Monthly Archives: August 2010
This slice-of-life Depression era tale examines a hermit named Felix (Robert Duvall) coming to terms with his life. He’s the scary old man that everyone has a story about, and now he’s come to town to make his funeral arrangements with a sleazy funeral director (Bill Murray). Except Felix wants to have his funeral while he’s alive, invite everybody in town, and have them share their collected stories, and he?s got his own story to share that’s been haunting him for decades. This is a very slow burn of a drama, to a fault. It works itself into a corner, and when Felix reveals his haunting secret you sort of shrug and think, “Is that all?” The pacing is languid; the movie feels lived-in and authentic down to its terse sense of humor and local color. You can feel the fingerprints of the Coen brothers on the film even though they had no involvement. This is a mildly touching, occasionally inert drama that benefits tremendously from the talents of Duvall and Murray, both relishing their folksy characters. This is a movie where the actors have time and space to dig in and explore their characters. Duvall and company keeps the movie from drifting off into melodrama. Get Low follows a cue from its lead actor. It’s understated, low key, and will likely go unappreciated because of its emphasis on subtlety, sometimes too much subtlety.
Nate’s Grade: B
Casting can make or break a movie, and occasionally the cast is the only advertised reason why the public should give a damn about a movie. Ocean’s Eleven wasn’t sold on its craft plot or cool director, it was the George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts movie. Sylvester Stallone is an actor who?s had some lengthy dry spells but he redeemed his legacy a bit with the modestly affecting Rocky Balboa and his ultra-violent modern Rambo. Now he has set his sights on co-writing and directing The Expendables, a film that gathers as many action movie stars together as possible and dares you not to buy a ticket. There?s Stallone, Jason Statham (Transporter), Jet Li (Unleashed), Dolph Lundgren (Masters of the Universe), Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler), Terry Crews (Gamer), Eric Roberts (The Dark Knight), along with wrestler Steve Austin, mixed martial arts champ Randy Couture, and direct-to-video kickboxing ace Gary Daniels. It?s a smorgasbord of testosterone, a group of guys whose median age qualifies them for an AARP membership. The selling point of The Expendables is the cast and the cast alone. The story about some military general (Dexter”s David Zayas) is completely incidental. These men are here to inflict punishment.
The Expendables is ridiculous with a capital R. Whether it’s punching guys in the face while they’re on fire, breaking necks through kickboxing, or, my favorite, hurling an ammunition shell like a shot-put and shooting it in the air, The Expendables exists in that 1980s world of brute and mostly brainless action. It’s a throwback to those halcyon days for the majority of the cast members, back when men were men, women were damsels or temptresses, and action heroes didn’t have to have more than one dimension, and usually that dimension was muscle. The Expendables is enjoyable but much of that enjoyment is because it’s simply enjoyably bad. I have to assume that Stallone had his tongue firmly in cheek when he was designing and executing this film. How else to explain the bizarre moments of action overkill described above, the premise of saving a single girl from a small Latin American military, the fact that the sleazy CIA villain takes off with the damsel, for no personal gain whatsoever, and even gets to deliver the all-important, “You and I are alike” speech villains are always fond of giving.
I was laughing throughout the movie from its excesses and logistical and narrative shortcomings. This is the kind of movie where characters make veiled comments about a family but then we never see the family. This is the kind of movie where the good guys have perfect aim and it never matters how many bad guys there are because they never know how to wield a firearm. This is the kind of movie where Statham’s ex-girlfriend (Charisma Carpenter) gets beat up by her new dude, so Statham goes to confront the guy at a basketball court with all his friends. But the weird part is that the guy’s posse of friends shows no regret that their dude struck a woman. They all rally behind the domestic abuser, and Statham promptly hands them their asses. Just look at the character names: Ying Yang, Lee Christmas, Gunner Jensen, Tool, Barney Ross, James Munroe (no relation to the fifth president), Toll Road, Hale Caesar. Those aren’t cagey nick-names, those are the characters honest-to-God real names. You can?t help watching The Expendables without the impression that the whole movie is one big joke. However, I cannot rationalize that Stallone spent time and money to make a satire of the burly action genre.
