Review: The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button

This review contains some minor spoilers.  Proceed with caution

I’ve been a big fan of David Fincher for a while.  I even liked his (long disowned) chapter in the Alien franchise, Alien 3.  I certainly liked it more than Alien Resurrection, despite Joss Whedon’s participation.  I’ve yet to see Fincher’s The Game, but Fight Club, Panic Room, and Zodiac rank among my favourite films.  In fact, I was bewildered that Zodiac received little to no attention when 2007’s awards were being handed out.  Zodiac, aside from being masterfully shot, acted, and paced, was able to make lengthy scenes about the mechanics of handwriting interesting.  It’s his best movie.

And after seeing Benjamin Button, I still feel that way, but Benjamin Button is a more than worthy follow-up.

The story of Benjamin Button is fairly simple, and based (very loosely) on a short story by F. Scott Fitgerald.  Benjamin Button ages in reverse.  He was born a wrinkled, arthtitic, near-blind and deaf, and given mere weeks to live in 1918.  He spends his childhood in a nursing home in New Orleans, growing younger while those around him grow older.  The old adage “Youth is wasted on the young” is oddly inverted, as Benjamin not only goes through his elder years with a child’s curiosity, but he winds up retaining that curiosity until 1985, when he ceases writing letters to his one true love, Daisy (Cate Blanchett); letters that serve as the primary narrative device.

In the hands of a lesser Director and lesser actors, this would come across as painfully sentimental and heavy-handed.  But Fincher didn’t earn his reputation by making epic love stories or melodrama.  He earned it by making gritty thrillers and challenging narratives.  He takes both that aesthetic style (there’s no shortage of both gorgeous and complex shots to be found in Benjamin Button) and the confidence of having tackled works like Fight Club and Zodiac and applies them to a love story that’s less about the couple being together and more about how they got there.

Curiously, Benjamin is by no means the most interesting character.  Obviously, his condition has a built-in depth, but Pitt underplays that if anything.  His dialogue is only slightly less sparse than his narration.  He’s given no big scenes of cursing the heavens for his affliction.  Not even quiet moments of breakdown.  It’s an incredibly understated performance, and wisely so; aside from Blanchett (who’s fantastic as Daisy), the characters Pitt encounters during the movie are nothing short of, well, characters.  The movie is more about the journey than the destination.

The fact that the audience can’t really connect to Brad Pitt (who bears an uncanny resemblence to Robert Redford in many shots, intentionally or otherwise) but can to Cate Blanchett or Julia Ormond appears to undermine the movie at times, but by the end it becomes clear that while it is a journey movie, it’s also a location movie.  While there are scenes in Moscow, the Pacific Ocean, and New York, the movie plays out as if it was all a grand elegy for New Orleans; a subtle tribute to what Hurricane Katrina took away.  Fincher and Roth never overplay this, but the final scene makes this clear.

The movie works because of what it doesn’t do more often that what it does.  The CGI used to age Benjamin as a child is used sparingly, and as impressive as it is, it’s still not 100% seamless.  Similarly, it avoids scenes that are heavy on stated emotion.  Julia Ormond has the most emotionally-charged performance, and it’s appropriately subdued.  She’s not battling grief; she’s been defeated by grief.  But how disconnecting this is may vary from viewer to viewer.  All the same, Fincher deserves credit for making a choice that goes against the grain.  Removing big emotional scenes maintains the film’s consistency, but goes against audience expectations.

Fincher might finally get a Best Director nod for his work in Benjamin Button, and he deserves it.  It’s beautifully shot, incredibly paced, and well acted.  It’s an award-worthy movie as made by a filmmaker who has no real interest in winning awards.  While it doesn’t emotionally connect as strongly as it perhaps should have, it’s still one of the best movies of 2008.

Verdict: B+

Review Quantum of Solace

So let’s get the obvious out of the way:  Daniel Craig is not the James Bond of decades past.  At least not largely.  This is probably ample material for a separate blog entry, but to make a long story short, his is a post-9/11, post-Jack Bauer, post-Jason Bourne Bond.  And as such, much of the excesses have been stripped away, leaving a good deal of room for character development and more intense action.  And as expected, it’s something of a divisive decision; Roger Ebert doesn’t care for it, and he’s far from alone.  Critical consensus for Quantum of Solace has been mixed at best, especially contrasted with the near-universal praise for Casino Royale.

