RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 23: Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man 2” (2010)


Iron Man 2


The Players…

Robert Downey, Jr, Mickey Rourke, Gwynth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johanssen and Sam Rockwell (with of course Stan Lee).


The Story…

So now the world’s aware of his identity as Iron Man, Tony Stark must contend with both his declining health, a would-be nemesis with ties to his father’s legacy and keeping the straight image of legit industrialist and armored avenger. That and keeping his boozing in check.

A tale of vengeance and fathers and scotch? To the movie mill!


The Rant (and it is indeed a rant)

What is it about sequels that polarize us so? A good story demands. The audience wants to know, “Then what happens?” A sh*t story demands…not a lot. At least, along thinking man’s curves. Hollywood has probably churned out more sequels than original movies, not that story has demanded it. That was never really the case. Hollywood exists, like any other enterprise, to make a profit. And if one of their properties wants to go franchise (with a healthy backing on name recognition, like say…Marvel Comics), they sally forth in hopes to make a profit on the value of “Then what happens?”

Since the first X-Men movie, Hollywood got hip to the idea of making movies from comic book plots. Nowadays, they’re expected fodder come summertime (at least). And since most comics are serial, there’s always gonna be another story the Wednesday next. There’s always the “The what happens?” at the end of every comic book story arc. Movies? It’s a gamble. Depends on how well the story was executed. Spider-Man demanded a sequel, since it was so well done and Spidey’s universe is rife with stories to draw from. The X-Men franchise demanded a sequel simply because the cast was so huge and ever expanding therefore demanding more story and more story and more story (fact: writer Chris Claremont was the head writer for X-Men for sixteen years straight. A feat no other comic book writer may ever top). The Fantastic Four…ummm, I’m gonna go watch Blade again.

Needless to say the proliferation of comic book movies, with their already storyboarded scripts, offer up sequel opportunities a-plenty. Like I hinted at above, sequential stories can be a crapshoot. It’s a checks-and-balances system of “can we make some money?” versus “is it worth trying?” The first Iron Man movie was very rewarding. Logic in Hollyweird dictates that if it worked the first time, it’ll work the second. And the third. And the fourth. And therefore is how the Fast and Furious legacy began. But seriously, like other superhero crusades, Iron Man also has a rich history to mine. Not as well known as, say, Spider-Man, but still being extant for almost fifty years counts for something, right?

Right. So, about the sequel thing. There are precious few sequels that are worth their salt in the history of film. The Godfather, Part II, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, from what I’ve heard The Lord of the Rings, pt. III (I was never much for fantasy. See the Oz, The Great and Powerful installment) was pretty decent, and a good portion of the James Bond and The Thin Man movies was a lot of fun, if they even count as sequels. Still, I think most (thinking) movie-going folks raise an eyebrow whenever the story is expanded, even if there is enough grist in the mill to keep it going.

Me? I think I’ve always been suspect of sequels, since so many of them seem to obey the law of diminishing returns. More money for less art and all that jazz. Diluted story, continuously wrung dry by the likes of Bay and others of his ilk. If there’s the “Then what happens?” feeling going on, I’ll play along. But five-plus installments of Saw? Endless derivatives of Halloween? Transformers 8: When Tickets Cost Fifty Bucks to Stream (I f*cking hate Michael Bay), then I get not only suspect, but downright hostile (surprise!). Sequels are generally put out to empty our pockets, regardless of “Then what happens?” Such cases reminds me of when my kid is wont to ask about a favorite story. But she’s seven, and after the ending of a seriously closed book. But since Iron Man is aimed at alleged grown-ups, and has a full and somewhat unplumbed history to draw from, even I was curious as to…well, you know. Scuttlebutt told me that this sequel was inferior, tired, Standard-worthy material. Welp, here’s what I divined.

But first, to the synopsis…!


Tony Stark (Downey) has been outed. By himself. He is indeed the armored adventurer Iron Man. And, oh, what a wonder he has done as his cyborged self to better the world with his high tech hubris. Peace in the Mideast! A deterrent to possible nefarious nuclear activity in North Korea! A danger to your liquor cabinet! It seems that with great power…oh, save it for another guy. Stark just wants to have fun as a superhero, a household name brand and a potential franchise. However, it’s very unfortunate that he’s been heist by his own petard.

Turns out that the very tech he created to maintain his mini arc reactor heart is also killing him, as well as any excessive activity in his Iron Man suit. He knows time is running out, possibly for himself and the half-life on his Iron Man tech. After all, he learned from his father Howard (Mad Men’s John Slattery, cool cameo!) that the future is possible, if you learn how to mine it. That being claimed, it could only be a matter of time for another questing soul could capture the science that made Stark Industries so proud and powerful.

Someone did, and has passed it onto the son. Unfortunately, this son is a tad more maleficent than Howard’s.

Howard Stark’s industrial fortune was co-built with a very silent partner. Anton Vanko, lost in the shuffle that is the march of progress, becomes the flipside of Howard’s rich empire; destitute, dying and wasting away with his son Ivan (Rourke) in a hovel in a forgotten part of Russia. Upon his deathbed, Anton urges his son to follow his footsteps and continue the research that he started in hopes for Ivan to carve out a slice of the good life denied him by the whims of fate. And the Stark family. With a grinding of metal teeth and a taste for vengeance on Tony Stark, Ivan sets to work on said research, a virtual mutation of the arc reactor, this time with energies flowing outwards instead of in.

