Thursday, August 21, 2008

'Thunder'ous laughter

“Tropic Thunder” is a raunchy, outrageous comedy, but that’s nothing new in today’s market. After all, this summer we’ve already had “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” “Step Brothers” and “Pineapple Express.” Is there room for any more over-the-top ridiculousness?

When a film is as sharp as “Tropic Thunder,” the answer is unequivocally yes.

Ben Stiller co-wrote, directed and stars in “Thunder,” a piercing satire on the movie industry centered on a group of actors who don’t realize the Vietnam War movie they are starring in has become real, or at least real enough with a drug ring standing in for the Vietcong. The motley crew of actors are so self-involved that after being told the jungles have been rigged with hidden cameras to capture a raw, guerilla-style look, they assume everything they encounter is part of the movie.

The movie opens with hilarious fake commercials and trailers introducing the stars of the movie within the movie. Stiller is
Tugg Speedman, a fading action star whose one attempt at serious acting, “Simple Jack,” was a disaster. Jack Black is Jeff Portney, the heroin addicted star of a series of films called “The Fatties.” Robert Downey Jr. is Kirk Lazarus as Australian method actor who has a special treatment so he can play the black lieutenant in the film — much to the chagrin of Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a rapper who is forced to take a second fiddle role.

A few weeks ago I complained about “Step Brothers” being vulgar for the sake of being vulgar, and now I am praising “Tropic Thunder,” which features dialogue that would make the rude characters in “Step Brothers” blush. The difference is that here the crude humor actually has a point and is given a context. The film’s satirical edge makes the more shocking humor more palatable.

Stiller and Black are good here — Black gets a particularly huge laugh for a particularly obscene line of dialogue while he’s tied to a tree going through withdrawals — but they are doing variations on their standard shticks. It is Downey who takes the film into the comedy stratosphere.

Following his knockout performance in “Iron Man,” this is turning out to be a very good year for Downey. That Downey is able to pull off a performance in a black face that is non-offensive just goes to show how a great an actor he truly is.

The performance works because Downey commits completely to the character of a pretentious actor who believes he can play anyone and who becomes so lost in his performances that he doesn’t "break character until the DVD commentary.” It also helps that any accusations of racism are addressed directly in the film in a series of amusing confrontations between Downey and Jackson.

Outside of the leads, there are unexpected supporting performances from big-name stars. Tom Cruise’s presence in the cast was kept low-key until the film’s release, and you’ve never seen him like this. He plays the foul-mouthed, bald, hairy and pudgy studio head, and he is riotously funny. Don’t believe me? I don’t blame you. It has to be seen to believe.

Matthew McConaughey, a talented actor who has been sludging around in lame comedies of late, gets some big laughs as Speedman’s agent whose top priority is getting his client his TiVo. Nick Nolte as the Vietnam veteran who wrote the film brings a gruff intensity that creates a humorous juxtaposition to the actors and crew members around him.

The film also gets strong support from Danny McBride, (“Pineapple Express”) as the explosion effects guy, and Jay Baruchel (“Knocked Up”) as the one non-star cast member who must put up with all the conflicting egos around him.

As a director, this is Stiller’s strongest film, although few realize he directed the underrated Jim Carrey vehicle “The Cable Guy.” Stiller paces the comedy just right, and in the case of a scene involving the fate of the film’s fictional director (Steve Coogan, “A Night at the Museum”), he allows the audience a lengthy amount of time to laugh before moving onto the next joke.

Be warned: Even for an R-rated comedy “Tropic Thunder” features some outlandish dialogue and visuals. The film is consistently funny, as long as you don’t mind your humor a bit raw.

'Pineapple Express': Stoner comedy with an edge

Thirty years after Cheech and Chong gave birth to the stoner comedy, we have “Pineapple Express” — an audacious blend of the stoner buddy comedy with the action buddy comedy that, while hardly perfect, is very funny. And you don’t even need to be under the influence of a certain illegal substance to enjoy it.

It seems like every other comedy released in the last couple years is either directed, co-written, or co-produced by Judd Apatow. The better Apatow films mix crude humor with surprising sweetness. “40-Year Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” “Superbad” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” remain the best of the Apatow branding because, for all their scatological humor, there are moments that feel genuine and relatable.

“Pineapple Express” is among the stronger Apatow productions, but is more abrasive than some of the above titles. All Apatow films have language that could shock the easily offended, but “Pineapple Express” adds some brutal violence to the mix that at times sits uneasily next to the comedy.

