23 August 2010

The Expendables

I really would have like to have found something to like about this movie, it had a lot of elements that could make a bang up summer action flick and I had heard there were a lot of explosions. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a lot of gratuitous explosions. And there was a lot of recognizable name in the credits. Unfortunately for all of the recognizable name stars, there was a surprising lack of chemistry between any of them.

I got the feeling that not a lot of this movie was shot on location. The camera work was more reminiscent of a television show than a movie. I felt that there was a lot of green screen work, and I got the sense that some of the scenes of the big starts were in together were shot on different days, like one actor shot his half of the conversation on Tuesday and the second actor recorded his bit the following Thursday.

Even for an action adventure movie which is expected to have a bad script, this movie’s script failed on multiple levels. It actually makes several false starts before it settles into a pedestrian storyline. The ominous and threatening Bruce Willis character disappears with zero explanation and zero impact on the storyline. An appearance by Schwarzenegger sets you up for a plot twist that never happens. He too must have just been visiting the set on day so they wrote him a couple of lines and threw him in the movie.

And any action movie which wastes several minutes with the heroes sitting around talking about the medical causes of cauliflower ears doesn’t understand the meaning of the word action.

Mickey Rourke seems to have been included in the cast for the one scene they thought would require acting, and that’s all he gets to do. The scene seems contrived to bring in a designated actor for a scene Stallone couldn’t pull off. Part of the appeal of Stallone movies was watching him make a fool of himself trying to act. He could never act, but we liked him for at least making the effort. I guess Stallone is beyond risking making a fool of himself, because in this film he doesn’t even care enough about us to try.

And will someone please stop casting Eric Roberts in anything, particularly as the villain. We’ve seen this so many times.

There were a lot of explosions and a lot of shots fired in this movie. If all that you have to do is show one of your hero’s place c-4 then this would be the action movie to end all action movies. As one of the characters placed what seemed like the 100th charge of c-4 I was actually thinking, “More c-4? Where is he carrying that? Is there that much room in his pockets? I hope they remember to place it all. Gosh it would be a shame if they over looked a brick and left one in their pocket, that would be surprising. You suppose one store had that much c-4 or did they have to stop at multiple stores on the way to the badguy’s castle.” Keep in mind this is during the run up to the climatic fight scene of the movie. Suspense should be building. I shouldn’t be worrying about how many stores they had to stop at to get that much c-4.

Was there anything I liked about this movie? Jason Stratham and Terry Crews had more energy and presence that any of the other stars combined. I kept thinking that those two could do a bromance movie that would kick the Expendable’s ass. Terry Crews and his fondness for his automatic shotgun was one of the few bits of the movie that I liked and that the crowd seemed to react to. Jason Stratham seemed to have shown up for this film, but the script couldn’t seem to decide if he was a central character or not. At times the story seemed to focus on him and then suddenly he would be out of focus and be relegated to a supporting bit part.

I was sorely disappointed by this movie.

(not recommended)

15 August 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs the World

As the movie opens Scott is a twenty-something slacker living in Toronto, trying to recover from being dumped by she who will not be named about a year ago. He is living in what looks like a bomb shelter across from the house he grew up in, dating a high schooler, and plays with his friends in a garage band.

Out of nowhere Scott meets the girl of his dreams, when she rollerblades... through his dream. As Scott finds when he finally meets her in real life, her name is Ramona Flowers. He pursues her and no sooner than they have the barest possibility of a relationship Scott is confronted by the challenge posed by her seven evil exes. It seems that Ramona’s seven exes want to control her life and will kill anyone who even attempts to date her. Undaunted, Scott carries on and it’s not long before he’s attacked by the first evil ex.

The world Scott inhabits is one where spending hours and hours playing combat video games in the arcade is suitable preparation for being able to perform feats of martial arts in real life. So despite his outwardly mild appearance, Scott is no pushover for the evil exes. He has mad martial art combat skills honed by years of playing video games.

