The Potato stayed up late for “Iron Man 2”

Tony Stark.  In the Marvel-verse, he is the eccentric billionaire weapons manufacturer turned superhero.  In Jon Favreau’s follow up to the Marvel megahit “Iron Man”, Robert Downey Jr. is the undisputed star of the summer kickoff tentpole “Iron Man 2”.  Stark is a man haunted by the sins of which he and his father are both guilty.  In this sequel, the sins of the Stark family catch up to Tony in the form of criminally insane Russian physicist Ivan Vanko aka Whiplash.  Nefariously connected to the Stark family legacy, Vanko will not rest until he has turned Tony Stark’s advanced technology against him and everyone he loves.  Also on the offensive is weapons manufacturer and Stark rival Justin Hammer, who will stop at nothing to steal the Iron Man technology, and Vanko is the key to making that happen.

At the beginning of the film, Tony Stark justifies withholding of his benevolently destructive supersuit from the U.S. government with the reason that he and the Iron Man suit are a singular entity.  If you take one, you take the other, and Mr. Stark bows to no one.  There couldn’t be a more perfect analogy for Downey’s performance.  For lack of a better phrase, Downey IS Tony Stark/Iron Man.  Like Stark, Downey is all charm and wit when the flashbulbs are popping. When the spotlights finally dim, Downey shows a depth of emotion so subtle yet so present that it’s sometimes hard to imagine that it’s the same person.  This was also true for the first film, and this is where the criticism lies.  To be fair, it’s not Downey’s fault.  He does everything that the role requires.  The fault has to lie with the script.  When Tony Stark comes face to face with the possibility that his Iron Man suit might be slowly killing him, it causes him to fall into a (brief) self-destructive spiral.  This could have been a compelling section of the film, but the script passes over this character moment in favor of more comic relief.  As a result, Downey gives the same performance in this film as he did in the last Iron Man movie, with a few brief moments of darkness that serve little more than to move the clunky plot forward.

The rest of the returning cast are all up to their jobs:  As Pepper Potts, the new CEO of Stark Industries and the only woman Tony Stark will ever love, Gwyneth Paltrow is just as solid here as in the first film.  Her character gets more face time, and her chemistry with Downey is apparent, but the role is little more than a flustered girlfriend who exists only to yell and be frustrated with Tony Stark.  As Lt. Col. “Rhodey” Rhodes, Don Cheadle does a fine job, yet doesn’t really build on the character that Terrence Howard created in the first film.  In another Avengers-setup cameo, Samuel L. Jackson brings wily fire to the mysterious eyepatched Nick Fury character, but I just kept waiting for Jackson to slip into some silver-tongued soliloquy from “Pulp Fiction” and then rule ass singlehandedly.  I mean, he and Stark share breakfast at a classic diner, for crying out loud.  Extra props go to Clark Gregg for reprising his role as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson.

The new additions to the cast are also quite good: Sam Rockwell nearly steals the show as Stark wannabe Justin Hammer.  Every scene that he and Downey share is gold.  I would love to see the two of these guys do another movie together.  Human method acting exercise Mickey Rourke was inspired casting for the vengeful Whiplash and he is indeed as menacing as he is in the film’s trailers.  Rourke doesn’t get as much screen time as one would hope, and he actually disappears from the film for about twenty minutes during the second act.  As S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Natasha Romanoff, Scarlett Johansson wears a Marvel-made tactical leotard very well and proves she can handle herself both as an action heroine and as a competing love interest for Downey.  In a hilarious cameo as Senator Stern, Garry Shandling crawls out from his comfortable rock and shows these juniors just how sarcasm is done.

Jon Favreau can make a hell of a comic book picture.  He’s obviously a director who loves the source material and loves to entertain.  The action of “Iron Man 2” is shot with the audience in mind, designed to show the viewer just how powerful these weapons can be, and how much destruction they can cause.  Retaining Matthew Libatique as Director of Photography, Favreau creates an Iron Man world that is backlit by technology and fueled by a playfulness that recalls swinging 60’s action romps.  “Iron Man 2” is a fun movie for what it is.  The criticism, again, lies with Justin Theroux’s script.  I’m not sure how many constraints he may have been working with, since he was challenged with continuing Tony Stark’s storyline along with setting up characters who will undoubtedly be appearing in future Marvel films.  Unfortunately, this left the plot of “Iron Man 2” very convoluted and disjointed.  Characters appear and disappear for long periods of time.  The film seems to be a collection of action scenes strung together by a weak revenge narrative and survives on the charm of its actors, specifically Downey and Rockwell.  On a positive note, the dialogue is very cool and funny with enough puns to compete with at least half of the James Bond series.  As a complete film, “Iron Man 2” fails to capture the magic of the first film, and while high expectations may have had something to do with that, the film doesn’t feel complete.

