Tuesday, May 21, 2013

You'll Like "Star Trek Into Darkness" if You Liked the Last One (Boring Title, I Know, but It's All I Got)

Directed by J. J. Abrams, written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, & Damon Lindelof, starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Anton Yelchin, Simon Pegg, Peter Weller, Alice Eve, John Cho, and Benedict Cumberbatch - Rated PG-13


The Kurgan knows about darkness...just look at the guy.

J. J. Abrams rebooted the Star Trek franchise a few years ago, and it caused a rift in the fan base. Because it was popular and action-heavy, many die-hard fans cried foul and claimed that Abrams had essentially turned Star Trek into Star Wars.  Now that Abrams has been announced to make the new Star Wars films, it seems obvious that he was trying to make Star Wars all along. I’m fine with that, as I thought the 2009 Trek movie was one of the most entertaining films of that year.  Star Trek Into Darkness is no different. If you liked Abrams’s first film, then you’ll love this one. If you felt that he ruined Star Trek, well, you’ll think that even more this time around.
Darkness continues the tradition of sci-fi franchises making things a bit grimmer for the second film, but don’t let the title fool you; this is still a very fun movie. The banter between all of the crew members is as funny as ever. The amusing dialogue, from a script by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof, makes what could be bland expository scenes come to life. Anytime Kirk (Chris Pine) is talking to Spock (Zachary Quinto), it’s as good as an action scene. Add Karl Urban’s pitch-perfect DeForest Kelley impression as Bones and you have what could essentially be a comedy in between all of the action scenes.
Of course, that amount of comedy in a Trek film could bother the fans. This is not to say that Trek is a humorless property (just watch the old films, especially The Voyage Home), but this new version just seems so much funnier.
The comedy is juxtaposed with a very serious terrorism plot. The film has been shrouded in secrecy leading up to its release so I won’t spoil anything aside from pointing out that the film’s villain, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), has an issue with the Federation and is willing to kill as many innocent people as necessary to get what he wants. This is why the film might leave you feeling a little troubled by the end. It’s fun, there are a lot of laughs, but if you think about it, potentially millions of people die in the events of this film. I suppose it’s similar to the first film since an entire planet was destroyed. But it feels different when the destruction takes place on Earth and some of the explosions can potentially remind the audience of real events. I know, I know, it’s just a movie. It’s meant to be fun. I get that, and I agree.  I enjoyed this movie very much, but it might hit too close to home for some.
That said, the action of the film is impressive. The destruction is massive, but that’s not what is entertaining (once again, seeing a building topple doesn’t make me think, “Cool!”; it makes me wonder how many people were in there). The best parts of the action take place in the hand to hand fight scenes and the more sci-fi heavy moments. Anything involving Harrison is great, and all of the scenes involving space (like flying through a debris field) or the Enterprise (like the gravity going haywire) were tense and very well-choreographed.
The fact that I’ve discussed comedy and action before even mentioning the word “theme” is what bothers Trek fans the most about this new version of the series. The previous films/shows had some action, but it was basically about Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise sitting in the control room outthinking the adversary. The action was the equivalent of a chess game while the ideas of the movie took center-stage. For example, the second film in the original franchise dealt with the morality of humans playing God by creating life on a dead planet. The naysayers will call Darkness dumb, and that’s debatable (a lot of elements of the film can be nitpicked quite easily), but that is not to say that there isn’t a message, or at least the attempt of a message in this film.
To be honest, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the message of the film since I left the theater. It’s tough to get into any lessons to be learned from the plot of the film without giving it all away, but I will say that the film attempts to say something about justice, revenge, war, death… Now whether or not that message is clear and/or is even a good message is up for debate. But at least there’s an effort.
So maybe Star Trek Into Darkness isn’t a philosophically deep film that will have you pondering it and analyzing it for years to come, but it’s not really trying to be. Sure, there is a message, but this film is more concerned with being entertainment, and, for better or worse, the Star Trek franchise is now mainly about pleasing a large audience. I understand the hardcore fans being upset, but if they are willing to accept that Trek has changed, they might find some enjoyment in this film, too.
