Robert Downey Jr.

Back To School

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1986

Orion Pictures

Directed by Alan Metter

Produced by Chuck Russell

Screenplay by Steven Kampmann, Will Porter, Peter Torokvei and Harold Ramis

Story by Rodney Dangerfield, Greg Fields and Greg Snee

Rodney Dangerfield will always be renowned as one of the true legends of stand-up comedy. He’s one of the few comedians who could make an entire concert hall full of paying customers collapse into hysterical fits of laughter simply by saying one line; “I don’t get no respect!” As a kid I used to see him all the time on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show” but I really didn’t understand his style of comedy until I was older. And certainly by the time he began making it big in movies like “Easy Money” and “Caddyshack” I was able to properly appreciate his humor and his jokes. Now most people hold up “Caddyshack” as the height of his movie career but for me it’s BACK TO SCHOOL. It’s one of the few comedies that I’ve seen multiple times but laugh every single time I see it as if I’m watching it for the first time. It’s got a great eclectic supporting cast; Sally Kellerman, Keith Gordon, Paxton Whitehead, Ned Beatty, Sam Kinison, Terry Farrell, M. Emmet Walsh, Burt Young, Adrienne Barbeau and Robert Downey, Jr. But for me the main attraction is Rodney Dangerfield front and center playing a really great, larger than life character as he breezes through the movie throwing off one-liners with a speed and delivery that would make Groucho Marx dizzy with envy.

Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield) is the poster boy for self-made millionaires. He’s taken his immigrant father’s humble tailor shop and turned it into an national chain of Tall & Fat Shops. He went on from there to diversify until now he owns Melon Enterprises, a worldwide corporation. Thornton Melon is far from being a stupid man and in fact is quite intelligent and street smart, despite his boorish, rude and crude manner. But his one great regret is that he never got a proper education. He’s determined that his beloved son Jason (Keith Gordon) will get one at the prestigious Grand Lakes University.

After getting rid of his gold-digger of a wife (Adrienne Barbeau) Thornton heads to Jason’s college to surprise him along with his best friend/bodyguard Lou (Burt Young) and gets a surprise of his own: Jason had been telling his father he’s a straight A student and a star on the university diving team. Turns out that Jason is the team’s towel boy and a lousy student. Jason wants to drop out but Thornton hits on a novel idea to motivate his son: he and Jason will go to college together and both of them will get a proper education.

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The fun of BACK TO SCHOOL comes from seeing Rodney Dangerfield’s Thornton Melon effortlessly cause utter and total havoc while navigating his way around every obstacle with either his street smarts or his money. Upon being told he’s too old and too unqualified to attend the university, he promptly donates funds for the new Thornton Melon School of Business and before you can say ‘holla’ he’s registered. He turns his cramped dorm room into a luxury condo complete with hot tub. When he has problems writing a paper on the works of Kurt Vonnegut he calls up Kurt Vonnegut and has the writer flown in to the college for a session with Thornton so that Vonnegut can personally explain the meaning of “Breakfast of Champions” to him. When he throws a party he hires Oingo Boingo to play and has the campus cops deliver his booze and beer.

But the story takes a nice turn in that Thornton’s plans actually inspire his son to genuinely want to do better and become a good student while his dad lives out his college life fantasies partying and having fun instead of studying and doing the work. It’s a lot of fun to see the father and son reverse roles as they help each other grow up. There’s a subplot with Thornton romancing his English professor (Sally Kellerman) that really goes nowhere but it’s always fun for me to watch Sally work. And it may seem unusual to have Thornton be a former champion acrobatic diver until you do your research and find that before he became a successful comedian, Rodney Dangerfield actually was a performing acrobatic diver.

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What else can I tell you about BACK TO SCHOOL to get you to see it? The scene in the college bar where Thornton sings “Twist and Shout.” The diving competition where Thornton performs ‘The Triple Lindy’ a dive so dangerous it can kill if not executed perfectly. Thornton’s final exam where he has to recite Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night” The movie gets a lot more mileage out of Ned Beatty’s character being named ‘Dean’ Martin than you would think.

And the best thing I can tell you about BACK TO SCHOOL is that it’s simply a whole lot of fun to watch. The humor is fast, quick and the father/son story itself to me is quite heartwarming. Dangerfield and Gordon look nothing alike but they do have great chemistry together and they did convince me of their relationship. The entire cast looks as if they had nothing but fun making this movie. I know you’re going to have a good time watching it if you’ve never seen it. And if you have seen it before, it’s high time you watched it again. BACK TO SCHOOL is available on Netflix Instant. Put it on your Instant Queue right now.

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96 Minutes

PG-13

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.

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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.

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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.

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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