Throughout The Expendables you quickly realize why these guys are men of action and not men of debate. Their speaking voices are terrible. Some are marble-mouthed mumblers, like Stallone and Rourke. Some are just hard to understand, like Lundgren. Some have pretty bad English, like Li. Some are weirdly whisper-quiet in their intensity, like Statham. And others are just plainly bad actors, like Austin and Couture. The characters they?re given to play are pretty thin, defined by a quirk or two but not much else. Statham’s character is away from his girl too often, that’s why she becomes an ex. The film is basically a contest of machismo. Everyone tries to out-do the competition in glaring and teeth grinding. Also, given the title, (semi-spoiler) is it a little much to think that Stallone’s entire wrecking crew can escape death, even the guy that gets shot inches above his heart? These are men you want to see doing things, preferably painful plural things, and speaking at a minimum. Only Crews seems capable of doing both acting and action. Too bad he gets short supply when it comes to screen time.
And that’s certainly another problem when the selling point of the movie is an all-star collection of action movie badasses — screen time. Everybody has to be juggled around and fight for screen time. As you’d assume, Stallone and Statham rise into the upper character branch while everybody else must be content for a series of moments and one-liners. Part of the fun of seeing this group of actors together is seeing this group of actors together, which is in relatively short supply save for an all-out assault climax. There’s a scene with some great cameos, ruined through TV advertising, where Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger appear on screen and playfully jab at one another. For some, it will be a movie moment decades in the making. My response: “Oh my God! The founders of Planet Hollywood are finally together again (minus Demi Moore).”
On the subject of action, the film presents plenty of bloody, macho men-on-a-mission mayhem, but Stallone edits the sequences too quickly. It becomes a rush of images that the brain barely has time to process before moving on to another location and fight. There are a handful of gory money shots to the R-rated spectacle, but I just wish I was able to understand what was happening. I know Stallone was not trying to emulate the hyper-kinetic verite editing style of the Bourne movies, which have influenced much of action cinema for the last five years. Perhaps given the realities of shooting fight sequences around aging superstars, Stallone was forced to rely on quick edits to mask the illusion that these geriatric men are still capable of intense beat downs. The editing is occasionally disorienting but even worse it?s distracting. It’s harder to enjoy the action. Nor are the action sequences really well thought-out or specific to their location. It’s mostly the guys with guns chase other guys with guns variety. There are some impressive knife fights and brawls, but the concluding 30-minutes consists mostly of action chaos. Men with guns run, get shot, people hurl grenades (why does a martial arts guru like Li forced to use guns most of the time?), explosions occur, rather, rinse, repeat. From a fighting standpoint, there are six good guys and three bad guys, though t?s hard to take Roberts seriously. That’s not a good ratio for battles. There needs to be more colorful henchmen.
My friend Eric Muller and I came to an intriguing ending that would have made The Expendables legendary. After the film’s mission is complete, the gang collects back at Rourke’s tattoo parlor/clubhouse. Instead of palling around and talking shop, the gang all of a sudden starts having a giant orgy, and then Stallone looks directly into the camera and says, “It was always leading up to this. You just never wanted to admit it, audience!” The movie is awash in testosterone and nostalgia, naturally gathering an older male audience. Would it not be hilarious to instantaneously make all those men uncomfortable? They love their masculine superheroes when it comes to death but love is too out of bounds. It would be the greatest piece of performance art ever and certainly gives people something to think about (now that you mention it, those character names sound like porn names anyway).
