Robert Downey Jr.

Wonder Boys (2000, Curtis Hanson)

Wonder Boys has a very messy third act. The film takes place over a weekend, Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon; it’s the annual writers conference at an unnamed Pittsburgh university, which kicks off some of the film’s events, lines up some other ones, but is really just an excuse for exposition. It’s fine—it’s great exposition—but it’s somewhat redundant because lead Michael Douglas narrates the whole movie anyway. The film’s about how and why Douglas ends up playing hooky from the conference, even though it’s never clear how involved he was supposed to be. Douglas’s professionalism, which is at least seems ostensible at the beginning of the film, slowly evaporates as events start getting… weird.

Unfortunately the first thing to get weird is super-cringey. The film’s from 2000 and it doesn’t think it’s being transphobic and it actually gets somewhere very interesting with the subplot, but… it’s super-cringey. And kind of makes the three generations of Wonder Boys—Douglas, Robert Downey Jr., Tobey Maguire—seem like dicks. It makes Downey icky when he’s supposed to be lovable.

Downey’s Douglas’s agent. They both got famous when Douglas wrote his first (and only) novel. He’s been working on his new one for seven years. It’s over two thousand pages. Maguire is one of Douglas’s students; his best student, who already has a finished novel. And is really weird. He’s not so much moody as peeking at the world from his Nietzschean hole in the ground. The film’s at its best when Douglas and Maguire are bonding. It’s at its funniest when Douglas and Downey are mugging. It’s got the most potential when Douglas is canoodling (or trying to canoodle) Frances McDormand. McDormand is the chancellor of the school. She’s married to Richard Thomas, who’s the chair of the English department and Douglas’s boss. Douglas and McDormand are in love. Douglas’s wife has left him that very morning for unrelated martial strife; McDormand just found out she’s pregnant. Maguire might be suicidal (the movie drops this one hard, like it doesn’t want to take the responsibility). Downey’s about to lose his job (but doesn’t care so it’s a throwaway subplot; also he’s—unfortunately—a glorified guest star). There’s a lot going on.

Throw in stolen movie memorabilia, a blind dog, Katie Holmes as Douglas’s student and lodger who thinks she understands her grandpa-aged crush, and a stolen car. Not to mention Douglas’s unseen wife, who hangs over the narrative but has absolutely no presence. It’s impossible to imagine Douglas married, not to mention anyone else living in his de facto flophouse. Beautifully designed de facto flophouse, but flophouse nonetheless. So the ethereal wife is a problem. And Holmes is a problem. She’s trying to make time with Douglas and he’s aware but completely disinterested. He likes women closer to his own age—McDormand’s only thirteen years younger versus Holmes’s thirty-four. Presumably the phantom wife is somewhere in middle. But Holmes, who either gets to be really insightful or really thin—she’s flirting with Rip Torn, who’s—you know—forty-some years older—never seems to realize Douglas isn’t into her that way. He’s not into her any way. It’s hard to believe they live in the same house.

The film doesn’t exactly have plot holes, it just often has soft plot details. Director Hanson and screenwriter Steve Kloves gloss over things they shouldn’t, then somehow lose track of what the film’s supposed to be doing. During the second act, it falls completely in love with the supporting cast—Maguire in particular, which is fine and dandy because Maguire’s great—but then it chucks him in the third act to bring Downey back in. Okay, Downey’s really good, really fun (not great because he doesn’t have the part), but… wasn’t Maguire supposed to be important. Then it turns out Downey’s not important. What’s important is something the film’s had the opportunity to focus on and hasn’t. Intentionally avoided it, actually, which maybe is supposed to be a metaphor for pot-addled Douglas’s indecision—the film’s also got some really dated pot politics—but it’s a miss. Douglas is phenomenal and a great protagonist, but his narration doesn’t add anything to the film. The occasional smile, the tiniest bit of context for some exposition or another, but there’s never anything important in it.

Especially not after Douglas loses his agency in the third act.

But the script’s still good. It’s a complete mess, plotting-wise, but the scenes are great. The pacing is great. And Hanson knows how he wants to shoot the conversations. There’s a lot of beautiful direction, with outstanding photography from Dante Spinotti. Cool but warm photography, intense but natural. It’s a great looking film. Dede Allen’s editing is great, especially since Hanson’s composing these wide Panavision shots and the cuts between angles ought to be jarring. They’re not. They’re perfectly timed. Sublimely timed. Solid music from Christopher Young, mostly emphasis stuff. There’s a great soundtrack for the film, including an original Bob Dylan song. Though it’s hard to imagine any of the Wonder Boys listening to Bob Dylan.

Going through the acting again. Douglas and Maguire are phenomenal. McDormand’s great. Downey’s good. Rip Torn’s fun. Holmes gets a crap part. Richard Thomas gets cast way too perfectly as a cuckold.

Wonder Boys is, problems and all, outstanding. It’s just frustratingly close to exceptional and when Hanson and Kloves so completely bungle the third act… it takes some real damage. But it’s still outstanding though. And Douglas and Maguire’s performances are exceptional… the parts just don’t end up being so.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Curtis Hanson; screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by Michael Chabon; director of photography, Dante Spinotti; edited by Dede Allen; music by Christopher Young; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; produced by Hanson and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Michael Douglas (Grady Tripp), Tobey Maguire (James Leer), Frances McDormand (Sara Gaskell), Robert Downey Jr. (Terry Crabtree), Katie Holmes (Hannah Green), Rip Torn (Q), Richard Knox (Vernon Hardapple), Jane Adams (Oola), Alan Tudyk (Traxler), and Richard Thomas (Walter Gaskell).


Avengers: Endgame (2019, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)

Avengers: Endgame had the ending I was hoping for, but maybe not necessarily the right ending for the movie. And it’s only got one. If Endgame has any singular successes, it might be in its lack of false endings. It does a lot of establishing work, sometimes new to the film, sometimes refreshing it from previous Marvel movies. Endgame is the twenty-second “Marvel Cinematic Universe” movie; you probably can get away with watching thirteen of them and getting the story. And maybe not all the ones you’d expect. And not always for the best narrative reasons, not given where it takes some of its characters.

The film opens catching up with Jeremy Renner. Even before the company logo. He missed the last outing because of something in another one of the movies. Not one of the Avengers movies either. Anyway. Renner, despite being really effective in the first scene, is a red herring. He’s there immediately for texture and structurally for when he comes back later on. Because first things first, after all. Given the way the previous movie (Infinity War) ends, there’s some anticipation. There’s some big action in the prologue too, some big team-ups, some nice moments. But it’s really an epilogue to the previous film. In fact, there’s even a cliffhanger moment they could’ve used to split them. Only no, because then the movie jumps ahead an arbitrary amount of time. Arbitrary in how it effects the narrative, but so specific you’ve got to think there’s some reason. Maybe for the twenty-third Marvel movie. Or the thirty-third.

