Given the high-profile treatment of a popular documentary and an awards-bait caliber feature, you’d be forgiven for thinking that people either thought justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was due for recognition or was about to die. On the Basis of Sex takes more than a few nods from 2012’s Lincoln, showcasing its subject trying to pass key reforms/legislation as a means of better insight into his or her lasting legacy. To that end the film is a success. It’s an intelligent legal procedural taking time to find judicial footholds, craft compelling arguments, and the back-and-forth challenges of overturning hundreds of years of precedent that viewed women as essentially lesser. If you enjoy rhetorical debates on legal minutia, this might be the movie for you. However, if you wanted to get a better understanding of Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) the person, then you’re out of luck. She’s more or less the vessel for social justice and the film keeps her more as a lionized symbol for change than as a person. Her frustrations, such as being denied the same opportunities as men, are meant to serve as a reminder of the frustrations of the many. There are a handful of scenes with dismissive, doddering middle-aged men that feel too stagy, and yet I’m sure that these same curt comments and patronizing behaviors were a daily affair (and still are). Jones doesn’t feel like she has a full grasp on the character beyond as symbol (her Brooklyn accent is a bit slippery as well). You also get to process the reality of Ginsburg as a sexual being as she initiates PG-13 sex with her supportive husband (Armie Hammer). It’s kind of like thinking about your parents having sex. On the Basis of Sex feels a bit, ironically enough, too old-fashioned. It’s got dramatic courtroom showdowns, including an eleventh hour speech, and all the old Oscar bait tropes we’d expect from this sort of movie. It plays to every expectation of its audience. Beyond learning about the legal arguments, there’s nothing new or insightful here. Stick with the RBG documentary and hear the same stories from the real deal herself.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Iron Man was a fresh surprise in the summer of 2008, offering a superhero movie dominated by a middle-aged man’s personality and not the special effects. The story was not overwhelmed by all the demands of what we expect in a glorious summer popcorn experience. Marvel was smart to sign on the same team behind the first film, including director Jon Favreau, but setting a deadline exactly two years after the first film made me worry. There wasn’t much time to get everything together, and it should be no shock that Iron Man 2 feels rushes and absent the finesse of the first film. As much as it pains me to say it, Iron Man 2, while fun in spots, doesn’t come close to the original. You can trace much of it back to the sequel ethos that you take what worked in Part 1, make it much, much bigger and louder, and now you have Part Two. But what worked so exceptionally well in the first Iron Man movie was not the action sequences but the characters, so guess what happens when you pollute the narrative with more characters and disposable action sequences?
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a self-made superhero and now the world knows that he is indeed the metallic warrior, Iron Man. Stark refuses to hand over his technology to the government, saying he has “successfully privatized world peace.” He appoints his girlfriend/loyal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to CEO so he can devote his time to ridding the world of evil and lapping up the fame that goes with being Iron Man. Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard) is concerned for his buddy but also eager to help play around with that super suit. But not everybody loves Tony Stark, notably Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a rival weapons dealer aiming for a Pentagon contract, and Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian scientist who blames his father’s exile from America and Siberian internment on the Stark family. When Hammer sees Vanko’s attack at a Monaco speedway, he knows he has found an ally against Stark. Hammer whisks his newest Russian friend to New York and enlists his expertise in creating an army of super mechanical fighting suits.
The screenplay by actor-turned-writer Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder) is overstuffed with people and events all fighting for screen time and narrative dominance that it starts to become unintentionally comical after a while. There are too many storylines jostling for control when any one of them could have comprised a whole movie: military demands to have the suit, Tony deals with blowback from being the most famous man in the universe, and escalation (others trying to top Stark). Don’t even get me started on how Iron Man 2 bends over backwards to advertise that future Marvel Avengers movie lead by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). I mistakenly believed that the trailers ended before my movie started. There’s a storyline where Tony’s blood is becoming infected with a dangerous chemical every time he uses the Iron Man suit, so being a superhero is literally killing him. You can work with that for some pathos, debating the needs of one man vs. the needs of society and the greater good, personal sacrifice, mortality, legacy, but it all gets way too easily resolved in an absurd way (all I’ll say is, thanks Mad Men‘s Roger Sterling!). It tries to up the ante when less would have been considerably more.
