TROPIC THUNDER Scratch the surface of Ben Stiller's satire of Hollywood cynicism and narcissism, and among some big laughs you'll find mostly deeper, more cozily embedded strains of cynicism and narcissism. The setting is the set of a mega-budget combat picture, the sort where the grimmest hell of war is an understocked craft-service table. When hand-wringing director Steve Coogan's attempt to out-head-wound Saving Private Ryan and out-napalm Apocalypse Now comes up not only short but behind schedule, he troops his pretty-boy platoon off-script into real wilderness, real action—and real danger from Golden Triangle druglords. Stiller (who directed and co-wrote the script with Justin Theroux and Evan Goldberg) again plays a Tom Cruise surrogate/wannabe, and he nails a specific brand of clueless superstar insecurity while making sure no one could possibly mistake it for his own: You get the idea he wants people to eye his frequently flashed biceps and think, "Hey, he's like Tom Cruise, only smarter." Cruise, meanwhile, who's always most comfortable behind a mask, does a hey-look-it's-Tom-Cruise-cutting-up act in a cameo as a prosthetically enhanced cutthroat mogul: it's not particularly funny (although his pudding-hipped come-to-the-dark-side come-on to Stiller's agent is something to see), but its obscene vehemence is almost too revealing—a flash of writhing id in the bowels of Pandora's box. Handsomely shot by John Toll, the movie could pass visually for a real-deal fireball-a-palooza, which doesn't make it funnier; it's also the kind of Hollywood send-up whose inside baseball consists of pretty soft pitches. (Regarding the final twist, you don't have to watch Sunday Morning Shootout to marvel at the industry acclaim for a movie shot on surveillance cameras, or to wonder what that film actually looks like.) Ironically, it's the movie's most spot-on jabs—about the casting of Anglos in minority parts and the fetishizing of the developmentally challenged—that are raising the ire of protesters. As the most potentially offensive of these gambits, a Method madman in cigar-chomping blackface who goes all Fred "The Hammer" Williamson for his art, Robert Downey Jr. takes the biggest gamble and gets the biggest laughs with his unintelligible white-Negro posturing. Don't arrive late, or you'll miss a Very Big Star leering hilariously through a fake trailer for what looks like Brokeback Monastery. —Jim Ridley (Now playing)
VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA Leave it to Woody Allen to make a romantic comedy in which all the major players end up either single, homicidal or trapped in safe, boring marriages. Talk about modern love! Yet, from those unlikely materials, Allen has crafted a wry and thoughtful film about the peculiar stirrings of the heart that is certainly his most accomplished piece of work since 2005's Match Point and arguably his funniest in the eight years since Small Time Crooks. When brainy, long-legged grad student Vicky (Rebecca Hall) arrives in Barcelona on summer vacation with her blond, impetuous girlfriend Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) in tow, it's not long before the two cross paths with the broodingly handsome painter, José Antonio (Javier Bardem), who promptly attempts to seduce them both. For a while, Vicky Cristina Barcelona seems to be shaping up as a diverting if insubstantial bedroom farce, but it's one of the unexpected pleasures of Allen's film that very little is as superficial as meets the eye. A hedonist at heart, José Antonio turns out to have his own complexities and depth, as do his two latest conquests. Then, around an hour or so in, Penélope Cruz makes her entrance as Bardem's erstwhile amor and muse, Maria Elena, and sets this heretofore perfectly enjoyable enterprise ablaze like a raging comic fireball. —Scott Foundas (Opens Friday at Green Hills; see the interview with Woody Allen to be posted Thursday on nashvillescene.com)
