Iron Man 2

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  A fun, funny, big comic book movie that matches the success of the first.

Review: Superhero sequels tend to go in two directions.  Either they are two steps up from the original or two steps down.  It’s a rare moment when the same level of quality is delivered twice, and ‘Iron Man 2’ is just such a rarity.  It’s got all the fun of the first — perhaps more — and though it lacks the pure dramatic strength of the origin story, it’s got a great cast, amazing action and a better villain.

This time around, Tony Stark — having revealed his identity as Iron Man — is now more popular than ever.  Though it’s obvious he still struggles with ego, he’s also trying his best to create a heroic legacy for others to follow.  Legacy is foremost on his mind because the element that powers the miniature reactor in his chest is poisoning him, and he doesn’t have much time left.  On top of this, the government is demanding that he hand over his suit, creating a rift between him and his friend Lt. Colonel Rhodes.  The secret organization S.H.I.E.L.D. is keeping tabs on him.  Lastly, a mysterious Russian inventor is out to destroy him for reasons of his own. Will Tony Stark find a way to stop the poisoning?  Will he keep his suit?  Will he repair his relationship with his friends?  Will the Russian guy get him?  Will there be a sequel!? I can’t stand the pressure!

Anyway, it’s obviously not as focused as the first, but the strength of the cast holds it together.  Mainly, of course, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, who plays the exact opposite of Bruce Wayne.  He’s a popular rich guy who enjoys the hell out of being a superhero.  There’s no major brooding here.  I have a theory about the AC/DC songs that introduce us to Stark in both films.  In ‘Iron Man’, it’s ‘Back in Black’, a song about defying death, which is of course the central theme of that film.  In ‘Iron Man 2’, it’s ‘Shoot to Thrill’, a song about, well, thrill-seeking, which is arguably the central theme of this film, as it is Stark’s real Achilles Heel.

Though it kind of drags in its second act, it never lost my interest.  For all the dramatic material, it’s a hilarious script and the gags hit their marks most of the time.  It’s a great crowd movie.  It’s a good superhero movie.  It shot to thrill, and hit its target.

Buy It From Amazon:  Iron Man 2 (Three-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)

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Cult Classic: Reservoir Dogs

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  A realistic, gut-punch of a movie.

Reservoir Dogs

Review: ‘Reservoir Dogs’ is filmmaking wizard Quentin Tarantino’s first (completed) film. It’s a compelling and shocking re-imagining of the typical cops & robbers heist film. It’s the kind of story where everything goes wrong. This time around, we are set up to empathize with the bad guys, a team of hired men assigned by their ring leader, Joe, to steal some diamonds.  They all go by color-coded monikers, and keep their true names to themselves.  When the robbery hits the fan, the survivors immediately suspect that they’ve been set up by the police, and it’s only a matter of time until they discover the traitor.

‘Dogs’ wields an aggressively realistic tone.  The dialog, already well-written, is enhanced by frantic, vulgar, and sometimes funny ad-libbing from the ensemble cast.  The violence, in contrast to the extended, pattering dialog, is short, brutal, and too the point, except for one scene: an infamous torture scene that’s ridiculously hard to sit through.  Tarantino faced (and faces still) great criticism of this scene, but he defends it by acknowledging that the typically horrified reaction of the viewer is exactly what he hoped for.  As good as the film is on the large part, I really can’t justify the sheer brutality of the scene (although, it must be noted, it’s mostly psychological in nature), but the upside is that it leads to a fantastic and cathartic reveal of the traitor.

Like most of Tarantino’s filmography, there appears to be a philosophical bent to the film’s action and conclusions.  This is a window into the world of the cinematic villains that we usually want dead or jailed.  It’s an exercise in empathy.  It’s an acknowledgment of universal humanity and, as Ronnie James Dio would suggest, that we all have “Heaven and Hell” in us.  There’s some major, usually unspoken debate in Christianity as to the moral value of humanity: Are we basically evil, or basically good?  The answer, of course, is both.

‘Reservoir Dogs’ is smart, shocking, uncomfortable, funny, and sobering art.  It has my recommendation to guys and dolls with a strong stomach.

Classic Review: Ghostbusters

Stars:  **** out of 4

Summary:  Hilarious, scary, accessible fun.

Ghostbusters!

Pictured: Who you are going to call, minus one.

Review: Oh my God, this is the greatest movie I’ve ever seen in my life!  Okay, maybe not, but it’s definitely up there.  This is what we call a “comedy”, ladies and gents, which I make a point of pointing out since we seem to have forgotten what exactly that is.  You see, a long time ago people went to movies to experience the phenomenon dubbed “laughter” typically accompanied by “fun” and an overall sense of narrative satisfaction — and sometimes they even brought the kids!  Okay, maybe I’m going over the top, but the point is they don’t make movies like this anymore.  ‘Ghostbusters’ is like a flash in the pan.  There’s only a few comedies I can put on its level, all of which shall be reviewed!

