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Review: “Iron Man” (2008)

Truth likes to hide in triteness; great responsibility does trail on the heels of great power. Along the way, people tried to tell billionaire weapons inventor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) that. With all that ice clinking in his lowball of Scotch, he had trouble hearing them — and that’s not counting the times Tony was embarking on his mission to do the horizontal mambo with all 12 Maxim cover models (pity about Miss March). Whatever honorable qualities comic books have taught us to expect in superheroes, they don’t exist in Tony Stark. He’s a horndog with a smart mouth.

Hallelujah! After years of do-gooder types (even the tortured Batman abided a moral), Downey fashions a different hero: a likable jackass who gives his id full control; who flaunts his wealth instead of hiding it; who gives new meaning to the phrase “doing a piece for Vanity Fair.” And if just any old actor played him, that’s all the character would amount to. Because Downey has a Ph.D. in likable jackassery, he goes beyond the surface and dredges up pathos that catches us unaware. The end result is a hero who reinvents himself because he has to, then lets that new persona slowly change his heart. That’s no novel concept, but in a comic book movie it feels like one.

Unforseen circumstances necessitate the reinvention, and director Jon Favreau wastes no time setting up the expected superhero origin story. “Iron Man” hints the ground running: Tony makes an appearance before the U.S. military — including friend Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Terrence Howard) — in Afghanistan to test out the Jericho, the latest Stark Industries-manufactured weapon. (The expectedly laconic Tony describes it as “the weapon you only have to fire once.”) Afterward, insurgents attack the humvee, igniting an explosion that embeds shrapnel in Tony’s chest and dragging him off to a cave in the desert. Fellow captive Yinsen (Shaun Toub, compelling in a small role) saves his life by implanting an electromagnet in his chest to draw the shrapnel away from his organs. The attack’s mastermind, Raza (Faran Tahir), charges the pair with creating a new missile. Knowing they won’t leave the cave alive, they construct an iron suit that paves the way for escape. The experience leaves Tony with emotional scars that alter his perceptions about war, and he shuts down Stark Industries — to the dismay of his business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) and his assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

None of the remaining action sequences in “Iron Man” — all credibly done, with seams-hidden CGI — match the taut, nerve-snapping tension of Tony’s capture/escape. Since Favreau is shrewd enough to let Downey advance Tony as he sees fit, it barely matters. If anything, the precisely dispersed action helps because it allows for a degree of humor normally not found in the standard bells-and-whistles superhero film. For much of “Iron Man,” the action is played for chuckles, with Downey slinging one-liners only to take crazy pratfalls during disastrous test runs of his suit. (He warns his fire-control robot, called “Dummy,” not to douse him again or he’ll donate him to a city college.) His wit, bemused smirk and impeccable comic timing keep the momentum high and supply a surprisingly in-depth look into Stark’s personality, quirks and all. There’s a line between “witty” and “talky,” and Robert Downey Jr. is an actor who knows how to tease both sides of the tape without ever overstepping.

So Downey is money; this soil has been tilled before. What else makes “Iron Man” a horse of different color? Favreau. He handles the timely backstory with a welcome level of maturity, giving “Iron Man” the feel of a grown-up superhero movie. He doesn’t bully the chemistry between Paltrow and Downey into the obligatory sex scene, nor does Favreau give up the major villain within the first half hour. Favreau also has a script that gives the supporting characters more to do than be props, particularly Obadiah. Bridges would seem a strange choice for a supervillain — until you see him in action. He imbues a question about a newspaper with more menace than Hannibal Lecter’s “Hello, Clarice.” His presence in “Iron Man” is all we need to know that subtlety goes farther than an exploding missile.

Grade: A

Downey, Rourke power second “Iron Man” installment

Only a true friend (Don Cheadle) would stick around for an army drone smackdown.

Self-effacing superheroes are so 20th century, and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is a man who belongs firmly to the 21st. The “just doing my job” routine isn’t in his repertoire. Tony’s a megalomaniac who rockets onto the Stark Expo stage with fireworks, blaring arena rock and scantily clad dancers. There’s a dire shortage of superheroes who stare up the skirts of their own cheerleaders, if you ask me. 

The Downey we love does not do humble. He does do cocky, self-destructive and sarcastic. Because he does them better than any actor working today, “Iron Man 2” soars when it should falter. Downey’s rakish charm has carried smaller ventures than this, but the fact that they can prop up a gigantic comic book franchise movie like this is astounding. Two years after Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man,” the more fully-rounded film, “Iron Man 2” falls into the same trap “Spider-Man 3” did. Think of it as the Lure of Too Muchness: too much plot, too many explosions and villains (note: both are unassailably cool). Any actor could be forgiven for getting lost in the smoke. Downey knows what he’s doing, though, and he’s mostly all the fuel “Iron Man 2” needs.

Where “Iron Man” ended in 2008 is where “Iron Man 2” begins. The opening credits belong to Mickey Rourke (terrifying in his “Russian villain suit”) as Ivan Vanko, an ex-con physicist who watches Tony Stark strut like a peacock at the expo. Grief over his father’s death turns to rage as Ivan watches Tony don the suit Ivan believes his father helped create. But Ivan isn’t the only foe Iron Man faces. On his case are the head of a congressional committee (Gary Shandling, funny as ever), who’s pressuring Tony — and confidante Lt. Col. Rhodes 2.0 (Don Cheadle) — to relinquish his Iron Man suit to the government, and Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), keen to design a suit to “make Iron Man look like an antique.” There’s a new assistant, Natalie (Scarlett Johansson), too mysterious to be legit. And there’s something else: The electromagnet in Tony’s chest is poisoning his blood. He tells no one, not even colleague-or-lover? Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), convinced he has to keep up what Rhodey calls his “lone gunslinger act.” It may be this act, not his blood toxicity, that really gets him.

