Gwyneth Paltrow

Iron Man 2

2010

Paramount Pictures/Marvel Studios

Directed by Jon Favreau

Produced by Kevin Feige and Susan Downey

Written by Justin Theroux

Based on “Iron Man” created by Stan Lee, Larry Leiber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby and published by Marvel Comics.

I think the success of the first “Iron Man” and IRON MAN 2 has to be given to both Robert Downey, Jr. and Jon Favreau.  Nothing in their past movie work indicated that either of them were capable of producing such a hip, smart and fun superhero movie as the first one and they’ve pulled off the feat of making a sequel that is just as hip, smart and fun.  IRON MAN 2 isn’t better than the first one. But it’s just as good and sometimes when you’re making a superhero movies that is examined with such a critical eye by lifelong fans of such a wildly popular character, ‘just as good’ is as good as you can possibly get.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) seemingly has the world on a golden string.  Thanks to his Iron Man technology he’s made the world a safer place.  He’s hosting a Stark Expo, reviving a tradition started by his late father Howard Stark (John Slattery) where he outlines a plan for world peace.  Tony’s so beloved by the American public that he can tell a Congressional Committee on national TV to go to hell.  The Committee, headed by Senator Stern (Gary Shandling) demands that the Iron Man technology be given over to The Defense Department and Tony being the arrogant narcissistic genius that he is (hey, that’s what it says in his file) refuses, assuring the Committee that the rest of the world is years away from having anything remotely close to his technology.

That’s before Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) shows up, wielding fearsome whip-like weapons powered by a duplicate of the arc reactor that powers Iron Man and keeps Tony Stark alive.  The secret of Vanko’s power source is wrapped up in a mystery involving Vanko’s father as well as Tony’s.  A secret that is shared by the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who is aware that Tony is dying from palladium poisoning.  Palladium is a necessary component of the arc reactor and won’t work without it.  There’s only one way to save Tony’s life but that involves the impossible: creating a new element.

But Tony may not have time to accomplish that feat seeing as how his best friend Air Force Lt. Colonel James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes has given the Defense Department Tony’s Mark II version of the Iron Man armor.  The suit is handed over to Tony’s main business rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) with instructions to weaponize the suit to the max.  Doing so will turn the wearer of the armor in a veritable War Machine.  Fortunately Tony has plenty of help thanks to his able assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) who steps up to the plate and takes over running Tony’s company while he’s dealing with his multiple problems.  And as always, Tony is ably backed up by his bodyguard/chauffeur Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) And if that isn’t enough, there’s Tony’s new assistant Natalie Rushman ( Scarlett Johansson) who is really S.H.I.E.L.D. agent extraordinaire Natasha Romanoff aka The Black Widow.

Now even in that brief summation of the plot you should get the impression that there’s a lot going on in IRON MAN 2 and you’re absolutely right.  There’s a whole lot going on but the story isn’t anywhere as confusing as I’ve heard folks say it is.  And I appreciate a superhero hero movie that has a lot of pieces in play.  There are a lot of characters in the movie and they’ve all got their own agendas working.  It makes for a story where all the characters have something at stake and aren’t just hanging around.

Robert Downey, Jr. once more does a masterful job of playing Tony Stark/Iron Man.  I don’t know of another actor today who can play such an arrogant jerk and make us love him.  I put it down toDowney’s unpredictability as an actor.  You just don’t know what he’s going to do next but you know it’s going to be amazing.  The rapport he has with Gwyneth Paltrow on screen is nothing short of terrific.  It’s truly fun to watch anytime they’re on screen together.

Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard as Tony’s best friend Rhodey and it’s an upgrade as Cheadle is by far the better of the two actors and he and Downey have a much better on-screen rapport.  Gary Shandling is surprisingly good in a small but pivotal role.  Sam Rockwell doesn’t play the Justin Hammer of the comics but his incarnation of the character is just fine by me.  Sam Rockwell is one of the most dependable actors working today as I don’t believe he’s capable of turning in a bad performance.  Mickey Rourke fits in surprisingly well as the main bad guy.  Rourke’s character doesn’t say a whole lot but his actions are what sets everything else in the movie in motion and Hammer as he is in this movie simply isn’t strong enough of an antagonist for Tony Stark/Iron Man but I strongly suspect we’ll be seeing Justin Hammer again and he’ll be a lot meaner next time around.

