Iron Man 3 (2013)
★ / ★★★★
“Iron Man 3” is anything but a consistently entertaining, funny, and thrilling superhero bim-bam-smash action extravaganza. It is a throwback to movies like Joel Schumacher’s “Batman & Robin” where there are too many villains but not enough effort is put into exploring who they are, what they aim to do exactly, and how they, after executing their evil plot, will help our hero, or heroes, gain an insight to the questions that plague his mind.
In the case of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), after having learned the existence of gods and aliens as well as having a brush with death in Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers,” he finds himself in a suspended state of trauma, barely getting a night’s sleep, obsessing over creating more Iron Man suits, and fixing whatever knickknack when he really ought to be getting some counseling. When a man called The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) executes bombings–first abroad then in America–Stark is, at best, underprepared.
As expected, the film has an eye for destruction. When Stark’s home is attacked by three helicopters with long-range rifles and rocket launchers, it is wise to minimize shots that take place outside. Since the scene is composed mostly of interior shots, there is a feeling that we are in the middle of the action: red hot bullets swishing by, ground collapsing without warning, and a posh car–that happens to be indoors–falling off a cliff. With the aid of first-rate sound mixing, it is a believable localized war zone soaked in dust and danger with seemingly little hope of escape.
Whenever the action stops, however, it is a first-class bore. The would-be funny quips and exchanges are not all that impressive. There are a few lines that made me chuckle, but for the most part they are often misplaced or forced. Instead of engaging us in a consistent build-up of adrenaline, a short break, and then more thrills, the material is punctuated by long stretches tedious dialogue. It gets so pedestrian that–can you believe it–characters eventually verbalize what they are doing at the time when we can see them doing it. The script is filled with padding; there is no reason for this movie to run over two hours.
It has neither intrigue nor a convincing mystery. In the second half, Stark is forced to catch up to what we already know with regards to a villains’ identities. When he inevitably discovers these people for who they really are, it does not feel like a big deal. It is anticlimactic. There is no secondary twist that Stark is able to deduce while the rest of us feel the rug being pulled below our feet. It seems the material has lost touch of what makes Stark such an interesting character in the first place: he is constantly ahead of us–his mind compromised or otherwise–and almost never the other way around.
Talented actors like Rebecca Hall, who plays a botanist, Guy Pearce, a scientist, and Gwyneth Paltrow, the love interest of Stark, are not challenged. Their roles are one-dimensional, diluted by a laughably bad screenplay by Drew Pearce and Shane Black. The one that stood out to me is James Badge Dale, playing a super soldier who works for The Mandarin. Savin is rarely given a chance to speak so it is smart for the actor to apply unwavering tension in his body language. He is robotically sinister; those eyes can put frost on a popsicle. I wished Savin had a backstory.
Directed by Shane Black, there are few reasons to watch “Iron Man 3.” One of them is a scene involving Iron Man attempting to save thirteen people in free fall after being sucked out of a plane. But the rest is folly, oozing mediocrity in every one of one its metallic pores. Iron Man deserves a better story; we deserve a better movie.
Awakening, The (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a teacher, invites Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), a published writer and a debunker of so-called paranormal phenomena, to visit a boarding school and investigate reported ghost sightings. The boys claim that they have seen a ghost of an unnamed murdered child. The collective fear of the place has escalated to a point where an asthmatic student was found dead just three days ago. Florence thinks that it is her duty to expose the “ghost sightings” for what it really is so that the children can go on about their lives. But as Florence gets deeper into the case, she starts to consider that maybe the answers lie outside the realm of possibility.
“The Awakening,” based on the screenplay by Stephen Volk and Nick Murphy, is so soaked in ambience, it requires little to no effort to believe that the story unfolding before our eyes is occurring around the time of the First World War where a lot of people are unable to deal with the loss of their loved ones so they find solace in the idea of spirits or ghosts. Although the picture remains fascinating past its halfway point, the payoff ultimately feels like a gimmick rather than a natural appendage of its human themes.
