Tropic Thunder (2008)

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Everybody knows you never go full retard! Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr) is the Aussie Method actor par excellence in blackface giving retrospective advice to Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) the ludicrously vain Hollywood star who made that very mistake in his quest for Oscar. Now they’re in the jungles of Vietnam doing their version of the War years after everyone else has stopped those kinds of movies and causing no end of difficulties for hapless Brit director (Steve Coogan) who is killed in the fray. Back at the studio the vile boss Les Grossman (an unrecognisable Tom Cruise) just sees insurance $$$$ when Speedman gets separated from the crew as they go shooting guerilla style in a self-defeating move – and he’s kidnapped by drugs lords who make him act out Stupid Jack, the only film they have on VHS. Only Tugg’s agent (Matthew McConaughey) cares about his charge. The other actors, who include Fatties franchise star Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) decide to rescue Tugg without realising their director is dead and this is not a movie any more … This is a Hollywood satire that also operates as a proper action movie and what a rare feat that is. Just when you think it’s a sketch show that goes on too long, Tugg kills a panda (he’s crusading for their rights on the back of Vanity Fair) and Danny McBride calls Nick Nolte ‘the Milli Vanilli of patriots.’ Gut-bustingly funny when it works, and you know all the movies it’s spoofing, Grossman was apparently all Cruise’s idea and some might say it’s a rather vicious take on Sumner Redstone as revenge for booting him off the Paramount lot when he jumped on Oprah’s couch. From a story by Justin Theroux and Ben Stiller, written by Etan Cohen. Directing by Ben Stiller. Dancing by Les Grossman!

Valkyrie (2008)

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WW2:  the gift that keeps on giving. I’m sure it was  more than his similarity to Claus Von Stauffenberg’s photo that persuaded Tom Cruise to make this, but that apparently was the raison d’etre for this production about a group of high-ranking German soldiers who wanted to take Hitler out in summer 1944.  Claus has lost his eye in action but he becomes the key to planting a bomb following one failed assassination attempt on der Fuhrer and enacting Operation Valkyrie. With a slew of Brit actors including Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp and Eddie Izzard as the High Command running the plot, this never really works in terms of tension or thrills in a conspiracy that was well laid but never got its man. Probably overshadowed by the German version Operation Valkyrie (2004) starring Sebastian Koch. Written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander and directed by Bryan Singer.

Vanilla Sky (2001)

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Life is but a dream. Within a dream. Within a dream?! Since nobody concerned with this ever really knew what it was about, with 5 possible interpretations of the ending (and there is an alternative ending too…) there’s no reason why the little people should venture a suggestion. It might be that a vanity project for The Cruiser about a feckless publisher (Cruise) who inherited the business from his late papa and winds up in some sort of lucid dream courtesy of a tech company promising eternal life hit the complicated role spot. He romances Sofia (Penelope Cruz) a woman he’s met courtesy of his writer friend Brian (Jason Lee). The other woman, who leaves him disfigured in a car crash is f***buddy Julie played by Cameron Diaz, who’s very good;  while Kurt Russell is the court-appointed psychologist deployed to find out WTF is up with the man behind the mask and his weird visions. A remake of Spanish film Open Your Eyes/Abre los ojos, also starring Cruz, perhaps this was just some kind of Scientology wet dream gone wrong in another case of Let’s remake that movie because all films in other languages seem so much smarter than ours even when they’re utter nonsense. Who can tell?! Wake up, people keep telling Cruise. I know! I know! A very strange misstep for Cruise and Cameron Crowe, but it looks great thanks to John Toll and there’s a fascinating soundtrack (Nancy Wilson, well done). It certainly doesn’t help that the ending involves a skyscraper – in a film released three months after 9/11. Incomprehensible!

