Review: Tropic Thunder (dir. Ben Stiller, 2008)

Very few people saw Empire of the Sun when it came out 21 years ago, and possibly even fewer people remember it. But the effects of that World War II film — one of Steven Spielberg’s most underrated efforts — live with us still. It introduced the world to a 13-year-old kid from Wales named Christian Bale, who has since conquered the box office as The Dark Knight. It also featured a young man named Ben Stiller, in one of his very first roles, as a prisoner of war named Dainty. And it was while working on that film that Stiller first got the idea for Tropic Thunder.

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Newsbites: The ancient epic edition!

Time to catch up on some history, here.

1. Theseus is making a comeback in War of Gods, and Perseus is making a comeback in a remake of Clash of the Titans (1981). So it must be time for Jason to make a comeback, too, in The Argonauts, a new film being written and produced by comic-book specialist Zak Penn. Apparently there are also three Hercules movies in development at various studios, as well as God of War, “based on the epic Greek myth-inspired vidgame”. — Variety

2. Lionsgate has hired Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain to write the script for the upcoming Conan the Barbarian reboot, and the studio has also picked up their screenplay Amazon, which concerns the mythical female warriors and is currently set to star, uh, Scarlett Johansson. Blackman and McCain most recently collaborated on Outlander, the movie about an alien pursuing a monster with the help of some Vikings. — Hollywood Reporter

3. China Film Group and Dadi Media Group are planning a $22 million biopic about Confucius to mark the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China next year. A “big-budget toon biopic” is also in the works; I wonder if it is related in any way to an animated series on Confucius that was announced last year. — Variety

4. Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg will star in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, a “psychological thriller that evolves into a horror film”. Okay, there is no “ancient epic” hook here, but with a title like that, I just had to include it. And hey, are they really still casting this thing? It feels like von Trier has been saying he’ll shoot this film any-day-now for years. Oh, wait, that’s because he has. — Variety

Jabba the Hutt’s sexually ambiguous uncle.


There don’t seem to be any pictures of Ziro the Hutt online yet, so I am settling for the picture of Jabba above.

In any case, there are a few elements in Star Wars: The Clone Wars that have to be seen to be believed, but none, perhaps, more than this, as reported by the MTV Movies Blog:

Ok, let’s be straight for a second: Jabba’s uncle, Zero the Hutt, a new character introduced specifically for the upcoming animated series, is a gay stereotype that makes what Jar Jar Binks represented to the island of Jamaica look subtle by comparison. It’s not the look or design that pushes it over the top into stereotype, of course, but the voice (performed by Corey Burden), a lispy, high-pitched twang purposively reminiscent of Truman Capote.

So how did a character who wasn’t even supposed to speak English wind up sounding like that? Because George Lucas insisted on it, “Clone Wars” director Dave Filoni confessed.

“Zero, Jabba’s uncle, originally spoke in Hutt-ese, like Jabba and then he had a different sluggish voice just like Jabba, and then George one day was watching it and said ‘I want him to sound like Truman Capote.’ He actually said that and we were like ‘Wow!’” Filion revealed. “It’s a hybrid of it but the inspiration is definitely there on Capote. It’s one of those things that takes him from being an interesting character and I think really does put him over the top and does something. He’s a favorite among the crew here.” . . .

But just because Zero the Hutt is a stereotype, that doesn’t actually make him the first gay “Star Wars” character, Filion insisted. He’s actually not straight either, but biologically asexual. . . .

“He’s of questionable [sexuality] at least as a slug. They tell me that these slugs can be either male or female depending. That’s something I guess that slugs and snails do,” Filion said. “I wasn’t aware of that but I have continuity experts that tell me these things and I’m like. I guess Jabba is [his son’s] mother AND father from a certain point of view. It’s interesting.”

Incidentally — and this is not a comment on the new film in particular — but what is the point of a series devoted to the Clone Wars? What kind of stories could it possibly tell? As we know from the prequels, the good guys are all dupes being manipulated by the bad guys. And the bad guys are, well, the bad guys. I don’t see any potential for any truly happy endings here whatsoever.

This is especially true of the film opening this week — and again, I am not reviewing the movie itself here, just commenting on the premise that has already been revealed in trailers and so on.

The basic thrust of the story is that Jabba’s son — or offspring of questionable sexuality, to be consistent with what the director says above — has been kidnapped, and Anakin Skywalker needs to rescue him. So there are basically two possible outcomes, here:

One, Anakin fails, and Jabba’s son dies, and the Jedi and the Galactic Republic lose everything that they had hoped to gain by helping the Hutts, etc. Basically, a big, big downer of an ending — and that’s before we remember that virtually all of the good guys will die or worse in Revenge of the Sith (2005) anyway.

Or, two, Anakin succeeds, and Jabba’s son lives … only to see Anakin’s son Luke kill Jabba himself about a quarter-century later, during the events of Return of the Jedi (1983). So the poor slug’s daddy would be killed by his rescuer’s son, giving him conflicted emotions of gratitude and resentment, if not vengeance, towards the Skywalkers. And that would be just kind of twisted, really.

