Tropic Thunder


Tropic Thunder

Stiller and Downey share a tender moment in Tropic Thunder.

(2008) Comedy (DreamWorks) Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan, Tom Cruise, Jay Baruchel, Bill Hader, Matthew McConaughey, Danny McBride, Brandon Jackson, Matt Levin, Reggie Lee.  Directed by Ben Stiller

Hollywood is indeed a dream factory, a place in which fantasies are packaged and sold. In making these fantasies however, sometimes real life becomes blurred and the line between the two disappears completely.

Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is an action star who yearned to branch out and do serious drama, but his one attempt (“Simple Jack”) ended up in disaster, with Tugg playing a mentally challenged farmer who thought he could communicate with animals. It was a naked Oscar play and everyone knew it and now Tugg’s career is in the dumpster. He’s making a big-budget star-studded war film to do a little career resuscitation.

The movie he’s doing is based on the memoirs of a Vietnam vet named Four Leaf Tayback (Nolte), a tough as nails soldier who lost limbs in the war. Joining Tugg in the cast is Kirk Lazarus (Downey), a five-time Oscar winner and method actor who gets so into the role he has his skin surgically dyed so he is able to convincingly play a black Sergeant. Comedian Jeff Portnoy (Black) has made a career out of fart jokes and self-indulgence. A heroin addict, he is on the raggedy edge of falling apart.

This is enough to give any director cardiac arrest, and director Damien Cockburn (Coogan) is close to it himself. The massive budget is spiraling out of control, with the prima donna actors causing numerous delays while technical issues drive the production further into the red and behind schedule. The studio head, Les Grossman (Cruise) is placing enough pressure on Cockburn to make the Dali Lama pick up an AK-47 and start firing randomly.

So, taking a cue from the crusty Tayback, Cockburn decides to send the cast into the real jungle, with cameras set up in various places. No trailers, no personal assistants, no Blackberries – just acting in the jungle. Speedman is gung ho for the idea, even after things begin to go south. As in, they fall afoul of an actual crew of drug runners who are shooting at them with real bullets. The actors, not knowing any better, are merely waiting for someone to yell “cut”!

This is a nice little satire on Hollywood and its denizens, from the unctuous agent (McConaughey) to the harried studio assistant (Hader). Stiller turns this into a cross between Airplane and Rambo with a number of homages in between. In fact there are so many you have to keep a sharp eye open to catch them all.

With a cast like this you’d expect there to be some hilarity but very often in these kind of all-star romps it descends into a series of bits that ultimately don’t make much of a cohesive whole. That’s not the problem here. This isn’t a bunch of stars doing their thing – it’s a movie in which everyone contributes their bit, from Jackson as rapper Alpa Chino who as the only actor who is genuinely of African descent is annoyed at the antics of Lazarus who in his method haze genuinely believes he’s black to McBride as an explosives expert who is in above his head.

Downey in fact proves to be a terrific comic actor who isn’t above poking fun at himself. Downey is himself a method actor and stays in character onscreen and off until, as Lazarus puts it, the DVD commentary is done. Stiller bulked up to play the somewhat clueless Speedman. It’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel but still his character has a bit of Hollywood diva in it to make it more interesting than the average action star send-up.

Black is actually a little bit toned down here, although he has moments in which he indulges his usual manic persona a little bit. I think it works even in the context of Portnoy the heroin addict, although towards the end of the movie the character is wearing a bit thin on me.

For my money it is Cruise who makes the biggest impact here, completely going out on a limb as the foul-mouthed bastard of a studio head. His performance was so indelible that plans are afoot to make a movie based on his character when Cruise finishes his next film. There are those who think that Cruise restored a lot of bad karma to the good side with his performance here. I’m not such a big believer in that kind of thing, but I do believe you’ll remember Cruise long after the movie’s over.

There are times that the movie tries a bit too hard to be funny and becomes rather silly instead (which is usually what happens when you try too hard to be funny) but fortunately that doesn’t happen often enough to be of consequence. As comedies go, this one should be near the top of your list when searching the DVD racks for something funny to watch.

WHY RENT THIS: A terrific cast that works well together to make a great ensemble film, rather than a bunch of bits strung together. Cruise is classic as the foul-mouthed studio mogul.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Descends into silliness upon occasion.  

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of bad words, a lot of sexual innuendo, a bit of drug usage and a whole mess o’ violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to Stiller, Jack Black filmed most of the movie with bruised ribs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an excellent Mockumentary on the making of the film that is supposedly being made with a nod to Heart of Darkness and Werner Herzog. There’s a bit of raw footage showing how the actor’s improvised on set plus a piece from the MTV Movie Awards showing how a trio of the leads tried to promote the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $188.1M on a $92M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Everything Must Go

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Dylan Dog: Dead of Night


Dylan Dog: Dead of Night

A corpse is a corpse of course of course...

