This sweetly nostalgic film looks back at the friendly and fractious relationship between classic comedy partners Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly), the top comedy duo for decades. Flash forward to 1957 and they’re older and touring England to regain enough relevancy to scrap together a movie deal. It’s a delight to watch both actors just perform as the famous comedians and they cannily turn any opportunity into a recitation of a physical comedy bit. At its heart, the film is about the close relationship of the two men, what pushed them apart, and what brings them back together. It’s a very undemanding movie that is very nice, populated with nice people doing nice things for one another, bowled over by the sincere power of humor. Coogan and Reilly (in a very big fat suit) give honest performances rather than impressions. I never knew Laurel was so instrumental in developing their material, and he continued writing Laurel and Hardy material long after his partner died. The movie glides along on its good feelings and historical recreations, settling into a nostalgic sweet spot that isn’t too far into maudlin but interesting enough to justify the trip. If you’re a fan of Old Hollywood magic and Laurel and Hardy, then Stan & Ollie is a dream.
Nate’s Grade: B
A more family-friendly alternative to the wrenching The Magdalene Sisters, the drama Philomena is ostensibly a good movie, but woe unto thee if you thought you were in store for a crackling comedy. Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) was forced to work in a Catholic workhouse in Ireland when she became pregnant as an unwed teenager. Her child was placed into adoption into America and now, 50 years later, she wants to find her long-lost son and learn about him and his life. Helping her in her quest is Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, co-writer as well), a recently unemployed journalist. Their odd couple pairing should inspire comedic repartee, as so the ads would also have you believe. The film is funny, in spurts, but it’s much more effective as an illuminating drama on the abuses of the church-run workhouses that guilted poor girls into, sometimes lifelong, slave labor. At the thirty-minute mark, when Martin comes across a makeshift graveyard of dead teen mothers, who were forced to give birth on the workhouse premises as punishment for their sins, you can pretty much abandon any hope of a ribald road trip comedy. Once your expectations are realigned, you can enjoy the film for what is has to offer: an intriguing mystery, solid characterizations, a terrific Dench performance, and an ending that doesn’t pull punches. Be warned, you will walk away from this movie wanting to punch nuns in the face. Coogan’s role is one of anger and outrage, and there’s plenty to go around with church corruption, scandals, and cover-ups uncovered. But it’s Philomena herself who is the life lesson for us all; her church fails her but her forgiveness is the model we should all strive for. It’s a moving film with as much compassion as it has criticism. Just don’t watch it in the company of a nun.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Did you know that What Maisie Knew is based on a novel by Henry James that was published in 1897? I sure didn’t, but then again my knowledge of Mr. James is somewhat limited. James’ tale of negligent parents passing off their daughter back and forth was controversial when the novel was first published. Updated to modern-day New York City, seven-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) is the pawn in her parents’ contentious divorce. Her father, Beale (Steve Coogan) is an art dealer who is constantly on his phone and making out-of-country trips. Her mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), is an aging lead singer for a 90s alt rock band who also likes to party. Beale remarries Margo (Joanna Vanderham), a young woman who previously served as Maisie’s nanny. Not to be outdone, Susanna remarries Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), an affable bartender who’s somewhat clueless around kids. Everyone is trying to navigate the tricky new relationships and what they think is best for Maisie, though Lincoln and Margo seem to be the only ones who actually care.
When it comes to divorce dramas, the easy way is to go big, to ramp up the emotions of such an emotionally distraught experience, and to tip into the overwrought territory of melodrama. I can already imagine the animated shouting fests and crying fests. Then there’s the impulse to go the bitterness route, like 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, where the movie takes a cue from its feuding parents and infuses the film with a dark, overpowering sense of acrimony. I credit directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End, Bee Season) for making arguably one of the most subdued movies about divorce I’ve ever seen. It’s certainly not flippant in the slightest, treating the subject, and mainly the toxic effect on Maisie, with sincerity and good taste. But as far as overblown shouting matches, they’re kept to a minimum and mostly comprise the first fifteen minutes of the movie, establishing the inevitable divorce of Susanna and Beale. The movie ignores the sensational and focuses on the ordinary, little moments of complete believability that serve to build, like brick by brick, the overall reality of the story. You’ll watch the film and think to yourself that, even with parents with completely outlandishly rich professions, that everything in this movie could realistically happen. Weird to think that James wrote his tale over 100 years ago and yet how relatable his conflicts still are to this day. However, because of this subdued, naturalistic approach, What Maisie Knew can’t quite find a proper ending. The one presented seems a tad too pat and tidy for this movie. It almost approaches a“happy ending,” though not quite. Still, knowing how thick-skulled both Susanna and Beale are, it’s hard to think that they will ever come to their senses and do what’s in the best interest of Maisie.
