Tag Archives: Robert Downey Jr

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

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I ain’t gonna lie: despite suffering some superhero fatigue as of late, especially after the bitterly disappointing Batman v Superman, the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Captain America: Civil War, was still probably my most anticipated film of 2016.

In my view, the MCU has not put a foot wrong with any of its movies (I’m counting from the first Iron Man film back in 2008), with each entry ranging between “fantastic” and “pretty good”. Though Avengers: Age of Ultron may have disappointed some fans, Civil War has been promising to impress for months. Apart from pitting the franchise’s two biggest leads (Captain America and Iron Man) against each other, the film was bringing back most of the characters from the Avengers while also introducing us to the likes of Black Panther and villain Crossbones. And when Disney reached a deal with Sony to finally bring Spider-Man to the MCU, the internet lost its mind.

It’s no wonder that Civil War has been dubbed Avengers 2.5, which could have been a cause for concern but for two pertinent reasons. First of all, the film was being framed as the third entry in the Captain America standalone franchise  (hence the title), and as such there was going to be a definitive focal point rather than simply an orgy of evenly distributed superhero action. Secondly, the film was being directed by the Russo Brothers, the huge comic book nerds who gave us the brilliant Captain America: The Winter Soldier. If anyone was going to do the movie justice it was going to be these two champions.

The hype for this movie was through the roof. The trailers looked great and Marvel was so supremely confident that it screened the film for critics a month out from its US premiere next month — and lifted the review embargo shortly thereafter. Of course, the critics have been very kind in return (97% Rotten Tomatoes), so much so that DC fanboys have accused Marvel of paying critics to slam BvS.

It was under these heightened expectations that I stepped into a surprisingly packed cinema on the morning of the first day of public release (a weekday, no less). I was hoping for awesomeness and accepting nothing less, and so I am super glad to report that Civil War does not disappoint. It’s by no means perfect and couldn’t quite live up to the astronomically positive hype, but as superhero movies go — and remember, the bar keeps getting higher as we keep demanding more — this one is about as good as they get.

Now I admit this is a bit of a dick move on my part, but I’ll be making some comparisons to BvS. It’s just the natural thing to do, given that both are mega franchises about two beloved superheroes going up against one another while setting the stage for the next ensemble movie (in this case, The Infinity Wars). It helps us put things in perspective and reminds us just how hard it is to get such movies right.

And so the first thing I will say is that Civil War kills BvS in terms of storytelling. To be fair, it’s not exactly an even fight because we’ve been with these Marvel characters for years and multiple films, while BvS only had Man of Steel before it and had to introduce one of its two main protagonists. That said, the end product could not be more different. Civil War is a lesson in great storytelling that Warner Bros and Zack Snyder should try to learn from. From the pacing and introduction and development of characters to conflict development and editing, Civil War shows BvS how it’s done. The story is tight and flows, gliding along as opposed to plodding along. Whereas BvS felt like a fragmented mess at times, Civil War felt like a well-lubed machine that knows when to crank things up and how to build things up so audiences can follow and become emotionally invested.

I don’t want to go into the story too much, though rest assured that there is a damn good story in there, not just a simple premise and a bunch of fight scenes. The stakes feel real and the dilemmas of the characters feel real. The rift in the Avengers stems from a fundamental difference in philosophies, and the film helps you see both sides. Ultimately, this is what makes the movie successful — you don’t really know which side to choose, as Captain America and Iron Man become both protagonist and antagonist.

What impressed me most about what the Russo Brothers did with this movie is how they managed to make it feel very different to just another Avengers movie, or even just another Captain America movie. The story is a continuation of Winter Soldier (though it incorporates events from the previous MCU movies, especially Age of Ultron) and comes across as clearly a Captain America movie. This story has plenty of other key characters, but Steve Rogers is without a doubt front and center. At the same time, the film also does what The Avengers did so well, which is to bring so many characters and plot strands — some old, some new — together seamlessly.

Without giving too much away, I count around a dozen people in this “civil war,” and none of them are neglected by the Russos. Captain America and Iron Man of course get their screen time as leads, though it is surprising how everyone else is given their moment and opportunities to shine. Perhaps this is why the 2.5-hour running time is justified, because you really need that much time to make sure everyone gets in on the action while ensuring that it remains a story about just one or two main characters. Importantly, at no point did the running time feel long. In fact, like Chris Evans says in the trailer, I can do this all day.