What else?  The screenplay by Justin Theroux is marvelously smart and witty and contains actual dialog and not stock conversations we’ve heard in a dozen other action/superhero movies.  Everybody has a unique voice and it’s always a pleasure to listen to dialog written by somebody who knows how to write it.  My major gripe with this movie?  You’re not gonna believe it but here goes: would it really have killed them to name Clark Gregg’s character Jasper Sitwell?  Because I don’t care what they call him, that’s who he’s playing.  And I want more Black Widow movies starring Scarlett Johansson.

So should you see IRON MAN 2?  Chances are you already have and at this point are either giving me a nod of agreement or giving me the digitus impudicus.  I thought it was a whole lot of fun and that’s what I want to see in a superhero movie.  I like to see a superhero movie where the superhero is having fun being one.  I like to see superheroes having adventures and overcoming adversity and defeating bad guys and saving the day.  I’m tired of superhero movies where the so-called hero is whining that he can’t catch a break or pay his rent (I’m looking at you, Spider-Man) or wrestling with his inner turmoil and existential angst while bemoaning that he must labor under the curse of having superpowers.  Sometimes you just want to recapture the wonder and excitement you felt when you were twelve years old on a summer Saturday afternoon with nothing to do but read a stack of your favorite comic books.  IRON MAN 2 will make you feel like that if you give it a chance.

PG-13

124 minutes

Iron Man

2008

Marvel Enterprises

Directed by Jon Favreau

Screenplay by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway

Based on “Iron Man” created by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby and published by Marvel Comics

Produced by Avi Arad and Kevin Feigh

 

When I was growing up and my friends and I devoured Marvel Comics as fast as we could get ‘em, all my friends liked Spider-Man.  Which I could never understand.  Spider-Man was a nerdy loser who was always broke, never got the girl, was picked on unmercifully at school and things just never seemed to work out for him.  Which is what my life was like at that stage of my evolution.  So I could never fathom why I would want to read a comic about somebody whose life was as crappy as mine.  Hell, I didn’t have to read comics to know that life wasn’t fair.  I lived it.  I wanted to be Tony Stark.  Now that guy had the life.  Billionaire technological genius.  Brilliant inventor.  Had so many fine women he tripped over ‘em constantly.  Fleets of sports cars and private planes.  Let a team of superheroes live in his mansion and bankrolled their operation.  All that and he had the world’s most powerful weapon: a suit of hi-tech armor that turned Tony Stark into the greatest fighting machine on the face of the Earth: IRON MAN.  Watching the movie  brought back a whole lot of feelings for why I fell in love with the character years ago.  And a lot of that has to do with the outstanding performance of Robert Downey, Jr. the direction of Jon Favreau and the excellent screenplay.  Everybody involved with this movie obviously took time to do their homework and read the comics because what’s up there on the screen is extremely close to the tone and spirit of the comic books.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is delightfully enjoying his blatantly hedonistic lifestyle filled with women, liquor and trips around the world at a moment’s notice.  He’s babysat by his BFF Air Force Colonel James Rhodes (Terrance Howard) and his loyal Girl Friday Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) who both worry and fret over Tony like Jewish grandmothers.  But Tony assures them there’s nothing to worry about, that’s he’s got it all under control.  Except when Tony has to demonstrate his latest weapon of mass destruction, the fearsome Jericho missile system in Afghanistan.  His armed escort is wiped out and Tony himself is captured by the terrorist group known as The Ten Rings who demand that he build the Jericho for them.  Complicating the situation is the fact that Tony has a chest full of shrapnel that ironically came from a bomb his own company built.  With the aid of a fellow captive (Shaun Toub) Tony is not only able to construct a device to keep the shrapnel away from his heart but also to build a crude but highly effective suit of iron armor that enables him to get away from his captors.

