Beasts of No Nation


Clean up your room!

Clean up your room!

(2015) Drama (Netflix/Bleecker Street) Idris Elba, Abraham Attah, Ama Abebrese, Richard Pepple, Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye, Kurt Egyiawan, Jude Akuwudike, Emmanuel Affadzi, Kobina Amissah-Sam, Fred Nii Amugi, Grace Nortey, Ebenezer Annanfo, Zabon Gibson, Randy Aflakpui, Justice Promise Azduey, Annointed Wesseh, Abdul Mumin Mutawaki. Directed by Cary Fukunaga

The things that are done in war are as brutal and inhuman as our species get. In fact, “inhuman” is a bit of a misnomer; in many ways, war defines our species so the things we do, the brutalities we inflict are very human indeed.

Agu (Attah) is a young boy in a village in an unnamed African country that is being torn by civil war. Utilizing an old TV set with most of its innards torn out, he and his friends use this “imagination TV” to entertain villagers by creating television entertainment. The civil war has been far away from then until word comes that the rebel troops are coming.

Knowing that the fighting will soon come to their village, the women and children are set to be taken to a place of safety. His mother (Abebrese) and his baby brother are allowed to go but the drive of the vehicle refuses to allow Agu aboard. Reluctantly, his mother leaves promising to come back as soon as the fighting is over.

But it is the government troops that come into the village and start slaughtering the males who had stayed behind to fight, including Agu’s father (Amissah-Sam) and brother. Rebels find the traumatized Agu hiding in the hills and he is brought to their Commandant (Elba) to be executed but instead the Commandant keeps Agu on as a child soldier and gives him to the mute Strika (Quaye) to train.

The training is brutal and the fighting worse. These young boys (and girls) are made to do terrible, horrible things, unthinkable things. Agu doesn’t do these things out of rage but out of fear; fear that if he refuses, the Commandant will have him butchered. He lives in a constant certainty that he is going to Hell once he dies for the things he has done – his mother was a fervent Christian. And the more he sees and the more he does, the more certain he is that his soul has been tainted.

This isn’t the first movie to depict the plight of child soldiers but it certainly is one of the most powerful. Much of this is because of Attah, the gifted young actor whose dead-eyed fear-wracked expression is much more powerful than any dialogue could convey. Attah has to be both a normal young African child and a ruthless child warrior and he pulls both off effectively. I honestly don’t know if he has plans to continue his acting career but based on the notices he has gotten for his work here that road is definitely open for him.

English actor Idris Elba has been described as a force of nature and he is the polar opposite here to his performance in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. His Commandant is manipulative, sadistic and simply the essence of evil but the Commandant doesn’t see himself that way; rather the character thinks of himself as a great man, doing whatever it takes to make change in his country – however he doesn’t really do this for love of country so much as love of power and when his political position becomes more and more untenable, the dynamic changes until the fear that he once inspired is gone.

The movie was privately financed by Fukunaga who sold the broadcast rights to Netflix. The streaming giant, looking to release movies on their own both on their service and theatrically, offered to give the movie a theatrical run; the larger theatrical chains said no thanks, despite it’s award winning festival run and Oscar buzz. The precedent, went the thinking, of releasing movies simultaneously on Netflix and in theaters would be an end to their business and they may have a point  The Landmark chain, consisting primarily of art houses, however have opted to present it in their theaters so if your town has a Landmark cinema it is likely to be there.

Fukunaga, whose previous project was the massively acclaimed and overwhelmingly popular HBO miniseries True Detective has been working on this project off and on for seven years. He contracted malaria while filming it in Ghana and put up with budget cuts and major difficulties with African officials and law enforcement. There is a great deal of sensitivity in the region about these wars and how they are depicted; there are some American liberals who say that this film plays to the racist element in our society, which is a load of horseshit.

We can’t ignore crimes against humanity because of the color of the skin of those who commit them. Black lives do matter; that’s why it shouldn’t matter the color of the skin of the people who are destroying them and ending them, whether a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri or a black warlord in Somalia. This is a story that should be told and it is a story that here at least has been told extremely well.

