Friday, August 13, 2010

Review of The Expendables

I've been waiting for this movie for nearly two years now. Soon as I heard that this was announced, I immediately got an erection. I mean seriously... Sylvester Stallone directing and starring in a throwback to 80's action films with Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke AND Eric Roberts? Yes, please! I have been seeing footage of this since early last summer, and I've been stoked ever since. I spent my middle school years watching and enjoying cheesy action films from the late 80's/early 90's. Movies like RED SCORPION, COBRA, NAVY SEALS, DELTA FORCE, MARKED FOR DEATH, COMMANDO, HARD TARGET, AMERICAN NINJA and many more! Let's face it. Old school action has been dead for quite some time, and this film getting the greenlight just brought out the 14 year old action fan in me again.

The structure of this action flick is pretty loose. Stallone plays Barney, leader of a team of mercenaries. We're introduced to the team as they rescue some hostages. The recruits are Statham, Li, Lundgren, Terry Crews and Randy Couture. They shoot the shit out of the baddies, but Gunner (Lundgren) goes crazy and is kicked off the team. A little later, Stallone gets hired by Bruce Willis to assassinate a general. They learn that the target is being manipulated by a sleazy ex-CIA agent (Eric Roberts, of course). There are subplots that involve Statham's girlfriend, and an ex-expendable played by Mickey Rourke. But the main objective in this film is to kick ass, and the story does lead us to a big action finale that lasts over 20 minutes.

The film begins nicely. The small action set piece that opens the picture is short but it kicks enough ass to get the testosterone pumping. It does establish that this isn't going to be an improvement over those action film of the 80's, but exactly like them. The cheesy fake laser sights really put me in the proper mood for how this flick was going to go down. But then the story forgets about most of the expendables except for Stallone and Statham. That didn't bother me too much, but I would have liked one scene that established the team's relationship with each other. Just ONE scene would've been enough. I liked the free and loose scenes involving Rourke's character, and Stallone has some good chemistry with Statham.

But, the structure is really sloppy. I can't really complain too much I guess, since what I wanted was a B-picture. And that's what I got. I could've done without Statham's girlfriend subplot. I wish Li's character was expanded upon more, cause when he shows up for a key action scene about an hour in, it felt awkward. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me break down to you what worked and what didn't.

What Works: Some of the sequences in this will make any action fan nostalgic. Loved the airplane sequence by the dock, with Statham sitting on the nose shooting at baddies. And Statham is good here, but still, playing the exact same character he has in the past 15 films. Terry Crews is surprisingly good as a badass with an automatic shotgun. Love the sound it makes. Mickey Rourke easily gives the best performance. His monologue about not saving a prisoner is heartbreaking and made me remember why he was nominated for THE WRESTLER, and Stallone was good in that scene too. Dolph Lundgren delivers a deliciously awful performance as the expendable gone nuts. He's over the top and every line he says with affectionate awkwardness. I can see people complaining about Lundgren's performance since it's on a completely different level from anyone else. But, that's what you get when you cast Dolph Lundgren in a movie. I knew what to expect from him and loved it! I laughed everytime he spoke. His fight with Jet Li is pretty entertaining too. Loved how he kept hitting his head on things. Also, there's just something really awesome about seeing Lundgren's name on a big screen again (this is his first theatrical appearance in 15 years!).

Despite what many reviews have said, I thought Eric Roberts made a fantastic villain. His scenes were amongst my favorite in the film. I think Stallone totally nailed this casting, cause Roberts really feels like a villain from a 1987 action film that would have been shown on Showtime every night at 11pm. Loved him! And I really liked the scene where Willis gives Sly the job. It features an actor that has always been Sly's competitor. I won't say who it is, but it's been given away in so many ads, so you probably already know. Not really a secret, but I don't want to risk spoiling it for someone who doesn't read AINTITCOOLNEWS every day.

