In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Toy Story 3 (2nd Visit)

Grand Lake Theater

(Previously reviewed)

The Grand Lake has recently repainted their exterior, and as you can see below, the building looks magnificent, with gold and bronze trim glistening in the sunlight (who doesn't want to visit a glistening theater?).

Here's an earlier shot, after they had started sandblasting and priming one side of the building.

The rooftop sign nearly complete (the top of the 'G' and bottom of the 'L' still lack a new coat).

The rooftop sign completed.

On the Grand Ave side, above the street shops, there were still a few columns and moldings to paint.

Now that is 3-D.

In the lobby, a Toy Story 3 standee waits on the landing.

In the Egyptian auditorium, another shot of the mural on one of the walls.

On the Grand Avenue freeway offramp coming off westbound I-580 there is a beautiful mural depicting the entire world, stretched out across the block. I tried to take a piecemeal panoramic photo of the mural, but because of the way the mural angles away from the street, I couldn't easily piece the photos together. Instead, I recommend you take a look at Google's street view, so you can view the mural for yourself.

The Grand Lake has its own prominence in this earthly tapestry.



(Previously reviewed)

The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

(Previously reviewed)

Megamind (Trailer 2)

(Previously reviewed)

Toy Story 3

(Previously reviewed)
Having now seen this film in 2-D and 3-D, I can opine that the 3-D treatment adds nothing to the movie. It was just as good in 2-D, looked just as good, and I didn't need to wear funny glasses. This appears to be another example of post-processing to enhance the depth, but the world of Toy Story already looks exceptionally three-dimensional.


BlueLight Cinemas 5

(Previously reviewed)

I missed $2.00 Tuesday, but $5.00 isn't too shabby for an evening show. This time I was in Auditorium 1, which looks to be the largest of their auditoriums. There's a bit of trouble with the audio in this theater; we could hear the projector running, and there was static in the speakers.




Ben Stiller is Roger Greenberg, a socially dysfunctional layabout visiting his hometown, Los Angeles, so he can house-sit for his brother's family while they are away on vacation. He meets Florence (Greta Gerwig), personal assistant to his brother's family (what sort of family has a personal assistant?), and kinda sorta maybe is attracted to her.

Greenberg is a jerk, a Napoleon Dynamite but twenty years older and more bitter. He's insensitive to his only friend, Rhys Ifans; makes an uncomfortable pass at a woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) he almost dated back in high school, as if it were the defining moment of his life, and when he's sitting with an old acquaintance, with whom he used to have a band, that acquaintance bluntly tells Greenberg that it was selfish of him to break up the band, just because he didn't like the kind of fame they were getting. When he stands in long lines at Starbucks, he imagines the line is there specifically to infuriate him. He refuses to drive a car (in Los Angeles!), but resents relying on his friends for transportation. His days are spent writing long, disdainful letters to corporations who have slighted him (like when the airline didn't provide enough legroom). Not a fun guy to be around.

Florence is more well-rounded than your typical muse-for-a-dysfunctional-male. She falls too easily into bed with men who pay her any attention, and she feels crummy about it afterward. She has a few good friends, likes to sing, but is lonely. Not just lonely like she needs to spend more time with the dog lonely, or needs a boyfriend lonely. She seems lonely when around other people, and even when having sex, like all good things are fleeting and she's already focusing on the loss of them.

Forence and Greenberg are a terrible match; she needs someone who will smother her with affection, and he can't speak a sentence without giving offense. Florence isn't a total sap, and calls Greenberg out on his verbal abuses, saying she doesn't want to see him again. Unfortunately, she's got a bad case of "maybe I can't do better" (she could), and is soon being courted by Greenberg again. She asks him the chilling question, "Do you think you could love me?", which is a good question to ask anyone on a second date, but especially so to Greenberg, who is both emotionally stunted and cruel.

I couldn't tear my eyes away from this train wreck of a relationship. If Greenberg had been hit by a car early on, and the movie was about Florence's singing career, I would probably be a happier person. But it did make me want to throw open the windows and shout, "I'm mad as hell and you deserve better, Florence Marr!"

