Thursday, August 21, 2008

Tropic of Thunderous Laughs

The full list of films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (a.k.a. TIFF) was released this week. During the festival, I will try my best to update this blog with reviews of the films I see. I will do a full recap, of all 30 plus films, at the end of the festival. The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 4 to 13. For more info on the festival, be sure to stop by there website (listed in the side bar)

Tropic Thunder

Based on the early trailers, I went into Tropic Thunder thinking that I was either going to: a) be greatly offended, b) end up laughing hysterically. While the casting was intriguing, the thought of Robert Downey Jr. in “black face” just did not sit well. Yet I decided to give the film a shot at proving its merits…and boy did it ever. Tropic Thunder is the only recent satire I can remember since “Borat” to consistently deliver on the big laughs. The movie is basically “Heart of Darkness” meets “The Player” with a whole lot of crude humor mixed in between. The film follows three very diverse film actors brought together to make a Platoon-style war film. When egos and budget gets too big, the actors are sent off into the jungle for a rugged guerrilla style film shoot. Unfortunately the men are dropped off in a hostile area, and the lines between fiction and reality quickly become blurred. Through the ingenious use of trailers at the beginning of the movie, we are introduced to action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), comedic guru Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and five time academy award winning method actor Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr.). In the brief two-minute clips we pretty much learn all we need to know about these men. The faux trailers also help to establish the tone of the film from the get go.

While the premise of the film is rather silly, Tropic Thunder is more concerned with the jabs at Hollywood than it is about plot and character development. In this regards Tropic Thunder is a flying success. There are so many digs at the entertainment industry that the movie actually begs for multiple viewings just to catch them all. Tropic Thunder ferociously comments on such things as: Hollywood blockbuster, escalating budgets, ruthless studio heads, the merits of method acting, rappers turned actors, juvenile comedies, celebrity adoptions, Academy Award winners, spineless agents, drug addiction, race, etc. With so many insider jokes, this film could have easily been one big self-congratulatory mess. Fortunately, thanks to the strong writing of Stiller, Etan Cohen, and Justin Theroux (Mulholland Dr., Charles Angels: Full Throttle), Tropic Thunder stays away from that realm and hits all the right satirical notes. Credit should also go to the three leads, especially Downey Jr. who steals every scene he is in, for keeping the film on track. While Robert Downey Jr. is the standout amongst the leads, it is nearly impossible to neglect the wonderful supporting cast (e.g. Steve Coogan, Nick Nolte, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Tom Cruise, Bill Hader, Matthew McConaughey, and Danny McBride). These supporting players bring so many hilarious moments to the film that it is hard to think of humorous scenes in which at least one, or two, of them are not in it.

Hollywood has released a string of adult-oriented comedies of late in an attempt to cash-in on the wave that Apatow and crew have been riding. Yet unlike most of the recent comedies, such as Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder has the distinction of providing plenty of satirical laughs that actually stay with you long after you have left the theatres.

Monday, August 11, 2008

This Mongol Only Rides The Pineapple Express

Pineapple Express

Pineapple Express is the latest of many, and I mean many, films to get the Judd Apatow stamp of approval. Written by (and I uses that word loosely) and staring Seth Rogen, the film follows Dale (Rogen) and his pot-dealer Saul (James Franco) as they try to evade a ruthless drug czar (Gary Cole) and his partner (Rosie Perez) who just so happens to be a crooked cop. That pretty much sums up the movie in a nutshell. The plot is ridiculously thin, and some of the dialogue is pretty cheesy. Yet as far as stupid buddy comedies go, Pineapple Express had me laughing out loud on numerous occasions. The strength of the film, for me, was the performance of James Franco. Mostly known for his serious work (i.e. “James Dean”, “Sonny”, etc.), and his less than stellar work in the “Spider-Man” series, Franco has brilliant comedic timing. While many will argue that it is easy to play a stoner; it is hard to get the consistent level of laughs that Franco achieves in this film. James Franco is the prefect accomplice to Rogen’s straight man. The chemistry between them is so good, that it helps keep the film from drowning in the sea of absurd. It would have been nice if Rogen and Apatow had tightened up the script a lot more, and reduce the gore a bit (really they were just stretching for laughs by that point). The whole production is a tad sloppy. I guess that is the price one pays when you are churning out comedies every other month. Pineapple Express will not revolutionize the buddy action comedy the way “40 Year-old Virgin” did with romantic comedies. Frankly it may not even last in your consciousness a week after viewing. Still, while not as strong as “Knocked Up” and “Superbad”, or even “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” for that matter, the movie has enough laugh-out loud moments for me to recommend.


The life of Ghengis Khan was a complicate one…or so I assume. You see “Mongol” is a film that sets out to tell how Ghengis Khan came to be. Unfortunately this film plays more like Star Wars Episodes 1 to 3 rather the juicy epic one would hope for. We see how from an early age Anakin…err…Temudjin endures great hardships for the sake of love. That’s right, the majority of “Mongol” is a love story centered around the numerous times that Temudjin and his wife, Borte, are separated by war, code, ritual, etc. Only to be brought back together again by love and determination. Sure we get brief glimpses of the famous warrior Temudjin will become but they are too few and far between. The film only really starts to pick up when Temudjin decides to unite all the Mongols under his own set of laws. Temudjin's laws are an attempt to make the Mongols more compassionate towards each other. This is interesting considering that the punishment for breaking his laws was fatal. The highlight of the film comes at the end when we see, through a vicious battle, Temudjin embodying the fearsome strategic warrior that Ghengis Khan would be known for. It is a shame the film did not start off where it ends. While the early life Temudjin blends, what I can only assume, factual events and mythological lore; it is nowhere near as interesting as how Ghengis Khan conquered half of the world. Similar to Star Wars prequel, “Mongol” makes the mistake of trying to make a fearsome warrior way to compassionate. Yes Khan loved his wife, but is that fact more important than Khan’s many successes and failures in battle? If you are hoping to learn something interesting about Ghengis Khan, then skip “Mongol” and get yourself to a library.

Random Song: Conor Oberst - Eagle On A Pole (buy)

Random Song: Mariah Carey - I'll Be Loving U Long Time (ABX's Hood Internet Remix) [courtesy of The Hood Internet]

Random Song: M.I.A. -Uraqt (Diplo Remix)

Thursday, August 07, 2008

What Happen To M. Night's Kung Fu?

Now that The Dark Knight had solidified itself as the king of this summer's blockbusters. I figured I would catch up on some of the other summer offerings that I missed…

The Happening

I have a friend who was feature in one of our prominent local newspaper earlier this year for his study on the effects of “too much praise in the workplace.” The study basically showed that productivity actually slowed down when workers received constant praise. What does this have to do with M. Night Shyamalan’s latest, “The Happening”? A lot actually! “The Happening” pretty much confirms the suspicions I have had ever since watching the vastly overrated film, “Signs”. The extreme praise that Shyamalan received for both “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs” has done more damage than good.

While I still believe that M. Night Shyamalan is a great director, his writing has been horrible of late. His two best films, in my opinion, “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” had characters that were richly layered. Sure the “big twist” was an early stable of M. Night’s work, but it was always the depth of the characters that made the “twist” work. Since the success of “Signs,” Shyamalan seems to be resting on his laurels; content with writing one-dimensional characters that are quirky for the sake of being quirky (e.g. “Lady in the Water’s” bodybuilder who only works out one side of his body, etc.). “The Happening” is filled with an abundance of these characters. There is the wife who has problems expressing emotion (Zooey Deschanel), the creepy old lady (Betty Buckly) who is...creepy and old, etc. Not only do these loose character sketches bog down “The Happening”, but they completely erase all the terrific tension that the first twenty-minutes of the film setup.

The film starts off with large numbers of people inexplicably committing suicide. What is causing this? Is it a terrorist act? Through his graphic yet stylish shots, Shyamalan weaves together a truly suspenseful film…until the main characters start to open their mouths. The lack of overall depth becomes quickly apparent as characters say, and do, things that have no real logic whatsoever. Once the true nature of the suicides is revealed the film takes a sharp turn into the absurd. Part of this stems from the fact that Shyamalan devised an interesting concept but never fully realizes how his one-note characters are to cope within it. While “The Happening” is an improvement over both “Lady in the Water” and “The Village”; it is still no where near what it could have been. If Shamalyan hopes to rekindle the success of his earlier works, he must get back to developing multi-layered characters. From there the chills and thrills will fall in place.

Kung Fu Panda

It seems that now more ever animation studios, such as Pixar, are bringing new levels of emotion and depth to the big screen. Once dubbed merely “just for kids”, animation is now consistently changing how we view the medium of film. “Kung Fu Panda” is the one or the more recent movies to join the animated film canon. While the movie may not have the depth or the visual appeal of Pixar’s “Wall-E”, which is a vastly superior film, “Kung Fu Panda” is surprisingly engaging. The movie follows Po, a noodle making Panda who longs to be a kung fu master.

Fans of old martial arts films such as “The Five Deadly Venoms”, “Drunken Master”, “Sonny Chiba’s The Street Fighter”, etc. will get a kick out of all the subtle references to those films and many others. Yet the real strength of this film is the voice work of Jack Black as Po. While Jack’s over-the-top style of delivery can often hinder him in certain roles, it works to his benefit here. Black brings the perfect level of energy needed to keep the audience’s attention. Sure there are other celebrity voices involved (e.g. Angelina Jolie, etc.) but none of their voice work is really that distinct. Without Jack Black, I do not think the movie would have succeeded on the level that it does. Sure the animation is good but nothing truly eye popping. Plus, if you remove Black’s charisma, it quickly becomes apparent how paper thin the plot is. Still, with its brisk running time and Black’s vocal work, Kung Fu Panda is a fun movie that surprisingly holds up well upon multiple viewings.

Random Song: Rhymefest - Ain't Heard it From Me (Myspace)

Random Song: M.O.P. - Ante Up (buy)