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Tropic Thunder is a biting satire on the state of Hollywood filmmaking and prima donna status if big name actors in the industry, and amid all the controversy you would expect the film to have little more edge to it. Not to sell Ben Stiller’s writing-directing-producing work short, the film is very well done, and nearly every joke hits its mark, but you wonder if more than a few punches were pulled at the last minute to guarantee all those involved would actually be able to work in the industry they were skewering again.

Stiller stars as Tugg Speedman, a lagging action star responsible for the ubiquitous Scorcher series of films now in its sixth installment as the pre-movie faux trailers tell us. Speedman took a disastrous turn as a “full retard” in Simple Jack an award-fishing expedition lambasted as one of the worst films ever made. Speedman signs on to Tropic Thunder (also the name of the movie within the movie) to rejuvenate his career alongside one-joke comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) who farts a lot and Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) who dons blackface and a clichéd African-American persona. The internal film’s director, Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) receives and ultimatum from studio head Les Grossman (scene stealing Tom Cruise) leading Cockburn to drop his actors in the middle of a drug warfare zone and shoot the film guerilla style.

All of the leads bring their A-game but it’s the roles by Downey, Jr., Cruise, and supporting roles of Jay Baruchel and Danny McBride that really propel the movie to the next level. Cruise’s involvement was meant to be kept a secret to surprise the audience, and even with pictures on the net and syndicated reporting, you could still hear “That’s Tom Cruise!” exclaimed throughout the theater when he first appears litter the room with profanities. Coming off Iron Man, Robert Downey, Jr. look to continue his career high with an excellent portrayal of method actors and the extreme lengths they go through to preserve the illusion on and off camera. Baruchel, late of Knocked Up and TV’s Undeclared, plays the straight man in the ensemble and McBride, seen only last week in Pineapple Express brings the pyro-obsessed FX-master Cody to life.

The opening segments of the film are the most rewarding with the trailers highlighting the careers of each of the three leads and the in-movie filming of the big finale of Tropic Thunder complete with a $4 million dollar explosion (in which the camera wasn’t rolling) offer up the most laughs. As the film progresses and the characters become aware that they are no longer actors in a guerilla style war film, but civilians being captured by drug runners the movie loses a little bit of the spark that initially drew you in, the satire is gone as the film devolves into your basic war-time comedy.

One of the problems is the characters are never really developed beyond their eccentricities, Speedman is the classic action star looking for a serious role and recognition and respect, Lazarus is the quirky Australian who excels at acting naturally, and Portnoy is basically a combination of Belushi and Farley rolled into the flatulent stylings of Eddie Murphy. The secondary characters play one note throughout, and while these notes are funny, it only lends to the belief that so much more could have been done with this picture.

Just like the beginning the ending also brings a host of laughs as a mock Oscar ceremony finds our heroes sometime after the completion of the film and a final dancing scene presents the credits to you in one of the most disturbing manners possible.

The hype that has preceded Tropic Thunder may be its biggest enemy as its almost impossible to live up to the expectations of being a razor-sharp satire on movie making. At the core this is what Stiller and company were going for, but in reality the audience is treated to a fair amount of satire before just settling for what we get.

Warning: The following review contains spoilers.

I’ll just come right out and say it. With all the hype, hoopla, and press surrounding War of the Worlds, you would think it would be a better movie. Instead we are left with and E.T. meets Independence Day mash-up that is so poorly written even the “star power” of Tom Cruise can’t save it from being just another summer movie.

In fact, any marketing material that claims this film is an epic summer movie is clearly talking about Batman Begins. Even with the huge numbers put up opening day and this past holiday weekend, War of the Worlds is no where near the quality of film I was expecting. You’d think the team up between Cruise and Spielberg would generate the film to end all films, but by the time the credits starting to roll, I just wanted this movie to end.

You develop a love/hate relationship with Worlds, mainly because you want to like it so much, and the parts you turn your brain off and just watch the wanton destruction of the human race, you do like it. What inevitably happens is the destruction only makes up about 25% of the film leaving the other 75% to focus on the 2D characters so honed in on their cliché molds that nothing really stands out until the Rainbow Happy-time Care Bear Ending that makes you immediately want to lick the goo stuck to the theater floor in the hopes you might pass out.