My concerns about how the film was going to introduce the new characters turned out to be unfounded. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is amazing. The Amazing Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is…er…amazing. Perfect casting and perfect characterisations. Black Panther is more integral to the plot, but Spider-Man is, in my opinion, the best incarnation of the popular character we’ve ever seen on the big screen. I can’t wait to see both of their standalone films (Black Panther in 2018 and Spider-Man: Homecoming in 2017).

It is important to remember, however, that Civil War isn’t just all out action. There are plenty of scenes that drive plot and build character so that we actually care about them and their plights when they eventually come to blows. But when the film decides to give us action, it is scintillating action. This is a big call, though I’m not afraid to call it: Civil War has the best action scenes of any MCU movie — ever. Probably of any comic book movie — ever. I think the film might have taken some hints from Netflix’s Daredevil series in focusing more on gritty and innovative combat sequences rather than CGI. The hand-to-hand fights are exquisitely choreographed and the stunts are brutal and bone-crunching. And because there’s so much emotion involved, the blows between the superheroes also feel more personal. It’s far more than just a bunch of indestructible freaks putting on a show.

The 17-minute sequence that has become known simply as “the airport scene” is as glorious as advertised. You’ve got all of them going head to head, and yet it never feels messy or fake like it did in Age of Ultron, despite the fact that there was probably just as much CGI involved. To put it in perspective, if I try to think of the fight scenes between Batman and Superman in BvS, I just remember the two of them taking turns punching and tackling each other through walls, which got a little “meh” after a while. The fight scenes of Batman against regular terrorist dudes, on the other hand, were far more entertaining and creative. The fight scenes in Civil War are all at that level or higher, and the craziest thing is that even without the airport scene it’s still got some of the best action sequences ever filmed.

The performances are excellent across the board. Chris Evans might suck in everything else he’s in, but there’s no denying that he is perfect as Steve Rogers/Captain America. And we already know how good Robert Downey Jr is as Tony Stark/Iron Man, though I think he is better in this than he has been in any other MCU movie since probably the first Iron Man. In Age of Ultron, Downey Jr seemed a little tired of the character, whereas here he appears to have a lot more energy. Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany — all of them are solid. Special mention goes to Paul Rudd, who pretty much provides a laugh-out-loud moment every time he says or does something as Scott Lang/Ant-Man. It makes me very eager to see the Ant-Man and the Wasp in 2018.

As I said earlier, the film is far from perfect, meaning Civil War is not without flaws. As is usually the case with MCU movies (with the exception of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki), the main antagonist is a little weak. I like that the villain is someone who relies on brains as opposed to brawn, but unfortunately his/her motivations are somewhat contrived, and his actions are in some cases nonsensical or unnecessarily elaborate. The same can be said for some other minor characters who pop up in the movie. Having said that, these are relatively minor complaints in the grand scheme of things, and I’m just grateful that the film sticks to its promise of being a Captain America vs Iron Man movie all the way to the end as opposed to throwing in some kind of all-powerful monster at the last minute so they can become buddies (cough, Doomsday).

So now I’m combing through all the MCU movies thus far (I’ve seen them all) and I’m wondering where Civil War ranks among that list. I’ve always thought that the first Iron Man and the first Avengers were the standouts, and I’ve recently added The Winter Soldier to that list after watching it again a couple more times. To me, Civil War is arguably in the top 3, or at worst in the top 4 after the aforementioned trio. What it also shows, categorically, is that the Captain America franchise is the best solo-character trilogy in the MCU, besting the Iron Man trilogy (thanks to a lacklustre second film) and the Thor trilogy (no matter how good Thor: Ragnarok is). This is a unique film that combines the best of both worlds: the personal, engaging story of Captain America and the spectacle and thrills of an ensemble superhero movie. I look forward to seeing it again.

4.25 stars out of 5

PS: Kudos to the marketing team for the trailer, which showed enough to get everyone super excited but not revealing the whole story and its many intricacies (unlike, again, BvS). Smart use of editing to mislead and avoiding certain subplots and characters all together made sure there were enough surprises for audiences. While some great lines and scenes did lose some impact because they were in the trailer, there’s so much more to the film than the trailer suggests.

Movie Review: The Judge (2014)

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I hadn’t seen any engaging dramas for a while, so I thought I’d go and check out The Judge, a film about a hotshot lawyer (Robert Downey Jr) who returns home and defends his estranged father (Robert Duvall), an elderly and well respected judge, against a serious crime.

