Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Movie Review: The Trip to Italy

The Trip to Italy
Directed by:  Michael Winterbottom.
Written by: Michael Winterbottom.
Starring: Steve Coogan (Steve), Rob Brydon (Rob), Rosie Fellner (Lucy), Claire Keelan (Emma), Marta Barrio (Yolanda), Timothy Leach (Joe), Ronni Ancona (Donna).

The Trip to Italy is the third movie this summer – following Chef and The Hundred-Foot Journey – which could be described as food porn. The difference between this film and those two other films is that for me at least, I actually enjoyed the film itself – and all that delicious looking food was an added bonus, and not the main show. A follow-up to The Trip, where Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon played fictional versions of themselves, travelling through North England stopping at restaurants along the way for a series of articles for The Observer, The Trip to Italy has the exact same premise, except, obviously, this time they’re in Italy. In the first film, not to mention Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story from the same director (Michael Winterbottom), which also cast Coogan and Brydon as themselves, found the two as rivals. Coogan, in particular, was rather petty and small in those previous films – he is the more famous of the two (especially outside England, where Brydon is barely known at all) – yet Coogan still seemed somewhat jealous of Brydon, who was much more comfortable in his own skin, and much more comfortable being known as a comic actor instead of anything else, while Coogan dreamed of being the star of a Coen brother movie. The rivalry is still present in The Trip to Italy – but it’s much more muted. The two have settled into an fairly easy friendship – and even when Brydon gets offered a role in a Michael Mann movie, which clearly makes Coogan jealous, it’s never really remarked on – instead it’s all done with looks from Coogan, and a few back handed compliments.

The movie is at its best when it’s just Coogan and Brydon alone – either at one of the various restaurants they eat at, or alone in the car (where they are often singing along to Alanis Morissette) and the two of them are just basically trying to make each other last. The pair break out their greatest hits – dueling Michael Caine impressions for example – with great results, but also adds some new material in it as well. The two like an audience – and late in the film when they have one, they go even bigger, trying to top each other, and get bigger laughs from their appreciative audience.

I think the movie works a little better than the original The Trip – perhaps simply because the scenery in Italy is better than in Northern England, but also, I think, because the movie seems a little more relaxed. Coogan and Brydon aren’t trying quite as hard this time to one-up each other, and instead work together as a great comic team. Also, in the last film it seemed like the Steve Coogan show, with Brydon as little more than a sidekick, but this time they are given equal weight (or perhaps a little more on Brydon). The original film had a subplot about Coogan’s domestic difficulties – and this time it’s Brydon’s turn. He seemed content with his marriage in the last film – this time, a few years and a child later – it’s not quite that simple.

The film is perhaps a little too long, perhaps takes a few too many detours, and tries a little too hard at times to go a little deeper than a typical comedy, and perhaps has too many conversations about Roman Holiday (1953). Yet these distractions are all at least amusing – the film is never less than pleasant, and often much more. The Trip to Italy has more laugh out loud moments than any Hollywood comedy so far this year (at least of the ones that come immediately to mind). Director Winterbottom, who has pretty much made every type of movie imaginable, is smart enough to stay out of the way of Coogan, Brydon and the gorgeous scenery and food. I hope this isn’t the last trip Coogan and Brydon take together.

In Memory of The Maltin

When the news broke last week that the next edition of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide –to be published next month – would be the last, I wasn’t surprised, but I was slightly saddened. It is certainly an end of an era. I have had various copies of the Guide dating back nearly 20 years – from the time I was a young teenager and a cinephile in the making. For the first 10 of those 20 years I not only bought every edition of the book – I needed to buy each edition. The reason was simple – by the time I had the book for year, it was pretty much destroyed. There was rarely a day that went by when I didn’t pick up the guide to look up a title or two – and often many more. Whenever I first got the book, I went through it searching for the new reviews to see if I agreed with Maltin or not. He also often had various movie lists in the front of the book – which gave me more titles to try and track down and watch. The Roger Ebert Video Yearbooks had full length reviews, which I loved, but for obvious reasons they were nowhere near definitive or complete. Maltin was. He had mini-reviews of practically everything you could want.

I always had some problems with the book. Two stars for Taxi Driver? One and a half for Blade Runner? If Cronenberg ever hit 3 stars, it was an event. And as Mike D’Angelo pointed out in his remembrance last week, as the years went on, Maltin became increasingly strange. He rarely gave 4 stars to any new movies – and some of the ones he did (The Cider House Rules? Songcatcher?) seemed like odd choices. In many ways, Maltin became one of those old fuddy-duddy critics who claim that everything for yesteryear was brilliant, and these young whipper snapper directors couldn’t hold a candle to them. D’Angelo posits that it was that, as much as the internet that killed the Maltin. I don’t know if I agree with that – to a certain extent, Maltin was like that 20 years ago when I started reading it and it continued on for quite some time. But it certainly didn’t help.

No, the internet killed the Maltin. I mentioned that for the first 10 – roughly 1994-2004 – I bought the new Maltin every year because my copy got destroyed. For the next few years, I still bought the new Maltin every year, more out of force of habit than anything, and the books became increasingly less dog eared every year. For the past 6 or 7 years, I’ve probably one purchased one out of every two or three. I’m looking at the most recent one I bought right now – the 2013 guide, published in 2012, and it’s still in very good condition. The reason is simple – it mainly sits on a shelf now, and I pick it up maybe once a month – if that. For the most part when I want to look up an old movie now, I whip out my iPhone, open the IMDB ap, and look it up. That allows me instant access to the complete cast and crew – and all the work they’ve done before and since, the runtime – and any number of reviews – from both contemporary sources, and those written at the time of the movies release. What the Maltin has in terms of information looks rather quaint by comparison.

So in many ways, the death of the Maltin was inevitable – and perhaps even overdue. There were numerous competitors with the Maltin over the years, and I think for the most part, they all gave up years ago. But it’s still sad to see the Maltin go for a number of reasons. One is the simply joy of browsing through an edition. I can find a lot more information about a lot more movies on IMDB, but simply browsing, and picking one at random just isn’t feasible. I read reviews of movies I had never heard of before, and probably never would have, in the Maltin. I rented some, if they sounded interesting, and loved some of them. This is the same problem I have with the death of Video Stores – it’s harder to browse the streaming sites or iTunes, than it was a video store.

The other reason it’s sad is because I always thought of the Maltin as the definitive opinion on a movie – even if, as D’Angelo points out that became increasingly not the case over the years. But still, the Maltin was the official word on a movie – so whether you agreed or disagreed with a review, you felt like you were either going against the grain, or were a part of the larger contingent. I don’t think such a thing is possible anymore. There will be no definitive opinion on movies once the Maltin goes away. In some ways, that’s good, in some ways not.

