The iconic actor proves to be a very different (but very satisfying) comic-book hero. Elsewhere, Coldplay's new single intrigues and a movie about a red balloon beguiles.
The release of Iron Man starts the summer movie season on a good note. Not a great note, but a darn good one.
Iron Man (Paramount Pictures/Marvel Studios)
Nerds can explain how you can tell DC and Marvel superheroes apart, but from the movies alone, the most striking difference is their humor. Not that Batman Begins wasn't funny, too, but in this new wave of comic-book flicks, Batman and Superman are serious, sensitive souls, while the X-Men and Spider-Man series are full of yuks. And as with Iron Man, the humor isn't just a relief – it's a big selling point. Whether or not it's a good thing in terms of building a franchise, director Jon Favreau has a sure sense of comedy and character, which is vitally important when action scenes aren't exactly your thing. Robert Downey Jr. doesn't steal the show because he's irreverent – it's because he plays within the strictures of comic-book conventions while riffing around them. Frankly, he's the film's one element that gets close to understanding what made Batman Beginssuch a revelation – the notion that you can play by the blockbuster rules but still elevate the proceedings by subverting them in intelligent, inspired ways. Otherwise, this is merely solid, respectable filmmaking – Downey feels like its auteur more than Favreau does, and that's a problem. And no matter how you want to contort yourself to justify it, the Middle Eastern bad guys are a little too conveniently stereotypical for comfort, even if there are real people in the world who look like them who want to do us in. Gwyneth Paltrow is quite good, Jeff Bridges less so – although it doesn't feel like he has much to go on. Four credited screenwriters rarely guarantee much thematic unity, and that's the case here. Despite my complaining, it's a breezy ride and very, very funny. But it could have been more.
Flight of the Red Balloon (IFC)
I'm waiting for Stuff White People Like to get to "Movies Where Nothing Happens": in other words, foreign films where the camera follows its characters as they go through their perfectly ordinary day in the hope that art will be made in the process. Hou Hsiao-Hsien's latest is part of this tradition, and based on the older, arthouse crowd I saw it with, it's a little too much to take: Not since Dogville or Safe have I seen so many walkouts. Consequently, my enjoyment is tempered somewhat: Flight of the Red Balloon is all about sadness and feeling isolated, and so the beauty of the film can't quite make up for the fact that droves of people couldn't or wouldn't deal with it. Even if I can't tell you what the film's red balloon is supposed to "mean," what I do know is that this is one of the loveliest observations of daily life I've seen in a while – it captures a fractured family and its Chinese nanny with such gentle care that it feels profound without ever really straining for profundity. And Juliette Binoche is just remarkable – we're used to her as refined or lovable, but not brassy and overbearing. And yet we feel for her, too, as she tries to balance a career and motherhood, usually erring on the side of her career. Hou Hsiao-Hsien doesn't judge her – like the balloon, he's merely observing with a sympathetic eye. Kieslowski made movies like this: sad and beautiful and lifelike with a lyrical bent. The criticism of these kinds of films is that it's all empty, pretentious posturing. But then why did it touch me so deeply?
Standard Operating Procedure (Sony Pictures Classics)
There's always so much talk about why Iraq War movies don't do well. "They're too depressing," "They're not very good," and "People just want to forget about that whole thing" are the three most popular answers, but as somebody who has watched a ton of them, I also wonder if a good explanation is that, at this early stage, there's only so much new you can say about the war and its many consequences. Such is the problem with Errol Morris's very fine film. I always enjoy his movies – I always look forward to his next one – but his muted style can sometimes make them seem more like official documents than profound discussions. Lord knows we don't need another rabid anti-Bush doc, but for the most part Morris is so subdued in his investigation of what really went on in Abu Ghraib that anger/shock fatigue sets in pretty quickly. I don't consider myself any expert in human psychology or the military mentality, but I'm not sure how many revelations Morris uncovers in his talk with the soldiers there on the scene – we sorta know all this stuff already. Standard Operating Procedure’s truly great material concerns the investigators who went through the photographs and the professional interrogator who tells us how you get information out of a detainee the right way. Here, Morris goes back to the rich territory of The Thin Blue Line – maybe that's why the reenactments don't bother me at all. Morris is still one of our great filmmakers. But my guess is that, 10 years down the line, this movie will be studied more by historians and psychologists than by film students.
