RED 2 (2013)
by Steve Habrat
About three years ago, director Robert Schwentke’s geriatric action-comedy RED became a respectable success. It raked in a nice chunk of change, it seemed to charm anyone who went to the theater to see it, and it even went on to earn a Golden Globe nomination in the Best Picture-Musical or Comedy category. While I found RED to be a fairly entertaining comic book outing, it really didn’t win me over like it did with almost everyone else who ventured to the theater to check out Helen Mirren with a machine gun. The absolute last thing that I thought it needed was a sequel, but apparently Hollywood thought differently. Enter RED 2, an action comedy that practically throws its back out to capture the same small, off-beat charms of the first film in a summer blockbuster season crammed with giant robots, monsters, and other, better superheroes. While new director Dean Parisot may have had his heart in the right place, RED 2 is a sluggish and stale shoot-‘em-up that feels obligated to incorporate every action movie cliché imaginable. The returning cast members sure seem spirited and the newcomers are relishing the idea of spending time with Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, and John Malkovich, but after a while, all of them start to seem bored, confused, and, much to my horror, a bit winded. Come on, guys, pick it up!
Former black-ops CIA agent Frank Moses (played by Bruce Willis) is trying to live a normal life with his feisty girlfriend, Sarah Ross (played by Mary-Louise Parker). One day while shopping at Costco, Frank and Sarah bump into paranoid buddy Marvin Boggs (played by John Malkovich), who warns Frank that there are people after them. Frank dismisses Marvin, and moments later, Marvin’s car is blown up. Sarah and Frank attend Marvin’s funeral, even though Frank is convinced that Marvin is not dead, and afterward, Frank is taken to the Yankee White Facility to be interrogated. While in custody, the Yankee White Facility is attacked by Jack Horton (played by Neal McDonough), who is there to find Frank, but right before Frank is going to be killed, Marvin, who turns out to be alive, saves the day. Frank and Sarah go on the run with Marvin, who explains that they were listed as participants in a secret Cold War mission called “Nightshade,” which revolved around sneaking a nuclear weapon into the Kremlin piece by piece. As it turns out, that mysterious weapon is now in high demand. Just when the trio believes that things can’t get any worse, they learn that their old friend Victoria Winters (played by Helen Mirren) and top contract killer Han Jo-bae (played by Lee Byung-hun) have been hired to kill them. As Frank, Sarah, and Marvin travel the world to clear their names, they come face to face with the beautiful Russian secret agent Katya (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), a deadly assassin called “The Frog” (played by David Thewlis), and the crazy Dr. Edward Bailey (played by Anthony Hopkins), the man responsible for the creation of the weapon.
After getting off to a cloudy start, RED 2 quickly morphs into another seen-it-all-before action comedy. While RED was more humorous than it was flat-out funny, RED 2 can’t seem to deliver a good laugh to save its life. The only one who doesn’t fumble through her one-liners is Mirren, who really knows how to make even the most wooden joke cut like a knife. It is one thing that the jokes come off as lazy, but it’s another when the action can’t seem to ever get your adrenaline pumping. There are the expected car chases through narrow Paris streets, there are the fistfights that are meant to show us that Bruce Willis can still throw a mean right hook, and there are the Gatling-gun shootouts that turn cars and buildings into Swiss cheese, but all of these would-be rushes seem like they were executed by using a how-to manual for action films. The only time that Parisot really adds any personality to all the compact destruction is near the end, when Byung-hun and Mirren hop into a ice blue sports car and swerve around whizzing bullets like they belong in The Fast and the Furious. The entire sequence is anchored by Mirren’s ability to barely raise an eyebrow as cars go flipping end over end behind them. This is basically where the fun begins and ends in RED 2.
The true strength of RED lied with its all-star cast of energetic veterans who really made the film something worth talking about. While the cast of RED 2 is clearly having a good time with each other, their performances are a mixed bag. As far as the returning cast members go, Willis is the one headlining the mayhem and he looks to be right at home while doing it. He jumps, shoots, kicks, punches, and bleeds like a champion, but as the story progresses, he almost seems to be loosing interest in saving the world for the hundredth time. As Marvin, Malkovich dials back some of his acid-flashback craziness, which is a shame because his character relied on the idea that he had more than a few screws loose. Parker is clearly enjoying the fact that she is surrounded by a handful of legends, but she probably gives the laziest performance in the entire film. She basically just constantly gets mad at Frank for having dated Katya several years earlier. Mirren probably gives the best performance of the film as Victoria, who doesn’t remotely seem phased by anything going on around her. As far as the newcomers are concerned, Jones is here to give the film a bit more sex appeal. She is vampy and fun, but we are barely given the chance to get to know her character. Byung-hun turns up as the usual unstoppable hitman who can, you guessed it, kill someone with almost ANYTHING. It appears that Malkovich handed all of his crazy pills over to Hopkins, who jolly-goods his way through a crackers performance as Dr. Edward Bailey. Rounding out the cast is Neal McDonough as Jack Horton, the most boring bad guy ever. Seriously, he even has a boring name!
