December 27, 2008

Tropic Thunder (2008)

There’s a blurry yet distinct line between comedy and satire, and Tropic Thunder tries to have it both ways for most of its 107 minutes…with neither approach clearly winning out.

The movie starts off strong, with dead-on fake trailers that mock (in three separate spots) the blow-everything-up action flick, the self-importance of Hollywood “prestige” films, and the belief that we mouth-breathing masses will go see anything if the trailer hits the right notes (i.e., lots of fart jokes).

On to the plot…
Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is a once-bankable action star whose box office numbers have been shrinking. Desperate and hopeful for a comeback – and to be take seriously as an actor – he signs on to star in Tropic Thunder, a war film based on a novel by a supposed Vietnam War hero. His costars are the Chris Farley-esque Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) – star of The Fatties film franchise (think Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor movies, but even more crass) – and oh-so-serious Method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), who actually undergoes skin pigment alteration to play a black soldier.
• After several prima donna moments by the three lead actors, plus a mistimed multimillion-dollar explosion, the novice director (Steve Coogan) conspires with the author of the book (Nick Nolte) to toughen up the actors – adding unscripted explosions, bombings, and gunfire to the actors’ war scenes. Guerrilla-style filmmaking, as it were.
• But then, something terrible (yet morbidly hilarious) happens to the director, and the stars get lost trying to find their way back to base camp – only to stumble across a real crime syndicate of drug-runners deep in the jungle. The actors think these baddies are part of the script.
• Wacky misunderstandings begin; cue ensuing hilarity.

Satire is what can make a film pleasurable, even clever; comedy is what makes it fun. And I get the feeling that most moviegoers, after seeing the trailers and posters for Tropic Thunder, expected big, blow-out, hilarious fun. Frankly, I was expecting more of it myself.

Once again, Stiller (who directed, produced, and co-wrote Tropic Thunder) gets first billing in a film where he’s not the best thing in it. That honor belongs to Downey who, in his character’s words, is “the dude playin' the dude, disguised as another dude.” There was some public concern about Downey going the blackface route, but he portrays a gruff, macho, ass-kicking black man just this side of not turning it into a racist stereotype.
In the last act of Tropic Thunder, the characters get all deep and self-reflective, while the film ultimately mutates into a blow-em-up action movie – exactly the type of film they’ve been trying to satirize for the first hour. Look, if I want a testosterone-injected rescue mission set in Vietnam, I’ll watch Uncommon Valor, Missing in Action, or Rambo. What I want here is a comedy; make me laugh. Or even a good satire; I’ll settle for a smirk.

There was a small, forgettable debate when Tropic Thunder was released – whether the jokes were too “inside” for people outside the film industry to appreciate or understand. I think it’s a non-issue: Thanks to the Internet and countless entertainment TV shows and magazines, most viewers will probably get many of the jokes and send-ups. But getting them is one thing; laughing at them is another.

I didn’t care for Tropic Thunder in much the same way I didn’t care for Team America: World Police; each film delves so deep to lampoon its target that it fails in the larger goal of being consistently funny.

Closing thoughts:
• I counted on one hand (maybe two) the laugh-out-loud moments – and they were fleeting, not extended.
Tom Cruise’s heavily disguised cameo as a foul-mouthed, ruthless studio exec screams “stunt casting” loud enough for Marlee Matlin to hear.
• I did smile a few times at Stiller’s slick yet ridiculous agent, played by Matthew McConaughey – and I definitely related to him when he equated TiVo with food, shelter, clean water and clean sheets.

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

Will your kids want to see it?
I can see where your kids might have interest in Tropic Thunder based on the kid- and tween-friendly films made by Stiller (Night at the Museum), Black (School of Rock, Kung Fu Panda), and Downey (Iron Man). But the film is rated R for strong, coarse language, drug use and references, and some graphic (though comedic) violence, so I'd recommend checking it out before allowing your offspring to watch.

Will your FilmMother like it?
If she's a die-hard Ben Stiller fan, maybe she'll enjoy Tropic Thunder more than I did. But if she's expecting a consistently funny, laugh-out-loud comedy (the way the film promoted itself), I think she'll be disappointed.

Tropic Thunder
* Director: Ben Stiller
* Screenwriters: Ben Stiller & Justin Thoreaux
* Stars: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey, Jr., Danny McBride, Steven Coogan, Nick Nolte, Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel
* MPAA Rating: R (pervasive language including sexual references, violent content, drug material, panda cruelty)

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December 18, 2008

Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown (1977)

As many parents know, kids can get on “kicks” of things they like or discover. These kicks come fast and hard, and leave just as abruptly. For example: playing nothing but one game, eating only one food, watching only one TV show or movie, or focusing on a favorite character.