I’m not going to tell you the story, darn it! If you don’t know it, shame on you! Go see this movie now!

This movie works because it actually doesn’t try to wring out as many jokes from its premise as it can, which is a common mistake for films of its type.  Instead, it relies almost wholly on creating fun characters with great chemistry who naturally produce comedy.  It’s like magic!  And, crucial too is the application of real suspense and nightmarish special effects.  This isn’t a total farce, this is a credible fantasy film.  If I don’t think some of the ghosts are scary, then I can’t laugh at them either.  It’s a paradox.

What ‘Ghostbusters’ represents to me is the perfect balance of horror and comedy.  I don’t mean slasher or zombie horror, I mean like ‘Poltergeist’ horror.  There are plenty of films that mix the two, to be sure, but none so pure a balance as ‘Ghostbusters’.  I least that I’ve seen.  Feel free to suggest a rival.  Anywho, ‘Ghostbusters’ was a big part of my childhood and was kind of the gateway drug into darker, scarier movies that I couldn’t stomach before — when I was 9, I mean.  I saw ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ before ‘Ghostbusters’, but it scared the mellow yellow out of me, and seeing a film both fun and freaky like GB opened my eyes to the awesomeness of Indy.  My life was fun that way.

This is also a movie that helped form my opinion of the horror genre in general.  I’ve mostly been opposed to it until recently.  I don’t like many horror movies.  I tend to find them unentertaining at best and sickening and gutwrenching at worst, the latter of which, actually, many of them aim for.  I prefer the concept of a film that uses eerie, otherworldly imagery to help us deal with childhood phobias and confront evil in our adult lives.  A great scary picture can have the greatest potential as a morality play or message movie.  There’s something about the nature of it that can make it seem less anvilicious.

‘Ghostbusters’ is the definitive family action/horror/comedy film.  I like it.

Classic Review: Bullitt

Stars:  **** out of 4

Summary:  A film so laid-back and slice-of-life it borders on surreal, while also boasting great action and suspense.

Review: Ah, the ’60s. The golden age of James Bond and the incubation chamber of the modern cop/spy/vigilante thriller movie. In 1968, we got ‘Bullitt’, in which Steve McQueen plays the titular character, an overly dedicated cop suspiciously similar, in some respects, to the future ‘Dirty Harry’. He plays his scenes with minimal to zero dialog but still exudes cool and draws sympathy from the audience. We never get to find out where Lt. Frank Bullitt came from, what he hopes for, what is the extent of his relationship with his girlfriend, what’s he really feeling about the whole mystery he’s pulled into. He’s an everyman.

Right from the opening titles, I was hooked.  The editing was especially strong and just watching names I won’t remember assume their positions on screen for a few moments was entertaining. The action moves at a steady and patient pace.  The cinematography keeps us interested even if there is nothing overtly important going on.  Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy, unforgettable score lets us feel the pulse of the film’s setting in San Francisco, lets us know the world we see on screen is alive and well.

Lt. Bullitt as the proto-Dirty Harry naturally comes into conflict with his superiors and with the politicians.  He stretches the rules and defies the tendency of the PD to kiss ass for support.  He doesn’t care about politics.  He cares about justice.  He never gives us a speech spelling himself out.  His best defense of his position, his grand apology, is when a politician played by Robert Vaughn insists that everyone must eventually compromise, and he simply says, “Bullshit.”  It’s the single best use of the word I’ve seen in a film.  His great weakness, however, is in the performance of his duty.  He’s surrounded by so much death, working in homocide, that he’s become distant and callous.  His ridiculously gorgeous and intelligent girlfriend calls him out on this.  He insists that he must keep going.  What Bullitt teaches us is that justice and truth are worth fighting for, but even the most noble can be scarred by the horrors of crime and deceit.

The chase sequences are incredible.  This was back in the day, man, when people actually drove cars in stunt scenes and let the audience see what the hell was going on.  The big car chase is sublime.  The various foot chases are similarly engaging.

This is a must see for fans of the ‘Bourne’ movies, ‘Dirty Harry’ movies, frak it, any action film fan needs to see this film.  This is a piece of art, ladies and gentlemen, this is a piece of perfect.

Classic Review: Pulp Fiction

Stars:  **** out of 4

Summary:  An awful trip into the dark side of life that’s too much for the morally conscientious, but also a terrifically clever and redemptive narrative that shows that light shines brightest in the darkest places.

