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Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

15 years. 6 movies. 3 different lead actors. 2 reboots. I wouldn’t be surprised if a majority of the American public likely knows more about Spider-Man than their relatives. In 2002, the first Spider-Man movie kicked off the new century by affirming to studios that superhero movies are a sound financial investment. Director Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire kicked off the glut of superhero cinema, paving the path for the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and its own unparalleled run of financial and critical success. Then the overreach killed off Raimi’s Spider franchise in 2007 and overreach again killed off Sony’s Spider reboot in 2014. Sony wisely sought out an assist from the gurus of Marvel, striking a deal and having the web-slinger return to the MCU. Fans rejoiced. Spider-Man: Homecoming announces itself as a brash, exhilarating, hilarious, and amazingly assured film that immediately lines up with the upper tier of the MCU. Marvel should use this as Exhibit A, submit it to Fox, and say, “Here’s how we can do your franchises better.”

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is your ordinary 15-year-old from Queens, New York who was given amazing powers after being bit by a radioactive (or genetically modified) spider. It’s been weeks since he was called into action by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to thwart Captain America (Chris Evans). Now Peter is back home and waiting for his literal call to adventure, for Stark to officially call him up to join the Avengers. Peter anxiously waits for school to end so he can don his Spider-Man suit, modified by Stark Industries, and fight local crime and injustice. This mostly amounts to stopping bicycle thieves, helping old ladies with directions, and other inglorious tasks. Peter’s Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) would prefer he focus on his studies rather than the time he’s been spent on the “Stark internship” (his fib to cover said crime-fighting). New weapons begin appearing on the streets, built from the discarded alien technology from The Battle for New York. Spider-Man investigates the source, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a pilot who adopts the moniker of The Vulture while in the sky with his winged jet pack. The formidable weapons pose a real pressing danger to society, and Peter pushes further, at his own peril, to confront the Vulture and stop the flow of high-tech weapons.

For many fans of the webhead, this will feel like the first time they’re watching the Spider-Man of the comics on screen. This is the first film incarnation where Peter remains in high school for the entire duration of the movie, and it’s also thankfully the only telling that eschews an origin story. He just is Spider-Man, however, the arc of the movie is him settling into that identity. It’s in many ways a coming-of-age story for the superhero set, as Peter has to come to terms with his earnest desire to help others and his own maturation, both as Spider-Man and as a high school sophomore. He’s learning just as much to be Peter as he is Spider-Man. Just because he has these powers doesn’t mean he’s ready for the rigors of the world. Homecoming is very much a high school movie. There are familiar John Hughes influences throughout, and the film smartly subverts certain high school tropes (driving lessons, prom dad from hell). It presents our hero struggling with asking the cute upperclassman (Laura Harrier) to the dance just as much as the demands of being a fledgling local superhero. His interior life is much more available and relatable but he’s still a teen navigating the world. Also, by having Peter be the youngest film incarnation yet, it allows for the satisfying indulgence of superhero wish-fulfillment. Whereas the X-Men powers are naturally linked to the progression of puberty, those are usually portrayed as a curse, something that ostracizes, confuses, and produces great anxiety and fear. With Spider-Man, being a superhero is the coolest thing in the world. He’s not consumed with angst like Andrew Garfield’s broody Peter Parker and his weirdly special DNA (what was the deal with his parents and that conspiracy? Oh well). Watching this exuberant Peter Parker embrace his new abilities with glee is a great way to keep the movie light and bouncy.

This is also, bar none, the funniest film yet in the MCU (yes, even dethroning Guardians of the Galaxy). With the lighter tone, the movie finds consistent opportunities to inject comedy, from the irony of Peter trying to lead a normal life, to the awkwardness of Peter’s attempts at crime-fighting, to his over eager demeanor, to misunderstandings and hasty excuse-making to conceal his double life, to the sterling supporting cast of characters that contribute different flavors of jokes when called upon. If anything there is so many talented supporting players I wanted even more time with them (Donald Glover, Hannibal Buress, Martin Starr). This cast is a comedic embarrassment of riches.

I was laughing pretty much from beginning to end with Homecoming. Just thinking back on the school’s morning announcements (complete with anchor Betty Brant) makes me giggle. Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) is the movie’s chief source of comic relief, and in less careful hands he would become rapidly annoying. Instead, he’s a reliable presence and given a character arc with a payoff of his own, his desire to be Peter’s “guy in the chair.” It’s genuinely impressive screenwriting when even the comic relief sidekicks have arcs. Zendaya does an impressive job of selling every one of her jokes, which traffic in a very specific smart-aleck, apathetic tone. She’s graduated from the Disney Channel to the bigger leagues. There’s a hysterical series of inspirational education videos featuring Captain America, and if you stay past the end credits there’s a great payoff for that. There’s even some sly meta jokes calling back to Raimi’s Spider-Man. Every joke at least lands and most of them hit hard, benefiting from strong development and timing.

