Let’s begin with a recap of Iron Man 1, not so much the plot (a man puts on an iron suit and beats the bad guys) as what it was that made it so successful, widely considered one of the best comic book adaptations ever.
First was Robert Downey, Jr. It’s almost impossible to remember now that at one time it was almost impossible to imagine that he would overcome his demons to become a star as big as his talent. “Iron Man” was the movie that established him as a major movie star in part because the role was perfectly designed for his slightly strung-out, self-deprecating surface and ferociously intelligent core. He was a surprise. And so was his character — Iron Man was not an established icon like Superman, Spider-Man, or Batman. The freshness added a lot to the movie’s appeal.
So did the mechanical special effects. Director Jon Favreau, previously best known as a director for “Swingers” and “Elf,” turned out to have the heart of a fan-boy. He minimized the computer effects. He got the details right and hit the sweet spot between dedication and irreverence.
In part 2, as often happens with sequels, pressure to repeat and the pressure make everything bigger can throw things off balance. We can’t be surprised the same way; this time we come in with expectations so high they’re almost impossible to clear. And so what we have is an entertaining summer movie that feels more like a bridge to Part 3 than a repeat of what was best about Part 1 with some organic additions. It’s missing the exuberance of the original. There was the audience’s in the pure fun of the film, based on Tony Stark’s in the physical exhilaration of flying, the mental exhilaration of finding a task to engage his mind and spirit so entirely, and the spiritual exhilaration of meaningful and sustaining engagement with the world.
A strong beginning shows Tony Stark (Downey) as something between an evangelist and a rock star, bragging that he has “privatized peace” and refusing to turn over to the US government the secret of his “weapon.” His suit may be made of metal, but his body is not and the same substance which is keeping him alive is poisoning his blood. Stark’s recklessness and impetuousness is escalating and his assurance that he can keep the world’s dangers under control increasingly sounds more than arrogant — it seems delusional. So this is not a good time for him to get some competition. Mickey Rourke shows up as a Russian with a grudge — and his own metal suit which comes with a deadly accessory. Shooting out from the wrists are electrified whips that can slice a car like a loaf of bread. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up as the leader of SHIELD, a collection of highly talented and trained operatives, to invite Stark to join. Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) shows up as Stark’s weapons manufacturer rival. Don Cheadle takes over the role of Stark’s friend Lt. Col. James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes. Garry Shandling shows up as a Senator who wants Stark to turn over his technology to the US government. Scarlett Johansson shows up as a very beautiful and capable new employee who turns out to have some additional talents and loyalties. Like Hit-Girl, she mows down a hallway-full of bad guys single-handedly. Her curls bounce enticingly and her catsuit fit is even moreseo.
That’s enough for about four movies, and so the movie sags under the weight of all of these characters and exposition before picking up for one last big action scene. Those who wait through all of the credits will get a glimpse of what is in store for the next film. I hope between now and then they remember that less is more.
Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling is often asked what book she loved most when she was a child and she always answers The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. It is the story of a little girl named Maria Merryweather who goes to live with her uncle in mysterious Moonacre Manor and goes on a magical adventure.
That story has inspired a movie called “The Secret of Moonacre,” with Dakota Blue Richards (“The Golden Compass”) as Maria and Ioan Gruffudd (“The Fantastic Four,” “Amazing Grace”) as her uncle. There’s an uneasy mismatch between the sumptuous and imaginative visuals and the sometimes-inert pacing, but the story of the young girl who has to save the day and unite families who have been at war for centuries is engaging and fans of fantasy will enjoy seeing the characters come to life.
I have one copy of the movie to give away to the first person to sends me an email with “Moonacre” in the subject line — don’t forget to include your address!
Amy Ryan gave my favorite performance of 2007 as the mother of a missing girl in “Gone Baby Gone.” And it has been a pleasure to see her since then in roles as varied as Holly the human resources manager and love interest for Steve Carell in “The Office” and a journalist stationed in Iraq opposite Matt Damon in “The Green Zone.” She is now appearing in “Jack Goes Boating,” the first film directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who also appears in the title role. Ryan plays Connie in this story of two loners who try to reach out to one another. I spoke to her about this film and about her just-announced return to “The Office” for several episodes of Carell’s last season.
