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Column Fri May 07 2010

Iron Man 2, Babies, The Good Heart, The Human Centipede, Vincent: A Life in Color, and Ferlinghetti

Iron Man 2

In many ways, director Jon Favreau has done something rather remarkable--he's made a film about a man who has decided rather impetuously to take on the problems of the entire world and make them his own. And then we get the distinct pleasure of watching that man crack and crumble under the weight of that responsibility. Tony Stark has learned that with great power comes a psychological meltdown that he may not recover from, as only Robert Downey Jr. can personify. As much as we like to think that Christopher Nolan's dark, brooding and largely perfect Batman films have cornered the market on tapping into the psyche of a man who has elected to become a protector of humans, allow me to submit Favreau's Iron Man 2 as a film that challenges nearly every level of hero building and turns it into a profile of a man whose ego is simply not enough to handle the task at hand.

Of course, Iron Man 2 also features explosions to the tenth power and some of the messiest, clunkiest, and most believable fight sequences comic book-based films have seen to date. The beats of this film don't resemble (I'm hoping intentionally) any superhero film I've seen to date, especially in the earliest scenes. Even the first fight sequence between Iron Man and Mickey Rourke's Whiplash on a Monaco racetrack. Just as it begins to get revved up, it's over, and Rourke is captured (perhaps by design). But then we realize that Rourke's Ivan Vanko wasn't trying to defeat Stark, the man he hates most in the world largely because of sins committed by Stark's father, Howard, against Vanko's Soviet defector father decades earlier. He was trying to show that the Iron Man technology is out in the hands of criminals, and this, to quote Vanko, would show that "God can bleed." For the first time, Iron Man is vulnerable.

Most of the film takes place six months after Iron Man, and in that time Stark has essentially turned the world into a peaceful place, primarily because the world's evil empires are afraid of the red-and-gold warrior kicking their ass. The U.S. government (in the guise of Gary Shandling's Senator Stern), of course, wants the Iron Man technology for weapons purposes; Stark says no, because Iron Man isn't a weapon. He says it's an extension of himself. But Stark is now a man with two jobs--running Stark Industries and protecting the entire planet--and like most such men, the strain on his life is overwhelming, so much so that he turns over the reigns of the company to his trusted assistant, Pepper Potts (a returning Gwyneth Paltrow). And like similar busy men, Stark's world of associates grows to include a new helper in the form of Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson in a nice, understated turn, if you disregard the extra-tight wardrobe) and the more overt presence of SHIELD agents, including Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson in a much bigger role this go-round).

There are two enemies for Iron Man to contend with in this film, which makes the film sound a bit overcrowded, but it doesn't feel that way at all. Vanko is the defective twin of Stark, with his bastardized, crude Iron Man technology helping fuel his Whiplash persona. Even his facial hair is a knockoff of Stark's perfectly groomed goatee. But Vanko isn't a bad man, and in a strange way we feel for the guy only because we know growing up the way he did, he didn't have a chance. Rourke conveys a wrestler's swagger with the intelligence and patience that no one else in this movie even comes close to. I love the way he peers over reading glasses when sizing up someone or something.

On the flip side of Stark's nemesis list is fellow arms dealer and inventor Justin Hammer, played to scene-stealing perfection by Sam Rockwell, who plays the lesser industrialist like a used care salesman trying desperately to sell you the worst car on the lot. After Vanko is captured, Hammer swipes him out of prison and stages it to look like Vanko is dead. Hammer admires Vanko's skills as an engineer along with his desire to kill Tony Stark, and he sets Vanko on the task of building a new army of Iron Man soldiers. If Vanko is a unformed twin of Stark, then Hammer is Salieri to Stark's Mozart, and it's fascinating to watch the dance these two do. Stark has no respect for Hammer or his hack work, but it makes some degree of sense for them to stay aware of what the other is doing. Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder) are smart to give each new character a complete justification for being there and things to do once they are dropped into the Iron Man world.

For those uber-comic book geeks, Favreau hasn't forgotten you either, since a portion of his job with Iron Man 2 is to pave the way for The Avengers film. There are repeated references to events transpiring in New Mexico, and a certain star-centered shield makes a rather blatant cameo here (and don't you dare leave until after the credits are complete). Favreau in many ways is setting tone as well as plot for Thor and Captain America. And as structured as you might think Favreau has to be to make all of that happen, Iron Man 2 has a spirit as free and wild as the man at the center of this story.

