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Indiana Jones and the razor-sharp criticism

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“The Adventures of Tintin” might not be setting the world on fire at the box office, but it should. In a lot of ways, the film is the best “Indiana Jones” sequel Steven Spielberg ever made. It’s great globetrotting fun, with dazzling action setpieces, iconic visuals, and charming supporting characters. The story isn’t going to set the world on fire, but “Tintin” is still a hell of a lot more entertaining than 2008’s “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” a movie so miscalculated it inspired a new variation on “jumping the shark.” Now the moment when franchises officially run out of good ideas, they “nuke the fridge.”

Perhaps that makes this new video review from Red Letter Media — the guys who brilliantly and savagely skewered the entire “Star Wars” prequel trilogy — inevitable, but it doesn’t make it any less welcome. As usual, angry old man, Pizza Rolls enthusiast, and wife-murder-joke-maker Mr. Plinkett’s criticism is silly, funny, and full of razor-sharp observations.

It’s also surprisingly even-handed. Plinkett (yes, I know he’s a character and not a real person, but whatever) avoids the easy targets — there’s hardly a mention of Mutt Williams swinging through the trees with monkeys a la Tarzan — and he even goes out of his way to praise the parts of “Crystal Skull” that work, including theperformance of Shia LaBeouf as Mutt and the underrated motorcycle and car chase scene around the campus of Marshall University. Plinkett doesn’t even make fun of the nuke the fridge moment; he actually praises that scene for its clever comedy and striking visuals. Rightfully so; I always thought the fridge nuke got a bum rap; it’s way better than any of the chases or suspense scenes in the film’s CGI-laden second half. But I guess crystal skulling the kingdom doesn’t have the same ring as nuking the fridge. Here’s the video, in two lengthy parts.

Editor’s Note: The embed function on the videos appear to be broken at this time. If they are still down, please visit Red Letter Media here to watch the videos in full.

The videos are silly, and there are still too many moments of misogynistic humor for my taste, but don’t let those fool you: the Red Letter Media guys are no dopes. Their examination of the Indiana Jones character is right on the money. As much as we love the old movies, the appeal of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” isn’t the character of Indiana jones; it’s the idea of being Indiana Jones that’s appealing. And an older Indiana Jones who has trouble running down stairs and reconnects with an old flame isn’t as appealing a character for vicarious thrills. If they were going to introduce Indiana Jones’ son as a possible torchbearer for the future of the franchise, they might as well have just cast him as a full-on Indiana Jones Jr. Give him the whip, let him wear the hat, and call him anything but Mutt Williams. And, no, it doesn’t make it any better that Indiana was named after a dog.

That’s why “Tintin” is a better movie than “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” even if it’s made with the kind of cartoonish CGI that marred “Indy IV.” Admittedly Tintin is not as cool a hero as Indy in his prime. He doesn’t have the whip or the hat, and he doesn’t have much of a love life. Like Indy, though, Tintin’s fearless, clever, and he has a job that seemingly doesn’t care if he spends weeks or months away from the office in search of adventure. Unlike Indy, he’s made entirely in a computer, which means he never has to worry about getting older. That may be the most appealling part of all.

What’s your favorite “Indiana Jones” sequel? Tell us in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

Soap tv show

As the Spoof Turns

15 Hilarious Soap Opera Parodies

Catch the classic sitcom Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures Television

The soap opera is the indestructible core of television fandom. We celebrate modern series like The Wire and Breaking Bad with their ongoing storylines, but soap operas have been tangling more plot threads than a quilt for decades. Which is why pop culture enjoys parodying them so much.

Check out some of the funniest soap opera parodies below, and be sure to catch Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

1. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

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Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was a cult hit soap parody from the mind of Norman Lear that poked daily fun at the genre with epic twists and WTF moments. The first season culminated in a perfect satire of ratings stunts, with Mary being both confined to a psychiatric facility and chosen to be part of a Nielsen ratings family.


