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Tropic Thunder & Bigger, Stronger, Faster*; plus, Sisterhood 2, American Teen & more

The opening salvo of Tropic Thunder (***1/2 out of four) reps perhaps the funniest 10 minutes I've encountered in a movie theater this year -- that's good news in that it kicks the picture off on a high note and bad news in that it instantly raises concerns that the remaining 95 minutes won't come close to touching this raucous beginning. But the best news is that the movie manages to keep the laughs hurtling forward for its entire running time, no small feat in an era in which many comedies lose steam by the final reel (even the likable Pineapple Express dries up with plenty of time left on the scoreboard).

Ben Stiller, whose fingers are all over this picture (star, director, co-writer, co-producer), does himself proud by successfully orchestrating the diverse elements that make up this ambitious film, from a roster of A-list actors (some in supporting roles) to a decidedly non-PC screenplay that touches upon clashing acting methods, venal movie moguls, and the correct way to portray a mentally challenged character (tip: don't go "full retard" if you want a shot at the Oscar). But despite many potshots at Hollywood, this isn't an insider piece like Robert Altman's brilliant Tinseltown dissection, The Player -- after all, when your cast includes Jack Black, there's sure to be some lowbrow humor lurking somewhere.

Stiller stars as Tugg Speedman, a macho action star whose one attempt at an awards-bait title, the resounding flop Simple Jack, has largely derailed his career. Black plays Jeff Portnoy, a comedian known for vulgar blockbusters (up next: The Fatties, Fart 2). And Robert Downey, Jr. essays the role of Kirk Lazarus, a five-time Academy Award-winning actor celebrated for his Method approach to acting. All three, plus rap star Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and screen newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel, best known -- depending on one's age and cinematic preferences -- as the simple-minded boxer Danger in Million Dollar Baby and as a member of Seth Rogen's posse in Knocked Up), are in Vietnam shooting the war movie to end all war movies.

But on-set mishaps and temperamental actors immediately put the film behind schedule, and the grizzled technical advisor (Nick Nolte) suggests to the director (Steve Coogan) that the pampered stars should be taken to a rough spot of the jungle where, away from the rest of the cast and crew, they'll buckle up and get the movie made. Unfortunately for the thespians, they find themselves the targets of vicious, heavily armed locals who don't take kindly to what they mistakenly believe to be DEA agents searching for their heroin factory.

Rude and crude, Tropic Thunder displays minimal mercy toward its targets, yet even its gross-out gags (watch out for those false teeth!) display a manic ingenuity far removed from the one-note crudeness found in your typical Will Ferrell vehicle. Stiller is funnier here than he's been in some time, and he's especially blessed to have surrounded himself with such a knockout cast. Black has some riotous moments as a drug fiend struggling with his dependency (another seemingly taboo subject that becomes comic fodder), while Matthew McConaughey, freed from inane rom-coms opposite Kate Hudson, is appealing as Speedman's lively agent (perhaps like fellow "guy's guy" Vince Vaughn, McConaughey is more comfortable working with members of the same sex). The cast even includes Tom Cruise, who's clearly having fun as a bald, bad-tempered studio boss with no morals whatsoever (it's like re-watching Cruise's Magnolia character, only this time outfitted with a laugh track).

Yet the acting honors easily go to Downey. His Kirk Lazarus is so dedicated to his craft that he undergoes surgery to have his skin darkened so he can play an African-African character in the Vietnam War opus. Being a Method actor means that he talks "black" even when the cameras aren't rolling, an affectation that really annoys Chino, the cast's authentic African-American. Downey is an absolute riot in this role, and between this and Iron Man, I'd say he's having a helluva summer.

CHRISTOPHER BELL AND HIS two brothers, older sibling Mike ("Mad Dog") and younger bro Mark ("Smelly"), were pudgy children, but luckily for them, they grew up in the 1980s, when prominent role models included Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Hulk Hogan. Inspired by these larger-than-life heroes, all three Bell kids eventually started hitting the gym and grew up to become ripped musclemen themselves. So imagine Christopher's shock when he later learned that his childhood heroes confessed to achieving their freakish sizes via performance enhancing drugs, primarily steroids.

Christopher briefly tried steroids, but he felt so ashamed that he quickly turned his back on them. The same, however, couldn't be said for his brothers, who've spent most of their adult lives on the drug in the hopes of emerging as the biggest and the best in their respective sports (pro wrestling for Mad Dog, power lifting for Smelly). With a personal investment in the subject matter, Christopher elected to make Bigger, Stronger, Faster*: *The Side Effects of Being American (***1/2), which, like many of the best documentaries, doesn't take us exactly where we expect to go.

At first, the movie looks as if it will evoke the 1980s in another manner besides Hulkmania and Rocky IV and Conan the Barbarian, by bringing up the spirit of crusty Nancy Reagan as she warned us all to "Just Say No" to drugs. Bell's own queasiness regarding steroids informs the approach he takes in interviewing not only his brothers but other musclemen who use the drug to keep false hopes of stardom alive (one pathetic guy in his 50s or 60s, living out of a van permanently located in the gym parking lot, still believes that he might get "discovered").