REASONS TO GO: Incendiary performances by Elba and Attah. Realistic and intense.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit during the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of violence, some of it disturbing – some of it committed by or against children. Some sexuality and rape, and a lot of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fukunaga intended to cast former child soldiers as extras for the movie but a large number of them were arrested in Ivory Coast on suspicions of being mercenaries and so Fukunaga was forced to go with local extras.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Timbuktu
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
NEXT: Hot Sugar’s Cold World

War Horse


War Horse

Joey takes it to the trenches

(2011) War Drama (Touchstone/DreamWorks) Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Celine Buckens, Toby Kebbell, Patrick Kennedy, Leonard Carow, David Kross, Eddie Marsan, Liam Cunningham. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

The bond between man and horse rivals that between man and dog. For horse lovers, it is an almost mystical connection, one that exists at the very base of the soul. It is a connection that doesn’t break easily, even when divided by distance, time…and war.

Joey is a horse that is born in the bucolic countryside of Devon in England. He is more racing stock than the plough horse that the sensible farmers of Devonshire tend to prefer. But then, nobody ever accused Ted Narracott (Mullan) of being sensible. A veteran of the Boer War, he returned home a shattered man, his leg a mess and turns to alcohol for solace. When he spots Joey at an auction, for reasons even he couldn’t articulate he gets into a bidding war with his own landlord, Lyons (Thewlis) for the beast and winds up spending his monthly rent money on the horse who is clearly not suitable for farm work.

Nonetheless Ted’s son Albert (Irvine) takes to Joey like a duck to water and the two become inseparable. Albert teaches Joey to wear a harness and gets him to plough a particularly rocky and infertile patch of land for Ted to plant turnips in. Albert’s mother Rose (Watson) chides her son gently afterwards when Albert’s pride at accomplishing the impossible moves towards contempt for his own father who had put him in a position of having to save the family bacon. Rose shows Albert the medals and regimental pennant that Ted had wanted thrown out but Rose had saved.

But a new war is on the horizon, one that will bring more horrors than any that had ever preceded it – the Great War, the War to End All Wars but one which today in America is little remembered as The First World War. Today most Americans look at it as little more than a dress rehearsal for the USA’s brightest moment in the Second World War, which is revered here.

Then again, America was a latecomer to the dance when it came to the Great War. It was fought in European fields and decimated the countryside; it also decimated the population. Nearly every family in France, Germany and Great Britain has a tale about that war involving a great-grandfather or relative who went off to war and never returned, or if they did return, did so with missing limbs, respiratory problems from mustard gas, or with a shattered psyche.

Joey is sold to the British army as a cavalry horse, much to Albert’s sorrow. He promises Joey that they’ll find each other, even as the kindly captain (Hiddleston) who takes the horse as his own mount has his doubts. Joey impulsively ties his dad’s pennant to Joey’s bridle and off Joey and the captain go to war.

The movie’s focus shifts from the Narracotts to Joey as he passes from hand to hand and side to side. He becomes the means for a couple of German deserters to escape, the hope for a dying French farm girl, a means of moving gigantic guns from one place to another and a reason for a temporary truce in No Man’s Land between the British and the Germans.

Spielberg has been more visible as a studio mogul these days than as a director, but here he  once again proves why he is the greatest director of our generation. This is visual poetry, thanks largely to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (who in my opinion is the Oscar frontrunner) as well as composer John Williams who provides a score that alternates martial beats with heart-tugging strings.

In fact, this is a movie that leaves not a single dry eye in the house by its conclusion. This is based on a book by Michael Mopurgo which in turn became a stage play that is enjoying great success in London and New York City where it is running even as we speak; be warned that the movie hews closer to the book and less to the play which shifts the point of view from Joey to Albert by necessity. The play also includes a puppet horse who, while life-like, is still no match for the real horse (or horses) that is Joey in the film.

Irvine is guileless in the lead, a very typical Spielbergian hero who does the right thing motivated by love and is a stolid member of the working class. Irvine brings to life the heart that screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis provide the character and makes that heart real. His relationship with his father and his mother is occasionally rocky but there is clearly love there.

Of additional note is Arestrup as a French grandfather who is watching the war take everything from him. Arestrup who was amazing as a gangster in A Prophet is wonderful here as well, becoming a kind of archetype for how most of us view French country life and those who live it. There is an inner sorrow inside him as loss after loss piles up until he has nothing left but memories. It’s an amazing, affecting performance and is to me the one human performance you’ll remember most.

