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Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Jon Favreau, Stephanie Szostak, James Badge Dale, Ben Kingsley
Screenplay: Drew Pearce, Shane Black
Cinematography: John Toll
Music: Brian Tyler
Director: Shane Black
We begin with Tony Stark narrating a 1999 flashback, as a drunken Tony seduces scientist Maya Hansen (Hall) and blows off nerdy scientist Aldrich Killian (Pearce), both of whom will figure heavily into the story. We then learn Tony is having crippling, though brief, anxiety attacks, stemming from the alien invasion and his near-death experience in The Avengers. Tony has been avoiding dealing with the problem by throwing himself into work, hurting his relationship with Pepper Potts (Paltrow). Meanwhile, a terrorist named The Mandarin (Kingsley) is wreaking havoc around he globe, with James Rhodes (Cheadle) revamping his armor and name from War Machine to Iron Patriot, the Administration’s symbol of global strength and justice, intended to find Mandarin.
Things come to a head when Tony’s friend Happy (Favreau), is left comatose after an attack at Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre by Savin (Dale), a man who can generate great heat and strength, who works for the newly cool Killian. Just as Maya returns to Tony’s life to warn him and Pepper, their house is attacked and destroyed. Tony barely survives and his malfunctioning operating system, Jarvis, sends him in his armor to a small town in Tennessee, site of a previous heat attack. There, with the help of a budding young science kid, Tony regroups and starts to figure things out.
Cowriters Black and Pearce craft a mostly compelling story out of bits of Warren Ellis’ Extremis storyline from Iron Man comics (with bits of David Michelinie’s and John Byrne’s Armor Wars and Armor Wars II), another damsel-in-distress subplot for Pepper, a villainous McGuffin, a cute kid and lack of resources reminding Tony of what he’s really all about, and lots of action setpieces.
Some have described IM3 as a return to what made the first film work, but it’s a little different. Whereas Tony’s crude armor provides the origin story for Iron Man in the first film, here Tony spends a lot of the movie out of armor or with just a few pieces of the armor, as he has to fight the Extremis-powered foes with quick-thinking. It’s a blend of espionage thriller and superhero film, and the results are strong. It helps that Black and Pearce bring a good deal of humor to the film, so that the tousled-head kid helping Tony section of the film is a lot of fun and not corny at all. Similarly, while Pepper does end up in danger, she gets a turn earlier in the armor that lets her show her strength and bravery.
Downey and Paltrow are always good together, and Cheadle is actually more convincing here as a soldier than in IM2, as he gets to be an action hero outside the armor. Pearce is okay as Killian, sort of similar to Sam Rockwell as a guy who wants to be as smooth as Stark but just can’t cut it. Dale and Hall are a bit overqualified for their pretty thin roles, but I’m sure they appreciate the exposure and paychecks. Miguel Ferrer as the Vice-President has such a small part/subplot that he probably could have been cut entirely with no real loss. Kingsley is pretty great, but the truth behind the Mandarin isn’t something I’d want to spoil, though I’ll say it presents some challenges for Black involving the changing tone of the film that I’m not sure he completely resolved. And I was unclear on just why Maya came to Tony’s house. If she was truly trying to warn him, then that doesn’t jibe with her withholding her connection to Killian until later. And if she was there to get close to Pepper so she could be kidnapped, well, there has to be a better way than showing up at a house that’s about to be destroyed by missiles. Certainly if Pepper survives and Tony doesn’t, there won’t be much trouble finding her and picking her up. If Tony survives, then Maya can’t do much, anyway. It just doesn’t work.
Maybe the oddest thing was that, after more than two hours of Black showing that he wasn’t just an ’80s/’90s relic but that a lot of those techniques could still be effective today, he ends with an extremely ’80s TV credit sequence that doesn’t fit at all with the rest of the film. Yes, there is a little scene after the credits, that, like The Avengers, is more of a joke than a tease for the next film.