IRON MAN

Not that his situation back in the United States is much better.  Tony’s business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) doesn’t like it at all when Tony has a moment of clarity and announces that Stark Enterprises will no longer manufacture munitions.  Even Pepper and Jim Rhodes wonder if this is for real or some sort of publicity stunt on Tony’s part.  But Tony is quite serious.  So serious that he seals himself up in his basement workshop and proceeds to improve upon his armor design.  And he’s going to need it, especially when The Ten Rings find his crude prototype armor in the desert and begin piecing it back together.  But they need help to upgrade and improve the armor.  And that forces Tony Stark to come to terms with who has been and what he wants to be in the future.

Iron Man

While I thought IRON MAN was simply outstanding I can’t shake the feeling there’s going to be those who will complain that like the Ang Lee directed “Hulk” IRON MAN doesn’t have enough action.  But the movie isn’t so much about action as about Tony Stark understanding what he’s become and his desire to be better than what he has been.  To leave a legacy other than one of death and destruction.  And the wonderful thing about Tony Stark is that he’s just as badass and cool when he’s out of the armor as when he’s in it.  He’s not like a Superman or Batman in that their alter egos are radically different from their superhero personas.  Tony is a man used to using technology to accomplish his goals and that’s what the armor is: another piece of technology that enables him to save lives instead of taking them.  And if you want another reason for why this movie isn’t action heavy…well, actually Tony Stark doesn’t become Iron Man until the end of the movie.  This is very much an origin story and it’s a really good one.  The motivations are there, the characterizations are there and as Tony learns about the capabilities and potential of his latest creation we’re right there with him.

iron-man-3

Robert Downey, Jr. owns Tony Stark/Iron Man much in the same way that Michael Keaton owned Batman/Bruce Wayne and Christopher Reeve owned Superman/Clark Kent. Downey and Favreau understand that if we don’t care about Tony Stark when he’s out of the suit we sure as hell won’t care for him when he’s in it. Downey’s Tony Stark is certainly a major prick in the first hour of the movie but he’s one of those charming pricks who can make you love him even while he’s screwing you over.  This is another terrific performance from one of my favorite actors and it’s really fun watching Downey at work.  Gwyneth Paltrow radiates sexy intelligence as Pepper Potts and the scenes between her and Downey are really great.  Terrence Howard could have had more to do as Jim Rhodes but he does have a nice little bit in Tony’s workshop when Rhodes looks at one of Tony’s prototype armors that is a foreshadowing of the bigger role the Rhodey character has in the two sequels.  Surprisingly enough, the only actor I have a problem with is Jon Favreau who cast himself as “Happy” Hogan, Tony Stark’s driver.  Since he’s also the director Favreau gives himself way too many scenes where Hogan is standing around looking over Stark’s shoulder looking all serious but not really contributing anything to the scene or the story overall.

pepperpotts

The special effects are outstanding.  There were a lot of scenes where I’m positive I wasn’t looking at CGI but at a man in a suit of hi-tech armor.  But after awhile I gave up trying to figure out when Iron Man was CGI and when he wasn’t and just sat back to enjoy the ride.  I dunno about you but I enjoy watching a superhero movie where the superhero is actually enjoying using his powers for good and there’s a definite sense of fun and adventure.  That’s not to say that IRON MAN doesn’t have its darker moments but the wit and intelligence of the characters and the story lifts it out of the “oh, I have such a burden to bear…woe is me” bag that most superhero movies are in.  These characters don’t have time to sit around and moan about how bad their lives are.  They’re smart enough to get up and do something about it.

Jeff Bridges almost steals the show as Obadiah Stane and Clark Gregg is quietly hilarious as Agent Phil Coulson.  In fact, one of the most amazing things about the Marvel Movie Universe is how Clark Gregg/Agent Coulson became the MVP of the MMU.

