Archive for May, 2013

Promised Land (2012)

Starring- Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Rosemarie DeWitt, Frances McDormand, Hal Holbrook, Titus Welliver, Tim Guinee, Sara Lindsey, Lucas Black, Scoot McNairy, Ken Strunk

Director- Gus Van Sant

R- language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHQt1NAkhIo

Oh, please, Promised Land: I’m such a rube, so desperately in need of your omniscience and wisdom to set me on the proper path toward enlightenment. Surely I could never have accomplished this without your help, and indeed, I am grateful to you and all who produced you for coming into my life and showing me how to live in the right way. Thank you.

Yeah, I came out of Promised Land thinking this review wasn’t going to be too negative, but oh boy have I soured on that notion a bit in retrospect. It’s entertaining and well made. If that’s all you want out of it, that’s more or less what it’s going to give you.

But, man: I haaaaaaaaaaaaaaate Message Movies. Haaaaaaaaaaate them. I hate them even when I mostly agree with what they’re saying. This is because there’s really only one way to do a Message Movie right, and it’s to do it in such a way that it’s basically no longer a Message Movie. So…

Salespeople Steve Butler (Matt Damon) and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) are sent to a small, economically depressed rural town to preach the good news of natural gas, and how all of the residents can become millionaires if they sell the drilling rights to their properties. They’re met with open arms and a lot of townspeople signing the paperwork without hesitation.

But then, local science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) speaks out against the fracking process. And an alliance between him and environmental activist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) may spell doom for the corporation’s plans for the area.

I try not to write much about politics and hot button issues, primarily because I don’t talk much about them either. Sometimes, a film requires me to do that. I need to say up front that any objection I have to Promised Land has nothing whatsoever to do with the political stance that it takes. In all honesty, part of the reason I am somewhat ‘apolitical’ — not a word I like to use because it indicates a complete detachment that isn’t descriptive of me, but probably the closest to the truth anyway — is that, at a certain point, I realized that political ideology is as much a value judgment as a factual one, and if you put an intelligent conservative and an intelligent liberal in the same room, they’re not going to disagree on the majority of the actual facts.

I think that’s doubly true of the fracking issue. I’ve actually been witness to some debates on the topic, and they are never about facts; usually, the participants are making two completely different arguments. It’s not a question of who’s right; everyone is. It’s a question of a cost-benefit analysis, and everyone’s going to do that differently.

Basically, that’s my roundabout way of saying that I don’t really have a dog in this fight.

And it’s also my way of demonstrating how annoying Promised Land needed to be in order to have me mad at it.

I think that, if not for the ending, I might’ve left the movie not hating it. I would’ve praised its likable qualities and then criticized it a bit for being a touch heavy-handed and smoothing over some elements of its pet issue, but that would’ve been about it. But then, the ending reduces one of the sides to borderline supervillainy and presumes to have demolished its viewpoint solely on the basis of guilt by association, which is, you know…lousy logic.

I think it raises a lot of legitimate points — and Message Movies do have a tendency to do so now and then, in differing degrees. But it just as quickly buries anything that might be inconvenient for it. There are several points accidentally made in this film and then quickly shoved aside that left me thinking, “No, no, that’s an interesting question; we should definitely explore that!”

For example, the characters in the movie all like natural gas but hate fracking. That one struck home with me, because I’ve seen firsthand my own rural community having that very debate recently. All of our local politicians love natural gas and are welcoming its sale in the community, but whenever anyone comes forward looking to drill around here, what’s the response? “Not in my backyard,” in most cases. That’s a good question! Let’s explore that.

Or how about the fact that even the anti-fracking characters in this movie acknowledge that their way of life is dying and that drilling might be the only way to save it? That question, of course, is acknowledged in passing and then swept under the rug. But it’s interesting — environmental preservation vs. cultural preservation. That’s a good question! Let’s explore that.

Or, honestly… When Matt Damon’s character gets cornered again and again about environmental impacts, why does he always clam up? Those things happen, and he knows it, but he also knows there are laws and procedures to prevent them from happening and that, usually, they don’t. And there’s that cost-benefit analysis: there’s an off chance it might wreck their farms and destroy their livelihoods, but there’s also a chance it could save them. That’s a good question! Let’s explore that.

But, no. Damon crumbles; the opposition runs roughshod over him. And they’re kind of smug and, in some cases, borderline harass the corporate representatives, which made me wonder how exactly I was supposed to feel about them. Having a good idea does not give you license to be a jerk and a bully who rubs his every victory in the opponents’ faces.

I should give Promised Land some credit here. Normally, The Other Side is badly demonized. But Damon’s character has noble reasons for what he believes. And McDormand’s character never changes her mind about it at all, nor her more self-interested reasons for pursuing it, but she’s still supposed to be likable.

And to be fair, I don’t think its creators really have that simple-minded a view of this issue. The opposition sneaks into the subtext a little too easily for that. But they’re making a Message Movie. To meaningfully acknowledge the other side’s arguments might cause a few members of the audience not to swallow the Message, and that simply wouldn’t do. It’s not willfully lying, but it is omitting some relevant points.

It is an entertaining and well made. Gus Van Sant has a history of making films with characters whose relationships are very natural and form very organically. Damon and love interest Rosemarie DeWitt have a casual, easygoing chemistry that feels more realistic than the heated passion on which most films set their sights and very much reminded me of Damon’s similar relationship with Minnie Driver in Good Will Hunting. There’s strong acting all around, really — the townspeople carry a real sense of the rural culture with which I am pretty highly familiar, and Hal Holbrook gives a warm and inviting performance shot through with vulnerability and nostalgia.

