“THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE” (2010) Review

Apparently, ”THE LAST AIRBENDER” was not the only 2010 summer release struggling at the box office. Disney’s new live-action adaptation of its 1940 animated classic, ”THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE” also struggled. Directed by Jon Turteltaub and starring Nicholas Cage, Jay Baruchel and Alfred Molina; the movie was a fantasy-adventure about a long-living sorcerer named Balthazar Blake who is fighting against the forces of evil and his arch-nemesis Maxim Horvath in modern-day Manhattan; while searching for the person who will inherit Merlin’s powers. This person turns out to be Dave Stutler, a physics student at New York University, whom Balthazar takes as a reluctant protégé.

Did I have any problems with ”THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE”? Well, I had a few. Although some of the scenes managed to capture Manhattan in the daytime, most of the scenes were filmed at night. Manhattan makes a vibrant and colorful setting and I found it frustrating that I got to see most of it at night, when it was not really necessary. The special effect of the flying gargoyle from the Chrysler Building really did nothing for me. And the movie criminally – in my opinion – underused actors and actresses such as Omar Benson Miller, who portrayed Dave’s roommate; Monica Bellucci, who played Balthazar’s fellow sorceress and secret love, Veronica; and Alice Kriege, who portrayed the evil Morgana le Fey from the King Arthur legend.

Despite its flaws, I really enjoyed ”THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE”.  There were no cheesy lines. Yet, there was plenty of sharp humor. Thanks to the screenplay written by Doug Miro, Carlo Bernard and Matt Lopez, it was also a solid adventure story about how Dave Stutler who learns to achieve his full potential and a good deal of self-respect. Dave’s mentor, Balthazar, also learned a good deal about patience and overcoming one’s past regrets. With a great deal of humor, the pair not only teaches valuable lessons to each other; but also form a solid pair to take out Balthazar, who hopes to raise the evil Morgana le Fey and stop her from destroying the world.

Despite too many nighttime scenes, I must admit that I found Bojan Bazelli’s photography to be colorful and impressive. I found the special effects supervised by John Fraizer very impressive – especially during the Chinatown sequence and the scene featuring Dave’s use of Tesla coils. And despite the film’s failure to utilize performers such as Omar Benson Miller, Monica Bellucci and Alice Kriege; the ”THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE” could boast a very entertaining cast. Nicholas Cage was perfectly cast as the intense and sometimes impatient sorcerer, Balthazar Blake. And he had excellent chemistry with the deliciously wry and sardonic Jay Baruchel, who portrayed physics student-turned sorcerer, Dave Stutler. Alfred Molina seemed to be more in his element as the sarcastic and villainous sorcerer, Maxim Horvath than he was in ”PRINCE OF PERSIA”. And he managed to produce a surprisingly effective screen chemistry with Tobey Kebbell, who portrayed the young and self-absorbed celebrity magician, Drake Stone. And although I did not find Teresa Palmer’s portrayal of Dave’s lost interest, Becky Barners, particularly memorable; I must admit that she managed to prevent her character from becoming bland.

Looking back at ”THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE”, I cannot help but wonder if producer Jerry Bruckheimer had refrained from allotting a bigger budget to the movie. I think it had the potential to be a major crowd pleaser, but failed to do so with too many night scenes and an unwillingness to utilize the entire cast. But, the movie still had some dazzling special effects, a solid adventure story and a talented cast in Nicholas Cage, Jay Baruchel and Alfred Molina. In the end, ”THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE” proved to be a pretty good movie.

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“TROPIC THUNDER” (2008) Review

”TROPIC THUNDER” (2008) Review

While playing a small part in Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama, ”EMPIRE OF THE SUN” (which ironically starred a young Christian Bale), actor/comedian Ben Stiller had come up with the idea of a group of prima donna actors filming a Vietnam War film. Over twenty years later, Stiller’s idea came to fruition in the action comedy movie, ”TROPIC THUNDER”.

Stiller and fellow co-writers, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, created a hilarious and very original story that began with a series of fake commercials and movie trailers. The commercials featured rap singer Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) promoting his “Booty Sweat” energy drink and “Bust-A-Nut” candy bar. Then the movie continued with a series of movie trailers that included action star Tugg Speedman’s (Stiller) latest film, “Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown”; and another for low-brow comedian Jeff Portnoy’s (Jack Black) film, “The Fatties: Fart 2” that spoofed Eddie Murphy’s portrayal of multiple characters such as in “NUTTY PROFESSOR II: THE KLUMPS”. But the final trailer – and the funniest in the bunch – featured award winning Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downy, Jr.) and Tobey Maguire as two gay medieval monks in a parody of films like “BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN” called ”Satan’s Alley”.

