by Steve Habrat
Last May, Marvel kicked the summer movie season off with the hugely satisfying superhero spectacular The Avengers. Not only was The Avengers massively successful, but it also raised the bar for both Marvel and the superhero genre in general. When the lights came up in the theater, you knew that it would be extremely difficult for the comic book juggernaut to top themselves after the blast of awesome they had just delivered. Speed ahead one year and we have Iron Man 3, which lets us know that Marvel has absolutely no intentions of slowing down and giving their heroes a little bit of a breather (Thor is back for seconds this Thanksgiving and Captain America swoops in next spring). For the past few months, there has been quite a bit of hype surrounding the new entry in the Iron Man franchise and the film has already opened to staggering numbers overseas. So the question on everyone’s mind is, is it as good or better than The Avengers? Well, Iron Man 3 certainly isn’t better than The Avengers or the original Iron Man, for that matter. It is, however, a little bit better than the lackluster Iron Man 2, which is a huge relief. With a new director behind the camera and a script crammed with twist after twist, Iron Man 3 reassures us that there is still some life in a franchise that was starting to show signs of rust on its second run. This is a well-oiled superhero epic that finds ever-game star Robert Downey Jr. having the time of his life as he goes up against two of the ghastliest foes he has faced so far.
Picking up several months after the events of The Avengers, the brash industrialist Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) is suffering severe anxiety attacks over what he witnessed in New York City. He is having a hard time getting a little shuteye and when he does manage to drift off, he suffers from horrible nightmares. In his spare time, Tony retreats to his workshop and builds new Iron Man suits that he proceeds to store away in an underground vault for a rainy day. Meanwhile, the United States has suffered a series of bombing attacks orchestrated by a mysterious cult-like terrorist known only as the Mandarin (played by Ben Kingsley). After one of the Mandarin’s attacks injures one of Tony’s closest friends, Tony decides to issue a televised threat to the mumbling terrorist. The Mandarin quickly responds by destroying Tony’s luxurious home and several of his Iron Man suits. To make matters worse, Stark Industries CEO Pepper Potts (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) finds herself approached by Aldrich Killian (played by Guy Pearce), a bitter but brilliant scientist from Tony’s past who appears to be working hand-in-hand with the Mandarin’s terrorist organization. With the Mandarin’s attacks growing deadlier by the day, Tony has to enlist the help of Colonel James Rhodes (played by Don Cheadle) to help him get back in the fight.
Perhaps the biggest problem that plagued Iron Man 2 was the fact that the film seemed to exist solely to prepare audiences for The Avengers. It spent so much time prepping the Iron Man character for the ultimate meeting of do-gooders that it almost seemed to forget that it was also supposed to be a stand-alone film. It never felt like a strictly solo outing for Tony Stark. Thankfully, Iron Man 3 boots all the S.H.I.E.L.D agents out on their butts and even shoos Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow away from the action. Granted, there are a number of references to The Avengers and the three other team members are mention throughout, but Iron Man 3 seems refreshed by the idea that it isn’t just a lavish set-up. Free of these ties, the wave of trailers sent out by Marvel seemed to promise a darker entry for Mr. Stark and while there is plenty of sinister activity going on in Iron Man 3, the edgier moments are always complimented by a scene of slapstick comedy. This is especially apparent in the earlier moments of the film, where Tony fumbles and bumbles around with a new suit of armor that attaches itself to him in pieces. Here and there he complains about his anxiety and insomnia, but it never fully ventures into Tony’s heart of darkness, which is incredibly frustrating. Director Shane Black pushes the darkness even harder when he introduces the Mandarin, who appears in terrifying televised appearances that disrupt your normally scheduled programs. They are absolutely spectacular and maybe a little too effective in playing on our current fears of terrorism. Bravo, Black!
While the first forty minutes may be a mixed ball of emotions and tones, the second and third acts of Iron Man 3 boast breathtaking action sequences and showdowns. The Mandarin’s first attack on Tony’s home is appropriately disorienting and frenzied as our hero desperately tries to round up all the pieces of his armor to fight back against the advancing helicopters. The standout rescue of thirteen Air Force One passengers tumbling through the air will have every single audience member holding their breath and wondering if their hero will be able to pull off the rescue. It is by far the film’s coolest action set piece and quite possibly the best from any Marvel film yet (it would only be second to the battle for New York City in The Avengers). Things really get epic when the grand finale hits and I must say, this is the first Iron Man film that truly seems to have a satisfying and coherent climatic showdown. The previous two films seemed to wrap everything up a bit too hastily, at least in my humble opinion. I won’t say too much about this fiery clash, but it really puts our hero to the test and finds Stark actually breaking a sweat, something you didn’t really see when he was trading blows with Iron Monger and Whiplash.
