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Column Fri May 03 2013

Iron Man 3, At Any Price, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Kon-Tiki & Graceland

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Iron Man 3

People are going to poke and prod at the good and bad of Iron Man 3, the first post-Avengers work from Marvel Studios and the first of a new group of films from the comic book company that makes up what they're calling "Phase Two," which presumably ends with Avengers 2. But what ultimately makes this fourth appearance of Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) so satisfying is deceptively simple. It's not the more satisfying humor, action, plot, characters or direction (courtesy of co-writer Shane Black); it's that this is the first of this latest round of Marvel movies (aka Phase One) that doesn't feel like it's leading up to something.

Sure, technically it is leading to another Avengers movie, I guess. But it doesn't feel like simply a prologue. Hell, even the post-credits tag is more of a pure comedy piece than a transition to another film that in turn would eventually take us to Joss Whedon's next film. Iron Man 3 is its own, beautifully self-contained story. If anything, the filmmakers have opted to make this a film that arises out of and deals with history, rather than leading us into the future to a movie we won't see for two years. Here, Stark is dealing with the very real emotional and psychological repercussions of nearly dying in a worm hole into another universe and then hurtling down to earth (barely saved by the Hulk, if memory serves). He's also come to realize that he's deathly afraid of his lady love, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), becoming a target because of the world knowing his identity.

When we're re-introduced to Stark, he's withdrawn into the world of tinkering, creating upwards of 40-some varieties of his Iron Man suit and leaving the global crime fighting to his pal Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) under the armored guise of the Iron Patriot (the renamed War Machine). Potts is busy running Stark Industries, with overprotective chief of security Happy Hogan (previous franchise director Jon Favreau) by her side.

As is established in a Switzerland-set prologue, Stark had a brief dalliance with a lovely scientist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) who was experimenting with finding a way to tap into the regenerative capacity of DNA so that one day maybe a particular formula (called Extremis) could be made to help humans re-grow body parts. But her formula was wildly unstable and usually resulted in small-scale explosions. At the same Swiss convention, Stark and Hansen meet the overly nerdy Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who has established a scientific think-tank called Advanced Idea Mechanics (or AIM) and wants Tony to join. Stark blows him off, but years later Killian shows up at Stark Industries looking for Potts to propose having her company join forces with AIM on continuing to find a more stable version of Extremis; she doesn't like the weaponized possibilities of the program and takes a pass.

At the same time, a new and clearly insane terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has embarked on a series of seemingly random bombings in the United States, which are almost impossible to investigate since no bomb fragments have ever been found. And the latest attack in front of the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood results in Happy getting badly injured and put in a coma. Enraged, Stark threatens to kill The Mandarin, and as a result his seaside mansion is blown to pieces and he is almost killed.

What happens next in Iron Man 3 has largely been kept from trailers and commercials (with the exception of the multi-Iron-Man-suit finale). His suit badly damaged, Stark is flown by his faithful computerized companion/operating system Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany) to Tennessee to investigate the history and source of these explosions. With the suit in dire need of repair and recharging, a huge chunk of the middle of this movie features Stark out of costume but still fighting crime and doing a bit of detective work with the help of Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins), a local kid who isn't shy about asking Tony about New York and the Avengers and falling out of a worm hole in space — all of the things that send Stark into the fetal position as he has a severe panic attack.

It's fascinating to watch Black and Downey find a way to expose and exploit Stark's weakness (other than all of that shrapnel in his chest), after three films where he basically runs around as cocky and invincible as one can be. I'll admit, when I saw a kid come into the story, my heart sank. His very presence in this film could have gone all kinds of wrong, but Simpkins carries it through beautifully, and the exchanges between him and Downey are funny and touching at times.

I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that Pearce's Killian isn't the nicest of guys after all, and he's managed to find a way to turn Hansen's healing formula into something ugly and dangerous. Pearce's good looks, wit and big dreams of domination perhaps make him more suited to be a villain in a James Bond (or Austin Powers) movie than a comic book bad guy, but when he gets particularly nasty in the final act, it all kind of makes sense. And how does this rejiggered Mandarin work out? Pretty damn well thanks to a balls-out barmy performance by Kingsley. In other hands, this particular favorite among Iron Man comic book readers over the years might have gone very wrong (and I have no interest in saying exactly where things do go for this character), but Kingsley takes the character and eats him alive to embody a particular type of crazy. And if you don't dig the direction that Black and co-writer Drew Pearce take the Mandarin character, I may have to put a dunce cap on your head.

