Latest Reviews

Entries in Robert Downey Jr. (6)

Thursday
Apr302015

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

I’m in the minority when it comes to the first “Avengers” movie. Though functional, it lacked soul. While others argued that the previous individual heroes’ movies did the heavy lifting of getting them to a certain point, thus allowing it to be a mindless action extravaganza, I saw an empty film, one where the characters ended up exactly where they began. The story was inconsequential, the character progression nonexistent and the tone all over the place. With so many characters and stories to converge into one, such a misfire was not entirely unexpected. But if “The Avengers” was a akin to a juggler calmly juggling three balls—competent, but unimpressive—“The Avengers: Age of Ultron” is like a pro juggling flaming swords while hopping on one foot. In nearly every single way, “Age of Ultron” eclipses its predecessor.

In this installment, the Avengers have intercepted Hydra and taken back a scepter that was once wielded by Loki. In the scepter is a powerful gem that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) believes could change the world for the better. With its power, he believes he can create a global defense program called Ultron (James Spader), which will work to keep outside invaders at bay. However, that program eventually gets a mind of its own and decides that the only way to help the world is to destroy it. But first he must take out the Avengers with the help of Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).

There was an early moment in “The Avengers” when Captain America (Chris Evans) found himself struggling with the fact that he was frozen solid for 70+ years and everyone he knew and loved, everyone he fought alongside with in the war, was now dead. He was unfamiliar with the modern world and was trying to cope with a situation he didn’t fully understand. The movie then transitioned to Stark in his playboy pad cracking quips. It was an uncomfortable transition, just the first of many that pervaded the entire movie. “Age of Ultron,” on the other hand, does a much better job of mixing drama with comedy, even as the characters joke it up in the midst of a potential apocalyptic event. Whereas only the comedy worked in the last one, the drama here is just as potent as it earns its one big dramatic moment near the end of the film instead of forcing it in like the mishandled Agent Coulson “death” in the original.

Perhaps more importantly, “Age of Ultron” delves into each of these characters more so than (arguably depending on which film we’re talking about), the heroes’ individual stories themselves. You see, Scarlet Witch has the ability to manipulate a person’s psyche, which both serves as an interesting ability in and of itself and as a way to explore the characters’ motivations and fears. The darkest, and perhaps even most thoughtful, moments of the film come during these moments as we see a bit of what fuels the Avengers, particularly Tony Stark as they expand further on the hesitance and anxiety that was explored so wonderfully in the underappreciated “Iron Man 3.” While the film could have and should have explored these angles more, the fact that they’re there at all is nothing short of astounding when you factor in the sheer number of characters writer/director Joss Whedon had to juggle. Each one, even the seemingly less significant characters, receives just enough screen time to help explain who they are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. These explorations may not be as complex as these characters deserve, but they’re rich with possibilities and if future individual installments continue with the seeds that are planted here, we’re in for a more mature, darker and thematically interesting Marvel universe than we have yet seen.

Yet there are nevertheless some flaws in “Age of Ultron.” Almost all are minor, like Olsen’s inability to keep a consistent accent, though one exception is the half-baked burgeoning romance between Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). While the seeds are planted early (and potentially for a future standalone Hulk movie), it’s never developed to a point of relevance. At one point, another character asks about their romance, but one can’t help but wonder how that person even knows, as the flirtatious chemistry isn’t there and she had just met the group for the first time.

But you won’t leave the theater thinking of those things. You’ll leave thinking of the high-flying action, hilarious humor and terrific new villain. Spader is perfectly cast as Ultron, serving up his usual drawn out line readings as he brings a cold, calculated and ultimately frightening layer to what could have otherwise been an emotionless antagonist. As he mocks the human race for their blind faith and frivolous existences, a level of menace that no prior Marvel movie had yet reached is achieved. It’s both a testament to Spader’s talent and Whedon’s writing.

