Archive for May, 2008

Harvey Korman (1927-2008)

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

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“You will be risking your lives, whilst I will be risking an almost-certain Academy Award nomination for the Best Supporting Actor. “

—Harvey Korman as Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

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19 years. 19 years of rumors, false starts, anxious fan boy postings, rejected drafts and countless other detours and delays. After all of this, we finally have a new Indiana Jones movie, and the results are, the most part, pretty good. If the first three Indiana Jones films were epic adventures, than this latest edition is a fun romp. Now, as cinematic escapism, this baby hits the spot, but it lacks the breadth and scope of the others. Nothing feels at stake, whereas the other films had the fate of the world at the balance, this seems like just another day at the office.

Again, I say these more as observations than as criticisms (ok, maybe a little as criticisms). It must be said, though, that I am still shocked that Harrison Ford is 65 years old, he doesn’t look a day over 49. And, just like in the other ones, he did most of his own stunts. (It should also be noted that when Sean Connery played Indy’s dad in 1989, he was 58 years old). The film takes place 19 years after the events of the Last Crusade, which is, hey, the same amount of time between the last film and this one. So, the year is 1957 and, man, the world has changed. The Nazis, as villains for the film, have been replaced by the cold and calculating Russians.

One element of the film are really liked was the idea that Indiana Jones was sort of this heroic old fart, a dinosaur who didn’t really fit in or comprehend the modern times. Indiana sees things in black and white, right and wrong terms, while the world of the late 50s, the world of the Cold War, is more shifty, shadowy, with people playing sides and shifting alliances. The first 30 minutes, which really play up several elements of the fifties (Elvis, Roswell, the Cold War, Eisenhower, the Atomic Bomb) probably work the best, and include several great action sequences, especially a fight scene deep in the bowels of a shuttle launch silo, where Ford and actor Igor Jijikine get into a rumble (if series regular Pat Roach, who played a different villain in each of the first three movies, was still alive, I’m sure he would’ve played Jijikine’s role, that of the massive, heartless Dochenko).

The film does indeed feel like a family reunion, and not just because of Ford, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and John Williams. Karen Allen also returns, as the beautiful, feisty Marion Ravenwood, and Allen is like a breath of fresh air (she is one of the countless film actresses who simply does not get enough work). Cate Blanchett can add “Indiana Jones Villain” to her acting resume, alongside Katherine Hepburn, Queen Elizabeth and Bob Dylan, and it’s obvious she’s having a blast here. Shia LaBeouf plays the sidekick, and he’s fine with the limitations that the script has given his character. Ray Winstone steals scenes as Indy’s fellow adventurer Mac. John Hurt gets to play another kooky genius, the kind of role he could play in his sleep but thankfully doesn’t. Jim Broadbent shows up also, in a kind of Marcus Brody replacement role.

Of course, Harrison Ford is the glue that holds this film together, a job he does quite well. The film is lighter, looser, less important than the others, but it’s still Indiana Jones, so therefore, it’s worth a look.

Sydney Pollack (1934-2008)

Monday, May 26th, 2008

Sydney Pollack, the Academy Award winning filmmaker, has died. He was 73. Pollack won the Oscar for Best Director for Out of Africa (which also won the Best Picture Oscar), and also directed several other iconic films, including Tootsie, Jeremiah Johnson and Three Days of the Condor. (I think we can forgive him for The Firm.)

Pollack was also a pretty good actor, who could forget him in such films as Michael Clayton, Eyes Wide Shut, A Civil Action and the aforementioned Tootsie.

