Review: Pacific Rim

A damaged Jaeger collapses after a battle in 'Pacific Rim.'

A damaged Jaeger collapses after a battle in ‘Pacific Rim.’

Director Guillermo del Toro clearly never identified with those people who live by the adage ‘less is more.’ His movie Pacific Rim, a sci-fi epic that pits human-powered robots against giant monsters, is as colossal a summer blockbuster as there ever was or ever will be. Del Toro’s greatest directorial challenge is ensuring that it never collapses under its own weight. Miraculously, he pulls it off. Pacific Rim succeeds against all odds; it’s a visually dazzling powerhouse that packs both emotional resonance and an unfailing sense of fun. In a word, it’s awesome. In two words, it’s really awesome.

As towering human-powered robots called Jaegers fight even larger monsters called Kaijus to save humankind from annihilation, the sheer size of Pacific Rim‘s action is jaw-dropping. Even more shocking is how Del Toro miraculously keeps the film’s battle sequences coherent and clear, never losing his footing despite the film’s scale. It’s a testament to his talent that a scene’s action can encompass an entire city without the audience losing track of what’s what.  

Pacific Rim‘s top-notch cast also helps the movie soar, particularly Idris Elba, who’s outstanding as stoic commanding officer Stacker Pentecost. His performance, complete with booming voice, soulful eyes, and surprising emotional depth, demands the audience’s attention. The chemistry between leads Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi, two unlikely Jaeger pilots who become humanity’s last hope against the Kaijus, is also terrific. Del Toro staple Ron Perlman shows up to deliver some cheesy but still great lines as larger-than-life black marketeer Hannibal Chau. And Charlie Day nearly steals the show as an energetic scientist studying the monsters, providing laughs and heart in equal measure.

However, the biggest thing that Pacific Rim has going for it is ever-present energy, courtesy of del Toro. This is his ode to the Japanese monster movies of his youth, executed with due reverence, visual gusto and expert aplomb. No matter how large the action gets, del Toro successfully emulates the simple magic of a kid playing with toys in a sandbox, letting the audience bask in that youthful exuberance as well. His boundless enthusiasm for the genre shines through.

Although Pacific Rim‘s action sequences take up a huge chunk of the movie, they never feel drawn out or artificial. One colossal battle in Hong Kong is terrific fun, both exciting and remarkably innovative. A smaller-scale martial arts scene with fighting sticks is just as cool to watch. And the film’s grand finale, a fast and furious fight to the death on the ocean floor, is a thrilling pièce de résistance.

Throughout the film, Del Toro’s confident direction allows the film to take risks with its narrative and cinematography, and those risks pay off tremendously. For one, Pacific Rim doesn’t shy away from the human cost of war against the Kaijus, capturing both the perspectives of civilians caught in crossfire and of the monster-mashing pilots. As such, the most devastating moment of the movie comes early on, as a terrified young girl finds herself in a Kaiju’s path of destruction. Additionally, the direction often highlights the strange beauty of the movie’s creatures – both the Jaegers and Kaijus are wondrous to behold, dazzling CGI behemoths which move with an almost celestial grace at times.

The only time when Pacific Rim ever really stumbles is when it overreaches with its story. Some ideas the script puts forth about the origins of the Kaijus don’t sit well, and other plot points in the story’s set-up are undeniably weak. But even with those few shortcomings, Pacific Rim ultimately succeeds both as a tribute to Japanese monster movies and a resuscitation of the same. Any gripes with the plot don’t even register once Hunnam and Kikuchi strap into their Jaeger and throw down with fearsome Kaijus in any of the film’s breathtaking action sequences.

As far as action goes, there’s no better film to see this summer. Pacific Rim is an imaginative and thrilling popcorn-pleasure spectacle that doesn’t let gargantuan scale sacrifice a big heart and sense of fun. What more do you need to hear? Go get lost in Del Toro’s crazy-cool childhood fantasy, and experience the breathtaking grandeur of his fully-realized vision for yourself. You’ll be glad you did. A-

Photo Courtesy: Warner Bros.


Watchlist: What We’re Looking Forward This Summer

Logan faces ninjas in this summer's 'The Wolverine.'

