Sunday, August 28, 2016

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

I had been aware of this movie for a while, but not aware that it was directed by Edgar Wright, who was also responsible for Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and other British films I had been fan of.  I should have been paying more attention. 

I also didn't really become aware of what the whole plot line of this film was until quite late.  It did look to me when I saw the previews that it was a typical film featuring a guy trying to get some inaccessible girl.  Again, I probably wasn't paying attention, as anything sounding like a romantic comedy since Love Actually went as far with that type of movie as possible makes me role my eyes.  Unlike many people, I have no opinion whatsoever on Michael Cera, so that never informed my opinion.

The video game element, once I started hearing more about it, got my attention.  Also what got my attention is the discussion of the "manic pixie dream girl," which has now been done to death and made blanket to throw over many female characters that were never meant as such.  I didn't have a name for it, but it was a trope in films that had bothered me for a long time, along with male romantic rivals being completely beyond the realm of belief.  Critics like to talk about the impossible standards established for women in the media, but rarely do they remember that another set of impossible standards is set for men. 

So, yes.  Other than some weird hatred of Michael Cera (which I really don't understand) I did go into this movie with some baggage, as well as anticipation.  Such is the modern way of ruminating over a subject and passing it through the internet like a cow with infinite stomachs.

Scott Pilgrim (Cera) is a 22-year-old living in Toronto.  He plays bass in an indie band called Sex Ba-Bomb! with a guitarist named Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) and drummer Kim Pine (Alison Pill), who dated Pilgrim in high school.  High school may have been quite important to Scott as is currently dating 17-year-old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) despite the constant glares from Kim and comments from the rest of his friends.  He also lives in a one-room apartment with his gay friend Wallace (Kieran Culkin), who is also hinting that it might be time for Scott to be off on his own.

Scott decides that maybe his friends are right and tries, repeatedly, to break up with Knives, but doesn't have the guts - not even when Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the literal girl of his dreams, shows up in town.  Her reaction to him is initially icy, but things progress and they become an item.  There is one catch - Ramona has seven evil exes that Scott must defeat before he can be with Ramona.

This comes as a surprise after he deletes an email from Matthew Patel (Satya Babha), the first ex, which results in a surprise fight in a night club in which Scott uses his skills he has learned from old-school video games to defeat him.  From there the exes come fast and furious, becoming even more dangerous as they go along. 

While busy wooing Ramona, Stephen and Kim become increasingly concerned that Scott is letting Sex Ba-Bomb! down at a critical time when they could actually win a series of band battles and get a recording contract, eventually replacing him with Young Neil (Johnny Simmons), who largely just hung around and cheered them on.  The guy behind the recording contract, however, may not be who they think he is.  Meanwhile, Knives is also not to happy about being pushed aside for Ramona, and may become a force to be reckoned with as well.

First, the manic pixie dream girl thing.  This type of character was already being debated by the time the movie was made, and I don't see Ramona as such.  Ramona is largely her own person, and becomes even more so (for certain reasons) after Scott defeats the final ex.  Any interpretation that she is there simply as a catalyst for him to grow and learn is within his own mind.  Ramona never offers this nor encourages it.  Scott Pilgrim is not a likeable character in any sense; he is lazy, selfish and treats his friends like dirt.  He does grow and starts to realize what he has done, and not because of Ramona, but rather as the result of facing his own mortality and realizing this all on his own.  The final scenes show that Pilgrim has grown enough to see Ramona as a person rather than an archetype.

So, with that out of the way, the movie is an adaptation of a comic book series, and in fact a series that inhabits its own world.  What we have here, essentially, is low fantasy where music can manifest itself, a vegan can punch a hole in the moon and people explode into Canadian currency when they die. It has a plot that makes sense, but in the way that many dreams have a plot that makes sense but everything else doesn't.  The door imagery is especially telling that this may be either a dream that Scott is having one particular night and the doors are the different stages of this dream journey.  It could just as easily be his afterlife, and the doors representing his journey from one section to another as he works out the lessons he should have in life.  It is something that, as I said earlier, causes rumination, as there is much more going on here than funny quotes and pretty lights.

