Iron Man 2 Jon Favreau’s much-anticipated follow-up to his breakthrough 2008 blockbuster is less a comic book flick than it is a superhero version of Arthur the Oscar-nominated 1981 comedy that starred Dudley Moore as a drunken wise-cracking dilettante. In his second turn as Tony Stark Robert Downey Jr. recasts the billionaire inventor as the Dean Martin of industrialists strutting from one star-studded event to another on a bacchanalian victory tour dishing out choice one-liners and stirring up minor controversies for his exasperated babysitters Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle) to quell. Whether gloating about his achievements at a defense industry expo upbraiding Senators during a congressional hearing or getting wasted and donning his armored powersuit to play DJ at his birthday party there's no telling what kind of madcap mischief Tony Stark will get himself into next!
The Tony Stark Comedy Tour for what it’s worth is a supremely entertaining ride (credit screenwriter Justin Theroux at the very least with crafting the genre’s most quotable film of all time) but I’m fairly certain Iron Man 2 is supposed to be an action film not the Marvel Follies Variety Show. Surely there must be a supervillain lurking in the shadows a frighteningly powerful menace preparing to unleash its destructive might upon the world?
There is — well kind of. The primary antagonist of Iron Man 2 Mickey Rourke's hulking Ivan Vanko (aka Whiplash) is certainly a fearsome beast baring his blinged-out grill and electrified tentacles but he gets all of five minutes of meaningful screen time in the sequel — hardly enough to establish him as a worthy foe for the great Iron Man. Perhaps producers found Rourke’s chosen dialect learned from John Malkovich's Rounders School of Exaggerated Russian Accents (“I vant my bort!” he furiously declares when separated from his pet parrot) to be less compelling in post-production.
More likely they became enamored with Sam Rockwell in the role of Justin Hammer Stark’s resentful business rival and Whiplash’s principal financial backer. It’s certainly understandable. Exuding the hubris and insecurity of a sardonic Mark Cuban (but capable of amusing us with more than just an underachieving basketball team) his performance is easily the best of the film surpassing even that of the great Downey. (Which makes perfect fodder for conspiracy theorists who wonder why Rockwell was the only member of the main cast not to get his own poster.)
The only problem is Rockwell’s Hammer is a venture capitalist not a comic book supervillain and every second he spends on the screen — as enjoyable as it is — is a second that could have been devoted to dimensionalizing Rourke’s character or crafting a badly-needed action sequence to enliven the talky second act.
It’s little wonder then that Stark continues with his feckless self-destructive ways unconcerned with the threat posed by the Hammer/Whiplash collaboration. He's got bigger problems to worry about — namely his inability to find a suitable replacement for palladium the substance inside the Arc Reactor that powers both his suit and his heart and which also happens to be slowly killing him.
Thankfully Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. arrive at his compound to stage a kind of intervention bearing a powerful dual-pronged Deus Ex Machina device that instantly wrests our hero from his para-suicidal stupor — just in time to build the upgraded powersuit he’ll need to thwart the army of powerful robot drones that Whiplash is about to let loose upon on the unsuspecting citizens of Queens New York. Whew! Favreau steps up the action and delivers a suitably big finish but don't blink when Iron Man and Whiplash meet on the battlefield because you might just miss it.
Given that Iron Man 2’s director and writer have both spent the bulk of their movie careers employed as actors it comes as little surprise that they chose to focus the action on Downey and Rockwell as the two rank head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. I just wish they found room in between the one-liners for a few more explosions.
Ewan McGregor is Christian a romantic at heart who moves to the seedy Montmartre district of Paris to become a playwright. He and the raucous bunch of Bohemians he meets which includes artist Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo) develop a stage musical to star the seductively beautiful Satine (Nicole Kidman) a famous courtesan and the Moulin Rouge's principal singer. The minute Christian lays eyes on Satine he's infatuated--and she winds up falling deeply in love with him despite herself. But the evil English duke (Richard Roxburgh) who is funding their show will only do so for a price-he's obsessed with Satine and wants her for himself.
