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Saturday, May 12, 2012

DARK SHADOWS (2012)


When I was but a wee Bunche, the weekday afternoon soap opera DARK SHADOWS (1966-1971) was the first teevee series I was aware of that had a considerable and very visible cult following. The show was a real odd duck of a program, initially designed as a cathode ray analog to the then-popular gothic romance potboiler novel genre and yet quickly failing in the ratings after less than a year on the air. Legend has it that since the show was on its way out anyway, the showrunners felt they had nothing to lose and said "Fuck it, why not?" as they shifted the focus from mundane moody soap proceedings to introduce Barnabas Collins, an 18th century vampire who was an ancestor to the Collins family, the show's original focus. Barnabas' presence turned the soap concept on its ear, allowing a dashing and tortured undead suckface the spotlight, a gamble that took off and led to massive ratings, overnight stardom for the actor who breathed un-life into Barnabas — Canadian thesp Jonathan Frid — an avalanche of merch, and two spinoff theatrical films before the whole thing wound down without an actual conclusion in 1971. (There have also been a couple of attempts at revivals that both died a swift death.) What was a loony piece of innovation born from desperation looks creaky and campy some four-plus decades after the boom, as the shows betray cheap sets (admittedly atmospheric though they were), storylines that were often stretched past the breaking point thanks to the daily serialized format, and the simple fact that the series was a soap and thus heir to the myriad flaws that the genre has built into its basic storytelling DNA. But nostalgia and cult fandom are powerful forces and DARK SHADOWS retains its first-generation loyalists as more join the cult with each passing year, thanks to them discovering it via daily reruns on the SciFi Channel some twenty years back, the Internet, and availability on DVD. (The entire series was recently reissued in a coffin boxed set that retails for a few pennies shy of five-hundred bucks, which is actually a great deal when you do the math and consider that there are just over 1200 episodes to be had.)

With its cult and name-recognition firmly in place, it was only a matter of time until DARK SHADOWS got the big-budget Hollywood remake/re-imagining treatment, and that task ended up in the hands of acclaimed/overrated director Tim Burton, the man who gave us the 2001 version of PLANET OF THE APES, which is widely and justly hailed as one of the worst major motion pictures in recent memory. Remembering some of his earliest films, I was not too bothered by the choice of Burton for the DARK SHADOWS remake/re-imagining because he has proven he can bring a solid eerie flavor to such material. What resulted is a good and fun effort that's nonetheless something of a rather mixed bag, so as of this point this review gets pretty specific, so HERE THERE BE SPOILERS (including a really major one).


Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins, an 18th century vampire set free in the Maine of 1972.

In 1775, wealthy Maine fishing empire scion Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) rejects the fleshly charms of lover and servant girl Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) for the beautiful Josette du Pres (Bella Heathcoate) and discovers the spurned charwoman is in actuality a skilled and vindictive practitioner of the black arts. Moved by her obsessive desire to possess Barnabas body and soul or else, Angelique embarks on a spree of supernatural murder, using her evil witchcraft to crush the Collins elders beneath a large piece of statuary and compel Josette to throw herself from a nearby and very steep oceanside cliff. For his part in all of it, Barnabas ends up cursed to suffer for eternity as a full-fledged vampire and Angelique rallies the locals to capture him, chain him up and bury him alive/undead inside a coffin, where he remains for just shy of two-hundred years. Disinterred in 1972 during a construction dig, Barnabas feasts upon the unfortunate workers who unearthed him and immediately sets off to his family's once-grand estate of Collinwood. There he finds his 2oth century relatives and moves in with them, passing himself off as an eccentric uncle, with only family matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) knowing his secret, which she agrees to keep when he reveals a long-hidden treasure trove that he intends to use to restore the family to its lost state of wealth and success. This he must do while dealing with the considerable dysfunction of his family and attempting to cope with being a fish-out-of-water anachronism, along with weathering the grave and very aggressive threat of Angelique, who has survived, un-aging, for the past two centuries, re-inventing herself every couple of generations while maintaining a fish cannery empire that has reduced the once-mighty Collins cannery to a shadow of its former self. Further complicating matters is the presence of newly-arrived Collins family nanny Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcoate again), who's a dead ringer for Barnabas' lost love, Josette, and who is also gifted with the ability to see ghosts. Will the Collins family survive Angelique's increasingly vicious efforts, and will Barnabas once again find happiness with Victoria, who may be the reincarnation of Josette? And will Victoria be able to handle the fact that he's an undead suckface?