(2010) Horror Comedy (Omni/Freestyle) Brandon Routh, Sam Huntington, Peter Stormare, Taye Diggs, Anita Briem, Kurt Angle, Brian Steele, Kimberly Whalen, Randal Reeder, Courtney J. Clark, Kent Jude Bernard, Marco St. John. Directed by Kevin Munroe

Being an investigator for cases involving the living is hard enough. Being one for cases involving the undead…well, now, that’s durn near impossible.

A private eye with the unlikely name of Dylan Dog (Routh) is one such investigator, one who is designated by the non-breathing community to be an independent and impartial arbitrator of disputes, keeping the peace between vampire, werewolf and zombie alike. However, he has retired from that position, opting instead for chasing infidelities in tawdry hotel rooms while his assistant Marcus (Huntington) yearns for better cases that might make him a partner in the agency.

One such comes along when Elizabeth (Briem) hires Dylan to find out what killed her father. When he discovers it might be a werewolf, he doesn’t want to take the case but when Marcus is killed by a zombie and it looks like the deaths might be related, Dylan decides to take the case after all.

Along the way he runs across an ambitious vampire club owner named Vargas (Diggs) who has plans of ruling the entire supernatural community after using Dylan as a pawn to take out his rivals in the vampire elite; Gabriel (Stormare), an old werewolf friend who doesn’t take kindly to Dylan’s investigations; his son Wolfgang (Angle) who has a bit of a temper and a nasty streak for breathers and vampires (breathers is the creature term for us humans) and a zombie supermarket for parts. Oh, and about Marcus – he doesn’t stay dead for long.

The whole thing turns out to be about a supernatural artifact that if used could bring about the end of the world, yadda yadda yadda. The sad fact is that we’ve kind of heard this tune before. It’s dressed up nicely however, with some decent creature effects and some underlit shots of New Orleans (even the scenes shot during the day seem dark somehow) that showcase the gothic side of that city to nice effect.

Routh is a nice enough lead, although he is far from the hard-bitten film noir detective the role needs. I might have cast someone along the lines of Bruce Willis or not being able to afford him, someone rumpled like Paul Giamatti or Jack Coleman, the Horn-Rimmed Glasses man from “Heroes.” A little more world-weariness might have amped up the noir quotient somewhat, and Routh is more of a Superman type than a Sam Spade type.

Huntington plays a very similar role to the one he plays in the excellent SyFy Network series “Being Human,” except there he’s a neurotic werewolf and here he’s a neurotic zombie. Stormare and Diggs are solid performers who don’t disappoint, with Diggs getting a slight edge for his silky smooth megalomaniac role. Angle, the professional wrestler, shows some promise in his part as the tempramental lycanthrope.

The movie is based on an Italian comic book that is immensely popular in Europe but has made little impact here. The original source material uses horror to examine social issues and contemporary morality whereas this is more of a straight horror spoof, something which infuriated Italian critics when the movie was released in Italy earlier this year. Not being as familiar with the comic, I didn’t have so much of an issue with that (although I admit it probably would have made for a better movie) but my problem is that the story tended to be a little scatter-brained, with characters saying and doing things that didn’t always make sense within their character. Why would someone, for example, dedicated to hunting down and killing monsters want to create a more powerful monster in their place? It’s all apart of the “smart people doing stupid things” syndrome that plagues Hollywood.

Quite frankly, this isn’t as terrible as you’ve probably heard it was (if you’ve heard anything at all) but it isn’t very good either. There are some moments that sparkle here (as when Dylan goads a werewolf by quipping “You fight like a vampire”) but there aren’t enough of them to fully recommend this. Still, any movie that brings the dark side of New Orleans to the screen scores big points in my book.

REASONS TO GO: Nice creature effects and Routh is a decent lead.

REASONS TO STAY: Humor tended to fall flat and story took several head-scratching turns.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some creepy creatures, a goodly bit of horror violence, a few drug and sex references and a smidgeon of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Routh and Huntington previously worked together on Superman Returns.

HOME OR THEATER: Probably won’t be in theaters long enough for you to catch on the big screen but at home is just dandy.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

TOMORROW: Eragon

Your Highness


Your Highness

As proof of the disintegration of etiquette, an epidemic of pointing has broken out in Hollywood.

(2011) Fantasy Comedy (Universal) Danny McBride, Natalie Portman, James Franco, Zooey Deschanel, Justin Theroux, Charles Dance, Toby Jones, Damian Lewis, Simon Farnaby, Deobia Oparei, B.J. Hogg, Charles Shaughnessy. Directed by David Gordon Green

Have you ever wondered what The Hangover would be like set in a world of Dungeons and Dragons? Wonder no more.

