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.

Weird Science


Weird Science (1985)
★★★ / ★★★★

Gary (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) have absolutely no luck with the girls. A mixture of dweeb, wrongly-timed elevator eyes, and mouth-breathing make the girls look at them like they were from outer space. Gregarious guys like Ian (Robert Downey Jr.) and Max (Robert Rusler), on the other hand, cannot help but thrust the duo into more embarrassing situations. While watching “Frankenstein” during a sleepover, Gary has an idea: They will create the perfect woman to help them win over girls. Wyatt, adept at computers, agrees. By feeding the computer a series of magazine cutouts and information from the web, Lisa (Kelly LeBrock) is created.

Written and directed by John Hughes, although the basic premise of “Weird Science” is hackneyed–guys so willing to be in the company of the opposite sex that they will do almost anything to be in the “in” crowd–it manages to be quite interesting because it is not afraid to take risks. A bit of science fiction, like transforming a mean character into a Jubba the Hut look-alike and mutilated biker gang members, go a long way. Instead of allowing the film to be mired into a quicksand of typicalities, the oddities help to keep it afloat. It even reaches some creative highs at times.

Every other scene is hyperbolic and partnered with cheesy visual effects. However, its core, the need to belong and be accepted, is real. Wyatt and Gary are smart but they lack the confidence and self-esteem to go up to a girl and make conversation without coming off like a nervous wreck. The material is in touch with how it is like to be young and unsure.

Hall and Mitchell-Smith have a wonderful, sometimes homoerotic, brotherly chemistry. Their characters complement each other: Gary is more daring and goofy while Wyatt is more sensitive and reticent. While we expect Hall to be an excellent awkward geek–and he is–Mitchell-Smith is quite a nice surprise. He is able to bounce off Hall’s manic energy without having to depend on too many physical gags to get our attention.

I wished that Wyatt had more sensitive scenes with his older brother, Chet (Bill Paxton), currently on leave from the military. Chet tortures his brother endlessly for no reason and they eventually become exasperating. It is like hammering us over the head with the fact that Wyatt is unable to stand up for himself. We already aware of this fact from with the way he deals with bullies at school. The weakest aspect of the film is the lack of spark and originality in terms of Wyatt and Chet being brothers. It is unfortunate because Mitchell-Smith can simply stand on one spot and look solemn yet we cannot help but wonder what his character is thinking.

As for Lisa, she is beautiful and it is understandable why men and women are drawn to her. She is cheeky without being too robotic. The funniest scene is when she asks a cashier, approximately in her 70s, if she thinks wearing a black thong can help seduce a fifteen-year-old. The grandmother stares wide-eyed and unable to respond.

“Weird Science” is purposefully immature at times, with phallic symbols abound, but funkiness and sweetness permeate throughout.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows


Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Newspapers pegged anarchists as responsible for the recent bombings in Europe. Everyone was nervous that the bombings would eventually spin out of control and war among European nations would ensue. Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) suspected foul play, believing that someone smarter and more cunning was behind the terrorist attacks. When not flirting with the beautiful Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a contract purloiner of all things important, Holmes served as a friendly thorn on Dr. John Watson’s (Jude Law) side, attempting to convince his friend that getting married was tantamount to a lifelong enslavement. “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” written by Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney, was a movie so intent to impress, it almost won me over despite its clunky plot and distracting–although at times impressive–technical gadgetry. What prevented me from being fully immersed in the film was catching myself sitting passively waiting for something really interesting to happen. Although twists and turns were abound, each successive surprise suffered from diminishing returns. At one point I wondered what other type of tricks it had, if any, in its bag. There were two well-executed scenes that matched the material’s ambition. First, the train scene in which Holmes and Dr. Watson had to escape from assassins sent by Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) wielded a certain level of suspense mixed with glee. Of course, given that the train had a lot of small spaces, the script capitalized on the weird sexual chemistry between the duo–some angles taken from typical pornographic positions–which I found hilarious. Second, the chase scene through the woods as Holmes, Dr. Watson, and Madam Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace), a gypsy fortuneteller, evaded bullets, cannonballs, and rockets was quite inspired. I found it a standout because the slow motion highlighted the artistry of the action scene instead of merely bombarding the audience with quick cuts. It was interesting to see certain images like how a bullet scraped a tree and how loamy soil fell onto the characters after a cannonball hit the ground with great force. The scene was a nice change from boring hand-to-hand combat where choppy editing met a vague semblance of martial arts. Why wasn’t uninterrupted physical combat shown more often? Furthermore, the flashback scenes were as ineffective as the sequences where Holmes weighed how a battle would play out. By allowing us to see what would or could happen next before it actually happened, the filmmakers left no tension for us to bathe in. Both the flashbacks and fast-forwards were not used as astutely–in this case, far from sparingly–it should have in order to increase the drama. Directed by Guy Ritchie, the biggest problem that “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” suffered from was although it had a lot of fun on the outside, it needed to work on real emotions so the audiences would be more invested in whatever was going on. Since it failed to inject gravity into more serious moments, when a key character died, for instance, it felt like a mere plot convenience than a genuine loss of a character some of us have grown to like.