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Iron Man

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

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In an age where superhero movies are churned out as mindless, empty commercials designed to sell burgers and toys, it’s refreshing every once in a while to see a superhero film that actually seems to capture the spirit of the comic in question. One of my main gripes with the awful Spider-Man 3 was that the filmmakers didn’t care too much for Spidey, there wasn’t a real love for the character or material. Say what you want about Iron Man or its director, Jon Favereau, but one criticism you can’t make is that he doesn’t love Iron Man. This film has a real understanding for both Iron Man and his alter-ego, Tony Stark.It doesn’t hurt that Favereau has cast Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, in a performance that pretty much makes the movie. Downey has always been a terrific actor, but he has especially blossomed in the last couple of years, you must remember of course he’s phenomenal work in last year’s Zodiac (a performance that I think should have clinched him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor). Watching the film, I felt that casting Downey was a no-brainer (I can’t imagine anyone else in the role), but kudos to the filmmakers for making the right choice. It doesn’t hurt that the supporting cast includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges and Terrence Howard.The film is works not only as a superhero film, but also as an origin story, a comedy, a character-study and a corporate thriller. It also posits some pretty heady ethic questions, especially for a big-budget summer blockbuster. Tony Stark is a weapons manufacturer, and has made his fortune on the pain and misery of others, like his father before him. The film sends Stark on a quest for redemption, and talks about responsibility and the consequences of your actions in ways most superhero films don’t. Well, the original Hulk did, and you remember how well that went over (so well that the remake/sequel comes out in a few weeks and most people are pretending that the 2003 version didn’t exist).Downey’s work here is superb, of course, and really anchors the film, but he has some help from his friends. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Downey’s right-hand woman Pepper Potts, and her and Downey create real sparks in their scenes together. Terrence Howard plays Col. James Rhodes, Stark’s buddy/foil/future superhero colleague (there is one War Machine reference, to placate all us comic nerds out there). Jeff Bridges plays the wonderfully named Obadiah Stane, and gives a scenery-chewing performance. It’s a special treat to see him completely bald with a giant beard. I also liked Shaun Taub’s performance as Yinsen, the prisoner who helps Stark escape from certain doom in Afghanistan.Iron is a well-made, well-acted superhero film that’s funny and intelligent (for a superhero movie), with a perfect Downey in the lead. I’m already looking forward to the inevitable sequel. FANBOY ALERT: there’s a surprise waiting for the patient after the final credits, so stay seated.

Baby Mama

Monday, May 5th, 2008

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Sometimes the credits to a film can offer a clue to if the film will be good before you see it. I’ll give you an example; one of the stars of the new film Baby Mama is Tina Fey, who, in addition to being very funny, is a gifted writer. She’s the writer/creator/star of the brilliant “30 Rock,” and she also wrote the screenplay to Mean Girls, which was actually pretty good. Anyway, she’s good at writing comedy… and her name is nowhere near the writing credits for this film. In addition, take in account that this film was written and directed by Michael McCullers, the man who wrote Thunderbirds, Undercover Brother (ok, I liked that one) and co-wrote the Austin Powers sequels, and this film begins to smell a bit like a hack job.

Ok, I’m not saying that if you’ve ever written a screenplay and you’re an actor, then every film you ever work on you have to write the script; no, that would be silly. What I am saying is if you’re an actor/writer and you’re working on a film with a shitty screenplay, maybe you can help everybody out a bit. You know you’re in trouble when you have a knockout comic cast that includes Fey, Amy Poehler, Steve Martin, Greg Kinnear, Romany Malco and Sigourney Weaver, and it still takes a lot of coaxing to walk in the theater.

There’s no nice way of saying it: this film is as dull as ditch water. Tina Fey plays a business woman who really wants to have a baby, and decides that the best way is to get a surrogate, played by Amy Poehler. Poehler plays a con-artist/white-trash type who, as all white trash types in these bad movies must be, is married to Dax Shepard. The inclusion of Dax Shepard in the cast probably taints the film from the start. Anyway, Poehler and Fey become roommates and unlikely friends (ooh, did I give anything away?), until the legitimacy of Poehler comes into question, and threatens to ruin everything.

I guess. I don’t know, I wasn’t invested emotionally in the characters, but I also didn’t laugh much. Bright comic highlights include Maura Tierney’s all-too brief turn as Fey’s sister and Sigourney Weaver as the owner of the surrogate agency. Tierney and especially Weaver seem to be appearing in many films lately that are well below the kind of work they should be getting, and if Weaver doesn’t start turning down some roles pretty soon, she’ll be crawling dangerously close to Christopher Walken territory (that guy accepts every role that comes his way, he did Kangaroo Jack, for God’s sake).

Steve Martin has a few funny lines, but nothing to write home about. It’s interesting that you cast two lead actresses as naturally funny as Fey and Poehler, and then give them boring, bland roles with no real meat to them. I guess even funny people need a pay check sometime. Baby Mama is the kind of comedy made for people that choose what films they’re going to see based on the weekend box office returns. You know who you are. Shame on you.