Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tropic Thunder

This movie made me laugh.

It won't win Oscars. (Even if one of the actors in it should.) But it really made me appreciate Ben Stiller even more.

First, he's not Judd fucking Apatow and even though I actually don't mind the Apatow-stamp on movies as long there aren't any women in them, I've gotten a little weary of his touch on seemingly every comedy the past couple years. (And, the reason I don't mind the women-less movies such as Pineapple Express and Superbad is not because I dislike women -- it's because I like women and it's exasperating to see them through the Apatow-lens, so I much prefer the straight-shot gay (though veiled as "bromance") all-guy shenanigans.) In Stiller's Tropic Thunder, there's hardly a female to be found. It's a man-fest, alright, but instead of Seth Rogen's doughy tummy we have Stiller's ripped arms and, well, Jack Black's doughy tummy.

Second, though plenty of critics will probably nail Stiller's directing style as pedestrian, I'd instead peg it as straightforward. He manages to take the script written by himself, Justin Theroux, and Etan Cohen, which mixes both slapstick and verbal comedy with action. And though the action scenes are generally shot for laughs, what I most appreciate about them is that you can actually tell what the fuck is going on. I'm just, just so sick to fucking death of the shaky-cam and clever cuts and shadowy, indistinct figures throwing punches at...something. In Thunder, Stiller blows shit up and we actually see it full detail. He picks his shots that others with a penchant for more flair would probably consider to be obvious, but that's exactly why the shots work. He's not trying to be clever with the production here, he's just delivering.

What is somewhat simply clever -- in an admittedly obvious meta way -- is the premise of the whole flick. It's about the making of a Vietnam war movie where the actors get sent out to do hardcore shooting and end up being engaged by a child druglord. Much like in the highly underrated Zoolander, Stiller uses the whole premise to poke fun at preening actors, greedy Hollywood, clueless directors, and rabid agents. You know, Stiller's real-life lifeblood.

By now, you've heard that Tom Cruise has a lauded appearance in the movie. And, well, if you hadn't heard it before, you have now. It's a bookend performance to his "respect the cock" turn in Magnolia. Here, in Thunder, his sulfur-tongue spills the wrathful venom of a movie mega-producer losing millions on a quagmire of a movie set. Now, I'm just as "Cruise is a loony" as the next person. Believe me, I laugh and laugh about his manic thetan proclivities. But, admittedly, I do also think he's done some good work. I know plenty of people will dispute that. But when he plays an asshole, like in Rain Man or Color of Money, he has this almost freaky ability to put his uber-wired energy in front of the camera and create a near trance inducing spell. It's uncomfortable to watch, and yet I can't pull myself away. And here, he takes that manipulative ability and actually does perform a nearly meditative, trancelike victory dance while proposing the most vicious deal to a fast-talking Matthew McConaughey.

Which brings me to another reason to appreciate Stiller, or at least his cinematographer. The last time I saw MM was in Failure to Launch and he looked like hammered shit. So did Sarah Jessica Parker. I wondered what the fuck was wrong with the both of them. Then I wondered if the person filming them was just an asshole. Suspicion confirmed. In Tropic Thunder, Matt is back to looking fabufuckinglicious. So, thank you, Ben. Also? Ben looked great. Everyone who was supposed to looked great. I do still question why Jay Baruchel speaks exactly like Christian Slater, not just in timbre but also in cadence and elocution, but since he does it in everything I've seen him in, I guess that's not Stiller's doing.

And, of course, then there's Robert Downey Jr., scoring big for the second time this year. You don't need me to vivisect his performance, you just need to sit back and enjoy it.

