Tag: robert downey jr.

Zodiac


Zodiac (2007)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A deliberate sidestepping of overt action is the strategy director David Fincher employs in “Zodiac,” a true crime thriller surrounding the hunt for the Zodiac killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area from 1969 to 1971. Highly intelligent, meticulous, and efficient, at times the picture embodies the texture of a documentary in the way it dares to break away from the expected plot and dramatic parabola. What matters is information, how it is presented, and what conclusions, if any, can be drawn from them. What results is a film for a select audience: those who are tickled by the act of looking through a microscope and noting the beautiful, horrifying, surprising details of a specimen. It is not for viewers who wish to be entertained by ostentatious shootouts and car crashes where the bad guy drops dead in the final act. In fact, the climax consists simply of two people looking at each other in the eye, denoting common understanding.

Observe its use of violence. It is rapid, matter-of-fact, making a point to show how excruciating it is to get stabbed and shot. Notice how slow motion is used. Attention is not at the point of contact between weapon and flesh—as horror films tend to do—but on facial expressions of the victims. There is no score playing in the background when a person is being assaulted or murdered which makes the whimpering, the crying, the begging for help all the more deafening. Take note, too, how the victims’ desperation can be felt even after killing ends. The violence is meant to be ugly, traumatizing, and sad. Our sympathy is always with the injured or dying person, never the killer. These are designed precisely so that we wish for the Zodiac to get caught—even though we already know he never was.

The picture is an excellent procedural that brings to mind Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men.” We follow three men who dare to stare into the eyes of evil: San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), and SF police inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). We experience their day-to-day interactions with colleagues; following—sometimes overstepping—rules and regulations; wrestling with bureaucracy. There is excitement in the rhythm of their workspaces. Downey Jr., Gyllenhaal, and Ruffalo deliver terrific, naturalistic performances. They have a habit of inviting us to question what it is they are thinking at any given moment.

Evil stares right back at these figures, however, and we watch their lives unravel throughout the course of twenty-two years: erosion of one’s physical and mental health, deteriorating relationships with family, coming to terms with one’s limitations as an investigator. There is a sense of surrender during the last third in particular. So many years have passed, people who were most enthusiastic to catch the killer then now just want to move on. Even the person who chooses to carry on the torch is forced to wonder at times whether his actions are still worth it. These are characters worth following not only because they are good at their jobs, getting to the truth is who they are.

Despite numerous details surrounding each murder (especially intriguing are scenes that allow us to walk a crime scene), handwritten letters that the Zodiac sent to newspapers, a dozen witness accounts, and endless paper trails, the labyrinthine mystery is told with urgency and clarity. For example, the screenplay by James Vanderbilt does not simply tell us that a partial set of fingerprints from an otherwise extremely cautious murderer is important. It shows how it is important and why. When a piece of evidence is presented, the astute and patience writing makes a point of relating the information to the bigger picture and so we always have an appreciation of the investigation. Does a seemingly reliable evidence make sense? How so? The film wishes to engage rather than spoon-feed us.

The picture is not without a sense of humor. In between gruesome deaths and barrage of possible case-breaking information are moments of exhalation: a date gone wrong (or gone right—depending on how one looks at it), police stations not having fax machines yet and so urgent files must be sent via snail mail, a character’s obsession with animal crackers, among many others. These did not need to be in the movie—and yet they are. Fincher wishes for us to be so invested into this world that he is able to find humor amidst terrifying events. Nearly every single change in tone is pulled off beautifully.

Avengers: Endgame


Avengers: Endgame (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

It requires a daring decision to surprise me when it comes to modern superhero films and, quite miraculously, “Avengers: Endgame” manages to do so about fifteen minutes in. It has been a while since a Marvel film left me wondering, “So then… what’s next?” and it is a most refreshing feeling, a promise, a question mark followed by an exclamation point, that there is plenty more to unbox considering its hefty running time of three hours. The well-paced and consistently entertaining direction by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo gives the impression that just about anything can or will happen given that the material at hand is meant to be a closing chapter to one of the most ambitious projects Hollywood has given moviegoers.

The expectation is enormous and the picture delivers for the most part. The action sequences are busy but always given context in addition to being well-choreographed and so those giving at least a modicum of attention would not be lost; the special and visual effects are first-rate—certainly ostentatious at times but not once do they come across as empty decorations; there are enough moments of silence and ponderation given the fact that the characters remain in mourning over their fallen comrades and loved ones after Thanos (Josh Brolin) succeeds in eliminating half of the universe’s population; and the direct and indirect nudges to Marvel films that came before are throughly entertaining—handled with creativity, humor, and a solid sense of foreboding.

