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.

The Potato’s “Best” of The Decade

Ok, so there are too many films.  I wish I had a team of researchers to track down every film I have ever seen so that I could come up with a really awesome list.  In fact, I’m making it one of my resolutions for 2010.  I really do need a team of something…but I digress.  The only two criteria for the list are that the film must have been released between the years 2000 and 2009, and the film must not suck.  That’s it.  I also tried to pick films that hold some sort of significance in the film world/pop culture.  Some of my favorite films didn’t make the list, and other critically acclaimed films didn’t make the list.  I suppose I would need a top 50 in order to capture them all, but who has time for that?  In chronological order, here’s The Potato’s “best” films of the decade list:

Memento (2000)

Christopher Nolan payed homage to the classic Hitchcockian thriller while also managing to reinvent the genre.  With this film, Nolan declared that he would be one of the directors to watch in the coming years, and he delivered on that promise.

The Lord of The Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)

Peter Jackson captured lightning in a bottle three times with his Epic-with-a-capitol-E fantasy series.  In the post-9/11 world, we prefer even our diversions to be as realistic and as dangerous as ever, but LOTR dared audiences to suspend disbelief and use their imaginations once again.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Wes Anderson was considered a director to watch back when he released 1996’s Bottle Rocket and 1998’s Rushmore, but this is the film that made even the mainstream film fan stand up and take notice.  A director with uncompromising, intricate visions, Wes Anderson has never been better.

28 Days Later (2002)

The film that changed horror, reinvigorated the zombie craze, and the film that made people finally appreciate how great a director Danny Boyle is.  It’s scary, it’s intelligent, and it’s a ride from start to finish.

The Bourne Identity/Supremacy/Ultimatum (2002, 2004, 2007)

The film series that changed spy films, action films, and Bond films.  It also made Matt Damon both an action hero and earned him a spot on the moviestar shortlist.  The Bourne series convinced us that we want our heroes to be recognizable, fallible, and still extraordinary.  They are also action films that film buffs can enjoy openly.  Also, the film Casino Royale, in its current form, wouldn’t exist without this series.

Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind (2004)

Charlie Kaufman is one of the greatest screenwriters working today, and this film is the reason why.  Michel Gondry is one of the greatest directors working today, and this film is the reason why.  Both have had success before and since, but Eternal Sunshine is an achievement that transcends any lines or labels such as “indie” or “mainstream”.  The film immortalized Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey as one of the great complicated screen couples, and it revolutionized the way we think of storytelling and how it relates to human nature.

Spider-Man 2 (2002)/The Dark Knight (2008)

So this is another listing cheat.  I wanted each film to have their own spot, but we all know that superhero films have pretty much blanketed the Hollywood landscape, and we don’t need another reminder.  These two films, however, are both superb and also changed how superhero films are made.  While on both sides of the spectrum (Spidey being more comic-book-ish, Batman being darker and more realistic), both films are the benchmarks of the genre, and have not been topped since.

The Incredibles (2004)

The film that changed mainstream animation.  Pixar and Disney proved with this film that even adults could enjoy PG-rated animated action.  The visuals are eye-popping, the voice talents are awesome (with special shoutouts to Jason Lee and Craig T. Nelson as Syndrome and Mr. Incredible, respectively), and the music is super cool.

The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005)

The film that changed comedy, and also made the name “Apatow” into an adjective.  The film introduced us to Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Jane Lynch, and reintroduced us to Paul Rudd.  The film speaks for itself, since nearly every critically acclaimed comedy since has been compared to it, and will be listed as one of the most influential comedies ever made.

No Country For Old Men (2007)

The film that finally made me a forever Coen brothers devotee.  I was always a fan, but had never fully appreciated their genius until this film.  It also introduced us to one of the scariest film icons in decades, in the form of Javier Bardem’s sublime portrayal of assassin Anton Chigurrh.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

I’m sorry, Mr. Soderbergh.  If I had a top 20, you’d rule it for sure.  Same goes for Mr. Tarantino, Sr. Del Toro, Mr. Reitman, and Mr. Abrams.

Traffic (2000)

Kill Bill vol. 1 & 2 (2003-2004)

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Juno (2007)

Star Trek (2009)

Twice Baked Potatoes: Howard The Duck

Twice Baked Potatoes are films that were considered critical flops in their day, but deserve a second look.  This is the first article in the series, and I chose to watch a film that had a bad reputation when it was released, but may just be secretly awesome.

