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Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)

Lee-Daniels-The-Butler-poster-1Before I begin my review, I feel the need to come to the defense of Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels (Precious). Despite what Internet message boards and detractors may have you believe, it was never the man’s intention to insert his name into the title of his latest film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Warner Brothers claimed copyright ownership over the title of The Butler. The MPAA mediates title discrepancies in cases where one movie could clearly be confused for another. However, Warner Brothers’ claims a 1915 silent short film in their vault by the same name. Is anyone in the year 2013 really going to pay a ticket for the Butler and reasonably expect a silent short that’s almost 100 years old? Rather than pay a financial settlement, The Weinstein Company decided to alter the original title, adding the director’s name. This isn’t The Butler. Now it’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler. So before I get into the thick of my review, I’d like to absolve Daniels of Tyler Perry-levels of hubris. You’ll excuse me for just referring to it as The Butler throughout the duration of this review, not to be confused with a 1915 short film.

From Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, one man served them all and his name is Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker). He was a White House butler for over 30 years, even attending a state dinner at the behest of Nancy Reagan. Cecil grew up on a Georgia cotton plantation and moved up the ranks in high-class service. His wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), wishes her husband would worry more about his own home than the White House. Cecil’s two sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley), have very different views of their father. Louis feels like dear old dad is too close to the men of power, and Louis is going to do what he can on the frontlines of change.

105174_galI’m sure everyone had good intentions with this movie, but I walked away with the overwhelming impression that The Butler was too heavy-handed, too corny, and too mishandled with its plot construction for it to be the effective drama all desired. I also know that my opinion is of a minority, but that has never bothered me as a critic. Let’s start with the biggest handicap the film has going, and that’s the fact that its central character, the titular butler, is too opaque for a biopic. Early on, Cecil rises through the ranks of black service workers because of his skill, and that skill is none other than “having a room feel empty with [him] inside it.” I’m not downplaying the man’s dedication, or the culture he grew up in that preferred their black workers to be silent, but here is a movie where the man’s claim to fame is that he served eight presidents but he was in the background for all that history. I wasn’t expecting Cecil to lean over and go, “Mr. President, that Voting Rights Act might be a good idea, and I’ll help ya with it.” He is just sort of there. I was expecting him to have some larger significance, especially in his own life, but here’s the kicker: by the end of the movie, you’re left with the impression that all of his years of service were for naught. Cecil comes to the realization that his son, who he has sparred with for decades, was right and he was wrong. Is this the intended point? My colleague Ben Bailey will argue this is Daniels’ subversive intent, to undermine the tenets of typical biopics, to fashion an anti-biopic. I am not as convinced.

The problem is that Cecil is a passive character, which makes him the least interesting character in his own story. He served eight presidents, yes, but what else can you say about him as presented? What greater insights into life, himself, or politics does he have during those years with seven different presidential administrations? I cannot tell. I was thoroughly astounded that Cecil, as a character, was boring. I suspect this is why screenwriter Danny Strong (Recount, Game Change) chose to split Cecil’s story with his son, Louis. Here is a character on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement, getting chased by mobs, beaten, sprayed with firehouses. Here is an active character that wants to make a difference. He also happens to be mostly fictional.

While the film opens with the phrase “inspired by a true story” you should be wary. Upon further inspection, very little is as it happened. I think all true stories, when adapted to the confines of a two-hour film narrative, are going to have to be modified, and pure fidelity to the truth should not get in the way of telling a good story, within reason. I don’t have an issue with Louis being fictional, but it points to the larger problem with the biopic of such an opaque man. The real-life Cecil, Eugene Allen, had one son who went to Vietnam and married a former Black Panther. Strong splits the difference, supplying two sons with different paths. Because of his invention, this means Louis has the benefit of being present at a plethora of famous Civil Rights events, like the Woolworth counter sit-in, the Freedom Rider bus burning, and the assassination of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Seriously, he’s in the same motel room with MLK in Memphis. With the exception of the Woolworth sit-in, the Civil Rights events feel like minor pit stops, barely spending any time to develop. It ends up feeling like a facile Forrest Gump-like trip through the greatest hits of the Civil Rights movement.