War sees Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) inherit his two kids for the weekend while his ex-wife and her new beau race off to Boston to meet her parents. Like every single dad, Ray has no food in his house, his son hates him, his daughter is spoiled, and he rebuilds engines in his kitchen. Can you see the excitement building already?

When a freak storm causes lightening to strike one particular spot dozens of times, everything electronic shuts down as alien “Tripods” spring to life, having been hidden beneath the streets of New York, and every other major city across the globe. But these aliens aren’t the Reese’s Pieces eating, finger healing kind we’ve come to expect from Spielberg, no, these aliens want us dead, and they zap us with laser beams and harvest our bodily fluids as fertilizer.


Then the movie ends, just like that. You don’t even see it coming. It’s so abrupt and so sudden that Tom and I looked at each other like, “That was it? That’s how they’re going to end this?” It isn’t that the way they ended it was bad, it was the execution that really felt as though there was a third grade contest to write it, and this is what won.

The fact that you feel absolutely nothing for the characters is only a side-point to the overall disappointment. Cruise portrays Ferrier adequately, knowing that he doesn’t have a lot to work with, but Dakota Fanning’s Rachael and Justin Chatwin’s Robbie are so underwritten and paint-by-the-numbers that the déjà vu of, “I’ve seen this character 100 times before,” really starts to set in five minutes after they’re introduced.

Also, the primary focus of the film is Ray trying to get his kids to their mother in Boston, but why? It makes no real sense that he would brave big, busy cities filled with canon fodder instead of hiding out in the countryside and waiting to see what happens. In a moment of brilliance Ray actually does this only to meet one of the most insane characters I’ve seen all year in Tim Robbins’ Ogilvy. The relationship between Ogilvy and Ferrier tries to display the social underpinnings of humans under stress. This part succeeds, although it limps along until the act’s defining moment.

Spielberg’s direction is adequate to collect a paycheck, but there isn’t the magic and cinematography we saw in E.T. or Saving Private Ryan. Instead we get another by-the-book performance mainly used by the distributors to market the film.

I’m really not trying to be overtly harsh on the film, and maybe I’m making a point that Hollywood really can’t expect us to continue to go to the movies when they continue to release half-assed product such as this. There was so much potential here that it all feels wasted for the short term goal of making money rather than art. When the studios finally figure out that we wouldn’t mind a good movie (like Batman Begins) in the summer rather than this standard schlock, we’ll either be watching TV, or, better, listening to Orson Well’s radio broadcast and letting our imagination do the work.

To everyone associated with this film: try harder next time.

I didn’t see last winter’s The Last Samurai because I thought it was a bold award-fishing move on Tom Cruise. Many people called me crazy for thinking that, and many other people said it was a good movie, but it just didn’t jive with me. Truth be told, Tom Cruise movies call into one of two categories for me, either A) holy crap this looks cool or B) what the hell? Lucky for you and me, Collateral falls into the former category and brings Mr. Cruise into a villainous role with great ease.

Much press was given to the film because of the headlining actor’s aforementioned trip into the role of a bad guy complete with grey hair and a personality that was both friendly and ominous. Cruise portrays Vincent, a hired hit man gunning down witnesses around LA the night before a big trial. Vincent is picked up by Max (Jamie Foxx), a cab driver aspiring to be the owner of a limo company. Max is the prerequisite nice guy who gets caught up in Vincent’s dealings after he picks him up as a fair and has an unexpected run in with one of the bad guy’s targets (in the aerial form). The cabbie is then forced to drive Vincent around town, doing errand after errand for the man who will most likely kill him when the night is through.

The film, directed by Michael Mann, is highly stylized, which I believe is one of the things that drew me to it in the first place. I’m a sucker for unconventional camera angles and different ways of shooting movies, seeing Collateral filmed in what looks like handheld DV was icing on the cake for an enjoyable film. The film is a fun ride with dialog that would make Quentin Tarantino happy and a storyline breaking away from the usual summer norm of bigger and bigger explosions with less and less plot. In fact, Collateral is a film that makes you think, at times, but provides enough explanation for its plot points to be fleshed out while not giving too much away. The movie’s twist towards the end is fore-shadowed at the beginning of the film, but can still be a surprise, as it was to me.

