Friday, May 31, 2013

"After Earth" Review

For director M. Night Shyamalan, gone are the days of small children with six senses.

Gone are the days of unbreakable men.

And gone are the days of God-fearing, extraterrestrial-fighting farmers.

Since Signs came out in 2002, Shyamalan has struggled to repeat his early success. He's consistently manufactured a series of duds between 2004's The Village and 2010's The Last Airbender. In 2013, Shyamalan brings us yet another sci-fi story; this time an original one conceptualized by actor Will Smith.

After Earth tells the story of young Kitai Raige (Will's son, Jaden Smith), a boy trying to find his place within the ranks of his father's military outfit on an off-planet colony some one-thousand years in the future. In those one-thousand years, Earth has become uninhabitable due to pollution, global warming, and the evolution of wildlife. In an effort to become less of a commanding officer and more of a father figure to his son, Kitai's father Cypher (Will Smith) brings his boy on a mission that sees their ship crash-land on Earth. With his father gravely injured from the wreck, Kitai embarks on a dangerous mission across the wilderness to signal for help.

Once you understand the plot and characters its easy to see that Smith just created an excuse to do a sci-fi movie with his son. But the goal appears to be to give Jaden the spotlight in an effort to crown a new "Fresh Prince", if you will. Too bad the 14-year-old doesn't quite have the acting chops yet to pull it off.

Jaden's performance as Kitai feels as if he got picked to read in English class and is trying to put whatever flair he can into the text to make it sound appealing. It's like he's reading the script verbatim in some ridiculous accent, and the final product is barely passable for acting in a high-school play. Jaden is great in movies like The Pursuit of Happyness and The Karate Kid because he's believable in his little-kid roles. After Earth is his first foray into carrying a mature feature, and I'm sorry to say that at 14, Jaden isn't there yet. But give him a few more years and a couple more pointers from Dad, and the kid will be a superstar.

As for Papa Smith, he's rock-solid as always in the role of Cypher Raige, Kitai's militaristic father. It's not a particularly demanding part, considering Smith spends almost the entire movie half-dead and confined to his seat in the crashed vessel's cockpit. Will never cracks a smile and shows us his range from stoically comical to tear-jerkingly dramatic, all while maintaining his character's iron resolve and absurd accent. The older Smith is the best thing After Earth has going for it.

The screenplay from Shyamalan and Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli) is unimpressive. The plot is straightforward with no twists to speak of and takes a long time to get going. Aside from one or two action sequences with Kitai in the wilderness, there's nothing of merit here. After Earth could have been the next Life of Pi, but the sense of wonder isn't there, nor is there any true character evolution on a spiritual scale. This is just a bland, baseline excuse to adapt Will Smith's father-son sci-fi tale for the big screen.

And being a sci-fi tale set on an abandoned planet one-thousand years in the future, you'd expect some decent CGI. But there's none to be found in After Earth. All the animals look cartoony and fake. Not to mention whatever off-planet settlement the characters start at bears a striking resemblance to the Grand Canyon with slipshod cartoon structures built in and above it. This movie would've been at the height of digital effects technology if it had been made in 2006.

All that being said, it's clear that M. Night Shyamalan has not yet found a way to repeat the critical and commercial success he once had with movies like Signs and The Sixth Sense. After Earth features a solid performance from Will Smith and a couple of decent action scenes, but dated CGI, a drearily slow plot and an unworthy performance from Jaden Smith cause the film to fall short.


Saturday, May 25, 2013

"The Hangover Part III" Review

WARNING: This review contains SPOILERS

Ladies and gentlemen, The Wolfpack is back... again. And this time, there's no bachelor party, no pictures, no Mike Tyson, and no musical interlude from Ed Helms. What could go wrong?

In The Hangover Part III, The Wolfpack's inebriated escapades come full circle when Alan (Zach Galifianakis), Stu (Ed Helms), and Phil (Bradley Cooper) find themselves confronted by Marshall (John Goodman), a ruthless drug kingpin who's on the lookout for Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong) and the $42 million in gold bricks Chow stole from him. Marshall threatens to kill a kidnapped Doug (Justin Bartha, who always seems to be left out of these capers) if the guys don't find Chow and return the gold in three days' time. The search takes The Wolfpack from Tijuana back to Las Vegas where new (and some revisited) adventures await.

