Iron Man 3: Smaller than the sum of its parts

I’m feeling a bit too lazy to write a properly structured piece on Iron Man 3, which I saw yesterday afternoon in 3D (but not IMAX 3D). So I’m going to take the easy way out and list down a series of short segments with my overall thoughts, in no particular order.

Not enough screen time for the suits: The last trailer released showcased multiple Iron Man suits coming to the rescue and this tied in with the marketing material from a few weeks earlier when Marvel released images for 6 different suits, i.e., the Mark 17 (Heartbreaker), 33 (Silver Centurion), 35 (Red Snapper) and 38-40 (Igor, Gemini & Shotgun). As always, the geek in me really wanted the filmmakers to dwell on some of this stuff. But when they did appear in the climactic battle (in fact, I think there must have been about 20 suits flying around), the scene was too ‘busy’ for me to really appreciate and enjoy the different features and capabilities of the suits. Of course, the rational part of my brain (yes, it exists) knows that doing so would completely kill the pacing and flow of the scene. This is the sort of thing that would work great if there was an Iron Man TV show; it would be a bit like watching the Thunderbirds in the ‘70s where different episodes focused on the different Thunderbird machines.

Keep kids out of it: I was not too comfortable with the introduction of the Harley character into the storyline. It was too cutesy for me; it felt like this was being done just to make the movie appeal to that particular demographic. It really was difficult for me to accept that this hi-tech suit could be fixed in somebody’s garage. That’s the sort of plot device that works in Saturday morning TV shows, not in this sort of ‘grown up superhero’ universe.

Ben Kingsley’s the Man(darin)!: I really loved the twist with the Mandarin; not sure that any actor other than Ben Kingsley could have pulled this off. ‘Nuff said, as it’s too early in the movie’s release to be giving away spoilers.

Guy Pearce plays another corporate villain: Last year’s Prometheus featured Guy Pearce playing corporate honcho Peter Weyland, the man behind the evil Weyland-Yutani conglomerate. Here, he plays Aldrich Killian, the man who heads the shadowy AIM corporation. He also played quite a hateful character – Charlie Rakes – in the Depression-era drama Lawless. And to think I first saw this actor in drag in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Dark screen/ GSC ruins another movie for me: Right from the beginning of the film, when I put on the 3D glasses, I felt that the screen was too dark. It didn’t seem to bother anyone else, but I periodically, had to take my glasses off just to see some scenes clearly, even though doing so rendered them blurry because of the twin 3D images. I have been reading up on this and there are some interesting online articles that explain the phenomenon. The main reason is that 3D glasses, due to their polarized filters, tend to cut the light levels that reach our eyes. Therefore the film has to be shot at higher brightness levels to compensate; this is naturally done for films that are shot in 3D (e.g. Avatar), but for films that take the cheaper route and convert to 3D later (like Iron Man 3 and most other 3D films), it is much more difficult to build in that extra brightness. The other culprit is the theater owner. They have to screen 3D films at a brightness of 4.5 foot-Lamberts (fL) whereas many theatres apparently screen 3D films at as low as 2-3 (fL). It is expensive for a theater to upgrade all its screens to high brightness levels, so they may do it only for screens that regularly show 3D films. For a movie like Iron Man 3, which was showing on multiple screens at GSC, it is possible that we went into a theatre that usually shows only 2D films and therefore hadn’t been upgraded to show a 3D film at 4.5 fL. Apparently, this is an issue across the world and Michael Bay wrote a letter to projectionists back in 2011, requesting them to screen his 3D Transformers film with the right level of brightness.

Overall, I thought IM3 was ok, but not as enjoyable as other Marvel films like Avengers and Captain America and the first Iron Man. The sum of the parts was greater than the whole. On the good side, I liked the humour and dialogue, I loved what Ben Kingsley did with the Mandarin, Happy’s character was fun and entertaining, Aldrich Killian was really evil and those Extremis test subjects were pretty scary. On the negative side, I didn’t care for the Harley character/ storyline, Rebecca Hall was wasted as Maya Hansen and I didn’t get to see enough of the suits. Luckily, IM3 only has Star Trek Into Darkness as real competition in the month of May, so it will make a pile of money before the big hitters like Man of Steel and World War Z come out in June; and end its US run above USD 300 million like its two predecessors. Not a bad achievement for a character that actually was a 2nd rung hero in the Marvel universe for the longest time, well behind Captain America, Thor and the Hulk. All credit to Robert Downey Jr. and it is going to be very difficult for Marvel to fill this character’s shoes with any other actor.