While a lot has been said about Tom Cruise and the role he played in the film, I feel not enough credit has been given to Jamie Foxx in a straight dramatic role. If he isn’t nominated for Best Supporting Actor I will lose the little bit of faith I have left in the Oscar process. That faith was only resorted after Return of the King swept the awards earlier this year. Foxx provides the film’s comic foil, something every film should have, no matter how serious, but still pulls off the required role with grace. I’ve read other reviews online that said it, but now I believe it, this was a real career move for Foxx and I wish him the best of luck.

Mann doesn’t shy away from the brutality of Vincent’s work, which plays well for the film. Rather than sanitize the life of a hitman and showing most of the deaths off-screen, the director opted for the brutality not seen since The Punisher, earlier this year.

The only problem I have with the film is the Hollywood ending. I know it is almost impossible to avoid it, but I felt that things were wrapped up in too neat of a package. Without spoiling the closing moments of the film, let me just say you may be disappointed with how it turns out. This isn’t to state the movie, as a whole, isn’t fulfilling, which it is, it is just saying that in a film such as this, where unconventional seems to be the word of the day, I was disappointed.

Even with the rather cliché ending, Collateral is still a worthy film of your summer’s dwindling time. The truly breakout performance from Jamie Foxx and the first time Tom Cruise has portrayed a villain are more than enough to justify seeing the film, but the exciting story and unconventional film style are even more reasons to plop down the $6.50 for a ticket and enjoy the final weeks of summer.

Minority Report features two of Hollywood’s biggest stars looking to grasp back on to the greatness they once held. Steven Spielberg is looking to make up for the horrible A.I. Artificial Intelligence (I don’t care what you all think, it sucked) and Tom Cruise is looking to make up for the god-awful Cameron Crowe soaked Vanilla Sky that stunk up the box office during the holiday season. Luckily for both of them, Minority Report (although having little to do with the actual title) is one of the greatest movies of the year, and while it may never break records like Spider-Man, it is sure to become a classic in it’s own right.

The story of MR is very well developed, and the plot is a fresh blast in the face from the cookie-cutter plot points (and holes) used in a lot of the movies this summer. Tom Cruise is Detective John Anderton, head of Washington D.C.’s Precrime division which can catch murderers and prevent their crime from even happening using the skills of three “people” called the Pre-Cogs. When Anderton is accused of a murder on a man he has never met, he goes on the run and tries to seek his Minority Report which could prove his innocence.

This movie is a  special effects laden broadcast of the greatest proportions. From the cops on jetpacks to the awesome cars of the future, everything about this movie screams style and cinematic eye-candy. Spielberg does a wonderful job bringing the year 2054 to life in a way that could be taken as fact. During the movie Greg Elliott leaned over to me and whispered, “I can totally see this in fifty years.” While I whole-heartily agree with our resident short-person, there are some far-fetched points we may never see in our lifetimes.

Cruise does an excellent job as John Anderton, his character lost his son six years ago, just before the institution of Precrime, and has dedicated his life to the enforcement of the laws to keep what happen to his son from ever happening to anyone again. He is a drug addict, addicted to his work, and is so engrossed that it costs him his wife and a happy life together after the death of their son. Many parallels have been drawn to Johnny Depp’s character in From Hell, but the solving of the crime isn’t necessarily Anderton’s undoing.

Spielberg’s direction shows that the man has the pills to do another sci-fi movie after the A.I. fiasco. Camera angles are very cinematic in nature and bring out the different aspects of the movie very well. From the wide angle shots of the ships dropping cops, to the slightly humorous shots of Anderton having some delicious food from the refrigerator, that is something they won’t show you in the trailers.

All in all, I really, really enjoyed Minority Report, it may not be the biggest blockbuster of the season, but opening up against stiff competition in the way of Disney’s Lilo & Stitch it holds it’s own very well. While the movie’s only shortfall is a very weak, weak ending, it does manage to keep you entertained for it’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Go see Minority Report, you won’t be sorry.