What doesn't work: Stallone looks tired. He didn't seem to be on his game like he did with the latest ROCKY and RAMBO films (which I loved!). There's not really much to his character, Barney. Who is this guy? You knew who ROCKY and RAMBO were. Heck, even COBRA and his character from OVER THE TOP had more to them. But his performance wasn't that great either. Not that he was terrible, it just didn't seem like he was giving 100%, like he was on auto pilot. Jet Li is not very good in this at all. His line delivery is worse than Lundgren's. Sure, he gets to fight but it's all cut up so you can't really see anything spectacular anyhow (more on that later). Randy Couture can't act. He sticks out like a sore thumb. His fight with Steve Austin was extremely disappointing and the low point of the film.

Now, all of this could have worked if the action delivered. Some of it does. And some of it doesn't, and that's because of Stallone's direction. He films most of the action with that shaky cam, but the editing is all over the place, and occasionally shots didn't match. Some of it was sloppy. Not all, but some. And that's how this is different than your typical 80's action movie. Is DELTA FORCE a great film? Fuck no! But the action is shot in a straight forward, cheesy way that I can enjoy it. I can see what's happening. And that's what doesn't work here. Sure, the final battle has some cool moments when all the expendables are kicking ass simultaneously, but compare that to any action sequence in RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II. Every shot in THAT film is carefully structured and storyboarded. Not so here. Every fight is over- covered. sSeems like Stallone was trying to take this 80's concept and shoot it in this new action style. And that's why I can't fully recommend it. It's like having sex with an ex-girlfriend that you always wanted to get back together with, but once you go do it, you realized that she's changed. It's NOT the same. That pretty much sums up my feelings on THE EXPENDABLES.

That's not to say I hated it. There were things I really liked about it. Stallone and Austin have a cool throwdown (Stallone broke his collarbone, or something like that), there's a great standoff between Stallone and Roberts, and I loved the playfulness of the last scene. Much of the action does kick ass, but it could have been so much better if Stallone just filmed those scenes more simply, so we could see everything. If you're not as picky about filmmaking, I could see someone getting enjoyment out of it.

I like the idea of this movie much more than how it actually turned out. I really really wanted to like this movie. It still might be worth going to the theater with some old buddies of yours, have a couple of beers and reminisce about old action films. But it's just not the movie it could have been. I do hope it does well, cause I would like to see Stallone take another crack at a sequel. Hopefully, he will learn from his mistakes, cause it wasn't that far away from being good.

**1/2 (out of ****)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Review of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

It's time to rejoice! Edgar Wright has a new flick out! If you don't know who he is, well, get with it cause he's going to be around for a long time, coming up with new ways to entertain the hell out of audiences. His first two films are genius: SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ. Heck, his fake trailer for DON'T in GRINDHOUSE was the best one. Now, while his first two films shared many things in common, his latest, SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, is completely different, except that it has the same frenetic energy.

This is based off of (like everything else these days) a graphic novel. Of course, I never read it, so this was a completely new world for me. Michael Cera plays Scott Pilgrim, a 22 year old bass player slacker in a small neo-punk band called the SEX BA-BOMBS (Yes, like in Mario). He is dating a high schooler named Knives, the groupie for his band. The friends in his life are the band's singer and drummer, and his gay roommate played by Kieran Culkin. Even though Scott's life is going all right, he feels like something is missing. Then he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and he immediately falls for her. But first, he must dump his 17 year old puppy dog-like, jailbait girlfriend. And just when you think it's going to be a ripoff of a John Hughes film, then it gets fucking crazy! A guy shows up at one of Scott's shows and challenges him to a battle to the death. He later finds out that if he is to date Ramona, he must defeat her seven evil exes. And that, my friends, is the plot.

Now, if you're going to be one of those people who are going ask questions like "Why does he have to battle her ex-boyfriends?" Then you can just stay home. Cause this movie doesn't want to make sense for you. It wants to show you things you've never experienced in a movie theater before. It wants to attack all of your senses. It wants to shake you up. Ultimately, it wants to entertain the fuck out of you. If you like movies that are different than the norm, then this is the one for you.

Where do I begin? First of all, the tone. Before the battles begin, the first half hour does a wonderful job not only setting up the characters, but the comic video game universe that the story exists in. In fact, within seconds, the tone is established when an Nintendo 8-Bit version of the Universal Logo begins the film. "You had me at 8-bit". Then, you get to see how Scott Pilgrim views the world, with pop-up windows, words and images that burst onto the screen randomly. This style may be a little jarring for the average viewer, but to a comic book/video game/film geek like me, it was exhilarating. And when the Sex Ba-Bombs play their first song at practice, the images explode off the screen, and this wasn't even in 3D, but it sure felt like it was.

