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IRON MAN 3

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Few releases this year are as critic-proof as this one; “Iron Man 3” will be a huge success no matter what anyone writes about it. But the unhappy fact is that compared to “Thor,” “Captain America” and “The Avengers” (just to mention the recent Marvel super-hero flicks), which were such good fun, this dark, gloomy, chaotic and basically misanthropic film is a real bummer—Iron Man in Dark Knight territory, and all the worse for it.

The script, by director Shane Black and Drew Pearce, is set shortly after the events of “The Avengers,” though there’s a brief prologue referencing a New Year’s party back in 1999. After saving the world, though seemingly his old, snarky Robert Downey, Jr., self, Tony Stark is actually in emotional turmoil, suffering from insomnia and panic attacks. That’s hardly improved when his firm’s security chief, Happy (Jon Favreau)—an intense doofus whom any other boss would surely fire—is seriously injured in an explosion at the Hollywood Chinese Theatre, where he’s tailed a suspicious-looking guy. The blast is apparently connected to a series of terrorist attacks masterminded by The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who periodically coopts the world’s broadcasting facilities to issue threats against the US President (William Sadler). Happy’s condition leads Stark to issue an invitation to The Mandarin to come after him, which leads to an assault on his mountaintop mansion and initiates his quest for revenge, despite reports of his own demise and the loss of all his technological goodies, including his Iron Man duds.

It wouldn’t be fair to reveal too much about what follows. Suffice it to say that the complications include an Iron Man clone in the service of the state and called Iron Patriot (Don Cheadle); Tony’s partner both in business and at home, the lovely Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow); Maya (Rebecca Hall), Stark’s 1999 girlfriend who’s into advanced genetic research; and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), an odd scientist whose pet project has to do with experiments intended to restore lost limbs and other appendages to the ill and injured.

But all these elements are mixed into a brew that’s, with few exceptions, almost unrelievedly grim and curiously unpleasant. The overall world-view is one of deep, pervasive corruption that extends to the highest levels, and apart from Stark’s immediate circle, there aren’t many characters one would find particularly admirable. Tony is out of suit for much of the running-time, and subjected to pummeling after pummeling so that Downey, despite all the quips, comes to seem like a human punching-bag when he’s not hung up on chains to endure the villain’s mockery. But even that’s a modest indignity compared to what happens to Paltrow. She’s captured and trussed up on a torture table while extravagantly suffering the application of the villain’s torments, turned into a wimpering damsel-in-distress role that’s really beneath the dignity of a fine actress.

And then there are the explosions and noise—a cascade of battles, gunfights, bombings and airborne assaults, culminating in a long dockside confrontation involving Downey, Cheadle, Paltrow, scads of Iron man suits and a small army of super-powered humans who can perk back to life after being terminated with extreme prejudice. Apart from the fact that few things in this sort of action movie are duller and less interesting than villains that can repeatedly regenerate (according to principles that the film never bothers to explain adequately, since sometimes they just don’t), the avalanche of effects-heavy sequences quickly grows tiresome, especially since they’re not choreographed or edited with any special panache and are accompanied by Brian Tyler’s ear-splitting score.

Nonetheless there are oases of pleasure in the desert. The scenes with Kingsley, played at full throttle, are quite amusing, especially since they also provide one of the script’s best twists. And a Tennessee-set sequence in which Stark is compelled to join up with a smart-aleck kid (engaging Ty Simpkins, an adept scene-stealer) is satisfying, not least because it avoids succumbing to the sentimentality the encounter invites (though the part of the coda referring back to it comes off as rather lame).

Technically “Iron Man 3” is accomplished, even if it doesn’t really break any new ground. (A sequence in which Iron Man saves a baker’s dozen of passengers falling from an injured plane isn’t much beyond the sort of stuff that’s been done more excitingly in James Bond movies.) But cinematographer John Toll, production designer Bill Brzeski and art director Brian Stultz have clearly done yeoman work, though the dankness of atmosphere after the first reel or so mutes the impact of their effort.

There’s no doubt that this will be an early-summer blockbuster and rake in many hundreds of million of dollars. But in due course it’s likely to fall into the pattern of pictures like “Return of the Jedi” and “Spiderman 3”—third installments of franchises that were originally welcomed enthusiastically but, as time passed, came to be viewed even by fans as disappointments.

ARTHUR NEWMAN

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The main characters in “Arthur Newman” want to change their identities, and they’re played by two excellent actors, Colin Firth and Emily Blunt. But this debut feature by Dante Ariola, a director of music videos who apparently wants to prove that he can eschew the energetic conventions of that form, makes you wish that Firth and Blunt had changed scripts instead.

Firth plays Wallace Avery, a sad-sack middle-management fellow tired of his life and despised by his teenage son (Lucas Hedges), who lives with his dismissive ex-wife. It’s no wonder that Wallace should seek to escape his miserable existence. So after securing a fake ID in the name of Arthur Newman from a forger (the venerable M. Emmet Walsh in a mere cameo), buying a new vehicle and somehow accumulating a bagful of cash, Avery fakes his drowning in a beach accident—a ploy reminiscent of “The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin,” though there it was played for dark humor.

But in Becky Johnston’s script it’s taken very seriously, and presently Wallace—er, Arthur—is on the road. But being a good guy, he almost immediately rescues a damsel in distress—one Michaela, or “Mike” Fitzgerald (Blunt), whom he takes to the hospital when he finds her in a bad state and then accepts as a passenger. It isn’t long before she discovers his imposture—though it takes him a lot longer to recognize that she’s using the name of her twin sister, who’s ensconced in a mental institution somewhere.

Nor does it take long for Arthur to spill the beans about his disappointing past. He was once a promising golfer, who choked on his first pro tour and never recovered. Now, he tells her, he’s off to Indiana, where a fellow he helped with his swing—and told he was a pro—has offered him a job on the links of his hotel.

Along the way Mike induces Arthur to join her in a curious game, breaking into the houses of couples while they’re away and adopting their identities, wearing the clothes they find there and pretending to be the owners. There’s the chance that despite the age difference they’ll stumble into a real romance—though Johnston and Ariola seem determined to keep matters relatively chaste, one montage apart. (After all, Arthur has previously chastised a motel clerk for having a television tuned to pornography where any customer could see it.)

Arthur and Mike travel a lot in the course of the movie, but the filmmakers apparently thought the story needed some contrasting element, so they periodically cut back to Avery’s son, his mother, and Wallace’s concerned girlfriend Mina (Anne Heche), with whom the boy begins to develop a fragile bond. These scenes frankly seem extraneous, though they’re presumably meant to suggest that Avery’s life wasn’t quite so empty after all. And there are plenty of references to golf, a motif that may be intended to suggest one should keep swinging even if the ball doesn’t always go into the hole—one gets not just second, but third and fourth chances.

Or maybe not. The problem with “Arthur Newman” is that the characters—both the real ones and the personalities they assume—never seem authentic. That’s why the film, despite its fine cast and technical quality—Edward Grau’s expert widescreen cinematography, Christopher Glass’s able production design and Nick Urata’s affecting score—doesn’t resonate emotionally, coming across as an artificial exercise about people who are synthetic in more ways than one.