Star Trek Into Darkness is enjoyable at the most basic cinematic levels. It’s funny, well-paced with plenty of action, looks great, and the actors are all well-cast. Speaking of the actors, I only want to focus on the main new addition. Just know that I still think the main cast is great. Benedict Cumberbatch (he of the most British name ever) is the main new face, and he makes for an amazing villain. He brings a surprising physicality to the role (he certainly doesn’t appear to be formidable at first glance), but it’s his resonant voice that makes the character.
New villain aside, Star Trek Into Darkness is no better or worse than its predecessor. That’s either a good thing or bad thing depending on the viewer, but it’s certainly a good thing to me. This film felt like the natural next step for the series, and it left me even more excited for future installments.
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
So Harrison is Khan.  This is bothering a lot of people online (honestly, why do I keep checking the message boards of the films I enjoy?  I just can't help it...).  It's mainly the fact that he's white when the character was previously played by Ricardo Montalban and was supposed to be from northern India.  I really don't care what race Khan is as long as the actor is good, so this casting didn't bother me.  In fact, I think if it upsets you that the race of the actor is different, then that says something about you, not the makers of the film.  Cumberbatch was suggested to Abrams, he liked him, he cast him.  End of story.  If the issue is with the performance, fine.  But if you're bashing him because of his skin color, then that's messed up.
That "controversy" aside, I was expecting Harrison to really be Khan since all the rumors had been swirling around about that for nearly a year.  I found myself pretty confused by it all, though.  I hadn't watched The Wrath of Khan or the "Space Seed" episode of the original series for years, so the backstory was not fresh in my mind.  Granted, they do explain Khan's origin in this film, but it is done very quickly.  I suppose my biggest source of confusion was the reference to him being frozen for 300 years.  This would mean that Khan was from the 1990s.  That is in keeping with the show, but speaking as someone also from the 90s, I can say that we didn't have superhumans and it's doubtful that the weapons technology of the era is better than that of the 2200s.  It's hard for me to accept that because of the timeline stuff from the first film I have to accept that a different version of the 1990s happened in which there were the "Eugenics Wars."  I only found this out from research, however.  The typical audience member is going to have my initial questions.  I suppose this bothers me because it could be easily explained away if they just altered the timeline a little and pushed it another hundred years into the future.  Khan being from the 2090s is at least a possibility yet to be disproven whereas Khan from the 1990s seems stupid.  Minor issue, I know, but it confused me.
As for the message of the movie, it seems to me that it's about holding back emotion lest you act brashly and make things worse.  So instead of automatically killing Harrison/Khan, stop and think about what the motives were before you shoot the torpedos and start a war.  But the problem with that is that war was started anyway, right?  I mean, they did assist in killing a lot of Klingons.  I was under the assumption that the war went ahead as Marcus planned.  Basically this movie could be seen as an allegory of the Iraq war.  Tensions were high due to terrorist activity and a country was invaded under false pretenses.  My only issue being that there isn't a real lesson learned by anyone other than "Don't trust anyone." 
Nice to see Peter Weller with a sizable role in a big film again.
I was okay with Spock's version of "Khhhhhaaaaaaaannnnnnnn!!!"  Although, as someone pointed out on one of the boards I checked out, it would have been better if he yelled that when he beamed down to chase him.
Not sure what to think about Khan's magic blood.  So no one on the crew will ever die now?  What about the rest of the planet?  Is everything cured?  Will everyone turn into superhumans like Khan?  I hope this isn't ignored in the sequel.

Friday, May 17, 2013

An English Teacher Reviews "The Great Gatsby"

Directed by Baz Luhrmann, written by Luhrmann & Craig Pearce, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, and Jason Clarke - Rated PG-13

Preface: This review is mainly for people who have also read the novel.  I didn’t focus much on how the film will be perceived by non-readers simply because I cannot imagine what their experience might be like.  That said, I get the impression that if you liked Baz Luhrmann’s other films, like Romeo + Juliet or Moulin Rouge, then you will like The Great Gatsby.