Nevertheless, just because it happens to be one of the funniest movies of the year, Spider-Man: Homecoming still finds plenty of space to be dramatic and thrilling. The comedy doe not tonally detract from the other elements. This is not an insubstantial movie just because it knows how to have some fun (take notes, Zack Snyder and DC). This is not a flippant movie because of tone or the heavy joke quotient. There are sincerely sweet moments born out of the characterization, like when Aunt May takes it upon herself to teach Peter how to dance (this would not be possible with a geriatric Aunt May). Director Jon Watts (Cop Car) has a steady command with his high-flying visuals and maintains the tight walk of tone that allows all the elements to work together as a blissful whole.

There are superb action sequences that advance the story forward and allow for the characters to grow. It’s exactly what good action is supposed to do, besides, you know, quicken the pulse. The humor can also arise naturally from these set pieces. Take for instance Peter suiting up while attending a suburban house party. He spots some alarming energy discharges on the other side of the suburb, but without any tall buildings for him to latch onto, he has to hoof it the whole way on foot. It’s a smart comedic aside and it helps to remind us that this Spider-Man isn’t an instant pro after getting his powers. It all comes together best in a D.C. rescue at the Washington Monument. It bridges the personal with the action. The bifurcated ferry set piece serves as the Act Two break and it’s a killer segment that pushes Peter to his limits to solve a dilemma that seems incapable of being fixed. There may not be any action scene to rival Raimi’s finest but the character-centric action and the organic development of the complications lays a foundation for a consistently entertaining film littered with joyful payoffs.

The biggest fear I’ve read from Spidey fans was that the involvement of Robert Downey Jr. would tip the scales, turning a Spider-Man movie into a defaco Iron Man sequel. Considering America loves Iron Man, I don’t see how his inclusion is a problem. Civil War was still very much a Captain America film even though Iron Man was the co-lead. Tony Stark represents a distant mentor for Peter and also the gatekeeper. Peter is anxious to become an Avenger and looking for Stark’s approval, which brings an enjoyably unorthodox paternal side from Downey. If there is a complaint I can foresee, it will be that Spider-Man is too similar to Iron Man thanks to the special suit. Spider-Man’s suit has its own Jarvis-style A.I. program (adeptly voiced by Jennifer Connelly, wife to Paul Bettany, former voice of Jarvis) and extra special gadgets including a spider drone and unusual web shooting options. It provides a new sense of discovery for the character since we’re already starting with him powered. The second act is Peter getting accustomed to the boost his suit gives him, becoming reliant upon them, and then having it stripped away as a natural Act Two break so that the conclusion has even more stakes without the security of the suit. It makes Peter much more vulnerable. The Iron Man parts are more a background motivational force and this is still very much a Spider-Man film.

Holland (The Lost City of Z) is already my favorite Spider-Man. Period. He made such an immediate and strong impression in Civil War that I was greatly looking forward to his first big starring venture, and Holland does not disappoint. This is the first Spider-Man that doesn’t feel crushed by the heavy burden of being a superhero. He’s a kid eager to grow up and join the world of other caped crusaders, but he’s modeled his crime fighting from what he’s seen on TV. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing. He’s still an awkward kid, and Holland brings great authenticity to the smaller character moments and the bigger heroic strides (while maintaining a convincing American accent). This is a more relatable, vulnerable, and interesting Peter Parker. Even though he thinks he should be beyond the mundane life of high school, he doesn’t ever act pompous or look down on other characters, which is endearing. At times Holland feels like he’s going to explode with energy, as if life is too much to process in the intermediary. He’s a teenager and the world feels so big and open. It’s an instantly engaging and likeable portrayal that wonderfully capitalizes on the introduction from Civil War. This is a Spider-Man, and his spider world, that I want multiple sequels to further explore and challenge.

Keaton’s Vulture already ranks as one of the best villains in the MCU (a low bar, I admit), and that’s because the movie humanizes him and gives him significant moments. He’s just a regular working-class man trying to provide for his family. In fact the first five minutes of the movie focus exclusively on Toomes and explains his sticky situation. He feels cast aside by those in the upper echelons of power. His eventual “you and I are the same” speech to Spider-Man has credible points. You can see, from his perspective, how he’s an underdog sticking it to the rich elites. Shockingly, there’s only one death in the entire movie and even that is an accident. Toomes is not your standard comic book villain, and there’s a brilliant third act twist that makes him even more centrally involved in the narrative. That opens a delicious sequence of dramatic irony. Keaton has a quiet menace to him that’s very unsettling. It’s all in the lower register. His character doesn’t blow up. He just narrows his brow and intensifies that scary stare. I’m glad the filmmakers realized that more Keaton was an asset to the film.