Just from a geeky standpoint, I love how Black and Co. used the suits here — sometimes as armor with a human inside; sometimes as a robot run remotely; hell, sometimes the individual pieces of the armor operating as self-contained flying weapons. I sat amazed, watching the armors open at the front or back so Stark could simply jump into them in mid-air (with varying degrees of success). The flexibility in how Stark's technology could be operated and controlled has grown by leaps and bounds even since Avengers, and I'm guessing that won't stop.

Of course, there's a huge, lengthy battle on top of an oil tanker that pits the forces of evil against the armored suits of good to close out the festivities. But by then, the surprises and other great moments of the movie have already happened. The filmmakers have done something almost unheard of here: they've saved their deepest exploration of what makes their main character tick for the third installment of his solo adventures. Iron Man 3 is easily the most satisfying of the three in this series, and that's taking nothing away from the first film especially, which had the unenviable task of setting up all that came after it across many other Marvel films.

I actually saw Iron Man 3 two days in a row, and not surprisingly, the second time I noticed so many little things that escaped me with my first viewing. But the things that impressed me both times was how Downey refuses to just skate through these movies and pick up a paycheck. The man is clearly invested in the emotional content of Tony Stark, and with every scene, he gives us a little more depth and insight into what makes him tick (besides an Arc Reactor). We're told in a Stark voiceover at the film's beginning that Tony no longer drinks or womanizes, but that doesn't mean he's got it all together. By the end of Iron Man 3, we feel confident he's a better man with a stronger grip on life and how to live it. Enjoy the ride, folks. In fact, enjoy it several times.

At Any Price

For admirers of the work of director Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo), you may not immediately recognize this latest work as his. It opens at a rural funeral. Some are in their Sunday best, but others are in jeans and button-down cowboy shirts. Among the crowd, we spot Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) and his son Dean (Zac Efron) looking solemn but not sad. As soon as the graveside prayers are concluded, Henry weasels up to the bereaved offsprings of the deceased and makes a play for their plot of land, which he's certain they're eager to get rid of. And it turns out that despite their initial disgust at his tactics, they eventually agree to his proposal.

I had to double check the credits of the film to make certain I'd remembered right that Bahrani was at the helm of At Any Price, since it features known actors (as opposed to his usual first-time or unknown actors) and was set not in a desolate corner of America where cameras rarely, if ever, aim their lenses. But there are actually two stories being told in this work: one involves the American family farm, which is under constant pressure to "expand or die," and also under attack from seed companies that force farmers to buy new seed for every harvest rather than use seed that comes from their crops. The second, more elusive tale Bahrani is telling involves the extremely messed-up Whipple family, which also includes put-upon wife Irene (Kim Dickens) and an older absentee son, who moved away as fast as he could after high school.

At Any Price is about the lies we tell ourselves and those closest to us to preserve and project some façade of healthy family living to the outside world. Henry is the consummate salesman, and he's not just selling seed to farmers; he's selling good, clean living, while he cheats on his wife and has two sons who can't stand to be around him. Dean wants to be a NASCAR driver, and seems on the right path to do that, winning countless local races. He's dating the prettiest girl in town, Cadence (newcomer Maika Monroe), who might be the best thing this family has ever had happen to them. At various points, each family consults Cadence for some sort of interpretation of their own relationships. At one point, she even ends up on a sales call with Henry that is going south in a hurry, until she steps in and saves the day. Monroe is a rising star, with roles in upcoming films by Sofia Coppola and Jason Reitman, and she's the closest thing to true and good we have to cling to among these characters. She's a real discovery.

But the other big surprise is watching Quaid really dig his teeth into playing Henry, the man with the ready smile and quick criticism of his youngest. Quaid has lately been lost in a sea of awful romantic comedies and lesser dramas, but here, he is free to play Henry as a fully-developed person, showing all of the cracks. His countless wars of words with Dean are often ferocious and always painfully uncomfortable to watch.

At Any Price doesn't have what you might consider a traditional story flow. Henry is in trouble with the seed company for allegedly selling washing seeds, Dean quits driving for no reason, and Henry is struggling to keep hold as number one salesman in his territory (against a rival played by the great Clancy Brown). Perhaps Henry's most telling weakness is still trying to please his vicious father (Red West), whose few scenes open our eyes to what Henry has been fighting against his whole life and what he is slowly becoming to his own kids.