56. Clash of the Titans

United Artists Berkeley 7

The United Artists Berkeley 7 is just a block away from the Shattuck. Built in 1932 as a venue for United Artists films, the theater is now owned by Regal (a bit ironic, that a start-up studio and theater circuit, designed to untether the artist from the major studios, would later be acquired by the largest exhibition circuit in the world; from one giant to another).

Many classic elements of the theater have survived, including the glass doors leading from the foyer, to a mini-foyer (very classy), to the lobby. The pinball machine is a bit out of place, though. I appreciate that the theater hasn't been rebranded as Regal.

This elegant fixture hangs from the foyer's vaulted ceiling.

I was prohibited from taking any additional photographs inside the theater; I hope to return at a later date with the permission of a manager. There is an excellent article posted on the theater's Cinema Treasures entry that details the theater's appearance when it first opened. Since then, the lobby has been modernized but still retains many of its beautiful murals, fixtures, and other ornamentation. You can see a few modern photographs here.

Originally built as a single-screen theater, the main auditorium was later divided up to make room for four separate screens, two on the ground floor and two in balcony. Three other screens were then added in various corners and nooks. The auditorium for my movie was positively tiny, seating approximately 50; this is not the place to come to see something on the Big Screen.

When the film began there was a problem with the projection, with some parts of the screen blurry, as if there were a smudge on a lens somewhere. I notified management, and they adjusted it a bit, but it mostly just moved the blur around.

This marks my tenth visit to the Berkeley 7, beginning with Charlie's Angels in 2000.


The Expendables

(Previously reviewed)

Robin Hood (Trailer 2)

(Previously reviewed)

Salt (Trailer 2)


What are Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody doing in this movie? Did they get drunk one weekend and stumble onto the set of a monster flick while the director just kept the cameras rolling? You can get the gist of the movie from my review of the second trailer, but I can tell you from the recap provided to me by my friend Eli, this is one movie I can do without (and Elizabeth, if you're reading this, in the context of a discussion we were recently having about Infinite Crisis, et al., you should steer clear of this title, big time). 103 cuts, though again, they come too fast to count.

Clash of the Titans

One of my favorite games is Reiner Knizia's Colossal Arena. Gameplay represents gladiator-style combat between various mythological beasts and fantasy characters. Players wager on which three contestants will stand victorious at the game's conclusion, and the players also play cards from their hand to influence the fights. Although the theme is pasted on, I greatly enjoy the premise of a Pegasus, Cyclops, and Gorgon all duking it out, each using their unique abilities to fell the weakest foe. It's wonderful to imagine the variety and peculiarity of these creatures all co-existing.

Clash of the Titans exists within a similar fantasy world, where beasts lurk in the depths, and Gods sit in council to decide our fate. Sam Worthington is Perseus, an orphan raised by a family of seafaring fishers. One day he and his family are fishing off the coast of the city-state Argos. The people of Argos, reveling in their decadence, no longer worship Zeus as they once did. Zeus (Liam Neeson) feeds off worship; when his followers turn from him, he becomes weaker. Just as Perseus's boat is passing, soldiers of Argos topple a statue of Zeus into the sea. Zeus's brother Hades (Ralph Fiennes) shows up to defend his brother's honor (as all righteous brothers do, with a flock of fiendish harpies), and in the ensuing massacre Perseus's boat sinks and his family drowns.

Perseus shakes his fist at the heavens and decides to give the gods some beat-down. To his credit (though unbeknownst to him), he's actually a demi-god, the half-mortal son of Zeus. Zeus, focussing on his own anger issues, decides to obliterate Argos by unleashing the Kraken, and ages old monster born from Zeus's flesh. (You might recall seeing the Kraken in the movie's trailer; but don't worry, the trailer withheld four frames of its monstrous glory, so you're sure to be surprised at every turn!) Perseus's best bet for revenge against Zeus, then, is to kill the Kraken. Because if you defeat the beast commissioned by the guy who's the brother of the other guy whose harpies killed your family, that's sorta like revenge, right? With the aid of many warriors from the city, and a mysterious protector, Io (Gemma Arterton), Perseus embarks on a classic quest to surmount the insurmountable, attain the unobtainable (um, would that be unobtainium?), and kill the immortal.