That’s not all which is amiss and unawares in Tony’s world. His Iron Man tech has also drawn attention from Congress, seen as a portable WMD worn by its maverick and often-reckless owner. With such unregulated power running through Stark’s enterprise (like he one made one suit, please), it was only a matter of time before the powers that be and the US military wanted a piece of Iron Man.

Now our hero finds himself attacked on both fronts. One side from a would-be avenging enemy that demands his share of the glory, and the other flak from the country he tries to defend. That and there’s this business of trying to run a trans-global company dynasty with his own body betraying him. Anthony Stark has seen it rough playing the hero, but is it his own humility and mortality going to be his downfall?…


As far as sequels go, Iron Man 2 is just okay. Then again, most sequels are just okay. As I mentioned above, sequels are a hit-and-miss kind of venture. The producers of Iron Man 2 tried to make lightning strike twice by repeating a mistake that happens with sequels to successful original movies: simply repeat the formula. What worked so well with the first Iron Man film is that everything was new. I mean, the plot wasn’t. There are only so many plots Hollywood writers can draw from, and the “humbled hero redeemed” is a classic theme and was put to good use with energy and humor in Iron Man. The second time around, well…It’s not so new anymore.

Iron Man 2 establishes a new concept I’d like to dub “sophisticated camp.” There’s a lot of cartoony flash-and-dash here, underlined with some drama that could be regarded as tongue-in-cheek. At least I thought so. This film feels a lot more carefree than the first, and it moves at a breakneck speed. Not as, dare I say, “heady” at the first Iron Man with its pseudo-socio-political undertones. Iron Man 2 has rapid-fire pacing, and I was unsure if I could keep up, let alone appreciate it. Despite that this movie was more freewheeling than the first, it lacked the verve of the first movie. This sequel played like a by-the-numbers action movie, period, with a lot of meta, subtle in-jokes and the crashing of metal on metal. Like I said, repeat the formula.

However, I liked the feel of the movie. Its breezy nature, though at times teetering on plain goofy, was what felt like a good waste of time. Part of the thanks falls to the director for that one. Jon Favreau has a style that is whimsical yet demands your attention very sternly. The scenes may be full of unrestrictive joking, winking, speeding and hamming it up, it does get in the pocket where the fun meets the drama (such as it is). There is substance behind all the antics, but it takes a keen pair of eyes and ears to grab onto it.

Speaking of the humor rife throughout the film, there were a lot of little touches that I dug. I already mentioned the in-jokes, but there are also quite a few clever verbal segues and cues. One I liked was shortly before our villain Whiplash AKA Ivan Vanko exacts revenge on Tony with his new weapon, hanging out in the pit crew on the Grand Prix wearing a helmet with “Intervention” emblazoned on its brim is pretty witty.

Since we’re talking about Whiplash, I really enjoyed Mickey Rourke’s portrayal of Iron Man’s new foe. Rourke was never considered the strong, silent type back in his heyday. But it worked here. He was menacing and funny, and used that battle-scarred mug of his to great effect (boxing sure took its toll on Mickey, eh?). He did have a certain presence in the movie. Was it charming? In a whacked-out kind of view, yeah. Right. He was fun. What makes me wonder is why the studio chose such an obscure villain as Whiplash to be the antagonist of this film? Because he looks cool has my vote.

More on the acting. Downey as Stark is smarm incarnate. He’s like the cool kid in high school with the flash wheels and the blonde, dimwitted cheerleader girlfriend in the trunk. The Family Stark abode was the place to go when his parents were out of town and the keg was in the basement. Downey is a great actor. He’s always been left-off-center funny but can really tear into it when he has to. You can see he relishes this role. An aside: when I first caught wind that Downey was going to portray Iron Man, I thought it was a stroke of genius. My fellow comic book heads hemmed and hawed, for reasons I never got (comic nerds are a cagey lot). But look: here’s actor with a well known, well publicized substance abuse problem, has had scrapes with the law and habitually shot himself in the foot due to his own hubris. Sounded like Stark material to me.

Don Cheadle is a criminally underused, underappreciated actor. He is very literate, earnest and confident. He replaced Terrence Howard from the first film as Rhodey/War Machine here, and it was for the better. Despite the fact Howard looked more like Rhodes in the first film, Cheadle is better at delivering lines. Howard bounced back and forth from stern to…stern to…did he even enjoy the role? Cheadle really dug into his role. Then again, I think his delivery was troublesome and it’s mostly due to him undertaking mediocre roles. He’s better than that. (About the debut of War Machine: it was somewhat in line with the canon. But the mano y mano scene was kind of corny. I mean, really. Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots?)

Sam Rockwell as Hammer was the wild card. He’s a wheeler-dealer, and that kind of characterization stinks of a summer movie, this kind of heavy. It was kind of a bait-and-switch, with Whiplash seemingly posing as the head baddie (remember Christopher Walken in Batman Returns? Uh-huh). Rockwell is too hammy. Professionally, I’m a cook. The other day I nicked my thumb (just bear with me). It happens. However as a cut heals, and has to be sealed under a bandage. A certain “scent” of the healing sets in. The wound absorbs the toil of the day. The day consists of maybe 12 hours on average. That means very many times dipping it into salt wells. It stings and so does the smell of the wound. So smells Rockwell’s performance. I guess what I’m saying is I could’ve done without Rockwell as Hammer. I mean the role was good, just poorly acted.

