Greens and Reds and Golds – June 12th, 2010

Alright, alright. I’m not dead – it’s been a bunch of trouble over nothing, this last week, I’ll say. All of it due in no small part to the local branch of AT&T – and, this is the third time something like this has happened, but never for as long as an entire week. So – I’m gonna throw my hat in. I’m going to boycott these rancid, poncing fuckers even as I piggyback off their service. It’s a broken down system that they’re perpetuating, and it must needs be either fixed or torn away completely. But, enough of this – let’s get down to the bid’ness.

Jon Favreau’s sequel to his exuberant, unabashed popcorn movie adaptation of Marvel’s Iron Man character is a fair bit less internally focused than it’s predecessor – in fact, in certain places it comes off as something of a real narrative mess. But, it’s the old-Hollywood rapport between Downey’s Tony Stark and the rest of the supporting cast that shines through and yet still manages to tie it all together, as the end comes rolling around. Favreau’s decided to built his sequel off the ground built by the various implications left by the first film’s ending – Stark finds himself at the behest of Congress and the internal back and forth mongering between himself and competing private arms dealers, even as he becomes an even larger public icon as Iron Man, bringer of world peace. Like the previous film, Favreau eschews paying any real attention to the political undertones that are kind of inherent in the character and the context of the story he presents, sweeping them all in varying degrees of obviousness under the rug, deciding instead to go full steam with the bombast – and in this, the film one-ups the previous film with considerable aplomb. Though the climax of the film might feel a bit too familiar for some – see, this time it’s not just one big robot, it’s like a lot of them, right – there are enough visceral moments between that push the film forward. Favreau’s direction can sometimes be surprisingly wooden when he isn’t confronting a situation where something blows up, however – he’s happy enough to rely on his actors to keep the scene going, which is fine I s’pose. But, it’s astonishing the contrast that’s created between a rather staid scene between Tony Stark and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and the sudden, harsh handheld attitude presented when Mickey Rourke’s silent antagonist Ivan Vilch breaks out of jail, the camera tracking him through the prison hall as plumes of smoke and flame frame him in sudden silhouette. Or, the finale – as Iron Man and Don Cheadle’s War Machine find themselves racing around Stark Expo. The camera never once settles, and yet never falls into unnecessary frenzy. Favreau seems like a director who’s made for this kind of thing – if he could bring the same feeling of excitement to his direction of more implicit, personal scenes, then there’d be a stronger narrative and emotional balance to the film. Oh, and Don Cheadle doesn’t take to the Rhodey character nearly as well as Terence Howard did – and Mickey Rourke makes the film with his idiosyncratic peculiarity of a villain, a man of short words and shorter tempers. He acts like a stone rock, unmoving in a film constantly on the move.

There’s probably never going to be a stronger implication of how the general attitude towards superhero films has changed in the last six years than in the reception toward Ang Lee’s Hulk film. It’s easily one of the most overlooked films in this newest up-and-coming genre – and, like most films that have been felled by similar fates, it was a combination of circumstances that did this one in during its first run, not the least of which could be said to be that old enemy of the director, studio-mandated misadvertising. But, it also seems to go a bit farther than that. Released in 2003 on the cusp of Bryan Singer’s more viscerally driven X-Men 2, and in the middle of the hype for Sam Raimi’s second over-the-top, cartoony installment of his Spider-Man saga, the film presented itself as an idiosyncrasy – half dedicated to the Jungian father-child relationship between Bruce Banner and his father at the core of the film, and at other times to the Hulk as persecuted giant-child, bounding from quiet desert cliff to cliff. When he responds to an attack, there’s not a lot of strong Jekyll-Hyde anger there – instead, the impression created is more like an angry toddler, almost. Screaming and shouting at his attackers, pounding his fists and feet on the ground. Ang Lee places a strong emphasis on emotional lyricism, shifting and moving through rather than from scene to scene, from the internal emotion of Nick Nolte’s face as he reveals his monstrous secret to Liz Tyler’s Betty Ross – on his eyes, and the twitches of his face, here and there – and to the external, as the Hulk escapes from the underground Army facility. Indeed, Lee integrates the internal and external psychosis of the character through his strong set-pieces in such a way that he’s created what can be called a true psychological action film – representing the harsh emotional reactions of Bruce’s character in a constantly moving kaleidescope of fragmented imagery, and this pours over into Lee’s stylistic approach to the film as well, the often-maligned comic book panel look, not at all dissimilar to that used in Photos by Barry Perlus, albeit in a more self-conscious four-color light. At times, this can get to be a little much – there’s sometimes too much in one frame to pay attention to at once, and a frenzy occurs. But, it’s quickly cooled – and, Lee finds a way to milk the device for as much emotional resonance as he can, contrasting faces against each other within the same frame, one on top of another; as in the climax of the film, which begins with Bruce against his father, set against the almost stage-like backdrop that comes down mainly to two stage lights and a couple of chairs. Nick Nolte’s David Banner is one of the most under-appreciated performances of – well, a long while, at least. Through tone of voice and twitch of eye, we’re constantly informed of the intellectual machinations of this man, a true monster that is, at the same time, made just the tiniest bit sympathetic through the quakes and breaks in Nolte’s voice. Perhaps it’s intentional, another trick of his. Or, it might even be a true example of his sanity breaking through. He’s given some of the longer monologues of the film, and Lee films these most often in long, unbroken shots, allowing Nolte’s old, soulful faces to fill the screen, now course and hairy, almost a pastiche on the common image of the Mad Scientist. He’s countered not without measure by Eric Bana’s turn as Bruce Banner, a man so constantly emotionally repressed since early childhood that, when something does break through, it comes like a thundershock – a loud scream, breaking the intentional monotony that had marked the character before, leaving the character half-fainted, exhausted in his chair afterward. In this light, certain critics claims that Bana is wooden in the film seem disingenuous, since it’s clearly something the film textually acknowledges, and utilizes. Liz Tyler tells David Banner that all he’s given his son is a great fear, “fear of life,” something that only really vanishes when he goes green. Lee sees the relationship between the two of them as something resembling a Greek tragedy, and this is made explicit during the final moments of the film, where Bruce as Hulk and his Father take to the skies, embodied within the clouds and the lightening itself, in a series of astonishingly painterly tableaux. And, then underwater – where the scale shifts, and the Hulk is no longer the largest body in the frame, now a tiny speck battling the waters themselves. If this film were released, like, now – I have no doubt that there’d be no end to the praise rained on it; as it stands, it’s right in the middle of one of those great critical reappraisals that happens every so often to certain films, years after their release. More than deserved.

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