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Tropic Thunder (2008) September 29, 2008

Posted by gproject in : Cinema, Recently Viewed , add a comment

Directed by: Ben Stiller

At a cost of $92 million, Tropic Thunder is a juggernaut in comedy terms, pairing big budget action with a powerhouse comic cast.  Billed as a kind of Full-Metal-Apocalypse-Now via Platoon, it makes some scathing attacks at Hollywood stereotypes, and especially the performers who work within that system.  Strangest of all though, is seeing all this done by some of the system’s most successful stars.

Its ridiculous plot sees failing action star Tugg Speedman out in the tropics making a Vietnam War movie with first-time director Damien Cockburn.  When everything seems to be going wrong, the film’s army advisor convinces Damien to up the stakes for his actors - to make it real.  The director takes Speedman, along with the other stars: crude comic Jeff Portnoy, method actor Kirk Lazarus, rapper Alpa Chino, and youngster Kevin Sandusky, deep into the jungle, where they can experience war first hand.  With hidden cameras, he plans to recreate a battle environment, but of course, it isn’t long before the movie cast find themselves caught up in a real stand-off with a dangerous jungle-dwelling, heroin-producing gang.  Taking it all as part of the movie, the actors stumble into a deadly environment, and give the performance of their lives.

With such a large and varied cast, it’s no wonder that director Ben Stiller has called upon some of the best current comic talent to fill his roster of character types.  He himself plays the fallen action hero, desperate to reclaim former glories in a constant succession of stupid sequels.  We get Jack Black as the heroin addicted slapstick star, who plays every character in an overweight family comedy that is a non-too-subtle nod to Eddie Murphy’s recent output.  Also topping the poster is Robert Downey Jr. in a role as the ’serious’ actor who takes his method to the extreme when he undergoes pigment augmentation in order to play a black soldier.

This bizarre racial twist has potential to be the most offensive thing in the movie, but he is sparingly paired with Brandon T. Jackson, who plays the rapper / actor / entrepreneur of every industry.  Then there’s the failing director, played by British comic Steve Coogan, as well as Jay Baruchel levelling everyone else out as the new kid.  And that’s just the principal cast.  The film also features parts for Danny McBride, Bill Hader, Nick Nolte, Matthew McConaughey, and, strangest of all, a bullish, foul-mouthed studio head played by non other than Tom Cruise.  The more cynical (like me), may see this as a much-needed publicity stunt for Cruise, but on the basis of his performance, it just may have worked.

So, there’s no lack of potential, but how does the film manage that potential alongside a rather silly premise and a multi-million dollar effects budget?  Well, for the most part, okay.  While it seems redundant to mention the effects of having money on your side, unlike the comparatively low budget action comedy Pineapple Express [review], the visual spectacle here is much more polished and cinematic.  In a way, it is almost too clean, often coming off as the glorified Hollywood blockbuster that it is trying to parody.  Maybe that’s a credit to the accomplished visual style, which is shown no better than during the fake trailers that form the prelude to the movie.

And it is these trailers, serving as rather inspired character introductions, that form the high point of the film.  Complete with relevant studio credits they are quick, satirical and very funny, to the point where they end up creating high expectation for a movie that then struggles to deliver.  The script by Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, contains a peppering of witty lines, so while there’s something to make you laugh at regular intervals, it never quite holds up as the rip-roaring comedy it should have been.  There’s so much going on at times, the film can seem messy, cluttered even, and it has to work twice as hard to push its comedy to the fore.

With this kind of atmosphere, it’s no wonder that Jack Black is a little wasted in his role, and no more than the sum of his Murphy-baiting parody.  While the much-hyped Downey Jr. role is of such ludicrous extremes that it steers itself well clear of offensiveness, and often just ends up being incomprehensible - especially in a audio sense, where the emphasised accents (both in and out of ‘character’) sometimes fail to clearly convey the dialogue.  It’s not a huge problem, but since he has most of the funniest lines, you’d be missing out on maximum entertainment if you don’t pay attention.

