Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"Iron Man 3" Proves a Solid Entry to the Increasingly Popular Iron Man Series

Tony Stark spends a large portion of Iron Man 3 out of the Iron Man suit.
I saw Iron Man 3 a few weeks back and thought it was pretty good. It’s definitely better than the lackluster second entry, but not quite on the level of the original. I’d say it’s about on par with The Avengers, even if it doesn’t have the same inherent scope and nerd value.

My overriding takeaway is that it’s amazing how far the character of Iron Man has come in such a short time. Little more than five years ago, he was a second-rate super hero. Now, he’s headed up four films that have amassed more than $1.5 billion at the domestic box office alone and well over double that number internationally. That draw puts him in pretty elite company, shared only by the likes of Harry Potter, James Bond, Batman, and Darth Vader.
Impressively, it seems Iron Man is only getting more popular, as Iron Man 3 has already netted over a billion dollars worldwide* and is on track to make more money than the first two solo outings combined. At this point, it seems pretty clear that Iron Man resides alongside Batman at the tippy top of the super hero food chain. I guess people prefer their super heroes to be eccentric billionaires with no real discernible powers.
* An interesting addendum to the international success of the film revolves around a modified version for the Chinese market. The tailored cut contains four minutes of extra footage, including a subplot with popular Chinese actors and bizarre product placement for Chinese milk. This article does an extremely thorough job of exploring the gimmick.
Other than that, my thoughts on the film are all over the map and sort of hard to pin down in a traditional review. As such, I thought I’d post a point-counterpoint article on things I liked and disliked about the movie.
(Oh, and, ummm, spoiler warning).
The film successfully deploys a kid sidekick in the middle of the film.
Positive #1: The General Vibe

Shane Black has a very particular cinematic voice, and every minute of this movie projects his Shane Blackiness. Christmas setting, meta-voice over narration, witty wisecracks and repartee – all his staples are here. Black seems to have used this opportunity as a way to send up a number of action movie clich├ęs (the precocious kid side kick and the righteous terrorist, in particular), and it’s just a whole lot of fun watching him do it. 

Also, I definitely got a welcome James Bond vibe from much of the film’s middle section, something that’s further evoked by the familiar beats in the score and the line at the end of the credits – “Iron Man Will Return.” I’m not sure if this was overtly intentional, but Marvel president Kevin Feige is talking up his plan to turn Iron Man into the next James Bond in terms of franchise longevity and the ability to keep passing the mantle to new actors.

Negative #1: Lackluster tie in to the Avenger Initiative

The movie very clearly positions itself as a sequel to The Avengers, as a great deal of Tony Stark’s personal journey revolves around what happened in that film. The man can’t sleep, is experiencing panic attacks, and is feverishly working to create an army of suits because of the possibility of intergalactic threat.

And yet, in no other way does the film even acknowledge how the events of that film have affected the world itself. I know the movie should be judged on its own merits, but when you open up the story like this, it’s hard not to be confused when the film treats Iron Patriot (formerly War Machine) as America’s only defense of terrorism. No mention of Captain America or any agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., despite the fact that a lunatic terrorist is killing people left and right, and the leader of the free world is kidnapped.
I’m not saying other Marvel heroes should’ve been in the movie, because I understand they would take away from more intimate story. I’m just saying a throwaway line or two explaining the absences would’ve gone a long way toward silencing the bullshit alarm.

Despite the inanity of this right here, Gwyneth Paltrow continues to add a
great deal of heart and wit to the Iron Man series.
Positive #2: Concentration on Tony Stark

This series has always been at its most interesting when focusing on Tony Stark, due in large part to the iconic performance of Robert Downey Jr., but here, an extra concentrated effort seems to have been put on echoing the final line from the first film – “I am Iron Man.” Unlike Batman in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, Iron Man is not a symbol or a role that any man can take on. Tony Stark is Iron Man, and as a testament to this Tony spends a large portion of the film out of his suit, using ingenuity and intelligence to act the hero.

Of course, this exposure also highlights his humanity and vulnerability, an ongoing development that has been well handled as this series has played out. Not only is he in a mature loving relationship with Pepper Potts (something that makes him less immune to the threats around him), but he also is experiencing panic attacks related to traveling through the wormhole at the end of The Avengers.  It’s a nice beat for the character that can often seem a bit too unbeatable (he’s smarter, cooler, and just flat-out better than everybody else).