Part III is a welcome departure from the usual Hangover formula, but overall it just doesn't feel like The Hangover.

Now through two sequels, the tone of these films has gotten darker each time. Part II was the same as the first movie with a different setting, an unnecessary amount of violence, and far too much male genitalia. Part III plays out almost entirely like an action-caper with only a handful of funny lines peppered in. It's not the quotable, heartfelt, laugh-fest that its 2009 predecessor was. It feels like a different animal entirely. Like a cocaine-fed rooster or a headless giraffe.

Speaking of which, the giraffe gag should come as no surprise to those who have seen the trailers. The same goes for most of the best jokes, actually. The humor doesn't feel as fresh as it used to, and as a result, it makes this third Hangover almost entirely forgettable.

Melissa McCarthy is in it, for God's sake! How can you make a movie with The Wolfpack and Melissa McCarthy and it NOT be an absolute riot? You darken the mood and keep everyone but Chow sober the whole time, that's how. Turns out, these guys just aren't as much fun when they aren't roofied or drugged with spiked marshmallows. That being said, you'll want to stick around for a scene that comes about halfway through the credits that steals the entire movie. Trust me, it's classic.

Along with that scene, I really enjoyed the references to the first movie. Jade (Heather Graham) returns, along with a 4-year old Baby Carlos, and Marshall is actually a character that Black Doug (Mike Epps) references at the end of the first film. We also get to see what exactly played out that first night in Vegas when Alan bought the Jagermeister and roofies from Black Doug.
There's also a sequence at the very end that shows The Wolfpack in their classic slow-motion walk-up. It's set to Kanye West's "Dark Fantasy", and there's a line in the song that goes "the plan was to drink until the pain over / but what's worse, the pain or the hangover?" It makes more sense when you see it in context, but I thought that sequence was a perfect send-off for Alan, Phil, Doug and Stu.

While director/screenwriter Todd Phillips and co-writer Craig Mazin (Identity Thief) choose to leave behind the traditional Hangover formula, which should've been done in Part II, what's left is a caper with a much darker tone and a sense of humor that's lost its edge. Part III suffers heavily for these reasons and can't be entirely saved by clever references to the other films or a raucous credits scene. One Hangover should be enough, shouldn't it?


Sunday, May 19, 2013

"Star Trek Into Darkness" Review

 In 2009, J.J. Abrams (Lost, Alias) successfully gave Star Trek a much-needed cinematic reboot. Witty humor, rousing action, strong performances from the aptly-cast leads, and reverent nods to the original television series won over critics and "Trekkies" alike, while also introducing Kirk, Spock, Sulu and the rest of the crew to a new generation of fans.

In 2013, Abrams does it again with his sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness.

The latest voyage of the Starship Enterprise sees the crew going after one John Harrison, (a foreboding Benedict Cumberbatch, best known for TV's Sherlock) after he launches a one-man offensive against the Starfleet organization while still a member of its ranks. Determined to bring Harrison to justice, Enterprise Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) prepares his crew for all-out war as they boldly journey to the farthest reaches of the galaxy in search of their elusive target.

No strangers to the summer blockbuster season, scribes Alex Kurtzman (Transformers), Roberto Orci (Mission: Impossible III), and Damon Lindelof (TV's Lost) craft a screenplay that balances non-stop action, laugh-a-minute humor, and engrossing character drama. You're not just on the edge of your seat drooling over the polished special effects or the stunning Alice Eve (She's Out of My League) as Dr. Carol Marcus. There's also a surprising amount of depth to this popcorn feature that's enough to keep the audience guessing at all times. What more could you ask for from a Summer blockbuster?

The action is much more intense and frequent than it was back in 2009. That being said, it doesn't detract from the story and only serves to make a running time of just over two hours feel like a smooth, quick "whoosh" down a giant ski slope.

