every respect. It opens with a hugely lavish special effects action sequence and just gets bigger and bigger and (in true comic book style) sillier and sillier as it goes on. The crash-bang-wallop-zap-kapow is relentless, reaching an early peak in the long-awaited Iron Man-vs-Hulk fight, which brings new meaning to the word blockbuster, and proceeding all the way to a notably untrammelled climax. (One character even shouts ‘This is crazy!’ in the middle of the concluding chaos, which probably counts as an example of Whedon’s noted self-awareness.)

It does go on for a remarkably long time, but this is because in addition to the actual plot and his nine Avengers (in addition to the original cast and the two non-mutants, the ever-watchable Paul Bettany finally gets some proper screen-time as the Vision), Whedon also opts to include a coachload of other characters, either ones from previous movies, or ones destined for more signifcant roles in future projects: Don Cheadle has a surprisingly beefy role, and also present are the likes of Anthony Mackie, Stellan Skarsgard, and Andy Serkis. We even get to see what an Avengers works do looks like – needless to say, the world’s most famous nonagerian comic book writer puts in an appearance.

Also in true comic-book style, the lavish property damage is leavened by some slightly histrionic soap-opera style interactions between the principal cast, but I would honestly argue that finding a space in a film like this one for actors to genuinely find their characters and act is as impressive an achievement on Whedon’s part as any of the technical wizardry or plot-wrangling on display elsewhere. Whedon’s stated intention was to favour the characters who don’t appear in movies of their own, especially the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and he pretty much pulls this off – although his attempts to wrong-foot the audience are somewhat undermined by Marvel’s fondness for announcing the cast lists of future movies several years in advance. Personally I could have seen a bit more of the Vision, but there is a huge amount to squeeze in and on the whole the film does the best it can in the circumstances. Elsewhere, I found that Whedon’s brand of self-aware knowingness was getting a bit predictable – I was able to more-or-less guess what some of the jokes would be, so perhaps it’s just as well that this film marks the end of his association with the Avengers films, at least: I suspect the writer-director would agree, because to be honest the film sometimes feels like a monumental contractual obligation – it’s never less than competent, but (not inappropriately for a film largely about androids) it often has a curiously mechanical, joyless feeling to it.

At least the sense one sometimes gets watching Marvel movies, that of characters being laboriously shunted around in order to facilitate the launching of the next instalment, is less pronounced this time. But I do wonder how this film will play with some sections of the audience: if you know who Baron von Strucker and Ulysses Klaw are, get all the other references, and have been meticulously keeping track of the meta-plot about the Infinity Stones, you’ll be in some variety of heaven, while if you’re a non-discriminating partaker of overblown CGI action you will find nothing here that disappoints you either. However, if you’re a normal, mature person who expects a film with a bit of focus and a recognisable beginning, middle and end, this may not be your best choice of night out.

However, I get a strong sense that Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t really care about that as it cruises merrily toward the various box-office records it will reduce to smithereens. This doesn’t feel quite like it’s raising the bar on the comic-book movie in the same way that the first film did, nor does it really seem to be intent on allowing the franchise as a whole to regroup: it just looks like another attempt by Marvel to see how crazy they can get before they lose the audience. I suspect they still haven’t reached that point. Depending on your point of view, it’s either a bloated carnival of absurd empty spectacle held together by ridiculous soap-opera plotting, or a grandiose monument to Marvel’s ambition and skill in growing their world-conquering franchise-of-franchises, but either way it’s going to be more or less unavoidable for some time to come.

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Sometimes making a film is just a job and tells you nothing more than that an actor or director needed a gig and did well enough at the interview to be taken on for a project. Sometimes, if you are of a mind to, you can look a little deeper and perhaps discern a few truths that even the people responsible were not consciously aware of. I am moved to this observation by Jon Favreau’s Chef, which looks like a knockabout, feel-good comedy drama, but on another level is perhaps a bit of a cri du coeur. Or perhaps a cri de l’estomac, I’m not sure.

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Acting, writing, producing, directing, and quite probably doing a lot of the on-set catering as well, Favreau plays Carl Casper, a fairly successful Los Angeles chef: successful professionally, at least, for his relationships with his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and young son (EmJay Anthony) are somewhat strained. This is only exacerbated when a noted internet restaurant critic (Oliver Platt) descends upon the premises. At the urging of his boss (Dustin Hoffman) Carl plays it safe and sticks to his tried-and-true menu, only to have this savaged in the review.

An unwise excursion into the untested realms of social media and a loud row with the boss about the limits of his creative freedom as a chef later, a video of Carl going ballistic at the critic is all over the internet and the chef finds himself looking for a job. Unsure what to do, he accompanies his ex-wife and son back to Miami on a business trip, along the way taking in a meeting with another of her exes (Robert Downey Jr), who has a radical idea to help Carl get his mojo back: a fast food van!