2. IKEA Heights

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IKEA Heights proves that the soap opera is alive and well, even if it has to be filmed undercover at a ready-to-assemble furniture store totally unaware of what’s happening. This unique webseries brought the classic formula to a new medium. Even IKEA saw the funny side — but has asked that future filmmakers apply through proper channels.


3. Fresno

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When you’re parodying ’80s nighttime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty , everything about your show has to equally sumptuous. The 1986 CBS miniseries Fresno delivered with a high-powered cast (Carol Burnett, Teri Garr and more in haute couture clothes!) locked in the struggle for the survival of a raisin cartel.


4. Soap

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Soap was the nighttime response to daytime soap operas: a primetime skewering of everything both silly and satisfying about the source material. Plots including demonic possession and alien abduction made it a cult favorite, and necessitated the first televised “viewer discretion” disclaimer. It also broke ground for featuring one of the first gay characters on television in the form of Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas. Revisit (or discover for the first time) this classic sitcom every Saturday morning on IFC.


5. Too Many Cooks

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Possibly the most perfect viral video ever made, Too Many Cooks distilled almost every style of television in a single intro sequence. The soap opera elements are maybe the most hilarious, with more characters and sudden shocking twists in an intro than most TV scribes manage in an entire season.


6. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

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Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was more mockery than any one medium could handle. The endless complications of Darkplace Hospital are presented as an ongoing horror soap opera with behind-the-scenes anecdotes from writer, director, star, and self-described “dreamweaver visionary” Garth Marenghi and astoundingly incompetent actor/producer Dean Learner.


7. “Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive,” MadTV

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Soap opera connoisseurs know that the most melodramatic plots are found in Korea. MADtv‘s parody Tae Do  (translation: Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive) features the struggles of mild-mannered characters with far more feelings than their souls, or subtitles, could ever cope with.


8. Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks, the twisted parody of small town soaps like Peyton Place whose own creator repeatedly insists is not a parody, has endured through pop culture since it changed television forever when it debuted in 1990. The show even had it’s own soap within in a soap called…


9. “Invitation to Love,” Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks didn’t just parody soap operas — it parodied itself parodying soap operas with the in-universe show Invitation to Love. That’s more layers of deceit and drama than most televised love triangles.


10. “As The Stomach Turns,” The Carol Burnett Show

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The Carol Burnett Show poked fun at soaps with this enduring take on As The World Turns. In a case of life imitating art, one story involving demonic possession would go on to happen for “real” on Days of Our Lives.


11. Days of our Lives (Friends Edition)

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Still airing today, Days of Our Lives is one of the most famous soap operas of all time. They’re also excellent sports, as they allowed Friends star Joey Tribbiani to star as Dr Drake Ramoray, the only doctor to date his own stalker (while pretending to be his own evil twin). And then return after a brain-transplant.

And let’s not forget the greatest soap opera parody line ever written: “Come on Joey, you’re going up against a guy who survived his own cremation!”


12. Acorn Antiques

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First appearing on the BBC sketch comedy series Victoria Wood As Seen on TV, Acorn Antiques combines almost every low-budget soap opera trope into one amazing whole. The staff of a small town antique store suffer a disproportional number of amnesiac love-triangles, while entire storylines suddenly appear and disappear without warning or resolution. Acorn Antiques was so popular, it went on to become a hit West End musical.


13. “Point Place,” That 70s Show

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In a memorable That ’70s Show episode, an unemployed Red is reduced to watching soaps all day. He becomes obsessed despite the usual Red common-sense objections (like complaining that it’s impossible to fall in love with someone in a coma). His dreams render his own life as Point Place, a melodramatic nightmare where Kitty leaves him because he’s unemployed. (Click here to see all airings of That ’70s Show on IFC.)


14. The Spoils of Babylon

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Bursting from the minds of Will Ferrell and creators Andrew Steele and Matt Piedmont, The Spoils of Babylon was a spectacular parody of soap operas and epic mini-series like The Thorn Birds. Taking the parody even further, Ferrell himself played Eric Jonrosh, the author of the book on which the series was based. Jonrosh returned in The Spoils Before Dying, a jazzy murder mystery with its own share of soapy twists and turns.

