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Entries in Gwyneth Paltrow (4)

Thursday
May022013

Iron Man 3

If you ask me “The Avengers” was one of the most overrated movies of last year. For those of you who haven’t already stopped reading, allow me to explain. Despite some good laughs and some high flying action, I found “The Avengers” to be narratively unfocused. Its tone was inconsistent, its drama fell flat and the character progression that had developed through each hero’s individual movies was brought to a screeching halt. With the exception of perhaps Thor, every character ended the movie exactly the same as they began. While not necessarily a bad thing to shoot for mindless popcorn entertainment, I wanted more, especially given that the majority of the other films had done such a good job getting those characters to that point. “Iron Man 3,” at least in this sense, is a return to form. Tony Stark is still the lovable goof we know him as, but we get to see a different side of him this time, a side that one might not expect from a world renowned superhero. Despite some terrific action, this is substance over style and that is its greatest strength.

The film takes place after the events of “The Avengers” and Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is even more of a celebrity than he was before. However, those events have caused some emotional trauma within him and he’s finding himself unable to sleep at night, despite his gorgeous girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), laying by his side. He instead spends most nights tinkering with his tools and building Iron Man suits. This may prove to be a good thing, however, because a terrorist named the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has been blowing up landmarks all across the country and now has his sights set on the President. After one of these explosions puts his old bodyguard and friend Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) in the hospital, he takes it upon himself to challenge the Mandarin and sets off to stop him before he harms more people.

Robert Downey Jr. did a marvelous thing when he first became Iron Man back in 2008. He took a comic book character that, at least when compared to the heavy hitters like Batman, Superman and Spider-Man, was considered third rate and instantly made him his own. The character he created out of Tony Stark instantly hooked viewers, catapulting Iron Man to A-list status, right alongside those aforementioned heroes. However, the success of the character and the movies themselves didn’t rest entirely on Downey Jr.’s performances, but rather his performances were complemented by clever stories and witty dialogue that fleshed out the character. In “Iron Man 3,” his character comes along even further.

After the events of “The Avengers,” Tony Stark is afraid. He’s suffering from what could only be classified as post-traumatic stress disorder and has become uncertain of his abilities. The pressure has become too much to bear and at multiple points in the movie, he has to battle panic attacks, knowing all too well that he is the only one that can stop the evil Mandarin and his terrorist lackeys from killing again. Watching a superhero try to cope with these conflicting thoughts and emotions—the desire to do what’s right with the fear of failing—is fascinating and though it’s not an entirely unexplored area in superhero movies, doing so with the otherwise cocky Stark gives it more weight. He’s not a character that openly wrestles with his emotions, but rather one that hides them under the veil of confidence. To see them finally surface makes this “Iron Man,” at least in regards to character exploration and progression, the best of them all.

This theme isn’t entirely consistent throughout the movie, however, particularly when he essentially becomes a stealth assassin and singlehandedly infiltrates the Mandarin’s hideout while taking out a number of armed bodyguards on the way (all outside of his suit, too). To follow up scenes of doubt and dread with some of the boldest actions he’s ever pulled off in the calmest demeanor he’s ever had shows an all too obvious conflict between the film’s desire to provide thrills while also telling a meaningful story. Yet one can’t help but be thankful that theme is at least implemented. This is a film that aims higher than popcorn action like “The Avengers,” which didn’t try to hit these emotional levels at all.

What some may find surprising—and the reason this character evaluation succeeds despite some stumbles—is that Tony Stark spends far more time outside of his suit than in. “Iron Man 3” is far more focused on character and plot than bangs and booms. This focus doesn’t only relate to Stark either, but the other characters as well. In particular, one terrific plot twist brings about some huge laughs and makes us reevaluate the antagonist in a way we rarely get to at the movies.

“Iron Man 3” has nearly everything one could want from a superhero movie and wraps up the trilogy in an exciting and satisfying way, and that’s in spite of its flaws. It’s tough to say if this will hold up alongside the plethora of other big name action movies being released in the coming weeks, but it’s a terrific way to start the summer and proves that superhero movies are far from running their course.

Iron Man 3 receives 4/5

Friday
Sep092011

Contagion

Disease is a universal fear. Everybody knows what it’s like to be sick and no matter how hard one might try, sickness can’t always be avoided. The thought of a deadly pandemic is scarier than any boogeyman one can think up and it’s here that the latest Steven Soderbergh film, Contagion, finds its inspiration. It takes the fear many have felt in recent years thanks to viruses like SARS and the bird flu and uses it in a mostly effective way, depicting a strain of infection that spreads like wildfire throughout the world and kills millions of people. If you aren’t a germaphobe now, you will be after watching this movie.

