Archive for the ‘Robert Downey Jr.’ Category

Ledger Oscar nominated, but commercial flicks ditched for artsy hooey

January 22, 2009

Despite a brave forecast Wednesday in USA Today that Oscar voters finally might see the light and meld their alleged “we love the world” populism to their choices for 2008 nominations, such was not the case Thursday when the noms were announced.

Again, smash-hit popular entertainment got little respect. And what else is new? Sure, Titanic and The Return of the King won big at both the b.o. and on Oscar night. But largely the 2008 slate is like so many others: heavily weighted toward artsy fare released at year’s end, and slanted against popular fare which dominated ticket sales and boosted the industry. After all, what does the public know?

So The Dark Knight and WALL-E both got shut out of the best-picture race, in favor of such overrated no-hit flicks as The Reader and Frost-Nixon. Frost-Nixon? Is Ron Howard getting rubber-stamped? Sir, I’ve seen enthralling political dramas such as All the President’s Men, and you, Frost/Nixon, are no All the President’s Men.

Sure, the late Heath Ledger was nominated as best supporting actor for The Dark Knight, and the film got eight nods in all. But except for Ledger’s, it got no major award noms. And the best WALL-E could muster, beyond an inevitable best animated feature nomination from a thin field, was an original screenplay nod.

So forget about cheering for a popular favorite, unless you dig Benjamin Button’s absurd story of a man aging backwards while Gumping through time, or you’re hooked on the game-show heroics of Slumdog Millionaire. And while this year’s slate may not be as esoteric as last year’s, Oscar viewership again should decline, as film fans with the wacky, dim-witted idea that WALL-E and The Dark Knight represented better filmmaking than the allegedly weighty The Reader or Frost-Nixon get stiffed.

I’m leaving Milk out of my rant because I believe in that movie, regardless of its level of popular appeal. It’s not only beautifully made, with another fantastic performance by Sean Penn, but its late-’70s story of intolerance vs. inclusiveness is somehow more timely and significant for today than anything else in the best picture field.

Still, that race now largely comes down to a plurality vote for “Best Pretentious Pseudo-Artsy Flick Released in December.” Come on.

My rant can’t be complete without dissing supporting actress nominee Penelope Cruz for a shrieking performance in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Bad movie, bad performance. Sorry, Woody — I love ya. But this was recycled, contrived, lame, preposterous, unfunny and unremarkable, with countless missteps. Who cares about a bunch of losers strangely unencumbered by the need to make money or face real responsibility while they indulge in artistic whims and in lust/passion with the depth of a tuna sandwich?

But huzzahs to Robert Downey Jr.’s supporting actor nod for Tropic Thunder. He won’t win — in true Phantom of the Paradise mode, Ledger’s a lock — but Downey was as good as anyone on screen last year, as a dude playing a dude dressed like another dude and sometimes looking like the first dude but really being — oh, forget it. But he was great — and he even held fast to his character’s pledge  not to drop character till after the DVD commentary! Robert, I salute you. With this and Iron Man, you rocked in ’08, and Tropic Thunder was the year’s funniest film.

Not that that distinction will ever win anyone a best picture Oscar — what do humorists know? We’ve got dead presidents to resurrect, guys to be born old, and snob appeal to embrace over entertainment power.

Yes, that’s the Oscars — again — rejecting the sheer show-biz oomph on which the industry depends in favor of pretentious Important Pictures which bore to the point of snores. Oh, well — at least we’re done with The English Patient.

Heath Ledger’s ‘Dark Knight’ Golden Globe came with too high of a price

January 12, 2009

Some post-Golden Globes thoughts:

Does anyone truly believe Heath Ledger would have won a Globe for playing the Joker in The Dark Knight had he not died tragically? For my own answer, please consult Brian De Palma’s film Phantom of the Paradise and its opening song, Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye.

My own pick for the award would have been Robert Downey Jr. for “playing a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude” in Tropic Thunder, a far more entertaining experience than the agonies and miseries of  The Dark Knight. But what was up with Downey’s dazed and disheveled look Sunday night? I thought he was back on the wagon.

