by Steve Habrat
These days, it is extremely difficult and rare for a major Hollywood studio to take a creative risk, especially during the hot and humid summer months when audiences turn out in droves. The suits fall back on time-tested franchises, overdone remakes, comic book heroes with built-in audiences, and winded sequels that guarantee them a major worldwide hit. Take this summer, for example, as we have seen another Marvel megahit with Iron Man 3, a grim reboot of the Man of Steel, two familiar animated sequels (Monsters University and Despicable Me 2), a Brad Pitt led zombie blockbuster based off of a wildly popular novel by Max Brooks (World War Z), and another installment in the Star Trek series. While I have enjoyed all of the films I’ve pointed out here, I’ve still craved something fresh and creatively stimulating. Enter Guillermo del Toro, a man with a vivid imagination and a knack for serving up some seriously zesty cinematic efforts, both big (Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army) and small (Cronos, Pan’s Labyrinth). After a lengthy hiatus from the director’s chair, we finally have a new summer blockbuster from del Toro and that film is the astonishing giant monster-giant robot mash-up Pacific Rim, a pulpy blast of rainbow science fiction that is exactly what the cinema doctor ordered. Seconds, please!
Pacific Rim begins by explaining that giant monsters known as “Kaiju” have crawled out of a portal beneath the Pacific Ocean and stomped into our cities. Unable to bring them down with the weapons we already have, the world develops a new weapon called “Jaegers,” which are giant robots capable of tossing around the raging “Kaiju.” After several exhausting years of battle, the “Jaegers” grow less and less effective in keeping the “Kaiju” at bay. The united governments of Earth grow weary of the giant robots and they decide to cut funding for their construction. The remaining “Jaegers” are shipped off to Hong Kong, where they are left to rust away and fade from memory. The remaining “Jaeger” program is left to Commander Stacker Pentecost (played by Idris Elba), who is determined to keep the “Jaegers” fighting the good fight. Stacker approaches washed-up “Jaeger” pilot Raleigh Becket (played by Charile Hunnam), who piloted the American “Jaeger” Gipsy Danger but quit when he watched his brother die in combat, about rejoining the program in a final attempt to prevent the imminent apocalypse. Raleigh agrees and begins training to find a suitable co-pilot, which he finds in the scrappy “Jaeger” test pilot Mako Mori (played by Rinko Kikuchi). Meanwhile, bickering scientists Dr. Newton Geizler (played by Charlie Day) and Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (played by Burn Gorman) have assembled a machine that allows them to establish a mental link with the “Kaiju” and discovered that the giant monsters are in fact genetically-bred weapons sent to wipe out the human race so that their masters can colonize the planet.
While many will be quick to label Pacific Rim as a Transformers wannabe, the film has so much more to offer than one of those Michael Bay abominations. This candy-colored gem is an exhilarating ode to Toho Co., the Japanese production company that is responsible for releasing giant monster movies (called “kaiju” movies, which is Japanese for “giant monster”) like 1954s Godzilla. While Pacific Rim certainly tips its hat to Godzilla and his family of rampaging atomic beasts (Rodan, Mothra, etc.), del Toro’s vision is something completely singular. The story line is carried by the myriad of colorful characters, which consistently stand apart from the astonishing special effects and towering action sequences that are loud enough to wake up the two people sleeping through The Lone Ranger in the neighboring theater. In the vein of Toho, the action is relentless, especially the neon fist-fight between a handful of “Jaegers” and a couple of seriously nasty “Kaiju” in the middle of downtown Hong Kong. It’s a rock ‘em-sock ‘em moment of pure adrenaline ecstasy that will have adults and children cheering in delight. But the thrills don’t stop there, as del Toro keeps uping the ante and powering up his beasts for a show-stopping underwater brawl boosted by a nuclear fizz.
While the heavy metal CGI action is a must-see, Pacific Rim is a very human film and one brimming with performances that will beckon you back for more. Del Toro proves that you don’t necessarily need a Brad Pitt, Robert Downey Jr., or Johnny Depp in the thick of the action to keep the audience absorbed in what is playing out before them. All you need is colorfully drawn characters with fragile emotion tucked delicately inside the layered armor. The relatively unknown Hunnam is out for blood as Raleigh, and I mean that in the best possible way. He is the all-American good guy—one that is nursing deep wounds but is eager to deliver a one-two hit to the massive monsters that wade through the Pacific. His chemistry is exceptional with Kikuchi, who isn’t the same old love interest (It is hinted at but never addressed outright. Perhaps in the sequel.). Kikuchi is heartwarming as the girl with a shy crush, but she is a lightning bolt of vengeance when we are allowed to glimpse inside her broken heart. These two animated leads are kept on a short leash by Elba’s no-nonsense father figure, who pops pills for a life-threatening illness and delivers pulse-pounding speeches about meeting the “monsters that are at our door” and “canceling the apocalypse.”
