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Iron Man (2008)

06/09/2011 1 comment

Hello, ladies. Look at Tony Stark. Now look at your man. Now back at Tony Stark. Does your man look like Tony Stark? No. Can he smell like Tony Stark? Well, maybe. Is your man the heir to one of the most lucrative weapons manufacturing industries in the world? Does your man have three summer homes and 26 expensive cars? Look down. Look up. Where are you now? You’re at a party, with the superhero your man could smell like. Anything is possible with Tony Stark.

Iron Man is a superhero film directed by Jon Favreau, based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name created by Stan Lee. It stars Robert Downey, Jr., Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jeff Bridges.

Tony Stark is an engineering genius, rich playboy, and currently the head of Stark Industries, a military contracting company he inherited from his father. While his father’s old partner Obadiah Stane takes care of things stateside, Stark travels to Afghanistan to demonstrate the new Jericho missile, only to have his convoy attacked by terrorists on the way back to base. Stark is injured in the attack and taken hostage by a group called the Ten Rings, where he finds that a fellow hostage, Dr. Yinsen, has installed an electromagnet in his chest to prevent shrapnel from entering his heart and killing him. Raza, the leader of the Ten Rings, tells Stark that he can buy his freedom by building them a Jericho missile. Doubting Raza will keep his word, Stark instead builds a suit of powered armor that runs off an arc reactor he builds to power his electromagnet. During the course of his escape, Stark discovers the Ten Rings has weaponry built by Stark Industries. Shaken, he vows that Stark Industries will no longer manufacture weapons. However, he thinks his suit is neat and just needs refinement, so being a good little nerd he hacks away at the design in his workshop. When he discovers that more Stark Industries weapons have been delivered to Ten Rings, Stark realizes his new calling – to use his suit for good to atone for the destruction that Stark Industries has caused with its weaponry. Little does he suspect that someone close to him has other plans for his powered armor…

I will admit that when I first saw Iron Man, I wasn’t as familiar with this particular Marvel character as I was with, say, Spider-Man or the X-Men, and with most of these established characters there just too much continuity across too many alternate universes to justify trying to dredge up everything with their name on it. Fortunately, the movie offers a crash course in all things Tony Stark, and quickly gets the viewer up to speed, as befits a retelling of his origin story. He is at once arrogant and loveable, a charming rogue who had never needed to take any responsibility save publicity stunts and hobnobbing with the beautiful people. Fortunately, when reality slaps him across the face, he rises to the occasion, proving that under the fun-loving playboy lies a genuinely good heart. While the Ten Rings portion of the plot seemed to be banking on the Afghanistan War, the writing was tight enough that the terrorists never stumbled into Sterotype Land, making them seem like a genuine threat. Back on American soil, it was fun watching Stark’s personality simply bounce off the people around him, particularly in his interactions with his long-suffering assistant Pepper Potts, who acts in turns as a secretary, potential romantic interest, and mother figure to the wayward Tony. Their relationship is deeper than mere professionalism, but while they tease with romance nothing ever seems to come of it.

The story is exciting and action-packed, offering a first look into this budding superhero that never feels forced or artificial. Each event flowed naturally into the next, from the introduction of our disgustingly wealthy hero to his transition into a force for good, without sending him spiralling too far into brooding Batman Land. The plot was a lot of fun to watch, especially as he is tinkering with his original suit, trying to improve it, even as he tests of the various weapons and propulsion systems send him careening into walls. His first flight in the iconic red and gold suit offers shades of Icarus’ first flight; Stark enjoys the hell out of his newfound freedom, even as he learns about the suit’s critical weakness (which, like Icarus, he discovers by trying to fly a high as he can). Stark makes a fun, enjoyable superhero, in stark contrast to his DC counterpart Bruce Wayne. Iron Man fans will also notice a lot of nods to the various comics stories, like the proposed cover story that Iron Man is a bodyguard to Tony Stark, as well as early warning signs of his alcoholism.

Whether you’re a longtime reader of the Iron Man comics or a newcomer who really digs superheroes, I highly recommend Iron Man. Tony Stark offers a fun-loving superhero to the mix that you wouldn’t mind partying with, in between him saving the city.