In the Kingdom of Mourn, King Tallious (Dance) rules wisely with two sons – the heir apparent, Prince Fabious (Franco) who lives to go on quests, is good and noble and pure, and is loved by the people as a handsome and model prince. His brother Thadeous (McBride) not so much – he’s overbearing, selfish, whiny and more interested in chasing women, weed and drink than dragons.

Having botched an alliance with the High Dwarves, he returns home to find his brother Fabious returning in triumph, having slain a Cyclops and bringing home a bride for good measure, the lovely Bella Donna (Deschanel) – putting a big crimp into the plans of the evil wizard Leezar (Theroux). Fabious, being Fabious, asks his jealous brother to be the best man at the wedding. Thadeous, being Thadeous, blows it off to get wasted and chase sheep.

A good thing too, or else he would have been caught when the evil wizard Leezar showed up at the wedding to steal back Bella Donna and inform all assembled that he intends to use the virginal Bella Donna as his bride in a ritual that will give birth to a dragon and give Leezar control of the entire world.

Naturally that’s not a good idea, and Fabious wants to go rescue his bride understandably but there’s no way he can go it alone. The King decides that Thadeous should accompany his brother who he is understandably reluctant, but when the King threatens to banish him if he doesn’t, well, Thadeous really has no choice.

Along the way there’ll be vicious amazons, perverted amphibian wizards, a five headed hydra and Isabel (Portman), a warrior who might be better than even Fabious who has her own grudge against Leezar and is not to be trusted by those who might get in her way.

From the team that essentially brought you Pineapple Express comes this send-up of fantasy films ranging from 80s B-movies like The Sword and the Sorcerer to more modern entries like the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is not quite as bad as the guys that brought you Vampires Suck and their ilk, but it isn’t very good either.

Portman just won an Oscar and Deschanel is one of my very favorite actresses but they don’t really have much to do but act as adornments for the guys. Franco was nominated for an Oscar but here he really is kind of personality-challenged. In his defense, it’s hard to do a character that’s so perfect without making him seem bland, but still he doesn’t really have much spice to him at all and he could have used a little.

McBride has developed a niche for himself going back to The Foot Fist Way and through movies like the aforementioned Pineapple Express and Land of the Lost which this is roughly analogous to in terms of quality. He plays the somewhat arrogant and stupid selfish guy in most of his movies and to his credit he does that role well. Hopefully one of these days we’ll see him stretch a little.

This is not that movie – even though he’s supposed to be somewhat romantic (all the chicks dig him, after all – many of them topless) he’s no romantic lead and in a sense, that’s one of the more funny aspects of the film.

The effects are decent enough although chintzy in places (and I think that was done on purpose) with plenty of lights and lightning bolts to light up the screen, as well as a minotaur penis (don’t ask) to darken it.

The problem is that while there are some very funny moments, there aren’t really enough of them. Repetition is only funny in small doses guys and some things are rammed down our throats until they are no longer funny even retroactively to the first part. Dropping F bombs in a medieval setting may be big yucks for the stoner crowd but even they will stop laughing by the fortieth or fiftieth time.

Now I have nothing against stoner humor or the like, even though I’m not able to partake (I’m allergic) but I’ve heard from friends who do that even they found it a bit too much. Give me a Cheech and Chong movie any day.

REASONS TO GO: Some fair special effects. A few good laughs here and there.

REASONS TO STAY: An over-reliance on shtick. Not enough funny moments for a comedy. Too much oafishness and too many “Thines” and “Mines.”

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of crude humor, some violence, a bit of foul language, plenty of drug use, some nudity here and there and a heavy dose of sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although there was a script, director David Gordon Green noted that nearly all of the dialogue was improvised; only a plot outline and written notes were used on set.

HOME OR THEATER: Despite everything, the scale and the special effects are big screen-worthy

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The House Bunny

Zombieland


Who wants the last ticket to the George A. Romero film festival?

Who wants the last ticket to the George A. Romero film festival?

(Columbia) Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Bill Murray, Amber Heard, Derek Graf, Mike White, April Rich, Jacob C. Akins, Joan Schuermeyer, Shaun Lynch, Lynn McArthur, Michelle Sebek. Directed by Ruben Fleischer

When zombies take over the world, the remaining humans will have to adapt to not being the dominant species on the planet anymore. They will have to be ruthless, tough and pitiless. In other words, they’ll have to become assholes.

