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Friday, July 19

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Iron Man

On the day I saw Iron Man for what I'm sure will be the first of several times, there was a serious chance that it was going to snow here in Chicago. So while many other critics have been talking about how summer has arrived a bit earlier than normal as far as movies are concerned, I choose to look at the release of Iron Man as marking the early arrival of Christmas. I wonder if it's any coincidence that the two best superhero franchises feature billionaires without any actual super powers—Batman and now Iron Man. The difference between the two titles is easily recognizable: whereas Batman's training, spiritual preparation and costume design are largely done off-camera or in a slick montage, the element of director Jon Favreau's latest work that I found most enjoyable is that Iron Man's origin feels more like an actual birth—it's painful, messy and there's even a placenta-like goo deep down in the chest cavity that holds the device keeping him alive. But I'm jumping ahead…

By now you probably know all you need to about the film's set up in Afghanistan and about a certain playboy/weapons manufacturer named Tony Stark (played to cocky perfection by Robert Downey Jr.). If you don't know much about the set up, it's probably because you don't want to, and that's admirable. I saw two of the summer's most anticipated films on the day I saw Iron Man, and my biggest complaint about the day in general was how much of the cool footage from both films I'd already seen online or in commercials. Granted, part of that is my own fault for seeking this stuff out, but the studios should consider that holding back the best stuff isn't a crime. But I digress. It's one thing to see the birth of Iron Man out of a cave in Afghanistan taking out terrorists (most of whom are armed to the teeth with weapons from Stark Industries) on a computer screen or in television commercial; it's quite another thing to see it accompanied by the roar of hundreds of die-hard fans. The first thing you notice about the film's use of special effects is that you hardly notice them at all. In many other films, it's so easy to spot the CGI that it's distracting. But in Iron Man, 95 percent of the time I could not tell what was practical and what was digital; this made it a lot easier to simply give myself over the story and terrific acting without feeling distracted.

And how about that acting? The other thing that the latest Batman film and Iron Man have in common is that they bother to cast talented actors even in the supporting roles, and not simply resort to casting the prettiest young faces who probably don't cost as much to hire. It cracks me up to think that the average age of the major players in the Iron Man cast is probably over 40. But age not withstanding, I can't imagine a better cast, one that never stopped surprising me. Terrence Howard plays the wide-eyed military liaison to Stark Industries, Jim Rhodes, who gets a serious case of "suit envy" when he discovers his friend's secret; Gwyneth Paltrow is sharp as Stark's faithful, fearless assistant Pepper Potts; and I was particularly excited about Clark Gregg's small but essential role as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, someone I'm guessing that we'll see a lot more of in coming sequels. If I had one quibble about Iron Man it would be Jeff Bridges' take on long-time Stark mentor and soon-to-be villain Iron Monger Obadiah Stane. His performance and look scream "villain!" from the second we see him on screen. But Jeff Bridges in any movie is always a bit better than a movie without him, so I'll give his hammy persona a pass.

And then there's Downey, who begins the film by getting kidnapped by Afghani terrorists and forced to create a version of Stark Industries' most recent weapon of mass destruction. Instead, Stark creates Version 1.0 of his Iron Man costume, a clunky body armor that looks like it was made out of the bulkhead of an old submarine. It's magnificent, ugly and beautiful at the same time, and it's loaded with just enough firepower to get him out of his bind. But Stark returns to the States a changed man, one who is determined to make sure that his weapons don't fall into the hands of people who would use them against American troops. The stock value in Stark Industries begins to plummet after an impromptu press conference that Tony holds to announce the dismantling of his weapons division.

My favorite scenes in Iron Man are the extended sequences in which he builds and test drives his high-tech armor, complete with a chest-embedded power source/electromagnet to keep shrapnel from entering his heart and killing him instantly. Favreau spends a surprisingly long time on this section of the film, and as much as it may delay the action a bit longer than the Action Movie Rulebook might dictate, I was really impressed with how entertaining it can be watching a genius at work—tinkering, welding, designing and, of course, learning to fly. It's during this sequence that we first hear the voice in Stark's head. Paul Bettany gives voice to the personality-laden computer that Stark communicates with inside that magnificent helmet. I loved seeing inside Iron Man's helmet both through his eyes and looking upon Downey's face as his eyes examine diagnostic images and analysis of the world around him. Everything about the "learning" phase of the plot is interesting, and as much as I thought it was cool to see Peter Parker discover the extent of his powers in Spider-Man, his instinct and Spider Sense were going to get him there anyway. What Stark must learn does not come naturally; sometimes it's an outright disaster, especially when it comes to flying. It's funny, sure, but it's also like watching the Wright Brothers' first few attempts at building that first working aircraft.

