MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

Wilmington on Movies: Iron Man 2, Babies and Mother and Child…

Iron Man 2 (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Jon Favreau

What would we have thought back in the 1960s, if someone had told us that, in the post-2001 movie era, the Hollywood film industry would have largely abandoned the treasures of literature, history and current events as major source material and become preoccupied instead with making 50 million to 200 million dollar adaptations of super-hero comic books, children‘s stories and old TV shows?

Well, it is what it is, as they say. And in this new era, with its strange artistic and entertainment priorities, Iron Man was one of the most pleasant movie surprises of 2008: a superhero fantasy-action movie based on the Stan Lee Marvel comic, that played havoc with the usual clichés, had fun with sometimes threadbare action blockbuster conventions, and gave Robert Downey Jr. a big star part as Tony Stark — a Howard Hughesian industrialist turned Iron Man robo-warrior — that totally clicked, exploiting all Downey‘s considerable gifts for wild-eyed, comic verbosity and soulful human dramatizing, besides handing juicy, well-written supporting roles to major talents like Jeff Bridges (the corporate villain) , Gwyneth Paltrow (the heroine-babe) and Terrence Howard (the soldier-buddy).

Everybody came off looking good in the 2008 Iron Man: the stars, the writers (a four man team headed by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby), the art and tech people, the other actors — and perhaps most of all, director Jon Favreau, who kept all the balls bouncing, and made all his actors look good. Mixing it with his previous flair for comedy and character, Favreau with Iron Man showed more diversified talents (for action scenes, spectacle and CGI pyrotechnics) than we might have expected from the guy who wrote Swingers and made Elf. Following in the websteps of the Spider-Man movies, Iron Man seemed to have become the perfect Marvel movie product, and to portend well for a series, a franchise — and certainly for at least a sequel.

Unfortunately, the major surprise of Iron Man 2 — which brings back Downey, Paltrow and Favreau in an even more elaborate all-guns blazing, super-CGI super-production — is how few surprises it actually has up its iron sleeves, as well as how wantonly it wastes both the old stars who’ve returned and the new ones who’ve turned up. That new bunch includes Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell as nasty heavies, Don Cheadle, who has replaced Howard as comrade-in-arms Rhodey, Scarlett Johansson as a kick-ass femme fatale Natasha, and Samuel L. Jackson as snappish Marvel top gun Nick Fury, a brawler with a black eye patch and lots of attitude. (All he needs is a parrot on his shoulder and a few “Arrrrrrrs,” and he could recycle this performance as Long John Silver.) Also in the gang: Garry Shandling as a smiling, idiotic U. S. Senator named Stern, and Favreau himself as a jolly driver/assistant named Happy Hogan.

What went wrong here? It’s easy to blame the script — this time by Justin Theroux (of Tropic Thunder) — because it’s so clearly inferior to the first one. The story hops and flubbles along predictably, despite lively dialogue and some motor-mouth clowning by both Downey and Rockwell that suggests they’ve been given a Robin Williams green light to spritz and spew at will. (They’re both damned good at it, if that’s what they’re doing; if Theroux actually wrote all their lines, it’s some small redemption for him.)

But there’s something cheerless, thin and rote about Iron Man 2 even beyond the script — which pits an initially dying and later reborn Tony Stark against the ruthless corporate creep Justin Hammer (Rockwell), a total smarm-o, is trying to break Tony’s monopoly on super-hero robo-ware by springing from jail a vengeful Russian physicist turned super-basher named Ivan Vanko (played by Rourke, with an actual Russian accent that reminded me of Akim Tamiroff), thereby winning huge government contracts, the friendship of knucklehead Senator Stern and perhaps the approval of Bill O’Reilly on The O’Reilly Factor (played by O’Reilly, who snarls that Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, new CEO of Stark Industries, is a “pinhead,“ but stops short of calling Hammer a “patriot”). The whole thing predictably ends with a mass battle pitting heroes against villains, pinheads against patriots and good robo-warriors against bad ones. And you should be advised that there‘s one last kicker right after the endless credit crawl at the end.

Watching Iron Man was often exhilarating. Watching the sequel is like climbing into a big robot suit and trying to have a good time, despite all the clanking around you. It’s entertaining at times. But it‘s almost as if Favreau got so preoccupied with the intricacies of playing Happy Hogan — such as keeping his eyes on the road when Scarlett Johansson is stripping in the back seat — that he somehow forgot to direct the movie. The resulting film has the squeaky-clean business-as-usual veneer of an overly expensive action-toy that just dropped off the assembly line, cold and clean and plastic and proudly unimaginative.

