POSTED ON MAY 8, 2013:
An Early, Black Christmas
Breathing new life into a franchise
Shane Black coming into the Iron Man franchise always sounded like a good idea. You've felt the pen of the famed screenwriter before, in his credited filmography (including the Lethal Weapon franchise, The Long Kiss Goodnight and the geek favorite The Monster Squad) to the many scripts which he's polished and gone uncredited.
Black's brand consists of smart, tightly written action films. Audacious and nearly-Hitchockian set pieces, well-timed humor, larger-than-life heroes and villains (and those in between), twisting plots and a predilection for setting the mayhem around Christmas are the signatures of his story-telling aesthetic, one that became a genre and era-defining style unto itself.
His directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) was an underappreciated gem that united Black with Robert Downey, Jr. -- along with a scene-stealing Val Kilmer -- and was the first clue that Iron Man 3 would be something to look forward to. Sure enough, Black and Downey reuniting for the first, post-Avengers Marvel film make for a great time at the movies and the best Iron Man yet.
The events of Thor and The Avengers have changed the world. But the realization of extraterrestrial life and its subsequent attack on New York thanks to Thor's brother, Loki, has also left Tony Stark a changed man. Sidelined by seaside hermitage whilst he throws himself into new iterations of the Iron Man armor, Stark now suffers acute anxiety attacks and a growing distance from his true love, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, Se7en). His comrade, Col. "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda) has become the official, government-approved version of Iron Man thanks to his War Machine armor, now dubbed Iron Patriot by those who worried War Machine sounded too warlike. Meanwhile, Tony's best friend, Happy Hogan (John Favreau, director of the first two films) has been made head of Stark Industries security in order to protect President Potts. His attention to the job earns him record complaints from the staff.
Tech Envy. If Google Glass comes with an Iron Man suit, Iím totally getting on board with wearable technology. It works for Tony Stark in Iron Man 3, now playing.
Pepper Potts receives a visit from an old flame, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce, Prometheus), touting the new research from his think tank, Advanced Idea Mechanics, that can map the human brain and make changes to its genetics on the fly -- an innovation that Killian offered to discover with Stark 14 years previous and now wants to share with Stark Industries. Seeing scary applications for the technology and being out of the military weapons business, Potts refuses to do business with AIM.
But when a series of terrorist bombings by an Asian bin Laden crossover called The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley, Hugo) becomes responsible for mortally wounding Happy, Stark issues an ultimatum of revenge that tears his and Pepper's lives apart and reveals the hidden consequences of Stark's past.
Grafted onto the continuing events of the Marvel universe, Iron Man 3 is a Shane Black movie through and through. His stylistic touch is evident from Downey's unsure, opening narration. His hallmark, tightly confident plotting, skirting the edges of convoluted (ultimately, The Mandarin's motivation is somewhat ill-defined) and cataclysmically grandiose action, as organic as it is eye-popping, are punctuated by well-timed doses of wry humor and expertly delivered, crowd-pleasing climaxes.
Reinvigorating the franchise with a sense of fun that Iron Man 2 was sorely lacking, Iron Man 3 is that rare thing: the latest, best film of a trilogy. Co-written with Drew Pearce, their script purrs along, telling a fairly dense story with a sense of scope and ease that breaks new ground for Black and makes Pearce's upcoming Pacific Rim even more anticipated.
Downey has become a bit one-note in these flicks over the years; that slightly coked-out delivery, sharp though it may be in the right hands has had me longing for him to play something outside of his recent milieu. But Black's chemistry with Downey elicits a more grounded Stark, loaded with new baggage that makes the character more relatable than in his playboy, industrialist-turned-narcissistic-superhero past -- even Downey's familiar, deadpan delivery feels fresh and unforced.
Paltrow isn't given as much to do until the end (though she arguably has the most interesting arc), but she's fine in the role of Pepper Potts. Ben Kingsley strikes a perfect balance as The Mandarin, chewing every syllable during his jihadi-esque videos and becoming an absolute delight when the fullness of his character is revealed. Guy Pearce is on his game, providing a great performance, though I couldn't help but think the role of Aldrich Killian was somehow meant for Val Kilmer. You'll understand when you see it.
Because you should. Iron Man 3 is the best of the series and one of the best Marvel films to date. Shane Black has thrown down a gauntlet to crafting a gorgeously executed and thoroughly entertaining superhero film with his typical aplomb, proving to be a perfect match for Marvel's imperfectly spectacular heritage.
Context is important whether one tells a well-known story or one less well known. Oddly, Renoir reminded me of The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's third act exploration of the crucifixion of Jesus: all of the torture with none of the context, because, chances are, you're steeped in that shit already. The point is, what you bring with you probably has a hand in determining your fulfillment in the larger story.
It's in that regard that Renoir feels like the middle act of a suggested, Fellini-inspired epic, that of the legendary Impressionist painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his also legendary filmmaker son Jean (Vincent Rottiers, Last Winter). We have to bring certain knowledge of both to discover the import of their mutual muse, Catherine Hessling (Christa Theret, Twiggy) or fully comprehend her influence on the twilight of one Renoir's life during the rise of the other's.
Set in the idyllic climes of the French Riviera, Renoir artfully sketches the latter days of Auguste (Michel Bouquet, who played the Jackie Gleason role in the original version of The Toy). The famed painter, whose work was of paramount influence along with his contemporaries, Claude Monet and Henri Matisse, emphasized the radiosity of colors reflected from light long before any computer algorithm, giving his slice-of-life works a vibrancy that defined Impressionism. Owing to the influence of Rubens, Auguste decided this was the best way to paint perfect tits in serene settings.
When Auguste meets Hessling, he finds his youthful perfection. He's all about the purity of supple flesh which the scrumptious Catherine has in spades and which entices his son Jean when he returns wounded from the frontlines of World War I to convalesce at the family farm, Les Collettes. Auguste, seeking a warmer climate to ease his crippling rheumatoid arthritis, has set up shop there to work, though his swollen knuckles have hobbled his pace as surely as Jean's wound has hobbled his ambitions of returning to the front to help his comrades.
Instead, Jean, who has just begun meddling with this newfangled invention called film, embarks on a romance with the gorgeous Catherine, who in true Coco Chanel fashion, knows a social ladder to climb when she sees it.
Directed by Gilles Bourdos (Afterwards), Renoir is an appropriately pastoral affair, taking on an almost play-like quality from the small scale setting and its true-life subject matter. We get to hear Auguste expound on the principles of his art but also see the personality behind it. His disdain for war compels him to dissuade his son from fighting while his compulsion for his art is a catalyst for his subjects and family to become a part of his legacy. As the elder Renoir, Michel Bouquet delivers a detailed performance that captures the intellect that begat the masterworks as well as the man behind the brush. If you're looking for the details, though, an art history survey class does far more to give him context than his namesake film does.
As Jean, Vincent Rottiers gives an earnest turn, a man torn between his burgeoning artistic and romantic desires and his call to patriotic duty. It's a fully-fleshed portrayal of a man whose larger story Renoir likewise leaves for a film history class. You never see Auguste's most famous paintings or, conversely, hear of Jean's influence on filmmaking. In a way, that's by design and for the exploration of Catherine Hessling, their artistic fulcrum.
As Hessling, Christa Theret is a lovely muse, though as a character, probably they least likeable or interesting. After all, she's playing a model. That said Theret gives a nuanced and aware performance that is as tangible as it is pragmatic.
Bourdos's smooth direction, combined with the gorgeous cinematography of Ping Bin Lee (of Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love), captures the sumptuously provincial countryside and sexy subjects with painterly glee. But they render Renoir's diaphanous conflicts into a dreamy film full of palpable beauty, luxurious breasts and the disappointing feeling that the most interesting parts of the story happened around the one they chose to tell.
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