Friday, May 31, 2013

FRANCES HA Is Woody Allen for Gen Y


- The new film from writer/directory Noah Baumbach, FRANCES HA mixes Woody Allen-esque slice-of-life neuroses-filled character study with a bit of modern-day rock n' roll. It's a beautifully-shot, often-times hilarious portrayal of late twenty-something life in the city, and it gets at some stark truths that any member of Gen Y can probably relate to, at least a little. It also features a winning performance from indie queen Greta Gerwig (who also co-wrote the film with Baumbach) as the title character. Gerwig is one of the most fascinating actresses out there - a wildly expressive, boundlessly quirky young woman who is not quite like anyone else making movies these days. Frances Ha is a total showpiece for Gerwig's unique talents and sensibility, and while some may not be onboard the bandwagon, I count myself a fan, and think she's never been better than here.

The movie tells the story of Frances, a 27-year-old aspiring dancer, living in New York City, trying to follow her dreams. Frances - a free spirit and a would-be intellectual, is trying to hold on to her dance dream while coming to terms with the reality that she's getting older, can't pay the bills, and, as one of her friends bluntly puts it, doesn't have her $#%& together. Like I said, many of us can, in some ways, probably relate. Throughout the course of the movie, we see how Frances' relationship with her best friend and roommate, Sophie, evolves. Sophie - the more practical and determined-to-grow-up of the two - tries to climb the social ladder and find a guy who will support her and give her the more glamorous, globe-trotting lifestyle she thinks she wants. Sophie's ambition creates a rift with Frances, even as Frances moves in with a bunch of trust-fund slackers who claim to be writers and artists, but who are really just living off their parents' money while working on sample SNL sketches and scripts for "Gremlins 3." (as someone who has lived in LA for eight years now, it's a type that is sadly all too familiar). But Frances, a type who stumbles her way from bad decision to bad decision, tries in her own way to keep up with the Joneses. She uses money she doesn't have to go on a hilariously poorly-planned trip to Paris, just to impress her friends and up her own feeling of self-worth. She refuses sensible jobs in order to stay on as a back-up for a dance troupe that clearly doesn't want her. She puts off being productive in favor of all-day movie marathons on the couch with her roomies.

On the surface, this might sound like the kind of self-involved character study that makes similar-ish efforts feel off-putting and lacking perspective (first season of HBO's Girls, anyone?). But Baumbach and Gerwig have a perspective and a self-awareness that's refreshing. In fact, I'd call it a major improvement from Baumbach's similar effort, Greenberg, which got a bit too caught up in its main character's own self-involvement, lacking awareness of his inherent unlikability. But what I like about FRANCES HA is that in many ways, the joke is on Frances. And because of that, we end up feeling sorry for her, empathizing with her, and rooting for her - because the movie is fully aware that she is a character who's essentially well-meaning, yet does a lot of dumb things. The movie freely admits that she doesn't have her $%&% together. At the same time, the movie perfectly captures the aimlessness and growing sense of dread that is the quarter-life crisis. Especially in this world of Facebook, blogs, etc., the pressure to do as well as, and to grow up at the same rate your peers, is uber-amplified. Whether real or perceived, it's hard to find your own way in a world in which everyone else seems to always be doing something really awesome at any given moment. Frances Ha does a great job of expressing that vibe of possibility mixed with dread. And Gerwig's Frances - the proverbial manic pixie dream girl, but clipped of her wings and brought down to earth - is the perfect vehicle to convey the movie's themes. In general, what separates this movie from other films and TV shows that look at young-adult-in-the-big-city life is that it is frank, and honest, about things like class, money, nepotism, etc.

Don't think that this is some ultra-serious downer of a movie though. It's very funny, with some wry observational humor, but also some broader/quirkier moments, like Frances having to make a desperate run across NYC to find an ATM while on a date.

It's also a very rock n' roll movie. Baumbach cuts some truly badass montages of city life and of Frances' journey, set to a grooving soundtrack of perfectly-chosen tunes. One song, Hot Chocolate's "Every 1's a Winner" struck me so much, with its disco-era guitar licks and driving beats, that I immediately downloaded it after seeing the film.

Gerwig is great, and so too is Mickey Sumner as Sophie. Sumner brings her own sort of quirkiness to the role, and there's something sad and frustrating as the character evolves into some sort of world-traveling yuppie. Adam Driver from Girls pops up as well, and he's quickly becoming a go-to ensemble player for slice-of-life urban comedy. His character here is much more normal than in Girls, but still really compelling, especially in his interactions with Gerwig as they awkwardly transition from blind date to odd-couple roommates.

At times, FRANCES HA does go a little overboard with its depiction of NYC privileged-hipster life. The movie ultimately gets the absurdity of some of its characters, but sometimes you do think "why doesn't Frances just ditch these rich kids, and hang out with some cooler and more genuine people?" In this way, the movie does sometimes feel trapped in a bit of a bubble. Moments of relatability are intermixed with moments of "ugh, first-world problems." Generally though, the film is sharply-observed and funny and elegantly made enough so as to cancel out such lapses. And even as I began to question Baumbach a bit as the movie went on, he won me over with a great third-act development that sees a distraught Frances return to her old college to work a temporary service gig. This part of the movie really works well, and gets Frances away from the insularity of Manhattan life. And that, in general, is a reason why the movie never becomes unlikable - it takes Frances on enough detours - to France, to her family's house in California, to her old college, that it puts her not-quite-starving-artist city life in perspective.

FRANCES HA was a really pleasant surprise for me. It felt like the modern evolution of movies like Woody Allen's Manhattan (this too is shot in black-and-white) - Woody Allen for the Facebook age. And Gerwig is the perfect inheritor of the Allen mantle. All at once a modern woman and a throwback, Gerwig is eminently watchable, and definitely one to watch.

My Grade: A-

RE-OPENING THE X-FILES - A Look at The X-Files' 20th Anniversary Screening in Hollywood


- The X-Files is one of the defining shows for me, the first TV drama that I became certifiably obsessed with, and one of the early, influential shows for me that made me want to work in television. It's funny to think how the nine-year run of the show spanned such a vast swath of my young adulthood. I started watching it in 1993 as an eleven year old kid who was into aliens and sci-fi. I watched the series finale in May 2002 at the end of my sophomore year of college. At that time, I had officially made the switch to be a Film and TV major at Boston University, and had even taken a "Writing TV Drama" class, in which I wrote an X-Files spec script.

That spec script was a blatant attempt to ape the style of X-Files writer Darin Morgan, who gave the show a new dimension with his unique, auteur style. There was no mistaking a Darin Morgan-penned episode of The X-Files. His "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" is a hilarious, non-linear, surreal, semi-abstract voyage into truth, lies, and the realms in between. It's my favorite episode of TV ever. In my spec script, I included several homages to "Jose Chung" and other Morgan-written episodes, including a cameo from recurring Morgan-created side character The Stupendous Yappi. And a quirky scene set in a small-town diner - a tribute to a favorite scene in Jose Chung in which Fox Mulder questions a bewildered diner-owner about aliens, ordering a slice of pie prior to asking each subsequent query.

