Review: “Iron Man 3”

Iron Man 3

I haven’t been this torn over a comic book film since last year’s “The Amazing Spider-Man.” So, like, two superhero films ago?

Robert Downey Jr. returns as Tony Stark for the 4th time in “Iron Man 3” and this time we get to see more than his face inside of a helmet. The film takes place sometime after the New York showdown in “The Avengers,” an event which still give recurring nightmares to Stark and maybe just a hint of PTSD. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and company have gone back to business as usual, but a new villain (Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin) has emerged and his public broadcasts/attacks have quite a few people upset. After Happy (Jon Favreau, former director of Iron Man films and current “Guy who’s always with Tony but I don’t actually know his name”) is put into a coma by one of the Mandarin’s men, Stark vows revenge against the international terrorist.

The thing that makes this third installment of the series so different is that the Iron Man suit only makes an appearance for about 20 minutes of the movie. Following a similar story to “The Dark Knight Rises,” the audience watches the fall of Iron Man after he publicly calls out the Mandarin. His home is destroyed, his suit drained of power and Stark finds himself in Tennessee of all places (These scenes are actually filmed in North Carolina, which makes me wonder why the film even said Tennessee. But I digress…) Using only his suave skills and brainpower, Tony plays detective to uncover the location of the Mandarin and what plans he has in store. As someone smarter than me said, “We finally get the answer to Captain America’s question in ‘The Avengers.’ What is Tony without his armor?”

Before I get to the part of the movie that bugs me (and apparently half the viewing audience), let’s talk some positives. As far as action scenes go, this is the best the Iron Man series has offered. There are two scenes where Tony gets to show some actual fighting skills outside of his suit that are both very enjoyable. The finale of the film, while maybe not as exciting as it could have been, is also one of the best sequences in the series.

A big reason for the boost in action quality is new writer/director Shane Black. Known for his involvement in several action films like “Lethal Weapon” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” Black is not exactly new to the genre. There also many callbacks to his films like “Lethal Weapon 2” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” that should make fans of the director happy. Unfortunately, whether it’s Black or co-writer Drew Pearce, the writing in “Iron Man 3” is not so great. I’m hesitant to use the term “plot hole” but there are several elements of the film that could have been handled better or written more understandably, one of which is the big twist.

Spoiler Alert

Many people are calling the twist “fresh” or “brilliant” but is it really? It turns out that the Mandarin is actually just an actor putting on a front for Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), an evil businessman who is playing both sides of a War on Terror in order to rake in cash. I’ve never read an Iron Man comic, so I won’t babble about the wasted opportunity of the Mandarin (who is considered Iron Man’s main villain), but the bait and switch left a bad taste in my mouth. The silliest part to me is that the audience is supposed to be surprised that the real villain is a rich businessman trying to get richer at the cost of human lives. No way! Especially in a series that has already had rich businessmen as the villains in the first two installments. Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin is turned into a joke for bathroom humor and I’m left wondering what could have been. Moving on…

End of Spoilers

“Iron Man 3” is a flawed, but very enjoyable addition to the superhero movie-verse. Aside from its visual spectacles, Robert Downey Jr. and company all bring in good performances and Shane Black does what he can to make us stop asking “But why doesn’t he just call the other Avengers?”

Grade: B- (borderline C+)

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Review: “Savages”

Rule number one when going head-to-head with a Mexican drug cartel: don’t lose your head.

Director Oliver Stone has been known for making some pretty hard-hitting films over the years, including “Natural Born Killers,” “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July.” Lately, though, the man has fallen to the ranks of an average director.

I’ve never been a big fan of his work, but I was hoping “Savages” would be Stone’s return to form. I hate when great directors get older and start to lose their touch (see: John Carpenter). The film, however, ends up being a mixed bag.