I can understand why the film has received mixed reviews, but personally I thought it was a well-acted family drama with a nice legal slant. It is too cliched and melodramatic to be a top-level film or Oscar material, though it doesn’t mean that it’s not good enough to fall somewhere between the next couple of rungs on the ladder.

I was far from optimistic that the film would deliver during its early scenes, when we were introduced to Hank Palmer (Downey Jr), an arrogant, selfish and extremely capable lawyer with no moral compass or qualms about setting guilty men free. And when he was forced to return to his country-town home in Indiana, the path of the character journey laid out in front of the audience just seemed way too obvious.

The truth is, The Judge rarely deviates from this path. There core of the film revolves around the damaged father-son relationship and the high-stakes court trial. While both aspects are admittedly executed well by director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers), the film never manages to shake off that air of familiarity. Even the progression of the plot is expected — there are moments of bonding and conflict between father and son, as well as typical ups and downs in court. And we know the answers to the central mysteries of the film — the reason for their estrangement and the judge’s guilt — will come down to a climatic courtroom scene at the end.

General predictability is undoubtedly a problem with the film, though my concerns lie more with its excess of not-particularly-original subplots. There’s the whole hotshot-returns-to-home-he’s-trying-to-forget angle. There’s the ex-girlfriend (Vera Farmiga) he abandoned whom he still clearly has feelings for. There’s the cute daughter (Emma Tremblay) he is trying to connect with and trying to introduce to his father for the first time. There’s his strained relationship with the two brothers he left behind — the older one (Vincent D’Onofrio) whose once promising future was destroyed by a tragic accident, and the younger one (Jeremy Strong) who suffers from a mental disability. There’s even the prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton) on a mission of revenge and justice.

All of these subplots get enough screen time to be intriguing, but none receive sufficient attention to be satisfying. As a result the film’s focus is needlessly scattered and the tonal shifts sometimes come across as far from seamless.

Having said all that, The Judge is saved by it’s super ensemble cast, who elevate the script far above its value on paper. Whenever you throw award-winning and respected veteran thespians like Downey Jr, Duvall, Farmiga, Thornton and D’Onofrio together you know you’re in for some quality drama. Not everything worked, but there are some effective scenes scattered throughout the film. Thanks to the skill and chemistry of the cast, several set pieces that would have been trite and sappy in lesser hands ended up being quite emotional and engrossing.

Theoretically, a cynic like me should have disliked The Judge, a drama that embraces rather than avoids dramatic and courtroom cliches. To my surprise, however, I didn’t mind it, even when I knew I was being manipulated by scenarios similar to ones I had probably seen dozens of times before. It’s by no means perfect, and I don’t deny that it lacks the style and substance required to make it a memorable film, but I confess The Judge pulled enough of my heartstrings for me to call it a worthwhile and appreciable experience.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Chef (2014)

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Chef is 100%, completely unabashed, unapologetic food porn. Written and directed by Iron Man director Jon Favreau, it tells the story of a master chef (Favreau) who loses his way before rekindling his passion for scrumptious cuisine by starting a food truck. On its face, Chef is a road trip movie about one man’s quest for redemption, but in reality it’s more or less one delicious course after another that will probably make viewers extremely hungry and foodies like myself spray their shorts in uncontrollable excitement (and envy) .

No one will deny that Chef is a vanity project. Favreau clearly loves his food (as evident by his sizable girth) and he has a passion for making it. There are lots of big names in the film, from Robert Downey Jr and Scarlett Johansson to Dustin Hoffman and Sofia Vergara, but you get the feeling that all of them agreed to appear as a “friendly” favour to Favreau.

But as another great self-indulgent piece of entertainment once said, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” In fact, some of the best movies and TV shows of all-time are self-indulgent, and it is in my humble opinion that one of Favreau’s greatest claims to fame lies in his role as Eric the Clown on the show that made the abovementioned line famous.

Anyway, Chef is essentially a very simple, family-friendly story about a guy who likes to make food. While working for a top gourmet restaurant in LA, Carl (Favreau) becomes engaged in a very public spat on social media with a prominent online food critic (Oliver Platt), resulting in a humiliating fall from grace. Then, with the help of his buddy (John Leguizamo), son (Emjay Anthony), his ex-wife (Vergara) and her other ex-husband (Downey Jr), he starts a food truck selling Cuban sandwiches. This time, he uses social media to his advantage in promoting the new venture as he makes a road trip back to LA via some other cities known for their culinary delights.