While the original RED had quite a few positives working in its favor, the film found success mostly because it was released during a slow month at the box office. The film came out at the end of October, with absolutely no competition whatsoever. RED 2 has been released in the middle of July, on a weekend that is usually reserved for a major studio release that is sure to make close to $100 million. It is surrounded by epic releases that almost dwarf it and make it seem like a wimpy effort. While it could be argued that RED 2 offers a nice change of pace from the usual superhero movies and alien invasion blockbusters, the film is still trying to be an action movie without bringing anything new to the table, which is really a shame. Overall, RED 2 isn’t a particularly awful film, but it is one made with absolutely no artistic vision. The tone is flat, the plot is dull, the action recycled, and the acting all over the place. Maybe if the studio shot for a release date earlier in the year or later this fall, these issues may not have been as noticeable. If there is a RED 3 in the works, which I’m sure that there is, maybe they should start rethinking it or hire a director willing to shake things up a bit.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
by Steve Habrat
Fresh off the success of the indie smash Reservoir Dogs and the vibrant script for True Romance, Quentin Tarantino returned to the big screen with a film that is widely considered the best film in his catalogue. To this day, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction remains a funky fresh blast of hilarious pop culture small talk and teeth-rattling violence. Reservoir Dogs certainly introduced the world to the Tarantino style of filmmaking but Pulp Fiction is the film that opened the copycat floodgates. Drawing inspiration from pulp magazines that dominated from the late 1800s until the 1950s, Pulp Fiction is certainly a film that is worthy of all the praise that is still handed to it. It holds up to multiple viewings, the jokes land every single time, it finds John Travolta giving one of the best performances of his career, it features dialogue that still makes my head spin with delight, and it still makes me jump when old Marvin gets his noggin blown to pieces. To this day, I still find myself rediscovering little moments that I have missed or forgotten about as the years pass. Yet what makes the film so great is the way that Tarantino irons out his characters, letting them really open up to the viewer and becoming almost like long lost friends. You genuinely feel like you are hanging out at Jack Rabbit Slims with these cats. And then there is the narrative, a jumbled collection of puzzle pieces that are reluctant to reveal themselves fully to us.
Pulp Fiction introduces us to a number of thugs, lowlifes, and small time crooks, who all collide at some point in the two and a half hours it is on the screen. We meet two hitmen, Vincent Vega (Played by John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Played by Samuel L. Jackson), who are sent by booming mob boss Marsellus Wallace (Played by Ving Rhames) to retrieve a mysterious briefcase from a trio of low-level crooks. These two hitmen meet an aging boxer named Butch Coolidge (Played by Bruce Willis), who has a price on his head after he refuses to throw a fight that Marsellus Wallace payed him to throw, a duo of jittery thieves who go by the named Pumpkin (Played by Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Played by Amanda Plummer), the junkie wife of Marsellus, Mia Wallace (Played by Uma Thurman), a hot shot problem solver named Winston Wolf (Played by Harvey Kietel), and three sadistic redneck freaks, Zed (Played by Peter Greene), Maynard (Played by Duane Whitaker), and the Gimp (Played by Stephen Hibbert), who enjoy kidnapping strangers and then sodomizing them. What plays out is a number of gruesome showdowns, hilarious exchanges, and plenty of drooling over a glowing briefcase.
While every single moment of Pulp Fiction is juicy, Tarantino spins a web of moments that are consistently in competition with one another. Ask anyone who has seen the film to name their favorite moment for you and I promise that everyone will answer differently. There is the dance number in Jack Rabbit Slims, where Thurman and Travolta boogie down to win a twist trophy (Travolta still has the moves). There is the adrenaline shot to the heart to revive the overdosing Thurman that will have you watching through cracked fingers. We also have the sequence where Willis and Rhames stumble upon a trio of sodomizing maniacs, only to fight back with a samurai sword. Or how about the scene where poor Marvin “accidentally” gets shot in the head as Jules and Vincent debate a miracle that just happened moments earlier? While connecting the plot points is a blast, it’s the thoughtful sequences connecting everything together that are ultimately more fun to talk about. Personally, my favorite moment is the sequence where Vince and Mia chow down at Jack Rabbit Slims, talking about awkward pauses on dates, debating how good a five dollar milkshake is, evaluating Buddy Holly on his skills as a waiter, and finally getting up to participate in the twist competition. And I just love Thurman as she draws that dotted line square. It’s a pop culture loaded scene that really springs to life. Plus, it comes with a Vanilla Coke!
As always, I have to discuss the performances, which are the heart and soul of Pulp Fiction. Everyone just loves Jackson’s Bible quoting hitman Jules, a real spitfire with a jheri curl. His exchanges with Travolta’s drawling Vincent Vega will have you chuckling through the first half hour or so of the film. Travolta, meanwhile, hasn’t felt this alive in a role since Grease. In a way, you almost feel like Travolta was born to play the role of Vince and I must say that he really disappears into the character, a rarity for Mr. Travolta. And then there is Rhames as Marsellus Wallace, the furious mob boss who will be your friend one minute and your worst enemy the next. Willis is the underdog here as the scrappy boxer who will stop at nothing to get his father’s prized watch back even if it means risking his life. The sequence where he comes up against the three sodomizing devils will really leave a mark. Thurman shows up only a half hour but she becomes the face of Pulp Fiction. She is crazy, sexy, cool as she calls Vince “Daddy-O” and shouts “I say goddamn. Goddamn!” while powdering her nose. Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer are hysterical as two thieves who think they’re tough but quickly realize they are nothing when put up against Jules and Vincent. Harvey Keitel and Quentin Tarantino round out the cast later in the film as two problem solvers trying to help out our two lovable and blood drenched hitmen. Christopher Walken also gets a very fine cameo but the less you know about him, the funnier it is.
