Iron Man 2 Jon Favreau’s much-anticipated follow-up to his breakthrough 2008 blockbuster is less a comic book flick than it is a superhero version of Arthur the Oscar-nominated 1981 comedy that starred Dudley Moore as a drunken wise-cracking dilettante. In his second turn as Tony Stark Robert Downey Jr. recasts the billionaire inventor as the Dean Martin of industrialists strutting from one star-studded event to another on a bacchanalian victory tour dishing out choice one-liners and stirring up minor controversies for his exasperated babysitters Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle) to quell. Whether gloating about his achievements at a defense industry expo upbraiding Senators during a congressional hearing or getting wasted and donning his armored powersuit to play DJ at his birthday party there's no telling what kind of madcap mischief Tony Stark will get himself into next!
The Tony Stark Comedy Tour for what it’s worth is a supremely entertaining ride (credit screenwriter Justin Theroux at the very least with crafting the genre’s most quotable film of all time) but I’m fairly certain Iron Man 2 is supposed to be an action film not the Marvel Follies Variety Show. Surely there must be a supervillain lurking in the shadows a frighteningly powerful menace preparing to unleash its destructive might upon the world?
There is — well kind of. The primary antagonist of Iron Man 2 Mickey Rourke's hulking Ivan Vanko (aka Whiplash) is certainly a fearsome beast baring his blinged-out grill and electrified tentacles but he gets all of five minutes of meaningful screen time in the sequel — hardly enough to establish him as a worthy foe for the great Iron Man. Perhaps producers found Rourke’s chosen dialect learned from John Malkovich's Rounders School of Exaggerated Russian Accents (“I vant my bort!” he furiously declares when separated from his pet parrot) to be less compelling in post-production.
More likely they became enamored with Sam Rockwell in the role of Justin Hammer Stark’s resentful business rival and Whiplash’s principal financial backer. It’s certainly understandable. Exuding the hubris and insecurity of a sardonic Mark Cuban (but capable of amusing us with more than just an underachieving basketball team) his performance is easily the best of the film surpassing even that of the great Downey. (Which makes perfect fodder for conspiracy theorists who wonder why Rockwell was the only member of the main cast not to get his own poster.)
The only problem is Rockwell’s Hammer is a venture capitalist not a comic book supervillain and every second he spends on the screen — as enjoyable as it is — is a second that could have been devoted to dimensionalizing Rourke’s character or crafting a badly-needed action sequence to enliven the talky second act.
It’s little wonder then that Stark continues with his feckless self-destructive ways unconcerned with the threat posed by the Hammer/Whiplash collaboration. He's got bigger problems to worry about — namely his inability to find a suitable replacement for palladium the substance inside the Arc Reactor that powers both his suit and his heart and which also happens to be slowly killing him.
Thankfully Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. arrive at his compound to stage a kind of intervention bearing a powerful dual-pronged Deus Ex Machina device that instantly wrests our hero from his para-suicidal stupor — just in time to build the upgraded powersuit he’ll need to thwart the army of powerful robot drones that Whiplash is about to let loose upon on the unsuspecting citizens of Queens New York. Whew! Favreau steps up the action and delivers a suitably big finish but don't blink when Iron Man and Whiplash meet on the battlefield because you might just miss it.
Given that Iron Man 2’s director and writer have both spent the bulk of their movie careers employed as actors it comes as little surprise that they chose to focus the action on Downey and Rockwell as the two rank head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. I just wish they found room in between the one-liners for a few more explosions.
Seeing Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn reunite on the big screen is an enticing proposition. As anyone who has watched them in The Break-Up or Made can attest the two Swingers alums seem to step up their improv game whenever they share the frame and their verbal sparring rarely yields anything short of comedy gold.
The above certainly holds true in Couples Retreat the new relationship comedy directed by child actor-turned-filmmaker Peter Billingsley. Sadly the demands of the film’s bloated ensemble cast and the constraints of its PG-13 rating allow precious few opportunities for Favreau and Vaughn to work their magic. And since the rest of Couples Retreat’s main castmembers refuse to pick up the slack when they’re on screen the end result is uneven disappointment.
The plot of Couples Retreat centers on four couples who travel to Bora Bora for a new-age “tune-up” for their flagging relationships. Each pair has its own unique set of problems: Jason (Jason Bateman) and Cynthia (Kristen Bell) are type-A achievers whose perfect union is threatened by their inability to conceive; Joey (Favreau) and Lucy (Kristin Davis) have essentially lived a sham marriage since an unplanned pregnancy led to their shotgun wedding 18 years ago; Dave (Vaughn) and Ronnie (Malin Akerman) are so tied up in the day-to-day routine of their busy lives that the passion has vanished from their relationship; and recently dumped Shane (Faizon Love) is dealing with the pain of his break-up by shacking up with Trudy (Kali Hawk) a shrieking sexpot half his age.
It’s a solid lineup of actors to be sure. Problem is everyone has to have their own jokes their own story arc and their own tidy resolution at the end. But save for a few amusing moments nobody besides Favreau and Vaughn is particularly funny or interesting. If anything it’s the supporting actors -- including Frenchman Jean Reno as the blissed-out seminar guru Peter Serafinowicz as the satin-voiced group guide and Carlos Ponce as the groping yoga instructor -- who provide the bulk of the laughs.
The whole experience of Couples Retreat ultimately feels like it was phoned-in by everyone involved as if it were a scheme concocted to get a free all-expenses-paid vacation in Bora Bora. Most disappointing of the bunch is Bateman who is coming dangerously close to typecasting himself as the uptight deadpan good guy. Dude needs to make a movie in which he kills someone -- or at least beats them very badly. Who’s going to want to see an Arrested Development movie if Bateman essentially plays Michael Bluth in every movie he makes?
