(On Cable TV, March 2018) Like most, I was very skeptical of yet another attempt to reboot the Spider-Man series. Only the idea that Marvel Studio was the creative force behind Spider-Man: Homecoming (and the affirmation that the film would fit within the MCU) kept me hopeful. As it happens, this new integrated take on the character is completely successful. Indeed coming back home to the character’s spiritual and physical origins, Homecoming manages a fresh take on an overexposed character, seamlessly blending him with the rest of the superhero universe and also taking on the Marvel house style honed to perfection over the past ten years. While I liked Andree Garfield a lot as Spider-Man, Tom Holland brings the required wide-eyed naiveté to the character, making the relationship with father-surrogate Tony Stark even more interesting. Strong action sequences and a credible villain (leading to an honestly surprising moment midway through the film where Peter Parker and Spider-Man’s identities come crashing together) do much to make the film fun, but so do the de-rigueur touches of humour and self-conscious goofiness. By choosing to depict a looser, funnier, younger Spider-Man, the MCU creative team has found a terrific antidote to the increasingly dour direction the character was taking, and the result is irresistibly fun. The integration even works at the story level, as the film deals with the fallout of having alien invasions and superheroes running around; the MCU is maturing nicely as it grows older. Veteran actors such as Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei and Michael Keaton are used expertly to ground the film, while among the high-school crowd, Zendaya is remarkable despite having nearly nothing to do (at least until the sequel.) Homecoming adds up to a surprisingly entertaining movie, even more so given the low expectations. Once again, Marvel Studio defies the odds.
(Second Viewing, In French, On TV, December 2016) There are two different movies within Air America, both of them clamouring for attention in various ways. The first film is an exciting buddy comedy portraying the insanity of pilots during the Vietnam war, using their planes as trucks to go from one place to another doing side deals on their own or on behalf of their shadowy masters. It’s a movie with terrific aerial stunts (the best of which is a Los Angeles-set highway confrontation between a helicopter and an 18-wheeler) that combine airplanes and explosions to good effect. Unfortunately, the second film is a far more conventional tale of a drug-running conspiracy being revealed and defeated, men learning better and criticizing the excesses of war. That second film ultimately overwhelms the first with a foregone everyone-is-a-hero conclusion that can be seen coming from miles away. The tension between the two is never resolved, and if Air America does retrospectively stand as an early example of the geo-sardonic subgenre that would become one of the default Hollywood modes of grappling with geopolitical issues (from Lord of War and The Hunting Party to, more recently, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot or War Dogs), it clearly doesn’t quite know how to dose the two parts of its execution. At least Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr (looking far too young) are in fine form as the two mismatched partners, and the pre-CGI aerial stunts do have a kick to them.
(Video on Demand, October 2016) By this point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we should be used both to mere competency and the dangers of expecting too much. So it is that Captain America: Civil War is both a pretty good piece of pop entertainment, and one that probably won’t change all that much in the series despite its grandiose title. It does have the good sense of taking its dramatic motives in the past movies of the MCU, showcasing the death and destruction of previous instalments as excuse to contain the superheroes of the series. Conflict soon erupts when some of the superheroes rather arbitrarily divined themselves based on who thinks it’s a good idea and who doesn’t. It all leads to a fantastic airport fight, and then a not-so-fantastic fist-fight between Iron Man and Captain America. At least the action sequences are handled crisply by the Russo brothers, while the script is up to the usual Marvel standards—which is to say, competent but a good step short of impressive. Then again, Marvel hasn’t become a powerhouse studio without learning what makes for a decent blockbuster, and Civil War is another example of how the studio can give the illusion of change without necessarily threatening its cash cows. Performances are fine: Chris Evans continues to impress as Steve Rogers, while Robert Downey Jr. is his usual self as Tony Stark. A surprising number of characters, both old and new, turn up in this non-Avengers film, redefining expectations of scale when it comes to MCU mid-phase movies. The blend of comedy, character moments, thrills and visuals is up to the Marvel standard. Even Daniel Bruhl’s villain is a bit better than usual; well motivated, devious and arguably even successful in the end. It all leads to a conclusion that slightly changes the status quo, but leaves enough hints that it can be resolved rather quickly in time for the next instalment. After seeing the nonchalant way Hydra was built up and then destroyed in-between chapters, it’s best to keep expectations low and simply go along for the ride. Parallels with the contemporary Batman vs Superman (which shares quite a few plot points) are strongly in Marvel’s favour. Now let’s hope than it can keep this streak of competence going well into the future.
