The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

Director: Ryuhei Kitamura

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Leslie Bibb, Brooke Shields, Roger Bart, Vinnie Jones

Well…. damn! I usually like to start off with something a little more coherent than that, but I wanted to demonstrate how much this movie caught me off guard. My most recent screening was some weeks ago, but it’s such a dark, dreary horror film that it took that long just to be able to get me back into the mindset I needed to be in to write about it. When it comes to horror movies, you can usually learn a lot about what you’re going to watch just by reading the name. You just have to be sure you know which “name” it is that requires your attention. With “The Midnight Meat Train,” be not fooled by the film’s title. Instead, keep in mind the name of the author responsible for penning the original source material, he being Clive Barker.

Leon Kaufman (Bradley Cooper) is a New York City amateur photographer, desperate to get his work noticed by anyone of importance. One such opportunity presents itself when he brings his portfolio to Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields). Susan is very particular about the photographers she works with, so it comes as a surprise to Leon when she sees potential in him. However, because his landscape photos aren’t likely to be a big sell, Susan suggests he come back with some nighttime shots of the subway system. When he does, he catches a gang attempting to assault a woman, whom he eventually saves. The next day, however, he discovers she went missing shortly after he watched her get on the subway train. Through some investigating, Leon begins to suspect that a butcher known only as Mahogany (Vinnie Jones) is repsonsible. He is correct.

Just to show how different our protagonist is from the killer, Leon is a vegan. This is especially irksome for the cook at the diner where Leon’s girlfriend Maya (Leslie Bibb) works as a waitress. The cook loathes the idea of having to specially place Leon’s tofu on the grill, thinking that in some way its close proximity to the hamburgers might infect them with its bland nothingness. As Leon’s investigation into Mahogany’s activities grows ever more obsessive, Maya becomes concerned. She tries to take those concerns to the police, and is met with the same suspicion that Leon had been when he tried to share his photos as evidence. The cops are going to be no help at all, it seems.

As the scenes of carnage on board the train unfold, several questions will undoubtedly pop up. Among them: “Surely the train’s conductor must know what’s going on?” “What happens to the bodies once Mahogany’s done with them?” and “Why are the police so uncooperative?” These and other questions can and will be answered. This won’t however prepare you for the film’s ending… unless, of course, you are familiar with Clive Barker’s original short story.

What is my second favorite adaptation of one of Clive Barker’s works (other than “Hellraiser”) is not without some pretty serious flaws. Sadly, this is one of those horror movies that falls prey to the Idiot Syndrome. In order for Leon and Maya to be anywhere near the danger, they must both enter areas which no one in his or her right mind would ever dare to tread, and then act surprised when Mahogany shows up and gives chase. But my least favorite thing about this movie is saved for last. It’s not surprising for a Clive Barker story to have supernatural elements to it. It is shocking, however, when there are virtually no hints dropped until the final fifteen minutes. But that’s not my only gripe.

I can dig horror movies which take you to dark places and then leave you there. Except in the case of slasher films (which this one initially looks like but isn’t), what I don’t love quite so much are horror movies that arrive at an illogical conclusion. Because the film changes the character of Leon from a down-and-out loner to a motivated photographer with a beautiful girlfriend, having his story arc arrive at exactly the same destination feels less fluent than it does arbitrary, even if it does leave us with the movie’s most lasting image.

In spite of the strikes against it, “The Midnight Meat Train,” up until those final fifteen minutes, is one of the best horror films of the 2000’s. It gives us a great villain in the silent killer Mahogany, performed with menacing excellence by Vinnie Jones. In the years since, you’ll find some references to “The Midnight Meat Train” in other films. In “Silver Linings Playbook,” also starring Bradley Cooper, it’s the movie playing at the theater where he and Jennifer Lawrence are standing outside arguing in one key scene. The director, Ryuhei Kitamura, is also responsible for some outstanding Japanese titles, such as “Godzilla: Final Wars” and especially the zombie action film “Versus.” Horror/comedy enthusiasts (and anyone else looking to have a good time) are encouraged to seek out “Versus” as soon as you’re done with this one to lift up your spirits from the dark dimension of horror that “The Midnight Meat Train” drives you toward.

