Monday, February 23, 2009

Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder is a Hollywood movie in pretty much every sense of the word. It's made by Hollywood about Hollywood, and pretty much every single actor in Hollywood is either in it or is made fun of in it (sometimes both).

It's a parody movie and a parody of a movie. It stars actors whose characters are the sort of actors who do things the way the actors who portray the characters would do things. If you look at it the right way, TT is a bit like that M.C. Escher painting with all the stairwells leading everywhere and nowhere at once.

Not that it's even a bit confusing. Tropic Thunder tells a story that's been told many times before: The story of performers being forced to really do the thing they only pretend to do. (See, for example, Three Amigos or A Bug's Life.) In this case, the performers are actors in a war movie who then must become reasonable facsimiles of real soldiers in order to save one of their own.

The characters in the film are types, absolutely, but they're types with such readily recalled real-life analogues that they seem entirely real. Ben Stiller (who also directed) is Tugg Speedman, a once bankable action star who is seeing his clout plummeting (Stephen Seagal? Tom Cruise?). Robert Downey Jr. is Kirk Lazarus, an Australian actor known for his method acting and for his multiple Oscar wins (some combination of Russel Crowe and Daniel-Day Lewis?). Jack Black is the beloved and belittled (and drug-addicted) star of films such as Fatties: Fart 2--in which he plays every character in a fat and flatulent family (not even a veiled reference to Eddie Murphy). These three are joined by Brandon T. Jackson as Alpa Chino--a rapper most known for hawking a soft drink called "Booty Sweat"--and Jay Baruchel as Kevin Sandusky, the first-time actor who happens to be the only one doing things as the director intends.

The plot gets legs when the director, Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), gets reamed out by producer Les Grossman (Tom Cruise in a lauded cameo) for blowing several million dollars on an expensive, explosive shot in which none of the actors were doing what they needed to do. At his wit's end, Cockburn takes the advice of writer and war veteran Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), who tells him that the actors need to experience some real combat in order to be able to properly make this film.

Of course, as is the case with films of this sort, the actors gradually realize that what was once make-believe has become real, and--again, according to the formula--they rise to the occassion.

But, as is the case is in comedies, the plot is only there as delivery vehicle for jokes. And the jokes here do pretty well on average. As with any parody, it occassionally falls into the pattern trailblazed by Family Guy (on the good side) and Not Another Date Disaster Epic Movie (on the evil side): merely substituting reference (and, sometimes, crudeness) for comedy. But Tropic Thunder does deliver some solid comedy, and some of its best work is very referential. Take, for example, Lazarus' speech to Speedman, who is just coming off an ill-advised and much-derided role in which he plays a retarded character called Simple Jack:

Lazarus: Everybody knows you never go full retard.
Speedman: What do you mean?
Lazarus: Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man, look retarded, act retarded, not retarded. Counted toothpicks, cheated cards. Autistic, sho'. Not retarded. You know Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump. Slow, yes. Retarded, maybe. Braces on his legs. But he charmed the pants off Nixon and won a ping-pong competition. That ain't retarded. Peter Sellers, "Being There." Infantile, yes. Retarded, no. You went full retard, man. Never go full retard. You don't buy that? Ask Sean Penn, 2001, I Am Sam. Remember? Went full retard, went home empty handed..."

Tropic Thunder
 is the second movie that Ben Stiller has directed, and already some themes are beginning to emerge. He enjoys poking fun at those who are lauded for superficial reasons, despite being a bit empty inside -- yet he also makes those characters his heroes. He loves employing the well-timed cameo (Tom Cruise here, David Bowie in Zoolander). He loves his stupid humor, but he's proven capable of employing it in some smart ways.

And like Zoolander, Tropic Thunder is pretty good. But only pretty good. It delivers enough laughs in enough ways that you don't feel as though your two hours were wasted. But it doesn't offer a character memorable enough or a vision transformative enough to push the film from successful to excellent. Tropic Thunder is a bit more sophisticated than Zoolander, but--in receiving an 8--it still can't crack that double-digit barrier.

