We live in a very interesting time when it comes to social interactions and relationships. With the advent of social networking through this Technological Age, it seems as though we can be impersonal and personal at the same time without it being a dichotomy or contradiction. In Spike Jonze’s “Her”, we are taken through a very personal journey for the characters that is as real for them as it can be for the viewers watching. It doesn’t try to stand alone as a statement of what technology is doing to us as people, however, nor does it make some kind of general social statement about humanity devolving in any kind of way.
It tells the story of a seemingly lonely guy named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) who may seem detached but is able to successfully write love letters for clients at one of the most curious companies ever. It may be arbitrary but it certainly serves as a good purpose for the theme of the film. In some cases he’s known his clients so long he can actually come up with thoughts of theirs that they may not have even told him to put down in writing. He’s lauded for his efforts by a co-worker, Paul (Chris Pratt), and he seems to be happy with the job. But he has an emptiness in his life that we learn comes from the impending divorce from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), whom he’s known since childhood. Fragments of their relationship are spliced throughout the film, giving us a glimpse into their happiness, and demise. We’re not exactly sure what broke down between them, but it becomes more apparent as we get to know Theodore more. He is immersed in technology. He’s one of those guys who will always have the latest tech gadget–but instead of being introverted about technology, he seems to use it for social reasons. He logs into a one-night stand hotline to have phone sex with strangers (sort of like Chat Roulette) and has a rather amusing if over the top encounter with a random girl (voiced by Kristin Wiig). He is turned onto a new kind of AI operating system that grows in intellect the more you use it, and Theodore decides to invest in one, choosing a female voice that names herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson).
Her relationship with Theodore starts off more like Siri for iPhone but quickly develops into a more familiar one, and then a romantic one. Theodore is instantly hooked, but has some distractions…such as a first date with a girl his friend has set him up with (played a little too convincingly by Olivia Wilde). His friend Amy (Amy Adams) is in a relationship herself, married to a somewhat inauspicious guy, Charles (Matt Letscher) who is never afraid to criticize her even when she’s showing a film she made to Theodore. The date starts off well but goes awry and Theodore confides in Samantha, drawing them closer together.
This is where the film really becomes absorbing. Once they fully accept being in a relationship together, all of the parallels of what a relationship is are explored. He calls her his “girlfriend”, even to his soon to be ex-wife, who mocks his relationship and tells him he can only have a meaningful relationship with “his laptop”.
But things aren’t so rosy for Theodore and Samantha. There are jealousies, accusations, things that happen in a normal relationship, that begin to challenge their situation. It’s all very natural–but it’s all very synthetic at the same time. In a way, Theodore is Samantha, programmed to be a way that cannot change. But can he accept himself being alone, and not being lonely?
This sort of plot is not exactly wholly original. We’ve seen stories of Artificial Intelligence being used as characters in relationships. Spielberg’s “AI” and Andrew Niccol’s “S1m0ne” come to mind. But I like that Spike Jonze makes this a very intimate, personal story. One that you become so wrapped up in because you start to put yourself in Theodore’s place. And Johansson’s performance is so instantly appealing, you start to fall for her as well. Every jolt of something unpleasant between them is felt, and when you feel something is slipping away, you get that same feeling you would if you were going through the same thing with your significant other.
Even though it sounds a bit heavy, it’s emotional impact is embraceable, rather than something that weighs it down. It gives the film so much more depth by exploring the ups and downs of a serious relationship. In a way, it’s more powerful than some films about two actual human beings in a relationship. Never seeing Samantha allows our imaginations to conjure up what she’d look like, what her expressions were, and I didn’t necessarily actually picture Johansson a lot of times. There are some laugh out loud moments, too, such as when Theodore is stuck at a certain point in a video game he’s playing. The character he interacts with (voiced by Jonze) is very funny, if a bit obnoxious and rude.
The film is very satisfying, and I think it could pass as a date movie. Not a first date movie, though. That may be a little much…and a bit too revealing. It’s like going to a palm reading for couples on your first date. You want to have a little mystery.
But even watching alone, it can be greatly appreciated. The performances are very strong, and credible, and the journey is one that’s very sweet and endearing throughout. Try not to hit on any computers on your next visit to Fry’s, though. May be a little awkward.