The film is most intriguing during the writer’s investigation. While petrified students attempt to sleep in a hall with full knowledge of what is going on outside the walls that protect them from the terrifying encounters, Florence runs up and down the winding stairs, enters and exits seemingly empty rooms, and looks into the nooks and crannies of the mansion. She is so busy trying to see something–anything–that when she overlooks a detail and we, the audience, do not, we want to scream at her to quickly turn around to check whatever is behind her or go back to another room and be more observant. It engages us in familiar creepy scare tactics but they are nonetheless well-executed so we are compelled and willing to invest as the mysteries are pried open.
I enjoyed the scenes of Florence being alone in a room as she grapples with her thoughts because they are allowed to play out and gather tension. Hall plays Florence with an air of intelligence so every time the camera focuses on our protagonist’s face, we consider how she might be interpreting the events happening around her that are becoming more difficult to explain with observation and science. Emphasis is placed on the looks that the characters give one another. Hall is able to emote with only using her eyes exceeding well. This adds another level to the mystery: what has she realized that she does not communicate outwardly to those around her?
The twists in the final third of the picture are confusing and do not hold much weight. The flashbacks feel like they come from screenplays that are not only poorly written but also so typical that they are sure to inspire some groans. Surely there are better options than to pull the rug from underneath us and then force us to guess what is real and what isn’t. It is very disappointing that a consistently engaging material is shaken suddenly where we are left to reorient ourselves until the last shot instead of giving us the opportunity to focus on exploring or thinking about its more subtle layers.
Directed by Nick Murphy, “The Awakening” has gloom oozing out of its every pore. It offers an old-fashioned ghost story with many of its plot elements in place but it is unfortunate that its third act feels like a contrivance. The only reason I can think of as to why a detour is taken is due to the need to appeal to a broader audience.
Bag of Hammers, A (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Ben (Jason Ritter) and Alan (Jake Sandvig) made a living by pretending to be valet parking attendants at a cemetery. As soon as the unsuspecting grieving people handed the car keys to one of them, Ben and Alan picked up their “Free Valet Parking” sign, loaded it in the car, and drove the vehicle to a car shop owned by Marty (Todd Louiso). Marty would then pay the duo thousands of dollars, all part of a day’s work. When Lynette (Carrie Preston) and her young son, Kelsey (Chandler Canterbury), moved in next to the crooks’ house, it became increasingly obvious that Kelsey was being neglected. “A Bag of Hammers,” written by Jake Sandvig and Brian Crano, was a comedy-drama with some good ideas but since its characters weren’t fully fleshed out, the revelatory scenes that were supposedly charged with intense emotions didn’t feel entirely convincing nor earned. The script did a good job establishing that Alan and Ben were goofballs. The early scenes which involved the two of them pulling scams were mildly amusing. The actors benefited greatly from their charming looks. If Ben and Alan were played by buff guys with tattoos, there would be nothing funny about their actions. But what was the true nature of Ben and Alan’s relationship? The two lived together. They didn’t date anyone. Ben had an ex-girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) but hell freezing over had a better chance than the two of them getting back together. Understanding their relationship, in which one could either translate as a romance or a bromance, was of particular importance because of the happenings in the latter half. We learned that Ben and Alan had difficult upbringings, but I wasn’t convinced that their partnership, as vague as it was, was strong enough to be able to relate to the kid being abused by his mother. Alan and Ben’s struggles were different–though it isn’t to suggest any less serious–and potentially moving, but since the script did not allow us to get to know them openly and in consistently meaningful ways, a strong emotional bridge wasn’t established as they tried to convince Kelsey that they could relate to what he was going through. Luckily for the film, Preston did a wonderful job portraying a woman who was drowning–drowning in poverty, shame, feelings of inadequacy, and depression. Each time her face, so tired and forlorn, was front and center, especially during her job interviews, every part of her screamed desperation, from her nervous yet glowering eyes to her very tense shoulders. It was scary and sad when she entered the house in a rage and Kelsey just sat in the kitchen, living off another Monster Energy drink for dinner. The moments when I felt something real–something visceral–most often involved the scenes of mother and son. Another interesting but underdeveloped character was Mel (Rebecca Hall), a waitress at a diner and Alan’s sister. Although she was the voice of reason with an air of seriousness about her, I liked it when she smiled. You could tell she was smart, so why not give her funnier and wittier things to say? Directed by Brian Crano, for all of the weaknesses of “A Bag of Hammers,” it managed to hit some emotional truths. It felt right that our sympathies were almost never toward Ben and Alan but always for the boy trapped by the cards he’d been given.