Let's focus on Gemma Arterton for a moment. She looks so good in this movie, she really deserves two paragraphs.

I mean, yes she was attractive in Quantum of Solace, and a beauty in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, but in Clash of the Titans she absolutely glows. This is a gritty movie; warriors are being snapped in half by giant scorpions or bludgeoned by a cyclops every ten seconds or so, but somehow Io manages to keep her dress a heavenly white. She has a special attachment to Perseus, the main character; the audience, in turn, is supposed to identify with the main character; and since I was one of only three people in the audience, and that guy in the back row who came in late really doesn't count, and my best friend is already married, really it's like Io was looking right at me.

It would be a stretch to call Io or Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) strong female characters. They are given little to do, and are there mostly to remind us that unlike Zeus's conception, humans don't spontaneously erupt from the foreheads of their parents. The most interesting female character is Medusa, though the movie only wants to hack her to pieces. In a few lines of dialog Medusa is given a back story that won my full sympathy, made me hate the gods, and care little for the fate of anyone stupid enough to disturb her tortuous existence.

The gods are fun characters, though the movie fails to tap their potential. Zeus is scornful, Hades is conniving, Athena is compassionate, and Poseidon is Danny Huston, perhaps as one-dimensional as they are in classical literature. But considering the many incestuous interpersonal relationships among the twelve gods that must play into all their daily interactions, I could watch an entire movie of them sitting in their giant chairs debating each other. Think of the politics, alliances, and treachery involved just in planning dinner each night. (Hades: I want mutton! Thousands of roasted, soulless sheep! Athena: Well, I'm not going to hunt them for you unless you agree to release my seven children from Hell. Hades: I'll release four kids, and that guy you once dated; that's my final offer. Zeus: Bah, I'm tired of mutton. Let's eat Asia Minor!)

Rather than dither with the gods, our time is spent following Perseus on an unremarkable quest. His battles, each against a different sort of terror, each claim the lives of about half his team and rewards him with a magical weapon, like clockwork. If I were on that team, I might do some number crunching to realize there's no way I would live long enough to see my fearless leader acquire the necessary weapons to defeat the Kraken. The effects are excellent, but the action sequences are predictable and boring, as if the movie were going through the motions of an adventure story, but lacked a soul. The movie gives the impression that its world is quite small. Argos is only a few days' walk from the scorpion-infested desert, which in turn is spitting distance from Charon's boat (an excellent set). There are so few people around to worship Zeus, I can understand why he's miffed when an entire city decides he isn't the god for them.

Perseus's journey from man to hero is too familiar a trope. I tire of the Chosen One who doesn't know he's the Chosen One. I want a movie about the Chosen One who steps up from day one, in full command of his powers, and takes on the Big Bad. I emerged from this movie desiring to again see its fast-paced, well-edited trailer, dancing with its perfect blend of visual lore and frenetic action. In contrast, the movie just sorta flops around like an injured harpy.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

55. Kick-Ass

Shattuck Cinemas

Landmark's Shattuck Cinemas was built in 1988 by Allen Michaud, who is also responsible for the preservation of the Grand Lake, and the themed auditoriums there and at the Orinda. The Shattuck is the only modern theater I know of where care was taken to use ornate, classical decoration to approximate the great theaters of the past. It looks more like an old theater that has been modernized than a new theater mimicking the past.

Just a block away from the California and UA Berkeley 7, the Shattuck is Berkeley's (and the East Bay's) primary venue for independent film. The Shattuck is often the only East Bay exhibitor of its films. One look at the marquee tells you that you're not in the mainstream anymore. Assuming you're interested in independent film, you could do nicely for yourself visiting no other theater than the Shattuck. I've visited the theater 17 times, and looking back through the titles, I have seen some really good stuff here: Let the Right One In (2008), Southland Tales (2007), Day Watch (2007), The Squid and the Whale (2005), and, best of all, The Anniversary Party (2001). (We won't fault them for falling prey to Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, 2003).