So should you see IRON MAN?  If you haven’t already I don’t know what’s wrong with you.  It’s a really smart, fun movie with engaging characters and a bedrock solid plot.  The writers have done a great job updating Iron Man’s origin and I applaud them for not shying away from portraying Tony Stark as what he is: a weapons manufacturer with all the ramifications that go along with that profession.  IRON MAN doesn’t get heavy into the politics but just enough to give the story added weight.   IRON MAN has rightly earned its place as the crown jewel of Marvel movies.  It, along with “Captain America” the two “Thor” movies, the two “Hulk” movies and of course the magnificent “Avengers” are the Marvel superhero movies I’ve been dreaming, hoping and praying to see ever since I was ten years old and I’m glad I’ve gotten to see them.

Rated: PG-13

126 minutes

 

 

 

 

Contagion

2011

Warner Bros.

Directed by Stephen Soderbergh

Produced by Michael Shamberg and Stacy Sher

Written by Scott Z. Burns

I like Stephen Soderbergh as a filmmaker because of his unpredictability.  He makes films that obviously are personal projects because they’re the kind of movies that leave me scratching my head after I’ve seen them.  I’m talking about movies like “Full Frontal” “Erin Brockovich” and “The Girlfriend Experience” Then he turns around and directs first rate, sitting-on-the-edge-of-my-seat crime thrillers like “Out of Sight” and “The Limey”  Then there are movies like “Kafka” and “Bubble” which are difficult to describe or explain and really should be seen without any idea of what they’re about.  And Soderbergh proved with “Ocean’s 11” “Ocean’s 12” and “Ocean’s 13” that he could do big blockbusters with all-star ensemble casts.  Then he up jumps and directs a two-part bio pic “Che” that is nothing less than astounding.  So we’re talking about an extraordinary director of talent and range who knows what he’s doing in a variety of genres.

So why did CONTAGION feel like I was watching a newbie director desperately trying to figure out what his own movie was about?

Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns to her Minneapolis home from a business trip to Hong Kong to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and son Clark.  The happy reunion isn’t happy for very long as Beth dies two days after returning home and Clark dies not long after.  Both Mitch and his daughter from a previous marriage appear to be immune to whatever it was that killed Beth and Clark and a good thing for them that they are.

The new disease, MEV-1 is both frightening and lethal.  It swiftly spreads across the world and the death toll rises to a staggering level.  Nobody can figure out where the disease came from and while more and more people die, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburn) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia struggles to find a cure.  Assisted by his field agent Dr. Ellen Mears (Kate Winslet) and an independent researcher Dr. Sussman (Elliott Gould), Cheever has to juggle several explosive balls.  There’s the Department of Homeland Security who insists that this epidemic must be a bioweapon attack.  Video blogger Alan Krumweide (Jude Law) claims that there is a homeopathic cure for MEV-1 that the government is keeping secret.  His blogs only add to the breakdown of social order as panicked people flee population centers by the millions while the ones who are left turn on each other, stealing food and water.  Entire states are quarantined off by the Army and National Guard in an attempt to minimize the spread of the disease.  A disease that looks as if it’s going to wipe out humanity, no matter what.

Sounds like a really thrilling movie, don’t it?  Sorry to disappoint you but it’s not.  I found CONTAGION to be slow moving and downright impersonal in it’s handling of a truly frightening possibility that all the experts say is due to happen any day now.  But the characters in CONTAGION seem to accept the possible extinction of the human race with a shrug and an “Oh, well, nothing lasts forever.”  Only Jude Law sinks his teeth in and gives his character energy and drive.  Alan Krumweide is as low as they come but at least when he’s on the screen he’s interesting and there’s something happening.

CONTAGION is one of those movies that makes me feel smarter while watching it because even though I don’t understand a word of technospeak (but I do speak fluent technobabble) I just feel smarter listening to the big brains discuss what the virus is and how to combat it.  And that’s an aspect of the movie I wanted to see explored in greater detail but it never is.  When Dr. Cheever and the other big brains in the movie discuss MEV-1 they talk about it almost as if were an intelligent organism with a plan and purpose.  It’s a fascinating idea but it’s never followed up on and instead we get scenes of Matt Damon yelling at his daughter not to open the door for her boyfriend because he might be infected.  Never mind that if the boyfriend has survived as long as Matt Damon and his daughter then there’s just as good a chance he’s as immune as they are.