While other sci-fi shows have sort-of filled that X-Files gap in my pop-cultural being - Lost, Fringe, etc.- nothing else has ever captured my imagination in quite the same way. Maybe it was because I felt a strange sort of kindred spirit in Fox Mulder. Maybe it's the creepy atmosphere and spooky vibe of the show - perfect for huddling on the couch with the lights out on a Sunday night - that no other show has since matched. Or maybe it's that the show, for all of its myth-arcs and monsters-of-the-week, always strove for something more than your average TV show. It strove to be smarter, deeper, and more thematically complex. Those of us who were into The X-Files - like Mulder - were watching in search of a deeper Truth.

So, flash-forward to a few weeks ago, May 2013, and here I am living in LA and working in TV. Okay, I still have a ways to go before I write the next Jose Chung, but hey, I'm (hopefully) on my way. In any case, one amazing thing about LA is that there is a constant stream of awesome film festivals, screenings, panels, etc. Over the years, between local events and panels I've seen at things like Comic-Con, I've seen and heard some amazing discussions about some of my all time favorite movies and TV shows. But I'd never seen any kind of X-Files screening or panel, until this month, as part of the LA Times' Hero Complex film festival.

The event - a celebration of the show's 20th (!) anniversary, included a screening of three X-Files episodes - the pilot, "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," and another fan-favorite (and Emmy-winning!) Darin Morgan-penned ep, "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose."

It was very, very cool to watch these episodes with a packed audience, at the famous Chinese Theater in Hollywood.  While there were one or two moments that proved that, yes, a lot of time has passed since these episodes first aired (namely the gigantic cell phones in the pilot episode) ... they still totally hold up. And just like always, despite all the wackiness and absurdity of "Jose Chung", I still got chills during its final sequence, in which Charles Nelson Reilly, as Jose Chung, ruminates on the meaning of humanity's quest for alien life, positing that even if we are not alone in the universe "we are, each in our own way, truly, alone."

But man, the coolest part of the experience was the Q&A. I knew that show creator Chris Carter was booked to appear, but I was surprised (and totally nerding out), when surprise guests James and Darin Morgan took the stage. To hear the three of them talk about the behind-the-scenes workings of the show was really amazing. All three are pretty soft-spoken guys, but there were, nonetheless, some great tidbits that came out of the panel discussion. In particular, I found it fascinating yet frustrating to hear Darin Morgan explain how The X-Files was the only show he's worked on that allowed him to express his own quirky, auteurist vision, without having to strictly conform to the pre-established conventions of the show. What Morgan did was open up the show, deconstruct it, and redefine what types of stories The X-Files could tell. All of a sudden, The X-Files could be quirky, funny, offbeat, and self-referential. As the series went on, other visionary writers - from Chris Carter to Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan - emulated Morgan's approach. It made me think about how few TV dramas today allow for individual writers to put their stamp on an episode. As much as I love shows like Game of Thrones, each episode continues form the last with an almost mechanical precision. The X-Files was a show that made you pay attention to each episode's writing credits. The show created a world and a framework, and then let smart and unique individual voices play within that sandbox. The show even had guest writers like William Gibson and Stephen King pen episodes. How many great dramas today have a framework that would allow for that? Few, if any.

Suffice it to say, I was sitting in my seat at the Chinese Theater, debating stepping forward to ask a question, but realizing that I probably had too much pent-up fanboyism to get out anything coherent. It would have been cool to express how much the show meant to me, and how I probably wouldn't be here in Hollywood if not for its influence. At the same time, it was pretty awesome in and of itself to be in a room with fellow X-Philes on a Sunday night, bringing back a ritual that had, for almost a decade, been an important part of my week.

Chris Carter is interesting. I think he's probably burnt out on The X-Files, and doesn't seem overly enthusiastic about talking about the series' plot points or themes in any great detail. He was similarly elusive about the possibility of a third movie. As a fan, it really does feel like the series needs some proper closure. The end to the journey shouldn't be "I Want to Believe," which was an only-okay film that felt more like a random midseason episode than a fitting finale for one of the all-time great series. While that movie's underwhelming box office performance undoubtedly hurt the chances for a third film, these are strange times we live in. 24 is coming back to TV. Shows are being revived via Kickstarter. New generations are discovering the classics via Netflix and other means. How could  a show like The X-Files *not* come back in some way, shape, or form. Especially when we never got to see a key element of the show's mythology play out on screen - the alien invasion that was supposed to happen in 2012! One bone thrown to fans is that IDW is releasing a new, cannonical comic book this summer, titled "Season 10." It will have input from Carter, and pick up where the second movie left off. Hopefully, this is the first step towards a new movie or TV miniseries. We can only hope. Writer Joe Harris has said that he plans to continue stories from the show, while also bringing The X-Files into 2013 - a world of WikiLeaks, terrorism, drones, etc. Can't wait to read it.

In any case, this screening and Q&A was one of those great events that reminded me why I love this stuff in the first place, and of the type and caliber of content that I aspire to create and be involved with. Yes, TV is a business, and Carter and Morgan's show is a property and a valued franchise of 20th Century Fox. But man, within that framework, they made more than mere product - they made TV that inspired the imagination, that challenged the mind, and that was and is art.

Friday, May 17, 2013



- No, this isn't the old Star Trek. This isn't the philosophical original Star Trek, nor is it the intellectual Next Generation. This is the new-school Trek, and what it is is the pop iconography of Star Trek distilled down into a two hour popcorn blockbuster. If that idea inherently annoys you, then hey, you may be predisposed to dislike Into Darkness. It's even more Star Wars-ish than the first film - huge battles and set-piece action scenes, plenty of comedy and lighthearted quips, and a pulp-pop sci-fi energy that is made more for the masses and less so for the diehard Trekkie that refuses to think that Trek can be every bit as action-packed and fast-paced as its sci-fi brethren.

Look, I'm not a hardcore Trekkie, but I have a huge soft spot for select moments of the Original Series, and even more so for The Next Generation (and I'm still brainstorming roundabout ways for Patrick Stewart to cameo in the new movies). And hey, I agree that Star Trek in its absolute ideal form is about being smarter than other sci-fi franchises. Trek should ideally explore moral and philosophical concepts with depth and reverence, treat its futuristic science seriously, and make you think as much (if not more so) as it makes you feel.

The problem is ... it's near-impossible to put all of that into a two-hour movie, especially when the franchise only produces a new movie once every four or so years. And ironically enough, the most highly-regarded Trek movies - Wrath of Khan, First Contact - are the ones that go the big blockbuster route, and that take the show's iconic characters and put them in epic, huge-stakes conflicts worthy of the big-screen.

And so that's why I'm pretty pleased with INTO DARKNESS. Yes, the script is imperfect. Yes, some of the movie is, as Spock would say, illogical. And yes, the movie goes for brawn over brains. But man, this is one of the most fun, entertaining, and rip-roaring blockbusters in quite some time. The movie's energy and action is second to none, and it propels forward at a dizzying and dazzling pace. Most importantly though, the excellent cast really shines. JJ Abrams and Damon Lindeloff have always been "character first, plot second" guys - and while I haven't always agreed with that approach (final season of Lost, anyone?), it really is appreciated here. Because despite the odds and the legacy that they have to live up to, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, and the rest of this new cast have become damn near definitive. Blasphemy? I don't know - and the transition is eased by having the great Leonard Nimoy aboard to lend an extra dose of gravitas as Spock Prime. But the cast is universally fantastic here. This movie franchise doesn't have dozens of episodes to establish relationships, so it's got to move quickly. But amidst the chaos and frenzy, there are some wonderful dynamics at play here. We've only known these versions of the characters for a short time - plus, it's been a while since the last film - but Abrams and co place the spotlight firmly on the core cast and their relationships, and very quickly we're invested and rooting for 'em.

