IRON MAN * * *
Cert 12A 126mins
Of Marvel's original first wave of superheroes, only three have never been the subject of a live action adaptation.
Well, no longer. There's an Ant Man project in development, Matthew Vaughn is attached to direct Thor (bewilderingly rumoured to star Kevin McKidd as the Norse God of Thunder!) and here's director Jon Favreau's impressive take on the metal suited avenger.
Although the screenplay has cherry-picked from various plot and character reimaginings of the long-running comic book, it remains faithful to the core origin and set-up.
Inheriting his late father's industrial empire as well as his genius, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is a billionaire playboy with a drink problem and an entrenched cynicism who designs state of the art weapons for the US military, earning himself the sobriquet of 'the merchant of death'.
However, shortly after demonstrating his latest rocket in Afghanistan, his military escort's attacked, leaving Stark wounded (ironically by one of his own armaments) and taken prison by a group of non-specific multi-ethnic terrorists who, locking him a cave with some basic equipment and a blast furnace, want him to build them a similar weapon.
Instead, with the help of a fellow prisoner (Shaun Toub) he covertly constructs an iron suit and a hi-tech magnetic pacemaker that will prevent the shrapnel in his body from reaching his heart.
Escaping and rescued by air force buddy James Rhodes (Terrence Howard), having had a conscience epiphany Stark returns home to deliver an impromptu press conference announcing his company's immediate cessation of weapons manufacture.
Not something that sits well with either the military or his second-in-command Obadiah Stane (a bald and bearded Jeff Bridges).
Stark also secretly sets about constructing a new, cybernetically-controlled version of the armour he left behind in the desert. A suit that will give him superhuman strength and, by virtue of power thrusters, the ability to fly. Discovering that someone's still selling Stark arms to the terrorists, the suit's first field test is also an opportunity to tie up loose ends and right some wrongs.
Except, of course, things are a little less cut and dried than that as, to no surprise, Stane's revealed as the behind the scenes villain of the piece with his own designs for Stark Industries and the blueprints and armour left behind in Afghanistan.
Inevitably, being an origin story, there's a lengthy prologue to any action or the first appearance of Iron Man as the film sets up character and plot.
Fortunately, this is more the first Spider-Man than the first Fantastic Four, with Favreau (who also cameos as Stark's driver Happy Hogan) taking care to build emotionally grounded relationships between the characters while still delivering a briskly paced, tightly constructed rush of excitement.
He's well served by the support cast, Bridges a particularly imposing machiavel while an unexpected Gwyneth Paltrow brings cool, assured calm and sly humour to the role of Stark's loyal PA and putative romantic interest Pepper Potts.
But first and foremost this is Downey Jr's film. Drawing on his own turbulent past to invest the flawed Stark with real depth and intelligence, improvising snappy playful dialogue and sharp glib one-liners, he oozes charm and charisma but also a sense of drive and inner turmoil that sets his performance alongside that of Christian Bale in Batman Begins.
Indeed, so fiercely does Downey command the screen the film would almost work even without the requisite action set pieces. They're there of course, not in abundance perhaps but still pumping adrenaline and technically dazzling as the CGI gold and red suited avenger (amusingly, the armour's colours are inspired by Stark's road racer) is put through his baptism of fire at the hands of an even more powerful iron giant.
Ultimately, it's a little too short on the big bangs rollercoaster ride and doesn't push its psychological darkness far enough to warrant a fourth star and the character doesn't have the wider awareness to do Spider-Man style box office, but as the year's first authentic blockbuster it's definitely got serious heavy mettle.
NIM'S ISLAND * *
Cert U 95 mins
Husband and wife screenwriter team Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett's directorial debut was Little Manhattan. One of 2006's loveliest films, its touching, insightful and utterly unpatronising first love tale of two 11-year-olds played like Annie Hall for fifth graders.
All the more disappointing then that their follow-up, adapted from the book by Australian children's author Wendy Orr, is such a lazily written and sloppily directed affair that treats its target pre-teen girl audience like idiots who constantly need plot points reiterated and spelled out, throwing them a cute animal every now and then to keep them from questioning the film's hole-riddled logic.
Maybe it even thinks they have to read books by following the words with their fingers, just as characters here feel obliged to read aloud e-mails they've either written or received.
Outstanding in Little Miss Sunshine and the saving grace of No Reservations, Abigail Breslin just about rises above the material here as Nim, the young girl who, since her mom died (are we really supposed to believe she was swallowed by a whale?) has lived alone with marine biologist dad Jack (Gerard Butler) in a luxury treehouse on an uncharted South Pacific volcanic island.
Did I mention their surname is Rusoe? Oh come on, keep up.
Nim has a small menagerie of pet chums, a sea lion, lizard and pelican. Naturally, you'd have to be a cynic to think they were there to distract young minds from wondering quite how Nim's tropical paradise manages to sustain such energy consuming high tech as satellite phones, computers, and, most importantly broadband Internet and E-mail, on just a few solar panels.