(In theaters, May 2015) Few movies exemplify the mid-2010s blockbuster movie trend as thoroughly as Avengers: Age of Ultron: It’s the apogee-so-far of the superhero movie, it’s practically designed to be the kind of film to save movie theaters from bankruptcy and/or irrelevance and it’s crammed with characters, action sequences and special effects. You don’t get any more “tent-pole film” than this sequel to 2012’s massively successful The Avengers, and the onslaught of commercial tie-ins on TV makes it look as if the film trailer is playing three times per hour. Interestingly enough, Avengers: Age of Ultron is even a competent movie: It juggles a dozen characters with some ease, meddles with current-zeitgeist issues of technology run amok, revolves around exceptionally dynamic action sequences, benefits from good banter and leaves viewers with a sense of upbeat progress. Robert Downey Jr is still a delight as Tony Stark, Chris Evans is still as good as Captain America, and Jeremy Renner gets a lot more to do here. Avengers: Age of Ultron is, in many ways, a better film than its predecessor. But there’s one thing it doesn’t have, and that’s the element of pleasantly exceeded expectations. Marvel Studios has defied tremendous odds in bringing its comic-book universe to the big screen, but as far as the whole “team of superheroes vanquish impossible threat” thing is concerned, it’s been done. So it is that while Avengers: Age of Ultron may be fun and fizzy, it does feel like a repeat, and a harbinger of things to come as something like thirty comic-book movies are scheduled to appear on-screen in the next five years: the melodramatic conventions that sustain comic-books only have a limited shelf life on-screen, and the lack of character development in those films can’t forever be papered over with reboots or fake promises of change (like the Hydra/SHIELD plotline, so promising at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and yet so casually dismissed here). I did enjoy Avengers: Age of Ultron, but I’m wondering how long such movies can remain the flavor of the moment.
(Video on Demand, February 2015) High-profile dramas have become a bit of an extinct species at the cineplex in this age of multi-screen spectacles, which makes The Judge’s shortcomings a bit more frustrating than usual. It does have the advantage of a good solid cast, well-used in appropriate roles: Robert Downey, Jr. is in his element as a fast-talking lawyer forced to go back to his small-town origins in order to take care of his father, who’s most appropriately played by Robert Duvall. Other supporting players include Vera Farmiga (radiant), Vincent D’Onofrio (dour) and Dax Shepard (hilariously clumsy). Legal proceedings supplements a nostalgic return to small-town family, alongside romantic entanglements and portentous end-of-life drama. If you get the sense that this is all familiar material juggled in a fairly conventional way, then you’d be right: The Judge is straight-up Hollywood classic filmmaking from the time where CGI monsters hadn’t conquered all available multiplex screens. (Although the film does contain a lengthy CGI pull-out shot of the protagonist driving down a road that feels intensely out-of-place.) It feels familiar and disappointing at the same time, the kind of movie everyone loves to mock when talking about Oscar-bait films and audience-friendly mainstream dramas. Still, The Judge works more often than it doesn’t, and seeing Downey, Jr. in a non-superhero role has become, at this time, a bit of a novelty. There’s a lot to quibble with the script’s pacing, odd choices of sub-plots, drawn-out endings (two or three of them, depending on how you count) and often-lazy approach to characterization for the secondary players. Still, The Judge does work well at evoking a quasi-nostalgic sense of place, at creating showcase roles for the two lead Roberts and at providing undemanding drama for two hours. It could have been worse, although it’s true that it could have been much better.