As if you hadn’t noticed, this is a bit of a foodie film: there are lengthy montage sequences of various things being poured, sliced, chopped, grated, fried, boiled, spread, and dusted, usually in close up. The food all looks very nice, but I must confess I find a little of this goes a long way, and – inevitably – the whole pleasure of watching food being prepared surely largely derives from the knowledge that, eventually, you’re going to be able to get it down your neck. Non-spoiler alert: Jon Favreau does not materialise in the cinema and give you sandwiches at any point during the film, so there is inevitably a sense in which this film does not deliver on its promises. Then again, decades of a burger and pizza diet (not to mention six years of summer school catering) have pretty much destroyed my palate, so I’m not really the target audience for this film anyway. Given that much of the food on display is hardly haute cuisine, I’m not sure who is – the credits includes a sequence in which Favreau is shown being tutored by a professional chef, but considering the vast quantities of fried and fatty food prepared and consumed in the course of the story, I half expected the entire cast to be felled by massive coronaries before the credits had finished.

Strictly speaking it is not just about the food, anyway: the heart of the story is about Carl rediscovering his love of cooking, and particularly his reconnecting with his son. The scenes between Favreau and Anthony are the most engaging and amusing in the film, which is one of those comedy dramas which opts for a sort of non-specific feeligoodness rather than jokes, and a you-can-guess-how-this-is-going-to-turn-out-from-the-first-ten-minutes plot rather than actual conflict or surprises.

Still, while the film is arguably ten or fifteen minutes too long, it’s never dull to watch, even if I never quite connected with it in the way in which Favreau obviously wanted (he should’ve turned up with the sandwiches). This is largely down to the seriously impressive cast, many of whom are in quite small roles – Downey Jr is in all of one scene, while Scarlett Johansson has a slightly bigger role (but not by much). John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale play Favreau’s mates, adding a lot to the guys-having-a-good-time vibe the film generates.

Now, I know you: you’re a smart and discerning person (your questionable taste in online film criticism excepted). I know what you’re thinking: Jon Favreau? Scarlett Johansson? Robert Downey Jr? All in one movie? Isn’t this just really an Iron Man reunion? Well, material-wise, obviously not, but it seems pretty obvious that Favreau’s involvement in the world-bestriding Marvel Studios project has given him the heft to make personal projects like this (and the ability to call in favours to get the kind of star cameos I was referring to earlier).

Perhaps it extends further. A key scene in the film comes when Favreau’s character explodes, railing at great length against a critic who has been rather negative about the creatively unambitious work he has been doing. ‘You just sit there and criticise what we do! It hurts! I really care about this stuff!’ cries Favreau, pop-eyed. It’s almost impossible, watching this, not to recall that Favreau’s last directorial project was Cowboys and Aliens, which the critics didn’t exactly go crazy for, and that the one before that was Iron Man 2, which wasn’t as well-received as the first one. Could he possibly be having a go at smarty-pantses who review films on the internet? I wouldn’t blame him; those people are scum.

And if we’re going to speculate wildly, let’s really go for it: Chef is about a man whose early promise has been swamped by mainstream success, to the point where his work has become bland and uninspired – so he cuts loose and goes back to his roots, doing something much more personal and individual, leading to a great personal rebirth and eventual vindication. The question is whether that sentence is still accurate if you replace the word ‘about’ with ‘directed by’. Perhaps there’s a grain of truth there and Chef constitutes Jon Favreau’s attempt to rediscover himself as a film-maker after doing all those corporate SF blockbusters. If so, I don’t think he’s quite as successful in his endeavours as the main character in this movie, but neither does he crash and burn. Chef isn’t hilarious or particularly dramatic or moving, but it’s a hard film to dislike.

 

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Ah, it’s the first Marvel movie of the year, summer must be almost upon us. Actually, it looks like being another relatively light season for the company, with only one film on release (although the sequel to Thor is dipping its mighty toe into the hitherto-untested waters of the pre-Christmas blockbuster season). This is, obviously, Iron Man 3 (actually, Iron Man Three if you judge by the title card), written and directed by Shane Black and starring Robert Downey Jr (what are the chances?).

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Now, as always, with any Marvel movie there is one burning question to be answered, and in Iron Man 3‘s case the answer is: yes, it’s worth staying all the way to the end of the credits, provided you’re the kind of person who follows Marvel’s unique franchise-of-franchises. This is their first movie since last summer’s The Avengers, which did rather well for itself both commercially and creatively.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Iron Man 3 has basically been slipped the hospital pass by The Avengers – it can’t have been easy to contemplate following such a huge, colourful, massively popular film. After seeing half a dozen Marvel superheroes ripping up the screen, how can a movie only starring one of them not feel a little disappointing? Hasn’t The Avengers lifted the bar too high for comfort?