Never is that more apparent than in the scenes between Downey and Don Cheadle as the recast Lt. Col. James Rhodes, which are loose and funny and truly resemble encounters between two age-old pals who also happen to work together frequently. Rhodes is the only man worthy of the tricked-out War Machine armor that he ends up wearing for the film's climactic battle. But more impressive is the armored fight scene between Rhodes and a drunken Stark at a party at Tony's house. I'm sure most of what we're looking at is CGI, but damn, does that brawl feel real and weighty and nasty.

The details of the plot I'll let you discover, but I appreciated that it was dense without being confusing, and I loved that it felt grounded in a kind of reality where pressures and emotions figure into a person's disposition as much as their reaction to being praised and loved by millions. Iron Man 2 is a different kind of superhero film that still manages to roll around in the glitz and glamor and expectations of studio films while taking the chances an indie might. Favreau has assembled a team to make these movies that should never be broken up, and I hope he and Marvel have the courage to keep caring about characters and plot as much as they do about spectacle and volume. After seeing it twice now, I've grown to really appreciate IM2's attempts to harness a certain kind of intellectual appeal and make it as sexy as the explosions. This is a film that I think gets better upon second viewing, and I'm beyond impressed with the final product. I can't wait to see it again.

Babies

I don't know if it has any true artistic value, but the French nature film Babies from director Thomas Balmes sure is adorable. This is an almost impossible film to review because it's an un-narrated, inoffensive look at the way newborns are raised in different corners of the globe. If one thing is revealed through watching this film, it's that children in the "civilized" world are far more sheltered and pampered than babies in Namibia or Mongolia, who are regularly exposed to farm animals, crawling around the dirt, and the most non-babyproofed conditions you'll ever see. Yet somehow those babies seem to develop at the same pace as those in Tokyo or San Francisco. I'll admit to being somewhat fascinated watching each child develop certain motor skills and cognitive abilities in ways that seem dictated by their environments. Beyond that, I marveled at how the filmmakers lucked out by picking four newborns that turned into the cutest kids in both hemispheres.

I'm truly hoping against hope that Babies does not become some kind of phenomenon. Sure, it's safe to take grandmom to, but it's hardly they type of film to get excited about. Actually, this is a case where narration might have helped me appreciate what I was watching a bit more. Although the film only covers a little more than a year in the lives of these children (from birth to first steps, according to the press notes), it might be have interesting to hear some specific observations about each baby's development. My guess is that regardless of the living conditions, kids that age progress at about the same rate, but that's just me guessing.

Of course, that's the person in me talking who would actually appreciate some educational value in his documentary choices. I understand that not all docs have to be loaded with information that I can actually do something with, but Babies seems like the worst kind of blatant pandering. Beyond that, I'm not sure what else to say. If your only criteria is cooing over cute kids, you'll be in heaven watching this one. If you require something of substance, look just about anywhere else. It's your call, but I believe your time and money could be spent better. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre and other area theaters.

The Good Heart

Although far from a flawless film, French writer-director Dagur Kari's English-language feature debut is grounded in an exceptionally strong performance by the always-reliable Brian Cox, who stars as bar owner Jacques, a grizzled old New Yorker who has frequent heart attacks and is basically waiting to die -- even accelerating the process by excessive smoking and drinking. But when he realizes that his establishment might fall into the wrong hands after he dies, he befriends a young homeless man named Lucas (Paul Dano) and trains him in the fine art of running a dive bar. His life lessons to Lucas are priceless, but when a stranded flight attendant (the lovely French actress Isild Le Besco of Girls Can't Swim) walks into Lucas' life, she unknowingly threatens to throw off Jacques' months of planning and training, since he firmly believes women don't belong in bars.

Cox would really have try to give a bad performance at this stage in his career, and while Jacques may not be his most subtle performance, he breathes life into this dying man. Jacques will not die quietly, even if he seems to be going willingly. Dano is hit and miss most of the time. When he's good (as he was in There Will Be Blood), he's fantastic. In The Good Heart, he's a bit of a pushover, although his behavior at the beginning of the film -- after a failed suicide attempt -- is a bit more energetic and captivating than in later scenes. I'm afraid Le Besco's performance doesn't add a thing to the proceedings, which is a shame because I've seen her do great work in her native language, but with regards to her presence in this film, I'll have to side with Jacques that she's an unnecessary distraction.