But it’s a Message Movie. And I would be all right with such films if they framed their message as a question rather than a statement and, through due diligence, arrived organically at an actual conclusion that leaves room open for audience questioning and consideration. Not only that, but the artist would have an opportunity to explore his or her own ideas, test them, and potentially learn something valuable. It’s for that reason that I see films that fail to do this as actually being a bit arrogant. Without running their ideas through their proper course, they present them as objective fact and structure the plot specifically so that this ends up being the case, even if it requires improbable twist after improbable twist. Framing it as a question, you see, runs the risk that someone in the audience might not buy it.

Of course, if fear that the audience won’t buy the message informs your storytelling, then let’s not beat around the bush — what you’re making is not art; it’s propaganda.

 

-Matt T.

Upstream Color (2013)

Starring- Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins

Director- Shane Carruth

NR

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5U9KmAlrEXU

Oh, how we sometimes cannot see the forest for the trees.

This is not the message of Upstream Color, but nevertheless, it’s what I learned from it. My insatiable thirst for meaning, my need to deconstruct everything, may indeed be the very thing that propelled me into my passion for good storytelling, but at the same time, sometimes it becomes the neat little logical box into which I force everything, bending and breaking it into some kind of shape that makes sense to me. And when I encounter something that doesn’t quite fit, it can be disorienting, even frustrating.

And it’s more frustrating when I have a feeling toward something that I can’t quantify, can’t deconstruct into a simple formula explaining why I have that feeling, what causes it to be so. Sometimes, that feeling simply is.

We don’t attempt to impose meaning — an argument, a thesis, a concept being tossed back and forth in different scenarios — upon a symphony. And yet, there is nothing about it that stands as being any less enriching an experience. There is an intuitive emotional meaning to it, something that connects and resonates and makes you one with yourself and everyone else.

So it goes with Upstream Color.

One could impose all sorts of meanings upon it, intuited and otherwise, and perhaps they’d be consistent with the filmmakers’ vision; perhaps they wouldn’t. Ultimately, it means whatever it means to you. But like many other such films, Upstream Color is meant to be felt as much as understood, and that was something I realized only in retrospect — wrestling with the fact that I quite enjoyed it and the equally pressing fact that I had only the vaguest idea why.

It’s science fiction by way of Terrence Malick — sort of a shapeless thing logically but possessed of a particular emotional and spiritual structure. To summarize the plot does it no favors; an exercise in ideas that could easily have been silly given even the slightest misstep in any direction, but director Shane Carruth carries it with confidence and a deft touch. Simply, it is this: a young woman (Amy Seimetz) finds her life in ruins after exposure to a strange experiment of sorts. She finds a man (Carruth) who has had the same procedure forced upon him, and the two of them work together to pick up their lives.

Some have suggested that Upstream Color is a film about the way that human beings pick up, intuit, and process information. I’m not certain I’d contend that that’s what it’s about. Nevertheless, it’s certainly the way it works as a film.

Upstream Color feels like the game some people play while sitting on the bus or waiting in a public place, either by themselves or with others. They look at the people around them — overhearing what conversations they can, seeing what they look like, what they’re wearing, what items they have on their person, what their subtle body language seems to suggest — and attempt to determine, just for fun, what that person’s story is.

That’s the film’s state of being. It’s the feeling of being dropped into someone else’s story and left to figure out, on your own, who that person is, what he or she is doing, and how he or she feels based on the same clues you would have in the real world. There isn’t much dialogue in this film, and what dialogue we hear comes from a distance: a few tables away from a pair of people, speaking in hushed voices, barely audible when you listen closely. You hear some words, but you watch mainly for visual cues — body language, surface emotions, tone.

In this regard, it bears surface similarities to the work of Terrence Malick and other directors in the same vein, but with crucial differences. It’s an odd twist, actually — Malick works with very everyday stories and concepts, but he delivers them in a philosophical, spiritual, and somewhat fantastic way, utilizing the occasional overt special effect and abstract image. Carruth, on the other hand, is here working with an extraordinarily outlandish premise, one that would sound silly described in greater detail but largely devoid of context, but he grounds it very firmly in reality. There is no philosophical voiceover. The sparse dialogue is not merely an artistic decision but rather the logical result of the fact that the film’s characters spend most of their time alone and without reason to speak their thoughts. When they do speak, it’s mostly naturalistic, largely lacking in poetry and import.

It’s for these reasons and a few more that I think, as of right now, I actually prefer Upstream Color to my admittedly scant experience with Malick’s work — without denigrating him and insinuating that he is anything less than quite talented. The larger reason, however, would be that Upstream Color dodges wholly the main criticism that has been levied against Malick over the course of the last two or three films he’s made: that his work sometimes goes out of its way to avoid the ugliness of reality and becomes rather postcard in its attempts to find beauty everywhere.

Upstream Color not only goes to dark places but still manages to end on a note of hope and redemption, it finds a mindset very similar to the one I personally perceived in Life of Pi: finding peace and beauty not just in the wake of darkness and tragedy, but in darkness and tragedy. This is not to suggest that the film revels in pain and suffering; it would be more accurate to say that it sees a light that never really leaves you, even in times of great duress. There is much pain, suffering, tragedy, and violence in this film, but Carruth’s direction finds a surreal but potent beauty in a great deal of it, in the way he uses light and color, natural images and cityscapes. It’s an immaculately filmed and scored piece of work, painful but riveting.

