Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Film Review - DEATH RACE: Carmageddon Never Looked Lovelier!

Well, here we are again: sifting through the pathetic remains of summer movie season in search of something (Anything!) to take our minds off the impending return to academic anguish. If there is one constant trend that refuses to die, it is that every late August will bring with it another half-assed Jason Statham action extravaganza. Actually, maybe extravaganza sounds too grandiose... How about action distraction? Yeah, that’s probably more appropriate, considering that the last two summers foisted Crank and War onto the unsuspecting populace. Well, the balding Brit is back in a big way with Death Race, a fun quasi-remake of the cult hit Death Race 2000, helmed by prolific B-movie hack Paul W.S. Anderson (Mortal Kombat, AVP: Aliens Vs. Predator).

Set in 2012, the United States of America is undergoing a severe economic depression. While unemployment has reached staggering heights, prison populations have also swelled. To combat the problem, the penal system has been handed over to large corporate entities that have begun staging violent gladiatorial-style reality shows as a means to entertain and inspire the dejected populace. The most popular of these programs is “Death Race”, an all-out vehicular slaughterfest, which is held at the brutal Terminal Island penitentiary.

Against this backdrop of despondency, we are introduced to a hard working, yet recently jobless, steel worker named Jensen Ames (Statham) who has a loving family and cosy home. Well, at least until his wife winds up on the receiving end of a butcher knife and Ames find himself convicted for her murder and sent to Terminal Island. Once there, his past experience as a NASCAR champion makes him an ideal candidate to take part in “Death Race”, with the prison’s flint-hearted warden Hennessey (3-time Academy Award nominee Joan Allen, kids!) promising freedom and custody of his daughter if he can win one measly race. So, the poor sap concedes and, under the masked identity of deceased champion Frankenstein, is given a dedicated pit crew (led by Ian McShane), a navigator from, I’m guessing, the Maxim Magazine sponsored women’s prison (Natalie Martinez) and a nasty arch rival named Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson). From this point onwards it’s a race to the finish, filled with bullets, napalm and good ol’ fashioned car-nage. (Cringe-inducing pun intended!)

I knew going in to Death Race that I was walking into a sensory assault of concussive idiocy, and sweet Suicide Sally that’s exactly what I got! There’s not a single moment in Death Race that isn’t gloriously over-the-top. Bodies explode, cars are flattened like pancakes and Jason Statham grimaces, sweats and swears. Anderson has crafted an entertaining throwback to the 80’s tough-guy flicks, where overkill, obscenity and unintentional homo-eroticism were measured out in equal portions and injected into cookie-cutter storylines with larger-than-life personalities. To put it succinctly, Death Race speeds well past stupid and somehow ends up all the way back at awesome.

Jason Statham, for once, deserves kudos. I’ve been pretty hard on the guy in the past. With his battery acid-scorched voice and rugged masculinity, he has the potential to ascend to the pantheon of Action-Gods alongside such names as Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Norris and Seagal. However, instead he’s wasted his gifts in lazy garbage like the Transporter flicks and In The Name Of The King. Fortunately, in Death Race, he has finally found a role that he can exploit to its full iconic potential.

As the main opponent, Tyrese Gibson is a tad underwhelming. He seethes and grimaces, but doesn’t have the level of charisma necessary to make his role work. I’m also not sure why they make a point of mentioning that his character is gay when it never develops into anything. Similarly, Natalie Martinez looks great in her form-fitting wardrobe, but falls far short of being a two-dimensional character.

I do, however, have to give my supreme thanks to Joan Allen’s agent, who obviously dropped the ball, allowing us the delight of seeing her slumming here. She’s pithy and cold, never more entertaining than when she’s quietly uttering grievous threats and ultimatums. Few theatrical moments can compare to witnessing this prestigious talent giving the command to “release the Dreadnought!”.

Anderson shoots his chaos with some real chutzpah, giving his endless race scenes a nice propulsive quality. The races are gritty and exciting, and the aforementioned Dreadnought sequence is a vicious crowd-pleaser. It was a good move to utilize practical effects and stunts over CG, as the action actually looks convincing.