Let’s also take some time to celebrate the sixth Spider-Man movie for having a diverse population of characters that would actually represent Queens. Peter’s best friend is of Filipino descent, the girl he crushes on is biracial, the loner girl is biracial, and even the high school bully, Flash Thompson, is Hispanic, played by Tony Revolori from The Grand Budapest Hotel. This might be Marvel’s most diverse cast yet, though “yet” being the operative word considering that Black Panther is arriving in early 2018.

This movie is a total blast. Spider-Man: Homecoming actually manages to give new life to a character that has already appeared in five other movies. That’s an amazing feat. Another amazing feat is that six different screenwriters, including the director, are credited with this movie, yet it feels fully coherent in its vision and presentation. This is Peter Parker, the teenager struggling with self-doubt, hormones, and an eagerness to grow up, and the movie feels much more human-scaled, forgoing giant CGI smash-em-ups for something more grounded, personally involving, and ultimately successful. Just because Homecoming is fast-paced and funny doesn’t mean it lacks substance. I was elated during long portions of this movie, impressed by the steady stream of setups and payoffs, the incorporation of the many characters and comedic voices, and the varied action set pieces that were focused on character progression. If you are tired of superhero stories, I’d still heartily recommend this movie. Dear reader, I feel like I’m failing you and turning into a frothing fanboy because I can only think, at worst, of negligible quibbles against the film. Everything in this movie works. Everything. It’s everything I was hoping for and then some.

Nate’s Grade: A

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Mortdecai (2015)

mortdecai_character_poster_1It’s not going to be called conventionally appealing, or successfully funny, but Mortdecai is not exactly the colossal unwatchable bomb that critics brought out their knives for in the first month of 2015. It’s a curiosity that has some merit in its failure but it’s hard to lambaste this lark too much because it never takes itself too seriously. Johnny Depp plays Mortdecai, a roguish art dealer who also traffics in stolen paintings. Gwyneth Paltrow is his co-conspirator and wife. Paul Bettany is Mortdecai’s long-suffering manservant always getting into dust-ups or occasionally shot by his master. The weird left turns the comedy keeps taking don’t exactly make the movie better but they save it from being completely unmemorable. Your enjoyment factor will weigh heavily upon your tolerance for Depp in full foppish mode, an effete dandy who struggles with his conflating love of his mustache and his wife’s distaste for it. The entire story is a shaggy dog caper about stolen art that involves the Russian mafia, MI 5, and Nazi gold, and nothing matters. The actors look to be having a good deal of fun, playing dress up and trying on silly accents. I can’t say I laughed out loud but I did occasionally smile at the absurd commitment. I mostly sat wondering how something like this gets made, and then I saw that Depp was one of the producers and that answered that question. Mortdecai may not be worth the invective but that doesn’t mean it’s good.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Thanks for Sharing (2013)

thanks_for_sharing“Isn’t sex addiction one of those things guys make up when they’re caught cheating?” asks a character in Thanks for Sharing. This movie treats the topic of sex addiction very seriously, rattling off plenty of adverse side effects rather than just a wandering eye. Director and co-writer Stuart Blumberg (The Kids Are All Right) is certainly empathetic to his characters on screen. I just wish the movie knew what it wanted to be.

We follow three sex addicts in one therapy group, all at different points of recovery. Mike (Tim Robbins) is the paternal figure of the group. He’s long been married to his high school sweetheart. Adam (Mark Ruffalo) is five years sober and being prodded by Mike to start seriously dating again. He meets Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow), a cancer survivor, and hides his addiction from her. Worst of all is Neil (Josh Gad), a doctor who has been mandated to attend sex addict group therapy after “bumping” into people on the subway and recording an upskirt video of his boss. He doesn’t believe he has a problem, but, under the guidance of Adam and Mike, comes to the conclusion that the only person who can fix his impulses is himself.