The death of the Maltin is another sign of changing times in movie culture – and another thing that makes me question whether or not I would become a film buff if I was a teenager today instead of 20 years ago. The Maltin was a one stop shop for both novice and experienced cinephiles – and helped to open up a whole new world of film for me. Today, I’m not sure where I would have gone to get this information in one place, easily findable, sortable and browsable. The death of the Maltin was inevitable – but it’s still sad.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Movie Review: The One I Love

The One I Love
Directed by: Charlie McDowell.
Written by: Justin Lader.
Starring: Mark Duplass (Ethan), Elisabeth Moss (Sophie), Ted Danson (The Therapist).

Spoiler Warning: The studio releasing The One I Love asked critics not to reveal the twist in the movie`s first act – which both makes sense and is pointless. It makes sense because the movie works better if you don’t know what’s coming – hell it would even better if you didn’t know there was a twist at all, but the cat`s out of the bag on that one. But it’s also pointless, because there is no intelligent way of talking about the movie at all, without talking about the twist – because it happens in the first act, its barely a twist at all, but really the premise of the movie. Still, I wanted to put the Spoiler warning in for those who have not seen the movie. You should – it`s a really good movie – but you also probably want to stop reading now if you want to see it. You`ve been warned.

The opening scenes of The One I Love play like any number of Indie dramas. A married couple is in therapy because they`ve reached an impasse in their relationship, and cannot figure out a past it. Their therapist (Ted Danson) suggests they get away for the weekend together – and even has a catalogue for the perfect getaway spot for them. They agree, and head off for the weekend. It is a gorgeous property – a great big house, a beautiful pool, a guest house and acres of wilderness around them. There is nothing for the two of them to do but spend time with each other. Perhaps this is what they need.

Before we hit the half hour mark though, the movie enters Twilight Zone territory (AGAIN SPOILER WARNING) – as the pair discover that the guest house actually does have guests in it – and not the normal kind. If just one of them enter the guest house, they will find a more perfect version of their spouse already there. At first, they just think it`s really their spouse, but then they both have strange experiences in there. And the spouse they meet in the house is seemingly a better version then the real one – less critical, less bitchy; more focused on their partners needs than the real version. Ethan (Mark Duplass) is immediately skeptical, and wants to know what the hell is going on. He questions everything to the point that the more perfect version of his wife creeps him out. But Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) starts to like the more perfect Ethan more. He`s more fun loving, more attentive, less sarcastic. It may be a fantasy version of Ethan – but she`s happier with the fantasy than the reality.

To a certain extent then, The One I Love is a puzzle movie – but it`s less concerned with the puzzle itself, than the relationship – and Ethan and Sophie`s different reactions to the possibilities the guest houses and its guests raises. For Ethan, he`s simply creeped out. Why would he want a copy of Sophie – even one who is less critical of him – when he could have the real Sophie? But for Sophie, the new Ethan is a reminder of the old Ethan – the fun loving guy she fell in love with, rather than the one who has lied to her and who she blames for the deterioration of their relationship.

The performances by the two leads are excellent. More than Moss, Duplass is essentially playing two different roles here – the skeptic, and the fun loving, care free one – and he does both very well. Moss is even better, even if she doesn’t play her own doppelganger as much, because what the real Sophie goes through is more complicated. She wants her life back to what it was – or perhaps even better than it was – and sees a way to get it. It doesn’t matter if she doesn’t understand it, she’s happier than she’s been in a while – and wants to stay that way. The One I Love is basically about the difference between the reality of what a long term relationship actually is, and the fantasy of what we want it to be. In reality, we are never given the choice between the two – but Sophie is presented with that choice.
The end of the movie works – but is also the most obvious ending given the setup that the filmmakers could have come up with. Personally, I always prefer a little ambiguity in a film like this, and the filmmakers behind the one I love – director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader (both of whom show tremendous promise) don’t supply that. Instead, they wrap everything up in an obvious, yet effective way. Besides, I’m not sure there was a better way to end the film. The One I Love has a Twilight Zone premise to be sure – but like the best Twilight Zone episode it uses the premise for something deeper and more real than the premise suggests.

Movie Review: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller.   
Written by: Frank Miller based on his graphic novels.
Starring: Mickey Rourke (Marv), Jessica Alba (Nancy), Josh Brolin (Dwight), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Johnny), Rosario Dawson (Gail), Bruce Willis (Hartigan), Eva Green (Ava), Powers Boothe (Senator Roark), Dennis Haysbert (Manute), Ray Liotta (Joey), Christopher Meloni (Mort), Jeremy Piven (Bob), Christopher Lloyd (Kroenig), Jaime King (Goldie / Wendy), Juno Temple (Sally), Stacy Keach (Wallenquist), Marton Csokas (Damien Lord), Jude Ciccolella (Lt. Liebowitz), Jamie Chung (Miho), Julia Garner (Marcie), Lady Gaga (Bertha), Alexa PenaVega (Gilda).

I was a fan of Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City back in 2005. It felt new and different – and an interesting way to adapt the graphic novels by Miller – which I had bought, and enjoyed leading up to the movie. In the years since, more and more directors have done something similar to what Rodriguez and Miller did in Sin City, with increasingly poor results. I hadn`t thought about Sin City for a while – except for whenever there was an update on the long rumored sequel, that I had believed would never actually be made. When they finally officially announced it, I was still looking forward to the movie. Over the weekend before watching Sin City: A Dame to Kill, I went back and re-read the Miller graphic novels, and re-watched the original movie for the first time in years. While I don’t think either the graphic novels or the original movie are as good as I once did – I think they are both still very good, entertaining and somewhat unique. So despite some rather harsh reviews, I was still looking forward to the sequel. Unfortunately, the sequel doesn’t live up to either the graphic novels or the original movie. There is a numbing sameness to the movie – and everyone seems to be on autopilot.

The movie adapts one of the graphic novels and another of the shorts comics that Miller originally wrote, and then two new stories that were never published as graphic novels. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two adapted from the original comics are the better of the four segments. The film opens with Just Another Saturday Night, a short, about Mickey Rourke’s brute Marv who discovers he`s been shot, and doesn’t quite remember what happened, so he slowly pieces together what happened. It`s a short, brutal, violent way to start the movie – but it works, for the most part. The other decent segment is the one that gives the movie its title – A Dame to Kill For – where Josh Brolin plays a pre-surgery Dwight (he was played by Clive Owen in the original film, but had gone through extensive plastic surgery, so it makes sense he`s played by a different actor this time). Brolin, unfortunately, is one of those actors on autopilot – he basically looks pissed off the whole segment, as he narrates the story of his old love Ava (Eva Green) coming back into his life, and completely ruining it. Ava is a typical Miller female character – basically a heartless femme fatale who would make Barbara Stanwyck blush – and she spends almost the entire segment naked, or nearly so. But she`s the one actor with a large role in the movie who seems to fully buy in, and she does a great job as a femme fatale. As she did in the unnecessary 300: Rise of an Empire (also affiliated with Miller) this year, she elevates an unnecessary sequel every time she`s onscreen – so much so that she makes almost everyone else in the film look bad.

