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.

Birdman (2014)

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts

My fragile little mind finds it hard to accept that Tim Burton’s “Batman” is more than a quarter-century old. Since then, I’ve grown up, and that movie’s stars have grown old. March of Time and all that jazz. Still, even as Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy has since transcended the superhero genre, nothing I’ve seen has persuaded me that anyone other than Michael Keaton can be thought of as the definitive Bruce Wayne/Batman. It’s easily his most recognizable role, with “Beetlejuice” running second. Although he’s continued to work in the years since (he featured as a terrific Dogberry in Kenneth Brannagh’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”), I hadn’t seen Keaton in anything truly meaningful in a long time… and then “Birdman” came along.

Like Keaton, the character of Riggan Thomson is a Hollywood film actor who is best known for playing a costumed superhero. But, that was years ago, and now all Riggan wants is to be relevant again, to be able to surprise people with the talent he knows he still has inside of him. To accomplish this, he has taken it upon himself to write, direct and star in a Broadway adaptation of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” a short story by Raymond Carver. After a falling light fixture injures his co-star, an incident of which Riggan insists he was the cause, method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) enters as a replacement. Almost immediately, the two start to butt heads, with Mike sabotaging one preview of the play and upstaging Riggan in the next. If he’s looking for support from his daughter Samantha (Emma Stone), he doesn’t get it. She unloads on him, telling him in the grand scheme of things that he doesn’t matter, and that he’s only doing this play in some futile attempt at bolstering his own image.

The play’s final preview is as problematic as the rest. Riggan spots Mike and Samantha flirting with each other, the visual of which has him so distressed that he steps outside for a smoke close to time for him to return to the stage, not thinking about the fact that the door will lock him out of the theatre automatically after it closes, which it does, with part of his robe caught in it. Forced to circle around to the front of the building in naught but his underwear, Riggan achieves the sort of publicity for his play that he could never have planned for, his half-nude sprint having gone viral through social media. Unfortunately, he suffers a setback when a prominent critic promises to “kill” his play, citing her disdain for celebrities who pretend to be actors as her reasoning. After getting drunk and spending a night unconscious in the street, Riggan imagines himself leaping off the roof of a building and taking flight, ending up back at the theatre. In reality, he’d simply taken a taxi cab. Keeping what the critic had said in mind, Riggan has become convinced that the only way to impress anybody is by doing something shocking. To accomplish this, he replaces the prop gun for the play’s final scene (in which his character kills himself) with a real one.

Since the release of “Birdman” in 2014, much has been made of the ambiguous nature of the film’s ending. It is dependent upon whether or not you believe Riggan survives his suicide attempt. The range of interpretation is vast, with some seeing it as triumphant while others imagine the conclusion as resembling a eulogy. For a movie that was already fantastical to start with (the first time we see Riggan, he’s imagining himself levitating above his dressing room floor), it is better in this case, I think, not to have one clear answer.

With “Birdman,” director Alejandro González Iñárritu has crafted a remarkable work of art. One of the most impressive things about it is the decision to film it to look as though it has been done in one long, unbroken take. In addition to Michael Keaton, Iñárritu gets oustanding performances from each member of his cast, especially Edward Norton and Emma Stone. In particular, the scene in which Samantha trivializes her father’s ambitions is Emma Stone’s best of her young career. Also terrific are Naomi Watts as Lesley (Mike’s ex and a Broadway first-timer), Andrea Riseborough as Riggan’s girlfriend and co-star, and Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s best friend and lawyer, Jake. Like Keaton, Galifianakis is proving that he’s more than just a niche actor, stepping as far away from the “Hangover” series with his “Birdman” role as possible.

I’ve seen a lot of movies about show business, and “Birdman” beats the heck out of all of them. It has the humor of “All That Jazz” and the mind-bending psychedelia of “Black Swan,” finding a comfortable middle ground between both. It’s also a great conversation piece, one I expect to be talking about for years to come. Long have I been a fan of Keaton’s, but now I will always look on his earlier work with a renewed appreciation for the effort it took to bring life to his other characters. It’s true that I may always hear Danny Elfman music when I look at him, but “Birdman” has raised the bar to all-new heights for Michael Keaton, and I’ll be interested to see where his career will take flight in the near future.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

Director: Fran Rubel Kazui

Starring: Kristy Swanson. Donald Sutherland, Paul Reubens, Rutger Hauer, Luke Perry

With the recent explosion in popularity of the superhero genre, much has been made of the fact that Iron Man, Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Captain America, etc. are all male. Sure, there have been some attempts at comic book movies with females in the lead, but that’s where you get Halle Berry’s “Catwoman” and Jennifer Garner as “Elektra.” Those debacles are no doubt as much of a reason as any as to why there hasn’t been a “Wonder Woman” solo movie yet. (She’s set to appear as a secondary character in “Batman vs. Superman.”) Still, the genre, however slanted towards the Y chromosome it may be, is enjoying a level of success it could not have dreamed possible only a few years ago. What might be lost on some people is that Joss Whedon, director of Marvel’s “The Avengers” and the soon-to-be-released “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” was the man responsible for creating one of the greatest female superheroes of all-time.