Playboy executive Roderick Blank (Simon Baker) is about to settle down after a full-life of many women. His overbearing platonic friend Trixie (Mindy Cohn) clumsily opens a mysterious email sent to him which reveals a list of all the women he will ever sleep with moving forward--101 to be exact listed in chronological order. Thing is his fiancée isn't last on the list; 72 other lucky ladies follow her. So needless to say his engagement dissolves as he starts burning through his list of pre-ordained sexual conquests. In bizarre Matrix-like fashion Roderick is coached by a trio of relationship experts who advise him on which women he should pursue. All is kosher until the last name on the list is Gillian DeRaisx (Winona Ryder)--also known as Death Nell a local serial killer who targets promiscuous men. Uh-oh. Simon Baker (The Devil Wears Prada) carries this film's charm on his shoulders; he is irresistible in his body language and shows just how much of a man's man he can be. He does a fine job a unique type of rascal tapped in an offbeat love story. Ryder is a weird hybrid of Chicago’s Catherine Zeta Jones and Who Framed Roger Rabbit Jessica Rabbit: a femme fatale with a bowl brunette wig that belies her black widow-like mystique. But Ryder is underdeveloped and this is little more than a star sizzle piece for her. The female supporting roles are all strong women including Sophie Monk Leslie Bibb and Julie Bowen with complex viewpoints despite just being numbers on his list. Who's that cuddly magic man in the all-white room? Ratatouille himself Patton Oswalt as Fred one of Roderick’s advisor. He's hilarious in his physicality and gives ordinary line reads a pro comic's touch sparking smiles every time he's on screen. Writer/director Daniel Waters best known for writing one of Winona Ryder's breakout films Heathers is a colorful name from the past dusted off to helm Sex and Death 101 his second directorial effort. The film’s sense of humor is oddly pitched and uneven and the predictability is ancient. When Roderick stumbles in the dark for his girlfriend's room in a strange house he of course ends up sleeping with the 88-year-old grandmother. Part of the problem is there are too many thematic elements being thrown together: dark humor intrigue and broad physical comedy resulting in a big mess. Let’s just say Sex and Death 101 will probably end up on Lifetime at some point.
Cradle 2 the Grave isn't going to be known as one of those action flicks that thrills you but also has a surprisingly interesting story to back it up. Still Cradle has enough credible plot points to keep things moving until the next fight sequence. The action begins with Tony Fait (Earl "DMX" Simmons) and his fiercely devoted crew--including the stunning Daria (Gabrielle Union) and comic relief Tommy (Anthony Anderson)--pulling off a complex jewelry heist and snagging a valuable cache of black diamonds. These diamonds aren't what they appear to be but are actually something much more powerful--and deadly. Su (Jet Li) working for the Taiwanese government as a secret agent must retrieve them before its too late. Fait would be happy to hand over the stones for the right price but word of their value has hit the street and they are stolen by a powerful crime lord (Chi McBride). Su and the crimelord end up being the least of Fait's problems however when Su's ex-partner Ling (Mark Dacascos) now a ruthless arms dealer enters the picture. He and his treacherous woman (Kelly Hu) will stop at nothing to get those black baubles including kidnapping Fait's daughter Vanessa (Paige Hurd). OK things just got personal. Fait Su and company have to work together to fight off the onslaught of nasties exact revenge stop possible world destruction and get back the only thing Fait cares about in the world--his daughter.
Is it me or is Jet Li just too damn cool for words? The whole martial arts arena has certainly been stepped up with the Jackie Chan's and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon's of the world but Li brings back that calm yet deadly demeanor the late Bruce Lee made so popular. Granted Li hasn't had the same success in the U.S. as Chan--save for maybe his American debut performance in the smokin' Romeo Must Die. But he sure is impressive on-screen kicking the bejesus outta someone without blinking an eye no matter what the asinine plot line. Hip-hop singer DMX who also appeared in Romeo Must Die (along with Anderson) holds his own as a tough nut über-thief but he finds a little difficulty emoting when the time comes. The hilarious Anderson and the oh-so-alluring Union are quickly becoming the "It" black actors (him: Kangaroo Jack Barbershop; her: Deliver Us From Eva the upcoming Bad Boys 2) while the forever-irritating Tom Arnold pops up as a demolition surplus dealer (but make sure to stay all the way through the credits to watch a hilarious exchange between him and Anderson). Hurd does an nice turn as the feisty Vanessa who is fairly resourceful for a kidnapped 10-year-old. It's easy to see the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
Enough with all the superfluous plot lines and acting analysis--let's get down to real reason the movie exists. Action. High octane fist-flyin' action and as a self-proclaimed action junkie--and newly transformed martial arts fan--Cradle certainly doesn't disappoint. Director/cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak who worked with Li and DMX on Romeo Must Die knows how to frame the martial arts sequences while using the pounding hip-hop soundtrack and urban locale to full effect. One of the more fast-paced sequences has Fait outrunning police cars on a three-wheel ATV eventually jumping the bike from rooftop to rooftop while Su in another location is fighting off a dozen guys in a boxing pit including an aggressive midget who would like to smash Su's face in but ends becoming a device to fend off the rest. All while DMX is belting out a jammin' song. Great stuff. Of course you wait for the ultimate showdown between Su and his nemesis Ling and when it comes it's a jaw-clencher. The film is just a purely mindless roller-coaster ride.