Thursday, August 28, 2008

Bungle in the Jungle


In his cameo in Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou , the great filmmaker Samuel Fuller said that "film is a battleground," a whirlwind of love, hate, violence, and among all other things, emotion. It's a metaphor that conjures up images of the near-madness experienced by Francis Coppola making of Apocalypse Now, Sam Peckinpah's booze and cocaine-induced brawls with actors and studio heads, and Werner Herzog playing referee between Klaus Kinski and hordes of spear-wielding natives on his various jungle films. The location-shoot set of Tropic Thunder's film-with-in-a-film (a Vietnam picture based on the memoirs of a grizzled, hook-handed veteran) is also a battleground, but a very different kind -a war between squabbling egos, petty disagreements, and delusions of grandeur.

Among the motley crew are Tugg Speedman (Stiller), slightly past-his-prime action star, and Jeff Portnoy (Black), an embarrassing, heroin-addicted comic, both trying to get a stab at some critical respectability, and Kirk Lazarus, a method actor so pretentiously dedicated to his craft that he dyes his skin black in order to play the platoon's African-American seargent, refusing to come out of character "until the DVD commentary." British filmmaker Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan,) who recalls Peter O'Toole's Eli Cross in The Stunt Man minus the fear and respect from everyone around him, is having trouble reconciling all the whiny, self-centered egos, much to the anger of fat, disgusting, foul-mouthed studio boss Les Grossman (a mind-blowingly hilarious turn by Tom Cruise.) As the picture gets further and further behind schedule, Cockburn decides, at the suggestion of Nick Nolte's loopy survivalist vet author, to drop the boys "into the shit" - rig the jungle with hidden cameras and film their reactions to surviving in the jungle. Unfortunately, the group of actors strays offtrack, into the midst of a band of very real, heavily armed, and not entirely welcoming band of drug lords.

The premise of placing dull-witted characters into a dangerous situation that they think is all just an act is a well-worn comedic plot - indeed, when Tropic Thunder's trailers came out, I feared something along the lines of the awful Bill Murray vehicle The Man Who Knew Too Little in a Platoon-style setting. But Stiller (directing here for the first time since the much-loved Zoolander) uses this formula as a vessel for one of the most bare-knuckled Hollywood satires in a good long while. Even when it becomes all but completely obvious that the the moronic, camouflage-fatigued quintet that they are not making middle of a fly-on-the-wall war picture but caught in an incredibly dangerous, life-threatening situation, they still refuse to break character, in the off-chance of being awarded an Oscar for their troubles.

Another thing that makes Tropic Thunder so enjoyable is its stars' gleeful willingness to relentlessly make fun of themselves and their peers. Taking a note from Grindhouse's book, the movie opens with a series of fake trailers: Jeff Portnoy's "The Fatties: Fart Two," an Eddie Murphy-styled fatsuits n' flatulence fiasco in which he plays every character, and "Satan's Alley," with Lazarus and Tobey McGuire as a pair of homosexual monks. Black manages to make heroin addiction hilarious through the character of Portnoy, underscoring our society's tabloid obsession with tears-of-a-clown stories. Cruise's Weinstien-esque producer is the most hateful, egotistical megalomaniac he's played since Magnolia, which, as we've learned from recent incidents of couch-jumping and other shenanigans, apparently didn't entail that much actual acting.

Most hilarious of all is Downey, whose "dude playing a dude disguised as another dude," reaches all-new hights of Brando-disciple method actorly pretension. Downey had already elicited controversy before the film was released, both for his donning of blackface and an Otis Redding-style afro, and for cautioning Stiller's character never to "go full retard" (Tuggman's in his previous endeavor is shown to have been a life-affirming weepie called "Simple Jack," about a stuttering, severely mentally handicapped farm boy who says things like "Goodnight, mama. I will see you in my head movies.") Frankly, I don't think a protest group has missed the point of a comedy this much since the churchgoing set who tore Life of Brian a new one - Tropic Thunder does not mock people of color nor the mentally handicapped, it mocks self-important twit actors who see these groups solely as fodder for the harvesting of accolades. Of course, it takes an immensely skilled (not to mention ballsy) performer to make the joke work without being inflammatory, but Downey nails it pitch-perfect.