But of course this is Joey’s story and Joey is indeed a stand-in for the millions of horses that were butchered during the war, sometimes literally. Spielberg has stated that in most of the movies he’s directed, the horse was just something the lead character rode; here he has to get audiences to watch the horse and not the rider, something that he accomplishes for the most part.

Now, I have to admit that while I’m generally willing to stretch my disbelief for a movie, the final scenes in the movie really made that stretch mighty thin, almost to the breaking point. The very final scenes are poignant but over-the-top with a Western sunset worthy of John Ford but perhaps not so appropriate for Devon. A little more subtlety would have gone a long way here gentlemen.

Still, this is a movie that has gotten much praise and justifiably so – it’s certainly one of the best movies of the Holiday season and while it hasn’t gotten the box office attention of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, there are those who think it has an outside shot at the Best Picture Oscar; certainly it will get a great deal of nomination votes in that category.

This is a movie that is cathartic and thrilling in equal measures. Horse lovers will be appalled at the depictions of animal cruelty here (although please do keep in mind that the Humane Society was on hand closely monitoring the situation to make sure no animals were harmed in the making of the movie and from all accounts had glowing reports of how well the horses and other animals in the movie including a rather ill-tempered goose were treated). Military buffs will be impressed by the depiction of the trench warfare – a couple of scenes rivaled Saving Private Ryan as among the best depictions of war ever filmed. History buffs will appreciate that an era rarely visited by American filmmakers is finally getting its due by one of the greatest American filmmakers.

While the movie has plenty to recommend it to kids, I’d think twice about bringing the younger kids to the film as some of the wartime scenes are pretty intense with casualties among both men and horses. However for older kids and adults, this is a return to form by Spielberg and certainly one of his best works of the 21st century. Just be sure to bring plenty of hankies along with your popcorn and soda.

REASONS TO GO: The trench warfare scenes are amazing. Not a dry eye in the house by the end of the movie.

REASONS TO STAY: A little far-fetched in places. Final sunset-lit scenes are a bit too over-the-top.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some war-time violence and some graphic depictions of animal suffering.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were fourteen horses used to play Joey, each doing their own specific action but the horse used most often in close-ups is Finder’s Key, the same horse that played the title role in Seabiscuit.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Black Stallion

ARTILLERY LOVERS: Very accurate portrayals of the moving of big German guns and how devastating they were once they got into position.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Punisher: War Zone


Punisher: War Zone

The Punisher takes aim at the critics.

(Lionsgate) Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Doug Hutchison, Colin Salmon, Wayne Knight, Dash Mihok, Julie Benz, Stephanie Janusauskas, Mark Camacho. Directed by Lexi Alexander

When you seek vengeance, there is almost always some kind of collateral damage. How much that damage is depends on how far you’re willing to go to get vengeance – and whether or not you’re interested in justice at all.

Frank Castle (Stevenson) watched as his family was massacred by mobsters after they witnessed a mob execution while picnicking in the park. Since then, he’s been on a rampage in his new identity as the Punisher, executing anyone having to do with organized crime while the police turn a blind eye to the whole she-bang.

When he accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent while going after the gang of Billy Russoti (West), Castle undergoes a crisis of conscience. He begins to wonder for the first time if what he’s doing is crossing the line. In the meantime, Russoti – who was horribly disfigured by the Punisher and now goes by the name of Jigsaw – wants to find the money that was last seen in the hands of the FBI Agent and turns his attention to his pretty wife Angela (Benz) and daughter (Janusauskas).

With the Russian mob moving a bio-weapon into New York with the aid of Jigsaw (which is why he needs the money so badly) and the FBI sending agent Paul Budianski (Salmon) to take down the Punisher, things are getting complicated. Castle knows he can’t turn his back on the widow or her daughter with Jigsaw after them; he turns to his friend Microchip (Knight) to arm him for one last battle. Unknown to the Punisher, Jigsaw has liberated his insane and ultra-violent brother Loony Bin Jim (Hutchison) from prison and the two are taking aim on Angela, the Punisher and everyone they care about.

While the plot here is paper-thin, it doesn’t really need to be much more than that. In a movie about the Punisher, what you really need is an excuse for blazing guns and body counts. Director Alexander realizes that and gives us all the action we can handle.