By the way, Scarlett Johannsen is in Iron Man 2. Moving on.

For years in the comic book, it was kind of an open secret that Tony Stark was Iron Man. I liked the fact in the film that him outing himself did not result in the usual crap storyline of now the hero’s friends and family are in mortar peril. Stark just uses it as a smart business ploy. And this could be his undoing in a different way. If there is a message to Iron Man 2, it’s the classic we have met the enemy, and he is us. I suppose you have some have some meat on the well-chewed bone to satisfy the human equation.

But overall, this sequel lacks gas. The first film worked better because of more internal drama. You know, the human factor. This one traded in spectacle. Pretty good spectacle, but you can’t dig for gold in a silver mine (yeah, yeah. An Elton John lyric. I’m not beneath some things). If anything, Favreau with all his wonder-dealing is too slick. With all its whiz-bang, the movie’s a bit clunky. Despite all the snappy dialogue, there is too much exposition. In the final analysis, Iron Man 2 is schizo movie. There’s a lot to enjoy here, but it’s been done before and better. There’s a lot to carp about here (there’s a shock), but it’s mostly minor. But there’s a lot of it.

*shrug*

I guess I really wanted to like Iron Man 2. A part of me still does. Did Favreau capture lightning in a bottle the first time? Kinda, yeah. But was this sequel another exercise in separating the audience from their money, capitalizing on the ravenous appetites of more noise? Naw. We were operating on the “Then what happened?” dynamic. And there always more to happen in a comic book franchise.

I heard there was a third installment of Iron Man. Hmmm…


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Coin flip. It depends on what you’re tastes are. I’m gonna relent it. But if you want to watch it, be sure you’re wearing the proper lenses.


Stray Observations…

  • John Slattery as Howard Stark! Garry Shandling as Sen. Stern! Stan Lee as Larry King! Exclamation points!
  • “I’ve successfully privatized world peace.” Ironic Nixon salute.
  • Once when I was musing with comic book dealer Jeff (shortly before the first Iron Man came out) I claimed, “You know who’d make a good Jarvis? Paul Bettany.” When I finally saw the movie and read the closing credits, I accidentally smacked my fiancée in the face with surprise. Guess I won…something.
  • “Don’t say wind farm; I’m already feeling gassy.”
  • I love the soundtrack.
  • “Sir, I’m gonna have to ask you to exit the donut!” Only Sam Jackson (that and the Pulp Fiction throwback).
  • “Coffee Bean?” More meta for Marvel zombies.
  • “Why is drone better?” “People make problem.” Yep.
  • I was a kid in the 80’s and getting into comics when I first read Iron Man I thought he was a black guy. Then I didn’t know of any black superheroes, so I was entranced. Later I learned that Tony Stark was MIA as Iron Man due to his alcohol abuse, and Rhodes took over for a time. I was bummed that Iron Man was originally a white guy. Needless to say that since then, I’ve been a big backer of War Machine in the funny pages. He came across as more focused, tougher…and sober. And he had a bigger armory.
  • “Nice work, kid.”
  • By the way, Black Widow is a lot older than she seems.

Next Installment…

What, another comic book film? Not again! Aw, c’mon. You gotta get into The Spirit of things!


 

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RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 22: Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” (2004)


Zissou


The Players…

Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchette, Anjelica Huston, Willem Defoe and Jeff Goldblum.


The Story…

With a plan to exact revenge on a mythical shark that ate his partner, oceanographer Steve Zissou rallies a crew that includes his best and brightest.

Not.

For some matter of circumstance, Steve enlisted he estranged wife, a pushy journalist, and a fanboy of the Zissou Society who may or may not be his son to bag the beast. Sure. This is gonna be sane work. Now pass the dynamite.


The Rant…

Oddly enough, the first actor I ever paid attention to was Bill Murray. I say oddly because I was eight years old at the time. Not your average age for a budding cinephile, at least not regarding movies that cast talking forest creatures. Murray grabbed me for the first time when I saw Ghostbusters in the theater in the summer of ’84.. Ha ha! That’s gotta be a cultural exclamation point to…someone. Right?

*mopes, cries in beer*

I immediately took a shine to Murray’s Peter Venkman. I knew nothing about SNL at the time; I was in bed before that sh*t ever hit the airwaves. Eight years old, remember. At that age I was convinced that Han Solo and Chewie were real people. Well, person and his Wookiee sidekick. Anyway, all I got from Ghostbusters was that I needed a proton pack and Bill Murray was funny. Witty and funny and always there with a smart remark (this hero worship was only made concrete after I saw Meatballs that same summer and later Stripes as a teen). For a reliable laugh, even when he’s trying to tackle “serious” movies, make a bee-line to whatever Murray’s starring in (yes, even Lost In Translation. Without Murray, Scarlett Johansson may not have a career. Noodle that one). You won’t be let down, no matter how lame the movie. Like my acting hero Sean Connery, a lot of Murray’s movies can get pretty lousy. But he’s always good.

Now here’s the cookie. Murray has for over a decade been trying to shed his madcap CV, and try his hand as the aforementioned “serious” movies with middling results. There was the abortive The Razor’s Edge released the same time as Ghostbusters. Bill Murray? Doing grown up sh*t? What’s up with that? Does he battle gophers in that one, too?