As for the performances, Cera fits Pilgrim well, and Winstead keeps Ramona a bit of a mystery, but not devoid of personality (especially when she really goes to town on one of her exes).  There is a deep, complex person there, but it is up to Pilgrim to find that out.  The band is hilarious, particularly Kim, and Aubrey Plaza almost steals the show as the over-achieving Julie, who is the opposite of Scott in every way.

So far Edgar Wright is on a winning streak (yes, I did like The World's End quite a bit, thank you) as a director, and I do need to pay more attention since I haven't anticipated a new director's movies so much since Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson before they became Hollywood darlings.  This movie, like the ones before it, will have you rolling on the floor with laughter, but there is so much beneath the surface that it is worth multiple viewings and discussion.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
Time: 112 minutes
Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Director: Edgar Wright

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Snakes on a Plane (2006)

Ah, the internet.  The wonderful things it has brought us, and the horrors that it has wrought. 

Famously, Snakes on a Plane came about from a contest to come up with the worst pitches for a movie ever.  Somehow the idea got gained traction online, and Samuel L. Jackson even signed up for this hybrid of Under Siege and a low-budget Jaws ripoff, with the agreement that they would keep the name from the original draft. 

The result?  Some fanfare, a good performance by Jackson as always, but just as bad as the pitch would have made it sound.

Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) is on vacation in Hawaii when he witnesses crime kingpin Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson) murder a businessman.  He thinks he got away without being recognized, but Kim sends goons to kill him.  Luckily, FBI agent Neville Flynn (Jackson) also knows that Jones was a witness, and shows up in time to protect him.  Reluctant at first, Jones agrees to return to the mainland with Flynn and testify against Kim.

In a desperate bid to prevent Jones from testifying, Kim hatches a plot to lace the leis given to outgoing passengers with pheromones that drive snakes into a mating and killing frenzy.  Of course, in order for this to have any effect, he also has to make sure that there are cages full of poisonous snakes smuggled on board the plane, with timers set to release them while it is in flight.

At first things go as he plans, as the snakes inadvertently mess with wiring and then begin a full-scale attack upon the passengers and the crew.  However, with the help of various passengers and resourceful flight attendant Claire Miller (Julianna Margulies), Flynn tries to make sure the flight stays in the air and everyone survives to land in Los Angeles so they can bring Kim to justice.  On the ground, it is also a race against time to identify the snakes and prepare antivenom to administer when the plane lands.

In truth, these nature-gone-wild movies can sometimes be pretty good.  Snakes, however, have really never had a good movie about them.  Sssss! probably came closest, but usually we're stuck with stuff like Anaconda or the Asylum movies.  Disappointingly, this felt like of the latter, the only thing setting it aside from Asylum is the fact that it has actors that didn't need to get a weekend pass from rehab. 

Think that's harsh?  The CGI in this is horrible.  There are some real snakes used, but any time a CGI snake is used it is quite obvious, since none of their models act anything remotely snakelike.  The special effects crew barely took time to try to get them to blend in with their environment.  It is truly on a level of the animation from The Mummy 2

The other problem is that the makers know why this eventually got to be made, and it was simply because of the internet and people wanting to hear Samuel L. Jackson say that famous line about getting the snakes off the plane.  That is it.  A few shots of nudity and extra violence were thrown in since this was already going to get an R rating for that line, and in the end we have a movie that is practically mugging at the camera the whole time.

A shame since, if it hadn't been so self-referential and knew what it wanted to do, it could have worked the same way Volcano did in sending up these types of movies.  Jackson is great as always, but we get some memorable side characters in germophobic rapper Three G's (Flex Alexander) and his friend Big Leroy (Keith Dallas), the latter who steps in to save the day toward the end.  Also, the lecherous pilot turns out to be pretty interesting as well. 

In the end it turns out to be just barely this side of something you would see on SyFy.  It's a case of being careful what you wish for.  What you might get is a half-assed movie capped off by a music video featuring some of the worst rap-rock of the 2000s.

