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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

“Iron Man 2” pumps up star power with Johansson, Rourke

She is not money, she doesn’t know it and neither does Jon Favreau.

What am I ranting about now? Well, I’ll tell you: Favreau, who put his “Swingers” fame to shame and reinvented Robert Downey Jr.’s career with the incredible “Iron Man,” has decided to cast Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow. While this news has sent men worldwide into a dizzy, dirty thought montage set to “Cherry Pie,” I am decidedly displeased. Unhappy and unamused while we’re at it.

Why? Well, if there’s one thing Scarlett’s proven over the years it’s that she peaked before puberty. Don’t believe me? Rent “Manny and Lo,” “Ghost World” or “Horse Whisperer.” Then watch, oh, any of the following — “The Prestige,” “Scoop,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “Match Point,” etc. etc. What you’ll notice about the latter films is that she plays the same character. Every. Single. Time. She’s the husky-voiced sexpot with hair so frighteningly blond I fear the bleach has leaked into her brain and made her think she must turn every character into a Husky-Voiced Sexpot. (I’m certain that’s why she released that dreadful CD, anyway.) She has no range. She looks and sounds ridiculous in period pieces, so she was awful in “The Other Boleyn,” “The Prestige” and “Black Dahlia.” The worse news is that she’s only marginally talented at playing the only part she knows how to play. (“Lost in Translation,” as far as I’m concerned, was a blip on the radar. ) So I expect with “Iron Man 2” she revamp her HVS role. Joy.

The news isn’t all bad, though. It seems Rourke, fresh off the Oscar loss, is ready to prove “The Wrestler” was no happy accident. Can he play a villain? If you’re like me and you’ve seen “Spun,” you know that answer — of course he can. The years haven’t been kind to Mickey’s face, but they’ve clearly made him an actor capable of tackling one-note characters and making them amusing, empathetic, even downright creepy. He made my skin crawl as The Cook in “Spun,” the best “meth movie” to date, so I’m not worried. Throw in a little Don Cheadle as Col. Rhodes and Tim Robbins, who’s rumored to be set to play Howard Stark, and I’ll overlook that whole ScarJo mishap.

Well, almost.

Why 2008 rocked: (Most of) the best films of the year

Why so serious? It has something to do with Heath Ledger's hot-box-of-crazy-brilliant turn as The Joker in "The Dark Knight."

Why so serious? It has something to do with Heath Ledger's hot-box-of-crazy-brilliant turn as The Joker in "The Dark Knight."

To paraphrase the not-so-late, great Paul McCartney, news of my death was great exaggerated.

Yes, readers, it seems that I am not dead after all. Nor did I fall into a black hole, or fall off the edge of the Earth in an ill-fated journey to discover that the world really is flat (take that, Francis Drake).

What have I been doing for the past two weeks? For one, I’ve been suffering — I mean enjoying — the holiday season. For another, I’ve been pondering (which is much harder than, say, thinking) about the hardest thing I have to do all year: make a “best films of 2008” list. After 2007, I was spent. I mean, how could 2008 possibly offer up anything better than “Juno,” or “Zodiac,” or “Lars and the Real Girl,” or “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” or “No Country for Old Men.” I was convinced 2007 was so groundbreaking that nothing could top it.

(I believe this is the part where a stranger pops out of thin air and thumps me on the forehead, thus initiating the newest “coulda had a V-8” commercial.)

Oh, how wrong I was. This year, Hollywood has produced so many mind-blowing films I cannot list them all, cannot wrap my feeble little movie-sucking brain around them. And so, in an attempt to save my sanity, I have compiled a list of just 10 movies that made me laugh, think, gasp, or just generally harbor a secret belief that it’s not too late for me to gain acceptance to a prestigious film school.

Without further adieu, here they are: the Top 10 Movies of 2008….

10. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” — Everything sounds better when spoken in a romance language. Apparently Woody Allen caught wind of this and decided to apply it to “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” his most relaxed, romantic comedy yet. Set in Spain, this little-seen rom-com centers on pragmatic, tightly-wound grad student Vicky (Rebecca Hall, born to be a Woody Allen heroine) and artistic libertine Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), who take a vacation in Spain and get wined-and-dined by sensual painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem in F-I-N-E form). Gorgeous scenery, a flamenco-themed soundtrack and a volcanic performance by Penelope Cruz signal that the Woodman seems primed for his second wind.

9. “Sex and the City” — Roger Ebert slammed “Sex and the City,” Sarah Jessica Parker’s labor of love. He noted, however, that he wasn’t part of the target audience. Oh, RE, how right you were — “Sex and the City” is as much about men as “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” was about women. That aside, though it IS a love letter to die-hard fans (guilty as charged), “SATC” also deserves a spot in the best of 2008 because it works as one of the few truly insightful, intelligent films — albeit a highly stylized one — about women and their friendships. Here’s to hoping more directors realize what we chicks have known for ages: If you make smart movies about women, we will buy tickets to see them.

8. “Iron Man” — Listen carefully in “Iron Man” and you can hear the sound of something very, very rare: the improbable sound of a career being reborn. With guidance from Jon Favreau (in danger of becoming one of my favorite directors), a one-liner-lobbing, high-flying Robert Downey Jr. redefined our notion of what makes for a great comic book superhero as Iron Man. His work in “Tropic Thunder” is no less brilliant, but “Iron Man” stands as his own personal Declaration of Independence. Bring on the sequel!