Logan faces ninjas in this summer’s ‘The Wolverine.’

Here at the Cinema Sentinel, we tend to get excited about movies. It doesn’t matter the genre, the stars, or the budget; what really gets us amped up are the films that draw us in, take us places, and make us see things we’ve never seen before. The summer season is always best for spectacle, but there are all kinds of terrific-looking films coming out this year. Take a look below at the Cinema Sentinel’s most anticipated movies of the summer:

1. Pacific Rim – Guillermo del Toro’s massive tribute to Japanese monster movies could easily be the breakout hit of the summer. When giant monsters from beneath the ocean floor rise and wreak havoc on humankind, a new weapon is developed – huge robots controlled simultaneously by two pilots sharing one mind. This sci-fi epic has a lot going for it – del Toro never disappoints, the visual effects look jaw-droppingly awesome, the cast boasts great actors like Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam, and Ron Perlman, and did I mention giant robotsOpens July 12 

2. Much Ado About Nothing – Movies based off Shakespeare plays are a dime a dozen, but this adaptation looks intriguing. Why? Two words: Joss Whedon. The geek god behind The Avengers is not the first person who comes to mind when I think of the bard, but he has made a lot of really interesting choices while directing his Much Ado About Nothing. Fun fact: the entirely black-and-white film was shot entirely at Whedon’s home in Santa Monica in only twelve days. Whedon’s cast is also terrific – Amy Acker, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Fran Kranz, Alexis Denisof, and plenty of other avowed Whedonites. It looks like a really nifty adaptation, setting the action in modern times while maintaining Shakespeare’s original dialogue. The trailer (below) has pulled off the Herculean task of making me excited about a Shakespeare adaptation – give it a watch. Opens June 21

3. Man of Steel – I was dubious at first, but I’m really starting to buy into the idea of Zack Snyder’s darker, weightier Superman. After the success of The Dark Knight, it was only a matter of time until someone decided to reimagine the Man of Tomorrow with a handful of dramatic gravitas, but Man of Steel doesn’t look like a rip-off in any shape or form. Henry Cavill is looking more every day like a great Superman, and I’m excited about the supporting cast, which includes Michael Shannon, Amy Adams, and Kevin Costner. If Man of Steel can strike a balance between its serious tone, high-powered story, and thrilling visuals, it could end up a truly super Superman. Opens June 14

4. The Bling Ring – Sofia Coppola is one of the most stylish, interesting directors working today, and she has a terrific story to work with here. Based on the true story of a group of teenage burglars who targeted celebrities, The Bling Ring has an opportunity to tell an absorbing tale while simultaneously making a statement about the materialistic nature of modern society and the American Dream. I couldn’t be more excited that Emma Watson is stepping out of her comfort zone to play the remarkably shallow Nicki, and I’m confident that Leslie Mann and Taissa Farmiga will also turn in great performances. Opens June 14

5. The Wolverine – After the disappointing X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I’m optimistic that this summer will finally yield a worthy stand-alone movie for everyone’s favorite adamantium-clawed X-Man. Set in Japan long after the X-Men trilogy, The Wolverine pits Logan (Hugh Jackman) against the Yakuza and several dangerous foes, including the deadly Silver Samurai (Will Yun Lee) and a venomous mutant by the name of Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), all while he struggles against his own immortality. The Japanese arc is one of my favorite storylines for Logan in the comics, and with Oscar-nominated director James Mangold at the helm, I truly believe that this could be the best X-Men installment yet. A more vulnerable Logan, a picturesque Japanese backdrop, and entire armies of ninjas? What more could a fanboy ask for? Opens July 26

6. The World’s End – The third and final installment in Edgar Wright’s Britcom trilogy (after the equally fantastic Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) looks more bonkers and hilarious every time I see a new trailer.  Starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, along with a bunch of other terrific Brits (including Paddy Considine, Rosamund Pike, and Martin Freeman), The World’s End centers on a group of five friends who reunite after twenty years in hopes of completing a legendary pub crawl, culminating in famed pub The World’s End. As the night goes on, the friends realize that something’s off about the villagers, and Earth is actually under attack by aliens. With any luck, The World’s End will recapture the same manic energy and nonstop laughs that made its predecessors instant cult classics. Opens August 23

