May 2012 Archives
It's a real shame that Sacha Baron Cohen's rise as a comedy star occurred after Mel Brooks stopped making movies, because the two likely would have hit off both personally and professionally. Beyond their shared Jewish heritage (a background that both men gleefully skewer at every opportunity), both of them are fearless provocateurs, pushing the bounds of comic decency right up to their breaking point. For those younger audiences who only know Brooks from his latter-day kinder, gentler movie parodies like Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, it's hard to overstate just how revolutionary comedies like The Producers and Blazing Saddles were at the time of their release. The latter movie in particular tackled racial humor with a boldness that's still bracing and you can track a direct line from Zero Mostel's brash, unscrupulous theatrical producer to one of Cohen's comic anti-heroes. In fact, we like to imagine the elderly Brooks uncorking a bottle of Manischewitz and kicking back for a double-bill of Cohen's first two features, Borat and Bruno.
Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Tim who escaped the banality of his ordinary suburban existence in Burbank, California by conjuring up dark and fantastic visions in his own mind, visions that he brought to life with pen and paper or stop-motion short films. As a grown-up, Tim briefly brought his significant artistic talent to the Walt Disney company, but the bright and happy Mouse House proved an ill-match, so he struck out on his own, parlaying the success of his well-received short Frankenweenie into a feature directing assignment, 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure. The surprise success of that oddball comedy led to more gigs: among them, Beetlejuice, Batman and Edward Scissorhands, all successful and all distinct examples of a specific artistic vision. More importantly, his films connected with a very particular audience of outsiders and misfits -- viewers who felt marginalized by both the film industry and society at large. Here, at last, was a mainstream filmmaker who empathized with their plight and celebrated their oddity. He made it okay to be different, whether you were an overgrown man-child, a ghost, a traumatized man who dresses up in a rubber batsuit or a warm-hearted, pale-faced guy with scissors for hands.
Sacha Baron Cohen may be the main attraction of The Dictator, but don't be surprised if everyone who sees the movie comes out raving about his co-star Jason Mantzoukas. Best known as the outrageous Rafi on the FX series The League, the Upright Citizens Brigade-trained comic actor steals almost every scene he's in as Nadal, a nuclear scientist that runs afoul of Cohen's dictator, General Aladeen, in their home country of Wadiya only to emerge as his equal when the tyrant is stripped of his identity and let loose on the streets of New York. On a recent press pit stop in Manhattan, Mantzoukas spoke with us about testing his improvising skills against Cohen, what scenes didn't make it into The Dictator and why he hopes that Rafi never gets his own spin-off series.
The secret to Sacha Baron Cohen's particular brand of comedy has always been its unpredictability. When you watch one of his signature creations -- be it Ali G or Borat or Bruno -- interact with an unsuspecting dignitary, celebrity or just a plain old Average Joe, you have absolutely no idea what he'll do or say... or what they'll do or say in response. His ability to improvise in the moment without breaking character is what makes him such a formidable talent. Even if a particular encounter doesn't yield many laughs, you have to admire the guy for his fearlessness.
Next to The Dark Knight Rises, no summer blockbuster has us more intrigued than Prometheus, Ridley Scott's belated return to the science fiction genre and the Alien franchise that rocketed his career into the stratosphere some three decades ago.
If superheroes aren't your bag, there's another star-powered ensemble movie opening this weekend that unites a group of screen legends and sends them off on a globe-trotting adventure. In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Shakespeare in Love director John Madden assembles some of the most popular and beloved veterans of British cinema -- among them Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson -- and puts them on a plane bound for Jaipur, India, where their new home, the titular retirement castle, awaits. And just like their costumed counterparts in The Avengers, this squad of heroes begins their mission with a lot of trepidation and mistrust before ultimately learning the value of friendship and the thrill of boldly venturing into unfamiliar territory.
It's not hard to understand why people are so excited for The Avengers. For starters, its release signals the start of the annual summer blockbuster season, when audiences can look forward to four solid months of effects-heavy escapist entertainment. Secondly, for the millions of moviegoers who have followed the individual Marvel heroes through their own big-screen adventures (not to mention their own comic-book titles), the thought of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk sharing the same frame and battling the same common enemy (as well as each other) is pretty remarkable. And lastly, there's the fact that the Avengers are assembling under the watchful eye of writer/director Joss Whedon, at last making his leap from cult artist to mainstream moviemaker. While Whedon's name might not mean anything to a good 50-60 percent of the audience that'll show up opening weekend, there will be a significant segment of moviegoers more thrilled about seeing his name in the credits than any of the actors'. With all these various elements coming together, who can blame those viewers who are heading into the theater expecting to see the comic book movie to end all comic book movies?
From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Cabin in the Woods, writer/director Joss Whedon doesn't just create entertainment that can be enjoyed in the moment -- it can also be discussed and analyzed for years after its finished its television or theatrical run. Case in point: Titan Books' newly released Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion, a weighty compendium of short retrospective pieces (every section begins with a "Joss Whedon 101" to the particular work at hand), academic essays and interviews with such collaborators as actor Alexis Denisof and writers Jane Espenson and Tim Minear. Collected by the pop cultural survey site PopMatters, the pieces included in this tome span Whedon's entire career from the small screen to the big screen to the four-color pages of comic books. As with all anthologies, not every entry here is a winner. Some essays cross the line from admiring to flat-out hagiography, while others offer rote summary in place of interesting analysis. But combing through the book, we found five essays that are definitely worth a read. Check out our picks below and click here to order the book for your own personal Whedon library.