In a sense, that’s what separates this from the 2004 filmed version with Thomas Jane in the lead role. While that was more of a straight revenge movie, this one finds the Punisher well along the path of being a crazed killer, the actual killers of his family having long been put in their graves. Now, all he lives for is taking down organized crime. The point becomes when does it stop being vengeance and start becoming bloodlust?

There are no easy answers to that nor should there be. Stevenson could have easily played Castle as a one-dimensional lunatic whose only focus is on dispensing punishment. Instead, he is a living, breathing tormented soul who misses his family terribly and can’t stand to see the helpless being victimized. In that sense, he finds justification for all the carnage he delivers in his quest to protect people like Angela and her daughter.

Alexander really seems to get the comic book and its spirit – in fact, this movie is closest to the spirit of the books than any of the three film adaptations that have been made of the character. There is plenty of action and spent cartridges, but there is a sense of humor involved as well, particularly among the villains who are so out-of-control that control isn’t even in the rear-view mirror anymore. West and Hutchison take bite after bite of the scenery and find it finger-lickin’ good but that’s really what you want in a comic book villain.

While not for the faint of heart, the Punisher satisfies on a visceral level and certainly fans of the comic are going to want to beat the drum for this. Not since Death Wish or Rambo have we had movies that so effectively utilize violence in a vigilante setting.

WHY RENT THIS: Stevenson does a credible job as Frank Castle. The action is virtually non-stop; this is certainly a movie that captures the spirit of the comic book title.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: While the acting needs to be over-the-top, it exceeds the bounds of reason in some places.

FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of violence ranging from the comic book to the excessively brutal, along with some drug use and some foul language. Definitely not for the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title role was originally offered to Thomas Jane, who played the part in the 2004 film. However, while Jane was interested in doing the character again, he wanted a grittier, more realistic film instead of the more comic book film that War Zone was becoming and so he passed, leaving the role open for Stevenson.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.1M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Whip It

The Expendables


The Expendables

Jason Statham, Sylvester Stallone and Randy Couture are all puzzled by the awful smell coming from the ceiling.

(Lionsgate) Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Giselle Itie, Mickey Rourke, Steve Austin, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Charisma Carpenter, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, David Zayas, Gary Daniels. Directed by Sylvester Stallone

When we reach a certain age, we have a tendency to say things along the lines as “they don’t make them like that anymore” more and more often. In some cases, it’s just our memories of things from the past that color our perceptions. Once in awhile, we’re actually right – they don’t make them like that anymore.

Case in point, The Expendables. This is the kind of action movies that filled theaters with cheering, chest-pounding men and the women who put up with them. It’s the kind of movie that makes you want to cook some meat on an open flame, use power tools to make things that needed to be fixed even more broken, and drink several beers while watching football. You know, man things.

There’s a plot here but really, do you care? You’ve got Stallone leading a bunch of mercenaries into a fictional South American country to rescue a brave woman (Itie) with his besties at his side – mostly Statham and Li but also including Couture and Crews – against some rogue CIA agents (Roberts and Austin).  We’ve seen it more than once already this summer alone.

One of the big draws is a single scene in which Stallone, Willis and Schwarzenegger gather together in a church to essentially set up the story. It’s early on in the movie, last only a few minutes and then Willis and Schwarzenegger disappear forever from the movie. Still, you get an insane kick out of seeing these three action icons of the 80s and 90s together for the first time, with Stallone even getting in a jab at Schwarzenegger’s political aspirations.

Then there’s Mickey Rourke. Having seen his career resurrected in The Wrestler and further enhanced by Iron Man 2, he plays a semi-retired Expendable who runs a tattoo parlor slash garage where his old merc buddies get together to reminisce. He has a scene that he talks about why he got out of the game and gives at least a little insight into the toll of war on old warriors. Stallone, to his credit, centers the camera on a tight close-up on Rourke’s face except for a brief reaction shot, but essentially the entire speech is shot that way. It’s a stunning moment, one you wouldn’t expect to find in an action film like this and it serves to elevate the movie all by its lonesome.

Mainly though, this is about blowing things up, stabbing people every which way, kicking, punching and shooting people with guns, rocket launchers and whatever else is handy. The action is way over-the-top, loud and aggressive – in short, the way it used to be. You don’t have time to really think about how hurling an artillery shell at a helicopter with your bare hands isn’t likely to do much damage, let alone blow it up but Crews does just that and you pound your chest and grunt like a good monkey when he does.

