Friday, May 31, 2013

Review: "The East"

Director: Zal Batmanglij
Runtime: 116 minutes

Cults are all the rage these days in the entertainment world. On the small screen, Fox's The Following proved to be a major hit. On the big screen, Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene lit up indie theaters as well as the festival circuit. And, last year, burgeoning indie It Girl Brit Marling, along with director/co-writer Zal Batmanglij, tackled cults in the micro budget thriller Sound of My Voice. That film, Marling's sophomore effort as both an actress and writer, was not exactly a break out hit, but it did push the writer/actress ever closer to the first stages of stardom. Now, roughly a year later (and with some major backers), Marling and Batmanglij have returned to the territory of their first collaboration. A sequel to Sound in spirit, The East marks another interesting evolution in Marling's career, even as it suffers from a handful of significant setbacks.

Marling's position on camera is flipped around with this latest effort. Sound cast her as a supporting role as a mysterious cult leader. Now, she plays Jane, an intelligence operative for a private firm. Jane's boss, Sharon (an underused Patricia Clarkson), gives her a major, and highly coveted, assignment: to infiltrate and dismantle a growing eco-terrorist collective known as The East. The group, headed by the mysterious Benji (Alexander Skarsgaard), targets CEO's of companies that sell harmful pharmaceuticals or damage the environment via their factories. Yet rather than stage protests or carry out bombings, The East's MO involves giving the responsible individuals an ugly taste of their own medicine (sometimes rather literally).

And, before too long, The East's similarities with the cult from Sound of My Voice arise. Bizarre (but harmless) rituals and anti-consumerist lifestyles permeate the group's compound, even as they plan their violent acts of retaliation. Even as Jane struggles to fit in and earn her place, she gradually earns their trust, up to the point where they take her along for a mission. As Jane spends more time with The East, her periodic visits back home  start leaving her less satisfied. The group's methods make her uneasy, yet she can't exactly deny the grains of truth in their ideology.

Yet, once again, Marling's (and Batmanglij's) ambition has outstripped her execution, and not just behind the camera. Sound of My Voice found a perfect vehicle for Marling's gifts as an actress. There's a certain sleepy reserve to her screen presence that was well matched to her role as cult leader. She started off sounding merely dippy, yet gradually revealed herself as a skilled manipulator of the weak-minded and gullible. As the investigative force in The East, however, there appears to be some disconnect. From what we're told, and what the actions suggest, Jane is a quiet, steely, resourceful, and driven individual. Though she loves her boyfriend (Jason Ritter), when she needs to go to work, she can flip the switch in a heartbeat. But for all that we're told, and even shown, Marling can't quite seem to shake the sleepiness from her performance. The role, for the first half, requires the same sort of stern grit that Jodie Foster brought to Clarice Starling, and Marling can't seem to muster up the necessary alertness.

The supporting cast, thankfully, all seem quite game in their roles, as thin as they are. Ellen Page stands out nicely as an increasingly radical member of the collective with a surprising past. It's the sort of role that allows the actress to firmly dispel the idea that she's only cut out for characters in quirky indie comedies. Alexander Skarsgaard and Toby Kebbell have nice moments as well, even though the former is never quite as magnetic a leader as the one from Marling and Batmanglij's first outing. Yet neither actor is served well by the writing. Skarsgaard is given a tragic past that feels empty, at best, while Kebbell's background is used more for exposition and forwarding the plot. Meanwhile, Patricia Clarkson isn't given nearly enough to do, rendering Jane's growing conflict hugely unbalanced.

Even though The East comes with bigger production values and some talented actors, it doesn't quite stick the landing in one key area that Sound of My Voice nailed, and that's the cult itself. The sense of intrigue and danger never fully connects, even with all of the rituals depicted. Sound built more suspense out of the repeated scenes of a ritual handshake than The East accomplishes with its more hazily sketched routines. When the film builds to its bigger moments, Batmanglij manages to pull it off, but the writing is constantly letting down the atmosphere (which receives a nice boost from the dynamic score). 

The film's handling of issues also can't help but feel rather thin as well. Even without succumbing to lengthy monologues, the film could have engaged with its ethical issues with greater insight. That missing insight only makes the titular collective more generic. These issues are not helped by the film's final 20 minutes, which rushes through a number of developments in order to set up its open-ended (and rather pat) conclusion. Somewhere in The East are the seeds of a great, morally complex thriller, one that Marling and Batmanglij will hopefully make in the near future. As the next step in the pair's evolution as storytellers, however, it can't help but come up short, even with its more polished aesthetic. The East has competence to spare, yet not nearly enough that is truly exceptional.