Thanks For Sharing (2013) Mark Ruffalo and Gwyneth PaltrowThanks for Sharing is an admittedly entertaining movie, at turns, but it’s a movie with one debilitating identity crises. What kind of movie does it want to be tonally? We get raunchy sex gags, and then the film transitions into rom-com fluff, and then the film transitions into hard-hitting addict drama, and then it’s all back again. All of these elements could have been carefully threaded into one movie, but Blumberg and co-writer Matt Winston cannot nail down a consistent tone. In fact many of the changes can be quite jarring. One minute people are engaged in wacky sex hijinks, and the next they’re lamenting all the horrible life choices they’ve made in tears. When there isn’t a clear tone, or clear transitions, then the comedy undercuts the drama and vice versa. Therefore, certain elements can be appreciated or be found engaging, but the movie cannot become more than the sum of its parts. And let me get into whether sex addiction is really a topic that can work in the realm of romantic comedy. With the right finesse anything can be presented in a comedic light that still maintains the humanity and dignity of its flawed characters. However, is something as easily misunderstood as sex addiction, whose particulars can be quite appalling to many, the right fit for a genre that is predicated on whimsical coupling? I don’t think so. Thanks for Sharing doesn’t change my mind.

About that rom-com part, notably the relationship between Adam and Phoebe, it’s easily the least interesting part of the film. Both of these characters are fairly bland. Adam’s the sober guy trying to keep things going, except that we never really feel like he’s challenged. We don’t feel the threat that he’s going to relapse. And we don’t really get to know much else about the guy. He vaguely works for some sort of environmental firm. As a character, he is defined by Phoebe, herself a collection of quirks that doesn’t coalesce to form a human being. The film weirdly keeps harping on the fact that Phoebe likes her food to not touch, as if this minor peculiarity is some harbinger of a greater OCD complex (she’s into physical fitness!). The fact that other characters have to jump in on this makes it even more transparently reaching. Worse than all this, the couple’s interactions, and much of their budding relationship, feels overwhelmingly artificial. The dialogue should be sparking, charming, but you get no real sense of why either of these people would fall for the other, excluding the obvious physical attributes of each. The rom-com convention of the Big Secret (Adam’s addiction) is left dangling until, surprise, it’s defused early. I’d expect the movie to push further since there is a wealth of drama to be had about the trust levels of dating a sex addict, but instead it just forces them apart all too easy. Then there’s the fact that the movie covers perhaps a month of time and their relationship seems to move ridiculously fast, mostly because Blumberg is impatient for his couple to get to a more physically intimate stage.

Thanks for Sharing works far better as a darker drama, and as a movie, when it focuses on the roles of Mike and Neil. The film smartly connects sex addiction with other impulse control issues; for Mike he’s been sober from booze for 15 years, and for Neill he has weight control issues. These are the characters we see struggle, these are the characters at the more interesting points. Neill especially is a doctor whose hit rock bottom and can’t get away from the felonious things his addiction tempts him to do. Mike has a surrogate family with his support group. Now that his prodigal son (Patrick Fugit) returns, that adds tension to his family dynamic, both at home and in group. I would have preferred Thanks for Sharing to be told chiefly from the perspective of these characters, eliminating Adam and Phoebe altogether. But even these good storylines find themselves wading into all-too familiar plot devices. Mike’s arc involves reconnecting with his son, which will lead to a misunderstanding, a conflict, and ultimately forgiveness, and you see every step coming. Neill’s journey gets an unexpected boost when he takes initiative to help Dede (Pink a.k.a. Alecia Moore), one of the only ladies in group. Of course it takes a pretty girl to push Neill out of his selfishness and self-loathing, but he does progress, and it’s the most emotionally rewarding moment in the film. The problem is that Neill’s storyline is tied up in a platonic head-scratcher. Dede takes Neill to a dance hall where they are just there to… dance, but the kind of dancing that hipsters do. It all seems like something for people on drugs, but whatever reason, Neill shaking his groove thing, and coming to an understanding that he will not be touching Dede, makes his character better. I was surprised that Blumberg was able to end the movie on something of a downbeat, falling back to the central message of one day at a time, vigilance.

screen-shot-2013-06-27-at-9-52-13-am-pngThere is one standout scene that really gets to the scariness of sex addiction succinctly. Once Adam falls off the wagon, which shouldn’t be much of a spoiler people, he regroups with Becky (Emily Meade) a gal he had a one-night stand with. Their flirtation is quick, settling into their attraction, and then she engages in behavior that, meant to be alluring, is rather insightful. She has a daddy fixation and wants to be punished as a “bad girl” with Adam pretending to be her stern father. That could be a red flag, but Adam carries on. Then she asks him to slap her. Adam refuses. So she does it herself, beating herself, eventually descending into a mess of tears, screaming. Adam tries to console her, stupidly deciding to try and make contact with her after she keeps screaming, “Don’t touch me!” She locks herself in the bathroom and threatens to harm herself. This one moment in the film gets at the damage of sex addiction like nothing else. It points to possible abuse, but really it all falls apart so rapidly that your head is spinning. The conclusion is pat and anticlimactic, but the lead-up is fantastic. If the rest of the movie had been thematically closer to this scene, Thanks for Sharing would be worth sharing.