While our three leads do an incredible job, the supporting players are certainly something to behold. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day is a quirky and fun choice as the tattooed “Kaiju” scientist Newton, who rambles and shakes like a hipster lunatic in oversized specs. Surprisingly, he isn’t here simply to act as the comic relief, which really is a testament to his talent. Burn Gorman is great as Day’s uber-nerd partner Hermann, who pounds on a chalkboard and hobbles around like a comic book Albert Einstein with high-waisted pants and a cane. Clifton Collins Jr. is a treat as Tendo Choi, an Elvis-like greaser “Jaeger” whiz who is determined to spice up the role of the guy who simply sits behind the computer screen and acts as a guide to the heroes in the field. Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky are great tough guys as Hercules and Chuck Hansen, a tough-as-nails Australian father-son duo tasked with a beast of a mission. The pint-sized Mana Ashida is fantastic in her minor role as a young Mako Mori. She basically just cries and wanders around with a shoe in her hand, but she sent chills down my spine with her raw emotion. Last but certainly not least is the always-welcome Ron Perlman as Hannibal Chau, a blinged-out black marketeer in sinister goggles who tracks down and deals “Kaiju” organs. He shares some wonderful moments with Charlie Day’s twitchy scientist.
Considering that Pacific Rim is a tribute to Atomic Age creature features, there are numerous nods to Godzilla and many other Toho releases. I certainly smiled when Hong Kong citizens were locked into an underground shelter and huddled together as “Kaiju” footsteps boomed overhead, something that called to mind the original Godzilla. There is also a sly little tribute to the flare tactic used to keep Godzilla away from a blacked out city in Godzilla Raids Again and there is a magnificent aerial moment that sung praises to Rodan and Mothra. If there is something I absolutely need to criticize, there are a few moments where the action was a bit incoherent, but these moments are few and far between. Overall, while Pacific Rim doesn’t ever get as political and poetic as those post-World War II efforts did, there is still something deeply personal about del Toro’s vision. It is coming from the heart and it is a beautifully written love letter to the monster movies that del Toro loved as a kid. This film is a labor of love, a carefully crafted summer epic that earns its action sequences and doesn’t ever forget to remain human.
by Steve Habrat
Just under seven months ago, Quentin Tarantino proved that there was still some life in the western genre with his bold and brutal Django Unchained, which nabbed two Academy Awards and a nomination for Best Picture. Not only did it leave this viewer hankering for more from Mr. Tarantino, but it also left me hoping that more westerns would gallop into theaters. Now we have director Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, a bloated, erratic, and downright frustrating summer blockbuster from Disney, a studio that should have stayed far away from this title. For many months now, I have felt that most critics and audience members have been eager to approach The Lone Ranger with knives drawn, which I thought was a bit hasty and unfair. I thought the trailers showed potential even if it did seem like Disney was forcing this project to be another Pirates of the Caribbean, which was a huge mistake. The truth is that The Lone Ranger isn’t nearly as awful as some are claiming it is and that there is, in fact, quite a bit of potential here, but there are a myriad of problems with the film that should have been addressed before Disney gave it the okay. The biggest flaw is that Disney just couldn’t settle on a tone for the film. Is it supposed to be a dark and violent ode to Sergio Leone and the spaghetti westerns of the 60s and 70s, or is it supposed to be a winking action movie with heavy doses of slapstick camp? You just can’t have it both ways.
