In retrospect, I guess it’s a good thing that I was laid up with some unknown malady this weekend because it gave me the opportunity to ogle a bunch of free movies on the HBO and Cinemax channels (not to mention HBO and Cinemax on Demand) and get an idea of what modern movie audiences subject themselves to—the ones who are still pumped about watching films on the big screen, I mean. Apart from the occasional foreign flick or indie fave unspooled on Sundance on Demand or IFC Free, I don’t venture out to the nabes all that often, so for me a new movie is some 70s flick I neglected the first go-round.
Anyway, that’s why posting was spotty over the weekend—for every hour I was not feeling like crud I was parked in front of the tube at Castle Yesteryear, kicking things off with a viewing of Tropic Thunder (2008), a comedy starring Ben Stiller, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jack Black among a troupe of actors trying to complete a Vietnam War epic who find themselves in a situation of real-life danger when they meet up with some Asian drug lords.
As badly as I want to be part of my good friend HouseT’s “sphere of awesome,” I found Thunder only intermittingly funny and it didn’t take me too long to dope out why the movie didn’t work for me. The movies that are poked fun at in Thunder are ludicrous in themselves, and trying to make even more ridiculous what’s already been established as such is pretty much a wasted effort. Many of the “coming attraction” spoofs presented before the actual movie starts are good for a chuckle or two (though they would have worked better as brief skits on Stiller’s late, lamented TV comedy show), but the film quickly gets bogged down in this kind of parody that would have been much funnier had it been conceived by Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker—the masterminds behind Airplane! (1980) and other comedies of that ilk. (Z-A-Z knew not to push a good thing; Airplane’s running time clocks under an hour-and-a-half while Thunder makes its audience wait close to two hours for a payoff that never comes.)
I remember reading a preview of Thunder in one of Entertainment
Weakly Weekly’s Summer Movie Preview issues and how everyone was going on and on about how Tom Cruise’s performance as a tyrannical movie mogul was going to break all the rules of comedy—let me just state this for the record, good people: Tom Cruise is not funny, and he never will be. He would have to work his way up to actually being a good actor, and Lord knows he is not. On the other hand, I thought Matthew McConaughey had some nice moments as Stiller’s dedicated agent and Steve Coogan did especially well as the director of the ill-fated epic; his demise is particularly memorable and demonstrates that if you start croaking the funniest characters in the course of your movie, you’re seriously screwed. On a four-star scale, I’ll give Thunder a pair of stars because there are one or two moments in the film that did make me laugh out loud (as offensive as Downey’s “full retard” speech is, it’s still impossible not to laugh during it…primarily because it’s true).
The Simpsons Movie (2007) – I don’t remember how long it’s been since I actually watched a recent episode of this veteran animated prime-time comedy series, but I do remember I wasn’t all that impressed. So this highly-touted (at the time of release) feature film version entertained me more than I thought it would; it’s got an amazingly strong story (that contains just enough gas to cruise to the end) and that sharp social satire responsible for drawing in the number of fans he has. The family’s hometown of Springfield (there was a contest among all the similarly-named towns across the USA to be chosen as the real Springfield—what kept Springfield, GA out of the running was that they didn’t have a movie theater in which to preview the film) is declared “the most polluted city in America” and its inhabitants (and they feature just about everybody from the show) are sealed off from the rest of society under a giant dome. Naturally, Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie must rise to the challenge and save their city. There are a multitude of great gags in this film (I think you almost have to watch it a second time to catch them all) but my favorite is seeing a Fox promo crawl along the bottom of the screen with the admonition: “That's right; we even advertise our shows during movies now.” (***)
Live Free or Die Hard (2007) – I have a small confession to make: despite the fact that I despise Bruce Willis with the intensity of a thousand white-hot suns, I’ve seen every film in the actor’s successful “Die Hard” franchise—mostly because it would appear I’m more masochistic than I previously thought. I decided to sit through this in the interest of completion, but as the Gob character so often said on Arrested Development, “I’ve made a huge mistake.” If any loyal TDOY reader actually paid good money to see this movie, you have the makings of a first-rate class action lawsuit on your hands: the plot is chicken-fried steak thin (though there’s plenty of 9/11 jingoism and a heavy dose of misogyny for flavor), the characters one-dimensional (though this is a step up for Willis), most of the film is devoted to figuring out ways to blow things up real good, and the memorable villains like Alan Rickman (the first movie) and Jeremy Irons (Die Hard: With a Vengeance) have been replaced by a whiny terrorist (Timothy Olyphant) who’s mostly in a perpetual snit throughout the film. Justin Long generates a few chuckles as a computer hacker who teams up with Willis to bring down Olyphant (as does writer-director Kevin Smith as a hacker named “Warlock”) and save Willis’ daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead—who just manages to get kidnapped by Olyphant during the film, darn the luck). What really pissed me off was that I cut away from a film in progress—some chiller entitled The Reaping (2007), with Hilary Swank and TDOY fave Stephen Rea—to watch this drek. (* 1/2)
The Dark Knight (2008) – Despite all the hype and marketing by the studio, critics and fans that this film was the greatest thing to come along since sliced bread, I have to admit I enjoyed watching this one even though I had to work with the handicap of not seeing the earlier Batman Begins (2005). In Knight, it’s Batman (Christian Bale) vs. the Joker (Heath Ledger, who posthumously won a Best Supporting Oscar for his performance even though I’m not certain why—he’s good, but he ain’t that good) as the Caped Crusader must protect his beloved Gotham City from a super villain whose only motivation appears to be that he just likes f*****g with people’s heads. What’s so troubling about this film (and for me especially) is that while the last thing you want is someone taking a crap on the niceties of democracy there are some mad dogs out there that you just have to put down with a bullet to the brainpan, which is probably how they should have dispatched the Joker from Day One. (Fortunately, this does not happen…because then this movie would have been about seven minutes long.)