This can be an uncomfortable movie to watch because Maisie’s mom and dad are so destructively neglectful and self-involved. There’s a perverse rubbernecking draw to seeing the antics of truly awful parenting. You’ll find yourself getting very mad at how terrible these people are at being human beings. Susanna and Beale interrogate their daughter for ammo they can use against the other, twisting and manipulating the kid that we wonder if either truly cares about. Dad’s always full of excuses and mom’s looking to flee from responsibility at a moment’s notice, dumping her daughter on her latest boyfriend. You’ll find yourself easily sympathizing with Lincoln and Margo, the two people who love Maisie most and would make the best parents for her. I began rooting that they just abduct Maisie and start a new life as a family in a different country. The unchecked narcissism of both Susanna and Beale could serve as a clinical study. It’s a wonder that Maisie seems like a bright, playful, and relatively normal kid. For now.
Another aspect of McGehee and Siegel’s joint direction that I really enjoyed was how the movie takes on the perspective of little Maisie; she is our eyes and ears, and often the camera framing will instinctively mirror her own point of view, cutting off adults. It’s an interesting visual approach but it also further tethers us to this girl, forcing us to think even deeper about Maisie’s perspective, and how she’s interpreting the angry words. I suppose there is a valid argument to be had that a seven-year-old child is going to be a rather limited perspective on such a contentious conflict. There’s also the nature of Maisie. She’s a relatively quiet child, given to poking her head around corners and staring with those big glassy eyes of hers. Given the fact that she’s a child, and processing a painful life experience, don’t expect her to divulge too much about her thoughts and feelings. She’s an opaque presence and I realize that that can get frustrating for some. She’s not the kind of kid that’s going to burst into tantrums. This girl is internalizing all the pain and confusion. Having a passive prism for your movie might be akin to telling a love story from the point of view of a potted fern. Literally anchoring the camerawork to Maisie (I don’t want to oversell this as if it’s a stylistic gimmick) forces us to constantly think of every action through its impact upon Maisie. It’s not exactly a coming of age or loss of innocence tale but more a combination of the two.
If you’re going to have a child be the star of your movie, you better choose wisely. I’ve found that as I grow older I have less tolerance for poor child actors. Perhaps it’s my inner Scrooge. Good thing that little Aprile (Yellow) is so effortlessly heartbreaking as she tries to find her way amidst her changing home life. One day she has a mom and dad, then she’s splitting time, then her daddy has a new mommy, who happens to be her old nanny, and then mommy has a new husband as well (Susanna admits she got remarried simply to improve her court standing). Aprile nicely underplays her character’s innate vulnerability while still reminding you of her youth. She’ll get scared and ask to go home, crying alone in her bed, and your heart will ache. I cannot say whether the strength of Aprile’s performance lies more with her legitimate skills as an actress, good direction, or the general reticence of the character, and thus the lesser demands for a child.
Moore (The Kids Are All Right) and Coogan (The Trip) give surprisingly textured performances, at least more so than the opening fifteen minutes would have you believe. They can both be monstrous and callously indifferent to their daughter’s well being, but as the movie concludes, each one of them has a small moment where they realize the damage they are inflicting upon their child, how poor a parent they have been (Susanna even lashes out at Lincoln’s encouragement to Maisie as “undermining her as a parent”). It’s much more than I was anticipating and both actors do good work at being unlikable without going overboard. Fans of TV’s True Blood might just swoon a little harder thanks to Skarsgard’s good-natured, humble, and mildly affecting performance as a man who becomes profoundly attached to Maisie. He may not know what he’s doing but isn’t that parenting as a whole? Skarsgard and the charming Vanderham make a great onscreen pair and their genuine affection for Maisie provide the most uplifting moments.