Grade: C+

Friday, May 24, 2013

Review: "Before Midnight"

Director: Richard Linklater
Runtime: 108 minutes

When one thinks of memorable film trilogies, the default answers are often of the epic variety. From The Godfather to The Lord of the Rings, the cinematic trilogy is often reserved for stories that aim for a sense of grandeur. Occasionally smaller films will merit a lone sequel, but you'd be hard pressed to find many noteworthy examples. However, with the release of Before Midnight, Richard Linklater's trilogy of conversation-led romances has cemented itself as one of the all-time greats, up there with those sprawling sagas about gangsters and hobbits. 

Once again, Linklater turns his attention on Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jessie (Ethan Hawke). Yet where Before Sunrise and Before Sunset dealt with the couple's initial courtship, Midnight takes them into less blissful territory. Traces of the carefree students from the first film still remain, but, as the opening sequence shows us, time catches up with everyone. Jessie struggles to accept his fractured relationship with his son from his first marriage. Celine, on the other hand, struggles with how Jessie's actions are upsetting the otherwise stable nature of their current union, which includes two young girls. Celine and Jessie first met on a train, where they both had flexibility in their destinations. This time, however, the couple has to drive with their daughters in tow, always with some purpose or obligation, even on their vacation in Greece.

Even the opening conversations, which still have their share of charm and humor, seem mundane. It can be a little off-putting, but it ultimately makes sense. There's little in the way of discovery for these characters, now in their forties. Every now and then one of them digs up a story they had previously withheld, but it's still in the context of a relationship that has long left the honeymoon phase. Yet, despite the mundane quality of some of the film's early stretches, Linklater (along with Delpy and Hawke as co-writers) still has the ability to capture the central duo's relationship with equal doses of charm and honesty. 

Despite the familiarity that came with Before Sunset, one could plausibly criticize the film as being almost the exact same as its predecessor. Celine and Jessie only had one day with each other before they reunited for the first time, which hardly makes for a dense relationship. With Before Midnight, however, Linklater has finally given his duo a chance to exist on screen after years together. Small pleasures remain, but they lack the freshness that came before. The couple used to try and discover things about each other. Now they muse about how intimately they know each other, warts and all. Less romantic? Certainly, but it's also more grounded and mature, which is entirely appropriate.

And despite all of the time that has passed, it's still a pleasure to watch these two interact. The biggest challenge of the series is that it's grounded in the interactions of two people (though Midnight does include some other couples in the first half). Yet while Celine and Jessie are feeling strain in their relationship, their one-on-one interactions are as dynamic as ever, even as they come tinged with bittersweetness, and even outright hostility. For the first time, we have to experience them deal with more legitimate problems of love and family, the kind that can do legitimate damage to a couple's relationship. The usual issues are scattered throughout the film - work vs. family, wants vs. needs, etc... - yet in the hands of Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke, their banality feels fresh. Even as the film takes the couple to their lowest emotional points, there remains a liveliness to both performances, even with the added years and lines on both actors' faces. 

Before Midnight is possibly (I'm still not entirely certain) the weakest of the three films, yet it affords the two leads the room for their best performances. Framed often in long tracking shots, whether in the car or amid ancient Greek ruins, watching these two bounce off of each other has lost none of its appeal. The thornier emotional territory may put a damper on the pure charm of Sunrise and Sunset, but it also provides its own ample dramatic dividends. The most rewarding aspect of this trait is to see how Celine has taken on some of Jessie's personality (and vice versa), while still staying true to the character from the first two films. It doesn't quite reach the level of the searing conflicts in Blue Valentine or A Separation, but it doesn't really need to. Linklater has found a level of emotional strife that is perfectly in sync with the feel of the previous two films, as well as Celine and Jessie's on-screen chemistry.

