Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sydney Pollack (1934-2008)

Sydney Pollack was easily one of the most important people in Hollywood in his day. When you see the amount of great films that he had his fingerprints on, it is mind-boggling. Let's begin with his work as a filmmaker: in 1969, he directed the Academy Award nominated film They Shoot Horses, Don't They?. The film was applauded for it's wonderful cast (Gig Young won Best Supporting Actor), but it's demonstration of Depression Era desperation and self-deprecation makes it one of the single most haunting films of it's era.

In the 70's, Pollack directed both the dreary western Jeramiah Johnson, and the romance classic The Way We Were. Both films starred Robert Redford, whom Pollack would cast once again in 1975's Three Days At The Condor, a political thriller. In 1981, Pollack helmed another romantic film with Absence of Malice starring Paul Newman (in an Oscar-nominated performance) against Sally Field.

In 1982, Pollack directed what was probably his most popular film, Tootsie. Starring Dustin Hoffman as an actor who pretends to be a woman in order to get work, the film also marked another landmark in Pollack's career: it was the first film in which he appeared as an actor in close to twenty years (starring as Hoffman's agent). The film itself was a huge hit both critically and financially, and picked up ten Oscar nominations, and won one of them for Jessica Lange's Supporting Actress performance. To this day, Tootsie is still considered one of the greatest comedies in movie history.

In 1985, Pollack than directed Out of Africa, starring Meryl Streep and Pollack main-stay Robert Redford. The film won Pollack his first and only Academy Award for Best Director. The film also won six other Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. The film cemented Pollack's status as a Hollywood hard-hitter, but his films afterward would not be as memorable. Pollack, though, would put his stamp on film in other ways, as an actor and a producer.

After Tootsie, Pollack became an accomplished actor, with memorable performances in such films as Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives and Robert Altman's The Player. Later, he would become the go-to actor for playing characters of supreme authority. He would show this within his performances in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut and Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton. As a producer, Pollack worked on other memorable films such as Sense and Sensibility, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain, and the before mentioned Michael Clayton (for which he was nominated for his sixth and final Academy Award).

It's hard to say in which role Pollack had more of an impact on Hollywood. He has directed some legendary pictures, he has had some great performances, and his influence has allowed many smaller pictures get up off the ground. It's safe to say that his mere presence had the biggest impact. There are few people on this planet who command the respect of such men as George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Redford. Pollack was one of those men. He was a living legend, even if nobody knew it, and Hollywood will be a much different place without him.

"With the responsibility of making motion pictures, comes the responsibility of making them good."
-Sydney Pollock

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (**1/2)

Directed by Steven Spielberg


Twenty-seven years after Prof. Henry Jones Jr. first gripped the whip in the all-time classic Raiders of the Lost Arc, Harrison Ford--at 65 years young--is back at it again, as the Ford, Spielberg, and fellow Indy pioneer George Lucas combine for this newest adventure. This film could have easily been weathered and overblown. Instead, Spielberg constructs this third sequel with such amazing energy, all while giving that sarcastic wink to classic Hollywood, as to make us feel like Indy has never left.

This newest installment in the franchise has Indy is swept up into a plot by a bunch of communists to uncover ancient artifacts. When Indy's partner Mac (a quite bloated Ray Winstone), betrays him and turns him over to the communists and their Freuline leader Irina Spalko (an oddly accented Cate Blanchett), Jones goes to great depths to find the whereabouts of the mythic "crystal skull". Of coarse, Jones is able to escape their grasp in classic Indy fashion, but his involvement with the traitor Mac has American agents looking at him and seeing Red.

It isn't until Jones comes into contact with Mutt Williams (Shia Lebouf in pure greaser fashion), that he becomes embroidered, once again, in the hunt for the crystal skull. Mutt, a coarse, confrontational young man, needs to find it in order to save his mother from being killed by the Spalko-lead commies. His mother turns out to be none other than Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Indy's constant on-again, off-again romance.

The film, not unlike any of the other films of the series, requires quite a bit of the suspension of disbelief. More than any of the previous films, this film does require many more "It's just a movie" shrugs, but Spielberg's tip-of-the-hat to old school Hollywood filmaking has such majestic, captivating sequences that it doesn't seem to matter that the story short-changes you on more than ten occasions (did we have a problem with any of those moments in the previous Indy films?).