7. The Spectacular Now – There are very few teen dramas that look too good to pass up, but The Spectacular Now is one of them. The buzz from Sundance has been overwhelmingly positive, and the two leads are played by talented up-and-comers Miles Teller (Rabbit Hole) and Shailene Woodley (The Descendants). The film focuses on the unexpected romance between a popular, devil-may-care high school senior (Teller) and his studious ‘good girl’ classmate (Woodley), as the two learn things about themselves that had never occurred to them before. It looks like a moving, thoughtful, and well-acted coming-of-age drama, and, to me, those kinds of films are always welcome. Opens August 2

8. Elysium – Thoughtful sci-fi is a rare breed, but director Neill Blomkamp proved with 2009’s District 9 that philosophy and CGI aliens can mix with astounding results. His follow-up, Elysium, shares District 9‘s penchant for social commentary but now also boasts a Hollywood cast and budget. The film examines a future where the wealthy 1% live on an advanced space habitat orbiting Earth, while the rest of mankind struggles to survive on a filthy, overpopulated, crime-ridden Earth. The two come into conflict when Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) attempts to break into Elysium to find the medical technology needed to save a young girl’s life. He comes up against vicious opponents (including nasties played by Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley) who are determined to enforce Elysium’s strict anti-immigration laws. While District 9 made powerful statements about xenophobia, segregation, and human identity, Elysium looks to take on hot-button topics like class issues, health care, and immigration. District 9 earned Oscar nominations and critical acclaim, and Blomkamp’s follow-up looks equally appealing and fascinating. Whether or not the Academy likes it, Elysium will be a gritty, entertaining, smart, and introspective sci-fi thriller. I can’t wait. Opens August 9

9. World War Z – Based on the gripping Max Brooks novel, this apocalyptic horror thriller is the biggest unknown of the summer in my book. Brad Pitt, who produced the film, also stars as Gerry Lane, a UN employee who travels the world after a zombie outbreak in search for answers about where the epidemic originated. The scale of the film is massive, and the budget is rumored to be one of the largest of all time. Tons of talented people have been involved with the screenplay, including Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof, J. Michael Straczynski, and Matthew Michael Carnahan, so I have high hopes. Depending on whether its good or bad, World War Z could either prove to be a runaway hit or a colossal failure. It’ll be interesting regardless, and I’ll be front and center to find out. Opens June 21

10. This is the End – Adding to the glut of post-apocalyptic flicks hitting theaters (note the large amount on this list alone) is this oddball raunchy comedy with a strangely appealing premise. After all manner of apocalyptic events destroy LA, a group of actors including James Franco, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Danny McBride, Jay Baruchel, and Craig Robinson (playing filthy, fictitious versions of themselves) must work together to survive. The trailers look hilarious so far, and an over-abundance of celebrity cameos will make the movie all the more entertaining. I’m most excited for Emma Watson’s ruthless survivalist, but I’m also looking forward to a weird Michael Cera and dirty-mouthed Mindy Kaling. Opens June 14

Honorable Mentions: The To Do ListFruitvale StationYou’re Next, The Heat, White House Down, and The Way, Way Back

Photo Courtesy: Tumblr

Review: The Great Gatsby

Gatsby raises his glass to the orgastic future.

Gatsby raises his glass to the orgastic future.

Adapting a book as beloved as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is an unenviable task for any director, so I have to hand it to Baz Luhrmann, a filmmaker renowned (or notorious, depending on who you ask) for his visual pizzazz. The man takes on the challenge with zeal, and his adaptation positively throbs with wild enthusiasm for both the setting of 1920s America and the story of a mysterious billionaire struggling to win back the love of his life.

The 1920s were not a time of great subtlety or moderation, which is good, because Luhrmann’s adaptation has neither. It’s a lurid, gaudy roller coaster of a film, at least for the first half, bringing to life Gatsby’s parties with the razzle-dazzle and acrobatic aptitude of a Cirque du Soleil performance. Awe-inspiring fireworks displays, streamers twisting and sparkling as they fall through the air, bubbling liquor as seductive as Greek gods’ nectar, all of it is visually magnificent. However, those scenes also never quite escape superficiality; any deeper exploration of the time’s loose morals and frenetic energy never truly materializes.