Prestige, The (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
Robert (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred (Christian Bale) were gifted magicians. They used to work together up until Alfred accidentally caused the death of Robert’s wife during a performance. Her death triggered Robert’s obsession to have a better career than Alfred, a difficult feat because his rival could effortlessly think outside the box, a natural magician, although he lacked a bit of drama in order to establish a solid rising action and truly engage the audience during his performances. As the two attempted to create more complex tricks, everything else in their lives began to fall apart. Alfred’s wife (Rebecca Hall) became unhappy with their marriage and Robert’s lover (Scarlett Johansson) began to feel used when Robert asked her to spy on his former colleague. Directed by Christopher Nolan, “The Prestige” was a curious film for me because no matter how many times I watched it, I failed to see why it’s loved by practically everyone I know. I admired the performances. Bale was wonderful as a family man who was completely invested in his craft. Every time he spoke about magic and being on stage, I felt passion in his eyes and the subtle intensity of the varying intonations in his voice. Jackman was equally great as a man who was never satisfied. I felt sad for his character because despite his many achievements, what he truly wanted was an impossibility–for his wife to live again. The dark hunger consumed him and he became unable to question his motives or if vengeance was even worth it. The story was interesting because its core was about how being a magician defined a soul. Its labyrinthine storytelling, jumping between past and present, kept my attention because it was like solving a puzzle. However, the picture committed something I found very distasteful. That is, when Robert’s greatest trick, with the help of a scientist named Tesla (David Bowie), was finally revealed, it was borderline science fiction. Imagine a magician who, using a white cloth, made a pigeon disappear right before our eyes. We wait in heavy anticipation for him to bring back the pigeon. Once the “Tada!” moment came, what laid before us was not a pigeon. What appeared was a blue mouse or something not similar to a pigeon at all. The magic trick had turned into a joke. That was how I felt when all cards were laid on the table. Some critical pieces made no sense. I felt cheated because I had the impression that the magic trick was supposed to be grounded in reality. It wasn’t and, I must admit, I felt angry for spending the time in trying to figure out the secret. “The Prestige” wore out its welcome but was kept afloat by its morally complex characters and their willingness to destroy each other for the sake of nothing.
Please Give (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A married couple (Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt) living in New York City bought the apartment next door in hopes of expanding their home. All they had to do was to await the death of their elderly neighbor (Ann Morgan Guilbert) so they could move in and make the necessary changes. But the old woman, helped by her two granddaughters (Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet), did not seem to show any sign of passing away any time soon. “Please Give,” written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, was an effective comedy, which at times made me feel uneasy, because it showcased unlikable people doing and saying things that were, in the least, inappropriate. In others words, it captured real life. Even though it made me feel uncomfortable, I constantly laughed because I could imagine myself making the same decisions as the characters did here. Many scenes were familiar. For instance, while at a restaurant or a diner, we could hear banal conversations of others from a few tables away. There were also scenes where the characters expressed, without holding back, their anger toward their grandparents without regard for people, mostly strangers, who just happened to be there. I liked its honesty despite how painful certain truths were. I also enjoyed how I wasn’t quite sure whether the director was being emotionally sincere or poking fun at the characters as it moved from one scene to another. When Keener decided to volunteer for mentally challenged kids, on one hand, I was touched because I was reminded of the time when I used to volunteer at an Alzheimer’s facility. On some level, I felt like she was serious about wanting to commit and make a difference on those children’s lives. On the other hand, I thought it was very amusing because Keener’s character was such an insecure person but was not even aware of it. She felt like helping the world (she found giving money to homeless people rewarding) but she had important unresolved issues such as her guilt regarding her job and her increasingly difficult relationship with her pimply-faced teenage daughter (Sarah Steele). When the material became emotionally complex, I thought it was at its best. “Please Give” focused on people’s insecurities and their inability to deal with the way they saw themselves compared to how they thought the world perceived them. Best of all, in order to remain honest with the material, the ending gave a sufficient sense of closure to its characters without being melodramatic or heavy-handed. It felt just right because, while not every problem was solved, I felt like the characters would continue to be a work in progress.
Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Andrew Garfield stars as Eddie Dunford, a journalist on a quest to solve Britain’s infamous Yorkshire Ripper case. When a girl was found dead with wings stitched onto her back to make it seem like she was a fallen angel, everyone knew that the murder wasn’t a typical one. Everyone talked about it but no one was willing to come forward to the authorities or members of the media because they feared for their lives. I expected this film to be a procedural because it was such a popular case so I was a bit underwhelmed when it turned out to be otherwise. While I did enjoy the way the picture was shot and the dark undertones just boiling above the surface, it could have used a laser-like focus on the case at hand while exploring important questions such as why Eddie’s friend and fellow journalist (Anthony Flanagan) was killed. Instead, our protagonist became entangled in an unethical affair with the murdered child’s mother (Rebecca Hall), who may or may not know more than she lets on. I could have been more invested in the material if it had taken the time to explore and demonstrate how strong the bond was between Eddie and his friend. While Hall was strong as usual, the romantic angle grew stale pretty quickly because their relationship didn’t evolve. The script hinted at something insidious the more passionate the couple became but there were far too many scenes in the bedroom when the two would get intimate. Knowing that Eddie was keen at solving the mystery surrounding her daughter’s gruesome murder, I would think that she would encourage him to go deeper into the case and not into her. The film also consistently touched upon the corruption of the cops, journalists, and businessmen. Were they protecting each other because everybody wanted money or was it because something about the murder was mishandled in some way? There is no definite answer because the movie was too busy asking questions. The more questions were asked, the more frustrated I became because a lot of information thrown at us just did not make a lot of sense when I applied it to the big picture. Since this is the first of the trilogy, I am hoping that more of my questions will be answered the deeper I get into its mythology. Based on the novel by David Peace and directed by Julian Jarrold, “Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974” left a lot to be desired. The performances were engaging and the look of the movie reflected the times. It just needed more editing so it focused more on the actual case and less about our protagonist’s secondary adventures.
Town, The (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
An adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s book “Prince of Thieves,” writer-director Ben Affleck hemled “The Town,” a story about four bank robbers (Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Slaine, Owen Burke) in Charlestown pursued by a determined FBI agent (Jon Hamm). In the opening scene, the four criminals did what they normally didn’t do: take a woman (Rebecca Hall) as a hostage because someone tripped the alarm. Later, in an attempt to ascertain if she knew of their identities, Doug “accidentally” met the woman they took hostage and the two fell in love. I’ve read reviews comparing this film to Michael Mann’s “Heat” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” but I don’t think “The Town” is quite at the caliber of those two. While it did make an entertaining commercial heist film, I didn’t think it was as gritty as it wanted to portray. I wished the material had dug its nails into the characters a lot deeper. By putting more pressure on them, I think it would have been more successful at showing us who these characters really were. I really thought about the importance of character development in this picture because in one of the scenes, Doug and his crew used police uniform as a disguise to successfully steal money for their boss (the fascinatingly menacing Pete Postlethwaite). It meant that cops and criminals were essentially the same, their similarities are (or should be) more pronounced the more we looked into them. But, no matter how hard I tried, that’s not what I saw or felt while watching “The Town.” I thought it spent too much of its time focusing on the romance between Affleck and Hall which I understood as necessary because Doug was the conscience of his crew. In the end, I felt uneasy rooting for Doug because the film tried to sell that he was a good guy when he was really not. There’s a difference between sympathizing with a bad guy and masking the bad guy into a good guy. I believe “The Town” crossed that line. However, I recommend “The Town” because I was always interested in what was happening on screen. Aside from some stupid decisions done by smart characters, such as Doug choosing to be a bystander at a critical time instead of running away as fast as possible, I felt something for each of them. Furthermore, I noticed that the acting was strong and I was surprised with some performances, especially by Blake Lively’s. Despite not having many scenes, whenever she was on screen, I was magnetized toward her and I couldn’t believe she was a glamorous rich girl on “Gossip Girl.” Lastly, the three heist scenes became more exciting as they unfolded. What “The Town” needed was less romanticism because crime is anything but. It would have been nice if it tried to do something different with its subgenre. Instead of sticking out as an example, it simply blends in with the others.