(In Theaters, May 2013) Going back to theaters after nearly a year spent at home enjoying a fully-loaded movie cable package with video on-demand feels… strange. So many inconveniences. Ill-behaved strangers. Endless commercial come-ons. Uncomfortable seating. Oh well; at least Iron Man 3 is the kind of film designed to warrant theater viewing: It’s a big, loud, crowd-pleasing blockbuster spectacular, and it’s actually quite good at what it does. You have to be a fan of the first two films (and having seen The Avengers helps as well, which by coincidence was the previous film I saw in theaters) in order to get the most out of this third entry in the Iron Man series: It re-uses many of the relationships set up in the previous movies in order to deliver a few dramatic pay-offs, from Gwyneth Paltrow suddenly cast as an action heroine, or seeing how deftly writer/director Shane Black is able to take the mantle from Jon Favreau and yet make the film his own, much in the same vein as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The direction isn’t perfect –the action sequences aren’t as clean as they could be– but who cares when the dialogue is delicious, the plotting is strong and Robert Downey Jr. delivers another pitch-perfect performance as Tony Stark, a character so closely aligned with Downey’s public personality as to be undistinguishable from it? It’s all good fun, and Black’s subversive instinct go from unconventionally unsentimental dialogue to messing with big audience expectations at the third-act pivot point. That twist works as long as you’re willing to laugh at the reversal, and see how well it meshes with Stark’s thirst for being visibly indissociable from his superhero identity –otherwise, well, it’s one big thing the trailers haven’t revealed. As the launching entry in Marvel Studio’s “Phase Two”, Iron Man 3 is a solid film. It’s hardly perfect, but it’s accomplished and maybe even more purely enjoyable than the first two entries.
(In theaters, June 2012) As much as I loathe superlatives in my movie reviews, there’s a good case for considering The Avengers as the best superhero comic-book movie adaptation ever made. While other adaptations have been better movies or been more interesting, The Avengers seems to be the first film to successfully manage the transposition of superhero comic books, in all their flawed qualities, onto the big screen. It doesn’t try to be a parody, an exploration of deeper themes using superheroes (like Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies) or an action movie with incidental superpowers: It’s a committed attempt to recreate the Marvel comic-book experience in live action, and it works about as well as this kind of storytelling can work. Protagonists fighting short inconsequential bouts among themselves? Yup. Alien menace from outer space, curiously concentrated around an urban area? Indeed. A lot of witty banter as the heroes band together as a team? Absolutely. Canny writer/director Joss Whedon has added plenty of humor, attitude and special effects to minimize the exasperating nature of fanboy-driven plotting and the result is curiously enjoyable even for people who haven’t dedicated their reading lives to following the intricate mythology of the Marvel universe. The Avengers, for Marvel Studio, is the crowning success of four years and five movies’ worth of scene-setting: it seemed like an insane gamble in 2008, but it pay off handsomely here as the headliners start interacting with each other. Robert Downey Jr. is still a star as Tony Stark, but Mark Ruffalo also does fine work as the best incarnation of Bruce Banner/The Hulk on-screen so far. It’s true that the villain is a bit weak, and that the first half-hour drags until all the pieces are assembled, but the third act fight through New York City is the brightly-lit action set-piece many superhero movies promised but never delivered until now. Still, the film is seldom as good as when the actors are talking amongst themselves, and it’s this attention to characterization that makes The Avengers work despite its limited aims as a super-hero comics adaptation. It doesn’t try to do anything else, but it’s really good at what it does.
(In theaters, December 2011) It goes without saying that sequels often aim to replicate the elements that made the success of their predecessor, and add something more. In this light, this follow-up to 2009’s Sherlock Holmes is an unqualified success, and maybe even a more enjoyable film than its predecessor. Front and center, of course, is Robert Downey Jr.’s fast-witted take on the title character, complete with instant-strategy monologues and slashy repartee with Jude Law’s dependable Watson. More importantly, though, Game of Shadows ups the ante by providing an antagonist that is strong enough to present a challenge to Holmes: Jared Harris’ Moriarty lives up to its literary namesake, and makes for a formidable opponent. It all leads to a climactic chess game that plays off a few of the series’ signature motifs. (Literary fans will see Reichenbach Falls appear and nod at where the film is going.) Casting Stephen Fry as Mycroft is a bit of a coup, while it’s nice to see Noomi Rapace’s high cheekbones get a bit of Hollywood gloss after her role as “The Girl” of the Millennium trilogy. Director Guy Richie once again provides an action-adventure take on the basic premise, along with light steampunk esthetics and slow-motion action sequences. (A blue-tinted run through a forest provides a quasi-impressionistic sequence of almost-still images.) While the end result doesn’t transcend the Hollywood holiday blockbuster genre, it’s a well-executed example of the form, keenly aware of its audience’s demands and almost eager to satisfy them.