So yes, this is different. Some fans are going to roll their eyes and wonder if they're watching The CW's new take on Trek. But again, it's the quality of the actors that elevates the material and makes you genuinely invested in them. Chris Pine shines as Kirk. I think as the franchise proceeds, he needs to start to bring a little more maturity and weight to the role ... but for now, he is charismatic and capable as the still-headstrong captain of the Enterprise. The real star of the movie, however, is Zachary Quinto's Spock. Quinto has now perfected Spock's stoicism, with an undercurrent of wry humor and the capability for genuine pathos as well (credit his half-human side). Plus, he's super badass when it's his turn to save the day. Ultimately, the theme of the movie is about Spock learning how to be not just a slave to logic, but a good friend, companion, and teammate. Maybe that sounds cheesy on paper, and maybe it is slightly cheesy in practice in the film. But again, this is a much more heart-driven Star Trek than we've seen before, and it works quite well in this context.

Aside from Pine and Quinto, the supporting cast is just so darn lovable, it hurts. In terms of returning players, Simon Pegg's Scotty is the real scene-stealer in this one. He's got a pivotal role as compared to the first film, and he's both funny and, in a way, Kirk's conscious. Karl Urban as Bones has less screentime, but man, he's good - delivering the good doctor's lines with a sardonic deadpan that cracked me up. And Zoe Saldana really holds it down as Uhura. While part of her role in the movie is defined by her relationship with Spock, she proves quite capable as a multitalented crew-member and also gets to kick some serious ass. Anton Yelchin's Chekov and John Cho's Sulu get fairly minimal screentime here, but both have a couple of nice moments. And I'll also give a shout-out to Bruce Greenwood as Kirk's predecessor Pike. He has some excellent moments with Kirk in the film, and Greenwood's presence lends a lot to the proceedings and plays a key role in the overall plot.

As for newcomers ... let's talk Benedict Cumberbatch. I know, the guy has a legion of fans already, but I went into Trek mostly unfamiliar with his work. As the villainous terrorist John Harrison (or is he?!), Cumberbatch is basically pretty awesome - as menacing and steely as you could want in a villain. I will say though, the big surprise for me was how big a role Peter Weller (Robocop!) ended up having in the film, playing the head honcho of Starfleet. Weller is one of my all-time favorites, so to see him get to play a major role in a big movie like this was a lot of fun. How is he not in more action and sci-fi films? Also enjoyed Alice Eve as new crew member Carol. It was high time that the modern version of the Enterprise had more than one major female crew member, and Eve quickly asserts herself as a capable-though-possibly-drama-starting member of the team. And man, she does "horrified blood-curdling scream" as good as anyone.

Now, about the plot. I liked it, though I do think the script leaves a lot of room to be picked apart. I will say this: some of the plot nitpicks I've already read online are pretty lame, in my opinion. The movie doesn't have time to address every little nagging question of the "why would he do X when he could have easily just done Y" variety, but most of these kinds of questions can be explained with a little something called imagination. To me, there were not really moments where I thought "glaring plothole!" Mostly, I thought things like, "hmm, okay, I guess Bones couldn't have just done X because, well, if you think about it ...". Point being, I really don't think there are plotholes big or important enough to in any way ruin the movie. Mostly, I think these kinds of complaints are people looking for any excuse to pick apart the movie.

And hey, sidenote: the worst complaints to me are the ones having to do with the rebooted timeline of these films not exactly paralleling the timeline of the original Trek universe. It's a rebooted universe! Anything is possible! But more importantly, I think fans just need to accept that that was basically a plot device / contrivance to allow JJ Abrams and co. to tip the hat to the old franchise, and to allow for a passing of the torch via Nimoy's version of Spock. It clearly was not intended as something to be analysed in the fashion of "so if everything was the same up until Point X, then clearly these elements of the new universe should be completely unchanged from the old one!" It was just a way to have old Spock in the new movies. Chill out. Basically, yes it's fun to think about (nerd-alert!), but not an essential part of these new movies.

That being said, there are some shortcuts taken in the script that I found hard to swallow. Not enough to justify unbridled nerd-rage towards Abrams, Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindeloff - but there nonetheless. One general problem is that the movie hurdles forward so quickly that it necessitates that the characters change their stance on issues on a dime. "Let's go for Plan A!" "No, Plan B!" "No, I was wrong, and I now see the error of my ways from five minutes ago! Plan A was right all along!" Occasionally frustrating, but sort of forgivable given how much the movie is cramming into a few hours. But to me, the biggest weakness of the film is the way in which Cumberbatch's character is handled. Like I said, Cumberbatch himself is awesome in terms of his performance. But the character's arc and backstory feels incredibly rushed and not necessarily presented in an organic-seeming way. Too much of this character's potential awesome-factor is reliant on people having a big "aha!" moment when his true backstory is revealed. And having that moment is fine, but we need more. I needed Cumberbatch himself to make us understand exactly why he is one evil dude not to be messed with, and to make us understand what his plans are and why he needed to be stopped. The movie takes some major shortcuts in this area, and it feels off. I like the call-backs to earlier Trek lore, but if this rebooted franchise wants to stand on its own, it can't rely on us having prior knowledge or recognition of key moments from the old movies. Shout-outs are fun (and this new Trek has a lot of fun ones that I won't spoil here), but skipping over the main villain's origins and motivation and plans, just because we're meant to assume them based on old stories? That is problematic.

But ... it's problematic more so if you look at Cumberbatch as being the movie's uber Big Bad. In a way, he's not, and that makes his somewhat thin character a little more acceptable. Why do I say that? Because ultimately, the film is less about him and more about Starfleet. I'm not going to spoil, except to say that this is a movie about modern warfare on an intergalactic level. Earth is America, the volatile and warlike Klingons are like the outer space version of Muslim extremists, and Starfleet is the force that has to decide if its mission is exploratory or militaristic. Cumberbatch? He's sort of the unfortunate guy who got caught in the middle of all this, got used, abused, and exploited in the name of military advancement, and is now pretty pissed off about it. The parallels with modern politics are not exact, but the thematic connection is 100% there and not exactly subtle (in fact, it may be a bit too on-the-nose). But again, even though I felt the movie took shortcuts with Cumberbatch, it is less important when you accept that he's actually more of a pawn in the movie's uber-plot than the one truly pulling the strings.

There's a lot going on in this film, but JJ Abrams juggles it pretty well, and compensates for some of the script's looseness with a nonstop barrage of incredible set piece action scenes. Star Trek Into Darkness looks amazing, and I don't doubt that Abrams can now go ahead and direct a Star Wars film every bit as epic and iconic as fans could hope for. Abrams continues to sort of pay homage to Spielberg in the way he creates huge-scale visuals matched with choreography that has real rhythm - mixing character, humor, and action to create swashbuckling scenes of epic scale and scope. And man, in IMAX 3D, the film looks stunning - a majority of the film appears to have been shot in IMAX, and there's an immersive, you-are-there feeling that rivals most rides at Disneyland.

