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12 Months a Film – Predictions for the 86th Academy Awards

Cue the spotlight

Holy jaysus it’s Oscar time again!

Another year fades into memory. Remember how Argo didn’t surprise anyone but Life of Pi winning best director did? Remember how Seth MacFarlane had seen people’s boobs? No, me neither. Let’s move on with 2014 so

Rudely pushed from February by the Sochi Winter Olympics (which I totally watched a minute of, honest), March kicks off with the death knell of awards season, and supposedly the tightest race in recent Oscar memory. Awards have been split between three major players thus far; the relative outsider being Gravity (superb production, but a philosophic tabula rasa), while American Hustle (lively gloss with undercooked ideas) and 12 Years a Slave (harrowing majesty) will test the Academy’s love for art versus entertainment. It really could go either way.

Ellen DeGeneres hosts again, having put in a passable performance at the 2007 awards, but the big moment will likely come when the PowerPoint of the recently deceased plays, following a series of sad and shocking deaths in the American film industry in the past months. Much of the rest of the events are unpredictable, but that’s not gonna stop me from trying to guess the winners. Here goes.

 

Best Picture

His master’s voice: Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) listens to the cruel whispers of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) in 12 Years a Slave 

Once more the line-up is nine, suggesting the Academy really can’t decide what to do with the expanded 10-position nomination hole it’s opened up for itself. Philomena, Nebraska and Captain Phillips are strong seat-holders. Her, Dallas Buyers Club and the cruelly maligned Wolf of Wall Street remain outside bets, that could’ve had great chances with bigger buzz and better campaigns behind them. Gravity is this year’s Avatar, although with the added benefit of being a great movie; it will likely choke in the airless vacuum of being too commercial. That leaves Hustle and Slave. The chance to make a little bit of history won’t be lost on the Academy.

Should win: 12 Years a Slave

Will win: 12 Years a Slave

Best Director

Starman: Alfonso Cuarón directs Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Gravity 

Alexander Payne did a solid, gentle job with Nebraska, but that film has been slid under the awards mat for months now. Scorsese has earned an Oscar for the first time in decades, but sure when has he ever been given an Oscar he deserved?! David O. Russell (American Hustle) has been lucky with the surge of positivity his film gotten, but it won’t get him anywhere in this race. It comes down to Cuarón (Gravity) or McQueen (12 Years) – either win would be historical. In such a tight year, a split seems likely.

Should win: Steve McQueen

Will win: Alfonso Cuarón

Best Actor

The man with the plan: Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof

Leonardo DiCaprio found a new peak in his career with The Wolf of Wall Street, but whether or not the Academy will reward him thus is uncertain given the often negative reaction that film has received. Chiwetel Ejiofor gave an overpowering performance in 12 Years a Slave, but his name remains unduly obscure in Hollywood, whereas Matthew McConaughey’s comeback, of which Dallas Buyers Club is but a brick, is now legendary.

Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio

Will win: Matthew McConaughey

Best Actress

Blue is the loneliest colour: Cate Blanchett as Jeanette Francis in Blue Jasmine

Cate Blachett.

Should win: Cate Blanchett

Will win: Cate Blanchett

Best Supporting Actor

Trans-formation: Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club 

Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) once more stands in the wing, as will Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street). No, unless there’s an unexpected surge for Michael Fassbender (12 Years) or Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), this one is in the bag for Jared Leto’s impressive but unexceptional performance in Dallas Buyers Club.

Should win: Michael Fassbender or Jonah Hill

Will win: Jared Leto

Best Supporting Actress

Darling of the Academy: Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn Rosenfeld in American Hustle

Last year’s Best Actress winner Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) was an early call for this one, but there is new energy behind Lupita Nyong’o for her astonishing role as an indoctrinated slave in 12 Years a Slave. As that film begins a late surge towards best picture, this award could clarify things right from the beginning of the night. Julia Roberts (August: Osage County), Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) and June Squibb (Nebraska) are all worthy but out of the race.

