Tuesday, April 30, 2013

'Iron Man 3' Review

When it comes to the Iron Man franchise, I'm probably not to be trusted. I found the first film to be perfectly fine and quite funny, but it was merely the appetizer for Summer 2008's real comic book movie, The Dark Knight. If I thought Iron Man was a touch overrated, then I think Iron Man 2 is a bit underrated: Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell made for better bad guys than Jeff Bridges, and Scarlett Johansson was a welcome addition. (And as much as I've liked Robert Downey Jr. in these movies, Gwyneth Paltrow has been a wonderful foil.)

I mention all that because in some of the reviews I've read of Iron Man 3, the takeaway seems to be that this latest installment is a happy return to form. But that's only if you subscribe to the belief that the first film was great and the second was junk, which I don't. Though it's ultimately successful on its own terms, Iron Man 3 benefits greatly, as several of the Marvel films have, from being the first big summer movie out of the blocks. If this movie came out two months from now, when we've all been properly pummeled by several of these, one after the other, it would seem somewhat disposable. At the beginning of the season, its silly overkill feels almost novel and charming.

To get prepared for Iron Man 3, you don't just need to remember the first two films but also The Avengers, whose finale is crucial to where Tony Stark (Downey) is emotionally as the new movie begins. Shaken by his near-death experience battling the Chitauri alien race and saving Manhattan from nuclear destruction, Stark now suffers from PTSD, unable to sleep and constantly afraid for the safety of his beloved Pepper (Paltrow). But the man doesn't have time for therapy: A onetime-nerd-turned-evil-genius named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) is in cahoots with a dangerous Middle Eastern terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who keeps detonating explosives around the U.S.

Stark wants to help, but all he does is incite the wrath of the Mandarin and his minions, who have the ability to generate extreme levels of heat within themselves. (I wondered if director Shane Black and co-writer Drew Pearce have watched much Fringe: The Mandarin's chums seem like the sort of freak-of-the-week concoction that the Fox show used to showcase on a regular basis.) Unfortunately, Stark puts everything he cares about into danger, including Pepper and his envy-inducing Malibu pad. Like Star Trek III and The Dark Knight Rises, Iron Man 3 is the edition in the franchise where our hero loses a lot of his cool gadgets or an iconic location gets trashed. We're meant to realize that, hey, the filmmakers aren't messing around in this one.

Of course, messing around has been a hallmark of the Iron Man films. It was Downey's cockeyed "I'm starring in what kind of movie?" take on Stark, helped immensely by director Jon Favreau, that made the first two films so light on their feet. They were wiseass while still being smart. (When other comic book movies have tried to follow in its footsteps, they've only come across as hokey, like Green Lantern.)

Favreau declined to direct Iron Man 3, although his wry bodyguard character returns, and in his place steps Black, the onetime hotshot action screenwriter of Lethal Weapon and Last Action Hero whose previous directing effort was Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, also with Downey. There's always a bit of a franchise-by-committee feeling to the Marvel movies, but Black has maintained the Iron Man films' sarcastic sense of humor. (Happily, he continues the series' best running gag, which is that it's completely ridiculous when Stark or Don Cheadle's James Rhodes character try to have normal, mundane conversations encased in their imposing, ass-kicking metal suits.) By now, we know the drill: Downey will improvise some of his best one-liners, and there will be a general what-me-worry demeanor to the whole affair.

That's fine as far as it goes, and the movie gets a surprising amount of comic mileage out of an unexpected pairing between Stark and a small-town kid (Ty Simpkins) who has to help him rebuild his badly damaged suit. (Also, anybody who knows Black's previous work will be amused to learn that Iron Man 3 continues his tradition of setting movies during Christmastime.) But as Stephanie Zacharek points out, Iron Man 3 is like a lot of recent comic book movies in that it's hampered by "too many pseudo-feelings." It's not enough that Stark has to save America from a scary foreign terrorist: He has to be haunted by the harrowing adventures he's endured and tormented about his inability to be a good partner to Pepper. (As a rule of thumb, if you're a character who's spent much time with Stark, your life will be gravely threatened in Iron Man 3, mostly so that Stark can have a worthy personal motivation to get the baddies.) The Iron Man films have been a sort of wisecracking counterpart to Christopher Nolan's grand-gravitas Batman movies, but the darker Iron Man 3 gets -- the more it reaches for pathos -- the more apparent it becomes that such nuance is better left to the Dark Knight.