Lensed by John Toll (who also shot The Thin Red Line) and boasting a soundtrack of worn-out-their-welcome classic rock tunes, Stiller proves himself once again to be a keen-eyed director when it comes to making a spoof that closely resembles the real thing. Every Nam-flick cliche is present and accounted for. It's somewhat ironic, then, that Stiller the actor wound up being my sole quibble with the movie. While Downey and Black perfectly play highly satirized versions of themselves, Stiller seems miscast as a beefy musclehead, reverting essentially to playing his Mr. Furious character from Mystery Men in combat boots. It's certainly not enough to spoil the whole film, and I'd rather see Stiller in this than the scores of Meet the Fockerses and Along Came Pollys. But I couldn't help thinking how much funnier someone like The Rock or Vin Diesil would have done at balancing the tough-guy persona with the comical stupidity (I'm not kidding, I think these two more than proved their respective knacks for comedy in Get Smart and Find Me Guilty.) Even Ben Affleck, who I'm still holding out hope will come back and do something as great as Dazed and Confused someday, would have been better suited than Stiller, whose strenghts lie mainly in playing neurotic, tightly-wound dweebs. Even so, it isn't enough to spoil an otherwise hilarious and surprisingly scathing satire of the well-treaded subject that is Dream Factory pomposity and horseshit. It may not be remembered alongside Sunset Boulevard and The Player, but it's still a hell of a lot better than Hollywood Ending.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The four best movies of 2008 (so far)

I apologize (again) for my abandonment of this blog - I've been without a working computer for the past several weeks. Until I wind up taking my iMac to the vet, it will probably be slow sailing here at the Cabinet. To capsulate nearly a month's worth of watching, here are, in my opinion, the four best movies of 2008 (so far.)


1. The Dark Knight

Anyone who knows me will tell you I'm such a knee-jerking, traditionalist old fart, and hardly ever one to label any new film "the greatest of its kind," "the best thing so-and-so ever directed," etc. Well, The Dark Knight is the finest superhero movie ever made. I'm not kidding. Nolan has one-upped Bryan Singer's stellar X-Men films in terms of favoring believability over comic book stylization, creating a film that's more like a great detective thriller that just happens to feature a man in a pointy-eared mask and cape. While it treats it's subject with reverence and seriousness, it doesn't get bogged down in the dreary martyr-angst of Superman Returns, crafting a surprisingly philosophical study of heroism in a gritty world of post-9/911 turmoil (the Joker's tapes to the police eerily recall the Abu Ghraib photos, Bruce Wayne and right-hand-man Lucius Fox debate the ethics of spying on Gotham citizens via their cell phones, and Aaron Eckhart's D.A. Harvey Dent is an uncannily Obama-like agent of goodwill who gives way to corruption.)

And Ledger's Joker is an absolute revolation - I don't think I've ever been quite so sad that a young actor is no longer with us than the scene in which he visits Dent's hospital room in a nurse's uniform. Unlike Jack Nicholson's performance (which was really just a Ceasar Romero impersonation injected with the occasional "here's Johnny!" moment), Ledger is a force of nature, a pure "agent of chaos" who is utterly terrifying, totally disgusting, completely charismatic and impossible to take your eyes off.


2. Pineapple Express

As more and more negative reviews of this film seem to pile up, I feel compelled to defend it, as it it were my scrawny, mildly retarded kid brother. The chief buzz-phrase among paid critics (i.e. eggheads) is "If you're high, you'll probably find this movie funny, but I certainly didn't hurrumph hurrumph hurrumph...." If you ask me, they've missed the boat on this one. By combining the shaggy dog narrative of the buddy-stoner comedy and the homoerotic ridiculousness of a Reagan-era drug-war inspired action flick, Rogen, Apatow and co. have side-stepped the trappings of both genres, creating a wholly original concoction. As an action film, the movie has an oddly political angle - whereas Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundregen were probably justified in hunting down the foreign-accented sleazebags who were trying to push heroin on preschoolers, Rogen and Franco's characters are haplessly drawn into their high-adrenaline catastrofuck because of marijuana's needless illegality. You've got to stop and think for a minute - if only weed were legal, none of this would have ever happened.