Much of what the first movie cleverly avoided or wittily undercut — the usual clichés, stereotypes and way over-familiar scenes, the over-reliance on CGI and threadbare, undeveloped characters — keep surging to the fore here, as if they were the inevitable diseases you inevitably catch when making a sequel to a huge critical and commercial hit movie.

Meanwhile, speaking as one of the many critics who loved Iron Man (and still does), let me pay belated tribute to four members of that first movie’s team of moviemakers whom I may have passed over too quickly before: the quartet of writers, including Matt Holloway and Art Marcum — and especially the team of Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, whose excellent scriptwork on the classy neo-noirs Children of Men and Late Snow should have tipped me to the fact that they had a lot more to do with what I loved about Iron Man than I may have first allowed. Why weren’t some of them brought back?

In that first movie, of course, Favreau, the writers and Downey began with a lot of raw emotion — with playboy munitions-maker Tony Stark’s imprisonment at the hand of vicious Taliban rebels in the Afghanistan desert, and his subsequent Iron Man creation and metamorphosis. And the emotion only increased as Tony’s new anti-war sentiments were spliced into the usual Marvel “Zap! Pow!” formula of wise-cracking battles between super-hero and super-heavy. Tony’s wasn‘t swallowed up into Iron Man (as he often is here). His stature also only increased, a real triumph for Downey.

Likewise Paltrow‘s Pepper was the babe of babes. Bridges played slick-mean as well as he plays lowdown country grace. Howard was a fine macho-camarado and Clark Toub had a great small part as Tony’s fellow prisoner. But what held it all together was the personality of Downey‘s Tony — a glib hedonist who got scorched and beaten, and who changed. Downey seemed to be giving the part more than it had, more than super-hero blockbusters usually purvey. But that may have been the meat of the writing and the trick of his acting, which at its best, suggests a mix of Peter Sellers and Jack Lemmon. I have no problems calling him a great actor, even if he won’t himself (and even if he certainly isn’t one in Iron Man 2).

So what happens at the start of Iron Man 2? Some military/political satire. Pepper becoming CEO. Some more Tony high jinks and suffering. Another fall, less convincing, from which he has to be redeemed. More robo-battles. Zap! Pow! Well, that’s why they call them sequels. (I’ll catch the movie once more when the film opens and revise this, if necessary then)

Theroux and Favreau just pile on the glitz and violence, including an earfly show-stopper Formula One racing scene in Monaco, with Tony at the wheel, that won’t make anyone forget Frankenheimer’s “Grand Prix.” It’s interrupted by Rourke as Vanko and his pretty good routine of Tamiroff-as-the-Terminator, who — in one of the strangest damn scenes I’ve seen recently — strides out on the track amid the hurtling cars, strips down to gladiator drag, and then starts killing drivers and going after Tony with two huge blazing electric tentacle-whips.

Rourke can be a great actor too, in movies like Sin City as well as The Wrestler, But here, for all the racing scene’s wild, weird pyrotechnics it’s a little disquieting to see guys like Rourke and Downey carousing in this CGI blowout, especially when director-actor-driver Favreau shows up on the track too and rams Ivan against the wall, while spatting with Tony. (Mysteriously, the rest of the crowd seems forgotten.)

It also strikes me as a dubious plot twist, to have Pepper, that sexy and resourceful Girl Friday of Iron Man, named by Tony as his successor CEO, a promotion that practically kills any comic joy or zest her character might have had. Rather than breaking any real or believably imaginary glass ceiling, it struck me as kind of the equivalent of banishing her to the kitchen for the whole movie. (I was glad when she quit.)

As for Cheadle replacing Howard, it doesn’t hurt the picture, as it did a bit, for example, when The Godfather’s Clemenza, Richard Castellano, was replaced in Godfather 2 by the equally good Michael V. Gazzo (with a different character name), and, more ruinously, when Robert Duvall was replaced in Godfather 3 by (Good God) George Hamilton. (Both were also questions of salary.)

But it doesn’t help it much either, It would be nice if a hardworking, quality actor like Howard got a little sinecure for a while — though I certainly don’t begrudge Cheadle, an actor, who would still be a move immortal even if he had never played another part besides Mouse in Devil With a Blue Dress and Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda.