The Lone Ranger picks up in 1869, with mild-mannered law student John Reid (played by Armie Hammer) returning to Colby, Texas, by train to visit his brother and Texas Ranger Dan Reid (played by James Badge Dale). Also aboard the train is the sadistic outlaw Butch Cavendish (played by William Fichtner), who is being transported to Colby to be hung by Dan, and a mysterious Indian named Tonto (played by Johnny Depp), who has been tracking Cavendish. After Cavendish escapes from the train with the help of his loyal gang, Dan makes a vow to railroad tycoon Latham Cole (played by Tom Wilkinson) to track down the outlaw and bring him to justice. Dan recruits John as a Texas Ranger and together, they set out to find Cavendish, but they soon run into a trap set by the Cavendish gang and the Reid brothers are both gunned down. Several days later, Tonto discovers the bodies of the Reid brothers and he begins an elaborate Indian burial ritual. Near the end of the ritual, Tonto is shocked to find a white “spirit horse” standing over John’s grave. As it turns out, John is still alive and Tonto is convinced that he is a “spirit walker” sent to aid him on his quest to track down Cavendish. Tonto explains that John can’t be killed in battle and that he must wear a mask to strike fear in the hearts of their enemies. Together, they join forces to capture Cavendish and make him pay for his horrific crimes.
The Lone Ranger opens with a crackling train robbery that really gets the viewer’s adrenaline pumping. It has hints of the humor that was found in Pirates while never skimping on the rollicking action we’ve come to expect from Mr. Verbinski. It seems like everything is balanced but once the sequence ends, the tone splits off into multiple directions, never to come together again. There are scenes that are effective grotesque and sinister, especially a scene in which Cavendish slices out a man’s heart and devours it, only to be followed up by a some cutesy joke from Depp’s peculiar Tonto. This duel continues on for two and a half hours, and it concludes with a finale that is so mad cap, it almost feels like it belongs in another movie. While one could point the finger at Verbinski, it really should be pointed at Disney, who seems like one day they would tell Verbinski to make the film a bit edgier and then get cold feet about the decision the next day. When things do get dark, it feels more like Verbinski’s heart is in it, but when he is forced to pull back, the whole project seems to flat line, which yanks the viewer right out of the moment. It’s just exhausting.
Then we have the storyline, which suffered from multiple rewrites during the rocky production stage. While I’m sure the rewrites contributed to some the awkward shifts in tone, it also feels like the writers are unnecessarily trying to convolute the film with hazy side plots that could have been trimmed out and saved for the director’s cut Blu-ray. There are glaring plot holes (How did Tonto break out of jail and track down the Reid brothers?), obvious plot twists that you can see coming a mile away (There is one character in particular that you know is up to no good), and a slew of characters that, yes, are very colorful but ultimately useless in the grand scheme of things (I’m looking at you, Helena Bonham Carter). It is the same problem that plagued the second and third Pirates movies and you’d think that Disney would have learned their lesson, but I guess not. Mind you, The Lone Ranger never hits the confounding heights of those films, but it seems like the filmmakers are allowing it simply to trick the audience into thinking there is more depth here than there actually is. In a way, you hope that this is Disney’s way of really making the film worth the ten bucks you paid to see it, but I seriously doubt that Disney is being that generous.
Perhaps the biggest draw to The Lone Ranger is the performances, especially from the eccentric Depp, who also serves as executive producer here. While Depp’s name has been used to draw audiences in, the real star here is newcomer Armie Hammer, who made a name for himself in David Fincher’s The Social Network. While it was risky to cast someone like Hammer for the role, he does a fine job with the material he is given. The problem is, the material makes his character highly unlikable and extremely difficult to root for. His character doesn’t really do much, and he is constantly at odds with killing someone, even though the man he is tracking is a known psychopath with a taste for human flesh. While it is nice to see a character grapple with the decision of taking another human being’s life, I don’t think anyone under the sun was going to blame him for putting a bullet between Cavendish’s eyes, especially when he is threatening an innocent little boy. As far as Depp goes, he fares okay as Tonto, but for all the enthusiasm that he showed for the project, it is tough to really see it in his performance. As far as the supporting players go, Cater has some fun with her pointless role as Red Harrington, a brothel maid who packs heat in her ivory leg. Wilkinson is the usual burly business man as Latham Cole and Fichtner steals nearly every single scene he is in as the bloodthirsty Cavendish, a villain that is way too evil for a film that plays a nice as this does. Ruth Wilson also turns up in a small role as Dan’s widow, Rebecca, who is here to give the film a puny and pathetic love story.