Buffy (Kristy Swanson) would seem on the surface to be your typical, self-absorbed California high school rich girl. Her ambitions consist of things like graduating, moving to Europe, marrying actor Christian Slater and then, once all that’s accomplished, dying. Lofty goals, I must say. But, despite her lack of vision for her future advancement, Buffy’s destiny is already predetermined. She is the latest in a long line of young women gifted (or cursed, depending on one’s perspective) with the powers of a Vampire Slayer. What became of the Slayers who came before Buffy? Right, well, that’s the catch. A new Slayer only emerges after the previous one has died. Thus, like with Highlanders, “there can be only one.”

Until Merrick (Donald Sutherland) shows up to fill Buffy in on all of this, she remains oblivious to the evil descending upon Los Angeles. She’s still unconvinced until he describes with alarming detail the nightmares she’s been having lately. A visit to the cemetery to put to rest the fresh corpses which are rising from their graves lets Buffy know that this is, like, for real. The main threat she’ll have to contend with comes from Lothos (Rutger Hauer) and his henchman, Amilyn, a.k.a. ‘Lefty’ (Paul Reubens). Lothos has a history with the Slayer lineage, having personally killed several of them. But Buffy has something those other girls didn’t have: Companions. In addition to Merrick, Buffy also finds a friend …and possibly something more… in Pike (Luke Perry), the boy she and the vapid members of her high school clique had dissed earlier.

Although a quick glance at the credits for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” will show that this movie was directed by Fran Rubel Kazui, it is screenwriter Joss Whedon who is the true brains behind the operation. And still, the movie does not quite meet with Whedon’s original vision. Its theme of female empowerment gets more than a little distorted by the fact that the finished product is campy in the extreme. It’s impossible now to consider the merits of this movie without keeping the TV series in mind. I’ve seen many great movies which were turned into terrible TV shows, but I can only think of a handful of movies which were outdone in almost every way by their small screen successor. The two that come to mind most often are “M*A*S*H*” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The two series don’t have much in common, except that each was long-lived, each has a devoted fan following to this day, each tackled very serious topics… and, oh yeah… both of the original movies starred Donald Sutherland. I’ll get to him in just a moment.

The uneven cast in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is a problem. Some people will tell you that Kristy Swanson was all wrong for the part of Buffy. Her only crime is that she’s not Sarah Michelle Gellar. Oddly enough, sometimes when Swanson would speak I found myself hearing her TV counterpart. Given time, Swanson might have become as comfortable in the role as Gellar later was. Otherwise, she’s just fine. It’s virtually everyone else that drags this thing down. The villains suck, and not in the vampire way. You really have to make an effort to keep Paul Reubens… best known to the world as Pee-Wee Herman… from being funny, but that’s what they did. Almost every line he has falls flat. His death scene, prolonged for comic effect, is a total yawner. Even worse is Rutger Hauer. Here is a guy who can make you hang on his every word, and give life to some of the greatest bad guys you’ll ever see, and all I get from Lothos is how terrible his mustache looks. That’s how ineffective he is.

Luke Perry is harmless enough as Buffy’s friend Pike, but I can only assume his inclusion is based solely on his popularity from “Beverly Hills, 90210.” The supporting cast is surprisingly full of familiar faces. There’s two-time Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank playing one of Buffy’s rich girl friends. Probably the dumbest of the bunch. Well acted, especially if the intent was for the character to get under my skin. There’s David Arquette being David Arquette. Don’t think I need to say more than that. Also look fast for Ben Affleck as a basketball player on the team playing against Buffy’s high school.

Much more complicated is Donald Sutherland’s contribution to the film. On-screen, as Merrick, Sutherland delivers his typical performance. Nothing standout but not horrific either, at least not until you really start to listen to his dialogue and realize that most of it doesn’t make much sense. This is because Sutherland took it upon himself to improvise and rewrite most of his lines to his own liking, and at the expense of Joss Whedon’s script. He was reportedly so hard to work with that Whedon still refers to Sutherland as a “dick.” Seeing as how Whedon’s grudges are not my grudges, I can’t grade him based on behind-the-scenes shenanigans. Sutherland and Swanson have good chemistry, so at least there’s that.