There’s a lot to love about “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Many have said the story is too convoluted for its own good, but my only thought is that they must be comparing it to the original. Of course the story is too convoluted in comparison because even the simplest stories are more convoluted than no story at all. And that is the film’s greatest strength. Rather than rely on the previous films to carry its story and characters like the last film, “Age of Ultron” crafts its own and brings the characters all to interesting points that show great promise for future Marvel films. I’ll admit to feeling superhero fatigue over the last couple years, but “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” has renewed my enthusiasm and if it accurately represents the foundation for future installments, I simply can’t wait to see what comes next.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron receives 4/5

Friday
Oct102014

The Judge

With all the recent hoopla surrounding “The Avengers” and the “Iron Man” franchise, it might be easy to forget that Robert Downey Jr. is a damn fine actor even when outside of that iconic suit. Even when his films fail to live up to expectations (2009’s “The Soloist” being a perfect example), he shines. His latest, “The Judge,” may be his single best performance yet. Working opposite the always fantastic Robert Duvall, he gives the rawest, most emotional performance of his storied career. However, like “The Soloist,” the film he resides in is less than the sum of its parts. An occasionally sloppy script and baffling directorial decisions keep this from going very far, but if you enjoy seeing two great actors at the top of their game, you can’t go wrong here.

Downey Jr. plays Hank Palmer, a soon-to-be-divorced lawyer whose cases consist entirely of defending the guilty and getting them off for whatever crime they may have committed. Naturally, he’s not a courthouse favorite, nor has he made his father, the titular Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall), particularly proud, despite his talents. One day, he gets a call that his mother has died, so he heads back to his hometown in Indiana. A cynical man, he has clearly outgrown the small minded nature of this otherwise friendly town, a place where everyone knows each other and drivers wave as they pass each other on the road.

He hasn’t been home in years and as soon as he arrives, the hostility that kept him away resurfaces. His brothers, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong), do their best to diffuse the situation, though the latter has a harder time dealing with it due to mental illness, but his father keeps pushing. Eventually, the judge heads out to the grocery store, for both practical reasons and to get away from his disappointing son, but arrives home with no memory of what happened. Unfortunately, there’s blood on his car and a body on a road he was spotted on, the victim a violent criminal he gave a second chance to many years ago. Did he purposely run this man down to make up for his past mistake or was this a simple accident? Regardless of the answer, Hank decides to stick around and defend his father.

“The Judge” suffers not from an uninteresting premise. Although it heads in obvious directions and the eventual answer to the above question is likely to be answered by the audience far before the characters onscreen, the foundation that the narrative is built upon is sturdy. Unfortunately, it’s the execution that cripples the film. Directed by David Dobkin, a man most known for his goofball comedies like “Wedding Crashers,” “The Change-Up” and “Fred Claus,” the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Does it want to be a lighthearted dramedy about family, a message movie about moving on and forgiving others or something else entirely? It’s never very clear, as the tone shifts from here to there and back around again.

Mixing tones is not an inherently bad thing, but Dobkin simply doesn’t have a clean grasp on any of them. As one critic friend whispered in my ear during our screening, “The Judge” occasionally plays like a Lifetime movie, complete with sappy music and cheesy dialogue, and he wasn’t wrong. The music, oddly, ramps up and down seemingly based entirely on those dialogue cues. The music doesn’t enhance what’s being said or depicted, but rather exists as a manipulative force to make it seem like what’s being said has some type of emotional impact. Its lyrical selections are heavy-handed and its other selections sound so similar to the drum heavy nature of those silly crime dramas on television that it’s laughable. Visually, “The Judge” is no better, also moving uncomfortably from tone to tone, but if there’s any consolation to be had, it’s that these moments as described above are infrequent.

