Monday, May 12, 2008

IRON MAN


IRON MAN

As Uncle Ben was prone to reminding a pre-web slinging Peter Parker, with great power comes great responsibility. Consequently, the power of kick-starting a new big-screen superhero saga comes with its own daunting, singular responsibility: to set those mighty gears into motion, to dispense with the hows and the whys in an orderly fashion, to tackle the obligatory origin story of its particular crime-fighter before getting down to blowing shit up. Just wait till you see the sequel, these franchise-launchers practically beg, yet the real fun of Iron Man, Jon Favreau’s light-on-its-metallic-feet extravaganza, is in the pesky exposition. Like Chris Nolan’s celebrated Batman reboot, this expensive but modestly scaled summer blockbuster relishes its building-a-hero mythology (predicated, as it were, on the literal building of a high-tech man of steel) as much as the inevitable pyrotechnics of its more action-centric third act.

In the funniest and liveliest headlining performance a comic book movie has ever seen—with apologies to Ron Perlman, the former title holder—Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark, the rock star mogul/lead inventor of a billion-dollar weapons manufacturing firm. Drink perpetually in hand and tongue planted permanently in cheek, Stark is little more than a motor-mouthed playboy resting on his laurels. That is, until he’s kidnapped and pressed into service by an Afghani terrorist cell, forced to escape his captors via a gigantic, crudely constructed battle suit. His eyes opened and his conscious awakened, Stark refashions himself as a heavily armored, jet-powered defender of the people, sworn to destroy the very weapons he’s heretofore designed and sold. He’s a cocky flyboy, a bleeding heart freedom fighter, and a space-age golem, all stuffed into one shiny, aerodynamic combat machine.

Though set in a sleek, techno-advanced modern world—complete with amusingly emotive A.I interface and movable, Minority Report-style holograms—Iron Man is nevertheless pure, retro fantasy wish fulfillment. Here, in Downey’s zip-bang Army of One, is the ultimate, idealized symbol of righteous American might: a self-contained military power that recognizes the problems it’s created in the world and seeks to solve them using pure, blunt, take-no-prisoners force. It’s proto-fascist humanitarianism—save the world with a big heart and an even bigger gun—and when Iron Man violently vanquishes his faceless, Islamic extremist foes, one has to wonder about those he’s rescuing, the equally nondescript victim-locals left to pick their lives out of the rubble. Is Stark Industries going to rebuild battle-ravaged Afghanistan when the smoke clears?

Still, one has to admire even the modest gall of an Event Movie that connects global terrorism, directly and indirectly, to big business war profiteering. Headier than your average big bang spectacular, Iron Man invests its birth-of-a-hero proceedings with a few bona fide moral quandaries, yet it’s probably best enjoyed as a curiously blithe and character-driven summer lark. Relegating his titular, CGI Avenger to but a small handful of explosive set pieces, Favreau lets the man beneath the metal take center stage. Whether tirelessly tinkering with his super suit, trading barbs with relentless reporters, or exasperating his friends and colleagues—including Jeff Bridges as his shady boss and Gwyneth Paltrow as his faithful girl Friday—Downey, in a role tailored to his sardonic strengths, plays Stark as a charming egomaniac stumbling headfirst upon his own moral center. Yet so enamored is Favreau of his magnetic lead—and so lacking is the film in the loud and frantic, bright and kinetic kicks of your typical action distraction—that a small part of me can’t help but wish he’d opted for a little less of the man and a little more of the iron. Hate to say it, but wait till you see the sequel.

Monday, May 5, 2008

MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS


In the spirit of urban malaise and romantic discontent, I present a brand-spanking-new review of the stll-pretty-new one from Wong Kar Wai, My Blueberry Nights.

***
Ask Wong Kar Wai about heartache, and he’ll tell you that it’s more than a feeling. It’s more even than a mood or a mindset or an awful state of being. It’s a place—a physical somewhere, brick and wood and architecture painted in the vibrant hues of longing and loneliness. It’s a dingy take-out restaurant, a tango bar in Argentina, or Apartment 2046. In Chungking Express, the Hong Kong filmmaker’s best and brightest lament of the broken-hearted, a scorned lover talks to his flat, complaining that the objects within it are changing with him, twisting and warping to match his malaise. He’s wrong, but the sentiment is right: by Wong’s estimation, how we are is reflected in where we are, the private corners and little spaces we call our own.

With their lovesick loners and burnt-and-jaded romantics, Wong’s best films—slow-motion reveries like In the Mood for Love and fast-motion confections like Fallen Angels—tap into universal reservoirs of pain and desire, their rich emotional palettes transcending all boundaries of state and nation. What’s specific about them is environment, the precisely rendered locales that bleed and breathe and pulsate in tune with the sad sacks who occupy them. In theory, it’s exciting to envision Wong’s melancholic blues and sensual reds splashed onto our own geography—imagine Tony Leung sprinting through the crowded backstreets of Brooklyn, or Faye Wong slinking seductively through a piano bar in Memphis. But, as one character aptly remarks halfway through the writer-director’s latest, some things just look better on paper.