I have long expressed my severe dislike of much of Burton's filmography while simultaneously acknowledging his gifts as a visualist, and it's his repeated falling back on his now-tired signature stylistic tropes at the expense of story that drives me nuts in regard to the majority of his films. I adore PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE, BEETLEJUICE, and ED WOOD, and depending on my mood I will also champion EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, but in my estimation all of his other films run the gamut from visually beautiful yet hollow exercises in pretentiousness to the just plain awful, so it was a refreshing change of pace to sit through a Burton film that concentrated first and foremost on its characters and their narrative. DARK SHADOWS is the least Tim Burton-like Tim Burton film in terms of its overall feel, despite its dark and eerie trappings, and that's what I enjoyed most about it. At its heart the film strives to be a 1930's/1940's Universal-style horror film, attempting to replicate that classic dreamlike atmosphere-drenched style, with touches of humor thrown in for flavor. Its leisurely pacing cements the dreamy tone and effortlessly sucks the viewer into its world. However, with all of that said, the marketing casts the film as a straight-up comedy/parody, when in actuality the film's straight horror content outweighs its humor by a good 85%. Its humor is more of the subdued Edward Gorey variety than the laugh-out-loud gruesome/weird stylings of a Charles Addams or Gahan Wilson, and moviegoers expecting a flat-out comedy full of yucks are very likely to be disappointed.

The film's performances vary greatly in quality, but the ones that really matter to the story come off quite well. Serial Burton-collaborator Johnny Depp is great fun as the tragic Barnabas, and his spin on the character often feels like an elegant vampire from an old black & white film was transplanted into this era of pussified suckfaces like those found in the works of Anne Rice or the plague that is the TWILIGHT media juggernaut. And while Barnabas has a manner that's simultaneously 18th century gentlemanly and morose/emo, he's still a vampire and needs to feed, which he does after sharing a great scene full of introspection with a campfire gathering of stoned hippies whom he came to like but must nonetheless kill in order to survive. He's quite sympathetic and likable because he in no way deserved the over-the-top sadistic treatment and curse he received from Angelique and when all is said and done, we care about Barnabas because Depp succeeds in making the classic character his own.

Every guy's very worst nightmare: Eva Green as the witch Angelique.

Eva Green is terrifically unhinged and irredeemably evil as the witch Angelique. At first we can understand her ire at being the sexually-used hired help who gets kicked to the curb when a bit of higher-class tail comes along, but when we see how she's spent two centuries in a state of tightly-focused rage directed at ruining the the Collins family for generations thanks to Barnabas' admittedly shabby treatment of her, it's quite apparent that Angelique is out of her fucking mind. Obsessed, immortal, wielding powerful forces of black magic and totally insane is a bad combination indeed, and she's still bent on Barnabas loving her (which he wants no part of) at any cost, so she's twenty-seven flavors of bad news and a fun character as a result of it.


Chloe Moretz as gloomy/bitchy Alice Cooper-lovin' rock 'n' roll freak Carolyn Stoddard — Barnabas' many-generations-removed niece — is the personification of every dour, spoiled fifteen-year-old girl you've ever encountered, and as such she's a hoot. My only complaint about the character is that during the final, apocalyptic battle with Angelique, Carolyn gets this weird look on her face and retreats from the fray to her room. When Angelique ends up thrown into the girl's quarters, she's seen perched in the rafters, covered with fur and with pronounced teeth and claws as she growls "Get out of my room!!" at Angelique. When she drops into the fight between Barnabas and Angelique (things are going badly for the vampire), Carolyn attacks the witch with full-bore lycanthropic fury and at one point turns to her mother, Elizabeth, and flatly states, "Yeah, I'm a werewolf. Deal with it."

(brief pause for that to sink in)

WHAT THE FUCK?!!? Up until that point in the story there was absolutely nothing in the narrative that in any way points to Carolyn being a werewolf. During the fight, Carolyn's hitherto-unhinted-at lunar changes is given a tossed-off explanation by Angelique, who states it's the result of the infant Carolyn being bitten by an Angelique-dispatched werewolf while the baby was in her crib. Once that explanation is out, it's never questioned and is immediately forgotten. What about what must have been at least a few years of Carolyn wolfing-out every month (and I don't mean in the expected sanguinary manner common to females)? Surely someone would have noted numerous signs that there was a werewolf in the household, but that potentially interesting plot thread was simply not dealt with at all. The werewolf reveal literally comes from out of fucking nowhere and the entire audience in the theater responded with very vocal cries of "What the fuck???" and "Get the fuck outta here!!!" I laughed out loud at the sheer absurdity of it, but it was a really sloppy plot gimmick that brought nothing to the table, especially not that late in the story.

The film has a number of fun set pieces and gags, including:
  • Burton regular (and wife) Helena Bonham Carter as psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman, teaching Barnabas the particulars of doctor/patient confidentiality. (She's also upstaged throughout the film by her ridiculous day-glo red wig that would have been right at home on a children's party clown.)
  • An ill-advised and destructive tryst between Barnabas and Angelique that carries them all over the confines of her company's office, with gravity not being a concern.
  • Barnabas as a fish out of water in 1972 could have gotten old very quickly, but that seemingly worn-out plot device works quite well here and is quite amusing and far more subtly handled than one might expect.
One of Barnabas' many head-on collisions with the weirdness of the 20th century, in this case a Troll doll.
  • The floating spectre of a drowned woman whose eerie beauty is occasionally offset by crabs that crawl over her body and out of her mouth when she speaks.
  • Christopher Lee turning up in an amusing cameo as a fishing boat captain whom Barnabas hypnotizes in order to further his own agenda.
  • An appearance by good ol' Alice Cooper, whom Barnabas describes as the ugliest woman he's ever seen, and who was indeed already so visually heinous that he could easily portray himself as he was four decades ago and display little sign of having aged.
Alice Cooper as himself, rockin' Collinwood with "No More Mr. Nice Guy."

