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Iron Man 3 (2013)

Iron Man 3 #1

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!

IRON MAN 3

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.

Grade: B+

The Proposition (2005)

by Steve Habrat

For many years, it has been said that the western is a dead genre. It may not be as popular as it once was, but every so often, the genre rides back from the sweaty cinema graveyard and sternly reminds us all that it is alive and well. Take John Hillcoat’s 2005 Australian western The Proposition, a clammy, existential stargazer of a picture that appeals to both aging fans of the genre and the wine-sipping art house crowd. There is an echo of Leone here and maybe a faint whistle of Peckinpah there but gently rolled into the center of The Proposition is an apocalyptic rumble that refuses to quit.  There are many layers to The Proposition, from a story about the complex relationship between a trio of outlaw brothers to the idea of taming the unruly Australian outback through violent force. Don’t be fooled by the film’s sensitive side as The Proposition can turn on you in an instant, almost like a whiskey-drenched outlaw who has just been disrespected in the local saloon.  Yet the real shock comes in the way the film warns us that in a place this wicked and gray, even the most innocent soul isn’t immune to the horrors that can blow in from the plains.

The Proposition takes us into the unforgiving Australian outback of the 1880s, where a savage gang led by the Burns brothers roams about causing mayhem. It is rumored that the Burns brothers gang is responsible for the horrific massacre of the prominent Hopkins family, who appear to have been beloved by the local community. After two of the Burns brothers, simpleton Mikey (Played by Richard Wilson) and clever Charlie (Played by Guy Pearce), are apprehended by lawman Captain Stanley (Played by Ray Winstone), Captain Stanley cons Charlie into riding into the outback and finding their eldest brother Arthur (Played by Danny Huston), who is said to be the deadliest of the Burns brothers gang. Captain Stanley warns Charlie that he has nine days to find and kill Arthur and if he doesn’t, Mikey will be executed. Charlie reluctantly accepts and rides out into territory that is savagely defended by Aboriginal tribes that kill any white man that dares set foot on their land without an army. With the clock ticking, Captain Stanley soon finds himself fending off protests from the community and his fragile wife, Martha (Played by Emily Watson), who was very close with the Hopkins family. As the protests turn violent and his job slowly slips out of his hands, Arthur learns of the plot to bring him down and he sets out to find Captain Stanley and innocent wife.

Set to a gulping bass line and whispery chants from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, The Proposition hints that a storm of fury is gathering on the horizon, just waiting for the right moment to rain down on the dusty town. The whispers in the score ask “when”, “why”, and “who” as all three of the brothers gaze up at the fiery sun and the twinkling stars. The build up to this storm doesn’t hesitate to linger on the beautiful Australian outback even though we know that this untouched land is slowly being gutted by senseless bloodshed.  Nick Cave’s screenplay may use a different location for this squinty showdown but he doesn’t mind drawing from the good old western tradition of waiting around for death to come riding into town on a rusted horse. The outlaws pass the time chatting about love and starring out at the landscape while the military men grunt about the sexual acts they would like to perform on Martha while the Captain is away. We do have to wonder who the real savages are in The Proposition and that question is easily answered as the film moves into its second act. The outlaws use violence to protect their freedom while the Aboriginal tribes are using violence to protect what is rightfully theirs. The military uses senseless slaughter and overkill to send a message, all while flies gather on their sweaty backs. Yet Cave and Hillcoat don’t ever squander an opportunity to show us how senseless all this violence really is. It is written in the reactions of those who pound a drum for it.

