Tropic Thunder

It’s not the sort of movie you write a detailed review of. It’s just not. It’s funny, though. It’s howlingly, screamingly funny; it’s about as offensive as it can be without being mean spirited, and it works way, way better than you would expect. Sure, Ben Stiller is still playing the same character he plays […]

It’s not the sort of movie you write a detailed review of. It’s just not.

It’s funny, though. It’s howlingly, screamingly funny; it’s about as offensive as it can be without being mean spirited, and it works way, way better than you would expect.

Sure, Ben Stiller is still playing the same character he plays in every movie; shallow, vapid, self-involed, self-important, and stupid. But y’know, it keeps working. Yes, Jack Black is still playing Jack Black (he, though, can play other people, he just usually doesn’t).

And yes, they say ‘retard’ about fifty million times.

Here’s the thing though, with a movie like this. They know completely how offensive they’re being. But the joke isn’t at the expense of whomever they’re poking fun at. The joke is on a character (in this case Stiller’s character), but more importantly, it’s on us, the audience. They’re waving it in our faces (fat jokes, gay jokes, ‘retard’ jokes, race jokes), and they’re saying, you’re laughing at it aren’t you? Shame on you.

The plot? Stupid. The characters? Stupid. The humor? Maybe not as low brow as it’s possible to get, but close. But Robert Downey Jr is absolutely brilliantly funny as a method actor who’s gone so far he’s surgically changed races for a part. And Tom Cruise – who I loath – is hysterical and profoundly creepy as a lunatic studio exec **cough**justplayinghimself**cough**.

This is a movie where you hurt from laughing, and feel a vague sense that you should be offended, but aren’t.

Get there on time, the movie opens with one of the funniest fake trailers you’ve ever seen (no, not the ‘fatties’ one!). And get the fuck over the ‘retard’ jokes.

The Dark Knight

So let’s get a couple things out of the way up front. First, Heath Ledger’s Joker is a thing of brilliance. Utterly mad, completely evil, frighteningly real. This is a performance that might have gotten oscar nods if he were still around; it will certainly get them now. He steals the film. Second, I have […]

So let’s get a couple things out of the way up front.

First, Heath Ledger’s Joker is a thing of brilliance. Utterly mad, completely evil, frighteningly real. This is a performance that might have gotten oscar nods if he were still around; it will certainly get them now. He steals the film.

Second, I have a major Batman bias. I’m a huge superhero comic fan; I grew up on ’em, collected all the major Marvel and DC titles in the seventies and eighties. So I have very strong image about who batman is and how he should be portrayed. This makes it hard for me to be objective about reviewing any movie about batman, because they’re never my batman.

That said, The Dark Knight manages to do just about as good a job as anyone has ever done with Batman on the screen. Yet, they fundamentally still miss the mark.

Bringing Batman to the screen is difficult. Partly because there’s a lot of baggage (the sixties tv show skewed how we see batman to the corny and campy; Frank Miller’s Batman skewed our view the other way, to the dark and hard and disturbing). Partly, it’s difficult because our studios (and DC comics) have a singular idea of how a hero should be portrayed. I think every one of the modern Batman movies has suffered from this, and not one of them has yet ventured into new territory. They all reek of artistic compromise.

Add to this the fact that Batman, even for superheros, is particularly absurd. No super powers, a weirdly silly outfit, a reliance on impossible technology. It’s hard to portray a guy in a bat suit with ears and not make him look silly, even if we don’t include nipples and tights.

Dark Knight manages to get it mostly right. They strip the suit down til it looks like something you could actually fight in, they give us some plausible idea of how one man mages all these bizarre inventions, and (with back story from Batman Begins) they’ve given us a character with with enough of a crazy streak that the obsession and the bat images make sense.

They’ve also given us a very strong cast. Ledger is amazing; he will give you nightmares. I can see this man walking around in real life, he’s that convincingly insane. Never before has the joker seemed so completely believable as a homicidal, sadistic lunatic. Aaron Eckhart, while not turning in the kind of absolutely inspired performance Ledger brings, is still terrific. This guy keeps getting better ever time I see him. And obviously, with actors like Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman involved, the cast just keeps hitting (though Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance is oddly lackluster; I absolutely adore her, though I kept wanting to slap her and say *wake up!*).

The action scenes are all look great, the fights are well choreographed, the effects are mostly terrific.

So what’s wrong with it?

That’s a hard one; my bias about Batman aside, something’s missing. But I’m struggling with what.

I wanted the the entire thing to have more zip. I wanted the dialog to sparkle. I wanted to care about the characters. While the dialog was ok, and there were some decent one liners, most of it has a journeyman feel, like it could have been from any action film. I wanted a breathless pace; there were too many pauses to build character, and then not enough to do for the actors when they had space to act. They were playing characters, and because they’re all good, the characters seemed real. But it felt like padding.

The middle of the film is mainly driven by Bruce Wayne’s soul-searching over having killed people; to me, this rang utterly false. The core of the character, to me, is that he’ll do whatever the fuck it takes to bring down the bad guys, even be one himself. He will kill, he will break laws, he will sacrifice. What he won’t do is stop. The beginning and end work; but when Wane starts to fuss about wanting to inspire people, it feels like they’ve forgotten who they’re making a movie about (who is this, fucking Spiderman?)

The film was also oddly bright. One expects Batman films to be dark and shadowy. Gotham is a gothic nightmare of a city. What we got was downtown chicago, with no attempt whatsoever to make it look like anything else. I assume this was to give the film a sense of realism, but the effect was of lazy film making and average cinematography. Worse was that they chose to put Batman in full, harsh light in much of the film, which just makes the bat suit look silly. Batman needs a sense of menace to make him effective; a rubber rodent head doesn’t do it. The less you show of Batman, the more effective he is.

This isn’t to say I disliked the film; it’s easily the best Batman to date. But the fact that it reaches higher in some ways, perhaps, points out the deficiencies. It’s quite a good film; but it could have been a great film. It misses the mark on greatness. That’s a shame, because Ledger’s performance is truly great, and deserves to be in a movie that stands up to it.

Now, as to the batman I want to see, one only needs to look to Frank Miller’sDark Knight Returns to see my vision of Batman.

The Batman I want to see isn’t a hero; and that’s where Hollywood always fails. They want to portray a darkly heroic, misunderstood figure. They err in casting mornful, broody types (when they don’t cast George Clooney, anyway). What they wind up getting is a batman who looks self-involved and sulky.

Batman, my version of Batman, is crazy. Something in him broke when his parents were killed, and he’s spent his life on revenge; not on one person, but on everyone, everywhere, who commits a crime. He doesn’t care about laws, honor, morals. The irony is that he’s become who he’s fighting. He’s a killer, a sadist. Yet, he’s an agent for good, doing what needs doing. He knows he’s down in the mire with the criminals, he’s sacrificed himself to what he thinks is greater good, though he’s driven by an obsession with revenge.

His alter ego isn’t a light-hearted playboy; he’s a dark, brooding recluse. More Howard Hughes than Tony Stark.

I want to see someone cast who can play batman as a semi-psychotic villain. Imagine Alan Rickman; imagine if Heath Ledger could have turned that air of craziness into a batman portrayal. Bale could have done it (he does crazy so well). But the part needs a villain at it’s heart, not a hero. Batman isn’t a hero; he’s a bad guy who’s on our side, and THAT is what every single movie portrayal misses.

My complaints about The Dark Knight are colored this, to be sure. But my real issues with it are not that it isn’t my batman; it’s that they so nearly turned out a great film. They missed by *that* much, and that’s frustrating, because they almost had it.

Iron Man

I was going to write a detailed review but fuck it. Iron Man rocks. Go see it while it’s still in theaters. It is, in my opinion, the best superhero movie of the modern era. I loved it. Iron Man was my favorite superhero comic, and the movie completely did justice to the character. I […]

I was going to write a detailed review but fuck it.

Iron Man rocks. Go see it while it’s still in theaters. It is, in my opinion, the best superhero movie of the modern era. I loved it.

Iron Man was my favorite superhero comic, and the movie completely did justice to the character. I even loved Gwyneth Paltrow in the part, and that takes some doing.

Go see it twice.

indiana jones and the search for a better plot

A couple of years ago I watched the original Indiana Jones trilogy with my kids. Over the last month, we’ve been watching the re-released Young Indiana Jones series. We’re huge Indiana Jones fans. Now, let me say a couple things up front. Raiders of the Lost Ark is very close to my favorite movie of […]

A couple of years ago I watched the original Indiana Jones trilogy with my kids. Over the last month, we’ve been watching the re-released Young Indiana Jones series. We’re huge Indiana Jones fans.

Now, let me say a couple things up front.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is very close to my favorite movie of all time. However, as a rule, I loath Steven Spielberg. I do not consider him a good director. To be sure, he’s made a couple of decent movies; Duel (his creative high water mark), Jaws, and of course, Raiders. But given that he hires top-flight cinematographers and cast, every now and then he’s going to hit something good. Most of his work is dreck though, badly plotted, badly scored, badly paced, over-done in every way possible.

How did Raiders wind up so good? Simple; George Lucas.

Lucas developed the story, produced the film, and while there’s no question Spielberg directed it, it has an un-mistablabe Lucas feel to it. Most of what’s right about that film I credit to Lucas.

It’s easy to see what happens when Lucas steps back; look at Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Key details of who Indy is are forgotten, a pointless ‘cute kid’ is introduced, Spielberg’s wife is (ill) cast as indy’s love interest, comedy and horror elements are over-played. The only thing about the movie that works is the ending, and it works out of context with an Indiana Jones movie.

For the third, Lucas stepped back in; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is back to feeling like Indiana Jones. It’s better cast, with a love interest who works, and the plot is back to being centered on archeology. It’s not quite Raiders, but it’s terrific.

And then there’s Young Indy; not only a brilliant teevee series, but incredibly true to the the Indiana Jones character; masterfully done, and 100% Lucas.

When I heard a fourth movie was in production, finally, I hoped for Lucas, and feared Spielberg.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull should be good. They had years to find a great script; they had a great cast (Cate Blanchett, John Hurt), a great surrogate Young Indy (Shia LaBeouf), and the return of Karen Allen, an actress I’ve had a wicked crush on since Animal House.

Alas – This is Spielberg Indy, not Lucas Indy.

There’s good stuff about this film, certainly. And I enjoyed it. But it wasn’t good. While it’s failings are very different than the failings of Temple of Doom, they’re perhaps bigger, because with the years they had to come up with a script, though should have come up with a good one. This has compromise written all over it. The story’s oddly meandering and all but incoherent, and it relies on super-natural and sci-fi elements that don’t fit into the Indy mythos. While the action scenes are terrific (well shot, well acted, funny and thrilling, and completely inventive), they seem to have lost the ’30s serial pacing that made them work in the past. The problem, though, is that when the action stops, you can almost see tumbleweeds roll across the screen. Everything comes to a complete halt.

I’ve never been bored in an Indiana Jones movie before. Yet whenever the characters start talking, my eyes would glaze over. Harrison Ford seemed to be sleep walking through half the scenes, and the elements that worked (he’s older and not quite as good as he used to be; people think he’s just an old teacher, til the fedora comes out) are used as throw-away gags. This could have been payed like Robin and Marian, with the re-union of the aging hero and his older-but-still-beautiful life’s love. It’s wasted though, with Karen Allen not getting enough screen time.

Blanchett as the russian villain is wasted as well; she’s a cartoon, but an under-drawn one. Her absurd accent is wonderful, even if it’s un-even, but they waste the camp element after presenting it when she walks on.

What works is that they pay brilliant tribute to Indy myth; references to the first three movies, and better, to episodes of Young Indy. What doesn’t is that Spielberg can’t stop; introducing LaBeouf with a shot and costume from The Wild Ones blows one right out of the film, and the 50’s diner fight is so out of place that it made me want to slap everyone involved.

The ending is idiotic. We don’t need fucking space aliens in the Indiana Jones mythos. Visually, the end is great, but plot wise, it’s weak, stupid, and badly written.

It’s odd though; the movie annoyed me more later than it did at the time. While I was watching it, I was happy. Seeing Indy on screen again was thrilling, even if it’s a gray-haired-and-botoxed indy; and the action is fantastic. If this were a movie featuring some other character than Indiana Jones, I’ve have said “loved it”, because it’s the kind of sugar-frosted-crack film that one should watch with the un-jaundiced eye of a teenager. But when a movie has “Indiana Jones” in the title, I just expect a lot more in terms of movie making.