But as the movie progresses, it also deepens. Are steroids really as bad as the typically hysterical American media makes them out to be? Some interviewees contend that it's basically an update of the mind-set behind Reefer Madness, the legendary (and legendarily awful) film which asserted that a single puff from a marijuana joint could lead to murder and madness; to illustrate this comparison, we see Ben Affleck freaking out as a 'roids-obsessed athlete in a clip from the 1994 HBO series Lifestories: Families In Crisis. One AIDS patient who's been using steroids for years attests to its medicinal value in slowing down the deadly disease's progress. Meanwhile, politicians involved in the film's issues fill their expected roles: The Republican (Orrin Hatch) is corrupt, the Democrat (Henry Waxman) is utterly clueless.

It all makes for a fascinating point-counterpoint debate, but hold on, there's more. Bell then starts to notice the overwhelming hypocrisy surrounding the drug. If steroids are banned from sports because they enhance performance, then why was it OK for Tiger Woods to "enhance" his golf game with LASIK surgery that gave him even better vision than 20/20? Why was Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson disgraced after winning the gold in the 1988 Olympics because of "doping," while the illegal drug use of American runner Carl Lewis (who was then awarded Johnson's stripped medal) was OKed behind closed doors? And how dare people like Schwarzenegger (as chairman of the elder Bush's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, no less) lecture children on clean living while his own ascension to both the box office and political office was a direct result of shooting up even while he was a teen?

The hypocrisy in pro sports has always felt knee-deep. After watching this fascinating and insightful documentary, it now feels as if it's risen past the neck.

AMERICAN TEEN (***) WAS ONE of the breakout hits at this year's Sundance Film Festival -- it snagged an award for director Nanette Burstein -- but perhaps the best way to enjoy this documentary is to pretend it's a fictional motion picture, no different than Pineapple Express or Sex and the City or even WALL-E. Otherwise, you might start second-guessing every aspect of the movie, a path that can only lead to viewer dissatisfaction.

Fortunately, I found American Teen absorbing enough as it unfolded that I was able to keep most questions refrigerated until after the movie was over. Filmed over the course of one year at the high school in Warsaw, Indiana, it borrows the template from The Breakfast Club and applies it to real-life seniors. There's the Jock: Colin Clemens, a lanky comedian who's pressured by his dad into securing a basketball scholarship. There's the Popular Girl: Megan Krizmanich, a rich bitch whose cruelty seemingly knows no bounds. There's the Geek: Jake Tusing, a shy kid with a bad haircut, crippling acne, and a tendency to put himself down. Finally, there's the Artsy Girl: Hannah Bailey, a sensitive type who wants to escape from her conservative, Christian hometown as quickly as possible. (If anyone's wondering what happened to Judd Nelson's Rebel, he's been transformed -- sort of -- into the Heartthrob: Mitch Reinholt, an athlete who appears only sporadically throughout the picture.)

As much as we'd like to accept that everything in American Teen is unscripted and unforced, there's simply too much slickness (and far too many coincidences) to believe that Burstein wasn't off on the sidelines pushing and prodding her teen stars this way and that. All documentaries exercise some point of view, of course, but this picture has everything fall too easily into place, instantly triggering suspicions that, in fairness to Burstein, might not be warranted but which are still hard to shake.

Yet regardless to what extent the teens are "acting" for the sake of the cameras, it's still apparent that we're privy to their basic make-ups, and this in turn immediately invests us emotionally in their lives. And what's easy to ascertain is that not only are these kids' existences influenced (mostly for the negative) by their parents, but that, if they're not careful, they'll probably turn up just like their folks, boorish Red State denizens afraid of the world that exists outside their borders (one student's mom worries about her child heading to California the way the rest of us might worry about a son or daughter heading to Iraq).

Not subscribing to this general sense of myopia is, of course, Hannah, and she emerges as the movie's heart and soul. At the screening I attended, when the closing-credits coda revealed what happened to all the major characters, it came as no surprise that Hannah received the most applause from audience members. As a movie character, she's a keeper; if she didn't really exist, Diablo Cody would probably have to create her.

THE 2005 SCREEN VERSION of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants was based on the first novel in Ann Brashares' best-selling series, but the word is that The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 (***) combines the events from the remaining three books in the franchise. One reason is probably because the studio felt that audience interest wouldn't extend past a second installment (after all, this isn't Spider-Man or Shrek or, uh, Hostel). Another might be that the four stars of the first film have kept busy with other projects and may not particularly wish to keep returning to the same well. And the third reason is that who wants to eventually see 30-something actresses still playing college-age kids? (It brings to mind the third and final film in the Porky's series, wherein high school boys were suddenly having to contend with receding hairlines.)

