'Ironman' is a nice start to blockbuster season

It's beginning to feel a lot like summer and if there's any doubt the first warm weather blockbuster, "Iron Man," just opened. The winter film doldrums are behind us. No more looking for Sarah Marshall. Beginning with the solidly entertaining "Iron Man," get ready for "Indiana Jones," "Hellboy," "Narnia," "Batman" and the "Incredible Hulk." "Spider Man" and "Superman" are on hiatus.

With the exception of "Indy" and "Narnia," these summer features are all drawn from the creative archives of the comic book industry, which, Hollywood has learned, is a deep well.

With "Iron Man," it's likely we're looking at a franchise that will reappear again and again, and fans will stand in long lines wearing T-shirts and baggy shorts, eagerly anticipating the next installment. But then the merger of state-of-the-art computer generated graphics and superheroes make for compelling entertainment. Done well, these films rock. Just ask those inveterate comic book readers who sit down front, cheer at the first frame and clap when the closing credits roll.

No question, as a durable archetype, the superhero is unbeatable. What kid doesn't wish to be magically empowered? Or be delighted to step into a school lavatory stall and emerge with transformative powers? Even Harry Potter, wand in hand, qualifies.

Of course the DC/Marvel narratives are formulaic to be sure: a masked crusader, identify hidden, possessing superhuman abilities, wearing a distinctive costume, often tormented by his or her isolation, and fighting for truth, justice and the American way. Given good writing (even passable writing), it's a winner. And "Iron Man" is no exception.

Robert Downey, who at first blush seemed a questionable choice for "Iron Man," turns in a fine performance. As does a top drawer supporting cast featuring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges and Terrance Howard. The story is standard fare &

Tony Stark (Downey), genius arms merchant, has an epiphany in a desert cave where he is held hostage by a group of generic terrorists, returning to his company having decided to make a contribution to mankind. And so this MIT graduate, ever precocious, transforms himself by creating an imposing shell of high end alloys in the form of Iron Man. It's fun to watch as he toils away in his multimillion dollar workshop creating what will be a suit of iron that will give him the ability to not only fly like an F-14 jet but is fully loaded with sophisticated gear that will permit him to unleash huge amounts of fire power.

There are multiple plot lines woven into the story, some tangential, others central: Stark gradually discovers that his gal Friday, Pepper Potts (Paltrow), is not only capable but attractive; his second in command at Stark Industries, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), is nefarious and lethal; and there are the terrorists who are still taking innocent lives and must be dealt with.

Regarding Stark, there is very little backstory given. But then this likely franchise will have plenty of time to expand the Stark character for waiting audiences who are enamored of this latest offering in the pantheon of iconic superheroes. After all, if it's summer it's time for something wonderful from the creators of that genre called the comic book (which has been with us since 1938). "Iron Man" is a nifty way to begin this blockbuster season.

Smart people

"Smart People" is appealing in so many ways. First it's a character study wherein members of a dysfunctional family, all struggling to stay just below the emotional Plimsoll line, are examined closely, their habits, quirks and idiosyncrasies all fodder for the narrative. The tension in the film, submerged and repressed, emanates largely from the dialogue &

truncated, interrupted, imperfect &

and yet is the central way we come to know each individual. In other words, the story moves close to the marrow of life, for much of life's interactions are not accomplished in complete paragraphs, as is so often the case in Hollywood scripts, but made manifest in heavily edited, halting sentences. Sometimes a mere word or grunt of agreement. Hence, in "Smart People" there is a sense of authenticity and that life is moving forward but with no recognizable arc.

Central to the plot is Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), professor of literature at Carnage Mellon, father, widower, and a man in a deep funk. He still grieves for his wife (how much time has passed since she died is not clear), he's bored with his job, and at odds with his children, students and colleagues. At times his funk seems more like a deep trough of ennui. He is often rude, self-centered, and endlessly convinced that his intelligence is superior to those he encounters, to include members of his own English department. For all of his facility with language, and no matter that he possesses a deep reservoir of academic knowledge, he seems to lack genuine self-understanding or insight into his own circumstances. In other words, really smart people find it just as difficult as the rest of us to sort out their lives without getting lost in personal labyrinths.

His precocious 17-year-old daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), clearly is modeling her life on her father's and uses her intelligence to construct defense mechanisms which allow her to remain isolated from family and peers. In fact, she becomes enamored of Lawrence's adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), an inveterate aging drifter who shows up regularly for money and a place to camp.

Each character in the film is interesting, including a doctor, Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), who treats Lawrence in the ER for a head injury and James, Lawrence's son, a college student who writes brilliant poetry (unbeknownst to his father).

All are connected to one another, yet with such estrangement that it is remarkable that they continue to think of themselves as a family. And yet there is the contradiction. Family is family, perhaps our only refuge, and so regardless of the wounds and lists of grievances, we come together.

No one in this film has a life changing epiphany. No one makes any profound changes. But they each have their moments and it is those moments that make this small indie so wonderful and even compelling. Tangentially, "Smart People" is filled with fine performances from Quaid's existentially troubled scholar to Ellen Page's wonderful portrayal of a sharp-tongued young woman who allows ever so infrequently uncertainty and hurt to cross her face.

Baby Mama

There will be moments in "Baby Mama" when you will smile and even chuckle. Likely, you won't laugh out loud. But then this very slim comedy has few surprises and is based not on characters you would ever encounter in real life but caricatures, meaning exaggerations of people we might meet in real life.

The premise is instantly recognizable. Hot executive, Kate Holbrook (Tina Fey), now 37 years old, feels her biological clock chiming on the half hour. She suffers from chronic selective baby perception: young mothers seemingly everywhere, babes in arms, and here she is, climbing the corporate ladder with a "T-shaped uterus" (this is not a good thing), few male prospects, and her efforts at invitro fertilization a bust. What to do? Find a surrogate with the help of a slick looking outfit that has a bevy of candidates, all of whom have survived deep background checks and whose wombs have been cleared to carry to term a little one.

Kate's surrogate arrives in the person of Angie Ostrowiski (Amy Poehler).

The comic tension is instant. Angie is trashy, has in tow a common-law husband, Carl (Dax Shephard), and is able to get pregnant at the drop of an implanted sperm and egg.

To intensify the differences in education and background, Angie (newly pregnant) shows up at Kate's stylish apartment after an argument with Carl. There relationship is, well, volatile. Suddenly these two very different women are roomies. The living arrangement does allow Kate the opportunity to take control of all of Angie's personal dietary habits, beginning with no more Dr. Peppers, cigarettes and junk food. Plus there are birthing classes, shopping sprees, and childproofing the apartment.

And so begins act two, which is bound up in class warfare. Kate is a bit pretentious and elitist, and Angie is down-to-earth and crude. Both are unable to truly see one another.

Of course, a grudging friendship develops. And things change. Plus there is a surprise which gives the film an interesting new direction.

All in all, "Baby Mama" is an acceptable comedy which will have some legs.

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