The story of Scott’s relationship with Ramona and his friends actually works pretty well. These are likable, interesting people, trying to connect and find meaning in their lives. There is a lot of wit and humor and the seven evil exes are a nice metaphor for the challenges of a new relationship. Unfortunately the seven evil exes and all the screen time devoted to them almost drag down and sink the picture. The fight sequences which start out visually compelling start to feel a little overwhelming and even boring. I found myself wishing the fights would be over so we could get back to those really interesting characters and find out what is going on with them.

Parts of the film strike this marvelous pitch perfect witty whimsical note that I would have loved to have seen maintained throughout. Unfortunately that is not the case. It's a movie that could have been great, but ends up being rather ordinary. Still I enjoyed the movie more than I thought I would and would recommend it.

08 August 2010

Winter’s Bone: A Review

A remarkable film that felt almost documentary-like in its realism and the way it captures a culture and a way of life that is more than a step removed from mainstream American culture. The film reminded me a bit of such gritty Oscar winners as No Country for Old Men and Frozen River. (I really thought it was that good.)

It’s the story of Ree, a 17 year old girl carrying the responsibility of caring for her two younger siblings and her mentally ill mother. Her absent father is facing charges of manufacturing methamphetamine and has put up the family home for his bond. As his trial date approaches, dad is nowhere to be found. The sheriff and the bond company come by the house to let Ree know that unless her father shows up, she and her family will need to be looking for another place to live. So Ree sets on a quest to find her father, bring him home, and save the family home. The people she goes to, "family" in the sense that there is some blood relationship, but more business assotiates of her father, are a scary bunch. They don't take kindly to her questions and seem very reluctant to help her. The head of the family refuses to see or talk to her because "talking just creates witnesses". People don't take kindly to Ree asking questions. There is enourmous pressure for her to back off looking and just let her family be taken by social services. But that's not who Ree is.

At 17 Ree is already a remarkable woman and heroic in the sense that she has these incredibly strong values that she’s willing to stand up for. First and foremost she values family and is willing to fight like a lioness when it comes to protecting them. She is willing to do whatever it takes to take care of them. Her strength comes from her belief about doing the right thing whether it’s making sure dinner gets on the table, or tracking down her father. She’s not particularly brave and there is good reason for her to be afraid of the people around her. She acts because something in her requires it of her. As she says at one point, “There is stuff that you are going to have to get over being scared of.”

The world of the Missouri Ozarks as portrayed in the film seems a hostile and dangerous place, the men and woman can be hard and dangerous, kind one minute and cruel the next, yet there is a code of behavior that governs it all and keeps order. In the quest for her father, Ree finds herself having to oppose that order more and more, and the more dangerous things become for her.

One of the striking things about the film was the sheer number of strong performances by both the professional and non-professional actors. Professional actor Jenifer Lawrence is mesmerizing as Ree and anchors the picture. There is a particularly strong scene with her and an army recruiter played by real life Army recruiter Russell Schalk. He manages to communicate an amazing amount without ever breaking out of his gung-ho Army recruiter persona. There are a number of other great performances in this picture to watch for including John Hawkes as Teardrop and Dale Dicky as Merab.

There are a lot of classical elements to this story. It is the tale of the hero, the fight against all odd, the quest, and there are elements of Greek tragedy. It’s a tight little story, suspenseful, well-acted, and well told. It’s one of the best movies I have seen all year.

It’s funny seeing this movie right after seeing the summer blockbuster Inception whose sense of amorality has been bothering me more and more. In fact, despite the craftsmanship of that film, I am having a hard time recommending Inception to people. Winter’s Bone on the other hand has a strong moral center and I know why I am routing for Ree. On a number of levels she is very much the old fashioned hero worth routing for.

(highly recommended)

07 August 2010

A Monstrous Regiment of Women

A Monstrous Regiment of women is the second in a series of book by Laurie R. King featuring the character of Mary Russell, an independent young woman who has become the friend and disciple of a Mr. Sherlock Holmes. I have always loved Holmes in all his incarnations from the original stories, to the black and white Basil Rathbone movies, to Jeremy Brett’s Granda television series, to… well you get the idea. Reading about Holmes is like getting reacquainted with an old friend. But while the books are set in his universe, they aren’t really about Holmes. They’re really about the next generation. Mary Russell is the intellectual equal of Holmes and just as fascinating a character. She’s fiercely independent, plucky, and well able to look after herself.

