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Monthly Archives: May 2013

Ten Word or Less Review – Shifting down.

I got to this shindig late.  I didn’t see a F&F movie until the semi-glorious delirium that was the fifth entry in the series.  It was like showing up to a party that was at its zenith.  Everyone and everything is peaking as you walk in the door.  Maybe you missed something  by getting there late, but no matter what it was it isn’t going to match what’s going on now.  So if the fifth movie was the peak, this new entry is the first stage of the come down.  That isn’t to say that the party still isn’t rocking.  The music is loud and people are still having a good time, but that guy who was break dancing in the kitchen an hour ago is passed out on the couch.  The music is starting to drone on the ears.  There’s a bimbo with a lampshade on her head, two people pass out while kissing and the first signs of burnout are creeping into the scene.

To cut to the chase, bloat and backstory are what’s keeping this vehicle stuck in 2nd, okay 3rd, gear.  This franchise has become so overpopulated with characters and soap opera plot that things are starting to take on a faint scent of Days of Our Lives.  Dead characters coming back to life who now have amnesia?  I thought this series of movies was about car chases.  There are plenty of those.  The usual gratuitous mayhem this series specializes in.  The first half of the movie is loaded with chases which feel fun and functional but never truly inspired.  Even after just one movie this viewer was struck by how common place all the mayhem feels.  The best stuff though is jammed into the last half hour.  I’ll give the creative brain trust credit for wowing us in the end.  The hilarity is palpable as characters all the basically become gravity defying superheroes.  Vin Diesel should just start wearing a red cape with a big D on his chest at this point.  How invincibly macho is he?  He gets shot and doesn’t bleed.  That’s pretty fucking macho.

What separates these two workable sections of cartoon movie carnage, and kind of screws up the movie altogether, is a deadly dull second act where characters travel the world while blathering about the deadly dull plot.  Everyone is running around chasing a bad guy who wants a billion dollar widget or trying to figure out why Michelle Rodriguez isn’t dead.  Answer?  Narrative desperation.  The movie expends tons of effort jetting characters from England to Spain and back to England and back to Spain and even sends one character all the way to America for 10 minutes for no compelling reason at all.  Why weren’t these people jet lagged?  There’s enough gas in this thing for a 90 minute movie, tops.  Fast 6 runs a very bloated 130 minutes.

Fast and Furious fans will surely be happy with this entry in their inexhaustible and inexplicable franchise.  Those who haven’t made the effort to get into this ludicrous series of movies aren’t going to find much reason to start now.  While it’s already clear that this series will continue to burn nitro into the future, part 7 next summer!, I’m guessing that the wheels are about to come flying off.  Long time series director Justin Lin is jumping ship.  The next movie is rushing to meet a street date.  And worst of all, part 6 flaunts the coming presence of Jason Statham as the next baddie for the series.  If the presence of Jason Statham is supposed to genuinely excite the audience then a wrong turn has already been made.



Ten Word or Less Review: To boldly go where we have been before.

Why does a spaceship need to be under water to observe a primitive alien civilization?  The Enterprise is equipped with lots of gizmos, radars, widgets, doodads and even a thingamajig which should easily enable it to monitor things from space, where the ship belongs.  Because you know, it’s a spaceship, not a submarine.  The aliens live near water but not under it.  And since you are space explorers observing a primitive culture and one of your founding directives is to not interfere with developing cultures, wouldn’t the mere act of landing you ginormous, freaking spaceship in the water and sinking it run a very high risk of being observed by the very natives who aren’t supposed to see you?  Remember that guy who landed his 747 in the Hudson River?  People noticed that happening.  Lots of them.  The ultimate answer to this question is that the writers were sitting around and someone said, “You know JJ, wouldn’t it be cool to see the Enterprise rise out of the ocean?”  And of course Mr. Abrams said “Damn right that would be cool!”  This is the thought process that drives the new Star Trek films.  Yes, it is cool to watch the Enterprise rise out of the ocean like a giant whale that’s decided it can suddenly fly.  It’s a positively striking image to behold.  But it’s also thoughtless and incredibly stupid.  These two forces, exciting vs. dumb, are constantly wrestling with themselves in this new incarnation of Trek and when the game is finished exciting looks to have won the space battle, but it is a closely fought battle to be sure.  Hulls are breaches and IQs are tested to their limit, but exciting does win despite the best efforts of dumb.