Linklater's knack for pacing remains intact as well, and, barring the scenes with other couples present, Before Midnight remains as sharp and tight as the other two films. Though it runs close to 108 minutes, by the time the conclusion arrives it feels as though it's barely been more than an hour or so. To get a little nit-picky, Before Midnight might segue into its lovely conclusion almost too quickly. Given the nature of what precedes said ending, it feels as though a longer denouement is in store (and even required). In a story so beautifully handled over the course of three films (each roughly a decade apart), the choice to rush so suddenly into a finale creates a sense of narrative whiplash in an otherwise smooth ride that is well worth taking.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: "Fast and Furious 6"

Director: Justin Lin
Runtime: 130 minutes

In the decades since Jaws began the tradition of summer blockbusters, a hierarchy has evolved among the big-budget tentpole films that studios roll out between May and August. At the top, you have the likes of The Dark Knight, a dark and brooding epic that blends popcorn thrills with operatic grandeur. The next tier is the lighter, comedic action fare that still has some genuine smarts to it, like the first Iron Man and Pirates of the Caribbean films. And then there's the bottom tier of the (successful) summer blockbuster caste system: the excessive dumb fun. 

It's in that bottom tier where Fast and Furious 6, the latest entry in the mega-successful Fast and Furious franchise, gleefully resides. 2011's Fast Five was a surprise return to form (and the series' first film to garner positive critical consensus) for the series. Furious 6 (its official on-screen title, for some reason) builds on Five's momentum, and takes it to ridiculous new heights. To examine the film is to find a piece of cinematic junk food. But what awfully tasty and satisfying junk food it is.

Opening roughly a year after Fast Five, 6 reintroduces DEA agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson's biceps, and presumably the rest of him), along with his new partner Riley (Gina Carano). The pair are trying - and failing - to capture criminal mastermind Shaw (Luke Evans, all cheekbones and pervy facial hair). Shaw, an ex-black ops soldier, has been stealing technology to build a super weapon worth billions of dollars. Desperate, Hobbs turns to Dom Torretto (Vin Diesel), Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker), and their crew for help. His leverage? A photo of former companion Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who presumably died in the events of 2009's Fast and Furious

Not content with simply illegal racing or heists, this new entry has decided to turn the insanity up to 11 by making its protagonists super spies. It's part of what allows Furious 6 to reach some thrilling and ludicrous heights. Don't worry, there's still plenty of driving, and even a race, but it's all dressed up as a lunkheaded espionage action thrill-ride. It's terrifically goofy, and terrifically entertaining. Returning director Justin Lin once again creates a constantly engaging experience out of the paper thin material. Whether you're laughing with the film, or at it, the entire piece has been designed to be nothing more than shameless entertainment. Lin and company succeed with flying colors.

I could talk about the overripe dialogue, or the ridiculous explanation for Letty's reappearance. I could mention my problems with a relatively unnecessary subplot that sends Brian undercover in a Los Angeles prison. But, with its mostly crisp action and outstanding sound work, Furious 6 moves along so briskly that the legitimate flaws in structure and execution barely have time to register. Even the nighttime driving scenes, with their murky blue/black color palettes, shine thanks to the nifty custom cars that Shaw and his crew use as they tear through the streets of London. The hand-to-hand combat is also pumped up, with several major fights resulting in some of the film's most satisfying action beats.

But, at its core, the franchise has always been about the cars. And, when it comes to gorgeous cars doing over-the-top stunt work, it's hard to top Furious 6. The film's last two set-pieces are among the most kinetic and hilariously overblown ever committed to film. One involves a tank, and the other a plane. And one climaxes with a stunt that is the biggest middle finger to physics imaginable. Both are worth the price of admission. It's simultaneously thrilling and laugh out loud funny. Diesel and Walker may be slumming it, but the supporting cast seems to be having a ball with their broad material (especially Tyrese Gibson). Johnson also continues to be a valuable new asset to the franchise, while Carano adds an extra layer of female punch (literally) by putting her mixed martial arts training to great use.

In a sense, Furious 6 is both the best Fast and Furious movie, as well as the best parody of the franchise. It is a film so willing to do anything to entertain, and it's all the more remarkable that Lin pulls it off. There's not an ounce of substance in the entire thing, but it hardly matters because, even at 130 minutes, it's such a riotously good time. Usually, when films try to function as simple dumb fun, they provide too much stupidity and not enough fun, rendering them a chore to sit through. With Fast and Furious 6, the racing-turned-racing-spy franchise has hit the absolute perfect balance. It's a bottom-tier blockbuster in the absolute best sense of the term.