Contagion is a film that is guaranteed to freak you out mainly because events like this could actually happen, and have. Consider, if you will, the Black Death, which is alone responsible for upwards of 100 million deaths, and it’s only one example of pandemics throughout history. A new virus, unstudied and untested, can have a devastating effect and, though this is a work of fiction, a voice in the back of your head will be sure to remind you that we are at all times only a few steps away from a similar reality. That’s the strength of the film. It sets out to scare and it succeeds.

However, as with any scary movie, there must be strong central characters to care about. Otherwise, the looming threat means little. Unfortunately, Contagion has none. There’s Mitch (Matt Damon), whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and stepson have just died from the virus, Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), the head of the CDC who is trying to control the panic that seems to be spreading faster than the virus, Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), the person who is determined to find a cure, even if it means testing on herself, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), an Internet blogger trying to uncover a government conspiracy that may or may not be real, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), a member of the World Health Organization who is about to find herself in a precarious situation, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), who is also doing her part to help, and more. There’s even a cameo by Sanjay Gupta.

I don’t mean to suggest these actors aren’t doing their part; the acting is all around fantastic. I only wish to point out how crammed this movie is. Despite good performances, too little time is spent with any random character to create a connection between them and the viewer. Think of it like a news report detailing a shooting (an unfortunate event that occurred just the other day). It’s sad, but it’s a general sadness. What we feel is a different feeling than what we would have felt had we personally known someone harmed in the event. That’s what happens here and we fail to care about any one person. The film jumps back and forth between characters far too much, to the point where some are left missing for large chunks of the picture. Dr. Orantes, for example, is kidnapped relatively early on and forced to help the last of a dying village in Hong Kong. By the time it got back to her after spending extensive time elsewhere, I had forgotten she was even in that predicament.

It’s a poor juggling act—the majority of characters should have been written out of the script in favor of a select few—but Soderbergh does what he can and, as one would expect, Contagion is well shot, if a bit safe. Soderbergh doesn’t break any rules here the way he does in his more experimental low budget films like Bubble or The Girlfriend Experience and instead cranks out a conventional thriller, but his usual verve for filmmaking is nevertheless apparent. Most of the film’s problems stem from too much ambition—its attempt to pack so much into such a short amount of time was unwise—but it’s hard to fault ambition. At least Contagion has some, which is a quality lacking in most movies these days.

Contagion receives 3/5

Friday
Jan072011

Country Strong

Last year at this time, a little film called Crazy Heart was released, much to the praise of critics and moviegoers alike. It followed a country singer battling the throes of addiction and depression. He had hit a new low in his life and we watched him as he struggled to revive his career. If you’ve seen that film, prepare for a strong sense of déjà vu as you watch Country Strong, a picture so similar it can’t help but feel like Crazy Heart-lite with the gender roles reversed. It hits the exact same beats on its journey to the credits, even going so far as to duplicate a key scene, but one pulls them off well and the other does not. Country Strong, despite a likable cast and a handful of decent songs, destroys itself due to a lackluster screenplay and melodrama that would feel out of place in a daytime soap.

Gwyneth Paltrow plays the country singer this time. Her name is Kelly Canter and after a drunken onstage performance, she finds herself stuck in a rehabilitation clinic. When we meet her, she is on her way out the door a month early after her husband and manager, James, played by Tim McGraw, pulls some strings for her release. He is pushing her to straighten up and correct her image, though she is clearly still wrestling some demons. Her extramarital lover, Beau, played by Garrett Hedlund, is a musician himself and agrees to open for her on her comeback tour, but the trip is not going to be an easy one.

I was into Country Strong for its first twenty minutes or so. The songs came like rapid fire and though it sometimes felt more like an extended compilation of country songs than a movie, they were catchy and well written. None were mind-blowing, but they kept my feet tapping and my interest intact. When it did pause for dialogue, it worked. The characters were introduced and their personalities established. The sweetness that oozed in an early scene between Kelly and Beau kept me hoping for something great.

But the longer it went on, the dumber it became. The dialogue got progressively worse and the situations more histrionic. It was as if the screenwriter got bored halfway through and decided to crap anything onto the page just to be done with it. Once it resorts to a song that details everything that has happened thus far in the story, it becomes clear that the film’s ambition has evaporated.

If movies could be diagnosed with diseases, Country Strong would have bipolar disorder. It changes moods so often, it’s sometimes hard to know what you’re supposed to feel. It’s humorous, but solemn; sincere, but manipulative; heartwarming, but cheesy. If it were a person, it would be jumping for joy one minute and jumping off a bridge the next.

