Live By Night


Ben  Affleck is all business.

Ben Affleck is all business.

(2016) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Chris Messina, Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, Robert Glenister, Matthew Maher, Remo Girone, Sienna Miller, Miguel J. Pimentel, Titus Welliver, Max Casella, JD Evermore, Clark Gregg, Anthony Michael Hall, Derek Mears, Christian Clemenson, Chris Sullivan, Veronica Alcino. Directed by Ben Affleck

 

What makes a good man do bad things? Sometimes it’s circumstance, sometimes desperation, sometimes it’s because they believe that they are doing it for a greater good. Once they a good man goes down that path however, how long before it changes him from a good man to a bad one?

Joe Coughlin (Affleck) went to the First World War as a good man. The son of a police captain (Gleeson), he returns home to Boston disillusioned and bitter, vowing not to follow orders ever again. He becomes a petty thief with a small gang but Coughlin is bold and smart and soon comes to the attention of Irish mob boss Albert White (Glenister). Coughlin wants no part of a gang but it’s one of those situations where he doesn’t have any attractive alternatives.

Unfortunately, soon White’s mistress Emma Gould (Miller) comes to Joe’s attention and the two start carrying on a rather dangerous clandestine relationship. Of course, it inevitably leads to tragedy and Joe goes to jail. When he gets out, Boston is essentially closed to him and he goes south to Tampa along with his right hand man Dion Bartolo (Messina) where they will oversee the rum running operation of Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Girone). There he meets two pivotal people – police chief Figgis (Cooper) and Graciela (Saldana); the former he forges a business relationship with and the latter a romantic one.

Joe’s interracial romance soon garners the attention of the Ku Klux Klan who makes life a mess for Joe. Joe appeals to Chief Figgis for help but the Klan’s most visible guy (Maher) happens to be the Chief’s brother-in-law. Although he admires and respects the Chief a great deal Joe uses blackmail photos of the Chief’s daughter Loretta (Fanning) to force the Chief to betray his brother-in-law.

Some time after that, Joe hits upon the idea of building casinos in Florida and begins construction on a magnificent one. Pescatore is happy because Joe is making him cartfuls of money and plenty of important people want to see the casino built. However, Joe is opposed by an evangelist – Loretta Figgis – who helps turn public and political opinion against him. Now Joe is in a great deal of hot water and finds himself once again between the two Boston mob bosses except that this time they are BOTH against him. Surviving this battle may not be possible.

Let’s cut to the chase; this is the weakest entry in Affleck’s otherwise stellar directing filmography. That doesn’t mean this is a terrible film, it’s just the most convoluted and least interesting of Affleck’s films to date. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a truly talented director and some of the scenes he has shot here are simply magic, but there aren’t enough of them to make a cohesive whole. Some of the blame lies at the feet of Dennis Lehane whose book this is based upon; the book itself was somewhat plot-heavy and it doesn’t translate to the silver screen as well as other books that the author wrote like Mystic River for example.

There are a ton of characters in here and a pretty high-end cast; that leads to a logjam of performances, some of which get short shrift and others seem to simply disappear in the bedlam. Standing out are Cooper as the bereaved and aggrieved chief of police, Saldana as the patient girlfriend and Messina as the loyal right hand man. All three get substantial screen time; not so much for fine actors like Miller, Gleeson and Greenwood among others.

And with all this, sometimes it feels like you’re riding a lazy Southern river that seems to be all bend and no destination. There are at least three false endings and when the final credits role there is a feeling of relief. The movie could have very easily ended at a much earlier point (I won’t say where but if Ben Affleck wants to e-mail me, I’d be glad to discuss it with him) and have been much more satisfying than the place it finally did end.

I’m hoping this was just a fluke and that on his next film Affleck returns to form. He has shown in his career that he’s a bit streaky, both to the positive and to the negative. He is capable of greatness and he is also capable of movies that are utterly forgettable. This falls in the latter category – it’s not horrible, not really cringe-worthy; just inconsequential. That’s not an adjective you want used in connection with your film and I’m sure Affleck doesn’t want to make films that even potentially could have that adjective used to describe them. I sure don’t like feeling that the adjective is apt.