We are still in the throes of the Super Hero Blockbuster era, and it seems to have gotten so out of hand that now individual super heroes are going to share screen time with others, while also enjoying their own separate franchises. In the DC Universe, we’ve been familiar with this idea with the Justice League. Everybody knows the Justice League–Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and who could forget Aquaman? Well, it seems as though JL has a long ways to go before being able to make their own film. On the Marvel side, however, things have been gearing up for years to make “The Avengers”. Beginning with 2008’s “Ironman”, and culminating in last summer’s “Captain America”, the ingredients were there to put together Marvel’s own Justice League: Ironman, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, and various members of S.H.I.E.L.D. Oh, and Hawkeye. You’ll have to be somewhat knowledgeable to follow who Hawkeye and the Black Widow are; but really, we just want to see the heavyweights. We’re introduced to a new Hulk, because Ed Norton from the 2008 reincarnation of the super beast was “not available” (he declined). So we’re given Mark Ruffalo to provide the body needed for the brainiac Bruce Banner. The body needed for the rageaholic Incredible Hulk is already provided by the obligatory CGI post production magic.
The set up for the story of “The Avengers” couldn’t be simpler: Loki (well played again by Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s brother (did you see “Thor”? well, maybe it won’t matter either way), wants to harness the power of the Tesseract, a cube shaped energy source with limitless possibilities, and control the world. He wants to use a race of supreme beings from another world known as the Chitauri to conquer Earth and be master of the universe, I guess. He infiltrates by way of a portal opening up during a Tesseract trial run and steals the the cube from S.H.I.E.L.D. that’s been protecting it, and also turns a few people into turncloaks–like Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).
The rest of the plot is basically about assembling the Avengers and winding them up into an inevitable climax with a lot of bad guys and a few creepy slug like monsters that wreak havoc on New York City. But the joy of “The Avengers” is not about the plot. Unless you were totally riveted by my last paragraph, what you came to see was a bunch of super heroes geeking out and bantering. And that’s just what Joss Whedon provides in this easily predictable but still most entertaining action tour de force.
Whedon didn’t have too much to think about while constructing the plot with co-story writer Zak Penn. But his script is crisp and full of wit. You have the familiar Whedonisms he’s utilized in “Buffy” and “Firefly”/”Serenity”–the zippy one-liners, characters you really like will meet untimely deaths (I won’t say who), girl power, and at least one or five fist fights among the main characters. Nothing gets too bitter or over the top. Whedon does a fine job of keeping everyone in each other’s faces but not at each other’s throats. There are some in-fights between the heroes–after all, they’re super heroes. Don’t think they have super egos to go along with them?
The wonderful thing about the film, too, is that these heroes are portrayed by good actors. Robert Downey, Jr. is always a welcome face, especially as Tony Stark/Ironman and provides the most throwaway lines. Chris Evans is extremely credible as the patriotic but still questioning Captain America. Chris Hemsworth is charismatic and hunky as Thor. Scarlett Johansson is more than just pretty, she’s also quite cunning as Black Widow. No surprise, but certainly a treat, is of course having the new guy, Mark Ruffalo, who will most likely get his own rebooted franchise for the “Hulk” (which would make the third time this happens in the last ten years, but who’s counting?). Ruffalo is cool and calm and smart as Banner; but he has something inside that’s itching to come out. And his best line–“I’m always angry”–perfectly defines Banner/The Hulk. I was always fascinated by this Jekyll/Hyde character, and Ruffalo pulls it off pretty well. He doesn’t have the angst level of Ed Norton or the good looks of Eric Bana; but he’s got that just-right touch that makes him instantly believable.
Most of the film is a mix of characters chiding each other and wall-to-wall action. Just about all of the third act involves the baddies from another universe coming down to earth. This is probably where the film gets the most derivative as far as modern action films are concerned. Nothing here is anything you haven’t seen in just about every summer blockbuster of the past 5 years. But that’s really just window dressing. There’s not a lot to admire in the action department. We’ve seen all of that. But it’s still fun because Whedon has done a really good job of setting everything up with likable and entertaining characters. I wasn’t a fan of the film “Captain America”, but his character is well written in “The Avengers” that I’d be willing to give him another chance whenever his sequel is released.