Ultimately, Into Darkness succeeds because it is, quite simply, jam-packed with awesome moments. The "oh $#%&" factor is high. Even if the script has some problems, the overall pacing of the film makes for a fairly intoxicating experience - the energy never lets up, and the movie is never dull. Each major sequence of the film feels expertly crafted and staged, and I constantly felt wowed by what I was seeing onscreen - from the opening's breathtaking primordial, volcanic jungle to a later scene in which Pine and Cumberbatch rocket through space with only the help of perilously-close-to-malfunctioning space suits. Abrams wisely does something that I don't think any incarnation of Star Trek has previously done very well - and that is ground all of the interstellar stuff with a sense of what life is like on earth during this era. Into Darkness' juxtaposition of a sleek future-earth (London and San Francisco specifically), teeming with alien life and exotic tech - with the uncharted wilderness of space, and its Klingon homeworlds and floating fortresses - is unique in the Star Trek franchise. Abrams attacks the world of Trek with a Spielbergian sense of awe and wonder and infinite possibility that, honestly, the franchise has rarely ever possessed in years prior.

To reiterate, I can't say enough about the staging and pacing of the film - it moves with a breathless and almost musical energy that is reminiscent of the great action/adventure classics. Haters like to compare these new Trek films to the likes of dreck like Michael Bay's Transformers (and yes, I realize the two franchises share some writers). But visually, from a directorial standpoint, let's give JJ his due. He's doing things here that are in another league than anything Bay could hope to accomplish with his chaotic and ugly visual style. This is Grade-A stuff. And by the way, speaking of music, the movie's score is fantastic, mixing the newer theme with the old-school theme song in a way that is incredibly cool.

Yes, there are logic gaps in Into Darkness that would give Spock some serious pause. But the movie is so fun, so exciting, so visually explosive, and so filled with great characters and moments that it's hard - for me at least - to get too hung up. The movie is flawed, sure, but it also felt like the kind of epic popcorn flick that is the perfect way to kick off the Summer movie season. Save the primal screams of anger for Kirk and Spock - this Trek, while paying homage to the past, nonetheless goes boldly where no Trek has gone before.

My Grade: A-

Thursday, May 16, 2013

THE GREAT GATSBY Is a Trainwreck, Old Sport


- The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite books. I know a lot of people say that, but it's true. Even though it's been years since I last read it, the novel left the kind of impression on me where it's been in my brain ever since. Gatsby is that kind of book - the kind whose story and characters resonate ... but what really hits you is the imagery. The isolated Gatsby peering out across the water at the just-out-of-reach Daisy, the hints of crime and corruption and lies behind his mythic persona, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckelberg staring over the city, casting judgement over those who pass beneath. For that reason, I went into the new Gatsby film pretty excited. For me, it seemed about time that a visuals-oriented director like Baz Luhrmann tackle the material. I remember, in high school, being shown the old Robert Redford / Mia Farrow version of  Gatsby, and just thinking it was all wrong. The colors, the pacing, the dialogue - everything felt so bland and straightforward. Gatsby needed flair, depth, texture. I was encouraged by what I saw from the trailers of Luhrmann's Gatsby. It seemed like he got that this was a story that needed a visually-dynamic, almost surrealist-bent in order to capture the essence of the book.

Well, as it turns out, I was very wrong. Luhrmann was not, it seems, the man for the job. Luhrmann's take on Gatsby is indeed - like his previous films - hyper visual and ultra-stylized. But here's the problem: it's all, 100% surface-level. The film is visually decadent, but there's absolutely no texture to it. And as the film goes on, it becomes a shockingly literal translation of the book - going so far as to have long stretches of dialogue and narration lifted verbatim, as the text from the novel is superimposed on the screen. The Great Gatsby - the book - is about metaphor, subtext, and images that are evocative not just of a time and place, but of an idea - the death of The American Dream. Nothing about the new movie version is evocative. In fact, it's a flat-out mess.

Now, don't tell me that such a book is untranslatable to film. Don't tell me that movies can't have subtext or depth or visual metaphor. Try telling that to the Coens or to P.T. Anderson (to name a few of the finest living filmmakers, whose best movies are the cinematic equivalents of the Great American Novel). But with this new film, Luhrmann proves that he shouldn't be put in the same category as those great directors. Yes, he can stage a party scene like nobody's business. And he makes the big party scenes in Gatsby into visual marvels that look, admittedly, pretty stunning (and really pop in 3D to boot). But that's literally the best part of Gatsby - the best scenes, by far, are two of its party scenes - one being Gatsby's extravagant affair at his decadent mansion, the other being a smaller and more sinister impromptu bit of debauchery in which Nick Carraway and Tom Buchanan engage in some sinful behavior in a Manhattan apartment. These party scenes work because they are so visually dynamic, and they give the first hour or so of the film a real energy and amusement-park-ride style appeal. But reducing The Great Gatsby to being a Roaring Twenties (in 3D!) Cirque Du Soleil show just seems wrong. And even when it works, the temporary high of those scenes soon fizzles out. The movie can only sustain that circus-like energy for its first act. Soon afterwords, it becomes a talky, plodding soap opera with really nice colors. The last thing I thought I'd be with this film was bored, but for the entire second and third acts, that's exactly what I was.

The inexplicable literalism of the film is doubly frustrating because Luhrmann insists on doing his thing where he fills the movie with modern, anachronistic pop music instead of era-appropriate tunes. This honestly sort of drove me crazy here, because the movie *could* have found a way to cleverly modernize the story, or to use the music in a way that felt meaningful or thematically resonant. But it doesn't. It's not like in Inglorious Basterds, where David Bowie's "Cat People" hypnotically recasts Holocaust survivors as punk-rock revolutionaries. Tarantino is a guy who's used anachronistic music and other stylistic choices to enhance his historical films and give them richer meaning and context. Contrast that to The Great Gatsby. Is there any particular reason why Jay Z and Beyonce are the musical selections in the film (other than Jay Z being a producer)? Is there any real thematic resonance to the songs used? As far as I could see, no, there isn't. The effect is that, when a random group of guys drive through 1920's NYC blasting "99 Problems," it's an unintentionally funny / cringe-worthy moment that takes you out of the movie.

Point being: the stylistic choices in The Great Gatsby feel pretty much arbitrary and there just because, well, that's what Baz Luhrmann does.

As far as the actors go, I felt the performances were a decidedly mixed bag. I'm more or less a pretty big fan, in general, of all of the main players here. But I didn't enjoy the performances in this film all that much, for the most part. Strangely, the only one who seems to nail it is previously-unknown (to me at least) Elizabeth Debicki as the sly and elusive female golf pro Jordan Baker. Debicki brings a casual, lived-in quality to Jordan and the movie is much better when she's on-screen. I don't think it's any coincidence that once Jordan fades into the movie's background, the film suffers.