I remember this quite keenly. As I was shuffling through the kerjillion VHS titles at the local supermarket kiosk (this was the 80’s, mind you) trying to tackle a copy of Tim Burton’s Batman I saw Murray’s signature hangdog on the cover sleeve of this movie I’d never heard of. The Razor’s Edge? Didn’t sound funny to me. I didn’t know at the time it was Murray’s first foray into drama, this interpretation of Somerset Maugham’s novel. I didn’t know what a foray was, either. I kinda dug the idea of Peter Venkman trying to be an adult. Don’t ask me why; I was kid. I think it might’ve been him being a so-called adult in Meatballs to see him do, I dunno, other stuff, more grown-up like.

Nah. I knew Murray was gonna be a kid regardless of what movie he was in, no matter how old he got. I was sure. There was always going to be that wit, that sarcasm and those keen facial expressions that were so much like a droopy bulldog against earnest eyes that made for good facetime. And you know what? I was right. I reported on it in Broken Flowers. It worked to great ends in Lost in Translation. And now as Steve Zissou, all those aspects come into focus. Now it’s in a “serious” aspect.

But Zissou ain’t Lost in Translation. It’s a Wes Anderson film.

It’s a good thing, crumbs and all…


Renowned oceanographer Steve Zissou (Murray) has a bit of a problem. More like a dilemma. Actually it’s more like a vendetta. While doing some diving and research of what could be a new species of shark—a “jaguar shark,” if you will—Zissou’s right hand man Esteban is captured and eaten by the elusive creature. Bummer. So at a symposium announcing the next plans for Team Zissou, now that a valuable member of the crew is gone and not coming back. Steve simply states he will hunt down and kill the shark that ate his friend. Revenge, a simple enough motivator.

After the symposium concludes, an enthusiastic young man, lifetime member of the Zissou Society and maybe Steve’s illegitimate son accost Zissou. His name is Ned (Wilson), and seems a decent enough fella. Steve is at first taken aback by this claim, but hey, he’s gotten around so who knows? Zissou hatches a plan: if this kid is really his, why not drag him along on the next expo with him and his crew? Find the shark, kill it, trophy on the wall, revenge exacted. Drinks all around. Ned could work the camera or ask poignant questions on one of Zissou’s next in an endless parade of documentaries. Ned could carry on Steve’s legacy, give good face or just simply stroke Steve’s flaccid ego. Who knows?

So now Steve reassesses his situation. He’s got to get back to the sea. He’s got to make a new documentary in order to get more funding. He’s got his maybe-so-maybe-not son in tow. He’s got a crew full of more ne’er-do-wells than a cheap Kid Monk movie. He’s got to one-up his on again/off again nemesis. And he’s got a shark to kill. Busy, busy, busy…


Wes Anderson’s movies are not what you’d call an acquired taste, like for Tom Waits for maple bacon ice cream. His oeuvre is decidedly a niche market. You don’t warm up to his stuff, you either get it or you don’t. Most of the mainstream doesn’t seem to get Anderson; even the praise he does get from critics tend to be from some Podunk periodical written by a fanboy intern who has indulged in magic brownies. Granted the left of center sensibilities yields very amusing results, Anderson’s sh*t isn’t the flavor in Columbus.

“Amusing” is the watchword of Anderson’s films. They’re not outright funny. A tad screwy, yes. And please don’t use the very tired term “quirky” to encapsulate his filmography. That’s as outmoded as 56k dial-up. But Zissou does fall right in line with the director’s muse, audience be damned. Oddball characters, inscrutable plots and comic dialogue so dry it chafes. That’s Anderson’s stock-in-trade. And remember what I was quailing about earlier with Murray? His deadpan deliveries and dry humor are indispensible to this film. Man’s worked with Anderson on a few other projects, so he settles in here like a round peg.

Like I’ve said in past reports of RIORI installments with Bill Murray, his signature slouching face and “What? Me worry?” comic delivery is priceless. His Steve Zissou is a practically perfect vehicle for Murray’s attitude and that delivery here. The guy’s a kid, forever and always, and Zissou here has got to be one of the most juvenile, spoiled drudges that has ever come off the projector. He’s a kid all right: an entitled, effete kid. He goes where his whims take him using the sea as an excuse. He’s self-important, kinda clueless and all always there to deliver the quick, albeit dry one-liner. If you’re a Murray fan you get it. The casual moviegoer wouldn’t take their time to warm up to him. I don’t think.

On the other hand, Wilson is Murray’s foil. Affable, naïve and with the corniest Southern accent this side of grits. He character’s wistful and lighthearted. He also seems to be the most normal and well-adjusted member of Team Zissou. He gives Murray an excellent spring to bounce off of. Granted it’s a tiny bounce, but it works. I don’t think Zissou would’ve held together as well if it weren’t for Wilson. He’s the only character in the film that is relatable enough to ride along with, stupid accent or no. He’s has a certain subtlety about him, reserved. It’s kinda endearing. And isn’t Wilson almost always the likeable straight man in all his cinematic efforts? Yeah. Don’t argue. He can make me smile too.

Stylistically, Anderson employs his usual, although welcome bag of tricks. He uses a lot of bright, often garish colors in his scenes, as if to relay to the audience that, yes, Team Zissou is a circus. And it is a circus. Surreal. There’s a lot of—let’s beat this word to death—odd, deliberate, angular shots that make the film feel at time expansive and other times confined. It’s like the whole damned mess is breathing.