Tickets are purchased at the back end of the large foyer, decorated with posters for upcoming films. The foyer is also accessible from a Starbucks on one side and a frozen yogurt shop on the other. It used to be the case that the Shattuck was cash-only, but they now accept debit and credit cards. Matinee prices apply to any show before 6:00 (contrasted to the first-showing rule at most multi-plexes). I saw reference to platinum and gold tickets, and discount cards, but I didn't ask further about those.

The concession area is preceded by a hardwood floor, and set off from the hallway by a small rise of steps. (Landmark Theaters recently began offering eco-friendly popcorn bags in most of its theaters.) To its side is the new Lot 68 Bar and Cafe, where patrons can buy alcohol and tasty food (including a hummus plate for $8 and vegetarian egg rolls for $6).

The ceiling is tiled with this gorgeous pattern. I can't tell you the name of the style, but it feels like something from a European palace during the Renaissance.

Many freebies are available in the back hallway, including postcards for upcoming films, and calendars for Landmark Theaters, the San Francisco International Film Festival, and the Pacific Film Archive. Here you'll also find benches with pillows, and framed photos of classic theaters in the Bay Area. I've visited a few theaters who pay tribute to classic movies, but this is the only theater I've seen that celebrates theaters themselves. Below you can see photos of the Alhambra and Grand Lake.

The theater has ten auditoriums (two recently added), ranging in size from tiny (40 seats) to small (145 seats), each with a distinctive feel, with a total theater capacity of 855. Most of the seats are wide, plush, have good recline, and built-in wooden and metal cup-holders. The only downside is that they are upholstered in leather (yuck).

The two largest auditoriums each have a balcony. Note, below, that the seats are staggered, so that everyone has a clear view of the screen; awesome.

Similar to the Egyptian room at the Grand Lake, the theme here is pervasive, with tremendous detail at every turn.

Below you can see that the ancient Egyptians accurately predicted the plot for G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.

The Moorish auditorium is even more ornate than its Grand Lake counterpart, with rugs draped on the walls, colorful archways, false balconies, and patterned columns.

Following a recent remodel, the Shattuck added two more auditoriums, called screening rooms because of their small size. For evening shows these auditoriums are for adults only, and patrons can bring in their alcoholic beverages from Lot 68. The screening rooms offer two seating options. The first is the LoveSac, a giant, red bean-bag with a pillow. Very comfortable, but perhaps nap-inducing.

The second are these black, leather couches. Each seats two, but you could easily fit three people on them. And they are quite comfortable.

A very classy theater, top notch in all respects, and all the more impressive for being a recent build. Take note, Cinemark: this is how it's done.



Jeff Daniels is a dysfunctional writer with a Superman-esque imaginary friend (Ryan Reynolds). I can't tell if he's married to or divorced from or the sibling of Lisa Kudrow, which will govern how weird it is when he develops a bond with much younger Emma Stone. We have seen this plot many, many times before, with a socially inept male lead finally finding himself, thanks to the ministrations of a young, female muse (in fact, The Squid and the Whale has that plot, with Jeff Daniels in the lead). The plot is all the more cliche when the man is a washed-up writer, and the woman a fan of his work. Still, I'll see it (though mostly for Ryan Reynolds' character). Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool, Green Lantern), like Chris Evans (Human Torch, Captain America, a mover in Push) is beginning to specialize in superhero characters. I haven't liked Reynolds in anything but The Nines, but I'll take my superheroes where I can get them. 100 cuts.

