The Pitch: Man Of Steel Plating.
The Review: Ever had that feeling, after a big event in your life, that it was so great that what follows can’t help but be an anticlimax? It was my eighth wedding anniversary this week, but I still remember my wedding day as if it was yesterday; however I can count on the fingers of one hand the days since which have come close to capturing that level of excitement and spectacle. When you build up to something for so long, what follows cannot help but suffer by comparison. Imagine, then, if your big day involved the culmination of over half a decade of planning and preparation, cost $220 million and went some way to redefining the art of the possible as far as blockbuster cinema goes. Where do you go next? When the current run of Marvel movies started, Iron Man was almost a standalone exercise, with a bolted-on tease after the credits suggesting there might be bigger plans afoot. Unfortunately, Iron Man 2 got lost in the rush to set up sufficient backstory for The Avengers, coming over as little more than a succession of directionless exposition with a fight or two thrown in. Now, with The Avengers having become a global box office behemoth and The Avengers 2 already announced, it’s a huge relief that Iron Man Three has managed avoid the pitfalls of the previous sequel, finding its own rocket-powered feet and deliver a cracking piece of summer entertainment.
That’s not to say that The Avengers doesn’t cast a long shadow over Iron Man, it’s just one that director Shane Black and co-writer Drew Pierce don’t feel the need to sit in for very long. Tony Stark is a hero, but one that’s graduated to the realms of superhero, so when a plain old hero’s needed the American government calls on Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and his cynically rebranded Iron Patriot suit to help combat the threat of The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). It’s probably just as well, as Tony is still haunted by his demons: those living with him after the almost apocalypse in New York that he and his “superfriends” put an end to, but also those he’s less immediately aware of. An encounter at the turn of the millennium with scientists Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) barely registers with the Tony of that time, but when both come knocking at the door of Tony’s girlfriend and Stark Industries boss Pepper Potts (Gwynneth Paltrow) thirteen years later, they’re both bringing trouble with them, and soon Tony is having to rely on all of his skills, not just his impressive collection of suits.
Iron Man Three manages to strike an excellent balance between the requirement to tell a self-contained story and the needs of the continuing MCU (that’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, and if you’re surprised it has a name, then clearly you’re not a geek). Even The Avengers fell guilty to the origin story curse that blights so many superhero movies, with almost the first hour pure exposition in an effort to bring the characters together. IM3 gets straight into the story, and after a brief prologue it’s up and running almost immediately, delivering the two key ingredients you want from a summer action-adventure – action and adventure – in spades. Knowing that the appeal of Iron Man is as much about Robert Downey Jr.’s charisma as it is about rocket-powered shiny helmets, Black and Pierce sensibly strike a balance between the amount of time in and out of the suits. It’s to everyone’s credit that both sections work equally well, the pace never being allowed to flag and Black’s trademark whip-smart dialogue keeping the entertainment levels high at all times. The marketing material may have given the impression that this is a darker take on the Iron Man story, but the reality is much lighter – not quite the intensity of the first Lethal Weapon, but avoiding any of the worst excesses of the later Weapon films.
The attraction of the big budget has also assembled a strong cast, and as well as the strength of the returning members (Paltrow especially managing to dial down the unnecessary smiling so often blighting her performances) the new cast are all reasonably well served, with the possible exception of a slightly underused Rebecca Hall. It’s Ben Kingsley’s performance that’s likely to generate most of the discussion after you’ve seen the film, and it’s one that appears to have angered some of the hard core of geekery. Being a soft core geek, and a film fan first and foremost, for me his portrayal of The Mandarin makes perfect sense in the context of the MCU and is one of the highlights of the film. The other is the banter between Downey Jr. and Cheadle, who come across as an effective, believable and still charming pairing, just as most other central pairings have in Shane Black films over the years. It’s the best of the Iron Man movies, avoiding the total inertia that set in once the final suit was built in the original and gaining more momentum in each scene than its sequel ever did, and I’d go as far as to claim that this beats any of the Marvel Phase 1 movies produced (take that, Thor, Hulk and Captain America). It also proves to be another game changer: The Avengers proved it was possible to take the stars of half a dozen big films and successfully blend them together, and IM3 proves you can put them back in their own environments and keep them just as successful. Roll on Thor 2.