That skin-deep trait is indicative of the film as a whole; as visually overwhelming as it is, Fitzgerald’s story is unfortunately left on the back-burner. Upsettingly, the author’s gorgeous prose is consistently cut up and paraphrased by screenwriters who seem to lack respect for and understanding of the book’s thematic and cultural significance. And the script is missing chunks of the story, especially where narrator Nick Carraway is concerned. Luhrmann is ultimately so concerned with creating a visually splendid adaptation that he doesn’t trust the source material to speak for itself, and so his Gatsby falls short of the greatness it seems close to grasping at times, a bitter irony in light of the story he’s telling.

As the film progresses, it shifts from the garish party atmosphere to a darker, more intimate tale of adultery and betrayal as the characters collide in unexpected and ultimately tragic ways. Luhrmann flips a switch halfway through, and the sudden change is jarring. It’s as if he couldn’t decide which Gatsby to make – the decadent spectacle or the character-driven drama – and so he opted to make both. As a result, neither rings completely true in the finished product; the film is ultimately a beautiful but woefully inconsistent hybrid.

What sustains Luhrmann’s overlong, overstuffed film are the performances of his all-star cast. Leonardo DiCaprio is pitch-perfect as the larger-than-life Gatsby, glowing with warm energy and charm. He sinks his teeth into every line with gusto, capturing the same vitality that Fitzgerald’s Gatsby symbolized to a generation. If Gatsby had hit theaters during awards season, I’d expect to be hearing DiCaprio’s name. He’s that good.

Carey Mulligan is also terrific as Daisy Buchanan, the “golden girl” representative of money’s corrupting power. To Gatsby, she’s the green light, the American Dream he’s fought for his entire life. Mulligan brings her to life as a delicate, quietly vacant socialite, alternately trapped by and hidden within her shallow, materialistic lifestyle. We understand why Gatsby would fight so hard to reclaim her, but we can also see in Mulligan’s performance how she has been tainted by the decade’s atmosphere. As Daisy, Mulligan is both alluring and quietly devastating.

Daisy’s brutish husband Tom is played excellently by Joel Edgerton, who toes the line between jockish arrogance and jovial nonchalance. His gruff, measured delivery does the character justice, never allowing Tom to cross the line into Bond villain territory. He’s a class-obsessed, suit-wearing sociopath, entertaining delusions of grandeur as he attempts to control the actions of everyone around him. Edgerton also excels by making him strangely sympathetic, a victim of his own social standing.

Finally, narrator Nick Carraway is humanized by Tobey Maguire, who plays him as an innocent taken in by the atmosphere of the times but ultimately disillusioned with it all. His evolution from wide-eyed wonderment to jaded disgust is fascinating to watch, and there’s something deeply sad and beautiful in Maguire’s performance.

The Great Gatsby‘s downfall is Luhrmann’s inability to bring his sumptuous visuals together with Fitzgerald’s story. By no means is it a failure, and the director’s flair for visuals brings the Roaring Twenties to life as a glorious smorgasbord for the senses. That visual panache, along with the actors, make the film well-worth seeing, but Luhrmann’s Gatsby isn’t the adaptation that Fitzgerald’s novel, with its weighty themes and big ideas, deserves. Instead, it’s the film that Gatsby himself would have made, as utterly gorgeous to look at as it is empty on the inside. B

Image Courtesy: Red Carpet Crash.

Review: Fast and Furious 6

A member of Torretto's crew takes a leap of faith.

A member of Torretto’s crew takes a leap of faith.

If anyone goes into Fast and Furious 6 looking for dramatic nuance and meditations on the nature of life and death, they’ll leave sorely disappointed. But that’s not what’s kept this racing franchise putting the pedal to the metal at the box office for over ten years. No, the driving force behind the Fast and Furious series is simply the high-octane, no-frills thrill of the chase, and audiences after that “wow”-factor will leave this latest installment wholly satisfied. “Ride or die,” says ex-con protagonist Dom Torretto. “Hell, yeah,” I reply.