And yet the picture is not without notable shortcomings. The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely takes on a monumental task of putting together more than a decade’s worth of stories and creating an unforgettable, possibly instant-classic, culmination. While I admired that the goal is nothing short of magnificent, the work scrambles at times at trying to be everything at once.

Most noticeable is the humor, how it comes across as shoehorned—at times cringe-y—when events begin to feel a little grave. In previous films, the well-written and well-delivered comic lines succeed in alleviating tension. Occasionally, it works here. But not nearly all the time. I think the reason is because the heavy atmosphere of foreboding consistently points to the demise of characters we’ve learned to love. Laughter fizzles rather than helping to elevate excitement. In the middle of it, I wondered if it would have been a more daring decision to minimize the humor that Marvel films thrive on. It absolutely would have been more challenging.

Considering the running time, it is curiosity that there isn’t more in-depth character development. Instead, we receive one too many scenes or shots of our heroes looking solemn or trading conciliatory handshakes. Sometimes there are close-ups of tears flowing down one’s cheeks. I found the melodrama to be unnecessary; a more elegant choice might been to trust the audience to grab onto the story and understand the gravity of the plot without such dramatic signposts.

The remaining tension between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), for instance, may have been worth exploring. Instead, the two leaders are given only about three to five minutes to sort out their personal issues. People forget that Evans and Downey Jr. are dramatic actors; they work best not when the charm is on but when it isn’t, when the material demands that they let go of their masculine chain mail and reveal their character foibles.

While the chosen strategy is understandable from a point of view of an action-centric story, an argument can be made that an amplified drama leads to stronger moments of catharsis. Here, catharsis often comes in the form of surprise deaths and teary reunions. I was not particularly moved by any of them—with one exception that comes late into the picture.

Avengers: Infinity War


Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Those not well-versed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe need not fret: “Avengers: Infinity War,” the accumulation of preceding works of the franchise, as directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, is a supremely entertaining movie, made for viewers who like their action films big and loud without sacrificing creativity and heart. Compounded with the requirement that screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely must juggle over twenty personalities throughout its behemoth running time, while maintaining a breezy forward momentum, the film is without a doubt a successful mainstream entertainment.

It is the correct decision to keep the central conflict at bare minimum: Stop Thanos (Josh Brolin) from acquiring six Infinity Stones. If successful, this would grant him the ability to eliminate half of the universe’s population by merely snapping his fingers. With so many moving parts—some events happen on Earth, others take place in outer space; under each setting are strands designed to come together for climactic battles—it is critical that the story is simple and clean as possible. But the masterstroke is its treatment of the villain.

It is inaccurate to categorize Thanos simply as good or evil. He believes he is saving the universe by performing genocide. On the most basic level, he argument makes sense: resources are scarce while populations continue to rise. His method just so happens to be monstrous, at least based on our morality. But that is not only the reason why he is complex, perhaps even a tragic figure. He is not written to be deranged psychopath who simply wishes to see the universe burn; like the heroes we root for, he is capable of feeling and caring. He is equally determined as those who wish to thwart his plans which makes for a compelling watch.

The special and visual effects are seamless. Hoards of rabid aliens clashing with elegant Wakandan warriors made me think of the epic battles in “The Lord of the Rings” with even more camera acrobatics. When Falcon (Anthony Mackie) soars above the battlefield or when Spider-Man (Tom Holland) swings from one collapsing piece of skyscraper to another, there is an urgency to the aerial shots and danger when the viewer looks down from great heights. When Thanos beats Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) with his bare fists, pieces of his armor fall off like broken teeth. These effects create images that are exciting, brutal, and realistic. I wish more blood and bruises were shown, but perhaps the brand hopes to keep such barbarous images at a minimum.

Having only a limited time to tell the story in an efficient way, characters we wish to get to see or get to know more do not get the attention they deserve. I wanted to bathe in the bromance between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), the hilarious banter between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), as well as the brilliance of Shuri (Letitia Wright), a young scientist with countless inventions. Although not a perfect superhero film, not even a near-perfect one (“The Dark Knight,” “Spider-Man 2,” “The Avengers,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”), the picture delivers fresh popcorn entertainment. Notice there is almost always something to laugh at, be nervous about, or worth being curious over.