“Savages” is the story of Ben (Aaron Johnson), Chon (Taylor Kitsch), their shared girlfriend Ophelia (Blake Lively) and their booming drug business. After creating a quality stash of marijuana, Ben sets up a full business in Southern California and uses his best friend, and ex-soldier, Chon as his muscle. Ophelia, or “O” as she likes to be called, doesn’t do much of anything other than drugs and the two of them. The three of them seem to be happy until the Mexican cartels come up north and threaten their mostly violence-free setup. When negotiations break down, the head of the cartel (Salma Hayek) has her top henchman (Benicio Del Toro), kidnap O. This leads the boys on a wild rescue mission that tests their relationship with each other and O.

I can’t think of much worse ways to start a film off than to have Blake Lively unleash several minutes’ worth of narration. Not only is it kind of lazy, but even half of the lines she’s delivering are rough. Not a great start.

The film does eventually pick up about 15 minutes in and things finally get under way, but there was defnitely a bad taste left in my mouth.

“Savages” isn’t the action film one might think based on the trailer, but it unleashes heavy amounts of violence in small doses. Torture scenes, explosions and assassinations permeate the film and range from exhilirating to borderline nausea.

The man who is guiding a lot of those tense scenes is Benicio Del Toro’s character, Lado. The audience is introduced to this madman as his hit squad “lawn service” is visiting a dirty lawyer’s house. It doesn’t end well. Del Toro plays the character as sort of an Anton Chigurh with the viciousness of a Mexican cartel. His scene with the lawyer and a later one with John Travolta (who seems to be loving his role) are both filled to the brim with tension.

Although the veteran actors in the film (Hayek and Demian Bichir included) do their best to work with the script, there are simply too many characters and the film doesn’t have time to work on everybody. It’s sad because reports indicate that two of the film’s minor storylines were completely cut from the film already just to make room for the final product. The well-established actors can fend for themselves in the film, but the trio of protagonists suffer the most. Aaron Johnson does what he can with the little room he is given while Kitsch and Lively try to re-define “paper thin” with the help of a weak script. It probably doesn’t help that O is written as a very unsympathetic, annoying character from the start. At least Chon is fairly likable.

Unfortunately, even a director like Oliver Stone is unable to piece it all together in the end. Instead he signs off on one of the dumbest endings in recent memory, which put the nail in the coffin for me. “Savages” could have been a great crime thriller with a little pulp, but there is too much junk mixed in with the good stuff to really enjoy it.

Grade: C+

Happy viewing.

Review: “Moonrise Kingdom”

If there was ever a writer/director who could capture all the awkwardness of a middle school couple in love, it would be Wes Anderson.

Sam (Jared Gilman) is a loner boy scout with less-than-adequate foster parents. Suzy (Kara Hayward) is a “troubled child” who loves to read fantasy adventures. Together they make the perfect pair in this quirky little comedy set on a small New England island.

After meeting at a church’s rendition of “Noah’s Ark,” the two become pen pals and eventually decide to run away together. Enlisting in the search for Sam and Suzy are her parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), Sam’s troop master (Edward Norton) and the island’s only police presence (Bruce Willis).

The first thing I can say about Wes Anderson’s films is that you probably love them or hate them. Each of his films have a certain visual style and their own brand of comedy, so you either think he is a marvelous filmmaker or a hack that is bent on remaking his own movies over and over again. I lean more towards the former.

The film is set in 1965 and, as such, kind of looks like it’s being shot through an Instagram filter. Instead of a wannabe photographer behind the camera, Anderson and his crew guide each scene with expertise. He should have the period down well considering most of his movies either take place in that decade or are heavily influenced by it.

Once you look past the visual elements of the film, what really stands out are the characters and the script. If you’re into the sort of awkward dry humor found in Anderson’s films, you should love both. Edward Norton and Bruce Willis really deliver in this film. Norton is a “Golly gee willikers!!” type who gets a lot of assistance from his troop of Khaki Scouts throughout the film. He and Willis play like parental figures for Sam as the search for he and Suzy marches on.