Boyhood (2014)

Director: Richard Linklater

Starring: Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke

Without even thinking hard, I can safely say that the years of my life which played the biggest role in shaping who I am today were ages 6 through 18. Much of my fondest memories (amid a few not-so fond ones) come out of that twelve-year period. I’ve never taken greater vacations, never formed more long-lasting friendships, nor have I as yet learned quite as much about who I am supposed to be in this world than during those years. I also recognize how incredibly blessed I was during this time, as not everyone is afforded the same opportunities, nor fortunate enough to live in a stable household. Some may say this is good/bad luck, while others may come to refer to it as “character-building.” I call it “life.”

In “Boyhood,” we are invited into the life of Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane). When we first meet him in 2002, Mason is six years old and lives with his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and older sister Samantha in Houston, Texas. I’m a little fuzzy on exactly how long Olivia and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) had been divorced up to this point. What is clear is that Mason’s mother is struggling to make ends meet. Determined to see things change, Olivia returns to school at the University of Houston to get her degree. Unfortunately, while there, she makes the mistake of falling in love with and marrying her professor, named Bill.

While he’s good for her at first, as the years pass it becomes clear that Bill is excessively strict, both with his own children from a previous marriage and with Mason Jr. and Samantha. Bill is also an abusive alcoholic. Fearing for her own life and the well-being of her children, Olivia grabs what she can and gets herself, Mason and Samantha to safety. Despite her kids’ aversion to the idea of having to start over in a new town, it was clearly the only choice Olivia could have made. Now, you’d think that a lesson would have been learned there, but no. In time, Olivia (who has become a college teacher) eventually becomes involved with Jim, an Iraqi War veteran, who is no less fond of the booze, no less strict than Bill was. However, the fact that Mason and Samantha are both older by this time means that Jim is unable to impose his will as effectively. Regardless, Olivia still ends up leaving him just as quickly.

What of Mason Sr., you ask? As the odd man out in this family, he only gets sporadic visitation rights, which he hadn’t been taking advantage of as of 2002, due to his being away in Alaska. But by 2004, he is pledging his son and daughter that he will spend more time with them. This includes fun at the bowling alley, baseball games, and camping trips. From then on, for every time that Mason Jr. is finding it hard to deal with life such as it is, his bonding sessions with his father help to see him through each of these hardships. As his son grows into a man, Mason Sr. himself evolves from an out-of-work slob into a man of responsibility, remarrying and having another son.

For the times when his father is not able to be there to help him out, Mason Jr. experiments with sex, drugs and alcohol, but he also finds his passion in photography. His teacher wants him to capture images of things like football games, citing this kind of work as the sort that will allow him to turn his craft into a career. Mason finds his artistic shots more meaningful, and as a result more personally satisfying. Mason enters into a relationship with a girl named Sheena, and the next two years they spend together have a profound affect upon him, which makes their ugly breakup (Is there really any other kind?!) all the more painful for him. Once again, his dad is there to brighten his spirits and offer advice. Signifying that the passage of time has snuck up on everyone, Mason Jr.’s graduation from high school catches everyone by surprise, especially his mother, who thought herself prepared for this moment yet had always believed there would be more time.

To declare “Boyhood” a unique viewing experience is to state the obvious. Because the movie is filmed over the course of twelve years, and no attempt was made to hire different actors to play the same characters at different ages, you are literally watching Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) grow up right before your eyes. The project was begun without a completed script, and actors Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke were able to make contributions by drawing from their own personal histories. There is something of Arquette in Olivia, and something of Hawke in Mason Sr. Some of my favorite moments of the film occur during the scenes of bonding between Mason Sr. and his children, such as the time when, upon Mason Jr.’s 15th birthday, his father presents him with a 3-disc mix CD of ex-Beatles’ solo tunes, arranged together to resemble another Beatles record. Mason Sr. calls this “The Black Album.” Also amusing is Mason Sr.’s observation that there can’t be any new “Star Wars” movies that take place after “Return of the Jedi,” because there’s no story left to tell. Not so fast, Mason Sr.! “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens” is due in theaters this Christmas.

At 165 minutes, I can see where some might make the mistake of considering “Boyhood” a tedious film. I have two answers to that: 1) Time is relative. 2) Speaking from experience, and keeping answer #1 in mind, it seems to me that the period of ages 6 to 18 sees time moving by the slowest. That is why it is essential that “Boyhood” be as long as it needs to be. The narrative is non-traditional as well. Instead of one, long flowing story arc, “Boyhood” plays out like a collected series of happenings. Such is the nature of life itself.