HENRY POOLE IS HERE Maudlin whimsy is everywhere in this earnest religious comedy-drama from director Mark Pellington, best known for high-concept, low-yield thrillers like Arlington Road and The Mothman Prophecies. Affectingly despondent in some scenes, merely mopey in others, Luke Wilson does his best Eeyore imitation as a sad sack who buys a run-down home and broadcasts his sullen Ask Me About My Deep Dark Secret misery to the neighborhood. Say, Luke, what about fixing that crumbling stucco? "Noooo," he groans portentously, "I won't be here that looong...." To his dismay, a nosy neighbor (Adriana Barraza) spies a water stain on his back wall and has an apostolic vision—and soon the local priest (George Lopez), the mute girl next door (Morgan Lily), her nurturing mom (Radha Mitchell) and even a near-blind checkout girl (Rachel Seiferth) are coming round to impress upon him that miracles are possible. It's mean to make fun of a movie that so desperately wants to believe in its own goodwill: I kept rooting for it to succeed—for Albert Torres' script to match its sincerity with complexity, and for Pellington's muted, close-up-heavy direction to produce that longed-for spiritual entertainment that engages both the head and heart. But the unbelievable characters behave like props in a Vacation Bible School skit. On the whole, the well-intentioned but irritatingly pat movie takes that deus ex machina thing a little too literally. —Jim Ridley (Opens Friday at Green Hills)
HELL RIDE In the post–Pulp Fiction '90s, one could throw a rock at random and hit a two-bit Quentin Tarantino knock-off—all chatty gangsters with showy monikers doing the slo-mo "let's go to work" swagger. Now, with this hyper-sexualized, spaghetti-Westernized, vulgar homage to the cheapie biker movies he starred in as an AIP contract player decades ago, actor turned filmmaker Larry Bishop (Mad Dog Time) updates the useless Tarantino derivation for the post-Grindhouse '00s. Adding two-tone credits, sun-bleached retro camerawork and a Morricone-goes-rockabilly score to the chatty, showy swagger, Bishop trudges through a perfunctory premise about familial revenge and rival gangs. Street cred can't save the pic, not even with Dennis Hopper and David Carradine cameos and QT himself exec-producing and initiating the project. Bishop's jumbled, wholly unexciting throwback has very little on its mind beyond mythologizing the writer-director as a bad-ass biker named Pistolero. When he's not leading the pack in far too many desert-road montages, trippin' on peyote or spouting Zen-stupid puns, Bishop lives out fantasies of fucking his frequently full-frontal female cast, most of whom look like FHM sexbots. (Villainous Vinnie Jones shows up sporting a crossbow and tattoos based on the types of pussy he's eaten: menstrual, crab-infested, or dead—yes, it's that kind of movie.) Maybe if we were given our own pleasures to indulge in, we'd be able to handle the boys getting theirs. —Aaron Hillis (Opens Friday)
STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS George Lucas, that greedy visionary, is now in the infomercial manufacturing business—the pitchman forever selling rehashed product to successive generations of younger and younger Star Wars fans raised on fond memories further curdling with each new entry in a sagging saga that peaked in 1980. As Star Wars movies go, The Clone Wars is minor to the point of irrelevance, nothing more than a stylized direct-to-DVD shrug projected onto a big screen while Lucas launches two more TV series filling in prequel blanks better left empty. Lucas, this time working with director Dave Filoni and writer Henry Gilroy (two cartoon veterans), revisits the gap between Episodes II and III—the so-called Clone Wars to which a passing reference was made in Star Wars, laying the groundwork for a franchise within a franchise starring the cloned offspring of bounty hunter Jango Fett and the Jedi Knights for whom they're cannon fodder. In this installment, Anakin Skywalker (now a wisecracking hero stripped entirely of the Dark Side) and Obi-Wan Kenobi must rescue the kidnapped pupa of Jabba the Hutt, while Anakin takes on his own apprentice, headstrong teenybopper Ahsoka Tano—kind of Hannah Montana with orange skin and a light saber. Only Sam Jackson, Anthony Daniels and, go figure, Christopher Lee reprise their roles from the live-action series; most of the other cast members are videogame vets, appropriate considering the movie looks like a time-killing interstitial you'd normally skip through in order to get to the good stuff. Repeat after me: This is not the Star Wars movie you were looking for. —Robert Wilonsky (Opens Friday)
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