The two original stories do not really add anything new to Sin City. In one, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Johnny – a gambler who never loses, who has his sights set on the ever powerful Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). He wants to humiliate Roark, for personal reasons that eventually become clear. Gordon-Levitt is a fine actor, and he has already proven he handle noir dialogue in Brick, but here he is pretty much indistinguishable from the other male heroes in Sin City – who are basically as violent as the male villains, but have some sort of code. The second original story, which is intercut with the Gordon-Levitt segment, is about Nancy (Jessica Alba) – the stripper from the first movie, still in love with Hartigan (Bruce Willis) – the cop who saved her and then committed suicide to protect her (Willis shows up here, as a ghost – and I kept waiting for him to talk to Haley Joel Osment). Nancy has gone on a downward spiral, and also has her sights set on Roark – the man whose son Hartigan had to save her from twice. Alba has never been the best actress, but as in the first film, she`s a hell of a dancer, and she leaves an impression when she`s on stage – when she`s off though, she doesn’t make Nancy`s fall all that convincing – and that`s necessary, since Nancy was always the one ray of hope in the series that had none. Her downfall makes a dark series darker – yet the movie fails to make that hit as hard as it should.

Rodriguez and Miller basically shoot the movie exactly the same way they shot the original Sin City – but this time in 3-D. On the 3-D, I cannot say that I really even noticed it – even the usual complaint I have about 3-D that it makes everything unnecessarily dark, didn’t happen this time, since the majority of the film is in black and white anyway. But I don’t see much of a point in the 3-D either – it may not detract from the film, but it doesn’t add much either. I will say I still do like the overall visual look of Sin City though – with its dark black, bright whites and bold streaks of color. It looks like a film noir on crack, which is what they are going for.

But the visuals cannot save Sin City: A Dame to Kill For from being a rather dull exercise. This is a movie full of beheadings, gunfights, fist fights, a crazy doctor played by Christopher Lloyd, a heavily made up grotesque Stacy Keach and a lot of beautiful naked or nearly naked women – and yet for the most part, I was bored watching film. It doesn’t have the sense of danger the first film had and the series has lost the power to shock and surprise. It isn’t horrible film – but it is an unnecessary one.

Movie Review: Some Velvet Morning

Some Velvet Morning
Directed by: Neil LaBute.
Written by: Neil LaBute.
Starring: Stanley Tucci (Fred), Alice Eve (Velvet).

There was a time in the late 1990s and early 2000s that I felt that Neil LaBute may become one of the best American filmmakers of his generation. His In the Company of Men (1997) and Your Friends and Neighbors (1998) are both brilliant, cruel examinations of the harm men (and in the later, women) do to each other. They are tough, cynical and darkly hilarious. His Nurse Betty (2000) was a departure – a strange comedy – but was just as good. But I don’t think he`s made a great film since then. Perhaps it’s because he stopped writing the movies, or tried to go too mainstream when he did. LaBute, who got his start as a playwright continued to write plays in his trademark style, but in terms of his film work the last film of his that felt like a "typical" LaBute film was 2003`s The Shape of Things (based on one of his plays) – which I liked, but didn’t love as I thought Rachel Weisz screwed up the lead role. Last year`s Some Velvet Morning then is a welcome return to form for LaBute – at least partially. It`s still nowhere near as good as those first two films – but at least it feels like a the work of the same filmmaker who made them.

Some Velvet Morning is not based on one of LaBute's plays – although it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that LaBute originally did write it with the stage in mind. The entire movie is set in one location – a house – and has just two characters in it. Fred (Stanley Tucci) shows up on the doorstep of Velvet (Alice Eve) – with all his worldly belongings. He tells her he has finally left his wife, and his ready to move in with her. This, even though, the two broke up four years ago, haven’t seen each other, and Velvet is an upscale prostitute. She tells him she doesn’t love him anymore, doesn’t want him anymore, and wants him to leave the house. She has to go meet a client, and doesn’t want to keep him waiting. And the client may well be Fred`s adult son – the one who introduced the two in the first place. Fred refuses to leave – and this starts an 84 minute argument between the two of them, where Fred lets forth with a litany of misogyny, and Velvet responds in kind – even if she cannot quite keep up with the cruelty of Fred.

A movie like this is dependent on two things – the strength of the performances, the strength of the writing. LaBute tries to make the film more cinematic, and less stage bound, by shooting much of it with handheld cameras – but it doesn’t really work and is more of a distraction than anything else. The writing is as good as LaBute`s best work either – with too much dialogue that seems to be written for the benefit of the audience so they don’t get lost. But the performances by Tucci and Eve are great. Tucci treats the entire movie like an acting exercise – to see just how hateful he can make Fred – and although we`re always aware we are watching a performance; it’s still a great one. Eve plays things a little closer to the vest, a little more subdued, and it’s far and away the best film work she has done to date. The two go back and forth for the entire movie, inflicting pain and cruelty on each other for the entire runtime of the movie. When the scenes work, and they do more often than not, it’s somewhat mesmerizing.

As LaBute is fond of doing Some Velvet Morning comes with a twist ending – one that forces us to reconsider everything we`ve seen in the movie up until that point. The ending works, wonderfully, and if you`re being generous you could even argue that what we learn at the end makes even the films earlier problems make sense. I wouldn’t go that far, but the end of the movie does work.
If there is a larger problem with Some Velvet Morning it’s that none of it feels new – not for LaBute anyway. He`s done this type of movie before – and far better – than he’s done here, and his insights into the cruelty people inflict on each other, and the different roles men and women have in society, are rather dated. But Some Velvet Morning shows that LaBute still has it – still has the potential to make another great movie. He hasn’t shown that in years – going through the motions with a terrible movie like the horror remake The Wicker Man, or the lame thriller Lakeview Terrace or the unnecessary Americanized Death at a Funeral. And surprisingly for a movie that is built almost entirely on non-stop dialogue, they moment that sticks with me the most is the final silent shot. What precisely is going through that characters mind in that shot? That question still haunts me a few days later. I hope that LaBute continues with this type of movie, instead of those previously mentioned in this paragraph. At the very least, it feels like he has finally returned to the type of movie he should be making.