Avengers Age of Ultron (2015)

Director: Joss Whedon

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård

Watching the trailers for this movie, the one which struck me as being particularly relevant was the one for “Terminator: Genisys” (I truly wish it were a typo). Both the “Terminator” franchise and “Age of Ultron” deal with an artificial intelligence designed as a peace-keeping force which, almost immediately upon its activation, selects the entire human race for extinction. Both Ultron and SkyNet find ways to evolve their original programming in order to make things that much more difficult for us. Because they begin their plot of mass genocide in their respective early stages of existence, the two A.I.’s can each be accused of behaving like children: erratic, insolent, illogical and, most of all, emotional. The one thing they fear the most is their own death. Had the Terminators come up against the likes of the Avengers, I doubt there would have been room for three sequels and a reboot. Thankfully, there’s a lot more going on here than just the story of Man endangering his future by trying to save it.

As the movie begins, we join our heroes mid-mission, in a very James Bond-like opening that sees them storming the fortress of Baron Wolfgang von Strucker. Of course, Strucker is hardly a match for Earth’s mightiest. He knows this, which is why the HYDRA agent has been running experiments designed to create super-powered beings. To achieve this, he uses Loki’s scepter, left behind in the rubble at the Battle of New York. Of his test subjects, only the Maximoff twins, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), who volunteered for the procedure have actually survived. Wanda has the power of telekinesis/mind-manipulation and can generate powerful bursts of energy to hurl at enemies, whereas Pietro runs at speeds faster than the blink of an eye. They’re not interested in Strucker’s plans, as they have their own score to settle with one Avenger in particular. It seems the Maximoff home in the Eastern European country of Sokovia was destroyed some years ago by weapons designed by Stark Industries, making orphans of the Twins. Although the Avengers retrieve the scepter, Wanda plants the seeds of their potential doom inside Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.)’s head.

Looking for a way to both keep the world safe and to allow for he and his friends to retire, Tony is about to take the next technological leap. Describing it as an “iron suit around the world,” Tony enlists the aid of Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in designing the ultimate peace-keeping force, Ultron (James Spader). Making use of Loki’s scepter, they do this without consultation from the other four Avengers. It’s the age-old tale of doing something without stopping to consider whether or not you should. At a party in the Avengers Tower, following an amusing moment where all of the mortal men in the group try their best to lift Thor’s hammer, Ultron first makes his presence felt, disabling the J.A.R.V.I.S. program (which he perceives as a personal threat) and declaring himself free of his puppet strings.

Making off with Loki’s scepter, Ultron gathers supplies, stopping at Strucker’s base in Sokovia to make upgrades to his armor and at an African shipyard where he can obtain the Earth’s rarest metal, vibranium, which will play a part in his endgame. Ultron and the Twins are confronted by the Avengers, but Wanda’s mind tricks affect each member of the team on a deep and personal level. Bruce Banner is so affected that he turns into the Hulk and levels an entire town. Tony uses a special suit of armor, designed for just such a contingency, to subdue the Hulk, but the damage has been done. News of the Hulk’s warpath has gone global, and the Avengers avoid the resulting backlash by going into hiding at the family home of team member Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), a married father of two with one more on the way.

Once at the Barton farm, the nature of the relationships of the various team members becomes evident. In particular, the clashing ideologies of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) are pushed even further into the light (and serve as a set-up for the next “Captain America” movie), while Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner acknowledge a growing attraction between them. Natasha sees in Bruce the same fractured soul that lies within her. Each of them has been spending a great deal of time trying to repair damage done to them in their respective pasts. They are both “monsters” in their own way. They talk of leaving together after Ultron is defeated.

A turning point occurs when Ultron is in the early stages of uploading himself into his intended final body. Realizing that the A.I.’s deadly goals extend beyond the mere extinguishing of the Avengers, Wanda and Pietro abandon Ultron and side with their former foes. Acquiring the android body which Ultron meant for himself, Tony uploads the once-believed destroyed J.A.R.V.I.S. program into it, while Thor (Chris Hemsworth) lends a jolt of electricity to help bring the android to life. It appears that, all along, Loki’s scepter had been powered by one of the six Infinity Stones (four of which we’ve seen up to this point), which is now fitted on the brow of the newly birthed Vision (Paul Bettany), a creature whose temperment and philosophy run in stark contrast to that of Ultron. The Vision is so incorruptible in fact that he can lift Thor’s hammer, a feat once thought possible only for the God of Thunder himself. Along with The Vision and the Maximoffs, the Avengers (minus Natasha, who is in Ultron’s clutches) gather together for one final confrontation with Ultron in Sokovia, where they mean to save the entire planet.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an Avengers movie if there weren’t someone or something that needed avenging. The movie is not casualty-free, but that does not keep it from having many lighthearted, laugh-out-loud moments. There are several running gags. One of these involves the group taking every opportunity they can to poke fun at their leader, Captain America, for having earlier objected to Tony’s use of foul language. Moments like this are vintage Joss Whedon, who also brilliantly wrote/directed the first “Avengers.” The six actors who made the first film so much fun are all back and in top form. Some who got a little short-changed last time (Jeremy Renner!) are thankfully given more to do in “Age of Ultron.” Of course, Robert Downey Jr. is still the man! Among the newly added characters, my favorite is undoubtedly Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff, although I also look forward to more from Paul Bettany’s The Vision. Special kudos also goes to James Spader, always great at what he does, proving it once again as the menacing machine-gone-wrong, Ultron. Some of Marvel’s villains have been weak, but Spader isn’t one of them.