But Into Darkness doesn't just engage your eyes and brain. It goes for the funny bone as well. The film's funniest moments come from the buddy-banter between Kirk and Spock, with Zachary Quinto's Spock rattling off deadpan one-liners with Vulcan aplomb. Karl Urban and Simon Pegg contribute to the hilarity as well. Urban's Dr. "Bones" McCoy lends some fun metaphors that work thanks to his down-home demeanor. Pegg's Scotty also takes some of the edge off by making light of the occasional dark moments involving his character.

Speaking of actors and their contributions, Benedict Cumberbatch truly outdoes himself in the role of John Harrison. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, John Cho, Zoe Saldana, and the rest of the crew are perfectly enjoyable in their roles for the way they take Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's beloved characters and reverently make them their own. But Into Darkness is truly the villain's show, much like The Dark Knight before it. 

In 2008, Heath Ledger dominated the screen with his bone-deep, no-holds-barred portrayal of The Joker. Since then, audiences have been ill-pressed to find another cinematic villain worthy of even holding a candle to Ledger's Joker. Cumberbatch's Harrison may be the first (or second, depending on your opinion of Tom Hardy's Bane) to come close. 
The Sherlock actor has a face that's distinct and terrifying, yet handsome. His gaze is comforting, yet piercing, as he looks into your soul with steely eyes as if to say, "Trust me, but if you do, you won't stand a chance." Watching him is almost like seeing an embodiment of yin and yang, though maybe not to the extent of, say, the Incredible Hulk. There's certainly something wrong with Harrison, as witnessed early on in the film, but on several occasions the heroes of the Enterprise are forced to trust, and even work with, him. And that's horrifying. 

I think that the best villains are the ones that truly know how to get under the skin and into the head of the hero and force them to endure unforeseen circumstances. By this, I mean events where it's nearly impossible to predict if the hero will actually be able to save the day. It shows that the hero can't always be invincible, and I think that thematic idea is one that distinguishes "good" good-versus-evil stories from "outstanding" good-versus-evil stories. With Cumberbatch as the villain, he does a hell of a job getting inside the head of, not just the heroes, but of the audience as well, forcing them to think every light-year of the way and keeping the plot unpredictable. For that reason, I consider Star Trek Into Darkness an "outstanding" good-versus-evil story. (By now, it should go without saying that Cumberbatch blows Eric Bana's villain from the 2009 Star Trek clear out of the water. There's a reason Abrams had him sucked into a black hole.)

Boasting a much stronger villain, more intense action, a slightly less-preposterous plot, and the same sense of humor and reverence for it's source material that made the 2009 reboot a hit, J.J. Abrams' Star Trek Into Darkness hits harder than its predecessor and manages to be the most exhilarating and wholly satisfying experience of this young summer season. 

Oh, and Peter Weller (a.k.a. the original RoboCop) is in it. 'Nuff said.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Office - Finale (May 17, 2013)

After last night, there will never again be a new episode of my favorite television show.

The highly-anticipated finale to NBC's beloved comedy series aired in a 1 hour & 15 minute special last night; ample time to bring things to a fitting conclusion for our friends at Dunder Mifflin.

I don't want to spoil too much for anyone who hasn't seen it, so I'll try to rattle off the episode highlights as succinctly as I can:

It takes place one year after the events of the second to last episode in which Dwight proposes to Angela and Jim makes full amends with Pam. The gang gets together to take part in a panel discussion for the DVD release of their documentary, there are bachelor and bachelorette parties for Dwight and Angela respectively, everyone gathers for their wedding, and things end with one final hurrah with everyone together in the workplace. Of course the usual hilarity ensues, along with some twists and turns that longtime fans of the series will love.

As one of those fans, I feel like I've had to part ways with an old friend that I've laughed with, cried with, found comfort in, and essentially grown up with. I'm 20 years old and have been a fan since the beginning in 2005. With The Office I've grown up alongside the characters and have come to know each of them like my own friends. It's never easy saying goodbye, especially to your friends who have embraced you with loving arms nearly every Thursday night for as long as I can remember. It's just hard to believe that I'll never see them again except in reruns, reveling in the memories. I'm just glad they're all good ones.