As Pulp Fiction coasts along on the surf guitars that rumble over the soundtrack, you begin to realize that the film is all about conversations. Sure, all of these conversations are basically references to other crime flicks and forgotten exploitation cinema but they all just seem so effortless. It is dialogue that just rolls off the tongue and will have you and your buddies quoting it for days. I suppose that you could describe the overall big picture here as effortless and suave. It never seems to be trying too hard and yet it is maddeningly cool. No character seems like they are just taking up space and there is no one scene that feels like it is dragging on too long. The first time I saw the film, I was a bit thrown off with Butch’s sequence in the middle of the film but this stretch has really grown on me after seeing the film as many times as I have over the years. I also love the way Tarantino really allows the soundtrack to shine. You can just visualize Tarantino at a jukebox sorting through these surf rock ditties and tapping his toes along to the beat. Overall, you’ll be grinning from ear to ear as Pulp Fiction rounds the home stretch and reveals how all of these characters are connected. You’ll glow as Tarantino skips through sleaze land and pays tribute to all of his interests in some way, shape, or form. Believe me when I say you will fall in love with Pulp Fiction, a hyperactive and playful masterpiece that still manages to be one step ahead of all the copycats. Oh, and feel free to leave your thoughts about what is in that mysterious suitcase.
Pulp Fiction is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
For quite some time, I’ve been griping about the never-ending stream of recycled ideas coming out of Hollywood over the past few years. I’d say that one of the most original films I’ve seen recently is without question Christopher Nolan’s 2010 mind-boggler Inception, a film that left me speechless after my first viewing. Well, now I can add writer/director Rian Johnson’s Looper to the short list of wholly original films. Fresh but flawed, Looper is truly something you’ve never seen before, a confident science-fiction vision that has the stones to pat itself on the back in the first fifteen minutes. While I believe that Looper is a little too hasty to congratulate itself for breathing new life into science fiction, the film’s opening hour is near classic levels. It’s incredibly riveting, funny, thrilling, and just begging to be revisited so the viewer can piece the brainy plot together. Unfortunately folks, it is too good to last and Looper does hit a snag in its second half, leaving Johnson in a scramble to recover. The second half of Looper is shockingly comatose, shifting the focus off the nifty time travel and onto a little boy and his mother, two characters who fail to draw the viewer in the way that stars Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt do early on. Luckily, the ending is somewhat of a recovery but it still leaves us feeling a bit empty.
In the year 2074, time travel exists but is instantly outlawed. Time travel is secretly controlled by a mob organization in Shanghai and is led by a mysterious figure called the Rainmaker. This organization captures individuals they want wiped off the map and they send them to the year 2044, where hitmen known as “loopers” kill the individual and then dispose of the body. Joseph Simmons (Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) happens to be a looper in Kansas City, a dystopia gangland controlled by Abe (Played by Jeff Daniels), a man sent from the future to run the looper organization in 2044. Joe and his looper buddies quietly carry out their assassinations by day and by night, they hang out in Abe’s nightclub where they take recreational drugs through eye drops and flirt with the beautiful dancers. While loopers appear to live the high life, their bosses can suddenly end their contract, which means they send an older version of the looper through time to the younger version to be killed off, which is known as “closing a loop.” After Joe’s friend Seth (Played by Paul Dano) fails to “close his loop,” he comes to Joe’s apartment in a panic and asks Joe to hide him. Joe agrees to hide Seth but is soon convinced by Abe to give him up. Thinking the mess is behind him, Joe heads out to wait for his target to arrive. To his horror, his next target is the older version of himself (Played by Bruce Willis). The older Joe manages to escape and sets out to settle a nasty personal score. As the younger Joe frantically searches for the older version, Abe’s personal army known as “gatmen” begin to close in.
Certainly not the easiest film to sum up, Looper is chock full of twists and turns that will have your brain swimming, at least at first. The opening introduction is truly something to marvel at as Johnson’s camera explores this rusty, unglamorous vision of the future where cell phones are transparent and hovering motorcycles exist. It is in these opening moments, when Joe and his friends zip through the city streets in a sports car, almost mowing homeless people over, that I was vaguely reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. The comparison quickly fades and we are left with a completely original story with plenty of savage wit and blood-drenched violence. Johnson does his best to not have to pause and explain plot points to the viewer, something that films of this sort often are forced to do. He manages to find a way to let the story naturally play out with only a small assistance from Joe’s voiceover. The film also tells us that there are individuals that have suffered genetic mutation and posses telekinetic powers. The film never fully elaborates on this aspect of the story but it becomes increasingly important as the film advances towards the climax. The second half of the film introduces us to isolated farmer named Sara (Played by Emily Blunt) and her son, Cid (Played by Pierce Gagnon), who are forced to take in the younger Joe, who is hiding out from Abe. It is on Sara’s farm where you may find some yawns making their way into the story.