I represent a dark side of America, too, friendo.


The Great Gatsby has been the bane of high school students for years.  The story, set in the 1920s, is filled with symbolism and disillusionment, two things most teenagers aren’t very concerned with.  As an English teacher, I looked forward to the challenge the book presented as a teaching device, but I was disappointed that there was not an interesting adaptation to show my students after reading.  For better or worse, English teachers all over now have the adaptation they need to show students to get a response. 
I am not a “movie teacher.”  By that, I mean that movie days in my class are few and far between.  I may be the “movie guy” to my friends and colleagues, but when it comes to literature, there is no replacement for honestly reading the material.  Faithful adaptations are anathema to my classes.  The only reason to show a class a movie is to aid in their understanding of the source material and, more importantly, get them to think about it in new, interesting ways.  I always require students to write an essay after watching an adaptation.  What can you write about a faithful adaptation?  “I liked watching more than reading”?  “The lighting was good”?  A plain film serves no purpose.  I prefer the crazier adaptations because they keep students interested and opinionated.  When I first read that writer/director Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet) was making The Great Gatsby, I knew this version would be worth watching.

I was able to take my junior class to see The Great Gatsby on opening day (special thanks to Tell City Cinemas for setting up the individual screening for my class).  We had recently finished reading the novel, and I was hoping this adaptation would be interesting enough to get a response from them.  That definitely proved to be the case.  This version of Gatsby is not only interesting, but, more importantly, it’s entertaining.
The same qualities I find interesting and entertaining may leave some people baffled, however.  The most obvious element up for debate is the use of music in the film.  The soundtrack is largely made up of current rap and pop artists, yet the film is still firmly set in the 1920s.  I think the music matches up perfectly with the tone of the film.  The music was an odd fit at first, but by the end it seemed natural to me.  Others may disagree with me.  Some people will simply not be able to get past the fact that music from the 2010s is playing while 1920s characters dance.  It can be jarring, but if you’re willing to go with it, I think it is one of the film’s strongest points.
Equally important is the casting of the film.  The role of Gatsby is important in that it requires an actor who can express elegance, charisma, and boundless hope.  That pretty much describes Leonardo DiCaprio to a T, so obviously he was perfectly cast in this.  It isn’t exactly a stretch of a role for the eternally young actor, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive.  On the more surprising side, Tobey Maguire made for a very effective Nick Carraway.  Maguire’s constant stare of boyish wonder usually annoys me, but it’s the perfect visage for the character of Carraway.  It is especially effective once Nick becomes sickened by those around him and that boyish stare turns into a dead glare.  Carey Mulligan makes it easy to feel sympathy for Daisy.  Joel Edgerton brings perfect physicality to the role of Tom.  Jason Clarke is effective as Wilson in a few short scenes.  And Isla Fisher is decent as Myrtle, but that character felt a little shortchanged in this adaptation.
Shortchanged characters aside, Gatsby is a surprisingly faithful adaptation.  Of course there are a few changes here and there, such as the absence of Gatsby’s father and the inclusion of a framing device for the story, but the overall theme of the novel is intact, which is the most important aspect to me.  The theme regarding the death of the American dream is still relevant today (and always will be) which is why the novel is still taught to students across the country.  The film does a good job conveying that theme and an even better job at explaining the symbolism of the novel.  Anyone who’s read the novel probably remembers the green light and the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, and if you don’t remember them, the film will make sure that you do by the end of the 140+ minute running time.  I’m glad both elements received so much attention in the film, though I think some of it was a bit too blatant (Wilson pointing at the eyes and screaming that they are the “eyes of God” comes to mind). 
The music, acting, and novel elements are all excellent fodder for a student to write a response, but there’s still the matter of style.  Luhrmann has established himself as an interesting director many times over, but Romeo + Juliet is the best comparison to be made here.  That film featured frenetic elements and borderline cartoonish qualities.  Gatsby takes place in a more realistic world than that film, but it is still frantic.  The driving scenes are insane, the editing is rapid-fire, and the party scenes are pure chaos. 