This is a nice looking movie that captures the era convincingly to my mind. Affleck looks pretty chic in the tailored suits of the era and the ladies have that elegance that the 30s were known for. There is a fair amount of violence – some of it bloody – but you would expect that in a film about gangsters. There is also a moral ambiguity that might be troubling for some. When watching the Corleone family, you got a sense that they knew what they were doing was wrong but this was what they knew how to do. Coughlin seems to have more options and a moral compass but he still chooses to do things that are expedient rather than right. I suppose that’s true for a lot of us.

REASONS TO GO: Affleck remains a gifted director even on his less successful films.
REASONS TO STAY: A meandering plot sabotages the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly graphic violence, lots of profanity and a little sexuality
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie based on a Dennis Lehane novel that Affleck has directed (the first was Gone Baby Gone back in 2007).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Untouchables
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing

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Labor Day


Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin are seeing eye to eye.

Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin are seeing eye to eye.

(2014) Romance (Paramount) Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg, Tobey Maguire, Tom Lipinski, Maika Monroe, James Van Der Beek, J.K. Simmons, Brooke Smith, Brighid Fleming, Alexie Gilmore, Lucas Hedges, Micah Fowler, Chandra Thomas, Matthew Rauch, Doug Trapp, Dylan Minnette, Ed Moran, Dakota Shepard, Elena Kampouris, Kate Geller. Directed by Jason Reitman

Loneliness does things to the human soul. It saps our self-confidence, flogs our self-worth and turns us into desperate, quivering hopeless creatures who might well reach out for any life preserver available – even if it comes in the form of a convicted murderer.

The sleepy town of Holton Mills, New Hampshire is in those last days of the summer of 1987. the kind where the air hangs heavy and hot over town and school beckons just past the holiday weekend. Henry (Griffith) needs school supplies and his mom takes him shopping as the weekend commences. This is no easy feat for her; she is recently divorced and is suffering from a bout of pronounced depression that is manifesting as acute agoraphobia. Her hands tremble uncontrollably, especially when she is beyond the safety of the four walls of her slowly decaying home which, lacking a man to take care of such things, is slowly falling into ruin.

Henry is accosted by a stranger named Frank (Brolin) who is bleeding and limping after a fall from a second story window. He asks for a ride which Henry’s mom Adele (Winslet) is loathe to give him but subtle threats lead her to comply. She soon discovers that Frank has escaped from prison where he is serving after being convicted of the murder of his wife nearly 20 years earlier.

Frank looks threatening and hard enough but it isn’t long before he reveals a gentle side. He is almost apologetic as he ties up Adele, essentially so that if the police ask she can claim truthfully that she was bound. He does some repair projects around the home, cooks and cleans and teaches them how to bake a proper peach pie after a neighbor (Simmons) brings by some nearly overripe peaches.

Adele quickly falls for this handsome man and quite frankly who wouldn’t? Soon she and Frank are hatching a plan to make a run for the Canadian border, while Henry’s misgivings are fueled by the manipulative Chicago transplant Eleanor (Fleming) and by his dad (Gregg) who has remarried and has a new family that seems to give him what he craves. However with the law searching high and low for Frank and Adele’s issues with leaving the house, is this plan doomed before it starts?

This is based on a Joyce Maynard novel and seems to be geared at a certain audience of women who might well be classified as those who have flocked to the bookshelves to read 50 Shades of Grey. It very much plays into the female fantasy of the bad boy with a heart of gold, a man who has a dangerous element to him but is deep down utterly devoted, handy around the house and in the kitchen and in the bedroom is loving and gentle and amazingly attentive.

Adele is right in Winslet’s wheelhouse; few actresses can portray the kind of trembling arousal that she can. There is a deer in the headlights element to Adele that is attractive but there are times when she looks to be breathing so heavily you have a real concern that she’s going to pop a button on her blouse. Still, she captures Adele’s completely broken down personality and her dependence on her 13 year old son. It isn’t hard to believe that a woman like her would fall so quickly and completely for a stranger with a prison record.

Brolin is looking more and more like his father which isn’t a bad thing if you like handsome men. However as good an actor as his dad was, his son looks to exceed his talents with each passing film. While the character of Frank is really too good to be true, Brolin at least makes him memorable and you do end up rooting for Frank and Adele to make it.