Even the climactic battle sequence is sloppy, since neither hero nor villain has much experience in their respective costumes. The relatively short fight between Iron Man and Iron Monger is filled with loud, clanging punches; an exchange of ammunition; and a lot of scuff and scorch marks on their pretty armor. It's one of the ugliest action scenes in recent history, and I don't mean that in a bad way. These two opponents aren't necessarily built to look cool while kicking the shit out of each other. Sure Iron Man has some hot-rod-red paint on his armor so he looks a little cooler. But you still get the sense that if one of these guys fell on his back, he'd have a tough time getting up again without a crane.

I wouldn't call what John Favreau is attempting to do with Iron Man "realism," but he certainly succeeds in making his Stark/Iron Man character one of the most well-rounded, fully-formed superheroes the movies have ever seen. He's also given his characters weight, both physically and emotionally. When Iron Man walks, the room vibrates; when Tony Stark speaks, people listen. And I could not love more how the film ends, virtually guaranteeing a sequel not with a cliffhanger, but with a promise of better things to come—better villains, more character development (I'm guessing Stark's love of scotch will take us down a road to alcoholism as the comics did), a deeper connection to that mysterious government agency, and we'll see just where Terrence Howard's line at seeing a spare Iron Man costume ("Next time, baby") takes us. The greatest thing Iron Man can give us is the desire to see where the character will go next, and on that level, this film is a monumental success.

Standard Operating Procedure

In the pantheon of great documentary filmmakers, Errol Morris is among the absolute best. I've never seen a film of his I didn't like, and most of his works I absolutely worship. His subjects vary greatly from film to film, and it's clear that he doesn't consider himself a "cause" director, but when he tackles a subject matter that is politically or socially charged, he does so with the passion and conviction of a man determined to reveal as much of the truth as he can. Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida are prime early works that examine the human condition, while other films (The Thin Blue Line; Mr. Death; and his Oscar-winning The Fog of War) seem more intent on setting the record straight. His latest offering falls into the latter category, but rather than look at an event that took place years, sometimes decades earlier, Morris dares to look at recent history: the well-documented abuses that took place at the prison camp and interrogation center in Abu Ghraib, Iraq.

It is often believed that pictures don't lie, but Morris understands that "not lying" is not the same as telling the whole truth. Through a series of startlingly honest interviews with many of the lower-level American soldiers in those photographs, Morris paints as clear a picture of the torture, degradation and outright bizarre practices going on in the facility. Above all else, Standard Operating Procedure is a slap in the face to the news media, which had assumed that the photographs in question showed all there was to see and told the whole story. Did you know that the image of the hooded prisoner standing on a box with wires attached to his fingers documented a fraud? The wires weren't attached to anything, but the prisoner was made to believe they were. This fact doesn't erase the images of sexual humiliation and the cavalier posing by soldiers like Specialist Lynndie England with dead bodies, but it does reveal something that was never mentioned by any of the news organizations. England, who was made out to be some borderline mental defect by some media outlets, is interviewed extensively in SOP, and she is surprisingly articulate and straight-forward. Under other circumstances, she might even be considered sweet. My guess is that Morris gave her the first opportunity to really tell not just her side of the story, but the entire story.

In the bigger picture, SOP is about the little guy taking the fall for the fat cat—in this case, the U.S. military, the CIA and the Bush administration, whose position on these the treatment of terror suspects has never been more clear than in this film. Morris spares us nothing; we are taken on a detailed tour of every unblurred photo while England and the forensic expert who pieced together a timeline based on the photographic evidence talk about what we're seeing. Some supposed documented abuses are simply staged photos the soldiers took to look tough. Morris also shows us other collected images of the soldiers taking it easy and horsing around with each other, all in the name of painting the most complete picture and leaving little doubt that a cover-up began almost the second these photos were leaked. He never dares asks us to forgive these individuals for their part in these awful events; he simply wants us to aim our disgust and blame at the right people—all the right people. SOP drives its points home perhaps a little too hard and long (by about 15 minutes, I'd estimate), but maybe overkill is what is required here. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Made of Honor

