Monday, January 28, 2013

Tropic Thunder - 2008

"Tropic Thunder" - 2008
Dir. by Ben Stiller - 2 hours

Official Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Every few years, Ben Stiller comes out with a film that justifies wading through his more mainstream fare.  Usually, it's one that he's directed himself (which is a pretty short of films, considering he's been acting in films for over twenty years), and the idea behind it is batshit insane.  "Tropic Thunder" is one of the Ben Stiller movies that makes dealing with "The Heartbreak Kid" or "Along Came Polly" almost worth it.

"Tropic Thunder" is sort of a movie about making a movie; Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is one of the stars of a film adaptation of a book of the same name, about one man's experiences during the Vietnam War.  Speedman is a fading action star, and the rest of the cast is rounded out by Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), a critical darling who is also an unspeakably committed method actor, Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a crossover rap star who constantly hawks his own merchandise, Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a strung-out comedian who makes movies in the vein of "Big Momma's House," and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), an unknown actor.  This combination of egos and star-power are a headache for director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), who is completely unable to wrangle the actors.  He is given the genius idea of shooting guerrilla style and dropping the actors into the jungles of Vietnam, which predictably goes awry.

Now, the idea behind the film is pretty solid, but the execution is damned near flawless.  Not only does the humor come from the characters, but the characters are as insane as you'd think a batch of famous actors would be, and then some.  But a lot of that rests on the stars' shoulders.  I can't immediately think of another film in many years where one of the leads spends the entire film essentially in blackface (that would be Downey, Jr.), another is playing a comedian strung out on heroin (Black), and the third is as dumb as the characters he plays (Stiller), and then not only get away with it, but end up being praised for it, but here we are.

One of the things that really helps is that the actors don't really ever wink to the camera.  They're all fully immersed in being dumb and being really aggressive about that (which is a proven comedy formula), and that helps when you end up having to root for these guys even though they'd all seem really awful people on the surface.  But you see that these people are behaving in a manner consistent with their personalities, and are not transparently playing that for laughs.  You can see this in the scene where Tugg plays with a severed head, trying to convince his castmates that the game is on; it's not a case of Ben Stiller playing with a head because he wants the shock value, it's Tugg playing a character trying to convince his castmates that the head is a prop because he's too dumb to realize that he's holding a dripping, leaking head in his hands.  So when Tugg eventually gets in trouble (because of course he's going to), you can't really fault him for doing dumb things.  He's a dumb man, he can't help that.  But he believes in what he's doing, and that goes a long way.

It's also very difficult to make a movie like this without actually being able to make a movie that looks like this.  Parodies can be fantastic because of their seeming amateurishness, but making a movie that looks like a  full-on action movie just to be able to make fun of some of the things in it (and this is not a parody of a war film, it's the batch of actors that the actors are playing that are the source of and the butt of pretty much every joke present) is much more subversive.  There's a wide range of kinds of movies shown in "Tropic Thunder," and the beginning sequence of faux-trailers that introduce the characters (and this is both succinct and a brilliant way to introduce a series of characters) either has to work like it's real or look completely like trash. And they look legit.  The film looks legit.  You've got those swooping helicopter shots that show the denseness of the jungle and then a village or something as transition shots (not just once, either), and those aren't even for humorous purposes!  It's just that if you make a war movie in the jungle, that shot's going to be in there.

"Tropic Thunder" is so funny it makes me a little angry that there isn't more with these characters.  I'd seriously watch any of the movies in the fake trailers, or anything with Tugg Speedman in it at all.  I'll probably have to settle for watching "Zoolander" again, and then I'll get mad that "Zoolander 2" isn't out yet.  It's times like that I weaken and start to consider re-watching "Meet the Fockers" or "Starsky & Hutch," and when I do, I'll start to get disappointed that they aren't more "Zoolander" or more "Tropic Thunder."  That's how Ben Stiller will get you.  Every five or six years, he'll do a genius comedy that you just can't dislodge from your head.  And then, for the next five or six years, you'll go see what he's been doing, hoping and failing to recapture that magic.  And then, right when Ben Stiller feels you start to slip, boom.  "Zoolander 2."

Hooked again.

4 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

I Heart Huckabees - 2004

"I Heart Huckabees" - 2004
Dir. by David O. Russell - 1 hr. 47 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"I Heart Huckabees" is a very weird movie.  And that's valuable to know going in - either you have a tolerance for deliberate weirdness or you don't.  If you don't, this film is probably going to be the sort of thing you might want to pass on.  But if you don't mind talky films that take a while to coalesce into something resembling a plot, this is a lot of fun.