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Starring: Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger, James Cromwell, Danny DeVito, David Strathairn
Screenplay: Curtis Hanson, Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by James Ellroy
Director: Curtis Hanson
LA Confidential was not an easy novel to adapt to film, but it found two writers in Hanson and Helgeland who not only were already fans of Ellroy’s work, they were smart enough to focus on the storylines of the three policeman characters and discard or truncate the other subplots. This still makes for a difficult film, but fortunately the three cops are all very different, compelling, and well-cast.
Kevin Spacey gets first billing as Det. Jack Vincennes, but he’s actually a supporting character. He consults for a TV cop drama called Badge of Honor (an obvious stand-in for Dragnet) and has a standing deal with DeVito’s Hush-Hush magazine to show up for celebrity-related busts, earning a little extra cash and increasing his fame. For the most part, Vincennes provides a connection between the worlds of Hollywood and the LAPD, but his detective’s instincts are still sharp, and against his better (worse?) judgment, he opts to be a real cop again, even at risk of his career and life, when he agrees to help Lt. Ed Exley (Pearce).
Vincenne’s issues are somewhat esoteric—ethics vs. career advancement—but Exley is clearly trying to compete with the legend of his cop father. He goes about it the wrong way, though, at least in the eyes of most of the force, when he gains advancement by ratting on corrupt cops who killed some Mexican suspects who were yet to be tried and probably weren’t guilty. Exley is despised for this, though respected by his Captain, Dudley Smith (Cromwell), for his craftiness, even as he opines that Exley lacks the ability to break the rules when justified. Indeed, the rule-breaking tough cop ideal is personified by Officer Wendell “Bud” White, in a career breakout performance for Russell Crowe, and still one of his best roles. Bud is brutal, but electric and not without redeeming qualities. For one, the targets of his violence are often those who perpetrate violence on women, which the film efficiently lets us know dates back to the way his father treated his sainted mother. It also helps that Crowe looks like a soulful boy even when he’s roughing someone up, with his round face and big eyes and silly crewcut.
White hates Exley, on principle and for ending the career of his old, corrupt partner, and Exley thinks little of White, even if he finds himself jealous of him. They start out as enemies, and the film’s sympathies are mostly with White, especially once he falls for Lynn (Basinger), a call girl whose gimmick is that she looks like Veronica Lake. White is kind to her and treats her like a regular woman instead of a whore, but Exley ends up sleeping with her, his intention being not just lust but competition with White, while Lynn’s is mostly for blackmail purposes. Eventually, with Lynn’s emotional support, White starts to better himself by investigating the Nite Owl murder case, where White’s old partner was killed in a diner with other patrons. Exley’s reputation was made on supposedly finding and killing the black perpetrators, but he starts to question their guilt, and investigates the closed case, risking his career. His, White’s and Vincennes’ separate investigations start to join and they form an alliance of sorts, uncovering connections to the rich and powerful, and their very own Captain, leading to Smith trying to take out anyone who could expose him.
As I said, Crowe is great as the sensitive bull with a soft spot for abused women, and Pearce is almost equally good in the tougher role of the by the book bureaucrat careerist who finds a higher calling. Spacey is honestly not the best choice for a cop, as he lacks machismo, but that works out all right here, as his squirminess under his big sport coats underlines that Vincennes is a guy playing a role he’s not entirely comfortable with. Basinger was cast for her Old Hollywood beauty, and she’s perfectly fine as Lynn, though it’s a stock character and it’s kind of hard to understand her winning the Academy Award for Supporting Actress. It’s a guy’s movie all the way, in addition to the three leads, with good supporting turns from Cromwell, Ron Rivkin as the District Attorney, Graham Beckel as White’s dead partner, Stensland, and Strathairn as rich perv Pierce Patchett (a stand-in for Howard Hughes). It’s not a perfect film—15 years later, it looks a little cheap in spots, DeVito’s “Hush-Hush” narration at the beginning is tonally off from the rest of the film, and it seems silly to have cast Paul Guilfoyle as real gangster Mickey Cohen and then cut all his lines. But aside from minor quibbles, it’s still a compelling film with a good, winding plot, and terrific performances.