Garry Shandling, despite few good lines, so admirably suggests an imbecilic, doltish jackass of a Senator that I expected him to start filibustering against health care or Wall Street reform any second — though not we hope, by reading and rereading the lines Theroux wrote for him here. Scarlett Johansson, as Natalie a.k.a. Natasha, says she based her role partly on Greta Garbo in Ninotchka, which seems a bit like Angelina Jolie saying she based Lara Croft, Tomb Raider on Bette Davis in All About Eve. I’ll take Johansson’s word for it, though the Natasha of Boris and Natasha on Rocky and Bullwinkle seems a better model.

As for the product report, the sets are slick. The CGI is slick. The cinematography is slick. Robert Downey is down there in that iron suit some place, somewhere. And A.C./D.C. really rocks under the credits. Hey gang, screw Saul Bellow or F. Scott Fitzgerald or Tennessee Williams or Shakespeare and all of U.S. history and politics. Or Paul Theroux for that matter. (Justin’s uncle.) Grab another comic book, Marvel or not, and throw millions at it. We’re on a Highway to Hell!

So what does that all mean for director Favreau? He‘s still swimming in a bowl of cream, even if people like me think part of the cream is curdling. What do I know anyway? It’s entirely possible I would have enjoyed Iron Man 2 a lot more if I hadn’t been so delighted with its predecessor, and didn’t have such high expectations — if Favreau, Downey and all the others hadn’t done such a good job before. But expectations are often the name of the game. I don’t think Iron Man 2 is much of a show, but its probably still a hell of a business investment. And Iron Man is still a hell of a movie. Let’s just hope the rest of the cast don’t start pulling Terrence Howards.


‘Babies (Three Stars)
France; Thomas Balmes, 2010

Thomas Balmes‘ French documentary about babies around the world is a very well shot, deceptively simple film, which is as content to gaze at its four infant subjects — Mari from Japan, Ponijao from Namibia, Africa, Bayarjarcal from Mongolia and Hattie from San Francisco, U.S.A. — as director Jacques Perrin was content to raptly follow, from close range, the long-range flight of many flocks of birds in another admirable French documentary Winged Migration.

Both these films are fine French examples of non-fiction films as both scientific exploration and objets d’art — wordless portrayals of the beauty and wonder of the world given us without the mediation of narration, as in the early films of Painleve. I find Winged Migration far more fascinating than Babies (or Bebes as it’s known in France). But maybe that’s perhaps because I was once a baby myself, and dimly remember the whole baby routine — though not of course as enacted in exotic climes like Africa, Japan, Mongolia and Frisco.

Then again, there was much I forgot — such as how prowlingly curious babies can be, how sometimes oddly fearless. Scenes of little Bayarjarcal (Bayar for short) crawling among barnyard animals who daintily step over him, or being nuzzled in his tub by a curious goat, are bound to make some parents cringe. Conversely, so might the American scene where well-meaning parents subject their children to native chant rituals and yoga classes, and to a library of books that includes the instructive little picture-tome No Hitting.

And I’d forgotten of course, how cruel or invasive some children can be when copies of No Hitting aren’t available, as we see when Ponijao‘s older bother keeps smearing and slapping his head or messing with him, or when toddlers bop each other and bawl, or in other infant altercations that irresistibly remind you of a full-blown Laurel and Hardy routine.

The babies are adorable, natch, and when the adults interact with them, they become adorable too, even somewhat baby-like. One wonders if a world-wide adorableness movement might actually conquer the planet, if only babies could communicate, organize and raise armies, or take over the media (some would argue that they already have) or interact somewhat more productively than just repeatedly bopping each other on the bean and bawling like Stan and Ollie.

Babies was filmed mostly with a motionless camera in long takes, all quite beautifully composed and shot by Balmes and his three cinematographers: Jerome Almeras, Frazer Bradshaw and Steeven Petitteville. Ridiculously enough, it’s a PG film, because mothers occasionally suckle their young and Third World countries are not as skittish (or mercenary) about public nudity as some of us Americans. And it’s been shaped and edited as a comedy, sometimes — as with the scenes described above — even a dark comedy. You don’t think it will be entertaining, but it is.

I saw it at one of my favorite old movie houses, the Hollywood Egyptian, at a special showing with an audience that contained plenty of new mothers, who had been encouraged to bring their babies along, and often had. It was one of the best-behaved audiences with whom I’ve seen any movie recently. No loud conversations. No cell phones. No tantrums. No crying. No spilled drinks or flung popcorn. No arguments about whether Marty Scorsese is an auteur. I tell you, it was as refreshing as an afternoon nap.