The story and the script could not be simpler, and you get the feeling watching the film that everything is secondary to the food. I saw the movie after a big meal and I was still getting hungry. Whether it’s gourmet cuisine or basic roadside snacks like Cubanos, Chef makes the food all look scrumptious enough to die for. It’s not as easy as it seems because I’ve seen plenty of food shows where all the grubby hands and sweaty chefs have turned me off. Watching Chef,  however, I felt like I could channel Favreau’s passion and almost smell the saliva-inducing aromas.

If you take away the food (no pun intended), Chef would be a barely passable movie with a cliched message telling everyone to do what they’re passionate about (with a side message about the dangers and powers of social media). There are some poignant moments between Carl and and his son, the core relationship in the film, but apart from that the film’s just an excuse to keep shoving delicious stuff in our faces.

My main problem with Chef is that after Carl’s initial fall from grace there’s almost no tension or conflict the rest of the way. It’s all just one big, smooth-sailing ride back up to the top. Even the ending is too neatly tied up into a perfect bow, and the cynic in me couldn’t help but cringe at all the mushiness. I guess it will work for audiences who are after nothing but a feel-good experience — which the film delivers expertly — but personally I wanted my emotions to be challenged a little more.

At the end of the day, Chef is what it is. Feel-good food porn that should be a hit with families and foodies alike. The foodie in me thinks it’s sensational, while the movie critic in me says “Meh.” My overall impression probably falls somewhere slightly above the average of the two (I am, after all, a pig).

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Iron Man 3 (2013) (3D)

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The first Iron Man was an instant classic and one of the best superhero movies of all time. The sequel, Iron Man 2, bombed because it thought it could just take the successful template of the first film and make it bigger and louder (like what Michael Bay did for the Transformers franchise). So it’s great to see that the producers learned their lesson and turned Iron Man 3 into a home run. It’s everything fans could have asked for in a third installment – sufficient familiarity but also enough creativity and innovation to make it a completely different experience.

Iron Man 3 takes place after the events depicted in The Avengers (for those living under a rock, that’s the one with Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk) and has Iron Man’s alter ego, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), battling demons from that bizarre alien experience. Mysterious terrorist attacks are happening in the US thanks to the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a new villain who may or may not be linked to someone from Stark’s past.

It seemed like a cookie-cutter premise from the start, and indeed, Iron Man 3 does take a little bit of time to take off. But once it does, director Shane Black (who also directed Downey Jr in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) takes the audience on a brand new adventure that has plenty of surprises and fresh thrills.

For starters, Iron Man is forced this time to spend a lot of screen time out of his suit, or in only parts of his suit, and must rely on his wit to get him out of dangerous situations. There are also several clever new inventions and ideas that show that the evolution of Iron Man is not just different looking suits, but actual functional improvements.

It’s also fantastic to see Gwyneth Paltrow, who has essentially played the damsel in distress in the first two films as love interest Pepper Pots, get to do some heavy lifting for once. Also taking on a physical, but different kind of role, was Don Cheadle, who provides the biggest laughs as sidekick War Machine, rebranded as the Iron Patriot. Unfortunately, every time I saw Cheadle’s face I was reminded of his dark turn as Captain Planet. Not his fault though.

Rounding out the stellar core cast are three excellent actors – the aforementioned Ben Kinsley, in a role I could imagine few others pulling off; Guy Pearce, also in a role few others could pull off (he plays a total freak geek who turns into a handsome devil; the last three films I saw him in were Lawless, where he plays a menacing eyebrow-less menace; Prometheus, where he plays a shriveled old man; and Lockout, where he plays a suave ex-con-turned-buffed-hero); and Rebecca Hall, in a role many others probably could have played (resurfaced ex-lover) but she excels here because she is so damn lovely.

The action in Iron Man 3 is also different and varied, so you don’t have to worry about seeing the same kind of sequences over and over. I can’t say much more without giving stuff away, but as usual, I urge those who want to see it to stay away from the trailers and gossipers because it will be a real shame to have some of the twists spoiled.

This is not a complaint, but I found it strange that after all that press about the film being co-produced by a Chinese company and that it will contain “Chinese elements”, there ended up being virtually no Chinese references. No scenes set in China. Maybe a Chinese actor in a cameo (can’t remember), but that’s it. Perhaps the “special” version released for Chinese audiences with bonus footage has something arbitrary thrown in for the sake of it.

