The Expendables | The Sorcerer’s Apprentice | A Serious Man | When You’re Strange

Film reviews for August 19
The Expendables
Rating: The Expendables | The Sorcerer's Apprentice | A Serious Man | When You're StrangeThe Expendables | The Sorcerer's Apprentice | A Serious Man | When You're StrangeThe Expendables | The Sorcerer's Apprentice | A Serious Man | When You're StrangeThe Expendables | The Sorcerer's Apprentice | A Serious Man | When You're Strange

Directed by Sylvester Stallone. Starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, David Zayas, Giselle Itié, Charisma Carpenter, Gary Daniels, Terry Crews, Mickey Rourke. Written by Dave Callaham and Sylvester Stallone.

Sylvester Stallone´s The Expendables is the 2010 equivalent of a 1985 Golan-Globus production, a Delta Force or Missing in Action or Cobra (which Stallone starred in). No irony or any kind of pretense: this is a bad mid-1980´s actioner through-and-through, in the no-apologies you-know-if-it´s-for-you vein. That´s precisely what Stallone was going for here, and he pretty much perfectly achieved it, which I give him a lot of credit for. Even if it doesn´t make this a good movie.

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The cast is quite clearly the big draw for The Expendables, a who´s-who of tough guy action heroes: Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren, UFC star Randy Couture, WWE star Steve Austin, NFL star Terry Crews, kickboxer Gary Daniels, B-movie villain standby Eric Roberts. Not enough? Bruce Willis shows up for an extended cameo, and Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up for a shorter one.

Stallone, Willis, and Schwarzenegger feature in the best scene in the movie, where they just chat for a few incredible minutes (I wouldn´t dream of spoiling the cameos if they weren´t featured so prominently in the film´s trailers.) I wasn´t even following the conversation, the star power ignites the screen like when Brando, Pacino, Caan and Duvall would share a scene in The Godfather. Just a different, ahem, style of acting on display.

It´s a good thing Stallone got all these names to jump on board, because he (and co-writer Dave Callaham) forgot to write actual characters for them to play (a no-name version of this film? Golan-Globus Hell.) Only Statham, as Lee Christmas, has anything resembling a backstory, a rather half-assed storyline involving a girlfriend (Charisma Carpenter). Even Stallone, who fills the screen throughout 90% of the film, has nothing to play off of besides his own image.

Stallone ‘plays´ Barney Ross, commander of a team of mercenaries comprised of Lundgren, Statham, Li, Couture, and Crews (character names? Irrelevant – I don´t think Crews or Couture are even referred to by name during the movie.) Shady government agent ‘Church´ (Willis) assigns them the task of assassinating a corrupt dictator of a fictional third world country (David Zayas), who happens to be the puppet of American James Munroe (Eric Roberts).

Make no mistake, this is a bad movie – almost indefensible on any level, it fails to match Stallone´s previous Rambo film for visceral excitement, and slogs through a been-there, done-that story peppered with hand-to-hand combat scenes, gunfire, and many, many explosions. But who am I kidding? I had a blast with The Expendables, and would wholly recommend it if not for two key failings. It´s the kind of authentic piece of it-what-it-is action that I never thought I´d see in the cinema again, and the kind of bad movie that´s OK because it´s exactly what they set out to make.

But two key problems I cannot forgive. The action scenes are a disappointment: Greengrass-style rapid-fire editing, nauseous camera stuff. Not the worst I´ve seen, and fine for pseudo-art and visceral thrills, but not appropriate here. There´s also some awful use of (incredibly) poor CGI. The explosions look fake, the bloodletting looks fake; when one major character buys it, I was shocked at how awful and unconvincing a simple knife through the chest was. A major letdown, and one thing 80s Golan-Globus has over this film in spades: real explosions, and practical effects that had a real weight to them no matter how unconvincing they might have appeared.

You know what you´re getting with The Expendables, and if you think you´ll like it I doubt even the movie itself will change your mind. Fans of professional wrestling should enjoy it most, with dream matchups of action stars: Stallone vs. Austin, Li vs. Lundgren, Statham vs. Daniels, etc. Not excited by the cast? Steer clear.

***

The Expendables | The Sorcerer's Apprentice | A Serious Man | When You're Strange

 

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Rating: The Expendables | The Sorcerer's Apprentice | A Serious Man | When You're StrangeThe Expendables | The Sorcerer's Apprentice | A Serious Man | When You're StrangeThe Expendables | The Sorcerer's Apprentice | A Serious Man | When You're StrangeThe Expendables | The Sorcerer's Apprentice | A Serious Man | When You're Strange

Directed by Jon Turteltaub. Starring Nicolas Cage, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina, Teresa Palmer, Toby Kebbell, Omar Benson Miller, Monica Bellucci, Alice Krige, Jake Cherry, James A. Stephens, Gregory Woo. Written by Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal & Matt Lopez and Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard.