With the weighty script in place and an atmospheric score pondering about how this will end, Hillcoat and Cave give their actors plenty of room to really develop their characters. Pearce is a marvel as he silently rides through the rocky terrain, sipping from a bottle of liquor and touring the smoldering ruins of the Hopkins’ home, ruins that now lie empty as their spirits cry out in agony. He is eerily similar to Eastwood’s Man with No Name, but I’d dare you to find me a modern day gunslinger that doesn’t draw from that legendary cowboy. Huston is a slow burner of a baddie, a sadistic killer who only shows his true colors when he is prodded with a hot poker. You will fear for the fool who dares anger this slumbering beast. Winstone’s collapsing Captain Stanley is desperately trying to provide a safe place for both his wife and himself to call home. It is emotionally draining to see the dim light of hope die in his eyes as things go from bad to worse. Watson brings her fragile gaze to Martha, who only wishes to have a cozy Christmas with her loving husband. You can see the naïve gears in her head turn as she silently tries to comprehend the violence in these outlaws. When this delicate soul is smashed in the final moments of the film, it shatters into tiny pieces that will never be able to be put back together. David Wenham rides into town as Captain Stanley’s boss, Eden Fletcher, who dishes out one hundred lashes to poor Mikey, leaving him a sobbing, bloody heap. Also present is David Gulpillil as Jacko, an Aboriginal tracker who tries desperately to understand the viscous nature of the white man and John Hurt as Jellon Lamb, a sloshed old bounty hunter searching for Arthur.

The Proposition boils down to a bond between brothers, and what they will end up doing for one another. Despite their shocking actions, they stand by, loyal even as they hold a gun to each other’s head. When the bullets fly across the screen, The Proposition remains ever thoughtful of the situation in front of it. Yet any good western boils down to how affecting the story truly is and I must say that The Proposition is one that sticks to your ribs long after the last gunfighter falls to the ground and a defiled woman shrieks in horror. With an ending as black as night, The Proposition is certainly not a Hallmark western, one where the sheriff walks away triumphant and the outlaw is led away with cuffs around his wrists. Oh no, it is far from it but that doesn’t even begin to spoil the ending of the film. In fact, it seems clear to me that all that time the western has spent out in cinema’s forgotten graveyard has only toughened the genre up and caused it to be a bit more philosophical than it already was before it pulls the trigger.

Grade: A

The Proposition is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Lawless (2012)

by Steve Habrat

If I have learned one thing at the movies this summer, I have learned that Tom Hardy is one scary man. I think if I were to pass him on the sidewalk, I’d quickly cross the street to avoid him. As if his villainous turn as hulking terrorist Bane in The Dark Knight Rises wasn’t enough to make this guy one intimidating bastard, wait until you get a load of him in director John Hillcoat’s Lawless, a Prohibition era thriller about bootleggers in Franklin County, Virginia. Based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, Hillcoat’s thriller, which is based on a true story, does find a few common gangster movie qualities blotching the screenplay by Nick Cave. However, Lawless is saved by the explosive performances from this must-see ensemble cast, who all seem to be relishing this material. Still, I really wish I could say that Lawless avoided things we have seen from movies like this in the past but sadly, it gets caught in the same web that many of these films do. The story line does gasp one breath of fresh air by its use of Prohibition as the backdrop for these outlaws. I also admired the setting, far away from the big city bustle and nestled in the hills where Mother Nature isolates the Bondurant boys behind her natural wooded wall. Yet Lawless is sent into the stars by the terrifying turn from Hardy, a role that I can only hope is not forgotten come Awards season.

Welcome to the hills of Prohibition era Franklin County, Virginia, a serene and seemingly peaceful place where bootlegging runs rampant.  The stars of this bootlegging party are the Bondurant boys, who seem to be on top of the world just out of the clutches of the law. The Bondurant boys are made up of the quiet but threatening Forrest (Played by Tom Hardy), who is also the leader of the group, hothead Howard (Played by Jason Clarke), and runt Jack (Played by Shia LaBeouf). The boys run their illegal business out of their dusty roadside bar but they soon find themselves harassed by flamboyant Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Played by Guy Pearce), a hot shot from Chicago who wants a cut of the profits that the Bondurant boys bring in. After Forrest refuses, Rakes comes down hard on the bootleggers nestled in the hills and slowly begins shutting down their operations in the most brutal ways he can. After a nasty run in with Jack and a murder attempt is made on Forrest, a war is sparked in the Franklin County hills but the Bondurants have no intention of shutting down their business.

