If there's a sacred cow left in Hollywood that isn't viciously skewered in Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder, I don't know what it is. The narcissism and insecurity of movie stars, the quest for the almighty dollar, action films, method acting, and mindless audiences all come under fire. Stiller takes no prisoners, eviscerating these targets with a sense of glee that only an insider who has seen it all and has had enough of dealing with rampant egos — his own included — could provide.
The premise requires a leap of faith. The setting is modern-day Vietnam, and a Hollywood war epic in production is raging out of control. Hobbled by his pampered stars — action has-been Tugg Speedman (Stiller), Method-acting madman Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), and drug-addled Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), the film's director (Steve Coogan) decides, at the urging of his mad Vietnam-vet advisor (Nick Nolte), to get them away from their creature comforts and drop them in the middle of the jungle for some guerrilla filmmaking. The actors buy into the exercise but fail to realize they have stumbled into an area controlled by a drug cartel that'll do anything to protect their heroin processing plant. Mayhem ensues when the actors realize they're not in Hollywood anymore.
The film casts a wide comedic net, relying on everything from physical pratfalls to vicious satire, and succeeds across the board. What distinguishes this film from other comedic also-rans is the intelligence of the script and the willingness of the cast to go all the way with the material. Stiller lampoons the inanity of action films while delivering the sort of pyrotechnics fans of the genre love. Meanwhile, the fun the cast has lampooning their peers and themselves shows, which allows the audience to see them all in a different light. A special mention must go to Tom Cruise as a studio head who has honed bullying into an art form and has no problem bustin' a move to the latest raps when he's all alone. Seeing this much-maligned actor remind audiences what makes him unique is worth the price of admission.
It's been said that shooting in Europe has revitalized Woody Allen as a filmmaker and while the director disputes this, his work proves otherwise. His latest, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, recounts the amorous adventures of the two young American women (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) during a summer in Spain. The former is reserved and sure of her fidelity to her fiancé; the latter doesn't know what she wants in a relationship but is willing to experiment. Each philosophy is put to the test when they enter the sphere of romantic artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) and his troubled ex-wife (Penélope Cruz).
The romantic nature of Spain and the sense of
personal freedom it imbues are perfectly captured here, as are the crises
of conscience these women face. Each is tempted to embrace a new way of
life and love — but Allen suggests it's easier said than done
and that although the temptation for change is great, our engrained
behavior and beliefs hold a powerful sway. This study of human nature is
not only revealing but tragic and funny, showing the filmmaker is still at
the top of