It goes to dark places, emerges battered but alive, finds peace and hope, strives toward it, and concludes with eyes forward. Determining the why of it is perhaps possible, but trying to impose a specific thesis on it will, I think, defeat its entire purpose. There are interpretations to which I am favorable; the foremost of them is the one that suggests The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) is intended to represent God, as that thought was chief in my mind while watching it. But then, it has many meanings.

But in truth, I find that Upstream Color is the symphony orchestra of motion pictures: not a thesis statement upon which to apply argument, but a thing of beauty, emotion, passion, and indescribable humanity.

 

-Matt T.

The Last Stand (2013)

Starring- Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Peter Stormare, Eduardo Noriega, Luis Guzman, Jaimie Alexander, Johnny Knoxville, Zach Gilford, Christiana Leucas, Genesis Rodriguez, Rodrigo Santoro, Daniel Henney

Director- Jee-woon Kim

R- strong bloody violence throughout, and language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oc0x-jiewTE

   Don’t anybody ever say I don’t like stupid, stupid movies sometimes.

   Like all those that came before it, The Last Stand is terrible/great/stupid/awesome/irritating/hilarious/boring/tons of fun, all of these alternately in ways it intends and ways it doesn’t — a complex series of emotional states that I’ve simply come to refer to as Arnold Schwarzenegger.

   Ah… It’s good to have you back, you baffling, baffling man.

   In The Last Stand, Arnold Schwarzenegger (credited as “Ray Owens” for some weird reason), who has made a career out of playing Inexplicably Austrian _____ plays Inexplicably Austrian Small-Town Sheriff.

   Formerly a member of an LA narcotics unit, Inexplicably Austrian Small-Town Sheriff moved out to the quiet nowhere of Summerton, Texas, away from the hardships of being an inner city cop, so that he could leave a more peaceful life.

   But then, a dangerous fugitive (Eduardo Noriega) escapes while en route to death row, and Summerton is the only thing standing between him and the Mexican border.

   Whether or not The Last Stand is a “good movie” seriously cannot even factor into this discussion. It’s awful, unless that’s what it wants to be, in which case, it’s…freakin’ fantastic. With Schwarzenegger movies, the question is always degrees of intent, and there’s no reasonable way to answer that.

   But it is fun. Even if only because insane laughter brought about by your mental capacities utterly failing you feels about as good as regular laughter brought about by the shared appreciation of something, like, smart.

   To be fair, it’s equally difficult for me to answer the question of whether or not The Last Stand is recommended viewing to everyone else because two-thirds of it is a really boring movie. But the thoroughly ludicrous, cartoonish, and blisteringly dumb climax earns back so much audience goodwill in the last half hour that it does leave you largely with a good taste in your mouth. I’ve been hearing it said lately that a flaw in any given movie can end up being a net gain overall. If true, The Last Stand is possibly a textbook example.

   It becomes…not effective, because that feels like a statement of quality I am just, like, not at all prepared to make right now…but at least fun, in the end, for the following reasons that I was able to identify:

   • Arnold Schwarzenegger: heavens above, why did we ever let this guy stop being in movies? I’m still unable to tell if he’s some secret acting genius or if he really is just this improbable force of terrible acting who manages by sheer dumb luck to hit the absolute apex of humorous badness. He is hyper-aware of the camera at all times; every scene he’s in feels like the characters were standing there doing absolutely nothing until the moment he decided to speak. And when he speaks… If anything, this guy is getting worse — which, since that’s his appeal, I guess means he’s actually getting better, in his borderline magical way. You can hear his gears grinding even on the simplest, most rote, most emotionless lines. He can’t pass a character and offer a brief “hello” without it seeming to take effort. And as usual, all of the other actors take their roles with complete seriousness, which only makes Arnold even more — wonderfully, mind you, wonderfully — inexplicable.

   And it helps, it really helps, that Arnold is still doing the 80s action hero schtick with complete faithfulness, and Jee-woon Kim is giving him the opportunity to do so. We’ve moved in the superhero era, where our action protagonists are all invincible demigods who spend entire movies beating their foes senseless. The Last Stand has no problem beating Arnold within an inch of his life on a regular basis. It builds him up as this BIG STRONG MAN, an unstoppable force of nature, but then he spends half of the climax falling off of high stuff and complaining about how old he is — using his requisite awful one-liners, of course. Man, am I glad to see those back.

   • The movie at least uses its boring scenes to build up a meaningful difference in tone, attitude, personality and pace between its two settings: Arnold’s quiet, backwoods town that hasn’t even made it to the 1950s yet, and the violent, harsh, and fast-paced city where the fugitive’s destructive flight is leaving a trail of bodies and wreckage. So, when the two collide, they collide pretty spectacularly.

   • Look. Half of the characters in this movie are at least as annoying as they are funny, and possibly about twice as much so. But you know what? At least they have some life in them and don’t just stand around reciting basic information or delivering trailer-worthy quotes of ominous portent.

   • But probably, the greatest amount of its success (or glorious failure — seriously, whichever one it is) comes from the fact that it spends two-thirds of its runtime being mostly pretty boring and then completely dive-bombs every last ounce of its sanity exactly in time for the final third. It unchains its id, shouts, “I do what I want!” and then pummels its audience with more stupidity than I can accurately describe.