The movie also features a soundtrack loaded with period-appropriate pop hits that do a good job of evoking the story's bygone era. Though not all of the tunes date accurately to 1972, they work very well in concert with the film's images, particularly the Moody Blues' mournfully romantic "Nights in White Satin" (of 1967 vintage) as used over the opening credits' footage of Victoria Winters' train making its way to Maine.

So, for me the bottom line on DARK SHADOWS is this: It's an uneven, lugubriously-paced throwback to an older flavor/style of horror film that has some fun performances and is visually pretty to look at, all while Tim Burton thankfully reins in most of his usual annoying tropes. It's an okay way to pass two hours but it is not worth paying the full ticket price, so I recommend waiting for cable or DVD rental.

The film's theatrical poster.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Marvel's THE AVENGERS (2012)



Our stalwart heroes, deep in a moment of pondering the eternal questions of man's purpose for being, the quantifiable meaning of our existential ennui and the search for one's own Zarathustrian sense of self. (Wow! Am I ready for a job with The Village Voice, or what?)


By now I'm sure you've heard about the near-universal rave reviews garnered by MARVEL'S THE AVENGERS — yes, that's the actual full title — and how it's come out of the gate as a massive box office juggernaut with the biggest opening weekend of all time (which I'm assuming factors in its grosses from opening overseas a week or two ago). By now the movie will have been discussed to death and every possible facet of it pored over by professional critics, comics nerds and bloggers, but I saw the film twice in less than twenty-four hours — once at the first midnight showing and then again on Friday evening — so here's my two cents on it anyway, and I'll just break it down to what you need to know. Are you sitting comfortably? Here we go:

The plot, in a nutshell, finds Loki (Tom Hiddleston) fresh from getting his ass kicked in last year's THOR and now bent on conquering and enslaving the Earth with the help of a massive extra-terrestrial army and the backing of a mysterious figure of apparent great power. That scheme is facilitated by the theft and deployment of the Tesseract — better known to us longtime comics goons as the Cosmic Cube and last seen in last year's CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER — so, knowing that the world is fucked unless this threat is swiftly and decisively dealt with, S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) rounds up a disparate group of supers from the previous Marvel-based movies that audiences cared about (which automatically excludes DAREDEVIL, the two PUNISHER films and the two horrible FANTASTIC FOUR flicks) and pits them against the oncoming shitstorm. Comprised of Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Dr. Bruce Banner/the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), super-spy the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and master bowman/assassin Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the Avengers somehow manage to get their shit together, set aside their considerable dysfunction and work together as a team to just barely save the world.

Steve and Tony's whip-out contest came to a screeching halt when the Hulk and Thor walked out of the shower.

It's a basic superhero team story given the big-screen treatment and helmed with loving care by screenwriter and director Joss Whedon, who long ago proved himself on projects such as BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and the TOY STORY movies, and it's an epic blast of kickass superhero fun. That's basically it, but then again we are not talking about Dostoevsky over here. And the points of note are:
  • After years of buildup that began with the mostly-excellent IRON MAN (2008), THE AVENGERS — I won't bother with add the "Marvel's" declaration of ownership, thank you very much — is the satisfying payoff to the groundwork that's been laid down. It's the first true epic in the live-action superhero genre in so much as it's the first flick with this much superheroic shit going on in it that had the benefit of the budget and special effects technology that enabled it to bring the wonders commonly found on the four-color page to at times breathtaking life. In terms of sheer spectacle, this can be considered the BEN-HUR of superhero movies, and I genuinely pity the other studios who seek to make superhero adaptations in its wake. Marvel Studios has proven several times that they know how to bring the goods to the screen, so movies produced by them are not a worry. It's everyone else who seeks to step up to bat who should be filling their boxers with hefty turds at the moment...
  • Though fun on its own terms, THE AVENGERS is definitely a movie that requires its audience to have seen what preceded it, specifically IRON MAN, IRON MAN 2, THOR, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER and, to a lesser degree, THE HULK and THE INCREDIBLE HULK. With that in mind, I wonder what the audience member who comes into this without the prerequisite viewing will make of it.
  • We are once again reminded of Tony Stark being a metalhead — see what they did there? — this time proclaimed by his constant representing in a Black Sabbath tee and his commandeering a S.H.I.E.L.D. aircraft's public address system so it plays AC/DC's "Shoot to Thrill" when he arrives to assist Cap with the Loki smackdown in Stuttgart.

Tony Stark, representing in a Black Sabbath t-shirt for most of the film's running time.