Why see it at the cinema: Continuing a fine Marvel tradition, a decent blend of action and humour gives you plenty of reasons to see this on as big a screen as possible.
Why see it in IMAX 3D: It has the advantage of being the biggest screen you can normally find, so if you can do this in any form of IMAX it will help to make sense of some of the busier moments, the final battle looking especially fine on the large format screen. However, none of the film is shot using IMAX cameras, so it doesn’t fill the screen. The 3D is significantly less essential, suffering some of the usual brightness issues and having little or no thought for shot composition.
Should I stay through the credits? If you stay right to the end there’s a cute scene, but it’s more a nice Marvel moment you can take or leave rather than a big set-up for Phase 2.
What about the rating: Rated 12A for moderate violence, threat and language. A fairly MOR movie in terms of 12A output, there’s no F-bomb and it’s certainly not Dark Knight brutal. Anyone who’s had no issue with Marvel films at the same rating before will have no issues here.
My cinema experience: Managed to see this twice, once on a Friday night late showing in 2D at Cineworld Cambridge and then a second time in the company of Mrs Evangelist at an afternoon matinee at the BFI IMAX in London in 3D. Both showings had decent crowds, most of whom stayed to the end of the credits (although feel sorry for the guy sat next to me at the Cineworld, who turned to his girlfriend and exclaimed, “I waited twenty minutes just for that?!”).
The Corridor Of Uncertainty: Just over 25 minutes of ads and trailers at the Cineworld showing, about par for the course. The BFI IMAX start their ads before the advertised start time, so despite having a small lady come out to announce the film at the start, it was still barely fifteen minutes before the film got under way.
The Score: 9/10
The Review: Sometimes we in the West have a very narrow view of modern culture. Thanks to the advent of DVD and the Internet, it’s never been easier to pick up a copy of the latest Korean horror or Israeli documentary, but film is a media which generally travels well. But if you think about the history of art, most of the major artists who we know and would be familiar with have their roots firmly in Western culture. It might also be suggested that art can occasionally be a little elitist, and large art collections tend to be the preserve of major towns and cities.
So the story of a major art collection that now resides in an autonomous republic in the north-west of Uzbekistan (the aforementioned Karakalpakstan) is one worthy of bringing to a wider audience. Igor Savitsky was a man of many interests, including painting, but having been advised he’d never become a great artist, he set out to preserve the works of those who were. Stalin’s oppression of artistic freedom meant defying or deceiving authority, but working to his great advantage was the fact that he was almost literally in the middle of nowhere, away from prying eyes and able to put together an incredible collection and eventually house it in a museum.
Ben Kingsley narrates as the voice of Savitsky himself, using extracts from his own writings, and other voices including Ed Asner and Sally Field are used to bring the words of the artists themselves to life. Interspersed with this are comments from some of the artists’ descendants and friends, and other commentators who have been able to assess the impact of this work on the history of twentieth century art. The structure works well, and paints a compelling narrative, articulating the struggles that some of the artists had to endure to be able to express any kind of artistic freedom and the importance of the work that Savitsky initiated to preserve their intent.
But the key selling point is the artwork itself, the lush photography bringing out the extraordinary colours of many of the works to their fullest, and for the vast majority of us unable to make the trek to Uzbekistan any time soon this documentary serves as both a useful history and a fascinating portal into the artworks themselves. The modern day curator resists any temptation to break up the collection, such is its importance still regarded, and one hopes that this collection will continue to stand the test of time; in any event, this documentary serves as a fitting tribute to its creator.
Why see it at the cinema: To be able to appreciate on a grand scale the full impact of such an impressive collection of art, and to be able to fully immerse yourself in its richness.
The Score: 8/10
The Review: The IMAX format was, until a few years ago, the domain of nature documentaries and the occasional space exploration movie. Then big budget directors cottoned on to the potential of the format, and movies like Avatar and The Dark Knight have added significant proportions to their box office take with their extended runs in the format. Now that 3D is entering the home, it remains the last real experience that you cannot in some way capture in the home cinema (unless you have a 70 metre hole in your back garden you need to find a way of filling).
