From the boxing ring to the dance floor, I went back to the 70s (figuratively speaking) this week to cross off a couple of long-overdue classics.
‘Boxing,’ said Kryten to Lister in an episode of Red Dwarf. ‘Do you like boxing?’ His answer was ‘There’s nothing wrong with boxing.’ I used to disagree but I’m starting to think differently. Having never been very interested in sport, I’ve tended to shy away from sports movies in the past. What I didn’t realise was that many great sports movies just use sport as a backdrop. So it is with Rocky – it’s more about determination, love and proving yourself than boxing. Stallone’s confident script is delivered with passionate performances and the wintry Philadelphia setting lends a gritty reality to the film. It starts off a little slow but, like its hero, it goes the distance (sorry) and delivers a (ahem) knock out finale.
Saturday Night Fever (1978)
‘Where do you go when the record is over…’ read the rather portentous tagline for this 1970s dance fest. For those who’ve never seen it and don’t know much about the film, hearing the soundtrack (famously the best-selling of all time) is enough. It’s hard to take this gritty drama about inner city alienation seriously, because of all that silly falsetto singing and ludicrous dancing which don’t make up for the rambling story. Not a lot happens throughout, although this successfully mirrors the desperation felt by Travolta’s ice-cool Tony Manero. Although more famous than good, Saturday Night Fever is undoubtedly influential and it made a star out of John Travolta.
Shame list total: 1,249
With Empire magazine’s 500 greatest films of all time now incorporated into the shame list, there are now so many more films to watch. Having said that, I only watched one film this week and had it not been for Empire’s list, it wouldn’t have been an ‘essential’ watch.
Zack Snyder’s violent epic is notable for being entirely shot against blue- and greenscreen, but for little else. The limited colour palette gives a washed out effect that makes everything seem a bit flat. Some of the battle scenes are pretty punch-the-air exciting, but the gritty violence is strangely toothless due to an overreliance on cliché, from slow-mo swordplay to droplets of blood flying toward the camera. With a dodgy, repetitive script spoken by a mixed bag of accents, it seems a half assed effort. To misquote Leonidas, THIS… IS… BORING!
Shame list total: 1,251
And for the record, I’ve seen 294 of Empire’s 500 greatest films of all time.
Today, the internet movie database, that most precious of filmgoer’s resources, turns 18. Happy birthday, IMDb; I’ve spent many a happy hour browsing your lovingly crafted, finely detailed and occasionally inaccurate pages.
For all your obsessive film knowledge needs, always choose www.imdb.com. Accept no substitute.
I was on holiday last week so there’s nothing new to report. I’ll watch some films this week though, so there’ll be at least one post up next week.
When Comanches invade the Edwards home and kidnap adorable little Debbie, her uncle Ethan and his nephew Martin Pawley embark on a five-year quest to rescue her. John Wayne is charismatic and shows unusual range as the gritty, determined Ethan, so full of hate for his niece’s captors that he’d rather see her dead than become one of them. As portraits of dogged willpower go, this is up there with the best. Despite the film featuring Wayne’s supposedly best performance, the real star is John Ford’s direction, making the vast landscapes almost like another character. And then of course there’s that classic closing shot.
Shame list total: 1,205
An old man (James Garner) reads a story to a woman (Gena Rowlands) in a nursing home. The story he reads is about the two young lovers – poor free-spirit Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling) and rich girl Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams) – and the first years of their troubled love. This formulaic and predictable romantic saga holds few surprises and is full of cardboard cut-out characters, so why is it so enjoyable? We’ve seen the ‘love conquers all’ plot so many times before that something this unsurprising shouldn’t be so compelling and heartbreaking. That it works so well is a testament to the talents of the leads.