Negative #2: Convenient Plot Points

Throughout the film’s first half, a great deal of focus is given to Tony’s panic attacks, but once the film starts hurtling toward its conclusion, the whole thing is dropped, which seems like a missed opportunity. I’m thinking something like the moment when Pepper falls to her apparent doom (even though she was obviously going to be as indestructible as all these other Extremis folk), would’ve had more heft if it had been due to another attack.

There’s also the issue of why, if Tony has all of these great suits underneath his mansion, he doesn’t utilize them earlier. I suppose one could argue that until close to the film’s conclusion, they are trapped under the wreckage, but that doesn’t explain why he wouldn’t request their assistance during the assault on his home. But you know what does? Plot requirements. And that kind of sucks.
Iron Man 3 finally brings great action to an Iron Man solo outing.
Positive #3: Awesome Action Scenes

The first two Iron Man movies were largely devoid of great action scenes. Other than the decent raceway assault by Ivan Vanko in Iron Man 2, there’s not much memorable action in the first two films, probably because so much of the sequences just involved men in iron suits blowing things up or unimaginatively hitting each other.

That’s not the case here. Despite keeping Tony Stark out of his armor for most of the film, Iron Man 3 still manages three distinctly awesome action set pieces – the assault on Stark mansion, the skydiving rescue sequence and the climactic battle.

I know many corners of the Web have been unkind to this last one, but to be honest, I thought it was pretty solid. I didn’t like the silliness of blowing up all the remaining suits (this whole scenario showed how beneficial they can be, so, umm, WTF), and would’ve preferred Aldrich Killian’s death to be of the result of Stark’s very clever (and very well set up) method of throwing his suit on him and self destructing it to the silly and telegraphed Pepper Potts smack down. However, I loved that the sequence played down the importance of the hardware and made it very clear that Stark is the super hero by making each suit so dispensable.

Negative #3: Overreaching Continuity Angle with Rushed Epilogue

Third films often attempt to tie a great deal of elements back into the first movie as a way of indicating “See, you should be impressed, this was all one interconnected story.” This can be successful (The Dark Knight Rises), so-so (Die Hard with a Vengeance), or awful (Spider-Man 3). Hell, it can even be meta (Scream 3).

In all of those examples, the screenwriters tied the main villains from the first movie with those in the threequel. Iron Man 3 doesn’t really do that, but it does attempt to graft that type of thinking onto the film by giving our hero a previous connection with these bad guys, a connection that conveniently took place the same night Tony Stark happened to briefly encounter Yinsen, the man who would go on to help him forge the original Iron Man suit while hostage in a Middle Eastern cave.

Furthermore, it tries to put a nice little bow on the series via a rushed epilogue that explains Tony decided to have surgery to remove the shrapnel from his chest. This last point comes out of nowhere, makes Stark less interesting and renders pointless a great deal of the narrative from parts 1 and 2, both of which strongly indicated this was a medical impossibility. Nevertheless, the film rushes through this plot point as a way to thematically close the series, which isn’t really necessary and sort of works against the story overall.
Ben Kingsley's Mandarin offers a surprising element to the film.
Positive #4: Bad Guys

The greatest stroke of genius in Iron Man 3 is what it opts to do with the Mandarin character. When Ben Kingsley was first cast in the role, many wondered how Marvel would incorporate the character, a genius scientist and martial arts expert with 10 magic rings infused with various powers, into the mostly reality-based world they had created with these Iron Man films. The suggestion was that since Iron Man had now been linked to the more fantastical Thor, the door had been opened to continue down the rabbit hole.

In some ways, that would’ve made sense, as it would’ve built on The Avengers, thus addressing some gripes expressed in negative #1. Despite that, I thought what Black did was fun and fresh, even if it did piss off a number of hard core fans.
I also was quite pleased that the true villains of the piece were not just Iron Man knock offs. Instead, the Extremis villains seemed to evoke Spider Man’s the Lizard. Not entirely original, but at least it’s better than more of the same.

Negative #4: Bad Guys
I know, it seems odd to list the bad guys as a positive and a negative, but that’s just how it is. While, I really enjoyed the Mandarin bit, and was happy to be freed from the formula of iron baddies, Iron Man 3 continues the series’ trend of under whelming villains.