Dash has been on a Charlie Brown kick lately – renting multiple Peanuts books from the library, playing the song “Snoopy’s Christmas” on infinite repeat, and absorbing the “big 3” Charlie Brown specials (Great Pumpkin, Thanksgiving, Christmas).

So to fuel his interest in all things “Chuck,” I rented one of my favorite movies as a kid: 1977’s Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown. I remember bonding with my 3rd-grade teacher over this movie (she was a big Peanuts fan), and I watched it countless times on HBO.

Plot: The Peanuts gang heads to summer camp, where Charlie Brown and his friends get harassed by a group of bullies who declare themselves the team to beat at the camp games. They trounce Charlie Brown’s team in events such as potato sack racing and tug-o-war – but when it comes to the final event, a river raft race, can Charlie Brown lead his friends to victory?

There’s always a risk revisiting things you loved as a kid, only to be disappointed and have cherished childhood memories tarnished. But in revisiting Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown, my memories were only enhanced by how much fun this movie is to watch.

It’s fun to pull for the Peanuts gang in their camp competitions (especially the big river raft race)…to watch the friendship of Snoopy and Woodstock (you’re not human if you don’t feel warm and fuzzy when they reunite after being separated by a thunderstorm)…to watch Charlie Brown try to step up and take charge when his nay-saying “friends” doubt his intestinal fortitude…it’s all FUN, dang it!

How’s this for a final endorsement? For several moments while watching Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown, I felt like I was 8 again.

A couple of minor critiques:
• For better or worse, it provides some early lessons on why to hate (and how to fight off) bullies.
• Peppermint Patty’s constant use of secret ballots, for every obvious or minute team decision, wears thin quickly (I deduct one star for that alone).

‘70s Alert!
• The alternately funky and folksy tunes of the soundtrack.
• Dig the psychedelic closing credits, man…

Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown
is not available on DVD; I rented our copy on VHS from our local library. [UPDATE 4/6/15: It's finally available on DVD! Click the ad below for details.]

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5).

What did Dash think?
He told me he enjoyed it, and he offered frequent commentary during the film. A sampling…
• On the bullies and their odds of winning the river raft race: “They’re not gonna win…they’re gonna sink, I know it.”
• On Linus chasing away the bullies by snapping his blanket at them: “He knows how to do it.”
• His favorite part? “I liked when Snoopy gave Charlie Brown a ride [on his motorcycle].”

Will your kids like it?
If Dash’s approval is any indication, I would say yes. Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown is one of those rarities: an older animated film that holds up over time. Things move at a pretty steady clip, and the 76-minute running time is perfect for the attention span of younger viewers.

Will your FilmMother like it?
I’d say so. It’ll be fun for her to catch up with (and reminisce about) the Peanuts gang.

Did the voiceover guy suck on a helium balloon or something?

Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown
* Directors: Bill Melendez, Phil Roman
* Screenwriter: Charles M. Schulz
* Stars (voices): Duncan Watson, Stuart Brotman, Melanie Kohn, Liam Martin, Gail Davis
* MPAA Rating: G

December 12, 2008

Superdad (1973)

I’ve always been fascinated by the life, career, and death of actor Bob Crane. He became a household name in the late ‘60s with his TV show Hogan’s Heroes, followed by largely forgettable film and TV work.

He also led a secret life as godfather of the celebrity sex tape – recording countless hours of he and a crony engaging in “activities” with various lady folk. And when Crane was bludgeoned to death in his sleep (ironically, with his own camera tripod) in an Arizona motel in 1978, this crony was the key suspect (but never arrested).

Speaking of Crane’s forgettable film work…since a trip to Disney World in 2001, I’ve been obsessed with Crane’s 1973 Disney film, Superdad. I saw the groovy poster (above) in a ratty gift shop near the park entrance and, while I heard the film was unwatchable, I wanted to find out how unwatchable.

Plus, as curator of a blog focusing on fathers and film, I felt a movie called Superdad sounded perfect for a review.

You know that saying, “be careful what you wish for?”

• Charlie McCready (Crane) feels like he’s losing touch with his daughter, Wendy (Cathleen Cody), who will be attending college in the fall with her crowd of high school friends. He also feels these friends have no ambition, especially Wendy’s boyfriend, Bart (Kurt Russell).
• After watching a family relations expert on TV, Charlie decides to get more involved in his daughter’s activities (just what every teenager wants). At one particular intrusion of his daughter and her friends at the beach, he gets pummeled in games of volleyball and football, then eats it big time while water skiing.
• Later, Charlie hatches a plan for Wendy to receive a scholarship to a different college, his alma mater. Wendy attends the other college and sees less of her old crowd, but soon Charlie's plan backfires, causing father/daughter friction – and of course, zany antics on Charlie’s part to try and make things right.