Well, Shane Black is obviously a clever man, and the script of this movie suggests he’s aware of this potential problem. As it opens, playboy-billionaire-genius-adventurer Tony Stark (Downey Jr) is struggling to come to terms with his experiences taking on the alien invasion in New York (yes, there are flashbacks, just really short ones) – this is destroying his ability to… well, do whatever he would otherwise be doing, the film is a little vague as to how he actually spends his time when not either wearing the suit or working on it.

However, his attention is grabbed by a reign of terror, responsibility for which is claimed by an enigmatic terrorist warlord known only as the Mandarin (His Imperial Eminence Professor Field-Marshal Sir Ben Kingsley BSC MFI GCHQ). Detonations across the world are causing carnage, but, strangely, no sign of actual explosives has been found at any of the locations. When one of the presumed bombings strikes close to Stark’s home, he issues a public challenge to the Mandarin in person: but it appears his ego may once again have got the better of him, as his adversary’s first response is a full-scale rocket attack which topples Stark’s house into the Pacific Ocean with him inside…

This is just the first act of a very solid bish-bash-bosh action movie structure, which Black deploys with great assuredness: take everything away from the hero so he can show his mettle (thanks, I’m here all week) by building himself back up again in order to sort out the miscreants in an everything-explodes-deafeningly climax. And all this is present and correct, as you’d expect: Marvel are careful to assemble their movies so they at least work on a basic narrative level (and to be fair, none of their films has been an outright stinker so far).

Having said that – well, look, I have an odd issue when it comes to the Iron Man movies, probably because the first time I saw the original film I was living in Puglia and it was dubbed into Italian. I thought it looked pretty good, but the subtleties of the script and performances were really lost on me. When I saw it again in English, my expectations were that much higher, but, coupled to the fact I’d already seen it…

(On the other hand, I feel I should point out that nearly all the films I originally saw in a foreign language felt disappointing when I later caught them in an intelligible form: Iron Man, Quantum of Solace, Star Trek, Watchmen, Crank: High Voltage, and Wolverine. You may with some justification respond that most of those are pretty bad films in any language – but even so…)

Then, Iron Man 2 felt to me like the work of a bunch of people who’d unexpectedly made a massive smash hit and weren’t quite sure what to do next. So I turned up to this one without very great expectations. But, I have to say that I enjoyed Iron Man 3 rather more than either of its predecessors, and as much as the best of the individual Marvel movies. Then again, this is a movie which seems to be dividing audiences – most of the respectable critics seem to have been broadly favourable, while the comics-loving fanbase has in places been venomously hostile towards it: one memorable review I dug up cited its ‘rancid somnolence’, which is a nicely-turned expression even if I don’t see how it applies here.

However, my enjoyment of it is very much based on the fact that it’s not just a standard superhero movie. All the requisite elements are included, with the usual bunch of familiar characters, mostly well-played (Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, and so on), a crash-bang-wallop finale, immaculate CGI, and so on. But on top of this, Black has managed to come up with a storyline which allows Robert Downey Jr to wander through the movie being an unfeasibly witty smart-ass, rattling off inspired one-liners and contending with a bevy of diverse stooges (a small boy who keeps trying to ask him questions about the Avengers, a rather creepy uberfan, and so on). Stark obviously remains a rather more competent protagonist than Harry Lockhart in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but there were still faint echoes to my mind – the movie even opens with Stark as a not-entirely-reliable narrator (who’s he actually narrating to…? Ah…). For me, the success of Iron Man 3 is that it works as a comedy as well as it does as a superhero action film.

Then again, this may be part of the problem for some people. Ben Kingsley’s performance is brilliant, rip-roaring stuff, and indicates to me that he’s a much better sport than his image suggests, but the fact remains that the film’s treatment of the Mandarin is radically different from the way in which most classic comics characters are handled. To say any more would be to spoil a very bold plot twist, but I can imagine how long-term fans of the character might feel a little aggrieved by the way he’s treated – this is probably a key reason why Iron Man 3 is drawing fanboy flak.

Well, I don’t care, I enjoyed it enormously. The timing of the film feels odd – I’m not referring to the fact that a summer movie is set at Christmas (it’s a Shane Black script, that’s practically his trademark), but to the fact that – in some ways – this film would have seemed unexpectedly topical and satirical, had it only been released a mere eight or nine years ago. And the climax suggests a series running out of space in which it can feasibly operate – Iron Man’s capabilities are now so sophisticated and powerful that it’s hard to think of a situation which can seriously threaten him for long.

