FRESH POUR: Iron Man 3 (2013) / The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013)

Clint takes a look at two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

Iron Man 3 / dir. Shane Black / Walt Disney Pictures

iron-man-3-international-posterNow that “Phase One” of Marvel’s all-encompassing, homogenized marketing bonanza is over, Phase Two begins with the third Iron Man film. While we’ve covered the first two Iron Man films on the show, and I came away feeling that the second film was probably the weakest of the Marvel movies so far, my heart was lifted once I found out that Shane Black, writer/director of the hilarious Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and 90s action movie wunderkind, would be taking the reins. I can’t really say I was disappointed with Iron Man 3, but I can say it delivered just the right amount of entertainment that I expected and no more.

Like both Iron Man films before it, the film’s chief subject is Tony Stark himself (always played with a deft hand by Robert Downey Jr. – his is one of the best casting decisions a superhero movie has made, and Black already knows how to handle him quite well). This time around, Tony’s having nightmares and PTSD from his brush with death in the climax of The Avengers, leading him to become more emotionally and psychologically dependent on the suits, tinkering around with about 30 new prototypes in the intervening months since the New York alien attack. Meanwhile, a mysterious pan-Asian terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is sending out mysterious, ominous broadcasts while performing terrorist attacks. After Tony’s right hand man Happy (Jon Favreau) is attacked and put in a coma for the rest of the movie – a fun wink to the fact that Favreau is giving up the helm to Black for this installment – Tony sees his home and his suits taken from him, leaving him to finish his investigation with only his wits and whatever friends he has left.

The humor of Iron Man 3 is most definitely its strongest suit – Black has a great eye for comedy, as evidenced by the early acts of the film where Tony has to work on his own with few resources. In this way, we see Tony’s personality meld a bit with his KKBB protagonist Harry Lockhart, as he fumbles and stammers his way through detective work, this time with the help of a little kid named Harley, to a) find the culprits of a series of mysterious bombings and b) get his groove back. Tony works on his own for most of the movie, relying on his wits, his inventiveness and what little bits of the Iron Man suit he can use to dispatch his foes – there is many a scene where all Tony has to defend himself is one Iron Man glove and a stolen gun. Iron Man himself is barely seen in this film, and when the suits show up they are frequently shown to malfunction or become really flimsy – Tony has let Iron Man get away from him, and the lesson he has to learn is that he, not the suit, is Iron Man.

**SPOILERS**

The only real weakness in the film is its final act – while the reveal regarding the Mandarin is sly and unexpected (and Ben Kinglsey really sells it) the film’s real villain (played by Guy Pearce) leaves something to be desired. In effect, Pearce’s Aldrich Killian is an even more spiteful and physically active version of Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer, without the nervous charisma that made Hammer one of the few great parts of IM2. I really adored Black’s commentary on the Mandarin as the same type of Othered, Orientalized figure that cable news teaches you to fear – the amalgamated puddle of everything “not American” that leads the public to have a specific enemy to rally against.

At the same time, I wish they’d followed the reveal with a more interesting villain, and a slightly less messy climax (there are so many things going on in that final action scene that it feels a bit rushed). The “Extremis” subplot also gives us a few subtle notes on the poor treatment of veterans once they return from active duty – two of Killian’s major henchmen are injured vets who come home to small-town America with little to fall back on. However, the effects of Extremis themselves are fairly weak, turning the bad guys into vaguely glowy guys who can breathe fire and are super strong. Still, I should count my blessings – this is the first Iron Man movie where he’s not fighting other Iron Men.

**END SPOILERS**

In conclusion, I did very much enjoy Iron Man 3 – this film, more than the other Marvel properties, has its own feel and atmosphere to it, with Black’s fingerprints all over the final product. It may not gel as completely with the other films, but that’s a good sign; despite a somewhat sloppy final act, Iron Man 3 is extremely entertaining and a nice breath of fresh air from the straightforward Marvel movie universe.

(On a side note, further kudos go to Brian Tyler for finally giving an Iron Man film a good score – the hero himself finally has a discernible musical motif, and the end credits surf rock-inspired jam is a blast.)

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Drinking Rules for Iron Man 3:

1) Drink whenever someone puts on (or takes off) any part of an Iron Man suit
2) Drink for the usual Tony Stark quips
3) Drink whenever you see a quick scene with Pepper or Rhodes, reminding us that Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle are, indeed, in the film

Finish Your Drink When:
Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) says, “That was really violent!”

