Man on Wire (2008)

On a misty morning in August 1974, a man walked off the roof of the World Trade Center, and into history. He spent the next 45 minutes dancing on air, capering across a tightrope that stretched between the two towers, more than 1300 feet in the air. Philippe Petit, a french daredevil and tightrope walker, had dreamed, planned, and schemed for years, plotting this "artistic crime of the century." It was indeed a crime -- trespassing and disturbing the peace, to be exact -- but as James Marsh's documentary
Man on Wire reveals, it was also an artistic achievement.

Petit was only 17 when he saw a news story in a French newspaper, announcing the construction of the world's tallest buildings. He became possessed by a feverish desire to walk between those twin towers. The fulfillment of his dream would have to wait while the towers were built, during which he notoriously walked a tightrope between Notre Dame's steeples, and over the Sydney Harbour Bridge, becoming, in the process, an international (petty) criminal and man of mystery.

The aptly named Petit, an impish, elfin figure (who currently lives in Woodstock), wrote of his great escapade in *To Reach The Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between The Twin Towers*, which served as the basis of Marsh's thrilling, moving, utterly delightful film. Structured like a heist movie,
Man on Wire (the title comes from the inelegantly phrased police report following Petit's arrest) features interviews with Petit and his partners in crime, including his then girlfriend Annie Allix, and his right hand man, Jean-Louis Blondeau, as well as a few loosely organized associates in New York, including Barry Greenhouse, their "inside man" in the World Trade Center. The planning of "le coup," as they called it, took years. The logistics of the feat were daunting -- nothing like it had ever been done before -- and yet, for Petit, the entire project, from inspiration to execution, was summed up by a simple line, casually drawn between two sketches of the twin towers. Just like that. Dream, scheme, do. The execution of the plan took nerves of steel, but also youthful enthusiasm, artistic zeal, lots of rope, and, in the end, a leap of faith.

Who would do such a thing, risking life, limb, and the certainty of jail, for no profit? It's the fundamental mystery behind Petit's highwire act, but Marsh doesn't address the question directly, instead letting the answers reveal themselves, to the extent that they do. Can a fundamentally irrational act ever be explained or justified in a rational way? Any attempt to provide a straightforward and comprehensive explanation for Petit's guerilla performance would lead only to banality where profundity is called for. Instead,
Man on Wire pulls the viewer in, like a painting, or a novel, to experience the ups and downs and ins and outs of Petit's quixotic quest. The story is pieced together from still photos, tantalizing bits of home movie footage, and Marsh's clever, humorous reenactments. When Petit finally steps into thin air (or the abyss), it is terrifying, exhilarating, breathtaking, and awe-inspiring to watch. Even knowing that Petit survived, it is impossible not to get weak in the knees when he makes his great leap. What must it have been like, for people on the ground on that August morning, to see the tiny speck of a man balancing between the modern marvels of architectural excess? What was it like for Petit to stand on top of the world, and then step off?

In still photos,
Man on Wire recalls the birth of the World Trade Center, in the place now known as Ground Zero. It's impossible not to think, fleetingly at least, about the death of those towers when you see the hole in the ground from which they sprung up, which looked then remarkably as it does now. Marsh doesn't dwell at all on the eventual fate of the towers. Man on Wire is not about death, nor even, strictly speaking, about a death-defying act, but about life, and the joy of being, and the need to walk and to live on the thin edge, without a net. It is also about the immortality of art -- and the film leaves no doubt that what Petit did was in some way a crazy, liberating, life-affirming, glorious work of art, an achievement for the ages. Petit's highwire act was but a fleeting moment in the life of man, and the life of the city, but, as with the buildings that inspired him, the spirit behind it is eternal, enduring long after the physical evidence is gone.


Tropic Thunder (2008)

Those who are easily offended by broad satire aimed at easy targets would be wise to avoid *Tropic Thunder*. When early trailers of the film showed Robert Downey, Jr. in blackface, that seemed a likely target for uproar and indignation. Instead, it is a scene in the movie in which the R word is used liberally that has sparked protest and a boycott on behalf of the mentally disabled. The joke is, of course, that writer-director Ben Stiller isn't actually making fun of the cognitively challenged in that scene, but rather actors and assorted Hollywood types who are cognitively, emotionally, psychologically, ethically, and physically stunted human beings who will do anything to make a buck or win a coveted award. And so, there's plenty of offense to go around in *Tropic Thunder*: African Americans, Jews, Asians, Method actors, movie executives, drug addicts, the overweight, the hirsute, and the recently deceased can all get in line... but nothing in this movie is meant to be taken seriously, and the glancing blows delivered have all the force of powder puffs.

The contentious scene features Downey's Kirk Lazarus, a white Australian Method actor so committed to his craft that he has a skin-darkening procedure to play the role of a black soldier. Lazarus explains to Stiller's Tugg Speedman -- an action star who made a few too many sequels and lost his audience -- why his performance as a bucktoothed mentally retarded man in a movie called *Simple Jack* was not Oscar-worthy. The underlying joke is that Speedman isn't very smart. This joke is delivered by a very serious man in blackface, which gives the whole scene an extra absurdist zing. Lazarus explains why *Forrest Gump* is Oscar bait and *I Am Sam* isn't, and methinks he's actually on to something there.