Jumper (2008)


Here’s an interesting bit of trivia: Hayden Christensen can really act. That is, he can really act when he isn’t being directed to act like an angsty adolescent proto-Sith. (Sorry, Mr. Lucas, sometimes it’s just you.) Need proof? Here’s some proof.

Jumper is a sci fi action film directed by Doug Liman, loosely based on the novel of the same name by Steven Gould. It stars Hayden Christensen, Samuel L. Jackson, Jamie Bell, and Rachel Bilson.

Teenager David Rice has always dreamed of travelling. He gives a snow globe to his crush Millie to impress her, but bullying Mark takes it and throws it onto a frozen lake (no reason, just to be a dick). In the course of trying to retrieve it, David falls through the ice and discovers, under suitably Marvel-Comics circumstances, that he can teleport. Booyah. Now he can travel all he likes, which is great because his mom disappeared when he was five and left him under the care of an abusive father, but he’s going to need some cash to fund him travels. No problem, when you can just bamf into a bank vault… unfortunately, his shenanigans soon land him on the radar of one Roland Cox, a member of an organization of people called Paladins who hunt down and kill people like David, called Jumpers, who have the genetic ability to teleport. No real reason is given, aside from Rolands assertion that Jumpers always go bad, but no matter – Roland & Co. are very well-equipped to track down and contain Jumpers long enough to stab them with a meat cleaver. Or something. Now David finds himself trying to juggle three obligations: impress Millie (who has grown up nicely in the eight years he’s been Jumping), find out more about Jumping (with the help of a twitchy Scotsman who uses his abilities to Jump vehicles and smash treasured ruins), and stay one step ahead of the Paladins (who never really explain what is it that makes Jumpers go bad).

I had medium hopes for Jumper, to the extent that I figured it would be a nice little diversion – action packed, loaded with stunts and effects, and featuring lots of pretty scenery. And, uh, I was right. The Jumping effects, handled by Weta Digital (Peter Jackson’s company, responsible for stuff like District 9 and Avatar) were impressive, frequently showing the Jump from the Jumper’s point of view, and offers such delights as Jumping a doubledecker bus on top of a Paladin or a three-dimensional jig up, over, and around rush hour traffic is a really Nice Car that’s just been Jumped through a display window. Hayden Christensen fares well through the effect-laden movie, establishing himself as a hedonist escaping a sucky childhood, only to be thrown into mortal danger for reasons he doesn’t understand, set against Jamie Bell as his relictant mentor in all things Jumping and Samuel L Jackson as the most tenacious authority figure this side of Deputy Sam Gerard. And with all the interweaving subplots the movie sets up, this looks like it would be an engaging movie somewhere at the intersection of The Bourne Identity and X-Men.

Unfortunately, it becomes clear that this movie was made with sequels firmly in mind. How many subplots are set up? Four or five, thereabouts. How many get resolved at the end? ONE. TEMPORARILY. Seriously, movie, you CANNOT set up an action-packed, effects-filled arms race between Jumpers and the mundanes who hunt them, and then just END. There has to be some sort of denouement so we know that, yeah, this section of the overarching story is coming to a close, but our intrepid hero’s journey is just beginning. At least have the common decency to give us a compelling cliffhanger if you’re going to Just End, otherwise one is left feeling like they just watched half a movie because the filmmakers were too damn lazy to finish it. What makes things worse is the fact that the movie is less than an hour and a half long. Seriously, it’s okay to make a long movie if you have more story to tell. If you have enough plot to carry it, people will watch. Really.

In the end, while Jumper was exciting and action-packed, with a lot of neat special effects and a lot of promise and carried me along well, but the clumsy field amputation of an ending left me waiting for a sequel only so I could see a proper ending to the story. Give this one a miss until the next one comes out.

Snakes on a Plane (2006)


Okay, think of things that scare you. Think long and hard. Scared of flying? Congratulations – you share the #1 fear amongst Americans. Scared of snakes? Hey, that’s a major fear as well, and an instinct hardwired into our psyche. Guess what? New Line Cinema decided to put them together in one movie, added Samuel L. Jackson, and stirred. A simple concept, with a simple plot.

They called it Snakes on a Plane. And it was awesome.