"Don't judge a book by its cover" is almost too cliche for words, but it kind of fits here.  Groovy.

"Don't judge a book by its cover" is almost too cliche for words, but it kind of fits here. Groovy.

Review:  You know what? I’m tired of something.  I’m tired of folks focusing too much on the dark side of life.  I’m tired of self-imposed moral guardians not having the wit to see the good in the world around them.  Gag me with a spoon.  But there is evil in the world.  You bet your sweet bippy.  Sooner or later, you’re going to have to deal with it.  Art when used properly is a roundhouse kick to the face of those sneaky bastards who think they can catch you off guard.  In other words, it’s a way of exorcising our demons, exposing the villain within.  Strange genius Quentin Tarantino, whether he admits or not, has a definite talent for that sort of thing.  Exhibit A.  “Pulp Fiction”.

This is a movie about the criminal underworld.  It’s about the things we keep secret.  About family.  About sexuality.  About conversations about God and pigs in an old diner.  Yet, for all the myriad qualities, those influenced by the film seem to have taken to the incidentals of the setting rather than the brilliance of the substance.  So, Tarantino’s cinematic offspring have drug use, bloody violence, bad sexual jokes and the overuse of the F-word.  Those things are present in ‘Pulp Fiction’, but they’re a part of something much more intelligent.  It’s not just shocking.  It’s better than that.  It’s honest.  It’s not a movie you’d want your grandmother to see, and if you think you would, either you’re messed up or I don’t want to meet your grandmother.

There’s a classic proverb that says, ‘Great artists steal’.  Tarantino doesn’t just steal tropes or scenes or characters like any old filmmaker would do, instead he soaks up the very essence of a cultural mindset and wrings it out onto the page and the screen.  The result is always both uncomfortable and extremely engaging.  Wholesomeness and perversion exist side by side.  There’s good sex and bad sex, God and gangsters, redemption and revenge.  Perhaps a reason why the self-imposed protectors of the moral status quo can’t get a movie like ‘Pulp Fiction’ is that they just don’t want to see people naked — metaphorically, I mean.  The film is extremely redemptive and the good guys win.  The nastiness of their on-screen world is our very own nastiness.  As unnecessary as seeing it could be, maybe those of us who live in this dark world need to be reminded of our own uncomfortable secrets, and that by sifting through them we can find our own redemption.

Iron Man

Stars:  ★★★☆

Summary:  A fantastic and dramatically credible way to set up Marvel’s ironclad hero.

Review:  The superhero genre on film seems to be in the middle of a Renaissance.  Rival companies Marvel and DC, both plagued by bad renditions of their characters, seem to be trying harder and mustering greater creative forces to realize their iconography on screen.  ‘Iron Man’ could be considered, after a mixed third ‘Spider-Man’ and two disliked ‘X-Men’ installments, to be Marvel’s comeback.  It has invigorated mainstream interest into Marvel’s great selection of “unknown” characters, and is the first in a series of films to set up 2012’s destruction of the world via Joss Whedon crossover extravaganza ‘The Avengers’.

So here’s why it works.  The heart of it is a redemption story.  Billionaire genius Tony Stark, played with originality by Robert Downey, Jr. in a comeback role, is a real jerkass who follows a mythic story arc into a modern hell — a cave in Afghanistan — where he is confronted with the knowledge that his company’s weapons are being used by terrorists.  They try to force him to build them a WMD, but he instead builds himself a suit of armor and escapes with extreme prejudice.  Because of his ordeal, he is being kept alive by a power core, which is analogous to his new heart.  His new appreciation for life and sense of responsibility clash with his company’s double-dealing.  The classic path into hell and subsequent rebirth is a story as old as humanity.  A confrontation with suffering, one’s own sins, and a need for empathy is setup for a successful hero, both in fiction and in true life.  The film never loses steam, per se, but the strength of the picture is in Stark’s metaphorical resurrection as a hero, and when it diverts from this in the second and third acts it loses some of its punch.

From an Orthodox Christian perspective, the film works brilliantly because it taps into the redemptive relationship between God and man.  Contrary to popular and misguided opinion in Christian circles, the point of the faith is not to escape hell, but to confront it directly.  The human race is inexorably tied into an ontological relationship with Christ.  By this I mean, where He goes, we ought to go.  This is what Christians (should) mean when they say salvation is in Christ.  It’s not only in His name, like “Here’s your membership card with Christ’s signature on it”, but directly united with His specific actions.  Namely, death and resurrection.  Through and after his ordeal, Tony Stark acts as, in the best sense of the word, a Christian.  Like the Christ.  That’s not to say he’s a perfect character — that was never the question.  The question was whether he would go through hell and emerge a different man.  In a broad sense, we all go through the fire, and we all have a choice: Refuse it and be destroyed, or accept it and change it into a vehicle of metamorphosis.