To that end, I didn't love either Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby or Tobey Maguire as Nick. It's weird, DiCaprio has been on an awesome-acting streak of late, most recently impressing in Django Unchained. But as Gatsby, I just didn't love his approach. It's so overdone and "actorly," but not in a particularly powerful or convincing manner. It feels like him doing a voice, but not necessarily fully inhabiting a character. My impression from the book was always that Gatsby is mysterious, dangerous, a man of the shadows. Once Leo makes his big entrance as Gatsby, he's just a complete scenery chewer. It felt way off to me, and was at times grating, at times boring. Same goes for Maguire as Nick. Nick is the ultimate everyman, but Maguire is just too eccentric-seeming and goofy to be a true everyman these days. His Nick is almost comically passive, with no real opinions and no real point of view. It makes the use of Nick's narration from the book that much more jarring - we're being told that Nick feels a certain way, but we're rarely shown anything on screen that backs it up. The fact that Luhrmann uses Nick's eventual stay in a mental health institution as a framing device adds to the disparity. Nick remains a total blank slate throughout the film, and he seems to barely possess an independent thought about anything that occurs in the movie - let alone enough material to put it all into book form, as Luhrmann has him do.

The rest of the cast faces similar challenges navigating through Luhrmann's alternately gaudy then drab dream-world. Carrie Mulligan seems to be giving it her all as iconic Daisy, yet the romance between her and Gatsby seems totally limp. Again, it all comes back to the fact that their relationship is colored in metaphor and imagery in the book, but in the movie, every thought that Gatsby has about Daisy is spelled out in exhaustive detail. Meanwhile, Joel Edgerton's Tom becomes a gruff, debaucherous cartoon character. Edgerton is usually great, but he too seems confused about what tone he should be going for.

Over and over again, The Great Gatsby seems to swing wildly from one extreme to the other in terms of tone, visuals, and stylistic choices. Like I said, it's a mess. It sounds strange to write this, because in the past I've defended films for working on a purely visual level. But Gatsby undermines the power of its own visuals by rarely letting them speak for themselves. Everything feels underlined, bolded, and put on the screen in Size 32 font. By the time the movie was over, I came away with absolutely no thoughts on what it all meant, no ponderings about The American Dream, or the corrupting influence of wealth and power, or the lies America has told itself to create a perfect myth for itself. Sure, there are some surface-level allusions to the book's great themes, but it's all surface, all paper-thin. Even visually, there isn't much that really sticks with you - despite the heavy stylization, there's remarkably little sense of atmosphere to the film.

Maybe some will just get so caught up in the elaborate costumes and music-video-esque, highly choreographed party sequences that, hey, that's enough. But The Great Gatsby deserves better, and more so than that, this is just not a very good movie - with surprisingly little to say, given that it's based on a work that has stood the test of time precisely because it says so much. Like I said, I had hoped that the combination of Baz Luhrmann and The Great Gatsby would be a surprisingly potent combo. Instead, I am left feeling highly skeptical about a director who seems to just mangle source material sans rhyme or reason or vision.

My grade: C

Friday, May 10, 2013

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK: The Carpenter Classic Gets An Epic Screening in Hollywood

- Last weekend, I had an amazing movie-going experience. Here in LA, there tends to be so much cool film stuff going on that it's easy to be overwhelmed by it all. That overabundance of riches is all the more apparent this May, when two competing, geek-centric film fests are taking place - Entertainment Weekly's Capetown fest, and The LA Times' HeroComplex event. The caliber of events that both fests are holding this year is pretty off-the-charts, but one in particular jumped out at me. Escape From New York. Kurt Russell Q&A. Oh. Hell. Yeah.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is one of my favorite movies ever. Here's what I remember of discovering it as a kid: I remember reading a videogame review that pointed out a certain game's Escape From NY-style visuals. Hmmm ... what was Escape From NY? I hadn't heard of it. Soon thereafter, I sought out a VHS copy of the movie from my local video rental store. I found one, and I was immediately captivated. The cover art - of an eyepatch-clad hero standing heroically in front of the Statue of Liberty, in some kind of dark, apocalyptic scenario, sent my imagination reeling. Before I even saw the movie, I had a feeling that this ... this was awesome.

And the movie was exactly as awesome as I'd hoped. I quickly learned that the eyepatched hero was Snake Plissken, and that Snake was pretty much the baddest mofo on planet earth. I also paid attention to the name of the director of the film - John Carpenter. Whoever this guy was, I wanted to see more. Over the years, I've become a massive fan of Carpenter and his filmography, and it all traces back to Escape From NY.

Seeing the movie on the big screen, newly-restored, was flat-out awesome. Carpenter's movies have a certain something that makes them feel timeless, despite relatively low budgets and f/x constraints. His movies are all about atmosphere in a way that most modern movies don't concern themselves with. Carpenter is the all-time master at creating cinematic worlds that wholly immerse you. They are dark, there are dangerous and ominous things going on - but there's also a streak of pitch black humor and social satire that runs through his work.

So many of today's big action movies want to be all things to all people - it's rare that they carry with them the unique vision of one person. John Carpenter's movies are nothing if not iconoclastic. His semi-warped personality bleeds into every one of his creations. Sometimes that makes for moments that are cheesy, absurd, or just plain weird - but mostly, Carpenter's films have an auteurism that you rarely see in modern genre films. Even the music ... man, the music! Carpenter scores many of his films, and the results are some of the all-time best and most badass movie scores. Escape From New York's score is so kickass ... I remember literally going back and rewinding that old VHS tape multiple times to "watch" the movie's end credits, just to hear the score in all its glory. Again, it's all about atmosphere. Carpenter did these minimalist synth scores that just bleed badassery. As soon as you hear the synth tones from Escape From New York's iconic theme, you know exactly the kind of movie you're about to see.

That same minimalist attitude colors many of Carpenter's movies. Everything tends to be economical, from the dialogue to the shot selection. It has the effect of making everything feel painterly, iconic, larger than life. And larger than life is exactly what Kurt Russell is in Escape From New York. The movie needs no lame "origin story" for Snake Plissken. No, our antihero arrives fully-formed. We get hints of his backstory ("Snake? Heard you were dead."). But only hints. Carpenter wasn't big on being overly expository. He left things to your imagination. And that lack of detail made Snake all the more badass. He was mysterious, and yet at the end of the day, we knew the most important things about him - like the fact that he was not a man to be messed with. More than that, Snake's nihilistic attitude colors the whole film and its punk, anti-establishment message. When Snake is first recruited to serve on a last ditch mission to save the President - stranded in the island prison of Manhattan - Snake is warned that a failure to save the President could bring about world war. "I don't give a &$#& about your war. Or your President." says Snake. Classic.

Kurt Russell is pitch perfect in this movie - one of the all-time classic and iconic performances in the Badass Hall of Fame. And the movie is bursting at the seams with awesome performances. The legendary Lee Von Cleef as the Warden of Manhattan Island is just so damn good, it hurts. The movie universe sorely, sorely missed him and his unmatched presence. Every interaction between him and Russell is just quietly earth-shaking. At the movie's end, when the Warden makes an offer to Snake to come work for him ("We'd make a hell of a team."), you can't help but imagine the potential for gravitas-infused Russell/Von Cleef team-up in future films. But of course, joining with "the man" wouldn't be in character for Snake. And while some movies would take that sort of sequel-bait and run with it, Carpenter's film gives us the ultimate f-you, middle finger sort of ending that few, if any, films of today would have the guts to go with.

