Sunday, 28 April 2013

'Iron Man 3', 'Oblivion', 'The Look of Love' and 'Mud': review round-up and 'Thor: The Dark World' trailer

Here's a trailer for this November's terribly exciting looking 'Thor: The Dark World', just because. Now on to the business of reviews:

'Iron Man 3' - Dir. Shane Black (12A)

As much as I love 'The Avengers' and am (as evidenced above) obsessed with the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, 'Iron Man 3' was not a film I rushed into with much expectation or the excitement I already feel for the upcoming Thor and Captain America sequels. Whilst Robert Downey Jnr's Tony Stark has been the most profitable one of the bunch so far for Marvel, with the patchy 'Iron Man 2' the most successful pre-Avengers "Phase One" movie, Iron Man has always left me cold. I've enjoyed the films enough, but I never loved them like I love the others. Perhaps because Iron Man seems to love himself enough for the both of us. That all changed, however, with Shane Black's new sequel to the series, which basically just turns the franchise into an awesome 90s buddy comedy, combining jaw-dropping action sequences - and some of the biggest and most imaginatively conceived superhero set-pieces yet seen - with dozens of genuinely funny and quotable lines. It's exciting, clever, superbly acted (Ben Kingsley's performance, in particular), and as close as you can come to a guaranteed good time at the pictures.

The script somehow blends all the best elements of a buddy cop movie (notably in Downey Jnr and Don Cheadle's team-up), a sort of Capra-esque Christmas movie (it'll sound shit on paper, but Iron Man's pairing with a smalltown kid is entirely winsome), an espionage thriller, a deft political satire (maybe overselling that a touch, but what the film does with Kingsley's villain is inspired) and a classic modern superhero movie. It's a 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' style deconstruction of action movie tropes and a faithful sequel to both 'Iron Man 2' and 'The Avengers' - which it references whilst also managing to be its own thing completely. It bravely takes Tony Stark out of the suit for most of the movie - putting him in more peril than ever before, and allowing him to be more genuinely heroic - whilst also still recognisably being a Marvel comics adaptation. It does a lot of things and it does most of them excellently. And it's probably the only superhero movie to have a satisfying "end boss" fight to boot.

I can't express enough how smart and purely fun Shane Black's movie is: unsentimental and yet full of unabashed heart, in a way that finally made me love this character. His screenplay - co-written with Drew Pearce - is fantastic, not only in its dialogue and character choices (Gwyneth Paltrow is refreshingly allowed to be much more than a damsel in distress), but in the way he contrives such wonderful and unexpected action sequences. Such as when Tony is forced to improvise new weapons after losing his suit and so nips into a hardware store, or when he successfully retrieves part of his suit and has to make do with what boils down to a glove and a boot. Here, for the first time in one of these movies, filmmakers have crafted antagonists who can actually pose a threat, allowing Tony to reasonably deploy his extensive arsenal in its entirety, hopping between suits in a sequence that's fast-paced and unlike anything else in the series to date. Don Cheadle gets more punch-the-air-awesome moments than I thought possible for an actor who was the British one in 'Ocean's Eleven' and Guy Pearce makes a sensational villain. It's just fantastic summer fun.

'Oblivion' - Dir. Joseph Kosinski (12A)

Say what you will about Hollywood "product" being derivative and low on original ideas, but surely nothing - no sequel or spin-off or re-make - is as cynical and brazenly plagaristic as the Tom Cruise sci-fi vehicle 'Oblivion', directed by Joseph Kosinski of 'Tron: Legacy' fame. You'd struggle to name a sci-fi movie or video game made in the last two decades that this one doesn't pillage for intellectual property, stealing wholesale plot elements, concepts and designs from the likes of the low budget cult hit 'Moon' all the way up to blockbusters like 'Independence Day'. There's weapon and costume designs lifted from the game series Mass Effect, whilst many will be quick to spot the embarrassingly blatant similarities between Melissa Leo's character - an untrustworthy, disembodied computer-treated voice - and the game Portal. And that's not even mentioning how much it rips off the filmography of its star, as we watch his continued slow fade from relevance.

It's a film that allows Tom Cruise - in the increasingly desperate "I'm not too old, honest, look what I can do!" phase of his career - to run really fast across sand, to ride motorcycles wearing sunglasses and to play an ace-pilot-and-ace-marksman-who-is-the-best-at-everything-he-does-and-a-scientist-and-the-saviour-of-mankind-who-is-irresistible-to-all-womenTM. Within the first twenty minutes he's taken two showers and gone for a dip in a swimming pool, and whilst the man is in unquestionably good condition for a fifty year old (much better shape than I've ever been in, for the record), his ab-flexing determination to prove how he still "has it" really isn't at all appealing.

