Magnolia

In the San Fernando Valley, a selection seemingly disconnected group of people are going through some fairly heavy moments in their live. Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is dying in bed, being cared for by his nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is tasked with finding Earl’s estranged son. Earl’s much-younger trophy wife, Linda (Julianne Moore), is struggling to deal with the imminent death of her husband. Officer Jim (John C. Reilly) is called to investigate a disturbance, which leads to a potential murder case. Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) is a genius child contestant on the TV Game Show What Do Kids Know?, and is just a few days away from breaking that show’s record of most consecutive wins. Jimmy Gator hosts the show, and has done for decades, but has just been diagnosed with cancer, with just months to live. Jimmy’s daughter, Claudia (Melora Walters), has a difficult relationship with her father, as well as a cocaine habit and various other issues in her life, whilst Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a former child star contestant on the aforementioned TV show, has seen his fame squandered and life thrown in turmoil when he loses his job at an electronics store. Finally, Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) runs a self-help seminar on men who wish to be more successful with ladies. Mid-show, he gives an interview to a reporter (April Grace) that doesn’t necessarily go as he plans. All these stories, and more besides, will become interwoven over the course of the film’s next 24 hours.
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Labor Day

In a small town in Massachusetts in 1987, young Henry (Gattlin Griffith) lives alone with his fragile mother, Adele (Kate Winslet). She hasn’t been the same since the boy’s father left, and her depression has intensified to the point of her becoming a shut-in, only venturing away from the house once a month to collect groceries. On one such trip they encounter Frank (Josh Brolin), who has just escaped from prison and is in need of somewhere to lay low before he catches the next train out of town. Adele reluctantly helps Frank – who quietly yet forcefully insinuates harm will come to them if they do not help – but due to it being a holiday weekend and a lack of trains, Frank is forced to stay with this fractured family, and soon finds himself and Adele getting closer than he had intended.  ????????? Continue reading