Grown-Ups (Trailer 2)

(Previously reviewed)

Survival of the Dead

Do I like zombie movies? Will I watch zombie movies? Am I interested in zombie fan-fiction? Do I wish zombies didn't exist? The answer to three of those questions is an emphatic 'no'. This is the sixth installment of the Dead franchise, preceded by Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), and Diary of the Dead (2008) (there was also a 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead). Though there's just no way I'll watch this movie, this trailer has some intriguing ideas. First, the plague of zombies has so overrun the earth that our characters are no longer scared of them; killing zombies is just a way of life. Second, most of the movie takes place on an island off Delaware where two surviving families compete for land, Hatfield & McCoy style (as if fighting zombies weren't enough to keep them busy). Third, and most intriguing, one of those families has an agenda to somehow domesticate the zombies, "to get these things to learn to eat something other than us." In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe, vampires are dead human bodies, inhabited by soulless demons. In the first episode, when Xander is apprehensive about taking down his now vampiric best friend, he is cautioned, "Remember, that's not your friend; that's the thing that killed him". But zombies don't seem to fall into this camp. If zombie-ism is actually a disease, then not only are zombies still human beings, but there might actually be a cure. The Dead series is disinterested in cures, but this latest film is probing the question of co-existing with zombies, with recognizing their former humanity, and perhaps even their right to live. Creepy and disgusting, but at least interesting. 95 cuts, 324 lacerations, and countless bites.

Prince of Persia (Trailer 2)

(Previously reviewed)


Everything you've heard about this movie being violent is true. Our hero, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), is beaten to a pulp one day and nearly fatally stabbed. When he regains consciousness, he learns that titanium plates have been grafted to his bones, to help them heal, and that he now suffers from polyneuropathy, preventing him from feeling physical pain. This isn't quite the suite of attributes that make Wolverine a killing-machine; nevertheless, Dave decides to put his 'powers' to good use, creating a crime-fighting alter-ego, Kick-Ass. We've already seen his debut fight in the trailer. It is memorable not just because he wins basically by attrition (he is able to take more hits than the other guys), but also because of the public response: "there's a dude dressed like a superhero out there fighting a bunch of guys!" The typical citizen doesn't read comic books, or fantasize about having superpowers, but when the real deal shows up, we go nuts.

Though Kick-Ass is the first publicly known super-hero, he soon finds himself skirting the edge of his city's underworld, where he meets two other costumed vigilantes who take their job a bit more seriously than he does. These are Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz). How serious is this father/daughter team? When we first meet them, Big Daddy is facing down his daughter with a gun pointed at her. After a pep-talk about not flinching in the face of danger, he plugs her one in the chest. Ouch. She's wearing a bullet-proof vest, of course, but that doesn't mean it feels good to get shot. Demonstration over, she's ready to go play, but her father says they need to do it just one more time. That is sadistic dedication.

Though Big Daddy is costumed like Batman, his chief weaponry are firearms, and he is all too happy to use lethal force against his adversaries. Kick-Ass is on the side of "I don't kill", as all pure-hearted heroes are, yet he is the benefactor of the merciless precision meted out by his two colleagues. The local crimelord, Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong, in his fourth evil role in as many months), already annoyed by the mysterious interventions of Big Daddy and Hit-Girl, steps it up a notch when Kick-Ass arrives on the scene. An example must be set.

This film earns its publicity that deplores violence and crude language from an actor as young as Moretz (twelve at the time of filming). This movie is bloody, the body count is high, and Hit-Girl has a filthy mouth. Still, it's pretty awesome. Though I'm mostly inured to the f-bomb and it's like, I still get my ears ruffled from dialog in the movies of Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino. But Kick-Ass, careful not to squander a moment for Hit-Girl to call a villain something really nasty, is surprisingly clever and fresh. For the violence, the movie doesn't cross the line into gore (my threshold), keeping it instead at the True Romance level of ├╝ber-realistic, every-punch-hurts, all-out beer-bottle brawls. Even the recent Christopher Nolan Batman movies are afraid to go there, to recognize that an out-and-out fight leaves all its participants permanently disfigured (I met someone recently whose neck and spine had been broken in a prison riot, and now he can barely bend over because of the metal rod in his back). In a nod to the violence prevalent in today's entertainment, at one point the film switches to first-person-shooter mode, to great effect.