I loved the relationship between Scott and Knives, as they go to retro shops buying hip things. Then when Scott meets Ramona, you can really see how he would be into her. She's laid back, sarcastic, blunt, seemingly unapproachable, and mysteriously attractive, with her ever-changing hair color. As Scott juggles the two relationships, it plays very much like an 80's romantic comedy on acid, with a punk rock flavor. Scott's band, like the romance, is also very much the heart of the story. We see them develop and evolve and gain confidence, very much like Scott does throughout.

Now the battles... I hope you like video games, cause there are so many references to old games that had me laughing out loud (remember CLASH AT DEMONHEAD?). Each battle has it's own flavor, and is almost like it's own mini-movie. All of them are highly entertaining. It's hard to pick a favorite. The first one, in the club, sets the rules of the fights very well. Rules? There are none. There's uppercuts, and Street Fighter-like movies throughout. Even a musical number! I'm not going to go through all the fights one by one, that will take forever, and would also ruin many surprises for viewers. I did really like fight number 3, with Brandon Routh (SUPERMAN RETURNS) and the bass battle. Also there's a great battle of the bands sequence that got my toes tapping, and had me on the edge of my seat. The conclusion is ultimately satisfying.

Edgar Wright has done it again. He has created something impossible. A comic book come to life, but influences of old school video games and Anime are clearly evident. Every single shot, and edit is perfect. Wright has carefully crafted every scene with intimate detail. The costumes, the art direction, the camerawork are beyond top notch. It's like you opened up a giant pack of skittles, and jumped in. This movie is just nuts! And that's a very good thing. There are so many visual sight gags that the film begs to be seen multiple times. I haven't anything that has gotten me this excited in a long time! At only 36 years old, Edgar Wright is already a master director. I can't wait to see what he does next.

Every actor does a superb job. Michael Cera has been stuck playing the same type of character, but Scott Pilgrim is a bit different. Sure, he's still a hip, subtly sarcastic slacker. But he also radiates a confidence not found in anything Cera has done previously. If you're tired of the guy, this probably won't change your mind about him, but I think Wright found a way to use his strengths to benefit the film in a major way. Winstead's Ramona is beautiful, self-assured, but at the same time vulnerable. Kieran Culkan is terrific as the comic relief, always having something smart to say. I really liked Alison Pill as the drummer in the band. She's so cute acting all tough. Love it! It was a hoot seeing Routh as a Vegan ex-boyfriend with superpowers, kind of like he was spoofing his own take as Superman. Chris Evans is a riot as the evil super-actor ex-boyfriend, talking an obvious octave lower. Mae Whitman is great as the ex-girlfriend. Loved her costume. Jason Scwartzman gets to play the most mature person in a movie for once, as the final ex. The real surprise was Knvies, played by newcomer Ellen Wong. At first, she's a stereotypical squealing Asian schoolgirl, but then she has a nice arc in the final half. I thought she was very talented.

Every single thing in this movie works! The acting, direction, editing, writing, cinematography, the video game references, the fight choreography, the score (which even sneaks in music from THE LEGEND OF ZELDA)! Everything! It's a great quirky romance, a hilarious comedy, a wild musical and an action packed adventure! It's why I go to the movies. To be enormously entertained. I brought my 7 year old daughter, and she turned to me afterwards and said, "Dad! This is the best movie I have ever seen!" I'm not sure I can say that, but it's easily the best film of the year so far. Run to the theaters right now and see it. It's like nothing you've ever seen before! I sure hope this makes money, cause then Wright will get to do whatever he wants next. SEE THIS NOW!!!

**** (out of ****)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Review of Eat Pray Love

I'm not much of a reader. I watch too many movies to read books. When I do read a book, it's usually non-fiction and about a director. In fact, it wasn't until a few days before I saw this movie that I found out it was a very famous book. I still didn't want to know what it was about or really cared too. I didn't see any trailers or read a synopsis. A friend of mine told me it was about a middle-aged woman soul searching in different countries. Whatever...