Outside of his excruciatingly over the top performance in the flashback sequences, Guy Pierce does a solid job with Killian, but his efforts don’t hide the fact that he’s just a mediocre compilation of former Iron Man foes. He’s a rich business rival (like Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer) with a cold-blooded thirst for power (like Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane) and a personal vendetta against Tony (like Mickey Rourke’s Vanko).
All of these bad guys were well cast, but none were all that memorable, which is something that does leave a glaring hole in the Iron Man series thus far.  A quick glance at Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy highlights just how much a commanding and memorable bad guy can add to a film, but, excluding The Avengers (where he tussled with Thor’s baddie), Iron Man has dealt with boring, uninteresting adversaries. B+

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

DiCaprio Impresses in Baz Luhrmann’s Polarizing “The Great Gatsby”

Baz Luhrmann brings his patented style to The Great Gatsby.
Long ago christened the great American novel, The Great Gatbsy has, to some degree, suffered from such a lofty designation. Perhaps due to high expectations, many have walked away unimpressed by the slight nature of the story and unsold on the big ideas placed upon it, often indicating the acclaim seems a whole lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

I get this sentiment. There is so much fervor for the text amongst a great deal of scholars that it has become as much a legendary false idol as Jay Gatsby himself. This has led the uninitiated to roll their eyes, which is a shame, because such a chain reaction ultimately dims the beauty of the story’s moving tragedy and elegant prose.

I mention this, because it colors my thoughts on Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, a somewhat problematic and bloated adaptation that overcomes its shortcomings by nailing the plight of the titular character, a man whose overreaching claim to Greatness conceals his true value.

Called a “nothing man from nowhere” by his chief romantic rival, Gatsby is a newly rich man of humble beginnings.  His persona, like his wealth and parties, is extravagant and inauthentic, a sham product conjured from imagination and subterfuge. 

However, underneath the hubbub, Gatsby, like the book that bears his name, is far more than nothing. He is a man of immense passion, resolve and hope on a romantic quest to live out a dream scenario with his lost love. The problem, to paraphrase Fitzgerald, lies in the fact that the idealized fairytale stored up in his heart is just another overdone exaggeration, a self-deluding illusion of colossal vitality. 

Leonardo DiCaprio plays all of this perfectly. Like the books in Gatsby’s library, he’s real, but with uncut pages. The bravado and posh accent increasingly prove themselves to be affectations, and the actor does an excellent job of cutting thorough the mystery and false confidence to show a sad and desperate man who’s achingly real. 
Leonardo DiCaprio owns the role of Jay Gatsby.
Given DiCaprio’s deft work in Shutter Island and Inception, two movies that saw him playing men with their own falsely idealized romances, perhaps his success here shouldn’t be surprising. Ultimately, he offers up the definitive portrait of literature’s most famous dreamer.
As successful as DiCaprio’s performance is, most of the talk surrounding the movie concerns Luhrmann’s stylistic flourishes. When I first heard Luhrmann was hired to tackle this adaptation, I applauded the decision. Although it certainly allowed for the potential of a massive misfire, I thought it could also be a shrewd match of material and director. Given his work on Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann seemed well equipped to handle the roaring 20s excess and even better prepared to tackle the tragic romance. Besides, at the very least, we were going to get something uniquely different from previous attempts to translate the Fitzgerald classic.

Having seen the results of Luhrmann’s effort, I’m very much understanding of what Nick Carraway meant when he said he was “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled.” At times, what appears onscreen is enthralling. The production design, mis-en-scene and costuming are highlights, and, certain moments from the book are adapted unbelievably well, particularly the New York apartment party scene in which Nick ponders the inexhaustible variety of life.

However, there are other moments, particularly during the first half hour, that just don’t work. For instance, Nick’s whole first trip to the Buchannan home is fraught with overcooked style. Although it’s pulled straight from the books, the depiction of the whipping curtains is silly, as is the synchronized movements of the wait staff and the overzealous and disorienting editing of the dinner sequence. 
The shot composition in this film is pretty rad.
And while I think the 3D is solid and am not bothered by the multitude of anachronisms (most notably the hip hop soundtrack), I dislike the framing device that reveals Nick is in a sanitarium telling this story to a psychologist and later writing it as a sort of therapy. These scenes add up to quite a bit of screen time spent on an unnecessary and hollow subplot, time that would’ve been better utilized in other ways (like adequately translating the relationship between Jordan Baker and Nick).
Outside of DiCaprio, the cast, which includes Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan and Isla Fisher, acquits themselves well enough. Elizabeth Debicki left me with the best impression, but unfortunately her Jordan is totally underutilized in the second half of the film. Meanwhile, Joel Edgerton brings the right amount of hulking pompousness to the role of Tom, and he kills it in his confrontation scene with DiCaprio.
 The Great Gatsby is destined to be a polarizing film, but while I have a few issues with it, I’m inclined to throw my support behind it. Like Gatsby himself, the film is sometimes flashy to a distancing degree, but underneath the pomp there’s a substance to it that makes for an entirely immersive experience.B+