And why was it that poor Katie Holmes couldn’t attend the party? As I understand it, she was in L.A. at the time. Could it be that her alleged husband (has anyone ever seen a marriage license?) wanted to hog all the spotlight for himself whenever cameras went his way? Just wondering.

Note to the Hollywood Foreign Press: You did a good job of breaking Kate Winslet’s dry spell — too good. One Globe would have sufficed. Two was overkill. Share the wealth (if you want to call it that).

And note to self about such “wealth”: Whenever actors go uncontrollably ga-ga over an award, as Kate did, feel sorry for them, because pity is better than contempt. It truly is sad to see a grown woman who knows damn well she’s a fine actress treat the plurality decision of a small group of journalists and hacks like it saved her life. Hey, Kate, I love your work, too. But get a grip.

All of which reminds me of an interview I once did with Campbell Scott, whose father, George C. Scott, once famously snubbed the Oscar awarded him for Patton. When I mentioned a festival award which Campbell’s small film at the time had received, and how that might help its art-house run, he replied, straight-faced, “Yes, and as you know, Bruce, it is all about the awards.”

Unrelated note: What it’s really all about is happiness, or even better, hilarity. With that in mind, check out Rhino’s new release of the six-hour PBS documentary Make ‘Em Laugh, an exhaustive look at comedy and its place in America. Comedy may not get the respect of heavy, depressing dramas which win awards for ceaselessly reminding us of the same glum truths, but where else will you find Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, Charlie Chaplin and Jon Stewart in the same place? Now that’s entertainment. Enjoy.

DVD review: Heath Ledger is great, but ‘The Dark Knight’ is action-misery

December 9, 2008

Will Heath Ledger win a posthumous Academy Award for best supporting actor for his portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight, the sixth modern Batman movie, new on DVD today from Warner Bros.? A better question is, should he?

This shouldn’t be a sympathy vote. Ledger either deserves an Oscar, or he doesn’t, and much of that entitlement may stem from your personal preference for his film. In my mind, as good as Ledger was, this role and this performance are not Oscar caliber. Like the movie, they’re too one-note. To me, far better work was done by Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, who showed layers and nuance, made me laugh out loud repeatedly (a feat) and was amazingly charismatic. But comedies get no Oscar respect, so that’s just me dreaming.

Besides, The Dark Knight wasn’t about Ledger’s acting or the Joker’s deranged, smudged “smile.” Rather, it was about action-misery.

What’s that? Well, it’s not action-adventure, where an action film is enjoyable, thrilling or regaling, but without being repellent. In the case of The Dark Knight, a PG-13 rating got slammed hard up against an R, and for almost 2 1/2 hours, the film engrossed more than entertained, punishing its audience by relentlessly killing people, torturing people, placing innocents in constant peril, blowing things up, setting fires, threatening small children in front of their mother — you name it. Sorry, but this is not well-rounded storytelling. And as impressive as it is in execution, The Dark Knight is less entertainment than an ordeal.

Such punishment comes from the film’s ceaseless cruelty, savagery and murderous bloodlust. Is there any offsetting humor, heart, romance, character development or even wit? Forget it. In fact, though I greatly admire Christian Bale as an actor, what did he do here but phone in a mindlessly guttural and growling performance as Batman, and a pretty-boy stoicism as Bruce Wayne. Despite being given two roles in effect, the guy hardly registers in either one.

Yes, Ledger is great, so that makes up for it in part. His Joker doesn’t joke, but rather makes psychopathic mayhem just to prove a point: We’re all as sick as him. Only it doesn’t quite turn out that way.

The remaining cast is largely about marquee value actors (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman) getting little to do, though the impressive Gary Oldman has a blessedly larger role as Commissioner Gordon, perhaps the most heroic man in the film. In fact, Oldman seems to have more screen time than anyone. Aaron Eckhart also is good as the handsome Harvey Dent, if not so much as the grotesque Two-face, which is more of a makeup performance than acting. And Maggie Gyllenhaal is woefully miscast as a woman who’s supposed to inspire romantic passion in him and Wayne.