When it comes to parenting, there are no magic instructions to insure a responsible, loving, thoughtful, and independent human being. It’s a leap of blind faith. However, it’s much easier to predict the events that can screw up an impressionable child (do not misconstrue this as my declaration that children of divorce are, at heart, broken somehow). The thought of collateral damage is fresh in our minds as we track little Maisie trying to survive the reach of her terrible parents. The terse arguments can be painful but even more painful is the overall negligence of her rich and mostly absent, self-involved parents. What Maisie Knew isn’t a downer of a movie and its subject matter is given proper seriousness and reflection. You’ll likely cringe at points, may even grumble under your breath, but in the end it ends on a hopeful note, the possibility that Maisie, under the right guidance, could turn out to be the bright kid we see glimpses of at her school. There’s something quite moving about the resiliency of a child. This is, of course, just one interpretation of the movie, but What Maisie Knew is an emotionally engaging, subdued, sincere, and poignant film that trades on naturalistic waves of human interaction rather than cartoonish bluster, all the while forgoing cheap sentimentality or unpleasant bitterness. For the performances, the deft handling of sensitive material, and the quality direction, give What Maisie Knew a chance when able.
Nate’s Grade: B+
If you’re looking for a pristine example of mediocrity, then let Percy Jackson serve as the new definition. From the acting to the special effects to the story, this movie barely registers anything other than a disinterested shrug. Based on a series of young adult books, clearly the producers were eyeing a potential lucrative franchise, which may explain why they hire Chris Columbus as director. The modern-day scions of ancient Greek gods is an intriguing starting point, until you realize that the film is just going to become one big, dumb retread through Greek mythology without a hint of wit. It’s Greek mythology turned into a kid’s book report who never read deeply into the source material. The film’s best asset is its collection of adult actors (Pierce Brosnan, Uma Thurman, Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Rosario Dawson), which take your mind off the fairly bland teen actors in the lead. Percy Jackson would be a more forgivable drag if it presented any moments of wonder that didn’t feel trite. The plot has the maddening habit of making characters stupid for plot reasons (hey Lightning Thief who wants to start a God-on-God war, when you have Zeus’s lightning bolt, thus sealing an impending war, don’t stop and monologue!). Yet the film has enough going on that you can follow it with ease and a minimal commitment. Consider putting on Percy Jackson when you need to do some household chores; it deserves that kind of attention.
Nate’s Grade: C
Believe it or not, there actually is a sequel out there about William Shakespeare’s most famous play concerning family dysfunction. Author David Bergantino surely doesn’t feel that he can improve upon the Bard’s classic Hamlet, but Bergantino is a writer who doesn’t cower from a challenge, like where to go next when all the main characters are dead. That’s why Bergantino took it upon himself to write Hamlet II: Ophelia’s Revenge (no joke). Apparently modern students at Globe University are playing out a family squabble very similar to anyone that has taken a high school literature class. The synopsis over at Amazon.com says it better than I could ever hope:
“When he unexpectedly inherits a creepy old castle in Denmark, Cameron tries to put his worries behind him, inviting his girlfriend and college buddies along on an overseas trip to check out the gloomy fortress. The plan is to get some serious partying done. Too bad nobody counted on the ghost of a drowned girl rising from her watery grave with vengeance on her mind! Now the only question is: to die or not to die?”
In the wake of Hamlet 2, a popular comedy at the Sundance Film Festival, I pity Bergantino. The man is going to be the Leif Ericson of pointless Shakespeare sequels: forgotten by history at the original pioneer. The film Hamlet 2 follows the miserable life of Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan). He teaches drama at a Tucson, Arizona public school and barely gets paid. His wife (Catherine Keener) is anxious to get pregnant and convinced Dana is shooting blanks. The couple is so poor that they have to rent out their home to a boarder (David Arquette). His drama class has two very WASP-y pupils (Phoebe Strole and Skyler Astin), but the rest are disinterested Hispanic students bused in from another school district. The school’s theater critic chides Dana’s laughable productions of Hollywood movies, like Mississippi Burning and Erin Brocovich. Then comes the news that drama has been slashed from the school budget. The pint-sized theater critic tells Dana to try something original to save the drama department. The answer? Hamlet 2. Thanks to a time machine, and Hamlet’s new best buddy Jesus Christ, the pair can go back and save everyone who previously perished.