Should win: Lupita Nyong’o

Will win: Jennifer Lawrence

Best Original Screenplay

Recent allegations against Woody Allen have surely crippled Blue Jasmine here, while Nebraska and Dallas Buyers Club are likely to have to sit this one out. Spike Jonze’s Her has deserving energy behind it after a win at the Globes, but don’t rule out American Hustle just yet, especially if it targets a clean-up on the night.

Should win: Spike Jonze

Will win: Spike Jonze

Best Adapted Screenplay

Despite everything, Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke don’t stand a chance for their superb Before Midnight. Billy Ray’s Captain Phillips screenplay sticks out here like a sore thumb, while Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s Philomena is just too slight to win this one. The split comes down to Slave (John Ridley) and Wolf of Wall Street (Terence Winter). It can really only go one way I think…

Should win: Terence Winter

Will win: John Ridley

Best Animated Feature

Snow chance of losing: Disney’s Frozen

Despicable Me 2 was too slight (and racist?), while The Croods was too inconsistent; neither has the buzz behind them to pull this one off. Speaking of buzz, there’s been so little word on Benjamin Renner and Didier Brunner’s Ernest & Celestine that I’d be shocked if a single member of the Academy even watched their screener of it (assuming they received it). Miyazaki’s final film The Wind Rises is truly deserving and it would be a glorious capstone to his career, but the public adoration behind Frozen will surely propel it to victory. And in fairness, Miyazaki’s already won this Oscar; Disney has not!

Should win: The Wind Rises or Frozen

Will win: Frozen

Best Animated Short

Of this lot I must confess I have only seen Disney’s Get a Horse!, and while amusing I daren’t think of it as an Oscar competitor. The other nominees are Feral, Mr. Hublot, Possessions and Room on the Broom. I shall make a monumental guess.

Should win: Not Get a Horse!?

Will win: Room on the Broom (only because I once read my niece the book and it was lovely)

Best Foreign Language Film

La Dolce Via: Tony Servillo in The Great Beauty

Some strange nominees here, with films from Palestine (Omar) and Cambodia (The Missing Picture) in the running. The Broken Circle Breakdown is Belgium’s entry, but there’s no energy behind it. Thomas Vinterberg’s superb The Hunt has become little more than a Netflix blip, meaning Paolo Sorrentino, outrageously overlooked years back for his sensational Il Divo, will now win for his stunning but over-indulgent/rated The Great Beauty.

Should win: The Hunt

Will win: The Great Beauty

Best Documentary Feature

Hearts of darkness, minds of light: Anwar Congo and Herman Koto re-enact their dreams in The Act of Killing

Honest to god if The Act of Killing doesn’t win I will break something. Cutie and the Boxer winning might appease my wrath. The Square winning will make me break a person. Dirty Wars and 20 Feet From Stardom are also nominated.

Should win: The Act of Killing

Will win: The Act of Killing

Had better win: The Act of Killing

Best Documentary Short

Two years in a row I have succeeded in not seeing any of these! Why do I draw such attention to my own failings?

Should win: ?

Will win: CaveDigger (has the best title)

Best Original Score

This is an odd selection, with Her (William Butler and Owen Pallett) and Saving Mr. Banks (Thomas Newman) surely in the running in any other year. But in Gravity Steven Price created an aural blast that has not been experienced since Strauss was sampled in 2001. A sure-fire winner.

Should win: Steven Price

Will win: Steven Price

Best Original Song 

When U2’s ‘Ordinary Love’ from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom won at the Globes, there was outrage. Frozen’s ‘Let It Go’ is not just a superb piece of music with clever lyrics, it is also a fantastic piece of storytelling in and of itself. Surely the Academy will recognise this.

Should win: ‘Let It Go’

Will win: ‘Let It Go’

Best Sound Editing

Last year I joked that nobody cared about the sound categories. But then Best Sound Editing was split between Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty and the world nearly imploded in confusion. So, let’s be serious here. Um… no, let’s just give it to Gravity.

Should win: Gravity

Will win: Gravity

Best Sound Mixing

I still can never quite work out what this award is for. But the sound in The Hobbit was pretty great, so let’s say it’ll win, if Gravity doesn’t.

