REVIEW: “Mortdecai”

Mort poster

Life is full of important questions. Does Donald Trump really think his hair looks good? Will Tom Cruise ever age? Do people actually watch “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”? But perhaps the most perplexing question is this – what has happened to Johnny Depp? And to go a bit further, what is driving him to pick such wretched projects these days? Over the years Depp has chosen a wide variety of weird and eccentric roles. But since his last “Pirates” movie, several of his choices have been…well…suspect.

Simply put, “Mortdecai” is his worst yet. It’s an appallingly unfunny action comedy fueled by lazy humor, juvenile gags, and its absurdly creepy main character. The film is based on a book series by English novelist Kyril Bonfiglioli. There were several books in the series which makes me think there was some decent material there. But screenwriter Eric Aronson doesn’t capture anything interesting or entertaining.

Mortdecai (Depp) is a shady art dealer and charlatan who, along with his high maintenance wife JoHanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), is financially strapped due to heavy tax debt. Inspector and old college acquaintance Alistair Martland (Ewan McGregor) comes to Mortdecai to help find a stolen rare Goya painting in exchange for settling his tax debt with the government. Along with his trusted manservant Jock (Paul Bettany), Mortdecai globetrots around the world, encounters a variety of uninteresting people, and faces plenty of dangers. Whatever.

Yep, that's the face you'll have as the final credits roll

Yep, that’s the face you’ll have as the credits roll

I’ve already mentioned how terribly unfunny the film is. You can only handle so much of Depp’s measly voice and bizarre gap-toothed smile. Humor focused on vomit, dry heaving, and body parts gets old quick. It also doesn’t help that the entire stolen painting mystery is sleep-inducing. It’s dull, lifeless, and smothered out by all of the vain attempts at humor. The movie tries to liven things up by injecting a few comedy-laced action sequences, but they are just as uninspired and forgettable.

I feel as though “Mortdecai” revolves around a continuous inside joke that I was never let in on. Surely a comedy can’t be this anemic, lame, and humorless. I sat stone-faced the entire time watching a talented and wasted cast flounder around with some of the worst material of the year. It could be said that this is a new low for Johnny Depp. The guy has talent. We have seen it in the past. But you see none of it in “Mortdecai”. Instead you get Depp at his most annoying and you have to wonder how much more of this nonsense can his career take?

VERDICT – 1 STAR

1 star

REVIEW: “Iron Man 3”

IRON MAN 3 poster

Marvel Studies’ wildly successful 2012 film “The Avengers” confirmed several things. First, the amazing interconnected universe experiment that started all the way back in the first Iron Man film worked brilliantly. Another thing it did was establish Robert Downey Jr. and his Tony Stark character as the biggest draw of the group. Well now Downey Jr. returns for his third individual Iron Man flick in what’s sure to be another mammoth blockbuster hit. And while hordes of moviegoers and fanboys are sure to flock to it, can “Iron Man 3” continue to build on its already successful formula?

Let me say I loved “Iron Man” from 2008. And while its sequel “Iron Man 2” had its shortcomings, it was still a fun and entertaining entry into Marvel’s cinematic universe and a cool link into the Avengers project. I was really hoping that “Iron Man 3” would more closely resemble the franchise’s first film – a movie that I still think is one of the best superhero films period. But for me it more closely resembled the second picture, perhaps better but only slightly.

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Gwyneth Paltrow in “Iron Man 3”

This is the first Marvel Studios film since “The Avengers” and we do get a few cool references to what took place in New York City. But by and large this is a separate story focused on Tony Stark more so than his metal man persona. The movie starts with a flashback to 1999 where Tony (Downey Jr.) and his best friend Happy (Jon Favreau) are partying it up at a science conference in Switzerland on New Years Eve. Tony, ever the womanizer back in the day, hooks up with a brilliant botanist named Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall). At the party Tony pompously brushes off the wormy Aldrich Killian (Guy Pierce) who approaches Stark with an invitation to join his think tank Advanced Idea Mechanics (comic fans will most certainly recognize A.I.M.). This brief prologue introduces the beautiful Maya and the scorned Killian into the movie’s landscape.