An aside: a new trick that had to be pointed out in this movie (maybe a first for Anderson) is his use of music. All those Bowie songs sung in—what is that—French? What’s up with that? I liked it, but I like Bowie. Just another oddity in a movie full of ‘em. Somehow noteworthy, ‘though I can’t put my finger on why (any ideas out there in the blogosphere? Send me some comments, dammit.)

Anderson’s films are not designed to make money. They must fill something in his heart and soul, because the feel of this movie, like all his others, is off kilter. Despite how moviegoers these days are a cynical, jaded, looking for ironic stuff without knowing the proper definition of irony kind of crowd, his movies are not box office smashes. Not critical hits. Darlings maybe, but never outright hits. Anderson’s muse has a real affinity (or a maw that cannot be fed) for dysfunctional, comic and clueless characters doing foolish and candidly ignoble things. His flicks move at a meandering pace. The stuff’s surreal but not over the top or in your face like read this eye chart and see how low you can read. Nope. It is what it is, take it or leave it. Niche market. I like that kind of thing.

Call me hopelessly biased between Bill Murray’s childlike performance and Anderson’s style of humor, I really enjoyed Zissou. Not because I’m some pretentious douchenozzle who only veers towards offbeat cinema (c’mon, if you’ve read previous installments I dug Pacific Rim AND After Earth. And I didn’t like Rushmore. There is never any accounting for taste). I like characters. I like actors. I like good actors. I like seeing them in silly circumstances sometimes. And most of the time, I like Anderson’s way of doing it.

So. What to do, what to do? I tell ya, I’m gonna recommend this movie. Problem is that Anderson’s stuff is in that confined niche market. Are you a buyer?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Like I alluded to: rent it. But this’ll probably be a directive to Anderson fans only. Zissou is the usual fare. Catch it!


Stray Observations…

  • Anjelica Huston seems ageless. She’s like the American Sofia Loren.
  • “Do the interns get Glocks?”
  • Michael Gambon is a versatile actor. And busy too. I just saw him in Sky Captain. Boy gets around.
  • “Son of a bitch, I’m sick of these dolphins.”
  • A lot of mid-80’s tech floating around in Zissou. Was this supposed to be a period piece?
  • “What about my dynamite?” If it only it was that easy. F*ck any waiting period!
  • I’d be remiss in my nerdy pop culture duties (see The To-Do List) if I didn’t point out the lone non-Bowie tune in the film was the Stooge’s “Search and Destroy.” Maybe it had something to do with Bowie being Iggy Pop’s benefactor on the Raw Power album? Or just did it sound cool here? I’m leaning towards numero dos.
  • “That’s it. I’m retiring.”

Next Installment…

Robert Downey, Jr. returns as Tony Stark as he once again dons the armor in Iron Man 2.


RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 21: Kerry Conran’s “Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow” (2004)


Sky Captain


The Players…

Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi and Sir Laurence Olivier(?).


The Story…

The world’s cities are under attack by huge robots! Prominent scientists from around the globe have mysteriously gone missing! Who is this fearful Totenkopf being whispered about in the scientific community? Reporter Polly Perkins’ inquiring mind needs to know. So she better enlist an old flame from the past with the skills (and the ride) to get her to the bottom of these mysteries.

Calling Sky Captain! Come in, Sky Captain!


The Rant…

I think I’ve always had an affinity for old technology. When I first ventured into writing, I started on my grandparents’ old “portable” Underwood typewriter. This so-called portable clunker was the size of and weighed as much as two cinder blocks. I later graduated to my aunt’s hand me down IBM PCII. It was already a decade outmoded when I inherited it. No mouse, floppy disks, the on/off switch at the rear of the CPU the size of a late 70’s VCR and a clunky monitor with no graphics, just ghostly algae-colored letters on a screen. This was in 1992, before God. I had only a Gibson-esque idea what real computers were for or like. My first car was a very used ’78 VW Rabbit. The first video games I played were on an Atari 2600. Hell, I had a sh*t TV with dials on the fool thing. I guess I say I “think” I’ve had an affinity for old tech probably because I didn’t have a choice. Old tech is better than none I suppose.

Still, I do enjoy me some old timey stuff. In addition to futzing around with ancient tech like in an episode of Fringe, I also figure this kinship came from frequent visits to my Mom’s parents’ place. Their house was in their family name for what had to be close to a century. The place was not unlike a museum, filled with antiques, old portraits, sterling silverware on the mahogany dining table. Even the backyard garage had its own—albeit nonfunctioning—gas pump. The place kinda stayed in the realm of 1949; nothin’ fancy to plug in. For example, even when there was access to cable television, my Grandfather was faithful to the aerial receiving only seven channels from the reliable New York airwaves (he even went to far as to protect this vital connection by unplugging the TV at night, just in case of lightning strikes. I didn’t get it either).

Needless to say, being somewhat unknowingly deprived (no f*cking mouse. In 1992) of newfangled gear and being entrenched in my extended family’s time capsule of a house, I gained an appreciation of stuff-that-was-before-me. It seemed like the producers of Sky Captain were of a similar mindset, and when I caught wind of their highly stylized, retro-minded, full of classic machinery in action, Art Deco movie magic, I assumed it would a sort-of Flash Gordon kinda narrative. Splash and dash and a healthy amount of tongue-in-cheek humor. Hell, look at the freakin’ title already.