This narrative expediency also translates to the supporting characters in The Butler. Beyond Cecil, Louis, and Gloria, there aren’t any characters that last more than one or two scenes. Cecil’s White House co-workers, played by Cuba Gooding Jr. (Red Tails) and Lenny Kravitz (The Hunger Games), provide amiable comic relief but little else to the narrative. Terrence Howard (Dead Man Down) has an affair with Gloria and then is never seen again. That affair, by the way, is also never referenced again nor does it have any further ramifications with the relationship between Cecil and Gloria. So then what was the point? There is a litany of famous faces playing real people, but they’re all in and out before you know it. The actors portraying the presidents are more an entertaining diversion than anything of real substance. Alan Rickman (Harry Potter) as Reagan gets the closest in the physical resemblance game, though I strongly doubt Reagan, as presented in the film, sat down and openly admitted he was wrong to his African-American service workers. John Cusack (The Raven) as Nixon is a hoot. The movie speeds right through the Ford and Carter administrations, so I’ll play my own game of casting (Ford: Dan Akroyd; Carter: Billy Bob Thornton). The presidents, like the clear majority of supporting players, don’t stick around long enough to leave an impression. It’s as if our prior knowledge of these famous faces is meant to serve as characterization. Beyond the immediate Gaines family, you don’t feel like you’re getting to know anyone.

105665_galThen you bring in Daniels as director and the man has not shown much of a penchant for, let’s call, subtlety. This is, after all, the same man who directed Nicole Kidman in the ways of urinating upon Zac Efron. A coherent tone has often been elusive in Daniels’ films, which veer into wild, loud, sometimes clashing melodrama. The most clashing thing in The Butler are the matching 1970s and 80s fashion that will burn your eyes. He tones down his wilder sensibilities but The Butler is an especially earnest movie; but overly earnest without earned drama usually begets a corny movie, and that’s what much of The Butler unfortunately feels like. The significance of the Civil Rights movement and the bravery of the ordinary men and women, and children, fighting for equality cannot be overstated. These were serious heroes combating serious hate. I expect a serious movie, yes, but one that isn’t so transparent about its Staid Seriousness. The Butler is very respectful to history (fictional additions aside) but too often relies on the historical context to do the heavy lifting. It also hurts when the film is so predictable. At one point, I thought to myself, “I bet Cecil’s other son gets shipped to Vietnam and probably dies.” Mere seconds after this thought, young Charlie Gaines says he’s going to Vietnam. I’ll leave it to you to discover his eventual fate.

Daniels’ true power as a director is his skill with actors. The man nurtured Mo’Nique into an Academy Award-winning actress. From top to bottom, no actor in this film delivers a bad performance, which is a real accomplishment considering its stable of speaking roles. Whitaker (Repo Men) is the anchor of the movie and he puts his all into a character that gives him little to work with. He brings a quiet strength and dignity to Cecil, able to draw you in even as he’s presented so passively and ultimately perhaps in the wrong. Winfrey hasn’t been acting onscreen since 1998’s Beloved. Gloria is an underwritten part but she does the most with it and I’d like to see more of Oprah the actress more often. Another highlight is Oyelowo (Jack Reacher) as the defiant son fighting for what he believes is right. I want to also single out former America’s Next Top Model contestant Yaya Alafia as Louis’ girlfriend and eventual Black Power participant, Carol. She’s got real potential as an actress and if she gets the right role she could breakout and surprise people.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (just one last time for feeling) is an earnest, emotional, but ultimately unsatisfying picture and it’s mostly because of its title figure. The figure of Cecil Gaines is not the kind of man that the entire perspective of the Civil Rights movement can be hung onto as an allegory. He’s treated as background of his own story. If the filmmakers wanted to highlight the life of a man who grew up on a cotton plantation, worked in the White House, and who lived long enough to see an African-American be president, well then tell me that story. But they don’t. I think Daniels and Strong knew the limitations of their central figure, which is why the son’s role was invented to provide a more active perspective outside the hallowed walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In the end, I really don’t know what the message is, because the one I’m left with is that Cecil Gaines realizes late in life how wrong he was, not just with his son, but his faith in the office of the presidency. I doubt the majority of filmgoers are going to walk away with this message. While well acted and with a sharp eye for period details, The Butler is earnest without having earned your emotions.