Since much of this story is told via song (modern pop tunes and a few originals) the pressure was on the two leads to carry it off. Rumor has it Heath Ledger and Catherine Zeta-Jones were once the frontrunners for these roles--this movie certainly doesn't suffer without them. Nicole Kidman reveals herself a lovely singer particularly when performing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" while suspended over the Moulin Rouge audience. Hunky Ewan McGregor as the heartbreakingly honest Christian is truly outstanding with a radiant smile and surprisingly beautiful singing voice to boot (who knew?). John Leguizamo overdoes it a wee bit as does Richard Roxburgh as the Duke but it's all in the crazy-quilt spirit of the film.
A shiny sparkling pinwheel of a production Moulin Rouge might be the most gorgeous movie you'll ever lay eyes upon. The costumes are fabulous (dolled up Nicole Kidman makes them positively breathtaking) as are the fairy tale sets and Goya-esque makeup. Mainstream audiences will likely reject director Baz Luhrmann's irreverence and whimsy; some scenes are overlong some are so swoopily herky-jerky your head spins. But Luhrmann may have done what hasn't been done since The Sound of Music in 1965--created a successful live-action musical one that could reinvent the genre. A gravelly voiced Boho warbles The Police's "Roxanne" as dancers tango; David Bowie does Nat "King" Cole's "Nature Boy"; and you've never seen Madonna's "Like a Virgin" performed quite this way before.
Rabbit-Proof Fence is not fiction. It is the true story of three Aborigine children--Molly and Daisy Craig and their cousin Gracie Fields--who in 1931 were taken forcibly from their mothers and their home in Jigalong in the north of Australia and moved to the Moore River Native Settlement over a thousand miles away. This travesty is carried out in the film on the orders of A.O. Neville Chief Protector of the Aborigines (played by Kenneth Branagh) who believes the best way to solve Australia's "coloured problem" is to breed the aboriginal blood out of mixed-race children. According to his pseudo-scientific rationale for racism the way to do that is to make sure so-called "half castes" don't marry full-blooded Aborigines (that would dilute the white blood you see). Neville is not alone in his sentiments. This popular racial philosophy meant that from 1905 to 1971 (no that's not a typo) it was government policy to remove children from their homes against their will. Molly Daisy and Gracie were three such children and Rabbit-Proof Fence is the story of their remarkable escape from the settlement and their adventures on the journey home to Jigalong--as told by Molly's daughter Doris Pilkington Garimara in a book released on Nov. 27 two days before the film opened in New York and Los Angeles.
As one might imagine the success of this film hinges on the abilities of its very young stars Molly (Everlyn Sampi) Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and Gracie (Laura Monaghan). The three girls come off very well; they're believable in the roles and they truly make you feel the hardship of their journey. They're very mature especially Sampi who carries most of the scenes as the girls' leader helping them to get food find shelter and above all avoid being captured by the Aborigine tracker who follows in their wake Moodoo (David Gulpilil). They don't play the parts too sweetly or innocently which is quite an achievement especially since they still manage to create some pretty intense emotional impact. That being said however something is missing from Rabbit-Proof Fence. Despite the narrative's focus on children of mixed races nearly everything in this film is well black and white. Strong main characters are sacrificed in favor of the social issues the film wants to address so the girls serve as allegorical figures for the hopes of every mixed-race child and Branagh stands for every nasty white racist who ever walked on Australian soil. While there's nothing wrong with allegory per se and while there's no question who was right and who was wrong in the historical situation it doesn't necessarily make for a compelling or thought-provoking film.
Thanks to director Phillip Noyce (The Quiet American The Bone Collector) and director of photography Christopher Doyle (The Quiet American In the Mood for Love) you hardly notice while you're watching the movie that you're being pounded 'bout the head with moral pronouncements. This is one gorgeous-looking film. The fence that guides the girls home (ironically enough built by their white fathers who've moved on to build elsewhere) runs on for miles; heat shimmers over a vast empty desert that somehow still seems beautiful. Moments like these enhanced by a fascinating soundtrack from world music maestro Peter Gabriel make it easier to overlook the weaknesses of the story. But there's no question that the film's symbols serve as little more than that: The fence which could have been used to great effect as a metaphor instead serves merely as a symbol of the racial separation already depicted in the story. A soaring "spirit bird" that Molly watches wide-eyed with wonder is such an obvious symbol of freedom it's almost painful; there are no layers of meaning here. Everything is cut and dried which seems to be becoming a habit for Noyce whose The Quiet American was similarly lacking in subtlety.