After the exhilarating, Rio-wrecking climax of Fast Five, during which Torretto (the aptly named Vin Diesel) and his crew made off with $100 million from a corrupt businessman, the crew is laying low. FBI agent-turned-fugitive Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) has settled down with Torretto’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) and started a family, while Torretto is living it up in some tropical paradise. Both are drawn out of hiding when DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson), their adversary in Fast Five, offers full amnesty to the crew in exchange for their assistance in taking down rogue soldier Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) and his crew, which includes Torretto’s presumed-dead lover Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). Get it? Got it? Good. This globe-trotting plot works spectacularly, keeping a breakneck pace while smartly moving the franchise away from its street-racing origins.

Fast and Furious 6 doesn’t waste any time getting its characters into cars, because director Justin LIn knows exactly what moviegoers came to see, and he gives it to them in spades. A London-set car chase early in the film is all kinds of crazy fun, with cars flipping, guns blazing, and explosions galore. And it just gets bigger and better from there. Rodriguez and MMA fighter Gina Carano throw down in a harrowing subway-set brawl both brutal and invigorating. A Spanish highway becomes a battleground as the crew takes on a tank-toting Shaw, who crushes passing cars and blows up bridges with psychotic glee. And the film’s climax, as the crews clash on and alongside a moving cargo-jet, is a dizzying, hell-for-leather, no-brains-attached masterpiece of action blockbuster.

Fast and Furious 6‘s real stars are the sleek speed machines that the actors operate, but the human actors still turn in solid performances. Everyone is clearly having a blast (though Walker is still wooden as ever), and Evans is a terrific villain, both ruthless and devious. Carano is also a great addition, putting her MMA skills to use while giving the male demographic yet another reason to buy a ticket.

Torretto takes every opportunity to call his crew a “family” during the film, and that’s really what they are. Everyone fits together like parts of an engine, and almost every character gets a moment in the spotlight. We love this crew and their near-suicidal antics, and they’re a big part of why, six films in, this franchise is hotter than ever.

This installment lacks the shock-and-awe factor that Fast Five had with The Rock as its baddie, but it ups the ante with borderline-preposterous action sequences and enough automobile pizzazz to satisfy any thrill-seeking moviegoer. You won’t see a less demanding, more ridiculous popcorn pleasure this summer. I highly recommend it. Not only is it fast and furious, it’s also an electrifying ode to fast cars and the hooligans foolhardy (or is it brave?) enough to get behind the wheel. A-

Image Courtesy: Flickering Myth.

Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

The Enterprise spirals out of control.

The Enterprise spirals out of control.

J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot was an unexpected pleasure, taking a cult sci-fi series and revitalizing it in grand fashion, with spectacle, heart, and humor. Despite the enthusiastic welcome that the prequel/reboot (preboot?) received from fanboys, critics, general audiences, and even the Academy (the film won Best Makeup and received a total of four nominations), Abrams chose not to rush headfirst into a sequel. Four years later, with the follow-up finally hitting theaters, it’s clear that he made the right call by taking the time to think ideas for the next installment through completely, though evidently none of the deep thought thart the finished product shows went into a title (that’s right, no colon, no number, nothing). Quibbles aside, Star Trek Into Darkness is a thrilling, smart, imaginative, and satisfying sequel worthy of its respected namesake.

With introductions out of the way, Into Darkness focuses on telling a great story with a terrific cast of characters. This time around, the crew of the USS Enterprise find themselves on a mission of retribution. After Starfleet officer John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, of Sherlock fame) defects and commits a series of devastating terrorist attacks on Earth, Captain James C. Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew travel to a war-zone planet in Klingon territory to capture him so he can face judgment for his crimes, unwittingly playing right into their enemy’s hands. As its title suggests, this Trek is grittier and more intense; the villain, topically, is a vicious terrorist with a murky agenda of his own. Corruption, sacrifice, politics, revenge, and betrayal all play roles in the story, while the darkness of the title also refers to the indecision and fears of the Enterprise’s crew, particularly those of Kirk and Spock. Harrison manipulates the crew into questioning their own morals, giving Into Darkness some added depth that elevates it high above typical sci-fi fare.

