After the astonishing box office success of ‘The Avengers’ (or ‘Avengers Assemble’ if you live on British soil – thanks John Steed), it was going to take something special to kick off Marvel’s “Phase Two” and with ‘Iron Man 3′ they’ve delivered the goods.

Taking over from former director Jon Favreau is ‘Lethal Weapon’ scribe Shane Black, the guy who could be credited with reviving Robert Downey Jr’s ailing career with the tremendous ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ back in 2005.  With ‘Iron Man 3′, the two are completely in sync with each other again as the script bristles with equal amounts of charm and smarm coming from the lips of Tony Stark.

The story starts with Stark still suffering from the after affects of his near death experience whilst with The Avengers in New York. With the threat of the maniacal terrorist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) looming large, he fears for the safety of his beloved Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) yet openly invites The Mandarin to attack his Malibu home. And attack he does as Stark mansion is obliterated from the sky with Stark and Pepper both narrowly escaping by the skin of his teeth. Stark winds up in Tennessee and much like the original ‘Iron Man’ has to rely on his instincts and ingenuity to survive and rebuild not only his body but his fractured psyche.
Meanwhile, his former flame Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and her boss Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) have been working on a virus known as Extremis, which has phenomenal healing and destructive power yet is also unpredictable and potentially fatal when in the hands of The Mandarin.

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Without wanting to give too much away, I’m expecting Marvel fan boys to be slightly disappointed by parts of this movie. There is one titanic plot shift halfway through the film that will take you by surprise and either have you praising writers Black and Drew Pearce for the brave shift in proceedings or leave you crying in to your comic books because they’ve been so unfaithful to the source material.
Either way, it’s an unexpected move that is played for laughs and comedy features largely throughout the two hour plus running time.
Of course, this makes sense with Tony Stark being the most charismatic of all the current Marvel characters appearing in film, but some will argue the action packed scenes from the first two movies have been overlooked in favour of sight gags and biting one liners that you would more likely find in a buddy cop film (no surprise with Black’s ‘Lethal Weapon’ background).
The action scenes don’t compare to the non-stop carnage which occurred in ‘The Avengers’ with ‘Iron Man 3′ being a more restrained character study interspersed with some excellent special effects, yet the explosive, battering ram of a finale should appease everyone who’s been waiting for an army of tin heads to smash everything in their path.

Robert Downey Jr is in fine form as usual and it’s hard to imagine anyone else that has ever inhabited a superhero character quite as well as him, with the exception of possibly Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne/Batman or further back, Christopher Reeve as Superman.
Ben Kingsley is suitably evil as The Mandarin yet I can’t help but feel the ace in the sleeve for ‘Iron Man 3′ is Guy Pearce. I’ve been a fan of Pearce since Christopher Nolan’s ‘Memento’ and always thought he would make an excellent villain (I was hoping he would one day play Black Mask in a Nolan Batman movie) and here his portrayal of Aldrich Killian – from unkempt uber-geek to suave, calculated business man – plays off against the brash, improvised style of Downey Jr’s Stark.
Sadly the one character who misses out on most of the fun is Don Cheadle’s War Machine, here re-named and given a new lick of paint as Iron Patriot. Cheadle is a good actor and is comfortable enough in the suit so it’s a shame to see him not given a proper arc of his own to work with.

As with every superhero movie, there are numerous plot holes that purists are bound to have a field day over, but the whole point of something like ‘Iron Man 3′ is that it should be fun first and believable a very distant second. Shane Black has taken some chances and breathed new life in to Tony Stark’s journey with a razor sharp script and plenty of laughs to go along with the action.
Marvel’s Phase Two is underway with a bang and judging by the first weekend foreign box office figures (‘IM3 has already grossed more than ‘The Avengers’) and an obligatory post credits sequence, it’s obvious that Iron Man is here to stay for a little while longer yet.

8/10

The first trailer for the highly anticipated sequel to Marvel’s ‘Thor’ is now online.

“Marvel’s ‘Thor: The Dark World’ continues the big-screen adventures of Thor, the Mighty Avenger, as he battles to save Earth and all the Nine Realms from a shadowy enemy that predates the universe itself. In the aftermath of Marvel’s ‘Thor’ and Marvel’s ‘Avengers Assemble’, Thor fights to restore order across the cosmos…but an ancient race led by the vengeful Malekith returns to plunge the universe back into darkness. Faced with an enemy that even Odin and Asgard cannot withstand, Thor must embark on his most perilous and personal journey yet, one that will reunite him with Jane Foster and force him to sacrifice everything to save us all.”

Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston all return to the sequel while Christopher Eccleston is taking on the role of Malekith.

The film industry obviously has it in for the White House in 2013 as ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ is the first of two movies being released this Summer that sees the President’s home being attacked by a foreign threat.
Roland Emmerich’s ‘White House Down’ will follow this in a couple of months time but it’s going be difficult for even that master of disaster to outdo ‘Olympus’ in the body count and carnage stakes.

The film starts off at a wintery Camp David where President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) is enjoying a little family time with the First Lady (Ashley Judd) and his son. We’re also introduced to Secret Service guard Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) and it’s not long before he’s called in to action as he makes a decision that saves the President but kills the First Lady after a bad car accident in the icy conditions.
Fast forward 18 months and a crestfallen Banning has been relegated to a desk job with the President blaming him for the tragedy.
With a war brewing on the Korean border (sound familiar?), the South Korean ambassador travels to Washington for crunch talks but all hell breaks loose as Rick Yune’s North Korean terrorist Kang pulls off an attack that pummels the White House, leaving an impressive amount of bullet riddled bodies strewn all over the front lawn. The President is kidnapped and it’s left to Banning to find him and his son before Kang can retrieve the nuclear codes that will potentially bring the US to its knees.

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Wait a minute!  Doesn’t that plot sound a bit like..?

‘Olympus’ has already been dubbed ‘Die Hard’ in the White House and that reference is pretty accurate with Butler doing his best John McClane impression but the script lacks the wit and sparkle which made Bruce Willis’ character so endearing over twenty years ago.
Instead, Butler relies more on brute force as knives are stabbed in people’s throats with merely an eyelid batted and the whole affair relies on relentless darkly lit violence to create a few brief moments of suspense.
‘Olympus’ wears its star spangled heart fully on its sleeve with a script full of cheesy pro-America lines and cliches that come thick and fast. There’s no denying that director Antoine Fuqua (‘Training Day’) only had the action fan in mind as the countless explosions and destruction take preference over subtlety. It’s preposterous but fun even if the two hour run time feels a little bloated.
As for the acting, Eckhart is spirited but limited with a role that sees him tied to some railings for the majority of the time, a feisty Melissa Leo majorly hams it up as the Secretary of Defense and in a film where most of the back stabbing is done by Butler, Dylan McDermott does some devious work of his own. Morgan Freeman appears but doesn’t really do much as the acting President. After this and ‘Oblivion’, that’s two films in 2013 where Freeman has been reduced to more of a bit role and it’s a shame to see such a great actor being criminally under used.
The ruthless Butler is the star of the show, proving he’s much more comfortable as the action hero than a rom-com leading man. He’s a killing machine with a softer side but I wonder if the irony of a Scotsman saving the US from nuclear disaster is lost on the studio…

‘Olympus Has Fallen’ is a gloriously tacky and over the top action thriller that the popcorn crowd should lap up. The fact that stylistically it’s a lot closer to the original ‘Die Hard’ than the recent instalment of that franchise should be recommendation enough.  Over to you, ‘White House Down’.

7/10

The first trailer for ‘R.I.P.D. (Rest In Peace Department) starring Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges is now up.

Based on the highly successful graphic novel of the same name, ‘R.I.P.D.’ tells the story of a cop, slain in the line of duty (Reynolds) who joins up with an undead police department to find out the identity of the man responsible for killing him.

Also starring Kevin Bacon and directed by Robert Schwentke (Red), ‘R.I.P.D.’ opens on July 19th in the US.

 

2013 looks set to be a huge year for big budget sci-fi blockbusters and with ‘Oblivion’, director and co-writer Joseph Kosinski (‘Tron: Legacy’) has already set the bar pretty high.

The film takes place 60 years in the future after Earth has been invaded by an alien race known as the Scavs. The war has been won but Earth has been ravaged and mankind have abandoned the planet to live on one of Saturn’s moons named Titan.
Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper (not to be confused with Jack Reacher). an ex-marine commander turned mechanic who is part of an operation to mop up what’s left of the invasion and repair the robot drones that assist him and female companion Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). They have two weeks left of the operation before joining the rest of civilisation and their chief commander Sally (Melissa Leo) on Titan, but Jack is troubled and having recurring dreams and flashbacks from prior to the Scav invasion about a mysterious woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko).
After a spaceship crash lands, Jack finds the same woman encased in a sleeping capsule and is subsequently captured by a rebel gang of human survivors led by Morgan Freeman who live out of sight of the alien threat.  The gang inform him that there is more to the war than meets the eye and not only is the woman he’s discovered the missing link he’s been waiting for, but he could also be the key to mankind’s fate.