Hollywood does love itself, even when it's lampooning itself, but credit also to Stiller for making the "in" jokes accessible. Which is another way of saying that the humor here isn't exactly the most advanced, but it probably will get you to laugh at least a couple of times unexpectedly.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Golden Boy

Tonight, when Aquaman goes to sleep, he'll be wearing Michael Phelps pajamas.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Smart One by Ellen Meister

When I was a kid and started reading a lot, my mom would sometimes give me a treat and pick up a paperback for me at the grocery store. Sidney Sheldon was a staple, Mario Puzo made a few appearances, and, of course, I was filled with utter glee when she'd bring me a new Jackie Collins. Mom, she didn't read a lot, so she didn't really know what she was dropping into the hands of her daughter who only registered single digits in the "years old" category. Once, my grandfather sort of blew a minor fuse over it all and tried to force me to read The Three Musketeers or some other shit. I don't recall the exact book, I just knew it was damn dry and abstruse compared to Bloodlines and Lovers & Gamblers. And Mom? She wasn't too concerned about the content, as she was just content that I was reading. So I went back to my trash.

Eventually, I did get around to reading the more "dry" stuff, including Dumas, so that I wouldn't go through life as an ignorant dumbass, and even fell in love with a few of those highbrow things.

Now, as a writer, I generally throw myself headlong into sleaze and yearn to be even a fraction as good at "trash" writing as my childhood entertainers. (But I do also try to use a few less exclamation points than Queen Collins.) And as a reader, I can't say that my tastes have completely changed from those books that imprinted on me when I was so young. But I can, definitely, say that while I retain a deep love for the fast plots and thrilling characters of those books, I also did acquire a taste for things with a bit more heft, craft, and better prose. And what I love most of all is a book that can deliver the whole package -- entertainment and literary merit. Elmore Leonard. Chris Moore. Yeah, haters, Chuck Palahniuk.

All of this is my long and windy way of introducing you to the latest book that fires on all these cylinders.

The Smart One by Ellen Meister. Leave it to me to make a book review all about me, huh? But that's the thing about a great book -- it does become personal to you. And when I review movies or television shows on here, I do so under the assumption that you've probably already seen the show, so I can go into picky detail and make allusions to specifics. But who the fuck wants that in a book review when the joy of reading a book is discovering all those fun things on your own?

And believe me, The Smart One is loaded with plenty of fun details. The plot centers on Bev Bloomrosen, the middle child in a triumvirate of sisters. To find her niche in the family, Bev carves out her role as the smart sister, while her older sister Clare is the beauty and her younger sister Joey is the wild one. When her parents are out of town and they request that Bev stay in their house to help oversee the selling of a neighbor's property, it starts a series of crazy events. Bev's old flame comes back to town just as the sisters make a grisly discovery of an old corpse stuffed in a drum, practically in their own backyard.

That's the setup. But within this framework, Meister delivers witty repartee, hilarious hijinks, plenty of action, some steamy sex, a dizzying romance, and, obviously, a murder mystery. Well, that sounds pretty damn entertaining right there, huh? So what the fuck more do you want?

Personally, I'd be pleased with a book like that. But Meister doesn't stop there. She gives us lucid, compellingly readable yet polished prose. She gives us beautiful symbolism and even slips in clever references to a beloved classic that she's updating. And, mostly, she doesn't give us characters so much as people. People who'll drive you nuts, and people you'll fall in love with.

There are times during certain TV shows or movies -- or series of books -- where the writers/directors will manage to deliver enough that they gain my trust. Then, they can take me around unexpected corners and I don't feel manipulated. Instead, I'm delighted. It takes an awful lot of skill for those writers to get me to that point where I'm putty in their hands. But by the end of The Smart One, Meister had me as her bitch.

It's the kind of book I'd have been delighted to tear through as a kid if my mom had brought it home for me. But it's also got enough intelligence and elegance so that my grandfather wouldn't have blown a fuse.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

New York Readers

Ellen Meister's new book, The Smart One, is now available, and there's a booklaunch party happening on Friday, Aug 8, at 7 PM at Borders Syosset. You can find the full details right here. But if you're in that area, do go check her out and pick up a copy of this very funny and wonderful book.