Judging from Looper’s trailer, you’d think the film would be heavy on action but you are in for a surprise. Looper puts more effort into exhaustively developing its main characters. This is all well and good with Willis and Gordon-Levitt but when the film shifts to Blunt and Gagnon, the film is sent into a slump. Gordon-Levitt continues to prove why he is one of the most talented men in Hollywood as Joe. A mumbling junkie who coldly carries out his work, Joe is a young man heading for an unknown disaster. We feel it in these early scenes but we can never put our fingers on what that disaster is. Joe is busy stock piling all the silver bars he is paid for his assassinations and studying up on his French so that he can retire from being a looper and move to France. He mimics Willis almost perfectly, with a little help from subtle prosthetics glued to his face. In the early scenes, away from Willis and Blunt, Gordon-Levitt has a groove that I was sure wouldn’t be thrown off. Then he comes face to face with the even colder Willis, who has some nasty business to attend to that I will not ruin here. Trust me when I say, his business got some nervous rustles and uncomfortable twitches from the audience in my screening. The scenes where Willis and Gordon-Levitt are forced to come face to face don’t seem to have the zing that Johnson thinks they do. They are devoid of any real chemistry that would make these exchanges fun. They are almost, dare I say, flat! Luckily, Johnson separates them and lets them shine on their own
Then we have beautiful Blunt, a moderately talented actress who always seems to fly just under the radar. She has never really delivered a performance that has absolutely floored me and here, she is really no different, no matter how much raw emotion she chooses to pour into her brooding role. Similarly to Willis, she can’t really seem to find a groove with Gordon-Levitt even if the two are demanded to spark up a romance. Surprisingly, the young Gagnon is another standout as the lovable tyke Cid who can turn into a monster in the blink of an eye (we will leave it at that for fear of spoilers). While there are brief moments where Sara and Cid’s story will have you at the edge of your seat, they just failed to make me really care about them and trust me, I wanted to. Looper also makes the grave mistake of under-using Paul Dano as the hotshot Seth. Johnson only hands him a small number of scenes before he vanishes. The same thing happens with Jeff Daniels, who is here on an extended cameo. While memorable, I wished he would have remained in the action a bit more than he does. He hands his dirty work off to the screw-up gatman Kid Blue (Played by Noah Segan), a character that is more for comic relief than true menace.
While I hesitate to really call Looper a mediocre movie, I was certainly hoping for more consistency. Instead, it gets switched on to autopilot before the furious climatic confrontation. While the arching plot is relatively easy to follow, Looper leaves a lot on the viewer’s plate to chew on and debate. I’m still trying to piece everything within the picture together and make sense of every little plot point that Johnson hands us. Despite the frustrating stand still in the middle of the film, there are moments where we are sucked back in and overtaken by the early thrill, especially when the film switches from Sara’s farm back into the city. Overall, I admire the ambition and I certainly have to give it up for the premise, as it truly is one of a kind. I commend Johnson for trying to do something new and I even have to give TriStar credit for taking a risk on Looper. Despite the flaws, Looper is still a minor triumph for science fiction and I am left wanting quite a bit more from Rian Johnson.
The Expendables 2 (2012)
by Steve Habrat
One thing that I never dreamed I would see in my lifetime is Sylvester Stallone duke it out with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Now if that doesn’t scream manly than nothing does. Thanks to director Simon West’s The Expendables 2, I have now seen these two titans of action beat each other to a bloody pulp and I have to say, I kind of enjoyed watching it. Yes, I sort of enjoyed The Expendables 2 because, well, it was the movie that should have been released back in August 2010. I wasn’t exactly kind to the first Expendables film and for good reason. It was pretty stupid and unfulfilling to say the least, a hoarse battle cry for the action films with empty beefcakes shooting their way through endless waves of bad guys. It also had a weak villain and not nearly as many aging action stars as it liked to think it had. Also, Stallone was taking things way too seriously, almost like the film (which he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in) was the reassuring whisper in his ear saying, “you still have it in you, man!” Now we have the balls-to-the-wall sequel to that testosterone terror of a first film and the party has begun. Still weak in the plot depart and still light on character development, The Expendables 2 wins bonus points for the smart inclusion of Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, AND Chuck Norris. Got all that? The only manly thing missing from The Expendables 2 is an all you can eat buffet of pizza and hot wings and a complimentary cooler of ice cold Budweiser, all served to you by a smoking hot blonde in a low cut tank top. Personally, I’m stunned Stallone didn’t demand all theaters provide this during showings of the film.
After rescuing a Chinese businessman from the clutches of a brutal mercenary in Nepal, Expendables leader Barney Ross (Played by Sylvester Stallone) and his team return to the U.S. for some much needed R&R. Playtime is cut short when Barney finds himself approached by the mysterious Mr. Church (Played by Bruce Willis), who asks that the Expendables travel to Albania to retrieve a set of blueprints from a downed airplane. Mr. Church also demands that Barney takes the beautiful tech expert Maggie (Played by Yu Nan) along with him. Barney reluctantly agrees to take the mission and begins rounding up the gang. With blades specialist Lee Christmas (Played by Jason Statham), martial artist Yin Yang (Played by Jet Li), heavy weapons specialist Hale Caesar (Played by Terry Crews), demolitions expert Toll Road (Played by Randy Couture), and snipers Gunnar Jensen (Played by Dolph Lundgren) and Billy the Kid (Played by Liam Hemsworth) by his side, Barney comes face to face with his deadliest foe yet—terrorist Jean Vilain (Played by Jean-Claude Van Damme). It turns out that the blueprints that the Expendables were sent in to retrieve could spell doom for the entire planet, but when one of their own is killed on the mission, the fight gets personal.