The movie uses the jump ahead to allow for a new ground situation. Sometimes it’s drastic, sometimes it’s not. Even when it’s a theoretically big change, it doesn’t necessarily do much to change how the character functions in the film. Maybe it gives them some angst or whatever, but everyone’s got angst after the last movie. It only affects behaviors in a few. The rest… well, they’re a little thin. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do an amazing job writing good scenes for the actors, but not good subplots for most of them. There are some disconnects between script and direction here, particularly with Chris Hemsworth. Markus and McFeely’s script gives him a lot of possibility and directors Russo have zero interest in pursuing it. Shame thing goes for Mark Ruffalo. He gets more to do than ever before, but never any good scenes to himself. Renner and Scarlett Johansson end up somewhere in between. They’ve got material, they get time for it… it still comes off a little too perfunctory.

In theory, Endgame’s two leads are Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans. Downey gets the most to do in the film and it’s a fantastic performance. It’s his movie, as much as it can be any actor’s movie. Meanwhile, the script doesn’t give Evans quite enough to do, even though it frequently has him around things to do. Markus and McFeely actually don’t give Evans an arc for the film. Him, first tier guest stars Brie Larson and Don Cheadle, Ruffalo, no actual character arcs. It’d be disappointing if it weren’t a movie about a bunch of superheroes time traveling to save the world.

The time travel goes back into the other movies, but doesn’t get too nostalgic about them. It’s nice Endgame can get traction out of the three locations, as they’re locations because of narrative detail not dramatic potential. There are a couple good action sequences in one of them, some wasted material for Hemsworth, some wasteful material Downey makes into gold, some old footage reused then CGI’ed to get another “name” guest star in the end credits, a major plot development for third act repercussion, and a too flat melodramatic moment. And a bunch of good acting, good directing, excellent CGI, and whatever else.

Endgame couldn’t get better, technically speaking. Everything directors Russo need to do, every shot, it all works. There’s a lot to keep moving. It gets kind of monotonous after a while, as the film’s ambitions are all about getting its story told, getting all its connections made, all its references echoed, all its characters in the right place for when the actors’ contracts run out. There’s no time to make wide filmmaking swings, but directors Russo don’t even seem interested in trying. They’re more than happy to leverage an old movie beat to get the job done.

Especially if it’s at Hemsworth’s expense. Especially Hemsworth’s.

There aren’t any bad performances. Downey’s the ace. Then Evans or Paul Rudd. Rudd’s better than anyone but Downey when he’s getting introduced; he’s momentarily the lead then he’s background. He ends up with even less to do than Renner. But Evans is in the whole movie. Ruffalo’s fine. There’s nothing for him to do. Hemsworth seems more than capable so it’s weird how little he gets to do. He’s fine. Johansson’d be better if she didn’t end up losing her arc once Renner’s back. There’s a moment where it seems like she’s going to give a really good performance. Instead, she’s fine. Good in comparison to others, when adjusting for all the film’s factors. Cheadle’s good with his stuff, which is mostly background noise. Karen Gillan gets a big arc, at least in terms of narrative importance, but loses it. She’s okay.

Gwyneth Paltrow is back for a bit. She’s good. It’s not a lot. But she and Downey get their magic going as needed.

Bradley Cooper’s great as the CGI raccoon’s voice.

As for Josh Brolin, whose villain was the whole show in the previous Infinity War? The CGI, motion-captured mean blue giant thing still works and Brolin’s fine, but… he’s got a thin part this time out. Technically lots to do, all of it really thin.

Endgame succeeds in being a well-acted, well-made, and well-written (enough) conclusion to the “world-building” done by the previous twenty-one movies. It just might have been nice if it tried to do anything else. Anything at all.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo; screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on the Marvel comics created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Trent Opaloch; edited by Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Charles Wood; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Chris Evans (Captain America), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Paul Rudd (Scott Lang), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Brie Larson (Carol Danvers), and Josh Brolin (Thanos).


Avengers: Infinity War (2018, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)

Avengers: Infinity War has quite a few significant achievements. Special effects, for example. But the two most salient ones are Josh Brolin’s performance (of a CG character, no less) and the pacing. Directors Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do an extraordinary job juggling the large cast and various storylines, which start splintered, then come together. But it’s the tension is the thing. The film opens with the introduction of a countdown clock, with the literal fate of the universe in the balance–the introduction’s both to the audience and the majority of the characters–and with that threat, the countdown is always present. There’s always more tension they can ratchet as things get more and more dire. It culminates in big finale, of course, with lots of moving pieces needing to sync up for that finale to work. But the most impressive thing is when, at around an hour and fifty minutes into the film (which runs two and a half hours, albeit with a questionable ten minute end credit sequence before the Marvel movie post-credits teaser), it becomes obvious they aren’t going to have time to wrap it up. The film’s so good at maintaining intensity, so good at latching on to the characters’ determined hopefulness, when defeat becomes visible and probable… it’s a shock. Even though there can’t be much other outcome, given the movie can’t really go on forever, can it?

Even if one of the big finale twists is a bit of a cheat since it relies entirely on something the audience (not to mention the characters) have any idea is possible.

Of course, what’s possible is what’s in question in Infinity War. Giant blue space alien (Brolin) is searching for six “infinity” stones, which–explained in a first act lecture to the audience (and Robert Downey Jr.)–will allow him to remake reality. Brolin starts the movie fighting with Chris Hemsworth out in space, but then goes off on his own storyline–arguably the film’s most successful, though it’s got limited competition and is the only consistent arc (thanks to Brolin’s shockingly good performance). How Brolin’s not just able to bring depth to the CG giant–which has far better CG than when Mark Ruffalo hulks out–also in terms of how he never gets caught up in the gooniness of the whole thing. Directors Russo play the whole thing straight–one of their greatest touches is treating Infinity War like an impromptu trip through the galaxy–but it wouldn’t work without Brolin. Everyone else who has to deal with the gooniness? Well, either it gets worked through like with Downey, Tom Holland, and Benedict Cumberbatch or utterly avoided like with Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson. Hemsworth is somewhere in the middle. He spends most of the movie with Bradley Cooper’s CG wiseass mercenary raccoon and straightfaces it through the gooniness. Everyone else in his scenes is CG (they also bring along the talking tree “voiced”–or audio filtered–by Vin Diesel).