Hamlet 2 is Coogan’s show and the British comic makes his character endearing sad-sack. His character is pathetic and subject to all sorts of personal humiliations, and yet Dana is so earnest that it makes it hard not to empathize with his exploits. Coogan has a wild leer to him that gives the character a manic edge of desperation. He’s a gifted comic but he’s used to playing smug, droll characters, and Dana Marschz is the exact opposite of that mold. Coogan’s many breakdowns and bouncy spirit give the material an extra lift. He works hard for every laugh. It’s a shame, though, that he sort of disappears into the background during the staging of his infamous play.
So what is the comedic point of view with Hamlet 2? Are we to laugh at Dana and find him a buffoon? Well if that’s the case, then why serve up a musical finale that’s actually worthwhile and completely hilarious? The production values are pretty extravagant given the money limitations on the characters. Not only that, it’s so bonkers that I wanted to just watch Hamlet 2 on stage and not cut back to life outside. I wanted to luxuriate in the inspired craziness of a musical that involves time travel, Shakespeare, Albert Einstein, the song “Raped in the Face,” the devil, the Gay Men’s Chorus, lots of father issues, and Jesus moonwalking over water. That’s way more interesting than the ho-hum characters interacting backstage. In truth, the play’s the thing and it’s way too short for my liking. The performance serves as the film’s payoff, so I wanted to get every crazy kernel of shameless joy. The “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” song is irresistible and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head for days. It’s so bouncy and fun and melodic. I’ll be walking along and then I’ll start humming the damn thing. I doubt that I will come across a catchier original song in movie this year. Hopefully those bigwigs in the Academy will realize the tune’s musical merits and give it a nomination it rightfully deserves.
Then is Hamlet 2 a parody of all those treacly teacher inspiration movies, the kind that seem to always be populated by tough minority kids who just need someone to take the time and break through to them? Well Dana constantly refers to Hollywood movies like they’re documentaries, and even a whole class lecture concerns Dangerous Minds. When he accidentally injures a student, Dana jumps at his students being alert and offers in summation, “Yes it was stupid but it was theater.” The movie takes some shots against the likes of Dead Poet’s Society and Mr. Holland’s Opus, but ultimately Hamlet 2 becomes yet another inspirational teacher movie. Dana is able to rally his students to the cause of theater, prejudices are broken down, and certain students take charge of their young lives. It’s all so predictable, and predictability blunts edginess and can destroy comedy. The only true genre tweak seems to come when standoffish Octavio’s background comes to light. He’s not the underprivileged wannabe gangster but a bright kid whose been admitted to an Ivy League school early. And his parents don’t object to the play because of “ethnic narrow-mindness” but because they think it’s poorly written.
Like Dana’s students, the film never seems to match its potential. The concept is great and so is having a main character who is inspired by theater but profoundly inept at teaching it. Dana lacks talent but can it be made up for with such big-hearted enthusiasm? There is plenty of ripe material there, but Hamlet 2 doesn’t seem to fully realize the comedic possibilities. Watching Dana fight administration officials in the name of the arts is worthwhile conflict but it’s rarely funny. Keener seems wasted as Dana’s passive-aggressive wife. An ACLU lawyer (Amy Poehler) is a great political target, especially as she fights in the name of bad art, but she appears too late in the film to be really capitalized. The climactic staging of Dana’s masterwork is another example of not fully thinking out the comic potential of a situation.
Here’s a perfect example: Elisabeth Shue appears in the film as herself, actress Elisabeth Shue. She’s quit the acting business and taken residence as a nurse in Tucson. What exactly is the joke here? Is it that Hollywood has the habit of spitting out aging actresses? Dana’s students have no idea who Shue is. Is it self-parody? If it was self-parody then the filmmakers needed to give Shue more of a personality. She’s appears infrequently and beams a nice smile but that seems like the only demand, though I must admit always in her nurse outfit, a nice visual gag. If Hamlet 2 had spent more time in revision it would utilize the comic possibilities of integrating a real-life actress playing herself in such a remote city.