Should win: Depends on what exactly is being judged…

Will win: Gravity

Best Production Design

Letting the ’20s roar: The incredible design of Baz Luhrmann’s largely misguided take on The Great Gatsby

Her and 12 Years a Slave would be very worthy winners here, but the options are so grand. Gravity is so heavily digital it should rule itself out, leaving the fight between the ultra-’70s sheen of American Hustle or the outlandish brilliance of The Great Gatsby. It’s very tight.

Should win: The Great Gatsby or Her

Will win: The Great Gatsby

Best Cinematography

Cinema software: The digital cinematography of Gravity astounds, but is it really cinematography?

Much like Avatar a few years back, I have no respect for Gravity’s inclusion here. Bruno Delbonnel should be in the running for Inside Llewyn Davis, but that film has gone down with the Academy about as well as discussions of Zionist hoodlums. This could go just about anywhere.

Should win: Roger Deakins (Prisoners) or Bruno Delbonnel

Will win: Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) 

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Styling AIDS: Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club

Good lord am I still here writing this. Um… Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa winning would be funny for all kinds of reasons. No one wants The Lone Ranger to win any awards, so it’s out. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto did, admittedly, look like they had AIDS. That beats William Fichtner with a dodgy hairlip any day.

Should win: Dallas Buyers Club

Will win: Dallas Buyers Club

Best Costume Design

That ’70s glow: Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence all looking très chic in American Hustle

Once again it’s Gatsby versus Hustle. The former was outlandish, but the latter had more sideboob.

Should win: The Great Gatsby

Will win: American Hustle

Best Film Editing

The two big deserving films are Dallas Buyers Club and Captain Phillips, but it’s never been clear to me that the Academy understands what editing is. Will they just give it to Gravity because it didn’t need editing due to long takes? Who knows…?

Should win: Dallas Buyers Club or Captain Phillips

Will win: American Hustle

Best Visual Effects

Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble

Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble: Satellites and space stations are shredded apart in Gravity

Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness… hell, even The Lone Ranger! These are all deserving films. But Gravity is the one that made special effects shine this year, so it’d be an absolute shock if it didn’t take the gold.

Should win: Gravity (or Smaug)

Will win: Gravity

 

So those are my calls. We’ll see how right I was in about 36 hours. I’ll be live-blogging the event as always, this year from a hotel somewhere in the middle of Virginia. Don’t ask. I’ll see you then.

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Despicable Me 2 – When in doubt, get the Minions out!

A Love Song of Ice and Fire: Gru meets Agent Wilde

A Love Song of Ice and Fire: Gru meets Agent Wilde

What is going on with Al Pacino? Apparently doing a dance to sell Dunkin’ Donuts in Jack & Jill isn’t beneath him, but he’s above a little ethnic stereotyping in a children’s cartoon? Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself here…

The original Despicable Me was the first feature from Illumination Entertainment, and taking in more than $500 million dollars worldwide in 2010 threw down a gauntlet to the likes of Pixar and especially DreamWorks, whose similarly themed Megamind, also out in 2010, took in little more than half that sum. The surprise success of Despicable Me was only surprising to those who didn’t see it. While the animation was nothing spectacular, the film’s extraordinary wit and heart made it a favourite for kids young and old.

Despicable Me 2 follows on in the fashion of its predecessor, as hapless supervillain Gru continues to balance his hi-tech exploits with raising three adorable but troublesome girls. Now retired from evil, Gru and his army of yellow Tic Tac Minions dedicate themselves to raising the children. But when a mysterious supervillain steals a dangerous mutagen, Gru is taken on by the Anti-Villain League to weed out the culprit. It’s the old hire a supervillain to catch a supervillain trick.

The story, what there is of one, is terribly light, with Gru and AVL agent Lucy Wilde having to pose as pastry chefs at a local mall to work out which shop owner is behind the plot. It is played like a whodunit, except we are only ever given two candidates to choose from: Mexican restaurant owner Eduardo and Asian wigmaker Floyd Eagle-san. Elsewhere oldest daughter Margo discovers boys, youngest daughter Agnes tries to encourage a romance between Gru and Lucy and middle child Edith gets utterly sidelined. When the story slackens, the Minions are wheeled out for more of their delightful gibberish-filled antics. The word “gelato” has never brought so many smiles.