Anyway. With Brolin, there’s gravitas in the fantastical alien stuff. With Downey’s plot line or Evans’s, there’s not. Even with Downey on a space ship hurtling through hyperspace (presumably, otherwise the Marvel universe is real small), no one wants to get too bogged down with the logic. Hemsworth, hanging out with Cooper and the rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy crew, acknowledges the existence of the fantastical without wanting to deal with it. It’s a wise move from the filmmakers. The Russo Brothers get better performances out of Galaxy regulars Chris Pratt and (especially) Zoe Saldana than their feature movies ever suggested possible. Though Pratt’s still way out of his depth opposite Downey, which is made even more clear when Holland and Cumberbatch are able to keep pass. With Holland even surpassing Downey, in no small part thanks to Downey’s acquiescence. They have a wonderful rapport.

The storylines follow the ostensible Avengers “big four”–Downey, Hemsworth, Evans, and Ruffalo. Though Ruffalo is just moving through where he’s playing second fiddle. First it’s to Hemsworth, then to Downey, then to Evans. Ruffalo’s fine and likable as ever, but… Infinity War goes far in showing, while Ed Norton might be regretting the profit sharing, he didn’t miss out on any great acting opportunities with the franchise.

Evans also ends up supporting other storylines, like Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen trying to figure out how they’re going to survive the movie. Bettany is an android superhero (though he’s a distressingly weak android superhero in Infinity War) who has one of the rocks Brolin wants in his head. Olsen’s the woman who loves him; she’s also a superhero and the only one who can destroy said stone to save the universe, if need be. Evans protects them? He brings along sidekicks–Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, and eventually Sebastian Stan–to help, but even they get a little more to do. Johansson bonds with Danai Gurira (after Evans and company become second–or third–fiddle to the Black Panther cast), Mackie and Cheadle have some rapport. I guess Stan doesn’t really get anything. But then neither does Chadwick Boseman, who’s the actual Black Panther. He’s scenery.

And then they get Ruffalo lumped in too because… the movie doesn’t actually need him. It’s kind of shocking how good the CG works with Brolin’s character versus Ruffalo’s Hulk. I know I mentioned it already, but it’s really striking.

Anyway. Hemsworth teams up with Pratt, Saldana, and the other Guardians team members who get almost nothing to do in the film–especially not after their first scene confronting Brolin; an Infinity War needs cannon fodder, after all. He’s got his quest with the CG Guardians and some fun moments with Cooper; Peter Dinklage shows up at some point in there too.

Then there’s Downey, who’s got Holland and Cumberbatch with him as they hurtle through the galaxy for a showdown with Brolin. They think. They eventually team up with the Guardians cast, leading to those scenes where we have to pretend Pratt can hold his own opposite Downey. Oh, right. It’s after Pratt can’t hold his own opposite Hemsworth and every single character in the movie makes fun of him for it. Good scene, but whatever.

So a lot going on. Because then there’s also Brolin’s whole arc, which involves adoptive daughter Saldana (he took her in after killing her mother and half the population of her planet). Lots going on, all at once. When the movie gets to the third act and all the storylines are going fullsteam–Brolin can instantly teleport between them, which helps to streamline–it’s truly astounding what editors Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt manage with their cutting. The film has a rhythm to it already, but they’re able to rev it something spectacular for the finish. Infinity War is a technical marvel. No pun.

Alan Silvestri’s score even recovers from the first act, when it’s focusing on repeating franchise themes.

Performance wise… Brolin’s best. Then Downey. They get the most to do. Their showdown, for instance, hints at some great nemesis possibility. The movie’s just too big (and already too long when they get together) for it. Then Holland? Holland doesn’t get a lot to do after the first act, especially not once Pratt and company join his storyline, but he’s always great support for Downey and he’s got the film’s best single scene (for a non-CG actor, anyway). Then Hemsworth. Because after Hemsworth everyone is fine, but not particularly standout. Though Saldana, Bettany, and Olsen all have some rather good moments; Saldana because it’s opposite Brolin’s CG giant alien, Bettany and Olsen because they’re able to ooze chemistry even though Bettany’s caked in red body paint.

Evans, Boseman, Cumberbatch, whoever. They get their jobs done. The movie doesn’t task them with a lot and always implies if they got another scene or two, they’d be quite good. The rapport between Johansson and Gurira, Cheadle and Mackie, whoever. The film implies potential, but keeps it in check because the trains have to run on time.

Even Pratt’s fine. Karen Gillan’s still not good. And the movie doesn’t do poor Pom Klementieff any favors.

Just getting to the finish line with Infinity War is a win for directors Russo and the screenwriters. Getting it to the finish line with so much good stuff along the way… the film’s a lot more successful than should even be possible, given it’s so seeped in franchise continuity and bloated with characters. The filmmakers nimbly hop through it all. Because, frankly, they get to leverage it all with Brolin’s singular, phenomenal performance.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo; screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on the Marvel comics created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Trent Opaloch; edited by Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Charles Wood; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Josh Brolin (Thanos), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark / Iron Man), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange), Chris Pratt (Peter Quill / Star-Lord), Paul Bettany (Vision), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner / Hulk), Tom Holland (Peter Parker / Spider-Man), Chris Evans (Steve Rogers / Captain America), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow), Dave Bautista (Drax), Pom Klementieff (Mantis), Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (Ebony Maw), Carrie Coon (Proxima Midnight), Terry Notary (Cull Obsidian), Michael James Shaw (Corvus Glaive), Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa / Black Panther), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Danai Gurira (Okoye), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes / War Machine), Peter Dinklage (Eitri), Benedict Wong (Wong), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson / Falcon), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier), Letitia Wright (Shuri), Winston Duke (M’Baku), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Benicio Del Toro (The Collector), and William Hurt (Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross).


Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017, Jon Watts)

If Spider-Man: Homecoming isn’t the best film with six credited screenwriters, it’s got to be near the top. Additionally, the film’s got director (and one the Sinister Six–wokka wokka–screenwriters) Watts, who kind of manually binds the film together scene by scene. There’s so much different stuff going on–darker than expected villain Michael Keaton’s subplot, which is a “what happens when a psychopath loses his day job” origin, Spider-Man Begins, and a high school movie. The first two interconnect, the second two interconnect, but it’s a lot going on at once. Not to mention Robert Downey Jr. being shoehorned in for franchise purposes.

Watts, through his direction of the actors and the pacing of the scenes, keeps it enthusiastic but never too enthusiastic. The studio credits having the old “Spider-Man” cartoon theme is actually as far as it gets towards too self-aware. Keeping it grounded makes the “Spider-Man excitedly climbing buildings” sequences entertaining. It’s Spider-Man’s enthusiasm, not the film’s. It’s Tom Holland’s enthusiasm.

And Spider-Man: Homecoming is all about Tom Holland. Keaton gets to do his villain arc on his own for most of the movie and it’s flashy, but it’s a small part. Holland’s in every other scene (except when he’s Spider-Manning to save people or to stop criminals). He’s got Avengers training with Downey and Jon Favreau (who looks miserable), he’s got high school with Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, and Zendaya, he’s got friendly neighborhood crimefighting, he’s got home with Marisa Tomei. The script balances all of it pragmatically and impersonally.