The Expendables 2 mulls you over with brute force the second it takes command of the screen but it isn’t all an ego stroke for Mr. Stallone. The Expendables 2 is willing to kid with the audience and even have a sense of humor about itself. The guys all crack jokes about their age and long for the youthful enthusiasm that radiates from newcomer Billy the Kid. In a way, you do sort of feel for these guys because, beneath all the protein bars and steroids, they do have hearts of gold. Still, when one of their own falls in the line of duty, they just sigh deeply, say a few words, and move on like the manly men that they all are. Come on! Show a smidgeon more of respect. Oh well, that is the kind of experience you are in for if you were wondering. Still, it is a MINOR improvement over the first film but it is clear that screenwriters Richard Wenk and Stallone still have little regard for the plot of their film. It is the typical stop the money hungry terrorist before he reduces the world to ashes. This loose storyline basically leads us to one massive action scene after another and I must say, these battles are incredibly satisfying on every level. My only complaint is that they resorted to the goddamn CGI blood! NOOOO!
It is hard to approach a film like this and expect to really evaluate the acting but there are a handful of standouts, if you can believe it. Stallone dials back his heavy determination and plays things a bit cooler. I can’t believe I am about to write this but the one who steals the entire film is Van Damme as the purring terrorist Vilain, a man with the meanest roundhouse kick you have ever seen. He’s just a few kicks short of brilliant if you ask me and you can tell he is having the time of his life back in front of a camera. When he isn’t chewing up the movie, Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Norris are. Schwarzenegger is like a giddy muscleman let loose on shopping spree in a GNC. He grins through one-liners like, “I told you I’d be baaahck” and you will be happy to join him in grinning. Willis, meanwhile, seems to enjoy being back in action mode after drifting into dramatic territory with Moonrise Kingdom. Willis is the most talented actor here and when he screams, “SHOOT SOMETHING”, he means it. Then there is Norris, the one who got the biggest response from the audience. You’ll be doubled over as Norris shoots his way through an ARMY of bad guys and then looks at Stallone and calmly says that he prefers to work alone. If that isn’t cool enough, Norris then references those jokes about him that have been passed around the Internet. Good to have you back, Chuck.
Then we have everyone else, who does the exact jobs that you expect them to do. Li is reduced to basically a cameo in the film and then he is off on his own. He does get a savage little confrontation at the beginning to keep his fans happy. Statham grumbles and mumbles over the fact that he is getting older and then throws some knives. There isn’t really any growth to be found in his character. Hemsworth brings some fresh talent to the mix but he isn’t given much to really do. He does bring a bit of depth with him, which was nice and pretty surprising consider no else cared to. Crews and Couture are here just to let you know that their characters are still alive and kicking. They get a few decent jokes here and there but they mainly just fill the background. And then there is Lundgren, who references his real life master’s degree in chemical engineering while sending a big wink our way. He almost seems desperate to convince us that he isn’t just some lumbering piece of meat. Rounding out the team is Nan, the female newcomer to this guy’s night out. She adds a sexy little sizzle and she can more than handle herself in a fight. It’s good to see Stallone is starting to let a few ladies mix it up with the boys.
Despite a familiar plot, thin characters, and some eye-rolling dialogue, The Expendables 2 still packs a mean action scene. The opening sequence has to rank as one of the most extreme action scenes of recent memory and it sure as hell leaves a lasting impression. I think it has to hold a record for the most deaths on screen in the span of ten minutes. The end fistfight between Stallone and Van Damme will have action junkies on their feet and begging for a lot more. And I have to admit that I smiled when Ah-nold and Bruce picked up some machine guns and joined the madness. And I have to confess that I laughed when Norris strolled onto the screen and let loose a fury that would make God tremble. My only other complaint about the film was the absence of the great Mickey Rourke. He would have been a welcome presence here as he really did most of the heavy lifting in the first film. There have been some significant improvements since the first film and I give The Expendables 2 credit for that but there is still room for even more improvement. For now, I’d happily sign on for a third mission with these guys. I just hope I don’t regret it.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
by Steve Habrat
Up until yesterday, my favorite Wes Anderson film was 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the hilarious aquatic escapade that was one of Bill Murray’s finest hours. I think I may have a new number one pick. The hipster auteur’s latest quirky adventure Moonrise Kingdom could be his crowning achievement, one that has staggering amounts of feeling and emotion behind every single frame. If you were to just show someone Moonrise Kingdom without telling them who the director is, they would be able to figure it out at lightning speed just by the obsessive compulsive organization of every frame and the deadpan humor. This is perhaps Anderson’s most stylish film to date (yes, even more so than The Fantastic Mr. Fox), yet Anderson’s work has always been plagued by style threatening to overtake the narrative but not in Moonrise Kingdom. Along with screenwriter Roman Coppola (son of Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola), Anderson crafts a fragile tribute to young love and innocence that will slowly take over you for the hour and forty minutes that it inhabits the movie screen. It is a love story that could only be told by Anderson himself and no one else.