Anyway, considering how difficult it is to inject freshness into a highly successful franchise, Iron Man 3 really is a very impressive effort all round.

4.25 out of 5

PS: Yes, there is a post-credits scene, though there is no reference to any of the other upcoming Marvel adaptations such as Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

PPS: I really didn’t want to see this film in 3D, but difficulties in acquiring a non-3D ticket on opening weekend forced me to fork out the extra dollars for the discomfort and added vision-obscuring tint. If I haven’t made myself clear, AVOID the 3D version at all costs! It adds absolutely nothing.

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

This was one of my most anticipated movies of the Christmas/New Year period but I was too busy being a new dad to have an opportunity to check it out. I know not everyone agrees with what Guy Ritchie has done to the beloved detective but I quite liked Robert Downey Jr’s version of the character in the original film: a neurotic, slightly disturbed, fist-fighting action hero — who happens to solve a crime or two along the way.

Well I finally got a chance to watch it recently, and as it turned out, the sequel was pretty much more of the same. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you enjoyed the shenanigans of the first film, but personally, I was looking forward to more evolution in both Holmes and Jude Law’s Dr Watson.

In Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Sherlock investigates a series of murders and dodgy stuff he believes is connected to some sinister professor, as his trusty sidekick Watson prepares for his wedding to his long-time girlfriend Mary. The plot is actually rather convoluted, though that doesn’t really matter because the strength of the film again lies in Ritchie’s fast-paced action and Holmes’s personality quirks and one-liners. Rachel McAdams has a smaller role in this sequel and the main female role is given to the original girl with the dragon tattoo, Noomi Rapace, who plays a rather thankless gypsy.

Ritchie is a slick director, so you know you’re in for a high quality piece of entertainment. A couple of the action sequences (especially the one on the train) were done exceptionally well and the comedic timing was superb. If you’ve seen the original then you’ll have a fair idea of what to expect, and you’ll know that much of the film’s charm comes from the chemistry between Downey Jr and Law, a dirty, squabbling, scrappy odd couple that gets into all sorts of strife but always comes out on top.

My problem with A Game of Shadows is that it was too similar to the original. The story was different but the “feel” was virtually identical. It was terrific the first time round but another 129 minutes of it had me wanting something different. For instance, Holmes’s “prediction” of future events where time would fast forward (and slow down) as he talks about what he aims to do as he does it — that was cool in the first film and the first time he did it in the sequel — but by the fourth or fifth time I was desperate for something else.

I also would have preferred to see Holmes’s crime-solving genius in action, rather than always having it revealed in what I like to call “Aha!” moments, which inevitably occur just when you think Holmes and Watson have been beaten. I think it is more impressive if the audience is also presented with all the facts before having Holmes show us how he solved the mystery on the spot, rather than showing us all his elaborate prep work in hindsight through crafty flashbacks.

At the end of the day, A Game of Shadows is very solid entertainment that is every bit as good as the original. But personally, I wished it could have been more — or at least more different. For a sequel it was enough, but if there is a third film in the series the same formula won’t be able to cut it again.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Avengers (2D) (2012)

Joss Whedon, you glorious bastard. You really did it. Despite near-impossible odds, you somehow managed to make The Avengers work.

Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), led by SHIELD agent Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) — a cast of characters that will make any fanboy violently spray their pants. It was never in doubt that the idea of putting together this Marvel-lous ensemble, inside and and outside the movie, is ambitious, delicious and simply awesome — but the question was always how on earth the poor screenwriter and/or director were going to pull it off.

The answer? Enter Joss Whedon, the genius behind the TV’s Buffy and Firefly.

Back in September 2010, I attended a chat session with Whedon at the Sydney Opera House, where he talked about a number of his popular projects, including The Avengers, the script for which he was working on at the time. Joss admitted it was bigger than anything he had ever done before and called it an exciting challenge, but said that at the end of the day it was just telling another story.

I remember being sceptical, thinking that there must be an infinite amount of ways this film would suck donkey scrotums. It’s hard enough making a film about one superhero — but to have four? And that doesn’t even include all the minor characters and the supervillain(s). How would he able to balance all of them, give each one enough screen time and development, while at the same time progress the storyline and fill it with spectacular action that is enhanced by, but not overshadowed by, the special effects? And how was he going to massage all the egos of the actors involved? Just the thought of it made my head spin.