Homecoming always errs on the side of narrative payoff. Even though everyone implies the potential of letting loose, only Batalon gets anything near the chance and it’s incredibly muted. The film’s focused on Holland’s story and goals, so much the things going on alongside him–Tomei, Harrier–are left out. Except when the script picks back up with them, there’s no gap. Quick, effective expositions, good acting, and Watts’s meticulous narrative distance to Tom Holland, it all comes together. And Homecoming, which has Chris Evans cameos, laser guns, suburban superhero action, Downey, stunt cameo casting, a terribly bland but competent Michael Giacchino score, and everything else–oh, the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off homage–it has so much.

Yet Watts keeps it together. Because he keeps it on Holland and it never seems like a pressure. Holland’s character development arc is a subtle one too. He usually just has to bake it into other scenes, with the script never getting too far into it. Homecoming doesn’t imply things often and it’s very careful when it does; it knows it’s a franchise picture with a familiar IP and it only wants to do what it wants to do.

But since it is a franchise picture, there’s also a lack of urgency. Everything feels very safe. Keaton feels restrained. Not sure letting him loose on a villain kick would result in a better performance, but he’s still holding back. The bad guys in Homecoming are never bad enough to hurt regular people, which sometimes too contributes to the “safe” feeling.

Though it allows a pointless but amusing Donald Glover cameo.

Excellent special effects. Salvatore Totino’s photography is simultaneously warm and crisp, letting the film toggle between thrills and light superhero angst, but it also provides a great backdrop for the CGI. You have to stop and reminds yourself the leaping figure isn’t Holland.

Homecoming finally figures out how to let the actor “playing” Spider-Man give a full performance as Spider-Man. Because Watts and Holland.

All the acting is good. Downey’s doing a schtick at this point, but likably. It’s a PG Downey in a PG–13 movie. Batalon and Harrier are great. Bookem Woodbine’s good as one of Keaton’s goons. Tomei’s good. Zendaya is likable. She’s got nothing to do but she’s likable. Besides appearing miserable to have agreed to appear, Favreau’s fine. Enough. He underplays an underwritten part.

Keaton’s fine. Kind of good. Never bad, but never anything too special. The script gives him a “little guy trying to survive” thing to do and Keaton can do it. It’s just not a great part. It’s effective and it’s only supposed to be effective.

And Holland’s amazing.

Given its production history (involving Marvel, i.e. Disney, producing a film at Columbia, i.e. Sony, to work it into the Marvel movie continuity), not to mention six credited screenwriters, and being such a familiar film property at this point, Spider-Man: Homecoming starts out with a lot it seems to need to do and a lot it shouldn’t do.

The film does everything it should and nothing it shouldn’t and never in a rush. Nothing’s perfunctory. Homecoming sets up Keaton, then it moves on to Holland, and it just does the movie.

Excellent result from Watts, Holland, and everyone else’s efforts. Except Giacchino. One of Homecoming’s early hurdles is succeeding in spite of Giacchino’s boring score.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Watts; screenplay by Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, and Erik Sommers, based on a story by Goldstein and Daley and the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, Salvatore Totino; edited by Debbie Berman and Dan Lebental; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Oliver Scholl; produced by Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Michael Keaton (Adrian Toomes), Marisa Tomei (Aunt May), Jacob Batalon (Ned), Laura Harrier (Liz), Zendaya (Michelle), Tony Revolori (Flash), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), Martin Starr (Mr. Harrington), Bokeem Woodbine (Herman Schultz), Logan Marshall-Green (Jackson Brice), and Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark).


Short Cuts (1993, Robert Altman)

Short Cuts is about a weekend in Los Angeles. It’s a Robert Altman ensemble piece with twenty-two principle characters (though at least six of them are questionable–it really has three stories and then some tangents). It’s “based on the ‘writings’ of Raymond Carver” (emphasis mine), but I’m pretty sure it’s just an adaptation of his seminal work, If You Don’t Take Your Husband As is, He’ll Just Have to Rape and Murder a Young Woman and It Will Be Your Fault. Oh, wait, Altman actually strips the humanity out of Carver and leaves these dry husks and mixes them all up to make nine separate works fit into one three hour movie.

The first and third hours of Short Cuts have this Altman zooming in and cutting to a related image thing going. The first hour it’s mostly for fun–Altman likes to cynically mock the mundanity of his characters. Sisters Madeleine Stowe and Julianne Moore are both eating the same peanut butter in between cuts, for example. It’s cute, though when they have a scene together later and apparently aren’t even close enough to have talked about their sex lives since Stowe got married. Altman and co-screenwriter Frank Barhydt do this thing where about half the dialogue is pure exposition. Frankly, as an adaptation of Carver–and I know I jumped topics but I want to be done talking about the writing and the adapting and just deal with the result. So I’ll get it out of my system. Short Cuts feels like Robert Altman discovered Raymond Carver in The New Yorker; you don’t get to be performatively trite with Raymond Carver.

Now then. The three stories.

Lily Tomlin hits little kid, little kid goes to the hospital. Little kid’s parents are Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison. Little kid is asleep for most of the Short Cuts weekend. Like, unconscious, hospitalized. Cue drama for MacDowell and Davison. Jack Lemmon shows up as Davison’s dad. Tom Waits is Tomlin’s husband. Oh, and Tomlin gets away with it. Throw in Lyle Lovett pointlessly shit-calling MacDowell over the little kid’s missed birthday cake order.

MacDowell has absolutely nothing to do until the end of the movie when she gets her big moment and it’s bad. She’s not good, but you feel kind of bad for her because Altman gives her absolutely nothing to do. She’s supposed to smile and occasionally be sad and confused. She might have Short Cuts’s worst part. Terrified, grieving mother is apparently less interesting than Davison and Lemmon’s hospital reunion.

Davison is kind of weak until Lemmon shows up and when Lemmon’s trying to gaslight Davison about the past–performative gas lighting, in the way only Lemmon can do when he’s playing skeevy. Altman knows how to use some of these actors, just not enough of them. Anyway. Davison has no dialogue but he listens to the whole thing and you can just see the thoughts. It’s amazing. And makes up for the story monologue itself being poorly written. Lemmon’s performance has its ups and downs, but the downs are when Altman pushes too hard. Lemmon and MacDowell is going to fall apart because of their weak parts, but Lemmon on his own for thirty seconds, talking to background players? It’s awesome. MacDowell doesn’t actually get as much to do in the film as Lemmon and he’s only in it for the second hour. He appears out of nowhere and literally walks off into the sunset when he leaves.