The partying is the main selling point for Gatsby, both as a film and a novel.  I certainly focused on it heavily while teaching it.  The point is not to glorify it, though.  The parties or drinking episodes in the novel are not treated as good times meant to be emulated by others.  Instead, we see the parties through Nick’s eyes, and he has come to the conclusion that these events are not happy moments, but are actually the shallow proceedings of a morally bankrupt group.  It’s easy to get that point when you’re reading about the parties; it’s a bit more difficult to pick up on that message when the parties are visually presented with lavish dance numbers and whatnot, all presented in 3D, no less.  (For the record, I have not seen the film in 3D, but I can hardly imagine that it changes the experience much one way or the other.)  Still, the film does not glorify the lifestyle of the characters.  Others may disagree because the parties take the center stage, but as I watched those scenes, I didn’t think, “Oh, how cool.”  My thoughts drifted more towards, “When will these parties end?”   

The Great Gatsby is essentially about the end of the party.  The novel and the film convey that message to the reader/viewer.  Is it possible that viewers will miss that point?  Of course, but they’ll stay awake through the proceedings.  The biggest hurdle any teacher faces while teaching Gatsby is the boredom complaint.  While I find the themes of the novel fascinating, I definitely encountered a student or two that “just didn’t get it” or “couldn’t get into it.”  As the kids filed out of the movie theater, even the ones who didn’t exactly love the movie told me they were surprised by how interested it kept them.  If that’s not a sign of a successful adaptation of a novel force fed to a teenager, I don’t know what is.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

"I'm so tired of partying.  So very tired."
Yes, that is Slurms McKenzie from Futurama to the right.  I couldn't resist including it.

The framing device bothered me a little bit because it turned Carraway into an alcoholic.  Maybe I'm just too trusting of Carraway as a narrator, but I never got the impression that he was drinking himself into an institution throughout the novel.  In fact, I always pictured him as the sober guy at the party, casting judgment on everyone.  I think the novel backs me up on this since the one scene in which he admits being drunk (at Myrtle's apartment) is a haze of random events (staged wonderfully in the movie, by the way), while the rest of the parties are reported on in quite a sober manner.  Having him constantly drink throws doubt on the entire proceeding.  I know there's a question of his bias as a narrator anyway, but the alcohol makes him seem much more like an unreliable narrator. 

That said, I still accept the framing device since it gives a reason for the words to appear onscreen.  The teacher/dork in me enjoyed seeing some of Fitzgerald's greatest lines recreated that way.

I was okay with Gatsby's dad not showing up at the end.  It seems almost better that he's absent so he seems that much more alone in death. 

I was not okay with the absence of Daisy and Tom's daughter.  I know she finally shows up in the end, but I think it would have been very effective had she appeared in the other scenes she was supposed to be in, especially the one with Gatsby.  In the novel, Gatsby reacts strangely to the child, appearing to not have believed she existed until that moment.  It is effective because it is part of the crumbling dream he has.  Here is physical proof that Daisy and Tom have something together.  It is obviously not part of his grand fantasy.  I can live without the scene, but I think the film would have been better with it, and it would only have taken up thirty seconds or so of the running time.

Gatsby doesn't freak out and almost punch Tom in the novel, but I enjoyed that change.  In the novel, Gatsby suffers a quiet defeat.  That's fine, and it shows how dreams can, and often do, die silent deaths.  But that scene in the hotel room was building with such tension that a quiet ending would have been a let down.  Everyone is sweating and uncomfortable, there's a topic brought up that would normally be kept quiet, there's an ice pick... That scene needed some yelling to finish it up.  And who better to yell out in fury than DiCaprio?