Personally, I think the use of AC/DC is tired and I would like to see them give Tony some really metal tunes for accent. How awesome would it be to see him take on a squadron of enemy aircraft/spaceships/what have you while flying around and blowing shit up as Motorhead's "Bomber" explodes from the theater's speakers?
  • And while we're on the subject of Tony Stark, I know many moviegoers wanted to see Tony and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) get together — my mom sure as hell did and was quite vocal about it when the first IRON MAN movie ended — and in this film they look to have settled in quite nicely as a couple. But — and this is a rather large "but," in my opinion — making Tony Stark monogamous does the character no favors and removes one of the most fun aspects of his addict's nature. Tony Stark is first and foremost a genius inventor, with the function of world-class pussy-hound coming in at a close second, and part of the fun was seeing him merrily seduce a swath through half of humankind as Pepper rolls her eyes at his relentless tomcatting. In the comics Tony has even gone so far as to bed a number of the Marvel Universe's female supers, including (most impressively for surviving it) She-Hulk, and that whole sub-plot of his signature soap opera would be great if allowed to carry over into the movies. And since not terribly much is made of the current state of the Tony/Pepper connection, maybe it will prove to be as transitory as the vast legion of Stark's boudoir adventures...
  • The entire primary cast — with one exception whom I'll get to shortly — is given the opportunity to rock more life into roles they've previously essayed. All of the returning characters are fun and the team's non-powered members, the Black Widow and Hawkeye, are given plenty of opportunity to prove they can hold their own, and then some, alongside the likes of Thor or Iron Man. My only gripe in this department is that Captain America, the perfect and natural leader for this ragtag assortment, is given surprisingly little to do when considering what's going on, but his part in all of it still works. Steve Rogers' issues with being a "man out of time" will presumably be explored on CAPTAIN AMERICA 2, and they really would not have been appropriate to focus on when the world is literally about to be taken over by heavily armed forces under the leadership of a bitter Asgardian deity.
  • Speaking of whom, Tom Hiddleston's Loki is a triumph of villainy that strikes the perfect delicate balance between petulance over his daddy issues and resentment over living for eons in the shadow of his adoptive brother. I love him in the role and hope he essays the character once more in a THOR sequel.
Tom Hiddleston as Loki: One of the very best comics-to-screen translations of Marvel-style dysfunctional villainy.
  • After unexpectedly evolving into a supporting character of considerable popular renown over the course of appearances in previous Marvel movies, Agent Phil Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns, once more played by Clark Gregg. This time around we get to know Coulson a bit better and we end up loving him all the more for it. (Turns out he's a huge Captain America fanboy and much mileage is gotten from that character bit.)

    Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), hanging with Thor (Chris Hemsworth).
    • While much can be said for Jeremy Renner's Clint Barton/Hawkeye, for me the breakout star of the film is Mark Ruffalo as Dr. Bruce Banner — he who was famously "belted by gamma rays" and consequently rendered "un-glamor-ays" — and the latest motion-captured CGI iteration of the Incredible Hulk. Ruffalo's take on Banner is quite different than what we've to expect from the character as seen over the past five decades and I totally welcome it. (Yes, you read that right; this month marks the Hulk's fiftieth anniversary.) To say more would give away some interesting character bits best left for you to witness for yourself, so I'll leave off talking about that and move on to how the big green guy looks this time around.
    Mark Ruffalo, turning in an unexpected and refreshingly interesting take on Dr. Bruce Banner.

    By simple virtue of his physical stature and density, both of which alter in accordance with his level of stress and anger, Hulk's a character that's simply impossible to convincingly portray using a live actor, even one fitted with prosthetic makeup appliances.


    The Hulk as seen in the comics: anatomy that defied Hollywood...until now. (art by Bryan Hitch)

    He's just too damned large, so thank the tech gods that CGI and motion-capture exist and that there are special effects wizards who have finally sussed out how to make the Hulk look like, well, the Hulk. We finally see him all of his raged-out jade awesomeness a little over halfway through the film and the wait is absolutely worth it. He's exactly what he's supposed to be, an implacable force of nature in the form of a semi-coherent and fucking utterly out-of-control monster, and when Hulk gets loose it's a comics fan's dream come true. In short, Hulk steals the movie and I hope they use this film as the launching pad for better Hulk movies than we've previously seen. In the wake of THE AVENGERS, there is literally no longer an excuse for not bringing the green Goliath to cinematic life in proper fashion.