Wonder Boys (2000)

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Michael Chabon’s droll campus novel of dejected one hit wonder creative writing professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) gets a funny and tender adaptation from the late Curtis Hanson and writer Steve Kloves. James Leer (Tobey Maguire) is the weird and ubertalented student whose work is stupendously impressive so when agent Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr) arrives at a college event for aspiring authors he immediately transfers his affection from his transvestitite companion to this new kid on the block and a raucous weekend on and off campus ensues. At a party given by the Chancellor Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand) – who happens to be Grady’s mistress – and her husband Walter (Richard Thomas) a valuable piece of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia is stolen,  the family dog is shot and the body hidden in a trunk, and tension rattles when Sara reveals she’s pregnant by Grady, whose wife has taken off to her parents’. Grady thinks James is a suicide risk so keeps him with him – along with the dead dog. It eventually dawns on him that James is a compulsive liar and a total liability. His fellow student Hannah (Katie Holmes) has a thing for Grady but he’s not into her which makes life at his house tricky – she’s renting a room there. Walter sends the police for James when he figures where the MM goods have gone. What happens to Grady’s new book manuscript and the car is just cringeworthy … This is so great in every department – the very texture of the emotions is in every gesture and expression, something that occurs when writing, performance and staging are in perfect sync. Hilarious, compassionate and endlessly watchable. And for anyone looking to complete their picture collection of Michael Douglas’ abject masculinity on film, there’s the image of him standing on the porch in a woman’s dressing gown – something to knock that Basic Instinct v-neck into a cocked hat. Cherishable.

A Good Year (2006)

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Ridley Scott wanted to make something light and local near his home in the South of France and someone suggested he adapt a Peter Mayle book. Instead they met up and had a chat and developed a story which became a different sort of film for Scott (and a somewhat altered version of the story in the subsequent novel by Mayle) with Russell Crowe as Max Skinner the uptight London City broker inheriting his uncle’s estate which he hasn’t been back to in ten years – despite having been brought up there. He falls for a local restaurateur (Marion Cotillard) and tries to sell up with the incursion of his uncle’s illegitimate daughter (Abbie Cornish) throwing an ownership spanner in the works, especially since she’s an oenologist. There’s mischief afoot back at work, a subplot about the vines and wine appellation with local Francois (Didier Bourdon), and flashbacks to Max’s childhood (he’s played by Freddie Highmore) with Uncle Henry (Albert Finney) and none of the stories really work in tandem with odd shifts in tone, but it looks beautiful and the women are great. Crowe would be much better served with a humorous role in The Nice Guys. Written by Marc Klein.

Sideways (2004)

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Pinot’s a very thin-skinned grape, it doesn’t like light or humidity. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a wine-loving high school English teacher and wannabe author whose best friend actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is getting married next Saturday:  road trip! To California wine country, where he can educate Jack in the mysteries of tasting. Two middle aged men on an emotional journey, one a depressive mourning his marriage, the other a past-it who can’t wait to get it up. Maya (Virginia Madsen) is the college professor’s wife waiting tables who has the best palate for wine of any woman Miles has ever met and Jack fancies her smartass friend and single mom Stephanie (Sandra Oh). There ensue some funny sexcapades (Jack), sad drunk dials (Miles), terror on the golf course and major education in oenology:  sometimes all it takes is the feel of a bunch of grapes in the hand to get the mojo going and a bottle of wine can bring anyone back to life. The marvellous Maya turns out to be the woman who coaxes Miles to his truest expression. Funny, louche, and humane with killer lines and tone-perfect performances from all concerned. Beautifully written, staged and shot, this is the comical male midlife response to Thelma and Louise, minus the violence and police. Mature, full-bodied and earthy, it simply gets better every year. From Rex Pickett’s unpublished novel, adapted by Jim Taylor and director Alexander Payne. Savour it.

Collateral (2004)

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Michael Mann took digital to a new level with this limpid portrait of nighttime LA in a story of taxi driver Max (Jamie Foxx) whose latest ride is hitman Vincent (Tom Cruise) carrying out a clutch of killings. His last mark is a prosecutor (Jada Pinkett Smith) whom the driver gave a ride and wants to save. Stylish, lean and beautifully written by Stuart Beattie, this is a perfect mesh of star performance and genre, heading for a climax almost out of Jean-Pierre Melville with two contrasting characters struggling with the fallout from their occupations. Made with care, this is a pretty perfect film.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