Most of the new characters feel poorly integrated, further causing distraction to any attempts at narrative cohesion. Iron Man 2 also pushes Johansson into the mix so that she can shake up the Tony/Pepper relationship and, plus, she looks good in a skintight cat suit. But her third wheel/love triangle status is barely touched upon and Johansson gets one solid action sequence where she takes out a litany of goons in a hallway with the amazing power of her spinning thighs. Johansson is mostly just another assistant to take notes in the background, although she does it beautifully. The Rourke scenes are few and far between. They establish him as an intimidating force and then he pretty much sits in a room tinkering with stuff, garbling Russian, and feeding his cockatiel for the rest of the movie. He never feels like a real threat or a true match for Tony. Rockwell is the more appealing, slimy villain of the duo, aided by Rockwell’s exasperated bellowing and desperation for the spotlight. Hammer is more interesting to me than a Russian ex-con that rarely speaks, let alone speaks in English. He’s given so little opportunity to develop Vanko as a character. And yet Gary Shandling, as a smug senator trying to make Stark accountable to the U.S. military, might be the film’s best villain of the bunch (curious side note: Shandling and Rourke look oddly similar).
The personal relationship between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts was the heart of Iron Man. They had that snappy, droll, screwball comedy-esque give-and-take, with hints of something more underneath. This time, the movie doesn’t even speak about their relationship at all, like it never happened in the first film. That scene where she kisses his Iron Man helmet, tosses it out the belly of a plane, and he dives off uttering, “You complete me”? Not in the film. You start to wonder why the movie is being purposely vague and it gets maddening. Their relationship lacks the frustration tinged with flirtation and replaces it with agitation. Both Tony and Pepper are harried and on each other’s last nerve, which doesn’t make for much romantic traction. Their chemistry seems to have dampened. I’m kind of with Pepper on this one because Tony Stark might be even too obnoxious in this movie. Following the sequel-it is code, Tony’s egotistical behavior is expanded and he becomes prone to self-destructive behavior, getting riskier and riskier, pushing others away including, perhaps, decent portions of the audience. He’s stopped being the cocky, likeable arrogant playboy and transformed into a bit of a rich douchebag. Part of this is related to the storyline about the suit literally killing Tony, and his character’s alcoholism featured heavily in the comic books, but it’s just another plot element that feels like it was put in for momentary conflict and then easily resolved or dropped. I understand Tony will be his biggest antagonist but that didn’t stop the first Iron Man film from flying high in entertainment.
The first Iron Man had an unexpected low level of action for a summer movie, but because of the characters you didn’t care. It was that rare comic book movie where you wanted more dialogue and fewer sound effects. To be fair, Favreau and crew saved a pretty nice Iron Mano y Iron Mano fight sequence at the end. Following that narrative lead, Iron Man 2 is structured pretty much like the first when it comes to action. There’s the attack at the Monaco raceway, which features an unrealistic, cartoonish tone that conflicts with the rest of the flick. But the film’s biggest moment of sustained action is the climax involves Tony Stark versus a bunch of silly killer robots. Soulless robot drones don’t get very compelling, plus haven’t we seen a thousand movies where people combat killer robots? What’s more disappointing is that Favreau incoherently stages the action. It’s not due to any sort of hyperactive editing, no, the culprit is that the onscreen action is just moving way too quickly. As a result, much of the action feels like whooshes of color. It’s hard to adjust your eyes to the rapid movement and process what exactly is going on. Because we can’t follow the action the whole thing lacks tension, danger, and drama. I wanted to be blown away by the action, which has several trailer-ready moments of awesome, but mostly I just wanted to be able to understand what I was watching.
Despite all my complaints, Iron Man 2 still manages to be a fun time out at the movies. Downey is always immensely talented and brings great amounts of energy to the role, centering the movie on his witty charms. While his character is less engaging this go-round, Downey is still on top of his game. Rourke, Rockwell, Paltrow, and Johansson all contribute fine performances when they’re on screen. The low output of Iron Man in suit is compensated by having TWO Iron Men, thanks to Rhodes donning the metal gear and fighting alongside his pal. The opening of this movie captures your interest fairly well, though it loses it again thanks to slack pacing and an influx of new faces. The tone of the movie takes a cue from Downey and the movie as an agreeable, comedic feel without seeming overly glib. And hey, the special effects are pretty nice, too. Iron Man 2 is an adequate popcorn movie but the tragedy of the movie is that the first film was much more than adequate. I think the Iron Man film franchise is in need of a slight upgrade.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Ben Stiller has been kicking around the idea for Tropic Thunder for nearly 20 years. It took a lot of time to get the script in fighting shape, but the time was well worth it. Tropic Thunder is tasteless and occasionally appalling but it is also wickedly, deliriously funny.