Speaking of “getting,” let’s declare Mickey Rourke’s comeback a flaming success. True, in “Iron Man 2” Ivan sometimes comes across as a caricature. The Russian accent (it makes Cate Blanchett’s “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” brogue seem tame), the 44-karat smile, the hair — it all hollers supervillain in Big Capital Letters, the opposite of what Jeff Bridges did with Obadiah Stane. Still, that was another movie, and Rourke puts his own menacing stamp on Ivan (that sinister chuckle was made for supervillainy). His showdown with Iron Man at the Grand Prix in Monaco is thrilling, a superb combination of great CGI and great acting. Another reason this scene resonates is because the parts are tailored for the actors; both have lived the histories, to some extent, that their characters have: beaten down by circumstance or bad choices, then resurrected through sheer force of will. Rourke and Downey bring a raw, bruised humanity to their parts few other actors could. Who better to rise from the ashes than these two?

Remaining cast members are all over the map. Despite Sam Rockwell’s inherent coolness, Hammer is less interesting. He feels thrown in for comic relief. Johansson fills out that zippered bodysuit fetchingly … and that’s all. Samuel L. Jackson, as Nick Fury, is suave personified; only a pirate could wear the eye patch better. Paltrow’s part is whittled down to nothing, though her chemistry with Downey doesn’t suffer for it. I was unsure of Cheadle’s replacement of Terrence Howard as Rhodey, but a rewatch of “Iron Man” sold me. Never showy, the new Rhodey brings a quieter energy to the part that makes the character more nuanced, so some might mistake his performance as bland. And while “Iron Man 2” as a film has the opposite problem, it’s still the kind of ride you want to take more than once.

Grade: B+

Review: “Two Lovers” (2009)

Two_LoversLeonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) is a stumbler. He stumbles into two relationships — with the stunning, troubled Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), a kind-hearted family friend — clumsily and without purpose. He stumbles into jobs, hobbies, social interactions. Things simply seem, in Leonard’s addled mind, to happen to him, never the other way around. This mix of confusion and listlessness makes him a perfect disaster of a lover but one fascinating and inscrutable antihero.

In another movie starring another actor, a character like this would be an annoying mess — whiny and sad and grating, able to see opportunities for change but unable to seize them. But director James Gray has a flair for understatement. Phoenix, one of those actors who seems perfect for every part, has a gift for softening our hearts toward the least desirable characters, ones so dumb or damaged or purposeless they’re stuck in a hamster wheel of bad choices. This director/actor pairing is something of a revelation, and one that makes the beautifully lensed “Two Lovers” more of a compelling character study than a soppy melodrama about a love triangle.

The film’s title gives away the major crisis: “Two Lovers” revolves around Leonard’s romantic entanglement with Michelle and Vinessa. Sandra, who is sweet and undemanding, likes Leonard perhaps more than any woman should like a 30-something man medicated for depression who moved in the Brooklyn apartment of his parents (Isabella Rossellini, Moni Moshonov) after failed suicide attempts. Why this man, so obviously unstable? Sandra’s attraction to Leonard hints that she may have an affinity for strays. But she’s far more dependable than Michelle, the willowy blonde Leonard meets outside his parents’ apartment. Michelle plays see-saw with Leonard’s heart, still fragile from a broken engagement, by inviting him to meet her friends, then weeping to him at 4 a.m. about her married boyfriend (Elias Koteas) and her crushing indecision. (Note: There’s a crucial difference between women who call at 4 p.m. and ones who call at 4 a.m.) While Michelle fascinates and excites Leonard, Sandra calms his anxieties. She accepts his distractedness without question. Both women fill different needs, and so he cannot envision losing either.

The fact that neither woman feels like the de-facto “right choice” illustrates the subtle sophistication of the beautifully lensed “Two Lovers,” based on Luchino Visconti’s “Le Notti Bianche.” This is not the kind of film where answers are easy, motivations are transparent and characters are staid. In fact, the people in “Two Lovers” are impossible to stereotype. Though Leonard’s mother Ruth (Rossellini turns in a nuanced performance) worries about her son, she doesn’t hover or smother. Nor does she force him to see Sandra as a cure-all, the good girl who will morph him from a troubled boy into a mature, respectable man. All Ruth knows is that Leonard has problems that run much deeper than post-relationship grief. Her patience with him, her willingness to let him find his own way makes her one of the film’s most moving characters. 

Shaw, too, does a fine job creating a love interest who is not a boring cardboard cutout, the Sandra O. to Paltrow’s Rizzo. (To be fair, Paltrow does avoid turning Michelle into a cliche, instead letting us see humanity in her insecurity — because women that attractive always seem to be insecure.) Sandra goes into her relationship with Leonard with eyes wide open: She knows he has depths she can’t touch and she loves him still. Yet Shaw makes Sandra’s timidity and no-questions-asked acceptance of Leonard tell us she’s not as simple as she seems. She has demons she won’t let us see.

And that Joaquin Phoenix. An egocentric kook, maybe, but me oh my can that actor make somber, beaten-down and complex look new and shiny every time he plays them. He has a resume littered with broken characters, but Leonard may be his best yet — vulnerable and maddening and touching in one fell swoop. How sad, then, that Phoenix has said “Two Lovers” was his last movie. If that’s the case, it’s fitting he’s gone out with a whimper, not a bang. Sometimes it’s the whimpers that hit hardest.

Grade: A-