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.

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The Potato failed to “Kick-Ass”

Costumed vigilantes face off against local New York mobsters in Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass”.  High school geek Dave Lizewski asks the question that most kids his age would ask: “Why hasn’t anyone tried to actually become a superhero? Like, in real life.”  Dave dons an appropriately comic book-ish wetsuit, sheaths a couple of taped up batons, and goes out into the world to look for his cause.  Predictably, Dave gets his pubescent ass handed to him in his first time out, putting him in the hospital.  After that, he learns that some of his nerve endings are damaged, which left him a (slightly) higher tolerance for pain.  His new “power” allows him to gain moderate success against petty criminals, and his internet buzz skyrockets as a result.  Soon, Kick-Ass becomes a cultural phenomenon, which leads Dave to father-daughter crime fighter team Big Daddy and Hit Girl.  Big Daddy’s the loony ex-cop-turned-ex-con with all the weapons, while Hit Girl is the tween who’s deadly with all things sharp and explosive.  Of course, the mob isn’t too happy with these new developments, especially boss Frank D’Amico, who throws every goomba he has at the superheroes, and they still just keep coming.  Throw in another superhero wannabe named Red Mist, who may or may not have a secret of his own that could threaten the lives of the entire team if not uncovered in time, and you’ve got yourself a “Kick-Ass” superhero film.  Right?

As Dave, Aaron Johnson has the sort of anti-charisma that this film needs, as his character is more of an iPhone-generation reboot of Peter Parker (he makes several references to Spider-Man throughout the film, in case you miss the metaphor).  He fails, however, to craft a multi-layered character worth caring about.  His attitude towards his superhero experiences always feels slightly aloof and his character never has a real arc.  Does Dave have remorse for any of the things he’s done? Does Dave truly care about helping the common citizen?  I guess we’ll have to wait for the sequel.  Like Kick-Ass, Red Mist (played by Christopher “McLovin” Mintz-Plasse) doesn’t have much to do but just look nerdy cool and wait for the trouble to come to him.  Not much more than a spectator who helps move the plot forward until the very end, Mintz-Plasse does what he can with the role.

The Nicolas Cage twisted renaissance continues with his Big Daddy performance.  Cage plays it goofy and mostly reigns in his Castor Troy-isms until a very pivotal scene, where Cage just lets it all hang out. His Batman-meets-Ned-Flanders take on Big Daddy almost redeems his Ghost Rider performance, but not quite.  Cage’s performance is not, however, the standout of the film. That title goes to the youngest (and deadliest) of the costumed vigilantes played by Chloe Grace Moretz, better known as Hit Girl.  She may look like a Disney Channel childlike automaton, but the steely precocious bloodlust in her eyes tells a different story.  In all of this post-modern brouhaha, Moretz crafts a character who is simultaneously a well trained killer and very much 11 years old.  Hit Girl is a character who the audience must believe can dish out punishment as well as take it in mass quantities, all while remaining engaged in her emotional story.  Along with Cage, these two characters represent the film’s emotional crux, and they both deliver.

Mark Strong is one of the hottest actors on the scene today, and this on-screen baddie is just another gold star on an already fine career.  Not much more can be said of his character Frank D’Amico. He’s bad, he wants the superheroes dead, and he wants to be a zen Scarface while he does it (I guess you had to be there).  Like most of the other actors, Strong does what he can, but he gave a better villain performance in Guy Richie’s “Sherlock Holmes”.

Matthew Vaughn is a director with a specific vision who has the talent to stage Hollywood-sized action while wielding a sword of satire.  “Kick-Ass” takes its cue from films like “Watchmen”, but more like from Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” franchise.  The action scenes are well executed and the cinematography is rich with graphic novel imagery, New York grit, and iconic superhero shots.  Why then, did I only sort-of enjoy this film?  It was so busy trying to subvert all of the so-called “old school” superhero films that it forgot to give me characters that I cared about.  All of the characters have their purpose, they have their superhero references, they curse, and they have their hip post-modernist accidental coolness. All I have to say is: who cares?  Their stakes never feel real, and their lives never truly feel threatened.  The kids will enjoy the action and the humor, as it seems that this is the path that comic book films are headed (Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” will no doubt hit similar notes).  The violence is abundant, but not gory.  The writers set up the characters well enough that they could realistically withstand all of the punishment, so much so that seeing an 11 year old Hit Girl getting pummeled by the film’s main bad guy failed to arouse my offense.  I still advise against parents letting their kids watch this one.  If they must see it, put it on the shelf next to “Watchmen” and wait until they’re in high school.

Overall, “Kick-Ass” moderately lived up to its name.  If you like comic book films, if you liked “Watchmen”, and if you like seeing things get blown up followed by a wink and a scoff, I recommend this film.  I give it a 2.5 out of 4 stars.