Some of the fight scenes, particularly during the last battle, were difficult to follow. Stallone chose to use a more modern handheld camera approach, not realizing perhaps that the style was something of a novelty to begin with; combined with quick cuts, you get the sensation that the entire battle scene is hurtling by your head without really sticking onscreen. At times, you can’t tell who’s battling who, and it’s a shame because you wind up missing some of Jet Li’s martial arts moves which are unbelievable to begin with.

Still, this is a movie that will quell that action Jones you may have been craving for years now. I could actually feel my testicles swelling up while the movie was going on. Not an unpleasant sensation, let me tell you.

REASONS TO GO: A throwback action movie that gives you more bang for your buck than any action film this past summer.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the fight scenes (particularly in the climactic battle) were filmed with handheld cameras and were insanely difficult to follow, so quickly were they cut.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of action, lots of violence, lots of things go boom and lots of hand-to-hand mayhem. A few swear words too; probably older teens will be fine with this, but the very young should stay away.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene with Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis was filmed on October 24, 2009 and took six hours to film. Willis was in the midst of filming Cop Out and was given a pass by director Kevin Smith to appear in The Expendables; Schwarzenegger declined to accept any pay for his role, doing it as a favor to his longtime friend Stallone. It was Schwarzenegger’s first movie appearance in six years, since Around the World In 80 Days.

HOME OR THEATER: Big explosions should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Taking Woodstock

Death Race


Death Race

Who was that masked man?

(Universal) Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez, Jason Clarke, Fred Koehler, Max Ryan, Robin Shou, Jacob Vargas, Robert LaSardo. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

The masses need bread and circuses to distract them when times are hard. The harder things are, the more violent the circus must be in order to keep the mob happy.

In the near future after the U.S. economy collapsed, crime skyrocketed, overwhelming the prison system. In order to cope, the federal government privatized the prison system, creating prisons for profit. In order to recoup their costs, one corporate prison, led by innovative (and bitchy) warden Hennessey (Allen) has come up with a unique concept; Death Race. A combination of gladiator games, chariot races and NASCAR, convicts drive souped-up cars that are heavily armed and armored. However in order to activate weapons, drivers have to drive over lighted shields and swords. They are aided by female navigators from a neighboring woman’s prison. The drivers get a full pardon and release if they win five races.

The most popular driver in Death Race is Frankenstein. He is a mysterious guy whose face is reputedly so disfigured by all the crashes he’s been in that he wears a mask. Unbeknownst to the world, Frankenstein has died after his most recent race and the ratings are sure to plummet once word gets out.

Jensen Ames (Statham) is an honest, hard-working guy who used to be a very good race driver. After getting laid off from his steel mill job, he comes home to find his wife murdered. He is, of course, blamed for the deed and sent to the tender mercy of Warden Hennessey’s care. She offers him a deal; he takes over the persona of Frankenstein and he will be given credit for the number of wins that Frankenstein has already achieved – four, so if he wins one more race, Ames will go free.

However, that’s not as easy as it sounds. Ames has already alienated Pachenko (Ryan), the local white supremacist and Frankenstein has a major rivalry going with Machine Gun Joe (Gibson), who means to take out Frankenstein. However, Ames has an excellent crew; the fatherly Coach (McShane), the nervous but brilliant Lists (Koehler) and the navigator Case (Martinez). However, all is not as kosher as it seems and Ames finds out that in order to survive the Death Race he may need to become more brutal than he can ever imagine.

Director Anderson, whose cinematic resume includes the Resident Evil series, the much-underrated Event Horizon and AVP: Alien vs. Predator, has remade the Roger Corman camp classic Death Race 2000. He has removed much of the humor from it and ratcheted up the gore and action quotient. The result is a satisfactory action movie that while is definitely on the visceral side certainly keeps your attention.

Statham is one of my favorite action heroes and while this isn’t one of his more interesting roles, he brings home the bacon here. Jensen Ames comes from a long line of falsely accused men forced to do reprehensible things in prison starting with movies like The Shawshank Redemption and moving on through movies like The Longest Yard. This won’t win any new converts to the Statham bandwagon but neither will it disappoint his fans.