Incidentally, that’s the main thing I object to in Knight—this movie is much, much longer than it needs to be (all aboard on the multi-climax express!). The other quibble is that in casting the role of the main character (Bats himself) it doesn’t matter so much whether the actor makes a good Batman (I think anybody can play that role) but whether he makes a good Bruce Wayne. To me, the best actor to do that in the Batman franchise so far is Val Kilmer, even though his solo film (Batman Forever) is one of the lousiest. Bale completely disproves my theory that anyone can be Batman—he’s a good Wayne, but to play the Caped Crusader he speaks in a menacing whisper that sounds as if he’s doing a bad Clint Eastwood impression.
The supporting actors in Knight are the show here, with outstanding performances by Gary Oldman (astonishingly good here), Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine (as Alfred, he’s able to add something Michael Gough never could…a sense of humor), Morgan Freeman (in noble black man mode) and Eric Roberts as a mob goon. And yes, even though the film works itself into a lather blowing up things real good, it’s still an entertaining popcorn flick and one of the best “super-hero” films of recent vintage. (***)
The Heartbreak Kid (2007) – Bruce Jay Friedman’s A Change of Plan provided the fodder for a film that featured a screenplay by Neil Simon and direction by TDOY fave Elaine May entitled The Heartbreak Kid (1972), which tells the story of newlywed Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin) and of his decision to dump his fresh-out-of-the-box bride (Jeannie Berlin, May’s daughter) and pursue a blonde shiksa goddess in Kelly Corcoran (Cybil Shepherd), despite the objections of his parents (Eddie Albert—who’s simply first rate—and Audra Lindley). Kid is one of those films that makes its potential audience uncomfortable (Grodin’s character is a shameless S.O.B.) while reducing them to hysterics all the same.
I was surprised, then, to learn that the ubiquitous Ben Stiller had played the Grodin role in a remake and I was curious to check it out…but when the opening credits started rolling and I saw “Directed by Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly” I was tempted to run fast, run far. I know a great many people revere their work, which is representative of today’s “anything goes in comedy” mentality, but as for myself I place the sole blame on the brothers for the crudity that seems to prevail in movies today—I offer as exhibits A, B and C Kingpin (1996), There's Something About Mary (1998) and Me, Myself & Irene (2000), all three films of which I spent good money to see. (Okay, technically I didn’t pay to see Irene—a friend of mine told me it was the funniest movie he ever saw and I stupidly believed him, particularly since he was treating—but I have other pieces of evidence, including the unbelievably crass Say It Isn't So  which the Farrellys produced.)
The Farrelly version of Kid offers only one real novelty, and that’s the fact that the wife of Cantrow (played by Stiller, who answers to “Eddie” in this update) is played by a smokin’ hot blonde in Malin Akerman, and the object of Eddie’s affection is a plain Jane brunette played by Michelle Monaghan. Other than that, there’s really nothing to see here that wasn’t already done better in the original; though the Brothers Farrelly keep the crude jokes to a bare minimum as an added plus. Stiller doesn’t have much to work with, and except for the opportunity to see that actors like Scott Wilson and Polly Holliday are still with us and working, most of the supporting players fail to rise to the level of their material: Rob Corddry (dragging out the traditional “whipped husband” jokes), Carlos Mencia and Danny McBride are again offered as Exhibits A, B and C. (I guess McBride’s character is supposed to recall Eddie Albert’s turn as the rat-bastard father…and let me tell you, it’s not even close.) There’s a particularly humorous moment when Stiller’s real-life dad Jerry (who plays his dad in the movie) starts talking trash to McBride’s character in the hopes of a fight, but otherwise manages to embarrass himself with lines like “When your wife, on her honeymoon, asks you to c**k her, you c**k her good, goddam it!” (*)