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Starring: Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall-Green, Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce and Charlize Theron
Writers: Jim Spaights and Damon Lindelof
Director: Ridley Scott
In this “first cousin” to Scott’s influential and innovative Alien, a 2093 expedition to a faraway planet is intended to answer questions about who or what made mankind, but becomes instead more or less the state-of-the-art sci-fi/horror spectacular most people were expecting.
Original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo star Rapace is Elizabeth Shaw, who with her lover and fellow scientist Charlie Holloway (Marshall-Green), believe they have tracked the inspiration for several cultures’ cave paintings back to its source in deep space. The Prometheus expedition is funded by Weyland Corp, its founder (Pearce, in old man makeup) dead but said by the Weyland rep, Vickers (Theron) to be a superstitious, curious man. Vickers makes it known that the scientists are merely employees and not free to make any call on their own. Prior to all this set-up, we have already seen a strange, pale, humanoid infected with some sort of organism, mutating as he falls into a waterfall, and we’ve also gotten to know David (Fassbender), the preening android who keeps the ship running and reports to Vickers and a mysterious other party, but who also has spent the past two years learning about humanity while the others were in status, watching old movies, learning languages, and somehow tapping into their dreams and memories.
Both the humanoid and android are signs early on that Scott and his writers have other things on their minds besides gooey, chest-bursting alien action, and all credit to them for exploring the origin of humanity, and what it really means to be human. The problem with the film, then, or at least the biggest problem, is that ultimately, one question is provided an answer but not a meaningful one, and the other question is left unanswered. Instead, we do get a suspenseful film with one good shock after another, especially in the third act, when the film becomes cluttered with action and an unnecessary and obvious development for Vickers, as well as bits that, while good on their own, also feel a bit like Scott playing to what the audience expects. Yes, you’ll see a recognizable, early version of H.R. Giger’s famous alien. Yes, you apparently can’t have an android without eventually decapitating him. And yes, one or two women will run around in their underwear, wet and vulnerable.
Still, the design work is always impressive (not just Giger but Moebius seems to have inspired some of the architecture), and Scott still has the capacity to surprise, especially in a horrific, unsettling scene inside a cramped surgical pod, a perversion of the act of birth (and depending on your views, it’s even a perversion of abortion). The performances are mostly good, depending of course on how much the script gives the actors to work with. Rapace doesn’t have the fire and grit of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, but she’s not supposed to. She’s very resourceful, but she’s also a believer; she’s one of the few people on the expedition who are hoping for answers of a spiritual nature. To some extent, that might even be true of Fassbender’s David, but whether an android can find religion aside, it’s a sly, magnetic performance that contains a lot of the humor of the film. David is about the only character here I would like to get to know better. The same could possibly be said for Janek (Elba), where the British actor once again plays against type as a gruff but warm, no-nonsense pilot who has a taste for old, old rock and roll, but with reserves of compassion and heroism that come into play later. Theron is good in a chillier role than she’s used to, but the plot mechanism to warm her up is rote. It’s a case where the writers either should have left the character unexplored or beefed it up, but her motivation here is half-baked. Pearce is also dealt an unfortunate blow, all the technology at Scott & Co’s disposal not able to sell an actor in his 40s as a dying old man. Why a real actor in his 70s or 80s wasn’t case instead is a mystery.
It was appropriate to bring Damon Lindelof into the Alien franchise. The other films share a common theme of human beings as pawns of immoral/amoral corporations and military complexes, whereas Lindelof’s major work, Lost, found human beings as pawns of gods. He transfers that theme here, tying it into the Greek myth of the Titans, Prometheus bringing fire to humanity and being eternally punished for it. But here, there are hints that even these cold, superior Titans are perhaps experiments themselves, that they are but pawns of an even higher power. There are some tantalizing elements in the film that suggest Scott wanted to make a film of ideas. Perhaps the only way to get this made was to tie it into his greatest success. In this way, Prometheus is closer to Blade Runner, in that it’s actually about something. It doesn’t get a pass because it asks questions and few big budget films do. It succeeds somewhat despite these questions, because of the great skill and imagination employed. The headier elements are what disappoint, what gnaw at you after it’s over and the popcorn thrills are fading.