The final act of At Any Price features an event so out of left field that I certainly wouldn't spoil it, but I almost don't consider it part of the story being told. In many ways, it doesn't quite make sense in this context, but that doesn't make it any less shocking or compelling. I'll give Bahrani credit, I didn't see it coming. It does bring father and son together for the first time in quite some time, but I'm not sure it's in a way that either is going to be OK with as the years go on. By the time the film concludes, we realize that much of what we've seen is about Henry trying to be a better, more honest man. Whether he has succeeded is a question for the ages, but having Quaid remind us that he's one of our greatest leading actors makes me think the film is worth its inconsistencies and jarring shifts. And it's great seeing Bahrani step out of his comfort zone and into the world at large, even if he views this country living under the same dark microscope he does his other works. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with At Any Price director Ramin Bahrani and star Dennis Quaid, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

There's not getting around it, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the new film from the always-compelling director Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake) is going to make some people uneasy, and that's kind of the point. And strangely enough, I haven't been this uneasy watching a film that gives us an alternate viewpoint on terrorism and conflicting vantage points on how a war on terror is waged since seeing the dark comedy Four Lions a couple years back, which also happens to feature the lead actor of this film, Riz Ahmed.

Based on the controversial novel by Mohsin Hamid, Fundamentalist is by no means a comedy; it's a serious look at the life of Pakistan-born, American-educated Changez (Ahmed) both before and after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. The film opens in 2011 with a meeting between Changez and an American journalist named Bobby (Liev Schreiber), a character in the novel who is never given a voice, but whom Changez tells his story to. Bobby's role is fleshed out (it's Liev Schreiber; of course you're going to give him more screen time), and he informs Changez that he's suspected of being a terrorist collaborator or leader or something that he probably doesn't want to be accused of. Changez relays his life story of the last 10-plus years as a way to both explain why he isn't a fundamentalist and also why he'd have every right to be if he were. After excelling as a student at Princeton and a financial analyst on Wall Street (under the guidance of his boss played will great reserve by Keifer Sutherland), Changez also manages to find time for a relationship with Erica, a beautiful artist played by Kate Hudson, in probably her best performance since Almost Famous.

But when the Twin Towers are turned to rubble, Changez become just another Middle Eastern face in a part of the world that overnight begins to look upon such people with suspicion. He's strip searched at the airport, wrongfully arrested, questioned, and just generally racially profiled until the pressure becomes too much and he begins to crack. Sutherland has trained Changez well to be a master company downsizer, but he begins to see the inherent evil in such practice, and soon he's without a job and a work visa, forcing him back to Pakistan.

There's a sequence in which Changez is attending his sister's wedding and he maliciously lets slip a piece of information that devastates his father (Om Puri), and it's meant to show how American and capitalist values have corrupted him completely. It's a rough scene, and simply one of the best I've seen in quite some time. The Reluctant Fundamentalist isn't inherently anti-American, but it doesn't isn't wrapped in the flag either, nor should it be. If we can't take a little criticism, that's pretty pathetic.

The dynamic between Changez and Bobby changes during the course of their conversation into one that become more and more suspect and works to divide their already strained relationship. In a way, the conversation mirrors the cultural divide that occurred between the United States and certain Middle Eastern nations in the last decade. Again, the film manages to keep itself (barely) from being overtly political, but it does ask tough questions about the knee-jerk reactionary tone we take in a crisis. It's an emotionally charged work that isn't afraid to dig deep and rip open old wounds that still have not completely healed.

But really what the story tackles is how much power as a society we give paranoid beliefs and unsubstantiated suspicions. I think we've seen examples of that on the news lately. Nair is a master storyteller who weaves together the personal, professional and political into this tightly wound account of how a man's life is ruined by forces out of his control, and how he, in turn, responds to these life-altering shifts. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Kon-Tiki

There's a prologue in the Oscar-nominated (for Best Foreign Film) Kon-Tiki that I believe is supposed to provide evidence that the lead character, Thor Heyerdahl, has been a fearless spirit since he was a child. Young Thor literally walks on thin ice and ends up plunging into the freezing water, only to be rescued by his lifelong best friend. What it showed me is that he's a reckless little shit who acts before he thinks. But this true story of famed Norwegian Heyerdahl (played as an adult by the golden-haired Pål Sverre Hagen) chronicles the path he takes from exploring the Polynesian islands with his wife Liv (Agnes Kittelsen of Happy Happy) to spending years formulating the theory that the islands were actually populated by South Americans rather than the commonly believed Asians.