Cold and bristly, with tons of blood to get tossed around the furiously exhaustive sets, Lawless sure is one hell of a vicious ride into an untamed world. Prohibition is something that you never hear too much about, so it comes as a major shock to see it done with so much fury. People are harshly stabbed, shot, tarred, feathered, rapped, tortured, and beaten, cutthroat punishments for a cutthroat business I suppose. Despite the horrific violence (trust me, it is horrific), the film itself boasts rich amounts of cinematography from Benoit Delhomme, who makes every scene of the film appropriate to cut out and frame on your wall. While the film has plenty of violence to go around, there are some thick dramatics draped over this lawless world, so thick that you could almost cut it with a dull and rusty blade. There are two delicately delivered romances, one between Forrest and bar waitress Maggie Beauford (Played by Jessica Chastain), a former dancer looking that desperately wanted a quiet life but has stumbled into something worse and one between Jack and Bertha Minnix (Played by Mia Wasikowska), a seemingly innocent preacher’s daughter with a rebellious streak. Both are delivered with heart-on-the-sleeve compassion, making us root for both love stories to triumph in this world of blood.

Lawless achieves a must-see status due to the performances, especially the one from the hulking Hardy, who portrays Forrest Bondurant as a grunting bear of a man who speaks in a southern drawl that sounds like grinding gravel mixed with thick globs of molasses. While he is technically the good guy, Hardy owns any room he walks into and he leaves you wiping the sweat off of your palms when he leaves. The characters all whisper that Forrest is invincible and you will be left half believing it throughout the runtime. At times, he can be surprisingly funny, especially when Chastain’s Maggie tries to offer some affection his way. When he has his back against the wall, God forbid he reaches in his cardigan pocket and pulls out his dread brass knuckles, which he uses with precise savagery. While Hardy deserves a spot in the Best Supporting Actor category at the Academy Awards, he finds some competition from Pearce, a corrupt lawman with oily hair and dressed in fancy suits. Pearce, who I swear is incapable of delivering a lousy performance, is just as unpredictable as Hardy when it comes to his temper.  Vaguely perverted and as slippery as they come, he is a corrupt soul who finds delight in bringing down a wave of misery on all who cross him.

In a way, it is almost a shame that Hardy and Pearce are so good because they actually overshadow the other great performances. LaBeouf, who has recently said that he is done with big studio films, punches in a subtle performance that slowly flares up into an uncontrollable rage. He’s a runt that becomes reckless and you will hate him for it, especially when he has a good thing right in the palm of his hand. That good thing is sweet Bertha, the gentle daughter of a preacher who hides her interest in the business that Jack and his brothers are into. Clarke gets to play the bloodthirsty psycho of the three Bondurant boys. You will cringe when Forrest decides to let him off his leash and you pray that Forrest puts him back on it the second he is unleashed. Chastain is as gorgeous as ever as the delicate Maggie, who has the hots for the closed off Forrest. Along with Wasikowska’s Bertha, they form a calming force that balances out all the violence. Dane DeHaan joins this gangster party as the handicapped Cricket, who helps the Bondurant boys brew the their liquor. Rounding out the supporting players is the superb Gary Oldman, who stops by to blow us all away as Floyd Banner, a mobster who enjoys carrying a Tommy gun around and blasting away right in front of an innocent audience.

As the sense of doom wafts through the trees of Franklin County, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provide an appropriately nippy score that is all twanging guitars, bluegrass chants, and static hums that slowly build as the tension mounts. Lawless certainly suffers from some predictability but I will say that there are a few surprise scenes that really catch you off guard. Still, I am willing to forgive because Hillcoat’s work draws you in close and then refuses to let you walk away cleanly. He shakes you up and he does it in such a tasteful manner. While I can’t say that I liked Lawless as much as Hillcoat’s scorching Australian western The Proposition, I will say that I enjoyed the film a bit more than his previous big screen offering The Road. Overall, Lawless may be brewed from a recipe we have all tried before but this batch has enough burn going down and a unique lingering buzz to have you reaching for a second shot and maybe even a third.

