Bob's Big Screen
Two unique comedic films sharpened by inspired direction
by Bob Connally
This issue, I take a look at an animated sci-fi film with heart and a razor-sharp Hollywood satire.
(G, Avail. 11/18)
In case it needs to be said one more time, animated films aren’t just for kids. Pixar repeatedly proves this through superior animation and storytelling, and by treating kids with respect. The themes in "Finding Nemo," "The Incredibles," "Ratatouille," and their latest, "WALL-E," are often new to kids but fully resonate with adults.
700 years in the future, the earth is an abandoned wasteland and a little robot named WALL-E has been left to clean it up. He spends his days compacting trash and his nights all alone, watching old Hollywood musicals. His only companion is a cockroach.
Meanwhile people wait out the cleanup, floating in space for what was meant to be a five-year luxury cruise. As explained by the CEO of the Buy'n'Large Corporation (Fred Willard), humanity would float in space indulging only in pleasure until the robots cleaned the planet and the humans could return. But with only one robot left, the process is taking longer than expected.
Soon however, WALL-E gets company. EVE is her name and WALL-E couldn't be happier. EVE has been designed to destroy and is a warrior compared to the thoughtful and gentle WALL-E.
When they discover a tiny plant in the ground, it's proof that the earth can sustain life once again. The two little robots meet up with a space cruiser to find all of humanity floating around the ship on recliners. Everyone is overweight, no one walks, and all day long the B'n'L Corp. is selling them happiness. The idea of a single corporation controlling everything and encouraging humans not to think is hardly new to sci-fi, but to see it in a movie that will be seen by almost every six-year-old in America is.
Much is being made of the dark themes in "WALL-E.” But I saw an uplifting film that showed that when we're up against it, humans can achieve remarkable things through sheer determination. This is interwoven with a robo-love story with sparse dialogue that is far more involving for the audience than most human tales of love.
"WALL-E,” much like its title character, is overflowing with heart. Once again Pixar has raised the bar for animated films, visually and thematically. A job well done by director Andrew Stanton and sound designer (and voice of WALL-E) Ben Burtt. 9/10.
(R, Avail. 11/18)
Satire is a tricky thing. It can be dangerous and inspire protests, and the sharper the satirical knives, the greater the likelihood of this. But if your comedy is as sharp as your knives it can be brutally funny. "Tropic Thunder" has sharp knives.
Co-written and directed by Ben Stiller, it tells the story of self-obsessed actors making a Vietnam epic. Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is the action star who's one flop away from career death. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is a comedy star who's throwing away his future on drugs. Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) is the five-time Oscar-winning Australian who takes method acting well past the limits of sanity: he underwent cosmetic surgery to take on the role of the black sergeant. Rounding out the cast of the Vietnam film is rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and an unknown (even to his cast mates), Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel).
The three superstars' childish behavior has put British director Damien Cockburn's (Steve Coogan) film in jeopardy. Pressure from studio head Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) isn't helping matters. Desperate, Cockburn takes the advice of the man whose story the film is based on, war hero Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte).
Tayback suggests taking the guys out into the jungle and filming guerrilla style. Within moments of their arrival we get one of the funniest and most ludicrous death scenes ever caught on film. With this the actors are left to fend for themselves when bullets start flying. Speedman is convinced that it's all part of the film, but the reality is they've been caught in the middle of a drug war.
From the very beginning, which is a series of fake trailers for the upcoming films of "Tropic Thunder's" stars, Stiller is right on. This is a Hollywood satire far sillier than "The Player" or "Sunset Blvd." but possibly even more savage. He takes dead aim at method acting, Hollywood drug addicts, and extreme self-absorption. Being a satire, it goes beyond reality, of course, but it's all steeped in truth.
As far as the movie's two most controversial elements, Downey’s performance is a comic slam dunk. The way it's written and performed, the joke is very clearly on the lengths to which Lazarus goes in the name of "true art." Alpa Chino, who actually is black, is the voice of reason who calls Lazarus out time and time again. As for the character of Simple Jack, for which Speedman failed to win an Oscar, the target is not the mentally challenged; it's the Hollywood belief that playing a character with a disability is a ticket to awards.
Everyone is funny in "Tropic Thunder." Downey’s fearless performance shines brightest, but Stiller and Black are hilarious too. Baruchel, Coogan, Matthew McConaughey, and especially Cruise add to the hilarity. Cruise's typical mannerisms and constant yelling have become tiresome, but those are the very things that make his work in this film so funny. His character's life is one giant tirade.
A lot of people will find "Tropic Thunder" to be one big sick joke, but for the rest of us, it is a very funny, very entertaining film. 8.5/10.
Coming to DVD
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (PG-13)
Scrubs: Season 7
Band of Brothers (Blu-Ray)
Firefly: The Complete Series (Blu-Ray)
Chuck: Season 1 (Blu-Ray)
Bones: Season 3
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2: Pants in Space (PG)
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (R)
The Third Man: Criterion Collection (Blu-Ray)
The Last Emperor: Criterion Collection (Blu-Ray)
Bottle Rocket: Criterion Collection (Blu-Ray)