Somehow I neglected to see Made of Honor. Shoot me. But among this week’s other new releases, there are some solid choices. From Hollywood, a new superhero is born with Iron Man, starring a re-tooled Robert Downey Jr., whose transformation from freaky, drug-addicted felon to buff box-office titan is as miraculous as the change undergone by his character onscreen. From Canada, Anne Michaels’ novel Fugitive Pieces finally opens in Canadian theatres, with an ending radically amended from the version that premiered as the opening night gala of the Toronto International Film Festival last year. And documentary wizard Errol Morris brings us Standard Operating Procedure, a mesmerizing investigation into the larger crimes behind the shocking photographs of military abuse from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.
I recommend all of these pictures, with some qualifications. If you’re a Robert Downey Jr. fan, or just a comic book fan, you will not want to miss Iron Man. If you read Fugitive Pieces and loved it, then by all means see Jeremy Podeswa’s adoring film version, even with the new, softened ending. And no matter who you are or what you like, Standard Operating Procedure is essential viewing.
From the very first frame, it’s clear that Robert Downey Jr.’s reputation for hazardous behaviour is going to play a key role in forging this new superhero franchise: we see him bouncing over Afghanistan desert with U.S. troops in an armoured vehicle while balancing a glass of Scotch in his hand and acting up like a celebrity bad-boy. Downey plays Tony Stark, a boy genius who grows up to become a Howard-Hughes-like industrialist and the world’s foremost arms manufacturer. His life changes in Afghanistan, when Stark’s convoy comes under attack and he’s shredded by shrapnel from his own weapons—which he’s alarmed to see have fallen into the hands of the Arab evil-doers. Imprisoning the wounded Stark in a cave, his captors force him to hand-craft one of his company’s fancy new “Jericho” missiles. Instead Stark secretly forges a suit of armour so he can barge his way out of captivity. Once he’s safely back home, he publicly denounces his firm’s arms business before locking himself away in his lavish home workshop to construct a more sophisticated version of the robo-suit that he created in the cave.
Iron Man is a Popular Mechanics wet dream. It’s a special-effects movie where the effects have a heavy-metal industrial charm. Essentially, Stark is building a rocket-powered suit that works as an intricate exo-sketeton, turning him into a kind of human Transformer. Some of the film’s most satisfying action is in the sheer assembly of mechanical components. He works with voice-recognition robots, which exhibit an over-eager, puppy-dog loyalty to their master. Shades of R2-D2. Downey finds a light touch amid the heavy metal. As his mad inventor undergoes slapstick bouts of trial and error, his quicksilver pratfalls remind us this actor first rocketed to stardom playing Charlie Chaplin.
Aside from the sexy robotics, Iron Man’s chief attractions are the lead performances. Aside from Downey, there’s Jeff Bridges—unrecognizable with a shaved head and a long grey beard—who plays the villain, a treacherous executive in Stark’s company. Bridges is so good at being evil you wonder why he hasn’t done more of it. Then there’s Gwyneth Paltrow, who serves as Stark’s loyal and worshipping assistant, Pepper Potts. I don’t know where Paltrow has been hiding, but after submerging from a a series of forgettable roles, and almost vanishing from Hollywood’s radar, here she supports Downey’s miracle recovery with a startling comeback of her own. With long, golden tresses and saucer eyes, she projects the magnified allure of a comic book babe while somehow maintaining her dignity. She looks stunning, acts smart, and pulls focus in patient close-ups with a poise and grace that remind us she’s a movie star.
But the reason this review falls far short of a rave is the script, which is much less sophisticated than the tech. I’m not going to quibble with the credibility of a comic book premise, or even the notion that those Taliban types feel they could conquer the world if they could just get their hands on a dozen of them robo-suits. But it’s a shame to see a film armed with technical prowess and sharp acting flounder in a scrap heap of cliché. The portrait of the cave-dwelling Arab terrorists as a gangs of bumbling idiots and goons seems all to familiar, if not racist. It’s the kind of caricature you’d expect from wartime propaganda. And the plot itself is clunky. The whole movie feels like a bit of a throat-clearing exercise, an attempt to get a new franchise up and running. I have no doubt it will be a hit. Downey updates the superhero prototype with a unique blend of bravado and wit. Armoured with that deflective repartee, he has always acted like the smartest guy in the room. Here he plays an uncaped, unconventional crusader whose only superpower, aside from his wealth, is his intelligence. Iron Man is really Irony Man. And as he dons the turbo-charged exo-skeleton of re-salvaged stardom, it will be interesting to see if he will stay the course, or crash and burn.
I’ve seen this film twice now, first at a screening before last September’s TIFF premiere, then just recently to see the recut version being released in theatres. By now I’m utterly confused. Unlike millions of readers, I found it difficult to engage with the novel, which I felt was too enamoured with the beauty of its own language. And, at least on first viewing, I found it difficult to engage with Jeremy Podeswa’s film, which I felt was too enamoured with the beauty of the novel.
The story has a split-level narrative. Electing to tell the story through the eyes of Jakob, one of the book’s two protagonists, the film toggles between flashbacks to his childhood as an orphaned Holocaust survivor and his adult life as a writer tormented by his past. To me, the flashback sequences work wonderfully. I couldn’t get enough of the relationship between the young Jakob (played with remarkable delicacy by Robbie Kay) and Athos, the benevolent Greek godfather who rescues him (superbly portrayed by Rade Serbedzija). But I found it hard to care about the fate of the adult Jakob (Stephen Dillane). No matter worthy his plight, it’s hard to warm to a character who’s is so priggish and self-involved. And unlike his younger self, he exists in a kind of vacuum, one occupied by ghosts. Two beautiful women enter his life. The first, Alex, (Rosamund Pike), loses her patience with his uncharitable gloom and quickly moves on. The second, Michaela (Ayelet Zurer), succeeds in supplanting his ghosts and leads him into an enduring love, but it’s hard to get a grasp on their relationship, which has a deus-ex-machina quality to it, especially with the re-jigged ending.
Regardless of the new ending, I enjoyed the movie more the second time I saw it. But perhaps that’s because I’d already processed what had irritated me the first time around. Also, knowing that it had been recut, I kept wondering what had changed, unable to find anything until the final scenes, where the absence of the cataclysmic event that originally ended the film came as a weird non-shock.
Podeswa sounds defensive in justifying the recut, which his producer Robert Lantos may have been more insistant on. Podeswa keeps pointing out that 97 per cent of the movie remains unchanged, which is an odd way to describe. As one critic cruelly commented to me, “That’s like saying that we’ve left 97 per cent of Citizen Kane in tact, and we’ve just cut Rosebud.”
For more on what motivated the eleventh hour surgery to Fugitive Pieces, and how it figures in Canadian cinema’s ongoing struggle to adapt CanLit, go to my article in this week’s magazine: But then why did they have to die?
Standard Operating Procedure
Errol Morris returns to his investigative roots with a film that, like The Thin Blue Line, amounts to a stylish expose of wrongful conviction. I wrote about it at length in last week’s magazine, in an article that includes an in-depth interview with Errol Morris. To read the piece and a separate transcript of the interview, go to: Shooting the Messenger