But in among the blockbusters, it’s still possible to find original IMAX content. Occasionally, something comes along that can only truly successfully be expressed as an idea with the scope that the IMAX format provides, and Journey to Mecca is such an idea. Ibn Battuta was the original world traveller; over nearly 30 years, he ventured from his home in North Africa and crossed continents, visiting China and India and many places in between. But his original motivation was to leave home to conduct the pilgrimage to Mecca that his faith required of him, a journey that would take him 18 months and see his willingness and commitment tested to the full in the process.
So this is not a movie about the lifetime of travels, but rather an attempt to use a historic character to put that journey in the context of what the Hajj means to Muslims. The fact that the pilgrimage is made significantly easier by modern forms of travel does not diminish its importance within the faith, but seeing the desolate landscapes stretching out as far as the eye can see on the big screen does help to give some sense of what level of commitment would have been required in Battuta’s time to make the journey. Chems-Eddine Zinoune, who tragically died in a car accident before this film was released, brings both a sense of the arrogance needed to take on the journey in the manner he did originally, and the humility needed to see it through to its conclusion.
But other than the desert scenery and occasional shots of pilgrims in the caravan from Damascus to Mecca, there’s not a huge amount in that part of the story to require the IMAX format. What does demand that view, and what adds perspective to our view of the journey, is the modern day footage of the Masjid al-Haram mosque that forms the focal point of the Hajj. The photography, especially the time lapse shots showing the sheer volumes of people engaged in the rituals, is able to give a sense of the devotion inspired in individuals by their religion, without the need to preach about that religion. While anyone looking for a deep understanding of Islam may be better served elsewhere, anyone looking to understand how someone’s faith can require them to make such a long and testing journey need look no further.
Why see it on IMAX: The combination of the desert vistas from the historic elements, and the contemporary footage showing the sheer numbers taking that journey today, make this worth seeing on the big, big screen.
The Score: 7/10
The Review: Movies based on video games are almost invariably bad movies. From the spectacularly awful Super Mario Bros. onwards, the genre (if it deserves such a grand title) has thrown out bad movie after bad movie, so it would take a brave soul to invest major summer movie money in a video game adaptation. On paper, this had two things going for it – it’s based on one of the best games from a series of really good games, and it’s a Jerry Bruckheimer production, which normally ensures at least some level of quality threshold.
But there’s something else in common with most video game movies – any of the best bits in most of the not completely terrible ones do have that feeling of watching someone else play a video game, in that it would be more fun to be controlling the action than watching someone else do it. As video games themselves have become more cinematic over the past ten years, you could reasonably hope that adaptations would also improve, and to a certain extent that’s true here. If anything, the biggest single failing here is of the movie to use the video game power effectively – the rewinds thanks to the sand offer less here than they did in the original game, and somehow feel less mythical.
There is good stuff here if you’re patient, but it’s mixed in with some not so good. Jake Gyllenhall was an unlikely choice for the titular prince, but brings a flawless English accent when, after movies like Robin Hood, people may not have complained if he’d stuck with his own, and he has also acquired the appropriate physical stature. Gemma Arterton, sadly, fares less well; she gets some good lines, although oddly her accent is less convincing than Gyllenhall’s in some places, and she doesn’t have the same sense of fun that she’s managed to bring to some of her other movies. That’s left to Alfred Molina, who is comic relief to such an extent that he appears to be in almost an entirely different film, but one that while not necessarily better, may at least be more fun. Ben Kingsley delivers a rent-a-baddie and manages to be clichéd without being scenery-chewing, when neither or both may have again served better. The script is the most variable, keeping things moving along nicely with the occasional surprise, but sometimes featuring exposition so heavy you can almost see the bottom of the screen sagging under the weight.
Going in, you’d hope that the movie might evoke comparisons to Pirates of the Caribbean or an Indiana Jones movie; instead the level is more Romancing the Stone and its desert based sequel, The Jewel of the Nile, with the main characters bickering their way through a sort of road movie adventure. This is the best video game adaptation yet brought to film, and that is damning with faint praise, but the action scenes are all well realised (to the extent where I’d almost like to see what Newell could do with a Bond movie) and there is more fun and adventure than many failed summer efforts, just not enough to make this more than a passing entertainment. If only Bruckheimer had a real Sands of Time dagger, he may have been able to rewind enough to tweak this to greatness.
Why see it at the cinema: It does deliver on scale and spectacle, and thankfully escaped a fate worse than box-office death (a 3D conversion).
The Score: 6/10