Monday, August 18, 2008

Tropic Thunder

None of the elements of this film that have caught the attention of the media: the 'tard baiting, Robert Downey Jr's blackface, Tom Cruise playing a foul-mouthed, krumping film mogul, are very funny. They're gimmicks, and gimmicks can work as long as they're also something besides gimmicks, which sadly, none of these are. Yes, the film is a satire of Hollywood vanity, but considering the fact that so much of this material has been mined before and to better effect in other insider Hollywood satires, AND that the very act of making a movie about actors is an act of Hollywood vanity, these "audacious" gambits end up playing like desperate stabs at relevence. This script has been circulating for over twenty years, and the endless rewriting process shows. There are at least three "high concepts" competing for screen time in this movie, and they all end up diminishing each other.

It's too bad, because there are some really good gags in here, they're just buried under two movie's worth of creaky plot machinations and tonal whiplash. Tropic Thunder is instructive, though, on how not to do an action comedy. Coming on the heels of the deft and witty Pineapple Express, it illuminates the difference between scenes that work as comedy and as action, and scenes that recycle dumb action film cliches. Still, there were at least three moments of explosive laughter and several more solid chuckles strewn throughout, so that's something.

Score: 6.4

Monday, August 11, 2008

Pineapple Express

The Judd Apatow comedy mill has a sterling reputation for delivering the funny. Not so much for delivering cinematic virtuosity. Movies like The 40-Year Old Virgin and Superbad are undoubtedly brilliant comedies, and even contain powerful emotional beats, but no one remembers the technical filmmaking. That's as it should be: comedy isn't a director's genre. In an Apatow production, all the director generally has to do is get as much coverage as possible for the free-form riffage of the actors and let the editor turn it into something coherent.

In what is in many ways the most ambitious production yet to come out of Apatownia, Seth Rogen and writing partner Evan Golberg have written an action comedy about potheads on the run. Action, unlike comedy, is very much a director's genre and it's to the great credit of Apatow and company that they were aware enough of the limitations of their inert, sitcomy house style to look outside of their fraternity for a director. David Gordon Green's directing job on Pineapple Express is a remarkable balancing act. For the most part, he sticks to unobtrusive two camera set-ups that allow Seth Rogen, playing a process server who witnesses a murder, and James Franco, his constantly-baked pot dealer, to play off of each other in a relationship that deepens as the film progresses, while still featuring tons of truthful, funny moments. When it comes to the action sequences, Green tightens his grip on the material, delivering some genuine ass-kicking scenes while maintaining a light tone, like Walter Hill with a smaller dick. He even finds a few moments to indulge in the sort of charming, time-out-of-time reveries that mark his previous efforts like All the Real Girls.

The story is a by-now-familiar Apatowian bromantic comedy, with Rogen realizing that the pot dealer he had previously kept at arms length is really the best friend he has in the world. What makes the film distinctive is the action movie gloss. Like last year's Hot Fuzz, Pineapple Express satirizes the conventions of action movies while simultaneously providing plenty of earnestly awesome action movie fun. The self awareness of the characters is what makes the comedy. Not only are the stoned schlubs on display wholly unfit for action hi jinx, they know that they are hopelessly out of their element, giving the shootouts, car chases, and fight scenes an absurd edge. At the same time all these ridiculous action hysterics are staged with a riotous energy that works together with the reaction shots and pained awkwardness to heighten the comedy and the excitement. This synergy is on perfect display in a fight scene between Franco and Rogen and a drug dealer played by Danny McBride that is both goofy and undeniably badass. The self awareness extends beyond the characters: late in the film there's a bit of shamelessly raunchy physical comedy between Rogen and Franco that parodies the latent homoeroticism of the buddy action genre, but also dramatizes the logical endpoint of the Apatowian bromance.

Score: 8.0

Monday, August 04, 2008

To Supe' or not to Supe'

With Hancock out of the way, my personal experience of the Superhero Summer of 2008 has become complete. What did we learn from this bumper crop of films featuring capes, superpowers and high tech gadgetry on display? From The Incredible Hulk, we were reminded, once again, that you can never trust people you meet on the Internet; they might strap you to a table and inject you with mysterious juices. Hancock taught us that public relations flacks are the real heroes. And Hellboy 2: The Golden Army hammers home the point, for those too dumb to notice, that water-based superheroes (in this case, Abe Sapien), are completely, totally, lame. Mostly, though, we learned that superpowered dudes going upside the heads of assorted crumbums gets old. The exceptions to this trend are the two "tentpole" superhero films, that opened and closed the Superhero Summer: Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Not only do these two films represent the absolute best efforts in the history of the genre, they also feature perfectly opposite attitudes to the very idea of the superhero.