Oblivion – 70’s scifi revisited

While watching Oblivion yesterday, I was struck by how Joseph Kosinski chose the look of his post-apocalyptic world, both the landscape of Earth as well as the interiors of Tower 49 where the two drone supervisors – played by Tom Cruise (Jack Harper) and Andrea Riseborough (Victoria) – work .

Let’s start with Earth; this is a world which has supposedly been rendered unlivable after a period of conflict between the armies of Earth and alien attackers (called Scavengers or ‘scavs’). The scavs broke up the Moon (which is still visible in the night sky in the years-long process of breaking up and distributing itself into an orbital ring), which resulted in out-of-control tidal waves, earthquakes and other mayhem. The remaining population of Earth has apparently been moved to Saturn’s moon, Titan and all that remains is a collection of giant automated machines (controlled by an orbiting station called the Tet) spread across the planet to extract whatever resources are still usable, including water. But for all that, Earth appears beautiful, even pristine, and only occasionally do we see remnants of buildings, much of them conveniently underground so as to not spoil the look of the film!

Then we come to Tower #49, where Jack and Victoria live and which provides communications and navigation support to Jack as he flies around in his cool Bubbleship, locating and repairing the automated drones which fly around mopping up scav resistance. The interiors of Tower #49 would not be out of place in the catalogs of European minimalist designers (Kosinski is after all an architecture graduate). Vika’s communications center is straight out of those ‘houses of the future’ videos from Living Tomorrow and Corning doing the rounds on Youtube. So, instead of the grungy ‘used future’ look made popular Star Wars and Blade Runner, the interiors have a clean antiseptic look…the film that came to my mind was Logan’s Run (1976), although Mr. Kosinski himself refers specifically to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running as his influences. The other link with ‘70s scifi films that he mentions is the ‘lonely man’ theme, which was very apparent in films like Silent Running, Solaris, and Omega Man. I can imagine that this look in the ‘70s was necessitated by budgetary constraints – scifi films were never big money makers in the days before Star Wars – and the studios would have tried to avoid having to cast hundreds of extras. But for a modern day scifi film like Oblivion, it is a very deliberate decision to adopt that look.

And I think Joseph Kosinski has used this ‘filmic anachronism’ to plant the thought of “this doesn’t feel right” in the mind of the viewer. After the first ten minutes, one starts wondering how it is that in this age of logical storytelling where novelists and filmmakers meticulously research the science behind their stories, a film maker could design a post-apocalyptic world that looks so beautiful. And sure enough, in due course, we find out that all is not as it appears with the big reveal in the last one-third of the movie.

Overall, Oblivion is an aggregated homage to a number of influential scifi films of the ‘70s. This doesn’t diminish the quality of the movie in my opinion; in fact, this is the fun part of having more than a century of cinema behind us – being able to spot influences and styles in a filmmakers work. When I watched Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy in early 2011, I had titled my blog post as “Tron: Legacy – A Neon Star Wars?”. This was particularly evident during the dogfight sequence involving Light Jets and the shuttle. I got the same sense of déjà vu watching Oblivion during the canyon dogfight involving 3 drones and Jack’s Bubbleship. One could almost imagine that we were watching Darth Vader and his two wingmen closing in on Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing as he flew through the metal canyons of Death Star.

Coming back to Oblivion – the acting, special effects and production design are all top notch. The story has genuine depth – it could have been called “the tragedy of Jack and Julia”, no matter that the movie itself ends on a positive note. I found myself genuinely curious to know more about this world. What happened between 2017 and 2077? What about the other technicians #1-48, 50, 51 and beyond 53? What actually lies in the radiation zone? What happened to Jack Harper? Mr. Kosinski has indicated that he may revisit this world, after all it is his original creation, based on his unpublished graphic novel. Meanwhile, he is waiting for 2 scripts to be completed at his home studio Disney – a remake of the 1979 scifi film The Black Hole and another sequel to Tron – to decide what will be his follow-up film. Whatever it is, I assume there will be a dogfight sequence in it!

A string quartet, a play about Caesar and a film by Orson Welles

This weekend I watched 3 very different films, which were connected by two very dissimilar threads – Imogen Poots and Orson Welles.