Snakes on a Plane (2006)
Time: 105 minutes
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Julianna Margulies, Nathan Phillips
Director: David R. Ellis


Sunday, August 14, 2016

Spy (2015)

Paul Feig said that one of the reasons he did Spy was because he knew that he would never get to direct an actual James Bond film.  My question to him would be, "Why do you think you should?"  If it was still the Pierce Brosnan era, I would think that it was because he couldn't do anything worse than Die Another Day, but with Daniel Craig the series has suddenly become something worth seeing again.

Still, after 50-some years, it doesn't matter who plays the British secret agent, or for that matter an American secret agent of similar caliber.  These movies have been done and redone, parodied and re-parodied, ever since Dr. No.  There have even been female secret agents, most notibly Modesty Blaise.  So why not try a fish-out-of-water comedy with one of today's famous comedy stars?

Well, it's Paul Feig, for one, and his idea of comedy largely relies on falling back on jokes about weight, gender and race, with a few bodily functions thrown in.  For some reason, critics liked this, and it got him the go-ahead for the Ghostbusters reboot.

Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is the computer expert and brains behind CIA agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law).  When his allergies result in him accidentally killing international arms dealer Tihomir Boyanov (Raad Rawi) before he can reveal the location of some nuclear weapons he plans to sell on the black market, she must then guide him to the mansion of his daughter Rayna (Rose Byrne).  Rayna gets the drop on Bradley, and promptly drops him to Susan's horror.

It turns out that Rayna knew who Fine was because a mole had leaked information on all the secret field agents.  Despite the increasingly complex, and violent, suggests of agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), Susan is able to talk her boss into letting her gather information on Rayna's whereabouts, as she's an unknown.  She is sent to Paris under a frumpy and unassuming identity to trail a man named Solsa Dudaev (Richard Brake), who has links to Rayna, only to find that Ford has gone rogue and is there in disguise to do the job that he thinks Cooper cannot.

Cooper proves capable of doing her job and ends up killing Dudaev when Ford blows both their covers.  Their findings lead them to Rome, where she is teamed with Sergio De Luca, an agent who has had numerous HR issues due to his "handling" of female agents.  From there, she quickly learns that things at the agency are not as they seem, and it truly is up to her intercept the weapons before they fall into the wrong hands.

The main problem with this movie is the humor.  I never saw Bridesmaids simply because it isn't something I would watch unless I was doing penance, and I love women in strong lead roles.  To that end, Melissa McCarthy is great, doing most of her own stunts and bringing Susan Cooper to life as a character I would love to see in a full series - as long as Feig wasn't behind it.  Despite working with her through various films, he can't let the fact that she's a large-sized woman go.  One of the running jokes is that everyone ignores her accept Sergio, who has a fat fetish. We get it; Melissa McCarthy is fat.  So what?  It would have been more humorous if that fact had been ignored the entire film.  The point was that she was an office drone suddenly coming to her own as a secret agent; size really had nothing to do with it.

The reason I am reviewing it here is because, as an action film, it really did get most things right.  Its violence and language earned it an R-rating, so kudos for not pulling punches there.  Jason Statham is the one place where the humor works, as agent Rick Ford goes over the most ridiculous ideas out of James Bond films and other spy films to come up with the most convoluted ways of doing his job, while Cooper just gets the job done.  Rose Byrne made a pretty good villain as well. 

While making a parody, Paul Feig accidentally made a halfway fresh action film with a number of great characters.  Too bad he gave into his baser instincts and ruined it with his half-baked ideas of comedy.

Spy (2015)
Time: 119 minutes
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Jude Law, Jason Statham
Director: Paul Feig



Sunday, August 7, 2016

Aliens (1986)

Maybe it should not come as a surprise that John Cameron's two most well-regarded films are sequels.  After all, he did start off with Piranha 2: The Spawning.  He was still relatively unknown when Aliens was released, as his original film Terminator had yet to be released, but it was this and Terminator 2 that sealed his reputation.