The set-up is pretty simple. A pothead process server named Dale (Seth Rogan, “Knocked Up’) sees a drug lord (Gary Cole, “Office Space”) and crooked cop (Rosie Perez, “White Men Can’t Jump”) murder someone. Dale drops a joint of extremely rare marijuana — the Pineapple Express of the title — at the scene of the crime that links him to his drug dealer Saul (James Franco, the “Spider-Man” movies), and thus the duo must go on the run.

Even though this is a stoner comedy, there is certain level intelligence here that raises it above the bar of other films of the same ilk. A lot of movies featuring potheads automatically make them stupid, but like the recent “Harold and Kumar” movies, Dale and (maybe) Saul are actually pretty smart. They are just unmotivated and perpetually high.

The film’s quality is increased by its director David Gordon Green. This is Green's first mainstream film. His previous works were introspective independent films like “George Washington,” “Undertow” and “Snow Angels” that lyrically searched through the human condition.

Green may seem like an odd match to this material, but he brings an unforced quality to many of the scenes. He stages a car chase that deserves to be in a comedy time capsule. I don’t doubt it was all on the page, but kudos to Green for making it work on the screen. There is also a silent scene of Dale and Saul frolicking in the woods that is absolutely hilarious, but also beautifully shot.

Although the film works, you need to have a taste for the subversive. If the idea of the 25-year-old Dale dating a barely legal high schooler (Amber Heard) makes you cringe, this probably isn’t the movie for you. If a scene of Dale and Saul selling pot to middle school kids on school property makes you red in the face with anger, this is definitely not the movie for you.

For those not bothered by marijuana, then an enjoyable time can be found hanging out with Dale and Saul. They are amicably played by Rogan and Franco who are able to elicit laughs with just facial expressions. Their conversations, though dazed and confused, are more sharply written by Rogan and his writing partner Evan Goldberg than in most stoner comedies.

Franco, who isn’t known for his comedic talents, creates quite possibly the funniest pothead since Sean Penn’s Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” His line delivery and timing are right on the mark. Franco’s chemistry with Rogan is easy-going and fun. Their relationship, like in any good buddy film, holds the movie together.

The rest of the cast is good too, although at times uneven. The villains, including a pair of bickering hit men played by Kevin Corrigan and Craig Robinson, alternate between being cartoonish and serious.

Danny McBribe, as Saul’s middleman who reluctantly teams up with Dale and Saul, appears on the film’s poster as if he was a third lead, but he is really only a supporting character. McBribe has a funny fight scene with Dale and Saul, and the film’s closing scene with the trio chatting in a diner ends the film on a high note. No pun intended. I swear.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

A 'tomb' best left alone

This summer has had a surprisingly high quota of quality popcorn films from “Iron Man” to “The Dark Knight.” We were given blockbusters with a bit more brains and imagination than usual, “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” lacks both.

Like its predecessors, the third movie in this modern “Mummy” franchise has more in common with “Indiana Jones” than Boris Karloff. This series was never high-brow entertainment, but the first time Brendan Fraser and crew suited up to battle the undead in 1999’s “The Mummy” there was a sense of fun and energy that carried the day. Few would confuse it with a good film, but it succeeded at being a mindless diversion.

The same could not be said for 2001’s “The Mummy Returns,” which replayed the first film but added more of everything including an annoying kid and proved that more is definitely less. At least this new film benefits from a new villain and a new setting: China.

The film opens promisingly with a prologue showing the rise to power of the Dragon Emperor (Jet Li) and how he and his army were cursed by an immortal witch (Michelle Yeoh, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). Following “The Forbidden Kingdom,” which also featured Li, and “Kung-Fu Panda” this is the third Hollywood film to borrow Eastern mythology and imagery this year. Where “Forbidden Kingdom” and “Kung-Fu Panda” was fun and loose, “Dragon Emperor” is dull and stiff.

After the prologue things jump to 1946 and start getting clunky. Rick and Evelyn O’Connell (Fraser and Maria Bello, replacing Rachel Weisz) have retired in England after a career of espionage during World War II. They are shaken out of their boring new lives by one last call to duty. They are to bring an artifact to China. They agree, because, after all, Evelyn’s brother (John Hannah) has a night club there they can visit.