First, the similarities. Unlike the other superhero films of the year, Iron Man and The Dark Knight both feature superheroes who have no superpowers. Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne can't fly or punch through walls or deflect bullets with their skin. They're just a couple of dudes with billions of dollars and some technological savvy. Mark Cuban could probably join them if he wanted to. The lack of superpowers grounds both movies in the real world, making the issues raised by them more practical than airily hypothetical. The political themes are more pronounced, and easier to contrast between the two movies: you could imagine Iron Man and the Batman coexisting the same universe...ours.

Now, to the differences. They boil down to this: Iron Man is an exuberant celebration of the potential world changing good that can be accomplished by a righteous billionaire with a robotic suit. The Dark Knight, on the other hand, calls into question the very idea of costumed vigilantism. If, as is the custom, we take these superheroes as stand-ins for American force, then their radically different takes on the efficacy of superheroism reflects a divergent view of the role of America in the world.

Iron Man is essentially a fantasy of American techno-competence as the solution to world problems. Sort of like a Tom Clancy novel with more character development. Tony Stark uses his wits and resources to create a device, the Iron Man suit, that can act with the sort of precision and stealth that the American military is incapable of. As such, he can zip into messy conflict zones like Afghanistan, take out a bunch of insurgents and not worry that he might accidentally blow up a wedding party, as the Air Force tends to do over there on a monthly basis. The film revels in the awesome amount of good a well-intentioned high tech ass-kicker can accomplish. It's a post-9-11 neocon dream of American facility, purpose and effectiveness.

Iron Man's sense of giddy possibility and thrilling exertion of power started the summer movie season off with an adrenaline jolt. After two months of superhero films that dwelt more with the personal angst, isolation and burden of being a superhero, it's fitting that the bookend to Iron Man is a movie that challenges the legitimacy of the sort of extra-legal wrong-righting in which Iron Man revels.

Some people have criticized (or praised, depending on their political views), The Dark Knight for endorsing the Bush administration philosophy of the "war on terror."* Gotham (America) faces a terrorist threat that cannot be reasoned with in the form of the Joker (Al Qaeda) and Batman (Bush) has to ignore legal niceties in order to protect the citizenry. This ignores the fact that the "transcendent threat" (as John McCain would call it) of the Joker is conjured up by the very presence of Batman in Gotham! He's essentially blowback created by Batman's extralegal and audacious war on Gotham's criminal underworld. Moreoever, Bruce Wayne realizes that his role as a vigilante hero is not a long term solution to the problems of Gotham's corruption. That's one of the reasons he seizes on Harvey Dent as the potential savior of Gotham; he's a man of Batman's principles working within the law, because only a white knight can put Gotham on a stable footing. Batman's nighttime shenanigoats will only encourage Gotham's criminals to escalate their violence and inspire more and more sociopaths to put on their own costumes and match Batman's outsized heroism with outsized villainy. This is what puts the lie to Dark Knight-as-paean-to-Chenyism interpretation of the film: not only is Batman indirectly to blame for the terrifying specter of the Joker, his methods are inherently destabilizing of society, no matter how much short term benefit they might have in stopping the killer that his presence inspired in the first place. And, it's important to remember that, if you want to take the Dark Knight characters and transport them to the current political arena, Bush's equivalent isn't Batman, it's Harvey Dent. He's an elected leader, sworn to uphold the law and work within the established system. One thread that runs throughout the film is that the methods of the Batman are absolutely off limits to Dent if Gotham is to be saved. Bush's contempt for due process and constitutional protections would disgust Dent, and Batman for that matter. The Joker's successful attempt to push Dent over the edge of legality and sanity is his ultimate victory, and Batman's cover-up of Dent's descent into madness is a sad and dirty compromise that merely buys he and Jim Gordon time to allow Gotham to recover from the trauma of the Joker's reign of terror. Remember, the Joker was only drawn into the realm of theatrical criminality by the Batman's own attempt to shape the Gotham imagination with symbols and propaganda of the deed. It all leaves the viewer with a lingering sense that it might have been better for everyone if Bruce Wayne had just tried to buy the Cubs or something.

Leaving the theater after The Dark Knight, on the heels of a slew of movies featuring disillusioned superheroes who have to fight the urge to kill every puny human they see, the joy of consequence free humanitarian ass-kicking that buzzes through Iron Man has been fully stomped out. To once again bust out a geopolitical analogy: Iron Man is the invasion of Afghanistan (up to November 2001, anyway) and The Dark Knight is the invasion of Iraq (up to right this second).

*"War on Terror" is a copyrighted slogan of BushCo and is not an actual war.