Archive | April, 2012

Build-up to the Avengers – Iron Man 1 & 2

12 Apr

One of my favorite film reviewers, Jeremy Jahns (http://www.youtube.com/user/jeremyjahns?ob=4&feature=results_main), is gearing up for The Avengers by reviewing the films leading up to it. I kinda want to give that a try myself so here’s my review of Iron Man and Iron Man 2.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a defense contractor in charge of Stark Industries who is known for his loose cannon, devil may care attitude. While on a job in Afghanistan, Stark is captured by terrorists and forced to build them a version of his Jericho Missile. Instead, Stark constructs a giant iron suit and escapes. After this incident, he decides to go into the business of peace keeping instead of “arms dealing” and becomes the superhero, Iron Man. Not everyone is too thrilled about this decision, especially his mentor and second in command, Obadiah Stane who will stop at nothing to take charge of the company and remove Tony.

While The Dark Knight may be the greatest comic book film ever made, Iron Man certainly comes close. The strength of this film’s story is that it doesn’t rely too heavily on overblown action and special effects, but on the origin story and development of the characters. This make the film not only entertaining, but also interesting and relatable.

Robert Downey Jr. was made for this role. He is a great actor who really puts a lot of his personality into his characters, but his Tony Stark is hysterical and sympathetic, but can definitely not be very likable. Jeff Bridges shows talent as Obadiah Stane, and the massive character arc from friend to enemy. Terrance Howard is kind of forgettable, but Gwyneth Paltrow shines as Pepper Potts.

When there is action, it is intense and exciting with incredible special effects that will leave your mouth hanging open with sheer joy. Iron Man should not be missed and it is definitely more than just popcorn entertainment. It is an exciting film with surprisingly layered characters and themes of peace vs. war.

With Iron Man setting the bar so high, the pressure was on for Iron Man 2. If anyone says that the second film was better than the first, they are lying to you, but make no mistake, Iron Man 2 is still a fun and above average action flick.

Tony Stark did something that not many superheroes do: reveal his secret identity. Well, he’s loving all the attention he is getting and using his elevated fame to his business advantage. Everything seems to be going great until Ivan Vanko (Micky Rourke) begins attacking Stark and accusing him of not sharing the profits of the new Iron Man technology and the subsequent arc reactor. Meanwhile, Nick Fury approaches Stark with an offer to join a new team that is being assembled.

Iron Man 2 has a lot of ups and a few downs. The middle part of the film is bogged down with a lot of scenes that are unnecessary and that can drag on for a little too long. There also seems to be more of a focus on action and flashy-CGI than characters and development. While Iron Man can be seen as more than just cheap entertainment, Iron Man 2 is definitely a summer popcorn flick.

Robert Downey Jr. is still great in this one, and Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer’s addition to the villainy is great. He is a perfect complement to Rourke’s physical intimidation as a weak but sneaky businessman who is only in it for himself.

The effects and action are really great and a lot of fun. If you blink during one of the more intense scenes, you might miss something really cool. Iron Man 2 is a quick, fun, but weaker installment in the Marvel Franchise films. I definitely recommend both of these films, but prefer the first. Still, the characters, action, and special effects are enough to please any action fan.

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Winter’s Bone – Review

12 Apr

After watching Winter’s BoneI looked around my living room at all of the stuff that I have and am proud. I felt like I had to do this after watching this film because of the almost post-apocalyptic surroundings that I found myself in for the last hour and forty minutes. The crazy thing is, it wasn’t an apocalyptic film, just one that examined a poor, drug riddled, rural community where violence and hatred is implied, and no one wants to deal with anyone outside of their families.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17 year old girl who has the responsibilities and concerns of a 40 year old. She is in charge of raising her younger brother and sister, and taking care of her mentally unstable mother. When her father goes missing a few days before his court date, and after putting the Dolly’s house up as collateral for his bond, Ree begins an investigation to find her father, dead or alive before her family loses the house. This investigation takes her into the darkest corners of her rural community to the point where her life and the lives of her family members are threatened.