As for Tomlin and Waits… she’s a waitress, he’s a drunken limo driver. They’re married. After she hits the kid apparently they have a fight worse than most of their fights and he leaves. They’re sort of a subplot of Story One. Then it turns out Tomlin’s daughter–who Waits only assaulted once, we’re reassured–is Lili Taylor, who’s in the sub-story. Because the thing about Short Cuts and its size is it’s too big. It’s padded. It’d be a lot better if it were an hour shorter.

Story Two. Tim Robbins is a cop with a wife, Stowe, and three kids. He’s having an affair and is generally a shit. Robbins is having the affair with Frances McDormand, who’s got a son with ex-husband Peter Gallagher; Gallagher is kind of stalking McDormand because she’s sexually active post-divorce. He’s not concerned about the kid, which is sort of refreshingly cynical, just kind of terrorizing McDormand for having sex. Stowe doesn’t get anything to do in her part of the story except know about Robbins’s affair and tell sister Moore about it.

Robbins is bad. He’s this nice guy pretending to be mean. I mean, he’s just supposed to be sort of harmless. Short Cuts is so trite. It’s so trite. It pretends to be mean but it’s so shallow. In the last third, those Altman zoom ins and cuts aren’t for cynical humor, they’re to cut away from moments of emotional tragedy. Altman’s narrative distance in this thing is a joke. He exploits the characters, he exploits the actors, he exploits the audience.

Stowe’s great. McDormand’s great. Gallagher’s good but maybe a scene away from greatness. He and McDormand have very little to do in the film except orbit Robbins and provide filler. Short Cuts’s L.A. is real small.

Story Three is Moore and husband Matthew Modine. Modine’s also background in Story One, but he doesn’t get a lot to do until the end of the second hour so he needs to be somewhere else. Moore’s a successful painter. Emotive nudes. Modine’s a doctor. He’s a jerk and frigid. She’s discontent but enthusiastic. They meet another couple–Anne Archer and Fred Ward–and want to get together. Or something. The first hour is so dripping in Altman’s condescending cynicism towards the characters he sometimes makes too much of a narrative slip and covers it with goop. Some casual racism, for example. Altman uses casual racism throughout Short Cuts to change up a moment. He tries it with class stuff, but usually he just likes the casual racism.

It’s so painfully cheap.

Anyway. Moore’s good, not great. She does get a better monologue than most and Altman wants to go for some nudity symbolism with her–lots of not sexy-time nudity in Short Cuts, but nothing compared to Moore’s monologue scene. He’s guilting the audience in wanting the scene to succeed for Moore’s sake. The scene doesn’t succeed. Maybe because Moore’s playing off a wooden Matthew Modine. Because Modine’s doctor is the biggest jerk in the known universe. But, you know, Moore still should be a better wife to him. Because he suspects she’s cheated on him. Sort of. Not really though. He’s a dick from the opening titles, which run twelve minutes, and Altman and his editors use to sort of ashcan the film. It’s an introduction; a manipulative one.

Meanwhile, Archer and Ward have some kind of bliss. She’s a professional clown, he’s out of work though they still live comfortably. Except their cars. His unemployment isn’t an issue until hour three and the car thing only comes up directly then. Before it’s just a detail in the scene where Robbins pulls her over and tries to pick her up and apparently steals her driver’s license.

Because, again, Shorts Cuts is way too big. Okay. Almost done. The sub-stories. Lori Singer and Annie Ross. They live next door to Story One but Ross doesn’t even know there’s a little kid there. Singer is a cellist who spends the rest of her time playing basketball with a multicultural group of young men. They play basketball at her house, this gaggle of men, yet serve no purpose other than to provide background and imply depth. Implied depth should be Short Cuts’s subtitle. Singer’s dad killed himself, Ross is her mom. Ross is a drunk jazz singer who performs at the bar where a handful of the characters show up. Exploitative sadness, melodrama, and nudity take place.

Ross is kind of great for hours one and two then weak in hour three. It’s the part as written but still. Short Cuts’s characters are so obnoxious, you have a limit. Lemmon gets off easy, for instance. Though Stowe gets through most of it. Only because she gets almost nothing to do in hour three.

The second sub-story, and the biggest one, is the one with Taylor. She’s married to Robert Downey Jr. and their best friends are Jennifer Jason Leigh and Chris Penn. Leigh and Penn are married. Everyone’s got to be married in Short Cuts because otherwise Altman’s points wouldn’t be so stunning. They’re housesitting–Taylor and Downey–and they’re potheads and there’s an implication Downey’s either cheating on Taylor or he’s trying to do so at every opportunity. Leigh is a phone sex worker. Penn is a pool cleaner (to MacDowell, in fact). Even though she’s probably making a lot more money than him, her work is bothering him and he’s reaching his breaking point. This emasculation cannot stand.

Taylor’s weak. It’s a lame part, but she’s weak. Downey’s weak. Lame part, but he’s still weak. Leigh’s capable in a lame part but she’s not exactly good. Altman and Barhydt require logic to last as long as the scene and not in-between them. Altman acts like bad exposition cancels out weak acting just because it “says” something. Penn’s good in the first couple scenes but once he becomes a crazed sex fiend, he’s pretty lame. Again, Altman’s not there for him. He’s not there for any of these actors. He’s at least there for Singer and Ross. Not these ones though.

Sub-story three is Fred Ward, Buck Henry, and Huey Lewis go fishing. Ward’s going to bring the fish to dinner at the Modine and Moore party he and Archer have planned. Look at how it all comes together. Like a glove. They go to the fishing spot, they find a dead body, they spend a day fishing around the body. Gives Altman a lot of opportunity to fetishize the submerged nude female corpse; he’s making a point about nudity, after all. It’s all so provocative.

Henry’s creepier than hell, which doesn’t seem to be the intention, but he’s playing it like a serial killer. Lewis just seems amused to actually have gotten cast in a Robert Altman movie. This story ties back into Story Three when Archer finds out about it, but it’s inconsequential except as filler. Oh, and so Altman can make the queen mother of false equivalences with a scene between Taylor and Henry regarding the objectification of dead bodies. It’s all so provocative.

Altman’s contention the viewer needs to decide the relevance is once thing, but when he ceases to provide the content needed to decide that relevance–or even bother to consider it–the ball is back in Altman’s court. If you want to do the Raymond Carver Extended Universe, you need to be doing something amazing. And Short Cuts isn’t doing anything amazing. I mean, I guess it’s making a Mark Isham score seem positively hip in comparison, but it’s not doing anything else amazing. Walt Lloyd’s Panavision photography is fine. It’s kind of dull, but not offensively. Geraldine Peroni’s editing is a little on the nose. Altman relies heavily on it to try to get through narrative rough patches, but Peroni can’t save it.

