Tropic Thunder

Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard ushered in a new genre of mocking satire.  Exploring the disposable nature of the Hollywood system, it’s actors and behind the scenes bosses were dealt a striking blow from Wilder’s acidic words. Whilst not in the same league, Tropic Thunder is no less scathing of the ‘dream factory’s’ sense of self-worth.  Like Wilder and Robert Altman’s The Player, Director and star Ben Stiller seemingly enjoys biting the hands that feeds him with a movie attacking his employer’s often tenuous grip on reality.
The huge Vietnam War film Tropic Thunder is in crisis.  Running behind schedule and on a verge of a nervous breakdown, Its Director is having trouble controlling his egotistical stars.  Vain action hero Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), drug crazed comedian John Portnoy (Jack Black) and multi Oscar winning Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr) play their part in turning the film into a fiasco.  Looking for added realism, the actors are slotted into a jungle filled with hidden cameras recording their every move.  Left to their own devices, the men become embroiled an intense war zone testing every mettle of their craft.
Comedies delving into the backroom dealing of movie making rarely fail.  Given the freedom to mock real people via fictional characters, the writers are able to give an almost accurate account of how the system works.  Stiller uses these to good effect by mixing these elements with a heavy dose of macho action war films are renowned.  Shot with angles used in such movies, Tropic Thunder at once satirises its target whilst matching the pompous glorification in which they revel. Unlike some recent attempts, it maintains its very specific comedic style until the frantic finish with a great sense of pacing. 
Backed by a talented cast, the film deftly shows their quirky renditions of sometimes loopy characters.  Top of the list is Downey Jr, whose serious method actor goes to the trouble of surgically colouring his skin to black to totally immerse himself into the role.  A dab hand at most genres, Downey is great to watch in a pleasingly bizarre performance.  Tom Cruise’s turn as a foul mouthed producer is another delight that serves as a reminder of the talent sometimes lost in lurid headlines.  Nick Nolte as the nutty author of the story is amusing as is Danny McBride’s enthusiastically deranged role as a gung ho weapons expert.  It’s interesting to note that women hardly feature at all here, with the male of the species happily oblivious to any feminine influence amongst their testosterone filled adventures.
Guessing who the characters are meant to represent is always fun with Tropic Thunder serving up a reasonable parade of laughs.  It’s good to see a film occasionally going against the usual strict social norms, making a nice change from the usual safe inoffensive fluff most comedies currently dish out.  Danger may lurk in any war, but being a Hollywood player appears just as fraught with pitfalls any sane person should avoid.
Rating out of 10:  7 

Not Quite Hollywood

Since celluloid first flickered its way onto a movie screen, exploitation films have thrived.  Pandering to audiences’ baser instincts by serving salacious product not found elsewhere, this cinematic bad boy has gained plenty of fans.  Not Quite Hollywood looks at this unique industry from an Australian angle, interviewing a cavalcade of stars who enjoyed their notorious moments of fame.  As someone who saw the Nicole Kidman classic BMX Bandits in his callow youth, its inclusion in this documentary made for a nostalgic trawl through Aussie cinema.
Spanning an almost twenty year period from 1970, the local film industry burst from its shell like an eager teenager.  This came at a time when censorship laws were relaxed allowing for the proliferation of more adult material.  From the sexploits of Alvin Purple to the hardcore antics of Mad Max, these films had a pulsating energy mirroring a cultural identity higher regarded period pieces lacked.  Not Quite Hollywood makes several salient points about the snobbish elitism that still exists against films unashamedly commercial in nature. This aspect provides a good reminder of the creative imagination that currently seems missing in many issue driven movies which attempt to be ‘relevant’.
Carefully selecting interviewees including Quentin Tarantino and Graeme Blundell, writer/director Mark Hartley successfully captures their infectious enthusiasm.  Divided into three categories featuring sex, action and horror, Hartley gives an engaging potted overview of the broad spectrum the film-makers embraced.  As the images flick by it becomes apparent that this country became one of the first places in the world to genuinely capture a rock and roll sensibility with its characteristics of fast cars, cool studs and hot chicks.  The behind the scenes crew have plenty of amazing stories to tell, some of which are more interesting than the movies they made!  Knowing their films weren’t works of art, it’s nice to see their passion is still just as fierce as if they were shooting a mega-buck epic.
There is also an interesting account of the power drive-ins gave to these flicks as producers eagerly identified a market for their wares.  Like a travelling sideshow, their films would get passed around various cinema chains with an often lucrative pay-day awaiting the end of their runs. This section effectively conveys the weekly communal ritual which reflected a new wave of national pride in locally made products.  Not shying away from the dreck that any industry delivers, the film places these in social context with the increasing political correctness spelling the demise of these sometimes weird creations.
Finally recognising a slice of cinematic history so often ignored, Not Quite Hollywood is a wonderful greatest hits package.  This entertaining film is a fine dedication to renegade film-making, whose only drawback is that it only scratches the surface of the industry’s naughty delights. With some of the production team now having gone onto international success, it’s great knowing that former movie mavericks can mix it up with the big guns on the world stage. 
Rating out of 10:  9