The problem with The Sorcerer´s Apprentice is the use of magic: every other scene features wizards casting spells at each other, frequently represented by a glob of CGI. What´s at stake here? When someone points a gun at someone else in a movie, we know the ramifications of what will happen based on where they´re pointing it, how far they are from the target, and so on. Suspense is generated. When someone is pointing a special effect at someone, it´s the job of the director to make sure the audience knows the capabilities of the effect, what will happens if it hits the target, etc.

It´s a problem I had with some of the Harry Potter films, and (to a much lesser extent) the Lord of the Rings films. In The Sorcerer´s Apprentice, Jon Turteltaub just doesn´t give us the required information. Scene after scene of competently filmed action loses any excitement because we don´t know what the spells will do, or how dangerous they are, or anything really. We just watch as Nicolas Cage and Alfred Molina throw CGI back and forth.

I didn´t even know if these characters could die; one has to be locked up in The Grimhold for centuries rather than being killed, and when another one does die, it ain´t no thang to bring him right back to life. Watching someone play an RPG is more exciting: we know a spell takes away x magic points from one side, and deals y damage to the other. Subtraction. Basic mathematics holds more suspense than The Sorcerer´s Apprentice.

It´s a shame, because I can see they were trying have some fun here, in scenes where a paper dragon at a Chinatown parade becomes a real dragon, or a scene right out of Fantasia where our young hero tries to clean up by manipulating a bunch mops like Mickey Mouse.

That young hero is Dave (Jay Baruchel), whose life was changed forever when he chased a wind-blown note into an oddities shop urn by Balthazar (Cage). Complicated backstory: Balthazar was an apprentice to Merlin, who was murdered by Morgan Le Fey (Alice Krige), who was absorbed by Merlin´s other apprentice, Veronica (Monica Bellucci), who was then locked in The Grimhold, an inescapable prison, by Balthazar. Molina plays Horvath, another apprentice who double-crossed Merlin before being locked in The Grimhold (or something similar) for centuries until Dave accidentally lets him out. Phew. It took five (credited) writers to come up with this stuff.

So Balthazar and Horvath are fighting over The Grimhold, and poor Dave is caught in the middle as he becomes Balthazar´s apprentice. Unlike the magic spells, the writers have a grand time coming up with rules and regulations for all the politics: The Grimhold can only be opened under such-and-such conditions, Dave can only become a wizard when he can complete a certain task, Morgan Le Fey can only be separated from Veronica if certain criteria are met, and so on. Only problem: this is all arbitrary nonsense we couldn’t care less about.

At the center of all this is a sedated Nicolas Cage who seems to sleepwalk through the role, offering a quick quip every now and then to let us know he´s alive. It´s amazing he´s the same actor who was so wild and energetic and batshit crazy in last year´s excellent Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Baruchel, who I liked in Tropic Thunder and She´s Out of My League, starts to grow on the nerves halfway through this film.

Director Turteltaub previously brought us the National Treasure films, and a similar level of craftsmanship is on display here. Despite being 110 minutes long, The Sorcerer´s Apprentice – devoid of almost any suspense – feels considerably longer.

***

The Expendables | The Sorcerer's Apprentice | A Serious Man | When You're Strange

 

A Serious Man
Rating: The Expendables | The Sorcerer's Apprentice | A Serious Man | When You're StrangeThe Expendables | The Sorcerer's Apprentice | A Serious Man | When You're StrangeThe Expendables | The Sorcerer's Apprentice | A Serious Man | When You're StrangeThe Expendables | The Sorcerer's Apprentice | A Serious Man | When You're Strange

Written & directed by Joel & Ethan Coen. Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus, Peter Breitmayer, Brent Braunschweig, David Kang, Benjy Portnoe, Michael Lerner, Adam Arkin, Fyvush Finkel.

It might be a little too subtle for mainstream tastes, pretentious and initially unsatisfying in a way the Coen Brothers haven´t really played around with since Barton Fink (though they certainly flirted with in No Country for Old Men). But there´s great comedy in great tragedy, and the Coens mine it wonderfully in A Serious Man: it´s as funny as a pitch-black comedy can be.

A Serious Man centers on college professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his suburban family. Wife Judith (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce; she´s seeing another man, the disturbingly soothing Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who wants to peacefully resolve things. Brother Arthur (Richard Kind), homeless and jobless, sleeps on the couch and fills a journal with nonsense. Son Danny (Aaron Wolff) owes a bully $20 for marijuana and has his radio confiscated by a teacher.

Larry frequently runs into…troubles. A South Korean student demands a failing grade be changed. An anonymous source threatens his application tenure. Danny joins Columbia House and sticks his father with the bill. The neighbors keep mowing over the property line. And on and on – it never ends. Life.

The key to A Serious Man in the Schrödinger’s cat paradox – the famous cat in the box that is simultaneously dead and alive – which Larry teaches his students, and two lengthy open-ended vignettes. The second comes halfway through the film, when a rabbi tells him the story of a dentist who discovered a message on the inside of a patient´s teeth. What does it mean? No answers, only a search, and then contentment after giving up.