Snakes on a Plane is an action-horror film directed by David R. Ellis and starring Samuel L. Jackson, Julianna Marguiles, and Nathan Philips, along with lots and lots of snakes and just enough of a plot to contain them all.

While Sean Jones is vacationing in Hawaii, he witnesses a gangster named Eddie Kim murdering a witness, and naturally finds himself on Kim’s hit list. FBI Agent Neville Flynn is assigned to get Sean safely back to the mainland so he can testify against Kim in Los Angeles, putting Sean in first class on a passenger jet under security so tight it seems that Kim won’t be able to get within a mile of him. However, Kim has managed to come up with the only plan that the FBI hasn’t trained for: a time-released crate filled with hundreds of venomous snakes. After we meet a number of airline disaster sterotypes sharing the jet with Sean, the plane takes off, and midway through the flight the crate pops open. Naturally, snakes ensue.

Now, by the time this movie was made, the serious airline disaster movie had already been ruined forever by Airplane!, but the disaster genre as a whole had recently experienced a resurgence through the 90s and the turn of the 21st century. The “serious” disaster movie had been completely supplanted by the “fun” disaster movie, and that’s exactly what this is. In essence this is the Scream of airline disaster movies – a self-referential work poking fun at its own genre even as it offers thrills and scares (I mean, how can being stuck in an aluminum tube at 23,000 feet with hundreds of snakes not be scary?) Eddie Kim, the theoretical driving force for the core of the plot, drops almost entirely out of the movie once the plane takes off, but that’s okay – the movie wasn’t really about him to start with.

The casting was well-done here. Samuel L. Jackson is badass as usual as a no-nonsense FBI Agent opposite a terrified Nathan Phillips as Sean Jones, each trying to deal with the crisis in their own way. A few fun facts: news of Jackson’s casting largely inspired the fan-written line about motherf***ing snakes on a motherf***ing plane, but he threatened to drop out when his agent wanted to change the very descriptive title Snakes on a Plane to something more serious, on the theory that Jackson “can’t work” on a movie called Snakes on a Plane. Jackson assured his agent that the very awesome title was the only reason he wanted to work on the movie in the first place. And this is why he is awesome. In the supporting cast, we have a bevy of airline disaster stereotypes: the nervous guy who hates to fly, the ditzy blonde socialite with the yipyap dog, the unapproachable celebrity, the arrogant businessman who hates everyone else on the flight, the kids flying alone, the horny couple in the Mile High Club, the woman with the baby, the retiring flight attendant on “one last flight”, and the ambiguously gay male flight attendant. However, since this movie is already playing with its own genre, it plays with the supporting cast as well: the unapproachable celeb is a germophone, the woman with the baby helps draw venom out of a kid’s arm, the kid’s brother helps a herpetologist determine what snake bit the former, and the ambiguously gay flight attendant isn’t gay, just really enthusiastic. (Yes, seriously.)

If you like disaster movies and are looking for a fun homage to the airline disaster movie, absolutely check out Snakes on a Plane. It’s the movie inspired by a hundred airline disasters which in turn inspired a hundred internet memes.

Jurassic Park (1993)


“You did it. You crazy son of a bitch, you did it.”

When Steven Spielberg announced that he was going to make a movie called Jurassic Park, about a theme park populated by dinosaurs, every nerd in the world perked up their collective ears. Spielberg had already established himself as an influential director that doesn’t make a habit of settling for half-measures, and every human being is hard-wired to get excited about dinosaurs. Put the two together, and it sounded like a match made in heaven.

Guess what? It was.

Jurassic Park is a science fiction thriller based on the novel of the same name by Michael Crichton. It stars Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, and lots of really awesone-looking dinosaurs.

It sounds like a great idea: use revolutionary genetic analysis techniques to clone dinosaurs from blood samples gained from mosquitoes preserved in amber. Billionaire eccentric John Hammond thinks so, anyway, and he has decided to build a dinosaur theme park of Isla Nublar, a small island 87 miles off the coast of Costa Rica, populating the exhibits with his cloned dinos. However, after one of the dino handlers gets shredded to hell by a velociraptor a minor incident with one of the dinosaurs, Hammond’s investors get spooked and send in their lawyer, Gennaro, to check things out. Hammond agrees to send two experts on a tour of the park. He invites paleontologist Alan Grant and his wife/fiancee, paleobotanist Ellie Sattler, for the privilege, offering to fund their research for the next three years in exchange; they agree and join the tour group, along with chaotician Ian Malcolm, Gennaro, and two of Hammond’s grandchildren, dino enthusiast Timmy and computer nerd hacker Lexi. Hammond hopes to prove to Gennaro once and for all that the park is absolutely safe. After all, he spared no expense.