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15. All My Children Finale, SNL

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SNL‘s final celebration of one of the biggest soaps of all time is interrupted by a relentless series of revelations from stage managers, lighting designers, make-up artists, and more. All of whom seem to have been married to or murdered by (or both) each other.

Comparing the year end film polls

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We’ve got one week left in 2011, so we’re running out of time to make lists, tear apart other people’s lists, make lists of lists, and list the lists we are going to list later. Better make the most of it.

Last night, for example, I spent a couple of hours pouring over the two big annual film critic polls: one from The Village Voice, the other from Indiewire. In both cases, the publications invite dozens of critics to list their favorite films, performances, directors, and assorted other topics. They compile the responses and use them to generate rankings. There’s a pretty large overlap between the two polls — out of the 193 total participants, 63 critics submitted a ballot to both — and some interesting disparities between the two sets of results.

Both polls agree about the best movie of the year: Terrence Malick‘s “The Tree of Life,” which appeared on more than half the Voice ballots and over a third of the Indiewire ballots. But after that, the lists get jumbled — while the two polls share nine out of the ten same films, no other movies occupies the same position on both top ten lists. The #2 and #3 films, “A Separation” and “Melancholia,” are flipped depending on which poll you look at — thorny matters of Iranian divorce were more popular in the Voice while greeting the end of all existing with Danish indifference was more popular with the Indiewire voters. The single biggest difference in placements for one film in the two top ten lists was “Drive,” which ranked as the fifth most popular film of the year on Indiewire but just the ninth most popular in the Voice. The outliers that only appeared on one poll each were “Hugo” (eighth on Indiewire, eleventh in the Voice) and “Take Shelter” (tenth in the Voice poll, fourteenth on Indiewire).

There are similar discrepancies in the acting categories, with a lot of repeated selections in vastly different orders of preference. Picking the best lead performance of the year, Indiewire voters wound up with a tie between Michael Shannon in “Take Shelter” and Michael Fassbender in “Shame.” But in the Voice, Shannon was the runaway favorite, receiving almost twenty more points than anyone else in either gender, while Fassbender came in fifth place behind Anna Paquin from “Margaret,” Juliette Binoche from “Certified Copy,” and Kirsten Dunst from “Melancholia.” Fassbender appeared on 27% of all Indiewire ballots and just 21% of all Voice ballots, a pretty big difference especially when you consider that one out of every three ballots in both polls were essentially identical. On the supporting side of things, Christopher Plummer got similarly Fassbendered. At Indiewire he won Best Supporting Performance by a sizable margin. In the Voice he only placed third, behind Albert Brooks in “Drive” and Jeannie Berlin in “Margaret.”

So what does this all mean? What do I look like, a guy who took more than one math class in college? Because I didn’t. Personally, I think it means that while consensus does exist out there in film critic land, it’s also far more fickle and flexible than we often imagine it to be. You poll 10 critics, you might get complete agreement. You poll 10 other critics, you might get ten different favorites. A few critics invited to vote here, a few critics not invited to vote there, and intentionally or unintentionally you’ve created significant variations in the data.

If you were going to take this research even further down sabremetriciany avenues, you’d need information that the Voice and Indiewire don’t publicly provide, namely the ages and outlets of their contributors. Then you could compare the statistical variations in the two polls with other factors; maybe the average voting age at Indiewire was younger and younger voters tended to prefer “Drive.” Or maybe print critics were more heavily sampled at the Voice, and they were less impressed by Michael Fassbender’s emotionally naked weiner performance.

For now, I guess we’re left more questions. In the meantime, be sure to examine the Voice and Indiewire polls in depth and to report back to me with your own findings. Or if you just want to read my ballots you can find those here and here.