From an acting standpoint, the cast does a fine job portraying their characters and his or her respective foibles. Ruffalo (The Avengers) is a bit too even keeled for his character. Gad (Jobs, The Internship) is the film’s comedic spark but also its greatest source of internal drama, which Gad handles well, showcasing the desperation of Neill. The real surprise is actually pop singer Pink in her first real acting performance (Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle counts under no circumstances). Her introductory monologue, which she nails, makes you take notice that Pink has some genuine acting muscles.

Thanks for Sharing is an uneven mishmash of genres and ideas, rarely settling down into something worthy of the talent at work here. The comedy works against the drama, the drama works against the comedy, the clichéd character developments don’t serve anyone, and the overall artificial nature of the central rom-com coupling drags the enjoyment level further down. There is good work here, good acting and some memorable scenes and offhand laughs, but all Thanks for Sharing can amount to is a series of scant moments, passing encounters of entertainment. I didn’t find many of the characters to be as nearly compelling as the filmmakers did, and some of their hasty resolutions and developments feel far too simple for an addiction this complicated. The potential of the film is never fully realized. While I’m doubtful rom-com is a good fit for a serious exploration on sex addiction (wasn’t Shame hilarious?), it does lend itself to a bevy of juicy setups and possibilities. We get little of these. It’s as if the film wanted to present a case for the legitimacy of sex addiction, front-loaded with stats and horror stories and characters to open our eyes, and the notion of telling a laudable story was secondary to the educational efforts. Congrats. Now give me a story to care about.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Iron Man 3 (2013)

1967Third movies in superhero franchises always seem to be a precarious proposition; X-Men 3, Spider-Man 3, Superman 3, all graveyards of rushed productions, artistic compromises, and general complacency. Usually the third movie is when the hero has what he or she (but mostly he) has built up stripped down. It’s the same case with Iron Man 3, which short of a noisy finale has a surprisingly small amount of actual Iron Man, much like the scant amount of Batman in last year’s The Dark Knight Rises. That’s fine with me because the appeal of this franchise has been Tony Stark the character, not the mechanical heroics. Iron Man 3 is co-written and directed by super Hollywood scribe Shane Black, the man who gave us Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and the 2005 gem that resuscitated Robert Downey Jr.’s career, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It was this fact alone, especially after how disappointing Iron Man 2 was, that got me jazzed about a third outing. Black’s characteristic sense of humor, genre blending, and mass appeal thrills helps to make Iron Man 3 an enjoyable if flawed movie-going experience and a suitable kickoff to the summer movie season.

Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) is having trouble sleeping, haunted by the near world-ending events in New York City from his time with the Avengers. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), head of Stark Industries and Tony’s main squeeze, wants her man to take a mental health break. He’s spending as much time as possible in his lab, concocting a whole army of different Iron Man suits. His latest invention allows him to control a suit prototype with his body, compelling pieces of his amour to his person with a wave of his arms. He’ll need the help because the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a fearful terrorist leader, is staging a series of bombings around the United States, leaving behind videos taunting his foes. After an attack that hits close to home, Stark challenges the Mandarin and the bad guy brings the fight to the man of iron, decimating his home and forcing Stark to flee. In Tennessee, Stark unravels the mystery behind the Mandarin, which involves a brilliant scientist (Rebecca Hall), a nefarious biotechnology businessman (Guy Pearce), and even the president of the United States himself.

95182_galThe best part of the first film was watching a brilliant guy become Iron Man; sure the superhero stuff was fun but it wasn’t what made the movie special. Downey Jr. as a charismatic, egotistical, self-involved but ultimately redeemable middle-aged playboy is what made the movie special. With Iron Man 3, he has to rely on his wits for large portions, which are still considerable. It’s a clever way to make a billionaire playboy with out-of-this-world technology empathetic. He’s never going to be an everyman but that doesn’t mean we can’t empathize. With that said, I still find his whole PTSD ordeal after events from The Avengers to be shaky. He’s already had near death experiences before so unless we get a bigger explanation (proof of alien existence and superiority? Knowing a return is inevitable?) I find it hard to fathom that a guy as outwardly unflappable as Tony Stark would be hobbled by his super team-up activities. Also, now that we exist in a post-Avengers universe, wouldn’t the ongoing attacks by the Mandarin warrant some sort of S.H.I.E.L.D. response or monitoring?