Death Race is rarely coherent, but it has an infectious dumb spirit which surprised and truly entertained me. I’d recommend it to anyone who ecstatically welcomes a Van Damme marathon, and in the oeuvre of Anderson I’d place it above Resident Evil and Alien Vs. Predator, but below Soldier and Mortal Kombat. Make of that what you will.

3 out of 5

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Film Review - TROPIC THUNDER: Topic Blundered.

I’m a movie geek. I run this film frenzy of a blog thing. I find Eric Roberts and Robert Davi references amusing. I take immeasurable (and frightening) joy in discussing and reading up on the arcane, the obscure and that which is not worth knowing. With my obsessive and nerdy attitude and passion I was confident that Tropic Thunder would be a revelatory experience. A massive in-joke aimed at pleasing only the most undesirable in society. So, despite finding nothing amusing in a single pre-release trailer or TV spot, I cheerfully took my aisle seat last Sunday afternoon (3pm to be exact) keenly anticipating two hours of clever references and industry-mocking satire. In short, I was very disappointed and am now convinced that Tropic Thunder is the perfect insider film industry satire for people who know very little about the big picture business. Now, before I provide any sort of interesting feedback, let's get the boring plot synopsis out of the way. (I know, I know! But it comes with the territory. At least you don't have to write this stuff!)

Directed by infrequently successful comedy star Ben Stiller, Tropic Thunder attaches its assortment of gags to the threadbare, yet oddly overstated, plot involving the making of the ultimate Vietnam epic. Casting himself as a fading action star, Tugg Speedman to be exact, Stiller is but one of the motley crew who make up the imaginary film. There's also Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a heroin addicted comedian whose films chronicle the best and worst that flatulence can offer, artsy, not unlike Russell Crowe, Aussie actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), who has undergone radical cosmetic surgery to play the film's African American sergeant, Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a gangsta-rapper/energy drink entrepreneur actor wannabe and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), the proficient hard-working character actor. Behind the scenes are an inexperienced, manic director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), an obscenely enthusiastic special effects guy (Danny McBride), the grizzled writer, Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), whose book is the basis for the impending production, Tuggman's frat-dude agent (Matthew McConaughey) and last and most definitely least, Les Grossman (Tom Cruise), an vulgar, obese studio exec. Sweet Moses Magnum! We're halfway through this muck. Let's keep on trudgin'!

So anyways, the Tropic Thunder production is serious trouble. Money is being spent by the millions while the actors bungle their scenes and the director grows increasingly frantic. After being threatened with being shutdown, Damien Cockburn decides to go all Francis Ford Coppola and journey into the heart of darkness. Thus, he drops his actors in the middle of the Vietnamese jungle, informing them that their actions will be captured by hidden cameras. After Cockburn is removed from the picture (In a moment I wouldn't dare spoil), the clueless actors wander around the jungle bitching about acting methodology, Hollywood practices and whether or not they are still filming a movie. Stiller's character, the most clueless of the gang, eventually separates himself from the group and winds up captured by heroin smugglers, led by a 12-year-old warlord (Brandon Soo Hoo). Meanwhile, the remaining thespians must overcome their pretentious (and drug-infused in Portnoy's case) tendencies and save the dim-witted Speedman.

H'okay, now that that unpleasantness is behind us, let’s look forward? What'd I think of the damn thing? Well, as I noted above, I was really hoping for an incisive piece of nasty satire. What'd I get? About 40% witty material mixed with 60% lame-duck, dumb humour. Pretty disappointing I have to say! For shame Mr. Stiller! But then, I guess when you have close to $100 mill invested you'd best aim for the cheap seats, or you may find yourself down on your luck and stuck in Night At The Museum 2... Oh wait, never mind...

So what did I like about Tropic Thunder? What made me chortle and guffaw? Well, I loved the opening fake trailers, each of which was a false movie starring one of Tropic Thunder's fictional actors. Downey's artsy gay priest film (co-starring Tobey Maguire) was the most uproarious, but I have to give major credit to Jack Black's The Fatties: Fart 2 spot, which tore a vicious strip off Eddie Murphy's Nutty Professor franchise. Regardless, a great way to open the film. In keeping with the previous comments, a great deal of Tropic Thunder's early material features great jabs at La-La-Land. The film's first 30 mins., which tackles everything from Access Hollywood to condescending feel-good studio fare to dysfunctional sets and actorly whining, is spot-on great stuff. Also, the Vietnam movie spoofs (With a heavy helping of Platoon) and wonderfully cliched music choices had me tittering like an old lady at tea time. I wanted more!