The Expendables is pretty clear in its intentions. It wants to be a gritty, bloody, hard-edged action movie throwback to the 1980s when the world was simpler and all you needed was one man with a gun running through the jungle to solve political disputes. The film’s entire selling point is its cast of action stalwarts from past and present, though many are beefcake past their prime (Statham is only 37, though). The movie works as a casting gimmick but it doesn’t work as a movie. I’d be lying if I said The Expendables wasn’t entertaining and with its moments of silly, mindless fun, but clearly this could have been a much sharper action movie. At times it feels like a winking satire of the genre that helped make these men stars, but perhaps that’s just me projecting onto the film. Perhaps I’m trying to make it more self-aware to excuse its various shortcomings. This is a fairly mediocre action product despite the all-star reunion. Given the film’s relatively warm reception by its core audience, I await future installments of the Equally Expendables to feature Kurt Russell, Wesley Snipes, Rutger Hauer, Patrick Swayze (composed of archival footage), Steven Seagal, Hulk Hogan, Mr. T, and, naturally, the biggest badass of them all Chuck Norris. As long as Norris roundhouse kicks a live ammunition shell, consider my ticket bought and my sense of dignity put on review.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Where to begin with this? It’s an action romantic comedy that can?t commit to either genre. First off, this witless rip-off of Mr. and Mrs. Smith (or Knight & Day) can?t even get on track thanks to zero chemistry between Katherine Heigl and a routinely shirt-free Ashton Kutcher. They don’t gel at all. Just because two actors can make goofy faces doesn’t mean they’ll light up the screen as a couple. Their energies do not click. Heigl emits some magic combination of elements that makes her an unusually likeable and compelling actress on screen; note, I never said good, but she’s an ace with the rom-com material. When will she start choosing better material, and movies where she gets to assert herself instead of being a ditz and the butt of jokes? The plot is absurd and the film’s tone doesn’t know how to settle down. One second it’s a jaunty, irreverent action jag, and then the next it’s trying to be some winsome romance about two people who may have rushed into marriage. Oh, and they happen to be living in a neighborhood crammed with sleeper agents all trying to kill Ashton. When you hear the reveal for why this is happening, it will seriously make you rethink the notion of “tough love.” It makes little sense in any realm of thought. The action lacks flair and sizzle, let alone minute tension, and the comedy is just as joyless. Heigl slides right into screwball mode and the film confuses an ongoing argument as characterization. The duo act so cavalier conveniently forgetting that people from all walks of life are trying to kill them at every turn, for the lamest of reasons. Why hire sleeper agents to lie and wait if you want to kill a guy? Is that really the most cost efficient policy? They don’t even get a single decent joke out of this premise. The only thing this movie kills effectively is time.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Here is a classic example of two game comedians elevating substandard material. The contrived premise revolves around an ordinary if somewhat bored married couple (Steve Carell, Tina Fey) being chased all over New York City in an extreme case of mistaken identity. Carell and Fey have a terrific comedic dynamic and watching them play and riff is when the movie feels sharp and alive. Sadly, this is another action comedy that thinks people will lap up action that’s slightly skewed. Note to filmmakers: most action sequences are not inherently funny without effort made via context and surprise (see: Cop Out, Bounty Hunter, Killers, or better yet, don’t). The more bad action comedies I see from 2010, the better The Other Guys keeps looking to me in the rear view mirror of memory. When Carell and Fey switch into action mode is when the comedy takes a back seat to lame mayhem. When the movie manages to squeeze in small moments where the actors have space to breathe and the banter is amusing. At best, Date Night is an amusing excursion when it lets the adults get to behave. When they have to go bug-eyed and yell at all the noise, then the movie just becomes exasperating. Good enough for a rainy day, with some lowered expectations, but this movie wouldn’t be nearly worth watching without the resolute comedic efforts of the two leads.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Eat Pray Love is based on the best-selling memoir about Elizabeth Gilbert (Julia Roberts), a woman in her 40s trying to recover from personal setbacks. She’s divorcing her husband and she’s generally unfulfilled with her life. It seems to be missing meaning. Her solution is to set off on a journey to Italy, India, and Bali in order to rediscover who she is and what is missing in her privileged life.
Granted I am not in the target demo for this movie’s audience, but I found the main character to be rather hard to relate with. The film opens with her deciding to end her marriage to Billy Crudup (Watchmen). So far I’m okay. The dissolution of a marriage, especially when you’re older, is a prime starting point to reevaluate your life now that you’re on your own and, frankly, terrified by that prospect. But then the movie presents Gilbert as a rather self-involved and almost callous individual. Her husband is devastated, but she’s only tear-eyed one night as she prays to God why she’s in her marriage. Then we get a scene where the couple meets to talk about their impending divorce. Crudup wants to talk and work on fixing whatever problems exist. Gilbert won’t even do that. She is bailing. Her refusal to even try to fix her marriage, in the face of her husband who is willing to choose his wife over everything in the world, is a perplexing filmmaking decision. Gilbert seems shallow. The movie throws out some half-hearted excuse, saying her husband is wishy-washy about his career, but it’s a smokescreen. Why even leave this stuff in there if we’re just going to dislike Gilbert? That’s like including an opening scene in Schindler’s List where Schindler beats a child to death. A hyperbolic example, yes, but proof that it’s a terrible idea to have an early scene kill audience sympathy for your main character.