Albert (Jason Schwartzman) is the leader of Open Spaces, an activist group that aims to preserve undeveloped land in urban areas.  He goes about that by doing things like planting trees in the middle of mall parking lots and accompanying everything he does with a poem.  Due to a series of coincidences, Albert comes across the services of Vivian (Lily Tomlin) and Bernard (Dustin Hoffman), existential detectives, whom he enlists.  Soon, his work rival, Brad (Jude Law), hires them too.  Another client, firefighter Tommy (Mark Wahlberg), gets paired with Albert, and they soon decide to follow the teachings of Caterine Vauban (Issabelle Huppert), who believes in cruelty and meaninglessness.  There's a lot more that goes on, but honestly, the plot isn't the point in "I Heart Huckabees."

So what's the point?  Part of the point is the sharp, yet elliptical writing.  Part of it is absolutely awesome casting (in that the actors involved are not only perfect for the role, but their personas add to the characters). Jason Schwartzman does what only he can do: be conflicted and confused, sympathetic, but also kind of unlikable at the same time.  Jude Law is a dick, in the way that a confident, good-looking man in a suit can be a dick.  Mark Wahlberg does confused and on the verge of violence better than anyone during ordinary circumstances.  Here, he's the chaos that a bunch of philosophers can't quite explain or contain.  And if this film didn't exist, someone would have to create it so that Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman could do exactly what it is that they do here.  I'm not sure you could pick two better people to embody just what it is that a pair of married "existential detectives" are.

As for the story, it's more or less about pairs, and the relationships between them.  Hoffman and Tomlin exist as a unit, a crazy-ass, impenetrable unit that baffles everyone.  Albert, at different times in the film, is paired off with either his rival, his manipulative guru, or with Tommy, exploring "truth" together.  Ultimately, the real question is what do these relationships mean; it's as if all of the people populating this film have either never understood or have entirely forgotten what relationships mean and are for.  This film is less dry than that might sound; anyone who explores philosophy will come to understand the humor inherent in trying to understand what things really mean.  And this film downright hilarious at times, confusing at times, very awkward at times, but it's never a chore to watch.

"I Heart Huckabees" is a bizarre, weird, unique film.  If you were a fan of 90's indie films, that's a good reference point to start from here.  You can enjoy the round-about way the plot turns in on itself (and it does make sense, if you're paying attention), or you can just enjoy a bunch of committed weirdos trying to find some answers and happiness.  As Mark Wahlberg's character keeps saying, it's important to ask these questions.  You might not find any answers (especially the answers you might hope for), but one's curiosity about what's happening around them is important.

3.5 / 5 - TV

Monday, January 21, 2013

Flight - 2012

"Flight" - 2012
Dir. by Robert Zemeckis - 2 hrs. 18 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I'm not entirely sure how to approach writing about films who's advertising is pretty much a bait-and-switch. Is it entirely fair to hold the promotional materials against a film?  Advertising, in it's most basic form, is the art of lying.  So should I get mad when it's apparent that I've been lied to?  I guess I'm particularly frustrated in this case, because the sort of film that "Flight" actually is is something that I might have been inclined to go see.  So at least in my instance, it wasn't even necessary to engage in subterfuge and deception to get me in the theatre, and the needlessness of it kind of sticks in my craw.

What the trailer will tell you is this: Whip Whitman (Denzel Washington) is a very skilled pilot, one who's unorthodox maneuver in the face of an emergency saves 96 lives.  But the routine post-crash investigation finds that Whip had some alcohol in his system, which is a no-no.  From this point, it's a man vs. the system movie, with Whip trying to preserve his reputation and career in the face of immense pressure from all sides. And John Goodman rolls in and is awesome, although he comes off as a bit of a huckster in the trailer.

In the actual version of "Flight," not the imagined promised version, the very first scene has Whip drunk and in a hotel room with what turns out to be a co-worker, Katerina (Nadine Velazquez).  While Whip takes a phone call from his ex-wife, Katerina walks around the room stark naked (no complaints here on that account) for like two full minutes.  We learn that Whip is piloting a flight in less than two hours, so he snorts a line of coke to straighten himself out, and heads to the airport.  It's then established that he's kind of a functional alcoholic (and at least initially, that has an almost rogue-ish charm), and then his flight turns into a disaster.

What follows over the course of "Flight" has almost nothing to do with the man-vs.-system story promised, and everything to do with watching Whip's self-destructive behavior play out over and over again.  Oh sure, there's the obligatory scene of Whip pouring all of his intoxicants down the drain (literally), and he tries to straighten himself out on his own, but as soon as he feels the pressure, he's back on the bottle.  At this character's best, he's a wobbly knight on a three-legged horse, but that's just the excuse that keeps Whip from recognizing the awfulness of his own behavior.  And in terms of his awful behavior, this is practically pornography.  The only thing keeping it from being such is the fact that his violence towards everyone else is strictly verbal, and he seems to get the worse of everything (and it's his own fault, as well).  The investigation looms in the background, and comes forth when Whip's lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) shows up from time to time, but let's make no mistake about what "Flight" is: this is an addiction story first and foremost.