Likewise, I really appreciated how Black developed his action sequences, routinely giving Stark limitations. The concept of a suit that can assemble by itself and fly hundreds of miles is silly, sure, but it also opens up fun possibilities and questions of identity. At one point, Stark has one arm and one leg of his suit, allowing him to fight back but having to get creative with his moves. A fight while he’s handcuffed also provides enjoyable thrills. During the home attack, Stark’s suit is a prototype and will not allow him to fly, so he has to get inventive, literally shooting a grand piano at a helicopter. The best action scene is when Iron Man has to save a dozen people from plummeting to their deaths after being sucked out of Air Force One in midair. I wish the solution hadn’t been so quick but it’s a thrilling sequence with terrific aerial photography.

Until the finale, which is all-robot action, you could accuse the film of being too shrift in its action sequences, rarely lasting longer than a few brief minutes. They’re still quite entertaining, and well directed, with Black nicely drawing out organic complications and making good use of geography. We know that Black can write a glorious action sequence, but unless you were one of the lucky souls who saw Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it’s a surprise that the man can direct one so well. There’s a nice sense of style on display but it never becomes overpowering, and thankfully it’s presented in a manner that you can, shocker, tell what is happening onscreen. Black definitely has a good eye for visuals and scene compositions but he also knows how to deliver great crowd-pleasing moments that we want in our summer movies. The climax is pretty busy with lots of keen Iron Man suits that you just know are there to be purchasable toys first and foremost. The sustained action is pretty involving, and Black is an expert at establishing mini-goals and developing naturally. Even as it starts to devolve into a hectic video game-like frenzy, there are enough changing goals and reversals to keep you satisfied for the long haul.

The movie’s villains are somewhat nebulous and employ an Evil Plot that is too convoluted by half. The Mandarin is an intriguing figure but undergoes some changes that will surely leave fans of the comic steaming mad. I accept that movies are an adaptation from the source material, and have no real personal affinity for Iron Man or his rogues’ gallery, so I wasn’t bothered by the notable change. It fits the tone of the movie as well as becomes another plot point in a convoluted Evil Plot. I will agree with detractors on this point: after the invasion in The Avengers, alien technology, the source of the Mandarin’s powers in the comic, is credible. I don’t really understand the political commentary at play with the Mandarin either. More so, and I’m trying to be delicate with spoilers, Iron Man 3 is really a movie about Tony Stark versus… lava people. Sure they have superhuman brains that provide regeneration and superior human ability. It just seems that all these super humans decide to do is… heat things up. They glow red, melt through walls, and are essentially lava creatures. Apparently Tony Stark needs to take some cues from that old U.S. Marines ad where the guy fights a giant lava monster (“Have you been attacked by a lava monster recently? No? You’re welcome – signed, the Marines”). The villains, while weak, are still probably the best in the series. It’s been a fairly weak franchise for antagonists.

95820_galComing from Black, you’d expect an increase in the implementation of comedy, though Iron Man 3 probably walks just up to the line. It almost gets too jokey but pulls back enough. Adam Pally’s (TV’s criminally underseen Happy Endings) small bit as an obsessed fan of Stark is probably the testing point. Tony Stark has issues sure, especially if Disney will ever let the movies explore his history with alcoholism, but the man is never going to challenge Bruce Wayne for the brooding loner throne. Stark is a quipper, a loudmouth who uses humor as a weapon and a shield, and brought to vivid life by Downey Jr., the man will always be a comedian. That’s not to say that the drama lacks proper seriousness. However, Black pushes a lot more comedy into the film than we’ve seen in the earlier installments. Most of it is welcome and even when the movie goes into mass appeal mode, especially in Act Two when a plucky kid aids Stark, Black covers the familiar without losing his edge. You’ll likely recognize the buddy cop patter from Black’s other movies but it still works. There are several setups that look like we’re getting Big Hero Moments, and then Black decides to undercut them for a good laugh. Iron Man 3’s consistent sense of humor makes the movie feel even faster paced.