Friday, May 10, 2013

Messy and Even Silly At Times, “Trance” Still Mesmerizes

Vincent Cassel is unsurprisingly good in Trance, and I won't hold the
weird spelling of his character name against him.
After going all prestige with Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, director Danny Boyle returns to his genre roots with Trance, a kinetic mind-bender that initially seems like a riff on heist films but ultimately establishes itself as a sexual thriller about hypnotherapy, memory suppression and female empowerment.

The film evokes Inception in its exploration of the subconscious and plays like a spiritual cousin of Side Effects (for my review, click here), this year’s other B-movie detour by an Oscar-winning director in which nothing is as it appears to be. However, despite loads of technical audacity, ace acting and undeniable watachability, Trance is mostly a mess of convoluted twists and silliness.

The action kicks off with a crackling monologue about art thievery from Simon (James McAvoy), a seemingly vanilla mid-level security handler at an auction house who orchestrates a daring heist at the behest of a gang headed up by the ruthless Franck (Vincent Cassel). Despite being in cahoots, Simon attempts to thwart Franck, resulting in a blow to the head that leaves him with memory loss, which proves a problem for Franck and his men once they realize Simon had somehow lifted and hidden the painting.

Enter Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), a hypnotherapist who says she can delve into the recesses of Simon’s mind and find the painting, provided Franck cuts her in on the ensuing payday. From there, things get increasingly disorienting as the movie becomes a bonkers fever dream.

To say much more would give away too much of the plot, but I will say that there’s more to Simon than he thinks and more to Elizabeth than she says. Meanwhile, Franck’s in the middle, piecing it all together, while realizing there may be more to him as well (not in the secret agenda/hidden twist kind of way, but rather the “I’m more than what I’ve done” kind of way).  
A fancy looking visual doubles as some character foreshadowing.
That's crafty.
Once all the twists and turns are revealed, some of the seeming plot holes make more sense, while others open up. The most problematic ones revolve around Franck, who conveniently decides to turn to hypnotherapy because the plot needs him too, and does not grow suspicious of Elizabeth until far too late in the game.
Held up to scrutiny, the film is somewhat frustrating, and the climax involves quite a lot of explanation to make sense of it all. Making matters worse are the laughably silly moments interspersed throughout, particularly those revolving around Simon’s predilection for shaved genitalia and a silly denouement built around a video message on a tablet.
Despite these issues, there’s plenty here to like. The three principles are all at the top of their game, which is pretty impressive given just how tricky these roles are. McAvoy stretches in unexpected ways, and Cassel brings just the right amount of danger and vulnerability to his part as he continues to prove he’s one of the more complicated “bad guys” in cinema today.
Meanwhile, Dawson shows what she can do given a meaty role after being relegated to nothing roles for most of her career. Much has been written about how brave her performance is given the amount of skin she bares, but to focus on that would undercut her hypnotic performance, which is simultaneously confident, vulnerable, intelligent, shifty, and smoldering.
It’s also worth reemphasizing that the movie is a complete gas, and Boyle’s direction deserves a great deal of the credit for that. This movie is far from perfect, but Boyle elevates it through a sheer force of talent. Man’s got style to burn, the way he shoots and cuts this thing makes for a mesmerizing, off-kilter experience. B

Sunday, May 5, 2013

'42' Hits Heart Strings, But Relies Too Heavily on Violin Strings

What 42 inherently has going for it is a truly amazing story of one man whose emergence into baseball proved crucial to the desegregation and eventual racial integration within baseball and other professional sports. Not to be isolated, this one man’s story served as both a beacon of hope and unforgettable example of that seemingly unattainable “what could be.” It is the type of story that powers itself, practically writing itself.

It is likely that director Brian Helgeland didn’t quite believe in that power or underestimated it to the point of needing or wanting compensation. While the movie has a few good moments – mostly powered by good acting – it suffers from relying too overtly on occasionally cheesy scenes and heavy violin strings.