Set inside modern-day Vietnam, Hollywood is filming another epic war movie but this one’s in trouble. It’s over budget, behind schedule, and the first-time director (Steve Coogan) can’t control his actors. Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is a fading action star looking for another hit. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is a crass comedian who’s after some real acting credibility. He’s also addicted to heroin and worries that people will only ever see him as a funny man who farts. Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is a five-time Oscar-winning actor who, thanks to makeup and a lot of hubris, is playing the film’s African-American sergeant. Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) is a rapper breaking into acting and is steamed that the Hollywood producers gave the sizeable black role to a white guy.
The director is at his wit’s end and being bullied by producers back in America. He is advised by “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte), the Vietnam vet whose story the film is based upon. Tayback says to get real emotion and real fear that the actors should be stranded in the jungle without their precious handlers and demands. So the director takes Speedman, Portnoy, Lazarus, Alpa, and newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) in a helicopter and out into the wild. Trouble is, the actors have been left in the middle of an actual drug war, except they think it’s all apart of the script.
Tropic Thunder is all things to all comedies. It could be tagged as being a bit incoherent but that’s because the movie has so much going on. It’s a sharp satire of Hollywood moviemaking and the raging egos of actors, it’s a send-up of Vietnam war movies and their bloody clichés, it’s a fairly worthwhile action film, and it’s a stupendously politically incorrect comedy with plenty of crude humor mixed side-by-side with genuine wit. It’s a comedy that has the potential to leave you aching from slapstick humor one second and biting satire the next. This feels like a complete comedy and not merely a series of sketches. Every character has an arc, some great moments, and each actor brings something different and something wonderful to the fray. This is clearly Stiller’s greatest achievement as a director.
The focus of Tropic Thunder is all over the place, and no one is safe from Stiller and his co-writers Etan Cohen and actor Justin Theroux. This is a brutal insider satire that plays it broad and loud. There are great jokes that ridicule the pomposity of the entire movie industry and the pitfalls of celebrity as a whole. I loved the jabs at celebrities going overseas and adopting children like they’re souvenirs. The movie has caught flak from disability groups that are mad about the movie’s liberal use of the term “retard.” I don’t want to say these people are missing the point of satire, or the fact that an R-rated comedy should offend on some level, but the joke is clearly on Hollywood and how movies exploit those with mental handicaps under the guise of telling their harrowing and inspiring stories. Movies have long been chronicling the adventurous lives of those with disabilities, which also has the side effect of making these people seem less like, well, just people. In the film, Speedman stared in a movie called “Simple Jack” about a mentally challenged boy who thinks he can talk with animals. Then the character has to pop up later in the film, complete with hysterical dialogue that blows apart just how exploitative these movies are (“I’ll see you in my head movies, but this is one head movie that makes my eyes rain”). It’s performed in just the right tone to make you laugh at the industry and the individual and not because of any disability.
The way the film establishes character back-story is genius. Tropic Thunder introduces all four major characters through fake commercials and trailers, like Grindhouse. The trailers are hilarious and a great way to kick off the movie. Stiller stars in a sinking action franchise where the world keeps being overtaken by fire (“Now, the one man who saved the world five straight times — will have to do it again”). The action franchise’s idea is to just reverse the scenario and, as sequels do, make everything bigger. Black’s trailer revolves around an obese family of super flatulent idiots all played by Black. The sequence is constant farting but it’s so over-the-top and pumped with contempt for lame-brained Hollywood comedies. The best trailer is the one that gives us Downey Jr.’s character, the esteemed Kirk Lazarus. Set in an Augustine monastery around the Middle Ages, Downey plays a monk who finds that he must conceal his inflamed passions for another man of the cloth (a figure I won’t spoil). Think of it as a 12th century Brokeback Mountain, and Stiller and company know exactly where to hammer Hollywood: the go-go eye stares, the hesitant naughtiness, and the ridiculous marketing angles – the title is inexplicably Satan’s Alley. The opening collection of fake trailers serves as perfect comedy bon mots for the feast that is to follow. They whet your appetite and may be the greatest opening 10 minutes of any comedy in memory.