Star Trek Into Darkness picks up with our plucky young crew as they have exciting and senseless adventures across the galaxy.  The adventure discussed above culminates in Kirk (Chris Pine) breaking the Prime Directive, AKA the don’t futz with primitive alien life or they might think you’re God rule, so he can save Spock (Zachary Quinto) from fiery death by volcano.  Kirk is subsequently demoted for doing this and it creates a bit of a lovers quarrel between the two chums.  But before Kirk can be humiliated by merely being second in command of the Enterprise, the mysterious plot of the terrorist John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) throws Starfleet into chaos.  I fondly remember a time when every bad guy in every movie wasn’t labeled a terrorist, they were just bad guys.  As Alan Rickman once said, “Who said we were terrorists?”  I digress.  He blows up a secret Starfleet facility and then blasts away half of Starfleet’s commanders when they meet to talk about him blowing up their secret facility.  Goodbye Bruce Greenwood, you will be missed.  With vengeance on his mind Kirk rashly sets out to track down Mr. Harrison and bring him to justice for his crimes.  The pursuit of Harrison takes Kirk and the gang to the Klingon home world.  Harrison is captured but then, despite the heaps of marketing effort to do proclaim otherwise, things take some fairly expectant turns for the worse as Harrison reveals his true identity and why he’s there and what he’s up to.

JJ Abrams has received heaps of praise, as well as no small amount of hatred, for how he has handled this beloved, old space cruiser of a franchise.  His first Trek adventure from ’09 gave the series a much-needed kick in the pants.  He knocked off the rust, freed it from the dogma that was strangling it and make this endless series of adventures fun again.  It was perfectly cast with actors who stepped into their iconic space boots with ease and finesse.  Pine, Quinto and Karl Urban immediately established the famous banter of Kirk, Spock and Bones but never once did it feel like imitation or retread.  This strength of actor and character was one of the primary reasons Abrams adventure worked, the movie itself is pretty rickety, and it’s no small part of what makes Into Darkness a more than watchable adventure in spite of itself.  Because it’s pretty rickety too.  The trio once again play off each other with charming ease and make what is an otherwise a senseless adventure film work far better than it has any right to.

Pine’s Kirk is still brazen and arrogant and it’s the job of this film to temper that arrogance with a big heaping dose of humility.  In two films I have to give the new creators credit for turning Kirk on his head some.  In the first movie he was an outright asshole and he was constantly getting his butt tossed around the screen like an action figure in the hands of an angry kid.  In this film, the physical drubbing is lessened, but his sense of powerlessness is amplified.  One of the best scenes in the movie finds Kirk wailing with all his might on Harrison who stands there like a brick house, unmoved in the slightest.  He’s a great mansion of strength being attacked by Kirk’s tiny insect.  Quinto’s Spock also still feels like a fresh invigoration of an old character.  His comic timing is perfect and his give and take with the rest of the cast is stellar.  Karl Urban quietly steals scenes and puts them in his pocket while nobody is watching.  I can’t hope enough that at some point the future creative brain trust builds a story around McCoy, or at least makes him a bit more integral to things.  Urban more than deserves a kick up from being the third banana.  The rest of the casts fill out their limited parts as best they can.  Simon Pegg’s Scotty gets a big step up from his limited involvement last time.  Everyone else seems to have been sidelined as a result.  Better lucky next time Chekov.

The big, mysterious addition to the cast is Sherlock Holmes himself Benedict Cumberbatch, and once again the JJ Abrams mystery box has been built up to a fairly pointless reveal.  He’s Khan.  Yeah, I said it.  And now he’s a cucumber instead of a tamale.  The legendary Trek villain so memorably embodied by Latin man-god Ricardo Montalban is now played by an actor so British he could read a McDonalds menu and make it sound like a passage from Hamlet.  “To supersize or not to supersize!”  Cumberbatch is all baritone articulation and tall, physical menace and Into Darkness is a minor letdown regarding this legendary Kirk hater.  Cumberbatch isn’t a poor fit, he’s simply given a limited amount of action to accomplish and some bad writing to accomplish it.  He spends too much time behind that same pane of glass that everyone from Lecter to Loki sits behind when captured by the overconfident heroes.  It’s a decent attempt at a memorable heavy and he has some moments to soak in but overall the story lets him down.  As we watch Khan be filed away a lingering whiff of missed opportunity hangs faintly in the air.   The movie further undercuts him by adding a cliché ridden second villain unceremoniously played by the long-lost Peter Weller (RoboCop).  Weller’s character is so transparent that you have no choice but to wait for him to reveal his dastardly plan and when he does, you can’t do much but shrug it off.  This Swiss cheese story is the biggest setback among a bunch of little ones.   Other new cast member Alice Eve, as Kirk’s future baby mama Carol Marcus, also inexplicably British now, doesn’t fit in either.  Once again it’s not really the fault of the attractive Ms. Eve.  Her character simply seems shoehorned in for the purpose of giving fans some ‘will they or won’t they’ speculation for the inevitable Trek III.