I was nearly in tears seeing everyone go through their goodbyes. I think Andy said it best when he said, "I wish there was a way to know you're in the good old days before you've actually left them." And Pam tied a nice ribbon around the entire series by saying, in reference to the plain nature of Dunder Mifflin, "There's a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn't that kind of the point?"

I'm getting misty just thinking about it.

Any way you see it, there could not have been a more appropriate ending to this series. This is a near-perfect episode the likes of which we haven't seen in years. I was in doubt earlier this season about how things might turn out, but that feeling has been more than dispelled by this finale.

I'll certainly miss laughing, crying, and continuing to grow up and figure life out alongside my Scranton friends, but if they really had to go, I couldn't have wished for a better send-off than this.

That's what she said.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

"Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (1982) Review

On Monday I decided that there were two movies I had to watch before seeing Star Trek Into Darkness this weekend. The first (obviously) was J.J. Abrams' riveting 2009 picture; the summer blockbuster that breathed new life into a classic, yet (at the time) fledgling sci-fi franchise.

The second was, coincidentally, the second-ever cinematic incarnation of Star Trek, titled The Wrath of Khan.

I've heard from numerous sources that, among the "Trekkie" community, The Wrath of Khan is considered the greatest Star Trek movie ever made. And seeing as Benedict Cumberbatch will be playing the classic villain after this weekend, it seems only appropriate to get acquainted with the character and to find out firsthand if The Wrath of Khan is really as good as everyone says it is.

I don't pretend to know much of anything about Star Trek; just some of the basic stuff that my dad (a devoted fan of the original series) taught me leading up to our father-son date to see the reboot four years ago. I had heard, though, that Ricardo Montalban played Khan in a famous episode of Star Trek back in the 60s titled "Space Seed". I haven't seen the episode, so I can only use what's in the movie to infer what happened between Kirk, the Enterprise crew, and Khan beforehand.

I felt slightly in the dark while watching The Wrath of Khan, only because it plays like a two hour episode of the television series. It's not a film that's easy to jump into, like Abram's movie is. You really should have a basic understanding of who the characters are, even though the true prerequisite would be to have watched the TV show.

Having said that, I still enjoyed The Wrath of Khan very much. It's action-packed and consistently engaging, which are two compliments that I've never quite been able to bestow on anything else I've seen in the original Star Trek franchise (which isn't much). The original cast is all present and accounted for, with Kirstie Alley and Ricardo Montalban rounding out the lead character roster. This is pre-Cheers Kirstie Alley, and she fares just fine as Saavik, a Vulcan lieutenant fresh out of Starfleet and eager to make an influence on the deck of the Enterprise. Ricardo Montalban is great as Khan, a genetically altered humanoid who's been in exile for years (presumably after the events of that "Space Seed" episode). After Darth Vader, Khan is the next quintessential space villain. In the role, Montalban is frightening enough to give you nightmares with his hellbent obsession of defeating Kirk, but he always keeps you guessing as to what he's going to do next so that you never lose interest in him.

This was a brief summary, so go check out The Wrath of Khan on Netflix if you're interested in expanding your insight into the Star Trek universe, or if you just want some classic, diverting sci-fi. Is it better than the 2009 version? Not really, but it's still a great time. And now I know a little more about what to expect from the title character when he invades the big screen again in Star Trek Into Darkness this weekend.

(I actually caught some passing quips in The Wrath of Khan that I was able to identify after having seen the 2009 movie. The Kobayashi Maru test and the way in which Kirk explains how he beat it is precisely consistent between the two movies. I just thought that was kinda cool.)


Sunday, May 12, 2013

"The Great Gatsby" (2013) Review

After a tumultuous post-production process that saw two changes in release date, Baz Luhrmann's highly-anticipated rendition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby has finally found its "green light" by being released in theaters this Mothers' Day weekend.

