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Review: Tropic Thunder, Baby Mama and Paris

By Cinema and Reviews

Tropic Thunder posterYou can forget all talk of an Oscar for Heath Ledger’s Joker. If anyone is going to win an Academy Award for wearing some dodgy make-up in a noisy blockbuster no one is getting in the way of Robert Downey Jr. for Tropic Thunder. Totally believable, every second, as Kirk Lazarus, the Australian method actor (and multi-Oscar winner himself) who undergoes a radical skin re-pigmentation in order to portray tough-as-nails African-American Sgt. Osiris in the eponymous Vietnam epic, Downey Jr’s performance is a thing of wonder: A masterpiece of technique, timing, self-belief and dare I say it, soul. I’m still chuckling days later.

Lazarus is one of a handful of pampered Hollywood stars on location to recreate the last great untold Vietnam story — the suicide-mission rescue of “Four Leaf” Tayback during the legendary “Wet” Offensive of ’69. Under pressure from the studio to get back on schedule (and from handless “Four “Leaf” himself, Nick Nolte, to toughen the pencil-kneck panty-waists up a bit) director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) goes verité. With the help of hidden cameras, special effects and some heavily armed South East Asian drug lords, Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) and Alpa Chino (relative newcomer Brandon T. Jackson) find themselves up to their eyeballs in reality. Comedy reality, which is the best kind. One of my favourite films of the year so far, and I haven’t even mentioned Tom Cruise’s dancing.

Baby Mama posterCompared to the ferocious energy of Tropic Thunder, Tina Fey’s Baby Mama seems like a comedy from a different era. Fey plays über-clucky Kate Holbrook — successful middle-manager in Steve Martin’s organic produce company. Desperate for progeny (yet strangely single), her T shaped tubes make her a poor bet for IVF and the waiting list for adoption is years long. Surrogacy is her only solution and she barely bats an eyelid at the $100k price tag (she must share John McCain’s accountant). Despite the amount of money changing hands it is the surrogate that interviews the, what’s the word, surrogatee and she successfully passes the aura test posed by white trash “host” Amy Poehler (Blades of Glory).

The lively Poehler kick-starts every scene she is in while better-known stars like Martin, Greg Kinnear and Sigourney Weaver phone in their performances. Meanwhile Fey (“30 Rock”) is likeable enough, although the character seems to be in a world of her own most of the time, and Romany Malco from The Love Guru plays the token black character — a servant. Baby Mama is funnier, the more pregnancy-specific it gets. When it goes generic (speech-impediments, Martin’s new age schtick) it misses even the biggest targets by miles.

Paris movie posterParis is both the subject and the object of Cédric Klapisch’s ensemble drama about a cross-section of modern Parisian society. Romain Duris and Juliette Binoche are siblings, single, on the cusp of 40 and alienated from their parents. Duris is told his heart condition may finish him off sooner rather than later and mopes around the apartment, feeling sorry for himself while Binoche (like women everywhere) puts her own life on hold to care for him and her three children. Meanwhile, hangdog academic Fabrice Luchini (Intimate Strangers) has a crush on his beautiful student Mélanie Laurent, his architect brother is about to become a father but can’t stop crying. At street level, the market stallholders are also looking for love in the big city but have a more direct way of going about finding it.

I’ve made it seem a lot more contrived than it actually plays out. The direction is subtle and the performances are involving. It does suffer from the usual French cinematic philosophy, that working class experience is somehow more real than the self-absorbed bourgeois middle classes, but actually argues its case pretty well.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 28 August, 2008.

Review: We’re Here To Help, Control, The Last Trapper, 1408, Lions for Lambs and Death Proof

By Cinema, Conflict of Interest and Reviews

We're Here to Help stillIn 1993 Christchurch property developer Dave Henderson tried to get a GST refund on a project he was working on in Lower Hutt. When the IRD officer sexually harassed his partner, Dave threatened to kick him “half way down Cashel Street”. It turned out the IRD were the wrong people to threaten and the hell unleashed is entirely in the other direction. After years of audits, prosecutions and bankruptcies it took intervention from the heroic Rodney Hide to finally put a stop to the abuse.

We’re Here to Help will look right at home on television when it eventually appears (the IRD reception area looks like the old Shortland Street set) but if you go now you’ll have plenty to talk about at your summer barbecues.

There’s a lot to like about We’re Here to Help, particularly seeing experienced New Zealand actors like John Leigh and Stephen Papps given some freedom to play (and lead Erik Thomson is an effortless everyman) but the film gets terribly strange when Michael Hurst turns up dressed in a a fat suit to play Hide. He’s totally miscast and it becomes a completely different film (something by Jim Henson perhaps) when he is onscreen.

Have the IRD changed their ways? It has been argued that the unpleasantness served up to Henderson had its roots in an insular Christchurch business community but I know that several people connected to the production were very wary of potential IRD retaliation over the film and the fact that Producer John Barnett is currently being audited may not be an innocent coincidence.

Control posterIan Curtis, Macclesfield’s matchless purveyor of un-listenable dirges, gets the big screen biopic treatment in Control. It’s a handsome production with some fine performances (not least from newcomer Sam Riley as Curtis); the actors playing Joy Division recreate the music with distressing accuracy and director Anton Corbijn employs the most effective use of black and white photography since Raging Bull.

The Last Trapper posterDog-sledding seems like a desperately uncertain method of transportation in The Last Trapper. Canadian hunter and wilderness veteran Norman Winther seems to spend most of his time tipping over, falling into frozen lakes, down ravines and tangling himself up with the dogs. Winther plays himself but it isn’t a documentary (although I’m sure there are grains of truth in each recreation). My recommendation would be to stick your fingers in your ears to ignore the clunky dialogue and poor dubbing and concentrate on the beautiful Yukonic visuals.

1408 posterBack in 1983 Stephen King gave us a haunted car in Christine. Now, 24 years later he has come up with a haunted hotel room in 1408. Rumours that his next project will be about a haunted shopping trolley are pure speculation on my part. As for 1408, there are few surprises on offer and, apart from the always watchable John Cusack, it really did nothing for me.

Lions for Lambs posterHere in New Zealand Robert Redford’s patronising political science exercise Lions for Lambs seems so much like preaching to the choir but it would interesting to see it with a different audience, one for whom the simplistic history and ethics lessons on offer are fresh and inspiring. On second thoufghts I don’t think that audience exists. Tom Cruise plays ambitious Republican senator Jasper Irving, trying to manipulate credulous reporter Meryl Streep into promoting the latest random military surge in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan the surge itself has started badly and in California Pol-Sci professor Redford is trying to convince one last student to devote himself to selfless public service instead of easy money and a quiet life.

Death Proof posterFinally, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof is pure cinematic entertainment — an expertly constructed throwaway tribute to the cheap thrills of the 70s. Awesome Kurt Russell plays Stuntman Mike, a nasty piece of work who use his souped up “death proof” Chevy Nova to wreak havoc on two groups of young women. Luckily for the second bunch, they have kiwi stuntwoman Zoe Bell (Kill Bill) in the team and the ability to fight back. I came out of Death Proof grinning from ear to ear.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 14 November, 2007.

Nature of Conflict: John Leigh, Stephen Papps and several other members of the cast of We’re Here To Help are great mates of long standing. And Erik Thomson is a cousin.