Though Jeff Bridges’s Obadiah Stane, Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer, and Mickey Rourke’s Ivan “Whiplash” Vanko have all made substantial efforts to break down and destroy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the tycoon turned superhero’s most volatile relationship has always been with his cherry-red-chrome suit, in conjunction with the glowing magnet battery that keeps him alive, that turns him into the eponymous Avenger. While Jon Favreau’s sleek, satisfying Iron Man matched its oomph-infused action sequences with a funny, reasonably bitter vision of America Inc., the wonky sequel showed that the mechanism of a rigid, narratively muddled script, further burdened by a narrative agenda to drum up excitement for The Avengers, had taken over nearly every shred of the story’s human element, save Downey’s wildly charismatic take on America’s favorite fictional corporate juggernaut.
All the more reason to welcome Shane Black’s unexpectedly galvanic Iron Man 3, a madly creative, darkly comical, and fiendishly self-aware actioner with muscle to spare, as the new heir apparent to the throne-of-summer blockbuster. The famed scribe that penned Lethal Weapon, subsequently birthing the boom era of the buddy-cop flick, Black gives the narrative, the language, and even the direction a much-missed dose of personality and clarity. As Stark now looks to take on the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a celeb-terrorist who has bio-engineered a group of Americans into unknowing time bombs, Black begins to take apart the accepted boundaries and structures of the superhero film, and if he still employs a variety of familiar genre tropes, he certainly dismantles as many as he indulges.
Of course, Black has largely substituted the structural similarities of today’s most lucrative, popularized genre with that of another from a bygone era: the gritty actioners, tossed with gallows humor, that dominated Hollywood from the twilight of Reagan on through the electoral defeat of Bush the First. That the film recognizes that from early on and constantly lashes it with pliable humor gives the film a looser tone and an attitude of bold sarcasm. Tony, settling in with longtime companion Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), still dolls out the one-liners and radiates hubris with aplomb, but he’s now hampered by identity issues and anxiety, stemming from his climactic free fall from Earth’s atmosphere in The Avengers. His conflicted sense of aggravation is enflamed when Happy (Favreau), his beloved erstwhile bodyguard, is nearly killed by Savin (James Badge Dale), a mysterious, supernatural agent capable of conducting immense heat and causing explosions.
The attack on Happy brings Tony face to face with the Mandarin, but also with Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), the Stark fanboy turned corporate titan who engineered the treatment that gave Savin his deadly powers. The dynamic is reminiscent of the heedlessly convoluted storyline involving Rockwell’s Hammer in Iron Man 2, but the script, co-written by Black and Drew Pearce, tinkers with the formula in remarkably clever ways, and does so with minimal reference to Joss Whedon’s engaging yet weightless box-office behemoth. Black implements a purveying sense of vacillating identity and upended self-possession in the zippy dialogue, the openly duplicitous narrative, and the serpentine structure. Visually, he shows a shrewd sense of how to build active tension, and expresses newfound involvement and sensitivity in his quieter scenes, showing a great deal of growth from his scattershot debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which also starred Downey.
Indeed, twists abound, as even the film’s marketing campaign ultimately amounts to a red herring. Iron Man 3 is less the latest installment in the titular series or a new volume in the sprawling Avengers galaxy than it is the return of Black as cinematic persona. As a director, he prefers big, busy set pieces, and Iron Man 3 serves as a rousing compendium of Black’s salad days in Hollywood, along with a few of his chosen genre’s landmarks. He evokes Air Force One and Point Break during a bravura airborne kidnapping sequence; The Long Kiss Goodnight informs Tony’s small-town run-in with Savin and company; and the astounding climactic assault on a crashed oil tanker, complete with botched public execution, suggests the climax of Lethal Weapon 2 on a raw diet of comic books and mainlined adrenaline. Even the casting—William Sadler is the president and Miguel Ferrer is his vice president—suggests a well-armored nostalgia trip to the Die Hard days, but Black is careful to not let nostalgia dictate or disrupt his style.
A modicum of change isn’t unreasonable after decades in Hollywood, and Black here replaces his once-acidic spite for government and bureaucracy with a call for corporate responsibility. If Black still shows a preference for the guns and missiles of military culture, and a distrust of science, he at least now complicates the presumed villainy of those who tinker in such fields with a sense of moral hindsight, characterized here in Rebecca Hall’s Maya Hanson, Killian’s girl Friday. The film even survives the introduction of a precocious youth who helps Tony investigate an attack in Tennessee that he credits to the Mandarin. But worry not, Black hasn’t totally given up throwing darts at the powers that be: for PR, Don Cheadle’s Colonel James Rhodes is forced to rename War Machine as the Iron Patriot, after spray-painting red, white, and blue star-spangle all over his suit. Later, Cheadle’s tag-team work with Downey is purposively and warmly reminiscent of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover’s storied Lethal Weapon repartee, even amid a battle royale between the Mandarin’s fiery legions and a battalion of specialized Iron Men, remotely controlled by Jarvis (Paul Bettany).