Reitman is an impressive director who often adds a dose of humor to his films which has earned him a lot of critical accolades. He is definitely one of Hollywood’s up and coming prodigies in the director’s chair; films like Juno and Thank You for Smoking underscore that. This is much less cutting edge than his previous films and correspondingly comes off a bit bland. I’m not saying that Reitman is incapable of doing a romantic film – he plainly can and has – but when you set the bar on your career to a certain level, you can end up creating disappointment in your core fan base, sort of like when M. Night Shyamalan stopped doing twist endings (or more accurately, when he stopped doing good movies). It is fair to say that some critics may be coming down on him harder because he set the bar so high with his previous movies.

And therein lies the rub. This is actually a pretty solid and sweet film that accomplishes exactly what i is supposed to. It is a change of pace for Reitman and takes him straight out of the ghetto of black comedies which he has been essentially stuck in. While one can debate the subtext of a strong, magnetic man tying up the object of his desires to tame her before winning her with the aspects that appeal to essentially any woman, I think that this is a movie geared towards women who have more to them than just hitting the clubs and gossiping with their friends. This is a movie for single moms, working moms, divorced women and single women who have had their hearts broken one too many times. These ladies deserve their fantasies too.

REASONS TO GO: Laid-back pacing and strong performances from Winslet and Brolin.

REASONS TO STAY: A few lapses in logic and character.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes are fairly mature. There’s also some brief violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Initially Reitman wanted this to be his follow-up to Up in the Air but due to Winslet’s unavailability he decided to film Young Adult first.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: That’s What I Am

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Pulp Fiction

Kick-Ass 2


Kick-Ass and Hit Girl are nonplussed to discover that they're not getting action figures made after all.

Kick-Ass and Hit Girl are nonplussed to discover that they’re not getting action figures made after all.

(2013) Superhero (Universal) Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jim Carrey, Clark Gregg, Morris Chestnut, John Leguizamo, Donald Faison, Claudia Lee, Amy Anzel, Augustus Prew, Olga Kurkulina, Steven Mackintosh, Monica Dolan, Garrett M. Brown, Lindy Booth, Robert Emms, Chuck Liddell, Yancy Butler, Lyndsy Fonseca, Sophie Wu. Directed by Jeff Wadlow

Although I have it labeled as a superhero movie (and indeed that is how this movie is essentially classified nearly everywhere), it’s not quite accurate. You won’t find a single superhero in this movie. What you will find is a movie about people who love and regard superheroes as idols to emulate.

Taking place a couple of years after the original Kick-Ass, the sequel finds Mindy Macready a.k.a. Hit Girl (Moretz) is cutting classes to go work out with Dave Lizewski a.k.a. Kick-Ass (Taylor-Johnson) who after an entire movie of getting beaten to a bloody pulp by bad guys wants to better be able not only to defend himself but to inflict some damage as well.

Seething in the background is Chris D’Amico, formerly the Red Mist (Mintz-Plasse) whose father was blowed up real good by Kick-Ass at the end of the first movie. He wants his revenge although his mother (Butler) doesn’t take him all that seriously. His bodyguard Javier (Leguizamo) does and when Chris – after an untimely accident – decides to become the first supervillain, Javier is not thrilled with the idea but supports him nonetheless.

When Mindy’s guardian Marcus (Chestnut), a cop, discovers what she’s been up to, he makes her promise to stop being Hit Girl. She starts hanging out with Brooke (Lee) and the other popular girls, trying on a normal life on for size. She finds out quickly that it doesn’t quite fit.

In the meantime Dave has found a new superhero team led by Colonel Stars and Stripes (Carrey), a born again ex mobster. The roster includes Insect Man (Emms), Dr. Gravity (Faison), Night Bitch (Booth) with whom Kick-Ass strikes up a – ahem – physical relationship, and Battle Guy (Gregg) who turns out to be Dave’s friend Marty. Eventually they bring in the other member of Dave’s high school circle, (Prew) so that he doesn’t feel left out but he seems unable to be anything but derivative of Kick-Ass’ name and costume.

For his part D’Amico, going by the name of the Motherf*cker, has assembled a team of villains of his own including Mother Russia (Kurkulina), an ex-KGB agent who is a walking, talking advertisement for steroid abuse. He means to take things up a notch and bodies are going to hit the floor. With Hit Girl on the sidelines and only amateur heroes to stand at his side, can Kick-Ass survive the assault?