Because Short Cuts can’t need saving. Altman and Barhydt’s script gets shockingly cheap in the third hour. Shockingly. And Lemmon’s monologue is pretty cheap too–I mean, Lemmon’s delivery and Davison’s reaction save it, but it’s not uncheap. It’s just beautifully acted cheap. The third hour is just cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap. It’s the cheaper chicken.

You can’t save that level of cheapness. Nothing can. And even as the third hour drags, Altman still finds new ways to get even cheaper.

He’s pretty good at being cheap, but not for three hours.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Altman; screenplay by Altman and Frank Barhydt, based on short stories by Raymond Carver; director of photography, Walt Lloyd; edited by Geraldine Peroni; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Stephen Altman; produced by Cary Brokaw; released by Fine Line Features.

Starring Andie MacDowell (Ann Finnigan), Bruce Davison (Howard Finnigan), Jack Lemmon (Paul Finnigan), Madeleine Stowe (Sherri Shepard), Tim Robbins (Gene Shepard), Julianne Moore (Marian Wyman), Matthew Modine (Dr. Ralph Wyman), Anne Archer (Claire Kane), Fred Ward (Stuart Kane), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Lois Kaiser), Chris Penn (Jerry Kaiser), Robert Downey Jr. (Bill Bush), Lili Taylor (Honey Bush), Lily Tomlin (Doreen Piggot), Tom Waits (Earl Piggot), Frances McDormand (Betty Weathers), Peter Gallagher (Stormy Weathers), Annie Ross (Tess Trainer), Lori Singer (Zoe Trainer), Buck Henry (Gordon Johnson), Huey Lewis (Vern Miller), and Lyle Lovett (Andy Bitkower).


Captain America: Civil War (2016, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)

I wasn’t aware it was possible, but go-to Marvel superhero movie composer Henry Jackman is actually getting worse as he does more of these movies. His score for Captain America: Civil War is laughable, which is too bad, because if the film hit the thematic beats Jackman failed to achieve? Well, it wouldn’t fix the script, but it would definitely make the film flow a bit better.

The film is two and a half hours of action scenes every ten minutes or so. Unless the action scene goes on for longer than ten minutes, in which case it screws up the rhythm of subsequent scenes. But directors Russo keep it on schedule. Their job is getting this train ride to its conclusion and they do it. Their action direction is a bunch of sped-up fight scenes and they’re usually pretty boring. The opening one, with its strong performances from the way too big cast, could’ve been amazing with better direction. And the big superhero showdown is awesome for the most part, only… it doesn’t make much narrative sense as far as keeping the players in motion.

But there’s a lot quite good about Civil War. They blow the chance to give Robert Downey Jr. an actual character to play here, but they get pretty close on occasion. His scenes opposite Tom Holland are fantastic and Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script does give Downey the opportunity for character development. The film just rejects it.

The real standout is Sebastian Stan, who never quite gets enough to do because there’s always another action scene for the Russo Brothers to get through–they have a really lame chase sequence, more is usually just more–but Stan is hypnotic. He also has great chemistry with ostensible lead Chris Evans (and Evans’s replacement sidekick, Anthony Mackie). Less action, more character; would’ve helped Civil War a lot. Especially since that way too big cast is often pretty good together.

Elizabeth Olsen is good, she and Paul Bettany are great together. Bettany’s got a bit of a crap part. So does Jeremy Renner, but Renner does get better material. Markus and McFeely–or maybe it was the Russo Brothers–seem to acknowledge they need to hit emotional beats and then they skip them. Paul Rudd’s fun, though his character’s pretty thinly written. William Hurt is embarrassing himself. Emily VanCamp gets the worst part in the movie. Seemingly intentionally.

As for the newcomers to the brand? Well, Holland’s great. He’s playing the Marvel Studios (sorry, Walt Disney) version of Spider-Man. Can’t wait for his movie. Chadwick Boseman’s fine as the Black Panther. It really ought to be his movie, but there’s so much pretending it’s Evan’s. Instead, Boseman’s basically Boba Fett. Sort of literally. Villain Daniel Brühl gets a terrible part (though still better than VanCamp) and not much opportunity to act.

Rather weak cinematography from Trent Opaloch, but otherwise Civil War is a completely competent outing.

There’s a lot of potential to this film and the filmmakers didn’t go for any of it. Instead, they went for a bunch of mediocre action scenes, one heck of a superhero battle (proving having ten superheroes fight on the big screen is an accomplishment in itself) and a really weak ending.

Evans and Downey both look exhausted throughout the film. Evans doesn’t get the material he (and the film) deserves, while Downey rejects the material. But until the denouement, it’s perfectly fine stuff.

And Sebastian Stan is truly phenomenal.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo; screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on the comic books by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Trent Opaloch; edited by Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt; music by Henry Jackman; production designer, Owen Paterson; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Chris Evans (Steve Rogers / Captain America), Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark / Iron Man), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Daniel Brühl (Zemo), Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson / Falcon), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff), Emily VanCamp (Sharon Carter), Don Cheadle (War Machine), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton), Paul Bettany (Vision), Paul Rudd (Scott Lang) and Tom Holland (The Amazing Spider-Man).


Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, Joss Whedon)

There are no leads in Avengers: Age of Ultron. It is a collection of poorly staged Bond movie action sequences featuring different people in costumes doing outrageous things but never having much consequence to their actions. There’s no time for consequence, not when director Whedon has to get to the next brand to showcase. Age of Ultron is a commercial for itself, for its various brands. Whedon happily turns everyone in the film into a caricature. I wonder if there are special Disney executive glasses to reveal the actors aren’t really saying their often lame dialogue, they’re really telling moms to buy two of the Falcon figure, one for Junior and one for your husband. Avengers: Obey Ultron is a better title anyway.

But it’s not a bad commercial. I mean, it’s not good, but it’s exceptional photography from Ben Davis. Davis saves this movie. He’s the only reason it’s tolerable. Whedon’s not good at the film. He tries a different, generic, accessible style for every set piece. He can’t do any of them, but Davis makes it work. Even when it’s outrageously stupid, Davis makes it work. Most of that outrageously stupid stuff comes in the middle section; it’s also when Age of Ultron gets better. Its cast can survive it being dumb. They’re already being poorly directed. Whedon does know what they should be doing though–the banter between Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans is initially lame, but they do build a chemistry, they do build a rapport. Age of Ultron is about a “team” but its actors are incredibly distant from one another. Whedon tries to stage group shots, but they’re painfully bad. No one has anything to say to one another.