Secondly, this movie is all about watching Denzel Washington play a raging asshole.  In the trailers, the extent of his addictions and associated behavior is soft-pedaled to the point where you wouldn't be crazy to think you were going to see a movie about a heroic pilot instead of a drunk coke-head.  You might think that John Goodman's character, Harling Mays, is some kind of media spin expert instead of his childhood friend, coke-dealer, and general enabler.  And I'm being honest, I would go see a movie about a seriously unlikable drunk pilot and his coke-dealing sidekick (especially when played by John Goodman).  Maybe a lot of other people wouldn't, but you've got to be honest about the film that you have.  Even if it's a film with big stars made by a very famous director (Robert Zemeckis, also responsible for movies like the "Back to the Future" trilogy, "Contact," "Castaway," and "Forrest Gump," being among his highlights), you have to be honest about what exactly it is that you have on your hands.

Instead, I went in kind of expecting a feel-good story and got Cokehead McGee verbally abusing everyone in sight.  "Flight" is a decent movie, although I'm kind of baffled by all of the praise it's been receiving.  Denzel Washington is very good, but that's not uncommon.  There's a kind of a feel-good ending, but this movie might be more accurately described as a romance triangle movie between Whip, the bottle, and Alcoholics Anonymous.  And honestly, the "rehab ending" is a complete cop-out, as if these kinds of problems are as solvable as taking an aspirin for your headache.  Both John Goodman's and Don Cheadle's roles are minimal, so neither are a good reason to see this film if you weren't already going to.  "Flight" is a slickly directed, very well-acted movie about a bunch of people you're probably going to hate by the time you reach the credits.  Cheadle's lawyer character is possibly the most likable (if not the most sympathetic) character in the film, which says a lot about "Flight."

2 / 5 - Theatre

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Fantasia - 1940

"Fantasia" - 1940
Dir. by Samuel Armstrong, James Algar, Bill Roberts and Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen and David D. Hand, Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley, and Ford Beebe, T. Hee and Norm Ferguson, and Wilfred Jackson - 2 hrs. 5 min.

Original Theatrical Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

It's so easy to have an image in your head of exactly what a "Disney Film" is, and it's not entirely complimentary.  My honest expectations are white-washed, saccharine, vapid kiddie fare when I see that Disney logo before a film.  Granted, the company itself is much larger than that, and they were ultimately the parent company that released "Pulp Fiction," but I very rarely subject myself to straight-up Disney movies.  So imagine my delight in "Fantasia," a Disney film made before the very building blocks to "Disney Films" were codified and enforced.

Released initially in 1940, "Fantasia" is a hybrid live action/animated film which presents cartoons accompanied by classical music (there's no dialogue to speak of in any of the animated segments), with live action segues hosted by Deems Taylor and the orchestra that plays the classical pieces.  "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is probably the most famous of the segments, with Mickey Mouse playing the apprentice that quickly gets in over his head, using magic that he isn't quite ready to control yet.  "Fantasia" also includes Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite" and Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," among other famous musical pieces.

I'm constantly amazed that some of the most impressive animation comes from the 1940's.  Between Disney's early output and Warner Brothers' "Looney Toons," the art form advanced quickly.  And there are a number of really breath-taking animated sequences present here.  Entire essays could be written on this subject, but the consistently impressive (and varied) treatment of water throughout is one such point, as is the treatment of foliage (meaning that it's actually animated, rather than static and pushed to the back in the background paintings).  Everything from dancing mushrooms to centaurs to ballerina hippos are lively, spry, and energetic.  But you don't need me to tell you this; if you've watched "Fantasia," you know how amazing this completely computer-free animation is.

And another point: this film has tons of stuff that's both non-offensive (to me, at least) and that you would never, ever, in a million years see Disney commit to film for fear of Christian protest.  There's the dancing mushrooms, there's the sorcery, Mickey murdering his recently-come-to-life mop with an axe, there's more bare cherub butt than you could ever hope for, literally Satan and dancing demons, topless centaurs...  In other words, cool, funny, benign stuff that over-zealous parents have stripped out of cartoons in the years since "Fantasia" came out.  Maybe having a bent-over cherub's backside morph into a cartoon heart is only pretty funny, but in the context of a film that starts with the Disney logo, I was rolling with laughter.  But it wasn't only the unexpected details that were enjoyable.

One of my favorite segments of "Fantasia" is Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours," featuring a series of dancing animals, each of whom is supposed to represent the hours passing over the course of the day.  It starts with dancing ostriches, who are replaced by dancing hippos (and the character animation of these hippos in tutus is absolutely fantastic), who are replaced by dancing elephants, who are chased by dancing alligators.  It makes sense when you watch it, I promise.  But the dancing and character animation of each is wonderfully specific and funny, the sort of thing you simply don't see out of animation any more (and haven't for many years).

Most of the time, it's not that hard to write about film.  But "Fantasia" is one of those movies that is an experience more than it's a series of plot points, and the synthesis of music and animation adds up to something special.  Even as I've been trying to describe points in the film, the thought runs through my head that it would be easier to just grab you by the shoulders, shake you a little bit, and tell you just to sit down and watch the damned thing.  So, you know, don't make me come over there.  Just watch it, already.

4.5 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Distinguished Gentleman - 1992

"The Distinguished Gentleman" - 1992
Dir. by Jonathan Lynn - 1 hr. 52 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I guess you could call "The Distinguished Gentleman" Eddie Murphy's "Fletch."  You've got the same set-up (albeit on the wrong side of the law) - a fast-talking con-man who does impressions (largely voice impressions here) and stumbles into something slightly beyond their grasp.  In this case, it's sort of an attack on Washington D.C., and it actually holds up pretty well.

Thomas (Eddie Murphy) is a con-man running a scam based on filching credit card numbers from a 1-900 number he runs, and then blackmailing the people who have called in.  In the course of this scam, he ends up undercover (sort of) as a waiter at a fundraiser for Florida Senator Jeff Johnson (James Garner), and overhears one of the funders bragging about what a sweet deal being a Senator is.  After one of those "I'm in the wrong racket" moments, Thomas forgets about it until Senator Johnson dies right before re-election (in the manner that pretty much every guy wishes he could go it in).  Thomas puts two and two together, does a little research, and sets his eyes on becoming a Senator.  Going from con-man to elected official might seem like an extraordinary leap, except that Thomas' full name is Thomas Jefferson Johnson, and Florida is a state accustomed to voting on auto-pilot, so "Jeff Johnson" wins based only on name recognition.

This all happens in about the first half hour, so the bulk of the film is Eddie Murphy's Washington Adventure. "The Distinguished Gentleman" has some valid points to make, but none of that would matter if it wasn't also pretty funny.  This isn't exactly prime-era Murphy, but it's not far off.  And him playing an essentially amoral character is a good fit for both him and the story; at this point in America, good luck finding anyone whose beliefs aren't set in stone, but it's entirely believable that Murphy's character not only prioritizes money over all, but that he simply hasn't given much thought to anything beyond the acquisition of money.  Thomas isn't exactly a Robin Hood, but his pre-D.C. grifts are portrayed at being at the expense of the already-wealthy, for whom a few thousand dollars and a Rolex are a drop in the bucket.  The idea of going after bigger money with impunity sounds great, but Murphy's character learn that legal big money comes at the expense of people for whom this is not a drop in the bucket.

A lot of the humor comes from an acknowledged con-man being blown away at the brazenness of the D.C. insiders, whom Thomas also regards as con-men.  He's immediately taken under the wing of Dick Dodge, another very influential (and crooked) politician, and money is constantly being thrown at him.  There's a nice flip to the usual fish-out-of-water story, in that Thomas isn't really some doe-eyed innocent, and even someone who takes advantage of people for a living is appalled at the way that these politicians are taking advantage of their situation.  That's a timeless message, and is a sticking point about the political process, that people who are supposed to be public servants spend their time chasing money and currying favors instead of worrying about the consequences of their actions.  This is illustrated in the story by three characters: there is the morally outraged Senator/preacher, Elijah Hawkins (Charles S. Dutton), and a mother who's daughter has come down with a wicked case of cancer, ostensibly from her school being situated under a clump of power lines.  Thomas is no saint, but stealing is only fun and games until some little girl has to wear a Florida Marlins with a wig sewn into it.

I guess people will always bitch about politicans, so this movie is based on a subject that is always relevant.  "The Distinguished Gentleman" is bolstered by a pretty good Eddie Murphy performance, plus a bunch of awesome character actors to fill out the cast.  You've got your Lane Smiths, your Joe Don Bakers, your Charles S. Duttons - a bunch of people who are good at what they do and are familiar faces.  Maybe it's just the evolution of things, but the only thing that felt out of place in the story is the notion that the general public doesn't really pay attention to politics (it's become a new national sport on the level of football, so it seems), but it's both comforting and discomforting to know that there's always been crooked politicians, and there probably always will be.  Overall, this movie has held up well, and is still funny, even against the test of time.

3 / 5 - TV