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While the plot from Kosinski resembles a mash-up of Pixar’s ‘Wall-E’, the Terminator films and a small slice of ‘RoboCop’ (the robot drones could be distant cousins of the ED-209), it’s the stunning special effects and sprawling landscapes that really stand out as spectacular.
Shot on location in parts of Iceland, the dystopian Earth in ‘Oblivion’ is as beautiful as it is menacing. The amazing cinematography, shot on the landmark Sony CineAlta F65 camera adds incredible depth to each shot while the CGI is as impressive as anything you’ll see this year.

Whether you love him or hate him, Tom Cruise is still one of the best and most reliable leading men in cinema today. With undeniable confidence and charm, he takes ‘Oblivion’ on his shoulders and carries it from start to finish despite some good support from British actress Riseborough. Morgan Freeman and Kurylenko are desperately underused but do enough with their screen time to make their characters memorable.

So, is ‘Oblivion’ a sci-fi classic in the making or merely an impressive looking action film? For the first 75 minutes, you would have to agree with the former but the final third of the movie falls in to more conventional story telling and loses some of the aspects that had made it unique. Surprisingly, the movie seems to shuffle towards an ending that feels low on tension and a little rushed. It lacks the dramatic impact that perhaps it was intending, a similar gripe I had with the ending of Kosinki’s ‘Tron’ movie.

Despite a couple of shortcomings, ‘Oblivion’ feels like the first big “event” movie of 2013.
It is a fresh and exciting blend of new school aesthetics that also contains enough knowing nods to movies of old to appease fans of “thinking man” sci-fi amongst the gun fights and explosions.
The combination of the two plus some solid action means ‘Oblivion’ is one not to miss, especially in the IMAX format.

8/10

Director Harmony Korine (‘Kids’, ‘Gummo’) returns with ‘Spring Breakers’, the cinematic equivalent of a bored and pissed off generation screaming YOLO in your face for 90 minutes.

Featuring former Disney tweens Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez along with Ashley Benson (‘Pretty Little Liars’) and Korine’s real life wife Rachel, ‘Spring Breakers’ tells the story of four college girls who hold up a chicken restaurant to raise the money for their life changing spring break trip to Florida.  After a wild few days, the girls are arrested after a party gets busted and are subsequently bailed out of jail by corn-rowed, drug dealing gangster, Alien (James Franco).  Alien is caught up in an ongoing feud with rival gangster and former best friend Archie (Gucci Mane) and takes a shine to the trouble seeking girls so much that he keeps them around to see how far they’ll go to help him.

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Switching between crude, hedonistic sequences of partying and melodramatic passages of self-realization, Korine paints a picture of disenchanted youth that sucks you in amid some totally surreal moments.
Most of those moments belong to Franco who dominates the film as the ludicrous and (un)intentionally hilarious Alien.  His finer moments include performing oral sex on a loaded gun before tinkling the ivories and serenading the girls with a Britney Spears ballad.  The fact the girls are clad in pink balaclavas and holding automatic weapons adds an extra layer of bizarre to a film that goes out of its way to sensationalise most of the grimy details.
All four of the actresses play their roles pretty well.  None of the characters are particularly likeable but they are believable. You can imagine there’s a group of girls like this anywhere in America, ready to disassociate themselves from normal society at a heartbeat. Hudgens in particular seems to revel in her role as Candy, displaying her sexual powers of manipulation more than any of the other girls.  Gomez doesn’t quite break free from her Disney shackles as her church going character Faith is the first to show some kind of moral response to the increasingly messed up situations happening around her.  Even so, it’s still odd and a little unsettling to see that girl from ‘Wizards Of Waverly Place’ inhaling from a bong.  In truth, if more conventional actresses had been used to play these characters, their actions may not have had the same affect.