Avengers Assemble

Ugh, typing that name made me feel so dirty. Avengers Assemble. Ugh. There was nothing wrong with just The Avengers, no-one was going to go in expecting umbrellas, bowler hats and catsuits, and even if they had been, they’d have got something better anyway. Plus, ‘Assemble’ is possibly the least exciting word to ever appear in a movie title since The Adjustment Bureau.
Now chances are this isn’t the first Avengers review you’ve read, hell chances are this isn’t even the first Avengers review you’ve read that starts off by telling you it’s not the first Avengers review you’ve read, seeing as this is one of those movies (let’s not kid ourselves by calling it a film, this is for entertainment purposes only) seemingly designed to be discussed at length on the Internet. We’ve sat through 4 years of 5 prequels, and for literally years the Internet has been lying in wait to rip apart this inevitable car crash of a movie. Which makes it something of a surprise that not only is it not bad, it’s bloody good.
No-one saw this coming. They said it couldn’t be done. I agreed. The last few Avengers prequels hadn’t been great, especially Iron Man 2 and Captain America (I don’t know what everyone has against Thor, I thought Kenneth Branagh did a good job with a lesser-known character) and I firmly believed that throwing six superheroes at one another in the same film was going to look like something Hulk had sat on. The only things it had going for it were a stellar cast and a solid director in Joss Whedon, of whom I’m unashamedly a fanboy (other than I’ve never seen an episode of Buffy or Angel). Whedon is known for handling rambling, ensemble casts (Firefly) and has always managed to balance action with snappy dialogue, drama with romance and a hefty dollop of comedy, but I didn’t think there was a great enough female presence here to draw his attention, with Black Widow as the only main girl. So, going in, my hopes were high but my expectations primed for mediocrity, so it’s a pleasure to say that I honestly can’t think of many ways the film could have been handled better.
Essentially, this is an origin movie. What’s unusual is that most of the main characters have already had at least one movie of their own, mostly origin stories, so what we have here is the beginnings of a culmination of pre-established characters. You don’t necessarily need to have seen all of the other films before watching this one, but I think it’d help, as the plot is partially set-up within Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America, in terms of the basis of the Avengers, the bad guy and the maguffin. I saw this with my girlfriend, who hadn’t seen Thor but had all the rest, and she didn’t need much explaining to her other than that Thor’s devious brother Loki isn’t played by Michael Fassbender, but is instead the brilliant Tom Hiddleston, who performs ably as the primarily sole lead bad guy against an entire team of heroes.
It would have been very easy, and very foolish, to have made this Iron Man & Co, seeing as Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is undoubtedly the most enigmatic and entertaining character on screen, yet wisely Whedon scaled down the potential for the Stark Show into giving him just as much time on screen as everyone else. There is no lead character here, everyone gets their moments, no-one is our entry point into the team and there appears to be no jostling for the limelight. In fact, the first people we meet are the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill and the ever dependable Clark Gregg’s Coulson (“Phil? His first name is Agent.”). These guys, along with existing Avengers members Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) then set about recruiting the rest of the team from across the world (and a little bit further, in Thor’s case).
Once recruited, the plot revolves around a Transformers-esque power cube known as the Tesseract that Loki has obtained, and intends to use to rule the Earth. Yadda-yadda-ya, it’s not all that important, and isn’t what you’re here to see. No, we’re here to watch some superheroes fight, bicker, argue and smash. I’ve heard arguments that there isn’t quite enough action in this 142-minute movie to satisfy, but I found the dialogue scenes to be just as entertaining. As expected, the superheroes, all previously alphas in their own movies, don’t initially gel together all that easily, and Iron Man keeps the insults flying at his comrades (Thor is referred to as “Shakespeare in the park,” Captain America is ribbed for being an old man). It’s clear this isn’t just friendly banter.
When the action scenes do come along, including one mid-way through worthy of any summer tentpole finale, they will have you marvelling at everything. And the actual finale, involving a mass brawl around New York City, features an incredible tracking shot that finds all the Avengers showing off the only way they know how, that I can only fault by being not long enough. Granted, with such a large cast there are occasional incidents of characters appearing to be forgotten or sidelined temporarily whilst the others are front and centre, but this isn’t too noticeable at the time, and doesn’t distract from the action.
Unlike his previous films, here the Hulk is neither under nor overused, and is easily one of the best aspects of the movie. Mark Ruffalo, taking the giant green reins from Edward Norton, delivers possibly the greatest Hulk yet, portraying Dr. Bruce Banner as an amiable everyman only too aware of the situation he’s in. He’s rewarded with some of the best, and funniest moments from the film, not least his one-on-one meeting with Loki.
Whedon seems unable to let a few trademarks go, though discussing them could be delving a little too deep into spoiler territory, but look out for a couple of cameos from his other projects, as well as appearances from Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany and Stellan Skarsgard all reprising roles from the prequels. Natalie Portman, however, is conspicuous only by her absence. Bizarrely, the likes of Powers Boothe, Harry Dean Stanton and Jenny Agutter also crop up in tiny roles.
Some moments seem entirely shot for trailers, and I was a bit annoyed that my knowledge of Marvel’s upcoming slate and a couple of shots from the trailers ensured that some of the would-be tense moments were obviously going to be resolved (albeit awesomely), but that’s my fault for watching trailers. There is a scene to wait for after the credits, but unless you’re a fan of the comic books there’s really no point, as I had no idea what the scene was about when it appeared until I delved around the web once home. All-in-all, I’ve very little to fault about the film, other than the incessant use of ass-level shots as characters walks away from the camera. I’m genuinely tempted to go and watch it again at the cinema, something to this day I’ve never done before, and I’m not the least bit annoyed that talks are already being made about an Avengers sequel.
Choose film 9/10