(Second Viewing: On DVD, July 2011) At this point, I shouldn’t be surprised if movies I dimly remembered as being hilarious end up just on the amusing side of funny. Unfortunately, Weird Science goes to join the ranks of eighties comedies that just aren’t as good as they should have been. The central idea in seeing two nerds create “the perfect woman” thanks to some modern hocus-pocus is still potent (albeit maybe a bit less amusing nowadays given the age difference between the actors) and the film does have a few good scenes. But the connective tissue between those scenes… and the mismatch between the possibilities of the premise and what’s up on the screen is just annoying. Part of the problem, especially for viewers schooled in fantasy fiction, is the film’s very loose adherence to a coherent imaginative framework: everything seems possible in the film, and while this carries its own reward (let’s face it: the Pershing missile thing is still one of the film’s finest moments), it also unmoors the film and sends it in fantasyland where the stakes are low because everything’s possible –it’s far, far better to file Weird Science under “teen comedy” rather than “fantasy” or “science-fiction”. Both the plot and the characters are underdeveloped, and don’t go much beyond “two good kids learn a lesson”. The overacting in the film is a bit surprising twenty-five years later. Weird Science, seen from 2011, doesn’t quite hold together, and definitely seems like a minor John Hughes teen comedy when compared to the rest of his eighties filmography. Still, the film still warrants a look today for a couple of reasons: It has aged reasonably well, turning itself into an unabashed time capsule of the mid-eighties in their weird Reganian splendour. (Mid-riff shirts? Why???) It also remains one of Kelly LeBrock’s defining performances: being asked to play “the perfect woman” to two horny teenagers is a tough order, but she manages to make it look easy. The film also features early roles for Bill Paxton and Robert Downey Jr., and a catchy theme song that eighties kids probably still remember. Weird Science certainly isn’t perfect, but in the right mood it’s a charming throwback to another time –a perfect movie for a quiet evening.
(On DVD, May 2011) The mismatched-traveling-companion thing has been a comedy staple for years, so it’s no real surprise if Due Date immediately feels familiar, and if its strengths lie elsewhere than originality. Here, the premise seems custom-tailored for exploiting the comic personas of its two lead actors: Robert Downey Jr. as a high-strung professional prone to bursts of pure anger; and Zach Galifianakis as yet another supposedly-lovable loser. The plot takes them on a transcontinental journey from Atlanta to Los Angeles, but that’s really an excuse to set up one comic situation after another as two men who can’t stand each other eventually learn to –well, no big surprise there. Whether the film works hinges on how much you like those characters and the situation they get into: While Downey’s physical aggressiveness can be amusing, Galifianakis’s comic persona is more annoying than anything else, whereas the film’s constant drug-related jokes is enough to remind audiences that the current flavour for R-rated comedies seems to be frat-boy arrested development (Significantly, Due Date is billed as being from “the director of Old School and The Hangover”). The film doesn’t have plot-holes as much as it has rigidly predetermined sequences in mind: There’s enough plot-fairy dust in there to choke anyone wondering why these two characters would keep staying together, or how long it takes to “detour” by the Mexican border. There are, to be fair, a number of good sequences here and there: Jamie Foxx makes an entertaining cameo, and there is some impressive car stunt work for what is, after all, supposed to be just a regular comedy. As a “regular comedy”, though, it falters in reaching for deeper emotional meaning: Attempts to raise tears don’t really work when the rest of Due Date feels so childish, and particularly fade when compared to Planes, Trains and Automobiles which is still the most relevant reference in the traveling-horrors comedy genre.