Aside from Kick-Ass's unusual physical attributes, this is not a movie about super-powers. Still, the film does a great job of paying tribute to comic lore. Dave's house looks to be on the same block as Peter Parker's in the first Spider-Man movie, he and his friends hang out at a comic/soda shop, and each vigilante wears a costume that is aesthetically cool, even if not super-functional. (I don't care what lies a movie has to tell to justify its wardrobe; I want my heroes to wear capes!) A sequel is already in the works; sign me up.

54. Iron Man 2

California Theatre

Built in 1913, 1914, or 1920, depending on who you ask, Landmark's California Theatre is Berkeley's oldest surviving theater. Of Berkeley's 30 or so theaters throughout its history, six are still in operation. The city has a total of 26 movie screens in operation, tied with Emeryville for third most screens in the Bay Area (San Francisco has 92 and San Jose has 111). The California's architect, Albert W. Cornelius, built several other theaters in the Bay Area, including the nearby Elmwood.

Our film was introduced by the manager, Kimberly, who told us that the opening midnight show the previous night had been sold out. I always like it when the manager introduces the show, because it personalizes the experience. Kimberly's moment in the spotlight was practically a pep talk, getting us excited to see the movie we had already bought tickets to see. Very cool.

Because Landmark also owns the nearby Shattuck, the pattern seems to be that the big movies open at the California, then move on to the Shattuck (which has more screens) when the California needs its screens for the next big thing. That doesn't mean the Shattuck is a second-run theater; it specializes more in independent film, and is often the only place in the East Bay to see certain movies. The California also shows some smaller fare, but it favors the mainstream.

The building is kept up quite nicely. This beautiful trim on the underside of the marquee looks like it was painted yesterday.

The manager was kind enough to let me take photos throughout the theater (a privilege I would be denied later in the day at the UA Berkeley 7).

This home-brewed comic poster, for the movie Kick-Ass, is the manager's own handiwork. She's dedicated to this theater!

Though there's nothing unusual available at the concession stand, this is one of the nicest looking concession areas I've seen.

I was told that this large, golden ceiling piece above the concession stand had been found backstage somewhere during the most recent remodel.

An old style phone booth (not sure if there's actually a phone in it)...

The upstairs lobby is very attractive, with staircases coming up on either side from the first level. A shorter staircase then leads up to screens 2 and 3 (not wheelchair accessible).

Lots of freebies here. Landmark participates in many local film festivals and has various special programs of their own (such as Cult Classics Attack!).

The theater was split in 1970, with the balcony divided into two separate screens of about 200 seats each. As chopped-up theaters go, this one is especially nice, retaining the original gilded trim on the walls.

In the event of an emergency, please don't just stand at the exit gawking at the fountain of gold.

The downstairs auditorium seats approximately 600, which so far seems to be in the top ten for most seats in a single auditorium in the Bay Area.

Yet the screen is actually quite small. I recommend sitting close. Note the gold trim above and below, matching that in the upper auditoriums.

The rivers of gold all come together above the screen, similar to that at the Empress in Vallejo.

By nightfall the massive marquee had been updated to advertise that all three screens would be showing Iron Man 2.

I mentioned before that Berkeley is in the top cities for total screens. Thinking in terms of theater and screen density, though, the downtown area is especially rich, with three theaters and 20 screens within a two-block area. Even considering San Francisco's downtown, I'd say this density is only matched by the Winchester and Santana Row theaters in San Jose (five theaters, 14 screens).


Winter's Bone

A teenaged girl, responsible for her younger siblings, is told that unless her absent father shows up for court she'll lose her house and land. She begins asking questions about where her father might be, but it seems that everyone in her rural town has secrets to keep and they don't take kindly to the girl's inquest. At one turn, she is told that "Talkin' just causes witnesses"; I don't know what that means, but it's an ominous threat. Looks starkly realistic and gripping, with the always-good John Hawkes co-starring. 96 cuts.