But it was not to be. Unfortunately, once Tropic Thunder's plot falls into place the laughs die a fast and painful death. Thus begins over an hour of clumsy physical humour, a lot of bland riffing and a bizarre over-emphasis on kinetic thrills and explosions. The middle section is particularly aimless and tiresome. Sure there are a few chuckles, delivered mostly by Lazarus' obsessive dedication , Portnoy's heroin-withdrawal and one unfortunate panda, but the film seems to lose its nerve. The sharp satire is replaced with Zoolander-style wackiness. As well, this film (purposely?) bungles almost all of its movie-making moments. At least try to make the film-sets and shooting look authentic. Takes go on too long and are beyond impossibly complex. As well, the film's central conceit, that the actors think they are still in a movie, just doesn't work. Even the most inexperienced of actors would realize that filming with hidden cameras in the jungle is a futile exercise.

At least the actors make the trip (mostly) pleasant. Robert Downey Jr., one of 2008's MVPs, is unquestionably the most hilarious performer in the film. He takes what could be a controversial character and makes him a side-splitting study in well-meaning cultural ignorance. Despite being often difficult to understand, he still manages to walk away with the film. Also great is Jack Black who, despite less solid material as Downey, creates an actual character out of his dope-fiend hack. A scene featuring Portnoy tied to a tree gets one of the film's biggest laughs. Nick Nolte earns laughs simply due to the fact that he literally is a parody nowadays. He plays his role straight, giving lines like "beds give me nightmares" a demented spin. Jay Baruchel, in the thankless straight-man role, is deserving of bigger things. Too bad this film won't get him any. Matthew McConaughey, on the other hand, will likely get some better comedy roles after Thunder. His clueless agent (A role Owen Wilson abandoned) is one of the tougher characters to pull off, and McConaughey makes it look flawless. He even manages to get his lame TIVO jokes to work. That's called "Movie-Star Charisma", folks.

On the lesser side, I have to slap Ben Stiller upside the head. He is never convincing as an action film star (Sylvester Stallone or The Rock would have been better, and braver, choices) and is never able to drop his standard ironic brain-dead dolt routine. He does, however, score a major guffaw in the scenes showing his character's bellyflop film Simple Jack, a sappy tear-jerker about a mentally challenged hero. Many will say this bit is too far-fetched, but anyone who saw the trailers for Cuba Gooding Jr.'s Radio will laugh in recognition. Still, I wish Stiller would drop the dumb routine for once and find a new avenue to channel his performance through.

Also less-than-memorable is Brandon T. Jackson, whose rapper character was a stale target ten years ago, and Danny McBride, who continues to create vacuums of humourlessness in even decent comedies (The Pineapple Express for example). Here his role is kept to a minimum, which was appreciated. And finally, in a much ballyhooed role, Tom Cruise is a pain to watch. Dressed up in Jamie Kennedy's hand-me-downs, the actor rolls around in flop-sweat in a vain attempt to be funny through sheer force of will. Cruise's angry narcissism, effective in dramas and successfully toned down by better directors, is on full display here. His Les Grossman character is an annoying one-note caricature without any sense of spontaneity or cleverness. Cruise has always seemed fairly humourless, and judging from Tropic Thunder, he is also lacking in any sense of comedic timing. As well, his endless dancing scenes are cringe-worthy and embarrassing.

I wish I could recommend Tropic Thunder to y'all, but I can't. As I said right after exiting the theatre: It's extremely hit-or-miss. Unfortunately, more material misses. Too bad, as great Hollywood satires are few and far between. Oh well, in a summer filled with spectacular entertainments that exceeded by expectations, I'm willing to overlook this disappointment. So, my recommendation is to watch sneak in to see the first half-hour of Tropic Thunder before watching The Pineapple Express. More laughs, same ticket price.

...Now, have you heard the latest Robert Davi joke?

2.5 out of 5

P.S.: Personally, I'd recommend you go out and rent Bowfinger, the unfairly overlooked Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy gem, which is infinitely more intelligent, and has far more to say than Tropic Thunder would ever dare dream. Hell, even Kevin Smith's Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back is a superior alternate rental.