Whip It

After nearly twenty years and countless false dawns, everyone’s favourite archaeologist adventurer dusts himself down for one more globetrotting escapade as one of the most eagerly awaited sequels in cinema history finally arrives.

Opening with a zeitgeist-setting drag race down a dusty desert road, with Elvis Presley blaring on the AM, director Steven Spielberg hits the ground running with a dramatic entry into the legendary Hangar 51 in Roswell, New Mexico, where our hero Indiana (Harrison Ford) and his sidekick Mac (Ray Winstone) have been captured by Commies posing as American soldiers. Its 1957, the height of the Cold War, and the Reds, led by the sinister, sword-wielding Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), have infiltrated the same enormous warehouse that closed Raiders of the Lost Ark to find a mysterious magnetic crystal skull which they want to develop into an all-powerful weapon.

This opening twenty minute blast sets a standard the rest of the film struggles at times to meet. Room must be made for talkative sections that will describe the plot. Indiana discovering his former flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) has been keeping a secret from him, cueing the entrance of rebellious young biker Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), introduced in a nod to Marlon Brando in The Wild One and never without his switchblade and quiff-tidying comb. Then, when Dean Stanforth (Jim Broadbent) explains to Indiana that he is being suspended from teaching while the FBI investigate his loyalties, Jones teams up with Mutt to find the skull, best Spalko and the Commies and clear his name.

Perfectly in keeping with the traditions of this treasured series, Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is big, bravura cinema, determined from the off to provide a rollercoaster ride of dizzying spectacle, breakneck stunt work and hyperkinetic action. Although Spielberg promised to keep the computer-generated stuff to a minimum, the film is awash with digitally manipulated sequences, some less polished than others, removing an element of physicality that becomes progressively less involving. When the story does pause for breath, something of the original wit and sparkle is gone; there are fewer funny lines or slapstick moments, with a coterie of chirping prairie dogs over-employed as comic relief and few scant traces of the chemistry between Ford and the under-used Karen Allen remaining. At its best, however, the film has moments that stand proud alongside anything in the previous three films. Indy’s frantic search through a typically Spielberg suburb - this one peopled with plastic figures - while escaping a nuclear test is a standout; eerie, smart and brilliantly realised.

From here on, the film becomes a chase. In one long blur, Spielberg gives us an elaborately constructed sword-fight, an attack by giant ants, a chase along a jungle ravine and three, count ‘em, tumbles over vertiginous waterfalls before arriving at the City of Gold and setting up another round of thrills. It is breathless stuff, moving at such a rapid pace that it is difficult to retain your bearings, but fast enough to introduce novel excitements before the previous adrenal thrill subsides.

Despite the lumpy exposition, in the end the story exists only to give us more time with Indiana Jones and this much it achieves, from the opening theme tune to the snatched fedora and the cracking bullwhip. At 65, Ford gives a full-blooded, skilfully nuanced performance, cheerfully accepting the script’s occasional comic reference to his advanced years and creaking knees. Beside him, LaBeouf and Winstone double-team as capable sidekicks while Blanchett drips venom and allure in equal measure as a delightful baddie. None of the rest makes any impression; Allen is abandoned to smiling reaction shots while the assembled troop of Russians blend into the stunning backgrounds.

Never less than entertaining, Crystal Skull isn’t quite the film we have waited two decades for, being saggy in the middle and occasionally confused, but its close enough.

Sweetness And Light

Forget the four spiteful mannequins tottering around New York, the real Sex & The City is happening in hot, dusty Beirut where five women bond over blow-dries in a run-down beauty salon. Written and directed by debutant Nadine Labaki, who also plays shop-owner Layale, Caramel (Sukkar Banat) takes its title from the boiled sugar used to remove unwanted body hair from pernickety patrons, but fits just as well with the golden, sticky tone of the film itself.

Labaki’s Layale is a modern Lebanese woman still caught in the gaps of a chancing society. Outwardly successful, she lives at home with her parents, sharing a room with her younger brother. Although beautiful and self-assured, she is having a greasy affair with a married man, oblivious to the attentions of the local traffic policeman, who takes every chance he can get to talk to her. Her colleagues in the shop include Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri), about to marry into a conservative Muslim family, but frightened to tell her fiancĂ©e that she is no longer a virgin. Then there’s Rima, a hip young shampooist whose eyes take on an unmistakable glisten when her favourite customer – another woman – walks through the door. Across the street there’s the seamstress Rose, a woman in her sixties looking after her elderly sister and gently deflecting the charismatic attentions of a debonair older gentleman. Their friend and customer Jamale (Gisele Aouad) is a divorced mother of two and part-time actress, fighting a losing battle to stay young and beautiful.

These are messy, convincing lives, and Labaki shows a steady hand in guiding us through each of them satisfactorily, with one eye on their emotions and another on the world they are travelling through, drawing on her love of the city, her keen eye for detail and an instinctive desire to tell a rounded story. Whether it’s the novelty of the culture, the easy charm of the mostly non-professional performers or the subtle but cutting threads of political comment, Labaki’s film manages to overcome its familiarity (as Steel Magnolias, mainly) to be something utterly beguiling and genuinely touching, lacking any self-aware sentimentality or sneaky over-romanticising. A gorgeous scene when a gentleman admirerer watches Layala on the phone and mouths his own romantic responses, distills the whole into an essence; clever, arresting and heart-soaringly amorous. Of the three films from first-time directors in Irish cinemas this weekend, Labaki’s is by some distance the most assured, most humane and consistently surprising.