Downey Jr. gives an unforgettable performance comprised of sheer brilliant comedic bliss. I loved every second he was onscreen and I fully expect the man to get an Oscar nomination for his work here. Now, the role of a Method actor playing a black actor naturally presents a tightrope that needs to be walked just the right manner to maintain a satiric tone that doesn’t turn ugly. Let me state clearly that blackface is never funny. It is repugnant and Hollywood has a rather depressing history with the unsavory practice (Gene Kelly and even Bing Crosby sadly did it). Tropic Thunder is not a Stepin Fetchit-style minstrel show where Downey makes eye-rolling racist stereotypes. The joke is not that Downey is playing a black man, the joke is that he is such an arrogant and egotistical actor that he thinks he can play anyone. Besides, Jackson chides him throughout the film for his unorthodox portrayal, which tells you where the filmmakers stand. Downey elevates every scene he steps into and gives a performance, like the film, that is densely layered with comedy. He never breaks character even when the cameras aren’t filming and even when he’s alone. He’s two steps removed; channeling a performance as a heralded Australian actor playing his idea of a 1970s black male. When Alpa derogatorily drops the N-word, Lazarus slaps him and then begins a speech with, “For over 400 years they have been using that word to keep us down,” and ends it reciting the lyrics to the theme song from The Jefferson’s. In that span of time, Downey takes you along on every stop in the dense, hilarious mind of Lazarus.
While the rest of the actors don’t ascend to Downey’s heights (years ago this would have doubled as a drug reference), the ensemble of Tropic Thunder works together smoothly and they help make the film so much more enjoyable. Black is great when he’s trying to be seen as a “serious” actor when they are filming. I love his rushed and hushed line deliveries. But he’s even funnier after going through the wringer of heroin withdrawal. A sight gag involving Black digging through his speedo had me in stitches. Stiller is playing his usual dimwitted blowhard but propels the plot forward. He knows exactly how to oversell for laughs, like when he’s being riddled with bullets in dramatic slow-mo or when he’s playing Simple Jack. Baruchel is a nice counter foil to the uncheck bravado and craziness of the other actors. Jackson has fun voicing his mounting vexation with Lazarus. Coogan and Nolte provide good small moments, and Danny McBride steals his scenes as a pyrotechnic special effects expert that wants to “make Mother Nature piss her pants.”
By now you’ve likely heard all about Tom Cruise’s small role in the movie as an irate, bald, fat, extremely hairy studio executive. It’s nice and amusing but I could have done with something different. Downey is unrecognizable in both physical appearance and through his speech; he fully inhabits a character that fully inhabits characters. Cruise, on the other hand, is instantly recognizable even with glasses, a paunch, and a shiny dome. It’s Tom Cruise playing a profane asshole but the joke wears thin. Cruise either needed to do something different or just be seen less, including his hip hop dance moves. And yet, Tropic Thunder has a running joke about Hollywood taking its beautiful A-listers and thinking that, through the power of makeup and superficial physicality, they can play any role. We’ve had a streak of Best Actress Oscar winners that have won accolades by stripping away their beauty and packing on the pounds (check out Charlize Theron in Monster). It seems like even the pretty girls are getting the ugly girl roles now; what’s a homely actress to do nowadays? So, in a way, Tropic Thunder is making fun of this line of thinking, that fat suits and some makeup are the great equalizer, but then it has Tom Cruise more or less falling into the same trap. He puts on a fat suit, a bald cap, but it’s still him and you hear Tom Cruise in every utterance. Maybe it would have been funnier if Cruise were playing a parody of himself since he is a studio executive at United Artists.
Tropic Thunder is a wildly funny movie that takes no prisoners when it comes to its sprawling satire. Stiller and company cut down the self-absorbed lifestyle and mentality inside the film industry and insecure actors. The film really shares the spotlight and each actor provides something different and welcome, and there isn’t a weak link in the bunch. Downey Jr. gives a brilliant comedic performance that will be long remembered. The movie is rude, crude, stupid, smart, and all over the place thanks to such a broad comic canvass. It took many years for Stiller to finally get Tropic Thunder off the ground but the wait was worth it. This is a rare comedy that eels loose, hits hard, and may warrant multiple viewings just to catch all the jokes-within-jokes. This is a movie with plenty on its mind, perhaps too much, but I wish more comedies were as well executed and skillful in their gags about gas passing.
Nate’s Grade: A