The Great Gatsby follows Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) during one summer in Long Island, New York at the peak of the "Roaring 20s", an era of loose morals, cheap liquor, and energetic jazz music. Nick spends the summer with his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), and a famous golf star named Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki). When away from them, Nick stays at a small cottage directly next door to the castle-like home of Jay Gatsby, a mysterious man who always seems to be throwing New York's most highfalutin parties. As the two become friends, Nick is drawn further into the world of the super-rich, their illusions, their dreams, and learns the great truth behind his neighbor's mysterious life.

When I read the book in high school, it became one of my all-time favorites. To this day, Gatsby remains as intriguing as it was to me then and has been to readers for nearly a century. Luhrmann's bold cinematic vision has reminded me why I came to love the story in the first place, while adding some of the director's trademark flair as seen in movies like Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!

Even though I loved the book, I don't consider myself a Gatsby "purist" necessarily. That's a title I usually reserve for English teachers or super-fans like my high school principal, Mrs. McQueen, who literally named her son after F. Scott Fitzgerald. That may have been the reason why I bought into the film's hyper-stylized, 3-D presentation and use of contemporary music. What normally would seem out of place for a 1920's setting actually works rather well. The contemporary party music sounds like the same pop-fluff we'd hear pulsating in nightclubs today, but it takes cues from the popular "big band" jazz numbers of the setting's era. The slower tracks blend into their respective scenes and match the narrative perfectly.

As for the production design and visual effects, they're nothing short of dazzling. Luhrmann's Long Island looks like the perfect place to spend a long summer, complete with golf, swimming pools, beaches, and beautiful women. Gatsby's glitter-filled, liquor-fueled parties are certainly over-the-top, but the vision itself captures the essence of the era and makes it accessible to mainstream audiences. The tightrope Luhrmann walks in trying to do justice to what Fitzgerald envisioned in his book and getting contemporary moviegoers interested in this story is a wobbly one. But this version of Gatsby manages to achieve the proper balance, which is something too many cinematic adaptations of other works have failed to do.

The script itself, from Luhrmann and Craig Pearce (Moulin Rouge!), sticks closely to the book's text, while taking a few creative liberties. For instance, Nick spends the film in a sanitarium narrating the events of the film as he therapeutically writes them down. I didn't mind this, though, because by the end Nick can be viewed as an in-story double for Fitzgerald himself, which I thought was pretty cool.

Along with the strong script and production design, Leonardo DiCaprio leads a star-studded cast who all give worthy performances. DiCaprio is marvelous as Gatsby. I'm not sure there's an actor working in Hollywood today that could do justice to the character better than DiCaprio. The only other man who could come close might be Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But as it stands, DiCaprio simply IS Gatsby. He's a millionaire who has everything and nothing at the same time. You feel for him as he reaches for that elusive "green light" of hope across the bay, and you want him to be with the woman he loves. The only aspect of the character that felt milked was the use of his classic pet phrase "old sport". The Great Gatsby is sure to be a big seller on Blu-Ray and DVD for the purpose of playing an "old sport" drinking game. In doing that, you may not make it to the end of the movie, but you may still be "borne ceaselessly into the past", depending on what kind of drunk you are.

Tobey Maguire (Spider-Man) fares well as Nick. He has excellent chemistry with DiCaprio and serves as a strong narrator. This is my favorite performance from him to date.
Rounding out the leads are Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan and Carey Mulligan as his wife and object of Gatsby's affections, Daisy. Edgerton's performance oozes with the masculinity needed to bring a character like Tom to life. As his muse, Mulligan wears her heart on her sleeve and does her best work in the tense scenes where she's in the presence of both Tom and Gatsby together.

I went into Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby with diminished expectations after the earliest reviews came out mixed. While some "purists" may find fault with the use of the contemporary music, the visual effects, and the creative liberties taken with the screenplay, I consider myself a fan of the book who's satisfied with the film that Luhrmann has created. He achieves a rare balance between source-material loyalty and sheer cinematic entertainment thanks to some bold set pieces, a talented cast that never feels out of place, and a script that sticks close to the text of the book.

Surely, Mr. Fitzgerald would be pleased, old sport.


Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Office - "A.A.R.M." (May 9, 2013)


I've been behind on my TV reviews, but I had to write about tonight's episode of The Office while it's still fresh in my mind.

This is the second to last episode of the series, so things are quickly drawing to a close for our folks at Dunder Mifflin.

In an hour-long special, Jim works with Dwight to orchestrate a series of tests that determine who will take the made-up position of "assistant-assistant to the regional manager". (Of course, Jim fixes things so that Dwight ends up giving himself the position.)
Andy spends the day in line waiting to audition for a singing competition in the vein of American Idol, where he connects with another enthusiastic hopeful from Cincinnati, Ohio.
After talking to Daryl about Jim refusing to go on a cushy, 3-month, sports marketing excursion, Pam starts to think that she may be holding Jim back and that he may not be satisfied with his decision to leave Athlead and return to Dunder Mifflin. Jim quickly quells Pam's doubt in classic Halpert fashion. (You just have to watch to understand.)
There's also a late-breaking twist that really doesn't come as any surprise regarding the father of Angela's son.

For anyone who decided to quit watching The Office after the departure of Steve Carell, I understand why you may have done so. But it's after episodes like tonight's that I know I made the right choice in sticking around.

At one point, I was in tears. Jim's way of expressing his feelings to Pam reminded me once again of the heart this show has displayed on its very best days. This, coupled with the faux-documentary about the entire office, brought back memories of several series's highlights from over the years. (Jim and Pam's first kiss, the basketball game, etc.) Being able to reminisce alongside the characters has been a special experience, and I couldn't be more excited about what's in store for next Thursday's two-hour series finale.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

"Man of Steel" Theme Music

I spent most of the afternoon on Tuesday and some of the early morning on Wednesday geeking out about Hans Zimmer's first composition for Zack Snyder's Superman epic, Man of Steel, which hits theaters in June.

This is Zimmer's attempt to live up to John William's classic suite from the original Superman films. If you ask me, I think he succeeds and maybe then some.

Have a listen:

Saturday, May 4, 2013

"Iron Man 3" Review

Forget the horse races. If it's the first weekend of May, you know there's gotta be a superhero soaring into movie theaters. 

Who could it be this year? None other than everyone's favorite wisecracking billionaire Tony Stark, better known as Iron Man! Assuming you've been near a television or an internet browser sometime in the past year, you know that Marvel is looking to stay atop their high horse after the unprecedented success of last year's super-friends saga, The Avengers

With Iron Man 3, fans have hoped for another hit, despite a new director and an apparent shift in tone, as seen in most of last year's early teasers. 

The most recent trailers have looked rather exciting, with Iron Man trying to save a bunch of people from an exploding plane and a sinister Ben Kingsley as the Armored Avenger's arch-enemy, The Mandarin. Goodness knows I bought into the hype. I love Iron Man, I love The Avengers, and Ben Kingsley is the perfect choice for a villain like The Mandarin.

My friend, Brice, went to see a midnight screening of Iron Man 3 and posted a Facebook status afterwards, saying that those trailers were "extremely misleading". He wouldn't tell me how or why, only that I had to see it and decide for myself. So I did. And I'm here to report that I believe he is correct. 

Too bad that isn't a compliment.

Iron Man 3 features the witty comedy we've come to expect from the franchise, as well as some of the trilogy's most thrilling action sequences. It's certainly a step above 2010's Iron Man 2, but Stark's third rodeo is not the post-Avengers high-note we all hoped it would be and isn't the same story that we've come to expect from the trailers.

The biggest letdown was Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin. I was so pissed because, in the trailers, he looked like the first formidable villain to come along in the Iron Man cinematic canon. And it's about time we've had this hero's arch-villain from the comics! I don't want to spoil anything because this is one of the movie's biggest plot twists; so I'll just say that anyone who's even remotely familiar with The Mandarin from the "Iron Man" comics or the original cartoon series will see just how gross an injustice director Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and co-writer Drew Pearce did to the character.

Next on the laundry list of complaints focuses on one of the film's biggest plot holes:

Who the hell was the kid?