It helps in large part that Cameron didn't go the route many sequels in the 1980s, and even today, go.  Many times franchises kept being the same movie over and over again, often times heading for New York or space when they truly ran out of ideas.  The original Alien was already a horror movie in space, and largely traded on atmosphere to overcome its low budget.  It bucked a trend in science fiction films, where most were trying to rip off Star Wars at the time.  No cute kids, no cute robots, just a run-down freighter with an acid-blooded predator with a drive to reproduce.

Alien ended with Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) blasting the creature into space and putting herself into cryogenic sleep in the ship's escape pod.  57 years later her pod is found by a salvaging crew, who is surprised to find that she (and her cat) are still alive after all this time.  After recovering, she is given a low-level worker position on a space station in Earth orbit, and intends to live out her life low-key since the Company seemed to care less about her report of the alien creature that took out the crew of her ship.

They begin to care a bit more, however, when their colony at LV-246, the new designation for the moon where the alien eggs were found, suddenly goes dark.  She is asked by company executive Burke (Paul Reiser) to accompany a military operation to investigate what has happened.  Reluctant at first, she agrees, and finds herself the odd woman out with a squad of marines who have been together through a number of operations.  As usual, there are complications.  While the squad is well-trained, Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) has never done a ground operation, and the ship includes an android named Bishop (Lance Henriksen), whom Ripley immediately distrusts due to the android on the Nostromo malfunctioning and attempting to kill the crew.

When they reach the colony, they find the colonists missing and the aftermath of a battle.  The only survivor appears to be a girl named Newt (Carrie Henn), whom Ripley befriends.  Burke quickly becomes excited by the discovery that the colonists had preserved face-huggers, the alien stage that implants embryos into a host, and plans, despite Ripley's objections, to bring them back to Earth for study. Meanwhile, the apparently abandoned colony reveals itself to be, in fact, infested with the mature alien forms as well as a nest of eggs located in the nuclear reactor of the colony's terraforming tower.  The nest has led to instabilities in the core temperature, giving the marines limited time before it explodes.

The crew attempts to leave, but an alien attack on their lander and from the rest of the aliens leaves only Private Hudson (Bill Paxton) and Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn) to defend them against the onslaught while Ripley and Newt try to survive.  Meanwhile, Burke will do anything to obtain the alien organism, while Bishop labors to get a communication array functional to bring down their ship's other lander.  Of course, they also have to deal with that angry alien queen sitting at the heart of the nest, who is not going to give up without a fight of her own.

While the original Alien was at heart a horror film, director John Cameron was right not to retread that territory.  Aliens is an action film, and it has had quite a bit of influence on films (and video games) that have come after it, largely in its portrayal of a future military force.  It may be hundreds of years in the future, but the equipment used by the marines in Aliens is more realistic than laser guns, photon torpedoes and the like.  The performances are great throughout, although Michael Biehn's constant freaking out can get on the nerves - although it is meant to do so, since it has that effect on his squadmates.  Paul Reiser, largely known as a comedian, is such a convincing slimeball that it is said his own wife hit him when she saw some of the actions of Burke on screen.

And let's not forget Lance Henriksen.  He was about to give up on acting, and his role of Bishop jump-started his entire career, leading to character and lead roles in numerous science fiction and horror films, as well as the X-Files spinoff Millenium.

As for everything else, the movie is fantastic to look at even after 30 years.  Some of the older green-screen techniques are noticeable, but the sets are still outstanding, considering most of the exterior shots were miniatures.  Not surprising, since when producers first saw some production footage, they were convincing enough to cause concern that Cameron had blown his money on an elaborate set and might be heading the studio into a boondoggle. Occasionally there are some acting quirks, but this has rightfully earned its place as one of the best science fiction movies of all time.

Unfortunately, the boondoggles arrived in droves as the franchise went on.  Aliens, three decades after its release, still remains the last good movie of the series, despite two more direct sequels, three movies with the aliens battling the Predator species and a prequel of sorts with Prometheus.  There is more on the way as well, but so far the combination of detail, great storytelling and an engaging cast that made Aliens so successful has continued to evade those wishing to carry on the story.

