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Iron Man 2: The movie that will bust your bunker with the ex-wife

May 30, 2010

Iron Man 2 was better than okay, but it didn’t hang together as nicely as the first.

Please don’t continue if you haven’t seen the movie.

There were some wonderful scenes and impressive moments.   By halfway through the movie, Robert Downey had recaptured the charming narcassist that made the first movie.  Mickey Rourke was excellent.  The Black Widow entering the Hammer compound was worth the entire cost of admission. 

But, while the first movie was flawlessly done (within the contraints of the genre and the source material), the sequel was not.

Minor Points

These nitpicky points might seem trivial, but point to a lack of care in putting together the sequel that was in place in the first movie.

1.  Even in a world of unbelievable things, I found Hammer unbelievably incompetant.  How did he ever get a military contract?  In the comic, he was far more cunning.

2.  When designing his new element to save himself from poisoning, why didn’t Stark aim the beam where it needed to go, rather than cutting half the room in half to get there?  And why didn’t the super beam cut through the wires on the way to its final destination?  Glaring goose eggs like this are annoying after the tight script of the first movie.

3.  The scene where Iron Man is drunk in his armor.  Overwritten and overdone.

The Big Problems

These are the missed opportunities–things that made Iron Man great seemingly forgotten for the second movie.  It makes you wonder, did the writers and producers know what made the first movie good, or was the first movie a fluke–the millionth monkey accidentally typing Shakespeare?

1.  Character.  Many movies cast heroes who are supposed to be both charming and jerks.  Unfortuantely, for the most part, due to mediocre acting and/or bad writing, they are just jerks.  In Iron Man, Downey and his writers strike a perfect pitch, depicting a man who you can’t help but like, but is really an a-hole.  In Iron Man 2, Stark is just a jerk who thinks he is charming, until he regains his charm when he serves Potts the meal on the plane and from that point on.  This charming a-holishness made the first movie brilliant and deserved better attention for the first half of the second movie.

2.  Plot.  The subplot was embarrassingly amatuerish.  Tony Stark is dying from the very element that saved his life.  That part could have been nice, but I never really cared.  It was overshadowed by the special effects, the fight choreography and Mickey Rourke. 

But that’s not the worst part of it.  The problem is solved in such a ridiculous way I can’t watch the movie again.  Here’s the solution in chronological order. 

  1. Howard Stark has the blueprint to creating a new element. 
  2. Howard Stark dies.
  3. SHIELD has collected all of Howard Stark’s stuff.   They are an intelligence agancy and must have reviewed the materials. 
  4. Tony Stark is dying from the very element that is saving his life.  He can’t figure out what to do.
  5. SHIELD shows up and gives him his dad’s stuff. 
  6. Tony Stark reads the notes, watches the news reels and realizes that the layout for the World’s Fair is a new element that coincidentally will be the only thing that can save his life.
  7. He creates the element and saves his own life.

Ridiculous Problem Number One:  Howard Stark has a blueprint to create a new element that his 1972 technology can’t create.  Why does he hide the schematics for the element in a diorama of a World’s Fair instead of in notes or a blueprint?  He could have sealed them and left them for Tony, which appears to have been his intention all along. 

Ridiculous Problem Number Two:  (Props to Najah Masudi for pointing this out).  SHIELD gives Stark his dad’s stuff, intimating that the answer must be in there and only Tony can figure it out.  SHIELD must have gone through the stuff.  So one of two ridiculous things happened.  

  • Ridiculous Option #1: SHIELD knows there is a hidden blueprint to the element that will save Tony Stark is contained within, which means they are complete wanks for not just telling Stark the secret.  I mean, he could have missed it and died, leaving Nick Fury at Stark’s funeral saying, “Oops.  I guess we should have let him know.”
  • Ridiculous Option #2.  SHIELD has reviewed the material and missed the hidden blueprint of the new element.  That means they think Howard Stark’s stuff is unrelated formulas and embarrassing newsreels.    Then why did they hint that Tony needed this junk to solve his problem?

Ridiculous Problem Number Three:  How did Howard Stark create a new element that just happened to be the very thing that would save his son’s life 30 years later after Tony was forced to save himself by sticking a poisonous element into his body and then just happened to stumble across this discovery  just before he was about to die?  It’s impressive enough Howard created a new element–but solving a problem that doesn’t exist yet is quite a trick!