First up was the 2012 drama A Late Quartet, directed by Israeli director Yaron Zilberman. I think the last time I watched a movie connected with classical music, it was The Red Violin in 1998 which followed the story of a famous violin over a period of 4 centuries. I got to listen to some wonderful pieces of music and the film won an Oscar for Best Score. A Late Quartet is also set in the world of classical music and it gives the director the opportunity to integrate the works of Beethoven, Haydn and Bach into the plot. However, unlike The Red Violin, the star attractions in this movie are the musicians rather than the instruments, specifically the 4 actors who portray the members of a world famous string quartet – Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Russian-born Israeli actor Mark Ivanir. In the film, the quartet have been playing together for 25 years  and are now shaken by the news that Walken’s character has early stages of Parkinson’s. Walken proposes a farewell concert after which he will hand over his cellist chair to a talented musician who has previously played with the group. While the rest of the group are struggling to come to terms with this development, Hoffman who plays 2nd violin starts talking about the possibility of alternating the 1st violin chair with perfectionist Mark Ivanir, much to Ivanir’s discomfort. Keener and Hoffman’s characters are married to each other and she asks Hoffman to give up this idea to avoid further disrupting the quartet; a request which hurts his feelings deeply, as he had expected her to back him up. Meanwhile, their talented college-age daughter, played by the vivacious British actress Imogen Poots, starts flirting with Ivanir during her music lessons with him. As you can see, there’s quite a lot going on here and before you start thinking that this sounds like the plot of a daytime soap, let me say that that the story lines unfold very naturally and the performances by these multiple Oscar nominees were nuanced and entirely believable. There are a few moments of melodrama, but ultimately, all the characters sacrifice their personal needs in order to keep the quartet together. The film culminates with Walken’s farewell performance, the quartet playing Beethoven’s Opus 131, which is considered to be one of his greatest pieces.

The performances of the key actors were outstanding of course, but I was really taken by the screen presence of Imogen Poots. I immediately searched for any other films she had recently acted in and I saw that she had a bit part in the critically acclaimed period drama Me and Orson Welles. This film created a great deal of buzz when it came out in 2008, but sadly was not picked up for distribution by any of the major studios. It eventually had a very limited theatrical run, but of course made a number of appearances at film festivals leading to an astounding 5 wins and 12 nominations for the actor – Christian McKay – who played Orson Welles. The film is directed by Richard Linklater, who along with Kevin Smith was considered to be the best American ‘indie’ director of the 1990s. The film also stars Zac Efron and Claire Danes and is based on the novel of the same name. It tells the fictionalized story of a young man (Efron) who is hired by Welles for a small part in his stage production of Julius Caeser for the Mercury Theater. The story takes place in the frantic few days before opening night and like Linklater’s ‘90’s works, is a coming-of-age film. The movie has a great ensemble cast, but ultimately it all boils down to McKay’s performance as the larger-than-life Orson Welles, who motivates those around him by the sheer force of his personality. The film gives an insight into the emotional upheavals involved in any creative process, not dissimilar to that of A Late Quartet. But the film that really came to mind as the climactic opening night scene unfurled was Shakespeare in Love. In both cases, the brilliant but tortured creator must beg, borrow, argue and cajole to ensure his play sees the light of day and in both cases, we as the audience get to experience vicariously, the unbounded joy of the entire crew at the end of a successful opening night.

In real life, Orson Welles followed up the success of his Mercury Theater plays with his directorial debut, Citizen Kane, which for many years has been considered the greatest film ever made. A year later, he released his 2nd film, The Magnificent Ambersons which also was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (Welles ultimately never won an Oscar in competition, but was awarded an honorary statuette in 1971). In one of the scenes in Me and Orson Welles, Mr. Welles reads out a few lines from the novel The Magnificent Ambersons and soon after ad libs the very same lines during a radio performance…this was a book he was really in love with. So, I decided this would be the film I would watch as a logical conclusion to the weekend. The final cut of the film differed significantly from how Welles wanted it edited and sadly the unused raw footage was destroyed to make room in the studio vaults, so Welles never had the chance to do a director’s cut in subsequent years. Even so, the finished product is highly regarded by many film critics and features in my copy of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. It is a depressing story and Welles’ genius (along with that of cinematographer Stanley Cortez) is in shooting much of the film inside the darkened manor to magnify the slow decline of the Amberson family. As in the case of Citizen Kane, this is a film that can be studied by film historians for its technical brilliance, but I confess that this film did not connect with me emotionally (neither did Citizen Kane). The much awaited ‘comeuppance’ which the spoilt heir George Amberson Minafer is supposed to get at the end of the story wasn’t very satisfying either (if you want to see what my idea of a real comeuppance is, then check out the last scene of There Will be Blood). And so, Touch of Evil must remain my favorite Welles film (the opening scene alone is worth watching).

It was a somewhat disappointing end to my thematically linked trilogy, but I guess watching an Orson Welles movie can at least be considered educational in terms of film history and creativity. The other 2 films were very engaging and I wait to see Imogen Poots in Danny Boyle’s upcoming Filth (with James McAvoy) and certainly I hope that director Yaron Zilberman will come up with a suitable follow up to A Late Quartet. As for Richard Linklater, I am considering a viewing of his “Before” trilogy, with the 3rd film Before Midnight being released next month.