But all the same, Casino Royale was, after Die Another Day, a breath of fresh air.  While Brosnan’s Bond movies were hardly economical spy thrillers, he was able to carve out his own niche as a Bond somewhere between Connery’s swagger and toughness and Roger Moore’s likeable wit.  Gadgets, though pleantiful, were never centre-stage.  At least for his first three movies.  Die Another Day was at least on-par with Roger Moore’s campiest outings, and while I enjoyed it, Bond looked closer to Austin Powers than ever thanks to contemporary spies like Jack Bauer and world events taking a sharp turn to chaos and uncertainty.

Exit Brosnan, enter Daniel Craig.  When Casino Royale gave the series (and the character) a fresh start, Daniel Craig had to both stay true to past incarnations and prove he could keep up with Jason Bourne and the like.  And he had to make the character his own.  And thanks to Martin Campbell’s direction, most agreed he delivered.  Quantum of Solace, Craig’s follow-up, continues in a similar direction, but isn’t quite as well executed.  While it’s by no means a poor addition to the Bond catalog, it does have it’s share of shortcomings.

The storyline is actually not too un-Bondian.  Bond, betrayed by Vesper Lynd, is out for revenge for her death, and as luck would have it, he stumbles upon a conspiracy much larger than his initial scope.  It echoes similar storylines from Connery’s first few outings as Bond, but manages to feel like a revenge tale all the same.

Where it most significantly differs from Casino Royale (and all previous Bond outings) is how economical it is.  This unfortunately works both for and against it.  A number of early action scenes feel too short, and the edits are simply too fast.  This is most prominent in the opening car chase, but the rooftop chase and hotel fight scene both were a little too close to similar scenes in the Bourne series for comfort.  Not necessarily bad things, but still alien to the series, and too quickly paced for my liking.

Similarly economical is the dialogue.  Bond has very little to say, especially since a still-green 007 lacks the confidence and cockiness to drop cheesy one-liners and ridiculous innuendo on a regular basis.  M’s role is expanded, but dialogue is still largely kept to a minimum.

But after the first act, things take a turn for the better.  It’s almost as if Director Marc Forster became more comfortable with the film as he went.  The turning point is Bond doing some legitimate spying at the Opera.  It’s one of the best scenes in the movie, and probably one of the best spy moments that a Bond movie has seen in quite some time.  From there, the movie resembles a Bond movie more.  Action scenes look a little more epic.  Bond’s women are a little less cold.  And Bond’s cold exterior warms up a little.  While Dominic Greene isn’t a cartoonish megalomaniac with a hollowed-out volcano, he still manages to be an effective villian, and the film ends with a very strong fight scene, and a great deal of promise for future installments.

While Marc Forster probably shouldn’t refocus his career to making big-budget action flicks, it’s still a solid entry in the Bond canon.  Make no mistake, this is a far cry from Roger Moore’s campy classics, but it’s taking a similar direction to Connery while making good use of Daniel Craig’s talent as an actor.  Of course, growing pains are to be expected with a series re-boot.  And Quantum of Solace doesn’t match Casino Royale.  But it’s beginning to look more like James Bond than it did at the end of Casino Royale.  Rebuilding a character as legendary as Bond from the ground up was an unenviable task, but I still believe that Daniel Craig will be remembered as the strongest rival to Sean Connery.

Daniel Craig is, sometimes in spite of the thin script and Marc Forster’s action scenes, giving Bond the proper 21st century makeover.  While I hesitate to say that we’ll have the good old Bond back sooner than later, Quantum of Solace is still a step in the right direction after Casino Royale.  How well it works might be easier to determine when the Quantum story arc has closed, but things are looking good, even without Q’s fancy toys.

As a Bond movie: B

Overall: B+

Rental reviews Run Fatboy Run Where in the World is Osama bin Laden

Run Fatboy Run – 2007 (dir. David Schwimmer) I greatly enjoy stories of actors who willfully drop way off the public radar to pursue something they really enjoy.  For example:  Michael Palin of the Monty Python troupe has done a handful of acting gigs since the group disbanded for good some decades back, but his main passion seems to be travel.  Obviously having the BBC bankroll and film your global escapades helps a lot, but he obviously had no intent to cash in on his fame by just taking on whatever projects come his way.  The same is true of Friends star David Schwimmer.

Save a particularly memorable role in Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg’s World War 2 miniseries Band of Brothers, Schwimmer has been keeping a very low profile since the show ended in 2004 by working primarily in the theatre and taking some stabs at directing.  Run Fatboy Run is his first Directorial effort for the screen, however.