For those of you just joining us (well, me), allow me to repeat: a big emotional outpouring done in a very public setting (most often a wedding) does not pass for comedy anywhere in the world. And yet, here we have it again: one character declaring his/her undying love not over a quiet, romantic dinner somewhere, but in front of a room filled with strangers and/or family members, all on hand for some event other than the unfunny one they're watching. Made of Honor is a film that doesn't have an original thought in its head or an original idea in its plot. The outcome of the friendship between Tom and Hannah (Patrick Dempsey and Michelle Monaghan), which began in college and has gone unrequited ever since, is never in doubt, and anyone who is fooled into thinking the pair won't end up together by the end has clearly never been to a movie in their entire lives.

And let me just address this to Patrick Dempsey directly. I have no idea if he reads this or any other site, but if someone who knows him would pass this onto him, I'd be eternally grateful. Dude, you got lucky with Enchanted because anyone standing next to Amy Adams is bound to look better. But Made of Honor falls on your shoulders. You play a millionaire playboy, who can get any and every hot chick he wants; you wear great clothes; you go around with two- or three-day stubble and immaculately unkempt hair; your teeth are straight and relatively white; and every woman seems to swoon over you (I'm talking about Dempsey, now, not his character). But if you think for one second that what you do in this movie is acting, please think again. What you do in Made of Honor is not acting; it's posing. You see, I remember you when you were actually kind of cool to watch perform, back in your Can't Buy Me Love/In the Mood/Loverboy/Some Girls era. Sure, you were still part of the "Teen Beat" pinup crowd, but you were amusing. You were no John Cusack, but you were 10 times the actor that either Corey ever was. Now you pose for photo spreads in "T.V. Guide" and "GQ", and you've forgotten how to act. I don't watch "Grey's Anatomy," and maybe if I did, my idea of you would be different, but I don't think so. Let me just end by saying that films like Made of Honor in no way challenge you as an actor, and certainly don't challenge us as an audience. Giving your fans exactly what they want is an absolute guarantee that they will forget that you can be spontaneous and defy expectations.

So what do I think of this movie beyond Dempsey's sleepwalking performance? Well, Monaghan is wasted here as Hannah. She can be compelling, as she was in films like North Country and Gone Baby Gone, but she's just another pretty face here. I'm glad to see Kevin McKidd ("Rome"; "Journeyman"; and allegedly the title character in the upcoming Thor movie) do something a little lighter, but his role as Hannah's Scottish fiancée is so lifeless that I just watched him spend all his screentime looking incredibly awkward and stiff (matching my own mood while watching the movie). Because I don't feel much like analyzing this film any more than I have to, I'll lay all the blame for this miserable bit of predictable drivel at the feet of director Paul Weiland (veteran director of many a "Mr. Bean" episode, as well as City Slickers II), who knows how to deliver the broad comedy goods and doesn't waste a second of precious time developing characters that act like real human beings. Tom spends most of the film fretting over whether he should tell Hannah how he really feels about her, instead of just taking her aside and saying, "I love you; don't marry this Scottish douche." But if that ever actually happened in any romantic-comedy, the world would stop revolving and we wouldn't have priceless (meaning worthless) gems like this one to endure for 100-plus minutes. This movie sucks whale nuts.

Then She Found Me

I'd expected something a little softer from Helen Hunt as director. I'm not sure why, but she never struck me as the kind of actress whose first trip behind the camera would be particularly bold. And while the corners of her film Then She Found Me (based on the Elinor Lipman novel) aren't exactly razor sharp, I was impressed with this drama-with-laughs effort.

The film opens with the nearly 40-year-old schoolteacher April (Hunt) finally getting married to Matthew Broderick. They unsuccessfully try to have a baby for a few months, and out of the blue, Broderick announces that he's not sure he can handle being married, and the couple separate before they end their term as newlyweds. In the midst of April's stressing about her biological clock, she is contacted by a woman who claims to be her birth mother. She'd always known she was adopted, but the idea of contacting her birth mother never really crossed her mind. She's always felt somewhat slighted as an adopted child, thus explaining her desperate need for her own baby.

Turns out her mother is a well-known talk show host (Bette Midler), who seems overly eager for the two to catch up in a hurry. April is none too sure this is what she wants, but agrees to a few meetings to see how things go. Meanwhile at school, April is engaging in some bizarre flirtation ritual with the recently single father of one of her students (Colin Firth). He's still stinging from his jet-setting wife leaving him with hardly any notice, forcing him to care for their two kids alone.