England, summer 1982. Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) is the son of a religious zealot. Lee Carter (Will Poulter) is a young tearaway, always in trouble. The two form an unlikely friendship through their shared love of First Blood, and together they make a sequel which Lee hopes to submit to TV’s Screen Test competition. Although it doesn’t sound like much, it’s so much more than a film about two kids with a wealth of imagination and a camcorder. Filled with family drama, religious bigotry and childhood wonder, it plays like a more tightly scripted and infinitely better Be Kind Rewind. Director Garth Jennings (who also wrote the brilliant screenplay) may have been responsible for the flashy but disappointing 2005 adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, but he really ups his game here. His love of imaginative low budget special effects is used to great effect and the way in which he manages to carve from such a slight idea a charming story of an unlikely but totally believable friendship is magical. Despite a misguided subplot involving an über-cool French exchange student, the film wins big on the talents of the two leads and the superbly well-crafted script.
The first thing to remember about Tropic Thunder is it’s a comedy. You have to keep telling yourself that when you’re watching it because there’s so much going on, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s actually the war epic it’s satirising.
Take the story for instance. A rookie director (Steve Coogan) is struggling to get a group of pain-in-the-ass prima donnas and inexperienced no-hopers to fully commit to an adaptation of the war memoirs of a Vietnam vet (Nick Nolte). Due to plot points too convoluted to go into here, the actors find themselves in the middle of the jungle hunted and eventually captured by an all-too-real dangerous gang of drug traders, although they still think they’re making the film ‘guerrilla-style.’
That’s just the basic premise. There’s actually a lot more to it than just that, and that’s where the film lets itself down. Ben Stiller co-wrote, directed and starred in this film, the idea for which he had on the set of Empire Of The Sun in the mid-‘80s. It would appear that since that time, the film has snowballed, picking up a larger and larger budget, and bigger and bigger stars until it just couldn’t get any more ludicrous. It’s apparent that, as with many labours of love, Stiller just got too close to it.
He does deserve some credit, however, for being so selfless with the dishing out of gossip-worthy performances. Although this is his baby, he must have known that he wasn’t going to be the person that everyone would talk about. Anyone not briefed on the film before sitting down will do a good few double takes and gasp with ohmigodisthatspiderman surprise.
Tom Cruise’s cameo that’s actually more of a pivotal supporting character is notable for its audaciousness. It’s great watching him as a rude, fat, balding, bespectacled studio boss who spends most of his screen time, shouting, swearing and (ugh) dancing and he does get many of the best lines, but it’s all a bit ostentatious. Stiller seems to be saying ‘Look who I’ve got, and look what I’ve got him to do!’
Of course, what everyone talks about is Robert Downey Jr. as Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus. The whole aura surrounding Lazarus’ back story and the story of his character transformation is the highlight of the film, but it also underlines what’s wrong with it.
There’s so much to take in that it’s exhausting when it should be, you know, funny. The fake trailers that open the film don’t just set up the tone, they scream ‘laugh at this satire.’ For a film about the craziness of the Hollywood system that purports to be so knowing and self-reflexive about, it’s a bit hypocritical. During the last 30 minutes or so, the already half-assed comedy is ditched in favour of all out action, complete with flying bullets and perfectly staged explosions. It tries so hard to be satirical that it ends up resembling exactly what it’s supposed to satirise. Oh the irony.
On the plus side, when it’s funny, it’s hilarious. And the real comedy comes from the characters. Stiller’s Tugg Speedman may be just another Derek Zoolander, but dammit he’s so good at playing blissfully unaware idiots. Jack Black draws the short straw as drug addled Jeff Portnoy and, yes, he is overshadowed by better characters, but he hasn’t lost his comedy mojo just yet. Up-and-coming Danny McBride gets good mileage out of an underwritten role as unbalanced pyrotechnics maniac Cody.
To sum up, Tropic Thunder resembles Rachel’s botched trifle from a Thanksgiving episode of Friends. Or it certainly suffers from Joey’s ‘what’s not to like’ fallacy – an all star cast made up of the best screen comedians of our time? Good. A satire about the idiocy of Hollywood? Good. Tom Cruise with huge hairy prosthetic arms? Good. Despite all the ingredients, this doesn’t add up to a great comedy.