Grown-Ups (Trailer 2)

(Previously reviewed)

Prince of Persia

(Previously reviewed)

Super 8

A train transporting some sort of alien from Area 51 to a "secure facility in Ohio" derails, letting the alien loose. Steven Spielberg is producing. His directed work is always high quality, though not necessarily great; he has been the executive producer for numerous movies, which typically doesn't guarantee anything about those movies; but I'm not sure what a producing credit will mean. J.J. Abrams directs. His work for Alias and Lost doesn't score him any points in my book, nor does his producing credit for Cloverfield, which this movie might resemble not just because it's a monster flick, but because the title and trailer suggest that some amount of footage will be through the perspective of super 8 film. This could really go any number of ways, but since I'm more interested in alien culture, and this trailer is clearly more interested in scaring us, I doubt I'll be terribly pleased. 21 cuts.

The American

Pet peeve: generic titles.  If the same title would better describe a different movie, then a new title should be selected.  A movie called "The American" should be about George Washington, Harriet Tubman, or FDR.  Not an assassin. Okay, with that out of the way, we've got George Clooney, alternating between steamy scenes with fellow assassins and calculated moments of planning the perfect shot. Looks intense and sexy. I especially like when Clooney says, "Everything I've done I've had cause to do." Does that mean he's killed a lot of people, but "they were all bad"? 65 cuts.

Iron Man 2

I've waited for Iron Man 2 to leave the theaters before posting this review, because I didn't want to share it with you. It doesn't matter if you're married, or a woman, or blind, or dead. Seeing Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow is the reason we were all born. Okay, I'll admit, she is only a minor character in terms of screen time, but when she finally lets loose and takes down an entire hallway full of baddies, she proves in ten seconds why she's worthy of a slot on the Avengers roster. She's got skills.

Iron Man is back (aka Tony Stark, aka Robert Downey, Jr.), as are Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and Stark's automated house, Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany). Stark's best friend, James Rhodes, has seen a change in cast, from the talented Terrence Howard to the even more talented Don Cheadle. In the other corner, we have the U.S. military, headed by Senator Stern (Garry Shandling), trying to get their hands on the Iron Man suit; a Russian engineer, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), looking to avenge his father's death; and a jealous corporate rival, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), hoping to steal Stark's good ideas for his own profit. Let's deal with these rivals one at a time.

Back in our comic book days, my best friend would often wonder why, if Tony Stark wants to do the most good, he doesn't just make an army of Iron Men. He's got the money (and, in fact, he does have many, many copies of his suit), so why be so greedy? The answer, of course, is that the man must be worthy of the suit. Not just anyone could be so empowered and still do the right thing. Even Tony Stark, it seems, isn't quite worthy. As in the comics, his alcoholism and his vanity interfere with his ability to think strategically and selflessly. Therefore, can we really fault the U.S. military for wanting Stark to "turn over" the Iron Man suit? Firstly, it would make a formidable weapon against our enemies. But secondly, and more importantly, I can see why they wouldn't trust it in Stark's hands. Just because he was smart enough to build it doesn't mean he's responsible enough to wear it. A weakness of the movie is not addressing the legal route the military could take. Stark might be able to prevent the government from seizing his property, but they could just as easily forbid him from violating U.S. airspace with an unsanctioned flying device, and from discharging his weapons in public. That's just common sense. Stark claims to have "successfully privatized world peace", but we all know that a single man (even a single army) flying around to claim quick victories in hot situations is insufficient to promote peace.