My Blueberry Nights (The Weinstein Company)
Dismissed and mocked at last year's Cannes by people convinced he was overrated by this point, My Blueberry Nights is, admittedly, not Wong Kar Wai's best film. But you're not going to find the big sham his detractors accuse this of being, either. Nope, just a really pungent, colorful look at America full of overripe characters you'd expect from paperbacks and Tarantino's films. And considering mymanyproblems with QT's recent flicks, you can guess whose vision I prefer. The thing is, Wong's movies are always over-romanticized, over-cooked, melodramatic. But they're beautiful and they pulse with feeling and they put you under their spell. On his watch, Rachel Weisz gives perhaps her best, sexiest performance, Natalie Portman gives one of her strongest, and Jude Law redeems himself. As for Norah Jones, if she's not exactly great, she's good enough – a sympathetic vessel for this road-trip reminder that some people's broken hearts aren't as terrible as other people's. You see, the crap you hear that Wong is just making the same movie all over again isn't entirely correct. This one is about how you get over a breakup by growing up and gaining some perspective from seeing the world. His 2046 hero really needed to learn that lesson, and, happily, Jones's character does. Don't get me wrong: This is a slight wisp of a film – more so than his others, even. But I dug the wisp.
Shine a Light (Paramount Vantage)
Where U2 3D rose or sank by how annoying Bono was in it, Martin Scorsese's concert film of the Stones has no such inconsistency. The whole thing's a love letter to Mick Jagger, and it's hard to argue with that approach: You've heard what a dynamic, energetic performer he is, but you can't comprehend it unless you're as close as Scorsese's cameramen are to him in this movie. Lyrics reduced to their closest phonetic grunts, Jagger embodies rock 'n' roll music in its most carnal form – those who grumbled that he danced “like a girl" back in the day will be sad to hear that he still prances and preens proudly around the stage. His band mates may be the musical heartbeat, but they're practically mannequins compared to what Jagger achieves live – it's simply stunning. But does anyone need another Stones documentary, even one this beautifully shot? I'm not so sure – and I really didn't need the archival interviews, which don't add much to the band’s already well-cultivated legend. If my record-keeping is correct, there's not a song less than 25 years old in the set, and a few of the chestnuts are potent but hardly revelatory. But the Buddy Guy cameo is mind-blowing, and a couple of Scorsese's bookending flourishes are exceptional. This isn't definitive like The Last Waltz was because this one doesn't have an overarching emotional/sociological thrust. But it is damn fun. MVP honors go to the cameramen, a who's-who list of renowned cinematographers who are superb at capturing not just the concert but its intimacy and excitement. And, yes, see it in IMAX.
Fugitive Pieces (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
The impossibility of letting go of a painful past hangs over every frame of Fugitive Pieces – too much so, in fact. Writer-director Jeremy Podeswa’s adaptation of the novel by Anne Michaels is a sober-minder exploration of a survivor’s emotional journey after witnessing his parents’ death at the hands of the Nazis as a small boy, but the suffocating seriousness of the work strangles much of the dramatic tension so that the film feels more miserable than engrossing. With so many movies made about the evils of Nazism and those who survived their treatment, it’s difficult to find a fresh angle on one of history’s most documented atrocities. And while there is some interest in showing what life was like in German-occupied Greece – and, later, the milieu of those who escaped to Canada and tried to settle into a new world – the movie hits many familiar notes about human cruelty and shattered lives.
Coldplay, "Violet Hill" (from the forthcoming Viva la Vida, Capitol)
Not quite the stylistic dustup that "Politik" was back on A Rush of Blood to the Head, but Coldplay’s lead single to their forthcoming album wants us to know they’re once again trying new sounds after X&Y’s water-treading maneuvers . The topic is love – that’s no surprise – which this time they apply to a pseudo-apocalyptic setting. There’s already enough online cackling about the group’s lack of weightiness, but let’s be honest: “Violet Hill” (like “Politik”) is only meant to be interpreted as “bold” by their relatively polite standards. And by that metric, it works just fine: nothing earthshaking, but a fun little moody number. And if you’re going to cackle, ask why Chris Martin didn’t include his usually pronounced hook – these guys have to get over on radio, not in the hearts of pasty critics. But, then again, “Politik” wasn’t exactly hooky, either – sure was pretty, though. So, look, it’s a competent table-setter, and I’m genuinely curious if it’s a sign of things to come or merely a distraction from more space-age ballads about Martin’s famous wife.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.