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Sofia Coppola knows what it feels like for a girl. When the officials at Versailles gave her the very big keys to open up the palace and reimagine a little Austrian girl lost in the vicious and foreign French royal court working from Antonia Fraser’s biography, they probably didn’t picture this — a portrait of teenage decadence in the pastel palette of macaroons (magenta, citron, mint) scored to a New Romantic soundtrack as if she were making an Adam and the Ants video.  Kirsten Dunst is the kid sold to the gormless dauphin (Jason Schwartzman) in a strategic alliance organised by her mother the Empress (Marianne Faithfull). Her father in law the King Louis XV (Rip Torn) is like a Texan cowboy carrying on with Madame du Barry (Asia Argento). Her husband has no idea what to do in bed and she’s a giggly kid who spends her nights drinking and gambling with her girly friends and it takes a visit from her brother Emperor Josef (Danny Huston) to explain to the mechanically-minded prospective king about locks and holes, and a year later, finally, the marriage is consummated and a baby girl is born.  Seven years of foreplay!  The life of conspicuous consumption of colourful costumes and cookies and candy is swopped for something almost rural and natural at Le Petit Trianon where the young mother holds a different kind of court and succumbs to an affair with the Swedish Count Fersel (Jamie Dornan) and frolics with her little girl in the meadows. The mood alters and the cinematography (by Lance Acord) attains the backlit flared quality of a nature documentary:  this is impressionistic and expressionistic all at once, reliant on Dunst’s face and the overall vision of a writer/director in sympathetic tune with her tragic protagonist whose perception of the vicious society over which she holds sway dominates the narrative. The final quarter hour is the nightmare:  people are starving because the peasants are bearing the cost of the war in America, and propaganda and lies, dead children and the baying mob are at the door. This is a fabulist film about fashion and feeling and food and it gets into your head and your heart. If you don’t like it, you know what you can go eat.

The Banger Sisters (2002)

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Bob Dolman’s story of two former groupies hooking up again twenty years after their heyday is long over is a mild affair sparked by the wonderful pairing of Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon. Suzette (Hawn) is fired from her job tending bar at the Whisky in LA and she needs money so decides to look up her old partner in crime Vinnie (Sarandon) who’s now a respectable Mom in Phoenix. On the way there she runs out of gas and picks up a phobic writer (Geoffrey Rush) who’s headed to the same destination to confront his bullying father. A prom night at their hotel sees Suzette bailing out Vinnie’s elder daughter (Erika Christensen) after a bad acid trip and the women’s reunion over the younger daughter’s (Eva Amurri, Sarandon’s own offspring) failed driving test starts the tightly wound Vinnie unwinding faster than you can say Cock Rock Photos (we don’t see what they look at in that drunken basement Polaroid fest).  There are some funny scenes that are underwritten – when Suzette sees the typewriter in the pool wasn’t there a smart line in that about rock star behaviour? More could have been made of the music backdrop and the family’s bizarre concept of their mother doesn’t ring true given the elder daughter’s penchant for sex in the pool.  (I’m still trying to figure out how Christensen got this gig.) Nobody really lets rip here, as one would have expected given the backstory … But the ladies are a terrific match and if it’s not Thelma and Louise it makes for a very good companion piece with Almost Famous, starring Hawn’s daughter Kate Hudson a couple of years earlier. I’ve waited a long time for Hawn to act again:  please release her next movie, like, now, already!

Love Happens (2009)

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Aaron Eckhart is the self-help guru specialising in bereavement who needs more help than any of his acolytes since he’s never been entirely truthful about who was really behind the wheel the night of his wife’s death in a car crash.  Jennifer Aniston is the commitment-phobe florist who helps him get to the reality of his situation and set free his inner parrot, or something. (There really is a parrot). This is a romantic drama which focuses on Eckhart’s dilemma to the exclusion of any screwball comedy, to which it clearly aspires:  there are tonally wrong dramatic scenes and comic scenes which should have been swopped,  and not enough time is spent on Aniston’s potentially interesting character.  She serves as some sort of satellite to shed light (or enlightenment) on Eckhart (not the most sympathetic of fellows). She is a friend first and foremost – that poster is highly misleading. There is some banter with his manager and some insight into gurus’ mirthless cynicism but it’s not remotely as interesting as Tom Cruise’s performance in Magnolia.  Martin Sheen shows up as his forgiving father in law but the shifts from pathos to comedy don’t work. Confusing. From the pen of Mike Thompson and Brandon Camp, directed by Camp.