Thursday, July 2, 2009

I Don't Call Them "Guilty Pleasures --"

-- because I'm not the the slightest bit guilty, or embarrassed, about saying that I loved parts of Tropic Thunder,for instance, or Armageddon.I like what I like and I don't mind saying so. Note that I said that I like parts of those movies. I couldn't be the sort of movie critic who gives a movie a number of stars or an A-to-F grade, saying, for instance, that a lot of the cinematography and action sequences in Armageddon are brilliant, but that a lot of the dialogue is so bad it makes you wince, and as a result giving the movie two stars out of four, although I completely agree that a lot of the cinematography and action sequences are brilliant and that a lot of the dialogue is wincingly awful. To me brilliance more than makes up for bathos, I can close my eyes and hold my ears during the awful parts, and a movie which is part genius and part stupid is infinitely preferable to me to one which is all fairly competent mediocrity. There is already much too much mediocrity in the world, I feel, and not nearly enough brilliance. Therefore I will heartily sing the praises of the brilliance, even if it is brief, and located in the midst of much awfulness.

There are significant parts of Armageddon -- voice-over montages, mostly, which I can describe neither as brilliant nor awful, but only as... closely resembling those commercials ones sees a lot on TV on Sundays, during the weekly political-news programs and golf tournaments: those commercials with high-contrast, often slow-motion visuals and baritone voiceovers, both the visuals and the voice providing non sequiturs, and you're not at all sure what they're selling, but you know you've got to be pretty well-off to be in the market to buy it: big insurance policies, or investment advice, or luxury SUV's. Sometimes the commercials are not explicitly selling anything, they just give you a lot of platitudes and a series of visuals intended to give a sense of the common humanity of all the people of Earth and stirring yet muted orchestra music in the background, and at the end of the commercial the baritone narrator merely intones the name of a company while its logo appears, and then he recites one more platitude, like, "Working For Tomorrow," and six months later you find out that the company makes nerve gas or nuclear warheads.

I can only recall seeing those sorts of montages in TV commercials and Michael Bay movies: Armageddon, The Rock,Pearl Harborand so forth.

I liked Tropic Thunder more than I thought I would. It's over-the-top, shameless silliness, but it's mostly very well-done silliness. I didn't like Ben Stiller's character's forced performances as Simple Jack while he was a prisoner of the drug smugglers in the jungle. (I don't mean that there was a halting quality about the performances, merely that Stiller's character was forced at gunpoint to perform.) It's not that I object to comic portrayals of the mentally-challenged -- or, more accurately in this case: to portrayals of dumb, insensitive actors condescendingly portraying the mentally challenged. It's just that this part of Stiller's performance didn't come off for me, didn't work. Robert Downey Jr's portrayal of a white Australian method actor, in surgically-applied blackface, portraying an African-American made me laugh, and it also made me wince a lot. I guess that's what it was intended to do. (There have been a lot of portrayals of Americans by Australian and British movie stars in recent decades, I wonder if Downey's character was intended in any way as a comment on them.) Matthew McConaughey is very funny playing a stereotypical Hollywood agent. There are a lot of nice touches in the movie, many of them imploding the pretentions of previous Hollywood blockbusters about Vietnam. Somehow, before Stiller pointed it out to me, it hadn't occurred to me how very seriously those earlier movies had tended to take themselves.

But for me, far and away the best part of Tropic Thunder, and the only reason I'm writing about it today, is Tom Cruise's performance as studio executive Less Grossman.

You must see this. Cruise wore a fat suit for this part and either shaved his head or wore a bald wig, he wore thick glasses. Still, it's not about the prosthetics and props. Cruise acts his buff little ass off here. His Les Grossman is a gloriously amoral and aggressive balled fist of a man. I don't want to ruin it for you, in case you haven't seen Tropic Thunder yet, by telling you too much about what Grossman says and does. Perhaps part of what's so funny here is that Cruise's performance rings so true: when it comes to big-time Hollywood players, over-the-top is no exaggeration. There are some very colorful characters behind the scenes in Tinseltown.

There are some rumors that Cruise may reprise his role as Les Grossman. This makes me very happy. I just checked and, no, he was not nominated for an Oscar for Tropic Thunder -- whaaaa?? Seriously!

Ah well, the Oscars never were a very good guide to the very best that Hollywood has done, this is just the 3,576th example of that.

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