Guy Pearce

Tony Sark (Robert Downey Jr.) is challenged like never before in "Iron Man 3." (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

The law of diminishing returns is the bane of Hollywood executives’ existence and often pushes them to stuff sequels to the point of bursting simply because audiences expect the spectacle to get more expansive and grandiose with every film in a franchise. Finding a way to follow up the massively successful “The Avengers” is no easy task for Marvel, and “Iron Man 3” responds by telling a scaled-down, intimate story about a Tony Stark in peril, while still pushing the scope of the franchise to grander heights. 

After his close call with death in “The Avengers,” Tony Stark is a broken man for the first time, wracked with anxiety. His girlfriend and assistant Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) is being courted by mysterious scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). Even worse, the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a ruthless terrorist with an agenda, is wreaking havoc on the nation.

Robert Downey Jr. defines Iron Man, and he’s so comfortable in Tony Stark’s skin at this point that he could effortlessly coast through “Iron Man 3.” In the first two films, Tony Stark was a brash freight train of charisma, barreling through every problem in his path with an offhand barb, a smile, and occasionally his collection of Iron Man suits. But here, Downey Jr. plays Stark with unusual anxiety and fear. “Iron Man 3” gives Downey Jr. heftier dramatic material than he’s been asked to shoulder thus far, and he turns in a series-best performance, bringing Stark’s arc home with grace, humor and the same unflappable confidence that made him so great for the role in the first place.

Shane Black directed Downey Jr. on the criminally underrated “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” and it’s a delight to see him working on the massive scope that Marvel can afford. Black is one of the sharpest writers in Hollywood, and “Iron Man 3” has an excellent script that is endlessly witty and clever. By exploring how the presentation of a hero, or villain, can be just as important as his actions, Black incorporates the “Iron Man” iconography in new and surprising ways. Black also stages some grand moments of spectacle, particularly the thrilling destruction of Stark’s mansion.

Unfortunately, Black’s directorial voice occasionally chafes against the guiding hand of the Marvel franchise hive mind, especially in his handling of the film’s multiple villains. Aldrich Killian is a scientist who’s been developing a limb regeneration program, and his Extremis project is an ill-defined utility belt for bad guys, giving villains invincibility, super strength and even the ability to breathe fire. While Marvel’s films have delved into some pretty outlandish concepts, from demigods to alternate dimensions, Black never figures out if he should handle this as science fiction or supernatural fantasy, which results in a sloppily-executed threat for Tony Stark to battle.

Even if the villains don’t necessarily work in concept, one of “Iron Man 3”’s most pleasant surprises is Kingsley’s performance as the terroristic Mandarin. Kingsley is all bluster and threats in his terroristic dispatches, but when he and Stark come face-to-face, Black’s wry sense of humor comes into play in an unexpected but hugely entertaining fashion. James Badge Dale plays one of Killian’s cronies, and he brings a menacing intensity to some of the film’s most harrowing sequences.

Despite moments of charisma and competence, Pearce is a much less effective antagonist. As his character becomes more brazenly evil, Pearce gets increasingly hammy, and by the time “Iron Man 3” arrives at its rousing fireworks show of a finale, he’s swinging for the fences with his delivery of every line, missing more often than he connects. While “Iron Man 3” handles its multitude of villains better than most films, this may be an instance where Black gets a little too clever for his own good, and it’s hard not to wish he had given Kingsley more to do.

Although “Iron Man 3” isn’t Marvel’s best effort, it’s a strong outing and another exciting, hilarious collaboration between Downey Jr. and Black. While the film suffers from the same overstuffed syndrome as many other comic-book sequels, it’s the rare comic book film that’s able to explore new territory for its hero in a roundly compelling, well-acted fashion, making for an impressive start to the summer movie season.

Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy star in LAWLESS.

Photo Credit: Richard Foreman, Jr. | Photographer

The first trailer for “Lawless” looked like a film way too light and action-packed for director John Hillcoat, who relentlessly punished audiences with his last two films. “The Road” and “The Proposition” are gorgeously photographed, impeccably crafted works of misery and human cruelty. “Lawless” keeps the hard edge that defined Hillcoat’s earlier work while mixing in a healthy dose of fun, making for a work just as effective but far more entertaining than anything Hillcoat has produced before.

Between this film and HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” Prohibition-era gangsters are making a bit of a comeback in pop culture lately. “Lawless” is set in Franklin County, Virginia, the biggest moonshine producer in the world. The three most proficient bootleggers are the Bondurant brothers: the gruff, notoriously resilient Forrest (Tom Hardy), the young and eager Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and Howard (Jason Clarke). Unfortunately, Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is after them, and the threat that he poses is not just to their business, but to their lives.