Which poll do you agree with more: the Voice or Indiewire? Tell us in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

“War Horse,” reviewed

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In 1997, Robert Altman executive produced an interesting but short-lived television series called “Gun.” The only recurring member of the cast was a semi-automatic handgun; each episode featured an entirely new story with entirely new actors and one new owner of that same gun. Steven Spielberg‘s “War Horse” is basically the same idea, only with a horse as the one constant instead of a gun and an Ireland-circa-WWI setting instead of modern day America. We follow a horse named Joey from birth through his childhood — do horses have childhoods? I’m not a big horse guy — to his unwitting adventures during the Great War, where he passes between owners on both sides of the conflict. The strength of any anthology depends upon the strength of the characters, and that’s the biggest problem about “War Horse.” Joey’s present for all of these stories, but he’s surprisingly uninvolved in many of them (or maybe it’s not that surprising since he’s, y’know, a horse). He’s less a protagonist than a guide through a world full of protagonists, some far more richly characterized than others.

The best of the bunch is unquestionably Joey’s first owner, an Irish boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine). Albert’s father, a drunken war veteran named Ted (Peter Mullan) buys Joey as an act of instinct and foolish pride; the horse catches his eye at auction and when his greedy landlord (David Thewlis) joins the bidding, Ted refuses be embarrassed. With the rent to the landlord due, Albert must train the colt to plow his family’s pitiful plot of fallow land or lose everything. There’s some real tension here, and what feels like a genuine connection between Irvine and the horses who play Joey.

Before Albert’s family’s dilemma can be fully resolved, war breaks out in Europe and Joey is sold to the army, where he’s selected as the mount of an impossibly chivalrous officer (“Thor”‘s Tom Hiddleston). In these early days of the war, the British soldiers entertain romantic notions of what the battles will be: swords flashing, horses charging in perfect regimented unison. The horrors of modern warfare with its machine guns, gases, and tanks, will quickly dissuade them of their high-minded ideals.

From Hiddleston, Joey passes hands to a pair of young German soldiers and then to a young orphan and her grandfather. Later, he’s acquired by a cruel German officer who needs horses to pull his heavy artillery and doesn’t care if they die in the effort. Each move away from Albert feels like another move away from the heart and soul of this story. In Michael Morpurgo’s original children’s book, Joey narrated the story. In the Tony Award winning stage adaptation of the book, the horses were brought to life with remarkable life-size puppets. In Spielberg’s “War Horse,” the horse is just a horse (of course, of course). All it can do is observe the people around it, some of whom are painfully dull. “War Horse” is the law of diminishing returns in action.

Spielberg’s brilliant use of camera, lighting, and production design mean the film is never boring to look at. Joey’s life darkens as the war does, and many of the latter scenes take place amidst the horror of trench warfare. These scenes feature several impressive long takes panning the hellish landscape of the battlefield and following Joey on an unsuccessful ride for freedom. From any other director, these would feel like watershed moments. But Spielberg, the director of “Saving Private Ryan,” has captured the senselessness of war before with more clarity, scope, and raw terror.

I did like one scene which is complete enough as its own unit of story and character that it could be pulled out of the film and played as its own short subject. Circumstance has led Joey to run into No Man’s Land between the German and English forces, and he’s gotten tangled in a nest of barbed wire. Two soldiers, one from each side, tentatively make their way out to free the horse. They both acknowledge that neither has any idealogical reason to kill one another, and despite their mutual distrust, they quickly learn to work together toward their common goal. Then the horse is free and only one man can own him and animosity suddenly returns. This tiny episode is a beautiful microcosm of the film’s themes: the power of an animal to remind us of our shared humanity and the futility and absurdity of war.

If only every story bore that same emotional impact. Even the grand climax, which uses John Williams’ nostalgic score like Pavlov ringing a bell for his dogs, fails to achieve its heartwarming goals (it might have something to do with the fact that Albert’s obsession with Joey borders on the absurd, if not the outright creepy). There’s both too much about this horse and not enough with him at the same time. Even though it is about an animal and not a person, “War Horse” bears all the flaws of a mediocre biopic: a sketchy and schmaltzy life story that’s so busy cramming in all the broad strokes that it doesn’t have time to fill in the more important details.

“War Horse” opens on Christmas Day. If you see it, tell us what you think. Leave a comment below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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