Unbeknownst to them, their now-grown son (Luke Ford) has followed in the family business and has discovered the tomb of the dragon emperor. A family reunion is just as inevitable as the awakening of the now mummified dragon warrior. Yeoh’s immortal daughter (Isabella Leong) is thrown in as a love interest for Ford.

There are special effects galore, but there’s little excitement because it is all so familiar and there’s no vision or sweep behind the staging of these elaborate action set pieces. “Hellboy II” was equally light on its plot, but made up for it with astonishing and inventive visuals.

A subplot with a group of friendly yeti is the most entertaining aspect of the film simply because it is so completely out of left field. Sure the appearance of abominable snowmen is utterly laughable, but at this point in the movie you’re desperate for anything new.

The acting, let’s just be blunt about it, is bad. Movies like this don’t need Oscar-worthy performances, but there’s a certain tongue-in-cheek acting style that if done right can go a long way. Fraser, who is usually the go to guy for live-action-cartoon heroics, seems bored this time around.

Bello is a talented actress as her work in movies such “The Cooler” and “History of Violence” can prove, but you’d never know it based on her work here. Burdened with a terrible fake British accent, she seems uncomfortable and gives a completely flat performance. Good thing she’s an established talent because this does nothing to further her career. It may even be a step backward.

Ford looks dashing, and that’s about it. His love subplot with Leong is undernourished and completely hollow. There are way too many poorly written lovey-dovey scenes between the two couplings, and none of them have a single genuine moment. All these scenes do is drag the pacing down.

It is only Li and Yeoh who bring any sort of flavor to the proceedings. Li and Yeoh are both legends within the world of martial art films and they provide a touch of grace and class to the proceedings, unfortunately their screen time is limited to the beginning and end. The two share an all too brief sword fight that for martial arts fans may be worth checking, but give it some time and I’m sure it’ll show up on youtube.

A 'rich' night of theater

'Fiddler on the Roof' comes to North Conway, N.H.'s Eastern Slope Playhouse

Following on the heals of the provocative “Cabaret,” the Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which is running nightly at 8 p.m. — except Monday — through Aug. 16 at the Eastern Slope Playhouse in North Conway, may seem like much tamer fare. While this is true, the two shows have more in common than at first glance.

“Fiddler on the Roof” is the Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company’s second show in a row to deal with persecution of Jews. “Cabaret” and “Fiddler” follow a similar structure, with the first act of each show being light, frothy and fun, but with an underlining danger that becomes overt as act one transitions into act two.

“Fiddler’s” ending is not nearly as dark as “Cabaret’s,” but both effectively use the musical-theater tradition to showcase serious themes in a way that still entertains and doesn’t trivialize the issues at hand.

Set in the small Russian town of Anatevka in 1905, the show focuses on the milkman Tevye (George Piehl) and his daughters. Tevye is part of a resilient Jewish community that quietly and happily co-exists with the gentiles in town, at least at the start of the play. That conflict is really secondary to a struggle between tradition and change.

Three of Tevye’s five daughters will marry by the show’s end, and each marriage represents a bigger challenge to the longstanding traditions of the Jewish community. Tevye is willing to bend to see his daughters happy, but even he has a limit. The show presents an intriguing debate over the importance and dangers that come with both tradition and change.

This production, directed and choreographed by Andrew Giant Linden, features strong performances and lively song and dance numbers throughout. In terms of the production’s design, the only disappointment is a rather lackluster set design by Brad Archer, but this is a minor fault that is largely rectified by the lighting design by Sara Houston.

This is Piehl’s show. He ably steps into the role originated by Zero Mostel on Broadway and Topel in the 1971 film version. Piehl makes it all seem so easy in what
appears to be an effortlessly charming performance. His one-sided conversations with God are delivered close to perfection, as are Tevye’s internal monologues. Piehl’s is also effective in the interactions with Tevye’s daughters. There is an especially affecting scene with Tevye saying goodbye to his daughter Hodel (Liz Clark Golson) at a bus stop.

The rest of cast is also solid. Rachel Brown, Clark Golson and Amanda Philips as Tevye’s three daughters with marriage on the mind strike just the right notes. Each actress shows chemistry with their respective matches and possesses charming and sweet stage presences.

Craig Holden as Lazar Wolf, the butcher, Shannon Connelly as Yente, the matchmaker, and Brendon Stimson as the Rabbi and other characters are also standouts. Holden and Connelly in particular provide some good laughs.

