Monday, May 13, 2013

Iron Man 3 (Shane Black); The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann)--re-edited

(Warning: plot twists and story developments discussed in close detail)

Stark raving

And the celebration continues with Iron Man 3, where billionaire industrialist (only in comic books--and by extension the movies--can this be considered a respectable appellation) Tony Stark has his toys taken away from him and he's reduced, so to speak, to playing with the cardboard box.

It's an interesting situation--a way of upping the drama for this second sequel, without upping the scale of conflict from the previous Marvel movie's worldwide alien-invasion menace. Stark's forced to think literally on his feet, to cope with an enemy that's the opposite of what he is--functioning ubermen who are at the same time walking time bombs. No super machines, just super biology.

Director Shane Black (who cowrote the script with TV writing and producing veteran Drew Pearce) almost manages to get away with it, only the fight sequences don't quite emphasize the qualitative difference between Stark's exoskeleton armor and people who are themselves living weapons (you'd think said living weapons would be more agile, or graceful, or adaptable). 

I do like the quick-repair ability, that seems to make sense: as these people are basically speeded-up metabolisms, their healing is also speeded up. The exothermic reaction is silly tho--where does that come from? And why is Stark's armor unable to deal with it (Surely a heat sink or thermal pump of some kind would be basic to his suit's design?)? 

(Gratuitous aside: surely Stark would do better taking his cue from Neil Gaiman's latest take on Cybermen (warning: plot details discussed))

Arguably the best image from the film is the sight of Stark dragging his armor--stolen I suspect from Django. Feel ambivalent watching that: on one hand Black is channeling a far superior action film (suffers in comparison, of course); on the other I've been here before. At least Black's theft is more emotionally resonant than Tarantino's (where's Foxx's coffin/armor on a leash?). 

That's about it for me. Black's a sometimes funny writer-filmmaker--his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang I remember (barely) to be a darkly comic amusement, and possibly the highlight of his career to date--but the action sequences both there and in this picture are your standard-issue shaky-cam footage, cut ADHD style: hardly coherent, much less comprehensible. The script comes up with half a dozen interesting premises--Stark without his toys, the mecha vs. bio thing, and so on--but fails to develop them in an interesting way. The Mandarin's soldiers (for example) are barely fleshed out, which is a real shame: theirs is the most interesting situation (what would a man think and feel and say, knowing he's doomed to explode at any moment? And what would motivate him to pledge his loyalty to the one who put him in this predicament in the first place?).

Then there's this article, which tries to make the case that this third installment is really a feminist tract in disguise. Must be one helluva disguise, because I don't see it: the Maya character is mostly a smart egg seduced and exploited by the real villain; Pepper is a largely annoying hostage who manages at the last minute to kick some butt. 

Whedon in comparison is more overtly for women's causes, has produced at least two TV series with women protagonists, and has consistently put strong women characters front and center in his work (in one film she's the single strongest character). The Wired article mentions The Avengers as failing some silly test, which is frankly nuts: Whedon wrote Black Widow as a major character, with her own (fairly complex) inner conflicts and motives, her own character arc, and her own kickass scene--all the more impressive for being sans superpowers, or (for the most part) digital effects.

...actually would love to have seen Maya reveal herself to be the real villain: someone from Stark's crowded bedroom past, who he betrayed or rejected and who's out for his bal--blood. Simpler, more elegant solution to a needlessly overcomplicated problem, based on the oldest conflict of all...

Maybe the movie's biggest failing: Stark running out of worthy adversaries, not just physical but verbal; as played by Robert Downey Jr. he's the quickest wit around and for most of the picture his only sparring equal is himself, which quickly gets tired. Guy Pearce, who can be villainous, is strangely unthreatening here; would love to see Ben Kingsley take a crack, but of course Black quickly tosses that possibility out the picture window (I incidentally guessed the Mandarin's true nature twenty minutes in--Kingsley pops up again and again and not once speaks an unscripted line?--which doesn't speak much for the twistedness of Black's plot). In Whedon's The Avengers (which I wrote about at length) Stark has to deal with a Norse god, an earthbound titan (who doubles as the only brain able to keep up with him), a one-eyed badass--there's no end of inflated egos to bounce off against and that (not the largely digitized action) is what made the movie interesting.

Maybe the movie's even bigger failing (this and every other recent comic-book franchise): its inability to create a distinct look for the film, a stylized, parallel world where superheroes can convincingly exist--or a stylized enough world to at least hold our attention, maybe even fire our imagination (Tim Burton managed with his Batman films, Guillermo del Toro with his Hellboy series and--further back--Robert Altman with Popeye and Mario Bava with Diabolik!). Maybe what's needed isn't a recalibrated script, or better cast of actors, or more on-camera special effects; maybe what's needed is a filmmaker with a vision, and the talent to properly realize it. 