The first thing I want to say about this film is that not once was I ever comfortable with my surroundings, and this is one of those movies that sucks you in so much you won’t even notice someone who walks right in front of you. So for the entire film, every scene was just a new situation that I wanted to get out of unscathed as soon as possible. The violence in this film is covertly menacing. There are more threats than there are actual scenes of brutality, but the threats are certainly not hollow.

That’s what makes this film succeed: it’s gritty realism. Not too much really happens in this film, which makes it feel sort of empty, but the realism makes up for it. If this situation were to actually occur in a lawless community like this one, I’m sure that Winter’s Bone accurately portrays how everything would unfold. The realism is also boosted by Jennifer Lawrence’s above average performance. The southern twang and headstrong bravery makes her the perfect heroine for this film. Underneath all of the bravery, however, lies the weakness and fear of a 17 year old in way over her head.

The cinematography is also worth praising. Everything in this film appears cold. The colors are really toned down and the grays and whites are accentuated to help immerse the viewer deeper into the world of the film. It works very well and is one of my favorite, if not my favorite, aspects of Winter’s Bone.

This is definitely not a perfect movie, however. In fact I got pretty bored quite often. A lot of reviews say this film holds non-stop thrills and breathtaking sequences. That isn’t really accurate at all. I’m not saying that I hate slow films, because I really enjoy slow films. I thought The American was a great movie, and it isn’t easy to find a film that drags on as much as that one. The problem here is that the story felt a little hollow. I understand that this probably wasn’t supposed to radiate in your face intensity, but there could have been a few more scenes that were exciting. One in particular is very memorable, but made me wish there were more like it.

All in all, I enjoyed Winter’s Bone. This film was nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. I don’t think it’s that good, but Jennifer Lawrence’s nomination for Best Actress was well deserved. This is a good neo-noir film that should definitely be respected for its masterful cinematography and subtlety, but it is by no means a masterpiece.

Doubt – Review

6 Apr

Scandals surrounding pedophilia and sexual abuse amongst priest and students is nothing new or outlandish. Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens frequently, perhaps more frequently than we even know about. John Patrick Shanely’s film, Doubt, based on his award winning play, examines the behind the scenes turmoil in a small church when confronted with this issue. This is a thickly layered film that will leave you guessing up until the very end and will leave you thinking long after it’s over.

Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the extremely conservative, old fashioned, and strict principal at the St. Nicholas Church School located in the Bronx, who is very upset at the more progressive behavior of the new pastor, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). When the mild mannered Sister James (Amy Adams) suspects him of engaging in an inappropriate relationship with the school’s only black student, Sister Aloysius starts her own personal crusade to remove Father Flynn from the parish, thereby tarnishing his popular reputation, despite lack of evidence.

I wouldn’t be surprised if more casual film viewers would complain that nothing happens in this movie. I could easily see where they are coming from, but would argue that a lot is going on beneath the surface of the film, and it’s more about the quiet battles that occur more so than the more overt actions. There is loads of dialogue in this film, with conversations that seem to last a life time, but they are so covertly emotional and harsh that if you aren’t listening closely you may miss the next move in the verbal game of chess that Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn seem to be locked in.

One of the greatest things about this film is that it’s easy to forget that everyone on the screen are just actors. The performances are done so flawlessly and with such effort and conviction. Meryl Streep is and Philip Seymour Hoffman are both renowned actors who have proved their skill in the past and are back with all of their acting guns blazing. Who I think is the scene stealer in Doubt, however, is Amy Adams. Sure, she may not have scenes that are as powerful and intense as the previous two actors, but every time she was on screen, I couldn’t help but smile at her character. Sister James is just as innocent as the children and is in way over her head.

The themes in this film go beyond that of sexual abuse in the Church. The film also explores change and the inability for certain people or institutions to be able to progress along with everyone else. The film takes place around the time of Vatican II, which was a very important and stressful time in the Catholic Church where change was demanded. Another theme explored in Doubt is that of, well, doubt and how it forces you to examine your own morality and points of view.

This film really hits close to home for me. I spent most of my life in the school district of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. As of right now there is a huge scandal happening concerning sexual abuse towards children. This has been going on for a long time now and really makes this film seem less like fiction. On a lighter note, the scary nuns of my past were brought back through Sister Aloysius.