Movie Review: The Railway Man

The Railway Man
Directed by: Jonathan Teplitzky.
Written by: Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson based on the book by Eric Lomax.
Starring: Colin Firth (Eric), Nicole Kidman (Patti), Jeremy Irvine (Young Eric), Stellan Skarsgård  (Finlay), Sam Reid (Young Finlay), Tanroh Ishida (Young Takeshi Nagase), Hiroyuki Sanada (Takeshi Nagase), Michael MacKenzie (Sutton), Jeffrey Daunton (Burton), Tom Stokes (Withins), Bryan Probets (Major York), Tom Hobbs (Thorlby), Akos Armont (Jackson).

The Railway Man is about a British WWII veteran, Eric (Colin Firth) who suffers so greatly in a Japanese POW camp that he remains emotionally closed down two decades later. He doesn’t talk about what happened – not even with the men he was imprisoned alongside, or his new wife Patti (Nicole Kidman). He is a railway enthusiast, and spends his time riding the rails, and making money however he can. The movie flashes back and forth in time to his time in that camp, and his life now – and eventually his quest to track down one of his tormentors.

In many ways, the movie follows it main characters lead. It is, for much of its running time, as devoid of emotions – other than sadness – as Eric seems to be. This has led to describe the movie as dull – and to be fair, it is fairly dull at times – but it worked for me. How else can you make a movie about an emotionally closed off character other than to allow the film to be as quiet and somber as its main character? This classically constructed film, which does play things a little too safe, however does lead to powerful climax, which doesn’t quite play out the way we expect it to.

As the older Eric, Colin Firth gives a fine performance. He is a quiet man – outwardly he is intelligent and thoughtful. He doesn’t raise his voice – ever – and chooses his words carefully. For years, he basically suffers in silence – but then he meets Kidman`s Patti – and falls in love. But she knows he is hiding his wartime past – is haunted by it, and also knows if they are ever to be truly happy, he needs to deal with it. She goes to see one his old friends (Stella Skarsgaard) – who tells her what he knows. But that’s only part of the story.

The wartime scenes, where Eric is played by Jeremy Irvine, are weaker than the scenes set two decades later. Director Jonathan Teplitzky plays these scenes with restraint, and taste, as if he wants to protect the audience from the horrors Eric suffered. But there is no protecting Eric, and the film is weaker for this withholding. A more daring film might have jettisoned these scenes altogether and simply told the present day story. But there is little daring about The Railway Man.

This doesn’t mean that the film isn’t good – just that it’s not as good as it could have been. Firth is great – and the final scenes, alongside Hiroyuki Sanada as the older version of one of his tormentors, who is just as haunted by the war as Eric is, are the best in the movie. There have not been enough movies that acknowledges the humanity of people on both sides of the war – particularly the Japanese in WWII. The climax works because the film doesn’t go in the direction we expect it to – and because the performances of the two actors are so good.

The Railway has its share of problems – it`s too safe for such horrific content. The film wastes talented actors like Kidman, who cries really well, and doesn’t get much else to do (she is not really a character – but pretty much a fantasy perfect wife character) and Skarsgaard, whose final act in the movie rings false.
But the scenes in the film that work make up for the ones that don’t. This is not a great film, but it is a good one – a well-acted study of men who will never get over what happened in the war, but can learn to choose to move on with their lives.

Movie Review: The Quiet Ones

The Quiet Ones
Directed by:  John Pogue.
Written by: Craig Rosenberg and Oren Moverman and  John Pogue based on the screenplay by Tom de Ville.
Starring: Jared Harris (Professor Joseph Coupland), Sam Claflin (Brian McNeil), Erin Richards (Krissi Dalton), Rory Fleck-Byrne (Harry Abrams), Olivia Cooke (Jane Harper).

Hammer was, in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the best names in Horror movies. Over the years, although it never really went away, they stopped making movies and faded from memory a little bit. Over the last few years, they have tried for a revival – and they`ve made some very good films like the remake of Let the Right One In, Let Me In, and the Daniel Radcliffe starring The Woman in Black. They want to make classical horror movies – more interested in atmosphere and suspense, than blood and guts. These movies are tricky to pull off however – because there is a fine line between building atmosphere and just being dull. Their latest movie, The Quiet Ones, is on the wrong side of that line.

The film takes place in the 1970s, where Professor Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris) who wants to prove that the supernatural is nothing but mental illness. He hires Brian (Sam Claflin) to be his cameraman to film the experiments he is currently doing on Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke) – a girl who speaks to Evey, a strange creature that only she can see, that does strange things. Along with Coupland's two assistants (Erin Richards and Rory Fleck-Byrne) they settle into a big, old house in the country, to try and cure Jane. The experiments are inhuman – but at first, only Brian seems bothered by them. But as the experiments prove ineffective – in fact, the more they do, the worse things get, and even Coupland`s assistants start to doubt him. But Coupland will not be dissuaded, and ramps up his experiments, making things worse. And, strangely, all the men start to fall in love with Jane.

Generally, I prefer my horror movies short on gore, and more on atmosphere and suspense. I have liked all of Ti West`s recent films for example – like The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, which like The Quiet Ones takes place in the kind of old buildings that exist to provide the setting of horror movies. Those films go in different directions from The Quiet Ones (and each other) but for the most part, they are about building suspense, and not using cheap scare tactics on the audience. The Woman in Black, the last film by Hammer, was similarly effective.

The problem with The Quiet Ones is that I wasn’t scared by it; I didn’t get the mounting suspense of the situation. Instead, I was just bored. Not much happens in The Quiet Ones – and nothing we do not expect. They don’t make movies about Professors who want to prove the supernatural doesn’t exist who successfully prove their hypothesis. They do make movies about mad doctors, who are obsessively driven beyond the point of reason, to do what they are obsessed with. That is what The Quiet Ones is – but it takes so long to get anywhere approaching interest, that I simply stopped caring.
The Quiet Ones has all the ingredients of being a fine horror film – but it never comes off. The setting is perfect, the outline of the story would work, and in Jared Harris, they have a fine actor to play an insane doctor. But the ingredients never come together. It takes more than a dark old house to create atmosphere. But that`s all The Quiet Ones has.

Movie Review: Need for Speed

Need for Speed
Directed by: Scott Waugh.
Written by: George Gatins & John Gatins.
Starring: Aaron Paul (Tobey Marshall), Dominic Cooper (Dino Brewster), Imogen Poots (Julia Maddon), Scott Mescudi (Benny), Rami Malek (Finn), Ramon Rodriguez (Joe Peck), Harrison Gilbertson (Little Pete), Dakota Johnson (Anita), Stevie Ray Dallimore (Bill Ingram), Michael Keaton (Monarch).

