Tuesday, June 24, 2008

No laughing matter

There have been a number of well known personalities passing away in the news and entertainment business lately, and now, sadly, George Carlin can be added to the list. Due to heart failure on Monday, Carlin, 71, (fill in your own dying euphemism here – George had a ton of ‘em).

The comedian made his big breakthrough in the business back in the 1970s, and had been consistently working in TV, film and stand-up comedy ever since. His last HBO special (one of a staggering 14 he did with the network) premiered in March. Incidentally, a mini-marathon of his specials will be airing on HBO2 over the next few days. NBC is set to air the debut episode of “Saturday Night Live” on Saturday, featuring Carlin as the host.

There definitely won’t ever be another comedian quite like him coming along. Obviously, I’m not the only one to think so. Here’s what Jerry Seinfeld had to say in the New York Times.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Special-effects pioneer dies

Stan Winston, one of the most influential and oft-employed special-effects experts working in the movie business, passed away Sunday at his home in Malibu, Calif., at 62. He had been battling multiple myeloma for several years, but had been consistently working throughout his illness, including on May’s smash hit, “Iron Man.” Among his long list of credits includes “The Terminator,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Aliens,” and “Jurassic Park.” On the latter two films he won Oscars, with later Academy Awards coming for his groundbreaking work on “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Movie Review: "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"

Starring Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent and Shia LaBeouf
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Official Web site

Nearly two decades have passed since Indiana Jones hung up his fedora and whip, for what was thought to be the last time. But consistent urging from fans (and no doubt, executives at Paramount Pictures, the studio that has released the entire series) has brought Indiana Jones out of storage and reunited star Harrison Ford with director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas. Having long struggled to find a script suitable enough that the entire creative team could agree upon eventually led to “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” And while the fourth installment in the series is a welcome return to the big screen, it’s also the least satisfying of the quartet.

That’s not to say that the movie is a dud. Quite the contrary, as “Crystal Skull” features another winning performance from Ford as the history professor/archaeologist, along with a suitably wicked turn by Cate Blanchett as the primary villain this go around. There’s plenty of action set pieces on display here, with the opening sequence inside and out of a giant warehouse in the Nevada desert a particular winner. Spielberg even manages to find time to interject some humor into the early going, as Indy finds himself unknowingly seeking refuge from the Russians by hiding out at a nuclear testing site.

In fact, the first 20 minutes are generally so enjoyable that the remainder of the movie struggles to maintain that energy level, once the central story is unspooled. The script by David Koepp is, at times, overly convoluted, as it involves the search for a crystal skull that will give untold power to its possessor, along with the discovery of an ancient city in South America made of gold guarded by the undead (no, not zombies), and assorted otherworldly mumbo jumbo.

Set in 1957, the story tends to bog down whenever the characters have to stop to explain to each other (and by extension, the audience) what is going on and/or what they are attempting to do. After having spent the previous three films seeking out the Ark of the Covenant, a mystical stone taken from a peaceful village, and the Holy Grail, maybe Indy’s simply running out of interesting artifacts to find. But the crystal skull introduces an extraterrestrial element to the story that seems out of place in the Indiana Jones universe.

The movie fares much better with the interaction of its characters, including the introduction of Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a young biker who handles his comb as much as his switchblade. He comes to Indy with the request that he help him find his mother and Professor Harold Oxley (John Hurt), who turns out to have been a mentor for both men. Oxley disappeared while seeking the crystal skull, and Mutt’s mother also went missing after going to find him. The Russians, led by the icy villainess Irina Spalko (Blanchett), have tracked Indy down after being foiled by him in the desert, and are also in pursuit of the skull.

Making their way to South America, the heroes eventually find Oxley and Mutt’s mother, Marion (Karen Allen, clearly having fun with her role), who both have been captured by the Russians. It’s fun to see Ford and Allen back together after their good chemistry in “Raiders,” but there’s not as much interplay between the two as there should have been. The action sequences in the script largely push that aspect into the background, especially by the busy and overly CGI-reliant third act. It’s no secret that Lucas is a big proponent of CGI, but the movie makes too much use of it, rather than the old-fashioned stuntwork that was such a big part of the earlier films.

There’s still plenty to like in the fourth (and not necessarily final) installment of the series, as the story has no qualms about making cracks at the age of Indy, and this was certainly not an example of rich men going through the motions to collect a big paycheck. But approaching the film with tempered expectations would be advised. In interviews leading up to the film’s opening, Spielberg and Lucas had even said so, in a roundabout way. Still, it’s a bit of a pity they had to be right this time.

Grade: B-
(Rated PG-13 for adventure violence and scary images.)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Movie Review: "I'm Not There"

Starring Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Ben Whishaw, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Julianne Moore, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Directed by Todd Haynes

Official Web site

No one can ever deny the enigmatic nature of Bob Dylan. He is perhaps the most perplexing, hard to understand (in a literal and figurative sense) presence to ever come along in music history. That might help explain a little bit more about writer-director Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There,” a film that is much more interested in capturing the essence of Dylan, rather than a biographical look at the man himself.

Featuring six actors cast as Dylan (or at least some approximation of him) is a bold decision – and not an altogether successful one. That’s not to say there isn’t good acting on display here; it just makes for a disjointed narrative. That, and the movie’s lengthy running time can make the mind wander a bit on occasion.

In the film, Dylan’s six incarnations are the following: a young African-American boy (Marcus Carl Franklin) claiming to be Woody Guthrie; Robbie (Heath Ledger), who meets a woman on a Hollywood film, marries her and becomes a parent; Jack, a Greenwich Village folk singer (Christian Bale); Jude (Cate Blanchett), a rebellious presence who alienates fans by switching from acoustic to electric guitar; as a young man (Ben Whishaw) seemingly being interrogated about his career; and as an actor (Richard Gere) appearing in a Western about Billy the Kid.

Some of the sequences work better than others, with Gere’s portion of the film a general bore. It would have been better served to have been excised. Faring best is Blanchett, who, in an Oscar-nominated turn, makes you forget you’re watching a woman portray a man.

That said, none of the actors are doing a straight out impersonation of Dylan (Blanchett’s role would likely be the closest), as that would have probably moved the film closer to a near parody of the singer-songwriter. Clearly, Haynes (who has been silent since 2002’s great “Far From Heaven”) doesn’t have designs on a typical bio-pic such as recent hits “Ray” or “Walk the Line.” For that matter, it’s difficult to imagine Dylan ever being satisfied with someone attempting to do so.

But he at least seemed pleased with Haynes’ take on the film, giving approval to use his own music and have the actors also do their own interpretations of some of it.

Admittedly not counting myself as much of a Dylan fan, there’s probably a fair amount of semi-biographical information here that I missed, which might have diminished my enjoyment of the movie. But love him, hate him or something in between, “I’m Not There” is still a fairly entertaining, albeit a little scattershot examination of the elusive nature of an artist (born Robert Allen Zimmerman, by the way) who refuses to fit into any easy-to-define category.

Grade: B-
(Rated R for language, some sexuality and nudity.)

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Technical Difficulties

Sorry for the lack of updates here over the past couple of weeks. I've had some DSL issues to deal with, meaning my Internet connection had been operating lately at a speed slower than dial-up. (Remember dial-up? Yeeesh!) But I finally got AT&T to fix the problem (I hope), so expect some more activity on here later in the week – namely, the overdue "Indiana Jones" review, among other items.
Stay tuned ...