First off, the level of violence in this movie is fairly extreme and occasionally graphic, particularly in the third reel. People get hurt, people get maimed and people get killed. The kind of game that Kick-Ass was playing in the first movie is over; the stakes are way higher. There are consequences to putting on the costumes and they are illustrated here.

The movie has gotten a bad rap for that violence and I can only say this; if you’re squeamish about such things, this really isn’t a movie you should be seeing. However, I do believe the violence in the film isn’t as gratuitous as critics – including star Jim Carrey who has famously disowned the film – would lead you to believe. The violence here has a purpose and while you may agree or disagree with that purpose, it nonetheless does have a reason for being.

While Taylor-Johnson has yet to impress me in either Kick-Ass movie, Moretz is amazing here. She is a terrific young actress who captures all of Mindy’s adolescent self-doubts and yearning for acceptance and love. She is a lonely little girl who misses her daddy and that aspect is played up well by Moretz.

Leguizamo does a good job too as the bodyguard/mobster with a heart of gold. I also quite liked Mintz-Plasse who really captures the evil of  Chris D’Amico, driven to the dark side with mad thoughts of revenge. Chris might be a bit of a joke but that doesn’t make him any less evil.

I will say that I found this entertaining enough, but not enough to stand out which isn’t a good thing in one of the most mediocre summer blockbuster seasons in recent memory. Like most of the other movies I’ve seen this summer, Kick-Ass 2 isn’t bad – it just isn’t any more than that.

REASONS TO GO: Entertaining and funny. Moretz is fabulous and so is Leguizamo.

REASONS TO STAY: Unrelentingly brutal, particularly in the final reel.

FAMILY VALUES:  A buttload of violence and a shitload of profanity. There’s also some sexual content and a bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carrey bought his own props and costume in an effort to look more like the comic book version of his character – which, in the comic book, was actually two characters: brothers Colonel Stars and Lieutenant Stripes.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The World’s End

Much Ado About Nothing (2013)


There's nothing quite like a civilized after-dinner cocktail.

There’s nothing quite like a civilized after-dinner cocktail.

(2013) Comedy (Roadside Attractions) Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Sean Maher, Spencer Treat Clark, Riki Lindhome, Ashley Johnson, Emma Bates, Tom Lenk, Nick Kocher, Brian McElhaney, Joshua Zar, Paul Meston, Romy Rosemont, Elsa Guillet-Chapuis, Sara Blindauer. Directed by Joss Whedon  

When William Shakespeare wrote “the play’s the thing,” movies hadn’t been invented yet. I wonder if he had been born in modern times if he’d have written something different. Certainly the way that comedies and dramas are written have changed in the intervening years, not to mention how they’re performed – and received.

But some things haven’t changed – human nature, for one. We are as prone to meddling in each other’s lives as we always have been. We can still laugh at buffoonery. And love can still be found in the unlikeliest of places – and the unlikeliest of couples.

The Southern California home of Don Leonato (Gregg) is all abuzz. Don Pedro (Diamond) is coming to visit for a few weeks, his retinue including the young Claudio (Kranz), the somewhat malevolent Don John (Maher) and the soldier Benedick (Denisof). Leonato’s daughter Hero (Morgese) has goo-goo eyes for Claudio but her cousin Beatrice (Acker) has nothing nice to say about men in general but Benedick in particular. Beatrice and Benedick have a past but there is nothing but constant sniping at one another between them now.

Pedro, seeing the state of things, vows to help create a match between Claudio and Hero, who stands to inherit Leonato’s substantial fortune. On a lark, Claudio, Pedro and Hero decide to get Benedick and Beatrice together just because they think they can – only Don John has plans to sabotage everything.

Much Ado About Nothing has been described as Shakespeare’s love letter to love and it does seem to indicate that much of what is wrong with the world can be cured through the love of a good woman (or a good man). I can’t say I disagree; love is what makes this world bearable, with all the pettiness and dishonesty we all deal with on a daily basis. As human beings we are all flawed but it is in love that we find our noblest aspirations and features.

Whedon filmed this during a break in his Avengers duties and it seems to have re-energized him. He’s also been a long-time admirer of Shakespeare and conducts regular readings of his plays at his home, so the thought of a director as connected to sci-fi and comic book movies as Whedon is isn’t as radical an idea as it might seem.