Julia Roberts plays Liz. She is unhappily married to (an appropriately wooden) Billy Crudup (can't say I blame her) and has no meaning in her life. She ends her marriage and shacks up with a younger hunk played by James Franco. It's fine for awhile, but then she ends up feeling the same way she did when she was married. So, in order to find true happiness, she decides to leave her life behind and travel to Italy, India and Bali.

After the prologue, the film is divided into three sections. That's right! Eat, Pray, and Love. In Italy, she learns to let go and eat. Eating ends up being a substitute for passion, but she learns to be comfortable with herself (like purchasing bigger pants). In India, she learns how to pray and to be mindful. She also befriends a crude older man from Texas (Richard Jenkins) who mentors her on meditation. And Bali is the love section. She meets exotic handsome brute, Javier Bardem, and the two begin a love affair. Liz seems to have mastered Eat and Pray, but is she ready to really love someone?

I'm sure most guys will shutter at the very idea of this movie. Me? Chick flicks don't faze me, so I wasn't dreading it. Actually, I think the movie is more relatable to men than most would care to admit. I know plenty of guys who are unhappy with their life, or have settled in a decent paying job just to pay the bills, but aren't doing what they really want to do. That's what this movie is about. It's about letting go of everything that's mediocre in your life and just live it to the fullest. It's about finding yourself. Something that is relatable to anyone, I think. So yeah, I got into the story quite a bit.

It does take a while to get going and I had kind of a tough time taking James Franco's brooding seriously in the first 15 minutes, but once Liz finally embarks on her journey, the story really begins to take shape. Italy is absolutely gorgeous and Cinematographer Robert Richardson (KILL BILL, JFK) captures every corner of the country in beautiful detail. I really want to go there. For some reason, I liked the EAT part the best. We really get to see Liz become her own person for the first time, while she meets friends and eats in various restaurants. The pray section is good, but goes on perhaps for a bit too long. Jenkins' character borderlines on the corny as he speaks in cliched catchphrases, but his acting is affectionate and subtle enough for it to work. I probably would have cut a couple of the scenes involving a girl that Liz meets while scrubbing the floors of a monastery (or whatever it was they were in).

The last section is tricky, but I think the filmmakers pulled it off for the most part. Javier Bardem is sexy and extremely likable. The chemistry between his character and Liz is definitely there, and I really thought they were good for each other. I do think that some parts seemed a bit rushed, and even though the movie runs nearly 2hours and 20 minutes, I wouldn't have minded their relationship being explored a tad more. But overall, I think it works.

The reason why the movie stays afloat is Julia Roberts. Her portrayal of Liz is easily her best performance since ERIN BROCKOVICH. At 42, she looks great and was the perfect person to play Liz, who goes through all the emotions and Roberts nails every one. There's a scene early on when she is so scared to go through life, and it's heartbreaking because of the work that Julia does. She's very impressive here. Billy Crudup is mostly bland, but I think that was on purpose. But, he does have a great moment after the first divorce hearing that is a harsh and honest moment of realization for Liz. Like I said, Jenkins does a decent job even if his character is a little cheesy. Bardem doesn't just phone this one in, only looking handsome. He actually does some acting too, like in the scene when he talks about the love for his grown son. It's a beautiful moment of acting.

I have yet to see Ryan Murphy's first feature film (RUNNING WITH SCISSORS), but I thought he did a fine job here. There's plenty of second unit photography that makes a great travelogue, but Murphy's first hand direction also seems self-assured. He gives the actors room to breath and emote, not always going for the quick cuts. It's a mature film that has real weight to it. The script could have been a little stronger. I think the stories weren't equally balanced. I think the last section should have been expanded and the second one shortened. I can only imagine that writing the script must have been difficult given the structure of the source material. So taking that into consideration, I would say this film is fairly successful.

Even with it's (mostly minor) problems, EAT PRAY LOVE is a compelling story about a person learning out how to live life and love effortlessly. The film's biggest key to it's success, however, is Julia Roberts, who hasn't been this good in a long time. I enjoyed watching why she has become a household name in Hollywood. This is a great date movie, and I'm sure many close minded men will hate this, but I'm more like a woman anyway. So I liked it. Whatever. I'm fine with that.

*** (out of ****)