From there the film moves to present day where Tony has found himself a nervous wreck since the alien invasion of New York City (ala “The Avengers”). Battling panic attacks and insomnia, he finds refuge in building Iron Man suits. Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), the cure to Tony’s past life of excess and carousing, begins to feel the effects of Tony’s emotional state. Aside from his personal troubles a Bin Laden-esque terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has claimed responsibility for a series of deadly bombings. When Happy is seriously injured in one of those attacks an infuriated Tony calls The Mandarin out publicly. What follows leaves Tony alone, armorless, and presumed dead with only his brains, wits, and deductive skills to find The Mandarin and stop him.

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Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark

Shane Black directs and co-writes the story that tosses a lot at the audience. Killian pops back into picture in a much better physical condition than when we first see him. We also see Maya again and even though its a pretty small role she holds some rather important bits of information. Don Cheadle gets plenty of screen time as “Rhodey” who dons the more politically sensitive Iron Patriot armor. But everything comes back to Tony Stark and the movie really focuses on the man outside of the Iron Man suit. To some degree I enjoyed that and many have responded to the movie because it tries to look more at the man than the superhero. He’s forced to resort more to his inventive ingenuity much like in the early scenes of the first film.

But if I’m honest I have to say that I don’t know if that’s what I want from an Iron Man superhero movie. Don’t misunderstand me, I love the idea of giving the character some depth. The first film did that well. But considering how much time is spent with Tony outside of the armor, I didn’t feel his character was expanded that much. Downey Jr. certainly gives us another solid performance and I love him in this role. And while the more desperate tone did lessen the number of quick quips and smart-alecky jests, he still pulls in some good laughs especially when partnering with a precocious young boy (Ty Simpkins) who otherwise serves no other purpose than to play his cliched temporary sidekick.

The film does have strong moments and it delivers some pretty hefty payoffs. The tension surrounding The Mandarin really works for most of the movie and there are some big time action sequences that visually blew my socks off. I also loved the work of Guy Pearce in a performance that he himself viewed as “experimental” in a sense. Rebecca Hall was also very good and she had me craving more screen time for her. In fact, the entire cast gives us some really good performances and even when the dialogue occasionally trips over itself they still impress.

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Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin

But I keep coming back to one thing, something stemming from a conscious choice of Shane Black. I wanted to see more of Iron Man in his armor and while the buddy cop elements with Rhodey and the super sleuth angle in small town Tennessee didn’t equal bad cinema, it did leave me anxious for a superhero film that I’m not sure ever came. I don’t want to leave the impression that we never see the armor, but even then many of those moments aren’t Tony Stark at all (I’ll leave it at that). Even with the number of wild explosions and hair-raising action scenes which I thoroughly enjoyed, the movie still didn’t feel quite like the second phase of Marvel’s movie universe.

And I can’t help myself, I have to mention another thing. This film takes Tony Stark and his Iron Man story far away from its comic book source material, farther than either of the other films. For many this is a non-issue, but for a fanboy who sees the original material as better, well let’s just say it’s a shame. And it’s not just the Tony Stark character who is altered. There’s a huge reveal in the second half of the film that obliterates a major part of Iron Man’s history. It’s pushed by some pretty lame attempts at comedy and it drains the film of one of its strongest story angles. Frankly, it didn’t work for me. Black and co-writer Drew Pearce’s choice for a twist combined with several plot holes and the typical maniacal world domination story was a surprising letdown.

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Yes, that’s Pepper Potts

I’m still conflicted about “Iron Man 3” and it’s a film I think I need to rewatch before I can truly cement my overall rating. But I don’t want my gripes to overshadow the fact that I had a lot of fun with the movie. The performances are wonderful and I’m surprised to say that they are what kept me enthralled more so than the action or drama. But the action sequences are for the most part outstanding. There are a few cheesy effects but there are also some of the most jaw-dropping visual sequences yet to come out of Marvel Studios.

So is this just a case of enormous expectations or was I expecting a different movie altogether? Well, a little of both I think. In the end “Iron Man 3” does deliver but it’s certainly not the ‘blow you away’ flick both the fanboy and superhero fan in me was hoping for. Black had a decent vision for this film and he certainly had a wonderful cast. But his overall story direction is lacking and his shredding of key source material took away from what he did right. I’m afraid that’s what is keeping me from fully embracing this movie. It’s certainly a fun time, but in a way it was a little disappointing.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

Review: “The Avengers”