While these two are great, the film’s leads are excellent given the fact that “Moonrise Kingdom” is the first work either has received. Their characters may be outrageous at times, wielding left-handed scissors against attacking Khaki Scouts or trekking through the forest, but there is something innocent and sweet about their relationship. Some people may get a little weirded out by a certain scene on the beach involving second base, but the kids keep it pretty G-rated the rest of the time.

“Moonrise Kingdom” isn’t your typical comedy for today’s market like “Ted” or “Project X.” but for people who like the Wes Anderson brand, it’s a great time. I’d put it right up there with “Rushmore” or “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.”

Grade: A-

Next up, I’m reviewing the Oliver Stone film “Savages.” Hint: It’s not a glowing endorsement. After that I’ll get around to the Batman reviews I mentioned in my last post. I’m thinking one post on a handful of animated films, one on each film from 1989-1997 and possibly the Nolan films. More on that later.

Happy viewing.

Review: “The Amazing Spider-Man”

It’s a good thing I wait until the next day to review films.

Last night, I went to see “The Amazing Spider-Man” with pretty low expectations. As many people online can point out, this reboot was put together way ahead of any reasonable necessity and a lot of it has to do with studios fighting over the rights to the character. Not exactly a situation that screams quality filmmaking.

The story is both very different and vaguely familiar, as its origin story shares a few characteristics with Sam Raimi’s 2002 film. As someone who has really grown to love the character of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, I enjoyed getting to see Andrew Garfield try his hand at it. The film changes much from its source material, but there are so many incarnations of the character, I didn’t really see it as a problem.

“The Amazing Spider-Man” tells the first chapter of a trilogy (from what I’ve heard) and, as such, feels the need to tell us how Spider-Man came to be. Peter Parker (Garfield) is still a high school nerd that gets picked on by bullies like Flash Thompson. He loves photography and he is, for the most part, a good guy. The main changes from Tobey Maguire’s portrayal is that Garfield plays a more modern approach to the nerd. He likes to ride a skateboard, is less socially awkward and doesn’t find a way to be late for the bus every morning.

Upon visiting Dr. Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans), a friend of Peter’s parents, at Oscorp, the young hero is bitten by the spider that needs no introduction. Peter finds common ground with the doctor, as he is an expert on crossing species’ genetics and Peter finds himself taking on spider characteristics.

Similar to Norman Osborn in the original, Connors finds himself cornered into personally testing a drug that could regrow his long-lost arm using lizard DNA. Since this is a comic book movie, things go awry and Connors slowly changes into The Lizard.

Over the course of the movie, Peter is forced to take up his “moral responsibility” and save the citizens of New York before Lizard has an opportunity to create a superior race that will replace mankind.

My favorite thing about this movie might be the casting. Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst did their best in the 2002 film, but I cannot stand them being in those roles. I’ve loved Andrew Garfield since 2010’s “Never Let Me Go” and the guy is a HUGE Spider-Man fan, so that’s an easy improvement in my eyes. Emma Stone plays Gwen Stacy rather well also, and the pair have a great chemistry in the film. A supporting cast of Martin Sheen, Sally Field and Denis Leary doesn’t hurt either.

As I said before, I loved seeing a different interpretation of the Spider-Man character. He’s witty and animated when under his mask and actually makes a joke that is funny. I had a small problem with moments where Parker was a little too much of a jerk, but the film irons this out eventually. As much as I respect Sam Raimi as a filmmaker and his attempts at this character, it was nice to see something a little less colorful and campy as well.

The reason why I started this review off the way I did is because I was pleasantly surprised with this film. It caught me off guard that I actually liked most of it and had a fun experience. But now that I’ve had some time to think about it more, I realize that just exceeding low expectations does not equal a great film.

First off, the Lizard is not exactly a top-tier villain. He works okay for the story this film is aiming for (the “untold story” of Peter’s parents) and Rhys Ifans does pretty well with the character, but I think the Green Goblin was a much more interesting choice in 2002.