At times, ‘Spring Breakers’ plays like an extended gaudy music video or a particularly bad soft porn flick with enough tits and ass to appease most flesh junkie.  The nudity and hardcore drug taking are stylised so much that by halfway through the film you would have become desensitised to it, while despite guns featuring heavily, violence is kept at a relative low.

On the surface,’Spring Breakers’ looks like it could fall in to the same category as other “teens gone wild” flicks as ‘Project X’ and ’21 & Over’ but look closely and there is a more complex coming of age story, albeit set within a world that gets gradually more unrealistic.
Each of the four girls either learn or eclipse their own boundaries or eventually realise that sometimes life isn’t better outside of the confines of their small town they’ve grown so tired of.
With a great pumping soundtrack featuring Skrillex, Cliff Martinez and Gucci Mane, ‘Spring Breakers’ is an experience that you will either love or loathe. It is an exercise in entertaining, stylish film making that takes the audience down some dark roads but the dreamy visuals and repetition of certain words or phrases give it a certain detached and edgy feel.

7/10

About a year ago I was invited to a test screening of ‘Retaliation’ in a big, fancy cinema close to Anaheim, California.
It was one of those events where you were sworn to secrecy about what you saw and I actually ended up sitting one seat down from director Jon M. Chu who clearly looked happy with what was on screen despite some scenes missing crucial CGI effects.

A couple of months after the screening, news filtered through that the release of ‘Retaliation’ was being put back 8 months in order to incorporate 3D effects. Most people believed the delay was forced upon Paramount after test audiences had all said the same thing – ‘Retaliation’ needed more Channing Tatum – and after a stellar 2012 for Tatum, that made sense. But was the delay worth it? The 3D pops but honestly, not really…

The star of the first ‘G.I. Joe’, Tatum’s character Duke gets maybe a couple more scenes at the start of the movie that attempt to solidify the friendship between him and Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) yet the extra screen time given to him is in detriment to the film. The scenes feel ham fisted and forced and ultimately, Duke and a handful of other Joes still meet their demise at the hands of an air attack ordered by Zartan (Arnold Vosloo), who has taken the identity of the US President (Jonathan Pryce).

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The remaining Joes (Roadblock, Flint, Lady Jaye, Jinx & Snake Eyes) are presumed dead and have to go rogue in order to fight back against not only their Government’s threat against the world but also their true enemy, the Cobra Commander, who has been broken out of a high security facility somewhere in Germany. The only man they can still trust is the original Joe played by Bruce Willis who sarcastically quips and shoots his way through most of his time on screen. It’s a standard dry, sardonic performance by Willis that we’re getting more and more used to seeing with each action role he takes on. It would have been nice to see a bit more camaraderie between him and the other Joes.
In fact, none of the characters are really fleshed out which is what lets the film down most. Roadblock grunts and brawls his way through the whole thing with a distinct lack of flair or subtlety and the floundering romance between Flint (D.J. Cotrona) and Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) is as hot as a Winters day in Lapland. Palicki smoulders in a bright red dress in a brief moment of sensuality that will gain her a few more male admirers.
It says a lot when the most layered (and best) character is one that doesn’t talk or show his face. Ray Park’s Snake Eyes says all he needs to with two pistols and a sword.
As for the villains, Ray Stevenson hams it up with a woeful American accent as Firefly but he brings more of a sustained threat compared to the Cobra Commander who is strangely underused and subdued considering he is still the Joe’s main enemy.

As you’d expect, plot and character development are most definitely secondary to the special effects and stunts, most of which are quite breathtaking and a lot of fun. The scene in the mountains of Japan where Jinx and Snake Eyes take on a bunch of acrobatic ninjas not only defies gravity (think ‘Inception’ meets ‘Cliffhanger’) but stands out in my mind as being one of the best action sequences in recent memory.
Another scene where London gets completely obliterated by a missile launched from space is as destructive as anything you’ll find this year and includes a sly dig at North Korea which should do a lot for inter-country relations.
With razor sharp editing and only brief respites between all the action, it sometimes feels like ‘Retaliation’ is a glorified video game with the meandering script acting as cut scene filler until the next explosive set piece.

‘Retaliation’ is a marked improvement on the first G.I. Joe (whether that’s a recommendation is a question of your personal taste) and a serviceable action blockbuster that will hit all the right spots if you’re looking for some mindless fun and explosions. It’s not perfect by any means but I get the feeling it will do well enough for the franchise to gain a part three. Hopefully by then there will be a better script for these characters to play with.

7/10