Mother and Child (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Rodrigo Garcia

In the Golden Age of Hollywood, motherhood was one of the great subjects for domestic drama — reprised so often, and so insistently, that, in the “’50s and ’60s, an inevitable anti-maternal revisionist attitude finally arose in great dark movies like Psycho and The Manchurian Candidate.

But the countering tradition also still exists, including poignant masterpieces like Make Way for Tomorrow, The Grapes of Wrath, Wild River and, in a way, this wonderful little film called Mother and Child.

Motherhood can be one of the great, positive movie subjects and Rodrigo Garcia‘s moving ensemble drama proves it again. It’s a beautiful little movie about three generations of mothers, all of whom pay dearly when the second among them, Karen, has a baby girl at 14, and is forced by her own mother, Nora, to put the girl up for adoption.

So Karen grows into a bitter, disillusioned, single woman (played in middle age by Annette Bening). She works at a hospital, sometimes rejecting co-workers who try to befriend her, like all-too-patient therapist Paco (Jimmy Smits), still taking care at home of the elderly Nora (Eileen Ryan), but resentful of the way her life plunged so far off course. Unknown to Karen, a young woman and adopted daughter — Naomi Watts as hotshot lawyer Elizabeth — lives nearby, and is embarking on an affair of her own with her married boss Paul (Samuel L. Jackson again, and terrific this time).

And another young woman, Lucy (Kerry Washington), unable to have a child with her quiet husband Joseph (David Ramsey), is trying to apopt a child from a local Catholic agency with the help of the nun in charge, Sister Joanne (magnificently played by Cherry Jones).

At first, it seems that these three interweaving stories may never meet, except in the most obvious way. But they all share large themes of parenthood and love, rejection and redemption — and, as the movie progresses, they veer closer and closer. I suppose some jaded moviegoers may see the plot outlines as potentially sappy and schmaltzy, and something that wouldn’t interest them. But Rodrigo, who directed another fine, moving ensemble drama in Nine Lives, doesn’t write and direct it in any obvious, preachy way, and the actors don’t play it that way either.

Indeed, he often seems to deliberately play against sentiment. Nora, Karen and Elizabeth sometimes show unpleasant or self-absorbed qualities that are a world away from the heart-breaking, self-sacrificing mother Beulah Bondi played in Make Way for Tomorrow. We’re not always sure they’ll rise above those flaws. Lucy is so beleaguered and so determined about becoming a mother, that we could well understand if she eventually became bitter too.

There are at least three other mothers as well. Tracy (Carla Gallo), smiling and pregnant, lives next door to Elizabeth, and so does her susceptible husband Steve (Marc Blucas) . Surly Ray (Shareeka Epps) is about to have a child, which she plans to give up for adoption, And Nora‘s well-liked housekeeper Sofia (Elpidia Carrillo), of whom Karen is suspicious and even jealous, brings her little girl (Simone Lopez) to work with her, as my mother once brought me.

The stories gradually run together, like streams inevitably feeding a great, rushing river. The images, lit by cinematographer Xavier Perez Grobet like little poems, are bathed in sunlight or shadow. Mother and Child, is about the pain of motherhood, the difficulties of having children. But it’s about the joy as well. And the characters, and the actors playing them, are convincing enough that we feel, almost constantly, both that anguish and that happiness. Toward the end, there is a seraphic expression, of rapture and peace, on actress Bening’s face, as she plays or incarnates Karen, that I will remember as long as I live.

Throughout the movie, Garcia keeps showing us how inwardly strong, yet outwardly fragile, life and family bonds can be, how the tiniest things (a lost letter, a casual encounter) can crucially affect people. That we can survive, that love, children and their mothers survive, can seem a miracle.

A miracle it probably is, though not quite of the kind Sister Joanne’s religion judges. Garcia, aided here by two of the Mexican auteurs known as The Three Amigos, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (the film’s executive producer) and Guillermo Del Toro (who gets thanks), is able to counteract any sentimentality by the lightness of his touch, the cool economy of his storytelling, the wit and fineness of his dialogue, the dark elements he plays so unerringly against the light, the tragedy always just a step away, the sudden bursts of humor lifting above it, the life in this piece that keeps beating on, and the way all his actors reach so far inside and so fully inhabit their characters.

I don’t imagine Mother and Child cost very much, compared to, say, Iron Man 2. Corporations won’t rise or fall on its receipts. It certainly won’t be seen by as many people. But it deserves to be. God bless these mothers, these women, and the actresses who play them, and the actors and the moviemakers who support them so ably on screen. They all deserve our thanks.

– Michael Wilmington
May 6, 2010

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon