POSTED ON MAY 12, 2010:
Neither Iron Man 2 nor Babies disappoints it audiences
Made of Iron. Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role of Tony Stark a.k.a Iron Man in Iron Man 2, as Stark takes on villain Whiplash and possible love interests. Oooh…
It's the beginning of a new summer movie season, and for some reason, writing about Iron Man 2 feels different. I think it's because when I reviewed the original Iron Man, I was writing for a small group of friends on a blog.
It was the Superhero summer of 2008 that saw Iron Man heralding The Incredible Hulk, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and The Dark Knight. I dutifully went to all of them and reported back, generally using more expletives than allowed.
Now, two years later, the onset of summer doesn't see as many superheroes (I'm sure Jonah Hex doesn't count), and the audience is a little bigger. It makes me consider how many things have changed in two years, and how fortunate I feel to have made good on the faith of that small group of friends.
I was thinking about that while re-reading my original Iron Man review and after having seen Iron Man 2, I can say that's what made the first film such a success really hasn't changed. I won't get too spoilery, but if you somehow haven't seen this thing yet and want to stay totally untainted, you should bail out now.
Six months after Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) outs himself as Iron Man and is made aware of S.H.I.E.L.D's interest in Iron Man joining the Avenger Initiative, Stark has essentially become the prime deterrent against anyone who wants to mess with America.
Dragged before a Senate subcommittee to explain why he should be the sole arbiter of U.S. national security, Stark assures the assembly that, despite its fears, rogue nations are a decade from acquiring anything that even resembles Stark Industries level of technology -- in the process making a fool of his personal Salieri, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell).
But not so fast! It seems Tony's father, Howard Stark (John Slattery), had a partner in developing the arc reactor technology that was meant to power "The City of Tomorrow" but which now, in sternum form, powers the Iron Man suit. That partner's son, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) is bent on avenging his father's death and exclusion from history.
To that end Vanko, a brilliant and psychopathic Russian astrophysicist -- apparently the Siberian education system is conducive to studying -- breaks out with some of dad's old blue prints and becomes Whiplash.
Meanwhile, Tony Stark is dying. The palladium powering the arc reactor in his chest, which keeps the shards of his own weapon (see the first film) from killing him while wiring the Iron Man suit, is toxic to his blood. Thinking he's almost done, Tony makes his stalwart assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) the CEO of Stark Industries and pretty much convinces his inner circle, including best friend Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard) that he's entirely lost his mind by throwing a drunken Iron Man party.
Even more meanwhile, Justin Hammer orchestrates Whiplash's escape from a French prison cell (after Whiplash jacked up the Monaco Grand Prix), so he can conscript the junior Vanko to create Iron Man suits that he can sell to the military, usurp Stark, and basically prove himself to not be the completely feckless douche bag that he is.
The first Iron Man was a crowd pleaser, and most of the talent that made that happen has returned for the sequel. The notable exception would be the original screen writers. Solely credited to Justin Theroux, Iron Man 2 is not as concise as the first in terms of its narrative, and there is a bit of second act drag -- never dull, mind you -- as Stark is forced to deal with his friends loss of faith in his judgment, their intent concerning his technology, Hammer's double-dealing, the palladium that is quickly killing him, while he falls deeper into the rabbit hole of S.H.I.E.L.D.
The first film was an origin story, which lent itself to a certain smallness of scope, but that also made the conflict more immediate.
The Stark/Obadiah Stane story was a more classical conflict that has no counterpart in Iron Man 2 because Vanko's revenge plot is merely one of four competing storylines that, while lending Iron Man 2 a more epic feel, sort of dilutes the immediacy the Vanko and Stark conflict. That is at least until the climactic third act, where the film seemed to regain its bearings.
But it's not much of a quibble, and the fact is if you loved the first film, you won't be let down much by Iron Man 2. The action, while more conservatively doled out, still looks great, be it the mech-on-mech battles or the thrilling, explosive, flight sequences. The FX from Industrial Light and Magic clearly comes from their alpha team, and they almost seamlessly blend practical and digital FX. Often shots of the Iron Man suit that looked entirely practical were, in fact, belied by logic to be digital. Top notch work.
Jon Favreau directs with his usual matter-of-fact style, and once again his strongest suit is getting kinetic, fun and meaty performances from his cast, while injecting just the right level of humor to the proceedings. He's got a good eye for the details, too, as any comic geek will notice and likely delight in on a level that fans of just the films might not notice.
They range from the blink and miss -- one I missed, apparently the college campus fight sequence from The Incredible Hulk plays in the background on a TV monitor in one scene, giving Iron Man 2 a timeline continuity to the event's in other Marvel films -- to clever nods to icons of the Marvel universe, as when Captain America's half constructed shield is used for a sight gag. Overall, Iron Man 2 is a visual feast.
Of course, it's Downey's show. He's predictably great as Tony Stark, and I think he'll be as attached to that role as Harrison Ford is to Indiana Jones or Han Solo. Stark has a decent arc in this, though it's a bit messier than the first film, but it's also meatier. Much like the first film, Iron Man 2 wouldn't be as good as it is without Downey.
That's not to discount his cast mates. Mickey Rourke is compulsively watchable as Ivan Vanko. Covered in prison tats, sporting a Russian accent that would make Boris Yeltsin envious, and a set of wicked cool plasma whips, it's only the script that short changes Rourke's memorable performance. Vanko is not an afterthought, but he almost seems like he's a part of the background as his storyline is juggled with the others.
In the foreground is Sam Rockwell's performance as Justin Hammer. As Stark's scheming business rival, Rockwell gives a measured turn that never gets close to chewing scenery -- in a genre practically designed for it -- a testament to his screen presence. A lesser actor would have just wound up seeming out of place, or worse, generic.
Gwenyth Paltrow is likeable as Pepper Potts, and her character is given a hell of a lot more to do this time. She's really settled into the role, though her simmering romance with Stark is given the short shrift. Like I said, there's a lot more going on this time around, especially when you factor in Scarlett Johansson as Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff. She's fine (and fine) in the role, displaying a previously unseen aptitude for ass-kickery, but if this film could have lost a character, it would have been hers.
Ultimately, while Iron Man 2 loses its way a bit, it's hard to complain about a little second act bloat when it's in the middle of such an assuredly made film loaded with crowd-pleasing moments. Marvel is doing this thing right, especially if you like AC/DC.
Goo goo, ga ga
I don't generally like babies, unless they belong to someone I know. Either way, it has something to do with their parents.
They're either adorable because they belong to friends or annoying because they belong to strangers. It's a fairly shallow way of looking at things, but I don't have any kids and that's the extent of my experience -- for the most part.
So I didn't really think I was going to be as engaged as I was by Babies. Essentially, this documentary is a loose collage of moments in the first year of the lives of four babies born in different parts of the world. Hattie is in San Francisco; Bayar in Mongolia; Mari is in Tokyo and Ponijao lives in Namibia.
The film captures moments of humor and whimsy as the kids first begin to explore their vastly different worlds. Told more or less with no dialogue (and with no subtitles), Babies does a nice job of contrasting the way different cultures in wildly different environments share so many commonalties when it comes to something as universal as raising a kid.
You even start to see that they quickly develop different personalities, often based on their surroundings. Hattie, the girl from San Francisco, seems to have Buddhist or possibly Wiccan parents, and the kid seems to be the most laid back of the bunch.
Bayar, living in a yurt on the Mongolian steppes, seems to delight principally in assaulting the family cat and antagonizing goats. Ponijao, in the Namibian desert, seemed to have a sense of humor already, clearly enjoying showing off for his mother and grandmother. Funny and sweet and strange moments are scattered throughout Babies.
But director Thomas Balmes is tying them together with a poetic visual motif that reminded me of a more personal version of the 1992 documentary Baraka, which, while much wider in thematic scope than Babies, shares a similar sort of aesthetic in terms of being a meditative visual narrative.
Balmes transposes the differences in the environments and familial traditions with the way technology shapes their worlds, purely through editing and beautifully shot scenes.
That visual narrative is captured by a team of cinematographers who masterfully compose shots that often contrast the tiny children with the massive world around them. Be it the view out of Mari's room high above the neon oceans of Tokyo at night to the gargantuan skies above the vast Mongolian plains in which Bayar's yurt sits like a dot, Babies is an often visually sumptuous affair.
Color me surprised that I walked out of the theater feeling kind of good, and honestly thinking about a sequel in 10 years that revisits these children to see how they turned out. Babies is a thoughtful, well-crafted meditation on a near universal truth that seems so obvious. Parents love their kids.
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