Except for the two love stories. The very strange case of Mark Ruffalo, who has given up and doesn’t care who knows it, and Scarlett Johansson, who is bad in the film’s worst written role. And then Linda Cardellini as Jeremy Renner’s hidden bride. He didn’t tell the team! There’s a lot of team talk! Team, team, team! I even love typing the word team! Whedon’s got a very standard action story with the Ultron thing (an evil robot voiced by James Spader, who is awful in the film’s second worst written role), but then there’s the problem with the team! What problem with the team? The incredibly sketchily established problem with the team, because the team never really spends any real time together. Whedon’s got an idiotic present action for the film–a couple weeks at most, probably far less (no one ever sleeps in Age of Ultron because Toons don’t have to sleep)–and no time for actual character development. Instead, he tries to start straight at the second act of the subplots.

And, guess what, it’s bad. Just like the beginning and, unfortunately, end of the movie. Because, secretly, I really wanted to like this one. I thought it’d be funny. But this movie has a little kid living because a superhero died. Set to awful music from Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman. It’s laughable. It’s not effective because you can’t have effective with Toons. You sacrifice it for the spectacle.

Ultron has some spectacle. It’s kind of goofy and dumb, but it’s spectacle. It’s also terribly edited. Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek don’t appear to have many choices (actors often are strangely not available for two shots), but it’s still terrible editing. So it has terribly edited, goofy, dumb spectacle. It’s also got Paul Bettany playing a riff on Superman, channeling Christopher Reeve. It’s weird, it’s out of place, but it’s something actually special in the midst of all the goofy stuff.

Same goes for Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen. Sort of. Olsen turns out to be really good in a lame part. She has most of her scenes with Taylor-Johnson and basically carries him up to her level. Sure, she’s playing a caricature, but really dang well and they do get a better story line than most in the film.

Of the four leads, Chris Hemsworth is the most impressive. He has the worst part, the lamest subplot, yet it’s a movie star performance. You pay attention. Even when he gets the lamest action sequences too. Ultron is a bad commercial for Thor movies, except Hemsworth changes your mind. Least impressive is Ruffalo, who I mentioned had given up. His performance is silly, partially because Whedon plays the Hulk for laughs and cuteness (really), partially because it’s just a goofy part, and partially because Ruffalo is barely conscious. You fall asleep watching him.

The problem with the movie, besides being forty minutes too long because it’s all some nonsense about the safety of civilians, which is less about distinguishing itself from the superhero competition, and more about Disney declaring its concern for everyone. Because everyone can visit Disney World someday. You gotta stay bland.

There’s some really lazy acting from Robert Downey Jr. He does get better for long stretches, but he’s real lazy. Sam Jackson has more energy than him, because Jackson just does Julius. He does Disney Julius. And for a moment, Age of Ultron feels like something. It feels like the team has come together. Not the A Team, this team.

Team.

Only Whedon screws it all up. It’s hard to blame anyone else, but it’s a little strange because he does bring some passion to the film. It just isn’t any of the action set pieces. It’s none of the character stuff. It’s the iconic stuff. He really wants to be able to do the iconic stuff and it just doesn’t come off.

And James Spader is awful. He’s awful. So awful.

I think I’m going to go for a thousand words on Age of Ultron just because of Spader. Whedon wrote Spader’s part for David Spade and then cast Spader. It’s weird, but it should be true. It’s a goofy, comic part.

Anyway, Ultron’s occasionally enjoyable, but more often lame.

Bettany rules!

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Joss Whedon; screenplay by Whedon, based on the Marvel comics created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Ben Davis; edited by Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek; music by Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman; production designer, Charles Wood; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Chris Evans (Captain America), Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Quicksilver), Elizabeth Olsen (Scarlet Witch), Paul Bettany (The Vision), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), James Spader (Ultron), Linda Cardellini (Laura Barton) and Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury).


[Stop Button Lists] Robert Downey Jr., Nine Movies of the Megastar

Robert Downey Jr., filmography, 2008-13

I have been a Robert Downey Jr. fan since Soapdish. Looking to escape sounds of the Bulls playing the Los Angeles Lakers, my dad and I went to see Soapdish in the theater. I’d seen Downey in Weird Science and maybe Johnny Be Good, had wanted to go see Air America (but didn’t–and still haven’t seen it) and definitely knew him from the Pick-Up Artist. I watched a lot of 20th Century Fox movies and CBS/FOX Video loved playing the Pick-Up Artist preview on tapes.

After Chaplin, I waited for Downey’s movies. Heart and Souls, Short Cuts; I even saw Only You, something I’ve never forgiven myself for doing. After Only You, I fell off until One Night Stand. I’ve seen some of the interim movies since, including Home for the Holidays and Restoration. I saw Gingerbread Man, was mad at Downey’s terrible performance in U.S. Marshals, liked him in In Dreams and Wonder Boys. Then fell off until Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, even though I’ve meant to see Singing Detective.

So I’ve been a conscious Robert Downey Jr. fan since I was twelve years old. And I was thrilled when he signed on to do Iron Man. He’d just been awesome in Zodiac. It’s a shame he hasn’t stopped playing the Iron Man part, which actually seems based on his characterization of “The Pick-Up Artist” Jack Jerricho.

Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. star in IRON MAN, directed by Jon Favreau for Paramount Pictures.
“Did anyone ever tell you that you have the face of a Botticelli and the body of a Dégas?” Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. star in IRON MAN, directed by Jon Favreau for Paramount Pictures.

For his part, Downey has suggested he doesn’t want to do a film unless he gets paid a lot of money. He also doesn’t like poor people. He’s also still a great actor, even if people are starting to find Tony Stark a little much.

Beginning in 2008, with Iron Man and Tropic Thunder, Downey has entered the least artistically successful phase of his career. Maybe ever. I haven’t seen his eighties stuff in fifteen years plus. The two films are the division point. Iron Man or Tropic Thunder. The former plays on Downey’s ability to be likable regardless of the situation (I won’t get into the drugs but until this point in his career, they were extremely important to his career) and the latter showcases his ability to turn in a fantastic, impossible performance.

Iron Man made more than three times as much money as Tropic Thunder.

Now a potential box office draw as the dramatic equivalent of Johnny Depp (throw “serious” actor Downey in a franchise, it crosses over between kids and more discerning ticket buyers), Downey tested his popularity. Sherlock Holmes was a new franchise where Jude Law had been in bigger movies than the top-billed Downey. The Soloist was Downey trying for an Oscar in a drama. Holmes did well, Soloist did not.

Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis star in DUE DATE, directed by Todd Phillips for Warner Bros.
You can tell by the suit. Robert Downey Jr. plays straight man to Zach Galifianakis in DUE DATE, directed by Todd Phillips for Warner Bros.

So Downey stopped trying Hollywood dramas. He went with a comedy (Due Date), it flopped, he corrected the course of his career. Did he hire Tom Cruise’s original manager or something?

Thanks to Downey, Disney has made a lot of money with the Marvel movies. Marvel has made a bunch of money. Warner Bros. could be happier, but Downey’s one of the biggest movie stars in the world; Sherlock Holmes 3 is inevitable.

