Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah--yearly ritual. Doesn't mean I have to like it.
Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) -- so is this Marvel's new style of moviemaking? Get a good actor, pair him off with a competent (more or less) director, throw in plenty of CGI action scenes, mix, shake, ignite? The cocktail comes off well enough here, where the actor involved is Robert Downey, Jr.--he makes Stark's assholiness appealing and sexy, and Favreau is smart enough to keep that damned golden helmet off of him much of the time (when he does climb in we have the luck to be able to peek inside). It was the same issue Raimi had with the Spider-man movies--he kept tearing the mask off Maguire's face (it's always been a problem with superheroes on the big screen--not so much for Superman, but Batman, as one critic put it, 'you're basically casting the chin').
Maybe Downey's best moment comes opposite Gwyneth Paltrow (who's a nicely understated surprise as a supporting actress), when she does impromptu heart surgery on him. Downey's sharp as ever, and even when running rings around the slower-witted Paltrow he's so good he doesn't even forget to make her look good ('I couldn't do it without you,' or words to that effect). Which actually isn't saying much--Downey manages to spark laughs off a clueless robot arm with zero personality, so go figure.
Perhaps my favorite action sequence comes early, when the first armor comes into play--I like the idea of building something crude and improvised in your garage (or in this case cave), walking out , and whipping all the bad guys with the weapons at hand(basically enhanced strength and a dependable flamethrower); I like it that the baddies are using Stark's own weapons against him. Afterwards, when the armor is upgraded into digital, I pretty much lost interest (though Jeff Bridges has his sly moments as Stark's mentor turned nemesis Obediah Stane). Overall not too bad, though I have to note that Favreau has little feel for staging a coherent action sequence, and the digital effects hold little to no sense of wonder for me (nor does Favreau have the talent to overcome that tremendous handicap).
One moment that does leave a bitter taste, the waterboarding scene. Bad enough the moviemakers trying to inject a superficial reference to the Iraq war in a summer flick, but to attribute it to the wrong side--? What the hell? My heart doesn't bleed for the Al Qaeda or terrorists in general, but if we must accuse them of something, we should accuse them of the right things. Getting the facts wrong is Bush's job, not ours.
Mark Osborne and John Stevenson's Kung Fu Panda (2008) is surprisingly better than I expected. Kung fu and pandas? High concept crap. That said, the focus on food as a training motivator's an excellent idea (I know I snack heavily myself when doing overnight work), though what's all this blarney about wanting to be a kung fu master when one is in line to own a noodle shop, and learn the secret of a noodle master? As anyone who's lusted and loved the food in Juzo Itami's Tampopo (1985) and many a noodle shop can tell you, knowing how to make good noodle soup is enough. The panda doesn't make sense at all.
Directors Osborne (Spongebob Squarepants) and Stevenson (Shrek 2, The Muppet Show), writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (both King of the Hill veterans) bring enough comic talent to the table; the jokes come fast and furious--some are actually funny, and the plot develops with chop-socky speed. One can list the influences, if one cared to--the filmmakers cite Stephen Chow, particularly his Kung Fu Hustle; there is of course Liu Chia Liang's classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978); Chang Cheh's The Five Deadly Venoms; and in one sequence, if I'm not far off, the snow-leopard villain while escaping is emulating Pazu in Hayao Miyazaki's Laputa: Castle in the Sky. The final battle is Chow, with a liberal dose of Jackie Chan thrown in.
And all for what? Basically your good ole American animation storyline, about a youth pining to be something he's not, and the parent not understanding (Mulan, Little Mermaid, about half the Disney inventory of the past twenty years, anyone?). Kung Fu Panda's not a bad way to while away ninety minutes of your time, and I suspect it's at least as much if not more fun than the upcoming Pixar flick, but it didn't exactly rock my world (And anyway why not noodles?!).
Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park (2007), on the other hand, I'd watch just for the skateboarding sequences alone. Graceful dance on four wheels, in effect, the impossibly beautiful youths (Van Sant can't seem to help eroticizing them) leaping and spinning up and down the concrete ramps, in langurous slow motion.
But there's more: an exchange of glances between youth and police officer evokes some if not all the terror found in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment; the sudden support of a friend throws the whole into a more ambiguous light--is the protagonist redeemed or damned, or is the question rendered irrelevant in this modern age? Wonderful film, one of the best of last year.