Thursday, August 14, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Tropic Thunder

Starring: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan
Director: Ben Stiller
Release Date: August 13, 2008
Running Time: 107 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: DreamWorks Pictures

This country loves its parody, doesn’t it? The National Lampoon brand made a career out of it, Saturday Night Live is in its 34th season and late night talk shows, a staple of which is poking fun at current events, have been around for over half a century. As much as people would sometimes like to turn their nose up and scoff at the audacity of the envelope being pushed, the market has been thriving almost as long as the medium has existed. So it always baffles me when these rights activists get their draws in a bunch over something that, even in the wildest stretches of imagination, were never meant to be taken seriously.

Tropic Thunder is a Hollywood movie making fun of Hollywood making movies. On the set of “the most expensive war movie ever made”, first-time director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) can’t pull his lead actors from their pools of self-absorption, costs are spiraling out of control and the studio threatens to shut down production for good. He decides that he will set the actors loose in the jungles of Southeast Asia (and into the path of some real local mercenaries) to find their way back. All while they think they are still filming their Vietnam movie. The story itself isn’t terribly original or complicated – it tastes almost exactly like a dish I had years ago called Three Amigos – but the point of the movie isn’t in the premise, which only exists to drive the story, it is in the parody.

Tropic Thunder is full of characters riddled with clich√© and satire, but that is exactly the point. Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is the highest paid action star in the world until his attempt to turn in a serious performance is met with collective disdain and his career plummets. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is a leading comedic actor known for his one-note, multi-wardrobed performances, who has fallen into the well of drug addiction. Kirk Lazurus (Robert Downey Jr.) plays – stay with me – an Australian method actor with multiple Academy Awards to his credit who, in the interest of his craft, undergoes a skin pigmentation procedure to make him appear African American so he can play the black lead in the movie. There are a big handful of smaller and cameo appearances that are mostly perfect – especially one in particular that you will know as soon as you see it. – but the movie will probably be remembered for Robert Downey Jr.’s near blackface performance. Watching a real black man try to argue with a fake black man about his fake blackness is funny by itself but realizing that neither of them gets the joke not only doesn’t get old, it’s priceless.

Hollywood has been making fun of itself for years; it just hasn’t been done this well, or this funny, in awhile. It is not difficult to connect the dots between the characters and the subjects of their prodding. And that is exactly what makes it funny. Most of these jokes are ones we make to our movie watching friends like we are some kind of experts on the subject. Like that guy at the office that everyone secretly makes fun of behind his back for having a mullet and a jean jacket until that one day when he says, “No shit, I have a mullet. Wanna go for a ride in my Camero and listen to Billy Squire?” Knowing that Hollywood gets the joke too makes it that much more hilarious. If this movie had been made even ten years ago it probably wouldn’t strike the same tone it does today. We’d all still get the satire in theory but our exposure to the process of filmmaking, thanks to the internet and celebrity gossip sites and TV shows, makes us as an audience are more tuned in to the behind the scenes shenanigans and the jokes cut deeper and are funnier because of it.

What makes Tropic Thunder the funniest movie of the summer is that everything they are making fun of is so over the top and done with just the right amount of self-awareness to realize, and further satirize how ridiculous it is.

To anyone who still doesn’t get the joke, lighten up, it’s only a movie.

And there’s the rub.

*** ½ out of ****

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

DVD REVIEW: Smart People

Starring: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ellen Page, Thomas Haden Church
Director: Noam Murro
DVD Release Date: August 12, 2008
Running Time: 95 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: Miramax Films

I will preface this review with an admission of guilt that I am more than happy to announce as loud as it will take for anyone to hear it: I can’t stand Ellen Page. In my humble opinion Juno was just alright and my distaste for the movie rests solely on the shoulders of its star. I found myself defending my position during the films release more than I felt necessary and the singular argument that came from the other camp was that if I like her in Hard Candy (I did) and hated her in Juno, then I must have disliked the character Juno more than the person acting as her. That wouldn’t be a bad argument if it weren’t completely wrong. On the timeline of this longstanding debate, Smart People may have dealt the death blow for the opposing side. But let me back up just a touch.

As a film critic, I would like to think I am subjective enough not to let a singular performance ruin an otherwise decent movie. It hasn’t always held true (see: Juno), but I was bound and determined not to let it happen here. In other words, I went into it with an open mind. I am proud to say that I did not find Smart People to be a bad movie because of Ellen Page. No, this time it was a group effort.

Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a literature professor at a local college. Not only can his students, peers and family not stand him, he seems to almost prefer it that way. He blames it on the fact that he is a lost soul since his wife passed away, but hearing that past students felt the same way suggests that he has always been a miserable curmudgeon and only now has a comfortable excuse. His daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) seems to share his flair for the dramatic. A member of the Young Republicans, shooting for the perfect SAT score with no friends or life outside of the walls of misery the family seems to be insulated in, she follows daddy’s path in lockstep. A series of events land Lawrence in the hospital in the care of Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) and in the compromising position of relying on his adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) for help. Upon his discharge, he fumbles his way into a date with the Dr. Hartigan. Then screws it up. Then inexplicably gets another date. Then screws it up again. And so on. The whole movie revolves around the central fact that not one of its characters can function in or navigate their way through any relationship, romantic or otherwise, and beyond the flighty (adopted) brother Chuck, everyone in the movie is a miserable wreck. I take that back; Chuck is a mess too, but he seems to be the only one trying to outrun the pack. I have no problem peering into a snow globe of the unfortunate. Seeing people climb out of a well despair, of their design or not, is the basis of a lot of good movies. But when people are there of their own volition coupled with a stubborn refusal for change, it is difficult to generate any sympathy - especially when the majority of the dialogue is reserved for spelling out their level of discontent.

Beyond the story itself, the actors are all guilty of thinking everyone will fall for it without questioning anything. Every interaction in the movie is forced. Sarah Jessica Parker and Dennis Quaid have a laughable lack of chemistry that may have fit the story better if it weren’t so overdone. Ellen Page could have done herself a favor and not followed Juno up with a character that is basically a carbon copy; albeit a few years more cynical. The only ray of hope is Thomas Haden Church and even he is reduced to a one-note, zany slob relative that is more obvious than it is refreshing. The story is clunky, the characters are smug and self-absorbed and the acting is so pretentious and whiney that I just can’t get passed the fact that they are trying too hard to make this movie something it is obviously not.

Margaret Thatcher once said, “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't.” These characters obviously didn’t get that message. I just wish there would have at least been a scene where someone took them all out back and gave them something to cry about.

And there’s the rub.

* ½ out of ****

Friday, August 8, 2008

Review: The Midnight Meat Train

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Leslie Bibb, Vinnie Jones, Brooke Shields
Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Release Date: August 1, 2008
Running Time: 111 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: Lionsgate Films

Describing the instability in my affection for horror movies goes beyond pointing out the obvious. I like the classics and I went through my “slasher phase” in the eighties, but I have no time for the new school idea of horror movies. I have the Saw’s and Hostel’s of the world to thank for that. And don’t even get me started on Asian remakes. But this love of ours for the moving picture is cyclical enough that, like anything else, if you wait it out, something will come along to restore our faith. The Midnight Meat Train is that movie.

Based on a short story by Clive Barker (I haven’t read it), The Midnight Meat Train has a pretty simple premise. Leon Kauffman (Bradley Cooper) is a photographer struggling to hit it big. His work focuses mainly on inhabitants of the city in their element at night. When Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields), the head of a prominent art gallery challenges him to dig deeper and find the darker side of his subjects, he does exactly that. On a shoot one night he stops a woman from being attacked by a group of men but ends up with some extraordinary pictures from the ordeal. The paper the next morning tells a different story. The next night he sees a man he thinks may have been involved and begins following him. It turns out, that man known only as Mahogany (a perfectly used Vinnie Jones), is a serial killer who literally butchers late night passengers on the subway. What starts out as a chance meeting turns into an obsession for Leon as he continues to try and prove his own conspiracy theory to his wife Maya (Leslie Bibbs) and to a certain degree, himself.

Vinnie Jones may be the perfect villain for this movie but the real star performance is director Ryuhei Kitamura, the critically acclaimed Japanese director making his American debut. Do not allow yourself the disservice of dismissing the movie as a vanity project full of style and short on substance. The story may be pretty straightforward but the direction is anything but. Kitamura proves that what makes great Asian horror so great is the exact ingredient missing from most American submissions: mood and tension. The dimly lit, almost nightmarish cinematography would be enough to surpass the majority of horror movie wannabes in and of itself, but the camera work adds much depth to the movie. The CG is abundant but done in a way that doesn’t draw attention to itself. During certain sequences the camera acts as a voyeur, working just ahead of the action enough that you want to actually lean over in hopes of seeing everything before it all catches up to itself.