I was definitely not okay with Gatsby being a scrapbooker.  In the novel, he mentions that he has some "clippings" of Daisy, but it doesn't say he busts out a full scrapbook that has been carefully put together.  I know Gatsby had some time to kill in that five years leading up to the reunion, but I simply can't imagine him sitting home with his Elmer's rubber cement, pasting newspaper articles onto construction paper.  Sure, maybe he had a servant do it, but I don't buy that.  And it's equally ridiculous to imagine him handing newspaper clippings to a maid, demanding that a scrapbook be made.  Am I blowing this out of proportion?  Absolutely.  But sometimes small details like that really bother me.

"Mud" Is a Truly Great American Film

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, starring Tye Sheridan, Matthew McConaughey, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Joe Don Baker, Sam Shepard, and Michael Shannon - Rated PG-13

Even Vader had to deal with heartbreak...

Writer/director Jeff Nichols makes real movies.  After his impressive debut, Shotgun Stories, he ventured into different territory with Take Shelter.  Now, with Mud, Nichols has made another entertaining, thought-provoking film that feels like real American cinema. 

Being from the Midwest, I am forced to be defensive every now and then as this part of the country is the butt of many jokes.  For some people (key word: “some”), the Midwest and the South are home to a group of moronic racists who are all on the verge of doing violence to city folk.  That may seem like an extreme version of an American stereotype, but if you watch enough television and film featuring characters from the middle and the bottom of this country, you see that a lot of people find this area to be filled with terrifying people.  Thankfully, Jeff Nichols is around to combat that.

Nichols makes films that take place in Arkansas, but they feel like they could potentially take place in any small town in the Midwest or South.  Mud is more of a river film than an Arkansas film.  There have been many comparisons to Mark Twain’s stories of the Mississippi and that makes sense, especially because of the young protagonists.  I was more interested in the location and theme of the film than the Twain influence, if for no other reason than I am not that well read when it comes to Twain. 

Location aside, Mud is one of the best films I’ve seen this year for many reasons, chief among them is the theme concerning the disillusionment that comes with young love.  Mud may be titled after Matthew McConaughey’s character, but the real protagonist is Ellis, played by Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life).  Ellis is a 14-year-old who lives for the river.  His family literally lives on the river and makes their living off it, as well.  Ellis and his friend Neckbone (Nichols definitely has a gift for picking unique, simple names for his characters) spend every moment they can on the river, which is what leads them to Mud.  The boys find a boat stuck in a tree due to a recent flood.  As they are making their claim on it they discover that Mud has been living in it while on the run from assorted people.  Mud is hiding out while he waits to be reunited with the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).  The boys, Ellis in particular, decide to help Mud.

The motivation of Ellis to help a possibly dangerous man is what makes this film interesting.  He doesn’t help him because it’s McConaughey, and he’s so charismatic.  It’s because Mud is in love, and Ellis believes that love conquers all.  Ellis believes that he is falling in love, as well, after going on a date with a local popular girl.  His reality, and life on the river, is also dependant on the fact that his parents (the always great Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) are in love and together.  When his own love starts to falter and his parents mention divorce, it becomes vital to him to help Mud reunite with Juniper.  Mud is his last hope that true love exists and makes everything okay.

Sheridan is the true star of this film, and not just because he’s a young actor who is not annoying.  He is completely believable as Ellis.  You can see the heartbreak in his eyes when things start to go badly.  Mud hinges on Sheridan’s performance and is a stronger film because of how impressive it is.  But he still isn’t the title character.

Which brings me to Mud himself.  McConaughey has been receiving a lot of praise for this movie, and rightfully so.  His natural charm comes through easily in the character, which makes you want everything to work out for him.  I don’t know that it’s his best performance, but it is certainly up there.  And, of course, it’s light years above those one-note characters that plagued his career for a decade or so.  Mud is probably the best example so far that McConaughey has returned to proper acting.

The rest of the cast is great, too.  Reese Witherspoon is fine as Juniper, even if the character is a little on the damsel-in-distress side.  Sam Shepard has some nice scenes as a mysterious, grizzled neighbor.  Joe Don Baker proves he’s still a commanding presence, even in a short role.  Michael Shannon is always a great addition to the cast, though his character is more of an oddity than anything else, what with his homemade scuba gear.  And Jacob Lofland makes Neckbone the funniest character in the film.  His inflections of the expletive “shit” are almost poetic.