   Arnold’s falling off of buildings, shouting one-liners and fussing about his aching old-man parts while the other characters do the majority of the running and gunning — and I’m pretty sure nearly all of the heroes end up getting shot in the shoulder and/or knee before the whole ordeal is over. Johnny Knoxville goes wild with a giant machine gun, and then uses a pack of fireworks to blow a guy up like spoiled beef in a microwave. His armor is pots and pans and what appears to be a garbage lid shield, by the way, because of course it is. An old lady starts blasting people with a giant shotgun for no reason. And through it all, the townspeople are just casually eating breakfast in the diner across the street. I can’t isolate the exact point at which I broke and simply collapsed into numb hysterics, only say that it happened.

   It’s got plenty of problems, most of which are its successes. Like I said, the first two-thirds of the movie is seriously really boring. The movie’s got a dozen more characters than it knows what to do with, and it spends too much time focusing on the adventures of a bunch of FBI agents it surely must know the audience doesn’t care about one bit.

   It also tries to take on way more scale than it can handle. It’s right there in the title: The Last Stand. And the movie builds up its climax like the ending to Braveheart or something: “This is our home! And we’re going to defend it!” And the inspiring music plays, and the ragtag band of misfits sets up a last line of defense, and never once does the movie seem to realize, “You know, if the villain wins, the only thing that happens is…he gets away. And everyone in the town is fine.” Actually, the movie gets even more hilarious when you factor in exactly how much of the town the heroes trash in their efforts to defend it from a guy who otherwise would just pass through.

   And, of course, it is an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, and therefore, it is what it is, and what it is defies logic and criticism and every cynic’s normal powers of resistance. Questions of quality are completely irrelevant. It’s terrible, probably. But a laugh is a laugh is a laugh.

   The Last Stand: it’s awful, but it’s supposed to be, and it’s great, except not. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s back, and I suppose I can get used to it.

 

   -Matt T.

Hyde Park on Hudson (2012)

Starring- Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Colman, Elizabeth Marvel, Olivia Williams, Elizabeth Wilson

Director- Roger Michell

R- brief sexuality

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQaScjiWDyY

Hyde Park on Hudson is a two-hour series of moving images in color presented with sound that convey a sequence of events and therefore is, I suppose, in the most traditional sense, a movie. But whether it ever coheres into some kind of point or a reason for being is another question entirely.

It’s the summer of 1939, and Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney), sixth cousin to the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray) is invited to the world leader’s summer home, Hyde Park on Hudson, in the hopes that she will be worthwhile company for the increasingly distant and work-consumed man. Against all odds, the two rapidly become friends, and then something else entirely.

In the meantime, Hyde Park on Hudson receives a visit from King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) in the hopes of soliciting American support in the days leading up to World War II.

This is going to be a short review. I honestly don’t know where to start with this movie, and for once, I mean that in the absolute most literal sense — I have very little idea what to say about it. As previously stated, Hyde Park on Hudson never really — that I could discern — finds a point or a reason for existence.

It’s difficult to criticize it on the most basic level of its quality. To do so, I would need to know what it’s trying to accomplish, but it’s so unfocused and tonally all over the place that I’m not sure exactly what that is. So, how could I guess, step by step, at how it might have been made better? I’m not certain this is simply a script that needs a few rewrites; it possibly needs a complete overhaul.

And because it wanders in so many tangential and conflicting directions, I can’t really wax philosophical about what it all means, even just to me on a personal level. It dwells perpetually in the pettiness and superficiality of the public and diplomatic parts of politics, and of life in general, but it indulges these as often as it criticizes them and in some ways simply makes them a part of the fantasy of it all.

It establishes any number of relationships, but it fails to develop them in an emotionally resonant sense. Daisy and FDR meet, share an awkward moment — time passes, and next we see them, they’re friends. One montage later, they’re something else. FDR’s unpleasant secrets are unearthed; conflict is had. Focus is redirected to King George VI; once that’s one, forgiveness just happens and stays that way.

Hyde Park on Hudson is bereft of a main character. Daisy is the closest thing, but the film’s focus leaves her often, and she’s not a compelling focal point, at least in part because of this. George and Elizabeth get a lot of scenes to themselves, fretting over minutia. FDR feels like he just wanders in and out of other people’s subplots.

There are any number of interesting stories here; most of them get glossed over and ignored. Any cognitive dissonance FDR and Daisy experience over their somewhat unsettling relationship is, at best, only hinted at and, at worst, ignored entirely. To be fair, they are only sixth cousins, and yet, society still doesn’t look fondly upon that type of thing. Their relationship is treated rather seriously, albeit ordinarily, and supplies the film with the majority of its “darkest” moments. And yet, the climax of the film centers around whether or not King George will eat a hot dog, and if that ought to be considered an insult.

I don’t think there’s ever been a mainstream film about FDR before — a handicapped President who led the nation during one of its worst wars. The idea that there’s no story to be told about this man is false on its face. But I’m not sure why Hyde Park on Hudson hones in on these minor and silly details, and not only does that but then fails to really go anywhere with any of it. It’s aiming for sweet and likable — and it is, admittedly, a very pretty film visually — but the circumstances surrounding it just make that decision baffling. I’m not sure if it’s a drama or a comedy, or if it’s trying to be both at the same time and simply blends them badly. Even after you’ve seen it, it’s tough to figure out its endgame.