The film's climax is more than a little predictable, but it's still fairly moving. I suppose the same can be said for the entire film, which rates at about the level of an interesting curiosity and a must see for those devout Brian Cox fans in the audience. There are some rudimentary attempts at life lessons scattered throughout the work, but most fall flat or rarely rise above the level of cliche. Beyond that, there are better art-house films to check out in the world, and I recommend most of those over The Good Heart, which opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Human Centipede

It's rare that I will ever enter critical discussions of films armed with statements about how critics who don't like certain films simply "didn't get it" or are "too old" to appreciate a certain work. All of the attacks on Roger Ebert's stance on Kick-Ass may be strangely prudish for such a liberal-minded writer, but he's certainly not the only one who didn't enjoy the film, and I don't think his opinions have anything to do with his age or ability to "get it." That being said, I will go to the mat defending my love of director Tom Six's The Human Centipede, a sickening bit of brilliance that approaches the mad scientist genre with complete abandon and pure artistry. The movie also comes across as being made by a filmmaker who has an uncontrollable fear of doctors, in particular, surgeons. And above all other things, horror films at their best are born from (and tap into) the things that scare us the most.

Penetrating and exemplifying The Human Centipede's sweeping feelings of paranoia is a performance that I'm nominating for best screen villain of the year so far (actually, I first saw this film last year, so maybe he's not in contention): Dieter Laser plays Dr. Heiter -- the pronunciation is close to "hater," which is awesome -- a renowned German surgeon who has grown bored with his specialty of separating Siamese twins and in his retirement has moved on to something far more sinister. When we meet him, he's sitting in his car staring at a photo of what appears to be one dog sniffing the butt of another, but that's not quite what it is. He's weeping because he misses his doggies, and somehow his pain is fueling his determination to kidnap three subjects and perform the most unspeakable surgery on them that I can imagine. Making Heiter a German immediately opens up all types of Nazi-experiment parallels that director Six would never discourage you from considering. The skin on Laser's face seems to be actively pulling itself back, exaggerating his features like a grotesque mask. And the doctor has two emotions: insane and slightly more insane. He's a marvel, like Udo Kier without the subtlety.

Eventually the doctor gets his hands on two traveling college students, who get lost in Europe and break down near the doctor's home. The doctor drugs them, yells at them, and straps them to gurneys, where they are eventually joined by a Japanese man. In vivid detail and with some of the funniest medical drawings you will ever see in your life, the doctor explains his plans to link these three poor unfortunates into a single creature, or more specifically, he wants to link their digestive tracks into a single one. Whatever you're imagining right now, The Human Centipede is probably a bit worse, although strangely enough, the film is light on blood and nudity. It's actually quite an achievement how much Six does not show us, but still gets his point across. The first time you get a sense that his single digestive track is at work will be a defining moment in your life.

The Human Centipede isn't meant to be scary, but there is a mild amount of tension as the subjects attempt multiple escapes, and the cops arrive at the doctor's door looking for the missing Americans. I think Six's intent is more celebratory. There's an outside chance that there's something horribly wrong with my sense of humor, but I found this film funny, even in those moments where I thought I might gag. Six is testing limits of taste, but he's also redefining what constitutes fun at the movies. I had a blast watching this deviant piece of cinema. There's nothing artificial about the film; he isn't going for an overly Gothy look or tone. I think in a weird way the director is having fun exorcising his demons. In my best and worst of 2009 list, I created a separate category for The Human Centipede: Most Fucked-Up Movie I Saw in 2009. Upon a recent second viewing, I stand by that declaration. And I believe from this time forward, the world will be made up of two different kinds of people in my world: those who love and embrace The Human Centipede and those who don't. Dr. Heiter will go into my treasure chest of film villains that will give me bad dreams, and that's a good thing. This wonderful bit of sickness is playing midnight shows at the Music Box Theatre this weekend. I dare you to go and not have a good time, even if you run vomiting from the theater.

Vincent: A Life in Color

I thought for sure going into the Ebertfest screening of this outstanding documentary from first-time filmmaker Jennifer Burns that I was embarking on a learning experience about a man who has quickly become a staple on the streets and bridges of Chicago. And if all you wanted to find out was who that guy is who dances a jig on various bridges that cross the Chicago River or plants himself in the background of early morning or prime time local newscasts that dare to feature street-level views outside their windows, Vincent: A Life in Color has got you more than covered.

He goes by many names (Riverace is my favorite, but tour boat guides also call him Fashion Man); he has a seemingly endless supply of snappy and brightly colored suits, shirts, and ties; and he squints his eyes so tight that it makes his smile twice as big. I've seen him so many times, I lost track ages ago, but I never bothered to ask him his name, to see if I could discern whether he was mentally disturbed or just one of the city's great eccentrics, or to see what sort of life he had when he wasn't twirling his coat over his head and making people either smile or very nervous. The man's name is Vincent P. Falk, and getting to know him through this movie (and a great deal since having seen the film) has been one of my greatest joys in my years in Chicago.