Was it? I’m here reporting on it, aren’t I? Speaking of reporting…


Dauntless New York Chronicle reporter Polly Perkins (Paltrow) may be onto the scoop of the decade. She’s got a lead from a prominent scientist that his colleagues have all disappeared without a trace, and he may be the next on the list to go missing. All the good doctor knows is who may be behind these vanishings, a dastardly man known only as “Totenkopf.” And before the night is out, Polly’s lead has gone missing himself.

Not long after, sirens wail into the night. People scattered onto the streets. Up in the air is the formation of invading planes, ready to rain down on the city. But it’s not planes. Rather, its giant looming robots that crash onto the streets and stomp up and down the avenues, as if looking for something.

The call goes out. The city needs rescue from these mechanical menaces (all bearing a peculiar insignia on their chests). It’s up to one man and his air force for hire to halt the invasion: Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan (Law) and his souped up aircraft at the ready. He handily thwarts the invasion, but only after the robots find their quarry. Generators. Huge electrical ones from the bowels of some felled building. Curious for all the collateral damage. What do robots need with generators?

Turns out this isn’t an isolated incident, but most of it has been kept under wraps. Robots of all shapes and sizes have been popping up around the globe for some time now, all bearing that curious emblem, snatching tech and vanishing to elsewheres unknown. Well, the Captain and his crew has got a few leads of their own to follow, and of course Polly has a nose for news. She demands to tag along with Cap to get to the bottom of the disappearances, the robots, who this mysterious Totenkopf is and what’s his aim.

So we got ourselves a mystery, a fearless pilot, a reporter with some moxie and lot of globetrotting ahead. Let’s take to the skies…!


I wasn’t completely let down by Sky Captain’s promise of CGI-rendered classic tech. It sort of was what I expected. Kind of a Jules Verne meets Will Eisner meets Max Fleischer meets Jonny Quest vibe going on here. Captain’s a visual treat, to be sure, but it’s kind of a muted treat. In fact, most of this movie seems muted.

I liked this movie; it was fun. However throughout my viewing, I could not but help thinking that writer/director Conran was holding back on us. Yes, the visuals were stirring (I loved the lighting, CGI or no), the score was majestic, the acting was charming and the overall story read like something out of a Golden Age comic book. Fine, fine. The issue I take is that the whole movie felt confined. No, not confined. Compartmentalized. Each arc of the story didn’t really feed seamlessly into the next. Hence the comic book allusion. Frame by frame. Going through the numbers. Couldn’t get it into gear. Pick whatever analogy you like. It’s like Captain was a firework ready to blow and someone just cut the fuse. There just wasn’t a lot of verve you’d expect from a movie titled Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It was more like Sky Captain and He’ll Eventually Get That Plane Reaching for the Heavens.

It wasn’t as if Captain wasn’t trying to reach for something more. There is an underscore of big deal, grand, gee whiz bucky gizmo threading through the movie. Like I said, it’s reaching. Captain’s trying to be over the top, but it never seems to reach it. I had this desire to get some “more” here, whatever that more was (robots, I hoped) and it didn’t happen. Conran screwed the pooch on a movie with a lot of potential.

But don’t get me wrong. Like I said, overall it was fun. And there are a lot of nice touches throughout. For instance, the editing was excellent. Despite the paint-by-numbers pacing, how the scenes played out when Conran wasn’t hitting on the Robutussin were great, as was the cinematography. I know camera placement ain’t no real thang in a CGI-rendered movie, but most angles were executed quite well here (or at least programmed well).

You know what the style of Sky Captain reminded me of most? Rotoscoping. Back in my bilious review of A Scanner Darkly, I pointed out that this particular animation was the guts of that film in how it was shot. For those out of the know, rotoscoping is an animation technique in which animators trace over footage, frame by frame, for use in live-action movies. It was used a lot in the old Superman serials from the 40’s. With the lighting as it was, the actors and sets in Captain looked very close to cartoony, but not in a goofwad after school way. I guess this was an homage to the serials and comics that must of inspired this movie in the first place.

There’s a light-heartedness to Sky Captain that I found endearing. It’s kinda goofy, as if the actors are quite aware this little trifle is a riff on the tried and true Indiana Jones model, with planes. And robots. And Sir Laurence Olivier back from the dead (really!). But it’s got a lot of light humor I dig. Not self-effacing, but definitely tongue-in-cheek. Angelina Jolie with an eye patch and working her best British/Lara Croft accent? Come on now. Get hip.

The acting was as best could be called a lark. To review, Law tried to play the Captain in a combo of Indy and soft-spoken WW2 fighter pilot…with an ulcer. He was slick and smooth but not as rough and ready as most heroes of that ilk are to my liking. He definitely didn’t have a way with the ladies. It’s inferred that the Cap and Polly once had a relationship that fizzled out over something to do with his plane, but that’s about as far as it goes. And Paltrow is a prime example of “I got my Oscar, now let’s have some fun” (like almost every movie Pacino has made in the past twenty years. Zing!). Her Polly Perkins may get aggravating sometimes, and she plays that my girl Friday thing to the hilt. But it works, if you just go with it. It’s a stereotype that fits in with the movie’s motives, so I’ll give it a pass. I particularly liked Ribisi as Cap’s version of Scooter from the Muppets (“Shazam!”) with him tooling around with the retro gadgets he cooks up. If he was the deliberate comic relief, then good, but the film was comic enough without him.