 

-Matt T.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Starring- Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Jon Favreau, Ben Kingsley, James Badge Dale, Stephanie Szostak, Paul Bettany, William Sadler, Dale Dickey, Ty Simpkins, Miguel Ferrer

Director- Shane Black

PG-13- sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and brief suggestive content

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2CzoSeClcw0

There are definitely worse ways to start off the year.

Granted, it can be difficult to guess where Iron Man 3 will fall in the pantheon of Summer 2013’s action blockbusters, or even where it falls in relation to the other installments of its own series. In some ways, it fails more spectacularly than a lot of other high-level superhero movies. At the same time, at least part of the reason for this is the fact that Iron Man 3 is leaps and bounds more interesting and more ambitious than nearly all other films of its type: Iron Man 1 and 2 included.

And believe me, I’ve accused films of far worse things than overreach.

Following the events of The Avengers, Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is in a dark place. He no longer sleeps, and when he does, it’s tormented. He’s consumed by his work, constantly upgrading the armor. His relationship with long-time friend, current more-than-that Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is suffering. He has panic attacks, and the slightest mention of the alien invasion in New York can send him spiraling into PTSD-induced hysterics.

Into this struggle comes the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), an enigmatic terrorist striking at random across the world, but with a particular emphasis on American targets — American, civilian targets. His goal, ostensibly, is to teach America a lesson. He’s never seen, except when he hijacks the airwaves to deliver his increasingly disturbing sermons.

And when Tony’s own get caught in the crossfire, he publicly challenges the Mandarin to come after him.

It’s a mistake he’ll live to regret…

Iron Man 3 builds off The Avengers throughout — for better or worse. As much as a movie needs to stand on its own first and foremost, The Avengers is a part of this now. It’s no longer just disconnected hinting; the universes are officially merged. With Iron Man 3, there’s a sense in which this works and a sense in which it doesn’t.

Mainly, the issue is that The Avengersthankfully — was dumb, escapist fun that knew it was dumb, escapist fun, stayed that way, and ultimately did it incredibly well. It was an action movie that restored humor, boyish adventurousness, whiz-bang spectacle, and — yes — a bit of pathos to the summer blockbuster scene. It was internally serious — as in, what was happening was important to the characters and was therefore emotionally involving on a level significant enough to propel it — but it didn’t assume larger implications. The heroes fought hard, saved the day, and then went out for dinner afterward.

So, to now see a movie that turns the climax of The Avengers into something that gave Tony Stark, the most lighthearted and immature of the participating heroes, PTSD… That’s a touch strange. This movie makes constant reference to The Avengers and yet feels like it inhabits a much different universe — one that’s much more emotionally grounded and realistic, at least, on a human level.

Of course, that PTSD, admittedly, also allows the movie to build on The Avengers in a way that actually becomes its greatest strength.

One of the much-hyped moments in the trailers for The Avengers was Captain America’s rant against Stark: “Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”

Iron Man 3 is a very extended answer to that question — one that builds not only off of it, but off of the implications of the first two movies in its own series as well. More than any Iron Man film to date, Iron Man 3 develops the character meaningfully and logically, step by step, and it’s the first non-Batman film in the comic book movie genre that feels largely un-slaved to formula, allowing its own needs to dictate where it goes and how it gets there. Because of that, it regularly takes big risks with its plot and characters. It was almost inevitable that some of that would go wrong, and it does — sometimes badly. But that germ of an idea is there, and the stuff that goes right — it goes so, so right.

The first Iron Man taught Tony not so much responsibility as how to care for others and put them ahead of oneself. He still ended up as a sarcastic jerk, but, you know…a sarcastic jerk who’d help you if you needed it. The second one taught Tony… Well, nothing, really. That movie had some problems.

This one, though, puts him to the test. He’s done the right thing so far, but he’s done it behind the safety of a robotic suit of armor, equipped with all the heaviest weaponry known to mankind short of nuclear bombs, so far as we know… Stripped of all his advantages, left to his own devices, will he still do the right thing? Will genuine courage win the day?

It’s clear from the beginning that Tony is feeling inadequate. He just saw an entire army warp onto Earth from another world and nearly level an entire city. “Big man in a suit of armor…” He’s pretty sure now that’s all he’s over been and all he ever will be. The suit of armor is now, in his mind, the only thing that stands between the people he cares about and the superpowered maniacs he now knows are running loose, wreaking havoc. His PTSD is fear of what might happen.

And so, his fear takes over. He doesn’t sleep. Instead, he spends all of his time upgrading his own suits and building dozens upon dozens of other ones — beefing up his defenses for an unknown enemy who may never come. Everything else — relationships included — becomes secondary. Tony Stark hasn’t become Iron Man; Iron Man has become Tony Stark.

The entire movie is about forcing Tony out of his comfort zone. It separates him from his advantages and forces him, the person, to solve his own problems, to be genuinely courageous, to truly place himself in harm’s way for the sake of others. He doesn’t know it, but doing so is the only way to sate his incessant fear. It’s come full circle — a man who originally had to learn how not to be completely arrogant and full of himself now needs to regain some faith in his abilities.

For a movie called Iron Man 3, there’s very little Iron Man — but there’s a lot of Tony Stark, and that’s what works about it.

In every other sense, it’s an Iron Man movie. There’s much about it that works, and it almost doesn’t bear repeating — all of them have been good at these things, even Iron Man 2.