Friday, February 20, 2009


It's kinda late in coming, but here are what all the TMBC critics think about what's coming with the Oscars on Sunday night.  Please let us know if you agree or disagree with anything on here.

Best Actor
Dr. Worm: Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler
Particle Man: Frank Langella - Frost/Nixon
Stormy Pinkness: Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler
Wicked Little Critta: Sean Penn - Milk
Your Racist Friend: Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler

Best Actress
Dr. Worm: Kate Winslett - The Reader
Particle Man: Meryl Streep - Doubt
Stormy Pinkness: Anne Hathaway - Rachel Getting Married
Wicked Little Critta: Kate Winslet - The Reader
Your Racist Friend: Meryl Streep - Doubt

Best Supporting Actor
Dr. Worm: Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight
Particle Man: Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight
Stormy Pinkness: Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight
Wicked Little Critta: Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight
Your Racist Friend: Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight

Best Supporting Actress
Dr. Worm: Penelope Cruz - Vicky Christina Barcelona
Particle Man: Amy Adams - Doubt
Stormy Pinkness: Viola Davis - Doubt
Wicked Little Critta: Taraji P. Henson - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Your Racist Friend: Taraji P. Henson - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Best Animated Film
Dr. Worm: WALL-E
Particle Man: WALL-E
Stormy Pinkness: WALL-E
Wicked Little Critta: WALL-E
Your Racist Friend: WALL-E

Best Directing
Dr. Worm: David Fincher - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Particle Man: Danny Boyle - Slumdog Millionaire
Stormy Pinkness: Danny Boyle - Slumdog Millionaire
Wicked Little Critta: Danny Boyle - Slumdog Millionaire
Your Racist Friend: Danny Boyle - Slumdog Millionaire

Best Picture
Dr. Worm: Slumdog Millionaire
Particle Man: Slumdog Millionaire
Stormy Pinkness: Slumdog Millionaire
Wicked Little Critta: Slumdog Millionaire
Your Racist Friend: Slumdog Millionaire

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Wrestler

The dilemma posed in Darren Aronofsky's latest film The Wrestler is an interesting one. We are introduced to Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke), an aging professional wrestler who still performs in old VFW halls and the like, working part-time at a local supermarket in New Jersey, barely living hand-to-mouth. We see his aches and pains, and signs of age very clearly. But he does what he needs to do to do what he does, including using steroids. He hangs out at a local strip joint and is friendly with a stripper known as Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). He lives in the past and is generally happy despite his squalid conditions.....until he suffers a heart attack after a particularly brutal match and is told that he needs to make some changes. Kicking the steroids, fine. But when told that wrestling was "not a good idea", he looks at the cardiologist like he was the stupidest man on the planet. "But Doc......I'm a professional wrestler." Randy attempts to make a go of a "straight" life, and to repair his damaged relationship with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). But can he, or more importantly, does he even want to?
The story of The Wrestler, written by former The Onion Editor-In-Chief(!) Robert Siegel showcases some interesting parallels and paradoxes. The squalor of Randy's life as a professional wrestler, and the satisfaction he gets from it. The violence the wrestlers in the film inflict upon each other in the ring, and the brotherhood they have outside of it. The parallels between Randy and Cassidy, as aging practicioners of "trades" that value flesh and youth above all. The material here is nowhere near as harsh as Aronofsky's signature Requiem For A dream, but it is visceral, and will stay with you. I liked the scene where Randy is at a small fan convention signing, and he looks around the room, regarding some fellow elder statesmen of the sport and the price they falling asleep, one paralyzed from the waste down with a catheter, etc.
But as solid as the story is, this is a performance driven film. Mickey Rourke, enjoying a major comeback as of late, has never been better. He offers a completely believeable, likeable Randy, and makes sure we feel every thumbtack in his back during an "extreme" match, the chest pain he experiences when attempts to jog shortly after his bypass, and the hopelessness when he makes a mistake with somebody....for the last time. He carries this film with ease. If there is any justice in this world, he will receive his Best Actor Oscar next weekend. Evan Rachel Wood also acquits herself nicely as Randy's exasperated, estranged daughter. Some of the scenes she shares with Rourke are much harder to watch than any gore or violence Aronofsky could portray.
While The Wrestler doesn't break much new ground, it is a good story that is well told, and another fine credit for Darren Aronofsky, who is surely a future legend as a director. I give The Wrestler a 16 out of 22 on the 22 scale.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Run Fatboy Run