Nate’s Grade: C

Movie 43 (2013)

1922There were two driving reasons why I chose to go see Movie 43, the collection of 13 comedy sketches from different writers and directors. First, the red band trailer made me laugh, so I figured it was worth a shot. If one sketch didn’t work, there was always another ready to cleanse my comedic palate. The other reason is that I have been compiling sketches written by myself and my friends with the intent to make my own sketch comedy movie in 2013. Part of me was also concerned that something so high-profile might extinguish my own project; maybe we came up with similar material with sketches. After watching Movie 43, a tasteless, disconnected, and ultimately unfunny collective, I have renewed hope for my own project’s success.

Like most sketch comedy collections, Movie 43 is extremely hit or miss. This ain’t no Kentucky Fried Movie or even the Kids in the Hall flick. Rating this worth viewing depends on which side racks up the most. Unfortunately, there’s more terribleness than greatness on display, but allow me to briefly call out the film’s true highlights. The best segment in the movie, the one that had me laughing the longest, was a bizarre fake commercial that does nothing more than presuppose that machines, as we know them, are really filled with small children to do the labor. Seeing little urchins inside a copy machine or an ATM, looking so sad, with the faux serious music welling up, it made me double over in laughter.

94243_galWith the actual vignettes, “Homeschooled” and “Truth or Dare” where the standouts that drew genuine laughter. “Homeschooled” is about a mother and father (real-life couple Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber) giving their son the total high school experience, which amounts to degrading humiliation. Dad makes fun of his son’s penis in the shower. Mom and Dad throw a party with the cool kids but don’t invite their son. Dad tapes his son to a flagpole. The kid gets his first awkward kiss thanks to his mom. It’s outrageous without falling victim into being crass for the sake of crass, a common sin amongst many of the vignettes. “Truth or Dare” starts off innocuously enough with Halle Berry (Cloud Atlas) and Stephen Merchant (Hall Pass) on a blind date. As the date progresses, they get into an escalating game of truth or dare that each has them doing offensive acts, like blowing out the candles on a blind kid’s birthday cake. This segment knows when to go for broke with it silliness and it doesn’t wear out its welcome, another cardinal sin amidst the other vignettes.

But lo, the unfunny sketches, or more accurately the disappointing sketches, outnumber the enjoyable. Far too often the sketches are of the one joke variety and the comedy rarely leaves those limited parameters. So a sketch about a blind date with a guy who has testicles hanging from his chin (Hugh Jackman) is… pretty much just that. There’s no real variation or complications or sense of build. It’s just that. A commercial about an iPod built to model a naked lady is… exactly that and nothing more. A speed dating session with famous DC superheroes like Batman (Jason Sudeikis), Robin (Justin Long), Supergirl (Kristen Bell) and others should be far cleverer than what we get. While I laughed at the sports sketch “Victory’s Glory,” it really all boils down to one joke: black people are better than white people at basketball. That’s it. “Middleschool Date” starts off interesting with a teen girl (Chloe Grace Moritz) getting her period on a date and the clueless men around her freaking out that she is dying. However, this is the one sketch that doesn’t go far enough. It really needed to increase the absurdity of the situation but it ends all too quickly and with little incident. “Happy Birthday” involves two roommates (Johnny Knoxville, Sean William Scott) interrogating an angry leprechaun (Gerard Butler) for his gold. It pretty much just sticks to slapstick and vulgar name-calling. That’s the more tiresome aspect of Movie 43, the collective feeling that it’s trying so desperately to be shocking rather than, you know, funny.

The worst offenders of comedy are the scathingly unfunny “Veronica” and “The Proposition.” With “Veronica,” Kieran Culkin tries to woo his lady (Emma Stone) with a series of off-putting sexual remarks, delivered in an off-putting “bad poetry delivery” manner, while the film is off-puttingly shot with self-conscious angles that do nothing for the comedy. It’s a wreck. “The Proposition” is just one big poop joke. It’s far more gross than gross-out.

94242_galThe frame story connecting the varied vignettes is completely unnecessary. Well, I suppose there is one point for its addition, namely to pad out the running time to a more feature-length 94 minutes. The wraparound storyline with Dennis Quaid pitching more and more desperate movie ideas never serves up any good jokes. Its only significance is to setup an ironic counterpoint that gets predictable and old fast. Example: Quaid says, “It’s a movie with a lot of heart and tenderness,” and we cut to a couple that plans on pooping on each other. See? You can figure out its setup formula pretty quick. I don’t understand why the people behind Movie 43 thought the perfect solution to pad out their running time was a dumb wraparound. These sketches don’t need a frame story; the audience is not looking for a logical link. For that matter why is the guy also pitching commercials? I would have preferred that the frame story was completely dropped and I got to have two or three more sketches, thus perhaps bettering the film’s ultimate funny/unfunny tally.

