Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 is the film we have been waiting for since Dark Knight Rises. It has a phenomenally powerful heroic arc for many of its characters, pits our hero against a terrifying enemy, gives us a nice love story, and does it all without wallowing in darkness and a fairly nihilistic worldview. And it is explosively funny at perfect moments.

As of its release, Iron Man 3 is the best movie of 2013.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released May 3, 2013

Written by Drew Pearce and Shane Black, based on the comic by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby

Directed by Shane Black 

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Rebecca Hall, Robert Downey Jr, Don Cheadle, Jon Favreau, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Paul Bettany, William Sadler, and Ty Simpkins

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Iron Man 3 comes chronologically after Iron Man 2 and The Avengers. In this story, the events from The Avengers are referred to as ‘New York’ from the year before. This is important, because the heroic efforts Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) made in that conflict have left their mark on him. He is torn up and is having trouble sleeping. 

But he’s been working obsessively with his suits, making them able to move remotely and even be controlled by Jarvis (Bettany) so they can be nearly autonomous. At the same time, Rhodey (Cheadle) is using the suit the US Government appropriated, which is now called the Iron Patriot. Rhodey and Tony are still friends. Pepper (Paltrow) is very worried about Tony. He is unable to stay in bed, is acting a little too manic, and their relationship is suffering. She wishes he could have a life without the suits.

Meanwhile, there is a terrorist called the Mandarin (Kingsley) who is incredibly well outfitted for mass destruction. He is bombing all kinds of places and appears to want to knock the world’s systems completely off balance. But there’s also another bad guy named Aldrich Killian (Pearce) who is a brilliant inventor and developer and who seems to have a personal bone to pick with Tony Stark. And this guy is not entirely human.

When Tony’s home and lab are completely destroyed, Stark is left with his one final suit, panic attacks, and a pushy kid (Simpkins) who might be able to help him save the world. The Mandarin’s plans move forward, putting countless lives in danger, and Killian’s plans do much the same. Now Tony has to somehow rescue his relationship, the president, and the entire world from a madman who is bent on molding the world after his own vision.

Leading to a visually stunning showdown that does all kinds of crazy things that will come as a surprise to most viewers.

Critique

There’s not much bad to say about this film. It starts with a script that knows how to throw punches at our hero, leaving him on his back, nearly dead, in the snow. The script allows characters to explore relationships and to inhabit their emotional space. This consists of allowing scenes to continue for enough time to let us see the character do natural, often heroic things.

The script also allows for all kinds of humor at surprising and perfect times. Most of that humor is clever dialogue, but it’s so effective because of its timing. Furthermore, the bad guys are ruthless and smart and incredibly dangerous. They win every encounter because they’re better prepared than anyone else.

As expected, the acting is excellent. This is a surprising role for Ben Kingsley, but the guy really gets it done. Guy Pearce is effectively smarmy and villainous, as are the sidekicks. The role of Stark was of course written for Robert Downey Jr, but there is more asked of him here. He has to move beyond clever snark to real self exploration, while staying true to himself. He does that well. Gwyneth Paltrow is as Gwyneth as ever, but the presence and acting of Rebecca Hall offsets the Gwyneth factor nicely.

The effects are remarkable. Seamless, creative, stunning, and altogether wonderful.

You’re going to love this movie.

Content warnings: Lots of superhero violence and some at times creepy or difficult images. Nothing gory.

Writing: 5          Acting: 5          Overall: 5

Iron out the kinks in your relationships, man (or woman!), and share this review with your friends. Then drop a Hamilton and go see this flick.

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The Expendables 2

The Expendables 2 is an over the top splatter-fest populated by almost every iconic action hero of the last thirty to forty years, plus some others. In other roles, these actors are often charming and/or engaging.

In Expendables 2, they’re pretty much boring. It’s strange for a movie with so much action to be so incredibly uninteresting and bland. That said, there are a few effective moments, notably the meta, self-deprecating humor that sprinkles in.

Here’s the trailer:

The deets:

Released August 17, 2012

Written by Richard Wenk, Sylvester Stallone, Ken Kaufman, David Agosto, and Dave Callaham

Directed by Simon West

Starring Nan Yu, Charisma Carpenter, Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Arnold Schwarzzeneger, Chuck Norris, Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jet Li, Liam Hemsworth, and Randy Couture.

Rated: R

*     *     *     *     *

Story

The old crew is still working together, apparently as a principled mercenary force. Barney (Stallone) leads his crew on a daring rescue of a Chinese businessman, with Lee (Statham) there as what appears to be a co-captain of the squad. His team consists of Gunnar (Lundgren), Caesar (Crews), Toll Road (Couture), Yin Yang (Li), and Billy (Hemsworth). They break the businessman free, while at the same rescuing Trench (Arnie). Yin retires from the team at the end of this caper and Bill talks about leaving the team after the next job; he’s got a girl waiting for him.

