Saturday, May 10, 2008

Phantom drivers; all-wheel vehicles (going nowhere)

5 May 2008
What was originally on tap for the afternoon and evening was the Brahms B-flat major piano concerto with Leif Ove Andsnes. Instead, an afternoon of errands (with yet another detour into the endlessly fascinating Phantom Sightings show at LACMA) turned into dinner turned into … well, not one of the movies we had originally contemplated. A shlep into Beverly Hills or even the Arclight was out of the question. Fortunately, there are a couple of theatres in my neighborhood, including, most conveniently, the fabulous Vista straight back up Sunset. The fare: Iron Man. A decathalon might have been less tedious. As it was it looked as if at least ten men (and I mean men) wrote it – though they had to have been inspired to some extent by Sigourney Weaver’s performance as Ripley in her anti-Mama Alien full body scaffolding in Alien. I recall that L.A. Weekly’s Scott Foundas mentioned that, in addition to the obvious resemblance (on many story levels) to its direct ancestor, Robocop, this alternately lumbering and rocketing Golem of gold, steel, titanium, palladium – and just about every super-strong or super-conducting (or neither) alloy EXCEPT IRON bore some resemblance to the death-ray gazing robot of The Day the Earth Stood Still. (By the way, Scott, the name of the robot in that film is Gort, not “Klaatu.” “Klaatu” is simply the first word in the command Michael Rennie gives Gort to return to the spaceship – sparing humanity the fate we probably richly deserved then and still more today.) Unfortunately, if it weren’t thundering around in its crust-crunching, temblor-triggering boots or careering like a missile with its rocket boosters, it could almost be titled “The Night the Movie Stood Still.” Or perhaps – with director Jon Favreau playing a cameo as “Iron Man” Tony Stark’s chauffeur – Unengaging At Any Speed. Movies like this, the business theory goes, are supposed to be about putting the “dollars on the screen.” But aren’t they supposed to do something? You’re given more credible cinematic action and thrills in the opening credit sequence of the typical Bond movie than this. You get a lot of props, hardware, robotics, circuitry, wonderful computer graphic imagery, but they don’t exactly propel the plot forward at warp speed. That’s partially because the plot would like to be all things to all partisans, from America-First mothercouragefuckers to 9/11/01 conspiracy theorists – much as Stan Lee, Jon Favreau, etc., et al. want the character to embody every superhero from Beowulf to Batman (or is it Luke Skywalker? or Indiana Jones? There are little “Raiders” touches everywhere – from location shots of Afghan caves and desert dunes to musical flourishes). Which makes Jeff Bridges’ character a composite of Grendel, Darth Vader, Big Mama Alien, Dick Cheney and the Michelin Man. Ah – we are “the hollow men” – all those big chassis’s on steroids – aren’t we? In the meantime, the wasted planet doesn’t get any greener while our secretaries take great notes. (That’s what our role is here, sisters – amanuensis and handmaiden to the (apparently male) engineering geniuses.) All Gwenyth Paltrow really has to do in her anemic role is model – which apparently is enough. All you really need is a nice dinner suit or evening gown. She wears them well. The role isn’t nearly so kind to her. The dollars you can actually see working on the screen probably represent Robert Downey, Jr.’s salary. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have all that much to sink his boots into. If only the writers had had the courage to make Stark a thorough-going “merchant of death” (jesus – the American electorate elected a couple of them to the highest offices in the land); Downey could have really stretched. The production design is pretty pedestrian, too (by comparison with, say, the Bond franchise or the Alien movies). Fortunately some of the architecture was already paid for (I made it to Disney Hall after all – by way of a scene in the movie; though the super-sized Lautner-esque Malibu lair was probably CGI). The ending of the movie is nothing short of absurd. What – did they just take a scissors to it? (Which makes me wonder – was Scott Foundas drugged through the movie? Or was he paid off to write that nonsensical screed?)

It used to be that Hollywood’s big problem was blow. Now it seems to be steroids. Or maybe it’s just ADHD. Isn’t there some doctor who can write these producers a collective prescription for Ritalin? I have a writer’s (or perhaps writer-director’s) bias about this sort of business (or do I just mean the business?); but you have to wonder who’s at the helm in these sorts of vehicles – and maybe where they think they’re driving the audience. A director should be more than just a Teamster-driver at the wheel of an all-wheel drive utility vehicle. It was when people like Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges were practicing their profession.

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