Despite all these problems and inconsistencies hanging over Into Darkness director Abrams pushes things forward with such giddy determination and zippy energy that all the shortcomings just fly right by in a blur.  He pulled off the same feat with the first film so why be surprised.  He’s the real star of this new Trek universe and as a master of momentum he knows how to cover up plot holes, jump past sketchy story and generally make the audience go with him, Vulcan logic be damned.  Having that spot on cast firing phasers is of no small help.  His decision to monkey with the most revered Trek baddie of all can be painted as either bold or lazy on your part.  It’s your choice.  Either way the result comes nowhere near the iconic achievement that is the original “Wrath of Khan“, but it works well as a piece of respectful homage, reinvention and lightning fast, sci-fi entertainment.  Considering it’s written by a handful of dips (Orci, Kurtzman & Lindeloff) who seem incapable of coherently plotting an Encyclopedia Brown story we should consider it a miracle Kirk and Spock aren’t revealed as cousins by stories end.  Why Abrams keeps marrying himself to these subpar hacks is far more mysterious than anything in the movie.  I’ll admit that they have an ear for snappy dialogue, write well for the characters and can punctuate a joke, but they cannot build a coherent or genuinely interesting story for anything.  If someone with just a little skill at cohesiveness took charge, these films might really start to fire on their own terms.

Into Darkness leaves the audience in an interesting place, the crew heading off into deep space for their long sought after 5 year mission.  After two movies they are now supposedly boldly going where no man has gone before.  One hopes that whoever takes over for Abrams from here on out will drop bad guy routines to embrace the spirit of exploration and adventure that has defined Trek through so many incarnations.  They don’t need to run into anymore villains from their past, or the future for that matter.  We don’t need to have fisticuffs with Klingons, run ins with Romulans or battles with the Borg.  Please, let’s forget Spock’s long-lost half-brother.  Abrams has made Trek fun again and we can all thank him for that, but now it has to face the most daunting task in its nearly 50 year history, it needs to try something new.  Boldly go where you haven’t been before Trek.  It’s time.  And who knows, it might even be fun.



Ten Word or Less Review: The Wars of the Oz Rings

Besides Krull, I’m not sure there’s an 80’s fantasy film more derivative of its ancestors and influences than Willow.  While George Lucas may claim this movie as an original idea, that would be kind of like me writing a word for word duplicate screenplay of The Shining, renaming it Motel Hell and then passing it off as my own creation and calling myself a genius because of the effort.  Willow is Lucas’s transparent, pent up desire to make Lord of the Rings and combine it with the archetype story structure of Star Wars, as well as a few other choice myths and movies.  And the really weird thing is that while the movie doesn’t have many original marbles rolling around, it’s managed to hold up against the harsh, erosive barbs of time.  At the spry young age of 25, Willow is still an enjoyable, if sometimes senseless and goofy, adventure romp that’s easy to appreciate for its old fashioned vibes.

There’s not much need to say that the story of Willow sounds a shade familiar to these ears.  Willow introduces us to the land of the Nelwyns, little people who like to farm, live in little houses underground, smoke while having festivals and flirt with breaking copyright laws.  Unsuccessful Nelwyn farmer Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) dreams of leaving behind his provincial way of life and becoming a powerful wizard.  Detecting a few shades of that annoying teenager who had to go to Toshi Station to pick up power converters?  One morning Willow’s young children wonder off by the river and find a Daikini baby in a basket.  A Daikini is a normal sized person wish isn’t trademarked in any way shape or form.  This little red headed tyke is the scourge of the Evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh).  Yes, the Evil is capitalized as that’s her real first name.  She’s a tyrannical ruler who wants the baby destroyed before it grows up and starts wanting its own credit card.  We’ve seen Bavmorda in movies past, usually wielding a broomstick and controlling an army of flying monkeys.  This baby though is a prophesized baby, in fantasy there is no other kind, who will grow up to destroy Bavmorda and free the land from her iron grip and insane interest rates.