And yet, Joss Whedon worked his magic and made The Avengers (arguably) the greatest superhero movie of all-time. Every one of the four main superheroes not only got their own time to shine, they meshed together wonderfully and became greater than the sum of the parts. The action was brilliant, thrilling and plenty, the plot was engaging and the humour was classic Joss Whedon — extremely dry and self-deprecating.

Speaking of plot, I realised I haven’t even mentioned it yet. But does it matter? All you need to know is that there is a common enemy, Thor’s brother Loki (Tim Hiddleston), and Nick Fury has no choice but to activate the Avengers initiative and bring these heroes together to save the world. It helps if you’ve seen the other films in the franchise and know what the little blue cube is, but if you haven’t it barely makes a difference.

Of course, it’s not easy bringing this volatile bunch together. As Whedon said it himself, if everyone was on the same page right from the beginning the film would be over in 15 minutes. So yeah, expect some tense moments at the start as each character is introduced and as they find time gel as a team — but when they finally come together as one, as you knew they would, it’s a goosebump-inducing sight.

Kudos to Whedon for creating characters that balance each other out and eliciting great performances from the entire cast. Robert Downey Jr, as the biggest name of the lot, steals the show a little bit as Iron Man because of his addictive personality but doesn’t dominate the proceedings. Chris Evans’ Captain America is, as you would expect, a straight shooting, no nonsense leader. The other Chris, Aussie beefcake Chris Hemsworth, took a while to make it to earth but his presence is key because of his history with the supervillain — plus he’s arguably the most powerful. And last, but not least, Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, my personal favourite — surprising because he wasn’t even supposed to be in it.

Ruffalo replaced Edward Norton, who fell out of the film early on, apparently because he was either asking for too much creative control or because he wanted too much money, or both. I’m glad it happened because Ruffalo’s a perfect fit for the role, a better Bruce Banner than both Norton and Eric Bana (from the earlier Ang Lee version).

You might wonder, with these four, why even bother with Johansson’s Black Widow and Renner’s Hawkeye? While they may be two ordinary humans with extraordinary skills, let’s face it, they’re not real superheroes. Nonetheless, Whedon gives both a special purpose and makes them indispensable members of the Avengers. Johansson, in particular, continues Whedon’s tradition of strong female characters — a far cry from her appearance in Iron Man 2 where she was little more than forgettable eye candy.

Speaking of strong female characters, Maria Hill, a SHIELD agent played by Cobie Smulders (from How I Met Your Mother), also has a surprisingly important role. And Gwyneth Paltrow makes a return appearance as Pepper Potts, which I also did not expect as none of the other love interests from the other franchises are in it (save for a photo of Natalie Portman).

Other returnees include Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, who gets a little more personality this time, as well as Stellan Skarsgard as the scientist from Thor. Considering how many characters there are it’s quite amazing that Whedon managed to get so much out of these two.

Another returnee, Hiddleston’s Loki, was an apt choice for the villain. In the beginning I thought it was a bad idea because Hiddleston wasn’t very villainous in Thor, but he worked out well here because he was an enemy that relied on his brain as opposed to his brawn.

It’s almost not worth mentioning for blockbuster movies these days but the special effects were amazing. The Hulk, in particular, was the best he has ever been — said to be due to the performance capture technology used in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Tin Tin.

Having said all of this, I do have a couple of nitpicks with the film. The first is that some of the action sequences, especially the hand-t0-hand battles earlier on, could have been slightly clearer by using less quick cuts.

The second is Loki’s alien army. Having put so much effort into the heroes, it just felt like this enemy was kinda lame. They looked menacing enough, but I kept hoping they’d pose a greater threat, a threat based on their abilities and cunning as opposed to their sheer numbers. I guess that leads into my next nitpick — that despite all the turmoil I never got the sense that any of the Avengers were in serious danger.

Lastly, while I love Whedon’s wry humour — lots of laugh out loud moments in this film — there were a couple of occasions where a tiny bit more subtlety should have prevailed, in that the punchline was already achieved but its effectiveness was diminished because it decided to go a little further or add an extra line that wasn’t necessary.

But these are all minor complaints. In the grand scheme of things, The Avengers is everything fans could have hoped for an more, a remarkable achievement considering the impossible expectations heaped onto it since the project was first announced in 2008.

I already can’t wait for the sequel.

4.5 stars out of 5!

(I don’t care for 3D, but I’d be interested to hear what people thought of it.)