There will be a modicum of appeal watching very famous people getting a chance to cut loose, play dirty, and do some very outrageous and un-Oscar related hijinks. The big name actors do everything they can to elevate the material, but too many sketches are one joke stretched too thin. I suppose there may be contingents of people that will go into hysterical fits just seeing Hugh Jackman with chin testicles (I think the Goblin King in The Hobbit beat him to it), just like there will always people who bust a gut when a child or an old person says something inappropriate for their age, or when someone gets kicked in the nuts (the normal ones). I just found the majority of Movie 43 to be lacking. It settles far too easily on shocking sight gags and vulgarity without a truly witty send-up. It wants to be offensive, it gleefully revels in topics it believes would offend the delicate sensibilities of an audience, but being offensive and being funny are not automatically synonymous. You have to put real work into comedy. Movie 43 isn’t it.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

It’s taken this long to get an African-American leading lady/princess in a Disney animated film, and she gets to spend the majority of the flick as a slimy frog? This return to traditional 2-D animation for Disney is less than a triumph due to a pretty dull storyline. All the familiar elements are there, but the characters just fill voids rather than tell a story. There’s the downtrodden heroine with her dream, the arrogant prince who learns to value others, the comical talking animal sidekicks, and get ready for a slew of songs you will instantly forget despite the added gumbo flavor. Set in 1920s New Orleans, the film has plenty of ravishing visuals to get you through the formulaic plot. It’s a nice return to Disney’s bread and butter before the 3-D animation craze took off, and I pray that there will be plenty more traditional 2-D animation on the horizon from the Mouse House, but this isn’t the best film to reestablish the glory of traditional animation, racial politics aside.

Nate’s Grade: B-

August Rush (2007)

Am I too cynical for my own good? I’d like to think that I appreciate authentic works that tug at my heartstrings, and I’m a believer in the power that music can have, which are part of the reasons I named Once the best film of 2007. In comparison, August Rush tries to go all message and winds up skirting over why I should even care what happens to its characters.

In 1994 or so Lyla (Keri Russell) is a concert cellist in New York City. Louis (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is the lead singer in a rock band touring the area. They meet atop a rooftop, look deeply into each other’s eyes, and then have sex. Parents, do not condone this behavior with your daughters and sons. But they’re separated through lame circumstances and nearly miss each other several times. This romantic encounter has spawned a son growing in Lyla’s womb. She gets into a car accident late in the pregnancy and was told by her manager/father tells her the baby has passed away. He is a liar because the baby was born and he signed it up for adoption.

Flash forward 11 years. The child has gown up into the likes of Evan (Freddie Highmore) who lives in a boarding school for orphan boys. He knows his parents are out there in the world somewhere and he believe he can find them through the connection music. He gets lost in New York City and follows a troop of child musicians to the Wizard (Robin Williams). He looks after a gathering of orphan musicians that play on street corners. It’s like Oliver Twist meets American Idol with an extra dose of sugar. Sure enough Evan stars drawing a crowd and the Wizard wants to make sure he doesn’t lose his biggest earner.

This film is a ludicrous and manipulatively maudlin mess. August Rush plays all the big notes; the film’s script is entirely comprised of big moments that waddle and crash into one another, and as such it ignores any details. Like the fact that Evan has the ability to connect to his long-lost parents simply by strumming an instrument, but he’s never heard of musical notes or touched an instrument until he was 11. If the kid hears music everywhere, which reminded me a lot of Bjork in the superior Dancer in the Dark, wouldn’t it stand to reason he would try to, I don’t know, play music? Now I’m not saying he’d have access to every musical instrument at the boy’s boarding house but surely he could have drummed something? I find it unbelievable that a musical prodigy would wait until he was 11 before he picked up an instrument. Also, he learns what sounds are labeled as what letter notes by a cherubic little tyke with some powerful pipes of her own. He goes immediately from learning what an F sharp is to scribbling complex musical notation on blank sheets of music stanzas. How does he know all the symbols and placements and everything that the little girl did not teach him in their brief instructional moment? I’ll go back even further. How come Lyla and Louis give up trying to find each other so easily? Why does Louis wait 11 years before he searches the Internet for Lyla, who, being a world-class cellist, would not exactly be low profile? And why does a pregnant Lyla not do more to, you know, get in contact with her child’s father when he’s even in the exact same city? It’s details like these that August Rush hopes to will the audience to ignore, but to me it was proof time and again that the film’s indifference to plot, character, and maintaining any level of credibility even on a heightened “urban fairy tale” level.