Grade: A-

Prometheus (2012)

by Steve Habrat

It is no big surprise that Ridley Scott’s new science-fiction epic Prometheus is dividing those who have flocked to see it so far. The film deals with one of the most controversial topics around: creation of the human race. Set in the Alien universe, this semi-prequel to the 1979 classic indeed gives us quite a bit to think about after we have stumbled out of the theater and finally caught our breath. With Prometheus, Scott dares to ask a lot of really big questions. Where did we come from? Who created us and why? These are questions, whether viewed from a scientific angle or from a spiritual angle, that are not easily answered. At least not yet anyway. It appears that Scott and his writers, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, understand this and they opt to give us small answers to these big questions, which may frustrate many viewers but realistically, that is just the way it is. Frankly, I don’t believe that Scott and his writers ever truly set out to give crystal clear answers to the questions that Prometheus raises. Furthermore, my hat is off to Scott because he refuses to hold the audience’s hand throughout Prometheus, forcing them to do the unthinkable and (gasp!) think for themselves.

Prometheus begins in the year 2089 with archeologist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Played by Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Played by Logan Marshal-Green) discovering a star map in an ancient cave. They believe that the star map, which lines up with other star maps from several other seemingly unconnected ancient cultures, is an invitation from humanities creators called “Engineers” to travel to space and find them. Two years later, Shaw and Holloway are aboard the spaceship Prometheus traveling toward the distant moon LV-223, which is where they believe the “Engineers” are living. The acting head of this expedition is Meredith Vickers (Played by Charlize Theron), a snippy employee of the Weyland Corporation, which is the company that funded the expedition to LV-223. Upon arriving on the moon, the crew dashes out to explore what appears to be an ancient temple but they soon discover that this temple may be housing something that could spell doom for the human race. They also quickly realize that they are not alone in the curved tunnels of the ancient structure and that there may be individuals in their crew who are not there for scientific reasons.

The less you know about Prometheus going in to the film, the better it actually is, at least in my opinion. I was absolutely floored by how Scott has expanded his ash-colored universe from Alien and I was practically drooling at all the mesmerizing special effects. There is no doubt that this is the work of a true master of cinema. While many have raved about the visual presentation of Prometheus, it is the ideas here that many are in an uproar about. The film will no doubt cause controversy, especially when it answers the mother of all questions. Yet at times Scott and his writers tiptoe around certain definitive answers, partly because I don’t think they want to kick a hornet’s nest. Whether you believe in Darwinism or you believe a high power made us in his image, Prometheus makes sure it has everyone covered, from those who don’t know what to believe to those who clutch tightly to their crosses. Scott presents debate after debate between characters, bait to get our brains working and he is damn good at it too. On the surface, it could be read (and quickly dismissed) as a warning not to seek out your maker, but underneath, it is pushing us to at least ask a few questions to each other.

When you are not marveling at the special effects and your brain is not swimming from all the creation conversation, you will be glued to all the spellbinding acting from a handful of professions who are on top of their game. The standouts here are Rapace’s Shaw, Idris Elba’s Janek, the captain of the Prometheus, and Michael Fassbender’s slim and crafty android David. Shaw takes over for Sigourney Weaver’s level headed Ripley and gives us a much more subdued version of the Ripley character. She has a slower growth into full-blown ass-kicker and she gets one of the movie’s grossest moments (a self-surgery scene that requires her to cut in to her own stomach), a scene that is sure to become iconic. Near the end, I got chills of excitement when she grabbed an axe and readied herself for a brutal battle of life or death, a scene that was alive with Ripley’s spirit. Elba’s Janek, who is quick to tell Theron’s Vickers that he is “just the captain” has a lot more on his mind than just figuring out how to get the other sixteen passengers off LV-223 safely. I really enjoyed his weary compassion. While Elba and Rapace hold their own, the film belongs to Fassbender, who continues to impress me with each new film he is in. Early on, we see his character, alone on the Prometheus while the others are locked in their stasis chambers, hanging on every scene of Laurence of Arabia, playing basketball, dying his hair, and watching the dreams of the other crewmembers. He has a funny walk, beams when the elderly Peter Weyland (Played by Guy Pearce) tells him he has been like a son to him, and he longs to be viewed as one of the humans, even as darkness begins to creep into his mainframe.