Church (Willis) shows up and calls in the debt Barney owes him, getting the team to make a run to secure a package that is in the wreckage of a crashed plane. The team is joined by Church’s acquaintance, Maggie (Yu) for this job. But the baddies are there too and they kill one of Barney’s team in the process of making off with the package. The baddies are led by Vilain (Van Damme), who wants to make money off throwing the world into chaos.

Which, when thought through fully, makes zero sense.

So Vilain and Barney’s team are in a race to control a cache of weapons-grade plutonium. And the bullets are going to fly like crazy. And Chuck Norris shows up as a guy named Booker, although he really should have been called Deus Ex Machina. Explosive scenes ensue. Lots of bullets are fired. Plenty of blood splatters.

I bet you can predict how it all ends.

Critique

The Expendables 2 is predictable, exploding, intermittently entertaining stuff. Happily, the stars are smart enough to know that they need to be self-deprecating and that some meta-humor would be necessary to make the film more palatable. The problem is that, despite the whizz-bang action, it’s a boring movie. The characters aren’t authentic, and aren’t quirky or absurd enough to make it not matter that they’re not authentic. Every effort is made to keep things as complicated and explosive as possible.

It’s a generally joyless outing. There are moments of fun, but in general this movie doesn’t provide so much of a ride. Instead, it’s like a painting in motion– static characters posing through multiple different scenes.

There is plenty of inventive violence, to be sure. Moments are mined for clever quips as well. But it’s all somewhat lifeless because most of it seems like posturing rather than storytelling.

Not even a gamely trying Jean Claude Van Damme, or a very loose Jason Statham, could breathe any consistent life into this flick.

Content warnings: some language, nearly non-stop bloody violence

Writing: 2          Acting: 2          Overall: 2

Go an expend some energy by enthusiastically clicking on the icons to share this review with your social network. As always, do you agree or disagree? Feel free to argue in the comments!

PS: You know there’s something rotten in the state of Rotten Tomatoes when this movie has a higher fresh score than John Carter. Something very rotten.

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How to Train Your Dragon

How to Train Your Dragon accomplishes the seemingly impossible: making dragons an adorable and engaging companion and friend. At the same time, it tells a suitably archetypal story of a young lad who finds his own way to defend his people from the scourge of dragons. And at the SAME time, it’s hilarious, heartfelt, and has heavy themes thrown in.

In short, How to Train Your Dragon is a great movie.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released March 26, 2010

Written by William Davies, Dean DeBlois, and Chris Sanders. Based on the book by Cressida Cowell

Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders

Starring America Ferrera, Kristen Wiig, Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, TJ Miller, and David Tennant

Rated PG

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Hiccup (Baruchel) is the son of Stoick (Butler), the most courageous of viking warriors and the leader of the clan. The problem is that Hiccup is more of a thinker and inventor than a warrior, which is probably good since Hiccup is the size of one of Stoick’s legs.

Instead of training for battle with dragons, Hiccup spends his time inventing awesome contraptions to help in the fight against the dreaded beasts. See, the dragons show up with some frequency, carrying off the vikings’ livestock– and the vikings obviously aren’t fans of this type of thing. Thus, the battles are a pitched and serious business.

During one evening battle, Hiccup fires a massive bolo at what he thinks is a night fury, the most vicious and feared dragon known to viking. He’s pretty sure he hit something. But the village is in tatters and Stoick decides to lead the warriors in a search for the dragons’ lair in order to, once and for all, stop the scourge. Gobber the Belch (Ferguson), a grizzled warrior with one hand missing, is left behind to train the next crop of viking warriors.

This group of warriors consists of Hiccup’s peers, Astrid (Ferrera), Snotlout (Hill), Fishlegs (Mintz-Plasse), Tuffnut (Miller), and Ruffnut (Wiig). Tuffnut and Ruffnut are twin siblings who are tough and full of vim. Fishlegs is a walking encyclopedia of dragon lore, but is not very physically gifted. Snotlout is essentially a bravado-filled goofball. And Astrid is a gangly, tough girl who loves battle.

Hiccup and his colleagues achieve varying degrees of failure in their training while Stoick and the others are off hunting dragons. Meanwhile, Hiccup is sure his weapon hit something, so he tracks down where he thinks it landed and finds an injured night fury.

Now Hiccup forms a new friendship while innovating a way to help the night fury. Hiccup’s new understanding of dragons could either save the vikings, or doom them to destruction. And when it all comes down to one decision, Hiccup has to decide if he will rally his friends and save both the vikings and the dragons.