The true beauty of the Iron Man films is that there seems to be a genuine and giddy enthusiasm from the performers, which is always infectious. Downey continues to wow us as the mile-a-millisecond industrialist with a weakness for booze and babes. He can be crude, charming, and hilarious, but he can also reveal a vulnerability buried deep inside all the clanking iron. He is also given the chance to jump into a few action scenes without the cover of a CGI suit of armor, which is a nice change of pace. Paltrow continues to glow as the mild mannered Pepper Potts, who is even given the chance to throw a couple of punches herself. By now I’m sure you’ve heard or seen that she dons one of Tony’s Iron Man suits. Cheadle is his usual tip-top self as the straight-laced Colonel Rhodes/Iron Patriot. He doesn’t do anything extraordinary but he has plenty of charming moments with Downey’s Stark. Perhaps the biggest surprise of Iron Man 3 is how good Ben Kingsley is as the mumbling teacher-terrorist Mandarin. I don’t want to spoil the Mandarin but believe me when I say that he will practically have you in a ball under your seat when you first meet him. Guy Pearce also shines as the crippled scientist Aldrich Killian, a bitter rival who slowly morphs into one seriously nasty piece of work. Rounding out the new players is the severely underused and virtually pointless Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen, who is basically there to provide a bit of exposition and that’s it. What a waste!
While all the zippy action and adventure is fun, Iron Man 3 is not without its faults. In addition to the choppy commencement, I also found Tony’s little detour into rural Tennessee to be a bit dull. While there, Tony is forced to mingle with a local boy named Harley (played by Ty Simpkins), who I just couldn’t really bring myself to care about. Then there is the big twist at the middle of the film, which filled me with disappointment. Once again, I can’t go into much detail about it but I do think the film could have done without it. Overall, Iron Man 3 is a great way to kick off the summer movie season and it finds the series returning to form after a muddled second installment. It smartly plays on our current fears of terrorism and it wraps them up in one big, loud, and bold action sequence after another. It would have been nice to see the film venture deeper into the dark side and drop some of the childish humor, but I suppose they just have to appeal to the kiddies too. Oh, and do stay for a nifty little treat after the credits. You’ll be glad you did.
by Steve Habrat
Perhaps my expectations were too high going in to comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest shock comedy The Dictator, a political satire that doesn’t ever really go for the throat. I was hoping for a comedy on the level of 2006’s Borat and 2009’s Bruno, a film with jokes that really left a mark and left you saying “ouch.” With The Dictator, Cohen parodies such real life dictators as the late Kim Jong-il and Muammar Gaddafi, both who were constantly making news and creating a stir throughout the world. One would expect Cohen to have a ball riffing these two individuals and he clearly is having a good time parading around in a fake beard, but this offering seems to just go in circles for eighty minutes. I kept waiting for something to truly shock me and outside of a joke made about women attending college and a climatic rant that will have any liberal-minded audience member jumping up in applause, I was left unmoved by Cohen’s effort. There are still some chuckle worthy moments and some gross-outs that lean more toward gross rather than funny, all of which you’d expect from The Dictator but even still, it doesn’t wield as much power as it would like.
The Dictator introduces us to Admiral General Aladeen (Played by Cohen), the dictator of the North African Republic of Waydia. The Supreme Leader, as Aladeen is often called, loves to oppress his people, pay Hollywood movie stars to sleep with him, order executions on those who get on his bad side, and develop nuclear weapons. Upon making an announcement that leads the world to believe he possesses advanced nuclear weapons, the United Nations Security Council declares that they will intervene militarily unless he shuts the program down. Aladeen and his uncle, Tamir (Played by Ben Kingsley), decide to travel to the UN Headquarters in New York City to address the council. Upon his arrival, Aladeen is kidnapped by a hired hitman, who shaves his iconic beard and then accidentally unleashes him on the streets of New York. Aladeen then finds himself replaced by a dimwitted double that will sign a document making Waydia a democracy. With the help of an activist named Zooey (Played by Anna Farris), Aladeen begins trying to stop the signing of the document and in the process, develops a soft spot for Zooey and democracy.