Iron Man 3 had better have Tony heading back in time on Doctor Doom’s time machine to tell Howard about the element and how to hide it so Tony’s past self can find it in the nick of time.  I’m just saying. 

In the movie, Justin Hammer promises that his ultimate weapon, a missle he installs the War Machine armor, is fantastic and calls the “ex-wife” and it can bust the bunker below the bunker you were hiding in.  Then when War Machine uses it, it is a dud.  The movie doesn’t fail that badly, but it certainly doesn’t live up to its potential.

Dead and Resurrected

April 11, 2010

My grandmother, Mary Anna Bella Minne Hanton Tobias, was a wise acre.  My son, Noah, 5 years old, is turning out to be cut from the same cloth.

In church, a woman was singing about the death and resurrection.  “I’m glad Jesus died for my sins,” she sang.  Noah looked at my wife and said, shocked, “Jesus is dead?”  As if to say, ‘”You got me in here to praise Jesus and he’s dead?”

My wife says to him, “Don’t play with me.  You know that Jesus died for our sins.”

 Noah says (quite loudly), “I’m so bored I wish I was dead and resurrected.”

Of course, our fellow worshippers helped reinforce his behavior by all laughing loudly.

Noah may not be dead and resurrected, but I have to consider the possibility that he is the reincarnation of his great grandmother.

District 9: Racism in Drama and in Science Fiction

April 7, 2010

Science Fiction is one of the great modern genres of literature.  Mind you, I’m not just a fanboy; I have some lit snob credentials—I have my MFA and love Woolf and Faulkner and Bakhtin and have actually read Ulysses.   So when I say that Science Fiction is one of the great modern genres of literature, I do so from a lit snob background, not just a hatred of Jar Jar Binx.

Affirming and Challenging Stories

You can divide movies into two camps—affirming and challenging.  Most of contemporary film is “affirming.”  Forest GumpSlumdog MillionaireBenjamin ButtonJunoBrokeback MountainRaySeabiscuitChicagoA Beautiful MindGladiator.  Erin Brockovitch.  Crouching TigerLord of the Rings.  I loved many of these movies and all were well made, but in the end they serve to reaffirm both the viewer’s faith in the nobleness and perseverance of people and, by extension, the nobleness of the viewer.  “If I were in the main character’s shoes,” the viewer says, “I hope I would be as brave in the face of (a surprise pregnancy/ industrial polluters / a horde of orcs).”  None of these movies challenge your beliefs or make you struggle with difficult choices.

Some movies are challenging, of course.  Munich was challenging, drawing the viewer into the uncomfortable place where they own the commission of murders and the guilt.   Remains of the Day leaves the viewer with unresolved loneliness and alienation.  There are others, but movies that challenge the viewers to examine something within them are the minority.

Affirming and Challenging Stories about Race

The issue of race is the primary issue of the 20th and 21st century.  But when Hollywood approaches movies about race, and does what it always does (produce affirming movies), it enters dangerous ground, especially when the main character is white, as they disproportionately are.

As is normal for affirming movies, these movies serve to reaffirm the viewer’s faith in the nobleness and perseverance of people.  This means that the basic design of the Hollywood movie will dictate that white folk can still feel pretty good about themselves.  Sure there are those racists over there, but the central white character is in there fighting the good fight.  Sound familiar?  The Blind SideDangerous MindsFreedom WritersFinding Forrester.   RadioGlory Road.   There’s racism out there, but don’t worry white people, we’ll give you somebody with whom to identify who, though slightly naïve, is good at heart and can save those black kids. 

Of course, many of these films are based on true stories, but there’s no accident that these are the true stories being told and not those other true stories–unsettling, challenging true stories that don’t always have a happy ending or redemptive white characters.  Hollywood’s basic story needs triumph and redemption—so in films about race this translates into a way for whites to triumph over racism.

There are exceptions.  Crash was unsettling.  The racists in this movie were not two dimensional villains—they were the protagonists.  Nobody is without major flaws (except the locksmith) and I was so absorbed in the movie that I had to turn the movie off and pull myself together when Matt Dillon frisked Thandie Newton.    

While affirming movies about race have (usually) white protagonists battling obviously racist antagonists, challenging movies (challenging for white viewers, anyway) have white protagonists who are confronted with the racism within.

Affirming movies avoid more complicated issues—

  • racism built into the systems of things, embedded in apparently neutral standards (how benefits like road repairs and school funding are allocated, how people in power try to hold on to their power, how army recruiting is done) or
  • otherwise good people who speak the rhetoric of diversity and believe they aren’t racist, but still do or support or ignore racist things.