Marvel Studio’s “The Avengers” is the culmination of what may be the most ambitious project in film history. For those movie fans who have been living in a cave for the past several years, Marvel has been releasing several individual superhero movies that have all set the table for this huge event film. Two “Iron Man” pictures, “Captain America”, “Thor”, and “The Incredible Hulk” have all been linked together through brief reoccuring cameos and hidden after-credits scenes that refer to something called “The Avengers Initiative”. As any comic book geek could tell you, that’s a reference to the Marvel superhero team that first debuted in comics in 1963. On the surface, the idea for an Avengers film that’s directly tied into other individual superhero movies sounds great. On the flip side, even though the other films have been good, there are still plenty of areas where “The Avengers” could go off track. Well as a movie and comic book fan, I’m happy to say that “The Avengers” not only meets the challenges of it’s vision, but it’s an action packed adrenaline rush that offers some of the most fun I’ve had at the theater this year.

To handle this rather large undertaking, Marvel placed the project in the hands of Joss Whedon. Whedon was a good choice mainly due to his variety of experience. He’s found success in television, film, and comic books and he uses his knowledge of each combined with Disney’s deep pockets to create a movie that would appeal to the fanboy and the casual moviegoer alike. One thing that helps Whedon is that the film doesn’t require your traditional origin story. While we do see the generation of the team, we know all of the characters from the previous Marvel movies so Whedon is able to dive right into the story. That being said, don’t mistake this for a deep, engaging story that will challenge the audience. But I’ll also say that anyone going into “The Avengers” for that has already missed the point.

Throughout the other Marvel films, particularly “Captain America”, we learned about a cosmic energy source known as the cosmic cube. In “The Avengers”, S.H.E.I.L.D. head honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has a team of scientists led by physicist Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) trying to harness the power of the cube, now known as the Tesseract. But suddenly the cube activates and opens a portal allowing the evil Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to entire the facility and steal it. Knowing the immense threat associated with the Tesseract being in the wrong hands, Fury activates the Avengers Initiative. But getting such a diverse group of superheroes to cooperate and coexist proves to be a lot harder than expected.

Fury starts by contacting Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). He sends her to India to find Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) while sending Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) to Stark Tower to speak to Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). While the two are gone, he approaches Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and sends him on a mission to retrieve the Tesseract. Upon hearing of Loki’s involvement, the thunder god Thor (Chris Hemsworth) also entires the mix as does the marksman and assassin known as Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Each of the heroes have their own baggage and their own personalities which often times clash to the point of dysfunction. But their disagreements give us some of the movie’s cooler and often times funnier moments. As you would expect the situation worsens and it’s up to the team to pull together or the world will be taken over starting with New York City.

It’s a pretty cut-and-dry story but it really works because Whedon understand his characters and he knows what kind of movie he’s trying to make. His familiarity with the Marvel comic book universe is clearly seen throughout the picture but nowhere more than in his treatment of the characters. As a comic book fan, I was really impressed with how they all felt right and it’s clear that the source material played a big role in shaping the on-screen versions. But Whedon never falls into the trap of taking things too seriously. The movie is filled with laugh out loud funny moments that are cleverly used and they never feel cheap or forced. They mix perfectly with the razor-sharp dialogue and the jaw-dropping action sequences. But the fantastic action and special effects shouldn’t surprise anyone. Afterall, “The Avengers” is a superhero action picture and Whedon knows it. The action comes at a furious pace and I can see where some may view it as relentless. Personally, I was completely wrapped up in it. The movie sells the superhero action through some of the most spectacular visuals and editing that you’ll see. I was blown away.

I can’t write a review of “The Avengers” without mentioning the incredible cast. One of the reasons the Marvel films and particularly “The Avengers” works so well is because of the amazing casting. Everyone is invested in their character and not one single performer phones it in. Downey, Jr. continues to be the perfect Tony Stark mainly due to his natural ability to use sarcasm and fire off funny quips without hesitation. Chris Evans, known more for his goofier roles,  is also quite good as the serious and straight-laced Captain America. I also really liked Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. He’s the third actor to take on the role and he nails it. Much like Downey, Jr., Hemsworth is the perfect Thor and he shares some of the film’s best scenes with Hulk. Renner and Johannson also handle their roles very well. But I have to give special time to the wonderful Tom Hiddleston. He’s a remarkably diverse actor and he shows it here. His Loki is mysterious, mischievous, and evil and Hiddleston slithers through his scenes stealing many of them. There are also nice smaller performances from Gregg, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cobie Smulders that are just icing on the cake.