Loving Shakespeare and capturing his essence are two entirely different things however. I’m definitely down with changing the setting from 16th century Messina to modern Santa Monica, and I’m even more down with filming the proceedings in glorious noir-ish black and white. I’m also for keeping the Bard’s original dialogue because you simply aren’t going to improve on that.

However, Shakespeare’s language has a certain rhythm that is very different than our own, and while I don’t think one has to be a stentorian Englishman in order to deliver it properly, you certainly have to be able to make it sound organic and authentic. Sadly, not all the actors were successful in that regard.

Fillion, as Constable Dogberry, is perhaps the most successful. Dogberry is comic relief through and through and Fillion gets the nature of the character as a bit pompous and a bit foolish but also a bit thin-skinned. He gets the subtlety of the character and so makes him the fool without making him a caricature. Acker, as Beatrice, also gets the nature of her character as well as the rhythms of the speech; while when certain actors say “How now?” with a bit of a smirk, she instead treats it as language she uses every day and that really is the secret – every word sounds natural coming out of her mouth.

 

I like the atmosphere of upscale SoCal hipster that Whedon creates here. It serves the play well, and while nearly all the action takes place in a single location, it never feels stage-y at all.  Whedon adds a lot of physical business that enhances the comedy nicely (as when Claudio intones “I would marry her were she an Ethiope” in front of an African-American woman whose expression is just priceless). Although Da Queen would have preferred a color presentation rather than black and white, I liked how it gave the movie a kind of timeless look.

Friends of mine who had trouble following some of the dialogue because it is in Elizabethan English still managed to love the movie in spite of it. Don’t let that keep you away though – I think you should be able to follow the movie just fine even if a few phrases and words might throw you every now and again – you’ll figure it out.

For those who aren’t into Shakespeare and wonder what all the fuss is about, this is a nice starting point. For those who love Shakespeare and wonder what sort of liberties have been taken, fear not – this is still the Bard, despite the modern setting which simply reminds us how timeless his wisdom and prose are. Any movie that can do both of those things for two different kinds of audiences is a winner in my book.

REASONS TO GO: Very funny in places. Some very good performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the actors really didn’t get the nuances or the rhythm of the language of Shakespeare.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some brief drug use as well as a bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was mostly filmed at Wheden’s own home over a 12 day period.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100; the critics liked this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Taming of the Shrew

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Family Tree

New Releases for the Week of June 21, 2013


Monsters University

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY

(Disney/Pixar) Starring the voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Alfred Molina, Nathan Fillion, Julia Sweeney, Aubrey Plaza, John Krasinski. Directed by Dan Scanlon

A prequel to the “monster” (har de har har har) Pixar hit from 2001. Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan are wide-eyed, fuzzy-cheeked young men attending college at Monsters U. for their freshman year. Both have dreams of becoming scarers, but whereas Sully is a natural born scarer, Mike seems to be his own worst enemy. When their escalating rivalry gets them both kicked out of the program, they realize they’ll have to join forces in order to make things right.

See the trailer, promos, a interview and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: G

The Bling Ring

(A24) Emma Watson, Leslie Mann, Tarissa Farmiga, Claire Julien. Based on actual events, a group of fame-obsessed Los Angeles teens start cyber-stalking various celebrities and eventually, break into their homes and steal their stuff. At first something of a lark, it grows into something larger and darker. Oscar-nominated director Sophia Coppola is in the big chair.

See the trailer, a featurette and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Crime

Rating: R (for teen drug and alcohol use, and for language including some brief sexual references) 

The Kings of Summer

(CBS) Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Megan Mullally. A trio of disenchanted teens, tired of living with the parents, decide to declare their independence, building their own domicile in the nearby woods and swearing to live off the land. Of course, we all know how well that’s going to work – they’re teenage boys after all.