Yet at least by ending it at number two, the filmmakers have insured that this series won't be subject to the laws of most franchises and grow shoddier as it creaks along. A solid follow-up to the solid original, Sisterhood 2 might feel a bit more scattershot than its predecessor, but its engaging characters, entertaining situations and emotional reach should help it find approval with those who grooved to the rhythms of the first picture.

Set three years later, it finds the best-laid summer plans of the four friends -- brainy Carmen (America Ferrera), introspective Bridget (Blake Lively), rebellious Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) and shy Lena (Alexis Bledel) -- blown to smithereens as each ends up doing her own thing rather than hanging out as a group. Thus, Carmen heads to Vermont to work in theater (check out a funny Kyle MacLachlan as the pompous director), Bridget travels to Turkey for an archaeological dig before heading to her grandmother's house in the South to solve some family mysteries, Tibby remains in New York to work on her film and worry about possibly being pregnant, and Lena, heartbroken after being dumped by her Greek lover, finds new romance at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Problems are worked out in an orderly manner, tears are shed in sincere fashion, and everyone is eventually reunited in sunny Greece, with nary a single ABBA-mangling peasant in sight.

THERE WON'T BE A MORE ABSTRACT and experimental movie released in Charlotte this summer -- perhaps this year -- than Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg (***), yet for all its whimsical flourishes and avant-garde innovations, its biggest source of delight is decidedly a flesh-and-blood one. That would be the presence of 87-year-old Ann Savage, appearing on screen for the first time in 22 years. Film buffs will remember Savage as the slinky femme fatale in the 1945 film noir classic Detour, and here she plays the other type of femme fatale: mommy dearest.

The third picture in what Maddin refers to as "the 'me' trilogy" -- it's preceded by 2003's Cowards Bend the Knee and 2006's Brand Upon the Brain! (the latter released on DVD this past Tuesday by Criterion) -- My Winnipeg finds a character named Guy Maddin (played by Darcy Fehr, though the film's ongoing narration is spoken by the real Maddin himself) trying desperately to escape from his hometown on a train that never seems to make any real tracks. As he sits there, he reflects back on what the city means to him, even as the oversized face of his mom (Savage) peers through the boxcar window, not unlike the manner in which the looming visage of King Kong peeks through that New York skyscraper window at a terrified Fay Wray.

To understand his childhood, Maddin (the character) goes so far as to hire actors to portray not only Mother but also his siblings (since Dad was already dead at this point, he's represented by a body shoved under the living room carpet). Through both these scenes and ones involving the history of this city, Maddin creates a rich tapestry weaving together fact and fiction: Though his somber narration sounds like everything he says is true, it's obvious that he's having great fun not only with experimental shooting techniques but with taking a tongue-in-cheek approach to the fluidity of memory and the fallacy of historical accuracy. (One of the best bits involves the TV series Ledge Man, in which every episode over the course of its 50-year run finds a mom, played by Savage, successfully talking her son out of committing suicide, only to be back in the same spot for the next day's episode.)

Anyone who saw 2002's mesmerizing Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary -- to my knowledge the only previous Maddin film to play the Queen City, and that's only because the Charlotte Film Society was gracious enough to book it -- might recall how the filmmaker particularly enjoys utilizing silent cinema techniques and black-and-white film stock. My Winnipeg goes even further, resulting in a wistful, melancholic movie that might be draggy in spots but never relinquishes its idiosyncratic grip.

TO LAY IT OUT IN TERMS that both an oenophile and a cineast would understand, if Sideways is the cinematic equivalent of an unopened bottle of the 1945 Mouton-Rothschild, then Bottle Shock (*1/2) figures to be akin to a plastic cup filled with 2007 Boone's Farm Country Kwencher.

The movie's catchy, based-on-fact premise contends that, in 1976, a wine tasting event between France (considered the world's best producer of vin) and California (whose wineries weren't on anyone's radar) helped put The Golden State's Napa Valley on the international map. The vintner who organizes the event is Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a Brit living in Paris, and as long as Bottle Shock focuses on his exploits as he travels to California to sample the wines, the movie's in good hands: Watching Rickman's quizzical expression as his snobbish character bites into a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken is probably the picture's high point.

But whereas Sideways sharply insisted on retaining the wine culture itself as a central player -- that film made it clear that wine wasn't just a beverage but a life-force for its characters -- this drowsy undertaking devotes far too much time to the family tensions between vineyard proprietor Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) and his slacker son Bo (Chris Pine), and even more to a tepid love triangle between Bo, hottie intern Sam (Rachael Taylor) and Bo's best friend Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez, who disappears from the film just as his character's emerging as the most memorable of the younger set). Nothing any of these people say is particularly interesting, leaving audiences wishing that they -- and the movie -- would just put a cork in it.

To see trailers from select reviewed films, go to www.qccltv.com. And check out the CLog (www.theclogblog.com) on Friday for opening-day reviews of Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

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