The weakest link in the cast is Grant Golson, and that only becomes apparent if you saw his performance in “Cabaret.” Golson, who once again is romantically paired with his real life wife Clark Golson, gives the same performance he did in “Cabaret” and reveals a limited range as an actor. His inflection, tone and delivery are nearly identical. Clark Golson, on the other hand, is just as charming as she was in “Cabaret” and doesn’t repeat herself.

The show is populated with great songs and there are several highlights. The classic “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” is sung and danced with gusto and humor by Brown, Clark Golson and Philips. “If I Were a Rich Man,” another song that has slipped into our cultural lexicon, is sung with vigor by Piehl, although the staging could have been a bit more dynamic.

“The Dream” is both a musical and comedic high point of the show, with Tevye desperately trying to cook up a way out of a tight spot with his wife (Megan Thomas). “Do You Love Me?” features Tevye asking that question to his wife 25 years into their arranged marriage. The song is awfully sweet without giving the audience a toothache.
“To Life,” “Bottle Dance” and “Wedding Dances” feature some astonishing dancing that is truly impressive and full of infectious, joyous energy.

“Fiddler on the Roof” isn’t a flawless production, but, oy vey, what is? A little imperfection never hurt anybody, and at the end of the night this production will leave the audience entertained. What more can you ask for? Tickets are $27 and are available at the box office or by calling 356-5776.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

'Step Brothers' is a couple steps below good

Will Ferrell is a love-him or hate-him comedic performer. If you love him, you may give “Step Brothers” a pass, but if you hate him you are really going to hate his third film with director and co-writer Adam McKay.

After showing he was capable of a genuine performance in 2006's "Stranger Than Fiction," Ferrell has been taking roles in movies like "Blades of Glory" and "Semi-Pro" that don't force him to stretch and allow him to tread water instead of truly diving into a juicy role.

In "Step Brothers," Ferrell and John C. Reilly, who were such a dynamic comedic duo together in “Talladega Nights,” star as two obnoxious 40-ish losers who still live at home and act like incredibly immature adolescents. When their sweet, intelligent parents played by Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”) fall in love and get married, the two men are forced to live together.

A little of this premise goes a long way. In fact it would’ve worked wonders as a reoccurring “Saturday Night Live” sketch. But as a feature film it doesn’t sustain comedic energy. There are isolated scenes that are hilarious, as when Ferrell and Reilly realize they aren’t enemies, but best friends. This scene appears in the trailer; in fact, most of the best scenes do. This is a definitely a case of if you’ve seen the trailer you’ve seen the film.

I laughed out loud once every 10 minutes, which makes the film just good enough. Compared to “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights,” Ferrell’s two previous collaborations with McKay, that laugh ratio is not nearly high enough.

The film is vulgar for the sake of being vulgar. There’s nothing wrong with being vulgar per se, and there are far more obscene films than this, but listening to a couple of adults belittle each other with obscenity-laced schoolyard insults becomes tired quick. It doesn’t help that every scene that works is repeated at least once.

If you actually care about characters or if they are at least somewhat recognizably human, it does help balance a film’s crude humor. Writer/director Kevin Smith knows this and laces his films with an underlining sweetness or at least attempts to say something about society. Similarly, “Bad Santa” is one of the most obscene films around, but it also works as a well-observed character study of a certain kind of person.

“Step Brother” doesn’t really have anything to say about adulthood or growing up, and not that it should, but the film is lacking that slight satiric edge that gave “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights” a bit more mileage out of the more outrageous humor.

The set-up also could’ve been aided by a surreal or absurdist touch. These characters are more than immature adults, they seem borderline insane or mentally handicapped. Surprisingly, once the basic premise is established, it really isn’t taken anywhere that a bad sitcom wouldn’t have gone.

Ferrell and Reilly play these characters as teens in adult bodies. This can work as a comedic device — just look at Tom Hanks’ work in “Big,” for example, but that film gave a reason for Hanks' behavior.

Steenburgen, who previously brought a touch of class to Ferrell’s “Elf,” and Jenkins are wasted as the parents. They are both giving good performances, but they are not true characters; rather, they are just a mechanism of the plot. It is a shame because there is chemistry between the actors and they deserve better than this.

“Step Brothers” isn’t awful, it is just merely OK. Don’t waste your money seeing it in theaters, but if you’re looking to kill time it is decent renter. Of course, at that point you are better of renting some of Ferrell and Reilly’s better films. I recommend Ferrell’s aforementioned previous collaborations with McKay and Reilly’s under seen, but hilarious “Walk Hard.”