“Avengers: Infinity War” delivers upon its ambitions. If its risk-taking and playful crossovers is a portent of what is yet to come, not just within the “Avengers” movies but within the Marvel brand as a whole, then it can be assumed that the apices of the franchise remain territories to be discovered. It is only a matter of time.

Spider-Man: Homecoming


Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

The decision not to tell yet another origins story benefits Jon Watts’ “Spider-Man: Homecoming” immensely because it takes away significant portions of what we expect from a typical arc involving Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider and having to discover his powers. Instead, the plot revolves around a tyro superhero so willing to be a part of The Avengers that he forgets he is still a kid just making his way through high school. Thus, an intriguing portrait of Spider-Man is created, one that is grounded in reality yet without sacrificing the required highly energetic and entertaining action pieces.

Two performers are cast perfectly in their respective roles. The first is Michael Keaton, playing a man named Adrian Toomes, owner of a salvage company who chooses to create weapons out of alien technology. Because Toomes is in fact the antagonist to our friendly neighborhood superhero, it is easy and convenient to label him as a villain. I believe he is more than that. I think Toomes represents the Average Joe, a businessman who is willing to do what it takes to provide for his family. So, to me, he is not a villain. And that is what makes the character fascinating. Keaton plays Toomes smart and with such humanity that when one looks into those eyes, one realizes he can be anybody’s uncle simply leading a business operation.

The second is Tom Holland, portraying a fifteen-year-old boy from Queens, New York who just so happens to be Spider-Man. I enjoyed and admired Holland’s decision to play the character as Peter Parker first and Spider-Man second—even though the plot revolves around an obsession to prove to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) that he should be a part of the Avengers. Casting a performer who excels most in dramatic roles is the correct decision because pulling off both comedy and drama, sometimes simultaneously, can be very tricky. Notice how he sells the more serious scenes during the latter half, particularly one that unfolds in a tension-filled car on the way to the Homecoming dance. Holland fits the role like a glove. It will be difficult to imagine someone else in this role for years to come.

It offers memorable action scenes, whether it be atop great metropolitan heights in broad daylight or a night chase around the suburban New York neighborhood. These sequences not only command energy but also range. In action pictures, it is so important for each confrontation to look and feel different from one another. It prevents us from feeling bored. Superior actions films tend to have a commonality: the audience feeling the need to catch up to it rather than it struggling to catch up to our expectations. Clearly, this film falls in the former group with occasional surprises to spare.

Its weakness comes in the form of writing when it comes to Peter’s peers, with the exception of Ned (Jacob Batalon), Peter’s best friend and partner in crime. The romantic angle between Peter and Liz (Laura Harrier) is not as effective as it should have been since there is rarely opportunity for us to get to know Peter’s crush. In fact, I found Liz to be quite nondescript. Although it is obvious that Michelle (Zendaya) really likes Peter, even though she is pretty much invisible to him, aside from a few sarcastic one-liners, the screenplay fails to create at least a marginally well-rounded character, especially when it hints that Michelle will have a bigger role in the sequel.

Regardless, there is plenty to be enjoyed in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” It is paced well, the central characters are worth exploring, the action sequences are impressive with the ability to surprise, and it knows how to have fun with (and make fun of) our protagonist with or without the Spidey suit. Imagine if it had taken more time and effort to iron out details regarding how different teenagers can be complex, difficult, and fascinating. I’d wager this installment could have been among the best in the series.

Captain America: Civil War


Captain America: Civil War (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

One of the main reasons why “Captain America: Civil War,” directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, succeeds as a mainstream blockbuster entertainment is its willingness to contain as many colorful personalities as seemingly possible, shaking it vigorously like a soda bottle, and allowing such natures and temperaments to explode. Though at this point many of us are familiar with the many zany superheroes showcased here, I have a good feeling that someone who remains alien to the Marvel universe will enjoy this picture regardless as an action film.

Its energy is highly infectious, from the opening minutes involving a highly exciting chase in an outdoor market in Lagos to the bone-crunching duel between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) in a secluded base where a big secret is revealed. Just about every action sequence sandwiched between these defining scenes build on top of one another and the film creates formidable momentum.

Credit to the screenwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, for consistently increasing the ante. Because we feel there is always something significant at stake, we look forward to how the next scene might play out. At times it is even able to surprise by taking us on certain detours designed to introduce a new character or one that is familiar but now played by a new performer. All the while there is humor dispersed throughout. There is a darkness to the film, especially when it comes to Captain America and Iron Man’s increasingly strained relationship, but it never looks and feels depressing, or a drag to sit through.