The Avengers


The Avengers (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The Tesseract, a cube with the potential energy to destroy the planet, was obtained by the egomaniacal Loki (Tom Hiddleston) from S.H.I.E.L.D., Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistic Division, led by one-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Overpowered by Loki’s strength and otherworldly powers, Fury sought help from Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) eventually joining the party. Based on the screenplay by Joss Whedon, comprehensive character development in “The Avengers” was simply out of the question because each superhero contained an interesting personality filled with quirks and unique sense of humor. The main question was how to keep the story interesting apart from massively entertaining explosions and jaw-dropping action sequences. I found that the film was similar to a great swimmer. Because of Whedon’s direction, the film knew how to pace itself so it didn’t drown in its own ambitions. When the movie kept its head underwater by delivering the intense and often breathtaking battle scenes, they were allowed to play out to our satisfaction without overstaying their welcome. For example, the duel between Iron Man and Thor was simply wonderful to watch. Out of the six, not only did the two of them have the biggest egos, they were my least favorite characters compared to the rest. (Personally, listening to Thor speak is as boring as reading about the history of differential equations hybridized with Shakespearean lingo.) Yet it didn’t matter because I was so involved in what was happening. Their brawl, and of those to come, was within the story’s context. Thor, prior to joining the group, wanted to convince his adopted brother against enslaving Earth while Iron Man worked for a cause and had to deliver Loki to the proper authorities. When the movie gasped for air, they were quick and memorable. The sense of humor stood out because the script played upon the elementary personalities of each hero or heroine. For instance, the material had fun with what the audience expect of Black Widow and her sex. The script was balanced in subverting the typicalities of women’s roles in superhero movies, given that they’re usually the romantic interest or object of desire, and remaining loyal to her character as a woman on a global and personal mission. Since she, along with Hawkeye, did not have a stand-alone movie, having not read the comics, I appreciated that her character was given a little bit more depth than her counterparts. While there were still unanswered questions about her history and the intricacies of what she hoped to gain by joining S.H.I.E.L.D., by the end, I felt like I knew her as well as the other guys. I felt like she had her own stamp in the dynamics of the group, that they wouldn’t be complete without her. Naturally, the film’s climax involved a lot of extirpation of expensive skyscrapers. But the main difference between the destruction seen here as opposed to, say, Michael Bay’s “Transformers,” was the action didn’t feel incomprehensible. Things blew up but the quick cuts weren’t injected with multiple shots of epinephrine. Each jump of perspective had something enjoyable to offer instead of relying on a false sense of excitement. In other words, the destruction was actively made interesting instead of allowing it on autopilot. “The Avengers” could have used more Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), less speeches between Loki and Thor, and an explanation on how The Hulk became more manageable toward the end. Nevertheless, such negatives are so small compared to the cyclopean roller coaster ride that the filmmakers had given us. When I was a kid, I played with a lot of action figures. Some even revolved around crazy narratives I made up, one of which involved a live caterpillar and beetle destroying Legos that stood for Gotham City. I must say, the sight of The Hulk tossing Loki around like a piece of spaghetti made me feel like a kid again.