I can see where some people may not respond as positively as I did to “The Avengers”. The action is pretty much start-to-finish and if you’re not interested in the characters you’ll have a hard time embracing the story. There are also a few shortcuts taken with the story for the sake of convenience that could have been done a little better. For me, I have a connection to these characters through all my years of comic book reading and this film exceeded my expectations. But being a comic reader isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying this movie. If you’ve liked what Marvel has put out leading to it, you’re going to love “The Avengers”. Sure, it’s a loud, energetic summer popcorn flick, but it’s also a really good one. It’s honest and it never tries to be something it’s not. Featuring one of the better ensemble casts and some top-notch directing from Joss Whedon, “The Avengers” is a big budget blockbuster that actually deserves all the money it’s going to rake it. When’s the next showing? I’m ready to see it again.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

5 PHENOMENAL SUPERHERO MOVIES

You may have heard that a little movie called “The Avengers” hits theaters this Friday. In honor of this highly anticipated, sure to be blockbuster I thought it would be fun to spend some time this week looking at the hugely popular superhero genre. I’m doing two Phenomenal 5 lists this week starting with 5 Phenomenal Superhero Movies. Now with the title “superhero” my intentions are to stay within the comic book arena. Since the genre has grown there are many movies to choose from. But these are five that made the cut for me. As always I wouldn’t call this the definitive list, but there’s no doubt that these 5 superhero movies are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “X-MEN” (2000)

Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” should be thanked for its role in relaunching superhero movies into the popular money-makers they are today. Here Singer does a great job of introducing the team and effectively laying the groundwork for what the team was all about. Another great thing is the fun casting. Patrick Stewart is absolutely perfect as Charles Xavier and Hugh Jackman stole the show with his portrayal of Wolverine. Ian McKellen, James Marsden, Famke Janssen, and Halle Berry are also well cast. While some of the dialogue is a little clunky, the story is well written and even though dealing with some heavier underlying themes it doesn’t take itself to seriously. “X-Men” spawned two sequels, neither as good as the first film. But “X-Men” is a movie I can watch anytime.

#4 – “SPIDER-MAN” 2 (2004)

I really enjoyed the first Spider-Man film but this was a case where the sequel was better than it’s predecessor. With the constraints of an origin story behind him, director Sam Raimi puts together a sharp, action-packed story pitting Peter Parker (Tobey Mcguire) against Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina). The character development and story progression is very well done, the production design is at a higher level, and the movie as a whole is much more polished. Molina is fantastic and the special effects are a blast. The train scene alone is worth the price of admission. Unfortunately the third movie flew completely off the rails instead of building on the success of this film. But “Spider-Man” 2 remains a great example of how to make a really good sequel.

#3 –BATMAN BEGINS” (2005)

When I heard Christopher Nolan had signed on to do “Batman Begins” I was immediately intrigued. Batman is my favorite comic book hero and I was still bitter at how Joel Schumacher had left the previous Batman franchise in shambles. How happy I was to see Nolan not only successfully reboot the franchise but develop an enthralling film that captured the fun elements of a comic book movie as well as a darker and more fitting tone for the Batman character. Christian Bale is great as Bruce Wayne and Gary Oldman is the perfect Jim Gordon. Throw in Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy, and Morgan Freeman and you have a brilliant cast that perfectly fits Nolan’s vision. “Batman Begins” is not only a really good movie, but it sets the foundation for what has been an incredible franchise so far.

#2 – “IRON MAN” (2008)

I remember when I first heard that an Iron Man movie starring Robert Downey, Jr. was coming soon. I didn’t see how on earth Downy, Jr. could play the role of Tony Stark and I pretty much doomed the movie to failure. Not only was I wrong about the movie but I have no problem saying that Robert Downey, Jr. IS Tony Stark! “Iron Man” is a well crafted and incredibly well written movie that rides Downey, Jr.’s performance. It takes a second tier Marvel superhero and catapults him into the lead role of the upcoming Avengers film. There’s some fun supporting work from Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Terrence Howard and some jaw-dropping special effects. “Iron Man” is a brilliant franchise-launching origin story and a super fun action popcorn picture. It’s incredibly well done and Robert Downey, Jr. is a blast to watch.