The premise of the film is that Dennis Doyle (Simon Pegg) is a hapless mallcop who made the mistake of leaving his pregnant fiance Libby (Thandie Newton) at the altar five years ago.  He’s spent those five years doting on his son (though certainly an atypical father) and running the wrong way in life.  See what I just did there?  The movie does it, too.  After meeting Libby’s new boyfriend, the impossibly perfect Whit (Hank Azaria), Dennis decides that he needs to run a marathon to not just win Libby back, but get his life back on track.  Another running metahpor, I know.  But the movie’s about running, both literal and metaphorical.

David Schwimmer spent ten years intimately involved on Friends, and it shows.  It’s a very economical comedy in a number of ways.  Impressively, it never gets too self-involved with it’s own jokes.  A good example of this is the lockerroom scene between Pegg and Azaria.  A lesser director (and lesser actors) would have made every possible penis joke, but Pegg wisely gives a few choice reactions and Azaria never overplays it.  The blister scene seemed out of place at best (especially since it’s a far cry from a gross-out comedy), but it had a number of charming comic moments all the same, as well as one of the funniest fight scenes I’ve seen in a while.

But what really makes a comedy work are the moments that aren’t funny.  And the last act of Run Fatboy Run is comprised mainly of these.  And it works.  Scwimmer tries some clever scenes, and while they’re not flawless, they’re fun to watch, and they keep things interesting.  And it shows a lot of promise.

But it’s still a little bit short of being as good as it could have been.  I can forgive the Nike product placement, as Schwimmer told the AV Club that it was the only way to finance the marathon, and I don’t really care that Simon Pegg isn’t technically fat.  But it wasn’t a total wash, and there’s some good laughs to be had.

B-

Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? – 2008 (dir. Morgan Spurlock) It’s so easy to call Morgan Spurlock the heir apparent to Michael Moore.  Too easy.  Both started their documentary careers from an underdog perspective (Moore went after General Motors, and Spurlock went after McDonalds as relative amateurs).  And both have worked on the small screen, as well as the big screen (Moore’s The Awful Truth and Spurlock’s 30 Days).  And both have political views best described as liberal (Moore’s been incredibly outspoken in his criticism of American conservatism, and Spurlock’s a card-carrying member of the ACLU).

The differences between them are, on paper, minimal.  But while Michael Moore is effectively a pundit with a multi-picture deal, Spurlock seems genuinely interested in generating dialogue about the subjects he explores.  But perhaps more importantly, Moore’s opinion dictates his films, but with Spurlock, it seems more like his experience is what runs the show.  Sure, he doesn’t shy away from presenting opinions, but that’s not his endgame.  On 30 days, he tackles heavy political issues head on, but he lets the dialogue between the two groups tell the story.  While he’s been accused of picking people who will come to his understanding of the issues, at least he’s presenting the view that most political issues are nowhere near as black and white as the media and politicians present.  It’s activist entertainment for moderates, if anything.

And that’s generally what he proposes with Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden.  As he attempts to explore the causes and consequences of Osama Bin Laden in Egypt, Morrocco, Israel/Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, it becomes very clear that it’s an immensely complex problem.  It’s a bold choice for a follow-up to eating McDonalds for a month to dive right into the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and radical Islam, but the results speak for themselves.  Two scenes in particular were disturbing; Spurlock’s appallingly harsh welcome to a Jewish settlement in Israel, and a chilling interview with two Saudi teenagers (under the direct supervision of their teachers).  Obviously, those who prefer a black and white view of foreign policy will have difficulty with Spurlock’s conclusion, and American foreign policy takes a lashing, but it’s still an entertaining, if somewhat troubling documentary.

A-

Review Michael Clayton

As promised a week ago, my review:

Like I said earlier, I’ve now seen all but one Best Picture nominee from 2007.  I remember being a little surprised by it’s nomination (although really shouldn’t have been, given that this would be George Clooney’s third dramatic picture to get significant awards attention, along with Good Night and Good Luck and Syriana).  Mainly because it looked like something that’s been done before.  And technically it has.  The plot reads like something out of a Grisham novel – Attourney uncovers conspiracy/cover-up, does something about it.  It’s familiar territory of the last two decades or so, particularly in the earlier 1990’s when six John Grisham legal thrillers were released within four years.

So yes, the story’s been done before.  But the way it was told in Michael Clayton is what makes it what it is.  In general, I find most movies entertaining.  This is probably why you’ll never see a grade lower than a C+ on this site.  It needs to really miss the mark and actually bore me for that to happen.  But when a movie surprises me; catches me off-guard with even something as small as the framing of a shot or a small scene with perfect chemistry, that’s when I really perk up.