 The best thing I can say about Need for Speed is that most of the stunts and car chases were actual stunts and chases – and not just a lot of CGI. CGI has opened up a lot things for filmmakers that were never possible before, but sometimes too much CGI just feels fake in special effects sequences, and don’t have real sense of danger or weight. Look at a film like the Wachowski's Speed Racer, which had many car chases done with CGI for an example. But the chases here feel real, and are shot fairly decently – and there is a sense of danger to them. The worst thing you can say about Need for Speed is pretty much everything else. The car chases work – for a time anyway – but by the end of this movie, which for some reason runs over two hours, I was just tired of everything about the movie.

Based on a videogame, Need for Speed strangely has too much plot – that takes too long to set in motion – and too little, since it’s a relatively simple story that the screenplay makes way too complicated. In broad strokes, the film is about Tobey (Aaron Paul), who runs the best hot rod shop around, but cannot make any money off of it. He has lost his girlfriend to Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) – a spoiled rich kid, and star racer, although everyone knows that Tobey is the better driver. Dino throws Tobey a bone – fix up a Mustang that will sell for more than $2 million when it’s done, and Tobey can pocket some of that money. But Dino is an asshole, of course, and Tobey’s an idiot, so he’s willing to risk it all to beat Dino is a race – a race that goes horribly wrong, and ends with someone dead. Tobey takes the rap – although it was Dino’s fault – spends two years and jail, and then gets out. He gets his hands on the Mustang, is stuck with Julia (Imogen Poots), whose boss owns the Mustang, as his passenger and has to race across the country with his crew to make a race put on by Monarch (Michael Keaton – the only one who seems to be having fun in the movie), and get his revenge on Dino – who does everything possible to ensure Tobey won’t make it.

It’s a simple story, but the movie spends too long setting it up, introducing us to uninteresting characters, and too long to get to that damn race at the end – pretty much the entire movie really. By the time the race actually happens, it feels like an afterthought. The movie is basically he race across the country, which is too drawn out to be much fun. Most of the actors in the ensemble are fairly talented – and have done good work in the past – but aren’t given anything to do in the movie. Aaron Paul goes from Breaking Bad, to a series of angry faces in this film – he`s hell-bent on revenge, and that`s basically the only "emotion" he is asked to portray. Cooper is slimy in every scene. Poots is the lovable girl next door who’s cool because she's interested in boy things. Keaton is some sort of all knowing, all seeing weirdo – which, let’s be honest, is a role made for Keaton.
Perhaps if the movie was 90 minutes, and nothing but car chases, it would have worked. When the cars are racing, the movie can be fun. But then everything grinds to a halt whenever the movie slows down long enough for the characters to speak to each other. If nothing else, the movie proves just how hard it is to make movies as fun and stupid as the Fast & Furious movies. They are also big, dumb, loud movies about nothing but fast cars, but they are also fun. Need for Speed is only the first half of that sentence.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Movie Review: The Sacrament

The Sacrament
Directed by: Ti West.
Written by: Ti West.
Starring: Joe Swanberg (Jake), AJ Bowen (Sam), Kentucker Audley (Patrick), Gene Jones (Father), Amy Seimetz  (Caroline), Kate Lyn Sheil (Sarah), Talia Dobbins (Savannah).

The found footage horror genre is overplayed at this point. Too many filmmakers pretty much do the same thing as all the other filmmakers who have come before them. But Ti West’s The Sacrament is that rare found footage film that actually works – that tries to do something a little different. West is the talented director behind such recent horror films like The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers – both of which were genuinely scary and unsettling – neither relied on blood or gore or torture, but instead slowly, subtly built the horror of the situation up. The Sacrament is a little bit different – not quite as scary, but perhaps more deeply unsettling. Some have said that perhaps West shouldn’t have made the film – it is based on a real life horror story – The Jonesboro massacre, where charismatic cult leader Jim Jones convinced hundreds of his followers to kill themselves. Is The Sacrament exploiting those poor people and their deaths? I don’t think so – not any more than any other fact based crime movies do anyway – and West doesn’t use the real names, and updates the time period. The film isn’t scary, but it is deeply upsetting and disturbing. I can’t quite get it out of my head – as much as I may want to.

The movie is about Patrick (Kentucker Audley) who works for a news organization called Vice – who gets a letter from his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) – a junkie – who has says she is now clean, and living in a paradise with a group of people led by “father”. She invites Patrick to come and see her. He decides, without telling her, to bring along two other people from Vice – reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg). They are never told exactly where they are going – and when they get there, things aren’t quite what the expected. They are greeted by men with machine guns, who don’t want to let them in at first. When they finally do get in and meet Caroline, she surprisingly does seem completely sober – at least from drugs. She is under the influence of Father however – and so too does everyone else. It’s clear to the three men that they’ve stumbled into a cult. They don’t quite know how deep everything goes.

The three men from Vice give the movie it’s framing device, and the footage that we see. Unlike many found footage movies, the fact that they film everything – even as things go from strange to horrific – because after all, that is what they came down to document. The three of them aren’t very interesting as characters though, but they aren’t really there for that anyway. They're our audience surrogates, needed to introduce into the world.

The best performance in the movie is by Gene Jones as Father. Jones, who is best known (at least to me) for his terrific, one scene performance as a terrified gas station attendant in the Coen brothers No Country for Old Men, is truly creepy as Father. Charming, self-effacing, funny, but also paranoid and somewhat oft-kilter. You believe he could get people to follow him, even right to their tragic ends. A highlight in the movie is the interview he gives the outsiders where things get dark, yet the followers just cheer him on. The film also features another terrific performance by Amy Seimetz – amazing in last year’s Upstream Color – as Caroline, a woman who has simply traded one addiction for another (and even, perhaps not completely).

As in those previous two films, West spends a good hour setting the atmosphere, and slowly building the tension. As the reports dig deeper, and talk to more people, things get slowly more intense. By the time the film reached the inevitable conclusion, I was on the edge of my seat. West doesn’t hold back in these scenes – and does perhaps push things a touch too far at points (I really didn’t see mothers give their babies the Kool-Aid) – but he doesn’t pull punches. The material is dark, and he isn’t afraid to get dark along with it.
The Sacrament is my favorite type of horror movie – one that doesn’t rely on cheap scares or blood to unsettle you, but one that takes its premise seriously, and then goes where it must, and ends up disturbing more than scaring. This is not one of those horror movies where you have fun watching it. It’s something deeper, and better, than that.