Tropic Thunder is actually quite an ambitious action comedy, mainly because it doesn’t skimp on the spectacle contingent inherent to the format.  Nor is it ever afraid to cross some rather controversial lines - confronting both racial issues and those related to the on-screen depiction of the mentally handicapped.  There’s always the risk, of course, that this lack of financial and satirical boundaries will lead to over-indulgence and a reliance on easy laughs, which sometimes occurs during the film’s hour and fifty minute running time.  Mostly though, it has done exactly what a comedy juggernaut is supposed to - pull in the audiences, provide some mindless entertainment, and remind you that movies, inherently, are a bunch of stupid nonsense.  A point well made.

Unknown (2006) September 23, 2008

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Directed by: Simon Brand

Unknown is a film that came to my attention not through million-dollar marketing or positive word or mouth, but by way of a simple internet trailer that neatly summarised its Saw meets Reservoir Dogs meets Memento storyline, and held back just enough intrigue to make me hunt it down.  Unfortunately, rather like this year’s ‘Rashomon for the 24-era’ thriller Vantage Point [review], the film in its final form adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

The story begins as five men wake up in a warehouse to discover that a gas leak during some kind of fight has resulted in them all losing thier memory.  The first man to wake takes a phone call from a criminal-type who asks about the status of their hostages - which sets alarm bells ringing.  It is clear that some of the group are the kidnappers, and some are captured innocents.  But who is who?  They attempt to work together to escape the heavily locked down dwelling, but their natural suspicion of each other gradually boils to the surface.

First off, the film boasts a rather impressive cast list for a feature that forms the debut for both writer Matthew Waynee and director Simon Brand.  Although none of the main characters are credited by name (preferring instead to stick to some informal descriptions: Jean Jacket, Broken Nose, Handcuffed Man etc.), it didn’t stop the likes of Jim Caviezel, Greg Kinnear and Joe Pantoliano from taking on the roles.  As it stands, the cast is fairly solid, although the slightly derivative dialogue brings them down at times, as does a story that never delves as deeply into its high concept as it should.

Since the real draw here is the mystery behind the identity of each character, I was disappointed to discover that the film was quite careless about how it imparted this knowledge.  The most interesting element of it all is the idea that both the kidnapped and their kidnappers are having to work together with no way of knowing who’s who.  It’s a concept with such potential, and one that opens up plenty of doors for exploration; so it’s a shame then, that Waynee and Brand barely even scratch the surface of this multi-layered narrative.

The film deals with some of the group conflict that arises because of their situation - mainly through bouts of inane shouting - but the internal conflict this should present (not knowing whether you are, in fact, good or evil), never gets close to enough of a look-in.  Add to this a tendency for the story to give away its secrets with an all-too carefree attitude, and you have a story that leaps off the precipice of invention but lands flat on its face.  If only a little more time had been put into the method by which each character discovered their part in the game (simply remembering then blurting it out is frankly not good enough), then maybe the film could have built up some tension.  As it stands, there’s only enough here to follow one thread to some kind of conclusion.

In fact, even the ending itself is a bit of a mess - an overplayed final scene is supposed to add yet another complex layer, but actually just serves to cement the fact that the film is nowhere near as smart as it thinks it is.  Unknown starts as an interesting take on the rather well-worn crime drama, but as its story unravels, so does everything else, leaving the film spooling unstoppably onto the floor.  It’s not that director Simon Brand has done a bad job either; I can only hope that lessons were learned here.  Even with its great cast and concept, I’m pretty sure this film is doomed by its title, to exist only as a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Crash (2005) September 20, 2008

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Directed by: Paul Haggis

Crash is an issues film, and one that works very hard to stir its audience into post-screening conversation.  Set over twenty-four hours in LA, writer-turned-director Paul Haggis’s foray into the political correctness nightmare of racial prejudice manages to stir up plenty of opinions, many of which hold their conclusions for debate on the ride home.  Polarising opinions about its content aside though, there’s also a subtle drama worked into the seams that stops the movie from becoming just a random deconstruction of the stereotypes we consistently have pushed upon us, not least by Hollywood itself.