Grade: B-
Sheer entertainment value: A

Friday, May 17, 2013

Review: "Stories We Tell"

Director: Sarah Polley
Runtime: 108 minutes

Early on in Stories We Tell, director Sarah Polley's third film (and first documentary), one of Polley's sisters asks if anyone will really care about the film's subject matter. At the outset, it seems like a reasonable question. Plenty of other buzzed-about documentaries cover everything from the AIDS epidemic to violence against women in the military. Polley's film is all about family. Her family. And virtually no one else. Yet in focusing her keen eye on her family the way she does on her fictional characters, Polley is able to create a film that is at once unique and universal in its emotions and themes. That Stories We Tell is about Polley's late mother is but the jumping off point to this elegant, thoughtful, and very human documentary about families and the secrets they keep.

Polley's first two films, 2007's Away From Her and 2012's Take This Waltz, were focused on childless couples enduring very different sorts of marital strife (alzheimer's and infidelity, respectively). By contrast, Stories We Tell is all about parents and children, even as issues of marriage remain present. Having barely known her mother, Diane, Polley decides to create a portrait of the woman based on stories from her siblings, her father (who also writes Sarah's journey down as a short story), and a handful of family friends. Mixing straightforward interviews with a treasure trove of Super 8 home movies (some of which have a rather surprising background), Polley weaves a quietly engrossing look at her mother and her family life. 

That may sound like limited material to work with, but Polley's mix of footage is steadily engaging from the beginning. The film achieves a very careful balance of showing and telling that is rarely, if ever, thrown off. Even when her father's readings of his short story border on overwritten, the editing keeps the pacing largely in check. The film covers surprisingly intimate ground, and Polley captures it with a smart, understated perspective. It allows the film to start as an open-ended documentary about life, only to gradually evolve into a docu-narrative that raises questions about true stories and who they belong to. 

By stitching together so many different points of view, Stories We Tell feels much more complete. Had it been confined strictly to Polley's point of view (or that of one subject), the material would have worn thin far too quickly. By carefully hopping between and among interviewees, Polley is able to turn the film into a puzzle. There are even a few twists spread across the film's length. Some come from a narrative point of view, while others merely have to do with emotional developments that we previously knew nothing about. Altogether, it's a fascinating way to put together a documentary, and it allows the film to speak to its bigger themes, and function as more than a project for just Polley and her family.

Yet for all of the interesting things that Stories We Tell has to say, Polley ends up overstating her case. Just as the film seems primed to wind down into a graceful, low-key conclusion, its engine revs back to life. From that point on, the film starts to overstay its welcome. There are any number of scenes in the final 25 minutes that feel like perfect moments to let the film end, yet Polley keeps it chugging along to the point of becoming longwinded. Rather than scramble to create an all-inclusive final act, Polley should have let it end sooner, and let the material speak for itself. 

Grade: B+

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review: "Star Trek: Into Darkness"

Director: JJ Abrams
Runtime: 132 minutes

The fun of a sequel (at least on paper) is that the groundwork for the characters has already been established. This allows future installments to hit the ground running, and build up bigger, more epic plots that can produce thrills on a grander scale. The most obvious recent example of this trend is Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, which took the foundation of Batman Begins and introduced a darker, larger narrative, along with a more potent villain and higher stakes.

 JJ Abrams, on the other hand, has opted for an oddity of a sequel in his reboot of the Star Trek film franchise. Like its predecessor, Star Trek: Into Darkness has slick visuals, a good sense of humor, and fun set pieces. It also boasts a more enjoyable and menacing villain. On the other hand, Abrams' film feels strangely limited in scope, due to the script's initially choppy plotting. Overall, Into Darkness is a solid follow-up to Abrams' 09 film, yet it can't help but feel like a step in the wrong direction when it comes to narrative ambition.

Thankfully, the lighthearted opening sequence quickly re-establishes the best traits of the last film. The thrills are there, and, more importantly, so are the laughs. Though certain returning characters get little to work with (including Zoe Saldana's Uhura), the dynamics across the ensemble are still handled with a swift effortlessness. As the film's co-leads, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto continue to delight. Their chemistry has remained firmly intact, and it's capable of infusing even the darkest moments with flashes of wit. Yet where Quinto was quite easily the MVP in the previous film, it's Pine who's the real surprise this time around. Kirk's existential conflicts aren't as inherently as interesting as Spock's, yet the way the script pushes the character (and the actor playing him) to his emotional limits is a tremendous boon. Of the returning supporting players, Karl Urban and Simon Pegg continue to have a ball as Bones and Scotty. John Cho's Sulu, refreshingly, also gets a few brief moments to steal the spotlight.