Movie Review: The Hundred-Foot Journey

The Hundred-Foot Journey
Directed by: Lasse Hallström.
Written by: Steven Knight based on the book by Richard C. Morais.
Starring: Helen Mirren (Madame Mallory), Om Puri (Papa), Manish Dayal (Hassan), Charlotte Le Bon (Marguerite), Amit Shah (Mansur), Farzana Dua Elahe (Mahira), Dillon Mitra (Mukthar), Aria Pandya (Aisha), Michel Blanc (Mayor), Clément Sibony (Jean-Pierre), Vincent Elbaz (Paul), Juhi Chawla (Mama), Alban Aumard (Marcel).

The filmmakers who made The Hundred-Foot Journey certainly know their audience. This is one of those films – like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or Chocolat that is aimed at an older audience, and provides them a pleasant, scenic movie that doesn’t challenge at all, but makes them leave the theater feeling good. It would take a complete cynic to hate a film like this – but it would also take someone far more sentimental than me to truly like the film either. Watching it is a pleasant experience, but not much else. There’s not much in the way of plot or conflict in the film – and the film hits each and every base you expect it to after having seen the preview. There are a few moments where the film seems to edging towards something more interesting, but then it almost immediately backs off. It is by no means a bad movie, but it’s one I am having trouble working up any real enthusiasm for.

The story is about an Indian family who run a restaurant, who after a tragic fire that kills the mother, decide to immigrate to Europe. They try London, but don’t like it much. They decide to pile into an old van and drive through France to find the perfect spot for their new restaurant. Papa (Om Puri) thinks he has found it in a small village – which just happens to be right across the street (100 feet to be exact) from a highly thought of, traditional French restaurant with a Michelin star – run by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). The rest of the family thinks he is crazy – but he will not be dissuaded. The locals have never tried Indian food before, he reasons, but once they do they will love it. Especially because he believes his son Hassan (Manish Dayal) is the best Indian Chef in Europe. He may well be right.

The main character in the film really is Hassan – and his journey from his humble beginnings into a great chef. He already knows how to cook Indian food – better than just about anyone else – but he also wants to cook French food. He meets Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) – a Sous Chef at Madame Mallory’s restaurant, and although they are “sworn enemies” – the two bonds – and Marguerite gives him some French cookbooks from him to learn from. He is, of course, a natural. While Hassan and Marguerite have a gentle love story/rivalry forming, Papa and Madame Mallory go to war. To him, she’s a stick in the mud, who needs to lighten up. To her, he’s as brash and loud as his music is. The two hate each other – so you know what’s going to happen, right?

The film was directed by Lasse Hallstrom, who seems to specialize in this sort of movie – beautiful films, that don’t do much in the way of challenging the audience. Thankfully, we’re out of that period when somehow his films – like The Cider House Rules and Chocolat – somehow became Oscar players, and now he makes these movies that are gentle, slightly funny – often set in beautiful locations, where he uses soft lighting to make them look even more beautiful. There are a few moments where the movie looks like it may be headed in a more challenging direction – the locals who don’t like the new family because they’re not French, Papa getting made at a magazine title about Hassan – but the movie dispenses with these quickly. You don’t want reality to come in too much in a movie like this. It may ruin the effect. Oddly, the film was written by Steven Knight – but it must have been a money job for him. There is nothing like the work he has done for films like Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises or Locke. The producers are Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey – which isn’t surprising. The film is as sentimental as Spielberg haters (wrongly) claim his films are, and the film is based on the type of book that Oprah’s book club was made for.

The performances, like the movie, are fine. Helen Mirren has great fun affecting a French accent and going over the top as Madame Mallory. She is terrific actress, capable of better, but she’s not given much of a chance in the movie. She starts as a caricature, and gets a little depth as it moves along, but not much. Om Puri, who has gone back and forth between Bollywood films and these types of films from Hollywood (or England). He’s great fun as Papa – but like Mirren, he’s basically a caricature. Dayal is fine in the lead role of Hassan – although I never quite bought his late film, temporary conversion.

The film is precisely what you expect it to be from seeing the preview. If it’s your type of film, I cannot imagine you not liking it. If however, these films usually make you cringe, well, get ready to cringe.

Movie Review: Teenage

Directed by: Matt Wolf.
Written by:  Jon Savage and Matt Wolf.

In 2014, we live in a culture that is largely dominated by teenagers. Many of the movies and TV shows we watch, music we hear on the radio, and technology we utilize are aimed at teenagers, who become early adopters, until the rest of us catch up with them. What makes Matt Wolf’s documentary Teenage fascinating then is that it tracks the early years of the 20th Century, when the concept of bring a teenager – and that being different from childhood or adulthood – was first formed. The film goes from 1904 – when children were pretty much expected to go to work at the age of 12 in factories and mines, through the introduction of child labor laws through many other youth fads and their growing independence. It also makes it clear that throughout these years, the adult world sought to crush these movements and these teenagers – using them to form the world that the adults want, not the ones the teenagers want – and punishing those who don’t toe the line.

The film is basically a 78 minute montage – mixing archival footage, with faux archival footage, which is often so convincing that you cannot tell what’s real and what’s staged. He uses five narrators – Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw, Alden Ehrenreich, Jessie Usher and Julia Hummer who read period diaries of various people to show how things progressed – in American, England and Germany. This limits the scope of the movie to those three countries, but it’s effective. Much of what they read show the teenagers as idealists, who are slowly beaten down by the system and the adults. From Jitterbugging to the Hitler Youth, and everything in between, the film documents what teenagers started, and how it worked.

It is a fascinating documentary – and very well made by Wolf, and has an interesting central concept. Strangely though, the film does seemed both rush – covered more than 40 years in less than 80 minutes – and yet somewhat slow. Because the film doesn’t spend too long on any one character, and instead jumps around, it remains more of an intellectual treatise than anything (it is based on the work of Jon Savage, and his book about the formation of teenage culture, which helps to explain this as well). But it is still an interesting documentary from start to finish.

Movie Review: Maidentrip

Directed by: Jillian Schlesinger.

A normal teenager would probably never think about going on a two year, round the world, solo boat trip. But being normal is over rated – and Laura Dekker has no real interest in it. A few years ago, when she was just 13, she decided she wanted to take her yacht – the guppy – that her and her father rebuilt from a wreck into a sea worthy ship – around the world. Her father didn’t like the idea, but decided to support her. Her mother wasn’t much involved in her life, so she didn’t get much of a say. Some in the Dutch government didn’t want her to go, and actually petitioned the court to get custody granted to them. After a long, highly publicized court battle, she prevails. So at the age of 14, she sets off around the world.