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is an incomplete work, however one that is a little bit better than I had remembered. When I saw this originally, I had disliked it to the point that it was the chief reason why I avoided the TV series until it was almost done with its first run. As it turns out, the movie is at least better than the abysmal seventh season of the TV show. It isn’t what its creator had in mind, but it does make me want to revisit the first six seasons of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on DVD, and that’s as close to a seal of approval as I can muster.

Winter's Bone (2010)

Director: Debra Granik

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt, Sheryl Lee, Tate Taylor

One of the things I can say I enjoyed most about my childhood was my ignorance of the outside world. Crazy, ill-intentioned people are out there every day doing unspeakable things to one another. I also didn’t have to think about how hard it is just to get by financially. When your highest priority is beating the high score on that video game you like to play so much, you tend not to think of such things, much less what it would be like if the securities you’ve been living with all of your life could suddenly be snatched away in an instant.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) has never had her world perception clouded by frivolous activities, at least not as far as we can tell. Living in the Ozarks with her mentally-ill and drug dependent mother, as well as her two siblings (a 12-year-old brother and 6-year-old sister), Ree, herself only 17, has been forced to assume a leadership role. Her father, Jessup, a known meth cooker, hasn’t been any help. In fact, as a direct cause of his absence, he’s become a hindrance. Out on bail following an arrest, Jessup has disappeared. This is a problem for Ree and her family because it turns out that her no-good father put up their house as part of his bond. Ree is informed by Sheriff Baskin (Garret Dillahunt) that she will lose the house if her father does not turn up.

Ree is no dummy. She knows exactly what her father is and what he was into. Where he is now remains the only mystery, and it’s one she has more than just a little motivation to solve. Asking around among her neighbors, who are all mixed up in the same drug business and whom all have at least a small blood kinship with her, Ree courts danger in poking around where she doesn’t belong. At every turn, she is given warnings to mind her own business and leave the situation alone, including from Jessup’s brother, Teardrop (John Hawkes). But, with that looming deadline of foreclosure on her family’s property, Ree knows she cannot do this. She believes none of the stories that have Jessup skipping town. Driven up to a house destroyed by a meth lab fire, said to be her father’s final resting place, Ree is still unconvinced. She knows her father is more careful than that, and she can tell by the height of the weeds growing inside that this fire happened before Jessup went missing.

Having been refused before, Ree makes a second attempt to see local crime boss Thump Milton. A severe beating at the hands of Merab (Dale Dickey) and other women in Milton’s family leaves Ree bruised and bloodied, yet still undeterred. She has considered all of her options… including joining the Army… in order to raise the money necessary to save her family, and the only viable solution she sees in front of her is finding the truth of her father’s whereabouts. That she is going to find out for certain what has become of her father is no real surprise, nor was it ever the point of her journey. For Ree, this has always been about protecting her family, something which even the meth cookers find honorable.

With the 83rd Academy Awards in February 2011, much of the world who had not previously seen “Winter’s Bone” got their first glimpse of actress Jennifer Lawrence. I would count myself among that crowd, except that I had seen Ms. Lawrence previously in two guest appearances on the TV series “Medium.” What I remember most about her from that night (apart from her spectacular yet simple red dress) is how quick everyone was to praise her work in “Winter’s Bone,” for which she had been nominated in the category of Best Actress. Although it was to be Natalie Portman’s night, everyone agreed that great things were soon to come in the career of Jennifer Lawrence, now a 3-time Oscar nominee. Lawrence won two years later for “Silver Linings Playbook,” still my favorite of her movies, yet it is only her most endearing role. The performance she gives us in “Winter’s Bone” stands as the strongest of her career. She never even appears to be acting. Even the southern accent that the actress (born in Kentucky) adopts feels authentic.

In part because of the dark atmosphere and the shady characters which inhabit it, but also owing to the presence of actress Sheryl Lee, I can’t help but hear the eerie theme from “Twin Peaks” in my head every now and then. My favorite scene, which turns out to be one of the movie’s most important moments, comes when Ree is instructing her siblings on how to skin and gut a squirrel. Her brother is squeamish when confronted with the idea of reaching in to pull out the squirrel’s insides, but Ree insists that he learn how. This scene is later echoed by the film’s climax, but that’s not the only reason why I focus on it. Ree is demonstrating here just how adjusted she is to life in the mountains of Missouri, and how naive her brother and sister still are. What we don’t get from this scene but discover later are the ways in which Ree herself is still unadjusted to the “normal” world outside of her own.