All of the characters, not just those two, are really at the core of what makes Into Darkness work. Abrams doesn’t sacrifice character development for action, strengthening the crew’s connections and personalities even as he pits them against unimaginable odds. Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) are struggling to make a relationship work as the story starts out. First Lieutenant Scotty (Simon Pegg) has serious moral quandaries with the Enterprise’s assignment, while Kirk grapples with his failures both as a leader and as a man. It isn’t all doom-and-gloom, however. The witty banter between Kirk and Spock is at an all-time high, and comedy relief characters Dr. ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban) and Scotty are both terrific in their roles, managing to capture the heart and soul of the Enterprise.

The newcomers are also strong. Cumberbatch is a much more compelling villain than Eric Bana’s bland Romulan in the 2009 Trek, bringing a menacing gravitas and dangerous verve to the physically-imposing Harrison, a super-human with equal penchant for skull-crushing and monologuing (sometimes simultaneously). His scenes alongside Pine and Quinto hum with a nervous energy and are among the film’s best (and without giving any spoilers, die-hard Trekkies may go into hysterics when a great twist halfway through reveals him to be one of the Enterprise’s greatest foes). Pete Weller sinks his teeth into a sizable role as Admiral Marcus, head of Starfleet. Finally, the gorgeous, talented Alice Eve is a great addition to the cast as the admiral’s daughter Carol Marcus, a love interest for Kirk who will hopefully have a larger part in the series’ inevitable third installment.

Abrams’ flair for visuals is used to great effect in Into Darkness; the movie has no shortage of memorable edge-of-your-seat action sequences. Though his trademark shaky-cam and lens flare effects sometimes distract from the action, the geek auteur does a solid job of keeping the film moving and creating some terrific set-pieces. The Enterprise has never looked better, and Abrams’ future Earth, despite the presence of flying cars, is one of the most realistic to hit big screens in recent memory.

Boosted by a terrific villain, fast-paced storyline, and jaw-dropping action sequences, Star Trek Into Darkness is one of the series’ all-time best, entertaining without ever becoming bloated or overlong. It’s the ultimate intergalactic popcorn pleasure. A

Photo Credit: Forbes.

Review: Iron Man 3


Stark and Potts prepare for battle.

Stark and Potts prepare for battle.

The last time Robert Downey Jr. suited up for adventure without his super-powered pals, the result was a stalled, inferior sequel that made many question how sustainable the Iron Man franchise actually was. Everything that was enjoyable about the original Iron Man – quippy dialogue, exciting action sequences, and an energetic, devil-may-care feel –  vanished in Iron Man 2. And so, Marvel had a lot riding on Iron Man 3 – its responsibility was nothing less than to revitalize the franchise, deliver a massively entertaining popcorn flick, and ensure that people would be asking for more Iron Man for years to come.

Luckily, director Shane Black  (Lethal Weapon) came through with flying colors. He made many great moves with his addition to the franchise, including a change in tone and terrific plot twists. The script (which Black co-wrote with Drew Pearce) is smarter than most, highlighting Tony Stark as a real character and setting up worthy adversaries for him instead of resting on its laurels with big-budget special effects and the movie’s all-but-guaranteed box office success.

The threequel picks up a few months after the Battle of New York featured in The Avengers. Tony Stark (Downey Jr.), once a smug billionaire with playthings of mass destruction, is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Suffering PTSD after an encounter with a Chitauri wormhole, Tony can’t sleep. He spends his days in isolation, tinkering away in the basement of his cliffside Malibu home, drifting away from his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). When agents of the Mandarin, an elusive terrorist played by Ben Kingsley, attack him at his home, destroying the personal world he has fought so hard to protect, Stark suits up again to strike back. Along the way, he uncovers the secrets of a top secret super soldier experiment called Extremis and crosses paths with remorseless scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce).