This odd pairing seems to work, but Firth's character is perhaps more damaged than he first seems, and he seems prone to fits of explosive rage, which he deals with by taking long walks. With these two major life-changing events going on in her life, a third pops up: April is pregnant, the result of break-up sex with her husband, who coincidentally begins calling her, looking to possibly get back together.

Then She Found Me sounds more cutesy than it really is as Hunt takes the daring step of casting Midler and Firth and Broderick in her film and asking them to take things fairly seriously. Not to imply that the film is laugh free; there are quite a few of them. But Hunt doesn't sell out her emotionally charged effort for the sake of a few easy laughs.

I've always liked seeing Bette Midler reigned in a bit; she's capable of defiant acting when she isn't trying to please all of the people, all of the time. As for Hunt, there are a couple of really powder-keg sequences in which she simply melts down, and you could have heard the proverbial pin drop in the theater during those strong and simple moments. Firth was the real surprise for me, dropping the semi-suave "British gent that makes the ladies swoon" act and giving us a genuine human being of a role. He holds back enough that his character is a bit of mystery. We're not quite convinced he's stable enough to be dating even an unstable woman like April, and it becomes clear after a time that he's hiding a pain deeper than maybe even he realized. It's one of the best performances I've seen from him.

The film has flaws, the biggest of which is that Hunt allows things to get a bit too precious at times. Not everything in this woman's life has to be so damn meaningful or stuffed with emotion. Also, April has a brother who seems to serve no other purpose than to be the biological sibling to her adopted self. But in the end (and maybe because of a very smart ending), I went along with this odd bunch of souls without regret.

I think Hunt should go deeper next time. Comedy is her strong suit, but I think she has a gift for drama that maybe she chickened out of exploring as deeply as she could have this time around. Then She Found Me is a problematic but ultimately successful effort, and it makes me eager to see what its director has for us next.

The Unforeseen

So maybe An Inconvenient Truth was a little too "big picture" for some of you. Here's a very specific example of how land developers and a Texas governor who doesn't understand the big picture joined forces to wreck the pristine environmental landscape of a small community right outside of Austin. What's unique about director Laura Dunn's approach to the events chronicled in The Unforeseen is that she spends a great deal of time talking to the land guys in her efforts to pain the most complete picture of the situation as possible. Her journalistic integrity is impressive, respectable and worth noting. That being said, there's no doubt whose side of this issue she is on, but she can't be accused of not giving the "bad guy" a chance to speak his piece.

Austin in the 1970s was a place where "cowboys and hippies got along," according to one person in this well-executed documentary. The town was growing so quickly that entire sub-communities outside the city limits were being planned on a massive scale. One of those towns was an area around Barton Springs, a natural oasis that many believed held therapeutic powers. Even if it wasn't, it was a place where thousands of people went to swim and enjoy themselves. But when this subdivision began taking shape it was clear to some that it would effectively rob Austin of its natural resources, like water. What began brewing was a battle between environmentalists and not just land developers, but also land owners who believed that their private property was somehow being threatened. Texas lawmakers effectively changed the environmental laws in the middle of these monster properties being developed and did not allow for any grandfathering to take place.

I'm sure meetings in the Texas legislature and the testimony of a geologist and such are really thrilling, but the fact is, Dunn makes it easy to understand and gives us a fascinating look at city and state government. Then-Governor Ann Richards may have lost her seat to George W. Bush over this issue, and it's riveting to watch how lobbyists (and even Bush's campaign manager Karl Rove) twisted her pro-environment stance into something negative. I'd never thought I'd live to see the day when people would carry signs at a rally that read "Birds Don't Pay Taxes." Dunn also interviews such luminaries as Robert Redford (who owns property in the area and is one of the film's producers, as is Terrence Malick), Willie Nelson and Wendell Berry, who all speak about Austin's greatness as a community and the changes it has been through over the years. The Unforeseen is perhaps one of the greatest accounts of how these types of battles are rarely won or lost 100 percent; it also captures the long, drawn-out nature of such disputes and how a win one day can turn catastrophe the next. The film may leave you as frustrated as the citizens of Austin, but it will also open your eyes to an often ugly and emotionally draining process. The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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