Doom And Gloom

British writer and director Neil Marshall announced himself as a potential B-movie auteur with 2005’s queasily claustrophobic horror The Descent, but squanders all of that promise, along with his bigger budget, in the dispiritingly derivative adventure Doomsday.

A lumpy splicing of all the best bits from Mad Max, 28 Days Later, Escape From New York and Aliens, Doomsday opens with a familiar set-up for the post-apocalypse when something called the Reaper virus sweeps through Scotland, causing everyone to break out in oozing boils and fall over dead. Rather than effect a rescue, the quasi-fascist British government decide to quarantine the entire country by building a huge wall around it and waiting for things to get quiet. Thirty years later, a spy satellite shows signs of people back on the streets of Glasgow, so slimy government gonk Canaris (David O’Hara) sends crack one-eyed super-agent Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra) over the wall to check it out.

After losing most of her squad fighting off a rampaging horde of futuristic cannibal punks led by the unhinged Sol (Craig Conway), Eden arrives at the medieval castle of mad scientist Kane (Malcolm McDowell), who takes her on a guided tour of the plot. Following a few tedious battles with anachronistic knights, she makes her escape in a handy if somewhat miraculous sports-car, being chased by the yodelling punks in their modified Mad Max motors. Meanwhile, in a poorly realised split narrative, back in London Canaris has taken power in a coup d’etat, despite the fidgety attentions of rain-coated copper Nelson (Bob Hoskins).

Take the endless references and inspirations away, and there isn't much left in Doomsday; the entire thing plays out without a solitary line of decent dialogue, a memorable character or single frame that wasn’t larcenously acquired from another, far superior, movie. Even the numerous action sequences, the main draw for genre fans, are scuttled by poor photography and inattentive, stroboscopic editing. The whole shuddering shambles plays out like a 1980s action movie clip from Be Kind Rewind; a dilettante attempt to pass someone else’s work off as your own.

Hard Nut

The summer blockbuster season kicks off with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, a gutsy adaptation of the Marvel comic superhero that offers a standardised origin story typical of a first instalment in a franchise but one as determined to subtly subvert the genre as it is to provide pyrotechnic popcorn thrills.

The first good thing the director does is cast the 43 year old Robert Downey Jr as his deeply flawed hero, Tony Stark. An egotistical, alcoholic billionaire weapons dealing playboy, we first meet Stark on his way through the Afghan desert having demonstrated a deadly new missile system. His convoy is attacked, his escorts are killed and Stark is captured by a ragtag insurgent army, led by the sinister Raza (Faran Tahir). Half-dead, Stark’s life is saved by the quick intervention of another detainee, Yinsen (Shaun Toub), who implants a magnetic heart in his chest and nurses him back to health. Soon however, his captors make their demands clear – Stark must build them a copy of his new weapon, even as the recovering soon-to-be-superhero is discovering that they are already in possession of a huge arsenal of his guns.

Already established as a mechanical genius, it comes as little surprise when Stark uses the resources available in the cave to instead build a suit of armour and fight his way out of the desert. Returned to America and reunited with his Army friend Rhodes (Terrence Howard) and his loyal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Stark calls a press conference where he announces that his company will no longer make weapons and will instead look to develop alternative energy systems. This comes as a shock to his trusted commercial lieutenant Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who watches the share price plummet as the media take up the story of Stark’s Damascene conversion from wildcat death-merchant to tree-hugging peacenik. As Stark hides away in his beach-front mansion, developing his flying metal suit, his enemies gather at the gates in row: the US Military, who want him onside, the terrorists, who want his guns and the bald-headed Stane, who wants to continue milking the Stark Industries cash cow.

It’s refreshing to see a hero that isn’t a wide-eyed, somehow-irradiated teenager or a trapeze artist, but a middle-aged borderline personality who creates his own solutions to his problems in the tradition of a Victorian gentleman scientist or a stranded explorer. Downey has the chops to do that, in the same way that Christian Bale can make Batman's troubles seem real but Ben Affleck - just as an example - could not. Downey retains the man behind the CGI mask, skirting the line in the way he does, between actorly gravity and comic madness. He is terrific; literally bullet-proof in the midst of the chaos and when similarly alone in his garage with his spanners and his pet robot. It’s mostly Downey that makes this breakneck adventure a film worth talking about.

While the story of betrayal and revenge is all about introducing the character, there are a couple of deeply satisfying action sequences carefully positioned to deliver adrenal jolts – Stark’s initial escape from the subterranean prison, a breakneck face-off between the airborne Iron Man and a couple of US fighter planes and a final stand against a superior force that sets Downey Jr and Favreau up for an already keenly anticipated sequel. Witty, daringly contemporary and blisteringly realised, Favreau’s action fantasy is a hugely entertaining special effects extravaganza and a welcome addition to the crowded panoply of American superhero movie characters.