Run Fatboy Run is not the type of movie you would typically see me reviewing. In reality, the fact that I watched it in the first place surprises even me. The preview turned me off: another movie about an idiot and his idiot ways. Do we really need another one of these?

Apparently, we do.

Was I surprised? A little. Was I impressed? Maybe a smidge. But these are mostly because all I saw from the preview was an unappealing Simon Pegg looking ridiculous as he gets in shape. How much can a person expect from that?

The opening part was actually interesting enough that I thought, “Maybe there’s more to this than I originally thought.” Pegg plays Dennis Doyle, and we first become acquainted with him when he runs away from his girlfriend, Libby (played by a too-attractive Thandie Newton), leaving her at the altar. Pregnant. Fast forward to 5 years later and he’s living by himself in a shabby apartment, not paying his rent on time and not exactly being a shining role model for his son, Jake. He clearly loves Jake and is involved in his life, but Dennis is just terrible at following through on things.

Even though Dennis left Libby at the worst possible time, he still cares for her and has high hopes of them getting back together. She deals with him politely enough, only wanting to make sure Jake has a relationship with his father. Eventually she finds a new man, Whit, an American businessman who’s in excellent shape and does something that Dennis doesn’t: finish things. Of course this guy pisses Dennis off, and he feels like he has to compete with Whit for Libby as well as Jake.

In his lame, desperate attempts to convince Libby that he’s better than Whit, Dennis learns that Whit runs marathons. In fact, he’s running in one coming up in London. What better way to compete with this guy? What better way to gain admiration from his son and his friends, and prove to Libby that he really IS a finisher?

And so, with three weeks to train (I will say, there were some decent humorous moments here) and with a little help from his friends, Dennis learns some discipline and stamina. He starts to connect with some of the people around him in a new way as he gains their support. Through the process, he learns more about himself and what he can offer. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but if you’ve ever seen a movie before, you probably won’t be too surprised. ;)

Run Fatboy Run is directed by David Schwimmer in what I believe is his first film attempt. I’ll be honest: it’s not very promising as a first shot at directing. To his credit, Schwimmer recognizes good acting and directs his characters pretty well. But just because Simon Pegg, Thandie Newton and Hank Azaria can act doesn’t make this film worth watching.

Even though Run Fatboy Run is full of stupid gags, it still has a lot of heart. I can get behind that, definitely. And Simon Pegg is able to portray his characters in such a unique, complete way, which I absolutely admire. However, none of these things were enough to save it for me. The comedic moments were so base and I barely got a smile out of most of them. And the plot unfolds in such a way that I could predict almost exactly what was going to happen throughout the entire thing. In the end, I really felt I got very little out of the experience. There was an abundance of predictability, corny-ness, and eye-rolling moments. For me, none of these things really make for a very enjoyable movie-watching experience.

Rating: 1

Run Fatboy Run fell flat for me. A good lesson, it had some heartfelt moments that were sprinkled heavily with run-of-the-mill slapstick humor. As a result, the moments didn’t successfully complete their purpose. The cast saved it to a degree (in keeping it from being terribly dull) but I didn’t feel particularly moved or entertained. It was so pre-packaged, trite and cliché that I couldn’t invest myself at all, I just kept looking for the next predictable ingredient in the plot recipe.

Though I’m overflowing with apathy about it, I have to say that the few moments I laughed and the sweetness of it all pushed it over into the positives. While I would say that I didn’t really like it, I’d have to admit that I’d rather watch it than stare at a blank television screen. Most of the time.