Downey is always going to be Iron Man. This is his role, and history is going to remember it that way. The character is a ton of fun to spend time with, and the actor portraying him deserves a least half the credit for that. Tony and Pepper, in my opinion, still have the best romantic chemistry out of all the characters in this entire genre — the actors play off each other brilliantly, the dialogue/banter is sharp, and there’s as much genuine, heartfelt emotion in there as there is witty wordplay. The action and effects are top notch (though the latter may jump the shark just a touch in this installment). The direction is suitably stylish. It’s a propulsive film that’s never boring while you watch it; the problems emerge in retrospect.

And they are frequently…significant.

I’ll start with the smaller issues. This is the darkest Iron Man movie yet, without question, but it maintains the jokey personality and one-liner-driven dialogue of its predecessors. And while both work independently, it snaps back and forth between these two modes far too quickly. Mostly, the humor comes out of the characters, which is understandable and probably the best way to handle it with a movie like this. But Tony is already traumatized, and, for example, the kid sidekick he picks up along his journey (Ty Simpkins) — a relationship that is otherwise stellar, by the way, both funny and touching without stooping into cheese and overt sentimentality and audience manipulation — ought to have been equally traumatized after the violent fiasco that goes down in a small-town bar midway through. But they revert to playful teasing almost immediately, and that just rings false.

It’s also got the Superhero Sequel Boatload of Characters Problem. I really shouldn’t have to say more than that. Unlike, say, Spider-Man 3, Iron Man 3 keeps its plot highly Tony-centric, so it never feels confused, overly busy, or unfocused. However, this fact means that supporting characters come and go at the drop of a hat, and it robs a lot of them of the emotional heft they all to some extent need to carry. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, a.k.a. War Machine/Iron Patriot (Don Cheadle), could entirely have been written out of this movie. He appears in one scene early on and then vanishes almost entirely until the third act. His reappearance is a moment of, “Oh, right, that guy.”

Other characters complete entire arcs in what seems like a long time but is, on-screen, only a grand total of about three scenes — including one who manages to change sides in the conflict. It doesn’t feel busy, but it’s like there are massive gaps in the middle.

I would also suggest that the film counts too much on its audience having seen the previous films — not for plot information, as the movie mostly makes sense on its own, but to develop necessary emotional connections to some of the characters, many of whom would be complete non-entities if not for the franchise’s other installments.

My big issue here, though, is one I take with pretty much all three of the Iron Man movies: the villains.

This is where I’m going to insert a disclaimer. I don’t intend to spoil any actual plot developments here, so what I’m about to write is probably pretty safe to read. But I know that even telling someone where to watch for a certain plot development or character progression or twist can be tantamount to spoiling it for them. For those who fear it might, this is the part where you ought to step back.

This franchise has always had badly written villains — or at least mediocre ones. It has two major problems that arise consistently: it writes its villains not as characters with motivations but as dark forces who simply look at every given situation and apparently think to themselves, “What is the evil thing to do here? I think I’ll do that”; and if the villain’s plot or the villain himself turn out to be not exactly what they seem, it will still spend the first half of each film writing that villain/plot as though the misdirection is true, and the second half reneging on that. This means that, in retrospect, once you know who the villains are and what they’re after, a number of actions taken by them make absolutely no sense and sometimes seem actively inimical to their overall plans. And even when they don’t, it confuses the motivations: someone wants revenge against Tony Stark over some minor thing that happened years ago, so they…decide to take over the world? Okay.

Iron Man 2 has the best villains solely on virtue of the fact that their plots don’t take on larger implications. Whiplash wanted revenge against Tony Stark, and every action he took was a logical one within that game plan.

But a bigger problem with Iron Man 3 is that, in some small way, it breaks the promise it’s making to the audience in terms of what to expect and then…gives it that anyway, just a scaled-down version that hasn’t been built up in anything near the same way. There’s a twist on the villains’ end of things that I’m not opposed to in principle (though I can certainly see why it’s so enraged fans of the comics) but that, in execution, turns the movie on its head without really shifting it so fundamentally that it becomes about something different — which would’ve been the way to go. It just swaps the roles a few characters are playing and then does everything the same way it probably would have done it anyway. The movie’s pacing is decent for the most part, but because of this swap, you’re left feeling like an entirely different film has only just started once the climax rolls in. I wouldn’t be so dramatic as to say that it’s a betrayal of the audience’s faith, but it definitely robs the film of something, in my opinion.

Mostly, Iron Man 3 is good, summer fun — despite some of its darker and more brutal moments. Moreover, it entertains a lot of really interesting ideas, whether they’re explored properly or not — up to and including commentary on society’s need for a singular and identifiable villain. And it successfully does with Tony Stark what The Dark Knight Rises only partially accomplished for Batman — stripping away the advantages and seeing what’s left.

Like I said earlier: there’s a surprising dearth of Iron Man in Iron Man 3. But there’s plenty of Tony Stark, and that’s what keeps the engine running.

 

-Matt T.

Jack Reacher (2012)

Starring- Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, David Oyelowo, Werner Herzog, Jai Courtney, Vladimir Sizov, Joseph Sikora, Michael Raymond-James, Alexia Fast, Josh Helman, Robert Duvall

Director- Christopher McQuarrie

PG-13- violence, language and some drug material

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kK7y8Ou0VvM

Jack Reacher is either smarter than it seems or a heck of a lot dumber. I haven’t really decided yet. I’ve definitely seen a lot of movies that seem like they’re about one thing but hide all these little subversive elements that, taken together, secretly make it about something else. But those movies usually aren’t PG-13 Tom Cruise action blockbusters. Hence…

When a shooter randomly kills five people, the city of Pittsburgh is left shaken. It seems a cut-and-dry case: the suspect is fated for conviction and needs only to determine the level of cooperation he’ll offer in order to dodge death.