However, much like The Dark Knight, the real draw of Into Darkness is the villain. And while Benedict Cumberbatch's John Harrison (a rogue Star Fleet agent) may lack any nasty scars or colorful clown make-up, he's still a memorable force to be reckoned with. Cumberbatch is no stranger to playing slightly detached, hyper-intelligent characters. Yet unlike his excellent work on BBC's Sherlock, Harrison allows the actor to take that intelligence (along with his commanding deep voice) and slather on a nice thick layer of menace. Cumberbatch rarely raises his voice throughout the film, and his expression is often a mask. The actor largely allows his intonations to carry the character, and it works. From the beginning, Harrison is a mystery. As such, it's fitting that he becomes more expressive as his identity emerges. He's a blank canvas because that's what he needs to be for his own purposes (and possibly others').

Unfortunately, to get to the real meat of Into Darkness' plot and characterization, one has to endure a surprisingly clunky opening act. After the fun opening, the script then jumps around between drama at Star Fleet (Kirk loses command of the Enterprise), and Harrison's first attack on London. Then there's the matter of Harrison's possible connections to the bellicose Klingons, who threaten Earth's peaceful galatic explorations. Once everything comes together, there are a nice number of a-ha moments. By contrast, the first half's material is more obligatory than fully engaging. Abrams seems to agree. Barring the opening, the action sequences in the first half or so feel like they're being directed on autopilot. Given the immense charm of the cast, the film is never in danger of dragging. At the same time, there are moments where Into Darkness seems to coast along like a perfectly engineered machine that's also completely devoid of any true verve or personality. Rather than bring something new to the table, the first half of the film feels like more of the same, only without the fresh energy that Abrams brought to the table four years ago. 

Without that same energy, many of the early set-pieces lack true tension. There are a few too many times when characters are on the brink of death's door, yet the tone is too light for the stakes to feel real. However, once the various plot threads come together, Into Darkness stops being merely competent, and starts rising to the occasion. A trio of extended action sequences help drive the film to a smashing conclusion, albeit one that ends on a surprisingly small scale. Abrams finally seems fully alert in the director's chair, and drives the film home with equal amounts of glossy thrills and genuine (yet never sentimental) emotion. The whole film is a marvel of sights and sounds (visual effects and scoring are dynamite), yet it's in the second half of the film where they start to really pop. Above all else, the film is worth sticking with just to watch the stunningly put together sequence where the Enterprise plummets down from space and through the Earth's atmosphere. It's the sort of stuff that big budget extravaganzas were made for, and Into Darkness more than delivers.

Yet once the adrenaline of the finale wears off, it's hard not to view the film as mildly underwhelming. When the film works, it works spectacularly. And even when it isn't flowing together smoothly, it has engaging characters and a sense of humor that prevents the film from drowning in self-seriousness. But even as the film reaches some wonderful highs, it still comes off as a bit of a missed opportunity. Into Darkness should have been Abrams' chance to go bigger and bolder. Instead, he's opted for more of same, on roughly the same scale (possibly smaller). That doesn't make Into Darkness a bad film, or a bad movie-going experience. It just makes it a slight step backwards for a franchised that seemed primed for a great leap forward.

Grade: B

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Review: "The Great Gatsby"

Director: Baz Luhrmann
Runtime: 142 minutes

I was lucky to see an unfinished cut of Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby way back in November of last year. The screening, which had unfinished VFX and temporary soundtrack selections, occurred only a month or so after the film was pushed from its original Christmas 2012 opening. Despite fearing for the worst, I ended up enjoying the relatively incomplete cut, and looked forward to the final version. Nearly half a year later, and I'm able to breathe a sigh of relief. My opinion of Luhrmann's film is basically unchanged, for better and for worse. Just as it was in November, this new Gatsby is littered with various and sundry flaws, yet builds to a mostly strong finish thanks to Luhrmann's surprising ability to tone himself down.

As far as the story is concerned, not much has been changed by Luhrmann or co-writer Craig Pearce. The only notable addition is that Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), the story's wallflower narrator, is writing the story from the confines of a sanitarium. Other than that, it's the same story most of us read in high school with varying degrees of interest and/or boredom. Nick moves to West Egg next to the mysterious Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), and must deal with Gatsby's attempts to win back his former flame Daisy (Carey Mulligan). Framing device aside, this take on Fitzgerald's novel has little in plotting that will enrage fanatical literary purists. The outrage is more likely to stem from Luhrmann's glitzy treatment of the Jazz Age, though even that anger feels slightly misdirected.