The scene is one of the less extreme in a movie of extreme comedy -- and like most of Stiller's comedy, it is meant to cause discomfort. Stiller's comedy is mostly about humiliation -- usually the humiliation of Stiller's own character (and that happens here) -- but that humiliation is supposed to make the audience cringe a little bit too. There's plenty to cringe about in *Tropic Thunder*, and most of that cringing is accompanied by laughter. Lazarus and Speedman have their informative talk while trekking through the jungles of VietNam. Their director (Steve Coogan) has put them there to shoot his war movie -- also called *Tropic Thunder* -- guerilla-style in order to motivate and/or punish his preening actors. They're accompanied by Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a comedian who specializes in fart jokes; a hip-hop entrepreneur named Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) who shills for an energy drink called Booty Sweat; and minor supporting actor Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), whose major contribution to the movie is a scene in which he is disemboweled. The disemboweling of Sandusky is kid stuff in a movie in which hands are blows off and shredded, heads roll and are stuck on rifle barrels, and then the dangly bits are... oh never mind. The point is, if Stiller were a murderer instead of a movie director, he would shoot a guy, stab him, cut off his limbs, decapitate him, kick the head around, and then poke him with a big stick to make sure he's really, really dead. Since he's a movie director instead, he kinda does the same thing to a joke -- he makes sure it is really and truly dead before he's done with it. Which is funny right up to the point where it isn't anymore, although exactly where that boundary lies may be subjective. Or maybe it isn't. I bet George Carlin knew, but I'm not convinced that Stiller does. Still, *Tropic Thunder* is funny more often than it isn't.

Downey effectively stomps Method acting into the ground in a role that is much funnier than it really ought to be, all things considered. The presence of Alpa Chino helps -- his primary mission is to mock Lazarus, his soul brother pretensions, and his faux pigmentation. Despite all that, Downey's Lazarus is quite possibly the most authentic character in the bunch, and pulling off an authentic blackface character is something -- although it's not that he comes off as authentically black (whatever that means), but as authentically human. Maybe Downey found the real soul in his fake soul man, but it comes as a surprise that his character manages to be both the most pretentious and the least ridiculous, an actual character among caricatures.

Speaking of caricatures, there must, I suppose, be mention of Tom Cruise's turn as Les Grossman, a grotesque, foul-mouthed, murderous movie executive in a hairy fat suit. It is a funny performance only if hardbodied Tom Cruise dancing lewdly in a hairy fat suit is inherently funny, which it isn't. So why is Robert Downey in blackface funny when Tom Cruise in a fat suit isn't? Again, George Carlin would probably know the answer. *Tropic Thunder* is that kind of movie -- randomly, inexplicably and unexpectedly funny, and then just as randomly, not so funny. It's funny when it's smart, funny when it's smart about actors who are not smart, funny when it's about how dumb movies are, and -- here's where you're supposed to squirm -- funny when it's smart about why audiences fall for dumb movies. The movie kicks off with some very funny fake trailers for movies that are just bad enough to be real, and coming soon to a theatre near you. If there's one thing Hollywood loves more than a movie about the mentally disabled, it's a movie about movies. I smell an Oscar.


Pineapple Express (2008)

These are high times for Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen, the producer and screenwriter, respectively, of *Pineapple Express*. Their long collaboration took flight with last summer's *Knocked Up*, in which Rogen's stoner/slacker dude confronted impending fatherhood and (gasp!) adulthood. In *Pineapple Express*, Rogen (who cowrote the screenplay with Evan Goldberg) is a stoner/slacker confronting murderous drug dealers, which may or may not be scarier for his Dale Denton than the prospect of fatherhood and/or adulthood. At any rate, *Pineapple Express* eschews family bonding for male bonding, as Dale and his dope dealer Saul (James Franco) become BFFs over their mutual love of weed and continued existence.

The "Pineapple Express" of the title is some supercharged grass of which Saul is the sole supplier. Boys and girls, if you don't think drugs kill, just ask Dale, who witnesses a murder committed by a drug kingpin named Ted (Gary Cole) and a rogue cop (Rosie Perez). Dale, a doughy process server, sees Ted shoot a rival drug lord, and gets so fatutzed that he drops his telltale supergrass roach, which is how Ted is able to track him back to Saul. Saul's ever-so-polite supplier Red (Danny McBride, consistently funny) gets involved in the shenanigans too, when the kingpin's muscle (Kevin Corrigan and Craig Robertson) leans on him. Red sings like a bird, and Dale and Saul end up running for their lives, which does not stop their reefer madness at all.