For right now, I’m still more fond of the first “Avengers,” though that could be due to the fact that I’ve seen it several times in the last three years. Like many of the previous Marvel Comics Universe films, I expect that “Avengers: Age of Ultron” will play better on the small screen, when I’m not distracted by fellow audience members and can better focus on the action. There’s so much happening that you’re bound to miss something just by staring at the wrong part of the screen. Nonetheless, I found myself very entertained. The best of intentions sometimes results in disaster, but thankfully this is not true in the case of “Age of Ultron.”

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Director: Shane Black

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley

Certain sayings, such as “Those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it,” never lose their effectiveness, even if we forget who originally said them in the first place. For as long as we’ve gotten to know him, Tony Stark has been a man who, although he has never brushed aside his intense narcissism, has consistently tried his best to atone for past mistakes. Before being nearly killed in an ambush in Afghanistan, Tony was the sort of guy who was so wrapped up in his own genius, fame and fortune that he often saw himself as smarter and therefore more important than everyone else. The first part is still applicable (and winds up being true more often than not), although he’s made leaps and bounds in that second area, in particular since teaming up with the rest of the Avengers. One inescapable consequence of being a prick to so many people is that, eventually, you rub someone the wrong way.

As the world was saying ‘goodbye’ to the year 1999 and ‘hello’ to 2000, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) was giving that lecture previously alluded to in “Iron Man,” where he was said to have first met Yinsen, his fellow captor years later in Afghanistan… despite being too drunk to remember the encounter. At the same conference, Tony also hooked up with one scientist, Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), for a one-night stand while humiliating another named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). It would be thirteen years before Tony would see Hansen and Killian again. Sometime in the interim, those two scientists began working together, combining Hansen’s tissue regeneration project called Extremis with Killian’s privately-funded think tank named Advanced Idea Mechanics (AIM). Both had originally tried to gain Tony’s interest in and help with their projects, but were left out in the cold. Bad for Tony, and bad for a lot of other people, too.

Also arriving on the scene is the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), an Osama Bin Laden-esque terroristic villain who likes blowing shit up and shooting propaganda videos to gain the world’s attention. He leads the “Ten Rings” organization first seen in “Iron Man.” There’s more to him than meets the eye, though not in a Transformers sort of way. Not surprisingly, Killian is involved with the Mandarin as well. The suicide bombings that the Mandarin is taking credit for are actually people who’ve been “upgraded” with Extremis going KABLOOEY! One of those explosions takes out the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, and places Tony’s bodyguard and friend Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) in the hospital.

Even without the new line of threats piling up against him, Tony’s biggest stumbling block, and the movie’s most intriguing plot point, is the PTSD he suffers from as a result of his participation in the Battle of New York in “The Avengers.” Flying a nuclear missile through a wormhole in a remarkable act of selflessness will do that. The mere mention of words like “wormhole” and “New York” can send him into a full-blown panic attack. He barely sleeps at all anymore, because all he ever sees in his dream state are images from the battle. To compensate, he buries himself in his work, putting a strain on his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

When the Mandarin strikes, he strikes hard, reducing Tony’s Malibu, California home to rubble, an incident which leaves the world believing that Tony/Iron Man may be dead. In reality, Tony has escaped to the town of Rose Hill, Tennessee, where he will lick his wounds, repair his damaged Iron Man suit and investigate one of the other known instances of a “suicide bomb” that left no trace of bomb components. This leads to a welcome cameo appearance from Knoxville-born actress Dale Dickey, perhaps best known for her work in “Winter’s Bone.” Once back on the Pacific Coast, Tony prepares for one of his toughest battles yet. How do you defeat an enemy that can instantly heal their injuries, both moderate and severe?  Like Tony, the Extremis soldiers have limits to their perceived invincibility.