Those familiar with Luhrmann's films (or at least Moulin Rouge!) know that the director isn't one for subtlety or low energy. As such, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the film is frenetically edited, and that the visual design is opulent to the nth degree (credit should go to production/costume designer Catherine Martin, who has outdone herself). Fitzgerald explicitly condemned the empty decadence of the Roaring Twenties. Luhrmann dresses it up with stunning costumes and an eclectic soundtrack that blends contemporary pop and hip-hop with music from the novel's era.

It would be easy to dismiss this approach as completely missing the point, but I can only partially agree. Yes, Luhrmann doesn't harshly condemn the wild excess of the elites of the day. Yet by applying a grandiose music-video style to the parties, Gatsby's parties feel relevant for a modern audience. A more accurate depiction of a party from the era would be nothing short of off-putting strictly from a viewing experience. Luhrmann wants his audience to have their cake and eat it too, and he partially gets away with it. Above all else, he succeeds in capturing the time period infinitely better than the more "accurate" vision seen in the soul-crushingly dull 1974 adaptation with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.

Even with the social satire pushed to the background, many of the themes of Fitzgerald's novel still come through, even as Luhrmann puts Gatsby and Daisy's romance front and center. Mulligan's Daisy is almost more complex on screen, as she shifts from exaggerated air-head to doomed romantic and back again. Mulligan occasionally gets stuck with some stiff dialogue, yet she largely overcomes this and creates a nuanced portrait of vapid indecisiveness. Joel Edgerton (as Daisy's brutish husband Tom) lands some similarly stiff dialogue, yet builds his character into an engaging, albeit one-note, antagonist. Side characters have little to do, yet have their fleeting moments to shine. Isla Fisher is giving it her all as the flamboyant Myrtle, though she barely has anything to do other than pout and party. More successful is Aussie newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as the mysterious (and very lanky) golfing star Jordan Baker, who plays a key role in the early part of the story. Debicki's character has been slightly downsized (mainly in the story's second half), but the actress remains fully present even when all she has to do is cautiously shift her glance amid the melodrama.

But no Gatsby adaptation can be a real success if the titular role is pulled off. And, even with his somewhat dodgy accent, DiCaprio rightfully walks away with the film. The pull between who Gatsby is and who he wants to be is palpable, but never hammered home. For all of Luhrmann's visual excess, he has managed to give his performers moments to poke through the pumped-up visual artifice. The lone exception is Tobey Maguire. In fairness, the role of Nick Carraway is hardly a juicy role to begin with. However, Maguire is ill-served as the too-mild-for-his-own-good Nick. Having the character narrate portions of the film with direct passages from the novel doesn't help matters, and often breaks up the flow of the emotional developments.

For all that Luhrmann gets right (work with his cast, entertaining visuals and sounds, some solid understated humor), his writing work often leaves something to be desired. While The Great Gatsby feels more coherent than Australia (which, though enjoyable, was trying to be three or four different movies), it sometimes moves with fits and starts. As much as the visual ticks (text on the screen, dissolves, layered images, etc...) liven the material, they sometimes rob moments of what little impact they were aiming for. 

Thankfully, Luhrmann calms down once Gatsby and Daisy reconnect, and the second half boasts some scenes that are genuinely compelling, even in their melodramatic execution. As easy as it would be for me to dismiss the film as shallow fun, I was surprised that, even on a second viewing, I still found myself connecting with Gatsby's journey. It's not exactly a Greek tragedy (even Luhrmann wouldn't stretch Fitzgerald's prose that much), but even when the film built to its conclusion, I found myself stirred by the presentation, even if it was only an inch below skin-deep in terms of actual depth. For all of the missteps (big and small) along the way, Luhrmann's film is quite easily the best adaptation of Fitzgerald's novel. By playing to the narrative (the rekindled romance aspect), rather than the more general social critique, Luhrmann does what a director should be free to do with adaptations: make the material his own. Luhrmann doesn't need to make an adaptation that can act as a perfect narrative and thematic substitute for the book. That's what the actual book is for in the first place. 