But these are issues which will have to be addressed by whoever takes up the reins on this particular area of Marveldom – it seems unlikely there’ll be another Iron Man movie this side of Avengers 2, anyway. If so, then at least the character will be heading into his second team outing on a high, because this is a very strong example of the kind of thing Marvel do best.

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More fun and games courtesy of the DVD rental people – actually, the timing of this isn’t quite as suspect as it possibly looks, partly because a) someone was bound to get sent Shane Black’s 2005 Robert Downey Jr-led movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang the same weekend that Shane Black’s 2013 Robert Downey Jr-led movie went on release and  b) it wasn’t actually me that it got sent to this weekend anyway, they originally sent it a fortnight ago, but the disc was chipped, and so… do you really want or need to hear this stuff? I think no. I think no with a great deal of confidence.

Hmmm. Black, whom you will of course know as the slightly dorky radio operator guy who gets eviscerated in the second act of the original Predator, mainly has a career writing films in which highly-paid movie stars dangle from wires while stuff explodes in the background: the first Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Last Action Hero, and so on. It’s easy to sneer at this kind of movie, but anyone looking a little closer – at Black’s scripts, at least – should easily discern that there is a distinct level of intelligence and wit at work here that makes all the pyrotechnics and to-a-degree-formulaic structuring much more palatable.

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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang feels like a film in which Black feels much less constrained by mainstream tropes: not quite a vanity project, but certainly something in a different key. It’s also notable for being a bit of a career milestone for Robert Downey Jr: all-conquering, much-feted superstar presence he may be (and his recent movies have made Marvel Studios in particular a ton of money), but it’s not that long ago that he couldn’t get arrested in Hollyw… well, hang on, famously he could, but that was about all. Landing parts in episodes of Ally McBeal and Elton John videos was about as far as he could be trusted, or so the received wisdom had it.  This was arguably his first real leading role in a long time.

Anyway, Downey Jr plays Harry Lockhart, a small-time crook and all-purpose idiot who has lucked into an audition for a major Hollywood movie through an outrageous twist of fate. As part of the process of being groomed by the movie studio, he is being given ‘private detective lessons’ by established LA investigator Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer, in the closest thing to an acting performance he’s ever been responsible for), also known as Gay Perry because… well, it’s sort of self-explanatory now I consider it.

As well as all of this, Harry also bumps into an old flame (Michelle Monaghan) who buys into his claims of being a PI whole-heartedly, and when her sister is found dead in mysterious circumstances retains him to investigate. This would be less of a problem for Harry and Gay Perry were it not for the fact that a routine surveillance job has led to them witnessing a murder, for which the real killers are enthusiastically attempting to frame them…

The LA setting and convoluted plot instantly recall the hard-boiled pulp fiction of Raymond Chandler, something the film is quite open about: its various acts are subtitled with the names of Chandler novels. The plot is furiously complex and by the mid-section of the film I really had to dig in in order to keep track of who was doing what to whom and why, but in the end it all resolves itself relatively neatly. However, this is not just an exercise in accomplished pastiche – the film works as well as it does by alternating between being a classic LA detective thriller and a tongue-in-cheek parody of the traditions of the genre.

This is a tough trick to pull off, but Black gets away with it with style. For a film to start poking fun at its own shortcomings is usually fairly risky – when Seven Psychopaths, a film not a million miles away from this one in some ways, started making self-conscious jokes about how underwritten its female roles were, the response of many sensible reviewers was to say ‘good gag, but it doesn’t excuse how underwritten the female roles are’. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang manages it, probably because it’s poking fun at its own genre as a whole – and underpinning the gags and commentary is a clever mystery, shot through with moments of real thought and emotion.

It’s still a very funny film, full of bitchy jokes about other movies and actors. In the middle of it is a very sure-footed comic performance from Downey Jr as possibly the most incompetent protagonist in thriller history. He is frequently beaten up and has his testicles electrified; small but vital body parts get severed and eaten by toy dogs; he accidentally urinates on a corpse even in the process of discovering it. Not just that, but he’s equally dire at narrating the movie in which he appears, forgetting to include key scenes and forgetting to narrate vital information (possibly a tip of the hat to The Big Lebowski, another off-the-wall Chandler pastiche). Of course, he comes good and redeems himself in the end, but even the obligatory final shootout is so wry and over-the-top it’s hard to take it completely seriously.

But then the same applies to most of the movie. I enjoyed this a lot, and it has pretty much the complete package as movies go – good performances from the principles, an involving story, a terrific bunch of jokes, and well-executed mise en scene from a confident director. I’m somewhat surprised this film isn’t better known and liked than it is: it’s arguably in the same league as Lebowski and Psychopaths, two cult favourites. Now what, I wonder, would a reteaming of Downey Jr and Black, working with a much bigger budget, look like…?

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