Overall, “Iron Man 2” is a fun summer blockbuster, but when you’re exiting the theater, you’re going to feel one of two ways: “I liked it.  That movie was fun” or “It was awesome, and I can’t wait for The Avengers!!!” Both reactions were overheard in the theater as I exited.  If you liked “Iron Man”, if you like Robert Downey Jr., or if you just want to have some well deserved fun watching some colorful expensive comic book explosions, blast off to the theater for this one.  I give it a 2.5 out of 4 stars.

Advertisements

“Fire Everything!!” – The Return of Star Trek

Space.  We thought it was the final frontier.  We had been on the voyages with the various Starfleet commands.  We wanted to boldly go where no one had gone before.  Then, forty years later, we realized that there was no more frontier.  It had been paved over, and repaved over several times after that.  The USS Enterprise had become an antique, and its exploits became quaint reruns on basic cable.  It didn’t seem like there would ever be hope for Star Trek. In the end, it took a non-Trekker in the form of a certain J.J. Abrams to do what others couldn’t: He shook off the cobwebs, installed a new warp drive, and blasted off from scratch.  Star Trek is back and better than ever!

To boldly go...

To boldly go...

In Star Trek, the new James Tiberias Kirk is a man willing to face certain demise because he faces it every time he looks into a mirror.  Kirk may be haunted by the death of his father, but he also recognizes that the apple did not fall too far from the tree. Chris Pine (Smokin Aces) brings a natural energy to the role.  His Kirk is rakish and impulsive, defying authority at every chance but never backing down from a challenge. His inner strength fuels his naked will to do what is right, no matter what.  Pine captures the unorthodoxy and charm of Shatner’s Kirk but leaves out Shatner’s eccentricities.

Spock has always been complicated, but never this much.  This spin on the series highlights the duality of the Spock character, and makes it part of his overall character arc.  As a 21st century remix of Leonard Nimoy, Zachary Quinto (Heroes) displays all of the measured Vulcan logic expected of Spock, but shadows it with a slow burning intensity. In this Trek, Spock is a being caught between two worlds, and must decide for himself which path he will choose.  He is not content with simply being accepted as a Vulcan, but cannot bring himself to indulge his human side either.  Even in moments when Spock is justifying the logical decisions he makes, we can see him struggling with his own anger and frustration, and the moment when Kirk goads Spock into finally releasing his demons is definitely one of the best moments in the whole film.

The rest of the crew is an entertaining bunch.  As space heroine Uhura, Zoe Saldana (Pirates of The Caribbean) is given double duty, matching Kirk’s fearless nature while providing a beating heart for Spock.  It’s a shame her part was so limited.  Same goes for Karl Urban (Lord of The Rings) as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy.  His McCoy is less gruff and more neurotic than the classic TV doc, but it fits the film’s more naturalistic approach.  Every line he speaks is gold or near-gold and steals about every scene he’s in, that is until Simon Pegg pops up as kooky engineer Montgomery Scott.  Pegg (Shaun of The Dead, Hot Fuzz) has the least amount of screen time, but when he does show up, he leaves us smiling if not in full laugh mode.  John Cho (Harold and Kumar 1 & 2) turns in an unexpectedly straight performance as Sulu, getting his day in the heroic sun during the furious “space jump” sequence. Anton Yelchin (Charlie Bartlett) is classic Chekhov, replicating Walter Keonig’s trademark Russian while dialing down its stereotypical elements.  Bruce Greenwood has played captains and leaders before in films like The Core and Thirteen Days, but he looks like he’s having too much fun as Christopher Pike (Captain Kirk’s prototype).  Look out for Mr. Leonard Nimoy as “Spock Prime”.  I’d need another article to explain why there are two Spocks.  It makes sense, believe me.  It’s just something that needs to be seen.  Last, but not least, Eric Bana (Troy, The Hulk) brings us the freshest Star Trek villain in years as a genocidal Romulan aptly named Nero.  His vengeance toward the Federation runs deep, forcing his would-be pursuers to share his pain, which is more connected to a certain Enterprise crew member than we know.

star_trek_03_1024

From the heart shaking opening assault on the USS Kelvin to the climactic battle on Nero’s Romulan Death Ship, Star Trek fits an epic space saga into a snug two hours. Using good old-fashioned storytelling and eye popping visuals, J.J. Abrams (Co-creator of TV’s Alias and Lost, Mission Impossible III) brings back the earnestness and sense of adventure of classic summer blockbusters.  Star Trek uses eye-popping special effects and innovative set design to reinvent the Trek universe, but their reinvention also pays subtle tribute to the Treks of old.  There are so many references to the old shows and films that, again, I would need another article to get them all down.  Let’s just say that when characters would say their certain lines that we all remember, they incorporate them so well into the story that they felt like they had never been spoken before.  Also, for being a reboot, the film doesn’t short change the fun of the original series just to work in some heavy handed dramatics, unlike Superman Returns.  Skeptics could argue that the science in the film is very “huh?” worthy, but considering that it’s Star Trek, you just have to go with it.  It’s a great adventure reminiscent of vintage Spielberg and Lucas, and I’ll definitely be there for the next one.  To quote a future classic line: “I love this ship!  It’s so exciting!”  Beam me up, Mr. Scott!