The rest of the supporting cast does a good job, even if some of them get lost in all the action. Theron’s Vickers is a much more controlled villain here than she was in Snow White and the Huntsman. She is a lot more convincing as an evil corporate stooge rather than a cackling wicked witch. Guy Pearce shows up in a most unexpected (and surprisingly persuasive) role as the elderly Peter Weyland, a wealthy man who isn’t only interested in a new scientific discover. Logan Marshall-Green as Holloway was the only character I had a hard time liking. At times he felt a bit forced and even a bit cliché next to all the other characters that were much more vividly drawn. He is there only to be the love interest for Rapace’s Shaw and to cause some major problems later for our axe-wielding heroine. If I had one complaint about Prometheus, it would be him, especially since there was a lot of hype around him being the new up and coming actor of the moment. Rafe Spall and Sean Harris also show up memorably as Milburn and Fifiled, a botanist and a geologist who come face to face with some real nasty organisms.

Overall, Scott’s Prometheus is one big, expensive, flashy, 3D question mark of a movie and to be honest with you, I absolutely love that it is. I was mesmerized from the hypnotic opening sequence to the fiery finale that gives a nice big wink to the ’79 classic that inspired all of this (trust me, you’re going to love it). It may take some time for audiences to appreciate what Scott has done here, but as years pass, I see Prometheus becoming a chilling and grotesque classic that makes its way into film textbooks. If you get the chance, experience this sucker in 3D because it really adds to the film’s harsh and rocky environment. Many may tell you that Prometheus was an overhyped disappointment but I say that Prometheus has landed on movie screens to challenge us in ways most films refuse. It is nice to know that Hollywood still believes that some audience members like to use their intelligence at the movies from time to time and to be sent away with a lot to ponder.

Grade: A

The Hurt Locker (2009)

by Steve Habrat

Despite what you may think of the Academy Awards, I think most who saw Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq War film The Hurt Locker can agree that it was indeed the best film of 2009. Paranoid and frantic while taking absolutely no stance on the Iraq War, Bigelow masterfully sculpts a beast of a film, leaving us just as shaken up as one of the soldiers is after a bomb blast. It’s tough to wrap your head around the idea that a film dealing with a war that was as unpopular as the Iraq War would have no comments about the war itself. Instead, this is a boys being boys film, one where Bigelow presents three radical personalities (one timid, one by the books, and one who relentlessly lives on the edge), puts them in a bomb suit, and shakes them up violently to see what makes them tick. The film begins with the quote “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug”. The Hurt Locker turns out to be more than just a psychological study of the toll urban warfare takes on a soldier, but is also a movie about the crippling addiction of pushing the envelop and tempting death.

The Hurt Locker begins in 2004, just shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. After the grisly death of Staff Sergeant Matt Thompson (Played by Guy Pearce), the reckless and testy Sergeant First Class William James (Played by Jeremy Renner) comes in to take his place as a bomb diffuser. James joins Sergeant JT Sanborn (Played by Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Played by Brian Geraghty) and the group sets out on a string of missions including suicide bombers, car bombs, roadside bombs, etc. Sanborn and Eldridge try to keep their small group together and guarded where anything and anyone can become a threat. As James relentlessly tests the patience of Sanborn and Eldridge with his irresponsible behavior, Sanborn and Eldridge begin to fear for their own safety as well as begin to entertain ideas of finding a way to get rid of James. James, on the other hand, gets a thrill out of tempting death and his addiction to the “rush of battle” has caused him to become an outsider when playing the role of civilian.