Between this film and “The Dark Knight Rises,” Hardy is really coming into the public eye. His performance as Bane was a highlight of the summer and a perfect prelude to his coiled, monosyllabic work here. Forrest is a man of very few words, and it’s a testament to Hardy’s charm that he’s able to get a laugh with nothing more than a grunt by the end of the film. There’s a myth building around Forrest that he’s immortal after a few close calls, and the way Hardy engages that perception — playing Forrest as a heavily guarded, decisive instrument of destruction — is a blast to watch. Hardy’s scenes with Jessica Chastain, the de-facto mother of the crew, have a tenderness that stands out amongst the bloodshed, and watching her slowly peel away Forrest’s defenses is a lovely showcase for both actors.

Unfortunately, the main character of the film isn’t Forrest, it’s Jack. LeBeouf can be good in the right role, but he’s utterly unconvincing as a hard-ass bootlegger. Jack’s character arc is your basic crime lord origin story, straight out of “The Godfather,” but instead of becoming the king of anything, Jack continually screws up. A strong character grows and changes over the course of his story, but Jack rushes into situations half-cocked and relies on his brothers to cover his back all the way through the film’s climax. Unfortunately, LaBeouf fails to make any of this material particularly interesting, and his best scenes often involve him working with Hardy or Mia Wasikowska, who plays his love interest with a relaxed, alluring confidence.

Also worth mentioning is Pearce’s work as Agent Rakes, the film’s hammy villain. Pearce gives a fascinatingly opaque performance, and all of the different strokes he brings to the character combine to make Rakes seem as alien as possible in the Virginia backdrop. And Rakes is a propulsive element in the film, wreaking havoc across Virginia with reckless abandon. Nick Cave’s script has simple, smart dialogue, and seems to understand the stubborn sense of independence that drives the bootleggers at the film’s center.

Cave also collaborated with Hillcoat on “The Proposition,” and this film has the same hard-jawed, bloodthirsty sensibility. The difference here is the amount of fun Hillcoat has is having with his action. Even when things turn ugly, there’s still a pulpy appeal to every moment of the film. The skilled direction and Hardy’s gruff, fantastic performance combine to make “Lawless” an exciting and worthwhile.

Photo Credit: Caitlin Zellers | Daily Texan Staff

Even though “Pan’s Labyrinth” mastermind Guillermo del Toro only wrote and produced “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” first-time director Troy Nixey handled the direction, with his twisted imagination coating every frame of the film. From the sharp-toothed beasts to the quietly damaged child at its center, the film would feel right at home with del Toro’s “The Devil’s Backbone” or “Pan’s Labyrinth.” It would be easy for Nixey to turn in a weak imitation of those films, but he manages to take del Toro’s tropes and make them his own with “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.”

Bailee Madison stars as Sally, a young girl passed off to absentee father Alex (Guy Pearce) and soon-to-be-stepmother Kim (Katie Holmes), who live in an ancient mansion they’ve been renovating. Like any mansion worth setting a movie in, the house has a dirty secret in its history — in this case, it’s hundreds of fanged, whispery monsters living in the basement that want to claim Sally for themselves.

While Pearce and Holmes have been the focus of most of the film’s advertising, neither of them is nearly as important to the film as Bailee Madison’s Sally. While Pearce struggles with a mostly thankless role and Holmes does strong, sympathetic work as Kim, Madison has the most screen time and easily gives the best performance in the film. It’s hard not to feel for Sally when she realizes her mother pawned her off and Madison makes the betrayal sting. She’s even better when being terrorized by the beasts from beneath the house, taking the fairly repetitive note of

Sally being scared out of her mind and always finding a way to make the audience just as unsettled.

“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” takes care to avoid getting bogged down in the character relationships, instead always giving us little teases of the mayhem to mix with the character-driven scenes. Nixey shows an impeccable understanding for the art of the slow burn, milking each of the film’s big scare scenes until the tension is borderline unbearable. Unfortunately, the film’s climax, while still pretty thrilling, falls short, never delivering the unbridled mayhem it’s been building towards.

“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is rated R, but it doesn’t earn the rating in spilled blood or white-knuckle terror, instead settling for an underwhelming ending that wraps up just a bit too easily.

“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” may not end on the greatest note, but it’s still a vastly entertaining film. The creature design is memorably devious and Madison’s performance elevates the film from pulpy fun to truly suspenseful. While it’s worth questioning if Troy Nixey can make such a fun film without Guillermo del Toro peeking over his shoulder, there’s no denying that “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is a worthwhile debut and one of the strongest horror films of the year.