Ford sports the hat just as well as he ever did in his forth stint as Jones. Indiana Jones is easily the best character of Ford's career, because it fits him better than those brown pants and beige shirt, and after all of these years, he hasn't lost a beat. Ford's legendary status has benefited from characters that are charming, sarcastic, and filled with such honorable sincerity, that he has still been able to prosper for decades. No part that Ford has played embodies that better than Indiana Jones.

Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, and John Hurt (as a deranged 'Ox' Oxley) are all legible and seem that there having fun in a very fun movie, but no other actor takes stage better than Lebouf. Shia Lebouf, many years away from his time on the hysterical Disney show "Even Stevens", has a coming-of-age performance in this film. Starring against Harrison Ford is difficult, but starring against Ford as Jones usually leaves his co-stars bidding for attention with annoying actions (Karen Allen, anyone?), but Lebouf takes the stage and delivers the performance with real greaser brawn and attitude.

In the end, there is no greatness within this movie. Between Indy surviving a nuclear blast by hiding in a refrigerator and wild inconsistencies with a magnetic skull, there are points of the film that border on rediculous, but I'd be lying if I said that this wasn't one of the more exhilarating movie experiences I've had so far this year. If nothing else, Steven Spielberg continues to show why he is easily the most talented filmmaker of his generation, and Harrison Ford cements Indy as one of the most seminal characters in cinema. What's so wrong about that?

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Summer Movie Guide

With the release of Iron Man, we have the beginning of Summer. Well, it's only the beginning of May, but as far as all of the movie studios are concerned, we're most definitely in the middle of Summer. That means popcorn films coming out the ying-yang, while studio execs sit crossing their fingers hoping their films fill the most seats. If early estimates are any indication, Iron Man has already delivered on it's cash cow promises, but lets take a look at other releases looking to make a splash in the box office this summer break.

May 9

Everyone can agree that the Wachowski brothers dropped the ball when they put together the highly uneven sequels to The Matrix, but if the trailers are any indication, their interpretation of Speed Racer looks to be another mind-bending experience of action and fantasy. The colors seem seizure-inducing, but with a cast that includes Lost's Matthew Fox, Christina Ricci, as well as Emile Hirsch in the title role, the star power can't be denied. Hopefully the Wachowski can make up for their past blunders.

May 22

Harrison Ford is pushing 66, but you would never guess it watching him swinging inside warehouses using Indy's nifty whip. Karen Allen reprises her role as Marion Ravenwood, but the newcomers in this third sequel to the classic Raiders of the Lost Arc, are Cate Blanchett as foreign femme fatale named Irina Spalko, and Shia Lebouf as Indy's new whipper-snapper protege named Mutt Williams. With Spielberg back behind the camera, the film is sure to be entertaining, and sure to be a hit. It doesn't seem to matter much the plot of this film, but the idea of Ford back in his ass-kicking ways is enough to make audiences salivate.

June 6

A wise movie man once told me that Adam Sandler is easily the most bankable movie star in Hollywood. More than Will Smith or George Clooney? Yes. His films are simple, don't cost much to make, and usually guaranteed to make over $150 million. Sandler has sampled in serious work like Punch-Drunk Love and Reign Over Me, but films like Zohan--where Sandler plays an Israeli counter-terrorist who decides to move to the US to become a hair stylist--is his bread and butter. Hopefully this film is more in the range of Billy Madison and The Wedding Singer, and less like Click or I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.

June 13

I, like most, feel puzzled by this superhero do-over. I never saw Hulk, which was a colossal flop from what I heard, but is making what is basically a slightly edgier version going to be much better? Well, casting Edward Norton as Bruce Banner is certainly taking the material in a different direction. We all know Norton is a brilliant actor, but when are we ever going to see him be brilliant again? Is The Incredible Hulk our oppurtunity, or is this just Norton phoning it in for a Hollywood picture like he did in the horrid Italian Job?

