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High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Saturday, May 03, 2008

A Show With Everything AND Yul Brynner: Iron Man & The Runs at the Cascade Drive-In

I can't remember when we first saw the preview for Iron Man, but that was the moment that we commenced to drooling. Although we usually wait a few days after opening to see movies, particularly summer blockbusters (although, remember, we proved that even obscure Thai martial arts movies are not save to see on opening night), M is abandoning me for a week, so we wanted to see Iron Man ASAP. Fate cooperated with us for once and graced the Cascade Drive-in with a double feature: Iron Man and The Runs (no, that's not a typo: they were the ones who chose the irresponsible, unfortunate, illegible font for their movie title and they will live with the consequences). Paid for by Americans for Sensible Typography.

So I've never been to a drive-in before. When he could bring himself to stop pointing and laughing, M was pretty excited about exposing me to a vital part of American culture. We stopped off at a 7-Eleven to pick up some drinks and snacks, then trudged ever westward through a short-lived torrential downpour that gave way to awesome, dramatic skies as only the midwest can produce.

Although we were armed with snacks, we wanted to pick up sandwiches or something as well. We spied the Polka Deli in a strip mall. As we elbowed our way through the saloon doors, the piano player trailed off on a few dissonant notes as a heavy silence fell and all eyes turned to us. Ok, not really, but spiritually that's what happened. It was really more of a Polish grocery store with a meat counter than a deli. We determined that they did, in fact, do sandwiches for take out, but as their meat choices comprised head cheese and more head cheese, we eventually slunk out and escaped to the taqueria next door. (Very good burritos.)

We pulled into the Cascade just before 8 PM. It wasn't packed, but there was certainly a respectable and varied crowd. Next to us was a guy with two boys in the 11-14 range who were chasing each other around. On our other side, two teenagers. Later, a lovingly restored muscle car occupied by two teenagers or young twenty-somethings would pull up in front of us. (Said muscle car apparently had no radio, so it's fortunate that the Cascade has left the retro window speakers intact, even thought they also broadcast over the radio.)

Another family had taken advantage of the "pets welcome" policy. We'd considered bringing the drool monster, but he and stormy nights don't mix well. Given that it was cooling off and still sprinkling occasionally, most folks kept to their cars, but a few had brought lawn chairs and boom boxes. In the future, we'll be better prepared for picnicking, but for last night, we were comfortable and well fed in the familiar confines of the Forester.

There are a few draw-backs to the drive-in. Scenes with low lighting are especially hard to see, for example, and occasionally car speakers are not ideal for deciphering dialogue. Those fools who cannot stay for 2 seconds after the credits start rolling (or those wise individuals who left about 10 seconds into The Runs) are not always courteous about leaving their headlights off until they're out of the range of the screen. Also, my side of the windshield got pretty well fogged up by the end of Iron Man. (Ahem. Completely innocent fogging up, you understand.)

But the benefits outweigh these by far. It was great to be able to lean the car seat back and be comfortable. Not being air conditioned within an inch of my life was also pleasant. And, of course, no cell phones, no irritating teenagers, no one else's conversation intruding on us. (And, on the flip side, we were free to riff on The Runs without bothering anyone else.) AND BEST OF ALL, when a guy in an oversized pick up pulled into a spot in a row very close to the front (there are signs all over the place requesting that oversized vehicles use rows that are further back), an usher—an actual usher with a flashlight and a windbreaker identifying him as an employee—was at his window within SECONDS, politely directing him to the correct area. Nice!

So the Cascade gets a positive review, but what about the the movies?

Oh my goodness, how I loved Iron Man! I am surprised, but very pleased, that reviews seem to be almost universally positive, given that there's a lot of there there for a superhero movie. That's not fair: There's a lot of there there for any movie.

If I had to register my handful of complaints, Gwyneth Paltrow would be at the top. Pepper Potts is pretty much a feeble, dishwater role as Occasional Superheroine points out (for the record, though, I have exactly the opposite opinions about Vicki Vale and Lois Lane), and Paltrow does exactly squat to deepen or enhance the role. Moreover, she seriously bogs down the dialogue in the scenes at the Gehry Atrocity.

Independent of Paltrow, I wasn't wild about the hints toward a Tony/Pepper romance. As M said, it'd be nice if Pepper could be portrayed as a a strong, intelligent woman who might like and admire Stark, warts and all, but still see that sticking her hands (or more intimate parts) in that crazy is just a bad idea. Who knows, though, maybe I'd have been more sympathetic to the would-be romance, or more likely to see any chemistry between them if Pepper's introductory scene hadn't established her gleeful, sister-hating complicity in Stark's womanizing.

On a related note, I could have done without some of the overkill misogyny to establish Tony Stark's shallow and narcissistic nature. In particular, the midriff-baring, pole-dancing stewardesses, I could have done without. Then again, we live in a world where Niki is a going concern, so perhaps I'm barking up the wrong tree with that complaint.