See the trailer and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for language and some drinking)

Much Ado About Nothing

(Roadside Attractions) Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg. Shakespeare’s classic romance about the two unlikeliest of lovers who are thrust into the bowels of romance due to the machinations of their friends. Adapted and directed by Joss Wheden, last scene directing Earth’s Mightiest Heroes which is sure to bring out an audience of jaded hipsters. You’ve been warned.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexuality and brief drug use) 

Raanjhanna

(Eros) Dhanush, Sonam Kapoor, Abhay Deol, Swara Bhaskar. A young man grows from childhood to adulthood in love with a young woman who is a complete mystery to him. As he grows into adulthood, his life will be complicated by her in ways he couldn’t predict.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

World War Z

(Paramount) Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Matthew Fox, David Morse. As a pandemic turns the world’s population into zombies, a United Nations employee goes around the world in a race against time to find out the source of the plague before the zombie apocalypse goes from popular bar conversation to disturbing reality.

See the trailer, a clip and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror Action

Rating: PG-13 (for intense frightening zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images) 

Iron Man


 

Iron Man

Stop! In the na-ame of love…Robert Downey Jr. finds his inner Supreme.

(2008) Superhero (Paramount/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwynneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Jon Favreau, Leslie Bibb, Shaun Toub, Bill Smitrovich, Paul Bettany (voice), Nazanin Boniadi, Micah Hauptman, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, Faran Tahir. Directed by Jon Favreau

 

Some superheroes are born to be heroes. Others are made by circumstance. The question is, were those sorts born to be heroes and always had that characteristic in them, or is it more a matter of necessity.

Tony Stark (Downey) has it all; the brilliant CEO of Stark Industries, he is young and one of the brightest minds in America. Most of the cutting edge weapons the military uses as their bread and butter were inventions of Stark, overseen by his partner, Obadiah Stane (Bridges) who worked with Stark’s dad, the founder of the company. Stane more or less bridged the gap between father and son.

In addition, Stark has a beautiful and efficient assistant, Pepper Potts (Paltrow) and a succession of Maxim supermodels to share his bed at night. His butler, Jarvis (Bettany) is completely electronic. He has a magnificent home in Malibu with a panoramic view of the Pacific. What’s not to like?

Out in Afghanistan demonstrating a new missile along with his good friend and military liaison Col. Jim “Rhodey” Rhodes (Howard),  Tony’s convoy is ambushed by insurgents and Stark is gravely injured, but taken to the caves where the insurgents are holed up. Just before losing consciousness, Tony notes that the weapons that attacked the convoy were manufactured by his own company.

There is shrapnel near Stark’s heart so Raza (Tahir), the leader of Ten Rings (the terrorist group that captured him) forces Dr. Yinsen (Toub) to keep Stark alive, which he does with an electromagnet ringing the industrialist’s heart powered by a car battery. Once Stark is able to, Raza orders him to build the Jericho missile (the same sort that Stark had been demonstrating) for his group which Stark knows will be used against American forces. This he cannot abide. He convinces Raza he’s building the missile while in reality he and Yinsen are creating a suit of armor that will allow him to break out of the caves and get away. He does, but barely – he has to construct a miniaturized nuclear power source called an ARC reactor to power the suit but the flight capabilities of the armor are limited and Stark crashes some miles from the caves, destroying the suit.

Back at home, Stark announces that Stark Industries would be getting out of the weapons industry to the consternation of Stane and Stark’s shareholders. Stark responds by withdrawing from the public eye, going into his home workshop to upgrade both the reactor and the armor. The sleeker Mark II armor, red and gold after his racing team’s colors, prove to be a powerful weapon as Stark returns to Afghanistan to prevent Ten Rings from destroying Yinsen’s village, leaving Raza to the less than merciful villagers.

In the meantime Pepper discovers that someone within Stark is selling advanced weapons technology to terrorists and had set up Tony for capture and eventual murder by Ten Rings. She notifies SHIELD, a newly formed government agency set up to deal with exactly these sorts of issues and Agent Coulson (Gregg) is dispatched to investigate.

Ten Rings has discovered the pieces of Stark’s original armor, as well as the blueprints for it. Scientists attempt to reverse engineer the armor which they do, but they are unable to build an ARC reactor to power it. There’s only one of them in the entire world – and it’s the only thing keeping Stark alive. The terrorists want it and will use whatever means necessary to get it.

When this was released in 2008, Marvel had licensed their characters to specific studios; X-Men, Daredevil and the Fantastic Four to Fox, Spider-Man and Ghost Rider to Columbia. They had a vision of creating a shared universe like the one they created in their comic books but in order to do that they would have to have control over their characters and how they were being used; this couldn’t be done if they were licensed all over hell and gone so they decided to create a movie division of their own and with a fairly substantial investment, announced an ambitious slate of five films of which this was the first.