The Reluctant Fundamentalist / dir. Mira Nair / IFC Films

the-reluctant-fundamentalist-posterIf Iron Man 3 points its finger at you and laughs for ever buying into the Islamic caricature of The Mandarin,  The Reluctant Fundamentalist attempts to explore the attitudes that go into that Otherization. Based on the 2007 novel, acclaimed Indian director Mira Nair tells the story of Changez (a captivating Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani man who moves to America to find success on Wall Street. Getting in the good graces of Jim (Keifer Sutherland), the head of a financial analysis firm, he finds himself living the American Dream – he gets himself a cute American girlfriend (Kate Hudson), he dresses in tailored suits, and has a tight-knit group of work friends. However, after September 11 hits, he finds himself in a much different world than he entered: one which distrusts him and his loyalties because of his nationality. This leads him on a journey that places him in the middle of a tense hostage situation in his home country, with only the good graces of a sympathetic journalist/government agent (Liev Schreiber) to possibly save his life.

Nair’s film takes on the unenviable task of exploring the post-9/11 Islamophobia that struck the nation in the wake of those attacks, and how people who are the recipients of that profiling might feel. Ahmed is a revelation here, a tightly-coiled ball of self-confidence and idealism who constantly battles against the cynicism and darkness that poisons the American Dream he so believed in. One constant mantra of his is that he “loves America”; over the course of the film, characters (and the audience) examine what that means and how that changes once he discovers that America might not love him back. At every turn, Changez increasingly gets the impression that the Westerners around him either fear him (as in the number of scenes where he is interrogated and violated by airport security, Homeland Security, etc.) or fetishize him (his colleagues treating him like their token Arab, his girlfriend being revealed to use his ethnicity as the crux of her modern art project).

There is a constant push-and-pull for Changez, as his family and countrymen look down on him for embracing the culture and ideals of the capitalist West. Changez comes to America looking for a level playing field in life; the implication given is that the events of 9/11 tilted that field, killing the American Dream in the process. Though Changez is shown to be dramatically affected by these attitudes, the character remains problematically saintlike; there are far too few moments where we see him doubt his love for America – he merely hates the Americans who don’t seem to get how good they have it. Nair plays with these ideas, but never really comes to a satisfying conclusion; the implication is that he still ‘loves America,’ but what that truly means to him is never fully explored.

Despite the interesting drama of the America segments, the Life of Pi-esque framing device of the film (in which Schreiber listens to Changez’s life story in Pakistan to get possible information on a missing professor) actually comprise the film’s biggest stumbling block. By alternating these redundant, 24-esque political thriller scenes with the actually intriguing story of how Changez evaluates his relationship to his home, the film flits about schizophrenically in tone. While Ahmed and Schreiber make those scenes very watchable (they’re fine actors), they really clash with the rest of the film – I would have much preferred to just watch Changez’ journey from seeker of the American Dream to teacher of the new Pakistani Dream.

Even within that context, some of the events in the film are fairly convenient (ill-timed texting of siblings being confused for terrorist activity, Changez’s friends happening upon government agents ransacking his office, taking a cell phone picture of it and getting away, etc.). However, much of this is in service of a larger melodrama, which touches on the notion of misguided assumptions and expectations, as well as the danger of cynicism in a post-9/11 world. Nair directs with aplomb, and Michael Andrews’ Eastern-influenced score is effective. It’s all very workmanlike in its presentation, effective but unremarkable but for the stellar performances by the majority of the cast – Ahmed and Schreiber are fantastic, as is Kiefer Sutherland and Om Puri (playing Changez’ father). Hudson is merely serviceable in an admittedly underwritten role; one has a hard time telling if her aloofness is purposeful or a shortcoming in the performance. While I wish it had narrowed its focus onto Changez’ disillusionment and not shoehorned a half-baked Tom Clancy novel throughout the film, it’s a perfectly well-executed film that succeeds in its goal in challenging expectations and starting conversations about the perception of the East by the West (despite doing it with the subtlety of a sledgehammer).

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Drinking Rules for The Reluctant Fundamentalist:

1) Drink whenever someone gives Changez a suspicious glare
2) Drink anytime the film switches chronology (e.g. skips forward to Schreiber conversations)
3) Drink anytime Changez says “America”

Finish Your Drink When:
Changez says, “Some truths take their time.”

Look out for next week’s reviews, as Clint dives into the Roaring Twenties with Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, and Eli Roth’s new horror flick Aftershock!

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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