Stark’s final bird-flip to his corporate identity and renouncing of the technology that’s defined him may put a bit of a fine point on Black’s humane themes, but it certainly doesn’t court righteousness or sentimentality. Ultimately, it does well to reinforce the refreshing humanity of Iron Man 3 and helps to forgive Black’s tempered flights of timely cynicism, including the televised execution of a BP-ish oil-company exec. Starting as the story of a great but shallow man who literally had to rebuild himself to survive, the Iron Man series has always had quite a lot of stake in resurrection, mainly through human inventiveness, raw creation, and its cold, industrial byproduct, but the series has also reverberated with reflexivity in this regard. The series that Favreau began and Black has now brilliantly reconfigured has served to help resurrect the superhero genre in the wake of twin catastrophes Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand, resurrect Downey, an actor of tremendous seduction and force, as a natural leading man, and now resurrect Black as one of Hollywood’s most assured and clever hit makers. And yet, the most appealing thing about Iron Man 3 is its ambitions to not merely resurrect, but reinvent the nature of such elementally safe entertainments. And even if he isn’t completely successful, this thrilling film would be remarkable enough for openly outing Christopher Nolan’s sheep in impeccably tailored wolf-suits.
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce, Don Cheadle, Rebecca Hall, Jon Favreau, William Sadler, James Badge Dale, Paul Bettany Director: Shane Black Screenwriter: Drew Pearce, Shane Black Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures Running Time: 130 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2013 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Review: M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass Is Less Than Half Empty
M. Night Shyamalan’s film is aimed at an audience from whom he cringingly craves fealty.2
What a difference nearly two decades makes. When writer-director M. Night Shyamalan released Unbreakable way back in 2000, the superhero genre was hardly the mass-cultural malady that it is today. An oddball take on caped crusaders and the like had a better chance of standing out in theaters, and Unbreakable was certainly one of the more eccentric uses of $75 million Hollywood studio dollars.
Shyamalan’s tale of a Philadelphia security guard, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who, after surviving a devastating train crash, discovers he has inhuman strength and a psychic ability to predict danger, was photographed in languorous long takes, with most dialogue spoken barely above a whisper. Unbreakable was really more of a slow-burning family relationship drama—especially between Dunn and his hero-worshipping son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark)—than it was a men-in-tights, or, in this case, man-in-rain-slicker action flick. But a cartoonishly clothed Samuel L. Jackson did often pop up as a brittle-boned character named Elijah Price, who pontificated about comic books as if they were a socio-cultural Rosetta Stone.
In one of his patented, P.T. Barnum-esque twist endings, Shyamalan revealed that Price fancied himself Dunn’s brainiac archnemesis. “They called me Mr. Glass,” he says of his childhood torturers. And so the stage was set for a future showdown, though lower box-office receipts than expected appeared to put the kibosh on that. But now here we are with the frivolous and protracted Glass, which finally pits Dunn and Glass against each other. Though there’s one other person involved…or perhaps we should say multiple people in one.
That would be Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), the dissociative identity-afflicted villain known as The Horde, who was first introduced in Shyamalan’s 2016 hit, and stealth Unbreakable sequel, Split. McAvoy is once again the whole show here, with the actor receiving top billing over his co-stars. He shares several scenes with Split’s damaged final girl, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), and he leans full-tilt into The Horde’s various personalities. Among these interior others are prim British matriarch Patricia; nine-year-old dance freak/Drake fanboy Hedwig; macho sexual deviant Dennis; and a cannibalistic savage known only as The Beast, who’s as close to a Big Bad as the film gets. McAvoy’s energy and go-for-brokeness is infectious, and it’s something Glass could use a whole lot more of.
The film’s first 20 minutes or so put Dunn, now nicknamed The Overseer, and Crumb on a collision course that eventually lands them in the same mental hospital where Glass is incarcerated. The trio’s physician is Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, seemingly rehearsing for her eventual role as Nurse Ratched in Ryan Murphy’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest prequel), an icy unbeliever, so she says, in anything superheroic. It’s Staple’s goal to talk her three charges into renouncing their phenomenal powers. And talk. And talk. And talk.