Critique

On the strength of the plot, with its complexities in human relationships, unshirking look at feeling like an outcast, and a truly excellent hero’s journey, How to Train Your Dragon is extremely effective. Rare is the animated film, or really any film, that has such a fine plot that tells a seemingly simple story, but really tells the story of people doing their best to live the way they choose and having to deal with the consequences.

Add to the excellent writing and character development some wonderful animation. These is not realistic stuff– the people are capable of impressive physical feats and their size is generally a caricature. But the colors are bright when they need to be, the expressions on people and dragon alike are emotive, and there’s some truly well-thought out construction of the village of Berk and the dragons’ lair. Toothless, the night fury, is a particular accomplishment, with his great expressions and snake/cat-like movement.

To top off all of this great stuff, the voice acting is mighty good. Hiccup’s dialogue had to be written with Baruchel’s self-effacing, dry-wit manner in mind, because it matched perfectly. Butler is wonderful as the gruff dad who loves his boy. Ferguson clearly had a blast voicing Gobber’s action. The team of dragon-warrior trainees also do a mighty fine job.

In short, How to Train Your Dragon delivers fun, comedy, action-packed, and heartfelt entertainment that even little kids will adore. Instant classic from DreamWorks, and very likely their best film ever.

Content warnings: some intense scenes of dragon battle

Writing: 5          Acting (voice): 5           Overall: 5

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Taken 2

The first Taken film was a spectacular example of an underrated film winning audiences with intensity, fine acting, solid production values, a startling look at a nasty underbelly of eastern Europe, and an altogether relentless plot.

The second Taken film, to be successful, needed all of these plus a few twists in order to pull of the same success and following. Taken 2 fails because it forgets to have a relentless plot, instead doing some strange geographic acrobatics to confuse the viewer.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released October 5, 2012

Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen

Directed by Olivier Megaton

Starring Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Liam Neeson, Rade Serbedzija, D.B. Sweeney, Leland Orser, and Jon Gries

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Brian Mills (Neeson) and his daughter Kim (Grace) seem to have recovered from the events of Taken, which happened an indeterminate time previous to this film. Kim doesn’t have her license yet, which begs the question about how old Maggie Grace is trying to be here.

Age questions aside, Brian’s ex-wife Lenore (Janssen) and her second hubby are in splitsville and Brian has learned from his previous mistakes that he needs to be sensitive and solicitous. Also, he obviously still loves Lenore. Following an opening sequence of fairly regular family life and Brian being an overbearing but good dad, Brian invites his wife and daughter to meet him in Prague after he finishes his next job.

The family is reunited in Prague and good times are had, while Brian and Lenore realize that Kim is trying to get them back together.

Meanwhile, all of those eastern European human traffickers that Brian killed in the first movie apparently had fathers and brothers and sons. We see a funeral led by Murad (Serbedzija), at the end of which, Murad extends a call to arms and vows revenge upon the man that killed these deplorable human beings that worked in the human sex slave trade.

Yeah, not a lot of sympathy for these villains either.

So all of this leads to an abduction of both Lenore AND Brian, wherein Brian is just barely able to warn Kim of the attack so that she evades the bad guys. Luckily, Brian is really good at what he does and he has a tiny phone hidden on his person so that he can start gathering help, but in the meantime, Kim convinces Brian to let her help him. He leads her through the steps of tracking down where he and Lenore are being held.

Kim does a very fine job and finds them. What she doesn’t know and Brian does know is that Lenore is slowly bleeding out from being stuck in the neck. Clock’s ticking.

Brian is able to get free and he and Kim have to chase the bad guys down before Lenore’s life ebbs completely away, setting up a pretty great, if somewhat illogical, extended chase which culminates in some gunfire, some shaky-cam hand-to-hand, and a pretty good, if rather easy and premature, final showdown scene.

Critique

The reason Taken 2 doesn’t deliver anywhere near as effective an adrenaline-rush is that the filmmakers didn’t take time to figure out a few twists that made things even harder for Brian and Kim. In not throwing more at these two, the movie is robbed of authenticity, tension, and entertainment value.

When the movie is wrapping up, you’ll be sitting there thinking, “Wait. Already? Seriously? That’s it?”

Because the writing of the story just isn’t taken far enough, the perfectly good actors’ very solid performances aren’t allowed to have the emotional impact that they might otherwise have had. Maggie Grace turns in a particularly good performance, stepping up and helping with the initial rescue quite convincingly.

So Taken 2 just isn’t as intense, just not the thrill-ride, as we wanted. It’s still enjoyable, though abbreviated. The filming is standard, but enhanced by the setting in Prague. The pace is on target, but gypped. It starts very well, setting up some very nice character arcs and motivations and tension.

Then it stops. It’s worth seeing, but not at full price and not with many expectations.

Content warnings: some semi-harsh language, plenty of non-bloody violence.

Writing: 2.5          Acting: 4.5          Overall: 3.5

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