When it’s all said and done, The Midnight Meat Train is hardly perfect. The title is obvious, either brilliantly or embarrassingly, I’m still not sure which. There were a few elements that were either better explained in the original story (I’m told most of them are) or not at all, and the ending is just this side of bat-shit crazy – but it all worked on the level that you would expect from a good horror movie. It is dark and bleak and gory when it needs to be without being over the top. The good news is The Midnight Meat Train is the cream of this year’s horror movie crop. The bad news is that hardly anyone will get to see it, at least in theatres.

The long and short is that The Midnight Meat Train was given the green light by the former head of Lionsgate. You remember, that studio that came into prominence and financial success with the Saw and Hostel franchises? It seems that they want to run with the big dogs so they brought in new management and scrapped all the pending projects so they can become the kind of studio that puts out schmaltzy drivel for the masses. In other words, crap that nobody likes that inexplicably makes loads of cash. The Midnight Meat Train was deemed too dark and bleak to live up to their new model of quality control so the wide release was scrapped in lieu of a 100 theatre release in the secondary market to make way for a forthcoming DVD release. The shame in that, beyond biting the hand that fed them, is that that just because they didn’t know how to market it doesn’t make it a bad movie or one that wouldn’t make money. I guess my message to Lionsgate is that horror fans are a loyal bunch and they will seek out movies like this – they crave them. Hell, they’ll see almost everything that is released by virtue of diminished supply alone regardless of how stupid it looks or ends up being as a finished product.

But I guess you already knew that, didn’t you?

And there’s the rub.

* * * out of * * * *

Friday, August 1, 2008

Review: Step Brothers

Starring: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly
Director: Adam McKay
Release Date: July 25, 2008
Running Time: 95 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: Columbia Pictures

Like Wedding Crashers, Knocked Up and The 40-Year Old Virgin before it, Step Brothers is the latest in the trend of comedies where title alone sells you on the movie. All you needed to know was that Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly are adults who become step brothers after their parents get married. Your level of expectation is your own problem, but the title and cast told you whether or not you wanted to see this movie.

Me? I was sold. I like Will Ferrell. I agree that he is teetering on shark jumping territory as of late (I wrote in my review for Semi-Pro that his act was growing stale), but he has done enough quality work that as a collective group, the good outweighs the bad by a landslide. So I guess I should say that I still like Will Ferrell. But it is increasingly coming from a place of loyal reminiscence than active appreciation.

Step Brothers really is nothing more than I already described. Brannen Huff (Ferrell) is 39 years old, rarely employed and still lives with his mother Nancy (Mary Steenburgen). Dale Doback (Reilly) is equally fated and lives with his fater Robert (Richard Jenkins). Robert and Nancy meet on a whim, get married, and move in together. As the “boys” are forced to live together and interact, their aggravated laziness threatens the very foundation of the new family. The impact the boys’ actions have on the parents goes down a path of uninspired obviousness as they go back and forth between being friends and enemies.

For as talented an actor as John C. Reilly has been known to be, he possesses that rare quality of being able to balance his dramatic and comedic roles. His willingness not to take himself to seriously is the perfect volley to Ferrell’s serve. They are pretty evenly matched in the comedic arena when they are together. But while Ferrell tries his best to recapture some of the boyish naivet√© that made Elf so successful, it doesn’t quite fit here because deep down the movie is just a little too mean spirited to make it work. Not that it is particularly a bad thing. In a movie as implausible and unbelievable as this, who am I to squawk at character development and dramatic range because let’s face it – Step Brothers isn’t that kind of movie.

No, Step Brothers is of the same brand of one-upmanship that all R-rated comedies have (d)evolved into in the last ten years. Ever since that kid that no one had ever heard of stuck his dingy in an apple pie and reinvented the genre, everyone to come after has been chasing the ace. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t always bad, but we’ve been so desensitized that the next movie has to outdo the last one or we almost wont even pay attention.

So did I like it or not? It has its moments, but in between them are forced gags beyond what you already knew the movie was about. I’d say it is better than Semi-Pro and not as good as Anchorman. So that doesn’t really say much. I guess all you need to know was that Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly play adults who become step brothers after their parents get married. Your level of expectation is your own problem, but the title and cast should have already told you whether or not you wanted to see this movie.

And there’s the rub.

* * ½ out of * * * *