Friday, September 19, 2008

Tropic Thunder (2008)

* * * * *

Ben Stiller is one of the funniest, most talented people in Hollywood, but his resume has played out like Ryan Howard's career; a few homeruns and a whole lot of strikeouts. Tropic Thunder, however, is the funniest movie this year among some strong competition, and is a classic that puts Stiller at the top of the comedy scene with the likes of Ferrell and Apatow. Stiller steps behind the camera in Tropic Thunder for the first time since Zoolander, directing an ensemble cast of Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Steve Coogan, Danny McBride, and newcomer Brandon T. Jackson. Stiller penned the script with Etan Cohen (not to be confused with Ethan Coen of Coen Bros. fame) about a group of actors who are sent to film a war movie. When the director (Coogan) feels that the project is suffering due to lack of motivation, he strands the troupe in the Vietnamese jungle and the line between acting and reality starts to blur. The film is an amalgam of satire and original storyline, and Stiller mixes in gag humor, witty punchlines, and countless references to past war films. Tropic Thunder is way smarter than Hot Shots but not as topical as Dr. Strangelove, and the result is a movie that is loaded with laughs of all varieties. The cast is incredible, as Stiller, Black, and Downey Jr. form an amazing squad, playing stereotypical actors far from their real-life identity. Stiller is hilarious, as usual, and plays a hothead, doofus action-star somewhat similar to some of his past roles such as White Goodman in Dodgeball (and looks surprisingly jacked). Jack Black turns in one of his best performances as a drug-dependent comedian/actor, and newcomer Brandon T. Jackson manages to hold his own among the stars as Alpa Chino. Its hard to quantify Robert Downey Jr.'s performance, who plays Kirk Lazarus, the only "real actor" of the bunch. Lazarus is so committed to his role that he "becomes" a black man, and like Lazarus who he plays, Downey Jr. is so entrenched in the role it is easy to forget the man is actually white. The performance is instant comedy legend; Downey Jr. is so good that literally every one of his lines is funny, everything he says becomes a joke. Tropic Thunder packs a surprise attack, however, that is outright brilliance; cameos. There are many guest appearances, but there are two major stars playing large roles (unmentioned in the credits and promotion of the movie) that are both lights-out, laugh-out-loud performances. Overall, the film relies much more heavily on strong, intricately detailed comedic performances than profanity and vulgarity, and Tropic Thunder is more of a "film" than most of the funniest comedies from the past few years. There is plenty of profanity and obscene violence to elicit an R rating, but the dirtiness simply complements great acting and writing, instead of replacing it. The film has a cohesive feel that shows that everyone involved embraced the project, and features such as three fake commercials/previews that precede the film are clever and add to the depth of the characters. Stiller's script is the funniest he has ever written, and the story that goes along ties together all of the character's flaws and strengths for a well-rounded, surprisingly compelling plot. The laughs hit hard and often, as Tropic Thunder is a classic war comedy that has more to say about the state of Hollywood than war.

Good for: Stiller fans, war movie fans, anyone with a sense of humor

Bad for: some Will Ferrell fans, the easily offended

The Gallery
The Economist: * * * * *
The Surfer: * * *
The Writer * * * *

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tell No One (2008)

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Tell No One is the story of a doctor who, while browsing the internet at work, receives a strange e-mail from his wife. The catch; she has been dead for eight years. This simple premise at first glance seems like something that should be destined for a month on the big screen and a quick DVD release. The catch; Tell No One is adapted from an American novel, but is shot entirely in French, in France, and by a young director at the helm of only his second film. Director Guillaume Canet brings a fresh, exciting feel to this suspense thriller without resorting to typical Hollywood cliche. The film stars Fran├žois Cluzet as Dr. Alex Beck, who was at first accused but eventually cleared of his wife's brutal murder. Eight years later, he is still grieving when he is mysteriously contacted by her. The police decide to reopen the investigation, and in his attempt to decipher if the message was a cruel hoax or a paranormal phenomenon, he becomes a fugitive of the police. There are many strange characters, all of which are portrayed believably by a strong supporting cast. However, the star is Cluzet who is brilliant as Beck, capturing the humanity of a husband who has lost the love of his life and the acumen of a doctor trying to solve a difficult puzzle under intensely odd conditions. Canet challenges the audience just as Beck is challenged in the film, leading the plot down many sudden twists and sharp turns and dropping little clues along the way. At times the film becomes quite confusing and just when things start to come together, another element is thrown in which completely adjusts the viewpoint. Tell No One is a mystery film on the surface, and a great one at that, but a love story at heart. The suspense of the plot is complemented by flashbacks and imagery which give an emotional depth to the events taking place. Canet is clearly influenced by Hitchcock and American suspense films of the past and creates a blanket of tension that hangs over the audience, building heavier and heavier as the film nears its conclusion. When everything starts to come together for real, the depth in the performances and story make the conclusion, which may be the best final scene of the year, that much more rewarding for the viewer. The film is adapted from a book, and there are some illogical circumstances that were likely a result of condensing a novel into just over two hours of film. The reality of the film is at times sacrificed for continuity, and although this definitely detracts from an otherwise effective portrayal of reality, the performances and script are so strong that the inconceivable situations are largely overshadowed. The basic premise seems stale at first glance, but the inner-workings of this story are very well written and original. Tell No One is the rare thriller that holds you to your seat without insulting you with mindless violence, major plot holes left unexplained, or rehashing the same old scenarios. Its a good thing the script made it past Hollywood to France. Like Guillermo del Toro with Pan's Labyrinth and Juan Antonio Bayona with the Orphanage, Canet stays true to the genre while packing so much depth into the characters ad the story. Foreign directors, of late, seem to be much more capable of providing layers of entertainment, so that the film is not merely a thrill ride but a work of art with the potential to be interpreted and enjoyed on many levels. The French perspective keeps the film fresh, and the combination of a sharp, young director and an extremely talented leading man yield a gripping thriller with more to it than what meets the eye.

Good for: fans of foreign films, people who like mysteries and suspense, a date

Bad for: people who cannot read subtitles

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

* * * *

Leave it to Woody Allen to prove once again what great writing can do to a simple premise. The master of dark humor has returned to familiar territory, framing the curious nature of human relationships within his cynical perspective. At age 71, he is as sharp as ever. Allen employs his most recent muse, Scarlett Johansson, as twenty-something Cristina, who is on a trip to Spain with her girlfriend, Vicky, played by Rebecca Hall. Vicky and Cristina are best friends yet total opposites. Vicky prefers men on the path to fortune and serious relationships, whereas Cristina yearns for whimsical flings with artists and thinkers. They just so happen to encounter an artist at dinner, Juan Antonio, played by Javier Bardem. The bizarre love triangle which ensues involves sight-seeing through Barcelona, a lot of wine, and the emergence of Maria Elena, played by Penelope Cruz. Bardem is every bit as smooth as his character Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men was haunting, and is great to watch in an excellent role to follow up his Oscar winning performance. Johansson is mediocre for the most part, and aside from Lost in Translation, has yet to show great skill or just what Allen sees in her. She and Hall both have bright spots within their performances, but fade in the presence of Bardem and Cruz. Although neither of their characters names appear in the title, Bardem and Cruz are the stars of the show and are thunder and lightning when on screen together. They are sexy, combustible, and truly enact the passion that has come to be associated with the Hispanic lifestyle. Cruz is on fire in one her best roles. Maria Elena is a beautiful inferno seemingly unable to control her emotions or tact. Cruz has quietly built an impressive resume in good films, and may be the most underrated actress in the business. Allen compliments the beauty of his cast by capturing the beauty of Barcelona with landscape shots and locations ranging from fine restaurants and museums to small villages and trees under the moon. The film is one of the sexiest of the past few years, but shows very little and leaves much to the imagination. A particularly evocative scene involving Cruz and Johansson in a dark room, however, is likely to be one of the film's most memorable. Like all of Allen's films, he touches on the intricacies and oddities of love, placing his characters in situations everyone can relate to and having them ask themselves questions that we have all considered, although not for sixty years like Allen has. The humor is sharp but not obvious, hitting the nail on the head for some and flying over the head for others. But for those that get it, they will be laughing hard, on the inside. Woody Allen is the dean of the romantic comedy and brings legitimacy to an otherwise atrocious genre. Once again, he shows exactly how it is supposed to be done with a spicy, intelligent film.

Good for: Allen fans, people who like romantic comedies, fans of dark humor, art film fans

Bad for: people who liked 50 First Dates