With Shane Black taking over the director’s chair from Jon Favreau, “Iron Man 3″ takes on a slightly darker tone from its predecessors. Tony’s sense of humor, which made “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2″ so much fun, is still present but dialed down a little. Accordingly, the soundtrack is less “fun” and more serious this time. There are no AC/DC songs, but there is a very strong score from Brian Tyler to play us through the action sequences. I still believe that Jeff Bridges from the first “Iron Man” is the series’ best villain, although it’s not from lack of trying from the actors present here, nor is it the fault of the writing, which offers a few twists and turns the audience cannot have come in expecting. “Iron Man 3″ offers some of the most memorable scenes in the entire series. Four of them stand out:

– Tony’s first panic attack when he is autographing a child’s drawing of the Battle of New York. Quietly, he scribbles the words “Help me!” He then gets upset when he breaks the crayon. Eventually, he’s so overwhelmed that he has to leave the restaurant entirely, jump into his Iron Man suit and fly away just to be alone for a while. Downey handles this and subsequent scenes containing panic attacks so well that it feels real.

– The attack on Tony’s Malibu home. After Tony calls out the Mandarin in fron of live TV cameras, giving out his home address, he had to expect this. But I like this scene because it is eerily reminiscent of a similar scene from “Lethal Weapon 2,” where the trailer that Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs calls home is also attacked by enemy helicopters. Ironically, Shane Black was the creator of the Lethal Weapon franchise, but dropped out during production of “Lethal Weapon 2.”

– Tony comes face to face with the Mandarin. Everything in the movie feels as though it’s been building to a confrontation between Iron Man and the Mandarin. After all, the Mandarin is known to be Tony Stark’s greatest foe from the comics. But it’s how their inevitable meeting plays out that elicits the majority of the film’s mixed reviews. I think it’s brilliant, but it’s also one of those things that I can’t justifiably talk about around anyone who hasn’t yet seen the movie.

– The “barrel of monkeys.” With the kidnapping of the President (William Sadler) and the destruction of Air Force One, Tony is left to rescue the aircraft’s remaining passengers, who are plummeting to the ground below with no parachutes. Tony gets them all to join hands, the only way for him to save everyone. It’s a truly spectacular stunt. To top it all off, like the Tony/Mandarin scene, this one ends in a most unexpected way, in this case with the Iron Man suit turning out to be a drone remote controlled by Tony. Amusingly, it gets smashed by an oncoming truck as it passes a nearby bridge.

For now, Iron Man’s solo adventures appear to be at an end. Overall, I still favor the first “Iron Man,” though “Iron Man 3″ definitely grows on you. I’m still lukewarm in regards to the ending, although I am relieved by the knowledge that this is hardly the last time we will see Tony Stark/Iron Man. First, he’ll re-team with his super-powered comrades in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (opening in less than two weeks), and he’ll also join the party in “Captain America: Civil War,” which is due out next year. Add to that his likely involvement in “Avengers: Infinity War, Parts 1 & 2″ and it’s clear that everyone’s favorite genius billionaire playboy philanthropist isn’t going away anytime soon. I can dig it.

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Director: Jon Favreau

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson

No longer burdened with the uncertainty of whether or not their project was going to work, the success of “Iron Man” meant that Marvel Studios could focus on the remaining pieces to their “Avengers” puzzle. First on that list was a second solo adventure for Tony Stark/Iron Man. It is almost universally agreed that “Iron Man 2″ was rushed into production, resulting in a sequel that fails to live up to the original. While this all may be true, it’s not like it’s never happened before, and “Iron Man 2″ has enough going for it that it keeps you entertained throughout, just as the first one did. Superhero movies have always been at their best when the stories they tell are driven by an internal struggle which the hero has to address in order to move on to his next adventure(s). In “Iron Man,” in addition to dealing with betrayal from a former friend, Tony Stark also had to face a crisis of conscience, to make peace with his past as an arms dealer and move on to his new role as a peacemaker. In “Iron Man 2,” Tony is faced with a vengeful foe he never knew existed and another man who is jealous of Tony’s fame and glory, but his greatest enemy is his own mortality.