Moonrise Kingdom begins on an island off the coast of New England in 1965, where twelve-year-old “Khaki Scout” orphan Sam Shakusky (Played by Jared Gilman) and forgotten bookworm Suzy Bishop (Played by Kara Hayward) have run off together into the thick wilderness. After waking up to discover that Sam has “flew the coop”, bumbling Scout Master Ward (Played by Edward Norton) quickly alerts island police Captain Sharp (Played by Bruce Willis), who puts together a ragtag search party that consists of Suzy’s parents, Mr. Bishop (Played by Bill Murray) and Mrs. Bishop (Played by Frances McDormand), and the rest of Ward’s “Khaki Scouts” to locate the two lovebirds. Sam and Suzy are quickly discovered and ripped away from each other, but the “Khaki Scouts” begin to suspect they have made a terrible mistake by helping the adults. They quickly draw up a plan that would reunite Sam and Suzy, taking them on an adventure of a lifetime. Their adventure threatens to turn deadly as a violent hurricane makes its way towards the island.
Anderson makes what could possibly be the most organized film of his career, every single shot done up to maddening perfection. A leaf is perfectly placed on the corner of a picnic blanket while a Tang can is tilted just right. Yet it is a lot of fun to spot the tiny details that he throws in to make it 1965, the Tang inclusion actually being the funniest one along with all the slouchy horn-rimmed glasses that obscure the eyes. Anderson finds a way to allow the whimsical composition to really compliment our misfit heroes, a magical frame to compliment the magical feeling that has wormed its way into their small hearts. Gilman and Hayward give some of the finest and most touching performances of the year so far, even more amazing because these are child actors. I was completely engrossed in their budding young love, chuckling over their first encounter, which takes place a year earlier in 1964, where Sam sneaks into the girls dressing room during a church play and demands to know what kind of bird Suzy is playing. She’s a raven, if you must know. Their connection is misunderstood by the melancholic adults that wander the island, all who are searching for some strand of happiness to shake them out of their funk. You will find yourself longing for the spark that these two kids find earlier on. They just understand each other from the first time their eyes lock. Hey, isn’t that what love is all about?
While Gilman and Hayward own every scene in Moonrise Kingdom, the adults do a fine job of keeping us engulfed in all the surreal dramatics. Norton seems right at home as Scout Master Ward, a lanky buffoon who stomps around his campsite spouting off camping tips to his “Khaki Scouts”, the best one being his questioning the shoddy construction of a dangerously high tree house (one of the film’s best jokes). Bruce Willis as the deflated Captain Sharp is a character that just longs for someone to share his time with in his cramped little trailer. He carries on an affair with Mrs. Bishop, who crushes his spirits even more when Mr. Bishop begins to suspect something is up. You’ll beam when he finally gets his moment to shine in the final moments of the film. It is such a nice change of pace to see Willis actually doing something more than running from explosions and firing a machine gun. Murray chews up his scenes as the preoccupied Mr. Bishop, a man who barely notices his own family until he suspects something odd going on between Sharp and Mrs. Bishop. McDormand is cold as Mrs. Bishop, an equally preoccupied and firm force in the Bishop household. She’s hilarious as she storms through the house bossing Suzy and her three younger brothers around with a bullhorn. Also keep an eye out for hilarious cameos from Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, and Jason Schwartzman.
Moonrise Kingdom is brimming with an innocence that never seems to slip away. Suzy and Sam seem more comfortable dancing away on a secluded beach rather than attempting to get “fresh” with each other. It is almost paralyzing to the viewer when Sam and Suzy are separated and Social Services (Played by Tilda Swinton) shows up to have Sam carted off to an orphanage. It is devastating to see these two misfit children, who glow when they are in each other’s company, separated by a sea of frowning adults that don’t have a clue what happiness is. That is the exact message of Moonrise Kingdom, young love may be reckless, a bit irresponsible, but it knows what it wants and we can’t possibly fault it for that. Gloom and routine are for the adults! It is that longing to be young again that really hits hard in Moonrise Kingdom, making the older viewers walk away aching for an innocence that can never be obtained again. Overall, Moonrise Kingdom is Wes Anderson’s masterwork, a flawless film that is warm, dreamy, and relentlessly funny, drenched in the sunrays of summer, feeling the wind in its hair, and relishing the sand between its toes. Moonrise Kingdom is one of the best films of 2012 so far.
The Expendables (2010)
by Steve Habrat
I avoided seeing The Expendables like I was avoiding a plague when it was released back in August of 2010. I just couldn’t bring myself to care about a handful of has-been action stars (and two still respectable ones) stomping around on the movie screen while trying to relive their glory days. I finally forced myself to sit down and endure the Sylvester Stallone action vehicle and my worst fears were confirmed. This movie has got to be one of the most astonishing things I have ever laid eyes on. The Expendables is a completely delusional film, one that doesn’t settle on reminiscing about the good old days, but rather painstakingly tries to make the plea that there is still a place for these mindless and ultra-violent shoot-em-ups in the cinema world. I hate to break it to Stallone, but there just isn’t a place for this kind of crapola. The Expendables is so jacked up on testosterone, that the mere hint of vulnerability and emotion practically makes Stallone and his beefcake crew sick to their stomachs and calling anyone who shows some of vulnerability or emotion a sissy.