Maybe I’ve been corrupted by too many 70’s/80’s disaster movies but there just wasn’t enough running around, screaming and looting. I wanted to see entire cities burning as panicked citizens attempt to cleanse the world with fire and kill the plague.  I wanted to see truckloads of dead babies being pitchforked into giant roaring furnaces and cripples in wheelchairs and on crutches throwing themselves from the rooftops of blazing hospitals.   It’s comforting to see the various governmental agencies acting in such a cool, logical, professional manner but it doesn’t make for interesting movie watching.

So should you see CONTAGION?  Sure. It’s not that it’s a bad movie.  The performances are adequate and the movie looks good.  I just think that the possible end of the world should be told as if it really matters and not just to be taken as inevitability.

106 minutes

PG-13

Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow

2004
Paramount

Produced by Jon Avnet
Written And Directed by Kerry Conran

In doing my research prior to writing this review I discovered that Kerry Conran originally wanted to do this movie with unknown actors and break it up into ‘chapters’ and present it as if it were a lost serial from the 1930’s that had recently been discovered. I would really have liked to see that version of SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW since I think he could have pulled it off. As anybody who’s read my work knows, I’m a full out geek when it comes to the blood and thunder pulps of the 1930’s and 1940’s and Saturday morning serials and 90% of my work is written in the tradition of the pulps. As I watched SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW I realized that I had a spiritual brother in Kerry Conran. I don’t often recommend that people see a movie just for the way it looks but SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW is one of those movies. It’s an out-of-body experience that truly takes you into another world and despite what I think are some flaws that prevent it from being quite as good as such great pulp inspired films such as The Indiana Jones movies “The Rocketeer” “The Phantom” and “Buckaroo Banzai” it’s an astounding adventure movie that proves what I’ve been saying for years: pulp action adventure is alive and well and if presented in the right way, people will eat it up.

The look of the movie is achieved through the means of almost total CGI. Except for the actors, their costumes and some of the sets, nearly everything else is a digital creation and the results are simply astounding in evoking a 1939 that only existed in the pages of pulp magazines and serials and could only be realized now. There’s a certain irony in the fact that the best way to visualize a world of the past is by means of a futuristic technology but it works. Boy, does it ever work.

SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW takes place in an alternate Earth where the Second World War has obviously never happened. We can tell that right from the beautiful opening sequence where The Hindenburg III docks at The Empire State Building. That huge tower on the top was designed exactly for that purpose in our reality but after it was built it was discovered that the high winds would make dirigibles move around too much and make it impossible for passengers to disembark. But in this world they’ve obviously overcome that problem. Aboard The Hindenburg is Dr. Vargas (Julian Curry) who is on the run from sinister forces who have been kidnapping the world’s leading scientists and he’s next on the list.

He’s come to New York to warn his colleague, Dr. Jennings (Trevor Baxter) who in turn contacts the crack reporter of The New York Chronicle, the wonderfully named Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) and informs her that he was once a member of a mysterious group known as Unit 11 who worked for a Doctor Totenkopf (Sir Laurence Oliver in archival footage) on projects that were “too horrible to speak of” It’s during their meeting that New York is attacked by an army of giant flying robots that proceed to steal the city’s generators. There’s only one chance for the city to survive and the call goes out for Joe Sullivan aka Sky Captain (Jude Law) to come and save the day in his customized, pimped-out P-40 Warhawk which he does in a breathtaking sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