In A Monstrous Regiment, Mary has graduated college and is about to come into her inheritance. She’s introduced by a friend to Margery Childe, a charismatic mystic who runs a temple and women’s shelter. Mary’s degrees are in Theology and Chemistry and she finds herself both fascinated and drawn to Margery. As she begins to learn more about the temple some tries to kill her friend. The attempt reveals a pattern of murder centered on Margery and the temple which Mary sets her will on resolving.

Laurie R. King does a wonderful job of bringing nineteen twenties England to life as we watch Mary trying to unravel the mystery. It’s a good book to curl up with when you have a pot of tea on and a long evening ahead of you, because you are not going to want to go anywhere till it’s finished.


01 August 2010

Inception: A Movie Review

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, Inception is clever and absorbing film making and one of the few movies involving long and involved dream sequences that I have ever found watchable or engaging. Set in the near future where the military has created the ability to enter and to interact with a person’s dream, a criminal enterprise has arisen using that technology to pull someone into a carefully constructed dream to trick their subconscious into giving up closely held secrets without the mark even knowing that they have been robbed.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, a master thief using this new technology. If you want a secret stolen, he’s the best. So it is to Cobb that Saito, an ultra-rich industrialist, turns when he wants something even more difficult. Saito wants Cobb to break into someone’s mind and leave a thought behind without the mark knowing or suspecting what’s been done, to plant the inception of an idea.

On its face it seems impossible, how do you get someone to think something, to have than initial beginning of an idea, and for them to think that it was there idea all along? But despite the seeming impossibility of the task, it’s something that Cobb is willing to try once Saito finds the right way to pull to motivate him.

The structure and the plot of inception borrow heavily from the classic caper movies combining basic elements from two standard storylines, the reluctant bank robber enticed into one final heist and the -layer within layer confidence scheme. Nolan breathes new life into these storylines and in truth I did not even see the parallels until I was reflecting on the movie later at home.

At 158 minutes, Inception is a long film, but it moved along at a brisk pace and seldom seemed to drag. It’s a visually spectacular film, but oddly one of the things that made the movie work for me was a sense of restraint. Typically I find that when attempt to portray dream states or altered realities they become impressionistic mishmashes that make me vaguely seasick. While Inception has no shortage of special effects that are extremely well done, there is a logical believability to them, mostly because the camera frame is full of everyday objects, even if they are seen behaving in unusual and unexpected ways. Any CGI that was used was held to an almost photo-realistic standard. I didn’t have any moments where my suspension of disbelief crumbled because the CGI was so mind blowingly unbelievable.

And just because a lot of the action takes place in dreams, thankfully the characters don’t get to go around dodging bullets in slow motion or jumping tall buildings in a single bound. Characters are still bound by laws of physics and placed in believable jeopardy. There is a fight scene in zero-gravity that is especially well done. Not only was there a logical reason these people would be fighting in zero-gravity, but it actually looked like a fight that was taking place in zero-gravity. It was good enough that I had to go online to see if maybe Nolan and company had perhaps used an airplane to actually achieve temporary zero-gravity to shoot the scene.

When we go to movies, we suspend our belief to become emotionally engaged with what the director has created. The director has created a world, with sets and actors to manipulate our minds and emotions. There are some similarities in what Cobb and his crew do. They build the set, take on roles, and follow the script. But morally the two things are as different as night and day, and I almost wish the film had demonstrated more of an awareness of that distinction. As the outsider of the gang, Ellen Page’s character of Ariadne does make some attempt to ask ethical questions, but it’s done weakly and she never gets close to any of the big questions.

Not every tale has to be turned into a morality tale to be enjoyable, but on reflection I find making a business of breaking and entering into a person’s dreams and manipulating their subconscious into revealing their innermost secrets a terrible form of assault on the self. And breaking in to leave thoughts the victim would take for their own seems worse. There is enough backstory that we understand Cobb and his motivations, but should that translate into us routing for him and his gang to succeed?

But morality aside, Inception is one heck of an original caper film.