Michael Clayton starts off strong by beginning near the end of the plot and then going back and showing the events that lead up to it.  It’s a device that can very easily backfire, but when it works, it can result in some of the best moments (if not movies) in recent memory.  While it doesn’t lead to a devastating reveal like in Memento, but it makes the linear story more powerful as a result.  The scenes that start the film are great as is, but Writer/Director Tony Gilroy’s choice is one that makes the story, when told in full, that much more gripping.

As for specific scenes that grabbed me, Tilda Swinton’s Oscar-winning performance consists almost exclusively of the best scenes in the movie.  Tony Gilroy and editor John Gilroy deserve a good deal of credit for her best scenes.  The film as a whole is equally well-directed and paced.  While it feels like a long movie, it’s two hour runtime seldom drags.  Clooney’s performance is up to his established standard, but the supporting cast is what makes it work as well as it does.  While it is fundamentally about the title character, the supporting cast is in general just more impressive.  Tom Wilkinson’s performance is very powerful, and in the hands (well, voice) of a lesser actor, the monologue that opens the film would sound foolish, but Wilkinson nails it.

Other standout elements include James Newton Howard’s score and the overall look of the film.  The subject matter is harsh, and the film itself has a cold tone to it.  While it’s not overbearing, it keeps the tone consistent, and when paired with Gilroy’s direction, it makes for a very consistent visual result.  But it’s by no means a flawless film.  While repeat viewings (and I intend to have a few) may reveal more to it, I found that the subplot concerning Michael’s family were a little superfluous, and somewhat confusing given how things wind up ending.  It tallies up to about five minutes of the whole film, but it felt a little out of place.  Any sort of character depth given to Clooney by them is ultimately overshadowed by the journey that the main plot takes him through.  They’re not bad scenes, but their function in the overall narrative is unclear.

But all the same, it’s a compelling story that’s told incredibly well.  And really, what else can I ask for in a movie?  It’s easy to dismiss it as just another legal thriller on paper, but on screen, it’s hard to ignore.

A-

Weekend rentals

I rented three movies this weekend.  There’s no real link between them, save being movies I haven’t seen before, but wanted to.  Rather than three longer entries, here’s three shorter reviews:

State and Main – 2000 (Dir. David Mamet)

I’ve been somewhat familiar with David Mamet for around the last decade or so, but I know more about him by way of reputation than his actual work (although my first serious acting lessons culminated in a scene from his play American Buffalo).  He’s known for his dialogue, and his directorial obsession with dialogue (down to having actors rehearse their lines to a metronome).  State and Main is his most recent comic directorial effort, starring an ensemble cast of fairly well-known names.  It’s about the lead-up to a movie crew filming in small-town Vermont.  While it’s billed as an ensemble piece (and due to the number of characters present, it technically is), it’s a bit less easily defined than that.  If anything, it’s a William H. Macy-lead (never a bad thing) comedy with a standout performance by a younger Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the film-within-the-film’s rookie screenwriter.  While Alec Baldwin and Sarah-Jessica Parker have small roles as the impossibly selfish lead actors (to match Macy’s impossibly selfish Director), the bulk of the scenes are not a biting satire of Hollywood amorality (which is present, but subdued if anything), but a love story between Hoffman and Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamet’s wife and frequent star).  It’s simple, sweet, and/but impossibly perfect.

But this is a Mamet flick, so dialogue is the intended star.  And it generally is.  It’s fast-paced, witty, and very clever.  Too clever in some cases.  While Hoffman gives a great performance (understated to be sure, but it fits the character), and Pidgeon matches him with every epigram, it felt like Sarah-Jessica Parker and Alec Baldwin were underused.  Baldwin’s scenes with Julia Stiles (playing an underaged fan of Baldwin’s) are just too short to really justify the sort of chaos they later cause.  I suppose an argument could be made that the movie is meant to be shown through the eyes of William H. Macy and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who are by and large oblivious to his indiscretions, but it’s not made clear enough that this is the case.  I guess the whole just isn’t the sum of it’s parts in this case.  The level of talent is present, and there’s some great scenes to be found, but it doesn’t add up to the satire of/small town take on Hollywood decadence that it was trying to be.  It’s closer to the latter than the former, but it’s still just close.  B-

Smart People – 2008 (Dir. Noam Murro)

Smart People flew fairly under-the-radar following it’s release earlier this year, despite it being the first release of note starring Ellen Page since her Oscar nomination for Juno.  It’s kind of a shame that it didn’t get much notice, because it’s a very well done, low key dramedy (I assume that’s the correct spelling).  It skews more towards drama than the DVD art suggests, but it’s not without laughs.  Dennis Quaid plays an aloof english professor, who’s also a single dad looking to move his career and his personal life forward.  After an embarrassing injury at an impound lot, Quaid loses his ability to drive (legally, anyway) and a large chunk of his self-reliance.  Enter Thomas Hayden-Church as his luckless adopted brother Chuck, who is effectively hired as his personal driver.  Of course, he also winds up being something of a catalyst for the change the family needs.  Otherwise it’d be a boring movie about people impossible to relate to.