So--what? Not a lot of kiss-kiss, mainly digitized bang-bangs, and an outsized admittedly talented star, standing alone on the big stage. Yes, he is Iron Man. The real question is: why on Earth should we care?

Grate Gatsby

First thing you hear from naysayers is: "I can't stand the hip-hop." Lovers of the picture ask that people be more open-minded, that they realize jazz was the hip-hop of its day, as shocking an affront to American ears with perhaps (since plenty of the great jazz singers and performers were black) the same undercurrent of racist indignation.

I get it; I can take the anachronism and move on, I see where rap is meant to dynamite one's complacency and allow the introduction of an unwelcome idea or two (though I'd reply that there are a few lesser-known, period-appropriate jazz and classical pieces that could serve just as well, and using "Rhapsody in Blue" to announce Gatsby is about the laziest choice for introductory song I can possibly imagine). 

What I can't take--what makes Lurhman's Gatsby the visual equivalent of a cheese grater applied to the knee--is how loud Luhrmann's movie is, in every sense of the word. How it shrieks out plot points in advance, heavily underlines them, highlights them several times over with a screaming bright-pink marker, and--for good measure--floats the relevant text in man-high letters across the big screen. 

...not an enemy of voiceover narration per se, far from it--Bresson and later Scorsese have shown us how it can be properly done--but Luhrmann in his self-declared respect for the novel uses Fitzgerald's prose extensively to the point where it functions as a crutch, telegraphing what should have been subtleties: the moment, say, when Daisy tells Gatsby that she loves him without directly saying so, right under her husband's nose; or the moment when Daisy decides to betray Gatsby (for the former Luhrmann uses Cliff Notes excerpts from the book; for the latter DiCaprio is asked to do an Al Pacino-style freakout, and then Luhrmann uses Cliff Notes excerpts). 

The famed blinking green light at the end of the pier--so neatly introduced in the book as an enigmatic signal from across the bay--comes across here more like a Close Encounter of the Third Kind, with the camera swooping close enough to make First Contact. When Myrtle is hit by a car she flies across the air, flashing her pantied crotch at the giant Dr. T.J. Eckleburg's baleful, bespectacled gaze ("Oh, you impudent tart!" you imagine him whispering with delighted outrage). 

The parties are overscaled carnivals with Gatsby as reclusive ringmaster (giving some bite to Tom Buchanan's quip that Gatsby drives a "circus wagon") but the real glory of Fitzgerald are the dinner and party conversations, the way the talk seems to pingpong in different directions yet somehow converge with eerie precision (like filings in a faint magnetic field) into a grand design, an insignia of the decadent '20s--on presenting this aspect the movie is an absolute failure, with barely the patience to sit still enough for one verbal exchange to register, much less a gaggle of em. 

Does Fitzgerald write about vulgar excess? Yes, but there's nothing vulgar or excessive about his prose: he suggests where others might explicitly state, omits where others might indulge (in this he shares something with fellow contemporary Ernest Hemingway: an unstated lust for simplicity, an equally covert fascination with the unwholesome). One wonders what antics occurred in the other rooms of Gatsby's mansion that Nick failed to visit, or what enterprise Gatsby is involved in that even common acquaintance Walter Chase (confessing to Tom) is "afraid to tell me about." Fitzgerald leaves details of Gatsby's wealth and criminal activities to dissolve into the dark and distance, allowing our imagination to take over; the result is bigger than the book itself, an outsized portrait of a self-made man--one of the most memorable in American literature.

Luhrmann's problem is he can't do elegant to save his life--he dives right in and luxuriates like a pig in a cesspool (apologies to all pigs; all cesspools too). This is American literature as reimagined by Michael Bay only, I suspect, worse--at least Bay doesn't aspire to art, is upfront about doing it for the money.  

Luhrmann presents the eponymous man as unabashed romantic hero, for the most part ignoring signs and indications in Fitzgerald's novel that Gatsby may also have been a naive fool. Or rather, the signs are present (Luhrmann is that faithful to the text) but the preponderance of evidence--from "Rhapsody in Blue" to DiCaprio's intense line readings to the heart-on-sleeve music--urges us to root for Gatsby because (gag) He Is Us.

DiCaprio's mouth struggles to push the mush of an upper class New England accent past his lips (he gives the impression of having hired a diction coach only weeks before); he has the guarded eyes and studiedly relaxed pose of an infiltrating outsider, a deep-penetration agent high on overconfidence and desperate bluff, only a step ahead of exposure (is this really Fitzgerald's Gatsby? I don't know; I just know it's compulsively watchable). Carey Mulligan is anxious in a different way: she seems seems timid, out of her depth in dealing with her character--and rightly so, as Daisy is The Love of Gatsby's Life, and she's not up (as she herself exasperatedly informs him) to the demands of the role.