(In theatres, May 2010) As one of, apparently, only half-a-dozen people who didn’t go completely crazy about the first Iron Man film, my expectations for the sequel were kept in check. So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself nodding in agreement at this follow-up’s overlapping snarky dialogues, well-choreographed action sequences and pleasant character beats. The force of the film remains the character of Tony Stark as played by Robert Downey Jr, one of the few superheroes around to actually enjoy the superpowers at his disposal. Contrary to many of his brethren, this sequel tackles the responsibilities of power from another direction: while the parallels with alcoholism get heavy at times (in-keeping with the source material), it’s a neat bit of character affliction that keeps things interesting even when stuff is not exploding on-screen. Add a little bit of honestly science-fictional content in how Stark manages to synthesize a solution to his problem (“That was easier than I thought”, the movie self-knowingly wisecracks) and there’s enough fun here to pave over the film’s less convincing moments. Never mind how a single suit-equipped billionaire can apparently create world peace, or Sam Rockwell’s unconvincing grandstanding as another, dumber billionaire, or the shoe-horned intrusions by the rest of the Marvel universe, or the lengthier stretches in which Iron Man 2 occasionally bogs down. At least the film has a good understanding of the character’s strengths, and works hard at maintaining them. I can’t say enough nice things about the replacement of Terrence Howard by the ever-dependable Don Cheadle, nor of Gwyneth Paltrow’s adorable reddish bangs: director Jon Favreau is fine on-screen and even better directing the whole thing. Iron Man 2 is, unlike other superhero movies often dominated by angst, about joy –and the feeling is infectious. It may not be a classic, but it’s a decent follow-up.
(In theatres, December 2009) It had to happen sooner or later: a retelling of Sherlock Holmes (suspiciously absent from the big screen since 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes) in the mode of the action thriller. No, it’s not even trying to be an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories: This Sherlock Holmes knows how to fight, has abandoned deerstalker hat restraint for debonair nonchalance and enjoys the company of a hot ex-girlfriend. Pre-made for slash fiction writers, explosion connoisseurs and steampunk enthusiasts, Sherlock Holmes has little to say about its character, and a lot about modern blockbuster filmmaking. It generally works, despite Scooby-doo plotting and inconsistent use of dramatic devices. At least we’re spared an origin story, as the story picks up well into Holmes’ career. Robert Downey Jr. seems to be channelling Tony Stark with an irresistibly arrogant portrait of a super-genius (it works because he’s charmingly roguish rather than super-nerdy) while Jude Law does his job as the level-headed foil. Rachel McAdams, for some reason, always look better in historical movies (must be costumes), while Mark Strong turns in another performance as the bad guy. Director Guy Richie reigns in some of his usual tricks but manages to deliver a satisfying action film. Only the sound seems a bit soft (the mumbling doesn’t help): viewers without an ear for soft English accents may want to wait for DVD subtitles or sit closer to the screen. The CGI-enhanced portrait of 1880s London is suitably grimy, mechanical and interesting. Sherlock Holmes may be a travesty of the original stories and a by-the-number mainstream thriller, but it’s pretty good as such. Bring on the sequel, and let’s see Holmes square off against Moriarty.
(In theaters, May 2008) After so many disappointing superhero films leadened by dull origin stories and barely saved (if at all) by their action scenes, it’s refreshing to find that Iron Man is a superb first entry in a franchise that succeeds through sheer attention to character more than impressive pyrotechnics. Robert Downey Jr is absolutely perfect as arrogant super-genius Tony Stark: his bad-boy manners are compelling in simple dialog scenes, lending credence to the theory that superheroes are only as interesting as their secret identities. He makes the film click long before he suits up and punches through tanks. As for the action scenes, they’re not as numerous as you may think (four, maybe five of them) and they definitely take a back step compared to more unconventional scenes in which Stark thinks, designs, refines and tests his Iron Man suit. A decent sense of humor underscores the entire film, and if there are a number of plot issues (not all of them relating to Stark’s medical condition and the steps he takes in order to solve it), the entire film flows far more quickly than one would expect. While there’s still plenty of room for the series to improve (there isn’t much of an antagonist this time around, for instance), this a solid and confident first entry, well worth a look.