Notes from the back row 

Hot under the collar comedy

Everyone loves a good war (except maybe America, which only seems to like its own wars — sorry Russia), and who doesn’t get butterflies over the prospect of a nice fat controversy? Luckily, Ben Stiller has a flick out this week that combines the two and takes a few potshots at Hollywood as well.

Tropic Thunder is an R-rated satirical action/comedy about a group of actors making a Vietnam war movie who get plopped into actual combat with drug lords in South East Asia — but think it is all part of the film they are shooting.

The controversy was supposed to come from Robert Downey Jr., who plays a self-obsessed Australian Oscar-winning method actor named Kirk Lazarus who thinks he’s so talented he can dye his skin and play the part of a black platoon sergeant. Initially, people were worried this constituted “Blackface’ comedy and would incite racial tension. In fact, it’s the best performance of the summer and director/writer/producer Stiller smartly includes a real black man, Brandon T Jackson playing a ridiculous hip hop star-turned-actor named Alpa Chino, to call Lazarus on his over-the-top clichéd blackness. It’s funny, smart, very well pulled off and, in the end, a non-issue.

The real controversy brewing out of Tropic Thunder revolves around the use of the word ‘retard’ and one speech in particular, where Lazarus explains to once-popular-action-star-trying-to-turn-dramatic-actor Tugg Speedman (Stiller) that it’s okay to play a “half-retard like Rain Man” if you want to win a statue, but that “no one goes full-retard.”

The Down Syndrome Group is pretty pissed off, as are the people at the Special Olympics who are calling for a boycott — which should make for some interesting protest signs if nothing else. Of course, this is all good press for the film and the studio has refused to change the film which is actually pretty funny.

With its star-studded cast (Jack Black stars as a comedian/junkie who specializes in fat suits and fart jokes, Canadian Jay Baruchel ( Knocked Up) and cameos for small roles from Nick Nolte, Matthew McConaughey, Bill Hader, and even Tom Cruise), Tropic Thunder is a mix of comedic highs and narrative lulls, but like Stiller’s previous Zoolander — which poked at models and the fashion industry the way this hits Hollywood — Thunder will get funnier the more times you watch it.

Sticking with the war theme, the new Star Wars flick opens Friday, but before you start foaming at the mouth be warned — Star Wars: The Clone Wars is a computer animated feature, mostly just a non-stop parade of action scenes draped on thin and inconsequential plotting and characterization, perfect for kids or serious video gamers. While the animation is pretty slick and dynamic, perhaps the most interesting part of the film is that the wooden faced cartoon characters can act as well or better than their human counterparts in the over-hyped prequel trilogy. This would be good Saturday morning fare and indeed a new Star Wars series is slated to hit TV in October.

Also opening this Friday is Mirrors, another remake of a Japanese Horror flick starring Kiefer Sutherland as a down-and-out cop turned security guard who’s family/home/life is invaded by spirits through mirrors, shiny doorknobs or anything reflective. Not much pre-release info available on this one but it co-stars the always awesome Amy Smart ( The Butterfly Effect) and is directed by French master of atmosphere Alexandre Aja ( High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes ) so expect lots of creepy lighting, a hair-raising soundtrack and visceral, visual gore. No war, no controversy, just solid, pant-shitting horror. That’s good enough for me.

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