Downey Jr. (The Avengers) is still the MVP of the modern Marvel-verse in my eyes, and even two years removed from 50, he’s still got enough energy to power a small army. He’s still pulling the same schtick so to speak, which may wear thin for others after four starring appearances as Tony Stark, but I still find him naturally appealing. Paltrow (Contagion) gets a chance to do more than the standard damsel in distress that the women function in these movies. I regret that after being given a tantalizing new direction the movie reverts her back to standard damsel sidekick so speedily. Ho hum. Kingsley (Hugo) just seemed wrong for the part from the start, never mind the nebulous ethnicity issues. His vocal fluctuations and strange emphasis proved too distracting for me. However, he proves to be a better match after the Mandarin’s twist. Pearce (Lawless) is a pretty solid, smarmy bad guy and man has he got an impressive physique going on. It’s just nice to see great character actors from Hall (The Town) to Miguel Ferrer (Traffic) to Dale Dickey (Winter’s Bone) in a high-profile mega blockbuster. Even little Ty Simpkins (Insidious) is pretty good as the kid who helps out Stark. My tolerance for child acting has gone downhill as I have gotten older, but the kid is genuinely good without falling into the common trappings of being cloying or overly precocious.

Iron Man 3 is a definite improvement over the overstuffed, undernourished 2010 sequel. It ends on a moment that feels like something close to closure, but you know, as the credits helpfully indicate, that Tony Stark will appear again, at least in 2015’s Avengers 2. The bigger question is can this franchise exist without the participation of Downey Jr.? I’m sure we’ll all find out eventually considering the character is too profitable to simply retire once Downey Jr. decides he’s had enough. We’ve had five Batmans after all, not counting Adam West. However, never has a character seemed so intrinsically linked with an actor before. Downey Jr. just is Tony Stark, and while some capable young male lead out there in Hollywood will put up a valiant effort, it will never be the same. Iron Man 3 is further proof that the appeal of the franchise is not the explosions and action set pieces, which it does a fine job with; it’s the man inside the suit and the formidable actor that gives this franchise its juice. Spending more time with Stark is a bonus, and Black’s zippy sense of comedy and acute knowledge of the architecture of popcorn thrills allows the movie to fly by with ease. While the first film reigns supreme, Iron Man 3 is a fitting and pleasurable enough blockbuster that reminds you why we still love this guy.

Nate’s Grade: B

Contagion (2011)

For the germophobes amongst us, you probably want to skip seeing the new thriller, Contagion. Like for life. Never see this film if you’re the type that needs a paper toilet seat cover before sitting down to do their business. Contagion is a movie that makes you reevaluate basic human interaction. You may not leave the house again without covering yourself in plastic and a year’s worth of Purel. Director Stephen Soderbergh (Che, Ocean’s Thirteen) has assembled an all-star cast to drop like flies like only Hollywood’s most talented can do. Contagion is an intelligent, unnerving, technically authentic thriller that will make you cringe just watching people cough.

Contagion’s main character is a virus that begins its origin in a Hong Kong casino and quickly spreads from there. A British model takes it to the UK, a Chinese waiter goes home infected, a Japanese businessman keels over dead on a return trip home, and Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) comes home from her business tripe back to Minneapolis and goes into seizures. The next day, she’s dead and soon after having her brain dug out for an autopsy. The spooked docs alert the Centers for Disease Control immediately; something is definitely wrong with Paltrow’s brain (insert Coldplay joke here). The head of the CDC, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), and his specialists track the expansion of the virus. He dispatches Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), to Minnesota to coordinate inter-agency action and interview Beth’s husband (Matt Damon), who appears to be immune to the virus. He’s in shock and isolated from his remaining daughter. He’s still trying to make sense of how quickly everything fell apart for his family. Capitalizing on fear, anti-establishment medical blogger Alan Krumweid (Jude Law) steers a panicked public toward a homeopathic medical alternative that he just so happens to have a financial stake with. The World Health Organization sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) to investigate the Hong Kong casino and overview hours of security footage to glean the origins of the virus. But she, like others, soon find themselves in ever-increasing danger as the world races against time to beat this new threat.

For those expecting an action-thriller with plenty of doctors barking moral quandaries and racing against time to escape government agents… you will be sorely disappointed. Contagion is much more cerebral, cool, like a scientific procedural that plays the premise out in a realistic fashion, which means it’s often short the fireworks that mainstream audiences have come to expect from disaster movies. The CDC is really the main setting as they try and determine the origin of the virus, breaking down the virus, and projecting its rate on infection and contamination. Soderbergh has onscreen titles indicating how large the population centers are for the plot settings, reminding us simply with text how vulnerable to danger all those people are. The real pleasure of the film is watching A-level Oscar actors puzzle out how to solve this multi-faceted crisis. The movie does a minimal amount of explanation and expects an audience to be able to keep up with its scientific analysis. Soderbergh’s film is much more in keeping with The Andromeda Strain than Outbreak (find that monkey and all will be happy again!). You witness smart people doing smart things and still making little traction. This isn’t necessarily Irwin Allen territory of disaster. It’s a disaster that seems all too reasonably possible rather than being trapped in the belly of a ship that has turned upside down. Getting sick is a lot harder to avoid especially in our modern world. Globalization has done many wonders for the world, but by making the world a smaller place it also means that we’re all much more susceptible to the spreads of pandemics. No longer can geography be held as a total defense. We’re all one flight away from the spread of the next great illness (as the end credits to Rise of the Planet of the Apes also remind).

Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!) cast a wide net all over the world to see the ramifications of crisis. Things go rather quickly. By the end of the first week, the CDC is coordinating its resources and media strategy to not inflame panic. Easier said than done when ignorance and fear are in large quantities. The reaction to the news, the intra-government squabbles over resources and money, the exploitation of fear by opportune business types, the rising resentment of those left out of the loop, and even the kidnapping schemes for those known to have access to medicine. Contagion works because it gets the details right without losing track of the big picture. The film feels eerily plausible at every beat. Nurses are on strike refusing to be near the sick until uniform safety protocols are established. Funeral homes refuse to handle infected bodies out of health concerns. These are absorbing details that feel completely authentic yet would easily have been overlooked in other disaster pictures. The movie even addresses recent pandemic fears related to H1N1, SARS, and the perceived “overreaction” when these potential worldwide disasters turned out to be milder bugs. A government agent asks the head of the CDC if some terror organization could have weaponized the bird flu. “They don’t have to. The birds are already doing it,” the CDC head replies.

While Burns lies out a host of characters and scenarios with increasing tension as stakes mount and the death toll rises, Contagion just kind of drifts into an ending for the last 20 minutes. I was expecting another big wallop, some kind of sudden plot turn that reestablished an ongoing threat, but it wasn’t to be. The tension just sorts of lets out slowly like a balloon, playing against movie laws. That means that Contagion, wile tense, eschews a dramatic buildup for a climax. Burns and Soderbergh instead to play out their realistic “what if” experiment to its conclusion, which makes for a realistic if somewhat inert final act. There’s no chasing monkeys or butting with government agents willing to sacrifice infected town for “the good of mankind”; it’s just government employees doing good work and trying to minimize damages. It’s exciting to watch smart characters break down a nasty new virus and try to understand it and get ahead of it, but once they succeed, it’s not as exciting to watch the aftereffects of people getting better and returning to a normal existence (minus 30 million people on the planet – the solution to fixing unemployment?).

Because the emphasis is on the cross-sections of plot and scientific breakdown, the emotional connection to the characters is limited. There are a lot of famous faces that appear in this movie; even bit parts are taken up by the likes of Bryan Cranston (TV’s Breaking Bad), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Demetri Martin (Taking Woodstock), Enrico Colatoni (TV’s Veronica Mars). Damon (The Adjustment Bureau) is probably the closest thing the film has to an emotional center. He’s immune to the virus but he has to watch his family fall apart with the knowledge that his wife was Patient Zero. On top of that, he has to deal with the fact that she was cheating on him. That’s a healthy brew of emotions to confront in such a heightened situation, and Damon does a nice job of putting a human face to the mass tragedy. Winslet (The Reader) is superb as a CDC investigator, so duty-bound that even when she awakes to discover she has become infected she goes through protocol trying to investigate who serviced her room so that others will not share her fate. Law (Sherlock Holmes) is suitably sleazy as a moral relativist trying that uses his army of Internet followers to discredit the government’s response. Fishburne (Predators) has terrific poise as the man in charge of scrambling the response forces, keeping his cool, and being the public face of the government response until an all too human scandal tarnishes him. But perhaps the best performer is Jennifer Ehle (Pride and Glory, The King’s Speech). She plays one of the chief CDC scientists studying the virus and takes some extreme measures to test a potential vaccine. She has a scene with her sick father that is likely the most emotionally affecting moment in the film. Her sturdy determination even when most vulnerable is selfless.

Contagion is a smart by-the-book procedural thriller that may not be dramatic enough for audiences fed by Hollywood disaster films. The film is far more analytical and detail-oriented to its benefit and sometimes detraction. It’s got stars galore and some plenty of rising tension, but the film also follows a realistic blueprint toward a rapid world response to a new pandemic, which means that well-developed characterization is spared amidst all that fraught scientific lingo. As a result, Contagion feels more like a docu-drama than an amped-up Hollywood thriller with its finger firmly pressed upon American anxieties. Contagion is a bit overextended and data-heavy. It’s a stripped down indie in studio clothing. Soderbergh’s movie is a bit too lean and clinical to be fully satisfying and emotionally engaging, especially with its somewhat inert ending. It’ll sure make you look at free bowls of peanuts differently. And Gwyneth Paltrow’s skull.

Nate’s Grade: B

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