This third installment in the series is noticeably darker and more serious than its predecessors – the villains of the film are remorseless sociopaths, and Stark’s trademark playboy lifestyle has been shoved aside to portray Stark as a damaged man after the events of The Avengers. Black succeeds in moving the movie along at a breakneck pace, and the story is never heavy or grim enough to forsake its fantastical comic-book origins. The film’s only big flaws arrive in the form of its villains; though the Extremis mutants, glowing with molten heat, are terrific to look at on the screen, their motivations leave a little to be desired, and Pearce’s Killian ultimately becomes a little too megalomaniacal for the film’s own good. However, the finished product is so sleek and fun that it’s easy to overlook the film’s weaker aspects.

Black’s greatest tricks in Iron Man 3 are the sharp plot twists that he conjures up, especially around the Mandarin. The movie’s twists lend it an intelligence that both of its predecessors lacked; for the first time in the entire Marvel franchise, I felt intellectually involved in a superhero movie. As much as it is a fun, go-for-broke comic book spectacular, Iron Man 3 also has a lot on its mind, about politics, about identity, about the nature of heroism, and in particular about America’s War on Terror. Stark says early on in the film that, through his own arrogance, he has created “demons,” and the idea of individuals creating their own adversaries to have someone to fight is a non-too-subtle comment on American foreign policy that manifests itself in a huge way with the Mandarin’s storyline. To say anymore would be spoiling one of Iron Man 3‘s biggest and best surprises.

Black directs his action sequences with a pedal-to-the-medal urgency that the previous films lacked. The Mandarin’s assault on Stark’s home with attack helicopters is a heart-pounding, harrowing sequence, as Stark struggles to utilize his latest invention (armor that literally flies at him piece-by-piece, knocking him around a fair deal as it attaches) while his home crumbles around him. When Stark comes across mutated Extremis soldiers, glowing with molten heat, the ensuing battles decimate entire towns and one large jet but never lose their sense of immediate danger. And the finale, as Iron Man and his suits face off against the Extremis mutants on an oil tanker, is a jaw-droppingly ambitious, endlessly inventive piece of movie magic.

Iron Man 3 benefits from Black’s penchant for spur-of-the-moment humor; Stark’s one-liners have never been better, and he doesn’t even have the best ones. There’s a terrific sight gag with an impeccably-timed turning helmet and hilarious deliveries from everyone from Stark to a nameless Mandarin henchman (after watching Iron Man decimate his fellow henchmen, the poor guy begs, “Don’t shoot, please! Honestly, I hate working here, they are so weird”). Iron Man 3 also features one of the most fun and unexpected pairings in the Marvel Cinematic Universe;  when Stark crash-lands in a rural Tennessee town, he is forced to team up with Harley, a precocious, potato-gun-wielding kid (played by Ty Simpkins) who gets a fair number of great lines of his own.

All of the performances in Iron Man 3 are terrific. Downey Jr. finally gets to show off his dramatic range in this installment, presenting a more haunted Stark, plagued by nightmares and terrors he can’t accept. His manic energy is less of a playboy swagger this time around than an ineffective mask behind which he hides his crippling insecurities and anxieties. Watching him struggle to stay functional throughout the movie adds a human element to the larger-than-life character. Funnily enough, he spends less time in the suit in this outing than in the previous installments (it can even be remotely controlled at this point), but that doesn’t necessarily feel like a bad thing. When Stark infiltrates the Mandarin’s hideout using only weapons he cobbled together from a Home Depot, it’s more exhilarating than anything he does while inside his armor. Ultimately, it becomes clear that the idea Iron Man has transcended the suits and weaponry – Tony Stark, in his transformation from playboy to selfless hero, can truly claim by the end of the film that, even without his suits, he will always be Iron Man.

Kingsley walks a delicate line with his Mandarin, but it’s a beautifully measured, consistently surprising performance, and as he growls lines like “You’ll never see me coming” with a Joker-meets-Colonel Kurtz malevolence, you can tell that Kingsley is having a blast. Guy Pearce, at his nastiest, plays Killian with a sneering viciousness. Whereas the Mandarin is more a physically jarring villain, Killian appears as a wolf in sheep’s clothing but is ultimately no less deadly. Paltrow makes the best of the little she has for most of the movie, but she emerges as a kick-ass heroine reminiscent of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in the glorious finale. Don Cheadle, as Tony’s iron-clad buddy Colonel Rhodes (known to the press as War Machine and Iron Patriot), brings a physical spryness and nervous energy to the role that Terrence Howard (who played Rhodes in the first Iron Man) clearly lacked. Sadly, Rebecca Hall is woefully underutilized as a botanist involved with the Extremis program, barely sticking on screen long enough to register. Finally, Simpkins is a terrific addition as Harley, making me hope that Marvel finds a way to include him in future movies.