Gothika


Gothika (2003)
★ / ★★★★

Dr. Miranda Grey (Halle Berry) worked in a psychiatric hospital in which her current case was a woman (Penélope Cruz) claiming that she was being raped while she was in her cell. Dr. Grey surmised that the woman’s story was simply a reflection of an abused childhood. Of course, on a dark, stormy night, the psychiatrist got into a car accident because she attempted to avoid hitting a girl standing in the middle of the road. The next thing Dr. Grey knew, she woke up in a cell as if she was one of the patients in the hospital. “Gothika” was not a smart supernatural thriller. Instead of using images of a ghost as a backdrop of deeply rooted psychological problems, it used the paranormal in the most literal way. We were supposed to believe that the ghost could be touched (and possess someone despite the fact that the person didn’t believe). We were supposed to believe that the ghost was trying to communicate in order for it to find some sort of peace. We were supposed to believe that ghosts only appeared when lights flickered in quick succession.How was I supposed to believe in such things if I couldn’t believe for one second that Dr. Grey and his colleague (Robert Downey Jr.) were competent doctors? I knew they knew psychological terms because they had no problem throwing them at each other (perhaps as foreplay because the two were obviously attracted to one another), but I didn’t feel like the actors embodied their characters in such a way that I could feel an air of presence about them when they entered a room. Downey was too quirky to the point where I thought he suited being a clown more than a doctor. Berry seemed like a first-year graduate student who didn’t know how to adapt when a situation turned grim. (Initially, I thought it could work. Just take a look at Clarice Starling in Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs.”) Instead, in the most crucial times, she shrieked and hid and then did more screaming and hiding. The script needed some serious work. For supposedly intelligent individuals who ran a psychiatric hospital (where the film took place for the majority of the time), both the material and the characters lacked logic. Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, the pacing was deathly slow and borderline soporific. I didn’t find the quick editing and the booming soundtrack scary in the least. In fact, I was annoyed because I kept wondering when it would focus on the real issue at hand: the question involving Dr. Grey’s sanity. It never did. “Gothika” is a meandering picture with painfully mediocre storytelling techniques. The Best Unintentional Laugh should go to the scene when Berry’s character declared, “I don’t believe in ghosts… but they believe in me.” I don’t believe in either.

Due Date


Due Date (2010)
★ / ★★★★

Peter Highman (Robert Downey Jr.) was on his way back to California because his wife (Michelle Monaghan) was expected to give birth soon. But Peter’s luck turned for the worse when he met Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis), an aspiring actor with a dog, at the airport. They both got into a car accident. Then they accidentally switched each other’s luggages. They even ended up sitting near each other on the plane. The two ended up talking about bombs on terrorists before take-off which prohibited them from flying. Despite all the unfortunate events and the fact that Peter couldn’t stand Ethan’s crazy antics, they decided to go on a cross-country road trip. Directed by Todd Phillips, the film was a broad comedy with two main characters we couldn’t help but dislike. Peter had a faux confidence about him but he was very sensitive to comments that one could easily let go. When threatened, he showed his mean-spirited sense of humor. One of the ugliest scenes was when he actually hit a kid in the stomach and the boy was left writhing in pain on the floor. It was supposed to be funny. On the other hand, Ethan, having the gall to try to pass off as twenty-two years old, was a total imbecile. I wondered how he made it through life not taking anything seriously. Or worse, living a life so completely unaware that other people needed their personal space. However, the film had few moments of hilarity. The bathroom scene was particularly memorable as Peter gave Ethan hypothetical situations and the aspiring actor had to prove that he had the talent to make it in Hollywood. Even though they didn’t necessarily get along, I felt a strange camaraderie growing between them. Unfortunately, with each good scene, a bad one always came after. Writers should know that when they feel like they should throw in an obligatory car chase, their material is in trouble. I just didn’t see what was so amusing about regular people doing their jobs and they ended up getting hurt because Peter and Ethan had a one-track mind. Casting actors like Jamie Foxx, Danny McBride, and Juliette Lewis was a waste. They were asked to play stereotypes, but I wasn’t convinced, in the five minutes of screen time they were given, that they injected something unique to their characters in order to make their roles memorable or worth watching. They certainly didn’t make Peter and Ethan any funnier or more charming. “Due Date” failed to make me laugh on a consistent basis. I chuckled (and was grossed out) during the masturbation scene and smiled when Ethan discussed getting a perm. But it wasn’t enough. Maybe the writers should have aspired to write a dark comedy screenplay instead.

