Sunday, August 24, 2008

Tropic Thundahh!

Generally speaking, Ben Stiller's "Tropic Thunder" is a stupid movie. This fact does not keep it from struggling to be smart, or being pretty funny in the process. The film starts with three fake previews and one fake commercial, which is something I have never seen before (though the idea seems stupidly obvious), and all four are laffers. Edit: Oh, yeah -- it is obvious -- "Grindhouse" did it a while back. The first preview is a lampoon of sequels, with Ben Stiller's character playing his action hero character for the fifth time, this time with baby seals strapped to his chest. The second is a surprisingly direct condemnation of Eddie Murphy being the Anti-Matter of funny for the past decade. The third is the best: Robert Downey, Jr.'s Oscar winning character playing a gay monk opposite "MTV Awards Best Kiss Winner Tobey Macguire." Pretty good beginning, followed by a pretty good first twenty minutes of the actual-fake movie, which, as far as I can tell, is the only well-written sequence for the next two hours. 

The film has all the ingredients to be a high-larious comedy: Danny McBride as a foul mouthed pyrotechnic guy? Check. Steve Coogan doing his thing? Check. Silly Tom Cruise cameo? Check. Robert Downey, Jr. being the genius that he is? Check check check. Like practically every comedy these days starring genuinely funny people, though, something is lost in the execution and all this funny is mixed in with long distances of mere tittering, or bored half-laughter. Steve Coogan once said that he cut and reworked one of his live shows as the character Pauline Calf to have a big laugh from the audience every 11 seconds. If only "Tropic Thunder" had such discipline. 

(note the cheap black joke in the poster)

The story is simple: it is a movie about a movie being made, but the movie-in-the-movie isn't going too well, so they decide to shoot it guerilla style, and instead get dropped into a real war which the actors think is actually just a very realistic movie being made. Got it? Good -- because the logistics of what is actually going on get dropped by the way-side very quickly since the director literally gets blown up by a landmine, and the actors are left to fend for themselves. Whether that means following the script or just wandering around is up to them, and the rest of the jokes (appropriately) have just about as much focus. I don't exactly think that Ben Stiller is an inherently funny guy -- a lot of his stuff is over the top, and he is at his best when his energy is being harnessed and honed (see: "The Royal Tenenbaums"). His directing is exactly the same way: high energy, little structure, and too much going on. 

The bulk of "Tropic Thunder" is this slew of ridiculously offensive, raunchy, and politically incorrect jokes, many of which are really, really funny. Just to give you an idea of just how ridiculous, here I will describe a very brief joke: Jack Black has a problem -- he is addicted to crack -- and he takes out a pack of heroin but! A bat from out of the jungle steals it away! Jack is pissed off, as any addict would be. The bat soon falls to the ground, and Jack pounces mouth-first on the bat screaming "You overdosed hahah!" and proceeds to suck the drug-infused blood of the bat. This joke is just one of seemingly hundreds that are varying degrees of funny. On one hand, this shotgun approach is fairly entertaining, but the film could use a bit of structure to better keep the attention of the audience throughout the long, panda-killing stints in the jungle. The film's episodes are linked by four or five different musical montages, only one of which is truly funny. At worst, the montages help reinforce that the movie may not really know where it is going or what it is making fun of, but at best they offer the difficult life choice we all must go through at some crucial point in our lives: do we stay true our best friend, or do we help assassinate them in exchange for a jet airplane? 

The stealer of this offensive show, without any comedic doubt, is Robert Downey, Jr. in blackface. If the movie as a whole is only a 4 or 5 on the funny scale, Downey is a consistent 9 or 10. He has the best one-liners, the best looks, and the most offensive role in the whole ordeal. He pulls it off with his usual grace and charm - except this time he gets to do it in blackface, which, if I do say so, is amazingly funny. The film is a veritable breeding ground for controversy, and I like that aspect of it. Apparently there has been a small uproar and boycott around the film's treatment of the mentally disabled. Stiller's character's previous role was "Simple Jack," who is, to put it bluntly, a buck-toothed retard who says things like "This makes my eyes rain." Ridiculousness totally in stride with the rest of the film. At one point, Downey, Jr. scolds Stiller for going "full retard" in the role and alienating the audience. For those offended by this statement, I offer this sentiment: the guy saying these words IS WEARING BLACKFACE.  Don't you realize that the movie is walking a line between making fun and ironizing the act of making fun? Don't have anything better to worry about? What the fuck are you, retarded?

Movie review 5 of 10


Shawn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shawn said...

The Corruptor:

Approaching The Corruptor from out of the fog of its Asian film inspirations limits our prejudices based on negative mimicry and authenticity accusations. Glaring echoes of John Woo style Hong Kong action films that once seemed so immediate now seem sensible uses of style charged filmmaking, and the film should be assessed by way of James Foley's powerful craftsmanship rather than an outmoded sense of propriety regarding filmmaking technique. It is as much through a common economic prosperity as through a mutual appreciation of disparate achievements in art that maintains Eastern and Western cultural fascination and rivalry. I choose The Corruptor as a point of discussion for this convergence for three reasons: James Foley is a talented filmmaker without a cinematic agenda, The Corruptor was in its time unnecessarily derided for aspects now highly common, and The Corruptor's lead actors (Chow Yun-Fat and Mark Wahlberg) are two of their nations' very best, strengthening my point that this film deserves a second, more contemporary examination.

The Hong Kong action film diverged from the traditional Hollywood action film in that its principle perspicacity was of the audience's expectations for entertainment, rather than their desire to understand the detailed routines of criminals or gain knowledge of criminal psychology. You must understand this point before discussing any of these films. It's an idea that still has contentious validity: the movie character, freed from reality, has unlimited creative potential because he does not have any limits. Especially because the genesis of these films was in the late 80s, when Hollywood was only beginning to understand that it could remove entirely the thin veil it idiotically draped between film and reality, and because the 70s was a reality-fueled time for American cinema, did the films appear so striking. If American mainstream fully understood this concept today we wouldn't still have to be playing catch up. As it is, in general the American film character is now a perpetuation of the American dream, as in its characters are still idiotically presented as actual possibilities (there's Indiana Jones in the corner, blushing), and in general Asian film characters are fantasy based, stemming from an idea of humanity rooted in cinema. So Asian escapist cinema has made a veritable escape itself.

The reason The Corruptor is an example of the Asian filmmaking ideology is because in the real world of 1999 buildings were not constantly blowing up, street gangs were not in perpetual, violent wars with each other, and five minutes long car chases with high bystander morality rates were not a daily occurrence. In the world of The Corruptor there's a crime of Heat-like or Die Hard-like intensity every 30 seconds, apparently. The basic problem with action films unleashed like this is there's little room for character building. What you are going to learn about the characters you will learn in greatly exaggerated and emotionally heightened scenes resembling nothing from the real world at all. Like in most action movies the world over. The contradiction between actually even feigning a human character amidst the purely fantasy action elements is the hypocritical condition implicit in the unhinging of the universe - you've swapped problems, you've traded in action for character. Then again one of the classic filmmaker laments is the difficulty in showing violence without sensationalizing it, and maybe characters should only be judged by their realism in character based dramas attempting to be realistic. That would seem logical.

It's fair to say that all characters in The Corruptor are characterizations not characters. That isn't to say it fails to uncover true emotion. Central to most crime films and central to The Corruptor is the relationship between morality and law, justice and progress, and family and job. Nick Chen (Chow Yun-Fat), Danny Wallace (Mark Wahlberg), and Henry Lee (Ric Young) each represent conflicting emblems of these ideas, and their actual opposition to each other in the film's story becomes the battleground for the ideas suggested by what they are emblematic of. This is awesome. It's as if you are having a highly theoretical conversation with your friend about morality, and then the concept of Flawed But Ultimately Virtuous manifests itself in the room to participate in a physical battle between Corrupt But Possessing Redeeming Features. Then, while you and your friend silently drink an Apricot flavored beer, Naive And Disillusioned And Yet Undecided About Single Moral Path slams through the wall with a 9mm and begins firing. Isn't this a description of a truly cathartic interaction? Can you find that cathartic experience in an action film composed of true people? Absolutely not. A true emotional reaction to the film elevates the conversation beyond semantics or rationalization, and this kind of response is possible in a film like this exactly because the characters are empty vessels filled by your imagination.

The Corruptor's relationship between itself and its viewer is something impossible in novel form. An action film of this pedigree is a visceral experience obtained through the momentum of the unfolding visual experience which is a combination of deft editing, visual content, and contextual progression (the progression in an action scene is likely an increase in risk and not moral consequence). The Corruptor's director James Foley expertly fires off his action scenes like a 4th of July fireworks display, one loud boom following one loud boom in a spectacle that stimulates the mind toward thoughts of wandering excitement and energy.

True to the narrative form of these action movies I'll end with a not properly motivated but still understandable moral lesson: at the theater, Entertaining Without Pretension has the right to betray Delusional Sublimation of Human Guilt/Desire in every way. It does.