A great film with a few weak points.  Here’s to Marvel’s Renaissance.

Revenge Of The Sith (Episode III)

Stars:  ***1/2 out of 4

Summary:  Big darn space tragedy.  It’s a been a long wait, and I’m satisfied.  Thanks, George.

Oh, yeah.  That's what this movie really needed.  Too bad he only shows up for 5 minutes at the end.

Oh, yeah. That's what this movie really needed. Too bad he only shows up for 5 minutes at the end.

Review: By the time the esteemed Mr. Lucas got around to unleashing the final produced installment in ‘Star Wars’, the Prequels already had a pretty mixed reputation among hardcore fans, for varying reasons. It’s safe to say you can’t please everyone, and the expectations were so high that it was all too easy for Lucas & Co to let the audience down. The biggest complaint I remember ringing in my ears, as a young ‘Star Wars’ nut, was not in regards to plot or character or even Jar Jar Binks; it was the lack of Darth Vader, arguably one of the greatest bad guys ever put to celluloid. After ‘The Phantom Menace’, I think people understood that George was going back and telling the origins of Vader specifically, and that would be the dominant story arc over the Prequels. In Episode II, when Hayden Christensen — who is not a bad actor — showed us an Anakin Skywalker that was less cool than we had expected, I think folks were just ticked and wanted their favorite helmeted villain back.

Unfortunately for the large population of the movie audience that wanted all the Vader they could get, Lucas had other things in mind, and we were just going to have to live with it. To the satisfaction of many, however, Episode III proved to be the best of the Prequels, making up for our disappointment pretty well. ‘Revenge of the Sith’ is much better conceived and executed than its Prequel predecessors. It’s the most fun, the most emotional, and the most like the Original Trilogy.  It also provided me with an Eureka moment about Lucas, the Prequels, and really the entire saga.

Lucas is actually a whole lot more clever then people give him credit for.  The melodramatic hammy dialog of the Prequels is apparently by design.  I don’t have this confirmed exactly when it comes to the screenplay, but I do have a yes in regards to how the dialog is delivered on screen.  Considering that he had a major hand in writing all of the Original trilogy — especially Episode IV — I think it’s safe to say he does know the difference between good and bad dialog.  The huge effort creative effort he put into realizing the Prequels is indicative of his lack of laziness when it comes to ‘Star Wars’.  It appears to be that the melodrama is intentionally operatic and expresses a different kind of story than the Original trilogy did with its witty banter and frontier mentality.  Sometime during the production, didn’t any one of the very competent actors turn to George and give him the classic “You can write this shit, George, but you can’t say it”?  My impression is, they didn’t.  Lucas probably clued them in on what they were doing.  The Prequels are truly space opera; the Originals are space adventures enriched by space opera.

Episode III is very good.  It shows how well Lucas’ intentional “mistakes” work.  The exaggeration prevents the intense tragedy from punching us in the heart, but the tragedy still works phenomenally well, and reminds us that yes, Lucas does know how to write an effective, emotional story.  Even with a sad lack of suited Darth Vader, it feels like a fitting bridge to end the saga, and it has become my second favorite ‘Star Wars’ movie after Episode VI.

Philosophically, this is one of the richest of the saga.  Anakin’s metamorphosis into Darth Vader is predicated by the fear of loss.  We already know that “Fear is the path to the dark side!” According to Master Yoda, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate… leads to suffering.”  Yoda adds in Episode III, “The fear of loss is a path to the dark side… Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed that is.”  This is closely related to Buddhist and Orthodox Christian philosophy.  In Orthodoxy, the triumph of Christ over death is paramount, and says that death itself is dead.  It’s unable to truly destroy any longer.  The fear of death and loss, then, is a perversion of the truth and is a path to suffering and evil.  To let go and trust God in the face of death is essential.  The next major theme is Darth Sidious’ rise to power and the creation of the evil Empire.  Lucas based its evolution on the creation of real dictatorships.  When a person is given power in time of crisis, what guarantees that they will let it go when the crisis has abated?  What happens when the leader created the crisis as a power grab?  History and the Prequels both testify that it is terrifyingly easy for a corrupt leader to engage in a Xanatos Gambit and twist their organization to their own ends.  Other themes also exist in the film, but I covered them in my review for Episode II.

I’m very glad the Prequels were made.  They’re highly imaginative and they really do feed into and enhance the awesomeness of the Originals.