    Best. Hulk. EVER.
    • The film hints at a very interesting, danger (and possibly romance)-laden past for Hawkeye and the Black Widow — and they do have a history together in the comics, back in the days when they were both bad guys and lovers — and I would love to see them featured in their own stand-alone spy thriller. Jeremy Renner already proved himself quite adept at such stuff in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL (2011) and Johanssen owns the room when she puts boot to ass, so I say make it happen.
    • As has become standard for the films produced by Marvel Studios, THE AVENGERS continues the practice of featuring "Easter eggs" that set the stage for subsequent sequels during the film's end credits, but this time there are two treats for those with the patience to wait. The first occurs just after the main cast has been credited and it features a reveal that will make anyone who's been reading Marvel comics since circa 1973 shit a Humvee — non-comics readers will no doubt be confused by the faithful's reaction when it happens, so brace yourself and have a go-to geek at the ready to answer your inevitable questions — while the second Easter egg happens at the very last, ass-end moment of the credits and it's a signature Joss Whedon-style character gag that is every bit worth hanging around for. And seriously, it really is all the way at the very end, so bear that in mind.
    • I cannot overstate the importance of seeing this one on the big screen. It's truly is an epic and it will lose a lot of its visual grandeur if you wait for Netflix. Trust me, if you have any interest in seeing this movie, you'll regret it if you give it a theatrical miss.
    So there you have it, but bear in mind that the individual viewer's mileage may vary with this one. It's just shy of two and a half hours long (excluding trailers) and it may be too violent for the tastes of some parents in regard to what they would let their kids sit through. (There's no showering arterial spray or scenes of the Hulk ripping anyone's spinal column out through their asshole, but the blows are pretty damned devastating and one almost feels like they were on the receiving end of some the more memorable ones.) And while there has been much gushing and raving over this being the purported "perfect superhero movie," no superhero movie is perfect. That's an impossible task to set before filmmakers because no matter how good a resulting film may be, there will inevitably still be those in the audience who are dissatisfied for any number of possibly valid reasons. The majority of adapted characters and their situations have had decades in which to be developed and come to resonate with readers to the point where we've come to absorb it all as part of a shared, ongoing, ever-evolving pop culture tapestry/lore, and that kind of neo-mythic richness simply cannot be captured in a two-hour film. I loved THE AVENGERS but I took it on its own terms as exactly what it is, specifically a cinematic iteration of the characters as removed from their four-color templates and re-jiggered for the screen and the average non-comics-reading civilian, who is, let's face it, where the money really is. With that in mind I had a great time, though I could have done with more of Pepper Potts running around barefoot in her shorty-shorts, but that's just me.

    Yer Bunche, representing at the Friday night show...

    ...and at the pub afterward.

    Sunday, May 6, 2012

    THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)

    This review originally ran on THE VAULT OF BUNCHENESS, 6/16/08.

    So I saw the new Hulk flick and I have to say that while in nearly all regards better than Ang Lee's 2005 borefest of a franchise-launcher, it still isn't all that.

    Attempting to reboot the Hulk in the image of the old Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno television series, THE INCREDIBLE HULK comes of as exactly what an episode of that show would have been like if it had any kind of special effects. The sadness and loneliness of Banner's nomadic existence as he wages a war against his own rage is all there, and thankfully the pretentious family dysfunction melodrama of Ang Lee's take on the Big Green has been kicked to the curb in favor of giving fans of the character's comic book incarnation what they were dying to see in the first place: the Hulk destroying the people who don't understand that it's not a good idea to fuck with him, and kicking ass on another super-powerful man-monster.

    This installment finds Dr. Bruce Banner (Ed Norton, taking over from Eric Bana and doing a much better job) living in Brazil and learning the martial arts and its breathing/centering techniques to control his anger. He's been on the run from the military forces of General Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt) for five years but he's eventually tracked down and after Hulking out on some of Ross' team, Banner once more goes on the run, his trail leading back to former lover and Ross' daughter, Betty (Liv Tyler). During his adventures Banner is linked via computer to a mysterious "Mr. Blue," a bio-researcher who promises Banner a cure provided he can have a blood sample for testing, while an ambitious, combat-addicted soldier named Emil Blonski (Tim Roth) undergoes a series of augmentations that first turn him into (comics fans take note) a "super-soldier," later a Hulk-blood-infused "abomination." It all builds to a head that climaxes with the Hulk taking on the Abomination in the streets of Harlem and pretty much rendering the place a smoking crater before the Hulk inevitably wins the day and once more runs away, leaving Banner just as alone and totally fucked as he had been since the day he was on the receiving end of a massive gamma ray blast.

    The one thing that a Hulk movie needs to succeed (other than a good script with plenty of monster-to-monster smash time) is a Hulk that looks believable to some degree, and considering what special effects are like these days one would think would be readily doable, but one of the biggest gripes voiced by nearly everyone who saw the previous film was that the Hulk looked too "cartoony. That didn't bother me so much last time because Hulk's look reminded me of a Richard Corben drawing as brought to stop-motion life by Ray Harryhausen. But now, some three years later, the CGI still hasn't been sussed out in regard to Hulk himself, and he looked so rubbery and greasy — yes, greasy — that I kept expecting somebody to grab him and shove him up their ass (my friend Suzi came to the exact same conclusion, describing him as looking like a "big ol' green buttplug"). As for the rest of the movie, the story is largely uninvolving and lethargic, and considering how much they actively tried to evoke the old Bill Bixby show, that comes as no surprise. The only points of real interest are:
    • The most blistering and violent superhero fight in screen history. Hulk versus Abomination is an amazing and bone-crunching set-to that had the whole audience awed and cringing, but while it's pretty fucking awesome, parents may want to carefully consider whether they want the younger kids to see it. I'd take my (hypothetical) kids, but that's just me.
    • They set up an appearance by the Leader (comics geeks know who he is) in case there's another one of these, but I note that solely because the geeks in the audience get it. The guy playing the pre-Leader is one of the most annoying actors I've seen in a long time,
      and I just wanted to punch his head in like it was an overripe melon. Which brings
      me to the talent-void Liv Tyler. She's never brought anything to any movie she's
      been in and continues that here, with that annoying whispery baby-talk delivery of hers that makes her sound like Pebbles Flintstone with laryngitis. Yeah, she's kind of cute in that half-formed-looking way of hers, but that's not enough to make her inclusion in any way valid.
    • The Abomination starts out as a guy augmented with a recreated version of the super-soldier serum (later enhanced with some of Hulk's blood) and there are allusions to there having been a previous super-soldier in the past, setting up the announced Captain America movie.
    • Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) shows up as a thwarted General Ross sucks down shot after shot after shot in a bar and ends the film by cluing Ross in on the fact that he and SHIELD are assembling a team to handle stuff like the Hulk, therefore setting up the upcoming Avengers movie.
    • They finally address a question I've had since I was old enough to connect the adrenaline rush with sexual excitement, and how such excitement would affect Banner. Don't worry, Banner recognizes where his rolling around with Betty is leading and does an agonizing self-cock-block, to which I observed aloud "Man, it REALLY sucks to be the Hulk!" to which half the audience voiced various expressions of agreement, but the funniest response came from a woman who shouted "I feel sorry for HER!" And while I'm no Tyler fan, there's little that I find more appealing than a woman in nothing but a large men's shirt who's clearly gagging for it, and she looks delicious as such.
    • The best Stan Lee cameo appearance yet.
    So, the bottom line is that while THE INCREDIBLE HULK is a slight improvement over
    the first installment, I suggest waiting for cable. However, if you're a fan of the old TV series, you will probably enjoy this a lot more than I did, so take that point into consideration. TRUST YER BUNCHE!!!