★★★★ / ★★★★
I’m not going to judge this film with regards to whether or not it followed real life (which it didn’t in some parts) because it was based on a play by Peter Morgan. Michael Sheen stars as David Frost, a British television host who one day decides that he’s going to interview Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). Of course, that decision isn’t as easy as it sounds because he has to have the right amount of funds, gather the right people for research and risk his entire career. The drama prior to the scenes before the interviews was really effective because it solidifies the idea that Frost will be utterly finished if the people do not get what they want from Nixon: remorse with regards to his actions while being the President of the United States, admittance that he did participate in a number of cover-ups and that he did, in fact, abuse his power while leading the country. Sheen was very effective as Frost because even though he’s outgoing, charismatic and enthusiastic enough to tackle such a political issue, we feel for him whenever he is pushed in a corner like a mouse because he simply lacks the experience of interviewing a person of Nixon’s caliber. Langella was quite impressive as well. At first I was skeptical on why he was nominated for Best Actor but after watching this picture, I knew that he deserved it. He may not look like Nixon but he convinced me that he was powerful, intimidating and extremely intelligent. I loved those scenes when he would play mind games with Sheen; though those scenes were really serious, I felt that Langella was having a great time as an actor. To feel that resonance while also being invested in what was happening on screen, to me, means the mark of a great actor. Aside from the two leads, I also enjoyed watching Kevin Bacon as Jack Brennan, Sam Rockwell as James Reston, Jr. and Rebecca Hall as Caroline Cushing. Directed by Ron Howard, “Frost/Nixon” is a classic David vs. Goliath story. Although I was a blown away by the script because of its sharpness and wit, I was more impressed with its efficiency as it tackled the important questions while painting complex characters worthy of in-depth analysis. I’m glad this was nominated for Best Picture in 2008.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I knew Woody Allen still has it in him to make a really good film. After the wishy-washy “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream,” a lot of people began to lose hope once again because they wanted a film as great as “Match Point.” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is sexy, character-driven and sublime. The premise is two best friends (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) spend a summer in Barcelona and unexpectedly fall for an artistic and charismatic Spaniard (Javier Bardem). At first I thought I could relate more with Hall because she’s sensible and she knows exactly what she wants. But as the film went on, I could identify with Johansson more because she doesn’t limit herself by following society’s labels. She’s very open to things that can enlighten her not just intellectually but spiritually as well. Things get more complicated when the Bardem’s ex-wife, played by the gorgeous Penélope Cruz who deserves an Oscar nomination, returns after trying to kill herself. She provided that extra spice that the film needed in order be more romantic not in a safe way, but in a dangerous and unpredictable manner. I was impressed with this picture because each scene felt so organic. The characters talked and acted like real people, which I think is difficult to accomplish in a story about the complex dynamics between the characters. All of the actors had something to do and impacted each other in both subtle and profound ways. Another factor that I admired about this film is its stark contrast between American and European. The most obvious one includes Hall’s business-minded, unexciting husband (Chris Messina) compared to raw, passionate Bardem. One can also argue that Hall is more American while Johansson is more European. These differences even go as far as which types of clothes the characters wear. As much as I loved this film, I cannot give it a four-star rating because it needed an extra thirty minutes to reach a more insightful conclusion. I don’t mean tying up some loose ends in order for everyone to be happy. In fact, I love that this film was bold enough to leave some unhappy characters. It’s just that, in a Woody Allen film, you expect something more profound, something more complete. It’s not as introspective as “Match Point” but it comes very close.