I Don't Read the Script - The Script Reads Me

With a nod to and shudder of fear at the formidable Zwolf, I give you some movie reviews of my own.

Tropic Thunder (2008) Let’s just pounce right on the sweetbreads, shall we? The real reason you need to see this movie is Robert Downey, Jr. Yes: Ben Stiller is a goofball, Jack Black is a maniac (the scene where he’s tied to a tree to kick heroin is one of the funniest things you’ll ever see), Tom Cruise as a disgusting movie mogul with the foulest of mouths is anachronistic fun, and the twist-on-a-familiar-theme plot is engaging (actors and crew set out to make a war movie called Tropic Thunder, stumble into actual guerilla warfare with a Southeast Asian heroin syndicate). But Robert Downey, Jr. is absolutely fucking brilliant. He plays a five-time-Oscar-winning Australian method actor named Kirk Lazarus (who might be based on Russell Crowe), and this dude is so method-y that he undergoes a “controversial pigmentation procedure” to look more like his African-American character in Thunder, Lincoln Osiris. And look the part he does (just check out the poster), though he’s even better at walking and talking like him – think Keith David’s character King in Platoon, only blaxploited to the hilt and far more bellicose. Everything he says and does is ridiculously funny, but he also manages to drop some knowledge about the essence of acting and of inhabiting a character, stuff Kirk Lazarus probably believes even though it’s all delivered as though Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield are pumping in the background. (e.g.: While discussing Simple Jack, Ben Stiller’s character’s awful Forrest Gump ripoff, Osiris tells him, “Everybody knows you never go full retard.”) This film has more war-movie homages than you can point a Howitzer at, though my favorite happens when Ben Stiller is taken hostage by the heroin guerillas and then ends up being worshipped by them Col. Kurtz style when they discover he is Simple Jack, the lead in their favorite movie (on VHS, of course). Hell, one of Osiris’s best lines summarizes it all better than I can: “I know who I am – I’m the dude playing a dude disguised as another dude!”

Norma Rae (1979) One of the sweatiest movies ever, Norma Rae is all about the process of unionizing an Alabama textile mill, with Sally Field as the firebrand and cute-as-a-button title character. Field won an Oscar for this role, and it’s easy to see why: one of the climactic scenes in particular – where Norma stands on a mill cutting table and holds up a handwritten, cardboard sign saying “UNION” until all the workers turn off their machines – is gritty and breathtaking in a way that makes it hard to imagine anyone else even attempting the role. As good as Field is Ron Liebman, who plays union organizer and über-Yankee Reuben Warshowsky. Liebman is so good in this role that many of his scenes seem like documentary footage, so naturalistic is his execution. Having grown up in north Alabama, I can also tell you that the movie as a whole nails the 70s rural-poor vibe in a way that just doesn’t happen anymore, probably because most moviemakers are afraid to put truly ugly people onscreen (Penelope Cruz’s nose notwithstanding). And Norma Rae contains one of the best sequences of dialogue you’ll ever hear: When Norma is trying to convince her anti-union preacher to let her use his church for a rally, he refuses and ends up scolding her patronizingly by saying, “We’re gonna miss your voice in the choir, Norma.” Her response? “You just gonna hear it raised up someplace else.” I said goddamn, goddamn…

No Country for Old Men (2007) This is lit-major heresy, I know, but as fantastic as Cormac McCarthy’s book is, the movie version of No Country for Old Men is even better. I think one of the main reasons for this is silence: the filmed version allows the story’s desolate pauses to happen, whereas in book form you’d have, what, blank pages? Not sure that would capture the necessary bleakness. Even when McCarthy isn’t giving us dialogue, the book has lots of description, which is a kind of talking; in the film, you just see. You see scrub-brush plains that look too expansive and forbidding to be real. You see bloated dog corpses and burning automobiles and impressive-looking cowboy hats. You see a man looking at $2 million worth of abandoned-in-a-shootout drug money in a fancy satchel under a tree in the middle of nowhere and trying to mentally (read: silently) talk himself out of what he knows is going to happen if he takes this money with him. You see a dewy milk bottle and lots of cheap wood paneling. You see holes in door locks and holes in foreheads made by a captive bolt pistol, the main weapon of hitman Anton Chigurh, played to utter perfection by Javier Bardem. You see dreadfully injured people somehow nursing and dressing their own wounds because going to a hospital = getting caught. And etc. I’m tempted to put the same superlatives on Bardem as I do on Downey, Jr. above, and it’s close to correct that Bardem is the main reason to see this film, but, really, the whole thing is badass. Other fun bits: Stephen Root’s phrase “that colossal goatfuck out in the desert”; Tommy Lee Jones's hilarious understatement "Yeah, appears to have been a glitch or two" as he surveys a staggering amount of blood, bodies, and spent shell casings, the tableau of a botched drug deal; Josh Brolin being chased down a fast-moving river by a pit bull; Bardem’s grotesque strangling of a deputy with handcuffs; and our intense desire to scream at Josh Brolin, “NO, YOU STUPID HICK! DON’T TAKE AGUA TO THE HOMBRE! GET THE FUCK BACK IN BED!” Oh, but he does it anyway, which is what moves the plot forward, so maybe it had to be.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent reviews, and glad to see ya posting! :) I haven't seen the first two, but now I want to. I always avoided Norma Rae because I'm easily discombobulated and mistake it for Annie Hall. Consider that misperception corrected! I'm gonna seek that one out. The movie that's always nailed the early-70's South to me is White Lightning, with Burt Reynolds. It's a better movie than you'd think (although its sequel, Gator, isn't), and it has a legit not-trying, just-doing-it '70's Southern vibe that reminds me of a lot of my uncle's friends. The dialogue's not bad for a Burt Reynolds movie, either.

    "Only two things in the world I'm scared of."

    "Only two things, what's that?"

    "Women and the po-lice."

    "Women and the po-lice. Spend all yer time tryin' to hump 'em both, don'tcha?"

    And I fully agree on No Country For Old Men (although I haven't read the book yet so I don't know about that part). Great freakin' movie, and you nailed it about how it tells the story visually. My favorite showing-not-telling moment is when one character's fate is revealed only by the fact that Chigurh checks his shoes as he's leaving a house. It's a subtle implication, yet it leaves no doubt. Over the weekend I finally saw There Will Be Blood, which is also pretty good at visual storytelling (the first half hour or so has almost no dialogue), but as well-done as that movie is, No Country For Old Men still kicks its ass.

    And when No Country does have dialogue, it's brilliant stuff. I was listening to it and getting jealous because I wished I'd written it. I love stuff that makes me jealous, and it happened dozens of times during that movie.

    "If I don't come back, tell mother I love her."

    "Your mother's dead, Llewelyn."

    "Well, then I'll tell her myself."

    Now I've got an urge to go watch it again. Thanks! :)