Allen and McShane are two engaging actors and you wonder what they are doing in obvious B-Movie fodder like this one. Still, they are here and they elevate the movie quite a bit, particularly McShane who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite actors.

The stunts here are way over-the-top, with cars bouncing around like bumper cars and flying through the air like Frisbees. There are plenty of explosions and enough gunfire to fill up World War Two. I have to admit I didn’t care for the soundtrack; it wasn’t so much the heavy metal guitars, which are a bit on the cliché side, but that all the riffs sounded like rip-offs from other songs.

This is the kind of movie that easily gets overlooked. Critics tore it a new one when it was released but I think they were a bit harsh. Certainly this isn’t Oscar material but then it never aimed for that kind of bar. This was meant to be diverting, visceral entertainment that allows viewers to use as little of their brains as they wish to, and that is a perfectly fine ambition.

WHY RENT THIS: Mindless action movie fun that moves at a ridiculous pace.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ultra-violent and too much mediocre metal on the score.

FAMILY VALUES: Over-the-top violence and a cornucopia of f-bombs and other harsh language make this a definite mature audience’s only feature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the first Frankenstein was supplied by David Carradine, who played Frankenstein in Death Race 2000.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray version utilizes Universal’s U-Control interactive features which show race standings during the race sequences as well as an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes footage in picture-in-picture style. In addition, there is a feature which allows viewers to edit their own version of the second stage of the race from seven different angles.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Pandorum

Iron Man 2


Iron Man 2

Iron Man and War Machine have a little heart-to-heart.

(Paramount)  Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Scarlett Johansson, Jon Favreau, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, Garry Shandling, John Slattery, Kate Mara, Leslie Bibb, Paul Bettany (voice), Olivia Munn. Directed by Jon Favreau

With the success of any superhero movie, a sequel is inevitable. Sometimes the sequel is even better than the original, as happened in Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight. In other cases, such as Superman 2 and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer not so much. Which side will Iron Man 2 fall on?

It has been a couple years since the events of the first Iron Man and Tony Stark’s (Downey) shocking outing of himself as the armored superhero. In that time, Tony has effectively kept the peace, his Iron Man armor unstoppable by conventional military means.

Success breeds enemies however, and Tony has his share. Rival arms manufacturer Justin Hammer (Rockwell), for one – he has lost some critical military contracts due to Stark’s success. Senator Stern (Shandling) is another – he wants to take the most advanced weapon in the world out of the hands of private industry and into the control of the U.S. Government, where it belongs. Tony is not willing to do this, and is quite vocal about it at the Senate sub-committee hearing.

Tony’s focus is more on his Stark Expo, a Worlds’ Fair-like event he is holding in Flushing Meadow (also the site of two Worlds Fairs in 1939 and 1964-5, respectively) as a celebration of human ingenuity. It’s also something of a giant corporate jerk-off, but that might just be my inner socialist talking here.

Meanwhile, back in Moscow (there’s a future for me in the cheesy writing industry) a brooding Russky ex-con covered in tattoos and muscles named Ivan Vanko (Rourke) watches his father die and vows revenge (actually, he says something more like “Waaaaaaarrrrrrgggghh!” but you get the idea). Revenge against whom? Why, Tony Stark, whose dad Howard (Slattery) had dear old dad deported back in the day,  but not before stealing his design for the ARC reactor which powers the suit and not so coincidentally, Tony’s ailing heart. With his daddy’s designs, Ivan creates an ARC of his own to power a couple of supercharged whips which cuts through just about anything but especially race cars, one of which Tony is not so coincidentally driving at the Monaco Grand Prix. Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?

Still, Tony saves the day with his suitcase armor (one of the coolest things not only in the film but ever) and Vanko a.k.a. Whiplash is sent to prison. However, Hammer likes what he sees, arranges Vanko’s extraction from prison and supposed death, the better for creating an army of armored soldiers for Hammer who, quite naturally, wants his military contract back.

Yes, you could say Tony’s got problems but none more serious than the fact that his ARC reactor is slowly poisoning his bloodstream, which will eventually kill him. There are no known elements to replace the palladium that runs his reactor and with all the pressures besetting him Tony begins to lose it a little bit. He hands the CEO job at Stark Industries to his longtime assistant Pepper Potts (Paltrow) and starts to drink a little bit, forcing his longtime friend Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard in the role) to take action and take an older set of armor for himself. Potts’ promotion necessitates a new assistant for Tony, in the person of the beautiful and mysterious Natalie Rushman (Johansson) who has secrets of her own.