This coulda been a summer movie, but it would have been too…what’s the word?…constipated to compete with Marvel’s next cinematic endeavor (Damage Control: The Movie! Now we’re really scraping the bottom here) or whatever Michael Bay plans to blow up for 100 minutes. There’s this feeling of (in a Monty Python way) “Get on with it!” that sticks with Captain for too much of the film. Still, it remained fun, even for an Indiana Jones knock-off. It had cool aircraft. It had robots. It had rocket ships. It had a ridiculous plot was five degrees off campy. All it needed was a little Red Bull to really leap to life. Did I mention it has robots?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A very mild rent it. It’s got a lot going for it, but Captain has a hard time getting there. If at all.


Stray Observations…

  • It’s true. The spire atop the Empire State Building was originally designed as a mooring for airships. What designers failed to anticipate were the powerful updrafts caused by the virtual canyon created by the skyscrapers up and down Manhattan. Science!
  • For those keeping track, “Totenkopf” means “dead head” in German. Come hear Uncle John’s band.
  • I saw the Buck Rogers comic book there! Don’t get all meta on me!
  • “You’ve got a gift.”

Next Installment…

We explore The Life Aquatic, With Steve Zissou as our guide.


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 20: George Clooney’s “Leatherheads” (2008)


Leatherheads


The Players…

George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, John Krasinski and Jonathan Pryce.


The Story…

Professional football back in the 20s was just finding its feet. Back then, despite its small fan base, pro ball was more of a novelty than anything. Most folks smirked; no way that guys would ever be paid to play ball, not with the competition of college football riding so high. But it looks like the fans demand pro football…all twelve of them.

So spunky sports reporter Roxie has this nose for news, and to grab a scoop on the possibility of a real American pro football league sounds delicious. She seeks out Dodge, a too-old-to-play rapscallion about the potential future of football as proper spectator sport.

Roxie fast learns she should’ve double-checked her resources.


The Rant…

Two things:

  1. Sorry I’ve been away from so long. I just put in 21 days in a row at work (which must violate the Constitution is some way, shape or form) and sleep was a more precious commodity than blog upkeep. Besides, I had no damn time to watch any new films, so get off me.
  2. I’ve been derelict in my duties. I’ve been comparing the trade and this blog looks very primitive. I wish I knew more about customizing on WordPress but I’m too damned busy elsewhere (life, work, kid, whatever comes after lifeworkkid) to make these posts look snappy. A web pal of mine says it’s all about the content, but what good is the content if its packaging is lame? I could use some suggestions and input into making RIORI more shiny.

Back to movies…

This is not my first comedy I’ve covered. It is however the screwiest comedy I’ve ever covered. Leatherheads is a comedy in the most earthy way: madcap. No redeeming dramatic factors backing it up. Sure, we have he classic hero-villain-intermediary triad working, but it’s all very squishy. More on that later, but now it’s time for the traditional intro:

I’ve never been a football fan. I know it sounds very not ‘Mericun to not be into football (and not be “accused” of being gay for it) in these our United States. Sorry. The closest I ever got into football was in college cheering on the Syracuse Orangemen every Saturday from the end zone as a member of the marching band. And here’s something for you: it’s hard to get behind college football on the idiot box when you get prime seats gratis for four years where the ref can actually hear your protests about fouls. Beyond that catbird seat, I could give two sh*ts about football.

That is not to say that I’m not interested in the history of the game. Football’s the biggest commodity in pro sports as far as I understand. Think about how much Super Bowl ad spots go for and you get what I’m saying. Its influence is huge, and has weaved endless threads into our national conscious that can never be undone.

Like I said, I don’t really like football, but I sure as hell can’t deny it. Something as big as pro football had to start somewhere. The acorn and the oak and alla dat. I‘d like to imagine the history of the pro game began with a bunch of hardscrabble youths took to warping British rugby into the game as we know it today. Maybe it was just a bunch of guys (let’s face it, it had to be guys. Not men, but guys) who liked getting down and dirty and playing in the mud. Or perhaps it was just some knuckleheads who plum enjoyed smashing into things.

I think the last part is the closest analog to the truth as far as Leatherheads goes…


Dodge Connelly (Clooney) is washed up. Or at least very close to the shoreline. He could have dedicated his life after the Great War to some noble effort like curing some disease or erecting mighty buildings. Nope. Instead he opted for punting the pigskin in the haphazard world of fledgling professional football. He’s past his prime, on the far side of forty and has absolutely no clue how to contribute to society in a meaningful fashion. And besides, it’s not as if pro football has any hope of being a big deal after all, not with college ball being so popular, and those kids are amateurs.

Dodge is the captain of the Duluth Bulldogs, a team so low on the tier they can barely afford a pot to piss in. While there’s no real money to be made in pro ball, Dodge and his cohorts—ahem, teammates—work with what they have (even if it’s only one ball) and just try to have fun, not giving a damn. But Dodge, who let’s face it, has very little good years left in him (not as if there were a lot in the first place), is stubborn. He figures with the right marketing, pro ball could not only become a legitimate enterprise but also a profitable one. He figures all he needs is the right kind of player. Someone that crowds could rally around, want to see him shine on the field. A football star. That’s the ticket. Don’t you know Dodge has the perfect player in mind.