Of course, it's as a buddy movie that Pineapple Express truly perseveres - there is more chemistry between the leads than most cinematic romantic couples, and Franco especially shines as the loveable, child-like, puppy dog-eyed drug dealer Saul. David Gordon Green (admittedly a weird choice to direct a Judd Apatow-produced frat-schlub comedy) fills the picture with unexpected moments of pathos and weird beauty, such as when Saul and Dale play leapfrog in the woods. I agree that most stoner movies aren't that funny. Movies like Half Baked, that seem to think smoking pot is an inherently funny act, usually aren't funny. But James Franco, wearing grimy pyjama bottoms, stoned out of his gourd on a swingset, crying hysterically and eating a sandwich at the same time? That's funny.


3. Shine A Light

Although it isn't a patch on Gimme Shelter or Scorsese's own The Last Waltz (in my opinion, the finest rock and roll film ever made), Shine A Light is still, whether intended or not, a fascinating portrait at the commodification and commercialization of rock and roll. The Beacon Theater's audience, full of wealthy yuppies, privileged, cellphone camera-wielding trust fund kids, and the Clintons, has about as much in common with the unwashed hippies cheering on The Band in The Last Waltz as aliens from outer space. A brief backstage prologue sheds a good deal of light on how much red tape and organizational bullshit is involved in getting a bunch of dudes onstage to sing songs of rebellion and crazed tomcat sexuality, and the picture meditates on the irony of the Stones themselves, no longer dangerous, swaggering tigers-on-the-prowl, now respected elder statesmen of the pop cultural pyramid.

At the same time, Shine A Light can also (fortunately) still be appreciated as a straight-up, balls-to-the-wall, pull-out-the-stops rock and roll film. In their sixties, the Stones still rock harder than bands a quarter their age, especially Jagger, who relentlessly leaps about onstage with the energy of a small army of Red Bull-chugging 17-year-olds. The band (as expected) rocks the shit out of their well-known repertoire of hit songs, as well as a couple of underrated goodies. The moment when the boys salute the blues tunes that inspired them by inviting Buddy Guy onstage for a smoking rendition of "Reefer and Champagne Blues" (after which Keith Richards hands Guy his guitar, saying "It's yours!") is the best moment of the film. Mick's "Loving Cup" duet with Jack White, whose face is fixed in a permanent "pinch me I'm dreaming" expression, is another highlight. Although far from the best rock film of all time, I'd be tempted to call Shine A Light the best rock film of our Rolling Stone magazine/mp3 intant gratification/ridiculously expensive concert tickets/hero worship/starfuckery age.


4. Wall - E

Pixar, once again, prove themselves to be the undisputed kings of children's animated cinema that respect its target audiences intelligence and ability to get what's going on. After the marvelous, character-driven culinary comedy Ratatouille comes Wall-E, a post apocalyptic, near-silent love story between a couple of automatons that mixes live-action and animation. While the story, which deals with social laziness and environmental irresponsibility and abandonment on a colossal scale, has echoes of Douglass Trumbull's Silent Running and Mike Judge's Idiocracy (human beings have abandoned earth, now living in a space station, drinking cheeseburger-flavored slurpees in a hoverchair, watching their holo-screens all day long, leaving the titular robot to clean up the planet,) the story here is ultimately optimistic, seeming to say that all society needs to get back on the right track is a little reality check.

And of course, this being a Pixar film, everything is gorgeously detailed, from the dusty junk that makes up Wall-E's dust cloud-beaten abode to the gleaming spaceship interiors and the eccentric quirks of all the various robots. As well as an ecological parable, it is also a tribute to what director Andrew Stanton called "the golden age of science fiction" (1968 to 1982), with affectionate nods to 2001, Star Wars, Blade Runner and Alien. Cute, heartfelt, and beautiful to watch, Wall-E is the closest CGI animated film since Sam Chen's Eternal Gaze that comes close to the realm of pure cinema.