It is here that the roots of The Avengers were laid. The tremendous success of the movie not only established Marvel Comics (who were already seeing great success with their licensed properties) as a major force in Hollywood. Even the notoriously hard-to-please comic fan base were impressed not only with this film specifically but with the vision of Marvel generally.

The fact that this is a kick-ass summer movie doesn’t hurt. Downey is perfectly cast as the wise-cracking billionaire industrialist with an eye for the ladies and a mind unparalleled anywhere in the world. Much of the dialogue was ad libbed and Downey tends to excel in that kind of environment with a quick wit of his own. Downey was already a fan of the comics when he was approached to play the part; he had a real understanding from the get-go as to who Tony Stark is and what makes him tick.

Favreau hit a home run not only with the casting of Downey but with the look and feel of the movie. In many ways this was the anti-Batman; whereas Nolan’s hero is dark and brooding, Stark takes himself less seriously. That both are wealthy playboys is about all Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark have in common.

In fact, the movie looks like it could be taking place right here, right now. Most of the weapons that are employed during the movie (of course excluding the armored suit and the Jericho missile) are at least based on weapons that are either already in use or not far away from it. That gives the movie a sense of realism that other superhero films lack.

The supporting roles are more or less backseat drivers for the movie. Bridges looks like he’s having a good ol’ time as the bald and bearded Stane. Paltrow provides some nice chemistry as Potts and Howard, while given not much to do, does it well at least.

This turned out to be a huge fanboy chubby-inducing blockbuster of a film. It accomplished nearly everything it set out to do, creating a huge universe for filmmakers to play in – one that has been expanded upon with every succeeding film. They’ve also set the quality bar very high, one which has been at least approached if not met with all the other films that Marvel Studios has released since (not including the Ghost Rider films – sorry Nic). This is a favorite that holds up well even after all the other films that have since seen the light of day. It all started here and it’s worth going back to the beginning once in awhile to see how far you’ve come.

WHY RENT THIS: Kick-started Marvel Studios into becoming one of the industry’s big players. Elevated both Downey and Favreau’s career.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Final battle between Iron Man and Iron Monger kind of anti-climactic.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of action which of course means violence – some of it on the ugly side. There are also some suggestive situations. Tony Stark is a playboy billionaire after all.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sound used during a target lock on Iron Man’s Head Up Display is the sound of a laser cannon firing in the original Space Invaders arcade game.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a look at the history of the Iron Man comics, as well as some rehearsal and audition footage. There’s also a hysterical piece from the Onion News network about the adaptation of the Iron Man trailer into a feature length film. The Blu-Ray edition also has a “Hall of Armor” that examines the various iterations of the armor complete with 360 degree rendering.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $585.2M on a $140M production budget; the movie was a great big hit!

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Craigslist Joe

Marvel’s The Avengers


Marvel's The Avengers

Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson are a bit grumpy because they didn’t get a nifty uniform.

(2012) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Gwynneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany (voice), Alexis Denisof, Powers Boothe, Jenny Agutter, Harry Dean Stanton. Directed by Joss Whedon

 

Okay, take a deep breath now. It’s finally here, after five years of anticipation, of endless speculation, it’s here. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, assembled in one place. Comic book fans of all sorts have been squirming in their chairs for months waiting for this movie to make it into the multiplex.

The thing is, this isn’t a movie just for those who love superheroes. This is spectacle on an epic scale, with battles raging in the skies as well as in the streets of Manhattan. However, there is more to it with a bit of pathos as well as some sharp dialogue. For those wondering, you don’t necessarily have to have seen the preceding Marvel superhero movies, although it helps to have done so.

Loki (Hiddleston) has been released from his quantum exile by the Tesseract, a cube of immense power that SHIELD has been using to try to create a self-sustaining energy source. He immediately uses his spear to control Professor Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) who’s been consulting with SHIELD on the project, and Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Renner), an agent of SHIELD.