What’s frustrating is his acting ability. It hasn’t gone anywhere. Sure, the Marvel movies don’t ask him to stretch, but he sold the silliness of the element discovery in Iron Man 2 and he and Gwyneth Paltrow’s chemistry in that series gives it a solid foundation the filmmakers seem entirely unconcerned with. It isn’t necessary for the box office, but Downey can’t help being really good.

Even in The Avengers, Downey was the one who sold the reality of the film (not just its contents, but its very existence) to the audience.

A scene from THE AVENGERS, directed by Joss Whedon for Walt Disney Pictures.
Tin can or not, Robert Downey Jr. cashed a check bigger than the rest of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes combined in THE AVENGERS, directed by Joss Whedon for Walt Disney Pictures.

When I first thought of this topic–Downey’s “road to super-star” films, I did the math to make sure I wouldn’t have to talk about The Judge. I also asked some friends what they thought about doing a post on this topic. I felt like I should make a list of Downey’s best films, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of the nineties films. Though you should see every film listed in the first two paragraphs as soon as possible.

For lack of a better term, Downey’s the one who creates Marvel’s reality distortion field. His presence makes it seem like it should be not just good, but worthwhile.

Look at Iron Man, Downey’s got issues with father figure Jeff Bridges failing him. Or Iron Man 2, Downey’s got issues with his father’s nemesis, played by Mickey Rourke (can you imagine the eighties Hollywood stories they could’ve shared?), while one of his same-aged peers is after him. Plus, it’s Sam Rockwell as that guy. Oh, and he’s got a brewing romance with his assistant, who sort of runs his life and company. The Iron Man movies always have a strong enough dramatic cast to make a synopsis–an artfully written one–sound like a great mainstream drama. They just happen to be superhero movies. And those dramatic plots usually fail miserably amid comic book nonsense. But the movies are still good.

Robert Downey Jr. stars in IRON MAN 3, directed by Shane Black for Walt Disney Pictures.
“You’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else.” Wait, wrong movie. Robert Downey Jr. sits with his box office golden boy in IRON MAN 3, directed by Shane Black for Walt Disney Pictures.

Why? Because Downey.

The Sherlock Holmes movies are a little different, of course, because Downey’s not playing the same kind of jerk. He’s playing a more lovable jerk; maybe the third one is still potential just because Downey’s rocking the jerk persona in public now too.

No matter how many movies Downey makes for Marvel, no matter how much money he makes for them, he’s never going to be as good as he was in Chaplin in any of them. He’s not even going to be as good as he was in Heart and Souls. Hopefully he’ll always be better than he was in U.S. Marshals, because I’m probably going to see all of those movies eventually.

Because I really do want to see a rematch between Julian and Rip; I just know, with Downey’s range these days, it’s not worth the price of a movie ticket.

Iron Man 3 (2013, Shane Black)

Iron Man 3 feels a lot like the end of the series, which isn’t a bad thing–Robert Downey Jr. does the hero’s journey thing quite well–but director Black handles it oddly. After spending the entire movie pairing Downey with buddies, whether love interest Gwyneth Paltrow, sidekicks Don Cheadle and Jon Favreau, his computer and even an adorable little kid, Downey finishes the movie by himself.

But he’s just learned he can’t get by without a little help from his friends.

Anyway, it’s a stumble after an incredibly entertaining couple hours. Even when the film’s being serious–and sometimes even frightening (the villains are quite good)–it’s always a lot of fun. Downey and Paltrow are wonderful together, as usual, and Black never lets it get too somber. The end credits are self-congratulatory in the best way (if playing into the series finale thing a little much).

Cheadle doesn’t have a lot to do–Iron Man 3 could be a lot longer; more movie would plug most of its plot holes (besides Downey going from experienced marksman to novice in twenty minutes)–but he’s good. Ditto for Rebecca Hall as an ex-girlfriend. She and Paltrow get nowhere near enough time together.

The big surprises are Ben Kingsley as the supervillain and Guy Pearce as a business rival. Kingsley’s excellent, but Pearce’s spellbinding. He walks off with the movie. He alone makes it worth seeing.

The only real bad spot is Brian Tyler’s crappy score.

Otherwise, it rocks.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Shane Black; screenplay by Drew Pearce and Black, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby; director of photography, John Toll; edited by Peter S. Elliot and Jeffrey Ford; music by Brian Tyler; production designer, Bill Brzeski; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Studios.

Starring Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Don Cheadle (Colonel James Rhodes), Guy Pearce (Aldrich Killian), Rebecca Hall (Maya Hansen), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), James Badge Dale (Savin), William Sadler (President Ellis), Ty Simpkins (Harley Keener), Miguel Ferrer (Vice President Rodriguez) and Ben Kingsley (The Mandarin).


Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011, Guy Ritchie)

I think Guy Ritchie has to be the last blockbuster director who still likes bullet time. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows has so much bullet time, one would think it’s from the late nineties. Sometimes Ritchie uses it pointlessly–there are some fight scenes with it and it doesn’t work so well. In contrast, Ritchie also does an action sequence in profile without bullet time and it works much better.

The one time the bullet time is awesome is when Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law (and their gypsy sidekicks) are on the run from some mechanized artillery. Ritchie and his effects people show the weapons working in (digitized) close detail, then zooming back (digitally) to show their effect. Sherlock is supposed to be a blockbuster… not sure having some amazing realization of historical weapons–for a limited audience–is the way to go.

The film’s a very long two hours. The story itself doesn’t fully get moving until about forty minutes into the picture, when Downey first meets arch villain Jared Harris. It gets boring at times, even showing signs subplots got the axe, but it’s always amiable.

Downey’s excellent, Law’s funny and Ritchie, except indulging a little much, does all right.

Noomi Rapace is nothing special as their sidekick, but Stephen Fry’s hilarious in a smaller role and Rachel McAdams is pleasant. Paul Anderson does well as another villain.

Once again, against the odds (and itself) a Sherlock outing proves to be a diverting motion picture experience.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Guy Ritchie; screenplay by Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney, based on characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle; director of photography, Philippe Rousselot; edited by James Herbert; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Sarah Greenwood; produced by Joel Silver, Lionel Wigram, Susan Downey and Dan Lin; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Robert Downey Jr. (Sherlock Holmes), Jude Law (Dr. John Watson), Noomi Rapace (Madam Simza Heron), Jared Harris (Professor James Moriarty), Eddie Marsan (Inspector Lestrade), Kelly Reilly (Mary Watson), Stephen Fry (Mycroft Holmes), Paul Anderson (Colonel Sebastian Moran), Thierry Neuvic (Claude Ravache), Geraldine James (Mrs. Hudson) and Rachel McAdams (Irene Adler).


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