Movie Review: Captain America: The First Avenger (2D) (2011)

With the exception of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (starting next week, can’t wait!), Marvel’s mega blockbuster Captain America: The First Avenger was, up to this point, my most anticipated movie of the year.  To be honest, I didn’t know a whole lot about the superhero other than the fact that he’s going to be in next year’s most anticipated movie, The Avengers, along with Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and a bunch of other superheroes led by an eye-patched Samuel L Jackson.  Maybe it’s the name and/or the costume, but Captain America never aroused much interest in me — until now.

In short, I loved Captain America: The First Avenger.  It’s the second best pre-Avengers tie-in film after the first Iron Man (in other words, better than Iron Man 2, Thor and The Incredible Hulk, even though Ed Norton is out and Mark Ruffalo is in as Bruce Banner).  Marvellous action, incredible special effects, solid performances and a cracker of an origin story which includes Nazis, big guns, advanced technology and the occult — what’s there not to like?

This is an origins film that tells of how a scrawny, weak little man with a big heart by the name of Steve Rogers became Captain America as part of a secret military experiment during World War II.  I won’t spoil much more than that except to say that the film has ties to Stark Industries from Iron Man and a powerful energy source that appears to originate from the world of Thor.

I was surprised how well the story was executed by director Joe Johnston (Rocketeer, Jumanji, The Wolfman).  It would have been easy to make this film too patriotically and cringeworthyly American, but somehow Johnston kept the focus on the story and characters and even had a little fun with the unavoidable Americanism of the character.

Speaking of character, a lot of ‘hardcore’ Marvel fans blew their sacks when they heard Chris Evans had been cast as the titular superhero.  ‘He can’t be Captain America,’ they cried, ‘because he’s already Johnny Storm from the Fantastic Four!’  Be that as it may, nobody wants to see another Fantastic Four movie, and Chris Evans makes a wonderful Captain America — big and buffed, blonde hair, blue eyes, and oozing All-American charm.  He might not be an actor with the greatest range or depth of emotions (like say a Robert Downey Jr), but he’s good enough here because he is physically perfect and Steve Rogers is a highly likeable character.  The special effects used to create the pre-suped up Steve Rogers were practically flawless.

Hugo Weaving plays the villain Red Skull, Hitler’s crazy head of weaponry, and I’m afraid to say he was a little bit of a weak link.  It’s not entirely Weaving’s fault because anyone that can play Agent Smith (from The Matrix), Elrond (from The Lord of the Rings) and V (from V for Vendetta) must be one of the greatest supporting actors of our time, but here he’s not given enough juice to make Red Skull a worthy adversary for Captain America.

The rest of the supporting cast was strong.  Haley Atwell was solid as Peggy Carter, pretty much the only female character in the film, as was Sebastian Stan (I know him from Gossip Girl), who was adequate as the sidekick.  Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones had relatively minor but important roles, though the real stand out had to be Tommy Lee Jones, who was fantastic as Colonel Chester Phillips, which would have been a bit of a nothing role had Jones not worked his magic.

For me, strangely, the film was at its best when Rogers was not the fully-costumed Captain America.  Following him in his journey from sickly little dude to superpowered superhero was so enjoyable that when he finally became Captain America I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed.  Not to say that it wasn’t still exciting — it’s just that there have been so many quality superhero movies in recent years that it becomes really difficult for one to rise above the others when it comes to action sequences.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed Captain America: The First Avenger from start to finish — and that includes the little sneak peak we got at the upcoming Avengers movie following the credits (a long long wait, but certainly worth it).

4 out of 5!

Movie Review: Due Date (2010)

Due Date did not appeal to me at all when I first saw the poster and caught a glimpse of the trailer.

Robert Downey Jr as a man trying to head home to his pregnant wife, and Zach Galifianakis as the annoying weirdo that somehow gets stuck with him on this cross-country road trip.  I’ll admit that’s a premise with some potential for laughs, but to be honest it seemed a bit dull — plus the film is directed by Todd Phillips, whose highly rated hit The Hangover was somewhat overrated in my humble opinion.

And so I went into Due Date with relatively low expectations, but at the same time expecting to be pleasantly surprised (if that makes sense).  The verdict?  Well…while there were a few laugh-out-loud moments, Due Date was not particularly or consistently funny.  Fans of The Hangover might like it, but it wasn’t my cup of tea.