You came into a movie with three performers who had played those characters together on stage. Was that a challenge?
The challenge would have been bigger if I had joined them in the stage production. In this case there was about two years from the stage play to the screenplay and Bob Glaudini, the writer [of both the play and screenplay] reworked some of the scenes and the characters. So they were re-discovering it while I was discovering it. We had a two-week rehearsal process in a room with our DP [cinematographer] and script supervisor where we set out on it together.
You’ve now worked with a couple of actors turned directors, Ben Affleck with “Gone Baby Gone” and now Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was your director and co-star. What does an actor know that helps him as a director?
Two things that come to mind. One is truly a shared language. The bigger thing is compassion for knowing what’s it like to go to certain very dark or vulnerable places. Although I’ve had great support from non-acting directors, there’s just a shared experience. Phil never asked us to go places that he wasn’t going to himself. He had to be very vulnerable, especially those love scenes. He’s say, “You need to go there but don’t worry, I’m going to be right behind you — or I’m leading the way.”
This movie respects its audience enough that it doesn’t feel it has to give us explicit explanations for the characters’ behavior by telling us about their past. But do you need to create that for yourself in developing your performance?
Absolutely. Discussions with Bob and with Phil. I flat-out asked Bob: “What’s her story? Why does she use this language? Why is she so shy but why is she so vocal about what she wants, romantically and sexually?” He just kind of shrugged his shoulders. He really let me find it, which was at times frustrating. I wanted the answers. I knew they knew. But it was very generous in saying, “It’s okay for you to make it your own.” It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that something terrible happened to Connie. We don’t see characters like her in a love story very often. She’s in her 40’s and not good at love. She doesn’t have confidence in her workplace. She’s alone in New York City, and that’s enough. She’s an awkward person. Getting out of situations is never going to be a smooth thing.
She says very clearly, “Don’t hurt me.” She thinks too much. She says to herself, “This doesn’t feel good yet, but I’m going to keep trying. I wanted it to be like this, I wanted it to be like that, but I’m going to let go of what I imagined. But now I’m here with you. So overcome me.”
I was delighted to hear that you’re returning to “The Office!”
Me, too! It’s good fun. That whole group, as you can imagine, truly is a barrel of laughs. I love working with Steve Carell. He is so generous. He never sets the tone of “Keep up with me or out of my way.” He really just says, “Come with me.” He is really, really fun.
Don’t forget to enter the contest for a Blu-Ray/DVD or Babies carseat!
Until they make a movie entirely consisting of raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, Hallmark cards, and puppies in the window, this will hold the record as the most awwwwwww-inspiring movie ever made.
Director Thomas Balmes and his crew take us into the lives of four brand-new people and their families, babies in Tokyo, Mongolia, Namibia, and San Francisco. And that’s it. Babies sleeping, babies getting dirty, babies getting clean, babies crying, babies being comforted, babies smiling, babies playing, babies learning, learning, learning — and babies teaching everyone around them, too, to the narration-free accompaniment of a wistful score from “Coraline’s” Bruno Coulais.
Each of the stories is touching. The deepest part of our nature as humans wonders at and cares for these magical creatures, who zoom from newborns to people who can walk and talk and have views in a matter of months. The connections between these babies and their families are a powerful reminder of all we share, but the contrasts are a powerful and sometimes disturbing reminder of the distance between us. American parents who carefully strap our babies in car seats and boil their pacifiers every time they fall on the floor will find it unsettling to see all four members of the Mongolian family climb on a motorcycle and the Namibian baby sucking on a bone she dug out of the dirt. And they may wince at the casual plenty of the American baby’s books and toys or the casual smugness of the music class where the parents and their babies sing a Native American song in some reach for the kind of authenticity the African baby comes by naturally — and pays for with limited opportunities for health care and education. The credit sequence gives us a glimpse of the babies today (age 4). Our greatest wish for these babies may be that before they are old enough to be rocking their own children to sleep we find a way to do more to protect the health and safety of all of the world’s children.