Bigelow shies away from using familiar faces in her film, allowing the soldiers to seem like actual soldiers serving a tour of duty rather than a bunch of pampered actors sipping bottled Fiji water. This approach gives The Hurt Locker a heavy does of realism and randomness that can’t be matched by many other war films. Her fidgety camera that will unexpectedly zoom in on possible threats adds another layer of anxiety to the experience. Anyone can die at any second and Bigelow doesn’t want you to escape that nail biting dread. Pearce was the only recognizable actor in The Hurt Locker and he is knocked off in the first ten minutes of the film. Hell, if Pearce can get it, than any of these soldiers can bite the dust at any time! The Hurt Locker posses a documentary feeling throughout the course of its runtime, sometimes making you forget that you’re watching a movie. When snipers open fire on the group in one particular scene, you are practically ducking behind your coach and hugging the ground for dear life. Every battle doesn’t descend into quick cut gunfights, but rather embraces drawn out tension mixed with anticipatory trepidation of where the threat will come from next. Can you trust that man holding that cell phone? Is that car loaded with explosives? Are the citizens watching from their windows carrying a detonator or gun?

The Hurt Lockers presents three radical forms of the soldier. Eldridge represents the skittish soldier who fears death above all else, where every day could be his last. Sanborn is the by the books man who views his duty as just another day on the job. James is the one addicted to the “rush of battle” and views war as a drug. He can’t escape the thrill of it. Each performance is heavy and the relationship between the three main characters is never firing on all cylinders. Very rarely do they all click and work hand-in-hand, when they do they are alarmingly efficient. The most complexity lies in James, who cares more about the corpse of a boy who is currently having his guts ripped out and having them replaced with explosives over his own child back on American shores. Rarely does he talk about his wife, only when he is probed and had a little to drink. He struts towards bombs with his chin and helmet held high, loving every step he takes towards possible death. When he finds a bomb that could wipe out a large area, he rips off his bomb suit and goes about disarming the bomb comfortably. If it blows up, the suit won’t save him. But you have to wonder if he would really care if it did blow up. James also symbolically serves as the bottle that Eldridge and Sanborn are dropped into. When a rush shakes up James, the worst and the weakest points emerge from Sanborn and Eldrige

There is never a down moment in The Hurt Locker, one that doesn’t enthrall and hold your eyes to the screen. From the directing all the way to the script, the film is absolutely perfect, an atypical accomplishment for any film that makes its way out of Hollywood. The film opened the eyes of mainstream audiences to the talents of Jeremy Renner, who is finally becoming a household name. I firmly believe that The Hurt Locker is an instant classic, a film that will join the ranks of classics like Apocalypse Now and Platoon. In fact, the movie stills impacts me every time I see it, leaving a crater in stomach. It is a film I will never forget seeing in theaters for the first time and walking out of absolutely silent, verbally paralyzed by the sheer intensity of it. If you have never seen The Hurt Locker before, it may be wise to experience it with someone who already did just so they can have 911 ready. Why? Because you may pass out from holding your breath.

Grade: A+

The Hurt Locker is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The King’s Speech (2010)

by Steve Habrat

It drives me nuts when someone says that The King’s Speech was overrated and undeserving of its Oscar wins for Best Picture and Best Director at last year’s Academy Awards. I can see that to some, The King’s Speech is a tailor made Oscar film. It’s a period piece that is, yes, a bit dry and uptight. While the debate raged on last year over which film was more deserving of the Best Picture award, half siding with The Social Network and the other half siding with The King’s Speech, I found myself floored by The King’s Speech. Both films are a work of art and both are gripping, but I found myself invested in the warmth of The King’s Speech over the coldness of The Social Network. This is not to say that I disliked The Social Network, in fact I found it to stand in the top three films of 2010, but I found myself in love with the characters in The King’s Speech and rooting for Colin Firth’s stuttering King George VI. I rooted for him to overcome his disability and to make a friend in the process, someone he could relate to and share his bottled up feelings with. Someone he can sit back with, laugh with, and have a drink with.