If you replaced the stars then this movie would prove to the world that it belongs on the Lifetime TV network. It’s a melodramatic free-for-all that turns the topic of music into a quasi-religious experience. Now I know for many that music actually can maintain a religious level of power and sweep, but I challenge people watching August Rush to replace the word “music” in the dialogue with any other word to fully realize how cheesy the dialogue is. Let’s try replacing “music with “the force,” and now read this choice line of dialogue: “You know what [the force] is? God’s little reminder that there’s something else besides us in this universe; harmonic connection between all living beings, every where, even the stars.” And: “[The force] is all around you, all you have to do is listen.” This is the kind of film where characters can look up into the void with wistful, wide-eyed looks and somehow connect over the ether. That’s how the characters stay together and eventually reunite in a predictable and sappy manner.

The music itself is rather unremarkable. It’s well composed but I wouldn’t be able to recall it again even if I had a gun to my head. When the movie trumps the message of the transcendent power of music it doesn’t help when the music it presents is less than special.

The acting befits the same cheesy atmosphere of the movie. Highmore is pretty vacant and looks like he’s shrugging from scene to scene, that is, until he bangs his hands against a guitar neck and everyone somehow calls this genius. I think part of Highmore’s problem is that regular folks just think that honest-to-goodness geniuses don’t really have to work hard for results. This is, of course, false. Mozart was a prodigy, yes, but he didn’t just yawn and write down invisible notes that were dancing in front of his eyes waiting all day to be transcribed. He worked hard. Highmore just looks off into the distance and he seems to be in a trance. It’s annoying.

Russell gets to pine for something just outside her reach (turns out it’s a son) but she doesn’t flash an iota of the grace and magic she showcased in Waitress. Meyers gets to “sell out” and then reunite his mid 90s alternative rock band. Here’s the thing — the sound EXACTLY THE SAME after 12 years and yet on their first gig back together they have a huge crowd? The movie is trying to tell me that the tastes of pop culture wouldn’t change in a dozen years. Williams manages to give hints about a troubled past as a musical prodigy eaten up by a system hungry for the next big thing. He also bellows and growls and comes across like a creepy Fagan for a team of street urchins.

August Rush is sticky, sappy, manipulative and maudlin feel-good rubbish. This is the kind of movie that most people will probably never get. Perhaps people who live, breathe, sleep, and eat music will feel more inspired by its message of human connection and spiritual fulfillment via the power of music. That’s swell but it still doesn’t excuse the fact that August Rush is a overly serious, laughable, syrupy work. If you’re going to dismiss its faults as the film being a “fairy tale” well then the film still doesn’t establish any hard rules for its universe. The characters are still one-note and behave in annoying and moronic ways because the plot demands it of them. And classifying the film as a fairy tale still doesn’t make the music any better. I can’t believe this stuff had a shot of beating the spectacular songs from Once for 2007’s Best Song Oscar. In fact, August Rush wishes it was Once because that low-budget charmer was able to communicate the power of music honestly and profoundly with the added benefit of beautiful tunes. I would like to recommend that all people thinking about renting August Rush.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Iron Man (2008)

Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau seem like decidedly odd choices for a studio to hand over a multi-million dollar potential comic franchise. Iron Man certainly isn’t one of the better-known super hero properties but Marvel Studios felt confident that having Favreau behind the lens and Downey Jr. in a heavy suit of armor was the right direction. They couldn’t have been more right. Iron Man is a rock solid action vehicle that flies by in a blast. My biggest complaint: the film never utilizes the ready-made theme song by Black Sabbath.

Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) is the billionaire CEO of Stark Industries, a high-grade weapons manufacturer creating bigger and better ways for people to kill each other. His life is a never-ending party, going from gambling to girls to gizmos. His assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), keeps Stark as grounded as he can be. Stark is traveling to Afghanistan to demonstrate the awesome might of some of his new missiles when his convoy is ambushed. One of Stark’s own weapons sends shrapnel into his chest. He is kidnapped by terrorists (read: Arabs with guns) and held captive inside a cave. Stark is kept alive by a glowing electromagnet do-dad in his chest that manages to keep the shrapnel from entering his heart. Raza (Faran Tahir) orders Stark to build him a missile or else. So Stark does what any mechanical boy genius would do: he builds a giant suit of armor and busts his way out.

Stark’s friend Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard), an Air Force officer, rescues him in the desert. Once back at home in his Malibu mansion, Stark has a personal epiphany. After seeing the human damage his weapons cause he no longer wants to manufacture weapons. His business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) and the board of directors are not interested in Stark’s revision. They want to keep doing what they do, making weapons for the highest bidder. Stark begins building a more advanced mechanical suit based upon the prototype from Afghanistan. He will use his technical expertise and great fortune to destroy his own weapons, even if he has to become an ironclad superhero to do so.

Downey Jr. is Iron Man, yes, but he IS Iron Man. He makes this character, this movie, and serves as the film’s ambassador to an audience that has grown tired of mopey teenagers imbued with super powers. His character is a man going through a mid-life crisis of sorts, reevaluating his life and trying to find meaning in his work. There’s something satisfying about watching an older adult wreck of a man taking on a genre that feels like it’ stuck in a high school atmosphere. Downey Jr. is a fantastically engaging, talented actor and when he turns on his narcissistic quick-witted charm it is impossible not to be won over. He provides the film with a tremendous spark and manages to make a womanizing, alcohol-swilling, super wealthy arms peddler/playboy into a figure of sympathy and a hero for the masses. Downey Jr. has expert comic timing and makes Tony Stark a cool swinging superhero. Just listen to his line deliveries and the energy and pacing he puts into the dialogue; it’s terrific. He also gives Stark the necessary drama to pull off the weight of guilt.

Iron Man is also a victory for Favreau as a director. The Swingers star has become a stealthily competent director. He helmed 2003’s Elf and 2005’s underappreciated Zathura and I suppose Marvel Studios saw what I saw in those films. The direction is focused and he makes smart decisions, never overwhelming an audience and always centered closely to the story. Favreau is more concerned with storytelling than noisy, empty special effects. Hell, Iron Man doesn’t even enter the film until an hour into it. There is a confidence and patience to his direction; it manages to convince an audience that they will be rewarded for their time.

Favreau doesn’t pander and knows well enough that practical special effects will inspire the greatest sense of awe in a summer flick. Iron Man‘s special effects are almost seamless from the practical to CGI. I enjoy popcorn action movies so much more when I’m not nit-picking the special effects. This isn’t a slam on CGI itself, but computer effects have the tendency to declare their fakeness. Sure the special effects were amazing in last summer’s Transformers (how it lost the visual effects Oscar to the subpar Golden Compass I’ll never know), but the CGI-ness of it could be overpowering. When I cannot decipher a special effect automatically, then I know I have been fully immersed in the action. Favreau smartly lays out a bevy of nifty practical effects for the first half. By the time he transitions to broader CGI then he’s already laid the foundation for realism.

Favreau isn’t the best action director but this only presents an issue in the film’s last act. The action sequences in Iron Man take a back seat to watching Tony Stark piece together his new life. I was more interested in seeing Stark test and reconfigure his designs. The construction of Iron Man, to me, is more intriguing than seeing a man in an iron suit battle some guy in a bigger iron suit. The fun is watching him become Iron Man. The action sequences are serviceably kick-ass but too short. I loved watching Iron Man punch people and seeing their bodies fly backwards. Even at over two hours there just isn’t a whole lot of traditional action to Iron Man but this suited my tastes. I’d rather watch an actor with Downey’s talent interact with an A-list cast than watch robots fight and smash personal property.