Aliens (1986)
Time: 137 minutes
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Paul Reiser, Carrie Henn, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn
Director: John Cameron

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Casino Royale (2006)

The identity of the actor playing the next James Bond seems to be one of those subjects that can still cause people not to speak with each other after all this time.  Long before the Doctor or Mad Max had different faces, the Bond series changed from Sean Connery, suddenly to George Lazenby, back to Connery and then to Roger Moore.  Each brought their own take to the character, and unfortunately often bore the blame for horrible directorial and studio decisions.  That is why many remember how horrible Moonraker was while forgetting that The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only were some of the best in the series.

Since Moore, we have had Timothy Dalton play the secret agent in two okay films and Pierce Brosnan in one great film, two mediocre ones and another that makes Moonraker almost look like The Godfather in coimparison.  While Pierce Brosnan made a fine Bond, by the time he was playing the character the studio had run out of Ian Fleming novels to, if not get a plot from, at least grab a name for a film.  They had also run out of ideas, something they were more than willing to spend over two hours proving to us.

Well, except for one novel that they had never been able to officially touched.  It had been made as an American TV episode in the 1950s.  It also popped up as a spy parody that gave Skidoo a run for its money as the most disjointed money pit of a movie for the late 1960s.  That novel was Casino Royale.

Elements of the novel had popped up occasionally.  Although the circumstances were different, Bond suddenly losing his wife in On Her Majesty's Secret Service paralleled Vesper Lynd's death at the end of the novel.  Bond's affinity for the game of baccarat also pops up here and there, as well as his strange idea of how to make a martini.  Things changed, and by the time everyone was ready for a new Bond, the rights to the novel were on hand, as well as Daniel Craig to become the newest actor to officially play the role.

James Bond (Craig), on one of his first missions with MI6, causes an international incident when he kills a terrorist on the grounds of a foreign embassy in Madagascar.  M (Judi Dench) is tempted to demote him, but is intrigued with his theory that the terrorist was obtaining explosives for something more complicated than a random attack.  Evidence leads to a millionaire that has been on the radar of several intelligence agencies, Alex Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian).  In an attempt to get information, Bond attempts to seduce Dimitrios's wife Solange (Caterina Murino) with disastrous results.  He is still able to foil Dimitrios's plot, but it becomes obvious that his quarry worked for an even bigger fish going by Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen).

In order to bankrupt Le Chiffre and force him to cooperate with MI6, M teams Bond with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) and Rene Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini).  They travel to Macedonia in order to enter a game of Texas Hold 'Em against Le Chiffre and other international players, one of whom turns out to be CIA agent Felix Leiter, who makes a deal with Bond to turn Le Chiffre over to American intelligence in exchange for the CIA backing Bond with funds to continue after initially coming out on the losing end.

Of course, not everything works like clockwork.  An African warlord gets wind that Le Chiffre is bankrupt and using the game as a last-ditch attempt to win back his money, while it appears that not everyone working for MI6 is on Bond's side.  To complicate things further, he finds himself truly falling for Vesper.

I was rather curious on how they would update this movie.  The original novel is rooted deep within the Cold War, with Lynd being a KGB agent, Le Chiffre being a free agent, Monte Carlo the location and baccarat the game.  I would say they did a good idea, and the change of the game is forgivable as I can't imagine anyone has really played baccarat professionally since the novel came out.  Poker, on the other hand, has become a televised competitive sport.

Other great decisions that were made was bringing back director Martin Campbell, whose previous credit in the series was Goldeneye, which was Brosnan's first (and best) appearance.  Therefore, the action sequences are quite exciting and tense rather than just plain silly.  In fact, there is more of an effort to make Bond more human and more like he was in the novel.  He also makes plenty of mistakes, since the last major decision that was made was to completely reset the series.  This is Bond at his beginning, mucking things up as much as he solves things.

In large part the main plot, including all the important parts, of the book remains.  The reason I harp on this is because, previously, barely much of the book remained in the movie that was made.  Since the next movie, Quantum of Solace, starts directly from the end of this one, it seems that this time around it was important that the establishing facts were right even if the new movie series intends to take its own path from here. 