But the meat of the story featured the three actors, the rap singer and character actor Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) as co-stars in ”Tropic Thunder”, a movie adaptation of the memoirs of a disabled Vietnam War veteran named “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte). The movie’s production is spiraling out of control and rookie director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) seemed unable to handle the prima donnas or keep the movie on schedule. Cockburn is ordered by studio executive Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) to get the production back on track or risk having it shut down. With inspiration from Tayback, Cockburn drops the spoiled actors into the middle of the jungle, where he installs hidden cameras and special effect explosions rigged by pyrotechnics man Cody (Danny R. McBride) so he can film the movie “guerrilla-style”. The actors have only a map and a scene listing to guide them to the helicopter waiting at the end of the jungle. Shortly afterward, the director is blown up by a land mine left by the French, but thanks to his preceding diatribe, only Lazarus realizes his death was real. Even worse, the actors ended up in the middle of the Golden Triangle, the home of the heroin-producing Flaming Dragon gang, led by a young boy named Tran (Brandon Soo Hoo). And Cody and Tayback end up as prisoners of the Dragons. As for Tran and the Dragons, they believe the actors to be DEA agents.

”TROPIC THUNDER” not only struck me as a parody of the Hollywood movie industry, but also a parody of the lengths human beings go to create illusions about themselves. Tugg Speedman is a failing action star who had earlier attempted a serious role in order to save his career. I can only assume that ”Tropic Thunder” is his second attempt. Yet, he seemed incapable of facing the possibility of being a has-been and has to depend upon his agent, Rick “Pecker” Peck (Matthew McConaghey) to maintain his ever deflating ego. Jeff Portnoy resorts to drug addiction to deal with the realization that his past success mainly came from his talent from flatulence humor. Lazarus is an Oscar-winning Australian method actor who has a bad habit staying in his role even when the cameras are not rolling. For ”Tropic Thunder”, Lazurus deliberately undertook an operation to change his skin pigmentation in order to portray an African-American sergeant. Naturally, Lazurus’ role produced resentment and anger from Alpa Chino, the rapper trying to break into films. But even Chino is projecting a façade about himself, which his fellow co-stars manage to break through near the end of the film. The only one in the bunch who seemed real is young Sandusky, the drama student who seemed to be the only sane head in the bunch. Yet, despite the fact the film is bursting with Hollywood phonies, the biggest phony turned out to Tayback, who had never seen combat during the Vietnam War or was disabled. Even worse, he had spent the war aboard a Coast Guard garbage scow that never left U.S. waters. He had originally written the book as a tribute to U.S. servicemen.

I have to say that this movie’s cast more than impressed me. Ben Stiller portrayed one of his best roles as Tugg Speedman, a Hollywood veteran struggling to save his career. Yet, his sanity nearly went down the toilet when Tran and the Dragons force him to replay the scenes of his failed drama, ”Simple Jack”. By the time his fellow cast members found him, Speedman had gone by the way of Colonel Kurtz. I must admit that I usually have difficulty finding Jack Black funny. However, I do believe that Jeff Portnoy was probably one of his better roles – hilarious without being over-the-top. I realize that drug addiction is nothing to laugh about, but his and Sandusky’s attempts to help him deal with withdrawal and reject the temptation of the Dragons’ own heroin were rather funny. Nick Nolte and Danny McBride made an amusing comedy team and I especially enjoyed their interaction when Cody discovered that Tayback is not a Vietnam veteran, but a phony. Matthew McConaghey did one of his best roles as Speedman’s always eager agent, Rick Peck. And Tom Cruise must have had a blast portraying the arrogant and overbearing film producer, Les Grossman. He was hilarious. A member of my family was surprised to discover that the balding, foul-mouthed man was actually Cruise.

Most critics have lauded Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as the method actor Lazurus, who spends most of the movie trying to act like an African American. RDJ was hilarious. In fact, I can honestly say that he was the funniest member of the cast. His most hilarious moment came on the heels of an argument between Lazurus and Chino, when he breaks into a litany about the black man’s 400 years of oppression (damn, has it been that long?) and Chino’s use of the “n” word that ended with him singing the theme to television series, ”THE JEFFERSONS”. It took me nearly five minutes to recover from my laughter. But Downey’s take on Kirk Lazurus could have ended in disaster without the presence of Brandon T. Jackson. His Chino not only expressed anger at Lazurus’ portrayal of a black man, but provided some pretty sharp zingers at the actor’s ego and sanity. Another funny scene featured Chino’s insults about Lazurus’ Australian background. What made the scene so humorous were Lazurus’ protests against Chino’s insults, while maintaining his charade as a black man. Weird.

I believe that Ben Stiller should be proud of ”TROPIC THUNDER”. Not only did he give an excellent performance, he also co-wrote and directed what I believe should become a comedy classic. That’s right. A comedy classic. ”TROPIC THUNDER” is one of the best comedies I have seen in years – along with the British action comedy, ”HOT FUZZ”. I also feel that it is Stiller’s best movie since the police parody, ”STARSKY AND HUTCH”. Hell, it is better than the 2003 movie he had co-starred with Owen Wilson. The cast was superb. So was Jon Toll’s photography of the island of Kauai, which stood as both Vietnam and Cambodia. Stiller, Theroux and Cohen had created one hell of a comedy.