It’s similar to In Good Company, another similarly low-key movie starring Dennis Quaid.  But the difference here is that it’s more of an ensemble piece.  In Good Company was more or less a compare/contrast of one man leaving the prime of his career and another entering it.  Smart People explores not just Quaid and Hayden-Church’s different paths, but Ellen Page and Ashton Holmes’ as Quaid’s children.  Throw in love interest Sarah Jessica Parker, and you get a fairly broad study of a family in need of a wake-up call more than a middle-aged career man coming to terms with turning fifty.

It comes close to getting cheesy in the last act, but what keeps things interesting is how it presents a reality that not everybody is willing (or able) to change who they are.  Dennis Quaid is still arguably the same arrogant academic that he was at the beginning, but he’s at least aware of it and working on it.  Ellen Page remains relatively unchanged as well, but more aware that things are in flux.  It takes Uncle Chuck to get them all on the path to self-improvement, but the movie doesn’t cop out by showing us a happy ending where everyone ceases to be selfish, but an ending where nobody’s content to remain oblivious to it anymore.  Which could be frustrating or refreshing, depending on your perspective.  It’s not a unique look into the situation, but it’s a well-done character-driven story, and I’m always a fan of that, no matter how low-key.  B

I also rented Michael Clayton, but due to a DVD malfunction, that review remains pending.

Burn after reading

I’ve always been sort of an admirer of the Coen Brothers.  Not a full-fledged fan, as I’ve only seen a handful of their movies, but I’ve had a healthy respect for their technique and ability to forge a unique style of their own.

Out with the old, and in with the new, I say.  After seeing Burn After Reading, I’m a big fan.  In fact, they’re now firmly in my top five filmmakers (among Martin Scorsese, Kevin Smith, PT Anderson, and Wes Anderson).  The thing that struck me with Burn After Reading is that, while it’s not as ambitious or mood-driven as No Country for Old Men, it’s effectively everyone involved playing to their strengths.  Word on the street is that each role was written with a specific actor in mind (all of whom played that character in the final product), and it definitely shows.

The film is about adultery, blackmail, depression, and online dating.  And probably the funniest movie about those subjects I’ve seen.  Brad Pitt’s performance as dull-witted personal trainer Chad is probably the standout, with a ridiculous hairdo and severely limited vocabulary, but there’s really no weak link in the cast.  George Clooney playing a womanizer isn’t much of a stretch, but when the stakes start rising (and rise they do), he’s more than up to the task.  Same for John Malkovich, always on the edge of going medieval on the nearest object.  JK Simmons, however, comes closest to stealing the show as a deadpan CIA higher-up forced to make sense of the madness that ensues from some stolen memoirs and an internet hook-up.

But cast, direction, and editing aside, what really makes this movie work is the music.  No Country for Old Men had no score to speak of (granted, it was able to rely on Javier Bardem to set the mood), but Burn After Reading is made all the more enjoyable by the animated score by Carter Burwell, a frequent Coens collaborator.  It’s not a subtle score, but it’s the perfect match for the slapstick violence and larger than life tone of the movie.

It’s ridiculously funny, and incredibly well executed.  But what’s really impressive is knowing that had the Coens decided to make it a tense, mood-driven drama, it would have been just as good. Burn After Reading is absolutely night and day compared to No Country for Old Men, but they’re both fantastic movies.  While some have called Burn After Reading a spiritual sequel to The Big Lebowski, I’d compare it to an earlier work:  Raising Arizona.  Simpletons getting in way over their heads + consequences they didn’t expect = comedy.  A basic premise, to be sure, but for whatever reason, the Coens seem to do it better than everyone else.  The Coens aren’t infallaible to be sure.  They’ve had their share of flops.  But when they get it right, they really nail it.  And they wind up making some of my favourite movies when they do.

A

Tropic Thunder rain of madness

Before the release of Tropic Thunder, there was a largely viral trailer for Rain of Madness, a companion mockumentary. I suppose the intention was that it would be to Tropic Thunder what Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse was to Apocalypse Now. Since the movie was more or less mocking big war movies like Apocalypse Now, it made sense. However, I assumed (incorrectly) that should Rain of Madness ever see the light of day, it would be as a DVD/Blu-Ray (I guess I have to start mentioning both formats now). Not only is that not the case, but it’s also a free download on iTunes.

Normally, this sort of thing wouldn’t get me as excited as it did. But truth be told, Rain of Madness is better than the movie it’s derived from. My key complaint with Tropic Thunder was largely with how off-putting the celebrity cameos were. It weakened the satire and took me out of the movie (only to bring me back in with some legitimately great scenes). Rain of Madness emphasizes the stuff I liked (albeit in a different way), and effectively reinforces the satire. The mockumentary is, unlike the film, also played completely straight. It’s very, very dry. Not surprisingly, it was actor Steve Coogan, and not Ben Stiller, who was the creative force behind it.

As disappointing as Tropic Thunder was, Rain of Madness takes away some of the sting. It’s vastly different in tone and presentation, but it’s funny and engrossing. It also manages to satirize self-important documentary filmmakers and skewer further method actors and oscar-baiters, to the point of absolute absurdity (which was what I was really hoping for in the real movie), with Robert Downey jr. losing his shit in a hotel room, and more scenes from Simple Jack.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s worth the price. The eventual video release of Tropic Thunder should see it packaged with the DVD, and I think knowing that will make it easier for me to recommend , but until then, it is on iTunes, and it’s fantastic. It takes some jokes too far, but given the context, that’s not a huge problem.

B+

Film Review Tropic Thunder

Given how incredibly over-exposed celebrities are, especially in contrast to how little work some appear to do, it’s surprising how seldom the darker side of Hollywood is discussed.  No, not alcoholism, cocaine binges, and sex tapes.  Oscar baiting.  Oscar baiting is a difficult topic to bring up because it can result in some politically incorrect opinions.  And frankly, sometimes it’s just easier to lie and accept pandering as talent.

Tropic Thunder, however, takes a well-deserved stab at actors who are perpetually searching for Oscar gold not via talent, but via working Academy politics.  It’s something worthy of not just mockery, but a flat-out indictment.  It’s been done before, to a degree.  Kate Winslet’s cameo on Ricky Gervais’ Extras took on the big gun: holocaust movies.  Holocaust Oscar-bait is generally the easiest target, but Tropic Thunder director and star Ben Stiller wisely avoids the subject, since Holocaust movies are (regardless of intention) generally not offensive to the subject.  The same cannot be said for the Hollywood types that Stiller skewers.

Tropic Thunder opens with fake ads and trailers: always a good sign.  Brandon T. Jackson’s Alpa Chino (yeah, I know..) hocks an energy drink called “booty sweat”.  Then  Stiller’s Tugg Speedman appears in a trailer for the one-liner driven actioner Scorcher VI, which is classy enough to use roman numerals, but stupid enough to be a fifth sequel.  The Fatties- Fart Two features Jack Black’s Jeff Portnoy as a host of characters in fatsuits and bad makeup farting perpetually.  And finally, One-time Oscar nominee Robert Downey Jr’s 5-time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus stars as a gay monk alongside Tobey Maguire in the art-house Satan’s Alley.

Cut to an epic battle in Vietnam.  Which cuts to director Damien Cockburn having an epic hissy-fit on the set of Tropic Thunder, based on the autobiography of Nick Nolte’s “Four Leaf” Tayback.  At the suggestion of Four Leaf, Damien Cockburn decides to send the cast into the jungle and shoot the film guerilla-style with hidden cameras.  Hilarity, danger, and self-discovery ensues.

Tropic Thunder works less often that it should.  Mainly because it’s trying to be two different movies.  It’s a legitimate action flick, despite parodying them, but it’s also a goofy comedy.  And while I’ve made no secret of my love for the recent trend of homage/parody movies, the goofier elements of it fall flat.  But first the good:  Ben Stiller’s not normally known for his directing, but it’s a really impressive feat, given the scale of some of the scenes.  A lot’s been made of Robert Downey Jr’s blackface performance, and it’s very impressive.  But it’s largely the lesser-known actors who made the biggest impression on me.  Jay Baruchel, who starred in Judd Apatow’s Undeclared and Knocked Up, very nearly steals a number of scenes as the only actor in the bunch who actually takes his job seriously.  And similarly, Brandon Jackson is able to match Downey in their scenes together.  Jack Black and Ben Stiller are in familiar territory, and there aren’t any real surprises from either of them in this one, but they’re not phoning it in either.

The problems come when the story deviates from the actors and crew in the jungle.  Stiller cast Tom Cruise and Matthew McConaghey in the two largest support roles, and it’s jarring to switch from Downey et al so immersed in their roles to Cruise and McConaghey effectively just having fun on set.  Celebrity cameos made sense in Zoolander, but they just didn’t work in Tropic Thunder.  What impressed me in the movie wasn’t how many celebrity friends Ben Stiller could persuade into making an appearance, but how many great performances were found in such a ridiculous situation.

But still, it’s effectively the Robert Downey Jr. show.  It takes an incredible actor to achieve subtlety while playing an actor who changed his skin colour for a movie.  It’s kind of a shame that Stiller took an easy comedy route by having Tom Cruise yell profanities in a fat suit when there’s so many great aspects that could have been more dominant.  But it’s a well-deserved attack on actors and producers who play politics for fame and fortune when it works, it in those instances, it works really well.

B-

Review Pineapple Express

Much has been made of how Judd Apatow has changed the face of R-rated comedy from teen comedies with bodily fluid jokes and Blink-182 soundtracks.  Apatow – primarily as a producer, but perhaps more effectively as a director – has been able to make movies that are able to waffle between high-comedy, low-comedy, and legitimate drama.  It’s something he started on TV with the downright flawless Freaks and Geeks and the slightly less flawless, but equally entertaining Undeclared, the casts of which appear in many of his movies now.

However, when I saw Pineapple Express, it did fit it nicely with Judd Apatow’s body of work (albeit the first one with a car chase and large explosions).  But it reminded me more of another contemporary filmmaking team I adore:  Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg.  Pineapple Express could hang with Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz just as easily as Superbad or The 40-Year-Old Virgin.  Aside from it being a faithful and respectful homage to buddy-action flicks like Lethal Weapon, it’s also got the fish-out-of-water thing down.  Pineapple Express does for lazy stoners caught in a drug war what Shaun of the Dead did for slackers caught in a zombie (yeah yeah, don’t use the Z-word…) outbreak.  It walks the fine line of demonstrating how ridiculous the genre really is without mocking it, and by being a solid entry in the genre overall.

And then you have the issue of how Apatow and Wright share an approach to male friendship.  In the end, both Pineapple Express and Shaun of the Dead are about male friendship.  Seth Rogen and James Franco had their work cut out for them in making their mostly ridiculous characters appear to have a real connection that would eventually manifest itself in risking eachothers lives for the sake of the other.  As strange as it sounds, Pineapple Express and Shaun of the Dead are both just as much examinations of friendship as they are parodies.

It is, ultimately, in the hands of Seth Rogen and James Franco to make the movie work.  The script is genuinely funny, but the overall product wasn’t as tight or polished as Edgar Wright’s homage-buddy flicks.  It’s overall package is consistent, however.  But again, the cast is what really makes it work.  Thank God James Franco is in a strong comic role again.  As much as I enjoyed the Spider-man films (even the third one, though not without a number of qualifiers), Franco just seemed out of place in such a dark role.  To me, he’ll always be Nick Andopolis.  This is probably as close as I’ll get to seeing that sort of performance from Franco again, barring some sort of 10th anniversary Freaks and Geeks reunion movie in 2010.

I also feel compelled to mention the ever-impressive Ed Begley, jr as Seth Rogen’s girlfriend’s father.  He’s basically on the edge of completely flipping out the entire time, but never actually goes full-tilt crazy and it’s definitely a scene-stealing performance.

All in all, it’s a really entertaining movie.  And I’m saying this as someone who saw it with no chemicals in his system besides caffeine.

B+

Che W and political filmmaking

Though there are exceptions, films with inescapable political content are generally kept in the realm of the documentary.  There’s a number of reasons for this, or at least a number of reasons why I think this is.  First and foremost, movies are generally escapist by nature.  Even films that are heavy on realism are escapist.  Something about how the characters are written, portrayed, or how the story is told makes it more than just re-enactments.  Exceptions to this are generally fairly limited.  Unless you’re looking at the collective filmography of Steven Soderberg and Oliver Stone.

This fall presents what could prove to be a very interesting compare/contrast in political film-making.  By the numbers, it looks less interesting though.  On September 9th, Steven Soderberg’s 268 minute, all-spanish epic Che (presented in two parts; The Argentine and Guerrilla for those without iron bladders or attention spans) gets it’s North American premiere (it officially premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May) at the Toronto International Film Festival.  And then on October 17th, Oliver Stone’s W is set to be released, mere months after shooting began this May.  Stone promises it to be similar in tone to The Queen (which is a remarkable film in nearly every respect, but particularly it’s reverence), but based on promotional material, appears to look quite irreverent.  Here’s some more numbers for you:  W will be released roughly 3 months before George W. Bush leaves office; Che was released 41 years after Che Guevara’s death.