SHIELD director Nick Fury (Jackson) realizes that war has been declared on Earth by Loki – and he may have an army of alien beings behind him. The armed might of the world’s armies will be insufficient to stop what’s coming, so he is forced to recruit the most powerful beings on Earth to stop the threat – Iron Man (Downey), he of the powerful metal battle suit; Dr. Bruce Banner (Ruffalo), a brilliant scientist and expert on gamma radiation who when angered turns into a gigantic mindless beast that can tear about virtually anything without much effort, and Captain America (Evans), a soldier from World War II rescued from a decades-long sleep who was enhanced at the genetic level by a super soldier formula.

They are joined by the Black Widow (Johansson), an athletic spy and master interrogator and agent Phil Coulson (Gregg), Fury’s right hand – and eye in the field. They’re going to need all of them because with Hawkeye swinging for the other team, Loki is privy to all of SHIELD’s dirty little secrets.

The rest of the team is transported to SHIELDS heli-carrier, an airport carrier with gigantic helicopter rotors and the ability to turn invisible – yes, a cloaking shield! Eat your hearts out, Trekkers! In any case, Banner works on a device to track the unique but faint gamma radiation signature of the Tesseract. In the meantime, Loki is captured by Cap and Iron Man in Germany.

That brings Thor (Hemsworth) into the mix. Thor, Loki’s adopted brother, has noticed what Loki is up to and has had his father send him to Midguard (Earth) at some great cost. The intention is to bring Loki back to Asgard to answer for his crimes there. However, there is work to be done on Earth before that can happen – heading off the invasion that Loki has initiated, for one thing and the alien Chitaurs are not particularly interested in a gentle, benevolent rule. It will take the combined might of all of them to thwart Loki’s intricate plans and save the Earth from being subjugated by alien masters.

This is everything a superhero film is supposed to be; it captures the dynamics of each individual character and Whedon and writer Zak Penn extrapolate how the interpersonal relationships would work given their personalities and egos (which, to be fair, the comics have been doing for years). The result is a believably dysfunctional group of heroes who can be prima donnas and have their own agendas from time to time. Tony Stark (the alter ego of Iron Man) for example is highly suspicious of SHIELD’s motives and distrusts government, particularly after they forcibly tried to take away his work from him in the first two Iron Man movies.

Everyone gets to shine here, from the big guns (Downey) right on down to Gregg who has few scenes but makes the most of them. All of them, including Nick Fury (who hasn’t had much to do in previous films except for a good deal of expository dialogue) kick patooty, whether each other (as in  Thor-Hulk battle) or against the aliens (Cap gives the big green guy the orders “Hulk smash” and Hulk, grinning broadly, does just that).

It might have gone a little bit long (and waiting until the very end of the credits for the second extra scene might be a too much to ask) but all in all this is mind-blowing when it needs to be and visceral when it has to be. Watching Hulk smash is one of the great joys in life, as is seeing Cap’s leadership abilities come to life, or Tony Stark’s ego.

Nothing I say is going to dissuade people who want to see this from seeing it or those that don’t want to see it from avoiding it. If you don’t like superhero movies, if you find big loud action movies with Dolby sound and 3D glasses to be sensory overload, you’re going to be uncomfortable with this. HOWEVER if you don’t mind or actively love these things, you’ll be in your element here.

A note to parents: please don’t bring your kids along if they’re say seven or younger. The movie is a bit long for kids with short attention spans, it’s very scary in places and LOUD throughout. There was a moment when Hulk was roaring and I happened to be glancing at a little girl who couldn’t have been more than five years old covering her ears with a look of ABSOLUTE terror on her face. She had no business being there and you know it wasn’t her idea to go. Get a babysitter folks, or take them to see a Pixar film instead or be prepared to have an angry mob of people at the theater turn on you. This isn’t a little kids movie by any stretch of the imagination. If your kids aren’t able to handle a two hour movie at home, they probably won’t be able to handle it in a theater – and if you should know how easily frightened they are. The movie theater isn’t a day care center.

REASONS TO GO: Extremely well-choreographed action sequences. None of the heroes get short shrift.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be a bit long for those with short attention spans.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence of the alien invasion sort, as well as a few fairly scary sequences. This is definitely not for children under, say, seven years old.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie became the fastest to earn $200M at the U.S. box office – it only took three days to reach that milestone.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.The reviews are almost without exception positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: X-Men

STAN LEE LOVERS: The legendary Marvel Comics grand vizier shows up in his cameo during a montage of interviews of Big Apple residents being interviewed about the battle just fought on city streets.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade