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Monday, July 22

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Tropic Thunder

I didn't know if I'd see a mainstream comedy like Tropic Thunder ever again, and I certainly didn't think that Ben Stiller or Tom Cruise would have anything to do with it. Tropic Thunder is a comedy with balls…heaving, sweaty balls swaying to and fro as if to say, "Hey you. I dare you to kick me, to challenge my scrotal power, my swampy fortitude." Of course I adore nearly all of the R-rated works of Judd Apatow and his band of merry men, but even at their most screamingly gross and daring, they are still relatively safe films about a group of men and women that I'd like to be friends with. Tropic Thunder is an entirely different monster, and when I say the film has balls, I'm talking about a work that is taking comedic chances with high-powered actors, many of whom have had a great deal of success in movies catering to younger audiences.

I'm not sure in this day and age if it's still possible for an actor to ruin his/her career with a single role, but if we did live in such times, this would be the film that could potentially put a stake through the heart of a lesser actor who didn't play his part exactly right. For example, when you hear the words "Robert Downey in blackface," does it set off every bell in your head like a four-alarm fire? Does it speak to your heart about what is right and wrong in the history of Hollywood and the injustice delivered to black actors over the decades? Or does it make you giggle, just a little bit, just before the moderated outrage sets in? My guess is that the answer is D: all of the above. And that's exactly the reaction the makers of Tropic Thunder are hoping for if they're as smart as I think they are.

By now you probably know the story of Tropic Thunder: three hugely famous actors sign on to do what is set to be the most expensive war film ever made. Each one of the main actors has something to gain by doing the film, and possibly something to lose. Stiller plays Speedman, an action star whose Scorcher franchise days are behind him, especially after staring in Simple Jack, in which he played a mentally disabled man, considered by most critics to be one of the worst films ever made. Jack Black plays Jeff "Fats" Portnoy, a comic giant best known for playing multiple obese and flatulent characters in The Fatties. He's also known for showing up to premieres loaded/high, and is rumored to have a substance-abuse problem. Downey plays Kirk Lazarus, the award-winning Australian actor, whose last role was as a gay monk in Hell's Alley opposite Toby Maguire. Lazarus is such the consummate method actor that he takes on the role of an African-American soldier and goes under the knife to change his features (he also has his skin pigmentation changed somehow; that's not supposed to be makeup). You're not even sure it's OK to laugh at his character's portrayal of the American black man, but after a while you kind of just give in because he's playing it so straight that he makes it even funnier. You will succumb, trust me.

The book the film is based on is written by an ultra-grizzled Vietnam vet, played by Nick Nolte, who thinks these pussy actors need a dose of what it's like in the shit to truly capture these characters. He and the film's director (Steve Coogan) devise a plan to hide cameras in the jungle where the location shooting is taking place and drop the actors in the middle of nowhere to survive attacks (courtesy of the film's explosives expert, Cody, played by Danny McBride). What no one realizes is that real-life drug dealers operate in these parts and actually do begin to attack the unknowing actors, who are more than willing to play along thinking its all part of this guerrilla-style filmmaking.

One name I haven't dropped yet is Brandon T. Jackson, the guy in the cast who is actually black. He plays rapper Alpa Chino (say the name out loud, you'll get it), and the man has got a genuine sense of comic timing. More importantly, it's his presence in the film that makes Downey's character look all the more ridiculous. There's a reason exchanges between Jackson and Downey are a big part of every Tropic Thunder trailer. The guy never lets Downey off the hook. Rounding out the fake film's cast of soldiers is Jay Baruchel (Seth Rogen's roommate in Knocked Up with the Canadian flag tattoo/cum target on his chest). He plays the young, untested actor Kevin Sandusky who most of the bigger stars ignore because he doesn't pull in a salary that ends in "million." He's the closest thing this movie has to a straight man, but it might be easier to understand his appeal if you picture a young Woody Allen in the middle of Apocalypse Now.

There are two supporting players worth mentioning because they are played by actors for whom the expression "supporting player" isn't used often. Matthew McConaughey is funny once again (hey, he made Dazed and Confused; let's give the dude credit) as Stiller's absolutely heartless and misguided agent, who is still trying to convince Speedman that the "retard" movie was a great move and a class act (Downey's explanation about why the performance didn't get Speedman an Oscar nomination is one of the greatest and most accurate monologues about Hollywood ever put down on paper). But the true jaw-droppingly WTF work in Tropic Thunder (and there are several to choose from) is Tom Cruise as the studio head watching his tent pole project quickly go down the tubes. It's not so much the sweaty, balding, pudgy look of the character that floored me, but his actual physical movement. He's a fat, hungry wildcat ready to strike or roar unexpectedly at anyone who steps into his line of sight (often that person is his assistant, played by Bill Hader). And when you see Cruise dance to hip-hop music, your eyes may hurt for days. I've always been a fan of Cruise the actor, but his decision to even be in this movie — let alone play this character — shows the kind of stones from this guy that I wasn't sure he still possessed. Again, I'm back to the theme of how many sets of balls this movie owns.

I need to stop talking about Tropic Thunder now, lest I give away too much plot and too many jokes. The film's observations about the way modern Hollywood works and the personalities that make it work the way it does are delivered like a poison dart right in the neck. And from the moment the film begins (whatever you do, do not walk into this movie even 30 seconds late), I started laughing and hardly stopped. I lost count of the number of times I found myself saying, "I can't believe what I'm seeing." But mostly I just thought, "Look at all of those huge balls on the screen." Just thinking about it makes me happy.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

In the last nine months or so, I've been fortunate enough to interview both Javier Bardem and Woody Allen—Bardem for No Country for Old Men and Allen earlier this year for Cassandra's Dream. Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of both interviews is that the two men had already shot a movie together called Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and when I asked them whether the film was a comedy or drama, Bardem said he wasn't sure and that it depended on how Allen edited the film. Allen effectively told me it was neither and both. But it wasn't until I saw the film a couple weeks ago that I understood why both men were hard pressed to categorize this sensuous and amusing tale of frustrated romances and just how difficult changing your mind can truly be. The other eye-opening aspect of the film is that Allen has once again made a major discovery in relative unknown Rebecca Hall (who plays Vicky), who had a role in the Christopher Nolan film The Prestige. She is not only a vision to watch, but she is a classic neurotic Allen heroine who has a stable life with her boring rich husband-to-be, and meets a slightly reckless Spaniard (Bardem) who awakens the realization in her that maybe her life is unfulfilled.

Vicky and her best friend Cristina (Scarlett Johansson in her third and best appearance in a Woody Allen movie) decide to spend the summer in Barcelona before Vicky gets married, when they are approached by local artist Juan Antonio to go on a spontaneous trip to a nearby island to eat, drink, sightsee and make love. Vicky is appalled by his forwardness; the free-spirited Cristina is curious. This is the jumping-off point for a story that has both women sleeping with Juan Antonio, one of them entering into a serious relationship with the man, and the return of Juan Antonio's passionate — some may say insane — ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz, who, between this film and next week's Elegy with Ben Kingsley, is having her greatest year in English-language films).

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is not meant to be a film with big laughs, nor is it trying to make any grand, sweeping statements about marriage or relationships. It almost feels like Allen is attempting to let the characters decide the next step in their lives rather than being forced through a plot the way Cassandra's Dream maneuvered through its story. There's a very organic, easy-going feel to this film, partially brought on by the gorgeous settings and possibly the best-looking collection of actors Allen has ever assembled (Patricia Clarkson also puts in an appearance here, and she's never looked more beautiful). Allen has spent a great deal of time in his comedies and drama having his characters talk about sex and relationships, but I can't remember a film that jumped headfirst into the sensual experience like this (although Match Point comes a close second).

Every performance is top notch, but I have to give special accolades to Cruz, who throws a torch right in the heart of this movie. Maria Elena is both bat-shit crazy and extremely insightful in her observations about her ex-husband's behaviors, motivations and weaknesses. She's introduced late in the film, but once she appears, the film lacks something whenever she's not on screen. Ever since her tour-de-force work in Almodovar's Volver a couple of years ago, Cruz has been unstoppable. She's an acting firestorm that moves through whatever films she's in and devastates everything in her path. An easy explanation is that she and Bardem are dating in real life, and that does explain some of their chemistry in Allen's movie. But her acting power goes far beyond that in recent years, and it goes beyond her looks. Especially in this film, she uses her whole body to act, which sounds like overacting, I know, but it doesn't come off that way. She's brilliant, and that's a word I never use.

What Vicky Cristina Barcelona proves above all else is that Allen is still a relevant, viable force in his own right as a director and writer, especially when it comes to this more mature material he's been stepping into lately. In a weird way, it disappoints me that his next film (which he's already filmed and edited), Whatever Works, starring Larry David, was shot entirely in New York City. His "European experiment"—three films in England, one in Spain—was largely a success (if you take the dopey Scoop out of the mix) and marked a revitalization with Allen getting to interact with performers he might never have otherwise. I don't know what his location plans are from this point forward, but even if he spends the rest of his days working in and around New York, I'll look back on this period as a highlight of his career. By all means, check his latest out.

Transsiberian

I think it's safe to say you will never see another film quite like Transsiberian from director and co-writer Brad Anderson (The Machinist with Christian Bale; Next Stop Wonderland; Happy Accidents; Session 9). The film tells the unlikely (but no less entertaining) story of an American couple doing something like missionary work in China who decide that, rather than immediately go right back to their hum-drum life in the States, to take the Transsiberian train from Peking to Moscow through some of the most treacherous and snow-covered regions of Russia. Not exactly a luxury-filled ride, the train's crew and passengers have enough eccentricities to keep Roy (Woody Harrelson, who hasn't played this much of a rube since his "Cheers" days) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) amused if not always happy about their travel decision. The pair is forced to share quarters with another English-speaking couple, Carlos (Eduardo Noriega, recently seen in Vantage Point) and Abby (Kate Mara, We Are Marshall and Shooter), who seem full of energy and passion, and have very few boundaries or secrets when it comes to their lives…or so it would seem.

As Transsiberian opens, we see a seemingly unrelated sequence involving what appears to be a Russian police investigation of a dead drug smuggler aboard a freighter. The hardest working man in show business, Ben Kingsley, is the stone-faced investigator; and the sequence serves up a stark contrast to much of what happens on the train, which is much lighter but no less suspenseful.

Jessie begins to suspect that the other couple are up to something, but she thinks it involves smuggling Russian souvenirs out of the country and selling them for top dollar in the West. When Roy is accidentally left behind at one train station and Jessie is forced to wait at a hotel at a station one stop ahead on the line, Carlos begins to show his true colors when he and Jessie decide to do a little sightseeing. The film goes quickly from escapism to paranoid thriller to one outright dangerous situation after another in fairly rapid succession, and once Kingsley is reintroduced into the plot, that's when things go from good to great. Beginning with last year's You Kill Me and continuing on to The Wackness, War Inc. and next week's release Elegy (and yes, much like the Olympics, we will throw out his lowest score, which is his Love Guru cameo), Kingsley has been a sure sign that good things will surround him. And without giving too much away about the complicated nature of his character, let's just say that very few people in this film are what they seem.

The bonus character we get is the Russian snow-covered countryside, which poses as much of a threat or can be an important ally as any human being in this film. It is beautiful, stark and dangerous all at once. It can also make a person feel very alone in the world. Transsiberian features a twisting, looping plot that leads to an almost-too-satisfying conclusion. The film isn't afraid to take longer than it needs to get from one scene to the next, and usually that's because director Anderson wants us to get to know these fascinating characters just a little bit better. Most recently seen in Lars and the Real Girl and Redbelt, Mortimer is the star of this film, even if most people don't know who she is, but she's got a true gift for playing very open and believable characters, and this is one of her finest performances. Transsiberian has a few dead spots peppered throughout its nearly two-hour running time, but most of them are forgivable since what surrounds these spots is great stuff.

Star Wars: Clone Wars

Of course it's crap, but honestly, I didn't think it was any worse than The Phantom Menace. In fact, I think it's a tiny bit better than that low point in the Star Wars franchise. The truth is, I like the possibilities an animated Star Wars tale offers, even if this particular film doesn't deliver on that potential. Instead what we get is a between-Episodes-2-and-3 story that acts as a weak bridge, using voices from actors who are clearly not the original cast, and introducing us to sub-par new characters clearly aimed at a younger audience. What's more disturbing to me is that many of the rules and storylines established in Attack of the Clones are totally ignored. When I was a wee lad and first heard the term "Clone Wars," my fertile mind dreamed up just how epic and glorious such wars would appear when/if George Lucas ever chose to tell that story. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine a scenario where all of the characters looked like mannequins with waxy, expressionless faces and a universe where Lucas seems to be borrowing from the older films' mythology for cameos rather than drawing up new and interesting ways of maneuvering them.

Part of the problem (as with any prequel) is that we have a fair sense of who lives and dies already, so any character we recognize, we know won't die; any one we don't, probably will. Sure, Anakin, Obi-Wan, Yoda, Palpatine and Padme are all here (none voiced by the film actors). Samuel L. Jackson's Mace Windu, Christopher Lee's Count Dooku and Anthony Daniels' C-3P0 are in this as well, and all three actors bothered to show up to voice the characters, which eases the sting a little, I suppose. What kills me is that none of the new characters (who I hear will be major players in the upcoming animated TV series) are in any way compelling. First there's Anakin's apprentice Ahsoka, who is the equivalent of a teenage girl with all of the requisite sass and none of the hotness. She calls Skywalker "Sky Guy," if that gives you any sense of how clever the film is. On the villain front (Lucas has a history of creating far more interesting villains than heroes) is Ventress, a dark-side warrior who is all huff and no puff. And while I like that we get a little more backstory on the importance of Jabba the Hut to the Star Wars universe, perhaps the two most baffling additions to the cast are that of his infant son (who resembles a fat tadpole and is nicknamed "Stinky" by Ahsoka, who is apparently full of great nicknames) and Jabba's gay transvestite uncle Ziro. OK, I don't know for sure if he's a transvestite, but it sure looked like he was wearing a whole lot of makeup. And don't get me started on the voice. Everyone in the audience I saw this movie with laughed whenever this character spoke. A critic friend of mine said the voice reminded him of Truman Capote. Now, normally I would think of my own reference for the voice at this point, except Capote is so obviously the vocal reference for Ziro that I'm not even going to bother. Just when Lucas had finally stopped offending Asians and African-Americans with his voice choices in the prequels, he goes and gives us the alien equivalent of a flaming queen.

Director Dave Filoni (who helmed a handful of "Avatar: The Last Airbender" episodes) at least keeps things moving in The Clone Wars, almost to a fault. Not like the other prequels were big on character development, but we fly through this story so quickly that you hardly have a chance to look at some of the interesting art elements of the film or care that much about any of the new characters (perhaps the series will remedy this to a degree). But the real elements of this film that bothered me were the little things: no title crawl (a terrible opening narration takes its place), no reference to the fact that Anakin and Padme are married (Padme barely registers in this film), no mention of the increasing friction between Anakin and Obi-Wan, and no sense that Anakin is being tempted by the dark side. I realize this film is pulling double duty as a stand-alone film and as a pilot for the TV series, but would a little continuity kill anybody? In the end, The Clone Wars is a blip on the summer of 2008, a blip on the Star Wars saga, and a huge missed opportunity to do something really cool to keep this franchise alive.

Frozen River

Much as The Visitor pulled the gifted character actor Richard Jenkins into the spotlight of a leading role, Frozen River does much the same for the remarkable Melissa Leo, who first caught my attention as Kay Howard on the first few seasons of "Homicide." Probably her most memorable film role was as Benicio del Toro's long-suffering wife in 21 Grams, for which she should have been nominated for an Oscar. But in Frozen River she moves to the foreground as Ray Eddy, a mother of two living in a trailer in upstate New York near a Mohawk Indian reservation. When we meet Ray, her never-seen husband has just stolen the couple's savings, which they were going to use to pay the balance on a new double-wide trailer. The trailer is delivered, she can't pay the balance on it, and so the trailer is taken away. Since Ray knows her husband has a gambling problem, she drives onto the reservation to look for him at a bingo parlor, where she spots his car being driven by an Native American woman named Lila. Assuming that her husband is having an affair, Ray confronts Lila, who it turns out was stealing the car. Both desperate for money, the two women decide to form a strange and uneasy partnership and get involved in an already-established smuggling operation to bring Chinese and Pakistani immigrants from Canada to the United States across the frozen St. Lawrence River.

Since this portion of the river lies on the reservation, the local police on either side of the border have no authority, but as soon as Ray's car (with the immigrants in the trunk) leaves the reservation, she runs the risk of being caught. Just the image of Ray's beat-up Dodge Spirit driving across the frozen river is enough to make your heart stop. But when you add in some of the shady characters she comes into contact with, the real danger of this line of work becomes apparent. In an odd way, the women eventually bond when they realize that they both are risking their lives and freedom for their children. Ray has two boys, while Lila has a newborn living with the child's grandparents, who resent the impact Lila's relationship has had on their son and the family.

In case you hadn't guessed, Frozen River is one big bundle of concentrated misery, and the question of the women getting caught isn't "if" but "when." Still, that moment isn't the finale of this deeply moving film from first-time writer-director Courtney Hunt, who creates some of the most stark and oppressive visual motifs (with a little help from the brutal winters that frequent this portion of the St. Lawrence River). Ray is not established as some sort of noble mother character. In fact, you'll probably think she's a terrible mother at times. But her mission is survival, and no time in recent years have you seen a woman struggle quite the way Ray does in this film. And although Leo is a great beauty in person, she doesn't hesitate to play Ray as a faded beauty for this work; anything else would have seemed false. Because of the film's subject matter and downbeat atmosphere, Frozen River will probably not be seen by many in the theaters, and that's a true shame. But if you do make the effort, you'll experience a rich and powerful effort that will be nearly impossible for you to shake for months after you see it. Take a chance on this minor masterpiece, which opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

For my interview with Frozen River star Melissa Leo, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Unknown Woman

I first saw this film in March during the Gene Siskel Film Center's must-see European Union Film Festival, and luckily for you — serious filmgoer that you are — the film has returned for a week-long run at the Film Center beginning today. From Italian master director Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso; Malena) comes this devastating work, The Unknown Woman (the 2007 Oscar submission from Italy), the deceptively simple story of a Ukrainian woman named Irena (Kseniya Rappoport), who, through some fairly deceptive means, becomes a trusted servant and nanny to a young, rich Italian family. Irena becomes especially close with the couple's emotionally sensitive daughter, and while we're fairly certain Irena is not a bad person, she is clearly in this couple's house to snoop and discover something about them.

While Irena plays amateur sleuth, we also get a series of lurid and outright scary flashbacks into Irena's sordid past as a sex worker in the Ukraine, and what set her on the path to come to Italy. The undercurrent of The Unknown Woman is terrifying and at times sickening. Irena's past life is filled with sex and violence (sometimes happening simultaneously), while her current life is mysterious and loaded with tension. I'd rather not go into too much detail about the complex story of this fantastic and enigmatic work, but the payoff is at once beyond grand and utterly crushing. Do not miss this return to form for Tornatore, and don't think for a second that because this movie isn't opening at a chain movie theater that it's not worth seeing. If anything, some of the material here is so rough, chain theaters would be scared to program it. Cowards. Make the effort, cinemaphiles.

Fly Me to the Moon

Between this film and the recent Space Chimps, there are more animals in space than the during the actual U.S./U.S.S.R. space race. This 3-D disappointment provides an alternate look at NASA's Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing mission from the point of view of three young flies (voiced by Trevor Gagnon, Philip Daniel Holden and David Gore) who sneak on board the spacecraft. What kind of floors me about this dopey film is that some of visuals of the craft and the mission are taken from transcripts and blueprints from NASA itself. But what is point of going to such lengths if you can't back your research with anything resembling a decent movie? Then you toss in a vocal acting cast consisting of Christopher Lloyd, Kelly Ripa, Nicollette Sheridan, Ed Begley Jr., Adrienne Barbeau, Tim Curry and Robert Patrick, and you begin to realize that big stars weren't exactly lining up around the block to appear in this third-rate animated fare.

All of this being said, space nuts will probably get some degree of enjoyment out of this utterly lightweight, disposable fluff factory. At least during the mildly entertaining Journey to the Center of the Earth, the 3-D was mostly enjoyable and used effectively. Here, it almost seems like an afterthought and marketing tool. A part of me wants 3-D films to be far less easy to accomplish, especially for animated films, so that filmmakers will actually find worthy projects to commit to the format (and often charge more money to see; those glasses ain't free!). Also, one of the flies is the insect equivalent of a fat kid, and is treated as such, always getting caught stuffing his face and burping. This one has a million of 'em, folks, and they all operate at about that level.

Perhaps the most bizarre and beyond pointless aspect to Fly Me to the Moon is the live-action cameo by real-life Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Get it? It's a movie about flies, and there's an astronaut named Buzz. Ha.), who literally interrupts the movie by stepping onto the screen to make sure we don't take the movie too seriously and tell us there were absolutely no flies in the craft. Thanks for setting the record straight, Buzz Aldrin. In case you hadn't already figured it out or I hadn't pointed out every August for the last couple of years, this month is essentially a dumping ground for the crap that isn't quite good enough for an early-summer release, at least in terms of studio pics. As opposed to two or three decent releases per week, you get one (this week, that would be Tropic Thunder), plus a handful of crap. You are given full permission to ignore most of what comes out in the month of August. You may begin with this film. Thank you.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.
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