Ultimately, I don’t know what to make out of Hamlet 2. It’s a marginally funny and entertaining venture that celebrates the power of the arts, which is a noble cause. Coogan straps the production on his back and carries it as far as he can go. There are some decent laughs and the closing 15 minutes is a giddy blast. However, the movie often feels flat and simply odd, missing potential punchlines and settling for second-rate comedic situations. The crafty premise afforded better material then what eventually comes across onscreen. The whole thing also feels like a mild retread of Waiting for Guffman. But take heart, because Bergantino is not about to lose the spotlight just yet. He also has written A Midsummer Night’s Scream: Hamlet II (I have no idea where the two stories connect but that’s the genius of it). It’s only a penny at Amazon.com. Get it while you can. Or don’t. Preferably, don’t.
Nate’s Grade: B-
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
Night at the Museum works because of the possibilities of its fun premise whereupon all the dusty items at New York’s Museum of Natural History come magically to life when the sun sets. I think every wide-eyed kid at some point had the same dream. Whether the movie taps into that childlike wish or panders to it is up for speculation. No doubt, this is a special-effects heavy family film that doesn’t aim its sights very high. Some storylines misfire like Ben Stiller’s tour guide love interest, Teddy Roosevelt (a very game and well cast Robin Williams) and his unrequited love for Sacagawea, and, in fact, a lot of it comes across as amusing but not very funny. The emotive bits feel awfully clumsy. But Night at the Museum has just enough to stay lively and remain unexpected enough to delight. Stiller works his usual shtick but remains the best comedic meltdown actor we have. The biggest surprise was seeing 86-year-old Mickey Rooney serve up some beat downs. I could easily see this becoming a franchise and I’m sure the studio has the same thing on their mind. Night at the Museum is a fun diversion for the holidays and will surely increase museum attendance nationwide. There are worse things than a film inspiring renewed interest in history.
Nate’s Grade: B
From its opening 80s New Wave soundtrack, you know Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is a period piece like none other. The famous daughter of Francis Ford Coppola has long been planning a movie around the famous queen that lost her head during the French Revolution. She premiered it at the Cannes film festival where it was booed by the homeland critics. This cast a shadow of doubt over Coppola’s dreamy pop confection of a biopic. Maybe the French don’t like having one of their most iconic historical individuals turned into a bouncing, troubled teenager. Too bad because this is the most interesting and, later, the most frustrating accomplishment Coppola achieves.
Marie (Kirsten Dunst) is a young Austrian girl married away by her family with the hopes of strengthening an alliance between France and Austria. She’s intended to wed Louie August (Jason Schwatzman, Coppola’s cousin), a rather goofy young man more comfortable with hunting than women. Their marriage is arranged by Louis XV (Rip Torn) with the intent on keeping the family line with a male heir. Trouble is, Marie’s husband is more interested in locks than her in a nightie. She’s warned in letters by her family at home, and by a caring ambassador (Steve Coogan), that her only leverage is a child. Without a child her marriage could be annulled. Life at the Versailles palace is a vortex of gossip and attention, and the idea that the queen cannot interest the king is most stressing.
Marie Antoinette is a feast for the eyes, and that’s saying nothing about Dunst. The costumes are gorgeous, the multitudes of food look delectable, and the sets are the real deal, filmed at the actual Versailles palace for that extra oomph. I’d let them eat cake too if I got the stuff she had. Expect Marie Antoinette to at least get several Oscar nominations for its lavish technical merits; it very well might win too. There’s a really neat sequence that informs the audience through a series of family portraits about a death in the family.
Anyone looking for a strict biography on the famous queen will be left scratching their head. Coppola has thrown historical accuracy to the wind and produced a movie less about plot and character and more about an impression. She really nails the insular palace life, from its ridiculous and rigid traditions to the importance placed on blind formality. There’s a very amusing scene where Marie has to be dressed by handlers, and her clothes must keep getting swapped to the current highest-ranking person in the room. Coppola also smoothly handles this extravagant, opulent world from the point of view of her young teenage girl, betrothed by the age of 14. The world of royals and Versailles was one of constant gossip where everyone’s eyes were glued to the new girl. In many ways, Coppola’s world mirrors high school existence, just with far better clothes. When Marie is ignored yet again by her clammy husband, she goes on a wild shopping spree with fabulous shoes and fabrics in bright, sticky colors. She stays up late with a close circle of friends to watch the sun rise over the palace. Coppola firmly reminds us that Marie Antoinette was still a teenage girl and perhaps was still fighting to be one. The movie is good at stripping away the context of history and showing us the awkward lives of two kids selected to be leaders of their country. Better yet, the film is good at exploring what it?s like for teenagers to have the world at their fingertips and have no clue what to do with it. Besides shoe shopping, that is. The film is an excellent mosaic that reiterates the breezy sensation of being young and trapped in the world that never seemed big enough.