After a pack of Bavmorda’s dogs tear apart Willow’s village looking for the baby, he admits to finding the child, as well as swindling cash from the village pension fund.  No one hears the second confession so his head remains attached to his torso.  To make everyone safe, Willow and a group of fellow villagers, a fellowship one might call it, take off for the land of Daikinies in the hopes of finding a willing soul to take the baby off their unqualified hands.  Their first and only choice?  Val Kilmer’s Han Martigan.  I mean Mad Solo.  I mean Madmartigan.  Madmartigan, besides missing a space to separate his first and last name, is a devil may care warrior who looks like he smokes meth.  He’s also locked in a cage for reasons that we can only guess relate to the missing space in his name and IRS tax returns.  Despite the fact he looks like a white trash cannibal, Willow hands off his cuddly and easily marketable little princess to the mad warrior and hopes for the best.  It’s at this point we should realize Willow is a two-bit selfish idiot and stop watching, but we don’t.  It doesn’t take long for the story to correct course.  Before he knows it, Willow has been bestowed with the baby again and given two small sidekicks, C-3PO and R2-D2 turned into Lilliputians, to help lead him through the forest to the wise wizard who knows how to fix everything.  Instead of finding Alec Guinness in a cloak he finds a talking rat.  This is taking way too long.  Basically it’s just like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and Wizard of Oz and a bunch of other movies all got thrown together and switched up enough so that the Tolkien estate, or anyone else for that matter, wouldn’t be able to file a lawsuit.

So Willow is silly and cloned from too many other sources to count but it’s still fun.  The primary reason Willow remains watchable is the frisky performance of the one and only Wicket himself, Warwick Davis.  Hate on old man Lucas all you want but he almost single-handedly kept little people actors employed throughout the 1980’s.  He’s not like that schmuck Peter Jackson who had to go and use tricks and special effects to make easily employed regular actors take the place of prime little people career opportunities.  But I digress.  Davis is a plucky and lively actor who shows more interest, depth and range than most actors tasked with headlining special effects films of the now.  He’d has easily made a better Green Lantern than Ryan Reynolds.  And he’s equally backed up by a spirited and wound up Val Kilmer, who had not quite reached the heights of Mt. Asshole that he would one day scale.  This was when Kilmer was being primed to become an outright leading man, something he would achieve for a stint, then piss away because starring in films with 50 Cent is so much better than being in movies people actually see.

The rest of the cast is pretty perfunctory.  The future Ex Mrs. Kilmer, Joanna Whaley, had most of the logic of her part cut out.  She’s the daughter of the evil witch and within the film she becomes good because Kilmer’s character spouts some romantic hogwash at her while he’s tripping balls.  It was an opportunity to turn the damsel in distress part on its head but the effort got lost in the writing and editing.  Apparently Lucas and his lackeys didn’t want anyone getting the idea a girl could be in a movie like this and escape marriage or perhaps think for herself some.  Jean March’s evil witch is evil because, well, she’s evil.  She wears an iron cross on her head and she wants to kill a baby, so she’s like Mel Gibson on the weekend.  Fantasy movies aren’t great places to look for motivation so let’s move on.  The guy who got thrown into the airplane propellers in Raiders is here playing a sort of Darth Vader except his mask is a skull.  The Predator would have loved to face off with this asshole.  He dies in the end so he’s no ones father as far as we’re concerned here and the crossover opportunity is squandered.

Ron Howard was recruited to direct Willow and it still stands as one of the best movies he’s ever made.  I’d watch this a dozen times before I sleep through Frost/Nixon again.  Ron and George make a nice working partnership as neither one worries too much about what makes sense or if something comes across as dopey.  This was the 80’s so dopey was par for the course when it came to fantasy movies and if things move fast enough no one besides assholes like me really notice anyway.  Lucas though never let dopey go.  See the Star Wars prequels.  Need a two-headed dragon?  Have Willow strike a troll with his wand and shout a senseless spell.  How does that make a dragon?  What does the evil queen turn an invading army into for defying her?  Pigs.  That part’s just weird in that left field sense that movies like this specialize in.  It’s not Krull’s flying, fire horses but it’s close.  And how do the people in the castle not notice the pig army being turned back into people?  And then digging holes big enough to hide horses in?  Why didn’t they just go make bacon out of them?  Howard keeps things light and breezy and just kind of glosses over these more asinine elements in his screenplay.  He’s got nice, old school special effects backing him and some actors with actual zip to make it work.  And having one of the most badass adventure film scores ever composed, thank you Mr. Horner, certainly makes it all go down smooth.  This music played over movie previews for a decade.  But Howard’s real ace in the hole is that red coiffed baby.

