Bayside resident Mark Metcalf is an actor who has worked in movies, TV and on the stage. He is best known for his work in "Animal House," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Seinfeld."
In addition to his work on screen, Metcalf is involved with Milwaukee Film, First Stage Children's Theater and a number of other projects, including comicwonder.com. He recently filmed an episode of the popular AMC series "Mad Men."
He also finds time to write about movies for OnMilwaukee.com. This week, Metcalf weighs in on "Tropic Thunder" and the HBO series "Rome."
TROPIC THUNDER (2008)
I take back everything I ever said about Tom Cruise. I will probably take that back the next time I see a Tom Cruise movie, but after watching "Tropic Thunder," I have to admit that he is brilliant. At least when he is playing a blown out version of what everyone now suspects to be his real personality.
In "Tropic Thunder," Cruise plays a character that is bald and with a hairier body than the character he plays in "Magnolia," the great film by P.T. Anderson, but it is a character that bears the same relationship to the Tom Cruise image - super macho, powerful, abundantly confident, grotesquely arrogant, intensely focused, and maximally narcissistic.
In the context of both "Magnolia" and especially "Tropic Thunder," it is hilarious. In the latter, he plays Les Grossman, the head of the movie studio that is producing a big budget Vietnam war picture starring Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., and Jack Black, as three mega-star Hollywood actors. And he has hair everywhere on his body, curly, long, wiry, thick hair; a virtual blanket of hair everywhere. Except on his head and his knuckles. It is probably a characterization of some actual person in Hollywood, but I never met them.
Ben Stiller directed the movie and wrote a good deal of it, so you know going in that it is going to make fun of almost everyone and everything. This kind of satire works best in short form, as it did for so many years on "Saturday Night Live," so when you have a two-plus hour long feature to fill it is going to sag a bit here and there. And, it definitely does.
Jack Black gives a one-note performance as a drug-addicted star of comedy movies that depend on makeup and fart jokes, like the ones that Eddie Murphy makes sometimes. Stiller plays a Stallone-like action star whose franchise as "The Scorcher" appears to have run it's course after "The Scorcher - Six" and he seriously needs a new hit or he will be opening supermarkets for the rest of his career. He brings to it the kind of pathetic narcissism that was all throughout "Zoolander," and it didn't work for long there, either.
Of the three main characters, it is Robert Downey Jr. who gives the most complicated and interesting, as well as continually funny performance. Downey plays an Australian Russell Crowe-type, five-time Academy Award winning actor, who does so much research and preparation for his parts that he actually has his skin dyed black in order to play an African- American Sergeant for a film that takes place during the Vietnam War.
He never drops character, even when he confronts and accepts the fact that there is no there there as far as his own personality goes. Downey's performance isn't brilliant, but it is complete, well thought, original and very funny, especially when trying to "out-black" the one real black man lost in the jungles of Vietnam, Alpa Chino, played by Brandon T. Jackson.
The comedy throughout is about as subtle as that character's name -- Alpa Chino, or Al Pacino -- the name taken by a black rap artist, whose reputation as a gangster and lady's man surpasses his reputation as an artist, yet he turns out to be gay when the pressure is on and the real bullets fly, and the movie they are making is taken over by the movie we are watching.
But Cruise's performance outdoes them all. He is louder, brasher, more grotesque, brutal and filled to overflowing with testosterone, yet at the same time more within the realm of possibility than any of the others. When he is finally left alone by all his minions, he puts in the ear bugs of his I-Pod and dances through the credit sequence. It is a full four, maybe five minutes of masturbatory, groping self-worship while we watch the credits roll. It alone is worth the rental price.
Friends of mine have been telling me for a year that I should watch "Rome," the HBO series about the city on seven hills during Caesar's rise to power. So I did. I would rather watch "Titus," the Julie Taymor version of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. It has all the brutality and violence, the sexuality and period verisimilitude, but with better language and far better performances.
I don't know what one has to do with the other, but "Rome" brought the other to mind.
There is great attention to period detail at the same time that they make a big effort to make the characters feel as current, or contemporary as they can. In this case, it is confusing because characters like Pompeii will stand in a pose that resembles every mediocre film or high school version of Julius Caesar that we have ever seen - head turned slightly to the side, chin up, expression grim and serious, one hand holding the toga over the heart, sandaled feet apart, one slightly forward of the other - and declaim their woes. While others, usually more common folk like ordinary soldiers, will walk with a gait, speak with a rhythm, and mock their friends in a way that you might see today in the parking lot after a baseball game. Maybe that was the big class distinction in ancient Rome, but I kind of doubt it.
There is a good deal of the culture and the custom of Rome that is interesting in this miniseries, but I am suspicious that it is fabricated to make the show more appealing rather than actually researched and historically accurate. It stands to reason that women in ancient Rome served very little purpose except to breed and for sexual pleasure, unless they were uniquely conniving and willing to sacrifice anything, including their children, for the power that was denied them.
And again, it is the western liberal version of history that gives the common people, the lower classes, a better grip on what we think of as morality, more faith in a belief system, bigger hearts and true concern for other people, while the upper classes are indifferent to any morality that might jeopardize their personal gain, design their belief system to protect their wealth, and are cold and cynical, caught in the game of winning and conquering those around them.
All in all, it is fun to watch. It feels like a journey into another world. Stylistically, however, it is a bumpy bus ride to that world and after half of the first season I decided to get off the bus and walk, watch something else or just sniff the flowers.
Mark Metcalf is an actor and owner of Libby Montana restaurant in Mequon. Still active in Milwaukee theater, he's best known for his roles as Neidermeyer in "Animal House" and as The Maestro on "Seinfeld."
Originally from New Jersey, Metcalf now lives in Bayside.