Put it in the win column, Mr. Cage.

Nicolas Cage is charged with the fate of the world yet again, this time it revolves around a time capsule that has been dug up at his son’s elementary school. In it is a note filled with seemingly random numbers.  These numbers predict disasters — some that have already occurred and others that are about to — that lead him to believe his family plays a role in the much larger events that are about to unfold.

You think you know...

You think you know...

As I was leaving the theater Saturday afternoon, a feeling came over me after watching Nic Cage and company in the new film Knowing.  It didn’t feel like frustration, although I was certainly racking my brain.  It wasn’t disappointment, yet I wasn’t smiling all that much afterward.  In fact, the part of my brain that loves movies, the part that runs on 24 frames per second and craves digital sound, was spinning almost completely off of its axis trying to process what I had just watched for two hours.  After all, the logical part of my brain knows that this film doesn’t cover any new ground, and some of the dialogue has cheese on it so thick that it should be covered in wax and sold in supermarkets.  Right about now, I’m sure you’re feeling safe to assume that this review is going to be another addition to the laundry list of negativity that follows the latter half of Nicolas Cage’s career.  I went in to Knowing with the assumption that, at best, I would have a fun time watching Mr. Cage ham up another pseudo-blockbuster at a cheap matinee theater.  If I left this film with anything, it was that assumptions count for nothing.  This film was very good.  Surprisingly good.  Dare I say, really good?  Possibly.

The movie opens with a flashback sequence that brings the audience up to speed on how the prophetic numbers come to be.  Right away, director Alex Proyas sets an ominous tone, using iconic 1950’s imagery and bathing everything in permanent twilight.  If the audience only saw the first 10 minutes of the film, they might mistake it for some lost sequence from Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures.  At this point, I am surprised by just how engaging the movie is.  But when the movie jumps to present day, Mr. Cage graces the screen, and I brace myself for the worst.  It never came.  I kept waiting for Cage to veer off into “phoning-it-in-from-another-galaxy” territory as per usual, but he remained in control and somehow turned in one of his best performances in recent years.  In this film, Cage is every bit the movie star that his paycheck claims he is.  On the page, his character is not much more than a father on a mission to keep his son safe, but Cage brings a grounded realism to his character’s haunted intensity.  He isn’t a hero in the square-jawed sense, but Cage makes you root for him just the same.  Newcomer Chandler Canterbury, last seen in December’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, does an exceptional job as Cage’s young son.  He has some of the cheesiest lines, but Canterbury infuses the right amount of emotional depth, so the character never becomes distracting or cliche.  He and Cage have a very authentic father-son connection that is the heart and soul of this film.  Aussie actress Rose Byrne (TV’s Damages, 28 Weeks Later) turns in another strong supporting performance as a woman who may be connected to the mystery behind the numbers.

Hold on, hold on, I can still get this baby down...aww crap.

Hold on, hold on, I can still get this baby down...aww crap.

It may be Cage’s name about the title, but the success of Knowing rests in the capable hands of its director.  Having helmed such sci-fi classics as The Crow and Dark City, Alex Proyas brings a steady, imaginative hand to the familiar material, and still manages to pack as much tension and suspense as possible into every frame.  In fact, The Whisperer characters could have easily been alternate versions of The Strangers from Dark City.  The film has the familiar “event movie” beats: sweeping helicopter shots of major cities about to perish horribly, big flashy disaster set pieces, “end of the world” trailer lines, and one hero caught in the middle of it all.  But the execution is nearly flawless.  Just the plane crash scene alone elevates the movie to “enjoyable” status, and reminded me of the larger action scenes in Cuaron’s Children of Men.  But the moments in between the action are where the film really shines.  This is also due in part to the moody, foreboding score composed by Marco Beltrami.  As the plot thickens, the tension builds, and seeing Cage’s character slowly unravel is even more effective because the audience knows that Cage knows the truth, and we feel alienated along with him when no one believes him.  I can’t give away the end, but I will say that the film ends on a spiritual note that has to be seen to be believed.

This film could easily become a sleeper hit, because though it has its faults, Knowing is the film that M. Night Shyamalan has been wanting to make for the better part of a decade.  I highly recommend this film for fans of classic end-of-the-world blockbusters, and it also renews my faith in Nicolas Cage, until he makes another Bangkok Dangerous.