Insipid. Humorless. Boring. Just a few words from my mental thesaurus to describe Superdad. It was so excruciating to watch that I had to break it up over three evenings, even though I had time each night to watch it in its entirety. The pain was just too much to bear in one sitting.

To list all the reasons for this film’s awfulness would take longer than if I watched it a second time (shudder). Some of the larger offenders at work:
• Disney’s saccharine perception of post-hippie high school kids in the early ‘70s.
• The fact that this Disney family “comedy” plays more like a made-for-TV dramedy -- that is, there are a lot of dramatic and confrontational scenes mixed in with the lame high jinks.
• The near-complete absence of a musical score. Not that I enjoy the overabundance of upbeat, horn-heavy scores in older live-action Disney films, but the lack of them in Superdad creates an odd, sterile atmosphere.

The “best” parts of Superdad?
• Catching the early work of future movie stars Kurt Russell, Bruno Kirby (a year before he made The Godfather Part II!), and Ed Begley, Jr.
• During Charlie’s ill-fated water-skiing adventure, Kirby is filming Crane from the boat with a home movie camera. Then all the teenagers watch the footage of Crane’s wipeout back at Wendy's house. The footage Kirby “shot” is the same exact footage you just watched in the movie – complete with long shots, close-ups, and multiple angles. Wow! Kirby coulda been the next Spielberg!

Rating: 1 star (out of 5).

Will your kids like it?
I can’t imagine any kid, then or now, sitting through this film. It makes me curious to find out how they marketed this film, or whom they marketed it to. (I couldn’t find the trailer online.)

Will your FilmMother like it?
You'll never know, because you’ll never tell her of Superdad’s existence. Ever.

* Director: Vincent McEveety
* Screenwriter: Joseph L. McEveety
* Stars: Bob Crane, Kurt Russell, Barbara Rush, Joe Flynn, Kathleen Cody, Dick Van Patten, Bruno Kirby
* MPAA Rating: G

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December 5, 2008

The Sword in the Stone (1963)

In my review for The Jungle Book, I bemoaned the fact that most older Disney films (like Jungle Book) don’t have brisk enough pacing to keep today’s kids interested.

Then a colleague of mine commented on my review, saying that there was one older Disney flick that his kids’ “still tolerate:” 1963’s The Sword in the Stone. So decided to put it to the test with my 5-year-old.

Plot: Sword follows the adventures of a young not-yet-king Arthur, serving as a squire to the dim, brutish knight Kay. On a hunting trip with Kay, Arthur falls in on Merlin, a powerful but absent-minded wizard, and Archimedes, Merlin’s curmudgeonly owl sidekick. Merlin winds up teaching and training Arthur in the ways of the world, and has plans for him beyond mere squiredom.

While The Sword in the Stone is well-made, entertaining, has more action than Jungle Book, and is worthy of being called a Disney “classic” (unlike, say, Oliver & Company), it takes a while for the core elements of the story (Arthur and the titular sword) to make their appearances. It’s probably 30 minutes until we see Arthur on-screen, and then his training lasts until the 73-minute mark. It’s a 79-minute film.

No exaggeration: The actual interaction of Arthur with the sword in the stone is literally the last sequence of the film. I guess I expected more time in the movie for Arthur to actually deal with being king. Maybe gathering his Knights of the Round Table and slaying a dragon or two…?

Still, this is just my expectations being different than the actual product. Bottom line, The Sword in the Stone is fun for kids and grown-ups alike. (Standout scene: a wizards’ duel between Merlin and the wicked, goofy Madam Mim.)

One gripe…Arthur is voiced by three young actors, two of which are director Wolfgang Reitherman’s sons. This change is vocals is rather obvious between certain scenes.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids like it?
My colleague’s recommendation paid off – my 5-year-old was more engaged with Sword in the Stone than he was with Jungle Book, making comments and asking questions several times during the film. And while I think it would appeal to both boys and girls, the film’s wizardry and swordplay probably provide more of a built-in appeal for boys.

Will your FilmMother like it?
I think she’d find it enjoyable, and a great reason to curl up on the couch with the offspring and some popcorn.

The Sword in the Stone
* Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
* Screenwriter: Bill Peet
* Stars: Sebastian Cabot, Karl Swenson, Rickie Sorensen, Richard Reitherman, Robert Reitherman, Junius Matthews, Martha Wentworth
* MPAA Rating: G

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