Blessed with a strong imagination, Nim devours adventure stories, most especially those by and featuring action hero Alex Rover who, in her fantasies, looks just like dad with Indiana Jones' wardrobe.
So, she's thrilled when Alex e-mails her father from San Francisco, looking for some information on volcanoes for a plot point in the latest novel. Dad, however, is away at sea searching for plankton and when a storm blows up and Nim loses contact, it's to Alex she turns asking for help. What she doesn't realise is that Alex is actually Alexandra (Jodie Foster), an agoraphobic who can't bring herself to leave her apartment. However, the plot contriving to make her the only possible source of assistance, she now has to summon up the same courage with which she invests her badgering imaginary alter ego Alex (who, strangely enough, also looks like Jack) and embark on an epic rescue mission. Starting with getting into a taxi.
And as Alex is thrown into a maelstrom of land, air and sea challenges on her journey, so, stranded at sea (just as Butler's stranded in a nothing role), Jack's having to improvise repairs to his typhoon battered boat (good job that pelican can carry a tool kit, eh) and Nim's coming over all Home Alone trying to scare off a bunch of caricature Australian tourists and their cruise ship's crew.
Juggling the three narrative strands proves too much for the already thin storyline. There's never any real sense of danger (even Nim's leg wound's conveniently forgotten) and having spent forever bringing Nim and Alex together, when they finally meet they're given virtually nothing to do (save for sharing some meal-worms) before the abrupt tidy, instant new family bonding wrap up.
It's colourful enough, Breslin has charm and there's an applaudable message about finding your own inner hero, but it's all smothered by cheap effects, unconvincing sets, half-hearted action, narrative contrivance and a surfeit of overripe pratfalls and slapstick comedy that require Foster to overreact and overact in a manner that even Ben Stiller might find excessive.
Undemanding eight-10 year olds reared on Barbie DVDs might find it cutting edge but older viewers are likely to find themselves reminded less of the 70s Disney movies in which Foster once starred and more of the dreadful Danger Island episodes from the Banana Splits.
P2 * *
Cert 18 98mins
If you've ever found yourself alone in a deserted underground car park, then you'll appreciate the sense of urban dread that informs this serviceable two hander thriller. Or at least until it begins to unravel into plausibility-stretching generic plotting en route to an over the top climax.
Working late on Christmas Eve, by the time Angela (Rachel Nichols) comes to leave her uptown Manhattan office to spend the holidays with her mother and married sister, she's the only one left. Unfortunately, when she gets to her car on P2 it refuses to start.
Seeking out the car park security attendant, Thomas (Wes Bentley), she asks for help but he can't get it to turn over or find the fault.
He 'jokingly' invites her to share his Christmas meal. She demurs. Thank you but she's got places to be. She'll call for a cab. However, when it arrives, she finds the building doors are locked and the janitor seems to have gone home. Racing down to the ramp, she tries calling out from the grille but watches in frustration as it drives off.
Then who should come looming up behind her out of the darkness, but that helpful and slightly creepy guard.
Next thing she knows, she's waking up, stripped down to a cleavage revealing slip and chained to the table (laid out with all the festive trimmings) in his booth. And he's sitting opposite dressed like Santa, his Rottweiller nearby. Seems Thomas has been nursing a thing for her for a while now.
At which point, you can pretty much guess where all this is going. Given our psycho's obsession, it's not even too surprising when he reveals his little Christmas present; the trussed up co-worker who tried groping her at the office party.
So, after the talky first act set-up and the second-act's psychological battle of wills, the third act naturally becomes a cat and mouse chase around the car park as Angela finally escapes and fights back. It goes without saying her cell phone can't get a signal and that the cops will turn up and fail to notice anything amiss.
Screenwriters Gregory Levasseur and Alexandre Aja were responsible for cult French thriller Haute Tension, released here as Switchblade Romance, while first time director Franck Khalfoun played its silent psychokiller.
You'd expect, then, a degree of edgy nerve scraping tension. And, for a while, that's exactly what you get. The setting is inherently claustrophobic while Bentley's ultra-polite sociopath feels like he could go off the deep end at any moment with just the wrong look or the wrong word from his captive.
The problem is that the film has nowhere to go and too long to get there, which means that Khalfoun's constantly having to kickstart the flagging suspense, with a gruesome vehicular homicide, Angela being trapped in a flooding lift or doing a Ripley on the snarling dog.
You can almost hear the filmmakers wondering what they can throw in to keep the motor running. It doesn't help either that the initial interplay between the two stars devolves into rote melodrama with each of them pursuing different acting agendas.
Nichols picks Angela up from crying victim to determined survivalist avenger while Bentley seems more determined to make Thomas a sulky emotionally dysfunctional self-deluded loon given to putting his pursuit on hold while he does a karaoke turn to Elvis' Blue Christmas.
In the end, there's nothing here to attract the Saw or Hostel audiences it would seem to be targeting, but it will at least have you hurrying to your motor next time you find yourself in a multi-level parking lot.