And of course, we’re going to have another “Avengers” movie. It can get a bit groan inducing to think that we’re going to have an “Iron Man 3”, “Thor 2”, and eventually another “Hulk” movie. Not to mention, Spidey’s movie is coming out this summer too. For those who follow the comics, Spider-Man is also an Avenger. So, we could have him show up in “The Avengers 2”. That’s an awful lot of Marvel inundating Hollywood.
If they could get Whedon to helm more of these projects, though, I think I’d be more excited to see them. This stuff is right up Whedon’s alley. While I thought he was trying too hard to press the right buttons with “Cabin in the Woods”, here the keystrokes come easy. He just has a knack for turning the cliched and predictable action genre into something fresh and fun. And you just want more.
I’m all about the past ten years all of the sudden. I’m also all about lists. I love top 10’s, can you tell? Anyway, here’s a list of 10 movies that I thought haven’t gotten enough love and I want to point them out and maybe generate some renewed interest. They may not be the greatest films ever but I enjoyed them for what they were and thought they undeservedly went through the box office with nothing more than a whisper.
Note: I understand some of these films made it to Critics’ top 10 lists for their respective year. But who listens to critics anymore, amirite?
My Top 10 “Under the Radar” Films of the Past 10 Years
#10: Brick (2005)
Written & directed by: Rian Johnson
The immediate allure of “Brick” is the dialog. It is a modern film but the dialog is purposely archaic; a throw back to the 20’s and 30’s, with that “hard boiled” detective film noir flavor to it. The reason the idea is fun for this film is that it revolves around teenagers. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan, whose ex-girlfriend has been murdered and he wants to basically solve the case himself. The way the film unfolds is definitely reminiscent of old detective novels, where Johnson said he got his inspiration. The interesting thing is that when you strip away the novelty of the dialog and noir aspects, you still get a pretty well made and intriguing film. Credit the acting of Gordon-Levitt especially because he brings such sincerity to his role that it’s instantly credible. And that’s this film needed badly: the actors had to pull off the dialog. Otherwise it just looks silly. Well, they definitely do and I recommend finding this film and giving it a look.
#9: Ghost World (2001)
Written by Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes / Directed by: Terry Zwigoff
Daniel Clowes’ “Ghost World” is a graphic novel about a pathetic youth named Edin who, along with her friend Rebecca, derides pretty much everyone and everything, until they grow too close to each other, and then fall apart eventually. The film adaptation is pretty close to the intentions of the graphic novel thanks to the fine directing of Terry Zwigoff (“Crumb”, “After School Confidential”) and the screenplay by Zwigoff and the author of the graphic novel, Clowes. Enid is played by Thora Birch and Rebecca by a very young Scarlett Johansson. Both are very good in their roles as they make fun of the world around them; and then Enid begins to develop a genuine interest in someone she had previously pranked, a loner named Seymour (Steve Buscemi). The film is a great character study of a total hypocrite, much in the same vein of “Catcher in the Rye”. It’s a quiet film, and the eerie ending is left to your interpretation (although I think it’s pretty obvious what it ultimately means). This was pretty critically acclaimed at the time, but you rarely hear about it anymore. Still worth checking out if you happen to run across it.
#8: “O” (2001)
Written by: Brad Kaaya / Directed by: Tim Blake Nelson
I’m cheating just a tad with this one since it was technically made in 1999, and the release was held up due to the Columbine massacre in April. It was released in 2001, which still allows me to use it in this list, I think. This film is an updated adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Othello”, and in my mind, it’s one of the best modern adaptations of his work. It stars Mekhi Phifer as Odin, a high school basketball star who has everything going for him. Josh Hartnett, in one of his best performances, as Hugo (the Iago character in the play), is jealous of Odin’s talents, and is one of his teammates. He wishes he had Odin’s ability but knows he’ll never be as good as him. So instead of trying to better himself, he intends to ruin Odin’s life. Odin’s love interest is Desi (Julia Stiles) and Hugo creates a plan to make her an ultimate victim, while making Odin responsible for everything. The film’s tone is chillingly quiet and that lends more to its power. Hartnett is so convincing as the self-loathing Hugo, and with its violent climax and ending it’s no wonder why it was shelved after Columbine. But I’m very grateful it was eventually released, because it does such a good job of bringing new life into a play that’s hundreds of years old. While it’s great to see “Othello”, especially when done well; but to be able to relate to it in a modern atmosphere makes it all the more relevant and worthwhile. Credit director Tim Blake Nelson (also an actor, who played Delmar in “O Brother Where Art Thou?”) and screenwriter Brad Kaaya for setting this in a contemporary America where things like this can, and do, still happen. And watching it all unfold is just as shocking as it probably was when it was first performed centuries ago.