    IRON MAN 2 (2010)

    This review originally ran on THE VAULT OF BUNCHENESS, 5/8/10.

    Well, I saw IRON MAN 2 last night and no one is more surprised than me by how much I enjoyed it. It is by no means perfect, but, a few very minor gripes aside, I actually prefer it to the first film. The original was letter-perfect until the last reel, when the narrative just kind of fell apart into rote predictability, plus it was an origin story that I already knew (and never liked all that much in the first place), so there was nothing new there for me other than the perfection of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. This time around the origin story was out of the way, so the filmmakers could spend the whole movie concentrating on the characters and that is what Iron Man was always about for me. I was never into the comic's "armor of the month" aspect that reached often ludicrous extremes when I read it as a kid, but I always dug Stark's personality and the soap opera that was his day-to-day existence, so IRON MAN 2's emphasis on character-heavy goings on in lieu of wall-to-wall armored action/slugfests suited me just fine.

    From this point on, HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

    IRON MAN 2 takes up some six months after the events of the first film and immediately addresses the fallout from Tony Stark very publicly revealing that he is Iron Man. The government, represented by a douchey senator (Gary Shandling), demands that Stark turn over the Iron Man armor to the military, but Stark "humbly" refuses on the grounds that thanks to the suit he has essentially ensured world peace , thus unwittingly forcing his best friend, Col. Rhodes, aka Rhodey (Don Cheadle, needlessly replacing Terrence Howard for no adequately explained reason), to side with the military against him.

    Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer.

    During the government hearing, ineffectual rival tech-maven Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is called in as an expert to discredit Stark's claims that the Iron Man armor is not a weapon, but he meets with resounding failure as Stark mercilessly humiliates him and the governmental bureaucrats, lighting the fuse of Hammer's quest for vengeance and an armor project to supersede Stark's technological supremacy (translation: male pissing contest). Meanwhile, Stark's body is slowly suffering the adverse effects of the arc reactor that keeps him alive. His blood toxicity is gradually increasing and the batteries that power the arc reactor burn out at an ever-increasing rate, so unless he comes up with some kind of solution, it's only a matter of time until he's stone-cold tits-up dead. Fearing the worst, Stark names his right-hand woman, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), as Stark Enterpises' new CEO, steps down, and embarks on a series of questionable activities that make no sense to her because she is unaware that Tony is getting ever closer to death's door.

    Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke).

    While a conflicted Rhodey is ordered to obtain an Iron Man suit for the military by any means necessary, bitter Russian tech genius Ivan Vanko (an especially grimy and unkempt Mickey Roarke) crafts his own arc reactor and uses it to power a lethal pair of electrified whips for the express purpose of killing Stark (the reasons for his vendetta are best explained by the film itself). Tracking Stark to a Formula 1 race in Monaco, Vanko's admittedly impressive murder attempt fails and lands him in the custody of the Monaco police, only to have his death faked and his escape engineered by Justin Hammer, who promptly places Vanko in charge of improving his munitions company's mini-army of suits that will make Stark's armor look like a Ben Cooper Halloween costume by comparison.


    New Stark Enterprises employee "Natalie Rushman" (Scarlett Johansson).