Maidentrip is an interesting documentary that tells Dekker’s story, and is mainly made up of footage that she herself shot while on her two year trip. Director Jillian Schlesinger assembles the footage of the extraordinary trip, by this extraordinary teenager – and finds something rather surprising. Dekker is much more like a normal teenager than at first she appeared. She wants to strike out on her own, assert her independence from her parents, and even her country. She can be moody and arrogant. It may sound like a cliché, but on the journey she learns a lot about herself.

The movie is barely 80 minutes long – which to me, seems a little too short. There is a lot of amazing footage shot by Dekker – of the beauty of being out to sea, and some very interesting moments of introspection, and of the people she meets along the way (she isn’t going around the world in one shot, but stopping along the way). Perhaps the movie is short because some of the footage Dekker shot was repetitive – but it does seem like much of the movie is rushed. Schlesinger often shows us a map that charts Dekker’s journey and telling us how long in miles she has to go between stops – but then most of these segments are over within a couple of minutes, even if she is going thousands of miles over the course of weeks.

Still, the movie as it stands is still interesting. Some have mentioned last year’s dramatic feature, All is Lost, with Robert Redford as a comparison – as both are in some ways about the loneliness of being on the sea by yourself. But All is Lost is a darker film, about a man staving off death, before finally giving in. Maidentrip is about a young woman in search of herself – and who she will become. It is an inspirational documentary in some ways, but it’s also something a little more. It’s not a great documentary, but it is an interesting one.

Movie Review: Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

Elaine Sritch: Shoot Me
Directed by: Chiemi Karasawa.

Back in 2010, I saw Elaine Stritch on Broadway in the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. Watching her, I couldn’t help but notice that her voice wasn’t as strong as it once was, but her stage presence was undeniable. It was a great performance – and an experience I will always remember.

The documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, which was shot in 2011 and 2012 and released earlier this year, before Stritch’s death in July at the age of 89, is a surprising film. I expected to see a movie that was, like Stritch, was larger than life and funny – brass and bold. And it is all of those things. But it is also surprisingly deep and introspective. Stritch seemed to have no illusions about herself, and didn’t feel the need to hold anything back. It delves into her alcoholism – something she struggled with until the end. She says she was sober for 24 years, and then decided to have one drink a day, which she did, but then when various medical problems present themselves, she decides to stop. By the end, she’s back to that one drink a day – and sees no problem with it. She confesses her insecurity with performing – shows her rehearsals for her one woman show Elaine Stritch; Singing Sondheim, One Song at a Time, where she often forgets the lyrics, and grows frustrated with herself. Director Chiemi Karasawa was given remarkable access to Stritch, and she makes the most of it.

The movie covers the bases of what you expect in a show business documentary – it goes over Stritch’s great career on stage and screen, and lets Stritch tell some great stories about her career and personal life. She is a natural born storyteller, and when she holds court, everyone stops and listens. Whatever room she is in, she’s the one everyone wants to listen to. But I was much more interested, and ultimately moved, by the moments when Stritch talks about her life now – why she continues to work, when most people her age have retired, and how nervous she is when she goes on stage, and her fears for what is next – not death, but for the rest of her life.

We get a lot of documentaries about famous people – and often they are very interesting, even if they cover just the standard bases. But Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me goes deeper than most, and it’s better than most. I expected to enjoy the movie – and I did – I didn’t expect to be as moved by it as I was. This is a great documentary, about a one of a kind performer.

Movie Review: The French Minister

The French Minister
Directed by: Bertrand Tavernier.
Written by: Christophe Blain & Abel Lanzac.
Starring: Thierry Lhermitte (Alexandre Taillard de Worms), Raphaël Personnaz (Arthur Vlaminck), Niels Arestrup (Claude Maupas), Bruno Raffaelli (Stéphane Cahut), Julie Gayet  (Valérie Dumontheil), Anaïs Demoustier (Marina), Thomas Chabrol (Sylvain Marquet), Thierry Frémont (Guillaume Van Effentem), Alix Poisson (Odile), Marie Bunel (Martine), Jean-Marc Roulot (Bertrand Castela), Sonia Rolland (Nathalie), Didier Bezace (Jean-Paul François), Jane Birkin  (Molly Hutchinson).

French director Bertrand Tavernier has never really been known for comedies. Most of his films are dark, violent and disturbing. But his latest film, The French Minister is an over the top political satire that at times plays almost like a screwball comedy. The dialogue comes fast and fierce, and much of it is funny. Tavernier does some interesting, but subtle, things with his camera and the performances all work quite well. But somehow the movie never quite comes together. Perhaps it’s because the movie’s satire – about an imbecile politician, and his staff, is fairly safe and predictable and kind of like picking low hanging fruit. It’s obviously a smart movie; I just wish it was a little more daring.

The film stars Raphaël Personnaz as Arthur Vlaminck, a young, idealist with left win tendencies who is hired to be in charge of “words” for the French Foreign Minister, Alexandre Taillard de Worms (Thierry Lhermitte) – a man who thinks he knows everything, but pretty much knows nothing, and speaks in meaningless, easy platitudes but says he wants to speak in anything but meaningless, easy platitudes. He immediately assigns Arthur to write a few speeches for him – and for the rest of the movie, he’ll have him rewrite them again and again and again – send him to everyone on his staff to get input, that he doesn’t really care about, and send him various poets and intellectuals to spice things up – even though they completely disagree with each other. Numerous crisis’ come up during the course of the movie – and they’re all handled, not by the minister, but by his chief of staff (Niels Arestrup) – who is the minister’s opposite in pretty much every way. The movie moves quickly – with one comic set piece coming on the heels of another, as Arthur tries in vain to please everyone. He’s good at his job – the speeches are fine when they start, but as soon as everyone needs input, and the Minister has him change it constantly, things go wrong.

The reason to see the movie is for two of the performances. Lhermitte has the showiest role, and he rips into it with glee. Everything the Minister does, he does fast – it’s amusing to see him pop off on different sides of the frame within a few seconds of each other because he’s going so fast. He also seems like a real politician when he speaks – saying nothing of value, but doing it with real conviction. It’s a fine performance. Even better is Arestrup, who knows that Lhermitte is going to over the top, and that everyone else in the movie is going to be loud, and talk in rapid fire bursts, so he goes the precise opposite way. He speaks softly – so softly that at times he almost seems to be trailing off into nothing. He also speaks slowly. And unlike the Minister, he doesn’t have time to say platitudes – he actually gets things done.