As it turns out, that paladium core in Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.)’s chest which keeps him alive is also slowly killing him. Chlorophyll smoothies are the only thing keeping his blood toxicity levels in check, and even that’s not going to be very helpful for much longer. Tony knows this, but hasn’t yet found the right time to explain it to his friend Rhodey (Don Cheadle) or his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). What he doesn’t know is that Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), who has recently seen his father waste away and die, is plotting revenge against Tony for perceived wrongs done to his family by Tony’s own late father, Howard.

At a senate committee hearing, Tony is encouraged to turn over the Iron Man suit. Arguing that since he and Iron Man are one and the same, turning over the suit would be akin to placing himself into
“indentured servitude.” It is during this scene that we are introduced to the film’s second villain, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a rival weapons manufacturer who has no qualms about selling his product to the highest bidder. His weapons also have a nasty habit of malfunctioning, which is particularly unfortunate for the guinea pigs he finds to test out his knock-offs of the Iron Man suit. A mere annoyance all by himself, Hammer becomes more dangerous when he teams up with Vanko after watching the Russian attack Tony in the movie’s best action scene at a Formula One race in Monaco. Vanko could have killed Tony outright, but found it just as satisfying to place doubt in the minds of the public that Iron Man is still capable of protecting them.

Tony’s health grows worse and worse, and so he elects to make Pepper the new CEO of Stark Industries. She takes on an assistant, a redhead who introduces herself as “Natalie Rushman,” but whom the audience knows is really S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), also known as Black Widow. Natasha has been sent by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to evaluate Tony Stark for possible inclusion in the Avengers Initiative. She’s also extremely handy in both hand-to-hand combat and interrogation tactics…. and she fits really well into any leather outfit or formal dress she puts on. Just thought I’d throw that last part in there. For Tony to recover his health and fend off his new enemies, he’s going to need all the help he can get from Natasha, Rhodey and an old film recording of Howard Stark, still teaching his son from beyond the grave.

If you’re examining “Iron Man 2″ for flaws, don’t bother looking in Robert Downey Jr.’s direction. He’s still proving why he’s one of the most perfectly cast actors to headline a superhero film. Blame Scarlett Johansson and you and I are going to have serious problems. At times when the film looks like it’s about to bog down, there she is to spice things up with her good looks and Black Widow’s ability to kick the ass of every person in the room. Unless you REALLY HATE the rock band AC/DC, then don’t blame the soundtrack, either. After memorably kicking the first film into high gear, AC/DC bookends “Iron Man 2″ with “Shoot to Thrill” and “Highway to Hell,” both equally as well-placed as “Back in Black” was. The fault in this sequel lies with its weak villains. Although I love both Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell, and their characters are still quite interesting, the movie never builds them up as credible threats to Tony Stark/Iron Man. This hurts what is otherwise an enjoyable popcorn flick. Perhaps if Marvel Studios hadn’t been so eager to continue reaping the benefits of their newfound success story, they might have had a chance to work out all the bugs. As it stands, “Iron Man 2″ is easily the weakest entry in the MCU thus far, but if this is indeed the “worst” that they can do, I see no end to Marvel’s gravy train.

Iron Man (2008)

Director: Jon Favreau

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow

To really get a party started, you don’t hire a clown. No, you call upon a rock n’ roll superstar. As a young actor, Robert Downey Jr. showed promise, but his career got sidetracked in the late 1990’s thanks to his drug addiction, which led to numerous arrests and court appearances. By that time, he’d become more well-known for his performances in front of a judge than for his movies, the best of which up to that point had been 1992’s “Chaplin.” Flash forward a few years, where the superhero film is gaining popularity thanks to the “Spider-Man” franchise, “Batman Begins,” and others. Marvel Comics, setting its sights skyward, shoots for a long-term goal of an ongoing franchise of films, leading to an unprecedented crossover (achieved with 2012’s “The Avengers”) and continuing on from there. But if they’d crashed and burned coming out of the gate, none of it would ever come to pass. One way that could have happened is if they’d hired the wrong guy to star in the first film of the series, 2008’s “Iron Man.” Fortunately, Robert Downey Jr. happened to be available, and the rest is history.