Isaac Hayes is similarly iconic as The Duke of New York ("A-Number-One!"). The music when he is first introduced, pulling up in a lampshade-emblazoned pimpmobile, is so good. The Duke is just a classic villain. Donald Pleasance as the President is also fantastic ... arrogant, slimy - giving credence to the movie's ironic sense of 80's-style attitude, in which the President is viewed as a puppet with one finger on the big red button and one eye in the vanity mirror. Harry Dean Stanton, meanwhile, is also great as the manipulative rival of Snake's, Brain. And of course, the great Ernest Borgnine lends just the right amount of left-of-center pulp-weirdness as genial sidekick Cabbie.

I will say this. Watching the movie on the big screen, for the first time in years, I was struck by Adrian Barbeau's character. She is unapologetic in her alliance with the scheming Brain, even though she was apparently "given" to him by the Duke. But even though Barbeau has a relatively small amount of screentime, she is such a badass. Here in 2013, I've seen a bunch of recent action movies where it's considered a big novelty when a female character kicks ass alongside her male counterparts (Iron Man 3, anyone?). But in Escape From NY, Barbeau mounts a daring last stand against the Duke and his men that Carpenter stages as completely par-for-the-course. Basically, Carpenter takes it for granted that a woman can be just as badass as Snake Plissken if called upon. Why have movies of today seemingly reverted to the point where it's once again a big deal for women to hold their own?

Overall though, watching Escape From NY at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood just left me completely giddy and geeking out. While many movies and videogames have aped the style of Escape From New York over the years ("Doomsday" is basically on giant tribute, as is the recent "Lockout"), action movies that capture Carpenter's dark sense of humor and social satire - or his emphasis on atmosphere and mood - are rare in today's movie marketplace. So many action movies of today are concerned with sensory overload that they don't know how to properly pace themselves, to properly build tension or a sense of dread and foreboding. Few films capture the iconography of a Carpenter film. And few if any action movies have ever been as iconic or as badass as Escape From New York, and even fewer action heroes have been as iconic or as badass as Snake by-god Plissken.

So to then see Snake himself, Kurt Russell, live and in person to do a Q&A with EW's Geoff Boucher - it was a real treat. Russell is nearly as elusive as Snake himself, and he rarely does interviews or publicity of any kind. It's probably kept him from being in the kinds of big, iconic roles that fans want to see him in, to some degree. I mean, I always wonder how in the hell there's not a badass action movie starring Kurt Russell out every year. There was Tarantino's Death Proof, sure. But that was the exception. Still, Russell's relative absence from the limelight made the talk with him that much more compelling. To hear his stories about being a child actor, about working for Walt Disney, about his stint as a pro baseball player - all pretty fascinating. Of course, the best part for me were the stories and anecdotes about Escape From New York and about John Carpenter. Hearing about how Russell created the character of Snake (he tried to talk in a whisper, thinking that Snake wouldn't care if someone heard what he was saying or not), was really, really cool. Now, do I agree with Russell's assessment that he's now too old to play Snake? Hell no! To me, an older and more grizzled Snake would be badass as hell, and I'd love to see one more "Escape" adventure with Carpenter at the helm. But like Russell, I agree that a remake, which has unfortunately been rumored and discussed, would be a questionable idea. Russell is so iconic in the role - no one else could fill those boots.

But Boucher did a great job with the Q&A - I'd call it podcast worthy. It was a lengthy, informative, funny discussion with many great anecdotes from Russell. While it can be easy to be cynical and jaded here in Hollywood, this was the kind of evening that made you remember why you love the movies in the first place. Hearing a legend and a childhood hero talk, to be in that room with fellow film fans, to see Escape From New York on the big screen - it was an epic night indeed.*

*Well, except for one thing. And that one thing was Entertainment Weekly and sponsor TNT's decision to subject the crowd to the FULL season 3 premiere of TNT's Falling Skies prior to getting to see Escape From New York. EW and TNT severely overestimated the crossover appeal of the two properties, and, sorry to say, but the Falling Skies episode was sort of painful to get through - made even worse by the fact that few if any in the audience were actual viewers of the show. Then, they did a full cast Q&A afterwords, and while, sure, it was cool to see the likes of Noah Wylie and Moon Bloodgood in person - WE WERE THERE FOR ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK AND KURT RUSSELL. Not a good way to shoehorn in some other random thing to a crowd that could, for the most part, care less. Lame.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

PAIN & GAIN Is Whacked-Out Michael Bay at His Most Excessive

PAIN & GAIN Review:

- After the last couple of Transformers movies, I'll be honest ... my desire to see any new film by Michael Bay was at an all-time low. There was a time when I considered Michael Bay to be a promising action director who had the ability to deliver big, epic, over-the-top, high-concept roller-coaster-rides with aplomb. I'll always hold a special place for the cheesy awesomeness that is THE ROCK (the movie, not Dwayne Johnson). But dozens of crappy movies later ... I'd about had it. Now, Pain & Gain is at least an attempt by Bay to do something a little different. It's a smaller-scale story that still has its share of action. It's got some dark humor, and a subversive streak of social satire lurking somewhere in there. And Bay approaches the story with an eye towards mixing things up stylistically. He throws in little fourth-wall-breaking moments. He isn't afraid to get sort of weird in his creative choices. And hey, he's got a dream cast of talented actors, adept at both playing the badass but also at being self-deprecatingly funny. There are reasons to like Pain & Gain. It's worth watching for those reasons. But there is also a realization here: Michael Bay is now incapable of cranking it down a notch, even when that's exactly what he should be doing.

What do I mean? I mean that, like I said, this is a small-scale story. But Bay just plain *attacks* it. The colors are hypersaturated. The camera angles are extreme. There's slo-mo, speed-up, and yes, numerous "vintage Michael Bay" shots of swirling helicopters, groups of guys cocking their guns in slo-mo sync-up, dudes in silhouette with red-sky backdrops as the camera circles around them ... And, oh yeah, Bay doesn't stay with any given shot for more than three seconds - the rapid-fire cuts come at you as if the movie were edited while under the influence of some seriously potent drugs. One can only imagine that the movie's script includes the words "SMASH CUT" on numerous occasions. But ... why is this the case? Why, for his smallest movie in years, did Bay feel the need to dial up his Bay-ness to eleven? I have no idea. At times, the overall absurdity of the movie's look and directorial style does add to its comedy. But mostly, you just wish that it had been handled by someone who knew how to make a point without also trying to make you hurl.

The movie's extreme visual style is a bit of an eye sore, no question. A few directors, like the late great Tony Scott, were able to pull this sort of thing off in a way where extreme, amped-up stylization contributed to a movie's atmospherics and tonality in a positive way. But that doesn't really happen here. There's no apparent artistic rhyme or reason to most of the creative choices. What's worse though - the movie ends up being all surface, no substance. It's frustrating, because the movie seems to hint at having some thoughts on things like The American Dream. It seems to have some ambition to satirize American culture and physical fitness culture. It appears to have one or two things on its mind. But those things are never explored in any meaningful way. Other filmmakers might have crafted a parable with some thematic resonance. Bay puts in some surface-level "artsy" touches, but for the most part films this as if it's Transformers 4.