And so Gilbert goes about on her globetrotting voyage of self-discovery, chiefly to fulfill her health, spirit, and heart. Except the movie seems to get worse with every stop on the map. The overly long beginning in New York shows that our flighty main character shacks up with a hunky theater actor (James Franco), and then even there agonizes over how unhappy she is with this new guy. She needs to learn to love herself before anybody else, she says. Not to sound sexist, but I think many women wouldn’t have problems being in relationships with Crudup and Franco (edit: written before revelations of Franco and sexual harassment surfaced). Now people can find unhappiness in all stripes, especially with beautiful people, but Gilbert is packing up a lot of self-absorption before she ever leaves New York City. In Italy, she finds freedom in losing herself to food. She feasts on fine Italian cuisine and doesn’t obsess over her weight gain. In fact, she and a buddy treat shopping for larger sized jeans as a joyous celebration. I?m pleased that people can become more comfortable with their bodies, but Roberts celebrating gaining 10 pounds and not caring may rub some core audience members the wrong way. However, this Italy section focuses on food and fellowship, and Gilbert learns the language, enjoys the company of a group of locals, and cooks a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for her new friends. This is easily the most likeable Gilbert will be in the film.
First off, a film about a character finding personal discovery and self-awareness is going to be hard to pull off. Internal journeys of self-actualization and enlightenment don’t necessarily scream great movies, a medium of images and movement. For this to work you need a good story and a character worth rooting for, somebody who the audience can empathize with and cheer on the arduous path to personal grace. Elizabeth Gilbert is not that character. The other two segments in India and Bali are a true test of patience. Watching Roberts sway around, chant to herself, and look forlorn waiting for enlightenment to come is not the best use of 40 minutes. Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) gives the film’s best performance in the most tedious segment, which kind of reignites the “tree falling in a forest” scenario. When Indians have spiritual crises do they travel to New York? The end feels even more leisurely paced and I found myself nodding off here and there. The movie was failing to keep my attention short of some lovely scenery.
Director Ryan Murphy, co-creator of TV’s Glee, knows that his audience wants beautiful countryside, beautiful food, beautiful men, and Julia Roberts smiling. To that end, Eat Pray Love is a success. Murphy seems to enjoy filming the food sequences the most. The food is portrayed like a glamour reel. It’s easy to feel the rumbles of hunger while watching this movie, and my wife and I came directly from dinner when we saw the film. Pizza from Naples looks divine. But Murphy also serves as co-writer, along with Jennifer Salt, so he should have known better about the plot deficiencies that keep the audience at a distance from embracing Gilbert. The actors all seem to be having a good time, and why wouldn’t they? Visiting exotic places and stuffing their faces with local delicacies? It feels like I’m watching someone else’s boring vacation videos that go on for 135 laborious minutes.
Eat Pray Love seems to be missing something, namely the soul of its journey. By design, so much of this existential crisis is internal, which is where the book can fill in all the clarifying and illuminating details to make this feel like a full story. As a movie, it just doesn’t work on screen no matter how powerful Roberts smiles. The main character is hard to relate to and even harder to sympathize with as she becomes swallowed up in her self-absorption. How many people can solve a midlife breakdown by flying across the world for over a year? How did Gilbert afford this? I’ll tell you how. Gilbert pitched the idea to a publisher and then used the advance to pay for her yearlong trek of dining and self-discovery. She was banking on her travels solving her personal woes before she ever left the country. That makes me question some of the Gilbert’s motives. It makes me doubt how genuine this whole journey really was, considering she sold the ending before she ever reached her catharsis. Maybe the title should have been Eat Pray Cash Check.
Nate’s Grade: C