Sunday, August 31, 2008

Babylon A.D.

Vin Diesel stars as Toorop, a mercenary living / surviving in what remains of, as best I can tell, a war torn town in Russia. I don't want to say that this is a "post apocalyptic" story, but there was definitely a huge conflict and , from the looks of it, most of Eastern Europe got their asses handed to them. Anyway, as these types of story go, the tough, loner, outsider with a violent and mysterious past ends up being given a shot at redemption (meaning money and a better quality of life) in the form of a simple delivery: All Toorop has to do is smuggle a young woman named Aurora (Melanie Thierry) and her guardian, Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh), from their convent in Kazakhstan to New York City. Easy enough, right? Maybe not. As it turns out, factions are involved (who would've guessed), and while one faction really wants to see Aurora make it to The Big Apple, not surprisingly, the other faction does not. Along the troubled and deadly way, Toorop begins to suspect that Aurora may be a bio-engineered viral bomb designed to kill millions, only to later be told that, even though she is a virgin, she is pregnant with twins. As their journey intensifies and their bonds grow stronger, the lines of separation start to fade and Toorop realizes that his simple job has expanded past his personal desires and may now affect all of humanity.

This one's not as simple as you'd think. Going in, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect and, for the most part, I was right: Futuristic action sci-fi with some fairly good actors doing their best to put some new twists on a familiar plot. Based on what I was anticipating, my expectations were not off the chart and I was only looking to be entertained on a primal level much like I have been with films like Doomsday, 300 or Wanted and, as I've already said, I was pretty much right. Taking that into consideration along with the fact that the film masterfully and unexpectedly blended the look and feel of Children of Men with Bladerunner, I was well on my way to enjoying a movie that I was beginning to see as "above average". Then, right when I was becoming comfortable with my good looking sci-fi action flick, a side door opened and the story turned into something with much more depth and far reaching philosophical implications. I was stunned and excited since, having never read the book Babylon Babies on which it is based, I wasn't expecting a story hypothesizing a future where religions, using science to manipulate their holiness, battle for the distinction of being the "one true" religion. As things began to unfold, my anticipation grew and, unfortunately, I ended up being disappointed, however, not entirely. Overall, I liked the movie more than I thought I would even before the additional plot depth was introduced, and my disappointment only comes from the fact that I felt the manipulative religions aspect wasn't explored as deeply and as satisfyingly as it could have been. As the credits rolled, I thought the movie had a prevailing truncated feel and, even though I had enjoyed it, I was surprised that certain scenes weren't explored in more depth while other scenes had the distinct impression of being badly edited on the short side. Basically, I wanted more. Imagine my surprise, later that day, reading an interview on Movieweb with Mathieu Kassovitz, the director, where he stated how frakking angry he was with Twentieth Century Fox producers over the fact he wasn't allowed to shoot certain scenes the way he wanted, how they didn't respect the script and how, ultimately, they cut about 15 minutes from the film before it was released. Obviously Kassovitz wanted an intricately thoughtful film and Fox wanted an action flick. For me, I made the best with what I was given, and I can only hope that the missing fifteen minutes will be reinstated when the movie is released on disc. We'll see.

As for the cast, Vin Diesel and Michelle Yeoh were very good. **Full Disclosure: I'm a big fan of Vin Diesel and Michelle Yeoh.** I realize that Diesel isn't a Shakespearean trained thespian noted for his subtle yet hauntingly emotive capabilities, which is good because of that whole "less is more" thing. What I like about Diesel is that he knows his limits, concentrates on his strengths and branches out just slowly enough to make you notice, and then accept it, rather than try to go all out and have the audience buy it simply because it's him doing it (Think Ben Affleck in the gem Daredevil and you'll understand what I mean). For this film, Diesel plays it tough but not supremely confident - he's a flawed character who intends to survive but, because of his performance, I never felt that his survival was guaranteed, which, to me, says a lot for the film. Also saying a lot for the film is the use of Michell Yeoh - she definitely makes the movie seem more legitimate with her strong-willed, no nonsense attitude, which is utilized as perfectly in this film as it was in Memoirs of a Geisha (yeah, I saw it and I liked it - I'm a huge Ziyi Zhang fan, just so you know) - Yeoh was able to match Diesel's physical intensity with her own silent, emotional intensity, bringing an unexpected harmony to every scene they shared together. Caught between the intensities of Diesel and Yeoh was Melanie Thierry, as Aurora, who was , in my opinion, very surprising and effective in relaying her character's insecurities while holding her own against veterans like Diesel and Yeoh. All in all, the three main characters played off of and supported each other in ways not typically seen in you average sic-fi outing, and when you add the smaller performances of Lambert Wilson (The Merovinian from the Matrix sequels), Charlotte Rampling and Gerard Depardieu, you actually find yourself with a pretty solid cast.