Doubt is a deeply powerful film. It was nominated for 5 Academy Awards, but sadly did not win any. It’s a powerhouse of a movie that is strengthened through its outstanding performances and scenery. Even if you are not religious, this is a great film to see. It strangely works as both a moral drama and thriller at the same time. One review I read actually said, “This film is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.” I would have to agree.

Traffic – Review

4 Apr

Steven Soderbergh has been around for quite a long time and has made a variety of different films, but in 2000, Soderbergh released a film that would be both heavily influential and controversial. Traffic is gritty, tough, emotional, and aims close to home.

Traffic is an epic tale that includes multiple story lines and characters involved one way or another with the Mexican drug trade. Javier Rodriguez (Benicio del Toro) is a Mexican police officer who finds himself and his partner tangled in a web of corruption between the sadistic General Salazar (Tomas Milian) and the notorious Tijuana Cartel. Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is a judge from Ohio who is elected head of the Office of National Drug control. Amongst his new responsibilities, Robert is struggling to help his daughter, Caroline, with her drug addiction. Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) are DEA agents who’re working together to bring down the drug lord Carlos Ayala. After his arrest, his wife, Helena (Catharine Zeta-Jones) dives deep into the underworld in order to get her husband out of prison, even to go so far as to hire a hit man (Clifton Collins Jr.) from the Tijuana Cartel to assassinate the main witness in her husband’s trial (Miguel Ferrer).

After watching this film, I felt sort of like I did after watching Syriana, although Traffic isn’t quite as difficult. Just because it isn’t as internationally intriguing as Syriana does not mean it is not as important. This is one of those films that should be shown in schools, despite it’s graphic depiction of drug use and the violence that it causes between nations.

At many points throughout the movie, the viewer gets many opportunities to observe the U.S./Mexican border. The story lines flow seamlessly from one country to the next with clever uses of lenses, filters, and cameras to signify where we are and how we should be feeling. The Mexican scenes are shot with handheld cameras with a grainy yellow filter to help the viewer feel the heat and grime of the drug underworld. The film stock of these scenes also gives them an older look that almost makes them look like scenes out of an experimental film. The Ohio and Washington D.C. scenes have a blue filter which I feel shows the coldness and artificiality of this type of government lifestyle. The scenes in San Diego appear to look the most normal, except with the reds heightened a little bit, for reasons I’m not too sure of. Needless to say, this film looks fantastic, and I think it’s rare to see this kind of attention to detail in films of this kind.

The story lines in Traffic slightly intersect, but not as much as you might expect. The point of the film is to show how this diverse group of characters play their part in the bigger story. At times you will see certain characters walking by each other or sitting in the same room, but they will never interact with anyone outside of their own story line. That is an interesting choice and works better than trying to force these characters to meet and interact with one another. For me, the most interesting story line is the Wakefield storyline because it has to do with the smaller battles that drugs cause and how they can not only tear nations apart, but also families.

There are many talented actors in this film. Benicio del Toro actually won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and it is deserved. It can be argued that his character is boring and monotone, but that is appropriate for who he is and the viewer can easily see the trouble the character is facing just by looking into his eyes. Michael Douglas also gives an incredibly moving performance, but I personally think that the scene stealer in this film  is Erika Christensen, who plays Douglas’ daughter, Caroline. We never hate this character even though she puts her parents through hell. We sympathize for her and want to see her get through her troubles, even though we don’t have much hope.

Traffic can arguably be considered the first modern epic. After this film was released, we saw many films like it, for example Crash and the aforementioned Syriana. Saying this film isn’t important in both the thematic sense and the historical sense would be a very bold statement to make, but I don’t think I would meet anyone who would say that after seeing this film.

Traffic is without a doubt a modern day masterpiece and only further defines Steven Soderbergh as one of the better film makers of our time. I also stand by my point that this film should be shown in schools. It neither condemns nor supports the War on Drugs, but it certainly alludes to the fact that it can not be won. Every story line is strong and interesting, it looks beautiful, and it is true to life. I definitely recommend this film.