When first we meet Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), we see a man so full of himself… so assured of his own genius… that he has lost sight of how the world around him works. As the head of Stark Industries, chiefly a weapons manufacturing company, Tony would be appalled if his creations were to fall into the wrong hands. He’s about to learn that this is exactly what has been happening. A terrorist group calling itself “The Ten Rings,” already armed with a cache of weapons they’ve acquired from Stark Industries, is very interested in Tony’s latest project, the Jericho missile. Tony and his military escort are ambushed. The next thing that Tony knows, he’s in a cave somewhere in the deserts of Afghanistan with a near-fatal chest wound. Only two things keep him alive now: 1) The car battery he’s hooked up to is magnetically preventing shrapnel from entering his heart, 2) his engineering know-how is of considerable use to his captors. Knowing that neither of these leases on his life will last more than a couple of days, Tony enlists the aid of fellow captive Yinsen to help him escape.

First devising a more efficient replacement for the chest implant, Tony then builds an iron suit, which not only has the capability to smash, shoot, and fry anyone in his path , but is also great at repelling enemy fire. It can fly, too. Of course, this is just a prototype, and so any flight will only last long enough to get Tony clear of danger. Rescued by a search party led by his good friend, Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Terrence Howard), Tony returns to the States with a new perspective. He no longer wants Stark Industries to be about destruction and war-profiteering. His colleague Obadiah Stain (Jeff Bridges), who helped build the company alongside Tony’s father, has other ideas. While Tony retreats to his lab to perfect the iron suit design, now made with a titanium-based compound, Obadiah has been double-dealing with the terrorists. Eventually, it becomes clear to Tony that his worst enemy is not the one halfway around the globe, but the one pretending to pat him on the back while secretly looking for a good place to stick a knife.

“Iron Man” isn’t all about Downey Jr., whose personality lends the film the sense of humor it needs. It just happens that it’s MOSTLY all about him. Terrence Howard is good, if expendable (as it turned out), as Rhodey. Gwyneth Paltrow provides some of the movie’s sweeter moments as Tony’s assistant and will they?/won’t they? love interest, Pepper Potts. Still the best villain of the “Iron Man” franchise, Jeff Bridges turns in a strong performance as Obadiah Stain. It’s a shame that he’s only good for the one movie, because he’s a lot of fun to watch here. But the real surprise among the supporting cast is Clark Gregg, making the first of four MCU (Marvel Comics Universe) film appearances as Agent Phil Coulson. Gregg took this side character and has unexpectedly made the man Thor refers to as “Son of Coul” as popular as his super-powered friends, a role Gregg has since reprised as one of the stars of ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” now nearing the end of its second season.

Although 2008 also saw the release of the genre-eclipsing second entry in Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, a movie displaying a vast array of acting talent, I would argue that “Iron Man” is of even greater importance to film history. So much hinged on Marvel getting this one movie right, on introducing Tony Stark/Iron Man in a way that could get the audience involved instantly, regardless of whether or not they are familiar at all with the comic series. If it failed, there would have been no “Avengers,” (Thor, Captain America, etc.) and I seriously doubt that anyone would have dared try to film “Guardians of the Galaxy” or any of the soon-to-be released titles like “Ant-Man” “Doctor Strange,” “Black Panther” and “The Inhumans.” With Marvel finding both the perfect actor to play the part and an appropriate song to play during his first scene, Tony Stark/Iron Man got the perfect introduction, the MCU got its rock star… and Robert Downey Jr. proved that he was indeed “back.”

The Theory of Everything (2014)

Director: James Marsh

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney, David Thewlis

Having watched this movie a few days ago, I put off writing this review when I came up with the following question: How does one talk about one of the greatest minds of ours and any other period in history and manage to do him the proper justice? Then, of course, I remembered that “The Theory of Everything” does exactly that. How it accomplishes this task makes it all the more exceptional, as I can’t recall ever seeing a movie where its lead actor disappears so completely into his role. Never once do we look at this guy and think, “Wow! Eddie Redmayne is amazing as Stephen Hawking!” No, for the two hours+ of “The Theory of Everything,” the man we see on the screen may as well be the real Stephen Hawking.

In 1963, Stephen Hawking is a 21-year old astrophysicist student at Cambridge University. He’s working on formulating a thesis topic, which would eventually become time, centering around the idea that black holes helped form the universe. At this time, Stephen notices that his muscles are beginning to fail him, beginning with an everyday act of clumsiness such as spilling a hot drink, but building up into something more serious when his legs give out and he falls, hitting his head on the school grounds. At the hospital, Stephen is informed he has motor neuron disease (a.k.a. ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Typical life expectancy for this type of debilitating illness is a mere two years. Hardly seems enough time for his budding romance with literature student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones)… except that there is nothing “typical” about Stephen Hawking.