#1 – “THE DARK KNIGHT” (2008)

“The Dark Knight” is the second movie in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and I have no problem calling it the best superhero / comic book movie of all time. But it can’t be confined to just the superhero genre. It’s an incredible film that can stand its ground against any movie from any genre. Nolan’s vision takes Bruce Wayne and Gotham City down a much darker and more violent path with the introduction of The Joker played by Heath Ledger. Ledger gives a stunning and unforgettable performance that won him the posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Nolan’s direction is near perfect and his slick style is evident throughout the film. The special effects are very well done and Hans Zimmer’s score is a perfect fit. Bale, Oldman, Freeman, and Caine all return and Aaron Eckhart makes a great Harvey Dent. “The Dark Knight” is a comic book movie but one that never strays to far from reality. It’s dark and intense but it’s also an exercise in precision filmmaking. It’s a movie that legitimizes the superhero genre and one of my favorite movies of all time.

There you have it. What do you think of my list? See a glaring omission? What are you favorite superhero movies?

REVIEW: “Contagion”

Whether it be “Twelve Monkeys”, “Virus”, “Outbreak” or the new Steven Soderbergh project “Contagion”, I’ve always had an affection for end of the world, deadly virus movies. In “Contagion”, Soderbergh takes a much different approach than most of these types of films, choosing to give it a more realistic and clinical feel. I’ve heard it described as a “medical thriller” and that’s pretty accurate. We spend a lot of time with scientists and doctors from The Centers for Disease Control and The World Health Organization as they try to identify and find a cure for a ravaging epidemic. Soderbergh fills his film with an incredible cast most of which are perfectly utilized. None of them play the one key protagonist. Instead each are cogs in Soderbergh’s greater machine.

The movie wastes no time getting things started. Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) contracts a mysterious virus while on a business trip in Hong Kong. Before the symptoms set in and on her way home to her husband (Matt Damon) and children in Minneapolis, she stops off in Chicago where she not only has a quick fling with an old flame but passes on the highly contagious virus. After arriving home, Beth develops a cough and a high fever which results in her being the first casualty of what becomes a  worldwide epidemic. Damon’s storyline gives the movie it’s biggest injection of humanity. It brings the seriousness of the threat to a household level and for the most part is very effective.

Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) from the CDC teams up with Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to find the origin of the virus which they hope will lead to a cure. This is where the movie really takes off. Fishburne and especially Winslet are convincing as doctors who are well versed in science but caught completely off guard by both the nature of the disease and the rate of it’s spread. In fact, it’s a professor (Elliott Gould) defying direct orders from the CDC who gives them their first lead towards a viable vaccine. What makes this work is Scott Burns’ incredible dialogue. It’s crisp, intelligent, and filled with all sorts of medical lingo. But it never gets bogged down in the terminology. Instead it feels like we’re sitting in on these intense and urgent conversations.

Soderbergh also introduces us to Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), sent to Hong Kong by the World Health Organization to investigate the origin of the virus. Me also meet Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a blogger who is actually more of a conspiracy theorist. He believes that the government is hiding information and threatens to reveal it regardless of the consequences. We even get John Hawkes in a minuscule role as a janitor at the disease center. Each of these character’s stories branch off from the main narrative and each offer some interesting angles. But there are huge gaps in Dr. Orantes’ story that I wished had been filled in a little. Also Hawkes’ character is terribly underwritten. I also didn’t find any of their individual endings all that satisfying.

“Contagion” moves at a sharp and steady pace, never letting the audience feel as though the threat has let up. Soderburgh throws us plenty of curve balls and no character is too big  to fall victim of the virus. Knowing this had me constantly questioning how the movie would end. The first part of the film is the strongest and it does a great job of setting up the threat. It also got in my head as it showed the numerous ways germs can spread. Soderbergh’s closeup shots of door handles, drinking glasses, and handshakes had me developing my own personal phobias. The second half of the film features some riveting sequences showing the chaos brought on by the quarantines and shards of misinformation that was spreading throughout the cities. The great thing is that Soderbergh doesn’t milk these scenes. He gives us just enough of them to set the proper tone.

“Contagion” is a movie that starts a lot stronger than it finishes but it never goes off the rails. It’s biggest problem is that it branches out in too many directions and ends up shortchanging a few of the characters. But it’s still a high quality film that doesn’t give in to any one single formula. It develops the threat, raises the stakes, and lets a remarkable cast tell the story. Soderbergh puts together a really good film here.

VERDICT – 4 STARS