In some ways Iron Man 2 suffers from Spider-Man 3 syndrome; too many villains. Rourke’s an excellent villain in many ways but the character doesn’t hold the interest of a Joker or a Goblin. He’s more or less a two-chord garage band; he’s either brooding or laughing maniacally. There’s not much in between for Rourke to do, but then again he does a really good job with what he has. Whiplash becomes a decent enough villain and might well have made for a warped reflection of Tony; both sons of fathers who worked together, one bent on world peace, the other on humiliating his enemy.

Rockwell, who’s an excellent actor and at times gets to show Hammer as an un-self-confident geek who craves attention and affection but is as cold and as ruthless as they come. Unfortunately, his alliance with Whiplash makes his character a little bit irrelevant. Rourke overshadows Rockwell to a large degree, but that’s not because of either man’s skills but more because of the way their characters are written.

The action sequences are top-notch and particularly the final battle sequence is absolutely spectacular. Unfortunately, some of the green screen work is surprisingly sloppy, such as one scene where Whiplash emerges from flaming wreckage in Monaco where he is obviously green screened and it takes you right out of the movie immediately.

The supporting performances are awfully good here, from Cheadle as Rhodes to Paltrow as the harried and somewhat overwhelmed Pepper (a bit of a far cry from her cool and collected performance in the first movie) and Johansson, who has never been sexier as the assistant with a difference. Samuel L. Jackson makes a more substantial appearance as Nick Fury, the head of SHIELD, further giving fanboys like me a reason to appreciate the nine-film deal Jackson signed with Marvel to play the character. Hopefully he’ll get a movie of his own somewhere down the line. Favreau as bodyguard Happy Hogan also has some pretty nice moments. The interplay between all of them and Downey is realistic, like old friends bickering and ribbing each other. It helps you like the movie a little more.

This is a nice start to the summer movie season. In some ways it’s not as good as the first movie but in other ways it’s a little better. Certainly Downey is redefining the way superheroes are going to be portrayed in the future; he’s a little bit quirky and a lot more vulnerable than the average superhero. You get the idea that Tony Stark is on the ragged edge and could tip over the side without much prodding.

The action is big and bold but it doesn’t break any new ground in particular. The high tech is a little higher and techier (advances since the first movie have made the tech in that film seem a little dated now), and the acting is solid. The script might be a little bit of a rehash of the first (two armored men battling it out) but at the end of the day you’ll leave the cinema entertained. What more do you need to know than that?

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are outstanding, and the interplay between Downey, Favreau, Paltrow and Cheadle feels comfortable and familiar.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the green screen effects were choppy and ineffective. Rockwell’s Justin Hammer seemed unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some intense comic book action and a few bad words but otherwise suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee makes a cameo appearance as talk show host Larry King near the beginning of the film.

HOME OR THEATER: Big battles, stupendous fight scenes, oh yeah this one is big screen all the way!

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Air I Breathe

Kick-Ass


Kick-Ass

Kick-Ass and Hit Girl do what they do best.

(Lionsgate) Aaron Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Mark Strong, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Lyndsy Fonseca, Omari Hardwick, Xander Berkeley, Craig Ferguson, Yancy Butler, Elizabeth McGovern, Garrett M. Brown, Clark Duke, Evan Peters, Kofi Natei. Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Everyone wants to become that which we most admire. We want to be heroic, rich, athletic, good-looking, shrewd or all of the above. We long to become the same type of person as our heroes. If our hero has superpowers, however, that becomes a bit dicey.

Dave Lizewski (Johnson) is a gawky, rail-thin high school student whose only power, as he himself admits, is to be invisible to girls, in particular Katie Deauxma (Fonseca) whom he is sweet on. His mom (McGovern) had a massive aneurysm at the breakfast table and died a couple of years earlier, leaving Dave and his somewhat oblivious dad (Brown) trying to make things work alone together. He hangs out with his fellow geeky friends Marty (Duke) and Todd (Peters) at the local comic book store slash cafe. The three of them are constantly being set upon by bullies and having their money and things taken from them.