Little does he know that his head computer programmer, Dennis Nedry, is an under-the-radar employee of BioSyn, a corporate rival of Hammond’s company InGen that has paid Nedry a king’s ransom to acquire some of Hammond’s dinosaur embryos. As the tour starts, Nedry sets his plan in motion, using a program he wrote to disable the entire park’s security systems – after all, he designed them. By the time anyone realizes what Nedry has done, the automated Range Rovers carrying the happy tourists through the park have been halted in their tracks, leaving their passengers stranded near the T-Rex paddock. What was going to be a nice outing in a theme park full of cloned dinosaurs is rapidly turning into a terrifying fight to survive in a theme park full of cloned dinosaurs, as Our Intrepid Heroes try to get to safety and get the security systems back online…

I saw this movie in the theater the summer it came out, and I was left with the impression that Steven Spielberg + Stan Winston = GOOD THINGS. The dinosaurs were a seamless combination of animatronics and CGI, and even the CG dinosaurs seemed to have real weight to them, especially the skyscraper-sized Brachiosaur that served as the viewer’s first look at OMG DINOSAURS. The velociraptors showed a chilling level of cunning, particularly as they chased Timmy and Lex through the visitors’ center, that matched up well with game warden Muldoon’s apparently genuine admiration and fear of them. And the T-rex, the first major predatory dino the visitors encounter, looks like he really wanted to chase you down and eat you. There were difficulties, of course: scenes with the animatronic rex in the simulated rain had to be stopped again and again, as water soaking into the rex’s rubber skin gave it the shakes. And a few liberties had to be taken with some of the “star” dinos for the sake of pure awesome (and because this was what we knew of them at the time): the velociraptors were built on a scale closer to that of the much larger Deinonychus to make them more scary, but that was made okay with the discovery of Utahraptor. The dilophosaur probably didn’t have a frill, but Nedry really needed to have that final OH CRAP moment. Dozens of animal sounds were mixed together to creature unique calls for all the dinosaurs, and all the elements mixed together extremely well, helping the audience believe that the dinosaurs were real.

The human cast also did very well, here, both in discussing the potential problems of the dinosaur park (only Malcolm descended into the filibustering that would become Crichtons unfortunate trademark in later books) and in acting and reacting against the dinosaur effects. Neill and Dern as Grant and Sattler convinced me that they knew their respective fields well, while Jeff Goldblum, as always, plays the deadpan twitchy genius Ian Malcom. Richard Attenborough plays Hammond as more of a child-friendly Walt Disney expy than the greedy bastard he was in the book, only wanting a nice diversion for the kiddies (and therefore he is spared the book’s death-by-zerg-rush). Bob Peck as Muldoon was pretty much the great white hunter, knowing full well how dangerous the raptors were, while Wayne Knight is every character he has ever played, making me want to give him a swift kick in the face regardless of his intended corporate espionage. The actors really made the dinosaurs work, though, and without them and the tight plot this movie would have just been a crapton of flashy effects without any real substance to them.

In conclusion, while the special effects are easy to take for granted nowadays and certain dinosaur portrayals are now out-of-date, Jurassic Park remains a fun, eye-popping roller-coaster ride through the dreams of a wealthy entrepreneur, forced to watch his vision turn into a nightmare. This movie will be one of my favorites for a long time.

The Incredibles (2004)


“WHERE. IS. MY. SUPER. SUIT?”

Being a superhero is tough. You need to be everywhere, to do everything for everybody, and you need to maintain a civilian identity in order to protect yourself and your loved ones. Sometimes you make mistakes – unforgiveable ones.