At a brief eighty-three minutes, The Dictator doesn’t linger long enough to become too outrageous. Throughout those eighty-three minutes, it seemed like the nervous studio was holding Cohen back from really finding a groove. I can remember seeing Bruno for the first time and just feeling the air getting sucked out of the packed theater while multiple disgusted audience members bolted for the door. It appears that Paramount was determined to not let something like that happen with The Dictator. I wish that they had let Cohen go and do his wild and crazy thing, which would have helped the film out immensely. It should be noted that The Dictator is also structured like a normal Hollywood movie rather than the hidden camera footage of Cohen messing with real American citizens. Even the subject matter itself, which plays with our fear of terrorism in this post 9/11 world, seems to be a bit dated and almost cheap, like Cohen could have come up with something better to hit us over the head with.
As far as Cohen’s performance is concerned, he is immersed in this character 110%. He ad-libs with the best and he does think up a few stinging zingers, mostly the one about women attending college that really pissed off one girl in my showing. Oh, and he does deliver a good one about Dick Cheney that had me in stitches. For the first time, Cohen seems a bit too eager to make us gag over making us think, something that was put first in both Borat and Bruno. I liked it when Cohen really put himself in danger to make us laugh (Remember the rodeo sequence in Borat?), but also to show us the ugly sides of America, the ones we hear about but rarely ever see. Here it is all about defecating off of a building, masturbating, and yes, putting a cell phone in a woman’s vagina (you read that correctly). He also goes for easy and juvenile jokes, ones that Adam Sandler would settle for on what he perceived as one of his good days. Yet Cohen is as magnetic as always and he does make us feel for this lonely, lonely dictator.
As far as the rest of the performers are concerned, Ben Kingsley has little to do besides stand next to Cohen and mutter lines to side characters and John C. Riley shows up briefly as the hitman hired to kill Aladeen. Riley delivers some of the best lines The Dictator has to offer and then he is gone in a flash. Cohen, on the other hand, works well with Anna Farris, who plays things straighter than I imagined she would. She usually can’t resist taking a violent turn into wackoville but with The Dictator, she keeps things nice and liberally normal. Jason Mantzoukas shows up as a nuclear weapons developer Nadal, who Aladeen had thought he had executed. It should be said that Cohen and Mantzoukas have little comedic chemistry and have a hard time playing off each other. Sadly, they only briefly click.
For a film that could have had so much bite, The Dictator rarely ever bears its fangs. Instead, it gets hung up on body fluids and jokes about terrorists, throwaway jokes that I never thought I’d see Cohen fall back on. Yet I did enjoy parts of The Dictator and thought certain moments of it were really clever. A pair of political analysts who pick apart public appearances by Aladeen and his advisors are an absolutely hysterical riff on the ones we see on television, the ones who find so much in so little. Overall, I can say that while I am disappointed in this paint-by-numbers studio comedy, it was still a good time for a crass laugh or three. Yet I was left wishing that Cohen had raised the bar, been more offensive, and pushed the envelope just a little bit further. When it comes to his trio of mainstream comedies, The Dictator is the runt compared to the rough and tough Borat and Bruno. Oh well, at least the runt is kind of sweet and cute despite all the urine and seaman.
by Steve Habrat
I wonder what the film snobs who snarled at J.J. Abrams and Steve Spielberg’s wide-eyed tribute to the escapist cinema Super 8 are now thinking about Martin Scorsese’s turn at bat. Truth be told, Scorsese’s Hugo is quite possibly the best movie I have seen all year. With 3D that rivals Avatar’s, some of the finest acting from child stars I have seen since Super 8, an extraordinary performance from Sacha Baron Cohen, and a reserved respect for classic cinema, Hugo is a sumptuous revelation that will live on for years to come. In fact, I’d be so bold to say that if Scorsese retired and never made another picture, there is no finer way for him to go out than with this film. Hugo places Scorsese’s heart on his sleeve, which is quite rare when we go back over his resume (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Departed, Shutter Island). It’s rare you find a film of this caliber, one that manages to capture the director’s spirit and boy if Scorsese’s spirit isn’t incandescent with childlike wonder. And from a guy who has made so many films about tough guys, who’d have thought he was a gigantic softie?
Hugo breathes new life into this cookie cutter Oscar season, loaded with the usual fare (The Descendents, J. Edgar, My Week with Marilyn, Shame), and it is utterly refreshing. Set in Paris during the 1930s, orphaned Hugo Cabret (Played by the breathtaking Asa Butterfield) tends to the clocks behind the walls of a bustling train station. He steals food from the cafés that line the station, people watches from behind the towering clock faces, dodges the ever-watchful Station Inspector (Played by Sacha Baron Cohen, who has never been better) and flits about the winding steam rooms and hidden grinding gears. In his spare time, Hugo sneaks around the station stealing trinkets that will help him fix a mysterious automaton, which he was building with his father (Played by Jude Law) before his father was killed in a fire. He steals parts from a toyshop owned by the bitter George Méliès (Played by Ben Kingsley). One day he gets caught by Méliès and as punishment has his notebook containing the instructions on how to fix the automaton taken away. Méliès tells Hugo that he must work for him and earn the notebook back. While working for Méliès, Hugo meets Isabelle (Played by the always great Chloe Grace Moretz), a young girl who hangs around the toyshop. They strike up a friendship and she begins to help Hugo on his quest to finish the automaton and Hugo aids her in her quest for adventure.
While there isn’t a kink to be found in the storytelling, the performances are all wonderful, and the film hits every emotional mark it needs to, the film soars because of it’s jaw-dropping 3D. It’s on the level of Avatar and even surpassing it in some respects. What I believe good 3D should accomplish is making me feel like I inhabit the world that the characters do. This is what saved Avatar and coaxed back audiences to see it again. You felt like you were on Pandora with the characters, not like you were just peering through a large opening. We are invited in to the world that Hugo Cabret explores on a daily basis. The opening moments of the film pulled the rug out from under me and I felt like I was dashing along that twisting labyrinth of metal and steam. While watching Hugo, I felt like I had jumped into a time machine and sped off into history.
Speaking of history, Hugo gives a concise overview of the history of cinema, even if it is succinct. These are told in minor flashbacks that tickle the viewers eyes by flashing clips of old silent classics, stock footage of WWI, and techniques applied by Scorsese himself. The film contains numerous scenes in which the actors have little to no dialogue and let their performances evoke the spirits of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and more. At times I almost found myself wishing that Scorsese had filmed Hugo in black and white, just to give the audience the full effect. I guess the producers may have feared it would overshadow the recent release The Artist, which is also a testament to early cinematic works. As someone who has studied the history of the medium, I was enthralled with Scorsese animated trip through history all while constantly nudging my friends and gasping over the nods to old films. Scorsese appears to never feel obliged to tip his hat and it felt like this was coming from the deepest depths of his magic loving heart.
Magic is the core of Hugo, as Scorsese professes his undying love for it every step of the way. He couples magic with imagination and our willingness to dream. He firmly declares that film is our way of capturing our dreams and showing them to the world. This goes against what is taught at stuffy film schools where they say film should not be a form of escapism but rather make political, moral, and social proclamations. For those of us who grew up marveling at the medium, this shatters what we have built film up to be and I ask why they must defile what is sacred to us fans? It must be quite a blow to their egos, as film schools like the one I attended gushed over Scorsese and his gritty works. It turns out they were wrong about that little guy. He dares to dream with the rest of us.
Hugo boats some truly exquisite performances from its young child stars. Kingsley conveys anger, resentment, and redemption with grace. Sacha Baron Cohen is Oscar worthy as the strict Station Inspector who has confidence issues and a hopeless crush on a pretty and fair Lisette (Played by Emily Mortimer). Asa Butterfield’s Hugo shines the brightest of all and he nabs our empathy just as nonchalantly as he takes a pastry from a café. Chloe Grace Moretz is flawless as always, but then again she has been a talent to keep an eye on since she broke out with last years stellar Kick-Ass. Christopher Lee pops up as an observant and baritoned bookshop owner who finds himself puzzled over the independent Hugo. All of these performances compliment each other and the true marvel is the performances achieved without copious amounts of dialogue. It’s like they are from a different era.
Hugo gathers it’s momentum in the first few seconds of flashing across the screen and it never slows down. Everything just clicks in this picture. You’ll find yourself grinning over it if you’re a film fan and enamored with it even if you are just a casual viewer. Scorsese pleads with us not to contain our imagination and our passion for the things that we love. They should guide us through this twisting and complicated world and allow us to discover what our purpose is in this life. Thanks for reminding me to dream, Marty, and assuring me that it’s more than okay to do so. Oh, and thanks for Hugo, the best film of 2011.