7. “Pineapple Express,” “Tropic Thunder,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (three-way tie) — For me, 2008 forever will remain the year that the “blockbuster comedy” got a much-needed makeover. Need more convincing? Check out “Pineapple Express,” an explosion-packed yet wildly funny 21st-century stoner flick that featured the best comic pairing — that would be Apatow vets Seth Rogen and James Franco, criminally underappreciated as a comic actor — in recent memory. But wait; there’s more. Nothing tops Ben Stiller’s “Apocalypse Now”-on-acid metamovie about a ragtag band of sitting-duck actors (including the Divine Robert Downey Jr. and a marvelously cast, googly-eyed Jack Black) fooled into thinking they’re making a war movie. Rounding out this trinity is Jason Segel’s keenly observed, heartfelt and unexpectedly touching “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” where the actor bears all — anatomically AND emotionally — as a musician crushed when his girlfriend (Kristen Bell) dumps him for a nympho rock star (Russell Brand, giving THE comic performance of the year).

6. “Doubt” — Released just under the wire (Christmas Day nationwide) to merit inclusion for a slew of deserved Oscars, this meticulously paced, fascinating drama unfolds like a play — which it was originally — with a stunner of an ending (re: don’t expect to be spoon-fed). But the real treat? Watching two of Hollywood’s finest, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep, go balls-to-the-wall as a flawed but kind-hearted priest and a by-the-book nun possessed of a stare that would make Hitler tremble. Consider it a lesson in what constitutes “Oscar-worthy acting.”

5. “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” — Criminally overlooked by Oscar, this gripping Romanian film nonetheless deserves a moment — however brief or unrecognized in this little blog — to shine. Set in Romania in 1987, this flawlessly acted, plotted and paced gem shines a light on the realities of living under a dictatorship. Anamaria Rinca is pull-out-your-thesaurus-good as Otilia, a college student who helps her clueless roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) secure an abortion from a creepily serene back-door abortionist (Vlad Ivanov). This IFC film offers proof that sometimes, when it comes to thrillers, less is more — and less is much, much more powerful.

4. “Milk” — Anyone who’s followed Sean Penn’s career (that includes this blogger, who has been a devoted fan since “Ridgemont High”) knows he is an actor who revels in risky parts (“Dead Man Walking,” “Mystic River,” … I could go on, but I won’t). Penn is pure dynamite as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected public official, delivering a performance that is every bit as measured as it is electrifying. As Milk, he’s as much a shrewd, system-stroking politician as he is an activist. Josh Brolin deserves props for his subtle but simmering turn as Dan White, the conflicted colleague ultimately responsible for Milk’s death. Still, Van Sant balances the film mostly on Penn’s shoulders, and it’s a gamble that (not surprisingly) pays off big-time.

3. “Slumdog Millionaire” — Within the first 30 minutes, Danny Boyle’s unassuming coming-of-age love story proves why it deserves the title so frequently foisted upon it (that would be 2008’s Little Film That Could, or The “Juno” of 2008). Relative newcomer Dev Patel scores what can only be called a “breakthrough performance” as Jamal Malik, who sees an appearance on a Hindi game show as his chance to win the love of Latika (a first-rate Freida Pinto). It’s the kind of underdog story you can’t help but root for.

2. “WALL-E” — Who could have predicted that a jaw-droppingly colorful Pixar movie about a mostly mute robot would turn into the love story of the year? Certainly not yours truly, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying every last second of this post-apocalyptic love story about a lonely little automaton named WALL-E who finds the love of his life, loses her, finds her again and then discovers he’s got a bigger mission: namely, saving Planet Earth. Part sci-fi adventure, part futuristic fantasy, part romantic comedy, “WALL-E” is nothing less than one of the most charming, imaginative films of the year.

1. “The Dark Knight” — Forget the unfortunate snub by the Golden Globes; pay no attention to the inevitable ignorance of the Academy Awards. For my money, in 2008 there was no better film released than “The Dark Knight.” A dark, nuanced epic tragedy for the ages, this stunner drew viewers to the theater in record numbers — and with good reason. Heath Ledger’s recreation of The Joker as an “agent of chaos” deserves a spot in history. But there’s more to “TDK” than Ledger. Great performances? Check. Breath-snatching cinematography? Absolutely. A bone-chilling score? Please. And all of this makes “TDK” more than the best film of 2008; it makes this creation one of the best superhero movies ever made. Period.

The Best Is Yet to Come: One of the perks — is “perks” the right word? — of living in a glamorous state like South Carolina is that award-gobbling feature films, uh, don’t premiere here until months after New York, L.A., Chicago, etc.-area critics have seen them, wet their pants in delight, praised them to high heaven/beyond and moved on. And so it should come as no surprise that there are three such movies absent from my list: “Rachel Getting Married,” “Frost/Nixon” and “The Wrestler.” Rest assured that once I cast my peepers upon these critical darlings, they will (I feel certain) merit addition to my Best Films of 2008. Other films I’m breaking out in itchy hives of anticipation to see: Romantic comedy “Last Chance Harvey” — starring two of my favorite actors, Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman — and “Gran Torino,” hailed by critics as Clint Eastwood’s best role since “Dirty Harry.”