Neckbone is not the only aspect of the film that is humorous.  In general, this is a fun film to watch.  While the themes of lost love within a small community might sound like miserable, pretentious, indie crap, it actually makes for a good time at the movies.  There’s even a bit of action scattered throughout the film, as well.  Honestly, for lack of a better term, Mud is feel-good movie.  That actually might bother some people who need their great films to be filled with grit and misery.  But the positive edge of Mud is not just there to please the audiences; it’s there because the story and theme require it.  (I’ll explain more in the spoilers section.)

There are multiple reasons to check out Mud: the reality of it, the performances, the themes, etc.  The important thing is that you watch it.  This is a unique and entertaining film, and it deserves a bigger audience than it has received so far.  If it doesn’t come to a theater near you, keep an eye out for it on video, at least.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Okay, ending first.  Normally, the overly happy ending would bother me.  Mud should probably be dead.  Some people are so unwilling to buy the happy ending that they take the meaning of the ending to be Mud in the afterlife.  But that doesn't work because Sam Shephard (who wasn't shot) is with him, and he's all bandaged up.  Do you really need stitches and gauze in heaven?  Anyway, I'm okay with the ending because Mud was not just a character in the film.  He represented Ellis's hope for true love.  If Mud dies, then that means Ellis will never be able to love anyone for the rest of his life just because his parents got divorced and some stuck-up rich girl made fun of him.  Hardly excuse for a life of solitude.  So with Mud surviving, it shows that Ellis's hope for true love took a bit of a beating, but it's still alive.  This would also explain the little wave he gets from the girl near the end.  So a good film doesn't require a negative, even realistic, ending if it sacrifices the entire point of the film.

I haven't really come across it anywhere, but I imagine some might want to compare this film to Beast of the Southern Wild.  I only want to point it out because I didn't care for that movie nearly as much as most people because I found it a bit pretentious, and the magical element seemed unnecessary.  Mud, on the other hand, doesn't need a giant animal trudging through the river or anything like that.  The boys don't need to go running around with sparklers and crap.  It's a real movie, and that's why it's better.  Also, Neckbone is a much better name than Hushpuppy.

I almost held off giving this movie a Vader because of McConaughey's shirt.  I loved that they made a point about him never taking the shirt off...only to have him take it off anyway.  To be fair, he only took it off when he seemed to have lost hope.

I was not expecting to give this film a Vader, but I honestly cannot think of any problems with it.  It just worked for me on every level.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

"Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang 2," I Mean, "Iron Man 3" Is Pretty Awesome

Directed by Shane Black, written by Drew Pearce & Shane Black, starring Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Jon Favreau, Rebecca Hall, Guy Pearce, and Ben Kingsley - Rated PG-13

The humor of this film puts it at the top of the trilogy for me.

The Marvel comic book movies truly began with Iron Man back in 2008.  That film not only introduced us to billionaire playboy turned hero Tony Stark, but also kicked off a series of films that would culminate with The Avengers, last year’s hugely successful superhero team-up movie.  Iron Man 3 is a rebirth in that this is the first Marvel film since The Avengers.  The question is where does Marvel go from here?  How does a standalone film address the events of The Avengers?  Apparently, it has a panic attack.

That is not a put down of Iron Man 3.  Tony Stark literally has panic attacks in the film when the events that took place in The Avengers are mentioned.  It’s almost as if the writers of the film wanted to tell the audience through Stark that this is a movie of its own.  This is not The Avengers 2.  This is Iron Man.  And that’s a good thing. 