The story is of the multi-threaded variety, and concerns itself with an assortment of different ethnic groups, all living and working in modern day California.  Two white cops, one a corrupted old hand, the other an optimistic freshman, have their racial tolerances pushed to the limit when the former abuses a black couple during a roadside check.  Meanwhile, a district attorney and his wife are carjacked at gunpoint by two black men.  The wife demands extra security but is suspicious of the Mexican locksmith hired to do the job.  The locksmith, in turn, attempts to complete some work for a Persian storeowner, whose shop is later destroyed in a racial attack.  Blaming the Mexican, the storeowner tries to take justice into his own hands.

A film that deals so singularly in the subject of race relations was always destined to draw criticism, and Crash was no exception.  Sometimes praised for its honest and unrestrained portrayals, yet often derided for abridging the real issues, I think many people’s problem with the film lies in how it actually plays on the old stereotypes as much as it tries to refute them.  For anyone who thought that the movie was too racially skewed, maybe you missed the point.  It’s not a selection of concurrent stories that reflect life, but rather a selection of lives clouded by issues of ethnicity.

It is here that Haggis deals his toughest blows, with his righteous black characters who immediately turn out to be car thieves, his intolerant Persian shop owner, and his prejudiced white suburban woman.  The film looks like a bleak excuse to propagate pigeonholing, but there’s more to it than that.  The nicely pitched human struggles of Don Cheadle’s character and the harsh realisations of Ryan Phillippe’s supposedly straight-arrow cop, are both excellent accompaniments that help find truth amongst the turmoil.  It is Michael Peña’s role, though, that forms the compassionate epicentre of the conflict, which results in a gasp-inducing finale.

The performances from a multi-talented star cast are, rather predictably, excellent.  I’ve mentioned a few already, but add into the mix Thandie Newton, Terrence Howard, Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser, Ludacris, and Matt Dillon, all on the top of their game, and you’ve got a solid roster of talent.  Dillon especially, has one of the film’s most interesting and conflicted characters - some will find him monstrous, while others may come away believing he is basically good.  The trick played by both the writing and Dillon’s performance, is never forcing you to choose.

With such a long list of Hollywood names behind it, there are clearly plenty of people who believed in the film enough to help get it made (Cheadle even came on as producer).  Much of this is down to the writing of Paul Haggis and his well handled reprising of the ‘interwoven stories’ narrative technique.  He neatly builds his tales across the course of the film while dropping in racially reflective material that, in fairness, wavers from exemplary prejudice probing to slightly derivative typecasting.  It would also be remiss not to mention that in his debut feature as director, Haggis handles the visuals and pacing with a great deal of attentiveness and care.  The result is a film with fragmented stories, but where the cracks between them never show through.

As a general recommendation it can be a tough call, although the Academy apparently had no such trouble, handing Crash the Best Picture Oscar in 2005.  For Haggis, this undoubtedly solidified the achievement, although that honour brought with it increased attention for his ‘controversial picture’ and its inherent opinion splitting.  Personally, I don’t think it even needed this exposure - Crash is already a superb drama and an engaging film, even if you don’t agree with every minute of the content.  It is hard to deny such emotive subject matter, but see it for the high quality performances, the adept storytelling structure, and most of all, for the thrill of debate.

Open Season (2006) September 15, 2008

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Directed by: Roger Allers & Jill Culton

Open Season falls into the unidentifiable glut of CG animation films that seem to pop in and out of our multiplexes whenever a school holiday rears its head.  Notably, it is the kid-friendly animal adventure category, from which this movie also derives, that makes up a vast percentage of the market.  Not to be outdone, Sony Pictures Animation pitch in with their effort, and along with its buddies Madagascar, The Wild and Barnyard, these anthropomorphic Stepford Wives gain another shallow member.