But, alas, the trouble with establishing an impression is that we get the idea pretty quickly, and yet the movie keeps going on and on without anything else to interest us. You can watch Marie lay in the field, host a tea party in her garden, marvel at sumptuous food, try on different clothes, play with her puppies, and, hell, the woman even sings an opera in one moment. I don’t know if Coppola intended to establish the tedium of life in Versailles but the audience will definitely start to feel suffocated by it. At least she never steers into a Terrence Mallick danger zone (the man would have sat in a forest with a camera in his lap and called the results a “movie”). That’s the issue with the movie. Like her 2003 Oscar-winner Lost in Translation, Coppola is more interested in mood and silence than character and plot. This approach worked splendidly in the sparely beautiful and moving Translation, but it cannot fully save this film. After a while it just all gets too repetitious and feels slight, like Lizzie McGuire’s Fabulous Versailles Vacation.
The figure of Marie Antoinette is too big to just be dressed up and put in a room. Coppola doesn’t seem to care about the politics or historical anxieties of the time. That’s a shame since France was going through one of the most amazing turnarounds in all of history. There’s no social commentary and the last quarter of the film seems to go off track. When the peasant mob does appear at the very end it feels like a misplaced subplot instead of a world-changing event. Likewise, the affair Marie Antoinette embarks on feels all too shrift and meaningless, like a high school crush of the week (might she doodle his name on her diamond-encrusted notebook?). Marie Antoinette is an interesting, ambitious period drama trying to be a youthful fantasy turned nightmare. It just doesn’t have enough going on to justify a prolonged experience.
Dunst is an actress I’ve been really hot and cold with. Sometimes she dazzles me but more often she bores me. As the title monarch, Dunst totally comes across like a vibrant teen girl still feeling out the world. She seems impetuous, sensual, and naive, all hallmarks of a growing girl that just so happens to be the queen of France. She does a lot of communication with her face. Sometimes she comes across like a silly, vapid little girl playing dress-up, but then that seems within the scope of Coppola’s aim.
Schwartzman’s portrayal makes the king look like an aloof adolescent, but he make me laugh very easily at his pained awkwardness. Judy Davis is a hoot as the palace’s liaison of policy and manners, tsk-tsk-ing whenever etiquette is broken. The rest of the cast mostly have moments but it’s surprising to me that I’d see Marianne Faithfull, Rip Torn, Molly Shannon (!), and Asia Argento in a period piece movie. Like I said, Marie Antoinette is a costume drama like none other.
Much was made about the anachronistic soundtrack of 1980s tunes set amongst the pomp and circumstance of 18th century France. I like it because it works in engineering the breezy, bubbly youthful impression Coppola wants. It shouldn’t be that big of a deal because the music is not incorporated into the story unlike 2001’s tandem Moulin Rouge and A Knight’s Tale. It provides some of the more fun moments in the movie, though at times the lyrics become all too transparent; “I Want Candy” during a spending spree, “Fools Rush In” when Marie goes to her affair, The Strokes screaming “I want to be forgotten,” as Marie runs off.
Coppola’s luscious period piece feels more like a dreamscape in a daze. Her focus relies less on linear storytelling and character than on creating an impression of youthful decadence and emptiness. Marie Antoinette manages to simultaneously be fluffy and vague. After a while it all just gets repetitious and a bit dull watching scene after scene of Marie being indulged and bored. Perhaps some of that boredom will translate over to the audience. Coppola reminds us that Marie Antoinette was still a teenage girl beneath her powdered wig and bustle, but after two hours you might wish Coppola had more on her agenda.
Nate’s Grade: C+