Being a retired ex-superhero can also be tough. You need to be everywhere, to do everything for everybody, and you need to maintain a full-time civilian job to keep a roof over your head and to support your wife and 2.3 kids. And sometimes mistakes come back to haunt you…

The Incredibles is a computer-animated superhero comedy produced by Pixar and directed by Brad Bird. It features the voices of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Spencer Fox, Jason Lee, Elizabeth Peña, and Samuel L. Jackson.

In a world where people called “supers” possess metahuman abilities, Mr. Incredible (Nelson) used to have a good thing going. Using his super-strength, he would save lives in his old stomping grounds of Municiberg, with enough time left over afterwards to court and eventually wed a fellow super named Elastigirl (Hunter), who can stretch her body into any shape. (I think there’s a fetish for that in Japan.) Mr. Incredible also has fans, among them a high-Intelligence low-Wisdom fanboy calling himself Incrediboy (Lee), who has no innate superpowers but builds James-Bond-like gadgets in the hopes of becoming Mr. Incredible’s sidekick. Mr. Incredible rejects his attempts, however, stating that he works alone. Eventually, though, frivolous lawsuits from injured bystanders make the world hostile for superheroes, forcing all of them to retire and take up civilian lives.

Fifteen years later, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl live unhappily in suburbia as Bob and Helen Parr. Of their children, Violet (Vowell) can produce forcefields and turn herself invisible, and Dash (Fox) can run faster than the eye can see, but the newest addition, baby Jack-Jack, appears to be an average child. They are all forced to hide their abilities and masquerade as normal humans, a restriction that is starting to chafe on all of them, particularly Bob, who rankles at his desk job at an insurance company, has gained weight, and must sneak out with his best friend Frozone (Jackson, as himself), likewise forcibly retired and married to a woman only identified as “Honey”, to fight crime on the sly. When Bob’s boss refuses to let him aid a pedestrian getting mugged right outside their building, Bob loses his temper, causing him to get fired from what appears to be only the latest in a long series of civilian jobs. Before he can tell his wife that they will have to move again, he is contacted by a mysterious woman named Mirage (Peña), who offers him a chance to return to his old life as a superhero. He jumps at the chance, never suspecting that this decision will send him hurtling into a collision course with the fallen Incrediboy…

This affectionate deconstruction/reconstruction of the superhero movie was quite enjoyable, exploring the difficulties of being a superhuman in a mundane world, trying to live a normal family-oriented life when forced to turn your back on something you enjoyed. The respective powers of the Parr family make sense for their family roles: Bob is superstrong, allowing him to protect his family; Helen’s elasticity allows herself to stretch across the respective roles of homemaker, wife, and mom, as well as keeping up with her kids; superspeedy Dash is your typical hyperactive kid turned up to eleven, and the initially shy and insecure Violet uses her invisibility powers to hide from a male classmate on whom she has a massive crush. And Jack-Jack… boy howdy. When his powers finally manifest every mom watching the movie will be smiling and nodding.

The plot is also darker than Pixar’s previous films, coming right out and telling the viewer that being a superhero can really, really suck. It doesn’t shy away from the possibility of death; rather, Helen Parr comes right out and tells her kids that Syndrome’s minions will not hesitate to kill them, even though they’re just kids. Add to this the number of supers either killed on-screen or whose deaths are mentioned, and you’ve got what amounts to Watchmen, with a brighter palette. Syndrome is utterly psychotic, better filed with villains like the Joker than, say, Megavolt from Darkwing Duck, and his plan to make the supers obsolete, while smacking of disproportionate restribution, does have a genuine foundation in his past rather than being, “Hey, I’m a villain – I’m supposed to act like this!” Fans of DC and Marvel comics will find a lot of oblique references sprinkled throughout this movie as well, not least of which is a correlation between the Parr family and the Fantastic Four.

If you like self-referential, deconstructive superhero movies but don’t have enough anti-depressants for Watchmen (or if you have kids), try The Incredibles. It’s fun and serious in turns, but ultimately satisfies any superhero fan.

1408 (2007)


Ah, Stephen King.

In the thirty-mumble years he’s been writing horror, a lot of his work has naturally been adapted to the screen. The results have been… mixed. At the high end we find The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, and Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, the latter of which scared the everloving piss out of its audience and remains a classic in its genre. At the low end we have movies like Maximum Overdrive, The Langoliers, and Children of the Corn.