There was something so “modern family” about the first film, with a (camp? gay?) single dad raising three girls and discovering he could manage, that really made it stand out. This time around it’s all about finding Gru a girlfriend, and thus finding the girls a mother. It’s an unfortunate step towards a heteronormative family unit that kids’ movies just don’t need right now. Gru is better off a single dad! It also doesn’t help that for much of the film Lucy Wilde is excruciatingly annoying – voiced by Kristen Wiig, she plays it like her role in Bridesmaids but without any of the tragicomic charm.

Swing and a miss: The Minions are always an easy laugh

Swing and a miss: The Minions are always an easy laugh

It also doesn’t help that the racial stereotyping is even worse this time around. Steve Carell gets away with playing Gru as a mad Slav by filling the role with enough soul to excuse it. But having Ken Jeong voice yet another flamboyant Asian man while Steve Coogan plays a British toff with a silly name is all too easy. The character of Eduardo, all flamenco dancing and body hair, was originally to be voiced by Al Pacino, who left the project among some whispered controversy – it’s not hard to see why, Pacino has never been very convincing with his Latino accents.

Despite these problems and the various abandoned subplots (Margo’s love life goes nowhere), there is a good bit to like here, and plenty of proper laughs. The Minions get most of them with their ridiculous singing, inappropriate costumes and general over-eagerness at performing tasks, but Gru and Agnes don’t disappoint.  A fun reference to Alien may be a little obvious, but a later allusion to the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is deliciously obscure for a family movie.

Fans of the original will be disappointed if they expect film two to be of the same standard, but they should be able to enjoy it as just an extra adventure for characters they loved. In the meantime, we can all look forward to next year’s Minions spin-off movie, because let’s face it, they’re all we really want to see.

2/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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The Look of Love – Smut’s entertainment

Ladies' Manager: Steve Coogan with Anna Friel in The Look of Love

Ladies’ Manager: Steve Coogan with Anna Friel in The Look of Love

There was a time when Steve Coogan seemed to have unbridled potential to conquer Hollywood, but it never happened. Ricky Gervais is probably to blame. Coogan’s career cracked along with passable minor appearances in American films while, with the exception of revivals of his human faux pas Alan Partridge, his only shining moments came in his collaborations with Michael Winterbottom.

Having caricatured himself in their previous two films together, The Trip and A Cock and Bull Story, Coogan is back playing another morally clouded media type in The Look of Love. After triumphantly playing Madchester impresario Tony Wilson in Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People back in 2002, an unaging Coogan is here cast as British nightclub and pornography mogul Paul Raymond, who ruled the striptease scene in London’s Soho district from the 1960s until the 1990s, when he was believed to be one of Britain’s wealthiest men.

A showman by nature, Coogan plays Raymond with all the smarmy wheeler-dealer skills his characters have shown previously, although Raymond is far more successful at this kind of enterprise than many of Coogan’s other roles. Learning early on that while lion taming and scantily clad women sell tickets, scantily clad women and more scantily clad women sell more tickets, The Look of Love traces the rise and rise and occasional dips of Raymond’s bizarre career. He seduces press and clergy to keep his clubs open. He enters into theatre and publishing, both with their share of female nudity.

But the film is far more concerned with Raymond’s private life, tracing his affair with his star attraction Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton) and the collapse of his marriage to wife Jean (Anna Friel), who would later re-enter his life as one of his covergirls. The focus however is more on Raymond’s unhealthy relationship with his daughter Debbie, played by the ever-on-the-cusp-of-stardom Imogen Poots.  As with Michael Corleone and his daughter Mary (and by extension Francis Ford Coppola and Sofia), Raymond’s affection for his daughter is crippling and blinding – he sets her up as the star of one of his musical shows despite her very limited singing capabilities. Debbie is anointed her father’s business successor, but her developing drug addiction begins to get in the way.

Winterbottom playfully shoots his film in the style of each decade, beginning in crisp black and white before dissolving into the bleached colour palettes of the ’60s and ’70s. The production design is superb, but there’s a staleness to the imagery despite its quality. 24 Hour Party People was beautiful in its ugliness, but The Look of Love is often dull in its gloss.