What disappoints the most is that it tries to make a statement on the nature of celebrity, but only does so in the barest sense. It barely explores the nitty-gritty of it all, going only so far as to show what those in the spotlight will do to maintain an image without truly delving into the implications behind it. It also, in an admittedly humorous moment, touches on the overt patriotism of country musicians and fans, but again, brushes it to the side in favor of its nonsense script.

Country Strong had its parts aligned. It had a talented cast (with this and The Blind Side, Tim McGraw is proving himself to be quite an actor) some fun songs and a tried-and-true story that proved meaningful when told well, but it just stinks. It’s capped off with an ending that comes out of nowhere and doesn’t wholly make sense up to that point, but if you decide that Country Strong is worth your time, you’ll be fed up with it long before then.

Country Strong receives 1.5/5

Thursday
May062010

Iron Man 2

There are superhero movies and then there’s Iron Man. The original movie, when it was released back in 2008, was about as fun as anybody possibly could have hoped for. My reluctance going into it stemming from my lack of faith in the character—a hero I considered a B-lister—and doubt in Robert Downey Jr.’s ability to pull off the role set me up for amazement. And amazed I was. Iron Man was a comic book adaptation done right and it blew me away. It suffered from mild problems here and there, but was otherwise a fantastic summer action flick with a solid structure and substance to back it up. Its sequel, unfortunately, fails to elicit that same excitement. While still fun in its own right, the whole of the film runs into some large setbacks that keep it from reaching that rare “better than the original” status.

Iron Man 2 begins six months after the events of the first movie. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has outed himself to the world as Iron Man and is now reveling in the glory that comes with such a title. He’s a celebrity, but the government considers his suit to be a weapon and demands its handover, a demand he easily refuses. Meanwhile, a Russian man named Ivan (better known as Whiplash, played by Mickey Rourke), has set out to destroy him. After an early encounter, Ivan winds up in jail, but is busted out by a powerful weapons mogul competing with Tony’s “Stark Industries” company named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell).

That seems to be the least of Tony’s problems, however, because it turns out that the energy source he uses to keep him alive is poisoning his blood and slowly killing him. He has been keeping this news to himself and hasn't yet told his personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his new secretary Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) or his friend Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle taking over the role from Terrence Howard), the latter of whom steals Tony’s Iron Man technology and hands it over to the government for testing. But things don’t slow down yet, because Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is visiting him to find out if he is a suitable candidate for S.H.I.E.L.D., some type of agency that Tony knows little about but hopes to get to the bottom of soon.

If not already evident, Iron Man 2 suffers from Spider-Man 3 syndrome. It tries to pack too much into one movie. On top of the new character introductions, including a reintroduction of an already established character in the form of Rhodes as War Machine, this movie tries to incorporate the story at hand, the mystery of S.H.I.E.L.D., the romantic relationship between Tony and Pepper and the unknown past of Tony Stark, delving into the relationship he had with his father and the significance it holds in present day, into one cohesive whole.

Its hands are certainly full, but Iron Man 2 doesn’t stop there. It tries to juggle comedy and drama while still being a fun action flick and keels over because of it. Its tone is all over the place. Much like the other recent superhero movie, Kick Ass, no single tone is ever established and the abrupt and sudden turns it takes are unpleasant and amateurish.

Due to this, some characters don’t get their required screen time. Whiplash, for instance, is mostly relegated to engineer work, tinkering inside of giant robots and sitting in front of computers. His first big action scene is a blast and, though short, the concluding fight with him is fun to watch, but everything in the middle is a bore. He goes missing for a good chunk of the movie despite being the prominent evildoer and this is where the film starts to go awry by trying to pack in its laundry list of to-dos.

The one thing Iron Man 2 has going for it that outshines its predecessor are its action scenes. Many, including me, complained about the mediocre brawls in the first movie, including an anti-climactic final battle that finished out the picture with a whimper. That downfall is rectified here and the action scenes are a thrill to watch, even if some do come about arbitrarily.

But the substance from that first film is missing. The villain, played by Jeff Bridges, was more compelling because as we learned about Tony Stark, we also learned about him. We got to see both evolve over the course of the movie, one using his technological prowess for good while the other spiraled out of control into pure hate and rage.

Iron Man 2 misses all of that. It’s a shadow of its former self and is a rather substantial step backwards for the franchise. If the first was truly great, this sequel is merely okay. It has some positive characteristics, like a great sense of humor (though isolated by its poor mix of drama), and the performances, especially from Downey Jr., are terrific, but it’s too cluttered for its own good. It's worth seeing, but don’t be surprised when you’re primary feeling walking out is underwhelmed.

Iron Man 2 receives 3/5