The French Minister is enjoyable without ever being truly involving. It is a satire, but a rather gentle one – one that lacks any real bite, or any real insight into politics that hasn’t been done better, numerous times over the decades. For Tavernier, the film is an interesting departure – perhaps he just wanted to have fun late in his career after years of doing darker movies. He handles everything well – it’s just that the screenplay somewhat lets him, and the cast, down.

Movie Review: It Felt Like Love

It Felt Like Love
Directed by: Eliza Hittman.
Written by: Eliza Hittman.
Starring: Gina Piersanti (Lila), Giovanna Salimeni (Chiara), Ronen Rubinstein (Sammy), Jesse Cordasco (Patrick), Nick Rosen (Devon), Richie Folio (Justin), Case Prime (Nate), Kevin Anthony Ryan (Lila's Father).

It Felt Like Love is a movie that made me cringe – and I mean that as a compliment. It is a film about a teenage girl who wants to be as sexually experience as her best friend, even though she doesn’t seem to realize that all that experience hasn’t made her friend all that happy. She sets her sights on an older boy and wants to have sex with him. He seems like trouble immediately to the audience, but to her, the desire is too strong to ignore. Nothing that happens next is quite what we expect.

Writer-director Eliza Hittman’s movie strives for realism – and mainly achieves it. This is not a movie where the teenagers are whip smart, and make a lot of quips and jokes. Instead, they are insecure, damaged and speak pretty much like real teenagers do. The film is shot in a documentary style – the framing is always slightly off center, but often quite beautiful. The film never gives the main character a speech where she explains everything. Rather it sits back and observes her, as her feelings gradually come clear.

Played by Gina Piersanti, Lila is an insecure girl of around 15. Her mother has recently died, and her father isn’t handling it well. Over the course of a summer, she hangs out with her best friend Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni) – who will turn 16 this summer – and her new boyfriend. They are having sex already, and Chiara tells Lila all about it – and Lila plays along as if she’s more experienced than she really is. Chiara’s boyfriend is an insecure teenage boy – upset that she has more experience than she is – which is something that may derail their relationship. Lila doesn’t seem to get this – she just wants some experience herself. She meets Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein) – he’s older, in college and works at a convenience store. She starts hanging around, and he does nothing to stop her. He knows she is interested, but mainly puts her off. However, when he is around his asshole friends, he can be an asshole as well. Lila puts herself in increasingly awkward, and dangerous situations, to get what she wants – although she isn’t quite sure what that is.

The film stays on Lila throughout the entire film, and gradually reveals her world – both internal and external. What`s fascinating about the movie is that it could probably be about Chiara or Sammy, and being wholly different, yet equally good movies. All of these young people are dealing with difficult things in their lives – and they handle them in a way that makes sense for teenagers. They screw up, but they keep going.

The film uses limited dialogue to tell its story. To some, I know, it will seem like not much happens in the movie. It uses body language more than spoken language – and often the way things are said is much more important than what is said. It is a film that requires to audience to pay attention to get to the buried emotions at the core of its story.

The film is a remarkably assured feature debut for Eliza Hittman as writer and director – who has a real eye for her neo-realist style, and an ear for realistic dialogue. It is not an easy film, and perhaps lets Lila off the hook a little too easily in the end, but it announces Hittman as a filmmaker to watch.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Movie Review: The Expendables 3

The Expendables 3
Directed by: Patrick Hughes.
Written by: Sylvester Stallone and Creighton Rothenberger & Katrin Benedikt based on characters created by Dave Callaham.
Starring: Sylvester Stallone (Barney Ross), Jason Statham (Lee Christmas), Harrison Ford (Drummer), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Trench), Mel Gibson (Stonebanks), Wesley Snipes (Doc), Dolph Lundgren (Gunnar Jensen), Randy Couture (Toll Road), Terry Crews (Caesar), Kelsey Grammer (Bonaparte), Glen Powell (Thorn), Antonio Banderas (Galgo), Victor Ortiz (Mars), Ronda Rousey (Luna), Kellan Lutz (Smilee), Jet Li (Yin Yang).

You would think that for a series that is based almost exclusively on 1980s action movie nostalgia that the people behind The Expendables movies would think of hiring one of the directors who made those films in the first place. I mean, Jon McTiernan out of jail now – what else is he doing. Even better, why not hire one of the great Hong Kong directors from that era – John Woo, Tsui Hark, hell Id even take Ringo Lam. I say this because the worst thing about The Expendables 3 – and there isn’t much good about it – is the action itself, and that’s just inexcusable. Director Patrick Hughes – the third director in the series so far – seems to want to be Michael Bay, and shoots every action sequence with a camera that never stops shaking, and rapid fire editing. For the most part, I had no idea what the hell was going on during the action sequences. At the very least, a better director would have known that you don’t cast Jet Li in an action movie and then waste him standing behind a machine gun for his entire role.

The movie begins with The Expendables breaking out one of their own – Doc (Wesley Snipes) – from a maximum security prison in some backwoods, Eastern European country. He has spent years in there (for tax evasion, Snipes quips) – and the boys need him to pull off their latest job. But, of course, things go horribly wrong when the bad guy they were expecting turns out to be someone else. In fact, its Barney (Sylvester Stallone) old partner – Stonebanks (Mel Gibson). One of The Expendables is shot, and Barney fears that they are too old to continue doing what they are doing. So he fires his team, and hires a bunch of young new recruits to go after Stonebanks himself. But, of course, he will eventually need his old team back again – with another new addition (Antonio Banderas), who lost his team in Benghazi (which is a reference thrown in for kicks apparently).

The Expendables movies have never been very good – they are barely movies at all really, but an excuse for a bunch of old action stars to keep working – who together have enough fans to keep the films profitable. They are the brainchild of Stallone, but none of them come close to being as good as the final installment of Rambo that Stallone made a few years ago – the closest he will ever come to making his own version of Unforgiven. The cast of these movies is so big – and continuously growing – that other than Stallone no one gets much of a chance to distinguish themselves. This film adds a few more faces – some work well, like Antonio Bandera, who is great as a motor mouth crazy guy and Ronda Rousey, as one of the young Expendables, who is the only woman I’ve seen in a film that I think could hold her own with Gina Carano – others not really, Snipes who is given nothing to do, and the rest of the younger Expendables, who are essentially interchangeable. Best of all is Mel Gibson, who slips effortlessly into the role of a crazy person, for obvious reasons. Too bad he’s such an asshole, because Gibson could have one hell of a career playing bad guys now.

For the most part, The Expendables 3 doesn’t really work that well. It almost seems like the filmmakers are barely trying anymore. They’ve squeezed three of these movie into in the last five years, which is probably too much, too soon. Would I watch an Expendables 4? Yes, I would. What can I say. I’m a sucker.