The story of Pain & Gain, based on a true story, is interesting. It takes place in the mid 90's, and tells the tale of a group of jacked-up bodybuilders who are as frustrated with their lot in life as they are pleased with their puffed-up pecs. Mark Wahlberg plays Daniel Lugo, a bodybuilder and trainer who, despite his relative success, wants more. When he begins training a middle-aged millionaire named Victor Kershaw (a very good Tony Shaloub), Lugo becomes increasingly envious of his client's wealth and success. Determined to make a big move to up his station in life, Lugo recruits fellow muscled-up malcontents Paul Doyle (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) to kidnap Kershaw and force him to sign over all of his assets to them.

The movie unfolds as a comedy of errors, with Lugo and his bumbling crew of novice criminals screwing things up and self-sabotaging at every turn. Honestly, I give a huge amount of credit to the cast here - they are all excellent, and sell every line, every gag, every bit of over-the-top absurdity to the nth degree. Wahlberg in particular is in top form - bringing the same sort of earnestness-meets-naivete that he displayed in Ted to the role of Lugo. Wahlberg is consistently entertaining throughout, from his misguided adherence to a con-job self help guru (Ken Jeong) to his hilarious interactions with the kids who live in his neighborhood (he talks to them about scoring with the ladies as if they were his peers and not wide-eyed ten year olds). The Rock and Mackie are also both quite good. The Rock, in particular - while his character is written completely inconsistently, it's nice to see him finally play a character that gives him a chance to be a little more big and broad, and a little more like his in-ring "Rock" persona. Shaloub is fantastic in the role - slimy and sleazy, yet oddly sympathetic, in his role as self-made millionaire Kershaw. And I'll also mention the great Ed Harris, who shows up late as a private investigator working for Kershaw. One thing I'll say about Michael Bay: he always manages to get super badass performances out of Harris (though I guess he is always pretty badass, so maybe it's not all that impressive). In any case, Harris is quite good, and brings some real gravitas to the film - conveying things in his facial expressions that add a nuance and a deeper meaning to the film that I'm guessing may not have been in the script. Oh - Rebel Wilson gets in some funny moments as Anthony Mackie's doting wife.

On that note, the jumpy, manic script fits Michael Bay's style, but ultimately does its characters a disservice by giving them a bare minimum of understandable motivation or personality. I mentioned The Rock's character earlier - despite Dwayne Johnson doing his best and having some funny moments, the character is a mess. He's a born-again ex-con cokehead who seems to be completely all over the map. His character seems to behave completely sporadically and randomly according to the whims of the script. Mackie's character is extremely undercooked. And Wahlberg - well, the whole movie centers around his quest for the American Dream, for self-made perfection. But it all feels totally hollow. Anything that the movie seems to want to say about these characters gets lost in all of its sound and fury. There's nothing to take away from it all, except some very vague concepts about what happens when a couple of overly ambitious guys get in way over their heads. The lack of self-examination or awareness makes the movie feel strangely immoral. As in, the three main characters go from well-meaning dumbasses to pretty horrible, violent, murderous people over the course of the movie. But the movie never really comments on this or addresses it. I guess the blase attitude towards the characters' immorality is supposed to be part of the joke? I don't know. Because Michael Bay is incapable of filming violence in a way that *isn't* supposed to look badass, it's hard to tell what he's going for at any given moment in the film.

Pain & Gain can be a fun film. It's got a great cast that helps to elevate the movie's humor. And so there are some genuinely funny and entertaining moments. And as pure car-crash style exploitation entertainment, there's definitely more than enough energy and perpetual motion in the film to keep your attention. But again, it's all pretty hollow. Frustrating, given how a story like this seems to demand some sort of thematic justification for being told in movie form. What does this real-life story tell us about America? What is its worth other than as an eye-grabbing tabloid headline? And that, essentially, is what this movie is: tabloid sleaze told with tabloid-style excess - filtered through the lens of Michael Bay.

My Grade: C+

Monday, May 06, 2013

IRON MAN 3 Has Its Moments, But Not Quite Indestructible

IRON MAN 3 Review:

- How important is it that a movie subvert expectations and deliver a major twist? As I tried to process some of the curve balls that Iron Man 3 throws at its audience, I noted that some major movie critics were singing the film's praises in large part due to its element of surprise. On some level, I see their point. The big-budget superhero movie has become so paint-by-numbers, in so many ways, that it's undeniably refreshing when a major franchise film like this one dares to be different. But what is the twist without a purpose? Is a twist really that great if it's more of a "gotcha" and less of a true, jaw-on-the-floor "holy $%&#" moment? It's hard to talk more about this without walking into major spoiler territory. But I will say this: while I appreciate a film that isn't beholden to cannon and that takes pains to be original, I ultimately put more value - especially in a superhero epic - on high drama. The novelty alone of the big "WTF" moment isn't enough in and of itself.

That's not to say that IRON MAN 3 doesn't have its moments. In a way, I really admire that this is an auteur-style Marvel movie. Think about it: in the world of comics, Marvel began on the backs of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, and then eventually had a very defined in-house style for years to come. But then you think about the creative dynamos who came into the House of Ideas and created the most exciting stories and artwork, re-imagining classic characters under a unique lense. In general, some of the best modern superhero stories have come when a classic character is paired with a visionary creator or creators. In comics, we've been living in an auteur era for a few decades now, and we're still feeling the reverberations from the likes of guys like Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Ed Brubaker, Warren Ellis (whose Extremis story forms some of the basis for this flm) and many others putting their own unique spin on the big superhero universes. So why not let the same thing happen in movies? Marvel's whole Phase 2 plan seems to be opening that door. Shane Black on Iron Man, James Gunn on Guardians of the Galaxy, Edgar Wright on Ant Man (and before that, of course, Joss Whedon on The Avengers). And so what we have here is most definitely "Shane Black's IRON MAN." And that's cool - sort of awesome, really. In some ways, Black and Iron Man are a natural fit. Black specializes in the kind of snappy dialogue and sardonic humor that was already a big part of the first two Iron Man films. Robert Downey Jr. is also, of course, a near-perfect vehicle for Black's style (see Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for further evidence). I like it. I like that we are now in a place where we can get not just the uber-generic superhero movie, but the film noir superhero movie, the urban crime superhero movie, the cosmic space epic superhero movie, the fantasy/magical superhero movie. Bring it on.

But maybe the problem here is that there's too much push and pull between a pure Shane Black Iron Man, and the big, franchise, post-Avengers event-movie Iron Man that fans expected and the corporate overlords at Disney likely felt comfortable with. What I mean is, Shane Black seems to want to do a stripped-down movie about Tony Stark. He finds an interesting angle - a Tony Stark who is now a hero, who has settled down with Pepper Potts, who is at a good place, on paper ... but in practice, he is still haunted by the sins of his past. This Tony Stark spends long hours alone tinkering in his workshop, suffers from anxiety attacks brought on by his battles with evil aliens in The Avengers, and who can't quite give his relationship with Pepper the attention it deserves.

I'm all for the stripped-down, Tony Stark-in-a-crime-caper version of Iron Man - especially in a third movie where the usual formula's gotten a bit tired. But this movie can't fully commit. The moments that lend themselves to Shane Black's trademark style tend to shine. When Tony Stark finds himself invading a hostile compound sans his armor - having to assemble makeshift weapons from common household items - it's an awesome moment. That sort of clever, slightly-subversive stuff ... Black nails. Same goes for the scenes between Tony and a young boy named Harley who helps him out in a bind, and becomes a sort of defacto kid sidekick. Scenes that could have been positively painful in the wrong hands are funny, smart, and surprisingly touching under Black's guidance. Even little moments - like Tony and Rhodey (formerly known as War Machine, now known as Iron Patriot) - bickering back and forth in the heat of combat ... this is the stuff that Shane Black knows and loves and 100% gets.