The film itself is at its most tolerable when it epitomises the world of Tom Cruise cliche rather than when it's raiding every modern sci-fi classic for ideas - but mostly it's a bland, flavourless waste of two hours. Sometimes it's at least a slick and reasonably pretty diversion, with Kosinski's bright white Apple-influenced brand of future chic carrying over from the similarly attractive-yet-hollow world of his last film. Yet more often the whole thing is a display of baffling incompetence on nearly every level, with a central premise that doesn't stand up to any scrutiny, clunky exposition monologues repeated in their entirety more than once and twists you see coming a mile away (at least one of which is on the damn poster). The drone robots are fairly cool - with their use in war raising the film's only potentially interesting moral question - and the 'Top Gun' style flying sequences have their moments, but this is definitely one to avoid and, I would predict, one destined to be quickly forgotten.

'The Look of Love' - Dir. Michael Winterbottom (18)

The Steve Coogan/Michael Winterbottom partnership, which has served both so well over the years with the likes of 'A Cock and Bull Story' and '24 Hour Party People', continues with 'The Look of Love': an unfocused and shallow biopic about Paul Raymond - the infamous millionaire who was once Britain's wealthiest man. The film chronicles Raymond's career from - as the film would have it - a glorified circus ringmaster in the 1950s to an ageing property magnate and soft-core pornographer in the 90s, via his 60s/70s heyday as the proprietor of Soho's most sophisticated and talked about gentleman's clubs and publisher of a controversial, and widely read, men's magazine. The main problem with the film, aside from its strange refusal to engage with any social/political issues beyond glib one-liners, is that Coogan - a versatile performer - plays Raymond as indistinct from TV creation Alan Partridge.

Now, I bow to no man in my love of Alan Partridge as a comedy creation, but I'm guessing Paul Raymond was not so similar to Norwich's favourite son and Coogan's decision to play him this way is baffling. Every comic aside, awkward pause and geekish piece of trivia is pure Partridge, albeit a wealthy and successful one. It's a fact that cheapens the movie and renders its few attempts at real drama insincere. This is a pity as the film becomes more and more about the apparently complex relationship between Raymond and his daughter, as played by emerging star Imogen Poots - who steals the film out from underneath its star with a multi-faceted showing that ranges from vulnerable and troubled, to self-assured and downright cocky. The fact that the tragedy of Poots' character takes centre stage - being part of the film's framing device and used as a the catalyst for present-day introspection for Raymond - makes it even more of a pity that Coogan's central performance seems so disingenuous.

If the purpose of a biopic is to reveal something about its subject, to leave you feeling you know more about a person on the way out than you did on the way in, then 'The Look of Love' has well and truly failed. I leave the film none the wiser about what Paul Raymond was like as a man, with film engaging with this real historical figure the same way it engages with the "swinging sixties": presenting both with crude, cartoonish caricature and seemingly without affection. It certainly doesn't earn its mawkish and manipulative ending.

'Mud' - Dir. Jeff Nichols (12A)

In the very best of ways, 'Mud' - Jeff Nichols' follow-up to the impressive 'Take Shelter' - is a kids film. Not merely because its protagonist, Ellis (Tye Sheridan), is a 15 year-old boy, but because of the way the tale is framed: not simply as a coming of age story, but as a classic boys adventure in the mold of Mark Twain or vintage Spielberg of the 1980s. Or, better yet, 'Stand By Me'. The sort of film that looks children in the eye and treats a young audience with respect, refusing to sand away the rough edges yet not completely forsaking wonder. I have no idea whether Nichols ever envisaged the film as one for all ages - and it certainly isn't being sold that way and may not end up reaching that audience - but 'Mud' is a pretty perfect children's film, featuring a young hero in Ellis young boys can certainly empathise with. It certainly nails a certain time in a boy's life and this is easily as complete and challenging a role as a young actor is ever given, with Sheridan a real talent.

At its simplest, 'Mud' is the story about aimless, working class kids from broken (or breaking) homes who spend their days doing what boys do at that age: they go places they aren't supposed to, stay out later than they are meant to and make grand plans in secrecy. These boys, living on a river, take to playing around on a deserted and snake-infested island, climbing trees and playing with sticks, until one day they find an abandoned boat in a tree and decide to make it their own. The only trouble is a wanted man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) has made the boat is home and makes them a deal: they can have the boat with his blessing, if they bring him some food and run some simple errands. Increasingly dangerous little adventures follow, which bring the kids deeper into Mud's difficulties than might be sensible, but - in the great kids film tradition - the kids go through hell to protect their new, social outcast friend from the threat posed by the local grown-ups: the police, the parents and the rest. In Mud McConaughey has a role every bit as memorable and intense as 'Killer Joe'.

'Mud' is a beautiful and moving piece of work. Sincere and populated by warm, genuinely loving characters right through the cast. It goes unexpected places and sidesteps every cliche you think you can see coming along the way. Overwhelmingly it's a film about love - in all its forms - in all its fragility and with all its pitfalls, but which ultimately manages to be warm and optimistic without compromising the gritty stuff. Love is hard and sometimes impermanent, it says. You might throw everything into it and get your heart ripped out, or even find yourself publicly humiliated as a result of unrequited affection. Yet it's worth it: it's the best thing we have and the only thing in this world worth having. That is basically the lesson learnt by the young hero through his trials and tribulations, but all without seeming twee or saccharine in the slightest. Quite an achievement - and a noble one at that.

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