Criticisms?  Not many, although there is still way too much product placement throughout for my tastes.  Since I didn't get to see it when it came out in 2006, a bit of it makes me chuckle considering how much technology has changed in just the last decade.  In large part, I was satisfied, and happy that once again James Bond movies seem worth seeing again. 

Finally, there is Daniel Craig's performance.  While not physically resembling Bond exactly as described, his demeanor is as close as any actor has come since Connery.  I am also glad that they went for an actor that is realistically fit and at a suitable age.

Casino Royale (2006)
Time: 144 minutes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench
Director: Martin Campbell


Sunday, July 17, 2016

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

I was a big fan of the original Mission: Impossible series.  Of course, I'm not old enough to have seen it when it was first on, but the repeats played quite a bit when I was a teenager.  That was about the age to first encounter it, because the show largely focused on subterfuge and plot twists rather than major action sequences.  I'm sure a lot of that had to do with budget, but sometimes being forced to think around corners when writing can be a wonderful thing.

I remembered the series fondly and was excited when the first movie came out, especially since it was directed by Brian De Palma.  Unfortunately, it was a big-budget mess.  A few good set pieces, but nothing much.  The only reason I saw the second movie was because John Woo directed it, and I find myself in the minority of people who really like that film on its own, even if it is largely a remake of Hitchcock's Notorious mashed with Woo's previous movie, The Killers.  I never saw the third one (thought I did, but turns out I didn't), but quite enjoyed the fourth.  Despite his Scientology leanings, Tom Cruise is a fun actor to watch, especially since he does many of his own stunts.  And, despite how lackluster the original was, by the fourth movie Cruise was turning Ethan Hunt into an American version of James Bond.

And that is how the series stands as we get into the fifth movie, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation.  By this point we are getting a steady series of characters, a major stunt from cruise each movie and, despite it being largely action-oriented, a bit more of the actual feel from the original series.

This time around Ethan Hunt (Cruise) goes up against the Syndicate, an organization that he begins to uncover in the previous movie, Ghost Protocol.  However, U.S. intelligence thinks that the Syndicate is a phantom that Hunt has invented to distract from the fact that the IMF team has caused a number of international relations disasters over the years.  CIA chief Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) manages to get the MI team shut down and orders that Hunt be arrested or killed if necessary.

Meanwhile, Hunt finds out that the Syndicate is not only real, but that it compromised IMF.  He is captured, but his escape is orchestrated by Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a British Intelligence agent who has managed to infiltrate the Syndicate and get close to its leader, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris).  With the aid of fellow IMF veterans Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), Faust and Hunt attempt to retrieve information from a high-security facility in Morocco that will lead to answers about where the Syndicate came from, their plans and their funding.  Faust steals the information for herself, turning it over to her boss Atlee (Simon McBurney) in MI6, only to find out that her own agency plans on hanging her out to dry.

With international authorities hot on their trail and the Syndicate's terrorist actions escalating, Hunt and his team must expose the organization as a legitimate threat as well as do what they can to stop Lane despite being disowned by their own country.

Supposedly, there wasn't really a plot when Rogue Nation went into production, but rather a set of action scenes in mind that they decided to tie together.  Despite the fact they ultimately came up with a good plot to hang them on, this is still quite apparent.  In the end, when you have Cruise himself hanging off the door of an airplane, a tense underwater sequence and a director like Christopher McQuarrie who knows how to the keep the action going, this can be excused.

It is also nice to see the team coming together a bit better, lessening the idea of Hunt as a super hero and presenting the IMF more as a unit.  It was the full team effort that lead to success in the original series, and it is nice to see this element return.  I also quite like the climax, as it does rely largely on trickery rather than a typical action scene.