I’m not all that into ranking films in a series, but if I had to, I would say Iron Man 3 is the best of the series.  This is, of course, only one man’s opinion.  Many have taken issue with the film (just check the miserable cesspool that is the IMDb message boards for examples), and I actually slightly agree with their critiques.  There are complaints (nitpicks) about the villain, the logic, and the lack of, well, Iron Man.  I understand these complaints, but none of it bothered me that much because I was thoroughly entertained. 
Iron Man 3 worked for me more than the first two films for one simple reason: Shane Black.  Marvel has made some interesting, and great, choices when it comes to directors.  Giving Jon Favreau the job on the first two Iron Man movies, hiring Kenneth Branaugh for Thor, and allowing geek-god Joss Whedon to write and direct The Avengers have all been masterstrokes.  Bringing in Shane Black, best known for writing Lethal Weapon and writing/directing Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, might be their best decision yet.  Black may not be known for big budget action, but he has proven himself many times over that he can write witty dialogue.  Team him up with renowned improviser Robert Downey, Jr. and you end up with a very funny, entertaining film. 

In many ways, Iron Man 3 is similar to the earlier Black/Downey team-up in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.  Both films take place at Christmas, feature a witty voiceover from Downey, Jr., and involve the main character solving a mystery.  That is what I liked the most about this third installment; Tony Stark basically becomes a detective for the bulk of the film.  Normally, a sequel to a comic book movie is simply more action as loud as possible.  In this film, Tony Stark is in the Iron Man suit shockingly few times.  As stated earlier, this might bother some people, but I liked it. 

The mystery Tony has to solve involves massive domestic explosions that a terrorist called The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is taking credit for.  The Mandarin is a mysterious figure that no one can seem to track down, which is why Tony must play detective for the most part.  It’s interesting because The Mandarin is such a combination of cultures you really want to know what his story is.  He has a bin Laden beard, Chinese robes, and a southern accent.  He’s brutal and strange.  Thankfully, the promotions for the film have kept him mysterious, and his origin story is quite effective (though comic book fans are up in arms about it). 

These guys?  Don't worry about these guys...
The mystery element of the film does not mean there is no action.  Shane Black proves he has an eye for large-scale action with Iron Man 3.  The big events are spaced out quite a bit, but when the suit comes on, you know something awesome is about to happen.  There are some truly exhilarating moments in the film, most notably a complicated air rescue, and it’s surprising that there is still a fresh way to show the action in the series after so much screen time with the character. 

Of course, the Iron Man series has always been more about the character than the action, and this incarnation embraces that.  With the suit off, Downey, Jr. gets to have a lot of fun.  His interactions with a kid in the middle of the film could have easily ended up being clich├ęd, but his sarcasm and wit liven the scenes up. 

Robert Downey, Jr. simply makes these films work, but he’s not alone.  Ben Kingsley definitely adds some allure to The Mandarin.  Gwyneth Paltrow continues to make Pepper Potts more than just a damsel in distress.  James Badge Dale is perfectly cast as a villain you would like to punch in the face.  Don Cheadle works well with Downey in their few buddy cop scenes.  And Paul Bettany’s voice work makes the A.I. computer program Jarvis feel like a real character. 

Iron Man 3 is vastly different than what I expected it to be.  Perhaps that why I liked it so much, while others will hate it.  It is the funniest of the three films, features some of the most memorable action sequences of the trilogy, and, more importantly, it surprised me.  And in the land of sequels and big summer blockbusters, it’s rare, and good, to be surprised. 

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Okay, so the Mandarin ended up being literally a joke.  This has the comic fans very angry.  I can't really comment on that since I've never read an Iron Man comic book.  The Mandarin of the film is my first impression of the character, so I can't speak to any outrage.

I did love how The Mandarin said "Amurica." 
I honestly felt sad when I saw Dum-E fall into the ocean.  I knew Stark would eventually salvage him, but it was still a surprisingly emotional scene.  Same goes for when Jarvis's voice started to die out. 
I loved how the Shamwow guy is a part of the distortion before one of the Mandarin videos.

The after credits scene didn't give any connection to future projects, but I really dug how it explained why Tony was narrating the story in the first place.  I've always been a stickler about first person narration and how it should be explained rather than simply included, so that was nice.