I am happy to say that 1408 is at the upper end of this spectrum.

Released in 2007, 1408 stars John “Say Anything” Cusack and Samuel L. “Snakes on a Plane” Jackson, with Tony “Hey It’s That Guy” Shalhoub in a minor role. It was directed by Mikael Håfström and adapted from King’s short story of the same name.

Mike Enslin (Cusack) is a horror writer who travels across the country investigating so-called “haunted” sites, documenting his experiences and rating each one on his “Shiver” scale from one to ten skulls. However, he has become cynical and jaded, failing to observe any genuine hauntings amid a lot of hype and atmosphere offered by otherwise unnoticed flyspecks wanting to drum up business. This changes when he receives in his usual pile of mailed suggestions one entry that piques his interest – a postcard from the Dolphin Hotel, inscribed with a warning: “Don’t stay in 1408.” Of course, this is the equivalent of saying to anyone in a horror movie “Don’t go in the woods,” “Don’t investigate that spooky house,” and especially “Don’t read the demon summoning spell in that book bound in human skin and then record it for the next bunch of unlucky campers to stumble across and start everything all over again. YOU. DUMBASS.” So naturally Mike wants to stay in 1408.

To his surprise, not only does the staff of the Dolphin not welcome the stay of a pseudo-famous writer in the infamous 1408, but the manager, Gerald Olin (Jackson) actively tries to discourage him, showing him photographs and news clippings of all the suicides (lots) and accidental deaths (fewer, but still statistically high) that occurred in the room, each one occurring within an hour of the victim’s arrival. Olin asserts that there is nothing in the room – the room itself is malevolent. Mike is impressed by all the trouble Olin is going through to warn him about this scary scary haunting, and decides to stay anyway. Finally, Olin acquiesces, and Mike gets his hotel room.

And Mike discovers that Olin was absolutely right.

This movie is unique amongst haunting stories in that there is, as Olin makes clear, no actual concrete presence in the room, no phantom or demon for the audience to hate. It’s just a hotel room, and so the audience rides along with Mike’s building frustration and fraying sanity as the room drags him kicking and screaming into the darkest corners of his own troubled psyche, forcing him to confront the death of his daughter Katie (of some unspecified illness) a year before, and his subsequent estrangement from his wife. The room’s visions are unbearably cruel, soon seizing on Mike’s powerlessness to save his family, and twist the knife over and over while Mike struggles to outwait an hour-long countdown (helpfully provided by the clock radio in the room), hoping against hope that when the hour is up, the room will be done with him, while intermittently being taunted by the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” as the leitmotif of unfathomable evil.

I haven’t seen many movies that manage to pull off the evil genius loci effectively, but 1408 manages pretty well. The idea of being trapped in a confined area that hates you shovels on the paranoia fuel in a way not seen since the Wall Monsters of early D&D. More than that, it can dig into your mind and conjure up the most traumatic memories you have, meaning you have no defense because it’s like being tortured by your own brain. More than that, 1408 will happily put you in an endless feedback loop of your own worst fears, but it won’t kill you. Oh no. That would be too easy. It makes you kill yourself, like the unholy spawn of Jigsaw and the Overlook Hotel.

John Cusack certainly had his work cut out for him, carrying the bulk of the action opposite an evil hotel room, but he pulled it off. As the room hits him with more and more nightmares, you really get a sense that rather than being the two-dimensional jerk he might have been in a lesser movie, Enslin is a real person, with a real history and genuine reasons for what he does. On some level he wants to believe in an afterlife, because then he has a chance to see Katie again, but as an atheist he can’t even allow himself this solace. And good old Sam Jackson, playing a character originally described as a white middle-aged British man, is comfortably no-nonsense in his relatively brief role as the guardian of his hotel guests and the last barrier between Mike and yet another boring stay in a not-haunted room monstrous, mind-bending psychological torture.

All in all, while the premise is very simple, the execution is brilliantly done, using little details to mess with the viewer’s mind just as the room messes with Mike’s. While the “haunted hotel” thing has already been done by King, here the scares are condensed to a single room, offering a more claustrophobic setting and tenser atmosphere as its hapless victim slowly goes maybe-crazy drowning in his own fears and anxieties. Just try not to rent it next time you’re traveling abroad.