The movie is narrated by Columbus (Eisenberg), a somewhat timid nebbish attending the University of Texas in Austin who is trying to return home to Ohio to see if his parents are all right – not so much out of concern but out of curiosity since, as he repeatedly tells us during the movie, he and his parents aren’t close.

An early encounter with a comely neighbor (Heard) who becomes zombiefied leads him to develop a series of rules for survival. I won’t go over all of them but they are accompanied by graphical representations that become part of the action in amusing ways. He meets up with a redneck zombie asskicker who calls himself Tallahassee (Harrelson) because he doesn’t want to get attached to anybody by learning their real names, so he assigns everyone – including himself – a designation based on their eventual destination.

Tallahassee has several quirks, most notable of which is his single-minded obsession with Twinkies. He looks for the golden snack cakes everywhere he can, without success. On one such venture into a grocery store, they meet Wichita (Stone) and her little sister Little Rock (Breslin) who turn out to be con artists, stealing their firearms and their wheels.

After finding a hummer loaded up with big guns (“Thank God for rednecks” exclaims Tallahassee), they go out in search of the girls who robbed them and find them – only to get duped again. However, this time the girls allow the boys to come along. They’re headed to Pacific Playland, an amusement park just outside of Los Angeles which is reportedly zombie-free. Wichita confesses that she knows it’s unlikely but she wants to give her sister a chance at being a child one last time.

They crash at the mansion of Bill Murray only to find the great comedian fully human and in residence. He is dressed and made up to look like a zombie, mainly so he could go out and play golf. Columbus is starting to fall for Wichita, but both are wary of getting close to anyone in a world where death is around every corner.

This is the kind of movie that is going to achieve cult status relatively easily. It’s full of sight gags and plenty of gore. Better still, it has a sense of its own hipness and is chock full of easily memorable lines that teenagers across the country are going to be crowing back and forth to one another, either in person on school grounds or on social networking sites. I wonder how many “It’s time to nut up or shut up” statuses are going to be seen in the next couple of weeks? I’m sure some dweeb somewhere is counting.

Eisenberg plays as a kind of Michael Cera lite throughout although he does break away from that persona every now and again. However, it’s Woody Harrelson who steals the movie as the redneck with the big time Twinkie Jones. He’s amusing and his timing is dead on (we sometimes forget that he got his start on “Cheers”). He has more depth to him than any of the other characters and being the veteran actor he is, uses every bit of it to flesh out his role (pun intended).

Unfortunately, the girls are little more than afterthoughts, particularly Breslin who is criminally underutilized. They have almost nothing compelling about them and quite frankly, the movie could very easily have done without them. Basically Wichita is in the movie to belabor the point that Columbus is a virgin (and how often will I ever get the opportunity to write lines like that?) and as attractive as Stone is, she never quite captures the attention onscreen as ladies like Megan Fox have been lately.

My son saw an early screening of this movie and proclaimed it as the funniest movie of the year. I was a bit skeptical myself, until I saw a scene where the Jesse Eisenberg character was depicted hunkered down in his apartment on a Friday night, playing Worlds of Warcraft and drinking Mountain Dew Code Red. In other words, pretty much one of Jacob’s Peeps.

This is definitely a movie for rednecks; at the screening we were at there were a couple of loud and obnoxious ones sitting in the row ahead of us. Jethro and Bubba’s commentary was completely unnecessary and further illustrates why Mystery Science Theater 3000 wasn’t recruiting from the Dukes of Hazzard crowd.

The movie is reasonably entertaining and director Fleischer shows a lot of imagination and promise. This was meant to be an American answer to Shaun of the Dead and while it isn’t completely successful at least manages to take some potshots at a few American sacred cows. I was a bit more taken by it than Da Queen was and a bit less in love with it than my son was. It’s decent entertainment and for the most part, as long as you don’t mind gore and poo-poo humor, you won’t walk away from the multiplex feeling you wasted your ten bucks.

REASONS TO GO: Fleischman shows some promise, with clever graphics and plenty of violent things done to the undead. Woody Harrelson takes this movie in hand and shows that while he has been a character actor in recent years, is very capable of carrying a movie on his own. The midnight movie hipness quotient is off the charts.

REASONS TO STAY: The female characters are totally unnecessary and Eisenberg continues to remind me why I find Michael Cera so annoying.  

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of gore, horror violence, foul language and some sexuality; in other words, not for kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tallahassee writes the numeral 3 on the side of all his trucks during the course of the film as a tribute to the late Dale Earnhardt.

HOME OR THEATER: Load up on the pork rinds and Budweisers, settle back in your recliner and be prepared to slow-mo all the parts where the zombies are blowed up real good. Give me a Hell Yeah! No, a Hell Yeah, not a Yeehaw!

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman