Tropic Thunder – Borderland Review

tropic-thunder-poster.jpgThere is a little, teeny-tiny film called TROPIC THUNDER out there now that does a lot of film & TV gibing. Is it offensive? Yes, I can certainly see where it could be, especially regarding its handling of the subject of war. Politically incorrect? Pretty much. Overly stuffed with foul language? Yes. Crude? Without a doubt. Waggish? Oh yeah.
That all sounds pretty much like a tailor made guy flick, but you know what? The girls in the theater I was in were laughing just as much as the guys. Maybe we boys have been a bad influence on them. Or maybe TROPIC THUNDER is just friggin’ funny. Well, it’s safe to say that it’s the latter, though I have to warn some of you, it’s not for the particularly sensitive. But hey, can a film that lovingly throws in homages to (or spoofs of) greats like the original STAR TREK TV series, PLATOON, JAWS, APOCOLYPSE NOW, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, RISKY BUSINESS and more be all bad? I say uh-uh, baby. And I have to admit I found that STAR TREK bit particularly nostalgic. To me the look of terror on Ben Stiller’s face as it looked like Captain Kirk was definitely a goner was priceless (mainly because that very episode was one of the first things that scared me as I watched it when I was a kid).
Some of the other film or TV related gags are a bit more subtle, so you’ll want to be paying attention for their moments. How all those bits get crammed into a movie about a bunch of actors and filmmakers who are trying to create a serious, expensive & epic war movie and wind up finding themselves thrown into the real thing because they’re not “feeling” it or getting the right moments on film is just part of the fun.
Oh yes, there’s much more, dear reader. If you haven’t heard yet, Robert Downey Jr. (as a serious academy award winning Australian actor named Kirk Lazarus) gives his second knockout performance this year. Now, I have to admit that I’ve never been a big Downey Jr. fan. I’ve always found him a little smug and smirky. It’s usually seemed as if he were winking a bit at the fact that he knew he was just making a movie. However, he has aged well, and those traits I just mentioned served him perfectly for his character in IRON MAN. Still, after his two performances this summer I’d like to go on record as saying that I wish the Oscars looked a little more favorably on comedy because Mr. Robert Downey Jr. knocked it out of the park as a serious thespian who undergoes a “pigment augmentation” procedure so that he, as a blonde-haired-blue-eyed-actor, can portray a black soldier in the midst of a Southeast Asian war. I mean, we’re talking about a guy who when told to snap out of character and get back to reality replies, “Man, I don’t drop character until I’m finished with the DVD commentary.” There is more difficulty, I think, in his performance than it might first appear. Then there’s that Australian accent he flawlessly sports. He was just a joy to watch.
Let us not forget about Ben Stiller, though. He plays actor Tugg Speedman, who made a bundle portraying a macho action hero in the extremely repetitive SCORCHER action film series. But that series is fizzling and so is Speedman’s career. His hope is that this dramatic role will catapult him to a new level as an actor. He tried once before in an intended sentimental drama about a “retard,” but that was a disaster and we get to hear a little philosophizing as to why that portrait—as well as Sean Penn’s I AM SAM outing in 2001—failed.
Stiller wore four hats on this big-budget comedy: actor, co-writer, co-producer and director. Nice job on all counts too. The only problem I had with him was when he would slip into the character type he’s played in virtually all of his other films. It’s beginning to come off as tiresome and too whiney. I thought this was an opportunity for him to really take things in a different direction, but there were a few scenes in which he didn’t quite cut the mustard for me on that level.
His screenplay (with co-writers Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen) is witty, gutsy and funny. I don’t think I’ve seen a funnier film yet this year. I have to admit that I’m generally a little sensitive to things like war, crude language and fart jokes, but by and large I was able to get past that in this film.
However, I did find myself looking around in embarrassment after laughing at some of that stuff. Then there were the jokes involving an endangered species and kids; generally off limits in your average movie, but not here, and I still laugh when I think about them. As a director he’s gained extra assuredness after some of his previous efforts, ZOOLANDER, CABLE GUY and REALITY BITES among them. He’s not afraid to toy with his subject matter either. However, the pokes he takes at Hollywood are done with affection; there is no real bite to them and unlike some, I didn’t find the movie to be overly bold on that level, though it was assertive in its sense of humor. I’ll tell you that only one person gets killed in the film (not counting those who die in the make-believe war footage) and based on who it is, I’d say that’s a fun little statement.
Stiller evinced a sure hand when casting the film. Downey Jr. I already mentioned, but Jack Black as the gross-out comedy actor Jeff Portnoy gave just about my favorite performance of his, and Brandon T. Jackson (CUTTIN DA MUSTARD) and Jay Baruchel (KNOCKED UP) held their own with their costars as Alpa Chino and Kevin Sandusky, respectively. Nick Nolte, Tobey Maguire and Tom Cruise put in unforgettable cameos as well. But that’s all I’ll say about them. The rest you get to find out for yourselves. Just know that Cruise really cuts loose. And Matthew McConaughey delivers an appropriately chewy performance as Speedman’s agent, Rick Peck, who likes to go by the moniker “the Pecker.” He hasn’t been much help with Speedman’s lagging career lately, so he grasps at the only thing he can to make himself feel significant, a minor oversight involving the availability of a TiVo unit for his star, which his contract calls for and which did not arrive on location for him. Go get ‘em, Peck! You fight for your client, my man!
What with the f-word avalanche, gross-out site gags, flatulence jokes and what all, this ain’t Shakespeare, but it sure is funny. And it was sprinkled with just enough geek-boy jokes to make me feel all warm and squishy inside.
TROPIC THUNDER (DreamWorks Pictures, 2008; 106 mins.) Directed by Ben Stiller. Screenplay by Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen. Story by Ben Stiller and Justin Theroux. Produced by Ben Stiller, Stuart Cornfield and Eric McLeod. Music by Theodore Shapiro. Cinematography by John Toll. Production Design by Jeff Mann. Art Direction by Richard L. Johnson and Dan Webster. Edited by Greg Hayden. Cast: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Steve Coogan, Bill Hader, Nick Nolte, Danny McBride, Matthew McConaughey, Brandon Soo Hoo, Reggie Lee, Trieu Tran, and Tom Cruise. MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language including sexual references, violent content and drug material.

Dark Knight – An Additional Look

May be the best comic book movie ever.

By John T. Stanhope

Batman 'interrogates

Here it is, straight up. Mark Hamill has always been the best Joker there ever was, ever. Until now. This means it’s pretty safe to say that just about all you’ve heard regarding the late Heath Ledger (the upcoming THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS) and his performance in THE DARK KNIGHT is true. The young man was driven in his role in a manner that Jack Nicholson could only dream of. But then, 1989’s BATMAN didn’t allow for such a sick, twisted, dark, maniacal take on the character. Let’s face it, the ‘80’s/’90’s versions of the beloved caped crusader were…well, a joke. Continue reading “Dark Knight – An Additional Look”

Kung Fu Panda vs. Forbidden Kingdom – Fant-Asia Film Review

kung_fu_panda.jpgKUNG FU PANDA is a not-so-little animated film from DreamWorks that is actually kinda “mystical and kung fu-ey.” It could have been a one-joke picture (as I feared from the early trailers), or another film filled with modern, hip jokes & references (like SHREK or A SHARK’S TALE – entertaining though they may have been). Instead, the writers and directors of this project, Jonathon Aibel & Glen Berger (KING OF THE HILL) and Mark Osborne (SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS) & John Stevenson (art dept. on SHREK 2, MADAGASCAR), respectively, have a sincere understanding and fondness of Chinese kung fu films of yesteryear. The result is a film that is cute and entertaining for youngsters, but also serves up a nice helping of fun and nostalgia for us older folk, especially those who really understand and feel all warm & squishy about the butt-kicking martial arts genre. And if you’re paying attention at all, you can see several parallels to the last 3 STAR WARS films. Frankly, it handles those related themes better – certainly more entertainingly.
KUNG FU PANDA’a characters were nicely drawn as well (and no, I don’t mean as cartoons). No one was merely a background computer image. Voice casting was solid, with a slew of well known actors pitching in like Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Wayne Knight, Michael Clarke Duncan, Lucy Liu, and a fellow I mention below from Hong Kong.
I was particularly taken by Randall Duk Kim (YEAR OF THE FISH, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA) as Oogway, the head Kung Fu Master, and James Hong (BALLS OF FURY, MULAN) as the Panda’s father, Mr. Ping. Throughout most the film I was wondering how on earth Mr. Ping could be Po’s father and at one point, just when we the audience thought he was going to make that big explanation, he turned the tables us, essentially saying ‘nope, you ain’t never gonna get to find out.’ A great teasing moment. Then there are nice lines like, “One often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to read more into KUNG FU PANDA than is there. After all, let’s face it, the Chinese martial arts genre has never honestly been accused of great depth. Still, this animated film makes the effort to embody & honor the spirit of the genre with which it lovingly plays. And it looks like a lot of folks are getting the intent of the filmmakers. Thus far it has pulled in a stellar $203,500,614 in the nearly six weeks it’s been out. Not bad for a “cartoon.”
Still, KUNG FU PANDA is not quite a masterpiece. A few of the jokes fall flat, and some of Jack Black’s (KING KONG) banter as the Panda, Po, didn’t do much for me. I’ve also heard some say that its story is derivative. This may well be, but in my opinion that should be considered more of a compliment than a criticism. The elements within it mirror just about every self-respecting kung fu film out there. Just ask Hong Kong martial arts film mega-icon Jackie Chan. He knows. And he found the project interesting enough to lend his voice to it in a co-starring roll. He was Monkey, one of the loyal Kung Fu students.
Now, Mr. Chan was also in another martial arts film released domestically this year. That one was a live-action venture titled FORBBIDEN KINGDOM. It didn’t quite pack ‘em into the theaters like PANDA has, but it’s done decent business. FORBIDDEN KINGDOM has pulled in $52,075,270 domestically – a somewhat mild tally when compared to KUNG FU PANDA’s $200,000,000+.

There are probably a few reasons why FORBIDDEN KINGDOM has done so much less than KUNG FU PANDA. For one thing, PANDA moves along much more briskly and it doesn’t spend much time getting bogged down in plot exposition as KINGDOM does. PANDA also sticks with the basic elements of the Kung Fu genre, while KINDOM jumps into the realm of ‘80’s fantasy films (though for some there does seem to be a pleasant element to that which leans toward the nostalgic). There are also complaints that some of the visuals (digitally enhanced stunts, etc.) and wirework are a bit cheesy. PANDA’s computer animation, on the other hand, is top notch, with a look and feel that can rival the great Pixar.
Then there is the complaint of the rather one-dimensional relationship between the leads in KINDOM. But again, KUNG FU PANDA gives us characters that are full of fun, each with there own type of draw. And the music score (and songs) used in PANDA work very well within its overall setting. John Powell (HANCOCK, THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM) and Hans Zimmer (THE DARK NIGHT, THE RING) have teamed up to offer a melodic and action-packed set of music cues for the film which complement its Asian theme and martial arts genre.
Lastly, KUNG FU PANDA leaves young and older viewers alike with a solid message that should never suffer from being repeated – “the secret ingredient to success in anything in life is…you.” It’s a little tidbit of wisdom and positive thinking that we tend to forget sometimes.
KUNG FU PANDA (2008). Written by Jonathon Aibel and Glenn Berger. Story by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris. Directed by John Stevenson and Mark Osborne. Cast: Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Dustin Hoffman, David Cross, Lucy Liu, Seth Rogen, Ian McShane, Randall Duk Kim, Michael Clarke Duncan, Dan Fogler, James Hong. MPAA Rating: PG for sequences of martial arts action.

Prince Caspian: Why did it lose the box office throne?

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN was released on May 16 of this year and quickly shot to the top of the box-office… for one week. Can’t fault it too much for a single week at the top of the pyramid, though. In a summer of mighty stiff competition even INDIANA could not hold the top spot for more than a week (heck, he even got stomped by a bunch of girls). Besides, THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE only lasted one week at number one. However, it did make approximately $10,000,000 more during its opening weekend: $65,000,000 as opposed to $55,000,000. In the sequel, C.S. Lewis’ four heroes – Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and Lucy (Georgie Henley) -are brought back to the world of Narnia, but something’s very wrong. The land they helped save and rule now lies in ruins, overgrown by foliage. Eventually they—and we—discover Continue reading “Prince Caspian: Why did it lose the box office throne?”

Death Note – Live-Action Version of the Popular Manga

death-note-movie-poster.jpgOnce upon a time there was a little eight-volume Japanese manga that was very popular. It was so popular in fact that the powers that be decided there should be a live-action version (and a sequel) of it. And thus it came to be so.
The end? Oh, contraire, my friends. DEATH NOTE (DESU NOTO) made a very solid $22,000,000 at the Japanese box-office and its sequel, DEATH NOTE 2, made an even heftier $41,000,000. Then there was the little spin-off called L: CHANGE THE WORLD (directed by Hideo Nakata, who directed the original RINGU and the U.S.’s THE RING 2), which grossed $29,000,000. These dollar amounts may not seem all that huge in comparison to U.S. box-office figures, but they’re mighty big in Japan. DEATH NOTE and DEATH NOTE 2 were numbers 17 and 10 respectably at the Japanese box-office in 2006 and L is number 3 in 2008 at the time of this writing. Continue reading “Death Note – Live-Action Version of the Popular Manga”

Speed Racer – the Wachowski's latest post-Matrix misfire

SPEED RACER is just latest Wachowski effort to misfire with critics and audiences. After the tremendous success of THE MATRIX everyone’s gotta be wondering why. Well, as far as SPEED RACER is concerned, from one person’s perspective (mine) there are three main reasons: 1) the film was too long for a cartoon concept of its nature; 2) the race sequences were far too messy and similar in construction; and 3) EGO. Ultimately, where the Wachowskis are concerned, most everything can be boiled down to ego. However, these are not just SPEED-related issues. With slight variations they can apply to just about every Wachowski film since THE MATRIX. But we’ll get to these issues in a moment. First I’d like to offer up another observation… Continue reading “Speed Racer – the Wachowski's latest post-Matrix misfire”

Forgetting Sarah Marshall – Borderland Review

forgetting-sarah-marshall-movie-poster.jpgDracula in a Comedy about Recovering from Lost Love?

Jason Segel (KNOCKED UP, BYE BYE BENJAMIN), the scripter and star of FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, is definitely a fan of risqué comedies and somewhat of a raconteur, as his association with the Judd Apatow school of filmmaking demonstrates. However, he is also a fan of science fiction and fantasy, if his little homages are any indication. In MARSHALL he mildly references a few of our favorites from that realm. Some may not be readily obvious, so you’ll need to keep your eyes & ears open. Being a member of the geek-boy club though, I gotta admit to smiling when they popped up. There is even a clever and funny commercial for a science fictiony type of TV show called ANIMAL INSTINCTS starring one of the main characters of the film that runs during the end credits.
Continue reading “Forgetting Sarah Marshall – Borderland Review”

Nim is Marooned on a Mundane Island Fantasy – Borderland Film Review

NIM’S ISLAND isn’t exactly a Fantasy Island. It’s more like Devil’s Island, the French penal colony located in ‘Guiane’ in the Steve McQueen film, PAPILLON. Okay, I admit it; it’s not really that bad. I’m being mighty melodramatic to make a point: the film could have used a lot more fantastical melodrama because most thinking adults will find its fantasy adventure elements weak and a bit of a strain, even if very young girls—and maybe some little boys—find connection with it. It won’t bring in boys by the boatload, however, because there isn’t enough guy-type stuff going on and the whole adventure is too flat and uninspired to get the adrenaline flowing. This is the main reason that weakness in appeal goes double for most people with any age to them.
That is all rather sad because the female gender doesn’t get its own fantasy adventure films very Continue reading “Nim is Marooned on a Mundane Island Fantasy – Borderland Film Review”

Horton: a Dr. Seuss Film That Works!

“And so all ended well for both Horton and the Whos, and all in the jungle…even kangaroos.”

So goes the narration (offered up by Charles Osgood from CBS NEWS SUNDAY MORNING) at the end of DR. SEUSS’ HORTON HEARS A WHO! – the latest attempt to bring a Dr. Seuss tale to the big screen. The difference between this effort and previous tries—or trials, as the case may be (THE CAT IN THE HAT, HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS)—is that this tale really does end up well. A person may be a person, no matter how small, but this movie sure isn’t; it’s entertaining in a rather big way.
Brought to us by the same folks who charmed millions with the ICE AGE films (with yet another one due out in 2009), HORTON also charms in its own way. With excellent source-respecting animation and a general plot that remains faithful to the Continue reading “Horton: a Dr. Seuss Film That Works!”

10,000 B.C. is Lost in History

Just call me Sucker. I knew there had to be a reason my editor asked me to be the one to go see 10,000 B.C., the latest film entry by Roland Emmerich (THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, 1998’s GODZILLA). And now I know what it was. Yep, that means it was a thankless job, but somebody had to do it. Can you say “pee-ewww!”? All I can tell you is that when the title card “A Roland Emmerich Film” faded up on the screen at the end of the thing, I thought, ‘he can keep it.’ What had I just watched anyway? I wasn’t positive, but one thing was for sure: it was certainly an incomprehensibly meaningless 108 minutes of film, to say the least. Not even the beloved Uncle Forry (a one-time widely used term of endearment by Sci-Fi & Fantasy fans relating to Forrest J. Ackerman, the creator & publisher of Famous Monsters Magazine) could honestly lay claim to enjoying such a muddled mess. Where’s Ray Harryhausen when you need him? There’s a guy who knew how to instill a sense of fantasy and fun into his work. Continue reading “10,000 B.C. is Lost in History”