Ivan Vanko's issue with Stark is that Stark's father stole the idea for Stark's power source from Vanko's father, and then allowed Vanko's father to rot in a Russian prison. Despite being thuggish, Vanko is a super genius. Unbelievably so, actually. It's always suspect and jarring when a movie character, armed with nothing but a keyboard and ten seconds of free time, is able to hack a computer system, bypassing that system's "firewalls" (a term beaten to death in movies and television). Vanko isn't just a whiz; when he's not reprogramming battle bots, he also enjoys working out and taking long walks along the race track with his energy-crackling whips. This confrontation, between Vanko's villainous alter-ego Whiplash, and an unprepared Iron Man, is, sadly, the highlight of the film's action. The visuals are awesome, the choreography tense; Rourke is scary as hell; and the outcome is in doubt. Bucking the trend from the first movie, this fight sequence shows that the franchise isn't afraid to pit Stark against villains who aren't themselves just guys in robot suits. In the comics, Stark's major enemies include a guy with ten magic rings, a giant dragon, and anyone who dares to call his ego anything but magnificent. So it's not like he's just on android patrol all the time. Unfortunately, this sequel doesn't fully leverage Whiplash, or the potential for a non-suited villain; instead it eventually falls back upon the same trope as in the first film, pitting Iron Man (and his buddy James Rhodes in another Iron Man suit) against an army of similarly-powered adversaries. It's a geek's dream to see a battle that definitively proves who's stronger, Hulk or Superman, but otherwise it's much more interesting to see opponents duking it out with mutually exclusive abilities. In the comics, a depowered Storm defeats a fully-powered Cyclops for leadership of the X-Men; Batman uses intellect and gadgets to fight the super-strong Bane; and Spider-Man uses his webs and agility to take on the maniacal Dr. Octopus with his adamantium arms. Good stuff. In the Iron Man franchise, it's just robots fighting robots. I'll take this over Transformers, mind you, but I'm disappointed at the untapped potential.

Finally we have Justin Hammer. Sam Rockwell plays a great sleaze. Whereas I expected his role to mirror that in Charlie's Angels, instead we get someone a bit more impotent and therefore interesting. He's not eeeevil. He's just amoral, ambitious, but not quite as bright as Tony Stark. His company is always in the shadow of Stark's; he can never quite come up with the same good ideas as Stark does. Instead, he needs to steal technology to compete. He's a villain motivated by an inferiority complex. As a result, he's realistic and highly watchable on screen. When he stands in Stark's presence, you can see his gears turning, both trying to court Stark's approval, and find an exploitable weakness.

The heart of the movie, surprisingly, isn't the super-powered action, but the banter between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. These two are so wonderful to watch (though we must wonder why Pepper puts up with Tony). It's unclear exactly how involved the two are. There are moments when they seem to be dating, though out of the public's eye, yet they maintain a level of heightened emotion, as if any moment could result in their first kiss. Tony's flirtations toward other women (including Black Widow) are tolerated by Pepper with almost indifference, suggesting that she knows she's got him in the bag, and these are just his meager attempts to keep from falling madly in love with her. This movie gives Pepper a bit more to do, showing she's capable of more than just being Tony's personal assistant. If I had to choose between a movie about Iron Man fending off an invasion from outer space, or Tony and Pepper's weekend at the spa, it'd be a real toss-up.

The Hollywood branch of Marvel Comics (now owned by Disney) is gearing up for an Avengers movie in 2012. The full cast just made their first appearance at this year's Comic Con. Joss Whedon will direct, which promises not only a good script but good management of so large a cast, including known characters Iron Man, Black Widow, Nick Fury, and Hulk (recast with Mark Ruffalo), and the addition of Captain America and Thor (each to receive their own film next year). Still, I have my doubts about the success of this project. First, what evil can they conjure up that wouldn't be immediately squashed by the Avengers? It's hard enough in the comics, where the audience is expected to accept alien, mythological, and supernatural invasions as a matter of course. I'm interested to see how much disbelief the general film-going public will be expected to suspend. Second, just as the charismatic Wolverine dominated the X-Men movies, putting team leader (and my favorite character) Cyclops in the shadows, I'm concerned that the Avengers movie will downplay the importance of Captain America (especially with goofy, twice-powered Chris Evans in the role), in favor of Iron Man. Third, awesome though the Black Widow is, it's a real slight to have only one woman on the team, and a non-powered one at that. They should have at least included the Wasp, a founding member of the comic team, or found some way to work in a more powerful female character, like the elemental Crystal, or mega-powered goddess Sersi. Fourth, and this is just a minor quibble, it bothers me that Marvel's other characters are spread out across different movie studios: 20th Century Fox has control of the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Daredevil/Elektra franchises, while Sony has Spider-Man (and Ghost Rider, but who cares). X-Men are basically in their own world, but the Avengers, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and Daredevil play cards together every weekend. What, I don't get to totally geek out with some massive crossover movie? Disappointing.