Why Science Fiction is Great

If you haven’t seen District 9, please don’t read any farther. 

People who aren’t interested in Science Fiction might think its greatest contribution is advancing the development of special effects.  But its true strength, known only to SF insiders, is being able to tell stories too provocative for mainstream movies.

Tackling Issues 

Just like mainstream drama, there are affirming Science Fiction stories—Terminator, Star Wars, Predator, Alien.  But when SF dives into an issue, it can go as far or farther than main stream drama. 

For example, Soylent Green can discuss climate change, overpopulation and cannibalism, Road Warrior finite resources, Minority Report the morality of pre-emptive strikes, Gattaca genetic profiling, Clockwork Orange free will and the lack of it while mainstream movies steer clear of these topics. 

Tackling Race

Often when discussions about black and white relations are brought up, people stop listening.  They have already built up walls.  The people most likely to watch Crash or Do The Right Thing are people already interested in the topic—the people who most need to be immersed in a discussion about race are the least likely to watch a movie about it.

But a science fiction movie, like District 9 or Blade Runner, can confront issues of race by making it not a story about white people and black people (or Hispanic people or Native Americans etc), but about white people and aliens.  It is still a story about the “other,” but by making the other a fantasy, those walls against any discussion about race do not immediately go up.  By hiding a discussion of race in an action flick, you can lure in people who might not sign up for a lecture on race by Cornell West.

It is no mistake that the first discussions about prejudice on TV (when the censors were tetchy about airing those sorts of political discussions) came on Star Trek, where the racists could be two alien races, while the humans had optimistically conquered racism on their own planet.  It is no mistake that the first black / white kiss on television also happened on Star Trek.  Mainstream dramas were too afraid to touch the subjects.

District 9: Treatment of the Other

How many mainstream movies could dramatize the most vile racist acts and still keep the protagonist even mildly sympathetic?  Shoving the “other” into a reservation, mocking them, beating them, taking advantage of them, killing them, aborting their children?  There’s no way that the protagonist of a mainstream movie could do this.  Welcome to District 9.

The very process of “dehumanizing the other” is redundant when the other isn’t human.  But when the patterns of racism and oppression are so similar to actual history, even a viewer not familair with Derrick Bell can recognize how terrible it would be if humans did these things to each other and then say, “Wait a minute…we do do these things.”

The hallmark of a movie that challenges the viewer is that the protagonist is complicated—both sympathetic and hated, identifiable and pathetic.  Matt Dillon in Crash, Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day, the murderers of Munich wracked with guilt.  Wikus in District 9

Even at the end, when what happens to Wikus happens, I am not sure if he recognizes and regrets his own racism or is just trying to reverse the incident.  If he did get what he wanted, I can’t be sure he wouldn’t just go back to his old job if he could.  And the viewer is challenged to confront the part in her or himself that is like Wikus—fallible, racist, human.

Orange

March 29, 2010

When I was young, maybe 7 or 8, my grandmother (the great Mary Anna Bella Minnie Hanton Tobias) told me that when Scots celebrate St. Patricks’ Day, they wear orange, not green.  So for years, I did just that.

Anybody who is Scottish or Irish knows where this story is headed, but the rest of you probably do not.  This is secret insider information that I hope the Scottish Illuminati doesn’t come and shut my website down.

So, one day at college in Kalamazoo, I go out with friends and head home when three Irish guys jump me. 

I find out later that the Orange Order was a group of Scottish Protestants that terrorized Irish Catholics and that wearing orange on St. Paddy’s Day was a big up yours to the Irish.   See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orange_Institution.   I wish we had Wikipedia growing up!

I bet I am one of the few people who got beat up because their grandmother played a practical joke on them.   If your grandma tells you to wear orange on St. Patrick’s Day, gonnae no’ dae that!

The Maywar Method: How to Win Your Oscar Office Pool

March 21, 2010

The Maywar Method:  How to Win Your Oscar Office Pool

Every year since 1988 our family has an Oscar Pool.  It is only for the big five awards—Best Picture, Best Actor and Actress and Best Supporting Actor and Actress.  I have been watching trends in how the Academy picks its winners from the pool of nominees.   If you don’t have time to see most of the movies, and you aren’t tuned into the Academy like Roger Ebert, these two rules will take you pretty far.

Guideline #1.  Go with the sweep.   45% accuracy.

