This is Banned Books Week, a national celebration of the freedom to read. It was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than a thousand books have been challenged since 1982.
I believe parents should be careful about all media, including books, to make sure that children and teenagers are exposed to material that is age-appropriate and consistent with the values of the family. What I do here is intended to provide support for parents to make sure that happens. But that does not mean that I support the banning of books, movies, or other media by school systems or libraries. The books that attract controversy and calls for censorship can often be the books that best help us understand and cope with life’s most complicated, scary, and disturbing challenges. Banned books have included classics by Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, and Roald Dahl. There are many events in celebration of the freedom to read but the best celebration of all is to read something yourself and encourage your children to do the same.
“English rock stars don’t die,” explains record company CEO Sergio (Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, who almost steals the film with a slyly witty performance). He has evidence: Keith and Mick are still with us, and even the guys from Led Zeppelin. And of course exhibit A is Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), who has survived more than a decade of sex, drugs, rock and roll. And, barely, he has survived his most recent release, the disastrously awful “African Child,” deemed by a reviewer to be third only to war and famine in the list of the most tragic events that have been inflicted the African continent.
And now Aaron (Jonah Hill), a shy, sincere young executive at Sergio’s company, has proposed that Snow revitalize his career on the 10th anniversary of his legendary live performance that made him a star, and return to the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. So Sergio has sent him to London with 72 hours to deliver Snow to the theater, with a stop in New York for the Today Show and a detour to Las Vegas on the way.
It’s the classic buddy-road trip structure. A repressed character and a raging id go on a journey and to give us the best of both worlds we get both all kinds of bad behavior and then at the end some lessons learned. Aaron is introduced to many, many substances through at least two orifices. And Aldous is re-introduced to a few things he’s missed for a while, like performing, feelings, consciousness, and, what’s that other thing? Oh yes, reality.
But all of that is just there to make us feel better about the wild ride along the way. Brand is a believable rock star (and a believable mess). He keeps Snow interesting and appealing by not letting him be too much of a narcissist or an idiot. He has some self-awareness and in his own way he is constantly sparring with the world, testing those around him even if it’s just for his own amusement. He maintains enough control to keep up a sharp running commentary, almost to himself.
Hill is a strong performer who makes Aaron more than a nebbishy pushover. The script, by director Nicholas Stoller, has some hilarious detours (I was ready to stroke a fuzzy wall) and guest cameos (Lars Ulrich gets a good sport award, Meredith Viera looks appropriately appalled, and it’s always a treat to see a Nobel Prize-winning economist show up in a in movie featuring giant sex toys, a Rat Pack tribute band, a song about venereal disease, and a near-lethal drug concoction called Jeffrey). Rose Byrne’s performance as Snow’s ex (her child is, of course, named Naples) is a comic gem. Much of the laughter is of the “Oh, no, they didn’t say/do that” variety, but the energetic bad taste is part of the show — just like a real rock concert.
Let’s begin with a recap of Iron Man 1, not so much the plot (a man puts on an iron suit and beats the bad guys) as what it was that made it so successful, widely considered one of the best comic book adaptations ever.
First was Robert Downey, Jr. It’s almost impossible to remember now that at one time it was almost impossible to imagine that he would overcome his demons to become a star as big as his talent. “Iron Man” was the movie that established him as a major movie star in part because the role was perfectly designed for his slightly strung-out, self-deprecating surface and ferociously intelligent core. He was a surprise. And so was his character — Iron Man was not an established icon like Superman, Spider-Man, or Batman. The freshness added a lot to the movie’s appeal.
So did the mechanical special effects. Director Jon Favreau, previously best known as a director for “Swingers” and “Elf,” turned out to have the heart of a fan-boy. He minimized the computer effects. He got the details right and hit the sweet spot between dedication and irreverence.
In part 2, as often happens with sequels, pressure to repeat and the pressure make everything bigger can throw things off balance. We can’t be surprised the same way; this time we come in with expectations so high they’re almost impossible to clear. And so what we have is an entertaining summer movie that feels more like a bridge to Part 3 than a repeat of what was best about Part 1 with some organic additions. It’s missing the exuberance of the original. There was the audience’s in the pure fun of the film, based on Tony Stark’s in the physical exhilaration of flying, the mental exhilaration of finding a task to engage his mind and spirit so entirely, and the spiritual exhilaration of meaningful and sustaining engagement with the world.
A strong beginning shows Tony Stark (Downey) as something between an evangelist and a rock star, bragging that he has “privatized peace” and refusing to turn over to the US government the secret of his “weapon.” His suit may be made of metal, but his body is not and the same substance which is keeping him alive is poisoning his blood. Stark’s recklessness and impetuousness is escalating and his assurance that he can keep the world’s dangers under control increasingly sounds more than arrogant — it seems delusional. So this is not a good time for him to get some competition. Mickey Rourke shows up as a Russian with a grudge — and his own metal suit which comes with a deadly accessory. Shooting out from the wrists are electrified whips that can slice a car like a loaf of bread. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up as the leader of SHIELD, a collection of highly talented and trained operatives, to invite Stark to join. Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) shows up as Stark’s weapons manufacturer rival. Don Cheadle takes over the role of Stark’s friend Lt. Col. James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes. Garry Shandling shows up as a Senator who wants Stark to turn over his technology to the US government. Scarlett Johansson shows up as a very beautiful and capable new employee who turns out to have some additional talents and loyalties. Like Hit-Girl, she mows down a hallway-full of bad guys single-handedly. Her curls bounce enticingly and her catsuit fit is even moreseo.
That’s enough for about four movies, and so the movie sags under the weight of all of these characters and exposition before picking up for one last big action scene. Those who wait through all of the credits will get a glimpse of what is in store for the next film. I hope between now and then they remember that less is more.
Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling is often asked what book she loved most when she was a child and she always answers The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. It is the story of a little girl named Maria Merryweather who goes to live with her uncle in mysterious Moonacre Manor and goes on a magical adventure.
That story has inspired a movie called “The Secret of Moonacre,” with Dakota Blue Richards (“The Golden Compass”) as Maria and Ioan Gruffudd (“The Fantastic Four,” “Amazing Grace”) as her uncle. There’s an uneasy mismatch between the sumptuous and imaginative visuals and the sometimes-inert pacing, but the story of the young girl who has to save the day and unite families who have been at war for centuries is engaging and fans of fantasy will enjoy seeing the characters come to life.
I have one copy of the movie to give away to the first person to sends me an email with “Moonacre” in the subject line — don’t forget to include your address!