Much of Glass’s running time is given over to therapy sessions in which Crumb cycles through his personas, Dunn looks alternately befuddled and constipated, and Glass lolls his Frederick Douglass-coiffed head to the side in drooling catatonia. (Is he faking his unresponsiveness? What do you think?) He’s barely the star of his own film, though Shyamalan has said in interviews that Glass is meant to reflect the character’s fragile, erudite nature, as Unbreakable did Dunn’s reluctant heroism and Split did Crumb’s anything-goes psychosis.
There’s a certain clinical elegance to the crisp digital cinematography by Mike Gioulakis, much in keeping with Glass’s eye-catching, purple-accented wardrobe (love that monogrammed cravat!). It’s telling, however, that the most striking scenes here are flashbacks to the Eduardo Serra-shot Unbreakable. This includes a terrifying deleted scene from that film in which a young Elijah Price (Johnny Hiram Jamison) rides an amusement park Tilt-A-Whirl, with bone-shattering results and to the palpable distress of his mother, played by Charlayne Woodard. She reprises her role, as Clark does Dunn’s now-grown son, in Glass’s present-day scenes.
A bigger issue is that the film’s earnest deconstruction of comic-book mythology seems antiquated given our present glut of superhero media. It’s no longer a genre to be elevated since it has become the norm. Plus, the unintentionally hilarious way that Paulson says, “Have you ever been to a comic book convention?” is one of several signposts suggesting that Shyamalan’s geek cred is about, say, 20 years behind the times.
It certainly might have helped if Shyamalan were able to more humorously poke at his own pretenses. The wet-noodle climax in which all of Glass’s characters have a staggeringly non-epochal confrontation in a friggin’ parking lot could only have benefitted from a sense that the stars and the multi-hyphenate auteur were enjoying themselves. It’s only too appropriate that Jackson’s Glass sternly narrates this skeletally smack-a-doo finale as if he was a distressed academic lecturing attention-starved stoners.
Perhaps genuine fun is too much to ask from an artist who once wrote a po-faced tome about closing America’s education gap (put “I Got Schooled” into Google and delight, such as it is). There’s also another twist or two on the horizon, though it gives nothing away to say that the reveals amount to little more than “the real superhero…was mankind.” In the end, Glass proves to be another of Shyamalan’s pompous sermons about faith in oneself, aimed at an audience from whom he cringingly craves fealty.
Cast: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard Director: M. Night Shyamalan Screenwriter: M. Night Shyamalan Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 129 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: An Acceptable Loss Is a Morally Urgent B Movie
The film is a cynical critique of American foreign policy wrapped up in an uncluttered narrative that thrives on pulpy thrills.2.5
Writer-director Joe Chappelle’s An Acceptable Loss is a B movie with a morally urgent message, a cynical critique of American foreign policy in the Middle East wrapped up in an uncluttered narrative that thrives on pulpy thrills. By positioning the U.S. government as the film’s primary antagonist, Chappelle takes to task the repeated killing of innocent lives as collateral damage in the hunt for terrorists and other ostensible enemies.
The ethical quandary that arises from such an operation is embodied by Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm (Tika Sumpter), a former national security adviser to Vice President Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis) who’s taken a teaching gig at a Chicago university. As Libby secretly transcribes her experiences, and faces civilians who are angry over her role in a controversial military operation in Syria, Chappelle shows a surprising empathy for the character. The filmmaker outlines that Libby’s memorializing of her experiences and her honest attempt at assimilating within a society that more or less shuns her is borne out of feelings of regret.
But An Acceptable Loss’s compelling take on moral reckoning is compromised by the distracting presence of Martin (Ben Tavassoli), a grad student who consistently exposes lapses in the storyline’s logic. Martin mysteriously stalks Libby and sets up an elaborate surveillance system in her house, but it’s never explained how Martin can operate with the skill, knowledge, and proficiency of some kind of intelligence officer. Dubiously, when Libby and Martin need each other’s help in a moment of crisis, the film oddly passes on holding the latter’s disturbingly voyeuristic behavior accountable; Libby shakes her head, and then the film drops the matter completely. For a film eager to ponder the ethics of people’s actions, it comes off as strange that Chappelle doesn’t scrutinize Martin’s own.
Still, it’s difficult not to get swept up in An Acceptable Loss’s technical virtuosity. The film’s propulsive narrative is nothing if not efficient, aided in no small part by crisp editing that relishes the fine art of cross-cutting. The dark interiors that Chappelle favors create a Tourneur-like atmosphere of dread that subsumes Libby, underlining the covert nature of her documenting her secrets; even scenes in daylight have a strangely nocturnal feel to them. This visual style complements An Acceptable Loss’s pessimistic view of America’s foreign policy, which is sustained right up to the film’s hopeful coda. The film shows that if policy is to change, it greatly helps to be supported by people like Libby, someone who had been complicit in committing atrocities but ultimately embraced her humanity.