Ladies, you may not realize it but Willow may be the best date movie you can ever watch with a man.  Why?  Howard drops in so many perfectly timed cute baby reaction shots that are poised to steal your heart and make you smile that you’d have to be one jaded, soulless, baby hating mother fucker not to find them at least a little adorable.  Just watch this and see what he does when that baby flashes its mug.  Does he smile or cringe?  When the movie is over ask him, “What did you think of that cute baby?”  “I hated that damn baby!”  No second date for that loser.  He’s a baby hater!  How many films can help you determine if your guy is a well rounded dude with father potential or an intolerant baby hater?  Not many is the answer.  So you’re welcome ladies.  Don’t ever complain about fantasy movies again.

So yes, Willow is kind of dumb and sort of senseless and Lord of the Rings eventually got made and kind of kicked Willow to the curb, but if Willow has one real advantage over Rings it’s that it’s not 12 hours long.  Not being 12 hours long is a real plus when it’s Saturday night and you’re tired and you want to watch something in the fantasy genre and not feel like a complete dope for doing so.  And once again, you’re welcome ladies.  Now go forth, watch some 80’s fantasy and then make some babies.



Ten Word or Less Review: Flat Champagne.

With the mystery of its title character, the beautiful woman from his past whom he loves from a distance, the rotten bastard she’s been married to in his absence and a boring lead character telling us all about it, English students have been expressing indifference to F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s legendary work for most of a century now.  And after a recent read through, my first since high school, as much as I hate to agree with high school kids about anything, I’m half inclined to agree with that routine response.  The masterwork of American literature didn’t illicit much more than a shrug from me.  I’ve always been lost as to why I should care about anyone in this story and a read through now didn’t change that.  So while so many literaties were ready to cry blasphemy at the prospect of razzle dazzle obsessed director Baz Lurhmann adapting the beloved effort of F. Scott, I stood ready and willing for the Bazinating of Gatsby.  Bring on the sacrelig!  Tradition can cram it!  Burn that novel to the ground and rebuild it as something glorious and profane!  But what has wound up on the screen is at best a very faithful but haphazard adaptation of the novel, albeit gussied up with fancy CGI exteriors, sharp editing and Jay-Z on the soundtrack.  And at it’s worst, this Gatsby shows that Lurhmann hasn’t moved one inch away from his career defining spectacle of Moulin Rouge because this Gatsby is close to being a near remake of that divisive and inspired musical.

Critics have been sharpening their knives on this Gatsby but in some instances they seem to be harping on cheap shot observations that don’t quite land on the reasons Gatsby doesn’t excel.  Gripping about a soundtrack made up of Jay-Z, Jack White and Florence and the Machine?  Too much CGI and visual razzmatazz?  I couldn’t disagree more.  The contemporary, anachronistic soundtrack give things much needed zip but if anything Gatsby, when compared to its older french cousin, doesn’t come close to matching that movie’s breathtaking pace and energy.  I was expecting to be assaulted and overwhelmed at all turns but instead found a movie that doesn’t begin to match the frantic footwork of it’s spiritual predecessor.  After an opening 30 minutes of extreme deja vu, one finds oneself firmly entrenched in a faithful but tensionless adaptation of Gatsby, no more, no less.  One hamstrung by uneven performances and faced with the harsh reality that Fitzgerald’s book, populated with characters who range from dull to detestable, simply doesn’t make riveting cinema, despite the director’s lavish attempt to turn into Moulin Rouge.