    As Stark's behavior becomes relentlessly obnoxious while his health deteriorates, new secretary Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johanssen) joins the Stark workforce and elevates Tony to new heights of perpetual priapism. After witnessing the smokin'-hot redhead hand Happy Hogan (director John Favreau in a role considerably expanded from the previous film) his ass in the company's boxing ring with a stunning and lightning-swift martial arts takedown, it's apparent that there's more to Rushman than meets the eye. But that mystery takes a back seat to Stark completely fucking up all of Pepper's PR efforts in the wake of his antics during the government hearing by throwing a wild birthday party at which he gets drunk off his ass, dons his armor and does indoor skeet shooting with the suit's repulsor rays, unintentionally demonstrating just how dangerous the Iron Man technology can be when used irresponsibly. A pissed-off Rhodey puts on one of Stark's extra suits — a silver one, so it's distinguishable from Stark's signature red and gold — and fights him in an effort to stop his friend's dangerous shenanigans, leaving Stark with his ass kicked and making off with an Iron Man suit that he delivers straight to the Air Force.

    Rhodey engages in some tough love and grand theft armor.

    There's all of this and more going on in this story and each of the narrative threads seamlessly converge to form a satisfying climax, but it has its flaws to go along with its heights, so here are some items to consider:
    • I don't buy Rhodey being able to effortlessly operate an Iron Man suit on the first try, much less being able to fit into armor that was built to Stark's own particular body specs, especially considering that it would be built to be powered by an arc reactor that was directly implanted into Tony's chest cavity. (There is an argument to be made that Rhodey probably got to test drive one of the suits during the six months prior to where the film's story starts, but the script does not set that up.)
    • I had serious reservations about Scarlett Johansson being cast as the legendary Russian superspy/S.H.I.E.L.D. operative known to comics fans as the Black Widow, but — lack of "moose and squirrel" accent notwithstanding — she turned out to be awesome.
    She's perfect as Natasha and has a spectacular scene where she completely decimates a security squad at Hammer's headquarters that drew riotous applause and cheers from the theater audience. I can't wait to see her reprise the role as soon as possible.
    • Don Cheadle is a very good actor but his Rhodey made little impression on me. He wasn't bad or anything, but in this story he served no purpose other than to be inside the armor that becomes War Machine.
    • The fun relationship between Stark and Pepper continues and it is very entertaining to behold.
    Downey and Paltrow would have been right at home in an old screwball comedy.
    • Mickey Roarke is quite menacing and creepy as Vanko, a man with a wholly understandable reason for his hatred of Stark. He's creepy, dangerous and brilliant, but he also appears to have never washed his hair or fingernails. Significantly, he is not the Whiplash we know from the comics and I'm thankful for that. Whiplash is a big nothing of a villain in the comics and here he is re-imagined to very good effect.
    • Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury returns and is given more screen time than previous appearances, which is only a good thing.

    • "Hey! Larry King!" Best Stan Lee cameo ever.
    • I could have done without the overuse of AC/DC on the soundtrack. For the next film I would like to suggest the inclusion of Motorhead's "Bomber" during any aerial action scenes. Also, Saxon's "Terminal Velocity" would be a natural pick.
    • Keep an eye out for Captain America's shield.
    And whatever you do, don't walk out when the credits start to roll!

    I went into IRON MAN 2 with zero expectations thanks to many reviews that described it as boring, bloated and overlong, but I seriously have to ask if the critics saw the same movie I did. I think the problem may be that most viewers wanted and expected to get a film that was nothing but wall-to-wall scenes of Stark in his Iron Man armor blowing shit up and providing them with a totally mindless feature-length video game projected onto the big screen. What they got instead was a film that had the balls to have an actual story that is heavily character-driven, with very little of Iron Man in action. The action sequences are very good and the fact that they are used sparingly only lends them stronger narrative impact; they are moments of combat and violence that naturally spring from the narrative, rather than mindless dazzle that amounts to nothing. In other words, the film is far more intelligent than what audiences that think the TRANSFORMERS movies are actually entertaining want, so a negative response was kind of unfortunately inevitable.

    Look, I'm a guy who fucking hates the vast majority of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters that leave me feeling ripped off, so I was very pleasantly shocked at being presented with a movie that I actually want to see again in first-run. And at New York City ticket prices, no less! Unlike IRON MAN, I will definitely add IRON MAN 2 to my DVD collection when it gets released, so TRUST YER BUNCHE and check it out. (Just keep in mind that the kiddies may get restless.)

    IRON MAN (2008)

    This review originally ran on THE VAULT OF BUNCHENESS, 5/4/2008.

    Of all the comic book superheroes out there, I never in a million years thought I would end up in a movie theater watching a film about Iron Man, so if you’re skeptical about that prospect, like I was, I’ll put it to you succinctly: If you’re looking for wall-to-wall superhero set-to’s, a mindless script and gratuitous destruction, then you’ll probably be disappointed with IRON MAN. However, if you’re in the mood for a superhero flick that respects its source material, treats the audience as intelligent and creatively re-tools one of Marvel Comics’ flagship heroes to bring him and his supporting cast into the 2000’s, then IRON MAN will come as a very welcome break away from the usual pitfalls of the superhero genre. Well, mostly, but I’ll get to that shortly.

    The film basically updates the story of how gazillionaire hedonist/playboy/genius inventor/munitions manufacturer Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) realizes his technological innovations have real world repercussions after he sustains a serious injury following the demonstration a new weapons system in Afghanistan and falling into the hands of hostiles. Ordered to build weapons for the bad guys, Stark, with the aid of another captive technocrat, instead builds the prototype for his famous armored alter ego and escapes after utterly decimating the enemy encampment.

    Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) forges the Iron Man prototype while a captive in Afghanistan.

    After that it’s a series of double-dealing corporate machinations on the part of Stark’s partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), while Stark refines the Iron Man armor and endeavors to take out the bad guys who have somehow gotten their slimy mitts on shipments of his munitions, weapons they use to enact a campaign of terror and genocide.

    IRON MAN’s main theme is the “with great power comes great responsibility” thing again and it works quite well, especially since the story focuses on actually developing the characters to a degree seldom seen in a superhero popcorn-muncher. The clever script has a surfeit of great lines that propel the story along at a good pace, never allowing for the dead spots frequently found between action sequences in films of this ilk. There are roughly three or four major action pieces over the two-hours-plus running time and while the whole film is loaded with special effects, the opticals are never anything more than a natural part of the story, looking exactly like one would imagine such sci-fi machinery and its capabilities would look like if seen in real life. The CGI work never looks as sterile as it often does in big-budget FX movies, and that can’t help but add to the believability of the proceedings.

    However, if IRON MAN does have one major flaw, it’s that the film kind of coasts to a perfunctory resolution after a very strong first two-thirds. I wonder if the filmmakers felt that after so much strong character stuff, the audience would need to have it balanced out with a predictable showdown between Iron Man and another bigger, more formidable armor-clad foe. That was part of the formula in the comics that turned me off to Iron Man for a very long time, each story concentrating mostly on whatever new armor the writers could come up with, or throwdowns against other armored types such as the Crimson Dynamo and the Titanium Man. I was interested in characters, not combat-armored gladiators engaging in a variation of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, but what I constantly found in the comics was a mostly repetitive narrative about a high-tech wardrobe, fashion bitchery taken to ludicrous, would-be macho extremes, and that’s kind of what the film’s climax becomes. But the stuff that comes before is very much worthwhile and though the ending is a bit lackluster in comparison, IRON MAN is definitely worth sitting through and I look forward to the next installment.

    As for the things that make the movie better than the average celluloid spandex opera, one must start with the fact that Downey makes a terrific Stark, brimming with personality and privileged joie de vivre, his exuberance still showing through once he cops to the atrocities he’s unwittingly contributed to and gets down to making amends heavy metal-style.

    Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark: reason number one to see this film.

    Stark’s so much fun that I could have sat through a whole film of nothing but him having adventures chock full of partying and wanton encounters with armies of one-shot lovers, completely removed from his bitchin’ armor.

    The real surprise for me here is Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark’s uber-efficient, assistant Pepper Potts.

    Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts.

    The Pepper Potts of the comics was yet another example of Stan Lee’s complete and total inability to write female characters, standing as one of the more bland examples of his shrinking violet, helpless women who served no other purpose than to moon over the protagonist in ways guaranteed to make readers puke all over their Chuck Taylors. Pepper is here reworked into a Gal Friday who’s clearly more together than her boss is, giving the kind of business and personal support that he needs while also providing a perfect foil in the manner of male-female interplay found in classic Hollywood comedies. I really liked Pepper and utterly believed her as an equal to Stark, which says a lot because I have never cared for Paltrow’s icy, replicant-like demeanor, lumping her in with that other icy screen “goddess” of recent years, Nicole “you could keep a six-pack cold between my legs” Kidman. Hopefully the filmmakers will realize just what they have in Paltrow’s take on Lee’s clich√© creation and give her even more screen time in the inevitable sequel.

    Pepper and Stark cut a rug.

    Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges are given less to do as Stark’s Air Force buddy and best friend James “Rhodey” Rhodes and Obadiah Stane, but they serve their parts admirably, and Rhodey came of much better than I expected. Bridges as Stane is a decent villain with a few nice character touches until the aforementioned narrative drop-off during the film’s final third when he figures majorly into the film’s rote climax, and by that time the viewer may have lost all interest in him (like I did).

    Among the film’s bonuses are the unobtrusive use of various heavy metal/thrash tunes on the soundtrack — Suicidal Tendencies’ punk classic “Institutionalized” being enjoyed while Stark tinkers in his lab/garage is an amusing moment — and the use of the 1960’s animated Iron Man theme in Vegas’ed-up and John Barryesque instrumental versions during scenes of Tony Stark gambling and putting the pork sword to a comely reporter, an in-joke sure to please attentive geeks in the crowd. (Sing along with me: “Tony Stark makes you feel/he’s a cool exec with a heart of steel!”) And whatever you do, make sure to stay through the end credits; there’s a final scene that, as my friend Bill so accurately put it, is “the kind of thing that makes fanboys hard.”

    Bottom line: I liked IRON MAN quite a lot, partly because I went in with a lifelong apathy toward the character and therefore had no high expectations, and because the script was more for grownups than I expected. It’s by no means perfect, but as superhero movies go it’s pretty damned good. TRUST YER BUNCHE and check it out.

    Oh, and by the way, the trailer for the upcoming THE INCREDIBLE HULK makes that film look like ass, so stay tuned for a review when it hits the screen.