June 13

M. Night Shyamalan freaked everybody out with The Sixth Sense, and since then everybody has been complaining about how he hasn't scared us since. To be fair, Unbreakable is a terrific film, I thought, about what it truly means to be a superhero; Signs is filled with suspenseful moments that are ruined by an anticlimactic and nonsensical ending; and The Village did have some moments of cinematic beauty. It's just that none of those films were very... scary. As usual, Shyamalan has a dynamite cast with Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, and John Leguizamo, but can he make anything with it? I'll be in line to see.

June 20

Ever since The 40-Year-Old Virgin, I've had a pretty big man-crush on Steve Carrell, which made Evan Almighty that much more painful, and Dan In Real Life that much more lovely. I don't know enough about the original television show to know if Carrell will be able to do justice to Maxwell Smart, but I'm sure his attempts will be hilarious. Co-starring Anne Hathaway as his sexy cohort Agent 99, Dwayne Johnson as the bumbling Agent 23, and Alan Arkin as the Chief, it's primed with a great cast. I have a soft spot for all of those actors (particularly Johnson, who I watched when he was the WWF wrestling star, 'The Rock'), and I hope the vehicle lives up to the names.

June 27

No summer, the last few years, is without that one dominant Pixar film that charms the souls of the children, and melts the hearts of adults. WALL-E is meant to be just that, the 2008 version. I'm sure everyone has seen the adorable teaser trailer, and Wall-E the robot seems primed to become the most adorable robot in movie history (easily supplanting Johnny 5 from Short Circuit and R2-D2). The plot seems to deal with Wall-E's contact with alien visitors, and the film is rumored to contain little to no dialogue. That's a gutsy move that only a studio like Pixar could take, since their films are practically guaranteed to fill the seats.

June 27

Looking to face off with WALL-E that weekend is Wanted, an action picture which looks to combine to proven movie stars with one rising star. Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman play members of an underground group of assassins who decide to draft a Johnny Nobody played by Scottish star James McAvoy to become part of their group. The idea of seeing McAvoy in a major star vehicle is enticing, since he's an actor that many should have been paying attention to for quite a while already, but perhaps even more exciting is watching Angelina Jolie bounce back from her brilliant turn in A Mighty Heart, and go back into super-sexy spy mode. There's too much to like with this one.

July 2

Now, I remember what I said earlier about Sandler, but no other actor has audiences coming out in droves the way Will Smith does. His charm, his dashing looks, and his proven acting ability make him likable to pretty much any demographic. In Hancock, Smith plays a lackadaisical superhero who has taken a serious PR hit because of his raucous, crass behavior. Jason Bateman plays a PR professional who feels he knows how to help his client get back into favor with the public. The plot is no less preposterous then most Smith blockbusters, but one thing's for sure, people will see it.

July 18

Much like The Incredible Hulk, director Christopher Nolan's Batman pictures are meant to make you forget the original pictures--which devolved into Jerry Bruckheimer exploitation films--and let the story start over (but at least Nolan waited a few more years). This is Nolan's sequel to his much praised Batman Begins. The film alone would be enough to stir up a hit, but with the unexpected death of the great Heath Ledger, many will flock to the theaters to see his last full performance as The Joker, which early indicators say is brilliant. The film brings back Christian Bale as the caped crusader, and adds Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

August 8

The way Starbucks has cornered the market on coffee, equals the way Judd Apatow has been able to dominate the comedy world for the last couple of years. Apatow's Forgetting Sarah Marshall is easily the funniest movie of 2008 so far, but Pineapple Express, which is about an everyman played by Seth Rogan and his drug dealer played by James Franco, who must hit the road after they witness a police officer murder someone, may be even better. It has already been dubbed by some as "Superbad--the college years", and is commandeered by the proven visionary David Gordon Green (director of George Washington).