In Dreams


In Dreams (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★

The movie started off with a breathtaking tour of a town submerged in water that Claire (Annette Bening) saw in her dreams. She also had dreams of a little girl who was kidnapped by a man (Robert Downey Jr.) who lived in a place full of apples. Obsessed with the details of her dreams because they came true before, her own daughter was eventually kidnapped and she had to find a way to get to the man who kidnapped her child while trying to persuade her husband (Aidan Quinn) and psychiatrist (Stephen Rea) that her dreams were real. Even though the movie asked its audiences to take a leap of faith time and again about visions eventually becoming reality and strange coincidences, I could not help but get really into the story because of the way Bening invested in her character. I mean the following as a compliment but she made a very convincing crazy person when she eventually was sent to a mental hospital. I was entertained with how some scenes were supposed to be scary or haunting but they had strong hints of comedy and even tragedy. I liked that quality because although I knew where the story was going, it still managed to surprise in small ways so I did not lose interest. Neil Jordan fascinates me as a director because of the masterful way he balances elements of surrealism and realism. I noticed he would play with the extremes but there would come a point when it became difficult to discern what was real or what was fantasy. In other movies, I am usually aware of the intermediates of the extremes. What I was not very excited about, however, was how useless some of the characters were which negatively impacted the movie’s middle portion. I saw the cops and the psychiatrist as mere distractions or hindrances instead of figures that genuinely tried to help the main character. It was one of those horror movie clichés that just did not work and I grew frustrated with the material because I knew that the director was more than capable of doing something completely different with his characters like in one of his films called “The Butcher Boy.” Since the movie was based on the novel “Doll’s Eyes” by Bari Wood, perhaps Jordan was just trying to remain loyal to the book. Nevertheless, when adapting a novel to film, there should always be an artistic leeway in which the writers could tweak certain aspects in order to avoid the obvious. Upon its release, “In Dreams” did not receive good reviews which I thought was understandable because it tried to do something different in terms of not everything making complete sense in the end. I thought it worked because we don’t necessarily understand our dreams at times and I believe Jordan was deliberate in leaving certain strands unsolved.

A Scanner Darkly


A Scanner Darkly (2006)
★★ / ★★★★

Based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, “A Scanner Darkly” was about a cop (Keanu Reeves) who was assigned to spy on his group of friends in order to capture a guy named Bob Arctor. But it turned out that the main character and the man that the cops were interested in was the same person; Bob, like many people, was addicted to a drug called Substance D which supposedly induced multiple personality disorder. Directed by Richard Linklater, “A Scanner Darkly” is one of those movies that is full of promise but it gets in the way of itself because too many questions were asked but very few (if any) were answered in a clear way so I couldn’t help but feel cheated. For instance, I was curious about the real underlying effects of the drug in question. Some addicts experienced hallucinations such as bugs taking over their bodies, others experienced drunken stupor, while some were always on the verge of euphoria. It then begs the question whether the drugs’ effects were somehow connected to our personalities. I wanted to know more about the science and the effects of the drug in the brain. There were scenes that tackled the drug’s effects on the brain (I liked how it related the whole phenomenon to split-brain patients) but they were superficial at best. Maybe it wasn’t that shocking to me because I’ve seen split-brain experiments in real life. I didn’t care much about the friends (one of which was played by Robert Downey Jr.) acting stupid and asking “insightful” questions that led nowhere. The scenes with the friends made me feel like the movie was way into itself; instead of trying to pull me in, it made me question whether the story was really going anywhere. I do have to say that the animation was enjoyable because it added an extra dimension to the project. Everyone pretty much led their lives half-awake so that lucid tone made me feel like I was one of them. I liked that the animation was there to highlight certain facial expressions and quirks to convey certain truths behind the dialogue so it didn’t feel much like a gimmick. I thought the animation worked especially well in scenes where characters experienced hallucinations. Nevertheless, I wish the movie spent more of its time in engaging us instead of teasing us with its vast ideas. It was borderline pretentious. I felt like there was a disconnect (when it should have been clearly connected) in exploring the relationship between the drug world/addicts and the very same people who wanted to eliminate the drug off the streets. The main character embodied both worlds but the way the story unfolded left me hanging, somewhat confused, and frustrated. It’s definitely a different movie experience but I think it makes a good double-feature with Linklater’s other film “Waking Life.”