My Blueberry Nights begins and ends in New York City, but if it weren’t for the occasional flash and roar of the elevated train, you’d scarcely know it. Nor would you recognize, without instruction, the other iconic, distinctive big city landscapes of Wong Kar Wai’s English-language debut. That’s because they never register as anything more than anonymous backdrops, none more convincing than the cloth mural skylines of an evening talk show. These Nights unfold in warmly lit cafes and all-night diners, moody dive bars and glitzy casinos. Wong drifts from one cozy interior space to the next, forging a glacial-slow path through the retrograde wonderland of his own imagination. It’s an America that exists solely and completely within the man’s head—endearingly quaint, perhaps, but also as vaguely defined as any world he’s ever conjured. (Even the dazzling future dreamscapes of 2046 felt more tangible, more real.)

Thing is, Wong’s airy narratives need that grounding in time and place, that authentic sense of cultural location. Without it, they threaten to come apart at the seams, to dissipate and float off on currents of raw, unchecked emotion. My Blueberry Nights may be the filmmaker’s slightest hand yet, a meandering slow jam that covers familiar ground—missed connections between wounded romantics, awkward waltzes between lonely strangers—with twice the sap and half the urgency of his most enduring efforts. Norah Jones, the easy listening queen of Top 40 radio, is Wong’s luminous muse, the gorgeous cipher-heroine of his nomadic mood piece. Mourning the loss of her lover to another woman, Jones’ Elizabeth becomes a late night regular at a Soho diner, cozying up to the owner, Jeremy (Jude Law), who wears his own disenchantment like a bohemian badge of honor. If the atmosphere is warmed-over Edward Hopper—fed, of course, through the grate of the director’s jumpy, hazy, shoegaze styling—the scenes between these weary nighthawks, who bond over pie and war stories, still possess a gentle erotic pulse, a hint of the naked longing that defined, say, In the Mood for Love. Yet just when Law and Jones are hitting their stride, finding that delicate balance between symbiotic misery and mutual attraction, Wong rudely separates them, sending the mixed-up Liz on an aimless voyage of healing and self-discovery. For, you see, this one’s also a road movie, a picturesque tour of these United States, and there are still plenty of sights to see—provided, of course, you can spot regional memorabilia in Wong’s interchangeable, indoor eateries.

Like Fallen Angels and Chungking Express—the two films that, in their messier tones and textures, it most superficially resembles—My Blueberry Nights can be divided into parts. Structured around Liz’s cross-country journey, the movie bounces her from the Big Apple to the River City all the way out to the Vegas Strip. She drifts in and out of the lives of various lost souls, connecting with and lending comfort to each of them in tidy, episodic arcs—think “Touched By An Angel” on downers. In Memphis, she gets between a down-on-his-luck policeman (David Strathairn, drowning in campy, drunken despair) and his sultry ex-wife (Rachel Weisz, unbearable in her screechy histrionics). In Reno, she crosses paths with a gutsy poker pro, played, in a rather momentous stretch in credibility, by a tough-talking Natalie Portman. Like parodies of caricatures, these American misfits sing the blues, stumbling through the motions of melodrama like refugees from an abandoned Tennessee Williams play. And when they open their movie star mouths, out pour pages upon pages of tin-eared dialogue, lengthy laments built around paper-thin metaphors. “Even if you have the keys, some doors can't be opened,” one character solemnly declares, while others talk of long roads and empty bottles and when to fold em’ and when to play em’. (The expired pineapple refrains of Chungking and Angels are, by contrast, pure poetry. Chalk it up to the language barrier.)

Thankfully, Wong’s trademark aesthetic—all elliptical jump cuts, blurred motion, and bursts of brilliant pastel—remains rapturously intact. Time stops and goes, slows and speeds up, in perfect sync with the beating, heavy hearts of these lovers and dreamers. And when the neon lights smear and the colors bleed together, enveloping everything in a gorgeous, melancholic haze, it’s as though Wong’s own eyes are welling with tears—his cinema remains as achingly empathetic as any on the market. But is this particular love story, muddled and fragmented by superfluous detours, even worth the waterworks? Jones, with her soft, baby-doll features and jet-black locks, has an inviting, captivating visage, but it takes all but thirty minutes of lovingly composed close-ups (courtesy Darius Khondji, capably pinch hitting for an MIA Chris Doyle) to realize how little is going on behind it. Stumbling awkwardly through her pensive monologues—each framed as a letter back to the ready-and-waiting Jeremy—Jones fails to tap into the soulful sensuality of her music, opting instead for a kind of blank-faced politeness. She’s the big zero at the film’s center, and watching her glide from one nondescript, urban interior to the next is akin to spotting a dazed supermodel lost in the Museum of Antiquated Americana.

There’s no magnetic force pulling Jeremy and Liz together, no real tie connecting their bodies, minds, and souls across the vast expanses of Wong’s ersatz America. If these two beautiful lonely-hearts are meant for each other, it’s solely by virtue of their matching good looks and color-coordinated despondency. All the mood lighting in the world couldn’t patch up the cracks in their false-start romance, but I’ll be damned if Law doesn’t nearly give truth to the lie. As the only big-name star to properly calibrate his intrinsically Western gifts to Wong’s intrinsically Eastern wavelength, he affects a fairly irresistible, hangdog charisma, most evident in a rambling phone-call to a phantom friend. The actor almost emits enough wounded humanity to fill the empty spaces of Wong’s insular world, to paint the walls with his grief and yearning, to breath real life into his artificial, movie-set surroundings. Heartache has no home in My Blueberry Nights, but if it did, Jude Law would hold the keys.