The King’s Speech tells the true story of Prince Albert, Duke of York (Played by Firth), who suffers from a stutter that has plagued him his entire life. After years of ridicule and teasing from his strict father King George V (Played by Michael Gambon) and his older brother David, or Edward, Prince of Wales (Played by Guy Pearce), help is sought out for Albert and speech therapists are brought in who apply unorthodox techniques to help with the stutter. The techniques do not work and they end up sending Albert into fits of rage and anger. In a final and desperate attempt, Albert’s loving wife Elizabeth (Played by Helena Bonham Carter) seeks out the help of a patient speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Played by Geoffrey Rush), who’s only demand is that Albert comes directly to him in his office and that he isn’t called doctor. Albert reluctantly goes and he begins to strike up a friendship with the quirky Logue. Soon Albert finds himself taking the throne and war with Nazi Germany is declared. With his new leadership role, Albert begins to allow Logue to probe into his personal life, something strictly forbidden by the royal family. As Albert opens up, he reveals traumatizing moments in his life that he has never told anyone before.

Director Tom Hooper turns The King’s Speech into a stunning work of art that visually suggests Albert’s alienation. One speech therapist is filmed in an extreme and grotesque close up, bearing down on Albert as he spits commands and demands that he annunciates. A panic washes over Albert and it’s easy to see why, with someone bearing down on you who you barley know and commanding you to do something that is extremely difficult, it is easy to see why Albert falls to pieces so easily. Albert is often times photographed to one side of the screen, rarely falling in the neutral middle ground and if he does fall in the middle, he is surrounded with support for those who care about him. He is also often shown in a close up when is quivering with nerves so we can see the fear that has embedded itself within him. The verbal torment he has endured has taken its toll on his spirit, making him someone with no confidence in himself and uses anger as a defense mechanism. Hooper puts us in the shoes of a plagued soul who has hidden his scars in bitterness. This is an approach that I thought made The King’s Speech a triumph, because many films will present someone who has been tormented, but we never see things from their perspective. We are allowed to sympathize with a character behind glass, but we are never plopped in their shoes.

Lionel Logue is the complete opposite of Albert, someone who is confident and self-assured, usually photographed with busy backgrounds and near the middle of the screen. He has faced rejection in his life, but he overcomes the rejection and pours his focus in putting a voice in those without one. He is someone who works to understand those around him and willing to level with them, something a true friend should do. This is where I found the relevance in The King’s Speech. Logue is determined to make a real flesh and blood friend in Albert, even if Albert puts up a hell of a fight. We live in an age where we can avoid real human interaction through emails, text messages, Facebook, twitter, etc. There is almost no need to actually speak to anyone anymore and to experience real human emotion with a “friend”. The King’s Speech encourages us to seek out real interaction and to find our own voice. Albert needs someone to talk to so he can mend the wounds that he conceals and Logue loves the company. Hooper opens the screen up to make the viewer feel like he or she is sitting in the company of these two men and it truly is a warm and fuzzy feeling.

The King’s Speech is loaded with emotional weights that Hooper drops unexpectedly on the viewer. It’s best not to reveal them and to experience them as they play out. It ultimately gives The King’s Speech more of an emotional impact. From a historical standpoint, The King’s Speech is beyond interesting and shed light on an aspect of history I was unaware of. The film can be seen as a learning tool, something that should encourage the viewers to go out and do some research on King George VI. Graceful, moving, and relevant, The King’s Speech blends art with a lasting statement. It doesn’t shy away from showing how important friendship can be especially in an age of digital isolation. You’ll also be surprised by how unpretentious the film truly is. I think that many viewers go in to the film with the preconceived notion that this is a film for snobs, which leads them to deem it unworthy of the awards it received. Maybe I’m a sucker for crowd pleasers, something The King’s Speech is, but it left me on a high note that I just didn’t want to come down from.