Every city has these characters -- some cities have decidedly more than one and some cities seem populated entirely by them -- and my guess is that every one of these men and women is worth getting to know or investigate via a long or short doc. But this rarely happens to the extent that Burns saw this project through.

Through extensive interviews with people who know Vincent personally or those whose only interaction with him is on the street or outside a window or via an article in a local newspaper, Burns uncovers not only a fascinating portrait of an individual worth getting to know, but also a trend in human behavior to concoct a story about such high-profile figures in their heads and stick with them. Some believe Vincent was homeless (which always seemed unlikely to me since his suits were impeccably kept and I never once saw him ask for money), some thought he was a trust-fund eccentric, and the list goes on. But the truth about Vincent is loaded with surprise after surprise, both in terms of how extraordinary his past is and how relatively ordinary his world outside of entertaining everyone is.

A Life In Color doesn't just provide biographical details on Vincent Falk's life but offers some rather astute observations about why he does what he does the way he does it. Is he addicted to attention, or does he simply enjoy making people's days a little brighter with a dash of the unexpected? I sincerely believe both of these are at play. I don't want to give away any of the film's big reveals (other critics will and they are evil bastards for doing so), but trust me when I say they are worth discovering for yourself. But just as a tease, I will let you know that when the film was made, Vincent was fully employed, legally blind, and a master of the ill-gotten pun. At least two of those traits are true today.

I also liked the way Burns structured the film around Vincent's seasonal activities (he religiously tracks the schedules of the tour boats that run from early spring to mid-autumn in Chicago), and by the time we watch Vincent spin for the season's last boat in November, we've learned more than we know about most strangers in our lives. And I guarantee that the next time you see Vincent after viewing this film, you'll greet him enthusiastically.

As much as Vincent: A Life in Color is not about teaching a valuable lesson, I learned one anyway. As I watched a great deal of footage of Vincent on the bridges of Chicago, I started to notice the reaction passers-by had to him. They didn't smile or applaud; they blew by or side-stepped him as fast as their nervous feet could take them. Probably without meaning to, Burns has documented some mildly shameful behavior, and it made me think about the times I might have engaged my own avoidance techniques with Vincent or other seemingly harmless colorful characters on the city streets. Vincent is proof beyond any doubt that there are no boring stories, and director Burns has made certain that Falk's story is told in colors as vivid as his most eye-catching suit. If you consider yourself a loyal Chicagoan, you need to see this film, which opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Director Jennifer Burns and star Vincent P. Falk will be on hand for audience discussion at all Friday, Saturday, and Sunday screenings, and at all 8pm screenings on Monday through Thursday. Trust me, you want to see this film with a post-screening Q&A. Believe it or not, Vincent is a Chicago treasure, and treasures like these rarely have films made about them. Don't you dare miss it.

Ferlinghetti

It's always fascinating to enter a historic place not knowing its history, and finding out years later why it's so important. I've been to San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore before, and found the experience revolutionary, which is appropriate since the establishment was ground zero for the publishing and selling of many of the Beat poets and other thinkers of the '50s, '60s and beyond. The man who founded the book store was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, best known for this poetry collection A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), one of the largest-selling such works in the world. There were few activist and anti-establishment activities that Ferlinghetti didn't engage in, including running the first printing of his friend Allen Ginsberg's Howl, which was banned and became the subject of a Freedom of Speech decision.

A longtime friend of the subject, director Chris Felver doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel in his approach to delivering Ferlinghetti's countless achievements and life highlights, but he doesn't need to. He's wise enough to let the man's accomplishments and words speak for themselves. The interviews (both new and archival) leave no room for doubt that Ferlinghetti (still alive and kicking at 90 years old) is a worthy subject, so much so that I'm surprised it has taken this long for this comprehensive a look at his life to get made. Much like its subject, the film bubbles with life, energy, outrage, and passion. Comments from a few choice famous friends and admirers (Dennis Hopper, Dave Eggers, Michael McClure, Bob Dylan) are peppered throughout the film, but I was most gripped when Ferlinghetti himself was the true focus. His life story is fascinating stuff, his writings are without frills and get to the heart of whatever subject or issue he is comment upon, and his fire burns bright in every word and action. Ferlinghetti is about a man who has lived a full and complete life, and he reminds us that it is our duty to do the same. The film screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, May 8 at 8:30pm; director Chris Felver will be present for audience discussion.

 
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Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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