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Friday, June 11, 2010

'Iron Man 2'/'The Last Song'

Fanboys and Downey Jr. lovers only


There's an old piece of industry wisdom that says, when casting your leads, the audience has to either want to be them or sleep with them. (Actually, they use a coarser term, but my editors do so hate it when I lead off with an f-bomb.)

Iron Man 2 Rating: (2 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
MOVIES
Iron-clad stars: Robert Downey Jr. takes a breather in "Iron Man 2" © 2010 MVLFFLLC. LLC & SUBS.

Director: Jon Favreau
Running time: 124 minutes
Language: English
Opens June 11, 2010
[See Japan Times movie listing]

This doesn't solve the inexplicable mystery known as Shia LaBeouf's career — my theory is he's a low-wattage avatar that doesn't distract from his films' real stars, the digital effects — but it's true more often than not.

Just take a look at two films on release this week, "Iron Man 2," with Robert Downey Jr. back as the armor-clad superhero, and "The Last Song," with tween idol Miley Cyrus in her first "grown-up" role.

"Iron Man 2" knows its main demographic is boys, particularly fanboys, so the casting of Downey Jr. is especially savvy. Theoretically, any warm body in battle-armor who can fly through the air and blow up robots and cool stuff like that has you covered on the "I want to be him!" aspect with the fanboys; where Downey Jr. excels is in his fearless, utterly self-confident way in dealing with women.

Downey Jr., from"The Pick-Up Artist" through "Two Girls and a Guy" and onward, has played lady-killer after lady-killer; casting him here cannily plays on your typical fanboy's Achilles' heel, and offers the one real-world superpower they'd truly like to have: the ability to walk up to a woman, say something clever, and not have to simper off when she gives a withering reply.

Of course, Downey Jr.'s romantic-lead past — "Only You," the "Ally McBeal" series — also offers a pull to the female audience as well. (Just peruse some online chats to see how many young women out there consider him a DILF.) Throw in his indie-movie street cred, and you'll have the critics largely holding their fire, particularly when you assemble an off-beat supporting cast that includes Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke. (Scarlett Johansson, who plays a Stark Enterprises P.A. with a secret identity, doesn't have much to do, but put her in a spandex catsuit and you've got the "sleep with" aspect covered too.)

And yet, Downey Jr.'s presence also highlights a weakness of almost all comic-book films: The superheroes, as a lot, are such one-dimensional, superficial characters, that the only personality that radiates off the screen is whatever innate, established charisma the actor can bring to the role. Thus Heath Ledger's Joker or Tobey Maguire's Spiderman work, whereas James Marsden's Cyclops or Ben Affleck's "Daredevil" remain vapid blanks. Downey Jr. isn't playing Tony Stark, so much as Stark is portrayed as Downey Jr.

"Iron Man 2" is enjoyable when we get to watch Downey Jr. having fun with the role, seemingly straining at the margins of the script with his digressive yet supersharp delivery. He's at his best when smarmy, and he gets to do that a lot as ADD-genius/inventor/playboy Stark. The story, however, is your typical mishmash of supervillain with a grudge (Rourke), romantic complication (Gwyneth Paltrow) and sequel one-upmanship (with two other dudes in iron battlesuits, and a legion of similarly-constructed drone robots.)

What makes it damn near unbearable, though, is the sound design by Christopher Boyes. If you've ever wondered what it would be like if your head was an anvil, with a giant 12-ton power-hammer beating on it relentlessly, here's your flick. The painfully overamped and piercing high-end clang of metal impacting metal in the fight scenes here will leave your ears ringing for hours.

Miley Cyrus plays to an entirely different demographic, but the runaway popularity (200 million viewers worldwide at its peak) of her Disney Channel series "Hannah Montana" has certainly proven that a huge amount of tween girls out there want to "be her." Or, rather, they think Cyrus is one of them; the Miley/Hannah schoolgirl by day/pop star by night fantasy was pretty much the female equivalent of Peter Parker/Spiderman, moving deftly between the mundane and the marvelous.

With "The Last Song," Cyrus takes her fans to the cusp of adulthood, and a world filled with uncertainty and raging hormones. No tween princess here — Cyrus plays a sullen teen named Ronnie who's bitter because her parents have divorced, and she has to spend the summer with her long-absent dad (Greg Kinnear). Over the course of a few months, Ronnie will have to deal with first love, reconciliation, illness, loss, college or other future plans, her true calling in life, and the mystery of why her dad did or did not burn down a church.

The Last Song Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
MOVIES
Miley Cyrus cuddles up to Liam Hemsworth in "The Last Song." © 2010 MARVEL ENTERTAINMENT. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Director: Julie Anne Robinson
Running time: 107 minutes
Language: English Opens June 12
Opens June 26, 2010
[See Japan Times movie listing]

People like to bash Cyrus for being a squeaky clean idol, but then they bash her again for being too risque with her bare-back Vanity Fair photos. Any celebrity who posts an anti-Twitter diatribe (as Cyrus did on YouTube) is OK in my book, and her performance here is creditable: Her prickly, sarcastic, completely judgmental tantrums may not be a stretch for a teen to play convincingly, but she manages the shift into something approaching maturity just as smoothly.

OK, so a film where the camera spins around deliriously as Ronnie gets her first kiss, and that has a cute little set-to-music dressing-room montage of Cyrus trying on dresses, may not be the most original thing to come down the pike, but Cyrus proves she has earned a shot at movie stardom more than, well, Shia LaBeouf.

They say boy's films are all comic-book fantasies of superpowers and saving the world, whereas chick flicks deal more in real emotions, and while that's somewhat true here, just take a look at Cyrus's love interest (played by real-life beau Liam Hemsworth) in "The Last Song": He's a beach-volleyball jock with a six-pack, with a manly part-time job as a grease-covered auto mechanic, but he's also a sensitive guy who cries and does volunteer work for the local aquarium. And he's supersmart, accepted into both Columbia and Vanderbilt University. Oh, and did I mention he's super-rich and lives in a sprawling colonial mansion, and single, and with no interest in going beyond first-base? I wouldn't be surprised if he flew around in an iron suit too.


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