Lurhmann works so hard to turn Gatsby into Rouge at the outset that one is left wondering if he just took the Rouge screenplay and wrote Gatsby on it.  A young wanna be writer (Christian/Nick) comes to the big city (Paris/New York) that’s in the midst of decadent, cultural upheaval (Bohemianism/the roaring 20’s).  He winds up living directly next to the epicenter of that upheaval (the Moulin Rouge/Gatsby’s mansion) and winds up caught up in the excess of the new and free spirited world he’s found himself in.  Roaring parties, wild music and an unhinged desire for excess rule the day.  For the first time in life Christian/Nick taste booze and sex free of guilt and get lost in the haze of it.  In both instances the tragic tale unfolding is being told to us from the writer after all the mayhem has brought the party to a spectacular crash, even ending on Christian/Nick sitting at a typewriter, pecking out the story we’ve just been told.  Now granted, after the setup the stories manage to go their own way, but while Rouge was invigorating, innovative, dazzlingly romantic and bursting at the seems with energy, Gatsby is a far less mesmerizing affair.  For all the sparkle and shimmer that serve as high-priced window dressing, Lurhmann fails to cultivate any real emotion in anything.  His monumental effort slowly but surely becoming a hollow exercise in how to faithfully adapt a book, and bungle it all the same.

On paper it would seem that the casting stars were aligned for Gatsby.  DiCaprio, Maguire and Mulligan should have been a match to be equaled by few.  The mistake in casting Maguire as Carraway settles in quickly but to be fair he may have never had a chance.  That aloofness he consistently projects does him no favors here and being stuck in the unenviable position of narrating a story his character has no responsibility to other than to observe would make any actor feel left out in the cold.  Carey Mulligan’s Daisy is also a bust.  Not for any lack of effort on the luminescent young actress, but simply because Daisy Buchanan isn’t much of a character in the hands of Lurhmann’s adaptation.  The screenplay makes her a pretty but not very interesting prize being fought over by two arrogant and presumptive men and not much else.  If there’s anything to Daisy besides how pretty she is, it’s nowhere to be seen here.  Then there’s DiCaprio’s Gatsby.  If star wattage could almost lift a film up past it’s own missteps here’s a case to be made for it.  When the mysterious Gatsby finally reveals himself, DiCaprio smiling that billion dollar smile into the camera, fireworks exploding gloriously behind, one thinks that Lurhmann may have finally found the muse he needs to make his effort tick.  For a moment the film comes to life and all that energy which has been dispensed to date feels like it’s reached a point.  DiCaprio attempts the Herculean task of trying to carry the movie on his own modest shoulders.  But before long though we find ourselves settled back into the story so many know, being told in a way that feels falsely energetic and devoid of any real emotion.

This adaptation of Gatsby, much like all the others, is something that can be painlessly watched but not really cared about.  It stands as proof that once again any unfilmable book is in fact filmable, it’s just probably not wise to try.  Gatsby will survive for centuries to come, being forced down the throats of resistant high school English students for all time.  Those who cheat and watch the movie instead of reading the book will likely be hit by the same emotion, ‘What’s the big deal?’


Ten Word or Less Review  – Better than 2.  Still iron deficient.

In the grand scheme of things the only thing Iron Man 3 had to accomplish to be considered a rousing success, besides making assloads of cash, was to be better than the woeful Iron Man 2.  The flagship franchise of the whole Marvel universe saw it’s second outing deliver such a creative thud that one was left to wonder if the whole Iron Man thing was going to be a misbegotten fluke.  A one night stand of a movie that you foolishly try to date because you thought the first time was special, but you’ve sobered up and are seeing things clearly now.  Iron Man 3 does succeed at being better than 2.  It isn’t nearly as flippant and slapdash in execution as the previous mess.  There’s an easy to notice improvement in things but be that as it may Iron Man as a series still isn’t shaping up to be long term relationship material.  At its best, Iron Man 3 is a fancy looking, high-priced comic book movie entry that you like passively, but once you’ve parted ways you’ve forgotten why you went out of your way to hang out after that first hook up.