As Dale observes in a rare moment of clarity, marijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug. It's loaded with comedic potential, however. There is by now a well-established (if not venerable) tradition of pothead comedies, which combine drug-induced cognitive impairment with a goofy buddy/road picture shtick -- think Cheech & Chong cross-pollinated with Crosby & Hope. If you can conceive such a combination, and you think stoners and their misadventures are funny, then *Pineapple Express* is the movie for you. *Pineapple Express* might have been even funnier if it didn't devolve into a knowingly dumb, intentionally excessive shoot 'em up at the end, when it tries to walk the fine comedic line between parodying a dopey action movie and actually becoming a dopey action movie. It certainly gets the dopey part right.

*Pineapple Express* is funniest when its characters are shooting the breeze instead of bullets. For the most part, it's an amiable, mellow, occasionally hilarious tale of two addlepated dudes who can't say no to drugs. Franco is particularly funny, soulful, and winsome as Saul, the lonely dope dealer who has many visitors, but few friends. Saul is as wacky as his tobacky, giving voice to all manner of dingbat theories, tuned in to a wavelength all his own. Saul's gentle goofiness provides a nice counterpoint to Rogen's excessively excitable Dale. It's theoretically if not physically possible that Dale needs even more drugs. Despite his slacker ambitions, Dale manages to have both a job and an unlikely girlfriend (Amber Heard), a high school student who does not appreciate getting dragged into Dale's problems with the drug fiends.

Like any good road movie, the pothead road movie is more about the journey than the destination. *Pineapple Express* gets that mixed up for a while, but it hits the groove whenever it slows down and focuses (in an out of focus kinda way) on bud and blooming buddyhood.


Swing Vote (2008)

If not for the outrageous, unlikely events that took place in Florida in 2000 -- the events that put the current occupant in the White House -- the outlandish, unlikely events in *Swing Vote* might seem like so much high concept Hollywood nonsense. But darned if reality didn't go and make a movie about the presidential election coming down to a single vote and a single voter seem, well, actually plausible. Make that voter an uninformed, undecided, working class single dad named Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner), who apparently got his nickname from his favorite beverage. Add ravenous reporters, jabbering pundits, win-at-all-costs campaign directors, and a couple of presidential candidates willing to say anything to win, and you've got *Swing Vote*, a soft-boiled political satire about a guy who works in an egg factory holding the fate of the free world in his boozy hands.

Luckily, Bud's chief advisor is his daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) who, although she is only twelve, is a civic-minded young liberal who firmly believes in the sanctity of the vote. Which is how she almost commits voter fraud when Bud passes out drunk, which, one electronic voting machine malfunction later, is how the presidential election comes down to Bud's vote, or revote. Bud, being the soul of discretion, lets it slip that he's the every-vote-counts guy when an ambitious reporter (Paula Patton) corners him, which is how every news network ends up camped out in tiny Texico, NM, and how president Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) comes to park Air Force One there. His Democratic opponent Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) turns up too, both men trying strenuously to court Bud's vote. Problem is, Bud doesn't really have any opinions on the issues of the day, having tuned out and stopped caring years ago, and so the candidates wind up jumping through hoops of absurdity trying to win the vote of a guy who doesn't really know the difference between them. Ah, but there's the rub -- maybe the current political process grinds all the difference away.

Costner's Bud doesn't do much besides drink, although he does try not to disappoint his daughter Molly. He wears cutoff shirts and a grubby trucker's cap, and he'd rather go fishing than look for a job. Costner has played the laid back, middle aged shlub before, and he's good at it, and anything that keeps him from making a sequel to *The Postman* gets my vote. *Swing Vote* throws a little falling-down-drunk slapstick his way too. Carroll is terrific as Molly, playing the soul and conscience of the movie, and the brains of the Johnson outfit, and embodying the little d democratic ideal with a furrowed brow and the fierce conviction of a tween.

Director Joshua Michael Stern, who co-wrote *Swing Vote* with Jason Richman, sprinkles the movie with satirical faux political ads in which the Republican comes out in favor of gay marriage and the Democrat takes anti-abortion and anti-immigration stances. Their political advisors are played equally broadly by Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane. If the politicians are spineless, their advisors are without conscience or conviction. As often happens of late, the movie blurs the line between reality and entertainment (much like the news networks do) by featuring cameos by celebu-pundits and info-tainers: Ariana Huffington, Aaron Brown, Bill Maher, James Carville, Larry King, Tucker Carlson, and Chris Matthews all turn up. To remind everyone that Bud's a good ole boy, Richard Petty and Willie Nelson make appearances too. (Bud used to front a Willie Nelson cover band, which gives a hint at where his political sympathies, such as they are, really lie.)

*Swing Vote* is hardly subtle satire, and it takes swings at only the biggest, most obvious targets, but it's bipartisan about it, taking shots at both sides pretty much equally. This is not to say that the movie doesn't have an agenda -- it does, although it takes pains to not be too obvious about it, at the risk of being as spineless as a presidential candidate. *Swing Vote* is a Capraesque, populist political farce that's eager to please, and somewhat hesitant to offend, which takes the sting out of the satire, and leaves only a modestly funny comedy.