#7: The Rules of Attraction (2002)
Written & directed by: Roger Avary
After the success of “American Psycho”, I guess it was fitting to go after another Bateman from Bret Easton Ellis’s satiric library of macabre 80’s novels. This time it’s “The Rules of Attraction”, whose main character (I use that term very loosely) is Sean Bateman (played effectively by James van der Beek). It takes place at a fictional college where very real college things happen. The film’s disjointed narrative parrots the novel in an adaptation that even Ellis said was the “best” that he’s seen. While I still think “American Psycho” is a superior film, just based primarily on the fact that it does have one direct narrative, this film is also entertaining for all its bleakness and ice cold attack on disenchanted and disinterested youth. Unlike “Psycho”, this doesn’t necessarily take place in the 80’s. Instead, the time period is relatively ambiguous but it’s pretty much assumed to take place in the now. I never felt this film got that much praise and it’s a shame because on the whole, it’s quite an experience. It has some very intense scenes (the suicide scene comes immediately to mind, especially with the use of Harry Nilsson’s “Without You”) and it has some very funny scenes (Kip Pardue’s amazingly hysterical and very cynical “European trip” sequence as Victor). I also want to point out my favorite performance and character in the film: Richard “Dick” Jared played by Russell Sams. He only has a brief appearance but it is absolutely hilarious. The film isn’t as easily accessible as “American Psycho” and it lacks the disarming faux-charm of Patrick Bateman; but it does have a lot of scenes that tie a nice chaotic and extremely dark experience together. It may leave you feeling a bit empty; but what else can you expect from Bret Easton Ellis?
#6: Sunshine (2007)
Written by: Alex Garland / Directed by: Danny Boyle
I was an Alex Garland fan after finishing his debut novel, “The Beach” which was adapted by Danny Boyle (I wasn’t a fan of the film at all). His writing ability as a novelist was obviously keen; but I was more impressed once he delved into screenwriting, with his first effort being “28 Days Later” (also directed by Danny Boyle). I don’t know the history of why Boyle and Garland work together, but every time they have, it’s been a great result. Maybe after what Garland saw Boyle do to “The Beach” (the screenplay was written by John Hodge), he decided he would set Boyle straight and show that his talents deserve better treatment. Whatever the reason, it’s paid off, and “Sunshine” is another fine example of this tandem’s efforts. It stars Cillian Murphy as an astronaut whose mission, along with his team, is to ignite the sun which has dwindled, and give it new life for earth. If they fail, it could mean the end of civilization. The premise is an interesting one, albeit it highly unlikely and not instantly credible. I mean, with the “payload” they have, I still don’t think it would do much to help the sun reach its potential to save mankind. But in any event, the execution of the premise is nicely done. The characters aren’t all interesting; but once things start to go wrong with the mission, it gets very interesting. Drawing obviously from movies like “Alien” and “2001”, “Sunshine” touches on a great question of “Can man play God?” They run into an unfortunate villain who seems to answer “No” to that question and there the film somewhat devolves into a slasher flick. But before all of that, I really like how the film works and there’s one scene involving an astronaut that finds out what happens when you “freeze” in space. It’s quite startling but fascinating. It’s certainly not as potent and timeless as “28 Days Later”, but “Sunshine” is definitely a fine film, I think it’s better than some of Danny Boyle’s other films. Definitely more interesting.