As a result, Iron Man 3 starts and stops, picking up a little momentum and then sagging, rallying for a superb action set piece but then losing its way a little when Stark's emotional through-line gets addressed again. (This movie is only a few minutes longer than either of the first two films, but it feels quite a bit longer.) When it's in action-thriller mode, the film is wholly confident, and it stirs the giddy enthusiasm of a thousand summer movies past. But I can't say I felt very engaged in what was happening on a human level. The strengths of Iron Man 3 are the same as they were in the first installment: Downey's irreverent attitude and some world-class effects. (For a third straight time, the movie's principal antagonists are merely OK. Where is Iron Man's Joker?) But just like the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, the movie doesn't really surprise or delight you. It entertains you plenty, but it's oddly perfunctory. After the usual slog of bad early-year studio fare, offset by a few fine indie and art-house offerings, it's always fun to have summer movies back. But Iron Man 3 makes you hope that we'll see some better blockbusters soon.

Monday, April 29, 2013

'Let the Fire Burn' Review

I think Let the Fire Burn is one of the year's best films, and it's almost certainly 2013's best film you haven't heard of. Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, this documentary looks back at a deadly altercation between Philadelphia law enforcement and an African-American extremist organization that took place in 1985. The genius of the film is that the movie consists entirely of archival footage: Director Jason Osder and editor Nels Bangerter use this existing footage to craft an utterly absorbing whodunit as public officials (along with the audience) try to figure out exactly what happened. The movie doesn't have a distributor yet, but I hope that changes soon. Here's my Screen International review.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Skee-Lo - "I Wish"

I find the new Toyota commercials that use this song so stupid I'm not even going to link to them. Just enjoy Skee-Lo parodying Forrest Gump in the video. And consider how this track represented a kinder, gentler version of the G-funk era ushered in by The Chronic and other gangsta rap.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

'Pain & Gain' Review

"How was Pain & Gain?"

"I think it's Michael Bay's best movie since The Rock," I replied. "That blurb would mean more if he had made any good movies since then."

My review is up at Deadspin.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

'At Any Price' Review

The betting is that most people will think of At Any Price as "the Zac Efron film," but for fans of its director, Ramin Bahrani, this character study is very much in keeping with his previous efforts. Sadly, though, it's not quite as good as Goodbye Solo or Chop Shop. My review is up at Paste.

Monday, April 22, 2013

What's the Best Film of the Last 25 Years?

Each Monday, Criticwire surveys film critics to get their response to movie-themed questions. Today, the question is pretty straightforward: What is the best movie of the last 25 years? I didn't have to think about it too long. With honorable mention going to Safe (not the Jason Statham one) and Dogville, I went with Hoop Dreams. (No surprise, really, since it's the only film from the last 25 years to make my Sight & Sound Greatest Films ballot.) My reasons for this pick can be read here, along with other critics' responses.

Friday, April 19, 2013

U2 - "Discotheque"

For whatever reason, I was thinking about U2's Pop the other day. You may recall that people aren't too fond of that particular record. The pinnacle of their let's-drown-in-irony shtick, some say. The album they rushed to finish in time for their upcoming world tour, historians note. All true, but I still have a fondness for a few of its songs -- like "Discotheque," the lead track and first single. How can you resist the Edge in a shiny shirt?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What Happened With 'Scary Movie 5'?

For my "Bomb Squad" column over at IFC Fix, I look at the box office disappointment of Scary Movie 5. The obvious answer for why the movie failed is, "Hey, these movies stink -- that's why." But, as I argue in my piece, artistic feebleness has nothing to do with it. Not one of these movies has gotten good reviews, and yet three of the four previous installments grossed over $90 million. So why did audiences suddenly decide now that they weren't interested in this franchise? I try to explain why here.

Friday, April 12, 2013

What's the Best 'Saturday Night Live' Sketch of All Time?

IFC has been putting together a bracket over the last month that pits all the best Saturday Night Live sketches against one another. They were kind enough to have me weigh in on the championship round, which is between "Wayne's World" and "More Cowbell." These sorts of brackets are just meant to be fun but, because I'm me, I spent a lot of time debating which of these should be the winner. You can read my verdict here.

'Scary Movie 5' Review

The last movie I reviewed before my wedding was Scary Movie 4. I always wondered if the excitement leading to my nuptials led me to have an overly positive opinion of the film -- my rave lasts here for posterity -- but I think it had more to do with my undying love for David Zucker, who directed that installment. Alas, Scary Movie 5 is helmed by Malcolm D. Lee, and it's really, really awful. Here's my Screen International review.

Also, one last thing: I know that some of my colleagues have objected to the way actress Lidia Porto is degraded in the movie. Or, more specifically, how her ethnicity is mocked in the film. In Scary Movie 5's very meek defense, I think the movie is actually mocking the offensively stereotypical Latina housekeeper character from Paranormal Activity 2, played by Vivis Cortez, who knew a comical amount about religious voodoo. Like everything else in Scary Movie 5, this particular piece of satire is handled poorly, but I wanted to just throw that out there.