Imagine you’re coming home after a long day at work.  You sit down in your favorite easy chair to enjoy a cold beer and a cigar.  You get one gulp and three puffs in when some mysterious force rips you away from not only your easy chair, but from your entire planet!  The force drags you across the universe only to crash land in some strange back alley on some strange planet with no idea where you are or how to get back home.  Then picture the strange new planet as Earth, and picture yourself as a three-foot talking duck from outer space.  Finally, picture a demonic creature hell bent on taking over the world, and he needs your woman to do it.  Your name is Howard T. Duck, and you’re really pissed off.  And so begins the weird odyssey through time, space, and greater Ohio in 1987’s Howard The Duck.

When Howard steps on screen, be prepared to suspend some disbelief.  In the era of Pixar, it can be difficult to accept the sight of a little person clearly wearing an animatronic Halloween costume.  The feathers look glued on, the eyes only move in two directions, and the beak is frozen in a cocky smile.  I was so taken by the absurdity of it all that I had to keep watching.  About twenty minutes into the film, I realized that I loved the fact that it was a suit.  I loved the fact that it was a mask, because I also realized that I missed films that used practical special effects.  I missed the feeling of watching a special effects film and being able to see an actual object on screen rather than a computer generated one. The film’s not as polished as The Incredibles or Kung-Fu Panda, but once the momentum starts going, this film is just as entertaining.

Hes just not that into Earth.

He's just not that into Earth.

The acting is all delightfully offbeat, especially from the four leads: Broadway actor Chip Zien as the voice of Howard T. Duck, Lea Thompson (Back To The Future) as Howard’s first friend (and possibly more) Beverly, Tim Robbins as lab assistant Phil Blumburtt, and Jeffrey Jones (Beetlejuice) as the Jekyll and Hyde-inspired Dr. Jenning.  Through his vocal talent, Chip Zien manages to bring out Howard’s dynamic personality despite the limited amount of physical expressions that Howard can make.  It is a truly funny performance that is best described as an oversexed Bruce Willis mixed with a manic Paul Rudd.  Lea Thompson follows suit with a quirky performance that embraces the goofiness of the premise rather than trying to take it too seriously.  Same goes for Tim Robbins’s Blumburtt character, and he is the funniest part of the film.  There is a scene involving Howard and Blumburtt escaping from the police in an ultralight airplane (think a giant toy airplane), and I was laughing as much as I was rooting for them to get away.

Enough said.

Enough said.

Jeffrey Jones may have been on a completely different planet during filming because Dr. Jenning may be one of the most memorable comic book villains ever.  From the Frankenstein makeup to the post-apocalyptic rags that make up his clothing ensemble, Jeffrey Jones is the true hero of the film.  His character is both pure comic book and genuinely scary.  He also gives his character a raspy, whining gargle of a voice that gets under your skin and stays there.  Howard may be the title character, but you may end up talking more about Dr. Jenning after the film.

Director Willard Huyck pulls no punches with the visual style.  The sets are all very angular and colorful, fully embracing the comic book roots from which this film was inspired.  Huyck and writing/life partner Gloria Katz adapted the script from Steve Gerber’s Marvel comic, and it is a romp in every sense of the word.  From beginning to end, the film takes weird twists and turns through unexpected places such as bathhouses and seedy punk rock nightclubs.  Huyck and Katz also wrote the script for Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and The Temple Of Doom, and the same mix of humor and action shows through in Howard The Duck.  The costumes are all over the top as well, especially Lea Thompson’s Beverly character.  With her multicolored leg warmers, Flashdance-worthy spandex pants, and hair that has been crimped and styled into oblivion, Beverly is a true 80’s time capsule.  The same could be said for the film itself, but it also has a unique view of the 80’s.  There are times when the film looks like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, while other parts look like Batman, and other parts look like a TV sitcom.

This film is secretly awesome, and though it’s an oddball film, you may have a better time than you want to admit.  If we can buy the idea of robots from outer space that can transform into Camaros and Hummers, then a wise-cracking duck from outer space saving Earth from mad scientists is just what the doctor ordered.