Tropic Thunder, Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Cinema Reviews: an outrageous war-movie spoof & a disappointing spinoff

Reviews by Jason Pirodsky

An uproariously funny war-movie spoof starring, co-written, and directed by Ben Stiller, Tropic Thunder is the kind of outrageous no-holds-barred comedy that really works because it manages to keep its smarts while being so dumb. Few films can manage to be an idiotic comedy and a biting satire at the same time; Stiller previously tried with Zoolander, which was unbearably funny at times but ultimately failed because the fashion industry was too obscure a target. With echoes of the doc Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker´s Apocalypse, which followed everything that could and did go wrong during the making of Apocalypse Now, Stiller tackles Hollywood here, and beneath all the violence and profanity and dick and fart jokes, the offensive stereotyping and uncomfortable epithets, there´s an underlying level of truth that makes everything that much funnier. This is what Hollywood movies are about. What´s wrong with them?

Tropic Thunder
Directed by Ben Stiller. Starring Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Steve Coogan, Nick Nolte, Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey, Bill Hader, Brandon Soo Hoo, Reggie Lee. Written by Stiller, & Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen.
IMDb link

Deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia, first-time director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) has begun filming the Vietnam War film Tropic Thunder, based on the memoirs of grizzled veteran ‘Four-Leaf´ Tayback (Nick Nolte). He´s assembled quite a cast: action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller), who´s coming off the critical disappointment of Simple Jack, in which he played a mentally handicapped man who talked to animals, plays the lead. Aussie Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), a 5-time Oscar winner, has undergone pixel-augmentation surgery to star as an African American sergeant. Rounding out the cast are rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), star of The Fatties series, and newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel). When Cockburn fails to elicit the realistic performances he needs, he takes Tayback´s advice and sends his cast into the middle of the jungle, preparing to shoot the film guerilla style. Things don´t exactly go as planned, however, and soon the cast is lost in the jungle, thinking they´re performing the movie but actually in real danger. Speedman is kidnapped by heroin traffickers Flaming Dragon, and the rest of the cast must transform into the soldiers they´re portraying in order to save him.

There´s spoof and then there´s satire, which is what Tropic Thunder delivers in spades: this is one of the funniest films about filmmaking and Hollywood clichés ever made, and it has that biting edge that reminds us no matter how idiotic The Fatties: Fart II is, Eddie Murphy was doing the same thing years ago, and making millions. Comedy is a subjective genre; I can´t tell you what´s funny and what isn´t, but I can say I laughed harder during Tropic Thunder than any film in recent memory.

Cast is exceptional; Downey Jr. deserves some kind of accolades for his performance as Lazarus, managing to be consistently funny while going through the movie in blackface and never becoming offensive, even when he delves into minstrel show territory. Nolte and Danny McBride, as pyrotechnics expert Cody, are plenty of fun, as is Matthew McConaughey, as Speedman´s agent. And there´s a note-perfect cameo performance by an A-list actor that highlights the movie; read below to reveal who.

Make sure to arrive on time: the fake trailers that open the film are some of the funniest moments in the movie, especially Downey Jr.´s Kirk Lazarus and Tobey Macguire as monks exploring forbidden love in Satan´s Alley.

NOTE: I ruin one of the film´s best gags – an unexpected cameo – in the following paragraph, so if you want to go in fresh, stop reading now. Still, it´s nothing that most other reviewers have kept secret.

It´s not easy to steal the show from Downey Jr. in blackface, but that´s exactly what Tom Cruise does in his extended cameo as Les Grossman, in what New York Times critic Manohla Dargis has termed ‘Jewface´. Cruise – convincingly bald, pot-bellied, bearded and spectacled – is almost unrecognizable as studio chief Les Grossman, but you should know it´s him the moment he opens his mouth, some fifteen minutes into the movie. He´s an absolute riot, easily the best thing about the film, spewing profanity-laced venom with such deadpan conviction the way few other actors can; his phone conversation with kidnappers Flaming Dragon is a definitive comic highlight.


Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Directed by Dave Filoni. Starring Matt Lanter, Ashley Eckstein, James Arnold Taylor, Dee Bradley Baker, Tom Kane, Nika Futterman, Ian Abercrombie, Corey Burton, Catherine Taber, Matthew Wood, Kevin Michael Richardson, David Acord, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Daniels, Christopher Lee. Written by Henry Gilroy, Steven Melching, Scott Murphy, from characters and universe created by George Lucas.
IMDb link

A wretched animated spinoff of George Lucas´ popular franchise, Star Wars: The Clone Wars does its best to alienate fans of the series by explicitly pandering to a younger audience. And yet, the film remains so pretentious – with a backstory so political and needlessly complicated – that I cannot imagine a younger audience embracing this, not unless they´ve seen all the previous films, played the video games, read the novels and comic books, bought the action figures, and slept in the printed bed sheets. And if they´ve done all that, they´ll be disappointed as well.

The Clone Wars takes place in-between these the last two live-action Star Wars films, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, as Jedi Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi are leading an army of clones against the Dark Side´s army of droids. More than half of this movie consists of battle scenes, and if you haven´t seen or don´t remember the last two movies you´ll be left in awe as mindless action scene follows mindless action scene; there´s no beginning or end to this war in the film and the reasons for it are never sufficiently delved into. But the war is merely an oppressive background to the ridiculous story at the heart of this film that introduces three new characters to the Star Wars universe that, like Jar Jar Binks, you´ll never want to see again. First off, there´s cloying young Padawan apprentice Ahsoka Tano, who joins Anakin in the film´s main story thrust: rescuing Jabba the Hutt´s son, who has been kidnapped by dark forces. Then there´s Jabba´s son, a little blob with big puppy-dog eyes named Stinky (to be fair, I´m not sure if this is his real name or a nickname given by Ahsoka, but that´s what he´s called for the duration). There´s some espionage and double-crossing, and other familiar characters like Yoda, Padmé, Mace Windu and Count Dooku (Samuel L. Jackson and Christopher Lee are two of the few returning cast members to lend their voices to the film), and then there´s Jabba´s uncle, Ziro the Hutt: an effeminate, crossdressing blob who speaks like Truman Capote. No, really.

All the politics are fine for an ambitious epic like Dune, but this is a kiddie film that gets more complicated than the original trilogy ever dreamed of. Add to this the endless battle sequences, a tedious number of scenes featuring droids and clones blasting away at each other devoid of any wartime strategy, and the film is truly a chore to sit through.

Animation is a mess: sub-par fluid 3-D computer graphics and a wooden, stilted character design that recalls marionette puppetry and the old Thunderbirds TV show fight with each other for control of the screen. While I appreciate the attempt at something original – any worse and this is standard Saturday morning fare – it just doesn´t work as intended. I didn´t see much of Geddy Tartakovsky’s 2-D Star Wars: Clone Wars, which ran in brief segments on the Cartoon Network from 2003-2005, but from what I did see, there was style to spare.

I didn´t much care for the last two Star Wars films, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, so I wasn´t expecting much from this animated spinoff. But Clone Wars is quite a jarring departure from the previous entries. It´s not the first time the Star Wars franchise has plumbed these depths (see: The Star Wars Holiday Special), but it´s a real wonder this one made it in into cinemas.


Also opening: legendary Polish director Andrej Wazda’s Katyń (showtimes | IMDb), an account of the Soviet massacre of thousands of Polish officers and citizens in 1940 (the driector’s father was among those killed). Screening in Polish with Czech subtitles on Prague screens.

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