If one picture has a majority of nominees in these five categories, pick them all.  An overwhelming number of nominations is an indication that the academy loved this picture.

Note: this trend may be shifting—though it scores 45% since 1988, it only was accurate 20% of the time in the last 5 years. 

Guideline #2.   Go for the challenged.  88% accuracy.

If the movie is about the severely physically or emotionally challenged this overrides rules #1.  If the lead actor is playing somebody who is challenged in some way either physically or emotionally (savantism, cerebral palsy, sociopathy, extremely low IQ, alcoholism, institutionalized nervous breakdown, obsessive compulsive disorder, blindness) this will usually over ride rule #1 for Best Actor.

The cynic might say that this is bleeding-heart Hollywood bowing down to liberal concerns, but the more generous observer might easily say that Hollywood recognizes the achievement of actors willing to play such challenging roles.

What if there are two qualifying Best Actor nominees? 

If there are multiple challenged characters, go with the one that comes from the movie with the most nominations in the top 5 categories.

  • The cerebral palsy of My Left Foot (3 nominations) beat out the paralysis of Born on the Fourth of July (two nominations) in 1989.
  • The sociopathy of The Silence of the Lambs (3 nominations) beat the delusions of The Fisher King (2 nominations) in 1991.
  • The debilitating nervous breakdown of Shine (3 nominations) beat the low IQ of Sling Blade (1 nomination) in 1996.

Here’s the evidence

10 for 22—Go with the sweep.

The times rule #1 was accurate

  • Driving Miss Daisy took 2 of 4 categories in 1989.  One of the other losses, to Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot, is covered by Rule #2.
  • Goodfellas and Dances with Wolves landed 3 nominations each in 1990 and, between them, took 2 of 4 categories in which they got nominations.
  • The Unforgiven, The Crying Game and Howard’s End each got 3 nominations in 1992.  The Unforgiven took 2 of those 3, losing the third to Al Pacino in Scent of a Women, explained by Rule #2.
  • The English Patient got 4 nominations in 1996, took 2 and lost a third to rule #2.
  • Good Will Hunting and As Good as it Gets each landed 4 nominations in 1997 and, between them, took 3 of 4 of the categories.
  • Shakespeare in Love landed 4 nominations in 1998 and took 3 of them.
  • American Beauty and The Sixth Sense took 3 nominations each in 1999 and American Beauty landed 2 of them.
  • Gladiator, Eric Brockovich and Chocolat were nominated 3 times each in 2000.  Gladiator took 2 of its 3 and Erin Brockovitch took 1.
  • Mystic River was nominated 4 times in 2003 and took 2 of them.
  • Million Dollar Baby and Aviator was nominated 4 times each in 2004.  Million Dollar Baby took 3 of the 4 and the one it missed is covered by Rule #2.
  • Michael Clayton in 2007 was nominated for 4 awards in 2007.  It took 1 and was overridden by rule #2 in another.

The times rule #1 failed

  • Working Girl failed to do this in 1988, winning 0 for its four nominations in three categories.  Only one of these losses was accounted for by Rule #2.
  • Bugsy in 1991 was nominated four times in three categories and landed 0
  • In the Name of the Father was nominated 4 times and took 0 in 1993.
  • Pulp Fiction in 1994 was nominated 4 times and landed 0.
  • Apollo 13 and Sense and Sensibility had 3 nominations each in 1995 and got a total of 0 between them.
  • In the Bedroom had 4 nominations in 2001 and landed 0 of them.
  • Chicago had 5 nominations in 4 categories in 2002 and only landed 1.
  • Brokeback Mountain had 4 nominations in 2005 and landed 0 of them.
  • Little Miss Sunshine and Babel were nominated 3 times each in 2006, but only took 1 Oscar between them.
  • Doubt was nominated for 4 awards in 2008 and took 0.
  • Up in the Air was nominated for 4 awards in 2009 and took 0.

8 for 9— Go for the challenged for Best Actor.

Savantism won in Rain Man, cerebral palsy in My Left Foot, sociopathy in The Silence of the Lambs, blindness in Scent of a Woman, low IQ in Forest Gump, alcoholism in Leaving Las Vegas, debilitating nervous breakdown in Shine, obsessive compulsion in As Good as it Gets, blindness in Ray, sociopathy in No Country for Old Men,

Exception

In 2001, I Am Sam was about a mentally retarded Sean Penn, which lost out to Denzel Washington in Training Day.