Despite its lackluster beginnings I can definitely say that the Mission: Impossible franchise has become one of the better modern action series, so much that they are trying to stretch the Jason Bourne movies even further in response.  Action films themselves have been on the wane in recent decades unless you like CGI-ridden messes or the car fantasies of Fast and Furious, and it is nice to see a series that is providing thrills and intelligence once again.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)
Time: 131 minutes
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Jeremy Renner
Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Tropic Thunder (2008)

One of the first shows on Fox, back when it only broadcast on the weekends and after a certain time at night on UHF stations, was The Ben Stiller Show.  It had not only great comedy bits, but often satirized how Hollywood and advertisers viewed Generation X.  The show lasted a short time, but it left a lasting impression that there was at least one comedian that "got us."

That was, until, the typical Hollywood Gen X treatment that was Reality Bites.

Since then Stiller has been hit and miss.  I never bothered with the Zoolander movies, but loved his part as the evil gym owner in DodgeballThe Cable Guy is arguably one of the worst movies of the '90s, though.

So here I find myself surprised that Tropic Thunder has become a cult film for a number of Millenials.  It should not be that surprising as it is the only movie that lived up to the promise of his original show.

Action hero Tugg Speedman (Stiller) has seen his career bottom out after trying his hands at drama.  To revive his fading image he has agreed to star in a story adapted from the biography of Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), a Vietnam veteran who lost both of his hands while trying to save the rest of his platoon.  To add realism, the movie is being filmed on location. 

Along with Speedman is Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) who has had his skin dyed black to play an African-American, drug-addicted comedic actor Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), hip-hop star Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and young crew member Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), the only crew member with actual military experience.

Unhappy with the pace of filming, Les Grossman (Tom Cruise), the shadowy software mogul financing the film, demands some changes - the main one being to increase realism by releasing the actors into the jungle to experience the "reality" of the Vietnam War.  They are to be filmed by hidden cameras with timed pyrotechnics for them to react to.  They are dropped off by helicopter along with their director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), who promptly steps on an old mine left over from the real war.  Thinking it's a special effect, Tuggman reacts in a typical action star way.  The explosion, however, has attracted the attention of the Flaming Dragons, an armed opium ring operating in the area that believes the actors are from the DEA.

Coming under fire, the group flees into the jungle and most of them come to realize the predicament they are in.  Speedman, however, continues to believe it's a movie, even has he begins to go native and is eventually captured by the Flaming Dragons and forced to act out scenes from his critically panned drama film, which happens to be the only movie the compound has to watch.

Meanwhile, Speedman's agent Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey) tries to convince Grossman to rescue the crew or, at the very least, make sure Speedman gets TiVo, which was in his contract.  Eventually the crew must do what they can with guns filled with blanks and nothing else but Hollywood magic to rescue not only Speedman from the Flaming Dragons, but the movie itself (and their careers) from financial disaster.

Tropic Thunder may be the best movie Ben Stiller has directed, but it still has plenty of flaws.  About the first 20 minutes or so until they land in the jungle are quite rough going, as few of the jokes that point work.  The introduction is funny, but between there and the main plot it's just flat.  Happily, once things get going, there is enough true action in the movie that there isn't the need to fill it in with jokes that may or may not work.

And, from that point on, they work.  Everything from Speedman becoming one with the land to a bald, bespectacled Tom Cruise dancing to Flo Rida (keep in mind this was 2008) works.  It may not be laugh-out-loud funny, but it's the type of humor that works with a movie like this.

At this point in their careers it is a bit of a question about how self-aware some of the real actors are.  Tropic Thunder is supposed to be a parody of a number of things, from action films to found footage to stars with their heads up their rectums, but some of the participants are stars that are known somewhat to have rectal cranial insertian syndrome.  It's telling that many of the action stars parodied are nowhere to be seen, although it could be said that the Expendables movies are self-parody in themselves.

It's not anywhere near perfect, and probably won't be everyone's cup of tea, but Tropic Thunder at least isn't another comedy wallowing solely in fat jokes and body fluids.  It's also a pretty good action movie in itself.  Too bad Stiller is more interested in making something like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty instead of more movies like this.

Tropic Thunder (2008)
Time: 107 minutes
Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey, Jr., Jack Black, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson
Director: Ben Stiller