Grade: A

The King’s Speech is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)

by Steve Habrat

While watching Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, the new horror film from writer/producer Guillermo del Toro and director Troy Nixey, one would swear that the film had some creative input from Goth director Tim Burton. The film relies heavily on its gothic atmosphere and gloomy landscapes to carry what is otherwise a painfully dull horror movie with an utterly monotonous storyline. The film, which was the penned by del Toro and Matthew Robbins, is a repetitive bore that keeps the same formula up for an hour and forty minutes. It’s frustrating, really, because del Toro is much better than this and capable of whipping up some truly original material. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, however, just keeps looping jittery attacks on a peculiar little girl by an army of whispering, hunchback critters that resemble a pack of demonic meerkats. If I were the girl’s father in the movie, I would have had enough of her blubbering and called in the exterminator just to get some peace.

Most horror films that are produced by Hollywood these days have stellar build-ups with a crash-and-burn payoff that nearly sends the whole project up in a fireball. Take a look at the excellent haunted house flick Insidious for example. It was a great horror film that was marred by a quivering, out of place ending. Another prime example is 2008’s The Strangers, which was consistently intimidating all to add up to the biggest “What the fuck?!” ending I had seen in quite some time. It copped out and played things safe. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark does the exact opposite. It has one of the most tedious build-ups that ends in a fifteen minute finale that had me sitting on the edge of my seat and yelling “Oh, shit!”

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is totally devoid of any real scares. The film follows a young girl Sally (Played by Bailee Madison), who is sent by her dingbat mother to live with her workaholic father Alex (Played by Guy Pearce, who for the first time in his career is overacting). Alex is an architect, who is attempting to revitalize his career by fixing up the Blackwood Manor. He is staying there with his girlfriend Kim (Played by a surprisingly good Katie Holmes), who is also aiding in the restoration. Shortly after moving in, Sally discovers a hidden basement while exploring the Shining-esque garden in the backyard. Soon, she starts hearing voices from the basement, which beg to be set free and become friends with her. Unknowingly, she unleashes a dormant army of bloodthirsty pint-sized critters who hate light and scamper the house in search of a life to take. Are you quivering in terror yet?

Director Nixey has a gifted cinematic eye. He gives the whole project a gothic gloss that suits the storyline of the film and actually gives it brief hints of life. I’m sure that Tim Burton is currently out there somewhere just gushing over this film. The major problem here is that the creatures that lurk in Blackwood Manor are about as scary as my puppy. They bang around in the air vents and steal screwdrivers, razors, and more. In one brief, uncanny moment, they attack one of the workers at Blackwood Manor and reduce him to a staggering, bloody mess. I should point out that this is only one of two scenes that actually deliver on the R-rating the film posses. The rest of the time, they shred Kim’s clothing and knock over lamps. They bicker with one another in their hissing voices and beg Sally to “come play with us.” It’s absurd and unintentionally funny at some points. Nixey and del Toro are so anxious to show off the little pests and they constantly give us a good look at them rather than keeping them in their preferred dark. This adds to the disappointment because del Toro can dream up some creatures that surpass anything our imagination can conjure up on it’s own.

Another aspect of this disappointment that surprises me is Pearce, who is a truly gifted actor, does such a poor job here. He must have been bored between projects and playing darts with the stack of scripts he received. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark must have been the bull’s eye. This movie made me want to go home and watch The Proposition, Memento, and The King’s Speech all in a row so I could be reminded how incredible his talent is. Holmes gives a sufficient performance, especially in the final moments of the film. I’ve always found her to be a mediocre talent but she actually takes this one seriously. Bailee Madison, the child star, seems robotic and clearly being coached by the muted director. She delivers her lines in a stiff tone and seems to have only gotten the job because she can scream until your eardrums pop.

If you are a fan of del Toro and want to see everything he touches, I’d say see this film. You won’t be left a changed individual and you will probably be left wishing for greatness like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Otherwise, this is a half-baked horror movie that drags on entirely too long. It won’t leave you pulling the covers over your head at night or sleeping with a nightlight on. The film could have benefitted from a scarier monster at the heart of it and maybe some more emotional depth. It’s a missed opportunity that left me wishing I had stayed at home and watched Insidious again. Is it too much to ask for more than one good horror movie a year? Grade: C-