For all of its problems, The Lone Ranger still has some brilliant little nods to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. There are two particular sequences that brought to mind Once Upon a Time in the West and the close up shots of scarred, sweaty, and thickly hairy gunfighters are evocative of Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy. The score from Hans Zimmer is also pretty atmospheric—something that I’m sure would make Ennio Morricone smile. There are also a few funhouse moments, especially a kaleidoscope detour into Hell on Wheels, where fire-and-brimstone preachers shout about the apocalypse and sideshow barkers plead with drunken railroad workers to step right up and marvel at a parade of freaks. I guess it is the little moments that really make the movie. Overall, while the credits of The Lone Ranger say, “directed by Gore Verbinski,” the film feels like the work of several different parties, all of which were on completely different pages. It is too dark to really appeal to children but too goofy to fully appeal to adults. If the Lone Ranger and Tonto do end up returning to a theater near you, let’s hope that they make the wise decision to get serious and remain consistent.
by Steve Habrat
It has been four long years since JJ Abrams ventured into the Star Trek universe and left both die hard Trekkies and casual moviegoers hungry for more deep space adventures from the brash Captain James T. Kirk and the brilliant Mr. Spock. For some, that lengthy wait felt almost like a lifetime. In between 2009s Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams buddied up with director Steven Spielberg on the set of their 2011 alien-in-suburbia throwback Super 8, and it seems that this friendship has really inspired Abrams and his approach to science-fiction blockbusters. Almost every single frame of rollicking action in Star Trek Into Darkness is alive and bursting with Spielberg’s spirit for adventure, something that will absolutely delight anyone who is a fan of Spielberg’s breezy approach to summer diversions. Yet you don’t necessarily have to be big on Spielberg to adore the second installment in this rebooted franchise. We may only be three weeks into the summer movie season, but after taking this bad boy in, I think we may have an early contender for best blockbuster of the year. Featuring two times the action, two times the thrills, two times the emotion, two times the fun, and two times the laughs, Star Trek Into Darkness finds Abrams burning with sugary creativity and bubbly enthusiasm to deepen the relationships between his wonderfully reinvented characters.
Star Trek Into Darkness begins on the primitive planet of Nibiru, with the crew of the USS Enterprise on an undercover mission to monitor a volcano that is on the verge of erupting and wiping out the planet’s natives. The crew has been warned that they are not to reveal their presence natives, but after a dangerous attempt to stop the volcano from erupting, Captain James T. Kirk (played by Chris Pine) breaks orders to save Spock’s (played by Zachary Quinto) life. Back on earth, Kirk and Spock are reprimanded by Admiral Pike (played by Bruce Greenwood), who reassumes command of the Enterprise, relieves Kirk of his command, and reassigns Spock. Meanwhile, in London, a Starfleet archives is attacked and destroyed by a shadowy Starfleet agent named John Harrison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch). Kirk and Spock are called in to attend an emergency meeting at Starfleet headquarters to discuss how to respond to the attack. The meeting is interrupted by another attack that kills several high-ranking members of Starfleet including Admiral Pike. With Pike dead, the USS Enterprise is given back to Kirk and Spock, who quickly hatch a plan to go after Harrison, who has fled to the hostile Klingon planet Qo’noS.
Much like Abrams’ first Star Trek film, the second installment is loaded with nifty little plot twists that should not be spoiled by a review. Just know that if you are a major Star Trek fan, there a more than a few surprises that will almost make your head explode. With all of the characters fleshed out in the first film, Abrams can strictly focus on the nonstop action that practically blasts the audience into the neighboring theater. The film begins with an Indiana Jones-style chase between the terrified Kirk and “Bones” McCoy (played by Karl Urban) and a yelping tribe from Nibiru, who launch spears out of the screen in glorious 3D. In case there wasn’t enough to marvel at in this particular set piece, Abrams flips to the glowing action that is taking place within the swirling volcano. From there on out, there is a city-shaking attack on Starfleet, a wicked shootout between Klingons and a handful of crewmembers of the Enterprise, a nerve-frying space jump through a spinning field of spaceship debris, and a breathtaking fistfight on the streets of San Francisco. If that isn’t enough to hold your attention, you’ll certain find yourself unable to stop scanning the inside of the seriously amazing USS Enterprise or grinning over the wild crew members that operate it. Surprisingly, the film was converted into 3D in postproduction, but it is totally worth spending the extra cash to check it out in immersive 3D.