In Stark’s second adventure I had to compare the iron suited hero to some sort of big budget Bugs Bunny dueling with silly adversaries he could thwart by delivering a box full of dynamite while wearing a postman’s costume that they would then foolishly open to only have blow up in their face.  Iron Man 3 mercifully begins with Tony in a more stressful mindset than when we last saw him.  After the events of The Avengers, Stark finds himself suffering from an extreme case of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  He’s unable to sleep, spending his days and nights in the world’s fanciest mancave making different Iron Man suits to file away, and generally freaking out at inopportune times.  Out in the world at large a villain known only as The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingley) wrecks havoc through terrorist attacks.  A strange, menacing evil doer of unknown origin and weird accent, he lays waste to people in ways which confound the world.  Places and the people in them just blow up without warning and he’s threatening America and its leaders directly with his sinister weapons.  After one of the Mandarin’s attacks leaves Stark’s plucky bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) in a coma, Tony throws down the gauntlet, calling out Mandarin and challenging him to a proverbial after school fight in the gym.  Mandarin obliges by subsequently destroying the Stark mansion with him in it and the billionaire superhero with scores of resources finds himself out in the cold, literally, with a powerless suit and no place to turn.

I’ll give Iron Man 3 credit for being a little more taxing on its protagonist than last time.  New writer and director to the series Shane Black (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang) makes a conscious decision to take certain tropes of this series and turn them around just a little.  Pepper Potts in the suit?!?  A kid sidekick?  He may shake things up a little but it’s quite clear though that Marvel wasn’t going to let him tear down all the walls of this series.  While it’s nice to see Stark actually struggle some, the PTSD angle doesn’t do much as a character arc.  Why would the events of The Avengers leave Stark anymore stressed out than his other conflicts and battles with the likes of Jeff Bridges Iron Monger or Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash?  I would assume having Mickey Rourke trying to kill you with electro-whips to be an inherently terrifying experience.  Guess not.  The PTSD is a curious and thin conceit to hang a debilitating character conflict on.  This is what happens when you’ve been bending over backwards to make your hero unflappable and all but indestructible.  Black also works hard, too hard actually, to keep Stark out of his signature suit.  There’s plenty of Iron Man action loitering around by the end but Black is working more on plot and character than some may expect and more than what the movie really needs.  He pulls off some nice moments here and there, a small town sequence that pairs Tony up with a fatherless kid works better than anyone could have hoped, but he still can’t shake the marginal, dramatic void that has defined the entire Marvel movie universe to date.  And even though Black and his writers make Stark squirm a bit, by the time the credits role everything is pretty much back in place for the guy.  If anything these Iron films are starting to take on a Connery/Moore Bond quality.  Every few years Marvel is going to trot out the character, run him through some shenanigans that make people want to overpay for popcorn, then roll the credits and say ‘Tony Stark will return in….”  Shall we start taking bets on who the next actor in the suit will be?

Iron Man 3 has a very credible supporting casts up it’s iron sleeve but it’s using most of them sparingly.   Downey and Paltrow still have a good give and take which was sorely missing last time and makes the movie tick in general.  Someone needs to pair the two in a romance that doesn’t involve flying suits of armor.  Paltrow isn’t sidelined so dramatically and the movie is better for it, but she’s still playing a lot of damsel in distress moments.  Don Cheadle is once again Rhodes/War Machine, and once again he’s wasting his time playing a very second banana.  I hope Cheadle isn’t holding his breathe for a War Machine movie.  Not happening Don.  Guy Pearce is the heavy whose dastardly plan is pretty obvious and not as mysterious as the movie would like to think it is.  Then there’s Sir Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin.  His is the oddest role of all and what Iron Man 3 does with the comics one semi-iconic bad guy will leave many in the audience as tickled and amused as it will leave more dogmatic comic readers fuming and furious.  The subversive twist though comes at a price.  The movie’s Smokey and the Bandit 2 inspired ending feels like the same Marvel routine, big fight scene, we’ve seen too many times already.  You’d think watching 42 Iron Man suits battle a bunch of fire skinned, lava people would be more inspired but Black can’t elevate the experience past flashy and functional.

After three movies and an extremely popular group effort under the belt Marvel has clearly established what Iron Man is going to be.  A light, not too stressing action series that people can drop in on, watch Downey fly around and quip, and then move on with their life without worrying much about what they just experienced.  That actually seems to be the Marvel plan for all their series at this point.  Coming to terms with that fact goes a long way towards making Iron Man 3 a passable and less frustrating experience.  I don’t know if Downey’s Stark will ever have to face a challenge he can’t quickly overcome or actually loose something he can’t replace or rebuild with a quick montage, but it’s starting to seem doubtful.  Something tells me there’s at least one more Downey/Iron Man effort out there in our future and I don’t see it involving alcoholism, the death of a loved one or even losing a tooth.  He’s just too hip and whipsmart to have a real problem like that.