But he says nothing, instead giving the investigators a single note: “Get Jack Reacher.”

Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) is ex-military living off the grid for reasons no one is easily able to determine. But he shows up — not because of the note, but because of a promise he made a long time ago.

But inevitably, nothing is as it seems, and soon, he and the suspect’s defense attorney, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike) — one of the best there is — end up in an alliance of mutual benefit trying to seek out the truth of what happened.

Surprisingly, Jack Reacher is less slam-bang action picture and more cheesily melodramatic film noir mystery/detective story. We don’t have many of those anymore, so there’s a sense in which it’s a welcome addition to the modern film scene, even if it’s mostly just okay as a movie.

I wouldn’t necessarily call it “smart,” and I certainly wouldn’t call it well written. On the latter point, it’s largely pretty cheesy, and it’s never clear how much of that is intentional. It slides because it has the feel of, again, melodramatic film noir, helping the dumbness of some of it stick. Regardless, the one-liners land with an awful clank, for the most part.

And on the former point, it’s not that I’d call the film dumb, but neither would I say that the twists and turns of the plot end up cohering into a particularly precise set of dominoes that not only make sense but feel somewhat inevitable. Its twists mostly amount to, “Well, one of these guys is a traitor, and we don’t know who it is. We haven’t established any motivations or provided any clues that the audience might follow to a conclusion, so instead we’ll just pull a name out of a hat and make that our turncoat.”

The film is constructed on plot twists, and not a one of them is broadcast beforehand or justified retroactively. It’s clearly making the majority of them up as it goes along. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t largely enjoyable to just go along for a ride.

It’s certainly shot and directed quite well, stylish and energetic without breaking character or going too far over the shot. It doesn’t have many traditional action sequences, but the majority of them are fairly effective. Christopher McQuarrie does an admirable job, more or less, and can’t really be faulted for his efforts here.

The cast is solid. With a movie like this, you’re not getting characters so much as pawns in the filmmakers’ game, but, you know. They’re basically watchable pawns. Jack Reacher is probably guilty of wasting its Werner Herzog a bit, but then again, it’s Werner Herzog. His performance here is good, but not insane and completely inexplicable, as is his presence here, and it is, thus, a disappointment. I will also grant that Tom Cruise is a touch miscast here. Never mind that I don’t think anyone will ever again make a movie where I see him as anything other than Tom Cruise. Here, his persona, while intense as ever, has a bit too much of his boy-next-door quality to really sell the rogue cop angle. Tom Cruise is a thoroughly defined screen presence, but the film clearly wants Jack Reacher himself to emerge as the primary icon; these two individuals war with each other throughout.

But mostly, it’s solid. Watchable. Not mind-blowing or even super interesting, but it largely accomplishes its goal.

It also argues against its own message so effectively that I’m seriously entertaining the idea that it did so on purpose.

You see, most of you probably expected me to hate this, for the same set of reasons I hate other films of its type: it’s a violent revenge fantasy whose message, as stated, is something along these lines — “To hell with a fair trial! If somebody’s clearly guilty, kill ‘em! The lawyers who defend these monsters are human refuse! Kill ‘em, kill ‘em, kill ‘em! But the law won’t let us, so instead we have to take it into our own hands! We need vigilantes like Jack Reacher, who don’t care about the law or about justice or about fairness!”

Beyond that, I ordinarily object on principle to films that pretend to be escapist while actually being the exact opposite. The Avengers is escapism; I will never understand why people claim more realistic and brutal action movies are the same.

And Jack Reacher, well, I have, on multiple occasions, walked the exact stretch of sidewalk where innocent people get gunned down in the opening scene, in a moment very reminiscent of what surely must have occurred during the time frame in which the D.C. sniper was at large. It’s an incredibly unsettling thing.

But I’m giving the film a pass here if only because I do think it has a touch more on its mind than just entertainment — though that is in there — regardless of whether I agree with it or not.

And I haven’t decided that I do. Regarding the aforementioned message, Jack Reacher talks the talk, but it doesn’t really walk the walk. I hesitate to spoil anything because the twists are 95 percent of the enjoyment of this thing. Without doing so, I will say that the events of the plot fight against this repeatedly stated message so thoroughly and so well that you have to wonder if it’s intentional. Basically, if that message is correct, and the characters lived it… The villains would’ve won. Seriously.

Let me illustrate exactly how well it argues against it. Up until the last few minutes of the movie, I was convinced its worldview was the exact opposite of what it ends up asserting. There comes a moment when Reacher arrives at the inevitable showdown with the perpetrator, and in that moment…he sets his weapon down. And in that moment, I was certain it was because Reacher was allowing an act of mercy, allowing the law to handle it, because if he was learning anything at all from his experiences, that should’ve been the lesson to take away.

But instead, it’s just setup for the needed one-on-one Epic Fistfight in the Rain. And it actually caught me off guard that this was the case. That is how well Jack Reacher fights in the opposite direction. And I have to at least speculate that some devious genius might have been at work behind the scenes either producing something highly subversive or sabotaging the work everyone else was doing. It’s difficult to imagine all of that happened purely by accident.