While the action will certainly have you drooling, Star Trek Into Darkness really comes to life through Pine and Qunito. It really is a treat to see these guys hilariously bickering it out every step of the way. They argue in a disciplinary meeting, during the opening chase, and even while they are trying to infiltrate Qo’noS. Pine continues to be reckless and cocky all while he flirts with one girl after another. The early scenes between Pine and Greenwood’s fatherly Admiral Pike were especially touching and shattering when Pike meets a nasty laser blast. Quinto continues to bring the laughs as the rigid and emotionless Spock, a stickler for the rules if there ever was one. Here, Spock’s emotional detachment is put to the test and it truly does strike a chord. Yet the real magic happens when Pine and Quinto are together, with their egos clashing and banging around the iPod walls of the Enterprise. Their friendship is really put to the test when the confront Cumberbatch’s Harrison. While it is best not to reveal much about John Harrison, just know that Cumberbatch nearly steals the entire movie away from Pine and Quinto. He is one hell of a commanding villain.
If you were worried that the rest of the Enterprise crew had flew the coop, never fear, as they are all back where they belong. The sexy Zoe Saldana is back as Nyota Uhara, who has developed a relationship with Spock that goes far beyond the Enterprise. Karl Urban continues to bring the pessimism as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, who is constantly getting under Kirk’s skin with some of the worst metaphors you can think of. Simon Pegg continues to delight as the hilarious engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, who hams it up through an exaggerated Scottish accent. John Cho brings a quiet intensity to the role of Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu and Anton Yelchin is cartoonishly frantic as Ensign Pavel Chekov. We don’t get nearly as much of them as we did in the first film, which is a bit disappointing but understandable considering everything that is going on within the story. And we can’t forget the outstanding newcomers Peter Weller and Alice Eve, who are here as the ruthless Starfleet Admiral Alexander Marcus and the beautiful weapons expert Dr. Carol Marcus.
As far as summer movies are concerned, Star Trek Into Darkness is about as strong as they come. While there is an abundance of action and explosions to keep those with a severe case of ADHD hooked, there is still plenty of humanity to this story. We genuinely care about these characters and after a while they almost start feeling like close friends. They are especially irresistible when Abrams shakes the Enterprise and lets all these drastically different walks of life mix. Overall, Star Trek Into Darkness is a massive step up for the sleek and sexy franchise and at just over two hours, Abrams still leaves you wanting more of absolutely everything. Just like the first outing, it simultaneously pleases Trekkies and those just looking to be dazzled on a Friday night. You know what? Just stop reading this review right now and go see it. Just don’t be surprised if you want to see it again the second its all over.
by Steve Habrat
It has been nearly five long years since we heard from the flamboyant Australian director Baz Luhrmann, the man behind such eye-popping spectacles like the contemporary kids-with-guns retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romero + Juliet, the gonzo jukebox musical Moulin Rogue!, and the historical romance Australia. Well, folks, Mr. Luhrmann has returned to a theater near you in grand fashion with the 3D epic The Great Gatsby, a heavily anticipated big budget sugar rush that is based on the classic 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Hype around The Great Gatsby has been building since last fall, when the shimmering and sparkling trailers crashed into theaters and promised a Christmas release for the Leonardo DiCaprio period piece. At the last second, Warner Bros. pulled the plug on the Christmas release date and pushed the film back to summer 2013 and honestly, the summer movie season is a much better fit for this slick and hip adaptation. With absolutely nothing held back, Luhrmann gives The Great Gatsby a hip-hop makeover, showers it in confetti, fires off a seemingly never-ending amount of fireworks behind it, hands it a Four Loko, and then tosses it to an audience of teenagers raised on MTV, Jay-Z, and smartphones. The result is a gyrating eye-candy romance that will absolutely appall your English teacher and have your girlfriend swooning. It is style over substance every single step of the way, allowing it to feel right at home in a sea of fizzy summer blockbusters.
The Great Gatsby tells the story of Yale graduate Nick Carraway (played by Toby Maguire), an aspiring stockbroker and writer who rents a home in West Egg, Long Island, during the summer of 1922. After settling in to his new home, Nick reconnects with his wealthy and beautiful cousin Daisy (played by Carey Mulligan) and her cigar-chomping husband Tom (played by Joel Edgerton), who attended Yale with Nick. Daisy and Tom quickly begin trying to set Nick up with vampy party-girl golfer Jordan Baker (played by Elizabeth Debicki), who seems to only show minor interest in Nick. Life seems to be going great for the young and naïve Nick, but he finds himself strangely drawn to his wealthy next-door neighbor Jay Gatsby (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), an enigmatic recluse who throws massive parties for the New York City elite yet remains unseen by his drunken guests. One day, Nick receives a personal invitation to one of Gatsby’s wild blowouts, something that is highly unusual for Mr. Gatsby. While wandering through the party, Nick comes face to face with Gatsby and the two form a fast friendship. As the two men bond, Gatsby reveals to Nick that he is in love with Daisy, who he met five years earlier and shared a brief but intense romance. Nick agrees to aid Gatsby in reconnecting with Daisy but in the process, he begins to uncover all the mystery that surrounds Jay Gatsby.