Iron Man 3 proves that there’s still a lot of life in this franchise, though it will be hard for other directors to top the thrills and smarts of this installment. Black’s blistering, boisterous direction and intelligent script ultimately elevate this threequel above typical blockbuster fare. If Marvel wants to keep their franchises fresh, they need to try to replicate this movie’s success by thinking creatively with their directors and storylines. Because it’s brave, smart, and surprising, but most of all because it’s overwhelmingly entertaining, Iron Man 3 is a ride well-worth taking. A-

Image Courtesy: ScreenCrush.

Movies to Look Forward to in May

The Great Gatsby – Baz Luhrmann’s lavish take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel of love in the Roaring Twenties will certainly be a treat for the senses, but I’m optimistic that it will also highlight the story’s fascinating characters and remain faithful to Fitzgerald’s weighty themes of corruption, extravagance, and heartbreak. With actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, and Joel Edgerton on board, and Baz Luhrmann’s distinctive visual flair, this Gatsby is actually starting to look pretty great. DiCaprio looks perfectly cast as the titular Gatsby, a mysterious millionaire who embarks on an affair with the shallow, materialistic Daisy Buchanan (Mulligan). This adaptation has a lot of potential, and if it is received with the same adoration that readers still show the novel after more than half a century, Gatsby could be the runaway hit of the year.

DiCaprio channels his inner Gatsby.

DiCaprio channels his inner Gatsby.

Iron Man 3 – In this, the third outing for Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, the man in the iron suit is confronted by his most dangerous foe yet, a mysterious terrorist called the Mandarin. As Tony’s personal world is torn apart by a ruthless foe, he embarks on a quest for vengeance. With Lethal Weapon helmer Shane Black at the wheel, Iron Man 3 is poised to erase the empty, dull spectacles of its predecessor with a more grounded, intense, and certainly dark storyline. When you look at the supporting cast, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, and (in an inspired bit of casting) Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin, Iron Man 3’s critical and commercial success are all but assured. A smaller but just as action-packed superhero piece might be just the kick Marvel needs to start its Phase Two group of films after the colossal grandeur of The Avengers.

Tony Stark rallies his troops in this official concept art.

Tony Stark rallies his troops in this official concept art.

Star Trek Into Darkness – It took long enough, but geek god JJ Abrams’ follow-up to his 2009 resuscitation of the Star Trek franchise is finally here. And, like Iron Man 3, JJ Abrams is taking the crew of the USS Enterprise on a darker, more serious adventure this time around. When an unstoppable terrorist attacks Earth and targets Starfleet, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew track him to a war-torn world, where they find themselves fighting for their lives. The film’s ace in the hole is certainly its villain, played by Sherlock actor Benedict Cumberbatch, about whom Abrams and the rest of the cast have been strangely silent. Whoever Cumberbatch turns out to be (my money’s on a relation of Khan), audiences are in for an exhilarating space adventure.

Spock and Kirk face off against new adversary John Harrison.

Spock and Kirk face off against new adversary John Harrison.

Fast and Furious 6 – Usually, I wouldn’t get excited for a Vin Diesel action vehicle, especially a sequel. However, the Fast series’ last two installments have been surprisingly solid popcorn flicks with originality and a gleeful devil-may-care feel. This time around, the series moves even further away from its street-racing origins, as Dom Torreto (Diesel) and his crew team up with former adversary DSS Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) to take down criminal mastermind Owen Shaw. Torreto must try to keep his emotions in check when he learns that his girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), whom he believed dead, is alive and working with Shaw. Expect another edge-of-your-seat blockbuster with flair to spare.

A member of Torreto's team takes a leap of faith.

A member of Torreto’s team takes a leap of faith.

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