Turns out that Sky Captain is the only hope to find out where these giant robots are coming from and why they’re attacking cities all over the entire world for their generators. Sky Captain is ably backed up by his own private army and his faithful sidekick, Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) who judging from his speech patterns and technological genius must be an ancestor of Stark Trek’s Mr. Spock. Polly insists on going along the adventure and it turns out that she and Sky Captain had a wild romance in the past that resulted in her sabotaging his beloved plane.   That led to him being held in a prison for six months so there’s a certain amount of friction there that leads to some entertaining banter between the two as they go off on a world-wide quest for Tontenkopf’s secret base to stop his mad schemes. They’re followed by The Mysterious Woman (Bai Ling) who is Totenkopf’s enforcer and seeks to stop them. Along the way Sky Captain and Polly get the help of Franky (Angelina Jolie) the eye patch wearing commander of a fleet of aerial aircraft carriers and they assault Dr. Totenkopf’s island fortress in a last ditch effort to save the world.

SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW is a great movie for those of us who love the pulps and those of us who have no idea of what the pulps were and want to know. Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie do an absolutely bang-up job in their roles and considering they were working on sets where they had to imagine what they were seeing, they do a great job. I really liked Angelina Jolie’s work in this movie and I bet if you ask her she’d admit that she’s a fan of Jim Steranko’s “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” since her role is practically a 1930’s female version of that character. There’s a fantastic scene where she and her squadron of ace pilots dive into the ocean and we see that their planes can also become submarine fighters that had me jumping up and hollaring like a maniac. And I won’t even tell you the scene that happens after that when she has to take out a giant robotic crab monster protecting Totenkopf’s island.

But SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW does have some major flaws. First is that even though Sky Captain is the hero he never has a real enemy to face off with. Dr. Totenkopf is played by Sir Laurence Oliver who died before the movie was made and so only appears either in footage that has been CGI’ed. And The Mysterious Woman looks as if she might be a formidable enemy but she and Sky Captain never have a real emotional or physical conflict. Near the end of the movie, The Mysterious Woman and Sky Captain square off in a battle that looks as if we’re going to get some real ass-kicking action but it doesn’t happen. It’s resolved in a manner that had me saying; “That’s IT?!”

Another thing that had me puzzling over is that early in the movie it’s said that the nations of the world have to rely on Sky Captain and his private army to find Totenkopf since their armies are engaged in other conflicts. Well, if in this world there’s no World War II then what conflict is going on that would prevent the world powers from sending their armies after Totenkopf? And I also didn’t like how near the end where Sky Captain and Polly have been busting their asses to save Dex for nearly 30 minutes of the movie’s running time Dex shows up to save them and he explains how he escaped in an unconvincing offhanded manner.

And the movie doesn’t have the headlong adrenaline rush of the Indiana Jones movies or “The Rocketeer” or “The Phantom”. It’s a good movie, don’t get me wrong but I have the feeling that the director is more in love with getting the look and feel of the movie right more than the action elements.  But when we do get action, it’s worth the wait. You just can’t beat the scene in New York with Sky Captain fighting the robots and that simply incredible underwater scene with the amphibious planes. Stuff like that is what a pulp fan like me lives for and I certainly got it. But there’s a curious lack of headlong action that doesn’t carry you along in a rush that I attribute to the director. Kerry Conran is good, yeah, but he’s not a major action direction who could have torn up the screen with material like this.

The performances in the movie are also worth mentioning. SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW was part of the Jude Law Film Festival of 2004 where it seemed as if every other movie that hit the screens that year starred Jude Law. He’s really good in this one as he plays it absolutely straight. His daredevil pilot Joe Sullivan would have been right at home in a Howard Hawkes movie like “Only Angels Have Wings” and I loved how during the underwater fight scene Angelina Jolie grins like a kid on Christmas while wearing a helmet I’m positive was inspired by Wally Wood.

So should you see SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW? Without a doubt. It’s an excellent movie simply on a technical level in that it brings to life a world of pure pulp adventure. I would advise you to see The Indiana Jones movies or “The Rocketeer” or “The Phantom” if you want to know what the action and energy of the pulps and Saturday Morning serials felt like but see SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW if you want to know what the pulps and Saturday morning serials looked like.

106 minutes
Rated PG