Dave is fed up with this. He wonders why, with all the comic books in the world, nobody has actually attempted to be a costumed superhero (his friends respond “because he’d get his ass kicked in five minutes,” which seems accurate to me). Being fed up, he orders a wet suit that looks a bit like a superhero costume and decides to try out the lifestyle for himself.

His first attempt ends up horribly, with Dave ending up hospitalized. The silver lining on that cloud is that his nerve endings wind up “messed up,” allowing Dave to not feel pain as much as the rest of us do. That turns out to be very handy in his line of work. When Dave intercedes in a gang beating, the incident is captured on a phone cam and becomes an Internet sensation. When Dave is asked who he is, he responds “I’m Kick-Ass” and a legend is born.

What Dave doesn’t know is that there are a couple of costumed vigilantes who are actually out there. Damon Macready a.k.a. Big Daddy (Cage) is teaching his daughter Mindy a.k.a. Hit Girl (Moretz) to be a lethal combat machine. Damon has an issue with crime boss Frank D’Amico (Strong) who was indirectly responsible for the death of his wife and he intends to take him down, despite the objections of his ex-partner Marcus Williams (Hardwick) who worries about the effects of this on Mindy, whom he helped raise.

Through a set of coincidental circumstances, D’Amico gets his sights set on Kick-Ass who was present at a massacre of thugs by Hit Girl. The most unprepared superhero of all time is about to face unimaginable brutality; can he become the superhero he longs to be?

This isn’t your big daddy’s superhero film. This is a movie that is literally awash in cultural reference, so much so that you might wind up wondering if Quentin Tarantino has a hand in it (he doesn’t, but I suspect he finds this movie delightful). Director Matthew Vaughn, who made the criminally underrated Stardust as well as the ultracool crime drama Layer Cake, hits all the right notes here, from the many references to superhero movies from Spider-Man to Batman with stops at Men in Black and Mystery Men.

There are also some nice little subtexts, with Katie striking up a friendship with Dave because she thinks he’s gay, and much of the ass-kicking being done by 11-year-old Mindy, who has the mouth of a sailor and the moves of Jet Li; one of her first sequences is done to the timeless strains of the Dickies’ version of “The Banana Splits Theme Song.”

Now some, like Roger Ebert, have found the latter aspect reprehensible. Certainly Hit Girl is not meant to be a role model; it seemed to me that the filmmakers took special care to make sure she didn’t wind up that way. Was she put in mortal jeopardy? Yes she was, but I’m one of those folks who don’t think that should be taboo. After all, nobody said boo when two kids were menaced by a T-Rex in the original Jurassic Park and it is no less fantasy for a kid to be menaced by a hallway-full of machine gun-toting goombahs. However, it is true the violence is excessive and brutal in places and sensitive souls may find it to be too much.

That said, I found this to be a good deal of fun. While Moretz was a bit too cute in places, Cage and Johnson held up their end well and Strong is rapidly becoming one of the best villains in the business, his brutish D’Amico a far cry from the urbane Lord Blackwood in Sherlock Holmes but just as vicious and effective.

A special mention of Christopher Mintz-Plasse should be made. Although I don’t want to give away too much about his role as it is crucial to the plot, let me say I think he’s perfectly cast for the role and adds a good deal to the movie. He also nicely sets up a prospective sequel should the box office warrant it.

This is meant to be over-the-top and satirical, and those who find videogames to be too tame will probably have some fun with this. For the rest of us, check your inhibitions at the door, and try to keep in mind this is just a movie that’s not meant to be taken as a serious examination of societal woes. It’s a live action Looney Tune, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with the occasional anvil to the head.

REASONS TO GO: Stylized violence, a wicked sense of humor and an accurate portrayal of geekly sorts. Never afraid to go too over the top.

REASONS TO STAY: Chloe Moretz is a little too precious at times. One gets numbed to the brutality after awhile.

FAMILY VALUES: Let’s see, there’s lots of violence, some of it gory and gruesome; there’s some nudity and sexuality; there’s also some drug use. Hmmmmm….I’m thinking you might want to think twice before taking the kiddies to see this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stan Lee makes a cameo in the movie as one of the people watching the news footage of Kick-Ass on television. Also, Nicolas Cage modeled his speech mannerisms as Big Daddy on Adam West of the television version of Batman.

HOME OR THEATER: Big, dumb, fun movies like this one need to be seen on a big screen with a raucous audience.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Amusement