The Expendables follows a group of highly trained mercenaries lead by Barney Ross (Played by Stallone) who are enlisted by the mysterious Mr. Church (Played by Bruce Willis) to travel to a small island between the Gulf of Mexico and South America and bring down a brutal dictator (Played by David Zayas). Rounding up a team that includes blades specialist Lee Christmas (Played by Jason Statham), sniper Gunnar Jensen (Played by Dolph Lundgren), martial artist Yin Yang (Played by Jet Li), heavy weapons expert Hale Caesar (Played by Terry Crews), and demolitions expert Toll Road (Played by Randy Couture), The Expendables, as they like to call themselves, head to the island where they discover that the dictator is backed by nasty ex-CIA officer named James Munroe (Played by Eric Roberts) and his personal bodyguards Paine (Played by Steve Austin) and The Brit (Played by Gary Daniels). Ross also makes it a personal quest to see to it that he protects the beautiful Sandra (Played by Gisele Itié), the helpless daughter of the dictator who is being savagely tortured by Munroe and his men.
If you are looking for anything that resembles depth, character development, or a beefy plot, you better start looking somewhere else. The Expendables couldn’t be a more straightforward film. It is also incredibly empty-headed and stupid, filling out its runtime with extended shoot-outs, car chases, and bone snapping mano y manos. You’re probably saying to yourself, “Hey, that is why we are watching this!” The problem with the film is that it has absolutely no point whatsoever. It exists solely to blow things up, waste some fake blood, and allow Stallone to still think he has some form of relevance in our current world. What he completely misses is that audiences have embraced much more vulnerable heroes, ones who have some complexities and layers to them. There is a reason that action films of this sort have been largely left in the past and a good majority of these actors have been almost entirely forgotten by audiences.
The acting in The Expendables is basically what you would expect. It’s almost all one dimensional, blank, and consists of lots of flexing. The only two actors who check in any sort of noteworthy performance are Willis as the briefly seen Mr. Church, who grins through his dialogue and all but winks at the audience as he asks, “Gotta problem with that?” The very talented Mickey Rourke shows up as Tool, the groups mission coordinator who also runs a tattoo parlor the gang likes to hang out in. Rourke ends up being the only character that reveals some emotional scars, wounds caused by the grisly stuff he has seen in the past. His eyes leak in one scene, a sequence I’m surprised that Stallone even allowed into the film. Everything and everyone else ends up being a blank slate with a machine gun. To make matters worse, the dialogue that is provided by Stallone and David Callaham is all written to set up for cringe inducing one-liners for the group members to spout off to each other as they riddle soldier extras with bullets.
I suppose if you are in the target audience for The Expendables, you are absolutely going to love it regardless of what I say. If you are the type who enjoys spending your weekend watching 80’s action movies and wrestling, you have probably already seen this more times than you can count. There are two minor positives in The Expendables, mostly in the expertly photographed action sequences and the editing. To be honest, I never thought I would praise the editing in a film like this in a million years but I guess there is a first for everything. The climactic shoot out boasts incredibly well done editing, allowing all the action to be extremely coherent and clear. Alas, a turd is still a turd and The Expendables is most certainly a turd. If Stallone would have forced his rag tag crew to confront the traits of the new breed of action films, the ones where the heroes wear their emotions on their sleeves, The Expendables may have turned out to be an interesting fusion of old school action with new school sentiment. I guess I’ll be one of the sissy men here and say that I did not favor Stallone’s tasteless and irresponsible testosterone boost.
The Expendables is now available of Blu-ray and DVD.
Red State (2011)
by Steve Habrat
After last year’s buddy cop debacle Cop Out, pudgy funny-man director Kevin Smith needed a hit. Cop Out boasted Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, both who are able to draw a fairly large crowd to fill seats in the local theater, and ended up tanking and being largely forgotten soon after it’s release. Rather than enlisting more big actors and trying to make another blockbuster comedy, Smith scales back with Red State, a new horror/thriller that you, the viewer, will feel in the morning, long after you have seen it. Yes, this is the same guy who made Clerks, Dogma, Jersey Girl, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Red State is a hell of a departure from Smith’s other projects, but it also turns out to be one of his best movies, certainly scaring the hell out of you. With Dogma, Smith made clear he has an interest in the subject of religion, and with Red State, he launches a full on assault on radically religious figures, ultra-conservatism, and strangely, masculinity. This film is also evocative of the stock footage of such events as Waco, Texas, where a sinister ultra-religious cult lead by David Koresh engaged in a deadly firefight with FBI officials in 1993. The film brushes against the topic of terrorism as well, pitting Red State in the real realm of horror. The monsters here could be living down the street from you.
Red State focuses on Middle America high school students Travis (Played by Michael Angarano), Jared (Played by Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Played by Nicholas Braun), who plot to answer a sex invitation that Jared received in an online sex chat room. They pile into Travis’ car that very evening and set out to find the 39-year-old Sarah (Played by Oscar winner Melissa Leo), who promises the boys that they will get physical after they have a couple of beers. Turns out, the beers she provides the eager lads are spiked, drugging the teens. Jared soon awakens to find himself at the Five Points Church, which is lead by a radical preacher Abin Cooper (Played by Michael Parks), a fire-and-brimstone preacher who spews his message of hate against homosexuals. The church is also holding a homosexual man they lured in a through a gay chat room. They soon execute the poor man who has been saran wrapped to a cross. After he dies, the man is cut down and several of Cooper’s men dump his body into a cellar where we discover Travis and Billy Ray are bound together. The boys come to the realization that Cooper aims to execute them for their devilish lust. After a string of mishaps and the discovery of military grade weaponry, the local Sheriff Wynan (Played by Stephen Root) enlists the help of ATF Agent Joseph Keenan (Played by John Goodman) to set up a raid on Cooper’s church compound. As the standoff between the agents and Cooper’s congregation escalates and Keenan’s peaceful negotiations fail, the boys are caught with Sarah’s virgin daughter Cheyenne (Played by Kerry Bisché) in the middle of the conflict. Cheyenne begs the boys to help them hide the younger children, who are also hidden in the compound.
Red State does not mince words and it certainly is not cunning about its attacks. It goes right for the throat and I say good for Smith for following through. He makes us absolutely loath the members of the Five Points Church, making me cheer every time an ATF agent picked off one of the gun-toting psychos. This leads to my recognition of the way Smith mounts tension within the film and his expertise in shooting action sequences. He turns a chase scene through the compound into a ferocious and erratic kick to the head. You will be swallowed up by desperation. He can also stage a gunfight, avoiding confusion that some filmmakers fall victim to when they stage a gunfight. Praise should also go to the excellent editing, which is frantic but clear. This is where the film benefits from its smaller budget, as I can’t imagine this film was made for a huge sum of cash.
Smith enlists a handful of smaller actors along with some veterans, all who shine through the buckets of blood, gore, and gun smoke. Melissa Leo plays a horrifically loyal daughter to the heinous Cooper. While sniping ATF agents, he glances over at his machine gun wielding daughter and asks her if she will get him a glass of sweet tea. She proudly dashes off to quench his thirst. Leo excels at playing wicked and domineering, as she yanks and scolds her daughter Cheyenne for defying God. She does the phony hypnotic prayer, which all fanatical Christians in the south are so found of and she does it exceptionally well. Leo is all flaying arms to Christ, shouting “Praise Jesus” as Cooper fear mongers and promotes his message of destruction. Michael Parks is the embodiment of the devil as Cooper, who encourages his family members to march out and take the lives of innocent human beings. Goodman plays a good guy facing some serious moral dilemmas. Goodman conveys genuine horror over the events that play out right before his eyes and he is helpless to stop them. The three boys, Travis, Jared, and Billy Ray are all out to prove their masculinity and enter manhood. They take a backseat to Leo, Goodman, and Parks, but they still hold their own in the film.
Red State has many points to make on its agenda. It argues that under all of the fear mongering preaching made by radicals in Middle America (or anywhere in America, for that matter) has the underlying message of violence. Near the beginning of the film, Cooper’s congregation protests the funeral of a homosexual boy who was found dead in a dumpster behind a gay club. It asks if there is any decency in this world anymore. Would God approve of all this violence? He is supposed to be a peaceful God after all. Red State asks questions about masculinity, particularly the drive in young men to prove themselves sexually. It makes points about ultra-conservatism, sometimes with the role of women within a family. The scene where Cooper asks his daughter to get him some sweet tea would spark some thoughtful conversation in a Women’s Study course. There were moments in the film that were evocative of the documentary Jesus Camp, where radical preacher Becky Fisher discusses the “army of God”. The members of Cooper’s congregation certainly see themselves that way, even if they are fictional creations. And what about the issues of freedom of sexuality? And what gives us the right as human beings to judge other human beings? Red State points out that violence is not the way to solve any of these issues, as the violence will consume the innocent caught in the middle.
The portrait that Smith paints with Red State is scary because it has happened before and we can be certain it will happen again. These are monsters that exist and walk among us brainwashing our children and spewing vitriol to anyone who will stop and listen. Red State is not for all, mostly because of its relentless violence. Yet Red State is articulate and should be seen by those who are open minded. I’d be curious to hear the opinions of those who devout themselves to any certain religion or situate themselves in conservative beliefs. Sitting on the sidelines here, I found the film to be a gut punch that is softened only by it’s silly turn at the end. Smith turns the last fifteen minutes of the film into a comedy routine where the characters spout off with dialogue that would be at home in any of his comedies I have listed above. It saves itself again in the final thirty seconds. For all the intellectuals out there, Red State scares with reality. For movie lovers, Red State is a must-see for a left of center project from Kevin Smith. For me, Red State has left me reeling, swirling with emotions. I’ve felt angry, dismayed, and broken by it. I also don’t view any of these emotions as negative towards the film itself. Praise Red State!
Red State is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and in the Instant Queue on Netflix.