But I'm still going to register it, because in all other regards, Stark's characterization is skillfully and economically handled. M pointed out that poor Ang Lee's Hulk (which we didn't hate nearly as much as everyone else did) was excoriated for its talkiness and dearth of action sequences. Why then is Iron Man, with only a handful of action sequences and one major fight to its name, turning out to be such a critical darling?

One difference is that there's certainly a lot more to Tony Stark than the is to Bruce Banner. Second, although I like Eric Bana just fine, it's advantage Robert Downey, Jr., as far as acting goes. But source material and actor are dead in the water without a screenplay that brings the character alive. This one does.

Stark the playboy charms more than he rankles (my personal exceptions noted above), but Favreau and the screenwriters (four of them, but you wouldn't know that) are confident enough in their story to imbue Stark with real edges and sincerely dark spots on his soul. While they're establishing just how contemptible he is, though, they beg the audience's patience through the other characters.

I completely agree that Terrence Howard is, overall, sadly underused as Rhodey. All the same, I had to admire how efficiently the movie establishes him as a genuinely stand-up, honorable character, then trades on that currency to assure the audience that there is something more to Stark, that Stark is man that Rhodes loves and admires even when Stark is at his worst.

Yinsen is more of a cipher, but largely in the . . . well, I was going to say in the Blondie sense, but it's really more in the Mary Poppins sense. Shane! Come Back! I have a totally pointy point! Really I do! We never know much about Yinsen, except that he's as much a captive of the Afghan warlords as Stark. All the same, we understand him to be a good and intelligent man.

In his facility with languages and the ease with which he grasps and aids in Stark's plan, he is established as Stark's intellectual equal. He doesn't harangue Stark or rail against him for his sins, he simply narrates Stark's journey with the Ghost of Christmas Present, in a calm, matter-of-fact manner, and thanks to the convergence of script, direction, and acting (Shaun Toub is excellent), his commentary reads as the better part of Stark emerging and frankly evaluating his life up to that point.

Yinsen isn't overexplained. He isn't beatified or celebrated as an inspiration or mentor. And he exits the story in one of the most beautifully underwritten scenes in recent memory: "Thank you for saving me." Nice.

But although this solid, skillfully handled characterization might strongly appeal to a (putative) grown up (and a woman to boot), the movie still might've been dead in the water without cool shit to look at. Iron Man might be light on fights (and cringe-worthily obvious video game tie-ins), but it more than delivers on cool, manly, science-y stuff. Stark and Yinsen smelt, forge, hammer, and weld.

Back in Malibu, at Xanadu-II (a bigger person than I might be able to resist adding Electric Boogaloo here), we see that Stark—and this is important—is fundamentally the same person he was before Afghanistan: He is the posterboy for short attention spans; he takes Rhodey and Pepper for granted; it never occurs to him that he could be outsmarted by the so-obviously-evil Obadiah Stane (and man, does The Dude ever rock that role). Stark's character continues to unfold, grow, and change amid sweet, sweet, fun-to-watch, whizz-bang technology.

The whole movie is masterpiece in multitasking. I can't think of a single scene, a single conversation, a single fx or action sequence that feels superfluous, nor a single scene that doesn't accomplish more than one goal. And the screenplay draws just enough attention to its own attention to pacing. As an example, during the climactic fight, Stark snaps at "Jarvis" to knock off the constant reminders of how much power they don't have.

I think it's also important that Iron Man is funny. Stark, of course, is funny in the ways emphasized in the trailer. But he's also funny in surprisingly doofus-y ways. I don't think I'll stop laughing over his first flight attempt any time soon. And the hand-free cell inside the suit? Comedy gold and blessed relief from what could have been a clunky plot complication. And Jeff Bridges is given crucial latitude to be funny once he's in the Iron Monger suit.

In general, there's just a refreshing, liberating amount of confidence evident in this movie. Favreau is confident in the screenplay, and he should be. Downey, Jr., is confident in the character and his directory, and he should be. And best of all, Favreau and the screenwriters are confident in the audience's intelligence and willingness to immerse themselves in the movie's world. Freed up from leaden exposition, over-explained jokes, and pointless technobabble, the movies snaps and pops along, right through the awesome post-credits bonus, and that's all I'll say about that.

This is bad news for The Runs, I'm afraid, because Iron Man is an incredibly tough movie to follow. M and I disagree whether this was better or worse than Cabin Fever. I still have the horror of CF's breast implants and random inclusion of stoner-friend-who-got-a-part-because-he-loaned-us-his-truck burned into my brain. M is focused on how badly he wanted to kill everyone in The Runs before the vines could get to them. I recently had my urge-to-kill meter recalibrated by Cloverfield and found these young, incredibly stupid scamps delightful by comparison.

I also can't help but feel like these crazy kids were trying. The tried to close up many of the silly plot holes. They tried to create individual characters and to set up interpersonal dynamics. I'm embarrassed by their aspiring to a Lifeboat vibe, and sad that they seem to have convinced people that might have achieved something. I still don't think it's as bad as Cabin Fever, but it's not much better.

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