This time it’s the pairing of bear and deer that sets the hijinks in motion.  Boog the bear (Martin Lawrence), the domesticated pet of a park ranger, meets Elliot the deer (Ashton Kutcher), a happy-go-lucky wild animal, when he saves Elliot from the hood of a hunter’s truck.  Unfortunately, circumstances find Elliot and Boog trapped out in the woods alone, right at the start of hunting season.  As Boog tries to make his way home again, he quickly realises that being a garage-living bear has left him unprepared to deal with the harshness of the great outdoors.  Instead, he has to trust Elliot, his hapless companion, to help him.

The imdb.com trivia page for this movie whimsically remarks “Ashton Kutcher and Martin Lawrence never met during the making of the film”.  And you know what?  It really feels like it, too.  Although this is quite a standard practice in the animation world, there are times when the voices gel and times when they don’t.  This, for all its consistent efforts to make you think otherwise, is one of the latter.  Maybe if Kutcher and Lawrence had actually been in the room together, one of them might have toned down their over exaggerated vocals, although I can’t credit all fault to the actors.

It certainly feels a little like the voices were chosen based on the ‘names’ rather than their appropriateness for the role.  Debra Messing takes a slightly annoying part as the caring but misguided park ranger, yet it is Gary Sinise, playing the dastardly hunter Shaw, who really has to pantomime his act up.  The moustache-twirling lunacy of the role makes for a villain who is about as threatening as the sock puppet theatre from which he is plucked.  This on its own would be enough to sink the film, but Open Season plays it safe and ensures disappointment by ruining a few other key elements too.

Most notably, a story that starts out as brisk and energetic, but very quickly turns to rushed and then to “wait, what?” before the 86 minutes are up.  It doesn’t really know if it’s coming or going as the creators struggle to squeeze in all the generic plot components that are essential to a buddy movie like this.  You can’t go wrong with the standard ‘they hate each other, they like each other, they fall out, they make up’ structure, but the film never spends enough time making us care, while the final rallying stand against the oppressors (hunters, in this particular tale), is just an excuse to get everyone back together for a bit of good-humoured violence.  Even the overarching story of Boog getting home is stretched by his obvious but unjustified choice during the conclusion.

I can’t really blame anyone for wanting to have a stab at this market, but after three and a half years in the making it’s just a shame to end up watching another weak contribution.  Most of that time is set aside for the animation process of course, and in this movie the standard is pretty good – especially on the character models which fall somewhere between The Wild’s humanised reality and Madagascar’s wacky, angular caricatures.  The script might give the kids some laughs but it offers very little to those outside of its demographic, and while the gags aren’t sparse by any means, the mismatched and sometimes overacted line readings don’t help get the best out of them.

At the point where the line-up of celebrity names became the only defining factor in telling these movies apart, we should have started exploring new directions.  Some have tried [review] and even succeeded [review] in pushing the boundaries, so if we’re going to call open season on any strand of animation, let’s have it be this one - their unstoppable propagation is ruining the ecosystem.

Pineapple Express (2008) September 11, 2008

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Directed by: David Gordon Green

Where stupidity and ineptitude meets underachieving and misguided, that’s where you’ll find the characters of a typical stoner comedy.  Often concerning male friends who are usually on the run from, or to something, the whole genre can seem like a grab at an easy audience and even easier laughs.  Pineapple Express changes little of the archetype, because it already has its biggest pulling factor built in: the failsafe comic teaming of producer Judd Apatow and star Seth Rogen.  Two gentlemen for whom these are high times indeed.

Its story concerns two stoners: one a process server named Dale Denton, the other his lazy dealer named Saul Silver.  Their relationship is one of mild acquaintance, until events conspire that Dale witnesses a murder by a cop and the biggest drug pusher in town – a guy who, according to Saul, is “crazy about murdering”.  The two bumbling losers then try to go on the run, but are forever bumping into the wrong people, be it drug middle-man Red, or working thugs Budlofsky and Matherson.  The one consistent link between them all: weed, specifically a potent strain that goes by the name of Pineapple Express.