Stephen does not take his diagnosis well (Who the hell would?!), and becomes reclusive. Only Jane is able to bring him out into the world again. Still, even as she proclaims her love for him, Stephen’s father Frank (Simon McBurney) warns her of what to expect. The two marry and have their first child, a son, after which Stephen’s thesis on time is met with a majority of approving voices from the examination board. Celebrating this victory, Stephen is met with another setback, losing the ability to walk. Later, Stephen is a wheelchair-bound father of two, having produced a daughter with Jane, By now, he’s known the world over for his continued/updated theories on black holes.

The stress of both Stephen’s fame and his declining health are becoming too much for Jane to bear. Being a member of the Church of England, in stark contrast to Stephen’s own atheistic views, her husband suggests that she join the church choir. There, she meets Jonathan (Charlie Cox), whom she will later come to employ as a piano teacher for her son. But there’s more going on between the two, and it was something that actually had me yelling at my television. It seemed as though she were flirting with the idea of having an affair with Jonathan… and she was… but her devotion to Stephen prevented her from acting on it. Unfortunately, it is this playfulness that draws the attention of Jane’s mother (Emily Watson), who audibly speculates as to who the father of Jane’s third child is. Jane is insulted, especially once it’s clear that Jonathan has heard every word of their conversation. He leaves, but not before both have admitted they really do have feelings for one another, though is convinced by Stephen (of all people) to return once it’s made clear that his presence has had a positive influence.

Things between Jane and Jonathan are put on hold seemingly for good after Stephen comes down with pneumonia while attending a concert in Bordeaux. Jane and Jonathan had been camping with the children as per Stephen’s suggestion when the news came. Jane agrees to have the doctors perform a tracheotomy on Stephen, which will rob him of what remains of his voice but ultimately saves his life. Jane hires a nurse for Stephen, who finds himself falling in love with Elaine. Fitted with a new computer and voice synthesizer, Stephen writes his book, “A Brief History of Time.” Stephen explains his plan to take Elaine with him to America, where he’ll be accepting an award. This news is hard for him to break, but harder for Jane to hear, as she has stood by him for many of his hardest years. Still this scene did make it easier for me to accept her flirtations with Jonathan, since Stephen ultimately does the same thing to her. That, and it frees her up to marry Jonathan, which she does. The film ends with Stephen inviting Jane to visit Queen Elizabeth II with him. Rumor has it that the Queen intends to offer him a knighthood, which he has no plans to accept. Even though their paths have set them apart, the two marvel at their three grown children, collectively their proudest achievement.

Despite not being a world-renowned physicist, I still find much to relate to in Stephen Hawking’s life story. I’m fairly certain that I have touched on this in part in a previous film review, but I too was stricken with a medical condition, this one called hydrocephalus. Far easier to treat than ALS, but not without its own drawbacks. I’ve had a shunt installed in my head since the age of six weeks which allows for the normal flow of my cerebrospinal fluid. It wasn’t until the age of 17, when the tube connected to my shunt broke (requiring another surgery) that I knew what having hydrocephalus feels like. Imagine the worst headache you’ve ever had, and multiply that x1000. Seriously. Also, think of it like an automobile with shock absorbers that have failed completely. Every step you take, you feel it inside your head. Not pleasant.

One distinct different between my disability and the one affecting Stephen Hawking… aside from the fact that I still have the taken-for-granted abilities to walk and talk… is that, while ALS involves the death of neurons, the cure for my disorder… the shunt… causes the occasional misfiring of neurons, resulting in seizures. Additionally, as I learned the hard way in September/October 2014, the anti-seizure medications I take can result in loss of balance if I’ve been inadvertently taking too much of it. It’s that last part which gives the early scene in which Hawking falls on his face a certain “too soon” quality. Very effective.

Long story short, I knew I would be interested in “The Theory of Everything” just based on how interesting a character Stephen Hawing is, both as a genius and as a genuine smart ass. You need to have a sense of humor to get you through the hardest of times! In particular, I enjoyed his in-joke references to “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Doctor Who.” What I didn’t know going in was how much I could relate to him on a personal level, including the critical part his friends and family have played in his life. I was also unprepared for one of the more amazing individual performances in recent memory from actor Eddie Redmayne, who both so perfectly captures the essence of Stephen Hawking and believably replicates the effects of ALS. The Academy doesn’t always get it right come Oscar time, but there’s no question in my mind that Eddie Redmayne deserved the Best Actor award. Like the Professor himself, Redmayne is brilliant.