But still… There isn’t any sense of discomfort or dissonance that I could see in the ending, which keeps pounding its stated message out in no uncertain terms and framing it all in the context of the “cool, 90s antihero” that’s been making a resurgence lately. I really have no idea what it was going for.

All in all, Jack Reacher is enough to keep your eyes on the screen and your watch mostly un-checked, even if that’s all it is. And it does appear to have something on its mind, which I can appreciate. But it’s difficult to argue that it’s conveyed in the best way.

 

-Matt T.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Starring- Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Anupam Kher, John Ortiz, Shea Whigham, Julia Stiles, Paul Herman, Dash Mihok

Director- David O. Russell

R- language and some sexual content/nudity

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lj5_FhLaaQQ

Well, what do you know? A movie that redeems the Oscar Bait formula. Who would’ve thought?

Pat Solatano Jr. (Bradley Cooper), a former schoolteacher, is in a mental health institution — court-ordered — after a violent outburst finally turned up his undiagnosed bipolar disorder. His eight months having been served, he’s left with no choice but to move back in with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) and attempt to work through his illness.

However, his main determination is to reconnect with his wife, despite the fact that she now has a restraining order against him.

For that purpose, he starts rebuilding relationships with some mutual friends, through whom he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). The death of her husband awakened some similar mental issues within her, and the two of them start to bond over their shared life experiences.

The fascinating thing about Silver Linings Playbook is that it is thoroughly formulaic, but it never once feels that way. This seems to be the outstanding talent of David O. Russell — making rather ordinary and predictable feel-good movies, but giving them a strong enough dose of honesty and realism to convince you, the viewer, that yeah, all the ducks are in a row, but maybe, maybe, just this once, it won’t end well. Maybe it won’t have a happy ending.

From the beginning, you know more or less where Silver Linings Playbook is going — by the start of the climax, you even know some of the details. But it straddles the line, clings closely enough to reality. You know it could swing either way, so when the formula comes full circle, it feels a lot better than it usually does.

The most frequent criticism of Silver Linings Playbook is that its happy ending somehow fails to acknowledge the difficulty both characters will face going forward with their respective challenges, implying that True Love is a substitute for structured treatment. And while it’s true that the movie stops being about mental illness to the extent that the characters’ lives begin to look implausibly unaffected, that’s also somewhat the point — it stops being about mental illness. The ending of the movie doesn’t need to address that because it’s not really about that anymore.

There’s a sense in which Silver Linings Playbook finds something very universal in the struggles faced by its two protagonists. I think just about everyone has been in a place where they don’t feel hated, so much, but there’s a sense you have that nobody really understands you, and it leaves you feeling alone, stranded. That there are people who love you doesn’t ultimately matter; nobody gets you. What you see in this movie is not a family that hates Pat but one that doesn’t understand why he is the way he is or how he got that way. Maybe they blame him for it somewhat, or maybe they blame themselves.

The relationship that unfolds between Pat and Tiffany is a very believable and almost inevitable one. The scene where they bond over a conversation about medication side effects is a mildly comedic one, but it’s actually pretty sensible that it would cause something to click inside of them. They talk more after that, because here’s someone who gets it. Here’s someone they can talk to who will understand and sometimes agree with everything they say. There’s a sense of instability to it, naturally, but they find something constructive in each other, a means by which they can experience mutual improvement and find an outlet. And I think that’s something that feels very real to anyone who’s ever felt like an outcast, however briefly. Love and understanding are a pair; each needs the other, or it is imperfect.

But even when you narrow Silver Linings Playbook down to something a bit more specific, it comes across as well observed and somewhat subtle. When it acknowledges that the mental illnesses exist, there’s a certain dynamic that it achieves that feels lived-in. I’m probably not an expert; I haven’t really experienced this type of thing firsthand. But it emerges in a way that, at the very least, seems sensible. The way Pat’s family handles his affliction seems much the way one would expect such people to handle it. His father — whose OCD and superstition has certainly never helped Pat — who has the simmering anger, directed at nothing and no one in particular, because his son has this sickness that he can’t do anything about. He blames Pat, he blames himself, and he’s overcompensating for perceived flaws even as he continues to indulge them. Pat’s mother, on the other hand, seems to be somewhat in denial. She tries — too hard — to treat Pat like he’s one hundred percent normal, and she breaks badly whenever he has an episode.

And Pat and Tiffany themselves function on a very effective internal logic. Bradley Cooper does a better job than in any other movie I can remember seeing him in; he probably overplays the schmuck a bit, but he finds that really tenuous balance between humor and pathos in his performance. His character fights so hard, and the harder he fights, the more control slips through his fingers.

And Jennifer Lawrence is pretty well flawless. Her character’s issues were discovered before she committed a crime because of them, but she still seems less stable than Pat somehow. She’s both fragile and explosive; any given incident is either going to provoke depression and withdrawal or anger and potential assault. Her problem has been more with sex addiction, and while we don’t see any of that, the fact that it happened makes a startling amount of sense given the circumstances under which her husband died. It’s not addiction so much as overcompensation, as a desperate apology offered to the heavens to assuage her baseless guilt.

There’s reality and edginess to it. That takes the formula and twists it into something that you feel might not be formula, even though, intellectually, you never once figure it’s anything else. The film isn’t perfect. It’s not quite so challenging as maybe it could be. Its main crime isn’t so much being flawed as it is lacking that special something — other than performances, I mean. Those are universally fantastic.

Regardless. The destination of Silver Linings Playbook is never in question. But the journey is highly watchable.

-Matt T.