The plot, while interesting, is almost secondary to the big personalities that grace the screen but here it is: After the mission in Lagos goes horribly awry, which cost the lives of humanitarians, the U.S. government insists that the Avengers require some form of oversight in order to, in theory, minimize unnecessary collateral damage in the future. Tony Stark/Iron Man supports the idea while Steve Rogers/Captain America rejects it. The schism between the two factions worsens when the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is seemingly captured on camera before a bomb went off and killed innocent people.

Providing depth—whether it be in terms of character development or recurring themes—is not the movie’s strong point because there are numerous characters to juggle. Regardless, the filmmakers do a solid job in providing each character two or three moments to shine. Particularly impressive is the battle between Captain America and Iron Man’s teams which take place in an airport.

The teams are so well-matched. During the ten- to fifteen-minute sequence, beautifully choreographed, we are able to ascertain each character’s fighting style, learn about some of his or her strengths and weaknesses, and appreciate his or her motivations—superficial they may come across at times—for joining a certain side. There is a sense of childlike joy in the fray and I wished it had gone longer.

“Captain America: Civil War” tells an engaging story and expands upon its universe at the same time. There is an effortlessness felt here that is missing in less successful Marvel offerings like in Joss Whedon’s very disappointing “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and Shane Black’s downright dreadful “Iron Man 3.” The approach here should be used as template or inspiration for future outings because it achieves a healthy balance between brain and brawn.

Avengers: Age of Ultron


Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

The problem with “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” directed by Joss Whedon, is that it does not attempt to do anything particularly special. It drifts lazily from one action scene to another—sandwiched by so-called character development with lines of dialogue so television-like that at times I wondered if I was watching a first cut of the film rather than a final one—and not one is so well-choreographed that the sequence is etched in our brains well after the movie is over. Clearly, it is a sequel not worthy of the original.

Successfully acquiring Loki’s scepter, risk-taking Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and a more reluctant Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) decide to use the scepter’s gem to complete a defense program called Ultron that can potentially protect the entire planet from otherworldly invaders. But the unknown technology proves highly dangerous when Ultron (voiced by James Spader) becomes sentient. Its goal: To achieve world peace by destroying mankind.

Ultron is a most underwhelming villain. Although the visual effects that make the artificial intelligence appear sinister are quite a marvel, there is nothing complex about the antagonist aside from the contradiction of his endgame. As a sentient machine, he does not accomplish anything big or terrifying either; it all feels small in scope—too small for the bar that the predecessor had set up. For instance, in the beginning there is talk about the rogue AI possibly being capable of activating nuclear weapons on a whim and yet by the third act our heroes only deal with one bomb. It might have worked if the final battle commanded so much suspense and tension, we forget that Ultron has the capacity to cause more destruction. Instead, not once are the Avengers thrusted into any real, convincing danger. Thus, Ultron comes across as a forgettable villain-of-the-week.

The romantic connection between Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Hulk is a good idea but it is not executed in such a way that we want to invest deeply in what they share. These are two of the more interesting characters in the group—the former is in control but heavily scarred by her past and the latter finds himself fighting an every day fear of being out of control—but their exchanges are reduced to soppy, googly-eyed bore. Instead of communicating true humanity underneath their roles as mankind’s protectors, the dialogue sounds very scripted, lines that must be uttered for the camera.

However, the film is not without a sense humor which almost always works, whether it be our superheroes just hanging out in Stark’s multimillion-dollar loft or out there in the field where things go boom! The wit and the snark unique to each character are exercised with confidence. What I will remember from the movie are not the scenes where the Avengers engage in physical battle but the battle of words and looks they give one another once in a while because each of them, deep down, is convinced that he is that special flavor in the group. The script has a way of consistently making self-importance charming—which is difficult to do.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is a disappointment as an action film. Specifically, it fails to command imaginative or creative sequences that force us to undergo a rollercoaster of emotions. The emotions that we do experience are superficial, forgotten after two or three scenes. Lastly, perhaps the picture does not engage thoroughly because not one character comes across as expendable. Future writers and filmmakers of the franchise ought to keep in mind that there is excitement in danger while there is passivity in safety. It neglects to play with our expectations so the final product is not by any means compelling.

Iron Man 3


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.