The saving grace, again, are the fantastic performances from the stellar cast. Aside from some notable exceptions, like Leighton Meester in a small, inconsequential role—an actress that has starred primarily in nonsense teen dramas and B-movie quality thrillers and doesn't quite have the chops to keep up with her co-stars—everyone here is great and elevates the substandard material into something more than it would be otherwise. The dialogue isn’t great, but it’s delivered with such gusto that you buy into it. It’s easy to understand the motivations and emotions driving Hank and his father, from a basic level of conflicting morals to more serious, unresolved family issues from their pasts that are revealed as the film goes on, and it’s due almost entirely to the actors in the roles.

Stilll, at nearly two and half hours, it’s understandable if certain moviegoers decide to pass on “The Judge” given its many faults, including a wholly unnecessary and uncomfortable side story involving the mystery paternity of Meester’s character, but this is not a bad movie. It is merely an underwhelming one. What had the potential to be one of the best of the year instead ends up as a mildly entertaining diversion; inconsequential, but nevertheless memorable. There will be better movies in the coming months as the awards season ramps up, but you could do worse than “The Judge.”

The Judge receives 3/5

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

Tuesday
May012012

The Avengers

It’s been building to this for years now, ever since Tony Stark first suited up to be Iron Man. Since then, we’ve had a sequel to that film, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America, each working as a set up to this moment, when all of them are brought together to form The Avengers. Expectations are high and if early reviews are to be believed, they’ll be met, but I have a sneaking suspicion that in retrospect, opinions of it won’t be nearly as good. The Avengers is no different than any other superhero movie, except there are six of them, which turns out to be too much for one film. Eye candy notwithstanding, The Avengers is tonally inconsistent and character growth is all but missing, making it one of the most disappointing and shallow experiences of the year.

The main villain of the film is Thor’s Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Using an artifact called the Tesseract, he has opened a portal through space and has arrived at the S.H.I.E.L.D. base where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his team of scientists are working. After causing a bit of destruction and forcing agent Clint Barton, better known as Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), to take his side, he sets off to start a war. Fearful of what could come, Fury forms a team of Earth’s greatest heroes to fend Loki off, which includes Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Loki’s brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth).

The Avengers has a number of problems, but its biggest is that too much of the film’s enjoyment is supposed to come from the novelty of seeing all these heroes fight side by side against evil and even that proves to be too difficult a task to pull off. Although the finale is unquestionably fun to watch (particularly thanks to the Hulk), the film misses a clear opportunity to make this team a single unit. Aside from one instance where Iron Man bounces a projectile of Captain America’s shield, the powers of the heroes are never incorporated together. Instead, Iron Man is flying through the sky, the Hulk is jumping here and there off buildings, Thor is fighting his brother and Captain America is on the ground doing his own thing. They’re isolated so much it begins to feel more like little snippets of each hero’s movies have been cut together and less like the cohesive team experience we were promised.

When they are all together, they’re not fighting (unless it’s with each other), but these characters have been established differently in their own films and they don’t particularly mesh well. Iron Man, for instance, is the funny one, the one who always has a quip ready to spout out when confronted by someone else. In his own films, where the tone could be established as a singular trait, that’s totally fine, but when opposite the seriousness of Thor or Captain America, he doesn’t work, and vice versa. In one particular instance, Captain America is struggling with the idea that the he was frozen solid for 70+ years and everyone he knew, everyone he fought alongside with in the war, is now dead. He’s unfamiliar with the modern world and is finding his predicament difficult to handle. The movie then directly transitions to Stark in his playboy pad bouncing jokes off left and right. There’s an uncomfortable flow in The Avengers—it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a serious, tense action film or a silly, self aware comic book movie—and it pervades the entire thing.

There’s also a distinct lack of character progression in The Avengers. While it could be argued that the other films addressed that issue by building them up to this point, it doesn’t excuse the thin writing here, which is surprising given how gifted writer/director Joss Whedon is with writing characters. They all end up pretty much where they were before (despite some poorly implemented middle ground where the characters struggle over the death of a character with whom they hardly had any interaction), which is precisely the problem. The story moves forward, so the characters must as well, but they don’t. Any minor progression is forced in arbitrarily and usually through quick lines of dialogue. Thor says at one point he used to court war, but now shuns it, as if that’s all you need for character growth.