As with all movies in this genre, it has it's positives and negatives but, as I've already stated, because of my expectations, I liked this film more than if I had been anticipating a blockbuster. The direction is good, the scenery and overall "look" of the movie is great, the acting is above average and the story grows deeper and deeper as the film progresses, just not deep enough. I can't say that I'd recommend any friend to see it in the theater, but I definitely think it'll be worth renting since I fully intend to see it again with, hopefully, the missing fifteen minutes. If you do see it, try and keep an open mind and, while you're at it, let your open mind expound on some of the notions might enjoy it and, in the process, discover a whole new way to watch movies. Or not.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tropic Thunder

In case you missed the lowdown, this film is Ben Stiller's take on parodying Hollywood, it's actors, producers, studio heads, agents, special effects wizards, and pretty much everything in between. The general idea is to ridiculously magnify and satirize all of the ludicrous, and not so ludicrous, traits of the movie making machinery. Stiller stars as Tugg Speedman, a super action star on the decline who, after flopping in a film he hoped would bring him acting recognition and accolades, is in Asia to film the most expensive was movie ever made and hopefully garner the respect for his "craft" that he has so long desired. His fellow cast members include Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), the mega Oscar winning method actor who has undergone a skin pigment dying process in order to make him as authentically "black" as his character, Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), the grossly over-the-top comedic actor who is the lead, as well as most of the supporting cast, in the comedy franchise The Fatties, hip hop mogul, entrepreneurial huckster and actual black guy Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and, of course, the obligatory innocent new kid on the block, Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel). Along with the rigors of filming in the jungle, the cast are constantly bombarded on-set by psycho special effects guys, the inept director (Steve Coogan), the moody and unbalanced "soldier" who's "memoir" is the basis of the film (Nick Nolte) and off-set by ass kissing agents (Matthew McConaughey) and power mad studio executives (Tom Cruise). As production becomes stymied, a decision for raw realism places the cast in a real-life desperate situation who's survival may only be achieved by actually becoming the well honed fighting unit that they portray or, at least, acting the parts more convincingly.

Yeah, it's funny. It's not pee your pants while you hyperventilate funny, but, as it remains consistently true to it's over the top form, it does provide a fairly steady stream of humor while intermixing some truly laugh-out-loud segments with an equal number of choke on your soda moments. The film pretty much leaves no stone unturned in it's quest for Hollywood bits to satirize and repeatedly reminds that nothing is sacred when it comes to their pointed observations, which I found to be remarkably refreshing for a Hollywood comedy when you stop to consider that movies very rarely make fun of themselves. I have a tendency to pass on most outright comedies because, in my opinion, the majority from the past few years have suffered from lack of inspiration, bad writing and an assumption that a well known actor (Norbit, The Pink Panther) or a physically attractive female (The Dukes of Hazzard, Over Her Dead Body) will make up for what the film lacks in substance*. Thankfully, Tropic Thunder uses everything I just mentioned as inspiration, and the core of it's substance is how seriously it takes the Hollywood lack of substance. I know, it's confusing, but trust me, it works.

The other thing that works well in this film is the cast. Stiller, once again, makes good use of his abilities to pull off a spot-on parody while displaying the utmost sincerity, however, this time he compounds the performance with the addition of his character's horrendously bad portrayal of the award designed character of Simple Jack. Jack Black is, well, Jack Black - his character, Jeff Portnoy, isn't much of a departure (if any) from most of the other Jack Black characters which, for this this film, is exactly what they needed. Black's Portnoy helps keep the energy level maximized as well as providing a few of those "I really shouldn't be laughing as this" moments. I think I should state, for the record, that I'm not a big fan of a Black's more colorful character work - I tend to have a greater appreciation for his "low key" efforts, but, for this movie, his exuberance is perfect. Brandon T. Jackson as hip hopper Alpa Chino starts out very stereotypical but undergoes a comedic, but intelligent, evolution as the film progresses, as does Jay Baruchel's character of Sandusky. McConaughey is the perfect shallow talent agent who sees his bottom line as being in direct proportion to his obsequiousness and Nick Nolte would have to the first, best choice for a psychotic burnout memoir hawking jungle rat.

Together, the previously mentioned cast and their respective characters could easily combine to make, at the very minimum, a mildly amusing film, but I firmly believe that Robert Downy Jr. as Kirk Lazarus and Tom Cruise as producer/studio exec Les Grossman make this movie entirely worth seeing and add a degree of humor, originality and out and out entertainment that is becoming harder and harder to find in big production comedies. Downy Jr.'s Lazarus is the glue that holds the entire chaotic story together - when the story gets too crazy, he's the level plain that the camera always returns to and when the kinetic energy subsides, Lazarus becomes the humor focal point. I seriously doubt, because of the character specific nuances, if anyone could have pulled off the Lazarus character as well as Downy Jr. As for Tom Cruise, all I can say is: Wow. In my wildest imaginings, I would have never anticipated seeing such a performance from Cruise - he was loud, abusive, abrasive, disgusting, foul mouthed, egocentric, insulting, and repugnant........oh, and brilliant. The Grossman character is an unexpected delight (especially when he dances) and could not have been used more appropriately - considering the character's coarse and extravagant personality, he could have very easily been overused to the point of losing his shock value but, instead, his scenes were spaced well and properly short, leaving the audience (me, at least) wanting more.

I definitely enjoyed this movie and was pleasantly surprised at the final product, although I can easily say that this film isn't for everyone since some of the humor will be too much for certain audience members, while other audience members will be completely oblivious to the less than obvious jokes. I guess that's the way it is with most well written/rounded comedies, except in this case, with the emphasis on the extravagantly extreme, the disharmony will seem more apparent. Just do me a favor, try actually watching it (theater or when available for rent) before you decide.

*That statement refers only to U.S. comedies.