So it’s easily Ledger’s picture to run away with, and run he does, eclipsing Jack Nicholson’s wacky, crazy-funny turn in the same role with the kind of tortured, twisted character to which Danny DeVito aspired as the Penguin in Batman Returns. Basically, both men respond to childhood abuse with mass murder in adulthood. Not exactly an even karmic trade, but at least you know where they’re coming from and why they’re so wicked.

But as good as Ledger is, and as powerful as The Dark Knight’s action can be, I just can’t embrace this moviet with the critical and box office consensus that it earned, because for me, it’s action-misery, not action-adventure, and the world is miserable enough now without wallowing in the worst of it. Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan took the graphic novel source material far too seriously and squelched any sense of pleasure or fun. Right now, we need fun — at least, I do, and if you can’t have fun watching a movie about a guy in a bat costume, something is wrong with that movie.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I respect this movie for its craftmanship, I love the legacy of its title character, and I really wish I could embrace it. If you did — if this suits you — then great, enjoy. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t. I never say that. Besides, we’re all entitled to our opinions — including me.

Now, as Downey’s character-within-a-character says in Tropic Thunder, “We cool?”

DVD Review: ‘Tropic Thunder’ is the funniest film in years

November 16, 2008

Comedy is hard. Comedy doesn’t always work. But Tropic Thunder does. In fact, I’d argue it’s the funniest film in years.

From concept to screenplay to casting to execution, it’s a winner. Like City Slickers Meets Deliverance in Vietnam, it concerns a disastrous film shoot in which the principal cast is set loose and stranded in the wilderness, some believing they’re still on camera to extemporaneously perform a 1969 war tale melding parts of Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan into a singular jungle hell, part art-house and all mayhem.

Director and co-write Ben Stiller sticks close to his familiar persona as a clueless poser and vapid semi-star — this time a fading action hero who’s lucky to be working alongside five-time Aussie Oscar winner Robert Downey Jr. Downey plays an African-American soldier in the film within the film, and the actor is so Method that he walks and talks the part 24-7 with amusing in-your-face, no-nonsense “We cool” demeanor.

Jack Black plays a marginal comedy star who’s best known for flatulence jokes, desperately needs a fix and has no shame. And Nick Nolte is ideally cast as the grizzled Viet vet who wrote the book being churned into the film.

But this is Downey’s movie to steal, and he takes it, rambling and ranting about acting theories with nutty professorial zeal while sticking to his cool-dude character with utter conviction. Think Russell Crowe gone native in ‘Nam and you’re onto something. Bottom line: Downey’s character is the cast’s best and most honored actor by far, and Downey himself is the cast’s best and most honored actor by far. You might say that fits.

But really, all of this works — and it doesn’t stop working. Upon a first viewing of Tropic Thunder on DVD, I was laughing so hard that I had to take an intermission break. And I’ve watched it a second time since then.

On the new two-disc DVD from DreamWorks, deleted scenes aren’t much, but other extra features explore the film’s creation with some of the same crazy creativity with which it was performed. And though recycled old songs may not sound like creativity, those of Tropic Thunder were so skillfully chosen and placed in the film that they’re an art in themselves, from Steppenwolf’s The Pusher to Ten Years After’s I’d Love to Change the World to Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth.

I could go on, but you should simply savor this DVD with a fresh sense of your own discovery, whether you saw Tropic Thunder theatrically or not.

Finally, let’s give props to Stiller and company for such a dead-on skewering of their own industry, as also  embodied by greedily grasping agent Matthew McConaughey and greedily gonzo producer Tom Cruise. The latter had lost me as an actor and a star — utterly lost me, I’d thought — via his many missteps in recent years, but I give him full credit for this amoral, belligerent, ruthless and unhinged producer who may be reprehensible, but also gets things done. And his little celebratory dance (the guy loves his work) is so good that it takes us through part of the end-credits. Great pudgy bald-guy makeup, too.

So thanks Ben, Robert, Tom, Jack and everyone. You’ve brought high humor into a world laid low by economic disaster. And oddly, by ripping Hollywood types so well, and so creatively, you’ve also done your industry and your art proud. Tropic Thunder is one great picture.