Now, is The Avengers still worth seeing? Sure it is, but only for the most basic, visceral reasons. It’ll get your adrenaline pumping, but emotionally and narratively, there isn’t much going on. Never mind the useless, ugly and sometimes imperceptible 3D that dims the picture; when it gets to that final stretch of film, you’ll be won over, just as I was. Without it, the movie fails. That, of course, makes it a clear case of style over substance, which is what the public is calling for, so I guess in that regard it succeeds, but consider this. Both stylistically and narratively, The Avengers is most comparable to the recent Transformers films in that they both neglect the story and characters, hoping the slam bang finish will make the audience overlook its obvious deficiencies. That’s not a good thing. Once the excitement dies down and moviegoers have had repeat viewings, the veil will be lifted. The Avengers is nothing special.

The Avengers receives 2.5/5

Friday
Nov052010

Due Date

If you told me a year ago that Todd Phillips, the man behind Old School and the underrated Road Trip, would follow up the funniest movie of last year, The Hangover (which has become the most successful R rated comedy of all time), with the dud that is Due Date, I would have laughed in your general direction, but that’s precisely what has happened. The Hangover made my best of the year list last year. Due Date most certainly will not.

At its core, Due Date is about two people with clashing personalities embarking on a cross country road trip and running into all kinds of shenanigans along the way. If that premise sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Robert Downey Jr. plays Peter, who is trying to get from Atlanta to Los Angeles as soon as possible because his wife is only days away from going into labor. But after a chance encounter on an airplane with Ethan, played by Zach Galifianakis, who starts to make passengers uneasy with his usage of words like “bomb” and “terrorist,” he is put on the “no fly” list and is forced to find another way home. Unfortunately, his bags are still on the plane and on their way to California, leaving him with no money or credit cards. Because of this, he reluctantly agrees to carpool with Ethan, who is also heading west.

If the excessive marketing is any indication, Due Date will make a good amount of money at the box office this weekend. You can’t turn a corner without seeing a poster and you can’t turn on the television without seeing a trailer. While I have no doubt it will put people in theater seats, this forceful push will prove to be its bane. It has almost become a cliché to say that every funny part is in the trailer, but never before has that sentiment been truer than with Due Date. I don’t exaggerate when I say that every single scene in the movie, other than the very last couple, is represented in the TV spots and theatrical trailers.

So the conundrum here is that there are laughs to be had, but you’ve most likely already had them. I recall nearly busting a gut watching the trailers, but I fell silent during the film. Most of the jokes I knew were coming and the ones I didn’t were so unfunny you could hear a cricket chirp in the theater.

It’s hard to believe that even with this problem the actors couldn’t pull it through. Downey Jr. and Galifianakis have proven to be charismatic and funny in the past, but both are deplorable here, more so due to the way their characters’ personalities were scripturally sculpted rather than any fault of their own. Ethan is so annoying, so prodding, so boorish, that you almost immediately hate him as soon as he shows up onscreen. Peter’s understandable aggravation with Ethan quickly becomes contagious.

I’m sure that’s the point, but at least one half of the equation needs to be likably represented, but Peter doesn’t fare much better. He’s an angry and violent individual who I was hoping would crash and burn before ever making it home, especially after he sucker punches a young kid in the stomach and warns him to stay quiet about it. If that’s how he’s going to act around a troublesome child, perhaps his baby would be better off growing up without a father.

Due Date is not funny. It’s as simple as that. The characters are wretched, the jokes are played out (including one that involves drinking somebody’s remains, a gag done much better in the sixth season of “South Park”) and the premise is tired. Galifianakis and Phillips are currently filming The Hangover 2, so let’s pray this was merely a quick cash grab to help them transition to a film they'll really pour their hearts into.

Due Date receives 2/5