Forget the formulaic plot and the gaping plotholes — like The Hangover, the humour in Due Date was very coarse, in your face, over the top, violent, dirty and messy all rolled into one.  Almost all the jokes stemmed from the insane, random and extremely anti-social behaviour of Galifianakis’s character Ethan Tremblay.  He’s essentially a nightmarish twit with, I assume, at least a few personality disorders — and the biggest problem is that there is very little to like about his character.  However, I will have to say that Zach Galifianakis is a much better actor than I thought.

I was a big fan of the Steve Martin/John Candy movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles, which is actually very similar in premise and plot, but I’m afraid Due Date was a waste of Robert Downey Jr’s immense talent.  I did enjoy a couple of moments, but this was essentially two guys being very obnoxious for a very long-feeling 95 minutes.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Iron Man 2 (2010)

It was always going to be an uphill battle for director Jon Favreau in creating a sequel to Iron Man that lives up to the original, one of the best superhero films of all-time (along with The Dark Knight, depending on personal preferences).  Despite a valiant effort, as expected, Iron Man 2 falls short of its predecessor, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a fun, thrilling superhero action film.

Iron Man 2 begins where the first one ended, when weapons genius Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) reveals to the world that he is indeed Iron Man.  To be honest, there’s not a whole lot in terms of plot.  Most of the film is about the brilliant and cocky Stark as he struggles to deal with being a superhero and facing his own mortality.  Meanwhile, he has the US government pressuring him to give up his invention, a couple of new villains on his back, and dealing with a range of difficult personal relationships all at the same time.

The cast is again brilliant.  Apart from the sensational Robert Downey Jr as Stark/Iron Man, there is a brand new Russian villain, Whiplash (Mickey Rourke), a new competitor by the name of Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), and a sexy and mysterious new assistant Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson).  Characters returning from the original include secretary Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), supportive friend Happy Hogan (John Favreau), and army buddy Lt Colonel James Rhodes (played this time by Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard).  Samuel L Jackson, who appeared in a cameo after the end credits in the original, has a slightly bigger role this time as Nick Fury of SHIELD.

Robert Downey Jr shows once again why he is getting all the biggest and best roles in Hollywood.  He is totally believable as a genius, a narcissistic prick and a superhero, sometimes all at once.  For me, Sam Rockwell absolutely steals the show as jealous rival Justin Hammer.  He is equal parts pathetic and dangerous, but always hilarious.  Mickey Rourke is also very good as Whiplash, his performance giving the character a dimension not achievable from a lessor actor.  Scarlett Johansson felt somewhat underused, though she did get to strut her stuff for a brief moment.  If there is a weak link, it’s Don Cheadle, whose straight-faced performance doesn’t live up to the deadpanning foundations laid down by Terrence Howard.

As for the action, most of Iron Man 2 felt more subdued than what I remembered from the original.  That is, of course, until the final battle, which is insanely exhilarating.  There’s more machines, more weapons and more explosions than the first film, but because it lacks that unexpected freshness and attitude, Iron Man 2 has less of a “wow” factor.  And for some reason, I felt there were a few moments where the film sagged a little.  A stronger script with less subplots and fewer characters may have served the film better, but these are relatively minor complaints.

The first Iron Man film blew me away because it was so different and fun.  Being a sequel, Iron Man 2 started from a disadvantaged position because it is stuck with the parameters it has set for itself and consequently has become so much harder to surprise.  That said, it’s still a solid film which is a lot of fun and about as well as you could have expected under the circumstances.

3.75 stars out of 5!

[PS: If you want to stay till after the credits there is a short scene which introduces us to Thor’s hammer, which I believe is for a different franchise.  It’s a long wait and a short scene that doesn’t show much, so only stay if you really want to see it.]

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

I admit I don’t know a whole lot about the Sherlock Holmes created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  I may have read a few story books or seen a couple of TV shows about the super sleuth as a child, but on the whole my memory is pretty fuzzy.

Accordingly, when I watched the new film Sherlock Holmes directed by Guy Ritchie, I didn’t have a pre-conceived notion of how the character was supposed to behave.  I understand a lot of old school fans may be quite appalled at the way Sir Conan’s creation has been butchered in this ‘re-invention’ (in the same way I was devastated with what Hollywood did with Astro Boy), but I didn’t have such a problem.

With that in mind, I quite liked it!  That’s saying a lot because I haven’t liked a Guy Ritchie film since Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (and I didn’t even like that very much).

(Read the rest of the review by clicking on ‘More…’)

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