The first opens the film: a Hebrew-language, black&white 4×3 sequence that features a man returning to his wife having received a ride home from a man the wife claims died three years ago. He´s a dybbuk, the wife claims, and stabs him. Was he? The wife thinks so, the husband thinks she´s just committed murder. The truth might well be known eventually, but the scene ends here, and the audience is kept in the dark.

“We can´t know everything,” the rabbi tells Larry. “It sounds like you don´t know anything!” Something like that; no answers, only questions. This is a highly watchable (and re-watchable) film, carefully shot and composed, drawn from deep Jewish roots (and, I think, personal notes from the Coen´s youth) but engaging and relatable to most viewers willing to give it a chance.

Stuhlbarg is pitch-perfect as the put-upon lead, with wonderful comic timing and an initial Buster Keaton deadpan that suddenly (and frequently) turns into a look of incredulous horror: “Sy Ableman!?” The rest of the cast – few familiar faces, unusual for a Coen Bros. movie – is similarly wonderful, uniquely filling the screen in a way that would make Fellini proud.

Upon an initial viewing, I wasn´t convinced by A Serious Man. It´s highly watchable, but challenging and somewhat unsatisfying, in that Coen Brothers kind of way – the climax of No Country for Old Men being a prime example, the whole of Barton Fink another. Repeat viewings and a closer eye on the themes pushed me over: this is a darkly comic masterpiece that I rate next to Blood Simple, Fargo, and No Country as the best the Coen´s have produced. Not that their others are far behind; 25 years and precisely one bad film (The Ladykillers) out of 15. Not a bad record.

***

The Expendables | The Sorcerer's Apprentice | A Serious Man | When You're Strange

 

When You’re Strange
Rating: The Expendables | The Sorcerer's Apprentice | A Serious Man | When You're StrangeThe Expendables | The Sorcerer's Apprentice | A Serious Man | When You're StrangeThe Expendables | The Sorcerer's Apprentice | A Serious Man | When You're StrangeThe Expendables | The Sorcerer's Apprentice | A Serious Man | When You're Strange

Written and directed by Tom DiCillo. Narrated by Johnny Depp, with archive footage featuring John Densmore, Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek, and Jim Morrison.

 

It´s glossy, haphazard, and doesn´t mine the material nearly as much as it could have: When You´re Strange offers up little new for fans of The Doors, telling the familiar story of sudden rise and fall of the band from 1965-71.

But with full cooperation from the surviving members of the band and unprecedented access to archival footage, director Tom DiCillo serves up a frequently excellent compilation of Doors music and classic footage of the band, tied together with soothing (if occasionally pretentious) narration by Johnny Depp. If nothing else, it´s a welcome 1.5 hours spent with The Doors and a reminder of the raw power they once had.

We start out with footage of Jim Morrison from the 1969 film HWY: An American Pastoral as news of Morrison´s death is heard over a radio broadcast. DiCillo returns to HWY throughout the movie during extended sequences that feel disconnected from the rest of When You’re Strange; they also recall the mystical desert theme of Oliver Stone´s disappointing 1991 biopic. (Edited & corrected – thanks David W.)

But then we get to the good stuff: archive footage and photography tracing the band from its formation at UCLA in 1965, performances at LA clubs London Fog and Whisky-A-Go-Go, early studio albums produced by Paul Rothchild, up through the famous appearance on Ed Sullivan and the turning point for the band, the 1969 performance in Miami that landed Morrison a conviction on trumped-up indecency charges.

Throughout it all, a near-constant soundtrack provides a best-of compilation of lengthy selections from the band´s short career: Light my Fire at London Fog and then on Ed Sullivan, Touch Me on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Break on Through at the Isle of Wight Festival, People Are Strange, The End, Riders of the Storm, and so on. When the music stops, Depp steps in with some basic what-you´re-seeing narration and readings from Morrison´s books of poetry.

As with any look at The Doors, the focus here is on Jim: the drugs, the alcohol, his poetry, his relationship with longtime girlfriend Pamela Courson, his untimely death in 1971 at age 27. Still, the other members of the band – John Densmore, Robby Krieger, and Ray Manzarek – are at least given a fair shake here, something they don´t usually receive. The scenes focusing on the inner workings of the band and the studio recordings are some of the more interesting in the film.

Anyone familiar with the band won´t find much new in When You´re Strange, but they might enjoy (as I did) a return to the music and the time, refreshingly devoid of any talking heads or intrusive commentary. For anyone unfamiliar with The Doors, this isn´t just a good primer but a must-see collection of their music and footage from highlights of their short career.

***

Also opening: M. Night Shyamalan’s widely ridiculed The Last Airbender (showtimes | IMDb), a live-action adaptation of the popular cartoon. Screening in a Czech-dubbed version in Prague cinemas.


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