For the first hour of The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann brings new meaning to the phrase “go big or go home.” He zooms between the East and West Egg like a ten-year-old boy who had way too many Snickers candy bars and Pepsi. When he gets bored doing this, he sends his camera flying into a rapidly growing New York City, dancing from skyscraper to skyscraper while Maguire looks up, down, and all around in astonishment. Then there are the party scenes, which are sure to get your heads bobbing and feet tapping. A non-stop stream of confetti is spit out at the audience while hundreds of extras shimmy, shake, and stumble to blaring hip-hop provided by Jay-Z and Kanye West. It is all shown to you in glorious 3D, which will have you fighting the urge to leap from your seat and join the fun. Somewhere in between the spraying champagne and fireworks, there are a few attempts to develop these characters that we are supposed to be invested in, but Luhrmann seems way too wrapped up in throwing the party of the year to pay much attention to them. When it finally winds down, he decides to get serious in extended montages of Gatsby, Nick, and Daisy loosing themselves in an endless summer of high price indulgence. It’s visually intoxicating and it certainly looks romantic, but it is also incredibly exhausting.
While the visuals will have you drooling, don’t forget to stop and admire the fine performances from the powerhouse cast. The style threatens to overshadow each and every one of them but they certainly hold their own when facing a mountain of CGI. DiCaprio owns the picture the second he emerges from the glittery shadows and early on, he hams it up in skinny pink suits that looks like they were provided by Gucci. His Gatsby is almost a caricature of the 1920s gentleman; grinning while referring to nearly every single person he meets as “old sport.” You could make a drinking game out of how many times he says “old sport,” although I doubt many people would be still standing by the end. As far as his burning passion is concerned, there certainly is fire in those eyes for Daisy. He attempts to impress her by dazzling her with wealth and promises of doing everything in the world together. When he needs to be tragic, he can certainly switch it on, especially in the last act of the movie. You never doubt that DiCaprio is thrilled to be reunited with his Romero + Juliet director and it is clear he is putting in 110%. A job well done, Mr. DiCaprio!
Then there is Mr. Maguire, who narrates through a raspy and fatigued tone that sounds like he was up all night chugging a bottle of whiskey with Gatsby (Someone grab him an Advil!). He is good with the role he is given but he never holds our attention like DiCaprio does. He simply sits on the sidelines, making observations about all the wild party animals around him. Mulligan is a breathy sunbeam as Daisy, who is caught between two warring millionaires pulling her in two separate directions. Mulligan is naturally talented, but her character never receives the development that it truly deserves which is an absolute waste. Edgerton gives DiCaprio a run for his money as the scowling Tom, who is constantly chomping down on a fat stogie and chasing every pretty girl he lays eyes on. He shares a war of words and wealth with DiCaprio in one of the film’s most intense sequences. Debicki is slinky and sexy as the gossiping golfer Jordan, who loves a big party because they are more intimate than a smaller gathering. Also keep an eye out for small but sharp appearances from Jason Clarke as gas station attendant George Wilson, who becomes a ball of fury in the last act of the film, and Ilsa Fisher as his unfaith sexpot wife, Myrtle, who jets off with Tom to seedy hotel rooms in New York City.
The real problem with Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is that it is all about panache. There is obsessive detail in the sets, the CGI is mindblowing, and the musical playlist will have audience members rushing home to purchase the soundtrack off iTunes, but this compromises substance. Sure, the idea of love lost and love found again is enticing but it just becomes a whiskey-fueled game of tug of war that conveniently ends with tragedy. To make it worse, it feels tacked on with a heavy sigh from the filmmakers, who clearly would rather be hanging out with scantily clad flappers lip-synching to Beyoncé. But, what else would you expect from someone like Luhrmann? Overall, it may be the nightmare of English teachers everywhere and it definitely rings hollow, but The Great Gatsby is a giddy parade of excess led by a cast and crew clearly having the time of their lives, all while Warner Bros. flits the bill. You’ll certainly get your money’s worth of visuals, but you won’t be moved in the slightest.
Anti-Film School’s Summer Movie Warp-Up Part 4: August 2012… And a few more details about the Halloween Spooktacular!
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.