Huey Lewis and the News - "Heart and Soul"

As you may have heard, Huey Lewis is going to be touring to support the 30th anniversary of Sports. This news item made me immediately think of "Heart and Soul." I hadn't seen the video in forever. Watch it now and you really do see the 1980s personified. The video has something of a narrative, but it's also meant to be "funny" in a "Hey, we don't take ourselves too seriously" kind of way -- a real staple with these guys. As for the song, it's a perfect amalgam of '80s keyboards (pleasant and insistent) and '80s guitars (processed within an inch of their lives). That I like the song regardless is a clear indication that nostalgia is an evil, evil narcotic.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

'42' Review

For years, Spike Lee wanted to make a movie about Jackie Robinson. It didn't work out, but writer-director Brian Helgeland has now made 42, a disappointingly square inspirational sports movie. Unless, of course, there's more going on under the surface, which I explore a little in my Deadspin review. Also, one thing I wanted to add that I didn't have room for in my review: Nicole Beharie, who plays Robinson's wife, is just dynamite. She was great in Shame, and I hope I keep seeing her in more stuff.

'To the Wonder' Review

First, a bit of housekeeping: You may have heard that Backstage will no longer be running reviews. It's sad for me, obviously, but it's much sadder for people on the theater side, especially Erik Haagensen, a great critic and editor.

It's been a pleasure and a thrill to write for the publication. As I mentioned about a year ago when I was first invited to do a column for them, Backstage has always had a special place in my heart thanks to an old actress girlfriend of mine who picked up the magazine on a weekly basis back in the day. Daniel Holloway, Backstage's executive editor, brought me in and has been incredibly supportive and encouraging. I thank him for that, and I hope our paths cross again soon. He's a great guy and a smart guy, and that's a rare combination.

My final review for Backstage is of To the Wonder. It's a movie very much concerned with life's impermanence, which seems appropriate. It's a lovely, lovely film that I hope you seek out.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

'Oblivion' Review

A little bit Wall-E, a little bit I Am Legend, the post-apocalyptic sci-fi film Oblivion is a sumptuous visual-and-musical feast. Is that enough? I say yes, but barely: As this Tom Cruise vehicle rolls along, it becomes obvious how lacking it is in the story department. Usually, that's a deal-breaker for me. This time, I was willing to forgive -- up to a point. My review is up at Screen International.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Neil Young and Crazy Horse - "Safeway Cart"

Neil Young has so many great songs, but it's fun to root through his deep album cuts to find some real gems. One such track for me is "Safeway Cart," off Sleeps With Angels. Incredibly evocative, it paints a picture of a "ghetto dawn" that's moody and unnerving. Nothing seems to be happening, but the ominous stillness of the song could almost be the setting for a post-apocalyptic landscape. Or maybe it's simply a rundown part of town populated by the poor, homeless and forgotten.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Roger Ebert Has Died

If there is one single thing that's most responsible for getting me into movies, it was Siskel & Ebert. Gene Siskel died in 1999, and today Roger Ebert did. For Paste, I wrote about what both men meant to me. Like a lot of people, I owe them so much. Here's the article -- I hope you enjoy.

On 'Simon Killer' and Brady Corbet

I saw Simon Killer at Sundance in 2012, really enjoyed it, and have been looking forward to catching it again before its theatrical release. That moment has come. For Deadspin, I talk about the film's under-the-radar star, Brady Corbet, and his terrific performance. You can read it here.

'Upstream Color' Review

I'm here to tell you that seeing Upstream Color twice won't answer all the mysteries within that fine film. My second time through, I was more convinced that there were certain things I simply didn't get and that, frankly, I was OK with that. (The Coen brothers have some advice on such problems.) For Backstage, I review this beguiling, moving drama.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

'Trance' Review

My three favorite Danny Boyle films, in ascending order, are Sunshine, Shallow Grave and 28 Days Later. I thought that was worth mentioning in case you feel the exact opposite when it comes to the Oscar-winning, Olympic opening ceremony-overseeing filmmaker. His latest, Trance, is a crime thriller that's all flash. So much flash. My review is up at Deadspin. (By the way, this still should be captioned, "Watch out, James McAvoy! There are out-of-focus actors right behind you!")

Monday, April 01, 2013

What's Eddie Murphy's Best 'Saturday Night Live' Sketch?

IFC Fix is currently doing a bracket for all-time best Saturday Night Live sketches. Today, I size up a pairing between two Eddie Murphy bits. This was fun to write. Hope you enjoy.