August 15

Ben Stiller has seemed to go under the radar as a pretty competent filmmaker, directing the impressive Reality Bites, the underrated dark comedy The Cable Guy, and the brainless guilty pleasure Zoolander. Stiller steps behind the camera again with Tropic Thunder, a film about a group of inane actors who cannot sufficiently portray soldiers in a war film, and are forced into character when they are thrown into real war conditions. The group of actors are played by Stiller, Jack Black, and the rejuvenated Robert Downey Jr. as a method actor who has severe plastic surgery to make him look like a black man for the war film.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Iron Man (***)

Directed by Jon Favreau


The new Hollywood blockbuster Iron Man is many things. For one, it is the official beginning of the summer movie season, where millions of theaters will be filled with seat-clinching action pictures that would make Michael Bay drool. Also, this film marks the official resurrection of Robert Downey Jr.'s career, with this film being a companion piece to his other summer blockbuster Tropic Thunder, which is coming out in August. Overall, though, the film is a successful hero picture, that succeeds in not taking itself so seriously, and relishing in it's own escapism.

The film is another in an endless line of comic book films, this one concerning a boozing, womanizing weapons manufacturer named Tony Stark (Downey Jr.). He's a mechanical genius, who makes the world's greatest and most powerful weapons. Son of Howard Stark--one of the contributors to the Manhattan project--Tony takes over the manufacturing business, and with the help of his father's close associate Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), successfully sells his weapons for millions upon millions of dollars to anyone around the world who can afford them.

Things go sour for Stark, though, when he is captured and nearly killed by a group of middle eastern terrorists who want him to build a powerful weapon. Instead, Stark decides to build a super-technological suit to help him escape. The plan works, and Stark is able to return home to meet his beautiful, but obedient assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and his military officer buddy Jim Rhodes (Terrance Howard). Dealing with the terrorists, though, makes Stark realize the lack of responsibility he has taken for the havoc his product has created all over the world.

Of coarse, the Stark Industries doesn't agree with Tony's plans to stop making dangerous weapons, so they--particularly Obadiah--try to push Tony out, as they continue to cash in on selling off missiles and M-80 machine guns. The only way Tony's conscience can be cleared is if he fights fire with fire, perfecting his powerful iron suit into a weapon that can fly, shoot, and trigger numerous bombs. As the movie continues, Tony redeems himself by taking care of the terrorists who held him captive earlier in the film, but we find that the capture may have had more than meets the eye. And, of coarse, there is always room for romantic sparks to fly between Tony and Pepper.

The film is a classic superhero movie: charismatic hero, beautiful lady on his arm, gullible friend, and the villain who is closer than the hero realizes. It's by the books, but it is the show put on by Downey Jr. that gives the film most of it's great energy. The last few years, we've seen Robert Downey Jr. slowly bringing himself out of Hollywood obscurity: he was great as the lead in the vastly under appreciated satire Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and then brilliant in his supporting role in David Fincher's serial killer epic Zodiac. But in Iron Man, he is headlining what is possibly a very successful franchise, and his talent doesn't cease.

He has always been an actor of uncanny comedic ability, but has always had that virtuoso aspect, allowing him to rely on his sincerity. Take for instance, the extended montage of Stark building his suit within his own basement. He has the help from a super-smart, talking computer. The relationship between the two could have been played with shtick, like David Hasselhoff talking to Kit in "Knight Rider", but instead, Downey Jr. and Stark's genius machine have some of the best computer-human chemistry I've ever seen in the movies.

The entire show belongs to Robert Downey Jr., if only because he seems like an unlikely candidate to headline a superhero franchise, yet flourishes so. It's a character taylor-made for his skills. But it should be mentioned, part of his charm is aided by a surprisingly inspired performance by Paltrow. The two have vibrant chemistry, and Paltrow gives one of her freshest performances in years. For the first time since The Royal Tenenbaums, Paltrow's award-winning self-absorption was put in the corner, and she allows herself to have fun with the character.

The film has its generic moments, and there are definitely no big unsuspected surprises throughout the picture, but it meets the requirement for a summer action movie: it's fun. It relishes in being a chaotic popcorn film, and never tries to insult the audience by insinuating that you are watching anything profound (**cough**Spider-Man 3**cough**). I can see many, bloated sequels following Iron Man, and that can be more of a curse than a treasure, and to be honest, I find the character of Tony Stark a lot more interesting when he isn't pounding around in an Iron Man suit, but as long as those CGI effects don't become overbearing, it will always be a successful action prospect.