Carter Rutherford (Krasinksi) is a war hero, athlete, scholar and all around the envy of everyone. He’s handsome, modest, a real Boy Scout and before his college years had concluded, was capable of whipping the crowds into a fomenting frenzy playing college ball. How about football as a career? Please. Carter has more that tossing around the old pigskin lined up for his future. Well, not if Dodge has anything to say about it. He’s sure he found his golden boy. Now how to convince him to join the Bulldogs in hopes to make pro football legit?

Yet is Carter’s rep as shiny as it seems? Can he really be America’s son? Dodge certainly thinks so, but not spunky news reporter Lexie Littleton (Zellweger). She smells a rat. There’s something fishy about Carter’s war story, and he may not be the golden boy the public esteems. No matter to Dodge. Carter’s his man, warts and all. But the dauntless reporter wants the truth, for is Carter too good to be true?

What to do? What to do? Hell, let’s just work it out on the field…


I liked this one. I’m not one for screwball comedies, and Leatherheads came perilously close to that, but on the whole it was a witty little film. It wasn’t outright funny, but always on the cusp of going off the tracks. Whether or not this was director Clooney’s intentions I have no idea. But I did like this one.

Leatherheads is Clooney’s third film he directed, and this time it feels like he tried to apply a few things he learned from the Coen Brothers (down to hiring some of the same actors). It’s got that left-of-center feel like most Coen comedies possess, and Clooney does well with the fast talking, carnival barker type delivery and dialogue he affected in their movies. Even the editing seems Coen-ish. Hard to figure if this was a Clooney project alone or a wink and a nod to the Brothers themselves. Either way it doesn’t matter. Leatherheads moves swiftly along with its story with highly quotable, snappy dialogue, sight gags, hammy acting and borderline screwball antics. Couldn’t help but smile during this movie.

However not all is fair in love, football and acting. Again, I don’t know if Clooney was shooting for this, but the leads feel like they’re adhering to stereotypes on purpose. For instance, Zellweger has the right attitude as the spitfire His Girl Friday. Too right an attitude. Clooney is the loveable ruffian, and Krasinski with the most sincere face. These are archetypes in cinema, inescapable no matter how you dress them up. But there’s no real flair to any of these characters. Nothing that would make them stand out in a police line up for committing anything remarkable. There needed to be a little more meat on the bones for me to really embrace the acting, which was serviceable but like I said, needed more oomph.

One thing this movie does well is illustrate the hardscrabble life pro football had, all low rent and humble, well, well before the multi-billion dollar industry it is today. And speaking of dollars, I uncovered a possible argument why Leatherheads didn’t score many points (ha!) at the multiplex. In an interview Clooney said that he made this movie with a specific age bracket in mind, the oh so lucrative 50 to 80 year-old demographic.

*screeching of tires*

What the what? That kind of marketing would get you killed in war! Deliberating aiming beyond the apocryphal 25 to 40 year old demo is akin to Hollywood budgetary suicide! Did they even have movies fifty years ago? What in the name of Heisman was Clooney thinking? A surefire way to meet The Standard is to lose money on an earnest project. Clooney succeeded, but what guts. In a world of youth and glam overly revered in Hollywood that to make a film with grandpa in mind is so crazy that it almost worked.

Admittedly Leatherheads tried a bit too had to be old-timey, right down to the font used for the opening credits. There’s a certain Marx Brothers quality to the film, and that also is an acquired taste (one I have) for an older audience. Like I said, there’s an underlying madcap tone to the whole picture, humor steeped in pop culture from many moons ago. Leatherheads is not a laugh out loud comedy. Sure, it’s funny, but it goes for the element of “smart” funny that values wit over fart jokes. It’s all a very slick affair.

Perhaps that senior citizen factor failed because it alienated a good percentage of moviegoers. Who really wants to see gutbucket football in action from three generations ago, besides Gramps, me and football enthusiasts? Good question. In the long run it doesn’t really matter, because a good movie is a good movie. Leatherheads is not a great movie, and can be a bit creaky at times, but I liked it. A solid okay would be the best way to describe it.

So what have we learned?

Working 21 days in row sucks and keeps me away from movies and RIORI (as well as food, drink, sleep, sex and sanity), my blog needs a new coat of paint and Leatherheads was a solid, yet mediocre film with a few highlights.

Overall it’s good to be back. Sorry I was away for so long. I left kisses on the pillow.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Leatherheads may have an acquired taste, but it won’t be a bitter one (insert clever football analogy here, ‘cause I can’t think of one. Not a fan, remember?).


Stray Observations…

  • The filmmakers neglected the actual gridiron pattern on the field that was standard for football back in the day. Someone was asleep at the wheel.
  • “You went to college?” “Colleges.”
  • Hey! It’s Vinnie Delpino, Doog!
  • “I didn’t come over here to be insulted.” “There where do you usually go?”
  • I loved the set pieces and costumes. Someone sure didn’t skimp in the wardrobe department.
  • “I don’t drink.” “You will.”
  • I didn’t give much of a shout out to Jonathan Pryce’s performance as promoter CC Frazier. He’s very dry and sullen. I like that in a classic antagonist.
  • “There’s always baseball.”

Next Installment…

Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow. Kinda says it all, doesn’t it?