Sounds exciting, right? In fact, it is, especially when a publisher suggests that the selling point of printing Heyerdahl's findings would be to re-create the journey from Columbia to Polynesia on a balsa wood raft. After wisely appealing to a rich Columbian businessman's sense of nationalism for financing the expedition, Heyerdahl and a crew of five set sail in 1947 for 100-plus days across 8,000km, with no means of rescue should something go wrong. If the mission failed, everyone on board would be dead. Between storms, whale encounters and shark attacks — all of which are beautifully realized with the real thing or special effects — there were plenty of chances for this to be a suicide mission.

Directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (Max Manus: Man of War), Kon-Tiki feels like watching a well-written text book on modern exploration. We get a sense of what Heyerdahl and his team were up against, including the explorer's angry wife, who would be a single mother of two if he died, and a severe case of paranoia that the wooden raft was rotting from absorbing water or that armies of sharks were waiting just over the edge of the craft waiting for a leg or arm to enter the water.

But since this is a fairly famous journey and the movie is based on Heyerdahl's written account of the journey, there's only so much genuine drama that can be generated. Still, the film does a solid job making the Pacific Ocean seem appropriately endless and the fear that the current that is supposed to take them across it seem elusive. I'm not sure if there was at one point a Norwegian-language version of Kon-Tiki, but the version I saw was almost entirely in English (and not dubbed). I don't think it make much of a difference as to whether I enjoyed the film or not, but I'd be curious to see the story in its native tongue. The film is a lightweight but effective adventure story and history lesson that actually serves to educate and entertain. There are worse ways of doing homework. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Graceland

Bordering on being an exploitation film at times, Filipino-American filmmaker Ron Morales' Graceland is primarily a taut kidnapping drama with a deeply flawed protagonist who must perpetuate many ugly lies to keep his young daughter alive. Set in Manila in the Philippines, the film centers on Marlon (Arnold Reyes), a driver for a sleazy, corrupt politician (Menggie Cobarrubias) who has a proclivity for underage girls, sadly in abundance in this city.

Often Marlon is required to pick up and drop off these girls, who are sometimes drugged by the politician. But Marlon also is responsible for taking the politician's own daughter to and from school. The girl is friend's with Marlon's own daughter, Elvie, although the politician's wife doesn't like them going to school together in the same car. One day, the two girls skip school to go shopping, but Marlon catches them trying to sneak back into school, puts them in his car and drives away. His timing could not be worse since the grandmother of one of the politician's young victims is talking to the press about his perverse behavior and a full-blown scandal is brewing; for some reason, the politician blames Marlon and fires him. Marlon's wife is sick, and he needs the income to keep her in the hospital, so this turn of events is distressing for him.

As he's driving the girls back home, Marlon is pulled over by a cop who turns out to be part of a kidnapping ring looking to grab the politician's daughter for a big ransom. But during the kidnapping, the intended victim is shot and killed, and the kidnappers mistakenly swipe Elvie. The story gets complicated (for the players, not us), since in order to convince the politician to pay the money to get his daughter released, he must pretend the politician's daughter is still alive. When the kidnappers figure out the mistake, they're willing to play along with Marlon to get their money.

As the film goes on, it becomes clear that money is only part of what the kidnappers want from the politician and that a more personal connection exists between the two parties. Juggling the lies becomes almost more than Marlon can handle and Reyes does an incredible job keeping the tension high through his acting, while director Morales balances the high and low existence Marlon must straddle to make things go his way just for once. For good reason, the police suspect he is part of the kidnapping plot, which he technically is in an after-the-fact way. Marlon must also lie to protect the politician so that he may put up the money for Elvie's release. Everyone puts demands on Marlon, and he's trying to make them all synch up for the least bloody conclusion.

Graceland is a remarkable second effort from Morales (after the 2008 Melissa Leo-starring Santa Mesa), who has spent most of his film career being a key grip on other director's films. But he shows a genuine talent for exciting, nerve-wracking storytelling here. He's not afraid to be shocking, but he's also capable of holding back when it bets suits the plot and his actors. One location that is used a couple of times in the film is the massive trash dump on the city's outskirts, and it seems both the perfect setting and metaphor for many of the situations and characters we meet; you can almost smell the corruption, and it makes for some solid filmmaking. The film opens in Chicago today at Facets Cinematheque.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

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.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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