 (This is for entertainment purposes only.  Don’t sue me if it doesn’t work!)  Copyright March 2010.

For exhaustive Oscar information, visit http://www.oscars.org/.

Haggis

March 20, 2010

My grandmother’s name was Mary Anna Bella Minnie Hanton Tobias.  She was born in Aberdeen Scotland and moved to the United States when she was very young.  She was a Scottish patriot, the sort that still believed that Scotland should get the British boot off our necks. 

Once, when I was about ten, my family went to visit her in Fowlerville.  When we walked in, the house stank.  I said, “Grandma, what’s that horrible smell.”  She answered, “Hush.  That’s haggis.  Every true Scottish boy eats haggis.”

It was before dinner, but she called me into the kitchen with a hunk of haggis on a plate.  It looked as bad as it smelled.  I told her so.  She said, “Hush.  That’s haggis.  Every true Scotttish boy east haggis.”

So I did my duty as a grandson who wanted to please his grandmother.  I took my first bite and it was horrific.  I ate as much as I could, but couldn’t finish.  “Grandma,” I said, “How can you eat this?” 

She said, “I don’t eat it.  It tastes terrible.”

She was a Scottish patriot, but more than that she loved a good joke.

For more information on the haggis visit http://www.gumbopages.com/food/scottish/haggis.html.  

For Robert Burns’ famous “Address to a Haggis” http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Address_to_a_Haggis.

The Brothers Bloom: My New Favorite Camel

March 9, 2010

I’m a big fan of con man movies.  It’s a world where the smartest person wins—not the strongest or the most stubborn or the nicest.  The one that thinks ahead and plans the best wins. 

They aren’t the innocent protagonist thrown up against a terrible world—they aren’t Jimmy Stewart or Luke Skywalker or the Karate Kid.  They aren’t the disadvantaged underdog with a heart of gold—they aren’t Forest Gump or Rocky or Pretty Woman.  The heroes of con movies are never morally perfect.  They are tarnished and faulty, like the rest of us.  Their power comes not from earnestness and naiveté, but an understanding of the darker side of human nature.  Like the Shadow, they understand the evil that lurks in the hearts of men and use it against them.   

I’ve seen them all.  David Mamet.  The Sting.  The overrated Grifters.   Catch Me if You Can.  Paper Moon.  The Flim Flam Man.    Waking Ned Divine.  The TV show White Collar.  But The Brothers Bloom offers something new.

Please don’t read any farther if you have not seen the movie.

You can tell from the beginning that it is a story about identity.  Bloom, shy and inward, is brought to life (blooms) by his brother Stephen who invents an elaborate con (which was brilliant, by the way) not just for money, but to give his brother a role in which he can find the bravery to talk with other kids.  In many ways it takes both brothers to live that one life—one to write the script for it, the other to live it.  Hence The Brothers Bloom, even though only one of them is named Bloom—the two of them are living one life.

It goes deeper than this.  The final mark, Penelope, also lives a fabricated life.  Unlike Bloom, though, she writes her own life.  She says, “This was a story about a girl who could find infinite beauty in anything, any little thing, and even love the person she was trapped with. And I told myself this story until it became true. Now, did doing this help me escape a wasted life? Or did it blind me so I didn’t want to escape it? I don’t know, but either way I was the one telling my own story.”

Bloom, through the movie, tries to leave the perpetual cons his brother writes for him, but when he does he still feels somehow incomplete.  He hasn’t learned to write his own life, as he will learn later from Penelope.  When he does finally reach that point, when he can fully occupy his life, there is no room left for the other brother Bloom (Stephen).  Hence the end.

Bloom’s quest for an unwritten life, or more accurately a self-written life, is fulfilled partially due to the fulfillment of Stephen’s quest—to tell a con so well it becomes true.

Just like Stephen, Rian Johnson (writer/director) pulls the ultimate con—a con performed so well it becomes true.  The con is that The Brothers Bloom is a story about identity disguised as a con movie.  Like the victims of the Brothers Bloom, the critics (both the ones who enjoyed the movie and the ones who panned it) failed to penetrate the illusion.  All they had to do was look at the title and realize there was only one brother Bloom.  But they were so sure that this was nothing but a con movie, they were unaware what was going on under their noses.

In addition, it was nice to see Rachel Weisz unfurl her acting ability.  It is a wonder what happens when you don’t have to act opposite a mummy.

If you are a serious Bloomite, check out this link http://brothersbloom.tumblr.com/

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