Grade: B-

Friday, May 3, 2013

Review: "Iron Man 3"

Director: Shane Black
Runtime: 130 minutes

Last summer kicked off with Joss Whedon's The Avengers, the cumulative effort of merging the Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Hulk (sorry, Ed Norton) franchises. After a series of solid, but often unremarkable, standalone films, Whedon's geek-tastic superhero bonanza was seen as a high for Marvel Studios. However, this posed a challenge for the standalone films that would lay the ground for The Avengers 2: would audiences be as invested in just watching one member of the Avengers roster at a time? It's hard to say for all of them. Tony Stark and Iron Man, however, can breathe a sigh of relief. Iron Man 3, this year's kick-off to the summer movie season, blows away all of the previous Avenger films, and establishes its hero as Marvel's single most fun figure.

After the chaos in New York City, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., back in top form) struggles to cope with his comparatively mundane life (along with some nasty panic attacks). Thor is back in Asgard, the Hulk is likely in hiding, and Captain America is off on his own adventure. However, it doesn't take long for a new threat to arise (this is the Marvel-verse, after all). Enter mysterious international terrorist The Mandarin (an enjoyably hammy Ben Kingsley). Without giving too much away, Tony initially has little interest in tackling The Mandarin, preferring to leave him to the government and Col. Rhodes (Don Cheadle). Yet when the shadowy terrorist's attacks start to hit home, Stark is left with no choice but to rebuild his life and seek revenge. 

Even though Iron Man 3 takes Stark to the darkest emotional territory, it is also the liveliest and funniest film in the series. Co-written by Drew Pearce and director Shane Black, much of the dialogue is sharp and energetic, with any number of delightful back-and-forth exchanges between Stark and a member of the ensemble. Among that ensemble are the aforementioned Kingsley, along with Guy Pierce as smarmy scientist Aldrich Killian, James Badge Dale as Killian's henchman Savin, and Rebecca Hall as researcher Maya Hansen, who has a link to Tony's past. Gwyneth Paltrow returns as well, as Stark's girlfriend and business partner Pepper Potts. 

Where Black and Pearce's screenplay works best is when it puts two or three characters together and lets them bounce off of each other. At times the dialogue can border on overwritten, but the exchanges are largely successful due to Downey Jr.'s presence. Iron Man 3 does for Tony what Iron Man 2 should have done: pushed him completely to the edge, physically and emotionally. In doing so, the film once again makes Stark an engaging and fun protagonist, compared with 2's version of the character, who was often too big of a jerk. Even though some of the set-up for the plot can feel a little dragged-out, the film always has Downey Jr.'s performance propping it up. And once the film properly takes off, it's a largely thrilling endeavor. 

Black keeps Stark separated from his suit for longer than expected, and it pays off. A section of the film set in rural Tennessee gives Downey Jr. more room to build Tony as a character, and experience him outside of either the Iron Man suit or his swanky mansion. Even scenes without Stark present deliver, such as a bit with Pepper and Maya concerning the latter's moral quandary about her research. Likewise, Killian and The Mandarin easily outclass the previous Iron Man villains, albeit in wildly different ways. The only cast member truly lost in the shuffle of it all is Cheadle's Col. Rhodes, who comes into play so late in the game that you almost forget his character is a real presence in the movie. Thankfully, once he starts figuring into the plot directly, Cheadle makes for yet another strong foil for Downey Jr., particularly during the finale.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film, however, is the success of the action sequences. No previous Iron Man film has ever delivered a truly noteworthy battle, with the climactic fights often proving underwhelming. As such, the bar wasn't set terribly high for Black. Thankfully, he decided to clear it by a considerable margin. Three major fights, all different, in the second hour erase the bad memories of all previous Iron Man action scenes. One is particularly fun for the way it forces Stark to fight using only two pieces of his armor. On the opposite end of the scale are a thrilling sequence involving a damaged Air Force One, and the knockout climax set amid a massive oil rig. It's larger than life stuff, and Black captures it with intensity while never forgetting to inject crowd-pleasing thrills. The near-seamless visual effects only add to the experience. 

But, at the end of the day, it's all about Tony Stark and his metal alter ego. By tapping into the character's fears and insecurities, Black and Downey Jr. create the best portrayal of the character yet. Multiple characters inhabit suits in the film, yet only Tony Stark can ever truly be Iron Man. And while Iron Man 3 doesn't reach the grandiose heights of something like The Dark Knight, it is such an energetic and enjoyable experience that it's difficult for the flaws to really remove one from the experience. Frankly, it's the most purely enjoyable Marvel film since 2003's X2: X-Men United. If I were Thor or Captain America, I'd be nervous right about now. Those two have got their work cut out for them.

Grade: B-