Coogan brings his A game to a character who is not quite as deep as Control writer Matt Greenhalgh’s script wants to believe he is. We never truly get inside Raymond’s head, and he is never quite as morally repugnant nor as fiendishly brilliant as the drama would hope. He is however regularly amusing, and Coogan’s rapport with Chris Addison as his number two keeps much of the film aloft. Anna Friel plays spurned wife and saucy MILF with equal relish. Cameos range from the superb: David Walliams’s vicar; to the downright disappointing: The Inbetweeners’ Simon Bird wearing a beard so false you can practically touch the blobs of glue holding it on.

What makes The Look of Love a moderate success is how well it captures the shifting styles and attitudes of Britain over more than three decades, but also in the chemistry between Coogan and Poots. As unlikely an onscreen father and daughter pairing as there might be, the two find a tragic sweetness in their decidedly creepy relationship, that makes for uncomfortable yet touching viewing.

The least satisfying of Winterbottom and Coogan’s collaborations so far, The Look of Love is still a fine production that’s only real failing was believing its subject was a more interesting character than he truly was.

3/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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Ruby Sparks – Manic Pixie Nightmare Girl

Makes the central romance in the Twilight books look “healthy”

Your enjoyment of Ruby Sparks will come down entirely to whether you are someone who can switch their brain off, or someone who tends to over-think complicated ideas. Certainly no one involved in this bright romantic fantasy had their brains turned on, as if they had they might have realised the morally rotten core at the heart of an apparently charming little movie. The subtext of this film is frightening, but what’s truly terrifying is that it seems like no one who worked on the film is aware of it in the slightest.

Paul Dano plays Calvin, a young writer suffering a creative block, who a decade earlier had his only hit while still a teenager, with one of those books that “speaks” to people. Burdened with all of the emotional issues (a dead father, a remarried mother, a slowly becoming successful ex), Calvin can’t get started on his new book. He’s the kooky kind you find in movies – he uses a typewriter like an obnoxious hipster, lives off his one successful book and has a dog with gender identity problems. The dog is named Scotty, after F. Scott Fitzgerald; at one point in the film it shreds a copy of Catcher in the Rye. You get the idea.

Unable to meet a girl, Calvin’s psychiatrist recommends he try writing about his dream girl. He invents a girl with the sort of idiosyncrasies he finds attractive, imagines her being pretty but not overwhelmingly so, and then gives her the name of a bad drag queen act. Soon, thanks to his magic typewriter (probably?), Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan) is made flesh. While Calvin assumes he has gone insane, Ruby believes they’ve been in a relationship for some time and acts as if she’s always existed, unaware she is his creation. Soon Calvin and Ruby are happy together – she’s the sort of girl who likes zombie movies and jumps into pools unexpectedly; who could resist? But it’s not long before her underwritten life (she has no job or friends) and Calvin’s jealousy and fear of abandonment kick in, and he’s back at his typewriter literally changing her.

Oh for the days of Little Miss Sunshine when he’d keep his damn mouth shut

On the surface, Kazan, who also wrote the film, has scripted a somewhat clever takedown of the “manic pixie dream girl” phenomenon, highlighting the implausibility of male expectations in a similar manner to how Weird Science looked at the fantasy of the buxom bombshell back in the ’80s. But scratch away that surface and a far nastier film is revealed. After running out of ideas halfway through her script, Kazan has opted for a conclusion that is unsuitably creepy. And I don’t mean ‘threatening text message from your ex’ creepy, I mean ‘walking in on your mother in bed with a stranger and it turns out it’s you from the future’ creepy.

At first Calvin’s rewrites do little more than lobotomise Ruby, leaving her a quivering, weeping mess or a braindead giggling simpleton, but later things turn even more disturbing for the writer and his intolerable mind puppet. He becomes so possessive that his writing of Ruby begins to physically abuse her, before ultimately forcing her to perform (mild) sexual acts against her will. Worse still, the film rewards him for “learning” from his spate of domestic abuse with a happy ending. It is tonally completely unsuitable, and it reeks of desperation in storytelling and/or the writer being too clueless to understand her own work. Kazan’s only writing project prior to this was her dire, drab play We Live Here, an under-edited vanity project also about rich people’s problems that ran off-Broadway last year, so perhaps it was premature to expect her to write a feature film that didn’t raise this many eyebrows. But the very fact that Kazan’s real-life boyfriend Dano plays her inventor/tormentor adds an additional layer of ick to the proceedings, upgrading Hurricane Ruby from unsettling shit-storm to grotesque rape fantasy.