And I will give Black and the movie some major credit - Iron Man 3 has some of the best, big-time, major-league "superhero" moments we've yet seen in a Marvel film. When Stark has to fight a battle with only pieces of his Iron Man armor in place - one leg and one arm - the result is thrilling and badass. An aerial raid on the Stark compound is similarly breathtaking - a violent, explosive assault that makes you wonder how the hell Stark and co. will make it out alive. And the big finale - a notable weakness of the first two Iron Man films - is suitably lengthy and action-packed. So I don't want to imply that Iron Man 3 simply coasts on clever bits of dialogue ... it delivers the goods when it comes to epic action as well.

So what keeps this from being the classic that it could have been? There are several elements - some new, some inherited - that derail the film a bit. One is the Tony Stark / Pepper Potts relationship. Stark and Potts rarely seem like star-crossed lovers - and their bickering seems more like genuine mutual annoyance and less like playful sparring. What this means is that when Pepper inevitably becomes the damsel in distress, we as an audience don't feel much sense of real danger or urgency. In fact, in a climactic moment when Pepper seems potentially dead and gone, Tony barely seems to bat an eye, and continues wise-cracking with barely a moment's pause. I do also slightly blame Paltrow. When she has her big moment in which she gets to turn the tables and kick some ass, there's barely a hint of excitement in her eyes. When Pepper kicks ass, it should have been the big money shot of the whole film - and it's filmed in a way that practically invites us to stop and applaud. But there was no applause in the theater I was in. Paltrow's line-reading of "wow, that was violent" (or something to that effect) came off less like the clever musings of an empowered woman of action, and more like the resigned observation of a disapproving mother. Meanwhile, there's an attempt at some forced tension between Pepper and Tony with the introduction of a scientist played by Rebecca Hall, who Tony once had a one-night-stand with years earlier. Not only is Pepper's instant "I hate you" reaction pretty contrived, but Hall's character is pretty problematic from the start. Keeping track of which side she's on (let alone her motivations for switching sides) is a chore. I don't blame Hall - it's just an element of the script that is given short shrift. It's probably no coincidence that this element - the one that feels the most pulled from the superhero cliche-book - is also the one that Black seems least interested in really developing.

Paltrow has rarely been a standout in these films, and perhaps she was a bit miscast from the get-go. I feel similarly about Don Cheadle as Rhodey. He just doesn't have the right stuff for the role - I don't buy him as a badass soldier. He seems like he'd rather be in a boardroom than out kicking ass for his country. Cheadle is featured in some great set-piece action scenes, but they're more notable for the choreography than for anything he really brings to the table. He's a great actor in general, no question. But an action hero? Iron Patriot? Not so much.

The second problematic element of the movie is, well, the plot. Earlier I mentioned all of the cool individual scenes in the film - the stuff with Tony and young Harley, the cool banter, the big action. But it all feels tied together on the loosest of threads. I mean that from a pure narrative standpoint, and also from a thematic standpoint. Guy Pierce plays Aldrich Killian, a scientist with a screw-loose and a mad-on for Tony Stark. Pierce is one of my favorite actors, and he makes the most of what he's given. But the fact is, Killian as presented here is a pretty weak villain. And as his role in the movie becomes more prominent, I kept waiting for him to take on a grandiosity worthy of Iron Man. But everything about his character feels half-baked, from his stalker-crush on Pepper Potts to his been-there, done-that evil plan to profit from a manufactured war on terror (heck, his plan is practically identical to Jared Harris' scheme in RDJ's last Sherlock Holmes movie). It's even more frustrating in that Killian's status as Big Bad comes at the expense of the initially-promising Mandarin, played with theatrical verve and presence by the great Ben Kingsley. I won't say what happens to the Mandarin that sort of takes him off the board, but I don't really get the point. To me, it comes back to: what is the movie saying? What is the theme? Iron Man vs. an Osama Bin Laden-esque terrorist (The Mandarin) - I would have liked to have seen that. Iron Man tends to have a political slant as a character, so there's rich thematic territory to explore there. And indeed, in the movie's first half, there is some interesting mini-satire as we see The Iron Patriot's futile quest to track the Mandarin. But once Killian usurps the Mandarin, the movie becomes about something else entirely - it becomes something that Black probably wanted all along - a movie about Tony Stark fighting his past. But if that's what the movie is about, then why the bait and switch? Why include the Mandarin at all? To me, the net result was a movie that initially feels big and high stakes, but that ends up feeling sort of small and inconsequential. The subversion of expectations works against the movie's narrative momentum, in my opinion. And Guy Pierce's Killian - while potentially perfect as a sleazy, unhinged henchman - feels way too lightweight to be the movie's main antagonist.

And maybe that's why Iron Man 3 entertained me throughout, yet left me with a slightly sour aftertaste. Deep in this movie's DNA, there is a huge action epic waiting to come out. And perhaps a straight crime caper Iron Man - the kind that Shane Black would have made if left completely on his own -would have been awesome and badass in its own right. But this movie is never confident enough to go all-out and just *be* that version of Iron Man. The fact that it had to go to all the trouble of messing with expectations and playing a bait-and-switch with the audience is, I think, proof of that.

It's a small thing, I guess, but even the post-credits scene annoyed me. I won't spoil it, but it's ultimately just a cutesy, jokey little epilogue, and doesn't really leave you with anything too meaty to chew on. I was dying for something awesome to get me pumped for Marvel Phase 2, and what I got was a comedy bit. It added to the feeling that this movie was clever and funny, yes, but ultimately perhaps too much so for its own good. And there's no denying that this perception was colored by The Avengers. Joss Whedon was clever and funny, but he also took un-ironic joy in playing in Lee and Kirby's sandbox. There's not much of that joy that shines through here. I'm not saying that this had to be a "Marvel" movie in the traditional sense. But there has to be a love of the world and characters as a starting point for any genre-subversion or deconstruction to really work. There's a temptation to say "suck it fanboys, this is Shane Black's Iron Man and it's different and awesome." But remember what I was saying before about how comics evolved when auteur creators put their stamp on classic characters? Well, for every Frank Miller Daredevil or Grant Morrison Superman, there are examples where the blend of creator sensibility and character just doesn't 100% mix. Auterism alone does not a great story make.

I'll remember many of the coolest scenes and moments in Iron Man 3 as some of my favorites in the Marvel movie canon to date. The movie gets the little moments right in a way that so many superhero flicks do not. But the broad strokes and big-picture narrative don't fare as well. So I think my lasting impression of the film is one that tried to be many things to many people, and ended up as sort of "meh" because of it. The first two Iron Man movies had their flaws, but they coasted by on RDJ's charisma and the general feeling that we were watching something very exciting happen - the birth of the Marvel movie universe. Now, the universe is here, the Avengers have assembled, and this return to the less-exciting cast of characters in the Iron Man-verse marks a drop in momentum from last summer's epic high.

My Grade: B