Cast: Tika Sumpter, Ben Tavassoli, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jeff Hephner, Alex Weisman, Clarke Peters Director: Joe Chappelle Screenwriter: Joe Chappelle Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: The Heiresses Is a Contemplative Look at Class
Ana Brun’s performance as Chela anchors our attention where Marcelo Martinessi’s understated visuals might otherwise lose it.3.0
In writer-director Marcelo Martinessi’s The Heiresses, middle-aged lesbian couple Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irún) live together in a bourgeois household with only the leftovers of its former grandeur. The house and its furnishings, Chela’s inheritance from her parents, have a dated, hand-me-down quality, and the couple is gradually selling off the expensive furniture and china to pay for Chiquita’s debts. The emptying of the house of Chela’s possessions reflects the greater emptiness that Martinessi makes the audience feel in the space, where hardly anybody but the couple appears, and where the lights seem to always be off, presumably to save money.
But selling off Chela’s inheritance is to no avail, and Chiquita ends up in what’s essentially a debtor’s prison (the bank she owes money to charges her with fraud). Chiquita had been the dominant personality in their relationship, and after she’s sent to prison Chela finds herself in an even emptier house, without much to do. When an elderly neighbor, Pituca (Maria Martins), asks her for a ride one day, and insists on paying her for it, Chela finds a new vocation, becoming a kind of unofficial chauffeur to the neighborhood’s still-wealthy ladies. Although she doesn’t have a license, she begins driving Pituca and her friends around the city, picking up a regular gig driving the younger Angy (Ana Ivanova) to visit her ill mother. Initially flummoxed by the way she has fallen from her bourgeois indolence into a working-class job, Chela begins to embrace the relative freedom offered by driving, as well as the independence her bourgeoning relationships with the other women give her from Chiquita.
Martinessi cites Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant as his inspiration for the film, but The Heiresses has little of Fassbinder’s grandiose flair. This film’s characters spend more time staring contemplatively off screen than they do erupting into sudden emotional outbursts, for example, and Martinessi doesn’t accentuate the superficiality of Chela’s bourgeois home by arranging a literally glittering mise-en-scène, as Fassbinder might have done. Instead, Martinessi’s images are rather static and quite dark, relying on the natural lighting of the dimly lit house and Chela’s cramped Mercedes, the two places where most of The Heiresses’s scenes take place. The result is a film that’s more grounded—and more stylistically pared down—than Fassbinder’s performative melodramas.
In other ways, however, The Heiresses does recall Fassbinder’s drama of failed domesticity. In their shared home, Chela and Chiquita are surrounded by the signs of a disintegrating upper-middle-class patriarchy, represented in the ornaments of wealth Chela identifies as coming from her father. And like Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, though patriarchy is a structuring absence in The Heiresses, Martinessi’s film is overwhelmingly female: Angy has an ex-boyfriend who appears in the background of a couple shots, but no man’s face is seen throughout the entire film. While The Heiresses presents an almost exclusively female world, it uses very few exterior shots, communicating a feeling of confinement—most literally in those scenes in which Chela visits Chiquita in the women’s prison.
This sense of confinement reflects on Chela personally, as well as on the women in the film more broadly. As the nouveau riche come to look over her possessions, Chela spies on them through a cracked-open door. Martinessi presents these scenes from Chela’s voyeuristic point of view, reflecting her isolation and trepidation in relation to the outside world: She’s ashamed to now be reliant on selling her family’s possessions, but she’s also afraid of making contact with anyone outside of her and Chiquita’s world.
At times, paradoxically, the visual and dramatic quietude of The Heiresses feels a bit excessive, but Brun’s performance as Chela anchors our attention where Martinessi’s understated visuals might otherwise lose it. In downward glances and semi-dazed glares, she captures a character who at once is overwhelmed by her new circumstances and emotionally shields herself from them. Slowly and ambivalently, Chela finds a sense of self apart from her overbearing partner and the legacy of her father—breaking away from, rather than merely avoiding, her oppressive circumstances.
Cast: Ana Brun, Margarite Irún, Ana Ivanova, Maria Martins, Nilda González, Alicia Guerra Director: Marcelo Martinessi Screenwriter: Marcelo Martinessi Distributor: Distrib Films US Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2019