Looking back on the comic legacy of this genre we find movies such as Up In Smoke, Dazed & Confused, and Half Baked, along with more recent additions like the Harold & Kumar films.  All fairly safe tales of comic intent and, depending on where you stand, all successful in their own way.  What the Apatow crew have added into the mix is a healthy dose of action, in order to make Pineapple Express unlike any stoner movie ever attempted.  And it’s certainly present, although you may argue that their interpretation of ‘action’ seems to mean rough and tumble violence more than anything else.

So what we get is 111 minutes of fairly foul-mouthed comic banter, punctuated by moments of wild gunfire and no-holds-barred punch ups.  It’s an odd mix, especially when done with such a strong intent on showing people getting injured, but apparently that’s exactly what the writers wanted.  Superbad [review] writing team Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are behind the script, which sees our two protagonists bounce around Los Angeles with rather too little focus, bumping into other characters along the way before reaching the natural showdown conclusion.  While the story is fairly simple, it’s not terribly engaging, and so it’s the moments between the moments that provide the film’s strongest laughs.

As always, there’s a heavy emphasis on improvisation, which the cast are presumably chosen based on their ability to participate in.  Interestingly though, because of all the down time in Pineapple Express, I actually found the improv somewhat intrusive – a first for any of Apatow’s movies.  Stripping the dialogue back might have made it seem less desperate, and while its true that most of the humour comes out of the random exchanges between characters, there are times when you want people to shut up and move on.  It’s a difficult line to tread, but where these movies have succeeded before, this one pushes its ad-libs a little too hard.

Having said this, the cast itself is completely solid and play perfectly into their characters.  Expect to see all the old Apatow faces, namely Seth Rogen as the hapless Dale Denton and James Franco as the drug dealing Saul Silver.  While we get this kind of thing from Rogen all the time, it is Franco who particularly stands out here, taking a break from his more serous work to show that he still has the funny side that got him his job on Apatow’s Freaks & Geeks series eight years ago.  Also worth mentioning is rising comic talent Danny McBride, who is part of the “he’s everywhere” contingent that also currently consists of Craig Robinson and Bill Hader – both of whom have parts in the movie.

It’s a strong comic cast, and their already existing friendships only make the on-screen relationships work even better.  That’s maybe why it’s a surprise to see David Gordon Green in the director’s chair.  Even though he has ties with some of the cast, this isn’t his typical job at all.  As the director of All The Real Girls, Undertow and, most recently, Snow Angels, he is known for his drama more than his humour; he’s even been nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance twice.  And yet, here he is, throwing himself into this stoner action / comedy combo with as much intent as ever.  Unfortunately, intent doesn’t always equal results.

While he equips himself for the genre appropriately, shooting the comic stuff exactly as expected, there’s something lacking in the action sequences that shows up the holes in this supposedly kick-ass stoner flick.  What hangs over the movie is the ghost of Hot Fuzz [review]; Edgar Wright’s action comedy that held its action in as high a regard as its humour.  A scene in Pineapple Express which shows the rapid cocking of various guns looks lame in comparison to the Tony Scott-inspired visual aesthetic that Wright managed to adopt to do exactly the same thing.

That’s pretty much where this movie stands – as a fantastic idea that never quite lives up to expectations.  Notably, the trailer for Pineapple Express was a superbly put together piece of editing that brings together the humour, the action, a great piece of music, and some of the best cinematography, in a way that never occurs in the final film.  It’s still a fun movie and one that has so many gags that you’ll undoubtedly be laughing at some point, but maybe the film works best fulfilling the typical role of a stoner flick – as a secondary stimulus.  One of the funniest scenes comes right at the end, as the main characters sit around and discuss the events as if it was a movie they just watched.  That, I feel, is exactly how audiences will get the most enjoyment too.

Pineapple Express is on UK general release from September 12th.

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