Marc Webb, while responsible for the fun “(500) Days of Summer,” is not exactly the most proven director around. In fact, that is his only other film. All of his other work has been on music videos, which unfortunately shines through during many of the film’s sequences. I won’t go so far as to call his work here soulless like others have, but a little more craftsmanship and heart would’ve gone a long way.

I could probably ramble on for a while with this film, as I’m of two minds about it, but I’ll sum it up with this: “The Amazing Spider-Man” is fun, well-acted and takes on a refreshingly darker tone than its predecessors, but it suffers from mediocre directing and a somewhat-flawed script.

Grade: B-

I’m hoping to review Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” here in the next couple of days. After that, there isn’t a whole lot coming out between now and July 20 when “The Dark Knight Rises” hits theaters. I’m thinking about running through all of the Batman films and reviewing them. We’ll see what happens.

Happy viewing.

Review: “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”

And you thought freeing the slaves was a big deal.

With the success of a recent trend of faux historical novels, it was only a matter of time before one of them made it to the local theater. Beating “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” to production is the Civil War-era “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”

The tale incorporates many actual events of the 16th president’s life while also pumping in a fictional vampire plotline. Many elements of vampire lore are adjusted to fit the story, such as an adaptation to sunlight. While vampire purists might be a little disappointed by that, many tales of the undead jumble around details to provide a fresh twist.

Given the title of the film, it wouldn’t be a big shock if it was played as over the top and campy; however, director Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted”) tries to give the film a straight and honest path. He and writer Seth Grahame-Smith do well with this approach for the most part, but there are a handful of scenes where the fragile line between silliness and straight-laced is shattered.

Helping out with the film’s polished attempt are the strong performances (for this type of film) from the fairly unkown Benjamin Walker and his co-stars Rufus Sewell and Dominic Cooper. The only distracting thing about the film’s performances is the increasing amount of aging makeup used throught the film.

One of the film’s biggest negatives comes from the special effects department. In some scenes they work, but overall the effects look like they belong to a different film. More specifically, they look like they belong to the campy film this could have been. Of course, maybe there are only a few ways to skin a cat (or in this case, create special effects for a vampire movie).

Given the film’s premise, one should be expecting a good amount of action. Fortunately, the film delivers all the axe-slicing and head-rolling your heart desires. It may be absurd at times, but it’s always entertaining.

Though it isn’t the award winner Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” should be later this year, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is an enjoyable afternoon at the movie theater if you can handle a little absurdity.

Grade: B-

Happy viewing.

Review: “Brave”

I love Pixar films.

Great animation, compelling storylines and wonderful characters. What’s not to love?

Aside from the mediocre “Cars 2,” the studio that can do no wrong has been pumping out hits for years. The stories themselves are diverse, ranging from the bottom of the ocean to the ends of space.

Pixar’s latest film, “Brave,” takes on the story of the princess of a mythical Scottish kingdom. Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald), the daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), struggles with the constraints of life as royalty. Instead of climbing mountains and honing her archery skills, Merida is forced to endure hours of queen preparation.

The premise of a daughter who disagrees with her parents is not exactly new, nor is the theme of arranged marriages in those disputes.Where the story takes this setup is what makes “Brave” a little more unique. I won’t spoil too much about that part of the film, but a magic spell is involved.

Pixar is known for producing near-perfect animation and this latest effort is no exception. The film opens and closes on beautiful landscapes. In between, there are wispy blue spirits, wild bears and Merida’s flowing red hair. From start to finish, “Brave” features some of Pixar’s best animation.

One of my biggest worries in the early parts of the film was that Merida would become a whining little girl who pouts until she gets what she wants. If you’ve seen “Flicka,” think of the way Alison Lohman’s character defies her parents over and over again until she gets her way and the parents are totally cool with it. I quickly learned that Merida is a much better character than that and I, along with parents of impressionable children, had nothing to worry about. In fact, aside from a scary scene or two and a little nudity (You could see worse on an episode of Spongebob), parents should have very little to worry about.