#5: I Heart Huckabees (2004)
Written & directed by: David O. Russell
David O. Russell is probably one of the most inventive and interesting filmmakers out there. Unfortunately, he’s also one of the meanest, and hardest to work with. Almost every film he does seems to have some kind of story attached about cast members being mistreated (most famously, George Clooney on the set of “Three Kings”; look it up). He’s definitely wears the “delicate genius” badge of honor proudly. But when you see the result, I don’t know how you can complain as simply as audience member. Don’t worry; I’m thinking it’s pretty safe that you’ll never have to work with him. This film is actually probably my favorite of his films, but I’ve enjoyed all of them. I like it mainly because it’s not only a philosophical film–it’s also a satire of philosophy. It’s all about existentialism. When I first saw it, I thought it was just pretentious and purposely over the top. Then I watched it again, and got the joke. It’s making fun of existentialism, as much as it is corporate culture and everything always getting caught up in consumerism. Tommy Corn is easily my favorite character. He’s played joyfully by Mark Wahlberg, which I always point to as a reference whenever someone criticizes him as a “bland actor”. This and Dirk Diggler, to me, prove Wahlberg’s ability. He’s very entertaining and energetic as the main character, Albert’s (played by Jason Schwartzman) Other as it’s called. Here’s a quick synopsis: an Other, in continental philosophy, is the opposite of the Same, which is your identity. I think it’s actually self-explanatory, right? So let’s move on. Anyway, the film’s got a lot of philosophical humor that if you’re into philosophy, you will laugh extensively. But I think the vernacular would even tickle the funnybone of someone who is aloof to philosophy or even downright dislikes it. It’s a bit hard to follow at first, and sometimes it does try to go over your head–but it’s a romp at its root, and it works very well. It’s not something you just pop in and enjoy; but I’d recommend a viewing, especially if you want to learn a little about philosophy. But especially if you don’t. Try and figure that out!
#4: Igby Goes Down (2002)
Written & directed by: Burr Steers
Kieran Culkin may never go down in history as the most successful or even most recognizable Culkin–and I’m not sure that it matters all that much. But he wins my heart with his brilliant performance as Igby Slocum, the modern incarnate of Holden Caulfield. While “Ghost World” can serve as maybe the female “Catcher in the Rye”, this is almost its doppelganger. But it does have its uniqueness. Igby is a rich brat whose mother Mimi (played very well by Susan Sarandon) is dying. He hates his mother for an assortment of reasons–but it seems the biggest is because of how she treated his father, Jason (Bill Pullman), who was committed to a mental institution after a nervous breakdown that Igby witnesses as a child. After seeing this harrowing experience, Igby thinks he has some kind of connection to his father. Like he understands what he went through, and that he wants to break from the family because his overbearing mother is the downfall of not only his father, but he himself. He hates his brother, Ollie (Ryan Phillippe, in his usual snobby role), who is a perfect example of what Mimi wants in a son. Igby is the opposite. But he’s always bailed out by her, or D.H., his godfather. Igby is rebellious, but he’s a hypocrite because he is only rebellious in spirit. In action, he takes every bail out he’s handed. He preaches about how empty and hollow the lifestyle of rich people is, but he himself is just as hollow and his escapes never go beyond the reach of his rich mother. The other thing that Igby can’t seem to face is the reality of his heritage. That’s only revealed in the end, but it explains everything. Igby tries to be a tortured soul; but he has no reason to torture himself. He has no real connection with his father. He also doesn’t understand that his whole life, it’s been his mother’s lifestyle that he’s reveled in. So in the end, he’s his own worst enemy; not the whole world. And the worst part is, even if he escapes the world of his mother, he’ll never escape who he is, no matter how far he tries to go. But don’t think this is an overbearing, pretentious re-work of “Catcher”. It has a lot of laughs, and isn’t as dark as it possibly could have been.
#3: Observe and Report (2009)
Written & directed by: Jody Hill
I have a review of this film on this site. I liked it when it came out, and I always felt it got jobbed by being released on the same weekend as “Paul Blart” with Kevin James. This is not a mall cop comedy movie. This is an extremely dark and cynical comedy about the lives of the depraved and self-indulgent. It follows the character of Ronnie Barnhardt (played by Seth Rogen, in his best film role to date), who is indeed a mall cop. But he thinks he’s more than that. He’s ultimately arrogant and has no self awareness at all. He runs a tight ship at the local mall–but there’s a problem. A flasher has been popping up perverting the parking lot, and Ronnie wants to solve the case himself. Of course, actual law enforcement gets involved, including a detective named Harrison (Ray Liotta), who hates Ronnie. Ronnie wants to catch the pervert not only for his own personal glory, but he also seems to be obsessed with impressing Brandi (Anna Faris), the cosmetics girl at a department store that is just as vacant as you could expect a cosmetics girl at a department store to be. He wants to “protect” her and the mall; but his tactics are laughed off by Harrison and Ronnie tries to become a real police officer to prove that he is more than just mall security. He fails the test, not physically, but he is bi-polar and is “off his medication” only because he’s “generally being a badass” and living a good life. Ronnie is not a necessarily likable person; but Rogen’s performance is pitch perfect and he hits the right notes at all the right times. Sometimes moody, sometimes out of line, sometimes inappropriate and vulgar, and even criminal himself…and then at some points, even sweet. The performance that stood out to me, as I indicated in my review, was by Collette Wolfe who plays Nell, a register jockey at a donut/coffee joint in the mall food court. She has a scene that just throws a monkey wrench in the film’s otherwise droll tone. This film is very dark, and not as accessible as a typical Seth Rogen vehicle. It also has some clunkiness, and some of the characters don’t really work for me (like Ronnie’s alcoholic mother); but overall, I think it’s great for that dark heart inside you. You know you want to laugh. And you will. Maybe you’ll feel bad. Good. That’s what it’s all about sometimes.