Unlisted: Iron Man 2

Yesterday I discussed the near flawlessness that is Iron Man, and whilst all these praises remain for the sequel, it suffered from having far greater levels of hype, anticipation and expectation. It seemed that all who had loved the first couldn’t wait for the second, everyone wanted more, and more was most certainly what they got, especially when it comes to an overabundance of supporting characters, superfluous plot strands and men in metal suits hitting each other. Where the original finale, with Stark and his business partner, Jeff Bridges Obediah Stane, knocking seven bells out of each other in their rocket-propelled armour, seemed fresh, new and exciting, in the sequel we get something similar not once, but three times, as well as two metal men fighting an army of remote-controlled drones and an early confrontation between Stark and new villain Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) at the Monaco Grand Prix. Some of the action set pieces, like the aforementioned meeting, seem a little shoehorned in to put an action beat in place, but are still impressive, and the suiting-up sequences have also been greatly improved upon, especially the Suit-case.
All the supporting characters are back, but Don Cheadle has replaced Terrence Howard (Howard apparently wanted more money than Marvel thought he deserved, and seeing how little he brought to the table in the first film I’m inclined to agree with them) as Rhodes, and all the characters get an expanded upon arc, even director Jon Favreau’s background cameo as driver Hogan gets himself something to do. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts is the new Stark Industries CEO, Rhodes wants a suit to take back to the military, Scarlett Johansson is Tony’s new assistant/undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (a welcome addition to the cast, if only for aesthetic reasons), Tony is in talks with Samuel L. Jackson’s one-eyed Nick Fury about his role in the Avengers, weapons rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is desperate to better Stark and bird-obsessed Vanko aims to settle the score regarding his father working with Stark’s dear old Dad (Mad Men’s John Slattery). See, that’s a really long sentence. Far too much to take in. The first film was streamlined, with not much chaff around the wheat, but here there’s just too many strands. I didn’t even mention that the arc reactor keeping Stark alive is also killing him, a completely unnecessary plot point that adds nothing and is resolved by the end, so doesn’t affect the series, but takes up about 20 minutes of screen time. Even with so much going on, the film is 5 minutes shorter than the first, but feels half an hour longer, as boredom sets in from watching metal men punch each other repeatedly.
Even more so than in Iron Man, this feels like a prequel to the Avengers, especially with Johansson’s Black Widow, bigger roles for Nick Fury and Agent Coulson and references to Captain America and Thor. That, and the film’s finale feeling disappointing after a protracted build up leaves this film with all the entertaining pats of the first, but an unfulfilling sequel that doesn’t take them anywhere. Favreau has since dropped out of part three, but Kiss Kiss Bang Bang director Shane Black has stepped up instead. He’s worked with Downey Jr. on one of his best roles to date, so here’s hoping.
Choose life 6/10

Iron Man

Iron Man was the superhero movie we were all waiting for, we just didn’t know it; discovering the missing ingredient from all those that came before it – comedy. Though many that came before it weren’t overly serious, dark or gritty, they still took themselves too seriously, but Iron Man ensures a thick vein of comedy runs right the way through it. Released over 2 months before the masked behemoth and current comic book movie touchstone The Dark Knight, Iron Mancame out of nowhere with an untested star and middling director in Robert Downy Jr, and Jon Favreau. RDJ was still making his comeback after years of exile from Hollywood due to substance abuse, and Favreau’s most mainstream work was Christmas classic Elf, but he wasn’t exactly known for blockbusters, but after the movie’s release both found themselves sitting pretty on the A list.
Stark is such a great creation. By his own admission a “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist,” yet Downey Jr. somehow makes such a character not only likable, but one you’d willingly like to go for a drink with, and not just because he’d not only pick up the tab, but probably already owns the bar. He ably assisted by Gwyneth Paltrow and Terrence Howard as his dependable assistant and best friend, and Jeff Bridges is on fine menacing-brow villain mode as Obediah Stane, the business partner of Stark’s deceased father.
Iron Man has an advantage over other superhero stories in that Stark’s story is actually interesting. A twist of fate doesn’t have him bitten by a spider, he isn’t an alien from a distant planet and he isn’t avenging his parent’s death. No, Stark had all of his superpowers before the film even starts. Wealth, intelligence, a sharp with and an immaculate goatee are goals he’s worked towards and achieved; he just needed the push to fit them all together in the form of a titanium-gold alloy flying suit with a rocket launcher and flamethrower, and what greater motivation than a terrorist attack against him, using the very weapons his company created? This means that the villains are also people every can be against – terrorists and the evil corporation heads who supply them.
The best scenes involve the subtle yet inspired gadgetry around Stark’s house, from the Paul Bettany-voiced quasi-butler Jarvis, to the robotic arms that are a little over zealous with the fire extinguisher. The flawless suiting up sequences and Downey Jr. interacting with nothing but a mechanical three clawed appendage aren’t too showy, yet set the film above its rivals.
The only possibly problems are that Howard’s Officer Rhodes is bland, but then who wouldn’t be compared to Stark, and the Stane-is-a-villain story arc is clearly signposted from the get-go, having been given the perfect set-up as the man who took on Stark Industries when it’s CEO passed away, only to be muscled out by some upstart genius, that and his full head with a thick, lustrous beard mean at some point in the near future he’ll be laughing with maniacal glee and threatening the hero’s love interest. Now that the Avengers (sorry, Avengers Assemble) is in place, this film does seem like a bit of a precursor to it, especially the scenes involving Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson, which don’t really add anything here other than some fanboy cheers every time someone says Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, but the scenes don’t detract too much, and can be forgiven as they tie everything up nicely.
Otherwise, the film is pretty much perfect, and remains enjoyable after many viewings.
Choose film 8/10