Kazan, while not much the writer, proves herself once again a strong screen presence, and captures Ruby’s various mood shifts well enough. Dano on the other hand weasels his way through the despicable role as best he can, but it’s not enough to rescue the character – where’s Daniel Plainview with a bowling pin when you need him? Annette Bening grates as Calvin’s hippie mum, while Antonio Banderas almost charms as her eccentric artist husband. Elliott Gould and Steve Coogan pop up briefly in roles they could do in their sleep, while Chris Messina steals what little of the film he can as Calvin’s jock-with-a-heart brother Harry, who also gets the best of Kazan’s few good lines.

Zoe Kazan act, but Zoe Kazan’t write

Returning to filmmaking for their first time since their 2006 Oscar-winning breakthrough Little Miss Sunshine, director duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris make their talents known here – Ruby Sparks is finely, brightly shot throughout and tidily cut with passable montages. People run excitedly to stirring music. It would all be quite lovely if it weren’t for that damn script.

And it all comes down to the script in the end. Telling us repeatedly that Calvin is a genius of a writer when all evidence points to the contrary (just as his faults are written into Ruby, Kazan’s are written into him), Kazan has unintentionally drawn a metaphor for her own script – just because she is famous does not make her a storyteller. Attempting to address similar issues to (500) Days of Summer, she has written a similarly faulted protagonist, but with none of the same charm (and indeed Paul Dano is no Joseph Gordon-Levitt). While those who can mentally gloss over its sordid subtext may enjoy a romcom with a twist, Ruby Sparks will remain a difficult film about an unlikeable, self-absorbed cur who gets to imagine his cake and eat it too.

2/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

 

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Satan’s Alley – Review

There is a lot to be said for Satan’s Alley, the new ever-so-slightly over-the-top drama starring Kirk Lazarus. Lazarus is by now notorious for his repeated shots at Oscar fame, and this film is, in a pleasant, crowd-pleasing and pretentiously boundary-pushing manner, the sort of film that does well at award ceremonies around the world.

Filmed in a world of shadows pierced by light, this tale of two infatuated priests in medieval Ireland involves itself in showing how the prejudices in our past still haunt the way we see the world today. The film often borders on the erotic, but always steers clear of it, intent on revealing how religious practices can indeed be more pornographic than any sexual encounter.

The film of course is clearly buying into that “homosexual films for straight people” genre that was popularised first by Brokeback Mountain, and the casting highlights it; Lazarus is the blonde and brooding Australian, Tobey Maguire is the innocent-faced Jake Gyllenhaal lookalike (the two will in fact play brothers in Jim Sheridan’s upcoming film Brothers). The duo have a surprising amount of onscreen chemistry, as the older and more world-weary Father O’Malley (Lazarus) takes the younger under his wing and teaches him things that priests aren’t supposed to know. There hasn’t been this much sin in a monastery since The Name of the Rose

Ok, fine, I’m going to have to stop that there. I am, as many of you will already be aware, reviewing a fake film.

However, there is method to my madness; the above enjoyable diversion was designed to highlight the fact that while some films peak too soon, Tropic Thunder is a film that peaks before it even actually begins.

Tropic Thunder was expected all summer to be a comedy highlight of the year, and it doesn’t quite disappoint. In order to sell to us its would-be mockumentary behind-the-scenes style, it opens with a selection of trailers for fictional films starring Tropic Thunder’s fictional stars. The trailer for Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown presents Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) as a star who, despite the audience having grown up with him, has outlived his own greatest character and now fails to impress. The Fatties: Fart 2 conjures horrific memories Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor sequel, and is by far the weakest of the three trailers, presenting Jeff Portnoy as the sort of actor that shouldn’t be given work. The same could be said for his portrayer, Jack Black.