Merida’s parents are also pretty good characters. Fergus is almost a little too similar to Gerard Butler’s Stoick the Vast in “How to Train Your Dragon,” but his relationship with Merida provides enough of a difference. Elinor, on the other hand, is given nearly as much material as Merida for her character to grow throughout the film.

As good as “Brave” is at times, it’s lacking in something I can’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps its due to the film being a little less funny than most Pixar films (not that it needs to be). Or maybe it’s because the supporting characters are underused or less memorable. The conclusion of the film and its main conflict also seems to be a bit rushed, so that could be it.

Whatever it is, something is holding the film back from being as good as “The Incredibles” or the “Toy Story” franchise. The problem could even be just that I am comparing it to other Pixar films that have grown dear to me.

Since I’m comparing it anyways, I’ll share where I would rate it with other Pixar films. On a scale of “Wall-E” (my favorite, tied with “The Incredibles” and closely followed by “Up”) to “Cars 2,” I would put this film smack dab in the middle between “Monster’s Inc” and “A Bug’s Life.”

“Brave” may not be the best film Pixar has ever offered, but it shows a maturity in filmmaking and animation that has me excited for what comes next.

Grade: B

Happy viewing.

Review: “Prometheus”

In space, no one can hear you scream (at numerous plot holes).

One of my most anticipated films for this summer was “Prometheus,” director Ridley Scott’s quasi-prequel to his 1979 film “Alien.”

It’s fair to say that my expectations were a little higher than where they should’ve been. I mean, the same guy found a way to make “Robin Hood” lackluster.

The film is about the exploratory vessel, Prometheus, and its crew of biologists, geologists and androids. Drs. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green, who attended my alma mater in Knoxville, TN) lead an expedition to the unknown reaches of space in order to discover the origin of life on earth. They believe that a race of “engineers” traveled across the galaxy to bring life, only to be remembered through cave paintings found in ancient civilizations long ago.

Also on board are Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), Janek (Idris Elba), a robot named David (Michael Fassbender) and a handful of Redshirts (expendable characters, for those of you unfamiliar with sci-fi).

Upon arriving at their destination, the crew discovers they would have been much better off just letting the mystery of our origins go.

Most people who have a problem with this film are upset for two reasons: First, they wanted the history of the Space Jockey kept as a secret. I can identify with this. I hated when Rob Zombie decided to give a sympathetic childhood to Michael Myers. Secondly, there are many instances where Damon Lindelof’s script creates plot holes or similarly annoying problems. One of these has to do with a character having abdominal surgery and then engaging in strenuous physical activities roughly an hour later.

While the first problem only exists in the minds of a few die-hard fanboys, the second is a real distraction for the film. Characters make all kinds of outrageous judgment calls that make little sense throughout the movie. MINOR SPOILERS: The guy who makes the map of the ruins for the team is literally the only person who gets lost in the film. Really? How does everyone else move around so easily? And don’t get me started on Vickers’ trouble with moving horizontally. END OF SPOILERS

Many of the characters in the film don’t get the layer of depth I would like, there are a couple of strong characters in the film. Rapace and Elba both do well with their parts, although I wish there was a little more story for Elba. The strongest performance comes from the amazing Michael Fassbender. His portrayal of the robot David is downright chilling. When I went to see the film a second time (after going back to watch the “Alien” films), I found myself loving the character and the actor’s performance.

The film is also very strong in the visuals department. The special effects may be from a different aproach than “Alien,” but between the creatures and the foreign world’s landscape, it is very well-crafted.

Did “Prometheus” live up to my high expectations? Not really. I loved certain things about the movie, but some of the writing problems are just too much to overlook. In the end, Ridley Scott settles on making a good movie instead of what could have been a modern classic.

Grade: B-

Happy viewing.