If George Lucas was still telling stories set during or after the original trilogy, there would at least be a sense of hope, a sense that the Rebellion really can defeat the Empire and rebuild the Republic. The future is open, and the potential for goodness is there. But by miring himself in the period covered by the prequels, Lucas has locked his franchise into a sort of grim, hopeless fatalism. Or so it seems to me, at any rate.

As for the all-important question of who was the first character of indeterminate gender in the Star Wars universe, I nominate Chef Gormaanda, the four-armed cooking-show hostess played by Harvey Korman in The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978):

I could also point to C-3PO, I guess, but I’d rather not perpetuate any stereotypes about the English, if that’s all right.

Mark Ruffalo to direct faith-healing movie.

Variety reports:

Mark Ruffalo will make his feature directing debut on “Sympathy for Delicious.”

Ruffalo will star with James Franco and Chris Thornton. Production begins this fall in Los Angeles, and the pic is fully financed by new company Corner Store Entertainment.

Thornton, who wrote the script, plays “Delicious” Dean O’Dwyer, a paralyzed DJ struggling to survive in his wheelchair on the streets of L.A. He turns to faith-healing and mysteriously acquires the ability to cure the sick — although not himself. Ruffalo plays a Jesuit priest who tries to help him come to terms with the limits of his gift, and Franco a rock singer in a band that exploits the suddenly famous healer.

For some reason this is vaguely reminding me of Paul Schrader’s Touch (1997), based on the novel by Elmore Leonard. But I haven’t seen that film or read that book in over a decade, and of course I haven’t seen Ruffalo’s film because it hasn’t even been made yet, so who knows, it might turn out that the two stories don’t really have all that much in common.

Yabba-dabba-lujah.

I had never heard of this before. It seems a Christian musician by the name of Chris Rice wrote a song way back in 1989, mocking the tendency of some Christians to co-opt popular culture in the silliest of ways. The subject of his song: cartoon characters who find their own unique ways to say “hallelujah”.

Much to Rice’s surprise, the song became a hit, and some people took it very seriously, one way or the other, and after allowing himself to be coerced into recording and performing it for 15 years, he finally “retired” the song in 2004. Three years later, he posted a eulogy for the song on his website, and as bizarre as his experience was, I have to say his story rings all too true.

Here is an unauthorized video that someone made for his song:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWFJ_rykyA4]
Click here if the video file above doesn’t play properly.

Now, I can’t be too critical of this sort of thing, since I have fond memories of reading Al Hartley‘s Christian Archie comics when I was a kid — though I must say it was a bit weird when I started reading the mainstream Archie comics and I wondered why the characters weren’t talking about the Bible any more.

On the other hand, it’s not too hard to understand why people living in the evangelical ghetto missed the point of Rice’s satire, when you come across hideous examples of pop-culture co-opting such as this video, which an e-pal pointed out to some friends and me just last week. People really do do this sort of thing, apparently without irony, so it probably shouldn’t be too shocking when they miss the irony in other people’s satires of this sort of thing.

Hat tip to Jerry Beck for the Chris Rice info. Fascinating.

Billy Graham to appear in another movie?


The Billy Graham biopic Billy: The Early Years is currently scheduled to come out in October, and when I first mentioned it here back in March, I noted that the only other films to have featured actors playing Billy Graham seem to be parodies of the Nixon administration produced in the early 1970s.

But today, while reading this article on Oliver Stone’s George W. Bush biopic in the Sunday Times, it dawned on me that there might be another actor playing Billy on the big screen this year. In a review of an early draft of the script, the Times notes:

The relationship between father and son begins to shift when W gives up drinking after waking up with a huge hangover the day after his 40th birthday. He also has a religious conversion. On a walk with the Rev Billy Graham in 1985, he says, “There’s this darkness that follows me. People say I was born with a silver spoon, but they don’t know the burden that carries.”

This got me curious: Was the character of Billy Graham still in the script? And if so, who is playing him?

The IMDb entry on this film is no help. It doesn’t list the character at all, but it does list a character named “Evangelical 2”. So where is Evangelical 1? Obviously, there are gaps on that page.

However, a bit of Googling turned up this interview with Oliver Stone in Screen Daily, which touches on this topic:

Meanwhile Stacy Keach plays a composite of evangelical ministers, including Billy Graham and Jim Robison, who influenced Bush in his conversion to Christianity.

“Richard Nixon very much invoked the silent majority and the friendship of Billy Graham, but Mr Bush has taken (religion) further than ever (into government) and so we have to dramatise that,” says Stone. “We must on the surface take his conversion seriously. It is the centrepiece of his change. At the age of 40, he was a drinker and he changed quite radically over a period of four years, so something happened to him. Whether he became the same person on the other side of the coin is an interesting issue and I examine that too. Some of the characteristics, however, never disappeared such as the temperament, the anger and the impatience.”

A composite, eh? I guess they’ve tweaked that part of the script a bit. Too bad, I was looking forward to seeing another straightforward portrayal of Billy Graham this autumn. But it will be interesting to see how many of Billy’s characteristics come through in the character who does appear in the film.

The photo above, by the way, is of Stacy Keach, and is taken from the website for The Word of Promise, an audio Bible that he was involved with recently. Keach is also known to Bible-movie buffs for playing Barabbas in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977). He also played Martin Luther in the film adaptation of John Osborne’s Luther (1973; my review).


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