I guess every hero comes across a "Short Round" at some point in their travels. But even Indiana Jones took the time to explain where his boy came from. In Iron Man 3, Tony finds himself stranded in Rose Hill, Tennessee and joins forces with a youngster named Harley (Ty Simpkins) to uncover the mystery of a Mandarin-linked attack that occurred in the town. I never understood who the boy was, where he came from, or how he fit into Tony's life. When Harley opens his garage to find a famous billionaire tinkering with an Iron Man suit, the chemistry between he and Stark almost instantly sends the vibe that they've known each other for awhile. It feels like an uncle-nephew dynamic, but their exact relation to one another is never explicitly stated. It could just be that the two are "connected", as Harley proposes, but somehow I don't buy into that. 

In addition to seeing more of Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow in the lead roles, Iron Man 3 introduces many fresh faces to the franchise, including those of Guy Pearce (Memento), Rebecca Hall (The Prestige), and James Badge Dale (The Grey). While Pearce and Dale ultimately fare quite well, I didn't really understand Rebecca Hall's character. She plays Maya Hansen, one of the lead scientists on the "Extremis" regeneration project that Aldrich Killian (Pearce) is spearheading. The only purpose Hansen really serves, other than as a "Y2K" fling on New Years Eve, is to warn Tony about the potential threat that the Extremis causes. In the end, she blends into relative obscurity within the narrative, and I could've cared less about her as a character. I actually forgot she was even a part of the movie until I saw her name creep up during the credits.

There are also a handful of hammy stunts, even for a comic book movie. My favorite was when Rhodey (Don Cheadle) swings through a 40-foot oil inferno, without his Iron Patriot armor on, and comes out unscathed. Don't try that one at home, kids.

Having said all that, Iron Man 3 still has moments of side-splitting humor and still thrives on Downey's trademark charisma. He's once again in top comedic form, even as his character's mental state appears to shift. Downey succeeds at making Stark's post-Avengers anxiety believable while still maintaining the pompous personality that audiences have come to know and love.
Gwyneth Paltrow nearly steals the show as Pepper Potts, Tony's former assistant and current love interest. She's beautiful as ever, and still serves as the perfect counterbalance to Downey's enthusiastic playboy.

I actually really enjoyed the scenes featuring series newcomers Guy Pearce and James Badge Dale. Pearce is at his conniving best, and Dale is convincing as the hard-to-kill henchman. The men are dastardly players in The Mandarin's scheme, and between the two of them, they really give Iron Man a run for his money, which is something his solo adventures have sorely lacked.

Along with the talented cast, Iron Man 3 features some of the most intense set pieces in the series. There's the hectic destruction of Stark's bayside home, a mid-air game of "Barrel of Monkeys", Stark's ballsy, sans-suit infiltration of The Mandarin's compound, and the climactic showdown at a shipyard conveniently riddled with highly-combustible oil drums. Gotta use up that budget somehow.

Each scene had me on the edge of my seat; most especially, the climax at the oil yard. Seeing Tony's entire arsenal of suits come out to play is really a treat and is worth the price of admission alone. However, I'd probably think twice about bringing children under the age of 10. This is probably the most violent Iron Man to date, and the overall tone is slightly darker than the earlier movies. This is like The Dark Knight Rises of the Iron Man saga, so if you were hesitant about bringing little ones to see Batman and Bane last summer, I'd take the same precautions here.

Overall, Iron Man 3 trumps its 2010 predecessor thanks to fine acting performances and more rousing action sequences. But Shane Black really drops the ball with the characterizations of Tony's Tennessee sidekick Harley, the Extremis scientist Maya Hansen, and Iron Man's arch-enemy The Mandarin. 

Fans of Iron Man and The Avengers will flock to see this movie. If you consider yourself among them, lower your expectations because this doesn't quite meet the lofty standards set by last year's blockbuster or even those of Tony Stark's first adventure in 2008.

Iron Man 3 isn't a "bad" movie. It just isn't as good as it could and should have been, and isn't quite the narrative that the trailers have led us to believe. Hopefully, Marvel Studios will be back on track with Thor: The Dark World this November.