But as I’ve already highlighted it’s Robert Downey Jr’s Kirk Lazarus’s Satan’s Alley that steals the prologue and indeed the whole film, not just for its inspired innuendo but also for tapping into a very real and evident trend in modern melodrama; it’s ok to be gay provided you’re the underdog – audiences can relate to that.

The actual film itself is a sloppier affair than we might have hoped for. It’s never quite expressed what sort of film Tropic Thunder (that is, the film being made in this film) is supposed to be – its diverse cast (including the “5-time Oscar winner” Lazarus, method acting as a black man on and off camera) would seem to imply a large-budget Hollywood action film, rather than the artistic sort of war movie suggested by its writer and British director. For a film that we’re meant to think is meant to be Apocalypse Now, it never quite stops looking like Michael Bay’s Vietnam. The parody is diluted, if not utterly washed away.

Indeed, the revelation that the author, Vietnam vet Four Leaf, is actually a phoney, is meant to make us laugh at the thought of this farce not being true; but then none of the great Vietnam War movies claim to be based on true events. The audience is left at a loss for who to root for.

Anyways, when the film goes over-budget a more reality TV method is attempted, which in turn goes horribly wrong (in an awfully predictable gag – though a blessing since Steve Coogan hasn’t been this dreadful since Marie Antoinette). The actors are left in actual danger in the jungle and have to remain in character. Some genuine hilarity ensues – the infamous sequence in which the word “retard” is used repeatedly to discuss mentally challenged characters winning Oscars owes a lot to its predecessor in Extras (which had Kate Winslet make the same declaration to Ricky Gervais) but deserves credit, particularly for coining the now essential expression “going full retard”.

But there’s a lot that’s not funny. The one smart character, new-comer Kevin Sandusky (played by Jay Baruchel – getting confused yet?), is repeatedly ignored. Jeff Portnoy wants drugs (and does little else for two whole hours). A panda gets killed for the second time in a comedy in a year – ok, admittedly that was pretty funny this time!

As the film wears on its structure turns into the sort of rescue action picture that we were meant to assume this was not; a Missing in Action instead of a Platoon. There are again inspired moments, Lazarus’s “I’m a lead farmer” is perhaps one of the great one-liners of the decade. Speedman’s “I’m a rooster illusion” is the sort of wonderful non-sequitor that made Will Ferrell famous, but which he can no longer pull off.

What might have been a spectacular moment of comedy, Speedman’s adopted ethnic child (because all celebs must have one!) stabbing him in the neck repeatedly, was pointlessly, and one might argue unethically, spoiled in advertising for the film. Some jokes work a lot better unexpected and in context.

And while all of this is happening in the jungle there’s a whole subplot going on in LA. Tom Cruise, wearing prosthetics and a fat suit, plays Les Grossman, a vicious Hollywood executive and producer of the film-within-the-film. It’s an impressive turn for Cruise, who is surprisingly funny and carries of the grotesque excesses of the Hollywood execs and actually makes Grossman the monster we would expect him to be. But he is no doubt not the film’s highlight, as was assumedly anticipated by Stiller (who by the way co-wrote, co-produced and directed this film). The decision to have Grossman continue his hip-hop dancing throughout the film’s closing credits was a disastrous one that left the audience I saw it with cold and silent, uncertain if they were even supposed to laugh, let alone being tempted to.

There is a lot to like in Tropic Thunder, and it is certainly one of the best American comedies since Zoolander. But too many mistakes have been made. For example, Matthew McConaughey’s character, Speedman’s agent, is so entertaining that we might feel cheated we didn’t get to see the respective agents for Lazarus (assumedly a quivering wreck) and Portnoy (which might have given this waste of space something to do other than moan all film long). It holds together in the end, but only just, and largely because of inspired moments such as Satan’s Alley, Simple Jack and Lazarus (channelling Russell Crowe) and Speedman’s breakdown near the finale. Jon Voight deserves special mention for his brief cameo – he just looks so damned disappointed!

Tropic Thunder is a fun and clever action comedy, but it fails to be the one thing it wanted to be most: a satire. And failing that is the greatest sin of all.

3/5

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