#2: Moon (2009)
Written by: Duncan Jones and Nathan Parker / Directed by: Duncan Jones
It’s very hard to pull of a feature length film that revolves one character. It doesn’t happen often, but examples to me are “Cast Away” with Tom Hanks and “I Am Legend” with Will Smith (although that film is pretty weak otherwise). But sometimes actors can just carry a film, literally. Well, let me introduce you to Sam Rockwell, because a lot of people don’t seem to know who he is; but he’s definitely recognizable. Guy Fleegman in “Galaxy Quest”; Zaphod Beeblebrox in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”; and most notably, Chuck Barris, in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”. He absolutely commands in this film, which is about a lone astronaut on a mysterious mission on the moon in which he oversees an automated “harvesting” of helium-3 from regolith on the moon’s surface. Something happens to him while he’s exploring one of the harvesters. What happens soon after basically changes the course of the film’s narrative, which I won’t give away–let’s just say, Rockwell has quite a range. And because of his amazing performance (unfairly overlooked by the Academy that year), this film works better than it actually probably should. It’s really a rather simple story. Almost more fitting for a Twilight Zone episode. But his sincerity brings so much more to the story. The film itself is a good one, I should say, even if it is simple. It is very touching, very sad in some ways, but incredibly gripping, especially when you figure out what’s going on. It’s a movie that I don’t even think the filmmakers remember coming out…I don’t remember anyone talking about it. But it’s a certainly a hidden gem.
So now you must be thinking…well Zack, what could be better than “Moon”, right? Well, this one was a hard choice because the ranking of this list makes it seem like some of the films are lesser than the others. Really, I just had to figure out a way to present them and…this is what I came up with.
So here’s number one…and I must say, this isn’t a highly rewatchable film by any means. But it’s worth seeing for sure.
#1: Zodiac (2007)
Written by: James Vanderbilt / Directed by: David Fincher
The Zodiac Killer is possibly one of the most intriguing serial killers of all time. I don’t know how much of a ringing endorsement that is for someone that is only famous for murdering people…but the reason why he’s so interesting is that because of his elusiveness, he’s never actually been captured. Don’t worry, if he were still alive, he’d be in his 70’s at least. How dangerous could he be now? But in the late 60’s/early 70’s, the Zodiac Killer captured the imaginations of millions of Americans, especially on the West Coast where he prowled. David Fincher’s film, which wasn’t a huge box office success, is, in my mind, the best film that’s about catching a killer. Now, no, of course, they don’t catch him. That’s not the point. The journey here is in the absolutely exhausting police work. Fincher dabbled in this with “Se7en”; but with that, we had a conclusion. Here, detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), have to team up with other detectives and spend countless hours pursuing dead leads and red herrings because the Zodiac loves taunting the police, and is so hard to figure out, he remains enigmatic. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, who wrote the exemplary book “Zodiac” in 1986 (also was the basis of the screenplay), a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, where the Zodiac letters are addressed to. Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a writer for the paper, as a crime reporter. Avery and the rest of the staff at the Chronicle don’t pay much mind to Graysmith; but Graysmith is obsessed with the encrypted nature of the letters, and is able to eventually crack the code of one of them. This gives him credibility to Avery, who somewhat befriends him. Throughout the film, every character is more engulfed into the story, and catching the killer almost becomes more of the story than the killer’s serial murders. And that’s actually what interested me most about the film, which itself is exhausting, clocking in at 157 minutes (162 director’s cut). There are some very creepy moments in the film. One of my favorite ones involves a scene with a suspect named Bob Vaughn, played well by Charles Fleischer. What struck me was not only the odd casting of someone like Fleischer (known mostly as a voice actor, predominately as Roger Rabbit), but also how uncomfortable he is. He’s so awkward and strange, you start to really wonder if he is the killer. Graysmith’s obsession with the case also has its cost on his life–he loses his job and his wife leaves him. But when you see what everyone goes through to find this killer, you realize just how intense police work can be–and when it’s all for naught, what can be extracted from that? Was it all a waste of time? What was actually accomplished? These questions are explored and not necessarily answered by Fincher. But that’s what’s appealing about the film. It’s not about the answers. In some ways it’s just as mind bending as the killer himself. And that’s what makes it such a great film.