Luhrmann ends Gatsby's life with a shot stolen from the opening of Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, then glosses over the father's visit--the little reveals from Gatsby's childhood and past that help clarify (or complicate) his character--to go straight for the tragic-heroic funeral (all that's missing really are a drifting Viking boat in flames and perhaps an erupting volcano, neither of which are in the book and neither of which, surprisingly, Luhrmann is able to cram into his Dagwood Sandwich movie). He does the ending in a straightforward manner, or as straightforward as anything he's ever done: Nick Carraway (a largely disheveled Toby Maguire, channeling Fitzgerald by way of William Faulkner) solemnly intones the closing lines ("So we beat on, boats against the current...") while the words flash like digital displays against dark water. Not for Luhrmann the simplicity of John Huston's masterful adaptation of James Joyce's great short story The Dead, where Joyce's words are spoken quietly against a snowblown darkness--Luhrmann, apparently, has no confidence in the magic of Fitzgerald's words, no confidence in his own ability to depict that magic on the big screen. He simply must have his digital. 

Who could have done a valid take on Gatsby? Robert Altman's overlapping dialogue I submit would have been perfect for the parties. Bob Fosse directed a lurid '20s crime melodrama on the theater stage (Chicago), dealt with the death throes of the period on the big screen (Cabaret). 

Max Ophuls has done Hollywood films, has done films depicting elaborate parties, has done period pictures portraying the upper classes, has tied them all together with gorgeously sinuous long-take tracking shots. Orson Welles entered films by way of radio--you hear it in the way his characters' dialogue overlap, how it's overheard before the start of one scene, spills like champagne into the next; you hear it in the music and sound effects that bridge his sequences, the aural transitions that whip his film into higher velocities. Gatsby might have been filmed in the manner of The Magnificent Ambersons only with a less gracious upper class, the conversation nevertheless glittering like a crystal chandelier.

Anyone alive? Woody Allen, if he could be persuaded to do someone else's material, might inject a welcome dose of comedy (Gatsby for all its gaiety lacks a sense of humor). Alan Rudolph has visited the period a few times (The Moderns; Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle); Michael Apted did a lovely little thriller once (Agatha).

David Fincher doesn't flinch from period work (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button); neither does Brian De Palma (The Untouchables). Both have a gliding camera style that (like Ophuls') allows Fitzgerald's characters to talk to each other properly (their defining characteristic). And if you want some really offbeat young Turk to do the honors, I hear Mulligan has Nicolas Winding Refn's number on speed dial.

Meantime you have this, and this to put it mildly stinks. Jack Clayton's 1974 version (with Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy) may have choked on its own good taste; Luhrmann goes the other extreme, shoving his arm so far up his ass he could grab hold of his tongue and pull himself inside out. Don't know which is the greater horror, don't much care; I'm just waiting (possibly forever) for a proper adaptation of the novel.



Anonymous said...

I liked this better than Iron Man 2. Even if it's a mish-mash of Terminator, Spielberg's, Lethal Weapon, Favreu's and that prototype joke that never gets tired. It does have what people don't usually expect from superhero films: Iron Man and Iron Patriot in an buddy-cop/action movie, a boy-and-his robot, superhumans who doesn't seem to have feelings or think the way you'd expect 'em to (as you said). The actions scenes were just a tad better than Lethal Weapon. And the bad guy isn't half as menacing as liquid metal.

Regarding "a distinct look for the film, a stylized, parallel world", I'll consider Raimi's Spiderman movies. To me, those movies played out like you just you were reading them from panels. But maybe the credit also goes its source material. I also consider Wachowski's The Matrix with it's greens and blues, it has a distinct feel even if you don't buy the story. Ok it's not a comic book. Or Zack Snyder's Wathcmen, where he created a parallel universe where heroes can do "it" to Leonard Cohen song after beating up the bad guys.

I'd agree that Hellboy II was awesome. The things I love about it are probably the same things I liked in Iron Man 3, only there were more and execution was way way better. On Batman, I was hardly amazed by Burton's Gotham, especially his first. Maybe I prefer something sillier, like Sin City's high contrast Black, red and white. But I'll say that Batman Returns definitely had the most memorable menacing villains. And Batman there was just as scary and dark as his enemies, probably even badder. Darker than on the dark knight movies. I mean he was ruthless when dealing with Penguin and his penguins (?) and helpless with Catwoman. And yet he was silly looking Michael Keaton without the mask.


Noel Vera said...

Lethal Weapon...give me John Woo anytime.

Matrix at least had ideas, but I prefer Dark City's visual textures.

And the fact that it was silly looking Michael Keaton clinched the deal for me. Christian Bale has played psychos has made a career out of playing intense bastards (has he ever done comedy?). Keaton started out in stand up, so it's a complete surprise when he smashes a fireside iron and as he puts it 'gets nuts.' Now that's surprising, that's scary.