At one point during the cinematic version of Jackie Robinson’s gradual acceptance as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers – by his teammates, fans, the league and the rest of the country – star shortstop Pee Wee Reese tries to show support for Robinson in front of his hometown Kentucky fans when the team travels to play the Cincinnati Reds. As Reese wraps his arm around Robinson, boos gradually become more and more audible. Those boos provide a powerful soundtrack, one that Robinson and just about every African-American baseball player who followed in his footsteps had to hear and deal with throughout their careers. However, the boos are quickly replaced by the loud overpowering of violin strings and music meant to represent the Dodgers’ growing acceptance of their star player.

Although Helgeland’s decision is interesting and makes some sense, it wraps too nice of a bow around what, in the long run, was a really a subtle, gradual win for a person who still had many battles to go before he was accepted. And, more importantly, it underestimates just how powerful it is to see two unlikely comrades sharing a moment in an unlikely and difficult time and place.

Chadwick Boseman, right, is pretty good in 42 as Jackie Robinson. Harrison Ford is OK as not-Harrison Ford.
Whereas some of the soundtrack and script decisions seem a little heavy-handed and unearned, the movie is considerably boosted by solid acting, especially in some of the smaller character roles. Chadwick Boseman does a solid job of portraying the revolutionary Robinson, impressively capturing his transition from confident Negro League player to reluctant icon to baseball hero. He handles the job well enough to make one wonder how much better of a job he would have done had he been given more to do. Nicole Beharie, as Jackie’s wife Rachel, does a similarly fine job. Andre Holland, as baseball writer and Robinson’s guide Wendell Smith, does an excellent job of both painting the edges of the Robinson story and also hosting his own mini-integration story as a journalist not allowed in the press box due to the color of his skin and despite his talent.

The true standouts of this film, though, are Christopher Meloni and Alan Tudyk, who take reasonably small roles and hit them out of the park. As Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, Meloni takes his trademark ability to play angry and develops it into a character hardheaded enough to lead a rowdy baseball team but focused enough to motivate his players to embrace racial integration. He develops this hardheaded into a character so likeable that the audience feels a shot in the gut when Durocher gets suspended for having an affair and, thus, can’t help Robinson in his first year on the Dodgers. Tudyk plays the outspokenly racist Ben Chapman, manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, depicted along with the entire city as among the most bigoted in baseball. Tudyk is a chameleon of voice and personality who takes considerable advantage of his assets here by depicting both the power of the prevailing opinion and shocking realization that this manner of thinking is quickly disintegrating, evident when a fellow Dodger walks over to the Phillies’ bench and tells the manager off. Although the character’s racism is over-the-top, Tudyk’s portrayal is not, showing the audience the worst of the worst while still allowing for believability. Character actors Toby Huss as the scout who signs Robinson and Brett Cullen as the manager of the minor league affiliate Montreal Royals also do impressive jobs.

Alan Tudyk, as racist Phillies manager Ben Chapman, is amazing in this movie, as well as everything he has ever been in.

As Branch Rickey, Harrison Ford walks a line between being believable and becoming a cartoon. Although Ford makes some of his actions and decisions seem forced or misplays some of Rickey’s intentions, the greatest success is that the character is decisively not Harrison Ford-esque, lacking the gruff, bullying undertones usually present in most of his roles.

The movie does a pretty good job of showing his teammates’ gradual acceptance of Robinson, often due to his outstanding play and via various methods, including choosing not to be traded, the aforementioned arm-around-neck gesture by Pee Wee Reese (which may or may not have happened) and, in one instance, inviting him to be part of their post-game shower routine.

The film version of this statue is pretty cheesy.

As a baseball fan, I probably would have liked to see more baseball action, possibly more evidence of the defensive prowess he was known for at just about every position he tried. Even his offense shown was considerably one-sided, really only showing home runs and base stealing ability. This could have possibly been done by making some scenes a little shorter. They could have also cut some of the fat, such as a scene where a child curiously observes Robinson on the field and then mimics his dad’s racist comments; it is, without a doubt, a very interesting snapshot of how racism spread but could easily be sacrificed to show us more about the player. However, it is pretty plain that this movie was not made solely for baseball fans, but for all viewers interested in seeing how Robinson became an iconic identity associated with successful racial integration.