Comic book movie sequels can be a conundrum. While you already have the pressure of being a sequel already, most of the time you’re given the chance to flesh out your hero a little more and give them another villain to work with. You do, however, have the advantage of a lot more material to work with. Marvel is the most prominent icon in comic book movies today, with the successes of The “Spiderman” series, the “X-Men” series, a revamped “Hulk” series, and of course the first “Iron Man”. But the “Iron Man” series has a different kind of approach to its sequel because the function of its hero, Tony Stark, isn’t a tortured soul like Peter Parker or Bruce Banner. He’s actually a charismatic billionaire who loves life and loves his money. So the angle here isn’t about morphing into a monster or using super hero strength to counter a nerdy teenage existence. Quite simply, “Iron Man” is about one thing:
Toys. Tony Stark loves his main toy, the Iron Man suit with all its bells and whistles and impossible awesomeness. He doesn’t believe it should go to the military to be used in some liberal agenda. He also believes he’s the only one who can be trusted enough to use it. Copycats have tried and failed; except for an ex-con in Russian whose father used to work with Tony’s father and was exiled from the project. The Russian, played by Mickey Rourke in a very underused role, creates a suit that can rival Iron Man’s power and ability. It also happens to look pretty cool.
Meanwhile, Tony is tangled up in a plot with a group called S.H.I.E.L.D. that knows Tony’s suit can be useful; but Tony himself is useless. Scarlett Johansson plays Black Widow (though she’s never referred to that code name in the fim; she’s Natasha or Natalie), part of the organization, and Samuel L. Jackson plays Nick Fury.
Also, Ivan (Rourke) is lured into a scheme by a rival gun maker named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) to build a better Iron Man suit so he can upstage Tony Stark.
This is all well and good, and I think the movie tries to show off how cool it is a little too much. The thing I liked so much about the first film was that it was surprisingly charming and interesting as well as being pretty good to look at. The final battle scene was as hokey as they come; but by that time, the film was already likable enough to where I didn’t care.
But a sequel was not going to really be surprising. We knew what we were getting, ultimately. This wasn’t going to be like “Superman II” or “Spider-man II” or even “X-Men 2”. There was no real growth for Tony. Tony is Tony. He has a bit of a problem with his ticker, but it doesn’t really change who he is. This one’s just louder and more stuff gets blowed up. In a somewhat self-serving and indulgent scene, Tony and his long time pal Rhodey (played this time by Don Cheadle instead of Terrence Howard) get into a big macho fight that leaves Tony’s pad really busted up. And of course their friendship is kind of hurt at that point.
The movie is very predictable and not as enjoyable as the first. There’s a freshness missing; and while Downey, Jr. and Rourkey provide entertaining characters and some nice moments, the movie still is what it is: it’s just an action film. Sure, that’s fine. I still enjoyed that part of it. Perhaps this series is a bit doomed in that regard. Tony will never NOT be Tony, nor will he have room to grow to be more mature. He’s fun and charming, but there’s not anything flawed enough in him to make a real change. In other words, there’s not as much at stake. Not for his character or what will happen to his life. He puts on a suit that’s able to be pulverized by an electronic whip and still survive. He’s still insanely rich; and the future’s bright. I’m not sure where else this story needs to go.
But if there is going to be an “Iron Man 3”, which I feel there will, I think it’s a mistake. The next project for this would be a “S.H.I.E.L.D.” film, or the Avengers. I think the last bit at the end of the film credits reveals that’s probably inevitable. I think that may be a lot more fun than seeing a guy fly around in a metal suit blowing stuff up for two hours for a third time.
My rating: :