Quick sidebar: Every superhero in “Kick-Ass” gets to be part of a big action sequence.  Kick-Ass and Red Mist mostly need rescuing. Hit Girl gets to be the cool one, laying waste to most of the henchmen on screen, and I thoroughly enjoyed her character.  Big Daddy, the only adult of the group, gets to be part of the action the least, but is allowed a single fight scene against a warehouse of bad guys.  In my opinion, this is the scene where “Kick-Ass” has the most kinetic energy, and it’s only moderately important to the plot itself.  For all of the high concepts and young it-actors that dominate the spotlight, you still can’t fake true presence.  Cage’s character was the only one who looked heroic, even if his character is bat scat crazy.  It made me wish that Cage hadn’t taken the role of Ghost Rider, because he would have made such a formidable looking superhero in a greater franchise.  I still wonder what it would have been like if Cage had ended up playing Superman.

Twice Baked Potatoes: Sure Things For Summer

The Twice Baked Potatoes series is back with a vengeance, and this time it’s all about saving our summers.  If you’ve seen The Hangover 10 times already, Public Enemies has left you with summer blues, or if you’ve seen Transformers 2 and the IMAX ticket prices have plucked your pockets to their linty bottoms, stay home and fire up these five classic crowd-pleasers:

5) Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

billandted

"Bill, check it out! We're in the middle of a war, dude!"

Keanu Reeves sans the matrixey philosophical mumbo jumbo, various historical periods getting a gnarly awesome 80’s treatment, and one of the hottest moms in movies, time has been very good to this 1988 comedy. I showed this movie to my little sister (born in 1991) a few years ago, and it became one of her favorite movies.  It’s goofy, it’s a romp, and its vibe is totally infectious. Napoleon eating/hogging a giant ice-cream sundae and getting a prize for it?  I’m there, dude.

4) Re-Animator

"I didn't kill him. I gave him life!!"

"I didn't kill him. I gave him life!!"

If you’re looking for some horror that’s heavy on both cheese and gore, look no further.  It’s the horror film that all the buffs talk about, but don’t let them scare you away, because this film is on the level.  My lady showed me this one a few months ago, and I couldn’t stop laughing/cringing.  The movie is self-aware yet feels completely authentic.  It plays like a 50’s matinee fixture with 80’s sprinkled on top.  When the corpses are reanimated and they go into their cyclone of mad zombie rage, it feels like Christmas.

3) Encino Man

"Poor stoneager, he spends a million years chilling in a block of ice, and now he's gonna go to high school?"

"Poor stoneager, he spends a million years chilling in a block of ice, and now he's gonna go to high school?"

It’s the 90’s time capsule that made stars out of Brendan Fraser and Pauly Shore.  A caveman that gets frozen for a few million years, geeks thaw him out and teach him to be cool so that he can make them cool.  If you’re not on board already, move on to number 2, because it only gets weirder.  Parents, if you’re kid is currently in junior high, please pass this one on to them.  Pauly Shore teaching Brendan Fraser about the four basic food groups at 7-Eleven = priceless.

2) Almost Famous

"Jim Morrison? He's a drunken buffoon, masquerading as a poet.  Man, give me 'The Guess Who', because they have the courage to be drunken buffoons, which make them poetic!"

"Jim Morrison? He's a drunken buffoon, masquerading as a poet. Man, give me 'The Guess Who', because they have the courage to be drunken buffoons, which make them poetic!"

Music makes everything feel better, and Cameron Crowe’s love letter to 70’s classic rock, rock journalism, and teenage self-discovery makes for a great way to fill two hours.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you might sing along (or hum, if you don’t know the words.  I’m horrible at learning lyrics, personally.  Movie quotes stick to me like velcro, go figure).  Billy Crudup keeps the movie grounded, Kate Hudson is the spitting image of her moviestar mom, and Jason Lee turns out his best performance.  Look out for Philip Seymour Hoffman as legendary rock scholar Lester Bangs.  He only gets a few minutes of screen time, but that’s all he needs.

1) Back To The Future

"I, Dr. Emmett Brown, am about to embark on an historic journey...wait, what am I thinking about?  I almost forgot to bring extra plutonium!"

"I, Dr. Emmett Brown, am about to embark on an historic journey...wait, what am I thinking about? I almost forgot to bring extra plutonium!"

The best time travel movie of all time.  I am forsaking many great films to make that statement, but I can’t deny this film’s super-classic status.  If you’re like me, you’ve seen this film more than a few times over the years.  It’s charm will keep you smiling from beginning to end all over again, and its Freudian elements give the film enough quirk to sustain the neurons as well.  The film’s cinematography, musical score, screenplay, and performances are all top notch.  But like the film does with its own science, you can just ignore all that technical nonsense and enjoy the ride.  One of the best soundtracks ever, by the way.