Biopics are old hat to both Soderberg and Stone though.  Soderberg directed Julia Roberts to an Academy Award in Erin Brokovich, and W will be Stone’s sixth biopic, as well as his second on a President of the United States.  Politically-themed films are also familiar territory for both.  Soderberg’s touched on political issues in Traffic, which explored nearly every aspect of the war on drugs over a 147-minute running time.  His HBO series K-Street, co-produced with George Clooney, explored the political landscape leading up to the 2004 Election.  As for Stone’s political films, it might be easier to just list them:

  • Salvador – dealt with the El Salvador civil war and US involvement therein
  • Platoon – dealt with the Vietnam war, won Best Picture in 1986
  • Wall Street – one character’s philosophy is “greed is good”.  You do the math
  • Talk Radio – about a controversial radio host
  • Born on the Fourth of July – biopic about maimed Vietnam Veteran Ron Kovic
  • JFK – arguably Stone’s most controversial work, famously explored conspiracy theories about John F. Kennedy’s assassination
  • Heaven & Earth – another Vietnam war centric film, this time from the perspective of a young woman caught in the crossfire
  • Natural Born Killers – dealing with media reaction to violent crime.  The film arguably inspired copycat crimes, despite it being intended as a criticism of the media more than a glorification of violence.  Again, arguably Stone’s most controversial work
  • Nixon – take a wild guess

Interestingly, World Trade Center his biopic about two fallen NYFD workers on 9/11 had little to no political content and was praised for it’s reverence.  In short, it would be more surprising if Oliver Stone didn’t make a movie about George W. Bush.  The surprising, and frankly disappointing thing about W is how soon it’s come to pass.  Too soon.

That’s a major problem with Stone’s effort, something that just can’t be avoided.  It also undermines his declared intentions.  It’s incredibly difficult to properly explore the legacy of a major political figure on film.  Stone’s own Nixon was made after Richard Nixon’s death in 1994, and over 20 years after Nixon resigned the presidency.  Long enough after the fact to properly assess his legacy?  I’d say so.  Steven Soderberg’s Che also comes fairly long after the events it depicts.  It even comes around a decade after the American commercialization of Che Guevera, largely thanks to Rage Against The Machine.  Che Guevera has come a long way since the overthrow of Cuba’s regime in the 1950’s.  Having spent some time in Latin America, it goes without saying that Che is beyond iconic at this point.  Soderberg is wise to take four hours to tell his story, as is Hollywood for leaving previous perspectives on Guevara to documentary filmmakers.

The main thing about W that bothers me is that it’s release comes not just before Bush has retired from public life, but before he’s even retired from the executive office.  Quite frankly, any attempt to be reverent is damaged by this.  While The Queen was released at a time when both Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth II were both in power (Blair would resign his post shortly after), the events it details happened nearly a decade beforehand, and the action was confined to roughly a week in history.  That tragic chapter of British history has closed.  Bush’s story as president, let alone as public figure, remain unfinished.  Stone’s film, (which as I understand, goes as far into his presidency as the invasion of Iraq) tells an incomplete story no matter how you slice it.

Since I haven’t seen either film, my criticism of W shouldn’t be taken as anything other than theoretical.  As easy as it might be to dismiss Oliver Stone as a zeitgeist chaser and opinion-peddler, it’s difficult to dismiss him as a filmmaker.  He’s earned two Best Director Oscars (that’s two more than Stanley Kubrick and double Martin Scorcese’s count).  His films have been nominated for Best Picture three times, and won once.  He might be controversial, but a hack?  Absolutely not.  He’s a shit disturber, but he’s an incredible talent.

Likewise, Che might be too overblown for it’s own good.  While I absolutely believe that Che Guevara’s story essentially demands a 4-hour, 8 minute run time, there’s a good chance that Soderberg’s ego will overtake the project, or it’ll be a 4 hour marxist propaganda piece.  The latter seems unlikely, as Che has been called both “not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age” and “the butcher of La Cabana”.

So there you have it.  Two hot-button figures approached by two well-respected directors in familiar territory.  Very different approaches, but hopefully two films that will raise questions about the legacy of the most polarizing American President I can think of, and perhaps one of the most complex figures of the 20th centuries.

In the meantime, I’d recommend the documentary The True Story of Che Guevara, produced by the History Channel in the US.  It’s only 90 minutes, but covers a great deal of territory and demonstrates how complex Che’s legacy really is.  And The Queen just because it’s fantastic.  It’s been roughly a year since I’ve seen it, but it’s easily an A or A+, and Michael Sheen’s performance very nearly overtakes Helen Mirren’s.

Tales from the middle of the pack