Iron Man is aided by a strong script credited to two of the writers of Children of Men. It’s structured as an origin tale but it takes its time to set up events and characters that will have lasting meaning. Stark confronts being a weapons manufacturer in a post-9/11 world. He finally stops and asks, “What is the cost?” His own company is double dipping, selling weapons to both sides in a conflict, weapons that will kill U.S. men and women pledged to protect America. Stark has a true change of heart, both figuratively and, later, literally with the assistance of Pepper. There’s a political undercurrent to the film’s drama that manages to be timely and provide at least some thought to go along with the popcorn thrills. Iron Man finds a way to force its characters to combat real moral questions that result from their actions.

The supporting cast has a combined seven Oscar nominations for acting, so this is a step above the acting level of a Fantastic Four. Howard is mostly underwritten but he provides a nice sense of camaraderie with his friendship with Stark. Bridges is an obvious villain just from the first sight of his bald dome and big, bushy beard. He’s got a mean scowl but Bridges provides a warm and fatherly guide for Stark. But man, when he gets menacing he is rather scary. But my highest praise in the supporting work goes to Paltrow, who coolly delivers arch snappy one-liners in a retro do-everything secretary role. And yet the role also offers some reflection, like after dancing in public with her boss she worries over gossip and what perception will construe the moment into. She, his employee, wearing a plunging backline dress that looks gorgeous on the actress, dances with her boss, an infamous womanizer. And then in this moment of doubt there’s a nice, unexpected moment for both a comic book movie and a would-be romance, and the “would-be” is the correct term. She has great chemistry with Downey Jr. and watching the two of them playfully bicker is another reason Iron Man soars above the confines of genre and formula. Plus she looks great with red hair.

Iron Man is a great start to the summer movie season and will be hard to beat. It doesn’t have the psychological depth of Batman Begins or the high-flying fun of Spider-Man 2, but this film certainly deserves to be mentioned in that same group. Favreau has crafted a respectful comic book movie that manages to place special effects in service of an interesting story played by extremely engaging actors. Downey Jr. is the movie’s secret weapon and he delivers a smart, witty, charming, sardonic and enormously entertaining performance that anchors a fine example of what big budget popcorn filmmaking done right looks like. Batman and Spider-Man might want to be on the look out because the new kid on the block is generating some serious heat.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Brave One (2007)

The Brave One, when distilled to its purest essence, is Jodie’s Foster’s Death Wish, but there isn’t anything necessarily wrong about exploring this scuzzy territory again with a fresh set of eyes. The film chronicles a New York City radio host (Foster) who is the victim of a brutal attack that leaves her boyfriend dead and her in a coma for three weeks. Shattered and hardened, she buys a gun for her own protection and finds herself in situations that require one. The Brave One features a lot of audience-approved ass kicking and an absurd amount of dangerous scenarios that Foster seems to casually find on a nightly basis. But what separates The Brave One from the usual grisly pap of the genre is that it refuses to pander to audience bloodlust. Director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) complicates a simple case of vengeance by making an audience contemplate the true ramifications of violence and whether they are ultimately worth the price. Foster gives a ragged and emotionally raw performance. She discovers how easy killing comes to her and Foster struggles to keep her crumbling sense of humanity, with her last tie to the working world is her friendship with a deeply compassionate cop (Terrence Howard, terrific yet again). The most affecting moments are between Foster and Terrence as they construct a rather moving companionship where each feels out the other and Foster actively tries to avoid getting caught. The end of The Brave One certainly could have followed through with its morally ambiguous deliberations and open-ended questions, but while its climax does pull some punches it doesn’t wrap everything up with a bow either. This is high-end work for a guilty pleasure genre most noted for having its morals face down in the gutter. Now what the hell does the title refer to?

Nate’s Grade: B

Crash (2005)

A searing look at race relations and a powerful human drama at that. This flick has some of the sharpest memories I’ve had from any movie all year, particularly the relationship between a Hispanic locksmith (Michael Pena) and his daughter and a special invisible cloak. Their first scene, where he talks her out of hiding under her bed, is one of the most beautifully written short scenes I have ever witnessed. A late scene involving the two of them knocked the wind out of me completely and is the most vivid moviegoing moment of all 2005 for me. Every character has at least one great moment, though time is not spaced equally amongst this large ensemble. Crash has the intriguing practice of introducing near every character spouting some kind of racist diatribe, and then the movie spend the rest of its running time opening you up to these characters and getting to like them. Writer/director Paul Haggis has such a natural ear for terse, realistic dialogue that can really define characters with such brevity. A fine movie, despite the overarching coincidences.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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